Friday, March 11, 2011

Vacation within a vacation (Part 1)

So I'm living in a prolonged vacation in Vietnam. Where do I go for vacation?
Right off the plane, the weary expat is thrust into temptation. I hadn't been exposed to old animal fat, oversized pretzels and congealed dough for over a year. But, not being into that sort of thing anyway, we pushed on to Phuket.

Phuket can be appreciated before you even land. It is a karst landscape, not unlike Ha Long Bay but way more spoiled, with tiny islands and inviting crescents of tiny beaches.

7-elevens dominate the market infrastructure. Outside of the US they are vital resources--not just for trusted gooey snacks but also for phone cards, information, drug and hygiene supplies. Elsewhere we are left to haggle, and Phuket is not generous with tourists.

Phuket is a fairly large island topped by "The Big Buddha." It's a Buddha and it's very big. Anyhoo...

We were extremely fortunate to stay at Mom Tri's Boathouse. It has an excellent restaurant and is in a busy part of town, yet faces its own beach.

Thai food is better in Thailand. Thankfully, it is possible to avoid too much spice. Here we gorge on perfect Tom Yum soup and an incredible pepper-fried soft-shelled crab, served by one of many lady-boys.

Our trip was dominated by a day-long island-hopping tour on a fairly frightening and loud speedboat. The scenery is spectacular and the snorkeling is pretty decent. But it took sometimes around an hour between islands, and once we get there there's not much to do and no escape from the pummeling sunshine. We can take pictures of pet iguanas for a fee--even sitting under an umbrella will incur a charge. Shortly after this picture I got the camera wet, which really put a drain on the trip. Not shown is the beach famous for the movie "The Beach," which was nice but overcrowded, totally without shade and the mountains were reverberating with engine roar.
As a mixed blessing, our room was upgraded to a sumptuous and huge villa with private swimming pool. The day tour gave us no time to enjoy it, and the next morning we were off to Bangkok.

After Phuket, Bangkok was a shopper's paradise. A hot that cost us $8 in Phuket (the same as a day's motorbike rental) cost only $2.50 in Bangkok, and shirts cost from $1 to $3 dollars. A new camera cost about the same as in the US, which would cost more in Vietnam.

Our view from the new and ultra-modern Novotel. Bangkok is a huge, not-so-attractive sprawl with glassy skyscrapers shadowing rows of slums. The train system was extremely appreciated. Walking is not easy along traffic-dominated streets, but you can easily walk under the raised trail platform.

The King is everywhere, but he's always caught in the middle of a candid pose.

Shrines are also everywhere, sometimes surrounded with a mini-carnaval for tourists. There are cages crammed with munias that you can release for a donation, a sight that makes me think very non-buddhist thoughts about the captor.

The street food is interesting, but we didn't try any. This street smelled like a pig toilet, so we weren't very hungry.
Green spaces are hard to find, but I made a journey to a decent sized park (actually an overgrown golf course). After the commute, I had about 40 minutes of birdwatching--not ideal for any trip, but I got a few new common birds. I'd read about these contraptions in the inflight magazine. They are little waterwheels that oxygenate the water, but the magazine used the word "King" in every sentence, even credited him for designing the prototype.

Time for dipping our toe in an extremely modern pool on the 9th floor, then we're rushed back home. It was a time when we really, really needed to relax. We didn't get to to that at all--not a well planned trip. Oh well, we'll have to go back.