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Yet another city of angels

Written by Chaz on 2 October 2011

Lest we ever get a good, full night’s sleep, we rose on Saturday at 5:30. We had decided to take on Zion Canyon’s most challenging day hike, Angels Landing, before leaving. The 2.4-mile trail goes up dozens of switchbacks before climbing up a steep ridge to the summit, an enormous rock promontory in the middle of the canyon. The name, Angels Landing, came from a 1916 visitor who proclaimed that only an angel would ever be able to get to the summit. But the park manager of the time was undeterred, quickly building a path to the top.

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After making coffee, eating a light breakfast and striking camp, we checked out of the campground, moved the car to the visitor center and boarded the crowded first shuttle of the day at 6:45 to ride up into the canyon. We were on the trail by 7:15. The trail was steep right from the beginning, running parallel to the canyon for a bit before beginning to ascend the canyon’s western wall pretty dramatically.

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After 21 short switchbacks through an area known as Walter’s Wiggle, we arrived at Scout Lookout, which the ranger had assured us was a perfectly respectable place to turn around. And while the view from Scout Lookout was nice, it was nothing compared to the view from the top of Angels Landing, which loomed ahead of us. I took a moment to look over the sheer drop at the edge of Scoot Lookout into the canyon below.

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As we began to ascend further, it became obvious that the trail was going to get a lot more treacherous for the final portion.

But it wasn’t immediately obvious just how treacherous it was going to be.

Of course, we were more than prepared after our Half Dome experience, so we soldiered on, making it to the summit by about 9:00. The views were totally unlike any other perspective we had had on Zion Canyon. Because Angels Landing sticks right out into the middle of the canyon, you get breathtaking panoramic views in both directions. For sheer unexpected reward, I think Angels Landing may have been the best hike of our trip.

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We headed back down the trail, which was like nothing compared to the nine-mile descent from Half Dome, and we had returned to Dorothy by about eleven. We drove east on the park road, winding through the hills up to a 1.1-mile tunnel, snacking on asiago cheese, tomato spread and crackers.

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After driving through the tunnel, we stopped for one last taste of Zion, making the short hike out the Canyon Overlook Trail to a view back towards the canyon. Clearly visible is the winding highway up to the tunnel’s west entrance.

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As we drove east out of the park, we kept passing amazing rock formations, like the Checkerboard Mesa.

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Before long, we were out of the park’s splendor and back on the flat, open desert road, heading south to the Grand Canyon. Our short detour to Zion couldn’t have been more worth it.

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Getting behind the wheel

Written by Chaz on 24 June 2011

We had always planned to do a couple day trips using Chiang Mai as a base. So after getting a recommendation from one of our guidebooks for a car rental company and scoping out their website, I decided I was brave enough to take control of a moving vehicle in the insane Thai traffic. Not only are drivers aggressive, but they drive on what I would call the wrong side of the road. And though it was touch and go at first, I quickly adjusted, and before too long, we were zooming through the Thai countryside. Fortunately, we had gotten a GPS from the car rental company, so a nice British woman was giving me directions.

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We began our first day with the car, last Saturday, with a trip to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, a Buddhist temple atop a mountain in a national park near Chiang Mai.

“What could possibly go wrong?”, I jokingly asked. Little did we know that it’s traditional for the freshmen at local high schools to march up the winding road to the temple at the start of each summer. As a result, we literally found ourselves driving through thousands and thousands of schoolchildren. This did not seem to concern most of them.

(In case you’re wondering what the strange background music in those videos is, it’s from the only CD we had with us — the smooth-jazzified versions of American pop songs that we bought in the Bangkok street market.)

The temple itself, once we finally made it to the top of the road and then up a long, crowded set of stairs, was actually beautiful. Unfortunately, it was too foggy for a view back down to Chiang Mai.

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From Doi Suthep, we headed north to the tiny town of Chiang Dao, about 75 kilometers from Chiang Mai. Before we knew it, the city had faded away completely, and we found ourselves in the beautiful Thai countryside.

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After a bit of searching around the middle of nowhere, we found ourselves at the Chiang Dao Nest, an adorable little restaurant-hotel with little bungalows. The Nest seemed to rise out of the woods like an oasis of delicious food.

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The Nest had a creative menu of mostly Western food, which was totally incongruous with its surroundings, and Emmy ordered a curry chicken salad with cashew, one of her favorites from a Rhode Island restaurant. I ordered one of their two Thai items, the “ka-pow!” stir-fry. Emmy enjoyed her salad, though the chicken was warm, which wasn’t quite how salads of that kind are made back home. My stir-fry was fantastic, though I did get mocked by the waitress for the sweating produced by the combination of the high heat and extreme spice.

