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Bicycles and Headed to India

January 14, 2009

pb240103.jpgFirst, India. Today is a day we’ve been looking forward to for quite some time. At 6:05 PM local time we leave Bangkok for Delhi, India. Everyone is really excited and daunted at the same time. So many travelers speak with such love for their visit to India with one breath and then the assault the country makes on all of their senses in the next one. Our stay will be only 21 days, hardly enough to do justice, but hopefully enough to get to know at least one part of the country. We decided to concentrate our travels in Rajasthan. Maybe, just maybe we will be fortunate enough to return some day and explore others.

Prasad, my friend Abhi from RTI and Leslie/Ken from Durham Friends Meeting have all been really helpful in getting us all setup. Thanks so much! In the end we hired a driver to help us navigate the country, which will mark the first time during our travels that we aren’t completely in control and in charge of our day to day transportation needs. We also hope to reunite with the Masske family (with 4 kids! traveling around the world) from Canada who we serendipitously met in a restaurant in Arequipa, Peru. We’ve kept up with each other through our respective blogs and e-mails. They arrived in India on the 12th and it would be great fun to see them again. Here is our basic itinerary.

15-Jan Delhi
16-Jan Delhi
17-Jan Agra
18-Jan Agra
19-Jan Ranthambhore National Park
20-Jan Ranthambhore National Park
21-Jan Jaipur
22-Jan Jaipur
23-Jan Pushkar
24-Jan Udaipur
25-Jan Udaipur
26-Jan Ranakpur
27-Jan Jodhpur
28-Jan Jodhpur
29-Jan Khuri Village
30-Jan Jaisalmer
31-Jan Bikaner
1-Feb Bikaner
2-Feb Mandawa
3-Feb Delhi

Now, on to bicycles. I really miss my bikes as do the kids. We’ve ridden a few times (Japan and Laos), but not nearly enough. As a weak replacement for riding we have been fascinated to observe the common and creative use of bicycles. From hard core cyclists on adventures beyond our wildest dreams (think 10,000 km from Turkey to Vietnam through Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan) to everyday people using them for transport (grandmothers, parents with babies, hauling wood, etc.) Here are a few of my favorite pictures along the way.

Rural Thailand, Christmas and New Year (in Lao)

January 5, 2009

img_0060.jpgHappy New Year everyone! Albeit six days into it. We celebrated New Year’s Eve in Vientiane, Lao, and enjoyed that city for a few days. It was actually quite peaceful and relaxed, especially when compared to Phnom Penh and some of our other travels in South East Asia.

We have a lot of recent stories to share about our travels and many pictures. We most recently spent 3 days in Rural Thailand with the father of a work colleague of mine and are now in Chiang Mai in the Northwestern part of Thailand. Let’s start with the best first, our visit with Jack, Pan, Som-o and friends.

When my work colleague Becky heard about our trip she immediately said that her father lived in Thailand and that we should consider visiting him there. So, from early 2008 on we received weekly “Thai Reports” from Jack about their rice farm, his wife Pan, her daughter Som-o, the animals and the many wonders and challenges of life in rural Thailand. As we were captivated by his updates and really wanted to experience new cultures in a non-touristy way during our travels, a visit with them was high on our list of must-dos.

Jack and I stayed in pretty regular communication about our travels and he was an invaluable resource about what was really going on in the country when the protesters took over the two airports in Bangkok. He remained flexible to our ever changing travel plans and finally on New Year’s Day we arrived, all five of us who were most certainly quite a spectacle, in tiny Ban Wong Phoem, Thailand. (A town of just one or two thousand people.) We took the Lao-Thai cooperative bus from Vientiane across the Friendship Bridge over the Mekong River to Udon Thani, Thailand. The bus ride was only three hours or so, complete with stops at both sides of the river and came with the extra bonus of some friends along for the ride. Cockroaches in the seats! Thankfully, time in the jungles of South America and even some tasting of bugs helped us not be alarmed by their companionship. We then called Jack from the bus station to let him know about our timing and hopped on the next bus towards Chum Phae. Two hours or so later we arrived at the “Blue Market” in Ban Wong Phoem and Jack quickly spotted us in the crowd of locals.

