Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Khao Sok Adventure: TIGER CAVE!

It’s been a few weeks since I posted; December has been a busy month.  I had two 3-day weekends in the beginning of the month, one for Father’s Day (which is also the King’s birthday) and one for Constitution Day.  I also had this entire week off for Christmas.  Next week, I have a 4-day weekend for New Year’s.  That’s a total of 17 days off this month (including weekends)… all paid.  Gotta love being a teacher.  Gotta love Thailand.  Gotta love being a teacher in Thailand.
            I’ve got big plans for the long summer break, March to May.  My cousin, Codykins, is planning an epic quest to the Land of Oz, maybe even shark diving off the Great Barrier Reef.  If my funds permit, I will be there.  But my big trip planned for the break is in April.  I’ll spend the entire month in Nepal, half of which will be trekking to the base camp of Mt. Everest at 17,598 ft.   With all these adventures coming up in just a few months, I’ve decided to stay in town and save money even though I have the week off. 
I was, however, able to do some light traveling during the two long weekends at the beginning of December.  There are only a few places left in Thailand on my “To Conquer List” and I was able to cross two of them off this month: Khao Sok National Park and the beautiful island of Koh Muk on the Andaman coast.  These places are now two of my favorites (I think I say that about every new place I visit in Thailand) and I can’t wait to go back.

Part I:  Khao Sok
About an hour and a half bus ride west of Surat Thani (the town I live in) is Khao Sok National Park, a not-so-hidden gem of the south.  The National Park is 740 square meters of emerald forests, limestone mountains, rugged islands, crystal waterfalls, and home to over 400 species of wildlife.  In fact, Khao Sok is covered by the oldest evergreen rainforest in the world.  In 1982, the Ratchaprapa Dam was built to provide hydro-electricity to surrounding towns, subsequently flooding much of Khao Sok and creating the enormous, man-made Cheow Larn Lake that is there today.  The peaks of the mountains now poke through the surface of the lake creating hundreds of islands covered with both plant and animal life.
A few weeks ago, about 15 friends and I all got together to spend an incredible three-day weekend on the lake.  There are a few different types of accommodation available in the National Park.  Camping is one option.  There are also standard bungalows as well as tree houses (yes, tree houses) available on the main land.  We opted for the floating bungalows (yes, floating bungalows) on the lake.  Also called “raft houses”, these bungalows are built on rafts and are accessible only by boat.
We arrived at the main pier on the lake early on Saturday morning.  From the pier to Smiley’s bungalows where we stayed, it was a beautiful 45-minute boat ride over deep green waters.   There was a good view of the dam shortly after departing the pier, but what was really impressive to me was the giant limestone karsts jetting out of the water, some of them hundreds of feet high.  The boat ride was one of my favorite parts of the weekend and we hadn’t even arrived at the bungalows yet.

Smiley's Floating Bungalows
When we did finally arrive, I was impressed.  The bungalows were simple, yet adequate.  Each bungalow had two double beds and a bathroom in it.  There were about ten rooms total, five on each side, joined by a restaurant/ bar/ entertainment area in the center.  We checked in and the staff had already started making us dinner for the night.  While we waited on our grub, we took out some kayaks and inner tubes, went swimming, and had Kayak Battles (it is what it sounds like) while drinking lots and lots of cheap Thai whiskey.
The rain started as dinner was served.  We spent the rest of the night eating and drinking in the center area and made friends with some traveling Ukrainians that were also staying at Smiley’s.
In the morning we woke up to a delicious breakfast off eggs, toast, and fruit.  Morning is my favorite time of day in Khao Sok.  The heavy mist slowly creeps across the tops of the mountains, sinking in to each valley like an avalanche of fog.  We watched the scenery, drank some coffee, and went for a quick swim to get the blood flowing.  We had a big day ahead of us.  Also included with the price of the bungalows is a guided, 3-hour trek through the jungle and a gi-normous cave system.  Indiana Jones style. 
Fog rolling over the mountains in the morning

