Monthly Archives: February 2011

Spring Holiday, Part 3: Koh Pa-Ngan

Have you ever been to Paradise?

Its brightness is startling. It has an abundance of sunshine. The sea, the flowers and the sky have the most beautiful colors you could ever see.

Have you ever been to Paradise?

If you were there you would know what Paradise really is.

Have you ever been to Paradise?

-excerpted from Carolyn A. Helmbrecht’s poem, “Have you ever been to Paradise?”

The first thing you notice about the beach at Haad Salad is the glorious turquoise of the water. It never gets old to me; for sheer natural beauty I posit it is hard to beat tropical waters.

Then you walk out onto the fine white sand, and as you come out from under the shade of the palm trees lining the avenue to the beach, the January sun hits and warms you, and then all you want to do is plop down with your bamboo beach mat, a good book, and a Jason Mraz album and just soak it all up.

If you’re me, you’re also spending a few minutes baffled and amazed by the combination of “January,” “sun,” and “warmth” all being uttered together in a sentence.

Yeah, okay, Koh Pa-Ngan is a tourist spot and yeah, okay it’s best known for the wild Full Moon Party (which I’ll get to in another post) every month, but there’s something to be said for showing up on a tropical beach and having it be exactly like what you imagine vacation should be. Haad Salad is also a quieter spot; there are more families and retirees there than at other spots on the island, and the pace of life on that particular location is very much the slow, relaxed beach culture that is so nice to get to after frenetic and stressful travels.

Highlights include fresh, cold coconuts whacked open with what looked like a meat cleaver and drunk while admiring the gorgeous aquamarine view; snorkeling in the bay and meeting a school of some adorable and curious stripey fish, as well as a number of sea cucumbers and other odd wildlife; a swing tied to a tree that swings out over the water; and spa hour at the little thatched-roof massage hut– the girls got coconut oil massages, and I opted to get a mani/pedi while looking out over the vista, sipping delicious rooiboos tea and snacking on delicious little baby bananas.

Oh, one more note about the snorkeling– unfortunately, the two days we spent snorkeling in Haad Salad were the only chances I got during the vacation, despite lugging the snorkel gear (okay it was only the mask and snorkel, but still) along with us for most of the trip); and that particular beach is not known for its reef system, so most of what we were seeing was just shallow water marine life. Also, the first day we went, the sea lice were out in force and we kept getting stung the whole time we were in the water. It’s not bad, mind you, but still annoying and not very pleasant when you can’t see what on earth is biting you and causing such odd discomfort. We’d been warned that on windy days, you ought to stay out of the water because the jellyfish get blown into the bay (?) so there was mild concern when we first started getting stung about jellyfish; though that was quickly dispelled when we realized a) there was nothing visible and b) Justin told us it was sea lice. Apparently it’s pretty cheap to get SCUBA certified in the islands, so that’s another regret– maybe in May…

Our little bungalow had a hammock out on the porch, but we spent most of our evenings at the hostel’s restaurant. It’s open-air, basically a big porch with tables and chairs as well as a living room setup with couches and a tv, which thankfully was never turned up loud enough to hear from the rest of the tables; there were also a few little– I want to call them “pavilions,” little seating areas like at a tea house with low tables and the Thai-style triangular seating cushions. The restaurant’s curries were absolutely outstanding, and we also all got hooked on their coconut shakes– what I assume to be basically sweetened coconut milk blended with ice. Yum!

I’ll stop here– next up, Full Moon Party and all its attendant insanity.

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Spring Holiday, Part 2: Travels and Travails in Thailand

So here was the plan: I would show up at the airport in Hong Kong, check in for my flight, get on a plane and go to Phuket.

The best laid plans…

What really happened was that I showed up at the Hong Kong airport, found out that through a magical bug in the online ticketing system the airline had lost my reservation and I had to purchase the ticket at the counter, which cost me something like twice as much as the original ticket. (It was a fairly cheap ticket to begin with, but still– not an auspicious beginning.) Also, the ticket purchasing took so long that by the time I had my boarding pass in hand, I had less than 20 minutes to get to the plane before they shut the doors for boarding. And HKG is no small airport, let me tell you. An escalator, two travelators, two trains and a lot of sprinting later, I arrived literally 2 minutes before the doors closed. In fact I’m pretty sure they closed right behind me.

But I was on my way to Thailand! Again, there was a plan. I would fly to Phuket, land at midnight, and spend the night either in the airport or get to the bus station and take the earliest bus out towards the Ko Samui area.

