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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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

Nara — In pictures

See our gallery of photos tagged with “nara”.

While staying in Kyoto, we took a day trip to the town of Nara, a former capital city of Japan. We were strongly encouraged by several friends to include Nara on our Japan itinerary and we are very glad we did. The town is full of temples and has a very chill vibe. We visited several beautiful temples and had a great time wandering the streets of old-town Nara. This is also where we saw the yomogo mochi machine that was featured in in the latest round of What is it??.

Here are some photo highlights from our visit:

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The five-story pagoda of Kofuku-ji is seen in the background of an object that we actually can’t identify.

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One of the many deer that wander the temple grounds in Nara. They seem to be fearless of humans and wandered right up to us.

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This main hall of the Todai-ji temple complex is the world’s largest wooden building. This place was one of the most impressive sights of our entire trip.

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A huge Buddha — and Japan’s largest bronze statue — sits within the building pictured above.

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Lanterns along the large wooden terrace of Nigatsu-do.

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More lanterns lining a wall of Kasuga Taisha.

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These moss-covered stone lanterns lined the paths leading up to and away from the Kasuga Taisha temple. The paths were very quiet and beautiful.

http://www.flickr.com/apps/video/stewart.swf?v=63881
Video showing 360-view of lantern-lined path.

Finding inner calm in Kyoto

See our gallery of photos tagged with “kyoto”.

We knew things were off to a good start when we walked out of the doors of the Kyoto train station and were greeted by a group of about ten 9- to 10-year-olds with clipboards (clearly on a school assignment) and big smiles. “Excuse me,” they all said at once in English. They then asked us if we had a minute to answer a few questions. They took turns asking us questions like where we were coming from (Osaka), what we were excited to do in Kyoto (visit temples, eat local food), and what our names were. One of my favorite moments was when they asked us where we were from. First we said “the United States.” Confused stares. Then “America,” and they understood. Then we said “Seattle – Ichiro,” and they erupted in smiles and cheers. After that, they very officially shook our hands and gave each of us a calligraphy drawing. We walked away smiling and excited to experience more of this welcoming city.

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Posing with our new friends at the Kyoto train station

After checking into our fabulous hostel and enjoying a great bowl of ramen from a local shop where we were the only westerners, we began our quest to explore as many of Kyoto’s myriad temples as we could in two and a half days. Our first visit was to Kinkaku-ji, which the school kids told us was their favorite sight-seeing stop in Kyoto. This spot is famous for its golden pavilion, reflecting pond, and strolling gardens — and was definitely a beautiful sight.

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Kinkaku-ji’s golden pavilion

Next up was a visit to Ryoan-ji, which is most famous for its dry landscape rock garden, which is a very simple and abstract Zen garden that proved quite relaxing and thought-provoking even to a complete newbie like myself. In spite of the beauty of that garden, our favorite part of this temple visit was definitely a walk through one of the gardens behind a smaller temple on the grounds. We were just wandering and found a garden area that was completely deserted. We were the only people walking this path and the combination of colors and quiet was just stunning.

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Our private peaceful path in Ryoan-ji

Now … on to Day Two. Get ready for some photos. And between Dan and myself, we have about 150 more from this day that didn’t make the blog. Today we would head to East Kyoto, where the temples are packed in and fairly easy to walk between. Our first stop was Fushimi-inari, which is the head shrine of the Inari cult and dedicated to their god of rice and sake. What makes this temple spectacular is its network of orange gates that snake up Inari-san mountain along various paths. It is truly a striking sight and there were stretches where it was just the two of us wandering this maze of bright orange gates on a mountain hillside in the fresh, cold air.

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A view down one stretch of Fushimi-inari’s orange gates

Our next stop, Shoren-in, was not part of our original plan as it was barely even mentioned in our guidebook. We decided to pop in since we walked right by its gates and it looked promising from the outside. We ended up spending at least an hour in this peaceful spot that is a former residence of the imperial family. There were many tatami-floored rooms with open floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked a pond and beautiful hillside garden. We sat and admired the view (again, completely by ourselves in the quiet) before exploring the entire maze of rooms. We then walked through the gardens and basked in the Zen of it all.

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Tatami-floored rooms in Shoren-in’s main residence

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Shoren-in’s garden

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View of bamboo trees at Shoren-in

We also spent some time wandering through old-town Kyoto’s side streets, where we ran into several geishas in full traditional garb. We’re pretty sure, however, that the woman in the photo below is not a real geisha. We read that many tourists pay to be dressed up in the full geisha costume and then walk the streets of old-town Kyoto. After we saw this woman pose for her boyfriend while pretending to push a button on a beer vending machine, we had our doubts.

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“Geisha” in old-town Kyoto

Our final temple visit of the day was to Kiyomizu-dera, which is built on wooden stilts and spans the expanse of a valley. It was also quite beautiful, but very crowded with tourists and school groups, which detracted from the experience somewhat. Or perhaps it was my exhausted legs and feet … not sure. But we did see a beautiful sunset here before walking back down the hill to catch a train back to our hostel.

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Wooden prayer tiles at Kiyomizu-dera

All in all, it was a very full two days. Full of walking, full of Zen, full of quiet, full of cold air, and full of total beauty. (It was also full of great food, but we’ll hold ourselves back on the food front for this post at least.)

Okonomiyaki in Osaka

See our gallery of photos tagged with “osaka”.

With our tight schedule, we only had one full day to explore Osaka, our first stop in Japan. We began our day by visiting the ever-popular “Mr. Donuts” chain for a quick donut, but decided to save our yen by skipping the restaurant’s three dollar coffee, and buying a one dollar hot canned coffee from a street-side vending machine instead. More on these later…

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Typical Osaka side-street

Now caffeinated, we took the subway to Osaka-jo, the famous castle in the middle of the city and Japan’s most visited sight. Here we wandered the grounds with a few other tourists and school groups.

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Osaka-jo

However, before we knew it, the US military police had stormed in with a recruiting bus.

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Wait… what’s going on here?

After talking to one of the personnel, we learned that a TV drama was being filmed here. Too bad they didn’t need any extras!

After the castle, we wandered along the river and then went to “City Mall”, a large shopping mall nearby and headed for the restaurant floor at the top of the building. Here we found a nice sushi restaurant with a good lunch deal that included sushi, miso soup, and tempura.

After a brief break back at the hostel, we headed out to Dotombori, a popular entertainment district in Osaka. This neighborhood is packed with restaurants, bars, shops, and most strikingly, large neon signs:

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Abby in front of the famous neon Glico sign

In this neighborhood, we headed to Dotombori Gokuraku Shotengai, (also known as the Osaka Food Theme Park) a restaurant complex recommended by our guidebook. This food center occupies the top three floors of a building in the center of the neighborhood, with an early-1900’s theme and over fifty restaurants, many featuring Osaka specialties. Here we found a restaurant serving okonomiyaki, one of these specialties, which is a large grilled meat and vegetables pancake. First cooked by the chef, it was then transferred to a grill in the middle of our table where we further cooked it to our liking.

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By the time we finished the okonomiyaki, we were beat. We wandered the streets a little more, then headed back to our cozy hostel.