The guest blog mentioned in our last post has turned into a regular gig blogging over at Novel Adventurers. Beth will now be writing about books and travel at http://noveladventurers.blogspot.com/ every other Wednesday. 

But that's not the only day to stop by--the Novel Adventurers are a group of talented, intrepid writers who share stories of their travels every weekday.  The group includes experts on South America, India, Iran, Italy and more!

Today she starts her regular blogs with a piece on a detective book series set in Thailand. When Dan and Beth were living on Koh Tao the year before last, Beth devoured these books by John Burdett about Bangkok detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep.  Go on over to the blog to check out the full story.


Happy Reading!
 
Picture
Photo by Ayesha Cantrell
With mixed feelings and a vicious hangover, we said goodbye to Koh Tao yesterday.

My phone rang a few minutes before the ferry pulled up to the dock to spirit us away to our mainland train to Bangkok: Charlotte from Master Divers telling us to look out for their dive boat--all the divers were standing at the bow waving goodbye to us and hollering.  The other people waiting for the ferry were jealous of our great send-off.

We spent a good five months on 'the rock', much of it underwater. As a fitting farewell, we went for two extra-long dives on our next-to-last day with the Master Divers crew.  Many thanks to Master Divers' great instructors for their help training us to the PADI divemaster level.  Also thanks to the guys at Impian and Garden, Charm Churee Resort and Island Dive Club for the added experience we got diving with them after we finished our training courses.  We will miss all of you!

But, leaving somewhere is only one side of the traveling coin--tomorrow morning we arrive in Laos, a country Dan and I have tried to get to for three years now.  And, in just a few short weeks' time, we'll be rocking up to Portland, Oregon to visit old friends and then, a long-overdue visit with my extended family.

We're on the road again!




 
Picture
Puu doesn't seem to understand why I want to take pictures of her cooking pad thai.

This is the Thai go-to dish, one of the simplest things a Thai can prepare and one of the cheapest a budget traveler can buy.

 But I remember a few months ago a US-based friend of mine had bemoaned her current pad thai recipe and although I've eaten plenty of the stuff, I never really paid attention to how it was different from Chinese-style fried noodles.


Picture
So I follow good-natured Puu over to the alley-side mini-kitchen she opened as a business a few weeks ago and watch her whip up a batch of succulent chicken pad thai as matter-of-factly as if I'd asked one of my US friends to butter a piece of toast.

She does all of the cooking for her food stall, "Food Corner" in a big wok resting on a single propane burner.

First in the wok for pad thai goes a dollop of peanut oil to grease the bottom of the pan. Then, she sprinkles in some thin slices of chicken and agitates it in the heating oil until the meat is white on both sides. Then she breaks an egg into it and using a spatula whisks it around with the chicken.

Next, she adds some water--it looks like about a cup and a half--and throws in a handful of dried rice noodles. She uses the thin, flat ones, but explains that I can use thicker ones or round ones.

The water sizzles in the oil and the white strands of noodle go limp in the middle and change color through the steam.

Now it's time for the flavoring.


Picture
Puu keeps all of her condiments lined up on the counter. First, a second-long dollop of oyster sauce. Then, I'm surprised to see, some ketchup. Next, sweet chilli sauce and a sprinkling of dried chilli. The next label I can't figure out but I recognize the smell from our eating adventures in Vietnam--fish sauce. She sprinkles in a little salt, a little sugar, a spoonful of chicken bullion.

The noodles have all succumbed to the heat and moisture, but still seem springy in the pan.

She turns off the heat and folds in a handful each of bean sprouts and grated carrot.

While the flavors merge, she cuts a slice of lime and a few pieces of cucumber. You can add more vegetables if you want, she says, shrugging.


Picture
"That's pad thai," she tells me, holding up my plate full of steaming noodles and flavor. "Eat."



Go to our Food and Drink pages to see more tantalizing images of pad thai and other Thai foods!

 
Every morning we wake up to the squawking of our landlady's chickens. They live and lay eggs in some hutches behind our bungalow, and the grounds crew disturb them when they walk between the bungalows to hang up laundry or sweep windblown flower petals off of the concrete paths.