In retrospect, I should have seen the flaws with this plan, too, but I didn’t know how small the airport was, or frankly how big Phuket was (it’s like a 45-minute taxi from the airport to Phuket Town, where the bus station lives) so I arrived with my backpack and immediately attracted a swarm of helpful, informative taxi-drivers and hotel workers whose sole purpose, I’ve figured out, is to stand around until a farang with a backpack shows up and then try to offer them services for a somewhat inflated price. There was literally nowhere to sleep in the airport itself, it’s not big enough to have benches in between the taxi stand and the information counter, so I walked over to information and they wouldn’t let me go without booking me into a cheap-ish hotel/guest house in Phuket Town for the night. Meh. Not ideal, but actually a soft bed and a hot shower, not to mention the all-night pub across the street, was not a bad way to kick off the Thailand part of the vacation. Also, the hotel was about a 5 minute moto ride away from the bus station, which was handy too.

So after falling asleep watching part of some truly bizarre Thai movie, I got up the next morning and made my way to the bus station for a noon ticket to Koh Pa-Ngan where I would be meeting up with a few friends.

(It was at this point, between buying the bus ticket and boarding the bus, that I went wandering down the streets of Phuket town for a couple of hours looking for curry, took a wrong turn, and wound up at “Seng Ho– Phuket’s Largest and Oldest Bookstore!” Of course.)

Okay, so here begins the saga of Travels in SE Asia. My brother warned me about this, but you sort of have to live through it to understand it. I’ll do my best here, though, for any intrepid explorers who plan to visit Thabodinamaysia etc. in the future, which I do highly recommend. Rickshaw hell aside.

The first bus I boarded in Thailand was okay– not a lot of legroom, because for some reason the seats were at a sort of normal height but there was a platform underneath them which ran the length of the bus on either side. So essentially I was crouched praying-mantis style in a splitting leather seat for about 4 hours. On the plus side, I did have two seats to myself so I managed to catch a few Zz’s using my backpack as a pillow of sorts. It’s roughly 4 hours to get from Phuket Town to Suratthani, where the major southern train station is, and where most of the buses to the south transfer.

Once we hit Suratthani, a few folks got off at the train station and the rest of us came out of our sleepy stupor since we were supposed to be transferring soon. In what I found at the time to be a fairly odd maneuver (though I later found out that this is perfectly normal this part of the world) the bus driver took us about 45 minutes out of town and then pulled over on what appeared to be a mostly empty stretch of dusty highway. “Off the bus! Off the bus!” The driver then got out and opened the underbelly, chucking our backpacks into the dust. As a confused mass we passengers all obligingly got off the bus and stood, bewildered, with our luggage. Just then, another bus absolutely FULL of people pulled in front of our bus, and we got herded over to that one. It was so full that by the time the passengers from my bus got on, there were 4 of us without seats. The ticket-taker motioned for us to stand or crouch in the aisles, but took pity on me when the bus jolted to a start and it became clear that the bottoms of my sandals had no traction whatsoever and I slid (with my backpack) roughly 3 seats before catching myself on an unfortunate, but very obliging, bystander. I was at that point invited to sit at the front of the bus, over the top of the partition which separates the driver from the rest of the bus, and is only slightly elevated from the floor of the bus. Luckily, my butt had more friction that my feet, and I only nearly went through the windshield once during a particularly violent  and abrupt stop.

Needless to say, the 2 hours from Suratthani to Don Sak Ferry Pier was not the most comfortable I’ve ever spent, but the ferry to Koh Pa-Ngan itself was fairly comfortable, and by the point I reached the island, I was pretty ready to see my friends and have a meal, so I didn’t even mind that the mode of transportation to the beach I’d be staying at was a pickup truck with a camper for holding luggage and two benches placed lengthwise in the bed. I’ll talk more about these later.

When we finally got to Haad Salad beach, I was the last to be dropped off and my driver pulled over again on what looked like a dusty track of rode, my hostel nowhere in sight, tossed me my backpack, and drove off. After a good 10 minutes of wandering around the shops, I finally got directions I could use, and started off down another road to what I assumed would eventually be my hostel.

And then I heard the blessedly familiar sounds of my friends’ laughter. There is no balm to the travel-weary soul like the audible mirth of loved ones. I stowed my stuff, ordered a drink, and proceeded to eat what I can only describe as the most delicious pineapple red curry I will probably ever eat in my life.

Next post: Koh Pa-Ngan– the paradise and the Party.

Spring Holiday, Part 1: Hong Kong

I mentioned how Chinese holidays work in my National Day posts about our trip to Yangshuo, but since this most recent was the biggest holiday of the year, it bears repeating.

