Tag Archives: tour

Heart and Seoul

If memory serves, the bus ride from Goeje to Seoul took about 6 hours.  Upon arrival in the big and bustling city of Seoul, we wandered the streets, referred to our maps and eventually made it to our hotel room down a quiet alley.  We stayed in a room on the 2nd or 3rd floor, which was outfitted with a ‘descending life line’ kit for use in case we had to evacuate the room from the window… Definitely the first time I had ever encountered a need for such an item, but I guess in case of emergency (during an earthquake perhaps??) it could come in handy. (?)  In any event, we settled in for our first night, making plans for things to see and do in the following days.

Our ‘things to do and see’ list initially included visiting the N. Seoul Tower, the Namdaemun market and the darling and very quaint Bukchon Hanok Village.  Of course during our street wanders we came across other points of interest, such as the Sungnyemun Gate, Deoksugung Palace and the Gyeongbokgung Palace.

My sister (a shopping enthusiast) was told about the Namdaemun market by a friend of hers, and well, being a shopaholic, we just had to check it out!  Indeed, this market is a shoppers dream come true!  Absolutely anything you could ever imagine wanting could be found there.  Clothes, jewelry, household items, knick-knacks, food, souvenirs, beauty supplies… the list could go on forever!  And it wasn’t just street front shops along the main road of the market, but you could go in to many of them and find your way to a second floor where even more shops existed.  Seriously I think one could probably spend days alone just exploring the vast number of stores available in that market.  Now granted, there were several repetitious stores where similar or same items were sold, but still, it was impressive how many shops were in such a comparatively small space of the city.  We ended up visiting the market a couple of times.  Once to just check it out, and the second to get our souvenirs.

From the market, we headed over to the N. Seoul Tower, which offered lovely panoramic views of the city.  While views were a bit smoggy from a higher perspective, it was certainly the perfect spot to really get a feel for the expanse of Seoul.  It of course was a very touristy spot and seemed to be the main location for lovers or friends to add their love locks.  Hundreds of thousands of locks were attached to various places in the park surrounding the tower.  We hung around for a couple of hours and enjoyed some beers until night came so we could enjoy the lights of the city.

Bukchon village was our adventure destination for the next day.  The brochure for the village describes it as “a village frozen in time for ages” though it is right in the middle of modern Seoul.  That description could not be more accurate, as once we stepped foot into the village, it was as if we traveled back in time.  The homes were no longer modern and the noise from the city seemed to dissipate immediately.  The streets were pristinely clean and immaculately paved.  Lush greenery spilled from every wall giving the air a cleaner, crisper scent.  It was absolutely darling!

We spent several hours wandering the village streets, but once we left, we came upon a tiny local shop with some artwork (my sister purchased a couple pieces) and teeny tiny, itty bitty cactus plants for sale.  Literally, these cactus plants with their pot and all were maybe an inch in height at most!  They were so darn adorable, we just had to get some!  Very smartly, the amount of soil the plants were in, were within the legal limits for Customs, so they could be taken back to the States without any issues.  In the two years since I bought my cactus, it has travelled with me to Japan, lived with me in Hawaii, and now resides with me in New Orleans:)  And while it has grown quite a bit, it is still under 2 inches tall, lol!

We visited a couple of Palaces during our stay in Seoul as well.  What was particularly notable of each Palace at the entrance, was a little kiosk of sorts that rented out clothing designed after original or traditional Korean fashions.  For a price, men and women could rent these traditional clothes to wear while roaming the Palace grounds.  And let me tell you, those rental shops were always full with customers!  While at first it seemed a bit odd, really it added to the ambience of touring the Palaces as everywhere you looked, people in traditional attire roamed about.  And again it gave that feeling of being in Seoul hundreds of years ago.

What was particularly interesting about the way homes within the Palace grounds were built was how they had truly modern accessories.  Though built hundreds of years ago, they had features that even nowadays you would only find in very fine and upscale homes.  For example, homes were built several feet from the ground on top of rock.  The gap under the whole house would be mostly hollow and there would be only one “entrance” to the hollow space in one area of the wall.   In the winter, the “entrance” would be filled with wood and would be set on fire.  The heat from the fire would travel all through the under side of the house and the smoke from the fire would eventually make its way to a chimney on the opposite side of the house.  So essentially,  during the winter, residents had the luxury of heated floors!!  Pretty darn clever engineering if you ask me.

