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Cambodian Genocide: 1 In 4 Killed

Pol Pot, Brother #1 as he called himself, was not insane. Evil incarnate? No doubt. His brutality defies explanation or understanding. Americans, Ashley and I included, are not educated on this hideous man from the 20th Century. That is about to change.

A Young Pol PotBorn in the Cambodian village of Prek Sbauv in 1928 to a farming family with connections to royalty in Phnom Penh, Pol Pot was educated in France where he joined the French Communist Party, just as Ho Chi Minh had done. After returning to Cambodia, he then traveled to China and witnessed the beginning of Mao’s Cultural Revolution; class warfare designed to empower the poor. By 1975, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge had seized control of Cambodia and following their Chinese mentors, began to install an agrarian society. The “Greap Leap Forward” envisioned rice being the holy grail, everyone wore black pajamas to remove cultural identity, private property transferred was to collectives, families were separated for fear of conspiracy, modern health care replaced by traditional healers, and Buddhism was curbed. Pol Pot even abolished money noting that development of Democratic Kampuchea was of no importance. Educated people, city dwellers, and even those wearing prescription glasses were seen as threats to the perfect society that was to be free of outside influence. They were forced into work camps in rural areas that were managed by teenagers where “enemies” met their fate through disease, malnutrition, or execution via club to the head. Most accounts suggest one in four citizens of Cambodia perished by the cruel Khmer Rouge hands.

S-21 Buildng C Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum - Interrogation Room

Pol Pot never faced a war crimes tribunal like the Nazis nor once uttered any regrets. After his own Khmer Rouge group sentenced him to life in prison (house arrest) after ordering the assassination and murder of a party member’s children and grandchildren, he died of a heart attack at his jungle home. His body was cremated over a blaze consisting of car tires and wooden scraps.

Mother & Child Victim Photo Victim Photos

Barbed Wire to Prevent Suicide By PrisonersAsh and I somberly visited two ghastly locations in Phnom Phen where Pol Pot’s “Great Leap Forward” history is showcased. Knowing the emotional toll would be heavy, we prepared ourselves prior to touring Tuol Sleng, code named S-21. This former secondary school turned prison, interrogation, and torture center is found amongst the hustle and bustle of Cambodia’s capital city. Over 14,000 lives were snuffed out at S-21. Strangely, most of these were Khmer Rouge loyalists from the army, works camps, or ministries who were accused of conspiracy. The victims would have their pictures systematically taken, tortured into a signed confession, then summarily executed with all the necessary paperwork in order.

Blood Stain Next To Chain Building C Barbed Wire

S-21 GallowsWe skulked the halls of Tuol Sleng and saw the still present metal beds outfitted with leg irons for torture perpetrated by young boys wearing Mao hats. Where once a room meant for learning stood, its walls are now filled with tiny prison stalls barely big enough to lie down. Blood stains still blemish the tile floors. Not wanting the prisoners to commit suicide from the three story hellish jail, the Khmer Rouge encased the school buildings in a fishnet of razor wire. Perhaps the worst room on display housed the thousands of victim’s snapshots. Elderly men, women with young babies, terrified girls, young boys – their images haunting. After three hours, we emerged from the barbed wire lined fence. Dumbfounded, outraged, and distraught were among the myriad of emotions.

Choeung Ek - Human Skull Killing Fields - Cracked Skulls

Respect SignThose who did not perish at S-21 were blindfolded and sent to Choeung Ek (Killing Fields) in the outskirts of Phnom Penh. We hired a tuk-tuk for the twenty minute dusty ride through rice paddies to where the Khmer Rouge turned an ancient Chinese cemetery and orchard into a mass grave. Lighting incense and saying a silent prayer, we bowed in turn below the fifty foot memorial stupa housing 8,000 skulls and countless articles of bloody clothing that have been exhumed from the grounds. Each skull had the tell tale sign of a Khmer Rouge style execution: cracks. In order to save money and ammunition, the Khmer Rouge would club the victims to death with ox-cart axles. Then their bodies would be tossed into a shallow grave and doused with dual purpose D.D.T. designed to reduce the smell of petrifying human flesh and kill those buried alive. Some mass graves have been exhumed while others remain untouched.

