Returning home

Flying home was an adventure to say the least. Leaving Bangkok late because of a late incoming was a great start to the trip. We finally took off around 3am. The flight was completely packed and we were all ready to get going. Unfortunately about two hours into the flights the pilot came over the intercom at isn’t we had a fuel problem and we were diverting to New Delhi. We landed in Delhi and sat on the plane for 2 1/2 hours while maintenance fixed it, finally taking off after that. What was supposed to be a 12 hours flight turned into just over 16 hours.

After landing in London we had to mess with getting rebooked, and they put us on a flight to Chicago connecting to another flight onto LA. We grabbed a quick sandwich and rushed to board the flight to Chicago. Again once boarded we were delayed because of thunderstorms. Heathrow had shut down all of it’s runways and we sat on the tarmac for another hour and a half. Finally arriving in Chicago, we cleared customs and immigration, and of course we arrived late and had to be booked onto another flight to LAX. Mom and TJ will end up staying the night, missing their 4th and final flight to SLC because of the days events. I’ll stay in LA for a couple days driving back home with Nick and Alex.

It’s been an long adventurous day, and because of the delays, and time zone changes, we have been living in Thursday the 14th for over 38 hours. It’s been our longest and most unproductive day yet. :)

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Bangkok

Bangkok was the last mega city that I visited on the trip. After having only spent 5 days, I think I can say that I really like it. There is a certain raw gritty city vibe that the city gives off. On top of the phenomenal food, culture, unique markets (floating, and train), and the skytrain, it is a city vastly different from others I’ve visited such as Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing, and Chongqing. Although a huge tourist destination, I didn’t really get the sense of being overwhelmed by foreigners. Sure walking down some of the expat streets, in the malls, and down the infamous Kao Sarn road you are inundated with foreigners, but outside that it was few and far between.

 

We spent the first day hunting down some of the markets for souvenirs and handicrafts, spending a good chunk of the day wandering around the city, and through a couple of the shopping malls. Malls here in the US are nothing compared to malls here in Asia. The malls here are ENORMOUS, and often are littered with countless high-end brand names of clothing, jewelry, perfume, and shoes. More often than not the stores are empty, but there are plenty of “shoppers” milling about. While walking around one of the nicer malls here in Bangkok, we stumbled onto a famous Michelin star restaurant called “Din Tai Fung”. It is a famous dumpling restaurant in Hong Kong and has branched out to select cities. We debated going in and earing, but finally did ordering an order of pork, and chicken dumplings, and some pork sweet buns. Turns out, its famous for a reason. The pork dumplings were phenomenal. Slightly sweet, with mouthwatering juice as you bit into it. It really was fantastic, and cheap! We ended up paying like $14 for all three of us. After eating, we set our sights on Chinatown. It was a long trek though the city,, but after 2 subway rides and a couple miles of walking we finally arrived to a street filled with fresh fruit, seafood, and countless street food options. I grabbed a oyster omelet that was fantastic, and then we trucked back to a side alley and found a fancy chef that was cooking up orders like a maniac, throwing up a ball of fire every time he started cooking a new dish. I ordered seafood stir-fry that was amazing. Mouthwatering crab, squid, shrimp, and scallops all fried together with a small plate of rice. Walking away from the day quite full, I finally understood why Bangkok is considered a street food sanctuary. The food we’ve eaten just over the past 2 days has been outstanding.

 

We visited two markets the next day that were also very cool, and unique to Thailand. The first was the Mekong train market. Long ago, train tracks wound their way through a town, and eventually over time, a market sprung up on both sides of the tracks. Today it has grown to the point that sellers are peddling their good right on the train tracks, and you are forced to walk down the length of the track to navigate to the different parts of the market. The cool thing is that the tracks are still active with a train rolling through 6 times a day. When approaching the train blares its horn, and like clockwork, all the sellers pull back the awnings, and push back their tables, and like magic the pathway is cleared for the train to creep on through. It slowly chugged by within inches of us, and skimming over the fruits and vegetables that were still on the ground. Passing by us, the awnings were dropped, tables pushed back out, and within seconds, people filled back in and it looked like nothing had happened. This is something that you definitely cannot find in the States, and sadly something that probably won’t be around in a couple of years in Thailand. I don’t think it is very well known, but was much better that the floating market, which was overflowing with tourists, and seemed to be a fabricated picture perfect photo op for the tourists. It was also cool with seemingly endless passageways of water, each canal filled with people and their boats selling everything from wooden elephants, to photo ops with pythons, to mango sticky rice. Somehow I imagine that 5 years ago this was an awesome destination as the Thai people really used is as a “market” and actually purchased their daily food items, selling here to support their families. Although cool see, I don’t think I’d come back., as it’s a tourist hotpot with the endless “sales people” pushing their various wares.

