Monthly Archives: July 2016

Lemosho Route, Part 1

We stopped in Bangkok before heading onto a midnight flight to Tanzania, with one layover in Ethiopia. If I ever shat on Laguardia or LAX before, I take it alllll back. The Addis Ababa Bole International Airport in Ethiopia is, by far, the worst. I could’ve implemented a better operations management system for a class project in college. The screens would tell you to approach the gate for your flight but, once you tried to, they would hold you back right before security. Apparently, a bunch of flights’ passengers were told to “Go to Gate” because a good hundred of us were sardined together by the security entrance. Then the airport officials started freaking out once they realized some of these flights were due to depart soon. So, they began to shout out random flight locations and let those people go through first but, it was still a whole crowd of us and security check became bottlenecked. I mean, doesn’t all this just involve common sense? I thought maybe this was a one-off thing but, I unfortunately had the pleasure of coming back here on the way to Cape Town and going through it all over again. Except, that time, when they announced “Shanghai,” a white guy next to me asked if I was going. I flatly replied, “I’m not Chinese and I’m going to Cape Town.”

Moshi, Tanzania

Right before landing, the pilot announced that we’d be seeing Mt. Kilimanjaro shortly on the left side of the plane. We were sitting at the window seats on the right. The Chinese lady next to me, however, did not give a shit. She jammed her camera-toting arm right in front my face and started clicking away at blue sky. Lady, the mountain is on the opposite side. And, you’re taking horrible flash photos of light reflecting off the window. I looked at the left side, though, and the Asians have gone wild.

Anyway, we were lucky to be one of the first passengers off the plane at the Kilimanjaro International Airport. Once off, we rushed off to immigration, quickly filled out the customs forms, then ran off to be first at the visa desk. We were able to get visas on arrival and, after going through Addis Ababa, the Kili airport was a breath of technologically advanced air. At desk 1, we paid the fee (multi-entry was only available for U.S. passports). Desk 2, we got our photos taken and a visa sticker printed out with our photo then attached to a passport page. Desk 3, we were fingerprinted. Efficiency.

Travel tip: We had our yellow fever cards checked before entering the terminal, so have those ready. Also, we pre-booked a taxi through our hostel for $40 to get into Moshi. Otherwise, you’d probably have to haggle with a taxi driver at the airport or take a short taxi ride to a bus stop that looked unreliable.

On the road to Moshi (maybe almost an hour ride), we were stopped at one of the many police checks. Our driver, who looked 19, began explaining something in Swahili to an officer with an AK47, then repeated “Sorry” a few times before the cop eventually let us go. At a second stop, the driver then told us that he needed to go out and apologize to another officer. Apparently, this one had taken away his driver’s license at his second speeding infraction. When he got back to the car, though, he told us that this particular officer was actually the twin of the one he needed to apologize to. Um, what are the chances? At the third stop, the driver seemed to know the officer there. It turns out that the second cop was the actual cop and not the twin. I knew it. It was almost too coincidental.

Our G group for Kili included 11 people in total – Carla, Floyd, Marilyn, Darcy, Catherine, Tom, Allie, Daniel, Jeffrey, Hayden and me. Canada, England, Germany, Macau, NZ and the U.S. Then we had our main G CEO, Gerald, leading the G Fighters (the awesome group of porters).

H joked that I should take one of those photos where people arrange their gear artistically and post it onto Instagram. I scoffed. Then, I saw him do it, and immediately did the same. (And, yes, 8 days of no showering requires a packet of baby wipes.)

Day 1

We left the hotel by 9am and stopped at a mini mart to grab trekking snacks (aka Snickers, Bounty bars and digestives). We then picked up the G Fighters and ate boxed lunches at the park’s ticket office. We drove past pine trees that, for whatever reason, made me feel weird. The stem portion was completely bare and the pine up top was too soft-looking that it reminded me of Tom Selleck’s mustache, copy/pasted a gazillion times.

By 1pm, we were off! We were already at an elevation of 2,100m (6,890 ft). Vegetation zone: Montane forest.

We hiked about 3-4 hours to our first camp, MTI Mkubwa (Big Tree) Camp, just 7km of gradual inclines at a pole pole (pronounced po-leh po-leh) pace. It was almost too slow…though I would not be thinking that on day 7.

We encountered some black-and-white colobus monkeys (aka skunk monkeys) en route. Can you even point him out in the trees? Start from the bottom middle of the photo, then work your way up. Stop a little before the tree ends. Actually, it’s probably just better if you Google imaged it. Or just literally pictured skunk monkeys.

Because the porters are badass, they had our tents already setup by the time we got there and a wash wash ready as soon as we got in. Same badass service as on the Inca Trail. The outhouses were quite horrible, though, and I was very thankful that there was no lighting inside them.

Elevation: 2,650m (8,694 ft); Vegetation zone: Montane forest.

Day 2

Our routine became a 6:30am wakeup, 7am wash wash (has to be said twice), 7:30am breakfast and an 8am start. Day 2 was a 6-7 hr day and described as “some up, some down, some flat.” (Hm, where have I heard that before?) A majority of it was up as we trekked up and over the Shira ridge at 3,500m (11,483 ft), though very moderate compared to the Himalayas. We completed the hard part before we stopped to have our boxed lunches. Gerald (and the co-CEO’s) called this the “training paths.”

Other than trekking at a gradual pace, water (and lots of it) helps with the effects of altitude. “Water for life” became such a common saying (in addition to “pole pole”) that I eventually got annoyed into drinking water. Whatever works, right?

Shira I Camp – Elevation: 3,610m (11,844 ft); Vegetation zone: Moorland. This campsite was a vast land sprinkled with soft grasses and shrubbery. The higher we went, the dustier it became and no matter how short I cut my nails or how often I washed my hands, dirt found its way underneath them.

The clouds finally cleared around 6pm and revealed the very mountain we were going to summit in 5 days. Then came popcorn, hot chocolate/tea/coffee and a very hearty dinner. It still amazes me how these porters carry, cook and clean everything so effortlessly.

Once the sun set, the warmth was completely gone and frost formed on the outside of our tents. This day’s night sky may have been the best one all week. The Milky Way was so bright and the stars were so overwhelming that it was difficult to point out the Southern Cross. It was still dark enough for me to get lost on the way back from the bathroom, so I yelled out “H! H?” until I finally got a response. That was actually a little scary given how many tents there were. Most of us stopped drinking liquids around 6pm to avoid having to pee in the middle of the night. Otherwise, we would hold it in until it began to hurt, then go through a whole process of unzipping the sleeping bag, putting on an extra layer of pants/jacket and a head torch, unzipping the inner layer of the tent, unzipping the outer layer of the tent, then zipping up both, walking to the bathroom in the freezing darkness, then coming back to unzip both layers of the tent, zipping both layers back up, taking off the outer layers of clothing, then zipping back into the sleeping bag. If that was annoying to read, you can imagine how it felt to actually go through it.

Day 3

Sunrise. It was still frosty at 7:30am but, by 8am, it was almost as if the frost never existed.

Day 3 was an easy day, mostly flat with gradual inclines and only 4 hr of hiking. We also passed an emergency road that Carla decided to take. Because food poisoning. At least a car was able to pick her up. It would’ve been great to have that in the Himalayas. (Whomp whomp.)

Elevation: above the clouds.

Shira II Camp – Elevation: 3,850m (12,631 ft); Vegetation zone: Moorland. To acclimatize, we hiked an extra 100m up in altitude and back down, an hour roundtrip.

