TLDR: Happy New Year! It’s about time! This month we went to Red Lotus Lake on a whim, a bat cave with millions of bats streaming out at dusk, revisited the Erawan Chang Museum, encountered more fighting fish on display, found a fun dance venue on a rooftop (Above 11), took festive Xmas pictures, sent/received insanely expensive packages to /from the US, watched New Year’s fireworks from our balcony, and canceled more plans due to a neighboring city having the largest Covid-19 outbreak in Thailand (sigh). Fun Fact: We have been out of the US for over a year!
One Year Ago…
Almost exactly one year ago, maskless, bright-eyed and bushy tailed, we walked onto our first business class flight expecting circumnavigate the globe within a year. In February, we thought that Covid-19 would be contained in China/Korea, and that we would be able to continue traveling a few weeks after the initial outbreak. In March, we did not know that our brief hiatus in Thailand would turn out to be a move to Asia for a year, nor that 75% of our travels would be canceled/postponed. The first 2.5 months of 2020 were filled with adventure and breathtaking new experiences. However, on March 13th, moments before our ferry departed Manila to take us on a Philippine island-hopping vacation, our plans for the year changed entirely. Amidst the bustle of incoming passengers, I heard a faint ferry-wide PA announcement about the Manila lockdown being extended to the islands. Even though we didn’t have any plans or place to stay, immediately getting off that boat may have been the best choice of the whole year. Less than 12 hours later, we arrived in Bangkok and the rest… can be enjoyable reading for you 🙂
Red Lotus Lake
Jyn stumbled upon this gem as we were planning a different trip, and now I have 1000 pictures of flowers. A lake filled with blooming red water lilies seemed too unique to pass up. Four days later, we jumped on a 9-hour train ride to the northeast of Thailand (in the province of Udon Thani in the Isaan region). We did not know how long we were going to stay, but we packed about five days’ worth of clothes. This destination is a bit off the beaten path. We had phoned ahead of time to ask our hotel for the best way to get there from the nearest train station. They said that there would be tuk tuks waiting once we disembarked. Well, we disembarked and were greeted by a dirt road, a family of white and brown cows, and a couple that had their personal tuk tuk waiting for them. They were nice enough to hang around until we found transportation to the hotel. Eventually, the hotel owner came and picked us up in her personal SUV. Our hotel, the only hotel in the area, was about 50 meters from the main pier of the lake, which was an ideal location because the first boats depart from the pier at 6am. Just before sunrise the next morning, we took the first boat heading into the lake (imagine a slightly larger canoe with an engine). As the warm sun emerged, the horizon turned pink and we saw hundreds of thousands of pink water lilies blooming across the lake. It was spectacular. Describing this place as a lake filled with red flowers is similar to saying that the grand canyon is a big hole in the ground. The description does not capture magnitude of the splendor. Our boat captain took us to a few spots over the next hour and a half. Many odd/cute bird species also roam the lotus lake. We were so impressed that we decided to return again the next day.
Bike Around the Lake
Since we felt satisfied with our two experiences of the lake, we decided to see what else there was to do in the area. Our hotel staff was concerned that would get bored, so they kept making suggestions and recommendations. There wasn’t much around at all, but the hotel let us borrow two of their bicycles to ride the road around the lake. We rode for ~2 hours, down dirt roads, passing rudimentary fishing huts and various birds. Even though my bike was in desperate need of repair, we enjoyed the exercise and the rural scenery. We finished the ride at sunset and noticed that swarms of bugs were starting their busy night. Tons of bugs to bug me. Unfortunately, I suspect that my upper arm and chest became a spider’s buffet. That’s the price of being out in nature. Thankfully, Jyn was largely spared this time.
To the Bat Cave!
Since we were hundreds of miles into Isaan, we wanted to find something else to do. We found a bat cave around 100 miles away from the red lotus lake where the bat cauldron is a continuous 15-minute stream at dusk. (Fun Fact: A “cauldron” is the collective noun for a group of bats. Seriously, most collective nouns are hilarious. Look them up!) Unfortunately, the information to get us there without a personal vehicle was sparse, at best. For every leg of the trip, we only knew how to get to the end of that leg and then we had to figure out the next leg. That’s how it went for four segments to get to the cave (not including the train to get to the nearest city).
