And now for a litle bit of Australia

Early Saturday morning, ready to explore Sydney!

We arrived back from Thailand on 9 April, and Denisse would be flying home via Florida on 6 May. It was hard to believe that her time here in Australia was coming to an end. Six months had gone just like that! We had tried to do as much as we could with her; she had seen a lot of Victoria and even gone overseas to Thailand, but she had not been to Sydney … yet!  We all know how much better Melbourne is than Sydney (lol), but we could not possibly send her home without having seen some of our national icons. So, as soon as we were back in Australia, we were looking for cheap flights to Sydney. We ended up getting a great deal through Tiger, leaving early on a Saturday morning and coming home on a Sunday night).

Early Saturday morning in Sydney.

What didn’t we do on that weekend?  We had purchased a weekend travel pass which we would be able to use on all trains, buses and ferries, and our plan was to max it out, seeing as much as we could! Upon arrival we made our way to Bondi Beach, which is quintessentially Australian, with its cafes and shops along the beach, filled with people and surfers. Denisse was in awe and this was actually the stereotype that she had expected. From here we made our way to a lookout not too far away.  Whilst not that well known, and thus not touristy, it has an amazing view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge with hardly any people.  It’s really just a big park with a phenomenal view.  Again, Denisse was in awe. I must say the view is pretty spectacular.

Bondi Beach walk.

From there we made our way via bus back to Bondi Beach, where we checked out a Farmer’s Market, after which doing some of the coastal walk from Bondi to Bronte. It has been said that this coastal walk is amongst one of the most beautiful in the world.  I am personally never disappointed by it, as you oscillate between virtually being able to touch the water, to viewing the amazing coast from up high. It was lovely to just stroll, observe and take in some of Australia’s spectacular natural beauty!

Circular Quay.

Next on the list was Circular Quay and the area around the Rocks. Circular Quay is the hub of Sydney Harbour and the founding site for Sydney and Australia. It’s also the point at which you can catch a number of ferries to a number of destinations. It’s always abuzz with people and tourists and buskers; a great people-watching vantage point. Besides, it’s really the point that you get up close and personal with both the infamous Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. More wow factor for Denisse.  Our aim was to show her as much of Sydney as we could in a weekend, and I think we were managing to do a pretty decent job. After some oohing and aahing, we made our way to the Rocks, including the weekend market there. The Rocks is the oldest part of Sydney, and is nestled right under the Harbour Bridge and right alongside Circular Quay. It is quaint and historical, yet a number of tourists pass through.  I like being a tourist in my own country. I like seeing foreigners’ reactions to the country I call home (most of the time!).

On the ferry to Manly.

Next on the agenda was a ferry ride across to Manly. It was a beautiful day, with clear skies and perfect weather. I must say that the 360 degree views from the ferry were exhilarating. It was mid-afternoon by the time we reached the other side, and we were all starting to feel the lack of sleep and early morning start. We decided to find a picnic bench on the beach and have a bit of a power nap. Clutching our small backpacks (we had brought the bare minimum and would not be checking into our hotel until late that night to save time), we all nodded off for half an hour or so. Yes, it did revive us a little. We had a look around Manly and its beach after making our way back across the harbour.

Sydney Opera House.

We were working on ticking off the main attractions on our checklist.  Next the Opera House. For our foreign friends, and perhaps the Aussie ones too, did you know that the Sydney Opera House, completed only as recently as 1973, was designed by a Danish architect? It is undoubtedly one of the most recognisable images of the modern world, up there with the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building, and one of the most photographed.  Who doesn’t know what the Opera House looks like or where it is? As you start to get closer and walk around it, the sheer size of it is also impressive.  We walked right around it as well as all the way up the steps to one of its many entrances.

Fireworks at Darling Harbour.

By the time we had circled the Opera House it was dark, giving the whole harbour, bridge and Opera House a totally different look.  They all looked spectacular lit up.  The idea was to then finish off the night at Darling Harbour, another Sydney must-see. Somehow the option of getting a ferry across had deluded us and we walked the one hour or so to get there.  Welcome to Sydney by night Denisse! We arrived just in time to see the fireworks, which go off every Saturday night.  Quite frankly, they were much better than the New Year’s Eve fireworks in Melbourne recently. We sat on the steps and watched the throngs of people talking eating and playing.  This is another terrific spot to people watch. We wanted to go for a coffee somewhere, but we were having trouble peeling ourselves off the steps. By this point it was pure exhaustion.  We were spent! We slowly walked back to our hotel, which was fairly close by. It did not take us long, as we weaved through China Town and the city centre to get there. Upon arrival at our hotel, we checked in and crashed!

Oxford Street.

