Get the Flash Player to see the slideshow.

3…2…1… Action – Bangkok

Thailand, Bangkok in particular, have made international headlines for all the wrong reasons (Red Shirt Protests) in recent times. Yet Thailand’s capital, when not under pseudo martial law, is exhilarating to explore. Elaborate palaces, a street catering to cheap backpackers, an impressive airport, dazzling wats, and happening night bazaars. Our travels took us there on two separate occasions under very different circumstances.

Every backpacker that has trod over SE Asia has experienced Bangkok’s Khaosan Road. Here is a taste of the mayhem performed by two inebriated German fellows:

Bangkok is littered with ridiculous palaces and wats. We hung around Wat Intrawiham long enough to absorb the Buddhist atmosphere:

Over three months in SE Asia came to an end at the sensational Bangkok International Airport, but not before managing the intense military presence:

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

Red Shirt Protester Camp - Downtown Bangkok1. Sometimes you must weigh risk versus frugality. Such was the case when sorting out travel to / within Japan. It was necessary to purchase the Japan Rail Pass overseas and the Bangkok International Airport was by far the cheapest route to Tokyo. Purchasing the rail pass took us into the heart of the Red Shirt protest in downtown Bangkok, where our transactions were performed expediently. All worked out well, yet the risk was obvious as evidenced by a heavy army presence next to bamboo and tire barricades full of determined protesters.

Konsai in Pai

Sensing an overrated location became second nature. So many travelers raved about Chiang Mai and its jungle excursions, but we had our doubts. So after plenty of time sorting through what Thailand’s second largest city had to offer, it was abundantly clear that it wasn’t what we were after. Our backpacks loaded, we hit the local bus stop and boarded a minibus, seriously, a miniature bus complete with ridiculously long side mirrors, for Pai. Disembarking in a dusty parking lot, we knew this would be a more authentic experience.

Ash on Pai Street Minibus to Pai

Greg Along RiverThe town is tiny considering one of two main roads converts from pavement to a wobbly wooden footbridge over the meandering Pai River. We felt transformed by this bridge. On the paved side, you are the average tourist in Thailand, on the other a hippie commune cult member. Some youths lounged outside their bamboo huts while others tossed batons into the humid air. Still others gathered near the river sipping potent liquor concoctions from colorful beach buckets (including yours truly). A sense of enchantment permeated from the calmness of the scene. Before being lured into the nonsense altogether, a retreat was sounded for the small shops in town. Nearly every other storefront poured drinks to revelers perched on streetside stools. We watched a competitive game of table tennis underneath corrugated steel between two young Thai boys. The skill level seemed fair, but the competitor on our left had a distinct advantage. You see, his side of the wooden table was both flatter (constructed by horizontal planks of wood) and bigger than the other. When his hit ball struck the edge of a board on the other side, a wicked bounce would send it out of play. It was a landslide victory.

Ping Pong Match Drinking Buckets at Riverside Bar at Sunset

Greg Stands on KonsaiThe main draw cards in Pai are bamboo rafting and elephant riding. The dry season prevented any flotation activities, but Konsai is an all weather vehicle. A pickup ride into the mountains ended at a small home filled with dogs, children, and elephants. Up a rickety staircase then onto the back of the immensely kind Asian elephant, Konsai, his prickly back hair itching our legs. Off into the forest we road, but soon found that the dry season not only reduces water levels, but also depletes the forest of its green hue. Regardless, Ash and I rode high atop the scorched earth as Konsai lumbered to the river where this beast unleashed his fury. Hanuman, our friendly guide, would shout a Thai language instruction and Konsai responded with his best impression of a bull. We were tossed around like ragdolls. After being ejected from Konsai’s back into the muddy water twice, Ash opted for a riverside view instead. With just me on the XXL bull, Hanuman pulled out his dirtiest tricks. My knuckles white grasping the green rope looped around the elephant’s midsection, Konsai began flailing his gray trunk, ears flapping to and fro. I was able to withstand this wrangling, but my undoing was when Hanuman instructed him to sit. Off the back I slid, afraid that Death had arrived in the form of being drowned by an elephant’s rump. This escapade escalated until I glanced an underwater rock and it became evident one misguided dismount could land us back in yet another hospital.

