Journal

Finding Bali in Sideman

I’m sitting on the veranda of our room just after dawn, and the village of Sideman is already bustling with activity. Motorbikes zoom past out on the main road, and from our porch I can barely pick out tiny silhouettes of farmers plowing the rice terraces below. But I’m up late for a town in which the central market is already a hive of activity by 3:00 AM (although I’ve yet to see it at that hour…). From here, it seems I can see all of Bali. To the west, the ocean is just visible between two jungle-clad mountains. To the east, Mount Agung, the highest mountain on Bali, looms in the distance. Today the visibility is clear enough to see its summit, although most days misty clouds settle into these valleys long before we’ve arisen.

To the north, tiny huts dot the impossibly green landscape, and a waterfall gushes off to one side, nourishing the surrounding rice fields. Heading down into the valley from our porch and up the other mountainside sits another village directly across from us, at eye level from here. At night, the sounds of a gamelan, an ancient Balinese instrument, float across the valley from that village to the steps of our front porch.

The village of Sideman (pronounced si- da- men) is where we have called home for the past 6 days now, and I don’t even know where to start. Do I start by talking about the gorgeous scenery, or perhaps the incredibly friendly (and talkative!) people that have been teaching us about Bali? Do I ramble on about the interesting new fruits that we’ve discovered or about the ancient, ornate temples that dot every street corner? What about the hours of conversation that we’ve been enjoying with our Balinese hosts that I desperately want to remember every detail of?

Maybe the best way to start is to talk about what brought us here in the first place and how little we realized we were in for.

I knew very little about Bali before coming here. Like anyone, I had always entertained romantic notions about the culture of Bali, rife with ancient rituals, filled with haunting images of chanting and animal sacrifices — all very romantic-sounding but the type of experience that is always out of reach of a tourist’s eyes. To be honest, one of the reasons that we ended up in Bali in the first place is that we needed to find a cheap flight out of Thailand to show “proof of onward travel” to the Thai immigration officers– a ticket that we potentially would never use.

Luckily, we did end up using that plane ticket. Once we arrived in Bali, we took a minibus, public bus, and then bemo (local minibus) (which is an adventure best saved for another blog post) direct to the village of Sideman. The people of Sideman have been utterly shocked and tickled each time we tell them that we came straight to their village from the airport without stopping in any of the tourist hubs like Kuta or Ubud. Sideman is a very traditional village, far off the tourist trail– the kind where every child that sees us still screams “hello!” to practice their English and where the ancient traditions of Balinese culture are still very much an integral part of everyday life.

Every morning after we eat breakfast, we spend far too long chatting with our villa’s caretaker, Ketut. Ketut is an amazingly kind, hard-working guy several years younger than us who relentlessly and openly answers all of our questions about Balinese culture, religion, and traditions. Of course, one of the reasons that Bali has fascinated so many people over the years is that the people on Bali practice a unique form of Hindu religion, whereas the rest of Indonesia is largely Muslim. The Balinese people are fiercely proud of their Hindu traditions and are happy to share them with outsiders.

One morning, Ketut began telling us that his family was going to be holding a cock-fight later that day and that we were welcome to attend with him. Ketut went to ask his brother what time the fight would be happening, and returned to tell us that we had missed the fight but that his brother had won! We learned later that during a cock-fight a small knife is tied onto the arm of each rooster for the duration of the fight, and we were secretly glad that we didn’t have to witness it. Although it’s perhaps easy for outsiders such as ourselves to condemn people who participate in cock-fighting, we learned from Ketut’s friend Futu that, despite now being illegal in Bali, cock-fighting is still a requirement for Balinese who live in traditional villages. The village temple dictates when a cock-fight will be held and requires each family to either bring a rooster to the fight or pay a large fee– a fee that many Balinese simply can’t afford.

Luckily, Ketut said that his family would still be holding their annual family celebration, a religious holiday in which the entire family gets together from all over Bali to gather in the village temple to pray, celebrate, and feast, and that we were welcome to attend that with him. He went on, “I’m sorry, but so you know, for woman who is pregnant or menstruating, it is forbidden to enter the temple,” (because they are considered unclean). Luckily, I was deemed OK to participate in the festivities…

Around 3:00 that afternoon, Ketut flew Scott and I one by one up the mountain on his motorbike to his family’s home– a walled-in compound of a few concrete rooms, a small family temple, and a dirt yard overrun by a couple of prized roosters. One woman busily applied mascara to a tiny girl in a beautiful bright purple sarong, and the men (who were already dressed and waiting–SO typical) strolled around laughing, smoking cigarettes. The women took me inside one of the rooms and helped me into some traditional clothing, including a beautiful gray flower-printed sarong and white embroidered top. Ketut’s aunt even took the time to clip my hair up into a matching flower hair piece. Meanwhile, Ketut helped Scott into a sarong and a traditional head wrap.

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When the entire family was ready, we weaved through the center of the village (somewhere we had never been able to visit on our own) through a series of confusing low concrete walls, up one row, and down another, until we finally reached the inner village temple– a communal site that is reserved by each family within a strict 3 day period for the purpose of this very festival that we were about to witness.
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“During the ceremony, we play Dominoes,” Ketut explained.

Thinking his English was off, I corrected, “Oh, you mean, you play Dominoes before the ceremony starts?”

“No, we play DURING the ceremony,” a smiling Ketut retorted. “For fun.”

So we sat down with Ketut and his family just outside of the main temple and watched countless rounds of Dominoes, speaking with those who knew some English as best we could. Luckily, many of the men wanted to practice their English, and we always felt overly welcome. Some people asked, “Where you from?” and “How long you stay in Bali?” Most people wanted to point out the fact that Barack Obama would be coming to Bali in 3 days!
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Sideman, Bali

While the men played Dominoes and smoked their cigarettes, the woman shuttled countless offerings, made of woven baskets filled with rice and fruit and incense, into the village temple to prepare for the main ceremony. Once the priest arrived, we were invited to follow Ketut into the temple, where we sat in a light rain, our palms upturned, our faces being sprinkled one-by-one with holy water shaken off a flower petal by an old Hindu priest. And in a moment of utter shock and realization, I wondered how we had ever gotten to this moment. Like a rabbit hole, going deeper, deeper into Asia, right into Indonesia, then Bali, then into this village, up one row and down another, to this temple, to this moment.
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Sideman, Bali

Sideman, Bali

After the group prayer, we returned to the gathering area outside of the temple, where more Dominoes were in order. Then we all shuttled back into the temple again (still following? :)), where the priest blessed the offerings that had been brought. As a final offering, a young black chicken was brought in, and its head was severed by the priest, who added its still-clucking head to the offering plate. Next the priest gave us a few grains of raw yellow rice, both to chew and to press onto our foreheads, where it would stay until it fell off. The adults then paraded around the temple grounds with the offerings at least 5 times, throwing old Balinese coins to the ground for the children to race to snatch up.
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Sideman, Bali

Sideman, Bali

Sideman, Bali

After the ceremony, everyone paraded out of the temple to a different, smaller temple, where more praying occurred and several people asked for me to take their picture.