Day two in Sydney. It was a windy and blustery day. Our hotel included a basic buffet breakfast and it really wasn’t too bad. We made sure we filled up, including (in my case) several cups of coffee. Ready to go?  We were all still tired, but we wanted to make the best of our second and last day in Sydney.  We made our way to the infamous Oxford St, home to the world famous annual Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, one of the largest such festivals in the world. That early on a Sunday morning it was rather quiet and deserted. We later walked back to Circular Quay and visited the market at the Rocks which we had only passed the day prior. We also visited the Museum of Contemporary Art which has recently had quite a spectacular facelift. Finally, we made our way to Newtown, Sydney’s version of our Brunswick St, where we grabbed ourselves a bit of (very kalate) lunch. And before we knew it, we were making our way back to the airport. We’d had a full-on two days, but had managed to show Denisse a far whack of one of Australia’s most iconic cities. Needless to say, we all collapsed into bed that night!

Australia St, Newtown, Sydney.

The next few weeks seemed to pass at lightning speed, and Alex and I were acutely aware that Denisse’s time was coming to an end. She had been studying English daily at Lyceum Language Centre in the city, which wrapped up a couple of weeks before her departure. I must say that the improvement, although she could already speak English before she got here, was impressive. The week before she left it all started to feel very real, with her suitcases, bags, clothes and other things adorning her bedroom floor, as she aimed to get it all packed. Eventually, her suitcase would prove to be almost bigger than her.

Goodbye and good luck Deni.

Just before she left, we organised a farewell for Denisse at our place. It was a fun night with a number of people coming to say goodbye.  She had been a major part  and had played an important part of our lives for six months, and many people had come to know and love her. I was going to miss her terribly. Speech time … I couldn’t get the words out, as I realised how much I was going to really miss Denisse! With tears in my eyes and a choked up throat, I tried to talk of what it had meant for us to have Denisse with us for the last six months. Denisse had to comfort me! It’s a tough gig; I have two families, one in Australia and the other in Ecuador and it’s often really hard to not be able to be close to the one in Ecuador. Even harder for Alex! This opportunity to be with his niece for six months had meant the world to Alex. To be able to share, impart, teach and give Denisse a different opportunity in life was indescribable.

Alex and Deni at the airport.

And almost as suddenly as she had arrived, she was leaving. Dad came past and the three of us took her off to the airport early Sunday morning. After check in, we all had a cup of coffee (we have inducted Denisse and she now understands this ritual). It was soon time to board. I saw the six months flash before me, where had it gone? We all hugged her and wished her luck. Hopefully this would only be the beginning of the rest of her life!

That Sunday was a sad one for us.  It felt empty without Denisse around. I came home from the airport to find two cards awaiting us, one for Alex and I and the other for me. The front of my card read, “Hey Mum, thanks so much for the last half year. It can’t have been easy putting up with all of my shit!” Of course I cried some more. Denisse was not the only one had learnt a lot in the last six months!

Ombi

“The eyes are useless when the mind is blind” – Unknown. 

Dedication: To my Dad (Doobie), brother Fulvio (Fuzz), sister-in-law Kazz and nephew James, for making Denisse feel like she was a true and real part of our family. Thanks for being so kind, welcoming and warm towards her. I know she will go home with loving and fond memories of her Australian family.

Dedicacion: Para mi papa (Doobie), hermano Fulvio (Fuzz), cunada Kazz y sobrino James, por hacerle sentir a Denisse como fuera parte de nuestra familia. Gracias por haber sido tan generosos, carinosos y calidos con ella. Sabemos que va a regresar a su casa con buenos recuerdos y memorias de su familia Australiana.

Books read:

Blood on the Alter – In search of a serial killer by Tobias JonesOlsd

The life you can save – Acting now to end world poverty by Peter Singer

The  Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Blink – The Power of Thinking without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell

Time to go!

At the Coburg outdoor pool.
Saying goodbye at the airport.
The Rocks.

Glass blower, The Rocks Market.

Bird’s Eye view of the Harbour Bridge.

The Opera House.

A bit tired on Day 2!

Luna Park, as seen from ferry back from Manly.
Darling Harbour.
Sydney CBD.

Sydney, as seen from ferry back from Manly.
Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Manly Beach.
Manly at dusk.

Manly Beach.
Alex and Deni at Circular Quay.
Da, da!!!!!!!!!!!!
Beach Volleyball, Bondi Beach.

 

What to do in Sydney?

Sydney … Yayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!!!

Bondi surfers.

Bondi Beach.

Surfie chicks at Bondi Beach.
Ombi and Deni on the Bondi walk.

Finally … Sydney!

Gimela at Deni’s farewell

Alex and Jo.

Linda and Naldo.

Linda and Jesus.

