Mandy and the World

Find out what I've been up to on my overseas adventure!

The US of A(lot-of-difficulty-entering-the-country)

So just as a warning… this will mostly be a text-heavy rant (which some of you will probably have already heard first hand) but just in case you can’t be bothered reading my whinging or don’t want to hear it a second time, leave now! BUT if you are planning on travelling anywhere overland from the States, maybe read on, you may learn something from my mistakes!

Ok. So when I last left off, it was 4am (4AM!) and I was off to Bangkok Airport to catch my flight to LAX to visit my cousin Kirsty and her family in Ensenada, Mexico.  Got to the airport in 10 minutes on the handy transport service from the airport hotel, no worries. Jumped in the short queue at Malaysia Airlines to check in and when I got to the front was asked a few questions by a woman wearing an up-do, heavy black liquid eyeliner and glittery eye-shadow (I did mention it was 4am right?):

‘Do you have a visa?’ No, I don’t need one with an Australian passport.

‘So you have an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation) then?’ Yes ma’am

‘Do you have a copy of it?’ No, it said I didn’t need to print it or present it at the airport, but I have a copy of it on my computer if you need the number?

‘You can print upstairs on the 6th floor at CAT telecom, then come back and see me…’

So off I dash, and after waking the lady sleeping on the desk with a jacket over her head, asked how much it is to print… Luckily it was only 10 baht, about all I had after leaving the last of my Thai currency with Ben who had one more day in Bangkok. She said it needed to be emailed to her, but I had it on my laptop and there was no free wifi… Thankfully she had a USB I could borrow (mine were in my checked bag downstairs) and I got the document printed.

I went back downstairs with a copy of my ESTA and handed it to the lady. She looked at it and put it on her desk then handed me a piece of paper and said:

‘Could you write down the address of where you will be staying in America?’ I’m not staying in America; I’m just passing through on my way to Mexico. It said on my ESTA I could just put ‘in transit’, so maybe you could just write that…

‘Hmm, could you show me your ticket to Mexico?’ No, I don’t have one. I’m going to travel overland by car with my cousin who lives there.

‘What about your ticket home?’ I don’t have one; I don’t know when I’m going home yet!

‘Well you need a ticket out of America. We need to make sure you have all the correct documentation or we will get a fine if you don’t get let in at immigration…’ I have done this trip before… I’m sure if I explain at the other end it will all be fine!

‘Did you have a ticket home then?’ Well, yes, but…

Lady confers with other staff… Another lady chimes in, ‘It’s true, one time we had a girl sent all the way back because she didn’t have all of the right papers…’

My lady says: ‘Do you have your cousin’s address?’ Um, no, but I could get it on the internet if that is what I need to get on this flight…

‘Yes that would be good…’

So off to the 6th floor to wake the CAT telecom lady again, and ask if I could use the internet. She said ‘100 baht’ which was the price for 20 minutes and I said ‘But I only need 5 minutes! Can you give me less?’ and she said, ‘sorry, minimum 100 baht’. Damn!

So it was back down to the check-in floor to the ATM to get cash out (which I didn’t want to do because I had to use my credit card since my travel cashcard didn’t work- another long story!). Then back up to CAT telecom to again badger the sleeping lady (I guess night shift isn’t normally this eventful?) and got on the internet. Found Kirsty’s address on the YWAM (Youth With A Mission) website, and thought while I was there I’d buy a train ticket to San Diego (even though this is still in the states) just to help strengthen my case that I was actually going there to meet Kirsty after I arrived in LA.

So after all of that, I went back downstairs, and passed the lady I had been dealing with walking in the other direction. I was like ‘Hey!’ and she said ‘Just go and see one of the other staff’. Thankfully there was still no line, but time was ticking and I was anxious to get on this plane…

After I’d re-explained my story, the new, less heavily made-up lady, said ‘You need a flight out of the US, that is the rule of the ESTA’ and proceeded to give me a print out of said rules with the pertinent point of having ‘an onward or return ticket’ highlighted in yellow. I pointed out that this did not say ‘plane ticket’ and wanted to know if I could just book a bus as it was stupid for me to pay for a flight when I could get there a lot cheaper in a few hours on the road! And that it was too expensive for me to book a flight home if I wasn’t actually going to use it!

