Tag Archives: travel

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch…

Where we left off

I am declaring my blogging “maternity leave” officially over.  I’m ready to get back to it. By way of getting caught up, here’s a reasonably brief timeline of my life since the last post:

May. Micah and I finish up the traveling we had intended to do. Well, almost all of what we intended to do, anyway! We took a long weekend in Penang, which was great. It’s such a different city than KL, we were very pleasantly surprised with the contrast. We also took a day trip to Melaka. It was about an hour to an hour and a half by bus, so it was totally doable for a quick trip. I think there are always a few “I wish we had time for that” regrets when leaving any city, but I think we managed to milk everything we could out of those last trips. We ate some excellent food in both cities, hiked in an incredible national park and played with some monkeys on a beach in Penang, and learned more about Malaysia’s history and colonization in Melaka.

 

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Penang

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Melaka

End of May. Micah’s family comes to visit us in KL. We met them in Singapore and had one last adventure for the road. We loved visiting Singapore, what a contrast to KL and Malaysia even though they are so culturally similar! We brought The Family to some of the places that we had really loved in KL (Jalan Alor, Batu Caves, Merdeka Square, Petaling Street…). And we did some other new things with them (Royal Selangor Pewter Factory, Top of Petronas Towers). It was a really great way to revisit the places we loved one last time.

 

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Singapore

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KL Farewell

Beginning of June. I flew back to Texas to reestablish life in suburban Dallas before TK arrives. This was harder than I thought it might be. Thank goodness for family! My original plan was to find a house to rent starting in the beginning of July. I stayed with Micah’s cousin, the same one we lived with before leaving for KL.  She encouraged me to stay there as long as I needed to, which took a lot of pressure off. This turned out to be an even bigger blessing as, once I found a house, we couldn’t even move in until mid-July. On the other side of the family, my cousin let me borrow their car for as long as I needed to while I bought a “new” one. The plan was to get that wrapped up in the first week or two that I was back. As I shopped for cars, though, we re-prioritized our budget based on what was available and it took much longer to buy a car than I expected. It was the end of June before I ended up buying something.

All of June was taken up with house hunting, car shopping, and getting established with my doctors here. I had my first doctor’s appointment about 2 days after landing. I loved my doctor in KL, and I love my doctor here, and I wouldn’t change any of the health care decisions that we made. BUT. Prenatal care in KL was very different, and in some ways better, than prenatal care in Texas. More on this in a future post.

All of this “getting reestablished” stuff was happening while I was in my third trimester. The day I landed in Texas, I was 31 weeks and 6 days pregnant. Most people are heavily into nesting at this point. (And most commercial airlines “strongly prefer” you to finish traveling before 32 weeks!)  People kept asking me, “Are you ready for the baby? Do you have everything you need?” No! I don’t even have a place to live yet! (Well, we did, because we could have stayed with The Cousin for as long as we wanted, but you know what I mean…) Some aspects of this were really stressful, but most were not. Living in KL for 9 months really made it clear to me that a lot of what we “need” in daily life in the US are not truly needs. We had a cradle, and diapers are easy enough to come by, that’s all we truly Needed for TK’s arrival. Once we had confirmed a place to live, had utilities set up, and movers arranged, I felt much better.  The question of “need” vs NEED has become a guiding principle in our current life: Is this a Capital N Need? If not, can we do without it? It’s been a great lesson from a budget standpoint as well as a de-cluttering standpoint, even if it’s not always easy to follow.

Mid-July. Micah lands on a Sunday night. We move into our new place the next morning. We moved in two phases, and hired professional movers for both. It was the best decision we ever made. Day 1, we unloaded our storage POD. Day 2, we moved out of the storage shed. These were also the hottest days of the summer to that point. I felt a little guilty for not actually helping with lifting and carrying, but not that guilty.

We spent the next two weeks trying to get the house unpacked and organized. (Spoiler Alert: we still have two rooms that are mostly full of unopened boxes.) Micah went back to work at his new assignment within the same company. We were also officially on “any day now” alert starting about week 38 of my pregnancy.

Beginning of August. TK’s official due date! And then a week later he made his long awaited arrival. He’s healthy and perfect in every way. We couldn’t be happier.

