Category Archives: Thailand

Comparing the Chiangs

1st July 2015

I became familiar with three “Chiangs” in Northern Thailand.  The cities of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, and Chang Beer.  I’ll focus more on the first two Chiangs, although I felt Chang beer had too much of a Champagne feel for my taste.

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An artisan in Chiang Mai.

As mentioned in “The Will to Survive”, the Chiang Mai area is home to a fantastic Elephant Sanctuary.  However, it’s also packed with history and architecture of ancient feuding kingdoms, bustling night markets, international cuisine, language schools, and excellent barber shops.  Further north is Chiang Rai, a smaller city closer to the Golden Triangle, the notorious region where Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand’s borders meet, and until somewhat recently, supplied the vast majority of the world’s opium.

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Chiang Mai’s Saturday night street market.

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A delivery of flowers in Chiang Mai.

My new Thai barber.  Aubrey played with an electric flyswatter for an hour while I got my haircut.

My new Thai barber. Aubrey played with an electric flyswatter for an hour while I got my haircut.

I’ve always preferred the slightly less frequented, less known destinations.  In this case, that’s Chiang Rai.  Not only because it isn’t cramped with tourists (like myself… I know) but because the people, food and culture are all just as vibrant without quite as many negatives.

Compared to Chiang Mai, which intrigues travelers by its ancient city and moat, built to keep the Burmese invaders out, Chiang Rai is home to a modern twist on ancient art and history.  Chiang Rai is home to the White Temple, a buddhist temple that lives up to its name on the outside, but every inch on the inside is covered with murals of modernity.  The murals tell one story, but incorporate characters, among many others, from The Matrix, TMNT, Star Wars, Despicable Me, Batman, and Superman.  Unfortunately, photography is prohibited within the temple, so you’ll have to believe me.

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Another ancient temple in Chiang Mai.

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A roof of dried leaves in Chiang Mai.

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Chiang Rai’s White Temple.

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Chiang Rai's White Temple had a creepy underworld theme.

Chiang Rai’s White Temple had a creepy underworld theme.

We also took a nice long ride on the motorbike to a local waterfall in Chiang Rai and really got the feel for the local hiking scene… Jungle hiking is not easy, and this 7 kilometer hike almost killed me, but the waterfall was a nice destination on a hot and humid day.

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It’s as legit as it looks… and yes, that’s a bamboo hiking stick.

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Chiang Rai’s waterfall. Nope, didn’t swim in that water.

The food options in Chiang Mai are much more diverse due to it’s larger population, a laser focus on food stalls, and a more consistent demand from tourists.  However, the food in Chiang Rai is more traditional northern cuisine, which tends to be a little spicier, and includes more sausage and noodles.  I loved it all, that’s probably why I gained a pound or two on this leg through Thailand.

Cost.  That’s an important factor if you’re on an extended journey.  Chiang Rai is noticeable cheaper and consistently meets and often beats the quality of accommodation, food, and attractions in Chiang Mai.  The most noticeable and largest factor for me was the accommodation.  When I left and paid my bill, I felt like I should’ve paid more, and that says something.

It took visiting both to get a feel for the diversity that has existed in this region over thousands of years…  If I were to go back, I would just spend a few more days in Chiang Rai.

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What about engagement photos?

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“In” as in fashionable, or currently in-stock?

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Sorry, Aubrey.

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— Robbie

The Will to Survive

22nd June 2015

The days leading up to our visit of Elephant Nature Park (ENP), Thailand’s only true elephant sanctuary, were full of excitement.  I was overwhelmed by local advertisements for elephant camps which only exploit these amazing animals for the benefit of tourists, and I was ready to see and help “happy elephants”.  It’s ok if you haven’t thought about this it until now, I was completely ignorant to the ongoing abuse of elephants until I watched HBO’s documentary, An Apology to Elephants last year.

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Five adult females and two young elephants form a family. The young elephants loved to play with each other, mowing over anything or anyone in their path.

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One of the older elephants; the oldest being 74 years old.

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Tail wagging in concert.

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After the two hour drive to ENP from Chiang Mai, we arrived just in time to see a family of elephants get lunch.  What an amazing introduction to the Asian Elephant.  After quickly being warned that they might confuse your camera for food, we were helping them eat whole watermelons and squash.  As quickly as I could grab the fruit or vegetable, the trunk of a hungry elephant would grab it from my hand.  That personal contact, something that I’ve never experienced before, really started the ENP experience off on a great note.  I enjoyed it while I could, because it didn’t last long… these elephants can put down some grub in a hurry!  I also realized that our dog Lucy isn’t the only animal with a mental alarm clock when it’s dinner time.  Most of the elephants at ENP have free roam over the entire park (about 350 hectares) but show up at the right time and place, exactly when the food shows up.IMG_4242

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For reference, I’m 6′ 0″.

