Saturday, April 19, 2014


Phuket, Thailand
June 4, 2013

Okay, okay, truth be told, the proper pronunciation of Phuket is poo-ket, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to play on the infamous Brooklyn phrase, “Fuggedaboutit,” especially since I live in Brooklyn. But let’s get on with it already…
Miriam and I woke up bright and early in Ayutthaya, ready just in time for our hired car to pick us up. Neil at ElephantStay was awesome enough to arrange the pick-up before we left so that we didn’t have to worry about figuring that out on our own. We waved goodbye to our little bed and breakfast and hopped in the car back to Bangkok, heading directly to the airport. It was time to drown my elephantine sorrows on the beach! 
Entering the BKK
We were flying Bangkok Airways to Phuket, after I found an amazing deal on I had never heard of this travel site before and was nervous it wasn’t real, since the airfare I got was half of what the other sites were offering for the same flight. But, huzzah! It was real!
Bangkok Airways was a bit of a mess during the check-in process, though. Even though we had already checked-in, we needed to check our bags, and we were directed to a desk with a bit of a line. Once in line we realized we also needed to grab a number, as they were calling people by these numbers (some other foreigners didn’t realize it and stood there wondering why everyone kept skipping them in line). Our number was called, they pulled up our reservation, and then they told us we were at the wrong counter… So off we marched to the other check-in counter, where we checked our bags with no problems.
Sawasdee ka, Ronald!
While waiting in the security line we noticed that the skies had opened up and it was ridiculously pouring. We crossed our fingers that it wouldn’t delay our flight, hoping that since they deal with rain on a regular basis it wouldn’t be a problem. We had plenty of time to wander after getting through security so we decided to check out the shops, hoping they had fun souvenir shops, in case we didn’t get all the souvenirs we wanted in Phuket. There weren’t a whole lot of shops in the national terminal—just some of the typical airport stores selling magazines and travel pillows—so we ventured into the food court and grabbed a bite to eat. 
Our flight left right on time (yay!) and we settled in for the hour-long trip. And, then, surprise! We discovered that Bangkok Airways serves full meals on all their flights. Even the ones only an hour long… We’d barely been in the air for ten minutes before I was handed a food plate. Since I had eaten breakfast about a half-hour before the flight, I wasn’t exactly hungry. Had I known, I would have waited for my breakfast! Lesson learned.
By the time we touched down in Phuket, we had left the rainy weather behind us and ventured out into beautifully sunny weather. I had made arrangements with our hotel for a shuttle to pick us up because I knew I wouldn’t have any desire to haggle with cab drivers to take us to our hotel. It cost a little more to take the shuttle, but I was worry-free as a result, and I loved that. Our shuttle was ready and waiting for us, cozy and air-conditioned, and off we went on our hour long drive to the hotel.
In doing my research for Phuket, I learned that the time of year we were traveling was the  beginning of the rainy/wet season, meaning that the best and most popular beaches on the ocean side would be experiencing monsoon-like winds on a regular basis, making going in the water not always possible. If we were going to the beach, I wanted to get in the water, so I took a look at the beaches on the bay side of the island.
An open air room off the lobby
In my quest to find a cheap-yet-nice location, I discovered the Kantary Bay hotel on Cape Panwa. The hotel was very affordable ($50 USD a night) for a decent sized room but was quite a ways from the heart of Phuket. It also didn’t have its own beach. But never fear! By booking a stay at Kantary Bay we were allowed to use all the facilities at their sister  (and much more expensive) hotel, Cape Panwa, only a short shuttle ride up a steep hill. This allowed us access to their private beach, swimming pools, restaurants, and water activities. 
I decided to book our stay directly through the hotel’s website, which I usually don’t do since most hotels are more expensive through their own websites, but Kantary Bay prices were the same as the travel websites, and they allowed me to arrange all my needs as I made the reservation. We needed a shuttle from and to the airport and would be doing a late checkout— all that I was able to handle through my reservation. And while I was at it, I took the tips left by my fellow travelers on Trip Advisor and requested a sea view room on one of the higher floors. Let me tell you, I love those Trip Advisor travelers.
The tip paid off! We arrived at the hotel and walked up the staircase to a very pretty open-air lobby. We were greeted at the desk, handed wet towels to wipe ourselves down and fruit drinks to sip on while they processed our check-in. As a result of our request, they upgraded us for free to a sea-view, one-bedroom suite on one of the upper floors. 

