Exploring the “Bangkok Ghost Tower”

In the 1990s, Thailand and other parts of Asia were in a boom period, where lots of investment and development was flowing into the countries. In Bangkok, the skyline was quickly growing higher and spreading out further as hundreds of new developments were being built. Then in 1997, the Asian Financial Crisis hit, and in a very short period of time, everything ground to a halt.

When I first started coming to Thailand in 2000, the Bangkok skyline was eerily dotted with partially-finished buildings all over the city. Tower cranes stood empty at the tops of buildings, with rebar sticking out of the concrete where you could see exactly where the pouring of new concrete stopped. Hundreds of buildings around the city were frozen in time in an unfinished state.

As the years went on and the economy recovered in the early 2000’s, investments and funding returned and most of the projects resumed work. The buildings that had been halted part way through construction were completed and the Bangkok skyline became that of fresh new skyscrapers, condos, hotels, and office buildings. That building boom continues today, as all around the city an unimaginable amount of new buildings – primarily condos and hotels – are pushing higher in the sky, and old rows of traditional Thai shophouses are being torn down to make way for new developments.

There are, however, some buildings that were halted during the late-1990’s that have never restarted construction. One such building that has always fascinated me is called the Sathorn Unique Building. It was intended to be a 50-story condo building with 600 high-end units, with stunning views of the Chao Phraya River and the rest of the city, topped with a gold dome at the very top of the building. When construction stopped in 1997, the overall building structure was complete and work had started on the lower floors with fitting out the condos with wood floors, plumbing, bathrooms, and painting the exterior of the building. In the 18 years since construction stopped, nothing has happened since, and the building has remained a very prominent standout in certain parts of the Bangkok skyline.

The Sathorn Unique building, aka the "Bangkok Ghost Tower"

The Sathorn Unique building, aka the “Bangkok Ghost Tower”

The Sathorn Unique building is also called the “Bangkok Ghost Tower”. The Thai people tend to be fairly superstitious, and believe in various kinds of ghosts. The reasons I’ve hear that they believe it has ghosts is because it was built on a graveyard, and it casts a shadow on a Bhuddist temple very near the building. In December of 2014, a Swedish man hanged himself in the building, which has added more recent conjecture of the building being haunted.

About a year ago I read a story about some people who had sneaked into the building and climbed up to the roof. Since then I’d read or heard about a few other people that had gone there and said you could potentially pay a little money to a security guard at the site who would then “look the other way” to let you get through the fence into the building. It’s something I’ve wanted to do ever since hearing it was possible to get in there.

In April, a friend sent a message saying he was getting a group of people together to climb the building, so I jumped at the chance. We met near the building and walked over to the fence surrounding the site, and the fence/gate was already wide open. We walked up a small wooden set of stairs to get to the ground floor of the building, and inside were several people with their cars parked there, and men taking money from other people who wanted to climb the building. It turns out, at least the day we were there, it had become much more of an attraction than I had expected. We paid our money (200THB, about US$6.50) and made our way to the far end of the floor where the stairwell was.

The concrete stairs were narrow, with no hand railings and a lot of dirt and loose rocks on them, but otherwise easy to climb. Surprisingly, someone had run an electrical cord the entire length of the stairs, with small fluorescent lights on about every third floor so you had a bit of light to see better.

About every 10 floors, we would go out of the stairs on onto the floor, wandering through the condo units. It was one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever done. On the lowest floors, the units were fairly far along in construction. There are no windows or doors in any of the units, though, so nearly 2 decades of rain blowing in, dust, sun and heat had definitely done its fair share of damage to the materials.

On various floors we found stockpiles of construction materials. On one floor, there were several stacks of fiberglass bathtubs – at least 50 of them – still in their plastic shrinkwrap. On another floor, there were boxes and boxes full of 6-inch square ceramic floor tiles. Another floor had dozens of toilets waiting to be installed.

A little graffiti, a balcony filled with a rainwater pond, and beautiful view to the west.

A little graffiti, a balcony filled with a rainwater pond, and beautiful view to the west.

The higher we got in the building, the less finished the units were. On the upper floors, the units were mostly just the concrete walls and floors, with no fixtures installed. And on the higher floors, particularly on the west-facing units, the balconies became larger with stunning views of the river below. Throughout various floors, people over the years had created some amazing graffiti murals on the walls.

Me on one of the balconies on the 37th floor

Me on one of the balconies on the 37th floor

On the 37th floor, what would have been a stunning, large balcony looking over the Chao Phraya River.

On the 37th floor, what would have been a stunning, large balcony looking over the Chao Phraya River.

One of many murals/graffiti in the building

One of many murals/graffiti in the building

We finally made it to the roof, where there were already about 20 or 30 other people that had made the climb. If there would have been a prize for being the most sweaty, I think I would have easily won that. Climbing 50 stories is definitely a good cardio workout!

