Thailand: The Beginning

Traveling, much like lack of sleep, can do wild things to the mind. Even the most balanced and kempt person can find themselves altered by this crazy thing we call "travel." Between culture, jet lag, uncertainty, and the nomadic, hermit-crab lifestyle one finds themselves falling into while traveling; the mind goes through a vigorous test of character. When it all comes to a close and you find yourself understanding what the word "structure" means again, that is when all of the highs and lows come together as the glue to bind together an experience that stays with you wherever the rest of your life takes you.

Now that my somewhat sappy, philosophical ramble is out of the way, let's talk about why this blog is here. Emily and I wanted to keep an online account of our travels through Thailand, Southeast Asia, and wherever else we end up. This whole trip stemmed from the curiosity of teaching abroad and the urge to see a part of the world that is in a way, on the other end of the spectrum from Western Culture.

After taking a 13-week, online course, coupled with a 20+ hour teaching practicum, we received our TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) Certificates. Our college degrees in conjunction with these certificates give us the appropriate credentials to teach English in a foreign country in virtually any teaching category: Public, Private, Corporate, Language Schools, International Schools, Private Tutor, etc.

Having heard many great things about the country, we booked two one-way-tickets to Bangkok, Thailand for February 25, 2012. With the flight booked, the only thing we had planned was a two-night stay at a hotel close to the airport to figure out a slight plan for our holiday before we began to work. After a 17-hour flight to Shanghai, a 3-hour layover, and a 4 hour flight to Bangkok, we found ourselves through customs and on the Bangkok pavement at 3:45am on February 27th (2 days later for you non-Mathletes). This is when the adventure begins...

Friday, April 19, 2013

Tarutao At Last...

After Malaysia we made the long-awaited trip to the island of Koh Tarutao National Park (where we had initially intended on traveling at the end of March, when we ended up at Koh Adang and Koh Lipe instead). We hired a tent (lots of people I’ve met lately seem to say “hire” instead of “rent” and I’ve decided I’m going to try it out too…and I’ll start hiring movies at RedBox, and hiring kayaks and pairs of roller-skates, and cars, and petting zoos, and so on in the future when I’m back in the States and have access to those sort of things again). Then we set up our hired tent in a pretty perfect alcove along the beach.

The main island of Koh Tarutao was comparable to a much bigger version of Koh Adang – by that I mean that there are very few people, mind-boggling sunsets, and incredible wildlife:

- There are beautiful hornbills all over the place. They mostly come out in the evening before sunset and you’ll see them swooping around from tree, to ground, to tree, looking for bugs and other sorts of snacks. They are a quirky mix of beauty and clumsiness; when they land in the trees it kind of seems like they’re always underestimating how fast they were actually just flying, or overestimating the stability of the branch they chose to land on. They are very entertaining and very fun to watch. We saw a number of other cool birds there too, but I don’t know the name of them and can’t paint you as vivid of a picture of them; so we’ll leave it at that.

- On this island there were crazy, wild pigs with strange sparsely hairy backs that look like they’ve been gelled back into place, and also seem to be wearing high heals –you’ll find these guys hanging out, waiting for leftovers from your breakfast, lunch, and dinner – or darting across the road from one side of the forest to the other in small packs, which is pretty startling and hilarious to see.

A little blurry, but look closely and you'll see the high heals

- There are two different varieties of monkeys on Tarutao as well: the langurs and the macaques. You may recall hearing about the mischievous, territorial macaques, as they made an appearance in our last post regarding our motorbike encounter in Malaysia. Ready for another macaque story? Here it comes.

Don’t leave food in your tents. Really, they mean that. After a day out exploring, we came back to our campsite, and as we were walking up to our tent, Bob noticed a long, thin, horizontal slit in one of our tent windows just as I noticed a small tub of my lotion a few yards from our tent. We had forgotten about a small bag of sunflower seeds that we had left inside, and the macaques had tactfully executed a seed-heist while we were gone. Unfortunately, we did not get the chance to see the whole thing go down, but based on the evidence (the slit in the window, an empty sunflower seed bag that had been barbarically torn open and probably licked clean, and an immaculate tent with nothing out of place -- besides the aforementioned lotion which, despite their agility, opposable thumbs, and cunning efforts, they just couldn’t open), I imagine an invasion that was quick and pretty flawless. You could tell this wasn’t their first rodeo -- since there was nothing out of place, there was no rummaging around for anything; they knew what they wanted and they went straight for it (presumably). I envision a scouting crew and lookout crew as well, probably with different code sounds, whistles, and hand gestures, too.

