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Archive for May, 2009

Flight of the Gibbon

I’m not quite sure what spawned her obsession, but one of the things my mom most wanted  to do on her trip to Thailand was go ziplining through the jungle.  I had no idea that Thailand even did it, but she got on it herself and googled it and gave me some helpful information.  It turned out that there was a chance to go ziplining up in the northern part of Thailand, near Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai was on the initial list of places we were planning on going with Mom and Andrea, but because they wanted to do the trip how we were doing it, i.e., just planning as we go, we never booked anything.  We later found out that the same company was opening a new zipline down closer to Bangkok, not far from Koh Chang, the island we spent time on.  We planned on doing that and hanging out in a different city instead of spending the time to go all the way to Chiang Mai.

Well, as they often do when traveling for this long, the plans at the new place fell through.   So we woke up one morning planning on going one place and had to think on the fly.  Luckily for all of us, my wife is very smart and a quick thinker.  “Why don’t we look into flights to Chiang Mai?”

A couple hours later we were on a bus back to Bangkok, got a room there,  booked a flight for the following day to Chiang Mai, and completely flipped our plan on its head.

So Friday night, May 22, my birthday, we were off to Chiang Mai.  After spending Saturday and Sunday just hanging out, seeing the sights, and getting to know the city better (more on all that in another post), we were off on Monday morning for the jungles surrounding Chiang Mai, off on our ziplining adventure.

In case any of you don’t know exactly what ziplining is, it’s basically flying from tree to tree up in the canopy of a jungle on a snazzy little zipline that you are harnessed into.  A bit like a monkey (and if you’re still reading this, Biggs, you need to stay tuned for our visit to the monkey training facility the following day).

Megan and I had been ziplining once before on our honeymoon in Mexico, but this was a bit different.  We did some trail walking from platform to platform in Mexico, and there weren’t as many ziplines.  In Chiang Mai, once we took our first ride, we were in the treetop canopy for the next two and a half hours.  And not only were there ziplines, but there were also two tiny, wobbly bridges we had to cross, and three abseils, which just added a little more bang for your buck and some variety to an already really cool day.

I’m not going to write too much more, except to say that we all had a great time and a great day with our guides, Dave and Tiger, and our whole group.  I know Megan, Andrea, and I had a wonderful time, but it was pretty awesome to see the giant smile and child-like grin on my mom’s face the entire day.  She even said to me after it was over that it was the coolest thing  she had ever done.

Enjoy the pictures and videos, many taken compliments of our awesome guide, Dave, of Flight of the Gibbon.

Arms and legs out to the sides, huge grin, this is how my mom spent most of her day while ziplining

Arms and legs out to the sides, huge grin, this is how my mom spent most of her day while ziplining

Andrea was a little more hesitant at first...

Andrea was a little more hesitant at first...

...but she quickly got the hang of it.

...but she quickly got the hang of it.

What a hot pose!

What a hot pose!

Do I take after my mom?

Do I take after my mom?

Adam, Megan, and Mom

Adam, Megan, and Mom

Mom before the bridge

Mom before the bridge

Andrea's not very sure-footed on that thing

Andrea's not very sure-footed on that thing

Megan and Andrea on the final abseil

Megan and Andrea on the final abseil

Adam and Mom on the last abseil

Adam and Mom on the last abseil

We still have much more to update, including elephants and monkeys, more temples, 3-day intensive yoga classes (not me), and a cooking class.  It’s Sunday night here in Chiang Mai as I’m posting this, and we are contemplating leaving here tomorrow after our second longest stay in a single city (after Buenos Aires).  But we may stay another day, who knows?  Stay tuned because  we plan a fast and furrious array of postings this week.

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My mom and sister first arrived in Bangkok about midnight.  Megan and I met them at the airport and went straight back to our hotel, which was in an area of Bangkok called Sukhumvit.  It’s outside the city center, which means less hostels, hotels, guesthouses, and tourists, and more local Thai people and expats who have settled in this area of Bangkok.

One thing that surprised Megan and I when we arrived in the middle of the night a few nights before Mom and Andrea, and I’m sure is something that struck them as odd as well, was the flurry of activity on the streets of Bangkok, even at 1, 2, 3 in the morning.  This city truly doesn’t sleep, so it wasn’t a big deal that Mom and Andrea wanted to do a bit of exploring after spending 24+ hours on planes getting there.