Chinese New Year, which is based on the lunar calendar (technically the lunisolar calendar, thanks Wikipedia, but since I don’t even fully understand what that means I’ll just leave it at that) is actually a 15-day celebration that culminates most memorably with a TON of fireworks and firecrackers. Most of China (excluding essential personnel) gets 7 days off– not even kidding, everybody except the bus and taxi drivers and the folks who work at international chains basically get to take a week off– and most of it shuts down especially on the first two days of the Chinese New Year. (I was in Hong Kong for this, and I have never SEEN the streets so empty.) For teachers and students, this means a week off of school (two for Junior high), preceded by a week of final examinations, preceded by a week of prep for final examinations. As a foreign teacher, I don’t give examinations, nor do I have to prep for finals. So the school gave us 3 weeks off right off the bat. As it turned out, my juniors finished a week before the seniors, and as a kindness to us (and because they wanted more prep time) the Senior high English department decided to take our classes for that week as well, so we effectively got a month of paid vacation.

I had already booked my flight based on the original schedule, so on January 10th I suddenly had a week off and week to wait until my flight Thailand. So I spent a couple of days cleaning the house top to bottom, then trundled off to Hong Kong to visit a friend and begin my vacation early.

Now, I’ve been to HK a few times, but have never really done the major tourist things, like visiting the surrounding islands or hiking Victoria’s Peak. So I decided I would try to check some of those things off my list while my  host was working, which is why I found myself one afternoon on Lantau island to visit the Tian Tan Buddha– otherwise known as The Big Buddha.  Also known as the “world’s tallest outdoor bronze seated Buddha” from 1993-2007, when it was supplanted by the Giant Buddha constructed in Phuket, Thailand, after the tsunami.  (Again, thank you Wikipedia.) This sort of thing cracks me up, especially about Buddhas. I swear– and I say this after touring SE Asia– each and every large Buddha statue is touted as  “the world’s largest seated Buddha” or “the world’s longest supine Buddha” or “the world’s biggest Buddha made of resin, wood, and bronze casts depicted in a sitting position with one had raised and one hand resting.” The superlatives are out of control. I have actually no idea which is the world’s actual largest Buddha, and it’s sort of not worth spending the time to figure it out for the purposes of this post. Though by all means, have at if it amuses you.

Anyway, the Lantau Buddha is actually quite a thing to see, and it was pleasant to spend an afternoon hiking around the Po Lin Monastery (in and of itself quite interesting, though under construction and so somewhat closed to the public at present) and eating Taiwan-style dumplings at an outdoor bistro down one of the cobblestone streets of the “village” (read: bus station-cum-tourist trap).

The next day being Saturday, my host and I decided to go for a hike in the actually kind of stunning nature at the top of the ridge on Hong Kong Island. Though heavily populated, and often heavily polluted, Hong Kong is also home to abundantly forested areas and some of that sits just over the top of Central and Wanchai districts (which, if you’ve read some of my other posts about Hong Kong, you know these are some of the serious city areas). So we put on our runners and headed up the hill from my friend’s house in Wanchai.

After climbing what I can only assume is the longest, steepest concrete hill known to man, we found ourselves amongst the weathering rocks and rustling trees of the HK hills. The Hong Kong Trail is actually a lush, wending– and substantial– 50 km (roughly 30 mile) hike around the island from Victoria Peak in the northwest to Big Wave Bay in the southeast. In true, efficient Hong Kong fashion, the Trail is divided into Stages, each comprising somewhere between 4 to 7 km (about 2 to 5 miles) and each Stage is rated according to walking difficulty.

We didn’t really bother with the whole Stage business (we’re a bit anarchic that way); we just sorted of started at one point above the apartment, hiked east for a couple of hours, decided the sun would probably set in the not-to-distant future and hey, it was January after all, and set back the way we came. Nevertheless, it was a really nice hike (the Stage we were on is rated a 2/3 for difficulty). One of these days I’d like to try one of the hikes in the more northern parts of mainland Hong Kong: Kowloon or the New Territories. After two full days of hiking, though, I was glad to scarf down some Cantonese barbecue and throw back a couple of beers. Ahhh, vacation.

