Navigating Bangkok: A Day of Sights, Sounds, and Grab Rides

March 8, 2024, part 1

After an uneventful flight over and an evening to get settled, we hit the ground running checking out the sights in the Old Town of Bangkok plus some other very Thai experiences.  We're staying at an Airbnb in Sathorn which is just steps away from a BTS (Skytrain) station.  There are many different transit companies in Bangkok-- one operates the "Skytrain,"  one operates the MRT, there's the train company that operates some lines, there are the ferry companies, and then loads of bus companies.  Most you can pay with a "rabbit card (other than MRT "and train services), so we picked one up first at the BTS station near our house.  We decided, though, since there wasn't a great way to get to the palace on transit that we would take a cab.  Grab bought out Uber here, so it's the primary way to order a taxi unless you want to flag one down.  Even though taxis advertise meters on their flags, you still have to negotiate; no one uses their meter.  There is a separate app for sam lors (the Thai version of a tuk-tuk) called Movmi, but you need a Thai phone number to get that one to work.  You can, though, order a motorcycle/scooter ride from Grab.

We ordered our Grab and it took a while for it to get to us, but in the end it took about 30 minutes to get to the Grand Palace.  Bangkok became the Thai capital in the late 18th century, and most of the monumental architecture comes from that period (for musical theater junkies, think "The King and I") with some later renovations and additions through the 19th century.  The Grand Palace was by far the most crowded of the sites we saw, but for good reason; there wasn't a surface anywhere on any of the buildings that wasn't adorned in some way.  The Palace is actually a series of buildings, and you don't actually get to go into the "palace" per se, which is the European neoclassical building with a Thai style spired roofline.  Stephen had been here 25 years ago and had forgotten how intricate and ornate it was.

The Wat with the Emerald Buddha is in the Grand Palace.  Stephen remembered not being that impressed with it, and Eli, after seeing it, concurred.  It's up high and is quite small; most of the emerald color is covered in the gowns that the King changes 3 times a year to go along with the Thai seasons.

From there we waled to Wat Chetuphon, which is the home of the giant reclining Buddha.  This was was more impressive than Stephen remembered.  They have a Thai massage school here, so you can get a massage.  Stephen remembered it being in an open-air pavilion so you could watch people getting pummeled and stretched.  Now the pavilions are enclosed in frosted glass and air conditioned, so it's not as much of a spectacle anymore (and we couldn't get pictures).

We're here in the middle of the hot season and temperatures are in the mid to upper 90's F.  Modest dress is required for the Grand Palace and Wat Chetuphon, meaning covered knees.  Stephen is handling this by wearing shorts and brining a pair of wide-legged Thai fisherman's pants to pull over his shorts when necessary.  Eli is wearing his hiking pants with zip-off legs.  Neither is keeping us very cool.

We were hungry so we stopped in at a small eatery near the Wat and had green papaya salad and pork neck with rice; both were tasty.  We then figured we'd take the ferry back to the dock near the BTS and take the train from there.  When we got to the front of the line for the ferry, though, we were told that the only ferry now serving this pier is the one that goes back and forth the Wat Arun.  So seeing as it was on our list to see anyway, we sucked it up and explored there for a while.

The design of Wat Arun is similar to the other wats in the Grand Palace and Wat Chetuphon.  It is a live operating monastery, though, and is crawling with monks in saffron robes.  The notable design feature of the stupas at Wat Arun is that they were mostly adorned with mosaics made of leftover Chinese pottery brought over as ballast in trading ships.

Bangkok Nights: A Culinary Adventure at 100 Mahaseth and a Calypso Cabaret

March 8, 2024, part 2

We rested for a while back at the Airbnb and then tried to order a cab to get to our dinner reservation at 100 Mahaseth, a Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant.  For loyal readers of our blog, you'll remember that Bib Gourmands are restaurants that are recognized by Michelin  as being good value and local favorites--  think "star adjacent."  We ordered a Grab, but he barely moved for 20 minutes trying to get to us.  Rush hour is notoriously brutal in the Thai capital.  The big residential buildings have staff who stand in the traffic lanes with a flag to allow cars exiting from their buildings to enter into traffic.  We decided we didn't want to be late, so we figured we'd hoof it, but we thought better of that after about 10 minutes into a 30 minute walk in the Bangkok heat.  We ended up flagging a cab on the street as we were walking, and it cost us about $3 more than what the Grab would have, but we arrived not too sweaty.