Most mornings, we retrieve our dried swimwear off our wooden porch, eat some breakfast prepared from our small refrigerator and get ready for another day of diving.



The dive master course will occupy us here on Koh Tao for a few months. I find that the longer we stay the more we sink into the rhythm of island life. Slower even than the slow travel we have been doing, life on Koh Tao is a readjustment. After months of subsisting out of our backpacks, it's strange to have a cupboard and drawers, but nice to have space in the bathroom and nice not having that last-minute packing adrenaline rush every other day.



The bungalows where we stay are a laid-back collection of wooden-and-concrete one-room houses on stilts. Ours has a TV and a fan, a hot water heater and two mirrors, a small table and a wooden slatted lounge chair. Mosquitoes generally keep their distance from our sprays and burning coils, but color-changing lizards find their way through the cracks in the board walls and visit us at night to snap up any stray skeeters with their long pink tongues.



As we walk down the hill to the waterfront dive center we can look out over the harbor and watch the first dive boats headed to the dive sites clustered around an outlying private island, Koh NangYuan.



After diving we head up the hill to shower and change and then go out again for dinner. We usually eat Thai food: Green curry soup with chicken and rice, spicy beef, green papaya salad, or just plain barbecued chicken. If we're feeling super hungry or are craving a little Western fare we venture a little farther into the touristy section of four-street Mae Haad town and wolf down hamburgers while watching a movie on DVD at Pranee's restaurant or order a pizza to share at Safaris. If we're tired or short on time, we stop at the restaurant closest to our bungalow, Bam Bam's. It's owned by a friendly local lady who works all day every day turning out spicy rice-y dishes for cheap.



About once a week we take a shared taxi (a pickup truck with two benches along the sides of the open bed) over to the tourist center, Sairee village. Sairee has most of the island's restaurants and shops, and is the party 'scene' we take the dive center's customers to if they're looking for a night out. On Wednesdays sometimes we go watch a lesson at the Flying Trapeze Adventures.



The trapeze school is on a small lot near a busy pool-side bar and across from a backpacker hostel. We buy beer at a 7-eleven and then settle on bamboo loveseats to watch our friends Ayesha, Darren or Chris climb the three-story ladder to a small metal platform suspended above a safety net.



Whoever's flying dusts their hands and knee-backs with powdered chalk, grasps the trapeze and waits for the instructor's shout to fall forward into the air.



Over the next hour, the students learn to pull their knees up over the trapeze, back flip before landing on the safety net, and, if they're doing well so far, fly hands outstretched to the waiting arms of a catcher swinging upside down on another trapeze. I love watching it, but Dan and I are resisting pressure to try it for ourselves. We're keeping our Koh Tao experience to one adventure sport at a time; under the sea is enough for us at the moment.



During the soccer World Cup in June and July we went to a busy Aussie-style bar in Sairee to watch a few of the games our friends were supporting. I don't really care for soccer, and need the rules explained again and again, but I do love watching soccer fans. My favorites were the England games, when dozens of drunk guys dressed in red and white miniskirts and painted flags on their bare chests. High entertainment factor at the cost of a couple of beers.



Other evenings, we stay in the bungalow watching DVDs, petting the landlady's cat or admiring her pet monkey.


Island life is good.

 
Dan and I were last into the water, slipping down the buoy line on the Green Rock dive site.


Divemasters often work as dive guides, navigating paying customers around dive sites and pointing out interesting sea life. We'd been learning about this in our course, but this was the first time that Dan and I were going to try it out, on each other.


We went down slowly, feet first, looking down, checking the visibility and feeling our bubbles caress our cheeks.


The line was tied to a big granite boulder, a good reference point for us to find our way back to it. We checked our compasses and started swimming south when suddenly I inhaled so sharply my mouth hurt. I grabbed Dan's arm and, made speechless by equipment, pointed frantically at the rocks beneath us.


Dan turned to face me in alarm. His thumb and forefinger questioned me, looped in the OK sign.


I put my right palm over the back of my left hand and wiggled my thumbs enthusiastically—the dive sign for Koh Tao's namesake animal, the turtle.