The rest of our days with them were spent at a traditional Thai barbecue at a local restaurant, learning about rice farming, the kids playing with Som-o and Palm, seeing a calf just minutes after being born, learning about “High Society” cows in Thailand, walking through the rice paddies, eating a traditional lunch with Farmer Laap and his family (he farms all of the fields for Jack and Pan), visiting the nearby Buddhist sacred grounds, hearing about Jack’s incredible life of third party politics and life during the Great Depression and just relaxing in the countryside.

Jack and Pan were such gracious and welcoming hosts. Pan was so accommodating with all of her cooking, recognizing that the kids are experiencing a bit of Asian food fatigue. Grilled cheese, precious chicken noodle soup from the grocery store 2 hours away and eggs for breakfast. They even woke up with us at 3AM to take us the one hour to the bus station in Chum Phae.

Our stay with Jack, Pan, Som-o and friends really was everything we could have asked for. One important goal of our trip has been to step off the tourist track and experience different cultures through interaction with local people. We were really able to do that in rural Thailand and we will hold very fond memories and great lessons from our short three day stay. Thank you!

And Jack, yes you definitely get “YES” for both WGGSH (Would GG stay here?) and WWSHA (Would we stay here again?)

Mostly to fix our Thai visa issue we headed to Vientiane, Lao PDR (Laos is the more common pronunciation in the US, but here it is Lao) for New Years, although it was a destination we wanted to visit anyways. Outside of Hong Kong (and maybe Jean-Christian’s house) this is the only socialist country we have visited. We had a really enjoyable visit. Funny what little things mean to us at this point in our travels. Vientiane, one of the smallest capital cities in the world, had a number of them - good French bread and bagels, navigable, quiet, ordered streets, inexpensive and good french food, and one of the most lovely temples we have visited thus far (and believe me, we have seen many temples). Yet, a relaxed Lao garners only a ranking of 156 out of 167 from Reporters Without Borders’ Worlwide Press Freedom Index, 163 out of 179 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index and 130 out of 177 in the UN Development Programme’s Human Development Index. We loved our short stay, and will now always be able to say we spent a new year in Lao.

Finally, here are some last photos of our Christmas at the beach in Thailand. We made a small Christmas display on the vanity in our bungalow, complete with garland and decorations made from seashells, coconuts and coral. The kids all went to bed early in hopes of bringing Christmas morning all the sooner. They were not disappointed when Santa brought DSes for the boys and an ipod touch for Ainsley — lightweight gifts sure to please and easily packed in a back pack. On Christmas night the staff prepared a very festive Christmas meal complete with a whole grilled king mackerel and slow cooked Thai curry, not quite standing roast with yorkshire pudding, but delicious none the less.

At our resort we met yet another wonderful family from Germany, Marcus, Peggy and their little boy Moritz. We very much enjoyed sharing a few meals and some laughs with them, and learning about their life in Poland, where Marcus, a policeman, works on EU border control issues as part of a EU-wide team. On our last night together with Marcus, Peggy and Mortiz, we lit and set aloft lovely, small hot air lanterns that glowed and floated high above the sea as we made our wishes for the new year. A wonderful ending to our stay.

“We were lucky”

December 28, 2008

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Update:

Our second ferry ride was better than the first, with only 1 to 2 meter seas and just Jack getting sick.  We were really impressed with the crew’s professionalism on both trips and were very thankful for their attention and care.  The ferry ride ended and we rode the 8 hours by bus uneventfully on to Bangkok.

Original Posting:

Many times during our stay at Haad Tian we saw the high speed ferries move across the Gulf of Thailand at comparatively high speed, with ease and grace. It looked enjoyable and we were all looking forward to our ride on them for our return to Bangkok.

