Glenn and I spent 2 weeks traveling in Thailand and Cambodia, and we had 20 hours in Shanghai. It was another incredible, memorable trip that we have taken during our stay in South Korea. I had done a lot of research on these places beforehand, but we were still in for several surprises – some good, some not so good… but it was still an epic adventure!
- Bangkok is very clean
- Street food is safe to eat
- Cambodian food is delicious and NOT spicy
- Thailand is worlds apart from Cambodia
- Cambodia is so corrupt that we were scammed by the visa officer at the border
- The region is very dry and dusty during the dry season, even in the jungles
- In Thailand, they drive on the left side of the road
- In Cambodia, they drive on the right side of the road
- The Bangkok subway was cleaner than the Shanghai subway
- Angkor Wat is NOT the largest or most impressive ancient temple in Siem Reap
- The guidebooks were VERY wrong about travel times between cities
Saturday, Feb. 15
We left Seoul at 6:50pm on Saturday, February 15th. It was an hour to Shanghai, where we had dinner before our next flight to Bangkok. We got to Bangkok at 12:55am and arrived at our hotel by taxi around 2:45am. That was local time, meaning 2:45am Bangkok time was 4:45am Seoul time. Glenn was tired and I was, as usual, so drugged up on motion sickness medicine that I barely remember our arrival.
Sunday, Feb. 16
We slept well that night in a very lovely hotel just a few blocks from Bangkok’s famous Khaosan Road, which comes alive at night with its markets, bars, and clubs. This was in the “old” or historical part of Bangkok, where the Grand Palace and myriad temples are located. We spent all of Sunday walking all over this part of the city and visited the Grand Palace as well as one of the most famous temples, Wat Pho. They are right next to each other and were within walking distance from our hotel, so we certainly got our exercise that day. We were exhausted after all that and spent a quiet evening at our hotel, enjoying a delicious dinner in their restaurant and watching TV in English in our room. (It’s probably hard to understand what a novelty that is until having lived in English Village for over a year.)
Monday, Feb. 17
We got up Monday morning and headed to the bus station (20-minute cab ride from the hotel) to catch a bus to Kanchanaburi. The guidebook had said it would take about 2.5 hours by bus to get from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi (which is west and slightly north of Bangkok), and it took exactly that amount of time (which we discovered later to be the only bus trip the guidebook got right!). We checked into our hotel (which was more like a backpacker hostel; the room was literally a room with a bed in it and a basic bathroom attached… but it served its purpose and was comfortable enough) and then set out to explore the town. Kanchanburi city isn’t very large, and the sites listed on our map looked a lot farther away from each other than they actually we were. We were able to walk half the city in just 20 minutes, though it took us a lot longer because we stopped along the way. We came across an indoor temple and a couple of outdoor temples, as well as a cemetary for Chinese WWII soldiers. It was so hot and dry out that we headed back to our hotel after that to rest up before heading back out in the evening. (We established this pattern throughout the trip not only because we would spend the first part of the day walking, but also because it kept me indoors at dusk when mosquitoes are at their worst. For those of you who don’t already know, redheads have a different-smelling bacteria under their skin from other people and it attracts mosquitoes 5x stronger, meaning we get bitten 5x more than everyone else. And no, repellant doesn’t work.)
Once it was dark and our stomachs were growling, we ventured out again to find somewhere to eat dinner. Just a few blocks away was a street that had something similar to a strip mall with a row of small parking lots in front of the stores, which had been full of cars during the day, and at night, apparently, turns into an outdoor eatery. Street food!!! We were too excited to not eat there. We chose a section and sat down at a table, where we were surprisingly handed a menu in both Thai AND English. We both got fried rice and decided to share a bowl of tom yum soup. The tom yum was, by far, the TASTIEST soup I have ever eaten in my life… and also the spiciest thing I think I’ve ever eaten! WOW! But unlike Korean food, which sometimes is spicy without a lot of flavor, the tom yum was bursting with lemon grass and other savory flavors that I couldn’t name. The fried rice was really good, too, making it one of the best meals we had on the trip. We couldn’t bring ourselves to go anywhere else for dinner as long as we were in Kanchanaburi.