            All fifteen of us jumped in a long tail boat with our two trekking guides.  It was about a 30-minute ride to where we would begin the hike and the entire time I felt like I was at Disney Land on the Jungle Cruise.  We finally pulled up on a small piece of shoreline and embarked on our adventure of the day. 
The two guides were great.  One spoke decent English, the other… not so much.  We hiked along as they led the way and pointed out the different flora and fauna of the rainforest.  Along the trek they made hats out of vines and giant leaves, showed us how to make native-style war paint by grinding rocks together, and they even carved us whistles out of bamboo.  
We climbed rocks, trudged muddy passes, and battled leaches to make are way to the mouth of the cave.  I was expecting a small subterranean passageway that I’d have to crouch to get inside of, but this cave was massive. The tunnel system ran for several kilometers underground.
Our guide was weary of letting us cross through it because of the water levels.  A few years ago, an entire group of tourists got trapped and drowned in the cave.  It had rained the night before we got there and the water was higher than normal, but the guide said we were okay to go through.  It took close to an hour of navigating this bottomless, dark, damp tube of rock before we reached the exit point. 
Along the way, it was pitch black except for our headlamps.  There were parts where we had to swim and parts where we had to climb.  The cave is named... wait for it… the Bat Cave.  No, it isn’t a superhero headquarters.  It is, however, inhabited by thousands of little bats that we could see hanging in slumber from the cave ceiling.  The only sounds to be heard were the echoes of our voices, the swish of rushing water, and the shrieks of those little, flying rodents whose sleep we’d interrupted. 
Into the heart of darkness
After leaving the cave, we started off on the final leg of our hike back to the boat.  Earlier in the day we ran into another small group of hikers that said they’d seen a dead deer on the trail.  Apparently, a tiger had slaughtered it earlier that day.  One of the guides told us that if we see the tiger, we should all run away together in a line, so that the tiger can only eat one of us.  Such a wise man.  Safety in numbers I guess.  We continued on the trail, all of our eyes scouring the jungle for the giant cat-beast.  We didn’t end up seeing the tiger, but we did find the leftovers from his breakfast.
The least graphic shot... TIGER FOOD
            All the manly men crowded around the for pictures and the girls nervously waited for us to finish.  Standing next to a tiger’s recent kill in the middle of a jungle is not the best place to be.  Nevertheless, it felt pretty awesome being so close to nature.  After seizing the photo op, we trekked out of the rainforest and to our boat.  It was time to head back to the bungalows.
We rounded out the day with a delicious Thai dinner, swimming outside of our raft houses, a few more kayak battles, and a party under the stars.  The next day, after our swim and breakfast, the Smiley’s staff took us in the longtail back to the pier where we were to catch the bus home to Surat.
This turned out to be one of the best weekends I’ve had in a long time.  What made it even better is that everything, and I mean everything (roundtrip transportation to and from the park; the boat rides; the guided jungle journey/ cave trek; accommodation; breakfast, lunch, and dinner for three days; and enough booze to drown a small Russian infantry unit) only cost 2,000 baht per person (about $60 USD).  Only in Thailand.
Cruisin' the jungle
Yay.  Swimming is fun.