‘Why don’t you book a flight somewhere cheaper than Australia, like Japan, or Korea?’ Because I’m not going to Korea or Japan! It’s just hundreds of dollars down the drain! I can’t afford to pay that much to PASS THROUGH the US for 6 HOURS! (The lack of sleep was finally getting to me… I felt a bit bad for taking this out on the poor airline ladies, but I just wanted them to LET ME ON THE PLANE! So I could at least TRY to speak to someone in the US…)

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Except no-one seemed to know the exact rules of what kind of ticket I needed, and I was reluctant to fritter away hundreds of dollars for nothing. However, when I was finally ready to relent and said ‘Fine, I’ll just go book a flight now’, they said, ‘Sorry, you can’t now, the flight is closed’. I looked at my watch- 5.30am.

They gave me back my luggage and barely holding back the tears of frustration asked them ‘Well, what do I do now?’ They said to come back to the Malaysia airlines office at the airport after 9am, book an onward flight and then once I had that, change my flight over (and pay the flight change fee…). I said ‘But there’s no flight to LA tomorrow is there?’ as I remembered from when I was booking, but she said she didn’t know and just to check at the bookings desk later.

Right. Well lucky for me, Ben was still at the airport hotel, so struggling my way out to the taxi level (the escalators don’t make any sense in there and don’t go to all floors, so wandering around and around each level trying to get the hell out just added to my early morning frustration!) I got back there at about 6 and sheepishly said to the reception staff ‘I wasn’t allowed to board the plane…’

I told them which room I’d been in and they sent a guy with a pass up with me, which was lucky, because when we got there despite hearing the TV blasting the news through the door and knocking loudly several times, nothing happened… so then the guy used the pass, but Ben being very secure had done up the safety latch so it was more knocking loudly and shouting through the 3 inch gap ‘Ben! BEN! It’s Mandy… WAKE UP!’ before he finally stirred and opened the door looking mighty confused.

I gave the first version of this rant to Ben, and then tried to text Kirsty to let her know not to go to San Diego on the Monday to get me. In a very happy coincidence, it was Sunday afternoon in Mexico and Kirsty was on Skype, so received the second version of this rant, with the conclusion that I would keep her posted on my progress… After that, I finally went back to sleep for a few more hours.

When I woke, it was back to the airport. Malaysia Airlines confirmed that there was no flight to LA til Wednesday and that to change me to that flight would cost 3900 baht (~AU$130). The lady told me she would book me when I had the onward flight. I asked if it had to be a flight or could it be a bus (Kirsty had suggested booking a Greyhound which would at least be a ticket out, but cheaper than a plane!) but the lady didn’t know. She said I should go to the US Embassy to find out, but said it might be best to call them first as today is a public holiday in Bangkok (of course it was…) and it might not be open.

She gave me the phone number and then I went to the info desk to get a map with the location. They helped me change my notes for coins for the pay phone, and when I rang a girl answered and said yes, the embassy was closed today. I said I just need to ask a question about coming in with the ESTA, is there anyone I could ask? And she said they don’t answer questions over the phone, I would have to go to the embassy tomorrow.

Well that was a pain. I went back up to CAT telecom after that to see if there was anyone I could email, and ended up sending an enquiry to the US embassy in Canberra to see if that would get me a quicker answer than waiting to visit the embassy tomorrow. After that, Ben and I grabbed some brunch and decided to head back into the city for one more day.

We visited Jim Thompson’s house first. Jim Thompson was an American architect who later came to Bangkok as a military officer and fell in love with the place. After he left the army he came back to live in Thailand. He helped with reviving and growing the Thai craft of hand woven silk and promoting it internationally. His house combines 6 teak buildings up to 200 years old built in the traditional Thai style, which were brought from around the country to Bangkok. He filled it with traditional pieces of furniture, ceramics and art and he decided to open it to the public, donating proceeds to Thai charities and projects aimed at preserving Thailand’s cultural heritage. Unfortunately, when he was 60, Jim Thompson disappeared while visiting the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. Not a trace has ever been found to say what happened to him, it’s crazy. After that we hit the shops for a bit, had our last street pad thai and made our way back to the airport hotel.