The restaurant is meat focused, and has lots of interesting takes on marinated meats and offal.  They start with a complimentary set of chutneys and greens that help to cut down some of the fattiness of the other food along with some Thai chicharones (which is the Spanish word for fried pork rinds).  We also got a complimentary order of fried pork intestines by accident, but we're glad we got to try them; they were light and very crispy.  The standouts for us were the fermented pork ribs (not as bad as it sounds), and the chicken lollipops.  The chutneys went well with the meats in addition to the greens.

We booked a show for afterward at Calypso, which is a "ladyboy" show.  There are a number of these shows around town, primarily aimed at the tourist trade, but we thought we should experience it as well.  Drag as it has developed in the US over time, is not really known in other places.  Drag here isn't really separate from the Trans experience.  With that said, for us, this was nothing more than a regular cabaret performance... a pretty straight one at that.  Our favorite was a performer who did Liza's "Maybe this time."  She clearly had studies a Liza performance or had a very good command of English, as her emotive gestures were spot on and fairly complex for the interpretation of the song.  They know their audience well and did mostly big-band era numbers (with a random Patti Labelle and a Rhianna one thrown in).  They did a couple numbers in Chinese, and a cringe-worthy rendition of Hava Nagila (yup, that's right... there are a lot of Israeli tourists in Thailand).   Our musings were more about the performers, their lives, and what the mostly straight audience got out of this performance.  The show is daily, twice a night, so we wondered if this was the only job that the performers had (were were able to answer that question partially a little later in the evening), and if it was a comfortable life for them or if there was still enough discrimination here that there were few other avenues for a trans person here that this was the best option of few available.  We wondered if the focus of the audience was on the "illusion"  or the sense of disbelief that these are "boys" in front of them.  We could see that as being all that they could/would get out of this.

From the show, we headed by sam lor to Silom Soi 2 and 4, which is the area with the most gay bars.  Stephen instantly remembered the alley, but it had also changed quite a bit.  There were now tables spilling out from the bars into the alleyway and most people were socializing and drinking at the tables outside.  We found a table at a bar and sat and watched the crowd go by for a while.  Mixed drinks were not particularly cheap ($10), but then again, we've been spoiled being in India and Nepal the last few months.  We went into one of the bars, just thinking we'd check out the scene, but we got ushered to a table again as the "show" was going to start.  Who should be in the show but some of the performers we remembered from Calypso.  After the show there, they come to the bars and do shows here (thankfully with different numbers).  Bars here have to close at 2, so we stayed for a little while and then walked about 25 minutes back to our flat.

Venturing Through Bangkok's Chinatown and Other Sights: A Feast for the Senses

March 9, 2024

Today we decided to check out the sights, sounds, and smells of Chinatown here.  We used the BTS and MRT.  You can use your credit card for tap to pay at the turnstiles for the MRT, so we did that in addition to using our rabbit card for the BTS.  We stopped first to see the flower market, which is a  a couple stops further down the MRT line from Chinatown.  The market is open 24 hours and is busiest early in the morning, but there was still lots to see.  The sea of gold from the marigolds doesn't translate in the photos, but it was overwhelming.  They also have a section with fruits and vegetables.  We checked out Wat Mangkon, which is the Chinese style Buddhist wat in Bangkok.  Lots of red lanterns.  From there we roamed the streets of shops selling all kinds of goods.  We stopped to get some durian from a street vendor.  It kind of reminded us a little of guanabana as it was custardy with only a hint of the funk that it is known for.  Finally we ended up at Nai Mong Hoi Tod for lunch.  This is a Michelin mentioned food stall that is known for their oyster omelets.  We had to wait for a bit for a table, but when we sat down, the food came quickly.  We ordered 4 dishes to share: a crispy oyster omelet, a soft oyster omelet, crab fried rice, and smoked duck breast.  You can order small, medium, or large sizes of all the dishes, and we ordered smalls so that we could taste more.  The four dishes were plenty and the  total was $12.  We liked the crispy oyster omelet the best, but it was great to try the other things as well.

We didn't want our day to end, so we decided to continue sight seeing and we took a bus to the Golden Mount Temple.  The bus driver couldn't figure out how to use her scanner to use our rabbit cards (apparently they are not common on the bus) and it seemed as if she wasn't interested in trying, so we just paid the cash fare and rode.  The temple is built high on a hill and is known for it's views and the golden stupa, although right now is is shrouded for restoration.  There are 344 steps up, but it's not that bad; the steps are quite shallow and we did two at a time on the way up.

