A Travellerspoint blog

Ao Nang Beach Bums

sunny 34 °C

In the morning, we had our breakfast on the balcony to avoid eating in the room and breaking the guesthouse's rule. Peanut butter sandwiches and apples were a good call. After that we got ourselves beach ready, digging out the shorts and sunscreen that was long buried during our stint in China, and hopped in another songtao. This time we weren't just being cheap. It was the legitimate way to travel between Krabi town and Ao Nang where the beaches were. The wind blowing in our hair helped cool us down, and the truck bed did have seats, a roof and rail-like walls for the illusion of safety.

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Ao Nang was certainly different than Krabi town. The beachfront was lined with tourist restaurants, fruit shake stands, tour package offers, but nothing to indicate a local presence. We checked out a few of the tours but nothing caught our eye just yet so we hit the beach.
The sand was light and soft on the feet. There were hardly any people on it at all. We wondered who could possibly pass up such a beautiful day. Probably the people on tours. We sprawled out on a nice cozy section and headed into the warm waters. They were still cool enough to refresh and incredibly clear. To our left, there tree covered karst that sheltered the beach and to the right the sand went on further than we wanted to walk.

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Eventually, our stomachs decided they'd had enough beach time and we needed food. We found a reasonable place with vegetarian options as well as whole coconuts that they'd cut the top off, pry open and stick in a straw. Once we'd tackled all the coconut water, we had spoons to dig the meat out of the shell. It was a lot chewier than if it had been dried out as we were used to. Our food was good too, although we couldn't recall what it was.

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We wandered the beach until the lack of shade sent us back in the water for a dip and later to find fruit shakes from a nearby vendor. We brought them along in the songtao packed with other tourists making the return journey and a few local women as well. The journey back took us a little over half an hour, and boy was that breeze appreciated.

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We hadn't intended to stay in Krabi too long, but we were enjoying it so much we didn't want to leave. Unfortunately, our indecisiveness meant that we would have to switch to dorms here or find a new accommodation. Given the prices, we opted to relocate to a cheap double room in Ao Nang, plus the tours would be easier to do from there, we thought. The man working the tour desk at our guesthouse helped us line up a kayaking tour that would also transfer us from this hotel to our next, no hard feelings because their double rooms were booked solid.

We went next door to a pad thai restaurant with only local customers so far. We split a dish that even came with a lime, which was perfect. The pad thai was good, but we wished it had a bit more sauce. Then we ventured over to the weekend market, first acquiring fruits like guava and oranges.
The market was absolutely packed tonight. Ryan managed to get some fried chicken and I stood in a long line for som tam, papaya salad. I had to stand close enough so I could make sure the little shrimp didn't get added. When they did, the man was nice enough to start a new one for me. Surely someone behind me in line would want it the shrimpy one. We fought our way through the crowd to circle the tables and swoop in as one opened up. As we ate, a Thai pop band started playing on stage and increasing the demand for tables. We stayed out of curiosity, but Ryan wasn't really feeling the music.

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After, we perused the market. I had a bag of salty popcorn in hand while Ryan looked through the tank tops that would get him through this hot weather. He found a gray one with a camera printed on it. Next, we looked at the sarong, a must have for the Asia trip in my opinion. They really could be anything and everything: towel, blanket, scarf, head wrap, skirt, table cloth, dress, pillow. Ryan got to barter a little bit for his elephant print sarong and fetched a fair price. All and all, a pretty good night and way to end our stay in Krabi town.

Posted by Sarah.M 02:41 Archived in Thailand Tagged beach drink krabi fruit coconut shake ao nang songtao Comments (0)

To Krabi town!

Our (re)introduction to Thailand

sunny 33 °C

The flight to Kuala Lumpur was long but we managed to sleep just a bit. The cabin was pretty dry when combined with all the arid weather we faced in China, so we had to buy a bottle of water. If you've never flown budget Asian airlines, the only complimentary extra they offer you other than the ticket and a smile, is the barf bag. You pay out of pockets for everything else. I had some Malay currency from my last trip so it worked out fine and we got our tiny bottle.

