Tyler always gets vacation between Christmas and New Year's, and for 2016, we decided to do something completely different than anything we'd done before. When we moved to Seattle, we decided that every other year would be a hometown Christmas, and we'd get ourselves to Kansas. The off year, we'd spend at our own place. This is not my favorite tradition, as Christmas just doesn't seem like Christmas without my family, but we've made it work. 2016 was already scheduled to be an "off year" so I didn't push toooo hard to try to get us back to US, but I proposed the idea that, since it was going to feel so weird and foreign anyway, maybe we should go to the beach! We'd never experienced a warm Christmas, and I thought that might be just the thing to help me forget my holiday blues. It turned out, I didn't completely forget, but it was waaaaay more bearable. :)
The flight from Munich to Phuket was pretty long (12.5 hours flying plus a layover). Once we arrived in Phuket, we took a taxi about an hour north to Khao Lak. The airline lost one of our bags, but we still had most of our necessities, and we always try to pack enough to get by in our carry-ons just in case. They did deliver our bag the following day with everything intact. :)
We picked Khao Lak because reviews said it was great for swimming/snorkeling, and it was a great central location to base from for all the activities we wanted to do. Our hotel was really great! Everything was decorated for Christmas, even though it was 85 degrees outside! Our room was built on a hill above the rest of the resort, so it really felt like you were walking through the treetops to get to it. We didn't waste much time and went down to enjoy the beach.
The next day, we hired another taxi to take us to a nice hike that ended with a waterfall. I, of course, was thinking mostly about snakes and spiders, but it was pretty enjoyable, also very hot! But the swim made the hike worthwhile.
One of our outings was visiting an elephant rescue. Many places in Thailand offer elephant rides, but they treat their elephants pretty terribly. They often leave them chained up unless the elephants are working. This place rescues elephants from bad situations and lets them live out their days in the comfort of the jungle, but still interacting with people. We had a great time learning about elephants, and then we got to take a short ride and cool the elephant off by giving it a bath! It was kind of intimidating to be so near this massive animal that could easily stomp on me with it's huge legs or swat me with it's muscular trunk, but they are really gentle and friendly. One person is in charge of one elephant, and takes care of them all the time. They even sleep in little huts with the elephant around back. The handler and the elephant form a really close, special bond, and if the handler ever takes a "vacation day," the elephant will pace and be agitated until his friend comes back. We got to see and play with a tiny baby elephant, along with hanging out with all the adult elephants. The baby got a little curious about Tyler's shoes and pulled on the hard plastic tie which was attached to elastic laces...He got quite a welt when baby let go! :)
The elephant ride itself was different from what I pictured. I was expecting a horseback ride, just on a bigger scale. ;) What I got was a big, lumbering animal with a rope for me to hold onto! :) It was really an ab workout to keep your balance since their steps are so long.
Getting ready to get on our elephant!
We got to feed the elephants a little snack of bananas which was fun, but again, intimidating! Their mouths are huge, and their trunks are really strong!!
The ride back through the jungle was similar to the ride out, but Tyler got to sit in front this time. We both decided each riding position had pros and cons, but ultimately decided that it was easier to sit in front.
The bath consisted of a bristle brush and a basket to pour water over our elephant. It was really fun!!
We got to go scuba diving one day which was nice, but nothing to write home about. The water was crystal clear, but not much sea life to speak of.
One day, we hired another taxi for the day, and got to do some exploring. The driver stopped at a spot that's known for monkeys and we got to feed them. :) They were pretty grabby little critters. Then we took an impromptu canoe trip down a river and spotted some snakes :P Then we arrived at our destination, Khao Sok National Park. The park is kind of divided into two parts: the rain forest and the lake. We spent this particular day in the rain forest hiking for a few hours. It was hot! :) But fun. And the surroundings were really stunning.
