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Ben's SE Asia Voyage

a travel blog by bhkann

My 1(+) month adventure to the far east.
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Boston, United States

permalink written by  bhkann on June 17, 2009 from Boston, United States
from the travel blog: Ben's SE Asia Voyage
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Lift Off

New York, United States

Hey All,

I'm sitting here at JFK Int'l waiting for my flight to Bangkok via
Hong Kong. I've got plenty of time to kill and thought I'd take the
opportunity to post my first blog entry. I figured this would be a good way to keep a running log of my trip without the risk of losing it (as I did with my Europe hand-written journal). Also, I thought I could get away with just posting blogs for you guys to read without actually having to send individual e-mails. So, I guess it really just comes down to laziness.
Unfortunately, I have nothing interesting to report right now except
that I'm seeing a handful of people wearing surgical masks. (I've
heard that Hong Kong is particularly paranoid about the Swine Flu
scare). Anyways, I just wanted to get this kicked off while I still
have internet access. Once I get to Thailand, Hopefully I'll be able
to post semi-regularly. See ya on the other side.


permalink written by  bhkann on June 17, 2009 from New York, United States
from the travel blog: Ben's SE Asia Voyage
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1st Arrival

Bangkok, Thailand

Three flights, two layovers, one Ambien, one sprint through the Hong Kong airport (JUST made my flight), and about 27 hours later I finally made it into Bangkok's international airport. Shortly after, I met Corey at the information terminal.

Exhausted and somewhat delirious, fortunately we did not need to navigate our way to the hostel ourselves. My Thai friend Werapong or "Joe" as he is known to his American friends picked us up from the airport. I was pleased to learn that he not only would be around that night, but for the next couple days in Bangkok, and that he would take us around the touristy sight-seeing attractions by day and take us out by night. Already from our check-in at the hostel, I can tell you it is GREAT having a local with us (Our check-in rate mysteriously dropped from >2,500 baht to ~1,400 bht (approx. $20 for each of us).

Joe also taught us a few key expressions in Thai (which is completely unrecognizable to English-speakers):

"Kob kun krap" - which means "thank you"
and "Saw wa dee" which means hello/what's up

I'm on my way to fluency...baby steps.

Also, not that it was a shocker, but it is HOT here. H-O-T. Stepping out of the airport, the air that hits you is thick, steamy, and immediately sticky. And this was at midnight (my friend Joe remarked that this was a "mild night" as we walked out of the airport). Due to the extreme heat, A/C is extremely prevalent, however, so we slept very Comfortably last night. The recipe for Comfort here seems like frequent showers and continual applications of Gold Bond. I'm prepared, at least, on that front.

Anyways, today we are meeting up with Joe and he is going to take us around the "must-see" Bangkok attractions (including the Grand Palace and Emerald Buddha Temple). More later.


permalink written by  bhkann on June 19, 2009 from Bangkok, Thailand
from the travel blog: Ben's SE Asia Voyage
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Bangkok Sprawls and the "Must-Sees"

Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok has a type of confusion, chaos, and complexity that I have not experienced while traveling before. We did not come fully to grips with this until Joe (my Thai local friend) left us for only a few hours. But that comes a little later.

Yesterday morning we woke up around 6AM - not because we had places to be, but because the jet-lag really makes not want to sleep when you should be sleeping (Bangkok is 11 hours ahead of Eastern time, so you start wanting to pass out sometime in the mid-afternoon). My friend Joe met us at our hostel. - A short bit about that: we are staying at the Lub D Bangkok hostel. It has turned out to be a great pick. The rooms are all air-conditioned, the bathrooms are nicer than most hotels I've stayed at, and there is free wi-fi throughout the entire place. It is ridiculous that we are paying less than $20 a night for this, although I am getting used to ridiculously cheap prices for just about everything, from food to transport to massages. The dollar goes a VERY long way here.

We set out for some of the big touristy attractions of Bangkok - the Grand Palace and the Emerald Buddha Temple. To get there we took a 30 min boat-shuttle up the river. We passed by lots of river-side markets, pretty cool sites. We arrived at the Temple and met up with our Tufts friend Mike and his girlfriend, Sierra. Joe took us around the temples giving us some insight into their origins and cultural importance (no 500bht tour-guide necessary!). The temples were really breathtaking and fantastic to look at (I'll post pictures in the next couple days). Afterwards, we got lunch at a Thai restaurant and proceeded to a new museum in Thailand called the "Museum of Siam," followed by another temple with a massive (must've been 100+ feet long and 40+ feet high) reclining Buddha. Buddhism is a huge part of Thai life and I'm learning some stuff about that.

