My new (miraculously NON-food-related!) obsession

Not only Roman’s cold, but now pouring rain is keeping us from the Angkor temples – another perfect day for catching up on the blog and researching our next stop: Vietnam. 🙂

Here’s a post on something that’s become a bit of an obsession for me: Sarongs!

Most people associate sarongs with flowy, light-weight beach wear – a quick google search shows the same tendency. http://hubpages.com/hub/How-to-Wrap-a-Sarong

This is not the sort of sarong I am talking about. My obsession is with the traditional cotton wrap skirt that we’ve encountered all through Asia.

My obsession started in Myanmar, where this type of clothing is called a longyi, and both women AND men where it, albeit in different styles. With a little encouragement from my friend Ohmar, I started to learn how it was worn, and even bought an inexpensive acrylic version from the market in Bahmo. I couldn’t stop worrying about my technique though and was constantly nervous that the skirt, secured only by my inexperienced wrapping and tucking, would fall down at any second. After a couple of self-conscious wearings, I gave up and shipped it home.

My mother loves to quilt and I love to shop for exotic materials for her while I’m here in Asia. A couple of months after Myanmar, I was with my friends Juelle and Donovan at the weekly market in Ban Krud when some gorgeous cotton material caught my eye. I picked up one purple and one orange bit for my mom, only to discover when I got back to the hotel that they’d already been sewn up: the ends of the rectangular material are sewn together to create a tube of cloth forming a longyi or, as it’s known in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, a sarong! Always eager to play dress up with local fashion, I couldn’t help myself – I tried one on and this time it stuck. My wrapping technique still wasn’t great but the material was too pretty to be ignored. I kept one for myself and felt like a tropical goddess wearing it around, despite my fears of coming unwrapped! 🙂

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My second sarong/longyi purchase and the one that really started it all

This was the beginning of the obsession! The gorgeous colors and patterns draw me in; despite the fact that I am probably ending up with far more sarongs than I will every possibly need, still I have to pick up at least one in every country we visit. I’ve been practicing loads and am no longer scared of the skirt falling off while I’m walking around. 🙂 (It does happen sometimes that it starts to get loose – then I just do like the locals and re-adjust and fasten where ever I happen to be.)

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The sarong I picked up in Laos

Here in Cambodia, I bought an unfinished bit of material, and the friendly seamstress who sewed it up for me gave me some more pointers on how the locals work their wrap – check the photographic step by step guide below. 🙂

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My latest purchase from Battambang, Cambodia

As much as I love the sarongs for comfort and fashion reasons, the best thing about them is quite possibly the reaction they get from locals. They’re beautiful and make great souvenirs in my opinion yet I never see other Westerners wearing them, and from folks’ reactions, neither do they. Walking around in one inevitably draws stares, smiles, laughter and friendly comments.

In Ko Lanta I got thumbs up from local women, in Kratie I got a kick out of the old man who, after I was pointed out to him by a friend, emphatically exclaimed “Oh my God!”. Here in Siem Reap, a friendly young woman in a store I was shopping with told me how she loves to wear sarongs at home even though her mother makes fun of her for it (while people almost exclusively wear them in Myanmar and lots of women in Laos wear them, it’s much less common to see sarongs here in Cambodia, especially in younger people and less rural areas), and said it made her very happy to see me in one. 🙂

How to wear a sarong – the southeast Asia way

I’m sure there is a more accurate/articulate way to explain this but hopefully it makes some sense. As with most things, I’m finding practice makes perfect! 🙂

The ends of the sarong material are sewn together to create a tube:

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The sarongs I’ve bought are really long (and while I’m short, most Cambodian women we’ve met are even shorter!). I asked the seamstress if she could hem it for me but she said that’s not done. Instead, you can adjust the sarong by folding the top of the material until it’s at your desired length.

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Pull the sarong strongly to one side. Hold the material to your hip to create a crease, pulling the extra material strongly away from your body.

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Keeping the material secure at your hip with your hand, fold and wrap the extra material tightly around the front of your legs.

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Pull the top corner of the extra cloth out and up, against the inner layer of cloth.

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Tuck the upper corner of the outer cloth into the skirt. This is usually where locals stop; I like to tuck down the edges of the skirt for extra security! 🙂

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The finished product! Typically the women I’ve seen wear the sarong with their shirt tucked into it, as in the photo.

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Thai Island Dream: Part 6 (Ko Lipe, learning to dive)

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Ko Lipe is surrounded by a group of islands that form the protected Ko Tarutao Marine National Park. It’s meant to be some incredible nature and we’d had plans to hire a long tail and go exploring, but Roman enjoyed the dive intro on the Aquila so much that he came up with a suggestion: Why not get certified?

Lipe has a good number of dive shops that have Lonely Planet’s stamp of approval, so we decided to go for it, and we signed up for the PADI Open Water Diver course the next day. I’ve added “Seeing the Tarutao National Park” to my to-do list for the next time we go on vacation in Thailand, but the diving was such a phenomenal experience; I have no regrets about saving the park for next time. 🙂

We ended up diving with a shop called Ocean Pro. Chilled out but professional, and if all their instructors are as good as the one we learned with then I can recommend them hands down. Rebecca was our teacher, a very cool chick from NYC of all places. She was informative but very fun and knew tons about the fantastic marine life we got to see in and around the coral reefs we dived at. We also bonded over the time we’d both spent working in the in the finance industry making the money to fuel our dreams. 🙂

Learning to trust the breath

The first time I went diving was back in 2002. Getting over a hard break up I decided to shake things up and do something completely new, so I took myself on a short island vacation to Aruba. Following the “be adventurous” theme, I signed up for one of those hotel one-day dive packages, where you learn the ropes in the pool in the morning and then do a simple dive in relatively shallow waters in the afternoon.

