There may be fewer places in the world that are sparking more environmental controversy that the Three Gorges section of China's Yangtze River, where the world's largest dam project is almost complete. More on that soon. Despite the dam, the gorges before the dam remain a beautiful place and this video (hopefully) captures some of the beauty that, as of October of this year, will be further underwater.
As a child, I remember seeing pictures of a magical place where the earth seemed to have burst right out of it's shell and created giant rounded stone mounds, set amongst rice paddies, rivers and farms. I said then that I was going to see that place one day. Much to my enjoyment, we found this place in Guilin, China.
The mounds are actually called karsts and are made of limstone. 200 million years ago this part of China was under the sea and limestone was thrust upward from the earth's crust and then eroded into the shapes we see today.
The karsts are best viewed from a boat on the Li River and as most things in China, it is done as part of a package tour, complete with flag waving guide. Our guide was the delightfully geeky "Jack". The tour included lunch and costs about US$58 per person.
We learned today that English teachers in China often suggest western names for their students. The person who told us was given the name "Norman" but didn't like it - so he chose "Steven" instead.
Jack led us on a 4 hour trip down the Li River, accompanied by a very long line of similar boats, each holding about 100 sweating people.
The whole trip was narrated by a women with English skills far inferior to Jack's. She told us how the Li River "winds through the grotesque peaks exactly like a blue silk ribbon" and how we should watch out for the peaks that "look exactly like 9 oxen". Most aboard looked around in a confused state, amazed at the scenery nonetheless. And the scenery was amazing. There is surely no other place in the world like the karsts near Guilin - it's the stuff of poetry and paintings. In fact, the area appears on the back of the 20 RMB (chinese currency) note.
Chiang Mai is the northern city that makes up the mountainous part of what I would call the Big Three regions of
From the moment we arrived, we started to get a good feeling for Chiang Mai. It doesn’t have the colossal population, traffic and pollution of
Chiang Mai is also the jumping off point for the surrounding mountains that offer access to the Thai Hill Country Tribes, rivers, elephant camps and beautiful scenery. After seeing so much of the beach, it was nice to venture up into the mountains recently for a one day trek (US$25 per person). Trekking is big business in Chiang Mai and we were a bit overwhelmed with all the choices. In the end, we choose a day that included a visit to an elephant camp, two hill tribes, a waterfall and a trip on a bamboo raft. We were skeptical and the tour exceeded our expectations. Here are some of the things we saw:
After an hour or so in a minivan with a fun group of Aussies and Austrians, we arrived at an elephant camp. I have a soft spot for elephants and I get a little conflicted when it comes to riding them and seeing them used purely for human amusement. The fact is that most of the elephants in Thailand are working elephants used in the lumber industry, which was banned in 1989. This left a large population of elephants unemployed and many were abandoned by their owners. Tourism offer a sustainable way for the domesticated elephants to remain healthy and live quite well with their life-long companion, the mahout. Here is a mahout with his bathing elephant trying to get completely sumerged:
There are a number of hill tribes in Northern Thailand and most migrated from China and Burma. The Karen tribe is the largest and has a few hundred-thousand members. We learned that they are traditionally animist, meaning that they believe in the spirits of living things. However, about 80% have recently been converted to Christianity. While they see tourists every day, it seems that their village life is still quite traditional and tourists aren't allowed in most areas.
We did visit what was called a "hill tribe" but resembled more of a gift shop with a few huts around it. Not great.
One of the highlights was floating down a river on a bamboo raft. Touristy? Yes. Fun? Very much so. I got to do my best to be the aft guide...
We did some trekking through the woods, where Sachi tried her best to avoid bugs:
We crossed some super-sketchy bamboo bridges...
And had a better time than we expected.
Of course, this was a bit different than the Shotover Jet River Boats in New Zealand...
6:30AM: awake after 5 hours of sleep, pack bags.