After the big Buddha we went to a massage school (on the temple grounds) and got our first Thai massages, which involve some creative and sometimes painful techniques like jumping on top of your back and cracking all your fingers and toes. Very relaxing!

Corey and I split off from the group, our afternoon jet-lag in full swing. We got back to the room and passed out for about an hour. Our plan was then to meet Joe, his girlfriend, Mike and Sierra at a Thai super mall, and have dinner.

It was a big change trying to get around without a Thai-speaker. Our first cab drive tried to convince us that, rather than go to the super mall for dinner, what we really wanted to do was visit a tailor and buy shirts. After repeatedly saying no, we finally made it halfway to our destination, and took the highly modern and really fast SkyTrain the rest of the way. That night we had dinner at a great Thai place and spent a couple of hours on a really nice rooftop bar overlooking the city (pictures to follow here). Afterwards Corey and I headed back to our hostel which is situated surprisingly close to one of Bangkok's Red Light District. We decided took soak in the Thai culture and take a walk through the nightime Red Light Baazar and market. It was slightly amusing, but overall actually pretty depressing. We bounced out of there and passed out at the hostel, trying to get some sleep for today's trip - we're heading with Joe and his Girlfriend's family to Ayutthaya, Thailand's ancient capital. I'm looking forward to it, though I am pretty exhausted. Overall, so far, Bangkok has been a real assault on the senses, but in a great way!

permalink written by  bhkann on June 20, 2009 from Bangkok, Thailand
from the travel blog: Ben's SE Asia Voyage
tagged Temples and Bangkok

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Bangkok, Thailand

I've uploaded some photos from the trip thus far and will stick them in the appropriate blog entries. For now, you can just click on "photos".

permalink written by  bhkann on June 21, 2009 from Bangkok, Thailand
from the travel blog: Ben's SE Asia Voyage
tagged Photos, Temples, Bangkok and Ayutthaya

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Finding My Inner Buddha - Ayuttahaya

Bangkok, Thailand

Yesterday we set off on an excursion with Joe, his girlfriend, Arm, and her friend, mother and grandmother. They had rented a luxurious minivan to travel in, and due to some extra space, they were gracious enough to invite us along for the day. It was great meeting the family and getting a glimpse into Buddhist Thai culture and tradition. Arm's family occupies an entire four-story building. Her whole family lives together - parents, both sets of grandparents, uncles, aunts, you name it. (And I thought my family was close!) Apparently this set-up is typical of traditional Thai culture (though apparently less so now than it used to be) - the younger generation is responsible for taking care of the elders - no nursings home here! Throughout the day we learned tidbits of Buddhist culture and custom from our Thai hosts. I feel like I have just taken a course on it.

We set off on a two hour drive to Ayutthaya, which was Thailand's capital over 500 years ago. We saw some very cool temple ruins and climbed up them. We also saw some current temples and some gigantic Buddha idols (see pictures) including the biggest Buddha in Thailand (even bigger than the reclining Buddha). We took part in some Buddhist customs - one involed shaking a jar of numbered sticks until one falls out - then you get a corresponding horoscope-esque fortune that can either be very good or bad depending on your stick's number. I was very proud that mine spoke of being very powerful and successful or something. We joked about ours, but Buddhists take it extremely seriously. A bad fortune can really break their day.

We ate lunch at a restaurant that was way set back from the road and looked like a deserted, dilapidated shack at first glance. It turned out, however, to be packed with Thais on the inside, and the food was pretty good. We visited more temples in the afternoon, and then Arm's family braved the Bangkok traffic and graciously dropped us off at our hostel.

Last night we met up with Mike and went to a Muay Thai match - a form of boxing/martial arts popular in thailand. It seemed like a typical fight except that there were about a hundred Thais off to the side of the ring gambling and placing bets and passing money around like crazy. Picture the floor of the new york stock exchange - with the symbols and gestures and yelling - on crack. People were taking it very seriously - to us, it was almost as entertaining as the actual match.

That's it for now. Tomorrow we are leaving Bangkok and heading to Kanchanaburri, the site of the river Kwai.

permalink written by  bhkann on June 21, 2009 from Bangkok, Thailand
from the travel blog: Ben's SE Asia Voyage
tagged Temples, Bangkok, MuayThai and Ayutthaya

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Living on the River - Kanchanaburi

Kanchanaburi, Thailand

On Sunday we said goodbye to Joe and Bangkok and set off for Kanchanaburi. Kanch is a region made famous by the move, "The Bridge over the River Kwai," but also has many other things to offer the tourist/backpacker.