The ‘bestias’, Betty and Sam.

Dani and Rob.

Deni with some friends.

Deni with Betty, Dion and Karina.

Deni with Bronc (aka Maria).

Bye and we love you Deni!


Ancient ruins and Bangkok madness

On the way to Ayutthaya

The bus took around two hours from Bangkok and before we knew it we were in the bustling city of Ayutthaya; certainly not as big as other Thai cities, but still crowded with people by our standards. It was just after midday and it was hot and humid (as usual!). The usual task awaited us … the hunt for a place to sleep. Whilst Denisse and Alex waited with the back packs, I went and did my thing.  It felt particularly hot as I trudged through the streets checking various places out.  Ironically, and almost an hour later, we ended up finding a place to stay very close to where we had started. I was knackered!  We dumped our stuff, and spent the afternoon walking around, ‘checking things out’ and eating. It’s Alex’s national past time and, as I was learning (when she likes the food!) Denisse’s too!

Checkin’ out the temples.

People are indeed drawn to Ayutthaya by the prospect of ruined temples.  I had been here years prior and, once again, it did not disappoint.  The Ayuthaya Historical Park is separated by two distinct geographical districts; ruins ‘on the island’ and those ‘off the island’, which are across the river and can be accessed by boat.  We chose to do the former, which is best done by bike or motorbike. We got up nice and early(ish) the next day, hired some bikes, and we were off! We cycled in, out, amidst and around the various ancient ruins, temples and wats. I always find this both exciting and intriguing, as I ponder upon what life was once like for these people. I often jokingly say that I was a social anthropologist in a past life, as I am fascinated by the hows, whats and whys of all people from all countries and from all eras.

Ayuttahaya.

Once we were templed out, we made our way, some four kilometres away from the city centre, to the Royal Elephant Kraal and Village. It was lovely to cycle out into the countryside, which always offers a different perspective of how people live. A kraal is effectively an enclosure. The place we went to was not at all touristy, and we had been told to go there by a foreigner who had been working and living in Ayutthaya. This kraal is effectively a home stay where people can come out and stay, and help with elephant conservation. I had never seen so many elephants in one place at one time. I liked that it was a very open place where the elephants could roam freely.  In fact, upon arrival we were effectively told that it was give way to elephants at all times. The little elephants were particularly cute, but then little things usually are!

At the elephant Kraal, Ayutthaya.

We did not want to get back into town too late as we had none of the lights or protective clothing that would be compulsory back at home. The roads weren’t exactly specimens of fine workmanship either. Yep, getting back in daylight was our best bet. As we were nearing the city centre, Denisse went around a corner and also went the proverbial ‘arse over’. Nothing major, just a few scrapes, and she managed to laugh about it! She was proving to be quite the backpacker! Initiation complete!

Fried insects anyone?

Meanwhile back at the ranch (aka having returned bikes and back in the in the centre) it was time to go and get something to eat ( I would argue that with Alex, it almost always is!), so we made our way to the local night market. Filled with bumper to bumper food stalls, we tried a bit of this and a bit of that. Thought we’d pass on the fried insects, however! Thai food rarely disappoints.
 

Bangkok madness.

Bangkok … you either love it or you hate it! There seems to be no in between, and Alex and I love it! We were about to show Denisse why! After a couple of days we made our way back to … the madness! Approaching the nation’s capital is sensory overload; loud, buzzing, busy, manic, crazy and full on.  The same adjectives have been used to describe me! It’s not hard to see why I wouldn’t love it!  We made our way to the New Siam 2 Guesthouse, where we would spend our last few nights. Near the infamous Khao San Road but not on it, we were close enough to the action, yet far enough away for some tranquility (the swimming pool in the hotel was a great catch too). We proceeded to show Denisse as much of Bangkok as we possibly could.


The reclining Buddha.

Amongst our first stops were the Grand Palace (and Wat Phra Kaew) and Wat Pho. We had to walk along the Chao Phraya River, which runs through Bangkok,  to get there. We walked there from where we were staying, to give Denisse not only a glimpse at the enormity of the city but also the diversity. The Grand Palace has been the official residence of Thai royalty since 1782, and walking around the expansive grounds is always breathtaking, on so many levels. Wat Phra Kaew, or the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, is a temple within the palace grounds (and which houses the Emerald Buddha) and is considered the spiritual core of Thai buddhism.  Buddha aside, the temple is architecturally fantastic. There were so many other temples on the palace  grounds and despite the multitude of times I have been here, the workmanship and beauty remains impressive.  I could see that Denisse was in awe too. Next was Wat Pho, or the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, with its remarkable reclining Buddha (15 metres high and 43 metres long) and its sprawling stupa-studded grounds. The workmanship of the temples, structures and statues, again, was amazing.

