This is a travel blog for desktop travelers and other ramblers who want to know the world just a little bit better.

Right now I am living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where I'll be settled for a while. Thanks for reading!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

'Tis the Low Season in Koh Lanta

Now is the low season in Koh Lanta. Some call it the rainy season, and those more optimistic will call it the green season. I am not really worried about rain. I enjoy the respite from the beating sun. There are only two downsides as far as I can see. The first being that the ocean is wavy and terrible for snorkeling and dive shops are asking snorkelers a lot of money to tag along with them for the day. The second is that the Thai boxing arena is closed until high season.

Waiting out the rain in the market
Koh Lanta is a fairly large island. There are quite a lot of resorts for every budget. It is not built up (not yet anyway) as much as other places like Koh Samui or Phuket but there seems to be plenty of construction and plenty of ads geared towards foreigners who may want to buy their own piece of paradise. Beaches are spread out, and there are two small towns on opposite sides of Koh Lanta plus a few villages scattered about. You can visit the whole island in one or two days, but definitely need some form of motorized transportation. The most common being motorbikes.

It is quiet in Koh Lanta now. Really quiet. I love it here. Many places are closed. Restaurants that are open have just one or two tables occupied, if any. Bars will only have one or two customers. Hotels are also sparsely populated. There are great deals to be had too. For example, one new, swanky hotel is offering rooms for 2,500 Thai Baht with stay three and get the fourth free which comes to 1,875 TB. In October the price is 4500 TB per night.
Mika checking out a fancy hotel with no intention of staying there
We book something online for our first two nights and use a motorbike to find our next accommodation. Our second place* is a larger place, also right on the beach. Most of the bungalows are around $40 US, but then they have three cute, fan-only bungalows for 300 Thai Baht (US $10). The fan-only bungalows are much nicer than everything in the same price range that we have seen. Currently there are five bungalows occupied including all three cheap ones. We end up staying here for a week.

Our home for one week
Now settled into life on Koh Lanta we spend our days exploring the island by motorbike. We soon discover our favorite beach. On our first visit to Bakantiang beach there is nobody else. The sand is free of debris which is uncommon on Koh Lanta. The waves are perfect for body surfing. It is our own private beach. I love Koh Lanta during the low season.

One day we hike through a jungle river to visit a cave and waterfall. The man at the entrance tells us during the high season there might be two hundred people a day on the one km trail. We meet six people leaving the waterfall as we get there and pass five others on our way back. We unfortunately do not see any wild animals. Though there was an ornery monkey who bared his fangs and swiped at us when we passed him on our motorbike.
"Don't worry Mika, I will check the scary cave, um  just let me tie my shoe first..."
We  also visit Old Lanta, Sea Gypsy village, beaches galore and, most importantly, find many places to get cheap local food and fruit. We also discover that 7-11 is an incredibly reliable resource for the budget conscious traveler in Koh Lanta. The iconic convenient store has the cheapest beer, snacks, ice-cream, water and coffee (their coffee sucks) in town, fixed prices, a toilet and air-conditioning. We go to 7-11 at least twice a day.

A traditional style home in Old Lanta town

A Sea Gypsy painting his boat

Curry in a bag - buying dinner in Koh Lanta
In the end the weather is perfect. Our first three days we have afternoon showers. Our fourth day is a complete downpour and after that five days of just blue sky. But please do not tell other tourists this because I love Koh Lanta in the low season.
Having a picnic lunch under the shade of a palm tree
*For My Homies: The owner of our hotel is an American from Ohio whose nephew is the second string punter for the Ohio State Buckeyes football team.

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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Southern Thailand - First Impressions

Making the plan to go to Thailand is really no big deal. I have traveled just a little around the country but have been to Bangkok four times. Sure there were political problems in Bangkok this spring, but from speaking with other travelers the city seems fine. I also recall something about more serious political problems in the South so should probably research a bit.

At the Thai Consulate we ask if it is safe. Sure, no problem. What else are they going to say? So we ask the Malaysian woman at our guesthouse. Yes, it is safe just do not stand near police, military or a police station since those are the main targets of the separatists. Good advice.