Departure day, December 27th, came and we woke up early to all eat breakfast at 7 AM and leave for the ferry port. Robert from Haad Tian drove us in their “pickup” with seats in the back. Upon arriving at the ferry pier he asked us for the tickets and he proceeded to the ticket booth to finalize our departure. He returned and asked us if we had “confirmed” our tickets. Unfortunately, no one ever told us that confirmation was required and as we purchased them as one package complete with train and bus travel on certain dates we had no inkling that it was necessary. A small moment of panic (nothing like what was to come) came over Kelli as our entire return trip to Bangkok seemingly vanished in a moments time. We asked if there was any way to get on the boat and Robert replied “not with this company. They don’t overload the ferry at all. Others might, but not this one.” After some more discussion about alternate plans, Robert and I returned to the ticket window to standby in case we could still get on due to some no shows. A little bit later our wish came true and we were given five spots on the ferry. We walked back to the truck to deliver the good news and Robert remarked “You are lucky”. Yes, at that moment we were, but later everyone in the family would question if that were true.

When departing the resort we had noted the larger than usual waves hitting the beach and someone remarked about the couple swimming in the water. “Probably from Germany” Robert said jokingly. Little did we know that those waves meant something more was in store further off of the island.

Upon embarking the boat we found some seats (which is no small task) and then settled in to see that one of the boy’s favorite movies was on the TVs. None of the typically age inappropriate fare we found during most of our travels. It looked like the trip would be a fine one.

But, once we left the pier it became a bit rougher and some concern came over Kelli as the waves crashed over the side of the boat. I played my role as the former Naval Officer assuring her that everything was fine. As the boat staff began to circulate in the aisles with plastic bags we began to grow concerned, specifically about Jack who is prone to motion sickness. The waves continued to get larger as we headed off shore and the tension on the boat, at least for the passengers, began to rise. We kept an eye on Jack who was sitting about 5 rows up from us. When a woman rushed into the aisle next to Jack I headed up the aisle in time to help him with his seasickness bag. After profusely thanking her, she stumbled in the aisle a few times trying to get back to her seat. I then assumed my position on the floor of the aisle, where I would remain for the next one and a half hours. The waves continued to build and at one point I overheard one of the staff say that they were 2 to 3 meters and the boat was built to withstand 5 meters. Good, but not quite the level of margin that I would want. I had experienced 30 ft seas once on a Navy destroyer, much higher than these, but with no offense to Thai captain, it was a bit more comforting to know that the US Navy was on the job.

The next hour and a half crawled by at near stop motion. We watched as the luggage on the deck in front of us went airborne with each wave and then came crashing down. More plastic bags were handed out to the passengers. The staff began to put some type of good smelling substance around their noses to ward off getting sick from the smell in the cabin. The sounds of vomiting filled the air. A staff member turned over a plastic four-legged stool and put a large green trash bag in it to collect the small bags. That was when Kelli knew things were going to be bad. A young woman from Japan sitting next to my aisle seat was clutching her young baby as she used her bag numerous times. The baby remained calm and content the entire time though. I could only imagine how awful she felt clutching her baby to her chest. Jack asked again and again how much longer to Koh Tao. He then began to ask if we could get off the boat at Koh Tao rather than continuing on to Chumporn on the mainland and our train to Bangkok.

The next 30 minutes or so passed much the same. Wave after wave and Jack burrowing in for the ride. Then the biggest wave hit, seemingly covering the entire right side of the ferry, with loads of water still streaming down the windows well after the boat exited the wave. The staff that was calm the entire time talked a bit more among themselves after that one, but did the right thing to show that all was still fine. I did my best to keep my eye on Eliot who was 2 more rows up from Jack. I couldn’t really see Kelli or Ainsley, who were still together behind us. At one point Eliot finally succumbed as I saw one of the staff members head his way to help him with his bag. I reached him at about the same time and he then joined Jack and me, sleeping on the floor in my lap for much of the remaining trip. If only all of us could have slept like that.

