A Weekend In The Gili Islands

For my birthday this last weekend, we took the opportunity to go to Gili Meno, an island off the coast of Lombok, yet another of the thousands of islands in Indonesia.

The way there was fairly straightforward, hire a car, jump on a ferry, transfer to a smaller boat to island hop, and there we were at our resort home for a long weekend, Seri Resort Gili Meno. I’m not going to write a full review of the resort or the experience itself, but overall, it was a fantastic place to stay.

The island itself is quiet, with the main attractions being fantastic views, sun, quiet, and of course the requisite diving and snorkeling in the coral reefs and shipwreck that surrounds the island. As a parent of a toddler, I highly recommend this island in particular. the people are fantastically nice, and Bear loved the sand and water (though the small waves not so much).

The one downfall of the island itself is that internet is very spotty and nearly non-existent. So if you’re trying to work there, you might want to rethink your plans. Luckily for me, I took a couple days off in advance, so it really just meant that I was forced to unplug for a couple of days. Nothing wrong with that every once in a while.

All in all, if you’re in Bali and looking for a fantastic beach/snorkeling/diving location nearby, Gili Meno is your place. You can also try one of the other 2 islands, Gili T or Gili Air. Gili T has much more by the way of bars, food, and shopping, but is also far busier. I hear Gili Air is much the same. For us, Gili Meno was the perfect quiet place to spend the weekend. Your mileage may vary, though.

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Two weeks in Ubud, Bali: Our Villa

We’ve been in Ubud for about 2 weeks now and have 2 months to go, so I thought I’d show you guys where we’re living and talk a little bit about the process of finding a place here in Bali.

When we first started talking about our trip, Bali was my destination of choice. In fact, instead of “traveling” I just wanted to live in Bali for a year. In my mind, I thought it would be fantastic to wake up near the beach, for it to always be warm, and for health to be at the top of everything I would see.

Of course, as things always do, our plans evolved and we decided instead to live in a few places and that when we’d go to Bali, to instead stay inland in Ubud. I think I was a bit disappointed with these plans at first, but as time has gone on, I’ve turned instead to gratitude that we made the decisions we’ve made.

Finding Our Villa

Unlike what we did in Chiang Mai, we heeded the advice of others and decided to look for a place when we got here. We booked a hotel for the first 2 night and decided if we needed more time, we’d just extend the hotel as needed. What we were trying to avoid was the overinflated Airbnb market that seems to exist here, which preys on travelers with little experience in how much things really cost. The reality of a place like Bali is that very few businesses or people use the internet for things like booking, listing, delivery, etc. Instead, everything is still very word of mouth, “I know a guy who…” and you really just go around and ask questions.

The one exception to this is that there is a very active Facebook group called Ubud Community that you can use to ask questions about things like housing and drivers, or really anything else about the area. From there, some locals will check in and offer to help travelers by introducing them to people they know (likely for a fee from that person for helping them). In our case, this was how we ended up finding our villa.

Luckily for us, our journey to find a villa was a short one.

We had narrowed down to a very specific neighborhood, so we had a much more limited list of houses available to us. Because of this, we felt like we were on a mini-episode of house hunters, except instead of having a real estate agent drive us around, we rode around the neighborhood on a motorbike and just asked people if they knew of any villas for rent.

We started by meeting up with a man we met through the Facebook group. He showed us a fantastic listing but was quite a bit above what we wanted to pay. The thing was, it ticked all our boxes off and then some. It had a pool, open kitchen, 2 big bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a bathtub, air conditioning, and decent internet. The problem was really price and the owner didn’t really want to budge. So while the man who helped us find the villa had others he knew of, they were all in another neighborhood, so we went out on our own in search of others.

We found another one down the block, which we had seen on foot, but didn’t have a local number yet to call anyone, so we went to buy a sim card. While I was doing that, Lauren went across the street and ended up meeting the cousin of the woman whose place we wanted to see. It is such a small world here.

This place ended up being the typical part of house hunters where you see the way under-budget place that has none of what you want. There was a steep staircase to the upper bedroom, very little light indoors, and the single bathroom was outside. While the Balinese style of homes are very much designed around outdoor spaces and many small structures, this really wasn’t what we wanted. So we moved on.

The next place we found was right in the middle for us. The man who owned it was the nicest person we’ve met here so far (and that is saying a lot because everyone here is insanely nice). The house was much bigger than we needed and sat on some beautiful rice paddies, but it lacked the pool of the first place and was very, very dark inside. What made us consider this one most was not only how nice the owner was, that he was basically letting us set the price.

In the end, we couldn’t get the first place out of our minds. Though it was over budget, it was still far less than anything we’d pay for in New York and it was a space that we thought we’d enjoy living in for a couple of months. So instead of waiting and looking around some more, we decided to just jump on it.

This left us with our final hurdle, getting the rent money.

The deal we landed on was for 16,500,000 TDR per month. And though that number seems shockingly large, in reality, this turns out to be about $1200 USD per month. The issue, however, turns out to be that getting this money in cash is a lot harder than it seems. In the U.S. you can generally pull out anywhere from $600-1000 in cash per day from an ATM. Here it is a bit different. Most ATMs have an upper limit of about 1.5 mil – 2.5 million ($100 – 200 USD), depending on the bank. This means that you need to make 6-10 ATM visits in order to get the needed money. Each with fees and spread out across multiple days.

