• Hong Kong by Peter C. Meltzer 2012

    Hong Kong is the most crowded, intense place I’ve ever been in. Everywhere you go, no matter what time, it is crowded. Not normal crowded. Overcrowded. You go out on the street at 11 pm and it’s crowded. You can’t get away from it. It’s not easy to adjust to if you’re not accustomed to it. Take the subway trains, for example. They run every 2-3 minutes like clockwork and every train is at least 10 cars long. And every single train is packed with people. Just thousands and thousands of people on every train. You can’t really wander aimlessly or slowly in Hong Kong because there will be a build-up of several hundred people behind you within a few minutes. You have to know where you’re going and how to get there, otherwise you’ll be trampled by the other thousands of people going every possible direction. You can’t slow down. If you do, someone will try to speed you up. I had an old Chinese lady push me because I wasn’t going fast enough for her while lifting a stroller over a subway turnstile. I nearly decked her. Then I remembered my Thai-ness and settled down. But the immediate reaction was still there, and the reality is it’s hard to avoid because you’re so rushed and pressured going from
    place to place. There is no “Jai Yen-Yen” (calm heart) in Hong Kong. So getting back to Thailand was a relief.

    The skyline is crowded with buildings. Every building is a skyscraper. Giant apartment buildings stand in large clusters like trees in a forest. They’re built everywhere; next to the water, on hillsides, on top of mountains, on islands. Most of them are very modern and impressive, as is all of Hong Kong. It is definitely a modern city with all the modern amenities. People aren’t exactly friendly, but they aren’t that unfriendly either. The easiest way to describe them is that they don’t really care. They don’t try
    to be nice in a shop (or most other places) because if you don’t buy anything someone else will be along shortly. It’s a bit of jolt coming from Thailand where such an emphasis is placed on charming smiles and friendly attitudes. Again, it was nice to return to Thailand after 9 days with the Chinese.

    We took in quite a few of the sites and attractions, like Disneyland and Oceanpark. Unless you havea 5 year old in tow, skip Disneyland. It’s expensive, small and (you guessed it) crowded. Every ride has a 1 hour wait, even a merry-go-round. Kind of ridiculous. Solo definitely wasn’t feeling that place. He said no to everything until 5 p.m. at which time he decided he wanted to try a few rides.

    Instead of Disneyland, hit up Oceanpark. First, it’s less expensive than Disneyland. Second, the journey there is shorter and more exciting. Quick, get on the train! Quick, get off the train! Quick, get up the stairs! Quick, buy your bus tickets! Quick, get on the bus! Quick, find a seat! And so on. If you slow down someone will cut in front of you and another couple hundred will follow. Once you arrive at Oceanpark it gets a bit easier. It’s still incredibly crowded, but the park is split in two. One half is at the bottom of a mountain and the other half sits on top of the mountain, literally. Awesome. The more intense rides are on top of the mountain and add another level to doing something like riding a coaster. Riding a coaster is pretty fun, but riding a coaster that shoots out over the water at several hundred feet is even better. Oceanpark also has animals and an aquarium, so there is something for everyone. It’s a pretty cool place and was everyone’s pick for best thing we did in Hong Kong. I recommend it.

    Another thing I would recommend is the food. Lots of good, accessible food in Hong Kong. Any kind of food anytime of the day. It wasn’t very spicy and didn’t come with much in terms of sauces so Jeab was pretty bored (she ate som-tam for about two weeks straight after we got back) but there was a good amount of variety, if you looked. If you didn’t look and explore you would probably end up eating noodle soup a fair amount, because that is everywhere. Noodle soup with no extra spice or sauce, which is a bit bland after living in Thailand. But if you did explore you could find yourself in some pretty interesting places. I found a dim sum place where I was the only white guy and nobody spoke English. I went back twice.

    Hong Kong is expensive, as one would expect from a metropolitan city, so if you go better be prepared to spend a lot of money. Hong Kong is famous for its shopping, which was a major point of attraction for my wife, but she was sorely disappointed. Almost everything is designer labels and designer prices. Huge shopping malls with one fancy name after another. We found a couple of markets but they paled in comparison to Bangkok in terms of quality, quantity, choice, prices and environment.

    Bottom line: in almost every big city category I would recommend Bangkok over Hong Kong. It’s bigger, more relaxed, cheaper, and friendlier. Hong Kong does offer more interesting scenery than Bangkok, as well as much better museums. Besides that, I would give the price, food, shopping, attractions, transportation, and people edge to The Big Chili.

  • CAMBODIA: Siem Reap, Angkor, and Phnom Penh By Blake Schlaich 2012

    Teaching in Thailand with Super English has many of the same excellent perks as teaching in America does. The best, in my opinion, is the vacation time. In the States, most teachers get holidays and the summer months off. In Thailand, SE teachers are off from the beginning of March to mid-May (Thai summer is hot, especially with no A/C and 55 students per class), as well as all of October (when the rainy season hits the hardest). Teachers at other language schools aren't as lucky. This super bonus allowed me to travel for four weeks last month, paid. I went diving in Koh Tao, raged in Bangkok, experienced the filthy skeeze that is Pattaya, watched a fire show in Koh Samet
    (my eyebrows were nearly singed by a disobedient, flaming bow-staff that decided my face was a better landing target than its owner’s hands), and hiked a five-tier waterfall in Kanchanaburi. I don’t have the memory (thank you, Singha beer) nor the patience to write about each and every one of these places. I do, however, want to share a little bit about final leg of my October travels, which was to Cambodia.

    I was only able to spend about a week in good ol’ Cambo and I wish I’d had more time. To me it’s the wild west of SE Asia. Still recovering from the atrocities of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, it is not nearly as developed as its neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam. The air is constantly filled with dust from the unpaved roads, waterways flood because of the lacking infrastructure, and there’s evidence everywhere illuminating the unbelievably widespread poverty. My roommate, co-worker, and travel dude-bro, Ryan gave a pretty accurate, yet not-so-delicate description, “Cambodia is a dirtier, cheaper version of Thailand”. This is true, but it’s also a lot more.

    Everywhere I went the people were exceedingly friendly and genuinely happy. In guesthouses and restaurants the service was far better than in Thailand (but the food didn’t hold a candle). Everything costs a dollar or less. Everything. Draft beer, 50 cents. Food, a dollar. Tuk-tuk, a dollar. You can even find dorm-style hostels to stay in for… a dollar.

    Because of the floods and my loathing of 15-hour bus rides, I decided to pay the extra 50 bucks and take a flight from big, bad Bangkok to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. The flight only takes 55 minutes but it’s a bit more expensive if you’re traveling on a strict budget. The cheapest option is to take the bus from Bangkok to the border, and from there head to Siem Reap in Cambodia. For more on getting there, Mitch wrote a great article on how to get to Cambodia here.

