The following is a recollection of my trip to Asia with Chrystal from January 7, 2008 to January 18, 2008. My summary is kind of long and I didn’t mean to make it quite so long when I started writing it. However, as I got going I just remembered more and more stuff. The article then turned into kind of a journal of the trip.
So if you have some time, or a few installments of time, you should try and get through everything. But if you don’t want to and all you want to see are the pictures I won’t be offended. Here is a quick table of contents for the article and the pictures.
Way back in August (’07) or maybe earlier, Chrystal asked me if I was interested in going to Hong Kong with her in the beginning of 2008. Her family was going to visit her grandfather as well as do some other stuff. I am almost always up for traveling and seeing new things but I wasn’t sure if I could afford it or not. Plane tickets to Asia aren’t exactly cheap, especially these days. I tentatively committed to the trip knowing that I could afford it provided we didn’t go lavishly. Me going literally half way around the world didn’t sink in until we bought our tickets though.
We got our tickets in early November I think and from there on it was thinking about things we’d do on the trip. Well I say from there on, making it sound like Chrystal and I were planning things but in reality she did most of the thinking. I kind of feel bad about not doing more research before I went because there is definitely some stuff that I would have liked to see but didn’t. I’m not disappointed about what we did do, though.
Chrystal has been to Hong Kong (HK) numerous times over the course of her life. She’s not a local but she’s not quite a tourist either. Not to mention that she speaks Cantonese, the dialect of Chinese spoken in HK.
Chrystal left about a week earlier than I did so that she could do all her family stuff. This included visiting family, traveling to her ancestral village with her grandfather and seeing the school her grandfather founded. On Monday, January 7th I took off from Newark Airport (EWR) around 3:00 in the afternoon for my 15 hour 25 minute flight to HK, direct. Prior to this I had only been flights lasting around 7-8 hours. I was unsure how I would do on a flight twice as long. It turned out not to be that bad. I was able to rest, though not sleep, and it was as comfortable as coach can be. This particular flight went over the North Pole but it is dark in the winter so no interesting sights to report. After almost 15.5 hours in the air I touched down in HK on Tuesday the 8th around 7pm. HK is 13 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time.
Hong Kong Part 1
Chrystal meets me at the airport which is really nice. I didn’t have to worry about how to get to the hostel we were staying at since she had already been there. She had confirmed our reservations before her excursion into mainland China and therefore knew where the place was. We took the airport train to the island of Hong Kong. Hong Kong proper is an island, but there are other islands in the vicinity that are considered part of HK.
Our hostel is very small, but most affordable housing in HK is small. Our room consists of two slightly smaller than twin beds and a bathroom. The beds take almost all of the living area and the bathroom is a toilet/shower/sink combo. I took a picture of it but it didn’t come out. Go here for an example. You can shower while taking a shit if you want. It looks clean and safe which are the most important things in my opinion. Chrystal disagrees (inserted by Chrystal).
Hong Kong is an incredible city. Even though other Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai have been around for over a thousand of years, HK is relatively young. The British took possession during the Opium Wars back around 1840’s. The Chinese regained control in 1997. Up to that point it was just a fishing village. As such everything is fairly new. In fact, a significant number of buildings are less than 30 years old. Since HK is an island, and a mountainous one at that, there is limited land suitable for building. This is evident when you look at the airport which is entirely built on reclaimed land.
New York is a big city, but Hong Kong is bigger, or more accurately taller. Everywhere I look I can see 20+ story skyscrapers many of which are 30+ story apartment buildings. At night everything is lit up. MUCH more than any other city I’ve seen, either in person or in pictures. I haven’t been to Tokyo but it might be close. Most of the business buildings have enormous neon signs at the top along with architectural lighting up their sides. The streets are almost claustrophobically lit with advertising signs. The signs stretch out from the buildings over the street making a neon canopy over the road. There is no chance in seeing stars in this city and dark alleys are hard to find in the tourist sections.
At first glance the streets merge together because of the visual overload–with so many signs it is difficult to tell streets apart. After some time I am able to navigate the area immediately around our hostel, but it doesn’t come without being lost more than a few times. We get to the hostel around 10pm. The first night we don’t do much since I am being a huge buzzkill (inserted by Chrystal). The only thing notable is buying some grilled chicken gizzards and intestine from a street restaurant. They came on a stick and we dipped them in soy sauce before walking around and eating them. The gizzard was overdone and tough. The intestine, pig I think, is good. A little chewy though.
