Friday, October 20, 2006

Scuba Diving and chilling in Ao Nang

Our first afternoon in Ao Nang we had sushi and phad thai noodles for lunch, which turned out to be quite expensive - close to what one might pay at home.  While we were in the restaurant, it started to dump rain so we lingered over a couple of Singhas.  During a lull in the rain, we hopped across the street to Coral Diving, the outfit we booked our Superday with (three dives) for the next day.  After getting fitted for gear, (I am such a goober I put my wetsuit on backwards at first), we went back to the hotel and just vegged out for a while.  I think we were both feeling pretty overstimulated from the hustle of the last few days.  By evening, we had our mojo back and were laughing and joking like our old selves.  Dinner with the group at an Italian restaurant.  We ordered Thai curries (I had sour red curry with shrimp and what appeared to be little squares of basil frittata and Dag had a green chicken curry with coconut milk).  The strange thing about eating out here is that there seems to be no system for getting a group's dishes out at approximately the same time.  By the time most of our group had their pasta and marinara finished, we were still waiting for our curries.  It has no bearing who ordered first - actually, the non-Thai food seems to usually come out first which meant Dag and I were often left waiting for our food while the others at our table who had ordered burgers or hummus were getting ready to pay their bills.  We skipped the bar they went to afterwards so we could get a good night's sleep before our day of diving.
We were last to be picked up at 7:45am and rode in the back of the pickup truck with the pineapples and watermelon to the beach.  From there, longtail boats took us out to the dive boat.  Dag knows how many meters long it was but I don't and he's taking a nap so you'll just have to put up with my desriptive words - it was big!  We all sat around a table on the upper deck eating monkey food, watermelon and pineapple and these little cookies that had a sort of jelly inside.  I think those were probably British in nature though - the only Thais involved in this operation seemed to be the crew of the boat.  I bit my lip for the hour and a half it took us to get to the first dive site.  I was nervous but confident at the same time, if that makes any sense.  I knew it would be OK but had the big butterflies all the same.  I made sure to tell our leader that it was my first time since certification so he would understand if I flailed and maybe keep an extra eye on me.  I couldn't quite catch his name even though I heard it several times.  He had fled the intensity of Italy for the laid-back pace of a country where it's too hot to really move.  Now he works 12 hour days and in high season he does this seven days a week - but by comparison, this is more relaxing. 

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Anyway, back to the first dive: King Cruiser, a wreck.  We were not allowed to go to the bottom since I don't have an advanced certification but the top of the wreck was at 30 meters and I'm OK for that with my open water certification.  We jumped into the water and waited for the group to be ready.  It was so rough on the surface we were thrown from side to side and every few seconds a giant wave would smash over your head.  I just put my regulator in right then.  Finally, we could begin our descent.  The current was a little strong so we used a descent line to get down.  This was nice because I could really take my time and concentrate on clearing my ears, which for the first time, I didn't really have a problem with.  I spent the first half of the 30 min we were down there concentrating on myself, my breathing, my ears, my gear, Dag's whearabouts and the leader's wherabouts and totally forgot to look around at the fish or the wreck. 

Where's Dag?

During the second half, I allowed myself to check things out a bit.  I didn't have enough weight as it turns out and was constantly trying to swim down to where the rest of the group was.  The guide came and gave me another weight and that helped a lot.  Reality turned out to be much different than the diving nightmares I have where I'm in an uncontrolled descent to the bottom of the ocean.  We saw a lot of jellyfish, angel fish, parrot fish, apparently a moray eel that I missed

Eel

and just schools and schools of differently colored small fish. 

Pretty yellow fish

There were hundreds of sea urchins and also some rock fish (stone fish?) that camoflage themselves on any surface they land upon and are highly poisonous.  I don't think it'd kill you but you'd be very unhappy for many days to come.  So if you don't touch anything, you're basically good.  Even though Dag says he sucks air like nobody's business and because I'm a newbie, I do the same, we were out-sucked by the other girl in our group and we had to start our ascent after about 25 minutes.  Most people slept during our hour long surface interval but I was way too hyped and just stared out at the scenery anticipating the next dive. 