    Siem Reap...

    Which city you hit first depends on whether you fly or take the bus. Most flights go in to the capital city of Phnom Penh, whereas Siem Reap is much closer if you bussing it. I’ll talk about Siem Reap first.

    I ended up spending about a week in Siem Reap and I loved it. Siem Reap is a small, old town in northwestern Cambodia. It’s name means the “Flat defeat of Siam”, referring to a victorious battle the native Khmer people had over the Siamese (of course, Siam is now Thailand).

    It’s a quiet town during the day, but starting around 6 pm, there’s a large night market where you can buy anything from a traditional Cambodian scarf to a knock-off Rolex (I bought a fresh Breitling and some Ray-Bans for next to nothing). Around 9 pm Pub Street comes to life. This is where the tourists convene and where you’ll find restaurants and bars booming until the early morning hours. Even with the tourism, most of the people are still very poor, so you get a bit of the usual bombardment of beggars and street hustlers, but they’re harmless. For the most part everyone is extremely nice and speaks surprisingly good English. Everything is super cheap from food ($1 to $3 USD) to accommodation ($1 to $5/ night).

    Siem Reap is a popular tourist destination primarily because it’s “the gateway” to the Angkor region (where Angkor Wat is located). Angkor was the capital city of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to 15th centuries. The ruins are still there and are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, drawing in thousands of visitors each year.

    The best part of Siem Reap was by far being able to see the 1000-year-old ruins and temples of Angkor. I have to say that it’s probably one of the coolest things that I have ever seen in my life. It’s like the Grand Canyon, words can’t describe it and pictures just don’t do it justice.

    We rented bikes for a buck, but you can hire a tuk-tuk for the whole day for as cheap as $6 and they’ll take you where ever you like. There is an admittance fee to the park and you can choose between a 1 day ($20), 3 day ($40), or 1 week ($60) pass. Ryan and I paid $40 each for a 3-day pass and saw just about everything that there is to see. Guides are also available all over town as well as inside Angkor and they usually run around $8 for the day; tours booked through a travel agency will be a bit more. We decided against it because we wanted to move at our own pace, but I am sure that there are plenty valuable pieces of information and history that would make hiring a guide useful.


    I swear if Indian Jones and Lara Croft had an extraordinarily good-looking love child, it would be me (*Speaking of Tomb Raider, they filmed it in Angkor). Nothing is roped off, so you have free reign to hike around and climb on whatever you want (just don’t get caught). Some of the temples, buildings, and walkways have been restored but most of it has been left basically untouched for the best part of a thousand years. It was like being inside of Mortal Kombat. I was half-expecting Scorpion to run around the corner looking for Sub-zero, “Hey man. You seen a ninja ‘round here… wears a blue mask… likes to make stuff cold?”

    Phnom Penh…

    The most efficient way to get from Siem Reap to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, is by bus. Other options are private taxi, by plane, and there’s even a boat; all leave several times daily. Again, for more information on getting there, read Mitch’s article scroll down. Ryan and I traveled by bus and it took about 5 ½ hours to reach Phnom Penh (leaving Siem Reap at midnight).

    Phnom Penh is a big city but it lacks the glamour of a metropolis. There aren’t many skyscrapers, it’s built on a nonsensical grid system, and honestly it just didn’t seem that impressive (to me, at least). The traffic and pollution are horrible. I highly recommend wearing sunglasses and having a scarf or something to cover your face with while riding in a tuk-tuk. The dust and filth in the air, stirred up from the dirty streets, is like nothing I have experienced (not even in Vietnam or Thailand).

    With that said, Phnom Penh is an amazing place and I did enjoy the time that I spent there. It’s located where the Tongle Sap meets the Mekong River and every morning from sunrise til 8 am, you can see hundreds of people on the riverfront beginning their days with aerobics and yoga. There are hotels, guesthouses, and hostels all over the city for an array of prices. While I was there, the people seemed to be a little standoffish at first (city-like, I guess), but were really just as nice and friendly as everyone in Siem Reap.

    As should be expected, prices are a little bit higher in the capital city, but everything is still dirt- cheap. It’s the difference of paying $1.50 for a tuk-tuk, opposed to $1.
    Unfortunately, I did not get to spend much time in Phnom Penh. After failing to be able to change my flight, I was forced to take a bus to Phnom Penh from Siem Reap the day before my flight left for Bangkok. This gave me from about 6 am until 4 pm (on the day of my departure) to see and do everything in the city that I wanted to.

    Ryan and I hired a tuk-tuk for $12 and he took us to the Killing Fields, S-21, and the shooting range (which altogether was quite a distance). Travel companies and hotels can book tours for you for a few extra bucks. If time or budget is limited, than I would recommend that while in Phnom Penh you HAVE to see the Killing Fields and S-21. I caution you that it is shocking, disturbing, and depressing, but I think that it’s informative and important to see what these people have been through. (*Note: I have been told that the Royal Palace, Russian market, and riverboat tours are worth seeing, but I didn’t get the chance to.)

    The Killing Fields were about 35 minutes outside of town. For a $2 entrance fee you’re allowed in and can see where the Khmer Rouge mercilessly massacred so many Cambodian people. For the history of what happened with the Khmer Rouge and Cambodia, you can read more here. The audio tour was incredibly informative. It allows you to move at your own pace between the marked sites (including mass graves, execution areas, and a huge collection of human skulls), which were shocking. I even found a human tooth in the dirt, recently washed up to the surface by rain. After the tour (which takes about an hour), we bought some incense for the shrine and monument, and then checked out the museum near the exit. As hard as it is to stomach, I am really glad I got to see this. I learned a lot and have so much respect for what the Cambodian people have had to overcome.

    S-21 was not much easier to see. It’s a high school turned torture prison camp. This is where the Khmer Rouge would torture people. It causes the same distress as the Killing Fields, and after 20 minutes, we decided to leave.

    Our final stop of the day was of a brighter hue. On the opposite side of town our tuk-tuk driver dropped us off at the shooting range. Talk about kids in a candy store; they had everything! I had only shot a gun once in my life before, but I have to admit, the mere site of machine guns and RPG’s got me more than a little excited. Although we opted not to, the option was available to shoot a rocket launcher at a live cow (for $350)! Our budgets and morals didn’t allow for that so we opted to pay $130 US (total) to shoot 20 rounds out of an AK-47 and 50 rounds from a Russian machine gun on a tripod. Rambo would’ve been jealous. Firing these bad boys and blowing coconuts to smithereens was a pretty cool experience and the grand finale to the whole Phnom Penh escapade.

