Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Tennis

When tennis is discussed by Australians, it is not merely referred to as tennis, but as "the tennis". This is the case with other sports as well, but since tennis has been in the spotlight lately, that is where I've noticed the saying. So if you are watching the Australian Open on television, commercials or news advertisements will tell you what's on after "the tennis". If someone asks you if you are going to the tournament, they will likely ask if you are heading to "the tennis". If they are cheering for their countrymen or women, they might say "go the Aussies!". This is interesting, because when we left the signature mat out a little too long at our wedding reception, some of my high school friends wrote "Go Terps!" on the mat as they were leaving. Well that must have persuaded my Australian friends to comeback with "Go The Aussies!" on the signature mat. Now it all comes together nearly 5 years later, ha!. The addition of the word "the" is very interesting to me because it seems that, in most cases, the Australian language shortens words (brekky for breakfast, Oz for Australia, tinny for tin can, tele for television, etc., etc., etc.), but in this case they actually add a word. At any rate, I've picked up on it after watching loads of tennis over these last two weeks .

If you have any interest in sports whatsoever, you've probably seen some coverage of the Australian Open. The massive tennis tournament is held right in Melbourne, just a short distance from where we are living, so we thought we would take advantage of that and head over to check it out. We went on the first Friday of the tournament, which turned out to be a great day of competitive matches. It is surprisingly reasonably priced to get into the Open (I say that because everything seems to cost a fortune here), and we paid about $30 each, which gave us access to all of the courts (there must be over 20) except for the two main courts, Rod Laver Arena and Hisense Arena. Erik knew that a co-worker was going to be in attendance with her husband, so we joined them in some great seats at Margaret Court, which is generally considered the #3 court after Rod Laver and Hisense. They had been to the Australian Open before and mentioned that they had previously moved around during the day to different courts but had discovered that it was usually best to find good seats in one arena and stick with them throughout the day, as good seats are sometimes hard to come by the afternoon.

The first match was a men's doubles match and proved to be quite exciting. I say this because an unranked duo was upsetting a ranked Italian men's team, and one of the Italian guys was NOT happy about that. I presume he was cursing in Italian and he threw his racquet on several occasions. It was very entertaining! The doubles team that upset the Italians went on to upset many other teams, and they are playing  just dominated the Americans in the championship match!
Italians are on the right. Server is the racquet-thrower!
(FYI, you can always click on the pictures to enlarge them!)
In match #2 at Margaret Court, we watched the #8 ranked women's singles player, Radwanska, win over her unranked opponent. This match was entertaining because Radwanska had a great group of fans supporting her, singing songs such as "if you're Polish and you know it clap your hands", eventually getting the entire crowd to clap with them. Radwanska bowed down to them at the end of the match to thank them for their support!
Radwanska and her fan club.
The next match was Berdych, the #7 ranked men's singles player, who won the match and went on to face Nadal in the quarterfinals. The level of tennis in this match was extremely good, and it was phenomenal to witness up close how incredibly fast the men hit the tennis ball .
The crowd watching Roger's match as he plays inside Rod Laver Arena.
Tournament Brackets
In the middle of the Berdych match, we realized that the Bryan brothers, the #1 ranked men's doubles team from the good 'ole US of A, was about to take on the Australian doubles team on Court #2. Many people would be wanting to watch this match because Lleyton Hewitt, an Aussie favorite, would be playing. We decided to leave our superb seats in order to have a chance to witness a great tennis atmosphere. When we arrived at Court #2, there were lines of at least 20 people at each entrance (Federer had just finished playing in Rod Laver, so there was a massive exodus to go watch Hewitt around the same time that we were trying to grab seats). There was still about an hour before the match would likely begin, but we decided to wait around in hopes that we would get a seat between matches. After waiting for about 20 minutes, I saw bunch of people falling out of line. The women behind me received a phone call and she said "they moved the match", to the person on the phone. Fortunately we picked up on that right away and left the line to figure out where the match would be played. We found out it would be on Court #3, so at that point we were literally running through the crowd to get to Court #3 for a chance at a seat. Luckily we went all the way around the court (most people were too lazy to go around to the far side), and got prime seating for the match. The Americans beat the Aussies despite lots of "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie" cheering from the crowd. It was an impressive match to watch and I was equally impressed with the crowd's wave-creating skills!
Bryan brothers are in the navy and white uniforms.