Everyone sleeps between dives

The second was my best.  Despite an even choppier surface and strong currents below, I was able to control my bouyancy and movements quite well.  We ended up seeing two leopard sharks on that dive - very exciting!  They weren't doing much - just sitting on the bottom being munched on by cleaner fish. 

Zebra Shark

They were about 5 or 6 feet long probably.  Later, our leader told us that when they are juvenile, they have stripes instead and are called zebra sharks.  (Later: I guess I got that wrong - these ARE zebra sharks but when they're young they actually look like zebras (stripe-wise) then as adults they turn into leopard spots but are still called Zebra Sharks)
Coming out of the water after that dive, my weight belt slipped off into the water - never to be seen again.  I guess that happens a lot since they just shrugged and made me a new one for the next dive.  During the second surface interval, they opened up a big plastic tub of rice and another of chicken curry - I was so famished after the dive it was probably the best plate of chicken curry I've ever had!  The third dive was not super great for me.  They diverted us to an area that was current-free with a calm surface, and for that I was very glad.  But I was tired and my brain had melted and I was not getting all the air out of my vest and kept thinking I'd lost my weight belt again so spent a lot of time struggling to swim down when I didn't really need to be.  Once that got straightened out, it was much better but by then I was just kind of over it.  We saw two smallish stingrays and I was like - yeah, yeah. 

Stingray

I knew it was the coolest but just wanted to get back to the surface.  Also, visibility was pretty poor so I spent a lot more time just looking behind me for Dag and in front of me for the leader and repeat.  For my first time, two dives might have been enough but I'm still glad for the experience I now have!  The hard stuff is what makes you stronger and better for the next time!  Cozumel should be a breeze!  After we got back, we had one last dinner with the group, who all went to Thai boxing after.  We went to an Irish pub down the street to see the video that was taken of our dive day.  It was SO great and we were even in there a few times (luckily you can't tell how much I'm flailing) so we bought the DVD.  I can't wait to get home and watch it!
Today we kept talking about all these things we could do but the plans kept getting smaller and smaller and went all the way from a half-day snorkeling trip down to a nap for Dag and the Internet for me.  It's hard not to squeeze the last bit of possible activity out of our last full day of vacation, but a day of rest is all we need.  It's scalding hot today, which makes motivation even more difficult, although I guess we should at least see the beach once. 

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I've got to get a massage too.  Tomorrow morning we fly back to Bangkok and have an afternoon and evening to spend there before catching our flight to the ever-lovely Narita airport and hopefully to Portland on the same day!  It's been an awesome trip and I'm anxious to get back and start going through all the photos.  Thanks again to everyone who's been following along - I hope you've enjoyed reading as much as I've enjoyed sharing our trip!  Now...I need some ice cream!


Ice Cream!

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Catchup!

Sorry for the silence over the last couple of days.  We have been in Khao Sok National Park for the past three days staying in river huts for two nights and then a treehouse last night so obviously no internet available there!  It was absolutely dreamy, sticky, dirty, buggy, relaxing and wonderful!  When I last blogged, we were just leaving Bangkok and even though I'd read the itinerary, I didn't really know what we were getting into next.  We took the overnight train south to Surat Thani.  This time, we were determined to be social and headed straight for the Disco car before we could get too settled to move any further.  The disco car is so named due to the two strings of christmas lights, one working, one not, attached to the ceiling and the loud music piped over the speakers. 

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No aircon in that car so the windows were open wide which made for some fantastic viewing of passing towns and scenery.  At one point we looked out and saw fireworks going off in the distance.  Even though it was already dark it was hot...and muggy as it can be without being actually underwater.  We drank our cool Singhas and yelled across the table at two people who had joined the trip in Bangkok the night before - a mother and daughter from Denmark. An hour or so later, the rest of our group showed up and the music mercifully switched from what the daughter of the pair informed us was current top 40 to good old school disco (ring my bell, anyone?).  Before I went to sleep, I watched a bug crawl across the wall next to me and disappear down the crack between the wall and matress.  What are you gonna do? 
Next morning we stopped in Surat Thani for a perfectly awful plate of eggs and soggy white not-toast. 

