Wednesday, November 30, 2011

So you want an all inclusive vacation?

Until recently, I'd never been to an all inclusive resort. Amazing, I know. Even my 5 year old nephew has been to one. Why is it that I've never managed to live the life of uncapped food and drink and sunshine?

Well, frankly, it's likely because that's not my style of travel. I'm an adventure traveller. I enjoy the excitement of arriving in an unknown place, finding my own way, meeting people at a hostel and sampling the random street food that is available.

However, my job relies on my ability to help people find a vacation that suits THEIR needs, not just my own. So, when the opportunity came up to take a trip to Jamaica and visit a bunch of resorts and learn more about them I jumped at the chance. And, if I'm being honest, with the threat of winter looming over us, I jumped a the chance to feel some sunshine on my face and warmth again.

Thomas Cook Canada was hosting a "Mega FAM". This meant that over 150 agents from across Canada would be shown around the country, learn about the different areas and shown different resorts. I've never been to Jamaica, let alone an all inclusive, so I was the perfect candidate for such a trip. Jamaica's motto is "Once you go, you know" so I was all set for knowing it all by the time I got back.

Believe me when I say it wasn't  a relaxing trip. I saw about 5 cumulative hours of sunshine (doesn't help that the sun goes down at 5pm every day and we got back to the host hotel around 3 or 4 most of the time). We visited the 3 different tourist areas of the country (Ocho Rios, Montego Bay and Negril) and learned a bit about each of them.

Ocho Rios - About an hour and a half away from the Montego Bay airport is the home to a lot of the exciting tourist excursions available (Dunn's River Falls, Dolphin Cove). The beaches are smaller here and the weather a bit more unpredictable. We had more rain in this area due to the mountains behind us but the warm breeze coming off the water was great.

Montego Bay - Most vacationers will fly into MoBay. There are a lot of resorts in the area, and lots of shopping and history to take in. The famous Rose Hall, home of the White Witch is a great place to visit. There are also a multitude of golf courses in the area if you enjoy the sport.

Negril - Originally a secret spot for hippies who wanted to escape life, the town has maintained it's laid back feel. There is a rule in place that no buildings can be higher than the highest palm tree, and thus the resorts are either sprawling or little boutique hotels. By far my favourite of the places we visited, mostly due to the approachable nature of the area. I could see myself staying here, mingling with the locals, renting a motorbike and exploring the area. Split into two areas, the west side has gorgeous cliffs to jump from and the east side has 7 miles of white sand beaches and turquoise blue waters to enjoy.
Rick's Cafe, Negril. You can watch the daredevils dive from 9m cliffs
In the next few days, I'll post some info about the hotels I visited along with some photos.

Would I go back to Jamaica? Of course I would. 

Would I do it as an all inclusive vacation? Possibly. Especially if it was to Negril. After about 3 days I felt like I would never be able to eat another bite of food or drink another sip of rum punch. But it was a good experience. I'm not a stagnant traveller. I prefer to get off the resort, mingle with the locals and meet other people. But not every person out there wants that in a vacation. Some people love sunbaking on the pool deck or by the ocean, eating until they explode and drinking fruity cocktails.

Don't get me wrong, I do too. I just can't do it for a whole week. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Bangkok - Golden Palace, Huge Markets, Airport Entertainment

Our second (and last) full day in Bangkok was incredibly busy. We woke up after our eventful evening all slightly sluggish but ready to tackle the day. We had a plan to hit as many temples and palaces as possible in the morning before going to the weekend market at the north end of the city.

After checking out we headed out to tackle the Golden Palace and the Emerald Buddha. We were given conflicting information about the opening time of both places (this is apparently a tourist scam where cabbies will tell you a place is closed and then take you a million other places first) but decided to take our chances and go anyway. 

The day was incredibly hot and humid but we made it through - we wandered around the Golden Palace and enjoyed some coconut juice right from the coconut. 

After we'd had enough temples for the day we hailed a taxi and had them take us to the huge market at the north of the city. When I say huge, I mean huge. 1000 stalls huge - see above map for an idea. We decided to get food at the market and wander around and see what kind of fun things we could find. It was packed. Herds of people moving slowly, stopping, turning around, etc. I realized too late that I was just not in the mood to deal with huge crowds. We shopped for about 2 hours before calling it quits. Instead of hailing a cab we figured we would take the bus - I saw a bus that said it would go to our area of the city. It was a nice change - and only a few B!! 

Back in the old city we went to the hostel to drop off our stuff and then headed out for dinner. We decided to go to the same place we had gone to the first night. We hung out as long as we could before wandering around doing some last minute shopping before heading back to the hostel to grab our things. Our flight wasn't until early in the morning but we wouldn't be able to take the light rail early enough, so we'd opted to spend the night in the airport (also would make sleeping on the plane that much easier.). 

Back to the aiport we went, waving goodbye to Bangkok and Thailand. 

