Friday, October 25, 2013

So Long Chiang Mai

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In less than 6 hours, we'll be on a plane to Bali, Indonesia! More accurately, we will actually be on a plane to Bangkok and then to Kuala Lumpur for layovers, but should arrive in Indonesia tomorrow (Saturday) evening.

Tonight as we strolled back from a final farewell dinner with our friends from our school, Sarah and I both expressed how we cannot believe we just spent nearly one month in this city. Time really does fly. We had quite a bit of structure with the program at our school, and we did keep very busy when we weren't in class, but still... we can't really wrap our heads around the fact that this first phase of our travels is drawing to a close.

Even though things started off a little dicey, we've gotten extremely comfortable in Chiang Mai. We know our way around the city, we can haggle any songthaew driver down to 20 baht, and we have many favorite restaurants and bars (even a favorite hospital!). It's a good feeling to be riding through the old city and know exactly where you are, what landmark you're about to pass, or where the driver should turn next. While I'm sure we only experienced a fraction of what Chiang Mai has to offer, it was enough for us to begin to get familiar. We are both looking forward to returning in the (near) future, and I know that when we do, it'll feel like coming back to a home away from home.

Like I said, we've kept pretty busy since we've been here, and haven't been posting on here as much as we feel like we should. We have a backlog of posts to write and places to review, and rest assured that it's all coming! On the other hand, though, we've enjoyed letting ourselves unplug and not be attached to devices/technology, or even be behind the lens of a camera all the time.

We'll check in once we land in Bali!

Sawatdee Thailand!

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Jumbo Trekker Elephant Camp

 

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The many elephant reservations on the outskirts of Chiang Mai are recognized as 'must see' attractions for travelers passing through northern Thailand. We considered the reputation of the organizations, reviews from Lonely Planet, and recommendations from new friends when choosing a reservation. We had no interest in seeing an 'elephant show' or supporting a camp that would keep the elephants chained or saddled up all day. Through a connection in Chiang Mai (thank you to Leslie and Pi Dang!) we booked a two-day, one night stay at Jumbo Camp just an hour north of our school. The weekend-long trip also promised a cooking class on site, a four-hour trek, and white water rafting.

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At 8 am on a Saturday, a Jumbo Trek truck picked us up at the school and we met our third wheel, a young man from London who knew nothing about the itinerary for the weekend. That made three of us. After an hour of cruising north we spent twenty minutes on a muddy, narrow jungle road that was only wide enough for one vehicle. It was easy to get lost in the view. We were welcomed warmly by staff members and about a dozen stray dogs and cats. The first impression was that we were in the middle of a beautiful 'nowhere', and that our experience would be... rustic.

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Wearing the provided mahout suits and two variants of deet, we spent the first morning in a jungle clearing getting to know three or four beautiful elephants.

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Seeing how their expert trainers effortlessly mounted and dismounted... first by the leg and then by catapulting over the trunk and head, was impressive. We practiced first on the baby and the staff members were more than happy to take photos of us as we learned. We mastered conveying "forwards", "backwards" "left", "right", "stop" "open your mouth for a banana", and "dismount" commands all in Thai. Along with verbal cues, we used bamboo sticks to place on the elephant's ears and body movements to help distinguish between commanding left and right.

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After practicing and eating a delicious (gluten free!) lunch, we were ready to mount our own elephants for a two hour long ride through the jungle with the trainers guiding us. It was phenomenal. It was surreal. It was badass. There were a few 'oh shit' moments when the elephants would selectively ignore us or decide to trek off path for a snack, but in general we felt safe and confident. We also played in the river with them a gave them baths before returning to camp.

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The atmosphere at Jumbo Camp was lively, and interesting to say the least. If you were dropped in the jungle with minimal electricity, only a fire to cook over and shot glasses the men at the camp carved from bamboo, who would you want to be stuck with? Lucky for us the other trekkers passing through camp were a wonderful and eclectic group of mostly twenty-somethings from all over the world. The cooking class consisted of us whipping up a green chicken curry for the entire camp with our jungle mother May, and we spent the evening getting to know the eighteen other trekkers staying there that night.
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We played cards by candlelight, and somebody... somehow delivered a bottle of Sangsom rum to us. We danced, sang, banged drums, and had a great time with new found friends. It was definitely a younger crowd, which may not be everyone's scene, but our experience with the elephants and the new friends we met made it perfect for us.
 
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They served beer and snacks (hot chili squid Lays) for purchase at a hut with a cardboard sign that read "Welcome to 7/11", and kept a tally board which made paying the next day very simple.

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After stargazing, we slept in our jungle huts in the mosquito nets that were provided. Many of the nets had small tears or holes, so bringing your own would be advised. After talking with our companions at camp, we are now aware of inconsistencies between travel clinics in other countries and ours in the United States, especially with regards to malaria precautions. Definitely remember to bring bug spray (DEET), but don't get it in your eye (woops). Long pants and long sleeves were helpful too. As we say in Boston, be smaht!