The bustling city of Bangkok was plenty alive as we walked around the Sukhumvit area, crowded with food stalls, makeshift bars, stands selling t-shirts, DVD’s, ninja weaponry (of which my wife thinks is a bad idea for me to purchase), and any manner of anything you want.  Seriously, you can purchase just about anything within a one kilometer radius of the place we were staying.  Need a new pair of underwear?  Right around the corner at a stand.  Porn?  Right next to the underwear.  Beer, water, soda, mixed drink of any kind?  Not a problem.  Chinese stars or nunchuks?  Yep, right there.  An Obama, Harley, or depiction of man pushing wife over cliff t-shirt?  I can show you where to go.

The best thing about huge cities like Bangkok, in my opinion, is just the nonstop activity everywhere at all times.  Sure, it can get a little frustrating at times if you’re a bit tired or hot and the same tuk-tuk driver who has asked you every time you’ve walked by for 4 straight days if you want a tour (specially priced for us, how lucky) and continues to follow you for a block asking you yet again.  It may be a bit annoying to hear bass thumping from a bar  down the road at 4am.  But the people-watching, great  food, and just general wandering safely at any time of day or night make up for any of the negatives.

Mom and Andrea were able to get a good feel for what they were in for the first hour after arriving.  Weaving in and out of throngs of people at 2am on the sidewalks of Bangkok, trying to avoid maniacal cab, tuk-tuk, and motorbike drivers, seeing ladyboys at every turn,  getting a whiff of the foul stenched durian fruit, then at next turn trying to decide whether we want pad thai, falafel, noodle soup, shawarma, or any other manner of food sold at little food stalls for around a buck, then seeing an elephant right there on the street, in the middle of Bangkok.  Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is  Bangkok.

Not only does Bangkok have so much to offer just wandering the streets, it’s also home to over 300 strikingly beautiful wats (temples).  We were only in Bangkok for a total of two days, but we were able to go to the two most popular and impressive Buddhist temple complexes in the city.

The first day we took a combination of the skytrain (an above ground train system that was easily accesible from Sukhumvit) and a ferry down the river and visited Wat Pho, which is the oldest and largest temple in Bangkok, dating back to the 16th century. Within the Wat Pho complex was the largest reclining Buddha in the country and most collections of Buddha images in the world.  None of us knew how big the reclining Buddha was and were all quite impressed at this 46m (about 140 feet) long and 15m (about 45 feet) high monstrosity.

Reclining Buddha-head

Reclining Buddha

Reclining Buddha from the back

There was much more to see at Wat Pho than the reclining Buddha, thoough.  The grounds were filled with different temples, all housing Buddhas of different forms and sizes.  The most amazing part of the complex, and now, after having seen several more temples, is the intricacy of the architecture and buildings themselves.  The outside and inside of so many  of these wats are either surrounded by gold or mosaic-type tiles.  I say mosaic-type because they are similar to mosaics, but the tiles were cut into many different shapes and sizes, not square and uniform like so many other mosaics that I have seen.  It was very impressive and awe-inspiring to see.

Wat Pho

Wat Pho (11)

Detail Shot

Detail Shot

Detail shot

Detail shot

Detail shot

Detail shot

Detail shot

Detail shot

Buddha

Buddha

Wat Pho flowers

Wat Pho flowers

Chedis at Wat Pho

Chedis at Wat Pho

After our time in Koh Chang, it was back to Bangkok again for one of the highlights of Bangkok, Wat Phra Kaew, also known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, which also houses the Grand Palace, the former royal residence.

One of the funniest things about the Grand Palace, if you listen to the tuk-tuk drivers on a daily basis, is that it’s always closed.  They always say  it’s closed so they can get you in their tuk-tuk for tours of many other temples spread around Bangkok, all for a cost of course.  But we had luckily heard about this little scam before we left, and the signs posted at the entrance of the Grand Palace warned everyone as well.

One of Asia's many hilarious signs.

One of Asia's many hilarious signs.

Just like Wat Pho, the grounds of the Grand Palace were simply stunning.  Chedi (stupas) were everywhere, and so many things seemed to be encased in gold, giving off quite a sparkle in the afternoon sun.  The Emerald Buddha itself is housed in the main temple, but it is not allowed to take pictures of it.

The history of the Emerald Buddha is also quite fascinating.  It was found sometime in the 15th century when lighting struck a Chedi in northern Thailand and a stucco Buddha was found inside.  The abbot of the temple noticed that part of the Buddha was flaking off and saw some green inside.  When he looked further and started peeling off the stucco, he found the Emerald Buddha, which is actually made of green jade.

