Wednesday, May 11, 2016

My "Mistake Fare" Adventure - It's A Wrap

So, another adventure is in its closing hours as today I made my way via two light rail lines back to the airport -- then took a shuttle to a nearby hotel where I'm spending most of the night -- getting back to the airport for a 6:50am flight to begin the journey back to "America."

As I have written about frequently before, traveling always humbles me -- as I learn so much regardless of where I go. And it invigorates me as I love the challenges of navigating my way physically and linguistically.  It's one way I overcome my American-bred fears to reassure myself that I'm not yet the depressed MacBeth:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

So, I treated myself to a nice hotel (yes, only $31.50 USD for the night), took a nice swim, treated myself to a real Thai massage (about $8.50 USD) -- and no, not one of the fake "happy ending" ones! -- and enjoyed another wonderful plate of Pad Thai. 

Life is good! Especially because I already picked up another "mistake" fare that has given me the bookends to my next SE Asia adventure in September!  

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Bangkok in Three Days

So, if you keep in mind that Bangkok has a metro population about the size of Los Angeles -- it's easier to understand that in 3 days I barely scratched the surface of this massive city -- but in the little that I did, I got to experience everything from the working class neighborhood along the waterfront (where massive wholesale flower and vegetable markets operate 24 hours a day), to the upscale business district with high end shopping centers -- and the crowded and congested streets everywhere.  Like so many places, one's impressions and experiences here may be totally influenced by what you had time to see and where you ended up staying in the city.  Again, think Los Angeles -- might your experience be quite different if you stayed on the beach in Santa Monica or in the desert of Riverside.

One enduring memory will be the sweltering heat here in Bangkok -- hot and muggy that left me dripping through my shirt and clutching a water bottle as I moved about.  And like every trip, some of the best moments aren't the sights or sounds of the city -- but the interesting conversations I have along the way.  The first two nights I stayed at an inexpensive hostel on the waterfront just above the busy flower market which was walking distance to heavily toured temples (Wha Pho, home to "The Reclining Buddha") and the Grand Palace.  I visited all -- and added in a "long-tail" boat ride through some of the many canals of Bangkok.

And during one of my resting stops at the Grand Palace, a couple joined me at my table -- an 60-something white guy from New Jersey with his 45-something Thai girlfriend whom he had just met for the first time the prior day after getting to know her via the internet.  Conversation flowed easily as we all sought to just relax out of the sun with some ice cream and water -- as I learned all about the mechanics and motivations for this long-distance hook-up.  I've had similar conversations during my prior travels to China with American guys establishing these relationships, but this was the first time to also to delve into the female side of the equation -- albeit challenged by language.

Similarly, on my second night in this waterfront hostel, I decided to take a highly rated food tour and ended up having quite a fun evening visiting with fellow travelers -- including 6 from the Seattle area -- and being transported around to various food venues by tuk-tuk. The evening also included visiting a temple area at night:

On the third day I moved to an inexpensive hotel in the heart of an upscale business area -- and enjoyed another long, leisurely walk thoughout this newer, busy area.  But it was easy to tell when my walk was transitioning to the seedier side of Bangkok when every corner brought some guy approaching me with the phrase "hey boss, what you looking for?"  I've learned long ago in my travels to not even engage this banter.

So, today I am moving to a hotel very near the airport -- with 24 hour shuttle service -- because I'll need to be at the airport early for my 6:50am departure -- first to Tokyo (6 hours) and then to Los Angeles (10 hours).

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Moving On - Next Stop: Bangkok

So as planned, after four days on Phuket Island -- it came time to move and this morning I was among lots of others at the Phuket Airport. It's a busy place -- seemed to be almost exclusively Thai/Chinese vacationers. I hadn't booked the cheapest flight because I wanted to control my departure time and arrival airport, so I was on a $98 Bangkok Air flight which was also the same flight for Air Emirates, Ethihad, Qatar, airBerlin, Aeroflot, Eva Air, Garuda Indonesia, British Airways and China Airlines. It was an Airbus 320 with more leg room than I've seen on any aircraft in recent years -- and it was packed.