Riding Elephant in Pai Waterlogged

Post Elephant Riding, Puppy Play TimeAnother minibus ride back to Chiang Mai and then a comfortable overnight train to Bangkok, we found ourselves amidst the violent Red Shirt protests. The streets were more or less vacant except for heavily armed soldiers, which made our cab ride swift. Past walls of black tires strewn with bamboo sticks we went as we peered shifting protesters that had barricaded themselves within several city blocks, effectively stifling that particular city section. We made our business downtown fast having prearranged the purchase of Japan Rail Passes. The military presence near the airport was nothing to joke about considering the same group of protesters shut down air travel for eight days in November 2008.

Konsai Tosses Around Like Rag Dolls Greg Attempts Bull Riding on Konsai

Red Shirt Protesters Have Some Armed CompanyThree dynamic months in Southeast Asia had come to a close. Handling tigers, pristine beaches, anti-American museums, living with loving orphans, a moto accident, ancient temples, agile elephants, bus rides from hell, tasty food. The list goes on.

Kon’nichiwa Japan, a proud nation whose culture seemed bulletproof from Western influence.

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. A photographer followed us while riding Konsai into the forest and eventually to the river. We were under no obligation to purchase his digital prints and his asking price was ridiculous. Knowing he had already spent his time with us and it would cost next to nothing to transfer the photos to DVD, a swift negotiation followed that satisfied both parties.

Bengals, Cooking Thai & Hospital Visits

We left Laos behind like a bad habit in search of a hospital that looked slightly better than a rundown motel.

Chiang Mai Cooking School - Maya Thailand’s large northern city of Chiang Mai had just what the doctor ordered (pun intended) in the regionally known international Ramkhamhaeng Hospital. We checked into a ragged hostel after a short hop flight from Luang Prabang, Laos. It had to be up there in terms of the worst digs on our fourteen month RTW adventure. Waking early, we promptly hit an internet cafe and booked alternate accommodations in a cheap hotel that was beyond comparison. Dropping our bags, we loaded up with Thai Bhat in anticipation of a large medical bill and patiently waited for Ash’s turn to see the plastic surgeon. Dr. Wongtrangkha was impressed with the healing just three days after the accident and scheduled an appointment four days later to remove the five stitches. We made our days waiting around worthwhile.

Cooking With Fire Thai Feast

Half Opened FruitLoving the authentic Thai food during our February jaunt in the southern portion of Thailand, it didn’t take much to sell us on a whole day in the cooking classroom. Maya fetched us early in the morning then did the same with three others before parking at a local outdoor food market. There, she pointed out unique fruits, farm fresh vegetables, and varying qualities of white rice. With ingredients procured, we settled into our cooking stations in Maya’s extra large alfresco kitchen. She patiently took us through the preparation of 8+ dishes including lots of curry courses, my favorite. Our last Thai cooking maneuver had us angle the skillet then add a small amount water to the stir fry. Poof! A ball of orange fire shot up like a demon from hell. Ash contained herself and the contents of her skillet. I wasn’t so lucky considering 60% of my food ended up on the preparation table. Alas, with chopsticks in hand, we gathered around a wooden table and chowed down complete with cold Chang beer. Could we prepare any of these dishes today? Not a chance, but we had one heck of a time for the invigorating exercise.

Ash with Three Month Old Tiger Cubs Cat Fight

Big Hands You Know You're The OneBeing from The Nasty Nati (Cincinnati, OH), I have been a lifelong fan of the Bengals, our less than successful NFL franchise. So an up close and personal opportunity with our mascot at the Tiger Kingdom was a no brainer. We motored through the green farmland in a tuk-tuk then approached the touristy entrance and paid our fee: Ash was to handle three month old cubs while I opted to enter the pen with two full grown Bengal tigers. Ash was on Cloud #9 with a rather large kitten splayed in her lap, another to her right. Their paws matched her hands in size and were ticklish as they slumbered the balmy afternoon away.

