I watched the sun set…twice

I’m officially back on American soil, and I have to admit, it feels pretty great. However, the 23 hours it took to get us from Chiang Mai to LA were less than great. About 2/3 of it was spent in the air, the other 1/3 in airports. But one fun fact, we went back in time when we passed the International Date Line. Which means, essentially, that I got to watch the sun set on the same day twice. Once flying over China and the other flying into LA.

But that’s hardly the most interesting thing that’s happened in the last week. Chiang Mai experienced two festivals from November 5-7: Loi Krathong and Yi Peng. We got to participate in similar festivals in Luang Prabang earlier on this trip, but to a much smaller scale.

Loi Krathong is celebrated by floating boats (made of banana trees, leaves, flowers, and a candle) down the river, which symbolizes letting go of negative thoughts, actions, and karma. It’s essentially a request for a fresh start.

On Yi Peng, swarms of Lanna-style paper lanterns (made of rice paper, bamboo, and a kerosene soaked disk) are released into the sky. A tangible way of sending your wishes into the universe.

In northern Thailand, these festivals coincide on the full moon of the twelfth month (Thai calendar) and second month (Lanna calendar). Many cities have massive celebrations – Sukothai, Ayutthaya, Bangkok, and Phuket, but no one does it like Chiang Mai.

Celebrations started on the 5th of November this year and officially went through the 7th, but the holiday spirit could be felt for days before and days after. The first “official” event that we went to was the Hot Air Balloon Competition.

It’s not hard to see why the balloon below was my favourite – The Little Mermaid, anyone? And it was icing on the cake that when the rockets were launched from the balloon, they looked like a giant octopus.

Hot Air Balloon 1

Hot Air Balloon 2

After that we wandered around the city, taking in the various sights and decorations. We made our way through Talat Tonlamyai, the flower market, and past tons of temples, all of which had put up numerous lanterns.

The city was packed with people from all around the world and we were just two in a crowd of thousands.

Flowers

Paper Lanterns

But that night was when the real magic happened. Despite the ban on lanterns before 9 pm, the second that sun set, the lights started rising one by one. An hour later and the sky was covered in lanterns that shown like diamonds in the night sky. Luang Prabang was just a teaser, because I’ve never seen anything like this before:

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Phuket: Time for another change in our itinerary!

At no point during this trip have we felt like we needed to stick to any sort of concrete schedule (airport days aside!), so when we cut the bottom half of Laos, we decided to do our second trip to Thailand in reverse: south to north.

We were going to start in Bangkok, make our way up through Ayutthaya to see some temples, move on to Sukhothai for yet more temples, then head to Chiang Rai for – you guessed it – another temple, before ending our trip in Chiang Mai for the Yi Peng and Loi Krathong festivals.

We knew each of these cities was going to be amazing, but let’s face it, at the end of a three-month journey, there’s only so much you’re still craving to see. So we decided to leave a few temples for the next time we find ourselves in Thailand and we began purchasing flights instead of bus tickets!

Of course, we still spent plenty of time in Bangkok, and we still popped up to be wowed by Ayutthaya’s sites, but after that, we decided to fly down to Phuket for a week before flying up to Chiang Mai.

Let me tell you – a week on a beach was exactly what we needed! Sunset after beautiful sunset…

Sunset 1

Sunset 2 And we couldn’t have picked a better beach for the week. We decided to bypass the craziness that is Patong Beach (Phuket’s main beach), choosing to head just south to the quieter Karon Beach.

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Thailand: The second time around

It’s been 95 days since I left home to begin this journey – and it’s not a home I’ll be going back to. I hopped in a friend’s car at 6:30 am on July 31st and have been slowly making my way east ever since.

It’ll take me another 29 days to reach the place I used to call home, Minneapolis. But for the first time in months, it finally feels like I’m coming to the end of things. All my flights have been booked, all my days have been planned, and I’m seriously looking forward to seeing my sister’s face at MSP International Airport on December 2nd.

At the same time, it feels odd to remind myself that this trip isn’t finished. I’m not hopping on that plane tomorrow – well, I am hopping on a plane tomorrow, but that’s to Chiang Mai! And I have to admit, I’m beginning to lose steam on these blog posts.

We’re spending more and more time in each place we go (nine nights in Bangkok, two in Ayutthaya, seven in Phuket), but I’m finding that I have less and less to say. Guess that’s how you know you’ve planned a trip a little too long! Because it’s certainly not the fault of anyplace we’ve been – Bangkok is easily one of our favourite cities (throughout this trip we’ve spent a total of 16 nights there).

