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Thailand

Goodbye to southern Thailand

A few photos of the several weeks we spent in Koh Lanta and Railay

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Well, after nearly three weeks in one place, we finally managed to haul our lazy selves over to a different piece of paradise: Railay, famous for its emerald waters and limestone cliffs, perfect for climbing and kayaking. This will be our last stop in Thailand. Before we find ourselves madly scrambling to keep up with this blog in Cambodia, I thought I should at least post some photos of these last few weeks in Koh Lanta and Railay. This entry will be short on words and long on images! I’ll let the captions speak for themselves.

Chloe looks after Kiyoshi during our four-island snorkelling trip near Koh Lanta
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Ciaran’s new coconut friend, George
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As you can see, he’s very attached to George
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Summer Lanta House, our home on Koh Lanta for more than two weeks
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Khlong Dao Beach on Koh Lanta – the one Summer Lanta House faces
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The Emerald Cave – we swam underneath a cave for 80 metres to reach this spectacular lagoon
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Sunset drinks on the beach
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Ciaran learns to rock climb in Railay
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....And so does Chloe
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Here is Ciaran, feeling victorious after his final climb (to heights that terrified his parents) with his climbing instructor, Ram
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More news from Cambodia!

Posted by The Rymans 00:35 Archived in Thailand Tagged family_travel Comments (1)

Mid-Trip Check-Up

A little bit of rambling on how Team Rymans is handling the big adventure

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As we approach the midpoint of the trip, I thought it would be interesting to check in with the Ryman crew and find out what, if anything, they miss about home. The point of the exercise was not to show a shocking lack of appreciation for the spectacular place we’re in or the trip we’re on, but rather to make sure the kids do understand some of the big differences between Asia and Canada, and between the realities of life on the road and life at home. Essentially, it was an exercise in gratitude and perspective.

For those who are wondering, I will preface the following lists by saying that actually, the kids have stunned us with their infinite adaptability and flexibility. They virtually never complain about missing anybody or anything. They can find something to love about even the most hideous of hotel rooms. They can find something to order on the sketchiest of menus. They can see the funny side of any near or complete disaster. They can sleep in the strangest, noisiest, most disruptive of environments. Of course, they can also fight over the silliest of things and be incredibly resistant to the school work we sometimes impose on them, but overall I would say we’ve been amazed and dazzled (and relieved) by how well they’re coping with this trip.

Nonetheless, it turns out there are some things they miss.

Chloe: Skating, ringette and her soccer team; the library; real school; tap water you can brush your teeth with; Kettleman’s bagels; grandparents; and home-made crispy macaroni and cheese.

Ciaran: Friends and hockey; Blockbuster, Georgie’s Pizza, Colonnade Pizza and the Barley Mow; grandparents; sleepovers; Lego; and having a real teacher.

Mark, always a minimalist, had a short list: Teachers, friends, salads and cheese, pretty much in that order.

And as for me? It would probably be unoriginal if I said teachers, since everyone else has mentioned that one already—but I really am so grateful that when we return to Ottawa, other people will be assigned the job of continuing my kids’ education, because I never want it to be my sole responsibility again. Aside from that, I mainly miss good coffee (and having it as early as I want it, rather than having to wait an hour or more until a restaurant opens or the whole family gets dressed); a newspaper on my doorstep; running; dinner parties and nights out at Quinn’s; and a decent computer with a fast Internet connection that I don’t have to share.

Maybe this blog makes it seem as though computer and internet access are a breeze, but actually this laptop has been a giant pain in the butt since the moment we left home, and there isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t suppress an urge to take a mallet to the thing and leave it in smithereens on the beach.

We’re off to Railay tomorrow for four days. The plan is to head from there to Bangkok via a 12-hour overnight bus, and then off to Cambodia via the land border at Aranya Prathet and Poipet. There are rumours about Thailand closing that border due to a political dispute with Cambodia, so we’ll be keeping an eye out for news.

Posted by The Rymans 23:29 Archived in Thailand Tagged family_travel Comments (3)

We're still here...

More than two weeks and counting here in Koh Lanta, but we'll soon be off

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It’s hard to believe so much time has elapsed since I last wrote anything about our trip. Mainly this is because after three months of nearly constant travel through five countries (if you count Singapore), we stumbled upon a place that had everything we wanted—so we settled in, and have been taking it easy. The days lately have been less about adventure and culture and more about swimming, reading and large Singha beers.

