Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Top Twenty Apps for Travelling (OK, It's Twenty Two...But I Just Couldn't Decide)

Final post for this trip...and I am not being payed by Apple...

This is the first trip I have taken where I decided that I needed to absolutely have some sort of data connection.  Suffice it to say that I was still working on my travels and I would need to have an internet connection and reliable access to the world wide internet.

My first challenge was using data without paying thousand in roaming charges.  This actually proved to be extremely easy.  My first outing when I arrived in China was to a China Mobile store.  As we travelled to our first hotel I noticed a store every five hundred metres or so and one was conveniently at the end of the drive of our hotel.  I walked down there after settling into my room and despite the language barrier, I was able to quickly switch my sim card and was up and running with 6 gigabytes of data that would last 6 months for about $50.  The only difficulty I had was of where to store my Telus sim card so that I would have it after six week of travel.  I tucked it into my folder that has my little tooly thing for opening my sim card drawer on my iphone.  I was using my iPad for most work and blog stuff so having the data on my phone was super handy since I was now able to use it as a hotspot or connection for my ipad!  The only caveat is that in order to use a SIM card from another country your iphone must first be "unlocked".  Now, I don't really understand how a corporation can "lock" a device, that you have paid for, to their company but apparently this is allowable, in Canada at least...I did call Telus, my provider, before leaving on my trip and asked them to unlock my phone.  At first they wanted to charge me $30 but when I objected, strenuously, they did unlock it for free.  When I tried to do the same for my daughter, with Bell, they were unwilling to budge on their $75 fee...

I basically did the same thing in Indonesia (the store was called Smile) and Thailand and the cost was actually much less.  I just showed someone my iphone and used my translation apps to ask where I could get a Sim and someone pointed me in the right direction.  The store people put the SIM in for me, reset the phone and made sure it was working and I was on my way!

It was very comforting knowing that I could check my phone whenever I thought I was lost and to know where I was and to be able to translate a few english words and communicate with non english speaking people.  I was also able to talk to my kids and stay in touch on a real time basis with everyone at home.  This might seem to take some of the adventure out of the whole travel experience thing but it is also very liberating and I don't think I would have had as many adventures as I did if I wasn't relying on my technology!

I had researched many apps before I left for Asia but I actually fully relied on just a few.  Here are my top travel apps, for now...

  1. Viber.   This is a free app for just about very device out there.  In layman's terms, if you have the app and one of your contacts has it then you can call and text, for free, from anywhere in the world.  The negative is that some conspiracy theorists think this is an app which is designed to track your every movement and thought.  Personally, I really don't have much to hide so I will take full advantage of this freebee.  Just make sure that the people you want to call also have the app.  There is a bit of a delay when calling across the world, but still, it beats the post system that I relied on some thirty five years ago when I took my first trip abroad.
  2. Google Translate.  I tried a lot of different translation apps, including "SayHi", and other apps that weren't free (Google Translate is free) but this turned out to be my "go to" app when I needed something fast, quick and reliable.  I especially liked the fast, full screen written view as most people I tried to speak to, preferred reading rather than listening.  Drawback is you need wifi or data connection but usually I found it was too inconvenient to ask someone to wait while I tried to find the correct word or phrase that was stored when I didn't have a data connection. When this happened, I usually resorted to sign language or my few phrases in the local dialect that I had committed to memory.
  3. Compass.   Free compass app was a godsend.  If you are told to go East (or West, or North, or South) while coming out of a subway there is no way to do it unless you have a handy, dandy compass on your phone!
  4. TextPlus.    Text anyone, anywhere, for free....'nough said.
  5. SayHi   Translation app but I actually used it to learn how to speak.  If the app recognizes what I say in Mandarin (or whatever) it gives an accurate translation!
  6. Google Maps  Absolutely accurate and invaluable...especially riding a motorbike on my own in Bali!
  7. Blogsy.  Terrific app for making blogging easy!
  8. Panorama.   Great photo app for taking panoramic shots.  I will print these one day!
  9. Instagram.  Cool little app that allows you to zip up your photos a bit and easily post them to your followers or faceboook.
  10. Flashlight.  I also had an old fashioned, LED, flashlight in my purse but on those very dark walks this was very handy!
  11. XE Currency.  Easy and free currency converter.  You can get very confused about currency after numerous countries!
  12. Card Mate Pro.  Great app for keeping contacts and hotel information handy.
  13. Pocket Guide.  This and Rick Steves are my favourite travel guides.
  14. Tripit.  I never plan a trip without this cool free app.  I just forward all my information and make a few edits and all my information is handy even without an internet connection.
  15. TripAdvisor.  I always check this for hotels, activities, and outings...
  16. Agoda.  Never used it before this trip but after ending up in a dive in Bangkok and finding a five star, luxurious hotel for $50 a night in Bangkok, I'm hooked!
  17. Aviary.  Cool photo editing tool!
  18. iBooks   iOS Standard    I really couldn't travel without downloading a load of books onto my iBooks app.  What a difference from lugging a load of books with me!
  19. Travel Charger.  Ok, this isn't an app and I didn't have one but I did see many people with one and I did get a charge from many kind fellow travellers.  I will definitely pick one up the next time I am out and about.  Basically, this is a device that holds a charge and provides you with a portable charge when an outlet is just not handy.
  20. iPhoto...damn, I went over the twenty, but I nearly forgot...after 2000 plus photos and videos on my iphone (i didn't bring another camera with me) I needed to dump my photos somewhere so setting the automatic upload to iPhoto was invaluable.  I was then able to delete the photos from my camera app and free up a lot of space.
  21. Youtube...and finally, my videos took up way too much space on my phone so whenever I had wifi, I would upload my videos to my youtube account.  I set them for private until I was sure they were suitable for public viewing and then deleted them from my phone.
  22. Dropbox - useful for uploading photos but you may need extra storage

