February 25, 2012

Cray Crazy Kaikoura

by Anna

After a lovely two days in wine country we headed to the coast where the mountains meet the sea on the rocky peninsula of Kaikoura. Crayfish, which resemble small lobster, are a big deal in these parts (Kaikoura is a Maori name which literally translates to ‘meal of crayfish’) so crayfish and another regional specialty, greenlip mussels, were first on our agenda. After stopping to watch some playful seals, we pulled off the side of the beautiful coastal road heading into Kaikoura at Nin’s Bin for some fresh seafood. Johnny had read that Nin’s Bin was a must-stop, and we were not disappointed. The menu and set-up were simple: a bin of crayfish (caught that morning) marked with prices, a couple pans on a stove-top and fresh mussels. We picked out our crayfish, had it prepared with garlic butter, grabbed some mussels in white wine sauce with lemons and settled at a table by the sea. Topped off with some Sauvignon Blanc that we had brought from Marlborough, it couldn’t have been a more perfect lunch.

After our delicious pit-stop we made our way to our cottage in Kaikoura, where we transitioned from chickens and sheep at St. Leonards to a pasture of cows for neighbors. We checked out the small town and the beautiful vistas of mountains and coastline before settling in for dinner and a movie.

We awoke the next day to a torrential downpour…not the most ideal weather for our scenic walk along the peninsula that we had planned. We made the best of the weather with seafood chowder and local brew at the historic Pier Hotel followed by a viewing of National Treasure 2 (always a crowd-pleaser!) at our cottage. Nicholas Cage had just made his final one-liner when we noticed that the rain had started to clear. We grabbed our jackets and set out for the Peninsula Seal Colony and Walkway. This amazing walk took us along the tops of sheer cliffs, past pastures full of the happiest and healthiest looking cows we’d ever seen and down to the shoreline where seals lounged inches away on the rocks. The views along the peninsula were spectacular, and who couldn’t love being up close and personal with basking, barking seals?

February 23, 2012

Marlborough Wine Tasting

by Johnny

We took a windy but beautiful ferry from Wellington across the Cook Strait and through the Marlborough Sounds to Picton, where we picked up Big Red, a 2003 Nissan Wingroad (huh?) and our primary source of transportation as we tour the South Island for the next couple of weeks.

Our first stop was Blenheim, a town that is nothing to write home about but that is located smack dab in the middle of New Zealand’s Marlborough wine region. Marlborough produces about three quarters of the country’s wine and is world famous for its sauvignon blanc, so we had our work cut out for us. We tasted wines at Allan Scott, Bladen (our favorite), Hunter’s, Saint Clair and Wither Hills (great view), and while they were all yummy, our favorite part of Blenheim had to be our accommodation at St. Leonards. St. Leonards was recommended to us by my old SF roommate Kyle who had stayed there while traveling in New Zealand before working a crush at Amisfield (which, coincidentally, is where my brother Jay just took a job as a chef…more on that soon). Anywho, St. Leonards was awesome!  It’s basically an old farm that has been converted into five charming cottages…Anna and I had the Old Dairy and Pete and Susan had the Shearers Quarters…complete with a tennis court, a petanque court, sheep, chickens and friendly hosts Paul and Daphne.  In the morning we would cook some farm fresh eggs and toast with homemade lemon and lime marmalade…so good that we had Daphne write down the recipe for us.  In fact, we liked St. Leonard’s so much that we made all our meals there.  Breakfast, then wine tasting, then a picnic in the garden, then more wine tasting, then a BBQ at night…safe to say our South Island tour has gotten off to an awesome start.

A little windy on the ferry over… …but the views were worth it
Big Red off to a rocky start Big Red made it!
Wine tasting at Wither Hills
The view from Wither Hills
Lunch at Allan Scott Wine tasting at Bladen
Our front yard at St. Leonards
The Woolshed

The Shearers Quarters

The Old Dairy
Our neighbors
Farm fresh eggs for breakfast Breakfast in the garden
Big Pete BBQing in the garden Weeeeeee!
Anyone for tennis? Check out that form
Big Pete; Hen Whisperer Just hangin’ out
Picnic at St. Leonards
February 15, 2012

Happy Valentines Day from Wellington!

by Anna

♥ I couldn’t think of a better Valentine’s Day present than my parents ♥

Lambton Harbour, Wellington

After saying goodbye to my mom and dad at the train station in Avignon nearly nine months ago, we were finally reunited two days ago in Wellington, New Zealand! Since then we’ve been enjoying our cute apartment on Mt. Victoria, with Johnny and I especially loving the opportunity to make some home-cooked dinners, and exploring our first New Zealand destination, with the very cool and interactive Te Papa Museum and the Wellington Cable Car being the top attractions. We’ve also been feasting on long delicious lunches and then working them off on treks up to view points of the city and the uphill climb to our apartment.