Breakfast

No more eggs in Thailand!  It only makes sense.  You don't eat seafood in Nebraska and you don't eat eggs and toast in Asia!  From there we rode a truck out to the dock and took a longtail boat out into the park. 

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After an hour of gorgeous limestone scenery, we rounded a corner and there were about 25 small floating bamboo huts. 

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We disembarked on a giant floating log and stepped across to the open air dining area where we would spend most of our time here over the next couple of days.  After lunch of fried rice we were shown to our huts which consisted of one room large enough to hold a mattress on the floor and a front and back porch large enough to hold two plastic chairs. 

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So essentially you could (and most of us did), walk out the front door of your hut and jump right into the lake for a swim. 

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And since the common showers turned out to be submerged under the unusually high water, the lake also turned out to be the bath (and laundry if you didn't mind swimming in your clothes).  After dark, one of the toilets up the hill was home to three small frogs.  Jessica, I wish you could have seen them!  So cute!  Flushing was accomplished by dumping a bucket full of water into the bowl.  Before dinner a group of us (those of us who had not been there for the orignal trek) went out on a longtail boat with three guides thinking we were going to take a short hike to a waterfall.  Actually, we took a boat ride there and a short hike UP the waterfall! 

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It was cool and a nice feeling of accomplishment.  Dag saw a big brown monkey in a tree on the way down!  We stopped briefly at the house of a fishing family on the way back to the huts.  We also swung by a large tree and as soon as we approached, all the monkeys which had been lounging up there began jumping down from branch to branch - it was so cool!  They seemed small and grey although we were kind of far away.  They would just fly through the air and grab onto the next branch they could.  Dinner was eggplant chicken curry, sweet and sour something, cabbage and french fried sweet potatoes.  Dessert was yellow watermelon.  I went to bed early that night and at 7am a few of us were able to get out of bed in enough time to take a quick kayak tour around the island with another visit to the monkey tree!  Dag went on the big hike with most of the rest of the group but I stayed behind and read my book on the front porch and listened to the monkeys hooting and hollering up in the trees. 

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When they came back from what sounds like a great hike, I was jealous to learn that Dag has gotten a leech on his foot!  I've been dying to see one even if it means getting one on me but so far no luck!  And now that we're at the beach I think my chances for now are down to nil.  Ah well.  That night while the other people began to speak of being bored, Dag and I sat on the deck of the common area in inner tubes watching the stars and the faraway lightening, occasionally pushing the tied-down longtail away when it drifted into our line of sight. 

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We were wishing for rain to come and hopefully cool things off but no dice that night and boy was it hot.  The next morning for breakfast - eggs and soggy white non-toast.  BAH!  After that we transfered to the treehouses via longtail boats and a blessedly airconditioned van.  The treehouse complex is home to a couple of dogs, about 1000 cats, a lipstick wearing monkey and an enormous toad. 

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The treehouses were mostly a couple of ladder lengths up and about the same size as the raft house if you took the front and back porches and stuck them inside. 

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They had toilets and icy cold showers, which we thought would be a relief but turned out to be gasp-worthy shocking!  At least we had soap!  After our lunch of fried rice, most of the group went out to the river and shot the rapids on inner tubes - that was incredible fun!  Three of us, including Dag, got our toes bit by some kind of hungry fish!  I don't think his fish actually broke the skin, luckily.  The guy who got bit the worst was still bleeding when we got back to the van!  Next stop, waterfall.  Next stop, viewpoint.  Next stop a temple in a cave maintained by a monk from Boulder, Colorado and containing a ten year old monk corpse in a clear lidded coffin. 

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Outside the cave the place was crawling with monkeys who knew that a tourist van meant bananas for them so they all came running!  It was so cool to watch them take the banana right out of your hands and sit and peel it and eat it not 10 feet from you. 

