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THAILAND: FROM “TRAVEL” TO “VACATION”

Our final days in Thailand...

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SLOW BOAT THROUGH LAOS ON THE MEKONG RIVER

A slow ride on a long boat through Laos.

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CHIANG MAI, THAILAND

Loving the city of Chiang Mai, Thailand...

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THAILAND ISLANDS: KO LANTA AND PHUKET

Enjoying the paradise of Ko Lanta and Phuket islands in Thailand...

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THAILAND: FROM BANGKOK TO AO NANG BEACH


The 100,000-plus political demonstrators in Bangkok greet us with smiles, handshakes and cell phone photo requests. As far as we can surmise, the urban middle-class believe that the prime minister is corrupt and should resign. The rural majority support the current regime.

Protesters close down major streets in Bangkok

Protesters close down major streets in Bangkok

The energy of this crowd reminds Mare and I a little of Carnival in Rio. We get caught up in the high energy and cheer on the protesters with high-fives. Later, we question the wisdom of engaging in such activity in a foreign land. Touring a Thai jail is not part of the travel plan.

Ron connecting with the people

Ron connecting with the people

Actually, we fear the Komodo Dragons more than anything else thus far. They swim and crawl around the numerous natural canals that flow through Bangkok.

Komodo Dragon - check out that tongue!

Komodo Dragon – check out that tongue!

This massive city of monasteries, palaces, and world commerce is full of streets lined with food vendors. We could stay longer for the food alone, but are itching for the island beaches.

Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace

Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace

Now we’re talking…lounging poolside near jungle-covered limestone cliffs. Down here in Ao Nang, things are much more laid back, and it’s always beer-thirty. Some folks call Ao Nang the “poor man’s Phuket” because it is much the same, but smaller and cheaper.

Mare enjoying the pool at the Ao Nang Cliff Beach Resort

Mare enjoying the pool at the Ao Nang Cliff Beach Resort

Tourists roam the sidewalks that are lined with restaurants, guesthouses and a plethora of shops. Cover music blares in the many bars, and I even hear a Muzak version of “Cat Scratch Fever.”

Just another day at the beach

Just another day at the beach

Time to burn off the breakfast buffet with a walk along the beach, where monkeys frolic and longboats bob in Andaman Bay.

Andaman Coast

Andaman Coast

Oops…we stumble upon a gauntlet of Thai Massage specialists. “Massage? Do you want massage?” Yeah, Baby, rub that coconut oil all over my body.

The kind of gauntlet I am happy to run

The kind of gauntlet I am happy to run

A man motions for me to remove my shorts. Then, I start to remove my underwear and he enthusiastically stops me. “Sorry, I’m new at this,” I tell him.

Oops!

Oops!

Mare opts for the Aloe Vera rub. She also insists upon both of us getting a major foot scrubbing. Hmm…who would ever think that sandpaper could tickle so much? And we’re just scratching the surface.  by Ron Mitchell

MAINE: LOBSTERS, LIGHTHOUSES AND LANDSCAPES


Room Service BABY!

Room Service BABY!

A lobster lover’s paradise awaits you along the coast of Maine. Tonight, Mare and I camp outside of Bar Harbor with a view of Frenchman Bay. We order a lobster dinner for two ($29.00) delivered to our site. Heaven. For the past week we have been living on lobster rolls, bisques, and omelets.

Breakfast, lunch, dinner... Not enough meals in the day

Breakfast, lunch, dinner… Not enough meals in the day

“Back in the day when you could walk out in the bay and rake in the lobsters, they would feed them daily to the inmates at the penitentiary,” John, a local friend explains.  “Then, the state mandated that lobster be served only two times per week, because daily was cruel and unusual punishment.” Punish me baby!

Bush shack

Bush shack

This northern coastal drive unmasks mansions, like the George H. Bush’s family shack in Kennebunkport. Down the way, lighthouses stand sturdy on rocky coastal ledges.

Nuble Light, Cape Neddick

Nuble Light, Cape Neddick

In-between, we find plenty of beaches for Jack and Mare to frolic.

Dog friendly Maine beaches

Dog friendly Maine beaches

We mainly camp, lodging at a motel once in a while just to “clean-up,” and watch some football, but much prefer the colorful views and fresh air of campsites. By the way, the Pier Fries at Lisa’s Pizza in Scarborough are “wicked” delicious.

View from our campsite in Scarborough

View from our campsite in Scarborough

Work-off some of those fries and lobster rolls with a hike up Cadillac Mountain, the highest point on the Atlantic Coast.

