Archive | January, 2014

Thailand – our month in AoNang, Krabi

15 Jan

It is in meeting fun or inspiring people along your travel path that sometimes define where you’re heading next. So too in this case! We met Michael….. an all-around, nice American guy, avid rock climber & Tai Chi enthusiast in Yangshuo, China. After some lovely chats, he convinced us that his hometown of Ao Nang, Krabi would be a great place to settle in Thailand for a while.  So off we were to Southern Thailand – a country so very near to our hearts as it was here that Anthony proposed to me over 20 years ago (most romantic proposal ever to boot!!). We couldn’t wait to get back and observe how this lovely country had changed during this time, and see if we still LOVED it as much as we did then!

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With new friend Michael Weitzman, an avid rock climber and Thai Chi enthusiast 

We arrived in Krabi on Dec. 15 – shortly before the holiday season. We rented a room in the comfortable 3 Bees Guesthouse (http://www.3beesguesthouse.com) and got us a set of motorcycles, allowing us to find a house for rent, for the month. I was a bit concerned showing up so close to Christmas with still a place to find, and rightly so. We scootered around for 2 full days in 30-35C, stopping at each hotel, hostel, apartment building and house – trying to find something to rent.  We only got NO’s – FULL!

At one point on day 2 on the scooter, the heat was starting to get to me so I stripped down to my bikini, sprayed myself with water and started to sing loudly (to keep the spirits up!!)…..when I turned a corner, I almost hit a huge elephant!!! Surely, I was starting to hallucinate! The kids were laughing at my erratic behavior, probably thinking that I was going to be certifiable soon …..but when I stopped and focused in, I realized I was not quite ready yet for the loony bin. This is Thailand after all!

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Majestic elephant walking along a busy road in Ao Nong, Thailand

With the assistance of Michael, we ended up finding a great, 3-bedroom, Thai style house in the charming village of Chong Phli, just on the outskirts of Ao Nang ($400/month!). We loved living surrounded by locals (mostly Thai Muslims), riding our motorcycles everywhere and taking in the local vibe.

Anthony for example, went to cheer on our neighbor Son – a local Thai boxing champion in the 60Kg category – at one of his matches.  He drove to the spectacle with him and his family and after a great time at the ring – he had a lovely chat with these fine people on the porch of their house.

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Thai Boxing match – supporting our neighbour Son

And, we quickly started to connect with and frequent the local Muslim women with their delicious food – our morning lady, who would drive by with her food cart offering us delicious crunchy chicken on a stick, rice curry, sesame balls or sticky rice in palm leaves with sweet coconut…or the lady with the best chicken & rice with spicy ginger sauce for dinner… All for $1-2 per dish. As Emile said, when you are in Thailand, eat like the Thais do….And so we did – without any hesitation!!! as Thai cuisine is so fresh, varied, delicious and incredibly cheap!

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At the entrance of our Thai Style house in Chong Phli

Ao Nang is one of the top destinations in Krabi Province and we quickly noticed why.  This bustling, touristy town is the gateway to some of the most beautiful and top rated beaches and islands in the world (such as Railay, Kho Lanta, Hong & Kho Phi Phi Islands etc.). In addition, Ao Nang is surrounded by the most stunning rock formations making it a top destination for rock climbing (and the sunsets – WOW)!

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Sunset at Kluong Muong Beach

After his first thrilling experience in China, Anthony was eager to continue learning to rock climb!  With Michael by his side – he got a chance to go out several times and improve his skills.  Often, my brave husband came back with cuts and bruises but always in great spirits, loving his new hobby!  Emile & Filou also quite enjoyed this new sport and took several rock climbing classes on beautiful Tonsai Island, called Basecamp Tonsai (http://www.basecamptonsai.com).  This climbing company did not only expertly guide novices to climb the beautiful rocks in Ao Nang, it also housed a wonderful rooftop café where we hung out with the hippies and young backpackers – savouring the healthy snacks and great java’s!

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At Tonsai Basecamp rooftop terrace. Does it look like I am starting to blend in with the hippy, backpacker crowd? 