For these ten days in Bangkok, we did a lot of shopping, mostly at Siam Center, Siam Paragon, and Siam Discovery. What can I say? After two years in Ethiopia, we both needed serious wardrobe upgrades.

We then spent the rest of our days wandering around the area near Koh San Road (though avoiding the road itself!), eating cheap pad thai, drinking fresh pomegranate juice, and stocking up on real books to read during our upcoming beach days.

Then, we took a quick trip up to Ayutthaya. Many do this as a simple day trip, but we decided to spend a couple of nights in the town. We didn’t even bother to leave our hotel, Tamarind, that first night (with the exception of grabbing dinner at the night market down the street).

We purchased some street popcorn, corn on the cob, waffles, cantaloupe, and a Coca-Cola to split and settled into this room to enjoy our spoils and watch The Shawshank Redemption:

Tamarind Guesthouse

The next day we were rested up and ready to check out the ruins that make up Ayutthaya’s UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ayutthaya was a Siamese kingdom that existed from 1351 to 1767, when the Burmese army destroyed the city, effectively collapsing the kingdom.

We started at the sites closest to our hotel and worked our way out. First came Wat Ratchaburana. Founded in 1424 by King Borommarachathirat II, it was built on the cremation site of his two older brothers. The two brothers had fought to their deaths in a duel for the royal succession to their father.

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À bientôt Bangkok

We’re sad to say goodbye to Thailand, but definitely excited to move on to Vietnam. We’ve loved our time here, but it feels like the real adventure lies ahead of us. We also have to say goodbye to Zach and Yata and strike out on our own. But before we begin those new experiences, I figured I should share a little of what we’ve been up to since Koh Tao…

We returned to Bangkok August 18th and jumped right into exploring the city. We decided to do everything on our own (aka no tour groups) and subsequently got a little mixed up on our starting location. For those of you doing this in the future, start at the Grand Palace. Apparently you can buy this super ticket to all the sites – we didn’t have it and ended up paying for everything individually (still not expensive).

We began our sight seeing with the Ananta Samakhon Throne Hall…or at least we tried to. We wandered around the entire complex, looking for an entrance, and when we finally did make our way inside, we got hustled. Well, not literally, but we clearly weren’t paying attention, and ended up buying tickets to Vinanmek (the world’s largest golden teakwood mansion – pretty specific, right?).

Well, we shuffled through that pretty quickly before making our way to the Throne Hall, which was another 150 baht on top of the 100 we paid for the teakwood mansion (only the Throne Hall was definitely worth it!). The Ananta Samakhon Throne Hall was incredibly well done – remote controls with English descriptions, well lit, spacious – and the pieces inside were extraordinary. Especially the Wood-Carved Screen with Scenes from “Sangthong” and “Himavan Forest.”

Ananta Samakhon Throne Hall

The following day we decided on an overnight trip to Kanchanaburi. Luckily, we were able to leave our big duffels with the hotel, since we’d be returning the next day, and we made our way to the train station feeling lighter than air.

We arrived at the train station over an hour early just because we weren’t sure what to expect – that proved wildly unnecessary, as we got our tickets in minutes and then found ourselves waiting around. That said, just hanging out there was a wonderful experience. I love Bangkok, but it’s pretty filled with tourist (especially in August) and it was nice to get away from it all. By the time the train left the station, there were maybe 10 other foreigners on it, but everyone else was local.

The train ride might possibly be my favourite part about Kanchanaburi – it was so relaxing. All the windows rolled down, fans on, so the temp was wonderful and the scenery could be viewed with full enjoyment. Definitely a change from the over-crowded minibuses with closed windows in Ethiopia!

We pulled into the Kanchanaburi station around 10:30 and made our way to the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre – just a three-minute walk away. The center was built by the Dutch and gives an incredible amount of information about the railway and the POWs who were forced to work on it. The images, replicas, and memorabilia really made the tragedy sink in and we were glad to have gone through the center before making our way to the actual bridge.

The center also let us know that we had missed Collin Firth and Nicole Kidman by a mere two years (haha), as they were in town in 2012 filming The Railway Man – we made a side note to watch the film when we got back to Bangkok.

After a quick rest and dropping our stuff off at the hotel – essentially a floating dock with rooms (on the River Kwai) – we began our walk to the bridge. It took about 20 minutes, but was a great way to see the city…and pick a place for dinner! When we arrived at the Death Railway Bridge (Bridge on the River Kwai), we were taken aback by how powerful it felt, but also disappointed with the number of tourists we saw (mostly older men and families). But the crowds thinned out as we walked across the bridge and by the time we got across, there was only one other couple in site. Making us believe early evening is the best time to go, but maybe that day was just a fluke.

