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Friday, November 4, 2011

Floating Paradise

After two nights in a tree house, we were ready for a change of scenery. On the morning of the 1st of November, we were picked up by Deang and taken over an hour away to Cheow Lan Lake, another part of Khao Sok National forest. Originally we only planned to spend one night at the lake, but in a last minute decision we opted for a package with Limestone Lake Tours that gave us two, and boy are we glad we did! It turns out that Daeng would be our personal guide the entire time we were there. He accompanied us to the lake regaling us with information about Thai history and he and our driver took us in a long tail boat an hour deep into the center of the lake.

Words cannot adequately describe how beautiful Cheow Lan Lake is. This is a lake the was made larger by man when a huge dam was built to control water flow several years ago. It is surround by deep jungle foliage and dotted with gigantic limestone karsts (large limestone rock structures) and small islands as far as the eye can see. The reflection of all of the plant life creates a greenish color to the water that adds to the beauty of the scenery.

There are about nine raft house camps on the lake and we stayed at a privately owned one in the middle. Upon reaching the camp, we were told that we had been upgraded to the better lodging and we were led down the docks to these adorable white houses with a small porch facing out into the lake. Bathrooms were shared and contained rustic westernized toilets and showers that consisted of a barrel of water and a bucket. Meals were served family style with huge portions and several sumptuous main dishes each lunch and dinner. Among the options were green curry, Masaaman curry, a type of river fish caught fresh, fried and served with the head still on, sweet and sour chicken and many others. Each meal was delicious.

As a guide Daeng was knowledgeable, funny and had a passion for conservation that he was eager to share. He took us on guided boat tours, jungle hikes and cave explorations and told us about the larger animals we saw and worked hard to show us all of the small surprised the rainforest has to offer. As a result we saw tarantula holes, snapped a great shot of a scorpion and found the largest and loudest cicada in the world. It was so loud, we honestly thought it was just a planet flying overhead. We saw four kinds of monkeys including the gibbon (or at least its behind as it swung through the trees away from us) and the incredibly cute dusky langur monkey which sits high in the tree chomping on leaves.

The first day with Daeng we hiked through the rainforest and then took a bamboo raft to the well named Coral Cave. Now, this cave doesn't have coral in it, but formations of the stalagmites and stalactites make it look like an underwater coral garden. It was like something from another world and very beautiful, though our favorite moment was a sign posted outside that said "no drunk people in the cave."

The following day Daeng took us to another cave, one that I had stressed out about the evening before. Now why would the adventurous Cat Chiappa be stressed about something like a cave...because it was called Snake Cave and he usually sees several snakes in there. However, he also talked about how you could see thousands of bats and hear them overhead flapping their wings like a windstorm and that sounded too cool to pass up. So, I gritted my teeth, hiked up the long, steep hill, donned my head lamp and entered the mouth of the abyss...of course I held Joe's hand the entire time! As we went deeper we stepped carefully and looked for snakes at every angle (specifically cobras) and smelled the acrid stench of bat guano. We slogged through hundreds of chirping crickets, saw spiders as big as your hand, heard thousands of bats flapping so hard it sounded like a fleet of helicopters,and then encountered...a snake! However, it wasn't a was actually a really neat looking bat eating snake sitting high atop the rocks with its stomach full of bats. It has a whitish green color and is not venomous. Deang said he was surprised to see only one, but surmised that the King cobra must have eaten the others. He told us that is the reason why the King cobra can be found in the cave. Turns out it wasn't in the cave though...but instead was the raft camp!

Three hours after we arrived at the rafthouses a three meter King cobra was found hiding under the staff housing lying in wait for tasty rodents. The staff shooed him out and didn't think anything of it...until he was seen again that night. Apparently Deang was the only one who missed it as they didn't wake him up...even though it slithered very close to him. As he told us this story my eyes got big and I resolved to be even more diligent with my frenetic snake checking methods...but he kept insisting that we were staying in the nice houses where the snake wouldn't go. I don't know if I fully believed him, but I appreciated the sentiment. It certainly made me feel better than when we were in Snake Cave and he told us to look on the ground and above our heads as he explained how the snakes could slither up the walls of the cavern! Gotta love the jungle!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Steamy Jungle Days in Thailand

After eating our way through Singapore, it was time for the next leg of our SE Asia adventure, so on we flew to Phuket, Thailand. There, we were picked by a man and his family which included two small children who were unaware that one should sit in the front seat and not stand staring at the strange looking passengers in the back. The kids were cute, but I just wanted to put a seat belt on them!