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Back at the gathering area again, Ketut told us that we would now have a feast together. First, people brought us little snacks, such as steamed rice puddings filled with toasted coconut wrapped in banana leaves, and delicious thin fried crackers embedded with chills and basil. Meanwhile, people laid down mats of woven palm fronds that would serve as platters for the food, and piles of rice and stewed chicken were piled on top. Ketut had told us that his family never gets to eat chicken except at this annual ceremony– so where did this chicken come from? It was the losing rooster from the cock-fight earlier that day, of course! No plates, no utensils, just everyone digging into one big pile of rice, beans, and all sorts of delicious [unidentifiable] loser-chicken parts.
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Sideman, Bali

Back to this morning, my thoughts still ruminating on all that we have just been privileged to watch, and I think, “just a cheap flight from Thailand.” Is that all Bali is to me still? Despite Bali’s overt tourism and problems resulting from over-development, Ketut has shown us that the spirit of Bali is still very much alive, and it lives on in these rituals, through these people, as it has for thousands of years. Everyday it lives on on this island, in this very moment, in this village, up one row and down the next.

Thailand Wrap-up

We’ve been so busy tromping around Bali that we haven’t had the time to do a proper wrap-up of our month in Thailand. So we jotted down a quick list of random things that we want to remember–many that won’t make sense, but things we wanted to remember nonetheless (so feel free to skim!). Some are about Thailand, some are just about things that we’ve learned about travel along the way…

Worst toilet encounter

  • Scott – at the shadow puppet museum in Nakhon
  • Steph- on the train to Surat Thani

(These need no explanations. Scott wins, though–  for the record.)

Incorrect (but commonly used) English phrases that we finally just had to start using, in order to make ourselves understood

  • “Same same” (sort of means “similar”, with a positive spin)
  • “Same same but different”
  • “Have/ No have”

First memories that come to mind

  • motorscooting on Ko Lanta
  • drinking with Mem and Kanng in Khiriwong
  • Chatachak weekend market in Bangkok

Favorite dish

  • Scott- super crispy shrimp shumai at the dim sum restaurant in Trang
  • Steph- Cha Cha’s massaman curry (made with sweet potatoes) on Ko Lanta

Favorite Thai phrase

  • key chang jaap da cha daan (To ride an elephant to catch a grasshopper.)

Transportation taken

  • plane
  • foot
  • skytrain
  • motorbike
  • train
  • tuk tuk
  • minibus
  • big bus
  • songthaew
  • longtail
  • ferry

Things we miss most about home (after family, friends, and kitties, of course)

  • Scott- spiders smaller than my fist, “real f***ing beer”
  • Steph- hot showers, snakes that aren’t king cobras, real f***ing beer

Things we already miss about southern Thailand compared to Bali

  • Scott- fewer scammers and touts; spicy food
  • Steph- hot, spicy noodle soup for breakfast everyday; mouth-scorching papaya salad; ease of cheap transportation

Books read

  • Scott- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; Siddartha; currently, The Satanic Verses
  • Steph- 1/2 of “On the Road” (ditched on Ko Phi Phi); currently, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Biggest travel “milestone”

  • making it to Asia for the first time

Items that we packed that I never thought we would actually use but I am so thankful that we had

  • eye antibiotics (I mean, what are the chances— I threw this in my bag at the last minute thinking I would never, ever use it. Then I go and get an eye infection from all the dirt flying into my eyes while riding the motor scooter on Ko Lanta; the next morning I wake up with my right eye all crusted shut with green goop, and instead of having to travel to the mainland for antibiotics, I have eye ointment right there in my medicine bag! Catastrophe averted.)
  •  headlamp (Used more times than I can count. Used mainly for reading in bed at night or ruffling through my bag in low-light.)
  •  bandaids and neosporin (Scott slipped in his flip flops and sliced up his toe real nice in a muddy/poopy puddle of water, and we had him fixed up in no time. For the record, the bandaids and neo also came in handy later that week as well after Scott sliced his fingerprint off with a shaving razor.)
  •  thermometer (I haven’t had a fever in probably 10 years. Started running a nasty little fever on Ko Lanta, and I was glad I had the reassurance of this to let me know whether or not to head to the doctor– luckily, I didn’t need to.)
  •  duct tape (Used the FIRST night we arrived to Asia– the little indicator light on our air conditioner in Bangkok was so bright that it lit up the whole room. Nothing a little duct tape can’t fix.)
  •  dry bags (For transporting computers on sketchy longtail boats around Thai islands or when moving on to a new hotel in the rain. Also useful for doing laundry in.)
  •  PacSafe (Metal mesh safety system we use to lock up our computers and passports when we’re out of the room. I thought we would be too lazy to use it, but we’ve been using it everywhere we go, and it’s been very comforting to have when we’re in rickety wooden bungalows.)
  •  Dutch-only outlet converter (This item didn’t come in our universal outlet converter pack that we bought, but Scott just happened to have one from his recent travel to Amsterdam. We’ve needed it all over Bali.)
  •  sarong (Read any travel blog, and it will tell you “Bring a sarong when you travel– it’s super light and can be used as a towel, beach blanket, wrap for cold nights, or a wrap for visiting temples.” I brought one, never expecting to use it, but I’ve used it almost every day for at least one of the reasons stated above. Mostly used for covering my shoulders in the very conservative regions of Bali that we’ve been traveling in, since no one shows their knees or shoulders here.)

 Things that are still just dead weight in the backpack

  • anti-malarials (These will finally start pulling their weight in Cambodia and Laos.)
  • anti-diarrheals and oral antibiotics (woohoo for us not needing these— yet)
  • money belt
  • cell phone

Overall we had a fantastic time in Thailand. Before we arrived, we were worried that the overt tourism would taint a lot of our experience there. Luckily, I can now say that Thailand still has so much to offer: we found beautiful beaches, talked to friendly and hilarious people, ate absolutely amazing food at every meal. Unfortunately, we missed out on seeing Northern Thailand (and Scott missed out on getting to order his favorite Northern dish, Khao Soi) like we had hoped (due to the flooding in Bangkok), so we’re planning to return and see some of the northern part of the country later in our trip. Next stop- Bali!

New Segment: Haircuts Around the World!!

Traveling long-term brings up the interesting problem of carrying out every day tasks (tasks that are usually so mundane at home) while on the road — things such as getting haircuts, for example!

