Spring Festival 2015: An Overview

Well, I’m back!  I had no intention of taking this long a hiatus from my blog, but life is sometimes best spent living.  Although I went to bed every night wishing I’d had the time to write, I knew that I had good reason not to.  For most of our 2015 vacation, Dave and I were up at the crack of dawn and on the move until the early hours of the morning on a daily basis.  Our adventures spanned a wide range of interests, from speedboats to spas and from palaces to pachyderms, and the result was probably the most interesting 3 weeks of my life!  There’s far too much for me to describe in one day or even in one week, but I need to start somewhere, so here it is: an overview of our 3 week holiday.  For now, I’m going to stick with a summary of each city where we spent time; a bit of a pros and cons list for each.  From there, I’ll start writing about specific experiences we had during our Spring Festival vacation.

spring-rush
For anyone needing a reminder of why it isn’t wise to stay IN China for the holidays, this is a picture of the railway station in Shanghai, this 2015 Spring Festival! Yes…those are all people…

1st Stop:  Kunming, Yunnan Province

As some of you may already know, we had a bonus week added to our holiday at the last minute.  The winter classes that my school had planned to offer ended up not panning out, so we were given the option to take a week of unpaid holiday (in addition to the 2 weeks we WERE being paid for).  The alternative was to spend that week at the school, doing next to nothing, so Dave and I jumped on the opportunity and decided to visit Kunming during our bonus holiday.  Our flight to Thailand was departing from Kunming so it made sense for us logistically, and we’ve both always been very interested in living in Kunming, so there was really no reason to go anywhere else!

Kunming is the capital of Yunnan province, which sits to the south west of Guizhou, where we live.  It's known as 'Spring City' due to its beautiful weather and abundant floral displays
Kunming is the capital of Yunnan province, which sits to the south west of Guizhou, where we live. It’s known as ‘Spring City’ due to its beautiful weather and abundant floral displays

The Best of Kunming

Kunming is not only beautiful, but also clean and sunny.  The temperature doesn’t dip as low as it does in Guiyang, which was a welcomed change after our last weeks before the holiday (we’d both begun to feel like we would never feel warm again).  We spent as much time outdoors as possible, taking in the vitamin D and enjoying Kunming’s beautiful parks and clean streets.

Green lake was a beautiful stop.  We spent quite a while walking around there, just enjoying the clean paths and the fresh air
Green lake was a beautiful stop. We spent quite a while walking around there, just enjoying the clean paths and the fresh air
One of the many flower displays in Kunming.  All of down town looks like this
One of the many flower displays in Kunming. All of down town looks like this
West Lake was a gorgeous day trip!  The red sign in the picture is actually a 'no smoking' warning, along with a phone number where you can report people who are lighting up.  The government in Kunming is trying very hard to keep the West Hills clean and prevent any sort of destruction of the forest
West Lake was a gorgeous day trip! The red sign in the picture is actually a ‘no smoking’ warning, along with a phone number where you can report people who are lighting up. The government in Kunming is trying very hard to keep the West Hills clean and prevent any sort of destruction of the forest

One of the other perks of being in Yunnan, is that there are more Lao Wai than in Guizhou, and where there are foreigners, there are foreign comforts!  We managed to find several wonderful things from back home, including western-style bread (bread in China is sweet) and avocado.  I even saw root beer on a menu at Salvador’s Restaurant (but they were sold out :().  More than just the food though, the people are more western.  There is so much less spitting, honking and smoking in Kunming and we were both grateful for the break.

I enjoyed this fantastic tuna sandwich and potato chips, along with a Chai Latte :)
I enjoyed this fantastic tuna sandwich and potato chips, along with a Chai Latte 🙂

Of course, that’s not to say that Kunming was all sunshine and roses…After all, we are still in China!!!