 

 

The past 5 months have been a whirlwind of trying to figure out how to care for a baby. It still feels like we are flying by the seat of our pants and learning as we go. For two (overly-) educated people, this has been very disconcerting. We are used to being able to read and learn about something and more or less figure it out. But there is so much information about raising children, and so much of it is conflicting, it’s really overwhelming!  The dirty secret we have learned is that everyone is really flying by the seats of their pants, and we should do what works best for us. Figuring out what works for us changes weekly and sometimes daily, but we are over the moon thrilled and in love with TK.

At this point, 5 months in, I’m finally able to carve out a little bit of time for my own stuff. One thing that I have really missed is having a creative outlet. I really like writing and blogging, so I’m trying to cultivate that habit as best I can. I have a few more posts in my head that are relevant to this site, and then we will see what happens. I’m debating the merits of starting a new blog and just keeping this one as a travelogue type thing- we do intend to travel again at some point in the future! I think my future posts will be loosely related to “Things I Think About”…some parenting, some current events, some education. If you have thoughts/ideas/preferences about keeping posts on this site vs. starting a new one, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Coming soon, in no particular order, and likely updating on Tuesday evening (Dallas suburb time, which is Central Time Zone in US, or GMT -06:00):

Wedding in KL

Grocery store culture shock, backwards

Pre-natal care in KL vs US

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Phuket Part 3: Sun, Rain, and Massages

It felt like the hills and the jungle came right down to the edge of the beach.

It felt like the hills and the jungle came right down to the edge of the beach.

Read Part 1 and Part 2!

For our last day in Phuket, we wanted to basically do nothing. We wanted to go to the beach and we wanted to get a massage, which also happened to be our only two “plans” before we landed in Thailand. From our own observations and talking to the staff at the hotel, we knew that there were many small spas where we could get a massage near the beach. We were assured that they were all clean, licensed, and professional- essentially, we could chose any of them and it would be OK, there wasn’t one “best” one and there weren’t any to avoid in this area. (There were some to avoid in a different area, however! And we did.) We also knew that they all take walk-ins, so we decided to do the beach first while the sun was still out and figure out the massage thing later. Much like in KL, Phuket was clear and sunny in the morning and cloudy and rainy in the afternoon…at least the weekend we were there. With our “plan” set, we were ready to get Day 3 underway!

The only problem that still needed a solution was what to do with our bags. We did just pack our backpacks for this reason, but if it was possible to leave them at the hotel, that was preferable than dragging them to the beach. Our favorite front desk clerk provided a fantastic solution: we could leave the bags in their secure storage room for the day. The hotel had a shower in the pool area that we could use when we got back, and they would give us clean towels. Problem solved! We tipped this guy way too much, too, but he really earned it. We complimented him profusely to his boss before we left as well.

Patong Beach, from sand level.

Patong Beach, from sand level.

We had breakfast at a place on the beach (more pancakes!), the same place we had lunch on Friday, and then headed down to the sand. Apparently before the military coup in May 2014, local people used to rent umbrellas and beach chairs along the beach. But since the coup, the government has banned such ventures. I’ve read that perhaps they are looking for greater regulation on the industry and/or perhaps they want to make it a government-run enterprise to collect (more) tourist dollars. On the message boards I looked at, some tourist regulars to Phuket are furious about this, but not having been there before to form an opinion, we didn’t really mind. We brought towels from the hotel and staked our claim to a patch of sand. We each took turns swimming while the other one sat on the towels with our camera and beach bags. The water was perfect and so salty! Growing up on the Atlantic, I thought ocean water would be ocean water- with some variations in temperature of course. Not so. The Andaman Sea was very unlike what I am used to- the salinity was much greater, and the salt felt…less coarse. Sometimes in the Atlantic it’s almost as though you can feel the individual grains of salt on your skin; we didn’t have that sensation here at all. The waves were nice and very fun to play in- great body surfing waves. We spent a fantastic couple of hours between the sand and the water.

The two women walking, both wearing pink hats, were selling various items.  See how close together they are?

The two women walking, both wearing pink hats, were selling various items. See how close together they are?

