Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Thailambodia, a Honeymoon Story

We honeymooned! And we had a great time!

All things considered, every aspect of our travels went very well. We flew Houston to Beijing on the first day, which was a 14 hour flight, and then a quick 4-hour flight to Bangkok. It's a time difference of 13 hours, so we were almost opposite our body clocks, which, by the time we stayed up allllllllll day that first day, we were able to re-set pretty quickly. Our travel package was not only a great deal (seriously, get thyself to a travel agent!), but it included five nights in Bangkok. After Bangkok, we had four nights in Chiang Mai, then three nights in Krabi, and finally, two nights in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Here are some highlights from each of those beautiful places!

Bangkok (Nov 26- Dec 3)

Bangkok was beautiful. We saw so many wats, or temples, but they were all different from each other. Our hotel provided an amazing breakfast full of Thai, Western and misc dishes, and we filled up each morning before setting out. We were able to walk some of Bangkok, but also relied on taxis and the city rail train a fair bit.
So many buddhas!

Wat Phra Kaew

Our first full day was spent at two famous sites: the temple of the reclining Buddha and the Grand Palace. The beloved King Rama the IX had recently died, and the Grand Palace was the original royal residence. His body is being displayed there, and we were told that 10,000-30,000 Thais are visiting daily to pay their respects. The lines they waited in were LONG, and most of them were dressed head-to-toe in black, despite the "winter" heat. Not coming from a king-based society, it was really interesting to see the love they had for their king who had reigned for 70 years. He did a lot for the working class of Thailand, and brought a lot of resources and improvements to the country. His portrait was everywhere, and while many Thais had relaxed their observance of dressing in mourning clothing, most were still wearing black and/or white as a sign of respect to him.
Wat Phra Kaew

Something I never thought I'd say was how much I enjoyed going to the MALL while on vacation. Bangkok has huge malls with top-floor food courts that are awesome. It's cheap, really tasty, and with an abundant variety of options, how could you go wrong? We enjoyed several meals at the malls near our hotel!

Tim has a friend from junior high school who now lives with his wife and two daughters in Bangkok. They will be working with an NGO that seeks to restore relationships for women who've been trafficked called The Well. They warmly invited us out to their home for a delicious meal and a little catch up. It was wonderful!

My favorite part of this leg of our journey was the day trip we took to the ancient city of Ayutthaya. It was a windy 1 1/2 hour, $1.15 diesel train ride north of the city, where we took a $0.05 boat taxi across the water and rented bikes. These temples were hundreds of years old, and the ruins were gorgeous. We liked that we had some free reign to wander and explore. It was really pretty.
Wat Mahathat, Ayutthaya

Bikes! And spare dogs! Wat Chaiwatthanaram, Ayutthaya

Wat Chaiwatthanaram, Ayutthaya

Of course we did some touristy things, like the Khao San Road, which is supposed to be a backpacker's paradise, but it just felt crowded and crazy. We went to Bangkok's Chinatown, where restaurants were set up along the busy road in the sidewalk and side of the road. We got Thai massages, which isn't terribly touristy as Thai people get them too, but we weren't prepared for the pain, bending and stretching that ensued. I liked it, but I think Tim could have done with a gentler treatment. :)
Walking Bangkok

For a moment off the beaten track, we visited the Bangkok Forensic Museum. Whoooooweeeeee, it was pretty gross. Lots of body parts, or pictures of body parts, ravaged by disease, bullets, knives, the spikey things from fences, you name it. We actually felt relief going next door to the parasite museum. Worms and bugs are WAY less horrifying. And with those images burned into our brains, we left Bangkok for our next destination, Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai (Dec 3-7)

Chiang Mai is another city of ancient and historical importance for Thailand. At one point, it was the nation's capital. Even though we arrived at night and stepped almost immediately into the busy night bazaar, we felt the relative calm and slower pace of life compared to Bangkok. Night bazaars, also called walking streets, seem like a big deal in Thailand. We walked up and down rows and rows of tables and stalls selling trinkets, clothes, spices, pictures, postcards and all other types of things you could ever want to buy. There were lots of food vendors, and we sampled our way through most of the dishes on offer!
Smoothie Blues in Chiang Mai