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So humanlike but cute and fuzzy all at the same time!  Dinner was pumpkin curry, cucumber stir fried w/beef, some other leafy green with beef or pork, onion rings and monkey food.  After dinner it was ping-pong (regular kind), cards, Jenga and reading (I'm almost done with Wolves of the Calla!).  The night was mercifully cool.  Now I'm getting the "lunchtime" eye from Dag, who is also busy inquiring after our Diving trip tomorrow.  More later!!

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Good news/Good news

Well, I'll start with the good news.  My iPod is OK!  Apparently the issue was with the electrical outlets or something.  I had no problem charging my camera battery but the iPod would not charge in Chiang Mai.  However, when we got back to BKK and I plugged it in - no problem.  WHEW!
Also, the bonding project is going well.  Our tour has also increased by five as of today so we are no longer the newest.


late post insert:I forgot to mention the Floating Market, which was a little too neato not to include! When we got off the overnight train a couple of stops before downtown Bangkok and boarded vans to the floating market after a quick stop at the gas station mini-mart for breakfast. We shunned the gross eggs they would cook for you and instead ate packaged nuts with our coffee and tea.

Breakfast

The beginning of the market tour consists of half tourist boats and half vendor boats all floating along together in both directions so you really have to react fast if you want something.

Floating market from above

The boat vendors mostly are selling fresh fruit and vegetables, but some also have snackey foods that they make in little makeshift canoe kitchens. We tried these crispy crepes which appeared to be filled with something resembling marshmallow creme. Kinda gross but cool at the same time! Further down are a series of canals lined on either side with vendors all selling pretty much the exact same assortment of little figurines, colored pencils, spices and straw hats.

Floating market

It was all too fast for me to try to buy anything (and of course I'm still too intimidated by the haggling game) but I just enjoyed the ride.

The bridge on the River Kwai was...bridgey,

Dag on the Bridge on the River Kwai

but the museum (I think it was called something like the Death Bridge museum) was incredible.  I've never found myself wishing I had MORE time to spend in a museum before (at the Louvre, I wished for more energy and maybe a footrub, but not more time), but this one, I did.  They had a lot of personal artifacts from the POWs themselves - journals and drawings - really heavy stuff.
Last night we went to a really nice place for dinner.  We had panang curry and this truly awful dish consisting of catfish fried to a blackened, unchewable crisp and covered by deep fried...fried stuff that was just dripping in oil with a few shavings of papaya on the top.  Bleah.  The restaurant was gorgeous though if a little Vegas-ey with Greek columns and lots of fountains and lights.  Afterwards we all congregated at a gas station that turns into a bar at night (should there really be candles on those tables???).
Several members of the group went off to a questionable show in a questionable part of town and for us - there was no question.  We just headed back to the hotel and continued reading our Dark Tower books (Dag is reading Wizard and Glass, which I finished in Tokyo and miraculously was able to pick up the next one, Wolves of the Calla, at the airport). 
Today after breakfast we were picked up by my friend Suwalee and her husband and two kids who took us on a whirlwind tour of the city.  We started at the Grand Palace, which I was totally not prepared for.  I've never seen any man-made structure even near as breathtakingly beautiful. 

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Corner

It was really hard to get good photos of, however, because everything was both giagntic and really close together.

After, they took us to the temple with the enormous Buddha

Reclining Buddha

and for a ride on the river Taxi.  I will add more details when I post the photos.  I need to get moving now though.  We're catching another overnight train south to Kao Sok National Park - woo!
Thanks to everyone for all your comments!  It's so cool to know that you are all with us on this amazing trip!

Friday, October 13, 2006

Good news/Bad news

I'll give you the bad news first, so no one has to worry a second longer than needed (mom).  Sometime yesterday afternoon my iPod died.  I mean dead as a doornail.  Before you roll your eyes, let me tell you that I had transfered a whole week's worth of photos onto the thing, both mine and Dag's, of course erasing those cards thereafter.  So it is POSSIBLE that I will not be able to show you a photo of our disgusting train breakfast after all.
 
