February 19, 2017
Our honeymoon started out with quite the journey. We had a 13-hour flight from Chicago to Tokyo, a 7-hour flight from Tokyo to Bangkok, and what amounted to an 8-hour layover in Bangkok before a 7-hour bus and 3-hour ferry to the island of Koh Phangan.
In Bangkok, while we had booked a hotel room, we spent much of the time eating and drinking before it would be time for the 6 am ferry. We randomly met a group of people, including a 33-year-old man from Vancouver who’s now living in Australia, and a guy seeming to be in his late 50′s or so from Sweden who was living somewhere in Thailand. These two men were quite intoxicated. The former bought us a round of shots before realizing that he had no local currency left, and subsequently bartering an unfavorable conversion trade with the server to pay with Aussie money. The latter kept singing, impromptu, you may be right you be crazy (and he called Billy Joel by the name of Billy Yoel).
Somehow, we didn’t realize that we were drinking at a bar literally next door to where we would be getting on our bus. A lot of aggravation stemming from failure to read maps, and the lack of street signs in Asia, would have been saved if we had just seen that damn sign. We wound up paying a cab to take us what would have been a 10-minute walk from the hotel back to right where we had just been.
In any event, we found the bus, then took the ferry, and got to our hotel at 5pm that day. The hotel, Haad Son, which was booked by my old friend from high school Scott Trimble, was great. It was on a relatively secluded beach, had a gorgeous view and a reasonably priced restaurant and bar, and only cost about $50 a night. We met a few of Scott’s other friends who are teaching with him in Thailand and had a nice, relaxing evening.
Everything on Koh Phangan was going splendidly until the next day when we decided to rent motorbikes to go see a waterfall on the island. I wasn’t too excited about this idea because I have always seen those things as death traps, and I did not have a high degree of confidence in my ability to ride them without maiming myself or someone else. Nevertheless, I got convinced. There wasn’t a place to really practice using them at our hotel. It was get on them and go.
Except I didn’t go much of anywhere. Within literally 10 feet of accelerating, I drove straight into Karla, fell off the bike, and was lucky to emerge merely with two scrapes on my leg, a bruise below my hip, and a bruise on my other foot. $120 later, I returned the scratched bike to the lady who’d rented it to me 20 minutes before, and I was in a damn foul mood. But, this probably ended up being for the best, because it was not long after that the heavens opened up and it started raining horses and donkeys. I can count on one hand the times I’ve seen it rain harder than this in my life, and if we were on the road when that happened I probably would’ve crashed the demon bike into a truck or something. Crisis semi-averted?
On Koh Phangan, we had kind of stumbled into the weekend where the island hosts a full moon party, which is a pretty famous shindig that attracts reveling tourists from all over the planet. I thought we had booked a hotel to encompass those two days, but I had done so with a credit card that I hadn’t told I was going overseas. The room got canceled, and we had to hop over to the island of Koh Tao, which was about an hour away. This was probably also for the best because Karla and I are both getting too old to binge drink buckets of sugary death alcohol on the beach until sunrise.
Our ferry ride to Koh Phangan had been pretty smooth sailing, but this was not the case from there to Koh Tao. The gulf was quite choppy and the boat was rocking back and forth. It felt like being on an hour-long roller coaster. On this ferry, and the subsequent one two days later from the island to the mainland the boat was so rocky that you couldn’t even walk. Sitting on the top deck on our final ferry, we would see people making arduous efforts just to get to the bathroom, involving a series of grabbing onto the bleachers or other passengers’ arms at every step to make it to the stairwell. If you ever take these ferries, make sure you take motion sickness medicine beforehand.
On Koh Tao, we had a relatively relaxing two days. Our one excursion was to a rock island about 15 minutes away called Koh Nang Yuan. We had a 20-minute hike up, but the perch was way too crowded to enjoy the view, and after us there were only more and more tourists trying to catch a glimpse. It seemed very unsafe, and it would not be surprising to read about a tragedy happening there down the road. We hiked back down and waited about 90 minutes for our water taxi to return.
The coolest thing we saw on Koh Tao were a group of young men twirling fire stick batons at night. They were totally fearless with those things. One random thing about Thailand is that there are 7-11′s on literally every block. It’s like McDonald’s and Starbucks put together. A few people told us about these “Toastie” sandwiches they all had, and had raved about them. In Koh Tao, I tried a ham and cheese one, and unfortunately was underwhelmed. They have nothing on our taquitos.
From Koh Tao, we headed back to Bangkok for two days. The first night, we met a cool Canadian couple at dinner. The man makes his living building oil rigs. I feel like I could have lived my life from birth a million times, and never would have wound up in that profession.
Karla went to bed early, and I wandered around the bustling Khao San Road for an hour or two. This street featured mostly EDM music, which is not my cup of tea, but I did find a rock bar where a fun cover band played “By the Way” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers into “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana into “Enter Sandman” by Metallica. I love stumbling into things like that overseas.
