Friday, July 31, 2009

On Tuesday we finally realized our dream of laying eyes on the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho. Part of a massive temple complex, that looks like the set from the as-yet-unfilmed Candyland film, the statue itself is housed in an enormous building. Truly, the magnitude of this religious icon is done no justice by our photos - it is simply giant. Representing the moment when the Buddha obtained nirvana, the entire Wat is very peaceful and serene, despite the omnipresent camera flashes. The remainder of the temple complex, besides being a bit complex to navigate, was also impressive, full of brightly colored spires, devotional halls with Buddha statues, and plenty of gardens to relax, contemplate, or meditate.
We did manage to wander about a bit during the rest of the day, getting traditional Thai massages in the morning, and in the evening stopping at the massively modern MBK Building where we purchased some business cards; however, our evening plans of going out were waylaid by an UNO-filled evening and a relatively early pass out. Wednesday became a bit of a business day, with us dividing up be more productive. Anderson & Luke headed to the train station to purchase our overnight tickets to Chiang Mai, while Brian, Blaise & Liz did a little cycling and suit shopping. We all reconvened mid-afternoon, loaded up our packs, and journeyed across town for our 6pm train. The key problem with traveling right now is that all of our baggage is optimized for bicycle travel, not land travel, so currently we have to awkwardly carry panniers and dry sacks slung over our shoulders!
The train was waiting at the station when we arrived, so after purchasing some important provisions, like whiskey and chips, we got onboard. 2nd Class A/C was definitely quite nice, our benches handily converting into beds for sleeping. We got dinner, not too bad at a deal at 150 Baht if the taste of the generic curries could be ignored. Everyone on the train went to bed pretty early, as did we when exhaustion kicked in around 10pm. We awoke at 6am, the congested city of Bangkok having been exchanged for lush, green mountainsides. Breakfast arrived soon, tasting somewhat better than dinner, so far as a cheese, lettuce, and tomato sandwich can. Disembarking, we avoided a few hotel touts, before taking a Songthaew to a somewhat randomly selected lane outside of the main tourist ghetto. Without a destination, we just divided up and checked out several guesthouses before settling on Finlay Bed & Breakfast, which at 250 Baht/person including breakfast and A/C, was definitely in our price range.
Given that our train arrived only a little while after 7 am, we were excited to actually have a full day of adventure ahead of us. The tricky part was figuring out what to do! Chiang Mai is known for its temples, and for being more relaxed than Bangkok, but it is still a large city with over one million people. So at first we considered renting some bicycles, but after talking to another traveler who was staying at our hotel, we decided that scooters, or motorbikes as they are known here, would be a better bet. More fun, only slightly more cost, and the ability to travel well up into the surrounding hills clinched it for us.

After some bartering, we got four automatic scooters for 850 Baht, which included helmets, one liter of petrol, and insurance in case anything unfortunate were to arise. Not to ruin the end of this blog post, but we didn't need the insurance, thankfully. We'd heard that there was a fantastic temple 16km west of Chiang Mai that also would provide splendid city views. First, however, we spent time cruising around the city, getting used to being on the left-hand side of the road, and checking out a few other temples we'd read about in Lonely Planet. After a few wrong turns, and a bit of circling about, we found ourselves at Wat Phra Singh, an immense Wat full of impressive imagery and icons, as well as a large garden area with a plethora of Buddhist sayings in Thai and English.

We thought there were plenty of Buddhas about, but our next destination, Wat Chiang Man, was practically overflowing with statues of Buddha. We find it iconically ironic (or ironically iconic?) that Buddha didn't want himself worshipped as an idol, and yet Thai Buddhists did not get that memo apparently! But the statuary were all impressive, almost always at least flaked in gold, and in plenty of positions. Reclining, fasting, teaching, praying, etc. were all represented, sometimes in the same hall. Monks were usually about as well, so chanting could be heard as we walked and gawked.
Elephants played a predominate theme as well as other animals, but the former were stone while the latter were live cats and dogs.

In between those two temples we enjoyed a delicious Thai lunch, full of pad thai and some spicy local noodles. We also went overboard on beverages, our table full of 25 Baht smoothies and shakes. We gotta fight dehydration whenever we can, as the humidity here is infinitely more draining than you'd think. Next up on the agenda was the long ascent into the hills to Doi Suthep temple. The climb was slow, even on motorbike, as getting past 40km/hr proved difficult. The endless S-curves were quite enjoyable, though we were glad that the weather was clear as it definitely could've been dangerous otherwise.