My favorite Aussie fan at this match!
Game, set, match! Bryan brothers win this time, but end up losing in the Championship Match.
Hopefully we'll have a chance to attend the Australian Open a few more times before our time in Melbourne is up. Perhaps you'd like to come visit us in January next year so that you can see it for yourself?!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Koh Phi Phi

The journey to Koh Phi Phi (pronounced "Pee Pee") was probably the most extensive and interesting of our entire trip. As I mentioned in the Koh Tao post, the seas were quite rough during the time we were traveling. While at Scuba Junction, the owner, Natalie, had given us a few motion sickness tablets to help while out on the boats, and we had saved a few for our trip across on the ferry, knowing it would be a rocky boat ride. While on the ferry to Chumphon, I was VERY thankful to have taken a motion sickness tablet! Also, it turned out to be really good luck to have taken that ferry, as the ferry I had originally wanted to take that was booked was running far behind schedule due to the rough seas, and it would have taken much longer to reach land via that ferry. Our trip took just about 2 hours, and once we arrived in Chumphon, we were herded onto a huge coach bus that would take us into town, where we would then board another minibus to head to Krabi Town, where we would spend the night before taking the ferry to Phi Phi the next day. It's actually quite amusing how the tour companies keep track of people who have booked "packages" to get from point A to point B using several different types of transport. At the beginning of your trip, they give you a sticker to wear, which helps to get you in the right place for each leg without any language barrier issues. We probably paid about 60 Baht extra to have these things arranged for us, and since we don't speak any Thai, it was $2 well spent!
Almost in Chumphon and finally some calm seas!
There are lanes of traffic and speed limits in Thailand, but I'm not sure that they are actually obeyed, particularly by minibus drivers. They will drive in the opposite lane of traffic, on the shoulder, and will repeatedly pass people driving the speed limit, honking at them to move out of the way. Also, there are people on motorbikes EVERYWHERE, most riding without helmets and weaving in and out of traffic. Sometimes there will be a family of four on a single bike! I also witnessed several women carrying children in one hand and driving with the other. Insane. The trip from Chumphon to Krabi was supposed to be about 5 hours in the minibus, but I'm pretty sure we made it there in under 4 hours thanks to our super speedy bus driver! Once we arrived they dropped us off at a shady travel agency trying to sell us ferry tickets for twice the normal price, but we just politely declined and headed off to find our accommodation, which fortunately I had previously booked.

In Krabi Town we stayed at Cha-Cha-Lay, which was a fabulous small hotel that was immaculately clean and had the coolest outdoor bathroom.
The blue doors open from the bedroom into the "outdoor" bathroom. And a Western style toilet, yay!!
"Outdoor" shower
We paid 450 Baht (less than $15) for a room with a private bathroom, though you could get a shared bathroom room for an even cheaper rate. Krabi Town has a fabulous Night Market, with tons of food choices for great prices. Erik and I enjoyed dinner there and had a few Changs as well (it's hard to say no to beer when it is so ridiculously CHEAP!).
Many stalls to choose from at the Night Market
We took advantage of probably the most comfortable bed of our trip thus far and slept in the next morning. We were waiting around to meet up with two of our friends who were on their honeymoon in Thailand, but their train from Bangkok was delayed about 5 hours due to an accident on the tracks, so we had a few hours to kill before meeting them. I had been really wanting to get a Thai massage, but was slightly apprehensive because my knee was still sore and had limited range of motion. If you have ever had a Thai massage, you understand why this is a factor. If you haven't ever had a Thai massage, what are you waiting for?! Our massages cost $10 a piece for an hour, and it was definitely different from traditional Western massage, but in a good way. The women use a lot of feet/heels and elbows/forearms to really "dig" into your muscles, and during the last part of my massage I was actually lifted up into the air by the craziest massage move I've ever experienced (Erik didn't get that move...he figured maybe he was too heavy). Anyway, my knee was a bit sore after the massage, but it was absolutely worth the experience!