Luckily for us, I happened to have a Charles Schwab checking account for my personal spending, which offers 0 foreign transaction fees and reimburses for any ATM fees. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it,) they also have very strict anti-fraud policies, so they didn’t seem to like seeing multiple transactions, from multiple banks, over a very short period of time. Basically, my card got frozen after a couple withdrawals.

It took a little doing, but eventually, we got all the money we needed.

Having 16,500,000 IDR is quite the sight

In the end, we’re super happy with our place. Having the pool has been a blast with Bear, though, we do have to have a constant eye on him so he doesn’t jump in without us (so far he seems to understand, but does he really?). The space itself is great, and I love sitting at the table in the evenings and working for a few hours.

It is hard to believe sometimes that we actually live here.

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Finding gratitude in difficult situations

Yesterday started out like just about any other day in Bali. You wake up, make some breakfast, make some coffee, chase the baby around, and then load up on the motorbike and decide where to go for the day. Unlike other days up till then, we decided to go a little further out and head down to the beach in Canggu, specifically, Echo Beach.

None of that is really the point of the story, though.

To fast forward a bit, we rode for about an hour, got slightly lost, but ultimately made our way to an amazing beach, where we got some sun, played in the water and sand. We had lunch, walked around a bit and let Bear play with some fish in a little pond in the middle of an amazing little cafe.

On the way home though is where we ran into some troubles.

In the United States, when you’re going somewhere somewhat far away, you generally take the main road or a highway. Here in Bali, it is quite different. Most of the roads are very small, with one lane going each direction and traffic runs considerably slower. So distances that you think of in minutes in the US, become much longer.

The other thing is, many of the roads are unmarked and feel more like side streets in many places. Really, this is a country where most of the roads were created around the villages, as the villages needed and then were later connected. Because of this, going to someplace big from someplace else big that is 15 miles away isn’t a case of “go down X road, turn left on Y road, and Z will be on your right.” Instead, it is a complex journey that requires 10-15 turns down roads that are poorly marked and in some cases look too small to be a road you’d consider going down.

I’ll start by saying that none of this is unsafe, just that the American way of thinking about navigating simply does not apply here. It is not easy to simply pull out your phone every once in a while and say, “I need to turn left in about 100 meters at A street.” You need to have a deeper understanding of things and really stop and ask a lot of people, “which way B?” and then just do that over and over again until you understand the roads.

That was one of the lessons from yesterday. Here are the rest.

On the way back, it was immediately apparent that the amazing sunshine we had enjoyed all day was coming to an end as clouds began to cover the skies. It had already been a tough afternoon, with Bear seeming tired and grumpy, not to mention I wasn’t entirely happy either. Then on the way home, it seemed like nothing could go right.

First, we had trouble finding gas (or petrol as it is called just about everywhere else). In the many places we’ve been to here, outside of city centers, it seems very common to purchase a bottle of gas and just pour it in your tank. This weirds me out, so I kept driving past the 100 stands offering gas like this, hoping to find a pump. Luckily, just as we were going into the deep red, we found a single manual pump operated by a small shop that helped us fill our tank and we were off.

Next, it seemed like I couldn’t make a single correct turn. We’d drive for 10 minutes, I’d stop to look for directions on Google Maps and curse as the GPS just seemed way, way off (protip: GPS basically doesn’t work here, or at least not in a reliable way.) After awhile Lauren just started asking people “which way Ubud?” to which people would point us in a direction, and we’d go. Every time we’d stop I’d pull out the phone, curse at the GPS, “I just need to know where we are!?!”

It felt a lot like the movie Stargate (not the show) where in order to dial home, you needed to know your origin point and they spent the whole movie trying to figure that out. Yesterday felt like us spending all day trying to figure out where we were so we could figure out where we were going. Long story short, we ended up driving way out of our way. Oh, and I forgot to mention, it was pouring rain.

Finally, we turned around, turned down another road and it seemed like we were going the right direction. To counteract my driving for too far without asking, I basically just started stopping every few minutes, or whenever I’d see someone, in order to confirm we were going the right way. It was raining, we were wet, but we were at least on our way in the correct direction.

Then, on one last stop to check our direction, they pointed the way we were going and I merged back on the road, only to find my back tire was sliding back and forth. I hit the brakes and pulled to the side. We hopped off to take a look and it seemed like maybe a water bottle had been caught in the wheel (weird,) so we dumped that and jumped on again with the same result. This time, I checked the tire itself and it was flat. Pouring rain, on the side of the road, surrounded by mostly rice paddies with a couple small restaurants, I turned the bike around to ask for help.

The first people we talked to were the ones who had just pointed us in the right direction. Unfortunately, they didn’t speak any English, so couldn’t understand much more than “Taxi,” to which they pondered a moment and said no. We waited around for a minute as a helpful person who had just stopped for a bite to eat, who spoke a little English, tried to help and translate, but it seemed to be going nowhere. She wanted us to follow her to Ubud, thinking we were just lost. And as grateful as I am that we could have had someone guide us, we were stuck.

At this point, all I wanted to do was leave the bike for the night, get a car, and get home. I could deal with the bike in the morning. That didn’t seem to be happening, so we said thank you and I walked the bike a little bit up the road to what seemed like a bigger restaurant (the other place wasn’t much more than a stand on the side of the road) where they might be able to help.

It took a moment to explain what was going on. They didn’t speak great English, but they knew enough to know we had a broken bike, and that I was hoping to leave it, get a taxi home, and get it the next day (today.) At first, it seemed like they might not be able to help, but amazingly they started calling people to enlist friends and family to help us. Maybe it is just because we’re traveling with a baby, but everyone just wanted to reach out and help us. No one seemed put out either, even though they were obviously going way out of their way to help.