So to Scott’s dismay, we are installing a new segment called Haircuts Around the World, because you just KNOW there are going to be some good ones to look forward to when Scott or I can’t convey what kind of chop we want to get to the barber. 😉 Of course, I’ll be getting haircuts too, but I assume (hope?) it is a little harder to mess up a long haircut compared to a short man’s haircut. (Scott wanted me to note here that he’s not that short.)

For the first installment, Scott got his hair cut at a little barbershop in Nakhom Si Thammarat, Thailand. Of course, any words that might come in handy for a haircut were outside the range of Scott’s Thai vocabulary, so he just motioned that he wanted a 1/2 inch taken off all-over and then shut his eyes and held on tight.

The before shot:

haircut time

During:

haircut time

After!!

Nakhon Si Thammarat

Fortunately, the very patient and meticulous barber did a great job. A major disappointment for my blog post. Tune in again to see if he makes it through the barbershop gauntlet next time!! 🙂

Camping on Koh Phi Phi Leh

In our post about Koh Phi Phi Don, I’d mentioned an offshore detour we took on the 3rd night of our stay. This was something we’d been really looking forward to… largely the real reason we went to Phi Phi Don at all, in fact!

This “detour” was an opportunity to spend a night camping out on a beach on the neighboring uninhabitied island of Koh Phi Phi Leh. Unlike Phi Phi Don, “Leh” has no hotels, resorts, or even any inhabitants whatsoever save for the few rangers working to keep things in shape (it being a National Park). That doesn’t mean it’s not touristed though: it’s probably the single most popular destination in the area for snorkeling boat trips, and it can get a bit crowded during the day.

Anyway, I’m told this island hasn’t always been this well known: it’s popularity was boosted significantly – for better and worse – when it was used for the set of the Leonardo DiCaprio film, The Beach: a book-turned-movie about an American backpacker in Thailand in search of the “undiscovered,” who winds up finding a tiny colony of like-minded transients living in a sort of planned utopia on this amazing protected beach on an island that apparently everyone else in the area knows never to visit! Of course, as they tend to do in scenarios like this, things end up all Lord of the Flies after not too long. Anyway, the movie has its warts, but it’s a decent story, and frankly, the scenery in the film is gorgeous. I’d be lying if I said we’d heard of this island before seeing the movie ourselves, and doubly so if I didn’t admit that the movie planted a little seed in our minds: wouldn’t it be amazing to see that place for real one day…?

So, there we were, one island adjacent, and we’d found a boat operator through whom we could join up with a group of 20 or so people and cruise over to “the beach” and camp out on this island while it was entirely devoid of day-trippers – all for the cost of a night in a highway Motel 6 in the US, I might add – we were definitely doing this.

After a close call with our prior registration potentially not going through (worked out fine in the end), we boarded the boat in the afternoon and met our fellow campers and hosts. There were less than 20 of us in all, including our two guides who spoke decent English.

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On our way, circling Koh Phi Phi Leh, we stopped to discuss some sights. The first stop was a spot called Viking Cave, where we observed the grim lifestyle of groups of locals who collect the extremely rare nests that are made of pure spit by swallows that live in the cave and on its exterior.

The nests are shipped to China where they’re consumed as Bird’s Nest Soup, allegedly one of the most expensive delicacy foods on earth – and like many foods whose consumption is hard to fathom, it’s considered to be an aphrodisiac. Anyway, the real story here is these people construct super-rickety scaffolding from thin bamboo and scale it to reach deadly heights where they can collect these nests. Needless to say, the work is extremely dangerous. To protect themselves with good luck, they apparently coat some area of the floor of the cave with buffalo skins (did I make that part up? I’m not sure…). Personally, I’d probably go with some sort of fireman’s catch net or a trampoline, but I’m sure they know what they’re doing. (You can see the people near the bottom right, resting between shifts I guess).

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Swallow Nest Gathering

Swallow Nest Gathering

The next brief stop was a pretty cove where we could dive off the roof of the boat and snorkel along the limestone cliff walls of the island. It was by far the best snorkeling area we’d visited in Thailand – an aquarium loaded with colorful fish and coral.
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Snorkeling, Koh Phi Phi Leh

Snorkeling, Koh Phi Phi Leh

Snorkeling, Koh Phi Phi Leh

Snorkeling, Koh Phi Phi Leh

Moving on, we pulled around to a new cove on the other side of the island, and were told from there we should hop out and swim to shore, while the boat would stay parked there for the night (also, our personal belongings would be delivered by longtail boat).

After swimming to the rocky and waves-pounding shore, we climbed some ropes and stairs up into the cliff wall in the cove and walked through to the interior via a nice jungle path.We weaved through this trail for a little while until things appeared to be opening up ahead. The vegetation was getting lower with more leafy brush, and the trail turned from packed dirt to sand…

After that, the bushes parted to reveal this.

Sundown, Koh Phi Phi Leh

It’s impossible to say how much a movie or book has affected your thoughts on a particular place after you’ve watched or read it. I’d like to believe that in this case, it had very little to do with the feeling you get walking onto this beach. It’s a truly special place.

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Sundown, Koh Phi Phi Leh

An obligatory handstand at dusk (I swear I’m getting a little better at these as the trip goes on!)

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As nighttime set in, our hosts cooked some thai food for us over a fire and we all gathered to eat and play drinking games, which were hilarious among people of such mixed languages! There we go again with the buckets…

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Games with camping friends

Camping on Koh Phi Phi Leh

Late into the night, we went on a group excursion to the middle of the island where an apparently rare breed of crab lives in the woods. They were huge, they climb trees, and they’ve got natural camouflage!

Craboflage

Forest Crabs

Forest Crabs

After that, Steph and I decided to call it a night and let our fellow drinking buddies continue on without us. After all, we came here to see the island! Our hosts provided sleeping bags and pillows, and said we had the pick of the island for where we’d prefer to sleep. Naturally, we picked a spot in the center of the beach, right on the sand!

It wasn’t terribly uncomfortable, but neither of us slept a wink anyway. We just laid on our backs watching an incredible starry sky gain contrast over the center of this limestone amphitheater that surrounded us on all sides. After hours of star gazing, we never minded the lack of sleep; the place had the feel of a religious site.

Eventually, dawn arrived. I snapped a few pics of our campsite.

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Campsite at dawn, Koh Phi Phi Leh

Dawn, Koh Phi Phi Leh

Part of the agreement in letting us camp in the park was that we chipped in on trash duty on the beach. Amazingly, the day-trip tourists left trash on this beach like any other. We tried to get most of it:

As the sun rose higher, we snapped some shots of the light on the rocks.

Sunrise, Koh Phi Phi Leh

Sunrise, Koh Phi Phi Leh

…and when it cleared the rocks, the place just started to glow.