It was amazing to walk around and have a 360-degree view of the Bangkok skyline, the river below, and watching the beginning of the sunset. It was also interesting to look across and see the State Tower/Lebua Hotel building a few blocks away. The interesting point of that is that building is considered the “sister” building to the Sathorn Unique, in that they are very similar architectures, with the Lebua building being larger and taller (64 stories). The Lebua building also sat empty and partially finished until the early 2000’s, when construction resumed and they turned it into a mix of condos and hotel. On the roof of that building is an outdoor restaurant and bar, which several years ago became famous for scenes being filmed there for the “Hangover 2” movie. The times that I’ve been to the rooftop bar there, I’ve always looked across at the Sathorn Unique building and wondered why it hadn’t been finished like the Lebua building, as it seems like there is so much potential for a beautiful building there.

Me and friends that climbed to the roof.  The building behind us with the gold dome is the sister building, the State Tower/Lebua Hotel.

Me and friends that climbed to the roof. The building behind us with the gold dome is the sister building, the State Tower/Lebua Hotel.

From the top of the building, looking down Sathorn Road

From the top of the building, looking down Sathorn Road

Me at the top and edge of the building, very sweaty after climbing 50 floors

Me at the top and edge of the building, very sweaty after climbing 50 floors

The pillars and entrance to the stairwell leading back down.  The columns are held together and in place by a lot of rickety metal braces...

The pillars and entrance to the stairwell leading back down. The columns are held together and in place by a lot of rickety metal braces…

At the top of the building, looking up at what would have eventually been the dome of the building

At the top of the building, looking up at what would have eventually been the dome of the building

Looking at the Chao Phraya River, Shangri-La Hotel, and the State Tower/Lebua Hotel building with the gold dome.

Looking at the Chao Phraya River, Shangri-La Hotel, and the State Tower/Lebua Hotel building with the gold dome.

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Selfie of me with the Chao Phraya River in the background

 

Someone climbing to the very, very top of the building, on what would have been the dome on the top

Someone climbing to the very, very top of the building, on what would have been the dome on the top

Selfie at the top of the building, with the sunset reflecting on the river below

Selfie at the top of the building, with the sunset reflecting on the river below

After taking our pictures and taking in all the sights from the roof, we made the long winding descent back down 50 floors to the ground. Not surprisingly, the journey down was much easier than going up! Overall, it was a fun day, and the “Bangkok Ghost Tower” was definitely one of the most fun and interesting adventures I’ve had in Bangkok!

 

Bangkok Bicycle Tour

Starting back in about December, I began hearing or reading about people doing bicycle tours around Bangkok. About every few weeks, the topic seemed to come up again in random conversations I would have with people. Everything I heard was very positive, so I started looking into it. In talking with another friend, he had also been hearing about them and was interested in checking it out. So we decided in February to give it a try.

There are several companies that do the bicycle tours, and I’ve heard good things about all of them. The one we went on was the original bike tour company, called Co Van Kessel. It was started over 30 years ago by a Dutch guy. Surprising I hadn’t heard about it before, but glad that I finally got to try it.

They have several different tours of varying lengths and sights. The one we chose was a 5-hour tour starting bright and early at 7am, and was a combination bicycle tour and longtail boat ride through the klongs (canals) of Bangkok.

We started out by riding through the Chinatown area of Bangkok. We rode through narrow walkways between rows of shophouses, with people who live there sitting out in front of their shops in their robes and pajamas having morning coffee and breakfast. We stopped at a Chinese temple for a bit to see it, take some pictures and light some incense. It was very peaceful to watch the people pray and give offerings at the temple, as the sun was just starting to rise.

A Chinese temple in Chinatown

A Chinese temple in Chinatown

Gate to the Chinese temple, with the sunrise behind it

Gate to the Chinese temple, with the sunrise behind it

Wat Traimit (Temple of the Golden Buddha) at sunrise, with a tuk yuk cruising by

Wat Traimit (Temple of the Golden Buddha) at sunrise, with a tuk tuk cruising by

We then rode into the heart of Chinatown and into one of the large market areas. We parked our bikes and the guide took us around the market and along the sidewalk vendors to point out various kinds of Thai fruits and foods. For 7:30 in the morning, it was surprisingly busy and crowded. Given that it was only a few days before the start of the Chinese New Year, the entire area was decked out with huge red and yellow banners across the roads, lanterns, and all kinds of dragons and other decorations for the new year celebration.