What happened next was just amazing and we are so grateful.

First, they offered to take the bike to a mechanic for us that night and we could pick it up in the morning. Next, they called a man, who we still don’t fully know the relation, but he showed up with a jeep-like vehicle and offered to drive us the rest of the 30+ minutes home, in the now torrential downpour.

So we left the bike, with the key, in the hands of total strangers. All the while, every bit of American in me was screaming, “don’t do it, they’ll cheat you and steal your bike.” But I ignored that voice and left it anyway.

Then we got a ride home with the kindest man, who apologized to us the whole way for not having a better car or A/C. His car was a 1982 Suzuki 4×4 and while definitely not the kind of car I would expect were I to call for an Uber, given the circumstances, it was amazing and dry and warm. We couldn’t have asked for anything more.

In the end, we made it home safe. Lauren tried to hug the man out of appreciation, which he thought was a bit strange (I guess they don’t do that here.) We ended up walking to dinner that night, but we were home, in our neighborhood, so we didn’t mind.

This morning, I hired a local taxi to take me back to pick up the bike and sure enough, they were there at 10am as promised. The brother took me on the back of his motorbike down the street to the mechanic and there my bike was. Tire fixed, ready to go. I tried to give them money for their help, but everyone refused it. The only money I paid was for the taxi back this morning and 10,000 IDR (less than $1 USD) for fixing the tire.

This is a situation that had it occurred in the rural parts of the US, I can imagine may have gone much, much worse. Instead, we were greeted with a sense of community and social responsibility from everyone we encountered who took it as a matter of personal pride to protect and help us. It was truly inspiring.

We’re taught in the US that everyone is out to get you. That the world is unsafe, especially the world outside of the US. The longer I’m away, though, the more I see the flaw in this logic. The more I experience, the more I see the fear that has been so nurtured and perpetuated by our news media for what it is. For years I’ve heard people lament when they hear I don’t watch the news. I’ve always thought I was better off to not hear the horror in its contents because, in my opinion, it is mostly a manufactured view of the world. One meant to drive ratings and create a sense of xenophobia through distrust in the outside world. Now that I’m out in the world, I believe this even more strongly.

The more I’m out here, the more I see the inherent goodness in everyday people. I’m grateful to have this opportunity. I’m grateful to have had such amazing people help us out of the kindness of their hearts, in what felt like such dire circumstances. In retrospect, all of it was minor, and all of it was a reminder that we’re all just people and that at the end of the day, we should all reach out to help the small family, with a baby, caught in the rain with a flat tire.

I’m grateful that Bali never built a wall to keep people out. That we’re able to live here, even if for a short while. So we can experience and understand that the world is such an amazing place and that the people in it are equally amazing.

Climbing the Sticky Waterfalls of Chiang Mai

About an hour north of Chiang Mai is the Bua Thong Waterfalls, or more affectionately known by us western travelers as The Sticky Waterfalls.

They are not named as such because my son Bear has eaten a pile of watermelon and covered them with sticky goo, but due to some magical mineral deposits which make them feel like rock sponges. This magic allows even the most novice of climbers to scale the waterfalls, even through running water.

How to get there

Unlike many of the other sights in the area, there are no direct tours and as far as I know and you can’t get there by Songthaew. Instead, the best way to go is either by motorbike or by hiring a private car to take you. For us, we chose the latter of these options because, as much as I love biking around, it is probably a 2-hour motorbike ride at the speeds the 3 of us go.

If you do decide to take a motorbike (or maybe even rent a car), here is a quick overview of the route to get there from Maya Shopping Center.

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In our case, we did go with the private car option, but only because we found that it was cheaper at 1000 baht (about 30 USD) to hire a car to drive up there, wait for 1.5 hours, and then drive us back, than it was to rent a car, which was about 1500 baht (45 USD) for a day. While there are some advantages to going on your own, especially with not having a time limit to your trip, we found that this was by far the least stressful route for us since we didn’t have to worry about getting lost on unknown roads.

What to do when you get there

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The area immediately after the parking lot has a few things like bathrooms and a small shop where you can buy snacks and drinks. The one caveat is that these are not allowed in the area of the waterfall itself. Beyond that, there are some great green sights and places to sit and have a picnic up in this area. Once you walk to the back where the waterfalls are, you will find that you’re at the top already, so you have 2 options:

  1. Either take the stairs down to the bottom
  2. Or climb down the waterfall itself

Having a baby with us, we choose option #1, however, we saw several people go for the latter, including a dad and his two older sons.

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Tell me more about these “sticky” waterfalls

The waterfalls themselves seem to be in 2 tiers, at least as far as we could find. However, some of the signage seemed to indicate that there might be a 3rd tier somewhere else. Given our shorter timeframe and having a boulder of a son in tow, we were slightly limited in our mobility.

Between the 2 tiers, where we ultimately settled, are some small pools of water that have very gently moving water in them. Here we took turns letting Bear splash around, while the other climbed up and down the waterfalls.

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The great thing about this area is that the rocks that make up the waterfalls and give it the added traction make up the majority of the pools as well, so Bear had an easy time moving around and we were able to chase after him without issue.

Actually climbing the waterfalls is one of the most fun things we did while in Chiang Mai. It wasn’t terribly difficult and I believe nearly anyone without major disabilities could probably do it. The fantastic thing about the rocks is they allow you plenty of grip while standing in the gently rushing waters. At first, it feels very counter-intuitive and you feel like you should be slipping, but you don’t. After a little bit, you get used to it and you realize that as long as you verify each step you take, you can walk up with relative ease.