The place is Koh Lanta, an island in southern Thailand not too far from Krabi. I’ve described it in a previous entry, so I won’t ramble on too much about it except to say that before we got here, we had been starting to think it might be time to look around for place to call home for two weeks or so, with the idea of possibly renting a villa or finding some similar longer-term set-up. Our ideal place would be somewhere quiet enough for the kids to run around safely and maybe even wander off on their own to buy a fruit shake or ice cream cone. It would be somewhere they could play soccer and go swimming, yet not too far removed from a town where we could change money and buy any supplies we needed. Somewhere we were likely to meet other kids. A place with enough room for everyone to sleep comfortably, store all their stuff and do a little school work from time to time.

We had just hit upon this settling-in idea when we stumbled upon Summer Lanta House here on Khlong Dao beach. The room is 1200 baht (about $40) including breakfast, and there’s a refrigerator, air conditioning, and ample storage in the room along with one double and one twin bed (the kids are taking turns sleeping on a blow-up air mattress of the sort you would normally float around a pool on). There’s a deck out front that overlooks a pool, and the long, long beach runs right along the front of the hotel. We’ve been catching up on postcards, photos, reading and schoolwork, and the lazy days swim by (excuse the pun) in a bit of a blur.

We haven’t lost all track of time, however; although we usually don’t know what day of the week it is, we do still know how to read a calendar, and the calendar is telling us we have about one more week of lounging here before we need to get ourselves back to Bangkok and off to Cambodia. So yesterday we finally got off our butts and booked ourselves onto a full-day four-island snorkelling tour, and this morning we arranged for ferry tickets to Railay, another island nearby. We’ll stay in Railay four days, and then it’ll be time to say goodbye to island life.

Before I give myself too much credit for booking ourselves onto that four-island tour, I should introduce Dave, Audrey, Taro and Kiyoshi, another Canadian family we’ve been spending lots of time with here at Summer Lanta House. It was actually Audrey who did all the legwork involved in choosing the island tour and sealed the deal later that morning at a travel agency in Sala Dan, the nearby town. Like us, Dave and Audrey are on a six-month trip with two kids, and like us they began in Bali in September and eventually made their way over to Thailand. After Christmas, while we hit India, they’ll be in Central and South America. They’ve turned out to be hugely compatible happy-hour and dinner company for us, and the kids get along fabulously also. Ciaran plays very well with their four-year-old, Taro, while Chloe has taken a shine to their two-year-old, Kiyoshi, and loves carrying him around in his backpack down the beach.

Dave introduced Chloe to the art of poi. Because it's hard to describe without a photo, I'll be lazy and borrow a description from Wikipedia: Poi is a performance art employing a ball or balls suspended from a length of flexible material held in the hand and swung in circular patterns. Poi originates from the traditional performing arts of the Māori people of New Zealand, and has since developed many forms enjoyed worldwide as a hobby, exercise, or performance art alongside juggling and other forms of object manipulation. You can see a photo here (not of Chloe): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poi_(performance_art).

Anyway, after Chloe had spent a couple of days putting many miles on Dave’s pair, we went into the town, Sala Dan, and bought her a set of her own. Mr. Noi, the manager of a nearby restaurant called Picasso’s, has taken a liking to Chloe, and keeps encouraging her to drop by during the afternoons for lessons. His beach restaurant organizes shows on intermittent nights, often involving performers who do routines with fire pois. Chloe has been begging for several days now for permission to graduate to real fire. Mr. Noi took it upon himself yesterday to tell her that within three days, she might be ready to poi (can that be a verb??) with real fire (flaming pois!), and that he would like to put her in one of his shows. He said to me, as an afterthought, “She’s 12, right?” (Umm, no, nine actually…possibly a bit young to be literally playing with fire. We haven’t said yes or no outright yet. We’ll see how things develop—and we may be off to Railay before Chloe is truly fire-worthy.)

Another fabulous feature of the beach we’re on now is its suitability for running. It’s long and flat, and it was crying out for me to run on it the moment I set eyes on it. Sadly for me, I didn’t expect to do any running at all in Asia, so I have no running shoes or appropriate clothes. But I’m not letting that stop me. Every second morning, I go out looking ridiculous in my red-and-peach Keen sandals with the white ankle socks we got for free when we bowled in Vientiane (the socks save the bottoms of my feet from getting scrubbed too much by the sand). I wear a pair of board shorts that are nearly knee-length and not great for running in. These I pair with a purple sports bra that I hope looks either like a bikini top or a running top. I remind myself that I can’t possibly be the strangest sight on the beach as long as the 60-year-old woman who runs in a tight black string bikini is still out—and lucky me, usually she is. I seem to run into her nearly every time. Mark and I run on alternate mornings. I’m making the most of it, since while I’m prepared to look silly here, I’m certainly not going running in India—so this is probably the most exercise I’m going to get until the trip is over.