We stopped briefly at a lookout point, for the prerequisite photos, as well as an icy lemon juice, before driving up the last few kilometers. At this point the clouds all around us startled to drizzle a bit, and we were more than happy to scurry up the temples 305 steps to shelter. Thirty Baht later we were walking about barefoot and amazed. Seriously, the number of collection boxes requesting donations practically outnumbered the Buddhas, and the Buddhas numbered in the thousands. Of all shapes and sizes, the coup de grace was the stunning Emerald Buddha.

For added effect, the skies literally opened up as we arrived in its presence, rain pouring all over the gold-encrusted and under-construction central pagoda nearby. Thankfully a respite came soon enough, and we were able to emerge only damp and hungry. A nearby noodle and rice restaurant recharged us for our descent down the mountain, and despite being splattered by raindrops we rode our way down. We pulled over about halfway, since we wanted to ride an extra 3km to see a signposted waterfall.

While pausing momentarily at the entrance gate, Mother Nature took control again, and the true monsoonal onslaught began. Monsoon rain might not always fall hard, but when it pours out from the sky it drenches everything in its path. You don't get wet when you walk around in it, you simply become soaked instantly.

Our plan of waiting out the rain failed, as darkness started to become an issue, so despite the downpour we drove deep into a valley, curving around on a small road. The waterfall paled in comparison to the journey, for riding out of the valley bordered on downright danger. Steep hills, both up and down, were slick beyond belief, and at times our shoes became additional brake pads. Thankfully we emerged unscathed, able to laugh at our predicament, but the relief when we finally reentered Chiang Mai, and conveniently simultaneously departed the storm, was palpable. Despite getting separated, we all managed to wind our way back to our hotel decently effectively. We did definitely get some looks, as foreigners on the roads at night are pretty rare.

Dinner was pizza, and we managed to find more of the doxycycline (for malaria) that we all need at the low, low price of three Baht/pill, so the night was a definite success, too. Drinking beers and listening to music at our hotel made a pleasant nightcap to a day full of Thai adventure. Today, Friday, the plan is to lay low in general, but tonight we're going to go to a Muay Thai fight. We're not exactly fight fans (but then, we're not necessarily all Ping-Pong fans but that didn't stop us from seeing the infamous show while in Bangkok), though the spectacle alone, plus the fact it's an authentic local experience, should definitely make it worth it.

More news soon for sure,

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

While we laid low on Friday night, we've ended up having a couple of crazy Bangkok days and nights since. Without divulging TOO much information, our Saturday involved the interesting dichotomy of the large traditional Chatuchak Market during the day, and some late-night adult and club adventures at night. The market was sprawling and quite impressive, not only for the variety of goods available, but also for how friendly all the sellers were. The market was quite clean, mostly devoid of gross odors, and our lunch there was delicious. Anderson's written an article about our experiences, that obviously goes into much more detail, so hopefully that will be available on Holiday Fu shortly.
Since we stayed up until past 8am, the majority of Sunday was spent in slumber, not-so-easy given the heat and humidity, but we all managed to sleep pretty well nonetheless. Sunday night we headed back to the airport to pick up Blaise, and so by about midnight our entire team was officially assembled. Of course we (again) stayed up late, but that's pretty much our MO until the cycling begins.
Yesterday we were again up for the challenge of exploring Bangkok's sprawling sites. We rode the SkyTrain across the city to the Chao Phraya River, where we boarded a public boat.

For only 30 baht we rode up about a third of the river, disembarking quite near the infamous Khao San Road. Other than plenty of touts, and the typical tourist ghetto wares, there wasn't really much going on, so we hopped into some tuk-tuks to see some temples. We tolerantly agreed to endure some sales pitches at a tailor shop and a massive gem store, in exchange for a free ride. Our drivers were great young guys, so the whole experience was pretty fun, since we knew what we were getting ourselves into.
We saw the much-hyped "Big Buddha," at Wat Indravihan, although what we wanted to see was the reclining Buddha at Wat Pho - we're planning on heading there sometime soon.
After our temple tour, we decided that Blaise needed to experience the seedier side of Bangkok, so the tuk-tuk drivers dropped us off at a non-descript building in some random neighborhood. Inside was the infamous Ping-Pong Show. Use your imagination, and then some, and you'll get a rough idea of what was going on. Needless to say, it was at times very far from sexual, like a low-budget Cirque Du Soleil involving certain female body parts. Not exactly entertaining, but certainly intriguing. We summed it up as something your curiosity forces you to see once, but you'd definitely never go again. Definitely.