The second day, or first full day, starts with a walk to Central. Hong Kong has a number of different districts and Central has many of the financial buildings. Once in Central we start walking up Victoria Mountain. We aren’t hiking, the city just gets very hilly. Not too far from Central is an aviary and botanic garden. The garden is a nice little retreat for residents to get away from the busy streets. In the garden there’s a green house filled with exotic flowers and other plants. Strolling around the aviary we see a bunch of birds from all over the world. Everything from huge cranes to tiny sparrows, some of which had escaped the cages but still live within the gardens. I guess if I start coming down with a cough I’ll have to chalk it up to bird flu ;-). We walked over to the jaguar cage but during the middle of the day they just lay around.
Our next move is to the Peak Tram. The Peak Tram has been in existence since the 1880’s. It is a tram that brings tourists and locals from Central to the Mid-Lands district–Mid-Lands being a section of town that is part way up the mountain. The tram is powered by cable rather than by the tram-car’s wheels. It still rides on a railway track though. It is pretty easy to see why it is powered by cable once you get to a steep section of track. While it may not sound like much, the tram has sections of track of at least 27 degrees. Or 1300 feet in 0.87 miles, for an average angle of 16.4 degrees. The view from the top is great though. There is a Peak Building that rises another 6-7 stories from the top of the mountain. In the building are shops and restaurants. If you have the cash, one of these restaurants would be a great place for a date. Being the ladies man that I am, I take Chrystal to Burger King and make her foot the tab (do I have to say this was inserted by Chrystal).
After getting back down Victoria Mtn. via the Peak Tram we eat more food and start heading over to Mong Kok in Kowloon. Kowloon is another section of Hong Kong but it is on the mainland. To get there we take the MTR which is the subway. I’ve been on subways in Prague, London, Boston, and NY, and Hong Kong rates right up at the top in my opinion–great ventilation, clean cars, and easy to navigate. The biggest difference I notice is the glass wall separating the track from the platform. This prevents jumpers and probably other stuff getting on the tracks. Inside the trains there are no dividers, gaps or doors between cars. Passengers can walk all the way up to the first or last car if they want. Another feature which is really nice is the dynamic, illuminated subway map above every door. The map shows the direction of travel and the next stop. This is nice to keep your bearings if you miss the announcement which comes in Cantonese, Mandarin and English.
There is a section of Mong Kok called Ladies Market and it is appropriately named. The market is three blocks long and is packed with stalls selling purses, clothes, shoes, underwear, and all kind of other little things. The streets are closed to cars, which is good because there is no way to get a car down the road anyway with all the people and the stalls. Everything for sale can be haggled for, and as such you can get some good deals on knock-off designer products. Going through the market is a little intense at first because of the number of people but it isn’t too bad.
For our evening we take a walk down Avenue of the Stars which is kind of like Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. The broad walkway goes along the harbor with a view of Hong Kong Island. Along the walk we see TV and movie stars names’ in the walkway, a different star for every name. There is also a 6-foot statue of Bruce Lee. The view of HK Island’s night skyline is awesome.
Our third day has us back on the MTR to Kowloon to check out the Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple. While many people in HK are Catholic (because of missionaries) there are many people who are part of more traditional Asian religions, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. All three of these religions are practiced at Wong Tai Sin. It is easy to spot the temple not because of any large structure, though there is an impressive entrance gate. It is most recognizable because of the plumes of incense smoke. The air is thick with smoke from literally thousands of incense sticks. People purchase candles, fruit and incense from dealers just outside the entrance to use in their worship. For the most part people stand in front of a particular deity or temple with lit incense and bow, kneel or a combination of both. After a few minutes of praying they leave their incense stick stuck in a trough of sand. As the troughs get full of half burnt incense temple workers come by to remove the sticks and dump them in a bucket of water. It is an interesting scene for sure. It doesn’t look like there is any organized worship in the way of a mass, just people showing up and praying according to their own schedule.
After Wong Tai Sin we take a minibus up Diamond Hill. Diamond Hill is supposed to have a temple for Guan Yin, the Goddess of Compassion. My mom is interested in Guan Yin so I thought it would be nice to see the temple and take some pictures. After getting off the minibus we start to walk up the mountain which is forested but has concrete walking paths. Because of the steep mountain sides and the number of people in the city, landslides are a big concern. As such the city has constructed elaborate drainage and reinforcement walls for many mountain sides. Walking up the mountain I come to a building that I think might be the temple. It is very quiet with almost no visitors and almost eerie because of the silence. Walking through the building I figure out what the building is, a mausoleum. Inside the open structure of the building are small shelves with little ceramic boxes with photographs leaning against them. Each little box contains the ashes of the person in the photograph. Judging by the age of the pictures I think most of the urns are at least 50 years old. There are easily thousands of urns. Unfortunately we can’t seem to find the Guan Yin statue so we decide to head back because it is humid and we are tired.