I had been dreading flying into Kuala Lumpur's airport since we booked the flight, but as it turned out they'd built a new one in the past two years which meant that we didn't even have to go through immigration or customs or reclaim our bags. They actually had a layover counter to make sure our bags were coming through and that we were in the right place. We did have to collect the tickets that the clerk in Beijing failed to print for us. We spent our few hours using the free unrestricted internet again, hurray for Facebook and Google! We also ate sandwiches at Dunkin Donuts which was one of our few options. They even had free drinking water at the airport. We hardly wanted to leave.

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The flight to Krabi was short and sweet, but the immigration lines less so. Once we cleared them, we were free to go with our 30 day stamp. We ditched our Beijing sweaters that had made us stick out in KL but the jeans and long sleeves would have to stay a bit longer.

Ignoring the offers from bus companies and taxis, we set off to find a songtao I'd read about on wikitravel. We tried to find a spot in the shade on the main road as we kept an eye out for pick-up trucks. They were colour coded and we just needed a white one. The hot, sticky, air wasn't doing us any favours and after fifteen minutes I was beginning to doubt the advice I read was valid.

Finally, we flagged one down. Ryan wasn't too sure about riding in the back of a truck. I had forgotten that normal people found it a bit strange and unsettling. After a year living here, it had just become normal for me. He went with it anyway and we made it into town for just under a dollar combined.

Once we were there, I could finally use Google maps to help us find the hotel. Fun fact, if you load the city's map beforehand, the built in GPS will even keep working once the wifi disappears. Before we found our destination, we did have to stop and buy fruit from a vendor with what little Thai I remembered. She spoke English anyway, but it was still fun to be able to communicate with people again. Ryan loved the Thai pineapple and I'd missed it too. He was already falling in love with the country and I was beginning to wonder why I ever left. A sweet treat and some heat mid-winter will do that to a person.

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We found our guesthouse on the main street, past some cheap food vendors, tourist clothing stands, convenience stores and a very lost drunk Finnish guy. The lobby was nice and spacious with a tour desk and high ceilings. The woman working greeted us with a smile and told us we had a wonderful room, lots of space but very high. The cheapest ones always seem to be on the top, in this case 5th, floor. She wasn't lying about the room though: bright walls with so much space to move around, plus a balcony.

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Excited about the city, we went into Krabi town to explore. We found where to buy water and food. A grocery store with an imported foods section even carried Skippy peanut butter so we had to pick some up despite the marked up price, plus a little spoon. If anything we were budgeting and saving money - think of all those cheap breakfasts we could have. Wandering the outdoor shops, Ryan even managed to find himself a bandana before we settled into a little tourist cafe with prices three times as high as I remembered. The pineapple fruit shakes were nice and our curries delicious. I had a Tom Kha coconut milk soup and Ryan had Penang curry.

A market sprung up as the sun went down. Food, clothes, accessories, electronics, crafts and all kind of stands were set up to cater to the mix of foreign and local customers. English signs helped us figure out some of the dishes we might try tomorrow. Ryan found a pretty sweet tiger shirt that he'd been anticipating buying long before we hopped on the plane to China. He went back and forth on the price before agreeing to it. I still had a pretty good sense of what was a fair price so he did well.

We found Thai pancakes with banana and chocolate and sat down to eat them while people on stage performed some sound checks. The young women working at the restaurant we ate at before were running around collecting dishes at the tables. They saw us, waved and laughed, probably because we couldn't stop eating. How could you with all this tasty food?

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A lot of people rag on Krabi town as a place they wouldn't want to stay. Personally, I loved seeing the mix of local culture and tourist infrastructure. Markets, street stall food, restaurants, shops on the first floor of multi-story buildings. To me this was Thailand. Because we were in the South, there were more Muslim Thai people and that was reflected in the dress. It was something I had missed my first time crashing through the south as a speedy tourist. The fact that local people were out enjoying the market meant that this wasn't all for show for the visitors too. It felt real and I loved that part of it.

Posted by Sarah.M 07:36 Archived in Thailand Tagged market kuala thailand krabi maps lumpur google curry klia2 songtao Comments (0)

Forbidden City

sunny -4 °C

Final day in China, and time for Forbidden City. It had been so close yet so far all this time. First we needed a double order of Taiwanese breakfast sandwiches that we ate on the steps outside the subway. If we brought them inside, the announcements would conveniently become bilingual just long enough to ream us out for eating in there.

