paulathai

adventures in Thailand


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BLOG #4 11/27/15

BLOG #4, Friday, 11/27, waiting for train to Thessaloniki

DELPHI – So glad we came here despite arriving in a huge downpour first rain in three months, lucky us!) The rain measured at least two inches deep as we crossed the little street from the bus stop to our hotel. Shoes were soaked through about halfway up. Luckily, they dried overnight.

HOTEL – Gwen scored really high on finding this boutique hotel, Kastillia, with 28 rooms. For some odd reason the manager (owner’s son, a charming actor from Athens in his late ’50s) upgraded us to his BEST room, and gosh was it BEST. A suite with 2 rooms, tv and balcony in each, modern (small) bathroom, great contemporary design, and wonderful location overlooking the Gulf of Corinth. Unfortunately they didn’t set it up as a twin room and had put the two beds together into a king. The mgr. showed us 3 rooms altogether but the suite was best so he turned the living room sofa into a bed for me. Most comfortable sofa bed I’ve ever encountered. Price of $51 per night for two included a lavish breakfast overlooking the terrace and sea. We stayed two nights.

ANCIENT DELPHI – As usual, we got an early start and arrived by 8:30 a.m. on our full day in Delphi. Only one tourist beat us to the top. Spent close to two hours wandering up the Sacred Way toward Mt. Parnassus, reading nearly every word on the descriptive kiosks. History really came alive. It was easy to close our eyes and picture the ancient Greeks in the 5th century B.C. arriving by sea and making the journey to the Oracle of Delphi.
We saw at least a dozen local workers maintaining the area–scraping moss/mold off the ancient columns, removing vegetation that crept up the bottoms of monuments, picking up garbage, etc. More workers than tourists.
Then we went to the Museum which was smaller than I expected but interesting. Truthfully, I was a bit “museumed-out” and went through fairly quickly while Gwen read every word.
Unfortunately the weather wasn’t great. Gray, cloudy and occasionally sprinkling but not raining hard. We left before the tour buses arrived (except for one Chinese group) and had the place pretty much to ourselves.

DINNER was the most delicious meal since arrival and probably among the top 20 in my lifetime. Again, Gwen researched TripAdvisor and chose To Patelko about an eight minute walk from our hotel. (Everything in Delphi is very close.) The decor was wonderful with stone walls, beautiful art and many decorative touches.
We were seated next to one of two parties in the large restaurant. Turns out they were American so they immediately wished us “Happy Thanksgiving.” We enjoyed talking with them prior to our meal arriving.
Of course there was much too much food and we left half of one dish. We shared 3 appetizers and a salad. The tasty salad had walnuts, pomegranate seeds, shaved cheese and two-three kinds of greens. Scrumptious, light-as-a-feather zucchini patties topped the list of my favorites. Next came tasty mushrooms cooked in olive oil and white wine. Least favorite were seafood dolmades–as Gwen said it tasted like gefilte fish wrapped in grape leaves. And, of course, there was ubiquitous tzatziki (sp?), which I love, with homemade bread.

TRANSPORTATION SCREW-UP – Trying to get from Delphi to Thessaloniki is/was difficult. There’s a daily bus which on Thurs. was at 10:15 a.m. which would have been perfect. But on Friday (today) the only bus is at 3 p.m. So I took an 11:30 a.m. local bus (one hour) from Delphi to Livadia (toward Athens, not Thes.), a cab to the middle-of-nowhere train station, and discovered that the 1:40 train wasn’t running today. So am patiently waiting 3 hours for the 3:40 p.m. train. There’s a little cafe with next to nothing in it where I’m waiting. Bought a cup of tea and, luckily, had purchased a sandwich in town before getting the cab. Not only is there a long wait but it’s a fast train which means the price was double the normal fare. Additionally, I could have just stayed in Delphi and taken the 3 p.m. direct bus, arriving an hour or so later than the train gets in. Oh well, nothing to do about it so am “going with the flow.”
This screw-up is minor compared to my 2006 disaster. Arrived in Madrid from JFK with a 2 hour layover for my El Al flight to Tel Aviv only to discover that the plane wasn’t on the November schedule. Next plane was 10 hours later—and then was about 6 hours late departing. Arrived 10 a.m. Madrid time and departed around 3 a.m. Definitely one of my worst transportation experiences.