Heading in to one of the main Chinatown market areas

Heading in to one of the main Chinatown market areas

Riding through the Chinatown market

Riding through the Chinatown market

Streets in the market are busy at 7:30am on a Sunday morning

Streets in the market are busy at 7:30am on a Sunday morning

Vendor selling her fish, squid and other fresh food

Vendor selling her fish, squid and other fresh food

Fresh fruit and vegetables at the market

Fresh fruit and vegetables at the market

We then rode to a dock along the river and loaded the bikes on a small passenger ferry which took us to the other side of the river. From there, we rode along a narrow bike trail right along the edge of the Chao Phraya River. It was great to be that close to the river, watching all of the boats and barges going up and down the river as the sun was coming up.

After riding along the river for a while, we loaded the bikes into the back of a longtail boat and went for about a 90-minute ride through the klongs in the Nonthaburi area of Bangkok. I’ve been on many longtail rides through those klongs, but had never been back as far as we went.

Sunrise as we cross the Chao Phraya River

Sunrise as we cross the Chao Phraya River

Riding on the bike path along the river

Riding on the bike path along the river

Loading the bikes onto the longtail boat for a cruise through the klongs

Loading the bikes onto the longtail boat for a cruise through the klongs

We then unloaded the bikes and began riding through some small village areas, winding our way in between homes and through narrow walkways. The walkway then turned into a raised concrete path through huge farming fields. There were tons of banana plants and all kinds of vegetables in huge fields as far as you could see. The concrete path wound through them and we spent about a half hour riding through those areas.

Heading along a path into the farming areas

Heading along a path into the farming areas

Path along a large banana plantation

Path along a large banana plantation

Riding through coconut trees and banana plants

Riding through coconut trees and banana plants

Selfie along the path

Selfie along the path

Eventually we came back into a village area and rode to a temple along one of the klongs. There was a small market set up there with stalls of people selling all kinds of different fruits, vegetables, rice, and just about every kind of Thai food being cooked to order. There was also a small floating market, where women where in their boats and selling vegetables, fruits and cooking food for you. It was fun to go to the different stalls and sample some of the different food, most of which had likely just come fresh from the fields that morning.

Women on boats cooking food

Women on boats cooking food

From there, we rode through some more village and neighborhood areas, stopped for lunch at a small restaurant along one of the klongs, and then loaded the bikes back into a longtail boat for a nice ride up the river and back to the starting point.

Overall, it was a great experience and a fun way to see some new areas of Bangkok that I’d never seen before. If you ever are in Bangkok, I’d highly recommend doing one of the bicycle tours for half a day. With Bangkok being completely flat, there are no hills to navigate and it’s a very easy ride with tons of things to see and do along the way.

 

Bangkok Wet Market and “Cooking with Poo”!

On one of my first trips to Thailand back in 2000 or so, I took a Thai cooking class one day. It was a great experience, and I’ve always thought about taking another class or two. The opportunity came up in January when a friend wanted to take a class and asked if I wanted to do it, so I jumped at the chance.

There are many places in Bangkok that offer Thai cooking classes for locals and tourists. But the one we went to is called “Cooking with Poo”. No, I’m not kidding, that’s really the name of it. “Poo”, as it turns out, is the name of the woman that runs the cooking school. She’s actually fairly well known, and has been featured on quite a few European and American TV cooking shows.

Before doing the cooking class, they took us to the Klong Toey wet market. I’ve known about this market and driven by it many times over the years, but have never been in it. For those that don’t know, a “wet market” is typically an outdoor market with fresh fruits and vegetables straight from the farmers, as well as live (and prepared) poultry, fish, seafood, reptiles, etc. If you’re at all squeamish about where your food comes from, this is probably not the place for you.🙂 The Klong Toey market isn’t really a tourist destination; it very much is a working market for the local people. Many large and small restaurants and street food vendors come to this market every day to get their food to prepare and sell.

There were two areas that stood out for me in the market. In one area was a bunch of chickens and ducks in wicker cages. Nearby, some women were butchering, boiling, and de-feathering them right there. The other area that caught my attention was several stalls selling frogs. They typically had fishnet bags full of live frogs, then another metal tray with lines of dead, skinned frogs; and above that a line of frogs that each still had the skin on but had a small incision in its chest and the heart pulled out laying on its chest, still beating; and then another line of more butchered and/or ground up frog meat. That was one area in particular where, although it was fascinating to see, I was happy that I am a vegetarian!

After an amazing tour of the market, we made our way to the cooking school, which is in one of the slum areas of Bangkok. That alone was fascinating just walking through the rows of shanty homes to get to the little shophouse where the cooking school is. It’s thousands of tiny homes stacked on top of each other, with very narrow walkways between them. Although the people here obviously have very little money, the neighborhood is clean, people are smiling and friendly, and I felt very safe and welcomed there.

In the cooking class, Poo talked about each of the dishes that we were preparing, giving us a lot of information about where it originated, different ways of preparing it, why certain ingredients are used, etc. Then we took turns cooking our dishes. We made 3 dishes each: Lemongrass salad, Phad Thai, and Masaman Curry. All of them were incredibly delicious. Then we finished it with a variety of Thai fruits and dishes of mango and sticky rice (a favorite Thai dessert). We left the school feeling very, very full!