The one caveat to this is that there can be algae growing in some of the places along the waterfall where the water isn’t moving as much. This was especially evident the further you got up toward the top. This is easy to mitigate as long as you check that you have grip with each step you take, before leaning your weight into it. As long as you do that, you should have little issue climbing.

Once you get to the top of the waterfall, you’ll find that it is a little more difficult to climb unassisted, however, there are some helpful ropes up there that make it easy to pull yourself to the dry surface.

My one regret is that we hadn’t insisted on an extra hour from the driver so that we could have climbed up and down even more.

What to bring

You really don’t need a whole lot for this trip. We brought a ton of stuff, as we weren’t really sure what we needed, but most of it just chilled on the ground and made it difficult to move around. I was quite jealous to see other people and families with just the bare necessities.

1. Footwear: You can do this climb really in one of 2 ways. Either barefoot or with waterproof sandals that fully strap to your foot. We choose the barefoot route, however, most of the people we saw were wearing sandals. I would imagine that the extra grip from the footwear might assist in some of the algae situations, however, neither of us really found this part too troubling. If you do go the sandals route, I’d suggest not using flip-flops or any other kind that allows you to slip in and out easily since it sort of negates the point of “sticky” waterfalls, if you can just slip out of your sandals.

2. Extra clothes (maybe): We wore basic bathing suits while climbing the waterfalls and got a bit wet sitting in some of the pools as we climbed. I’m sure you could do this and stay mostly dry if you don’t sit, however, that doesn’t sound like as much fun. If you’re taking a car, you might want extra clothes to keep it dry, however, if you’re on a motorbike, I’d probably just dry out on the way back and save the space.

3. Towel As with the previous, you’ll probably get a bit wet and having a towel might be a handy addition. Same caveats do apply, though, as this isn’t really strictly necessary if you don’t mind air drying. Really a personal preference thing.

4. Camera I brought both my Nikon D3300 DSLR, along with my GoPro. While I’m not a great photographer, I definitely prefer the pictures I get out of the Nikon, as the GoPro has that nice fisheye quality to them. With that said, were I to go again, I’d probably just stick to the GoPro. It works well enough for pictures and with a waterproof case, is the perfect companion as you climb up and down.

5. Lunch If you’re planning to make a day out of it, your food options up this far are fairly limited. Unless you’re a master intermittent faster, you’re probably well suited to bring some food and make a picnic out of it. I’ve heard there are some food vendors about 5-minutes before you get to the waterfall so it might be worth it to stop there on your way and get some takeaway.

As with everything, you really don’t need much. Keep it minimal, while there is some climbing and walking, it is a small area you’ll be in and the only thing you need to prepare for is to see cool things.

But what about the baby!?!

Bear is a trooper.

Scratch that, Bear’s mom is a trooper and straps him to her with a baby carrier. This makes going up and down the stairs pretty easy (which is relative, considering he weighs around 30lbs). When we had gotten there, we had initially intended on climbing with him, thinking that this was more of a traditional hike. This turned out to be the one fault with our plan, as it isn’t really a hike. In retrospect, it feels pretty obvious that you just take turns watching the baby as the other enjoys climbing.

Otherwise, he really didn’t need much. He wore his bathing suit in the water and we changed him back into his clothes with a diaper when we were done. While it certainly would have been more fun to climb the waterfall together, it was pretty fun just to play with him in the waters, which as long as you kept him toward the center of the pool area and don’t follow the stream to the next tier, is incredibly safe.

Just to note, the pool area is quite large and even at Mach 10 baby speeds, you’d have to lose sight of your kid for a very long time for them to wander into any real danger. And anyway, your kid is in water, so you’re not taking your eye off them anyway, right?

My one suggestion if you do go with a baby, is to maybe go with a larger group of people, if you can. The only reason I say this is so that groups can take turns watching the baby, so people don’t have to climb up and down alone. This definitely is not a strict requirement, nor did our not having this have any negative impact on our time, but it was a thought we had as we were leaving.

Overall, the Sticky Waterfalls are an impressive sight and a fun half day trip. I highly recommend anyone visiting Chiang Mai take some time to go see them. We’ll definitely be going back the next time we’re in town.

Our visit to the Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai

Just before leaving Chiang Mai, we finally did one of the things Lauren has been wanting to do for years, we went to see the elephants.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re imagining we went to one of those places where you get to ride elephants around and they paint for you. Where they do tricks and you get to bathe with them in the river. The Elephant Nature Park allows for you to do none of these things. Not because they hate fun, but because every one of those activities is generally possible due to the many acts of torture and cruelty that are used to tame an elephant when they’re a baby.

I’m not going to spend too much time preaching about this fact. It is something I was casually aware of before, became more aware of because of Lauren, and became hyper-aware of thanks to some of the documentary videos shown to us on our ride to the ENP. In short, it is pretty terrible what elephants are put through to tame them. I won’t say much more, but if you’re interested in being completely horrified, then here are a couple links to read:

  1. http://expertvagabond.com/elephants-in-thailand/ (not so bad)
  2. https://www.thedodo.com/elephant-rides-trek-1132645600.html (pretty terrifying)

Anyway, back to our visit.

The ENP is a fantastic place. Their mission is to rescue elephants from the abuse that is normally found in most elephant tourism, plus the terrible labor they’re forced to perform by much of the local logging industry. They buy elephants when they can and bring them to their sanctuary, where they seek to rehabilitate them and allow them the ability to live a free life.