LATER, ADDENDUM TO SCREW-UP – Waiting over 3 hours for the train turns out not to be the worst of the screw ups. At around 5:10 p.m. (after leaving on time at 3:40) the train stopped in the middle of nowhere. I thought, perhaps, we were waiting for another train to pass through a short tunnel, the type we’d traversed several times. After about 10 minutes the conductor made an announcement in Greek of course. From the groans of fellow passengers, it seemed likely that the news wasn’t good. A beautiful young lady sat across from me and I asked what the announcement said. “There’s a problem with the train. It’s not working, ” she informed me.
I asked if it happened often and she replied in the negative. Only once previously in her experience. Bummer! Of course, I finished my novel on the bus to Livadia. Luckily I have a “Vanity Fair” and another novel in my suitcase.
After about 15 minutes I figured it would be smart to hit the cafe car while it still had food. Naturally a lot of others had the same idea but only about 6 people were ahead of me.
The train just started moving, after 40 minutes at a standstill. Hopefully it’ll keep moving all the way to Thessaloniki. Guess arrival will be 8:30-ish p.m. instead of 7:40. Let’s hope so anyway

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LOW-COST TRAVEL

Some of you might wonder how I manage to travel so extensively on my limited income. Well, a confession—for my big trips my airfare or in the case of my current trip, my week-long package tour which included airfare, money comes from my small investment “emergency nest egg.” OK, I know travel isn’t an emergency but it is a major priority in my life.

I seek low-cost travel deals. Travelzoo.com and Gate1 Travel offer fantastic discounts. For example, the base price of my package from Gate1 cost about $100 more than the RT airfare alone from NYC to Thailand. Not bad for 6 nights in luxury hotels, airfare, all breakfasts, about 5 other meals, admission to many venues and a terrific tour guide. The flight, however, was from Los Angeles but I used airline points for my flights to/from the West Coast.

On the road in SE Asia my expenses work out to about $35 a day. For example, I was paying $13 a night to share a double with Paula #1 and now my beach bungalow costs only $10 a night. At New Bungalows and other restaurants on the beach food averages $2-3 for breakfast and $3-4 for lunch or dinner. While on Koh Jum I splurged twice and spent about $10 for dinner.

In Pai I averaged $21 a night at Bueng Pai Farm (the owner gave me an unexpected 30% discount) and my in-town bungalow cost $13 a night. Meals were less expensive than on this tropical island. However, if I walk into Koh Jum town about 15 minutes away, I can find meals priced about a dollar less than on the beach. Food costs are further reduced by drinking my own coffee on some mornings (free in Pai and Chiang Mai guesthouses) and having yogurt and fruit for breakfast or lunch a couple of times a week.

Transportation remains low in this part of the world. In Pai a motorbike taxi cost $2 and here it’s about $1.70 though for a shorter distance. My shuttle bus from the Krabi airport to the ferry and then boat ride to Koh Jum cost $18 whereas an overnight train ride from Ayutthaya to Chiang Mai (12 hours with my own sleeping birth) was a bargain at only $28. My Thai flights came in at $68 on AirAsia thanks to booking them last summer. Incredible price for a two-hour flight south (about 800 miles) and then north to BKK (an hour for about 300 miles). For the ferry back to Krabi Airport, a friend recommended traveling as the locals do–on a long-boat and then song tao (shared taxi with two facing seats in the back of an enclosed converted pick-up truck). That cost $10 total for a taxi ride to the dock, boat ride and song tao. In Bangkok I took a taxi from the local to international airport, about 50 minutes, and it cost only $14 with tolls and tip.

Tomorrow I’m saving money further in a method the same friend recommended. A method that most people reading this would not employ. When she heard I’d check into a BKK guesthouse about 7 or 8 pm and then have to leave there at 4:30 a.m. she asked, “Why bother with a guesthouse?” She and her husband, who spend 4 months here every winter, just “sleep” at the airport if they have an early morning flight. She said there are plenty of people doing it and that there are comfortable padded benches where many tourists catch a few winks. I did that twice during my three-month trip two years ago. Not by choice though–early morning flights in New Delhi and Tel Aviv necessitated it. Bangkok’s international airport is much, much nicer than either of those so, hopefully, it won’t be too uncomfortable.

