Last Day in Iceland and First Day in AMERICA

Today was my last day in Iceland. I had a blast. Nicole and I got up and had some coffee at a little shop down the road. Supposedly it’s the best coffee in Iceland, and it was pretty delicious, but I honestly preferred the place we went on our first day. We packed our bags and set them by the door. We bought a few knickknacks for family members at a shop up the road and we went to a $40 volcano documentary.

$40 Volcano Movie?!

Why did we spend so much? A simple conversion error. When I bought our tickets at the downtown…..volcano store? I thought we were getting a heck of a deal, especially by Icelandic standards, two movies for $4? What a steal. It wasn’t until we sat down in the small 15 person theater that I realized we’d spent $40 on a 45 minute movie about volcanoes.

Touching all the rocks at the volcano museum
Touching all the rocks at the volcano museum

The volcano documentary wasn’t even that great. It was basically 3 different volcano videos edited together one after the other. I made a note to myself to one day retire and open a volcano documentary theater. After the documentary, Nicole and I walked around the small display cases of volcanic rocks and touched all of them, that’s right, all the rocks. By god, we were going to get our $40 worth. I also sent several photos of the museum to my sister, further enhancing the volcano experience for myself.

Lunch

After our volcanic mismanagement of vacation funds we got some delicious fish and chips, as we are wont to do. It was much less than the volcano movie and it came with a delicious IPA. The little fish and chips shop is right next to the volcano museum and located a mere block from the harbor. It doesn’t get much fresher than that.

Icelandic Fish and Chips
Icelandic Fish and Chips

The breading was light and flaky while the fish was fresh and flavorful. If you find yourself in Reykjavik and you’re hankering for some fish and chips, I highly recommend Icelandic Fish and Chips.

Coming to America…TODAY

Welcome to America
Welcome to America

Our three weeks of adventures through Iceland, Germany, and India were finally coming to an end. We’d had a blast, but we were ready to return to America and see our families. Nicole and I returned to our AirBnB and loaded our bags onto the shuttle bus to the airport. The flight was that evening and because of the time change we arrived in Boston, our first city in America, around the same time we left Iceland. My friend Adam picked Nicole and I up from the airport and we met up with his girlfriend for some delicious giant pizza in Somerville, MA.

[divider_flat]

First meal in America, a giant pizza
First meal in America, a giant pizza

Thailand Day Seven: Lopburi and Monkeys

This is my seventh day in Bangkok as part of my Lunar New Year vacation in Thailand. Follow the links here to Day One, Two, Three, Four, Five, or Six.

The Majesty of Rail Travel

train from Bangkok to Lopburi Thailand

Today, Nicole and I woke up early and headed to the train station in Bangkok. We decided to visit Lopburi, a small city overrun with monkeys. It’s also home to many temples and easily accessed by train.

Not wanting to deal with a potential van scam, we decided to take the train instead. Let me tell you, its a much easier experience and I highly recommend it. Just ask Harry Potter, traveling by train is a great way to travel, and the only way to get to Hogwarts.

We took a cab to the train station and booked a ticket leaving in another 45 minutes. We didn’t have to visit a million different windows and we weren’t led to a sketchy van around back. Instead we got our tickets and enjoyed a cup of coffee in the train station before boarding our train for Lopburi.[divider_flat]

Screen Shot 2014-03-13 at 11.45.40 AM

The seats were pretty comfortable, about as nice as Eastern Europe and nowhere near as nice as Western Europe or South Korea (more on that later). I was glad we booked second class tickets instead of third class. The third class seats were stiff boards that were completely vertical and if our train hit an iceberg, I don’t think those in third class would make it to the lifeboats in time.

One of the best and least expected parts of the ride was the food. Everyone got sardines, rice, and soup. It was decent. I liked it. Nicole did not, so I got to eat hers. Tale as old as time, couple gets a meal, boy likes it, girl doesn’t, boy gets double serving: just one of the many perks of having a girlfriend.[divider_flat]

Lopburi: Monkey Town

 Lop Buri

We arrived in Lopburi a few hours after boarding the train. It was a very small place. If it weren’t for the monkeys and temples, I don’t think anyone would ever visit. Nicole and I bought an Est Cola, like a hamster eating its young and developing a thirst for blood, we’d developed a thirst for Est Cola, it also appeared to be the only refreshment around.

Visiting temples in Lopburi is incredibly easy, especially from the train station. Immediately across the street from the station is a temple, also next to it is another temple and next to that another temple. The part of Lopburi we were in probably had more buildings that were temples than buildings that were not temples.

