Posted by: aitzko | December 31, 2009

I’m home!

Well, I finally made it back.  It feels kind of surreal!

To fill in, Petrie arrived and we proceeded to have an absolutely awesome time.  We hit the beach first thing after checking into our beautiful hotel, with a private entrance to the pool (literally, hop off the balcony and you’re in the pool).  We enjoyed the sun and the sea, and made the day fantastic by going PARASAILING!  This was just about the coolest thing ever.  We decided to do it, and I was up first.  I wasn’t nervous until they had me hooked up and were like, “Okay, now you have to run when we tell you to run.”  I turned to Petrie and told her that if I plummeted to my death she should make sure they used a good picture of me on the news.  But, it turned out there was no need – it was awesome!!!  The boat starts going, and you run, and the wind catches you, and before you know it you’ve been swept up into the air and you’re staring down at the gorgeous beach and all the teensy little people along it!  It was so exciting that I actually forgot to breathe until I was up in the air and remembered, and just took these big gasping breaths – it was just so beautiful!  It was definitely a rush.  Halfway through my ride he slowed down so that I floated downwards and touched the water, then zoomed away so I floated back up again.  It was SO WORTH it, and I’m so glad that we both did it!  Petrie managed to even wave at people, but since they had told us to hang on tight when we went up, I was a little bit scared to let go, so no waving for me.  But it was absolutely fantastic!!

We capped off the day with a massage on the beach, which sounds really cool, but there was actually just a lot of sand that kept getting rubbed into my sunburn, which I had by this time acquired.  We decided to walk back to the hotel, and of course went the wrong way, but that was okay because we had so much to talk about, and it ended up being a little detour to show Petrie a bit of Thailand away from the  main tourist strip.  We made it back to our hotel, and after a dip in the gorgeous pool, got ourselves cleaned up and headed out to dinner.  We chose a really beautiful restaurant and had some delicious Thai food, which I will actually miss quite a bit.  We also got fancy-pants drinks, and Petrie’s came in a coconut!  When we could eat no more, we rolled home to our hotel.

The fun thing was, there was live music going on in our hotel, and even though we were exhausted from our long day on the beach (and the fact that Petrie had woken up around 4 that morning to get to Phuket), we decided to stop and listen for a while.  They were this cute Filipino duo, and they had this hilarious friendly banter with each other and the (small) audience.  When we walked over to sit down, they decided that we were movie stars from America, for whatever reason, and called us Brooke Shields (me) and a younger and more beautiful SJP (Christine) which, what??  But okay.  Anyway, they were actually pretty good, and on their break, they came by to say hello!  Unfortunately we didn’t catch the woman’s name, but the male half of the duo was named Joemar.  As in, one of his parents wanted to name him Joe, and the other wanted to name him March, after the month in which he was born, so they compromised and named him Joemar.  I am so not kidding about this.  They chatted with us for quite a while, and when they heard that Petrie was a singer, insisted that she come up and sing with them!  Of course, this inevitably led to me joining them too, and I think that they were astonished that we could actually sing, and weren’t just bluffing.  So, we ended up singing at a hotel in Thailand.  It was actually really fun, but we were exhausted, and it was only when I had started yawning copiously that they allowed us to leave to go to bed.  All in all, a great day!

We spent day #2 on the beach, and it went by way too fast.  After our beach day, we stopped in for a quick massage on the way home – there are so many places to choose from, how did we make our decision?  Well, one of the ladies in front of this one was holding a pom-pom, which we figured was good enough for us. 🙂  This one was much better than the previous day’s, so we were sad when we had to book it back to the hotel to get ready to make our plane.  We made it to Bangkok, and stayed in the nicest Best Western I’ve ever seen, but for too short- we had to get up at 3 for our flight!  And one six-hour plane ride later, we were in Tokyo, and saying goodbye.

So now I’m home, and I can’t believe it’s over!!  I have to admit, it is not so much fun to come home to really cold weather and it getting dark at 4:30pm, but mostly I was just so excited to be back, it didn’t matter.  Dave came to get me at the airport, and I was practically jumping up and down with excitement on the shuttle from the terminal. 🙂

When I finally get my pictures loaded up and everything, I’ll post a link.

Thanks to everyone who’s followed along with my adventure and posted wonderful comments – it’s been really fun!

For now, Happy New Year, everyone!!!

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Posted by: aitzko | December 26, 2009

I finally relax on the beach. Phuket!

Greetings from Phuket!  And no, it’s not pronounced the way you think, dirty kids.

I got here in the late afternoon/early evening yesterday, so once I got settled in my AWESOME hotel, I hopped across the street to the beach and watched the sunset.  Right as I got down there a guy was just getting ready to go parasailing, so he went gliding up in the air as the sun was going down.  Really cool.

A word about my hotel:  IT’S AWESOME.  Long story short, I should have booked this portion of my trip way earlier – it’s a really popular time of year to be here, and prices tend to be jacked up.  All the budget options I had originally been considering weren’t open, so I went up to the next tier, and I am SO glad I did – I’m staying at a lovely little resort for less than you’d pay to stay at the Best Western back home.  And there are things like a real shower, with a tub!  Not just a faucet on the wall!  Thankfully, it’s a happy mistake.  I nearly jumped for joy when I saw my room.

