Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Hong Island

We really had not had a full day adventure since arriving in Thailand and seeing Hong Island was high on the list.  It had good snorkeling, a lagoon, and some amazing scenery.  We decided to see how Kasen would do on a full day excursion and since this had a boat plus sandy beach (both things our girl loves), it seemed the best test.  Not to put a spoiler in the first paragraph, she did great - definitely great for a 2 year old.

The trip started off with the tour company picking us up at the hotel.  The start was interesting as the first truck (a converted pickup with a bunch of covered benches in the bed) was full and they were thinking they could fit 6 adults and 2 kids more (there was another couple with a 1 year old from a nearby hotel coming as well).  They finally decided that wouldn't work and flagged down the next truck, an even smaller pickup that didn't have much room (to make room people sat on laps).  We managed to cram in with: Debra and Kasen sitting in the front seat; Kat grabbing a spot on the crowded bench in the bed and Karl and John holding onto handles while they stood on the tailgate.  While they waited for the back to fill up with passengers, Deb took this photo to show the (hopefully) only time toddle Kasen will sit in the front seat with no car seat:

When we got to the pier (the same one we arrived at from Ko Phi Phi), we organized into tour groups and got stickers.  Later we found out the yellow (the sticker we got) was no kayak and orange included kayak...more on that later.  After roll call was completed, we split into two groups for different boats and headed down to the long tail boats.  We had been given an itinerary for the trip, but it was subject to tides and weather (i.e. if weather/tides weren't perfect we would skip some things).  Luckily the weather was great.  The tide schedule meant we headed to the lagoon on Hong Island first.

The travel time was about an hour to the island.  On the boat trip over, Kasen quickly fell asleep.  She seems to love to sleep on boats no matter how bumpy the conditions.  Maybe it's the comfortable seat she always seems to score.

Line up of long tails waiting for passengers at Ao Nang pier
Kasen in her usual sleeping position on a boat

When we got to Hong Island, we immediately went into the lagoon with the long tail.  The guide said at low tide, the boats can't get into the lagoon.  The entrance is small and really only wide enough for a single boat to fit and the lagoon was not much deeper than 3 - 4 ft.  There were some amazing views of limestone cliffs all around.  After a quick swing around the lagoon (maybe 10 minutes), we headed out and over to the beach.  The first order of business was to find a place to put the boat (there must had been at least 20 long tails already there).  Somehow the driver got us setup on the end and we finally got off the boat and onto the beach.

Here the group was to split into a kayaking group and a beach group.  I wanted to kayak, so Debra scored me a spot (for a "discount" even) and the rest of the group hung at the beach.  They were 3 person kayaks, but I went solo on the trip.  The route took us around the island, including into the lagoon.  Around the island was quite breath taking, just seeing the huge limestone cliffs coming straight out of the ocean was amazing.  Along the way there was a cave where a few people were camping (one was in a hammock when we showed up).  These people were stationed to keep tabs on the swallows that nest there, the area is a national park.

Cave that swallow watchers stay in, the red is the hammock

View looking up at the cliffs

more cliffs
Most of the paddling wasn't too bad (there were only a few areas that were a little rough), but the trip into the lagoon made it all worth it.  I was able to be in the front of the pack, so cruising in with very few people around was great, quite amazing.  While the pictures don't do it justice, hopefully you can get some idea of the experience.
coming up to the entrance
A little washed out light wise but wanted to get the cliff detail of the entrance
A view of the entrance from the mangroves

Once we got to the lagoon, we hopped out of the kayak and cooled down.  It was much needed!  The ground was covered with brown starfish, you couldn't take a step without hitting one.  Luckily, they are tough little things.  I grabbed one and took the photo below.  While we were in the lagoon, the guide talked about the tsunami and the fact that all the people who were in the lagoon were fine.  However, about 40 people died that day on Hong Island (mostly tourists).  There were even boats in the jungle about 20 meters up (still there from 2004).  We never made it up to see them, but saw a tsunami memorial that had pictures on a nearby message board.