On our way to the Gyeongbokgung Palace, we came across an unexpected detour.  In the pedestrian passage between city traffic, Shoes of Hope had several tents set up.  We stopped to check it out and participated in their charity event.  They gave us a “passport” where each of the 8 stations had something educational about their program.  Once you visited each station you would receive a stamp of completion.  To be honest, we really had no idea what most of the stations were about, because well, they were all in Korean, however what was clear was the purpose of their mission.  While I don’t recall all the details, essentially Shoes of Hope is a charity program whos mission is to ensure every child has shoes, in every country around the world.  Their message was about spreading love, compassion, and making sure every child that needed shoes would have them.  Pretty cool!  One of the stations we visited allowed us to decorate a pair of shoes that would be donated and to add a message to that child that would receive it:)

One last point of interest that we enjoyed while visiting Seoul was to take in a show.  Nanta, a non-verbal comedy/musical, originated in South Korea.  It started in 1997, making it the longest-running show in Korean history (thanks Wiki!) and has earned worldwide fame.  It was indeed a delight to see!  Though no words were spoken, they weren’t needed as the highly entertaining actors, through their animation, were able to convey a joyously funny story of three cooks attempting to finish preps for a wedding party while given the challenge of having a clueless new chef added to their mix.  It was a delight to be able to see the show, especially in its country of origin:).

Back to South Korea

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Ko Muk (Mook)

While getting to Koh Ngai (Hai) was easy and cheap, leaving the island was a very different story!  Since it was low season (therefore very little traffic to and from the island except on tour boats that would take you back to Ko Lanta) the opportunities to leave the island were very limited.  Basically it all came down to “if and when” a local taxi boat operator wanted to take us to the next island .  And the price was not cheap either… Of course they could basically charge whatever they wanted (despite our attempts to negotiate) because hey, it’s an island.  You got here, but if you want to get off you’re gonna have to pay what they say to pay or not leave at all!

So it was one semi-stormy mid-afternoon that we decided to head out for Koh Mook (Muk) at the not so bargain price of 1500 baht.  It was just Anna and I so of course the price was pumped a bit. Had there been more people going it would have been cheaper for the individual, obviously.  Funnily enough however we did spot an older couple with a younger child who had arrived on the island in the morning and wondered whether they were staying or going on to Koh Muk.  Neither myself nor Anna were brave enough to approach them to ask whether they were staying or going, but as it turned out, they were on their way to Koh Muk, so had we asked them we could have possibly gotten a cheaper ride there… In any event…

We loaded up on our private longtail taxi boat and headed out on the stormy sea.  The two crew men (brothers- one driver, one look-out) were chatty and quite entertaining as we headed into what originally looked like a calm enough sea.  Pah-ah-ti (wrong spelling but phonetically sound and means “sun” in Thai) was the older and more “experienced driving boats” brother.  When we set out he said his younger brother needed more practice in rougher seas, so he let him drive first, but “not to worry, if the sea gets really bad I will take over”…   The closer we got into the open sea, no longer that sheltered from the neighboring islands, the rougher it got.  Anna wasn’t feeling so hot, but I didn’t mind it so much until Pah-ah-ti climbed from the front to the back to take over driving… Not a good sign!!  The waves got larger and more turbulent.  Sea water splashed over the sides and we were often hit with sea spray from the sides and front of the boat as it crashed into the oncoming waves.  A couple of times it was a bit worrisome (especially when the engine noise of the boat suddenly changed to include an ominous clanking noise) but eventually we made it to the north side of the island and banked onshore.

The motor on the boat was killed and Pah-ah-ti hopped out with us to help us ask whether there was any accommodations available there.  Being low season there too however, all the accommodations were closed and we were directed to go to the east side of the island to Coco Lodge.  Back in the boat we went, however when the engine went to start, well, it didn’t… The brothers fussed over it for 10-15 minutes (mostly by simply hitting the side of the motor with a wrench) until deciding there was something very wrong with the engine and that they would need a mechanic.  Thankfully the engine died when on land and not in the middle of the ocean when the odd noises started coming from it!  And thankfully it was low tide at the time, so Pah-ah-ti, Anna and myself were able to walk (with bags in tow) around the edges of the island, through the sea gypsy village and over to Coco’s Lodge.

Pah-ah-ti bid his farewells and headed further into town to get parts for the boat while Anna and I settled into Coco Lodge.  Now, throughout my travels in Thailand I had stayed at many very nice and cozy places that were also very cheap .  But none had even come close to the quaintness, comfort, style and class that we found at Coco’s Lodge.  The owner and his wife were unbelievably accommodating and the individual bamboo huts were immaculate and very comfortable.