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Sunrise, Koh Phi Phi Leh

We had breakfast and packed things up to leave, but not before taking a group photo or two.

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Lastly, an embarrassingly cheesy reference to the end of the movie, a jump shot. But, everyone was in too good of a mood to be bothered by such things.

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From there, we hiked and swam back to our boat, and we were off: one brief snorkel stop on the way again (where Steph mustered the courage to jump off the boat roof!), and we returned to Phi Phi Don.

Tag this one as a highlight, it won’t soon be forgotten by either of us.

A Few Nights on Koh Phi Phi Don

What a week! After a wonderful but brief homestay in Kiriwong, we hopped on an A.M. Songthaew and headed – once again – for the west coast town of Krabi, this time to grab a ferry headed for the island of Koh Phi Phi Don.

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Koh Phi Phi Don is likely to be the most heavily tourist-trafficked-and-touted of all the islands off the Andaman coast of Thailand (perhaps with Phuket as an exception). This comes as no surprise, as the natural beauty of the island’s sandy beaches, limestone cliff coastlines, and lush mossy interior trees gives it a bit of an unfair advantage over its neighbors.

Its popularity does come at a cost for those looking for something further from the hard-packed tourist trail, as we usually are – this place is far from that! But its location served as a convenient stop on the way to Phuket (where we’ll need to catch a flight), and frankly, we really wanted to see the place anyhow, so we hopped on the ferry knowing exactly what we were getting into – once again, we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly.

Me upon arrival, reacting to the splendor before our very eyes:
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Goggles

We arrived at the docks of Phi Phi Don in the afternoon and checked into our 600 baht/night bungalow (~$18 USD) at Flowers Bungalows, in the middle of the village. As expected, the room was a simple and very rustic bamboo room with a bed, mosquito net, fan, cold shower, and actual-flushing toilet (most toilets we’ve seen here are of the manual bucket-drop flush variety). Judging the quality of the accommodations in the village, it’s not hard to tell why many twenty-somethings come to Phi Phi Don: beaches and parties. Anyway, from there, we proceeded through the village to the beach on the opposite side where many restaurants and bar/clubs line the sand.
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As one does in Phi Phi Don, we immediately broke our thai-food-only streak that we’d been holding strong since our arrival several weeks ago in Bangkok; an authentic Italian restaurant with pizza was far too tempting to pass on (anchovies and capers).

Intl Food on Koh Phi Phi Don

That night (and the other two we were there) we were treated to some spectacular fire shows on the beach. With our pyro-culture in America, it’s a wonder this stuff has never made it to the States: guys twirling, flipping, and juggling gasoline drenched, flaming rods and ropes in the dark (perhaps it has to do with the very real danger of serious injury…). Anyway, when twirled fast enough, the flames blend like flowing water, and the mostly-Euro crowed gathers ’round to trance-dance to insanely loud drum-and-bass all the while. Judging by their uninhibited dance moves, we had to assume this spectacle is even interesting to partake in after ingesting some of the “magic” treats found in the village, but we can’t confirm.

Fire show, Koh Phi Phi Don

Nightime on Koh Phi Phi Don

We can confirm, however, that the “buckets” – each consisting of a flask of Thai “whiskey” (rum, basically), a soda, and usually a Red Bull – proved a nice and cheap way to enhance the whole beach party experience. These were found all over the sidewalks in the village, or for a little more cash in the bars:

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In all, we stayed two nights on Phi Phi Don up-front, with an offshore detour in the middle that we’ll blog separately, and then were back again for one more night after that. Part of each day was spent wandering the village and browsing the shops, which were filled with all sorts of clothing, handicrafts, massage stands (like, every 3rd shop!), and foods international and Thai.

Overall, the atmosphere on Phi Phi turned out to be an alright mix of touristy and local flavor – unlike Koh Hai, many Thais actually do live on Phi Phi Don, and we found most of the foods, sights, and customs we’d seen all over Southern Thailand here as well: great food stalls, friendly cats roaming every surface of everything, spirit houses, Buddhist offerings on the sidewalks (foods prepared and left for the spirit world – and naturally enjoyed cats and monkeys).

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Koh Phi Phi Spirit House

We found some interesting sights in the village at night as well. One highlight was finally getting to see some Muay Thai boxing, which was something we had wanted see while we were in Thailand and we had unfortunately missed out on seeing it in Bangkok.

Given where we were, the boxing in this particular place was mostly geared towards convincing drunk farangs (westerners) to hop into the ring and punch their buddy in the gut, but they did have some actual trained Muay Thai fighters with scheduled bouts as well. During those fights, we found the rituals, fighting style, and humble respect among the fighters fascinating.

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Koh Phi Phi Don Nightlife

The rest of our days were spent finding beaches on parts of the island where the tourists were a little too lazy to hike, where we could read books and practice handstands and such.

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Koh Phi Phi Don Handstand

The last day, we squeezed in some internet cafe research time before boarding the boat to Phuket, where we stayed a night or two before heading to the airport. ‘Til next time!

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Now to write more about that detour…

Kiriwong Village homestay

For me, the joy of long-term travel is not (only) that it allows a person to travel for long periods of time– you could easily travel “long-term” and see a lot of places while never really getting below the surface of a given place. Rather, long-term travel is unique in that it provides that extra free time outside of all of the “must see” places– free time that invites spontaneity and the opportunity to delve a little deeper into a new culture.

This had not been more true for us until this past week during our visit to Nakhom Si Thammarat. While we were visiting the tourist office in Nakhom last week, we asked our tourist guide Marvin about doing a quick one-day trip to a nearby national park for some trekking and waterfall hiking. He said we could do a one day trip there with a big group– OR we could go stay with a Thai family in the remote village at the base of the park for a couple of days and organize our hike from there.  Hmm……. option #2, please!

So we checked out of our hotel in Nakhom, and boarded a school bus (open air pickup truck) full of kids who had just gotten out of school for the day and were on their way home to the village where we would be staying. Three of the boys held on to the back of the pickup, standing on the back steps, as we flew down the highway and into a beautiful, lush rain forested area known as Kiriwong village.

When we got to Kiriwong, we hopped off of the pickup, paid our $0.75 for the 30 minute ride, and then stood there like idiots looking for a tourist office or some sort of direction of where to go. Because Kiriwong village is very off the tourist trail, there were no obvious indications of where a guesthouse might be, and no one spoke any English.  So we whipped out our phrasebook and pieced together some Tarzan Thai for the kind-looking woman in the nearest shop. We knew we were in luck when we saw her then whip out her walkie talkie and start calling around for someone who speaks some English.