It sounds basic, and it is, but for me it was a big deal, because I’ve got a bit of a fear of drowning. I’m not sure where this might come from, but not being able to breathe really frightens me, more so than the normal person. I was fine during the pool practice, but I started to freak out as soon as my head went under the ocean water in the afternoon and I began hyperventilating.

Luckily the instructor saw me and was able to “talk me down” using eye contact and sign language. What happened then was amazing. Using my mind and my breath I was able to calm down enough until the wonder of the dive – the amazing feeling of floating through the water as though I were flying and the excitement of seeing beautiful fish in their natural habitat – overtook and completely replaced all of the irrational but massive fear I had been experiencing.

Power of the breath

Holding to and working consciously with breath is something I learned even more about as I began and developed my yoga practice shortly thereafter. It’s something that is so simple and yet so powerful; it never ceases to amaze me when I can reconnect to it.

It was therefore really interesting for me to come back to diving after my first experience years ago and after all the practice with breath work that I’ve had from yoga. In fact in some ways certain things were actually harder for me – yoga breathing is primarily through the nose and of course when you’re diving everything is through the regulator in your mouth, so I had to overcome some well-ingrained habits.

But it was fascinating and fun to see how big of effect conscious breathing has on diving. The amount to which you can regulate your depth or the amount of oxygen you use is astounding. It was especially eye-opening to me when I was diving with an underwater camera (this was after we’d completed our certification) – I was distracted by taking photos and didn’t pay attention to my breath at all and I went through my air twice as fast!

Dive fans

The course was pretty full on (the days started early and were full of painfully dorky PADI videos, above and underwater practice, independent study and practice quizzes until it was time to sleep) but fun, and we loved the dives so much that we signed up to join a fun dive (means that the crew would set up and clean up your gear for you and you can just show up 🙂 ) bright and early the next day and ended up diving at three different sites.

We didn’t see any big critters under water, but the reefs around the islands were just teeming with life. As soon as your head is under the surface (or sometimes even before!), there’s not a direction you can look where you wouldn’t see something interesting. Puffer fish, clark’s anemone fish, sting rays, trigger fish (some that tried to attack me! 🙂 ), clown fish (the Nemo fish, in case you didn’t know that already 😉 ), porcupine and goat fish, ornate ghost pipe fish, fancy looking lion fish, poisonous and camouflaged scorpion fish, eels, sea slugs and cucumbers – the list goes on. And the anenome and coral were gorgeous and fascinating too!

We couldn’t get enough of watching it all, and we definitely plan to make diving a part of the rest of our trip, depending on location and budget. 🙂

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Dive plan Rebecca drew up for one of the fun dives

We got to use Rebecca’s underwater camera one day. I have a lot to learn about underwater photography yet – the pics aren’t great, but here are some of them anyhow. 🙂 Full disclaimer: Most of the pics have been pretty heavily doctored in iPhoto to try to get the colors to match my memory…

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Can you find Nemo? 🙂

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Sea squirts – This particular version are one of my favorites, they are so pretty and such an amazing color in real life

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Porcupine fish

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Eels

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Can you see the scorpion fish in this photo?

Other random stuff
Just for myself, I want to remember:
– how amazing the sunsets were on Ko Lipe. Some of the most colorful and stunning we saw in all of Thailand, with the sky and ocean reflecting a ever-changing rainbow of pearly pastels at each other until the sun got low enough to turn it all to purple-grey.
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This is a photo of the least pretty sunset we saw on the island – and the only one I had my camera with me for. 😉

– the bizarre incident of breaking up the fight we happened upon as we walked back to our hotel one night, and how the Indian guy, Joseph, who was outnumbered and definitely getting his butt kicked, was happy when he finally found us a couple of days later to say thank you.
– the hilariously unenthusiastic and pathetic karaoke that was going on at the hotel down the street from ours. Hotel California with the words half remembered, sung by a guy who couldn’t even be bothered (or maybe was too ashamed?) to get up from his table. Cracked me up. 🙂

Thai Island Dream: Part 5 (Ko Lipe)

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Our final stop in our Thai island dream was Ko Lipe, an island in Satun province not too far from the Malaysian border. We were reluctant to leave our idyllic spot at Ko Lanta, but were curious enough about what Lonely Planet was calling the “Deep South”, so we got up early, slurped down a last delicious coffee and got driven by the lovely Mango House manager to the dock at the other side of the island.

The speed boat we boarded cut along mangroves and through bright waters, making stops along the way to pick up more tourists who would wade with their luggage from the beach to the boat. Once the ship was full up, we stopped at a larger island and boarded a ferry. A journey of a few hours brought us to a floating dock off the waters of Ko Lipe, where we and our luggage were loaded into long tail taxis.

