Monday, May 30, 2011

I now have my elephant license

Feeling slightly hungover was probably not the most ideal way to start out a day of elephant riding and jungle trekking but that's how it began.

We got up and checked out of the hostel, leaving our bags at the front desk and taking just some stuff for overnight. We were picked up by a name named Hansome who was to be our elephant trainer. On our way we picked up a girl from Holland, two girls from the UK and two girls from upstate New York.

We drove about an hour to the elephant camp where all of our breath was taken away at the scene in front of us: lush green forest, hazy skies and elephants galore. I don't think I have ever seen so many elephants at once!

We were given traditional Mahout clothing to wear while with our elephants, so we all got changed and headed over to the common area to learn how to communicate with the gentle giants.

Handsome taught us the basic commands:
Put your leg up: sungsoon! (you grab an ear and some skin and use the elephants leg like a step before pulling yourself up on the elephant)
Go forward: huuuuhhhh (basically a grunt) while kicking both legs into the back of the ears
Stop: how!!! (while squeezing the neck with your legs)
Go back: Tuoy!! (while scooching your butt backwards)
Turn: Couy!! (while kicking the opposite legs from which way you want to go)

After repeating the commands over and over we went and practiced on tr elephants. What a completely weird feeling, hauling ones self up and onto the back of a creature who is at least 13 feet tall. It definitely took some time to learn to be comfortable way up on top, using your legs to hold on and resting your hands in their head for stability.

After practicing we took a bunch of photos with Dodo, one of the young elephants at the camp who was extremely smart. He posed with us, giving us kisses and putting hats on our heads and playing dead etc. It was absolutely adorable.

It was about lunch time so we took a break to eat before our trek through the jungle. Handsome brought out dishes of yellow curry with chicken and potatoes, stir fried veggies and rice. We all ate so much, not realizing how hungry we'd become. Once the main course was finished some pineapple and watermelon appeared, beautifully displayed.

While we were eating Champu, the little baby of the camp came to visit us. She tried to steal some fruit from us, but mostly just barreled into the table before her trained came and wrangled her back. Just like a little human she kept trying to sneak back over to us whenever he wasn't watching.

When we finished eating it was time to go actually ride on the elephants. We walked over to the main camp and waited while the men brought us each our elephants. Being guys both Ren and Eric were given huge elephants that stood about 18 feet high. Luckily the massive animals were told to bend down so that the guys were able to climb aboard.

I wad given a slightly smaller, however much more dirty elephant. He had mud caked to his back. And he'd been in the process of trying to wash it off when they brought him over to me so he was both slippery AND muddy. A slightly unnerving combo to say the least.

Once we were all comfortably on top of our animals we set off into the jungle. Up we climbed through the forest, grunting and kicking to make the elephants go. Mine was content being at the back of the pack, so I spent a lot of time attempting to coax him along. "Huuuuhhhh!!!" I grunted, kicking him in the back of the ears. It didn't work. He only listened when the old Mahout man that was following along beside me used his elephant whispering skills.

A few times my elephant attempted to eat the luscious leaves located on the edge of the road which also happened to be cliff side. I would be lying if I didn't think I was going to fall off my elephant and tumble to my death. I tried to use my skills and convince him to back up but it failed miserably and i ended up just begging my Mahout man to convince the elephant to back up and resume a non life threatening postion.

Because we were just sitting on the necks of the elephants a lot of leg work was required to stay balanced... Especially when going down hill. And double especially when my elephant decided that going downhill would be a good time to become tired of being at the back of the pack and start passing everyone. I think everyone in the group had the same feeling while going downhill.

When we got to the bottom of the hill there was a river that we walked the elephants into. They kneeled down and we were able to dismount. Handsome started to hand out brushes and we were able to wash our elephants. Finally i could scrub all the dirt off my very dirty elephant.

After the bathing we fed the elephants bananas as a thanks before they were sent out to the field to graze. We piled into the back of a pickup truck and headed back to the camp. Once back at camp we changed back into our dry clothes and prepared for our trek through the jungle.