Sweet ladies, chopping chickens.

Sweet ladies, chopping chickens.

 

Eels on the right, frogs on the left.

Eels on the right, frogs on the left.

Live frogs on the right, less live on the left. The middle row of frogs are alive, but have their hearts pulled out of their chests.

Live frogs on the right, less live on the left. The middle row of frogs are alive, but have their hearts pulled out of their chests.

Frogs... freshly prepared.

Frogs… freshly prepared.

Me with all that fishy goodness...

Me with all that fishy goodness…

Cockroaches, crickets, meal worms and some other kind of water bug.  On ice, to keep them fresh.  Yes, they really do eat them.

Cockroaches, crickets, meal worms and some other kind of water bug. On ice, to keep them fresh. Yes, they really do eat them.

Two-for-one pigs heads!

Two-for-one pigs heads!

Finally an area of the market that caters to us vegetarians!

Finally an area of the market that caters to us vegetarians!

Piles of VERY spicy Thai chilis

Piles of VERY spicy Thai chilis

Me cooking up a tasty Massaman curry.

Me cooking up a tasty Massaman curry.

Me with teacher Poo on the left and her assistants on the right.

Me with teacher Poo on the left and her assistants on the right.

Lopburi: Sunflowers and Monkeys

During the cool season months of November through February, many farms in Thailand grow sunflowers for their seeds and oil. In November, I went on a day tour of the sunflower fields in Lopburi province. Lopburi is about a 2.5 hour drive northwest of Bangkok, with lots of farms growing many different crops in addition to sunflowers. But the sunflower fields are the main attraction.

We drove through miles of farms where there were sunflowers as far as you could see in every direction. The amount of yellow was amazing.

After the sunflower fields, we went to a couple of temples in the town of Lopburi. The temples themselves weren’t that great, but what they’re more famous for is the monkeys that live at the temples. There were hundreds and hundreds of monkeys climbing all over the temples, on the grounds around the temples, and just about everywhere in between.

And they’re not shy monkeys. They will grab at anything loose or dangling on you – sunglasses, backpack, water bottles, etc. Or they will just jump up on your back or shoulders while you’re standing there. And as soon as one jumps on you, usually at least 2 or 3 of his friends will then also jump on you.

That might sound fun, until you realize that monkeys are not the cleanest animals. And with the hundreds of them at the temple, they’re constantly walking around in their own waste…and then climbing on you!

We were there the last weekend of November, which just happened to be the annual monkey festival week. During that week, the people in the town put out a huge buffet of food for the monkeys, with the belief that feeding the monkeys will bring them good luck during the year. The amount of food was unbelievable – crates full of all different kinds of fruits and vegetables. And for the hour or so that we were there, there was an almost constant procession of cars and trucks stopping and dumping off more food. I don’t know what it’s like during the rest of the year, but at least during the monkey festival week, those monkeys are very, very well fed!

The vast sunflower fields

The vast sunflower fields

See if you can find me in the sunflowers

See if you can find me in the sunflowers

Being cool in the sunflower fields

Being cool in the sunflower fields

 

Me and my monkey buddies

Me and my monkey buddies

A face only a mother could love

A face only a mother could love

Monkeys running around the grounds *everywhere*

Monkeys running around the grounds *everywhere*

 

The buffet of food dropped off by people for the monkeys

The buffet of food dropped off by people for the monkeys

Koh Kood Island

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In October, we had a public holiday which made for an easy long 4-day weekend. So I took the opportunity to do a quick get-away to a new place I’ve never been before. In fact, it’s an island that I’ve heard very little about, and only know 1 person that has ever been there. It’s called Koh Kood, and it’s in the northeastern part of the Gulf of Thailand.

To get there, I took a short 45-minute flight from Bangkok to Trat. The Trat airport is a tiny airport in the middle of nowhere, with a runway cut out of vast expanses of palm and rubber tree plantations. The airport buildings are all open-air structures, so it’s about as far from feeling like an “airport” as you can get.

From there, I took a 45-minute taxi ride to a ferry dock, and then took a 90-minute ferry to Koh Kood island. At the island dock, the hotel that I was staying at had a driver meet me and others that were staying there. We all climbed in the back of a pickup truck and headed off for a 20-minute ride along a narrow, palm tree-lined concrete road to get to the hotel.

Koh Kood is a pretty undeveloped island. There is a mix of a few high-end, very expensive and remote resorts for well-to-do clientele that want to get away from the typical tourist beaches and crowds, along with other cheap but clean bungalows and guesthouses for people who want a cheap and quiet getaway or just need a place to sleep while doing diving during the days.

