dinsdag 27 maart 2012

This is it! Bangkok!... is this it?

Bangkok. Gateway to south-east Asia. Good time-city. Where you can buy everything for every price. Where you can have a good time with a girl, boy or something in between. Where you can trade Thai Baht for counterfeit watches and goodies. Where there are at least a hundred foul reeking odors intruding your nostrils and exhaust fumes assaulting your longs. A city with 10 million people who don’t know the verb ‘to carpool’, resulting in huge traffic jams, men and women on motorcycles driving like crazy and Tuk-Tuks (local taxis) squirming themselves between cars. Welcome to the bright and busy capital of Thailand!
Our first impressions were not at all positive. We checked in a very clean and cozy hotel and then we hit the streets. The most prominent thing in Bangkok is the traffic. You see cars, motorcycles and Tuk-Tuks everywhere you look. Because of the fact that traffic lights often don’t work and a pedestrian has fewer rights than a driver, it is difficult to cross a road most of the time. It took us a couple of days to work up the nerves to zigzag trough the traffic without taking too much a risk. Even though the taxi fares are quite cheap (by day, at night the prices skyrocket) we wanted to have the experience of riding along in a converted scooter that can transport up to 5 people. In other words: ride a Tuk-Tuk. There is one thing you need to know before you board one: make sure you have a life insurance. They drive like crazy, squeeze their vehicles trough the tiniest of openings and change lanes as often as you normally blink your eyelids. A cheap rollercoaster ride if you will.

On our first night we went for a walk. Because we didn’t really have a clue where we were going, we let our instincts guide us. Turned out they failed us quite badly. We ended up in a sort of slums under a bridge. Not really the nicest place you want to be as a western tourist.  We didn’t encounter any particular trouble but we were glad when we spotted our hotel in the distance.

The following day we went on an arranged trip to ‘The Undefeatable City’ Ayutthaya. This used to be the capital of Bangkok until it was…well, defeated. A van came to pick us up in the wee hours of the morning only to let us wait for an entire hour for another van. When we finally left we dozed off because it was a 2-hour ride from Bangkok to Ayutthaya. Ayutthaya is actually a collection of several temples and monuments spread over an entire city. Therefore, we saw the inside of our van more often than the inside of the temples we were visiting. But at the end of the day, we were glad we booked this trip because of the many beautiful structures, temples and statues we were able to see. 

After a trip to the hospital to get my stitches cleaned up, we decided to take a stroll in the shopping district of Bangkok, Siam Square. Imagine ‘Het Waasland Shopping Center’. Now add six floors, luxurious boutiques, an entire floor dedicated to still a man’s hunger, a car vendor, and other outrageous things and you have Siam Paragon. The most beautiful shopping center I have ever laid eyes on.
When we woke the following morning we wanted to take a cab to the National Museum of Bangkok. But since there wasn’t a single taxi driver who wanted to take us there (in Bangkok, the cab driver chooses his customers, not vice versa) we took the subway to Lumphini Park. We thought we’d encounter a nice little park but it turned out to be a huge one with streets dividing the trees and grass. After lunch we tried once more to find a friendly cabdriver and luckily, we succeeded. The National Museum was nowhere as impressive as say ‘The British Museum’ or ‘The Louvre’ but it held some interesting pieces concerning Thai history and religion.

In the evening we put on our fancy clothes, pulled over a cab and asked him to take us to the State Tower, the second but biggest tower in Bangkok. 64 floors of luxurious rooms, two restaurants and Sirocco, a bar at the upper level of the building with a view that would blow your socks off. We had a (rather expensive) drink and enjoyed the beautiful skyline of Bangkok by night. After this, we went for a walk in the business quarter of Bangkok, Silom Road. After a couple of minutes we spotted something strange. It was a bar in the cellar of an Irish pub. It was called the ‘-5°C’ bar and because we have to miss the cold days and nights in Belgium, we decided to have drink in there. Even though we were the only guest there, it was a cool experience to sit on a bench of made of ice when the outside temperature almost reaches 40 degrees.

The following morning we went on another arranged trip. This time, we went to see the floating markets and the Erawan Waterfalls. This was a 4-hour trip so we got back together with our former friend: the mini-van. When we arrived at the floating market we were kind of disappointed. Instead of seeing locals trading their wares in their long tail boats, we saw too many tourists browsing for souvenirs from their little speedboats. After a very nice lunch, we drove to the Erawan Waterfalls. These are situated in a National Park and consist of 7 waterfalls. Because time was not on our side, we were only able to reach the fifth waterfall in which we had a refreshing swim. 5 hours later we were back in our hotel rooms and slept like logs.

Bangkok doesn’t have that much to offer but we had a good time exploring the nooks and crannies of its vast grounds. Ignoring the rodents, odors and Thai men spitting as they see fit, it’s a city you have to see, even if it’s only to say: “I’m never coming back again!” And don’t get me wrong, it’s not all that bad, but as you could derive from this entry’s title, we expected a bit more than this.

maandag 19 maart 2012

A Golden Gun amidst a Mangrove Forest

After a refreshing three days on Koh Phi Phi, we booked a hotel room in Phang Nga. We stumbled upon a cheap bungalow in the middle of a National Park. We didn’t hesitate for even a split second and we were glad we didn’t. When we arrived at our bungalow we saw it was surrounded by a mangrove forest and it looked like a lumberjack’s house, it was that authentic. When we unloaded our luggage we went for a walk in the National Park. The first thing we noticed was the inhabitants of the mangrove forest weren’t shy at all. We saw mud crabs, mud lobsters, a couple of beautiful blue birds and even a wild snake!