Greg Outside Stupa Bones and Clothing Emerging From the Ground

Killing Fields - Collection of Human BonesThe dirt paths are strewn with decaying bones penetrating the soil alongside fragments of clothing. Here and there piles of teeth would set, never to be identified. If the whole scene were not upsetting enough, we came to the “killing tree” which, even now, is hard to write about. Here, babies were torn from their mother’s grasp, stripped, grabbed by the ankles, and swung into the tree until their skulls were satisfactorily smashed. The mother having watched this gruesome display, would be stripped then clubbed over the head. It was nearly too much to absorb. Two silent hours passed, the only sounds coming from our sniffling noses.

Respect the Mass Graves Mass Grave

Khmer Rouge UniformToday, Cambodians value their multi-party democracy, though it may be rife with corruption. They appreciate their ability to speak out against their government, a right not known in neighboring Laos or Vietnam. Ironically to us as Americans, Pol Pot’s attempt to start civilization once more under his “Year Zero” machine ended in 1978 when Vietnam’s invasion began on Christmas Day. Despite the horrific acts of the Khmer Rouge, the West and China supported Pol Pot during the Vietnamese occupation using the strategy of my enemy’s enemy is my friend. After a ten year occupation, the Vietnamese departed under pressure from America and yet another tragic civil war was waged by the Khmer Rouge. The UN then supervised elections in 1993 which resulting in having to name a First and Second Prime Minister. The First Prime Minister was overthrown in a military coup four years later by the Second PM. In 1998, election results reunited the adversaries, this time their positions switched. Needless to say, the Khmer people alive today have experienced immense hardship and turmoil. And it continues to shape the destitute country.

Killing Fields - Memorial Stupa Cambodian Men Waiting for a Fare

Seeing the war ravaged beggars, walking the Killing Fields, numbly visiting Tuol Sleng, and scarring stories of beachfront unexploded ordnance, it is easy to understand the fragile Cambodian psyche. When looking at the orphan’s, caretaker’s, and cook’s faces at Palm Tree, it was hard not to imagine their individual histories and what the future may hold. In contrast to America’s Baby Boomers, Cambodia’s middle aged folks have been decimated in numbers and spirit.

- Greg and Ash

Note: On July 26, 2010, the “curator” of S-21 who admitted his role in the death of 14,000+ innocents was sentenced to 35 years in prison. He is the first Khmer Rouge official to be convicted of crimes against humanity… three decades later.

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) Understanding and respecting a country’s history, tragic or uplifting, is always part of discovering a new place. Cambodia’s citizens are still reeling from its recent past, making this history education of paramount importance while volunteering for one month.
2) Never forget. Wasn’t this the message after September 11, 2001? There are those among us who will try and say that awful day never happened, much like the deniers of the Holocaust. Thus, Ash and I feel the obligation to write and tell stories about the horrific things we have seen while on the world road.

Faces of Palm Tree Orphanage

Whenever Ash and I feel down, our first resort is to reminisce about our time at Palm Tree. The slideshow below shows you why.

- Greg & Ash

3…2…1… Action: Palm Tree Orphanage’s Multi Use Recreation Area

Below are three videos shot in the main common area where dance parties, volleyball, tag, and everything within a child’s imagination take place at the Palm Tree Orphanage.

Our main man, Poun, playing soccer with Ash:

On just our second night at Palm Tree, a party was held in honor of Ben Justus’ departure. Watch the child acrobats in action:

Before the party got rocking, the children performed a traditional Khmer dance:

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) Feeling in the dumps? Watching kids being kids will always lift your spirits.

Life As A Cambodian Orphanage Volunteer

Purposely, we kept our expectations of living amongst 90+ Cambodian orphans to a minimum. All we really knew was this: Ash and I would pour our hearts and souls into the children yet we would depart having learned more from them.

