Saturday, December 20, 2014

My Final Post

To anybody who has been following this blog - I sincerely apologize for taking so long to wrap this up!  I was too tired/busy with work this week and just kept putting it off.  After getting some comments from various people, I decided I need to knuckle down and finish what I started.

I've also gotten a lot of questions from people asking me what my general impression of Thailand was.  "Did you like it?  Would you go back?  Was it better than other places in Asia?"  Now that I've been home for almost a week, I've had an opportunity to let my experience sink in.  I'll do my best to capture my feelings on Thailand.

Southern Thailand photo album (updated) - click here

After spending 4 nights on Ko Phi Phi island, I was ready for something new.  Phi Phi was a really interesting setting and captured my heart when I first got there.  But truthfully, I started to get bored after being there for a couple of nights.  The place sort of reminds me of a "spring break island" where the main activities are 1) beach during the day 2) party at night and 3) repeat.  Being an old man now, I discovered pretty quickly that I don't have the energy for that last step.  I spent my last night on Phi Phi watching movies in my hotel room and recuperating.

Phuket (pronounced "poo-ket") would be different, and I didn't anticipate being bored there.  It's technically an "island" but I liken it more to a peninsula if you look at a map.  It's also a lot bigger than Phi Phi and is one of Thailand's most frequented tourist stops.  I boarded the 9 AM ferry to Phuket, which was another two hour ferry ride.  Many people make the mistake of booking a hotel in "Phuket Town" which is not where you want to be.  People hear about Phuket and think it's a town but really it's the name for the whole province...all the action happens in Patong, which is on the west coast of the province.  Luckily, I did my research and booked my hotel in Patong.

I had to ride in a taxi shuttle for nearly 45 minutes just to get to Patong, and I killed at least 5 mosquitoes during that ride.  Our shuttle had about six people in it, all going to different hotels.  The driver pulled over to the side of the road and said "you get out here"...I didn't see my hotel anywhere.  He pointed to an alley and motioned I should walk to my hotel that way.  Huh?  Such is Thailand.  I took a chance and wandered down the alley, and voila, there was my hotel.  I let out a sigh of relief.  The hotel was small but decently nice for only $30/night.  I immediately got settled in and then walked around to find the "cool" part of town.  Here's Patong Beach:

The cool part of town mainly consists of Patong Beach, Bangla Road and the surrounding area.  Bangla Road is an absolute's a street lined with go-go bars, dance clubs, live music venues and more.  To my dismay, it was over a 30 minute hike from my hotel...with only a couple more nights in Thailand, I knew this wouldn't work.  I decided to call an audible and book a room at the Grand Mercure for my last two nights.  Wow...what a great move!  This was a brand new five star hotel and  it cost me about $140/night.  A splurge, but a decent price for how nice the place was.  It was also located only 5 minutes from the happening part of town.  I highly recommend the Grand Mercure if you ever come to Patong.  Random pic of the lobby:

I had to check out a Muay Thai boxing fight before leaving Thailand, so I was determined to do this in Phuket.  They have two boxing stadiums in Patong that rotate fights every other night.  It was a lot of fun.  When you get there, they try to get you to buy a VIP ringside seat, but I strongly recommend that you don't do that.  Sit in the bleachers with the rest of the Thai locals to get a real authentic experience.  The view of the fight may actually be better there, and the folks in the bleachers were having a lot more fun than the boring VIP section.

The fighting started out with VERY young boys (maybe 8 years old?) and then gradually work their way up to the 20-something fighters.  Local men were walking around yelling "blue" or "red" and holding up money, indicating the side they want to bet on.  I decided to have some fun and bet on blue for one older man took my money and I wondered if I'd see him again.  To my amazement, my guy knocked down the other fighter within seconds of the fight starting.  The old man suddenly appeared and handed me double the amount of money I gave him a minute ago - easy money!  It was only about six dollars.  I ended up losing the money right back to him on the next fight.

After the fight, I decided to check out Bangla Road at night.  I knew this place would be crazy, but it definitely exceeded my expectations.  There were thousands of people walking around in the are not allowed to drive here after 6 PM for good reason.  Take a look below - the road stretched on like this for nearly half a mile:

You can't walk very far in a place like this without being totally harassed.  Want to grab a beer and sit down for a few minutes?  It's not that simple.  Right as you sit down, "bar girls" emerge from the wood work and start chatting you up and getting (overly) friendly.  These are scantily clad employees of the bar that try to get you to buy them drinks, and they earn credit for how many drinks they get in a given night.  Even if you try ignoring them or say that you're not interested, it won't be long before another bar girl sits down next to you and tries to keep you company.  There is no relaxing on Bangla Road.  If you don't come here with a full reserve tank of energy, you should probably head back to the hotel.

