Scenes from Spain

14 May

Why do we love Spain?  Well, there are many reasons.  The people are awesome, the food is divine, costs are great here compared to other European countries plus Spanish wine is one of our favorites.  The country is amazing in its demography.  It changes drastically from mountainous to farm land as far the eye can see,  to the  dry desert and then the  fabulous sea in a short drive.  Did you know Spain has great weather?  Some of the bluest skies I’ve ever seen.   After I give you a synopsis of our trip, I am just going to post a lot of photos for you to look and  see for yourself how wonderful it really is.

Having lunch in Perpignan with Brad, Chris, Jerry, Eileen, Ron and me.

Having lunch in Perpignan, France with Brad, Chris, Jerry, Eileen, Ron and me.

In April 2012, we embarked on a two-week tour of Spain with a group of our friends.  The six of us rented a van and planned our course.  We flew into Barcelona and spent about 2 days.  We decided since we were so close to France, we should drive over for a night.  We ended up in a town called Perpignan.  We loved this small town.  Again, if you’ve read my other blogs you’ll know I love food and red wine.  Perpignan was heaven for me.  A highlight for our trip was stopping at a local grocery store and everyone buying whatever they wanted to have for dinner and meeting back at our bed and breakfast hotel to share in the “tapas” we’d all chosen. What a feast we had and of course the red wine was flowing!  After that, we drove the coast of Spain making several stops in towns like Alicante, Vera Playa, Sevilla,Gibraltar, Elvas Portugal and Madrid.  Maybe that’s for another blog…

View from our condo in Vera Playa, Spain.

View from our condo in Vera Playa, Spain.

Okay, since we both love Spain, Ron and I had planned to return there after our trip to Thailand.  We rented a 2 bedroom condo in Vera Playa, which is about 2 hours south of Alicante on the Mediterranean.  We arrived after our short stopover in London and was so happy to see blue, sunny skies!

You might be asking yourself, “well do I need to speak Spanish though”?  The answer is no.  In most of the larger cities, and in tourist areas, English is spoken everywhere.  You’ll run into a lot of folks from the UK and Germany who retire here.  In some areas you’ll forget you’re in Spain as there are so many British.    When you do fall into trouble with the language, I suggest you use Google translator.  That’s what Ron and I use as well as Google Maps.  Works like a charm.

Michele arriving from JFK!!

Michele arriving from JFK!!

One of my closest friends planned on visiting us in Spain and I couldn’t be happier to see Michele when she arrived!  Michele had never been to Spain and we wanted to show her how great the country really is.

My uncle lived in a town called Torre Vieja which is 45 min south of Alicante until he passed away last year.  I had planned to visit with his caretakers and in doing so, got to see another beautiful town of Spain.  We met Sharon and Phil for lunch and they took us to a restaurant that was fabulous!  We ordered fish for lunch and of course had some wine and a great afternoon of learning about living in Spain from them who have been living there about 15 years.  They moved from London to a quieter Spain before it became quite built up.

Lunch in Torre Vieja

Lunch in Torre Vieja

What we found was that ordering fish in Thailand was expensive (filleted fish) but inexpensive in Spain.  Also, wine is very expensive in Thailand due to the fact that it has to be imported, but in Spain even the table wine is wonderful.  Meals here follow the European trend of being leisurely and a way of entertainment.

After our visit with Sharon & Phil, we drove to Alicante to show Michele what a bigger city in Spain looks like.  Alicante is a seaside town with a lot of history and charm.  We took Michele to one of our favorite spots for having some tapas.  It’s a corner park with huge banyan trees for shade.

Waterfront area of Alicante

Waterfront area of Alicante

We love the atmosphere of just relaxing with a glass of wine over good conversation.  As an American, it is not necessarily in our culture to relax and not feel as if you have to accomplish 100 tasks before the day ends.  Here, time kind of stands still as people converse over an espresso or glass of wine.

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Drinks in Alicante at the marina.

We took a walk down the waterfront of Alicante and was mesmerized by its beauty.  There are tourists, vendors, tall palm trees, restaurants and cafes.  On the other side of the street is the marina with all of its beautiful boats and yachts.  We explored this area and settled on a spot for a drink to people watch.  It was a gorgeous day out and a street performer kept us amused by his antics.

Dinner in Alicante

Dinner in Alicante

By night, the Spanish enjoy their supper later than Americans typically do.  We decided to walk and decide where we would eat.  We found a lovely square with a few restaurants vying for our business.  Again, everything is very laid-back.  You order some wine, have your dinner and just relax and enjoy being outdoors.

One of my favorite spanish meals is paella and I shared this with Michele a few times.   The Spanish cook it for two people.  I have to say that we found it cooked too salty for us the few times we ordered it.

After our night in Alicante, we headed back down to our condo in Vera Playa.

Vera Playa beach

Vera Playa beach

We walked the beach in the mornings and did some sightseeing in the afternoons.  There was a unique city called Mojacar not far from where we were staying.  We took Michele to have lunch and explore the area.  It is a city built-in a mountain overlooking the surrounding areas.  I am assuming the city was built that way to fend off invaders.  You’ll find by walking through its alleys and walkways that the views are wonderful.  You’ll never know what the next turn will produce.  When we stopped for lunch, Ron ordered a tapas meal called chorizo inferno.    What was unique about Ron’s meal was they served his chorizo on a skewer above a small bowl that had a flammable liquid which was ignited.

Chorizo Inferno in Mojacar

Chorizo Inferno in Mojacar

Ron was told by our waitress to turn his sausage until it cooks to his liking.  He said it tasted great and we couldn’t have been happier by our view of the land and the sea.

We decided to spend a day playing golf while Michele was visiting.  We played a course that is in the desert surrounded by mountains.  The contrast of the deep green grass against the blue sky and desert cacti made the course visually beautiful.   As it can get windy and hot in the afternoons, many people prefer to tee off the mornings.  Having arrived in the afternoon, we basically had the course to ourselves.  I’ve learned as a beginner golfer that is called “Millionaires Golf”.   After our game, we took a tour of some of the beautiful villas and condos surrounding the course.