Tomorrow we’ll bid the North Island ado as we make our way to the South Island via a three-hour ferry ride. First stop: Marlborough wine country!

The ‘Colossal Squid’ was my favorite exhibit at Te Papa
Johnny’s brew sampler at Mac’s Brewbar Mac’s was conveniently next door to the museum
En route to Mt. Victoria Lookout
Looking left from the Lookout Looking right from the Lookout
We made it to the top!
A fun ride on the Wellington Cable Car
Enjoying another great view of Wellington
Mt. Victoria Getting a glute workout walking home
February 12, 2012


by Anna

Where Melbourne charmed us with its eclectic neighborhoods, fashion and culture, Sydney wowed us with its stunning harbor and surrounding beaches. We also couldn’t help but be especially excited for Sydney, as we were staying at the Westin for five nights free with our fabulous Starwood points! We knew that any hotel would be a luxury, but the Westin really delivered with its amazing location downtown, a couple blocks from Hyde Park and St. Mary’s Cathedral, and its unique architecture, housed partially in the beautifully grand old General Post Office (GPO) building. We also lucked out with a cool view of the historic GPO clock tower.

The GPO/Westin lobby The view from our room
St. Mary’s Cathedral Hyde Park

Our first priority in Sydney was, of course, to head down to the water to see the Opera House and Harbour Bridge. After seeing these landmarks (especially the Opera House) on so many postcards, travel shows and basically all tourism advertisements for Australia, I for some reason wasn’t expecting to be that blown away by seeing it firsthand. However, Johnny and I were pleasantly surprised with how wowed we were by the site of the Opera House and harbor. It is truly a stunning structure and really does mimic the movement and shapes of the hundreds of sailboats flying past. After spending some quality time with the Opera House, we took a beautiful walk along the water, past the Royal Botanic Gardens and Finger Wharf to Woolloomooloo (maybe even more fun to spell than Mississippi!), where we stopped at Harry’s Cafe de Wheels for one of its famous “pies n peas.” After another stop at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and some more wandering through the city, we returned to the Opera House for a sundowner at the Opera Bar, where the after-work happy hour goers mixed with opera attendees and tourists along the water’s edge with fantastic views of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge.

Looking back at the city from the Opera House
Sydney Opera House Sydney Harbour Bridge
The view from Mrs. Macquaries Point
Harry’s Cafe de Wheels “Tiger Pies” with peas and mash
Art Gallery of New South Wales
Opera Bar
Not a bad spot for a sundowner Sitting along the wall at the Opera Bar

Aside from the sights in Sydney we were also really excited to be seeing some friends while in town. Our first rendezvous was a reunion with our crew from Lake Como – Robyn and Dennis, our friends from San Francisco, and their friends Linda and Philippe, Sydney natives. All four of them recently moved back home from London and took advantage of some time off to travel. We were lucky enough to bump into them in Lake Como, and while Dennis and Robyn are wrapping up a couple more months of travel before returning to Northern California (check out their travel blog here), Philippe and Linda have settled back into a great apartment in Manly and are getting married this coming Saturday, February 18th! We had so much fun checking out Manly, sampling beers at 4 Pines Brewing Company and downing a tasty array of pizzas at Beaches – a great spot that Linda’s brother Simon suggested. What a treat to be able to spend another memorable evening with this group in yet another beautiful part of the world!