Tuesday, Feb. 18
This was one of my favorite days. We had arranged to visit Elephant World, a sanctuary for old and disabled elephants who would otherwise be dead and/or abused in the logging or tourism industries. We were picked up at 8:30am (they had told us 9am, so good thing we were ready!) and the minibus picked up more people along the way. We shared the day with 2 other couples, both from England, and a family from France. The sanctuary was a little less than an hour from Kanchanaburi city. When we arrived, the first thing we did after a short introduction was feed fruit to the elephants and watch the mahouts interact with them. A mahout is an elephant trainer, and he stays with the same elephant for life. It was amazing to see the personal, special bond that each mahout had with his respective elephant. There were several older elephants and one “baby,” who is 7 years old and whose tusks are slowly starting to come in. We learned that the cavities on either side of the elephant’s head become more concave as they age, and their ears curl more as they age, too, which are both ways to generally tell how old an elephant is. We spent time mostly with the female elephants as the males had to be chained to prevent them from charging and/or injuring people.
The people running the show were all volunteers, mostly Dutch, with a couple of Aussies and Americans thrown into the mix, all in their 20s and 30s. They gave us a tour through the camp where the volunteers stay and where visitors can stay overnight (which we opted out of due to the warning about needing mosquito nets at night). The point of Elephant World is that the animals are rescued from harm and brought to the sanctuary to be cared for (especially the older ones, who had been abused for years in the logging and tourism industries, and who are old enough that they lost their teeth and can’t survive on their own in the wild). Their motto is, “We work for the elephants; the elephants don’t work for us!”
During that time, the mahouts were walking their elephants down to the river, and we met them down there and got to hang out for a while before the elephants were moved again. Glenn took a swim in the Kwai River and we watched a couple of elephants play in the water while water buffalo grazed in the background. It was truly magical!
We then moved to a different area and began chopping pumpkins and mixing sticky rice to make rice balls for the older elephants who don’t have teeth. We had to chop the pumpkins into small pieces, boil and mix the rice, and then mix it all together. To make them into balls, we had to scoop up the mix, roll it in our hands, and then cover it with protein powder. While we were working, a couple of elephants were hanging out and eating pineapples next to us. When we finished, the mahouts brought the old elephants to us and we fed them by placing a rice ball in their trunk, and they would lift the rice ball into their mouths (this is also the way they eat everything else). They were so sweet and slow-moving! I was surprised at how well they obey their mahouts and how affectionate they are. Feeding them was my favorite part.
Our lunch was prepared and served buffet style, and GOSH, was it good! There were maybe 4 different chicken dishes, a couple of noodle dishes, fried rice, vegetables, and fruit. All fresh and organic! It was so good that we ate too much on purpose just to be able to sample all the dishes.
Because elephants are huge and have to eat all day to sustain good health, we went off to the fields to cut banane grass for their snack later on. The job itself was not hard at all, but the banane grass has leaves like little saws and one of them managed to swipe me across the neck. It didn’t even leave a mark and I think Glenn thought I was over-exaggerating, but it felt like a large paper cut on my neck and burned every time I got too sweaty or had to put on sunscreen. It took a week to heal!
We visited a blind elephant that they keep in isolation because she is scared of other animals, understandably. Her caretaker is a Japanese woman who quit her job 4 years ago to go and live as a volunteer at Elephant World. Perhaps it’s something I’ll consider doing when I retire.
After lunch, it was bath time! The mahouts brought the elephants back to the river and everyone got a turn sitting on the elephants’ necks while they bathed in the river and the mahouts scrubbed them down. Glenn had an especially hard time staying on the elephant because it kept going underwater and, consequently, Glenn would fall or slide off into the river. It was such a blast!
We got to feed the elephants some fruit once more before it was time to go (about 4:30pm). We said goodbye to the elephants and thanked the mahouts and volunteers, and then we were off back to the city. It may have been one of my favorite days, ever.
