Monday, February 24, 2014

Final Thoughts: Cambodia & Thailand

Now that everything's all said and done, what are my final thoughts on these two countries and/or trips? Let's first look at it one country at a time.


If you exclude things like DisneySea in Tokyo and the Great Wall of China in Beijing--because how do you seriously compete with things like those--Cambodia was probably one of the best vacation experiences I've ever had.

First, the cultural experience alone is completely fascinating. The countryside scenes feel like a whole other world, a vision most people will probably only ever seen on television or in movies but still not really grasp just what it's like until they see if first hand. But then you get into Siem Reap which is a whole other kind of fascinating. It's the capitol city of the Siem Reap province, but it only has roughly 175,000 people (the province as a whole has something like 900,000). It's a place that's hard to describe. The city is small with no big buildings and looks a bit run down. But the closer you get to the center of the city, the more vibrant and westernized it gets. This is basically the French Quarter of town, hopping with tourists (I seriously saw more white people in Siem Reap than almost anywhere else combined within the last year. This place is a serious tourism hot spot). And I've already described numerous times what the streets and transportation looks like.

Again, the people here are ridiculously kind, friendly, pleasant, and any other positive adjective you could give their personalities. Even if they had some ulterior motives, like trying to score some extra cash in varying degrees (excessive offers for Tuk Tuks, massages, and prostitutes at the top of the list), they would do so in the friendliest possible ways. With only one exception that I found (the massage girls in the back road), nobody was aggressive or rude. Also, almost all Cambodians seem to speak English. I never once found myself in a situation where I couldn't communicate. Every single person I came across spoke relatively fluent English.

Around November, when I started making plans for the trip, I contacted Mr. Sam's Tuk Tuk about basically chauffeuring me during my trip. He also had set packages and prices for different places and things to see/do. We spoke on and off for the last 4 months. When it came into the last couple weeks before the trip, he started sending me emails about possible changes to the itinerary. He had some personal obligations come up, and he kept me updated on the situations. Things flip-flopped for a while, but I appreciated that he kept me in the loop the whole time and was completely intent on helping me have the best possible trip. He hired a personal tour guide and had a friend act as driver for the first day of the tour since he couldn't be there. But then the second day it was him and the same guide. And both were wonderful. I would fully endorse using Mr. Sam if you were to ever come here.

I also fully endorse using the place I stayed--The Golden Temple Villa. The staff was absurd in how welcoming, positive, helpful, etc., they were. I mean, even the cleaning ladies seems to be having a good time when I came back the one day, and they were cleaning. They acknowledged you every time they saw you. And if it's your birthday while you're here, they will even come to your room and sing you happy birthday (I heard them do so to a guy down the hall--not sure if anything else came with it the song, since they were there for at least 5 minutes chatting afterwards). And they give you two free bottles of water daily (since you can't drink from the tap). They also give you a farewell bottle of water and a gift scarf, as well as take a picture with you, which they emailed to me later. For 3 nights, I only paid $45 bucks, and everything was perfectly serviceable for that price. Keep in mind, though, it's not a hotel. It's more a guest house. The room was a decent size. There was only one outlet I could find, and it was in an awkward place. Your room kept very cool (cold even). The bathroom dried quickly after a shower. And, even more importantly, the restaurant food was actually quite good, especially for the price. It's also in a fantastic location close to many good areas, though your Tuk Tuk drivers might not be able to find it on the first go.

All in all, if you can stand to be covered in sweat for however long you'd visit (minus the times you're in your room), I strongly recommend checking out Cambodia. It's a beautiful albeit very poor country filled with fascinating culture at every turn. Everything is priced really cheap. The food is good. The people are great. There was very, very little to dislike about this trip. If you're interested in different cultures and could choose only one place in Southeast Asia to visit (and don't want to go to China and/or the Great Wall), come to Siem Reap, Cambodia.


Despite the fact I only stayed in Thailand a day longer than in Cambodia, it feels like a lifetime ago that I was there... mostly because so much seemed to happen in Thailand. I would rank Thailand along the same lines as my Beijing trip, but with much nicer people (which makes all the difference). The temples and palaces were all pretty cool and interesting, but as time goes by, they kinda blend together. Even doing my write-ups, I had to double check which things happened where and in what order. Don't get me wrong--they're all pretty stunning to look at and be amongst. But over the last year, I've seen so many temples and palaces and mythological spirit animals and Buddhas that my brain starts to melt after a while. I think that's why I liked Cambodia so much, because its temples and palaces were so different to the other ones I've seen. (Though the long-tail boat trip down the Bangkok canals was rather unique and pretty cool.)