Fun fact: Mt. Kilimanjaro is actually made up of 3 volcanic cones – Shira, Mawenzi and Kibo (in ascending size order).

Back at the camp, the G Fighters introduced themselves one by one and then broke out into song and dance led by Saddam, the guy in the middle. Each one of them was so enthusiastic to be there and with each other that their excitement became contagious. This is going to sound cheesy but, they really made you happy to be alive and on that mountain. I’ll never forget that feeling. (Photo credit: H)

Sunsets and sunrises are always beautiful but, the ones in Africa are on another level. The mountain glowed orange as the sun sunk beneath the horizon of clouds. After dinner, Gerald and the co-CEO’s went into the history of the Maasai people, from the plaided red that the men wear down to their tradition of circumcision and polygamy. A young boy is forbidden to cry during circumcision (done sans anesthesia) or it would bring shame and make it difficult for him to find a wife. The boy would’ve also had to kill a lion beforehand, but this is no longer a common practice. Young women also had to go through circumcision but, this thankfully was made illegal in the country. And, a man’s wealth was and still is measured in cattle. The more a man has, the more respected he is. But, despite how all this sounds, they are a very friendly people and are more than willing to show you their villages and everyday life.

Day 4

The first 5 hrs were all about the inclines toward the Lava Tower at 4,600m (15,092 ft) elevation. Vegetation zone: Alpine desert, meaning bare open spaces with not much to hide behind for a wild wee. By the time we found seating on a large boulder littered with egg shells of hikers past, we were so famished that we ate in complete silence then took brief naps in the sunlight.

Then, sweet relief, it was mostly downhill for 2-3 hr.

We eventually passed through palm trees and heard running water and a waterfall a short while later, an oasis in the alpine desert.

Hello. And, bye bye birdie.

We’ve encountered a lot of cool birds along the way, one of which I labeled the “delightful pigeon” because they are prettier and a lot less likely to carry disease than the urban kind.

Barranco Camp – Elevation: 3,900m (12,795 ft); Vegetation zone: Moorland. From this camp, we were able to see a view of the Western Breach, the surrounding Breach Wall, and Moshi town below (well, once the clouds cleared the way).

July 22 – 31, 2016: Mt. Kilimanjaro Group Trek – Lemosho Route

Travel tip: We chose the Lemosho route because we felt that 8 days gave us sufficient time to acclimatize. We’ve heard that the shorter routes had a much lower success rate of summiting.

Kampuchea

Siem Reap, Cambodia

For $15 more, we then convinced our driver to take us around the bigger circuit.

Pre Rup

Fifth stop: Pre Rup (“Turning the Body”). This temple was believed to hold funerals during which the body’s ashes were rotated in different directions in a ritual.

East Mebon

Sixth stop: East Mebon, which began to look a bit deja vu. It now stands in the center of a dried up reservoir, the East Baray, with its base guarded by stone elephants on all corners.

It was so damn hot that day that by 10am, my clothing was a different shade. And, though the heat was obviously felt by all, apparently I was the only one showing it. A guard came up to me as he was passing by.

Guard: “Very hot.”

Okay, thanks for taking the time to tell me that.

Tuk tuk driver: “Very hot…for you.”

Yea, I got the point, OKAY!

Ta Som

Seventh stop: Ta Som, another temple bombarded by awesome, majestic trees.

Neak Pean (or Neak Poan)

Eighth stop: Neak Pean or Neak Poan (“Intertwined Nagas/Serpents”), which was a large square pool surrounded by 4 smaller ones, representing earth, fire, wind and water (no heart? Captain Planet would be disappointed). Each of the 4 smaller pools were fed by the main larger one through spouts that were sculpted as the heads of the “Four Great Animals” – an elephant, horse, bull (replaced by a human) and lion. The pools were built with the concept of balance and was thought to have healing powers. Most of them were gated off, though, so I guess I’ll just have to continue living with my mysterious disease known as “great beauty.”

Preah Khan

Ninth and last stop for the day: Preah Khan (“Royal/Holy/Sacred Sword”), another favorite and a perfect end to the day.

The purpose of the 2-story structure on the left is still unknown but, regardless, it’s awesome.

Again, trees taking over the premises, though this temple was in a better state than Ta Prohm.

The ride back to the hotel took some time and we drove along tree-lined roads with motor-assisted breezes. The heat and the hum of the engine made me sleepy, and as my head began to bob, H looked over, his mouth open to say something, but ended up just laughing instead.

Me: “What?”
H: “I was just about to ask if you could fall asleep in this.”

Banteay Samré

For our last morning, we grabbed another tuk tuk for the day to reach 2 temples a little further out and to stop at the Cambodia Landmine Museum. All for $26. We reached Banteay Samré around midday and it was hot as balls. At least we pretty much had the temple to ourselves. (Again, don’t forget to cover your legs and shoulders!)


Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei, the only major temple to have not been built by a king.

This temple probably had the craziest carvings that I’d ever seen and because of the immense intricacy, it is believed to have been done by a woman. Yup, that’s right. Women, represent! It is, after all, named “Citadel of the Women.”

Note: If you visit any temple without a guide or tour group, try to come prepared with an information source (e.g. a Lonely Planet guide). Though the main pathways have been made safe, if you venture off the beaten path, you may trigger a forgotten landmine. (The Lonely Planet book had alerts for specific temples.)

Afterwards, we visited the Cambodia Landmine Museum, the entrance ticket of which had the following statement: “Everything on display has been inspected 100% Free from Explosives (FFE).” Um, phew! The museum itself is definitely worth a visit. It was started by Aki Ra who, as a child, was drafted into the Khmer Rouge (Communist followers) and helped to plant landmines. After realizing that those landmines were killing way more innocent people than enemies and doing a lot more damage than good, he dedicated his life to de-mining efforts and set up a rehab center behind the museum for victims. Ticket proceeds help fund de-mining campaigns and support the museum/center.

Also worth a visit: Angkor National Museum.

Later that night, we were off to Phnom Penh. We booked an overnight bus that left Siem Reap at 11pm and arrived in Phnom Penh around 5am (about a 6hr trip). The beds were mostly reclined, included a blanket and pillow, bottled water, individual power sockets and free wifi. These bus rides were known to be pretty unsafe in the past but, nowadays, they’ve been made much safer and nicer.

Phnom Penh

We decided to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and take a tuk tuk to The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek afterwards (about $10 for a 30-40 min ride). The audioguide was definitely worth paying for at the museum (one was already included at the fields). It was really hard to imagine that not only could a genocide like this happen, it could happen repeatedly over history all over the world. During Pol Pot/Khmer Rouge’s regime, millions of citizens, including the sick and elderly, were duped into leaving Phnom Penh and other cities by foot only to end up in slavery in the countryside. That year was known as Year Zero and was the beginning of the 3-4 year purification process of the population. In other words, genocide.

Tuol Sleng (aka Security Prison 21 or, S-21) was a high school overtaken by Pol Pot in 1975 and turned into one of the many secret prisons in which citizens were wrongfully accused of crimes and tortured. Absurd rules were imposed. They were then brought to the Killing Fields to be murdered and dumped into mass graves. Educated people, professionals (doctors, lawyers, etc.) and religious leaders, even people wearing certain items like glasses, were targeted and killed. Out of an estimated 12,000 – 20,000 prisoners, only 12 were confirmed as survivors. And, as if that weren’t barbaric enough, they kept records of the prisoners, including photos before and after torture. It was believed to have been done so that the security officers could somehow separate themselves psychologically from their actions – record and file away. This was all done for a cause that even made the leaders eventually suspicious of each other.