Before leaving Thailand, I also wanted to treat myself to a really nice dinner.  I looked up reviews on Tripadvisor and settled on Sam's Steak House which was located in the Holiday Inn close by.  Sam's was rated the #2 place to eat in Patong.  I wasn't expecting a Holiday Inn restaurant to be so nice...this place was extremely fancy and I got maybe the best steak I've ever had in my life.  The waiters continued to bring out complimentary courses, including squid, a lemon sorbet and chocolate mint ice cream pops in dry ice.  Check out the ice cream:

Overall, Patong was a really fun place and I think it's worth a visit if you're in Thailand. Even if you wouldn't enjoy the craziness of Muay Thai fights or Bangla Road, there's a lot of fun stuff to do around there for people of all ages.

The Adventure is Over
Getting home was a real journey.  In order to save money, I booked a trip home that involved multiple connecting flights.  First, I took a plane from Phuket Airport to Kuala Lumpur on Saturday evening...this was a short flight less than two hours.  I was stuck in KL for nearly 4 or 5 hours, but luckily it's a modern airport.  I will say this, however...I truly am not a fan of Asian airports in general.  They are designed to look like high end shopping malls, so if you want to buy a diamond necklace or perhaps a $500 leather bag - no problem!  You have multiple options!  But oh, you want a bottle of water and a bag of chips?  Maybe some Tylenol?  Good luck with that.  In the shopping mall airports of Asia, there might be one convenience store tucked away in Terminal C that will take you 20 minutes to find.  And while all of the luxury stores are completely empty, the convenience store has a line out the door.  These airports are not designed with the traveler's needs in mind; they are set up to extract massive tax dollars from people on their way out of the country.  I have to wonder...does this idiotic scheme actually work?  Sadly, I'm guessing it does.

The flight from KL to Tokyo was about 7 hours, and then I had another 4 hour layover.  I started to get really tired, but I had to stay awake somehow.  Finally, the flight from Tokyo to Chicago was about 12 hours long.  I lost track of how long I had been awake and what day it was.  I remember looking out of the window as we were flying over rural Canada at nighttime.  Little groups of lights would dot the landscape below, and then there would be nothing but darkness as far as the eye could see.  I thought about what it would be like to live in a small isolated village in the middle of the Canadian wilderness.

When it was all said and done, I got back to Chicago on Sunday morning.  An incredible amount of time had passed, but since we crossed the international date line, it was only the morning after I left!  Note to self: allow at least one full day and night to re-adjust before returning to work.

Impressions of Thailand
So how was Thailand?  Was it fun?  Would you go back?  Thailand was fun and I would definitely go back.  It's a beautiful land, the food is amazing, and it's worth a trip for anybody.  You will meet a fascinating array of people from all around the world...Thailand has a special draw for a certain type of person.  It tends to draw adventure-seekers who want to leave western society behind.  I couldn't help but notice a sort of "Indiana Jones" feel to certain places I went.  Some places were incredibly serene and relaxing, while others places were the pinnacle of crazy.  People tend to get lost in Thailand and never want to come home.  After being there for a couple of weeks, I think I am beginning to understand how that happens.

Next time I go to Thailand, I might try getting a little more off the beaten path.  If people aren't staring at me in disbelief because I am white, then I haven't gone far enough off the grid.  If you come to the more touristy areas of Thailand (like I did) you can expect to have a great time nonetheless.  I know I did.  If you're thinking of planning a trip, please don't hesitate to reach out to me with questions and I'll do what I can to help.

That's all for now.  Thanks for following my adventure...I really enjoy having an excuse to write, so hopefully I provided somebody out there with a little entertainment.  Maybe I have given someone the motivation to plan an adventure of their own.


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Paradise in the South

Attempting to board my regional flight from Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok to Krabi was much easier than I expected it to be.  Everyone at the airport spoke fluent English and my path was clearly labeled.  The flight was pretty short...less than 2 hours.

Southern Thailand Photo Album - Click Here

Krabi Town
I booked a two night stay at the Pak-Up Hostel in Krabi Town.  As I rode my shuttle bus from the airport to the hostel, my first impression of Krabi was that it was really dumpy.  It was a "shanty town" at least on the outskirts.  It didn't take long before I learned that there is basically nothing to do in Krabi.  Everyone uses Krabi as a "jump off point" to reach other (desirable) locations in the south, but most people don't stay more than a night.  Here's my hostel:

Since I was stuck there for a couple days, I looked up the best places to eat around town.  I had a fantastic red curry at a place called Chalita was ranked #1 on TripAdvisor and deservedly so.  Some white guy with a European accent seemed to be the owner.

The only real nightlife Krabi has is the bar at Pak-Up, which was convenient for me.  They hosted a Twister competition and I made some friends at the bar.  I met a guy named Dave from the UK...his story was incredible.  About a year and a half ago he took a trip to Australia and decided he never wanted to go back to England.  Now he travels the world on whatever budget he can afford, using Australia as his home base.  Sometimes when he's tight on funds, he'll sleep outdoors to save cash.  He's been in Thailand for months and will be going back "home" soon to Australia to earn more travel money.  Here's Dave playing Twister with Jessica from Canada:

I met another guy there with an interesting story.  While waiting for my shuttle to take me to the pier, we got to talking in the lobby.  I didn't get his name, but he was from America and currently doing a 4 month trip around Thailand.  He said he runs his own business where he works at music festivals all over America...he recently worked at the North Coast Music Festival in Chicago.  His back story was far more interesting...he used to work at Barclay's as an investment banker, but got sick of that life so he started a different one.  Now he works on his own schedule (only during the warmer months) and travels full time for a solid 4 months every year during the winter.   Not a bad life...