Another spectacular beach landing erased any regrets I had about leaving Ko Lanta. The sand was nearly white, the water was crystal clear – I could see coral and fish as I peered over the edge of the long tail boat! – and it felt wonderfully refreshing as we hopped overboard and walked onto the beach. I couldn’t wait to get my bathing suit on and go for a swim!

Luckily for us Ko Lipe is tiny, and it took no time to walk to our hotel and get settled.

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Long tail boat like the one that brought us on shore

The island and the hotel

Ko Lipe is more “Thailand Pavilion at Disney’s Epcot Center” than authentic Thai village. Unlike Ko Lanta, it seems to exist only for tourism. There’s not much we discovered in the way of culture or places like restaurants that were geared towards locals rather than tourists and the vibe was accordingly different.

That doesn’t stop the island and its beaches from being beautiful, and we really loved the immersion in nature we experienced there, but we were also grateful to be there after the high season. It was clear from the number of hotels and restaurants that the island could accommodate a LOT more visitors than we saw. We were told that during peak season the place is just packed with Europeans – especially Swedes for some reason.

The island has a main “walking street” – a sandy pedestrian path that links the two main beaches and is lined with roti stands (a Thai version of crepes), bars, restaurants, tour operators and convenience stores. Most hotels and bungalows tend to be located on the beaches.

We ended up at a spot that was a bit out of the way (which meant just a short walk to the main drag) at a hotel called The Reef. While it didn’t have the charm and beauty of Mango House, still, it was perfectly clean and modern and we really liked it.

The real highlight was the cats living at the hotel. The place had a lovely open lounge at the front, with low tables and pretty cushions set out on the wood floor. The staff had two teeny tiny little kittens that hung out there during opening hours, toddling between guests legs and getting their little kitten claws stuck on the cloth as they climbed up the pillows. SO cute. There was another cat, young but no longer a kitten, who also lived there and seemed to feel pretty displaced by the little fuzzball siblings. She was also way adorable and took a liking to us and was always trying to sneak into our room for some extra attention. Cute fest! 🙂

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Our room at The Reef

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Cutey cat

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Half of cutey cat’s competition, Fuzzball 1

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Fuzzball 1 close up

Lipe eats

We soon found some favorites for food on the island. Everything we ever ate at the Sunrise Beach Restaurant was delicious – we kept coming back for the curries and especially the fried fish with tons of garlic and green onion. Yum!

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Konlay Thaifood on the “walking street” was a bit hit or miss – maybe different chefs for different days? – but the service was really friendly and good and I did have one of the best Pad Thais of our entire time in Thailand there.
I was also excited to find lemongrass salad on their menu. This was something I was introduced to while staying in Ban Krud and I absolutely loved it, but hadn’t found it again since. Any lemon grass I’ve bought in the West is always tough and woody, great to add flavor to a dish but never something I would have considered eating. The lemongrass used in the salads I had was young and tender with a really delicate flavor. The light dressing and chopped onion compliment the flavor perfectly and it makes for a light, addictive salad. I don’t know exactly what was in the different ones I had in Thailand, but this recipe I found online sounds about right, although no version I ate had pork in it and sometimes it had finely chopped lemongrass and cabbage mixed together: http://www.thaifoodplus.com/Thai/Recipes/Salad/Lemongrass_Spicy_Salad_Cooking.php

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I broke down and tried a roti for breakfast one day. Thank God it was towards the end of our stay or else I would have been in trouble. 😉 A thin, crispy/chewy crepe filled with peanut butter and bananas and drenched in condensed milk. Disgustingly heavy and sweet and filling and too much and OH SO DELICIOUS. 🙂

Sights in and around Vientiane

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We did a nice mix of tourist stuff and just hanging out while we were in Vientiane.

Food and drink

After weeks in the northern Laos countryside, Roman was happy to indulge in the international fare on offer in the capitol. We found some really nice places for food.

I did get introduced to and promptly fell in love with one Lao speciality – the country’s beer. We’ve tried the “gold” version and some of Laos’ other beers like Savan, but the original is the best. Beerlao, made with rice, hops and yeast and served icy cold on a hot, sunny day has got to be one of the most delicious things ever.

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Deliciousness (This photo’s actually taken in Savvanakhet, not Vientiane)

Noy’s Fruit Heaven had really tasty western offerings with both service and ambience that was cute and friendly. I had one of my rare beef cravings (happens probably about five times a year) and was in luck – Vientiane has a western style steak house called Xayoh and my tender, juicy filet with fries, salad and veggies (and a bottle of that oh so good, oh so cold beer) really hit the spot. And we ate too much ice cream at the newly opened Swensens, something we’d discovered in Bangkok with mixed feelings (another massive global chain… so bad! But, delicious tasty ice cream… so good!).

The vibe

So far I’m finding Laos is very different from the other Buddhist countries we’ve visited. It has a relatively short history as a nation in comparison to Thailand and Myanmar and has suffered many losses of historic sites over the decades whether at the hand of attacking neighboring kingdoms or during the ceaseless hail of bombs from the US during the Vietnam war.

I’m not sure if the relative youth of the temples and sacred spaces we visited in and around Vientiane was a contributing factor to this, but I found that, while they were beautiful, they didn’t convey the almost tangible spiritual atmosphere I’d experienced in some Buddhist sites we visited in Thailand and Myanmar.