I’m going to have to side track for a bit here just to further sing the praises of Coco’s Lodge.  The location (right on the beach and a 5 minute walk to the pier) was superb.  The food in their restaurant was absolutely delicious (from the massaman curry to the fruit pancakes for breakfast).  When it rained (which was quite often during our time there) the owner or his wife would come around to the bungalows and offer us umbrellas.  A cleaning staff cleaned our room EVERY DAY (something I hadn’t encountered anywhere else in Thailand).  All palm trees located above each bungalow were completely bare of coconuts, so none could fall on the roofs!  The beds were the most comfortable I’d ever slept on.  The rooms themselves had touches of personal details (like seashells lovingly placed in the bathrooms as decoration) that made the place feel like home.  The ever-increasing number of dogs that decided to live there during our stay were all friendly and lovable and while none actually belonged to the place, they would still give them food scraps from left over dishes.  Any time Anna and I were chilling for a long period of time in the restaurant after eating (due to adverse weather and not much else to do) board and card games were offered to us for entertainment.  In other words, just about anything and everything one could imagine needing in a place was offered there!  And all of this hospitality came at only 500 baht per night!!  It blew me away!  I 100% recommend Coco’s Lodge for anyone looking to travel to Koh Muk!!

Moving on however, the main reason Anna and I picked Koh Muk as our next island stay was so we could visit the famed Emerald cave.  Though we stayed on the island for the remaining time that Anna was able to visit (then I stayed on myself for another several days after she departed for Scotland) we never actually made it to the Emerald cave.  This was NOT because we were too drunk or hung over to, but rather because the weather never cooperated and none of the tours were running there.  See, to get to the Emerald cave, the tides have to be just right (low) and then you have to swim with a guide 80 meters through a cave until you reach the other end (the Emerald lake).  So with all the stormy weather we had daily, even with the tides being low, it just wasn’t safe to swim through the cave and visit the lake… Or perhaps lagoon would be a better description?  In any event, we did still enjoy our time there walking the island to the various points, enjoying cocktails on the beach (of course!) or just chilling at our bungalow, playing games and hanging with the dogs.

The island itself I will say was quite a conundrum.  It too had been hit by a tsunami years ago and while some parts of the island had recovered nicely, other more inland parts were very shabby and trashy.  One sea village a bit inland in particular had feet upon feet of trash piled under the homes (luckily on stilts) with seemingly no efforts or cares to clean up.  I will admit when we first arrived on the island, neither myself nor Anna were really sure we liked the place.  But alas, it grew on us.  And while we still marveled as to why no efforts were put (in some areas) into cleaning the place up, I guess it just became part of the character of the island that eventually you just overlook.  Last point, about Koh Muk: the beaches weren’t really all that to write home about.  This may have been due to the bad weather stirring up the ocean waters so they didn’t look clear, but also there were some areas where there were warnings about strong currents.  So needless to say not much swimming was really enjoyed while there.  Oh yea, and while there aren’t ANY ATMs on the island, there is one coffee shop that will allow you to withdraw money for a 7% (or maybe it was 10…) fee.  So just be sure you bring enough cash for your stay there!!

Sadly, it was time for Anna to get back on to mainland Thailand and head to Bangkok to get home, while I stayed on several more days catching up on blogging about our trip so far.  My next destination: Ko Lipe!

P.S. As some may notice, most all pictures were taken on one of the ONLY sunny days there, lol!

On to The Beauty of Koh Lipe

Back to Thailand

Hangover to Koh Ngai (Hai)

The time had come to leave Ko Lanta (Lantaaaah) and do some more Thai island hopping.  Ko Ngai, pronounced “Hai” was the next destination.  Up until this point in our travels together, Anna and I would enjoy drinking nightly and so far had been very tame about it.  No hangovers, no overdoing it, we had been behaving!  A couple of days before we left Ko Lanta, there was a Buddhist holiday for 2 days where booze were not allowed to be sold in any stores.  You could still get them in restaurants however, but in honor of the holiday, we decided to abstain ourselves.

However… The night before we left Ko Lanta, which was no longer one of the holiday days, we went a teeny bit overboard.  I guess you could say we were making up for lost time!  We were due to leave the next morning at 8am for a taxi boat… And we ended up staying up the night before drinking until about 2am, then chatting away until about 4am.  Or maybe it was 5… So needless to say, when the alarm went off at an ungodly hour of the morning (7ish) we were not happy campers!!  The only good thing that we did do was pack our things before falling asleep, so all that was really necessary was to drag our rears to the front office with all our things and wait for the taxi.

While we did manage to make the taxi relatively on time, it was just painful to be awake at all!  I wasn’t so hung over from the booze as I was just grumpy and not feeling well due to lack of sleep.  After a very long delay in picking up more people from other hotels, we made it to the taxi boat and headed out.  All morning it had been sunny, but about 10 minutes into our boat ride it began pouring rain!  The poor taxi boat driver looked miserable in the back getting soaking wet!!  Yet somehow he was still able to light and smoke a cigarette…

Moving on, we made it to Ko Ngai (Hai) probably 40 minutes later.  The taxi boat driver ran us onshore and Anna and I got off.  As it turned out, all the other people on the taxi boat were on an island hopping snorkeling tour, so they were heading to a different island first.  Made me wonder how good the snorkeling would be with all the rain around, but I digress.