We arrived at the bus stations and took a pcik-up truck taxi to the main backpacker strip (for whatever reason, all taxi rides in this area consist of getting on the backs of covered pcik-up trucks - nice breeze). A really cool thing about this area is that many of the guesthouses have accomodations that are literally on the Kwai River (see pics).

Though our rooms are far from luxurious and we have discovered that we are sharing them with a family of salamanders, waking up to sunrise right on the river is really really cool (and so is paying 5 bucks a night).

On Monday we decided to take a guided tour that coveed the highlights of Kancha. First off was a hike and swim up the incredible 7-tiered waterfall, Erawan Falls. Virtually a water playground paradise, this was easily the highlight of the entire trip so far, an one of the coolet experiences I've ever had. Something about jumping off rocks through waterfalls into crystal-blue water just does not get old. The waterfalls were breathtaking, and we even saw a group of monkeys during the hike.

Next we visited Hellfire Pass and its War Museum.

Hellfire Pass was a stretch of railroad cut through solid rock (a sort of gorge) that the Japanese forced POWs and other Asians to build during WWII. Following this, we saw a cave that was a war-time malaria hospital now converted to a Buddha-filled temple, and the bridge over the River Kwai itself (they try to hype it up, but it's really just a bridge....).

One of the most entertaining parts of the day was conversing with our Thai guide, Mai, who was very charismatic, though had a very poor grasp of the English language. Her answers to our questions were basically always an oblivious "Yes" accompanied with a smile and a laugh, even when we her answers contradicted each other. Often she would not even realize we were asking questions. Example:

Us (sweating vigorously after our hike): Hey Mai, is there AC in the restaurant we are going to?
Mai (smiling and laughing): hahahah
Us (shrugging): ....

Though we perhaps didn't learn as much as we could have, our conversations ended up being sources of constant humor throughout the day.

After our tour, we hung out at some of the bars around the strip that were all somewhat empty and desperate for clientele. It seems like, in general, whether due to the economy tanking our it just being the off-season, the tourist trail is significantly less crowded than what I expected. This is a great thing when it comes to sight-seeing (we had the waterfalls to ourselves most of the time) and having cultural experiences, but it would be nice if there were more travelers out to meet. This will probably change, for better or worse, when we get to the islands down south.

Today (Tuesday) we will wrap up here and head to Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand. More later.

permalink written by  bhkann on June 23, 2009 from Kanchanaburi, Thailand
from the travel blog: Ben's SE Asia Voyage
tagged Kanchanaburi and ErawanFalls

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Backpackers, Tigers, and Temples - Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Yes, they let you chill with tigers here. Gotta love Thailand.

We arrived in Chiang Mai Tuesday evening and finally were greeted with a scene full of foreign travelers. I guess we finally picked up the typical backpacker trail. We met a guy named Adam, an Israeli living in LA, who was alone and decided to check into a guesthouse with him. The following night we met tons of traveler's out at night - some with really interesting and crazy stories. One in particular - a 24-year old Brit who was on his 11th month of travel and had visited, among others, Iran, Iraq, Ethiopia, Somalia (stowed-away on a cargo freighter), and Sudan. Sounded like a "how can I get myself killed fast enough?" kind of trip. But he had some incredible stories about people he met there. Maybe next trip, Dad? HAH.

Chiang Mai is the second biggest city in Thailand (I think), but compared to Bangkok it seems like a small suburb. It is easily walkable and dotted with old Buddhist temples (like just about every city I've seen in Thailand so far). It also has rained a bit more here, which is nice because it cools down afterwards. Yesterday, we met a guy from Toronto and hired a taxi to take us around a few of the major sites/attractions of Chiang Mai. First we went to the Tiger Kingdom. There are a few places where you can hang out with Tigers in Thailand, but we heard that at this place, there was less of a chance that the animals were really treated cruelly and drugged up, and other nasty things.

Anyways - the pictures speak for themselves, I guess - it seemed a little crazy at first. We asked the guide bringing us into the dens if anything bad had ever happened to tourists here. He said yes. We asked him what, and he started laughing and said he wasn't allowed to tell us. Sweet. It was a really cool experience, once the fear wore off, but I think I'll just check that one off the list and not try it again.

We continued on to a lake settled in the midst of some mountain ranges, got lunch, and went for a swim. Chiang Mai is known for having great food, and although we haven't ventured or explored to much to find great places, even the little cafes near our guesthouses serve of very tasty Thai standards - curries, pad-thais, soups, etc. This is more of the Americanized-Thai variety, unlike the foods I was eating with Joe for the first few days in Bangkok - but that is OK by me.

After the lake, we visited a temple on top of a mountain that overlooks Chiang Mai, and got massages.