Two and a half hours and a giant rainstorm later, we reached Khao Sok National Park. The driver took us to Art's River Lodge. Unfortunately, that wasn't where we ended up staying. Instead we were taken across the river to the Khao Sok Nature Resort for our stay in a tree house. This place was also nice, but I had my heart set on Art's. I guess it wasn't available for the days we needed it. Well after getting over my slight disappointment we were led deep into their property to our own tree house in the sky. Now, I knew we were staying in a tree house, but I guess it never occured to me how high it would be! We had to go up two flight of rickety stairs to get to it! Luckily one of the workers hefted our large bag onto his shoulders and Joe and I watched in awe as he sprinted up the stairs, unlike us who gingerly tried each step first before placing our weight on it.

The accommodations were rustic, but fun. There was a porch with two chairs on the outside facing a steaming Jurassic Park inspired landscape. Inside was a bed covered in a fortress of mosquito nets, another chair, a rod for clothes hanging and a small mirror. Past the mirror was the door to our outside toilet and simple rock shower with a sparse trickle of cold water. As it was open to the elements it was also open to the possibilities of scorpions, frogs and snakes which made using the bathroom quite an adventure and made you debate internally at three in the morning whether you really needed to go or not. In addition to the possibility of creepy crawlies in the bathroom, getting out of the mosquito netted bed was an obstacle course unto itself as it had to be un-tucked and tucked quickly to keep the mossies out, and I had many laughs at Joe diving in and out of the bed with Olympic worthy gymnastic moves.

Meals were taken outside in the main lodge that was open on the sides but covered to protect from rain. Our first night the power was out for quite awhile and we share a meal by electric candles with small lizards crawling up the posts beside us and bats swooping in and out over our heads.

The day after our arrival we left for what can only be described as a crazy death march through the jungle. We'll chalk it up to "it sounded like a good idea at the time." Of course "the time"we were considering it, we were in cool, breezy Monterey and not melting in the hot steamy confines of the jungle. We met our guide Dom and hiked a grueling 6 kilometers through slippery trails in the rainforest to a "waterfall." I use the term waterfall loosely as we were expecting a tall gushing flow of water with a pristine pool glittering in the sun inviting us to swim. Unfortunately, the "waterfall"was a river with some rapids that formed some still pools underneath....not a waterfall in the traditional sense. The cold water still felt good after the hike...too bad we had another six kilometers to get back!

Throughout the hike we did encounter some cheeky monkeys (macaques) and were lucky enough to spot a civet cat. However, we didn't learn that much or see a lot of life. Our guide wasn't very animated and I think it was due in part to a language barrier. He was very nice and spoke some English, but was a little hard to understand and gave up information sparingly. We were hoping to see some elephants but luck was not with us that day. Good thing we get an up close and personal encounter in a week!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

I touched a snake!

Last night brought Joe and I to the famous Singapore Night Safari. On the other side of Singapore it is a very well built zoo next to another zoo...with another one being built right next to it! My biggest regret is that we didn't have more time. We booked what we thought were tickets and transfer but ended up being a tour that meant we had to leave at 10:10 instead of closer to midnight like we had planned. It was a whirlwind of animals and LOTS of people queueing for the 45 minute tram ride (due to the Deepawali and Halloween festivities) but we had some great close-up experiences. The tram ride itself was OK, but we really enjoyed our walk through the park. We had a giant flying squirrel run over our feet, got face to face with adorable flying foxes and watched them squabble over food. They also had several binturongs (gotta love an animal that smells like popcorn and is also called a bearcat) cut slow loris', tarsiers and bat eared foxes!!! I love those animals! I even touched a snake (and there is photographic evidence to prove it) a sweet boa constrictor...didn't even freak me out! Perhaps I am growing up! We wish we had more time, but it was still a fun experience.

This morning we woke up early and had breakfast at the famous Raffles Hotel and it is gorgeous as advertised. As we weren't a guest we couldn't partake in the Sunday brunch but we did go to the on site bakery where we had an Eastern breakfast. I had tasty dim sum with BBQ'd pork and Joe had something called Nasi Lemok (I believe that is what it was..need to double check) which consisted of coconut rice, chili sauce and a salty fish all wrapped in a banana leaf. It was pretty good and a nice cap to our Singapore eating experience...though we are eager to come back in two weeks and try some more delicious cuisine. your heart out!

Now we are waiting in the incredible Changi airport which is hands down the best airport I have ever visited. They really know how to do things right in Singapore! Swimming pool, jacuzzi, gardens, shopping, movie theatres, spas, napping area...this is a well thought out airport!