Another big difference in beach culture was all the people selling things on the beach. My hometown is pretty well known for its beaches, but outside of the snack bars and the occasional Italian Ice stand, people don’t really (openly) sell things. It’s also worth noting that the few vendors that do exist are in relatively fixed spots; you need to go to them if you want something. In Phuket, people walk up and down the beach trying to sell you things. We saw sarongs, carved wooden trinkets, wooden baskets, jewelry, friendship-style bracelets, and lots of other actually useful things like sunglasses, sunscreen, towels, and snacks. (It was interesting that they tried to sell us sunglasses even though both of us were wearing sunglasses.) It was annoying that there were so many people selling stuff because they just kept coming! They were only like a minute apart from one another, it was like a parade! The other reason it was really annoying was they would really give you a hard sell. There is a polite “no thank you” hand gesture in Southeast Asia that I have grown quite fond of. It’s almost like waving at someone, but with a more rapid back and forth movement. It’s usually sufficient to refuse the street vendors in KL, but the vendors on the beach would stand right in front of your towel for a solid 30 seconds or so, even after getting the polite “no thank you” gesture. 30 seconds might not sound like a lot of time. But try staring down someone for a full 30 seconds, while that other person ignores you. It’s just a touch longer than feels comfortable for American politeness standards.

There wasn’t a great deal of open beach sand between the edge of the water and the “sea wall” in front of the restaurants, enough for about two rows of beach towels. As the tide was rising, there were one or two waves that lapped at our towels, so we scooted back a little but we didn’t have any more room to go back farther. When Micah was swimming, there was one really substantial “rogue” wave that totally swamped our towels. I had all I could do to lift up our camera and t-shirts in time. Our towels got soaked, and our beach bag got soaked…the beach bag was OK because we bought a waterproof bag before our island excursion (more on this later). We tried to get sorted out as best we could, but it was hopeless. We decided at this point to rent a bamboo mat. Our now-favorite restaurant had a small piece of beach in front where they rented mats for 100 baht. We noticed it on Friday and again earlier that day, but elected to sit on the beach proper, with our toes in the sand as it were. But at this point, we didn’t have a lot of choices. 100 baht is only about $3 USD, but we weren’t sure whether that was per hour or what the time frame was. When Micah asked how long the rental was for, the manager shrugged and said “All day.” So for about $3, we had our own mat, towel, pillow, and small table for as long as we cared to stay there. Plus, it was mostly in the shade, which was good for me and my fair skin at that point, AND it had service to the restaurant. We hung our sand-and-water logged towels on the sea wall and happily camped out for a bit longer…now with an ice-cold beer in hand! At this point I could see the utility of being able to rent a chair and an umbrella. After a few hours in the sun, a shady spot was nice. Another perk of our new spot was that far fewer vendors approached us. We still were approached, but it was not as frequent.

View from our rented mat.  You can see the neighboring mat in the corner.

View from our rented mat. You can see the neighboring mat in the corner.

We continued taking turns swimming and sitting for a while longer when it started to rain. We had a few drops here and there all morning, but this was a no-doubt-about-it rainstorm. It was time for a late lunch and to consider leaving the beach for massages anyway, so the rain came at the perfect time. We had lunch at the bar while it rained and, during a break in the rain, we were off down the road to find a massage at one of the dozen or so small spas near the beach. Micah had seen one earlier that looked good to us and they had availability right at that moment, so we chose them. We were the only ones in the front room, which was really nice. We chose 30 minutes of reflexology and 30 minutes of Thai massage. We can’t remember how much we paid, but it wasn’t more than $20 USD each. If we had more time, an hour of each would have been amazing. The reflexology was fantastic, hands down the best foot massage I’ve ever had. It also converted Micah, who was concerned that it wouldn’t be worth the time or money. When it was time for the Thai massage, they brought us back into this curtained off cubicle. I have never had a Thai massage and did not expect the full contact nature or the active participation on my part. It did feel really good, and I know that it realigned my body and opened up my systems because I had cold symptoms the next day- I’m convinced from junk getting processed out of my body because I was totally fine after a few hours of rest and a whole lot of water. Maybe because we only got 30 minutes instead of an hour though, it didn’t feel as completely relaxing as I was expecting. (Granted, I don’t have a lot to compare with it, I’ve only ever had one other massage in my life.) It felt like the thing to do when in Thailand though, get a Thai massage, and we’re both glad that we experienced it. I would definitely do it again when/if we go back to Thailand, but for a full hour.

This palm tree has nothing to do with the rain.

This palm tree has nothing to do with the rain.