So, about Phuket.  It’s been great so far.  I’m staying at Karon Beach, which is a little bit more quiet, and has a lot more Scandinavian tourists, so I’m hearing lots of languages I’m not used to.  The stretch of beach directly in front of my hotel is very pretty.  I spent ALL DAY on the beach today, which is something I’ve been looking forward to for quite a while.  Thanks to Alex being wonderful, I still have plenty on my (her) ipod that I haven’t yet listened to, so THANK YOU, ALEX!!!

One interesting thing about the beach – I’m not sure if it’s just because I’ve never really been on a beach with a lot of Europeans, but SO MANY women go topless.  I’m actually really surprised, because I’ve seen it repeated in multiple places that going topless on Thai beaches is generally not a great idea.  The Thai culture is very modest – public displays of affection are frowned upon, and nudity is a huge no-no:  most Thais swim fully clothed.  So pretty much everything, from the guidebook to the hotel’s welcome card, indicates that you should keep your top on.  Apparently no one really takes heed of this because, well, most women (and men) wore suits that left little to the imagination.  And seriously, I don’t think I’ve seen people letting it all hang out this much since Atlantic City – have a huge belly?  No worries, because everyone else is strutting around with their gut front and center.  On one level, you think, great, if that’s your body, go ahead and own it, but on another level, you just think, please, please, just cover up and put it away!

So apart from the interesting states of undress of the other tourists, I really enjoyed my relaxing day at the beach.  The hawkers here are MUCH less aggressive than the Balinese hawkers on Kuta beach – if you shake your head, they’ll simply smile and move on.  (N.B.:  One apparent upside of going topless is that the hawkers will delicately step around you and avoid you entirely, saving you the trouble of dealing with them.)  So I was relatively undisturbed as I enjoyed the sun and sand and audio recording of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (which is great, btw).  I learned my lesson in Kuta, so I slathered on the SPF 45 multiple times throughout the day, and limited the amount of time I sat in the direct sun.  Fortunately, I managed to avoid getting burned with this strategy, but I am only marginally less white than I was yesterday.  At this rate I will be the only person in Phuket without a tan, but I’d much rather be that than burned to a crisp, so I’ll take it.

This evening I went into Patong, the busting nightlife center of Phuket.  I wanted to check out an English-language bookstore, and get a taste of one of the restaurants, because apart from the various hotel restaurants in Karon beach, there’s not much else in terms of dinner options.  Taxis here are MUCH more expensive than anywhere else in Thailand, but it’s sort of a fact of life, so there’s not much to be done about it.  If you’re planning to do lots of traveling around Phuket it’s worth it to hire a car for the day, but for me, a quick trip was just fine.

Patong is something else.  It’s flashing lights and tourists milling around and bars with music blaring and fancy hotels tucked into the mix.  It is not unusual to go “Is that a man or a woman?” on multiple occasions during your stroll through downtown Patong.  I’m glad I checked it out – it was worth it, but I am super glad I’m not staying there – I need a vacation from the craziness!  The restaurant where I ate was actually fantastic, and had a nice view of all the people going by, while being set back a bit from the action.  I have to say, my favorite thing was the trucks going by, blaring advertisements over loudspeakers for the Muay Thai matches.  Muay Thai is Thai boxing, and it’s hugely popular.  These trucks not only had a guy yelling through the loudspeaker about the details of the night’s match, but some of the fighters themselves stood atop rather rickety-looking stages built in the truck beds, showing off their muscles and slapping their boxing gloves together.  It. Was. Hilarious.

To get back, I took one of the bright red taxis that can be found alll over Phuket – it’s basically a teensy pickup truck, but the truck bed has been converted into a covered seating area.  An interesting way to get around.  As we zoomed back toward my hotel, I got to thinking.  Up until now, I hadn’t really passed judgement on Thailand as part of my trip.  It sort of feels like it’s flown by.  As it turns out, Thailand can be dirty, and smelly, and full of people who just want to make a buck off you and crazy drivers,  but I kind of love it.  Or maybe I just love that I’ve had the opportunity to explore it.  I was zipping home in this converted taxi-truck, and being thankful for this trip, and thinking about all the various places I’ve been and the crazy means I’ve taken to get there.  Thailand has crazy, twisty, mountainous roads, and people zipping by on their motorbikes, and cars passing one another on two-lane highways, and more often than not the vehicle you’re in doesn’t have seatbelts, and I’ve taken to holding the charm I got for safe travel (at the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo) tightly in my hand whenever I need to go anywhere, but honestly, why not zoom down that hilly road at night, feeling the wind in your face and blowing back your hair, because how else are you going to know you’re alive?

Disclaimer:  Mom, I always use my seatbelt, and when one is not readily available, I always hold tightly to the nearest stable object.  Don’t worry. 🙂  And I do not encourage my drivers to zoom down hilly roads at night.  Promise.