Manly Wharf
The Corso Beer tasting at 4 Pines
View of Manly Beach from Linda and Philippe’s apartment
Pizza party at Beaches Dennis, Robyn, Anna, Johnny, Philippe, Linda & Simon
View from the ferry ride home

We had also really been looking forward to getting together with my friend from high school, Katy, and her husband Doug. They had been living in San Francisco and decided to take an adventure ‘down under’ for a couple of years by way of a work transfer through Doug’s company. After having been in the super cool Darlinghurst neighborhood for the past year and a half, they knew the most awesome, hidden gem of a bar to commence our night out. Down an alley and through an unmarked door in Surry Hills, we entered the low-lit, taxadermied world of Shady Pines Saloon. The atmosphere and drinks were so good (especially the freshly-juiced green apples with vodka) that we went through several rounds and hours until realizing that it was time for dinner. The night only got better with Katy and Doug’s local Indian food haunt. I couldn’t believe it was midnight when we finally made it to the bottom of several delicious curries, a big bowl of Basmati rice and a basket of garlic naan…but I guess that is what happens when you’re having such a good time! Thanks, guys, for all the drinks and such a fun night!

Shady Pines Saloon The entrance…not an easy place to find
Post-Indian feast with Katy and Doug

For our final day in Sydney we took Katy and Doug’s advice to take the bus to Coogee Beach, stop for some toasted banana bread and ‘flat whites’ (coffee culture is a very serious business in Australia), and then follow the ocean side path to Bondi Beach. We lucked out with the best weather we’d seen in a week, and the walk along the cliffs, past sparkling coves and beaches was beautiful. It was the perfect way to spend our last day in Australia, and we even got in a dip at Bondi in the Tasman Sea before the clouds rolled in and the rain came down.

Coogee Beach
Cemetery along the cliffs Perfect beach day
Even the birds were enjoying the weather One of many beautiful coves on the walk
Bondi Beach
February 11, 2012

Much Love For Melbourne

by Johnny

San Francisco is my favorite city on the planet, so having heard from multiple people that “Melbourne is the San Francisco of Australia,” I was super excited for our visit to Australia’s culture capital. With its classic Victorian houses, distinct neighborhoods, live music around every corner, stylish locals, boutique shops, historical buildings juxtaposed with modern street art, and emphasis on sustainable eating and living…there were tons of similarities between Melbourne and my favorite city by the bay. Although it doesn’t have any “must-see” tourist attractions like its big brother Sydney, Melbourne just oozes character and soul everywhere you look, and if I had to live and work in any major city we’ve visited this entire trip, Melbourne could very well  top my list.

Based on the advice of a couple friends, we rented an apartment in the St. Kilda neighborhood. After over two months moving from bungalow to guesthouse to bungalow in Southeast Asia, we were thrilled to finally have our own apartment where we could spread out, buy some groceries and cook our own meals. I think I spent the first couple hours in Melbourne just drinking tap water. The owner of the apartment we rented, Jane, takes great pride in being a Melburnian, and she decorated the entire apartment…from the bedding to the coat rack to the bathroom soap…with products from local artists and designers. Just like the city it’s in, our apartment had tons of character, and it immediately felt like our home for the week. And if we didn’t desperately need our $500 deposit back, I think Anna would have taken some blankets and towels. Anyway, we really enjoyed the St. Kilda area, and its proximity to the water immediately reminded me of the Marina neighborhood in San Francisco, with cafe-lined Acland St. doubling as Union St. or Chestnut St. A typical day for us would be to wake up and have some breakfast in our apartment, walk along the Esplanade past Luna Park and back up Acland St., hop on a tram (super easy and convenient) to explore the city, and come back to St. Kilda in time for another walk along the Esplanade at sunset.

Our living room at the apartment Whipping up some dinner in our apartment
Parrots of St. Kilda One of Acland St.’s many cake shops
Luna Park Moon over Palais Theater
Outside our apartment St. Kilda cafe culture
St. Kilda beach on one of our walks down the Esplanade St. Kilda pier
Just another beautiful St. Kilda sunset

Besides not having paid for a pair of boardshorts in five years, my favorite perk of Anna working at Quiksilver is getting to meet so many interesting and creative people. Especially coming from the finance world, where I basically talk numbers all day, I find it fascinating to meet somebody who designs t-shirts or creates marketing campaigns. Case in point, Mark and Ed, aka the Urchins. Mark and Ed work at Urchin Associates, a creative and visual design studio in Melbourne who do a ton of work for Quiksilver.  We met Mark and Ed at their studio in the funky Fitzroy neighborhood and headed to lunch at the Standard Hotel with their entire team.  After lunch, a couple of the Urchins gave us a walking tour of Fitzroy down Brunswick St., across Gertrude St. and back up Smith St. Brunswick St., with its numerous cafes, music venues and vintage shops, reminded me a lot of San Francisco’s Fillmore St., while Smith St., which was a little rougher around the edges…or as Ed puts it, “full of lentils and junkies”…could pass for Haight St. We thought Fitzroy was so cool that we basically did the same walk a couple days later, this time stopping for lunch at the tasty Vegie Bar and some yummy brews at Little Creatures.