I fixed my gaze on the TV for the duration of the trip to keep my mind away from the events and my stomach calm. But, holding Jack and Eliot’s bags, hearing all the noises and smelling the smells finally became too much and I joined most of the passengers with a bag full. (Kelli was the only one of us not to get sick. She closed her eyes and clutched the two handles in front of her seat the entire time.)

Finally we heard that Koh Tao could be seen from the boat and that gave us comfort that the trip would end soon. We soon pulled into the dock and everyone slowly got up and started to move around. Jack, Eliot and I joined Kel and Ains to see exhaustion and relief on their faces, with a few tears as well. No one felt that “We were lucky” anymore!

With the rough seas making our connection time to the train unlikely and the mental state of everyone very fragile it was an easy decision to stay on Koh Tao for the night and take the ferry the next morning.

As time distanced us from the voyage we were able to talk about it more with a smile at dinner. We also knew that we would need to get back on the ferry again and the trip could be a similar one. As I sit here at the pier writing on the computer the wind is up and the skies are gray. The official Thai weather forecast is for 1 to 2 meter seas. Not quite as rough, but we may be in for a similar ride.

One note, especially for the grandparents. The boat is a very new, modern one equipped with all of the necessary safety equipment and properly trained crews. It is not one of the old, overloaded ferries that we hear about in the news. While the above story is a bit dramatic at times, we were truly safe throughout. Not enjoyable, actually downright awful, but safe. So, don’t worry as we prepare to board our final ferry to the mainland.

Happy Holidays

December 25, 2008

sunset-at-kho-phangan.jpg

Happy Holidays to all of our friends and family!

Everyone here had a great Christmas and are enjoying an extended week+ of downtime from our travels at the beach here in Thailand. We are on Koh Phangan, an island on the Western side of the Gulf of Thailand. The journey involved an overnight train, bus, ferry and 4×4 totaling a mind-boggling 18 hours of travel time. Good thing the beach and our little resort are truly relaxing. It will be hard to leave the life of leisure and return to our enjoyable, but at times tiring travel schedule. Next up is a short visit to Laos (to fix our visa issue previously mentioned), a stay with the father of a work colleague who lives on a rice farm in the Northeastern part of Thailand, a visit to Chiang Mai, Thailand and then we are off to India and after that New Zealand. We will see Bangkok for a day or so a couple more times as it will be our hub for travel in between these places.

We’ve enjoyed all of the e-mails, Skype calls and photos of everyone’s Christmas back home. Thanks for keeping us up to date on all of the celebrations! Here are some pictures from our time in Thailand so far.

First, some pictures from our short visit to Bangkok.

Next, pictures of our travels to the beach.

Lastly, pictures from Kho Phangan.

Key dates for our future plans include:

December 27th - train back to Bangkok

December 28th - train to Vientiane, Laos (actually Nong Khai, Thailand and then cross the Friendship Bridge over the Mekong river)

January 1st - return to Thailand via bus

January 15th - flight from Bangkok to Delhi, India

February 4th - return to Bangkok from India

February 6th - flight from Bangkok to Christ Church, New Zealand (via Melbourne, Australia)

Crossing into Thailand

December 16, 2008

img_9526.jpgA few days ago we made the 8 hour journey from Siem Reap, Cambodia to Bangkok, Thailand via the Poipet, Cambodia crossing. So far on our trip we’ve only entered the next country via an airline flight and most everyone was looking forward to this bit of adventure. Our guest house owner in Siem Reap was very experienced at this and setup a taxi to the border, gave us some instructions about where to go at the crossing and setup a van to pick us up on the Thai side. All in all things went very smoothly, save for the new November 25th law that reduced the visa exemption from 30 to 15 days for people coming into Thailand at a land crossing. More about that a bit later.

The 3 hour drive in Cambodia was by far one of the most interesting rides we’ve had yet. Km after km of beautiful rice fields with the occasional “hill” in the distance. The scenery of the local people along the way made it the most interesting and fascinating to me. The pictures below give a bit of a peek into what life in the countryside of Cambodia is like for so many. The change on the Thai side of the border was striking. No rice paddies, no bikes, no motorcycles, no tractors, no people really to speak of, just a paved highway the entire time. It was a bit like advancing the clock a good 50 years.

