Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Christmas in SE Asia

So I've put off writing about my vacation because I can only assume it's going to be a monster of a post and I wanted to be able to give it my full attention and time. I have an hour before I need to leave for class and Al is lying here reading a magazine so I found an opportunity, yay!

First, I'll start by saying that I haven't seen many places of the world yet so when I say Thailand and Laos are some of my favorite places in the world I don't have much to compare it to. So on that note, THAILAND AND LAOS ARE AWESOMMMMEEEEE!!!

Our flight was scheduled to leave December 23 at 1:30pm from Osaka but the vacation shenanigans started much sooner than that. Al, Christa and I all travelled together for the beginning bulk of our trip. The initial plan was for Christa to spend the night at our house and we would take the train early the next morning to Takamatsu and then catch the bus from there to Osaka airport. Well thanks to December 23 being the Emperor's birthday (thanks a lot Akihito) the trains didn't start running until well after we needed to be in Takamatsu. Great. So after we all finished our last classes (FINALLY after months and months of texts of "105 days!" "76 days!" "12 days!" "TOMORROW!!!") on the evening of the 22nd, Christa headed over to our apartment and we went all the way to Takamatsu that night to stay at our friend Katie's house and then get a cab to the bus station. Sooooo much trouble, but it had to be done.

So we head for Katie's house and get off the train and all the while Al is saying how he knows exactly where Katie's apartment is in relation to the train station. An hour and a half later, cold from walking and cursing Emperor Akihita's birthday under our breath we finally arrive at Katie's. In reality she lives 10 minutes from the station. Thanks, Al. Katie and her boyfriend are headed for the airport the following morning as well, but for Okinawa, so we're all in the vacation mood and happy and end up staying awake until 3 or so. We get 2 hours of sleep and get our cab to the bus station. Christa and I are cold and complaining but the bus finally arrives and we start the long 4 hour ride to the airport. I think we happened to get the worse bus in the Shikoku-Kansai fleet and it makes for a long, uncomfortable trip, but we arrive in one piece and despite everything we're all in very good spirits and excited to finally be checking in. Christa is on a different flight than Al and I so we say our goodbyes at the gates but we'll see each other again when we all arrive in Bangkok. Christa has a short, easy flight with a stopover in Seoul for only an hour or two...Al and I, on the other hand, have a 7 hour layover in Taipei, Taiwan which has us arriving in Bangkok well after midnight.

We decided to make the most of our layover and leave the airport for a few hours and see Taipei and check another country off the list. We got through customs and immigration easily. Taiwan is actually a part of China, it even says "Republic of China" in my passport. Let me say that getting through immigration into CHINA is much more of a breeze than trying to get back into my home country of good ol' America. American immigration = nightmare. We didn't have too much time and I know nothing about Taiwan except for the Taipei 101 (second tallest building in the world, was the first until 2004 or something) so we decided to tell the cabbie to just head there and drop us off. IT'S HUGE. I mean that building is gargantuan. But it's strange because it's not in some metropolis like Manhattan amongst a lot of other large buildings oh nooo. It's just this colossal building in the middle of nothing. It just looms over everything in this ugly, dusty city.


We get dropped off at head inside and what do we find? A huge line of Japanese tourists waiting for the tour to the top. Okay. Pass. We'll head on to the shopping plaza part of the building, thanks. So we just walked around for a while, ate (we wanted to eat some real Chinese food, but then I read the menu and discovered what real Chinese food consists of and opted for an Italian restaurant instead) and got a cab back to the airport. All the while listening to "Black and Yellow" by Wiz Khalifa on the Taiwanese radio station along with an English DJ. Weird.