Congress sucks

A divisive Congress shut down all Federal Parks, which actually works to our advantage…no vehicle traffic or fee booths are present to pollute Acadia National Park.

View from the top of Cadillac Mountain

View from the top of Cadillac Mountain

Hikers and bicyclists enjoy the relative solitude and un-obscured views.

Bar Harbor from the top of Cadillac Mountain

Bar Harbor from the top of Cadillac Mountain

While driving through the town of Lubec, we ask a random pedestrian for directions to The West Quoddy Head Light. Philip spends time talking with us, as do most of the friendly folks in Maine, and sends us in the right direction.

Quoddy Head Light

Quoddy Head Light

The lighthouse continues to provide a point of navigation for sailors from a strategic spot, on the easternmost point of the Atlantic coast. As we leave the lighthouse, who should appear but Philip. “Hey, if you guys aren’t on a tight schedule, you should backtrack to Cutler.” He pulls out a map. “When we sailed up from Florida, we found this area to be the most dramatic coastline in all of Maine.” We shall heed his advice, and check it out.

Rocky coastline

At the turn-off to the Cutler Coast Preserve, there is Philip… again, waiting in his truck to escort us to the trail head. This is really nice, but Mare and I are getting spooked, wondering if he is a serial killer trying to lure us into the woods.

Hiking the Cutler Coast Preserve

Hiking the Cutler Coast Preserve

Could it be the too many years working as Probation Officers, or have we been watching too many TV episodes of Criminal Minds? “I’m taking the gun with me on this hike,” I say to Mare. We laugh, but if Philip does appear in the woods, I will immediately pick up a thick stick and a rock.

 

Colors north

The trail twists through the forest of Cutler Coast Preserve, and leads to a section of coastline where Maine earns its rocky reputation. Numerous black precipices jet out into clear, cold waters that separate the US from Canada. Thank you for the tip, Philip.

Colors north 2

As autumn colors the landscape, we head inland and northbound to the beginning of America’s First Mile…aptly named “Route 1.” Initially just a footpath for the thirteen Colonies, George Washington even traveled here.

The First Mile and the beginning of the road in northern Maine

The First Mile and the beginning of the road in northern Maine

We could stay in Maine forever, but the colors of New Hampshire and Vermont call. Thank you abundant universe!   Ron Mitchell

 

CAMPING NEW ENGLAND: BACK WITH JACK


The plan

The plan

After three months, three Continents, and three pair of underwear, we reunite with Jack the dog in a total lick and hug fest. He looks happy and strong, and it is hard for my folks to part with him. “Buck up, Jack, your pampered days are over.” Mare and Jack and I pile in to the truck to camp New England this fall.

jack in truck

I am not allowed in Connecticut. Or I probably shouldn’t be. We have never seen so many rules in campgrounds and beaches: No Pets, No Fires, No Alcohol…might as well say, “No fun for Ron and Mare and Jack.”

no pets better

No worries, we find a way to break all the rules without landing in jail.

jack in ocean with stick

Jack gets his first taste of the Atlantic Ocean in none other than historic Jamestown. Drive around the coastal mansions of Newport before lunch of lobster rolls and raw oysters.

Mansion

Finally we find a dog friendly town where you can even take your pet into the bank. Provincetown, Mass is so charming that we extend our campsite. We are not shoppers, but the street of interesting shops and people make the place magical.

Provincetown. Massachusettes

Provincetown. Massachusetts

We bring fresh little-neck clams to shuck at the campsite, a perfect precursor to sautéed scallops and oysters. Camping makes good food affordable, and there is nothing like waking up in the woods. You feel remote, yet civilization is only five minutes away.

IMG_1963

“Provincetown is 60% gay,” a man on the street tells me. “It’s really nice to be able to be yourself. You should see July and August…every day is a party and Main Street is like a gay parade.”

“Yes, my wife and I really like it here. It is so dog friendly.”

“Oh, you’re too good looking to be straight.”

I haven’t been hit on in a long time. I shrug my shoulders and say, “What’re you going to do?” At least I didn’t look at my feet and say, “Aw shucks.”

Eventually, he asks if I have any spare dollars. Guess it was not just my good looks that attracted him.

“All I have is a credit card.”

“Well, I have a perfect place for you to swipe it.”