The view from our balcony
The room and the view were spectacular! We had an eat-in kitchen, large living room, a very large bedroom, and a beautiful balcony that overlooked the sea. On said balcony was a washing machine so we could do our laundry without hand-washing it in a sink for the first time in almost two weeks. We were very excited. 

Once we settled in, we changed into our swim suits, located the hotel shuttle bus, and took the 3 minute ride to the Cape Panwa hotel. Cape Panwa was located at the top of a very steep hill and was a very luxurious looking hotel. The large, circular, open-air lobby greeted us when we got off the bus. Access to the rooms was through covered bridges, and private cottages cascaded down the hill to the beach and almost looked like a village in the trees. 

On the shuttle
The open air lobby of Cape Panwa Hotel
In order to get to the beach we had to take a tram down the steep hill. Once there we  grabbed towels and ventured to the empty chairs with beach umbrellas and set up shop. It was late in the afternoon, and the tide had gone out, leaving a rocky beach, but it was still absolutely gorgeous. We swam for a little bit, me more than Miriam, as her feet couldn’t handle the rocky bottom, and we took in the sun on our lounge chairs. The beach was almost completely empty, which was glorious. 
Riding the tram down to the beach

When the sun was starting to set, we hopped on the shuttle back to Kantary Bay and swam a little in the pool before heading up to our room. There we sat on our balcony and took in the stunning sunset. 
Sunset from our balcony
Our private restaurant
After we cleaned up we decided to grab some dinner at one of the hotel restaurants. Our options that night were Thai and Italian. Both of us were craving something other than Thai, since we’d eaten Thai food for almost every meal since we’d arrived in Thailand, so we went to the Italian restaurant connected to the hotel. It was only around 8pm, but the restaurant was completely empty. We came to find out that most of the people staying in the hotel were long term residents— British retirees who spent weeks to months at Kantary Bay— and they didn’t eat late dinners or they cooked their own meals in their suites. Our pasta dishes weren’t anything to write home about, but they certainly hit the spot. 

After dinner we wandered around to some of the shops and the little hotel convenience store before heading up to bed. We had a very early day ahead of us— the tour I had been most looking forward to: Phi Phi Islands! *cue dramatic death music*…

Sunday, November 24, 2013


Ayutthaya, Thailand
June 2 – June 3, 2013

Life AE. Life After Elephants. 
My dream had officially come true and then, in the blink of an eye, it was over. Throughout the week I had kept my emotions in check, having one ah-ha moment with my elephant, Yitor, on day three that brought tears to my eyes, but for the most part, I worked hard and enjoyed every second. Then the last day came. And I cried the whole day. I cried secretly in the shower, not so secretly with the staff and my fellow Stayers, and while taking my last ride on Yitor.
And then it was time to officially say goodbye. We got our certificates of recognition for the work we did, hugged all our new friends goodbye, packed our belongings into the back of our waiting tuk-tuk, and waved goodbye to all the people and the elephants as we drove down the driveway.
I, of course, wept the entire time. Miriam, who rarely cries, confessed to getting choked up as we left. ElephantStay had touched her life, too. There’s nothing better than making your dream come true than sharing it with someone who is just as affected as you are by the experience.
But it was time to press onward and see what else the beautiful country of Thailand had to offer. We decided to spend one extra day in Ayutthaya, since the village is a UNESCO World Heritage site, meaning there was a lot of history to behold within its borders. Ayutthaya was once the capital of Siam before it was attacked and destroyed by the Burmese, so there are a number of ancient ruins to visit, and I couldn’t wait to see them!
Our first stop was our home for the next two nights, the Luang Chumni Village, a cute bed and breakfast in the middle of town that was very close to the Historical Park. Luang Chumni Village houses 6 rooms total, in the traditional Thai teak house style. The entire building is surrounded by a lovely moat, and the lobby is an open-air lobby, providing a lovely view of the environs.
They had three different types of rooms—two of each style—providing three different price points. When I originally emailed the B&B about rooms, I attempted to book the cheapest of the rooms, an Inter-Connecting room, which meant we would have to share a hallway and balcony with another couple, if need be, but I was informed that both the IC rooms were booked for our dates. So we paid a little more and got the Standard Room, which provided us with a decent sized room, our own private balcony, and a private bathroom down the stairs, below the room. I was a little disappointed to pay extra, but in reality it was still only $35 a night, so in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t bad at all. And it was absolutely adorable—we loved it. However, we did notice that we seemed to be the only people there…and come breakfast the next day, we learned we WERE the only people there. So much for the IC rooms being booked…
The view from our room