The next day, we went to the Grand Palace, which is one of those types of places that no amount of words or pictures will do justice. It was gorgeous. I’ve already forgotten most of the narrative behind the buildings and ornate artwork that were told to us on the audio guide, but that’s kind of the way things go for me on these trips.
I had been craving Mexican food throughout the trip. This always happens to me when I travel to Asia — I miss certain types of foods and the craving consumes me. By Googling, I found a restaurant in an upscale, freestanding food court called The Commons, which had a chef from Mexico City and a really good chorizo queso fundido dish. Craving satisfied! We rode there in a motorbike coach taxi called a Tuk Tuk, and it was fascinating to see this thing bob and weave in and out of traffic. The roads can be one big game of chicken. Our driver never flinched.
Crossing the streets in Thailand and Myanmar is kinda problematic. There aren’t very many crosswalk signals, and you just have to wait for a momentary pocket to develop and then hustle. A lot of times you will wind up standing in the middle of the street praying for a window to make it to the other side.
On our way to The Commons, another couple was having the same issue, and at one point followed us across on the assumption that we were a human shield. They wound up being from less than two miles away from us in Chicago! We spent the rest of the night with them, which included dinner, an hour or so watching the acoustic cover artist at the food court, and then a fun time at a hipster bar in the Thung Lor neighborhood called Studio Lam. Here, a DJ played vinyl world music tracks, none of which had much thematically to do with one another, but all were awesome. Then there was a progressive jam band led by some instrument I’ve never seen that was both blown into and had strings.
We made tentative plans to hang out with the couple again the next night at a Muay Thai fighting event. However, those plans never materialized, because when we woke up the next day I had a calendar alert for our hotel in Yangon. We quickly realized that although we thought our flight to Myanmar was the next day, it was actually in three hours! We booked it to the airport and made our flight.
In Yangon, our first meal was in Chinatown. We got a meatball appetizer. Karla got chicken wings. I had a beef noodle dish (I ordered chicken, but am pretty sure that’s not what arrived). Between us we had four beers. We get the check. $6!
The next day was our busy tourist day in Yangon. We went to see the reclining Buddha — which was basically the size of a football field — and the massive Shwedagon Pagoda. We also took a walk through People’s Park, which was gorgeous, but is surrounded by a massive fence and only has two entrances, nominally because they charge a fee to get in that is the equivalent to a dime. It’s a strange dichotomy.
Outside the Shwedagon Pagoda, I got scammed. In Bangkok, I had my head on a swivel for this sorta thing, because it’s crowded, there are signs everywhere advising you to beware of pickpockets, and there are a million people coming up to you trying to sell you trinkets. In Yangon, we hadn’t come across many tourists the first night, and I just didn’t have my guard up.
It started when a young boy, ~10 years old, came up to me and gave me a plastic bag to carry my shoes in. As it turned out, this was not an altruistic act on his part. Then, a second boy, about 15, came up to me and helped me tie my Longyi — a long skirt that males in Myanmar wear, and I had put on because the temples and pagodas forbid shorts. This was actually a valuable service, as I’m, uh, wider than the average male here and my Longyi kept coming untied and falling off. This kid did the best job of anyone at tying it so far, so I took out my wallet to give him 1,000 KYS (about 65 cents, which as evidenced by our dinner the night before, goes a longer way here).
This was a big mistake. Then, the kid who gave me the little bag also demanded compensation. Even though I could have carried my sandals without a bag, I gave him a 1,000 KYS note in an attempt to get him to go away. This was where the real trouble happened. A third kid, who had done me no service, grabbed my sandal bag out of my hand while I was paying the other kids and held it hostage. I was now out of small bills, so I had to give this little jerk a 5000 KYS note (like $3.50) to get my damn sandals back. This enraged the other two kids, who, at varying levels, had done something for me to deserve money as opposed to transparently swindling me. I evaded their begging. (Karla, who is much smarter than I, had managed to escape the sandal-stealing scammer by just grabbing them back from him and refusing to pay.)
At night, we met up with my brother Dale’s old college roommate, Eli, who until last week had been working as a journalist in Yangon. He took us to a restaurant that he suspects is run by a Chinese drug cartel (the food was phenomenal) and then a reggae bar owned by a Jamaican expat. We met a group of great people from Colorado while a non-reggae cover band played in the background.
Then, it was off to Bagan. Bagan is the type of place that seems like it took several hundred years off, but regained relevance when Myanmar recently reopened its borders to tourism. There are thousands of pagodas, some of them a thousand years old or more, and it’s miraculous that they are still standing in the condition they’re in. We spent much of yesterday going to the temples, including this one where we saw the sunrise (and a bunch of hot air balloons rise with it):
I actually missed the great view of this moment because our vantage point was crowded and giving me some anxiety, but I did catch a great view of the break of dawn, and had a serviceable view of the sun and balloons from the side of the pagoda.
We’ve got about a week left in our honeymoon, which will involve another afternoon observing pagodas in Bagan, a three-day hike around Inle Lake, and two more nights in Yangon before the long journey home.