To finish up the day we go to Wan Chai on HK Island. This area is a big shopping district, but not like Mong Kok in that most of the merchants have regular stores instead of street stalls. There are also food markets here as well. It is amazing that in the US we have so many regulations on meat and fish. In HK they slice your desired cuts of meat or fish on a wooden block right in the street, with no refrigeration. This is the first area I see live seafood in tanks on the street, but it turns out this is very common. Shoppers can pick out their favorite fish, crustacean, or bivalve from the street then the merchant will measure it up to charge you. But there are no electronic scales. The merchant weighs the food with a balance composed of a rod with a weight suspend from one end. He then suspends the food on the other end of the rod and slides the weight back and forth along the length of rod until the two sides are balanced. Small marks on the rod let the merchant know how much the food weighs. It basically is a very simple version of those doctor’s office scales.
Thai Day 1/Day 4 Overall
Our tour to Thailand starts at the HK airport around 6:00am. I’ve never been on a tour like this before so I’m not really sure of how everything works. We head to meet our tour guide standing near a sign that is in our information packet. Tours within Asia are pretty common and Chrystal says middle-class people in HK often go on trips a couple times a year. Since the tour oriented towards HK residents, it is all in Cantonese. It looks like Chrystal has to play interpreter for the entire trip. I’m sure that got taxing after about a day. She was the one that had to pay attention all the time to when and where we were supposed to meet after our little excursions.
Anyways after getting our tickets and passports back from the tour guide we head to the gate for our plane. Boarding is a little different from what I’m used to. After going through the door where you would normally walk down the ramp into the plane, we walk down a set of stairs and onto a bus. The bus is a specifically made for airports because it is 1.5 times wider than a regular bus. Once on the bus we drive out to the plane which is in basically a plane parking lot. Our flight was uneventful other than the cool front view camera playing on the cabin TV’s. We got to see take off as if we were sitting on the nose of the aircraft.
We land in Bangkok and get on the bus that we’ll spend a good portion of the next four days. Right off the bat Bangkok is the definition of an exotic city. It is much hotter than HK, around 80-85 degrees with plenty of humidity but the bus has A/C. On the way from the airport to downtown Bangkok we notice the economic class differences. We pass countless shacks on the banks of dirty canals, right across the street from little stores and other retail establishments.
Thai’s drive on the left side of the road same as HK, but there is much more traffic. And they use much more of the road. If there is available space on the pavement drivers will use it. As such when making a turn onto a road, drivers just keep inching out until oncoming drivers must stop. Some people might say this is rude or aggressive, but if you waited for a break in traffic you will never go anywhere. Having a moped or scooter is the quickest way around. Riders with their girlfriends or wives weave in and out of cars. Many of the scooters have women driving and they drive exactly the same as the men.
The tour, as we would find out, is jam packed. We rarely were on the bus for more than an hour. Proof of this came early. After about 30-40 minutes from the airport we end up at Dreamland which is basically an amusement park and it is a far cry from Six Flags. It is more like that local place near your parent’s house when you were a kid. Most of the rides are outdated which is fine with me since I’m a big weenie and “not big on rides”. There is, however, the added excitement of not knowing if the staff has performed their regular maintenance on the rides.
We head to the go-karts which look fun. Watching some of the people go before us I wonder why everyone was going so slowly. Where the karts under powered? Chrystal points out that many people don’t have cars and therefore probably have never driven. On my turn I find out that the karts were ok, not as good as On-Track back home but still fun. The track is wide and smooth enough to go full throttle 99% of the way. How can that possibly be fun if there is no challenge to the track you ask? Well passing people left and right is lots of fun. Sure they aren’t giving me competition but it made me feel fast to be passing so many people.
One of the biggest attractions at Dream World is Snowtown. It doesn’t take a great mind to figure out what it is. The tour guide talked it up too, talking about how your hands get so cold rings would slide off your fingers. Chrystal and I find it all very amusing since the weather inside Snowtown, a refrigerated building, was the same as New England. I guess for someone living in Thailand where it is 80 degrees in the winter would find it otherworldly. Inside Snowtown there is a 15ft snowman, a sledding hill and various other campy winter items (fake moose, penguins, Santa sleigh, etc).
