Sunday, December 29, 2013

Tet in Thailand - Bangkok

Well, it's been over 9 months since our trip to Thailand, but... better late than never!  It's actually kind of a miracle.  The portable hard drive that we had kept all our pictures on had crashed and we thought all these pictures lost forever (or at least until we could get them recovered...).  But - lo and behold, Risa found a random memory card in our electronics box and - BAM!  It was the card from our camera during our Thailand trip!  So, for your viewing entertainment... I give you Bangkok.  And remember - one night in Bangkok will make a hard man humble, so view at your own risk. :)

In February of 2013 we were living in Vietnam.  Well, the lunar new year (called "Tet" by the Vietnamese) is in February.  During this time of celebration, most of the restaurants are closed, major shopping areas are closed, and basically everyone spends a whole week indoors with their families.  It's a wonderful time of celebration, but also an inconvenience for foreigners like us - so, like many of the expats we knew, we traveled out of the country for Tet.  Thailand was our destination.

This post will focus on Bangkok and I'll write a separate post soon for our trip to Kanchanaburi.  So - let's start with "touch down".  We grabbed a cab from the airport to our hotel.  Like many taxi drivers in southeast Asia, he didn't speak a lot of English and he drove like an aspiring stunt-man for the next Speed movie. It was terrifying and exciting and we eventually made it to the hotel.  The hotel was SUPPOSED to be right next to the airport, but it took a good 30 minutes in the cab... this made me think the driver was giving us the runaround, but... I was wrong, and that came back to bite us later.  I'll explain at the end.

The next day the temple touring began.  And then it lasted for the next... 3 days or so.  It was overwhelming.  It was awesome.  It was exhausting.  It was breathtaking.  The temples are so colorful, shiny, sparkly, and elaborate that it kind of hurts your eyes at first - it's so amazing!  Risa was very hesitant to take a Tuk-tuk for fear of being ripped off, etc., but after walking so far for 3 straight days she finally broke down and we had some very enjoyable tuk-tuk rides.  They are crazy fun - kinda like big golf carts with 3 wheels that weave at insane speeds through one of the most crowded cities in the world.  As for the temples, I'll let the pictures speak for themselves, but I will say this - it was the most astoundingly unique and amazing architecture I've yet laid eyes on.  Pictures don't do it justice - there's no way to capture it.

We had heard that the Chatuchak market was pretty incredible, so we decided to head that way one morning. Well, we spent the WHOLE DAY there.  When they say it's one of the biggest markets in the world, let me tell you - that actually means something.  It was HUGE.  Like - a square mile of densely packed sidewalk sales, but full of incredibly diverse and exotic things (though, not all was exotic...).  It was AWESOME.  Also, they had a whole "pet" section which was equal parts sad and amazing.  They were selling pet squirrels, some with the cutest little outfits on... it made me laugh and cry at the same time. A strange sensation really.  Note: if you go to Bangkok, avoid this market unless you have a minimum of $100 that you're willing to let fly out the window.  There's just too much awesome stuff (not to mention, you'll get super hungry walking around all day and the milk-rice with mango is soooooooooo good).

We also managed to go to church while in Bangkok.  We hadn't been to church in over 3 months on account of there being no ward where we lived in Da Nang, so it was super nice.  We met a bunch of other travelers as well, including 2 American families that live in Shanghai. It was a great little English-speaking branch that usually has more visitors than stable members. Fun.

And now for food.  We ate some pad thai, several varieties of Thai curry, sticky-rice with mango, and many other lovely concoctions, but the best thing by far was... wait for it... STREET-VENDOR ROTI!!!  Yup. Manna from heaven. Especially because we had been trekking down a long empty street for nearly an hour and I got super low blood-sugar when we first discovered it.  It was a god-send.  The best way to describe it is a thin crepe-like bread fried in butter and filled with... stuff (eggs? syrup? cinnamon? whatever you asked for really).  I'll never be satisfied with scones again. Well, maybe I will (I love scones).

Then we went to Kanchanaburi for a couple days, which will be featured in another post.  But when we got BACK, it was time to go home.  This is where things took a turn for the worst. We had reserved the hotel we did because it was close to the airport.  Well, remember how it took the cab driver a strangely long time to get to our hotel?  Weird, but we thought nothing of it and just took the train to the airport on the day of our departure. It was super quick - like 10 minutes max.  And when we went to check in is when all the pieces fell into place.  There are 2 AIRPORTS in Bangkok.  Ooops.  Our hotel was not next to the one that our plane was in.  So... after much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, we had to buy another flight home (so much for a cheap vacation) and even ended up having to spend the night in HCMC on our way back to Da Nang.  What a bust. All-in-all it was a great trip though, so I guess we have no reason to complain. It was the first flight I've ever missed - it had to happen sometime, right?

BTW - it's worth mentioning that we eventually found a good hotel in HCMC, but only after wandering around for almost an hour and having to turn down several less-amazing hotels full of hookers and hooker-customers.  Yeah - it was kinda gross. That's south-east Asia for you.


So.  We just got done with our first cruise. It was... AMAZING to say the least, but before I delve in, let me just get a little serious for a moment first.  Risa and I have struggled starting a family for the last... 7 years or so.  While here in Germany we decided to get some expensive (but not as expensive as in the U.S.) tests done.  Long story short, we can't have biological children.  Lame.  So, to soothe our aches and make use of some of the funds we were saving for invitro, we decided to go on a wild and crazy trip for our 8 year anniversary.  Woo!