I’ll write more about it later, but subsequent to leaving Vientiane we were able to participate in some Buddhist rituals in a rural village and I can tell you those were very moving. Perhaps the Buddhist spirit of Lao is more present in the coming together of its people than in its monuments?

None the less, I really enjoyed the places we saw.

Temples and parks

Haw Pha Kaeo had lush, immaculately manicured grounds populated by flickering butterflies. The wat (temple) itself was lovely. I really enjoyed seeing all the various buddha statues along the outside of the building, watching visitors rub the faces, arms, feet of the bronze figures in devotion. Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera with me the day we visited. Check here for a bit of info and some pics: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haw_Phra_Kaew

Wat Si Saket, with its alcove-filled cloister walls containing thousands of little buddha statues gently picking up the warm light of the midday sun from the open courtyard, was peaceful and breathtakingly beautiful.

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A portion of one of the many buddha-filled walls

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Buddha detail

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Offerings and the remnants of candles in front of a Buddha statue

We took a trip out-of-town to visit Xieng Khuan, also known as Buddha Park. Created in 1958, it’s a surreal “park” along the edge of the Mekong river, containing massive, bizarre and wonderful statues representing figures from both Buddhism and Hinduism. I’d say it’s got an almost Edward Gorey-esque feel to it, and while it’s fun enough during the bright Lao afternoon, I’d be disinclined to spend a night in the park alone. 😉

 

 

 

A panoramic shot of the park – click for a closer look

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Monks in front of a massive reclining Buddha

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Monks in orange, statues in bizarre

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Hindu god in the foreground, monks and the Mekong river in the background

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Not sure what’s going on here

Even more surreal though was the next stop we made. We’d shared a ride with a bunch of sight-seeing monks who wanted to go to see a “Cultural Park” before we headed back to the city. This is not something that is listed in the guidebook and I can see why. Although it was open and we had to pay addmision, the “park” felt and looked like it had been abandoned years ago, with locked up, cobwebby exhibitions, public areas entirely overgrown by nature, and not all that much to look at. I think the idea behind it was to showcase Lao culture; there were replicas of different traditional tribal houses and what looked like a good sized outdoor stage that may have hosted dance and music performances. Mostly though there were just shut up buildings, cracked pathways and lots and lots of trees and shrubs. Oh, and some random dinosaur statues. 🙂

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Pha That Luang, an impressive, massive, gold covered stupa, is the national symbol for Laos. We headed there after the amusing visit to the Cultural Park. We got there past closing time, so we couldn’t go in, but we enjoyed people watching and strolling around the beautiful, open grounds and checking out the lovely temples around it as the sun began to sink lower over the city.

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Pha That Luang

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One of the Wats on the grounds

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Ribbons around a beautiful, massive tree in front of Pha That Luang

Thai Island Dream: Part 4 (Ko Lanta continued)

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There was lots we enjoyed about Ko Lanta beyond the lovely accommodation.

Ban Lanta

The old town was small but charming. The one main street was lined with a nice mix of new and beautiful old wood buildings housing shops with bamboo cages of twittering birds out front, homes and plenty of ocean-facing restaurants. Away from the main strip, palms and gorgeous flowering trees shaded the streets. There was a long pier out over the water which seemed to be a local hang out and was a great place to catch the sunset.

The people living in that part of the island seemed chilled out and friendly. I got a kick out of the young girl (probably around 9 or 10) who was driving a tuk tuk around one evening while her kid brother swung from a small hammock suspended from the ceiling of the cab. Also fun was getting thumbs up and smiles from some of the local women about my fashion choice when I went for walks while wearing the lovely orange sarong I picked up at a market in Ban Krud.

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Main street

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Fishing boat

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Beautiful trees

Skooter expeditions

We spent a lot of time enjoying, eating and relaxing in Ban Lanta on the west coast, but we rented a scooter for part of our stay and had a blast zooming around the twisty roads and exploring. The center of the island is hilly and more rural than the coasts; sometimes we’d find ourselves winding along roads that curved through lush corridors of towering jungle, which I just loved. There were tons of mango trees on the island and I guess it was just coming into their prime season; was neat to see all the perfect green fruit hanging down from the branches on long, thin stems.

One of our exploratory drives ended up being an unexpected car (scooter) wash. We were on the island for Songkran, the New Year/water festival (learn more here). We knew that anyone on the streets was fair game, but things had seemed pretty tame on the island – until we took a road that led us down a hill where about five groups of kids were waiting in succession, each armed with big buckets. Needless to say, we came out the other end sopping wet and cracking up with laughter – especially when we realized we had come to a dead-end and would have to return through the line of fire. 🙂

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Songkran drive by. This photo is taken from the safety of our breakfast table – a truck full of people dousing folks on the street with buckets and water guns and the pedestrians fighting water with water. 🙂

We did spend some time on the east coast beaches and one afternoon we hung out for a while along the water’s edge, admiring incredible miniature sand sculptures made by equally minuscule artists.

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Amazingly beautiful crab creations! The whole beach was covered in these intricate designs.

