Friday, February 22, 2013

Hua Hin

Thailand is a special country. It’s hardly an obscure destination for foreign travelers to go—they seem to be everywhere you look—but my second trip to the country was even better than the first, some ten months ago. Having been to Southeast Asia four times now, there are certain things I’m getting used to. Despite this, I enjoy witnessing many completely new sights, sounds and smells on each trip.

I first heard about Hua Hin from my lead teacher Katie this fall, as she traveled there over Christmas. With plane ticket prices going up and up for Chinese New Year, I decided to fly to Bangkok again, as it’s one of the closest major cities to Hong Kong. But instead of staying within the metropolis, I wanted to go a bit outside of the city, and Hua Hin seemed the best option, after talking with Katie. Beaches and sun galore. Sounds like the perfect escape from lackluster February in Hong Kong.

After a bit of a mixup in finding the bus to Hua Hin, Sharman and I departed southwest from Bangkok on the three-hour ride. And unbeknownst to me, our hotel was another 45 minutes south of the city center so we had to take a tuk-tuk from the bus depot to the resort. At the start, I was a bit skeptical of the hotel. It was far away, teeming with Western families and shut down the front desk at the strangely early hour of 9 pm. However, after a day or so, I realized that the hotel was pretty excellent after all.  The families were fairly laid back and most importantly, the hotel was right on a beautiful endless stretch of quiet beachfront. Unlike the Hua Hin beach, where you could hardly find a square yard without a sunbathing European. 

On the first day, we mostly stayed close to the hotel, soaking in the natural beauty. Our two excursions were both via boat; one on a fisherman's boat to a breathtaking cave called Phraya Nakhon aways down the bay, another on a rented kayak to so-called “Monkey Island.” When we got to the small island and went for a brief swim, hordes of macaque monkeys came towards us. It was a bit surreal in an uncomfortable sort of way so we rowed back to the hotel after a short time. Don’t worry; we had a more positive monkey experience later on the trip.

The next day was Valentines Day and we went for an elephant ride in the nearby elephant farm.  Thailand is obsessed with elephants and I figured this was a must do. I particularly enjoyed riding through the water at the end of the trek. Nothing more romantic than lifting your feet up to avoid floating elephant poo, right? We also expored the actually city of Hua Hin on this day and to be honest, it was fairly unattractive. It just felt like a normal city with a few thousand extra tourists. And as I mentioned before, the famous Hua Hin beach may have gotten a bit too famous with it's endless leathery old Caucasians, sizzling under the sun. The only highlight from the city itself was a shop called "The Family Tree" which sold countless items, all made by local community groups with profits going back to the people. The place was run by a lovely mixed Thai/English couple, as pictured below (6th one down). Sharman got some of her only souvenirs from this place and I got to try out a sweet Thai banjo-like instrument.

The following day we went on a Thai cooking course. This was a unique, rewarding experience where some twelve tourists got to learn how to cook four different Thai dishes with help from a local Thai lady named Beau and her Australian husband (seeing a pattern here?). I’m a very poor cook, partially because I have little interest in cooking, but this course was still a grand time, particularly watching Beau's mastery in the kitchen and her patience with all our faux pas. It’s hard to write about right now before dinner as I can still remember those divine aromas of green curry and tom yum soup!

The final thing we did on the trip was a guided bike ride around the area just south of Hua Hin. Though expensive by Thai standards, this excursion was a real highlight of the trip, much like the ride I took in Guilin six months ago. Bicycling through new places is very liberating to me, for whatever reason. We went all the way from the border shared with Burma, along beaches, by a majestic temple and near the Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park. It was also on this trip that we met a clan of dusky leaf monkeys. Unlike the pesky macaques, these creatures were very friendly, taking bananas from our hands and jumping around, undisturbed by our presence. Many of my best photos came from this bike ride.

Though hardly the point of the trip, one of the main themes of our time in Hua Hin was doing healthy activities. We kayaked, swam, hiked (to the cave), had a massage, biked and cooked/ate healthy local food. According to our free cookbook, Thai food is one of the healthiest cuisines as many of the spices either boost immunity or heal the body in various ways. I have no idea how but I trust the cookbook.