The Emerald Buddha bounced around northern Thailand for the next hundred years before being taken to Laos, where it remained for the next 200 years.  In the late 1700’s the town of Vientiane, Laos was taken over by the Thais and the Emerald Buddha was returned to Bangkok, where it has remained ever since.

It was quite the impressive site, and the entire grounds were absolutely gorgeous.  It was a great way to spend my birthday and our last day in Bangkok before heading north to the much less bustling but still amazing city of Chiang Mai, where Megan and I have taken up residence and are still here after a week.

Wat Phra Kaew

Wat Phra Kaew

Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha 2

Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha 3

Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha 4

Chedis

Chedis

Detail shot

Detail shot

Detail shot

Detail shot

The Grand Palace

The Grand Palace

The Grand Palace

The Grand Palace

Grand Palace 3

Grand Palace 4

Reflection of the Grand Palace in adjacent building

Reflection of the Grand Palace in adjacent building

More from everything we did in Chiang Mai next time, and what our future plans hold.  Stay tuned…

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Four of us after Flight of the Gibbon

I was both excited and a bit  nervous when my mom and sister booked their flights to Thailand last December.  Excited obviously because by the time we did meet up with them in May it would have been about 7 months since I had last seen them.  Nervous because none of the four of us had ever been to Asia before, and I wasn’t sure how everyone would react to the vast differences of Asia to home.

To my relief, the last two weeks we spent with my Mom and Andrea could not have been better (unless they could have stayed longer).  It was so awesome to be able not only to see them and spend time with them after so long apart, but also to be able to share this trip with them, to have them see what we have been seeing, experience what we have been experiencing, and living how we have been living.

I could not have been more proud of how they both took everything in stride.  SE Asia is a pretty crazy place, especially Bangkok.  So to see them just roll with the flow of everything, from overly-ambitious tuk-tuk drivers, to hawkers of all kinds always in your face, to cab drivers  trying to rip you off every chance they get, to lady boys blowing kisses, to street food with nary a refrigerator or health standard in sight, was pretty freaking impressive.

To see my fifty-something year old mom checking off firsts on her list nearly every day was something that made me gain even more respect and admiration for her.  Snorkeling, sea kayaking, and ziplining.  Eating strange food off the streets (although I was the only one to eat a fried grasshopper, I guess I’ll let her slide on that one). Haggling with anyone selling anything.  Buckets of drinks on the beach.  There may have even been a hookah involved one night.  The point is, I saw my mom do and experience so many things, got to share those things with her, my wife, and my little sister, and it was pretty cool seeing the smile on her face for two straight weeks.

Speaking of my little sister, wow, I could not have been more impressed with her either.  She seemed completely comfortable with everything we did, and although this was her first time out of the US, and despite the fact that she was in a place that was upside down compared to home, she jumped right in and immersed herself.

My relationship with my little sister has always been a bit different because of our 11 and a half year age difference, but we have gotten much closer the last few years.  And despite all the growing up she has done the last few years, she really seemed like an adult now after her first year in college.  I am so impressed at how mature she is and how well she did traveling in such a foreign place.  She’s a natural, and I have a feeling her traveling days  are just getting started (sorry, Dad).

And to be able to spend two weeks with my now suddenly all grown up little sister, hanging out with her, having a few cocktails with her, talking with her about anything and everything, and just being able to be around her and share this with her, was so much fun.  I really think this helped our relationship grow, and I can’t explain how excited I am about that.

Megan already posted about our island time, which was fantastic, but we did tons more than that over the last few weeks.  We’ll be getting some more posts up in the next few days with more details and plenty of pictures of all the fun we had.

I just had to say thank you to my Mom and Andrea, from both of us, for giving us a great two weeks that I know we will all remember forever.  It was great, we love you both, and thanks again!!

Mom, Adam, and Andrea at Wat Pho in Bangkok

Mom, Adam, and Andrea at Wat Pho in Bangkok

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The Island Life

Magic Garden Huts

One of our first stops in Thailand, other than Bangkok, was an island in the Gulf of Thailand, not terribly far from Bangkok and even closer to the Cambodian border–Koh Chang (elephant island in Thai).  Upon arriving in Koh Chang, we headed straight for a town called Lonely Beach, which is no longer exactly lonely, but does have a beautiful beach and crystal clear water.

