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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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VIETNAM – Saigon, Hue, Danang, Hanoi and Cat Ba Island

14 Nov

CHI MIN CITY – SAIGON

Good Morning Vietnam! (how cool is it to say that…. arriving in the Southern Vietnamese city of Ho Chi Min City….or Saigon as the locals still call it).  The city welcomed us with an incredible heat wave….even standing still made us sweat, so we moved very slowly during our two days of exploration. Saigon is a bustling city….and another one where the motorbike is king and it is a roll of the dice if you survive crossing a simple street!

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Street scene of Saigon

We stayed in the wonderfully, lively backpacker area where it was very enjoyable just to be sitting in a café, looking at people pass by….what the Vietnamese carry on their motorbikes is just beyond incredible! At night, the cafés fill up with the numerous backpackers enjoying the incredibly cheap Saigon beer….and the creepy old, white guys with the very young, and pretty Vietnamese girls.

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Underwater Puppet Show in Saigon

Saigon was the city where we had the pleasure of meeting up with friends: Bryan Rappaport, who works for the Canadian government in Saigon, with his lovely wife Angela and their adorable newborn son Leo. We enjoyed a scrumptious lunch with them and their friends at a breezy and elegant restaurant.

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Anthony with Brian Rappaport and his adorable son Leo

And we got to meet a couple of friends, which were purely made on-line (via my Families on the Move – Facebook group). We enjoyed breakfast with Australian couple Bethany & Lee Davies and their energetic son Rueben and got together with Barbara Adam and her adorable daughter Poppy.

Barbara, a funny Australian native, married Vietnamese Vu, and together they run Saigon Street Eats (http://saigonstreeteats.com),  offering unique, behind-the-scenes, street-food tours.  Barbara met us at a fun place called Snap Café (http://www.asialifemagazine.com/vietnam/the-snap-cafe/), a favourite for families with children as this lovely courtyard restaurant has a great play park to keep little ones entertained (Filou and Emile quickly bonded with the many expat kids there).

After a nice welcome chat, Barbara showed us the ropes of Vietnamese cuisine by taking us to a local restaurant where she expertly ordered a variety of dishes that melted in our mouths. At night, she also took us to her home, showed us the nearby river (where kids come to schmooze as they have little privacy at home), and gave the boys a spin on her motorcycle!  The boys’ were sad to say good-bye to Poppy, as they truly enjoyed their evening with her and her cool mom!

HUE

From Saigon, we flew with Vietnam Airlines to Hue in Central Vietnam to spend our next 5 nights, as it was highly recommend by some other travellers.  Unfortunately, I don’t think we got to see quite the beauty of this little town as it poured rain continuously while we were there. However, we still made the best of it and did some fun things….

On the only day calling for dry weather, we engaged Hue Riders (http://www.hueriders.com), a local motorbike adventure company, to take us and our travelling friends Sonja Everson & family, on a spin to explore the local countryside.  Four riders showed up with lots of enthusiasm and rain gear in tow to provide us with a great day.

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Our rainy countryside tour of Hue, with motorbike adventure company, Hue Riders

During our ride, we saw very colourful and intricate family homes – that looked more like temples – but were Vietnamese houses built for the sole purpose of families coming together to celebrate or enjoy each other’s company.  At the beach, where we were supposed to have a seafood lunch, we saw the structures of what used to be the seafood restaurants destroyed by a recent storm (so we ended up eating under a tent at a local little place – beef ribs, duck, green garlic veggies, egg & rice – $16 worth of deliciousness for the eight of us)!

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Vietnamese Family Home

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Just the skeleton left of a beach seafood restaurant, due to a recent storm

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We also saw farmers, working the rice fields the very traditional way with yaks and had the pleasure of making a stop and interact with a local family – where we got smiles from the very young and the very old (90 years!).

We (and by that I mean Filou), also got to learn about a somewhat unpleasant/surprising habit some Vietnamese have.  The lady of the house took a particular liking to our little guy. She kept asking if he was a girl (perhaps it was not clear as he had a big helmet on at first?) and kept grabbing his private part (I thought is was to check if he was indeed a boy). Later I learned that this is a non-sexual, normal custom – that just shows affection!  Filou took it really well…. just laughed the whole thing off!

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Farmers still working the rice fields, the traditional way with Yaks

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The young (very adorable)…

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And the old (90 years to be exact!)….

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Vietnamese lady that took a “particular” liking to Filou

For the rest, we had fun playing pool at a local café (where again the boys were adored by the many sweet girls that worked there), had our first family foot massage – all four at the same time!, and ate some of the best and cheapest Pho Bo (beef noodle soup) on the street- one that came with many interesting condiments (quail eggs, samosa type bread for dipping etc.) and the most delicious vanilla/lemon frozen yogurt in a bag with straw, we’ve ever tasted!