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After lunch, we explored the Chiang Dao Cave, which was actually quite deep and reminded me of Carlsbad Caverns on a smaller scale. (Light conditions in the cave did not permit beautiful photography.) After running from the cave to the car through a mid-afternoon monsoon, we set off back toward Chiang Mai, planning to turn off toward the mountain town of Samoeng. After a quick stop at the Four Seasons Resort, located outside of Chiang Mai, we found ourselves winding our way into the hills. The roads through the mountains were incredibly beautiful, rivaling some of the nicest I’ve seen in the U.S.

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We were guided along our drive by helpful Thai roadsigns that warned us of hazards such as elephants and deer that run out of the forest because burning trees are falling on them.

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Our second trip out of Chiang Mai, on Monday, took us south to Lamphun and Lampang, two fairly nondescript Thai towns. Lamphun was much closer, and not long after setting out from Chiang Mai, we arrived at the town’s largest temple.

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We took a detour on the way from Lamphun to Lampang to stop at Wat Phra Phut Ta Bat Tak Pah, a huge temple complex that had one temple right off the road, a sprawling monastery behind it, and a second enormous temple up at the top of a mountain, up about a thousand steps. Needless to say, by the time we reached the second temple, we were winded and sweaty.

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As we got close to the top, we realized that we had neglected to bring any water with us, since we hadn’t quite realized the effort we were going to have to put in to reach this temple. Fortunately, capitalism came in quite handy, for what did we find at the top of the huge staircase, next to this temple in middle of nowhere Thailand? A convenience store, of course.

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The drive to Lampang, which was significantly further away from Chiang Mai, took us through a very rural area on an extremely impressive highway (the GPS called it “Super Highway”) through a mountain pass. It was much nicer than several highways I’ve had the pleasure of driving on back home, and the scenery was beautiful, too.

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When we arrived in Lampang, we realized that we really hadn’t had a reason to go there in the first place. The only sights we knew of were more temples, and on our last of thirteen days in Thailand, we had really had enough temples. We were also both starving and more than a little turned around in this unfamiliar town, so we basically wandered the streets until we found Riverside Restaurant, where we had a more-or-less mediocre Thai lunch of fish salad with mango sauce, chicken with basil and chili, and pad thai — our last in Thailand.

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The drive back to Chiang Mai was totally smooth. I’m really glad we got out into the country, and especially that we chose to do it in a car, which gave us flexibility to stop wherever we wanted and explore whatever struck our fancy. Some of the scenery we saw, especially, sticks with me as one of the most memorable things about our time in Thailand.

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From central traffic to northern serenity

Written by Emmy on 20 June 2011

IMG_1077We began Wednesday, our last day in Bangkok, with our final breakfast at the hotel. Bangkok Loft Inn, a boutique-y hotel we discovered because it was a TripAdvisor pick in 2011, was small and cozy. Daily breakfast orders were taken via a little slip of paper, filled out the afternoon before at the front desk. We had a selection of American options (eggs) and a selection of Asian options (spicy chicken, soups), as well as the plentiful buffet of fresh regional fruits we have come to enjoy.

The breakfast itself was served in the Terrace Restaurant, a little room whose low ceilings Chaz became all too acquainted with:

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We continued our morning with a trip down memory lane and visited the city’s National Museum, a treasure of archives found in the oldest part of the city, among the temples and palace remains. The museum encompasses several different buildings, many of them former royal residences and temples.

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IMG_1714We inspected the various exhibits, ranging from dioramas reminiscent of the Museum of Natural History to rooms crammed full of Buddhas. We got to see some of the relics rescued from Ayutthaya, a fun discovery after having been in the ancient temples ourselves. There were so many beautiful items on display, but they seemed to have been thrown together with little rhyme, reason or explanation — just jeweled Buddha upon Buddha, heaped together in a dark room. Other parts of the museum left us with the feeling that we were watching an advertisement for the royal family.

After walking around the museum for a couple hours, we hopped into a taxi to go have lunch. We knew taking a taxi midday in traffic-filled Bangkok was a risky maneuver, but the museum is in a location difficult to reach by Skytrain. But after 30 minutes of nauseating traffic, we realized we had made… a huge mistake.

With a familiar-looking Skytrain station in sight, we hopped out of the cab at a red light and made a beeline for solid ground. It was an unfortunate way to spend our final afternoon in Bangkok, if only because it cemented the image of a disorganized and hectic city.