Greg Looking Nervous Bath Time

Din Din MorrisNext, I was eager to confront the big cats, until I stepped foot in their enclosure. The curator instructed me to avoid direct eye contact or get near their face, directions I took to heart. I was instantly entranced with their marbled white, orange, and black fur. Once acclimated to their immense size and recognizing my place in the food chain, the experience was monumental. I did as the two brother felines did; napping when they got some shut eye, relaxing when they lounged, and even helped them bathe. All the while respecting the largest cats on Earth. Safely out of the tiger’s territory, Ash and I watched adolescent tigers getting some exercise during an impromptu wrestle in a water basin. This scene made it impossibly clear that you don’t want to come across a tiger in the wild. As we were departing the Tiger Kingdom, we spied the cubs that Ashley handled, but this time they were wide awake as they made their way to a feeding of meat scraps.

Ram Hospital - Stitches Being Removed Ash's Thai Doctor

Stitches Being RemovedOne more visit to the Ramkhamhaeng Hospital for Ashley’s stitches to be removed and we were off to Pai, near the Thailand border with Myanmar (Burma). With a scalpel and forceps, Dr. Wongtrangkha expertly cut away the threads revealing a wound that would shortly disappear. Kudos to the Laos physician who bandaged her up. Though severely black and blue and still swollen, Ash and her cheek were ready for the next adventure atop an Asian elephant.

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) Amazing what $5 can do in SE Asia. Just 500 pennies upgraded us from a nasty hostel to a newer hotel with a slick rooftop deck. Keeping a fluid budget can make all the difference. Instead of losing sleep over roaches we were sprawling out in a queen sized bed with English television channels (English!).
2) Medical care in SE Asia compared to America is pleasantly cheap. Sure, the quality of care is not comparable, but two visits with a plastic surgeon and prescription ointment racked up a bill of $21.37. Our World Nomads insurance had a deductible of $100, so there was no point in even filing a claim.

3…2…1… Action – Handling Tigers & Bull Riding Elephants

Though an international hospital drew us to Thailand’s second largest city, Chiang Mai, we made the most of our stop by handling felines slightly larger than your domestic house cat. Once Ash’s facial stitches were removed, we neared the Myanmar border for relaxation in the sleepy town of Pai.

After carefully researching that the Tiger Kingdom does not mistreat their beautiful Bengals, Ash had the rare opportunity of having a pair of tiger cubs in her lap:

Away from noisy Chiang Mai is the sleepy village of Pai. Watch Greg successfully fulfill his dream of being in the rodeo, albeit on the back of an Asian elephant:

Yet his dreams came crashing down into the Pai River after Konsai had enough and tossed him into the muddy basin:

A bit hippie? Certainly, but Pai doesn’t discriminate and welcomes granolas like us to enjoy its serenity just the same:

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. Ash’s cousin was hospitalized in Thailand after contracting a bacterial infection from filthy water during a similar elephant experience. Though we did not suffer the same fate, the only reasonable way to wholly avoid this hazard is to have the elephants refrain from waterways.

A Heavenly Day Born In Hell

It was supposed to be a smashing day. Cruising Laos’ countryside via moto to the enchanting Kuangsi Waterfalls then back to charming Luang Prabang. By late afternoon, we would be living every world traveler’s nightmare in the unsavory emergency room of a third world country.

Asiatic Black BearAsh was not feeling well in the morning, so as she caught the requisite shuteye I negotiated a full day rental of a moto from our guesthouse. After yet another great breakfast in Luang Prabang, we set off for the thirty minute ride to the famed Kuangsi Waterfalls. Surrounded by green hills, curious schoolchildren on bicycle, and clean air, the leisurely ride was incredibly pleasant. We parked our simple moto in a dusty parking lot and followed other revelers into the park of cascading water. After visiting the Asiatic Black Bear Preserve, we came to a beautiful deep pool of emerald blue water enveloped in a green jungle scene complete with a sturdy tree reaching out with a rope swing. To the short queue I went, several times. On my fifth attempt, an awkward backflip was performed to the delight of the onlookers who grew tired of this lanky white man looking supremely nonathletic. Another hour passed as we explored the dashing scenery then made our way back to the parking lot.