As we left the massage, however, it started pouring rain. Just a straight downpour. We had brought umbrellas and rain jackets with us…and left them in our bags at the hotel. With no other choice, we started trekking back to our hotel in the driving rain. Not for the first time, my eagle-eyed husband saved the day! Micah spotted some ponchos through the door in a convenience store and we bought some for a couple bucks. With our ponchos on, and the camera tucked safely into our new waterproof bag, we were still drenched at the end, but considerably less worse for the wear.

Now, it’s time for the waterproof bag story. The day of our jungle trek, we had borrowed a waterproof bag from our guide. We were totally sold on the utility, and sometimes necessity, of having one of our own. But we didn’t have an occasion to use it immediately, so we put off buying one until we thought we’d use it. On Friday night, after we decided to do the kayaking excursion, we decided it was now time to buy a bag. We figured we could buy one at the “night market” and if not, there was a regular mall next to it that would probably have a sporting goods store of some kind. I had not done any research on what I should expect to pay for the bag, so we were a little bit at the mercy of the stores in terms of whether it was a reasonable price. (Also, since Patong Beach is a very touristy area, I completely expected an elevated tourist price, rather than a reasonable price.)

In Thailand, and apparently in many parts of Southeast Asia but not in KL for some reason, shoppers are expected to bargain. Bargaining culture is very foreign to me. To me, the price is the price. If I don’t want to pay the price for that item, I just don’t buy it. It would never occur to me to try to bargain for it. (Sidebar: I have asked my mechanic to work with me on a high estimate repair before, but I can’t imagine wanting to buy an item in a store and offering less than the price marked. Also, negotiating seems different than bargaining. Negotiating on a high estimate repair, for example, requires something on my part, I feel. I am entitled to negotiate because I have been a loyal customer and will continue to be a loyal customer. I wouldn’t try to negotiate if it was the first time I had been to the shop. To my mind, anyway.)

So as we walked through the market, we saw that all of the shops in the market carried the waterproof bags we were looking for, presumably for tourists who need them for these types of excursions. I felt pretty confident that they would all be priced similarly. We chose one, and also a koozie with the logo of one of the Thai beers we had drunk. The shopkeeper quoted us a price of 600 baht, which was around $20. That seemed reasonable and matched up pretty well with what I thought the value of the bag was. Most importantly, I felt really uncomfortable bargaining, even though I know it’s culturally appropriate. If I feel the price is a fair value, aren’t I accusing the shopkeeper of being greedy or something if I offer a lower price? I couldn’t do it. So I handed her the 600 baht and her face lit up like she had hit the jackpot. She recovered her poker face quickly though, and then tried to sell me anything else I glanced at. Because now she knows she can tell me any price she wants! Definitely a tourist faux pas, but I still feel OK about the value for the cost, even if I could have saved $5 or something. Considering that the bag had now protected our camera three times (once on the kayaks, once when our towels got swamped, and now in the pouring rain), 600 baht seemed like a great value! (Sidebar: Looks like I can get similar bags for $15-$20 USD. Given the fact that we were in a tourist area and should expect to pay more, I still feel OK with the price we paid. Or maybe I am just trying to justify not bargaining.)

After our walk in the pouring rain, we arrived back to our hotel with about an hour and a half before our cab was scheduled to pick us up. Our timing was absolutely perfect. Any longer to wait and we would have been bored, any less time and I think we would have been stressed. We showered, changed into dry clothes, and sat in the lobby with one last beer and our books, listening to the rain on the metal roof outside. It was a fabulous way to end our Phuket adventure.

Happy and relaxed after our day at the beach!

Happy and relaxed after our day at the beach!

Or we thought we were at the end, anyway. The hour drive back to the airport was…eventful. The roads are twisty and people drive too fast, plus the weather was still terrible, we both felt very uncomfortable. I didn’t think the driver was reckless, per se, but I also wished that the conditions and/or his speed were better for those roads! It also got very dark, very quickly in Thailand. Even though it was only about 6:00pm, it was just as dark as if it had been the middle of the night. Allegedly this is true all along this latitude, including in KL, but because we are in the middle of the city, with all the ambient light we aren’t really aware of it very much. We arrived at the airport safely enough, and with plenty of time to find where we needed to go. And then we remembered the lack of signage at this particular airport and the lack of food at the KL airport. We found a kiosk, printed our boarding passes, and then got some terrible airport sandwiches.