Thailand seems to be full of people with similar stories.  Ex-pats from western countries that got sick of living the standard daily grind and wanted something different.  They may not have as much money as they used to, but they get to wake up every day with a smile on their face.  They are living a life they can love and appreciate.  It's one thing to visualize such a cliche in your mind, but it's a very real moment when you meet people that took the leap and did it.  It can be done, and these people are the proof.

Ko Phi Phi
On Saturday I took a ferry boat from Krabi to Ko Phi Phi island.  I had to ride in the back of a pickup truck with bench seating in order to get to the ferry.  The ferry ride took about 2 hours but when we finally arrived, I knew I was in paradise.  Phi Phi (pronounced "pee-pee") is one of those destinations I was referring to earlier...this is a place that people travel far to get to.  The island is fairly undeveloped...the "roads" here are just walking paths only a few meters wide.  Thai people pushing heavy carts will yell "beep beep" as they come up behind you, forcing you off the path to let them pass.  People zoom past you on bicycles, sometimes only missing you by inches.  The paths are lined with shops and restaurants.  The island has full electricity and plumbing, but the plumbing is pretty substandard and burgeoning under the weight of all the people here.  There are plenty of islands in the Andaman Bay that still don't have electricity or plumbing if you are looking to really disappear from civilization.

The island really comes to life at night.  I walked down the beach with a beer and saw fire dancers walking a tight-rope, people dancing in the sand with glow-sticks, and some more adventurous types walking around completely naked.  Yikes!  For the record, this blogger kept his clothes on for the entire evening.  

I began my coursework for the SCUBA course on the day I arrived, and the following day I continued with it.  The course had me watch a set of 5 DVD videos (which were nearly an hour long each) and then complete some knowledge reviews.  I learned about the theory of SCUBA diving, how air pressure works underwater, and pretty much everything one would need to know before taking the plunge.  It was a huge amount of knowledge, and I can safely say I didn't remember everything from the videos.  Later in the day, I learned how to assemble SCUBA gear, and my instructor took me to the beach for my first "confined water" training.  

Breathing underwater for the first time was a crazy experience for me, but you begin to get used to it after getting a feel for the equipment.  We worked on a various list of required activities near the beach, such as flooding your mask and clearing it, or losing your mouthpiece and then finding it.  They even have one where the instructor shuts off your air tank so you can feel what it's like to run out of air.  I felt pretty good for passing all of these routines, however, I ultimately decided to drop out of the SCUBA course.  I had my moment that night when I realized I wasn't really looking forward to diving...I was honestly sort of dreading it.  They also wanted me to report in at 7 AM every day, which pretty much takes away any chance of getting a couple drinks in the evening.  That was enough for me to make up my mind.  The instructor gave me a "PADI Referral" which would allow me to complete the course within the next year if I wanted to.  Perhaps I will work up the motivation to do so back home.

One other thing I did was hire a long tail boat to take me to Long Beach, which was a pretty far walk otherwise.  The water was a beautiful turquoise blue color and the weather was great.  The beach was also pretty much empty.  Come to think of it, I had never seen an empty beach on vacation until now.  Go to the typical resorts in or around the US and the beaches are guaranteed to be packed.

While I was in the water taking a swim, a light rain came out of nowhere and drizzled on everyone.  It only lasted for about 10 minutes...on such a hot day, it was unbelievably refreshing.  I knew I was in a really special place.

This blog post doesn't have any crazy stories because I spent the majority of my time just walking around the island and relaxing.  Sorry if that disappoints you...I'll try to get conned again or something soon.  This is my last night here and I'm ready to head out.  I will board a ferry boat to Phuket tomorrow morning at 9 AM.  I'll be there for 3 nights, and then I'm coming home.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Bangkok Part 2: Nothing is as it Seems

After spending a few days in Bangkok, I finally got a feel for the city.  I knew how to get around from Point A to Point B: I could flag a taxi, tuk-tuk or even ride a boat down the Chao Phraya.  I knew approximately how much my ride should cost, and whether or not the driver was trying to gouge me because I'm a "farang" (farang = foreigner).  I knew what food I liked and where I could get it.  Unfortunately, I also began to see through the shiny facade that exists here in the "Land of Smiles."