IMG_4286After eating a little ourselves, we were offered an opportunity to bathe the elephants.  Healthy elephants bathe everyday and quickly reapply the cool dirt and mud from the river, a natural sunscreen on their exposed skin.  This was even more fun than feeding them, it was challenging, and a little exhausting trying to splash every inch of an elephant!

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One of many, many buckets of water.

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Just prior to a full roll into the water. This elephant preferred self-bathing.

Just prior to a full roll into the water. This elephant preferred self-bathing.

IMG_4513That evening, we had a chance to check into our bungalow right next to an elephant shelter, where a couple families lay down their trunks for a good night sleep.  It was really almost unworldly hearing the sporadic trumpet calls throughout the night and into the morning.IMG_4871

This younger elephant (10 years) scooped up her food and headed to the picnic area. She prefers to eat in the shade.

This younger elephant (10 years) scooped up her food and headed to the picnic area. She prefers to eat in the shade.

Another young elephant (around 2 years old) trying to climb up a hill to greet us and see if we have any food for him.

Another young elephant (around 2 years old) trying to climb up a hill to greet us and see if we have any food for him.

The following day, we were absorbed by more feeding and bathing of elephants, but also included trekking into the jungle in an attempt to meet all of the 44 elephant residents at ENP.  Some of the elephants are relatively new at ENP, or suffer from disabilities that are best treated away from the general population.  The elephants in these families were especially resilient to their previous lives outside of ENP.  They include blind elephants (manually blinded or from overexposure to “circus” lights), land mine survivors, and elephants with broken legs and hips as a result of forced breeding.  Seeing the disabled elephants was especially hard, knowing that elephants have extraordinary life long memory and are very emotional animals.

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Liberally applying sunscreen.

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This young male’s foot is bandaged, as he’s currently recovering from having his foot caught in a poacher’s trap.

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This female’s hip was broken after being squeezed into a small space and crushed by a male elephant during forced breeding. Fortunately, she has a family at ENP that cares for her every day.

Aubrey and I both agree that visiting ENP was a life changing event, and I recommend it to anyone who has an opportunity to visit Northern Thailand.  The proceeds from eco-tourism and world wide donations are what keep ENP afloat and able to accept additional rescued elephants.  To learn how you can help ENP, visit their website.

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— Robbie

Same Same, But Different

21st June 2015

Golden and Emerald Buddhas, dinner on the Chao Phraya river, and the most spectacular temples I have ever seen.  That is Bangkok.  Robbie and I spent a few days in Bangkok, and although we saw a lot, we still didn’t cover a fraction of the city.  We toured the National Museum and walked the manicured grounds of the Grand Palace.  We survived the heat and the barrage of tuk tuks patrolling the streets.  Although we tend to stay away from the big cities, Bangkok definitely gave us a better understanding of Thai culture.  Below is a compilation of the photos we took, hopefully showing our experience in the capital of Thailand.

— Aubrey

Trying to Keep My Balance

17th June 2015

Robbie and I extended our stay in Koh Tao a few days so that I could take an underwater photography course with Alex Tyrrell at Dive4Photos.  I had a taste of underwater photography during our Open Water Certification and Advance Open Water Certification courses and wanted to learn more about shooting underwater.  I figured that since I have a background in photography, I would be able to catch on pretty quickly.  Well, I was wrong!

I only had nine dives under my belt when I started the photography course.  If you’re unfamiliar with diving then I will tell you that nine dives is not very many.  I definitely hadn’t perfected my buoyancy, which helps keep you stable underwater, so adding a camera to the mix made it a little difficult to keep my balance.  Luckily, I had a great instructor, who possessed great knowledge of the area and it’s fish, so I still had fun doing it (and that’s the important part, right?!)!

The shots I was able to get were of some interesting characters, like this guy.  He’s a goby fish and he lives with shrimp.  They have a symbiotic relationship, where they both benefit from their co-habitation.  The goby stands guard of their home and the shrimp keeps it nice and tidy.IMG_2461I also got a couple pictures of a hermit crab.  It’s a pretty amazing creature, I just wish I could see it change it’s “home”.IMG_2471I had such a wonderful time taking pictures underwater.  Below is a collection of other fish/creatures I was able to capture on camera.  Taking these photographs pushed me out of my comfort zone and improved my diving skills.  I can’t wait to get back into the water and take even more photographs!!

Sea horse acting like he's asleep.  Apparently they take an "ostrich approach" as their defense, a/k/a, if they do't see you then you don't see them.

Sea horse acting like he’s asleep. Apparently they take an “ostrich approach” as their defense, a/k/a, if they do’t see you then you don’t see them.

