Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Trip: Lao PDR
Date: September 26, 2006
Place: Luang Prabang

I REALLY hope that there are not any chickens in Dhaka!! I am getting very tired of waking up to the sound of roosters at 5am!

Yesterday I took a boat to see the Pak Ou caves. The boat ride on the Mekong was nice, but the caves were not nearly as impressive as I thought that they would be. We stopped at a couple of small villages before and after entering the caves and I finally broke down and bought some Lao textiles. They were VERY hard to resist, especially when the girl was sitting there weaving them asking you to buy some of her handiwork! The prices were ridiculously low too, especially considering that it takes her 10-15 days to weave each piece, so I bought a couple; OK, I bought four, but I did resist buying more when I went to the night market last night and there were stalls after stalls of gorgeous silk textiles!!

After the caves I went to the Kwang Si waterfall which was quite amazing! There were several tiers of pools that you could swim in (sadly, I did not bring my suit with me, however, and I did not have time after the caves to go get one.) There was also an amazing large waterfall more toward the back.

On my afternoon excursion, I met several more travelers from all over the world - Israel, Canada, France, and the UK to name a few places. What is amazing to me is how many people are taking 3-12 months off to travel. (None of them Americans of course!) In fact, I have only met a handful of people who are here for just a two week vacation. Everyone else is traveling for a significant period of time. Granted, many of them are students who are just taking a year off during or after school. But about half of them are not students. A couple that I met from the UK told me that it was very normal for Brits to take a year off in their late twenties. One guy that I met from Sweden told me that there you could apply for a once in a lifetime sebattical which lasted anywhere from 3-12 months WITH PAY! I think Americans have the short end of the stick! We work longer and have less vacation than everywhere else in the world. Plus not many Americans that I know could afford to take a whole year off..

Anyway, back to Lao... I learned two important things yesterday about Lao:
1) There are no ATMs for foreigners here. You have to bring in money and exchange it. (Although you can pay for things in dollars and baht.) Apparently you can also go to a few places and give them your credit card and they will give you money, but they charge anywhere from 3-6 percent interest for that favor plus whatever your credit card will charge you. The best bet is to bring your own cash.
2) Foreigners are not allowed to rent motorbikes here! Alas! I guess I will have to content myself with a bicycle...

I also found out that there are no direct flights from Luang Prabang to Pakse. Before I left I found some timetable somewhere that said that there were, but as far as I know Lao Airlines is the only airline that operates within Lao and they don't have any flights. I now have to fly back through Vientiane and the only flights from Luang Prabang to Vientiane are at 2:40pm and 7:10pm. The only flight from Vientiane to Pakse is at 6:30am tomorrow. The ticket is also quite expensive. I would take the bus, but it would take me three days by bus and I would have to go back through Vientiane anyway, as there are no highways going from Luang Prabang to Pakse. The infrastructure in Lao is VERY undeveloped! I read that there is only one paved highway in the whole country! In fact, yesterday going to the waterfalls, we drove on a gravel road. Unfortunately, on the way there, I had the "scary driver" who drove twice as fast as the other bus. Everyone in the van was terrified, especially around curves! He even ran over a family of chickens! He didn't even slow down!! Thankfully on the way back I rode in the other bus!

Anyway, I think that flying is really going to be my only realistic option at this point...

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Trip: Lao PDR
Date: September 24, 2006
Place: Luang Prabang

Today I took a bus from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. The trip took 11 hours (starting at 6:30am) and cost $10. I was initially going to fly ($60 ticket), but the flight times got me in about the same time as the bus, so I decided to save some money and see the countryside. It was definitely the right decision because the Lao countryside is AMAZING!! Unfortunately the windows on my bus were so dirty that I couldn't take pictures, but I am hoping to rent a scooter the day after tomorrow to do some more sightseeing.

We drove past tons of charming little farming villages where the huts were made of bamboo. The mountains were amazing. In one part it looked as if someone just ripped the top off of the earth; the stones looked like jagged teeth covered in dense, lush, green forest. There were small rivers flowing in the valleys and fishermen were out on their boats. Even though the ride was long, it was very picturesque.