The next day they provided breakfast (eggs, rice, toast, and "coffee") and we set out for a trek with a different group leader. After 45 minutes of hiking we reached a beautiful waterfall that flows from a river originating in Burma. It was not a difficult hike, but trekking sandals like Keens or running kicks are best, due to the slippery rocks and log bridges.

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We swam in the waterfall and hiked back before driving to the rafting location that was 10 minutes away. The trekking portion took a total of 2 hours, which was half the time we were told to expect. The white water rafting was relatively tame, and we switched to authentic bamboo rafts for the last leg of the river. This was a beautiful but underwhelming experience. We skipped the hill tribe village and souvenir shop because we had already experienced hill tribe dancing at the cultural center in Chiang Mai and would rather spend our hard earned baht at the night markets. Our trekking guide drove us back to Chiang Mai and went above and beyond by buying us some refreshments on the road.

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The whole experience was too awe inspiring to capture here on Yogi's Guide. We are so happy to have chosen that camp, and would highly recommend it to any adventurous spirits.

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Thursday, October 10, 2013

Chaing Mai Ram Hospital

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We know how to say very few words in Thai. A disproportionate number of these are variations of "don't feed this girl wheat," and the most obscure so far is what the Thai people pronounce as, "Ma-ba". Ladies and gents, it's time to get real about rabies. We joked endlessly about "rabies in Bali" after a visit we made to a travel clinic back in Boston. At this clinic, a woman with a bad perm and atrocious customer service warned us extensively about the shortage of the rabies vaccine on the Indonesian island. We decided to scratch playing with forest monkeys off our itinerary and skip the vaccines. No worries.

Fast forward to our second day in Thailand: we're positioning ourselves around the prayer benches preparing for a group photo and I suddenly feel a sharp pain on the front of my shin. I look down to see blood (holy.sh*t), and the little white cat who frequents the school at lunch time. He had gotten spooked amidst he crowd and sunk his chompers into the closest leg he could find.

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After some debate and catastrophic brainstorming, we began researching hospitals and settled on a pricier private option, Chiang Mai Ram. Countless reviews recommended this hospital for foreigners, citing more staff members speaking English, as well as English speaking escorts. Despite the fact that the latter was not provided for us, we were able to communicate our needs easily with intake. Chiang Mai Ram was faster than any ER visit I've ever had in the US. We learned that our visit was in fact necessary, and that the protocol for a bite in this country (where its difficult to trace animals to their owners) is a tetanus shot, antibiotics, and a series of 5 post-exposure rabies shots. The doctor we saw, whose name is fittingly, 'Kittipun',  also suggested that Hillary get the vaccine proactively in the event she should need it while in Bali, rather than have to cut our trip short.

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A key difference that travelers should be aware of is the hospital cashier, who provides you with a ticket number as if you're waiting to be called next at the deli. They will only accept payment in full on the day of service. In the event you are in the ER for a true emergency and don't have time to grab your wallet, they will probably offer to drive you to your hotel so that you can get your baht or your MasterCard and then drive you back to the hospital to pay them. We left for the hospital in a flurry and didn't realize how much baht we had on us, and lo and behold, it wasn't enough. We were fortunate enough to be rescued from this circumstance by a new friend, Michael of Singapore, who paid our bill for us in exchange for a Starbucks and dinner rendezvous the following day. He gave us great information about the nightlife in Thailand and was such a gentleman to us during our night out. We have run into him around Central (Airport Plaza) where we go for pad thai and grilled bananas on the reg. Overall, the approximate cost for the services, which included the shots and hospital fees, was around $70. We use World Nomads for our traveler's health insurance, and will update you on the claims/reimbursement process.

We'd also like to note that they don't exactly give scripts for medications that you take elsewhere to be filled. At Chiang Mai Ram, you just stop at the pharmacy counter after paying the cashier and pick up your meds right then and there. We didn't realize this and it wasn't clearly communicated, so we ended up having to make a trip back for the penicillin.

Overall, our experience at Chiang Mai Ram Hospital was a good one. They spoke enough English that we found it easy to communicate (relative to the rest of Chiang Mai), and the doctor at least was fluent. While this facility is on the pricier side for Thailand, we'd recommend it as a clean, safe, fast, and functional place for foreigners needing medical care.
 

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Hong Kong Layover

When we boarded our flight from Vancouver to Hong Kong, we were expecting the 13-hour stint stuck in a metal tube in the sky to be a special kind of torture, but it actually wasn't that bad. The hours passed quickly, and Hillary didn't throw up, so, that was a win.  We also sat next to a lovely Australian woman named Che (yes, her parents named her after Che Guevara, and yes, she was the coolest person alive) who had just been to Chiang Mai. She shared tons of travel stories with us, many from the destinations we'll be visiting ourselves, and she put us at ease about being solo female travelers. She said that in her experience, people are much nicer and friendlier to female travelers versus males. We've certainly experienced a lot of generosity and hospitality on the road so far, so maybe she's onto something!