After Dream World we head back into Bangkok for dinner and some entertainment. Dinner was “suki” which basically means hot-pot. Hot-pot is kind of like fondue. We pick out raw food, mostly seafood, and boil it in a pot at our table. The broth is flavored with some spices, but the main flavoring comes from the food itself or from the sauces. My favorite sauce is the fish sauce with chili peppers and lime. The fish sauce is salty and the chili pepper give it kick and the lime makes it nice and bright tasting. Good dinner overall.
After dinner we head to the hotel for the night. The hotel is a regular hotel rather than a hostel. It seemed much nicer than it actually was though. The lobby looks great but for the rooms management went the cheap route for materials and workmanship. The rooms are no better than a Best Western, but there is an OK view from our room on the 7th floor.
Thai Day 2/Day 5 Overall
Our first stop of the day is to a place that claims to be the oldest snake research center in the world. What is for certain is that they have a pit of King Cobras right out by the entrance. There are probably a dozen cobras and we are separated from them by no more than a 3ft high wall. Two snake handlers are arranging the snakes around and agitating them enough so they rise up and spread their hoods. One of the two handlers then crouches down and starts to stick his hand near one of the snakes. He quickly moves back after the snake tries to bite him. This guy is nuts since if you don’t have the anti-venom you’ve only got about 30 minutes to live. And I say live but that is more like become paralyzed and go into a coma kind of living. Needless to say this is not the first time the guy does this and therefore is successful in grabbing the snake by the head. He then picks the snake up and makes it “stand-up”.
Once inside the snake place we sit for a 20 minute presentation on King Cobras, which I don’t understand a word of because it is in Cantonese. The presentation is only highlighted by the shot of snake infused alcohol we drink. I say infused but I don’t which part(s) of the snake has been infused into the liquor. They say that it is good for you and has medicinal purposes. Of course they are happy to sell some to us if we are interested for $40US–quite expensive. They also bring out some other snake related items that are medicinal but nothing too interesting. I realize at this point that there are going to be many stops on this trip at places that just want to sell us something.
Enter the bee guy. Well not quite, we head from the snake place to the bee place, or more accurately the honey place. We have a similar presentation about the wonders of honey. How it should taste, how it should look, how it should preserve an egg yoke dropped into a jar of it. During the presentation he sees me and starts breaking from Cantonese to English. A couple times he goes into 30 seconds or so of just English, at which time the whole tour starts laughing because we all know he’s doing it because of whitey in the room.
Honey also has, or the bee guy claims, dozens and dozens of nutrients. He tells us that the reason is because of the flowers that this honey comes from. It comes from poppy flowers. But we needn’t worry because we won’t become addicted as if it was heroine. Unfortunately this guy hasn’t figured out the best part of honey is the fact that you can make mead out of it. Oh well.
After the honey presentation he talks about royal jelly which is the food the bees make only for the queen bee. Not surprisingly it has medicinal properties along with another product, bee pollen. They collect pollen from bees and make it into a granular form. This stuff is supposed have hundreds of nutrients and minerals and will, if eaten every day, basically cure cancer. Or as the bee guy relayed to us, through Chrystal of course, his son at 14 was short and boyish. After a few months of a teaspoon per day of bee pollen his son shot up and is now almost six feet. It not only works for guys, for the ladies it will make your boobs bigger.
Our next stop is Safari World which is kind of like a Busch Gardens. First we drive through the African Savannah type exhibit. Here we see hundreds of storks and other African birds as well as lots of zebra, rhino, antelope and ostrich. We then move into the tiger enclosure which is logically separated from the food in the previous drive through. In the lion enclosure we see a bunch of lazy lions. We also see some bears. Unfortunately nothing attacked the bus. That would be a story.
In addition to the drive through safari there is also an amusement park/zoo attached. Here we see a bunch of other animals including crocodiles, macaws, orangutans, and some very depressed looking polar bears. Not surprisingly the animal laws aren’t quite as strict as they are in the US. These polar bears were in the ambient temp (+80 degrees, wintertime temp remember) and had to stand up, smack a hanging ball to get some balled up white bread for food. I really like seeing the bears in person because they are much bigger than they appear on TV, but it was very sad seeing these bears in Thailand temps. The mother looked very bored and tired. The cub seemed playful but it was still sad to see them so far away from their natural habitat.