Friday, July 24, 2009



Let's see - it's cleaner, calmer, and cooler than initially expected. Maybe India has jaded our traveler's eyes, but when we think "developing world" we expect to see garbage, animals, and beggars everywhere in the streets. However, so far during our brief wanderings about the city we haven't seen much of any of them. Once jetlag has left us alone a bit more we plan on being touristic, and perhaps that will slightly alter our opinion, but today we did ride the SkyTrain to go and check out our bikes. We finally met Fausto, the owner of Bike Zone, where we are purchasing our bikes from. He's a great guy, our bikes look fantastic, and he's even nicely storing some of our stuff for us while we are traveling around for the next two weeks!

Everyone has arrived, except Blaise who will be showing up Sunday night. This means we've been to the airport three times already, which isn't so bad since we can catch a bus direct to the airport from nearby our hotel. We are staying at Sukhumvit On Nut Guesthouse - the goofy name is due to the two main nearby streets. Don't worry, we haven't quite gotten over the fact that we're staying "ON NUT" either :-).

All the food we've had so far has been spectacular, lots of fresh vegetables and spices in every dish. Luke, as a vegetarian, is having to work a bit to get his preferred style of food, but that's primarily due to our inability to read the restaurant menus. Thai is a pretty, curvy script, but that doesn't really help when we're trying to decipher what has meat and what doesn't. Thankfully pointing, looking helpless, and taking a gamble has been successful so far.

We'll post more soon, but despite having done a minimum of adventuring, we are definitely so exhausted that going out on a Friday night doesn't even sound appealing...


Thursday, July 23, 2009

Here's a post from earlier, you'll understand the delay once you read the first paragraph:

It's now Tuesday morning, and we're just settling into our full day of waiting at Beijing's airport. Big news here is that the government is quite actively blocking websites: we are stopped from accessing both Facebook and Blogger, and currently our attempts to get a proxy working are failing, so you may be reading this a while after its been written! Thankfully we depart for Bangkok this evening around 7pm, so we're only “censored” for a day – which is great except that we arrived here before 5am! Sometimes our thriftiness – in finding the cheapest voyage to Thailand - is only so beneficial...

Anyways, we just spent a fantastic weekend with the extended Muth clan, primarily hanging out in Redondo Beach, CA. We stayed at a Best Western only blocks from Hermosa Beach (where we spent a great morning body-surfing the waves), which was also about a mile from where our aunt & uncle live. Quality time was the top priority, since everyone only had the weekend to see each other, so we spent a lot of time chatting, eating, and drinking. Besides the beach visit, we also squeezed in a little hot-tub time, played an exciting game of family charades, and Liz even managed to hit up a yoga class. It was really nice to see everyone, aunts & uncles, cousins, and cousins' children alike :-).
We also visited our aunt & uncle on Anderson's mother's side, out in Northridge, so we ate some amazing Chinese food at the Mandarin Cafe and also petted their two Australian Shepherds, Renzo & Elle, as much as we possibly could.
Monday we spent cruising around LA with our friend Matt, having lunch at Venice Beach, exploring a bit of Long Beach (where he lives), and then returning to Redondo Beach for one last family get-together at Ruby's. After saying our final, final, final round of goodbyes, our cousin Reannon drove us the short distance to LAX, and to the beginning of our SE Asian Adventure...

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Petrified Forest National Park

It's been a busy few days of road-travel, as we work our way across the American Southwest. This is being typed en route, actually, so currently we're in the desert between Flagstaff, AZ and Barstow, CA. We'll be staying in Barstow this evening, which is exciting mostly because the hotel has a pool in addition to the wi-fi!
Today is going to primarily be a travel day, not only because we need to cover a lot of miles, but also because most of the destinations are too far off of I-40 to visit when you're in a rush. That means we've decided against the Grand Canyon - four hours of driving for a few photo ops isn't quite worth it when one travels with their parents :-). Thankfully, yesterday involved more than enough touristic activities to satisfy even us!
We started our day, departing from Grants, NM, by taking scenic by-way 53 so we could stop by a place nicknamed "Fire & Ice." The "Fire" comes from the ancient Bandera Volcano - which we climbed - and the "Ice" comes from a perma-frozen cave-lake at the edge of a collapsed lava tube.