It’s time to find Mare.

mare and jack

Back at camp Jack retrieves sticks in the Atlantic. He runs like a puppy. Grandma and Grandpa took excellent care of him this past summer, walking him every day, and it shows. He swims every morning now that we are out of Connecticut.   Ron Mitchell

jack with big stick

Ron Mitchell

NEPAL: PLAYING IN POKHARA


Phewa Tal - The view from our room in Pokhara

Phewa Tal – The view from our room in Pokhara

Each morning we walk along Lake Phewa in Pokhara, perhaps the only place we found in Asia, since Mongolia, where you can walk and almost be alone. Only once did we get mobbed, by a large group of tourists from India.

No people, just cows this morning

No people, just cows this morning

“Let me take photo!” We don’t understand at first. They want to take photos with us, we guess because we are westerners. Soon, young men mob Mare and I, posing while switching cameras, and then wanting to hold our hands. As soon as we begin to worry about “mob mentality,” the episode ends and we are back to tranquility.

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It is more peaceful out on the lake. Row a boat around an Island that holds the Hindu temple, Varahi Mandir, or along the green shores. The lake is calm, reflecting jungle hills and cloudy skies.

IMG_1821

Hyacinths grow like mad, and on certain days, community volunteers drag them onto shore, in an endless attempt to thin out the green and keep the lake clear.

Clean up day

The World Peace Pagoda, built by Buddhist monks from Japan in order to promote world peace, watches over the city. Did I mention that Buddha was born in Nepal?

World Peace Pagoda

World Peace Pagoda

At the Tashi Palkhel Tibetan refugee camp, we watch and listen to monks chanting during their 45-day retreat.

Tibetan Buddhist Monks

Tibetan Buddhist Monks

Tibetan children attend school here…thanks to freedom funds from Austria, which made this refugee town possible. This is as close to Tibet as you can get, you bet, without actually going there.

Tibetan refugees praying

Tibetan refugees praying

Time to Paraglide, baby! We must wait for word from the Annapurna Paragliding Company to tell if the updraft is safe to glide.

Paragliding in Pokhara

Paragliding in Pokhara

Okay, we’re on…after a jeep ride to the top of a 4,300 foot hill, the Bulgarian pilots finally talk. “Run, and keep running,” my pilot says. “That’s all you have to do. Like in a cartoon, keep your legs moving and run in the air right off the cliff. I will do everything else.” Okay, I got it.

He straps me in, we wait for a headwind, and then, “Run! Run! Run!” Moments later, we be airborne, high above the top of the hill! This feels similar to the dream we all have, of flying…also the drag of wind in the glider while you run feels like you are pulling a plow, similar to that dream when you try to run, and your feet will not move.

Pokhara from way high

Pokhara from way high

Sit and soar over the jungle covered hilltop. Look down on the lake and the town. I keep watching for Mare, but there are many gliders up here. Pilot and I land after about 30 minutes, a perfect amount of time for me not to get bored. Where is Mare?

IMG_1484

Mare finally lands, and I cheer her on. She has mud on her knees and shoulder. “We crashed on take-off!” She says. “I ran, and it started feeling really weird, and I’m not sure, but suddenly I was on the ground and the pilot was on top of me. He was mad! He yelled at me, ‘Why did you stop? Sit over there! Just sit while I lay everything out again.’ I told him that maybe I shouldn’t do this? He ignored me, and muttered under his breath about how he is too young to die.”

Our hotel from the water

Our hotel from the water

Next time, they get off the ground and fly. “Now I will get paid, and accumulate wealth like you Americans. I have got to get out of this country,” the pilot says to Mare…who is not sure what that is all about. We are all glad that she lives to tell.

Maybe I will stay on the water....

Maybe I will stay on the water….

So…we do most everything there is to do in this wonderful, laid-back town of Pokhara. The surrounding Himalayas continue to call us, though, and we want to return during the month of March, when the skies are blue. We could enjoy a longer trek, in a different area of the highest mountains on earth.

For now, we shall prepare for the twisty, eight-hour bus ride back to Kathmandu. Thank you, Abundant Universe. Namaste.  Ron Mitchell

NEPAL: TREK IN THE ANNAPURNA HIMALAYAN RANGE, PART 2 OF 2


Back on the trail...on top of the world

Back on the trail…on top of the world

Wake up at around 10,000 feet and begin a steep climb. I don’t understand. We’re not at the top of this trail? Turns out that we climb an adjacent “hill” that is about even with Poon Hill. This is the highest altitude that we shall trek for the next few days. Two tourist airplanes fly past at eye level, and we wave, just above clouds.

We are actually above the clouds

We are actually above the clouds

So many ups and downs. Descending on slippery rocks in mild rain can be more painful to the knees than climbing.