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Next morning Ben’s flight was at 8am, so I decided I’d catch the airport transport with him at 6am. Unfortunately the hotel staff must have thought the flight was at 6am because they called a couple of times at 4am checking if we were coming down to get on the bus! Anyway, later on arrival at the airport we were greeted by a mass onslaught of people, as Thai Airways has one of those everyone-for-every-flight-line-up-here systems. We must’ve waited more than an hour, and then Ben had to go straight through security. After saying goodbye, I took the train into the city for my adventure to the US Embassy.

I found the embassy easily enough, but already before 9am there was a massive line of Thais with arm-fulls of paperwork out front. The girls checking people in eventually got to me and asked if I had an appointment and when I said no, told my story and said I need just need to clarify with someone exactly what ‘ticket’ I need to get in to the US, so they pulled me out of the line and said ‘wait here’. The girl went in and talked on the phone then came back out with the ESTA website written on a piece of paper. I said, ‘No, I already have that, but I was told I need an onward ticket and I want to know if it has to be a flight and if it has to be within the 90 days. I just need to ask someone who knows!’ she went inside again and I waited again in the sweltering heat. After a bit more to-ing and fro-ing over the next half hour, I was finally provided with the details of the US homeland security who were conveniently located across the road.

Over I went to see them and after handing in my phone and ID at reception was shown through to the waiting area. After waiting a while for the one person who was working to finish up with the guy ahead of me I went up and again told my story and the lady said, ‘oh, you need the border protection office next door. Just ask the security guard’. Sigh.

So I went back to security who let me into the correct office and then repeated myself again to the girl there, Maysa. She was not sure of the answer, and her boss was in Vientiane (Laos), but she said that she would email for me. It seemed the only option, so I went downstairs and found a coffee shop with wifi to email Maysa the problem and she said she would get back to me ASAP- I stressed that I really needed to know today to sort everything out as I wanted to be on a flight tomorrow!

Meanwhile, my email barrage with the US embassy in Canberra was proving slow and fruitless. They insisted on either not answering the actual question or only answering part of it! The first response to my spiel and questions ‘Does a bus ticket to Mexico suffice? Or if I do need a flight, does it need to be within 90 days of my initial entry to the US or can I book it for the end of the year?’ was: ‘ In regard to your query, it is a requirement that you hold a return or onward ticket for you travel under the Visa Waiver Program.’ Well thanks, but I have already been made well aware of that… However they did point out that ‘Travelers with onward tickets terminating in Mexico, Canada, Bermuda or the Caribbean Islands must be legal residents of these areas.’ Well, there’s a point I had not noticed before…

I then asked if this ticket could be for December, thinking maybe I could just book to go home for Christmas and in the meantime be in Mexico and Central America, but the response I got was: ‘In regard to your query, your onward ticket should be the ticket that you will use going back to Australia.’ WHICH WASN’T THE QUESTION!!

I wrote back asking again if it needed to be within 90 days and again specifying I will be travelling for several months and added that I may look for work in Canada after this, to which they then said the visa waiver program may not be appropriate and I might be better off with a tourist visa. However looking at the link provided, I would need to spend $160 and be somewhere for long enough that I could have an interview, to which I would have to bring ‘Current proof of income, tax payments, property or business ownership, or assets; Your travel itinerary and/or other explanation about your planned trip; Criminal/court records pertaining to any arrest or conviction anywhere, even if you completed your sentence or were later pardoned; and your current and all old passports. Original documents are always preferred over photocopies’!! Soooooo not likely from Mexico/ Guatemala/ Honduras!!

Luckily, amidst all this mess, good old Maysa from border protection delivered within the hour. A clear and concise:

‘Dear Ms. Amanda,

If you enter the US (including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands) by air, in order to use the Visa Waiver, you must have an onward ticket that takes you to some place that is not Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean. The ticket must take you out within 90 days. The 90-day clock starts ticking as soon as you clear immigration.

Rgds,

Maysa’

Phew. So I went ahead and booked a cheap Air NZ flight just at the end of my 90 days to Melbourne thinking at least I could change it later and would end up getting some use from it… Then it was back to the airport to show the lady my documentation and change my flight. With all of that sorted, I went back to the hotel exhausted, texted/emailed all concerned parties that I was to fly tomorrow and vegged in my room all afternoon eating cup noodles. I had an early night because I was up again at 3.30am for my airport transfer at 4am.