Several foreigners were captured and killed also, including a Kiwi, Kerry Hamill, who was sailing around the world and happened to drift into Cambodian waters. Not believing that he was just an innocent traveler, the security officers eventually forced a “confession” out of him through which he fictitiously claimed that he was sent into Cambodia by Colonel Sanders of KFC. He also included a cryptic message which was believed to be a goodbye note to his mom and family.

The Killing Fields was also a secret operation, accidentally discovered later by people who, while looking for food, smelled a horrible stench. By then, the mass graves had grown into mounds from the gases emitted from the corpses. The eeriest and saddest part was the Killing Tree, against which women, children and infants were smashed. Brain matter was later found on the tree. Bullets also became too expensive so farming tools were used to bludgeon people and make them suffer. All the screams were then masked by large speakers playing music. Horrific on all levels.

On the tuk tuk ride back to the hostel, H and I just sat, dumbfounded. We came to the conclusion that the general rule for people should be “Don’t be a dick.” We needed to cheer up the day so we ended up meeting H’s friends, Aimee and James, for dinner and drinks at FCC (with a view of the Mekong), Friends The Restaurant (where we tried a Scotch egg with a baby duck), then Masamune (wedged in a cute alleyway of bars).

Travel tip: Whenever you ride a tuk tuk, make sure to hold onto your bag securely. Passing motorcyclists were known to grab bags and speed away. For hostels, I totally recommend staying at the Mad Monkey Hostel, the only hostel I’ve seen with a swimming pool (and a clean one, too).

Turn down for (Angkor) Wat

Having learned my lesson, I made sure to get to the airport exactly 2 hours before my scheduled flight. So, I walked out onto the shady street by the “hotel,” not realizing there was a main road not too far away with plenty of cabs. Instead, a motorbike stopped to offer to take me for ฿50. I pointed at my backpacking bag, clearly communicating “And, where are you going to put this?” Unperturbed, he said that he could straddle it in between his legs. For whatever reason, I just agreed. “It should only be 10 min anyway,” I thought. So, I hopped on, now realizing that I have a higher chance of dying, without a helmet or long pants to shield my legs. The driver, on the other hand, not only had on a helmet but also a leathery jacket that motorcyclists wear for protection. Great.

But, I made it safely to…

Siem Reap, Cambodia

H had told me he took a motorbike as well to the hotel for only $2. A cab was $7. Having survived round 1 in Bangkok, I thought, “Why not?” Bring on round 2 of risking my life on a motorbike as the driver straddles my luggage. Again, I made it in one piece, unharmed. But, then, I later found out that by “motorbike,” H really meant a tuk tuk. A nice carriage pulled by a motorbike. “You took an actual motorbike??” Yea, laugh. And, thanks to my credit card points, we were able to stay at Le Meridien Angkor. We totally belonged.

Travel/visa tip: If you need USD, make sure to take it out from the ATM’s right by the door/entrance after you disembark the plane and enter the terminal. The ATM’s are before immigration. Otherwise, you would need to circle back to the departures hall. Everything in Cambodia seems to run on USD. Also, I was able to purchase an e-visa online. You just need to print out 2 copies (doesn’t have to be in color) and bring that with you.

Angkor Wat

First stop, of course, was Angkor Wat (“Temple City”) with a sea of Asian tourists toting sun umbrellas. It was just as epic as I had imagined it to be and worth being on multiple lists of top things to see in the world. It was even worth dropping my iPhone onto the extremely hard brick ground and cracking the screen when I tried to take a photo. Well, almost.

Travel tip: The tuk tuk driver took us to the ticket office before we visited any of the temples and we bought a 3-day pass for $40. Make sure you bring something to cover your shoulders and legs. They don’t provide anything so come prepared. I just wore a maxi dress and brought a t-shirt to wear over the top.

Angkor Wat, a Hindu temple turned Buddhist, was built facing the west, the reason for which remains theoretical since most other temples faced the east. But, similar to most temples, its architecture was designed to depict a temple-mountain, a representation of the Hindu sacred mountain, Mt. Meru, the center of all universes. The moat surrounding it apparently prevented the surrounding jungle from encroaching onto the premises. Because, you know, trees and plants grow wherever the fuck they want. Fair enough, since we’ve taken all their space.

The bas-reliefs (sculptural technique) along the wall depicted either scenes of war or of heaven and hell, 37 heavens and 32 hells to be exact. Not very comforting to see scenes of torture of those condemned to hell.

I must say, I’ve never seen so many monks pose for photos in my life. Nor did it ever occur to me that monks could be tourists. I thought one guy was sitting in meditation against a column, looking all pensive, until he turned to his friend a few seconds later and asked, “Did you take the photo?” He then proceeded to drape his robes and look away into the distance. Another pose. I wished I had a pashmina on me to ask him for draping tips. Instead, you get the above photo, where I’m so itty bitty, it wouldn’t have mattered if I was posing or not.

We later sat on the steps of a ruin by the left pond and watched the sunset. It was pretty but, sunrise (above) was so much more epic. We had to wake up at 4am and take a 5am tuk tuk but, it was so much more peaceful in the morning that it didn’t matter. Since the sun was rising on the left, everyone crowded around the left pond. H and I were smart and perched ourselves by the still empty right pond (around 5:20-30am) which the left siders gradually migrated to as time passed. With the gradual daylight reflecting off the water, you could see all sorts of movement on the surface of the pond. Bugs, and lots of them.

H: “Does it make you feel all itchy even though they’re not biting you?”

The answer was a scratchy yes.

The sun then started making its way up around 6:10-20am and as soon as the sun rose, the crowds dispersed almost immediately. Epic on another level. We left by 6:30am.

Travel tip: We ate dinner at Marum where we tried beef satay with fried red tree ants. The only real indication of it in your mouth was the horrific crunch. Delicious, though! Other places to try: Genevieve’s, where we tried beef lok lak and 1kg of sweet & sour fish. I didn’t realize what 1kg really meant until the dish clunked down in front of me. H then challenged me to eat the red pepper garnish, seeds and all, which for some reason I agreed to do and immediately regretted. Remember to make reservations. The Little Red Fox in Kandal Village had amazing breakfast and flat whites. And, try fish amok anywhere!

Tuk tuk parking.

Travel tip: We rented a tuk tuk for the day through our hotel. It was $25 to cover the small circuit, starting at 5am with the Angkor Wat sunrise and ending at 5-6pm. We let him go at 1pm, though, since we covered 8 hr by then.

Bayon

Second stop: Bayon Temple, in the center of Angkor Thom (“Great City”). We arrived by 7am but had another half hour before opening time. This gave us time to meander around the perimeter and have first dibs at the entrance.

Within 15 min of it opening, though, a line of people streamed in and we no longer had the place to ourselves.

Bayon houses 216 faces (6 or so pictured above) of Avalokiteśvara, an embodiment of compassion of all Buddhas, but really, they’re probably the faces of Jayavarman VII, the king responsible for its construction. Perhaps even the original “Many-Faced God.” Either way, I wouldn’t want to mess around. The king’s face was everywhere and always watching you. He was, indeed, the OG CCTV. He did, however, abolish castes and improve infrastructure but, on the other hand, his aggressive construction work exhausted both the people and supply.

There were 3 levels to this temple and it was easy to get lost while exploring.

A close-up of one of the bas-reliefs.

Baphuon

Third stop: Baphuon. The entrance was a really long pathway which we later realized was propped up on stone columns. Another architectural delight.

Baphuon was a 3-tiered temple-mountain, another representation of Mt. Meru.