From there we took another ferry that runs down one of the east-west canals.  This one is more like a large longboat.  There are a bunch of ferries that connect to each other down this canal, so you could conceivable get a day pass and ride all the way down the canal through all kinds of different neighborhoods.  We enjoyed our 30 minute jaunt and saw some idea of what what old Bangkok life would have been like.  We were heading to the Jim Thompson House.  Jim Thompson was a former army officer who came to Thailand after WWII and ended up reviving the silk fabric manufacturing trade here.  He built himself a home with of typical Thai construction right on the canal.  His business is still in operation, but he mysteriously disappeared in 1969 hiking in the hills of Myanmar.  The house and grounds are beautiful, but there are lots of visitors, so you have to go on a scheduled tour.  You can get your tickets online in advance, but we hadn't done that so we had to wait about 45 minutes before we could leave on the next available tour.  It was fine, though, as they had a small museum display about his business and a shop to look at some of the wares that the company is still selling.

We were tired, so we used Grab to order in dinner like Uber eats.  We ordered from a dim sum place since we thought that would transit well, but it wasn't very good.

Unveiling Bangkok's Hidden Treasures: Suan Pakkad Palace and Marble Temple

March 11, 2024

We took the previous day easy due to Stephen's work schedule and had just a so-so meal nearby.  Today Eli started by trying to see a chiropractor, but he couldn't get in as a walk-in so he sucked it up and we went touring again, starting first at the Suan Pakkad Palace, another museum of traditional Thai architecture.  It was a mishmash of historical artifacts, some from the pre-bronze age all the way through 20th century furniture.  It had some information on one of the most important pre-bronze age archeological finds in SE Asia at Ban Chiang.  Our favorites was the musical instrument displays and the lacquer house.  It was practically empty on the day we visited, so that could be more enjoyable to wander and soak up ambiance vs. the Jim Thompson house.  

We tried to take a bus back toward the river (it was stuck in traffic for 30 minutes) to see Wat Benchamabophit, which is known as the marble temple.  You lose the effect of the marble walls from far away, and in the interior, it's just the floor that is marble,  so we can't say there was anything super-remarkable about it.  We did like the huge drum with an extra resonance chamber.  There weren't really many restaurants around, so we took a sam lor to the river and found a place to eat there (apparently where Sam Smith had eaten prior to their concert in Bangkok... a photo and dedication was on the placemat).  Our meal was just okay, and not cheap, but we did have nice views of the river.

The Thai musical scale vs. the European.  

Day Trip to Ayutthaya: A Journey Through Thailand's Former Capital

March 12, 2024

We woke up on the early side today to take a day trip to Ayutthaya, one of the former capitals of Thailand.  It was the capital from about the 14th century through the 18th century when it was established at Bangkok.  Sukhothai, which we'll see later this week was the capital prior to Ayutthaya.

You can get to Ayutthaya by train or by mini-tourist van.  There are trains about every hour in the morning until 10am (some with aircon and some without) that take between 50 minutes and and hour and a half to get there depending on how many stops they make in between.  The long-distance trains are the ones with aircon, but the seats on those trains don't open up for short trips until the day before departure.  You can buy tickets for trains on the official SRT website.  Tourist van tickets you can get on, and they say the trip takes 1:30 (but traffic here is highly variable).  The trains with aircon were about $7 a ticket, the vans at $4.  It's $2 for open seating on a non-aircon train or a non-aircon car on a long distance train.  We opted to see if we could get tickets the day before for an air-con train, and if we couldn't we'd take the tourist van.  The tourist van stop is about a 10 minute drive from the train station.  We found tickets for the aircon train at 8:45am and figured we'd figure out how to get back later because we weren't sure how long we would want to stay.

Our train was on time, making only one stop along the way.  We didn't realize how spread out some of the sites we would want to see are, so we decided to get a sam lor to take us around, as we did in Lumbini in Nepal.  There is a sam lor syndicate just outside the train station.  It is about 25 dollars for 3 hours or $33 for 5 hours.  We told them we'd do the 3 hour and if we needed more time we'd pay the driver extra.  Stephen had looked at which temples were the highlights in the Lonely Planet, but we ended up figuring we'd let our sam lor driver guide us.  In the end he took us to one temple that we really liked that we didn't even have marked.

The wats/temples are all relatively similar.  They were constructed in brick and then stuccoed, but much of the stucco has fallen off, giving them a very interesting look of mixed materials.  The stucco that is left reveals quite a bit of carving that would have resembled some of the later temples we saw in Bangkok (although it was unclear if they had been polychromed), but we really enjoyed the much more austere look of the plain materials.  Some stupas had the more pointed Thai design, and others had a more Khmer design that was rounded at top (which we actually thought resembled central Indian design a bit).  Each wat also had a model of what it would have looked like before being ransacked by the Burmese army and falling into neglect.  It'll be interesting to compare Ayutthaya to Sukhothai when we get there.