The ruins and temples we saw in Lopburi were much better preserved than the ones we’d seen in Ayutthaya. I was able to capture a few great shots of the ruins before we moved along in search of monkeys.

Just up the road we came across one monkey, then another, and another. Soon we were surrounded by monkeys. I felt like Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes (in my head that joke worked, but I imagine its not really that funny). They seem unfazed by us and just did their thing, walk around, look at their toes, climb on powerlines.

At the center of Lopburi, and possibly its largest intersection, is a temple where most of the monkeys hang out. There’s a little gate out front and a guard who takes your $2 and lets you into the temple. You can also purchase monkey food to entice the monkeys to come closer. This seemed superfluous as the monkeys inside the temple grounds were already very interested in people. I’m guessing the monkeys didn’t know who paid for food and who didn’t so they were willing to take the gamble and greet anyone in the hopes that they might have food.

The monkeys, while they were allowed to roam the temple grounds, were not allowed to go inside the temple. This rule was enforced by the guard collecting tickets and his trusty slingshot. If a monkey got close to the entrance to the temple the guard would shoot a pebble at the monkey. The one time I saw a monkey try to make a break for it, the guard fired a warning shot near them, or perhaps he missed them, and the monkeys scattered.

Nicole and I visiting Lopburi and Monkeys

Nicole and I explored the inside of the temple first, knowing that the monkeys would always be waiting for us outside, like a swarm of eager reporters. Inside the temple was quite bare. We were able to see the faint outlines of murals that had long since faded. The halls were laid out in a simple cross with windows on the left and right every 10 feet or so. Each window was barred to keep the monkeys out. Most of the monkeys opted to hang out right on the other side of the barred window since it provided shade and Thailand, even in winter, is still absurdly hot. I took a few photos of the monkeys and temple interior before my camera died. From here on out on my trip, all my photos are from my cell phone.

I regretted going inside the temple first and wasting my last little bit of battery on the stone work. It meant I missed out on some quality monkey shots. Outside the monkeys laid about like tourists at a Sandals resort in the Caribbean. They picked bugs off each other and practiced hugging. I had to get pretty close to the monkeys to get some of my photos and I got close enough to a few of the monkeys that that jumped on me. Unfortunately, Nicole wasn’t able to get a photo in time, so you’ll have to take my word for it.

Hostel: Part Lunch

Lunch at a local Hostel in Lopburi ThailandWe stopped at a nearby hostel to get a bite to eat. The food was pretty good. Not as good as the food we’d eaten in Bangkok, but still better than most of the food I’ve had in Korea. The hostel seemed like a pretty neat place to stay. There were a few ads for buses to other cities nearby, some ads for snorkeling and scuba diving trips. It made Lopburi seem like the sort of place vagabonds travel through on their epic year long travels.  After our lunch Nicole and I checked out one last temple near the train station before heading home.

[divider_flat]

Midnight train to Bankok

We didn’t actually catch the midnight train, as there was no midnight train. We did however, take the last train of the night leaving Lopburi and it was about an hour late. The upside to traveling by train is its fast and they feed you, the downside is its often very late and not at all reliable in Thailand.

On our train ride back to Bangkok, we had a simpler meal of snacks and buns left out on the seat. I’m not sure if they were given to us or if someone just left them but we ate them and they were decent. One of the snacks was a sweet green paste bun like the one we had on the food tour, but instead of coming from a bakery it was a prepackaged alternative. Even though it wasn’t very good it was interesting to try a manufactured version of a culturally specific food.

The Londoner

If you haven’t picked up on this yet, Nicole and I are really into fish and chips. After the train arrived in Bangkok, we took the skytrain to the pub district we’d visited on one of our first days to try the Londoner, one of Bangkok’s best pubs and one of only a few that brew their own beer in-house. We had their fish and chips and a pint of their two best ales. I highly recommend it.

 

Thailand Day Five: Ayutthaya, Banana Pancakes, and Elephants

This is the fifth day of my trip to Thailand during Lunar New Year. If you missed the previous entries, check them out below

This morning, Nicole and I slept in a bit before heading to the bus station for adventures. Today we were visiting Ayutthaya, once the largest city in the world, now a bunch of neat ruins.

On our way to the Skytrain stop, we got delicious street spring rolls. We’d purchased them a few times on previous days. They cost little more than a nickel and they come with a sweet sauce similar to Tijuana Flats Sweet Chili sauce, which I also recommend if you’re ever in the South Eastern US.