Some interesting observations about travelling by bus in Lao:
1) You are allowed to smoke (yuck!) Or maybe you are not allowed to smoke, but the guy in the seat next to me did it anyway. He kept blowing the smoke out the window, but of course since air was coming in through the window, not going out, the smoke just came back in. I was not the only passenger who was annoyed by this!
2) They did stop for lunch and a bathroom break about midway through, which was nice.
3) The Lao people just throw their trash out of the window (much to my horror!) Sadly the county roads were litered with trash.
4) It is apparently socially acceptable for men to hock a lugey and spit out the window (frequently at that!)
5) The "VIP bus" is like an old schoolbus, minus the yellow color...
6) As in Thailand, the bus was almost all locals (just one other "Westerner" and me)

The only downside of the trip, aside from the smoking man (who was also a lugey hocker), was that the poor girl sitting next to me kept vomiting. At first I thought that she might have motion sickness, but I asked her and she said "no", so it might have been the flu (I am taking vitamin C tonight!!). At one of our reststops I got out some of my peppermint oil and gave it to her. She seemed better for the next thirty minutes, but then sadly the vomiting started again. The poor thing must have thrown up six or seven times! (I have found that peppermint oil usually works best for stomach aches and mild nausea...)

So after I arrived in Luang Prabang, the first order of business was to find a guesthouse. I had the name of one ready, but when I arrived they were full, so this guy off the street convinced me to go to his guesthouse (which was only two doors down from the original one.) Item number two was to find a laundry service since I am running low on clean clothes; thankfully, my guest house had a laundry service! Item three was dinner. There is a charming little restaurant a couple of doors down from my restaurant which serves Lao food by candlelight, so I ate there. They also organize tours to the Pak Ou Caves for very reasonable prices ($4!), so since that is where I wanted to go tomorrow anyway, I signed up for that (check off item four). The restaurant also has $3 Lao massages, so that will be item six (Heather would kill me if I didn't get one..) right after item five, visit internet cafe...

One final note pertaining to the internet cafe... I happened to log on to Skype last night and Dad was online! The cafe (like this one) had a headset, so I actually had my first Skype call yesterday! Dad couldn't see the movie of me, but the voice quality was amazing! It was pretty cool to talk to him from Lao!

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Trip: Lao People's Democratic Republic (Lao PDR)
Date: September 23, 2006
Place: Vientiane

Good news! I was able to cross the border into Laos. I didn't run into any political trouble, but knowing what to do to cross is a bit tricky. The steps to cross the Friendship Bridge from Nong Khai Thailand to Vientiane Laos are:
1) Hire a tuk tuk to go to the "Bus Station to Laos" (about 30 baht if you negotiate)
2) Go through Thai immigration and give them your departure card
3) Take a bus to Laos (you can buy a ticket just on the other side of Thai immigration for 20 baht)
4) Go to the window in the front to get a visa for Lao. You will need $30 USD (or apparently $31 USD on Saturday; you can pay in baht too, but it will cost about another $15, so it's best to use US currency if you can...). You will also need a passport photo. Thankfully, the Fulbright folks recommended that we bring several passport photos with us, so I had a large sheet of passport photos made and took them with me. I didn't have a scissors though, so I handed the guy at the visa counter the whole sheet and asked if he could cut one off; they all had a long chuckle about that!
5) Pick up your visa (and your change if you have any) after they call your name. (It takes five minutes or so for them to process the information so you have to wait on the benches until they are done...) Oh, and the Lao visas are pretty like the Cambodia ones! :)
6) Fill out your entry/departure card. I got mine from the Lao Immigration counter, because I went there first, not knowing about the special visa window! You can probably get one from the visa guy though...
7) Go through Lao immigration where you show them your visa and arrival/departure cards
8) Go to the entry fee counter and pay 10 baht to enter the country... I guess it is a 30 cent tax on foreigners?!
9) Take a tuk tuk (50 baht) or a taxi (150 to 250 baht depending on who you talk to! Again, negotiation is key!) to your destination in Vientiane!

Vientiane is much smaller than I expected. I guess because it had a French name and was one of the main border towns, I expected it to be large and well developed. Not so! It is quite small (easily navigable on a bicyle which you can rent for a dollar a day) and run down like most cities in developing countries. The roads are quite torn up, but I think it is because they are planning on constructing new roads soon...

I did have dinner at a very nice French cafe tonight though called "Dao". The food was great and their ice cream was some of the best that I have had. It was a bit expensive though - $8 for food and desert. Funny how $8 seems outrageously expensive to me now, when I would have thought it was ridiculously cheap just a month ago!! I have put myself on a strict $300 a week budget though, as I do not want to go through my entire savings before I even get to Bangladesh! Thus, an $8 dinner is considered a "splurge"!

I am actually getting quite used to traveling. I sleep as well in my hotel rooms as I did in my apartment back in New York. Squeezing into a rickety tuk tuk with seven other Lao women seems normal. I am even getting used to the heat and humidity. I still sweat gallons a day, but it doesn't fatigue me like it did in the beginning.