The flight was uneventful except that I was impressed that they served a full meal during the hour long flight. Upon arrival I followed signs to Bangkok's light rail and followed Google transit directions to a station close to the downtown -- and exited looking for a connecting bus. A friendly tailor shop owner offered me directions to the bus but then opined that for less than 100 bhat ($2.85 USD) I could be in an air conditioned that's what I did. The hostel was directly adjacent to a massive, indoor flower market and while my initial room was coffin sized, they were able to upgrade me to a rather nice place.

After some quick study of the Lonely Planet guide -- I headed out for a walk with plans to make it to the Chinatown area for some street food -- and with the help of reviews, made my way to an excellent steamed snapper dinner:

And with my daughter Staci's advice ringing in my ears -- "take a tuk tuk ride!" -- I ended the evening with a quick and fun ride back to my hostel in a tuk tuk.

All in all, a great start to my short visit to Bangkok.

Friday, May 6, 2016

The Artwork of Nature - The Sand Bubbler Crab

More great food, more leisurely strolls, and interesting conversations with strangers (including a Swede who has lived here for 19 years and was more than happy to feed my interest in his drone toy when I happened upon him during a beach walk):

But I was also fascinated by the crab-made sand artwork that I discovered along the beach.  Many multiple holes that looked like this:

I took photos -- and committed myself to learning more about the little creatures who create such wonderful sand art: the Sand Bubbler Crab. Turns out that each of these perfectly formed spheres of sand are part of the crab's way of finding sustainance in the sand while knowing where he's/she's already eaten.  It's a fascinating process and can be seen in a video here.

For my part, I continued to enjoy more amazing vistas and food:

What's Not To Like? Well, Plenty!

So, what can I say about a hotel that costs $25 a night and has this in the lobby for unlimited access:
and when I turned in a pile of dirty laundry, I got this plastic wrapped package of folded laundry came back the same day for a total cost of about $4.50USD:
Well, it turns out that Phuket Island can be loved and despised depending on where you have visited and your personal expectations and experience.  I've been incredibly lucky (ahem! "brilliant!") for the time of year (just off peak), the weather (not rainy yet), the beach I picked (just a little reading on, and the hotel I picked (it takes reading and work to pick through the reviews).  But not far away -- is THE "Phuket" beach that some use to define the Island - Patong Beach: "The famously raucous nightlife scene features beer bars, go-go bars, nightclubs, massage parlors and transgender cabarets that overflow into the street..." 
I decided to pay a taxi driver to take me on an Island tour -- stopping at each of the west coast beaches, including Patong -- and at each I got out and walked around.  Patong (about an hour from where I'm staying) was truly awful -- at least at mid-day when I was there.  An absolute mess of buildings and stalls with nonstop efforts to sell to everyone walking by -- everything from time-shares, to massages, to trinkets, to food of every sort.  All the usual establishments were there from Starbucks to KFC, as well as thousands of other eating and drinking places.  I understand from my reading that this is the happening place for the Thailand sex trade and a hopping night club scene after 10pm --  but during the day it appeared to be just a haven of sadness -- capitalism out of control.  I still have difficulty understanding who wants to vacation to a place like this. You can look around for youself on Google Street view -- this link will get you started.
Thankfully, most of the other beaches were beautiful and inviting -- and the scenery view points direct from travel brochures.  I'll spare you all the photos the beauty, but these few will give you an idea:

So, as in much of my travel -- there is plenty to like -- and plenty not to like.  Sort of depends on one's choices.  After a day of exploring the island -- I was super happy with mine but I can certainly understand why people might have completely different views of Phuket Island.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

May 4 - A Day Of "Brilliant" Choices

Ah! Yes!  Lucky choices have a way of seeming brilliant in hindsight.  I've blogged about the phenomenon before here. Well, luck or brilliance -- it was a good day.  I took a $12 USD taxi ride to the Penang International Airport and boarded my flight to Phuket, Thailand on an airline I just heard of when I booked the $88USD ticket: Firefly. Turns out they are a busy regional budget carrier that is a wholly owned subsidiary of Malaysian Airlines.  The nearly empty flight was comfortable:
and arrival in Phuket was quite beautiful -- seeing all the islands and beaches upon approach.