 

There are many things about Bangkok that I love and these are just some of them. I can’t wait to come back. Thailand is an amazing destination, and I would have loved to have some more time to explore the city. I would love to rent a bike and cycle down through the soother peninsula, or take time to explore up north and see all of the ancient ruins. I will definitely be back, and I hope that when I do come I’ll have to see the rest of the country. The little bit I did see was stunning, and I know that Thailand has a lot more to offer when it comes to destinations of the beaten path.

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Chiangmai

After spending just one night in Bangkok, we caught a cheap flight up north to Chiang Mai. Everybody we’ve met for far has told us to spend most of our time in Thailand up North or in the South, getting out of Bangkok as soon as you can. We came up to find out for ourselves.

We spent the first day seeing the famous temples which turned out to be pretty cool. They are all Buddhist temples, and some are still used today. We took a 25 minute or so ride up the mountain overlooking Chiang Mai to Doi Suthep. Essentially Doi Suthep is a golden temple with a bunch of statues. The most impressive one I though was the one in the center of the old city walls called Wat Chedi Luang Worawihan. Older and broken down, it still has a couple of elephants and other animals adorning the sides about halfway up. We ended the day at the market, browsing the endless trinkets and doo dads (once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all), but we grabbed yet another smoothie and hit the bed. We booked a 3 day 2 night trek through the jungle tomorrow. It will take us through the mountains a couple of hours north of Chiangmai.

Day 1 was a pretty easy walk preceded by some delicious rice cooked in banana leaves, and a crazy cage that we climbed in to cross the river. We stayed at a families small bamboo “guest house” with all 11 of us sprawled out. The next morning we got a pretty late start and trekked through the blistering sun, followed by a torrential downpour that lasted the rest of the day. We did manage to stop and swim in two separate waterfalls which was very relaxing from, but a bit chilly on the second one (as it had long been raining). We stopped at another families house where our guide Johnny Walker cooked us a pretty decent meal of bamboo, chicken, cucumbers and rice. After an improvised Thai card game and black pot of charcoal, we ended the night. We woke up somewhat early, had another breakfast, and then went “whitewater rafting, and then bamboo rafting. It was nothing compared to rafting back home in the states, but it was fun nonetheless. We ate some pad thai, and headed back to Chiang Mai. Back in the city, we walked around the Sunday night market that runs down the length of the city. They block off a major road, and vendors set up shop along the entire thing. We ate dinner, and then hit the bed early, as we have a 8am flight down south to Krabi where we will spend the last couple days of vacation before heading back to Bangkok.

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Battambang

Battambang is pronounced bat-a-bong, and it was our last stop in Cambodia before moving into Thailand. We just had one day here before our lengthy bus ride to Bangkok the next morning. It’s a pretty small town that not to many people visit. Just a stop on the way to the border.

We hired a tuk tuk driver for the day and he processed to go all out as your guide. He explained the city architecture, the various French bridges and statues and all of the attractions we headed to see. First stop was the bamboo train. The locals here have basically taken over a 20-30km stretch of abandoned railway and have created their own little cars fastened out of old tank parts, bamboo and a motor. They used it for transportation back in the day, but as scooters, roads, cars and trucks became more prevalent it slowly lost it’s luster and exists solely for tourists. It’s a shame though as the government has accounted plans to rebuild the countries railway network, so that means this awesome little train “carts” will be gone be gone. Construction has started near the capital and will be moving up to Battambang in the next year or so. Basically you just sit down in the cart and it putts down the rails. Whenever there is another one headed for you, you determine who has the lightest load as you have to lift it off the track to let the other one pass. Heading back we ran into the missionaries in their P-Day, and a some guys who had recently graduated BYU. It also started to rain frogs and pigs so this is when we really got wet as the motor died and we ended up pushing it back to the station!