Brunswick St. Smith St.
Melbourne’s Standard Hotel is a little different than LA’s
Lunch at the Standard Hotel Ed, Anna and Mark
The Urchins’ studio
Street art in Fitzroy Street art and Victorian houses
No shortage of things to do in Melbourne
Pizza from Vegie Bar Little Creatures Dining Hall

On Saturday we headed to Footscray for St. Jerome’s Laneway Festival, a small touring festival featuring local bands as well as several international acts, some of which are playing at Coachella in a few months (who’s got an extra ticket?).  The tunes were fantastic and the views of the Melbourne skyline incredible, but I couldn’t help but feeling like we were smack dab in the middle of an Australian hipster fashion show.  Has the retro, high-waisted denim shorts look made it to the States yet?  I hope not.  Some looks went out of style for a reason.  Anyway, despite being surround by Mom Jeans shorts all day, we had a blast.

Laneway Festival lineup
Hip Aussies hanging on the grass Girls at the Eat Your Own Ears stage
Toro Y Moi at the Windish Agency stage Washed Out DJ set
Melbourne skyline from Footscray
M83 at the Dean Turner stage (seriously, who’s got an extra Coachella ticket?)

One of the reasons I was most excited to visit Melbourne was to see my old college roommate and good buddy Chad Bystedt. Chad moved to Melbourne on a one-year contract with Deloitte, came back home to Orange County for a brief stint when his contract was up, but ultimately decided that Melbourne was the place he wanted to be (I think an Aussie girl named Lisa may have had something to do with that).  Chad moved back to Australia to get his MBA at the University of Melbourne, got married to Lisa, and they now have a beautiful three-month old baby boy named Julian.

Despite having to move into a new place all day Saturday, Chad and Lisa (and Julian) picked us up early Sunday morning for a day out in the Yarra Valley, a wine region located about an hour northeast of the city which reminded us a lot of Sonoma County.  Our first stop was the Healesville Sanctuary.  I mean, Anna and I couldn’t come all the way to Australia and not see some kangaroo and koala, right?  They were super cool, as were the echidna, platypus and gigantic pelican.  Next we headed for an amazing lunch at Innocent Bystander before tasting some wines at Balgownie Estates.  Anna’s brother Pete had told us to be on the lookout for some sparkling Shiraz wine in Australia, and we found some at Balgownie.  Unfortunately it was a little pricey for us, but Chad and Lisa treated us to a bottle.  Thanks guys!  Alright, next time you are in Newport Beach, the Balboa Bars are on us.  After wine tasting we headed back to the city for a couple beers and walked all along the Yarra River until Julian’s bedtime…which was well past Anna and Johnny’s normal bedtime.  Such a fun day.

Kangaroo! Koala!
Koala! Eagle!
Proud papa Some wookie creeping out Julian
Yarra Valley
Some delicious wine tasting at Balgownie (and one cheesy backdrop)
Two pints and a pot Cheers, mate!

After a whirlwind first few days in Melbourne, we spent our final couple of days leisurely exploring the some of the city’s other areas.  A couple of highlights were Federation Square, the Prahran Market and all the seemingly hidden laneways full of street art.  Next stop…Sydney!

St. Paul’s Cathedral
Flinders Street Station from Federation Square Federation Square playing the Super Bowl
Parliament House Yarra River
Walking in Southbank along the Yarra River
Prahran Market Queen Victoria Market
More laneway street art
January 31, 2012

Thai Island Hopping, Kinda

by Johnny

I had made big plans in my brain for our final week in the Thai islands after scuba diving in Koh Tao.  We were going to head over to Krabi, check out Railay Beach, boat over to Koh Phi Phi and finally ferry down to Koh Lanta.  Well, none of that happened.  In fact, Anna, Peter, Sheryl and I headed straight back to Thong Nai Pan Yai on Koh Phangan.  We all figured, why schlep our stuff all over southern Thailand in search of paradise when we had just come from it?  Longtail Beach Resort was all booked, so we found rooms at Dreamland Resort, where $25/night got us a nice, clean bungalow and hot water shower.  As a bonus, Dreamland has a gorgeous pool right on the beach…complete with swim up bar and super cool bartender, Ram.  For the next week, we did nothing but hang by the pool, eat delicious Thai food, drink as many fresh coconuts as possible, light off a few more lanterns, catch up on our blog and reflect on an amazing couple of months in Southeast Asia.