Desert Springs Golf Course

Desert Springs Golf Course

We found it interesting that the internet was more sophisticated in Thailand than it was in Spain.  They are light years ahead of Spain in the area of internet technology.  We spent every Wednesday in Thailand at the movie theatre vs. not being able to find a movie theatre near Vera Playa.  Another difference in Spain to the US is they do not eat eggs for breakfast.  If you are looking for a typical American breakfast of eggs, toast, pancakes, bacon, etc  you won’t find it here.  Actually, McDonalds and Burger King do not serve breakfast at all!

Our plane leaving Spain

Our plane leaving Spain

Unfortunately we had to cut our trip to Spain short to return to the US.  We fund our airfare and hotel rooms by using points.  A big perk to that was we were able to snag first class seats on our flights from Spain to Orlando, Florida.  We flew Lufthansa who picks up their first class passengers by private car and delivers them to their plane just before takeoff through special hallways.  I have to say we felt like rock stars and couldn’t find a happier way to end our amazing trip.  Of course, flying does not guarantee the airline will deliver all of your luggage to its destination.  Lufthansa managed to leave Ron’s luggage in Madrid but found it and returned it to us about 5 days later.

First class all to ourselves!

First class all to ourselves!

We are grateful that we were able to have such an amazing journey to Thailand, Vietnam, London and Spain.  Below are some more pictures of Spain.   I will write a separate blog about our two-week journey from 2012 through this great country.

Street in Mojacar

Street in Mojacar

Walking in Mojacar Playa

Walking in Mojacar Playa

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Golf day!

Golf day!

Alicante by night

Alicante by night

Windmills outside Madrid

Windmills outside Madrid

Scenes around Alicante

Scenes around Alicante

London Bridges

12 May
Tail cam showing our landing into Heathrow airport.

Tail cam showing our landing into Heathrow airport.

Up next in our travels is Spain (blog to follow).  We found you can’t fly directly there from Thailand.  We had to fly through London which conjures up all kinds of mental images for me: my ancestry, Harry Potter, Downton Abbey, Westminster Abbey and fish and chips.  Hmmm…Since we have to fly here anyway, why not visit some of my favorite places and see some news ones too?  All I had to do was promise Ron a visit to the Tower of London and it was all set!

First, since we didn’t plan a visit here, we weren’t prepared for the cold weather we found.  Luckily I bought a scarf for me and my good friend at a market in Phuket that I could wear.  We only had 2 days in London and many things to see, so no rest for the weary.  We were off and running after our 14 hour flight from Phuket at 6:00am.

IMG_3864Since we love the movie Notting Hill, we decided to take the tube over there and check out the market and Portobello Road.  It’s a great “artsy” neighborhood with lots of antique shops and street vendors.  What was once an undesirable suburb of London, it’s now a bustling section of town that’s fun to explore.  Of course we had to find the famous “blue door” from the movie that Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant starred in.

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Tower of London

Many people may not know that the Tower of London was built by William the Conqueror in 1078.  The castle was used as a prison from around 1100 but was also used as a royal residence.  After Anne Boleyn was charged with treason, adultery and incest by King Henry VIII, she was beheaded here in 1536.  What the castle is know most commonly for is its housing of the Crown Jewels.  As a matter of fact, when London hosted the summer Olympics in 2012, they stored all of the medals in the Tower since it’s the safest place in London.

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Westminster Abbey

I have been lucky enough to have seen many cathedrals in Spain and Italy but one of my top three is Westminster Abbey in London.  From the amazing Gothic architecture to the centuries old history it encompasses.  Since 1066, when William the Conqueror was crowned, the coronations of British monarchs have been held here.  King Edward’ Chair, the throne on which every monarch since 1308 has had their coronation is housed here.  Most recently Prince William married Catherine Middletown in the same place his grandmother was coronated and his mother’s funeral service was held.  Many famous royalty, artisans and scientists are buried here including Geoffry Chaucer and Isaac Newton.

Professor Dumbledore's office

Professor Dumbledore’s office

And if you’re a Harry Potter fan (I am!!), London has a host of things for you to experience.

A 20 minute train ride outside London is Warner Bros. Studio Tour which is the actual studio where the wildly popular series was filmed.  The tour allows you to walk through real sets and see props and costumes used in the movies.

Great Hall at Hogwarts

Great Hall at Hogwarts

For a fan, being able to walk in the actual Great Hall and explore Dumbledore’s office is an amazing experience.  Outside is the house on Privit Drive where Harry lived with his aunt and uncle.  You get to walk onto the triple-decker bus that flys through the streets of London in the movies.  And here, you get to see Dobby again which was a highlight for me!  If you do visit, go

Dobby

Dobby

www.wbstudiotour.co.uk to pre-buy your tickets.  They control crowds well by not allowing you to buy tickets at the door.  You must pre-buy them.

Since I hadn’t had  my “Harry” fill, we took the tube over to King’s Cross Station.  There you will find a brick wall with a replica luggage cart and owl cage like the one Harry used to head off to Hogwarts school on platform 9 3/4.

Platform 9 3/4

Platform 9 3/4

You are allowed to don a scarf from the school of your choice and have your picture taken, for free!

McDonalds wallpaper

McDonalds wallpaper

On the morning we were departing London, we stopped at McDonald’s for a quick breakfast and were surprised by what we found.  Apparently McDonald’s in London and Spain have adopted a healthier list of ingredients and tout that on the wallpaper inside to let everyone know.  They claim to use only free range eggs, ground beef  from Ireland without any additives besides pepper, fresh harvested lettuce, etc.  IMG_3870We feel that’s awesome that McDonalds is taking such strides in providing healthier foods they serve, but our big question  is why aren’t they doing the same in the USA???  I guess that’s for another blog…

Goodbye Thailand

11 May

After 3 months, we have to say goodbye to Thailand. We had an amazing trip to Southeast Asia. We decided it appropriate to open the bottle of Champagne we brought with us from San Diego to toast our last sunset on Kamala beach.

And after dinner on the beach, we lit a paper lantern and watched it disappear into the night sky.