Safari World has lots more to offer in the way of animal exhibits but we aren’t able to see them because of time restrictions. We do see a Wild West type show which was hilarious. The whole thing blares through tinny PA’s in Thai. All the actors are dressed up to look white and obviously don’t. It was an interesting 15 minutes. From there we moved to a less than quality lunch. PSA: never ever eat the crushed ice in foreign countries.
After Safari World we head back to downtown Bangkok, well the wealthy section of it at least. Here we saw a 4D movie that should have been twice as long. I’m not sure how much it cost to get in since it was included in our tour, but it was way too short. In any case the movie was good. They give you 3D glasses and the fourth dimension comes in the way of air blasts on your face or the seats shaking. Fun even though it was short. The movie theater is in a mall and houses the largest aquarium in Southeast Asia. Believe it or not this mall, Siam Paragon, at 3.2 million square feet is only the second largest mall in Southeast Asia.
After the movie and mediocre dinner we go to the night market which is rows upon rows of street stalls with everything you can think of for sale. We wander around for a while and get lost. Luckily we are able to find our way back to the bus in time for our departure. Looking back now I think I would have visited the beer garden while we were there instead of trying to find little souvenirs for people back home.
Thai Day 3/Day 6 Overall
Our first stop of the day is the Erawan Shrine of Phra Phrom. Thailand has many shrines visible when traveling through Bangkok. Most of them are of the Thai King, Bhumibol Adulyadej. The shrine we visit is that of Phra Phrom the Thai representation of Brahma who is this highest Hindu god. People have been worshiping the god for thousands of years. The most striking part of the shrine is the statue of Phra Phrom. The 3 foot high statue is clad in gold and sits in a four pillared house. The statue has four faces, one looking forward, two to the side and one rearward. This represents how Phra Phrom is always looking to help people no matter what direction they may come. People worshipping at the shrine will leave jasmine garlands, young coconuts (with the milk inside as a drink) or small wooden elephants. Of course they burn incense all the while.
Worshippers are careful to only walk in a clockwise fashion around the statue to avoid bringing bad spirits on themselves. The highest level of worship at the Erawan Shrine is paying for the traditional Thai dancers to dance and pray for you.
After the shrine we go to what some, usually females might also call a shrine, the largest mall in Southeast Asia. But didn’t you just say you went to the second largest yesterday? Yup, and it is just down the road a mile or so. CentralWorld Mall is 5.9 million square feet of shopping paradise. Well for some maybe. It is quite impressive, so impressive that they don’t want you snapping pictures from inside. I find this out the hard way. Luckily I still get a few pictures of the main elevator/escalator centerpiece.
After the mall everyone except Chrystal and I go to lunch on the 84th floor of the tallest building in Bangkok. We aren’t really that interested since it was kind of expensive for Thailand, $20 a plate. We instead wander around the surrounding streets. I get some satay style pork, which is basically fried, from a street vendor. It is pretty good and only cost 60 or 70 cents. Chrystal by this time is a little sore from walking so much and decides to get a massage while I wander around outside. During this time I see a guy selling beer on the sidewalk. Of course being such a novel concept and a hot day, I purchase one and proceed to watch people go by.
While standing there a man in his late 40’s or early 50’s comes up to me and in pretty good English strikes up a conversation. He tells me about the weather and that it was a hot day for the winter, but it got much hotter in the summer. He asks me about my stay in Bangkok thus far and what I had done. He wants to know if I had seen Thai boxing yet. I tell him unfortunately no. He then proposes that he can take me to a place not far from where we are standing where we can watch some. I didn’t have time for that, not to mention that whole scenario seemed a little shady, so I tell him I must decline. I ask him about what he does for a living and learn that he is a marketing person for Reebok shoes. I can only assume his job and command of the English language is a result of college education. He departs and said he was sorry I didn’t have time to see some Thai boxing with him. I agree and wave goodbye. He might be just really super friendly or he might have some other agenda, I don’t know.
Later in the day we head to the beach town of Pattaya. But as expected before we can get there we need to stop at some places where we can spend money. This includes a leather place that has hundreds of purses, handbags, wallets, and shoes. The second place is a gem/jewelry factory.
Pattaya is a beach town a couple hours from Bangkok on the South China Sea. It is a big tourist area and is populated by expats from all over the world. Because of all the tourism there are loads of condos and hotels lining the beach.