When we came to a side road, we spotted a road entirely made out of wood. On the side o the road were houses build in the same fashion. Under the wooden road and bridges we saw a concrete path which lay now demolished on the muddy shore of the bay. And then we knew that what we were seeing were the results of the tsunami which reached Thailand all those years ago. The people here managed to survive (if you can call it like that) and were now busy rebuilding their former houses. Sadly, most of the Thai people are poor and can’t afford to rebuild a house made out of concrete and bricks. These people live of catching fish (and tourists for their expensive boat excursions) and that is often all they do. We were glad to be a part of these tourist traps because without the local fishermen and women, we wouldn’t have been able to see what we saw. Starting with a golden Buddha which lay in a cave filled with monkeys.

The day after the same fisherman took us to see James Bond Island. Obviously this island was named such because it was the setting for the famous movie: ‘James Bond and the man with the golden gun’. After we visited the island (which we did quite early to avoid the many tourists (which of course, we aren’t)) we went to Koh Panyee, a Muslim village build entirely on stilts with a huge monolith protecting the backside of the village. Too bad all the village had to offer were souvenir shops and grumpy Thai people.

After three days of rest and quiet we left Phang Nga and signed up for a beach vacation. Three more days of relaxing on a beach, renting bikes and riding around in the Northern part of Phuket really did the trick. The stress had completely left our bodies after a few scrumptious meals in a restaurant on the beach and we were ready to enter the busy life and nightlife of Bangkok.

zaterdag 10 maart 2012

From Hellish bars to Heavenly hospitals

Our two week holiday has started and since I don’t want you all to miss out on a single thing, here it comes.

Round 1: Hell
After two hours of flying we safely arrived at Phuket Airport. Here we had a drink while looking for hotel on the internet. This proved to be a very difficult and tedious task but we were finally able to make a reservation for a hotel in Patong. If you like crowdy and ugly beaches, many tourists who have no (self)respect, one night stands and massages with ‘something extra’; Patong is the place to be. We on the other hand wanted to get out of this Hellhole as fast as possible. We stayed the night in a nice hotel room but when morning came we bolted. We booked a boat to Koh Phi Phi, an island not far from Phuket.

Round 2: Heaven
When the island made itself visible for us, we were in awe. We knew it was considered a very beautiful place on earth but we never even dreamed of this view. Lush green mountains with a crystal clear sea, lagoons and beaches with palm trees and last but not least: wild monkeys!

On our first day we decided to explore the island and ended up swimming, eating and having a cocktail in a cozy beach bar.

When morning came we were feeling quite energetic and went for a 5 hour kayak trip. The thing is: that’s just way too long. With the blistering sun on your bare skin it’s hard to manage physical labor. We first disembarked on Monkey Beach. That’s right, a beach where wild monkeys live!

After a tiresome trip we managed to return to our beach, but not without harm. The three of us looked like lobsters (Could it be that we forgot to put on suntan lotion?) and were in quite a lot of pain due to our burned skins. I even got something extra to take care of. While I was kayaking in a small grove, I thought I would be able to climb a couple of rocks and then jump back in my kayak. Result: three stitches in my right hand + a two day swimming prohibition issued by the local doctor.

The next day we decided to take it a bit easier because of our (and especially my) “wounds”. We rented a long tail boat and a groovy Rasta captain took us too many beautiful places around the island. We went snorkeling, fed fishes, visited Maya Beach (known form the movie: The Beach) and visited Viking Cave. This is a cave where a couple of gypsy Thai actually live. For dinner we had a very nice Mexican platter in a rooftop bar overlooking the two beautiful bays of the island.

vrijdag 9 maart 2012

Festivities and farewells

Our last week before our holiday was one of many gatherings, one happier than the other.

On Monday we did two quite remarkable things. In the morning we went to the hospital to finally address the issue of our work permit. One thing that immediately caught our attention: the biggest part of the hospital was out in the open. And then: the great number of people sitting on plastic chairs like they were waiting for a bus that would never arrive here. There were some wooden benches but they were reserved for the monks. When it was our turn, they checked our weight, height, blood pressure and alcohol usage (We’re in perfect shape by the way). After that we were ushered to the X-ray room where we, obviously, had to take an X-ray. After all of this was finally over we paid and left.
When we get back to school we saw the fifth year getting ready for the parade. This parade was held in honor of Buddha’s last reincarnation. Every local school made a parade float and then they all went to the local temple (the one where we were blessed by the Head Monk). We followed the procession and the funny thing was the locals were taking more pictures of us foreigners than checking out the parade itself.  It was really hot while we were walking and we gladly accepted the cups of water the local onlookers offered us. Not to mention the ice-cream on the way there was Godlike.

On Tuesday we were invited for lunch at a Khmer wedding. The bride is a teacher at our school and she wanted to have the foreign teachers to eat at the wedding as well. The food was very nice and the people we had lunch with as well. The strange thing: when you go to a Thai wedding you receive a gift instead of giving one. Of course we declined the bag of food and soft drinks but the other partygoers eagerly took the bag home.

The rest of the week was strange enough very confusing. We were of course very excited for our holiday was creeping closer and closer but on the other hand, we had to say goodbye to so many lovely pupils. Some of them are going to a different school next year so it really a definite farewell and that made it even harder. I know it sounds ridiculous but the bond we have created with these pupils in the last three weeks is really strong.

We also said goodbye to a fellow foreign teacher: Mercedes. She has lived here for over 1 year now and she will soon go to an elementary school where they have an English program. Our fellow teachers wished us the best of luck on our trip and asked us to take as many pictures as possible. Because most teachers are not very rich, pictures are there only way of seeing the beautiful coastlines we are going to witness in the South of Thailand. Bring it on!