The Worst of Kunming

The reduced honking, spitting and pollution was a wonderful change, but not all of the things that annoy me where I live are solely ‘Guiyangian’.  I was nearly peed on by a little boy who had decided that the middle of the sidewalk was a good place to take a pee, and Dave actually pointed out the washrooms to a couple who had decided that the garbage can just outside the bathrooms were an appropriate place to have their 3 year old relieve herself.  The funny thing about the second story, is that this happened in a mall that has a Rolex store.  China can be such a mixed bag!!  Kunming is so much cleaner than Guiyang in so many ways, but still, I saw the most terrifying toilets of my life while in the West Hills:

Yup...this is a bathroom.  When I first walked in, this is what I saw...and there was someone squatting in the second 'stall' at the time.  Keep in mind that the next closest bathroom is at least 2 hours away when you factor in all the buses and getting down the hill...
Yup…this is a bathroom. When I first walked in, this is what I saw…and there was someone squatting in the second ‘stall’ at the time. Keep in mind that the next closest bathroom is at least 2 hours away when you factor in all the buses and getting down the hill…

Of course, this is just what it’s like living in China.  You get used to this sort of stuff surprisingly quickly.  This particular bathroom was all the way up a hill, in the middle of nowhere.  It’s the Chinese version of an outhouse…and I’ve seen some pretty nasty outhouses in my time too!  And believe me…the woman who was using the washroom when I walked in did not look very impressed with the situation either…and she was Chinese!  So please don’t get the idea that all of Kunming was this gross, because it definitely was not!!!

One other exception to the ‘I LOVE KUNMING’ statement I made above, was the hostel where we stayed while we were visiting Spring City.

The Hump looked like it had it all:  good prices, great location, private rooms with double beds…I booked without much hesitation, because most of our hostel experiences in China have been good ones.  Of course, our experiences at The Hump have now made me a little more nervous about booking hostels, as the experience was a far cry from what I’d seen in Xiamen and Guilin.

I should add that the majority of these stains were visible without me pulling the bed out from the wall...which means that this particular hostel just didn't like cleaning this sort of stuff...so they just left it there instead...
Stains on the wall beside my bed.  I’ll let your imagination figure out what they are from… I can forgive a lot of things in a hostel, but a lack of cleanliness isn’t one of them!!!
The mattress
Our mattresses were only about an inch and a half thick.  They were so uncomfortable we wound up stacking both (we were put into a room with 2 twins instead of the double bed we’d booked) and sharing the tiny bed just so that we could get some sleep.
This way to a terrible night sleep, terrible food and terrible staff!!
This way to a terrible night sleep, terrible food and terrible staff!!

To anyone reading this blog for travel advice:  I’d avoid this hostel.  There are plenty of other options in Kunming that are much better, where you will get the room you paid for, where the staff will be willing to help you without first giving you a dirty look, and where, when the menu says ‘bacon’, you will be served bacon!!!  (more on that in my Kunming post!!)

So that sums up Kunming!  It was a great trip and I would highly recommend Yunnan Province to anyone who is interested in traveling China.  Visiting Spring City just made both Dave and I even more determined to find a job there next year.

The Best of Patong Beach

Here is a map of Thailand.  We were in Phuket, an island off the south west coast of Thailand.  Patong Town is located on Phuket.
Here is a map of Thailand. We were in Phuket, an island off the south west coast of Thailand. Patong Town is located on Phuket.

Our first stop in Thailand was on the island of Phuket.  More specifically, we stayed at Sea Pearl Villas resort in Patong Beach.  The weather here was beautiful: warm and sunny our entire stay!  The food in Patong was probably a highlight for both of us (other than one tour which I will be dedicating an entire post to….stay tuned).  Not only was there fantastic Thai food to enjoy, but because Phuket is such a popular destination for European tourists, there are many western food options available as well!  While there, we enjoyed sushi, shwarma, samosas, burgers, curries, falafels and pasta!  I LOVE Chinese food, don’t get me wrong!  But I didn’t realize how much I missed variety in my diet until we got to Patong beach and discovered how many options there were!