Ta Prohm

Fourth stop: Ta Prohm, also known as the “Tomb Raider temple.” When I mentioned before how trees can grow wherever the fuck they want, this temple was the epitome of that. Even in the smallest little crack, there was a sprout (I could’ve also worded that a little differently…) But, that’s what made this temple a real adventure. I channeled my inner Lara Croft, sans sexy outfit.

If I thought this temple was in a state of “ruin,” I was seriously wrong. They showed before and after photos, and the current state was a result of conservation efforts. But, I hope they leave it as it is because the trees made this temple seem mystical, making it easily one of my favorites.

Onto the bigger circuit…

And then…

Bangkok, Thailand

I debated on waking up at 5-6am to make it to the Amphawa Floating Market and to see the arrival/departure of the train at the Maeklong Railway Market. This particular floating market was supposed to be the best balance of liveliness and old world charm without it being overrun by tourists. And, apparently, it was open everyday. The nearby Maeklong Railway Market was something I had to see in person. It’s basically a bustling market through which a train, on schedule, seemingly barges in like a rhino stomping through tall grass. Upon arrival, all the vendors move their shit out of the way right when the train comes through. Then, while the train is just stationed there, they move their shit back out and sell in every nook and cranny of space that lies between them and the intrusion. Google image this.

But, I decided to sleep in.

It felt great to sleep in, except that I lazed about for too long before deciding to go anyway. There are minibuses that leave from Victory Monument, and I missed the 10am by 15 minutes. Go figure that the 11am arrived 30 minutes late.

Travel tip: You can take the BTS to Victory Monument but, since I was at a hostel near Khaosan Road where there are no BTS stops, I just took a cab. According to this travel blog, though, if you end up taking the BTS, take exit 4 when you leave the station. There are quite a few kiosks/tables on the ground level selling minibus tickets, and most of them should have signs declaring their destinations. If not, you can always ask “Amphawa” and they’ll point you to the correct table. The ones going to Damnoen Saduak, Maeklong and Amphawa were next to some movie theater/shopping plaza. The one way ticket price was ฿80. Also, try to bring exact change. They’ll claim to have no change but, really, they don’t want the big bills and, once the minibus arrives, go quickly and grab your seat. It becomes a every-man-for-himself situation and you could end up with a sucky middle seat or maybe even no seat at all. I have no idea how they organize these things.

The ride there took about 1.5 hr. We first made random stops for some locals on the bus, then stopped at the Maeklong Railway Market. It looked deserted. “I’m so glad I slept in,” I thought to myself. The next stop was supposed to be the Amphawa Floating Market but, after a few of us asked about it, the driver decided to tell us NOW that the market was only open on weekends (Fri-Sun). Why couldn’t the ticket lady tell me this before? I had a feeling I was ripped off. Luckily, the next and last stop was the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, which is the most popular but, the biggest tourist trap of a market. The driver told me to go there instead.

By the time we arrived, it had begun to downpour. For a good hour. A bunch of us stalled on the boat ride, waiting for the rain to subside. I’m so glad it took awhile, though, because it gave us time to Google things. We later realized that this particular stop wasn’t the main entrance to the market but, one of the entrances where a boat operator tries to rip you off with an overpriced ride. It was pretty obvious that the driver had a deal with this operator. He had called them up in advance and, as soon as the bus door opened, these girls in blue t-shirts began hounding us with “deals.” I had a feeling that way too many tourists fell into this trap, thinking that this was the only entrance and the only boat operator going into the market. With the intent to spend only ฿500 today, I walked away from the lady after she tried to sell me an hour boat ride for ฿1000. With the rain falling down hard, I contemplated just getting a bus back to Bangkok, and I probably should’ve. The lady then told me she could call up the bus driver for me and go back for ฿150, almost double the price of getting here.

These 2 Chinese girls from my bus weren’t caving in. The blue t-shirt lady then gathered the 3 of us and whispered that if we went together, she’d offer a price that she only offered to locals – ฿400 per person. We were the only Asian tourists on the bus. Given the rain, the girls decided to “wait” then went off to a corner to Google prices. Something didn’t seem right. This is when we found out that the main entrance was a 15 min walk away. The 3 of us, now bonded, opened our umbrellas and began to walk in that direction. The blue t-shirt lady shouted behind us, “They’re going to sell you a boat ride for maybe ฿200 but it won’t be a full hour! Or a nice motorboat!” Ha, so she knew.

So, here we were. Three girls walking along the curb of a main road in a torrential downpour. Out of nowhere, a motorbike tried to squeeze in whatever space there was between me and one of the 2 girls. The rearview mirror slammed into my side without warning, not even a shout or a honk. He had one hand on an umbrella and one hand on steering, barely keeping his balance. He also had the entire road to the right of us to drive, but didn’t seem to give one shit to do so.

Finally, a local bus slowed down beside us and told us that he was heading in our direction and could drop us off at the market. Only ฿7 per person. We closed our umbrellas and hopped in. We then looked at each other and burst out laughing. Was all this really happening?

At the main entrance, we managed to get a 30-40 min rowboat for ฿150 per person (almost 1/10th of the original price stated at the other entrance) and, that’s all we needed. There is absolutely no need for a motorboat. And, as we were rowing through, we saw that 85% of the market was closed anyway. Yup. Luckily, one of the Chinese girls was a take-no-shit bargainer and happily took control of lowering all prices, even the price of cheap plastic ponchos to wear during the ride. By then, the rain slowed down to a drizzle. In the end, the only thing we managed to purchase was boat-side pad thai and chicken satay skewers.

Back at the entrance, we asked the boat vendor to call the bus for us and they gladly did. Only ฿100. It was 3pm. The traffic back was incredibly horrible, though, and we made it back to Victory Monument by 5:30pm. Catching a cab was nearly impossible and inner city traffic was almost at a standstill. An Uber canceled on me, also.

Finally, a cab shows up, but a mom and a daughter had already been waiting for one. In an attempt to share the cab, I asked if they were going near Khaosan Road. “Huh?” “Khaosan Road.” Confused look. “Khaosan Road.” They didn’t understand me. So, they just got in the cab and drove off but, with traffic so bad, they only made it down a few feet within the next 5-10 min. Suddenly, I heard a shout and I turned around to see the daughter gesturing to me through an open window. “Khaosan?” she asked. “YESSS!” They motioned for me to get in. I got the feeling that they talked to the driver and collectively figured out where I was trying to go. Then, they tried to teach me to properly pronounce “Khaosan.” It sounded the same to me.

I get to my hostel by 6:30pm and ordered an Uber, heart pounding. I knew traffic was bad but, there really is no reliable public transportation going to the Don Mueang International Airport (DMK). I get there by 7:45pm and check-in had officially closed. I missed my 8pm flight and the next one was in the morning. To add salt to the wound, the nice airport hotel was fully booked. The receptionist offered a free ride to a nearby hotel.

“Is it nice?”
“No, but it’s the next closest hotel.”

Island walking adventures

Koh Tao, Thailand

Because I’m cheap, I decided to walk everywhere, even it meant 2 hours in my $5 bootleg Havaianas. It was great at first, because the first half hour or so was along the boardwalk from Sairee Beach to Mae Haad Pier. Then I was walking on straight up roads going further down the island, trying not to get hit by a passing motorbike. I’ve never ridden a motorbike by myself before and right when I contemplated renting one and taking a stab at it, one motorbike with 2 girls toppled over and skidded right next to me. One of them ended up with a huge bleeding scrape from knee to ankle. Nevermind. I can handle my bootleg flip flop-induced blister.

