Thursday, June 11, 2009


I've been back stateside for a good bit now, but it's my plan to blog retroactively about my trip, picking up where I left off in the cave. Thank you to those of you who have complained about my laziness. It shows you care.
To orient us, here's my final itinerary:
April 14: Arrived in Bangkok on EVA Air. Instead of daring the craziness of the capitol (the one warranting the travel advisory), I flew north to Chiang Mai on Thai Air. Here I took a cooking class, experienced my first Thai massage, cuddled a tiger at the Tiger Kingdom, went bowling and wandering about with other Spicy Thai hostel guests, and participated in the water festival Songkran.
April 17: Took a 3.5 hour minibus to the mountain town of Pai. Rented motorbikes and toured the countryside's hot springs, waterfalls, and caves, and in the evenings we patronized the outdoor bars and fire juggling shows.
April 19: Rode a local bus to Maehongson. Stayed at Jongkham Guesthouse near the lake-- the most inexpensive lodging of my trip at 175B a night ($5). Via motorbike again, visited the NaSoi Long Neck Village, a waterfall, and the Fish Cave (the site of my Burn), plus some random exploring and getting lost. Here too I rode an elephant and bamboo rafted down the river.
April 22: Flew back to Chiang Mai on Thai Air. Spent another night at Spicy Thai. Gorged myself at a ridiculous buffet, motorbiked up to the Doi Suthep Temple and a waterfall, went to Baan Kingkaew Orphanage, took a tour of a printmaking shop.
April 24: Took overnight sleeper train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok.
April 25: Arrived in Bangkok 7am. Found our way to Khao San Road. Failed to meet up with Taew, a family friend. Wandered through a Red Shirt Rally, past the Grand Palace, about a day market, onto the National Museum grounds for a youth musical show. Met friends from Chiang Mai for a night on the town. Played frisbee with the local frisbee team, the Soidawgz; afterward they took me out for a big seafood dinner.
April 27: Flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia, on Bangkok Airways. Quarreled with a taxi driver, watched the sunset from a temple top, mis-attended the Angkor Night Festival, toured the temples by tuk-tuk, visited the Landmine Museum, shopped the night market, experienced fish massage and Khmer massage, went horse-back riding.
April 30: Flew back to Bangkok. Spent the night back on Khao San Road at the D&D where the staff was horrible to us. Took a minibus at the crack of dawn to Chumphon and took the ferry to Koh Phagnan.
May 1: Arrived on Koh Phagnan. Went to Half Moon Party in the jungle (the island is famous for its Full Moon Party on the beach). Snorkeled with sea cucumbers (aaah/blech), learned about Irish things from my new friends.
May 4: Took the ferry to Koh Tao. Investigated diving outfits and chose Seashell Resort for my SCUBA certification course. Swam with a whale shark!!
May 9: Eventually made it to Ton Sai via overnight barge/minibus/boat/crazy hike. Explored with new friends: hiking, going to the beach, playing volleyball, watching monkeys, rock climbing.
May 12: Left Ton Sai to catch a flight from nearby Krabi. Arrived in Bangkok. With assistance from bilingual friend, met up with Taew (!), who played tour guide for the night.
May 13: Left Bangkok for Los Angeles. Yay trip!!!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Lod Cave = Cloud Museum