The following is an excerpt from the U.S. State Department website regarding travel to Thailand:
The far south of Thailand has been experiencing almost daily incidents of criminally and politically motivated violence, including incidents attributed to armed local separatist groups. On March 15, 2008, two bombs exploded...The U.S. Embassy prohibits U.S. Embassy personnel from traveling to the far south of Thailand - Narathiwat, Pattani, Yala, and Songkhla provinces, including the town of Hat Yai - without prior mission approval, and Embassy personnel may travel there only on mission-essential travel. The Department of State urges U.S. citizens to defer non-emergency travel to these areas. If U.S. citizens must travel to these areas, they should exercise special caution and remain vigilant with regard to their personal security. Travelers should be aware that Thai authorities have on occasion instituted special security measures in affected areas, such as curfews, military patrols, or random searches of train passengers.
Good thing we are not U.S. Embassy personnel. The Japanese Foreign Ministry has somewhat similar info, but not as severe. They also have a nice color-coded map. The questionable regions are marked from yellow (pretty safe but be careful) to red (don't go). We have to drive through orange to get to our hotel in yellow.

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We take an uncomfortable mini-van for three hours from the Malaysian border to Hat Yai, the largest city in Southern Thailand. From internet research I find out that until recently Hat Yai was pretty much just known for sleazy massage parlors. Sleazy Massage Parlor in Thai means brothel in English. Apparently they are trying to improve their image, and it is now a weekend destination for Malaysians who like to eat Thai food and shop (and visit sleazy massage parlors?). There are direct buses all the way to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

We do not do too much in Hat Yai really, and it feels like during the week there is really not too much to do. We walk around downtown, eat some great Thai seafood in a market and browse sidewalk shops selling souvenirs. We probably should visit the main temple and the world's third largest recling Buddha, but instead opt to go hurry to the bus station and catch a bus to Trang. Where we end up sitting for two hours - more than enough time to visit a recling Buddha even the third largest.

Trang is smaller than Hat Yai. The town seems to be a jumping point to visit the islands in the southwest. We also find out that it is low season now in Southwestern Thailand. This is the rainy season, so many resorts are closed and visibility will not be great. Boat trips are also more expensive now due to lack of customers. Luckily we speak with a very honest woman in a tour office. She explains that we should probably not do the island tour and go instead to Koh Lanta, an island farther north. Talking us out of a tour is probably not great for business, but I really do appreciate her honesty.
A highlight of Trang is finding this vegetarian restaurant. A rarity in South East Asia.

Thailand First Impressions:  This is actually not a true first impression because I have been here before, so just first impressions for this trip.
1) Thai language is impossible to read. Malaysian and Indonesian languages use the English alphabet, so it is easier to learn something. See the word "Ayam" enough times at restaurants I can eventually figure out it means "chicken." Thai is completely foreign, and like a true gringo I cannot be bothered to learn anything.
Well maybe I should actually learn to read Thai considering that YOU ARE HERE is the only English on this tsunami evacuation map.

2) Things are expensive. Not outrageous, but more than we thought. My first trip here in 2004 it was 40 Thai Bhat for one US dollar. The rate now is 32. Things cost about the same, yet I am 20% poorer.

3) Thai food is spicy. Yes, a cliche, but still lip-numbingly true. That red curry you get at your favorite Thai restaurant around the corner from your house is not spicy. According to my calculations the Thai mild here is equivalent to a Western medium-hot. When eating local food (already prepared, not for tourists) my face sweats. It is incredible, just my face. I did not even know the human face had so many glands.
4) The whole region is absolutely filled with rubber trees. The amount of trees dedicated to making Super Balls is astounding and provides a good explanation as to why there is so little remaining natural jungle.

Rubber very slowly making its way down the tree trunk into the black cup.

The International Rambler's Travel Tip
Do not read State Department reports. Well you can read them just do not put too much stock into them. If you do, you won't go anywhere. Put it this way: if the US State Dept. had to write a travel report about Washington D.C. that included crime, West Nile Virus, and the occasional shooting at tourist sites like The Holocaust Memorial Museum then nobody would go to the nation's capital either.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Food from the Streets of South East Asia in Photos

Rambler's Note: We are at the beach again. This time in Thailand. The road getting here was pretty uneventful so I thought it would be more fun to blog about one of the most important aspects of

For meals we always try to frequent local places. Unless one of has a desire for something Western or Japanese (which we haven't really except for a few of Mika's french fries cravings) we avoid restaurants geared towards foreigners as much as humanly possible. The food at tourist places is usually overpriced and many times the flavor is a watered-down version of the dish.
Our favorite restaurant in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. Choose your dish(es) and eat it with rice
A great place to find authentic and cheap local food is right on the street. It is simple, no language skills required. For example, when preparing your food the hawker might hold up two chilies essentially asking, "how spicy do you want it?" Everything is right there in front of you. Just point to what you want and use fingers to discuss the price.