The good news is that my ankles have returned.
 
Yesterday's half-day outing was touristy as I'd predicted, but fun nonetheless.  They drove us up north to Maetaman Elephant Camp and first treated us to a thoroughly disturbing display of elephant acrobatics. 

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I don't know if elephants have the capacity for dignity, but if so, then this show really was the worst thing I've ever seen.  Think basketball, hula hoops, arts & crafts and walking on two legs.  The best part of the show for me was when one elephant who had his back to the audience so they could see the still life he was painting lifted his tail and dispensed with his breakfast.  Now THAT'S what elephants do!  Riding them around the grounds was still pretty cool, and our "driver" was awesome about taking our photo (those are as of yet, still in existance). 

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We were shuffled by souvenier stalls on our way to the Oxen pulled cart that drove us to our buffet lunch.  (Aaron, there was chicken curry, sweet and sour fish, noodles, fried rice, chicken legs and brothy soup.) 

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We met a honeymooney couple, one of whom had previously been employed by adidas Canada and we knew several of the same people.  WEEIRD!  After lunch, it was down the muddy river on a bamboo raft

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then on to a butterfly farm and orchid farm. 

Orchid

We decided we'd had enough animal exploitation for one day and skipped the monkey and snake farms.
That evening we finally met our tour leader and joined the group for dinner.  I'll just say we have a ways to go still as far as bonding with the group goes.  98% of them seem positively marvy, but we ended up seated next to the one who seemed to want nothing to do with us (or possibly with anyone as there seemed to be a complete invisible force sheild between our end of the table and everyone else).  Dag tried very hard to chat this person up to be pretty much shut down and then it got really super loud and it was very TGI Friday's in there (you could buy a souvenier apron or T-shirt!) so we threw down our 200 baht and ran ran ran.  As it turned out, the whole area where she'd taken us was full of white backpackers drinking guinness (nothing wrong with guinness, of course but we are trying to be in another country, you know?).  So we grabbed a tuk-tuk back to our hotel and wandered around on foot til we found a place empty except for the single employee, a Thai lady named Mai and her French companion both struggling to communicate with each other in English and drinking Singha while a stray dog wandered in and out.  I commented on the half carved cantaloupe sitting on the bar and she launched into an excited story about how she wants to become a professional fruit carver and showed us her tools and the book she is using to teach herself.  Now THIS was more like it!  We talked about the new airport in Bangok and about how she has been unable to get a visa to work at her auntie's restaurant in New Zealand.
Today we hired a driver to take us to the Doi Suthep temple up on the hill.  It was gorgeous!

Stairs

Chedi

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  Uncle Scott, I did get my blessing up there!  This temple is much more strict than the others we've been to.  You must sit on the floor to take photos inside some of the buildings and there are giant pants available at the entry for those tourists who didn't get the memo about covering one's knees. 

Rent-a-pants

I was looking in the doorway of one of the buildings watching people get blessed by the monk when the guy sitting to the monk's left waved me in and motioned for me to kneel in front of the monk behind a few other Thai people who were doing the same.  I was a little startled by the drops of water he threw on our heads while muttering over us and the guy then waved me over to him asking for my left hand to which he tied a piece of white string while saying things both in Thai and occasionally the words "good luck".  But his tone sounded like the mall santa in A Christmas Story: "HO...ho...hoooooooo". I'm sure that is not how it was, but it struck me a little like that and made me laugh ever so slightly.  But of course, he says this 1000000 times per day so maybe it does get a little blah for him.  I once again chickened out on the souvenir shopping at the bottom of the temple so those of you who are expecting gifts from me (I've been told I can't return to work empty handed) may have to be satisfied with whatever I can find in the convenience store.  Haggling is such a chore and as much as I love you all, I guess it's still not enough to make me want to shop for you!  But do you really need an elephant figurine out of fake jade?  Maybe you'd really just like a nice bag of salty Thai peanuts?
Instead of the obligatory visit to the waterfall, we asked the driver to drop us off at a good Thai restaurant near our hotel with no tourists, which he did.  He told us that all the employees of the medical center across the street go there on their lunch hours.  I had a toe-curling plate of Phad Thai noodles with shrimp and Dag had the same.