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Best Pho Bo (Beef Noodle Soup), eaten alongside the road, in Hue, Vietnam

And one day in town, trying to dodge the rain, we sipped delicious mango smoothies while Anthony made an attempt at starting a Vietnamese rock band with the locals (unfortunately, I don’t think great success is in the cards as Anthony had to try not to laugh when one of the guys started to belt out an English song – in a tone so off key, it would make chickens cringe!)

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Anthony and his “talented” Vietnamese music friends

DA NANG

We quickly learned that Vietnam is best explored by motorbike!  Officially it is illegal  for foreigners to ride a motorcycle without a Vietnamese license but everyone does it. And so did we!  For the entire time we were in Hoi An, we had two motorbikes that would take us anywhere. So fun!

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Our first big exploration was a coastal ride from Hoi An to Da Nang, the biggest city on the South-Central coast of Vietnam – beautifully located along the water.  We rode past some gorgeous, deserted beaches all the way up to see the Lady Buddha (or Goddess of Mercy – a HUGE stark white statue, not dissimilar to Rio de Janeiro’s Christ de Redeemer), and Monkey Mountain (a rainforest type habitat that supports many Langur monkeys – although their habitat is getting more endangered with the numerous high-end resorts being build in the area). 

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The Lady Buddha or Goddess of Mercy, on top of Monkey Mountain, Da Nang

Upon our return to Hoi An, we stopped at the Sailing Club restaurant at Da Nang where Filou quickly took a dip in the water to cool down – and Anthony, Emile & I had some great laughs – jumping in the air, snapping shots!

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Jumping for Joy at our Y.O.L.O Life!

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Filou practising Kung Fu, with a bamboo stick found on the beach

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Some great laughs at Da Nang Beach

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Calm Beach scene of Da Nang

The second wonderful ride was the one to the top of Hải Vân Pass – or ocean cloud pass – referring to the mist that rises from the sea – reducing visibility.  This is the 21 km long mountain pass consisting of twisting roads and stunning scenery, between Danang and Hue (according to the BBC motoring programme Top Gear, this road is “a deserted ribbon of perfection – one of the best coastal roads in the world’).

Once we survived the hair-raising task of crossing Danang (we made it alive crossing insane traffic on streets and roundabouts in the city), we were rewarded with a stunning ride through the mountains where we enjoyed magnificent scenery, gorgeous waterfalls, mountain goats – and the thrill of a fantastic ride up, high up in the sky!

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Many pretty, small waterfalls on Hải Vân Pass

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Riding the clouds on a gorgeous mountain pass

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Hải Vân Pass, or Ocean Cloud pass (we rode through a cloud of mist!)

HANOI & CAT BA ISLAND

Anthony interjecting here, to tell about a quick jaunt to Hanoi for Emile and me. On short notice, I had the chance to attend a workshop on climate change in the nation’s capital. I decided to bring Emile with me and make a trip of it.

It was his first ever conference and he was pretty excited. He registered, got a name badge and participated fully in the “tea breaks”. After 10 minutes of formal presentations however, he tuned out preferring to focus on his homework – a good thing indeed! At lunch, he made some new friends amongst a group of Master’s students, one of whom returned later that afternoon with a small parting gift for him. The conference was very interesting and I learned a lot and made some good contacts.

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Emile at his first conference

After the event, flanked by an afternoon of walking around Hanoi’s Old Quarter and some delicious Pho, Emile and I headed to Cat Ba Island near Halong Bay for some rock climbing. As our time was limited, we had to get an early start (5am to be exact!). After 7 hours on buses, taxis and boats, we finally made it to the island.

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Hanoi’s Old Quarter

Our guide extraordinaire at Asia Outdoors Adventure Company  (http://www.asiaoutdoors.com.vn) created a custom program to do some climbing the following morning – again an early start. But was it worth it! Rather than traditional rock  climbing, we took a boat out to the many rocks in the harbour and did some “deep water soloing”. This is essentially rock climbing without a harness, using instead the water to help break your fall. Very cool!

Our guide, Matt, said it best: “Have fun guys and don’t take it too seriously. I mean, we’re climbing rocks and jumping in the water – how serious can it be?” Wise counsel!

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Enjoying a Vietnamese breakfast with Matthew, our rock climbing guide

As Typhoon Haiyan was set to hit Vietnam, Emile and I got home to An Bang Beach as quickly as possible to reunite with Rose and Filou. Upon arrival, I learnt we had been evacuated from our villa and put into a solid concrete hotel. And so the adventure continued…

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On the ferry to Cat Ba Island

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Emile & Anthony doing some deep water soloing at Cat Ba Island

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