Sugan Cane Being Processed For Sugar WaterUpon attaining our thirty day visas at the antiquated Phnom Phen airport after a convoluted process involving an army of immigration officials, we were met by Ben and Mike (volunteers) with two tuk-tuks waiting curbside. Turning off Russian Boulevard kilometers before the riverfront hustle and bustle, the motorcycle driven carriage rambled down a narrow street full of sugar cane juice makers, shopkeepers sitting on low slung stools, and scraggy dogs running amok. Walking through the gates of Palm Tree Orphanage, we were greeted by a host of smiling Cambodian faces. It was one of those moments that you relish to relive a thousand times. From that instant, we felt at home and wholly determined to do all we could for the disadvantaged youth.

Palm Tree Orphanage Entrance Group Shot with Lang Dy and Da

Meat, Tomato, Rice DinnerOur digs were simple, yet had its own bathroom, a mossy net, and most importantly, air conditioning. When the mercury hits 100 degrees Fahrenheit on most days, our American blood boils. The kids however, set up camp on the tile floor beneath a blue protective net each night, their bodies acclimated to the choking heat. Feeling constantly dehydrated, our crowning possession was a twenty liter crystal blue distilled water dispenser, which cost $1.00. Our daily intake of white rice would make Uncle Ben proud. However, while the kids had a sparing helping of vegetables or fish, the volunteers had a healthy portion of protein alongside the nutrition-less ashen kernels. When I was rather hungry, I would eat Ashley or Lindsey’s (another volunteer) helping of meat or fish. But mostly, I would fool my stomach by loading up a bowl of rice with orange hot sauce. Despite the cook’s best efforts, we both left Cambodia much slimmer.

Our Room Complete with Mossy Net Greg Deep Cleaning Bathroom

8 Shirts, 1 Pair of Pants, All Cusom Fit - $53Getting around town cost a song and the chauffeurs waited adjacent to the Palm Tree gate. $2.00 per person would get us the comfort (and slowness) of a tuk-tuk to any desired location. Or $1.00 for a thrill ride of sorts on the back of a motorcycle that disregarded traffic signals. For the most part, we opted for the tuk-tuk driven by a lovely Khmer man with a wooden arm, a disfigured face from a bullet wound, and a smiling face riddled with gold teeth. Though we used his services at least twenty times, he would always ask for an amount well above market price and a laughable negotiation would ensue. This dusty street is also the set where we purchased toothpaste, barbecued mini clams, iced coffee in a baggie, cheap custom made clothing, and assorted fresh fruit. Here, my beard experienced a straight edge razor for the first time at the hands of a local barber.

Street Barber with Straight Razor Odom, Bory, Greg Riding Tuk Tuk

Every morning began at 5:30am when the kids would join Dr. Boo for calisthenics. As they stretched, there seemed to be an unspoken competition as to whom could count to ten the loudest. Adjoining the girls dorm indoor common area, our room was a beehive of noise once the orphans rose from their tile floor slumber. After tussling and turning for two additional hours, our wood door would swing open with the kids’ delirious excitement and a rush of baked air slathering our bodies. By morning, we tutored three boys who were falling behind with their studies. Playing games such as “PIG” aided their ability to spell, but more importantly, the personal interaction with native English speakers for one hour each day proved beneficial. We would then switch gears and corral the smallest children requiring additional attention into the shade beneath the girls dorm. In one month at Palm Tree, Ash and I colored more than ever before. More often than not, we had double the kids than the eight we were assigned to help. It was a blast working so closely with all the unique little personalities. Reviewing the rainbow with these special orphans will forever make us fond of the color purple. The children pronounced it “purpel” with an emphasis on the latter syllable. It melted our hearts.

Greg Teaching Little Ones About Colors Coloring

Teacher's Copy of Middle School ExamAfter lunch of, you guessed it, white rice, Ash and I would look high and low to locate a local school for children with learning disabilities. In America, almost every school district offers this specialized education, but Cambodia has its focus elsewhere. More on this subject and effort in a later blog post. Almost every child attends the public Khmer school for half days and the other half is spent in Palm Tree School. Ash and I acted at substitute teachers on occasion, mainly instructing students of various ages on correct English grammar, both written and spoken. Thus, our structured time with the orphans focused on development of English skills. Ashley and I did not speak a lick of Khmer, so even our free time spent with them pushed along this agenda.