The surprising yet amazing stop of the day was a crocodile farm. We ere told it was a baby breeding farm where you can go hold and feed them. “No big deal” we said. We couldn’t have been more wrong. It is a relatively big operation. They have over 600 crocodiles that there are breeding for a variety of uses. The younger ones are sent to China to be used as medicine, the middle aged one to Vietnam for the meat, and the oldest ones to Thailand for the leather. They were enclosed in 3 separate pits depending in their age, but there was close to 200 in each pool! It was insane. Something we were not even remotely expecting. Most of them looked fake as they were just chilling with their mouths open, but occasionally one would jump outbid the pool and they would shuffle around each other.

During all of this a massive rainstorm rolled in and processed to dump a massive amount if rain. Cambodia is currently in a drought so we were told it was much needed, however it kinda sucked being wet for the rest of the day.

Our guide suggested the bat cave as our final stop. There is a cave near the end of town where hundreds of thousands if not millions of bats live. Every night around 6pm they come out if the cave to find food, before returning the next morning. We stood there for probably 30 minutes watching them stream out of the cave. Really impressive. We left and went out to the rice fields after and you could still see black clouds moving and flying around. Really really cool.

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Phnom Penh

I had heard both good and bad things about Phnom Penh before arriving, and after having stayed a couple of days; I can say that I didn’t really like it. It’s not a relatively big city, but it seems dirtier, grittier, and a lot more “raw” that some of the other capital cities I’ve been to. We arrived late afternoon on Sunday and wandered around the city getting used to our bearings. We toured the National Palace, which was really quite interesting. The king used to live here, but today it’s a big attraction, and mainly holds a wide variety of Buddha statues in both silver and gold. The different buildings are all very ornately decorated and one of the pagodas even boats roof tiles made of silver. We grabbed some amazing fruit smoothies just outside the palace for a buck. A little cart was parked on the corner and had a variety of fresh fruit smoothies. These ended up being a serious addiction during the rest of our Cambodia excursion. I have to say the dragon fruit, followed by avocado, and then pineapples are my favorites. For just a $1 it was hard to get only one. They were that good. We wandered through the central market in search of an elusive Cambodian desert called Num sang khya l’peou. It is pumpkin that has had the seeds removed and then been filled with coconut milk, egg yolks and sugar which is then steamed. It more or less turns into a creamy custard. It was really quite good. We went and visited the killing fields and a genocide museum the next day. It was incredibly horrifying, and somber experience. The Cambodian people have been through so much, and reading about the genocide and fighting against the Khmer Rouge reinforced their desire that many spoke about, which is moving on, and preventing it from happening again. Its reassuring to know that they have such a strong desire to forget it. We finished up out last day by heading taking a ferry to the “silk island”. Many of the families here still produce silk scarves, skirts, and other items, and it was very cool to drive through the villages, wandering around their houses, seeing these old looms work, and the silk being spun by hand. Of course it started raining worse that cats and dogs. It was more like whales and elephants. We continued wandering through each hut hiding from the rain picking up trinkets and some silk scarves, before heading back to Phnom Penh, and a taking bus to Siem Reap.

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Kampot

Crossing the border from Vietnam, there was an instant change in the housing, and use of the land. Rice fields are everywhere, and the houses look a bit more conventional, than they did throughout Vietnam. It was really crazy to see such a visible change, just because we crossed an imaginary line on a map. We spent just two nights here in Kampot, before heading out to Phnom Penh, which is the capital of Cambodia.

Kampot is a very laid back farming town. Not a whole lot to do, but I enjoyed it, as it was a break from the GO, GO, GO of the last 2 weeks or so. We rented scooters again, and headed up the mountain that sits in the middle of town. It is a national park, but it has a couple of casinos on top, a church, and a really cool abandoned casino/resort complex from the 80’s. Today it’s overgrown with moss and trees and make for some really cool pictures. The drive up gorgeous. It was clear, and green, but as we got closer to the summit the fog started to roll in and for once on the trip it was a cold! We were actually dripping from the moisture; face a long windy ride to the top. We were shivering and ended up at one of the restaurants at the casino just so we could warm up. The drive down again was a thrilling race against the cars, tight turns, with the stunning views of the surrounding city, and green rolling hills.

