Beautifully splendored Bangkok

I have so many observations about Bangkok it’s hard to know where to begin. For starters, Bangkok is not a third-world city, like Addis Ababa. It’s not Tokyo either. About nine million people habitat the capital city on a work day, and Thai traffic is no joke. Red lights don’t just feel like they last for minutes- they literally do. But the streets are paved and clean. Power lines smother the sight line– I saw a ten-year-old boy actually walking the wires one day. Taxis are abundant and you can negotiate your price. My preferred method of transportation is tuk-tuk- motorcycles that have been modified with a covered wagon of sorts that seats three or four adventurous travelers. (I learned to negotiate the price up front.)

Shrines dot each block, and at least one was a hotel-sponsored shrine. Street vendors hock fruits, cooked meats and all other kinds of trinkets and food choices.

My brief visit to Bangkok was spread over several days, in and around business meetings in the city.

Our first stop was Wat Phra Kaew, or the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.  IMG_9445 I thought a scarf would provide ample coverage for my bare shoulders, but I was consigned to rent a shirt for 200 baht (or about $8) before proceeding on to the grounds.

The temple area is huge and astounding. Gold sparkles everywhere, and the carvings and statues are so intricate.

After a brief respite of coconut water straight from the coconut, we were off via tuk-tuk to Wat Pho, or the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. I was in for a total surprise – I had no idea had large this Buddha would be!IMG_9442

Chatuchuk Weekend Market is a sight to behold. I’ve read that if you can’t buy it in Bangkok, you can’t buy it. After visiting Chatuchuk, I believe that adage. I picked up a wooden parasol for myself.

Unfortunately Wat Arun was under reconstruction during our visit. I also briefly visited Wat Traimit in Bangkok’s Chinatown (the Chinese history in Thailand is quite fascinating), and made a stop at the Jim Thompson House. Jim Thompson is the guy who popularized Thai silk in the day, and the selection of scarves there is exquisite.IMG_9415

I’m not a food blogger, and my attempts to describe the scents and tastes of Bangkok will do it no justice. One of my travel companions had Thai food that was so spicy his eyes watered and he started to sweat – I was not that adventurous.

Bangkok is a socially stratified city – one where the high-rises and technology boom are measured against abject poverty.

It’s a beautifully splendored place- I can’t wait to go back and see more of the country.

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Whitewater Rafting Through A World Heritage Site

Our rafting group on the Tully River. Photo posted on Facebook by Raging Thunder.

Our rafting group on the Tully River. Photo posted on Facebook by Raging Thunder.

The Tully River is a gift to Queensland. The area is rich and fertile – home to banana plantations and sugar cane farms. The idyllic countryside is criss-crossed by train tracks to deliver the goods throughout Australia and the world.

Tully is a World Heritage Site and part of the Wet Tropics of Queensland.Tully River is considered Level Four rapids; Level Six is the maximum (think Victoria Falls), so we had quite a day. We rafted for about five hours (I’m not certain how many kilometers), rafting over about ten named rapids.

We let into the river about two hours outside of Cairns, so it was an early morning call time to board the bus for our trip. We stopped midway through the morning ride for a quick brekkie and to pick up more rafters joining us from Mission Beach. After an excellent safety briefing, we were off the bus, grabbing our helmets, paddles and life jackets. We stopped midway through the day for a quick river-side BBQ, then we were back in the boats. We must have had one of the most beautiful days on the river.

I was struck by the evolving geology as we rowed down the river. About an hour into the trip, the geology turned from limestone-looking rocks, into clearly volcanic rock. Alien-looking trees lined the riverside – and while I didn’t see much wildlife, birds including cockatoos chattered at us from above.

When you vacation solo, group outings like rafting can be a tad bit intimidating. I’ve found though, especially in countries like Australia and Ireland, the folks are good-natured and pretty friendly to visitors.

I lucked out to be in an adventurous group made up of folks who took the rafting seriously, but also enjoyed swimming outside the raft. I was added to a group of four and two: Matt, originally from Melbourne, his girlfriend Larissa, a native of the Netherlands who now makes Sydney her home, Larissa’s friends Anna and Marcha visiting from the Netherlands, Kieran and Shawna from Dublin, Ireland, and our intrepid guide Jose, a native of Chile who has been guiding raft trips in Tully for about five months.

My rafting partner Anna is sending me the photos from our trip, so I hope to update this post with pictures soon!

I’m told there are two major rafting companies in Cairns/Tully: Foaming Fury and the company I picked, Raging Thunder. I selected it based on the name (yells adventure, right?) and because they were highly rated on TripAdvisor.

I made one major rookie mistake; I only reviewed the packing list on the confirmation form and not the one on the website. Thus, I didn’t realize there would be a place to stow extra dry clothes, so I didn’t bring any. It was a bit uncomfortable on the return trip wearing my wet swimsuit, but I was probably the only person who made this error. (See? You learn something new every day.)