The day after the Hot Springs in Pai, our motorbiker gang took to the road again, this time going to a waterfall (unimpressive- but to be fair it's dry season) and Lod Cave (hugely impressive) some 40 or 50 kilometers away in Soppong. The park authorities strongly recommend visitors hire a guide and lantern to explore the cave, but, partly due to how expensive it was (relative to a Thailand budget) and our spirit of independent adventure, we wanted to see how far we could get on our own. Just inside the mouth of the cave, however, I misjudged the solidity of a step and fell into a big mud pit. And when I say "mud," that's wishful thinking. The roof of the cave is home to thousands of bats. This, plus the idea that Gollum-like creatures would adore dark, damp real estate like this, plus a stubbed toe or two, made me call game over. I went back and hired a guide.
She was worth it for her powers of illumination and the guidance to the remote corners and crannies of the cave, but her narrative was limited to pointing at different rock formations and saying, "looks like popcorn," "looks like alligator," or "looks like Buddha." What a script. It seemed like fun though-- like imagine if you got to walk people through a museum of clouds pointing out what you thought the formations looked like: "this one's a pony... and this one over here is Oprah."
In one part of the cave we climbed up multiple steep staircases so littered with bat droppings you dared not touch the railings. If this cave were a tourist attraction in the US, you can bet it would be run differently. There would be warnings: wear suitable shoes, not recommended for the elderly or pregnant, beware of Gollum, etc. And there would be disclaimers: the park is not responsible if you're too cheap to buy a lantern; the park is not responsible if the bats choose to poo on the provided safety structures. Seriously though- the place was kind of hazardous. In the cavern we had to climb up to, there were four coffins. "Looks like coffin." No, they didn't belong to tourists who wore unsuitable shoes-- they were thousands of years old. I can't imagine how people succeeded in getting them up there pre-stairs, pre-lantern. What a job for the pallbearers. I can just picture some ancient loin-clothed man stubbing his toe and muttering "why couldn't we just cremate the guy..."

Monday, April 27, 2009

Caution: venting ahead

Newsflash: Cambodia uses U.S. dollars. They charge everything in dollars, and only if they need to give you change will they give you Cambodian bills (Riels I think). There are 4000 of them to 1 USD. PS I have found Cambodia to be markedly more expensive than Thailand but still cheap by US standards.
From the airport, I hired a motorcycle taxi to take me to the top-rated hostel I had read about on My driver was nice and chatty and insisted that it would be a better idea to stay in a hostel closer to the city center; he said it would be more convenient and safer and that that's where most of the tourists stay. I had a sneaking suspicion he would get a commission if he delivered me to a hostel on some commission-granting list somewhere, but I humored him once and checked out another hostel to price shop. When I lied and said I had made a reservation at the Siem Reap Hostel and needed to stay there because I had put down a deposit, he grudgingly delivered me and then volunteered to come pick me up again at 4:30pm (I needed to get to the temple park entrance just before 5pm because if I bought a one-day pass to the temples for tomorrow, I would be admitted free after 5pm tonight, in time to watch the sunset. The complicating part was that they stop selling passes at 5pm).
Meanwhile, pre-4:30pm, I met a bubbly California girl at my hostel and agreed to share a tuk-tuk taxi with her for the day tomorrow (the temples are too spread out to walk between them), so we had the front desk arrange that for us. When my driver showed up at 4:30, he asked what time he should pick me up tomorrow. When I said I had already made other arrangements, he got agitated and started to ask me all these questions, like "you just met this girl?" and "how do you think I feel?" He approached the front desk to cancel the arrangements, and when he was refused, he got angry. I was pretty darn sure I didn't want to go anywhere with this guy, so I hopped into another tuk-tuk with the Californian girl who was just arriving on scene. I was trying to explain to the driver that we had made no arrangements past today, and I had been planning on going with him to the sunset until he started to get angry and make me uncomfortable, so this was the end of our time. He then proceeded to get on his bike and follow alongside us, cussing me out, calling me a "fucking cheat," etc.
I know this is the kind of thing that happens a lot, and you just need to roll with it and then forget about it, but since I have this blog, I thought I would complain about it to you all. Keeping with that theme, I will tell you that later that night I paid for a "Night Festival at Angkor Wat" which ended up, because of some unfortunate miscommunications, being more like "Angkor Wat in the Dark." And, the late dinner I had, which was long overdue since an early lunch, was served to me pristine but then was immediately infiltrated by the hordes of bugs that were in close camp around me. They were tunneling into my rice and committing suicide in my sauce.