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Phu Quoc

After spending a short night in Rach Gia after arriving at 3am, we took a ferry to Phu Quoc where we spent the next 3 days. The ferry was small hydrofoil and it took almost 3 hours to get to the island. We grabbed taxis with some girls from Australia, got to town and drop off our bags. We rushed out to the beach just as the sun was setting.

The next day we rented scooters, which was awesome. You probably have seen the videos of the motorbikes and cars on the streets zipping in and out of everything. It definitely wasn’t very safe, but with our rusty old helmets, we were right along side them, zipping along almost 18 miles to reach the southern tip of the island. The beach was incredible. White sandy beaches, and warm shallow water that was a light crystal blue color. We hung out for a couple hours, eventually scootering up a couple miles to another beach where I had a fantastic lunch of fresh shrimp and scallops (Mother and TJ both had bowls of white rice). After having spent most of the day swimming around, we headed back, dodging other riders, construction trucks, potholes, and mud pits, to make it back to town in time to hike up a small mountain to have a dip in the stream and waterfall. We made it back to town just before dark to have some fresh Pho soup, and some ice cream cones (Again, Mother and TJ we “forced” to eat some rice, albeit fried this time).

The next day we also headed up to the island’s northern most point. It was a crazy drive along deserted highways, and some fairly rough dirt/mud roads. It was close to the same distance as the southern end. As we were almost to the beach, we turned into a pepper farm. Phu Quoc, and some of the Cambodian Islands around here are famous for their black and white pepper. They plants stalks of them and they grow just like a vine. It was really spicy, and had a sort of zip to it. We ended up buying a bottle to try and bring back home. At the beach, I had another fresh plate of shrimp. Most of the restaurants, and the vendors at the market have fish tanks full of water where they keep the fish, sharks, lobsters, crab, shrimps and scallops alive until you order them. You can watch them scoop it out of the tank and get thrown on the grill. Super fresh. On the way back the road was pretty rough and it took a bit longer. Coming around a corner we faced a dead end, so I turned around (TJ was on the back of mine) and we apparently startled Mom because she (while going) completely took her hands off and proceeded to tip over into a ditch. She still doesn’t know what happened, but I guess seeing us turned around startled her, but we had a good laugh.

The next day we headed out on the 10am ferry to Ha Tien. Our last stop on Vietnam. We grabbed a bus, and crossed into Cambodia, and arrived in Kampot a couple hours later.

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Ho Chi Ming City (Saigon)

After I landed and met up with Dwang for the night we ate some food and went to bed. I was pretty exhausted. I woke up and went out to get lost in the city. It was quite different from the rest of Vietnam, as the people seemed much more lively and like that have much more to do. Hanoi was very laid bad, much slower pace. Here people are always busy, always seeming like they have someplace to go. I hung around the city, eating food pretty much all day. The food here in Saigon is freaking DELICIOUS! The pho, banh mi sandwiches, and all of the other Vietnamese treats were delicious. I met back up with Dwang after he got off work and we ate some more. I was pretty stuff by the end of the night. Around 10 we headed to the airport to meet Mother and TJ. We hung back and let them walk through and be a little dazed and confused. After about 5 minutes we went up to get them. They were pretty happy and looked beat after 33 hours of flying. We got checked into the hotel as they fell fast asleep.

The next day (I honestly have no idea what day it was) we wandered around the city some more and went to the War museum and the Reunification Palace. Both are very different show casing different parts of the war, but were very interesting. The War museum has a bunch o the weapons and aircraft that we left behind, as well as photos and stories of Vietnamese and American soldiers. The Reunification Palace is where the Vietnam War ended, and it looks just like it did back in the 70’s. It is still used for official meetings and such, but for the most part it was like walking back in time. The kitchen, bunker, bedrooms, and radio rooms all had huge outdated machines that surely were amazing back in the day.