Ash Teaching English Professor Dietz

VolleyballAs night would fall, the older boys – men really – played competitive volleyball, females approaching womanhood took turns removing lice from their scalps, boys kicked a soccer ball, and girls sitting in tight circles competed in a Khmer form of rock-paper-scissors with plastic trinkets being the victor’s spoils When dinner of white rice and a form of protein would become monotonous, we would join the two other volunteers at Mike’s Burger House. Located in a Sidexo petrol station, the food was mediocre, but Mike had indeed perfected the rootbeer float. With the night air still stifling, the children were as active as ever. But when 9pm rolled around, the steel gate separating the boys and girls dorms would lock and calmness would follow. Defeated by the heat and non-stop energy of Palm Tree, a retreat for R&R in our air conditioned room was sounded.

Girls Playing Rock Paper Scissors for Plastic Dinosaur Pieces Greg with Mike of Mike's Burger

Indeed, we gave our full selves to help the noble cause of Palm Tree Orphanage. Just by living amongst the family of 90+ orphaned children imparted perspective, taught us lessons about relationships, and proved that happiness does not discriminate by social class. Thirty days later, we left with tears in our eyes, rips in our hearts, and experiences that will continue to shape us for years to come.

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. Volunteering your time internationally is usually more costly than one would think. Want to help prevent bush fires in Oz? Dig wells for an African village? Build homes in Southeast Asia? Most organizations charge each volunteer some form of fee for items along the lines of materials, lodging, and food. This is in addition to plane tickets. We have met multitudes of international travelers who desired to help a specific cause and were rebuffed by the prohibitively high costs. Finding a “free” volunteer opportunity abroad, like Palm Tree, is tough, yet incredibly worthwhile.

3…2…1… Action: Children of Palm Tree Orphanage

Rumor has it Cambodian children are among the world’s cutest. Rumor no more.  The videos below were compiled during our one month stint as volunteers at the Palm Tree Orphanage in Phnom Penh.

The youngest child residing at Palm Tree is Da (1 year of age), whom has learned to protect himself amongst the 90+ kids:

After Greg composed an award winning vignette of basic colors, he instructs the little ones in unison:

Sophoan instantly became Ashley’s little buddy at Palm Tree. Watch this adorable video of her tiny friend reciting her English ABCs:

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. Working with children takes a ton of patience. Working with kids when your primary language is their second amplifies this patience quota. Repetition is paramount and use of simple English words helps the cause.

Whale Sharks & Thai Politics

Excitement nearly ruined a whole night of sleep on Koh Samui. In ten hours I would be on the hunt for the elusive whale shark off Thailand’s Koh Tao. All the dive operators work together, relaying the latest location info if a sighting is made.  Fingers crossed.

Greg Swims Into Rock Mass of FIsh

Sweet CD CollectionSadly, Ash had a head cold, preventing her from participating in the diving excursion. So at 5:00am, I sat alone on the damp wooden planks of a picnic table as the morning fog slowly lifted from a valley below the Baan Taling Ngam Resort. Finally, a beaten pickup truck arrived and we rambled across Koh Samui for forty minutes to Chaweng Beach to fetch a beginner diver. I was enamored with the driver’s soft rock CD collection: Byan Adam’s Greatest Hits, Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over, and Rod Stewart’s The Best Of. Rod and I became acquainted once more as the poor driver waited patiently for the tardy diver to appear. With a bounty of excuses, she flew out of the hostel door, her hair in tangles. Pulling up to the lively dock, we barely made the transfer boat across the Bay of Thailand to Koh Tao.