7AM: Arrive at resort reception to check out and have breakfast. Scrape enough Baht together for bill- 7 nights, 6 breakfasts, 5 dinners for US$280. We heard they accepted credit cards.
7:30AM: Depart for 8AM boat to Phuket in back of pickup truck.
7:38AM: Truck proceeds one quarter of the way, stops, turns around, heads back to resort to pick up forgotten passenger- Jack from the UK. Begin frantic drive to catch boat.
7:58AM: Arrive at boat, both whacked with motion sickness, sweating and feeling green. Banana shaped boat departs into moderate swells and a cloud of diesel exhaust.
8:35AM: Thanks to the heat and exhaust fumes, Sachi promply tosses breakfast out the starboard side window and returns to seat, refreshed.
9:15AM: Arrive in Ko Phi Phi, switch to larger, air conditioned boat. Lee contemplates the adventures of his right flip-flop after a mix up last night that resulted in a mismatched pair of footwear.
9:45AM Jack from the UK sits with us and pours through our Japan guidebook, circling things we should see and do. We both feel much better than before.
11AM: Arrive in Phuket port and try to find a cheaper way into the town center than the standard charge of US$1.25 (50 Baht) per person. No luck.
11:15AM: On the way to Phuket Town, remind taxi driver- no we do not want to see your friend's hotel- no we do not need a new suit. No stops.
11:30AM Begin sweltering search for air conditioned lunch and place to chill out in 90(f) heat with everything we have on our backs-on a Saturday-when fewer things are open for lunch. Find an oasis at a coffeeshop called Kopi de Phuket and stay for a while. Mmmm.
2pm: Try to find taxi to Phuket airport for less than US$10 (400 baht). We give up, it's hot and they let us walk away when we insist on 350 baht- the taxi drivers are feeling the gas prices here too. Listen to "Hey Jude" (Beatles), "Hang On Sloopy" (The McCoys), "Venus" (Bananarama), "Sugar, Sugar" (The Archies) via mix cassette tape. Mmmm.
3:55PM Board plane bound for Bangkok with mostly Thai people. Plane's speaker system is excruciatingly loud. Witnessed the fastest ever bi-lingual safety demonstration, performed through no less that 20 blasts of piercing feedback, each followed by attemps to finish the demo and spare everyone's sanity. Lee wonders why it is that people in front of him on planes insist on putting their seat back with enough force to catapult a pack of peanuts to the back galley.
5:37PM: Arrive in Bankok and survey the taxi situation. A typical dilemma: catch a cab right now for US$12 (negotiated) or wait in a line of 64 people for a metered cab, usually costing US$5-7? We wait- it takes about 15 minutes and costs about US$7.
6:43PM: Arrive at nicer-than-we-need Asia Hotel in Siam Square for 3 nights at US$41 per night. Our reserved room type is not available, so we get a free upgrade to Delux. Sweet.
So this ends a pretty typical and low pressure travel day, minus the tossing of breakfasts. The author is happy that he can now stop referring to himself in the third person.
The reason to go to Railay Beach is the scenery and the nice beach. The locale itself is built up with resorts that are nice, but make for a busy environment. Ton Sai is just a kilometer away and is more of a low-key backpacker place- called "the peasant beach" by one resident we met. The same is true for the east side of Railay Beach, which has a mud beach. Lots of people come for the excellent rock climbing too.
Now that we're in Ko Lanta, here's a look back at some of the scenes from Railay Beach...
Most unforgettable were the sunsets. The sky would seem to be on fire sometimes.
These clounds aren't exactly on fire, but look pretty magestic, I think.
The longtail boat is the only way to get to Railay Beach.
Once you're there, though, you can explore on foot and by sea kayak, which is highly recommended. No cave for Sachi.
I think we're both happy that we went to Railay beach, but I don't think it would make it onto the agenda the next time around. We'd prefer the more traditional, laid back, Ko Lanta style of Thailand.