Arabic Food.  We also enjoyed a hooka!  It made us think of some good friends back home and how much we'd love it if they visited!!
Arabic Food. We also enjoyed a hooka! It made us think of some good friends back home and how much we’d love it if they visited!!
A seafood display set up by a restaurant we never got around to trying.  There were just way too many options!!
A seafood display set up by a restaurant we never got around to trying. There were just way too many options!! These displays were common around Patong Beach, and the hosts would run over and encourage you to come if you stopped to take a look.  Very good sales scheme!!
Sushi Lunch on Valentine's Day!
Sushi Lunch!  It tasted so good I could cry!  Sushi in China isn’t very good, so this was the first time I’d had authentic stuff in 6 months!
Street food crepes!  Made fresh on the grill with mango and chocolate syrup!
Street food crepes! Made fresh on the grill with mango and chocolate syrup!
The breakfast buffet at our resort was incredible every day!  Real bacon, proper bread and perfectly poached eggs!!!!
The breakfast buffet at our resort was incredible every day! Real bacon, proper bread and perfectly poached eggs!!!!

Our hotel was also a highlight for our stay on Patong Beach.  I’ve mentioned in past posts that comfort isn’t really a ‘thing’ in China, but in Thailand, we experienced a comfortable bed for the first time since we were in Xiamen (and that had only been for 1 night!).  Our king size pillow top was a thing of beauty and I truly felt sad when we said goodbye to it when our stay in Phuket was done.

IMG_3475
Not only was our resort beautiful, but it was also very clean. There were 8 pools on the grounds to choose from, so none of them were ever full. The one time we did go down to the pool, we were the only ones there (most people prefer the beach)
IMG_3461
The hall leading to our room
IMG_3470
A relaxing environment. The Koi fish were a lovely addition to the front lobby
We spent a lot of time in the lobby, waiting for the resort's complimentary shuttle bus, or waiting for tour drivers to pick us up. It was so nice having somewhere so beautiful (and comfortable!) to sit and wait :)
We spent a lot of time in the lobby, waiting for the resort’s complimentary shuttle bus, or waiting for tour drivers to pick us up. It was so nice having somewhere so beautiful (and comfortable!) to sit and wait 🙂
The resort was clean, modern and very welcoming.  I would absolutely stay at Sea Pearl Villas again!
The resort was clean, modern and very welcoming. I would absolutely stay at Sea Pearl Villas again!

The resort in general was very comfortable.  Resorts in Thailand get a lot of flack because they aren’t all inclusive, like the ones in the Caribbean.  While this is true, it also wouldn’t make much sense for resorts in Phuket to offer all inclusive packages, because people wouldn’t want to stay in the resort when there’s a chaotic little town to discover just down the hill!  Still, Sea Pearl Villas was a fantastic place to relax after dealing with the mayhem in Patong Town, and we enjoyed the jacuzzi on our balcony on a daily basis, as a way to unwind and admire the city below.

The view from our balcony.  The water you see is our cold jacuzzi.  It was such a fantastic way to cool off after long days in the sun or busy days in Patong town
The view from our balcony. The water you see is our cold jacuzzi. It was such a fantastic way to cool off after long days in the sun followed by busy nights in Patong town
The view was also beautiful at night.  Patong town is in the distance and there were often fireworks to enjoy
The view was also beautiful at night. Patong town is in the distance and there were often fireworks to enjoy

Although the comforts and relaxing qualities of our resort were among one of our favorite parts of being in Phuket, it is not to say that Patong Town was a quiet, quaint place.  Outside of the resort, Patong Town is the craziest place I have ever been.  I won’t go into much detail now, because if I did this post would double in length, but the nights we had on Bangla Road and at the markets were anything but relaxing!  I think it’s honestly the contrast between the two (the relaxation at the resort and the excitement of Patong Town) that made our stay in Phuket such a cool experience.

A street artist.  We ended up tipping him way too much....we weren't used to the currency yet!  I'm glad we at least made that mistake with someone who wasn't trying to rip us off!!  (he was accepting tips...not charging a fee)
A street artist. We ended up tipping him way too much….we weren’t used to the currency yet! I’m glad we at least made that mistake with someone who wasn’t trying to rip us off!! (he was accepting tips…not charging a fee)

This was another street performer we met at the end of Bangla Road.  He was pretty amusing.  When he was done with the YMCA, he moved on to Gangnam Style.