We were dropped off on the shore of a cheap place (our request of course) and got settled into one of the bungalows.  Well, it really wasn’t that simple.  Anna and I were both still exhausted and grumpy to ridiculous levels.  We barely spoke to each other all morning, neither of us wanted to make any decisions, everything seemed ugly and miserable.  Everything was annoying.  Everything sucked.  We were just plain out of ourselves.  So at first we had turned down the “horrible” cheap bungalows and tried to go elsewhere but were stopped shortly after leaving by an english speaking local who said that every other hotel/bungalow (literally) on the island was MUCH more expensive… I’m talking into the thousands per night!  So really it was (at first) with GREAT reluctance that we settled into the Koh Ngai Villa.

Food was the next agenda item.  Neither of us was really hungry, but we knew it had to be done.  We wandered next door to another hotel where they served food and ordered.  I found a teeny roach in my soup, and honestly would normally not have said anything (it’s just one of those things you get used to picking out and setting aside when traveling) but because I was so darn grumpy still, I pointed out the little critter to the staff.  Mind you, I still continued eating the soup because, well why not?  And I wasn’t expecting anything to come out of it, I just wanted to let them know about it.  But when the bill came, they said they wouldn’t charge me for the dish (though I tried to pay still) and that they had decided to close down for the rest of the low season because they felt like they were “losing face”… I felt absolutely a million times worse after hearing that for even pointing out the bug!!  It broke my heart!  But certainly they will be back up and running again in time for high season.

It wasn’t until the next morning, when we woke up sober and well rested that we really realized what an absolutely beautiful little island we were on!  The water was clear and warm, and had this gentle current that ran parallel to the shore where you could literally swim in it and not actually go anywhere!  Great exercise!!  The beaches were white and clean and the beach dogs were all so very friendly.  It was quiet and serene and every evening the tide would go out so far that you could walk all the way to the Southern tip of the island to watch the sunsets.  We even ended up really liking our bungalow and “princess bed” at the Koh Ngai Villa!  It’s amazing how your view can shift so easily when you aren’t really yourself!  In any event, I would recommend this island for a visit, though I would also recommend showing up for it sober;)

On to Koh Muk (Mook)

Back to Thailand

Ko Lantaaaah

Ko Lanta or rather Lantaaaah, which is how all the locals say “Lanta” is a 300 sq. km island just off mainland Thailand, only a short ferry ride from Phi Phi.  Thailand is known as the “land of a thousand smiles” and though people throughout my travels in Thailand had been very nice and friendly, none were as smiley, friendly and good-natured as those we met on Ko Lantaaaah.  That island alone could be called the land of a thousand smiles! 🙂

Originally, Anna and I were only planning on using Ko Lantaaaah as a brief stopping point, a jump off to get to Ko Ngai (aka Hai) or Ko Mook (aka Muk).  However, things always change when traveling.  Mind you, both Anna and myself are very easy going travellers.  Whenever we asked locals about getting to one place or another, if they said “no, you should go here instead, or do this instead” well, we just about always followed that.

It all started as we were waiting to board our ferry to Lantaaaah.  We were down by the pier hanging out when we were approached by Win, one of the locals.  He showed us a brochure for Lanta New Beach, a hotel just along Long Beach on Ko Lanta.  At first we brushed it off, but then started to think that maybe it would be better to stay one night in Lantaaaah, just so we didn’t have to have such a long travel day in getting to the other islands.

So for 500 baht, we booked one night at Lanta New Beach at the Phi Phi pier.  Funnily enough, we almost ended up missing the ferry because though we were right there, Win kept saying to wait for him and he’d let us know when to board, but then suddenly he was gone and we were running to the ferry.  When we arrived at the ferry, all the locals were laughing at us and signaling us to calm down and just walk.  They had been waiting for us apparently but they also didn’t seem in any rush to get going on time.

Once we boarded, the real salesmanship games began!  Win, along with other gentlemen Toom and Mark (and at least 3 others) were circulating around the boat selling people accommodations and tours.  Toom was standing nearby speaking to some guys sitting behind us about various tours.  They kept asking questions about getting to Ko Tao and other destinations, and even though they kept arguing with him about the prices, everything Toom was saying about each destination (costs, etc) was directly on point.  So I knew (as did Anna) that he wasn’t full of it or just trying to hike prices for no reason.  I wanted to tell the boys behind us that they were idiots for not listening, but it wasn’t my business to do so.