Tomorrow, another day of blissful beachiness, and then the next day, PETRIE IS COMING!!!  This will be sweet, and I have a sneaking suspicion that the two of us will be going parasailing…

😀

Posted by: aitzko | December 24, 2009

A Thailand Christmas Tradition

Just a quick update:  I went walking around Chiang Mai tonight and found the night bazaar.  It seems that it’s a Thai Christmas tradition to take your high school’s band out to the market to play Christmas carols – I saw two separate bands doing it!  Most Thais are Buddhist, so I can only assume that they’re doing it for the tourists, but it brought a big smile to my face this evening.  Chistmas carols always get me, despite the fact that I’m Jewish.  I took a couple videos of the horribly off-key tunes. 🙂

Merry Christmas!

Posted by: aitzko | December 24, 2009

I learn to cook and bathe some elephants. Seriously!

Sorry it’s been a while since I last posted- there hasn’t been too much going on!

I got into Chiang Mai on the afternoon of the 21st, and pretty much relaxed.  Chiang Mai has got a LOT of tourists and expats – I think I’ve seen almost as many Westerners here as Thais.  My guesthouse is great – the owner has two little schnauzers who are anxious to come say hi and get some scratches behind the ear.

On Tuesday morning Iwas picked up from my hotel for a cooking class!  You can actually see pictures here:  http://www.asiascenic.com/images/webphoto/2009/Dec/22Dec/22.htm  (I’m the chubby one in the bright pink – all this Thai food is not doing me much good.)  I was with a really fun group, a couple from the States, a couple from Canada, a couple from the Netherlands, and a guy from Taiwan.  We had a blast, and I learned how to make all sorts of delicious stuff.  My favorite was the chicken with cashew nuts.  It was great that we all got along so well – it really made the class a lot of fun!  Our instructor was lovely, and she was so funny – she kept saying “It’s okay,” when we showed her something and asked if it looked the way it was supposed to look – and it quickly became the refrain of the class.  As in, it’s not great but… it’s okay!

The next day (yesterday) I got picked up bright and early again for a trip to the Elephant Nature Park, about an hour north of Chiang Mai.  This place is pretty incredible.  It’s run by a Thai woman who goes by Lek, which means “small” in Thai.  She basically rescues elephants and brings them to her reserve, which is a gorgeous area in the mountains – it’s seriously breathtaking.

The elephant has a complex place in Thai society.  While it’s often seen as a sacred and revered animal, the reality of how actual elephants are treated is vastly different.  There are wild and domestic elephants in Thailand – special laws protect wild elephants, but domestic elephants are considered livestock, and are not protected by any legislation.  Elephants were instrumental in building this country – they were used most often in logging operations, which stopped in the 90s.  While this was a good thing for the elephants’ natural habitat and preserving the environment, it wasn’t a good thing for domestic elephants, because now thousands were out of work.  As a result, mahouts (elephant trainers) often take their elephants to the street to beg.  They sell food to tourists, who then feed the elephants.  The mahouts can make more in one night than an average Thai makes in a month, but this is horrible for the elephants – they wander the streets, with cars zipping by.  The headlights at night are really hard on sensitive elephant eyes, and their sensitive feet can detect minute vibrations in the ground, so being in a rumbling city is sensory overload.

The elephants who escape street begging are often used in villages to do the heavy lifting in building projects and farming.  Unfortunately, many Thais believe that an ancient training ritual is necessary to domesticate the animals and make them fit for work.  Young elephants around 4 years old, are separated from their mothers for the first time and forced into small cages for days at a time.  They’re then basically beaten in an effort to “teach” them appropriate behavior.  The young elephants are confused and in pain, and get no treatment for their considerable injuries.  This is a deeply ingrained ritual in Thailand, and it’s not an easy task to convince people that rather than being an effective training plan, it’s actually tremendously cruel and totally unnecessary.

Anyway, this is all to give some background on the current situation for elephants in Thailand.  Lek has managed to rescue about 35 elephants at this point, with the help of devoted staff and volunteers, and money from tourists like us, who come for the day to see and learn about the elephants.  It was such a fantastic day.  While it’s heartbreaking to hear what many of the elephants have gone through, it’s awesome to see them all getting to enjoy their lives, tended to by caring mahouts.  We got to get right up there and feed the elephants –  they eat a tremendous amount of food, and all you have to do is hold out a cucumber or a bunch of bananas, and they’ll stick their trunks right out and grab it from you – it’s actually pretty funny, too often, you can’t feed them fast enough, and they’ll stick their trunks in the baskets, rooting around for extra food.  We also got to give the elephants a bath – we put on boots and got right into the river with them!  You basically throw buckets of water at them, while they kind of stand there and look blissful.  It was great!  It was so cool to be right up close.