A few minutes later, a man wearing farming pants and knee-high rain boots pulled up on his motor scooter and said that there was a small hotel nearby that we could stay in. Since we had heard that Kiriwong has home stays available, we inquired about one. He thought about it for a minute, and then said “Yes, home stay is available, $5 a night.” When we said that that sounded great, he responded that he would be back in one minute with a larger motor scooter that would be able to hold our packs to transport us to the home stay. One minute later, he reappeared with EXACTLY the same size motor scooter, only about 12 inches taller.  Somehow I would be expected to climb onto this new bike with my large pack on my back and hold onto this new (to me) person for a ride to who-knows-where down a deeply rutted, red dirt road.  One person at-a-time only, of course, so he would be back for Scott later..

So we did just that– I climbed on the back of the scooter with the pack on, and off I went with my new friend, dirt flying and a huge smile on my face that I couldn’t seem to wipe away.  We zoomed down a dusty dirt road, over a wide river rushing down off of the slope of the nearby mountain (the second tallest in all of Thailand, we found out) and eventually arrived at a small one-room hut on a small beautiful property lined with fruit trees. I climbed off the back and our friend shot off into the distance to go pick up Scott from downtown.

A few minutes later, a smiling Scott appeared and we were shown where we would be sleeping. The hut was very basic– just a straw mat on a wood floor inside, only large enough for two people– no electricity, no furniture, a small window cut out of one side opposite the door. A picture of our scooter friend adorned in a monks robe from about 10 years ago hung on the wall, and we finally figured out that we are actually staying with him for our home stay. Buddhist amulets on necklaces also hung from the walls and an array of home cooking items were scattered around the edges of the hut. RIght about then, his wife arrived and began the process of clearing out the room a bit, which made us wonder– is this an extra hut on their property or is this their house that they are giving to us for the night?

Front of cabin, with skulls of a bear, deer, and monkey jaw, all caught by his father:
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On our porch with Kanng’s hand-picked bananas and another fruit we had never seen before (looked like an apple, tasted like a sour pear)–
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Kanng catching a lethal centipede underneath our hut with his fire tongs:

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After we had settled into our room and unpacked our things, we began to notice their personal belongings stashed below the deck of our hut and a kitchen in the yard that was clearly well-stocked (relatively speaking). When they began to set up a tent across the yard from our hut, I got a sinking feeling in my gut that we had, indeed, just kicked them out of their house for the next 2 nights.  I should clarify that our host (who we learned was named Kanng) spoke only very rudimentary English that was very hard to understand…. Our inability to fully communicate with him (or his wife, who spoke no English) was really a running theme during our time in Kiriwong that ended up leading to some hilarious moments. For this reason, we weren’t quite sure whether we had just taken over their home or whether they had a house somewhere else…

Later, Kanng’s wife Mem came over and started acting out something— we somehow managed to gather that she and Kanng do have a large home across town but that they would be camping in the yard near our hut in case we needed help finding the toilet in the middle of the night.  We were never sure if they were telling the truth or whether they were just saying that we hadn’t taken over their home to make us feel better. Either way, they had been more than happy to offer up the home stay, so we figured that it was OK.

Because there was no running water where we were staying, we had to bathe in the freshwater river near their house. The river, which was fed by the mountain, was wide and backdropped by stunning greens of Khao Luang mountain and the surrounding rain forest.

After cleaning up in the river, Mem cooked us shrimp fried rice over a rudimentary wood stove fire.

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By the time we had eaten, the sun had already set and, given the lack of light, there was little else to do except sit around and try to communicate with Kanng as best we could. Kanng regaled us with stories from his years of being a trekking guide for Khao Luang mountain and showed us pictures on his digital camera of the animals that he has seen recently while hiking, including tapirs, monkeys, and wild cats – including tigers. Also, after our recent Thai massage experience, we had always wondered whether there were actually cobras in Thailand or whether there were just big snakes that could be described in English most easily as “cobras.” Kanng’s picture of a standing hooded king cobra and video of 2 cobras mating in the wild utterly smashed all wonder from our mind. There are wild King cobras  in Thailand, and they’re apparently very abundant. But lest we worry–he told us that the nearest hospital has the anti-serum for cobra venom–so it’s sooo not a problem to get bitten by a cobra when you’re out walking around……

We ended our night by discussing what hikes we might be able to do the next day– and (thought) we had agreed to do one together the next day, with Kanng as our guide.

The next morning, we woke up to the sound of Kanng’s motorbike zooming off into the distance. We wondered, would he be coming back in time for our hike?  So we got dressed and had a very interesting breakfast of instant coffee and a sandwich of unrecognizable fluorescent orange content (looked like candied orange slices). We tried to ask Mem what it was that we were eating, and she acted out the sounds of a pig and kept saying in English “pig.” This did not look like meat at all. Interestingly though, this had happened to us once before with a similar sandwich-type item in Nakhom, with the woman insisting that the fluffy brown sugar-like substance that was filling our sandwich also makes a sound like a pig.  Like everything in Thailand so far, both sandwiches were delicious and sweet, even though we still have no idea what the substance really was.

We continued wondering whether Kanng would be back to take us on the waterfall hike that we thought we had reserved the night before.  As the sun began to rise higher and higher over the tree line, we realized that with our lack of communication perhaps we never actually reserved Kanng for our hike today. With Kanng being gone, and Mem the only person available to ask whether we should wait for Kanng or set out on our own, we grabbed the guidebook and got to work trying to figure it out by asking Mem questions.  Unfortunately, our guidebook doesn’t teach someone how to build their own sentences in Thai; it merely has whole phrases typed out, with no indication of what word in English corresponds to what word in Thai.  So, we started out with the most relevant phrases we could find, including “How many people will be on the hike today?” and “At what time does the guided tour start?” We finally pieced together from Mem that “Kanng, today, mountain”, meaning we would be on our own and that we had not, in fact, signed up to hike WITH Kanng.

So we hiked into town and began following signs for Wang Mai Pak waterfall. Walking along a hot road through a neighborhood on the outskirts of the village, we thought we were on the right track until we asked someone whether we were heading in the right direction for “Wang Mai Pak.” He laughed and said no, and pointed us back in the direction we had just come. We hiked a mile back into town and ran into a little old woman who we asked again for “Wang Mai Pak.” She laughed and pointed us right back up the road that we had just hiked down…. Then she said “Wang Mai Pak, Wang Mai Pak, come, come” and indicated for us to follow. We felt reassured that she knew where she was going until she started talking to herself and pointing in odd directions, yelling out to every house we passed by. Occasionally, we would hear “Wang Mai Pak”, “Wang Mai Pak”…. We kept thinking we might turn off onto a road we had missed the first time, but we just kept heading straight up the first road that the man had said was the wrong way…

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Still following…

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We began to worry that she was perhaps a bit crazy, and we started shooting worried glances to people sitting on their porches as if to say “Is she crazy, should we keep following? Will you rescue us?” I ran up next to her and repeated that we were tying to find “Wang Mai Pak”, to which she laughed and pointed and replied “Wang Mai Pak”, “Wang Mai Pak”….So we continued to follow… About 2 miles later, she had us bounding across little streams and climbing up rocks, and alas, a sign appeared in the distance– “Wang Mai Pak” waterfall!  She walked right up to it and spelled it out in English for us– “W-N-G  M-A-I   K   W-A-T-E-A-L”— the only letters still clinging to the old sign. We had indeed arrived at Wang Mai Pak.