3 DAYS LATER
Well, I won’t be saving money again by intentionally staying at the airport. Unlike my friends who recommended doing it, I was unable to sleep on the adjacent padded seats.I did manage to sleep for 90 minutes in a lounge where I paid about $18 for two hours which included a sandwich, small cake and beverage. Luckily I slept 3.5 hours on the plane from Tokyo to USA. My first night in the USA I slept from about midnight to noon the next day. Needed it after a 42 hour trip, door to door.

Gifts are very reasonable in most parts of the world, especially SE Asia.
Handmade purses made by Lisu women run $1 – $5, most scarves are $2 – $4, sarongs $2-$4, magnets a dollar or two, silver jewelry costs little compared to the USA, beautiful handmade jackets are $15-$40, etc.

As for the downsides of low-cost travel…often there’s no AC or heat which isn’t a problem this time of year…..sometimes a bungalow has a Thai (squat) toilet)….spending money on beer or drinks can increase daily expenses significantly.

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#2–sorry for repeat. PROS and CONS OF INTERNATIONAL KOH JUM

THIS DIDN’T POST TO FB THE FIRST TIME SO AM TRYING AGAIN.

The title of this blog describes a pro and a con since it includes the word international. PRO–the island and especially New Bungalow have an international clientele. One hears German, Greek, French, Dutch, Russian, Swedish, Hebrew, Finnish, British and Canadian English. Did you notice American English is missing? Haven’t met an American (other than my friend Paula #1) since Chiang Mai, a characteristic that pleases me.
The CON aspect of New Bungalow is a preponderance of German speakers–my least favorite language to hear–followed by the second most unpleasant to my ear, Russian. Two young Russian women occupy the bungalow across from me now that Paula has left and I’ve moved further back from the beach. The resort didn’t have an available “deluxe” bungalow ($20 for a single) so they put me in a standard one ($10). At least it has its own bathroom though the toilet is Thai (squat) not Western (sitting). Not my favorite thing but manageable for one night. Hopefully tomorrow there’ll be a more upscale place available.
A FEW MORE PROS:
1) The fabulous 3-mile beach with its golden sand, crystal clear water and pale green calm sea.
2) The lack of high-rises and big resorts.
3) The emptiness of its beach–considered crowded when more than two people are in the water and closer than a hundred yards.
4) Its great shells. Did I mention that Paula #1 decided to bring back a shell for each of the 175 students where she teaches? She thought the students would appreciate them a lot since Laos is land-locked. We had great fun collecting shells for three days. When she sorted out the 175 best ones a couple hundred remained. This morning I gave a baggie full of the leftovers to a four-year old Swiss-Greek

Sunrise on Koh Jum

Sunrise on Koh Jum

Setting full moon on Koh Jum--taken at same time as sunrise photo.

Paula #1 on our porch sorting the shells for her students.

Paula #1 on our porch sorting the shells for her students.

girl. If this blog will accept photos, you’ll see a picture of the shells on our porch table prior to sorting.
5) Great seafood. At our Weds. night dinner in town when the Mongolian singer performed, we had freshly-caught barracuda. We know it came from the sea that morning because as Paula and I walked through town around 10 a.m., the restaurant owner came out proudly holding the yard-long fish.

Sunset as seen from the open air dining room on Friday night.

Sunset as seen from the open air dining room on Friday night.

6) The variety of restaurants available–three within a 10 minute walk of New Bungalow plus several in town, about 20 minutes away by foot.
7) Monkeys! This morning as I walked back from an adventure (visiting the Muslim village about 4 miles from here), about a dozen monkeys greeted me. First time I’ve seen them on the island.

8) Incredible sunsets every night.