A dream come true -scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef 

12027267_10153751717989369_5487099083621595153_oIn 2013, I was in a queue to have my picture taken with George Takei at SXSW and I have the happy opportunity to meet Fabian Cousteau, who was behind me in line.

We chatted about the majesty of space exploration and the enchantment of our ocean.

Talking with Fabian inspired me to learn to scuba, and I immediately set my sights on the most impressive places in the world to do it – the Great Barrier Reef.

About the Reef:

It’s easy to think of the reef as a monolithic entity, but in actuality it’s a diverse ecosystem – the fish and coral and other sea life vary in different parts of the reef.

The reef is roughly divided into three sections – the Northern Great Barrier Reef, the Central Great Barrier Reef and the Southern Great Barrier Reef. I was staying in Cairns, and the dive trip I chose took us to two points on the Northern Great Barrier Reef.

Our first snorkel/dive of the day was at Saxon Reef, located in the Outer Reef. Saxon is a small reef, less than 2 kilometers. The diversity of fish life here was amazing! Lots of clown fish (I found Nemo!) among others. The water was warm and clear.

Our second dive of the day was Norman Reef. The reef was so much different here – the water was darker, and it sees like there were fewer varieties of fish. Norman Reef is located 70 kilometers off the east coast of Australia on the very outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef along the continental shelf. We dove around the Fingers Mooring, where coral on the reef jut out like the fingers on a person’s hand.

Here’s a bunch of facts about the Great Barrier Reef.

http://www.greatbarrierreef.org/great-barrier-reef-facts.php

About the trip:

I picked Reef Experience because they were highly rated on Trip Advisor, and as always, Trip Advisor did not lead me astray.

Pick up came promptly at 7:30 am from my hostel. I met a fantastic mother-daughter duo Debbie and Bianca on the shuttle, and they became my company for the day. We kicked off the morning with briefings as well as a hot bacon and egg sandwich to build up some energy for the exciting day ahead. It’s about an hour boat ride to the first dive location. We were split into groups (I was group 9), and we snorkeled until it was our turn to slip on a tank.

I’ve taken an intro to diving class in DC, and that four hours paid dividends for this introductory dive, even though I’m not fully certified. For the first dive, the dive coaches test your key skills: replacing your mask under water, replacing your regulator if it’s knocked from your mouth (and most importantly remembering to breathe in the process), and of course, responding to the hand signs and instructions from your dive coach. I was a little rusty but a morning of snorkel goes a long way toward getting the breathing technique right. Breathing control is critical with scuba.

My first dive was brief, but the variety of fish and coral were so stunning, I knew I had to do a second dive. We were served an incredibly delicious lunch that was prepared right there on the boat, and then we were off to a second stop.

In the afternoon, we’re giving the option of a second dive (for a fee) or as much snorkel as you want.

This was my first real unassisted scuba dive but I found my place of zen in order to keep my breath steady- breathing too hard and too fast will cause you to burn through your oxygen tank faster. I rented an underwater camera for the dive.

It’s more challenging to swim along the reef without bumping into it than I first imagined. Hopefully I didn’t inadvertently knock off a piece of coral with a fin!

The hour or so boat ride back to shore was awesome- everyone remarked repeatedly that today must have been the best day of weather to be on the reef.

With the add-ons (second dive, camera rental, seasickness medicine [well worth the $3!] and the picture I bought from the on-board professional photographer), I ended up spending an additional $122 over the initial price of the tour. But for this once-in-a-lifetime experience? No regrets!

First night in Cairns!

After one missed flight, I made it to Cairns (pronounced “cans”) Thursday afternoon. The airport is small but sufficient. My Croatian-born cabbie grew up in Sydney but has called Cairns home for about a decade, and immediately I could see why. The mountains and foliage reminded me immediately of Hawaii, but a lot less humid.

I checked in to the Nomads Cairns, a delightful hostel I picked because it came  

  

  

 highly rated on TripAdvisor. My double room was sparse- after spending the week prior at a five-star hotel in Bangkok, I was in for a moment of culture shock. Instead of a uniformed porter, an Aussie surfer helped me lug my enormous suitcase up the steps (it’s on 23 kilos! He quipped, noticing the airline tag). 
Showered and refreshed after, well, a long day of flying, I loaded into the shuttle van for downtown Cairns. I haven’t been anywhere like this place. It has about half the gravitas of Charleston, SC but maintains the beach bum sensibilities of Myrtle Beach. 
The Night Market was my first stop- a brilliant marketing to target the shoppers who spent the day on the reef. 
Walking down the main drag, there are plenty of open-scape bars. I saddled up and ordered my first Pure Blonde. Night one can’t be a big party night for me; after 20 hours of travel, I have to be up bright and early for the heart of my trip: scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef!