Friday, July 28, 2017

A Look, Taste, + Feel of Odessa Ukraine

My overnight train pulls into the station at 6:10 AM. I offer a surly cab driver more than he can refuse, though he does initially until I make the offer to someone else.
The farther from the city center my taxi takes me, the more run down the roads, the cars, and the buildings become. The architecture swiftly morphs into pure Communist Vomit, and my hostel/hotel, while getting a decent location rating online, is out in the middle of nowhere, the streets a maze of windy, twisty passageways all alike.The cabbie has troubles finding my lodgings, irritating this unhappy man even more than usual.

I get dropped off in an impoverished neighborhood. No one speaks any English. and I'm no better at reading Cyrillic. There's no reception at the hostel, and no one to let me in. I explore the surroundings in the meantime, the breeze blessing me with the fragrance of raw sewage as stray dogs eye the unusual foreigner walking their neighborhood with interest. There is little if any beauty to be found in this rapidly decaying concrete jungle. Eventually I ask someone to call me a cab, which arrives a good 40 minutes later. I ride back to the center of town, switching hostels.
It's much nicer downtown, although I'm certain that the poverty I witnessed in the outskirts is how most Ukrainians live.
Restaurants catering to foreigners abound, and the architecture in this part of town is largely pre-Soviet, and therefore quite beautiful. A large church acts as my geographical marker, and the surrounding square has children's rides draw which draw me in like the Pied Piper.
"Get off the trampoline!!" yells a woman in Ukrainian, translatable merely via voice tone and body language, "50 kilos maximum."  
Get OFF the trampoline Rich! But I'm not "on it"
Odessa Communist Market
I meet a tall Russian girl , Anna (20), her father ex-KGB. Should be interesting to hang out with. We bring with us Claus, a Danish giant, to insure our safety I assume. Anna wants to go to a flea market. Normally the idea of shopping makes me nauseous but this market is exceptionally cool, a sort of outdoor mini-museum to Communist Times.
Lady selling her wares at Odessa Communist market
I find a plethora of World War II Nazi Germany and Soviet Medals. I pick up an Iron Cross, "Is it real?" I ask the seller, with Anna translating.
"Yeah, yeah, real of course."
Everything about it says it's brand new ... "It doesn't look real," I retort, "The paint, the colors are too fresh."
"No no. Real. Old. Real."
"Okay, you want real?" he calls over to a neighbor vendor, "Oksana, this guy wants real. Show him real."
It ain't easy trusting people out here.
And that goes for me too apparently. Now, I am trying to purchase a cute little backpack for my Goddaughter. The old lady offers it to me for 20 grivnas ($2.50.) All I have are 200 grivna ($25) bills, the largest denomination in the Ukraine. I offer her one, immediately she shies away, telling me she has no change.
Anna tells me the lady is a pensioner, and her income is $100 a month, which she augments by selling her superfluous items on the street. The woman is worried that she'll get stuck with a fake bill, which are common in the Ukraine, and be out 25% of her monthly income.
Eventually she makes change for me.

Just Ain't No Debating
While Claus and I see eye to eye on many subjects, our female companion views the world "differently." We attempt to engage Anna in a discussion about her beliefs that women should largely be subservient to their men, killing is not such a big deal, and that democracy is "unnecessary." While it's interesting to see such a different model of the world, a completely foreign reality, she's also very rigid in her beliefs, Claus and I wave the off-white flag of truce pretty quickly. We're not changing her mind. Change after ossifying Communism, is difficult here in the former Eastern Bloc.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Exhilarating Flight of the Gibbon- the #1 Recommendation of Thailand

a small waterfall in the Thai jungle
There are certain moments in life that we remember with fondness forever. Near the northern Thai town of Chiang Mai is a one of the world's longest ziplines, Flight of the Gibbon.
The natural beauty of old growth forest viewed from high above the ground combined with the exhilaration as you speed, almost flying above the canopy, has the necessary ingredients to create such a memory. 