Wednesday, Feb. 19
I was glad we left a lot of the sightseeing in Kanchanaburi for Wednesday, because if we had done and seen everything on Monday, it would have been a boring, depressing day following our experience at Elephant World. Glenn and I walked to the far side of the city to see the famous Bridge over the River Kwai (yup, the same one from the movie). It was a project of the Japanese during WWII and was built by their POWs, mostly Australian, English, and Southeast Asian (some Americans and Canadians and others). The bridge was constructed as part of the “Death Railway,” whose history I won’t go into here but you can research it on your own if you’re curious. Today, you can visit the bridge, walk on it, and even take a tourists’ train ride along part of the railway. In addition, we went to a couple of excellent museums, one about the history of the Death Railway, and the other more generally about Thailand during WWII. We had been to the cemetary for Chinese soldiers already, and on this day we visited the general WWII soldiers’ cemetary. It was a lot of history we got to take in, which is right up our alley. We thoroughly enjoyed learning more about WWII, Southeast Asia’s role in it, the Japanese agenda, and eating dinner at a restaurant on the water with a view of the Bridge over the River Kwai. (Our second dinner, of course, was tom yum gai – chicken tom yum soup – at our usual spot.)
Thursday, Feb. 20
This was one of my least favorite days, because we spent the entire day traveling. We caught a bus from Kanchanaburi back to Bangkok, and then from Bangkok to Aranya Prathet. The guidebook said this would be a 4-hour journey, but it was actually 5.5 hours – and that was without traffic. At the bus station, we went into the visa office because a visa is required to enter Cambodia (and cheaper to get on arrival than arranging it beforehand, so I had read during my research). We had been told at the bus station back in Bangkok that a Cambodian visa would be 950 baht (about $30 US) but the agent in the office told us that it had been changed to 1200 baht (about $37 US). He also helped us arrange a taxi from Poipet (the border town on the Cambodian side) to Siem Reap, where we would be staying for the next few days and a 2.5-hour ride. That cost us an additional 2000 baht (~$62 US), which we figured was actually a reasonable price for such a long car ride.
Then we had to walk through border and passport control to Cambodia, which the agent guided us through. We realized, as we passed the OFFICIAL visa office, that we had been conned into buying an expensive (“expensive” by Cambodian standards) visa from a separate agency. We also realized, after passing through immigration and walking through the streets of Poipet, that this so-called “agent” had arranged for his friend to drive us to Siem Reap and wasn’t, in fact, a real taxi. A real taxi would have cost us about $7 US.
So, Cambodia is corrupt… what did we expect? Well, crossing the border there is quite confusing if you haven’t done it before. Nothing is indicated too clearly and there isn’t a natural flow of things; you have to be told where to go and all the different areas aren’t actually connected to one another. It’s very strange, and it’s the least safe I have ever felt during any of my travels, which is a scary thought when you look at the fact that this is the most popular international border crossing between Thailand and Cambodia.
Whatever. We finally got to Siem Reap after a very long day of traveling and being conned out of more and more money as we went on. We were dropped off at a tuk-tuk, and the driver offered us a free ride to our hotel if we agreed to hire him for the day tomorrow. So, for $15, we got dropped off at our hotel and had a private tuk-tuk for the entire next day.
Friday, Feb. 21
Angkor Wat! We saw Angkor Wat, the 8th Wonder of the World and the largest religious complex in the world. Glenn and I both love ancient history and have always dreamed of seeing Angkor Wat… and we did! But guess what? It wasn’t the largest temple in the area… and guess what else? It wasn’t my favorite. Sure, it’s the most famous – one of THE most famous ancient structures in the whole world – but we visited another temple complex, Angkor Thom, afterwards and I found it much more fascinating and aesthetically pleasing. It was less intact, as many of the structures hadn’t yet been renovated, but that’s what I liked about it; I was seeing a lot of the structure as it has lain for hundreds of years, untouched since they fell over or eroded away. Amazing! I also love Angkor Thom because of the trees that grow right on top of the stones. It’s a place that will fill you with wonder and fascination, and now I’m a bit obsessed with reading and watching everything I can about the temples and the ancient Khmer empire and people.
Oh, and Cambodian (Khmer) food is SO good! It isn’t spicy like Thai food, but it’s just as savory and uses a lot of vegetables and coconut milk. My next goal in life is to learn some Thai and Khmer recipes because you can’t get much tastier or healthier than that!