Khao San... Siem Reap

Welcome to Khao San Road-- where outdoor bars advertise "very strong cocktails... we no check IDs," and tattoo parlors boast: "new needle everytime." The list of rules in the guest house I checked into on Soi Rumbuttri (parallel to Khao San and much calmer) gave me a clue as to what kinds of things I could expect: somewhere between "do not leave valuables in your room" and "check out is at noon" was the warning "do not bring prostitutes into the guest house."
Khao San road is the backpacker hub of Bangkok-- an area that lives in a perpetual state of college spring break. Coming from Northern Thailand in the low tourist season, it's sort of a shock to see so many foreigners in one place. The only locals here are the ones trying to make a buck (selling pad thai, hair braiding services, buckets of vodka, etc.) or bring home a Western boyfriend (I thought that was a stereotype, but there's truth to the idea that Western boyfriends are highly prized here). Also, you may be able to see some "ladyboys"-- Thai men who appear as beautiful women, some even going to such extremes as to have ribs removed.
I would not recommend staying on Khao San Road or booking any tours from here. In researching the best ways to get to Siem Reap, I was told that some big scams are run from Khao San. An unsuspecting tourist may book a minibus to Cambodia and then encounter a staged border crossing and surprise visa fees. And, although this sad little tourist was told they would arrive at 7pm, they'll roll up past 11pm in front of a guest house... one that has tipped the drivers to stop there late.
Legit overground travel to Cambodia from Bangkok still has its troubles. You can get an air-conditioned bus to a town near the Cambodian border, but then you have to get a tuk-tuk to the place where you can buy a visa. If you don't have US dollars, they'll give you a terrible conversion rate. You also need an extra passport photo. Once you have your visa, you have to find a bus that will take you in to Siem Reap, but air-conditioned busses don't exist, and the roads are terrible. And they're kept that way on purpose. Bangkok Airways, which has a monopoly on the flight from Bangkok to Siem Reap, pays the Cambodian government not to fix the roads, encouraging tourists to fly. All travel guides will tell you it's an absolute rip-off but definitely the way to go if you can afford it. So, wary of all that could go wrong overland, that's what I did.
When I arrived at the Siem Reap airport, I bought a visa and a scan of my passport photo for 22 dollars. Already having governmental corruption on my mind, I was really uneasy when two of the officers joked among themselves and took pictures of me with their cell phones (wtf!?). Once I paid, my passport was handed down a long line of uniformed guys (really-- like fifteen of them, no joke), and I had to wait for them to call my name. I was the last one called, so I was by myself (I'm not sure if I'm paranoid, but I think they did this on purpose). Finally they called my name and then put up a CLOSED sign in my face. They said it was break time and I needed to come back in an hour. I laughed it off, and joked with them, "nooo come on guys, I just saw you with my passport..." but inside I was kind of freaking out. These creepy guys have my passport and I'm alone in Cambodia! But it turned out fine-- they were ribbing me, studying my passport and asking me about Texas. One guy said he had some relatives that run a donut shop in Dallas.
Anyway, I'm here in Siem Reap at an awesome hostel, and I'm about to go watch the sunset at Angkor Wat.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The real dangers of motorbiking

As my experience has proven, the real dangers of motorbiking are NOT
--The adjustment to driving on the left side of the road.
--The other tourists, despite the fact that these outfits will rent to anyone.
--The steep unpaved backroads littered with loose rocks, or the hairpin turns on the 1095 highway.
--The bugs. At 60 km an hour, certain unlucky exoskeletons smack into your face with a good amount of force. Also, around Lod Cave especially, there are these thick, meaty caterpillars hanging down from the trees like spiders... right at face height... making it necessary for a motorbiker to swerve or duck to dodge an unwelcome kiss.