Wat Pho, Bangkok.

A trip to Bangkok just would not be complete without a trip to some of the many malls, and especially MBK Centre, with eight levels and more than 2000 shops. It has been reported that daily visitor numbers exceed 100,000 and are mostly a mix of young Thais and foreigners.  The mind boggles and the head goggles at this array of … everything!  It’s a shopper’s paradise, quite literally. Whilst I have often expressed my lack of interest in shopping, I love this place for the variety of different things you can find.  This time, however, I had noticed that it had become both more commercial and more expensive … in line with the rest of the world! This was without a doubt ultra-sensory overload for Denisse. We also visited Panthip Plaza, which rightly known as the mother of all IT stores.  Whilst this is ‘only’ five floors, it is a techno-haven, with everything from mobile phones (real and fake alike), to cameras and fake software. A tech-head’s dream come true!  It all looked the same to me, but that’s probably what a guy would say about a fashion mall. Speaking of which, we also managed to get to the Platinum Fashion Mall. Now this place has ‘only’ seven floors, but approximately1300 shops, and as the name fashion suggests, they are predominantly clothes, shoes and accessories. We visited this on the day before leaving, and by this stage we were ALL over shopping!

Shop till you drop – Chatachuk Weekend market.

One of my favourite places to visit in Bangkok is the Chatachuk weekend market, which is the largest weekend market in the world.  It’s so huge that it seems like a suburb! It has everything from second hand clothes and antiques to pets and homewares.  You name it this market has it! If you want a bargain, and some good finds, be prepared to trawl through the sois, or small lanes, with a vengeance. The jury is not out but estimates for the number of stalls range from 8,000 to 15,000. Consider that more than 200,000 (yes, you read correctly) come to rumage through this monster on a typical weekend ! But it’s not just about the shopping … it’s about the fantastic iced-coffees, the food and the people watching. It’s a Bangkok must-see and do! And yes, we all picked up lots of things that we needed .. well … wanted!  Need versus want, now that is the question.

Bangkok, as seen from the top of the Baiyoke Sky Hotel.

Shopping is not the only thing we did in Bangkok, but we gave it a mighty fine crack! One night after, well, shopping(!!) we visited the Baiyoke Sky Hotel, home to Thailand’s tallest tower, at 1076 feet tall with 85 floors. It was a rather bizarre experience actually.  We unknowingly got there just as it was closing, but strangely enough were allowed to wander around (nobody told us not to) free of charge. The 360 degree views were amazing, and we had hit the jackpot in as far as having a totally clear view. The Bangkok skyline is nearly always filled with smog and/ or haze. We even got to go to the open-air revolving deck on the 83rd floor.  Now this was WOW factor!

With Pong and Link at the Hilton, Bangkok.

We also managed to catch up with our very dear and special Thai friends, Pong and her husband Link,  and this time we got to meet their little girl Grace, or Nudeng as she is affectionately known amongst family and friends. We met Pong whilst she was studying in Australia many years ago and Alex and I went to her wedding in Bangkok a few years prior.  It was great to see them once again, and this time with an addition! Pong and Link treated the three of us to a beautiful dinner at the Hilton, where we spent several hours eating, reminiscing and playing with Nudeng.  One of the greatest joys of travelling for me is always catching up with old friends!  We would only catch up with them all once, but it was a quality night.  Thank you Pong and Link for your friendship and for a most wonderful night.

Ready to check out the town!

Despite the fact that tuk-tuks are now no longer as popular in Bangkok (due to the smog factor and the fact that taxis are often cheaper on longer rides) no trip to Bangkok would be complete without one! One day we decided to take a tuk-tuk to a few places at a ‘discounted rate’ (aka including visiting a gem store). We have done this before; for only a few baht, you get to see a number of sights, but you must visit a gem shop or tailor (and look like you are interested in buying something even if you are not).  The driver then receives a petrol coupon from the ‘participating store’. I would call it a ‘good for you, good for me scenario. We got to see some great temples and some great sights that we perhaps would not otherwise normally get to see. And yes we went to a massive gem megastore called the Gems Gallery. For the record, it’s not a scam but geez the sales staff try hard to sell you stuff!  Alex and I had been there on a previous trip and knew what to expect. The three of us strolled around the complex, first being shown how the jewellery was made and then through the most humongous of show rooms, which had everything from simple silver rings to multi-gem encrusted bangles and necklaces, with a price tag that seemed like a country, rather than a piece of jewellery, was on sale! Interesting all the same!

View of Bangkok from the top of Golden Mount.