Full Bangkok Photo Album - click here

There is an interesting relationship that exists between tourists and locals.  Usually when I visit a foreign land, a lot of local people are eager to meet me and hear my story.  This is especially true in Asia where I stand out like a sore thumb as a 6 foot tall white guy.  I enjoy meeting local people and travelers alike, but here it seems far less likely that I would get to meet and talk with many locals.  Getting back to the relationship I was referring to - here, the relationship is more business-like than anything.  I believe most Thai people have grown weary of the endless supply of tourists that come here every year, but they must tolerate us because of the business opportunities we bring.  And as a tourist, I have grown weary of the false attempts at friendship that end with someone trying to get my money.  It saddens me to say it, but I've developed a tough exterior already...and as a Chicagoan, I thought I already had one.

Jim Thompson House
This was something I really wanted to see after reading my guide book.  It's such an interesting story, I debated whether or not I should devote an entire blog entry to it.  Jim Thompson was an American who lived in Thailand in the 1950's and 60's, and he was credited with single handedly reviving the Thai silk industry.  If you have the time, the Wikipedia page makes for an interesting read.  He made a lot of money with his silk company and built an extremely ornate traditional Thai style house in Bangkok.  The house is so interesting, and filled with so many priceless artifacts that he collected, that it is now a museum open to the public.

This place was fascinating, and Jim Thompson's story was equally interesting.  Our guide walked us through and seemed to know every last detail about him and the house.  Unfortunately, pictures were not allowed inside.  There were six separate houses on the complex, all on wooden stilts to protect from flooding.  The houses were made of teak wood, which is both durable and termite-proof.  He had marble tiles imported from Italy covering the ground floor.  It was filled with ancient Buddha sculptures from around the world, some of them over 1,000 years old.  He was able to collect so many because they were all flawed or broken.  In Thai culture it's considered bad luck to have a broken Buddha statue, so nobody else wanted them.  Now they are probably priceless.

Jim Thompson disappeared in 1967 and nobody was ever able to find him.  He went on an evening walk in the jungle while on vacation in Malaysia and was never seen again, despite a massive search.  Supposedly it was the largest hunt ever organized in Malaysian history.  Interestingly, it just so happens that he had his will written a few weeks before his disappearance.  He was also expertly trained to survive in jungles, which makes it less likely that he simply got lost and died on his own.

Massive Shopping Malls
Bangkok is also known to have some of the biggest and fanciest malls in Asia.  I wasn't really in the market to buy a Rolex or anything, but figured I should have a look.  I'm glad I did, because these malls truly are a sight to be seen.  The Siam Paragon is a massive high-end mall with every designer label you've ever heard of.

I also enjoyed walking through the MBK Center, which is the largest mall I've ever been inside of.  This mall is 8 stories high and contains over 2,000 shops and restaurants.  That figure probably doesn't include the maze of small vendors on the end, which must have numbered in the 100's on every floor.  You can come here and load up on brand name apparel for very cheap.  It might be fake, but who cares?  Now I understand why Mario said he didn't bring many clothes with him - he was planning to buy a bunch of clothes in Bangkok.

While in this mall, I grabbed dinner at a shabu-shabu restaurant.  Shabu-shabu is a Japanese dish where you throw meat, vegetables and noodles into boiling water and cook your food.  At the end you get to drink the broth, which is delicious.  This restaurant had a conveyor belt going all around with small plates to throw into your broth...grab whatever you want and chuck it in!

While exiting this mall, I couldn't help but notice the men cleaning the floors by the entrance.  Their clothes were dirty and their faces were tired.  These guys probably earned meager wages, which I'm sure is the case for most Bangkok residents.  Their job was to wipe floors and make a fancy shopping mall look slightly more appealing, so a rich tourist may be slightly more enticed to make expensive purchases on ridiculous items he/she does not need.  These shopping malls stand in stark contrast to the rest of the city, and serve as a monument to Bangkok's desire for catering to rich foreigners.  Meanwhile, the majority of the population lives in poverty.

An Elaborate Con
A few of you already messaged me asking for details on the "con" that I mentioned at the end of my previous post.  As promised, I will explain what happened in full detail.  But I want you to try putting yourself in my shoes.  Pretend that you don't know how this ends to get a more entertaining read.

On my last day in Bangkok, I decided to find Wat Pho and its famous Reclining Buddha.  This temple complex was similar to Wat Phra Kaew, the difference being that it featured a different main attraction.  When I got there, it was pretty cool and I'm glad I saw it.  Here is me in front of the huge Reclining Buddha:

My next stop for the day was going to be Chinatown...both Mario and my guide book said it was a really interesting place and worth a visit.  I walked outside of the complex and started flipping through my book to look at a map.  While reading, a Thai man approached me and started talking to me.  "Hey, where are you going next?" he asked.  I immediately started to walk away from him saying "Sorry not interested" which is my usual routine.  He stopped me and said "No don't worry I'm not a taxi driver, I'm not selling anything.  I was just trying to help. Are you from America?"  Hmm, alright then, he's just a nice guy.  He pulled out a map and started asking me if I had been to certain places around town.  "Have you been to the Golden Mount?  You really should see it.  I'd recommend waiting a couple hours before going to Chinatown since there is much more to see in the late afternoon."  Nice, some solid advice.  Thanks for the help, guy.  "Also, if you have the time, the Thai fashion outlet has a sale going on right now.  It's a government promotion right now, which allows foreigners to purchase suits made in Thailand.  Normally it's only for Thai citizens."  Interesting insider tip, thanks again.