That being said, what made it all worth it and infinitely more interesting and entertaining than it might have otherwise was my tour guide, Pepsi. I went through the website Travel Hub (who are a bit pricey for a solo traveler, but whatever), and Pepsi was the guide they gave me. I've raved about him before, but let me say it again... the guy is pretty dang personable, like you're just hanging out with a friend rather than some guy who is just doing a job and moving you along from one place to the next. Though I did keep hearing that in the years he's done this job, I'm one of the very few (like less than 3) he's even done that was solo. Most are families or big groups. So that might have had something to do with it. Still, no matter where we were--temple, palace, or otherwise--he made it fun.

There was one day I had without him, though, which was my birthday when I saw the Siam Niramit show. And that whole thing was pretty cool. It's about 80 minutes long and gives you a brief look into the history, culture, and mythology of Thailand... all in the single most stunning stage performance I've ever seen. They did things on that stage I still can't describe, and the parts I can were so grand in scale that you just have to see it to believe it. If you're ever in Bangkok, this is easily the one thing not to miss.

However, I'd honestly say the most memorable stuff of my Thai trip happened outside of Bangkok in Kanchanaburi. From going down a river in the rain to being at the Bridge on the River Kwai to riding a train down the Burma Railway (and then having said train die right near the end point)... it was all really cool and definitely memorable. That final day, though... Erawan National Park and Tiger Temple are really, really cool (in the awesome sense, because it was exhaustingly hot that day). If you ever go to Thailand, I would strongly suggest checking out these places... and bring your swimsuit for Erawan. I think my biggest regret of the trip was not swimming there.

In fact, whereas I feel maybe 3-5 days is perfect for Siem Reap/Cambodia, I'd say 2 weeks is probably a good amount of time for Thailand. The first week should be Bangkok, Kanchanaburi, and Chiang Mai (which I didn't go to). You can easily do Bangkok and Kanchanaburi in 4 days and then head to Chiang Mai for another 2-3 days. And the second week should be the islands and beaches (which I also didn't go to).

The people in Thailand are nice, but there was also sometimes a sense that they're just doing their job (there were some exceptions to this, the main ones being Pepsi and anyone he encountered that he knew, as he seems to bring out the best in people). But for example, the workers at my guest house in Bangkok (which I'll get to in a minute) were kind, but there was a type of blankness to them, like they were going through the motions. Even when they sang me happy birthday, you could tell they just wanted it to be over as soon as possible so they could go back to their corner and hide away. All in all, though, I never met any rude people that I can think of. There was, though, a considerable decline between Cambodia and Thailand in how many people could speak English and how well. Even Pepsi wasn't completely fluent, and I had to word a few things carefully when I tried to explain something. Strangely, the only issues the language barrier gave me in Thailand was when I tried to show directions in Thai. This just confused cabbies, especially the one who couldn't read his own language.

The two guest houses I stayed at were nice. The first was Phranakorn Nornlen, which is a place pretty difficult to find as you have to travel down a couple different alleyways to get to it. But the design and layout of the place is fantastic. You'll forget that you're actually in the middle of a bustling metropolis. And it had pretty much anything you could ask for. If you're looking for high quality at a cheap price and don't mind being a bit out of the way to get there, this is a solid place to choose. The hotel in Kanchanaburi was actually the only true hotel I stayed at the entire trip, and there was that noticeable escalation in shininess and artificiality that comes with hotels over the quaintness of the guest houses. It was called Sabai@Kan, and it was still a really nice place. I can't tell you to what degree as I stayed there less than 24 hours. But in the time I did spend there, it seemed really clean, nice, and pleasant, and with a legitimately friendly staff and good food.

So really, Thailand was a mixed bag for me. None of it was a negative experience (except the heat, but that was to be expected. And also Bangkok traffic, which was a nightmare). I would recommend checking it out if you're interested in going, but I also recommend putting more focus on things like Kanchanaburi or the beaches than Bangkok. Bangkok isn't bad, and there's definitely some worthwhile things to do there, but you can knock most of the big stuff out in a day and a half to two days (major temples and palaces in the morning and Siam Niramit at night... boom--the essentials done).