Yay, gem gallery aside, we could now go on and do the other sights as promised!  Well, maybe not! The driver suddenly started to insist that we also go and visit a tailor. We all said no thanks, but he was rather insistent. Alex was firm but the tuk-tuk driver was firmer. I could see that he wasn’t going down without a fight. What to do?  We had Denisse with us! Lucky man! I quietly fumed inside as he drove us to the tailor; all the way over I was thinking about what I WOULD have done and said had it been just Alex and I!  We were all dropped off at a rather flashy looking tailor shop (we had also been here on another trip), and promptly shown a range of magazines with a range of clothes. Apart from being ridiculously over-priced and aimed at the ‘dumb tourist’, they were all so formal. Yuk!  This bohemian chic doesn’t even do smart casual!  So, I continued to look, playing the game, and fuming inside!  Our ten minutes in-store felt like an eternity and I couldn’t help but think … who gets sucked into buying this over-priced stuff!

Golden Mount, Bangkok.

Finally, we were driven to our final destination, The Golden Mount and Wat Saket.  What a hidden gem, no pun intended! Set amongst various Buddhist structures, statues and gnarled trees, we had to walk some 300 steps along serpentine pathways to get to the top where we were afforded a breathtaking view of Bangkok.  I could not believe that we’d never been here before! We eventually made our way back down to our tuk-tuk driver who was no longer there! I was fuming; every ounce of my southern Italian blood was boiling. We had been ‘wronged’, but we had chosen to take the cheap ride! Everything comes at a cost! We would eventually see that tuk-tuk driver again, in the same area that we had originally decided to go around with him.  Let’s just say that I told him exactly what I thought of him, and leave it at that! I had to also remember that I had a very different life to this man. As Alex always likes to say, desperate people do desperate things! You are right Alex.

Foot massage in Bangkok … pure bliss!

Over the course of our time in Bangkok, we also took Denisse on the ferries on the Chao Phraya
River as well as the sky trains, trying to show her this city from all angles. We weaved in and out of Banglamphu and Khao San Road, buying bits and bobs as well as trying a range of street food along the way. As usual, we found our favourites and tended to go back. One street stall near our hotel and the most amazing green curry, which I managed to chow down on a number of occasions. We all had our favourite dishes. We also managed to fit in a few massages, including both full body and only feet. They were truly blissful and Thais have perfected this art. There is a relatively new ‘kid on the block’ in the way of fish pedicures, whereby you sit down with your feet in a tank of water and tiny fish nibble at the dead skin. Gross!  That idea repulses me!  I’ll take skanky feet thanks! Needless to say none of us gave it a crack.

Skytrain, Bangkok.

We had seen and done so much over the last two weeks, and felt that we’d given Denisse a good taster not only of backpacker life but of quite a few places in Thailand as well. As the saying goes, all good things must come to an end!  We’d seen temples, and wats, gone on sky trains and tuk-tuks, visited the famous amulet market, gone shopping in malls as well as massive markets, eaten everywhere from streets to fine-dining hotels, seen elephants, gone to islands of both the touristy and deserted kinds and even had our teeth cleaned (way cheaper than in Australia). It had been a full-on two weeks but we had so much fun!

Finally, a picture of the photographer!

We spent our last night packing (cramming) our bags full of all that we had bought.  It was actually a team-effort, where we systematically filled every square inch of all three back packs and all three day packs. We did manage to fit it all in. By the time we were done, Denisse’s back pack looked way bigger (even more so now!) than her. We only managed an hour’s sleep as we had an early flight the next day.

An hour is simply not enough sleep. We all felt worse for it, but we just had not been able to keep our eyes open for a second longer. We were ready in no time and out on the street looking for a taxi.  It was early but we managed to flag one down. Then we just went through the paces; check-in, coffee (that has become a ritual as we wait to fly!), boarding, take-off and in my case sleep!  As usual, I slept almost the entire way home. Dad’s taxi service was waiting as usual. Brrrrr, it was freezing in Melbourne, and it felt that much colder as we had come from a place that was so hot. Dad dropped us off, and we promptly went to bed as Alex and I both had to work the next day! Well worth it after so much fun!

Ombi

Fun in Bangkok.

Books read: The Autobiography, Bear Grylls Mud Sweat and Tears by Bear Grylls

“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”  – Oscar Wilde

Next: 
 Denisse’s last weeks in Australia, including a weekend getaway to Sydney.

Alex on the Golden Mount.
The Grand Palace.

Family mug shot, Grand Palace, Bangkok.

Grand Palace, Bangkok.
Inside the elephant kraal, Ayutthaya.

Just outside the elephant kraal.
With Pong amd little Nudeng.

Nudeng with mummy and daddy, Link.
Mini infront of Mini Plaza, MBK, Bangkok.
Strike a pose!
Golden Mount, Bangkok.
Tallest building in Bangkok.
Iced-coffee at Chatachuk.
Khao San nightlife!