I'm sure that other smart phones probably have the same capabilities but I must say that I was very happy that where ever I went, and even with language barriers, if I showed someone my iphone they were able to set me up with whatever I needed.  My phone worked flawlessly and got me out of many difficult situations.

The best fun I had was when I was in a remote area of Bali and I was using iTranslate with a group of people.  Once they realized that they could just speak into my phone and it would translate for me into English, it was awesome!  We had a great time conversing after that.  Great way to make new friends!

Friday, August 23, 2013

Tips For Flying

So, during my travels I have been through many airports and have picked up a few handy tips...

Don't Travel With Drugs

Indonesia....the very big signs, as you enter the custom areas...."Death penalty for those who carry drugs."  Ok, point drugs!

Travelling With Carry On

Travelling with a carry on only needs a bit of preplanning.  It is convenient because you avoid having to wait around the turnstile for your bags, which have been carelessly tossed about by handlers, and you get to the customs line before anyone else.  Most airlines seem to allow a carry on plus another bag of some sort which supposedly holds a laptop or can be considered a purse.  Now, they might check the weight of the carry on but I have yet to be challenged about the weight of my "purse" so as long as you can carry a large bag of some kind (knapsack, carpetbag, beachbag) and make it seem relatively light, it can weigh fifty pounds and you probably won't be challenged.  When trying to just take carry ons, I always pack my "purse" with my super heavy items and keep the light stuff in the rolly bag.  Also, never let the cabin steward "help" you to store your bags and be sure to look very nonchalant as you toss it into the overhead compartment.  I took six trips with Air Asia on this adventure and had no problem just taking my carry ons...well, I did have to wear many layer of clothing and fill my "purse" to bursting to get my rolly bag down to the required 7KG in Malaysia...

Check in Online

Very important.  First of all, if you are travelling on a discount airline then they might actually charge you extra if you don't check in online (Ryan Air) and print your boarding pass (Air Asia).  But the real added benefit is that once you are at the airport you can go to a separate line to check in your bags and this line is always shorter.  Even if it is not well posted, just join the Priority boarding line or ask an attendant where to check in your bags if you have already checked in online.  Even if you haven't printed your boarding pass then the attendant will usually help.  I couldn't easily print boarding passes in my hotels so when I was in Asia, I used the self help terminals or went to one of the many document check desks and said that my bar code wasn't sent to my phone.  Everyone cheerfully printed my boarding pass and I avoided all long line ups.

Best Seats on an Airplane

There are many web sites available to check out the best seats on most aircrafts (  Usually, the seats at the exits have the most leg room but you need to be careful.  Some seats don't recline or have some other hidden issue.  Many airlines charge extra for premium seats and being the thrifty traveller that I am, I refuse to pay extra.  Here are some tips for getting good seats...usually, these will only work if you are travelling solo...

