November 27, 2010

Indo-Pacific Tour 2010 - Khao Sok National Park (Day 4)

We woke up early again to have a quick breakfast before checking out. By 8:30am, we were waiting for our guide to pick us up. Strangely, the guide didn’t arrive until 9am.

When we hopped into our private van, we found an extra passenger. This was looking quite suspect.

We arranged a 3-day and 2-night private kayaking tour with PaddleAsia. Unbeknownst to us, the owner had added an extra companion to our private tour. Initially, I was quietly rather upset about the additional person, especially since my sister and I paid $450 each for the private tour. However, we soon learned that Tami from Oregon was a great person and we had a lot of fun for the next 3 days. In fact, we got along so great my sister said "You two have some chemistry...". Thanks sis.

Since we had an extra person, we were treated to two tour guides! Tom was the more experienced guide and he was tutoring Bao for this tour. Both of them were experienced kayaker both at Khao Sok National Park as well as in Phang-Nga Bay.

The 2 hours drive provided ample time to know each other before we arrived at Khao Sok National Park. At the park gate our ID’s were checked. Security was quite tight for a national park. It was just a short drive until we reached the boat launch.

Our gear and supplies were quickly loaded onto the longtail boat. We had an hour boat ride ahead of us.

Along the way, we passed by many hills of this limestone karst landscape. Originally, this area was a steep river valley. When the river was dammed, it became the large Cheow Lan Lake. According to the park website, this area has the oldest evergreen forest in the world. It is also home to a wide variety of mammals, birds, insects and fish.

An hour later, we reached our accommodations.

These eco-friendly floating bamboo rafts were constructed with local material and they had low impact to the area. We were staying at the most remote location within the park. Thus, we saw very few people for the next few days.

After settling in , had lunch and a little rest before heading out on the first kayak trip to observe some animals and birds in the late afternoon. We didn’t have to paddle too far before we started seeing some dusky langur. Unfortunately, there was too little light to photograph them. Most of the animals we saw were quite high in the trees, sometimes about 50-60 feet above the water. Thus, it was rather difficult to photograph on conventional point-and-shoot camera.

We did end the day with this wonderful picture.

When we returned, we were treated to a great dinner. In fact, all the meals were beyond expectations. We had a great sampling of local cuisines with local ingredients. The food was certainly one of the highlight of this trip!

Banana fritters with chili...yum!

Every meal had a plate of fresh fruits.

Fried tilapia

Green curry chicken

November 26, 2010

Indo-Pacific Tour 2010 - Phuket (Day 3)

We woke up early to take advantage of our only day in Phuket. After a quick complimentary breakfast, I was going to ask the front desk to arrange a taxi for us. Stepping toward me was a taxi driver who was sitting in the lounge area waiting for customer. After a bit of bargaining, my sister and I secured a private, full day tour with this taxi driver who would take us around the island in a comfortable, air-conditioned minivan. How much, you asked? It cost a whopping $50 Canadian dollars for the day!!! Things are relatively super cheap everywhere you go in Southeast Asia.

We were to spend the morning at Rawai Pier where I could get a couple hours of fishing. Fishing is not really the highlight of this trip, but my sister was very nice to let me have some fishing time scheduled.

Before we went to the pier, we found this little pastry shop and couldn't resist having a second breakfast.

Rawai Pier was quite a beautiful pier. Along the way, my sister looked into the water to point out all the little reef fish.

At the end of the pier, there were a few French expats fishing. I started talking to one guy and we had a mutual respect for catching new species. He shared a new kind of plastic lure with me and I shared some of mine with him. He also gave me a couple pieces of shrimps so I could catch some reef species.

Using a float rig with #16 hook, I quickly caught my first new Asian species. It was a 5” Scissortail Damselfish (Chromis atrilobata).

There was another kind of fish that was swarming the pier piling with the scissortail. It took a little work and patience of weed through the damselfish before I caught the beautiful 5” Redbelly Yellowfin Fusilier (Caesio cuning)!

There really wasn’t any other kind of reef fish in this area. I was very surprised there was no wrasse species or small snappers here. However, the large houndfish caught my eye.

Small groups of houndfish patrol the area. I had the most luck with a twister tail, however, getting the hooks to stick was very difficult. I had a couple of fish shook off the hook when they jumped and shook like a mad marlin.

Soon, the 2-hour of fishing came to an end. However, just before we left the pier, I spotted a small aggregation of fish nearshore now that the tide was coming in. I managed to catch a juvenile Bluefin Trevally. There was a small conger eel that was hunting, however, I had already ran out of shrimp bait. If I only had some shrimp, it would be too easy to catch that conger!

Next, our driver took us to a lookout point were we could see the west coast of Phuket.

After the short photo stop, we reached Kata Beach. My sister and I picked a seaside bar where we ordered lunch for only $5 and we had the best dish of squid cooked with fresh basil and chili. The dessert was simple crepe with grilled bananas and pineapples...but it was very delicious!