So, my destination of the day was the John-Suwan Viewpoint which I mapped out on Google Maps. It ultimately led me to the middle of a road with nothing but a yoga/diving studio and food stands. Scratch head. I looked up at the hill behind the studio. Am I supposed to climb that? It looks like private property, though. Scratch head some more.

Luckily, the owner of the yoga/diving studio, Ocean Sound Dive & Yoga, was an English speaker who had lived there for 16 years. I was told to keep walking down the road until I eventually walked uphill and saw signs for Freedom Beach Resort/Taatoh Resort. When I reached the entrance to the resort, I walked even further until I saw a sign for the 2 beaches, stating that no food or drink was allowed past that point. A little further and to the left of that was:

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Entrance fee was ฿50 (less than USD 2). Ten minutes and somewhat of a climb later (a bit tricky with flip flops which I ended up just taking off)…

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A little peeky peeky

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So worth the 1 hr 30-45 min walk from Sairee Beach. I sat up here and contemplated life until I was swimming in perspiration and needed to jump in the water STAT. Probably about 10 min.

I made it back down to Freedom Beach. It was a lot more peaceful and secluded than Sairee Beach. The bar/restaurant on the beach served an amazing green curry with chicken and freshly pressed mango juice.

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Not too far from Freedom Beach was the Chalok Baan Kao Bay, probably my favorite spot on this side of the island.

Destination for the next day: Sai Nuan Beach. After Googling how to get here, I came across this Koh Tao guide. My options included taking a taxi or boat taxi, renting a motorbike or, the one I ultimately chose. Taking my two legs. Sometimes I wonder why I do this to myself.

It took me about an hour to reach the entrance to Charm Churee Villa. I started out at Sairee Beach, made it along the boardwalk to Mae Haad Pier, then walked along the road to Koh Tao Royal Resort, walked past its entrance to a path behind the information desk/restaurant, eventually reaching Sensi Paradise Resort and kept walking along the path to Charm Churee Villa. You basically walk through all these resorts to get to the neighboring one.

Since Charm Churee Villa is a private resort that technically has rights to the beach, you need to pay an entrance fee of ฿200 (less than USD 6) if you’re an outside visitor. Pay at the Elvis Bar.

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The first beach you’ll reach is Jansom Bay, which is right by the Elvis Bar. Most of the resort guests seemed to be hanging out here.

To get to Sai Nuan Beach, you have to follow the signs past this one and walk another 15 or so minutes. You’ll know you’re making progress when you see signs along the way stating “400m more,” “300m more,” etc. At this point, you’re walking on a wooden plank path past people’s private bungalows and feeling a little bit bad about yourself for being in a hostel.

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Because of the intermittent sun and majority cloudiness, the beach wasn’t as spectacular as I had seen in photos. But, it was super secluded and super relaxing. There were only a few people hanging out here and snorkeling around. There was also a giant swing hanging on a nearby tree.

The Koh Tao guide mentioned that there were 2 parts to this beach – Sai Nuan 1 and Sai Nuan 2. Out of curiosity, I wanted to check out the other part but didn’t know how to get there. This beach had large boulders on each side and didn’t seem to invite the idea of having a second part. I asked some sunbathers and they had no idea what I was talking about. So, I decided to climb some boulders along the shore to see if there was something else beyond that. These boulders were embedded with hundreds of old shells and barnacles. I almost slipped on a slimy patch and scared away the crabs. Once I realized I had cut myself on a shell, I decided to give up my detective duties in the name of safety and just freakin’ relax on the beach like the rest of the tourists.

I ended the day with a ฿400 (about USD 11) Thai massage back at Sairee Beach and even impressed the masseuse with my flexibility while she was contorting my body into a pretzel and beating me down like I was dough.

Travel tip: If you’ve been backpacking, Thailand is a great place to get your laundry done for a cheap price. And for lunch or dinner, I recommend checking out 995 Roasted Duck. Go for the spicy noodle soup with roasted duck on top. You even get to choose your noodle (rice, egg, vermicelli).

Destination for my last day: Shark Bay but, really, Tanote Bay. Let me explain the “but really.” So, I read that if I had lunch at Blue Heaven Resort (which was recommended), I would pretty much have access to their privately owned Shark Bay where I could snorkel out and see blacktip reef sharks. And, so, per usual, I walked while following Google Maps. This time, I really wish I had just taken a taxi.

The roads I was walking along had a lot of traffic going through, including both motorbikes and pickup trucks. I started feeling dubious after passing 2 dirt roads under construction where I could’ve easily gotten hit. Then, I knew something was off when I still hadn’t reached my destination by a certain time and started walking some extreme uphills in my flip flops then an extreme downhill on loose dirt and gravel. Another road under construction. Then it began to rain. Clarity came when I saw a sign for Tanote Bay and my blue dot suddenly jumped up way north of my intended destination.

Tired and hungry, I settled for Tanote Bay. It stopped raining and I was able to rent snorkel gear for ฿50 (with a ฿1000 deposit) and swim out towards the large boulder protruding out of the water. Schools of awesome fish and guess what? A blacktip reef shark.

After an hour, I decided to head back and, as I was backtracking, I HAD to figure out where I went wrong. About 30 minutes of backtracking later, I found a dirt road to the side with a broken, bent over sign. When I lifted it, it said “Blue Heaven Resort, only 200m.”

Never say never

Koh Tao, Thailand

After waking up at 5am in Bangkok to checkin a half hour later at the bus/ferry ticket office, then waiting another half hour for the bus to arrive, then falling asleep in a freezer box they call a bus for about 7 hours, I found myself here…

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…boarding a ferry at Chumphon to get to Koh Tao. Why didn’t I just take a flight to Koh Samui, then a ferry to Koh Tao? Well, sometimes time isn’t worth a cost that is 3-4x more. So, I booked my roundtrip tickets online for ฿2200 (about USD 62) with Lomprayah. An overnight bus/ferry combo was also available but, I opted for the asscrack of dawn departure option since it seemed less miserable.

Travel tip: The Lomprayah office is located in the Khaosan Road area and opens at 5:30am. I got there by opening time to checkin for the 6am bus and redeem my email confirmation for an actual ticket (side note: I was able to show the email confirmation on my phone; no printout needed). There was already a short line of people waiting. They gave me my roundtrip ticket, luggage tag specifying my destination (Koh Tao, Koh Samui, etc), and a sticker for my shirt indicating which bus to get on and seat number. After tickets were issued, we waited around in front of the office and witnessed a drunken fight between an English-speaking couple and what appeared to be a group of locals. Next thing I knew, 30 min passed and we were walking to  the nearby roundabout where the buses were parked. I stayed at the nearby Suneta Hostel Khaosan so that I could literally roll out of bed and make it to the ticket office in 5 minutes. When we arrived in Chumphon, the ferry was already there waiting for us. (I also recommend Once Again Hostel if you’re just staying in Bangkok.)

About 2 hr later, we were approaching the pier at Koh Tao. After disembarking, I headed over to the nearby Roctopus Dive booking office to catch their free taxi service to their main office by Sairee Beach. My hostel was also nearby their main office so, that worked out quite nicely.

Travel tip: If you pre-purchased a roundtrip ticket, then on your way back, head over to the Lomprayah ticket window by the pier and switch your pink slip (given to you in Bangkok or your place of origin) for an actual ticket, luggage tag, and sticker stating your destination to put on your shirt.