This time I went through with no issues, they didn’t ask me for an onward ticket (maybe the lady doing my booking had noted it?) and let me go through. So after a total of around 20 hours in the air and a few more hours on stopovers in Kuala Lumpur and Tokyo, I finally got to LAX. I waited nervously in the long line at immigration hoping that I wouldn’t run into any problems…

The guy who checked me through asked what I was doing in the states, I said I was going to Mexico to visit my cousin tonight. He asked, where to next? And I said central America. He then asked me how I got so much time off, what I did for work in Australia, do I work privately or in a hospital and a whole bunch of other random stuff while he took my full set of fingerprints and then my photo, and let me through without asking me for any details on my trip to Mexico or my stupid $720 onward ticket!!

Oh well… At least I was prepared had I needed it… Since this has been so text heavy I will leave you with a few pics from the Pacific Surfliner – the train from LA to San Diego.

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I met Kirsty, Oscar and 2-year-old Sammy in San Diego and after the mandatory stops at Oscar’s favourite burger joint In and Out for dinner, and Starbucks for vanilla lattes, I finally made it to Ensenada…

So team, remember to read the fine print, and for future reference, if you are travelling overland through the States, not only Mexico and Canada but ALL of the following countries also count in your 90-day visit: Anguilla, Antigua, Aruba, Bahamas, Barbados, Barbuda, Bermuda, Bonaire, British Virgin Islands, Canada, Cayman Islands, Cuba, Curacao, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guadeloupe,  Haiti, Jamaica, Marie-Galante, Martinique, Mexico, Miquelon, Montserrat, Saba, Saint-Barthelemy, Saint Christopher, Saint Eustatius, Saint Kitts-Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Maarten, Saint Martin, Saint Pierre, Saint Vincent, Grenadines, Trinidad, Tobago, Turks and Caicos Islands, Other British, French and Netherlands territory or possessions bordering on the Caribbean Sea.

Easy! 😉 Happy travels!

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Thai-ing it up

For this segment of my trip, I was again lucky to have some familiar company. For those of you who don’t know Ben, he’s also a dietitian who doesn’t eat like one, has a fondness for second-hand clothing and is a master of puns.

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My first two and a half hours in Thailand was spent hanging out in the baggage claim at Bangkok airport waiting for Ben’s flight to arrive. I had told mum and dad I’d call from the airport knowing I had time to kill and thinking there’d be wifi as there had been practically everywhere in Vietnam, however I was unfortunately on the wrong side of the gates to access free wifi. So I whiled away the time with my Mexican guidebook (thanks Karman!) and daydreamed about the pad thai I was going to eat as soon as I got to Khao San…

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Ben arrived for the week with a pack the size of my carry-on, bearing gifts of a multi-coloured pen and a Pez dispenser topped with Patrick the Starfish of Spongebob Squarepants fame. Not that Ben was sophisticated enough to know who Patrick was… He thought it looked like him. What do you reckon?

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We cabbed into town, thankfully with no major traffic jams and arrived to the backpacker hub of Khao San Road around 10pm, just as the night was kicking off. The street was buzzing with activity, music pumping, vendors hustling, travellers eating on the street, drinking on the street at bars advertising ‘No Check ID!’, and browsing through a myriad of clothing, bracelets, sunglasses and more. This is the first time I have ever stayed on Khao San Road itself, but I like the Phra Nakhorn area- it’s close to the river, close to attractions like the Grand Palace, Wat Arun and Wat Pho and also has heaps of good cheap food stalls. We stayed at a place called Rikka Inn, which was right in the action, but not too noisy and had a nice rooftop pool with great views to boot! I got to eat the pad thai I was dreaming of (it cost 30 baht, ~$1, and I couldn’t even finish it!) but the food coma together with the day’s travels got the better of us and we crashed in preparation for our first day in the city.

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In the morning we took to the streets. Breakfast first of course, which was fresh tropical fruit, homemade yoghurt and muesli and a fruit shake on Soi Rambuttri, a haven for food-stalls and restaurants. Next stop was the Grand Palace, whose name does not lie. It is indeed very grand. The complex has some spectacular buildings adorned in gold leaf and intricate mosaics, including Wat Prah Kaew (the Temple of the Emerald Buddha). It was built more than 200 years ago and was once the home of the King, as well as the royal court and the government. The king no longer lives there, but it is still used for important events and there are apparently still some state offices there, as only some parts of the complex are open to the public.