Well, my time is running out on the Internet clock so I have to run. Off to Phuket for a true rain forest adventure. Hope I don't see any swimming cobras!


Cat & Joe

"Tastes good...yummy yummy!

If I had to sum up Singapore in a few words I think that "tastes good, yummy yummy!" would say it all. These are the words we heard as we visited our first hawker stand (street food) yesterday afternoon. Singapore is a city whose citizens don't eat to live...they live to kind of people! A melting pot of cultures and cuisines, Singapore is a gastronomical delight and Joe and I were determined to make every minute count.
We arrived around lunch time but weren't able to make it to our hotel until about 2pm. The Pan Pacific Singapore is a gorgeous hotel located right in the center of everything. We were met by out personal concierge and brought to our room where a beautiful bouquet of red roses and purple hydrangeas was waiting. Apparently Joe had called ahead and booked a couple of surprises for me which were very much appreciated. We were upgraded to a deluxe balcony room with a breathtaking view of the city, flowers and a special anniversary cake. Joe is definitely a keeper!
After freshening up we left the hotel and made our way to the Esplanade and the Mankasutra hawker stand. There we tried Char key Teow a spicy Chinese noodle dish and rojak- a doughy concoction of breaded potato and egg mixed into a sort of salad. We topped these off with fresh squeezed lime juice and sugarcane juice with lemon. Delicious! From there we walked down the Esplanade and past the famous Merlion Park. The merlion is an iconic figure in Singapore and consists of a mermaid with a lion's head spouting water. These statues can be seen in several locations around the city.
From there we went to La Pa Sat another famous hawker stand. This place was a veritable emporium of smells and tastes. Each stall served up sumptuous dishes from all over Asia. We chose roti prata a famous dish that is sort of like a pancake filled with spicy chicken with chile sauce on the side. After that we were exhausted and found our way back to the hotel where took in the night view of the city and then used our remote control to lower the blinds before falling into dreamland.
This morning we woke up and watched the news (yes Bangkok is flooding..but we think we will still be OK to get out to Cambodia on the 3rd...we'll see. Otherwise we'll just do something else!) and prepared for the day. We booked a hop on/hop off sightseeing bus and made our way to Chinatown which proved to offer up an incredible travel experience.
Upon arriving to Chinatown we made our way to the Maxwell Center (another treasure trove of street food). As we were taking pictures outside a man came up to us and said "you have to try the chicken rice." We said "we know Tian Tian's supposed to be amazing." Well we got to talking for a couple of minutes and he said "follow me, I'll show you my favorites." From there he told us his name was Eric and became our personal culinary tour guide. We learned that he used to study in Oregon and when I told him I worked at the Monterey Bay Aquarium his eyes lit up and he said he had been there three times! He then took us to Tian Tian's chicken rice (a place I had read about in two books and seen on Anthony Bourdain) and helped us order chicken rice, half a chicken and upon his insistence bean sprouts with cuttlefish. (Yes Aquarium coworkers...I did eat a cuttlefish...and it was tasty). While we ordered he told us how to eat our food and bought us lime juice and coconut juice, served in the coconut. Joe was a little wary because he was spending so much time with us but I had read that Singaporeans were very friendly and loved to share their food.
After about an hour of eating and chatting he said, wait you have to try this and then bought us Tanglin curry puffs, one chicken and one sardine. I said "well I'm not sure about the sardines...I feed them to the penguins..." He said "trust me...this is not penguin food." He was was one of the best things I have ever tasted. We offered to repay him but he wouldn't hear of it!
After filling our bellies he asked us how much time we had. We told him we were pretty open and he took us to the Buddha tooth relic temple across the street. He walked around with us through all five floors and explained a lot of what we were seeing. After that he offered to take us to the National Museum but we declined as we wanted to move on. I gave him my work info and said if he was ever in Monterey again I would be happy to show him around and after the personal tour he gave us, I hope he takes me up on the offer. Meeting him and getting that personal touch, just because he felt like sharing was one of the best travel experiences I have ever had and will always have a place in my heart.
After that we went to the Sri Mariaman Hindu temple to take some stunning pictures and then made our way back to Maxwell Center and had a famous banana fritter before moving on to Little India. At that point we were drenched in monsoonal downpours so we went to the Banana Leaf Apollo to do what of course! We had a delicious dinner of chicken kurma, samosas and lime and watermelon juices before making it back to the hotel.
That's all for now. We have to run...I hear the animals calling and it's almost time to pick up our bus for the Night Safari tour!