While there, we saw a number of elephants with various issues, like:

  • Blinded due to repeated flash photography over dozens of years (not joking)
  • Feet that are half blown off from mines
  • Broken hips that were healed improperly from pulling heavy loads
  • Broken backs that healed improperly from carrying 500+ lbs chairs + multiple people
  • A number of smaller injuries that were caused by the hooks used to discipline them when they did not do as commanded.

And while that sounds horrific and bleak, the fact is that these elephants were finally being properly loved and cared for. Many of them still are highly distrustful of people, due to years of abuse, however, there are quite a few that thanks to years of care, now have learned to trust people and will even come up to you and allow you to touch them.

The first rule of ENP is to never approach an elephant, let them approach you. Many will come to you specifically seeking food and leave as soon as they find you have none, others will come and say hi and stick around for a while. The ones that standoff on their own generally are the ones that are afraid of you and it is best to give them the space they need.

So, now that I’ve thoroughly sold you that there is nothing you can do with the elephants, I’ll let you in on why it was so cool.

First, there were several things we got to do, the first of which was getting to feed them large amounts of fruit. The elephant we fed was blind, so it would let out its trunk and wait for food and pull it in when you set somewhere it could feel. There were a couple of kids who were so excited to do this that they tried to hog all the fun by running back and forth to the food basket to keep feeding her.

Bear was slightly less enthused as he thought the watermelon should be for him and got upset when the elephant took it. Tough break kid.

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Fun fact, there is only one person I know who might be able to out eat an elephant in a watermelon eating contest. Though, maybe I’m giving him too much credit. Challenge accepted?

The next thing we got to do was to go out and visit with the various elephant families. Yep, left to their own, the elephants will come together and form small families, whether they are related or not. These include older elephants who will look out for the family, mothers who will try to keep them fed, and others who become nanny’s to help look after the children. It is quite amazing to see them form such social structures. They really are quite intelligent and emotional creatures.

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After lunch, we went down to the river and saw one of the families taking their baby into the river to bathe him. While many elephants won’t bathe themselves, it is pretty cool to see the nanny take a kid elephant into the river and dunk her under, so that she gets nice and clean.

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One of the coolest interactions we got to see happened in the river when two families of elephants happened to be there at the same time and their kids saw each other and went running toward each other to play. It was neat to see the two nannies take the kids for a playdate and watch them wrestle in the water.

It is pretty cool how similar this all seems to how you parent human kids and taking them to the park.

After visiting with several more families, we ended the day down by the river where this time we were invited to help bathe some of the elephants who might not do it on their own. Instead of the usual get in the river and swim with the elephants, this seemed far more like a water fight in a water park, where everyone is given buckets and while standing maybe knee deep in the river, throws water up onto the elephant (and many times the other people around.)

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It was pretty cute to see some of the kids (human) yelling “Pikachu!” as they were throwing the water on the elephant.

Overall, the experience was highly rewarding. While I do wish Bear had been a bit older, to really get to experience things, he seemed to have a pretty good time. Even if he was a bit shy to touch the elephants.

If you’re ever in northern Thailand and want to have a real experience with elephants, I highly recommend the Elephant Nature Park. They are a fantastic organization that deserves all the support they can get.

 

Saying Goodbye to Thailand and Hello to Bali

Last week we said goodbye to Chiang Mai, Thailand. Unfortunately, it was time to leave.

Even though we had wished to just for longer, we had only put 6-weeks into our calendar for this part of our travels. We’ve already decided we’ll be going back in the future, and next time we’ll stay for longer. That way we’ll be able to see and do more in the surrounding area.

For now, we have magically transported ourselves to Ubud, Bali.

It was funny that in the weeks leading up to this transition, we were talking about how much we loved Chiang Mai and how we wished we had made it the long part of our travels instead of Bali, which we’re staying in for just under 3-months. As it got closer our sadness grew and we were starting to regret that we even going to Bali (we even discussed just not going, since we didn’t have plane tickets until a week before,) as if we were going to some horrible place in the world (TLDR: it’s not.)

I’ll fast forward us a bit and just give a quick summary of the last few days.

We arrived late Saturday night and stayed in a terrible (but cheap) resort in the Sanur Beach area called the Sanur Seaview Hotel. We were sort of ripped off by taking a taxi from the airport and paid probably 4x what we would have had we gotten an Uber. Note to self, never take a car in Bali if you can take an Uber. It looked nice on the outside but was cheap for a very good reason. I’m pretty sure the bed was made of cotton balls and the cleanliness (though not apparently bad) felt suspect. It was late, we had hardly eaten and this place was about as far from everything as you could possibly be, including the sea, which it, in theory, has a view of (hint, it doesn’t.)

We survived the night then headed to Ubud via Uber (lesson learned, plus fun alliteration) to our next hotel/home base while we searched for a house to live in. This time, we got very lucky to find Casa Ganesha, which was cheap, provided free breakfast and had a great outdoor space and had fairly nice rooms. We got a motorbike that evening and explored a little and found ourselves biking down a small path through rice fields during sunset on our way to a fantastic little organic restaurant.

The next day we went around looking for a villa to rent. We met with a few people, but ultimately chose the first option we found, which though a bit above our budget, went far beyond our expectations. I’ll talk a little more about this in a later post, but the quick of it is, it felt very much like we were on an episode of House Hunters International, minus the cameras.

Ubud itself feels like a mixed bag, while filled with tons of healthy food options, the traffic has been very, very bad in the afternoons, and the cost of everything is almost twice what we’ve grown used to in Thailand.