    I had a great time in both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. While vacationing from Thailand, I’ve also been to Vietnam, Laos, and Malaysia, and Cambodia is my favorite. My only regret is not spending more time there. The food, the historical sites, the prices, and the people are all fantastic and I would recommend visiting to anyone that gets the chance.

    My recommendations for accommodation:

    Siem Reap:
    *Smiley’s Guesthouse… This place was great. French colonial architecture and a giant courtyard make it feel more like a nice hotel than guesthouse. It’s family owned, there’s a restaurant, computers with free Internet, and the staff is insanely nice. Smiley’s is only a 10-15 minute walk or a $1 tuk-tuk ride to the night market and Pub Street. It’s $5/ night for a bed with private bathroom and a fan or $15 if you want air-con. *The Garden Inn… I didn’t stay here, but I talked to a lot of people that did. You can’t beat the $1/ night dorm beds if you’re on a budget.

    Phnom Penh:
    *The Mad Monkey Guesthouse… This place is awesome. It opened in early 2011 and is run by four young Australian (I think) guys. It’s clean, the food is good, and the staff is great. There’s a sweet rooftop bar upstairs and you get a free Angkor draught beer with check-in. It’s also in a good location to other guesthouses and bars and is walking distance (or a $1 tuk-tuk ride) to the riverside. Prices start at $5/ night for a dorm bed.

  • Koh Mook Travel Article by Blake Schlaich 2012

    Anyone visiting Thailand has to experience the hot spots.  You can’t come to Thailand and not experience the madness of Kao San Road or a Full Moon Party.  There are good reasons why places like Koh Phangan and Phuket are always flooded with tourists; they’re beautiful, they offer tours, activities and a booming nightlife, and they cater specifically to travelers.  But after living in Thailand for over a year now, I’ve grown to appreciate the lesser-trafficked locales.  Once in awhile, it’s nice to take a detour from the beaten path and visit a place that’s not yet littered with backpackers and covered by seedy bars and hotels.  It’s refreshing.

    The second week of December was [another] 3-day weekend.  A few fellow Super teachers and I headed out to a small island on the Andaman coast of Thailand called Koh Mook (or Ko Muk).  Koh Mook is in the Trang province of Thailand, south of Phuket.  For us, it was a few hours in a mini-bus to Trang town, another hour-long ride in a hired pickup truck to the pier, and then a short ferry cruise over to the island.  A bit of a trip, but so worth it.

    When we arrived it was raining, but it didn’t take away from the island’s natural splendor and magnetic charm. It is largely undeveloped accept for two villages, one on the east side of the island and one on the west. There are no more than a handful of guesthouses, restaurants, and bars. You can find few dive shops along the beach, and maybe two or three private resorts. There are only 2,000 inhabitants on the whole island, mostly fisherman and their families. Koh Mook is also home to the “Emerald Cave” and prides its waters as being one of the last sanctuaries for the Dugong (a relative to the manatee). Other than the income Koh Mook draws from tourism and fishing, the
    locals also profit from harvesting the thousands of rubber trees that cover the entire island. Being on a budget, we opted to stay at Mookie’s( Guesthouse. They’re known for having cheap accommodation and a friendly staff. Just off of an unpaved road in the middle of the jungle, it seemed like a nice,quiet place to make our headquarters for the weekend.

    We checked in with the owner, a nice European guy and his Thai wife put their newborn baby down to nap in a hammock while she got our lodging ready. While waiting, we sat at the small restaurant and bar, watched the rain, and tested Mookie’s claim of having the coldest beer on the island. There were vacant bungalows available but for a few baht less we decided to go with the “tents”. It being the rainy season, I originally wasn’t too keen on this. To my surprise, it ended up being much nicer than your typical campsite. Each tent was already set up for us and covered by a thatched roof. Inside there was a full bed, an electric fan, and a lamp. Not bad for $5 a night.

    The rain finally subsided and John, Janet, Brittany, and I walked a couple hundred yards down to the beach. The waters are some of the clearest I’ve ever seen and the sea is rich with fish, coral, and other marine life just off shore, making snorkeling easy. We swam in the ocean. We sat in the sand. We watched the sunset. The red sky and purple ocean stretched on forever like they were racing to a finish line at the horizon. A seafood dinner on an ocean-side cliff and a few tall beers sent us to bed. Nights like that remind me to be thankful.

    The next morning we packed a day bag and hired a boatto take us to various snorkeling spots and then to the island’s star attraction, Morakot Cave. The cave, also known as the Emerald Cave, is located just off the western shore. Its mouth is on the face of a seaside cliff and only accessible by water. Deep inside, the cave opens up into a secret white-sand lagoon enclosed on all sides by towering walls of limestone. It’s like being inside of a volcano. The only way in or out is by swimming in from the ocean and through the cave’s passageway. As the sun above shines down on the lagoon,the water becomes a radiant emerald-green giving the cave its nickname. What gives the cave even more charisma is that it was used as a hideout for pirates and as a place for them to stash their treasure. So in the spirit of true Goonies, we packed a day bag and set out on the seas. Our backpack carried only the bare necessities: two bags of potato chips, one bottle of water, a Santa hat, one pocketknife, one machete, and two bottles of rum. Because you can’t go on a pirate quest without rum. Or a machete.

    We snorkeled for a few hours at various spots. It rained the whole time but that didn’t matter underwater. Our boat guide made a brief stop for us at a deserted island where we each took pictures with the Santa hat for Christmas. Then, we swigged our rum and headed over to the pirate cave.

    The boatman stopped just outside of the cave’s entrance and we hopped in the deep green water. We swam inside and were enveloped by the pitch black. After swimming for about 30 meters in the darkness we saw a small light. We followed the light and it grew until we were inside the secret lagoon of the Emerald Cave. We hung out inside for a bit just taking it all in. The only other people there were two guys we’d met earlier that kayaked in. There was a real feel of secrecy and seclusion. We took some pictures. John and I had a pirate fight. Then it was time to swim back out into the world.

    We capped off the trip with a good night out at Chill Out bar. We were able to see the lunar eclipse in sky from where we laughed and drank on the beach just outside of the bar. Not a bad way to end another weekend just a short trip from Surat.

  • Taiwan by Mitch Burbick 2011

    One of the best things about working about Super English is the huge amount of time for vacation that you get. Thailand’s infamous for random Holiday’s scattered throughout the calendar work year but as far as allocated time off for traveling and basically doing whatever you please besides working, Super English offers the most. They’re unpaid, but what are you doing in Thailand if you’re looking to make a bunch of money? We get almost six weeks off around March and April and the entire month of October. I made use of my month this last October and went to Taiwan.

    There’s a lot of SE Asia that I’m going to unfortunately leave without seeing. Taiwan is definitely not the usual vacation go to and while I’ll say it was a really tough decision to head there over Vietnam, I won’t say that it wasn’t worth it.

