Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Diving Phi Phi Island

 My decision to dive on Phi Phi Island was pretty spontaneous. We arrived around noon and there weren't any afternoon trips set to go and we already had snorkeling plans for the morning so we'd miss those dives as well. That left a night dive, which I figured would be great for seeing a lot of creatures and getting some (hopefully) good pictures. I brought my mask and snorkel and underwater camera case for just an opportunity like this, so I figured I had nothing to lose. I suited up and headed out with the guy (Peter) to my left. Peter spoke English with a surprisingly American accent. He said grew up going to a British school but picked up the US slant from TV and movies.

Sunset over the harbor

This big rock was the start of our dive. We started by circling it, then heading down the attached underwater wall. To be honest, I wasn't expecting to see a whole lot. The diving on Guam is pretty good and I hadn't read a whole lot of great things about diving in Thailand, namely that the visibility isn't that great. So a couple minutes into our dive when we saw this big puffer sleeping, I was pretty happy already. It just got better from there. Turns out there was a TON of stuff to see, much of it like Guam, but also much of it bigger or just different.

 Soft coral/fan coral bouquet

These super spiny urchins were everywhere... which made for a somewhat scary dive considering the current was pushing us into the wall the whole 45 minutes!

Urchins in every color and schema... I've never seen so many different varieties


These things were so you get closer, 
its arms stop swirling in the current and curl up into little spirals

The auto red eye remover does not work on crabs, FYI

I love this little hideaway fish!

Interesting choral scheme I drifted over

This furry thing was growing perpendicular out from the wall

The sea urchins really outdid themselves... spectacular! 
I love the star in the middle

So colorful! The whole 40-ft wall looked like this in some places.

A cleaner shrimp... they clean around your nails... much like the Fish Doctors :)

Snowy white puffy soft coral emerging about 2 ft. high from the sea floor

I keep looking at these pictures thinking, surely Nick took this one, right? 

 It was really amazing how much there was to see everywhere I looked. 
So much for thinking it wouldn't be that great!

The picture doesn't do this justice... this giant pink thing is like a 3-foot tall urn flipped on its side with an angel fish swimming inside of it... the fish turned to the side when I took the picture, which is just too bad. It was a unique combination of sea life.

Another sleeping fish... so hard to get fish pics from the side, so I had to take it!

This was a massive clam that was sticking out from the wall perpendicularly. Usually they grow up from the sea floor. Also, the head of this clam that stuck out of the wall was the size of a volleyball. It snapped shut as soon as the flash went off.

Beautiful red fan coral, home to some clingy shell creatures

Lion fish... we have these in Guam but my instructor was really excited to spot one for me so I had to humor him and take a picture :)

This was perhaps the find of the dive... a large cuddlefish! We hung out with it for about five minutes. It was about the size of a large pumpkin. They are so weird looking!

Another proud fish picture for me... this post is making me abundantly clear that I still know so few of the names of the stuff I look at under water... something to work on our last year here.

Where's Waldo? Let me rephrase... where's the star crab? It is exceptionally camouflaged, which is why these things are so hard to find. In all our dives I have only ever seen one other of these (a night dive on Guam). Hint: It is the star-shaped yellow & pink thing in the dead center of the picture. Believe it or not, that is a crab. About the size of your hand. A-mazing!

Sooo... if I had to pick a favorite 45-minutes of my trip, there's no contest, this was it. I wish Jen hadn't had sinus issues so she could come with me, but I'm so glad I took the plunge and went on my own. Also glad Nick talked me into taking the underwater camera case, even though it would take up precious space in my pack. So glad to have captured these shots. The underwater world continues to amaze me. Grateful for another adventure in the sea :)

Lounging Around Phi Phi Island

The second half of our day in Hong Kong was spent flying to Phuket (pronounced Poo-Ket), Thailand. We took a very interesting 30-minute cab ride (you had to be there) to Phuket Town, where, due to a flight delay in Bangkok, we arrived at our hotel at 10:30p. We stepped out of the hotel to explore and found ourselves across the street from a nice salon. And we immediately proceeded to get massages and facials well into the early morning of the next day. When in Rome :)

We woke up Wednesday morning and headed to the ferry, which we took across the bay to the Phi Phi (pronounced Pee Pee) Islands. (Thailand really has a knack for picking geographic names that are awkward in English). Don't worry, none of the above vessels were our ferry.

