Sunday, November 12, 2017

Chiang Mai 2/6/17-2/10/17

I mentioned that I was only going to Chiang Mai for 4 days, I may have neglected the reason.  Roland decided to ditch work for a few days and bail on his coworkers during the middle of a business trip to Australia to come visit me.  I told him to pick any place in South East Asia and he picked Cambodia so I had to get there when he did and that left me with 4 days in Chiang Mai.

Anyway back to the story of whether or not that guy (in the tourism place) knew what he was talking about.  First he made me pay cash and didn't give me a phone number to call anybody.  He just told me someone from the hotel would pick me up at the airport.  He also told me that this was the only place that had space for me to stay in Chiang Mai for my dates ( I found this to be ridiculously false).  Anyway when I landed in the airport I got stuck there for far too long and no ability to call anybody.  All I had was the name of the hotel and the expectation that I was going to get picked up.  Eventually I hopped on a random wifi network and spent a few minutes trying to identify a phone number.  When I eventually found it I called the hotel directly.  I found that the guy who responded spoke almost no English but repeated the word taxi.  So I eventually did take a cab which the hotel guy did after some prodding pay me back for but it was not worth the several hours of frustration and confusion I had to deal with.  On a side note finding the number did lead me to reviews and I was appalled at how bad the reviews were of the both the hill tribe treks and the hotel itself.  As the feeling of doom and gloom set in I decided to go to sleep and hope for the best despite the fact that the room was one of the ugliest rooms I'd ever stepped foot in (smelly restroom, dingy lights, uncomfortable bed and sheets: you know the whole 9 yards of hell).  It is worth mentioning here that when I got to the hotel I saw my name on the wall with an airport pick up sign so the guy at the tourism office had been right that I was supposed to get picked up but the hotel had just failed to execute.

The next morning I woke up and was itchy all over (I think the hotel had bed bugs).  Yeah, it was a fantastic place...

I wandered outside bleary eyed and sleepy but on time to catch the trek pick up.  Two hours later I was still sitting on my ass waiting to get picked up and annoyed at everything and everyone but I had made friends with the other guy from my hotel on my trip.  Eventually Andy and I did get picked up in the back of this awfully cramped pickup with a black canopy (aka hot as hell).

This is where stuff started to turn around (even though out of 8 people there were only 2 girls and 6 dudes, yearp sales dude is back to being full of crap).  Anyway the truck stopped at a market where we had a last chance to snag some food before heading out.  I introduced several people to longan and young coconut because, let's face it, that's my job.  Then our truck carried us up into the hills.

This is where we started our trek and it started with an amusingly constructed set of bridges.

Yes this next one is held together by bike chains.

The best part was how uncomfortable some of my new friends were on the rickety bamboo structures.  The bridges did have a purpose though, they were there to help us meet our new friends which is why people braved them despite the disturbingly brown water below.

Getting to meet our new friends

Who then gave us a ride
And occasionally put up with me asking for a picture

Eventually we had to continue away from our new friends and we started walking into the hills.  One nice thing about this trek is that there were pit stops that had small coolers of water and soda set up on the trail for us.  One of them even had a small range.

I did start to get really good after a little while

The tool of the trade, remarkably simple but incredibly effective
Nailing this shot was probably my favorite part of the day.  It did take some practice but it was totally worthwhile.

As we walked we were consistently treated to moments like this.  Every bend in the trail seemed to hide a view of a small farm hidden in a valley.

As we wandered closer to our evening stop in a small village we started to see a few residences which often included one of these big guys though their lives didn't seem particularly pleasant.
Just one more picture perfect farm hidden in a valley

After we got to the village we set our packs down and had a few hours to wander around before dinner and evening activities.  It was a very interesting combination of new constructions, collapsing buildings, animals wandering around, and kids playing.  A few of us even found the school at the top of the hill and played a little impromptu soccer with some of the kids.  None of us could communicate at all but it is really amazing how universal the pursuit of a game can be.  Also puppies.

And yes I know that what follows is a lot of soccer pictures but I had too much fun not to post them all

As it got darker we decided to wander back down the hill towards dinner, made a few more puppy friends and found this cool garden (yes that is a dragonfruit plant)

Also this is the obligatory picture of dinner (green chicken curry)

After dinner they brought all the kids down and had them sing songs for us which turned into a session for them to ask for money for the school (yes I found this incredibly irritating mostly because before dinner we had several women come by and try to sell us trinkets, and they refused to take "no" for an answer)

The next day involved more hiking but I was on very limited battery so I have few pictures to show for it.  It was still pretty and still very very hot but the food was good and the valleys were pretty. 