  1. Check in online as soon as available and switch your assigned seat to something more comfortable after checking what type of aircraft and doing a google search for best seats. (
  2. If taking a night flight and you want to sleep, pick a window seat so you can lean against it and not have your seat mates tripping over you to use the loo.
  3. If you plan on staying awake, or you know you are a frequent visitor to the facilities, pick an aisle seat, which also will give you a bit of stretching out space but may mean you are kicked a bit by fellow passengers walking up the aisle.
  4. When you check in, or are doing baggage check, be very friendly and politely ask if there are any "comfortable" seats available (this has worked for me many times!)
  5. Once you are seated on the plane, and everyone else has boarded, do a quick look around.  If there seems to be a better seat unoccupied (especially if there are three seats together with only one occupant) politely ask an attendant if you can switch so that your seat-mates will have more room.  This way you are selflessly thinking about the comfort of others and not yourself.  I did this on my last flight and was rewarded with an empty seat between myself and another fellow. After I moved, a couple of other passengers decided to move on their own without permission and were quickly reprimanded by the attendants and sent back to their original seats.
  6. If you end up being stuck with a lousy seat or too close to crying babies, small children, or kickers try to make the best of it and look forward to your destination.  Heck, maybe even play with the kids a will pass the time.
  7. If you are stuck next to a very large, sweaty man, who was probably returning from a sex trip to Thailand and spends the whole ten hour flight watching movies filled with kids, like Cheaper By the Dozen, just put your ear plugs in and don't make eye contact!

When entering the custom lines, go as far to the left as possible, closest to the line reserved for flight attendants, families, people with disabilities...if there is no one in the line in the aforementioned categories, they will often take people in the next line.

Bring Small Trinkets

I took a total of ten flights on my last trip and despite having some questionable items in my bags (bone carvings from some unidentified animal) I was only pulled aside once to have my bags checked.  This was in Malaysia.  The guard began pulling things out of my bags but quickly discovered my little stash of Canada lapel pins.  She looked at them and then pointed at the pins and then at herself.  I quickly nodded and took the bag of pins from her.  I took one out, along with a Hamilton pin, and handed them to her.  She smiled and totally stopped searching through my bags.  She helped me put everything back together and motioned that I was free to go.  As I was organizing myself, I saw her showing off her booty to her fellow customs agents and pointing to me.  She was smiling profusely and the other customs persons were looking very jealous!  I was actually a bit surprised that my little Canada pins were causing so much commotion and didn't really think about it as I reached into my pocket and pulled out a handful.  I went back to the customs lady and handed her the pins and motioned that she should give them to her work mates.  One of the best things I will remember from my trip is those guards waving and smiling at me as I walked away through the terminal! 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Taxi to the Airport

I wrote a little bit about taxis in Bangkok but I thought I would just tell you a bit about my final experience on the morning of my departure.  As I stated previously, taxis are metered but it can be a bit of a challenge actually getting the driver to turn the meter on and the best advice is not to put your bags in the trunk or to get in the vehicle and allow it to start moving before the driver agrees to turn on the meter.  I know all of these things and yet failed to follow my own rules on the morning I was to begin my long trek home to Canada.

In my defence, it was 5am and I was still feeling rather lousy from the effects of a cold or some other strange Asian illness so when the bellhop waved down the taxi, put my bags in the trunk, and told the driver where I was going, I didn't really pay much attention.  I jumped in the back seat and as he began pulling away I remembered to tell him to turn the meter on...too late!

"No meter...very far...," he retorted.

"Whoa, whoa, pull over," I replied.

Well he had other ideas and just slowed down a little.  I asked how much he intended to charge me and when he said 500 Baht (about 16 Canadian) I pretty much laughed out loud and said, "Not a chance!"

"Yes, yes, very far.  Forty kilometres," was his reply.

"It is not forty kilometres," I responded, waving my iphone at him so that he would understand that with the availability of modern conveniences such as google maps he was not going to be able to scam helpless tourists any longer.  But as he continued to argue (and drive) I weighed my options.  Tell him to pull over and let me out (and possibly not get my luggage) and then try to wave down another taxi at five in the morning, with the added stress of needing to get to the airport, or suck it up, admit defeat and pay the sixteen Canadian.