 Nets dangling to dry outside of a fishing boat

Excited for our first day in Thailand!
As we got closer to Phi Phi Island, I took a picture of this free-standing rock. 
Had no idea this would later be my dive site!

 Arriving at Ko Phi Phi Don pier

  First stop - lunch! Our first Thai food meal - yummm!! The restaurant we ate at was owned by a guy who was trapped under a fallen building after the 2004 tsunami. He named his restaurant "Thank You" because he was so grateful to be alive. The food was fantastic.
 After lunch and shopping, we checked into our cute casita by the beach 
and headed to, well, the beach of course. 

Long boats at low tide. Not going anywhere for a while?

"Hey Jen - maybe we should get our nails done after we lay out..."
Rough day...

Waiting for dark with Peter, my Thai/Dutch dive guide
After the beach, I took the plunge and signed up for a night dive. There were dive shops everywhere and even though we planned a morning snorkeling trip with the sharks, I thought I couldn't pass up the chance to dive in one of Thailand's best dive spots, even if Thailand itself is not 100% known for its diving. More on that to come (it gets its own feature post!). But right before the dive, I got a mani/pedi. This turned out to be a terrible idea both because the lighting was awful so I made a horrific color choice (Christmas green instead of teal... yikes), and also because the fins totally ruined the polish. Luckily pedicures only cost about $5 here, so no biggie :)

While I was night diving, Jen had an adventure of her own... tattoo!! 
(it's an elephant). This is one of my favorite pictures from the whole trip... 
so much going on here!

After the dive we grabbed some fantastic seafood at a restaurant where they display the raw fish, prawns, squid, etc., on a table out front and you choose the exact fish they will fillet and throw on the grill. Too bad neither of us had our cameras! Luckily we got pictures of another type of fish...

After dinner, we went to see the doctor. The Feesh Doctor! Have you heard of that spa treatment where the little fish come over and nibble all the dead skin off of your feet? Well it's everywhere in Thailand and again, only $5, so after much wincing and anguish on my part, I agreed to join Jen and give it a try. This is perhaps one of the strangest things I have ever done. Ever. If there is a ticklish scale like there is a spicy scale at Thai restaurants from 1 to 10, the fish micromassage (nibble) is about a 10 on the tickle scale. Hot chilies!

 I can hardly keep my feet down it tickles so much...

"We want to eat your feet!" ~Sign out front
I will say, my feet felt super smooth after 15 minutes. 
The whole thing still seems so gross though! Ick!

Such a fun day! (Yes, we did all of that in one day). Which is why we were only slightly disappointed when a huge thunderstorm rolled in that night and canceled our 6a.m. snorkel with the sharks trip. Instead, we actually got some sleep for the first time since we left Guam Monday afternoon (it was now Thursday). The weather still wasn't great so we did some final island shopping, read and talked at a cafe by the water, and ate one last good meal (not gonna lie... pizza... which was amazing) before leading up on the ferry again. 

Back in Phuket, we took a tuk tuk (say that 3x fast) to a nearby shopping mall (since we clearly had not shopped enough) for Zara trip #2 (new country!) and another good night sleep before heading out the next morning.

All throughout our trip, it was so strange how time was passing. The days were flying by and yet, we couldn't believe how long each day seemed because we did so much stuff. We kept finding ourselves saying things like, "Hey Jen, remember when we were in Hong Kong... yesterday?" and it was just so unbelievable that just 24 hours before we were in pseudo China and now we were on an island in Thailand laying on the beach. Crazy what you can do in a day!

Zara in Thailand :)
One last observation about Phi Phi Island is that I am pretty sure Jen and I were some of the only Americans on the island... if there were any others, we never ran into a single one. Most of the visitors were from Japan, Europe, Australia or New Zealand. Even despite the sea of white people, I was so floored by the diversity. We met one guy from Indonesia who grew up in Australia but now lived in Singapore. And it seemed like the more people we talked to, the more of those kinds of stories we heard. My dive instructor, Peter, was Dutch/Thai, grew up in Thailand, did his first year of Uni in Denmark but is doing his next year in New Zealand. My experience growing up in Florida and Texas but moving to California sounds pretty boring in comparison. Grateful for the opportunity to see these new places now, especially Thailand which seems to be a crossroads for the world. It and New Zealand are tied for number of world travelers I've met who have named one of these beautiful places their favorite country in the world. Great food, inexpensive everything, nice people, beautiful scenery, complete freedom to do whatever you want. Yeah, I can totally see why.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Fast & Furious in Hong Kong