It was another enjoyable trip and further confirmation that I’ve got the travel bug and I’ve got it bad. Fortunately, I’ll be in Vietnam a month from now for my Easter holiday. See you in four weeks Southeast Asia!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Hearty Hong Kong Hikes to Heavenly Heights

Since coming to Hong Kong, I’ve had trouble finding a consistent way to exercise. A great deal of this has to do with my own laziness but it also has to do with lack of opportunity and/or convenience. I like team sports but don’t know enough people to play them with. I’ve never been a big fan of the gym atmosphere. There isn’t much room to bike in Hong Kong, and if you want to, it’s a rather expensive hobby. Jogging is just...sweaty. I love swimming but only have easy access to a pool in the summer months here at my apartment. Recently, however, I’ve found my favorite way to exercise thus far: hiking.

For each of the first four weekends of 2013, I embarked on a different hike in Hong Kong. One of the most attractive things about the territory is that beyond the skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, 40% of the land is reserved for twenty-three different country parks, all of which have well maintained hiking trails. Basically, that’s to say there are approximately 170 square miles of lush green hills, just waiting to be climbed by people like me. And a great deal of my hikes so far have ventured outside the country parks, into villages and farmland on the outskirts.

In June, I had my first proper Hong Kong hike, to the top of the famous Lion Rock. I did it alone, and though it was hardly a major accomplishment, the journey, the view and the serenity were deeply satisfying. Those countless writers and naturalists have been right when they describe the awesome power of nature (awesome in the profound sense, not the ‘cool, dude’ sense). And ever since I’ve been in Hong Kong, I’ve realized more than ever how important it is for me to experience the great outdoors on a regular basis. I do believe it’s related to my Pacific Northwest roots. Oh and maybe my deep love of the Beatles’ song, “Mother Nature’s Son.”

For Christmas, my head teacher Katie generously gave me this fantastic book: Historical Hong Kong Hikes.

I like it so much I took a photo of it against my teal couch. That's right. Anyway, it’s become my goal to do all fifteen of the hikes in the book before the year is through and so far I’m well on pace! The first one was with my close high school friend Evan, who stopped in Hong Kong for a week during his month-long Asian adventure. We trekked from ritzy Discovery Bay on Lantau Island, up through a Catholic Trappist Monastery, down to chilled out Mui Wo. Misty, quiet, lovely.

Next was a hike from HK’s highest peak, Tai Mo Shan, down through some lovely countryside to a few farming villages near Tai Po. Right off the bat, I will admit that the majority of the ascent was done in the back seat of taxi. Still, I was very briefly on the top of Hong Kong. I went with my college friend, and fellow HK expat and English teacher Lexi and we agreed that it felt about as far removed as possible from the crazy Hong Kong hustle without leaving the territory.

Then Lexi, Sharman and I hiked from the Hong Kong Parkview estate through Jardine’s Lookout and Tai Tam Country Park on the east side of Hong Kong Island. It didn’t have quite the variety of some of the other hikes, but it’s always fun to feel literally right above the city, looking down on the ships coming through the foggy harbor.

And last weekend was the ultimate Hong Kong hike. High school friend Henry, our other high school friend Cosmo and I recreated one of Henry’s favorite moments during his year in China by climbing two of Hong Kong’s highest peaks, both located on Lantau Island: Sunset Peak (869m) and Lantau Peak (934m). The trip from the previously mentioned Mui Wo (sea-level) to Ngong Ping took around seven hours to complete and was probably the most strenuous hike I’ve ever been on. Nonetheless, it brought the best views of all and gave me confidence to tackle even bigger hikes in coming years, whether in Hong Kong or elsewhere. The view of the sun peaking through the clouds on top of Lantau peak was rather magical.

To conclude this post, I’d like to give a big thank you to Henry for all the great adventures we had during his year living in Guangzhou. I saw him in Mainland China three times and he probably came to Hong Kong on nearly a dozen visits. I even mentioned him in six (!) different blog posts, not including this one. If you care, see 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. Henry, I hope that you had as much fun with me as I did over the last year with you, whether it was biking through beautifully mystical Yangshuo, taking photos of monkeys from point blank range at Kam Shan Country Park, or wandering through the busy streets of Mong Kok to find model robots. Sharman, myself and South China will miss you. Best of luck back home in the US of A!