Other than a few dive shops and small roadside restaurants, there isn’t much of any kind of central “town” on the island, no bars or clubs, no ATM machines, and shockingly… no 7-Eleven stores or Starbucks! The vast majority of the island is covered by jungles of palm, coconut and rubber trees, with just a small road running along part of the island.

The hotel I stayed at was nice place, but since it was the off season the price was very reasonable. It has a building of about 25 large rooms with balconies all looking out over a palm-lined sandy beach. It also has about a dozen or so standalone villas with their own individual plunge pools and sort-of outdoor bathrooms – the tubs/showers are in round concrete tube-like structures so they’re open to the sky but still private. Looking down on the villas from my balcony, they look kind of like the little houses in a Dr. Seuss book – kind of quirky oblong-shaped with funky concrete tubes sticking out from them.

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Looking from my balcony at the villas below, the beach and ocean in the distance.

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The pool at the place I stayed

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The beach in front of the place I stayed. Virtually no other people around. Just the birth of a new coconut tree on the beach.

 

The hotel is literally in the middle of nowhere, with a small beach in front of it and another large beach to the side of it with no other hotels, houses or anything else around it. Needless to say, even if the hotel was fully booked, you’d have plenty of beach space to call your own. Two of the days that I walked along the beach and hung out there, I literally had the entire .5km beach to myself.

One of the days, I rented a scooter from the hotel and rode around the island. At the end of the road on one end of the island is a small fishing village. Everyone there lives in small homes on stilts in the water, with boardwalks between the homes and fishing boats tied up next to them. I’ve been to other fishing villages around Thailand before, but it’s always interesting to see how they live.

In March, we had another long weekend and I went back to Koh Kood again for 3 days. It was just as beautiful and quiet as when I was there in October. I spent most of the 3 days riding on my scooter, exploring different dirt roads through coconut plantations that lead down to beaches around the island. Nearly every beach I went to, I was either the only one on it, or at most maybe 5 or so other people.

I can see Koh Kood being my getaway place every few months. At least until it gets more discovered and overrun with tourists…

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Wooden walkway between homes in the fishing village

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The fishing village at one end of the island

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Another empty beach on the island

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At one of the waterfalls on the island

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At another waterfall with a large pool at the bottom. A few locals swimming when I was there.

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A VERY rickety wooden walkway to get to a beach. I built better bridges when I was 10 years old…

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Yet another beautiful, empty beach

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Another view of the fisherman village

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Cool wooden bridge over one of the creeks on the island

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…And another beautiful, empty beach.

 

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Me on one of my scooter rides around the island

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Massively big banana plants in the jungle. My scooter in front for size comparison.

 

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One of the dirt trails through the jungle that I spent the day riding my scooter through. Amazingly beautiful, dense jungle.

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Interesting palm tree on one of the beaches. The tree is perfectly horizontal, with just the very top growing vertically.

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Sunset with a small boat in the distance.

 

Amazing Sri Lanka

Thailand has a lot of public holidays during the months of April and May. So those tend to be the months when most people take long holidays (“vacations” for my American friends). I had planned to take a week off work in April to go somewhere new. But typical of me, I got busy at work and kind of waited until the last minute before deciding where to go. Literally 2 weeks before my holiday was to start, I still had nothing booked and didn’t even know where I was going to go. So one night I realized I couldn’t put it off any longer and just booked a flight to Sri Lanka!

Why Sri Lanka? Honestly I have no idea. I had a couple friends that I recall had gone there over the past year and I’d seen a few of their pics posted on Facebook and it looked nice. So I figured what the hell, might as well give it a try. And it’s only a 3.5 hour flight from Bangkok so I figured it can’t be too bad. J

It turned out to be an absolutely fantastic holiday – stunningly beautiful country, very diverse landscapes, new and interesting culture, very nice people, great food, and great beaches. Pretty much “ticked all my boxes” for what I enjoy.

For a brief geography lesson if you’re not aware, Sri Lanka is a large island country off the southeast coast of India, in the Indian Ocean. It traditionally hasn’t been a popular tourist destination due to a long-running civil war within the country. That war ended within the last 4 or 5 years, and it’s only been since then that tourism has started to surge.

I flew into the capital, Colombo and spent a night there. I didn’t get out to see much of Colombo other than a very long drive in a taxi thru the city to get to my hotel along the beach. There is nothing really distinct or interesting about Colombo, in my opinion (and the guide books seem to agree with me). But it is a good “beginner’s guide” to India, albeit a bit more clean and not as chaotic as India is from what I’ve heard.

A common way of traveling thru Sri Lanka is to just hire a driver for the duration of your trip. You pay a flat (negotiated) rate, and he will drive you each day in a car to your destinations, stopping along the way at interesting spots or wherever you want, pointing out landmarks and sights, and talking as much or as little as you want. At night, the driver stays in dorm rooms with other drivers either at your hotel or at other designated dorms for drivers. I hired a driver for my first 3 days, and he was a great guy to travel with.

