We start our India journey in Fort Cochin, an ancient trading post with strong Portuguese, English, and Chinese influences, and more importantly, finally some decent shopping. Camille and I were in desperate need for a few more long sleeved shirts on rotation for our last three weeks of travel- I think I speak for both of us when I say I’m looking forward to my wardrobe again!
We spent our first two days in Fort Cochin (when we weren’t hiding from the heat drinking lime soda) checking out a 1.25kg gold crown gifted by the Portuguese to the ruling family in the 1700’s, seeing India’s oldest European-built church (about 80% of India is Hindu, but some areas of the South are Christian), and checking out the Commonwealth’s oldest Synagogue. We watched the sunset from the seawall over Chinese fishing nets, a legacy from the court of Kubla Khan in the 12th century.
We ventured out at night to experience a traditional Keralan dance called the Kathakali – decorated artists (men) depict mythological characters from Hindu stories only with movements of their eyes and hands, accompanied by two live drummers and a singer that play off the facial signals from the actors. Sounds weird but it was incredible.
From Fort Cochin we took a hot, sweaty train to Waynad. This was our first introduction to Indian train travel and romantic it is not- the smells, heat, and dust is overwhelming. Thankfully Waynad is a forest reserve and higher in elevation, with cooler temperatures and very few tourists.
When I say few tourists, I mean few non-Indian tourists- little did we know, it was school picnic day in Kerala the next day! Our hike to a local waterfall was packed with Indian school kids who all wanted a photo with my dad. Hilarious. They were so cute. We must have posed for at least 20 photos before we escaped. I think I have a small idea now of how annoying it must be to live somewhere and always have tourists taking your photo. We were wearing running shoes and hiking gear- the Indian women braved the challenging trail in gorgeous saris and little heeled flip flop sandals.
After the waterfall, we headed up to the Edakai Caves, where you can climb to see 3000 years old petroglyph. One thing we’ve found funny about Indian attractions is you’ll typically see two or three dates attached to each event or item- you can ballpark the age by taking a median of the three.
We finished our day enjoying a late thali lunch at a gorgeous, quiet lakeside spot. Thali is a South Indian dish of fluffy local rice, traditionally served on a banana leaf, with sides of spiced vegetables, curd, and chutneys to be mixed in with the rice with your right hand. We were ravenous, which is a dangerous combination with thali- it’s basically a vegetarian all you can eat! We watched the sun go down with full bellies and a bottle of local Kingfisher Beer.
We file off the airplane, shuffle nervously through customs, collect our backpacks, and step out into the sea of waiting faces. After waiting for a few minutes, we see my dad stride towards the arrival terminal – a familiar face in a foreign place. He steers us toward the taxi stand not wishing to repeat the 2 hour bus trip he had just endured to meet us, and off we go.
The India in my head is formed by the many books I have read – A Fine Balance, Shantaram, White Tiger, and many others. However, we were not in Dehli or Mumbai, we were in Fort Kochi, an ancient crossroads of many cultures in the 12th centuries and onwards. The city is strikingly civilized, minus the goats roaming the streets and affinity for public urination.
One of the lovely differences between Asia and India is the clothing – “Gucci” and “Prada” are (thankfully) replaced with exquisite colours and patterns of the women’s saris. Most women wear this, some covering their head and hair with a scarf, some wearing the pant/tunic combination. Men on the other hand are either dressed in a typical Western uniform – trousers and a button up shirt, or the dhoti, a long skirt that sometimes gets rolled up with the heat to become a lungi.
Internet is much harder to find here, even in the tourist district (explaining the tardiness of this post). The Indian is delicious – our most memorable meal so far was at a vegetarian place serving an Indian wrap of Indian bread, slightly crispy with a buttery sweet flavour, with paneer and vegetables. If only I could find one of those in downtown Vancouver… We also thoroughly enjoyed the pumpkin masala. The tuk-tuks here sound better than Asia, making an authentic tuk-tuk noise. My dad has joked about importing some to Vancouver and racing around Stanley Park. (Apparently they’re only $500 bucks each- anyone interested in a new business venture?!)
India – so far, so good. We have a busy two weeks of travel ahead through the South to wildlife reserves, old temples, spice and tea plantations, palaces, and will spend the last 5 days of our trip relaxing on the beach in Goa. I have yet to see the famous Indian head-wobble, though my eyes are peeled…
One last day in South East Asia.
We woke up on Koh Phi Phi an hour late, for the first time both of us sleeping through two alarms. We mobilized quickly and in 10 minutes were packed up and out the door to catch our boat to Kuala Lumpur. We had hoped for a good breakfast and some solid wi-fi time before the 22 hour journey ahead… not meant to be.
