Monday, August 14, 2006

Thailand, Day Seventeen- Stranded in Japan

Our flight was scheduled to leave at 6:55am, so we had to leave the hotel at 4am to get to the airport with plenty of time. We checked out the night before and were ready to go. When we got to the airport, there was total chaos, because of the terrorist attacks. We hadn't heard a thing about them so we were pretty confused. We heard that there was a red alert on our flight from Bangkok to Tokyo (it continued to Los Angeles but we wouldn't be on that leg).

The flight was scheduled to be 5.5 hours. When we were finally near Narita airport in Tokyo, the pilot announced that we would be circling for about 30 minutes as we were not cleared to land. We had a 2 hour connection here but we weren't too worried because Narita is a small airport- even 20 minutes would be plenty of time. After about 25 minutes, the pilot announced that we were still not cleared to land, he wasn't sure why, and we might be up here for a while.

Finally we diverted to a small airfield and we were never so relieved to feel the wheels touch down. But we had to stay on the plane to get back to Narita- finally we were told it was just heavy thunderstorms. We sat there on the tarmac for about another two hours before finally returning to Narita. Of course, by now we have missed our connection. When we disembark and find a United agent, we are told to clear customs and go for dinner at Royals restaurant (we are starving because we haven't eaten for hours) and we'd be bussed to a hotel and returned tomorrow. We were to call reservations at 9am tomorrow to be rebooked home.

It took forever to clear customs and get our bags, but we finally found Royals and had a decent meal- Caesar salad to start, spaghetti for Dan and a club sandwich for Susie. We both felt a little better with food in our stomachs at least! The next ordeal was finding the bus. We were told to go to the first floor, then sent back up to the fourth floor. It was a relief to finally climb on the bus and relax, even if it was nearly midnight Tokyo time. We were bussed an hour away to the Keio Plaza Hotel, which was very nice, if small. It was a serious luxury room for Japan, even if it was tiny by Western standards.

Waking up the next morning, we went downstairs for breakfast. The buffet was okay, nothing special, but at least they fed us. Time to bus back to the airport. Dan had argued with United on the phone because they had no way to get us home today without an eight hour layover. Finally they agreed to give us a voucher to use on Northwest to get home, even if the route had two more connections.

When we got to the airport, we waited in an enormous line for nearly two hours. We had to get the voucher from United before we could check in at Northwest, and everything was backed up because of the new security rules plus two days' worth of passengers- other planes had been stranded, too. Then the agent wasn't even sure how to give us a voucher, so we had to wait longer. Finally, it's nearly 2pm and we have a 3:30 flight and we have to go to the other end of the terminal to get to the Northwest checkin! We are starting to panic as we race over. Then Northwest has no clue how to process the voucher, even though we are reserved on the flights.

We made it to the gate just long enough to grab some McDonalds before boarding. Northwest does their long flights much better than United or Air Canada. Each passenger has their own TV screen and you can choose from a menu of movies and watch them whenever you want. We synchronized our screens and watched four movies together- RV, Over the Hedge, MI3, and Lucky Sleven. This was the longest leg of the flight (12 hours) and it still went very quickly.

We arrived very late, and had about 20 minutes to make our connection. We figured we were going to get stuck in Seattle. We were told we had to pick up our bags, clear US customs, recheck the bags, then board.

After waiting for our bags and clearing Homeland Security, we dropped our bags in the recheck chute and raced through security. We ran upstairs to our gate and they were happy to see us because they figured we were going to miss the flight, too. It felt so good to be on the plane! This was only a short flight to Minneapolis and we were both tired so we slept.

I woke up in Minneapolis as we were getting ready to land, and for once, we were on time. We found our new gate and it felt so good to see a sign that finally said Toronto! After a zillion hours and the longest "day" ever, we were finally going home. Nearly three days late and without luggage (it got stuck in Seattle), but it was good to be home.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Thailand, Day Sixteen- Ancient City

On our last day of sightseeing, we decided to go to the Ancient City, which is kind of like a mini version of Thailand shaped like the country, with all the interesting sights in place and visible. It was a lot like a museum with a bunch of shops in it. I can't imagine that they get much custom and we weren't really interested in any of the wares, but it was fun to look.

The wood carvings were beautiful- we saw them all over.

The fish go crazy for some bread:

We drove around in our taxi and got out to see the different attractions and took some beautiful photographs. The pictures are captioned in the album.

After the Ancient City, we decided we had time to go back to the Siam Paragon and finish exploring. We tried Thai food for dinner, which was eaten from a bag with little sticks for spearing.

Our flight leaves early tomorrow morning, so it was time to go back to the hotel and pack and say goodbye to Bangkok. It's been a wonderful trip, but all good things must come to an end.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Thailand, Day Fifteen- Elephant Zoo and Rose Garden

Today we hired a taxi driver for the day to take us to the elephant zoo and the Rose Garden cultural fair.

First he asked us to stop at a jewelry factory for the ubiquitous gas stamp. We had time so we didn't worry too much. We saw a little video about how the jewelry was made and saw some lovely finished pieces.

The elephant zoo was amazing. When we first walked in, you could get your picture taken with real live tigers! Susie was scared but we couldn't resist the photo op. Yes, we are actually holding their tails. We bought a souvenir plate with this photo on it.

Then we got to go for a ride on an elephant! They take you all around the zoo and even up to a waterfall. Riding an elephant is an interesting experience, you always feel like you are about to fall off.