We are now in Bangkok and spent most of our first day planning our next few months of travel. This was partly spurred on with some urgency because, as mentioned above, Thailand just changed their visa exemption law. Before, citizens from one of the 42 exempt countries (including the US) were given a 30 day visa exemption at the airport or border crossing. But, less than 3 weeks prior to our arrival, and unknown to us, they changed the law to 15 days for those entering Thailand at a land crossing. Supposedly this was done to limit the border runs that many foreign workers do in order to come to Thailand for work. Others said that it was done to encourage more tourists to enter the country via airlines that are now ailing from the recent airport closure. Either way, it messed our plans up a bit or at least limited our options. We are scheduled to go to Koh Phangan, and island in the Gulf of Thailand, from Dec 18 to Dec 27 for a special time at the beach over Christmas. Our visa exemptions expire on the 28th and we were left with the option of leaving Thailand or paying $40 each for a 7 day extension. We wanted to visit Laos and/or Vietnam anyway so we decided that leaving and coming back later was the best approach. But, we were extremely limited on our departure day and had only expensive flights from which to choose. So, much to the kids delight, we are taking the overnight train from Bangkok to Nong Khai/Vientiane and will cross the border on land into Laos. We may fly back in and get our 30 day exemption and have more flexibility to stay longer the second time.

Bangkok has been enjoyable so far with much more to see. Friendly people, great food, interesting sites and easy transport around the city with the SkyTram and cheap taxis. The kids are beginning to get excited about Christmas and the beach. We are all looking forward to staying put for 10 days and doing nothing but swimming, reading, snorkeling, walking the beach, etc. Getting there should be quite interesting too. We leave on the overnight train tonight at 7:30 to Surat Thani, arriving at 6:30 AM. We then take a bus to the port where we catch a ferry that stops at Koh Samui before arriving at Koh Phangan where we will be picked up in a 4×4 to take us to our bungalow “resort.”

Happy Holidays!

Most Missed Montage

December 13, 2008

ankgor-moon.jpgWe have been thinking and talking lately about all of the things we miss while we are out exploring the marble. Yes we are having an amazing time, but as we reach the 4-month point and close in on Christmas, homesickness crept into the St.Clair travel camp. So, here we are being driven across the Cambodian border into Thailand and this is our list. By no means is it all inclusive, nor is it really in any ranked order.

All Missed by Everyone

  • Family
  • Grandparents
  • Minnie
  • Friends
  • Millie and Gussie
  • Minnie’s Cooking
  • Durham Friends Meeting
  • Mom’s cooking (Gabriel’s chicken)
  • Our house

Special Mentions

  • Foster’s BLT Chicken Caesar Wrap (Ainsley)
  • My bed and bedroom (Kelli)
  • My bikes (John)
  • My morning runs with Rob and the boys (John)
  • My runs (Kelli)
  • Carolina Friends School (Ainsley)
  • Everything (Jack)
  • Anna (Ainsley)
  • Matthew and Jamie (who the boys haven’t seen for 2 years)
  • Eric and Ben (Eliot and Jack)
  • Microbrews (John)
  • Legos (Jack, especially Ben’s lego room)
  • Annie’s Macaroni and Cheese (Ainsley and Eliot)
  • Dad’s hamburgers on the grill (Jack)
  • My routine (Ainsley)
  • Being alone (Kelli)
  • Japan (Jack, even though it isn’t home, he really misses it)
  • Mom’s lentils (Jack)
  • Martha’s House (the kids)
  • BMBT – Boy’s Mountain Bike Trip (John)

…..not quite!

June 23, 2008

We plan to go here, but haven’t yet arrived. Take a look at the map at the top right side of the home page to see where we are and the “Where?” page for where we intend to go.