Special Note

I did want to bring up one more thing that I didn't talk about much in my blog posts, because I didn't want to put much worry on people reading. And that's the current Bangkok Anti-Government Protests. The presence was definitely there throughout the city. There were signs and notes to tourists and travelers all over the place. Traffic is apparently normally terrible in Bangkok, but it was made infinitely worse by the protesters. The first time going into the city toward my guest house, my driver and I passed at least a couple hundred cops in full riot gear preparing to go down and deal with the protesters. And that same day, soon after that, one of those cops (I presume) made some big news. A protester threw a grenade at the wall of cops. The officer tried to kick the grenade away to save his fellow officers, but in the process got his legs nearly blown off. He was in stable condition last I read, but of course his legs were pretty badly injured. Now, I never saw any of the protests, nor was I ever in any danger. But you could still definitely feel it all in the vibe of the city. Had it not been for the protests, I might have ventured out more on my own. But with my habit of getting lost, I was a bit more wary to do so. Still, despite everything, I'm not upset I went to Bangkok... and I can now even say I was there during these events!


I guess to wrap things up, I'll say that I'm really glad I went to Cambodia. It wasn't even on my radar when I was thinking about trips I could take during my stay in Korea. I just happened to come across the idea by chance after the Philippines were hit with that typhoon. And it was probably the best choice I'd made. Such a cultural experience, far beyond my expectations. Thailand, while not equally fascinating, was still definitely a worthwhile trip. There was some gorgeous scenery and some fun events, and I even got to touch some tigers! But I think if I ever go back, my itinerary would be quite a bit different (and if I had to do it all over again... I'd still do the same things, but I'd give myself more time to be there to experience a couple more places, like anywhere with water). It was a great trip all around, and I'm glad I took it.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Thailand (Kanchanaburi): Day 5

This was, by far, the longest and most exhausting day I had… maybe even in the last year. It started at 6:45 AM. Pepsi and the driver would be around at 8, and I wanted to have some time to get ready, pack everything up, and maybe even have a little breakfast.

Unfortunately, despite waking up early, I still got behind schedule and was running late. It was nearly 8 by the time I had finished getting ready, and I still hadn't packed up my stuff yet. So I threw on my last set of clean clothes--including my jeans (the day before had had the coolest temperatures of the whole trip, so I figured it could hurt).

The second I stepped outside, I knew I'd made a mistake. It was 8 in the morning, and the heat was already hitting hard. And Pepsi, even though he was usually 10-15 minutes early, ended up being about 10 minutes late. The front desk ladies practically had to beg me to go down to the restaurant to wait. But I didn't want to have breakfast and waste time for when he showed up. Just the previous day, he had told me a story of how a group he had taken a long time ago kept postponing their leaving. They were supposed to leave at 8, and it wasn't until 11 that they all decided to come down together. And then they needed breakfast. So, yeah, I didn't want to pull that on him, too.

Anyway, they finally show up, and they ladies call me back upstairs. I'm already sweating as I get into the van. First up for the day was Erawan National Park and waterfall. It was about an hour away. And when we finally got there, Pepsi asked me if I'd like to swim. I did bring a swimsuit with me just in case, but I didn't feel like pulling it out and changing into it and hiking in wet clothes. Plus, I didn't have a towel with me. So I said no.

After my decision to wear jeans, this was my second mistake. (I was also wearing an undershirt and a long sleeve button-down, but I had rolled the sleeves up. It was the only clean shirt I'd had left.) Let's just say before this hike would be through, I would be soaked from head to toe and was mighty uncomfortable. And besides maybe wet socks, there's nothing quite so uncomfortable as sweaty jeans.

So we start the ascent. When I say hike, I mean it. Not quite Mt. Fuji hike, but it was still going up the side of a hill and/or mountain. The waterfall has like 8 or 9 levels to it, so you have to keep going up to get to each new level. It started off mildly easy with just a ton of stairs (some more steep than others). Then it got a little more difficult. And more difficult still as we were climbing up rocks. Basically, we were trekking through a jungle (with a path), and it wasn't always the simplest path. It was about halfway up to the 5th level that Pepsi decided to tell me he was surprised, as most Americans ask him to stop around Level 3. I was one of the very, very few American who had decided to go as high as I did. Needless to say, that was good enough for me. Come Level 5, I told him I was happy to go back down from there. He said it was probably for the best, as it got even more difficult and more steep from that point on, and I was already about to die. You can even see the exhaustion in my face in some of my pictures. Speaking of…

Monkey looking for some food.
We eventually got back to the van. We had actually come to this first because it would be better to miss the huge crowd that eventually came, so I could get better pictures. I'm also thankful we came earlier because the heat would only escalate from there. So as we get to the van, Pepsi asks me if I'd like to change clothes now, to which I quickly obliged. I just switched to my shorts, which made things so much better. I would have to switch back into my jeans when I got to Seoul the next day, though, because of cold temperatures. But we'll get to that point later.