In all, we spent 3 hours touring, but could imagine others spending 4 hours as well.  Being there for sunset/sunrise and being able to see the temples in the changing sky of that hour would be worth it also.  You can still do that in a day trip for the sunset and come back to Bangkok at night.  We decided around 11am that we would be done by 2ish, so got online and got one of the last tickets available for the air-con 3:45 train.  We had enough time to stop and eat at a hawker stall right across from the train station that was recommended by our sam lor driver.

For dinner we headed to a mentioned Michelin restaurant in the neighborhood, Baan Somtum Sathorn.  It was probably the best food on the cheaper side than we've encountered so far, our meal coming in at 27 bucks.  We're thinking we might even go back for dinner tomorrow and try all new stuff.

Our transport for the day

Hawker stall food.

Hawker stall food

Discover Sukhothai: Exploring the Magnificent Ruins of Thailand's Past

March 14 and 15, 2024

We're traveling to Sukhothai today via Buddha Air.  They're the only airline that serves Sukhothai airport (which is about 35 minutes from the historical area). There is another airport in Phitsanulok, which is about another 30 minutes further, and they have services from more airlines as well as being on the main train line between Bangkok and Chiang Mai.  There is Sukhothai town, and then the Sukhothai Historic Park area about a 15 minute drive from the town.  We're staying a 10 minute walk from the entrance to the central zone of the historic area and we think that makes the most sense.  Sukhothai was the capital from the 13th-15th centuries, prior to Ayutthaya, so we're interested to see how the architecture might differ.  We're leaving early morning (7am flight) to give us two full days here because we're not quite sure how much time we'll want to spend and Stephen has to work tonight and will need to sleep tomorrow.

We got to our hotel by 9am and were able to check in and drop our bags, so we decided we'd head to the historic area.  The park is set up in zones, with each zone having a separate entrance fee.  The central zone is where most of the restored sites are, and you can traverse that, if you have a bicycle, in about an hour and a half to two hours.  There are also sights to see in the North, West, and South zones, but by far the majority are in the central zone.  We made the mistake of renting a golf cart for about $7 an hour since it was hot and we didn't think we would want to bike to the other zones.  It turns out, though, that (at least the company we rented from) doesn't let you take the golf carts beyond the central zone.  The park is very well shaded by trees, so we ditched out golf cart and ended up renting bikes(for $1 for the day) after our first hour of golf-carting.  Our hotel, and many others, offer bikes for free but we didn't want to go back to the hotel to pick them up.  With the trees and the breeze from the moving bike, we were fine, although definitely very sweaty.  

The architecture here is very similar to that in Ayutthaya, with brick stupas with some remaining stucco decoration.  There were some really beautiful ruins here, just like in Ayutthaya, in about equal proportion.  Just for ease of access (as a day trip from Bangkok) we would recommend Ayutthaya, but Sukhothai is worth it also.  After about 3.5  hours, we were drenched with sweat (temperatures in the high 90s F), and so headed back to our hotel to cool off from the hot afternoon sun.  We were able to make it to the Central, North, and West zones in that time, so we'll check out the South zone tomorrow.  You could really do Sukhothai in a day with an early morning arrival like we had, but being able to relax in the heat of mid-day was worth it.

For dinner, we walked to a local restaurant near the historical park that was just okay.

The next morning, Stephen slept in a bit and then we took the hotel's bikes to the southern zone to check out some of the stupas there.  One in particular had still a good deal of stucco carving on it.  For dinner tonight we had wanted to try Sukhothai noodles, which is a thing that Sukhothai is known for (go figure), but the "origin restaurant" (Jay Hae)   for this closes at 3 and we were too busy napping in the afternoon.  We to a Grab to Sukhothai town and had dinner at a local restaurant that does Sukhothai noodles.  They were good, but we didn't thing there was anything special in flavor about these noodles (other than being generally very  tasty).  Maybe what we got wasn't actually Sukhothai noodles as we weren't at the originator restaurant.  