Getting from the check in area to our gate was easily the most frustrating thing we have experienced since leaving Texas, including our unexpected 12-hour layover in Hong Kong on the way over. With our boarding pass and our passports we expected to be able to enter the international part of the terminal so we could go through customs again. We were physically stopped (quite literally- hands on shoulders restraining us) at the doorway and told we needed an international stamp to pass through. Really? The fact that our boarding pass has us landing in a different country isn’t enough to indicate that we need to be in the international terminal? Fine, I have no desire to end my trip in a Thai jail controlled by the military government. Now where do we get a stamp? They made a vague “over there” gesture. Awesome. We found an information desk and that person was much more helpful and directed us to the specific counter and line we should stand in (counter 17, 18, or 19). Stamp acquired, we made our way back through the well-guarded doorway into the terminal.

This airport was the reverse order of Kuala Lumpur. First we went through security, then we went through customs and immigration. At security, my bag got flagged for an inspection. With our patience completely waning, I tried to understand what they were looking for. They said, “Scissors?” Crap. My travel manicure kit has a small set of scissors in it. It didn’t even occur to me to check the carry on rules for our flight back, just for leaving KL. We have been able to carry manicure scissors and nail clippers for the last several years in the US, so when it wasn’t a problem leaving KL I guess I assumed it wouldn’t be a problem more generally. After they found my scissors and consulted on the rest of the kit, I was allowed to keep the nail clippers and tweezers and finally allowed to proceed on to immigration. This entire experience was made much more difficult and terrifying for me because of the language barrier, I didn’t really know what was going on or what rule I had broken or what the possible consequences would be. It was difficult and frustrating for Micah because this was my second offense in having sharp objects confiscated from my carry on, after I forgot a pocketknife was in my backpack on our trip to Massachusetts this summer. Note to self: just don’t carry any objects sharper than a ballpoint pen in the future.

DQ in Phuket airport!

DQ in Phuket airport!

Nothing horrible happened at immigration, fortunately. We had our exit cards filled out appropriately and so other than waiting for 20 or 30 minutes, we went right through. Once through security and immigration, we had about an hour before our flight would start boarding. Micah enjoys trying different varieties of scotch, so he took the opportunity to peruse the duty free store and pick up one from a new region. Also, the availability to acquire alcohol in Kuala Lumpur is limited, and it’s really expensive when it’s available, so taking advantage of the duty free store seemed smart. We each took some time to just walk around the terminal and loosen up after the stress of “the scissors incident.” Our gate got moved, right before boarding, but people had already started to queue up. It didn’t appear we had to check in again at the gate, like we did in KL, it just looked like they were waiting in line to board. So when we got to the new gate, we stood in the line too. Boarding was a free for all and the least efficient way to board a plane I have ever experienced.

The plane took off, the flight was fine, and an hour and a half later we landed in KL. We made it through customs and immigration there with no problem, and I got a new social pass for another 90 days. So yay, the real purpose of our trip was accomplished! When we got to the train terminal to buy our tickets back to the central station in KL, we were informed there was one departing in about 2 minutes. Challenge accepted! We sprinted down the stairs and onto the train just in time. From the train station in central KL, we had to take a cab the rest of the way to our hotel. This ended up being better than taking the subway because it was really late and the cab would drop us off right at our hotel. A really cool moment when we were getting out of the cab was that the night concierge started to tell us how to get to the front desk for check in (front desk is on the second floor), but then recognized us and said, “Oh! Welcome back!” It was nice to be remembered and welcomed; living in a hotel- while very often great- is sometimes very impersonal as well. By that point we were exhausted. It was 1am and Micah’s alarm for work the next day was going to go off way too early.

Ranger Duck refused to get up on Monday morning.  He had the right idea.

Ranger Duck refused to get up on Monday morning. He had the right idea.

Phuket Part 2: Bond, James Bond, Island

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Read Part 1 here!

Phuket is an island in the Andaman Sea, part of the Indian Ocean. It is apparently Thailand’s largest island, as well. (If you would like a visual reference, our map under the Road Trip page has been updated!) When we arrived in Phuket, we had very little idea of what to do, other than sit on the beach and get a Thai massage (but not simultaneously). We knew there would be lots of water activities available, and decided to wait until we got there to choose our adventure. On Friday night, before we left for dinner, I asked our favorite front desk clerk at our hotel for suggestions on things to do and excursions to take for the next day. Several tours were recommended, but he advocated for one tour in particular because they had already arranged a group rate for their hotel guests for the next day. The group was large enough that the discount was a little more than half off the published rate. Even if it was a racket, the cost was low enough that we felt fine about it- around $68 USD for both of us, including lunch and as much bottled water as we wanted. We didn’t think we could get a better deal from any of the other agencies selling tours, and half the point of choosing that hotel was to let them arrange the excursions and take the pressure off of us. So we booked an Island Kayaking excursion to James Bond Island!  I will openly admit that half of the appeal was kayaking and the other half, perhaps slightly more than half, was the James Bond link (for Micah anyway).