As I said, some of these elephants have been through a lot.  There was one particular pair that had become fast friends, and really stood out for me.  One elephant was mostly blind after being forced to beg on the streets – the headlights from cars at night had seriously damaged her vision.  After arriving at the park, she had befriended another elephant who has a broken hip – it looks seriously painful, but the vets at the park have done everything they can to make sure she’s in as little pain as possible, and since she’s walking on it, it’s a good sign.  After she had hurt herself and could no longer work, this elephant was sold to a breeding facility.  A male elephant climbed up on her already injured hip, and broke it.  Anyway, these two elephants are older – both in their fifties -and they look out for each other.  It’s really rather sweet.

There are also two baby elephants at the park, which are ADORABLE.  We got to get fairly close to their group (but not too close, since elephants are fiercely protective of their babies) because Lek was nearby – the effect that she has on the elephants is palpable.  They’re all much more relaxed when they’re around her.  The babies came by, and Lek let them put their trunks all over her face – it was kind of funny!

All in all, a fantastic day.  We were there all day, until 5 pm.  Another nice thing was that I was with a fantastic group of people!  It was me, a Scottish couple (Ros and Trevor), and a big English family.  The daughter lives here in Chiang Mai, so the whole family was coming to visit for the holidays!  They were a seriously wonderful group of people, and when I wasn’t marvelling at the elephants I was chatting with my tour mates.  Nikki is the woman who lives here in Chiang Mai, and her mother is Sue.  Sue is turning 71 this week, but nothing slowed her down!  She was obviously very well traveled, and we had a great chat in the car.  They kind of adopted me for the day, which was so lovely.  Nikki’s sister Sarah and her husband Nick were also there with their three children, George, Harry, and Rachel.  I had a blast, and we all exchanged email addresses to send each other the pictures from the day.  As it turns out, Ros and Trevor are actually staying in my hotel, so we got dinner together!  They left today for Phuket, so it turns out I might see them there! 🙂

Today is my last day in Chiang Mai, and I finally did a little bit of sightseeing around the city.  It’s great – I saw a whole bunch of temples, which are constructed in the Lanna style of architecture, which I quite like.  I don’tknow what it is though, but there are so so many expats here, and I can’t quite figure out the appeal.   Don’t get me wrong, I really like Chiang Mai, but from the way many people described it, I was expecting to be floored!  Maybe at this point I’m just totally touristed-out.  Honestly, I’m really ready to go to the beach for a few days and just zone out.  I’ve had enough sightseeing!  I want some beach. 🙂

Flying down to Phuket tomorrow, so let the beach time begin!

After I managed to fit everything into my suitcase (barely) yesterday evening, I went out for a traditional Thai massage.  This was QUITE an experience.  I went to one of the places recommended in my Lonely Planet (which I saw at least 20 more of today).  Let me just say that Thai massage is not what we Westerners are used to.  It was cool, and I’m really glad I had the experience, but unless you are okay with a Thai woman using all (and I mean ALL) of her body weight to drive her elbow into your back, then maybe it isn’t for you.  Parts of it felt relaxing, and other parts were downright painful – I was sore today!  Nevertheless, a cool experience.  The lady actually “tsk tsk”ed when she felt the knots in my back, and worked even harder to get them out.  I’m not sure that was a good thing.

Anyway, it was still pretty cool.  When I was finished I went back to my hotel and changed for the evening, then headed out again to the Sirocco Sky Bar.  This is basically a bar on top of a skyscraper.  It was AWESOME!!!  It was kind of fancy, but then again, in Bangkok a fancy drink out is pretty much on par with a fancy drink anywhere in the States, and this was on top of a SKYSCRAPER.  There were these big couches – I think I got a few good pictures.  After my fancy drink, I decided to go the whole nine yards and treat myself to a fancy dinner.  I went to Le Normandie at the Oriental Hotel.  I’m not sure I can describe how crazy beautiful it was.  It turns out you’re supposed to have a reservation, but since I was just a party of one, they called up for me and made an exception.  Yes!  When I got up there, they sat me down, and gave me a special little stool just for my purse.  My giant travelling purse.  When I made a comment that it’s not a very nice purse, the ever-courteous maitre d said, “Well, it looks very useful.”  HA!

Anyway, at a place this nice, I was going for dinner and a glass of wine, and that’s it.  However, I think people generally order appetizers and make a whole evening of it.  My waiter warned me that it would be a while before my meal came out, and I was totally fine with that – beautiful views of the city – but while I was waiting, he brought me over a cute, teensy cup of soup (“compliments of the chef”) and an appetizer – a scallop with vegetable ratatouille and truffle sauce.

!!!!!!

How cool is that?  Totally complimentary.  I’m not sure if that’s something they do for everybody or what, but I’ll pretend that I was special and they just thought I was nice and clearly inexperienced in the ways of fancy restaurants.  When he brought over the scallop (SO DELICIOUS and I don’t even like seafood), I was all surprised and thanked my waiter, and he just put on this slightly smug smile and said, “Welcome to La Normandie.”  Ha!  Anyway, this was all delicious, and when they brought out my main course (lamb chops) I was pretty much floored.  They didn’t even mind when I asked if I could take pictures. (Shut up, food is exciting.)  All in all, it was an amazing night in Bangkok, and I felt sooooo fancy.