We had a relatively painless boat to the mainland and bus to the Thai border town, until we boarded the small bus to the Malaysia boarder. About two minutes into the trip, we realized we had left our iPod charging in the wall of the travel agency. &#%!! Amazingly, the driver was very friendly (for what felt like the first time in Southern Thailand) and our iPod was delivered to our van by a motorbike two minutes later. Huzzah.
We then boarded a large charter bus for the overnight trip to KL. As soon as the bus started we knew it was going to be a long ride- the bus was about the temperature of Siberia and despite pleading the bus driver to turn the AC down, it just wasn’t happening. Sleeping pills were a life saver- we were too sleepy to get too upset/cold and managed to squeeze in a few zzs. We arrived into KL at about 4:30am and stumbled around Chinatown with our two new English friends, Chris and Phil, finding a total dump for 40 ringits (about $13- KL is expensive!) which worked to pass out and start a new day fresh(ish).
KL is a big food city and for one day we were determined to try as much of it as possible. Down a narrow alley near Chinatown lined with food stalls and packed with locals, we found our lunch spot. Picking a table at what looked like the busiest stall, we asked the guy sitting at our table how we should order- he politely suggested he order for us. Shortly after, fantastic noodles and wonton soup arrived at our table which we enjoyed while chatting with our new friend about his job, football, and life in Malaysia. He insisted on paying for our lunch to welcome us to KL.
We had a great day touring, eating, and shopping. We met the English boys for dinner at a recommended streetside restaurant. After a good meal, we were to meet some expats we met on Koh Phi Phi for a beer at a pub close to the restaurant. No problem, right? So wrong.
We spent about 45 minutes looking for the right street, and decided it would just be faster to get a cab there. Mistake. After a 15 minute circle tour of the city, we finally ask our cab driver where we were going. He then pretends he doesn’t speak English (funny, he was speaking just fine five minutes before…) We convince him to pull over and insist that we’re not paying for his unofficial and unwanted city tour, and walk away.
5 minutes later realize- $%&! – we’ve left our iPod that we were using for a map in the cab.
We quickly headed back to the place we left the cab, and upon finding the driver still there, Cami realized he had no idea about the iPod – and we should leave it that way. We told him we’d pay him a fair price if he took us where we were going, and got back in the cab. Reunited with the iPod- phew!
He STILL didn’t take us to the right place but we cut our losses and got out. We hailed another cab to take us back into the area we needed- and just guess what he did.
We vowed never to take a cab in KL again. Well, until the next morning, when we were late for our bus. But our third and final driver was lovely- turns out his wife is a racewalker on the Malaysian National Team. He apologized for our cab difficulties, and delivered us to our bus in the nick of time.
Off to India we go.
It’s hard to re-join the backpacker world after a couple of days with people you know and love, especially when it’s pouring rain. Luckily, we were well stocked with organic dark chocolate (thank you, Chomiaks!) to ease the slight homesickness, which faded completely the next day when the sun finally broke out from behind the clouds. With our spirits restored, we set out to hike to the lagoon, a salt water pool in the middle of the island with our new friend Tom. I’m sure he was later cursing himself for following us crazy Canadians. The “path” (aka not so dry waterfall) was pure mud. Gingerly at first, we pulled ourselves up the steep slope, later giving way to the inevitability of absolute filthiness. The trek was definitely only suited to those with a strong sense of adventure – luckily, we have double ;).
That evening, we watched the sunset from the beach and enjoyed Thai food overlooking the ocean. Our entourage quickly grew with people we met over the day, and dinner transitioned to the classic Thailand evening festivities of Chang beer and dancing.
Claudia and I woke up painfully early the next morning to catch the ferry to Koh Phi Phi. Despite the deluge of vacationers and backpackers, we found a friend from home Harry Jones walking down the street! It’s a small world after all.
We did have a little bit of stress when we were told the road to KL was flooded and wouldn’t be open for a few days. Panicked, Claudia and I immediately started researching other options – an expensive and very long ferry to Malaysia or an expensive and inconvenient flight. Before handing our money over, we double checked with a couple other places on the island who reported no such flooding. Lesson learned – do not make big decisions without eating breakfast, without getting at least two opinions, and while on a slight Chang-over.
Our stay on Phi Phi was unexpectedly delightful, even if it was for only a day – we rented a kayak and checked out a secluded beach bay, found a cat napping in a beer fridge, met some great people in line for Papaya Restaurant, and danced the night away with our new friends at the beach. A great way to bid adieu to Thailand.