Friday, December 9, 2011

Cambodian Adventure Part III: The Finale

Back to Phnom Penh…

            Phnom Penh is a big city but it lacks the glamour of a metropolis.  There aren’t many skyscrapers, it’s built on a nonsensical grid system, and honestly it just didn’t seem that impressive.  The traffic and pollution are horrible.  To anyone planning a visit, I highly recommend wearing sunglasses and having a bandana or something to cover your face with while riding in a tuk-tuk.  The dust and filth in the air, stirred up from the dirty streets, is like nothing I have experienced (not even in Vietnam or Thailand). 
            With that said, Phnom Penh is an amazing place and I did enjoy the time that I spent there.  It’s located where the Tongle Sap meets the Mekong River and every morning from sunrise til 8 am, you can see hundreds of people on the riverfront beginning their days with aerobics and yoga.  There are hotels, guesthouses, and hostels all over the city for an array of prices.  While I was there, the people seemed to be a little standoffish at first (city-like, I guess), but were really just as nice and friendly as everyone in Siem Reap if you talked to them for a bit.
Unfortunately, I didn't get to spend much time in Phnom Penh.  The plan was to stay in Siem Reap for a few more days.  Of course, I did what I always do and waited until the last minute to try and change my flight.  What I didn't know is that it's Air Asia policy that, even with the travel insurance I had, there's a minimum of 48 hours notice needed to change flights (mine was scheduled to leave the next day).  SOOO, without having much choice, Ry-dude and I got on a bus a few hours later and headed 5 ½ hours away, back to Phnom Penh.  This gave me from 6 am to 4 pm (on the day of my departure) to see and do everything in the city that I wanted to.
Skulls uncovered after excavations at the Killing Fields
            Ryan and I hired a tuk-tuk for the day ($12 USD) and the driver took us to the Killing Fields, S-21 (Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum), and lastly the shooting range.  “The Killing Fields” are about 35 minutes outside of town.  For a $2 entrance fee you’re allowed in and can see where the Khmer Rouge mercilessly massacred so many Cambodian people.  If you're not familiar with the history of the Khmer Rouge and what happened in Cambodia in the 1970's, you can school yourself here.  Once inside, there was a free audio tour that allowed us to move at our own pace between marked sites (including mass graves, execution areas, and a huge collection of human skulls), all of which were shocking.  I even found a human tooth in the dirt, recently washed up to the surface by rain.  After the hour-long tour we bought some incense for the shrine and monument, and then checked out the museum near the exit.  As hard as it is to stomach, I am really glad I got to see this.  I learned a lot and have so much respect for what the Cambodian people have had to overcome.
Mass graves, like this one where 450 victims were buried, are all over the Killing Fields
            Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, better known as S-21, was not much easier to see.  It’s a high school-turned-torture prison camp.  This is where the Khmer Rouge would torture people.  It causes the same distress as the Killing Fields, and after 20 minutes, we decided to leave. 

*In this picture (to the left of the Ginger) is a man missing one leg.  Unfortunately, this is an all to common site.  Still to this day, Cambodia is one of the most heavily mined areas on the planet.  The Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC) estimates that there are between 4 to 6 million mines in the ground.  Note that the entire population of Cambodia is only 11. 5 million.*

"Say Hello to my little friends!"
            Our final stop of the day was of a brighter hue.   On the opposite side of town our tuk-tuk driver dropped us off at the shooting range.  Talk about kids in a candy store; they had everything!  I had only shot a gun once in my life before, but I have to admit, the mere site of machine guns and RPG’s got me more than a little excited.  Although we opted not to, the option was available to shoot a rocket launcher at a live cow ($350 US).  Our budgets and morals didn’t allow for that so we opted to pay $65 each to shoot 20 rounds out of an AK-47 and 50 rounds from a Russian machine gun with a tripod.  Rambo would’ve been jealous.  Firing these bad boys and blowing coconuts to smithereens was a badass experience and the grand finale to the whole Phnom Penh escapade.
"Yippee ki-yay motherf*er!"

After that, the tuk-tuk driver raced me to the airport and I hopped on my flight back to my first love, Thailand.  I had a great time in both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.  Cambodia is now one of my favorite countries.  My only regret is not being able to spend more time there.  The food, the historical sites, the prices, and the people are all fantastic and I hope I get to go back again.  Maybe next time I’ll shoot rocket the launcher. 

Please... No smoking, no photography, and NO HAND GRENADES!

Thousands of skulls, teeth, and bones are kept in a shrine at the Killing Fields to pay respect to the dead and remind people of what the Cambodians went through
A tooth washed up from the rain that I found on the ground at the Killing Fields

Me, about to get medieval on a coconut... 

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Cambodian Adventure: Part II