Ciaran has also become attached to something he discovered here on Koh Lanta: an old coconut. It’s a whole coconut, brown with age, that had fallen from a tree. Ciaran picked him up and used him to go beach bowling for a while, then brought him home. As the days went by, he developed an unusual attachment to this coconut, which had to be carried along when we changed hotels two weeks ago. Eventually, Ciaran drew a face on the coconut and named it George. It has sprouted a green stalk on one end, which Ciaran thinks of as George’s ear. Ciaran has taken to sleeping with George, and won’t go to bed without him. It is a bit of a strange attachment and I wonder what will happen when we have to leave George behind. He’s a little heavy and unwieldy to be packed.

It is hard to believe we’re still sitting here at the same resort we were in when Charlotte (Mark’s mom) left, since that seems so long ago now. Before I wrap this up, I wanted to include a list the kids came up with the morning she boarded a minibus bound for the Krabi airport. After we’d tucked her (and all her baggage) into the bus and waved goodbye, Ciaran was looking a bit dejected. We asked if this was because he missed Grandma, and he said it was. So we decided it would be fun to come up with a blog entry about the 10 things we appreciated and will miss about Grandma. Here it is:

1. Grandma
2. Shopping without men (Chloe added that one)
3. Enjoying those cocktails on the beach (not that it happened all that often, but it was fun when it did)
4. Four weeks of better hotels
5. Massages and pedicures
6. Playing cards in restaurants
7. French lessons from a native speaker
8. All those books she lugged here all the way from Canada
9. Having a fun, different roommate
10. Her sense of adventure (“I go with the flow!”)

Posted by The Rymans 23:28 Archived in Thailand Tagged family_travel Comments (3)

Right at home on Koh Lanta

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I can see that the Laos updates got a little bit out of control, length-wise anyway, so I will try to be a bit more brief this time.

I last wrote about our stay in Vang Vieng, Laos. We wrapped up our tour of Laos in Vientiane, a three-hour bus ride from Vang Vieng. Vientiane might have impressed us had we seen it first, but it was something of a disappointment after Luang Prabang. We made the most of the fresh baguettes, French pastries, good coffee and red wine, but otherwise struggled to understand the appeal. Vientiane seemed somewhat indefinable, not quite a city but more than a town, quaint enough in its architecture and French heritage yet suffering from the same depressing traffic and air pollution problems as most Asian cities. There were no doubt some interesting temples worth visiting, but we were feeling “all templed out,” so to speak, and couldn’t muster the interest (to say nothing of the kids and their level of interest). We had planned ahead of time to pay a few dollars to use the pool at a more expensive hotel, but when we dropped by to case it out a day ahead of time, we were greeted by something more closely resembling a swamp – green, murky and foul. Moving along, we dropped by another posh place to try our luck and found a beautiful pool that we could use if we were willing to part with $50 for the experience. (We weren’t.)

Abandoning the swimming plan, we decided on something a little out of the ordinary: bowling. Yes, we actually stumbled upon bowling lanes as we were strolling around the city, and further investigation revealed that the place was open, empty except for one rowdy group of Lao teenagers, and could lend us shoes and sell us socks. The catch was that it was 10-pin bowling with those giant balls, which the kids found a bit difficult to manage at first. As they lurched towards the starting line with three fingers embedded in the massive ball, I could hear the twinkle-toes sound effects from The Flintstones playing in my head, and kept picturing Fred Flintstone’s cartoon toes dancing down the lane. It was a strange but entertaining experience all round, and kept us busy for the better part of an hour.

Later that same afternoon we decided there was no point sticking around Vientiane for an additional day, as originally planned, so we cancelled our third night at the Vayakorn Guesthouse in favour of heading across the Thai border a day early. We had been staying right next to a branch of Monument Books, so the last order of business in Vientiane was to buy Chloe and Ciaran each a few new French books (none to be found here in Thailand), then sell the stack they’d finished at a second-hand bookshop. With that accomplished, we packed up and left.

Getting back across the border to Thailand was a breeze compared to entering Laos. We grabbed a tuk-tuk to the immigration post at the Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge, completed the necessary paperwork, hopped on a shuttle across the bridge, got stamped back into Thailand on the other side, and hired another tuk-tuk to our guesthouse, Mut Mee, in Nong Khai, a friendly, laid-back border town.