Our friends arrived around noon, so we got to enjoy a nice lunch with them before heading off to Phi Phi in the afternoon.
Rian and Mike were stopping in Krabi before heading to Lao Liang to do some climbing. Second time we've been able to meet up with honeymooning friends in random places and hopefully that streak continues! :)
Erik on the ferry to Phi Phi. Sweet limestone cliffs in background.
Phi Phi Island is the most expensive place we chose to visit, but by Western standards it is still "cheap". There are places on Phi Phi where you could spend $600 a night on a swanky hotel, but that wasn't in the budget for our trip this time around, so instead I picked Phi Phi Hill Resort. The "resort" is located quite a ways away from the main area of Phi Phi, which I knew and picked intentionally because the main beaches (Ton Sai and Loh Dalum) are notorious for being crowded and also for parties being held until 4am. Erik and I are quite the "old" folk these days and don't much care for being at the bar until the wee hours of the morning, so I thought that Long Beach, where Phi Phi Hill is located, would suit us better. 700 Baht (about $20) a night here for a really good size room and bathroom. The outside of the units are not as fun as the traditional bungalow (they are aluminum siding and have rusted over the years due to salt water, no doubt), but the inside was very tidy.
Bathroom is to the right in this picture
Luckily for us, Phi Phi Hill's restaurant as some of the most spectacular views on the island. We ate most of our meals there, so we got to enjoy plenty of postcard-worthy sights.
Phi Phi Leh is to the left, which is where "The Beach" was filmed. It is uninhabited. Phi Phi is actually two islands even though both are commonly just referred to as "Phi Phi.. Technically we were staying on Phi Phi Don.
On the first day we decided to make the trek into town and then up to the viewpoint to see the "two bays" of Phi Phi. The walk to town took about 45 minutes, as it is partly on the beach but partly through the woods.
Erik walking along Long Beach on our journey into town.
We stopped along the way to pop into a pharmacy so that I could pick up some medicine (I felt like I was maybe getting a sinus infection) and to ask for directions to the viewpoint. The clerk told us which way to go and we followed her directions. I had read that the hike to the top was steep but short (about 300 meters). Somehow we ended up on a 5km (3 mile) hike to the top! Apparently we went some sort of back way, though we did save $1.50 because the Thais have started to charge people to access the viewpoint now.
Phi Phi Leh in the background
Tonsai Beach on the left and Loh Dalum Beach on the right
At the viewpoint!
We enjoyed the view for a while and then headed into town to do some exploring there. On the way down we actually came across our first snake of the trip, a green one that slithered across the path right in front of me! Not sure what type of snake it was, as there are many different types of venomous snakes in Southern Thailand, but happy that it was similar to my first snake encounter in Oz, uneventful. After the hike back home we spent a lovely evening at Phi Phi Hill enjoying a beautiful sunset!
View from our dinner table
Sunset over Phi Phi Leh
The next day I had arranged for us to take a boat over to Phi Phi Leh early in the morning. I wanted to get there before many of the other boats (around 10am they start sending scores of tourists over and it becomes a madhouse) to enjoy the serenity and do some snorkeling. We hired a private long tail boat for about $40, which included snorkeling equipment and 3 hours of fun on Phi Phi Leh.

This is Maya Bay. The big black spots in the water are HUGE swarms of fish!
Pretty decent snorkeling there, though pictures are hard to get because our point and shoot camera was essentially just in a heavy duty Ziploc bag!

After snorkeling, we went on a tour of the rest of Phi Phi Leh, which has lots of little coves and beaches. Remember when I mentioned that the island is uninhabited? Well we did see some clear evidence that there are people actually living on Phi Phi Leh!

Pretty sweet swimming at your doorstep!
One of the "bays" of Phi Phi Leh
Upon our return to Phi Phi Hill, we ran into some monkeys! The little guy was hilarious to watch and mom and dad spent lots of time cleaning each other while the child was trying to find ways to entertain himself.