The cruise we went on was through Aida - a German company.  This... was an interesting choice.  We chose Aida because my friends at work recommended it, and it WAS a phenomenal ship - no question. However, we probably should have thought about what it meant to be on a GERMAN cruise. All announcements, the daily schedules, the available tours, the entertainment, and of course the other passengers, were GERMAN.  This was a bit strange and isolating, but overall wasn't too much of a problem. The staff also spoke English so we got all the information we needed.  Still, would have been great to have English-speaking dinner companions. :)  Anyway - the cruise went to Spain, Italy, and France.  

First stop... and last stop - Majorca!  The coolest thing about Majorca is the "feel" of the place. It's a super-chill island town surrounded by ocean cliffs and good weather. Palm trees, desert flora, light-colored limestone, and fantastic food. It's a PERFECT place to just take it slow, stroll around, catch some rays, and soak up the atmosphere. We spent a lot of time just wandering around the narrow streets and sea-side walkways, enjoying Spanish pastries and the BEST hot chocolate in the universe. We also found an English bookstore run by an old abolutely crazy (and I mean bonkers) British dude where we bought a few books (surprisingly tough to find in Europe), and we managed to get ripped off for some shades and cheap souvenirs. We saw some amazing tourist stuff there too. The cathedral is a giant fortress of limestone with an ocean view, surrounded by elevated stone walkways.  It's absolutely breathtaking. Pictures just don't do it justice. There is also an amazing 14th century castle set on the cliffs of Majorca that we toured.  Other than the massive number of stairs that we had to climb to get there, it might have been the coolest thing I've ever seen. 

Then there was some time on the boat between stops, which was also awesome. The whole central section of the ship was a large open stage area surrounded by windows about 4 floors high where performances and shows took place.  The best part though was the food. Vegas-style buffets any time we wanted. In fact, the whole ship was kind of like Las Vegas on water. The pool area on the top of the ship was super cool too, though, it seems Germans are sun-starved because they filled up every square inch of that ship deck. :)   One of our favorite areas of the ship was the "reading area" - it was a large windowed section at the front of the boat full of couches, tables, and shelves of books and games. We played an amazing board game called "Elfenland".  It was hilarious - suffice it to say you get to ride unicorns and magic clouds to various elf towns. :)  There was also a 4D theater that was pretty cool, free food, a volleyball court, an arcade, free food, and free motion-sickness homeopathics that Risa had to make use of regularly. Did I mention free food?

Next stop - Rome!  Basically, 1 day was not enough time for Rome - there is SO MUCH to see. We scheduled a bus tour, but ended up only taking it for 1 stop. After we got off, we just walked from 1 amazing thing to the next for the whole rest of the day (which our feet complained about, but our eyes ignored them). Pizza at the Pantheon, Gelato at the Capital, the Colosseum, the Roman Forum... I'll just let the pics speak for themselves.  We were so busy we almost got lost and didn't make it back to the ship ontime. :)  

Next - Pisa / Florence.  Pisa was actually more awesome than we ever would have guessed.  It's much more than just a crooked tower.  It's a fantastic walled complex full of amazing medieval architecture.  Bam. 

Florence was also spectacular. The giant striped cathedral was overwhelmingly awesome, and it seemed that around every corner was a new castle-like building or beautiful old church.  The only trouble was: A) it was raining, and B) the tour guide was a joke. He not only spoke only German, but he was the slowest most boring guy I've ever met.  So... we ditched him and saw the city on our own. 

Now to Marceille.  To be honest, we weren't expecting a whole lot from Marceille. We had asked our French friends from Vietnam about the place, and the response wasn't mind-blowing - but the pictures online looked nice, so we just kept an open mind.  It turns out - Marceille was super nice! Just like everywhere else!  It's a coastal city with a gorgeous cathedral atop a tall hill overlooking the city / ocean. We took a really fun "train" tour to the hill-top. The train was really just a painted tractor pulling some carts with benches in them, but it was really fun. Of course the striped cathedrals in the city were amazing.  We could also see the island prison out in the ocean where "The Count of Monte Christo" takes place.  Awesome. Finally, there was a fantastic castle built on the cliffs with rampart walkways and amazing views.

I must add a note about the cathedral in Marceille. Although it was of massive scale and grandeur, unlike many cathedrals, it had very little "pomp" or gaudiness. There was a sublime peace that permeated the place, and it felt really wonderful. One could just feel the love that was put into creating the building. It was a perfect place to chill out for 30 minutes and meditate a bit.

Last stop... Barcelona! Well, technically we went back to Majorca for our LAST stop, but I can honestly say that regardless, the last stop was the best. I love Spain. There's something about the feel of the culture that really blew me away. It just seemed so relaxed, creative, loving... something. Anyway - Barcelona was breathtaking. Where to begin... it was a HUGE city. The place is super famous for Gaudi and his famous architecture. We saw several houses which he designed, as well as a park / neighborhood he designed called "Park Guell". My favorite, however, is a giant cathedral (still being built - he didn't get to finish it before he died) called "Sagrada Familia". It was like some twisted palace from a fairy tale. Something you'd expect to see in the Emerald City or something.
Aside from Gaudi's architectural marvels, Barcelona is also a super chill "beach" city. The water is nice, and the beaches are decent (although crowded). Surprisingly, one of the most spectacularly "grand" cathedrals I've ever seen is in Barcelona. It's by far not the biggest attraction of Barcelona, but it was amazing.
And to top it all off - Risa got to practice her Spanish! And for once, she wasn't crazy uncomfortable about not speaking the native language. :) Yay!

And that's it. It was a magical journey commemorating our 8th year of marriage. And - although we are super sad and frustrated about our failures at attempting to start a family, this was a pretty great trip that probably wouldn't have been possible otherwise. So - cheers!