check out the below video to see why it might be so memorable for you.
Video: Flight of the Gibbon

a zip line sprung between trees in the jungle
By participating, you are helping to preserve the nature surrounding, as the locals profit from keeping the rainforest in tact. To boot you will likely be able to see wild gibbons frolicking in the trees which comprise their territory.
mist coming up from the jungle
zip-lining from tree to tall tree
I cannot recommend this zip line enough. If I could tell you to do just one thing in all of Thailand, Flight of the Gibbon would be it!
the misty forest
the jungle
The waterfall below you can go to after you finish zip-lining. Enjoy your time in the gorgeous greenery.
waterfall at the end of the tour
waterfall of the Thai jungle

Monday, July 3, 2017

Your Two Week Vacation Itinerary for Thailand

Having lived in abroad in Thailand I get many requests for itineraries and advice. Wanting to help my friends (and friends of friends of friends) I have spent umpteen amount of time on the subject, and thus merely wish to write my recommendations here once that will benefit the broader internet.

Here is the first question I want to annihilate: "I'm planing on coming to for 8 days, what should I do?"
A: The minimum amount of time you want to spend is two weeks if you're traveling from America. Coming here for less is a total waste. The expense of the plane tickets, the 24 hour journey from door to door each way, the jet-lag, and then the time returning to the airports when moving around the country, you'll feel positively cheated if you spend less time here.

With that in mind, here is your two week recommended itinerary, with three weeks being preferable.

Day 1- Fly to Bangkok

It might say your flight is 19 hours, it's still 24 hours door to door when you include traveling to the airport, immigration, bags, and getting to your hotel.

Day 2, 3, 4- Bangkok

Getting around in a taxi during rush hour (or worse- rain storm + rush hour) can be murder. You'll want to use the BTS Skytrain when possible. That said, taxis are cheap and efficient, but if you get unlucky, the taxi will take you for a ride.

It really doesn't matter what order you do these in, but I have grouped things together that are Close to one another to minimize the amount of time you spend taxiing about.

1. Silom District--
a) Lumpini Park- see the famed Monitor Lizards casually meandering around the Park as you stroll around Bangkok's most famous green space.
b) Snake Show- Walk over to Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute for the snake show where you'll see ultra-skilled/ brave handlers avoiding strikes from King Cobras. There are also a variety of snakes in cages as well as an accompanying museum. You can also witness venom extraction while you are there. Check the times of the shows here.

recommended restaurants in area: Beirut (Lebanese), Eat Me (fancy Western fare)
Night life: Maggie Choos (famous/ popular bar), Patpong (as Borat would say, "Sexy time.")

2.  Downtown/ Suhkumvit
a) Terminal 21 Food Court- the cheapest food court in one of Thailand's fanciest malls. You could easily eat lunch here for $2 a person, and $5 will positively stuff you. It will give you an idea of how cheaply you can live in Thailand. On the 5th floor.
b) Lavana Spa - There are millions of places to get massages in Bangkok, and most are cheaper, but Lavana Spa is one of the nicest and most professional.
c) Soi Cowboy- probably Bangkok's most famous adult entertainment areas, take a walk along the street and check out the bars. It's an ... experience.

Recommended restaurants: Charcoal Grill (Indian, fancy, excellent,) Marriott Breakfast Buffet (Thong Lo Soi 57. Really high quality, $20 a person, well worth it if you are hungry)

3. Khaosan Road Area (full day)
a) Wat Pho Reclining Buddha- a number one attraction on many Bangkok lists, the Golden Buddha is nearby as well.
b) Bangkok Flower Market - put a smile on the face of your honey buying some freshly cut stems directly from the wholesalers while taking in the rainbow of colors. Best in the evening.
c) Khaosan Road- If you're a backpacker you might stay here. Most alive at night, as long as you're in the area you might as well see it in case someone asks.
d) Grand Palace-  Built in 1782, and home to the Thai King for the last 150 years, the architecture and detail here is really exquisite. It currently has a shrine to the late Thai King who passed in 2016.
e) Taling Chan Floating Market- retains a local Thai flavor despite being a tourist favorite. You'll gain a first-hand appreciation of how some Thais live as you traverse the canals.

Recommended restaurants: Ethos (vegetarian) with a great apple crumble desert. Cheap. Right by Khaosan.