He continued to help me.  "You know, you can hire tuk-tuk drivers for very cheap to take you to multiple locations around town.  Only 60 Baht should cover this trip for a whole day."  Wow, that's a really good price. Only about 2 bucks.  He called over a tuk-tuk driver and haggled with the guy for me, and explained my whole trip (in Thai) while showing the driver the map.  "Keep the map," he said.  I walked away with a smile on my face.  My faith in Thai locals has been restored.

The driver was a really cool and friendly young guy...he reminded me of "Short Round" from Indiana Jones.  He took me to Golden Mount first and said he will wait 30 minutes for me to explore it.  I had to climb a million stairs to get to the top of this place, but it was worth the hike.  Check out this panoramic shot I got:

My trusty tuk-tuk driver waited for me in the parking lot.  I hadn't paid him anything yet, so he had no incentive to leave me there.  We started walking to his tuk-tuk and he asked if I needed to use the toilet.  How considerate!  "Nah, I think I'm good," I replied.  "You can use it if you need to."  He walked over the toilet and I waited in the tuk-tuk. While he was gone, another guy walked towards me in the parking lot and unlocked his SUV, which was blocked in by the parked tuk-tuk.  "Hey I'm really sorry, the driver is coming right back," I said to the man. He assured me it was no problem. "No don't worry, I'm not in a mother is inside the temple right now."

The guy started chatting me up while we waited.  He told me he was a lawyer in Canada who was visiting family, and I talked to him about Chicago. He spoke with a British accent.  He asked where I was going next, so I showed him the map and started explaining my trip. "Where did you hear about the Thai fashion outlet? From another local?"  I confirmed that a local Thai guy helped me set up this trip.  "That is pretty lucky for you...usually only Thais know about this place.  There is a promotion going on right now for foreigners."  Wow...I really need to check this out.  "Guess where most designer suits are made?  Right here in Thailand, before they get shipped to Italy and labeled.  I get all my suits here in Thailand because I have a Thai member card.  You can get suits for 1/5 of the price, and they can even ship them to you overseas.  But you have to get sized by a tailor locally to get a member card.  Right now they are allowing foreigners to buy so you could actually get a member card today before leaving Bangkok."  We continued chatting about work and other things for a few more minutes.

I wasn't really in the market for a suit, but this guy got me pretty amped up to visit the Thai fashion house.  My driver came back and I instructed him to take me there next.  When we got there it was a lot smaller than I expected...I was expecting some massive warehouse.  There were rolls of fabric everywhere and loads of suits lining the walls.  I started talking to a salesman who looked to be of Persian descent.  "Welcome sir, I assume you are here for the promotion available for foreigners?" he asked.  Why yes I am!  He showed me around and explained that I could get a tailored suit in pretty much any fabric design.  But he kept trying to up-sell me on a package deal.  He wanted me to buy 2 tailored suits and a tailored cashmere coat which came out to around $1,000.  I continued to explain that I was only interested in one suit, MAYBE.  Every time he offered me a deal, it was more than I least $500 for a suit.  I can get off-the-rack suits back home for around that much.  But these were designer quality and tailored.  Should I spring for this purchase?  It would be really nice to have a member card so I can buy cheap tailored suits any time I want in the future.

What happened next is difficult to explain.  I was standing there in the store and had a strange moment, where in my mind I began to question what I was doing.  How the hell did I end up in a suit store?  I didn't come to Thailand to spend $500 on a suit.

"Keep in mind that if you want a member card, you have to purchase a suit before leaving Bangkok.  How long are you staying here?  If you're leaving soon, we can ship it to your address abroad.  We have many customers abroad."  He pulled out an order book with addresses from around the world.

Why is this guy pressuring me so hard to buy a suit?  I continued to ponder whether or not I should get one.  Suddenly it hit me out of nowhere - I realized that something was off about this just didn't seem legit.  But what about the local Thais that recommended it?  I heard about this place from two separate guys, and even the driver said this place was great. way.  No freakin way.  What if there is no such thing as a "Thai fashion house?"  Was it NOT a coincidence that the nice guy helped me outside Wat Pho?  And the Canadian guy in the parking lot at Golden Mount...was his entire story a lie?  Were they all in on this?  Were they all actually working together?  Was this entire afternoon carefully orchestrated by all of these people, all with the end goal for me to purchase a suit from a shady retailer?  Holy crap...I need to get the hell out of here right now.

I walked outside and told my driver I wanted to leave.  The look on his face was severe disappointment.  "Did you buy a suit?" my driver asked.  The salesman came running out of the store.  "Ok, four hundred dollars!"  Get me out of here.  My driver grudgingly drove me away as the salesman stared at us.  Then, shockingly, he drove me to another suit store instead of Chinatown.  He begged me to walk in there and browse the clothes.  I paid the driver 100 baht and said "no thanks" and started to walk home.  As I left, I saw a woman pulling up to the store in a tuk-tuk.  "Don't do it, it's a scam!" I yelled to her.  She looked at me and mouthed the words "I know" silently.