After an already long day (and it's only early evening) we hop our plane to Bangkok. We arrive at 12:30 at night and once through immigration are bombarded with Thais with signs hounding us to stay at their hotel or take their cab service. It was like trying to get through a throng of paparazzi. Before leaving Sakaide I had a friend print off all our flight and hotel papers so I could have them with me. (we had 7 flights and 5 hotels to keep track of, I needed those papers) Well, one was forgotten and that one happened to be the hotel we were staying at when we arrived in Bangkok. For the life of me I couldn't remember the name of the hotel so we had to choose another hotel to stay at for the night. The one I couldn't remember was already paid for (oops) but at least Thailand is cheap and it was only $30 or so. We hop in the hotel's "shuttle van" which ended up being some kind of old Buick LeSabre with a hotel logo on it and start the terrifying 10 minute journey to the hotel. Thai drivers are worse than Japanese ones and that's saying something. There is absolutely no organization on the highways and people are all over the place and swerving in and out and...I really don't think I could ever describe that 10 minutes to anyone. Just pure horror while I held on for my life in the backseat. So, we finally arrive to the hotel (total crap) at 1:30 or so and get a few hours sleep before meeting Christa again at the Bangkok airport at 7:00am to catch another short flight to Udon Thani, a small town close to the Thailand/Laos border.

Once we arrived in Udon Thani we took a short bus ride north to the border town of Nong Khai where we were meeting up with our friends Jared and Rachel. (They had arrived a few days before us) We chilled along the Mekong River for a bit, marveling at the fact that we all finally made it and could relax. The main mode of short-distance transportation in places such as these is a tuk tuk. A tuk tuk is little more than a motorcycle with a covered mini trailer hooked to the back with two benches. Actually, it's not a little more than that, that's exactly what it is. A normal sized one can fit maybe 4 or 5 people but trust me, I saw probably 10 locals crammed into one more than a few times. So Jared and Al took one tuk tuk and Rachel, Christa and I took another and we headed for the border to cross into Laos. Laos was our first communist country, woo! Going into countries like Laos isn't like taking a nice trip across the border to Canada...or even Mexico. You are crossing into a country where they don't observe the same kind of ethics and morals as the Western world. If you are caught doing something against the law here, they could very well just kill you if they feel like it and no one would hear about it and they don't even have to let your home country know what happened to you. It's pretty scary but you just have to keep a smart head about you.

Once we did the border protocol we exchanged our Thai Baht into Lao Kip (we got nearly one million Kip from the exchange, millionaires!!!!!) and crossed the border into Vientiane, the capital of Laos. With our tourist visas and gangster roll of cash in hand we headed for the bus station. We still have another 4 hour bus ride until we eventually reach our destiation: Vang Vieng. Once we arrive at the "station" we realize that we've missed the legit tourist buses that head for Vang Vieng. So we negotiate a price for another bus heading that way and hop on. The trip takes 5 hours and a lot of it was on a dirt road winding through the mountains...albeit beautiful ones. We stopped in every little village along the way to pick up things that needed to be delivered to this remote town we were headed towards. Once those grueling and sometimes scary 5 hours were over we had to climb over 20 or so boxes of fish sauce that had been loaded in the aisle of the bus that travelled with us to VV. It was well past dark when we arrived so it wasn't until morning when I walked out of my room that I saw the striking scenery of Vang Vieng. I could have taken a million pictures and use a giant thesaurus to describe what I saw and nothing could convey the sheer beauty of my surroundings. The magnificant karst mountains for a backdrop with the Nam Song river flowing in front of me and the lush tropical landscape of this part of the world absolutely took my breath away.

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After staring out my door for like 50000 hours we ate some breakfast. I had a giant $1.50 plate coconut sticky rice with pineapple. A-M-A-Z-I-N-G. I've already found a recipe so I can make it myself. We wondered around the town (if you can even call it that) to see the local area before meeting up with everyone. We all stayed at the same guesthouse but Al, Christa and I shared a room on the river and Jared and Rachel  had a room in the main building...I think they paid a whopping $6 a night for their room. (Did I mention Laos is dirt cheap?) I soon discover that foreigners, mostly American, Australian and British, outnumbered the locals by about 10 to 1. I knew before coming here that Vang Vieng was overrun with 20 somethings all here for one reason: to party on the river. I read that tubing down this river is somewhat of a rite of passage before backpacking throughout SE Asia...and here we are.