Days 5, 6, 7- Krabi 

Fly in the morning from Don Muang Airport to Krabi, which in my opinion is one of the most beautiful places in the world with stunning tropical forest covered cliffs jutting up from an utterly tranquil ocean.

Day 5- Railey Beach area
Get a place to stay in Ao Nang (40 minute taxi ride from Krabi airport,) check in, go to the pier and buy a round trip ticket (10 minutes) for Railey Beach, one of the jewels of Thailand. Make sure to walk around to Phra Nang Beach which I consider even prettier and go for a swim. If you want, there is a climbing school nearby and you can with the assistance of instructors safely attempt to ascend some of the cliffs described earlier. At night purchase tours for the next two days for ...

Day 6- The Islands Tour
You'll get on a boat in the morning destined for several islands off the Thai coast, with the final stop being either James Bond Island or Koh Phi Phi. Both are spectacular and you'll be given the chance to snorkel in warm, crystal waters. It's a highly enjoyable trip and you'll return with photos that will be the envy of many.
You also could rent a private boat and go to Hong Island before the tourists flood the beaches. Some of these islands (Hong amongst them) are Stunning.

Day 7- The Emerald Pool
Choose between climbing to the top of a cliff where a cool Buddhist temple awaits, or take a ride on an elephant. Then head through the jungle on a short walk to the emerald pool which is quite spectacular. Cool off in her waters.

Days 8, 9, 10 - Phuket or Koh Samui 

Phuket is Thailand's largest and most famous island. You can get there by car from Krabi, it will be about the same amount of time as flying when all is said and done.
Frankly I'd prefer you to go to Koh Chang or Koh Kood, but they are so much harder to get to, and you're the one who only budgeted two weeks, so Phuket is the logical choice. There are lots of things to do on the island, and really all I can recommend is that you avoid Patong Beach, which is just a big brothel.

If you chose to spend the time on Koh Samui, you can still fly there from Krabi and spend a day on Koh Phangan which you can reach by boat from Samui.  

Days 10, 11, 13 - Chiang Mai 

Day 11 - Fly to Chiang Mai, check into your hotel, then spend a few hours at Wat Phra Singh Temple, a gorgeous Buddhist Monastery up the mountain which is well worth seeing. Then come back, grab some food and make sure to book an excursion for-

Day 12- Flight of The Gibbon **** (#1 recommendation for Thailand)
the jungle of Flight of the Gibbon, you can see one of the platforms
the northern Thai jungle
Easily the best zip-lining experience I have ever been on. Experience the heart of the jungle zipping from tree to tree. Exhilarating, beautiful, and you're likely to see wild gibbons. Simply the best thing you can do in Thailand. That said it's not cheap (in excess of $100 a person) but it honestly is well worth the money, and it helps preserve the forests as they are. It's a majority of the day.

Day 13- if you wish to spend an extra day here, then go to the Elephant Nature Park- worth the experience.
Avoid the Tiger Kingdom though. Waste of time and money.

Chiang Mai notes- when I first went in 2007 the night market was awesome, with a lot of cool local crafts and art. Today, it's almost all Chinese factory made trinkets and super-crowded. You can find cheap Thai handi-crafts outside the city if you seek them out.
If you wish to spend an extra day/ something else to do, Thai cooking classes are quite popular, or if you're adventurous then do the mountain biking experience. (both bookable with any local tour company)
Make sure to try khao soi soup while you're here, it is a staple of northern Thailand.

Day 14- Fly Home
Fly directly to BKK airport (Not Don Muang serviced by Air Asia) and allow a little time to connect to your flight as you'll have to go through immigration. It will cost you a few dollars more to fly into BKK but you'll more than save that in taxi fare and time avoiding Bangkok's infamous traffic.
Fly home and enjoy the jetlag.

Notes: if you are a nature lover and have extra time I highly recommend a trip to Erawan National Park and the more hidden Maekhamin Waterfall + National Park. This is nature in SE Asia at it's best, and you can swim in the pools around the falls. A lot of fun. They aren't the easiest to get to, but well worth it.
Enjoy your trip. Have a comment/suggestion enter it below!