A while back, our friend in Seattle, Steve Manning told us about Railay Beach and then added a travel experience about it too. Since then, we've been hoping to make it.
It took us 3 cabs, a bus and finally a long tail boat to get here, but we made it at a cost of about $25US for both of us from Phuket. When we first got to Railay, we were impressed by the scenery- high limestone cliffs or "carsts" are everywhere,making for a truly other-worldly feel.
We're staying at a place called Railay Bay Resort, which is one of the better places here. We have a bungalow that isn't Baan Krating, but it's nice. It has A/C, which I need these days. I have needs you know. It costs about $50US per night, which is a lot for Thailand and backpacker standards, but we're OK with it. Breakfast is included and it has all the niceties... location on the beach, restaurant and bar, nice grounds. Interstestingly, the resort has one of the few bars at Railay that serves alcohol.
Plus, you get views like this...
Just around the big rock on the left of the beach is another beach called Pranang, which has floating kitchens, where we got lunch for about $3US.
I haven't yet jumped off this rock, but I will...
We are still in love with Thailand.
The Hardy Reef at the Great Barrier Reef is a platform reef, which means that it has reached its full height and is now expanding outward. This means that when you dive or snorkel around it, there is a wall that goes from the surface to the sea floor, which is about 20-30 meters down. Swimming over it felt like flying out over a cliff.
I was in awe. I had never seen such a reef and it convinced me to get SCUBA certified soon, but it won’t happen here- not enough time.
The water, the fish, the coral, all amazing...but what I enjoyed the most was the giant clams, which seems like a rather banal thing to be excited about.
First it was their sheer scale. Despite what you may have seen in a OO7 movie, they don’t eat people, but they do react and close up if you get near them. The rings that you see are like tree rings- one per year.
Second was the color. They were by far the most brilliantly colored animals on the reef. Some of them glowed in the sunlight and designers couldn’t put colors together more beautifully.
Third was the variety. They say that clams are like fingerprints, there are no 2 that are exactly alike and I never two that were even close.
You can't really come to Australia and not want to see a Koala and Kangaroo and strange birds right? Of course not. Luckily, Brisbane offers a beautiful urban setting and a place to see local wildlife called "Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary". Basically, it had a lot of koalas and kangaroo. Here is the required oh-so-cute picture of the koalas:
What we didn't expect was to get so up close and personal with the Kangaroos. Those claws on the ends of freakishly small arms are scary.
I think we got a little more Discovery channel action than we paid for, or even wanted, when these roos decided to make joeys in front of us. Parental Guidance is Suggested.
Back in the city, our favorite part of Brisbane was South Bank, on the other side of the Brisbane River, where like everywhere else- we found these critters, which seem quite at home in urban settings - in parking lots, on top of tables, cars, etv. It is the Australian White Ibis.
A few years ago, I went to the
Like Sachi said earlier, our goal is to be “in” something and not just watching from afar, like the
They suit you up in wetsuits and snorkel gear and take you out to the open ocean and drop you into the water near a pod of wild dolphins that often come investigate. For about an hour collectively, we were in the dolphin’s underwater world, watching them through our masks as they navigate just feet and sometimes inches from us. It was an indescribable feeling to see them appear out of the blue and swim by.
What struck us both was that, for a fleeting moment, you got a feeling of connectedness a dolphin or two. They would swim by and turn there body to make clear eye contact and sometimes keep that contact while circling you. As the dolphin encounter people said, we are sometimes entertainment for them, especially since we were ,coached to make “dolphin sounds” underwater, which I’m sure they found entertaining.
The Dusky Dolphins are quite acrobatic and a few theories as to why they jump are: To scratch their back (remove loose skin), attract a mate (they are very promiscuous by the way) or purely for fun.
The Dolphin Encounter company is highly regulated by the government and can only allow so many people into the water for so long, so many times a day. The dolphins, though surely not used to swimming with people, are well protected – something