Greetings on the other side of a whirlwind trip to Asia! Lots of stories and pictures to share, but before I even start telling you about the trip, I have to introduce a very important person, my new friend Jen. I have known Jen since I started attending my church here on Guam, but more recently she has become my coworker there. Unlike most of my Guam friends, Jen did not come to the island because of anything related to the U.S. military. She came as a missionary to teach English at Pacific Islands University, the Bible college here on Guam that serves as a ministry hub for the other islands in the region (like Chuuk, Palau, Yap, etc.). Jen's goal has been to travel as much as possible. It just so happened that Nick was going to be away on a work trip leaving me with a week free. 

Guam travel math: Free week + travel buddy = trip! 

Continental provided us with a ridiculous (you'll see why) itinerary on miles to and from Thailand. We booked the trip, planned it loosely, and set off on our adventure last Monday. This is the first place it took us:

Hello Hong Kong! Actually we got in around 10p.m., easily navigated their unbelievably efficient underground transit into town, crashed at our hostel for a few hours of terrible, overly excited sleep, then hit the ground running to take advantage of our five hours of sunlight before heading to the airport again. So technically the first place our day took us was, well, Starbucks :) I know to Americans this sounds like the sin of eating at McDonald's in Italy, but coming from Guam, where we have no Starbucks, this was a treat for our first discovery on our first day off island before we even left the underground!

As recommended by friends, we headed immediately to take the tram to the top of Victoria Peak for a spectacular sunrise view of the city and Kowloon area across the river. As a metropolis, Hong Kong is breathtaking. Steep woodsy cliffs encapsulate the buzzing urban sprawl, framing it between luxurious green trees, refreshing blue waters, and distant hillsides. I can now technically say I have been to China, although apparently Hong Kong still operates under a different government even though it's no longer its own entity. Sounds to me like pseudo-China, much like we refer to Guam pseudo-America.

The unexpectedly serene back side of Hong Kong Island from Victoria Peak

After finishing our lattes on the top of Victoria Peak, we took the tram back down and found ourselves at the foothills of the HK Botanical Gardens and Zoo. I got really excited when I discovered signs for an herb garden, so we wandered around the maze of gardens in search of it. Before finding any herbs, we stumbled upon the zoo. (This pictures is deceiving, but these guys had pretty large cages). Definitely fun to watch. The herb garden turned out to be a bust. Their definition of herb is more like a "plant that has medicinal potential." Not "smells amazing and is great to cook with" like mine.

 Our next destination was University Museum at the University of HK. We read in our guide book that there was a unique and comprehensive exhibit full of crosses from early Christian movements around 400-500 A.D. The museum had a lot of nice things, but we had bad luck with the key exhibit. It was taken out, and we have no idea where. The English explanation we got included the word "away" with some shoo-ing hand motions. Oh well! We saw some incredible artifacts, some of them 2,000 years old! That alone was pretty impressive.

happy art

A wooden wall etched in Chinese calligraphy... 
relevant to a current ink-related project :)

A new photo for my collection of Zaras around the world!
Okay, so clearly we are not at the museum anymore! We hopped on a city bus (again, the public transport so easy to figure out), and found ourselves in a fabulous shopping area. I could just smell that there was a Zara nearby, and after some botched attempts to find it on my own using usual techniques (look for person with Zara bag and go the direction they are coming from), we asked for help. We found it with 15 minutes to shop before starting the trek back to the airport. Starbucks and Zara all before 11 a.m.? Not a bad five hours in Hong Kong!

Zara bag in hand(!), we hoofed back to our hostel, grabbed our packs, then started the journey back to the airport. In our 12 hours on the ground, we took about a dozen trains, the subway, a tram, a taxi, and a city bus. We went to the top of a mountain, explored gardens, a zoo, museum, and a shopping mall. We did some fantastic people watching and quick observing as we went. Hong Kong is an amazing place and while it's a shame we only had a few hours there, I am so grateful I got to see it at all! (especially without having to buy a separate plane ticket... score). And of course, no first visit to (pseudo-)China would be complete without noodle soup. Yum!

Day 1 of 7 is now halfway over. This could be a long series. On to Thailand we go!