, , , , , , , , , ,

Bangkok Soi Cowboy

Bangkok's Soi Cowboy...or the set of "Miss Saigon"?

File this post under “long overdue.”

After we returned from our three week Southeast Asian adventure in mid-December, it felt like Christmas was suddenly upon us, then New Year’s, then my [ugh] birthday, then the realities of dealing with a place where everything in the country closes down for the first two weeks of January. In other words, I descended into a bit of a depressed funk (see my, uh, delightful Christmas post), and had little motivation to write a long blog post, let alone upload tons of pictures from our truly amazing jaunt across Singapore, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand.

Do you know what’s even funnier? I wrote the above paragraph back in February (February!), but then life intervened again. My parents came to visit, I started a new job, we’re thinking about moving to a new apartment… all leading to major, downright unacceptable blog neglect. There have been so many things I’ve wanted to write about, that I’ve just sort of ignored it out of a combination of guilt and being overwhelmed. Rather than recount every detail that I should have reported in a more timely manner, I’m gonna sort of skim through the last four months, The Wire recap montage-style.

December: I took about 1000 pictures during our three-week trip through Southeast Asia. Bangkok’s pictured above; here are a few more faves:

Angkor Wat. Just go.

I enjoyed every stop on our trip, but Siem Reap in Cambodia (and particularly its temples) might top the list for favorite place ever visited. To see architectural marvels like Angkor Wat is not to believe that people could construct a magnificent city in the middle of the jungle 1,000 years ago. Pictures do not do it justice. Furthermore, in our experience the Cambodian people were wonderfully friendly, welcoming, and gentle. This was all the more…surprising? heartwarming? heartbreaking? I don’t know quite the word for it, but all the more incredible given the terrors the country experienced through the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge regime. Our spectacular tourguide, Tek Leng, showed us minefields, and bullet holes on the side of Angkor Wat where the Khmer Rouge took target practice. He also took us to a market where the hubs ate a beetle, and on back roads where we met super-cute kids hunting birds with slingshots:

I cannot recommend Tek highly enough. He made Siem Reap come to life for us, and was a fantastic ambassador for a fascinating country that I hope I’ll be lucky enough to visit again.

In addition to its ancient attractions, Siem Reap also has a great modern airport (like omg, they had a Dairy Queen!), terrific restaurants and bars (big thumbs up to Khmer Family Restaurant), and a wide assortment of excellent accommodation options. I’ve stayed in my fair share of hotels, but I think Raffles Grand Hotel D’Angkor might be my all-time fave. The hubs was equally enamored (he was sold when we sat down to breakfast and they had real crispy bacon), and he hardly ever likes anything.

From Siem Reap we headed off to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. Neither of us was a huge fan of the city, although the street food was inspiring. My mouth still waters thinking about the garlic pork stir fry I got for 50 cents near our guest house. Most people head to Chiang Mai to go on treks or elephant tours, and we did that as well, taking a day trip to the Elephant Nature Park outside the city. This elephant sanctuary is world-renowned, and you get amazing up-close access to elephants (although for ethical reasons they don’t have rides, which I’m fine with). On the down side, there’s not much else to do there besides feed elephants and watch them, and after a few hours that gets a little bit old (the one-day program runs from 10-5). They even made us watch a one-hour special that the National Geographic channel made for them, and I don’t think I was the only person who fell asleep during it. If I’m paying money to visit you, don’t make me watch a boring video, k? Overall though, I’m still glad I went (the hubs, on the other hand, has not let me forget that he feels a day of his life was wasted).

An elephant herd heads for the river

You don't get much closer to elephants

After Chiang Mai we took a quick hop over the border to Luang Prabang, Laos. This is another place that’s kind of hard to describe or convey through pictures, but it’s another place I can’t recommend highly enough. Luang Prabang has a pronounced French influence, and is filled with cafes and boutiques and more fantastic lodging options (we loved our hotel, Les 3 Nagas). In a weird way LP totally reminded me of Woodstock, Vermont, and the hubs and I agreed it was the kind of place my parents would love as much as we did (there are few places on the backpacking circuit  you could say that about). It’s just so serene and visually stunning.

Adding to the zen are the Buddhist monks who walk through the city each morning at 6am, asking for their daily food:

Monks outside one of Luang Prabang's countless Wats

The city is nestled between mountains along the Mekong River. We took a boat a couple hours down the river to visit the famous Pak Ou Buddha caves (unforch my camera battery died), and I’ve never felt more alone on this earth. Save for the occasional fisherman, there were no signs of civilization along the river, and this is one of the most populous areas of Laos! It’s incredibly tranquil, and a little bit freaky.

The Mekong River near the Pak Ou Caves. Crooked angle, or is it just that trippy?

Despite the fact that Luang Prabang is so chilled out, there’s a lot of stuff to do, both in the city and outside it. We visited another elephant sanctuary (at this one you could take a ride across the river), swam at the gorgeous Kuang Si Waterfalls, zip lined through the jungle, and kayaked down the Nam Ou River. At night we emptied our wallets at the fantabulous Night Market (much quieter and easier to navigate than any of the markets in Thailand) and stuffed our faces with excellent local street food. Just an incredible place to visit.