Death Railway Bridge 1

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Island hopping in Thailand

An hour waiting in line, two more on a boat, and a final eight on a bus, and I’m finally back in Bangkok. Hard to believe we’re already done with Koh Samui and Koh Tao. Koh Sam (as I keep calling it) was definitely my favourite (hilarious since we initially planned only one night there), but Koh Tao definitely had it’s perks.

We stayed at Coral View Dive Resort, which is on the quieter side of the island. And while the staff was a bit prickly, we couldn’t argue with the beauty of our surroundings. The rooms were 900 baht a night, but worth it for the privacy.

1 - Bungalow

The bungalow next to us housed two more RPCVs (Yata and Zach), who decided to join us for some fun in the sun : ) We spent the first few days relaxing by the water and enjoying the views – and making a run into town for supplies. We were even more secluded than we had imagined and had very little access to anything! The food at the resort was decent, but pricey, so being the cheapskates we all are, we bought cereal and fresh fruit for our breakfasts. Ah, the joys of having 7-Elevens (and fresh markets) around!

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Simple Twist Of Fate

After a few whirlwind days in Bangkok, we boarded a bus headed to Chumporn Pier. God only knows why we thought a night bus was a good idea – we had only had one solid night’s rest all week. Luckily, Lomprayah does a great job. The bus was giant and super comfy and had an added bonus of a toilet onboard. I joked with Chandler that the urinal was positioned practically in my face, but really, I was just marveling at the convenience – no bus in Ethiopia has a toilet. And the nice ones – Sky and Selam stop once in the middle of nowhere to let you relieve yourself.

But you don’t read this to hear about my bathroom situations…at 4:30 am we arrived at the pier and spent the morning chatting with some Canadian friends we had met the night before during check-in. The pier didn’t officially open until 6, so we had some time to kill.

Before

Slowly, slowly, slowly, we began boarding the boats. Ours had stops on a snorkeling island, Koh Tao, and Koh Phangan before finally dropping us off at Koh Samui. But really, we didn’t mind the wait, we had gotten our first view of the Gulf of Thailand.

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SE Asia Itinerary

Because my boyfriend and I don’t know how not to plan…and because I knew everyone who reads my blog was dying to know…here’s our SE Asia itinerary. The real itinerary took months to plan…I’ll give you the highlights : )

Qatar:

  • Doha – Al-Corniche, Souq Waqif, and the Museum of Islamic Art

Museum of Islamic Art

Thailand:

  • Bangkok – Banglamphu neighborhood, Siam Ocean World (I’m dating a guy obsessed with aquariums – who knew?), and SHOPPING…hey, I’ve spent the last two years in Ethiopia
  • Koh Tao – Scuba certification and beaches!
  • Phetchaburi – Tham Khao Luang Cave and Tham Khao Bandai-It Monastery aka bats, bats, and more bats
  • Kanchanburi – Death Railway Bridge aka Bridge Over the River Kwai (which we all pronounce incorrectly, thanks to Hollywood)
  • Bangkok (again) – Ko Ratanakosin and Thonburi neighborhoods for the Grand Palace, National Museum, the Amulet Market, and countless stunning wats (temples)

Koh Tao, ThailandWat Arun, Bangkok

Vietnam:

  • Hanoi – Water puppets (can’t wait to find out what exactly this is), Women’s Museum, Hoan Kiem Lake & Temple, Temple of Literature (because how could two people as nerdy as me and Chandler not go?), Old Quarter, and the Perfume Pagoda
  • Halong Bay – Kayaking, rock climbing, and island exploration, especially Hang Trong (aka Drum Grotto) and Dao Titop
  • Phong Nha-ke Bang National Park – Paradise Cave, Phong Nha Cave, and the Nuoc Mooc Eco Trail (wanted to see Hang Son Doong, the world’s biggest cave, but it costs about $3,000 and only 200 people can enter each year)
  • Hue – Imperial Enclosure and the Royal Tombs
  • Hoi An – Historical Old Town
  • Nha Trang – Louisiane Brewhouse and the Oceanographic Museum. Can you tell which of us chose this town? : )
  • Mui Ne – This stop was all me though, motorbiking through sand dunes
  • HCMC – Jade Emperor Pagoda, Fine Arts Museum, and the Tao Dan Park
  • Can Tho – Phong Dien Floating Market

Halong Bay, VietnamPhong Nha Cave, Vietname Continue reading