I also spent some time taking photos of flowers around the resort, which is one of my favorite things to do!

That night was New Year's Eve, and we were leaving the next day, so we decided we'd have a low key night. Actually we were even debating going to bed before midnight! However, after dinner and a walk on the beach, the Thais who work at Phi Phi Hill essentially INSISTED that we be there for their New Year's party. So it was us and another young German couple who joined the entire staff for a night of drinking, eating, and dancing. The Thais were so incredibly generous to us that evening, including free beers from the hotel manager...just for the non-Thai attendees! If you want to see a short video of that evening, you can watch it here. There were lots of laughs over the course of the evening, but one of the funniest things was when they put an entire fish that had been grilled in front of Erik and I. We had no idea how to eat the fish, as this was a whole fish, skin and all! A language barrier can really force you to use your other senses and nonverbal communication in order to get by. After a bit of demonstration by the Thais, Erik was able to free lots of delicious fish for us to consume. At midnight there were fireworks all over the island, which we had a great view of from the Phi Phi Hill restaurant. 

The next morning I wanted to snorkel a bit before we checked out, so we headed down to the beach basically right in front of the resort. On our entry into the water we saw hundreds of crabs.

No less than 5 minutes after we started snorkeling, a spotted a blacktip reef shark! I have a crazy fear of sharks, but I was actually really excited to spot the shark. We saw another one (or potentially the same one) a few minutes later as well. Turns out there was very good snorkeling right at our doorstep, and we saw lots of colorful fish, including a couple of clownfish in an anemone, which was a really cool sight! After snorkeling, we checked out of our room and headed to the restaurant to hang out, where we watched the East Coast ring in the new year on television (it was noon on New Year's Day, and Thailand is 12 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time). We then started our long journey home, which entailed a long tail boat to the port, a ferry to Phuket, a minibus ride to the airport, an 8.5 hour flight back to Melbourne, a bus from the airport, and a tram to our house. We arrived home to HOT weather, as it was 103 degrees here on January 2nd!

Erik helped me create a little "travel map" to help you get an idea of how we traveled throughout Southern Thailand. Technically we started and ended at the Phuket airport, which is Northeast of the Phuket dot on this map. We did take the ferry to Phuket and drove through the town on our way to to the airport, but that was our extent of experiencing Phuket, and we were okay with that! The dots represent places that we stayed overnight.

All in all, we had a fantastic trip to Thailand. The beautiful scenery, amazing food, and friendly people are enticing reasons to visit again, though on the way home we made a list of where we'd like to go next and I'm not sure how a return trip to Thailand will fit into that schedule! :)

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Koh Tao

I was very much looking forward to arriving in Koh Tao. The beach is one of my most favorite places to be, and it had been relatively cool in Khao Sok. The journey from Khao Sok required several other modes of transport, the first being a minibus (mode 7, click here if you didn't read about the previous modes of transport). I did not take any pictures of the minibus, but essentially it was like a 15 passenger van, but with much less roomier seating. Bom dropped us off at a corner store and helped us buy our minibus tickets to get to Surat Thani. The trip was supposed to take a little over 2 hours. We arrived in about an hour and a half thanks to our driver going what seemed to be 80 miles an hour. The minibus actually stopped repeatedly to let people in and out and this didn't appear to happen at bus stops but just at any place along the road. The ride went smoothly, but once we arrived in Surat Thani we had absolutely no idea where to go and all of the sudden we were in the middle of a torrential downpour.