No, the real danger is the motorbike itself. The exhaust pipe gets EXTREMELY hot. After I parked my bike next to the other bikes at Fish Cave outside of Maehongson, I unthinkingly stepped backward when I hooked my helmet on the handlebars. This action brought the flesh of my left Achilles against the scalding exhaust pipe of the next bike over. AAH ... I would rather have kissed a caterpillar. When I got back to my guest house, I showed my angry apricot-sized welt and exposed new skin to some of the Thai ladies in the garden, and one (essentially) said, "Oh, don't worry. We all have them- well, not my friend from Bangkok, but all we country people have scars from that exact thing."
So-- I, Gina Phillips, now bear the mark of Thai motorbiking country people. I have been branded as an insider. I'm quite certain that this scar will garner me deep discounts at the tourist markets and entrance into secret clubs where Thai motorbiking country people do Thai motorbiking country people secret things. Also, I have a mosquito bite in the middle of my forehead that I have been unable to avoid scratching, thereby making it red and slightly swollen, to the effect that it looks like I'm about to sprout a unicorn horn. Together, I'm sure that my Thai scar and unicorn horn will get me into some pretty exclusive circles.

Monday, April 20, 2009


From Chiang Mai, I went to Pai, a small mountain village known as an artist/hippie community. Happily, some of my SpicyThai hostelmates were headed that way too, so we took a mini-bus together. Of the five of us, only I suffered motion sickness. The mountain roads are so crazily winding that I was making mental emergency routes of how/where I would puke if it came to that. I managed to keep it together, but when the bus arrived in Pai, I poured out of that vehicle like I'd been beaten.
We checked in to a hostel and proceeded to rent motorbikes, the most popular form of transportation in these parts. They were 100 Baht per day (roughly three dollars). Normally I'm against motorcycles, but the motorbikes were the best-suited thing for what we wanted to do, and the traffic here is so light and slow that the bikes are easily managed. Plus the locals know to watch out when "farang" are scooting by.
My first trip on the bike was to the gas station. They rent the bikes to you with an empty tank. Maybe that's why the rental is so cheap-- they don't expect you to make it to the end of the block. From there, the five of us headed to the hot springs. (For pictures, see facebook). At the source, the springs are 80 degrees, according to the sign, and the fact that the water was actually
steaming on a hot day was enough to keep me from touching it. The spring water flows downhill a ways, and each section of it gets progressively cooler. Our party dipped into the fourth or so pool, which was about standard hot tub temperature.
Near the first sign up at the top was another sign that declared: "NO BOIL EGG." In flagrant disregard for this stern message, we saw many locals bringing bags of eggs to cook in the water. Personally I would be put off an egg picnic considering the whole place smells like rotten eggs (sulfur), but to each his own.
PS Sorry, I haven't figured out how to rotate my images on this thing.

Thaigers... get it?

My second full day in Chiang Mai:
I went to the Tiger Kingdom. Kingdom-goers can buy time with a tiger based on the tiger's size: fifteen minutes with a small, medium, or big tiger. I, thinking to myself that I will probably never get to do this again, went big. As a bonus, three big tigers shared the same space, so I got to chill with a trio. Yep-- you can't quite tell from the pictures, but I am spooning with not one, but three different big tigs. When it comes to tigers, I get around. (For pictures, see facebook).
At one point, I was leaning down over a tiger when it whacked me up side the head with its surprisingly forceful tail. The keeper explained to me that the tiger thought I was a big fly-- my necklace had been tickling it. The necklace in question is the one with the pendant on it that has "frolic" stamped into it. Yes, I'm going around Thailand wearing my blog title and annoying large animals with it.
After the Kingdom, we went to prison. The women's prison in Chiang Mai has some sort of program where the inmates work at Thai massage; the money they earn is held for them upon their release. Apparently it's appealing to tourists to have convicts put their hands all over them. Our group being of the same opinion (this particular day I was traveling with a Brit, a Canadian, and a Swiss), we made our way over, but they were booked through the rest of the day. Luckily, massage parlors are about three a block in this place, so we were soon accommodated somewhere else, and I got my first Thai massage.
First they gave me some loose pajama-like things to wear, and then they sat me down and washed my feet. Then I laid down on my back, and the lady started rubbing my feet and then my legs. The experience was lovely but mostly unremarkable until the stretching started. They STRETCH you. When you're on your back, they bend your leg and push your knee to the floor beside you. They twist you into a diagonal backbend. It's like Cirque de Soleil training. At one point, I was on my stomach, and both of the ladies' knees were on my hamstrings, and she pulled both my arms behind me until I was essentially kneeling on the floor. As I said in a facebook status update, it's like they do yoga TO you. And it feels wonderful. I SO recommend this. On top of the awesomeness, the massage cost only 180 Baht for an hour-- roughly five or six dollars. I've seen places that offer it for as little as 120 Baht, or around four dollars. The quality does vary though- the second Thai massage I experienced wasn't as magical- probably because the masseuse was sub-100 lbs and couldn't do the heavy lifting.
On a non-PG note, I've heard that some massage parlors, especially in Bangkok, serve as thin disguises for brothels where patrons can request a "happy ending" to their massage. I'll try and make sure my frolicking steers clear of these places. I'd much rather be mistaken for a big fly than a sex tourist.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Chiang Mai