Until next time…

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An Elephant Caretaker (Mahout) For The Day

6 May

Probably the most amazing experience we had while living in Thailand was visiting Baan Chang Elephant Park.  They rescue elephants and protect them from poachers who are willing to kill them  for money.  They also take in elephants who worked in the logging industry and are no longer able to.  We were able to get up close and personal with the elephants, feed them, ride them and bath them.   It was such a great experience that we want to share  it with you.

There are a few elephant rescue organizations in Chiang Mai and we decided on this one based on cost and good reviews from Trip Advisor.  This sanctuary  is serious about protecting and preserving the Asian elephants from poachers.  Each elephant has its own handler, called a “mahout”.  The mahouts live on the property to care for the elephants 24 hrs a day.  When we arrived, it was explained to us that the elephants are chained to an area for several reasons:

  1. To not walk off in the jungle and be killed
  2. To not wander into the village and cause any harm
  3. To not fight and kill one another
Our guide getting bananas ready

Our guide getting bananas ready

They do exercise the elephants 3 times a day, but until they can gain more funding to buy more land, this is the best protection for them.  They provided us a change of clothes as caring for elephants is dirty business.

Ron feeding bananas to an elephant

Ron feeding bananas to an elephant

We were first given a large basket of banana bunches and pieces of sugar cane to give to the elephants as their snack.  We were told to hold out the banana bunch to them and place it on their trunk and they will grab them and put them in their mouth.  So, we grabbed as many bananas as we could and set off to feed the elephants that were in the far back.  As we were passing the other elephants, they would stick their trunks out to us hoping to have some of our bananas, so we fed them on the way to the back and realized we didn’t have much left after passing all the “beggar” elephants and had to go back and replenish.  The elephants really enjoyed the bananas.  One of them didn’t want the bananas in his trunk, so he let it drop to the ground.  His mahout said he likes to be fed in his mouth, so Ron picked up the bananas and put them directing into his mouth!

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Dee feeding sugar cane to the elephant

After snack time, we practiced how to sit on an elephant bareback (touristy places have bamboo seats that we were told actually harm the elephants), the commands  to make him turn, move forward and stop. The command to make your elephant lay down is “nah long”.  You have to repeat it and do it loudly and your elephant will kneel down so you can climb on.  It was a bit scary at first sitting 2 stories high on such a large animal, but you get use to it quickly.   One of the elephants we were practicing with walked up to the tree in front of us and started scratching herself like a dog would scratch on a post.  She even wiggled her behind.  She was very funny to watch.

After lunch we were ready for our trek into the jungle on our elephants!  Ron and I shared an elephant and once we got on, off we went.

Riding bareback

Riding bareback

The mahout led us as we walked the path into the jungle following the other people in our group on their elephants.  We stopped after a half hour to give the elephants (and us) a break.  When we finished the trek,  we walked the elephants to a pond where we were each given a bucket and brushes to brush down our elephants.  They really seemed to enjoy this since it was quite hot out and they know their routine that dinner comes next.

Our mahout ordered our elephant to lay down in the water and we got along side her and brushed her in the water.  I decided to climb on top of her and brush her from up there and after 10 minutes or so, without warning, she stood up with me on her!  I was like, “whoa, where ya going?!” But our mahout ordered her to lay back down which she did.  Afterwards the facility provides a simple shower for you to get cleaned up and back into your dry clothes.  As all animals, these are amazing creatures and we are grateful at the opportunity we had to meet them up close.  Here are some more pictures from our day:

Riding along

Riding along

Bath time

Bath time

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Chiang Mai: 5 days just wasn’t enough

6 May

Since we’ve been living in Phuket, we thought “shouldn’t we see more of Thailand while we are here”?  Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand, situated in the northern part of the country.  Air Asia, the low-cost carrier here,  makes it pretty easy to get there.

Our room at Le Meridien

Our room at Le Meridien

From what we read, Chiang Mai has a more laid back atmosphere than Phuket.  They have lots of cafes, artsy areas, restaurants that serve organic and gluten-free meals and a much bigger variety of restaurants than we saw in Phuket.  We decided to spend 5 days there and then go to Bangkok for 3 days.

We used points (we ALWAYS use points) and stayed right in the center of town at a Le Meridien.  It was a very nice hotel, centrally located, with one of the most comfortable beds we’ve ever stayed in.

Night market

Night market

There is a street “night market” every night right outside your door from the hotel.  Vendors start setting up around 4:00pm and stay open until midnight.  They sell everything from knock-off tee shirts to fake Tiffany jewelry.

We booked a tour for our second day here to learn how to cook Thai food at an organic farm outside the city.  We were picked up at our hotel and taken to a local farmers market to learn about the different rice they have, the fruits and meats that are for sale and given time to walk the market.  We watched a vendor use a machine to ground fresh-cut coconuts to make coconut milk.  After that it was on to the farm to learn about what they grow.

Emdee cutting lemongrass

Emdee cutting lemongrass

Our guide’s name was Emdee.  She was a blast!  We have never met anyone with such energy before. In the classroom, we were each given a list  of dishes and told to choose 4 main dishes and 1 dessert that we would like to make.  We each had our own cooking station and we began by learning the difference between regular rice and sticky rice.  After getting that started steaming, we learned how to make Tom Ka Gai soup, which is coconut milk with chicken and lemongrass.  It is WONDERFUL and so easy to make!  We were all hungry now, so we ate our soup and then we learned how to make curry paste.  Ron made green curry and I made yellow.  If you make your own paste, you can control how spicy it is.  This works for me since I can’t tolerate spicy and Ron loves the heat.  Once the paste was done, we continued to make our curry  and then ate  that with the rice we had cooked in the steamer.