Up, down, up, down

Up, down, up, down

Once we enter the forest, though, a different world of giant Rhododendron trees greets us with snarly trunks. It must be spectacular to see them in full bloom during the month of March.

Rhododendron Forest

Rhododendron Forest

Rains pours on us and it feels wonderful. Rain also awakens the leeches. Those little blood suckers start out small, and then crawl up your shoe in search of a vein. We pull them from our legs quite easily.

Leech - I pulled this puppy off of my thigh!

Leech – I pulled this puppy off of my thigh!

They will get you, eventually. Unlike a vampire, they drink themselves full of blood, quadruple in size, and then die. Oops, some of them sneak into our boots.

IMG_1676 (2)

“Love marriage”

During lunch, where rice and spaghetti dominate many menus, Kumar tells us that most marriages in Nepal are arranged. He met his wife three days before the wedding…the Hindu way. Tek, the porter, is in a “love marriage,” a less common alternative. Both men share a common dream, for one of their children to obtain a United States visa. There are not enough jobs in Nepal.

This map shows the loop we made

This map shows the loop we made

“If you kill a man in Nepal, they send you to jail for 20 years, Kumar says. “If you kill a cow, even in a car accident, they send you to jail for 20 years also.”

Lonely Planet Hotel

Lonely Planet Hotel

After the fantastic forest hike, we arrive at our destination, the “Lonely Planet Lodge.” Take off those hiking boots and pull the leeches from your veins. All part of the game…not a health risk, just a little freaky. Locals believe that leeches drink only bad blood, which makes any animal healthier.

Gross!

Gross!

At this lodge, we meet a guy from Ireland who teaches weight-lifting in a remote school in India. Imagine that. His travel partner, a woman from the UK, will finish her degree with an internship in equestrian studies in Kentucky. After lots of beers with our new friends, we wake to incredible, though fleeting, mountain views.

Machhapuchhare

Machhapuchhare

Day four kicks our ass. Surely the most strenuous, or maybe we are just getting tired…slipping and low-stepping for several hours down a steep descent, only to climb the same terrain on a straight-up ascent around rice paddies and streams. There can be no toxins left in us, due to the constant leaking of sweat. After five hours, we eat, you guessed it…fried rice and mixed spaghetti.

Rice, rice and more rice

Rice, rice and more rice

We ascend yet again, up an environmentally exposed rocky trail. Another sodden sweat, this time with lunch in my throat. The magical views of valleys, and glimpses of ice-covered mountains relieve us of all pain, inspiring our spirit. At the top of most hills, Tek sings the trekking song. We don’t know the words to it, but sing along and end it with a throaty yell and renewed energy.

Sneak peaks

Sneak peaks

A family in the mountains wants to take photos with us. We show them the photos, and they laugh…and then they want a dollar. This is a first for us as there is minimal begging in Nepal. Folks are genuinely friendly and do not appear to want anything more than a smile and a “Namaste.”

IMG_1738 (2)

After nine hours of trekking, we land at the Paradise Hotel. It has an attached bathroom. We are the only guests. Kumar called ahead, knowing our habits now as friends. He tells the proprietor to fill the fridge with six cold beers! We party with Kumar and Tek under shelter from the monsoon rain, and enjoy our bond of friendship. Tomorrow’s hike will only be two hours.

I don't think these clothes are going to dry

I don’t think these clothes are going to dry

Cloudy skies block mountain views this morning. We enjoy the comfort of a car, riding back to the luxury of Hotel Peace Plaza, in Pokhara. What a privilege to experience a piece of the Himalayan Mountains, and the people of Nepal.

Thank you Kumar and Tek for a wonderful adventure in the most amazing of mountains!

Thank you Kumar and Tek for a wonderful adventure in the most amazing of mountains!

Thank you Abundant Universe! Namaste.     Ron Mitchell

NEPAL: TREK IN THE ANNAPURNA HIMALAYAN RANGE, Part 1 of 2


Annapurna South peeks out at us as we drive to our departure point

Annapurna South peeks out at us as we drive to our departure point

We walk among the free roaming chickens and water buffalo, where our trek begins in the village of Nayapul.

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Kumar, our guide, explains how we will walk for four hours, have lunch, and then climb straight up about 3600 steps. No problem. We are hiking in the Himalayas, Baby!

Nayapul Village

Nayapul Village

The trail twists down into the forest and across numerous monsoon gushing rivers. Truly, trekking in Nepal can be described as perfect. Guesthouses built from local stone pop up in the many villages along every trail. You need neither to cook, nor pitch a tent, and hot showers are available every night to boot!