It happened to be Halloween that day, and as luck would have it, the Western owner of the guesthouse, Julian, has two sons (with his Thai wife) who looked to be about 12 and 14 years old. They were spending the afternoon cutting Halloween decorations out of orange and black poster board for a party the guesthouse would be hosting that night out on a floating bar nearby (Nong Khai is right next to the Mekong River). The kids spent hours making decorations, then turned to creating their costumes. Chloe decided to go as a vampire, wearing several of Charlotte’s black items and creating long, pointy black fingernails for herself out of black poster board. Ciaran was a bat, with two huge wings fashioned out of massive banana leaves that we tied to his back and arms. The party started too late for Ciaran to make it, but Chloe and I headed down to the floating bar around 9 p.m. to see what was going on. It was decidedly not for children – she was the only one there under the age of 18 until Julian’s kids showed up a bit later – but she had a blast anyway, chatting up the bartender and snacking on a bowl of gummy worms.

We spent two days in Nong Khai before flying south to Thailand’s northern Andaman coast, landing in Krabi. The next day we were on a ferry to the island of Koh Lanta, where we’re now staying in a bungalow on Khlong Dao Beach (known as Long Beach because it’s two kilometres long). So far nothing terribly eventful has happened, but that’s just fine for now. The beach is beautiful, the people are friendly and the bungalow is both perfect and reasonably priced: $40 for a large, air-conditioned room with a big fridge, hot shower, plenty of storage for everyone’s stuff and a verandah overlooking the pool—breakfast included. On a trip to the nearest town today, we stocked up on beer, yogourt, Pringles and Oreos to keep the food costs reasonable. We’re contemplating staying right where we are for a couple of weeks.

Posted by The Rymans 07:48 Archived in Thailand Tagged family_travel Comments (3)

Taking Grandma to Laos

Grandma Charlotte arrives in Thailand, and other adventures

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What does Grandma get for treating us to several days at Chiang Mai's most luxurious boutique hotel? Talked into an adventurous trip to Laos via a two-day slow-boat journey down the Mekong River.

Lest we sound ungrateful, Grandma is fully up for the trip. Regretting that she didn't take in Cambodia during her trip to Vietnam a few years back, she's ready to take on Laos as part of her Thailand experience. "I go with the flow," she said with a good-humored, philosophical shrug when we presented her with the idea.

This is the perfect attitude for a trip to Laos. We're told it's developing at breakneck speed and standards for food and lodging have improved over the past few years, but Laos remains a destination geared more towards intrepid, independent travellers than towards those who demand security, predictability and all the comforts of home. In fact, we had nearly talked ourselves out of Laos altogether thanks to descriptions like these from our guidebook:

About getting around: "Buses in Laos range from a/c tourist coaches to the rattling wrecks that serve the outlying provinces. Cramped, overloaded and extremely slow, the latter can be profound tests of endurance and patience. There are no public toilets in Laos, so passengers relieve themselves by the road during breaks on long journeys. Keep in mind that some areas still have unexploded ordnance about, so it's not a good idea to go too far off the road."

About eating: "As for hygiene, Laos kitchens are often just a shack without proper lighting or even running water, and, in many northern towns, there's no electricity to run refrigeration. As a rule, sticking to tourist-class restaurants or well-frequented street stalls is the safest bet but it is by no means a guarantee of not getting an upset stomach."

About health care: "Healthcare in Laos is so poor as to be virtually non-existent. The nearest medical care of any competence is in neighbouring Thailand, and if you find yourself afflicted by anything more serious than traveller's diarrhea, it's best to head for the closest Thai border crossing and check into a hospital."

And so on.

But we've been on the road for two months now -- nearly a third of our trip is behind us, sadly -- and haven't run into any serious health problems, so we're hoping optimism will power us through without too many hitches.

Since we're already in Chiang Mai, getting to Lao involves a six-hour bus ride to the border town of Chiang Khong, a ferry across to Huay Xai on the Laos side, an eight-hour slow-boat ride down the Mekong to the dusty one-horse (electricity-free) town of Pakbeng, and eight more hours on the slow boat to our first real destination, Luang Prabang.

We plan to break up that first bus ride to the border with a two-night stay in Chiang Rai, about three hours north of here.

But first we'll be enjoying Chiang Mai for a few more days. After we left Tamarind Village Inn in the old city, the best hotel here by far, we moved to the Imperial Mae Ping outside the walls of the old city and nearer the night market. It's still quite a nice place by our standards, and in any case we're mainly just using it as a home base. Today Mark took the kids to Baanchang for the day on a "learn to be a mahout (elephant trainer)" class, where they are riding elephants bareback, feeding them, washing them in the river and learning how to track them down in the jungle and train them. Tomorrow Charlotte, Chloe and I are off to an all-day Thai cooking class while the boys bum around town and swim. The following morning we're off to Chiang Rai.