I landed in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, a little over an hour after leaving Bangkok.  The airport is a fraction of the size of BKK, but the chaos was the same.  First I waited in a line to get my passport stamped and then in another to get through customs.  After that it’s the gauntlet: a sea of motorbike, tuk-tuk, and taxi drivers waiting for you like hungry zombies on the other side of the door. 
Leaving the airport in a tuk-tuk.  Ricky Bobby!
“Mista’, Mista’, taxi?  Only $9!”
“OK, OK.  $8!  Special price for you!”
“$7!  Happy Hour price!”
They’ll play this game all day.  I fought my way through the zombies, only getting bit once, until I found a cheap tuk-tuk (*Webster’s defines tuk-tuk as:  3-wheeled-motorcycle-rickshaw-deathcab, usually driven by an inebriated man with 4 teeth and a hidden agenda) to take me to The Mad Monkey, my hostel ($5/night and great).  
I got my free beer with check-in, met some cool people, and debauchery ensued.  The next morning I woke up with a slight headache, ate some breakfast, and waited for the bus to Siem Reap.
Around 11 am, I hopped on the bus with “V.I.P.” written in duct tape on the windshield.  I wasn’t surprised to find that it was crowded with both people and bugs and that the air-conditioning barely worked.  V.I.P. busses are supposed to have A/C and be more comfortable than the standard busses.  However, after traveling all over SE Asia on them, I’ve learned that (1) I am not a Very Important Person; (2) they’re almost always lacking. It’s something you get used to.
What was supposed a to be five-hour bus ride was closer to seven.  Cambodia had been hit hard by flooding and at times it felt more like I was riding in a boat than a bus.  When I was eventually dropped off in Siem Reap, I took a tuk-tuk for 75 cents into town and found a place to stay (Smiley's Guesthouse… again $5/night and shockingly nice).  I bought a Cambodian SIM card for my phone and met up with one of my roommates, Ryan, who had also just arrived there.  


Let me school you with some knowledge right quick…

Siem Reap is a small, old town in northwestern Cambodia.  It’s name means the “Flat defeat of Siam”, referring to a victorious battle the native Khmer people had over the Siamese (of course, Siam is now Thailand).  It’s a quiet town during the day, but starting around 6 pm, there’s a large night market where you can buy anything from a traditional Cambodian scarf to a knock-off Rolex (I bought a fresh Breitling and some Ray-Bans for next to nothing).  Around 9 pm Pub Street comes to life.  This is where the tourists convene and where you’ll find restaurants and bars booming until the early morning hours.
Siem Reap is a popular tourist destination primarily because it’s “the gateway” to the Angkor region (where Angkor Wat is located).  Angkor was the capital city of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to 15th centuries.  The ruins are still there and are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, drawing in thousands of visitors each year.
The entrance to Angkor Wat.  Inside... The Temple of Doom.

I ended up spending about a week in Siem Reap and I loved it.  Of course, there’s the usual bombardment of hustlers and beggars and you have to keep your eyes open just like when traveling anywhere else.  But, for the most part, the people are incredibly nice, the food is good, and everything is cheap. 
Oz the Aussie at Angkor What? Bar.
Ryan and I had more than one crazy night out at the bars on Pub Street, which are full of fun and interesting people from all over the place.  Because of the flooding, all of Pub Street was underwater.  Amazingly, however, everything was still open.  On a normal night there’s tons of people coming and going, drinking and dancing.  Even with the flooding, this was still going on, just in knee-deep water, which made for a pretty crazy time… probably best left unmentioned.
It was fun… meeting new people, raging all night, coming out of the bar at 3 am, Michael Jackson blaring in the street from an unknown source, a 9 year-old little Cambodian girl dancing in the knee-deep water (waist-deep for her) and singing along, “Billy Jean is not my lover” followed by, “come on man, give me one dollar” (holding up a basket of bracelets), while I look over and Ryan (a 6’2’’ Ginger) is street-fighting her 7 year-old little brother.  Who punches a 7 year old?  Kidding.  Good times.
She was a lot happier when MJ was blaring.

"Finish Him! ...  Fatality."
But good times can be had at any time, at any bar, anywhere in the world.  The best part of Siem Reap was by far being able to see the 1000-year-old ruins and temples of Angkor.  I have to say that it’s probably one of the coolest thing that I have ever seen in my life.  It’s like the Grand Canyon, words can’t describe it and pictures just don’t do it justice.

"Tomb Raider temple"
We rented bikes for a buck and paid $40 for a 3-day pass and saw just about everything that there is to see.  If Indian Jones and Lara Croft had an extraordinarily good-looking love child, it would be me (*Speaking of Tomb Raider, they filmed it in Angkor).  Some of the temples, buildings, and walkways have been restored but most of it has been left basically untouched for the best part of a thousand years.   It was like being inside of Mortal Kombat.  I was half-expecting Scorpion to run around the corner looking for Sub-zero, “Hey man.  You seen a ninja ‘round here… wears a blue mask… likes to freeze shit?”