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After I had gotten kitted up in the appropriate clothing available for loan we wandered into the grounds. Ironincally, seeing the shorts Ben was wearing that morning I’d loaned him my fisherman pants, but I had thought my three-quarter length pants would be ok- turns out I needed a long skirt to cover up my ankles! We passed detailed friezes depicting the Ramayana in the cloisters (I’m not sure its crucial to the story, but check out the crow eating the guts of the drowning donkey in the one below! :-/ ), golden statues, pots filled with flowering water lilies and towering stupas before coming to Wat Prah Kaew, one of the main attractions here. The Emerald Buddha is actually carved from jade and I am always surprised to find it appears smaller than I expect. Despite my overenthusiastic expectations for a giant green Buddha, it is still very impressive perched up on its extravagantly decorated gold podium.

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On the way out of the complex, we had a peep in the Queen Sirikit Textile Museum which I’d never been to before as it was just opened about a year ago. It was quite interesting, showcasing a range of the fashionable queen’s outfits from over the years, and also featured displays on the making of Thai silk, weaving of traditional patterns and the queen’s SUPPORT project (Foundation for the Promotion of Supplementary Occupation and Related Techniques), which she began in the 70s to help rural craftspeople earn additional income by providing free financial assistance and expert guidance, eg. Weavers of traditional silk fabric in the northeast of Thailand. My favourite display showed how the silk is made from the breeding and feeding of the silkworms to the extraction of silk threads from their cocoons to the spinning and dyeing of the threads and finally the weaving. It was fascinating, it’s such a highly skilled and labour intense process. No wonder silk is pricey! This website http://www.designboom.com/history/silk1.html is great if anyone is interested in looking at all the steps accompanied by some fantastic pictures.

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After the palace we ventured to the nearby Wat Pho, home of a very large and famous Buddha image known to the general population as the Reclining Buddha (but known to Ben as ‘the lying down Buddha’). It is 46m long, covered in shining gold leaf and has giant 3m high feet inlaid with intricate mother of pearl designs. The temple is always packed with tourists. One change this time we went was that instead of just leaving your shoes out the front as previously was the case (and still is at most temples/ important buildings), you got a little bag to put your shoes in and take around with you. I think this is because some people used to come out and find their nice shoes had gone walking…

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Inside, we tried along with everyone else to line up a nice shot without other people’s heads/ arms/ pointing fingers in it, though with limited success. Behind the Buddha, 108 bronze bowls line the wall, which are meant to indicate each of the auspicious characters of Buddha. My favourite part of visiting this temple is dropping coins into these bowls- it supposedly brings good fortune, but the sound of everyone doing it at once is really cool- I love it!

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Wat Pho is also home to of one of the oldest Thai massage schools. Traditional Thai massage and medicine is still taught here. For some unknown and unfounded reason, Ben is a lifetime massage hater, so we didn’t go this time. Luckily there was some sort of festivities happening in the temple grounds that day (I’m not sure if it happens on Sundays or if maybe it was a special occasion?), but there were loads of food stalls and music, so we got some pork ribs and chicken skewers to entertain us, before leaving and roaming around through several random but charming riverside alleys/lanes attempting to find the ferry terminal.

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We eventually got there and caught the ferry down river to join up with the sky train. So many modes of transport in one day! We spent the afternoon checking out the shops at Siam Centre and MBK, and finished the day with an exciting DIY Japanese BBQ (selected based on the pink-muumuu-wearing dragon out the front the restaurant, how could they not have good food?! :-p )

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On day 2, the time had come for me to finally go to the Ancient City (‘Muang Boran’), a large park outside of Bangkok in an area called Samut Prahkan. The park is filled with modern and historic Thai monuments from all over the country, some have been moved here and others have been reproduced from the originals in scaled down replicas. I have always wanted to go, but in my previous trips I’d never made it out there. It is actually quite a fair way from the city; I initially thought the taxi driver quoting us 400 baht to get there was exaggerating, but when we got a cabbie willing to take us on the meter, it was pretty much spot on after more than an hour on the road!