The tent incision, when further examined, seemed to be pinched in the center and pulled or plucked until a small hole formed, at which point I figure the monkey in question simultaneously pulled upward with one hand and downward with the other in order to create an opening big enough to squeeze his sneaky, slinky little monkey frame through. He got in, darted for the goods, and in a moment of panic, or confusion, grabbed my “Emily” brand lotion that my sister kindly provided for me before our trip (It’s great stuff, and it’s nice to have a trusty hand lotion in tow, even if it is vain to carry products largely because they say your name on them). Anyways, I’m glad they didn’t eat it.

I think it’s quite telling of the macaque-monkey ways that they clearly sat there, right beside our tent and ate the seeds. They didn’t carry them away or bring them back home; they committed the theft, and then rubbed it in our faces, basically leaving the trash on our front lawn for us to clean up. This was the point when Bob aptly began referring to the macaques as “punk-eys” instead of monkeys, because that’s what they seem to be: rascally little monkey punks.

Besides the cool birds, goofy pigs, and devilish monkeys, we also saw the huge and elusive Komodo Dragons (not really, still Monitor Lizards), and GIANT purple hermit crabs.

Tiny lamp guardian lizard
Bigger than a baseball

We also we heard lots of unknown, outlandish jungle sounds coming from who-knows-what. We heard a number of these unidentifiable sounds on our jungle walks. Walking around the island is how we spent a lot of our time on Tarutao. Bob and I are trying to be financially savvy in our travels, particularly at this phase in our trip where we still had to figure in a whole other month of traveling without an income, as our teaching positions won’t begin until around May 15th. Basically this means that we opt out of the pricier travel ventures like the boating outings, or the paid rides, and we walk to the places we want to see, even if that place is 15 kilometers away and there’s a rainstorm brewing. Over the course of two days, we covered over 40 kilometers (about 25 miles) of the island on foot. For free.

Mile-marker...well, really a kilometer marker, but mile-marker sounds cooler.

Koh Tarutao is well-known as the site where Thai prisoners were sent during the late 1930’s and through much of the 1940’s. The island’s remoteness was a desirable attraction, as it prevented prisoners from being able to escape.

We walked across the width of the island to the east side where the prison camp is located. There is a historical National Park trail that’s been dedicated to the history of these prisoners, with educational signs and explore-able remnants of structures from their daily lives: bunkhouses, cafeterias, hospitals, solitary confinement, etc. It was very cool, informative, and, on the whole, I’d say less spooky than it sounds. I think we were both half expecting to crawl into a drippy, damp dungeon with skeletal remains still chained to a wall. Instead, it was mostly a beautiful walk through the woods at an absolutely incredible port. Take a look:

Drying Fish

There just a couple of kind of spooky parts, one of which being when I was going to take a picture of Bob in Solitary Confinement, but once he got himself all the way in there, a swarm of bats started flapping around his head. But actually, that was really funnier than it was scary. It was a very cool and worthwhile day-long journey.

Solitary Confinement

Look what we found
Old Prisoner Hospital

Our last night on Koh Tarutao was an exciting one. We spent the early evening eating dinner with the world-traveling couple from the Netherlands (the guy was a mega-genius who worked for IBM designing software, and he was on a paid sabbatical at the estimated age of about 32, I’d guess). When we met them they were towards the end of a yearlong, enviable travel-extravaganza. They have been to so many places! We spent our sporadic meals together soaking in the stories of the things they had seen and experienced, while trying to extract as much travel wisdom as possible without being obnoxious about it (this is a skill Bob and I are trying to hone...we constantly leave conversations with other travelers, whispering to each other all the things we really wondered and wanted to ask, but couldn't because then it turns the friendly conversation into just an interview for our own benefit).