There are several travel agencies conveniently located right across from the minibus station, so we popped in to see what they had to offer as far as getting us to Koh Tao was concerned. The price they were quoting was much higher than what the Lonely Planet book mentioned, so despite the pouring down rain, we walked out and continued to look for any signs of where the ferry port might be, as we were looking for the boat to Koh Tao. After walking for a bit and finding nothing, a sorng-taa-ou driver asks us if we needed a ride. He spoke excellent English, so we took him up on his offer to take us to an ATM, followed by the boat, for about $2. The ride was probably less than 5 minutes. We were so close to where we needed to be but couldn't figure it out! Anyway, we purchased our tickets for the night boat, which was leaving at 11pm. I think it was about 6 or 7pm at that point, so we had quite a few hours to burn and it was still raining. We wandered the streets a bit, found a place that I could activate my phone so that we could be in touch with our folks on Christmas, went into a shopping "mall" where the stores were literally 1/8 of the size they are in malls in Oz or the States, purchased some fruit from the night market food stalls, and ended up eating dinner at a pizza place along with a bunch of other non-Thai folk.
The view from a covered area we were using to escape from the rain.
We boarded the boat (mode 8) sometime after 10pm to "settle in" for an interesting evening. We chose to take the night boat instead of spending the night in Surat Thani to save a few bucks and get a jump start on Koh Tao in the morning. I also wanted to do it for the experience. The night boat is basically a barge that the Thais use to transport food, water, and other items to the islands. On the top part of the boat, they have some old mattresses (with actually fairly clean sheets) and pillows, so they can make some extra money while transporting these goods. I had read about the night boat and knew that it would be close sleeping quarters, but nothing really prepares you for seeing these numbers on the wall where your head goes. Erik was number 1 and I was 2 (we were the first 2 people to buy tickets, apparently!), and there were 50 total people on the boat, mostly travelers but some locals, including a few young kids and a grandmotherly-looking lady as well.
That thing over Erik's head is the #1, his designated sleeping area!
Fortunately, there seemed to be no number 3, so Erik and I were feeling pretty lucky that we had some extra room as we watched all of the cramped people on the boat. However, around 10:55, number 3 boarded the boat, sweating profusely with lots of booze in hand. He started talking to the guys in numbers 4 & 5, but eventually got up and went somewhere else and actually never returned, so we did end up having a little extra space. It was still raining pretty hard and the boat was not water tight, so both Erik and I got quite wet on the ride. I cannot say that either one of us slept very well, but we did manage to get a bit of shut-eye. The seas were really rough and that did not help. Apparently the Northeast monsoon that affects the Gulf side of Thailand was happening in late December instead of November and early December like it normally does. That would affect our trip later as well. At any rate, we arrived in Koh Tao 8 hours later at 7am.
Rise and Shine!
Sunrise from the boat
Night Boat
Once arriving in town we hopped in another pick-up truck taxi and headed to our home for the next 5 nights, Scuba Junction. I picked Scuba Junction based on all of the great reviews on Trip Advisor and because they allowed me to do the online portion of the SSI Open Water Diver course in Oz so that I could spend a bit less time in the classroom on vacation. I chose SSI over PADI because PADI charges $120 for the online course but with SSI it's free. Natalie, who runs things at Scuba Junction, had told us that the shop would be closed when we arrived, but let us know that we could eat breakfast at the Coffee Boat just across the street. After devouring some food, we were able to check into our accommodation, which cost a whopping 150 Baht a night, or less than $5! We stayed in Sabai Sabai, which is a set of bungalows about a 10 minute walk away from the "action" of Sairee Beach in Koh Tao. They have housing closer to the beach as well, but state on their website that it gets rather loud there at night, and I was fearing that it might be like a time that Erik and I stayed with his family on South Padre Island in the middle of Spring Break and couldn't sleep because of the noise raging on until 4am every night. In hindsight, I think the beach would have been fine, as Scuba J is a bit further North on Sairee Beach where things seem to be a bit quieter.
The hammock was absolutely the best part!
It was quite a warm and sunny day, so once we were settled in we headed to the beach to try to nap a bit and get some sun. Unfortunately, there was not much beach to be found! The tide was extremely high, so we had to walk quite a ways down the beach to find a nice spot in the sand. Later on, we heard from one the locals that he had never seen the tide so high.
High tide or not, the beach was beautiful!
That night was the official start of my scuba course, however, it was just a short meet and greet with the instructor and my fellow course participants. My instructor, Paul, a former lawyer from South Africa, had been teaching scuba on Koh Tao for about 2 years. My coursemates, Suzanne and Gerbrand hailed from Holland. Suzanne is a PhD student in Psychology and Gerbrand is a psychiatrist. Gerbrand is actually from the town of "Doren", and those who know my maiden name will understand the significance of that fun fact!