A highlight of Chiang Mai so far was our visit to the city's oldest Buddhist temple, Wat U-Mong, built in the 1300s. We spent about an hour there learning about the temple, the monks who live there and the history and practice of Buddhism. The kids were able to participate in giving food to the monks, conveying it to them on a gold platter so as to ensure no physical contact between themselves and the monks. There was a giant gold Buddha statue whose facial expression changed dramatically depending on the light cast upon it, and the kids were quite entranced by that. Later that afternoon they made rice-paper lanterns in the northern Thai style for a festival coming up soon. I hope those survive the journey home in Charlotte's suitcase!

Posted by The Rymans 02:42 Archived in Thailand Tagged family_travel Comments (2)

Mission accomplished...

...and off to Chiang Mai

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WOO-HOO: We have some very pretty Indian visas glued into our passports. We picked them up yesterday and still can’t quite believe they’re in there, but they are—and valid for a full six months for multiple entries.

We seem to have a knack for being in the right place at the right time (or maybe not, depending on how you look at it): Although we’re now in Chiang Mai, we spent the past couple of days in Kanchanaburi. We got to Kanchanaburi by third-class (local) train, which was interesting and efficient. Ciaran met a Thai family with three kids on board and spent most of the three-hour trip playing with them. It was all good, so we were planning to return to Bangkok the same way yesterday. At the last minute, we decided to take a minibus instead (long story). This morning, I opened up the Bangkok Post to read that yesterday, the Kanchanaburi train derailed. Four cars followed the locomotive off the tracks, with 280 mostly foreign passengers on board. Luckily, it sounds like there were no fatalities or serious injuries. Apparently this is the second such accident on that line this month.

Actually, yesterday was an interesting and busy experience in all forms of Thai transportation:

    First thing in the morning, board minivan from Kanchanaburi to Bangkok.
    By noon, arrive in an unknown area of the Banglamphu district of Bangkok. Whisk all bags to sidewalk, dive back into traffic to flag down a metered taxi.
    Pile bags into trunk of metered taxi and drive to Hualamphong train station near Chinatown to drop into the travel agency that booked our train tickets so we can pick up the tickets and leave our baggage there for the day.
    Take the MRT (metro) from Hualamphong to the nearest Skytrain station.
    Take the Skytrain to Siam Paragon in modern Bangkok to be mall rats for a few air-conditioned hours. Discover Kinokuniya, a gigantic bookstore, where Ciaran sprawls on the ground with comic books for an hour and Chloe meets a Thai girl in the juvenile section.
    Take Skytrain to Asoke station by 4 p.m., alight and make our way back to the Indian visa processing centre.
    Pick up passports with visas, do victory dance.
    Hop the metro back to travel agency near Hualamphong train station to pick up left luggage. Notice that most staff members, still uniformed and sitting at desks behind computer screens, are now drinking whiskey on ice with lemon wedges in fancy champagne glasses.
    Just after 7 p.m., board overnight sleeper train for the 14-hour trip north to Chiang Mai.
    This morning around 10 a.m., arrive in Chiang Mai and negotiate a cab to our hotel.

Whew. Not as difficult as it might sound, but busy, and always interesting to be homeless for 24 hours in Bangkok with the kids in tow.

The kids are amazing little troopers who thought sleeping on the train was marvellous. They watched with interest as the train attendant worked his way down the aisle making up the beds for the evening with clean sheets, pillowcases and white blankets, then got into their beds and promptly fell asleep. I, on the other hand, climbed into my bunk and got absolutely no sleep at all. The fluorescent lights remained on all night long, and if you’re imagining a Via train gliding softly north in the quiet darkness, think again—this old, narrow-gauge train lurched and thumped and squealed and rocked its way along, speeding up, slowing down and coming to sudden shuddering stops for no apparent reason. I was convinced that if I fell asleep, I might be thrown bodily off my bunk during one of many curves.

We had pre-ordered some breakfast, but not much, and were glad we’d been cheap: I don’t know when I’ve ever seen anything less appealing. Cold toast on a Styrofoam plate sealed with plastic wrap so that it was also soft, and a brownish, unappealing chunk of pineapple beside it. The coffee was shockingly bitter. The kids were happy, though, because the night before I’d stocked up on croissants and orange juice just outside the train station.

I thought the kids might object to the toilets on board—typical Asian squat numbers that empty directly onto the tracks, so you can see the tracks racing by underneath you through the hole while you’re in there—but Ciaran thought they were just the bomb and is planning to write to his teacher about them. Chloe’s attitude was purely philosophical: if this is how it has to be, bring it on, but please tell me there’s something better around the corner.