This tao sat about 15 feet beneath us on the coral-covered boulders, chewing his lunch and completely unconcerned that we were there. Koh Tao might be named after turtles, but actually seeing one is not very common—I'd seen one the week earlier, and Dan had spotted one while snorkeling in December Each sighting is a cause for a lot of thigh-slapping excitement and jealousy from other divers.


So, all our plans of mentally mapping the dive site disappeared with our bubbles and we hovered closer to the turtle, just watching. Turtles eat coral, and lots of it. They eat in the sea like their landlocked cousins do—messily. For every chomp of its beak, a half-mouthful wafted slowly downward. Cautious parrot-fish darted in to catch the remainders before they settled on the boulders.


The turtle caught sight of me and hesitated a moment, a great yellow eye rolling in the socket. I kept still in the water, inhaling slowly so the bubbles from my exhalation wouldn't worry it. I looked harmless enough, I guess, because it continued eating the leafy soft coral.


After fifteen minutes we decided to swim away and try to circle the dive site, as we'd planned. We spotted nudibranchs, angelfish and anemone fish, but nothing as extraordinary as the turtle. Thirty minutes later we made it back to the buoy line and found it still lunching. We spent another five minutes with the turtle until our air supplies got low, and then we reluctantly headed surface-ward, contemplating the turtles of Koh Tao.

 
We've started, quite literally, a sea change.


Back in December, Dan and I came to Koh Tao, Thailand, for me to brush off my scuba diving certification and for Dan to sit on the beach drinking tequila and talking to people. Plans changed, as ours often do, and after chatting with the staff at the dive center, Dan was talked into starting his own PADI Open Water course while I went diving at the coral dive sites around the island.


After we left Koh Tao, having overturned Dan's conviction that he couldn't swim, we kept remembering the relaxed lifestyle of the people who worked at the dive centers we'd visited and the good food and smiley people in Thailand.


Hmm, we thought. I bet we'd enjoy being divemasters.


Fast forward five months, and we are stepping off the ferry back onto Koh Tao, shiny with sweat and excitement. We signed up with Master Divers, in our view the friendliest of a few dive centers we'd contacted, to do a six- to eight-week intensive divemaster course.


Under the Professional Association of Dive Instructors (PADI) system, a divemaster is the lowest professional rating. A divemaster is able to take people who are already certified to dive on an underwater tour, to teach snorkeling, and to assist dive instructors.


But before we could start the main stuff, we needed to take a few prerequisites.


* * *


John turned around, his finned foot resting on the edge of the Master Divers boat, scuba tank in place and regulator mouthpiece in hand. “The second rule of scuba,” he intoned, lecture-serious. “Is to look cool.”


And with that, he somersaulted into the twilight water.


Giggling, we followed him in just as the sun sank. It was our first night dive.


Besides making sure we remembered the rules of scuba (the first one, more practically, is 'never hold your breath') our instructor John took us on the five 'adventure' dives that make up the Advanced Open Water course. As well as night diving, we practiced underwater navigation and buoyancy, learned the different families of tropical fish, and experienced deep diving.


Two days later we were certified to go to 30 meters/100 feet deep, and ready to begin CPR training and our Rescue Diver course.


***


“Oh!” Thom screamed, his head disappearing into the blue bay.


“I can't swim!” he yelled when he gained the surface, arms splashing helplessly.


Dan and I looked around desperately for something to throw to Thom. Nothing looked very buoyant. While we searched, we heard another 'plop!' and then Chris starting to holler.


We groaned. “There went the other one,” Dan said. “Get the life-jackets.”


I ran to the back deck of Master Diver's boat to grab the blue-and-yellow jackets, but found them in a cubbyhole above the toilet--too tall for me to reach. Another diver stepped out of the toilet. “Could you be tall for me, please?” I asked, hoping he wasn't too alarmed by all the screaming for help. “Sure,” he said, handing me the jackets.


I jogged back to the front of the boat, where Dan had thrown a line attached to a small blue buoy to Chris. The other divers looked on, laughing and joking as I threw first one life-jacket to Thom and then the other. Both fell short about 10 yards so I grabbed my fins and mask and threw myself in after them.