We met up with everyone, including one of Rachel's friends who met us here, Kiri, and started Day #1 of tubing. We walked the few short steps from the guesthouse to the tubing office, or rather a dirty garage filled with tractor innertubes, paid our 60,000 Kip for the tube rental and piled into the tuk tuk. The local man took us about a kilometer or two through town and up the river to the start point.

We carried our tubes another 400 meters or so to "Bar One" which is the first stop on the river. We immediately put down the tubes and got some buckets to share. (bucket =  about the size of a normal sand-castle making bucket but filled to the brim with whatever alcoholic concoction you come up with all for the low price of about 50,000 Kip) Christa, Rachel, Kiri and I head straight for the sunshine to soak up some Vitamin D and hopefully get some color while Al and Jared hang out in the shade with a little puppy that's roaming around. We finish the buckets, grab our tubes and head down to the water. We all very ungracefully flop in our tubes into the not-very-warm water and start the slow trek down the river. There are many, many ramshackle bars all down the shore, you just choose when and where to stop. The owners of the bars throw out ropes when they see passerbys and if you feel like taking a break they'll pull you in. We took advantage of one of the ropes and stopped at Bar #4 so we (not me) could have a go at the rope swing. I was too much of a weiner, I have no upper body strength and I don't think I could've held myself on so I passed. After a few more buckets and quite a few rounds on the swing we got back into the tubes and floated down the river some more. We stopped once or twice more then headed back into town before it got dark. After some dinner, questionable green drinks and a very long night we did it all again the next day. We finished the tubing route and at the last bar (or so they say it was the last one) we spray painted hearts on our skin and the boys took a shot of some local liquor that had bumble bees fermenting in it. You know like the worm in tequila? But bumble bees. Pass.

Our last day we woke up and had some breakfast, bought a few souvenirs (a pair of shorts, three shirts, swimming trunks and 3 pairs of sunglasses all for the low price of $12) and chilled until our bus arrived to take Al, Christa and I back to Vientiane. While waiting, Al bought a street vendor sandwich that would eventually give him some vicious food poisoning. We hopped the bus (a real one this time, not a fish sauce one) and started back for the border. Once there and back through customs and immigration (all with a very nice sign saying if you bring any drugs across with you, you will be "put to death") we cross back into Thailand and back to the Udon Thani airport. We say our goodbyes to Christa and Al and I board our $40 AirAsia flight for the beach segment of our vacation.

We arrive in Phuket at midnight and take a shuttle to our hotel for just the one night. We wake up the next morning and take the hotel shuttle to the ferry port where we took a 2 hour ferry to Phi Phi Don, the island that will be our home for the next 8 days. We're now in the southern part of Thailand and the weather is hot. The ferry docks and we're starved so we find a restaurant and I had the most delish soup I've ever had...Tom Kha Gai. It's a sort of chicken coconut soup. Heaven. Once fed we walked down the main road...but it's not really a road because there are no cars on the island...and look for our hotel, Bay View Resort. It's the last resort on the first of two main beaches on this side of the island. We check in and are taken up to our bungalow which is so cute and bungalowy and I love it. Al's food poisoning has now severely set in and he can't even leave the room. I walk back into town and find a pharmacy and since in Thailand you can get any kind of meds over the counter, I just tell the lady what's wrong with him and she gives me some kind of strong antibiotic and a Rx level pain killer. I take him the meds and I go down and start my vacation by getting a $12 massage on the beach. *Sigh*

The next few days are spent in utter relaxation despite our weather being horrid. It was overcast nearly every day and rained for about an hour each of those. We found a bookshop and bought a bunch of books and spent a lot of the rainy times out on our porch. What's kind of sad is that also during those rainy times we discovered that Thailand has English TV channels. OMG. We don't get to watch TV in Japan so actually sitting there flipping through channels and being able to watch MTV and the news IN ENGLISH was almost as Heavenly as sitting out on my porch watching the ocean. Like I said, sad, I know. New Year's Eve rolled around and we spent it eating the biggest buffet dinner ever at our hotel then headed down the path into town to find someplace to hang out for a while. We got a few buckets (WAY more expensive than in Laos) and settled in to enjoy each other's company and wait on midnight. Al ended up meeting some guys from France and I got bored listening to their French chatter that I can only understand maybe 50% of so a little after midnight I headed back to the bungalow and Al stayed out with them.