Potential chefs

Potential chefs

We also made chicken with cashews, chicken with basil, pad thai, and steamed egg rolls.  After that Ron and I decided to make 2 different things for dessert so we could each taste the others.  He made mango with sticky rice and I made banana in coconut milk.  Both were very good but I’d say we both preferred the mango with sticky rice.  Lucky for us, we were given a recipe book so we can prepare authentic Thai food at home.  We had a great time and are now qualified to cook Thai food for our friends 🙂

We spent the next day as elephant caretakers at Baan Chang Elephant Farm, about 45 minutes outside the city of   Chiang Mai.   They rescue Asian elephants who have been mistreated or are in danger from poachers.  It was such an awesome experience, that we have to write about it in a separate blog.DSCN2304

Our Tuk-Tuk driver napping

Our Tuk-Tuk driver napping

After all of our hard work, we decided to just lay by the pool and chill out the next day.  Later in the afternoon we decided to  take a Tuk-Tuk (a type of open air taxi)tour of the center part of the city.  We realized there is a canal going right through the middle of the city and an ancient wall that surrounds it.  Most of the wall is worn away, but you can still see parts of it along the canal.

We found a good review of a Mexican restaurant and tried it one night.  The food was great, especially since Phuket doesn’t really have any Mexican restaurants.

Restaurants in Chiang Mai

Restaurants in Chiang Mai

It was a really nice night out so with the help of Google maps, we decided to walk back to our hotel.  We strolled along the canal and made our way to the river.  Here, we stumbled upon a few restaurants with outdoor seating, live bands and good-looking menus.  We returned to one of them on our last night, called Good View,  and loved the relaxed atmosphere of sitting on the riverfront, outside, listening to American music.

Good View restaurant

Good View restaurant

On our last day in Chiang Mai, we rented a scooter to tour around on our own and after getting to the other side of town, we decided it was way too hot (101 degrees!) to be riding the scooter and changed plans and decided to have a long massage instead.  We found a place that had good reviews not far from our hotel and enjoyed a 90 minute massage for $15US.  Much better idea.

Our only complaint about our hotel was the $20US cost pp for breakfast.  Lucky for us, we passed what looked like an American diner called Butter Is Better Bakery.  We looked at their menu and got so excited to read things like: blueberry pancakes, gluten-free banana pancakes, homemade bagel with cream cheese, biscuits and gravy, etc.  WE FOUND HOME COOKING!!

Butter is Better Bakery

Butter is Better Bakery

We went every single morning and ordered corn beef sandwiches on rye bread for the plane ride to Bangkok!  After being outside the US for almost 3 months, you start to crave some comfort foods.  We found them here. We also found a restaurant on the river for dinner called The Duke.  It was a 3 story American restaurant that had a big variety of dinners and each one was great.

We were walking past a McDonalds and passed this statue of Ronald.  We thought it was interesting because that is the traditional greeting Thai people will give you when saying hello which is pronounced Sa wah dee kaaaa if you are a woman and Sa wah dee cop if you are a man.

Ronald saying Sawadee

Ronald saying Sawadee

We also know how to say thank you in Thai, which is Korb Koon Kaa if you are a woman and Korb Koon Cop if you are a man.  I could get technical here because for a man, the cop is pronounced crop in Bangkok but not in Phuket.

Overall, we liked Chiang Mai and would have preferred to live there and just visit Phuket because we found the cost of things to be a little cheaper, they had more American visitors than Phuket and we didn’t see a large influx of Russian tourists.  We also liked the variety of restaurants including organic ones,  and just the overall “vibe” of the place was very welcoming.

Karakters West

Karakters of Thailand

We did come across a bus that served as a restaurant on one of our walks!

Up next:  Bangkok

A Newbie’s Guide to Phuket: If I knew then what I know now…

4 May
Longtail boats at Nai Harn Beach

Longtail boats at Nai Harn Beach

Ron and I have one more week left of our 3 month trip to Thailand before we head to Spain.  We are grateful of the opportunity we had to “live” with the locals in this beautiful country.

What brought us to Thailand, of all places?  Well, we first wanted warm weather.  And nice beaches.  Oh, and a good place to live on a budget.  We did a lot of research before we left California about Thailand and where we thought we would live.  We now realize there were some things we didn’t know before we left and wish we did.  Hindsight is 20/20, right?

This blog is for people considering going to Thailand, specifically Phuket and may have some helpful information for you based solely on our views and opinions.  Here is a list of things we really love about Phuket:

  • New friends we made

    New friends we made

    Thai people- they are some of  the most warm, welcoming people you will ever meet.  They really go out of their way to help you, even if they can’t personally.  They will find someone who can.

  • Weather – we visited from February – May, during “high” season and only saw rain once from Feb – Mar.  The days are warm and sunny, the nights comfortable.

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    Enjoying good, cheap street food.

  • Beaches – There are so many to choose from!  We loved walking Kamala (where we lived) beach at dusk when it’s not too hot.
  • Massages- You can have a wonderful 1 hr massage for $10US everywhere you go.
  • Thai Food – How about ordering 1 Chicken with mixed vegetables, 1 Fried Rice w/Chicken and a bottle of water for $4.80US?  Not too bad.
  • It was inevitable

    Songkran Festival

    Songkran Festival- April is the Thai new year and it’s celebrated by splashing people with water to wish them luck for the upcoming year.  Get your water pistols out and join the fun!

  • Jungcelyon Mall – There is a modern movie theatre on the 3rd floor that shows first rate movies in English.  On Wednesday, the price is $3.40pp.  Before every movie,  a tribute to the King will be played and it’s mandatory to stand during it.
  • Bartering- Thai people are very proud and there is a scientific way to negotiate prices with them.  They will give you a price first (shown to you on a calculator) and you should barter with them to pay 1/2 the original quoted price by going back and forth.  If they are stuck on a higher price, then just walk away.  That will restart the bargaining again.  They enjoy this and will act put out by “allowing” your lowered price, but once they agree, everyone is all smiles.