Oh, just a quick note before I go, the Morning Market in Vientiane is a great place to buy Lao textiles. And Lao textiles are amazingly beautiful! Even better than the Thai ones I think! I have been VERY good on this trip and have not purchased anything except for rooms, transportation, and food, which for those of you who know me well was quite hard! I almost broke down at the textile booths today though. Fortunately for me the ones that I really wanted were outrageously expensive (the store woman's initial quote was $180 - I always have had expensive tastes), so my budget prevented me from indulging... Once I am back working again (in a place where I can wear Lao style clothes), however, I am definitely coming back to Lao to go fabric shopping!!

Friday, September 22, 2006

Trip: Thailand
Date: September 21, 2006
Place: Sukhothai - Nong Kai

Today was an interesting day. When I got up to have breakfast this morning, Malcom, the guy who runs the Mountain View Guest House told me that he read on the news this morning that they had closed all of the land borders with Laos, but that you could still fly in. He also said that the military was starting to relax some of the sanctions - for example the TV is back on - so hopefully things will go back to normal soon.

I decided to press my luck and head off to Nong Kai (on the Laos border) as I had originally planned and then hope that they let me cross the Friendship Bridge into Laos!

I took a tuk tuk to the Sukhothai train station. It was pouring rain (as it had the entire day before when I took a particularly soaking trip to Si Santchanalai) and the passenger cab was in the front of the tuk tuk so me (and my luggage) were soaked when we arrived at the bus! Unfortunately, my passport also got wet. The new versions of the passport are made with much thinner paper than the old ones, so the binding is kind of coming apart. Fortunately, my visas are still in tact, so I am hoping that after it dries out everything will be OK. (Switching to a cheaper passport binding was not a particularly brilliant move on the part of the US Governement, however...)

There was not a bus that went directly from Sukhothai to Nong Kai, so I had to take a 9am bus from Sukhothai to Khon Kaen and then transfer there to a bus to Sukhothai. I got on the bus, and I was the only white person on board. This didn't both me at all, but I was consequently the main form of entertainment for the Thai on the bus! Sadly, a very smelly guy got on the bus (eau de cigarettes) and sat next to me. He and his friends kept trying to talk to me in Thai. Unfortunately, I only know how to say two things in Thai, and "hello" and "thank you" weren't getting us very far in the conversation! Unfortunately, when the smelly guy talked to me, he kept leaning in close (I could hardly breath!) as if my hearing him were the communication problem! They were very cute though, and everyone was so excited to have an American on board.

At several of the bus stops, local people selling food will come onto the bus. The people I was sitting at were just delighted that I bought some Thai food! All eyes were on me apprehensively until I took my first bite and when I smiled, they all started to laugh! It was very funny! I bought another one of those coconut pancake things. (I took a picture this time and will post it here when my other blog is up.) I also bought these things that were wrapped in a cone shape in banana leaves. I didn't know what they were, but it has been my experience that anything wrapped in banana leaves is YUMMY! It ended up being a very glutinous banana thing with coconut on top. It was very good, but sadly I only ate one and then accidentally dropped the rest when I went out to use the bathroom...

At Phitsanulok, I saw my first tanks and armed guards. Aside from that though, it has all been business as usual here...

When I got off at Khon Kaen to transfer to Nong Kai (about 7.5 hour trip), all of my new Thai friends helped me with my bag. There was also a porter (?) there who spoke English who met me as the bus pulled in. He took me to the right ticket line, helped me purchase my ticket, and then put my bags on the bus for me all just to be nice! I have found that the Thai people are so amazingly friendly - especially outside of Bangkok. They are genuinely interested in meeting foreigners and have been extremely helpful.

About an hour away from Nong Kai, the new bus that I was on stops. A guy at the front starts yelling in Thai and pointing at me. What I understand is that I am supposed to follow him. He gets off of the bus, grabs one of my bags, and then starts rcing across the bus terminal. I grabbed the other bag and started running after him. He took me to another bus, paid a ticket guy some money, and then put me on another bus. He kept yelling "Nong Kai" so I really hoped that is where the other bus was going to take me! Thankfully, I did safely arrive in Nong Kai and I hired a tuk tuk to take me to Mutmee Guesthouse which is where I am staying. (A very charming little place right off of the Mekong!)

The entire trip took about 12 hours, including a half an hour layover at Khon Kaen. The bus went very slowly up through the mountains, but he tried to make up time (much to my horror) by racing down the very winding hills! I did arrive safe and sound, however, and my injuries from the past few days are now starting to heal...