Despite all of that complaining--much like with Fuji--the end result was worth the hassle. The scenery was gorgeous, and the waterfalls were pretty cool. My one regret is that I didn't change into my swimsuit, because (for starters) the water looked amazing and rather refreshing.

We finished up with that, and then it was time to head for Hellfire Pass. This is the area of the Burma Railway where they had to cut and blow through mountain and rock to make paths for the train. A lot of people died here. Pepsi warned me there would be more walking, but assured me there was only 170-something steps. Oh, good. So after the museum portion, I decided on with the show, and we headed down the wooden path that led to the pass. Honestly, going down was easy. It was the going up that was killer. But the pass itself was pretty interesting, as well.

After all this, it was around noon and already time for lunch. Pepsi had been asking me a lot over the last few days about my thoughts on Thai and spicy food, to which I replied I liked it and didn't really think it was that spicy. I was used to spicy food. Turns out, he was kind of testing waters to see if he would take me to a place not a tourist trap buffet as we'd been going to. It was a local joint off the side of the road where Thai people actually came to eat. Authentic Thai food with actual Thai spices, not the watered down westernized stuff. He was actually really worried that I wouldn't be able to handle the spiciness, because the majority of foreigners can't. But we did it anyway.

We got a handful of different things, but only one that was the average Thai hot. It was wild boar with a red curry/pepper paste sauce (homemade by the owner of the place). Pepsi told me to just try a little first and then I could have more if I wanted. I tried it, and… just as I thought, it barely phased me. I actually didn't even break a sweat, which was a miracle considering I hadn't stopped sweating since leaving my hotel room that morning. Yeah, it had a kick to it, but it was a good kick. But I've definitely had much spicier (unless my tongue has just gotten used to it over the last year). Either way, I actually thought it was the best dish we had at that lunch.

Fish and chicken soup in a coconut milk sauce.
The red one to the side of the fish is the wild boar.

Chicken and noodle
After lunch, we stopped by another small waterfall where tourists come to picnic and swim. That only took about 5-10 minutes tops.

And then it was time for the one thing I was probably looking most forward to… Tiger Temple. It's basically a wildlife resort full of, you guessed it, tigers. And other animals like pigs, water buffalo, etc. But the biggest attraction was the tigers. They raise the tigers from birth to domesticate them… but it's also pretty clear they have them tranquilized for the tourists, since you're getting right down with them for the pictures. Yeah, it was kinda sad to see the Tigers treated as they were… but at the same time, I got to touch tigers. They had a worker hold your hand and take you through to each tiger, sit you down, and another person would take pictures with your camera. Then the guide would take your hand again and take you to the next, etc.

So we left there by roughly 2:30 or 2:45-ish. It would take 3 hours to get from there to the airport in Bangkok, so we were on our way. We did make one pit stop, and Pepsi bought me a snack (a kind of coconut desert. The texture was somewhere in between jello and rubber… somewhat like that old GAK slime from the 90s). It was actually pretty good. 

But then about 5:45, we had finally reached the airport.

And my adventure would finally begin.

OK, so let me explain what happened here. When looking for my exit flight, there were strangely very few solid options from Bangkok to Seoul. Almost all of them had like 12-hour layovers (at minimum) in between, no matter the airline. The best possible time I could get… was a 2:55 AM flight with a 3-hour layover in Macau. It would put me in Seoul by about 2-ish PM on Sunday.

But, as you can probably gather… that still left me at the airport at 6 PM with a flight that didn't leave until basically 3 AM. That's 9 hours. And what I soon came to learn is that you can't actually check in or check your luggage until the counter opens… 3 hours before the flight. So, if you do the math, that means I had to wait in the main lobby of the airport for 6 hours until midnight before I could do anything. I had to sit, for 6 hours, in the busy check-in lobby in over-crowded sitting areas (from which I moved to and from multiple different ones throughout the evening). Also, there are no plug outlets in this area (or, as I would later discover, in any area in the entire airport). This means that when my laptop ran out of battery… that was it. If my phones died, that was it. If my mp3 player died… you guessed it. 

Also keep in mind that all of what happened from this point on happened on top of the day I just finished explaining--the walking, hiking, heat exhaustion, etc. I'd been awake for nearly 12 hours at this point and had done enough stuff that would knock me out on an average day. That being said...