Fresh fruit is in abundance almost everywhere in Pattaya. At one of our frequent shopping stops there is a fruit stand outside that we purchase some mangosteen, dragon fruit and rambutan. A mangosteen looks like a round eggplant about the size of an orange. Cutting into the thick purple skin reveals a white center with clove like segments. The cloves are the edible part and are awesome, sweet and just a hint of citrus, nothing like fruit we have in the US. Dragon fruit is the most colorful fruit I’ve ever seen. The outside is bright magenta with greenish tipped leaf live protrusions. Inside it has a white, sweet, mild interior spotted with black seeds. It is kind of like a kiwi in that the seeds are edible. The rambutan is very strange looking with its hairy spiny needles. The needles are more hairy than spiny and inside is a white bulb that has a slightly citrus flavor.
Thai Day 4/Day 7 Overall
We spend some time at the beach. To get there we take a speedboat holding about 25 people to an island called Ko Lan about 7 miles off-shore. On the way we stop at an anchored barge where people can go parasailing. Amazingly as the boat drops someone on the barge it only takes 10 seconds for them to unclip the person and have next person up in the air. On the island there is white sand and warm clear water. We swim for a while with some tubes that we find out are rentals and therefore have to pay for later. Oh well. We take a seadoo out for about 15 minutes. This was very strange because it there are three of us on the seadoo, Chrystal, me and our “chaperone.” This was the guy that made sure we came back in the correct amount of time. It was weird because he basically made us go in a straight line out then straight line back in. Very strange.
After getting back from the beach everyone heads over to the massage place. Thai massage is extremely popular and there must be as many massage places as there are gas stations in the US. Obviously the quality of the place varies and our tour guide says that if anyone wanted a “male” massage he can arrange that. I don’t notice any takers, probably because there aren’t any single guys on the trip. The parlor we visit is very large and has at least six rooms each holding 14-16 people. Our tour includs a one hour massage but for extra money we can get a two hour massage, one hour for lower body and one for upper.
I’ve never received a massage so I was looking forward to it. Not to mention that all the walking and bus riding was taking its toll. First everyone is assigned a mattress and then the masseuses pull curtains around us so we could undress and get into some pajamas they provide. Once this is done we lay down and the masseuses start. Thai massage is a little different than I expect. I am expecting more rubbing and kneading, but Thai massage is more about squeezing. This is evident in a number of the moves they do. One includes them opening one leg out to the side and them gently kneeling near the groin on the artery at the inside of your leg. My masseuse did this for a solid 30 seconds. After releasing she squeezes down my leg, recirculating the blood systematically.
The massage is great and I can see why people want to get them every couple weeks or so. My favorite moves are with my legs and then my back. The leg move basically takes my leg, bends it up so one leg is flat and the other is bent so your foot is near your butt. She then puts my right foot over my left leg, kind of like crossing your legs when sitting down. She then pushes my right knee to the left so it stretches my back and buttocks.
The other finishing move as I like to refer to it was pretty sweet. The masseuse, all 4’ 11” and 89 pounds of her sits me up with my legs out straight. She then kneels behind me and puts her knees in the small of my back. Then she kind of hugs me and pulls me backwards, During the move she transitions onto her back. So in the end she is under me with her back on the ground and her knees in the small of my back. Imagine if you took a beach ball and put it on the small of your back and then tried to lay on it. All the while she is balancing me she also pulls on my arms stretching me out. I don’t really make much noise during this move so she holds me for a good 20-30 seconds I think. I think Chrystal makes some noise during her move and her masseuse lets her down sooner.
Now the question I’m sure you’re dieing to know, how much? Well for a two hour massage with tip it cost about $10US. Here I’ll spell that out so you don’t think I missed any zeros, ten US dollars.
Thai Day 5/Day 8 Overall
Our last day in Thailand starts with getting back on the bus for Bangkok. But no worries, a little while later we get off and ride some elephants. The elephant place had a few other activities that we can do, such as a shooting range and a getting put into a huge hamster ball and rolled down a ramp. Since neither of those activities really interest me Chrystal and I decide on the elephant ride.
The ride purchase comes with two young coconuts to drink at the end, but I’ll get into those in a sec. To get on the elephant we walk up a 6 foot high platform so we can just step down onto the elephant’s back. We sit down and the handler nicely puts a little seat belt kind of thing across our seats, which is a good idea. Our seats are a padded metal thing strapped to the elephant’s back. The handler just sits on his neck so he can use the “gas” and “brake” pedals, aka, the elephant’s ears. I don’t remember ever being so close to an elephant so it was intriguing. To get into position we literally step on them which they don’t seem to notice at all. Their skin is super thick and feels like live leather, but a little drier. In addition to the thick skin many of the elephants have hair on them. It is hard to notice because it is the same color as their skin and sticks straight out. It also isn’t very long, maybe 2-3 inches. It is noticeable up close and gives them a fuzzy sort of look.