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    Prices and chair choices for movie theatre

  • Meeting people from all parts of the world – We have met people on tours and restaurants from Finland to Australia, South Africa to Bali.
  • English- Is spoken widely in Phuket.  We rarely had difficulty in conversing with people and if we did, I took out my iPhone and used Google Translate.
  • Medical Care- Since Thailand is a medial vacation destination, prices for services at Bangkok Phuket Hospital were a 1/3 of what you pay in the US.  We had a dentist cleaning for $30US and a partial physical with bloodwork for $34US.  The hospital is every bit as modern if not more than those in the US.
  • Shopping – Thailand is not the third world country you may of thought it was.  In the bigger cities like Patong, Bangkok and Chiang Mai, you will see American fast food places like Pizza Hut, McDonalds, Starbucks and Haagen Dazs ice cream.  In Bangkok you will find ultra modern malls with stores like Chanel, H&M, Coach, etc.  I managed to find a Krispy Kreme in the Paragon Mall in Bangkok, which was next to the Aunt Annie’s Pretzels.
  • Internet (a favorite topic of mine) – I purchased a local Happy sim card for $5 and added a 1G of 3G for 1 month for $13.75.  If you use more than 1G, you’ll receive a text allowing you to purchase a “booster” of another 1G for $5!  You can add money from any of the gazillion 7-11s in Thailand.  I was even able to make my iPhone a wifi “hotspot”.
  • Our current mode of transportation.

    Our current mode of transportation.

    We loved not having a car and driving our scooter everywhere.  You don’t have to worry about anyone stealing your helmut.  Just leave it on your scooter with no worries. And make sure you don’t fill up at places that sell “bottles” of gas.  They are a rip-off.  Look for regular gas stations and single gas pumps on the side of the road.

So you see, there are plenty of things to like about Phuket.  Next, I’ll discuss some of the “less desirable” things we noticed about living here.

Our kitchen

Our kitchen

  • Lodging- For what we wanted, we found it to be expensive.  You can live very cheaply in Phuket if you want to stay in a hostel or rent a room that doesn’t have a kitchen.  Prices go down even further after May.  We like to cook and found it very difficult before we arrived to find lodging and decided to just look once we got here.  We hired a driver and drove around the west side of the island and settled on Kamala.  It’s a lot quieter than Patong, but close enough for shopping and our weekly movies.  We rented a one bedroom condo with a kitchen (no oven as they are rare to find here) 5 minutes to the beach and it cost $400US a month more than we budgeted.   Next time we think we’d prefer the more livelier Kata/Karon area.
  • Sunset over Patong Beach at a nice restaurant.

    Sunset over Patong Beach at a nice restaurant.

    Restaurants- For a short visit, there would be no issues.  But for a longer stay, you might want a change from Thai food and the choices are schnitzel, spaghetti bolognese, pizza and fried chicken.  We could not find a Mexican or American restaurant near us.  If you want a really nice meal, you can find them, but you will pay close to US prices.  We enjoyed Mom’s Tri Kitchen in Kata, where it seemed they had more variety of restaurants.

  • Big C grocery store in Patong

    Big C grocery store in Patong

    Grocery prices- We shopped at the Big C in Patong, and once every 10 days rented a car and drove to Phuket Town to visit the big Tesco-Lotus and my personal favorite,  Tops Central Market because it has more of American branded products and a gourmet bakery.  If you cook in and want things like cheeses, crackers, olive oil, you will pay double what you paid in the US.  There is at least a double if not more tax on imports here.  Locally grown lettuce will be very cheap, but a box of Chips Ahoy will set you back. For the same reason, wine, champagne and liquor will not be cheap.  Local beers in a bar are inexpensive at $2US.

  • Car Rentals- Most Thais can’t afford a car and use scooters.  It’s expensive to rent a car.  We pay between $30-40 a day to rent a car when we need to.  A scooter costs us $85 a month.
  • Construction- Phuket is booming right now and there is construction going on everywhere building new hotels and condos.  There is still only 1 main road in most areas and the traffic is getting worse.  We are afraid that overbuilding has already begun and is changing the landscape daily.
  • Phang Nha Bay

    Phang Nha Bay

    Foreigners – As we said, we met a lot of different people but what we didn’t know was that the top 3 visitors to Phuket are: 1.  Chinese  2.  Russians  3.  Australians.

    Bangla Road, Patong

    Bangla Road, Patong

    Living in the US does not afford us the opportunity to run into Russian tourists too often.  Phuket, however, has a strong influx of Russian tourists. In our experience, we found them to be very unfriendly, rude and down right arrogant.  Too many times to count, we were cut in front of, reached over, or not acknowledged by them.  I continually read in the local newspaper of problems the Thais had with the Russians.  When we talked to Thai people,  they all stated a similiar dislike for them. They told us how the Russians refuse to speak English to them.  They think the Thai’s should speak Russian.  Our tour guide in Bangkok told us that Phuket has a serious problem with the Russian mob influence and the local Thai’s put up with them because they are afraid of losing their business so they tolerate their bad behavior.

  • Beaches- If you are coming to Phuket to see pristine beaches from
    Rows of chairs at Patong Beach

    Rows of chairs at Kamala Beach

    magazines,  you might be disappointed.   Due to the increase in tourists and boat traffic, the beaches on the west coast during high season are overcrowded with rows of beach chairs and umbrellas and littered.  Sometimes you may not be able to see your feet while in the water.  We found Patong beach to be the worst offender.  During one walk on the beach, we collected 3 bags of trash left by visitors.  We didn’t visit the Phi Phi islands as we were told how crowded they are and wanted to avoid that.

  • Patong – Very crowded, often times omitting a sewer smell and difficult to walk around due to lack of sidewalks on some streets.
  • Laguna Golf Course, Bang Tao

    Laguna Golf Course, Bang Tao

    Golf- Very expensive to play in Phuket at $150pp a round and up.

  • Beauty Salon Prices- For women who are looking for a quality manicure & pedicure, maybe a haircut and color, you will probably not save a whole bunch from what it costs in the US.  An OPI gel polish in Patong costs $34US.