Just then I noticed the sign in the front with the cab license and driver's picture.  Thinking I would maybe take a picture of this and report the driver was my first reaction but then I noticed that the picture was of a fifty something dude and my driver barely looked like he had gotten his driver's license.  I decided, at this point, that it was in my best interest to just clam up and let him take me to the airport (I hoped) which was all of fourteen kilometres away.

Once we made it to the departure terminal I got out of the taxi and didn't say anything until he took my bags out of the trunk and placed them beside me.  I then said to my grinning driver, "Ok, what is the honest price?"

"Five hundred," he replied.

"I said, honest price,"

"Ok, four hundred," he countered, while grinning sheepishly.

I then pulled out two, one hundred Baht notes from my pocket, which I had stashed there during our very short ride to the airport, and held them out while beginning my very 'teacherish' lecture.

"I am giving you this," as I waved the cash at him, "and I am being very generous!"  I pointed to the picture of his uncle, father, unknown person who actually operated the taxi, and continued, "you are lucky I don't call the police,"  dramatically pointing to the airport security guard.  "It is not nice to cheat tourists," I admonished.

He must have felt thoroughly ashamed, or was afraid of the airport security, because he quickly bowed, took the two hundred Baht  (about $6.50 Canadian) and jumped in the taxi.

In hindsight, I suppose I shouldn't have been so hard on the fellow for trying to make a living considering an airport run to Mount Hope from my house would have been a whole lot more.  But the fact is, no matter where I go in the world, I hate it when people try to intentionally rip me off because they think I, or any tourist, has a lack of knowledge about prices, value, or distances.  Most of the time, after I have negotiated an honest fare, I will add a generous tip, but when someone tries to cheat me because they think I don't know any better, then I get riled!

Feeling very satisfied, I headed into the terminal to begin my thirty hour trek home.

Just as I side note, if you're ever in Bangkok, it is probably much less stressful to take the Airport Express Skytrain if possible.  Unfortunately, the first one didn't run until 6am which was too late for my flight.

Friday, August 9, 2013


I decided to spend my last day in Bangkok checking out the famous temples and sights: the Reclining Buddha, The Grand Palace,Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Arun, Jim Thompson House. I started out by taking a scooter taxi to the Grand Palace and was rewarded with my early start by being the first person in to see the spectacular buildings and temples in this complex which still houses many government buildings.
The Grand Palace

The Reclining Buddha
The Grand Palace and the Jade Buddha were simply stunning. The fact that they offered you free water was an added bonus, unseen in the other cultural relics I had visited. People were very respectful and removed shoes while walking through the temples. Everywhere I visited there were Buddhas covered with gold and jewels. Beautiful!
Wat Arun
I took a wrong turn while trying to cross the river to Wat Arun and ended up traversing a marketplace filled with people selling trinkets and coins which were examined carefully by passerbys with tiny spy glasses. I'm not sure what they were looking for but I did stop to buy a necklace that looked interesting. Apparently I walked a couple of kilometres out of my way before I realized that the ferry I needed was about 2 kilometres back. I walked back, had a snack of BBQ pork and finally found the 3 Baht ferry over to Wat Arun.
I climbed some very scary steps to the top of this temple (no OBC here) and decided I had better spend the rest of my money before heading home.
As a traveller, I hate having to carry too much excess baggage. I also don't think that bringing a t-shirt or some other non-sensical item back to family members or friends is very significant so I always struggle with the whole souvenir thing. I know what I want but what I try to live by is the rule of "Would I buy it at home?"
I'm not really good at this since some things are obviously so much cheaper when purchased abroad. But my limited knowledge of the finer things in life makes my decision making so much more difficult and I really do agonize over every little purchase. I did manage to purchase a leather purse, a few items of clothing and some bracelets before heading off to my hotel and a good nights sleep.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Elephants Are My New Favourite Animal!