Lunch stop, the old man that lived here played the weird string instrument hanging in the back incredibly well.  It was rather remarkable that an instrument that looked like that could produce such music.

Small pretty waterfall despite the really gross water
Our evening lodgings

I have very few pictures from this evening but it was a very interesting night: We made sweet sticky rice in bamboo that was incredibly delicious.  First, you put the rice and water in the bamboo and leave it in the fire.  When you pull it out later you have to break the bamboo open to get at the rice and it comes out wrapped in the inner lining of the bamboo like a prepackaged morsel of a purple rice based dessert.  We waited for it to cook by sitting around the campfire telling stories while watching the stars on an impeccably clear night.  My favorite part of the night though was getting to put my Daydream (the VR headset I can put my phone in) on everybody's heads.  I dropped people in Australia or New Zealand and laughed as they lost track of time.  The best moment was when I put our 19 year old guide on a glacier in New Zealand.  He had been trying to play the role, stay professional and take care of us.  Then he saw snow for the first time and he turned into a giggling six year old kid.

The last day of our trek involved far less trekking but we did have to hike back out to the road where we met a truck which took us to our last activity.  

Open truck is way better than the closed heat trap we started with

Bamboo rafting was mostly a quiet ride but there were a few hair raising moments involving some rocks and things.  It was fun even if our buts got wet.

When we eventually got back into Chiang Mai I immediately chose to give up the money spent on said hotel and move into a much nicer and cleaner hostel (it cost me 9 dollars).  A few of us met up to hang out that evening and what follows are a few pictures of the food we found.

So gross
Yes I tried him, no I didn't like him
The awful food stand they came from

The positive change of direction
And the real reason Thailand is awesome

My last day in Chiang Mai was just a chance to walk around the old city and visit some temples before catching an evening flight to Bangkok where I could catch the very late flight to see Roland in Phnom Penh.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Bangkok 1/28/17-2/6/17

The whirlwind occasionally has to slow down.  After the last 2 months of basically nonstop diving, hiking, climbing, snorkeling, rafting, OGOing, and everything else my body yelled at me and said it was time to slow down for a little while.  I literally spent a few of these days barely leaving the hotel room (where else can I afford room service in a 5 star hotel).  I spent the first 4 nights at a 5 star hotel called the Metropole.  It was technically a serviced apartment but I payed like 60$ a night and my Citi Prestige card got me the 4th night for free so that was cool.  The next 5 nights I ended up spending in the Holiday Inn Silom for basically nothing.  With the beginning of February IHG's new PointBreak list included a hotel right where I wanted to be so I payed 25000 IHG points.  Those points I got from the credit card sign up bonus.  The same credit card then gave me back 10 percent of the points I spent (my total was now 22500 which is worth at most 100 bucks to me).  The card also gave me platinum status which bumped me to the 16th floor (out of 17) got me a bowl of fruit and a bunch of free waters (which turned out to be really useful because Bangkok).

I did spend most of my time sitting on my butt, getting unbelievably cheap massages, watching a bunch of TV and several movies, trying a bunch of street food, and occasionally wandering the streets looking for tropical fruit.  On that front, I was quite successful.  Epic pictures follow.  Also be careful when converting currencies in your head you might pay 3 dollars for a single persimmon and then realize you got royally ripped off when you see the prices for everything else you are buying.

My favorite thing that I found in the time I spent in Bangkok was also the most random.  One afternoon I decided to wander and found myself in a Chinese cemetery.  Yes, a cemetery...  It was a massive, like mile in each direction style of massive, and filled with people (not just dead ones).  I wandered in initially thinking it was a park because I saw people jogging in and become really confused when I saw grave stones next to a paid for outdoor gym (yes in the cemetery).  It was really interesting to me that there were hundreds of people playing badminton, running, walking, and playing some sport that was a cross between hacky sack and beach volleyball in a cemetery.  I only got more confused when I found a puppy passed out on the side of the path apparently lulled to sleep by the crazy old dude singing karaoke in the middle of the cemetery.  He was really belting it too, it was actually kind of impressive that he wasn't self conscious given his level of talent.  Regardless it was a really interesting how differently we approach some things from a cultural perspective.  I can't imagine that happening in the US.

This might be the reason to go to Thailand on its own, not that the sticky rice is that different but damn if these weren't some of the best mangoes I've ever had

I call this que having first had it in Singapore and having no idea what it is called in other places but this wasn't as good as the stuff I remember having elsewhere (it was pretty though)

Oh yeah, also the nice shirt I bought for the trip is falling apart, kinda ridiculous North Face...