Japanese Gardens Blue-Ringed Angel Fish

Koh Tao - DockHaving exchanged the speedboat for a retrofitted junk vessel, we were aboard the scuba mothership where I met my personal instructor, Scottish Scotty. Because everyone else on the ship were either attaining their PADI certification or doing a recreational dive, just Scotty and I boarded the tender and sped off to a coast line of beautiful coral called the Japanese Gardens. Wearing a shorty wetsuit, we quickly descended into the warm blue saltwater. The visibility was decent as my experienced guide pointed out blue spotted stingrays and hidden white eyed eels among the colorful coral. Over fifty minutes passed as we hugged the depths of the alluring coastline. Although the whale shark remained our of sight, the other scenery proved deserving.

Coral & Fish Amazing

Chilaxing Between DivesBetween dives, terrible coffee and buttery biscuits (cookies) were shared atop the dive boat as we bobbed in a pristine bay. The instructors awaited info over the radio waves concerning the whale sharks, but it never came. Bummed, I dawned my dive equipment once more, spitting in the mask as an anti-fog mechanism. Scotty gave me some pointers on how to perform a front flip entry, which was rather thrilling once the twenty-one pound tank strapped to my somersaulting back gained momentum. Once again, the Mango Bay dive site was all ours as the other divers reviewed lessons. Saddle back clown, triger, blue ringed angel, parrot, coral rock cod – fish of every variety welcomed our presence. Besides the British Virgin Islands, I have never seen so many dang fish in the ocean. After an exhilarating sixty minutes (sixty minutes!) in the remarkable ocean playground, we came to a school of jack fish that formed a seemingly impenetrable wall around me. No matter which direction I peered from my mask, bits of blue sunlight appeared thru the swarming sea creatures. It was a moment that will stay with me for a long time. Scotty, an extraordinary guide, timed the dive with precision. As we were performing our safety stop twenty feet below sea level, I had to suck rather than breath from my life supporting oxygen tank. It was the longest dive of my career.

Fins White Eyed Eel

Koh TaoResting top deck with yet another awful cup of Joe, I spoke with Scottish Scotty about his experience living full-time in Thailand. Our blunt conversation covered the positives, but focused on corruption. His Thai girlfriend of six years, has been paid for every vote she has cast. And not just her, her entire family and neighbors too. Though a democratic state, it was easy to understand how the violent Red Shirt protests that dominated the news in early/mid 2010 grew to such large numbers. Many Thai citizen’s loyalties lie with the highest bidder. That is, many of the Red Shirt protestors were paid for their appearance, just like political parties are known to compensate for votes. To have government power is to control the flow of money. This is not to say that ordinary Thai’s do not have legitimate beefs with the government or cannot think for themselves. But the fact remains, when three months of your annual income is offered for a single vote, it makes the decision for poorer people a bit easier. Such was the conversation as we motored back to Koh Samui. This stark reality greatly saddened me as I remarked to Scotty how much Ash and I enjoy the people of Thailand. They deserve so much better.

Thousands of Jack Fish Lurking Fish

No whale sharks, though two hours of scuba diving in the Bay of Thailand was unforgettable. I’ll remember the mass of swarming fish and be thankful I come from a country where my independent vote still counts.

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) Talking domestic and/or international politics in a foreign country, is a slippery slope. Choose your conversational partners wisely as differences in opinion can escalate quickly. We have found it interesting to speak with expatriates from Western countries about their political viewpoints in their new home. Oh, and everyone wants to discuss Obama and Bush. Beware.
2) Koh Tao is #2 in the world behind Australia’s Cairns for the number of PADI scuba certifications issued per year. Thailand also happens to be one of the cheapest locations worldwide for the worthwhile education. Before spending the time and money on PADI, you can perform recreational dives, which require absolutely no experience, nearly everywhere scuba diving is offered. Dip your toe, so to speak, to ensure it is something of interest.

Operation Koh Samui: Ash’s Birthday

Baan Taling Ngam Resort - PalmsAdjusting our travel plans on a daily basis is nothing new for us. We have acclimated quite well to the windy, and sometimes unknown, world path. But for Ash’s 27th birthday, we were determined to celebrate in a relaxing and charming environment. That required endless hours of research and what resulted was a brilliantly executed plan. After re-routing Southeast Asia and India, Ashley’s birth anniversary would be observed in gorgeous Koh Samui, Thailand.