Our first day, we drove from Colombo to the southern-center part of the country, at the top of a mountain peak about 8,000 feet above sea level. Our first stop along the way was at an elephant orphanage. They say it’s a place where they rescue and rehabilitate elephants, and there is probably some of that that happens there, but to be honest it really is more of a tourist attraction. But it is a large place with 80+ elephants, mostly free to walk about in large open areas. And I was even able to walk in amongst them and pet them. I’ve seen a lot of elephants in Thailand and throughout Southeast Asia, but the Sri Lankan ones were different and interesting in their own ways.

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Me in the herd of elephants at the elephant sanctuary.

Later in the morning, the staff walk the elephants down to the river for some play time and cooling off. It was fun to stand near the bank of the river and watch all the elephants hanging out in the water, spraying water with their trunks, and then scooping and throwing dirt on their backs (I think to prevent bugs from bothering them).

Elephants from the elephant sanctuary cooling off and playing in the river

Elephants from the elephant sanctuary cooling off and playing in the river

From there, we drove to Kandy. Kandy is a town that once was the capital of Sri Lanka. The main thing to see in Kandy is the “Temple of the Tooth”. This is a Buddhist temple which houses one of the teeth of Buddha. There are only a couple of physical relics of Buddha in the world, and this is one of them, so it is a popular and very revered place for Buddhists to visit. I didn’t actually get to see the tooth (they only show it I think at certain times of day), but it was still a beautiful temple and interesting to see a few differences between the Thai and Sri Lankan Buddhist temple architecture, decorations, and offerings.

The Temple of the Tooth in Kandy.

The Temple of the Tooth in Kandy.

After lunch in Kandy, we spent the afternoon driving up, up, up winding roads climbing higher into the mountains. It was interesting to watch the landscape change from lush tropical palm and other trees to a more temperate climate with large terraced fields of vegetables and other crops. As we got closer to the top, we began entering the massive areas of tea plantations. As far as you can see along the mountain road are bright green tea plants, looking like a perfect carpet following the curves and contours of the mountains. Absolutely stunning views!

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Women in the mountains picking tea from the huge tea plantations

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One small fraction of the tea plantations

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Me near the top of the mountain, over 8,000 feet above sea level

Near the top of the mountain, we went to one of the tea plantations to take a tour of the tea factory. It was an interesting tour. There’s frankly not a lot of steps in the tea-making process, but it was still fun to see the process and all the machines (many of them very old) used to dry and grind the tea leaves, separate the leaves from the stems and other debris, and then package and bag the tea. The most interesting thing I learned was that black and green tea are from the same tea plant – the difference is in the process (oxidation) used which determines whether it’s black or green type tea. Now you know.

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Inside the tea factory, old machines sorting, grinding and separating the tea leaves

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Me at the tea factory with the finished product

We ended the day at a small town called Nuwara Eliya at the very top of the mountain. It was a small town, with a very English look and vibe to it. I was pretty exhausted from the day so I didn’t get out that night to see the town but would have liked to have walked around a bit and seen more of it.

The next day we drove down the back side of the mountain. Like the previous day, it was a long, winding road down the mountain with stunning views of the mountain, rivers, waterfalls, fields of crops terraced into the hillsides, and small villages along the road. The further down the mountain we got, it returned to a more tropical landscape. We stopped at a few places along the drive: a huge and beautiful tree and plant garden, several waterfalls, a small town for lunch and a few other sights.

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Beautiful mountain lake near the town of Nuwara Eliya. The scenery reminded me of my home in Montana.

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A bluff overlooking the valley coming down the mountain. Difficult to see in the pic, but kids were out there playing cricket.

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Selfie of me at Rawana Ella waterfall

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Small roadside stands selling corn, with a little fire and a kettle to boil the corn for you.

We ended the day at the southeast coast of Sri Lanka, in a town called Tissamaharama (aka “Tissa”).  Tissa is just outside the Yala National Park. We had arrived in town in late afternoon, so we got on a safari jeep to go on a “safari” through the Yala National Park for the rest of the day. It was an interesting ride. The landscape quickly changed to a much more dry/arid feel, with few palm/tropical trees and more scrub brush and trees you’d typically think of in the African plains. We were in an open jeep going thru very bumpy dirt roads, and along with the landscape it definitely felt like we were somewhere in Kenya. Unfortunately, I can’t say that the wildlife was all that impressive. There were some wild elephants, but having been walking around right next to them the previous day, seeing them from a jeep in the distance wasn’t quite as exciting. There were a few crocodiles around a lake, and lots of water buffalo and wild boars. So those were kind of interesting, albeit not exactly exotic game animals. The primary attraction of the park is a spotted leopard, but we unfortunately never saw it. After about 4 hours of the safari, and the sun going down, we returned to town for the night.