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She then indicated that she was leaving now, didn’t ask for any thing in return, and began the 2 mile long hike back toward the village… And just like, that she was gone. We were happy to be at Wang Mai Pak, but our hike was a great reminder that sometime it really is about the journey and not the destination that matters.

Wang Mai Pak waterfall (water was low when we were there):
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Kiriwong Village

Kiriwong Village

Surrounding area:

Kiriwong Village

Kiriwong Village

Kiriwong Village

At the end of the day, we were heading back to Kanng and Mem’s house, and Scott decided it might be nice to bring some mangosteen wine (that we had seen in the store earlier) to dinner with us to share with Kanng and Mem.  As Mem and her friend were cooking yellow fried noodles with morning glories for us later that night, we pulled out the wine to show Mem. Mem’s face lit up and she hurried over to us with glasses to pour it in. We all gathered on the edge of our porch, taking turns pouring the wine into the tiny glasses and trying to communicate as best we could about the wine, about our families, about our hometowns.  Mem proceeded to tell us that she could understand my English pretty well and that my Thai pronunciation was quite good— Scott, on the other hand, she said she could not understand in English or in Thai, and Scott’s inability to speak in either language (according to Mem) became the running joke of the night (for Mem, at least, at Scott’s expense).  🙂

After Mem polished off the bottle of wine (with a little help from us), she pointed right at me and said “You like Leo (the local beer)?” and then to Scott “You like Leo??”, to which we both replied that we did.  So she jumped on her motorbike with her friend and reappeared 5 minutes later with Kanng and a pile of beer. So the 4 of us cozied up in a circle on the porch for the next couple of hours, tried out our new Thai phrases that our phrasebook promised would be a hit (“To ride an elephant, to catch a grasshopper”…), and made promises to return to Kiriwong and climb Khao Luang mountain with Kanng.

The next morning, Kanng roused Mem (Mem was not too happy about getting out of bed after that mangosteen wine the might before….), and they drove us on their motorbikes (me on Mem’s bike, Scott on Kanng’s) to catch our ride back into Nakhom city. As simple as our time was with Kanng and Mem, our stay with them is one of our favorite memories of Thailand so far– a reminder that when we travel, the best experiences are not always the next “must see” attraction but are often those that result from a bit of serendipity and can never be planned from any guidebook.

Steph, Scott, Mem, Kanng:
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Kiriwong Village

Kiriwong Village

Wat Hopping in Nakhon Si Thammarat

After a few days in Trang, we’d thought we would head north again and trek around Khao Sok National Park, a huge mountainous area spanning between the east and west coasts of South-central Thailand. Unfortunately, the train we’d planned to take to the park was no longer running due to the tragic flooding that has been taking place at the other end of the line (in Bangkok and parts north); for us, this was only a minor inconvenience, but we still needed to change our plans.

more bad news.

So we scanned our guidebook and decided to head to the gulf (east) coast instead, taking a chance on a small town called Nakhon Si Thammarat, a town apparently full of history and religious sites. Fortunately, as it often seems to do, spontaneity ended up paying off!

Anyway, like most city transfers in Thailand, it was easy for us to get from Trang to Nakhon via minibus. For the ride, Steph purchased “Peking Duck with Sauce” chips – Asia seems to have a disproportionate number of meat and fish flavored snacks.

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Even more so than Trang, Nakhon Si Thammarat is still well off the typical Thailand tourism trail. This was made clear upon our visit to the tourist information office the day we arrived, where the bored folks working there were notably excited to see Americans in their town (the only ones they’d met in at least a year, according to them). We had just spent about half of an hour chatting with them about Nakhon and its cultural sites, and just as we were about to leave, they kindly offered us some delicious coffee and tea, sending us into another round of lively discussion and some time helping with their English. The main person helping us, “Marvin”, was excited to tell us that he had been to America before– only to Wisconsin, he said. At least it had been during the summer!

We found the lack of tourists to Nakohn pretty surprising, as Nakhon has quite a lot to offer, especially its many ancient Wats (Buddhist Monastery Temples).
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In fact, Nakhon is home to the largest and most important Buddhist monastery in southern Thailand, Wat Phra Mahathat. We spent a good portion of a day wandering its grounds.

The entire facility was bordered by a hallway containing 173 life-sized gold Buddha sculptures.
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Beautiful old chedis dotted the interior courtyards of the Wat.
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Nakhon Si Thammarat

Nakhon Si Thammarat

Nakhon Si Thammarat

The inner building surrounding the main chedi of the Wat contained statues, ceremonial instruments, and rows of coin boxes that followers methodically walk along, dropping a coin into each for good luck.

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Nakhon Si Thammarat

It’s common for followers to plaster the statues with flecks of gold leaf.
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Along the way, we met some high school students who apparently walk around armed with a piece of paper listing English language questions to ask, should they happen upon an English speaking farang (foreigner). Here we are together after they polled us on our names, ages, and favorite Thai foods.
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This staircase led to the innermost area of the main chedi. It wasn’t open at the time we passed through, unfortunately.

Nakhon Si Thammarat

Nakhon Si Thammarat

Banyan trees, sacred to Buddhists, are often found decorated like this.

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The monastery appeared to be closed when we arrived, but after wandering around back and chatting with a guy cleaning the grounds, we were let in to see the interior, which houses an enormous Buddha statue. Because the monastery was closed to the public, the only light available filtered in from some nearby open windows, and the enormous room was perfectly silent, save for a few birds outside. Aside from a few napping monks in the back entryway, we had this beautiful place to ourselves.

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As if the Wats weren’t enough, Nakhon is known for another important bit of cultural history in southeast Asia: it’s one of the lasting hold-outs of the ancient art of shadow puppetry! We visited the home/museum of Thailand’s best and most celebrated shadow puppeteer and puppet maker, Suchart Subsin, to take a look at what he and his son make. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to catch a performance – Suchart was taking a nap on the table while we walked around admiring his work – but we did get to see some pretty intricate – and some very old – puppets. The puppets are all hand-made of pounded animal skins, and the designs are incredibly detailed.
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Also of note: Scott made use of both the hands-down toilet and the shower at the puppet museum. It is unclear if we are welcome back.
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Again, as has been the trend in pretty much every place we’ve been so far in Thailand,  the food in Nahkon was fantastic. Some highlights…

Shredded and fried catfish with mango/lime sauce.
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Whole crab with glass noodles and peppercorns.