Phad Thai

In a few hours we're back on the overnight train to Bangkok and we'll be spending Saturday afternoon checking out the bridge on the River Kwai.  Our evening is free during which I presume we'll make another attempt to forge bonds among our travel companions.  Then on Sunday we'll be escorted around the city by my lovely friend from the adidas BKK office and her husband!

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Chiang Mai

Yesterday evening we headed down early to the Bangkok train station and squatted at a restaurant there periodically ordering more food and drink so we could have a table to sit at.  There was some sort of movie being filmed at the station and the peeps had brought their wardrobe, makeup artists, movie stars and floodlights.  Our waiter seemed very excited about it. 
At 6pm sharp, some music was piped over the loudspeaker and everyone in the crowded train station stopped what they were doing and stood up.  I have to find out what that was about - but it seemed very national anthem-esque.
We boarded the train at 7:35pm and I struggled mostly unsuccessfully to stay awake because I really like riding trains.  Unlike the two sets of three bunks we saw on Chinese trains last year, these cars had two seats facing each other, which at 9pm or so, the guy came around and converted to a bed.  Above this was another bunk that he unfolded from the ceiling.  Each had a blue curtain for privacy. 

Dag on train

Also unlike the Chinese trains, the lights were left on all night long.  We both slept well and in the morning, experienced the single most horrifying rendition of eggs, ham and toast of my entire life on planet earth.  I'll just have to post a photo later - you won't even believe it. 

Breakfast

Breakfast

Of course, I ate it all up.  We took a Songthaew (a pickup truck w/two benches in the back) to the hotel and got cleaned up.

songthaew

For some reason my feet and ankles have swollen to the point where my calves kind of just continue right on down and then there are toes - very elephant-esque.  I had been feeling sad for having missed the Elephant trek but NO MORE!  I just gave Dag a piggy back ride today and we called it good!  Actually, we also booked an Elephant trek and bamboo rafting dealie for tomorrow.  Touristy, I'm sure, but it will make me feel better about the whole Narita Airport debacle.

Today we walked around Chiang Mai checking out temples and learning that no one really just wants to chat and practice their English.  All of these conversations led to the person in question telling us about this "special market" where "only the Thai people go - no tourists" and we should definitely check out this one shop:  Imperial Fashion!  After the second guy told us this I was like - yeah, uh-huh.  Despite our suspicions, we walked by the market anyway and it was really just a street filled with stores selling plastic furniture and mufflers.  

Not a market

It wasn't two seconds after we spotted the Imperial Fashion store that some guy was chasing us down the street trying to engage us in "conversation"  Hah.  Anyway, the temples were gorgeous.  Check back here in a couple of weeks for photos! 

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Tile detail

We also found a little restaurant to have some Green Curry Soup which was spectacular.  It was like the green curry you'd get in a Thai restaurant in the US but thinner and served with rice which you spoon into the soup instead of the other way around.  Aaron, since you've been begging for food details:  It had chicken, thai basil, thai eggplant, coconut milk and as a condiment, fish sauce with thai chiles.

Lunch

When we left the hotel this afternoon, it was blazing hot and humid - to the degree where you can't do much more than shuffle your feet forward in the general direction you want to head.  Suddenly, the wind came up and black clouds darkened the sky.  On our walk home, it started to rain and within about two minutes it was like we were standing under a waterfall and our little umbrellas were pretty much useless.  We caught a ride back to the hotel and I'm still drying off.
Tomorrow when we get back from our excursion we will be able to meet up with our tour guide.  The next time we are all together as a group will be Friday night's overnight train to Bangkok so I presume we won't meet most members of the group until then.  It's a bit weird as they've had a week to bond with each other and we'll be the newcomer/outsider types.  Good thing for us that Dag is so charming!