Our ride begins and we are both sloshing around, turns out the belts were a good idea. Their backs move around a lot when they walk. After a minute or so we get accustomed to it and figure out how to move with the elephant so it is comfortable. I’m not exactly sure of how this place is set up but on the ride we basically go through people’s back yards where they are making food and hanging laundry. All the houses are elaborate shacks and some of them have cars. A little passed the houses we enter a field where it looks like they normally grow crops but at this point, the dry season, there is nothing growing except the palm trees lining the edges.
Our handler the then jumps off and motions that he’ll take some pictures of us while we are on the elephant. It seems harmless so I let him snap away. Surprisingly he’s not too bad and the pictures come out pretty good. I’ll tip him for his “trouble” at the end of the ride. Overall the ride lasts about 15 minutes or so and was pretty neat. When we dismount and collect our coconuts we notice that they are kind of brown where they’ve been cut, meaning that they were cut a while ago. Kind of like how an apple browns after it has been cut. We take a few sips and decide that we’d rather not chance getting sick from them and start walking over to the elephants. PSA: don’t drink from sketchy brown coconuts.
The elephants know the drill pretty well: when people start walking over with coconuts it means they are going to get a treat. A couple elephants line up against the wooden fence and stretch their trunks out to get the coconuts. Chrystal seemed a little reserved since they looked like they were going for her coconuts. It turns out that elephants have super strong jaws. They take the coconut, pop it in their mouth and bite down. We hear a big cracking sound and water runs down their mouth and they start chewing the pieces.
We end up feeding them the coconuts and some bananas that one of our tour mates brings over. After seeing how we like the elephants they try to convince us to have our picture taken while sitting on the tusks of a big elephant. Chrystal decides to do it and is quickly lifted effortlessly 5 feet in the air.
After the elephant ride we start heading toward the Sriracha Tiger Zoo. This place was really cool. They are a tiger “research” facility and have been doing experiments with tigers for years. This experiment is basically taking new born tiger cubs and piglets and switching mothers. Inside two separate glassed in enclosures we see a large pig nursing, quite vigorously, two tiger cubs. In the adjacent enclosure is a mother tiger with half tiger cubs and half piglets. The piglets have tiger skins wrapped around them to appear more tiger like. It doesn’t look like the tiger is in any way going to eat the pigs. Later on in the facility we see the “Happy Family” which is larger pigs, tigers and golden retrievers all sleeping lazily in the same pen.
I did a little research after getting back home and it appears that there is some controversy over this facility over questionable ethics for these experiments. There are rumors of mass death/euthanizing of tigers back in 2004 because of bird flu. But all is forgiven because they have pig racing, for fun not money, and a pig who understands Thai, Cantonese and English. What is there to understand? The pig does math. She will take math problems given by the crowd in any one of the three languages and collect a small metal piece with the answer printed on it. She is actually right most of the time. The best part is her name is Barbeque. I may have to get an animal someday and give it a food name.
Also at the tiger place are thousands of alligators, some camels, rabbits, horses, and iguanas. Before leaving this place we decide to eat some crocodile. Of all the strange food on the trip this was by far the best. It was prepared satay style which basically is fried with spices on it. It was awesome.
Leaving the Tiger Zoo we hit up a jerky store which has dozens and dozens of dried fruits, meats and seafood. I don’t get the obsession for dried seafood but some people buy bags and bags of it. We also get a snakeskin fruit from our tour guide. This fruit has a dry scaly reddish skin that very much looks like snake scales. Inside it has cloves not unlike the mangosteen I mentioned.
Hong Kong Part 2
Once back in Hong Kong we head back to Alisan, our hostel, for our second stint in Hong Kong. We go to bed relatively early so we could recover from our trip. But not before we pick up some “gai dan zai” or “little eggs” from a street vendor. They are kind of like waffles, a little crunchy on the outside, soft and warm on the inside. I love these things and you can get them from street shops just about everywhere in Hong Kong.
Chrystal’s mom had been traveling with a friend of hers to Shanghai and parts nearby. She returned and met us on our ninth day, which is Wednesday January 16th. I’ve never met Chrystal’s mom before and she was fun to spend time with. She brings us to some of the outlying islands where she grew up. To do this we take a ferry to Lantau Island which is the island with the airport on it. It is actually larger than Hong Kong Island, but they still had to build the airport on reclaimed land instead of digging into the mountains.