Sunday we headed out to the Cu Chi tunnels. These are tunnels that the Vietnamese hid in during the bombings of Saigon. They basically lived underground had a huge network of tunnels that housed everything from hospitals, schools, and rooms where they were able to fight. Incredible hundreds of people lived down there, and they are largely intact. We were able to crawl and scoot through a couple of sections that were around 100 feet long and 15-20 feet underground. We rushed back to town to church and arrived a bit late, but we caught the majority of the meetings.

We checked out Monday afternoon and caught a night bus to Rach Gia arriving around 2am, we found a hotel and slept a couple of hours, catching the ferry to Phu Quoc Island around 1.

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Phong Nha Ke Bang

Phong Nha Ke Bang is a large national park located just about in the middle of Vietnam. After an adventurous 12 hours bus ride from Hanoi, we got kicked out in a daze just after 6am. I grabbed a taxi with some dudes form NewFoundLand, and we headed about an hour inland to the park. We booked a tour for about $20 that took us to the Phong Nha Ke Bang Cave in which we boarded a boat and floated down. IT was really big and has a river that flows through the entirety of the cave which is about 9km long. We grabbed a surprisingly filling lunch and headed out to my favorite part of the day, Dark Cave. It was about another hour inside the park, and one that not to many people go to. Once there, we Kayaked down a river to the mouth of the cave. Leaving them behind, we put on our helmets and headlamps and started the trek inside. We probably climbed close to 2km deep. There was a flowing river which we trekked through up to our knees, but we turned off into a side cave and begun to trudge though knee deep mud. This isn’t like the typical Centerville mud at home. It was thick, and sludgy, and gooey. Almost like cornstarch when you mix it with water in a bowl, or something like really ticker pudding. We finally got to the end and there was another group, not surprisingly a mud fight began and not before long we were completely covered head to toe in thick, goopey mud. We laid around in the mud pool for a bit before trekking back out to the river to swim around and wash ourselves off. It was actually one of the cooler and more unique things that I’ve done on the trip. After getting back to town, I caught a tour bus back to Doing Hoi, and then flagged down another bus that was headed to Hue, about 4 hours away. I had to be in Hue the next morning because I had a flight out to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to meet Mother and TJ as they were flying in the next night.

I just hung around Hue for the day, its an interesting older city, but not a whole lot to do. I caught the last flight of the day after being delayed by two hours, and ended up staying with a couch-surfer I contacted the night before.

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Hanoi

After my bus ride from Nanning that turned out to be a bit better than I was expecting, I arrived and spend 3 days in Hanoi. It is the capital of Vietnam, and a really cool older city. Everyone says the vibe is very different from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), and that Hanoi is very laid back, and easy going. I went to church after waking up early and tracking down the branch. Quite a few Americans which surprised me. 1 senior missionary couple, 2 sets of missionaries, an Intern from BYU, and a family. We all ended up having dinner with the McClellan family from Ohio who have lived in Kazakhstan, and Saudi Arabia in recent years. Very interesting to eat and listen to their stories.

The next day I woke up and booked a overnight tour to Halong Bay. The scenery is unique and very famous for the little mountains that are now thousands of little islands that sit in the middle of the South China Sea. It was a beautiful 2 days. We ended up someplace in the middle and spent the rest of the day kayaking and swimming around the boat. A 5:45am rise to see the sun come up was a great way to head back to the harbor, arriving around noon.

After a quick shower, I had an overnight sleeper bus booked to take me to Dong Hoi. Being a sleeper bus, there were 3 rows of “bunks” that you got to sleep on. I’m in Vietnam so these “bunks” were built for a tiny 5′ tall Vietnamese woman, not a giant like me. I win the lotto and had a top bunk, meaning I curled up the best I could and spent the next 12 hours banging my head into the window as the bus lumbered along at 45 mph. The road we were on is a major highway linking the north to south, and runs right along the coast. It was crazy that this is really the roadway linking the two cities, as it seemed more like a pothole ridden dirt road like you’d find out in a desert wash. After not so many hours of sleep, we got kicked off about 6am with 5 other people and split a taxi that was headed further inland to Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park. Here lies literally thousands of caves including the worlds largest and longest.

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