Also, when I get home, I will not be able to go out for approximately five years, so everyone come hang out at my house. 😛

I took an early flight to Sukhothai this morning.  On the plane, I sat next to a lovely American family from Seattle, currently living in Beijing.  As it turns out, their adorable 7 year old daughter is adopted, and they were excited when I told them that I was as well.  We made some nice conversation on the plane.  When I got here, I headed to my guesthouse, which is SO cute.  Unfortunately, I managed to trip on a small ledge and twist my ankle.  Not too bad, I was fine for the rest of the day, but now that I’m in for the evening, it’s pretty sore.  Leave it to me – traveling through the Balinese jungle is fine, but it’s the step in the hotel that gets me.  Anyway, despite the ankle, I had a great day at the Sukhothai Historical Park.

The Sukhothai Kingdom was at its height in the mid 13th to late 14th centuries.  This is generally considered a “golden age” of Thailand – the art and architecture is classic.  The kingdom gave its name to this city, which was one of the first capitals of Thailand.  It had an immense influence on the art, language, literature, and religion of the country, much of which is still evident today.  The city had been reclaimed by jungle until the modern era, and in the 50s and 60s it was rediscovered and renovated.  I toured the park today.

This place is utterly gorgeous – the ruins are in this lush green setting, with mountains rising in the distance.  The archaeological remains are exquisite and fairly well preserved, especially considering the climate.  What didn’t survive, or was badly damaged, has been restored with exacting attention to detail and historical context.  The park is huge, so the best way to get around is by bicycle.  Sukhothai is still not on the greater radar of Southeast Asian sightseeing, and because of the size of the park, you don’t even come across too many of the visitors who are there.  Compared to everywhere else I’ve been lately, this was a pleasure, and I explored the ancient city in relative peace and quiet.  I took half a million pictures, but I don’t think they’ll do the park justice.  It was an awesome day, and I got to go at my own leisurely pace.  In contrast to most historical sites in Europe and North America, security is really minimal – at home, you’re not allowed to come near, let alone touch most older buildings and monuments.  Here, nothing is roped off, and there are even plenty of signs of contemporary devotional practices – flowers left, incense burning, offerings recently made.  The few sites that have signs requesting that you keep off are the Buddha images, and even then, no one is watching to make sure you behave – you could climb all over these things if you wanted to.  There was one building I did climb into.  Slightly off the beaten path, it’s a huge stone structure that was once a temple, I think.  The stone is so weathered , but you can tell that it used to be ornate and beautiful.  Now there are plants growing out of every nook and cranny.  A set of steep steps led up to a room inside, and I had to check it out.  As it turns out, people actually do climb up there – there was a whole array of little Buddha images and offerings up there – but it was absolutely gorgeous in the late afternoon sun.  I’m so glad I climbed up there.

Anyway, I’m thrilled that I came to Sukhothai.  Tomorrow morning I’m off to Chiang Mai on a five hour bus ride – keep your fingers crossed for me!

Well, it’s my last full day in Bangkok.  I had an AMAZING day yesterday.

Before I get into it, it seems that my mom has told every living being on the planet about my blog, so hello, Garnet Valley. 🙂

Yesterday I got up reasonably early and headed out for a day of sightseeing.  I took the Skytrain to the Chao Phraya River Express, and hopped on a boat.  I was totally lost and confused about how the whole thing worked – you pay on the boat? Am I going in the right direction? – but it turned out to be fine, and I really enjoyed the ride on the river.  What a neat way to see the city!  Anyway, I got to Ko Ratanakosin, and began my walking tour.

First I checked out the Royal Palace, and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Wat Phra Kaew.  I honestly cannot think of any other way to describe this place than this:  when I was little, and my family and I would go to Atlantic City, I would always drag my parents down the boardwalk to the Taj Mahal, because I loved the gaudy awesomeness.  Everything glittered, and what little girl doesn’t love glitter?  This was that times 1000.  And real, not a tacky casino.  The buildings were overwhelmingly beautiful – everything is incredibly ornate and absolutely covered with gold leaf and shiny tiles and paintings.  I took about a zillion pictures, because it was something you really just have to see to believe.  And the Palace, although no longer inhabited, is equally as impressive.  It’s hard to believe someone actually lived there.  Also, all around the buildings surrounding the temple, the walls are covered with murals of the Ramakian (the Thai version of the Indian epic the Ramayana).  Inside the temple are murals of the life of the Buddha.  They are incredible.  Honestly, the temple was like a Thai Sistine Chapel – it’s gorgeous.