On the Chao Phraya River, Bangkok.

Love those lil kitsch buddhas!
Offerings … Wat Pho.
Old fortress near Khao San Road.

Ayutthaya.
Operation ‘AO’ (arse-over).
Mahout, or elephant trainer, at the elephant kraal.

Inside the kraal.

What’s with this kid’s t-shirt?!
Yummy coconut ice-cream, Ayutthaya.

                    

Alex and Deni, Ayutthaya.
Ayutthaya ruins.
Love this!
Cycling through the ruins.

In comparison … we are small.

Amazing shot … Buddha was there first!

Ayutthaya.
Back packer chicks!

Fruit seller, Ayutthaya.

Enjoying a cold drink.

Fresh fruit.

The most amazing iced-coffee, Ayutthaya.

Thailand tried and true

Bangkok … good things come in small packages.

I have been to Thailand so many times, but it never, ever, ever fails to disappoint.  It has a bit of everything … well, it has a lot of everything and that’s what has us going back over and over again. We had done so much with Denisse in the five months that she had already been with us, and we figured wrapping up her overseas sojourn with a little bit of what we love best … globe trotting … would be a great note to end on. Thailand here we come! Note to self … secretly excited that we would be missing the Easter hullabaloo, with all of its overpriced chocolate and commercialism!

Departure date: March 24. We had only booked the ticket ten days prior, and needless to say, we were all excited. We ended up getting a great deal on Royal Brunei Airlines. It was the first time we had ever used this airline, and I was quite impressed. Having said that, let me be in honest in saying that we chose them simply because they had the best last minute deal.  Thanks to Alex and his many hours of hard work; after trawling the travel web sites and cross-referencing with the individual carriers he snared us a ripper deal. Where were we going and what would we be doing?  We had ten days to work it out!

Beer Thai Style!

We were flying in and out of Bangkok, and we had just over two weeks.  We knew we wanted a mix of temples, shopping and beaches as we wanted to give Denisse a taster of a few things.  We booked our first night in Bangkok at the tried and true Lamphu House; we often go there when in Bangkok, but you need to get in early, as it’s often booked out! It’s situated in Soi Rambuttri, just a stone’s throw away from Khao San Road, which is not only Bangkok and Thailand’s backpacker mecca, but also arguably South East Asia’s. In the twenty years or so that I have come and gone from this area, I have seen it grow from a somewhat sleepy backwater to a thriving, pumping backpacker mega-centre.  A lot of the changes have saddened me, and I often wonder why tourists insist on forcing their customs (or lack of them!!) onto others. Instead of seeing people sipping a beer or two with their mates, night after night, I saw slobbering people with their umpteenth can … of whatever … which of course was sold to them by a Thai person, trying to earn their keep! I have come to understand that I cannot change the world, but I am affronted by these situations and feel that I must say my piece! OK, so I understand that I can’t change the world, but I’d certainly like to!

Typical Bangkok scene.

Dad took us to the airport as usual (what would we do without Dino’s taxi service!). We would have a brief stop over in Bandar Seri Begawan in Brunei, before arriving in Bangkok at around 8.30pm. You may recall that we had a few days in Brunei a couple of years ago on our way through to Borneo and Malaysia. Upon arrival in Bangkok, we made our way directly, via taxi, to our hotel. I always get that same buzz upon arrival in Bangkok!  It’s like a heart-flutter, I’m home, type of feeling!  Apart from my second home Ecuador, Thailand also holds a very special place in my heart.  I sat in the taxi, smiling to myself feeling very content … here I was doing what I love most with the person I love most! Big sigh … I felt so content!

Infamous Thai tuk-tuks.

Bangkok is almost an insult on the senses! Different sights, sounds and views invade from all angles! Bright lights, rich aromas, honking tuk-tuks weaving in and out of traffic … bring it on!  It brings out the adrenalin junkie in me! We jumped out of the taxi, and made our way to Lamphu House. Upon arrival we were greeted by Pensiri, who we know well from our many other times of having stayed here.  It just felt all so familiar.  We dumped our bags upstairs, and took Denisse through one of our favourite stomping grounds. Welcome to Bangkok Denisse!

Khao San Road is pretty overwhelming for a first-timer … street vendors selling clothes, shoes, trinkets and many other things. Oh the street food … yum! Vendors have been peddling their version of Pad Thai (one of Thailand’s best known dishes) for as long as I can remember. It costs between 20 and 30 baht (32 baht = approximately AUD $1.00) which is a bargain by most (western!) people’s standards. Then of course there are the banana pancakes … I do it with condensed milk, Denisse does it with nutella! Sublime!  Of course we got Denisse to try both on her first night. I have always said that my preferred food is street food, in whichever country. I find the tourist haunts both expensive and unimpressive, food wise!