SOME MORE CONS:
1) Electricity available only from 6 – 10:30 p.m. in many resorts, including mine. That’s when the owners run the generator. It’s not as inconvenient as you might think. The bright sun provides plenty of light, there’s a breeze most of the time, and if I want to read late at night, my “miner’s headlamp” comes out to illuminate the pages.
2) Limited wifi due to the above. However, there’s a resort at the end of the beach, about a leisurely 10 minute walk away, that has continue electricity and wifi. One can buy a cup of coffee or beverage and spend hours overlooking the beach while on-line.
3) Tepid to slightly cool showers at New Bungalow and other low-cost resorts. Sometimes warm water comes out for the first five minutes thanks to the afternoon sun’s power.
4) Getting here requires a flight or overnight bus from Bangkok to Krabi in the south and then a 90-minute, crowded ferry boat ride followed by a brief long boat ride to shore.
5) The worst con—tiny jellyfish that sting, something that didn’t happen two years ago except when snorkeling at a nearby island. Someone told me that the mature, large jellyfish spawn in the shallow water and then return to the deep sea where local fisherman collect them for export to China. The discomfort lasts less than five minutes and rates about 2 or 3 on a scale of 1 to 10. Usually I get two or three stings during a dip. Today I tucked the skirt of my bathing suit into its bottom and after that no more stings happened. Hope this method works in the future.
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GOODBYE PAI

GOODBYE PAI
The mini-van is pulling out of the lot in Pai as I begin this blog. Goodbye Pai. We’re winding our way slowly down the main street, one of four commercial streets in this town of 5,000 residents. Let’s see if the typing can continue as we navigate the road to Chiang Mai with its 762 curves.

Prior to arrival here, I wondered how I’d fill five days in Pai. The instant I landed, it became apparent that five days would not suffice. Therefore, I changed my dental appointment in Chiang Mai from last Thursday to today, Monday, and extended my stay. During my ten days here I met at least six other travelers who chose not to leave on their original departure date. That’s what Pai does to visitors.

I’d forgotten the enchanting beauty of this green valley completely encircled by mountains. Everyday bright sun and cloudless blue skies greeted visitors. The town bustled with activity at night as the two main streets became pedestrian malls with hundreds of vendors selling their wares. During the day, I frequented my favorite restaurants, enjoyed massages and while at Bueng Pai Farm simply hung out in the many hammocks and lounge areas overlooking its stocked fishing ponds. At BPF I also braved the cool waters of its natural swimming pool which got chilly overnight when the temperatures plummeted to the low 50s.

We’ve just past the Memorial Bridge built by conscripted Thais during World War II to aid the Japanese. So now the curves begin and this blog will have to end for now. MORE LATER. [Addendum: No one got sick during the mini-van trip to Pai—hurrah!]
…..
ON THE WAY TO THE BEACH
It’s the next morning, Tuesday, and I’m halfway through the two-hour flight from Chiang Mai to Krabi. Air Asia is surprisingly comfortable, especially for a low-cost airline. By booking the flight way

Leaving BPF  with me and my luggage in the sidecar. Note Pai's mountains in the distance.

Leaving BPF with me and my luggage in the sidecar. Note Pai’s mountains in the distance.

back in August, I’m flying from CM to Krabi and then Krabi to Bangkok for under $70, including charges for a 20 kilo suitcase. Dirt cheap! My guess is that the first flight is about 800 miles and the second more than 300 miles. It’s definitely better than Ryan Air which I flew once from Athens to Bologna.

In order to qualify for the pre-paid 20 kilo checked bag, I had to remove 3 kilos (over 6 pounds) at the airport. Why? It’s not due to too much shopping for gifts (though there was some of that). I visited the used book store in Pai and got a handful of English books and graphic novels for my friend who teaches English in northern Laos. She’s

first of 3 incredible meals at Om Garden Cafe. Pumpkin & Spinach Curry with coconut on brown rice. Probably the best meal I had in Pai.

first of 3 incredible meals at Om Garden Cafe. Pumpkin & Spinach Curry with coconut on brown rice. Probably the best meal I had in Pai.

meeting me at the beach. Plus my friend Caro, who was storing some of my possessions, gave back a big empty suitcase. So I put my smaller suitcase inside the larger one, adding weight. After removing 3 kilos of books and a beach towel of mine that Caro had kept, I returned to the check-in counter. I told the Air Asia representative that the books were for English students in Laos and she allowed me to put a few back in, despite my bag weighing about 22 kilos in the end. Very nice of her….and I managed to squeeze the beach towel back in.

Since I’m talking about the flight, here’s a small world item. I know two people on board much to my surprise and delight. If you followed my blog when I lived in Thailand, you might recall an entry about an amazing Thai wedding I attended in Chiang Mai a bit over two years ago. Well, the groom and his business partner are on board. They’re filmmakers, one Italian (the one I know) and one American, probably on their way to Krabi to film in the jungle where they make many movies. The Italian’s twin daughters (age 5 now) go to the Montessori school in Chiang Mai which is where I met their mother. I expected to bump into acquaintances in Pai but not on Air Asia.