I had 6 hours of sitting and limited battery lives. I bought a 24-hour Boingo Hotspot password so I could at least attempt to grab some wifi on my laptop… though it was terrible wifi that could barely load a webpage. I ended up spending like 10% of battery life just waiting for one page to load. Needless to say, my laptop ran out of battery really fast, even though I did try and stretch it out throughout the night.  I also didn't want to turn my phones on and waste the batteries because I needed them for when I got back to Korea. This basically left my mp3 player, which fortunately had an ebook on there that I was listening to.

I also remembered, after a couple hours, that I'd also brought my 3DS with me, so I played a game for a couple hours. But come around 10 or 11 PM, I was getting exhausted. I was tired of doing the stuff I was doing as well as being tired of doing nothing. I was bored out of my mind. And it didn't help that this huge family of like 20, mostly little kids (I dunno if they were Thai or Cambodian… they seemed Cambodian), were taking up over half the seats around me and being really noisy and annoying. And I was pretty irritable at this point, which also didn't help matters much.

I tried to rest my eyes at various points, but it was hard to really sleep there. When I did eventually stand up to leave, the whole family just kinda paused and stared at me walk away. It was rather awkward. But it was like 11:45 PM and the counter would open at midnight, so I was gonna go stand nearby and wait there.

And then a whole bunch of people--apparently another large family and/or group--had been waiting there, too, and all jumped in front of me before I could get in line. And they (even to the annoyance of the workers there) took up all 3-4 open counters for the flight, not letting anyone else get in and all mingling amongst themselves and flip-flopping luggage, etc.

But I did finally manage to get through. I was pretty starving at this point (no restaurants or anything in the lobby area), even though it was after midnight (and technically after 2 AM Korean time, so my body was doubly tired). After getting through everything, I walked a further distance past my gate and made my next mistake of the night--Burger King. I haven't had Burger King in… I don't know how many years. And I haven't had food this greasy in quite some time, either. But I was hungry, and it was the best option. So I made myself absurdly sick and went back to the gate area.

Now things got even more interesting. My gate was something like D8. However, there was a D8 and a D8A right next to each other, and D8 was closed. It was very confusing. I asked someone, and they told me, as if I were an idiot, that boarding doesn't start for like an hour… so that's the reason the gate sitting area was locked up. So me, along with everyone else for that flight, had to sit around in the hallway area in seats or on the floor. And a ton of people were being really rude and laying across like 4 seats to sleep and not allowing anyone else to sit there. I did grab a seat, though, and managed to maybe get in like 5-10 minutes of not very deep sleep.

The gate opened finally, and we moved to go sit in the waiting area at the gate for ages until they let us through there, too. To speed things up here, let's just say things were annoying even up until we were walking into the plane. This first plane had put me in the Emergency Exit row. There were very few people actually on this flight, so a bunch moved around to sit with people they knew. I ended up having the whole row to myself, and it was an extended row so I had like triple the leg room. This flight was about 2 and a half hours, and I actually managed to sleep through almost the whole thing.

But I was still exhausted as we landed in Macau, and I had a 3-hour layover. I hoped maybe there would be some lines we'd have to go through that would take time, and I wouldn't just be sitting for 3 hours. Nope… it went super crazy fast, and I did end up sitting there for 3 hours. (And some Burger King disagreeing with my system.) Fortunately, I got another half hour or so of light sleep. I played more 3DS and also fidgeted with my laptop until my battery was officially too low to bother with. When the sun finally came up, I looked out the window to see a pretty cool sunrise in the Macau airport.

And then I just walked around the shops a bit when they finally opened. I was super excited to see in one of the Duty Free shops that they had re-released action figures based on the original design of the 80s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. I came so close to buying one, but they were just re-released updates and not original figures, so I didn't bother.

And the time finally came for the next flight. This one would be longer--about 3 and a half hours--from Macau to Seoul. I also managed to grab a bit of sleep on this one, too. Though now my sleep pattern is probably all out of whack considering I basically slept off-and-on from 5 AM to 2 PM (Korean time).

The luck fairy must have been in a good mood today, though. Upon reaching Seoul, I was like the third in line at Immigration, meaning I was there and out in about 5 minutes. And my bag was practically the first one out of the carousel, already going around by the time I got there. Which has never happened. But I suppose that's what happens when you're one of the first people to check your bag when the counter opens. I also ended up catching the train to Seoul Station right before the doors closed. But I'm getting ahead of myself now. First… it's cold in Korea, so I had to change.