... more really, really, really, really old stuff.

This monkey attacked me about 10 minutes later.  True story.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Cambodian Adventure Part I: Flight of the Ogre

Teaching in Thailand has many of the same perks as teaching in America does.  The best, in my opinion, is the vacation time.  In the States, most teachers get holidays and the summer months off.  In Thailand, we’re off from the beginning of March to mid-May (Thai summer is hot, especially with no A/C and 55 students per class), as well as all of October (when the rainy season hits the hardest).  This bonus allowed me to travel for four weeks last month, paid.  I went diving in Koh Tao, raged in Bangkok, experienced the filthy skeeze that is Pattaya, watched a fire show in Koh Samet (my eyebrows were nearly singed by a disobedient, flaming bow-staff that decided my face was a better landing target than its owner’s hands), and hiked a five-tier waterfall in Kanchanaburi.  I don’t have the memory (thank you, Singha beer) nor the patience to write about each and every one of these places.   I do, however, want to share a little bit about final leg of my October travels, which was to Cambodia. 
            I was only able to spend about a week in good ol’ Cambo and I wish that I’d had more time.  To me it’s the wild west of SE Asia.  Still recovering from the atrocities of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, it is not nearly as developed as its neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam.  The air is constantly filled with dust from the unpaved roads, waterways flood because of the lacking infrastructure, and there’s evidence everywhere illuminating the unbelievably widespread poverty.  My roommate, co-worker, and travel dude-bro, Ryan gave a pretty accurate, yet not-so-delicate description, “Cambodia is a dirtier, cheaper version of Thailand”.  This is true, but Cambodia is also a lot more. 
Everywhere I went the people were exceedingly friendly and genuinely happy.  In guesthouses and restaurants the service was far better than in Thailand (but the food didn’t hold a candle).   Everything costs a dollar or less.  Everything.  Draft beer, 50 cents.  Food, a dollar.  Tuk-tuk, a dollar.  You can even find dorm-style hostels to stay in for… a dollar.
Because of the floods and my loathing of 15-hour bus rides, I decided to pay the extra 50 bucks and take a flight from big, bad Bangkok to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.  The flight only took 55 minutes, but short of crashing into the Gulf, it couldn’t have been much worse. 