Yesterday in CM I had my second dental appointment–teeth cleaned and the permanent crown put in. Cost $600 for both as opposed to $1400 for the crown and $200 for a deep cleaning at home. The thousand dollars I saved nearly covered the cost of my week-long package tour with airfare from L.A.

After dropping off my bags at the dentist’s office I searched the area for a reasonably priced guest house. Looked at three sub-standard (by my standards, anyway) ranging from $15 to $22 and returned to a more expensive one ($37) for the night. That’s the most I’ve ever paid directly for accommodations in SE Asia although the places I stayed during the package tour cost much more, no doubt. It was a lovely room with TV with BBC, AC, enclosed shower, fridge, big fluffy towels and helpful staff. The front desk ordered a taxi to pick me up at 5:10 a.m. for my 6:30 flight.

Just one more thing about Chiang Mai, then I’ll end this blog since some friends have indicated they’d prefer two shorter blogs than one long one. Last night my dear friend Tiew, who owns RELAX Massage in Pai, met me for dinner. She had been in her hometown helping take care of her sick father and was away from Pai during my stay. Luckily, she was spending the night in CM on her way back to Pai. It was great seeing her. I would have been very disappointed if our paths hadn’t crossed during my visit.
[For those of you who followed my blog from the beginning, you

my favorite lounge area at BPF where I relaxed in the hammock while reading.

my favorite lounge area at BPF where I relaxed in the hammock while reading.

might recall in Nov. 2011 an entry about my wonderful visit to Tiew’s humble home in Fang. Her mother thought it was the first time a farang (foreigner) had ever visited her village. If interested, you can go to wordpress.com to read my earlier blogs about the traditional Thai wedding of two Italians and my time in Tiew’s hometown.]

Stay tuned for the next entry with more details about my stay in Pai and my upcoming adventure on Koh Jum.

LATER: Tried posting this on Tuesday night but it wouldn’t transmit. So now it’s Thurs. a.m., Weds. p.m. on East Coast and will try again.
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Back in Pai and Chiang Mai, my old stomping grounds

It feels so good to be back in Pai where I lived for 18 months, starting July 2011. I walked into RELAX massage, which my dear friend Tiew owns, and the moment one of the masseuses saw me she came over and gave me a big, warm, heart-felt hug. Then we went to find May, my best friend from RELAX, and she, too, greeted me with the warmest of hugs. A great home coming.

fresh ginger and cassava along with bags of passion fruit.

fresh ginger and cassava along with bags of passion fruit.

mts. in the distance as we round one of the 762 curves on the road to Pai.

mts. in the distance as we round one of the 762 curves on the road to Pai.

view from the mini-van with pine trees in foreground.

view from the mini-van with pine trees in foreground.

On Sunday I’ll check into Bueng Pai Farm, the place I call Heaven on Earth. But to save a bit of money, I’m spending the weekend in town. Didn’t have a reservation but the place where I was hoping to stay had a bungalow available. It’s a double, not single, so it costs an outrageous $13 instead of $10 a night. The reason I chose Mr. Jan’s Guest house is that it’s a large property with dozens of tall trees providing shade and wonderful gardens throughout. Hard to believe I’m in the middle of town. I can hear a rooster crowing occasionally (hopefully not at 6 a.m.).  [Addendum next morning: No rooster woke me though I can hear it crowing in the distance now.]

The 3 hour drive here was as breathtaking as ever—-beautiful mountain vistas, soaring pine trees at the top elevations, and hair-raising curves. In town one can buy a t-shirt emblazoned with “Chiang Mai to Pai–762 curves.” Though I didn’t count, no doubt it’s true. Unfortunately there was a person in the mini-van who suffered from terrible car-sickness even before we started climbing the treacherous mountain road. Luckily I was in the front seat next to the driver and the vomiting took place a couple rows back. Still disturbing.  [I know, TMI.]