The first thing we did upon checking into the hotel here in Chiang Mai was temporarily lose Ciaran. He grabbed a deck of cards and fled the room. We fanned out looking for him, briefly panicked (me anyway), only to find him lounging in the restaurant area, where someone had set him up with a tall glass of cold water and some cookies. He was playing solitaire.

Posted by The Rymans 03:25 Archived in Thailand Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Teachers, trains and tuk-tuks

Getting re-acquainted with the big smoke

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As an ironic postscript to the previous entry about our suspenseful pursuit of visas for India, I thought I'd better admit something ridiculous: One of our key errands here in Bangkok was supposed to be a trip to the General Post Office to see if any of us have mail. Ciaran in particular was expecting some postcards from friends. Only now that we've left his passport with the Indian visa application service, he has no identification to present to collect his mail! And the passports will be with the service right up until 5 pm on October 14, and then we have to be on a northbound train two hours later.

Of course in our mad panic to get the visas arranged, none of this crossed our minds. The upshot of it is that 1) We'll have to return to Bangkok eventually; and 2) Those of you who had good intentions about the postcards but ran out of time now have another shot at it (but no pressure!). It could be worse, I guess; we were probably going to have to come back through Bangkok anyway to restock on kids' books and arrange transportation to Cambodia. But still.

Bangkok so far has been a somewhat bipolar experience. We'd been warned off of Thailand many times in the past two months by travellers who've been here much more recently than us. Most of them said there have been so many tourists here in recent years that people who work in tourism-related jobs have become irritated and unfriendly with foreigners, seeing them mainly as opportunities rather than individuals (one person said that particularly in the south, if you're not going to buy something then they have no use for you, which is a bit off-putting and certainly not how I remember it).

Since Bali had changed so dramatically since our last visit, we were prepared to be disappointed by Thailand, and expected to have to fend off aggressive touts at every corner. But our first morning in Bangkok (after the visa day) seemed to prove everyone wrong. Although the reception clerk at our hotel was a bit surly, everyone else we met was full of smiles and incredibly friendly, saying hello, giving us directions, striking up conversations. Some of the credit for this can be laid squarely at Ciaran's feet, because he seems to be a magnet for affectionate attention. Just as in Bali, he's again getting quite manhandled by friendly Thais who want to shake his hand, put an arm around his shoulder, chat with him and so on. Then we come along right behind him and get the same broad smiles. Really, he gets so much of this attention that it's almost too much. He puts up with it very well and seems proud to be so well-liked.

Stepping out of the soi (lane) that our hotel is on, we pulled out a street map, intending to find our way to the Chao Phraya river ferry as a first step towards heading to the train station to book some tickets. We were immediately accosted by a tuk-tuk driver who spent a good 10 minutes with us giving us tips and ideas and making notes on our map about where we should go. Of course, we weren't so obtuse as to think there were no strings attached -- he was hoping we'd pay him 30 baht to take us to all these places. But it wasn't a hard sell; he took our "no" pretty graciously. We moved on down the block and had only gone maybe 20 paces more when we were stopped again, this time by a Thai woman who spoke excellent English. She was a teacher, on holiday at the moment since Thai schools have closed for the next few weeks. When she heard of our plan to take the ferry to the train station, she quickly talked us out of it, insisting that this was really doing things the hard way and we should just head down to an accredited Thailand tourism bureau, where English-speaking staff could book the tickets for us in air-con comfort and without all the hassle of train-station touts. She flagged down a tuk-tuk for us and in rapid-fire Thai negotiated the trip down to 40B (about a dollar; not bad for a ride all the way across town).

At the tourism office, everything went pretty much as planned -- staff raced around getting chairs for the kids to sit on and someone served each of us some cold water. When it was time to pay for the tickets and we had to get more money out of an ATM, another staff member actually walked me all the way up and across the street to show me where it was, waited while I got the money, and accompanied me back. No hitch, no catch, not even a commission that we could discern.

We were starting to wonder what everyone else had been moaning about -- and we found out as soon as we flagged down our first tuk-tuk for the return trip and said, "Khao San Road?" The driver said, "200 baht." We looked shocked and said we'd got here for 40. He said 150. We again said 40. He said 100 but only if we would consent to stopping at a shop on the way back (a scam so textbook that it's amazing they even still try it). We turned around and left.

This little scenario repeated itself about four more times with various tuk-tuk drivers, the last of whom actually became quite aggressive with us and didn't back off until Mark raised his voice in return. Without the help of a friendly local, nobody was going to take us back to our hotel for anything approaching a fair price. It was obvious that unless we were willing to get ripped off knowingly, we were not going to be taking a tuk-tuk back.