I found a bathroom and took the big stall to try and fit all my stuff inside. And… my jeans were still mildly soaked. Not only that, but they were freezing from being in the cargo hold for hours. Needless to say, it was incredibly unpleasant putting those things back on. But I had to--I couldn't wear shorts outside. I also put my jacket on, which I had left in my suitcase, as well.

The last thing of note for this story is as I reach the platform in Seoul Station to head back towards Gunpo, a guy comes up and asks if I'm American. We strike up a conversation--he's Korean-American. He'd been adopted in America and had come to Korea to discover his roots. He'd been there 3 weeks and was a bit overwhelmed by everything. So we just chatted about Korean culture and the language and people and all that. He was a pretty friendly guy. He was off to discover Itaewon, which he'd heard about and wanted to check out. He was off the train after a few stops, so we didn't get to talk long, but it was an interesting interaction, especially at the end of such a long day.

And that's about it! I got home right around 5 PM (3 PM Thai time), meaning I had literally been traveling for just over 24 hours straight with maybe 4 hours sleep mixed in there somewhere. It was quite a long day, and I'm sure I'll sleep well tonight.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Thailand (Kanchanaburi): Day 4

I'm a bad luck magnet. I know this. We all know this. In fact, it's really helped me develop my "go with the flow... it'll all work out in the end" attitude toward most things most people would get easily annoyed at. And thankfully that attitude was in full force today, because... wow.

For the first time on this vacation, I needed an alarm to wake me up (meaning I ended up being rather tired most of the day). Today, I left Bangkok to head to Kanchanaburi, a city about 2 hours outside Bangkok where a bunch of other historical stuff is. And I'd be there for two days (today and tomorrow) before heading to the airport. I'm still mildly sick with sinus issues, but it hasn't gone much past that yet, so whatever. I go down and check out of the guest house and then meet Pepsi (my tour guide) in the lobby.

We head out of the city and... it's raining. No rain was on any of the forecasts, but there it was. On the upside, it was cool out. I didn't have to worry about really any heat or humidity issues. After a 2-hour drive, we end up in Kanchanaburi. Our first stop is the War Cemetery, where over 6000 POWs who died during the Burma Railway building in the 40s are buried. It's mostly Australians, British, and Dutch soldiers (no American, as the US demanded to have their soldiers' bodies returned to their home country). It was a very sad and solemn place. Just reading the engravings on the tomb stones, some from family members, was really, really sad.

Then we walked over to the War Museum, which details the history of the Burma Railway. No pictures were allowed inside, but I got one of the outside.

Then Pepsi and I chilled there for a while and drank some tea. Apparently the train we would take later was delayed about an hour, so we had plenty of time to kill. After a while, we went back outside to the van and made our way to the next stop--a long tail motor boat for a trip down the River Kwai. We waited in the rain for about 5 minutes for the boat to show up, and then we hopped in.

The guy pulled the cord to start the engine and... nothing. The engine was dead. So he had to paddle back a bit to the dock and fire up another boat. After a bit of messing around, we got the boats lined up, and Pepsi and I stepped from our boat into the other. By this point, it had pretty much stopped raining. Maybe a couple sprinkles, but that's it. Then we blasted down the river, and I got relatively wet and rather cold. But I got some nice pictures, including a few of the Bridge Over the River Kwai itself.

We made it to our destination, and I walked down the Bridge while Pepsi went to go get our train tickets. I take a few pictures at this time.

Then I go to meet Pepsi. And... the train is delayed even longer. We were originally supposed to be on the train by 10:35 or so. We didn't end up on it until noon. So I walked around some souvenir tents and got me a River Kwai T-Shirt that's probably a little small, but oh well. We did eventually get on the train (which is an actual commuter, diesel-engine train) and grab our seats. It would be about a 2-hour ride to our stopping point (we were going down Burma Railway, aka Death Railway). It was a pretty interesting ride with lots of nice scenery. I even got a laminated train ticket with my picture next to it as another souvenir. And Pepsi buys me these baked banana snacks. It's pretty much the exact same thing as Korean matang, except banana instead of sweet potato. So anyway, here are some more pictures.

So we're nearing the end of the train ride, and Pepsi tells me that the best part with the best scenic shot is coming up, so get my camera ready. I do, and... the train stops. And dies. The engine failed. We have to get off the train. And we're in the middle of a strip surrounded by greenery, leaving only one real exit, so everybody makes this huge line. Some have to walk the rest of the way, which thankfully wasn't too far. Pepsi called our driver to come pick us up, and we took a couple other groups whose tour guide wasn't showing up to get them.