Our Thai entrance
Stairs to our private bathroom

Anyways, the owner, Ake, was very helpful and provided us with a map of Ayutthaya, circling the most popular areas to visit, and told us about the local night market right down the street and how we were a short walk away from a lot of great restaurants.
After we dropped our bags off, looked around our new little home, sat on the balcony, and had a little cry over the elephants (okay, I confess…I was the only one crying…), we headed out beyond the garden walls and took a stroll around the village.
The restaurant sign
We stopped first at the 7 Eleven at the end of the block (I swear, 7 Elevens are as popular in Thailand as Starbucks and banks are in NYC—they are EVERYWHERE), bought some beverages, and then meandered through the night market. The night market ended up being a bunch of food stalls, where locals were grabbing a bite to eat. No one really spoke any English and we weren’t sure what we were in the mood for, so we moved on.
We trekked all the way down to the river, where Ake suggested we go for dinner. There were a bunch of restaurants to choose from, and we ended up at a Thai restaurant called Sai-Thong, which was built around a giant tree. So, yes, that means there was a giant tree trunk growing through the middle of the restaurant. It was a pretty neat sight.

We were seated on the back balcony with a splendid view of one of the temples across the river. They had a guy playing his guitar and singing classic American/British rock songs, which added a nice and amusing ambience (Thai accents mixed with English lyrics provides some funny moments…). The menu didn’t offer a lot of descriptions to the dishes, so we chose a few and hoped for the best. 

The tree trunk in the restaurant
Then, out of the blue, the power went out. Not just in the restaurant, but on both sides of the river. Suddenly it was just us and the moonlight and all of our new friends. It was very entertaining. And, amazingly, that didn’t stop the staff from working. 
The lights were out for at least ten minutes, and in that time the kitchen staff made our food and delivered it to our table! We used the flashlight apps on our iPhones and my camera flash to check out our food, which all looked delicious.
Miriam got a salad and the chicken and cashews entrée, while I got a Thai salad and pineapple and chicken fried rice, served in a hollowed pineapple. It looked like my Thai salad had little tiny shrimp in it, so I had to work my way around those, but otherwise the salad was yummy.
The power came back on for our side of the river while we were eating, and soon our ambience and music were back in full swing. Our food was quite tasty, even the strange rope-like substance on top of my fried rice that melted away in my mouth like cotton candy. Still not sure if I was supposed to eat it, but it tasted like peanuts! At the end of the meal, Miriam put my pineapple back together, which then reminded us of the treats we fed the elephants we had just left behind, causing me to fight back tears…unsuccessfully…
The strange "dancing" from the street
After dinner we started our walk back to our B&B, walking along a pretty popular stretch of road, when we heard loud, club-like music blaring from what looked like a school auditorium. We looked through the fence and saw a bunch of scantily clad girls lined up next to each other on a stage, “dancing” to the music, while people milled around in the audience. I say “dancing” because these girls were barely moving at all and looked rather bored. We are still unsure what was happening. A beauty contest, maybe? Strange times in Ayutthaya. 
Our walk took us back through the local night market where we encountered two little, curious girls who wanted to perform for us so that I could take their picture. They couldn’t speak a lick of English but they sure loved seeing their photo on my camera! We also stopped at the 7 Eleven again to pick up some snacks and drinks for our room. Then we headed back to the B&B, said goodnight to Ake, and got cozy in our room, watching really bad movies (like Brittany Murphy’s The Ramen Girl) because we were limited to one or two channels in English.
The B&B, being of the Thai teak style, was very creaky, since the whole place is made of teak wood, but, luckily, we had no neighbors to disturb with our late night treks to the bathroom and our early morning to get our sight-seeing going.
Breakfast on the deck
We were up at our usual ElephantStay time and went to the lobby area for breakfast. Fresh fruit and bread for toasting was waiting for us, and as soon as we arrived, a sweet, older woman who spoke no English provided us with a hand-written menu of egg and meat options (I’m still amused that the Thai idea of sausage is simply a cut up hot dog). The open-air lobby overlooking the moat provided a very lovely setting for breakfast, and watching the two cats resting nearby made me happy. 
As soon as breakfast was done, Ake came out to give us the bikes we were renting for the day ($1.50 each…for the whole day…amazing) and told us she would arrange the sunset boat tour we were interested in. And then off we went to see some ruins!
Biking around Ayutthaya was the ideal way to go. Ayutthaya is just a little too big to walk around, and hiring a tuk-tuk for the day seemed an expensive waste, but for $3 US we were able to visit the sites we wanted, stay for as little or long as we wanted, and change our plans at the drop of a hat. Not to mention we got to see the beautiful village with a nice breeze blowing through our hair! 
Our first stop was Wat Mahathat, one of the most important monasteries of the ancient Ayutthaya kingdom. All of the buildings, statues, and monuments were so neat, but the big highlight was the Buddha head in the tree. It was really cool to see how the tree grew around the Buddha head over the years so perfectly.