The Bangkok Loft Inn had originally offered us only a complimentary pickup at the airport, not return service. But it turned out that they were picking someone else up around the time that we needed to go to the airport, so they offered to take us back at no charge, which was very generous of them. After hitting even more traffic in the hotel’s van, we arrived at Bangkok’s enormous new international airport, which, on Wednesday, was particularly empty. So we quickly made our way through it and onto the short Air Asia flight that brought us into Chiang Mai around 7 p.m.

The capital of the northern region and of its namesake province, Chiang Mai is lauded as one of the developing urban centers of the country with a huge business in tourism. Compared to Bangkok, the city might as well be a small countryside town. Quiet, calm and surrounded by mountains, Chiang Mai is walkable and easy to navigate, and the only buildings even resembling skyscrapers are the hotels.

Our various guidebooks led us to a riverside wooden building, home to Antique House, for a late dinner upon our arrival in Chiang Mai. Northern Thai food is a little different from what we had been eating in Bangkok and from what we are used to, so we were eager to dive into a new menu. We didn’t wind up straying too far into the unknown in our first dinner, starting with golden bags and enjoying two different chicken stir fry dishes.

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The menu featured many spicy salads, an item we have come to enjoy immensely, and so we decided to try out the mango salad with catfish. What we received was not at all what we expected: the fish had been fried into crumbs, beyond the point of recognition, and then reassembled into the shape of a fish. Served alongside it was a small, but spicy, mango salad. Definitely interesting.

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We headed back to our hotel after dinner to get some sleep in preparation for Thursday’s big activity: cooking school!

Understanding the capital of Siam

Written by Emmy on 18 June 2011

IMG_1368Bangkok wears its history on the surface, with wats and prangs as plentiful as its shopping malls and pad thai carts. The Thai people demonstrate enormous respect for their past, a fact which became even more evident on our day trip to Ayutthaya on Monday.

Ayutthaya, situated about 70 kilometers north of Bangkok, was the historic seat of Thai power. Beginning in the mid-1300s, kings from five successive dynasties governed the Siamese people from the palaces and temples of Ayutthaya. Sacked by Burma, Siam’s constant enemy, in 1767, Ayutthaya was later abandoned as the capital in favor of a more geographically secure city: Bangkok. Though much of Ayutthaya was destroyed in several battles with the enemy, what remains has been preserved for tourists — Thai and foreigners alike — to come explore.

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We began our trip at Bangkok’s major train station, where we were offered the opportunity to pay 20 baht (less than $1) for a third-class ticket to Ayutthaya. We opted to pay a slightly steeper fee in order to enjoy much-needed air conditioning. After a 90-minute trip through the Thai countryside, we arrived in Ayutthaya and made our way to a small pier. The old city is separated from the train station by a narrow river, which must be crossed by boat. We paid a total of 8 baht in order to board what was generously dubbed a ferry.IMG_1409

Once on the other side, we purchased an all-access pass to the many ruins. Fragments of the once glorious temples remain, and though the stone towers and walls are punctuated by overgrown grassy fields, what still stands serves to demonstrate the impeccable craftsmanship that went into building Ayutthaya so many centuries ago.

IMG_1401After all of our touring around, we’ve learned a couple helpful hints to better decipher the temples and ruins of Thailand. For example, a Buddha with the left hand extended means “Stop fighting.”

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In Ayutthaya, many of the ancient Buddha statues are still intact, but the majority had their heads cut off by the Burmese invaders, leaving rows and rows of headless bodies. In contrast, one of the most famous Ayutthaya sites is the bodiless head of Buddha, encased in tree roots.

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We trooped around the old city, pausing in our historical journey only for a brief lunch of pad see ew and chicken with cashews.

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Appreciation for the wonders of Ayutthaya is still very fresh in Thai minds. Only recently, excavators discovered a crypt inside on the more majestic temples. I got a little creeped out by the steep, deep staircase, but Chaz went down to check it out for himself. The piles of golden Buddhas and other relics found in the depths of the temple are now on display in Bangkok’s National Museum, which we were able to visit on Wednesday before heading out of the capital.

We walked the entirety of Ayutthaya’s ruins, but caught a glimpse of Thai transportation history: elephants paraded around near the ruins, carrying tourists on their backs.

Toward the end of our day, all the walking began to take its toll. Though we did not board an elephant, we did partake in another feature of Thai life: a tuk-tuk. All week in Bangkok, we kept encountering these strange vehicles. An alternative to taxis, tuk-tuks look almost like golf carts from the front. Some have only a small bench for passengers, while others look like they could seat eight people. In Bangkok, tuk-tuks stopped every time we tried to hail a cab, but we waved them all away, opting for safety and air conditioning. In Ayutthaya, conventional taxis were nowhere to be found and we were a very solid walk from the water. So we hopped into the backseat of a persistent tuk-tuk driver and held on for the bumpy ride. There’s no meter, so we had negotiated a price beforehand. We most definitely paid more than a local would, but for less than $2, not an awful way to travel. Still, we disembarked in agreement that once was enough. (But I have since learned that apparently in Chiang Mai, taxis can be hard to come by and tuk-tuks are the way to go. We’re hopeful the city’s small size will make it easily walkable.)