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When we got off the subway, there seemed to be a ton more security guards than usual. Lots of bag scans and metal detectors to go through just to get near the building. The lines themselves took ten minutes or so and we hadn't even entered the gates. We wondered if it was always this intense. The Irish flag was flying alongside the Chinese today, we later noticed so that may have been a factor.

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Forbidden City was quite large. We passed two whole halls of the outer court before the ticket counter appeared. The complex was designed and built from 1406-1420 for the Emperor and Empress along with their many concubines and attendants. It served as such during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Some halls were used to conduct meetings, others for celebrations. I had rented an audio guide and it urged me to look up at the statues on the roofs which served as guardians. The more there were, the more important the building was. The highest number of guardians was eleven.

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We visited the Hall of Supreme Harmony, used for ceremonies, like the lunar New Year, Winter Solstice, birthdays and enthronement of a new emperor. The hall was built in the 15th century then rebuilt in the 17th. Inside there was a dragon throne. We also visited the Hall of Central Harmony, a few times since my audio guide stopped working properly and I had to get it fixed. Here the Emperor would rehearse speeches, rest and meet with close ministers. The last large Hall of Preserving Harmony had less pillars than the others and could be used for banquets and dances. Later it was used for imperial ceremonies.

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Outside each hall were large copper vats that were used to put out fires. We also came across a large stone carving that ascended between the staircases. They transported the stone from the suburbs of Beijing by sprinkling water on the road to create an ice path.

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We passed through a few more halls before making it to the Imperial Garden. Large rocks transported from southern China upon request, dominated the landscaping in a good way. They had a pavilion on either side. It seemed like the most relaxing area in the extremely large and cold complex.

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Along both sides of the gates were buildings: palaces for the Empress and the concubines selected young and for their beauty. Some who had sons even had a shot at becoming royalty later on in life. Many of the rooms were still set up from the last Empress's 50th birthday party some years ago. Ornaments and furniture were on display behind glass. On the Eastern side, the buildings had been converted into museums housing bronze, jade and ceramic displays.

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Chilled once again, we tried to find the exit but were forbidden from going the logical route that would lead to the subway. We finally understood the name in today's context. We went around, past the imposing walls and moat again except in another direction. There was no logical reason that we could see as to why people needed to walk around the massive complex in the cold other than to encourage the sales of tickets for the little electric car to the exit or to corral people past souvenir shops. The added twenty minutes where my face was so dry my lips cracked open again , didn't improve my mood.

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We got turned around in one more dead end in the underground before we made it to Tiananmen Square. As advertised, it was a lot of paved open space with security that felt a bit out of place. People would boldly try to take photos of or with the guards, who seemed unwelcoming at best. I used my zoom lens just the once. But mostly, we stuck to photography of the monument in the middle and the big stone buildings reminiscent of a Soviet style.

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Once we said our goodbyes and packed up our bags, we took the late subway to the airport for our lovely 2 am flight. Despite all our time spent using internet, neither of us had thought to look up which terminal we needed to arrive at to catch an Air Asia flight. We took the third last train to terminal 3 where some international ones departed.

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Luckily for us, a Malaysian couple was struggling to communicate with the security guard just before the subway exit gates. The Chinese woman working was so lost she even asked us if we spoke Mandarin so we could translate her words into English for the couple. Essentially, they wanted to know if he could see her off on her flight and then return to the train to go to terminal 2 for his later flight. We were able to tell him when the last train was running, which axed his plans. Lucky for us again, the couple knew which terminal Air Asia flew out of much better than the woman who actually worked there and hardly understood English. The Malaysian man and us took the train back to terminal 2, where sure enough we could catch our flight.

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The hassles weren't over yet. It wouldn't be China if they were. The Air Asia desk was impossibly slow. They were running a big long-distance jet, yet to check everyone in, they only opened three counters. We stood in line for a full hour just to drop off our checked bags. I suppose they figured we had nothing else to do between 11pm and 2am, but still, a chair would have been nice. At least the smiling Malaysian people reminded me that soon we'd be in a warmer place, if only for the layover, but Thailand was much the same.