Wild and high!

Wild and high!

Weed grows wild in the Himalayas…too bad it will not be ready until “high” season in October.

More "usual" crops

More “usual” crops

Most locals fold their hands in prayer position, and greet us with “Namaste.” Hey, we need all the prayers we can get.

"Namaste"

“Namaste”

Only a few hours in, Mare and I are sodden with sweat in this hot, very humid climate. The sun beats down on us and we are tanked…out of shape, from traveling for four months without seeing the inside of a gym.

Trying not to look exhausted

Trying not to look exhausted

“October and November are the best months for blue skies” says Kumar. Yes, we are here during the rainy season, when tourists avoid the heat, monsoons, low clouds and leeches…on the bright side, we avoid tourists, as we only see two or three other trekkers on the trail each day.

We thought the steps came after lunch?

We thought the steps came after lunch?

Finally, we reach a lunch spot. Queasy and exhausted, we wonder if we’ll make it, even this first day. Already, Mare has foot cramps from dehydration, and we pour salt onto our lunch of Momo, (chicken dumplings), rice, and a bottle of Coke, for any help we may get. We even munch a tube of Pringles for the salt. (Not sure if there are potatoes in Pringles)

Our guide Kumar and porter Tek

Our guide Kumar and porter Tek

Tek, our porter, carries the backpack. “No, please, don’t feel bad. I love this. I only get this job four months a year. Thank you, please, thank you!” He has not an ounce of fat on him and calves that look like thighs. Probably the most fit fifty-year-old I have ever met.

Stairway to heaven

Stairway to heaven

We feel guilty no longer…puffing up 3600 irregular stone steps, sucking in wet air, and neither one of us can remember sweating so much for so very long. Stop, rest, and marvel at the humongous jungle-covered mountains often draped with rice paddies. Nepali’s call them hills, using the term “mountain” only when they reach about 15,000 feet.

Our hotel room in Ulleri

Our hotel room in Ulleri

Finally, we reach the night’s destination in the town of Ulleri, at the Hilltop Hotel. Dodge the corn cobs and garlic drying in the hallway, take a shower in the dark, and lay on a bed that feels like a cloud. We are the only guests tonight. Both of us are too tanked to drink a beer… can you imagine that? We dine on popcorn-on-the-cob, mixed spaghetti, and watch a rainbow glow outside of our window. Carb up, baby, for tomorrow’s trek.

A room with a view

A room with a view

A mountain, Annapurna South, peaks out of the clouds and inspires us from our window view. Tibetan bread (fry bread) and eggs fuel us in the morning. Slip into wet, smelly clothes, and hit the trail…feeling good and surprisingly not too sore. High stepping boulders, and more steps, for about an hour, and then into the forest full of cool air and shade. We do not notice the 9,000 feet altitude.

Inspiration in the morning from the same window

Inspiration in the morning from the same window

Long ago, people used this trail to walk to Tibet for salt. In 1953 the Nepali’s widened it, and opened the adventure trekking industry. (Except during the ten year civil war which just ended five years ago…Government vs. Maoists)

We make it to Ghorepani and actually want beer!

We make it to Ghorepani and actually want beer!

“How many kilometers have we gone,” Mare asks.

“We measure in time, not distance,” Kumar replies. “We went about seven hours today. You guys are doing better than I expected.” We wonder if that is a compliment or not…

Wow!

Wow!

Climb into the town of Ghorepani, tonight’s destination and lodging with a private bathroom. Gaze at amazing mountain and valley views, and the beer is pouring quite naturally! Okay, the beer is warm, but we are happy simply to have an appetite for once.

IMG_1607 (2)

Three young women, two from Chile and one from Argentina, tell us of their travels, primarily in Southeast Asia. When we tell them about Iceland, Russia and Mongolia, one of them says disdainfully, “Oh, Europe.” I smile, watching Mare’s facial expression, and am proud of her for ignoring the remark.

“Ronald! Ronald!” I hear Kumar shout from outside my door at four o’clock in the morning.

“Answer the door, Mare, I’m naked.”

She opens. “Let’s hike to top of Poon Hill for a sunrise mountain view,” Kumar says.

“But it’s cloudy and raining.”

“It’s only a light rain.”

How could we leave this view from the room?

How could we leave this view from the room?

We decline, as do all other six or so guests in the hotel. Turns out, that we would not have seen anything because of being in a cloud. However, we get lucky, and the clouds open up in front of us during breakfast. Then, it is back on the trail. Namaste.        Ron Mitchell

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