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Day 2 in Phuket started bright and early for our adventure. We had an early pick up, around 7:45am, so that gave us a good excuse to leave Pleasure Island… I mean Bangla Road… the night before. We set our alarm for way earlier than anyone should have to get up on vacation and headed downstairs. The good news is that our hotel provided a complimentary hot breakfast. The really good news for me is that they had pancakes! And bacon! Pancakes are my favorite weekend breakfast and our hotel in KL does not have them. Ever. Yes, I could make them myself. But with free breakfast at the hotel, it’s just easier and nicer to have someone else make breakfast and then clean up. The downside is never getting to choose what’s for breakfast. Bacon is another thing our hotel does not have since they feature a halal menu. Don’t judge me, but I am indifferent to bacon. It’s less that I don’t like it at all and more that I don’t enjoy it enough to bother eating it. Micah, however, likes bacon the way that I like pancakes. So we both were thrilled with our breakfast treats and could have happily continued eating pancakes and bacon for the rest of the day.

Only one boat is next to the dock (clearly), so they had people walk across the stern, loading the outside boat first.

Only one boat is next to the dock (clearly), so they had people walk across the stern, loading the outside boat first.

The group from our hotel included a really nice couple from Canada that we made friends with and 9 other tourists from China. We all loaded into a van to go to the marina, around an hour across the island. On board the boat there were other tourists from India, Pakistan, Lebanon, Russia, Italy, and probably other places as well. It was like a mini UN! I would guess there were about 30 people, all told. At the marina, there were probably 15 boats each going to various destinations. It was amazing to see the organization involved, to get that many people from buses and vans, into a relatively small marina area on the island, and then sorted into the various boats. In the line of boats pictured here, the passengers came onto the dock and then across all of the boats to the outside-most boat. They loaded that one first, and then started on the next one in. As that second boat was loading, the first one cast off and headed out. They had all the boats loaded and underway in around 30 minutes.

This island gets it's name because it looks like a person laying on his/her back sleeping, with the head at the right of the image and feet at the left.

This island gets it’s name because it looks like a person laying on his/her back sleeping, with the head at the right of the image and feet at the left.

Most, if not all, of the islands were covered in thick jungle.

Most, if not all, of the islands were covered in thick jungle.

The weather wasn’t picture perfect, by any means: it was overcast and it rained periodically. But I love being on the water. Any time on a boat is a good time, in my opinion. I was personally OK with not having a sunny day. I am the kind of person who does not get a tan, ever. I burn. I have to wear a high SPF, and if it were sunny I probably would have gotten burned anyway. So having a little cover from the sun was just fine for me! From the marina, it was about an hour cruise out to the first island and we really enjoyed the ride. We saw many islands along the way, some of them the tour guide pointed out by name. They all looked basically the same: hills covered with jungle sloping down to cliffs on the ocean. All were really beautiful.

There were 4 stops, on 3 different islands, each for about 45-minutes. The guide let us know that at the first two stops we would have a guide to paddle us around in the kayak. At first we were really bummed that we wouldn’t be doing the actual kayaking ourselves, but we realized quickly that we would get to see and do a lot more with an experienced guide paddling. We went through caves and lagoons, some with really narrow openings and low ceilings. It was really pretty and something different that we wouldn’t have gotten to see if we had been paddling ourselves. There were 15 or so kayaks just from our boat, plus three or four other boats with at least that many kayaks at each stop. Trying to navigate around and through the crowds would have been very tricky.

Here are some of our favorite pictures from these two stops. (I’m breaking them into segments because we took so many pictures. More pictures, from the whole weekend, are on Flickr, accessible here or from the side bar to the right.)