Promptly upon arrival at SpicyThai Backpackers, I fell in with a crowd of English teachers, and we went out for my first meal in Thailand. Of course, being in Chiang Mai, one of the noted culinary centers in Thailand, we... went to a Mexican restaurant and had tacos. Being in the position of tagalong, I felt like I couldn't really object.
I made up for this faux pas the next day. Over breakfast in the hostel, I met a nice London girl named Jemma, and she invited me to go with her to the cooking course she signed up for. Ordinarily you need an advance reservation, but it turned out there was one extra spot. The class is set up so each participant has their own cooking station, so I easily could have been out of luck. Obviously the spirit of Thai cooking was offended at my meal last night and made this allowance for me.
The class was fantastic-- SO much fun and such great food. We started out with a tour of the local market where our teacher, Permpoon Nabnian, taught us about various ingredients and how to select good produce. We were introduced to banana flowers, acacia, lesser ginger, Chinese celery, coconut cream, and so forth, in addition to "horse piss" eggs. They're eggs that are pickled and dyed pink to warn you that the contents, indeed, smell like horse piss.
We were trucked out to Perm's house where he had an impressive setup. We had each chosen the dishes from the menu we wanted to cook (and eat). Jemma and I divvied up the list so we could try each other's. Between the two of us and Perm's demonstrations, we made hot and sour soup (tom yam), chicken in coconut soup, chicken with cashew nuts, sweet and sour chicken, green curry and panaeng curry, pad thai, papaya salad, spring rolls, and sticky rice with mango. Including the tour, the class lasted from about 10am to 3:30pm. Pictures to come.
On the way back to town, in an open truck full of westerners, we fell victim to Songkran. The day before, I had seen street vendors with giant blocks of ice, but it wasn't until the truck ride that I learned what they were for. Apparently the thing to do is put these blocks in your water/ammo supply. The water people dump on you by the BUCKETFULS is ICE water. And we were sitting ducks.
Later, I was seeking my revenge on the streets when somehow I ended up trapped at a concert. There was a band and dancers on a multi-story stage with water hoses and fountains, and the police had blocked off traffic so that for a full city block soaking wet people were shoulder to shoulder, dancing. Needless to say, I should seek revenge more often.
That night I met up with some people from the hostel, and we... went bowling. Hah. At one point the owner of the hostel challenged me that if I could beat him I could stay a night for free. How cool would that have been? But no, I have to suck at bowling.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Somebody somewhere once said, "Give to the world the best that you have, and the best will come back to you." After deciding that I would give this trip the best that I have, one of the first things to come back to me was... tuna flavored floss. Eva Airlines served me breakfast on my flight, and along with my rice porridge and little banana muffin came a silvery packet of "tuna flavored floss." It turned out to be like shredded tuna jerky, but I half expected to find the SE Asia equivalent to mint-flavored dental floss (Imagine tuna-- the new mint! Mojitos would never be the same).