We made a rest stop at a place that features fresh produce where I enjoyed a strawberry shake. If I can figure out the technology, the blog will include a couple photos from there. [ADDENDUM: Figured out how to insert them but not in the proper spot. Oh well.]

an upper berth on the overnight train. mine was below.

an upper berth on the overnight train. mine was below.

fresh strawberries at our rest stop

fresh strawberries at our rest stop

Tonight I’ve been invited to Ing Doi Guesthouse for dinner. That’s where I stayed for my first 6 weeks in Pai in 2011. My friend Dianna’s son and daughter-in-law own it along with a larger, more basic Yawning Fields bungalow colony. Mink, her daughter-in-law, is a terrific cook so I’m looking forward to dinner and our reunion. If I have the energy, I’ll go hear live music at a coffee house in town that’s about 5 minutes from my guest house.

ADDENDUM, Next morning: Dinner was fantastic and it was great seeing Dianna, her family and two guys I know who come to Ing Doi every winter, one from the UK and the other from Wisconsin. On the walk home I decided to forego music in favor of a massage. I was going to wait until Saturday but my back and shoulders cried out to stop at RELAX massage. May gave me the best massage I’ve had so far. Decided on an oil back massage and she soothed my sore muscles from my feet to my neck. May has incredibly large and strong hands–perfect for a deep massage. An oil massage is similar to a Swedish massage. Today I’ll get a Thai massage–no oil and wearing loose clothing that they provide. FYI, an hour oil massage costs $7 (plus a $3 tip since she gave me extra time) and a Thai massage costs $5.

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Backtracking to my stay in Chiang Mai….

After the group tour left for Bangkok, I took the overnight train on Tuesday to Chiang Mai. I love traveling that way—it was my 4th time, twice in first class (when a lower berth was unavailable) and twice in second class. To my surprise, the car had individual berths on either side of an aisle with red satin privacy curtains. I had expected a small compartment with 4 berths (first class has only 2). Despite the set-up I slept well and arrived in CM at 8:15 a.m., right on schedule.

My two nights in CM were spent at my favorite guest house, TriGong. Adam makes me feel like part of his family. Didn’t do much in CM except spend an hour-and-a-half in the dentist’s chair while he worked on my new crown and enjoy a fabulous two-hour massage. I did buy a new top upon arrival since I needed something to wear while my dirty laundry was washed and folded. Sure wish I could find someone to do a load of wash for $1.50 in Woodstock!

NEXT MORNING:

Today I plan to see a couple more friends and then meet Dianna for lunch. It’s in the mid–80s during the day but chilly overnight. I’m waiting for the room to warm up a bit before taking a shower and washing my hair.

Oh yes, other activities in Chiang Mai included going to my favorite hairdresser for self-care (or self-indulgence?) The shampoo person washed/massaged my head for a full 15 minutes and then took another 5 to add conditioner and rinse. What luxury! While she worked on my head, another young woman started my no-polish manicure. Though I skipped a pedicure at my first visit, the next day I returned and now have red toenails (necessary here in Thailand with my sandals).

One more thing about staying at Mr. Jan’s Guesthouse. The mattress is the typical Thai one—-made from the fibers of coconut husks. Thus it’s extremely firm. Some would say hard. Fortunately, I like a firm mattress but it did take 10-15 minutes to get used to last night. Slept great until 8:30 a.m.

As always, your comments are always appreciated. Love hearing from my friends.

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THAILAND – Group Tour

The tour group left at 9 a.m. and I have a leisurely day at the hotel in Ayutthaya so it’s the first time for a blog post. Too tired at night to write. Refreshed today after sleeping until 8:30 a.m. (instead of waking up at 5:30 a.m. as has happened most mornings).

HOTELS – This was my first group tour—nice people, great guide and no “squeaky wheels” (or pain in the #@!%) in the group.

garden where this blog was written.

garden where this blog was written.

long boat

long boat

Hotels have been fantastic — 5 star here in the ancient capital and though only 4 star in Bangkok, my room was spectacular there. Will post some interior shots of it when my bus seat partner sends them to me. We had the same corner room—on different floors, of course. Two walls were floor-to-ceiling glass overlooking BKK’s many skyscrapers.

Our two nights on the River Kwai were in a bungalow resort in the middle of the jungle. Only way to reach it was by long boat—no roads there. Again, a lovely big room with amazing stone bathroom consisting of 3 separate rooms–toilet, shower, and large mirrored vanity area with sink.