    I found a ticket from Bangkok to Taipei with Air Asia for just under nine thousand baht (around $300 U.S.) which for a roundtrip 5 hour flight each way, is a screaming deal. Got into Taipei around 7 at night and took a bus from the airport to the train station, about an hour away. You’ve got to give it to Taiwan, they’ve got busses and trains fast, on time, and just generally nailed down. At the train station I was able to buy a ticket on the high speed train to head down the east coast to Hualien, a town that two of my friends from university work in.

    Friends, Taiwan is beautiful. I had never spent time thinking about it, but holy mother, it’s something to be explored. I spent just over 3 weeks there living on the coast with my friends. We rode motorcycles through canyons, saw waterfalls pouring down the sides of mist covered mountains, sat in a hot spring next to a raging river, hunted jade in the rain while knee deep in cold water, surfed typhoon waves and drank a lot of Budweiser out in front of 7-11’s.

    The country has a little bit more than 20 million people, 11 million of which live in Taipei. The country’s not huge, you can ride a motorcycle around the entire thing in a couple days. The middle is basically a giant chain of mountains with one road running through along a gorge that rivals the Grand Canyon in beauty. With the exception of one or two larger cities in the south, most of the towns are pretty small. It was easy to feel at home after just a short period of time there and I understood why even after two years, my friends had no intentions of leaving.

    There are a few large chain ESL schools operating in Taiwan, HESS being the largest. My friends work for them and they like it alright. For them, after the first year, the job has turned into a way to stay in the country while learning Chinese. They teach kindergarten in the morning, have a 4 or 5 hour break during the day, and return to work at 4 or so to teach a few hours of private classes every night, not unlike the classes at Super English.

    The cost of living seems to be a bit more than it is in Thailand, but altogether, I found things prettyreasonably priced. Definitely more than they are around here in SE Asia, but in no way as much as back home, Japan, or even mainland China.

    A nice thing I really enjoyed was the weather. Over October it was cool and a bit rainy, but in no way was it like the rainy season we have here in Thailand. The summers are pretty hot and humid, but their winters are actually cold. Coming from America’s west coast, it was kind of like being back home for a little bit. The trip was great. I’d recommend to anyone looking for a vacation a little different than the usual SE Asia circuit to check it out. Flights are cheap, food and staying are pretty cheap, and if you’re
    looking for an adventure, rent a bike and try to make it around the island in a few days stopping wherever you see fit. And don’t’ forget Taroko gorge. It’s definitely a must see.

    Coming home to Thailand though, like always, was great. I’d missed the delicious Thai food, the cheap beer, the quirky night markets and all the subtleties of the day that make Thailand such a great and fantastic place to live and work.

  • Ang Thong National Marine Park by Mike Rogers 2011

    It seems like there are many days off in the semester that stretches from October to March. This semester, in addition to the numerous holidays there were days canceled for rain, days canceled because the school told us they were, and of course days where the student will be testing. Some of these you do not know are happening too long in advance and thus are tough to plan for, but some, like the mid-term testing days, are much easier to plan for. Knowing that these were coming up I began to search for places to go camping in the 400 baht tent I had recently purchased. Soon, a suggestion from the tender of bar at our most frequented bar came and was irresistible, Ang Thong National Marine Park. This is a stretch of dozens of islands that are only an hour and a half ferry ride from Koh Samui. They are mostly covered in jungle and host some pretty cool features including a piece of ocean that appears completely land locked (in fact it is connected by an underwater cave) and some stunning cliffs on many of the islands.

    The boats for the islands leave once a day around 8am from either Samui or Koh Pangang. This almost presents a problem because to get to either Samui or Koh Pangang requires a 5 hour boat trip, but luckily, the ferry system provides and excellent and only mildly inconvenient solution, the night boat. The night boat leaves Surat Thani at 11pm and gets to the islands between 5 and 6am. On weekends, or the nights before a Full Moon Party the night boat is sometimes synonymous with party boat, but on a Wednesday evening it was a pretty laidback affair, no fighting for position on the mats, and no tourists attempting to be constantly drinking for 48 hours. The night boat doesn’t provide a good nights sleep, but it does make the ride slip by when you are in and out of consciousness. I arrived (and woke up) shortly after the sunrise and Koh Samui was soaked with that beautiful post dawn light that only exists for an hour or so a day. Buying the ticket to the Park was easy, the ticket is round trip includes a lunch, a tour, and access to the company’s kayaks and snorkeling equipment. The boat to Ang Thong was one of the few times I have been cold in Thailand, but this was as much due to the movement of the wind as it was to the on and off rainthat was falling.

    By the time we came into view of the islands the rain had become fairly constant, though not heavy. We got off the boat on an island that is famous for having a large lagoon in the middle of it. It looked somewhat like a movie volcano top, tall walls surrounding the hole in the middle. There is a small hike up stairs to get over said walls, which was mildly precarious due to the rain making it a little slippery, but only about a 3 on the danger scale. The lagoon was beautiful and lived up to its name, The Emerald Lagoon, the water was a deep green and it was surrounded by lush jungle. When I had had my fill of looking down at it, something that happened rather quicker than it might have due to the press of overweight and shirtless tourists that were beginning to fill the viewing platform, I walked down to the water. I wasn’t certain what to expect, I suppose I thought the water would be cloudy, and I might see a small, boring fish or two, but this is what I should have expected if I were going to a lake in central Maine, not to a lagoon on an island off the coast of Thailand. The water was crystal clear and teeming with life. Sea Urchins sporting huge spines dotted the rocks, dozens of small fish were darting around, an intimidating large fish strolled out from under some rocks and swam under the plat form I was standing on just as a beautiful, multi colored sting ray glided in from deeper waters. I was taken aback. It turns out the Emerald Lagoon was created by a massive sink hole collapsing, and while it looks to be completely land locked it is actually connected to the ocean by an underwater cave, making it possible for the wide array of sea life to make its way in.

    The stop at this island was actually fairly short, only an hour or so and we were getting back on the boat and having lunch, a good but unremarkable masaman curry. The next stop was the last of the day for me, as it was on the island that I was planning on camping on. This island has three natural attractions, a long, fine sand beach, a limestone cave, and a hike up to a spectacular view point. They offer some snorkeling equipment, but after trying it out for a few minutes I found this to be pretty boring, there was no coral or exciting fish, only clear water, white sand, and some seaweed. I decided to check out the cave. It is a short hike up to the cave but a fairly steep one and enough of a challenge that the people that were trying it in flip flops or bare feet usually turned around pretty quickly. The hike was made more interesting by the rain having turned any dirt into slippery mud, and any rock into a very short water slide. But, the hike was short and simple enough that it wasn’t really a problem. The cave was interesting, but not mind blowing. The stalactites and stalagmites had some crazy shapes and patterns, but my appreciation of caves is not great, it seems like caves the world over are pretty similar. This one was a bit nicer because it was quite open allowing a good amount of natural light to illuminate it. The way back down the trail was actually a little easier than the way up because of a rope that ran along most of the trail as a means of supporting yourself down the steeper, and currently more slippery, sections.