            As I waited to board the plane in Suvarnaphumi International Airport, I couldn’t help but notice a fat, sweaty, googly-eyed, middle-aged European oaf bumbling around the gate.  Air Asia is known for its tiny seats and I instantly felt bad for whoever had to sit next to this caricature of an oversized troll, probably named Igor or Bruno or something of the like. I will say that he had the most vicious, greasy, salt-and-pepper mullet that I have ever seen.  Gotta respect the mullet.
The plane began to board at 5:00 p.m.  Two stereotypically beautiful Thai stewardesses greeted me with fake smiles, Sawadee Kaa, as I entered the aircraft.  23F.  Sweet, a window seat.  I sat down and buckled up.  The ogre looked confused as he lurched and searched for his assigned accommodation, getting closer and closer to me, struggling to ram his way down the aisle, invading the space of everyone he passed with his protruding side-fat.  I already knew where he would end up.
Bruno Trolldude stowed away his carry-on after a brief struggle with the overhead compartment.  I don’t know what he had in there.  Probably a small assortment of Speedos to show off his impressive Euro-body, a camera so he could show pictures to his friends back home of the beautiful Asian women that he didn’t pay for, and maybe a bottle of his favorite vodka recently purchased at the airport duty-free shop.   Whatever was in the bag, it definitely wasn’t deodorant. 
He sat down in the seat next to me; amazingly fitting between the two armrests, yet instantly overflowing in to my bubble, trapping me against the window.  He then raised his tentacle revealing a beautiful sweaty armpit that smelled like Cheetos, so that he could make sure that all of the air conditioning fans above were on blast and pointed directly at his perspiring dome piece.  Suck it up, I thought.  It would only be an hour-long flight and at least I’d have a nice view of the smog as I ascended out of Bangkok at twilight.
It was like watching a drunken turtle on its back as he thrashed about trying to reach the seatbelt underneath him.  I could smell the booze as he took short, heavy breaths the way that only overweight, two-pack-a-day smokers do.  Fortunately, the wheezing only lasted ten minutes.  Then, the ogre slept.  Unfortunately, the snoring began.  Ugh, the snoring.  I’ve had the experience of standing on a runway for the take-off of a fighter jet, endured booming thunderstorms, shot machine guns, and it all pales in comparison to the roaring rumble that came from that congested nasal passageway.
Within a few minutes, everyone in proximity was marveling at the sight and sounds of seat 23E.  First, the other passengers shook their heads and delivered dirty looks.  Then, they stared.  Then, they laughed and pointed.  Some people yelled indicative comments, but nothing would wake up Bear-pig-man. I figured that once the plane took off, he’d wake up and reset.  30 minutes in to Air Asia flight FD-3081, this proved false.  Eventually, two young English guys across the aisle began blowing up the paper barf bags provided by the airline, and popping them next to his ear, laughing hysterically the whole time.  Still nothing.  Even the airhostess that served my $5 Coke to me, attempted to wake him with a polite nudge, but gave up quickly, probably for fear that he might eat her.  At that point people stopped looking at him and started looking at me.  With pity, I assume.
The only thing that could wake the beast was itself.  Eventually, it was his own coughing fit that would bring him out of slumber.  It was one of the grossest things I’ve ever witnessed… and I’ve seen some grimy shit.  It began with a single cough.  Probably a piece of phlegm stuck in Fatboy’s windpipe.  Then, a short-lived pause as he inhaled oxygen signified the end of the snoring and the beginning of a violent session that would ultimately serve as an alarm clock to his mile-high siesta. 
At the beginning of the coughing fit/seizure/Discovery Channel special, he was still asleep.  His arms flailed, hitting me at least twice.  His legs bucked, pressing his already fully reclined seat even further back in to the knees of the old lady behind him.  He mumbled unrecognizable nothings in a language that I can only imagine to be Hobgoblin.  Fee Fi Fo Fum.  Every gulp of air he sucked in was immediately followed by a crackling cough as he sprayed entire lungfuls of phlegm on to the seatback in front of him.  It lasted maybe two minutes and as he finally came to consciousness he noticed that all eyes were on him, but didn’t seem to care.  He panted and gasped for a moment; clearing his throat and catching his breath as he wiped the drool off his chin and sweat off his horned forehead.  The beast was awake.  I expected a wave of applause, but there was none.  At this point no one was amused, only disgusted.  But at least it was all over.
The pilot came on the loudspeaker announcing that we were on our final descent.  A stewardess past by and told me that when I finished my $5 Coke (now contaminated), I had to put my tray up.  “No problem.”  Then a large, furry appendage from beside me reached across and raised my tray, locking it in to position on the seat in front of me…  “You put up tray now!”
I nodded.  “Sorry to disturb you, Bruno.”

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

437 Days Abroad

437 days.  That’s how long it’s been since I left my friends, my family, and my comfort zone for the adventure of Southeast Asia.  A lot has happened in those 437 days.  I’ve ridden an old Russian motorcycle across the entire length of Vietnam.  I’ve eaten the beating heart out of a snake.  I’ve gone SCUBA diving off of some of the most beautiful islands in the world.  I’ve explored thousand-year-old tombs and temples in Cambodia.  I’ve spent two long days slowly floating through Laos on the Mekong River.  I’ve drank one too many beers, one too many times, with some great friends from across the globe.  I’ve jumped off of waterfalls and I’ve trekked the green jungles of Thailand.  I’ve lit up a coconut with an AK-47.  I’ve found out the hard way that there is no place on your body that is safe from a hungry leech… no place.  I’ve been chased by gangsters and by lady boys and I’m not sure which one is more frightening.  I’ve trained at a backyard Muay Thai gym, taken a bucket shower out of a trash can, been attacked by a monkey, and started to learn a new language that I originally thought was impossible.

Being half way around the world it can be hard to find the time to share all that has happened with family and friends.  So after 437 days and countless misadventures I’ve finally made a blog.   We’ll see how it goes, but I’ll do my best to post frequently enough to keep everyone up to date with what’s going on in Blake’s world.  Thanks for reading!