We took the Sky train to the bus station. It was located right behind the Weekend Market where we’d gotten all of our awesome souvenirs on day two.

The Bus Station, aka David Bowie’s Labyrinth

The bus station is insane. There are literally hundreds of windows each going to different locations and none of them are properly labeled. Nicole and I went from counter to counter, each time being told “this is the wrong counter, go to counter x.” It was maddening. At our last counter, a man asked for cash only and, after we paid, he left his counter and walked with us to a van out back. Bear in mind we’re at the bus station, not the van station (there is no van station). We hopped in the van and the counter attendant handed some money through the window to the driver. If this was a Liam Neeson movie, this is the part where we would have been kidnapped. Luckily this was not a Liam Neeson movie, and unfortunately I still do not have an IMDB page.

The van was no bigger than a standard church van, similar in size to the bus we took when we visited the floating market days prior. There were a handful of Thai people in the van just traveling around, possibly home, possibly to work, point being, we were the only tourists and very out of place. The van didn’t have a set itinerary per se, and by that I mean it stopped randomly and people got on and got off. About two hours later, when I was wondering if we were going to have our organs harvested, we arrived at Ayutthaya.

Thai-Mexican Standoff

Sometimes you have to crack a few eggs to make an omelet. Sometimes you have to say no several times to a Thai van driver before he drives you to the bike shop instead of the Tuk Tuk depot. A common scam in Ayutthaya, as the internet told me, is to try and drop foreigners off at the Tuk Tuk depot on the outskirts of town instead of in the center of town. Tourists are then forced to get a ride into town from a Tuk Tuk driver and pay money for no apparent reason. It also forces you to spend the day taking Tuk Tuks everywhere because you never make it to the bike shop.

This happened to us. The van stopped in front of a bunch of Tuk Tuks outside of town and the van driver told us to get out. A bunch of Tuk Tuk drivers smelling fresh meat approached the van and in their worst English tried to coerce us out of the van, like some sort of reverse pedophiles.

It was pretty obvious that this was not our stop because literally no one else in our crowded van was getting out. I argued with him a bit until a Thai lady in the back seat told him very sternly, and in Thai, to stop hassling us and drop us off in town.

He grumbled and so did the Tuk Tuk drivers and closed the van door. Begrudgingly, he drove us to the main stop and the nice Thai lady and her friend walked us to the nearest bike shop. We rented some wheels for about $5 and headed off to explore the ruins

Ayutthaya

Ayutthaya, founded in 1350, was at one point in time the largest city on Earth and a major trade port in Southeast Asia as it was in the Chao Phraya River valley. The city was rumored to have a population of 1,000,000 inhabitants in the 1700s. However, shortly after the height of its growth, it was destroyed by the Burmese in 1767. The only ruins that survived were the stone structures such as temples and monasteries.

The remaining temples and monasteries are located anywhere from directly adjacent to one another to several blocks away. The ancient city can be explored in a day with a handy tourist map and a pair of bicycles. Nicole and I rode from one site to another, taking photographs and walking amongst the ruins. It’s remarkable how accessible everything in Thailand has been so far. You can literally walk through the ruins and climb the steps up to these ancient monuments. Nothing was off limits and each attraction was $1-3.

Riding back to Bangkok

Nicole and I, not wanting to brave the van all over again, decided to find a bus instead. Luckily we passed one on the way to return our bikes. Getting a bus in Thailand (outside of the Bangkok bus station) is surprisingly easy. We walked up to a small kiosk, bought our ticket and hopped on the bus. I actually ended up making money on this bus transaction. Our tickets were about $2 and I received a 2 euro coin in change, so I made close to a nickel. It was way better than the ride there.

I can’t quit you fish and chips

Fish and Chips
Fish and Chips

Back in Bangkok, Nicole and I got some delicious fish and chips at a New Zealand restaurant. This may sound strange, so bare with me, but I think the staff thought either I was famous or Nicole was famous. When we arrived at the restaurant, several of the wait staff came over to greet us. When we sat down, one of the waiters came over and gave us a complimentary appetizer and called me “Boss” a few times. Now this might just sound like great service, and maybe I’m blowing this out of proportion, but no one else at neighboring tables was getting free appetizers or nearly as much attention from the staff. At the time, I thought it was a bit odd, but maybe the restaurant just had great customer service.