A Christmas Tree Worm, which burrows itself into the coral, and if they are disturbed they quickly escape back into their burrow.

A Christmas Tree Worm, which burrows itself into the coral, and if they are disturbed they quickly escape back into their burrow.

Butterfly fish...these suckers are hard to capture on photo!  If you get too close then they swim away!

Butterfly fish…these suckers are hard to capture on photo! If you get too close then they swim away!

I can't remember what this guy is called but he is in the same family tree as the sea horse.

This is the pipe fish, which is in the same family tree as the sea horse.

This fish, the red-breasted wrasse, liked to play fetch.  My instructor would throw a rock in front of me and when the wrasse came to "fetch" it (thinking it was food) I would take the picture.  Voila!

This fish, the red-breasted wrasse, liked to play fetch. My instructor would throw a rock in front of me and when the wrasse came to “fetch” it (thinking it was food) I would take the picture. Voila!

Don't remember this guy's name, but he was HUGE!  Good thing he stayed away from me...

Don’t remember this guy’s name, but he was HUGE! Good thing he stayed away from me…

A Blue Spotted Ray...he was hiding under a rock so I had to stick my camera into the cave to get this picture.  I was a little scared!

A Blue Spotted Ray…he was hiding under a rock so I had to stick my camera into the cave to get this picture. I was a little scared!

Here’s another example of a symbiotic relationship. The anemonefish provides protection and the sea anemone provides a habitat for the fish and its eggs.

 

— Aubrey

Koh Tao: A Diver’s Paradise

14th June 2015

Diving and Koh Tao are synonymous.  When Robbie and I first started our trip we decided that we would learn to scuba dive and get our Open Water Certification (OWC) in Koh Tao.  Well that didn’t happen, we decided to jump the gun and get our OWC earlier while we were on Gili Air, Indonesia.  After getting a taste of what diving is all about, we definitely wanted more, so while on Koh Tao we completed our Advanced Open Water Certification (AOWC).

Since we spent a week on Koh Tao there is a lot I want to talk about (a week is a long time for us to be in one place).  So this post will have 3 different parts: the differences in the Open Water Certification and the Advanced Open Water Certification; diving in Koh Tao vs. Gili Air, and, our overall opinion of Koh Tao.

1.  Open Water Certification vs. Advanced Open Water Certification

The AOWC and the OWC had some differences.  After our OWC course in Indonesia, we weren’t sure whether or not we wanted to get our AOWC.  The OWC course involves a lot of theory, quizzes and classroom/pool time, allowing future dives to a depth of 18 meters.  However, Robbie and I were pleasantly surprised that the AOWC course didn’t involve any classroom time and was all open water diving at more complex dive sites, and to depths of 30 meters.  Each AOWC student is required to do a navigation dive and a deep dive, but there are three other elective dives in the AOWC course each student can pick.  Robbie and I chose the Wreck dive, the Night dive and the Peak Performance Buoyancy dive.  We were pretty happy with our choices.  We also felt more comfortable during the AOWC course since we had been diving before.  It makes a big difference when you know what the heck you’re doing.

2.  Differences Between Diving Certifications in Koh Tao and Gili Air

Since we got our PADI OWC in Indonesia and our AOWC in Thailand, we noticed some differences between the two places.  I thought I would share some of the things we noticed about each place and our experiences with each.  Hopefully this will be helpful if you’re thinking about getting your diving certification in Southeast Asia.

To start off, I am really glad that we got our OWC in Indonesia, especially on a small island like Gili Air.  Robbie and I were 2 of 3 students in the course, which in turn took less time and provided more individual attention.  It was the same on Koh Tao for our AOWC, but not for the OWC courses on Koh Tao.  It was crazy watching the OWC students enter a dive site…they all looked terrified, and by all, I mean groups of 8-10 people plus instructors.IMG_3700 IMG_3711

This brings me to my second point.  There are so many people who come to Koh Tao for their OWC, which makes each dive site super crowded.  Robbie and I lucked out during our AOWC because we were allowed to dive deeper than the OWC students, so the deeper depths weren’t quite as crowded.  However, when we were diving the overall shallower sites it was definitely tough to stay away from the crowds.
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If you are planning on getting your diving certification in Koh Tao, I would recommend a smaller dive shop.  The large ones have some advantages but you run the risk of getting lost in the sea of divers (pun intended).  The smaller class sizes really make a difference, especially when you’re learning something like diving.

