Ao Thong Nai Pan Noi – Our beachfront paradise

OK, we’ve got to be honest with you. Our plans to permanently move to Santhiya Resort didn’t work out. Maybe it was for cultural reasons, maybe the lack of a long-term Thai visa, or perhaps it was the hotel’s unwillingness to give us room and board for free. In any case, after two wonderful nights, we decided to move on to a new hotel on the other side of a rock outcrop in the bay. Our new home was Rasanandra, a new boutique luxury hotel in the center of a larger beach: Ao Thong Nai Pan Noi. Santhiya is technically part of this beach as well, but the rock outcrop separates it from the strip of accomodation on the other side, which included our new place.

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The modern pool at Rasanandra. The benches on the side had buttons that turned on jets.

Upon arrival, we received the typical coconut-milk welcome drinks (western culture really needs to adopt this custom), and were led to our room. The room was amazing — modern in design, clean, it included a small private pool (as all rooms at this hotel do), and oddly — free alcohol. We had a selection of gin, rum, and whiskey, which we were informed would be refilled daily. Strangely, the mixers (tonic, cola, etc.) were in the mini-bar for a charge. Still a pretty good deal. As the cheapskates we are, we bought tonic from the local store down the street and mixed some drinks.

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Free booze

The hotel was amazing. From the pool, to the excellent restaurant, to the complimentary beach snacks (courtesy of the chef), this place was top-notch. Over the course of four days, we were continually asked by the hotel and restaurant managers if there was anything they could do better. There wasn’t.

The beach was great too. Many Thai beach areas are over-developed:

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Parts of Chewang Beach are not so relaxing. Careful with those power lines!

Or underdeveloped (no services). This strip was perfect. There was a selection of good local restaurants and bars at the other guesthouses along the beach, along with a couple convenience stores, an ATM, and laundry services. The sand was white and pure, and extended far out into the water (no rocks). We were in heaven.

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Looking north from our hotel

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The beach in front of our hotel

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The palm tree that we sat beneath in front of our hotel one afternoon

The one last thing worth mentioning during a trip to Ko Phangan are the infamous “full moon parties”. Our little beach was way too chill for serious ravers, and the moon wasn’t full while we were there, but we still got a taste of the action. The “Beach Club” bar down the beach had a fire dancing show (free for anyone to watch) one of the nights we were there. Abby and I had no idea what to expect, but were mesmerized when it started and stayed for a full hour. We will always associate this scene with the Lady GaGa’s “Poker Face”. Definitely worth seeing, even if, like us, you’re not into the rave scene.

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Fire dancing

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Our new life on Ko Phangan

Dear Family & Friends,

This is not an easy blog post for us to write, but we wanted to share our news with all of you right away. It is with mixed emotions that we are writing to let you know that we will not be returning home to Seattle from Koh Phangan. The resort that we have called home for the past two nights is simply too wonderful for us to ever leave, so we have decided not to. This is not a decision we made with haste. We treasure our family and friends and the time that we get to spend with all of you. That is why we hope you will all come visit us in our Sea-View Villa at the Santhiya Resort. It has a separate sitting room with a daybed (where we are sitting right now) that would make very comfortable guest quarters. Although we hear it is currently 100 degrees in Seattle, we all know how gray the winter months can be — and that would be the perfect time for you to come visit us on Koh Phangan.

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These wooden buggies transport visitors from their villas to the main lodge/pool area.

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The daybed in our villa, with walkway connecting to bedroom area.

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Interior of our villa, with outdoor bathroom visible through windows behind Abby.

Upon arrival at our new home, you will be treated to a welcome massage and can arrange for a 1.5 hour Thai massage that will cost you a mere US $45. We indulged in such a massage yesterday and cannot remember a time when we felt more relaxed. The lovely ladies who stretched, kneaded, and pulled our muscles chuckled at us at the end of our massage as we lay on our beds underneath the open windows, arms outstretched and unable to move right away after such a luxurious experience. We know you will enjoy this as well when you come to visit us.