Nicole and I ordered some fish and chips and fish bites. They were both incredibly delicious. I think the fish and chips might have been the best fish and chips I’ve ever had outside of the UK.

After dinner, we’re getting ready to pay and the waiter comes back with a complimentary shot for each of us. He talks to us for a few minutes and then asks Nicole where she’s from. She tells him America and he says “oh, I thought you were Australian”. Maybe he thought Nicole was some famous Australian or maybe the restaurant just had great service and I’m reading too far into it. The world will never know.

Today was such an exciting day. We took some sort of off-the-books van service to Ayutthaya. We got to explore ruins by bike, and we enjoyed delicious fish and chips and free food. There were ups and downs, but it was fun in the end.

I’ve had a great time in Thailand so far. I’ve explored weekend markets, railroad markets, and visited palaces.

 

Thailand Day Two: Markets and Pubs

This is the second post in my series of Thailand vacation posts. If you missed it, the first one is here.

_DSC1801

Nicole and I ate a quick breakfast in the room; danishes from the 7-11 on the corner. Then, we  stopped at the street side café for more delicious soup. It was quickly becoming a staple of our trip to Thailand, much like the coconut ice cream from the night before. [divider_flat]

The Skytrain

The skytrain, Bangkok’s elevated subway system, was only a 5 minute walk from our apartment. It stops all over downtown and central Bangkok, but it only has a few stops outside of central Bangkok. Fortunately, we were near one such stop. We took the skytrain across Bangkok to the weekend market. Along the way we saw hundreds of protesters camped out, sleeping in the streets in tents. Before our arrival, Thailand declared a state of emergency for two months. Thailand was going through some serious political tension and the government was holding an emergency election February 3rd, the day after we left.

[box type=”alert”]I expected, to some degree, that the protesters would affect our trip or our ability to enjoy Thailand, but, in general, they kept to themselves and weren’t remotely interested in tourists.[/box]

[divider_flat]

The Weekend Market

weekend market in Bangkok thailand

The weekend market, open Friday-Sunday, is massive. It would take days to see everything there. The market is set up like a giant flea market with lots of little stalls selling everything imaginable. There are stalls selling clothes, shoes, pet supplies, art on canvases, sculptures, coconuts, postcards, leather belts, wooden elephants, almost everything imaginable. Lots of the goods we saw were name brand, or knock-offs, and selling for a fraction of the price of what they would go for in the states. For example, Nicole and I bought Beats headphones for about $7 each.

We spent the afternoon at the market buying tons of presents for our families. Clearly, we weren’t the only ones with this idea. The market does enough tourist business that there’s even a DHL in the market offering cheap flat rates to send your boxes home.

Lunch

Shrimp Pad Thai at the Weekend Market

After we shopped to our heart’s content, we had a delicious meal of shrimp Pad Thai. It was about $3.  So far, everything in Thailand has been absurdly cheap. Nothing we’ve done or spent money on has been more than $3-5. The meal was delicious and the food was served quick.  In Asia, I’ve never had to wait more than a few minutes for my food to arrive.[divider_flat]

Our Trove of Thai Treasures

After lunch, we headed back to the apartment, via the skytrain. Back at the apartment, I sorted through my gifts for my family and wrote a few post cards. I’d bought so many souvenirs already. My family was going to get a second Christmas.

presents from the weekend market
presents from the weekend market

Fish and Chips

For dinner, Nicole found the best place in Bangkok to eat fish and chips, her guilty pleasure. We took the skytrain over to the Londoner, an English pub in downtown Bangkok that brews its own beer and makes delicious English food. Unfortunately, due to the protests in Bangkok, the Londoner was not serving alcohol, including their own home-brewed beer, and was buffet only for the day.

cheesy fries in bangkok thailand

Forlorn, distraught, and dejected, Nicole and I walked next door to another pub called the Royal Oak where we enjoyed some Australian Tennis and fish and chips. It was surreal to find a corner of Thailand filled with Brits, Aussies, and pubs. From inside of either of the pubs we visited, you would think you were in Britain or Australia instead of Thailand.

Thai Massages

After Dinner, Nicole and I went across the street to a massage parlor- not that kind- and had Thai massages. We had hour-long back, neck, and shoulder massages for about $5. It was my first ever massage and a great experience. I planned to get many more in the coming days.

Day Two in Thailand: Recap

Our second day in Thailand was fantastic! We ate delicious Thai food and English food. We bought tons of gifts for our families, and we got to enjoy warm weather in Thailand. Overall, it was an awesome day.