After dinner we moseyed on back to our tent and went to sleep until around midnight when the wind picked up a bit and the lightening in the distance was fantastic to watch across the water from inside our tent; then we drifted off back to sleep, aware of the storm, but finding it more enjoyable than threatening. A couple hours later we woke up abruptly to a totally different scenario: the wind was roaring while whipping raindrops at our rattling, flapping tent; the lightning was no longer a mysterious, eye-catching spectacle in the distance paired with the lulling roll of occasional thunder – instead, it was flashing in quick and scarily close bolts while the thunder rose to an incessant banging and crashing. So now that I’ve described to you your basic thunderstorm using borderline cliché storm-vocabulary and imagery, I’ll tell you what we did next. We grabbed some stuff and dashed to the visitor center, which was about 200 meters away. Luckily it was unlocked; it was also completely vacant and without power, since they shut it all off around 10pm or so every night.

There was a tent in shambles on the floor that a previous renter must have recently returned, which had not yet been put away – so we plopped down on top of the nylon, zippers, and poles, and we turned the visitor’s center into our own storm-watching / sleeping quarters for the next couple hours until the sun came up when we ventured back out to inspect our abandoned campsite. There were no lightning-induced flames rising from our tent, no leaks, no monkey-looted goods, and no problems. So we packed up our tent and hopped on the rollercoaster ferry to the mainland after being only slightly embarrassed at breakfast by the couple who had watched us run for cover through the rain in the middle of the night from the safety of their bungalow porch. 

Make-shift sleeping quarters

Stormy Aftermath

Friday, April 12, 2013

Malaysia: A Brief Encounter

 Visa Run:

A term you hear quite often in the country of Thailand, from both foreigners and locals alike, is: Visa Run.

What is a visa run? A visa run occurs in Thailand when the 30-day grace period ceases to exist during your Thai travels. Unfortunately, visa extensions and tourist visas are not available at any Thai Embassy within the boarders of the country; one must travel to a neighboring country to obtain an extension on a current visa, or a tourist visa for 30, 60, or 90 days. These tourist visas have the option to have multiple entries if more money is paid (That means you can leave the country and re-enter again depending on how many re-entries you purchase). Tourists can either arrange transportation by themselves, or visit the abundant array of tourist shops looking to book your visa run for you. These trips are usually set up so you are transported by mini-bus with air-conditioning to the embassy in a neighboring country. You receive one meal and transportation for the fee they ask.

 Coming into this country without a proper tourist visa (which seems to be a popular fad among tourists), will make this part of the trip unavoidable. The term itself – “Visa Run” – sounds a bit criminal and dramatic; doesn’t it? Well, Mom, don’t you worry! Not only are visa runs legal … they are almost habitually practiced by a hefty majority of vagabonds roaming the provinces of Thailand. It is a bit difficult to put into writing because of the grey area that coincides with the process, but I feel that it is a subject that will not be overlooked in this blog. We spent entirely too much time, brain-power, and breath on visa runs, so ensuring a turbulent-free ride on the visa plane is what we shall do for you future travelers.

DISCLAIMER: Feel free to skip to the next section if you are not at all interested in visa runs. There are no hard feelings. Please understand that if you do decide to skip this section, I, Bob Sohigian, and my travel associate, Emily Brooke Robinson, are not responsible for any injury, misfortune, or inconvenience you may experience on a future visa run. Thank you.

Thailand is bordered by four countries: Malaysia to the south, Cambodia to the east, Laos to the north/northeast, and Myanmar (Burma) to the north/west. This means you have a few options for your visa run. Your run will probably depend on your location and the type of visa you are looking for. Here are a couple of facts that are helpful to know:

-If you leave Thailand and enter a bordering country by land, when you return you are given an additional 15 days in the country.
-If you leave Thailand and enter a bordering country by air, when you return you are given an additional 30 days in the country.
-Tourist Visas give you the best option for longer time in the country, but that requires you to find an embassy that issues these types of visas, and prepare to spend money on transportation there, as well as accommodation for at least one night.
**Note: always be sure to double (maybe even triple) check what the stipulations and standards are for each specific country, as they are likely to change and vary. It is also very important to note the fact that despite all the thoroughness of your planning and paperwork, your timeliness and proof of sufficient funds, and your payment of the required fees, the embassy holds the right to refuse your application and deny you a visa. With that said, this is a technicality that should not scare away anyone from traveling on a whim, without a visa. If you are polite, vibrant, and always keep that smile, you are almost guaranteed a victorious visa run.

Being that we were in the islands of the far south, it would be a rookie mistake to attempt to go anywhere but Burma or Malaysia. We chose Malaysia. It was definitely a place worth visiting, and after some research, we find out that Penang, Malaysia had a Thai Embassy that issued Tourist Visas (which we figured out was the best option). So, off we were to Malaysia.