Although best known for its epic Full Moon Parties, which involve all sorts of hallucinogenic drugs and “fire dancing,” Koh Phagnan also boasts a beautiful and secluded set of beaches called Ao Thong Nai Pan Yai & Noi. This is where our new home is located on the island. After an almost one-hour journey from the public ferry pier that took us over mountainous dirt roads, with portions so steep that our driver had to turn off the A/C before powering up the craggy rocks, you will arrive at our most lovely resort home with villas tucked away into the jungle. You may also choose to take the resort’s power speedboat directly from the pier, but we recommend the van ride because it really makes you feel like you have embarked upon a daring journey and earned your welcome drink upon arrival at this remote destination.

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Upper eating area at main lodge building.

After dropping off your bags in our villa, we will take you down to the lovely beach for a Beer Chang on one of their tables in the sand. You may remark, like Dan did, that you feel like you are in a James Bond movie. We predict that you will sit for a few moments without even speaking and share the feeling we had of being so extremely lucky in life to be in such a beautiful place with someone you love.

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Beach bar & restaurant area.

And finally, we will reserve a table on the beach for the dinner we will all share during your visit. This is truly an experience you won’t forget. How many times have you sat at a table IN the sand with your shoes off and a torch by your side?

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Dinner on the beach on our second and final night at Santhiya.

Although we will miss Seattle and everyday contact with all of you, we know that our visits together will be even more special in the future because we can share the experience of our new home with you. We have not yet figured out the financial logistics of our decision, but we are hoping that the hotel will let us trade gardening time for permanent residency. If not, we will be collecting donations from our loyal readers. We can’t wait to welcome you to our new home in Koh Phangan!

Love, Abby & Dan

Sawasdee Khrab, Koh Samui!

After nearly 24 hours of travel, we made it all the way from Seattle to Koh Samui, Thailand. The flight was easier than expected, especially since we were able to get a pretty good night of sleep on our red-eye from Seattle to Taipei.

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Taiwanese airport food

Once we landed on the island, we took a taxi from the tiny airport (complete with an open-air luggage carousel) to our hotel just north of Chaweng beach. Here, we were upgraded to an ocean-facing villa, specially decked out for our honeymoon.

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What a way to start the trip! The hotel (Nora Beach Resort) is wonderful, and despite some overcast skies up in Bangkok, there’s no sign of any monsoon down here, but I won’t go on about that since I don’t want to jinx us. We did a little exploring on foot that first night, walking down to Chaweng beach for dinner. Jet-lag quickly set in though, making it an early night for us.

Jet-lag does have its upside, as we woke up first thing Monday morning in time to enjoy a beautiful sunrise on the beach with a cup of coffee.

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On the road again…

After a couple of months back in Seattle, Dan and I are once again on the road. We set out this morning in the Civic on a road trip to Chicago, where we will spend a few days with Dan’s family. On the way, we are making a few brief stops to visit friends and some members of the Beller clan. Instead of four months, this trip will be limited to about two weeks and will not require the use of passports. We have also left the backpacks at home and are traveling with our roller suitcases instead. It was a funny feeling to check into our hotel this evening in Boise. This marks our first night in a hotel since the big trip and it’s hard not to fall back into the immediate room assessment of noise level, cleanliness, and safety. I’m happy to report that Boise’s lovely Shilo Inn meets our requirements on all fronts.

Our trip commenced at about 8:00a.m. and after stops in Yakima, Wash., and Pendleton, Ore., we pulled into Boise around 5:30p.m. It was a very scenic drive and showcased the differences between mountainous/green Western Washington and low-lying/dry Eastern Washington. The weather posed no problems for us and we’re hoping it continues to cooperate for the rest of our drive. To top off our evening, Dan had secretly researched Boise restaurants prior to our departure, so we easily located and enjoyed a wonderful dinner at Le Cafe de Paris in downtown Boise.

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Abby taking photos at a viewpoint on I-82 north of Yakima

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Another shot from the viewpoint on I-82 north of Yakima

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Abby posing in front of the diner where we ate lunch in Pendleton, Oregon

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I-84, East of Pendleton

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I-84, driving out of a mountain range

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I-84 rest stop

Tokyo! Hai!

See our gallery of photos tagged with “tokyo”.

After breakfast and some late-morning Christmas shopping on our last day in Kyoto, we made our way to the south side of the train station where the Shinkansen high-speed bullet trains depart for Tokyo. We paid a small premium to take the super-fast Nozomi service on the new N700 series train. This bullet train is capable of traveling 270 km/h (170 mph) and does the 476 km (296 mile) trip to Tokyo in 2 hours 20 minutes. It was fast.