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Some wild boars during the safari in Yala National Park.

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Water buffalo on the safari

The hotel I stayed at near the national park still used skeleton keys for the door locks.

The hotel I stayed at near the national park still used skeleton keys for the door locks.

The next day we made a long drive along the southeastern and southern coast to the town of Mirissa. It was a stunningly beautiful drive, most of the way the road hugging the coastline with beautiful beaches. The biggest surprise to me was that the beaches went for miles, with no buildings, hotels, etc. built up on them – just clean, empty beaches with a few fishermen occasionally. I had planned to stay in Mirissa the next 3 days and nights, so I bid my driver farewell and transitioned to the “beach” part of my holiday.

I stayed in Mirissa at a small 6-room hotel run by an Aussie (originally Sri Lankan) guy and his Swedish wife. His wife was away so I didn’t get to meet her, but there were 3 other guys working there as staff, and it was probably one of the best places I’ve ever stayed. It was right on the beach, nice rooms with amazing views, and the guys were fantastic to talk to and incredibly helpful.

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The beach just outside my hotel room. I walked for over 2km and never saw another person other than a few fishermen.

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Rows of fish on bamboo mats drying on the beach. It looks cool, but the smell is a bit overpowering…

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Fishermen bringing their boat in. They recruited me to help them push the boat way up on the dry sand… not an easy task!

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Beautiful Mirissa beach, where two ends of the beach meet

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Great little food shacks along the beach

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Me on the balcony of my room at the beach… feeling relaxed

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Breakfast… with the beach just a few steps away. Every day should start this way!

I went on a whale-watching trip early the next morning. In all the years I lived in Seattle, I never went on a whale-watching trip (fairly common activity in Seattle). It turns out I’m clearly not a whale-watching kind of guy. It was fun to be on a boat in the beautiful ocean, but staring at the water waiting for a tiny bit of a whale’s back to come out of the water and blow some mist is about as exciting as watching paint dry. Nevertheless, I’m glad I did it once.

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Fishermen heading out early in the morning, as I was heading out to go whale watching

The following day I hired a tuk-tuk to take me to the main city in the south called Galle. Along the way, we stopped at a cool turtle farm, as well as a few small towns and an area where the “stick fishermen” are. The stick fishermen perch themselves on these high bamboo sticks in the water and fish below them. It’s an interesting way to fish for sure. Although to be honest, I think the days of actually fishing are long gone. I’m pretty sure these guys were just sitting there waiting for tourists to take pictures of them, and then asking for money. I didn’t see any fish being caught, or even any fish in the water.

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The “stick fishermen” near the town of Galle

In Galle, there is an old Dutch fort at the very southernmost tip of Sri Lanka. It’s an amazing fort, with a large town inside and incredible views out to sea from 3 sides. I spent a couple hours just walking around, exploring and checking out the shops in the town. Overall it was a fun day trip.

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The Dutch fort in the town of Galle

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The clock tower at the fort

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Kids jumping off a rock into the crystal clear water just outside the Dutch fort

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One of the millions of colorful roadside fruit stands

The following day I hired a driver to drive me back to Colombo. It was a long drive, in an old van, but the driver was super fun to talk to. He was so full of energy, loved talking about his family, what it was like growing up in Sri Lanka, and some of his funny stories of driving other tourists around. I asked if he was there when the tsunami hit in 2004. He told me the story of that day from his perspective and it was one of the most gut-wrenching stories I’ve ever heard. He had gone to the beach to buy some fish for the day, and was walking along the road near the beach when the first wave hit. He got washed up in the water until he managed to grab on to a palm tree and hold on thru the current and debris of the rushing water. After the first wave subsided, he climbed further up in the tree and held on thru the second wave. He told me about the screams he heard of people, the bodies of people washing by him, the friends that he lost that day, and the incredible devastation afterwards. I’ve heard some personal stories of the tsunami from Thai people I know that experienced it in Phuket, Koh Lanta and Phi Phi islands, and the stories are all similar and heartbreaking.

I spent my last night back in Colombo on the beach before returning to Bangkok the next day. Overall, Sri Lanka was a fascinating place to visit and I absolutely want to go back again and see more of the country. If you’re looking for a holiday that’s something different from Southeast Asia, I’d highly recommend Sri Lanka!

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There was a Catholic church next to the hotel on the beach I stayed at my last night in Colombo. They were doing the stations of the cross, with concrete crosses in the sand. If my church was on the beach like this, I probably would have been more happy to go when I was a kid!

Angkor Wat and Siem Reap, Cambodia

As part of my very first trip to Thailand in 2000, I went on a side trip for a few days to Siem Reap, Cambodia.  Siem Reap is the nearest town to the temples of the Angkor Wat complex, an amazing spread of massive stone temples built by Khmer kings between 800AD and 1300AD.  I remember that trip vividly, as it was my first introduction to Southeast Asia and it was like nothing I had ever seen or experienced before.