We landed in Hong Kong around 9pm, and it took us no more than 5 minutes to get through customs/immigration. Shortly before landing we discovered our royal time change f*ck up, so before leaving the airport, we had to book a new hotel room for the night, and went with the Ramada on Chatham Road on the Kowloon side of the harbor.

The Hong Kong airport heavily advertises the Airport Express trains as the quickest, cleanest, safest way to get from the airport into the city. Probably true, but we decided to go the more adventurous route and take one of the public buses. We followed the signs in the airport for bus transportation, and along the way we stopped at the hotel information desk, where the English speaking attendant told us exactly which bus to take. The A21 bus ($33 HKD or about $4.26 USD) would stop right in front of our hotel. The Airport Express train would have cost more than twice that amount, and we figured the bus would be a good way to see a bit of the city.

As we walked to the bus terminal, we were almost swindled by a charter company trying to tell us that we needed to board their bus and pay them three times what we knew the fare should be. We ventured on and finally found the public bus terminal despite the lack of English signs. In case you ever find yourself in this situation, don't be fooled: the charter buses are in an indoor terminal, and if you keep following the bus signs you'll eventually walk outdoors where the public (cheaper) buses are.


 
After paying our fare at the ticket counter, we boarded the double-decker bus, and obviously sat on the top level, in the very front row like the excited 5-year olds we are. What struck me about the bus was not only how clean it was, but how safe we felt. The driver stayed below the speed limit, and did not change lanes quickly or swerve all over the road (RIP Fung Wah). It took maybe 35-40 minutes from the airport to our hotel, and it was nice to take a drive through the city at night. If your looking for idiot-proof transportation and willing to pay more for the convenience, definitely take the Airport Express train, but we would highly recommend the public bus system to anyone on the more self-sufficient, budget conscious side of the coin.



The Ramada Kowloon was great for what we paid... the lobby smelled like paint thinner and the décor wasn't very modern, but it was clean and the staff were quite friendly and helpful. In the morning we ran into and Australian couple on holiday who were less than impressed... they showed us their room for comparison purposes and it was basically the same as ours, so we just thought they were being uppity, but it turns out that they somehow grossly overpaid. We booked on www.asiarooms.com, and paid $500 HKD (about $65 USD). For the same room, they paid $400 Australian dollars, or about $380 USD. Astronomical difference. We understood why they were dissatisfied with the value they received for their money, but the accommodations perfectly suited our needs and our budget.

In the morning we ventured out for breakfast, and after striking out in the gluten-free department at a couple of places, we ended up at The Café at the Sheraton Elegance Hotel. They clearly understood Sarah's gluten allergy and were super accommodating. They even brought us free GF date cakes to enjoy with our Spanish omelets. The meal was a bit on the expensive side for us, but worth it for the health and safety of Sarah's insides, and our last taste of American-style food for a while.

We then spent the rest of the morning walking around Kowloon, browsing the shops, and enjoying the harbor view before hopping on the A21 back to the airport.



Overall we enjoyed our time in Hong Kong, but found it a little over stimulating, and we were almost too tired from the journey to thoroughly pack 20 hours worth of sightseeing into this layover. We left feeling good about seeing a bit of the Kowloon area, but have many destinations on our priority list to hit before we'd consider returning.


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

15 Hours in the Beautiful BC

The first stop after leaving NYC was beautiful British Columbia, Canada for a fifteen hour layover in Vancouver. Our flight had its ups and downs. A high point was sharing a row with the coolest self medicator... ever. He swiftly relieved his sinus pressure with self-administered facial acupuncture shortly after take-off... I mean, those babies were in before the fasten seatbelt sign had even been switched off. The low point was the GF airplane meal and Hillary's inability to keep it inside her. The Dramamine took effect a little too late but at least our Dexter marathon kept us distracted.

When we arrived at YVR International airport we found a comfortable (relatively speaking) and quiet corner to rest our bones on our packs for a few hours. We decided to forego getting a hotel due to the time constraint, and we felt that sleep would be best if reserved for the thirteen hour flight ahead. After waking to the steadily increasing hustle and bustle of airport foot traffic, we boarded the sky train from the airport to the Vancouver waterfront. After some swiss coffee, we took the 3 bus to a quirky, alternative diner Sarah had discovered during a previous visit. At The Wallflower, we enjoyed bottomless cups of joe and split a breakfast of poutine and apple cinnamon french toast. This alone made the layover worth our while (#foodies).