Anyway, once Toom finished up with the boys, he moved onto Anna and I.  We had already booked Lanta New Beach for the night, so he began asking us whether we wanted any tours.  Out came a brochure on an elephant trekking adventure that his father owned.  I should mention at this point that one of Anna’s objectives while visiting me in Thailand was to ride on an elephant.  Personally, while I like the idea of it, how they treat the animals and whether the animals are really happy about taking people on rides was my primary concern.  But talking with Toom put my mind to rest and Anna and I signed up for an elephant trekking tour, which also included a hike to a waterfall and bat cave.

We arrived at Ko Lanta, loaded into a truck and were dropped off at Lanta New Beach.  We thought we had died and gone to heaven!!!  After spending the past 4 nights in the ‘Kamikaze Cockbox’, we had now arrived to a beautiful hotel which basically offered anything and everything one might want!  They had 2 pools (one of which was just outside our door) the structures were all solid, they were located directly on the beach, they offered a large variety of massages right on the beach, they had a restaurant and bar (which offered Happy Shakes!) and a tour office on site as well!  We were so awe-struck, especially considering it was only 500 baht per night!

Needless to say, we ended up staying there 4 or 5 nights living it up with almost daily massages, dining like queens, swimming in the lovely pools, enjoying cocktails with the setting sun nightly and having our first taste of Lao Cow (Whiskey made in Thailand!!).  Our days were filled with relaxing, the elephant trekking tour, wandering around town shopping, riding around the island on a motorbike we rented for only 200 baht a day to the Sea Gypsy village and Old Town, and a short visit to the Animal Sanctuary.  Though Lantaaaah was a bit of a ghost town (being low-season and all), it was such a breath of fresh air compared to Phi Phi and definitely worth the visit!!

On to Elephant Trekking

Back to Thailand

Monkey Beach Adventure

After having kayaked to Ko Nangyuan on Koh Tao, Anna and I were hooked and made a pact of sorts to make sure and do it again!  Ko Phi Phi Don provided yet another fantastic opportunity to do so.  On our second or third day there, we got up bright and early (around 10am-ish?) and headed out for food and coffee to quench our slightly hung over bodies.  It was probably about noon or one by the time we made it to Lo Dalam beach to rent a kayak so we could paddle our way to Monkey Beach.

As soon as we stepped foot on Lo Dalam we were approached about renting kayaks by a local shop worker.  The price for the day was 600 baht.  This price wasn’t out of the realm of what we were expecting to pay, but being the bargain seekers we were, we tried a couple more places first.  The third place we stopped by was the winner.  The woman (whom I’d guess to be the boss) had that feisty vibe that reminded me of Mol from Mol’s beach bar on Hin Wong Bay (Ko Tao).  We asked her how much the kayaks were, and she said “200 baht per hour”.  We replied that we wanted to rent one for the day, to which she gave us a quizzical look, checked her watch, looked back at us and said “for the day??”.  Lol!  We had to laugh and give that one to her!  I’m sure most people renting kayaks for the day would have in fact rented them in the morning, but alas there we were mid-day.  She gave us the kayak for the bargain price of 400 baht and away we went.

The crystal clear water of Lo Dalam bay was so calm and almost lake-like that the paddle just around the corner to Monkey Beach took very little effort and time.  Once there, the only thing to really watch out for was the boat traffic!  Dozens upon dozens of tour speedboats were coming and going with numerous tourists aboard, all coming for the snorkeling and monkeys.  A quiet beach this was not!!  The snorkeling was also ok, but not the best of the bunch really.  The monkeys of course were adorable and lovely and amazingly patient as tourist after tourist shoved their phones and iPads toward them on selfie sticks.

After several hours of literally baking in the sun, we decided to try to get to yet another beach that was located across the Lo Dalam bay.  We skirted around tour boats and out into the open sea we went!  While the sea looked to be quiet and calm from our perspective on Monkey Beach, it wasn’t quite the correct story once we were actually out there…  Lets just say that Anna started to feel a little sea-sick and we both started to question whether it was really smart of us to continue on.