 Chiang Mai Chronicles: Navigating to Northern Thailand's Urban Oasis and a Night at the Market

March 16 and 17, 2024

We're talking a bus today to Chiang Mai, so we're leaving the hotel at 7:30 to do the 15 minute trip to town (our hotel got us a sam lor instead of a cab).  It was nice and cool with the air rushing at us from the open bed of the sam lor, but our luggage was precariously placed.  Eli didn't give up his leaning poster over his backpack the entire ride.  The bus took about 6 hours (the drive in a car is about 4).  The buses we've taken in India and here seem to stop frequently (more frequently that we would) for toilet and snack breaks.  You can take a train or fly, but you'd have to go to Phitsanulok, which is an hour and 10 minutes away.

Chiang Mai is the 2nd largest city in Thailand and considered the "Rose of the North."  Right now, though, it's an air pollution nightmare, with the worst air pollution in the world on the day we arrived.  This is a combination of the hot weather (over 100 F), the auto exhausts, being hemmed in by mountains, and the burning of the fields that happens at this time of year.  You can't really see the hills around the city due to the haze, unfortunately.

We got settled, went to a supermarket to pick up breakfast foods, and then headed to early dinner as Stephen had to work at 8.  We headed to Chum Northern Kitchen.  We probably didn't make the best selections, as we thought our meal was just so-so, but it was very popular, so maybe we just had a bad night of ordering.

The next night we went out for a disappointing meal of ribs, and Eli headed to the night market while Stephen got ready for work.

From Temples to Tastebuds: A Day of Discovery in Chiang Mai

March 18, 2024

After taking off Sunday from sightseeing, we headed out today with a vengeance, trying to tick off as many of the temples in the old town as we conceivably could before we gave up due to the heat.  Chiang Mai is also known as the town of wats, as there are over 300 wats in the city alone.  We went based on the recommendation of Lonely Planet and hit Wat Phra Sing Woramahawihan, Wat Phantao, Wat Chedi Luang, and Wat Sri Suphan (the silver temple).  Each one had a slightly different style, and there is a slightly different style here in the north overall than there was in Bangkok, especially with many wat buildings made out of teak wood.  Shockingly, some of the temples, including the silver temple, were off limits to women due the fear of menstruation, unfortunately.  With that said, we felt like these temples gave a pretty good representation of a variety of styles, but will look forward to some other ones we could see.  At about noon, as the temperature was rising again to 100F, we decided to head to have a light lunch at Hannah Cafe  and then rest before our cooking experience starting at 3pm.

Our cooking experience started with time to shop at a local neighborhood market.  Our host, Aek, said that these days, it's easier for even Thais to pick up readymade meals at a market rather than cooking from scratch.  There were lots of prepared foods available.  We sampled the fried sweet potato and banana while we were there.  We're joined by a couple from France near Nice, and another couple from Mumbai.  We picked up some fruit to snack on (including the water apple that we had seen before but not yet tried) and then supplies for the four different dishes that we were making EACH!  Yes, we each got to pick one dish out of 4 in each of 4 courses.  How Aek managed to keep track of everything and have everyone's dishes come out okay was a mystery, but he did it.  Most of the dishes we cooked only required about 5 minutes on the wok and the rest was preparation.  Aek said that's because  of the heat in Thailand; cooks developed recipes that did not require lots of time over the hot stove.

Of the 8 dishes we made (4 each between the two of us), our favorites were the Kao Soi noodles (a local Chiang Mai specialty) and the papaya salad, which we had had before, but had not been this fresh feeling.  We felt like we had just the right amount of dressing for it not to get too soggy.  For dessert, we made a pumpkin in coconut milk dish that was surprisingly sweet and creamy, and reminded us a lot of the baby coconut desert we had with Gayathri when we were in Chennai last month.  By the end we couldn't eat any more so took doggie bags home for two of our dishes.

Adventures around Chiang Mai: Elephant Encounters and Waterfall Climbing

March 19, 2024

Our friend Robyn had just recently been to Thailand celebrating a big birthday.  We were disappointed that our timelines didn't line up to join her at least for a part, but we got to benefit from her experience here.  She had a great time on a 3 part day excursion that included an elephant sanctuary, a bit of whitewater rafting, and a climb up "sticky waterfall" Bua Tong Nam.  

When Stephen was here 25 years ago, it was just 10 years after the Thai government had banned logging and the use of elephants to harvest and transport the logs.  This left the animals, who were habituated to humans and could not be returned naturally to the wild, and their human handlers, mahouts, without work.  To incentivize the mahouts to give up their work in the logging industry and to provide money for the care of the elephants, the government allowed them to set up sanctuary and to provide tourists with elephant rides and other experiences.  Since elephants have such long lives, conceivably something would be available for the next 50 years or so, even from today.  With better knowledge of animal welfare, rides are no longer permitted, but you can still interact with the elephants, feeding them and "bathing" them (although elephants don't really need to bathe).  We enjoyed getting quite close to the animals, and it was very clear, even more so than what we saw in India, that the mahouts (mostly young Thai men), have a special relationship with the animals they care for.  Tourist visitors come for about 1.5 hours twice a day.  With that said, the domesticated elephants are still allowed to breed, and there were a number of baby elephants that we met at our sanctuary.  While very cute (who doesn't love a baby animal), it raised concerns for us that this may not be a temporary measure anymore.