    By the time I got back the boats were starting to leave and the rain seemed to have finished for the day, so I went to see the ranger to talk about where the best place to pitch my tent would be, and to pay for my over night stay. He let me pick the driest spot I could find, and charged me 30 baht for the night, or the equivalent of one American dollar. Pretty good deal for a spot in paradise. By 3:00 the island was almost completely empty, with only the rangers, maybe five other tourists and me. I took a walk on the beach and around 5:00 I started eyeing the hike up to the view point, which was closed due to the rain. I looked at the sign, and found it was only a 500 meter hike, “chump change” I thought, “It must only be closed to out of shape and aging tourists, not to a spritely young lad like myself!” and so after setting up my tent I popped on my hiking boots and took off. There are four view points, at 100 meters, 200m, 300m, and one at the very top. This was another trail that had a rope provided for assistance in getting up and down it, and as it turns out it was needed. What I had neglected to notice on the sign was that despite being only a 500m hike, it was 262m vertical, meaning that for every two meters forward, I went one meter up. This would be tiring on a normal day, with out a doubt, but the days rain added a bit of a thrill to the whole process. The views were amazing, getting more impressive at every landing, and as I was in the jungle and the jungle always seems to provides something interesting, there were also a lot of monkeys. Dusky Langurs to be specific. At the second scenic overlook I was surprised to find one sitting on a branch only five feet from me, calmly eating leaves and occasionally looking over its shoulder at me. These Langurs are most recognizable by the white rings around there eyes which give them a very intelligent look. After soaking in the monkey’s company I started back up the trail, and began thinking about how amazing the sunset would be from the top.

    The top was stunning. Islands, at least a dozen, stretched out into the ocean, disappearing into the haze shimmering on the water. As I was standing there, soaking in the evening light I was surprised by a monkey. This time it emerged out of the bushes behind me stood, perhaps 10 feet away staring at me. A rather haunting thing given the wise aura that the white rings around its eyes gave it, and after ten or fifteen seconds it turned and moved past the “No entry” sign, and left my sight. I was still processing what had just happened when the monkey popped back up 10 feet further up the mountain and again turned to stare at me. Again it disappeared and again it popped up and stared at me only a few feet farther up the mountain. I am not a big believer in signs, but this was quite bizarre. The strange behavior of the monkey, combined with my desire to ignore the "no entry” sign and climb higher meant that there was really only way to interpret this, I should follow the monkey. So follow I did, and it was immediately apparent why the rangers did not want travelers going up that way. The rocks were sharp and there were many sudden dips and drops well designed for knee breaking and if you tilted and fell to your right you would end up with a good long time to make some peace with the world before crashing into the forest below. I climbed for about five more minutes until I came to a spot that I might have been able to pass if I had been well versed in parquet, and stopped. The monkey wasn’t there waiting to deliver some life message to me, but there was gold. Not coinage or jewelry but an entire island of it. One of the islands had a large, bare cliff facing west; the light of the setting sun had fully caught it while I was climbing. I was told when I was younger that the hour before sunset was called the golden hour for photographers, because the light was so soft and so unique that it produced some of the best pictures possible. This was the golden hour.

    The central island on which I was staying had a visitor center, some bungalows and a restraint. There are probably between 10-15 staff that live there, and from what the very kind, and sociable ranger told me there are rarely more than 6-7 over night visitors, meaning this is a very low key place. The food is fine, though a bit over priced, but as the only other food to be had must be either caught or swam for its tough to complain. The Ranger’s name is Gon, an interesting man who has a background in engineering but after visiting a friend who had been working on the island decided that he much preferred a calm island life. He does some pretty amazing things with a stick which he spins around his body at an impressive rate (occasionally lighting it on fire, though I didn’t see this in person, only in photos) and spends most evenings sitting outside the restaurant playing guitar. His songs range from American hits to pieces of his own composition, most notably a soon to be world wide hit called “Don’t eat my Cat” (you can find it on youtube by searching “Don’t Eat My Cat (Linda)”, very entertaining). All in all this is an easy, relaxing and beautiful trip to take, one of many readily available to a Surat based adventurer.

  • Vietnam: Not just a war by Tristan Rentos 2011

    Due to the generous amount of holiday time that all Super English teachers receive (the most of any language school in Surat) we have a wide selection of travel destinations to choose from. This year, Chris and I went to Vietnam.

    This wasn’t my first time in the ‘Nam, nor will it be my last. This country is truly something special. The sad fact is when most people think of Vietnam, the next word that pops into their head is ‘war’. These words seem to go hand in hand, such as ‘pint of beer’, and ‘hot and spicy’. For many people, especially the older generation, this is what Vietnam is - a war that was fought over 35 years ago and defined a part of their lives back in the day. For me, Vietnam is about two things – the atmosphere and the scenery.

    Let’s get one thing out in the open: I have been to Vietnam twice, spent most of my time in the north and I have never been openly racially vilified or been a victim of any crime. I am not an American, but sometimes people jump to the wrong conclusions. OK, so we all get charged more than Vietnamese people when we’re out and about, but Vietnam is not alone in having a dual pricing system (Thailand does this as well). As for the inevitable comparison between Thailand and Vietnam, they are two totally different countries with different cultures and histories. Vietnamese food is less spicy than Thai food, and has more of a Chinese influence. I will say one thing though – thanks to French influence (they ‘managed’ the country for a few years as part of French Indochina) the Vietnamese bake excellent bread, brew very tasty coffee, and most importantly have really good domestic beers, in my opinion far superior to Chang, Singha and Leo that we have in Thailand. Saigon Export (black label) isn’t just a good Vietnamese beer, it’s a good beer full stop. Oh, and ladies, the chocolate is excellent!

    If you are a Super teacher living in Thailand, I would suggest that you confine your traveling to the middle and north of Vietnam, simply because the south of Vietnam is too similar to the south of Thailand. The beaches are better in Thailand, there is better tourist infrastructure in place and Saigon is trying a bit too hard to be like Bangkok (you might as well just go to Bangkok and have the full ‘Sukumvit’ experience rather than the junior version in Saigon if that is what you’re after in a holiday). The middle of Vietnam, however, is not similar to Thailand and has some real gems. Even if you don’t get a suit made up, Hoi An is such a beautiful old town that you will find yourself walking around for hours looking in every nook and cranny for that one souvenir that you just have to take home with you. Hue is the old capital of Vietnam, and the old citadel is well worth a look if you’re an old building buff like me.