Baan Taling Ngam Resort - Beach Room 103 View

Shot Through ResortAshley’s folks provided me with a birthday budget and I whittled down the list of potential Thai islands and hotels. Knowing that yours truly would share in the birthday spoils, I was resolute in stretching the money. We boarded a bus in Ao Nang on Thailand’s West Coast with Ashley having no idea where the wind would take us. Not until we transferred from bus to ferry four hours later did she know Koh Samui was our destination. With cuckoo clock precision, a driver from Baan Taling Ngam Resort awaited our arrival and whisked us to the clifftop perch. Having found a steal of a deal on the World Wide Web (invented by Al Gore), Ash was ecstatic to rest her dogs in decadence for five nights after a ½ year globetrotting on a shoestring.

Infinity Pool Sunset from Baan Taling Gnam Resort - Dock

Infinity Pool - Greg's SplashThe incredible pools, immaculate rooms, warm ocean, heavenly sunsets, britches busting breakfasts, sandy beach, accommodating staff… we were thrilled. Some guests turned a weary eye when our worn backpacks were unloaded. As they should, we didn’t fit in here so well! That feeling set sail once we uncorked a bottle of complimentary wine and we relaxed in the lap of luxury. We had seen sunsets on five continents, but the intense colors over the Bay of Thailand were something else while perched high above the sea. And there was an unannounced comedy show for all guests to enjoy, except for me.

Beach Baan Taling Ngam Resort from Beach

Greg Trying to WindsurfThe beach briefing lasted all of five minutes and in no time I was crashing into rocks, docks, and coral trying to windsurf. The northwesterly wind was steady as was my determination to succeed. Going down wind was thoroughly enjoyable, but finding the proper angle and balance while traveling into the wind proved frustrating. My feet, previously diced by the Andaman Sea, paid a heavy price with the sharp coral just two feet below the blue waves. Up, down, up, down, up, cruise for thirty glorious seconds, splash. After forty tumultuous minutes trying to windsurf, I was defeated and humiliated. No doubt, those imbibing on pina coladas beachside had a good laugh at my expense. Upset with myself, I gave Ashley the silent treatment for two hours.

Nursing Greg's Feet Back To Health Sunset over Taling Ngam Beach

Couples MassageAlas, the birthday girl’s day was upon us. The resort offered “breakfast in bed” at a king’s ransom, so I did the next best thing and prepared plates of food from the delicious (and included) buffet. Waking the newly 27 Ashley, she was touched by my thoughtfulness. Enjoying the breathtaking view as the morning slipped away, Ash was brought to tears as she read emailed well wishes from family and friends. Two particularly exciting bits of info were also disclosed on the special day. First, Ashley’s entire family was booked on a flight into Switzerland and out of Italy, a Miller invasion of Europe would reunite us for 11 days. Secondly, though early in the gestation period, my Brother and Sister-In-Law were expecting their first child! Elated, the time for our couples massage had arrived. Who knows where that sixty minutes went… it was that relaxing. Having notified the resort it was Ash’s birthday, the spa provided a free milk bath. There was no way we could have afforded this service, so it was an absolute surprise to the birthday gal. Now guys, I know you are thinking, a milk bath? Really Greg? Yeah, really. It was incredible. The bath was prepared overlooking the Bay of Thailand, rose pedals floating in the suds, a chocolate heart, and a chilled bottle of champagne. Way to go Baan Taling Ngam, making me look good!

Milk Bath With Love Milk Bath

View of Bay of ThailandCompletely at peace with the world, I ordered room service for our terrace to be delivered at sunset. Without a doubt Ashley’s favorite item for ambiance, I was able to locate a few small candles for the occasion. Surf and turf, fresh vegetables, red wine, outstanding seafood soup… it was a meal of meals. Earlier in the day, I secretly had a birthday cake delivered (again, compliments of Baan Taling Ngam) to the room. I had Ash close her eyes as I lit the multi-colored candles and when those blue eyes revealed themselves, I knew she had enjoyed a Thai birthday to remember.