We opted for the “Safety first” route after making it probably 3/4 of the way.  But seeing how the waves were crashing violently against the cliffs ahead and not wanting to potentially be part of those waves doing so, we headed back toward the sanctuary of the bay waters.  We didn’t quite make it until sunset on the kayaks, but instead simply went to the Sunset bar for drinks to toast the setting sun. 🙂  Anna took a picture of a kayak in the sunset (while we sat comfortably drinking) and we pretended that was us in spirit. 🙂

On to Ko Lantaaaah

Back to Thailand

Kayak to Koh Nangyuan

Off the North West of the island of Koh Tao, there lies another much smaller privately owned island of Koh Nangyuan.  Since being on Koh Tao for the past couple of months now, I’ve always thought to go visit Koh Nangyuan as I’d heard spectacular things about it.  Of course it has popular spots for diving and snorkeling, but it also has a bit of hiking and provides beautiful views looking back on Koh Tao.  To get there however one must either go on a snorkel/diving tour or hire a taxi boat.  Since I was on my own I couldn’t justify paying the price for a taxi boat, however I knew that Anna (my neighbor in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica and whom I’d visited in Scotland and she’d visited me in Italy) was coming for a 5 week trip to Thailand.  So I waited for her to come to do some of the activities that aren’t near as fun solo as with a traveling buddy.

When Anna first arrived we were absolutely lazy.  I stopped doing Muay Thai, we slept in until 10 every day, had cocktails nightly on Sairee beach and generally lounged about.  When I’m on my own I’m in travel mode which means saving every penny and taking advantage of every day.  But when a friend arrives who is on vacation mode, the spending increases and the relaxing skyrockets!  Isn’t that what people do on vacation??  After the first week however we snapped to and started actually planning activities that extended beyond reading books and napping on the beach.  Afterall, there is literally so much to do and see on this teeny 21 square km island that it’s impressive!

One of the activities I saved for her visit was to visit Koh Nangyuan.  But instead of going there the “conventional” way, we opted to kayak there :).  Deb and Rick (friends I’d made on the island who own my favorite coffee and sandwich shop on the island, Through the Looking Glass) suggested where to go to rent the kayaks.  So semi-early one day after a couple of cups of coffee, Anna and I made our way to Wind Beach for the kayak rental.  For 600 baht we rented a double kayak complete with life jackets and a dry bag for the entire day.  We were supposed to give something as a deposit for the rental (passport- though recently I heard it’s actually illegal for people in Thailand to hold your passport, monetary deposit, room key, something!) but as we didn’t arrive THAT prepared, after a few minutes the guy simply said, “no problem, just write your name, where you stay on the island and where you from”.  Good thing!

We packed the kayak with our stuff and a large plastic bottle of water, snapped on the life vests and headed out to sea!  I’d only done sea kayaking once before in my life and that was years ago in Puerto Jimenez, Costa Rica in a single kayak to boot.  Riding in a double kayak is a teeny bit different.  First off communication is KEY!!  For if one person is paddling right and the other left, well no one would get anywhere!  Since Anna is similar in nature to myself however, even when we did goof up or get out of sync, we simply laughed it up and got back in communication.  It did take probably the first 10 minutes or so for us to completely organize ourselves with our respective duties on the kayak (Anna in the back would call out commands- left, right, steering!!- and I in the front would look out for obstacles) but once we did we rocked it out!

The morning sea while not insanely choppy did have quite a few waves to overcome.  The channel between Koh Tao and Koh Nangyuan is often frequented by passing dive boats, tour boats and taxi boat traffic which added to the waves, but we took it all in stride.  Currents were another thing to contend with as we found ourselves often being spun toward land so we had to paddle to the left much more than to the right, which of course exhausted that side faster.

We crossed the channel safely however and then were faced with a new question… Where are we supposed to park this thing over there??  We weren’t given any instruction when we left so who knew where it was appropriate to land… The first little bay area we reached, just next to the pier where the boats came in, was where we decided to go and we very slowly and carefully navigated our way to shore.  I say “slowly and carefully” because just beneath the surface were tons and tons of coral and sea slugs/cucumbers!  We had to paddle very shallowly as well so we wouldn’t knock any corals and navigating became a bit trickier to avoid the living marine life.  We thankfully made it to shore without incident to marine life however and pulled the kayak to dry land.

It just seems that each beach that I’ve been to in Thailand just gets more and more beautiful than the next.  Koh Nangyuan is no exception!!  The structure of the island is essentially two small island connected by a sandbar which on either side exists beautiful ocean bays full of a ridiculously lush array of sea life!  We immediately had to get in the water to cool off and do a bit of snorkeling.  The snorkel didn’t last terribly long that first time however because the fish in that particular bay kept nibbling at us… Guess they knew we were new to the island, lol!!

As we emerged from the first “dip in the pool” we were approached by a Thai gentlemen who obviously worked on the island.  He asked if we were the ones with the kayak and then said we had to each pay 100 baht to be on the island…  It was then that we were told that this island was privately owned and hence there was a fee to walk about it and play in the waters surrounding it… We did come with plenty of money, but it would have been nice to know in advance of this extra charge.  So I’m sharing it for future travelers!  Also, I don’t know if for the taxi boats, if the charge to get there includes or not the 100 baht fee to be on the island… In any event, just be aware of this additional cost.