Overall, while I think we’ll enjoy our time here, there are parts of Chaing Mai that I sorely miss. Specifically, the neighborhood we were living in there was urban and felt like it was part of a city. Here, things are more sparse when you leave the city center. We’re staying in more of a traditional neighborhood, where we have to either walk fairly far or drive to get places and while there are a few restaurants nearby, I have a feeling we’ll be biking a lot to get to places we used to just walk to (like the grocery store.)

This isn’t the worst thing in the world, but one of my favorite aspects about living somewhere is urban density. I love being able to walk out the door and have options, without traveling far. This is one of the reasons I love NYC, and while far smaller, Chiang Mai had this feeling for me as well. So far, Ubud lacks this, but it has a lot of other great things, from a vibrant expat community to amazing natural living options, all the way to tons of outdoor activities. Ubud, and Bali, in general, is a very beautiful lush place, so I’ll try not to dwell for too long on my lost urban density.

For now, we’re learning the area, I’m getting used to a new workspace (Hubud), and we’re trying to define some new routines to help all of us settle in a bit better.

Overall, we’re very happy with how things have turned out and while we miss Chiang Mai and some of the people we had just started meeting, we’re looking forward to the opportunity in front of us.

Also, on a side note, I’m sorry for the lag in my blog posts. Time has been a little crazy lately and I’ve accrued a backlog of posts I’ve wanted to do. As the list has gotten longer, it has been more daunting of an idea to write any of them. Today I decided to just move forward instead of lamenting the past. With that said, there are a few posts I wanted to do about some of the places we visited in Thailand just before we left, so I’ll likely do a few retroactive posts over the next couple of days as I find time to write them.

My Thoughts on the Bombings in Thailand

Last week the southern region of Thailand was hit by several bombs, targeting tourist areas. After having several concerned relatives and friends reach out, I thought I’d take a few moments to compile my thoughts and opinions on what happened and how it might affect our continued travels.

TLDR version: It probably won’t.

To get started, it is important to understand that there is a huge difference between northern Thailand, where we currently are and southern Thailand where these attacks happened. In the northern areas, there has barely been any noticeable effect after the tragic bombings last week. We spent a few days sort of keeping an eye on whether people were still out and about, and though the immediate next morning it felt like the streets were a little empty, by later in the day everything felt back to normal.

In the west, this is hard to understand because the news is talking about Muslim insurgents and fighting in the region. What it doesn’t do a great job of explaining, however, is that the southern part of Thailand has been going through this for almost 12-years now, as the region has been fighting for more independence from the largely Buddhist state, which annexed the region almost a century ago. And while there is still no evidence that these insurgents had anything to do with the attacks, which were very atypical for them, I still see headlines using the word Muslim to drive fear.

The reality of being in Thailand is that you definitely avoid the southern regions that border Malaysia due to this fighting. That was true before, that is still true now. The rest of the country is generally calm and peaceful and highly open to travelers from all over the world.

What I think is the most disturbing about the bombings though is that they occurred much further north than what people are used to, reaching as far as Hua Hin, which is just south of Bangkok. And while this is still much further to the south than we are, there has been no official claim that I’ve seen for who perpetrated the attacks. I’ve seen blame placed on 3 different groups so far, ranging from the Muslim insurgents I mentioned before, to the Red Shirt movement, which seeks to end what they see as a military dictatorship which enforces the monarchy, all the way to black flag attacks by the Thai military itself to indict the former.

While all of this can sound very scary, the reality for us has been that we’ve seen zero change in our daily life over the last few days and have never felt even a moment of uncertainty regarding our safety. For us, all of this felt like the Orlando shootings did while we were in the US. They were horrible and we felt shocked and scared for the people who went through it, but it felt so far away because it was in Florida and we were in Texas. While this may sound like a perhaps naive stance on things, it comes to my greater point, that it is all a matter of perception.

In the US, mass shootings and gun violence have come to near epidemic levels. We are regularly inundated with news ranging from individual deaths to dozens in a single incident. It has gotten to be bad enough that Germany, France, and New Zealand have all issued travel warnings to their citizens about the potential of gun-related incidents while traveling to the US. However, to us in the United States, the world bomb sounds much worse than the world gun, even if the word gun is used 1,000 more times. That is the power of media, though.

I by no means seek to minimize what occurred here, but I want to try to add some perspective that the world itself can be dangerous, no matter where you live. We all, however, try to tell ourselves that it is worse in other places, even if someone on the other side is looking at you, thinking the same.

For us, Chiang Mai has felt far safer than nearly anywhere we’ve ever lived. Unlike just about anywhere we’ve ever been, it seems like the people here would go out of their way to help us, no matter what happened. That they value people no matter where they are from. The police don’t carry guns. We don’t see the military walking around with assault rifles like they do in the US.

Why exactly does the US need to enforce its law with its military again?

Overall, Thailand is a fantastic place and we think everyone should come here at least once to experience life in a different way. It is a shame that underneath that there is civil unrest and corruption in the government. I can say that for the most part, aside from a traffic ticket, this hasn’t really impacted us at all.

The reality is, all of those things exist back home, some to even greater degrees. Pretending like it is unique here or that we are somehow in more danger because we’re in Thailand is a gross misrepresentation of reality. One that feels like it has become part of a xenophobic worldview that is being created and perpetuated by much the news media and many of our potential new leaders.

Does this mean I think it is unsafe back in the US?

No, but it is good to see and understand that the world is the same no matter where you are, even if the shades are a little different.