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There was a time when I said I would never stay close to home for college and I ended up doing just that. I also said I would never go to business school. I specifically ended up in one. Then I said I would never work for my last 2 companies and I did. I said I would never bungy jump. Did that, too. Then, I said I’d never scuba dive…

And, I somehow found myself booked to get my SSI (alternative to PADI) diving certification as an open water diver at Roctopus Dive. So, never say never, unless you really want it to happen at that time, then you’ll say “never” deliberately and it will end up not happening after all.

Why did I even say “never” to scuba diving? While swimming in the open ocean is fine with me, the thought of diving in and having that much water above you as you rely on an oxygen tank for life seemed frightening. I’ve conquered most of that fear. (Yay me!)

So, as soon as I arrived at the main office, I started with a half day of introduction. Books were given out for required reading and homework to do, and you know what I did? I dove right in. #dadjoke

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I ended the day super excited.

Hostel tip: I stayed at Good Dream Hostel which was really clean and safe but, while everything is pretty much walking distance around Sairee Beach, this hostel still felt a bit secluded. Some people felt weirded out walking through a dark street at night to get back and ended up forfeiting their money here and booking a bed at this brand new hostel smack in the middle of all the shops and nightlife, Indie Hostel. Again, Good Dream was safe and clean so, if you prefer more peace and quiet, you’ll definitely like it here.

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Day 1: We spent 2 hr on theory then headed out to the pier after lunch to board one of their boats. Onwards to the Japanese Gardens off of Koh Nangyuan for our first confined dive. Forget learning in a swimming pool. This was the real deal.

Now, I’m going to get very detailed with the steps for my own benefit. I’m a subscriber to rote memorization.

  1. Check the tank – date of last check, O-ring is intact, smell the air coming out of it.
  2. Secure BCD (buoyancy control device) onto the tank.
  3. Attach the regulator and, before turning on the air, breathe into each mouthpiece to make sure you can’t breathe in or out/check for leaks. Also check that the mouthpiece isn’t ripping where you bite down with your teeth.
  4. Make sure the gauge is tucked into the BCD, then turn on your tank all the way while holding onto the purge button on the mouthpiece.
  5. Check gauge for level of air (180-200 bar).
  6. Breathe into each mouthpiece in and out quickly for 4 times while checking that the gauge arrow isn’t moving.
  7. Inflate BCD and deflate after making sure there are no leaks.
  8. Orally inflate the BCD then deflate with the nozzle.

Finally, BWRAF. Bangkok Women Really Are Fellas. Great mnemonic, eh? It really stands for:

BCD – Inflate/deflate.
Weights – It’s placed evenly on your hip.
Release Straps – Make sure all straps are tightened, with air tank secure in BCD.
Air – Check main mouthpiece at the same time your buddy checks your spare.
Final Check

The instructor tried teaching us some other water entries, one involving a forward roll and also known as the James Bond roll. I, instead, ended up doing a rotated belly flop, the impact of which reddened my thighs. It was funny to all but me.

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As we swam towards the shallow end, my instructor warned us to watch out for the Koreans, not realizing that I’m of Korean background. So, I asked why.

“They will swim into and over you and not give a shit.”
“How do you know they’re Koreans?”
“Well, other Asians, too…”

Lo and behold, a Chinese snorkeler rammed into us during our skill training. On top of that, HE seemed annoyed that we were in HIS way even though we were there first AND it was easier for him to see us then us him. Gave absolutely zero fucks.

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Skill training involved 7 skills:

  1. Taking out mouthpiece and putting it back in, subsequently using the purge button or breathing out of the mouthpiece before continuing to breathe.
  2. “Losing” your mouthpiece then trying to find it by circling around your right arm while feeling for the mouthpiece with your left or lifting your BCD with your left arm and reaching back to the top of your tank with your right.
  3. Filling up your mask halfway with water by squeezing in the temples, then emptying it out by lowering your head then tilting it back as you press down the bridge of the mask with 2 fingers and blow out through your nose.
  4. Filling up your mask all the way and repeating the process.
  5. Taking off your mask, putting it back on and repeating the process.
  6. Taking off and putting back on your weight belt, then your BCD.
  7. Acting out the scenario where you signal being out of air then using your buddy’s spare mouthpiece.

Day 2: 12m dive (x2)
Day 3: 18m dive (x2) & Certification!

I chatted up an Aussie on the boat in between dives.

Aussie: “Are you Canadian?”
Me: “No! American. Are you a Kiwi?”
Aussie: “No, Aussie. Touché.”

I celebrated my certification with day drinking and roadside pad thai, then bumped into 2 hostel mates, Grace and Fran, and continued with more day drinking and eating beachside. Grace was close to convincing me into getting a tattoo using bamboo. But not close enough.

Read this for Donna

I’ve been to enough nice hostels to make me forget that I’m even budget traveling. But, then, I booked a day trip through Viator that offered pickups only at major hotels, one of which I had to take a cab to at 6:30am. Upon hearing that I needed to get to the Royal Orchid Sheraton, the cab driver turned off his meter and jacked the price up to a fixed ‎฿300 (from Khaosan Road). I said no, then hailed another cab. Same ordeal. By then, I was running late and just reluctantly agreed. My “I’m only going there because I need to meet someone. It’s not my hotel,” was met by deaf ears. I should’ve tried Uber.

Ayutthaya, Thailand

The tour guide had a Thai name that escaped everyone’s ears and tongues so, she ended her introduction with “But, just call me Donna.” Although she had a very Simon says approach to guiding and constantly spoke in the third person (“Everybody listen to Donna,” “Just follow Donna,” etc.), she was very friendly and thoroughly told us the history of each stop, the first one being Bang Pa-In Royal Palace (aka Summer Palace). The drive to the palace from Bangkok was a little over an hour, a lucky occurrence. Traffic can get really bad which is why the tour started so early.

We first encountered a pavilion in the middle of a pond. “Everyone gather around Donna.” And, so, we did. Apparently, she’s a turtle whisperer because after yelling “Peter” out to the pond for a good 5-10 minutes, a turtle came by who she claimed was her son. “Mama’s here, Peter!” Then came the kissy noises. She called out to Peter so many times in this very specific monotonous way that it still resonates in my head in a very haunting manner.

A little further into the tour, “Watch Donna.” She called out some more names and two dogs came rushing out as she reached into her bag and brought out treats. I guess she’s been in this business for quite awhile.

By the entrance to the palace, there was a kiosk where you could rent golf carts to drive around the premises. It was encouraged for those who couldn’t take the midday heat. My first thought went to my last visit to Disney World in Orlando when I saw a bunch of obese people driving smaller but similar vehicles around the park, with a jumbo soda in the cup holder and a giant turkey leg in their non-driving hand. After an hour had passed in the park, though, I understood why someone would want to rent one. My body became a rainforest ecosystem.

Less than an hour away was our second stop, Wat Maha That (Temple of the Great Relic), a Buddhist temple left in ruins after Ayutthaya, the former capital of Siam, was invaded by the Burmese in 1767. Many of the heads of Buddha statues were knocked off.

Monks in assorted colors.

A banyan tree engulfed a Buddha head over time and no one seems to know how it happened. One theory was that someone tried to save the Buddha head and bury it or, someone tried to steal it and hide it. Either way, it was forgotten about until a banyan tree grew and made it modern day famous.

An even closer drive away was Wat Phra Si Sanphet, the holiest temple of the old royal grounds where no monks were allowed to live. The large gold-gilded Buddha that resided here was destroyed and the gold melted down during the Burmese invasion. Spot the tiny gold Buddha above.

Next door is Wat Mongkhon Bophit, a temple housing a large bronze-gilded Buddha.