Bangkok - From Temples to Gastro-Delights

Our second day in Bangkok started with us wandering down to Khao San Road to find something to eat for breakfast. Almost positive it consisted of random food from street vendors - fried bananas or donuts or something similar.

We had lunch plans with a girl I had met on Twitter, but figured we should try to cover some of the (free) cultural things that were meant to be seen around the city. We took a tuk tuk to one of the ports on the riverside and went to visit Wat Arun and the Reclining Buddah. We wandered around the wat taking photos and enjoying the views before heading off to meet up with Dao.

Lunch was good - Dao picked some wonderful food for us to try (I had some Tom Yum rice - amazing!) and then treated us to some delicious smoothies after.

After lunch we got back in a taxi and asked to be dropped off at the train station so that we could venture towards China Town (I love when asian cities have China Towns.). We were told there was a good market area that we should explore. A few wrong turns and we managed to figure out where to go. Up and down the stalls we went, squeezing past people and giant bags full of dried cure-alls.

Exhausted, we headed back to the hostel. Because it was our last night in Bangkok, we opted to have one more big night of drinking. After a bit of a nap/rest we went back to find something for dinner. We picked a different restaurant for dinner and set to work consuming as many Beer Changs as needed to work up the courage to eat some sort of insects. 

The only real plan we had was to buy some tacky cheap souvenirs for the people back home and eat some crickets. While we were eating we were constantly approached by various "hilltribe" (debatable whether they were actually from the hilltribes) women selling small wooden frogs that made a "frog" sound when you run the little wooden stick down their back. Eventually we had had enough and decided that if we could get one for 30B (about $1) we would buy one. It took a few different frog ladies, but we did eventually convince one to part with a frog for what was likely cost for them. From that point on, each time one of the ladies came around to sell us a frog we pulled ours out and played it for her. 

The rest of the night became a blur - Ren and I happily ate a bag of crickets, which were surprisingly very delicious, we consumed many many large bottles of Beer Chang and eventually ended up back at the hostel. Not unlike the movie that was set in the same city, we were setting ourselves up for a hangover... 

Return to Bangkok

We arrived into Bangkok around 3pm and immediately went in search of a way into the city. Thankfully for us the airport was pretty easy to navigate and we managed to find the direct train to the city centre fairly quickly. We decided that, having no real place in line to stay, that we would head to the old city and find a place near Khoa San Road. Unsure what way to start walking, we hailed a cab to take us there.

We got out of the cab at one end of Khao San and started walking down the street. Because we were wearing our backpacks and had that weary, overwhelmed, “oh-my-god-why-is-it-so-hot” look on our faces we were easy targets for everyone offering guesthouses. Eventually we decided to find a place just off the main street, at the top of a little restaurant. The owner was adorable, incredibly gracious. We managed to get 2 rooms for 400B a night.

After dumping our stuff off, showering and relaxing for a bit we decided we should do a bit of exploring, find some dinner and maybe check out the night life. We walked down to Khao San Road and strolled along until we found a place to eat. A little spot offering free wifi and some traditional Thai dishes. After dinner we checked out the street and got it in our heads that we should find the infamous red light district of Thailand. We dug out our guidebooks, figured out what neighbourhood we should head to and found a tuk tuk to take us for 150B.

We got to the Patpong district we looked around not sure where to head. We discussed the idea of checking one of the infamous ping-pong shows and when we were approached by a man offering us cheap 100B beers we decided we might as well check it out.
Ren, just after our trip to "Super Pussy"

Up the stairs we went into a dimly lit bar with a middle stage and seating all around. We were seated and immediately were descended upon by minimally dressed Thai women. At first glance they looked young, but upon closer (and really we didn't want to get too close) inspection it was obvious they weren't. One even had a questionable amount of teeth.

Ren grabbed my hand, leaned over and whispered in my ear “tonight you're my girlfriend”, while the toothless made herself comfortable to his left. Eric, left alone (I can't be everyone's girlfriend, I guess), was a target for the other women. We ordered our drinks and heard them mention drinks for the Thai girls. Ren immediately piped up that we weren't going to pay for those drinks, that we were just buying our own. 

We sat, watching the "show", but really trying to keep an eye on Eric, our wallets, and the situation in general. Without going into detail, I can only say that the women on stage had the most, um... talented... lady parts I've ever seen. We decided to get out of the bar before things became more uncomfortable, and asked for the bill. When it arrived it was well over 2700B. We were shocked. We had said that we were not going to pay for the drinks for the girls, but apparently that was not the case. The boys talked the woman down to a slightly more reasonable number (although still about 4x the original agreed upon price of 100B each) and we hightailed it out of there. 

Safely back on the street we wandered through the rest of the red light district, and down the streets looking at various market goods. Ready to return to our comfortable backpacker area, we made our way back to the hostel. Tomorrow was another day - we had plans to meet an internet friend for lunch as well as do some more exploring of the city.