My sister wanted to get a Thai message, so I had another couple of hours on my own. I took the rods and went to look for a spot that was not busy with swimmers. Unfortunately, I reached an impasse where I couldn’t go further without getting wet. I had to settle on an outcrop of rock where only shallow water was available.

There were some smaller fish coming in and out of this area. Since I had no fresh bait, I had to resort to some Gulp! Sandworm. I cut smaller portions off and hoped that the scented plastic will suffice. The fish let me know quickly that I was on the right track. They quickly bit the little chunk of plastic off the hook.

I persisted, even at the cost of losing precious lures. Finally, I was rewarded! Here was a 6” White-Spotted Spinefoot (Siganus canaliculatus). Their fin spine were very sharp. It was best not to handle them too much.

A few more casts later, I hooked into a 6” bubblefin wrasse (Halichoeres nigrescens).

I also had a small needlefish hooked, but just like always, the fish came off the hook a couple of seconds later.

Soon, it was time to go. I met with my sister and we were off to the next location of our tour.

As our driver took us up to the high point of Phuket, I fell asleep. I soon woke to a bump road on the way to the Big Buddha. My sister was wearing shorts and she had to put on a long skirt before she could enter the complex.

Shooting into the sun just doesn't work...

As it was getting later in the day, we moved on to visit Wat Chalong. This temple complex was on of the more beautiful in Phuket. The artistry of the temple was stunning.

Wat Chalong was the last stop for us. On the way back, our taxi driver tried to convince us to dine at this overpriced seafood restaurant. We held our ground and insisted that he took us back to the hotel.

Once we were back, my sister and I went to the night market to find some street eats. Care must be taken to select where and what to eat, since it is rather easy for foreigners to succumb to stomach illness. My sister and I were prepared prior to our trip with a couple doses of vaccines against traveller’s diarrhea. We’re proud to say we didn’t get sick once through our entire trip. Food in Thailand was just great everywhere!

Best Tong Yum sup we've had!!! It was so spicy our lips and tongue were burning (my sister and I can eat pretty spicy as is)...but it was so good we just kept eating and eating!

We were having a great affordable dinner until we heard distance rumbles and saw some flashes of lightning. We quickly asked to have everything packed so we could return to the hotel. We couldn’t have got back sooner as it started pouring once we stepped into the lobby.

November 24, 2010

Indo-Pacific Tour 2010 - Toward Asia (Day 1)

In the summer of 2009, my aunt told us the good news – my cousin was to wed in Dec 2010. Since my cousin’s wedding would be in Hong Kong, and the fact that I haven’t visited my parents in a few years, I budgeted for flights to Hong Kong the following year. Around Dec 2009, I called my aunt and informed her that my sister and I would be coming back to Hong Kong to attend the wedding. She surprised us by saying that she will be happy to pay for our flights to Hong Kong. Wow! sister and I each had an extra $1500 in our budget. We put our heads together and thought…it would be a great idea to travel in Southeast Asia a little since we were across the Pacific already. The itinerary soon snowballed from just one country to a multi-borders Indo-Pacific tour!

Nov 24 – The start of a great journey

After 8 months of planning, the highly anticipated day finally arrived. We boarded our Air Canada flight in the morning. This would be a 15-hour direct flight from Toronto to Hong Kong. We were very fortunate that at the time we booked the tickets, we caught a seat sale. To make that deal sweeter, Air Canada gave customers a one-day 10% off bonus to celebrate one of our Canadian Winter Olympians getting Gold that day. We basically managed to pay only $1000 for our return flight. Score!

We would arrived in Hong Kong on Nov 25th just before 2pm (we lost a day crossing the International Date Line). Our parents met us at the airport where we had lunch and spent a few hours catching up. Closer to 6:30pm, we dropped off a couple pieces of luggage off with them, and prepared to check in again for our 8pm flight to Phuket, Thailand. This would be our start to a 2-week tour of the Indo-Pacific region.

This tour was only made possible thanks to Air Asia. This low-cost airline was a great option for the budget travelers. My sister and I also decided to stay at small and lower rated hotels to save as much money as possible.

Our short 3 hours flight to Phuket was smooth. Air Asia, although being a budget airline, was quite pleasant with good service and comfortable seats. Really, that is all that I needed. I’d rather save some money than spend it on the luxuries.

We arrived at Phuket at 10pm. Through internet research, we learned that it is important to bargain for anything in Asia. We stepped outside of the airport and we were immediately swarmed by taxi drivers. We had an idea how much it would cost for a ride to Phuket Town, so we bargained for a similar price quickly and made sure the price was agreed upon before we get into the car.

A 30-minute ride later, we arrived at our budget boutique hotel. It was really nothing to brag about, but it was clean, quiet and comfortable. We were only there for 2 nights so it was just want we needed.