From LP we headed to Bangkok, which is as frenetic and ultra-modern as Luang Prabang is sleepy and charmingly antiquated. It’s utterly exhausting to go anywhere or do anything in Bangkok (the heat, the noise, the crowds, the heavy air pollution), but it’s also among the most exciting places I’ve ever been, rivaled only by New York. You can’t walk two feet without finding cheap, delicious street food, they’re obsessed with shopping, and it’s just one of those places where you feel like anything is within the realm of possibility. To wit:  a squash court in our hotel, people getting haircuts in the middle of Khao San Road at midnight, the world’s largest Dunkin Donuts (you know I was sold), 16 year old girls on the arms of pasty old British men, emerald-encrusted temples, a Muay Thai boxing match backed by a live band, puppies for sale next to brass knuckles, Buddha statues, and blue jeans at the insanely massive Chatuchak Market, and an endless supply of incredible $5 foot massages, available 24/7. I know that sentence is a confusing jumble of random words, and that’s sort of Bangkok in a nutshell– inexplicably insane and awesome. I loved Bangkok and absolutely want to go back again. I therefore hope the Thais can reach a peaceful resolution to the current conflict.

We ended our trip on the island of Ko Phi Phi, near Phuket. It was great just chilling on the beach, with a few bursts of snorkeling and fishing activity. We stayed at the lovely Zeavola Resort, which is great if a little bit isolated. I cannot fault the incredible private bungalows, though.

In Maya Bay near Ko Phi Phi, made famous by Leonardo Di Caprio's *The Beach*

Zeavola's private beach

So after a trip like that, is it any wonder Christmas and January were a bit of a letdown? In February things began to pick up. I started a new job here in Sydney (it’s stellar getting to interact with co-workers again), and my parents came to visit. The timing was tricky (I don’t recommend hosting guests two days after starting a new job), but there was little to be done about it. We nonetheless had a great time seeing the city’s sights, watching the Gay Mardi Gras Parade,  swimming at Bondi, and eating at a bunch of great restaurants.

McNulty takes a drink.

After my parents took a side trip to Tasmania (like everyone, they give it a huge thumbs up), I met them down in Melbourne for a weekend. It was my first trip to Australia’s other major city, and I absolutely loved it. The restaurants, bars and shopping kind of kick Sydney’s ass, and the fact that it’s so flat and public-transportation-friendly make it much easier to navigate. I definitely get why it’s rated so liveable. Granted, we definitely still win the weather war — my parents and I miraculously hopped on a tram mere seconds before this epic hail storm began. And Sydney has more beautiful natural attractions with its harbour and beaches. But I would definitely love to give Melbourne living a try if I had the chance.

I liked Melbourne so much, in fact, that I insisted the hubs see it for himself. So over the 4-day Easter weekend we headed back down, spending two days along the Great Ocean Road before venturing into the city. Highlights:

Koalas galore in Kennett River.

Breathtaking scenery along the Great Ocean Road, including the 12 (ish) Apostles (above). The road definitely has some height, but it’s far less cliffy and windy than California’s Pacific Coast Highway (on which I had to pull over and curl up in a ball on the passenger side because my palms were too sweaty to continue to driving).

Melbourne’s awesome sports precinct right in the middle of the city, including Rod Laver Arena, home to the Australian Open. Multiple people have observed that it looks like he’s patting my butt.

Melbourne city skyline as seen from South Yarra, where we stayed at the lovely Art Series: The Olsen and ate at the splendiferous restaurant Pearl.

In Melbourne we also hit up some of the city’s famous alleyway bars (we were so not cool enough to find them on our own, we had to trail a pack of hipsters) and saw a show that was part of the Melbourne Comedy Festival. It was a jam-packed weekend, but pretty much every second of it was super fun.

Other things we did in March included eating at the Taste of Sydney Festival and attending the Sydney Swans AFL home opener. The former, held in Centennial Park, was a great opportunity to sample dishes from many of Sydney’s top restaurants. Like so many things here, though, it was kind of outrageously overpriced. In addition to the $30 entry fee, you have to pay $8-$12 for every cocktail or food item. Kind of ridonk.

As for the Swans game, I can say with even more conviction that AFL is not for me. Yes, the dudes are in sick shape and do a hell of a lot of running around an enormous field that looks like a quidditch pitch, but the rules still strike me as silly, the scoring isn’t very exciting, and the games run on for about twice as long as they should. Haters, eat your hearts out.

Whew! So that more or less brings us up to speed, methinks. Lost in all of this is the fact that this past Tuesday marked our one-year anniversary in Australia. In some ways, I can barely remember arriving given how much seemingly  every circumstance in my life has changed over the past year. Yet in other ways, I can’t believe it’s been a year already. It seems like a second ago I that I was eating farewell bagels at H&H and walking tearfully through Central Park. I was recently telling my friend Briana (who works for a blog called Blisstree that you should all check out, as soon as you’re done reading this) that I don’t think I’ll ever get over my homesickness, or the thousand tiny little resentments I have for Australia, but on the other hand I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world. I’m really proud of us for building a new life almost completely from scratch, and I dare say I think we’ve done a pretty good job so far.