We could have just flagged down a metered taxi at any point (and that's surely what we'll be doing from now on), but I was still quite sure we could find the river ferry if we were determined enough, so that became the new plan. As it turns out, the ferry stop we were looking for is one we used a decade ago when we took the ferry from Khao San Road to the GPO, and Mark eventually recognized enough landmarks to steer us there accurately. Both Mark and I love the river ferry, but the kids were less than impressed. It was standing room only for most of the trip, and incredibly loud, with the engine roaring and diesel fumes dominating. At one point, standing along the outside edge of the boat so I could see out, I was told by the conductor to move on and change places. I looked up and noticed a sign in both Thai and English: "SPACE FOR MONKS." There didn't seem to be any monks looking for the space, but I cleared out quickly nonetheless.

Today was nowhere near as interesting. We planned on getting some homeschooling in during the morning so we could take the kids to the Chatuchak weekend market and museum, but a slow start and other uninteresting setbacks meant we weren't even ready for lunch until after 2 p.m. By the time that was finished, we just couldn't muster the motivation to tackle Bangkok traffic and see much of anything interesting. Instead we walked around our immediate area some more and went for a swim.

We have one day left in Bangkok and then we're off by early morning train to Kanchanaburi, about 2-3 hours north of here, where we'll stay for just two nights. Kanchanaburi is the site of the famous "Bridge over the River Kwai" and Death Railway, and has a few kid-friendly attractions as well, including monkeys harvesting coconuts from tall trees and a tiger sanctuary run by monks. After that it's off to Chiang Mai.

Posted by The Rymans 07:57 Archived in Thailand Tagged family_travel Comments (1)

Here in Thailand, it's all about India (so far)

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It just wouldn’t be a regular day for the Rymans on the road if there weren’t a few near misses and tense moments, would it?

So let’s recap…we left Bali shortly after a four-hour blackout and just one day before a moderately powerful earthquake caused panic and injuries across the island, though no fatalities that I know of. We had just left Singapore when another earthquake centred in Indonesia was felt there, though it caused no damage. We were on the east coast of Malaysia when the country issued a tsunami warning for the west coast due to the massive earthquake in Padang, Indonesia. We were still there, swinging in our hammocks in the Perhentian islands, when we got pummelled by the tail end of Typhoon Ketsana, which toppled trees and crushed bungalows at our resort and neighbouring ones. Then just as we were about to get out of Malaysia today, a terrorist threat: as I was waiting to board our flight from Penang to Bangkok this morning, I opened up the newspaper and read that Malaysia was advising its citizens not to panic despite a threat from Indonesian terrorists planning to take action against the country today for some series of perceived injustices.

The drama should have ended there, but we boarded and landed (uneventfully) in Bangkok with a pressing mission: we had to present ourselves at the visa processing centre for the Indian embassy by 3 p.m. That’s because unlike every other country on our itinerary, India doesn’t just hand out tourist visas at the airport: you have to apply for them well in advance via a process almost as onerous as obtaining a Canadian passport. The deadline to submit applications is 3 p.m. daily, and it takes five working days to process applications for foreigners. We looked at a calendar and counted the days: if we got our applications in today, October 8, the soonest we could possibly get them back would be October 14 at 4 p.m. We have to be on a train to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand by 7 p.m. that same evening so that we can arrive there the same day as Mark’s mom, who is meeting us there after a marathon flight from Canada.

So it was Indian embassy or bust, and the difficulty of our mission became apparent as soon as we wedged ourselves into an airport taxi: it was already 12:15 p.m. as we pulled away from the airport, and it was going to take over an hour to reach our hotel here in Banglamphu because of the shocking Bangkok traffic. We would have to check in, drop off our bags, get our bearings and get right back out and into another cab bound for a different part of town that would take yet another hour to get to. On top of this, both kids—whom we had awakened at 6:30 this morning (after a late night) to catch our flight—were exhausted, tired of driving, starving, and thirsty.

We made a compromise: they could have a five-minute swim here at our hotel’s rooftop pool, and then we would all have to pile back into a cab again. Deal, they said.

So it was already 1:45 p.m. when we were back on the street flagging down a cab and trying to explain to the driver where we wanted to go. There was one problem: I didn’t have the address. I’d forgotten it in a notebook in my backpack at the hotel. I did know where it was on a map, though, so I kept pointing to and mispronouncing nearby Thai street names. I don’t know how many times I said, “Sukhumvit?” (a major artery)—it felt like a dozen—but the driver just kept looking at me like I was speaking Swahili. Using two different maps and recognizing the odd landmark building here and there, I was eventually able to communicate where we wanted to go despite apparently butchering the Thai language in the process.