We drop them off and head for our buffet lunch, which was pretty good. Then we go into Krasae Cave--a place where I believe Japanese soldiers used as a home base, but it's not a Buddha Shrine. And right next to the cave was that picture spot we were supposed to see from the train, so we (along with everyone else) were on the tracks taking pictures.

Unfortunately, because of all the delays and whatnot, it was like 3:30 PM now and the other couple things to do today were closed. So we're going to add it to the list tomorrow (which might be a good thing, anyway. The way my luck was going today, visiting "Tiger Temple" on top of everything might not have a happy ending). So they take me to my hotel in Kanchanaburi, which is actually pretty nice. It's the most modern of all the places I've stayed--including a pool! I also got something to eat in the restaurant... some red curry with pineapple and pork (medium hot), and of course rice. It was really good! But anyway, that's about it for today. I will just relax for the rest of the evening and get rested up for my final tour day before a long journey back to Korea.

(Note: The next post won't actually be tomorrow. It's a long day and a lot of stuff going on, and I won't be back to Korea until Sunday afternoon (my time). So don't expect a new post until then.)

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Thailand (Bangkok): Day 3

I really don't have much to say today. Well, it's my birthday... and ironically the day I scheduled the least amount of stuff to do. In fact... just one thing. In the evening. I didn't feel like going out and about, so I would just stay at the guest house all day until I needed to go to the show in the evening.

I woke up, still with some sniffles, about 6:30. I eventually make my way down for breakfast. I get some pancakes (which were dry and had no butter, syrup, etc.) and a small omelet (which was kinda salty). But on the plus side, I got a nice big cup of hot chocolate and freshly squeezed watermelon juice. Have you ever had freshly squeezed watermelon juice? It's amazing.

Then I went back to my room and did not much. And from basically that time until like 1 PM, there was a constant barrage of little German (or maybe French) kids who would not... shut... up. There were about 5 playing in the lounge area for hours with a never-ending supply of energy. And they weren't just screaming and playing, but when I eventually went down later for lunch, they were doing these death-defying acts of stupidity that the parents were doing nothing to quell. Like every 10 seconds was something new, irritating, stupid, and very loud.

Anyway... when I checked in the other day, I got a couple coupons--2 for free lunches and 2 for free drinks. So I used one of each for my lunch. I had a kind of chicken "sandwich" thing. Basically it was roasted chicken on thick toast covered with this mango cream sauce. And then actual mango and tomato slices strewn about. So as I'm waiting for my food to arrive, I hear a particular tune play in the background. Seconds later, the staff comes out with a cupcake with lit candle and sings me happy birthday! It was a bit embarrassing for everyone involved, apparently, but it was still really nice. And a couple of the German (and/or French) parents nearby also told me happy birthday afterwards.

So then it was just a waiting game. I had to be at a completely different hotel by 5 PM to get picked up for the Siam Niramit show, which had me a bit nervous. The original email said the hotel was like a 5-minute walk from my current place, which was just not true whatsoever. Pepsi told me yesterday my best bet was to get a taxi and have it take me. But then I had the issue of not having the address written in Thai, but I found a Thai map on the hotel's website and put it in my phone to show the driver. I didn't want to tell him the wrong name, since apparently this hotel has like 4-5 different names it goes by, depending. I also got a Thai Address paper for my current place to show a taxi for when I had to come back that night (luckily the guest house has these at the ready, since it's such a tricky place to find).

And then, come 4:30, it was time to head off. I walk down the street a ways until I can finally flag down a taxi. I showed him the map, and then he reveals he speaks a tiny bit of English and just asks for the hotel name. But he figures it out from the map before I can tell him anyway. It's a super short drive, but he does ask me a few things. The conversation went somewhat like the following:

Him: "Where from?"
Me: "USA"
Him: "Ah, America. What city?"
Me: *knows what he means* "Texas."
Him: "Ah, Tek-shahs. Tek-shahs. Kah-BOI. Tek-shahs Kah-BOI."
Me: *pause* "Yeah, cowboys."
Him: "Kah-BOI and CAH-see-no?"
Me: "Casino?"
Him: "Yes. CAH-see-no."
Me: "Uh... no, not really. No casino."
Him: "Oh."