Our next stop was for some "whitewater" rafting.  It was nice to be close to the water on such a hot day, but the water level in the river was so low, we got stuck a bunch of times as we traveled down the river.  It didn't help that one of our raftmates (there were only 4 of us) was more interested in playing that rowing.  Robyn had been here just 6 weeks ago and the water level was much better, so only avoid this if you're here in March-May before the rains start again.

Our next stop to the falls we enjoyed quite a bit.  The falls are made of travertine like the cliffs in Pamukkale,  Turkey, where we had been.  The water running over the travertine gives it many micro-abrasions and so they are quite "sticky" to walk up.  It was a lot of fun climbing up the falls and quite beautiful in places (we're not just referring to the eye candy of spring breakers).

For dinner, we tried going to a Bib Gourmand restaurant without a reservation, but they were all full, so we walked back to Goodsouls Kitchen, a vegan restaurant.  We had a really great meal (with dessert).  Stephen's Kao Soi burger was the standout that was a homemade mushroom patty with a remoulade of all the flavors that go into Kao Soi noodles that we made at our cooking experience yesterday.  Eli had a pretty good falafel.  And we'll head to that Bib Gourmand restaurant tomorrow for lunch, instead.

A heavy rain came at about 10pm tonight.  Hopefully that means that it will be cooler tomorrow.

A Cool Day in Chiang Mai: Temples, Museums, and Bib Gourmand Cuisine

March 20, 2024

Eli went to the gym this morning, and Stephen had a crisis with work, so we got started around 10:00am,  Thankfully it is much cooler today and you can even see some of the hillsides since the rain would have doused many of the fires going on.  We went to a couple of temples that we hadn't yet seen that were recommended by Lonely Planet, including Wat Lok Moi.  From there we headed to the Lana Folklife museum.  It was great as a rest stop if you are in need of some air conditioning, and the exhibits on local weaving were the best, but the museum wasn't great overall, and the descriptions in English didn't give enough context to really help us interpret some of the exhibits.  We then headed to the museum of Lana Architecture, which is housed in a colonial era home from a local royal family.  It housed a lot of models of buildings in the area and gave cross sections of their construction, but as a traditional home, some of the ones we saw in Bangkok were more interesting to us.

For lunch, we went to Baan Landai, which was the Bib Gourmand restaurant we couldn't get into last night.  We shared 5 dishes and the total was $38.  It was Eli's favorite meal so far.  We had two of their recommended specialties, the pork ribs in red wine sauce, and the pork tom yum brown curry, neither of which we had seen at any other restaurant so far.  The lotus flower cups were a great explosion of different flavors (although the flower as such didn't taste like much), and the fried mushrooms came with a great tangy/spicy salad to accompany.  We still love Bib Gourmands.

We've got enough leftovers from all of our meals so far that we're just going to chill tonight and feast on that.

Good Food and Nighttime Escapades in Chiang Mai

March 21 and 22, 2024

We had a couple of really nice, but maybe not exceptional, meals on the east side of old town near the river.  The first was at The House by Ginger (a Bib Gourmand), and the second was Ekachan (a Michelin mention).  Friday night we headed out to some of the gay bars in Chiang Mai.  They consist of a few bars with shows and then some seedier bars with billiard tables and cheap drinks.  We passed by Ram first; its the eastern most bar on the strip near the night market.  They were doing some sort of hosted karaoke before the show started around 11 so we figured we'd come back.  We headed further west and found a couple of bars with billiards tables in them.  Stephen remembered these from his first trip here 25 years ago.  They haven't updated anything from then.  There were mostly older white guys hanging out, with a few having younger local men hanging out with them.  We decided after a drink that the scene at Ram was more interesting, so we headed back there.  The show was just starting so we grabbed a seat.  Most of the drag shows in Thailand have male presenting back up dancers doing all kinds of choreography.  The two women sitting in front of us at the bar either were frequent guests or new one of the dancers because they were doing all the moves along with the backup dancers (only just slightly more constrained by the fact that there were people in front and behind them).  It was very cute.