We said our goodbyes to the rest of the group, since we were trekking alone, and headed off into the trees...  But that's a story for another day.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Bangkok to Chiang Mai

Not sure if it was the excitement of the next leg of our journey or just that I wasn't tired but I woke up at around 6:30am. I did a bit of internet-ing and then started to get ready.

The boys both woke up fairly early as well ms with our extra time before the shuttle we decided to go for a walk to find food. We walked down the street and bought some drinks on the way. Instead of turning right at the end like the night before we opted for left. As we walked we passed a coffee place but it wasn't open yet.

We came across a street vendor selling what looked like donuts, so both Ren and Eric bought some. Not extremely sweet, they were still tasty. We walked a bit further down the street until it became obvious that there really wasn't much to find so we turned back. The coffee place we ha passed earlier was open so we all got coffee for about $1.

I stopped and bought a little bundle of sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves.  It tasted a bit like banana bread.

When we got back the shuttle was ready to go so we piled in and headed for the airport, which was only about 10 min away. Upon arrival we checked in and decided to find some food.

There was a food court of sorts that had the normal chains like McD's and burger king, as well as a few little
Cafe places. The boys each got
Egg mcMuffins and I opted for mango sticky rice and a coffee. We walked to our gate, boarded our flight and set off for Chiang mai.

The airport in Chiang mai was small but completely functional. We were off the plane and had gathered our luggage in about 25 min. Outside was a bunch of taxi drivers waiting so we grabbed a cab and asked him to take us to Yourhouse hostel, one of the ones I'd made note of prior to leaving Bangkok.

The taxi drive was only about 10 min, and the driver took us right to the place. We unloaded ourselves and went to the desk to check in. We opted for a 3 person room with a fan and private washroom. The total was 350baht, or about $10. Total. Absolutely crazy that it can be that cheap.

We dropped our belongings off and decided we should get out and explore. Ren wanted to find a place called the Lost Hut, run by the brother of a colleague at henrys. We decided to start there and see where the day took us.

As we crossed the road somehow caught the attention of a local who was very helpful in regards to how we should go about booking the next couple days of adventure. He said we should talk to the tourist info places, not the hostel or travel agencies because they have better prices.

 We found the lost hut but it was closed (assuming it opened later) so we opted to search out lunch instead. As we stood staring into our
Guidebook for recommendations another local asked if we needed help. We said we wanted a place to eat. He suggested a place around the corner, so we took his advice. Happy we did too, since we had a fantastic meal of pad thai, Chiang Mai noodles and green curry for about $3 each.

After lunch we wandered around some more and then decided to go for traditional Thai massages- an hour for about $5. They were an amazing experience. The little Thai woman spent 15 min on each leg, another 20 on my shoulders and arms and the last 10 walking up and down my body on her elbows and knees. It was unlike anything I have ever had before.

We decided we should make a plan for the next couple days and decided on elephant riding, trekking through the jungle to a hilltribe village and spending the night and then more trekking to a place where we would ride a bamboo raft down the Mekong river. We booked the whole adventure with one of the tourist info places and got what we thought was a great deal: 4000 baht for the whole thing (about $130).

All booked and prepared for the next day we headed back to the Lost Hut, which was now open, and had some drinks while talking to the girls that worked there and Blake the owner. Around midnight we called it the end and made our way back to the hostel (via McD's) and promptly passed out.

Next stop, elephants and hill tribes.


Because we had flights booked to Chiang Mai in the morning we had booked an airport hotel that came with free transfers to and from the airport. However, I couldn't remember whether I had given the hotel our flight info so it seemed logical that we should call the hotel to let them know we had arrived.

We found some telephones but after about 5 attempts to dial the number we gave up and went to the information desk to ask. They told us that the hotel had reps at door 4 so we walked down through the arrivals area to find the spot and hopefully get a ride to the airport.