Moving on.  The small island bit to the South had a walking trail that led around the edge of the island to a beautiful viewpoint, so we headed off on it to check it out.  Mind you, it is possible to sleep on the island so as we skirted along the very shady (i.e. sketchy) barely still standing wooden plank path, we were passing several pleasant-looking bungalows.  We went to the viewpoint that was on the southernmost tip of the island and then had to turn back as the wooden path was falling apart and almost demolished in bits beyond a point, and headed up the trail that led to the top of the island for another viewpoint.

Though it was very hot and the walk was completely uphill, it really wasn’t a terrible walk by any means and not terribly high either.  The only struggle really was competing for space at the top on the rocks to be able to take pictures without other in them!  There seemed to be quite a few impatient people really who wanted to simply scramble to the top, took ages getting “just the right shot” with them in them and then hauled down.  So needless to say it took us a bit of time to get some shots, and once completed we leisurely made our way down.

At this point it was time for a nibble of food and as we sat down at the only restaurant on the island with our plastic water bottle in tow, it was then we noticed the signs just about everywhere that read “NO PLASTIC BOTTLES”…. Ooooppsss!!!!  Apparently plastic containers are NOT allowed on the island and all beverages from the restaurant are served in glass containers.  Again, just another little tip for future travelers:)  We were never yelled at for having the bottle however and we made a very big point of being sure to carry the bottle home with us, regardless of it being empty.

After the nibble it was time to check out the North end of the sandbar to see what kind of snorkeling action we could get there.  Don’t worry mothers we did wait about a half hour after food to go swimming 😉  The North end of the sandbar was lined on both sides with umbrellas and beach chairs and seeing as the sun was out in full force, we opted to pay the 150 baht for the set-up.  This part of the island was by far my favorite and it as quite evident it was the favorite of just about everyone else there too.  The water was crystal clear and reminded me of the waters I’d seen at some of the beaches on the Island of Elba off the Tuscan coast.  I lovingly started to refer to that bay as the “kiddie pool” as the waters were very calm, quite deep, but so clear you could simply stand on the edge and see all the marine life.  All sorts of fish (including puffers!!), sea urchins, anemones an cucumbers could be found in a relatively small area.  The bay was large enough however to accommodate several dozens of snorkelers and several classes of divers working on their refresher course.  It was absolutely spectacular snorkeling that I spent at least an hour exploring.

The rest of the day was simply spent reading under our shade, dipping in the kiddie pool to cool off, snorkeling and generally relaxing.  Around 4 we decided to head back to Koh Tao to turn in the kayak and though the waters were calmer in the afternoon, we did have some harrowing moments as the boat traffic (we must have hit rush hour) was a bit on the ridiculous side!  But after about 45 minutes and dodging about a dozen boats or taxis, we made it safe to shore and headed straight to the Wind Beach bar for a nice cold beer.  We watched the sunset while sipping on our beers (though it was quite cloudy at that point so not the best sunset sadly) and I even bought a beach dress from a traveling sales lady.  Though we were both exhausted from our day of activities, we had plans for the night as well… It was time to check out the Lady Boy Cabaret!

On to Night with the Ladies

Back to Thailand

Animal Exploitations?

I will fully admit that one of the big things that put Thailand on my map of places to visit was because of the Tiger Temple.  When I first heard about it and saw pictures from a customer at my workplace I was in absolute awe!  You mean you can walk beside, pet and sit with REAL tigers????  I was sold!!  I wanted to be a part of that!!  I had heard things like; there is a Temple in Thailand where monks live and care for the tigers; the tigers are fed cooked meat so they don’t look at humans (raw meat) as being a food source; the tigers are docile and are pretty much exactly like house cats, except much larger.  A Tiger Temple was even featured as one of the locations where they went in The Amazing Race during the first season.  I was highly intrigued!!

tiger temple_1
tiger temple_1

Then I started doing research…  There isn’t just ONE tiger Temple in Thailand.  They are a dime a dozen (here in Kanchanaburi you can barely walk 10 feet without seeing a sign for a tiger tour).  Tour groups are taken daily to the various Temples so that each tourist can have a “genuine” experience with the tigers… I should have figured.  After really looking into it, I can’t help but wonder whether these “Temples” aren’t so much about the benefit of the animals as they are simply another way to bring in the tourist, essentially exploiting the tigers along the way.  I’m not saying the tigers are mistreated.  I doubt they would be since it is such a popular tourist attraction.  What I am saying is tigers are by nature wild.  As much as I love the fantasy of being able to chill along side a tiger, I would much rather have a genuine encounter (much to the fear of my family I’m sure) in the wild (where tigers really belong) with one than to stand in line, wait my turn and get my picture taken with a “tame” tiger.

tiger temple_2
tiger temple_2

I’m not sure how these Temples began.  Perhaps the first did originally start as a place where tigers that would otherwise die in the wild were taken in and cared for.  Then perhaps from there it evolved into the circus it is today?   I’m not sure.  But I now know I don’t want to be a part of that.