Geez, where the hell am I?  I was stranded in the middle of nowhere.  The hotel was a 3 mile sweaty walk, but I made it back.  Faith in Thai locals un-restored.

Here's a picture of my "trusty" driver...I snagged it just before walking away:

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Bangkok Part 1: A City of Intrigue

After landing at Suvarnabhumi Airport (pronounced "su-varna boom") I knew I was far away from home.  I had to stand in a long line to get through customs, and I was surrounded by a full spectrum of people from all around the world.  High tourism season has just begun here now that the "rainy season" is over, and the long line was a certain indication of that.  Bangkok is generally the first stop for everybody that comes to Thailand, but most people typically get worn out after a few days and head elsewhere.  Now that I've been here for a few days, I can say that I agree.

When I finally got outside, the hot and muggy weather hit me like a slap in the face.  I needed a water bottle, so I headed into this cafeteria area to get one.  It only cost me 10 baht (about 30 cents).  That was my first taste of seeing how cheap everything is in Thailand.

After getting to my hotel late in the evening, I walked to a 7-11 nearby.  Just on the short walk I noticed an array of powerful smells coming from all around - if you have never been to Asia, it's hard to describe.  I loaded up a shopping cart with an absurd amount of drinks and junk food, and a couple bottles of sunblock to boot.  My bill came out to about 4 or 5 dollars, and everyone in there looked at me like I was a some kind of big shot.  I was tired and went to bed pretty early.   Keeping with the theme of my trip, there was a problem with my room - it was situated next to a room of Aussie hooligans that came home drunk at 5AM screaming and hollering.  I didn't fall back asleep until around 6:30.  The next day I got a new room which has been much better.  Here is the courtyard of my hotel:

Wat Phra Kaew
My first tourist activity was to visit Wat Phra Kaew (pronounced "wat pra-kow") which is the most sacred Buddhist temple in Thailand.  It was a large complex if buildings, but the main draw of this place is a Buddha carved from a single large stone of Jade.  Unfortunately, the "Emerald Buddha" was closed off to the public by noon, so I just missed it.  I did, however get to see a lot of other really cool things.  The architecture was stunning.

I had to wear jeans to visit this temple, because shorts are not allowed to be worn inside.  Supposedly in Thai culture it's offensive to expose one's knees in a revered place such as this.  Skimpy outfits on women are also strictly forbidden.  If you show up wearing an outfit that isn't allowed, you have to wait in a long line to rent a loose fitting shirt and/or elastic pants.

A group of young girls approached me giggling and asking if they could pose for pictures with me.  After they got their pictures, I asked them to take a picture on my camera as well.  Here was the result:

After thoroughly exploring this temple complex, I stopped for lunch at a place across the street and got some green curry.  Supposedly green curry is a staple dish of the Bangkok area, while yellow curry is considered a southern dish.

Khao San
My next stop for the day was Khao San Road, which has a well known reputation as a "backpacker's haven."  This road was only about a 15 minute walk from my hotel, and I sort of planned it that way when I booked my hotel.  I wanted to be near the legendary road that I had heard so much about.  When I got there, I wasn't disappointed at all.

The whole place had such a unique and interesting feel to it.  Travelers from all over the globe were walking around with giant backpacks, long braided hair, facial piercings and skin covered in tattoos.  One couple would walk by speaking German, another would walk by with heavy Aussie accents.  Old British men that looked like they had seen it all were sitting down in cafes enjoying a beer (some of them sitting across the table from young Thai women).  The street was lined with shops selling trinkets and t-shirts, cafes with patio seating, pharmacies and hostels.

While walking, I saw a food vendor that was cooking up Pad Thai with spring rolls, but this one seemed to be special in some way.  They had attracted a crowd of people that seemed to keep getting bigger as I added myself into the mix.  In Asia, when white people see a crowd of other white people gathered around a vendor, they flock to that location instinctively.  I could tell the vendor knew today was her lucky day...she and her assistant worked furiously to satisfy this growing crowd.  For the other vendors nearby - all they could do was look on in jealousy.  I got a picture of her cooking, while the line of people continued to the right outside of the frame.  For a heaping plate of Pad Thai with 2 spring rolls, the price was only about 2 bucks.

I went back to the hotel and rested up a bit before dinner.  I asked the hotel front desk what they recommended for a good Thai meal.  She immediately referred me to a place called "Krua Apsorn" which was about a 10 minute walk from the hotel.  She showed me a picture of the front and I thought it looked a little shady - it didn't seem fancy at all.  Was this really a legitimate recommendation, or was it just some place that paid the hotel kickbacks?  I figured I would walk there and at least take a look.  Boy am I glad I did.  It looked sort of like a "hole in the wall" but this place was the ultimate Thai restaurant - completely authentic, affordable, and filled with local Thai people (so it must be legit).  I later came to learn that Krua Apsorn has been rated a top 100 restaurant worldwide by several critics.