We were staying at Ang Yee’s again because of its eastern and relaxed atmosphere, great company, and location. Being a mere 20 minutes to the Malaysian boarder, it was difficult to fathom staying somewhere else. Not only was it convenient, but Chia even booked us a van to take us across the boarder. Of course, we weren’t entirely sure what this van looked like or how exactly things were going to work, but that seems to be the way things work around here.

We were picked up bright and early by a vehicle that closely resembled a Honda CRV. A Thai mother and a Muslim woman with her baby were in the front seat; two Thai gentlemen, along with a young Thai boy were in the back row; and Emily and I were cheekily snuck right in the middle of it all. Sure, we were totally okay with heading over the boarder with these guys – they were friendly and more than happy to take us on the first part of our journey. The only thing that we didn’t know was where they were dropping us off when we got across the boarder (minor details…).

Things went smoothly crossing the boarder. All of the Thai Boarder Patrolmen were quite pleasant, smiling from ear to ear (there were even various signs posted around the area suggesting that you do the same: Smile!). Our passports were stamped with a 90-day Malaysian visa and we hopped back in the car to eventually get dropped off a few minutes down the road at a local bus station in a town called Kangar, Malaysia. Here, we took a local bus to a town called, “Butterworth,” then a quick 10-minute ferry over to the island of Penang, Malaysia. When all was said and done for the day, we had a taxi driver drop us off on a hostel-infested section of the city, and set our things down for the night at a relatively dumpy lodging with very friendly and helpful Malaysian owners.

Although we got an offer for our visa run to be taken care of by one of the hostel staff members, we opted to do it on our own. Not only did we feel uncomfortable handing over our passports, but we wanted to experience this run for ourselves. So if everybody is ready, I will tell you how exciting a visa run is: We took a taxi to the embassy at 9:30am, a very friendly guard helped us fill out all of the paperwork, (laughing, smiling, and patting us on the back the whole time, of course), we left everything there and returned at 3:30pm with our brand new visas! With this task out of the way, we were very excited to have this weight off of our shoulders. Now, we were free to explore Malaysia. 

So, as we said, we were in Penang, which is actually an island, but without much of that stereotypical “island” vibe. What we saw here was the true blend of cultures that Malaysia is famed for, all in close proximity in a small area. Walking the streets in Penang was a really nice and unique experience (even more-so when the sun went down and things cooled off a bit). There was something about Georgetown, the section of Penang we spent most of our time in, which felt almost Portsmouth-like to me (weird, huh?). There was the same type of beautifully crafted random graffiti artwork on the faces of some of the buildings, and these intriguing iron, wire pieces of art that included a small script about a quirky tidbit about the history of the area. There was also incense burning everywhere along the streets leading into Little India, which was a very nice touch as well. Well done, Penang.

A true Juice Bag. This is often how they serve you your juice in Southeast Asia. All you need it fruit, a juicer, a plastic bag, a rubber band, and a straw.
And Little India! It was awesome. It was bustling and lively and filled with amazing, amazing, amazing food. We got all sorts of crazy, mushy, unknown curry-esque foods. This menu was ridiculously long and thorough, and we were ridiculously clueless and overwhelmed, so we ordered largely just based on which things sounded fun to say, with sides of huge, mouth-watering naan that I miss every day. If I could just have a side of Indian naan with every Thai noodle soup dish I ever ordered… well, I don’t really know what would happen, but it would be blissful.


After Penang, we took a ferry over to the island of Langkawi, a more well-known tourist destination in Malaysia. In fact, whenever we would mention to anyone that we were heading to Malaysia, they would automatically say, “Ohhh Langkawi? Langkawi?” So we figured while we were in Malaysia, we should probably go see what all the fuss was about.

It’s a tourist-frequented island with an outstanding landscape. We got dropped off in hostel-central and walked door to door until we found an available dorm room. We had unintentionally arrived in Langkawi during a huge festival for LIMA (Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace Exhibition), which is a big deal. This meant that the island was pretty busy and booked, and also that we unexpectedly got to see (and hear!) outstanding air show performances while swimming at the beach and exploring the less busy areas of the island.
Fun Fact: We found that there are actually more people at the beach around sundown than throughout the day. Probably because it's just too hot to even go to the beach during daylight hours. 