It was pouring rain this morning, so I did some work on my photo album. I turned the first section (on Bangkok) over to my uncle this afternoon, so hopefully something will be up on my website shortly!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Trip: Thailand
Date: September 20, 2006
Place: Sukhothai

Last night there was a military coup in Thailand! Don't worry, I am safe! I am still in Sukhothai, which is a small, historical town with no military signifcance. I am still going to drive to Si Satchanalai today as I had originally planned, as it is also a small, historical town with no military. I was planning on heading to Nong Kai (on the Laos border) tomorrow and then crossing into Laos the day after that anyway. Depending on what happens with the military situation here, I may or may not be coming back to Thailand for my last week on the beach. I may either head straight to Bangladesh or add on a week in Vietnam. I am currently looking options for flying to Dhaka that do not involve going back through Bangkok. Thankfully I haven't purchased my ticket to Dhaka yet...

I can't believe there are tanks on the streets of Bangkok! I was just there last week!!

It is funny, the military has cut off all television, even satellite TV here. They keep playing this funny recording about the king and how wonderful he is with little birds and songs. The guest house that I am staying at has a very expensive satellite system, so thankfully I can still get the internet. I don't know if the military has been able to cut of the internet elsewhere.

I will keep you posted and will send an e-mail as soon as I am in Laos...

Monday, September 18, 2006

Trip: Thailand
Date: September 18, 2006
Place: Sukhothai

I took the bus from Chiang Mai to Sukhothai this morning. It was about a five hour trip in an air conditioned bus and cost me 234 baht - very reasonable. I negotiated with a songthaew for a 100 baht (about $3) ride to my guest house which is in Old Sukhothai. It looks like the home of the world's best airport is also home to one of the world's cutest towns! I am so glad that I stayed in Old Sukhothai (about 15 kilometers from "new" Sukhothai). It is sooo charming. Sukhothai is the original capital of Siam (Thailand); in fact it was where Siam was born. There are over 200 temples in the area.

The guest house that I am staying at, Mountain View Guest House, is very nice. It is owned by a British gentleman (Malcom) and his Thai wife; they are both terrific, friendly people. There are only six guest rooms here, and it is about 5 kilometers from the heart of Old Sukhothai (only 500 meters from the Sukhothai National Park though...) There is a pool here (ahhhh....) and a cute little garden. They have free shuttles to their restaurant in town, but I rented a motorbike to get around. I can now add "semi-automatic motorbike driving" to my list of skills! I guess if I can learn to drive a stick shift car in Casablanca, I can learn how to drive a stick shift motorcycle in Sukhothai! It is just semi-automatic though, so there is no clutch. You do have to know when to shift though, or it will stall out just like a car...

They have the cutest little night market in town! I went there this evening and got this yummy coconut cake thingy. Picture a cake that is the size and shape of a pizza cut into six wedges. (I don't know what kind of cake it was, but it was a bit spongy and chewy at the same time...) OK, so that wedge is then folded in half and stuffed with shredded coconut, sugar, and baked seasame seeds. I didn't really care for the seasame seeds, so I asked for one with few in them, but it was quite good! I took a little movie of the market, so when my website is up and running I will post it there along with some photos of the area for you...

Since I arrived rather late today (2pm) I didn't really get to explore that much, but I am going to head out tomorrow morning. I may just end up extending my stay here too, because I think this is my favorite city so far. It is quaint and charming and not touristy. Plus, the scenery is fantastic! Of course, if I keep extending my stays I may never get to Bangladesh... I think I may cut out the Lop Buri portion of my trip instead though... Hopefully tonight I will decide where I am going after Sukhothai, so I will keep you posted!!

Sukhothai Airport
This place is so nice that it looks like a Thai house. The bathrooms are also beautifully designed and impeccably clean!

Sukhothai Countryside
The country here is beautiful! Lots of rice paddies with purple mountains in the background. These photos were all taken in Old Sukhothai (in or near the historical park) because "new" Sukhothai is just another rundown town in a developing country...

Historical Park
The Historical Park is amazing. It is a world heritage site and is really an old town of historical monuments and sculptures. Some of the carvings are really fantastic. It is amazing how large this place is! The market is held at night in the historical park.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Trip: Thailand
Date: September 17, 2006
Place: Chiang Mai

Well, I just got back from the worst two day trek that I have ever been on! I booked it through my hotel - Julie Guest House. The trek started with a three hour hike straight uphill (at a 60 degree angle!) We were going so fast that it felt like we were in a race, so I didn't really get to enjoy (or really see for that matter, since the trail was poor and I kept looking at my feet to make sure that I didn't fall back down the mountain) most of the scenery. Picture doing a Stairmaster at the highest speed for three hours straight in 90 degree weather with 100 percent humidity. I was DYING! And I was the slowest one in the group! The brochure said "three hour hike" which on flat, or even mildly sloping terrain I could easily do, but it certainly did not mention anything about straight up! It was listed as a beginners hike! Ha!