Immigration/Customs were quick and easy and I quickly found an ATM.  Only fellow travelers will understand the immediate confusion that sets in when changing over to a new currency.  Even as the ATM prompted for how much I wanted -- I had no idea -- I hadn't done my homework.  Choices all seemed outrageously high until I used my iPhone coverter app that told me that 10,000 Thai Baht (THB) is currently worth $285 USD.  That seemed to be about right for what I might need for now -- but wait!  How much of it am I going to have to give the hotel upon arrival -- let me check that: 3,600 THB -- oh, ok.  10K THB still seems like a good start!  I should have been better prepared.

New cash in hand (and stopping long enough to convert my remaining 129 Malaysian Ringits to another 1,141 THB) I then phoned the hotel and within a few minutes I was picked up and delivered to a newish hotel seemingly in the middle of nowhere -- about 5 minutes from the airport.  This time I had done my homework -- and knew this place was just a few minutes walk to a beautiful beach, was rated 8.5 on with great reviews and $25USD a night.  The room did not disappoint -- and off to the beach I went.  A 5 minute walk brought me here - nearly empty and beautiful:

I meandered along until I saw an interesting beach-side restaurant -- and decided to sit a spell and enjoy my first real Thai food in Thailand.  I took one of these chairs: 
Ordered vegetable Pad Thai, a beer and a bottled water -- total cost 210 THB ($6 USD) and the waiter logged me into their wifi while the food was prepared -- and my first search was of this restaurant on trip advisor.  Brilliant indeed:

And this deliciousness was served:

A brilliant start to my visit to Phuket! And it is so nice to have my health and appetite back!

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

May 1-3 - Recovering on Penang Island

 Much was left to see and do in KL -- and I know I'll be back because it has become one of main hubs for airline travel in SE Asia.  This morning it was time to move on up the coast.  Just for perspective, my entire journey from KL to Bangkok (depicted here) is the rough equivalent of traveling between Portland, Oregon and San Diego, California.  Choices abound for places to stop and how to travel -- and in my way of traveling, it all falls to me.  Airline ticketing is the easiest -- especially when using -- and there is plenty of online guidance for train travel as well -- especially here: -- but all of it takes study and risk.  So it is particularly satisfying when I find myself on the right train at the right time with the right kind of ticket (not everyone accepts electronic copies yet).  And that was the success of the morning as I caught a train out of KL enroute to Butterworth, Malaysia -- a place I'd not even heard of just a few months ago but that is now a crucial change point to grab a ferry to Penang Island and the historic, world heritage site/town of Georgetown.

The trip was comfortable as I watched the lush landscape speed by -- and it got interesting about half way through the trip when a man got on the train and took his assigned seat opposite me, and initiated conversation with me.  Turned out he was from India, and a practicing Hindu who works as a lawyer - headed to Georgetown for a family celebration.  Conversation flowed easily for the remainder of the trip including onto the ferry for the 15 minute crossing to Georgetown. 

 When he bid farewell, he gave me his business card and suggested we have lunch next time I pass through KL.

As far as my time in Georgetown -- I mustered strength to do a little walking each day -- and took an hour long tour on one of the many pedal-powered trishaws:

And by my last day (May 3), my appetite returned and I enjoyed some great noodles.  But in fairness, I'll need to return someday to Georgetown because I didn't explore it as much as I would have liked.  For now it will be remembered as the city in which I recovered from the flu!