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A sort of half-pear, half-apple, half-no-idea (and more than half-eaten here) fruit with salt, sugar and dried chillies – an apparently common Thai dessert.

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Typical but delicious spicy and fishy fried rice with baby prawns for breakfast.

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The usual super-spicy chicken and rice soup for breakfast.

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More night markets lined with carts dishing out all sorts of unusual fare… this lady was cooking some sort of naan-like bread by juggling it back and forth over a fire.
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…And REAL COFFEE (not instant like most places we’ve been), including a latte that Steph actually enjoyed (while normally a proud, non-coffee drinker) at a nice little cafe called Hao Coffee.

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After a few days, we were in the back of a Songthaew (local taxis made from modified pickup trucks) on our way out of town to the next stop. Songthaews are standardly overbooked, especially when kids are riding to school and back. To free up some room for us, the songthaew driver kicked some kids out of their seats and had them hold on to the back off the pickup for the trip to our next stop; happily, they surfed the back bumper, hanging on with one hand, with lollipops in the other while we sped along at 65mph – just another reminder of how different things are in every part of the world.
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A culinary tour of Trang

Two and a half weeks into our trip through Thailand, and we’ve had some pretty amazing food. We’ve had the usual steaming plate of pad thai, mouth-scourching green papaya salad, heavenly massaman curry overflowing with sweet potatoes and a hint of cinnamon…

But none of our previous culinary adventures could prepare us for the deliciousness and sheer weirdness that we would experience in the tiny coastal city of Trang.

We had never heard of Trang until a few days ago, when we opened up our guidebook and found that it was a convenient jumping off point for the beautiful islands of the Thai west coast. Little did we know that Trang was a culinary powerhouse of the region, being on odd mix of Thai, Malaysian, and Chinese cultures.

Both of the nights that we were in Trang were spent roaming the nearby night market which was conveniently located right outside of our hotel (the Station Inn). Because Trang is renowned for having some of the freshest (and safest– as in digestive health) street food in Thailand, we felt free to indulge in any and all treats we could muster the courage to take down.  Most food items were $0.25- $1, meaning we got to try a lot of stuff…. And because no one spoke any English (and our Thai is as limited as it gets), the only thing we could do was to jump in head first and start eating.
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Trang Night Markets

Trang Night Markets

Trang Night Markets

Trang Night Markets

These little beauties turned out to simply be delicious deep fried chicken skewers covered in sweet chili sauce:

Trang Night Markets

The fun thing about the night market is that it’s sort of like gambling. Sometimes you win; sometimes you lose.  This next snack was a big lose– we thought it tasted like fried chicken, but it was definitely not meat– some kind of chewy/nubbin-y chicken part, perhaps:

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These colorful “fish” molds looked intimidating until we found out they were just coconut jello!

One woman was making this fantastic little snack by smearing dough onto a smoking hot griddle and then filling the resulting “tortillas” with hand-spun colored sugar. We didn’t know what these were until a nice middle-aged Thai man wearing a “United State Navy Grandma” hand-me-down shirt shared some of his “tortillas” with us while hanging out at a bar later that evening:

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Scott loved these candied dried snacks, made from green peppers, cherry tomatoes, ginger, many things we could not recognize…
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…waffles and wantons filled with quail eggs and served with sweet chili sauce (DELICIOUS!!):

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Trang Night Markets

Trang Night Markets

Anyone know what this fruit below is, in English? The man working this cart saw me looking at them and gave me one to try for free– slightly sweet, mild flavor… he called it something like “sala” in Thai:

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Trang Night Markets

For me, the best thing about this type of eating is that each thing you open or bite into is a totally surprise. It’s like opening presents on Christmas. Sort of like how WAY too excited I am in this following picture, opening my charred banana leaf wrapped present to reveal who-knows-what inside:

Trang Night Markets

It turned out to be some kind of toasted/smoky coconut treat. Amazing.

So, so happy with my very own bowl of limey, sweet, firey green papaya salad:
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(That salad looks so innocent, but this was so spicy that my eyes and nose had completely unloaded onto the front of my shirt by the time I was at the bottom of this bowl…But it was so delicious I could not stop eating it. Reminder to ask for 1 chili–not 2, as I did– next time…)

Young or old, there’s something for everyone at the Trang night market:  (Starnbach lab: take note of the size of that kid’s cotton candy– I know you can do better!!)
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And for dessert…. These women were making these fantastic crispy fried dough snacks that they would make by spreading paper-thin dough onto a hot griddle, breaking it up into pieces, and smothering it with toasted (black sesame?) seeds and sweetened condensed milk, which Scott loved and now orders in every city he can:

Trang Night Markets

I ordered what I thought was a normal ice cream sundae— little did I know that they would take a solid block of hard ice cream and put it through an electric grater to make dip-n-dot-esque fluffy banana ice cream!! Truly, no food emerged into a passerby’s hand until it had been given a Thai-flair.

Trang Night Markets

Not only does Trang have an amazing night market; we also found out that it is one of the few places in Thailand that you can get authentic, delicious dim sum– a Chinese-derived meal consisting of small snacks, traditionally eaten for breakfast. So the next day, we set out on a new culinary adventure to track down the local dim sum joint… a woman from Ko Hai had written the name of the restaurant in Thai for us so that we could try to find it.. we showed it to the first tuk tuk driver we could find, apparently over-paid way too much on the tuk tuk, and soon found ourselves in a restaurant surrounded by happy Thai and Chinese locals enjoying Saturday brunch. We were definitely far off of the tourist path, but everyone was smiling at us and very helpful. We grabbed a table and walked up to the counter, where dozens upon dozens of bamboo baskets filled with uncooked goodies were pilling up for our perusal:
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Dim Sum in Trang

Dim Sum in Trang

Dim Sum in Trang

When you find ones that look good, you simply start piling your baskets on top of one another and hand them to the person behind the counter, who places your entire stack over a hole with boiling water underneath, and the whole stack gets steamed and delivered to your table.

Dim Sum in Trang

Dim Sum in Trang

One of our dishes consisted of mu yaang, a local Southern Thai specialty of sweet roasted pork, similar to pork belly (but better). We also had to try the usual spring rolls and shrimp shumai– all delicious.