“Diver, Diver, I'm a rescue diver!,” I shouted to Thom, as I proffered one of the jackets. He grabbed it, spluttering water.


“Are you OK?” I asked.


“Oh yes,” he replied, hanging on to the jacket. “I was looking at the fish and I forgot how to swim.”


I sighed.


Charlotte, our instructor, was waiting at the ladder, ready to take my fins.


“Good rescue,” she said. “A bit faster next time.”


After two grueling days of rescuing Charlotte's assistants from their suicidal tendencies of throwing themselves overboard at any moment, we were all set to start the real course we'd come to Koh Tao for—the divemaster course. To complete it, we'll need to study two books, participate in five lectures on dive science and theory, take nine exams, undergo tests of our in-water stamina, demonstrate the 20 basic scuba skills perfectly and assist instructors teaching lower-level dive courses. And, have a lot of fun.


 
Picture
...and into SCUBA diving
By Dan



“Did you see the barracudas?” someone says. Another person replies, “ No, but I saw a turtle. How about you Dan?” I reply, “ Sorry, I don't dive?”




Silence fills a large area. I'm looked down upon. Some leave the table while others look away. I've been found out as a landlubber, and made to feel like a second class citizen.


The world of divers is highly competitive where respect and hierarchy are mete out by where you have dived, what you have seen, the gear you use and oddly enough, by the misadventures that were overcome. Divers form a kind of cult. To become a member of this cult usually takes some bucks and an initiation period of four days through the temple of PADI.


So I did it.


During this time you are bombarded with many facts. A couple of factoids that I remember are “Divers have more fun and divers are great under pressure.”


The most difficult part for me was controlling buoyancy and it really wasn't too difficult. I guess you can liken this to learning to fly. Equalized buoyancy can be balanced by the BCD air vest and also by breathing.


Being a veteran of six dives I can honestly say that down below is the way to go. For me every dive is new, exciting and pretty special.


Now I'm a PADI member and I have stories to tell. “ Well, back in '09 I was diving off Koh Tao - Thailand, and...”




**Click here to see photos of Koh Tao**

** Photos below courtesy Golden Divers, our choice of the friendly Koh Tao dive centers. **


 
Picture
Sukhothai's Old City
Now, they say that you never forget how to ride a bike. I beg to differ.

The last time we rented bikes, in 2007 in China's Yunnan province, I ran into a parked car.

However, we decided to risk skinning my knees again, and ponied up 50 baht to get some old-fashioned girls' bikes and rode them into the Old City of Sukhothai--a park-like area preserving the central ruins of the former Thai royal capital.

The Sukhothai kingdom was dominant in the area for a few hundred years, before the time of Europe's Renaissance . It was during this time that the Thai script was invented. When Sukhothai fell, the important Thai capital changed to Ayutthaya and then later to Bangkok.

Having just come from the modern capital, we were interested to see the historical one.

The ruins of Sukhothai are now a scattering of bell-shaped chedis and enigmatic Buddha statues in a vast park of lotus-dotted ponds and shady trees. Several of the ruined temples are on man-made islands accessed by bridges. Many of the temples have been partially restored by the Thai government, while others lie in intriguing disrepair--the bones of their magnificence.

 Our first stop was at the biggest of the temples, the Wat Mahathat. This wat is a cluster of chedis which sit among the shade trees and palms like giant brick bells. Large Buddha statues sit cross-legged at the base of the main chedi while small relief carvings dance between them. We liked it enough to cycle by twice, once again when the sun was setting and the golden light lit up the carvings against the blue sky. Sukhothai didn't need the gold and mirrors of Bangkok's royal structures to luminesce.

Dan and I have visited Roman ruins, European colonial ruins, Greek ruins, Egyptian ruins, Chinese and Central Asian ruins. This, though, was the first time we'd seen anything in these shapes and we enjoyed it enough to give it a second day's visit.

I felt confident enough on the bike by our second day of cycling to brave riding along the road (even harder for me because Thailand's traffic ride on the left!) and managed to resist running into any of the parked cars or even the moving ones.

The second day we checked out a temple supported by elephant statues, a monastery whose inhabitants had taken a vow of silence, Buddha's footprint, and a herd of white Brahmin cows grazing in the ruins.