Ever since then, I’ve wanted to go back to Cambodia to experience the temples again.  This year I finally went over a long weekend between Christmas and New Years.  In hindsight it probably wasn’t the best planning on my part, as that is the peak tourist season there.  But while there were throngs of tourists to contend with, it really didn’t spoil the amazement and wonder of the temples.

This posting I’m going to mostly just have the pictures, rather than a lot of long commentary from me.  Suffice it to say, though, I had a fantastic time seeing the temples and the Siem Reap area again.  The town has exploded from tourism over the past 14 years since I was first there.  But it’s still something that I highly recommend seeing.  If you’re ever in Southeast Asia, it’s well worth a few days in Siem Reap to experience the temples of Angkor Wat.

Stone carvings on bridge leading to the Angkor complex of temples.

Stone carvings on bridge leading to the Angkor complex of temples.

Stone entrance arch/gate to Angkor complex of temples.

Stone entrance arch/gate to Angkor complex of temples.

Entering Bayon temple at Angkor Thom.

Entering Bayon temple at Angkor Thom.

One of millions of carvings in the stone at Bayon Temple

One of millions of carvings in the stone at Bayon Temple

Bayon Temple at Angkor Thom

Bayon Temple at Angkor Thom

Me at Bayon Temple

Me at Bayon Temple

Stone walkway entrance to Baphuon Temple at Angkor Thom

Stone walkway entrance to Baphuon Temple at Angkor Thom

Baphuon Temple at Angkor Thom

Baphuon Temple at Angkor Thom

Monks in saffron robes at Baphuon Temple

Monks in saffron robes at Baphuon Temple

Looking down from the top of Baphuon temple

Looking down from the top of Baphuon temple

Wall of stone carvings.  Every image unique and different, but done with amazing precision.

Wall of stone carvings. Every image unique and different, but done with amazing precision.

Entrance to Ta Phrom temple

Entrance to Ta Phrom temple

Ta Phrom temple with giant tree roots growing in and over the temple walls

Ta Phrom temple with giant tree roots growing in and over the temple walls

Ta Phrom temple with more tree roots growing over and through the walls

Ta Phrom temple with more tree roots growing over and through the walls

Monks at Phnom Bakheng Temple... aka, the "sunset temple" where crowds of visitors climb a long pathway up a hill to the temple, then climb several sets of near-vertical stairs to get to the top of the temple to watch the amazing sunsets.

Monks at Phnom Bakheng Temple… aka, the “sunset temple” where crowds of visitors climb a long pathway up a hill to the temple, then climb several sets of near-vertical stairs to get to the top of the temple to watch the amazing sunsets.

The stunning Angkor Wat temple at sunrise, reflected in a pond in front of the temple.

The stunning Angkor Wat temple at sunrise, reflected in a pond in front of the temple.

Me at Angkor Wat at sunrise, in front of the reflecting pond.  Even though it was a little cloudy that morning, it was still worth getting up at 4:30am to be at this incredible place for sunrise.

Me at Angkor Wat at sunrise, in front of the reflecting pond. Even though it was a little cloudy that morning, it was still worth getting up at 4:30am to be at this incredible place for sunrise.

The long, stone walkway leading up to Angkor Wat.  Hard to describe the feeling you get as you walk towards that massive, imposing temple in front of you.

The long, stone walkway leading up to Angkor Wat. Hard to describe the feeling you get as you walk towards that massive, imposing temple in front of you.

The huge moat that surrounds the Angkor Wat temple.  The moat is 200 meters wide, and 5.5km total length around the complex.

The huge moat that surrounds the Angkor Wat temple. The moat is 200 meters wide, and 5.5km total length around the complex.

Banteay Srey temple, about 40km away from the main Angkor complex.  The stones here are more of a pink-colored sandstone, giving the temples a stunning color in the sun.

Banteay Srey temple, about 40km away from the main Angkor complex. The stones here are more of a pink-colored sandstone, giving the temples a stunning color in the sun.

After a couple of days of trekking up, down and through the stone temples, I decided to take a day out on a small boat on Tonle Sap lake.  It is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia.  During the dry season, the lake drains into the Mekong River.  However, during the wet season, the Mekong backs up into the lake and raises the level by up to 9 meters.  Fisherman living on/in the lake have built homes on stilts so they’re above the water level during the rainy season.  During the dry season (when I went there) the homes are perched on their stills high above the water.

A fishing village on Tonle Sap lake where homes are built on stilts high above the lake.  During the rainy season, the lake fills so the homes are just above the level of the lake.

A fishing village on Tonle Sap lake where homes are built on stilts high above the lake.

More fishing village homes on Tonle Sap lake.

More fishing village homes on Tonle Sap lake.