When I found out my university housemate from 4037 Locust Katie and her family were going to be in Thailand on a family vacation, we made sure our itinerary had us there at the same time. After graduating from UPenn, we all went our separate ways – Katie now lives in Washington DC working for NBC, so we only see each other once a year or so. Her family invited us to stay with them at the beautiful Marriot Resort, complete with the longest swimming pool in Asia! Our two days here were true bliss. We thoroughly enjoyed the breakfast buffet satisfying our Western food cravings of the last two months (feta cheese, olives, sushi, smoked salmon, capers, eggs benedict… the list goes on), watching the waves lap onto the shore from beach loungers while alternating between the Economist and In Style magazines, enjoying a Thai massage on the beach, and biking to a local waterfall. The true highlight of course wasn’t the resort or the food, but spending time with the lovely Chomiak family.
Over Thai food for New Year’s Eve dinner at a hut on the beach, we all reflected on our resolutions for 2012. Thinking about our objectives for the New Year also inspired us to think about our conclusions from travel. Something that Claudia and I have found that Anne of Green Gables puts so nicely (free download on iBooks!):
“Kindred spirits are not so scant as I used to think. It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.”
At the end of the night, we released large lanterns for good luck, the fireworks sparking as they rose into the atmosphere, sipped on champagne while watching a fire show and fireworks. We were a bit misty saying goodbye, but new adventures beckoned!
We’re in India! We have a queue of blog posts on the laptop, looking for a good internet connection to post! There is an absence of wifi, something we didn’t expect from the IT capital of the world.
It’s fabulous so far- fantastic food, beautiful scenery, and very friendly people. We’ve asked ourselves a few times, “is this India?” (Some of the smells remind us that we are.)
Alive and well, expect updates from the rest of Thailand, adventures in KL, and our first few days in India soon!
-Claudia and Camille
baby it’s better
down where it’s wetter
under the sea!
It’s easy to get entranced under the water following a trumpet fish or a lion fish or a clown trigger fish – but for me, what’s amazing about diving is stopping, weightless, and taking in the schools of fish, big tunas, garden eels, and coral all together, everywhere around you.
The Similan Islands are a marine national park on the Andaman Coast, considered one of the top 10 dive sites in the world. They are incredible- smooth granite formations covered in rainforest and edged with white sand beaches, surrounded by turquoise blue water.
We took a two day, one night liveaboard trip. The weather was perfect, the food was delicious, AND we saw a turtle and an octopus. We agreed it was the perfect Christmas gift for each other.
– from Claudia
After an exceptional flight on Quatar Airways from Hanoi (dinner, unlimited wine, movies with Ryan Gosling… hello) we arrived in Bangkok. It’s wild to think it was almost two months since we were last here- it feels like ages ago.
Instead of Bangkok being a hectic transfer city, we had two days of R&R at the Hilton with our friend Chris. (Are we still backpacking?!) We lounged by the infinity pool, put a serious dent in the breakfast buffet, and enjoyed our first hot shower in ages. My former teammate Matt met us for the day on his way through Bangkok – great to see friends from home.
The first stop in Southern Thailand was Ko Tao, a small island off the East coast of Thailand, where we completed our open water and advanced scuba diving certification over five days. We met some fantastic people both in the course and teaching the diving- our course instructor had been teaching for 18 years and couldn’t have been more enthusiastic. He had a wicked and mostly inappropriate sense of humor that kept us splitting our sides. We were all bitten by the diving bug.
Ko Tao had some amazing Thai food – our favorites were e-san pork, almost caramelized on the outside and tender with a spicy dipping sauce, the green and red curries with fresh coconut milk, no-name vegetable, and shredded green mango salads. The nightlife was also a lot of fun – the beach was set up each night with small mats and tables, torches, and candles lit in small caves built in the sand. Perfect to enjoy a Chang beer and play some cards.
After Ko Tao, we spent three nights in a beach bungalow on Koh Phangan. We planned to spend Christmas Eve listening to a Charlie Brown Christmas, drinking wine, and watching Elf. However, after the wine we decided to head over to Hat Rin Beach (the party beach) and check out the scene for Full Moon and had a fabulous time dancing the night away on picnic tables.
Christmas day was slow, reading on the porch and walking on the beach. We found an English pub for a proper Christmas dinner which was a welcome taste of home, where we found two other couples there that were also traveling- funnily enough, both guys in their group were also named Chris. After a few games of pool, darts and a few rounds of beer, we were having a great time and skipped out on the madness of Full Moon for a slow walk home in the moonlight.
After Ko Phangan, Cami and I headed to Khao Lak for some diving and to see Cami’s former Penn roommate. Island hopping means boats instead of busses, a much more civilized mean of travel.
We know it’s late (it’s hard to find computers in Southern Thailand… and we’re very busy on the beach!) but we hope everyone had a very happy Christmas with family and friends. We missed everyone very much- and also missed Christmas baking!