    Now the north, in my opinion, is the highlight of Vietnam. I’ve been banging on about this for years, but Hanoi is the best capital city I have been to anywhere (yes, that includes Canberra, the capital city of Australia which is about as interesting as dry toast). The old quarter, famous for its shopping is literally a maze of lanes and side streets, with one particular product being sold by multiple vendors on one street (for example, on one of the streets north of Hoan Kiem lake every vendor sells shoes – just shoes – on the entire street). As with Hoi An, you will want to just walk around for hours on end, looking in every shop for that special find. The lake itself is a nice place to sit and relax, and the baguettes, coffee and tree lined boulevards make for a relaxing place to collect your thoughts, despite the crazy traffic.

    I won’t go too much into Halong Bay, because both times I’ve been there it has been foggy and I haven’t seen much to write about (better luck next time I hope). Right up in the northern mountains on the Chinese border is a town called Sapa, and this is Vietnam at its best. You cannot go to Vietnam without going to Sapa, because these are the best views you will see outside of the Nepalese Himalayas (and yes, I’ve been there too). Basically you get the overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, a town on the Chinese border, then get a connecting minibus to Sapa. You find a hotel, dump your bags, then venture out to a coffee shop and talk to the charming minority villagers who try to get you to buy souvenirs. In winter, several cafes have an open fire going, it’s like being in the Swiss Alps without the massive price tag or the skiing. You can hire a car/motorcycle and explore the local villages, which I highly recommend doing. I have never been to a place with better ambiance than Sapa; if someone told me that I had to spend the rest of my life there I would be very happy.

    When it’s all said and done, Vietnam is far more than just a former cold war battleground. You couldn’t have a better holiday in your very best of dreams.

  • Bali by Brittney Johnson 2010

    I am very fortunate to live in a country with many holidays and to work for a company like Super English that allows it’s employees to take full advantage of those times off. My school was closed for Christmas break, so my fellow teachers/friends and I decided to take advantage of the super cheap promotion on Air Asia. We scored round-trip tickets from Phuket to Bali for $120. Thailand is such a strategic location for cheap holiday trips! Other schools in Surat Thani were not closed for the entire Christmas break, so I felt very lucky that we had that time off. Christmas and New Year’s are my favorite holidays, so I was excited to be able to spend them with close friends! Janet, John, Chris and I left December 27th, early in the morning, so early that we decided to sleep in the airport that night. Needless to say, we are budget travelers.

    Bali is an island in Indonesia. Indonesia has the largest Muslim population than any other country in the world, with approximately 202.9 million. However, Bali is a Hindu island. So, it’s totally different than it’s neighboring islands. Bali is kind of like it’s own country. They have their own language and religion. Even the archicture is very different than other Indonesian islands. It’s a truly fascinating, beautiful, charming, spiritual place. The people are incredibly friendly, warm, English speaking Hindus. You can hardly pass a Balinese person without them giving you some sort of greeting or asking you a question. They are genuinely interested in knowing you.

    As soon as we arrived we had some errands to run in Denpensar, the capital of Bali. Then we headed north to Ubud. I’m sure you’ve heard of Ubud by now. It got put on the map due to the best selling book and now movie starring Julia Roberts, “Eat, Pray, Love.” It’s kind of a shame that it has become such a popular tourist destination. I was in Ubud one year ago, and although it was still touristy and crowded due to the high season, it wasn’t nearly as crowded as it was this year. However, Ubud still has tons of charm and uniqueness.

    As soon as we booked our homestay, being the budget travelers that we are, we began the search for some cheap, local food for our first meal. I had been raving about how good the food was to the others. They had high expectations. And I must say, the Balinese food did not disappoint them. We ate local, cheap food the entire time we were there. We could have decided to treat ourselves to an expensive, nice, western meal, but we liked the local food too much. The local dish is called Nasi Campur. It’s different each time. It consists of rice, vegetables, beans, tofu, tempe, chicken, fish, pork, nuts, coconut, spicy or peanut sauce, etc. You get to pick what you want inside. Then they wrap it up in a banana leaf. All of that for about $1. There’s such a variety that you never get tired of it because you get different fillings each time.

    So, we spent the evening walking around town, eating Nasi Campur on our balcony by candlelight and washing it down with some Balinese beer. Then we went for some tea and shisha. The next morning we woke up to a delightful breakfast of Balinese coffee, banana pancakes, Jaffles and fresh fruit salad. We then got a taxi and headed up to the northern coast to Lovina. Some local people told us it was a really beautiful black sand beach town. The 3 hour drive was a beautiful ride through the central part of the country.

    We got a good deal on accommodation. That night we walked along the black sand beach and had a couple local beers and local dinner. We ate and drank on the beach. Lovina was nice, but we decided later that we would have rather of stayed another night in charming Ubud. We decided to leave super early the next day (5am) to start the journey out to the Gili Islands. The Gili Islands are not part of Bali, but are part of Indonesia. They are tiny islands off of Lombok. We ended up having an incredible New Years on the Gilis!

    After the Gilis we returned to Bali one day before our flight. We all agreed that we would like to spend our last night in Ubud. We couldn’t get enough of it! We got in early evening and found a decent homestay. Most of the homestays in Ubud range from $10-$20, and they all include breakfast. They all have a huge garden with ancient statues of Hindu religious figures. All throughout the day, people are setting out their offerings of various flowers, food, and insence in a bamboo basket. You can’t go very far without seeing a temple. Ubud is filled with art galleries, designer boutiques, bookstores, coffee shops, local and western restaurants, stores with handcrafted items, markets, etc.

    Our last morning, we woke up early to observe the morning market scene. People were busy selling breakfast and Hindu offering items. We grabbed our last Indonesian food to go to have later on the airplane (since Air Asia doesn’t serve food or drinks on any flights).

    We spent one week in Indonesia and had an remarkable trip. I was just as impressed the second time around to Bali as I was the first time, one year ago. Even though we were on the go quite a bit because we wanted to see so much, it was still a relaxing holiday. It’s the Balinese way of life. There’s no rush. They take time to talk to people. I’m sure I will find myself in Bali again. And I look forward to it.

  • Chak Phra Festival by Mike Rogers 2011

    Chak Phra Is a festival which takes place in Surat Thani, and marks the end of Phansa, a time during the monsoon season when monks traditionally retreat to their monasteries for three months. The name Chak Phra literally means “drawing the Buddha”, which is seen in the nature of the elaborate floats, where ornate dragons carry small shrines with Buddha images. People pack in between the floats, dropping coins into metal pots as monks who are seated on floats send out blessings in the form of small showers of water. The floats all follow a fairly similar style of 1-4 dragon heads coming out of the front, but vary greatly in the color and presentation, ranging from simple one tone whites,shreens and blues, to floats covered in sea shells. In addition to the land floats, there are more literal floats, highly decorated boats, also bearing Buddha images which float down the river and allow people to accrue karmic merit by making offerings and celebrating their presence.