Phuket Getaway: Sun, Sand, and Steak

March 24, 2024

We arrived safely in Phuket.  Phuket is a large island just of the mainland peninsula.  We're staying in Kamala beach, which is a quieter area with mostly families and Russian tourists, but it's a 15 minute cab ride from Patong beach, which is the epicenter of the spring break party style beach vacation with all the excesses that come with it.  The beaches in Phuket are fine; the sand is quite soft and fine.  The tide at Kamala beach recedes and extends quite a bit (we're here on a full moon besides) and it all happens quite fast.  You can understand why tourists and residents were caught off guard when the tsunami hit.... it may have just looked like the tide receding as it normally does.  There are some areas with beach chairs and umbrellas, so we headed there to get some shade from the oppressive sun.  Later in the day the breeze kicked up and it was quite pleasant under the shade.  Earlier in the day we were still sweating even under the umbrellas.  The water temperature is around 86F, what we consider perfect beach water temperature as Floridians.  

For dinner, we headed to Public House Phuket.  It's relatively new; like many beach towns, restaurants come and go frequently.  Eli had a great burger and Stephen had a pretty good ribeye.  

Exploring Ao Phang Nga Bay: Adventures Amidst Limestone Islands

March 25, 2024

Today we headed to Ao Phang Nga bay for a boating trip and sea canoe ride into some of the limestone islands in the bay.  We chose John Gray Sea Canoe as recommended in Lonely Planet.  We arrived at a central loading point where all the tours going out that day leave from.  While we were sitting waiting to be called, we overheard an obnoxious 20something straight guy from Australia loudly blaming all his country's problems on the queers and lamenting on how we love to parade around town wearing thongs (not flip flops).  Meanwhile his girlfriend was wearing quite a skimpy suit exposing most of her butt.  He had seemed to find a sympathetic ear in a couple from South Africa.  We were hoping this guy wasn't going to be on our boat, but alas, he was.  He did end up shutting up once he got on the boat and realized he was outnumbered... there were probably 5 other pairs of queer couples on the boat in addition to us.  And the couple from South Africa made a point to stay away from him as much as possible.

The main boat took us about 45 minutes from the pier to Phanak Island where we canoed around and then into, yes... into, the island.  We entered through the bat cave where we had to lower ourselves flat on our back to enter (hence why we can't paddle ourselves).  The cave connects to an internal freshwater lagoon which was created with the same processes as the cenotes in the Yucatan in Mexico.  We paddled through a couple of different interconnected lagoons and then to the perimeter of the island through another cave.  Our next stop, Hong Island, was a bit more crowded, but our tour skips James Bond Island for that reason.

We had a little free time to swim at a small beach or paddle our own canoes for a bit, they served dinner as we watched the sunset and then we headed back to Phanak island to go back to the bat cave, this time to see the bioluminescent plankton.  It's not like in the movies where you see a constant glow, but every time you disturb the water with your hand or with the paddle, you see little sparks of light flash (but not enough to get any pictures).

John Gray has a well oiled machine and they are very cognizant of the guest experience.  The food for lunch and dinner was equal or better than the food we had on our boats in the Kerala backwaters and on our cruise in the Galapagos.  The offering we created and lit was a smart way to give everyone something to do while a few boats at a time went into the dark area of the cave to see the plankton.  We'd highly recommend them.

Discovering Old Phuket Town and Patong:  A Cultural Escape from the Crowds and a Night Immersed in Them

March 26, 2024

Having seen some great limestone islands, we decided to skip going to Koh Phi Phi on a boat.  If you've seen the Leonardo DiCaprio film, "The Beach," that's the island where the filmed it.  It is quite beautiful as limestone islands go, but everything everyone has said about it is that it is way crowded and hard to enjoy the beauty with all the tour boats hovering around all afternoon.  The one thing we missed would have been the good snorkeling around the island, but we'll get plenty of that at Koh Tao, where we're heading next.  Instead, after a aborted scooter rental (don't ask, but Stephen has a gash on his shin now as a result), we took a Grab taxi (actually a Bolt, whose app we also downloaded... it helps to check which has the better rate to any destination on the island) to  Old Phuket Town, a 45 minute trip from Kamala beach with traffic.  It was originally settled by the Chinese and Portuguese, so has an interesting architectural style.  There are a number of Bib Gourmand restaurants in Old town.  We had a spectacular meal at one of them, The Charm Dining Gallery.  It's housed in one of the old style homes and it's an interesting juxtaposition of the Portuguese design and furnishings with local southern Thai specialties.  We followed the Michelin guide's recommendations to order, and we weren't disappointed.