The Worst of Patong Beach

There are two sides to every coin though, and although Phuket is somewhere I can’t regret visiting, it’s also somewhere I don’t know that I’ll visit again.

I worked in sales for a good chunk of my 20s, selling everything from natural cosmetics to cell phones to environmentally friendly cleaning products, but I can honestly say I’ve never seen sales like it’s done in Patong town.  Everywhere you go, people are trying to sell you clothes, watches, DVDs, swimsuits, luggage and souvenirs.  The worst of the worst are the Tuk Tuk drivers (who are trying to sell tours), the taylors (you want a custom suit?  Very cheap!) and the massage parlors (You want a massssaaaa?????).  Everywhere you go you are being sized up by hundreds of people who all want your money.

masseuses-from-bali-hai-fern-bottom-left-patong
The look relaxed now, but as you walk by, they jump up and simultaneously ask if you’d like a ‘massaaaa’ and list all the services they offer (foot massaaaaa, oil massaaaa, thai massaaaaa….)
patong-town-market
These alleys are terrifying….they look relaxed but as you get closer, people start putting dresses, swim suits and watches into your hands to try and get you to come over to their store. They all start with exorbitantly high prices as well. We bought a piece of carry on and we got him down from 1700 bhat to 700 bhat….the mark up is ridiculous.
TukTuk_1
Would you like a ride in my blinged up Tuk Tuk? These are the best way to get around the city and some of them have fantastic sound systems in them. During the day, they try and sell tours to monkey shows or pearl factories…when I was walking down the street on Valentines day, there was a line up of about 10 of them…and they all offered me a ride. One after another after another…

The prices were the other thing that really ground my gears in Phuket.  This was our first stop in Thailand, so we didn’t know what the prices were like elsewhere, but even so…we knew they were high.  Tuk Tuks charged 300 bhat ($11 Canadian) to take us on a 10 minute ride up the hill to our resort.  That may not seem like a lot, but we had to pay it every night.  And when you compare it to Bangkok, where we got all the way across town (about a 30-40 minute ride) for 200 bhat…

The real reason people in tourism based countries think all foreigners look alike:  All they see us as is dollar signs!!!
The real reason people in tourism based countries think all foreigners look alike: All they see us as is dollar signs!!!

Even our resort, which was for the most part fantastic, found the need to overcharge us for services that are a norm elsewhere.  We asked about getting to the airport on our last night there, and we were told that it would be an insane 1200bhat to get there (we’d only paid 380bhat to get from the airport to the resort)!!!  We found out later that most taxi drivers will charge 800bhat (still high, but quite a bit lower) and that the hotels pocket the difference for bringing the taxis the business.  I was pretty fed up with this behavior by this point, so Dave and I found our own way to the airport…it didn’t go as well as I’d hoped…

We basically arrived at the airport in the back of a farmer's truck...true story...
We basically arrived at the airport in the back of a farmer’s truck…true story…

We did have several Thai people apologize to us for the behavior we saw in Phuket.  The tuk tuk drivers are especially looked down upon by Thai people and I read several websites that were regretful that so many farang (people of European descent) leave Thailand with a bad taste in their mouth due to this gouging.    Most Thais want you to feel welcomed and want you to enjoy your experience in their country and I’m very glad I experienced other areas of Thailand and that Patong Beach wasn’t my only view into Thai culture.

There is a reason photos like this are found in almost any travel brochure about Thailand.  The people are incredibly polite and welcoming.  You are greeted with a "Wai" (hands held in prayer pose) and a friendly greeting when you enter nearly any business in Thailand.
There is a reason photos like this are found in almost any travel brochure about Thailand. The people are incredibly polite and welcoming. You are greeted with a “Wai” (hands held in prayer pose) and a friendly greeting when you enter nearly any business in Thailand.

As usual, I have run out of time before I am done writing, so I will be posting part 2 tomorrow!  Stay tuned to hear about Bangkok, Ancient Ruins and Thailand’s second largest city, Chiang Mai!

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