We spent the next day back at Khao Sok National Park, boating across the beautiful lake. We had a great time seeing the absolutely gorgeous clear water, and were excited to take a dip. However, we were quickly disappointed to learn that it's illegal to just jump out and swim anywhere. They took us to a little tourist station to swim in a designated area, but the water there was so oily and gross from lots of boats and people in such a tiny place, that we barely dipped our feet in it! We did feed the fish that were there, but otherwise, this place was a bust. We were quite frustrated and didn't use our whole hour of "swimming time" before asking to return to the dock.
The sunset that evening was absolutely breathtaking though!
Just down the road from our hotel was a little street cart that made "Thai pancakes" which were like crepes. We often grabbed one for dessert after dinner as we walked back to the hotel. We tried several varieties, but decided the original with sweetened condensed milk and raw sugar was the best...yum!!
At this point in our vacation, we moved locations to Phuket proper to do a few things there before we headed back to Germany. Looking back, I wish we had stayed in our nicer hotel and just made day trips to Phuket. Neither of us were impressed with the cleanliness or the infrastructure of Phuket. Our first evening, we ventured from our hotel to find dinner, but there were no sidewalks and traffic moved very fast. It felt very dangerous, so we walked fast to our destination. Our dinner was pretty good, and we knew what we were dealing with on the way back, so we started hustling down the road. About halfway back to our hotel, we heard some dogs barking in a junk yard, but didn't think much of it. Suddenly there were five large surrounding us, barking and circling us and not letting us though. We kept trying to knee our way out of the pack (neither of us are afraid of dogs and didn't think too much of it, we just wanted to get out of traffic), when I felt a bite on the back of my thigh. It honestly didn't register right away, other than thinking, ouch, that hurts, I think one of them just bit me! The dogs finally turned back around and went back to their junk yard, but we were in such a hurry that it wasn't until we reached a quieter side street that I really checked my leg. There was dog slobber in a "mouth print" on my pants, but no blood and no torn fabric. When we got back to the room and I was able to check my skin, there were four tooth marks and a couple of them had broken the skin. After checking with our travel doctor, we asked the hotel to get us a taxi to the hospital to get me vaccinated for Rabies. The experience at the hospital was overall pretty smooth. The doctors were knowledgeable and efficient. We were seen right away and done in less than an hour. However, we waited at "check out" for hours because they couldn't get ahold of our insurance to get a guarantee of payment. After many calls and emails and faxes and frustration, we finally just asked if we could pay the bill ourselves and bill insurance ourselves later. They agreed and our total came to a whopping $167. If we had known that at the beginning, we would have paid much sooner and gotten back to the hotel room before 3am. ;)
The morning following the dog bite, we joined a boat trip to some caves. When you think of Thailand, this place is probably what you picture. It's beautiful and unique. We had a great time! And our guide was definitely Morgan Freeman :) We got to make floating baskets that hold candles to light in a cave after dark. It was a fun experience, though Tyler thought it was kinda cheesy. ;) When we were canoeing in the cave after dark, we all turned off the lights and blew out the candles, and the water had bioluminescent plankton which glowed when you ran your hand through the water. It was sooo cool, but impossible to photograph.
Our next adventure, and maybe my favorite, was visiting a tiger sanctuary. You choose which tigers you want to interact with, pay the fee, and then wait for your number to come up outside the respective cages. We decided we were not likely to ever do this again, so we paid to play with all the sizes of tigers. They didn't have any newborns when we were there, but we got "baby" all the way to "giant." We started with the giant tiger, and let me tell you, I was on high alert! There were several trainers in the cage with us, but they really only had a small reed with which they whacked the tiger's nose to make him obey or move. It was surreal. He was huge, and we were just petting him and rubbing him all over!
The large tigers were still pretty intimidating, but a little less so. I think it was good we started with the biggest and worked our way down. By the time we got to the babies, they just felt like kittens :)
They really liked belly rubs!
The "teenager" tigers were really cute and playful! It was so fun to see them having fun.
More belly rubs!
The small tigers were adorable as well. We got to cuddle with them on the floor.
The baby tigers were absolutely endearing! So frisky and still kind of awkward in their movements.