Wat Mahathat

Our next stop was right down the road at Wat Ratchaburana. It was similar in style to Wat Mahathat but offered some beautiful views of ancient chedis and prangs. At one point Miriam decided to climb up some stairs of the main prang to get a good photo op, only to discover there was a stray dog up there that was very wary of having a visitor. 

Wat Ratchaburana

Wat Phra Ram

After Rachaburana, we made our way around the park to Wat Phra Ram, a smaller wat located near the water. It was here that we caught our first glimpse of the elephants…the worker elephants we had watched return from work just a few days prior, giving rides to the tourists around the temples. I saw them and immediately got choked up (again), so we decided that once we were done at Phra Ram that we’d take a pit stop to visit the elephants at the Elephant Palace and Royal Kraal. 
I don’t know if it was the early morning, that it was a Monday, or that it was at the start of rainy season, but the sites were practically empty. Very few people were around us at almost all of the locations, which was great for us!

Once at the Elephant Palace, we bought some ice cream and sodas and sat to watch the big bulls lounging in the shade. We then bought a basket of food to feed to a few of the bulls, which we had intended to share, but while Miriam was taking pictures of me feeding the boys, they ended up taking every last bit from the basket! Sorry, Miriam… We then stopped in the gift shop to pick up a few little trinkets that we hadn’t seen in the ElephantStay gift shop before we headed back to collect our bikes. And, of course, upon saying goodbye to the eles, I broke down crying. Not surprising, I know. 
Our next stop was at Wihan Phra Mongkhon Bophit, an active temple with one of the largest bronze Buddha statues in the country. It also had a great market and public restrooms. The bronze Buddha was really cool and it was nice to get out of the hot sun for a moment. It was also one of the few places that didn’t require an entrance fee (granted, the entrance fees were only around 50Baht/$1.60US at each place, but still…). It was, however, the first place that had a ton of tourists milling around. Attached to Phra Mongkhon Bophit was a very large parking lot that held a lot of tour busses, most likely day tours from Bangkok, so there were a lot of people shopping in the market and visiting the bronze Buddha. 

Wihan Phra Mongkhon Bophit

Shopping in the market
Right next door to the Phra Mongkhon Bophit was Wat Phra Si Sanphet, a stunning ancient site with three large chedis gracing the entrance. I spent a lot of time here taking a bunch of photos, wishing I could come back at night to see them all lit up. But the thunder started rolling in, so we headed to the covered market in the hopes of waiting out the impending rain.

Wat Phra Si Sanphet
The market had a lot of great stuff but we didn’t want to buy a lot since we were limited with our bags and bikes. We bought some postcards and a couple elephant pillows but figured we could wait until either later that day (if we came across another market) or Phuket to pick up the rest of our souvenirs.
A big windstorm blew through, knocking a bunch of the market trinkets around, but no rain came with it, so we decided to brave the weather and keep moving.
Wat Lokkayasatha
Our next stop was a quick jaunt to Wat Lokkayasatha, the reclining Buddha. That was all it was. A large reclining Buddha. It was really cool, but a little out of the way, and we were getting hungry and thirsty. They had a few shops, maybe to make up for the fact that there wasn’t much to see at this site, so we grabbed some Gatorade and water and browsed the stalls. Most of the stuff was really over-priced and the people weren’t in a bargaining mood, so we left empty-handed.
We then made our way off the main island to Wat Chaiwatthanaram, the most spectacular of all the sites we would visit that day. The grounds were massive and the main prang complex was gorgeous. We had a lot of fun taking self-timed photos here until another couple from the US came along and we took pictures for them. We spent a bit of time wandering the grounds and getting as close as we were allowed to get (a lot of the main complex was roped off), and then the rain started moving in.