So we finally got to the stop, and the view was quite lovely. We then go to this little Lahu tribal village where we spent the night in the "bamboo hotel" which was really a large version of the village houses on stilts. It felt like camp. All 11 of us stayed in one room on mattresses on the floor. (Sorry, pictures still won't post, but my fabulous Uncle Don is working on putting my blog on my personal website, so hopefully the fully illustrated version will be available soon!) The tribal village was nice; the people were friendly, there were dogs, chickens (more on those later) and children everwhere. I could also deal with the outhouse and the outdoor ice water shower...

That night it happened to be clear, so four of us went out on the porch in front of our hut to look at all of the stars (thousands of them!) We were leaning back on the railing, when suddenly we heard a large crunch and all of us toppled backwards. We originally thought that the railing gave way, but we later learned it was the bench that we were sitting on. The two guys managed to stay on the porch (guess that "single focus" comes in handy in crisis situations!) One of them stood up and the other one managed to grab on to part of the railing (how he did that in the dark during a fall is completely beyond me!) The other woman and myself, however, went falling backwards 8 feet down to the ground. Isabel (the other woman, and the only doctor in the group!) had the wind knocked out of her. I laid there dazed and confused for a bit, and then realized that I hadn't broken any bones. In fact, both of us landed on our backs, but didn't break anything. No cuts, no bruises (although Isabel says they will probably show up tomorrow). I think that it is a miracle that neither of us was seriously hurt! We were quite sore that night, however, and sleeping on the floor was not terribly comfortable! Last night I definitely was longing for a travel partner to take care of me! (Isabel had her husband with her.)

This morning, we got up early (thanks to those darn roosters who started crowing at 3:30am and didn't stop until daybreak), ate breakfast and packed. Despite pleas from Isabel and I, our guide took us racing back down the hill so we could "beat the other group to the elephant camp"! I stumbled and fell into a prickly fern which left a thousand small splinters in my arm. (Thank goodness I was wearing hiking pants or my entire left side would have been covered with them!) I came tumbling down the hill, practically in tears because my arm and back hurt so badly and then the guide (who is drunk by the way from chugging a beer at 11 in the morning) sawmy bloody arm and grabed it, which pushed the splinters back in; I screamed from pain. He then took out his machete and scraped the splinters off of my arm and hand. Isabel kep telling the guide to slow down and then she gave me some iodine for my arm.

We finally make it to the elephant camp and the other group did beat us, but there were more than enough elephants for everyone, so it wasn't a big deal at all. So, despite hiking for five hours through the jungle, I didn't really get to see much of it! The elephant hike, white water rafting, and bamboo rafting were much better. They were fun and were at a slower pace...

So, mercifully, I am feeling much better now. My arm does still hurt from the splinters, but hopefully that will have healed some tomorrow. My back is doing amazingly well considering. It just feels like a flare up of my herneated disc, which normally goes away in a day or two. I am going in for a Thai massage later to help relax my muscles...

So as not to end on a negative note, I will now tell you about the FABULOUS two days that I had before the trek of horrors. I rented a scooter (which is now my favorite mode of transportation) and scooted out to Bo Sang where they make the paper umbrellas. I visited the umbrella factory (I will insert pictures here when I can!) and learned how umbrellas are made. I then scooted out to San Kamphaeng. It was too hot for me to visit the hot springs, but the drive was really nice. So nice in fact, that I decided to continue down that road. I soon found myself surrounded by emerald green rice paddies with white water buffalo in them. I drove until the road literally ended (the jungle took it over!) and then I turned around and drove to Doi Saket which is another wat in a triangle location with Bo Sang and San Kamphaeng.

The next day, I drove into the mountains, which was cool, so I was glad that I brought a sweater. The drive there was faster, so I didn't see as much scenery. I did pass a field filled with poppies, however. I stopped to take a picture (another great thing about scooters is that it is quick and easy to pull off for photos!) when I ran into a woman who was working in the field. She stayed next to me and watched me take pictures of the poppies. I thought that she wanted to talk to me so I smiled and said "pretty!", but she just watched me until I was finished, then she walked away. It seemed a bit strange. A couple of kilometers down the road I started laughing, because I had probably accidentally discovered one of the illegal opium fields that still exists in Thailand. Well, whether it was just a pretty field of flowers or a factory for an illegal, highly additictive drug, it was still a great view! (And hopefully a good picture!)