Hmmm, where should we go next? I know! Thong Nai Pan Yai
Who can complain? Sheryl and Anna are happy
Pete’s happy Johnny’s happy
Swim up bar Pete put in some serious hours at the swim up bar
Fresh coconuts Our favorite bartender, Ram
Taking pics of fire dancers Our new best friend, Beach Dog
Another great night at Dreamland Writing wishes on our lanterns
More lanterns Ram lets one fly
We’ll miss you Pete and Shery (and Southeast Asia)!!!

Getting scuba certified in Koh Chang, exploring the temples of Angkor, dodging scooters in Hanoi, ringing in the New Year in Luang Prabang, riding elephants in Chiang Mai, island hopping in the Gulf of Thailand…it’s incredible to think of all that we’ve done in the past 70 days since we arrived in Southeast Asia.  While we’re really looking forward to Australia and New Zealand, we can’t help but feel a little sad to leave this beautiful part of the world and its friendly people (I almost choked up ordering my final Pad Thai tonight).  We definitely hope to be back one day.

January 31, 2012

Unda Da Sea

by Anna

Although sad to see our friends go, we were excited to head off to Koh Tao for some scuba diving with my brother and Sheryl!

Arriving on Koh Tao

After navigating through the crazily crowded ferry station, we headed to Sairee Beach where Scuba Junction is located to check in, get our gear fitted and settle at our new bungalows. We were a little horrified when we finally saw Sairee Beach…I guess we’d been spoiled by Thong Nai Pan Yai’s protected cove, white sand and serenity. Sairee Beach was long, narrow and crowded. There wasn’t a whole lot of “beach” and sadly, there was trash in the water. We soon realized that this beach was for diving and partying. In spite of this, it was still a beautiful setting and we made the most of it over the next few days. The most fun part about Sairee was the “yellow brick road” – a long narrow road that stretched alongside the beach, lined with shops, restaurants, bars, resorts, massage spots, etc. It was a lively happening road to stroll down at night, and we had a great time watching all the action and enjoying the restaurants.

Sairee Beach Johnny and Peter pondering the meaning of life
Lunch time!

During the mornings and early afternoons we spent our time in a much quieter underwater world. Although a couple of our dive spots were a little crowded with other dive boats, we still had an amazing time swimming amongst the coral with the fish. On day one, we were paired with a bit of a Danish dive nazi, but on day two, we had the cutest little Swiss dive master named Vera, who was super fun and easy going. It was really exciting for Johnny and I to put our PADI skills to the test on our first ‘Fun Dives,’ and it couldn’t have been better getting to dive alongside my brother and Sheryl.

The advanced divers The novice divers

Peter also was able to get some awesome video footage of us on the dive:

Leaning back after the dive at Shark Island

Besides diving, the other highlight of Sairee Beach was the BBQ! I don’t know if we had just worked up an appetite from diving or if the setting along the beach with the sunset influenced our taste buds, OR if the fact that we haven’t really had much BBQ in 8 months, but this was one of the best BBQs I’ve ever had! And the best part was that two giant skewers, salad and a baked potato cost 100 baht, or roughly $3.00. After watching some pretty athletic ladyboys dominate a volleyball game on the beach and taking in a beautiful sunset, we ate a whole lot of BBQ. It was so good, and we felt that it could only get better topped off with a peanut butter banana crepe from a street cart on the yellow brick road. As if this weren’t indulgent enough, Peter and Sheryl also decided that a foot massage was in order. A pretty perfect day if you ask me. In fact, it was so great, that we basically repeated it the next day: scuba – lunch – beach – volleyball – sunset – BBQ. Before we knew it, our time on Koh Tao had come to an end, and we were packing up our bags to make a return visit to Koh Phangan!