Physically spectacular, Phi Phi island.

We had decided that we were going to hit the beaches as our first stop.  Where to and how did we pick?  We are generally not into super-touristy places but we had never been to any of the islands in the Andaman Sea. We picked Ko Phi Phi, which was actually decimated in the 2004 tsunami. The day after we arrived in Bangkok, we took an overnight bus to Krabi, from where we took a slow boat (something between a ferry and speedboat) to the island. As we neared the island, the views were arresting. A picture perfect view of azure waters, the famous long boats … and a squadrillion people! As it states in the Lonely Planet Thailand’s Islands and Beaches travel guide, “Ko Phi-Phi is possibly the most beautiful place you (and thousands of others) will ever see!” Spot on!

Ko Phi Phi.

I cannot take anything away from Phi Phi’s beauty but I was saddened by its obviously having become a hedonistic stomping ground for foreigners … at the cost of the destruction of the locals’ culture and lifestyle!  But hey, we all need to make money, and these islanders are no different. What you may or may not know is that this island (as a few others in the area) is Muslim. I saw very little regard for the people’s customs here and certainly not a lot of when in Rome do as the Romans! Ladies, I know you want to bronze your boobs, but seriously, go back to where you came from, and do it there!  Wrong time, wrong place!

Ko Phi Phi viewpoint.
Ao Nang Port, on the way to Ko Yao Yai.

After trawling the ‘laneways’ to find a place to stay (no roads on the island … yet!) we eventually ended up at a place that was far enough from the noise but close enough to the action. Alex looked after our backpacks and Denisse and I went looking for a place to stay. I could already see that she had ‘that backpapcker in her’.  We weren’t done with her yet!  Over the next few days we swam, sunbathed, hiked to marvellous bays (along which I would stub my toe and later find out that it had a fissure!), went snorkelling and climbed to Phi-Phi viewpoint. Oh, and ate!  Like Alex, food is Denisse’s best friend!  Let me be specific, good food! The views from, well everywhere, were simply spectacular!  Unlike Denisse and Alex, I am a morning person, and the first time I went to the viewpoint was by myself, early in the morning. Although not that long, it was steep, and upon reaching the top, I looked like I’d run a marathon. As it was relatively early (and steep!) I was thankfully not surrounded by throngs of people. Looking  across the bays (yes bays) I could only gasp at the sheer beauty.  Yes, it was one of those travel OMG moments! I then went walkabout behind the peak, where it was deserted and where I was also rewarded with some more phenomenal views. These are the moments that have shaped my life!  These are the moments that will never allow me to be able to ‘get the travel bug out of my system’. These are the moments that I secretly hope to encounter on each and every trip I take! Oh, and fir the record, I did do the hike with Alex one evening, but I wasn’t able to drag Denisse along.

Ao Nang Port, near Krabi, on the way to Ko Yao Yai.

Where to next? We weren’t really sure, but we wanted to show Denisse a quieter and more tranquil island. From Phi-Phi we made our way across to Krabi, on the mainland, where we would spend the night before moving on … to where, we were not yet sure. As the boat neared the mainland, we were afforded with yet more arresting views; mind-bogglingly beautiful karsts (limestone rock formations) jutting up from everywhere. Upon arrival, we caught a tuk-tuk into town, and the driver ‘kindly’ showed us a possible place of accommodation. It looked and smelt like a dungeon.  No thanks!  He didn’t seem too happy, but ces’t la vie!  Again, whilst Alex kept watch over the backpacks, Denisse and I looked for a place to stay. This time we found one rather quickly; it was clean, friendly and set up in an old, traditional teakwood residence. We spent the afternoon wandering around the town, and the evening eating at the night market. As always, I find market food to be the most authentic and tasty food around!  I just do not do the ‘western over-rated and over-priced’ food thing.

Unadulterated Ko Yao Yai.

After some umming and ahing we decided that we would go to Ko Yao Yai. Despite its proximity to the world famous Phuket our research showed that this island was not touristy and untouched. Ko Yao Yai and Ko Yao Noi are actually joined by a tiny isthmus, and we chose the former as it appeared to be the antithesis of touristy.  In fact, even finding tickets to the island was proving to be difficult, but we persisted. The short ride from Krabi to the island was, yet again, breathtakingly beautiful, and we were very soon standing on Chong Lad Pier, with only two other tourists!  We wanted an uninhabited island?  It certainly looked like we were going to get one!

Chillin’ out on Ko Yao Yai.