Wat Chaiwatthanaram 

We collected our bikes and made our way back to the main island, trying to see if we had time to hit up one last site—but it was another wat located off the main island and could potentially take a long time to find. We got about half way there and decided we wouldn’t have time to make it all the way out there and back in time to freshen up before our sunset tour, so we opted to grab lunch at an air conditioned restaurant in the same area we ate the night before. Our meal was simple, delicious, and Thai, and we were one of the only people in the restaurant (apparently we were eating lunch really late). As soon as we finished we biked the short distance back to our B&B, turned in our bikes, and freshened up for our afternoon boat ride.
On the boat!
The boat tour came with a complimentary tuk-tuk pick-up at our B&B, and our driver was there right at the appointed time. We waved goodbye to Ake, hopped in the tuk-tuk, and went off to other B&B’s in the area to collect other farang, the generic Thai word for white people. The driver collected our money and dropped us off at the pier right next to the local night market we had visited a couple nights prior with our ElephantStay comrades. We jumped into the long boat and got comfortable, along with the Brits, Irish, and German folks who were taking the tour with us. And then off we went!
The boat ride provided a nice breeze and a lovely view of the main island. We got to see the local fishermen at work, young kids playing in the river, and strange beasts, like the monitor lizard, crawling along the shores. We also passed by Sai-Thong, the restaurant we visited the night prior, and got to see what it looks like with the tree growing out of it! Pretty spectacular! 

The tree goes right through the building!
Our first stop was Wat Phanan Choeng, a wat that houses a large gilded Buddha in the main wihan. There was also a lovely shrine to Ganesha, the elephant god that is the remover of obstacles and lord of beginnings, and a large carved jade ship that was very impressive. A little farther along in the complex was a temple with strong Chinese influence, and it was interesting seeing the statues and carvings that were obviously Chinese when we had been surrounded by the Thai influence for a week and a half. 
Ganesha at Wat Phanan Choeng

The Chinese influence
We only had 20 minutes per stop, so we quickly made our way back to the boat and made our way to the next stop: Wat Phutthai Sawan.
We were all a little confused on where to go for this one, as everything seemed really spread out, and our boat guide, seeing our confusion, pointed the way and waved us off. Wat Phutthay Sawan is an active monastery on one end with ruins located at the other end. We quickly glanced around the active monastery, taking fun pictures with the rooster statues that were everywhere, and then hiked over to the ruins.
There were beautiful Buddha images lining the walls of the courtyard and a big, white prang in the middle. A sign for the reclining Buddha pointed in the direction of the prang stairs, so we climbed up and into a dark room. Miriam was nervous about entering so I went in with another person on our tour. I noticed there were strange black things all over the ground that kind of looked like mouse poop, and hearing squeaking coming from the ceiling, I looked up and saw a ton of bats hanging above us. We didn’t last long in there!
Apparently, the sign for the reclining Buddha was actually pointing at a large reclining Buddha located on the other side of the courtyard wall, but having no idea it was there, we never even saw it! Oh well…
Our last stop was at Wat Chaiwatthanaram, where we had visited earlier. The difference now was that we were seeing it at sunset, and it was just as stunning. We spent a little extra time here, watching the sun setting behind the prang and chedis. Absolutely beautiful. 

Wat Chaiwatthanaram at sunset

Our little tour boats
Our tour finished the loop around the island and dropped us back at the local night market, which was just starting to get in full swing. I stopped by the drink stall from the other night and grabbed a Thai milk iced tea, and then we hailed a tuk-tuk, telling him to take us to Tony’s Place. We learned from Katie at ElephantStay that any time you want to go to the street with the bars and restaurants, just tell the drivers to take you to Tony’s Place. They all know where that is and understand it when you say it, so it makes things easier. 

We weren’t sure if we were going to eat there or not, but once we were dropped off, we took a look at the menu and decided to give it a shot. Tony’s Place is an English owned B&B in central Ayutthaya with a restaurant and bar attached to it. After a week and a half of Thai food, Miriam and I were really craving western food, and cheeseburgers and fries were right up our alley. They weren’t the greatest burgers we’ve ever eaten (I think burgers can only be properly done in North America, to be truthfully honest), but they sure hit the spot. And we topped off our meal with watermelon smoothies and sodas.
Once we were done with dinner, we hopped in a tuk-tuk and headed back to Luang Chumni Village to pack up our things. We had a car coming early in the morning to take us to the airport in the Bangkok. It was time for the beach!
Ayutthaya was a beautiful place and definitely worth the visit. Staying a week with the elephants right outside the village was totally the highlight, but biking and boating around the island, visiting ancient ruins, was a spectacular way to finish out our stay there.
I can’t wait to go back—and believe me, I will be back. My elephants are there, after all.