Enjoying the view… …and ready for BBQ
Nightly volleyball tourney Nightly awesome sunset
Not a bad spot for dinner The beach lights up at night
So. Excited. For. BBQ. Yum. Yum. Yum.
Top it all off with a banana peanut butter deep-fried crepe drizzled with condensed milk. That’s right. I said it!
And top that all off with an hour-long foot massage…am I in heaven??
Final night on Koh Tao Prepping for BBQ Round 2
January 30, 2012

Koh Phangan

by Johnny

Anna and I had been looking forward to coming back to the Thai islands ever since we left Koh Chang in late November, and the fact that we were going to share the next few days in this beautiful part of the world with some of our favorite people made us downright giddy. A bumpy, partly off-road minibus ride brought us from Haad Rin (home to the infamous Full Moon Party) to Thong Nai Pan, where two coves form a scenic double bay on the northeast of Koh Phangan. We stayed on the southerly Thong Nai Pan Yai, which had enough going on to keep our attention for a few days while being off-the-beaten-path enough to make us feel like castaways. After checking into our bungalows at Longtail Beach Resort, we had just enough time for a quick dip before it got dark. Swimming in the clear, warm water with our entourage of eight while looking back at the white sand beach and surrounding lush jungle in the afternoon light definitely gave me a case of the warm and fuzzies. We grabbed some dinner at a beachside restaurant, hit the sack early and spent the entire next day lounging on the beach.

Thong Nai Pan Yai
Stoked to be back in the islands! Serious game of Chinese checkers
My wife and my best bud in Thailand…not bad! Marinating in the Gulf of Thailand

On our second full day, we boarded a boat for Angthong Marine Park, an archipelago of 42 islands to the west of Koh Phangan and presumably the setting for everybody’s favorite backpacking novel, Alex Garland’s The Beach.  Our boat, Orion, was a little slow, crowded and grubby, but the scenery…and super cool upper-deck diving board…more than made up for it.  We arrived to the cluster of islands after about an hour boat ride trough some tropical morning showers.  Anna and I thought the scenery looked a little bit like a less dramatic, more tropical Ha Long Bay.  We stopped off for a quick snorkel in Koh Wao before heading to Koh Mae Ko and hiking up to a viewpoint of the island’s stunning, emerald green saltwater lagoon.  The steep hike and climb up some makeshift ladders was a little gnarly.  Let’s put it this way, if it was in the U.S., we would have had to sign insurance waivers and be strapped into harnesses.  However, as you can see in the pictures below, it was worth the effort.  Seeing this beautiful lagoon hidden on a tiny island in the middle of a protected marine park definitely had us feeling a little bit like the characters in The Beach (with me being Leonardo DiCaprio, obvi).  After some lunch on the boat and a beach break at Koh Wua Talap, Orion brought us slowly but surely back to Koh Phangan for some well-deserved Singhas.

Rainbow on the way to Angthong Marine Park
The scenery reminded us a little of Ha Long Bay Angthong Marine Park
Snorkeling at Koh Wao
Mortal Kombat! Judges gave Greg a 10!
Hi Mom and Dad!
Emerald lagoon at Koh Mae Ko Greg and Hillary taking in the view
Tommy and Michelle making the climb They made it to the top
Peter and Sheryl on Orion Lounging on the way back to Koh Phangan
The view from Koh Mae Ko Koh Wua Talap

On our third and final full day, we took a longtail boat to Haad Khuat (otherwise known as Bottle Beach), regarded as one of the most beautiful beaches in Koh Phangan.  Only accessible by boat, Bottle Beach felt even more remote than Thong Nai Pan Yai, and we spent the entire day drinking fruity drinks, playing cards, eating Thai food and frolicking in the water.  Later that night, after our usual routine of some drinks in Tommy and Michelle’s Boat House, we grabbed a taxi to Thong Nai Pan Noi for dinner at the luxurious Santhiya Resort.  With views over both bays, live music and dancing, and an all-you-can-eat Thai food buffet, we had a great final meal together.  After dinner, Greg and Hillary surprised us with some sky lanterns they had bought earlier in the day, and we all took turns sending them off before heading to Flip Flop Pharmacy Bar for a final nightcap.  What a perfect way to end an amazing week.