Mhm this is the just the start of the epic fruit adventures, this was a very good red dragon fruit

Mountain apple or rose apple or water apple or whatever the hell you want to call it I really enjoy them but I think the ones I've had in Malaysia have been better than the ones here.

I have to say I am thoroughly impressed with the quality of the mangoes in this country.  Far better on average than in most places and some of the ones I got to have were legitimately in the top 5% of mangoes I've ever had.

Another mountain apple but I'd never seen this variety before, though it didn't taste appreciably different.

The motherload: I haven't had fresh mangosteen in far far far too long and these were incredible even if they stained everything

How could I not share these.  One of the most interesting varieties of bananas I've ever seen.  They were good even if they weren't revolutionary (like the apple or red bananas I've had in Hawaii).  Since I was in too big of a hurry to eat them I don't have pictures of my 3 dollar persimmon or the kilogram of longan I found on this excursion (I definitely scarfed down more than 1 kg of longan in this week).

My last day in Bangkok before an evening flight to Chiang Mai I went for a long wander through the old city.  Started with a boat ride up the river but I found something odd on my way to the dock.

This kid was fishing commercially in the canal under the train that was about 70% plastic, 10 % mud, 10 % other trash, and if we are lucky 10% water.  I know it was commercial because the dude had like 4 rods in the water and I saw him pull his livewell bag up and saw at least a dozen or 2 fish (you can see it if you look close at this picture).  AKA RED FLAG WARNING: don't eat sea food from the street carts in Bangkok, level of gross over 9000.

The boats are pretty even if the water is super gross

The problem was there was no real way to avoid it splashing up into your face

I found myself trying to cover my mouth and nose so as not to accidentally get some in me while taking pictures of the massive temples we roared past (not that we were going particularly fast just that the converted car engines that powered these long boats are absurdly loud)

It was apparently time for a selfie

The boats were pretty but I was happy to be getting out

I started off by just wandering and found a few random temples

Some of them were really impressive

And some of them were even more impressive (this behemoth is 40 meters tall)

As I was wandering between these massive structures of the old city I let myself get talked into an unfortunate environment.  The scam starts with an English speaking Thai person making friends with you on the street then suggesting you take a tuk tuk (has to be a yellow license plate which is supposedly government sponsored).  He will talk to a passing tuk tuk driver who will agree to take you to several places for only 40 baht (like a 1.20$ and way below market for any other form of transport).  I actually ran into this twice and smelled scam the first time.  When I asked the driver to just take me to one spot and I'd pay him the 40 baht and he refused.  The second time I said "screw it, why not?  I'm a little curious if this is actually true."  The story was that it was a government sponsored holiday and the government would pick up the rest of the tab if the driver took you to more than 1 temple.  He did, true to his word, take me everywhere I had wanted to go.  He just also took me to other places.  One was a tourism booking service which I was told repeatedly was a government service which I believed but am now skeptical.  The second was a tailor who desperately wanted me to buy something and I couldn't really get the driver to not go to them.  The tailor I was able to walk out of by showing him my backpack and that I was not the guy who was going to walk around in a full suit.  The tourism office actually sorta half worked out.  I ended up spending probably too much but he found me a place to stay for the 4 nights in Chiang Mai and 2 of them were part of a 3 day 2 night trek through the hills around Chiang Mai where you would sleep in the hill tribe villages and they would take care of all your food.  It was about 200 dollars all told for the 4 nights including a bunch of food and an interesting experience.  He may have tried to sell me by saying the group with me would be 8 people 5 of who were women.  I'll update about all of this in my Chiang Mai post.  Anyway back to pictures.

The sunset from the top of the Golden Mountain (one of the more impressive temples I saw)

The other side from the top (I wish I had a picture of the actual temple but apparently I took that in Snapchat so its gone)

I found the Hindu/South Indian artistic influences to be really interesting

I also found myself a little surprised at the level of adornment that these temples carried since the way I remember learning about Buddhism it was always a little more about self study and growth and the rejection of unnecessary desire.  Then I was forced to remember all my East Asian History classes from Freshman year of college and that Buddhism basically merged with all the different local religions and cultures as it moved across the continent.

Another intriguing example of the artistic style adoption

After my long day of wandering I caught a probably too expensive cab to the airport, where I took advantage of the Priority Pass Lounge in Don Mueang Airport (can never turn down free food and functional wifi), and caught my short hop north to Chiang Mai.