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai

I can't quite remember which walking street night this was, but at one of them, there was a big celebration for the king. A huge band and choir had assembled outside the central city wall where they performed songs to honor the king. People passed around candles, even to us, and we stood alongside the Thai people. Later that evening, there was a moment of silence, and the hundreds of people crammed into the walking streets stood still. Vendors turned the lights out in their stalls, and again, the tall white candles were passed around. Then everyone sang a song (the national anthem maybe?) and just like that, lights went back on and the noise resumed. It was impressive how many people stood still for that moment!

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai

Ancient gate to the inner city; later this evening is where the band set up for the celebration for the king

We didn't go to near as many wats in Chiang Mai as we did in Bangkok, but got a different taste of the culture there. Chiang Mai was notable for its emphasis on arts, or maybe it was our timing. They were in the middle of Design Week, and there were lots of outdoor gallery-type setups at government and historical buildings. We rented bikes for a couple of days here and were able to stop and see some of these setups, which was really neat.

Design week littles

One of our favorite days on this trip was the day we did a Thai cooking class. No pictures remain from this event, but the meals we made will hopefully be recreated at home before too long! There are many cooking schools, but we used Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School. Our instructor first took us to a legit Thai market to introduce us to the ingredients, and then to the school which boasted an organic farm replete with a huge hog and a pet monkey. Our instructor, Pan, was HILARIOUS. Pretty sure he's 90% why we liked the day so much.

Of course we made it to Ristr8to Lab.

We have a dear friend here in Austin who was born and raised in Chiang Mai, and we relied heavily on her recommendations for what to eat. She did not steer us wrong! We capitalized on as best we could on every one of them. We had fresh smoothies, these crepe-like concoctions called roti, awesome coffee, and a really weird carbonated wine from the 7eleven (there are 7elevens EVERYWHERE and they are THE BEST). Our overall favorite meal was in a restaurant called Lemontree, which smelled like an animal shelter when we walked in, but blew us away with its tasty goodness. We even went back for lunch the next day! And all too soon, it was time to depart for the beach town of Krabi.
The Lemontree kitchen--all that good food comes from here and these guys!

Krabi (Dec 7-10)

Our airbnb was in in the beach town of Krabi but we spent much of our time going west, first to the beach of Railay, and then to the forest where we did a massive hike. My favorite part of Krabi was renting a kayak at Railay and rowing around the coastline. You know how most times the pictures of something look better than the reality? Well, this wasn't the case here. It was gorgeous.
Kayaking in Railay!


End of Railay day

On our second full day, we rented a scooter for the day for a whopping $7. We had to ask the guy how to start it, and yet didn't have to provide insurance or proof of a license. They drive on the opposite side there, and generally speaking the rules of the road are totally different, so I was a little nervous. After a few spins around the block to get the hang of it, Tim drove us out to the national park where we hiked a good 2 or so hours, sometimes straight up (anyone done Bright Angel trail at the Grand Canyon? It was like that!). There was a beautiful waterfall along the way and the views at the top were incredible. Definitely a highlight!
The hike was so hot and sweaty, even this tiny waterfall was a relief! Tab Kak Hang Nak Hill Nature Trail

Tab Kak Hang Nak Hill Nature Trail

Gives me butterflies thinking about this! Tab Kak Hang Nak Hill Nature Trail

Before our afternoon flight to Siem Reap, we thought we'd catch one more sight and took the scooter to the Tiger Cave temple. We then made the ridiculous decision to climb the 1,260 steps to the top, which was not only grueling (Bright Angel x 10) but it was also somewhat of a disappointment compared to the view from the day before. We were soaked with sweat and only had enough time to grab our bags from the hostel before heading to the airport.