Yesterday morning, before I returned the scooter (and left for the trek) I scooted around Old Chiang Mai and picked up some sticky rice (5 baht - 15 cents) from a street vendor. Mmmm... yummy Thai breakfast! Tomorrow morning I head to Sukhothai (home of the world's most beautiful airport). I am hoping to rent a scooter there too! In fact, I hope that Dhaka is scooter friendly as it is here, because I would REALLY like to buy one. It is such a great way to get around; you are really connected with the scenery!

So ending on that happy note, I will blog more later... Now I need to find a hotel for tomorrow...

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Trip: Thailand
Date: September 13, 2006
Place: Chiang Mai

So I am giving up on the photographs. I have tried at several different places doing it several different ways and it just isn't working. I am going to see if Don might be willing to upload my blog onto my website. Sadly for you, this blog does not make as much sense without the photos!!

Is this a picture of a famous Thai monument? A private teak mansion? No! It is the AIRPORT in Sukhothai!! We took these cute little shuttles with wooden seats through the garden (yes, garden!) to the airport main building.

Would you believe that this is an airport bathroom?! There were orchids, flowers, and fountains everywhere!

Bangkok Airways is now my favorite airline. The people are really nice they give you free food and drinks in the gate area along with free internet! This is in addition to the food that they served on both legs of the two hour flight from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. (We had an additional stop at Sukhothai – world’s most beautiful airport.) Also, before the plane took off, they gave us cool, scented towels. Ahhhhh…. Oh, did I also mention that they let you bring water on the plane?

Overall, I have found the transportation in Thailand to be quite good. Bangkok has these great little ferry boats that take you up and down (and across) the Chao Phraya River. It also has both a subway and a sky train. I didn’t take the subway, but the sky train was very clean, well designed, and extremely easy to navigate. I haven’t taken the bus or train yet, but I will give you an update after I do! Tomorrow I rent a scooter!!

Taxis are easier to find in Bangkok than they are in New York. Indeed, if you dally too long in one place, a taxi driver will offer to give you a ride somewhere. This morning while I was waiting for the shuttle bus to the airport, a taxi driver came up and offered me and the guy I was waiting for a ride to the airport for 200 baht – a very good price as we had paid 100 baht each for the shuttle bus which was 20 minutes late. We tried to explain to the driver that we had already paid for the shuttle, but he was very cute and really persistent and kept holding up a sign that said AIRPORT 200 BAHT, except the middle zero was missing from the sign so it read AIRPORT 20 BAHT. We kept teasing him that we would go for 20 baht (about 50 cents).

Tuk tuks are a popular tourist mode of transportation. I was going to hire one for the day a couple of days ago, but the driver kept wanting to take me to shopping centers (where he no doubt got a commission on whatever I purchased) instead of the places that I wanted to go. I kept telling him "no shopping." Finally I said "I will not buy anything." After I said that, he said, "if you no go shopping, I no go!" So, I got of out the tuk tuk and grabbed a cab the rest of the way to where I was going. Several other travelers have told me similar stories, so my advice is, just take a cab. They aren’t that expensive; the meter starts at 35 baht and goes up slowly. I think that the most that I paid was $3. Just confirm that the meter works before you start. As in Morocco, some drivers claim that their meter "is broken" in order to charge you much more. The problem isn’t as ubiquitous as in Morocco, but I would definitely check first.

While we are on the subject of scams, I should probably also mention the "it’s a Buddhist holiday" scam. Thankfully I had read about this one in my guidebook, so I was prepared when it happened to me. In this scam you are walking to see one of the sites and are stoppe3d by someone who asks you where you are going. When you tell him, he syas, "Oh, it’s a Buddhist (or national) holiday; the (site) doesn’t open until 2pm." Then the person will offer to show you some other sights (meaning souvenir shops). The few times this happened to me, I just said, "No, I know that (site) opens at 9am; I called ahead." Usually they will then just walk (or stomp) away.

The final scam that I know about is the gem scam. This didn’t happen to me, but it did happen to a couple that I met at the Floating Market. In this scam someone (or in their case several people working together) tries to get you to buy substandard gems at a "discount price" to export back to their home country to sell for a lot of money.

With the exception of the few scam artists out there, however, I generally find the Thai people to be very friendly and hospitable. They really enjoying practicing their English with foreigners. I have been stopped by several people on the street who ask me a bit about myself and then say "Enjoy your stay in Thailand!" and then leave.