Posted by Sarah.M 05:45 Archived in China Tagged city china beijing forbidden taiwanese wrap Comments (0)

Hutongs of Beijing and Lama Temple

semi-overcast -4 °C

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We'd gone into hibernation mode, killing time in the morning in the misguided hope that it would warm up, although it never did. We also had an unhealthy addiction to the Logos game/app that coincidentally amped up our desire to stay inside.

Once we eventually left, we tried out the Taiwanese sandwich shop that my friend recommended. Boy were they good, like little egg or egg and bacon crepes, with a flaky yet oily exterior. They were salty with chili sauce, ketchup and pepper. The vendor even spoke some English so I could be sure mine were meat free. We regretted only buying one to scarf down before the subway ride.

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We came back above ground at Lama Temple, a Tibetan temple that had withstood battles that desecrated other buildings. Originally a residence for Emperor Yong Zheng, Lama Temple was converted into a Lamasery in 1744. Since, it helped to serve as a liaison between China and the Mongol people when relations were healthy.

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By this point, we'd admit that we'd seen a lot of temples, most looking very similar and this one also fit the bill. A unique feature was a giant wooden Buddha statue, so large in fact that they earned a world record (posted in the temple museum) for their statue. They also had the prayer wheels we saw in Sichuan province that were more typical to Tibet.

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Most people visited to pray and bought bundles of incense sticks. There were many sites where they placed the sticks as an offering for each prayer. That incense shop made quite the healthy business. We were pretty cold just wandering around, economically snapping photos when interest topped the desire to have warm hands. The only place to warm up had been the museum with a collection of bronze statues and worship items. Monks stood in the corner, I assumed to supervise, although their phones caught their attention far more than any visitor.

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We found a vegetarian restaurant which was quite far from the temple. It didn't always pay to avoid meat, but the place was nice. It had a health grocery section at the front and then a dining area with several sections. It felt like a tea house out of a kung-fu movie with round windows in the stone walls, dark furniture, an indoor courtyard made to look outdoorsy. We split a kung-pow mock chicken dish that I was a bit sceptical of and I tried some flowery Roselle tea.

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It took a few wrong turns to find our way out of the hutongs and head toward the other hutongs that Lonely Planet recommended. We passed some sweet Christmas decorations like life-sized lobsters wearing Santa hats. Ryan also spotted a few guitar shops that we stopped in to 'warm-up'. Most of the recognizable brand guitars were wrapped in plastic which killed most of the fun for him. There was also a hotdog stand with veggie dogs right near the start of our self-guided tour.

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We opted to do the tour backward based on our location, which was much easier in theory, especially without street names. We started with nice residential hutong alleys that led to the Drum and Bell Towers currently under construction. It was for the best anyway as we would have likely been too cheap to pay the entrance fees.

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Across a busier street, we got a bit more lost trying to decide how far was enough based on the poorly scaled map. Rarely did Lonely Planet produce useful maps in the books themselves. Since our interpretation was that they wanted us to go through someone's yard, we made our own route past vegetable vendors, homes and other one or two story constructions that didn't contribute to the skyline.

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We found a nice little park with a frozen lake that the book forgot. Soon the hutongs got really commercial and trendy as we tried to locate so-and-so's former residence even though it turned out we could only look at the front gate. Our fingertips and cheeks were burning so we went back.

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My friend recommended a nice Chinese restaurant a few streets away from her place for supper so we had a nice feast of lamb wraps, eggplant, a refreshing cucumber dish and fried beans. It was sad to think we'd be saying goodbye soon, felt like yesterday we were having adventures in Thailand together. It was also awesome she put us up and shared her living space for a whole week.

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Posted by Sarah.M 07:44 Archived in China Tagged tower park temple beijing drum lama cold bell frozen hutong closed sandwich taiwanese Comments (0)

Great Wall: Mutianyu

Nothing but blue skies!

sunny -2 °C

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Monday, time for the reason most people come to China: Great Wall! Our tour even included breakfast, if we could find Saga hostel again. It had been tricky enough yesterday, but we had it in memory now. We were the first ones there and ordered two American breakfasts. Despite that fact, our food came absolutely last and was a bit cold. We broke down and bought drinks that they failed to include in the 'complimentary but not really you paid for it in the tour price' breakfast.