To get to the cave, we took a taxi, two small vans, and hired a driver for the last portion. We arrived at the cave ~6 hours before the bats were due to fly out. We hiked up to the cave and I wanted to get inside, but without a breathing apparatus, that is nearly impossible. The strength of the stench of bat guano wafting out of that cave was enough to make me turn around before I even broke the plane of the entrance. It felt like painfully concentrated ammonia mixed with mold. We physically could not go into that cave. So we were fine with heading back down. Plus, the best spot to view the bats exiting their cave was, we were told, was about a mile away. Two of the park’s medical staff who saw us walking away asked if we wanted a ride to the best place to eat, drink, and view bats. We got on the back of scooters and off to the cafe we went. The cafe had a great view of the cave, an elevated observation platform, and huts to have a snack. We ordered a meal and expected it to show up cooked. Nope. It was similar to Korean BBQ style grilling, but primitive and with a water moat surrounding the grill. It was great.
The Bat Cauldron
Finally, after waiting for hours, the sun began to dip below the horizon and the bats emerged. We were on the viewing platform and we thought we just saw a small group of birds coming our way. Nope again. They were at the start of the stream of millions of bats. The first group flew within 10 feet of our heads! Each bat was about the size of the palm of my hand and did not appear to be threatening. They were not interested in weary travelers. They wanted to eat all of the flying bugs. As advertised, the bats flew together and all flew out together to eventually cover the sky. The dense stream lasted for 10-15 minutes. We could hear their chirps and the wind from their flapping wings. It was magnificent. Surprisingly, the entire day went smoothly and turned out much better than expected.
Salsa at Above Eleven
We recently found a fantastic salsa venue on the roof (33nd floor) of a nearby building. It is open air, free admission, close-ish, and they play good music. Even though we dance in masks and only with each other, it is still great to go cut a little rug. Well, I should say “was” a great place to go. We don’t really go anywhere much now that Covid has struck again. Sad panda.
Hot Christmas and Cooler New Year’s
It’s Christmas time here and I was surprised to see how much effort has gone into decorations. Thai people are mainly Buddhist, but in Bangkok, the western influence is fairly strong. Giant decorated trees, ornaments, festive displays, and Christmas music are all over the touristy areas. Because of the recent Covid spike, we altered our Christmas plans. We opened one round of gifts in the morning, video chatted, wore red, went to a large outdoor beef restaurant, and watched holiday movies. Now, we are waiting for the last boxes from the US to arrive so we can enjoy Part II our Christmas celebration.
Again, since the Covid spike, we are not going to go anywhere. The weather is approaching the coolest that it will be all year (daily range is ~66F to 83F, although it’s reached 90 a few times this past week). On NYE, we stayed in and watched the clock strike midnight from our little balcony. Bangkok erupted in fireworks all across the horizon, which was unexpected and fantastic. Plus, we didn’t have to fight any crowds or risk our lives on the road. We lifted our left legs to start the new year on the right foot.
On ~December 20th, at a shrimp market WSW of Bangkok, about 600 Covid cases were confirmed. It happened fast. The area was locked down, but some of the people traveled and now the virus is all over Thailand. For the last few days, around 200 cases per day have been reported. Plus, people just had New Year’s celebrations. Relatively speaking, the case numbers seem low, but when compared to near zero cases for ~7 months, it’s a ton. The government is trying to avoid another lockdown, but the restrictions are rapidly increasing to prevent it from becoming an overwhelming problem.
Since the news of the outbreak, we have been staying inside and have not gone into enclosed spaces for more than a few minutes at a time. We shop at odd hours to avoid crowds and are always wearing masks. For exercise, we take long walks outside with masks, and I use my resistance bands in the house. We are prepared to stay inside for a while, again. Sigh. Also, if the schools are closed (looks likely), I may have difficulty achieving the required hours to renew my visa in March. Always a freaking visa problem! Lastly, we canceled travel plans with Jyn’s family and I will probably have to delay my freediving certification…again.
Ironically, on a much smaller scale, 2020 is ending similarly to how it started. Thailand recently had a Covid outbreak, we canceled plans, and we’ve been staying inside. At least this time, we didn’t have to flee off a ferry boat to catch the next flight out of the country, so that’s a plus. We are looking forward to the vaccines ushering in an era of return to normal-ish. With a little luck, by mid-year, we will be able to travel and dance again (fingers crossed). Hey 2020, you were a dumpster fire. Let’s make 2021 a great year!