Upon arrival into HK I had mentioned to Ren that someday I wanted someone to be waiting for me with my name on a sign. Imagine my surprise as we got to door 4 and there was a cute little Thai girl with ALANNA FOELL on a sign! I beamed and walked over to her and she asked my name. I pointed proudly at the sign (the smallest things can be so exciting for me, I swear!) and she ushered us over to the waiting area, telling us it would be about 10 min.

We chatted about what we wanted to do with our evening and the general consensus was to stay at the hotel, maybe find some food but overall just chill out and relax. The driver arrived and we piled into the van and took off.

The hotel wasn't terribly far from the airport, located on a side street off the main road into the city. On the drive we noticed a bunch of what appeared to be places to get a bite to eat and figured it would be walkable, or at least a cheap taxi ride if we did leave later.

Looking out the windows I was amazed at the difference in what I was seeing in comparison to HK. Lush green landscape and little huts along the road. Stray dogs everywhere and garbage and debris in amongst the trees on the side of the road. HK had been so clean, with modern buildings, even in Kowloon which was obviously not where the money was. Granted, we were by the airport on the outskirts of the city but still completely different. That being said, our hotel was a gorgeous structure with an outdoor sitting area. It was clean and well looked after. The room was huge (3 single beds! No sharing this time!) and a "proper" bathroom with a shower that didn't soak the toilet and sink in the process.

We unloaded our stuff and lay on the bed. Exhausted from the early morning, flight, copious amounts of food and free wine, and then the heat of Thailand (felt like a wall of humidity) an impromptu nap was the unspoken agreement between the three of us.

Too excited to stay still for too long, I hopped in the shower and put on a dress - it was just too hot for pants. I grabbed my camera and went outside to take a few photos of the hotel...only to find it had since started raining. A lot. Monsoon season was definitely upon us. Came back in and watched some tv with the guys while we waited for the rain to subside.

Eventually the rain did stop and we decided to walk in search of some food and drink. It had gotten dark much earlier than expected for this time of year- something we don't think of living so far from the equator. The air was heavy but there was still a breeze.

As we walked along we passed the locals sitting outside, talking and having fun. We waved, said hello and marveled at how different our evening walk was from the night before in HK.

Walking along we passed some restaurants with live music and food, and eventually stopped at a colourfully lit place with a decent amount of people to make us confident that the service would be friendly.
We were offered a seat, and very quickly the realization that we knew only the word for thank you came crashing down upon us. The woman offered us a menu, which we took and then stared at. Not a word of English or pictures.

One of the patrons at the restaurant gestured to Eric to follow him over to the food area to pick out something to eat. He came back and said he had chosen something that looked like beef salad.
Spent the next hour or so enjoying some cold beer and strange yet delicious food. The dishes that arrived appeared to be beef and chicken, stir fried and presented on some cucumbers. On the side was a chili based paste that was spicy but not unbearably so.

The woman who was in charge took a liking to Ren, fawning all over him and writing "pa love ren" on the palm of his hand. She even gave him her phone number, and indicated that he should call her.
After drinking 2 or 3 bottles of beer we started our walk back to the hotel. It had started to rain lightly but that was starting to seem normal. It is the beginning of the rainy season after all.

Set our alarms for 7am and went to sleep.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Hong Kong Morning

Our night in the cell sized room was okay, despite the cramped quarters. We woke up around 7:30am (even though the alarm was set for 8) and decided to start our day.

We had until about noon before we had to make our way to the airport to fly to Bangkok so we decided to find something to eat for breakfast and do some exploring. Eric had been awake for a while and had done us the favor of looking up some places to eat and things to see.

We left the hotel and went in the direction of Kowloon park, a park built on top of what used to be the Kowloon walled city, a fully enclosed city that existed in Hong Kong prior to 1996. (wiki link). The park itself was beautiful, lots of exotic trees and gardens and temples. We strolled through at a leisurely pace, stopping to take photos and take in the experience. As we wandered we came across what seemed to be a service of some type, with people singing and chanting and playing different instruments while people did tai chi in the background. We sat and absorbed the scene in silence before continuing our walk and commenting on how peaceful the people in general seemed.