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Filou doing his best to reach the top

Ao Nang is also an ideal location for boating & yachtsmen (I am working on a collection of boat pictures from around the world, and I surely got my fill here!), scuba-diving and snorkeling.

I LOVE the water – swimming, sailing, snorkeling etc. and have always dreamed of scuba diving.  So, I connected with Mike, a local scuba diving instructor who guided me through the P.A.D.I  (Professional Association of Diving Instructors), Open Water Diving Course.  I studied the 250 page book and was ready to take the exam, but after a first day in the water (in the pool, practicing emergency procedures where I choked a lot and felt completely suffocated), I realized this is sport is not for me.  Very happy for having tried something new……This one however, will have to go into the book of “fails” (with a good example for my sons that in life nothing is ever lost if you’ve tried your best)!

Michael was kind enough to show us some of the local beaches and less touristy places like e.g. Kluong Muong Beach, where the kids had a great time playing with his kids, Zach “Attack” and Sariya (lovely children that the boys got very attached to!  We called ZachZach “Attack” as he loved testing out his very good boxing skills on Filou – who enjoyed returning his punches!)– and where we enjoyed the pool of the luxurious Sheraton Krabi Beach Resort http://www.starwoodhotels.com/sheraton/property/overview/index.html?propertyID=1438 , pretending to be guests!

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Some fun times with Michael, his son Zach “Attack” and Sariya 

As well, we went to Koh Yao Noi Island, a favorite hang out location for the climbers where we arrived by Longtail Boat and had a fun social overnight stay. Here at La Luna Italian Restaurant (http://lalunakohyao.com) Michael & friends thrilled us with a great guitar performance while we enjoyed the restaurant’s delicious pizza.

Upon leaving Koh Yao Noi, we learned from local ladies about the traditional style of Batik painting (Batik is a cloth that is painted on, using a manual wax-resist dyeing technique).

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Batik painting on Koh Ya Noi Island

We were extremely thankful to be in sunny Thailand, at the end of December & early January to take in the lovely rays of sunshine and celebrate Christmas & New Year’s here – because our family and friends in Toronto, Canada were battling extreme cold temperatures of up to -30C!  (so sorry friends!).

Besides a couple of touristy Christmas trees & decorations, there was not much Christmas spirit in Ao Nang, which didn’t bother us in the least bit.  For Christmas Day, we planned a day of tropical, island hopping!  We rented a private longtail boat, operated by a lovely driver and set course for Hong Islands (a series of 4 gorgeous islands about ½ hour from Oa Nang).  Emile & Filou had received a new set of snorkeling gear that they were eager to try out…and the first Hong Island did not disappoint!  The aquatic life on this main island was incredible and due of the clear, turquoise ocean water – the kids could easily spot and feed the many colourful fish (of course, a little bread always goes a long way in getting the fish to surround you!).

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Filou feeding the fish at Hong’s main Island

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From there we went into Hong Lagoon, a stunning, peaceful lagoon where we were “ordered” to jump off the boat to go and collect starfish.  It was thrilling how many starfish were located here on the ocean’s bottom – Emile alone must have caught 20 of them! We were a little hesitant to take the wildlife out of their habitat (not quite our thing), but our boat driver kept insisting. We then realized he wanted to put them all over our bodies to take a crazy picture…and fun it was so we made it our Christmas shot to send to friends and family!

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Collecting starfish in Hong Lagoon…fun Christmas picture!

From there, we went to Lading Island – which was frankly a bit overcrowded so we didn’t stay long. It did have a great tree rope so the kids got some of their energy out by making crazy jumps!

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Crazy monkey on a rope!

Lastly there was Phak Bia Island where we where the only tourists which was quite refreshing (due to their stunning natural beauty, the Thai Islands have unfortunately become quite overcrowded)!  The kids played crazy games in the water and tried an incredibly sour, local fruit – after which we took a nice breezy boat ride back to Oa Nang. All in all, a fantastic Christmas Day!

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Breezy boat ride back to Ao Nang, Krabi – in local style with Thai wrap-around pants and bandanas!