I had seen the Extraordinary Elephant Tour on Trip Advisor before my trip but hesitated to book it due to the high price (about $275 Canadian) so when I was in Bali I emailed the company and asked if it was possible, as a single traveller, to join another group and thus have company and reduce the cost. They sent me an email with the contact information of another single traveller, Bree from Australia. I contacted her and we quickly agreed to join up and share the cost of the excursion. I was very glad I did because this turned out to be one of the best days of my travels (despite the horrid night I spent at the Atlanta).
Bree and I at the Bridge on the River Kwai.
Bree and I had a top of the line, fully loaded van to ourselves as we drove through the countryside of Thailand. She helped me to book a new room for the next two nights at a luxurious five star hotel in Bangkok, the Sukosol, for a cost of $62 a night. We made stops at the floating market where we perused the market from the comfort of a longtail boat and then stopped at the Bridge Over the River Kwai. I informed Bree, who is twenty eight, about the historical significance of this working rail bridge as we ate a delicious lunch at the floating restaurant nearby. On our way to the Elephant Safari in Kanchanaburi we passed the cemetery for the prisoners of war who perished in this area and our guide, Na, said that tourism had greatly diminished in this region because the younger generation was not as aware of the historical significance of the Second World War. Being a historical aficionado myself and familiar with European battle sights, it was an honour to have the opportunity to visit the Pacific memorials. I told Na that I had met an older gentleman in Hamilton who was of Dutch extraction and had been incarcerated in a Japanese POW camp at the age of eleven. He had told me stories about being separated from his mother and sister who died in a camp and this made my visit much more personal.
Floating Market

Bridge on the River Kwai

After about three hours we arrived at the elephant camp and I was happy to see that the elephants were obviously well cared for and although they were "working elephants" they were given free time to roam through the vast jungle areas and "play' in the adjoining river. Na told me that taking people like Bree and myself to frolic in the river was a nice break for the elephants so they could cool down and play with one and other.
I usually try to put on a brave persona when having new experiences but getting onto an elephant, bareback, about fifteen feet from the ground was a little scary to say the least. When I saw that we would need to negotiate a steep decline down to the river I was even more nervous and almost asked to get off but I decided that I should persevere and told myself that I would never get this opportunity again. I tried closing my eyes but this was actually worse so I put my trust in Junta Por, my elephant, and my Matouk, his handler, and headed down to the river. I'm so glad I did because Bree and I spent an amazing half hour playing and cooling down in the river. Nothing compares to being thrown from the trunk of one of these amazing, gentle animals into the muddy water of a Thai river. Absolutely awesome!

Monday, August 5, 2013

Do Not Stay at the Atlanta in Bangkok!

There are many options for onward destinations from Phi Phi. The backpackers, who seem to be following no particular itinerary can visit one of the many travel services and book ferries, buses, or flights to a spontaneously decided next stop but being the forty something, responsible traveller I am, I had prebooked my next travel arrangements with Air Asia which conveniently provides transport from the pier, a mini van to the airport and a flight to Bangkok for a ridiculously low sum of about fifty Canadian dollars!
I was arriving in Bangkok quite late and my research had advised that a taxi was the best method of transport. Taxis are supposed to be metered and are relatively inexpensive as long as the driver actually puts the meter on and knows the destination. I was prepared with the address and name of my hotel written in both English and Thai but despite this foresight my driver still managed to get lost and had to stop and ask directions about five times. I became a bit apprehensive as we entered a rather dirty street with some very shady looking characters and stopped in front of the Atlanta hotel.
The Lobby of the Atlanta Hotel, Bangkok at six am.

I usually rely on Trip Advisor when I choose accommodations but for this particular hotel, Trip Advisor let me down. The Atlanta, online, looks like a very quaint, once auspicious hotel which brags of having a retro 1950's feel and being the chosen destination of many world renowned individuals. In fact, it was a dreary and time worn establishment which was anything but comfortable. The many signs warning about the intolerance to sex tourism should have been a warning but I was intrigued by the website and had decided that the seemingly central location would be ideal. The only things it was central to were the hookers and drug dealers of Bangkok. As I entered the room after climbing seven flights (no elevator) I checked for bedbugs and latched the numerous locks on the door. I immediately considered checking out but decided I was being hasty and since it was already 11pm decided to just get a good sleep and things might look better in the morning. Unfortunately, morning was a long way off. The air conditioner noisily blasted away and I couldn't turn it down so I was left with the option of sub arctic or equatorial temperatures and the bed was adorned with only a sheet so I took turns being freezing or sweating uncomfortably. Rather disturbing noises emanated from the halls and at about three am I was awoken with shouts and screaming. I ventured out to the rather sloped concrete balcony to the view of garbage, four police cruisers, an ambulance and an abundance of police. I'm not sure what happened exactly but I would suspect murder or suicide. I tried to get a few more hours of sleep but gave up at about 5am and proceeded to take a very cold shower (no hot water) and then repacked all my belongings and headed down to the lobby. Luckily, I hadn't prepaid and told the unsurprised desk clerk that I would be checking out. I informed him that I require four things in my accommodations: a comfortable bed, working air conditioning, quiet, and hot water. I had none of those at the Atlanta so I was checking out!  He seemed rather unsurprised so my suspicion is that the Atlanta is quite used to guests leaving after the first night.
I had booked a tour for the day and was being picked up at seven am so I sat in the lobby wondering where I was going to find a place to stay for my final two nights!