When I finally finished wandering around, I left the Palace area and walked down the street to the City Pillar shrine – this is where the spirit of the city is believed to reside.  It wasn’t a huge site, but it was interesting, because people were going about their devotional business, and that was cool to see.  I happened to be there while a group of school kids was visiting, and they were pretty adorable.  I strolled down the street some more (to cries of “Miss, taxi?”  Ah, I had almost begun to miss that), and decided on lunch at a little place by Wat Pho.  The chicken fried rice was delicious – I’m not yet brave enough for the street food, which is more often than not staring back at me.  I also had one of the sweetest Coca Colas I’ve ever had.  After that, it was Wat Pho, another gorgeous temple complex.  This one is home to the giant Reclining Buddha, which illustrates the passing of the Buddha into nirvana.  It is RIDICULOUSLY huge, and barely fits inside its building.  That was pretty awesome to see, and I tried to take pictures that effectively illustrated its size.

By the time I was finished wandering and photographing, I was pretty wat-ed out, so I headed back to my part of town via the river boat again.  This time, however, it was PACKED – two boats went by before we could get on, and when we did, I thought it was going to sink, there were so many people on it.  We made it safely, but it was quite an experience!  I kind of liked it, though. 🙂

After a shower and freshening up, I decided to visit a Bangkok movie theater.  Apparently, going to the movies is kind of a big deal here.  The theater I went to has the option of a Gold Class ticket, and it was SO SWEET!!  I was soooo excited.  First, I had the theater to myself – hooray!  My seat was a huge leather recliner that came with a pillow and a blanket to deal with the blasting air conditioning.  And they brought a soda and popcorn right to my seat!  It. Was.  Awesome.  I absolutely adored this – what a fun time!

Today, I got up early and headed to the Chatuchak Weekend Market.  My guidebook (which every single other foriegner in Bangkok has – I’ve seen at least twenty being toted around) says, “This is the market that all markets around the world are measured by.  You’ll find things here that you didn’t know you wanted or needed.  And they will come in every size and color.”  That is totally accurate.  I maybe went a little bit crazy with the souvenir shopping.  Good news is, I’m done shopping for souvenirs!  Also, it was ridiculously cheap.  Bad news was I could barely carry all my bags back to my hotel.  Excuse me while I go attempt to find a way to fit all this stuff into my suitcase.

Tomorrow, heading to Sukhothai!

Posted by: aitzko | December 18, 2009

Japan was pretty much the best thing ever.

So, the onsen was so much fun we ended up staying for most of the evening.  When we got back, we scavenged in the supermarket and had a fun night in – Cait and I introduced Moser and Petrie to Modern Family.  Awesome!  We were rolling.

The next day we took a day trip to Kamakura, an area outside Tokyo known for its shrines.  We took the train, and once we got there, headed for a really gorgeous shrine, the name of which I can’t remember.  Everything was really picturesque, and we took tons of pictures.  One of the best parts about this trip was that there were a ton of school groups visiting as well, and most of them had the assignment of “Talk to a Foreigner in English in Kamakura.”  THEY WERE SO ADORABLE!!!  We got stopped at least six times by shy, giggling groups of kids wanting to ask us questions like “What is your name?” and “What is your favorite food from your country?”  One group had Christine sign their paper and their eyes almost fell out of their heads with how pretty her handwriting is.  They were the epitome of cute.  They kept pushing one another forward to ask the questions, and they all wanted pictures with us.  Half of the classroom is going to come back with photos of the four of us.  🙂  Such a great time!

We got lunch at a tempura and noodle place (I forget the actual word for this), but it was another interesting transaction – no English menu!  This time we had Christine with us, though, and we made it through.  It was delicious, and I even tried (and liked!) the crab tempura, although I’m pretty sure almost anything fried tastes good.  At least the Japanese fry things like seafood and vegetables, whereas we Americans fry things like oreos (Had one at the MD RennFest, it was simultaneously awesome and revolting).  Post-lunch, we headed to see the Giant Buddha, or Daibutsu, or as Petrie calls it, “Buddhabuddhabuddhabuddha rockin everywhere!”  Seriously cool!  And it was built in 1252!!  Can you imagine??  It’s huge!  Anyway, we had a fantastic day there, then headed back to Tokyo.

We made a quick stop in Ginza, where we saw a cute lady from the Salvation Army singing with a man playing the trumpet.  What?!  In the States, they just ring their little bell!  This was far cooler.  We all donated, then headed to Akihabara.  In Cait’s TimeOut Tokyo book, there was a section about maid cafes.  These are little establishments where the waitresses dress up like, well, maids.  It’s this bizarre thing, and you can even hire the maids to come play games with you at your table.  Weird, right?  Well, Cait was desperate to go.  So we headed into Akihabara to look for the specific cafes listed in the book, but once we got there, we saw that there are TONS of them!  Girls dressed like maids stand around in the street, handing out flyers for their respective maid cafes.  So, we randomly picked one, and lo and behold:  IT’S THE ONE IN THE BACKSTREET BOYS VIDEO!  YouTube it, the song is called “Bigger,” and you will come close to understanding the ridiculousness of the maid cafes.  We had such a blast there, laughing over the whole thing.  Anime was playing while we ate, and we had a great time trying to figure out what the hell was going on in this ridiculous cartoon.  The whole thing was far less weird than we had imagined, but so much fun.