Here in Ayutthaya (have you noticed I spell it differently nearly every time?), the hotel if quite nice, especially its location on the River where a big barge just passed by. It’s quite near the train station which will be convenient later when I catch my 7:45 p.m. overnight train (with berth) to Chiang Mai where I arrive at 8:15 a.m.

SIGHTSEEING – Each day in BKK I took a guided tour. The first day we visited two temples (wats) and drove through Chinatown and past the Flower Market. The next day was an optional tour to the Grand Palace and to see the Reclining Buddha. Regret not having my phone with me for photos at the Grand Palace. The Thai architecture was breathtaking….gold everywhere, imposing statues to scare away the evil spirits, Buddhas in every size imaginable and in many different poses, and the most incredible 108 panel mural depicting an ancient legend.

After our sightseeing in BKK, I had my first massage (one-hour foot massage) and then went to the city’s largest park for a Tourism Festival. Lumpini Park was only a tenth of a mile or so away from our hotel. Of course, if I’d planned it correctly the foot massage would have come AFTER the couple of  hours spent walking to/from/throughout the park. I was one of the few “farang” (foreigners) there, an experience I really like. I enjoyed traditional native dancing on two stages and ate pad thai from one of the numerous food booths. Hundreds of vendors sold food, personal care items, crafts and so forth throughout the park.

I hadn’t done sightseeing in Bangkok since my first trip to SE Asia in 1999 so I really enjoyed these excursions, especially with the added attraction of an informative guide.

On the River Kwai I signed up for an optional all-day tour to Hellfire Pass, the most difficult place to build on the Japanese railroad from Burma to BKK during World War II. Over 90,000 conscripted SE Asians and nearly 13,000 British and Australian POW soldiers died during its construction.  The museum there was one of the best I’ve seen in SE Asia—very well done, informative and filled with interesting objects and photographs. The photographed prisoners reminded me of concentration camp victims—skin and bones. Very sobering.

Prior to the museum visit our small group of 11 walked the trail to the Hellfire Pass which was carved out of solid rock, mostly by hand. What grueling work! The path down had hundreds of steps—as did the path up, naturally. Good exercise though I could have used a shower at the end of the hike. Green hills on the other side of the Kwai River greeted us as we navigated the stone-lined path. Occasionally we’d come across original railroad ties. In one place we encountered a small section of re-laid original track, placed there by an Australian regiment in the late 1990s in honor of their lost comrades. Additionally, there were small memorials along the way, each featuring the name of a fallen soldier and often accompanied by a red poppy.

As a surprise on the way back our guide brought us to a spot where monkeys gather to be fed by visiting tourists. A couple dozen tame monkeys came near us to enjoy pieces of corn of the cob that we purchased there. One alpha male (THE alpha male, I suppose) sat alone with about 8 pieces of corn surrounding him—if another monkey approached he chased it away. The best part for me was seeing two mothers with their babies clinging to their underbellies. Quite a touching sight.

AYUTTHAYA – Our stop here to visit the monuments was a bit disappointing. I’d been here once before and expected the tour guide to tell us more than he did. We had time to photograph and climb the ancient brick structures but it was hot and very bright in the afternoon sun. I had a better time here in 2009 when I met Antonio, my dear Italian photographer friend. I accompanied him to a famous ancient temple so he could capture its beauty at sunset. (Check out his website by googling Antonio Busiello to see the photos as well as his amazing award-winning African and underwater photographs.)

Well, that’s all for now. Off to the swimming pool. More from Chiang Mai or Pai.


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KRAKOW, POLAND

April 10-14, 2014

This is out of chronological order but Krakow was our favorite city so will write about it now. Below are the reasons it placed first in our travels:
1) our host via AirBnB, 2) my Polish friend meeting us 3) amazing sights and excursions 4) fantastic Chopin recital