Saturday, Feb. 22
We didn’t do very much on Saturday because I discovered that my toes were covered with blisters and the one was so large and painful, it covered my entire pinky toe. (No joke! But don’t worry, I won’t show you a picture of it.) We only walked a little that day, including to a tailor shop where I acquired a safety pin (for popping my blisters), and a massage parlor where all the masseurs are blind. Glenn got a massage there from a masseur named Kan, who is the same age as I am, blind, speaks excellent English, and spends most of the money he makes on piano lessons because he desperately wants to be a musician. Sadly, because he is blind and because Cambodia is a third-world country in both development and mindset, he faces a lot of discrimination and his music teacher sometimes refuses to teach him, and sometimes gives him lessons for $20 US/hour (which is simply astronomical by Cambodian standards considering the average family in Cambodia lives off $25 per month). The keyboard he has to practice on is pathetic: it’s got an octave and a half, and is so small he holds it in one hand and powers it by blowing into a tube to produce sound (which means he can only practice one hand at a time). Glenn and I are going to buy and send him a decent keyboard as soon as we can make it to a music store here in Korea.
Sunday, Feb. 23
This was one of my least favorite days as well, because it, too, was a full day of travel. Instead of making the same mistakes we made on our way there, we decided to pay for a minivan service that would take us directly from Siem Reap to Bangkok, instead of having to stop and change buses at Poipet and Aranya Prathet. Unfortunately, it’s still Cambodia and getting from one place to another isn’t as easy as it would be in a more developed country. We were picked up, along with some other tourists (French and Czech) in Siem Reap and taken to the border at Poipet. It was really busy at the border this time and it took us 2 hours to go through immigration and round everyone up on the other side to continue the journey. Then, it was 5.5 hours of the worst car ride ever for me. I was shoved into the corner seat in the back, which was too high off the ground so that my feet couldn’t touch the floor and my head hit the ceiling every time we went over a bump, and the AC wasn’t working. I wasn’t sweating so profusely but afraid to drink any water for fear of having to go to the bathroom. My legs were asleep and my head hurt from constantly hitting the ceiling. The trip was only $11 US, but it wasn’t worth it. My advice to anyone who makes the journey: DON’T BE CHEAP! PAY FOR COMFORT! PAY FOR CONVENIENCE! Do NOT make the same mistakes we did!
Sadly, when we finally arrived back to Bangkok at 8pm, our trip wasn’t over. Because the guidebooks had drastically underestimated the amount of time it would take to get from place to place, and because we had planned ahead and booked hotels for the entire trip, we figured we would already be at our next destination long before 8pm. Unfortunately, we still had a 2.5-hour cab ride down to Ban Phe, southeast of Bangkok. We had tried to buy bus tickets, but because we got there so late, they were sold out. I wasn’t too heartbroken about having to take a cab instead of another bus. The driver was very nice and took us directly to our hotel in Ban Phe. It was such a pleasant ride compared to everything else that day!
Monday, Feb. 24
We spent the night in Ban Phe, had breakfast there Monday morning, and then took a 30-minute ferry to the island of Koh Samet. It’s a beautiful little island, which is almost entirely the Koh Samet National Park, and has a quaint little town with shops and restaurants along a couple of beaches. I had read that the further south you go on the island, the more isolated and the more “Thai” it feels. Since we had spent the last week and a half traveling and sightseeing, and I could barely walk from all the blisters I had, we decided to just relax and enjoy where we were instead of exploring the entire island. Our hotel was actually a series of bungalows right along the way, a 5-minute walk from the pier, which we could see from our room. The hotel was owned and run by Brits, who all quickly became buddies with Glenn as they bonded over drinking beer the next couple of days.
Tuesday, Feb. 25
We spent Monday and Tuesday on the beach and walking around town. Glenn and I got our hair cut and Glenn got another massage. We ate at some really good restaurants and Glenn found a coffee shop that served brewed coffee (a rarity throughout Asia; they usually serve instant coffee). Tuesday night, we ate dinner at a restaurant right on the beach and watched a half-hour fire show that was really entertaining and impressive!
Wednesday, Feb. 26
We enjoyed the beach in the morning and then had to head back to Bangkok, yet again, and this time because we were going to be flying out the next day. Since we had stayed in the “old” part of Bangkok previously, we booked our hotel in the “new” part of Bangkok just to see something different this time. However, we didn’t know that it would take us directly to the middle of the protest (yup, the same one you’ve been hearing about in the news). I ain’t gonna lie; I was a little nervous walking through there, especially since we had seen newscasts about all the bombings and shootings within the past several days. However, the violence occurred randomly in different parts of the city (there was a bombing near the Grand Palace just a couple days after we’d been there), and we were able to stay safe the whole time. Bangkok is cool! It’s modern! It was just like Seoul or Osaka but with a Thai flavor. This part of town, near Siam Square, looks way different from the Khaosan Road area. I was both surprised and delighted to see how versatile Thailand is.