Many street hawkers are semi-permanent and set up in the same place every day and at the same time depending on which meal they are serving.

A busy breakfast stand in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. All of the noodle dishes are already prepared and can be eaten there. Though most people seemed to be getting it to go on the way work
A Chinese style donut ( like a churro without the sugar) sold at breakfast time in Kota Bharu, Malaysia

A nighttime sidewalk restaurant in Yogyakarta, Indonesia

While others are very mobile like this woman in Solo, Indonesia who pushes her Srabi (a pancake made from coconut milk, rice flour with a fruit topping) cart into place.

This woman has a motorbike with a Sum Tum (green papaya salad) serving sidecar in Trang, Thailand

while this guy in Solo, Indonesia goes door-to-door using pedal power to sell his goods. 

A cart in Yogyakarta, Indonesia selling Rojak, a fresh fruit salad served with a sweet and spicy and tangy sauce. They make the sauce fresh with every order.

Who doesn't love food on a stick!

Chicken balls, fish balls, pork balls, tofu chunks. The better hawkers will set them in hot oil for a few seconds and then serve with chili sauce.

Trang, Thailand

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
The Satay grill like this one in Solo, Indonesia, is a very common sight:

and just when you think you have seen it all, along comes a stall in Hat Yai, Thailand selling roasted pig face. Looking at this photo one week later I am still amazed that someone would buy and eat this.
These three guys obviously didn't read the story about building a house made out of bricks

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Make a Crawl for the (Thai) Border

We arrive to Kota Bharu on Friday. We are here to get our visa for Thailand. But Friday and Saturday is the weekend in Malaysia so we will have to wait until Sunday to go to the Thai consulate and probably will not get our visa until Monday and leave on Tuesday. Thailand is giving free 60 day visas while you get only a 15 day visa at the border. Kota Bharu is mostly a transit town for people going to or leaving the Perhentian Islands. Hardly anyone stays here for very long.

Kota Bharu is the capital of Kelantan, a declared Muslim province. Many business signs have Arabic writing. There is no movie theatre. I was told there used to be one, but the higher powers feared a dark cinema would lead to too much hanky panky by unmarried couples. So after a brief, unsuccessful attempt at movies with the lights on, it was closed. It is also Ramadan so most restaurants (except Chinese) are closed during the day.

Our typical breakfast
Even though today is Friday the 13th we luckily find a nice little backpackers’ guesthouse quickly with very little hassle. The woman working evenings, LC, is full of great information about Kota Bharu and Malaysia including Kelantan royal family gossip. There is a particularly sordid affair about a prince who married a 16 yr. old Indonesian supermodel who then fled from him in Singapore. For more disturbing details on Malaysian aristocracy click here. She also recommends we try Nasi Kerabu, a blue rice dish found only in this region.

Dinner = Blue rice with herbs, fish, rice crackers and pickled garlic. RM 3.5 (US$1.10) in the night market
One big attraction in Kota Bharu is the Central Market. The tourist literature claims that this is “the most photographed market in Malaysia” though I am not sure who is counting camera clicks in markets around the country. It is quite large, but not packed. We enter through the vegetable area, buy some fruit and cut to the fish area. Mika’s stomach is already a bit queasy from our dinner last night at the night market so she bows out quickly from the smell. I am not sure why, but I love walking around markets. So I return early the next morning to see them setting up.

Showing off a catfish

By tradition the vegetable sellers are women. I notice that the chicken sellers are also predominantly women. They have piles of raw chickens and are disassembling them using knives and hands with incredible efficiency. Behind the chickens is coconut. Machines are grinding coconuts non-stop. Coconut is used in cooking in Kelantan much more than other parts of Malaysia due to the proximity to Thailand. Steps from the coconut area are the beef butchers. Only men here. They are busy hacking through beef with deadly sharp knives, while some chop through bone with hand axes. One hanging leg is like a mini butcher shop. There is one after the other. I am not quite sure how a customer chooses from whom to buy.