The dish at the top, below, was interesting… a great seasoned sticky rice with a large strange yellow bean and a date smooshed inside…Screen Shot 2014-12-15 at 12.06.21 PM

Dim Sum in Trang

We also got to try our very first chicken feet!  (Need I say it really just “tastes like chicken”? More skin and less meat, than we’re usually used to, though). (Note: I did not change clothes mid-meal— this place was so good that we went there two mornings in a row…)
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After leaving dim sum, we continued the culinary tour by perusing the fresh market– dried chilies, dried fish, dried mushrooms, every deadly weapon known to man (to harvest the vegetables, of course…)

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Trang Markets

Trang Markets

Trang Markets

Trang Markets

We also took a break from solid food and enjoyed some lovely “kopii”, Southern Thai coffee, with the morning paper in a local cafe…

Trang "Ko Pee"

more bad news.

Finally, to round out our amazing culinary tour of Trang— we were wandering back to our hotel one day, and we came across this adorable baby elephant:

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just another afternoon in Thailand

just another afternoon in Thailand

What does this have to do with food, you ask?  Well, we got to feed him some sugarcane, of course! 🙂   Overall, our time in Trang was amazing– extremely helpful, friendly people, insane food, and a great off-the beaten path experience just waiting to be devoured….. 🙂

kOh Hai!

After a week on Koh Lanta, we felt the feet beginning to itch and decided it was time to head somewhere new…. So we bid farewell to our fantastic hosts at Where Else, hired a longtail boat, and found ourselves floating down to the next island in the chain–the island of Koh Hai…  Because no ferries were  running between the islands yet (it’s still the low season here), we got to Ko Hai by jumping on board with a day-trip snorkeling tour and the captain just pulled over at the right island while we jumped off with our backpacks!

On our way to Koh Hai, we learned that most of its land is actually preserved as a national park and that the only developments on the island are for hotels – meaning that unfortunately there wouldn’t be much to explore in the way of villages and markets. With that in mind, we decided to temporally leave the backpack trail in return for some comforts – okay, there still wasn’t hot water, but aside from that, these bungalows were pretty swank…

Our beach-front bungalow at Coco Cottages, Koh Hai:
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our view waking up each morning…
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Steph out on her yoga platform:  🙂
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outdoor shower… 🙂

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Our beach on Koh Hai faced the east towards the Thai mainland, giving us a head-on view of several limestone karsts straight off the beach:

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A couple panoramas:

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There’s not a lot to say about this place that the pics don’t say on their own…  we spent most of our time on Koh Hai reading, swimming on crystal-clear reefs, and running on the beach. Steph read in the welcome book that the hotel workers would be happy to show us how to make Thai handicrafts– she really wanted to learn how to make a lantern or an entire bungalow for our future home– instead, she learned how to make a rose out of dead leaves!!!

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The second day, we hiked a grueling jungle trail to the other side of the island and found an entire beach all to ourselves.
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Along the trail, we came across one of the many beautiful “spirit houses” found throughout Thailand. These are often placed beside or on top of a house or business as a place for the spirits to live who were displaced by the construction of that house.

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As beautiful as the day was, by the afternoon we were hot, tired, and had run out of water a long way back; the side of the island that we were hiking on was completely uninhabited, with no houses, no people, no drinkable water. Almost as if our of nowhere, we came across a Thai guy around our age who was sitting on the deserted beach; he saw us and offered up a seat and an instant cup of coffee.  A few of his friends joined us, and we sat around smiling, eventually gathering that they were park rangers for the national park that we were on. From what little we could communicate to one another, I know we established that everyone present had heard of the New York Yankees, that in America we call football “soccer,” and that boxing is big in Bangkok. Outside of that, I’m not sure what we said – we did manage to ask a husband and wife if they were siblings –  but we tried some of the Thai words we knew and the smiles we received verified that nobody was offended, at least.

On our final morning on Ko Hai, we shared a longtail transfer back to the mainland to a city called Trang. The seas were really rough, and we definitely wondered f our longtail driver would keep us afloat. We eventually made it, having received several waves right over the bow in the process. Sidenote: dry bags for any valuables (Mac laptops, for instance) are a must-have item!

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Overall, a few days very well spent, but we’re eager to get back into the thick of things. Hopefully Trang’s famed night markets will pull through in that regard. ‘Til next time!

Our First Thai Massage

I’m a type of guy who can really appreciate a good massage, heck, even a bad massage, but of the one or two I’ve ever paid to receive in the States, I’ve had trouble feeling it was quite worth the steep price. For this reason, I was excited to find that like many fine things in Thailand, you can buy an hour-long massage on the beach for the price of a cheap cocktail back home in Boston.

Steph, on the other hand, has never been much for massages. For some reason, to her they just don’t feel like much more than painful friction and pressure. My theory has held that she simply hasn’t had a good one yet; perhaps, I thought, this trip would be the time that she’d learn to appreciate a massage – that and coffee, but we’ll get to that later in the trip. In hindsight though, Thailand may not be the best choice for this awakening to take place.

Thai massage is a unique practice with interesting and ancient roots. Instead of speaking to the particulars on that history, I’ll just summarize the style as a focus on pressure points in muscles, increasing flexibility, and well, a healthy bit of good old-fashioned pain. Knowing this ahead of time, I wanted to make sure I’d get the most authentic experience I could, so I spent the previous day walking the beach scoping out the massage practitioners that looked best – essentially, we’d want the most jacked up muscle ladies I could find.

We settled on a place with very kind (and of course built) ladies who set us up with two side-by-side massage tables, right on the quiet beach on Koh Lanta. Our massages started out with the what I assume to be the basics –  a firm sucker punch to the arch of the foot – and then quickly got to business. It wasn’t long before Steph and I had women kneeling on our backs and pulling our arms toward their sides forcefully and repeatedly, as if our bodies were rubber dinghies that these women needed to return to port before the tide went out.  Muscles were stretched, digits cracked, pelvi squeezed. Not a few times, I’m sure I heard Steph actually yell “Ow!”, after which her masseuse surely asked if the pressure was too much, and upon affirmation, merely dialed it to 11. “Please relax your body,” they’d remind us, while pressing a heel into regions no foot should ever graze.

All the while, you might think we were at least soothed by the gently rolling, crystal clear waves less than 50 feet in front of our eyes; but even if we could have blocked out the pain of the contortions in which we’d been placed, we still had to ignore the women’s screaming and laughing children, running around and underneath our massage beds wielding sticks and shovels.

When the children’s cackling hit a peak, our practitioners stopped to see the cause of the ruckus. She laughed at them and turned back to us: “They’re just chasing a large snake! You know co-vra? Co… I uh, cobra? You know cobra?

Haha! Thailand has many large snakes,” she reminded us, before reiterating our need to relax our damn bodies. With this, Steph rolled her head in my direction with a look that confirmed we’d need to approach this massage thing another time.