1) AIR BnB, our first experience with it, turned out better than expected. In case you’re not familiar with this company, people advertise rooms in their homes or whole apartments or houses for rent on-line. Jane Sunshine suggested we give it a try—great advice.
We chose our host because she looked our age, we had the entire third floor of her house, and there was a 10 x10′ terrace overlooking a small river. Unfortunately it was too chilly for us to enjoy the terrace. Lucyna, our host, was born in Krakow but lived in South Africa for 30 years. Thus her English was quite good. We had instant chemistry–she loved us and vice versa. Our third floor had a small study area on the landing for our computers, a decent size living room, a big bedroom with queen size bed and a modern bathroom complete with “Beam me up, Scotty” shower. [That’s what Kathy dubbed it. It was a glass enclosed tubular shape with doors that slid open.] The black leather living room couch opened up into a bed for me.
The only down side was that we took taxis to/from Old Town. Kathy didn’t realize that a bus stop was only 7-8 minute walk away. Taxis were inexpensive in theory—about $4-5 one way. But over 60% of the taxi drivers tried to rip us off. On the first morning it cost less than $5 to get to Old Town. The driver on the way back racked up $15. Lucyna shouted at the driver in Polish and told him people like him gave Poland a bad reputation. We comprised and paid $5 less than the meter showed.
The worse one was the following night when I was alone in the taxi. The guy couldn’t find the street, asked about 3 different people, turned off the meter at about $9, refused to let me use his phone to call Lucyna (he’d already spoken to her once), wouldn’t let me stop at a hotel to use a phone there, etc. Very frustrating. We spent about 15-20 minutes lost in her neighborhood. She screamed at him even louder, he waived the fee, and she called the taxi agency the next morning to report him and the other driver who tried to charge us $15. She’s a real spitfire!

2) Zusa, a nearly 25 year old architecture student who will get her masters in a couple of months, met us in Krakow. She, her travel partner Jacek and I met in Nepal last March. We traveled together briefly and really enjoyed each other’s company. It was so great to have a Polish friend guiding us. Her 15 year old sister, Mimi, joined us and she was a wonderful addition.
Our first night in Krakow Kathy stayed home and I went into town to meet them for dinner. Zusa had found a fairly new Polish restaurant, known for its pierogis, and we enjoyed a luscious, inexpensive meal. Before and after the dinner we walked through the Market in Old Town and wandered around a bit.
She helped plan our itinerary, suggesting we meet on Friday morning in Old Town. By chance we visited St. Mary’s (can’t remember the Polish name) Cathedral during the 30 minutes that its amazing sacristy doors/panels are open daily. They depict scenes from the Bible–reminded me of the Baptistry doors in Florence but at least 10 times as large. Kathy & I decided to go there for Palm Sunday services so we had an additional hour to admire the intricate artwork up close a few days later.
We had lunch at the special Easter Market in Old Town and visited some other sights. The next day we met at the huge castle where we spent nearly 3 hours on guided and self-directed tours. From there, we walked to the Jewish Quarter and had a wonderful lunch at a Sephardic restaurant. (A bit odd since the Polish Jews were Ashkenazi, not Sephardic.) After some shopping we all went back to Lucyna’s for tea and pastries that we purchased.

3) Our two excursions topped the list of our activities. The first took us to the famous Salt Mines about 1 1/4 hour outside of Krakow. We had a marvelous guide on the big tour bus and a good guide in the mines. Until a few decades ago, this salt mine operated for more than four centuries. We learned a lot about the process, walked through endless tunnels and stood in awe while viewing the many life-size salt sculptures, “Last Supper” recreation and phenomenal grand ballroom with patterned floor, chandelier and decorations all made from salt.
As we expected, the second trip turned out sad and depressing–Auschwitz and Birkenau in a light rain. I’d been to Dachau in ’71 but didn’t remember a lot. Auschwitz came first and Birkenau came later with row after row of of barracks that housed up to 1,000 per building, 8 people in each bunk.
Among the things that surprised me: 6 million Poles died during WW2, half of them Jews, in addition to the famous Warsaw Ghetto Uprising there was a big Polish Uprising by non-Jews. The Soviets completely erased the history of the Polish Uprising and with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, the truth started to emerge. An elaborate and informative Polish Uprising Museum opened a few years ago. Zusa said not to miss it. It was very worthwhile but my big disappointment was that there wasn’t time to go to the Jewish Museum in Krakow which is supposed to be excellent.

4) A Chopin Recital in the Bonerowski Palace capped our 4 nights in Krakow. A gifted young pianist, Witold Wilczek,  played about 15 preludes, etudes and ballades as we enjoyed a glass of wine in a beautiful salon room of an early 19th century restored palace.