I sat next to a couple of older Thai women who struck up a conversation with me.  I mentioned that I was from Chicago and to my surprise, one of them said that she also lives in Chicago.  She was just in Thailand visiting family.  She immediately began giving me advice on what to order.  When I tried explaining it to the waitress, I finally just gave up and let her order for me in fluent Thai.  I got both green curry and pad Thai (2 meals basically) for a total bill of around 10 bucks.  The food was unbelievably delicious and flavorful.  The dining experience was so good, it may have cracked my top 5 of all time.  Me and my two friends:

There's so much to write about I think it could fill a novel.  I am doing my best to paraphrase an experience that is difficult to describe.  My next post will include a bunch of other activities I did yesterday and today, including a story about me almost becoming the victim of a very elaborate con attempt.  Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Good Food in Tokyo, and Another Day of Flying

I'm currently sitting on my hotel bed at the Villa Phra Sumen in Bangkok, Thailand.  I spent today exploring Bangkok, and it's been a surreal experience already.  But before getting into Thailand, I will try to catch up on this past weekend in Tokyo.

A Weekend in Tokyo
This trip was entirely meant to be about Thailand, but when I started looking at airfare to Bangkok, I couldn't overlook the fact that I would likely end up with a connecting flight in Tokyo.  I figured...what the heck, why not stay a couple nights in one of my favorite cities?  Maybe my favorite city in the world overall, actually.  I fell in love with Tokyo last year and couldn't miss a chance to get some delicious food and practice my terrible Japanese at the same time.  

With only one full day to explore, I figured I would just head over to one of my favorite areas from last time - Akihabara, the electronics district.  I walked around observing the usual craziness: flashing lights everywhere, girls with high pitched voices trying to sell you things, highly sexualized anime cartoons, etc.  Unfortunately, it rained pretty badly all afternoon, but I didn't let that get me down.  

For lunch, I stopped into Yoshinoya, which is a Japanese chain restaurant.  I actually ate at one of these in Hong Kong but never tried one in Japan.  It was maybe 1/10 of the size of the Hong Kong only sat about 8 people.  Everyone in there stared at me the whole time but the food was worth it.  I ordered a beef curry with an egg - it was dynamite:

The jet lag started to hit me pretty hard late in the afternoon, which I was totally expecting.  It always hits me on the day following my arrival, even if I get a lot of sleep.  In case you have never had it, you basically just get super tired out of nowhere and feel an irresistible urge to sleep.  Apparently this has something to do with your body clock that expects day and night to happen on its usual pattern.  When you travel really far it messes up everything.

For dinner, I ate at a sushi place near my hotel called Sushizanmai.  It was super packed, so that made my decision easy.  The guy in the front kept walking up to me saying "please wait, please wait" and getting uncomfortably close to me, even as I slowly backed away.  I'm glad I put up with this guy though...the food was excellent.  I had a random assortment of things, but the best dish by far was the fried fatty tuna steak:

After dinner I headed back to the hotel because I had an early flight the next morning.  No crazy bar hopping in Roppongi this time (cut me some slack I'm 30 now).  I woke up at around 6:00 am to make my 10:30 flight, which was a 7 hour flight to Kuala Lumpur followed by a 2 hour flight to Bangkok.  When I got to my gate and prepared to enter the queue, an entire class of Japanese high school kids showed up at my gate (easily over 100 kids).  We were instructed to wait and let them board the plane first.  I was surprised that Japanese high schools organized such expensive trips...we definitely were never flown to another country for a field trip when I was in high school.  They all cheered loudly when the plane took off...maybe because they were just kids having fun, or maybe because we were flying Malaysia Airlines and they were glad we didn't die during takeoff.  

Despite what you've heard about Malaysia Airlines, it was a nice flying experience.  The seats were comfortable, the food was good, and the on-screen entertainment menu was enormous.  American Airlines (which I flew to Tokyo) only had about 5 movies, but Malaysia Airlines had hundreds of shows and movies to choose from.  And we didn't die, so that was nice.

Ok time for me to head out.  Next blog entry will be about Bangkok.  

Friday, November 28, 2014

Passing Through Japan

It's been a wild ride for the past 36 hours or so, but I'm finally sitting here comfortably in my Tokyo hotel room.  My second room actually, because I got a new room this morning.  I just got back from "breakfast" at my hotel and decided I owed everybody a quick blog post before I venture out.

My plane left O'Hare yesterday at 12:15 PM nonstop for Tokyo.  To my dismay, the Bears game came on just minutes before we started boarding the plane.  Now that I have checked the final score, it looks like I didn't miss much.  I was lucky enough to get an aisle seat on one of those 2-seat columns, which would make it real easy to get up and walk around when I wanted to.  On a 13 hour flight, it is not recommended to just sit there the entire time.  You legs and rear end start to get pretty sore after awhile.