Sunset from Baan Taling Gnam Resort - Ash Ash's Bday Candlelight Dinner

The next day, reality reared its ugly head as we rode an overnight 2nd class sleeper train from Surat Thani to Bangkok. But ah, it was good to live the high life for five days and celebrate Ash’s birthday in style!

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) Smile. A smile is universal and goes a heck of a lot farther than an angry tone when something goes wrong. Sure, there are times that require raising your voice, but we have found that a reasonable approach coupled with a genuine smile usually gets the job done. When the AC in our room broke, we nicely informed the staff and asked what they could do for us. Ten minutes later we were in a new room with a $60 bottle of Argentine malbec (our favorite wine).

3…2…1… Action: Operation Koh Samui

Inhabited fifteen centuries ago by fisherman, Koh Samui, located in the Bay of Thailand, is a dream come true.  As you will see in the three videos below, the island has come a long way.

The Western facing shore of Koh Samui is rated high amongst windsurfers.  Greg, is not a windsurfer, as seen below:

Norah Jones fingers a perfect background on the piano as Thailand says goodnight:

Ash’s #1 prerequisite for her 47th birthday was a bathtub in our lodging.  So she got one, it just happened to be inhabited by a demon tub snake:

- Ash & Greg

Learn from our Footsteps:

1) Koh Samui is an incredibly happening place these days.  If tranquility and splendid sunsets are your desire, opt for the Western coast of Thailand’s 3rd largest island.  If searching for all night parties, Chaweng, on the Eastern coast is your bogey.

Thai Island Hopping

Maya BayMost folks with an active pulse have heard tales concerning Thailand’s picturesque islands. Problem is, these tales aren’t “tall” and for that reason, the sandy islands beneath stunning karsks are flooded with tourists clamoring for their corner of paradise. Of course, these stories of wonderment drew Ash and I to see for ourselves.

Ao Nang Beach SunsetEleven days in incredible India made even these grizzled backpackers desiring a cold beer, a cleanish room, and a clear head. Not so fast. An overnight flight from New Delhi to Bangkok, a four hour layover, a short hop flight to Krabi Airport, and a ninety minute bus ride later, we arrived in Ao Nang on the Andaman Sea. We found it as advertised… stunning, but so did thousands of others. Ash rested after her sleepless night while I opted for a sunny nap on the nearby island of Koh Poda. Returning at sunset, I roused the drowsy Ash for the sunset that seemed to melt the bobbing longtail boats in the natural harbour. Three negotiating sessions yielded an attractive price for a full day of island hopping including the acclaimed Koh Phi Phi the following morning.

Koh Poda - Rescued Bottle While Snorkeling Pi Ley Bay

Monkey Bay Snorkeling with Medusa StingersDespite the live music of Ao Nang rocking until 4am, we managed to feel rested as we boarded the powerful outboard speedboat at sunrise. If I weren’t awake yet, Monkey Bay sure did the trick, what with its teeming water of medusa jellyfish. With our guide’s assurance that the stings aren’t too bad, 10% of the boat’s patrons found ourselves dodging the translucent ocean beings rather than snorkeling. In fact though, the stings felt like more than pin pricks, hundreds of pin pricks in the span of fifteen minutes. Next location on our whistle stop tour was the famed Maya Bay on Koh Phi Phi. The Beach turned this ridiculously beautiful locale into a zoo of tourists. As the boat powered down making the turn into the secluded bay, the focus of our engaged eyes fought valiantly between the amazing sight and the rows of speedboats, longtails, and densely populated white sand. To make the most of the experience, we waded out into the bay until Ash could barely stand. Here, Maya Bay felt void of the rabid holidaymakers. After short stops at Pi Ley Bay and the Viking Cave, the speedboat’s bow nestled into the white sand of Phi Phi Don where we dined on a surprisingly delicious lunch.