Starfish from the lagoon

After a 10 minute rest and cool down, it was time to head back.  The trip back to the beach was a little windier/choppier, but went by quick.  Before I knew it, I was back on the beach and reunited with the crew in time for lunch (included in the trip).  Not bad for 1050 Bht ($35 - entire trip).  After lunch, we had about 30 minutes to explore around or hang at the beach, which we chose beach.

While I was on the kayak, Debra, Kasen, John and Kat hung at the beach, snorkeled around and fed some fish.  They would basically swarm you in the water in a feeding frenzy (I witnessed this later after lunch).  Kasen tried it, but got a little spooked when they tried to nibble on her finger.

We all piled back onto the boat and headed to Paradise Island for more snorkeling, beach, and relaxing.  The trip over was about 30 minutes and Kasen took a power nap while we looked at the scenery.  When we got there, we took shifts snorkeling around and watching Kasen.  She tried on the mask (she called them "goggles") but they just didn't seem to fit :)

View of some islands on the trip

Panoramic Kat took of the beach at Paradise Island
After a few beers and 45 minutes of beach and snorkeling, it was off to the last stop for the day, Dang Island (the only island with red rock in Thailand according to the guide).  There we got to snorkel from the boat (there was no beach but Kasen was napping).  Debra and I took turns (well really I got most of the time) to snorkel around.  The guide mentioned we could find "Nemo" here and we did (there were like 4 spots to find him).  I also saw Gill and Dori here as well (two other Finding Nemo characters).
And here is Nemo

From that snorkeling spot, it was back to the pier and back onto a truck to the hotel (this time no one had to ride on the tailgate).

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Riding Elephants

One of the things we wanted to do on this trip was to see some elephants up close.  Kasen loves seeing them at the zoo and we figured it would be a highlight for her to see them up close (maybe even get a chance to feed them).  We had done quite a bit if research on possible trips and found quite a few where you could ride them.  It sounded interesting, but that was not a requirement we had.  We especially didn't know if riding an elephant for an hour (the shortest trip) was feasible with a toddler.

Once we got to Ao Nang, we had a three days of unplanned time.  We looked into possible excursions for this time and one was to visit/ride elephants.  We decided to book it (2 hour total trip) and give Kasen something to remember.  

It was a short 15 minute ride from the hotel (they picked us up).  We walked out of the van, up some stairs to a landing and 5 minutes later we were on some elephants.  Here is John getting setup on his elephant Wahtu.  

They had initially pointed at Debra to get on the elephant pictured above, but once they saw she was going to grab Kasen they said "no" and John rode solo.   We wondered if it was like horseback riding and they were matching the elephants to the rider.  Our elephant did seem amazingly gentle.  We got onto our elephant, Tuka, and followed John through the "jungle".  The land was rather well preserved and full of large trees (all things considered).  Our guide sat on the elephants head while our feet rested on its neck or dangled along the side, occasionally getting swatted by the ears of the elephant.  Here you can see the seating situation and us on Tuka.  

The pink legs are Kasen's and the elephant's
ear to the left of the guide
The elephants listened well and our guides did not seem to even yell at them.  The guides did carry hooks, but we never saw them use them.  Our elephant liked grabbing some big branches and eating them, yes eating them (branches wider then my fist).  We could hear her munching on the wood (all the elephants were girls).  It was amazing how she just snapped these thick branches with her trunk.  

At one point we crossed a little river and the elephants took a little drink.   About this time we caught up with another group (we had felt like we were one private tour until that point).  Our guides passed them by taking us off the path and through the bush.  This place did have a number of tours, so those people may have been riding for 2 hrs or more.  We felt 1 hr was PLENTY.  Here is the "elephant jam" on the trail. 


When we got back from the trek, we got to feed the elephants (apparently the branches were just a snack).  They basically grabbed the banana with the tip of their trunk and stuffed it in their mouth.  Here is Kasen feeding our elephant.  Kasen loved this part and went through 2 baskets of bananas.