Today, we are going to head to a town in very-Northern Thailand and take a 2-day Jungle trek. And we are in the process of getting our Vietnam Visas, so it looks like if those com through, we will be squeezing Hanoi into our itinerary before returning to the southern islands of Thailand.

permalink written by  bhkann on June 25, 2009 from Chiang Mai, Thailand
from the travel blog: Ben's SE Asia Voyage
tagged ChiangMai

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The Dude Abides in Pai

Pai, Thailand

If there is one expression that sums up this hippie-minded, New Age mecca in northern Thailand, it is "no worries." Pai, (pronounced "Bai"), is a small towm of about 3000 residents, mixed between native Thai and ex-pats, who settled here to live or raise families in a care-free, mountain village environment.

Though it is only accessible by an extremely bumpy and stomach-churning minibus ride, pai is still packed with backpackers and tourists.

We checked into our river-side hostel and went out around town. As one might imagine in a community filled with artists and musicians, there is a great nightlife and music scene. The bars are all very funky and creatively designed. The people here are also incredibly friendly and actually not looking to scam foreigners.

Pai is situated close to the hill tribe villages, and the next morning we embarked on a trek through the rainforest to see a few of them.

First we went through a Lisu village, then a Lahu one. Our trek guide, Toi, was great and taught us (well tried to teach us) how to make cups out of bamboo shoots. He also like to sing Beatles songs throughout the trek.

We returned to the town center and went out with a few people to a classic rock bar (they love all old rock/hippie music here).

The next morning we rented mopeds and rode them around the back mountain roads. This area proved to be a perfect place to learn how to ride, as there is no traffic, and the scenery is beautiful (after realizing how tough it was getting used to left-side of the road driving, we were thankful that we had decided not to try mopeds in Bangkok).

After riding around for a bit, we parked at an elephant camp outside Pai and had our first elephant rides. It was pretty awesome for the first 2-3 minutes, but then its gets kinda sore and uncomfortable. The trainers had the elephants do a crazy stunt where they basically fall into the river with us still on top of them (see pics).

Afterwards, we returned to town, ate and chilled out with some people we had met over the last few days. It is crazy to think that a place like this exists in the middle of northern Thailand. Many people we met had lived elsewhere and then decided to settle down here. The care-free, friendly-neighbor, and fun-all-the-time attitude is infectious. Lying in a hammock with faint jazz music in the background, I could see why.

Nevertheless, it is time to move on, away from the career-and-money-don't-matter mindset, back to what one might call "the real world." Oh well. Maybe I'll buy a hammock for my med-school dorm when I get back.

We decided to postpone our trip to frenetic Vietnam and instead first get our full dose of Thailand's southern islands. First stop: Phuket on the Andaman coast.

permalink written by  bhkann on June 28, 2009 from Pai, Thailand
from the travel blog: Ben's SE Asia Voyage
tagged Pai

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First Taste of Island Life - Phuket is a Zoo

Phuket, Thailand

After a 12 hour travel extravaganza minibus, flight, flight, taxi), we finally arrived at Patong Beach in Phuket. Phuket is on the Andaman coast (west side) of the Thai peninsula. The coast as a whole is known for its ridiculously scenic beaches, cliffs, and rock formations. Phuket itself is a bit of a different story. Though I'm sure there is some fantastic natural beauty on Phuket, Patong beach is a highly developed zoo of hotels, malls, bars, disco, and prostitutes. Not to mention our newly discovered phenomena of older white men out on dates with young Thai womens (basically escort services). The emphasis on Phuket is on partying - at all times.

So, we went against the grain, and saw Transformers 2 when we arrived at a spankin' new, giant movie theater complex.

We spent the next day on the beach (which, aside from the crowds, is actually quite nice). Beacuse Thailand is in its low tourist season, we've found that places are actually never that crowded. We've been told by guides that the crowds increase about 4-fold in the winter months - I can't even imagine how hectic it gets.

At night, we met a few locals and went to a healthy handful of bars, including a rock-cover band bar - brought me back to my Fat Tuesday days - followed by a Euro-style disco.

Though the nightlife is pretty awesome here, we decided to step out of one tourist trap and head to another - an incredibly beautiful one: Ko Phi Phi - apparently the be-all-end-all of Thailand's beaches and island scenery. More on that later.

By the way, I've posted a few more pics from Pai (including the elephant ones, Mom). Also, I haven't written about Ko Phi Phi yet, but I've posted a few pics from there, as well (in the general photo section).

permalink written by  bhkann on June 30, 2009 from Phuket, Thailand
from the travel blog: Ben's SE Asia Voyage
tagged Phuket

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