Storm views

One other wonderful experience was stopping at a restaurant for a coffee. It was on the west coast, up a hill about a 15 minute drive from the old town, with a spectacular view of the coast, ocean and islands below. (In case you ever want to look for it, it’s a relatively new restaurant and I think it was called the Sea Gypsy and it was beyond the Viewpoint restaurant) We were about halfway through our drinks when we noticed storm clouds starting to move in over the water. The ocean started to change colors as the sunlight faded behind the clouds, and we could see fishermen returning to shore in their long tail boats. By the time our coffee was gone, the storm had arrived in earnest. The restaurant had a peaked thatch roof but no walls, so we had to grab our stuff and retreat to the central most point. Even then, we still were getting lightly sprayed as the wild winds whipped the heavy downpour through the air. The sheer volume of water coming down was just amazing, as were the powerful claps of lightning that hit nearby.

Eventually the storm began to lose steam and eased into a still heavy but less violent downpour, and we decided that we’d wait out the rain by eating dinner at the place. After we’d finished eating, the proud owners gave us a private tour – apparently they’d build the place, including the incredible wooden furniture pretty much on their own and they were really and rightly proud of it. By then, the rain had stopped completely, and we hopped onto our scooter and headed „home“ through dark roads swathed in fog and illuminated only by fireflies and our little headlight, trying our best to avoid the tons of frogs that were celebrating the rain by hopping through puddles all over the road. Really a magic evening. 🙂

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Retreating to the center of the restaurant during the storm. It’s hard to tell from the photo how heavily it was raining; suffice to say the ocean was aquamarine and the view went all the way to the coast before the rain arrived. Also, check out the nifty, handmade chairs. 🙂

Some other Ko Lanta pics

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I really loved the dark woods used in so many of the buildings in town. Here are the houses on the alley leading to our hotel room.

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Hotel detail; our front door

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Blue glass over a wooden door

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Ko Lanta was one of the islands hit by the 2004 tsunami; today there are evacuation signs everywhere

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The ocean changes color as a storm moves in (view from our balcony)

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Song bird in a store front in Ban Lanta

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Sunset view from our balcony

Thai Island Dream: Part 3 (Ko Lanta)

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We woke from our last night on the Aquila to see the sun illuminating the next stop on our journey: Ko Lanta. We enjoyed one last breakfast on board, packed our things, searched for our long-forgotten shoes, said goodbye to the crew, hopped into the dinghy and headed for shore.

I have to say, I love arriving at a new place by beach. Splashing into the shallow waters, taking care to keep the luggage dry, and heading into town with bare, sandy feet to get our bearings – it’s all just tremendously romantic. 🙂

Ko Lanta managed to deliver on the tropical, romantic paradise atmosphere beyond our beach landing.

Island vibe

It’s a small island, with a population of about 20,000. While it’s got a good number of resorts and beaches catering to Westerners, there’s more tot he island than just tourism and it has a really nice, lived-in feeling that is lacking at some other islands. The population is an interesting mix of Thai Muslims and Buddhists and sea gypsies, the chao leh (pronounced something like “chow lay”).

We’d booked our hotel ahead and I’d been lured away from the beach hotels on the east coast by the description of Ko Lanta’s old town (Ban Lanta) on the west coast. Lonely Planet describes Ban Lanta as “the island’s original port and commercial centre…, a safe harbour for Arabic and Chinese trading vessels…, (where) some of the gracious and well-kept wooden stilt houses and shop fronts … are over 100 years old.”

We had booked a few nights at a boutique hotel called Mango House. In the end, we were so charmed by Ban Lanta, the rest of the island, and the beauty, relaxed vibe and friendly hospitality at Mango House that stayed for nearly a week!

Teakwood dream: Mango House

Mango House is a small collection of old, original buildings right over the water that have been tastefully renovated. They are rustic enough to feel really authentic – the doors are massive jobbies of ancient teak that leave gaps when closed, so sleeping under the provided mosquito netting is advisable; the floor boards in the simple, semi-outdoor kitchen area are gapped as well and let in glimpses of the illuminated sea water as it laps around the building’s posts – while still providing a lot of comfort (like effective air conditioning an in-room book and DVD collection).

Our room was huge and shared a spacious, hammock-equipped balcony overlooking the water with the room next door. It was a wonderful place to just hang out and watch the ocean change as the day light turned it different colors and the tides moved in and out of the harbor.

There was a cute restaurant/bar on the road in front of the rooms that was run by the same staff as the hotel. Unfortunately I can’t remember the name of the woman who managed it – she was totally sweet and friendly and welcoming. The menu was small but everything on it that we had was delicious. It served really good coffee, and awesome breakfast so it became our place to start the day while we were on the island. Just like the rooms, it was a gorgeous dark wood building, and apparently it was even an opium den for sailors and locals back in the day! 🙂

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Our room

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The view from our balcony

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Our super-sweet hostess (I wish I could remember her name! 😦 )

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Her cat liked to come visit us. Here she is, trying to break into our room. 😀

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View from inside the restaurant, flip flops outside the back entrance

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Best fresh fruit muesli & yogurt

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Buddha bar 🙂

Thai Island Dream: Part 2 (Phuket Boat Charter continued)

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The three days on the Aquila passed like a dream. Hours melted leisurely from one to the other until the moments felt timeless. The scenery changed around us continually but gradually and, whether a gently rippling ocean marked by distant islands on a hazy horizon, towering cumulus clouds ablaze in a fiery sunset, peaceful strips of white beach on seemingly deserted islands or chunks of limestone the size of buildings covered in green foliage and appearing to hover over the water, it was always absolutely spectacular.