The tour ended with a nice boat cruise on the Chao Phraya River back to Bangkok where they served an actually decent and tasty Thai buffet lunch. I bonded with a cool couple from Kentucky, and we all shared a table with another American but weird couple. The wife talked to us girls with an air of “keep away from my husband,” though I didn’t see why she’d think he was a girl magnet anyway. He claimed he could read minds. I hope he couldn’t read mine through the smile plastered on my face.

Wat pho? You mean pad thai.

My first trip to Thailand back in the late 90s is probably what triggered my Ayn Rand, nonconformist, cynicism phase. At least I went through it in a lesser conformist way – no jet-blackening of my already black hair; no black vinyl platform shoes; no black makeup, chains or stretching of my earlobes with big cylindrical tube earrings; no Marilyn Manson. I just became more holed up and passive aggressive, counting down the days when I could get out of this borough by way of going to college.

What was my first trip to Thailand? A missionary trip with the church I grew up with. This is probably when I also started to question Christianity, although I grew more “Christian” before I ultimately had a change of heart and just became “spiritual.” I’ll admit that I went more to hang out with my friends than to evangelize, even if it involved going into the mountainside, sleeping on wooden floors in air thick with moisture and flies that, after spraying bug spray, I’d find the bottom of my socks completely covered with them after walking to the door. I mean, I was 13 after all.

But, some things just didn’t add up. Here I was, my Christian teenage self coming from a middle class family and still not really happy, but trying to do prayers for people who’ve lived in rural poverty their entire lives and who were still ecstatic with life. Religion made them happier than it made me and, either I was doing something wrong or, it was just not for me. The idea of being born sinful and having to ask for forgiveness for the rest of my life was not my idea of God. How does that promote “free will?” I always felt the need to fill myself into a mold. But, something had always come in and stripped that mold out from around me.

And then there was the part where I caught the flu. Being teenagers, the girls and guys wanted to hang out together and sleep in the same room. When one of the chaperones came in to check on my fever, she saw all of us together and kicked out the guys. Who did they blame? Me. After that, I was pretty much ostracized…and still with the flu. And, thus, began my “fuck you” phase.

I no longer associate Thailand with that past.

Bangkok, Thailand

First stop: Grand Palace & Temple of the Emerald Buddha (aka Wat Phra Kaew). After paying for my ticket and going through the turnstile, I walked into this. Sensory overload. Structures everywhere covered in colors and gold, and just packed with tourists.

Travel tip: There is a dress code – no shorts or tank tops allowed. You need to make sure your legs and shoulders are covered. I think even guys needed to cover up to below the knees. You know those elephant pants that you see in every stand in every Asian and African country? I caved and bought a pair in Nepal. I wished I had brought it with me to wear over my shorts. It’s cheap and an easy thing to carry in your bag since it’s light and easy to roll up. The waist is also an elastic band and totally wearable over things. It’s a good idea just to keep it with you if you plan on visiting any temple around Asia. That, and a pashmina or scarf. Luckily, the palace offered short-sleeved shirts and sarongs for a deposit. I just had to stand in a long line to get it.

Given that this used to be the residence of the kings of Siam in the late 1700s, it’s no wonder how extravagant and ostentatious everything is. No patch of wall or column was left without some sort of detail. Photos of the Emerald Buddha were not allowed. (It was much, much smaller than expected, by the way.)

Even the murals had hints of gold. “Hints” is actually an understatement.

On the way out was the Chakri Maha Prasat, a hall built in the late 1800s by King Rama V who wanted to have a more modern, Western look. It was originally designed and constructed by English architects but, as it proved to be too Western for his court, he was urged to place a Thai-style roof on top.

And, just a short walk away…

Second stop: Wat Pho or, Temple of the Reclining Buddha as you can see above.

I must say, after seeing Buddha statues in Nepal, China, Mongolia, and Thailand, this was by far the most interesting one and deserves to be listed in Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist.

You’d need a very large feather to tickle these babies.

Phra Chedi Rai, a cluster of chedis (stupas), some of which contain the ashes of members of the royal family.

You’re a Buddha; you’re a Buddha; you’re a Buddha. Evvvverybody’s Buddhaaaaaa.

Inside the main hall, Phra Ubosot.

Third stop: Chatuchak Weekend Market. I tried to be cheap and take the local bus to the BTS train, then the train to the market (a short walk from Mo Chit station on the Sukhumvit Line; take exit #1) but, the bus just wasn’t showing up. So, I took a cab. But, there was so much traffic, he said he would just drive me to the train station. (Btw, try to have small change for the train. The machine only accepts coins. If not, you could always go to the person behind the window and ask for change.)

Usually when I hit up markets, they’ll only be a handful of stands selling actual worthwhile stuff. But, this market is the bomb diggity. It’s HUGE. You could easily spend a few hours here. Cute clothes, bags, souvenirs. Heck, you could even buy a candle if you wanted to. And, if you get hungry, there are plenty of stalls selling food. After an hour, though, I hit up most of the main parts and felt exhausted already.

Travel tip: From the airport, you can take the airport rail to Phaya Thai station to get into the city. Since I was staying in a hostel in the Khaosan Road area, I had to grab a taxi (or you could negotiate a tuk tuk) from there. The train doesn’t reach that area and my only other option really would’ve been to take local buses. Once you walk out of the station, there’s a taxi stand below. Walk over to the table and the dispatcher will sort you out. And, for pad thai, Thip Samai was listed as the #1 place and it totally deserves its spot. There usually is a long line but, given that they have wok stations both inside and outside, it goes by really quickly. I could’ve watched the cooks churn out plates of pad thai alllll day. Also make sure to get their orange juice, preferably large. The tastiest orange juice I’ve ever had in my life.

Trans-Mongolian: Across the Urals

On our last morning in Yekaterinburg, we made sure to eat the free breakfast right before it ended at 11am. That way, we covered both breakfast and lunch (essentially brunch) and saved money. Bam. Later on the train, we had a temporary daytime roommate and we soon became the party cabin again after he disembarked at Perm. This apparently was a cue for Dean and H to describe the greatest love scene in Top Gun and sing the entire soundtrack. But, the party stopped once a Russian lady barged into the cabin around 10pm, looking very stern and unamused. We ended up with a roommate after all. At least this train had a dining car where we could continue drinking. And, a babushka who roamed the halls selling piroshki (baked/fried buns stuffed with meat and/or veg).

Moscow, Russia

Once we arrived in Moscow, we bumped into yet another Lenin statue at the station. (Take that, Natasha!) We were staying at the Best Western for the next 2 nights which was a cue to get laundry done. So, Nikka drew us a primitive map directing us to a laundromat that she swore she used several times before. 15-20 minutes into the suburbs and no laundromat was to be seen. Only apartment buildings. In a futile attempt to ask passersby for directions, I pulled up a translation of “laundry” onto Google Translate only to have everyone shake their heads no. We already lugged 2 heavy bags of laundry out here so, I was determined to find another laundromat on Google Maps. Apparently, there was one with great ratings another 15 min away. We decided to try it out.

But, then, we ended up walking through some more suburbs, crossing train tracks that weren’t barricaded, and strolling into dodgy territory. I still thought it was safe since I had seen several moms toting their strollers but, they eventually disappeared. Soon, we were walking into a construction zone with nothing but fences and what appeared to be an auto mechanic shop with scary bearded men sitting outside, smoking cigarettes. H wanted to get the hell out of there ASAP. Lucky for us, it was still bright daylight and we managed to walk back to the hotel safely. I have to say, I never saw H get this annoyed and angry before. We did, however, end the day on a good note – with Shake Shack and seeing a girl walking her pet raccoon on a leash like it was completely normal. She laid out a hat with a sign, though. “Donations.”