On the way to Hong Kong they had been serving what sounded like "kanji", and we'd cracked some jokes about not understanding how we were supposed to eat the Japanese alphabet. While doing his research Eric discovered the word was actually "congee", a rice porridge that is very popular throughout Asia.

After leaving the garden we aimed towards the Cafe de Coral, an Asian food chain that is similar to Tim Hortons or Mcd's. We decided to get breakfast. I got the congee (I love to try the things that the locals love) with some fried noodles and a coffee and the boys each got some variation on bacon and eggs that came with a bowl of what looked like beef tomato noodle soup.

After breakfast we wandered along Shanghai street snapping photos while heading back in the direction of the hostel. We stopped for a coffee along the way at a little cafe and were surprised when it was given to us to go in a little brown paper bag! It was, for lack of a better word, adorable.
Photo courtesy of Ren Bostelaar

Back at the hostel we navigated the maze of shops in the building and went upstairs to pack our stuff and check out. It was almost sad to leave our tiny little room we'd gotten used to but at the same time very exciting to be off on the next part of the adventure.

Bags on our backs we headed towards the harbor to catch the Star Ferry to Hong Kong central where we were going to take the airport express back to the airport. The ferry was short, but a great way to see Hong Kong from a different perspective. At the cost of $2.50 HKD ($0.35 CAD) it would be silly not to check it out.

We had a bit of time to kill while on the island before going to the airport so we walked along the waterfront and then back on the elevated walkway to the station.

Not certain whether we'd have food on the plane and eager to use up some of our HKD, we decided to get some lunch at the airport. Seeing as we were in china we decided on some traditional style foods-BBQ pork buns, glutinous rice dumplings and some noodles with BBQ pork. It was an awesome meal! And at only about 300 HKD it was only about $42 CAD... Or $6 each.

We finished up and made our way to the gate, got some coffee and waited. Used the Internet (which sort of came and went) and then boarded the plane. We were flying with Cathay pacific from HKG to BKK, and knowing the airline's great reputation I was excited to see what the service would be like.

The plane itself wasn't anything to be overly excited about but the fact that we were served a full meal, wine included, was! The food was delicious and the flight attendants were completely adorable and so polite.

Arrived in Bangkok without a hitch and collected our bags and went through customs.

Thailand!! Let the fun begin!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Day in Hong Kong

Hong Kong Day 1

Our flight arrived at Hong Kong airport on time at about 1:30pm on Tues afternoon.  Slightly tired but pumped about being out of the plane, we gathered our luggage. Headed towards the airport express train into the city. We found some machines dispensing tickets but couldn't decide whether to get a oneway or return so we went to the counter. Got a good deal on some tickets by purchasing a pack of 3 going just one way.
Swollen feet from 15 hours on a plane

Got off at Kowloon station and wandered outside of the building to get some fresh air. We were amazed to see  lush gardens and towering sky scrapers. It became evident that we had no idea what direction we were to go if we were to attempt to find a hostel, so we hailed a can to take us to Nathan Rd, which is where a couple of the hostels I'd checked out were. I didn't have wifi access so we just said "Nathan Rd" figuring it couldn't be too hard to find something once we got there.

The cab dropped us off and we stood on the sidewalk looking in either direction. I knew the hostels were in the direction of the harbor so we aimed ourselves in what seemed to be south and started walking. Along the way Eric picked up a free wifi signal and we were able to get the address of one of the places I'd noted from hostelworld.

Little did we know that the hostel was actually in Chungking mansion, a massive building with 4 blocks and 17 floors filled with various businesses that Ren had requested we check out. He cited some facts about the number of cell phones that had traversed through the building on their way to sub-saharan Africa and I debated replacing my quickly dying Sony phone at a discount price.

