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* H A P P Y  *  N E W  *  Y E A R  *

W i s h i n g  – y o u – a l l – t h e – v e r y –  b e s t – i n – 2 0 1 4  ! !

In 2013, we did a fair bit of traveling. Here are the places we visited in the first half of the year.  Part 1 was posted yesterday. Click here to see the other places we visited in the second half of 2013. Since many of the related posts were uploaded in the same period of time, you can discover them by going forward or backward on the time line or in the calendar.

Frankfurt, Germany in June 2013

Frankfurt 2013

Paris with IT and MW in June 2013.

2013 review-18Versailles, in June 2013

2013 review-7London, to see the Champions League final with IT and MW in May 2013. This is taken from the London eye.

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New York for R & B’s wedding in May – this is taken near the Time Warners Center.

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Montreal, Canada in May 2013.

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Emmental, Switzerland in April 2013.

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Baden Baden, Germany during Easter.

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Freiburg, Germany during Easter.

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Ko Samui, Thailand in January 2013.

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Bangkok, Thailand in January 2013.

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I am now wondering where would our/my first trip in 2014 take us/me ?

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We went on two speedboat tours in the Gulf of Thailand on two consecutive days – the first day to see Ko Tao and Ko Nang Yuan and the second day to visit the Ang Thong Marine National Park (Ang Thong = “Golden Bowl”, see part 1 here). We were lucky because as you can see in the photos the sea was very calm.  Many visitors on Tripadvisor complained about seasick and getting drenched in a speedboat on the rough sea.

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After cruising around the Gulf to see the various islands, we went to lunch at a simple restaurant on Ko Paluay, one of the bigger islands. We had some really fresh tasting all-you-can-eat shrimp tempura.

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Although the islands are part of the marine park, only some are owned by the government. The islands on the southern end of the park are inhabited by families of fishermen who continue to make a living on the fishing grounds in the Gulf of Thailand (and run tourist restaurants on the islands).
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The islands in the park are made of limestone with steep cliffs, hidden lagoons, beaches and caves. This must be the most iconic rock in the Gulf of Thailand. Looks like it is hovering above the water.

Nat park-15Same rock as above, view from another side.

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After lunch, our boat cruised to a beach to swim, kayak, and relax. We were the first boat to arrive after lunch, hence the tranquility. A few more boats came later. An impromptu game of takraw (or sepak takraw) was started on the beach by the crews of several boats (hollow rattan ball kept aloft and passed between players by using only feet, chest and head, essentially kick volleyball).

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I(Chris) walked parallel to the coastline, around an outcrop of rocks in shallow water (towards the left side of the photo above), and found a secluded beach.  The water in the channels between the rocks was just knee deep and calm enough to allow me to use the camera while wading through.

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I could have continued walking in shallow water parallel to the coastline and would probably find more beaches like this one.  The beach front and the rocks behind it were full of small white butterflies, usually a chain of them, one chasing the other. A swing hangs from a leaning branch.

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Launching point for kayaks.

ang thong-42We borrowed this one picture of the islands  from Wikipedia. It was taken from a viewpoint high on Ko Paluay which we did not have time to ascend.

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On our way back, we had a chance to see the north shore of Ko Samui where the most exclusive and remotely located resorts are hidden.

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The bungalows and facilities are scattered on a headland and hidden from view by the trees on land but not from the sea.

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A sand spit extends into the Gulf.

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At the end, we were dropped off from the boat at the beach in front of our resort, Hansar (see our post here). The beach is steep enough to allow the front of the boat to go all the way up to where we could hop off onto dry sand.

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We hope to go back and spend more time on the islands – however, we would charter our own boat (surprisingly inexpensive if you organize a small group) to discover the hidden caves and hard-to-reach beaches, which can be your private beach for a few hours.

During our stay on Ko Samui, we went on two speedboat tours of some of the neighboring islands. On the first tour, the highlight was snorkeling in the clearest waters around Ko Tao and Ko Nang Yuan (see earlier post here). On the second tour, the Ang Thong marine national park was our destination.
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The national park consists of 42 small islands covering a total area of about 102 km². The park was established on November 12, 1980.
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These islands were made famous by the movie – The Beach – made in 2000 starring Leonardo di Caprio who

“while at a hotel in Bangkok, finds a map left by his strange, whacked-out neighbor, who just committed suicide. The map supposedly leads to a legendary island paradise where some other wayward souls have settled.”