Here are some observations we feel are important to know:

  • Shoes- The majority of Thais are Buddhists and believe the feet are the most dirty part of a body.  It is their custom to remove your shoes before entering a temple, a person’s home and some businesses.
    No shoes allowed inside

    Shoes outside a business

     

  • The King- Is loved by everyone in Thailand.  In fact, you should NEVER say anything negative about him.  We accidently dropped a coin with the King’s pictures on it and Ron stepped on the coin to prevent it from rolling away.  Our guide warned us to never use your feet on anything related to the king as that would be very disrespectful and could cause one to be arrested.
  • Eating Out- We found it cheaper to eat out than buy groceries and cook in.  Steak is very expensive in Thailand as it’s imported from Australia and New Zealand.  Remember, anything imported will be expensive.  When we did try and order steak a couple of times, we were very disappointed.
  • Eating Out Part II-  What ever you order will come out of the kitchen one at a time.  You will not be served the appitizer first as in the US.  As they make the dishes, is how it comes out of the kitchen.
  • Watering station vs. armed pickup

    Watering station vs. armed pickup

    If you can be in Thailand during their New Years celebration Songkran, we highly recommend it.  Join the locals in wishing everyone luck in the upcoming year by pouring water on them. But if you don’t want to get wet, definitely stay inside!!

  • Prices come down on lodging after May, however, the moonsoon season starts. The humidity and overcast skies begin mid-April and start in full force in May.   We found out it started a little early this year and if your only means of transportation is a scooter, you will either get very wet to go out to eat or you need a kitchen to prepare meals in the event it rains.
  • We decided to see other parts of Thailand and traveled to Chiang Mai and Bangkok.  Although we are beach lovers, we decided Chiang Mai had a better mix of people, culture and restaurants for us.  We also took a weeks vacation to Vietnam and loved it there.  You can read about that in our other blogs.

As our observations are purely personal, we hope this helps you if you are deciding to visit Phuket.  We are so grateful we were able to live in this beautiful country briefly and would love to return some day for it’s beauty and simply way of life.

Kamala beach sunset

Kamala beach sunset

Gallery

Interesting Signs We’ve Seen

19 Apr

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Happy New Year (Songkran Festival)

13 Apr

April 13th begins Thailand’s New Year celebration called Songkran.  It involves the throwing of water on passersby to wish them good luck for the coming year.

The majority of Thais are Buddhists.  According to Wikipedia, “the throwing of water originated as a way to pay respect to people, by capturing the water after it had been poured over the Buddhas for cleansing and then using this “blessed” water to give good fortune to elders and family by gently pouring it on the shoulder. Among young people the holiday evolved to include dousing strangers with water to relieve the heat, since April is the hottest month in Thailand (temperatures can rise to over 100°F or 40°C on some days). This has further evolved into water fights and splashing water over people riding in vehicles”.

So, Ron and I needed to take the scooter to the big food store about 15 minutes away.  On our way, we passed “watering stations” of people with barrels of water, bazooka water guns and buckets splashing people passing by.  We were lucky on our way to the food store in that we barely got wet.  The ride home was a different story…

We were approaching a huge watering station and Ron tried to speed up a little to soften the inevitable blow but these are seasoned Songkran participants who managed to throw an entire bucket of water up in the air just as we were approaching and we drove right into it.  As I was sitting on the back of the scooter, Ron took the brunt of that hit.

Our next obstacle was to get past the traffic signal that was coming up.  This other group had set up a watering station just before the light so if the light was red, you were a sitting duck.  We planned our attack:  we would slow the scooter to wait till the light turned green, then gun it!  Well, it didn’t work out that way.  Locals with pickup trucks were driving around town carrying 5-10 people in the truck bed armed with water guns.  The truck ahead of us slowed down to combat the watering station group and then the light turned red.  Okay, no problem, while those two are battling on our left, we snuck past on the right and waited for the light to change hoping to be ignored.  Just when we thought we were safe, the car on our right rolled down their window and shot their water gun at us!  Needless to say, we were pretty wet by the time we reached our condo.

Ron and I decided to unpack the food and head back out with just my camera so I could take pictures of the festivities.  We drove to the big intersection where there was a lot of action and I stood out of firing distance and took some video and pictures.  It seemed like everyone was having so much fun that we decided to join in.  We were already wet anyway.

Our favorite local Thai restaurant called Popeye’s was just across the street.  We saw them all out dancing in the street and pouring water on people and scooters as they passed by.  We parked our scooter a little further away and slowly walked toward them.  One man saw us coming and decided to come greet us.  He managed to pour the first of many bowls of water over Ron’s head and that’s how our fun began.

They had a 55 gal bucket of water, a DJ playing American music, and free food.  After I put my camera away in the scooter, I was greeted the same way as Ron with bowls of water over my head.  The stores next to us had their own party going and one across the street so between all the groups dousing each other, we also tried to get anyone who dared to pass through.

One of the ladies came over to us and showed us the table that was set up with different Buddhas.  She showed us how to take some of the water in the gold bowl with the gold cup and pour some over each Buddha so that we might also have good luck in the coming year.  Then another lady came over with the traditional talc powder and put a streak on our faces to wish us health and luck.

We enjoyed watching everyone having a good time but Ron got restless.  He didn’t have a gun, so I told him to take the scooter down the street to the supermarket and buy one.  He came back with a big bazooka water gun and a huge grin on his face.  He said when we walked into the store dripping wet, all the cashiers were laughing at him.

There was a 8-year-old boy who didn’t speak english in our group.  When we were “attacked” by a group of boys from around the corner, Ron helped his little friend by attacking them back for the rest of the afternoon.

My favorite moment was when the local fire department came by with the fire truck to refill everyone’s garbage cans of water!  The tradition says that the more wet you get, the more luck you will have in the coming year.  If it holds true, Ron and I should have A LOT of luck coming our way 🙂

Goooood Morning Vietnam!!

9 Apr

Why Vietnam, you say?  Well, we flew 18 hours to Thailand and decided while we are here for 3 months, we should take advantage of seeing more of Southeast Asia.  Who knows when we will make the trip back, right?  Okay, okay, but that doesn’t answer why VIETNAM?  Well, from what we’ve read and the people we have talked to who have been there have said, its suppose to be a cool place to visit.  Nice beaches, affordable, friendly locals, so we said, why not?

Map of Southeast Asia

Map of Southeast Asia

Just so you have an idea of where we are, on the map you’ll see the mainland of Thailand.  If you look at the peninsula to the left and follow that south, there is an island called Phuket.  We are currently living in Phuket in a town called Kamala.  We flew from Phuket south to Malaysia to transfer to a flight to Ho Chi Min City.  From there we flew just into Nha Trang, Vietnam.