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Our minivan of tourists drove ten minutes to reach a larger bus full of even more tourists. Unlike what we'd encountered in most of China, the bus was full of nearly forty foreigners. 'The most whities we've seen since leaving Canada,' Ryan proclaimed. Our guide found the number of people quite large as well.

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He gave us some background on the wall itself which spanned from the sea, past mountains and to the desert. Emperor Qin Shi Huan had decided
that they needed a wall to keep the Mongol invaders from pillaging villages. People today recognized his role in unifying China which was a collection of smaller locally governed communities prior to his rule. He unified the people with language and religion. He built the Great Wall to have a physical barrier and keep out the Mongols. But during his era, people were more likely to think of him as a tyrant who enslaved millions, a sizable chunk of the large population, and ran up large expenses building the wall and an elaborate tomb. People at the time had very few provisions as a result.

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Once we arrived at the wall, we opted to pay to take the cable car up as we only had three hours and wanted to make the most of them. Since it was early, the wall wasn't busy at all and the only line came from our busload. We got on our gondola with one other traveller. Mountains rose all around us and the Great Wall soon came into view. We were really there!

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Starting at watchtower 13, we began our journey. The temperature was rather pleasant and the skies were a perfect blue, nearly Asian-Pacific Economic Conference (APEC) blue like when the government shut down factories and closed everything when the Western leaders held the conference in Beijing earlier that month. If the trees leaves weren't dead the pictures would have been even more phenomenal.

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The wall was narrower than we imagined, smaller than a lane of traffic. New bricks had been laid to make walking easier. Eventually, the photogenic winding wall became an uphill challenge. A woman along the way had forgotten water. We would have shared if we weren't running on a low supply ourselves.

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We passed the 'No tourists' sign as our guide had instructed. The woman selling snacks there didn't say anything either. There was another vendor past that point anyway so the sign was more of an 'at your own risk thing'. That's what travel insurance is for, just kidding.

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The bricks' placement became sporadic with some sideways, others missing and other parts reclaimed by vegetation. It got easier to walk on soon after and there were always people in front of us which had to be a good sign. We kept walking just past the halfway point time-wise. After a few more pictures, we ventured back.

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We met an American man on the way who was teaching ESL an hour South of Beijing. Monday and Tuesday were his weekend so he was just visiting. He had wanted to teach abroad elsewhere but got quite a few offers from China after uploading his resume. He worked with quite a few Canadians too, mainly from the Maritimes. We ended up chatting about travelling and working abroad the rest of the way back. We made much better time than anticipated.

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Ryan and I explored the other side of the wall on our own, not ready to leave just yet. The wall kept winding and winding. Off in the distance, we could see small watchtowers. It felt like we were in Middle Earth or something like that. The walls themselves had interesting drainage systems running down the sides too.

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Even though the walls were quite high, in the past the Mongols had been able to scale the walls, but getting back with the goods they'd pillaged from the villages was much more challenging, so it served as a deterrent. Guards in the watchtowers also kept the country safe.
China's flaw with the wall had been spreading themselves too thin and not providing supplies to their guards. The Mongol leader, Genghis Khan, bribed the cold, hungry guards, overtook the wall and became the emperor of China.

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Nearly lunch hour, we rode the gondola down and walked to Mr. Yang's restaurant. We joined a table of ten or so other tourists from our bus and waited for plate after plate of food to be placed on the table. There were at least a dozen different dishes and I could even eat half of them. The highlight for me was the spicy cabbage and greens. I hadn't eaten this well with Chinese food in awhile.

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It was nice to actually have a ride back to my friend's neighbourhood, although the walk back from Saga was brutally cold. Ryan and I ventured back to the dumpling place for supper with the translation and Chinese characters for eggplant saved on his phone. We couldn't find the dish in the English menu so we asked for the Chinese. They were quite surprised. We managed to order what we wanted and while it wasn't exactly the same as the dish we had on our first day, it was still delicious and meat-free. The Chinese couple next to us ordered the same thing afterward.

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Posted by Sarah.M 23:32 Archived in China Tagged china great hostel beijing tour wall moutain khan genghis saga mongols Comments (0)

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