 
 

We spent the remainder of the morning walking through the city and settling in Gastown to poke around the understated boutiques and antique shops. We were able to satiate our maple cravings and catch a hazy view of the waterfront before grabbing the sky train directly back to the airport.

 

Vancouver is a beautiful city, but beyond that, we were left feeling that the encounters we had there that morning were too fortuitous to go unacknowledged. We independently concluded that our experience there, although very brief, was an indicator we are on the right path together on this trip. We made acquaintances with a friendly local on the bus who had connections to Sarah's past and he offered friendly conversation and an intention to stay in touch. We will definitely be contacting him if and when we pass through the Pacific northwest again to discuss our travels over brunch.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

And We Lived to Tell the Tale

After a three day journey from the east coast of the United States, we have settled in at our school in Chiang Mai. While some people prefer a direct flight to arrive as quickly as possible, we (our wallets) decided to take a couple of extended layovers along the way. We spent a rainy morning in Vancouver, British Columbia, as well as one day in Hong Kong (details and pictures to come in future posts!)



Our first night in Chiang Mai was interesting, to say the least. Let's begin with our rookie traveler's mistake - we failed to factor the time change correctly when booking our hotel in Hong Kong for our layover, and for our first night in Chiang Mai. Basic math fail - we lost an entire day and booked our rooms for one day prior to our actual arrival. We realized this upon landing in Hong Kong after a 13-hour flight.

When we arrived in Chiang Mai, we decided to head directly to the school (where accommodations are included) rather than re-book our homestay reservation that we had missed the night before. Our headmaster told us it would be only a short walk from the airport, but after waiting at least 45 minutes to get through immigration, the sun had begun to set, so we decided to take a taxi. Armed with a map of Chiang Mai and a couple of landmarks for the driver, we left the airport in the back of a Taxi Meter cab, expecting it to be the shortest, easiest cab ride, ever. We were wrong.

Apparently in Thailand, "opposite the Chiang Mai Cultural Center" means down the street and set about 100 meters from the road down a dimly lit alleyway, with a rather unnoticeable sign, mostly in Thai (which might as well be gibberish from outer space to us, at this point).

So, we couldn't locate the school, and neither could our cab driver. He thought it would be a good idea to turn down some other random alleyway, with no headlights, and not acknowledge a very nervous Sarah asking him to turn around. By 'very nervous', I mean homegirl literally opened the door of the moving car, ready to jump out, because we may have been about to live the script of "Taken 3".

Eventually we got dropped off at said Cultural Center, borrowed some WiFi, and drew ourselves a map to Baanlek Homestay (where we had planned to stay before the whole International Date Line debacle). We figured that they might be kind enough to honor our no-show booking a day later.

We set out on foot, in the dark... two young, white, clearly American, clearly lost girls on the streets of Old Chiang Mai. We were also weaponless - TSA 3, Yogi's Guide 0.

In case you were wondering, Google Maps: Thailand Edition is less than accurate, so as the streets got smaller and the streetlights ceased to exist we started to kind of freak the f*ck out. There were lots of people around, but with the general lack of walls and doors, it's hard to tell what's a business, someone's home, or just some people hanging out on the sidewalk.

Eventually, we came across a nice young Thai woman who spoke the first words of English we'd heard since leaving the airport. She knew of Baanlek Homestay, but it was about 400 meters and one street over from what our map was telling us.

This is where things got a little dicey.

Sarah asked if she would be kind enough to walk with us there, and she didn't seem willing... but the two nameless young Thai men in her company offered to give us a ride on the back of their motorbikes.

Imagine this situation... we're scared, lost, confused, and culture shocked. We've had our feet on the ground in Thailand for maybe 60 minutes. Being from America, we've been warned profusely about exactly this sort of danger. Sounds like a really bad idea, right?

It was our best option at the moment, however, so we just went with it. No helmets, each wielding 45 pounds of backpack, we were delivered to the doorstep of the homestay. If those men had names that we could spell, we would thank them here.

Baanlek Homestay is run by the fabulous Mr. and Mrs. Lek, who welcomed us with open arms, air conditioning, WiFi, a crash course in conversational Thai, and the best fish soup for breakfast this side of the Pacific. They didn't even mind that were 24 hours late for our reserved room. If you're looking for a cheap, modern, clean room in Chiang Mai with super friendly locals, Baanlek is the place for you! But beware, the actual location is not as advertised on Google Maps.


We've been in Chiang Mai for four days now, and are getting to know our way around little by little. Frequent trips to Chiang Mai Ram Hospital have helped orient us with this beautiful city, but that's a story for another day (#rabies #Dr.Kittipun)



We're off to go have dinner with our classmates, but we hope the government shutdown isn't cramping your style back home too much. (FYI, embassies and consulates abroad are still operating as usual). We have our first exam tomorrow, wish us luck!

Our teacher, Ya Ya