    The street, which on most weeknights is serene is filled with the citizenry of Surat. With the general public coming out to enjoy the festival, the street vendors follow, offering their traditionally wide variety of food from mysterious meats on a stick to delicious waffles and other fried goods. The atmosphere on the street is comfortable and friendly, even for a wide-eyed farang walking around taking too many pictures. All in all the Chak Phra festival of Surat Thani is a beautiful and very Thai experience.

  • Surat Thani to Cambodia by Mitchell Burbick 2011

    From Thailand, there are two ways to get to Cambodia. Well, maybe three if you count a boat, but I don’t know anyone who’s done that so let’s stick with either flying, or taking ground transportation. I looked into flying, but for me and probably most others living on a Thai teaching salary, it’s ridiculously expensive. There are some cheap flights into Penomh Penh, but that wasn’t really going to be the focus of the trip, and flying into Siem Reap just didn’t make fiscal sense. I’d only heard horror stories from friends about the long and hellacious trip to get from Thailand to Cambodia but because it made the most sense, we decided to go for it.

    If you’re starting in Suratthani, the first thing you’ll have to do is get to Bangkok. To me, it made sense to get the whole trip over with in one go, so I took a night train, but if you want to burn a night in Bangkok you can always take a day train. The night train, depending on whether you get a sleeper, will set you back anywhere from around 570 – 700 baht. There are five or six trains leaving Phun Phin (the train station just outside Surat) every hour from 5pm to 8pm and these will get you into Bangkok’s Hualomphong station around 6 in the morning.

    And now for a friendly reminder: trains in Thailand are always late. I’ve been on some that arrive within 20 minutes of the time stated on the ticket, and some that have been as much as 5 hours late, so always just give yourself a lot more time than you think you need and plan accordingly.

    Once in Bangkok you now get to choose between taking a train or a bus from Bangkok to the border town of Arranyapathet. If you choose to take a train you can hang out at the station until the next one leaves. There are all sorts of very friendly information people milling around in neon shirts that speak fantastic English and will be able to answer any questions you have. I was told the next train was leaving for Arranyapathet at 1 in the afternoon and didn’t fancy spending 6 hours at the train station, so I opted to take a bus.

    If you choose to take a bus you’ll have to get yourself to Bangkok’s Northeastern Bus Terminal which is called Mo Chit. From Hualomphong you can either take a taxi or hop on the subway. At around 40 baht, the subway’s probably a little cheaper and you can ride this to the second to last stop where you’ll get off and then catch a quick ride via taxi at another 40 baht to the bus station. Just tell the driver Mo Chit, and you’re golden.

    Once at the bus station you can ask at the information kiosk for the booth that sells the tickets to Arranyapathet or just look around, it’s pretty much straight ahead and center against the back wall when you walk in the main doors. There are buses leaving through the day starting at 6AM and finishing around 5PM and a ticket will run you 212 baht. It’s supposed to be a 4 hour ride, but the two times I rode it took somewhere a little over 5, which still isn’t too bad because it proved to be one of the nicer buses I’ve taken in Thailand. The air conditioning worked, the seats reclined, and the speakers were only pumping Thai pop music for somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of the time.

    At the end of this ride the bus will kind of unceremoniously dump you off in the middle of what looks to be a nowhere town. Tuk tuk (little truck taxis) drivers will accost you asking you if you’re going to the border. Try hooking up with some other people heading that wayto get a better fare. It’ll be somewhere between 50 and 60 baht. Now here’s the sneaky part. The tuk tuk drivers WILL take you to the border, but only AFTER they take you to one or two places where shady people will try to sell you visas at an inflated price. Just insist on being taken to the actual border, and don’t listen to a word they have to say. People were telling us all kinds of garbage about how if you don’t already have one it’ll cost more at the border, or that we couldn’t get the visas at the border that particular day and on and on. Just stay strong and don’t get out of the tuk tuk until you’ve arrived at the border.

    You’ll be dropped off a little up the road from the border station, so just get your stuff and start walking. Because gambling is illegal in Thailand but not in Cambodia, you may pass signs warning that leaving the Kingdom of Thailand to gamble is in no uncertain words, a bad idea and may lead to fines, and I’m not joking, death. Whether that’s the intention of your visit to Cambodia or not, you will pass through a Thai border building where it seems like smiling will get you thrown into prison. After this continue on and you’ll come upon a Cambodian border checkpoint. You’ll have to fill out some paperwork, present your passport and a passport photo (don’t’ forget the photo and make sure you have at least a full empty page in your passport), $20 U.S. dollars and within a few minutes you’ll be on your way with a 30 day Cambodian tourist visa. These guys will try to tell you that you need to pay them $5 or a 100 baht extra to get it quickly, but stay firm, point to the sign above the window stating the price and don’t take their crap.

    From here it’s a matter of deciding whether you want to take a bus or a taxi (read 1982 Carolla driven by an insane and just maybe half blind Cambodian person) to your ultimate destination. I was heading to Siem Reap and was able to get three other people together to split a taxi with at $12 U.S. a person for a three hour ride. If you choose to take a bus, the tickets were around $9 U.S. and I’ve heard it takes significantly longer than a taxi, but if you’re travelling alone, it’s probably the cheap option.

    Hooray! You’ve done it. You’re in Cambodia. Go check out Angkor Wat and Penomh Penh and all the other goodness the country has to offer. You can shoot large automatic guns, and if you pay enough, it may just be possible to shoot a cow. Seriously, it’s like the Wild West out there.

    Getting back is essentially the exact same process in reverse. Take a bus or taxi from whatever Cambodian city you end up in to the Thai border and find a bus or train to get you back to Bangkok or wherever your next destination is. Just walk towards the buses lining up and hop on the next one leaving. I left Battambang, Cambodia at 7AM, got to the border around 10AM, caught an 11:30AM bus right across the border to Bangkok, got into Bangkok around 5pm and then was able to get a taxi from the Northeastern Bus Terminal Mo Chit to Hualomphong where I was in time for a 7:30PM night train leaving Bangkok for Suratthani.

    There you go. Happy travels.

  • October Travel Plans by Mitch Burbick 2010

    Oh glorious month of October. You have always been good to me. Back when I lived in Washington you were full of maple trees bursting with orange, yellow and red, dark skies, rapidly shortening days, and pumpkins glowing with a soft orange light. You have rarely been a disappointment and I don’t think that track record is going to be broken this year seeing as how as Super English teachers we have the entire month off. Like no work at all, which means plenty of time to travel for the entire month. Other schools in the area get a week or two off, but nowhere near the amount of time we’re able to enjoy. This also holds true for the summer break in March, April and some of May. I think it’s more than fair to say that Super English teachers get the most time off out of any other schools in Surat Thani.