Nha Trang beach

Nha Trang beach

Nha Trang is a seaside resort town with wide sidewalks, coffee shops, long uncrowded beaches and inexpensive food and lodging.  It has the feel of being in a European beach town. Since Vietnam was ruled by France for years, it till holds a European charm to it.  What we noticed here vs. Phuket were more coffee shops and seaside cafes  for relaxing and people watching had replaced the many bars that are the norm throughout Phuket.

DSCN1903Our plan in Nha Tran was to just chill out for a few days.  We sat by the pool, used the hotel sauna and jacuzzi and read.  Since playing golf in Phuket could cost you over $150pp to play, we decided to try golf in Vietnam instead.    So, we took a ferry across to a resort called VinPearl where every hole has a view of water.  It was a gorgeous course.

Ron teeing off while his caddie watches

Ron teeing off while his caddie watches

We were required to use caddies, however.  It was my first experience of someone handing me a club they suggested I use and placing my ball for putts.  We had a very enjoyable if not HOT day on the course.  One note of interest:  Asian women go to great lengths to keep from the sun.  They do not want to be tan at all, so we noticed the majority of them out during the day wear a face mask, similar to a surgical mask and long sleeves to cover their skin.  In the stores I noticed beauty products specifically for “whitening” your skin.

IMG_3475We spent the evenings walking around Nha Trang.  Along the beach is a park with walking paths, pine trees and benches.  This is where we found a lot of locals enjoying the evening with their families.  There are night markets you can stroll through and more inexpensive restaurants to choose from than you’ll ever need.

Dinner at Texas BBQ

Dinner at Texas BBQ

Since we’ve been away for a couple of months now, Ron was craving for some “home cooking”.  We found a Texas BBQ restaurant online that received great reviews.  So, we took a long walk one evening and tried it.  The owner is American, been living in Vietnam for years and had a bustling business.  Ron ordered the rib and chicken platter and I ordered the chicken quesadilla.  We were in heaven!  We liked it so much we returned another night.  Our other favorite restaurant was called Lanterns.   It’s a Vietnamese restaurant that is highly popular.  We haven’t had Vietnamese food before but decided we loved it.

Dinner at Lanterns Restaurant

Dinner at Lanterns Restaurant

Lots of fresh fish, lemongrass, spices, etc.  We found in Phuket a lot of local restaurants cook by frying and the Vietnamese cook more by steaming their meats and fish.  The food prices were less expensive in Vietnam and interestingly, most of Asia uses chopsticks to eat with and Thailand does not.  Story goes the King went to Europe and saw the Europeans using forks and spoons and liked it so much that when he returned he started the trend in Thailand.

We next headed to Ho Chi Min City.  It was previously known as Saigon until the end of the Vietnam war when the city was renamed after a general.  Most of the people still refer to it as Saigon.  We had 2 days of non stop tours here.

Pine, our Saigon tour guide.

Pine, our Saigon tour guide.

On the day we arrived, we had booked a free city tour with Saigon Hotspot.  The company offers free tours with university students to enable them to use and improve their English speaking ability.

Our guides name was Pine.  He was also employed at the US Embassy in Saigon. He took us to the Unification Palace, the War Remnants Museum, the Notre Dame Cathedral and an indoor flea market in the city.  One interesting thing we noticed was the amount of scooters in Saigon!  Most locals cannot afford a car so they drive scooters.  This creates an insane amount of scooter traffic on the roads.  The city has “tourist police” set up to help the tourists cross the road because doing so is very daunting.

Having Pho for lunch and using chop sticks!

Having Pho for lunch and using chop sticks!

Here’s how you do it:  You wait for a small break in the scooter traffic and step out.  At this point you are committed to continue and surprisingly the flow of traffic will move around you as you cross the street. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart!!

I wanted to try a traditional Vietnamese dish called Pho (pronounced Fa) for lunch.  It’s  a simple broth soup with noodles and either chicken or beef.  Pine took us to his favorite restaurant and we all had the same thing for lunch with soda and beer for $12.

Saigon Arts Building

Saigon Arts Building

The city of Saigon was pretty cool.  It reminded me of an older Spanish city with tiled sidewalks, small shops, bistros and even some very modern skyscrapers.  Our hotel was in the center of the tourist district, easy walking to all the sights and restaurants.

Luis Vuitton

Louis Vuitton

DSCN1978

Our Sheraton hotel in Saigon

There were some high end stores I didn’t expect to see in Vietnam like Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Coach, etc just around the corner.  We had no problem with the language as most of the younger people spoke English and were very warm and helpful.

IMG_0860Our next tour was with Tiger Tours.  It was a 4 hour evening food crawl to local restaurants around Saigon.  We each had our own guide on a scooter and drove to 5 different restaurants and an outdoor flower market.  On our first stop at a restaurant that has been in business for 30 years,  we had a platter to make Vietnamese Nems.

Vietnamese Nems -spring rolls.

Vietnamese Nems -spring rolls.

You take a piece of rice paper and load it with the lettuce, herbs, meats on the platter you want and roll it up.  Then you dip it in either the sweet or spicy sauce and enjoy.  We loved this!  So after a few of these and some beer, our “drivers” took us to the next restaurant to try some local dishes sitting among the locals.  The girls ask us what we’d like to try after describing some of the dishes.

Dinner on our food tour

Dinner on our food tour

We could have tried a delicacy called “duck eggs”.  It’s a custom to eat a duck egg with a baby duck inside…Blah!  No way we were that adventurous, but we did opt for the goat udder.  Let me explain.  They brought out a tabletop bbq and cooked small thin pieces of marinated goat udder with okra for us.  Well, we tried it.  The taste was fine, the texture was rubbery so we didn’t try any more.

Prawns on the bbq

Prawns on the bbq

Next up: prawns on the barbie!  Out comes a platter of freshly skewered prawns who were still ALIVE!  They cooked them over the bbq, peeled them, gave us the dipping spices and we liked them.  We had scallops on the 1/2 shell that were awesome, fresh sugar cane juice, seasoned crab claws until we couldn’t eat any longer.  We next took a scooter ride through the flower market.  As most of the population is Buddhist, it is their custom to pray with flowers a few times a month so flower markets are a popular inexpensive alternative to flower shops.