I lost track of time and the names of all the places we dropped anchor pretty quickly. Roman was more organized than me however, so thanks to him, here is the laundry list of places we apparently stopped to visit or spent the night anchored off of.

Koh Racha
Koh Mai Ton
Koh Phi Phi Don
Ko Yung
Ko Lanta

A lot of time was spent just chatting and enjoying the scenery and relaxed vibe on deck, napping in the sun, listening to music on the boat’s great sound system, snacking on coffee awesome fresh banana bread. When we weren’t doing that, there was plenty of other fun to be had.

Markus is a certified PADI instructor and gave us a basic intro to diving. The first morning we stopped at a resort beach where he took us through the beginner diver exercises in the clear waters just off shore. We spent the night by the shores of another island that had a great spot to do some easy diving. After a leisurely breakfast and getting warm in the sun, we got geared up, hopped into the dinghy, and got underwater to check out the underwater action.

I’d done a couple of hotel dive courses years ago, but it was Roman’s first dive. We both totally enjoyed it – except for the big patches of stinging particles we encountered. I got one big bunch right in the mouth – so painful! Luckily when you’re underwater no one can hear you curse! 😉  Aside from that though it was great – I love the feeling of moving in three dimensions under water like you’re flying, and the fish and other animals we got to see around the reef were fascinating and fun to see. It was enough to whet our appetite for more… 🙂

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View from the ship of the beach where we learned diving basics the first morning

Another thing I loved was swimming and kayaking right off the edge of the boat.

We went to the island where scenes from the movie “The Beach” were filmed. You can get there by the main beach but then you have to pay an entrance fee. We went via the back end of the island. Markus parked, and Roman, Narita and I hopped off and swam through deep, jewel-colored waters to a rickety ladder attached to sharp, craggy limestone. After clambering up the ropes and boards, we made it to a jungle path that led to the main beach. This was packed with tourists, but beautiful none-the-less, and we enjoyed a leisurely swim in light aquamarine waters book-ended by towering lime-stone cliffs before returning the way we came and swimming back to the Aquila.

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View from the ship of the ladder (top right corner) we swam to and climbed to get to the island from “The Beach”

We went kayaking at a couple of places. First within a lagoon created by another set of limestone cliffs. Apparently the place was usually full of tourist-packed motor-boats but we went late enough in the day that we had it nearly to ourselves. Roman and I were in one kayak and Markus and Narita in the other; it was surreal and fun to hear Markus’ perfect Swiss yodel echoing across the water and limestone walls. 😉 Roman and I did a solo kayak run the next day, exploring the edges of some massive limestone boulders off the shore of an island, where we got sprayed as the surf got sucked through small caves, watched beautiful crabs scale the vertical walls of rock and dare-devil swallows wing wildly from their cliff-side nests.

Snorkeling was also amazing. I’d never done that before and once I got the hang of it, I loved it and was totally mesmerized by the amazing world to be seen and experienced under the water.

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A school of sergeant major fish come to greet Roman (and beg for food) as he descends for some snorkelling

The food was also a major highlight – Uan is a phenomenal cook and the meals we got on board were hands down the best Thai food we had while in Thailand. The ingredients were fresh and the cooking was inspired – Uan didn’t plan ahead but let the ingredients and his mood lead the way. Breakfast was western – and even Swiss on occassion. 🙂 Sunday morning Markus was thoughtful enough to serve us Zopf with Nutella – the classic Sunday breakfast treat in Switzerland.

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Fresh tuna just pulled out of the ocean. It may be small but it still made blazin’ good sashimi!

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Fish in an incredible orange sauce with yellow peppers. I wish I had this recipe!!!

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The crew knew I am crazy about asparagus – so, asparagus with shrimp in a simply but delicious sauce

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Another incredible fish dish – tons of garlic and green onion = heaven for me and Roman

I really can’t rave enough about our time on board with Markus, Narita, Uan and (if I remember correctly!) Mai – so I’ll end the post here and let just some of the photos of the beautiful things we saw do the rest of the talking for me.

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Sunset, the first night on board

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The ship’s anchor, with marigold garlands

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Islands on the horizon

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Afternoon coffee on deck

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View from the deck during afternoon coffee…

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Long tail boat in front of limestone karst

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There was heat lightning each night we were on board. This photo is from the second night, docked off of Monkey Beach, when it was particularly beautiful. I tried for ages to capture it; in the dark on a moving ship with my camera, this shot (slightly altered in iPhoto) is the closest I got. The red dot on the water is a ship close by, the green dots on the horizon to the right are the neon lights from squid ships further afield.

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Our neighbor, morning at Monkey Beach

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Morning view

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Uan, Narita and Mai eating food they picked up on shore at Ko Lanta – way too hot for us farangs

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Sunset, the last night on board, off shore from Ko Lanta

Thai Island Dream: Part 1 (Phuket Boat Charter)

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We spent the last two and a half weeks before my trip home with some absolutely amazing island hopping in the Andaman Sea along Thailand’s west coast.

We decided to skip the coast’s best-known beaches at Phuket and Krabi, but went all out setting up a dream itinerary:

Three days and three nights on a private boat, sailing and exploring islands on the way from Phuket to Ko Lanta.