Sunday, August 4, 2013

A Warning About Partying on Phi Phi

Phi Phi Island is renowned as a bit of a party destination but since I arrived I had been nursing a bit of an upset stomach and the beginnings of a massive cold so although I hung out on the beach at night I didn't overindulge. My policy of trying to stay aware of my surroundings when I'm travelling solo also keeps me from overdoing it. Not so, some of the other visitors to this tropical paradise!
I awoke early my last day and decided to gather my limited clothing which was very wet and smelly and take it to one of the many very inexpensive laundry services. Up until this point in my trip I had washed my belongings in the sink and hung them to dry each night but the constant rain for the past three days was making this technique impossible. I headed down the path from my hostel and I met up with a gentleman coming up from the beach, who had obviously decided he was going to take full advantage of the low cost alcohol. He was precariously weaving along the path and was covered in sand and dirt dressed only in a pair of soaked and muddy swimming trunks. He bounced off a couple of walls and then slid down to the path as I approached. There were only a few shop keepers sleepily opening up and a couple of bleary eyed tourists hurrying to the pier for an early morning ferry and all were giving the fellow a wide berth. I tentatively approached the man and asked if he needed some help. He was very incoherent and didn't seem to know where he was or who he was. I gingerly helped him to sit up and tried to ask him where he was staying but he wasn't able to answer. I told him just to sit there and I would be right back. I headed to my room, dropped my bag of laundry and grabbed a couple of bottles of water.
So true!
By the time I got back he had fallen over, precariously close to a rain filled muddy gutter. Covered in dirt he was rolling over dangerously into the gutter and I was genuinely concerned that he would end up rolling face first into the five inches of water and drown. I got him to sit up and tried to help him to drink the water. That wasn't very successful so I poured some water on his head in an effort to bring him around. I didn't get much clear information from him except that his name was Brian, he was from Australia, recently divorced, had two small children, and was on his own. After about fifteen minutes of trying to find out where he was staying to no avail and having several people walk by and look at us piteously I used the translator on my phone to ask a shop keeper if they could call an ambulance or someone in authority to come and take care of Brian. They seemed to understand and I thought they had said they were going to call the police. I decided I had better stay with Brian until someone arrived and I knelt beside him on the path and continued to try and keep him from rolling into the gutter. Brian would occasionally try to stick a filthy hand down his throat, moan, and tell me that no one cared about him and he should just die, give him a gun, that sort of thing. Alcohol really brings out the best in people. I reassured Brian that he was just suffering from a very nasty hangover and he would feel better in about twenty four hours. Various people walked by. Many ignored us and some asked if we needed help. I quickly let everyone know that I didn't know the fellow and had just found him there. At one point Brian was coherent enough that he heard me tell someone that the police had been called and this caused him to rally a bit in his effort to avoid incarceration. He tried to get up but his full weight slumped against me and I was sure he was going to fall and hit his head on the pavement. A couple of local fellows saw the predicament and came to my rescue by grabbing Brian on each side and helping him to the side of a building where they sat him down.
Now, for travellers to Phi Phi, a word of warning. The response time of emergency services on this island is not exactly felt like at least an hour had passed and there was still no sign of any help. Brian had started to become more agitated and continued to ask for a gun, a knife or some other tool of lethal destruction with which he could inflict mortal injury upon himself. As neither myself or the two locals were responding to this request he decided he would need to resort to a less convenient method of self harm by turning towards the cement wall and smashing his head against it. The two good Samaritans quickly grabbed him under the arms and after some rapid discussion seemed to decide that dragging him back down to the beach was safer for Brian's continued well being. I had my doubts since the beach was beside a very large body of water which I felt could be conducive to self drowning and I was pretty sure my rescue skills wouldn't stretch to dragging a very drunk, two hundred pound Aussie from the ocean. I followed the trio to the beach where Brian's rescuers were able to lay him down on a bamboo sort of stage and luckily for all of us, he seemed unable to get up again. The two locals, through sign language, managed to tell me that Brian just needed to sleep a while and that they would continue to watch him and keep him safe. They bowed with two hands together and told me that I should go since they were on the case. I was a little worried about leaving Brian but since there were no guns handy and the police seemed to be in short supply I decided it was best to leave Brian to the ministrations of these helpful gentlemen who seemed to be very experienced in dealing with tourists who over imbibe.
The two good Samaritans and Brian passed out in the background.
Apparently, overindulgence on the part of tourists is a common problem on the islands in Thailand and special mortuaries are actually set up on the islands for those who need these services after a night of partying.
I hope that Brian eventually overcame the effects of his night out on Phi Phi Island!