Bob & a young Malaysian boy performing beach-time shenanigans 

Evening street entertainment

We took a motorbike up to the northern portion of the island and did some hiking up to a watering hole (the beginnings of a waterfall, soon to come in the rainy season) with a group of local Thais and foreigners alike shooting down the “waterslide” embedded in the rocky ledge, or dunking in to cool off after the steep trek uphill. There was a remarkable view of the ocean and Lush Veg (a term Bob and I use to refer to luscious vegetation we observe in the landscape, as well as when there are copious amounts of green vegetables in our soups – both very good things).

As we were veg-gazing, we noticed a track of cable-car gondolas way up high above and beyond where were standing. All we could think was, if THIS view is THIS cool, then we have to see the view from up there. So we rode on over to the “village” (tourist-plantation) at the base of the cable-car track and hopped on board. Who else were we lucky enough to share a cable-car ride with, rather than a man from Thailand; in true Thai form, he promptly removed a smuggled beer from his pack, cracked it, and started to light up a cigarette, before noting the various signs around the car indicating No Smoking – a true reminder to us of how different these two neighboring countries and their respective cultures are. There are far more rules in Malaysia, we (and he) found.

The cable car trip was unreal – definitely the coolest thing we did in Langkawi. There were two stopping points where you can get out of the car and go to a circular look-out point at two different elevations overlooking the island, offering 360 degrees of gorgeous island sights. At the peak lookout dock was where things got really cool. We were lodged in the middle of some mountainous terrain with ocean in front of us, green, forest-y mountains to either side, and more sea behind us. There were tons of small, swooping birds riding the wind currents around us, looping continuously around the platform, almost as if they were competing with the wild tricks of the man-made jets in the background. As we were hanging out above the island, we watched (smelled, and felt) as a dense, white mist rose from one side of the ocean, rushing up and over the entire platform for a brief stint where the whole 360 degrees of our views of the island and of each other were completely blanketed in this ubiquitous fog. Then it rolled away as quickly as it came, and we were left, amazed again at how absolutely stunning this part of the world is.

We have briefly mentioned to you all about some of our monkey encounters a couple weeks ago. These encounters have increased exponentially since then. And here comes a Macaque story:

We were making our way back from our Malaysian adventures for the day, and as we rode back down a strip of island highway, we zoomed past a family of macaque monkeys and decided to pull a U-turn and get a closer look…

We hopped off the bike, cameras in toe, and started taking some shots and just watching. They snacked, crossed the street, goofed around and did all those sorts of cute monkey things that any person might like to see. What we didn’t notice at first was the baby monkey grasped on to the lady monkey’s belly. This adds, for most species, an instant aggression boost. Bob spots the mother monkey through the zoom lens, and she’s not happy. Although she’s a couple meters away, and we’ve got more than a full road’s width between us, in Bob’s viewfinder, the angry mama was right in front of us. So you can imagine how startled he was when they started their charge. With one angry grunt/growl from the mom, the whole crew dispersed into a semi-circle attack formation, leaving us no real escape but into the road ditch behind us, and the forest that lay behind that. We tried our best attempt to demonstrate our harmlessness and innocence by stepping away slowly with a submissive bow. In response, they slowed their charge, but maintained their growls (something like a really masculine, angry pigeon). We took this opportunity to slowly back off, jump back on the motor bike and speed away, avoiding their wrath and the need to add a rabies vaccine run to pair with our visa run this trip.

Hightailing it outta there.

After our short-lived stay in only two spots in Malaysia, it would be tough for us to tell you very much about the country as a whole. We can tell you, however, that generally, their English is pretty flawless and the people are extremely welcoming. We’ve found the latter feature to be very prominent in Thailand as well. In both countries, random people are constantly stopping you on the street, asking where you are from and genuinely welcoming you to their country. How nice! Everywhere we go, we’ve been told that we are “welcome,” whether it’s sparked by a conversation while waiting for street food, or shouted out of a moving car with a big smile and a wave, they certainly go above and beyond to greet us in a tremendously hospitable and comforting way. I’m embarrassed to say that I can’t remember ever explicitly saying that to travelers visiting the states… “Welcome to America!” but in the future I’ll be sure to start, because it makes such a big difference to your perception of the country and of the people within it.

We did say their English was "pretty flawless," not entirely flawless.