When we finished feeding there was a baby elephant "show", her name was Chika.  She played a harmonica, did a little dance, put a hat on Debra and Kasen, and even bowed when we clapped or some part of the show was complete.  Kasen got to sit on her for a picture, with a little spotting from mom.  After that there was a pineapple snack and some water before we got a ride back to the hotel.  Definitely an adventure.

Next post: the day long trip to Hong Island which included long tail rides, snorkeling, beach, fish feeding and kayaking.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Snorkling off Bamboo & Mosquito Island

While in Koh Phi Phi, Karl and John took a longtail for a snorkel trip.  They rode out to the two small islands that we could see from the beach of our resort. 

Mosquito Island behind one of the hotel's longtail

Mosquito Island (left) and Bamboo Island (right)

We really only had one afternoon of really calm water, so this was really the best snorkeling of the trip thus far.  I was not there, but Karl said the fish were amazing.  The large blue and yellow ones would swarm you if you stayed still.  Karl took a ton of pictures with our camera (Olympus Tg-1 IHS).  We will need to post a more detailed review, but overall I have been happy with the camera.  Best point and shoot I have ever had, plus I have never worried about it since it is waterproof.  The nice underwater shots have been a pleasant surprise.  Here are Karl's fish shots:

Karl the snorkel king

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Koh Phi Phi

While are traveling to Koh Phi Phi island was tough, staying there is pretty relaxing.  There is a main "beach" on the island called Tonsai which is where the ferry left us.  This is definitely the busiest area of the island and contains the most town-like atmosphere.  It is full of back packers and other travelers, souvenir shops, hotels and restaurants.  Our resort was up at Laem Tong beach which is at the northmost part of the island accessible only by longtail.  After the debacle when we arrived and realizing we could not get back for less that $40, we were not excited to go back to Tonsai.  So we stayed at Laem Tong beach the entire 2 and half days we were on Phi Phi.

Besides our resort (and a few others), there wasn't much to do.  Lay on the beach, swim at the pool, snorkel.... that was it.   Luckily we had gone into the trip knowing this stay would be pretty quiet, so I think we all enjoyed the down time.  Kasen LOVED the beach and was only happy when sand was covering 90% of her body.  She made quite a few sand angels even though she has never gotten the chance to make a snow one.  Here was the beach:

Nap on the beach - nothing better

There were a few swings along the beach.  Kasen did the pushing.

Kasen did get in, but she wasn't really a fan of the ocean

This was all Kasen wanted to do on the beach.  Best 219Bht ($7.34) spent yet!
One of the days we were there, Karl and John took a snorkel trip to a couple of the islands near Phi Phi.  Those picture next and a review of our underwater camera.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Beach

The concierge at the hotel warned us that morning traffic in Bangkok would be bad during the week.  As such, we left in a taxi for the airport about 3 hrs before the flight.  After it took us 20 minutes to drive 3 blocks, we realized the concierge did not exaggerate.  It took us 45 minutes to go the 27km (16 mi).  Since we had left early, we had a fairly uneventful airport stay.  We even had time to grab Starbucks before the flight left (yes, we have seen many Starbucks in Thailand - Kat says the coffee tastes the exact same).

After leaving Bangkok by airplane, we landed in Krabi a little before noon.  Arranging a taxi and getting a ferry ticket was easy and by 1:40pm, we were on the boat headed to Koh Phi Phi island.  The boat was large, but not luxurious by any means.  While we were not the oldest people on the ferry, we definitely were not in the majority.  Most of the riders were backpackers in their early 20s.  While it was fun to reminisce about our backpacking days, it did make me feel a little old.  I realized I was no longer the carefree girl of my youth when I was annoyed by all the men stripping down to just their shirts.  While the sun was hot and the wait to get going long, Kasen did great and the boat ride was pretty relaxing. 