And then we reached the destination, and I got out of the cab. I waited in the lobby of the hotel for a good 20 minutes before the guy showed up. And what followed should have been a 20-minute ride at most... that took an hour. I've mentioned it before, but it's worth noting again: Bangkok traffic is HORRIBLE. It's one of those places where you wait for 10 minutes only to drive forward for about 5 seconds and then stop for another 10 minutes. Even if you turn onto a different road, you just find yourself in a completely new traffic jam. There was even a point where the line was so long that the traffic light went from red to green and back to red, a 10-15 second wait, and then we moved.

Long story short (too late), we pick up another couple people and then eventually make it to the Siam Niramit show building. We get our tickets and everything, and I go up to the third floor for my buffet dinner. It was decent. But the show doesn't start until 8 PM, and it's like 6:30 by this point. So I wander around the gift shop areas for a while before I decide to check out the pavilion area. It's here I realize there's an entire pre-show entertainment area. There were elephant rides (which nobody did, but I did touch the elephants) and another area with performers--magic, dance, and martial arts. The martial arts one was the best. It was a 3-on-1 battle... and 3 guys versus 1 girl, and the girl beats them all. It was pretty awesome--and they used real steel blades. There were sparks and everything.

But soon it was time to go into the theatre. So what, exactly, is the Siam Niramit show? To quote wikipedia, the Siam Niramit "has state-of-the-art cultural performances which have achieved international standards. It uses special techniques integrated with drama to depict the history of each region of Thailand including depictions about hells, the forest of Himmaphan, heavens and lands beyond imagination from Thai literature. There is also a spectacular performance of Thailand’s arts and cultural heritage. The show is staged by more than 150 performers in a luxurious theatre with a capacity of more than 2,000 seats."

In short... it's a technical marvel and stunning to watch. Even if I couldn't follow what was happening in any of the given short stories, you were always in awe of everything going in to these performances. It's almost impossible to explain. There's a part where, within seconds and without seeing how, a solid section of the stage that people had been walking on suddenly becomes a full river... one deep enough that a guy can jump into it and go under, and for boats to maneuver through. And that's just one of the first technical marvels that happens in the show. There's just always so much going on in every corner of the theatre... sometimes not even on the stage. There's animals--elephants, goats, roosters. There are aerial performances. There are full-on storms with rain, thunder, and lightning. There's a totally believable underwater sequence. The set changes are fast, and the sets themselves are amazing. Even if the actual story and performances weren't fully engaging, the sheer scope of every minute in this 80-minute piece is breathtaking to watch.

Sadly, no pictures or anything were allowed, so I can't show anything. Though of course I was sitting next to the only two people in the theatre stupid enough to keep pulling out their phones to text and check Facebook or whatever. Once the show ended, I headed out to find the van and driver who would take me back to not-my-hotel. After he dropped a few other people off first, we finally came to me. And he didn't even bother taking me back to the hotel spot. He just dropped me off at the corner of Khao San Road where the hotel is, somewhere. I realized I didn't have small enough bills for a taxi. I had one 20-baht bill and the rest was no smaller than 500 baht. So I needed to break it. I went into a 7-11 and got a bottle of water for 10 baht. Basically, it's the equivalent of paying 15 bucks for something that's .25 cents. It's lame, but I had to do it.

Then I needed to find me a taxi. I hop into one and give him the address card I got from my guest house that has the address written in both English and Thai. And, because my luck is that amazing, I managed to find the one taxi driver in all of Bangkok would can't even read Thai. He struggles to figure it out and barely even makes out the hotel name. He tries to get me to read him the street name. I try to read the English, but it's too complicated to say and he doesn't understand. So he kinda gives up and drives. I tell him to turn the meter on, which he does. And starts it at like 65 baht, which is ridiculous since the last one started it at 35 baht, which is the norm. But whatever. He takes me to not the right area before taking my address paper again and asking a Tuk Tuk driver to help him. That driver barely even glances at the paper before giving my driver perfect directions. He U-Turns and takes me back the other direction and eventually finds the little alley road that leads to my guest house. Of course he passes up the side-alley, and I have to tell him to stop. He does, but then everyone who had been following behind us gets mad at him and yells at him. So I just give him 100 baht, which he keeps without giving me change (he even looked at it like he'd never seen 100 baht before). But I didn't care. It's like 3 bucks, which is standard starting fare in Korea.

I get to the door of my guest house... which happens to be locked. I try getting it open, but it won't. It takes me a minute, but I eventually see a security box with a button to press to be buzzed in, basically. So I do, and I get let in. And that was the end of my night. And, in fact, that was it for my final day in Bangkok. In the morning, I head off with Pepsi for Kanchanaburi to see other big sites nearby. So stay tuned for that!