The veggie dumplings I had upon my arrival in Taipei during my layover were less noteworthy. From there I made it to Bangkok, where frightening things are taking place. One headline read, "PANDEMONIUM." I personally associate that word with the panda-mascotted Chuck E. Cheeze-like place we frequented as kids, but in this case, the word is referring to this not so cuddly current event:

I left straight from the Bangkok airport for the city of Chiang Mai. After I arrived, I got a taxi to my hostel, and on the streets I got my first glimpse of the Songkran Festival in action. In all the beds of the pickup trucks, there were giant tubs of water with masses of people tucked in around them, flinging bucketfuls of water at whoever was in range. Motorbikes weaved in and out of traffic with drenched teens seated three deep, wearing backpacks of water-filled plastic cartoon character heads. Families clustered at stalls on the roadside armed with hoses and buckets, splashing the cars and the people hanging out of them. One man walked up to my side of the car, stone-faced, and emptied his bucket at my window and then burst into giggles. Meanwhile, I practiced the pronunciation of key phrases in Thai with my taxi driver, a Mr. Dechawat Suphawong. With a name like Suphawong, he could join Immunowoman's super hero task force.

Thursday, April 9, 2009


I have two hundred dollars worth of vaccinations flowing through my veins right now. I feel like some kind of Immunowoman, armored against the world's food and water-borne diseases. Bacteria trembles at my approach and such. Rawr.

I didn't budget for all this health prep-- my mistake. If my dad hadn't been with me at the travel clinic and insisted on my safety or whatever, I probably would have saved the two hundred for pad thai and elephant rides and then crossed my fingers against Hepatitis A. As it is, though, the good doc highly recommended that I get shots for tetanus (now with anti-whooping cough bonus material), typhoid, and Hep A. Then he said some terrifying things about dengue fever and brought out the needles.

The doc also talked to me about malaria and traveler's diarrhea. He told me that the giant green malaria pills I have won't be necessary in Thailand but that I should take them if I plan to venture into Cambodia or Laos like I want to. Earlier this week, the pharmacist dispensed the pills to me along with a warning against laying down after taking them and a face suggesting how the burning would feel in my esophagus. :0#
Apparently 60% of visitors to Thailand end up with traveler's diarrhea. Nowadays whenever anyone says 'diarrhea' I think of Kyle Killen's thelettereleven.blogspot post: "You know that you're ill when you're packing for a two day trip and you find yourself thinking, 'how many pairs of underwear should I bring? 4? 10? You know what, I better just bring them all'."

Today my dad and I took an Argentine tango lesson from the charming trilingual tiger lady featured in this video: Tomorrow's my day to tie up loose ends for the trip: make copies of my travel documents, make myself a Thai phrases study guide (how do you say "I need to buy more underwear"?), make a last run on the pharmacy-- that sort of thing. Saturday is all about beach ultimate at San Diego's One Love One Beach tournament, and Sunday is about Easter with the extended fam. I leave from LAX at midnight that night and stop in Taipei and then Bangkok on my way to Chiang Mai, where I will proceed to pass out in jet-lagged glory at a hostel called SpicyThai Backpackers. Apparently Chiang Mai is a great place to be during the Thai New Year and Songkran Festival-- a few days in mid-April when everyone participates in a country-wide water fight. Street vendors sell water guns and everyone is a fair target, regardless of age, nationality, or willingness. How do you say "I contracted a water-borne illness because I was no match for a Super Soaker"?

I'll be adventuring for a month, backpacking solo. For all of you who are worried about me, I'll tell you that after my dad's safety lectures and his insistence on me reading "The Beach," I am sufficiently paranoid. And vaccinated. I am ready to go. Immunowoman out.