    Oh October, how you continue to shine.

    This is of course isn’t without the slight misfortune of not getting paid for the entire month of October, but with a little bit of foresight and planning, this issue becomes a nonissue unless you plan on spending your entire savings on a plane flight to Europe like a certain couple roommates may or may not be doing. But really, it’s up to you.

    Now, because you asked so kindly, I will tell you about my plans. My last day of teaching is scheduled to be just before the beginning of October and I will be going to Bangkok for a few days of imported beer scavenging and Mexican food eating before hopping on a flight to Taipei, Taiwan. This isn’t just a puddle hopper jump, at 5 hours away by flight, it’s a fair distance. It’s like flying from one side of the United States to another. Air Asia is the undisputed king, queen, prince and entire royal family of low cost flights throughout this part of the world and at a roundtrip cost of just about $300, leaving the slightly frustrating inability of their website to accept my credit cards out of it, can do no wrong by me.

    (Reader’s note: There are plenty of places around town that will book the flights for you - for like a $2 dollar fee - if you simply give them cash. Certain teachers even report that you can buy flights at 7-11 so don’t fret.).

    I see you sitting there reading this with the question ‘Why Taiwan, is Thailand really that boring?’ already forming in your mind, but relax, I won’t even make you ask it.

    I have two friends from University teaching in Taiwan that I desperately want to see. They’ve been there for a couple years, ever since we graduated really, and for me, the opportunity to see both a new part of the world AND these people is worth the cost of leaving the country for this break. They live in a town on the east side of the island called Hulein where there is (supposedly) epic surf and a hefty amount of motorcycle to be ridden. I am told there are great big forests to drive through, weather cold enough to wear jeans, a flannel, and a hoodie in (almost worth the cost of the flight right there), great big cliffs to jump off and plenty of delicious not-Thai beer to over indulge in.

    And now, please don’t get me wrong… I’m not saying Thai beer is bad, I’m just saying that if your beer standards have been more or less put on the floor and jumped on, and you like poor tasting inexpensive beer that more or less does the job, then it’s your kind of beer. That’s all I’m saying.

    So, as far as actual travel logistics go, getting to Bangkok is so easy that I’ve actually seen a monkey do it. You can take a bus or a train or a plane. The flights are around 1,100 Baht and take an hour while the trains and busses vary depending on time and class but are usually around 550 Baht and take ten hours, sometimes more.

    Getting to the Surat Thani airport requires either a friend with a motorbike, 300 Baht and Super English’s superstar Thai assistant Wen, or catching an hourly bus from downtown. The train station is actually in the neighboring town of Phun Phin (ph’s are unfortunately not pronounced as f’s here, just as p’s, taking a sizeable amount of joy out of saying Phuket) and you can get there on a bus leaving every half hour from the bus terminal in the center of town. All very easy.

    Safe travels. Cheers!

  • Jungle Trekking in Chiang Mai by Brittney Johnson 2010

    My roommate and fellow teacher decided to go to Chiang Mai over the October holiday. We had both heard amazing stories about jungle treks. So, we decided to shop around for the best trek deal. We stopped by several tour agencies. There were so many to choose from. There were 1 to 3 day treks and included different activities in different locations around Chiang Mai. Each one we went to got cheaper and cheaper for the kind of trek we were looking for. We finally agreed that the last one we went to was cheap enough (1000 baht). It included everything all of the more expensive treks had. The package included 3 days, 2 nights, transportation, 7 meals, accommodation, elephant ride, experienced guides, white water and bamboo rafting. We were picked up early in the morning. We met our fellow trekkers (a good mix of Irish, French, Canadians, Americans, British, Chilean, and Scottish). We drove about 45 minutes into the jungle. Then we started on our 4-hour hike. Some of it was intense uphill trekking. All of it was breathtaking. We walked through rice patties, up mountains, through water, and other kinds of terrains. Everyone got extremely dirty and sweaty. When we arrived at the elephant camp, where we would be sleeping that night, we all got on an elephant and went through the jungle. Our guides then started preparing our dinner while we all had a chance to take a much-needed shower. We ate a delicious fresh meal of vegetables and chicken curry. Everyone hung out and went to bed just as the rain started to pour. The next day we woke up to a breakfast of coffee, tea, toast and eggs. We then had the opportunity to wash the elephants. This was definitely a high light for me. We got to scrub and wash them in the muddy water. I got on top of the elephant and washed his ears. They are amazing animals!! We then started on another hike to a waterfall about 2 hours away. On the way to the waterfall, our guide came in close contact to a cobra snake! You know it’s a scary situation when your guide is completely freaked out! He yelled to us to “GO BACK!” He was pushing the person in front of him to hurry up and became a rippled chaotic effect. So we ended up having to take a long way around to get the waterfall. But it was worth it! We had time to relax, swim, eat lunch, and go down a natural waterfall slide. We then hiked to our next location, about 3 hours away. It was a long difficult hike. We were all exhausted and starving by the end. We went to an authentic Luha tribe village. When we arrived, children were playing football. Everyone seemed friendly. We weren’t the first foreigners they had seen. In Thailand, Lahu are one of the six main hill tribes, and their population is estimated at around 100,000. Their name means "Mussur", meaning hunter. Their settlements are usually remote from roads and towns, due to their strong commitment to the maintenance of the Lahu way of life. We stayed in a traditional Lahu style house. Lahu houses are high raised from the ground because it used for keeping the firewood. While less importance is placed on the extended family than in other hill tribe communities, the Lahu are still strongly committed to principles of unity and working together for survival. Lahus may have the most gender-equitable society in the world. There was no electricity so we had to do everything by candlelight. Our guide, Tea, made an amazing meal of potato curry and long beans with rice. Some of the kids from the village came around and sang Thai songs all dressed up in traditional Lahu clothing. We slept on mats with mosquito nets. We woke up, had breakfast and set off for a short morning trek. We then went white water rafting. I always enjoy rafting, even if it’s only a 1 or 2 category. We immediately went on a bamboo raft and ended our trek at the Long Neck Village. It was a challenging, beautiful, exciting, and rewarding experience. You learn to go “without” things. It makes you appreciate what you do have. I recommend that everyone try a trek in northern Thailand. There is something for everyone! I would definitely go on another one! You get the chance to meet people from all over the world, see beautiful nature, push your physical abilities, and stretch yourself in many ways. I’m not sure how long these treks will be “authentic.” It seems that they are getting more and more popular with tourists. So, I’d try to go on one as soon as possible. It was an amazing experience and I’m so glad I had the opportunity to go.