For New Year’s, we had promised the children that they could stay up till midnight – a first for them both!  Firstly, we headed to the main strip of Oa Nang where the locals had set up all kinds of food and fun game stalls (the choice was yours – a bowl of crickets or other local creepy crawlers – or a large crispy pancake with nutella!).  The kids had great fun playing with local Thai kids on a large jumping castle and we all enjoyed a local entertainment show – where little girls and boys from the nearby school were performing dance and song routines (in rather provocative clothing)….but very sweet!

From there, we went to play some pool in the Luna Bar, a fun establishment on the beach where Emile and Filou had their first sip of beer (I know they are a bit young, but it was just a little crazy thing for New Year’s… and better not to make alcohol a taboo in M.H.O)!  From there, we walked onto the beachfront to partake in the local tradition of lighting a large lantern and releasing it over the sea for a year of good luck!

It was a delicate operation…our lantern almost crashed in the water – but Emile saved the day by putting it back over the fire to properly burn & fill with gas.  From there, it took off beautifully and together with all the other lanterns, turned the midnight sky into MAGIC!

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Lighting a lantern and releasing it over the ocean for a year of good luck

It was then that fun music tunes were starting to blare and the countdown was there.  It was at that moment that I felt intense happiness, and thankfulness for our beautiful trip & family– looking out at this gorgeous sky (now filled with magnificent fireworks)….  So, I danced my way into 2014 (somewhat to the dismay of the children who thought their mom was rather crazy for dancing on the beach – while others watched.  Honestly, I didn’t care – I was having a great personal moment of gratitude and fun!).

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Me, dancing myself into 2014!  Priceless, fun way to start the new year…

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Fireworks all over the ocean….. and even right on the beach

Although we certainly missed our loved ones back home this year, this was a fantastic way to start 2014 and the second half of our Regeneration Tour (http://the-regeneration.com). Thank you Thailand for your magic – you are as beautiful and special as we remember you to be 20 years ago! Ao Nang is the first place that we all really did not want to leave after 1 month. You stole our hearts…

But we still have some time to enjoy you Thailand, as we are off to Bangkok and Chiang Mai to meet up with the grandfathers: Jichian and Opa here we come!

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CAMBODIA – SIEM REAP; its stunning temples, countryside and more…

2 Jan

Siem Reap

Siem Reap is the capital of the Siem Reap Province in Northwestern Cambodia.  It is a popular town as the city is the gateway to the Angkor Region with its magnificent temples.  These Angkor temples are the most popular tourist attraction in Cambodia and while we usually shy away from busy, touristy places, this is not one to skip. (If you like travel and have a bucket list item, I suggest adding these temples to the list!)….but more on them later.

We noticed right away that Siem Reap is more set up for the tourist trade than some of the other cities in this country. The town boasts many lively café’s, even a dedicated Pub Street! and has a lively core with its Old Market and bustling night markets, restaurants and numerous street vendors.  Massages here were the very best! For $3-5 (yes, you read that right), you can have an hour-long foot or shoulder & neck massage…Needless to say, we had many!! And the street vendors had the most amazing food – one lady was making these wraps that had sticky white and black rice, with bean paste and shredded coconut inside them.  Two of them for $1 – my favorite dinner by far!

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Street vendor with delicious wraps in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Cambodia does not have any copyright laws (yet), so locals can copy or download any movie, tv-show, book, language program etc. you like. (Cambodians copy complete books such as the various Lonely Planet Guides and other current bestsellers and sell them on the street for a fraction of the price – however these books are mostly sold by very young, street children which makes buying them an ethical dilemma).

Being on the road though, we are always on the look-out for the next book to read, or movie/show to watch. So, we did go into a fun shop in town named Rogue Cambodia (http://www.roguecambodia.com/shops/siem-reap/). It is here that they have learned to cash in on what travellers want – they offer to download any music album, movie or book to your I-pad or I-pod in a matter of minutes for a very reasonable price. We made a small investment of $20 which got us 15 of the newest movies to watch. So now we are set for entertainment for a while!

After a few days of exploring Siem Reap, and actually doing a little bit of shopping (the temptation of $2 designer sunglasses, the most beautiful silk scarves for $4, and cool wrap-around pants etc. was just too tempting!)…..it was time for our day of temples!