The hostel/guesthouse itself was clean, albeit tiny. We were shown a triple room for $300 HKD, but Ren told the guy that we'd been told $250 by someone downstairs. The guy took us to the other side of the guesthouse and showed us the room in question: It consisted of 2 single beds and a bathroom(wet room)... I imagine minimum security prisons have similar space allowances. However it was cheap and we were just needing a place to sleep so Ren and I opted to share one bed while Eric claimed the other.
my back was on the wall and I could reach the next bed.

The boys showered and we headed out to take pictures and find coffee. Up and down Nathan Rd we went before we eventually gave up the coffee quest despite the fact energy reserves were low. We settled on a ramen place for dinner, assuming dinner and a beer would give us the much needed gumption to make the most of our short time.

The weather was rainy and kinda foggy so we weren't sure we were going to make the trek up to the Peak on the Peak Tram. However, being that it was on Ren's list of things he really wanted to do, and we weren't coming back we decided to go anyway.

We found the subway station to take us to Hong Kong central, got on and made our way to the island. From the station we meandered through the streets towards the Peak Tram and marvelling at the contrast of the architecture of the business district to what we'd seen in Kowloon.

Once at the tram station we debated getting the ticket that allowed us access to the viewing platform. The price difference was about $25 HKD more (less than $4 CAD) to go onto the platform. Again, with the logic of "we're here now, we should just do it" we purchased the more expensive tickets and got on the tram.

Now, most of my train experiences are debatable at best-I now try to avoid them due to the fact that something always goes wrong when I'm involved. However, I'm glad I went because it was an incredible experience. I'll justify it by saying it was a tram and not a train... And trams make me think of Melbourne..

Originally built to allow access to the much cooler climate of Victoria Peak, the tram goes up the mountain at least a 45 degree angle. It felt like the beginning stages of a rollercoaster. As we crept up the mountain gravity held us in our seats while we stared out the windows at the gorgeous hong kong skyline.

Once we arrived at the top, we were glad we'd opted for the platform tickets because without them we would have missed out on the view. Even though there was still a lot of fog, we ventured outside and joined the crowds snapping photos over the ledge. Amazingly, after about 15-20 min the    mist started to clear and the harbor became much more visible. Definitely worth the trip. (and at about $8 CAD there was no reason we should have missed it!!)

We eventually made our way back down to the tram loading area and defended back down to the bottom of the hill. Being the 3 photographers we are, out trek back to central station took a while as we all kept stopping to snap photos of the illuminated city.

We made it to Hong Kong Central station and got tickets back to Kowloon, but not without a quick stop at 7-11 where Ren grabbed a can of Pocari Sweat, presumably a Gatorade style drink. It lived up to it's name however- it tasted like someone had been wringing out tshirts and saving it for human consumption.

We took the metro one stop further than we needed but it gave us the chance to stroll back down Nathan Rd and get more photos of the lights. Once back at the hostel the boys decided to explore the building while I explored the "wet room"... The shower/toilet all in one. They got back just as I finished and they told me about their adventure. Apparently the building was just as creepy as they'd hoped it would be.

We took advantage of the wifi and then settled into bed sometime between 11:30 and 12, proud of ourselves for beating the jet lag and doing so much in only about 8hours. That being said, I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say we were all totally asleep within 5 minutes of turning out the lights.

And We're Off!!


I came up with the brilliant plan to stay up all night so that I would be sufficiently tired for the flight from Toronto to hong kong. It was kinda working too until I caught my second wind and the realization that I am indeed going to Asia set in.

Ren and Eric met me at the airport and we checked in. They had followed my logic and also stayed up all night. Because Hong Kong is 12 hours ahead of home I wanted to trick myself into thinking it was night time when I got on the plane. After dropping off our stuff we made our way through security and found a spot to sit and eat some breakfast - which was the saddest excuse for breakfast ever.

