Krabi and Koh Phi Phi
Thailand has always sounded like an appealing place to go. You see it in movies, you talk to people who have gone, and you think if the food is that good, it must be a great place. So going there was an easy decision for us. Given our ambitious itinerary and limited time frame, we were forced to select just a couple places to go within Thailand. We ended up visiting Bangkok and a nice place in the beach area of southern Thailand.
As it was our port of entry and is an interesting place in itself, Bangkok was a good place to spend our first few days. It is a bustling Asian city, with a reasonable 6 million people. I heard from a guy who used to live there, that Bangkok today reminds him of Shanghai 10 years ago - kind of an interesting comparison. Bangkok has cars, colors, and chaos everywhere. Taxis are hot pink, three-wheeled tuk-tuk taxis are green, and most water you see is some unappealing shade of brown. Here is a shot of the river area (boats going every direction in gross water) and a typical street scene (lots of people, cars, and powerlines) - both confirming the general sense of enthusiastic disorder that permeates the city.
There is an elevated Skytrain system that is new and efficient. There are also water taxis and 'longtail' boats on the river. The longtail boats are a wonder in their own right (see picture). The term longtail seems to come from the fact that they are powered by a transplanted truck engine, transmission, and drive shaft where the drive shaft makes the long and aimable shaft on which the propeller sits. This gives them great maneuverability, but really seems kind of dangerous. Without a doubt, these boats are each unique and privately created. Most are unpleasantly loud and dripping oil or fuel or something into the river. Really, it seems that anything that moves can be driven without concern on either the road or the water in Thailand. We saw an interesting variety of home-crafted and hybrid vehicles. Check out the picture of the maroon motorcycle-cart.
Taxi drivers are pretty crazy, moped drivers are really crazy (there are scooter taxis everywhere), and the guys that drive tuk-tuks (three-wheeled moped/carriage combination vehicles) are insane. Check out the picture of one of our tuk-tuk drivers (at least the back of his head) and Bangkok traffic...also, click on the picture to enlarge it and check out the grumpy chick in the rearview.
We were somewhat surprised to find that English was a little sparse in Thailand, at least in cabs and the like, but getting around was easy enough. The city is a combination of old and new. Skyscrapers, mini-marts, street corner shrines, and classic old temples.
Karen and I spent a day wandering around the city. As we are getting accustomed to, it was HOT and HUMID (see Karen's back). We visited the Grand Palace complex, which includes several special Buddhist buildings and temples. Thai architecture is very distinct - the colors, curves, and forms are quite unique as far as we have seen in the world. Here are some pictures from within the very impressive Grand Palace area. This was an especially hot place because you have to wear clothes with sleeves and pants that go below the knees (out of respect for Buddha). We also visited the temple that houses a huge 'reclining' Buddha - 15m (45') high and 46m (150') long. This is of his toes, looking all the way down to his head (for scale, notice the little kid visible through the fence pickets in the foreground).
In terms of activities, we tried to go to Muy Thai boxing (punching and kicking), but were confused with the times and found that it was much more expensive than the Lonely Planet indicated. We came across some guys in the park playing what we describe as wiffle foot-only volleyball (see picture). This was pretty impressive. Lastly, we had a taxi drive cruise by Soi Cowboy just so we could see the racier side of Bangkok. It was there - a strip of neon-illuminated storefronts with a lot of girls strolling around in the street.
Krabi and Koh Phi Phi
After buzzing around Bangkok, four nights at a relaxed beach was a nice change. We flew down to a place called Krabi ("crabby")on our way to a more remote island. When we landed in Krabi, we learned that the boat to take us out to the island was done for the day and that our first night in the beach area would be there. It was fine - we wandered around the city, had a questionable italian meal, and went to a really crappy market that had an even crappier carnival going on. Check out the picture of the 'carnival'. That is a ground mounted, spinning plane ride in the front and a ground-mounted train ride behind. Both of them looked pretty dangerous and were powered by extension cords running across the dirt - horrible. We also saw a big dog attack a puppy here, after which some girl kicked the big dog in the face numerous times. Differences in the general regard for animals is striking sometimes.
Anyhow, the next day we took the morning boat out to Koh Phi Phi (Koh is island and the other is pronounced 'pee pee'). Despite the name, it is a very nice place and one that we would recommend. It is actually fairly close to Phuket, which is a more well known place that was struck by the 2003 (?) tsunami. Phi Phi was apparently even more wiped out than Phuket, but you wouldn't really know it.
We stayed at a place called the Viking Place Resort. It was small enough that we weren't sure we even had a reservation and they don't seem to have a phone (just random employees' cell phones). Regardless, they had a bungalow for us and it was great. It was small, simple, and pretty much on the beach. Plus, we had a hammock on the porch and a bug net over the bed, complete with one obsessive, headlamp sporting, night-time bug spotter girl to continually sound red alerts for the presence of pests (refer to picture).
It was a short walk to town. Town consists of shops, bars, hotels, restaurants, dive shops, internet cafes, and a lot of massage places. The massage work is pretty inexpensive, as are pedicures and the like, which Karen liked. We actually went to a bar that promoted itself by saying that it had live Muy Thai boxing inside the (outdoor) bar. So we went, figuring we'd make up for Bangkok. In actuality, the first match was between two kids that looked about 12. Then they called for drunk volunteers to come up and challenge each other, which happened and was pretty entertaining. Karen was fascinated and took some convincing that she should probably not volunteer to fight. Several people were so exhausted that they threw up and could hardly move after their fights.
Aside from hanging out in the village, we spent a lot of time sitting on the beach and relaxing here. The shots below are of the Viking Place Resort and the beach and view in front of it. Although the water was transparent aqua-blue, the boats here are the same longtail type as in Bangkok, and are in equally poor condition. For now, this is a beautiful island with a tolerable volume of tourists - at least when we were there. After four nights, we packed up and headed to further east to our next destination.