After the ride, we watched the elephant show, which was a lot of fun. They showed how elephants were used for war and for work, and then did a funny elephant world cup of soccer. Spain got a yellow card for charging the goalie ;)

After the elephant show, we visited the Rose Garden cultural show where we had a delicious buffet lunch, then went over to the pavilion to watch demonstrations of Thai boxing, Thai dances, and a Thai wedding. Very unique and interesting.

After the show, we visited the Rose Garden's elephants for a little, then it was time for the long drive back to Bangkok and the hotel. We were both exhausted after our long day, and ordered room service and went to bed early.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Thailand, Day Fourteen- Shopping and Cruise

Today after breakfast, we started to make plans for our few remaining days in Thailand so we could do as much sightseeing as possible. Today we decided to spend the morning at the Siam Paragon, a very fancy mall with an aquarium in it, and we booked a dinner cruise for the evening. We hailed a taxi over to the mall, and had lunch at Piri Piri, a chicken restaurant. Boy, do Thais like their food hot! Dan enjoys spicy food, but even he wouldn't risk the hot chicken, and Susie found the medium scorching.

After lunch, we had a yummy dessert at Swenson's. We had never heard of the franchise before, but they are delicious. There were more than five different ice cream parlours on this level, but the sundaes looked delicious so we couldn't resist.

The Siam Paragon truly is a paradox- wealth in the midst of poverty. This mall had a floor with a BMW dealership, Ferrari dealership, a floor with all designer clothing (Armani, Hugo Boss, Hermes,etc), a floor with accessories, and a department store, which thankfully wasn't insanely expensive.

We didn't have too long to explore because we had to be back at the hotel for six for the dinner cruise, so we decided to come back to the mall if we had time. We went back to the hotel and changed into nice clothes, and headed downstairs for the ride to the river cruise.

This was our cruise boat:

Dinner was pretty good, but the wine was terrible- what a waste of $15. We couldn't even drink it, so we stuck to water instead. We sat with a nice couple from Australia who talked a lot, but it wasn't too annoying.

After dinner, we went out on deck to see the sights. The buildings alongside the river are all lit up and look beautiful at night. It was a great way to see everything. The photos are never as good as actually being there. It was a really romantic evening.

After we returned from the cruise, we went out and explored the night market a little.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Thailand, Day Twelve- Shopping

The tournament is over for us- we didn't qualify for the semifinals but we weren't really expecting to. We did rank well in the Butler scores, though.

We caught a tuk tuk taxi to go shopping today.

After our day of shopping, we relaxed at the hotel with friends and played cards for the rest of the day.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Thailand, Day Thirteen- Closing Ceremonies

Today was the last day of the tournament and it was a little bittersweet, since all our friends actually had to leave today and weren't staying for any extra days like we were. They're great friends, but because we're scattered all around the world we rarely see each other more often then once every few years.

We went out in the morning to do a little shopping at the Indra Palace mall, and then we headed back to the hotel to play cards with Noble and Mike. After a yummy room service lunch, we went to hang out with USA1 and we played in a poker tournament- Susie came in third.

Time to get dressed for the closing banquet. The speeches were long and boring but the company was great (we sat with all our friends) and it was a little sadly that we took our goodbye photos. We'll miss them.

And here's Dan in his new suit with our friend Joaquin:

After the dinner, it was back to the room for one last farewell card party...

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Thailand, Day Eight- Sightseeing

Today was a day off from bridge- they booked a tour bus for all the participants who wanted to see Bangkok. We were to visit a snake farm, a jewelry factory, the Grand Palace, and a crocodile farm. The bus was scheduled to depart at 10am.

We needed to pick up Dan's suit in the morning, so we got up early and had breakfast, and walked over to the tailor's shop to get Dan fitted. The mall was supposed to open at nine, but Thais seem have a similar notion to Caribbean time :P The owner finally showed up at 9:20, and told us the suit was at their showroom down the street. We're starting to get a little nervous about time, but we go with him to his other showroom and Dan tries on the suit. It fits perfectly, and he looks fantastic. Now we have ten minutes to run back to the hotel and catch the bus...

Our first stop was the snake farm, which was pretty cool. They started with a slide show about all different kinds of snakes in Thailand, and explained how they milked snakes to create antivenin for hospitals, since there are a great deal of poisonous snakes! Some look very similar to regular snakes too, which is a little scary. There are also snakes that can sense body heat and strike at you, so standing still won't work with them.

At the end of the demonstration, Susie got to hold a non venomous snake. It felt so strong and squishy at the same time.

After the snake farm, we visited the jewelry factory, which was basically just an excuse to get people to buy very, very beautiful, but very, very expensive jewelry. Lots of pieces Susie liked were thousands of dollars each. We weren't allowed to take pictures in the showroom but it was really amazing. They had some gorgeous necklaces that were a quarter million dollars!

Then it was time for the Grand Palace. Beautiful architecture, and we saw the Emerald Buddha statue. Unfortunately you weren't allowed to take pictures of that, either. But there were lots of gorgeous buildings and temples in the courtyard.

Here is us with some of our teammates at the Grand Palace.

Finally, it was time for the crocodile farm. We saw a show where two handlers wrestled crocodiles and put on a great show. When the audience threw paper money down to them, they put it in a crocodile's mouth! And made a big show of trying to pull it out again later. It really was a fantastic show.

After the tour and the long, traffic filled drive back to Bangkok, we were all tired and hungry. We invited our friends Noble and Mike from USA 2 to join us in ordering some Pizza Hut (good old North American comfort food) and a game of barbu. It was a fun night. Pizza wasn't as cheap as most food in Thailand, but it was still reasonable. The weird thing was that the order came with two ziploc bags full of ketchup and seasonings! Who puts ketchup on pizza? But the taste was pretty close to home, and it was a fun way to end a long day.