Some people think that the smaller dive shops don’t have the same quality equipment as the larger dive shops but I found that to be the opposite.  While on Koh Tao, I took an underwater photography course (photos and post will come soon) with a very small dive shop, a/k/a, just one guy, and the equipment and boat were actually nicer than the medium-sized dive shop that Robbie and I used for our AOWC.  Many of the smaller shops contract with large dive shops in order to share higher quality equipment and boats, but still offer one-on-one instruction to dive students.  So don’t be afraid to go with a smaller dive shop for your OWC.

3.  Koh Tao

Koh Tao itself is a beautiful island.  It also has some of the best sunsets I’ve seen.  Even though we were diving a majority of the time we were on Koh Tao, we were still able to see some sights and try some of the tasty food.  One of these “sights” was a working monkey, sent up a coconut tree to toss the coconuts down to a guy below, who would in turn sell them to local vendors.  I tried to get a photo of the monkey, but the guy he was with didn’t seem to like us taking pictures.

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There were other animals on the island, especially dogs and cats.  Most of them are taken care of, but some just roam around the resorts hoping someone will toss them some food. One of these scavengers was known as Impostor Charlie and he would visit us everyday.

Our friend, Impostor Charlie, just hanging out.

Our friend, Impostor Charlie, just hanging out.

IMG_3689We enjoyed our trip in Koh Tao but it was time to leave after a week.  I guess that’s what happens when you aren’t used to small island life.

— Aubrey

Visiting Koh Lanta, Thailand During the Low Season

10th June 2015

Aubrey and I are typically fans of traveling to destinations during the “low” or “off peak” season.  I learned a few lessons on our opening stint in Thailand and hopefully they’ll prove helpful if you find yourself planning travel on the move.  This may not be as relevant if you’re traveling somewhere for a week, as you will have already planned and most likely confirmed your accommodation, travel, and activities.  However, on an extended trip, it’s nearly impossible to plan everything, and if you do, there’s a 99.99% chance it’ll change.

Per a good friend’s recommendation, we put Koh Lanta on our “places to experience” list.  During the planning and execution phases of visiting Koh Lanta, I learned the following:

Book a maximum of one or two nights accommodation.  We booked three nights (two days) in Koh Lanta fully expecting to stay longer.  Since the island was all but hibernating, we decided we had seen what there was to see and it was time to move on by the third day.  The only advantage to booking more days with your accommodation is if you believe you’ll be kicked out and have a hard time securing comparable accommodation elsewhere.  If you decide to stay longer, you have the ability to move to another location or possibly negotiate an upgrade or a price reduction.

Use a local source to determine the operating modes of transportation.  What???  I know what you’re thinking, I have the internet… only my grandparents use a travel agent.  But, a lot of the information you’ll see in travel books and online sources include options that are only available during the peak travel season, but fail to accurately describe off season cut backs.  In certain regions, (let’s just say Southeast Asia) travel is intermittent and it can be difficult to secure accurate departure and arrival times for travel methods such as trains, ferries and buses.  In our case, I expected the ferries from Malaysia to Thailand to be running on schedule, when it turns out, they all cease operations for half the year.  A local travel shop can be extremely helpful in identifying your options and cutting down on the possibility of being stranded somewhere.

Confirm the availability of your planned activity in the area.  It sounds ridiculous, but I failed big on this one.  We planned on scuba diving pretty much the whole time, and with the plethora of shops on the island, my goal was to just ask around for a good dive shop upon arrival and visit a couple the day before we planned to dive.  Unfortunately, all the dive shops close during low season.  What a disappointment, but I could’ve found that out by sending just one email to a local shop before arriving.

So, on our trip to Koh Lanta, we improvised.  Diving was off the table, so we made it about rooting out the best pad thai on the island, and snapping as many pictures from the motorbike as possible. It was a success (aside from two flat tires in about an hour and being harassed by monkeys on the road).  We hope that your travels, planned or not, are an enriching cultural experience.

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Coast of Lanta National Park

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A view of the Andaman Sea from Koh Lanta

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It’s almost like I’m annoying them… driving through their living room.

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Another pack of monkeys in Lanta National Park. We had to lock our backpack so they wouldn’t open it and rummage for food.

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I’m not sure what this means, but I’m playing up the creep factor.

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This is the official map for the National Park, I’m pretty sure it’s to scale.

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Repairing flat number one. Repair for flat number two occurred about an hour later…

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“Wonderful sugar palm in the world”. Not sure if it’s the only one, or the best one, or just a simple statement of fact.

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Koh Lanta’s lighthouse.

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This picture is only included to highlight the need for animal rights in Thailand. This poor elephant is chained, and has no access to food or water. It’s only purpose is to give rides to tourists and is kept under control through physical abuse. Bamboo sticks and sharp hooks are used to break the will of the elephant and control its actions through fear and physical pain. Please think twice before you further an elephant’s abuse by paying for an elephant ride.

— Robbie