As you can see from the photos, the landscape was definitely dynamic and diverse. The volcano was quite impressive because we could see the path of the lava flow during our walk to the edge of the crater, while the ice-cave was literally freezing - a nice break from the desert heat - as we descended down into the cavern. Definitely a lucrative tourist trap for the family that owns it, but overall it was very interesting.
Next up was nearby El Morro National Monument, which features not only an impressive bluff with native American housing remains on the top of it, but also has quite the historical graffiti collection. Hundreds of signatures and drawings have been carved into the soft sandstone rock, ranging from Spanish explorers, to gold seekers, to early American travelers. There is a deep pool of water located at the base of the bluff, which certainly explained the site's popularity!

After our best meal yet, at the roadside Stagecoach Cafe in Ramah, we then drove a while to finish our tourists' trifecta with... the Petrified Forest National Park. Located in eastern Arizona, the park combines spectacular views of the painted desert, along with a plethora of petrified wood in its natural setting, and then throws in a few native American petroglyphs for good measure. Perhaps you can tell, but all three were impressive and very photogenic!

We spent last night in Winslow, Arizona - which if you're an Eagles fan you've undoubtedly heard of - though virtually all of our time there was spent either eating to recover from starvation, or sleeping to recover from exhaustion. Thankfully those conditions, from our modern perspective, are nothing like what it must have been like for those intrepid adventurers whose footsteps we are so loosely following.
Coming up is a weekend of family fun in and around Redondo Beach, CA, which will undoubtedly involve a bit of touristing - currently we're contemplating the Getty Museum in LA, and hopefully a winery on the way into the city - we shall see.

Crazy that we'll be in Bangkok in less than a week, and riding our bikes in about three...


Thursday, July 09, 2009

We've made it through a jam-packed two weeks, spending time in several states and driving well over 1,000 miles.Unfortunately our camera was getting repaired (thanks United Camera!), so there aren't really any photos. If we get some from some friends (hint, hint), we'll add them. Fortunately, however, we have our camera back now, and will be going to the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona tomorrow, which we are quite sure will be very photogenic. Currently we are at a hotel, with Anderson's parents, in Grants, New Mexico, after the first day of our road-trip to California. We're headed there for a Muth family reunion, and we'll then be departing from LAX late Monday night.
Now for the rewind: after Luke's legendary birthday party :-), we headed back up to Wisconsin for about another week. For July 4th we spent the entire weekend camped next to the Chippewa River, on Liz's aunt and uncle's property. We sold stuff (literally, all sorts of stuff) at the nearby flea market with Liz's grandma, floated the river for several hours (with coolers of beer tethered to our inner tubes), and even got to eat deep-fat-fried turkey for the first time ever. And of course we spent time with all of our nieces and nephews, including the new baby, including a few crazy hours in a hotel pool.
From Wisconsin we headed back to Iowa, for a whirlwind extended weekend. Thursday night we dined in style at our friend Dustin's new place of work, The Chef's Table. It's French cuisine, made funky. Or "deconstructed" as our waitress was fond of saying. Regardless, it was stylish cuisine, delicately prepared, that tasted absolutely delicious. Afterward we went to our friend Collin's final (really?) show in Iowa City, which was a somewhat crazy jam session at Quentin's Bar.
Friday involved a lot of running around, shopping for some needed bicycling accessories, a brief relaxing bike ride, and then we split up for our respective bachelor and bachelorette parties. Anderson headed to northern Iowa, outside Cresco, for a full day of camping and canoeing to celebrate with our friend Joe; Liz headed to Des Moines, for a full night of an 80s theme, sushi dinner, and dancing with our friend Hannah. They are getting married in September, which means we obviously won't be able to attend the actual wedding, so at least we got to join them for an awesome weekend!
Anderson then caught a ride to Des Moines, part of an epic Sunday in the car, ending up with us in Colorado in the wee hours of the morning. We were lucky enough to stop by Blake & Sarah's house again in Omaha, NE, where we once again ate amazing food. Nothing like garden-fresh vegetables and garden-vegetable-patties to rejuvenate some weary road warriors.
After an anxious day of packing, including a trip to REI, and the much-better-priced Wilderness Exchange, we had a fun get-together with most of our Denver friends. Thanks to everyone that came over on such short notice, good to know that our bribe of pizza was effective enough!
We spent about 8 hours in the car (well, van) today, ate a delicious Mexican lunch in Trinidad, CO, at Mission At The Bell Restaurant - which apparently doesn't have a website, and an only average Chinese buffet for dinner... guess that's what we get for getting Asian food in New Mexico.
Tomorrow's going to be a long day, but so long as our next hotel has wi-fi we'll post photos at night...


PS - Special thanks to Steph for the stolen photo above, it was from our meal at The Chef's Table.