Lonely Beach, early enough in the morning to be lonely

Lonely Beach, early enough in the morning to be lonely

Lonely Beach

Lonely Beach

Clear Water

Clear Water

We spent about four or five days on Koh Chang, and worked very dilligently at soaking up the much slower, why-worry island atmosphere (especially as compared to the slightly mad Bangkok).  It was the perfect location to allow Adam’s mom and sister, visiting from St. Louis, to get their bearings and ease into the traveling lifestyle.  Linda and Andrea have been champs, taking the unusual accomodations in style (mosquito nets and bathrooms without roofs, anyone?) and not even flinching at the local lawnmowing service.

Lawnmowers Koh Chang

It wasn’t all beach-bumming though; Andrea and Linda didn’t come all the way to the other side of the world just to lay on the beach.  We started out with a little sea kayaking and learned why a kayaking guide in New Zealand had told us that wind was a kayaker’s worst enemy.  The water was as smooth as a swimming pool when we started, but apparently a storm was kicking up, because by the time we were headed back to our beach, we were paddling directly into the wind.  It was not easy.  There are no photographs of this little outing.  A piece of advice: if you’re going to go kayaking with two people who have never been, check the weather first.  duh.  Sorry guys.

Our other (much more successful) excursion was a snorkeling trip.  We didn’t have an underwater camera, so unfortunately we can’t share photographs of the amazing underwater scenery.  However, I now understand why people flock to Thailand to learn to scuba dive.  We saw enormous rainbow striped fish nibbling away at the sand in the shallow water, teeny tiny electric blue fish darting all around us, deep purple fish with shockingly red mouths, dark pink starfish and semi-obscene looking sea cucumbers.  All of these were nestled among the coral in shapes and colors I had  no idea even existed underwater.

Adam Andrea Linda snorkeling

As much fun as our snorkeling trip was, we can’t downplay how much fun we had just checking out everyday life around the island and enjoying the scenery and each other’s company. Thanks guys, for coming to visit us–we had a wonderful time.

Koh Chang Fishermen (1)

Andrea and Adam

Andrea and Adam

Lonely Beach Sunset

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Sook Sun Wan Gerd, Adam

Adam, post bungee jump in Queenstown, New Zealand

Adam, post-bungee jump in Queenstown, New Zealand

As Adam and I were preparing for this trip, people would say to us “Are you sure you know what you’re getting into?”  This phrase often meant, “Are you prepared to be living out of a backpack, spending half your time on buses and, well, let’s just say, reevaluating your standards of what constitutes acceptable living conditions?”

But just as often, the subtext was, “Can your relationship survive this?  Are you going to kill each other after spending all your time together for an entire year?”  These were questions we always answered on faith, yes and no, respectively.  We had never done something like this before, so we couldn’t speak from experience, but we were as sure as one can be: “Yes, our relationship can survive this.  No, we won’t kill each other.”

Now, with the halfway point of our trip over a month past, and having spent approximately the last 5200 hours with just each other, I can confidently say that not only will we not kill each other, but that there is no one on earth with whom I would rather be sharing this experience.

Adam is the person who makes this amazing trip even more spectacular on the good days and so much easier on the trying days.  I rest easy knowing that we form a really good partnership–that I can always rely on Adam, no matter the circumstances.  Even more important than that, I feel so lucky to have found a person whose enthusiasm moves me on a regular basis, someone who has passion for things that would probably escape my gaze entirely, someone who both shares my interests and opens my eyes to new and exciting ways of looking at life.

Thank you Adam, for taking this leap with me and very simply, for making life better.  Sook Sun Wan Gerd (Happy Birthday)!!

~Meg

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Adam exploring Craters of the Moon

There’s a story in my family that my parents really enjoy telling when it’s time to demonstrate how adorably nerdy I was as a child.  I was eight or ten, we were on summer vacation in Michigan visiting the Great Lakes.  The beaches were very rocky, but all of the rocks were round and smooth, sparkling with quartz and polished from being tossed by the waves.  When we arrived back in St. Louis, my dad was unloading the bags and nearly fell over when he tried to lift mine.  My parents promptly discovered that I had filled my bag with stones from the beach, the ones I had deemed the prettiest, some as big as grapefruits, the smallest the size of golf balls.  Some kids collect seashells, I had gathered heaps of rocks.