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Included in the ticket price, you get to borrow a bicycle to ride around the park; otherwise you can pay a small amount per hour for a golf buggy to drive around in. It was a tough decision, but we stuck with the bikes. Time went quickly cruising around. The replicas were really impressive, check out the mini replica grand palace (on the left) compared to the real one (on the right)…

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A lot of the buildings you could enter as well and they were intricately decorated or featured art or handicraft displays too, so we were frequently stopping to wander about. There was a model market village where we got proper Thai street iced coffees (amazing concoctions involving coffee powder, milk powder, sugar, sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk- real high energy, high protein beverages!). There was also a ‘floating village’ which didn’t appear to be actually floating; it looked more like normal buildings on stilts in the water… It was still really pretty though. You can catch boats down the river too, but we only arrived after the last boat had left at 4pm unfortunately.

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Ben did make a little friend at the village though, so we weren’t entirely disappointed. It was quite entertaining watching them race their bikes, with the little kid constantly pedalling super-fast and Ben trying his best not to pedal at all as it made him soar ahead! Despite the language barrier, the kid seemed to have a great time (as did Ben!). When Ben tried in a mixture of English, Solomon Islands Pidgin and sign language to tell him that we were going, he adamantly signalled to continue on and we felt bad to just cycle away as he sped off in the opposite direction, so followed a bit further. He took us to what appeared to be his house, and there we managed to wave and say bye and got a wave back.

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When the park closed at 5, we were well and truly spent from riding around in the sun but decided to try our hand at public transporting it back. First step was to cross the main road, and wait on the opposite side for a ‘minibus’ (aka a ute with seats and tin roof in the back) which cost 8 baht (about 25c) each to get to the ‘bus station’ (a shelter on the side of a another main road). The next vehicle was an actual bus (with windows and even air-conditioning!) and cost about 20 baht each (65c) to get to the Bearing BTS (skytrain) station. We then caught the skytrain in to Siam Square and from there had to cab, but it is usually a more affordable 60-70 baht fare!

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Since it was peak hour, we thought we’d kill some time wandering around again, and stumbled into heaven- a Magnum café with an amazing in store adventure called ‘Make My Magnum’… It was a truly wondrous place. Before you go in, you fill out a little form with a checklist- you got a fresh vanilla ice-cream on a stick, chose whether you wanted it dipped in white, milk or dark chocolate, chose 3 ‘toppings’ for it (such as crumbed brownie, crumbed red velvet cake, dried blueberries, choc chips, crushed peanuts or pistachios, marshmallows, mint crisp amongst others) and then chose if you wanted it drizzled in white, milk or dark chocolate.

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You took your form in to the man behind the counter and the results were incredible… I still wish I was eating that ice-cream. I dream about it sometimes… I have never seen these cafes before, but I hope that by the time I get back to Melbourne, they have made it there!

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Once we had sufficiently recovered from that life-changing experience, peak hour was dissipating and it was time to get a cab. On the way, Ben was looking out the window like always (he’s like a small child in a moving vehicle- eyes glued on the passing scenery), but the hipster radar was on tonight, because he managed to spot a bicycle café not far from our hotel (FYI hipsters living in or visiting Bangkok- it was on Maha Chai St). We also saw quite a few busy looking local restaurants along the same stretch. So that became our plan for the rest of the evening- to venture out of the Khao San/Rambuttri backpacker bubble to the locals’ Bangkok beyond.

We got dinner at a restaurant dedicated to pad thai which had umpteen varieties of the dish. We went for the special, as we had seen most people eating it on our way in (and the menu was all in Thai so the particulars of each one were lost on us… at least they had pictures!). The special came with the noodles all somehow wrapped in egg, and it was amazing accompanied by iced coconut water. The staff must have been excited to have some non-Thai people in there because they gave us a souvenir sticker on our way out!

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We then went to check out the bicycle café, which was a pretty groovy little joint (I think it was called ‘Bike Café’) and we had a couple of beers there, moving outside for the most part so that Ben could gaze longingly at the staff’s snazzy bikes out front. We also got to sit down wind from a pad thai street vendor about 2 metres away. Breathing in the delicious aromas the entire time almost made me eat another plate of it even though I was full!  We finished the evening back on Khao San getting Ben his first bucket – the traditional mix of Sangsom (Thai whiskey), red bull and coke. This was accompanied by loud dancey pop music (so as to drown out the loud music of neighbouring bars) and some Thai street performers carving it up breakdancing (every now and then having to split the crowd as a tuk-tuk or taxi tried to drive through).