Somehow (again) fate would have me sitting next to another young male, approximately my age, who was a complete expert in the country I was destined to visit.  For those of you who are new to this blog, last time I sat next to "Mike" on my flight to Tokyo, and he knew everything about Japan.  He provided me with tons of tips & advice, and got me really amped to visit Japan.  This time I sat next to Mario.  He is a young German ex-pat living in Ohio...he works for a large German company as a mechanical engineer in quality control.  When he said he was heading to Bangkok I could hardly believe it.  But then when he said he had been there, and I quote, "so many times I lost count" I knew I hit the lottery once again. 

We talked for quite a bit on this flight...we talked about work, Germany, traveling, and most of all - Thailand.  He provided me with so much advice for my trip it would be difficult to summarize.  Mario is embarking on a 5-week vacation which will start in Bangkok, and then bring him to Singapore, Malaysia, Bali, and then back to Thailand.  He will be meeting a group of friends during this trip, and traveling solo for a good portion of it.  Most of his friends were people he met while traveling.  Unfortunately we won't be in Thailand at the same time, but I got his contact info and will be sure to email him if I am looking for more advice.  

I'm staying at the Hotel Rainbow in Tokyo right now, and honestly this hotel is kind of a dump.  They put me in a smoking room last night (which smelled awful) because the nonsmoking rooms were sold out.  This will happen to you 90% of the time when you check into your Japanese hotel.  For an extra $40 I upgraded my room to a massive suite today because it was the only non-smoking room available.  They served breakfast this was seriously just toast with orange juice and coffee...ugh.  At least now I have a pretty nice view and a big room that doesn't smell.  

Ok folks, well I am outta here.  I only get one day to explore so I gotta make the most of it.  More to come soon enough.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Thailand Awaits

I'm excited to be back with a new travel blog.  It's been about a year and a half since my last trip overseas, and I'm eager to pick up where I left off.  To any followers of my previous blog, the format of this whole thing will sound very familiar:

1)  I'm gonna hang out with myself for a couple weeks and write about it. Sweet! Who wouldn't want to read about that?
2)  I'll be in Asia
3)  My trip will involve a lot of different stops.  I won't be in any one location for more than a few days.
4)  I'm taking nothing with me except a backpack with some clothes, my Chromebook and a couple of cameras.  And sunscreen, to shield my pale mid-western skin from the type of sun you get when only 15 degrees north of the equator.
5)  It may sound like I know what I'm doing, but rest assured, I'm usually in way over my head. The ending result is a long string of snap judgments that I couldn't have predicted.  Have you ever cooked dinner with a bunch of random stuff you had laying around your kitchen, and then ended up with an awesome meal?  You probably won't ever make that exact meal again, and you probably couldn't if you tried.

My itinerary is booked...I've officially mapped the route that I'm taking and reserved rooms at the places I'm sleeping.  Without further ado, here is what we're looking at:

November 27-30: Tokyo, Japan
My plane will depart on Thanksgiving day (also my 30th birthday) and fly me directly to Tokyo.  This is a logical stepping stone if you are making your way to Thailand.  Since I love Tokyo, I figured why not stay for a couple nights?  After I hop over the time zone barrier in the Pacific Ocean, I'm gonna lose an entire day on this flight.  

I'll be staying at the Hotel Rainbow, in the Ueno district.

November 30 - December 4: Bangkok, Thailand
Here comes the part that you'll all love: I will be flying...gulp...Malaysian Airlines to make my way from Tokyo to Bangkok, with a layover in Kuala Lumpur.  As long as I don't disappear in a dimensional vortex during this flight, I'll be staying in the Villa Phra Sumen for 4 nights.  This hotel is conveniently located in the historic downtown area near a lot of attractions.  It's also near Khao San Road, which is famous for being a "backpacker" haven.

December 4-6: Krabi, Thailand
After exploring Bangkok, I'm going to hop on a regional flight to Krabi, a beach town in the west coast of southern Thailand.  I'll be staying at the Pak-Up Hostel, which has scored rave reviews for being a fun place.  They also feature a couple different bars which make this hostel hot spot for late night fun.

December 6-10: Ko Phi Phi Islands
I will board a ferry boat from Krabi Town to Ko Phi Phi, which is a world-famous beautiful island chain.  If you've ever seen "The Beach," this is where they filmed it.  While here, I'll be taking a 3-day PADI SCUBA diving course to get certified for open water diving.  Let's hope I don't get eaten by a shark.  I'll be staying at Palmtree Resort.

December 10-13: Phuket
The last leg of this trip will involve taking another ferry boat from Ko Phi Phi to Phuket, which is a pretty well known tourist destination of Thailand.  Phuket is known for having beaches that stretch on for miles, and a lively nightlife scene.  The area was hit pretty hard by the 2004 tsunami, but it has been rebuilt since then and is looking great.  I'll be staying at the Forest Patong Hotel for three nights before finally embarking on a long journey back home.

If you enjoy following the blog, please don't hesitate to email me at while I am traveling.  It's nice to have people I can stay in touch with back home and it helps keep me grounded to reality.  More to come soon.