Kuangsi Waterfall - Watering Hole Kuangsi Waterfall - Falls

Kuangsi Waterfall - Main FallWith helmets strapped to our heads and the camera around Ash’s neck, we headed back to our guesthouse in Luang Prabang. Along the same path we had traversed earlier, Ash snapped photos of our intriguing surroundings while I focused on the paved road. As we approached a small concave section of the route, I began riding the brakes in anticipation. Slowly crossing the indentation was simple enough, yet the operator ahead of us had taken it too fast and was losing control of his bike before he came to an abrupt stop directly in front of us. Faced with a split second decision, my brain processed the options: swerve off the road into the shrubs and trees, run into the rear of the now stationary moto, or try maneuvering around avoiding an accident altogether. As I turned the steering wheel to the left in an avoidance tactic, the bald tires lost grip of the asphalt strewn with gravel and the moto slid on its side. Ash’s body landed on my right side, but her left cheek met the camera edge that had struck the ground.

Greg Prepares for Death Defying Ride Greg on Rope Swing

Greg's Pitiful Attempt at Jump Off WaterfallMy first instinct was to check on Ashley’s well being and upon seeing all her limbs were operational, I angrily cursed the reckless driver ahead. I doubt the Laotian villager understood my verbal assault of English bullets. I turned focus back to Ashley who was on her feet, but holding her bleeding face, clearly terrified. Though several passing motorists offered us assistance back to Luang Prabang, we opted for our moto that was still fully operational. We arrived back in Luang Prabang after a tortuous ride where a rickshaw was hired to take Ash to the hospital. Pulling up to the single story hospital with an interior outdoor concourse, I hastily parked the moto and ran in with Ash. The receptionist nonchalantly told us to find a doctor, any doctor. Having no luck locating a physician after five minutes, Ash took a bed near the entrance to rest while I continued the hunt.

Moto Ride - Greg Driving Laos Town

I continued a near frantic search for someone to attend my beloved gal until I found myself back at the entrance. A miniature dump truck had pulled up and four men, each grasping a limb, were hurriedly carrying a bloodied Laotian man in his mid 20s. This time, the receptionist sprang into action, directing the unlikely rescuers to place the critically injured man in the bed directly beside Ashley. Me beside her, only three feet separated Ashley and the frightened man. Blood dripped from his nose, ears, and mouth. His eyes were lucid and frenzied, as if seeing the world for the first time. It is an image etched in each of our minds for eternity. Two doctors appeared shortly after his arrival and it was clear the man’s prognosis was dire. As if on cue, my eyes met Ashley’s and we shuffled out of the room. We made our way into an empty hospital room where we prayed together. Ten minutes passed until a doctor came in to evaluate Ashley. Her first inquiry was not about her face, but about the man’s well being. He smirked, then said matter of factly, “Oh that guy, he dead.”

Ash Being Creative with Camera Laos School Kids

The physician cleaned up Ash’s cheek with sterile supplies then announced stitches would be required. We were apprehensive, asking about his credentials. Comfortable with his education, experience, and supplies, he quickly inserted five stitches in Ash’s white cheek. As we barraged him with follow-up questions, shrieks and breaking glass came raining down across the courtyard. The perished man’s family had arrived and were beside themselves with grief. Ash and I sat in the third world hospital with our hands entwined, heads bowed, tears glistening on our faces. How did we end up here?

Ash's Cut Cheek Ash's Cheek Injury After Moto Accident

The physician set a date and time to remove the stitches six days later. Not a chance we were going back to that Laos hospital. The next day we purchased plane tickets to Chiang Mai, Thailand where an international hospital was located. The days after the moto accident were amongst our toughest in fourteen months on the world road. Had I not slowed the moto in anticipation of the dip as much as I did, we could have ended up like the poor soul who passed away that Spring day when his motorbike lost to a truck. The lessons yielded from this horrific experience are numerous. Yet my recollection focuses on the man’s face recognizing the end and my poor judgment at the wheel. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t blame myself for hurting the girl I love more than anything.

- Greg & Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. Up to this point in our trip, we had luck on our side. Nothing had been stolen, zero injuries, and just one near death experience on a volcano in Chile. But you can’t just rely on luck. I was careful driving the moto by purposely going slow and we wore helmets. Yet even these precautions weren’t enough.  So consider the risk / return on your activities.
  2. Travel in the third world is cheap, but that also reflects the status of local health care. Money is not available for full medical staffs, late model equipment, or modern facilities. Keep this in mind when visiting a place such as Laos. For example, a British girl had blacked out due to low blood sugar and knocked out seven teeth, two penetrating her upper lip. The Luang Prabang hospital did all they could for her, but were limited by their resources.

Powered by Wordpress | Designed by Elegant Themes