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The following day, we headed down to Koh Chang, an island to the south of Bangkok. It was supposed to be a 5-6 hour bus/ferry combo from Bangkok, but as is the norm, it took much, much longer! We were in a minibus which drove all around Bangkok filling up to capacity- a crammed 12 people and everyone’s luggage on the remaining 2 seats since there was no boot due to the extra row of seating. I was super uncomfortable for the first part, overheating sitting against the sunny window and squashed with the dude in front of me’s reclined seat about an inch from my face. I was not a happy camper. When we first came to a rest stop, Ben chivalrously took the corner seat, and managed to sit the seat in front back up before the guy got back which made a world of difference. We later had another rest stop + fuel stop which must have taken more than an hour as we and half of Bangkok were sitting in a kilometre long queue for petrol. On the opposite side of the road to the direction in which we were meant to be heading mind you!

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So eventually we made it to the ferry as the sun was setting (we had left at midday), were told the minibus would drop us at our hotels on the other side but that it would cost us extra! We were staying at Bailan Bay, right to the south of the island so had to pay 200B each, about a third of the price of our bus/ferry ticket… After a smooth ferry ride in the dark then careening around the windy and steep island roads to drop off all but one of the other passengers, we finally got to Bailan Bay Resort, just before the kitchen was about to close. We quickly ordered some red and green curry and after we were shown to our bungalow called it a night.

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Our first day we thought we’d check if we could walk around the headland at low tide to find Lonely Beach, as the area in front of our bungalows was really rocky. It was one of those times where the place you are looking at seems much closer than it really is, so after bumbling along over the rocks for ages in our thongs and not getting to the corner, we thought maybe we should try to cut back up to the road. The vegetation seemed pretty thick and there was no track, but we saw some bungalows nearby, so stealthily climbed the fence and then walked up from the beach and out to the main road pretending we lived there. No questions asked, so all good!

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We spent most of the day aimlessly wandering around the Lonely Beach shops  (had a giggle at the ‘soup of the day’ sign at Margaritaville…) and then lazed at the beach once we finally found it (it was a fair bit further north, so good thing we didn’t continue trying to walk there as it would’ve been rocks, rocks, rocks and by that time the tide probably would have come in!).  Much of our time on the island was spent vegetating, talking about how all the dogs we saw looked like a generic ‘dog’ (like not a specific breed, but something a child would draw if you told them to draw a dog) or trying out the various restaurants (where my favourite menu items were ‘noodle noodle topping the sea’ and ‘curiously pork ribs tom yum’), so I’ll do the highlights to spare you the ins and outs of ‘dog’…

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We spent a day out on a dive boat with BB Divers (friendly staff and great service, I’d recommend them) and did 3 dives. The first site was a wreck, the HTMS Chang 712- an ex American warship from 1942 which was deliberately sunk in November, 2012 to create an artificial reef. It was a really nice dive, reasonable vis and there were loads of fish living there.

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Our second dive was a reef dive at a site called Hin Luk Bak where we saw some beautiful corals and tropical fish. And my favourite thing to play with under water- the pretty little Christmas tree worms! If you create movement in the water near them, they all pop back into their little holes, and I like to watch them slowly re-emerging when they think the coast is clear! Again I’ll have to rely on google images to show you what they look like as we were too deep to take the camera down…

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Our last dive was another reef dive at a site called Hin Rap. When we arrived at the site one of the instructors Pierre looked off the edge of the boat and joked, ‘Sorry guys, its too clear. We’re going to have to move. We can give your money back, don’t worry…’ The visibility was about 12-15 metres. It was beautiful, you could see the reef from the surface. I saw some cool stuff this time, a Kuhl’s stingray with blue spots, a moray eel, the enormous Indian cushion sea stars and a big tiger cowrie. It was a lovely dive to finish on.