Saturday, August 3, 2013

A Taste of Koh Phi Phi

Koh Phi Phi is one of the many famous islands in Thailand that is renowned for beautiful views, beach parties and diving. It is situated between Phuket Island and the Andaman Sea It was hit very hard by the Tsunami of 2004 but it has rebuilt and there are still many signs of recovery. The island is a serious hotspot for backpackers and I must admit, I don't think I've ever seen more twenty something year olds all congregated in a single spot in my life! There are no cars on the beach but you definitely have to watch out for the endless stream of bicycles and carts as they make their way through the paths of Tonsai village.
As you arrive at the pier you enter Tonsai village which is the centre of the island consisting of numerous hotels, hostels, bars, restaurants and dive shops. The island has two bays around which Tonsai is located, Ton Sai Bay and Loh Dalum Bay. I quickly grabbed a map and began wondering the paths looking for my hostel. I was a bit nervous when one helpful Aussie in a dive shop asked me where I was staying so he could direct me, and when I told him Dee Dee's Beach house he cheerily said that this was the party side of the island! Considering the whole village is a bit of a party place, I was hoping I hadn't made a mistake in booking the accommodations. After a few wrong turns and trekking along the beach, which was absolutely wonderful, I was pleasantly greeted by a nice little hostel situated right on the water with a simple but clean and secure room nestled amongst a beautiful gardens.

I spent my first afternoon wondering around the town and climbing to the highest point on the island called The Viewpoint. A beautiful view of the two bays rewards you at the top.
The island has an endless number of wonderful little Thai, Indian, or even Western style restaurants to choose from for eating. I ate mainly at some smaller Thai places and sampled some delicious delicacies such as Thai pancakes, a potato pancake thingy, wonderful green curry, fried bananas, and delicious fruit smoothies. Yum. Eating is fairly inexpensive unless you go for the more western type of foods. Most of my meals were around one hundred to two hundred Baht or three to six dollars. In the evening I ventured out to the beach outside my hostel and sampled a bit of Phi Phi's nightlife. Both beaches offer a variety of bars and endless fireshows. The standard drink is either Bantang beer or a bucket offered with a variety of alcohol in bottles slightly less than a mickey and mix ranging in price from about 150 to 350 Baht ($5 - $10). I grabbed a bucket of Thai Whiskey and settled down on a beach chair to enjoy the show. Fire dancers entertain at just about every bar along a 200 metre stretch of beach and although the place was crowded with the endless stream of twenty somethings there were some families and people of my advanced years enjoying the shows. As the evening wears on, and the drinks flow, the audience becomes part of the performance by joining in as a rope set on fire is brought out for skipping and a bar of fire is used for the more daring to shimmy under. I hung out with two young girls from France who tried to convince me to join in but being somewhat adverse to fire I instead agreed to try out the bucking bronco which I figured would only result in broken bones rather than burned hair!