Longtail boat ride to Haad Khuat (Bottle Beach) Bro and sis
Sending postcards from Bottle Beach
2016 Olympics synchronized swimming gold medalists Bottle Beach or Muscle Beach?
Drinks in the Boat House The best bartender in Thailand
Chantara Restaurant at Santhiya Resort Dinner entertainment
Plateful of Thai food from the buffet
Lanterns are for sissies; Tommy opts for the bottle rockets
Our final night at Flip Flop Pharmacy Bar…we’ll miss our Thailand gang

We had such an awesome time with Tommy, Michelle, Greg and Hillary and feel so lucky that they used their precious time off to come join us on our trip. Even though the week went by way too fast, we certainly made the most of it and it’s amazing to look back at all that we did.  After everybody left, I probably got the most homesick I’ve been this entire trip.  Luckily, Peter and Sheryl were stuck with us for another week, and I quickly learned that homesickness is easily curable by scuba diving and more Singhas.

January 29, 2012

Chiang Mai

by Anna

Johnny and I arrived in Chiang Mai about a week ahead of our friends and set out to explore the city and all it had to offer. After having been in the picturesque, sleepy town of Luang Prabang for the past couple of weeks, the congestion and modern conveniences of Chiang Mai were a little overwhelming for us at first. But we couldn’t complain after having some pretty legit chicken burritos (with avocado!!!), picking up new books at an enormous used bookstore, and re-stocking all of our toiletries at 7-Eleven.

Chiang Mai, the old capital of Thailand and the cultural heart of the country, is packed full of juxtapositions…ancient and contemporary, European and Asian, natural and industrial. Walking down the street, one might pass a gilded temple buzzing with orange-clad monks, a food stall hawking mango sticky rice, a funky shop featuring wares from an up-and-coming Thai designer and a fashionable boutique hotel – all in the same block. Intrigued by this eclectic mix, we covered a lot of ground over the next four days on foot, by bike and by scooter. Our favorite area to wander was within the old walled city where we’d pop in and out of temples (wats), explore the market and food stalls (with mango sticky rice being the stand-out) and stroll along the moat that creates a giant square around the city center. We also navigated the crazy night market that seemed to stretch on forever, rode up Doi Suthep mountain to Wat Phrathat, tried some restaurants in the Nimanaman area known for its hip boutiques, cafes and university crowd, and checked out the nightlife at some spots along the Ping river. We even had a chance to meet up with our friend from Luang Prabang, Joel, at the lovely Ginger & Kafe restaurant.

Moat and the remains of the city walls
Old meets new at Wat Chedi Luang Buddha
Tha Phae Gate
Saturday night market Kalare food center & night bazaar

After all this romping around Chiang Mai, we were feeling a little pooped and just couldn’t wait for all of our friends to arrive. On our expeditions through the city, we had discovered a Le Meridien right in the heart of the lively night market area. We decided to treat ourselves to a couple of luxurious nights with our Starwood points and get out of the less-than-stellar Funky Monkey guesthouse where we had been staying. We took full advantage of all of Le Meridien’s amenities (especially the pool!) and felt refreshed and ready for action when everyone arrived.

Enjoying the amenities at Le Meridien Like kids in a candy store

We could barely contain our excitement when we met our dear friends Tommy, Michelle, Greg and Hillary at our new boutique hotel, Aruntura (which, by the way, was amazing!!). My brother and Sheryl rolled in a few hours later and our happy crew of 8 was off to celebrate our first night together with dinner at the Mandarin Oriental.

Over the course of three days, we managed to pack in a lot of activities, including a pretty ridiculous Muay Thai fight, a harrowing scooter ride through burly traffic and one way streets and up Doi Suthep mountain for a return visit to Wat Phrathat, the insanely packed Sunday night market, some questionable but entertaining Thai live music along the Ping River and some delicious Thai meals, of course.

Our new spot along the Ping River at Aruntura Our first of many Red Car taxi rides
Sheryl lovin’ the Red Cars! Maneuvering the Sunday Night Market
Muay Thai
Look out Ladyboys! Ringside

We had no idea what was going on with this fight, but it was pure comedy:

The scooter gang
No lack of traffic in Chiang Mai Charging up Doi Suthep
The fearless scooter captains take a high-five break at a scenic point on Doi Suthep
Peter reenacting a picture that my dad took here in 1969 Wat Phrathat
Wat Phrathat
Wat Phrathat Wat Phrathat
A monk touching up the bright paint Greg & Hillary in front of a gold chedi
Tommy, Greg and Michelle lighting candles and incense in the inner sanctuary