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Before the second stop the tour guide said the paddle guides would be going back to Phuket after this stop, so we could tip them if we thought they did a good job. We haven’t really tipped anyone in KL because service charges are included in restaurant bills, typically around 10% of the bill, and it was the same in Thailand. 10% is less than we would normally tip in the US, but tipping culture is just different over here. You only tip if someone performs a service for you, like paddling your kayak around the islands, so we didn’t really know how much would be appropriate. Micah and I thought 300 baht, a little more than $9 USD, felt about right based on the cost of other things we had purchased. We asked around and others were planning to tip quite a bit less, less than 100 baht. We revised our plans and decided we felt OK with 200 baht, about $6 USD. It was still a lot, but we felt really uncomfortable tipping less. When Micah put the bills into the guide’s hands, his whole face lit up. I think he felt like he hit the jackpot! Yes, we were the sucker American tourists who spent too much. Oh well. $6 USD doesn’t feel like a large tip by our standards at all, even though it clearly was by theirs. We talked about it a lot afterwards and we still aren’t sure what the solution is: tip according to your own cultural standards or tip according to the local cultural standards. The decision making factor for us was the cost of a beer, a tip that could buy about two beers seemed appropriate to us.

The long boats that took us from our tour boat to James Bond Island were brightly painted.

The long boats that took us from our tour boat to James Bond Island were brightly painted.

The third stop was James Bond Island! Actually, the third stop was Khao Phing Kan, the island that surrounds James Bond Island. It’s the island that serves as the bad guy’s lair in Man With the Golden Gun, a Roger Moore-era Bond flick. Our tour boat anchored a ways off shore and a longboat came to take us to the island. The island has as many tacky tourist trap shops as could fit the length of the beach. It also had a lot of really beautiful rock formations and caves. We only had about 40 minutes to explore the island and wait our turn to take pictures. (This was actually really civilized. You could wait in a small line to take a picture with the island in the background, without other tourists crowding in. You took the picture for the people in front of you, the people behind you took your picture. I have no idea how this convention evolved, but I like it!) In truth, we could have used about 10 or 15 minutes more to have time to appreciate the beauty and take it all in. Beyond that, I don’t know what we would have done with any extra time. It wasn’t a very big place.

Our last stop was to the “monkey area,” it’s a beach on the other side of one of the first two islands we explored. At this stop, we were allowed to paddle our own kayaks to the beach and swim a little. We only had 30 or 40 minutes, so not much time at all. At each of the first two stops, the guide started his instructions with, “Is everybody having fun? Is everybody happy?” When we all inevitably cheered, he would say, “Well if you are happy enough you can jump off the boat.” The first time we understood this the way you’d tell someone who was annoying you to go jump in a lake, it seemed like an odd thing to say to a tour group. The second time he said it, Micah went over and said, “Are you serious? Can we really jump off the boat?” The guide unclipped the cable on the rail and Micah jumped in! It looked like a lot of fun, but one of us had to keep the camera dry. Before the last stop when he offered to let us jump, I took him up on it. It was really fun! The water was bathtub warm and extremely salty.

The rest of the monkeys were apparently sick of tourists, but this guy was waiting for us!

The rest of the monkeys were apparently sick of tourists, but this guy was waiting for us!

We collected our kayak and paddled to the beach to see the monkeys. There was one monkey sitting on the beach, apparently waiting for our tour guide. The guide was about 15 feet from shore when he started yelling, “Monkey! Monkey! Monkey! Banana? Banana?” The monkey apparently knew this drill because he ran over towards the guide and hopped into his kayak before the guide had even landed it. The monkey sat in the boat patiently eating his bananas and letting us take pictures of him for a few minutes.

While we were swimming and playing in the water, we witnessed a really special event. The Pakistani gentleman on our tour and Micah had chatted several times on the boat. He came over towards us on the beach, wearing a life jacket and he splashed around a little bit. Then he stood up, walked to the shore and took off the life jacket. He came back into the water and swam around again for a few minutes before putting the life jacket back on. At this point, it was time for us to head back to the tour boat. After we had all done our best to dry off and change into our dry-ish clothes, the man sought Micah out and said, “That was my first time to swim.” He was so happy and so proud of swimming; it was really extraordinary to be a part of- both to witness it and to have him tell us specifically. He was probably about 60 years old, how brave of him to try it!  His wife on shore must have been really nervous, I know I would have been if I were in her position.  It was a very special moment.

Coming Up: Beach day and how (not) to bargain.