We walked around a bit and then headed back to Kamala beach to rest.  Since it was really our only night in Phuket where Stephen didn't have to work or we didn't have something planned, we decided to take a cab to Patong to check out the gay scene there.  Paton is like spring break 24/7-365.  It's got the tricked out taxis for groups, tattoo parlors everywhere, and lots of weed shops (Thailand made marijuana legal for recreational use prior to the pandemic, but that may be changing again soon.  

Like in Bangkok, the gay bars are all clustered on two soi (or alleyways) known as Soi Paradise, with the actual bars on one and the massage parlors/rentboy houses on the other.  Zag is the biggest bar/club on the soi, but all the bars have tables on the street so it makes it one big bar in the end.  The only challenge here is that the street is still open to occasional traffic, so the dancers from the shows dancing in the street occasionally have to quickly move out of the way lest they get run over.  We didn't see any near misses, but we could imagine it happening frequently.  It was a Tuesday night, so probably not as busy as it would be on a weekend, but this is a vacation town, so like Mykonos, the clubs are going every night.  We took a seat at Zag on the street, and then headed afterward to Cruise club where the street show had ended and they were hustling people inside for the show to continue there.  We stayed there for another drink and then headed home.  

Pot that meets the Halal standard?!?!?!  Oh... the shawarma...

Koh Tao: Diving Depths and Hilltop Views

March 28-April 4, 2024

When looking for a beach island destination, we ended up settling on Koh Tao because it is known as having some of the best and most accessible diving in Thailand.  We're staying in a private villa up the hill from the main town beach.  We've got a private plunge pool and a magnificent view (which we keep photographing daily).  There are a couple of annoying aspects to our place, though.  The first is that, due to the electricity situation, we can only run the aircon unit in either the bedroom or the living room but not both at the same time.  It works out fine most of the time, except in the heat of the late afternoon.  The second is that being on a hill above town means that, while we have an incredible view, we have to climb back up that hill after going out for dinner or have to get a taxi.  Even if we were much better scooter riders than we are, the road up to our place is so steep (and not in great condition) that we don't think advanced riders should try it either.  The taxi mafia here, though, is even worse than in Phuket, so a 5 minute ride back to our place from town center is costing us about $12.   Since it's not regulated at all and anyone can become a taxi,  you have to wonder why someone doesn't come in and undercut the prices that the independent operators are all charging, but maybe there really is a mafia enforcing that here.  

We've definitely been feeling our age here.  Most of the island is populated by 20somethings on vacation (not that we mind the eye candy).  The town has a pedestrianized strip, which makes it nice to stroll, and it's much more laid back that Patong in Phuket, even if it attracts a similar crowd.  Of the three islands in this chain, Koh Samui is the most well known and developed at this point, Koh Phangan is the least developed and known as the hippie island where they do the full moon party every month, and Koh Tao is known for the diving.

Eli was much more excited about starting diving again than Stephen, but we both took a refresher course from Roctopus, which included a review of skills for about 2 hours (one on land and one in the water) and then two dives to 18 meters.  Eli decided to do his advanced certification which is two days and includes 5 dives.  He figured it was only slightly more expensive than doing 5 dives by themselves and he got the extra certification for it.  We had a very positive experience with the staff at Roctopus, and would definitely recommend them.  Stephen is enjoying catching up on rest and enjoying the beautiful view from the infinity pool at our villa.

Restaurant-wise, we've had pretty good success here.  We had a nice first meal at The Garden, which was traditional French.  Stephen had duck leg confit and Eli had a really good roast half chicken.  We stopped at the French Market just down the street to pick up croissants for breakfast the next day (although they never are quite as good the next day).  They also do bistro food and panini.  Our next meal at Barracuda was just okay.  The highlights were the crispy jackfruit and Stephen's vegan carbonara.  It was one of the more expensive meals we had had by about $20 and we weren't sure the food was any better.  We got tons of leftovers from our lunch at 995 Roast Duck, which is famous on the island.  The portions were huge and we had a whole other meal to take home with us that Stephen can have while Eli is out doing his night dive.  We celebrated Eli's completion of his certification at Whitening.  It was labled as a fusion restaurant, so Eli was skeptical as he feels that is way overused these days.  Our meal was excellent, though, with fresh flavors and, truly, a fusion of flavors.  We had local oysters as an appetizer that were huge and flavorful.  Eli had a sea bass that was just Thai enough that it cured his jonesing for those flavors.  Stephen had a magret de canard with a passion fruit sauce that was also a very good execution of fusion.