Maya Bay - Gregorio Maya Bay - Ash Hin Klarng - Open Water Snorkel

Phi Phi Don - Level of Water in 2004 TsunamiHaving ate our money’s worth, Ash and I took a leisurely walk around Phi Phi Don, a completely restored island after the devastating tsunami on December 26, 2004. Every Thai island now has clearly marked tsunami evacuation signs in case of an earthquake. However, the low lying nature of Phi Phi Don coupled with its beautiful yet terrifying attribute of having the sea on two sides demonstrates its vulnerability. In fact, a simple blue post displays how deathly high the water rose on that fateful 2004 morning. Three minutes and three powerful waves later, the entire island was nearly destroyed leaving 700 dead. With much of the island rebuilt, Ash and I could only look at post tsunami images to understand the gravity of the tragic event. Back in the speedboat wondering what must have crossed the minds of those caught in nature’s fury, we arrived at Bamboo Island for some lounging before a late afternoon open water snorkeling session at Hin Klarng. Suitably worn out after a sensational day island hopping, we hung around Ao Nang for yet another terrific sunset.

Phi Phi Don - Beach Shot Tsunami Evac Plan

Sunset Reading at Dawn of HappinessFed up with the tourist feeding frenzy of Ao Nang, we hopped a ten minute tuk-tuk and met up with my good buddy from college prep school, JRob, at Dawn of Happiness. This secluded and uber cheap beachside bungalow was perfect for the next two nights. We arrived just as two of the four vacationers from Shanghai bid adeiu to “the land of smiles.” Taylor, JRob, Ash, and I rented scooters for an afternoon of cruising the coast line. On a Thai backroad, we happened upon a local company offering rides on their proud elephants. JRob and Taylor climbed atop Thophaothong after Ashley and I were welcomed on Singjai’s back as we rumbled through a rubber tree plantation. Singjai was a well behaved elephant while Thophaothong acted up by grabbing anything he could eat with his powerful trunk.

After a relaxing night in the secluded Dawn of Happiness, we chartered a private longtail boat and headed for Chicken Island. Though the island has no chickens, it does feature clever monkeys. While some poor old sap was cooling off in the blue sea, one such rogue devil snuck in amongst the foliage and snatched his sandwich and banana. Having spent three hours in a cloistered area of Chicken Island, the tide had moved against us requiring a twenty minute chest high wade through the surf to reach our transportation. After a snack stop at Railay Beach, we arrived back at home base and showered up for a night to remember.

American Motorcycle Gang Feeding Elephants Lone Tree in the Andaman Sea

Chicken Island - Rogue MonkeyNa, the genuine proprietor of Dawn of Happiness, offered to accompany us to his favorite karaoke establishment. The cover charge? Join him in taking a shot of his “home made whiskey.” Whiskey me thinks not. It was a jar of cough medicine, water, and who knows what. Not wanting to be rude, we congratulated Na on his skills in creating the worst spirits ever and headed for the singing spot, gagging all the way. The record literally turned off as the four white folks waltzed into the local saloon. Ten minutes lates, JRob and Taylor were perched behind the computer selecting hits from the 80′s. Extreme, Elton John, Chumbawumba, and the late Michael Jackson were all burned down. Serenades, group sing-a-longs, and peculiar dance moves were all part of the act. Ash’s duet with an adorable elderly Thai man topped it all off. Despite the accommodating waitress ensuring our mugs were filled to the brim with Chang beer, our bill after three hours was laughable. It was a great night with local Thai people who were more than happy to share the microphone.

En Route to Turtle Island Ash's Serenade

The tales of Thailand’s beauty are not overblown. Discovering it for ourselves proved worthwhile.

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) Koh Phi Phi’s Maya Bay is certainly worth a visit, despite the throngs of people. You could opt for lodging on Koh Phi Phi and avoid the touristic times. Or when securing a boat trip, select one that visits Maya Bay first or last on its list of stops.
2) The Thai islands and coast in the Andaman Sea are strewn with small bungalow retreats. Determined Internet mining will yield a cheap and beautiful bungalow that you can call your own.

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