Here are some pictures from the ride:

We are sitting on the top deck of the boat.  There were no chairs, but an awning overhead gave us shade.  The inside of the boat was too hot for us.

Once we arrived on the island, we got some food then arranged for a longtail ride to our hotel.  We stayed at the north end of Phi Phi at Laem Tong beach (at the Holiday Inn - http://www.phiphi.holidayinn.com/).  Hiring the longtail was probably our first real hiccup in the trip.  We ended up trying to negotiate with a group of drivers and I definitely offended one of them.  In the end, we were stuck going with the original driver and at a higher price then we had been told we would have to pay.  In the light of the day, it wasn't really too bad just miscommunication based on  not enough information.  However it did prove the guidebooks right, do NOT offend a Thai or in the end you will be the one who has to give in to save face (and get to your hotel).

We were not immediately impressed by the hotel (we were dropped off at a dock in the back of the resort).  Someone did eventually come for us, but we all had to hoof it to the resort (with the hotel worker huffing our 3 largest bags).  After a good sleep, we all felt better and who couldn't love this?

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Chatachuk Market

Chatachuk market is like "garage saleing" on steroids.  Imagine 26 acres of STUFF.  Not just trash your neighbor wants gone (although there is some of that), new, interesting STUFF.  If you can't find something to consider buying at this market, you are just not trying.  Or you hate heat, crowds and weird markets (this was not John's favorite excursion).  I, however, was in heaven.  In fact most of the time I strolled I thought of family and friends that would love this place.  I could see my mom bargaining a Thai woman down another 20 cents for a $1 pair of earrings and friends snapping up iphone cases for $2.50 because who doesn't need a new phone case?  Yes.... there were sad puppies for sale and I skipped the other animal sections on purpose, it was an experience.

Here are some pictures of this wonder of the world:

This is the market when it first opened.  While the alleyways are tight, there is plenty of room to get around.  There are large sections of the market dedicated to clothes (some more traditional like the photo on the left and others less so - Gangnam Style t-shirts are big here).  There was A LOT of "silk" in the market.  While they were pretty from far away, the quality was so bad I couldn't justify bringing them home.  I will have to keep looking for the famous Thai silk.

Knick-Knacks (damn spell check - that is clearly how it should always be spelled) were everywhere.  Small bags were extremely popular.  There is a saying from Portlandia, "throw a bird on it", that would work here although it would be "throw an elephant on it".  Jewelry was also popular and plentiful.  You could buy anything from very nice gemstone rings to more mainstream costume stuff like above.

The rest of my group left after an hour (including Kasen who fell asleep a minute after we got there), but I stayed.  When we met up back at the hotel John had a hard time believing I had so much fun.  I told him the reason I loved it was the 40%.  That most of the stuff (60% on a good day) was crap.  The same tourist trinket presented in the same sad way.  It was the rest, the 40%, that made the hunt worth it.  You would turn the corner and find a gem (or a mask as the case may be - Karen I totally found your mask) and your search would be warranted.  It was this that would propel you to the next diamond in the rough.  The picture on the left above shows one of these stands. 

Those cases contain some of the most life-like statues I have ever seen.  Think the weird babies they offer in Reader Guide (anyone else seen these freak dolls?).  I imagine they were in the likeness of famous Buddhists monks (while there were a few that looked like the Dali Lama, some were much different).  I mean if Christianity has it's "heroes", Buddhism must have the same right?  So imagine an entire stand of life-like Jesus statues in boxes.  Interested yet?  (please forgive all the religions I offended with that last paragraph..... but my choice of words doesn't make it any less interesting)

While I loved the market, it's glow did eventually wear thin.  The morning turned to hot afternoon and a few people turned into throngs.  While I had more treasures to find, I did finally have to escape.  Here are some pictures to illustrate the change:

Above is the crowd I had to fight to get back to the Sky train.  Doesn't look so bad?  How about now?  I was one of the few people leaving....

If only I had a few more weekend days in Bangkok......