But of all these activities, the most memorable and incredible experience came with our visit to the Patara Elephant Farm, where we were all “elephant owners for the day.” We first discovered Patara through a mutual friends’ blog, Two Packed Bags, a couple similar to ourselves traveling the world. We were so inspired by their post that we immediately decided that we would have to visit Patara while in Chiang Mai. Luckily, our friends were all in agreement, making it even more special to have the experience all together. There are many reasons why we felt Patara was more legitimate than some of the other “elephant farms,” which we had heard could be depressing and “circus-ey.” In addition to being “a Thai-owned and managed farm focusing on health-care and breeding management for friendly, beautiful and special elephants to produce healthy elephants to live on Earth,” Patara works with Chiang Mai university on elephant conservation and creates their interaction program so that visitors can really learn about the health and care of elephants.

Ready to start the day in our hand-made “elephant trainer” tops

In the morning, once our elephants “chose us,” based on personality – kind of like elephant Love Connection -, we fed our elephants bananas and bamboo and checked to make sure they were happy and healthy by reading their body language, checking that they had slept correctly the night before, checking to be sure they were hydrated (did you know elephants sweat from their toenails??) and the best part – checking their poop! Not only did we have to count their dungs, but we also had to squeeze the masses to check for fluid and tear them apart to check that all was digested properly. Luckily the poop didn’t smell – another sign of good health! We then dusted the dirt off our elephants with leaves and bathed them in the nearby river.

Snack time with our elephants Bananas and bamboo…yum yum!

Our first whiffs of the dung…surprisingly not smelly at all! See poop action sequence below:

My elephant, Boon Pak, was clearly enjoying his dust-off Peter’s elephant gets the royal treatment
Greg’s elephant enjoys a facial While Johnny’s elephant gets a full body scrub
Bath time would not be complete without a water fight!

After learning some basic commands in Thai (like “good boy/girl,” “go,” and “stop”), we watched a demonstration on how to mount our elephants and were then sent out to give it a go. This was both hilarious and a little intimidating as you either had to launch yourself over the elephant’s head, or do a one-footed trunk rise or a one-footed leg rise up to the top of the elephant’s head. Needless to say, it was a pretty awesome experience to sit atop our elephants for the first time, bare-back, with our feet tucked behind their warm flapping ears and feeling the prickly hairs on the top of their heads.

Hillary gracefully rises to her elephants head Tommy goes for the frontal launch
We ♥ our elephant friends!!!

We proceeded to take about an hour-long trek on our elephants to a waterfall where we stopped to feast on a ridiculously delicious meal of sticky rices and coconut treats. Once we fed our elephants our leftovers, we were able to swim with our elephants in the river! We were all a little apprehensive that we’d be crushed by the elephants rolling in the water, but after my brother hopped in and tumbled on his elephant harm-free, Johnny, Greg, Sheryl and I followed suit and were pretty hysterical the whole time we slipped around with our big wet elephants in the water.

We ate our delicious meal on banana leaves… …and drank Johnny’s Kool-Aid
Swimming with my main man, Boon Pak Peter & Sheryl
Peter goes “face first” into the action
Practicing Muay Thai So much fun

By the end of the day, I was pretty smitten with my elephant, Boon Pak. I felt so sad to say goodbye to this big, gentle, beautiful creature. We had all really bonded with our elephants who each had a very unique appearance and personality. In the morning when we first arrived, we were all a little scared to get too close to the massive elephants (even the babies!), and they all looked pretty similar to me. But after spending the whole day with our “elephant friends,” we were playing around with them like they were puppies. And each elephant could not have appeared more different from one another. Not only was the whole day extremely fun, but also very educational. It was a truly incredible experience with amazing friends in a magical place, and we were so grateful to be sent home with two CDs of awesome photos from the day shot by our Patara guide, Ben!!

Chiang Mai was a blast, but we were all eager to head south to the islands! Our entourage headed out with wheelie beasts in tow and headed for the airport – next stop: Koh Phangan!

Foot massages at the airport Good thing we pack light:)
Banana pancakes & card games kept us busy while we waited Finally en route to Koh Phangan!
January 27, 2012

Roughing It

by Anna

We’ve been having an amazing time with our friends in Chiang Mai, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao…more posts coming soon!

It’s hard to blog when you’re underwater! Peter, Sheryl, Johnny & Anna diving on Koh Tao