My fascination with all things geology related didn’t exactly fade with time.  When Adam and I visited Cafayate, Argentina earlier on the trip, I enjoyed visiting the wineries, pedaling our bicycles through the vineyards, but I was really fascinated by the strange layered rock formations and canyons outside the city.  When we climbed Volcan Villarica in Chile, I had a wonderful time climbing and sliding back down the volcano, but after the fact, I had one regret–that we didn’t manage to get any pictures of the solidified lava floes at the peak of the volcano.  When we went ice climbing in Franz Joseph glacier here in New Zealand, Adam could only laugh when he reached into our daypack after the hike and found a small rock (pumice on one side, shiny metallic rock on the other–very cool).  Yes, I’m still at it.

Hi, I’m Megan and I’m a nerd.

Knowing all this, it should come as no surprise that our visit to Rotorua, a town in the heart of New Zealand’s geothermal activity, was a real highlight for me.  Wandering through the strange landscapes created in these geothermal zones, I really felt like I had been transported to the far distant past, when the earth was still forming.  Steaming waterfalls; pools of bubbling mud, spurting and tossing globs of soupy clay in all directions; steam vents escaping from the ground everywhere you look, reeking with the acrid smell of sulfur from the volcanic gases in the steam; huge silica terraces formed by mineral-rich water pouring out of the ground–all of this set amongst gigantic fern trees and thick native bush left me wondering what prehistoric creature  I might meet around the corner.

Happily for budget travelers, my favorite geothermal experience was free.  Outside of the Wai-o-Tapu geothermal park, there are mud pools on Department of Conservation land.  They don’t show up in the guidebooks, but are well signposted.  They were the largest mud pools we saw in New Zealand, and certainly the most active.  The still photos above of the pools are cool for capturing the flying mud, but video can’t be beat for listening to the sounds of the constantly bubbling pools.  Luckily for us, Adam was on the job.

Overall, New Zealand was a great place to visit and a nice respite from the chaos we sometime experienced on the first part of the trip.  That said, I am ecstatic to be here in Southeast Asia, smack in the middle of the chaos, the energy, the smells, sights, sounds and flavors.  It’s amazing here and you’ll probably be hearing more from me (as opposed to the all-Adam-all-the-time show that was New Zealand) now that we’re  back in backpack mode.

~Meg

*When we arrived in New Zealand, we were surprised to be met with recognition when we mentioned that we were from St. Louis.  Turns out that Kiwis are aware of our fair city, thanks to none other than Nelly.  We even got a “St. Louis?  Do you know Nelly?”  I couldn’t resist the opportunity to give a little hat tip  to Nelly for getting St. Louis on the map with the Kiwis.  I’m sure he’ll be thrilled.

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Southeast Asia, We Have Arrived

(side note before I begin:  we still have plenty of New Zealand stuff coming, and now that we have better and free internet again, they’ll be interspersed with our Thailand posts)

Southeast Asia.  The backbone of the trip since its inception.  The one place we knew we were coming from the get-go.  The one place that we were most intrigued, excited, and nervous about.  Well, it’s finally here.

We left New Zealand early Monday morning and arrived here in Bangkok, Thailand in the middle of Monday night.  It’s only been a day, but the energy and culture of Asia has punched us square in the face, and we love it.

The people (with my crazy new appearance with the hair and beard, I didn’t really stick out that much in S. America, in fact, I was mistaken for an Argentine several times, but here, well, we get plenty of looks and stares, but in a good way), the buildings ( Buddhist wats everywhere instead of Christian churches), and the food (oh, the food the food–markets and food stalls everywhere with firey hot noodle, rice, meat?, seafood, and organ-oh yeah, I said  organ-dishes) all make for a completely different atmosphere that what we’ve experienced.

While New Zealand was incredible, beautiful, relaxing, and easy, we are very excited to back in the mix of chaos and confusion.  That’s really what makes traveling great and exciting, and that’s what made us want to take this trip to begin with.  We wanted to experience completely different cultures, customs, and people and just learn more about the world we live in, and we’ll be getting plenty of that and more during our time here in SE Asia.

We’ll have much more to come as we have two more days to explore Bangkok before my mom and sister arrive Thursday night.  I can’t begin to say how excited we are to share our adventures with them.  We’ll be heading straight for the famous beaches of Thailand where we’ll unwind and let them get over their jetlag.  After that, like with everything so far, it’s up in the air.

So stay tuned because there will be plenty more to come…

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