On Lantau Island we take a walk up to what used to be a silver mine, but is now a cave blocked off 10-15 feet inside. I was hoping for some bouldering in the cave, oh well. There is also a little waterfall that we visit on our way up to the mine. The falls are a bit underwhelming since the wintertime is the dry season. It was probably in the low 50’s and according to Tommy our hostel owner, was the coldest day of the year.
During our stop at the falls I notice some broom handles with rubber attached to the end. I am curious as what these are and why they are sitting in a nice stainless steel rack out in the woods. Chrystal’s mom informs me that are used to extinguish brush fires. If residents see a brush fire they are to get these things and beat the fire out.
After a stroll up to the mine, which is on a hill, we see a nice panoramic of the island. Unfortunately the cool weather doesn’t do much to eliminate the heavy haze that always seems to be around in Hong Kong during our stay. On our way back down to catch the ferry we take a little detour to walk along the beach. It is empty but no doubt would be filled in the summer time.
The ferry takes us to Long Island, also called Cheung Chau. This island is much smaller and the town only has two cars, on police car and one ambulance. These barely qualify as cars too since they are basically oversized golf carts with sides and a roof.
Cheung Chau was such a world away from busy, loud Hong Kong. Many people commute 40 minutes on the ferry to work in HK but live in this suburb. The village is primarily a fishing village and it shows based on the outdoor seafood dealers. Here you can go to a fish monger, pick out your dinner and bring it to one of the nearby restaurants where you sit outside. We did this and picked out some fish, shrimp and abalone. Needless to say this stuff is fresh and tasty. Unfortunately I’m not feeling 100% so I didn’t eat as much as I wanted to.
Our last few days in Hong Kong are very different from the first few. Spending the day on the outlying islands was a great getaway. The next day is not much different although we didn’t have to leave the island to get a similar experience. We head to Shek O which is a small village on the eastern end of the island. The village is actually on a peninsula. To get there we take the MTR to a bus station and then a 20 minute bus ride on amazingly narrow, windy roads going over a ridge.
Again the weather is cold and windy, especially on the ocean. But I had downloaded some bouldering info on some routes right on the ocean. Chrystal and I head out to see if we could find it the rocks. Before climbing we decided on some “lupper” at a local restaurant. We had some fried frogs legs and a Thai style hot and sour soup that were spectacular.
We don’t end up climbing a whole lot since we don’t have a crash pad or much time since we didn’t get into Shek O until 3:30pm. We hit up the routes that look safe and fun. I think this is the first time I’ve climbed on granite and I like it. The rock was rough and super hard. A couple of the routes we do are kind of highballish but easy and therefore safe.
We visit Mong Kok on our final night to pick up a few last minute items. I realize that the best bargaining tactic is to ask the price, shake your head and walk away. The merchants will start dropping the price as you start walking away. I get a fake Diesel bag for $10 and some other stuff super cheap.
Our final day is pretty uneventful. I navigate the streets of Hong Kong by myself because Chrystal went back to her grandparent’s house for the final night. I don’t really have much trouble getting to the airport train where I meet Chrystal and her parents. It is just Chrystal, her mom and I going back though. Her father is sticking around for a couple more days.
The flight back is better than the one going over because I have someone to talk to. The entertainment system is also much better, it must have been a newer plane. The system has +300 movies and TV shows on-demand not to mention games. Many of the board games can be played two player against anyone else on the plane. This is great since I taught Chrystal how to play Othello, Chess and she schooled me at Connect Four.
Wow, this turned out to be much longer than I thought. I doubt anyone will even get to this point of the article. In case you do, thanks for checking out my summary of my Asia trip. Asia is an amazing part of the world. Things which we take for granted here like sit-down toilets are not always present. Everyday life is similar in many ways but so different in many others. This is the first time I’ve gone anywhere where I was a minority. This didn’t bother me but it is a feeling I’ve never experienced.
I plan to go back to Asia and China specifically to see the mainland. I’d like to get out and do some real climbing and hiking. The culture in China is amazing because of its age and its sense of tradition. I hear the Great Wall is deteriorating and I want to see that before it goes or I go which is more likely.
Chrystal and I had lots of fun and I can’t imagine going without her. Thanks for bringing me along and thanks for providing comments/corrections on this as well.