We’d been stuck in traffic for about 20 minutes, and it was 2:20 p.m., when it suddenly dawned on me that I’d forgotten all of our visa photos back at the hotel room.

NOOOOOOOOOOOO…..Mark wondered if he should jump out and run back to get them, then meet up with us. But there was no way he had time for that. Then we considered abandoning our entire plan and asking the driver to just turn around. I wasn’t a fan of that plan since it meant sure defeat—and it would also mean returning to Bangkok some other time for another week to try this whole thing all over again, and that’s just not on our itinerary. I figured we were halfway there and after all, this is Asia: there would probably be some kind of photo service available for an exorbitant extra fee for disorganized people just like us. So on we went.

We finally arrived at 2:45 p.m. In my haste to rush us in before the deadline, I nearly plowed right by the security guard on the main floor, who wanted all four of us to sign in with passport numbers. Finally, we all piled into the elevator and got out at the 15th floor, only to be greeted by another security checkpoint where we had to state the purpose of our visit (after waiting behind several other people) and then be checked for weapons on our way in. We were given reams of paperwork to fill out—three pages worth of forms for each of the four of us—and we needed to obtain several photocopies of each of our passports as well as two photos. Sure enough, there was a photo booth right there in the visa office, where we got the requisite number of photos for a whopping 1,000 baht. Nonetheless, it was a tall order given that we had less than 15 minutes left.

We were told that we couldn’t get a number and get in line to submit our applications until we had all our paperwork completed, so we worked like mad things for nearly an hour, just hoping they would take the applications anyway--and completely ignoring the starving, thirsty, exhausted children, who at this point were probably even too weak and confused to fight. They eventually helped themselves to some water at the cooler and found seats somewhere in the waiting room. It was about 3:30 p.m. when we were finally ready—but the woman who’d been organizing the queue had departed. In a state of desperation, I buttonholed the first sari-clad woman who exited a door marked “Staff” and asked her what we should do next. She said she had no idea, but the man coming along behind her might know. So I asked him, and he said cheerfully, “Oh, I think it’s too late; applications close by 3 p.m.” I gave him the biggest, saddest doe eyes that I know how to make (I’m not very good at that sort of thing, but it must have helped that my desperation was actually sincere) and explained that I really had arrived before the deadline but had filled out forms for four people because of my children, and so on, and so on…so he asked me to follow him outside the office, back to the security area, where he instructed someone out there to issue me a number.

Long story short, after a great deal of stress and suspense, the office did accept our applications and we’re to show up again on October 14 at 4 p.m. to collect our passports with the visas inside them. (That should be another interesting day, since our train north leaves at 7 p.m.) Besides all the work involved in obtaining them, the cost was crazy. On top of the 1,000 baht for the photos, the visa processing fee was 1,450 baht or so, and the visas themselves cost more than 8,000 baht. (I can’t do the math just now but there are 33 baht to the dollar, approximately—all told, far more per visa than we’re paying to go anywhere else.)

And the embassy has this comforting little message for anyone daring enough to book a ticket to India before getting the go-ahead (I saw this written on several signs posted around the office): “Please note that the Embassy of India reserves the right to delay/refuse the visa without stating any reason and the fees once paid are not returned under any circumstance.” The posters go on to recommend that applicants refrain from booking any tickets until after they have their visas in hand. This is so perfectly, quintessentially Indian that you just have to laugh. We did look at each other and ask: Why are we going there again, again??

When we finally stumbled out of the building, we headed straight across the street for some ridiculously expensive pizza and beer, the first food or drink we’d had, or given the kids, in over eight hours. Then we got another cab back to our hotel district...after a few tries. When we flagged down a first taxi and I opened the door and said, "Khao San Road?" the driver, who was wearing earphones, just chuckled at me like this was the most ludicrous suggestion he'd ever heard, and waved his hands dramatically at me while continuing to giggle, saying, "No no no no no no no!" Okay...We did finally find a driver willing to take us. We got in and he immediately cranked up the Elton John. Yes, it has been a strange day! Time spent in airports and planes: 4 hours. Time spent in cabs: 3 hours. Time spent in suspenseful queues: 2 hours. Whew.

And as for Bangkok? Admittedly, we haven’t seen very much of it yet--mostly just the insides of taxis. We hope to get a more leisurely start to the day tomorrow, although we do have some errands to run: a visit to the post office, some shopping, a phone call or two and a trip to the train station to book our tickets to Chiang Mai on October 14, in flagrant, optimistic disregard of the Indian embassy’s warning.

Posted by The Rymans 08:50 Archived in Thailand Tagged family_travel Comments (9)

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