One of the most interesting people that I got to talk to was a monk at a monk school. I saw this large sign next to Wat Chedi Luang:

So I decided to stop and chat with a monk! The gentleman that I spoke to was 21 years old. He explained to me the difference in the color of the monks robes (they are different denominations of Buddhism – similar to the difference between Catholics and Protestants). He told me that there are three levels of monks: 1) children who go to the temple school 2) men who take short breaks in their life to spend time in the monastery and 3) men over 60 who come to spend the rest of their lives in the monastery. There are also men who chose to spend their lives in the monastery, but apparently it is more the norm for men to come for short periods and then leave. Most Thai men apparently spend some time in as a Buddhist monk. To become an ordained monk, you need to go to temple school for six years. My friend (I forgot to ask his name!) was 21 and was on his seventh year at temple school. He was going to leave in five months and wanted to become a stunt man!!

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Trip: Thailand
Place: Bangkok
Date: September 12, 2006

So I am now staying up to at least 8pm which means that I still wake up early. Which I have decided is a good thing because a) the roosters would wake me up at 5am anyway b) if the roosters didn't wake me at 5, then the alley cats would wake me at 6am and c) this way I have some time in the morning to either write a blog or work on my picture slideshow. (It takes TIME to put together those lovely presentations you have come accustomed to!!)

There are a couple of interesting things that I have noticed about Thai cuisine/ eating habits. First, every meal comes with a fork and a spoon. You are actually supposed to use the fork to push the food into the spoon because apparently it is uncouth to eat with a fork (barbarians!) Second, I still can not get used to the napkins which are tiny little single ply five inch by five inch paper squares that dissolve in the sweat in your hand. You must eat carefully, because that little napkin will definitely not protect your lap! Third, there are all kinds of super cheap fruit stands along the road. My favorite is the 10 baht (30 cent) pineapple stand. The guy there carves the pineapple into these intricate shapes which is not only aesthetic, but actually makes the pineapple easy to eat, because small pieces break apart easily and you can eat those with the extra long toothpick that they give you. (For those of you who don't know, the Thai are actually very well known for their fruit carving.)

Today I went to the Floating Market. The idea of it was very neat, but it is now more of a tourist trap than a true Thai market. I did get a chance to taste some of the more unusual fruits there though.

These are rambutans. They have a lychee nut texture and a sweet taste and they have a pit like an almond (you don't eat it though...)

You peel the prickly outside away to reveal the fruit underneath.

These are longans. They also have a lychee nut texture, but have a pit like a cherry. They taste kind of like green grapes.

Again you have to peel off the hard outside.

I don't know what these are called, but they are really pretty and taste like kiwi fruit.

They are pretty on the inside too...

There are a couple of more on this woman's boat that I wanted to try, but unfortunately, while our boat stopped every place that was selling cheap tourist souvenirs, we just barely slowed down next to all of the cool food boats, so I didn't have a chance to buy more.

Here is one more that I saw in Chinatown. It is called a "durian". I really wanted to try some, but I was on my way to Vimanmek Mansion and I didn't want to lug the large fruit around with me. It was my intention to pick one up on the way back, but by that time my feet were really sore, so I decided to take a cab back... Maybe tomorrow in Chiang Mai...

UGH!! Sorry guys! The photos are not uploading again... I will try again later.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Well I have had a devil of a time posting photos! Here are some more pictures of the Grand Palace that I was not able to fit into my previous blog...

I hope the color looks much better on your computer than it does on this one. I edited the pictures on my laptop and the color looked great, but when I uploaded them here, they look kind of green and dirty...

Well my trip to Bumrungrad International Hospital was definitely the best medical experience that I have ever had! I did not have an appointment, and I showed up for my shots and a doctor’s appointment. I walked into the hospital and it looked much more like a hotel than a medical center (wood paneling and trim everywhere!). The woman at the entrance asked me if I had been there before. When I said, “No,” she directed me upstairs to “International Registration”. There I sat down immediately in a comfortable chair (no clipboard!) in front of a receptionist dressed in a Thai silk suit who gave me a one page form to fill out, scanned in my passport, and took a digital photo of me for identification purposes. Apparently this hospital is world renowned, as I was sitting next to a Kuwaiti and an African (I’m not sure which country) and across from a Saudi. After my form was complete (no longer than 10 minutes) I was directed to the Women’s Center on the next floor up. I arrived and handed the nurse my paperwork (which included my photo so she could easily identify me) and she asked me to take a seat. I expected to wait for several hours since I just walked in without an appointment and needed to see a doctor. Amazingly, not five minutes later a nurse comes by and directs me into the examining room and the doctor was in there! Yes that’s right! None of that American song and dance where they put you in an empty examining room, tell you to put on a piece of paper and then leave you there for forty-five minutes. I quickly changed into a (cloth!) gown and saw the doctor. The exam was very quick and then he sent me over to the nurses’ station to get my shot. The nurse again told me to sit down, which was funny, because less than five minutes later she tells me to come behind the curtain where she administered the shot! I was blown away by the service, the details, and frankly the design of the hospital. The appointment took much less time than it took to drive there and back. And what was the price for this excellent service? 2323 baht – that’s $66!! Yes! You read right, $66 American dollars (with no insurance!) for the appointment and the shot with no wait time! In New York I would normally have to wait one to three hours when I HAD an appointment and paid ten times as much! Moral of the story – all my medical care will now take place in Thailand. It is totally worth the cost of the ticket over there! I predict that within 15 years everyone will be going abroad for non-emergency health care. It is cost and time effective!!