We had done a lot of walking already just getting from the subway to our hotel, and so we stuck close to the hotel and found a restaurant down the road for dinner. We then went back to the hotel and fell asleep watching TV in English.
Thursday, Feb. 27
Got up, checked out of our hotel, and headed to the airport. We had plenty of time to grab a bite to eat and for me to buy some more motion sickness medicine. The name is in Thai, so I don’t know what it is, but it worked just as well as the Korean stuff without the loopiness! In fact, it made me drowsy only for a couple of hours, and after that I felt great and was totally lucid. We landed in Shanghai 4.5 hours later and we escaped the airport and took the subway to East Nanjing Road, which is about a 15-minute walk to the most famous area in Shanghai: the Bund. If you recall Glenn’s trip to Shanghai in April 2013, and remember seeing his pictures along the river, that’s exactly where we were. Our hotel was just 2 blocks from the Bund, and it looked awesome all lit up at night (the Bund, that is; not our hotel). On the same street as our hotel, Fuzhou Road, is a famous Blues + Jazz Restaurant. Coming from Thailand, where everything is ridiculously cheap by “Western” standards, eating at a famous restaurant in Shanghai was a bit of a price jump. Luckily, we had budgeted our money really well and had plenty to splurge on a nice meal. There was a live jazz band – the musicians were American – and it was overall a very enjoyable evening. After we left the restaurant, we attempted to walk along the Bund but between my blisters and the cold weather, we decided to have an early night.
Friday, Feb. 28
It rained overnight! It wasn’t raining in the morning, but I was so disappointed at how hazy it was because you could barely see across the river. I had planned on taking some awesome pictures, but my plan was thwarted by the weather. I still took some pictures, but they turned out drab and dreary due to all the haze. It was at least fun to see the Bund during the daytime and to see all of the English architecture of the buildings (which you may also recall from Glenn’s descriptions). We had lunch and then walked through the streets back to the subway, and then sadly, had to go back to the airport. I would have loved to spend more time in Shanghai and been able to see more. It’s a shame that visas are such a hassle to get for China (and so expensive for Americans: nearly $200!).
There were 2 subway stations at the airport: Terminal 1 and Terminal 2. There were no signs indicating which terminal was domestic and which was international, so we observed that terminal 2 looked bigger and determined it must be the international one. We tried asking some of the subway officials, and none of them knew. So, we took our chances and went to terminal 2. There were no signs indicating where to go for international departures – not even in the airport. We finally found an international check-in counter, and after 10 minutes of typing on her computer and making calls to various supervisors, she informed us that we were in the wrong terminal. She told us to go down to the first floor to catch a free shuttle to terminal 1. Cool. We went downstairs, and saw no shuttle to terminal 1. We asked 2 different airport officials where the stop was for the shuttle, and they didn’t know. The third one told us we had to go down one more floor. Cool. We did that. Still no sign of the shuttle. We found yet another official and asked where to wait for the shuttle. He told us to go up a floor. SERIOUSLY?! Fine… we did that. Finally, we just went outside and asked random people where to go, and a taxi driver showed us where to wait for the shuttle. A TAXI DRIVER. Not an airport official, whose JOB IT IS to know AND help us with such matters. We had been at terminal 2 for an hour by the time the shuttle arrived, which meant that we were an hour late checking in for our flight. What was most frustrating was that there were no signs, nor any information, about which terminal to go to in the first place. Or perhaps what is most frustrating is that the first lady at the INTERNATIONAL CHECK-IN COUNTER took 10 minutes to figure out that we were at the wrong terminal. It was truly shocking how unprofessional it all was.
Anyway, we got to terminal 2 and checked in, and since we were so late, there was nobody else checking in or going through security. It took us only 10 minutes to get from the check-in counter to our gate: an international airport record, I’m sure! Luckily, we had enough time to grab some food and relax before boarding our flight to Seoul.
The flight from Shanghai to Seoul was 1 hour and 1/2, and Glenn and I had dinner at TGIFriday’s before hopping on the bus to EV. It was a nice way to end a frustrating day, yet a wonderful 2 weeks in Southeast Asia + Shanghai!