Waited around and took silly pictures with the bronze cats adorning gate 173 of terminal 1, and eventually boarded the plane.

Would you believe it's my first time flying Air Canada- with the exception of a couple weeks ago when I flew from London to Ottawa for my cousins surprise birthday party. I'm pretty impressed with the seat back entertainment and size of the seats thus far. However I might not feel the same 15 hours and 16 min from now, since that's when I get off this plane. At least I can plug my iPod in and charge it up, since it would pretty much be dead after a few hours.

Managed to get almost 2 hours of sleep in before food came around.  The options were chicken or pork so I said chicken. I was actually surprised-chicken in a white peppery sauce with pasta. On the side some cucumber salad and bread. Chocolate cake for dessert. Definitely better than I was expecting.

Torn between staying up and watching movies and napping. I think sleep will still make the most sense.

8:07am hkg time
Have managed to sleep off and on for the duration of the trip. Watched a couple movies and seem to wake up just in time for food. They brought around some ramen and sandwiches. More than anything I'm feeling dried out from the stale air.

Only about 5 more hours. Can't believe I've been on this plane for 10 hours already. I've probably slept for about 6 of those hours though not consecutively.

Upon arrival in HKG the idea is to find a hostel and drop our stuff off before wandering around. We've got plans to see the Peak, taking the tram up to the top and seeing the harbor. I wouldn't mind hitting up a market and looking at all the random stuff. There was something else on the list but I don't recall what it was

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Universal Packing List - Thailand Prep Part 1

I hate packing. I love to travel but I honestly despise the packing part of the process.

However, I DO love to make lists.

So, usually when I'm getting ready for a trip I make a huge list of all the things I need so that nothing gets forgotten but I also don't pack things I don't need.

If you're not very good at this, there is a handy little link I like to refer to: The Universal Packing List

Monday, May 16, 2011

European Hostels under 20 Euros?!

If you're planning your European getaway and are high on taste but low on funds, consider staying at some of these places. I've stayed at Seven in Sorrento and LOVED it. I tell all the people I know about it. Now I'm excited about some of these others.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Hong Kong en route to Bangkok

I've never been to Asia. Well, I *have* but only to Singapore and only for 3 days.

So, ever the "most bang for my buck" kinda gal, it was decided that we would incorporate a stop in Hong Kong on our way to Bangkok. We have 26 hours to land, find a place to stay, roam the city, and make it to the Peak.

We're going to do the Peak Tram at sunset. It looks awesome. Check it out: Hong Kong Peak Experience

I found this article from Time with the Top 10 Things To Do In Hong Kong in 24 Hours

1: Victoria Peak (already on the list!)
2: Lin Heung Tea House
3: Charter a Junk (makes me think of an ad we ran here at work.See below)
4: The Intercontinental's Infinity Pools
5: Temple St. Night Market (loooove markets, so I'm putting this on the list also)
6: Heli-Tour of Hong Kong
7: Cha Chan Tang
8: Star Ferry
9: Chungking Mansions
10: Roof of the IFC Mall

Central America, Here I Come!

I booked my flights to Central America yesterday. I can't wait.

Next step is to book our hop-on-hop-off bus with Bamba Experience.

The idea is to start in Guatemala and head north through Belize til we get to Cancun, where we are flying home from.

Because I'm such a planner, and I'm so short on time, here's a run down of all the things we're planning to do. Did I miss anything?

Guatemala to Cancun – July 24 to Aug 3                                                                                   

Starting Point
End Point
July 24

Guatemala City
Guatemala City
Hostel bus pick up
July 25

Incl Volcano tour
July 26

6h hostel bus
July 27

7h hostel bus
July 28

Incl Tikal tour – leaves EARLY
July 29

Belize City
6h bus
July 30

Caye Caulker
Water Taxi
July 31



Aug 1

Playa Del Carmen
Visit ruins in morning
Playa Del Carmen
Dinner and afternoon in PdC
Aug 2

Beach! Relax! Go to bed early
Aug 3