Siem Reap (Dec 10-12)
Angkor Wat, Siem Reap

Before we left Austin, the airline informed us that our original return flight of Dec 11 was cancelled, and they gave us the option to return Dec 10 or 13. I wasn't scheduled to work again til the 15th, so we added the extra days and decided on a trek to Cambodia! It was a short but GREAT visit. Tim's friend lives there, so she connected us to her husband's cousin who is a tour guide and we booked a full day of adventure with him on his tuk-tuk.
Our trusty driver and guide, Saven.

We started early with Ta Phrohm, also known as the Tomb Raider temple. The whole area is simply gorgeous. The temples we saw were built in 1000 BCE or so, and have had some restoration work done, but are also in quite a state of disrepair. It was amazing to walk around in such ancient history and see the way nature took it over.
Preah Khan, Siem Reap

Preah Khan, Siem Reap

Preah Khan, Siem Reap

Mid-morning we tuk-tukked over to Wat Bayon. What I really liked about this one was all the "stories" carved into the walls.
Bayon, Siem Reap

Such detail in these carvings! Bayon, Siem Reap

Bayon, Siem Reap

We ended our temple tour with Angkor Wat. There's a huge moat around it that is only filled by rainwater! And inside the temple complex are four ancient swimming(?) pools that were probably only filled by rainwater as well. The architecture was impressive.
Angkor Wat, Siem Reap

Angkor Wat, Siem Reap

Looking out over Angkor Wat, Siem Reap

In many of these temples, I was so impressed by how much detail was carved into every inch of the building, even the bottoms of doorframes where you're not likely to look. It's amazing that as hard as life would have been 1000 years ago to just stay alive, they put so much energy into what is basically superfluous decoration. I kept thinking about all the different jobs there must have been, like the scraping team for creating the moat floor or the cutting team for the giant stone blocks. Maybe someone was in charge of agitating or skimming the water in the large pool so it didn't get gross. It's interesting to think what job I might have held or wanted (or avoided!).
Ancient detailed carvings

Part of the "story" of the battles that shaped the country hundreds of years ago.
The second half of our day was a river long-boat ride to lake Tonle Sap. We boated through a floating village replete with a floating school. The children row themselves to school! It was a truly unique experience, and I felt the difference between my world and theirs pretty strongly. Many of the houses were made with very basic materials, and some even had tarps where walls might have been. There were two kids (maybe 5 years old?) in a row boat trying to catch the waves from the passing motorboats. There were even floating chicken coops, and we saw a pig in a floating cage! Women washed produce in the river and children played naked on the edges of the houses. The only restaurant in "town" was very simple, but it actually looked pretty inviting.

Here's your floating market!

Tonlé Sap, Siem Reap


The boat ride to the lake took about 30 mins, and from there we watched the sun set over the mangroves. Our driver took us back to Siem Reap where we had dinner with Tim's friend and her husband. I tried the traditional Cambodian dish, amok; fish stewed in a kind of coconut-base served over rice. It was amazing!
Floating village

Sunset on the river

One more day in Bangkok
We flew out of Siem Reap the next morning and had a full day in Bangkok before our midnight flight to the States. We mostly just putzed around, but in the evening we met up with a friend from Austin who now lives in Bangkok working with refugees, former battered or abused women, former sex workers, and homeless children. It was amazing to hear her stories of her work, and I'm encouraged that there are people out there who are fighting for those who really need it.

Our return included a 9-hour layover in Beijing, so we attempted a short (and somewhat ill-fated) excursion from the airport. We had packed for 85˚ Thailand weather, and were ill-prepared to handle Beijing's high of 37˚ the day of our visit. We were also unable to connect to wi-fi for several days before, so we couldn't really research anything to do in the city. Without a plan or means of developing one, we shivered our way onto the metro and took the train to the last stop, where we got out, saw a mall, and shivered our way there. We bought red bananas and a cheesy bun, walked around a bit, and then went right on back to the airport.
Our frozen mid-layover adventure

OVERALL it was truly a wonderful trip. We are grateful for the support we got from friends and family who helped make it possible. Thank you for an unforgettable adventure to kick off our married life!