Finally, we were ready for Korean Barbecue back in Maihama, near Disney.  By this point we were also pretty tired from our day, so we were a bit punchy.  It was delicious, and it was another cook-it-yourself dealie, although this time, we almost burned down the restaurant with our barbecue. 🙂  I think Cait got some good pictures of the craziness.  All in all, this was probably my favorite day in Japan.

The next day was Disney!  We went with Petrie to work, then made our way to the park entrance for DisneySea.  This day was such a blast.  First, let me say that the Japanese are the biggest fans of cuteness I have ever seen, and the men are incredibly comfortable in their sexuality, because they all wear the cutesy stuff right along with the girls.  Honestly, one of the best parts of this day was just people watching – I have pictures of men wearing pink leopard print, fluffy earmuffs.  No joke!  Anyway, the girls and I decided that we needed to be a part of this, so Cait got those earmuffs, I got this big white Mickey-ears winter hat, and Moser got a Duffy Bear.  Duffy Bear is a Tokyo Disney phenomenon, you can’t find it anywhere else.  He’s just a teddy bear, but the lighter part of his face is actually a Mickey Mouse.  The Japanese will carry him EVERYWHERE around the park – everyone has one, and the store was mobbed.  You can buy outfits for your Duffy Bear, but a lot of people make their own.  Yes.  They make their own outfits for a stuffed bear.  They also have photo points throughout the park where you can sit your Duffy Bear to take pictures of them.

So once we blended in, we wandered around the park and watched the shows, and rode a few rides.  My favorite part of the day was watching Christine’s show!  We went three times, and she was AWESOME! Her band was so cute, and they were all so good.  It was so much fun to watch her perform and to see all the people who stopped to watch them.  After Christine’s shift was over, we met her outside the park for Tim Tam Slams – you take this Australian cookie called a Tim Tam, which is basically two cookies covered in chocolate, with caramel between them.  You bite off the corners, and then put it in your coffee/hot chocolate/other hot drink, and slurp it through the cookie!  It’s gooey and delicious and messy and fantastic.  Post-TimTam Slams, we went back into the park, and watched another show, which was my absolute second favorite part of the day – it’s just a show in Japanese about two kids who stow away on a boat and interact with all the characters on the cruise, but it was hilarious, and I could not stop laughing the entire time.  Disney was a fantastic day, and experiencing it the Japanese way was awesome.  We topped off the day with an ice cream cake for Christine’s birthday, and more Modern Family.  Sweet!

And then, all too soon, my Japan trip was over!  I got up early the next day to come to Bangkok.  I had such an incredible time in Tokyo, and I was too too sad to leave.

Tomorrow I’ll update on my first day in Bangkok! 🙂

Posted by: aitzko | December 18, 2009

Quick Japan Update

Okay!  So while Bangkok was rather intimidating in the nighttime, in the daytime it’s just plain cool.  Busy and crazy, but cool.  Today I’m heading to the area of the city with all the historical monuments and stuff, so hopefully it should be a cool day.  I’m taking the Skytrain to get there – I took it to get to this Internet cafe, and it is SO COOL to see all the huge buildings pass by.  Going from Tokyo to here was a bit of a shock – both are huge cities, but Tokyo is so impeccably clean and orderly.  Bangkok is just nutty.

Okay, so to fill in on Tokyo briefly – The last day I updated, we were headed to an onsen and to traditional Japanese lunch.  We took our time in the morning and headed out to get Shabu Shabu.  IT WAS SO DELICIOUS.  We got the kind where you cook it yourself – and we managed not to destroy anything.  It was so amazingly delicious, I’m salivating just thinking about it.  We took our time, and after lunch, we took more Sticky Pics – now we have zillions – and then headed to the onsen.  For those of you who don’t know what an onsen is, it’s like Japanese public baths.  There are sections just for women or just for men, or bathing suit sections for both.  It was great!  Cait and I were worried because of our tattoos – they’re not allowed in onsens to keep out gang members, which Cait and I are clearly not, but all the same.  We just covered them with our towels, and it wasn’t a problem at all.  Right when we walked in in our yukatas (pretty robes) this group of Japanese firefighters (no joke) worked up the courage to talk to us – they were giggling and everything – and we sat down with them for a bit.  It was HILARIOUS, especially since they spoke very little English and the only one of us who can speak any Japanese at all is Christine.  Any time we came to an impass in understanding, this one guy would just go, “YES WE CAN!”  a la Barack Obama… we decided to call him Yes-We-Can-chan.  Anyway, it was an amazing day at the onsen.

I am almost out of internet time, so I’ll update the rest later!  Off to Ko Ratanakosin!

Posted by: aitzko | December 17, 2009

Details on Japan are on the way…

…but in the meantime, I’m in Bangkok!

I’ll write all about Japan when I get a chance, but suffice it to say for now that I had an AMAZING time, and had so much fun with the girls.  I was really sad to leave.  Traveling alone is cool in that you can do whatever you want, when you want, but traveling with the girls was fantastic, and I miss them already.