This Hong Kong trip also featured, besides the strenuous outdoor activity, my first experience with real dim sum. Tragic, I know. But what better place? If you’re unfamiliar with this particular culinary delight, dim sum is basically the Chinese version of tapas, but as a morning or afternoon meal. It comprises small plates of various steamed, fried, and deep fried nummies, such as dumplings, rice cakes, steamed vegetables, and congee which is a sort of savory rice porridge. Tea is also a major component, as with any Chinese meal. And, like most Chinese meals, dim sum is best when ordered “family style” so that everyone gets to try an assortment of different tidbits. Hong Kong is pretty well known for its dim sum, which is after all a Cantonese specialty.

Hiking and dim sum was a great, relaxing way to start my otherwise whirlwind vacation. So! Off to Thailand– see you next post!

New Year’s, Version 1.0

Living in Shenzhen is sort of like living in the suburbs of Hong Kong– not a completely accurate comparison since HK has its own ‘burbs and it’s not like you have to go through customs to get to most cities’ downtown area. Also, most suburbs don’t have populations of 13 million people. But for the purposes of argument, go with me for a second: HK is where the good food, good shopping, and great parties all happen. Shenzhen has its downtown area and a few great spots here and there (don’t get me wrong, it’s a fun place to live) but the nightlife in Hong Kong is truly enviable for those of us living in its mainland cousin. The nightlife is also prohibitively expensive for those making teachers’ salaries in RMB, but on occasion you gotta go where the party lives, and on such big nights as New Year’s Eve, that is definitely down on Hong Kong Island.

It’s one of the biggest party nights of the year for Westerners in the area, and I’m pretty sure the population of the Island doubles starting about 7pm on December 31st. We got into town a bit earlier than that, with the intention of grabbing early dinner and sorting out hostels before heading into the more crowded parts. It was a good thing, too– Lan Kwai Fong, the part of town into which we were headed, was completely packed by the time we got there. The city had put up gates around the area, and less than an hour after we arrived had shut off access to the neighborhood. I’m given to understand that the wait-time to get into LKF was about 2 hours by 9pm.

And it was just people everywhere. All the neighborhoods in Central district were filled to brimming with Westerners– I took a 2am walk around SoHo and the Mid-Levels and it was swarming with Australians, Europeans, Canadians, there was a group of people who were dressed in brightly-colored African garb… The bars were hopping, the clubs were hopping, there was dancing in the streets all over the place. Total madhouse. One of the main attractions is the midnight fireworks show– sadly, I missed it due to having to tend to a friend who wasn’t feeling so hot, but I’ll talk about Hong Kong fireworks in my Chinese New Year post. They are pretty worth it.

Many CTLCers wound up in HK for NYE, so I got to wander and hang out with a bunch of different people throughout the night, but the best part of the adventure (in my opinion) was at about 6 in the morning when my whole group managed to make our various ways back to the hostel, and we spent another hour talking and laughing and reviewing the year that had brought us all together. (There were some hijinks, too– one person fell off the bed with a loud thump and a curse, and that sent us all into giggles; at another point the boys absconded with a couple of bras that had been discarded in favor of pyjamas, and processed around the tiny hostel in a fashion show. Ya know. As we crazy kids do.) There was also a run for McDonald’s hashbrowns in there at some point– you know, I have never eaten so much McDonald’s in my life as I did during the week of Western Holiday Madness…

On perhaps 2 hours of sleep we checked out of the hostel and made our way to the Flying Pan for good, solid Western-style breakfast– they make amazing omelettes and absolutely to-die-for pancakes, not to mention a lox-and-bagel plate that brings tears to my eyes– and then set back out for the good ol’ SEZ. Some of my colleagues were lucky enough that their Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) break began that week– I had a Monday off to look forward to, and ostensibly two more weeks of teaching to get through before my vacation would begin.

But more on that later. As promised, next up: Spring Holiday– Thailand, Cambodia, and Hong Kong fireworks!

X-pat X-mas

I have a LOT of catching up to do here.

From January 10th until now, my school gave us vacation time for the Chinese New Year.  From January 17th to February 3rd, I was on a fantastic jaunt through Thailand and Cambodia, and I can’t wait to write all about that. But I also have neglected to talk enough about the Western Holidays which preceded this epic vacation, so I’ll regale you with a brief recollection of Christmas and (Western) New Years’ as celebrated by a tribe of 20-something expats in Southern China.

The Chinese teachers and administrators (not to mention students) start to feel really sorry for us around about mid-December. My kids started asking me every week whether I was going “home to America” for Christmas, and seemed quite shocked and upset when I told them I’d be spending the holiday in Shenzhen. Especially my juniors, bless their little cotton socks, who obviously have less grasp of the time and expense of a trans-oceanic plane voyage than do my older students. (I think they also were more inclined to feel sorry for me because I was letting them watch Home Alone for 2 weeks. Just a guess.) The teachers in our office gave Stephanie and me cards and boxes of tea and other goodies because they also felt bad that we couldn’t go home to be with our families.