Awaiting the boat, was a songthaew ready to take us to our accommodation. And our accommodation was?  Good question! We picked the place closest to the resort, as it really did seem like this was a deserted island, and that transport may be a problem. The number of roads on the island and the places they reach are very limited. So, off we went to Twison Beach Resort. Set on a laid back sandy beach, this became our home for a few days. For those of you who aren’t into resorts (like me!) don’t let the name put you off! The accommodation was just a group of bungalows set on the beach and the restaurant (the only one around!) was a lovely open-air wooden structure where you could eat, chill and watch the sun rise and set. This was true paradise. So, apart from eat, sleep, sunbake and relax, we did not do much else. Whilst Alex and Denisse are experts in the art of relaxation, I filled in my time with several walks around the neighbourhood as well as some runs on the beach (I found out pretty quickly, however, that my fissured toe was not enjoying the runs at all!)

Ko Yao Yai was captivating. Its mountainous backbone was spectacular and unspoilt shoreline unique and special. With a population of around 4000, the majority are Muslim fishermen and their families. The main mode of transport is actually motorbikes, as it’s the easiest way to get around with so few roads.  I found the locals to be helpful and friendly, but I could not help but wonder how long before tourism would wreck this!

With Alita on the ferry to Phuket pier.

We were soon making our way back to Bangkok, but had to catch a boat to Phuket Town. We met a lovely Thai lady on the boat called Alita, and chatted all the way back to the Phuket Town pier.  Upon arrival a songthaew was awaiting to transport the passengers into town, with the final destination being the bus stop. We quickly jumped on and said our goodbyes.  We all gave Alita a big hug; although the trip over had been short we felt like a new friendship had been forged. We waved Alita goodbye. She waved back and left … only to reappear with a cold can of drink for each of us. I got out of the songthaew and hugged her again, and we all thanked her for her kindness. Again, these are the moments that shape my travel experiences and life.

On the way from Ko Yao Yai to Phuket pier.

It took us around 40 minutes to get to the Phuket City bus stop. The town seemed very crowded, busy and chaotic. It looked like it had lots of character, with what appeared to be old Chinese buildings. It felt like the kind of place you’d want to walk around, discover, explore and get lost in. It was not what I expected really. Phuket for me conjures up images of hedonism, debauchery and old, fat western men slobbering over young Thai beauties!  It’s a place I have never been to despite my many trips to Thailand.

It was hot and humid (as was our entire stay in Thailand!) and we had to wait a few hours before catching a bus to Bangkok. Whilst not precious, the air-con variety are a must as otherwise we’d be melted puddles upon arrival. The wait was, needless to say, hot and sweaty, and the probably too cold bus was a welcome relief!  Rugged with jumpers, socks and sarongs to keep us warm, we were off!

Ayutthaya here we come.

We really wanted to take Denisse to Sukothai, the first kingdom of Siam established around 800 years ago. It is approximately 420 kilometres north of Bangkok and has some truly spectacular ruins. We decided, however, that Ayutthaya would be a better bet, as at only 85 kilometres north of Bangkok, it is a fair bit closer. Founded in 1350 it became the second capital of Siam after Sukothai, and is still home to same pretty impressive ruins. The next morning, upon arriving in Bangkok, we took the next bus out to Ayutthaya … yes please, with air con!

Ombi

Next: Fun and falls in Ayutthaya and our beloved Bangkok!

Dedication: To my beautiful and intelligent niece, Denisse.  I am so proud of the articulate, thinking and compassionate young woman you have become. Continue to be yourself, do what you think is right and not follow the masses … that’s what makes you so special!  Oh, and you ROCK as a backpacker!  Love you!

Dedicacion: Para mi inteligente y linda sobrina, Denisse. Estoy orgullosa de la manera en que piensas y articulas tus pensamientos y de la mujer que has llegado a ser. Continua siendo tu misma, haz lo que sientes que es justo y no seguir a las masas … eso es lo que te hace especial! Ademas, eres uns MAESTRA como mochilera! Te amo!

Books read:

Hugo – The Hugo Chavez Story, From Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution by Bart Jones

” Do not argue with an idiot. They will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience”.

On the way back to the pier, Ko Yao Yai.

Beach to ourselves, Ko Yao Yai.

Thai iced-coffee … yum!

Leaving Ko Yao Yai.

On the way to Ko Phi Phi.

Ko Phi Phi.

Beer ‘n’ bee.

Leaving Ko Phi Phi.

Alex and Deni on Ko Yao Yai.
Deni living it up on Ko Phi Phi.
More unadulterated bliss, Ko Yao Yai.

The beach to ourselves, Ko Yao Yai.
Fisherman’s boat, Ko Yao Yai.

Deni snorkelling on Ko Phi Phi.