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For a couple of the other days on the island, we rented a motorbike. Koh Chang is actually bigger than we thought it would be and we wanted to explore a bit more of it. It was only 150B ($5) to rent one for 24 hours, and 80B for 2 old whiskey bottles filled with gasoline by the road side. So with Ben committing as driver (I was not testing out my non-existent motorcycling skills on these roads!) we went for it.  The roads were a little terrifying at times, but no-one really drives faster than 40km/hr which is definitely a good thing with all the steep slopes and hairpin bends that the island features. And Ben was a born biker bandit, so we were all good (I may or may not have been told to write that…)

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One day we decided to visit the Klong Plu waterfalls. We were charged 200B each to go and see it and thought ‘This had better be the most incredible waterfall…’ On the 700m walk to the falls, we decided it was worth the money. The track was dotted with several information boards, entitled ‘Stream of Life’ which had us in fits of laughter. We learned that ‘Stone is a mixture of many minerals. It can sometimes be seen obviously. The stone is an important part of the crust with a density where the human being can live.’ The next best lesson was that ‘From the forest that absorbs large amount of water, which flows together to become a stream. Several strams have become a river to benefits lives of the people around Ko Chang for drink and for utility.’ Good on you streams, coming together for the good of humankind!

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The waterfall itself was pretty nice. The water was clear and cool, which was great as the beaches on Ko Chang have that irritatingly warm and not at all refreshing water. We ventured up to the top pool which Ben jumped right into and as I was getting in the park ranger guy came and told us we weren’t allowed to. A sign wouldn’t go astray since there seemed to be no issue putting them everywhere else in the area… again, when we were leaving we were told off as we tried to take the ‘nature trail’ because apparently it closed at 4pm! Coulda maybe put that on the sign that was already there pointing to the trail… but nahhh, that would be too easy… what would the park ranger do at 4pm?!

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So we walked out on the trail we came in on, and laughed a second time at the information boards.  As we exited the park, we felt like a snack, something along the lines of some spring rolls perhaps. Just before getting back to the bike, we were accosted by a crazy little lady yelling about chicken (‘Chicken! CHICKEN! You want chicken?’) and pointing at her two remaining roast chickens. I think she wanted to get rid of them cos it was the end of the day… anyway, we thought she was a character so went to her shop. Unfortunately she didn’t have any spring rolls, and we weren’t hungry enough for a whole chicken, so shared a pad thai. Even though we missed out on spring rolls, we did get to see the lady frantically shouting ‘CHICKEN!!’ at all the passers-by so were satisfied with our venue choice as it came with free entertainment.

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In the evening we went to watch the sunset on the coast and on the way back after a seafood dinner, stopped at a night market where you could buy many amazing patterned leggings, a range of rip-off sunnies, lots of street food and an assortment of firearms and swords.

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Our second day on the bike, and our last day on the island, we drove up to the main beach White Sands, chilled by the water and had a little dip in the warm bath temperature sea. In the evening we had a long awaited seafood BBQ on the beach (Lonely Beach didn’t have them because the tide came up too far at night), so we indulged in a butterfish and some squid as well as a meat skewer each- awesome. The rest of the evening we bar hopped along the beach a little, from a rooftop, a beachfront bars on the sand, to a little platform under a tree lit with jellyfish! We were lucky to catch a fire show at one as well- it was a pretty good show, all choreographed to music. I get mesmerised by fire twirling, never get sick of it!

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The next day, our journey back to Bangkok was much better than the journey down. The dude sitting next to us on the bus must’ve had a rough ride down to Ko Chang too, because he came prepared with several cans of beer in his bag and steadily worked his way through them! He must’ve been pretty desperate… warm beer is no treat! This time we were going to the airport as my flight was at 6am, so we had just booked an airport hotel to reduce travel time and maximise sleep time. Our minibus had a whole row less of seats and also had a boot which meant a whole lot more room for humans, hooray! Despite the queue for the morning ferry, it seemed a much quicker run, even with a bit of a downpour and a few accidents along the roads. We still had to wait in the line at the fuel stop but it was not nearly as long as last time (they really should look at having more than one petrol station on that route…)

Anyway, we eventually arrived at the airport and got a cab to our hotel, had an expensive but tasty meal in the hotel restaurant for our last supper and since we were in the middle of an industrial sort of area which didn’t appear to have much nightlife, we watched a movie- ‘Seven Psychopaths’ (good film!) Then, it was time to grab a quick bit of shut eye before my 4am adventure to the airport for my flight to LA. And it was certainly an adventure (as some of you probably already know!)… but I think I will save that part for next time!

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