Our last few days we finally got beautiful weather. Phi Phi is made of two islands: Phi Phi Don (inhabited) and Phi Phi Le (uninhabited). Phi Phi Le is renowned for being one of the most beautiful places on the planet so I wasn't going over there on a cloudy day. We waited until the weather cleared and charterd a longtail boat (one of those iconic Asian boats you see in all the pictures) to the island for 6 hours. Our nice Thai man named Kip took us all around the island to different snorkeling spots and finally stopped at the famed Maya Bay where they filmed the movie "The Beach" with Leonardo DiCaprio. The scenery around the island and the view from the beach was astonishing. The turquoise water with towering sea cliffs nearly completely surrounding the lagoon was something that, just like in Vang Vieng, I'll never be able to capture with a camera to fully register how beautiful it was in person.

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While relaxing on Maya Beach we thought it was strange that there were a lot of bodyguard sized men and cops running around the place. It was kind of like "it's Thailand, who knows" while rolling our eyes. It turns out that the Thai royal family was there! Random. But they left soon after and took all the badged men with them. As we were walking back towards our boat to head back for Phi Phi Don we noticed a large, long overhang in one of the cliffs on the beach. Congregated under this overhang in the shade were at least 50 Japanese people. We laaaaauaghed and laaaaaughed. Those Japanese. Just as weird on vacation as they are in their home country. So with the funny image in our minds we scrambled back into the longtail boat with Kip and he took us for a few more stops then back to the hotel by sunset.

The last day or so is kind of a blur, I think it was all the relaxing. We did end up running into a Japanese family at the pool. I hear "Samui, des ne?" enough in Japan so we hightailed out of there quickly. We bought some more souvenirs and headed back down the dock to board the ferry back to Phuket. Sad face. Once back in Phuket we had all day to kill before we boarded our plane back to Bangkok so we found a giant mall to roam around in. Also in that mall was a SIZZLER. Oh yeah, I'm talking the tacky, salad buffet, family style restaurant in all it's glory. We don't get this kind of food in Japan! Rejoice! It was absolutely delicious. REAL American style food for once.

After we stuffed ourselves stupid with Sizzler food we still had a ton of time to kill so we decided to see a movie. It turns out the Phuket mall has one of those luxury cinemas so we splurged and saw "The Tourist" in absolute bliss. They're quite extravagant, luxury cinemas. We buy our $18 tickets and wait in the fancy lounge where there's free food and cake and drinks. They call everyone in when it's time to start and you have a Lay-Z-Boy, a blanket and pillow and your popcorn and pop of choice is there waiting for you on a stand beside said Lay-Z-Boy. It was well worth my $18.


We finish the movie, get to the airport and hop our plane back to Bangkok. We arrive at 11pm or so and wait on our shuttle to hotel #4 of 5. It was pretty nice for a Bangkok airport hotel. Our flight out of Thailand the next day didn't leave until evening and by this time we were running very short on funds so, unfortunately, we didn't have the money to take a quick trip into Bangkok to see the sites for a few hours. We just had some lunch, went to the airport and checked in and chilled in the airport for 3 or 4 hours, ha! Booooring. We boarded our flight and started north. Just like our trip down we had a layover in Taipei but on the way home it was an overnight layover. So we land and check into our last hotel of the trip, a veeeeery nice Novotel. It has been the nicest hotel I've ever stayed in. Loved it. We board our LAST flight the following morning bound for Osaka.

Once in Osaka we had to wait on our bus time, which was about 2 hours after we landed. But WAIT! Al forgot to set his watch to local Japan time so we missed that bus and have to wait another 2 hours for the next one! Let's just say I was less than amused.

So 7 flights, 5 hotels, 2 tubes, 6 buses, multiple tuk tuks and 6 passport stamps later I'm sitting back in cold Japan wishing I was still on this amazing vacation with good food, good drinks and great friends. (cheesy ending)

FINISH!