I got to Bangkok this evening.  I found the Airport Express bus just fine, and everything went smoothly, until I got off.  It dropped me off in the right area, but it didn’t drop me off exactly where I expected, so I was turned around.  To be honest, I had no idea where I was.  Luckily, a big hotel was nearby, and I stopped in – a really nice bellhop pointed me in the right direction, and gave me a map.

You have to kind of picture the scene, though – Bangkok is BUSY.  Everything is in Thai, which I think it is pretty obvious I do not read.  A lot of things are also listed in English, or in the Latin alphabet, but it’s not exactly easy to spot the street signs, at least not right as you get off a bus.  People are everywhere, and so are cars and mopeds.  And here I am, dragging my bag down this busy, narrow sidewalk.  Good news is, I managed to find the hotel, after a moment of stress.  It’s adorable – everything is decked out in this bright, modern, flower theme – my room is neon green.  No joke.  Not sure how I’ll fall asleep in there, it’s so bright. 😛

Anyway, I’m here, and I plan to venture out into the city tomorrow.

Wish me luck!!

Posted by: aitzko | December 14, 2009

We explore Tokyo and get lost a lot.

Okay!  Picking up from yesterday’s post:  after the Tokyo National Museum, I got a cup of tea at a cafe in the park with much gesturing and pointing, which really warmed me up, because it was FREEZING and RAINY all day long.  Honestly.  Even with the umbrella and my raincoat, I was soaked through, you just couldn’t avoid it.  This would come back to haunt me later.

After that, I decided on visiting the Western Art Museum.  I know, I’m the only person who comes all the way to Tokyo just to go to a Western Art museum, but it looked cool!  It was a really interesting collection of art.  It turns out it was mostly collected by a Japanese man who traveled extensively in Europe, for the express purpose of creating a museum when he returned to Japan.  It was organized vaguely chronologically, but if there was some unifying theme, I couldn’t figure it out.  They had a weird mix:  some works by really famous artists, and some by people I’d never heard of before.  The good thing was, it was a very do-able museum – there was plenty to see, but not so much you felt museum-ed out.  My favorite part was a painting by an artist I didn’t know, of Venus – with a hammertoe.  I swear.  Who paints Venus with a hammertoe??

Anyway, I made it back to Christine’s and immediately got into a hot shower, because I was absolutely freezing and soaked to the bone.  Once we got all warmed up, we went back out again to pick up Cait and Moser!  This was hilarious – they brought an extra suitcase each for Christine, so that she could send some clothes and things home ahead of her, but this meant that between the two of them, for a week-long trip, they had six suitcases!  Definitely got some funny looks, and customs was confused.

The girls’ first day in Tokyo was fun, albeit confusing.  Two days ago, we saw the Imperial Palace Gardens, the Tsukiji Fish Market, and got a fresh sushi lunch.  Even so, it took us all day just to do that!  We got lost about a zillion times, and navigating the sushi transaction was certainly interesting – no English menu!  In the evening, we met up with Christine after work and experienced Ito Yokad0, the supermarket near Christine’s apartment.  But this is not just a super market – this is like a megastore that sells everything you ever wanted, and many things you didn’t know you wanted.  There’s a dollar store within the grocery store, and also a mini-amusement park, with rides for kids.  We of course got on them and took pictures.  We also experienced Sticky Pics, which is like a photobooth, but you can draw on it and put little cartoons on it when you finish taking the pictures!  It was a blast.

Yesterday, we had a really full day!  We went to Harajuku, and checked out Takeshita-dori, a famous street where tons of girls gather to buy trendy clothes and accessories.  It looks like Claire’s exploded and mulitiplied.  The cool thing about Japan is that everyone seems really well dressed, but also, you can wear pretty much whatever you want.  Nothing is too crazy.  There are also these girls who walk around in these elaborate dresses that make them look like dolls – Petrie wrote an entry about them in her blog, which is linked on the side of this blog.  We walked around there for a while, and then moved on to Yoyogi park, which was beautiful.  In the park is the Meiji shrine.  This was an awesome experience – we saw at least three weddings going on, and got to take lots of pictures.  It was a neat cultural experience.  After that, we saw some of the street performers outside the park, and made our way to Shibuya, where we visited Oriental Bazaar.  It’s a giant store with tons of affordable souvenirs.  We got all our shopping done!

The crazy thing about Tokyo is how huge and busy it is – no matter how crazy one section of the city is, you know it stretches out for miles. Shibuya was busy and all lit up, but so was Shinjuku!  We wandered around, but by this point we were exhausted and had been on our feet all day.  We met up with Christine to go to the top of the Government Building and get a view of the city, which is absolutely massive.  It’s just skyscrapers and lights as far as the eye can see.

So all in all, a great trip so far!  The only thing that’s put a damper on it is that the massive temperature changes gave me a cold.  I’m all sniffly, and I’ve got a sore throat, so I’m trying not to blow my nose around the Japanese who are a liiitle bit paranoid about Swine Flu.  I’m hoping that overloading on Vitamin C will get rid of it!

Today we’re doing a traditional Japanese lunch and going to an onsen.  I can’t wait!

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