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On our way to the boat, we walked through an open food market: the first signs that Ayutthaya was still a flourishing town of any kind. But just as we were getting into the trenches of the fish display, the sky opened up. Big, dark clouds had begun to emerge in the later part of the afternoon and the moment of monsoon had definitely come. Only problem: we had to cross the river. Putting everything we had with us into my bag and then under my raincoat, we ran for the ferry and made the adventurous crossing.

Despite the insane weather, our little train managed to get us back to Bangkok on a relatively timely schedule, wet, but a bit more cultured.

Reclining along the river

Written by Chaz on 13 June 2011

After our mostly successful negotiation of this jam-packed city on Thursday, we were ready to step up our game on Friday and take a river boat to our morning destination: the Wat Pho temple. We left our hotel on the Skytrain and got off at the riverbank to search for the “express” tourist boat. Though there didn’t seem to be anything particularly express about the boat we boarded, it was still a fun change of pace and a great way to see more of the city.

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The highlight of Wat Pho — the oldest temple in Bangkok, built in the 1500s — is the reclining Buddha, an enormous statue in a hall just big enough to fit it. This huge Buddha is portrayed as he enters nirvana. There were countless beautiful prangs, the Thai version of turrets, all over the temple compound.

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After we had our fill of temples, we began to wander through Bangkok’s hot streets to its Chinatown district. Along the way, we found a ton of red hot peppers apparently drying on the street.

In Chinatown, we walked through Bangkok’s renowned flower market to enter a long, crowded street market, selling everything you can imagine, from every kind to button in the world to every fruit I’ve never heard of. Emmy picked up a Hello Kitty watch for a couple dollars.

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An afternoon monsoon struck as we were searching for lunch, and so we quickly settled on a place called Hong Kong Noodles for some dim sum. It wasn’t anything much, though we were tickled that we had so quickly returned to our previous city. We also picked up some honey sesame peanuts from a street vendor before we hopped into a taxi to return to our hotel.

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First sights of Bangkok

Written by Chaz on 12 June 2011

We were feeling generous on Thursday morning, and as a result, we let ourselves sleep until nearly ten before we rolled out of bed and down to our hotel’s breakfast. Neither of us had had a sufficient night’s sleep since graduation, so we figured we deserved a little catch-up. Our hotel’s breakfast turned out to be surprisingly good. We order a hot entree each afternoon from a choice of Thai and Western breakfasts on a little yellow card, and there’s also a very generous selection of fruit and bread. We made it out of the hotel a little after eleven and took a taxi to the royal palace.

The palace was an incredible mixture of gilded statues and ancient architecture, easily besting any description of the site that any guidebook could have made. We were dazzled by sight after sight of ornately decorated temple and figure.

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As we drove up to the temple compound, we were waved into a receiving line of taxis, and welcomed by a guy who directed us to an entrance. At the “entrance,” we were informed that the palace was closed for the day, and an alternative destination was suggested to us. Though we had just been warned at our hotel about this common tourist scam, we would have recognized it anyway. The only thing that surprised me was that this rudimentary scam, documented in every guidebook, is so common and happens exactly as they say. Once we turned around and found the right entrance to the palace, it turned out to be open, of course.

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One highlight of the palace was the emerald Buddha, a relatively small sculpture of which photography is unfortunately prohibited. After we saw his temple, we visited a museum connected to the palace in which we saw his attire for the “cold season” and the “rainy season.” According to the exhibit, he’s currently wearing his “warm season” garb, so it was not on display.

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When we had had enough baking in the scorching Thai sun, we decided to set out for Khao San Road, which is supposed to be popular with backpacking tourists for its street food stalls. Already pretty hungry for lunch, it turned out to be a longer journey than we thought, and we were only able to find our way (and even then, barely) thanks to a random man on the street who gave us unsolicited directions. Our skepticism already inflamed from our experience outside the temple, we hurried away from him, believing there to be some kind of scam in play, but his directions ended up being very helpful. After sort of finding Khao San Road but then getting completely lost, we eventually found a little restaurant on a street corner. Though we had no idea whether we were anywhere near Khao San Road, our lunch was delicious: pad see ew and papaya salad, both with chicken.

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We hopped a cab back to the hotel, our first sightseeing adventure in Thailand solidly under our belts.