A week taking in the beautiful views, tasty food and charms of Ko Lanta.

Another week getting our dive certification on and around the sun-drenched, white-sand beaches of Ko Lipe.

Certainly the most expensive bunch of travel we have done our entire trip, but we were helped out by an incredibly generous gift from Roman’s mom (thank you Petra! 🙂 ), and it was all so amazing – I’d do it again in a heartbeat if I could! 🙂

The beginning

We booked the boat with Phuket Boat Charter. The price was all-inclusive and covered the crew, including a chef, all food and drinks to our preferences and drop off at the island of our choice. All we had to do was meet Markus, the Swiss skipper, at the dock at the appointed time, and our adventure would begin.

We had booked the charter while we were still up in Prachuap Khiri Khan Province on the east coast, so we caught a VIP night bus (insanely decorated in deep blue and painfully bright neon – I felt like I was inside a black lit fishbowl – but comfortable enough, especially once the lights were off) from outside of Ban Krud to get down to Phuket.

The trip was easy enough and we found a room at dive shop called Crystal Clear. Their rooms were off of a stairwell at the back end of a lightly populated bar serviced by a somewhat intense lady-boy. The rooms themselves beautifully cool and clean in all white with a lovely, fluffy duvet on the bed that reminded me of Switzerland. We were staying in a part of town called Chalong, away from Phuket’s beaches but close to the dock and, conveniently, the immigration office where we had to extend our visas.

After a day and a half to rest up from the overnight drive and sort out admin, we woke up early and headed to Jimmy’s Lighthouse where we’d arranged to meet Markus. He and his cute Thai girlfriend (her name escapes me at the moment. 😦 She was totally sweet though. Maybe I’ll remember after some coffee…) were both totally easy-going and sweet and made us instantly comfortable. We took off our shoes (wouldn’t see them again for days!), loaded our bags and ourselves into an inflated dinghy and headed out to meet our boat.

First sight

The Aquila is a trimaran, a sailboat with three hulls. The central hull is the largest and holds the control room, a simple kitchen and dining room, space for the crew. The smaller outside hulls are bedrooms with private bathrooms, simple, but nice enough since the real place to be was on deck, which ended up serving as a superb out-door dining room, bar, lounge for reading, napping and sunbathing and pool-side.

Roman and I were both agape as we boarded the ship, gleeful at the realization that this was going to be our home and life for the next three days. Markus introduced us to his daughter, Narita, who was a fun addition to the party, and Uan, the chef who doubled as crew when an extra hand was needed, and invited us to relax at the breakfast table while the crew got us out of the harbor and on our way.

That pretty much set the tone for the whole trip. The crew was totally friendly and easy-going and the atmosphere was so relaxed. It felt like hanging out with friends. But when it came to meals, equipment prep and the like, we never had to lift a finger and we ended up feeling totally spoiled by Markus and company.

So, that first morning we sat on deck with a lovely breakfast, enjoying the morning sun glimmering off the bright waters of Phuket’s harbor as the island pulled away from us and we headed towards our first destination.

Random notes on Bangkok

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I know not everyone is a fan of Bangkok. It has a bit of a reputation for being filthy, overcrowded and a bit sleazy, with neighborhoods dedicated to strip clubs and worse. There’s no question it is massive, and there’s plenty that I didn’t see (which may contribute to my high opinion), but I really enjoyed the city.

All together we ended up spending a large chunk of time there. We used it more for down time and transit, so I actually have very few photos from the weeks there (Bangkok was our first stop after Myanmar and my camera was so worn out after the three plus weeks there that I think it needed a break more than I did! 😉 ).

I’ll write more about our first visit to the city another time, but here are some more mental snapshots from the long weekend I had there on my own before coming to Laos, plus some of the few photos I did take.

Little things I want to remember:

The street musician with the tattooed face, pilot-style hat (close to the scalp, with ear flaps) and sunglasses who played beautiful music on a bamboo flute and looked more like a fantastical anime character than something of this world.

The wonderful taxi cabs – spotless little Toyotas in different colors with all the subtlety of a child’s first set of markers. Besides the most common sun-flower yellow topped, light forest green bottomed cars, there were plenty of smurf blue, cherry red, grape purple, frog green, juicy orange, cotton candy pink or, my favorite, super shiny iridescent hot pink cabs roaming the streets.

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Catching a cab in my favorite hot pink from the airport

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Labels on the cab window – including no drinking, no smoking and, in between those, no DURIAN

A street vendor in a massive bamboo hat pushing a cart with a bell tinkling from the corner, from which he sold mini balls of ice cream loaded with toppings and served on what distinctly resembled (but I hope was not!) hot dog buns. He was pretty popular so those must have been some really tasty buns…

Three well-fed rats who seemed to have won the rubbish jack pot because they were out in the light of day (usually we’ve only seen them after dark) happily weaving in and out of a card board box that must have been filled with a rubbish version of ambrosia.

One brave, or foolishly un-self-conscious, woman in a skin-tight, leopard print jumpsuit. Thai women have a knack at pulling off quirky fashion but even they have their limits…

The physical enjoyment of warming up in the extreme heat of the sunny afternoon reflecting up from the pavement after too much time in an overly air-conditioned store or restaurant – and the deliciousness of being engulfed in frosty cool inside air after a bit too much time out doors.