We also spent two glorious days in Sukhothai doing basically nothing at all. The weather was great, we lucked into a huge discount on our hotel room and managed to steal a wireless internet connection from somewhere, and best of all, we discovered Thai street food. I don't mean the ants and fried noodles we tasted in Bangkok, either. We found a whole little street that, between 5 and 6 p.m. sold a huge assortment of extremely cheap eats.

Some of the things sold on the street were instantly recognizable--fried chicken, banana pancakes, sliced fruit. But other things we just had to try to understand what they were.

The little alien-shaped fried things? Sweet potato. The blue dumplings? Candied pork in rice dough. Our tip-top favorite, though were the banana-leaf packets. At 10 Baht per packet (about 30-35 cents US), a woman with a knowing smile (knowing we wouldn't just eat one, that is) spread sticky rice from a cheesecloth onto a sheet of banana leaf about the size of printer paper then grabbed whatever meat you pointed to with her hands and spread a little of that on top, wrapped it up and secured it with a rubber band. No forks, knives, spoons or chopsticks are given out, so Dan and I just sat on the curb watching the other food stalls and ate it with our hands. And quickly went back for more.

Finally, after we'd tried all the banana-leaf flavor combinations and spent four days in Sukhothai relaxing, seeing history and tasting Thailand; we set off for the Cambodian border.

**Click here to see our photos of Sukhothai**

**Click here to see photos of Thai food**
 
Picture
Bangkok's golden palace
Shiny.


Glittery.


Mesmerizing.


On a sunny day, the Thai Grand Palace in Bangkok is more dazzling than a disco ball. With spires of polished gold (“Could it really be real?” you hear tourists asking each other) reaching up to the deep blue sky, it conjures more dreams of royal fantasy than Cinderella's palace at DisneyWorld.


It's like no other imperial residence I've seen. The famous Hall of Glass in Versailles, France, was dull compared to Bangkok's multicolored mirror mosaics. Palace staterooms where foreign dignitaries are met were as airy and well-planned as the chateaux and castles of Central Europe, but with furniture so lavishly inlaid with mother-of-pearl, ivory and corals they make their occidental tapestry-and-velvet cousins look dusty and careworn.


The outside, a low white wall encompassing the 18th century palace, is more demure than the cold facade of Buckingham Palace or the Palacio Real in Madrid, but over the fence the sun's tropical rays extend right down to the gold spires and rooflines, elevating their contours to the heavens.


Like European ones, the palace is part residence (although the King and royal family actually live in a different one), part museum, and part spiritual home of the country. Much of the palace complex is devoted to religion: it houses the famous Emerald Buddha, a foot-high sacred jade statue. Like the Infant of Prague statue of baby Jesus, the Emerald Buddha has different clothes (of pure gold and gems) for different seasons and a museum of offerings presented to him by the faithful.


Because the palace is holy ground, visitors are asked to cover up in respect: no naked shoulders, ankles or bellies allowed. This poses a problem for tourists not used to Thailand's hot weather but provides an opportunity for scammers who wait outside the palace gates selling more modest clothing and telling people they'll be turned away without it. In fact, you can borrow shirts, long pants and wrap-around skirts inside the palace grounds for a small deposit. And also to show respect, visitors are asked to take off their shoes and enter the Emerald Buddha's wat (temple) and museum barefoot. The result: a more tactile visiting experience unmarred by tapping heels. Hospitals, hotel rooms and all homes are other no-shoe zones, it seems.


Next door to the palace is another important wat, the home of a 46-meter reclining gold and mother-of-pearl Buddha. Like the palace, Wat Pho is another study in shiny-ness and we were lucky to watch the sun start to set behind the gold and mirrors.


Thai Buddhist temples have a much different layout than the Chinese ones we're used to. In China, you first enter a rectangular courtyard with decorative trees and plants. In front of the first altar are sandy boxes holding smoking trios of prayer incense. The more important altars are behind the first altar, or sometimes to the side through another set of courtyards. The Thai temples we have seen seem less linear. At Wat Pho, funnel- and syringe-shaped chedi (free-standing buildings to house relics) ranging from six feet to the height of a several-story building dot the grounds of the temple while altars and secondary temples are often within the same courtyard. The forests of milk-candy colored chedi and swooping golden and red roofs of the temple outbuildings, the gnarled ancient trees and stone animals make Wat Pho a fairy's garden of unexpected turns.