Having dinner with the locals.

Having dinner with the locals.

And finally we reached Ron’s favorite food…dessert!   A lot of the desserts are fruits set in coconut milk over ice or gelled coconut milk served back in the coconut.  It was interesting and different.

Fruits in a glass of iced coconut milk.

Fruits in a glass of iced coconut milk.

We passed so many outdoor restaurants where the locals sit outside on kindergarten size tables and chairs and eat their meals that I asked our guides if most locals eat out or cook in.  She said most people eat out.

Saigon River Tour

Saigon River Tour

Our final tour was a daylong boat trip on the Mekong Delta on the Saigon river to head an hour outside the city to visit a local village, see inside someone’s home, try rice whiskey, visit an orphanage run by monks and enjoy lunch made by them.  We had a very enjoyable day leaving the city and seeing farms, rice paddies, farmer’s markets and learning that families all live together in their homes, all of the generations.  We met a 90 year old blind grandmother, her daughter, and her baby.

DSCN2034We stopped at a small village bar and did shots of rice whiskey!  The locals were warm and welcoming to us.  An elderly man was so intrigued by us, he started to follow us down the path!

DSCN2081

Buddhist temple outside Saigon

We were sorry to leave Vietnam.  We  had only just started to explore the south and decided we will need to return some day to visit the quaint trading port of Hoi Ann, who every 14th of the lunar month trades electricity for lanterns, the beautiful waters of Halong Bay and the big city of Hanoi.

If you notice the shoes outside the temple at the entrance, its a custom we’ve found in Thailand and in temples throughout Asia that people remove their shoes before entering someone’s home.

Dinner at Ciao Bella in Saigon

Dinner at Ciao Bella in Saigon

We met a lot of backpackers in Vietnam. It was interesting to hear what they are doing, where they have already been and what’s next on their agenda.  A lot of them are from Australia.  What surprised us the most was that we came across more Americans in Vietnam that we have in Phuket, Thailand.

Our last meal in Vietnam at Ciao Bella

Our last meal in Vietnam at Ciao Bella

On our last night, we found a wonderful Italian restaurant right down the street from our hotel.  The owner is from the U.K., but use to live and work in California.  He then opened a restaurant in NYC but had to return to the U.K. for family reasons before heading out to open his restaurant called Ciao Bella in Saigon where the food is just as good as any Italian food I’ve had in the US but for 1/2 the cost, of course.  Until next time Vietnam…

Up next: Chiang Mai and Bangkok, Thailand.

A Day at the Beach in Phuket, Thailand

9 Mar
Kamala Beach

Kamala Beach

Phuket is a very large island, about the size of Singapore.  It’s situated off the west coast of Thailand in the Andaman Sea. It’s about 31 miles long and 12 miles wide.The primary income is derived from tourism.  And there is a good reason for that: it’s beaches!  There are a lot of beautiful beaches scattered around. We have only made it to a few of them so far. This is a view of Kamala Beach from the water on a beautiful day with lots of sunshine and some scattered clouds to give you a nice break. Many of the beaches have vendors walking by selling all kinds of food and other items. They are not ‘in your face’ like some places and usually just walk on by unless you make eye contact. They love to negotiate, so don’t accept the first price! As an example, Dee wanted a Sarong. The lady offered it for 600 baht and we paid 180 baht, still maybe too much. lol

Cool Beach Bar

Cool Beach Bar

Kamala Beach, just north of Patong,  is a long beach which is great for walking. And, if you happen to get thirsty along the way,  there are lots of bars and restaurants all along the way. We stopped at this one and had a great conversation with two guys (here on business hmmm) from Slovania. We also met a guy that rents Hobie Cats, so we will be doing that in the very near future. Cheers!

Dee enjoying a cold Heiniken

Dee enjoying a cold Heineken

Here is Dee enjoying an ice cold beer and we noticed all bars here serve water and beer in a coozie…a nice touch!

Phuket is mostly mountainous, so there are always great vantage points along the road…Here is a view of Kamala Beach from high up on the mountain.

A hidden beach just down from Kamala

Laem Singh Beach

Here is another ‘hidden’ beach just up the road.    Its called   Laem Singh beach and you have to park your scooter on the road and climb down a lot of stairs to get to this beach.  They have beach chairs, umbrellas and of course massages on the beach to make your climb worthwhile!

You can see from the pictures how clear the waters are in Phuket.  Kamala beach is a good swimming beach.  The sand is soft and the sea floor has no rocks or pebbles to walk on.  You can actually walk out pretty far before the water gets deep.

Ron Cooling off

Ron Cooling off

Dee Cooling off

Dee Cooling off

Here is Ron and Dee cooling off in the Andaman Sea.  And not only are the beach chairs and umbrella prices reasonable ($7.00 US for 2 chairs and an umbrella), the person who sold them to you will come around and sweep the sand off the bottom of your chairs and readjust your umbrella so that you stay in the shade.  Nice touch!

2004 Tsunami:

On December 26, 2004, Phuket and other nearby areas on Thailand’s western coast suffered extensive damage when they were struck by a tsunami, caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake.  The first sign of trouble happened when the sea receded  to expose about 1.6 miles of beach.  Fish were seen flopping on the sea floor.  Locals and visitors were in awe of what was going on, and without an early warning system,   came to see the beach line.  Little did they know that this is a warning sign of a tsunami.  Not too long thereafter, the first wave struck, destroying several highly popular areas in the region, killing 5300 people and tens of thousands more throughout the Asian region.  In December 2006, Thailand launched the first of the 22 US made tsunami-detection buoys to be positioned around the Indian Ocean as part of a regional warning system.

Here is a picture of a warning system on the beach in Patong, Phuket.

IMG_0047_2

As the sun sets over the water, it’s time to pack up and head home…or did I hear someone say happy hour?

Sunset over the Sea

Sunset over the Sea