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While the map used in the movie indicated that the Beach is located on one of these islands, the movie was not actually shot here. It was made on Ko Phi Phi Le on the other side of the peninsula. Nevertheless, the islands are stunningly beautiful.
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The day we went on the tour, the sea was relatively calm. We wandered how much empty space there is back there. One can kayak into that arch and get through to the other side.
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Our itinerary of the day consisted of cruising between the islands in the Gulf of Thailand, snorkeling at Ko Wao, visiting a lagoon on Koh Mae Koh, lunch at Ko Paluay, and swimming/kayaking at Song Nee Pong beach also on Ko Paluay.

The speedboat circled some of the islands allowing us to see them up close.
This was our snorkeling site for the day. There were a lot of fishes around that little piece of rock in the middle. But of the three snorkeling sites we visited the day before, the best was the one at Ko Tao, both in terms of the variety and density of viewable marine life.
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To see the lagoon on Koh Mae Koh, we disembarked at a beach and climbed up a series of metal stairs. At the top is a viewing platform perched on the rim of the lagoon.
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This lagoon is more like an inland lake surrounded by cliffs and jungle. It is clearly visible on Google map (above).
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We then went down another series of stairs to reach the surface of the lagoon.
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According to the guide, the lagoon is connected to the Gulf as the water level fluctuates similarly and it is full of sea urchins.
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We only saw these long-nosed fish.
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The stairs to get to the lagoon were so steep and shallow that they were essentially ladders. The area is now relatively accessible  to tourists but it has forever lost the mysterious allure suggested by the movie.
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More stunning sights of the islands in part 2 to follow.
While we were in Ko Samui, we went to see a traditional Thai sport – Muay Thai. Sue was not keen but came along reluctantly. The event was held at Chaweng beach which is the main commercial area on the island.
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We were picked up at the hotel and were the first to arrive at the Chaweng stadium, a small venue that also stages concerts and DJ appearances. Seb Fontaine (a DJ who made a few popular remix back in early 2000) was to play there some time later in January.
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We were seated at one of the reserved tables at the front row. I was trying to remember a movie (possibly a James Bond movie from the 70’s – yes, just looked it up, it is “The Man with the Golden Gun”) that depicts Muay Thai as a deadly blood sport. The villain/henchman and our hero would meet at such a venue and either one or both of them would each have a female companion who salivates at the violence. In the background is a raucous crowd shouting and leaning into the ring with a handful of bills.
That night, the crowd was less energetic, smoking was not allowed but sitting along the front row not far from us was a blond young woman who was  snapping pictures with great enthusiasm (outdoing me) while the boyfriend looked on.
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Before the match starts, the fighters walk around the ring and perform a series of solemn ceremonies, such as praying, bowing, etc.
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The sport is extremely popular in Thailand, like football. Gambling is legal and we saw crowds watching it on a giant LED screen in a street of Bangkok, cheering for their fighters when they entered.
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It is a full contact fight – a regulated form of kickboxing. The rules are complicated and allow attacks made with 8 parts of the body (fists, elbows, knees, feet, left and right sides). Head butt is not allowed.
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There were a total of seven matches, the first and the last were matches between junior trainers. They look shockingly young and we could not help but think that they were fighting because of the money.
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Each match has 5 rounds and each round lasting 3 minutes. This was the main fight of the evening.
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This is a video of one of the late rounds when the fighters were visibly tired. Three and a half minutes long of action accompanied by traditional Thai music.
Two Hungarians were in the line up. They were probably trained in mixed martial arts. We think they were visiting a local Muay Thai camp to learn this form of  martial arts. Their friends and  families were sitting behind us and were really supportive, i.e., loud.

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The first Hungarian won by KO.
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Posters advertising the event were all over town. There was going to be another one next week. It was high tourist season after all.
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When this video was shot, I was focusing on the fight. It was the last round and both fighters were cut and bleeding. On playback, I noticed how excited the girlfriend/wife was in the blue corner. See her go at 00:12. In the end, the Thai fighter (gold pants) beat the second Hungarian (black pants) on points.
In another fight, the wife/girlfriend of one of the fighters (red shorts) brought their child to the corner. The mother brought him around to give us high fives – very cute. I will not be surprised if this child will grow up wanting to fight like his father.
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We spent the last week of our Thailand trip on Ko Samui (or Koh Samui).  The choice was between Ko Samui or Phuket.
Hansar resort on Bophut beach (lying on the northern shore of the island) was our home for the week.
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The lobby area (if you can call it that) is open, a library on one side and a reception on the other.
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In the middle is a small atrium-like space dominated by a set of wooden pillars standing on top of a small stone fountain. The hotel was apparently a finalist of the 2012 best beach hotel according to Boutique Hotel Awards. Never heard of this award before.
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Surrounding the atrium is a massive wooden sculpture/structure. Its irregular block pattern (a motif repeated throughout the property) was casting all kinds of shadows and bright spots onto the lobby area.
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An unusual feature of the rooms of the hotel is the size and location of the shower.  The shower is really designed for exhibitionists as there is no privacy whatsoever, glass walls on two sides.
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 There was no door, except a stone ledge on one side where one can sit while showering.
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It cannot be any easier to take a shower.
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One evening a lizard (the kind that loses its tail when threatened) visited our room and hung onto the glass wall of the shower. It was not on our bed as this picture may suggest. If it were on our bed and scaled according to the length of the bed, it would have been 2-3 feet long!  It was actually about 6-8 inches before the tail came off.
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Another notable feature is an alcove/balcony that is designed for lounging – a daybed is built onto the balcony. For the first few days when we were nursing our cold (yes we were both sick for a couple of days), we spent quite a few hours there reading and napping.
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Views from our balcony. In the morning
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At dusk.
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Happy hour.
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A little bit later.