The next morning, we got to Lenin’s Mausoleum in Red Square (on the right in the above photo) by 9am and ended up standing behind a small group of people. By 10am opening time, the line had grown much, much longer. The whole experience was about 5 minutes, though. You literally just walk in, circle his body and walk right back out. It was definitely eerie seeing how well-preserved he’s been kept. I couldn’t tell the difference between that and a wax figure.

St. Basil’s Cathedral, we finally meet.

A view of Red Square from St. Basil’s.

We then went on a tour of the Kremlin, during which the guide had to specifically point out where it was safe to take photos. The yellow building above housed Putin’s office and Pete got a little too close in an attempt to get a nice zoomed out photo of the cannon and Cathedral Square across the street. He was also wearing a bright red t-shirt with “Canada” emblazoned on the front, making him very obvious (he was from Wales). The security guards yelled at him and for a few minutes, he had no idea that this was even happening. He was a clueless tourist with wandering tendencies and we found it very endearing.

Cathedral Square was a bit manic with throngs of people trying to get in and out of the 3 surrounding cathedrals. It didn’t help that the army choir/band decided to put on a show in the middle of the square. The murals inside the cathedrals were worth pushing through the crowds for, though, so stay strong.

The tour ended with the Armory Museum and Diamond Fund which housed the famous Faberge eggs. A lot of them. Dean and I joked that they looked like bedazzled Kinder Surprises. Since the museum was packed with people, the guide gave us audioguides which we could hear her talk through in real time. There were times when she would stop speaking then start again, only to end up freaking me out because I would hear her voice without being able to see her through the crowd. She fell into a textbook drone 90% of the time and half the group ended up wandering off.

The 3 of us went for dinner at Kamchatka, where a waiter proceeded to take our order and tell us that he’d be back to tell us the total cost. The asshole decided to end his shift around that time and not put in our order. When the food wasn’t coming out, we confronted the waitress who then apologetically told us that our order was never put into the system. After a very hangry display, we ended up with an extra order of garlic sticks, on the house. These were probably the best garlic sticks I’ve ever eaten, and the garlic made sure to linger around for a very long time after consumption.

The next morning, we hit up the Izmailovsky Market for some Soviet memorabilia, the Tretyakov Gallery for some art history, Caffe del Parco for flat whites and a view of Peter the Great (above) and Gorky Park for lounging, all before heading on a quest to have Moscow Mules in…Moscow. According to Wikipedia, Peter the Great is the 8th tallest statue in the world and listed as one of the ugliest statues in the world. Ouch. He did, after all, hate Moscow and move the capital to St. Petersburg. The designer of the statue allegedly made it in the liking of Christopher Columbus but, due to the lack of American buyers, he re-made it for Russia. I find that very ironic.

Gorky Park in its sunny glory. Our already perfect day was made even more perfect when we came upon 8 Oz, a cocktail bar, within the park that served really good food and drinks. And, when we didn’t see Moscow Mules on the menu, the bartender offered to make them especially for us. Hell freakin’ yea!

Before heading back to catch the train to St. Peterburg, we embarked on a really quick tour of Moscow’s Metro system which is an art museum in itself. Above is Mayakovskaya station, which according to Lonely Planet, was a “grand-prize winner at the 1938 World’s Fair in New York” for its art deco halls and ceiling mosaics. “This is also one of the deepest stations (33m), which allowed it to serve as an air-raid shelter during WWII.” Super cool.

One of the ceiling mosaics at the station.

St. Petersburg

The train from Moscow to St. Petersburg was, although the cleanest and newest in technology, the most disappointing of all the trains we took. It ran way too smoothly, eliminating the clickety clack technology, and almost looked too sterile to have any old-world charm. I mean, part of the experience of doing the Trans-Mongolian/Trans-Siberian is to experience that charm, no?

We did a 3 hr walking tour through the city, stopping at Kazan Cathedral, the Church of the Savior on Blood, the river with a view of the fortress and, finally, Palace Square. The architecture in this city is so beautifully pastel and symmetrically friendly that it’s enjoyable just to walk around town.

Then, we broke off and went straight for St. Isaac’s Cathedral for a panoramic view of…

…the Hermitage Museum and Palace Square on the left and the Church of the Savior on Blood all itty bitty on the right.

At the last minute, we decided to look for ballet tickets at the Mariinsky Theater but went in circles trying to find the box office within the city. The tourist info center led us to one place who then claimed they sell tickets for every other show/theater except ballet at Mariinsky. About an hour wasted for something we just ended up doing online. The main theater was sold out so we went for modern ballet at Mariinsky II.

The Church of the Savior on Blood (also Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood).

Just like St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, this church was beautifully designed to look like an extremely delicious cake, sprinkled with the candy of divinity.

The murals inside were overwhelming to the senses and, I mean that in a good way. If I could’ve, I would’ve laid my back to the ground and stared at the ceiling for a good hour.

Later that night, we happened upon an awesome craft beer place that served amazing sausages and showed the Euros on huge TVs – Poland vs. Portugal. I also ordered a side of pork chops that I may have mumbled “Do you want some” about, only to be met with no response. So, naturally, I ate the entire thing while they were distracted with the game and then passed out on the table. The photo evidence was a nice payback, I suppose. (And then, we had Burger King which I’m appropriately mentioning within parentheses.)

Next day – the Hermitage Museum!

I’m not sure if anyone has ever managed to go through the entire museum within one day. If so, I applaud that person. In fact, I standing ovation that person. With H and Ilona as our guides, Dean and I willingly trusted their planned itinerary and dutifully followed them around the museum without a single snack break. I deem that a successful museum day.

This room was probably my favorite in terms of layout and colors, although Renaissance art is usually not my thang.

For our last night, we watched The Little Humpbacked Horse at the Mariinsky II Theater. Let’s just say that it was very modern. At times, we had no idea what was really going on. Just a bunch of colors, fire, some bathtub and what looked like date rape. No joke. We Wikipedia-ed the story afterwards to find out that Ivan the Fool, with the help of a magical horse, wins the affection of a Tsar Maiden and overthrows the Tsar (by convincing him to jump into a cauldron of boiling water) to become the Tsar himself. I may have missed a few metaphors.

Classy theatergoers. I mean, we did have a glass of Russian brut during intermission. (Photo credit for Mariinsky II: H)

Afterwards, I suggested that we walk to dinner where we were meeting up with the rest of the group. It was a nice day, after all, and the city was looking beautiful in the sunset. The walk was about 30 min, though, and H was not really into it.

H: “So, how much further is it?”
Me: “Ask me in 15 min.”

Our last activity as a group was a midnight cruise to see the drawbridges, well, get drawn. It was clear to us that a lot of tourists bought into this, given the amount of boat traffic on the river and the number of people standing at the sides. If anything, it was nice seeing the city lights?

Before heading to the airport the next day, we spent our morning strolling along the canals towards the Military Historical Museum of Artillery, Engineer, and Signal Corps (the “Artillery Museum”). The very last excursion for the #backseatbandits. I had an earlier flight, though, so I requested an Uber for myself, only to have it cancel on me and happen 2 more times. I was shitting my pants by the time I managed to get a reliable one. Not only did I need to make it to the airport soon, I had to stop by the hotel first to pick up my luggage. But, I managed to get there within an hour or so of my flight and, all it cost was 1,000 rubles (about $15). Halle-freakin-lujah.

[About 7,600km; 6-7 time zones]