A Weekend Trip to Koh Lanta

Since Lauren’s sister C and her boyfriend T are still in town, we decided to make a quick trip down to the beaches of Koh Lanta, Thailand last weekend.

We woke up bright and early at 4am last Thursday to hop on a plane down to Krabi. From there we took a shuttle van down to the beautiful island of Koh Lanta. Of course, while the initial beauty of Koh Lanta was marred by rainstorms, it gave us some much-needed time to catch up on rest from traveling and prepare us for the amazingly beautiful weekend that would follow.

Where we stayed

For accommodations, we stayed at a small resort named Sri Lanta. We had a small bungalow and being the low season for Koh Lanta, we had pretty open access to most of the resort itself, including the work area (awesome for me!) and both of the pools (including the salt-water one, which we loved.) The on-site restaurant was great and we may or may not have overindulged a little, thanks to some pretty great prices (though not as great as Chiang Mai), including an evening happy hour on cocktails.

What we did

While I did work my normal split schedule on Friday, we were able to spend the afternoon zipping around on a motorbike. I also got to teach T how to ride the bike, which though it started a tad rocky, he picked up on how to drive fairly quickly. This made getting the 5 of us around the island much, much simpler.

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Saturday we joined a one-day tour out to the nearby Phi Phi Islands (where Lauren and I visited a few years ago on our wedding trip.) The tour itself was pretty amazing, and though it hit many of the same spots as we did last time, there were luckily no death scares scaling cliffs with tumultuous waters this time. From my perspective, the highlights all revolved around snorkeling, diving off the boat, and swimming in the waters with Bear.

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Of course, there was also the moment on monkey beach, where a man had his beer stolen by a monkey, who quickly ran away with it and proceeded to get drunk. That was pretty funny too.

Overall, a fantastic way to spend the day.

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Sunday we spent some time motorbiking around the island again, seeing the sights. T was a bit more confident in his skills, so we went further this time. We ended up all the way at the southern tip of the island at the insanely beautiful Koh Lanta National Park. Here we were not only regaled with amazing sites but more monkeys!

Be warned, if you ever visit here, the monkeys are no joke. They are mischievous and will steal all your things, including your motorbike.

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He sat there for a few minutes, my biggest fear was that he’d notice the shiny keys hanging in the ignition and run off with them. Luckily he didn’t and eventually relented and ran off to fight with another monkey over a water bottle that had just been stolen from another tourist.

Be warned, monkeys want your things. We witnessed several acts of theft from monkeys while there, including down on the amazing beach, where people would leave their stuff, including their clothes and go for a dip in the water. The monkeys would then jump out of the trees and steal random things. Luckily we noticed the monkeys were down there fairly quickly and I moved our stuff to the middle of the beach and stood guard, so we made it out unscathed and fully clothed.

While for the rest of the group the monkeys seemed to be a low point of the trip, I included them in my favorite parts. Not because they were cute or nice (they are so not nice,) but because I enjoyed watching them and taking pictures. You see a different level of intelligence with monkeys than with other animals. They see things and interact with them in a way that is somewhat reminiscent of watching my son grow up and experience the world.

Luckily for us, my son is much kinder to strangers. Most of the time.

Experiencing Sunsets

Aside from the stormy Thursday night we had, every other night seemed clear enough to get a decent Sunset view. We tried three different places.

  • Diamond Cliff Restaurant
  • The beach and restaurant in front of Sri Lanta (our resort)
  • NOON Sunset Viewpoint Restaurant

Though we had heard the last one was the best of the bunch, overall, I think we were all fairly underwhelmed by the food. The view was pretty amazing and there were plenty of places around the restaurant to go see the sunset while you waited for your food. Were we to do it again, I’d definitely just skip the food and just wander in for a drink, then go eat somewhere else after the sun went down.

Diamond Cliff was completely packed and we just barely got a table. The food was decent and the drinks were good, but you are pretty limited to their restaurant area in order to see the sunset itself. This one is definitely worth going to, just make sure you get a reservation for at least 30-45 minutes prior to the sun going down.

Overall, I think we all had the most fun back at our own resort. This was probably because being the low season we were able to hang out with very few people around and we had an amazing view of the sunset over the water (even with all the clouds.) While the food is nothing spectacular, Sri Lanta’s restaurant still has some pretty good options. Not only that but the staff is extremely friendly (they loved Bear so much) and the outdoor seating is fantastic in the evening.

Where I worked

The internet was a bit kooky in Koh Lanta. At sometimes it felt like some of the fastest I’ve experienced in Asia so far, at others it crawled to a halt. Overall, I was able to stay fairly productive thanks to an amazing shared lounge, that even had a desk I could sit at.

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As usual, I split my schedule Friday working in the morning and then again in the evening. It has been an interesting thing to bookend my days with work, instead of having a single large block. For a trip like this, it makes it easy to work seamlessly while on vacation.

I also did a large block shift on Monday morning as the rest of the crew hung out around the hotel, while we waited for the shuttle back to the airport in the afternoon.

Overall, I love the flexibility of being able to go on a trip like this, but not have it impact my daily work schedule. I kept very similar hours the whole time and managed to maintain productivity while having an amazing trip to a new and beautiful place with my family. I can’t fully describe how fortunate I feel to have the opportunity to do things like this.

I can’t wait to see where we go next.

Motorbiking in Chiang Mail; Avoiding the Fuzz

I’ve learned very quickly that when riding a motorbike in Chiang Mai as an obvious tourist, you need to be careful of the local traffic police.