Angkor Wat

Our temple experience started with an early rise (4:30 am) to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat (this most famous temple is at the top of the high classical style of Khmer architecture, and has become a symbol of Cambodia, appearing on its national flag and currency). We were certainly not the only ones with the sunrise idea as there seemed to be a stream of drivers with sleepy tourists heading to Angkor in the early morning. However, we had a great tuktuk driver that picked us up from our lovely Tanei Guesthouse (http://www.taneiguesthouse.com) and took us to the famous temple in time for a magnificent red glow to slowly appear over its silhouette. It was quite magical!

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Seeing the sun come up over Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world.  A real Y.O.L.O experience!

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Taking in the beauty and serenity of Angkor Wat

The temple of Angkor Wat (or “City of Temples”), was built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century in the capital of the Khmer empire (present-day Angkor), as his state temple and eventual mausoleum.  It is the only temple that remains a significant religious centre since its foundation. We observed this by the many monks dressed in orange that flank the various corners of the structure, praying and bringing offerings.

Emile & Filou got quite excited about praying with these monks, who would offer a colourful bracelet with a meaning (“happy family”, “safety”, “long life” etc.) in return for the purchase of some incent sticks.  Before we knew it, the boys were looking for monks everywhere to make an offering, pray and get their good luck bracelet as a kind return gesture!

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Ta Phrohm

After Angkor, we opted for the “small temple circuit” – a loop of about 17 kilometers past a diverse set of temples, all completely different in look and style.  The first one was Ta Phrohm – a 13th.century temple, built in the Bayon style and founded as a buddhist monastery and university. What we liked about Ta Prohm was that unlike most of the Angkorian temples, it has been left in much of the same condition in which it was found. This amazing UNESCO World Heritage site has jungle-like surroundings and the boys particularly liked all the trees growing out of the ruins – some of which they were happy to climb!

Besides the many beautiful trees that had wrapped themselves around these ruins, Ta Phrohm had an overall adventure type feel and we could see why the producers of Lara Croft’s movie, the Tomb Raider had chosen this location for filming. It was very cool!

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Tree climbing at Ta Phrohm, just like Lara Croft in Tomb Raider

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The beautiful details of the ruins at Ta Phrohm

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Angkor Thom

Next, it was onto the city of Angkor Thom, a temple ruin with the most impressive sculptures at its entrance.  A long causeway leading to each entry tower is flanked by a row of 54 stone figures on each side (demons on the right with grimacing expressions and gods to the left, looking serene), to make a total of 108 mythical beings guarding this city.

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Stone Figures at Angkor Thom

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We weren’t actually allowed to visit the city of Angkor Thom itself, which looked mighty impressive with its very long, central staircase – as the kids were deemed too young (not 12 yet) to climb the very high structure of stairs. However, by this time, it was getting incredibly hot and the kids were easily distracted to move on.

At the base of Angkor Thom, Emile & Filou found a huge, gold buddah temple where monks were praying. Hoping to make another donation in return for a bracelet, they quickly joined them.  While I watched them from a small distance – a monkey “fell” out of a tree, right in front of me.  Before I knew it, he saw Filou, making his way back from the temple.  He must have liked his bright red t-shirt or something, as the animal made a bee-line for him and started chasing Filou at high speed.  I have never seen my little man run as fast as he did!  The monkey finally gave up his chase and Filou concluded that he was a speed machine (“but mom if it was you, or I was still 5 years old, the monkey would have gotten to me”). He was quite right, so thank goodness he ran fast…. as a monkey bite is not an experience we wanted to add to our list!

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The nasty monkey that started chasing Filou

And although many tourists like pictures with monkeys, we know better now.  They are actually quite vicious, and not all that cute. Our tuktuk driver told us a story about one of his tourist clients who insisted on a picture with one of them. He took out some bananas and in no time, had a few monkeys on his shoulders. However, when he “mistakenly” grabbed a little one by the tail – its squealed so loudly that monkeys from trees all around, quickly came to its rescue and attacked the tourist.  He was lucky that the tuktuk driver quickly came to his defense, but the tourist had major scratches all over his face and body, and had been close to losing an eye….