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Nightfall.

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H-bistro is the hotel restaurant – the chef was apparently the ex-personal chef of the king of Jordan.

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We had breakfast there daily. We  tried dinner one evening and it was indeed very good – European and Thai dishes alike.
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The beach in front of the Hansar resort is more suitable for water sports because the water was not the clearest and the beach was steep. The sand was yellow and coarse. After one of our tours of the nearby islands (see later posts), the speedboat dropped us off on the beach right in front of the hotel. We just hopped off at the nose of the boat onto the beach and did not even get our feet wet!
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Before the tourists came, coconut export was the major business of the island. We watched a tree caretaker climbed up these three coconut trees on his hands and feet without any safety equipment, up to the top and down all within five minutes.
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 The pool was nice – it had a couple of “seats” with jacuzzi jets.
Overall, a recommendable resort.

On the third leg of our Thailand trip, we went south to the third largest island of Thailand, Ko Samui (or Koh Samui).   Ko or Koh means island in Thai. Ko Samui is located on the “east” coast in the Gulf of Thailand. The better known island in Thailand, Phuket is on the “west” coast in the Anderman sea. While we were staying on Ko Samui, we took two speedboat trips to some of the nearby islands. We went to Ko Tao and Ko Nang Yuan on the first day, and the Ang Thong marine national park on the second day (see later post).

A van came to pick us up at the hotel and took us to the departure point –  it was just a short stretch of beach front and a pontoon. Our speedboat was equipped with 3 outboard motors producing a total of 750 hp.

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On our way in the Gulf, we passed the island of Ko Pha Ngan – it is famous for its full moon beach party. Notice the beach on the bottom left ?

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Our first stop was Ko Nang Yuan. The journey took about 1 hour 45 minutes from Ko Samui.

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Ko Nang Yuan is a privately owned island and it charges each visitor an entrance fee of about $7 and prohibits anyone from bringing plastic bottle onto the island.

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I think Ko Nang Yuan has the most beautiful beach I have ever set foot on. It is mesmerizing to watch the water.

The beach is essentially one idyllic sand bar connecting two small islands.

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A big clump of rocks (almost a tiny island) in the middle of the sandbar serves as the landing site.

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One side of the sand bars was just below water. Waves lap at your feet from both sides as you walk across it.There were a few bungalows by the beach.

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We suspected that it was mid to low tide at the time when we crossed over.

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A wooden walkway and concrete steps led me (Chris) up to a rock at the top where one can see all two and a half islands.

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It was so hot and humid that within minutes I was soaking wet with sweat. Wisely, Sue did not climb and stayed in the shade.

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The view from the top was worth the sweat and sunstroke.

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Loved it.

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We had lunch at Ao Mae (the main village) on Ko Tao  – about 10 minutes boat ride from Ko Nang Yuan.

Ko tao-12Leaving Ao Mae to snorkeling.

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The focus of the trip was snorkeling as Ko Tao is very well known for the clarity of its water and the coral reef. And I had never seen such a variety of fishes as well as coral and other invertebrate marine life. This is the snorkeling site near Ao Mamuang – nothing to see up here.

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For a while, I was swimming/drifting inside a school of colorful fishes. We could have rented an underwater camera but decided against it since we only had an hour at each location. So there won’t be pictures of fishes here. This place was definitely better than those locales we snorkeled in Cancun and Grand Cayman island. Ko Tao is supposedly one of the best and cheapest places to get scuba diving certification – we might return to try it on another trip.

This is the itinerary of our speedboat tour  – In Sea.