Last week we decided it would be a good idea if we started to look at getting a motorbike for the rest of our time here. The main reason being that getting around by taxi and red-car is both expensive and a hassle due to the innate communication issues of not knowing the local language. Beyond that, it is nice to have a little more freedom to get around the city, which isn’t as walkable as many of the other places we’ve visited. Not to mention that it also opens up many more possibilities to go further out to many of the awesome things that exist on the outskirts of the city.

On Thursday we decided to go and ask some questions about renting a bike. On my initial test drive, it was pretty apparent that I had never driven a motorbike before as I revved the throttle a little too fast and lurched forward, almost toppling several other parked bikes. The bike had some power behind it for sure. Seems that there is a bit of a learning curve to having a motorbike.

The man who owned the bikes was quick to see that us getting a bike might be a bad idea at the moment (you know, baby and all,) and suggested we rent regular bikes next store. Defeated, but still, in need of better transportation, we decided to do just that and got ourselves a couple normal bikes, one with a baby seat, for the day. While it was nice to ride around a bit and get used to being in the streets, we didn’t go very far that evening. Our biking ended up being me biking to and from work and then us giving the bikes back the next day. Luckily we paid a total of about $5 to rent the bikes, so it wasn’t a huge loss.

When we turned in the bikes, we went right back next store to give the motorbike another chance. Lauren especially was convinced that we needed to figure this out because she was eager to start venturing out and seeing more places. So, we decided on a new strategy that was basically 1) get a less powerful bike, 2) rent it for a day on trial and I’d ride alone while I figured everything out.

The man was a little nervous but exceedingly nice. I have a feeling that he sees a lot of people who have never ridden a motorbike before jump on, so while used to that, I think he just wanted to make sure we were safe before we rode around with Bear (something all of the people in the area do, but it requires some experience to do safely.) So, we got the bike. I spent a while in the afternoon on Friday just going around the local neighborhood, eventually building up the courage to turn out of the neighborhood into traffic and slowly but surely got the hang of the basics, like stopping, starting, and turning.

Then came Saturday morning.

We woke up and instead of all three of us going to breakfast, I decided to head over to the old city on a longer test ride to get breakfast at this cool cafe we had found the last weekend. Bear wasn’t feeling super well, so Lauren wanted to stay in any way, so I was to head out there, get a feel for riding in traffic, pick up some take away breakfast, and report back my findings.

The initial ride out there went great. The ratio of cars to motorbikes on the roads is probably about 50/50 on any given day, so it isn’t like people aren’t used to motorbikes out there and it is relatively safe to ride. The old city itself is a large square with grid streets inside and is surrounded by a boulevard of sorts with a moat-like river running through the center of the two streets. Here is an idea of what it looks like on Google Maps:

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For my route there, I was driving across the northern part of the old city on the outside of the river. Overall, I felt solid on the bike, and the ride across the city was really great. I was somewhat surprised to remember exactly how to get to the cafe, where they happily made up a takeaway order, and after a short wait, I was on my way home.

This is where I ran into some slight difficulties.

As I was riding back along the top of the city, I was traveling on the inside of the river. It is really fantastic to ride through the city itself, as you get to see several temples (wats) as you go by. A funny thing happened as I neared the border of the old city, I started to notice that before the road curved around to the left, everyone in front of me was turning left. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but the reason for it became apparent very soon after.

I turned the corner, so I could get to the turnaround and get out of the city, this is where I saw a row of orange cones and several people off to the left side of the road. A man wearing a white mask waved me off to the side and I realized it was a police officer. What I immediately noticed was that the people being waved off to the side all shared one of two traits, they were either A) not wearing a helmet, or B) white.

As it turns out, in order to ride a motorbike you need to have a Thai drivers license, otherwise, you are subject to a ticket. Okay, that’s fair enough. I did not have a Thai drivers license and should probably get one. The problem comes in that they ask you to pay the ticket right there. I, of course, paid my 400 baht fine and went on my way, but feeling like something was up, so I went home and did some research.

Apparently, the Thai police are just slightly corrupt (or depending on who you ask, very.)

According to my research, getting pulled over and ticketed for minor or non-existing crimes is very common if you are white. Worse of all, the Thai police are not allowed to take payments up front and are supposed to instead issue a ticket that you should go pay at the local station. Instead, it appears that many of the local police instead are extorting money from local tourists and lining their own pockets with it.

While this is illegal for them to do, there is apparently little-to-no oversight to keep them from doing this.

During my research, one common thing I read a lot is that the best thing to do if pulled over is to tell them that you don’t have your passport on you and are carrying no money. This will force them to either write a ticket or let you go. If they do write a ticket, you can supply your own name (real or fictional) and pay (or not pay) the ticket at your own discretion.

I’m not going to advocate not paying a ticket (by giving a fake name), but it seems like something many expats do, as there doesn’t seem to be much enforcement of traffic violations, as the police are far more interested in lining their own pockets than getting people to pay fines to the government.

One other thing, don’t take my words here as any sort of authority that this is the case. I have very little experience with this matter and can only cite what I have read.

For me, my plans for the immediate future are to not only get a Thai driver’s license, as I’d rather just be compliant with the law but also to begin going a little further out. We did a longer test ride yesterday (Sunday) with the 3 of us, and it was a bit nerve-racking, but overall, it was a pretty big success.

Having a bike definitely feels like an “achievement unlocked” moment for this city since it opens up so many possibilities. Shady police officers or not, I look forward to seeing more of the surrounding area.