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N700 Series Train, Kyoto Station

We got there in the late afternoon, and navigated the subway system to the Hanzomon station, just west of the Imperial Palace, and right in front of the Hotel Monterey Hanzomon. The hotel was great, and became our home in Tokyo for the next six nights.

Our first mission after arriving in Tokyo was to find a good bowl of ramen. Remembering an experience I had in Shibuya on a work trip a couple years ago where I struggled to use a vending machine for payment but was rewarded by a tasty bowl, I talked Abby into trying to find the same place. We took the subway to Shibuya, wandered the crowded side streets for a while, and finally stumbled across Kamakura Ramen. Yum!

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Kamakura Ramen

We spent the remainder of our time in Tokyo wandering through what Lonely Planet listed as one of the 10 weirdest cities in the world. During our time we saw washlets (the future of toilet technology), a sumo wrestling stadium, umbrella cover applicator machines, banks of vending machines, karaoke bars, and even a cartoon video of a singing pea in Kiddy Land. Great stuff!

At the same time, we did a lot of shopping, since Christmas was quickly approaching:

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Abby posing in front of the Prada Building. We didn’t buy anything here.

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Shoppers in Ginza. We didn’t buy anything here either.

And of course spent a lot of time wandering Tokyo’s various neighborhoods.

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Shinjuku

One neighborhood we spent a lot of our time in was the up-and-coming neighborhood of “Marunouchi”, which we read about in a recent article in the New York Times. The neighborhood was a short subway ride away from our hotel, and had a great range of food options, as well as the store where I bought Abby her official temporary engagement ring.

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Marunouchi

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Abby with ring

And finally, here is a short video taken while crossing the street in the heart of Shibuya. We were amazed by the number of people in this area and had to capture some of the action on video to give you just a taste of Tokyo’s energy.

http://www.flickr.com/apps/video/stewart.swf?v=63881

Home Sweet (and Snowy) Home

We landed at Sea-Tac early on the morning of December 18 after an overnight flight from Tokyo. We had heard rumors of some impending snowstorms, but were not quite prepared for the sight that greeted us. For those of you not from the Northwest, Seattle doesn’t really get a lot of snow, but when it does the city becomes pretty much immobilized. Our city has a lot of hills and not a lot of snow-removal equipment, which is not the best combination. So, our planned ride home from the airport wisely stayed home on top of Capitol Hill and we found ourselves at baggage claim with yet another transportation challenge: how to get home in the snow with all of our stuff. And this was how we found ourselves crammed onto a standing-room-only #194 Metrobus heading into Seattle with our packs at our feet. We ended up standing right next to a couple that had just spent three months in SE Asia, so we had a great time trading stories and barely noticed the one-hour-plus ride along random side streets (because I-5 was a no-go) into downtown Seattle.

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Once we were dropped off at Fourth & University, the new challenge became finding a bus up Capitol Hill. Typically this is an easy task, but the buses were not running on a typical schedule and we were carrying more than our typical load. Eventually we caught a #10 up to Broadway and then walked the remaining six blocks up the hill to our apartment. It was quite the adventure, but worked out just fine and we both felt it was a fitting conclusion to our four-month adventure. If we weren’t ready to be contestants on the Amazing Race before that leg of our journey, we certainly are now!

It was wonderful to finally walk into our cozy apartment that had been well tended by Allison while we were away and decorated beautifully for Christmas by Dan’s parents just before our arrival. As I write this, my backpack still sits in my bedroom untouched since we got home. It will take some time before I am ready to even look at its contents again. While the snow in Seattle has created some roadblocks to seeing friends and family, we were successful in driving down to Portland with Dan’s parents to celebrate an early Christmas at his sister Karen’s house. After three nights in Portland, we caught a window of good weather yesterday, headed back north on I-5, and are now safely back in our apartment in Seattle.

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Rocking out to Rock Band with Karen and John in Portland

Thank you to everyone who followed our blog and for all of your good wishes and greetings. We loved hearing from all of you while we were away and can’t wait to see many of you in person very soon. We wish you the happiest and warmest of holidays!