We also noticed that the local Cambodian kids are actually quite afraid of them. So NO…the monkeys – we don’t like so much anymore…but the temples.  Wow, were they ever impressive, stunning, must-see!!!  What a fantastic day.

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Resting after a great day of Angkor Temple visits

To close off our time in this wonderful country, we took the “Day in the Life” Tour of Husk Cambodia (www.huskcambodia.org), a non-profit organization that is working with communities to help improve the lives of Cambodian families. Their goals focus around the basics of providing access to safe water, livelihood opportunities, health, education and environment.  This outing, run by Beyond Unique Escapes (http://beyonduniqueescapes.com) – was a tour that our friend Brian Robertson had recommended.   The hands-on experience promised a first-hand look at life in rural Cambodia while providing us the opportunity to learn and give back a little.

Following our arrival in the local village (about 20 minutes outside of Siem Reap), we quickly climbed onto two traditional ox carts and were driven around the village. The roads were very dusty, and at times extremely wet with thick mud – however the animals seemed to pull us through with ease. We did however, have to dodge the occasional thick tree branch and steady ourselves to remain seated on the wobbly cart (taking pictures was virtually impossible), but it made us laugh and thankful for the unique experience!

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Our fun Ox Cart Ride

We arrived at the local family, most in need of our help that morning. It was a very poor, childless couple that needed a new roof; theirs was full of holes and consequently leaking.  After we said our hello’s, we sat down on a large, square mat. A big pile of bamboo sticks and palm leaves were put in front of us and we were taught how to weave (overlap) the leaves and string them together with the bamboo sticks to make a waterproof ensemble.

Anthony, being Mr. Green Building, was just thrilled that this was the way in which were asked to help out.  He really wanted to do a good job for this couple but the lady of the house, just kept laughing at him (as his work wasn’t quite what she was hoping for, I think). However, he quickly got the hang of it and got very productive….as were the kids!

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Learning how & helping to make a roof out of palm leaves and bamboo

While we worked, we were in the company of many beautiful, sweet children – who came to spend a little time with us.  They were just so happy to have their pictures taken (showing them their shots –gave them great laughs!) and interact a bit with Emile & Filou (swinging together in the hammocks and feeding the chickens together was a thrill).

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Village children coming the spent some time with us

We were very pleased to have spent the morning helping this warm, smiley couple that apparently received one bag of rice as a thank-you for hosting us (the rest of our tour fee went into projects such as planting trees, implementing water purification systems and building houses and schools – things to benefit the entire community).

From there, we went to another family, where together we made a chicken curry for lunch. The lady of the house (a beautiful widow), first gave us some big knives and a large mortar and pestle. With that, the kids had fun cutting and mashing up all the fresh ingredients and spices. After an hour of cutting, mashing, stirring and boiling – we ate fried fish on a sugarcane sticks and a very tasty chicken curry with lots of local vegetables. A fun, personal cooking class & wonderful experience with a great end result!

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Lady of the house!

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Emile mixing up many wonderful, local spices for our curry dish

Following a little rest, we took a long walk through the village and visited a local school (insulated with empty water bottles filled with dry rubbish), a beautiful temple and a successful community project – where women were learning how to make children’s toys and gift items from sowing materials together (we bought a little pencil case for the boys).

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A community-sewing project. Emile joined right in!

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Several of the villagers we encountered on our walk through their area

We learned a great deal about current life in Cambodia and its people, mainly because of our knowledgeable guide, Kimthet.  Although the country is still extremely poor (apparently more poor than AfricaCambodia’s GDP is made up of 60% foreign aid), its people are extremely hard working and moving towards of a better tomorrow. We felt privileged to have learned from them and experienced a little with them….….and to have travelled this incredible month in their beautiful country.

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Kimhet, our wonderful guide during the “Day in the Life” Tour

So thank you Cambodia & your smiley people, for the many wonderful memories you have given us!

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From here, it is onto beautiful Thailand….a country especially dear to our hearts!