This woman could take apart a chicken every 30 secs.
Our third day we decide to go to the village Kampong Laut to see the production of Serunding, a meat floss. It is like a shredded jerky. We buy our tickets on the S.S. Please Don’t Sink and wait until it is time to chug the fifteen minutes up river. Once on the other side we are pointed the way and soon pass a building with heat emanating from the windows and door. We are invited in by the ladies working. The room is full of giant woks. The six women are busy stirring shredded chicken with a large wooden two-pronged fork. Like in a sauna, our skin is glistening from perspiration. Stepping outside, the usually balmy Malaysian weather feels fresh. Next door is another small factory where we get to see the whole beef floss making process. The workers are really friendly and do not mind us disrupting their process for a few minutes. They give Mika a small bag of the local delicacy to take home.

Boys from Kampong Laut hanging out with us as we wait for the ferry
On Tuesday we have one last breakfast at our preferred Chinese restaurant and then take the slow bus to the border. The trip is uneventful. Yet crossing an international border by foot naturally feels slightly more dramatic and hectic than the sterility of an airport. Now off to Southern Thailand to see what we can discover.
Forget Paris or Milan. Kota Bharu has all the latest fashions from Istanbul and Nagoya, Japan.

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Sunday, August 15, 2010

I Guess It's Chinese for Lunch

During the 40 days of Ramadan Muslims fast between sunrise and sunset. In Malaysia this means having breakfast around 5:00AM and dinner at after 7:00 PM. No food or water in between. When in Kuala Lumpur fancy hotels were advertising dinner buffets. We wondered if we would be participating in de facto fasting. However, we were assured that KL is a very multi-cultured city, there will be plenty of places to eat. Nobody will get angry if we are seen munching during the day.

Ramadan has started a few days ago, and we are now in Kota Bharu, the capital of Kelantan, a declared Muslim province. It is a city of 500,000 people, 95% of whom are Malay Muslims. All Malaysian restaurants and other restaurants displaying the Halal (think "Kosher" in Arabic) certification are closed during the day. Even McDonald's and KFC are not open.

In the window at KFC

This means that we pretty much have one option: Chinese. Kota Bharu has a small Chinese community and just by luck our guesthouse happens to be in the Chinese area. One block away is the Chinese restaurant street. All the places are busy with only Chinese customers. After just three days of breakfast and lunch in the same spots we know many of the hawker stand and restaurant owners. Whether they reciprocate or not, we already feel like a part of the Kota Bharu Chinese community.

Having a late lunch at a Chinese place

Around 5 PM the Malay Muslims start buying their food for dinner that evening. There is a special Ramadan Bazaar from 3 - 7 PM selling all types of food for people to take home. The next night we go to the city's night market. This is not a special market for Ramadan, but what is special now is that everyone has to wait to start eating. We arrive at 6 PM. It is already somewhat busy with numerous hawker stalls selling different appetizers, entrees, side dishes and desserts. Some people get food and go home. Others sit at tables with their food in plastic bags just waiting for the magic hour to arrive. These people look particularly hungry.

I cannot say that I feel particularly guilty eating while others around me are presumably hungry and thirsty by their own choice. Also, I really do not think that anyone would be particularly offended if we are eating or drinking during the day because we are obviously non-Muslims (though maybe a little bit jealous?). But Ramadan has definitely made us more conscious of our eating habits.

For example, at the Ramadan Bazaar it was terribly hot out. Mika naturally wanted to buy a cold drink. Before doing so she asks if it is okay to drink it right then -- something one would normally never ask. The vendor suggests that she hides around the corner to have her beverage.

While at the night market the next evening we have our food and plan to sit at a table to wait with everyone else to break the fast. One man shoos us away only saying, "Muslim, Muslim". With language difficulties on both sides I am not quite sure what is his problem. I do not, however, think xenophobia. My guess is that he was just afraid we would start eating too soon and might offend his customers. Another woman shoos us away saying, "booking, booking" - no big problem there either, all her tables were reserved.
Two days later we do sit at a table in the night market and wait with everyone else until the clock struck 7:26 PM to drink our teas. Food and drinks are already served and people are just waiting. The young women next to us keep checking the time on their cellphones and fiddling with the food. Only 35 more days of Ramadan to go.

Shopping at the Night Market

Is it 7:26 yet?
So my first Ramadan in a Muslim country has really been quite interesting, but we are ready to head to Thailand, a Buddhist and afternoon eating country.