The amazing monitor lizards living in Lumphini park

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iPhone photo, not the best quality, but this monitor lizard is still impressive at somewhere between 4 and 5 feet long!

Yoga notes

I found a yoga studio in the city that I really like. It’s called Yoga Elements and it’s a well run studio with teachers who really know their stuff.

The studio is fancier/more western than most of the ones I’ve been to so far on the trip. It’s on the 23rd floor of a corporate high rise, just down the street from the Chidlom Sky Train station, and has two large studios with floor to ceiling windows and some pretty great views of the city. The reception area is tastefully decorated and has new-age music playing. The studio provides mats and towels and complimentary tea, all of which are constantly refreshed by a sweet little Thai grandma who weaves between the students in the reception area in black-stockinged feet. All very professional.

Which is why I had to giggle when we were in the middle of a very-zen breathing exercise and a little gecko started chirping from some hidden corner on the ceiling. How he managed to find his way up tot he 23rd floor is beyond me, but he was a great reminder that despite how western the studio and even Bangkok sometimes felt to me, I am definitely in southeast Asia!

Snapshots: Backwards from Bangkok

I’ve decided to do my Thailand notes in reverse order, which means I get to start with today. Tonight I fly to a new country, Laos, to meet Roman, but I’ve already had a few lovely hours up and about in Bangkok, taking a morning constitutional before breakfast. Jet lag got me up early and as soon as it was light enough, I walked from my hotel to Lumphini Park for some easy jogging. I found the place packed with people and activity, even before 7am. Here are some snapshots.
Walking to the park in the early morning, the streets between Chidlom and Lumphini were still peaceful, although not quite abandoned. I shared smiles with vendors opening up their street stalls for the day, construction workers heading to a job and even one barefooted, mustard-colored robed monk with his begging bowl. I enjoyed the smell of a big bamboo basket of jasmine rice being steamed on a concrete brazier filled with glowing coals and set on the sidewalk. I admired the pluck of a ballsy street tom-cat begging at a food cart, and getting rewarded with some scraps of meat. Even shortly after the sun had risen, the air was lush and moist. Some blocks were filled with the smell of flowers drifting from small courtyards – if I’d closed my eyes I could have imagined I’d been transported to the inside of a tropical green house instead of walking along a big city street lined with sky scrapers.
By the time I reached the park it was already filled with thousands of people. Many of them were there for a spot of exercise before the day got too hot.
Older women with perfect, shiny red talons, faces full of make up and bouffant hair sprayed to within an inch of its life gracefully moved through Tai Chi sequences.
Wiry Thai men without an ounce of body fat sweat as they jogged along the broad pathways.
Grown children took their elderly parents out for some fresh air, slowly pushing a wheel chair or patiently keeping pace with the shuffle of swollen, aged feet.
Various big groups of people followed the aerobics moves of a perky instructor talking into a microphone.
There was an elegant martial arts practice or two, complete with long wooden staffs.
Bunches of women practiced traditional dances, their red and white paper fans glowing as they caught the occasional ray of sun that filtered through the trees and filling the air with a sound like one hundred clapping hands as they open and shut.
Yoga mats were spread on blankets spread on the grass, being pushed into the earth by folks grounding through their downward facing dog poses.
Some did work outs using the park’s simple machines while others used the benches, fences, piers or grass as their equipment for stretching and strength training.
Other people were there for less ambitious reasons. Old biddies sat at tables in the shade for an outdoor breakfast, pouring each other steaming cups of tea from metal thermoses and doling out plates of food as they gossiped together. Some people napped on park benches or watched all the passing activity. Elderly men perused newspapers. As I left the park, I could see some folks were also there for their morning shopping.
Outside the park, a temporary market had been set up. A few beggars with missing or withered limbs supplicated to shoppers in the space between the park gates and the tightly packed stalls. Clothes, food, accessories and a whole host of other things were on offer. Mystery meat, fruit and other foods abounded, some definitely looking more appetizing than others even when I had not a clue what they were. I caught whiffs of durian, spring onions, fried eggs. The huge chunks of massive grouper, stacks of rubber-banded blue and grey crabs and buckets of light peach shrimp were so fresh that there was no smell at all by those stands. A bit early in the day for me for all that food, but it was still wonderfully interesting to see.
The park itself was much more verdant and lush than the last time I was there, overflowing with orchids and other flowers, palms bearing berries, massive trees crowned in thick, deep green canopies. I was happy to see the amazing, huge monitor lizards again, sunning their long bodies (some of them are over 5 feet!) or swimming lazily through the park’s ponds. Sparrows and mynah birds flitted about and bathed in large puddles left behind by the heavy night rains that had trespassed into my dreaming.
Other bits and pieces I want to remember:
Fresh garlands of flowers on top of dried out blooms and weather-faded ribbons looped around sacred trees and small shrines.
The stubs of hundreds used incense sticks jammed into the knot of a tree.
The bloody chops of chicken I passed at a street stall on my way into the park that had been fried into golden brown bits of breakfast by the time I started to head back to the hotel.
The beautiful brown-shelled snails making their home on the wall of a construction site.
The sweet little black cats that live outside my hotel that were snoozing under the potted plants on the stairs as I left for the park.
How willingly and happily most of the people smiled back at me when I smiled first.