When we weren't sightseeing at the big-name tourist attractions of Wat Pho and the Grand Palace, Dan and I wandered the streets taking in the smells and sounds as well.


Bangkok, as heard from our hotel room off of the infamous backpacker Mecca of Khao San Road, was a mixture of live cover bands, the staccato purr of motorized rickshaws (tuk tuks locally), the sighing whistle of traffic around the corner and the unsettled coos of the pigeons on our roof.


Bangkok, as smelt from the alleys of Chinatown, is a perfume of engine grease, sweet but tangy fish sauce, char-grilled chicken satay and sweaty backpacker.


Bangkok, as seen at night in the smutty district of Patpong, is yellow lights spiced by neon bar signs, the sly glance of a ladyboy; the tired expression of sidewalk women selling kitsch, the ironed shirtfronts and eager advances of touts for the not-very-well-hidden ping pong shows.


Bangkok was fun, it was exhausting, it was gorgeous. It was a little bit expensive for us.


After three days we took off for a more relaxing Thailand up north—the former capital of Sukhothai. But, like magpies, we'll be back, looking for more shiny things.


** Click here to see photos of Bangkok**
 
“Don't go to this beach,” the tour guide instructed the 40 of us on the boat, all of whom were gazing longingly at the alabaster strip of sand nestled between soaring karst peaks.




“Why not?” he quickly heard, in five languages.




“There are crocodiles there.” he said readily, with a hint of a smile. “Big crocodiles. But they don't swim, so-- just don't go on the beach.”




“Crocodiles?” One of the non-English speaking tourists asked. They weren't getting the joke.




“Crocodiles,” he affirmed with a bigger smile, and then translated himself into Thai to relieved laughter. Obediently, we just went for a dip, and saved our beach-walking for later stops on the tour.




Under water, once the masks and snorkels were doled out, there were no signs of water-wary reptiles. Just hundreds of greedy little yellow-and-silver striped fish gobbling up the bread we brought them and dozens of other fish who ignored the splashing tourists above them.




We were on an all-day speedboat trip from the peninsular city of Krabi to the island paradise of Koh Phi Phi. After a lot of deliberation we had decided that actually staying on Koh Phi Phi was out of our price range, so we took a tour instead and stayed on the much-cheaper mainland.




The tour included stops at Koh Phi Phi for lunch, Maya Bay (made famous in Leonardo DiCaprio's The Beach), three snorkel jaunts (with lifejackets for those non-swimmers—what a lot of splashing!) and a couple of pauses for photo ops with the famous limestone land- and seascapes. The islands stretch above the cerulean Andaman Sea, sheer cliffs stained by streaks of red and green mineral deposits and lichens.




Some of the cliffs house caves full of edible-nest swiftlet birds. We stopped at one that is being worked by miners who sell the birds' nests for Chinese soup. The workers live in the caves for three or four years at a time, the tour guide told us.




Later, we stopped at a place called Monkey Bay, where monkeys come down to sit in the trees by a tiny beach and accept fruit from the tour guides. Our boat only nosed up to the beach, but we got close enough to see a few of the monkeys, completely used to human presence, sitting on the trees and looking down at the other boats' tourists' flashing cameras below them as if the monkeys were the ones sightseeing.




The best stop on the day though was a tiny island called Bamboo Island. This little flat island has a few tents and a park ranger station, a kiosk selling some beer and snacks, and a gorgeous expanse of beach on the Koh Phi Phi side. We stopped there for an hour or so, did some more snorkeling and took a stroll down the foamy sand to take pictures of Koh Phi Phi's coastline in the blue distance.




We were back at our hostel (The Blue Juice, highly recommended) in Krabi just in time for happy hour before the night market started up for our supper of curry, rice and cheap Chang beer.


**Click here to see photos of our snorkeling excursion!!**


**
Here is the website of the tour operator, Chok Paisan Andaman. Recommended.