OK, enough of my commercial for Bumrungrad Hospital, you are probably wondering what else I am doing in Thailand! Well, I got off to a slow start due to extreme jet lag compounded by crippling heat. The time zone is 11 hours different from New York, so my system is expectedly wonky. I did manage to see the Grand Place and Wat Phra Kaeo (place with the Emerald Buddha) yesterday, however. Both are AMAZING. I am attaching a couple of pictures below, but I will post more on my website soon as my fabulous Uncle Don has graciously agreed to help me set up the slideshow on kristinboekhoff.com!! I will send out an e-mail when everything is up and running…

The Thai architecture is absolutely stunning. When you walk in, it looks like the structures are all decorated with gemstones and everything sparkles like mad! (woo hoo!) When you take a closer look, it is actually colored mirrored glass cut into tiny mosaics. (And I thought the Moroccan mosaics were amazing!)

Unfortunately due to the sweltering heat and the 150% humidity, I came home at noon to shower (again) and ended up falling asleep until midnight, which was unfortunate, because I could not bring myself to go back to sleep again after that! Tonight I have made it my goal to try to stay up until 8:30pm at least. It may be difficult as I am already getting sleepy, but hopefully this blog and my photos (I have my computer with me this time so I can start editing my photos on the road) will keep me up!

Oh, one fabulous thing that I discovered today – Thai massage!!! (Sorry Heather, the price has gone up to $6 an hour; you can get a half an hour for $3 though!) This is now my favorite kind of massage. The masseuse folds you into different pretzel shapes and then kneads your muscles at various acupuncture points. It is AMAZING!! My legs and feet were killing me after walking for about 6 hours in thinly padded flip flops and I felt like butter when the guy was done. I am kicking myself for waiting two days to go to the massage parlor! I will definitely be getting a massage every day if I can!

Everything in Thailand is amazingly inexpensive. Meals are $2-3, fresh fruit on the street is $0.30, and I can hire a tuk tuk driver for $0.14 (5 baht) an hour or a dollar a day. My Bangkok hotel (which is my most expensive one) is only $17.15 a day! If Bangladesh prices are similar, I will be in heaven this year!

I am hoping that I will begin to adjust to the heat soon. Drinking lots of Gatorade seems to help (as usual), but I come home in the middle of the day swimming in sweat. I then shower, put on another set of clothes, and go out again. Walking makes it worse; air conditioning makes it better. Note to self: get an air conditioned apartment in Dhaka. It cools down to a pleasant, less humid temperature at night though. I am glad there are laundry services all over the Khao San Road area (where I am staying) as I am going through clothes fast! Speaking of clothes, I learned that it is impolite to wear sleeveless tops to religious and royal sites. I had to go buy a polo shirt before they let me enter the Grand Palace. Of course I took all of my short sleeved shirts out of my pack to reduce the weight, so it looks like I will have to buy a couple of more cheap shirts on Khao San Road!

6:30pm and I am still awake…

Here are some photos of the Grand Palace in Bangkok. It is absolutely AMAZING!!

Sparkles up close...

Cute little devils on a gold chedi!

Thursday, September 07, 2006

I suppose that it is only right that I didn't sleep my last night in the "City that Never Sleeps"! After staying up all night to help a family disassemble my bookshelves, I frantically packed all night and into the morning. Ultimately, I had to push my flight back, but I did get most of my stuff packed. (The rest I just left on the floor and put up a "free stuff" note in my building!)

After leaving New York City, I headed to San Francisco to spend a few days with my mom. I then headed off for Thailand (via Tokyo) on September 5th. I arrived in Bangkok late last night and stayed at the gorgeous Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel (thank you Hyatt points!) This morning, I transferred to my more economical hotel, Mango Lagoon Place--very basic, very cheap, very good location!

This afternoon I am going to the hospital to get my shots out of the way so that I can concentrate on my vacation!

Since I just arrived, I haven't really taken any photos yet. I know that you all will start screaming at me if I don't post one though, so here is a picture of Sonoma Valley that I took when I was in San Francisco with my mom...