Later that evening, Erik was itching to get in a run, so I sat at a really cool bar called Fizz, where they have huge bean bag chairs right on the beach, and it turned out to be a beautiful place to watch the sunset. I also had a very tasty margarita that incorporated honey and pineapple along with the typical lime juice and now I'm determined to start making those here in Oz!

The beach in front of Fizz was lined with light
The next day I began my dive course. The first part was getting all of our equipment fitted and set up, which we did in the morning. We took a break for lunch and then in the afternoon we completed many different shallow water skills. That night was Christmas Eve, so I treated myself to a fun mixed drink:

It wasn't nearly as tasty as the margarita but I was impressed with the appearance :)
On Christmas Day there was no diving, so Erik and I relaxed for part of the day and then decided to hike to a different part of the island called Hin Wong Bay. I had read that there was good snorkeling there and we thought it would be fun to see another part of the island. The hike to get there was probably the steepest hill I have ever walked up in my life. There is a hill on the Big Island of Hawaii that comes close (I think the grade on that hill is about 30%), but this HAD to be steeper. It was insane and my calves were sore for days after this walk. Anyway, when we got over to Hin Wong Bay, we realized it was not exactly appropriate snorkeling weather. I wish I had a video to show you, because the sea was incredibly rough. It was actually quite fun to watch the huge waves crashing onto the rocks.
Some of the scenery on our hike up the giant hill
Once we returned back to our bungalow, we grabbed our computer and headed down to the beach so that we could pick up the WiFi in order to Skype with our families. When we were there we ran into Suzanne and Gerbrand, who happened to be doing the same thing. We ended up joining them for Christmas dinner at one of the tiny hole-in-the-wall Thai places that Erik and I had enjoyed previously called Tik. Our meals were delicious as usual and the conversation was wonderful as well. It was then that we learned that Suzanne and Gerbrand had just recently gotten engaged on their trip. They had traveled a bit in Laos and Cambodia before coming to Thailand, so they had been engaged for a few weeks but had told no one because they wanted to tell their families in person. Obviously we offered our congrats and drank Chang to celebrate! :)

The following day we were scheduled to do two dives, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The first dive was fairly shallow and we didn't see much that you wouldn't see snorkeling except that we ran into a rather large bigfin reef squid, which was pretty cool! The second dive was supposed to be deeper, but just before we entered the water, another diver who was taking an advanced class got stung badly by a jellyfish while entering the water. She had red steaks all over her body...this was not the kind of jelly fish that you find in Ocean City, Maryland! Paul decided that we would do another shallow reef dive, where we saw several different types of fish and also practiced some more skills. That night we had dinner with Suzanne and Gerbrand again, this time at a pizza place!

The next day was the last day of our dive course. Erik also decided to join along for some fun dives, so I was excited to be able to have a "dive buddy" this time. Unfortunately the seas were still rather rough, so visibility wasn't great and there were a ton of divers in both spots because many of the other dive sites around Koh Tao were unusable due to the weather. The highlight of the first dive was seeing a titan triggerfrish. On the second dive we spotted a scorpion fish (these fish have excellent camo and are actually venomous), along with a variety of other colorful fish. After completing those dives, Suzanne, Gerbrand, and I were now certified open water divers!
From L - R: Paul, Gerbrand, Suzanne, and presumably you know Erik and I!
That was our last night on Koh Tao, and we spent it without Gerbrand and Suzanne, as they were headed for home right after the completion of the course. We spent the night wandering around Sairee Beach and eventually decided it would be a good idea to buy our ferry tickets for the morning. By the time we got around to this, the ferry we had planned to take was booked! Fortunately, there was a different ferry going to a different city, Chumphon instead of Surat Thani, which I had actually considered taking originally but ruled it out due to the distance I thought we'd have to travel in a vehicle to our next destination. At that point we had no choice, so we booked the ferry to Chumphon. The next morning we said goodbye to the friendly Scuba Junction staff and started the voyage to our final destination, Koh Phi Phi.