I finished my bucket and headed down the beach towards my little hut at the end of the island and was pleasantly surprised that I could hardly hear the beach parties at all!
I had booked an all day snorkelling trip but awoke to the disappointing sound of rain pelting down. I had origionally planned on splurging for this part of my trip by joining a cruise tantalizingly called "Bob's Booze Cruise" run by a Canadian fellow but alas the Phi Phi longboat association had banned the larger ships during the low season so I was forced to go with either a speedboat or a cheaper longtail. I had booked a longtail but it was cancelled that morning so I headed back to my room for a little snooze. When I woke up the rain had stopped so I threw my stuff into a bag and headed down to the pier where I managed to sign on to another boat that was ready to head out. Just as we were about to board the heavens opened up once again and the rain came down in torrents. We would-be snorkelers huddled under a half built dwelling, which had a very large hole in the roof, and tried unsuccessfully to stay somewhat dry. The organizers of this little outing obviously weren't keen on refunding our 400 Baht apiece and waited for a slight break in the downpour to herd us onto the longtail where we sat huddled trying, unsuccessfully, to keep our pitiful belongings dry. As the thunder roared and the waves built I briefly wondered if my goal of snorkelling on the beaches of Maya Bay were really worth what seemed to be a very good chance of drowning but before I could make up my mind the boat was pulling out and we were on our way. We were all very cheerful at first but as the boat crested several ominous waves and the rain continued to pour, some of my fellow travellers were looking a bit concerned. The boat made its way out into open water and one by one the occupants of the craft began to reach for life jackets. As the boat driver poured water onto the engine, as if the torrential downpour wasn't enough to keep it going, I tried to judge how far I would need to swim to reach land and concluding that it might be beyond my limited swimming abilities, I also donned a life jacket.
Ma Ya Bay
Rope to climb the cliff to get to Maya Bay.
We finally made it to an inlet and the weather seemed to let up. The anchor was put down and I had my chance to snorkel. Several of my fellow passengers seemed a bit traumatized and didn't bother to get off the boat but they certainly missed an amazing experience. The water was beautifully warm and filled with every colourful fish imaginable. We held onto crackers, our lunch, under the water and the fish would dash forward to nibble them from our hands. I was not thrilled to get back into the longtail but we were still meant to head to Maya Bay which had become a highlight stop for tourists since the release of the movie The Beach starring Leonardo DiCaprio. In the movie Leo eschews modern civilization and joins a ragtag group of others of like mindedness on a remote, uninhabited Thai island. The method by which we had to get to the beach was actually reminiscent of the movie as we were forced to abandon the longboat in the middle of a bay, swim to a rock filled cliff area which had been rigged with a rope ladder thing. After swimming the waves began crashing the would be adventurers dangerously against the rocks as we tried desperately to grab onto the ropes and haul ourselves out. Several young women were actually dragged onto the ropes by helpful Thai guides and as we ascended to the top, I noticed several people nursing bloodied knees and toes. I was very proud that I had made the journey independently with just a minor stubbed toe! We trekked through the jungle and after about ten minutes were rewarded with an hour on one of the world's most beautiful beaches!

Paths in Tonsai Village after the rains.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Thailand Welcome You

When they said this was the rainy season in Thailand, they were understating the situation...basically, it feels like I landed in the middle of monsoon season!
I was greeted at the airport by rain and once again was forced to have a nice young man call my hotel to see where my driver was. Luckily, he showed up shortly after. Manik was the owner of the small hostel I had booked outside of Phuket called The Summerside Inn. The hostel itself is actually his house with five thematic rooms upstairs. I didn't actually see much of my room since as soon as we arrived Manik invited me to join his wife and a few of their friends for a nice little kitchen party. They were all quite generous with the Thai Whiskey and various other shots which flowed freely. We were all soon conversing, somewhat, and singing along to Kit's music as he played the guitar and sang Western songs with a Thai twist. Kit couldn't speak much English but he generously exclaimed phrases such as, "You my friend", "I like you!", and "Thailand welcome you!"
I headed off to bed at about two am and was rudely awakened by my alarm at seven. Manik had booked a ride to the ferry that was to take me to Koh Phi Phi. I departed in a bit of a foggy state and forgot a pair of glasses in my room. Shortly after I arrived at the pier there was Manik, tapping me on the shoulder with my glasses perched on the end of his nose. He had followed us all the way to the pier to return them to me!