And the administrators set up a special Chinese banquet (yikes) with the headmaster (double yikes, he’s a very important guy) at which they all got (as usual) quite drunk from baijiu and implored us to sing Christmas carols with them. Actually the best part of the evening was that the headmaster’s wife brought their 4-year-old son in at the end of the night, and that kid was absolutely precious. He was just learning the names of different fruits in English, and wanted to show off his knowledge with the dessert plate.

But wait. So this was all the week leading up to Christmas. On Christmas Eve, the Shenzhen Education Bureau threw us a party– which basically meant they rented out an entire floor of a hotel in Luohu, a bunch of Ed. Bureau muckety-mucks showed up for (another) banquet for a couple of hours, and then we were left to our own devices with a bunch of hotel rooms,  many bottles of wine, and the single oddest spread of food I have ever seen in my life.  I’ve written about Chinese banquets before, but this one really took the cake. There was the requisite chicken feet-and-mushrooms sort of thing, but coupled with a basket of chao mian (chow mein) in a basket made of puffy shrimp crackers  next to little slices of coconut cream cake and spaghetti that (we deduced) was probably made with tomato sauce, ketchup, and a whole lot of cinnamon and nutmeg. Christmas spaghetti? I’m still at a loss on that one…

Luohu, and especially where we were staying, is a district know for its nightlife. After the banquet wrapped up (there was of course some truly awful Christmas caroling up on stage) we ventured out in search of a bar or club to crash; we were thwarted, however, because all of the bars and clubs in the neighborhood seemed to either be completely full, or have an absolutely outrageous cover for the night. You’d think a bunch of Westerners would be able to find somewhere to get some drinks on Christmas Eve, but no. Denied.

So we made the only logical move, and went to 7/11 and  McDonald’s.

There was yet a gauntlet to be run, however; for stationed outside the Mickey-D’s just outside of our hotel was a group of possibly teen-age, possibly university-age young Chinese men with cans of “snow” (the fluffy white Silly String that you spray on your windows or indoor Nativities or whatever), and in order to get to the deep-fried deliciousness that awaited us, we had to get past the synthetic snowstorm first.

What ensued can be best described as a raging fake-snow fight, as CTLCers grabbed cans of the stuff proffered by delighted Chinese onlookers, and proceeded to have at the young men, who had until that point mostly just been ambushing unsuspecting pedestrians. The battle was fierce, wending its way up and down the plaza; some of us, after getting sprayed in the face and hair a few too many times, took refuge amongst a group of moto taxis away from the action, guarding the group’s beer and chewing the fat in a couple different dialects with the taxi drivers.

The rest of the night was much quieter; we returned to the hotel with our bounty and spent the evening wandering the halls to wish Merry Christmas to everyone. The Ed. Bureau had also given us goodie bags full of delights such as snap bracelets and bouncy balls that lit up on impact so there was, of course, an impromptu bouncy-ball bouncing tournament for a few moments down one of the halls. But most of us shuffled off to bed after that.

Christmas morning we checked out of the hotel and went back to (where else) McDonald’s for pancakes and hash browns; then after a brief shopping trip in Dongmen with a couple of buddies, I headed home to Skype with the folks from home for a bit. My actual Christmas dinner actually was quite nice– while grocery shopping I ran into a friend from the school, the piano teacher who showed me a traditional Chinese cold remedy when I was ill last October, and I invited her to share the beef stew I was making for dinner. We watched Disney’s “A Christmas Carol” in Chinese (that was interesting)  and finished with strawberries dipped in chocolate. It was an odd, but nice, Christmas.

Of course the next day I basically left China for about six hours, escaping to my family’s gathering in Vancouver via Skype. Though I was sort of the paraplegic in the corner (everyone had to come talk to me, as I couldn’t really walk around and mingle; also the whole webcam thing freaked my brother out which was pretty funny) it was really nice to get to see everyone, and my father even kindly placed a glass of Oregon pinot noir and a small plate of apple crisp or pie in front of me so I could (almost) participate in the culinary delights that I miss so much about home. I also got to virtually participate in rounds of Apples-to-Apples and Outburst courtesy my mother who would hold up my cards to the webcam and submit whatever I typed back to her. The wonders of technology.

This has gotten absurdly long, yet again– so I shall return quickly to talk about New Year’s, and then on to The Grand SE Asia Tour!