For all the animal encounters I wish I was able to have, I certainly won’t if it’s at the potential exploitation of the animal.  That is why I didn’t take an elephant ride in Ayutthaya.  I’m always very wary of how the animals are treated before paying to be a part of an activity with them, though I did buy a basket of food to feed to them (since the food was going directly to them).  There were several elephants off giving rides to tourists down the street and back and three remained at the main location without any harnesses on, but tied by their foot with a chain to the hitching post beside them.

tiger temple_3
tiger temple_3

It was hard to see chains around their legs, but here I will play a bit of the devil’s advocate.  As a horse back rider, we tie horses up with halters and a lead lines to keep them in one place.  We don’t tie a leg of course nor do we use chains in tying a horse, but I had to wonder if since elephants are soooo much larger, if chains are just the equivalent to a cotton or nylon tether to a horse?  Elephants are highly intelligent however so I also wondered why they would need ties at all to stay within an area?  And again, since I’m not educated enough on the proper treatment of elephants and whether these ones were properly cared for, I didn’t agree to a ride, just a direct feeding to them.

 

Elephants
Elephants waiting for food

In Ayutthaya they also have a place called the Elephant Kraal and the Ayutthaya Elephant Village, right next to the floating market.  I did think to go check them out, but thankfully read up on some reviews first… This review was also confirmed by a couple staying in the hostel who had personally gone to see it.  First the floating market is nothing but a tourist trap.  Second, they said that the elephants look stressed and unhappy, that they made the baby elephants do tricks that were unnatural for an elephant to do and third they also had TIGERS that they kept in small cement cages with their legs tied to the edge of the cage.  The couple said the tether was so tight that it was cutting into their skin.  Absolutely unacceptable!!!

Soapbox time…  Though it may not make any difference (because most people are too much into their own needs to care) I urge people NOT to support any cruelty to animals and subsequently do NOT support places or people who treat their animals in foul ways.  The best way to get them to stop is simply to not support them.  Unfortunately many of these kinds of places open up because tourism drives them.  Since they have animals native to their lands that many other places in the world consider exotic, many places make a buisiness out of exploiting the animals so tourists can get up close and personal with them so they can show off to friends and family back home on what they got to do with a wild animal.  If we don’t support these businesses, they can’t survive.  The drive will die off and those who exploit animals for profit will no longer make money.

As I write the above rant, the only concern that comes to mind of course is: What will happen to the animals themselves?  I don’t have all the answers.  If I could wave a magic wand I would have a place of my own (or enough money to support a place) that would provide safe and natural habitats to abused, mistreated and exploited animals.  Somewhere where they could simply be.  Sounds like a zoo, I know, but what I envision would be just large expanses of land where only the injured/unable to live in the wild would be in enclosures so they could be properly cared for.  The rest would roam free.  Until then, all I know is step 1 is to not support places like the above mentioned or any other.  And if anyone out there has better suggestions, I’m open to hearing them 🙂

I do hope there are genuinely good places here that really care for their animals, as I am interested in volunteering.  Whether that means shoveling shit, or any other nitty gritty “gross” job necessary to benefit the animals.  So far I haven’t found any yet but hold hope that they are here somewhere…

On To Gone to the Dogs

Back to Thailand

p.s… all tiger images in this post were taken from Google Images, keyword “tiger temple images”

Katakolon

Katakolon itself is just a little port town.  Nothing terribly special about it per se; numerous restaurants and shops line the main street where tourists can wander and stroll in search of gifts.  Olive wood in particular is quite popular there, and I might add very beautiful!

What puts Katakolon on the map as a port of call for cruise ships is that it is only about an hour drive to Ancient Olympia, the site of the first Olympic Games.  Olympia, as it is inscribed on the plaque out front “stood out historically as the most important Panhellenic religious, political and athletic centre of the ancient Greek world”.  It is rich in mythological tradition and was founded as the sanctuary of Zeus.  Structures include a gymnasium, greek baths, the Temple of Zeus, the crypt, the Temple of Hera and of course, the Lighting of the Olympic Flame.

While we had purchased tours for Ephesus and Santorini, we didn’t for Katakolon figuring it would be easy to just do our own tour.  In that regard we were quite right as the second we disembarked there were people lining the streets with signs for bus rides to Olympia.  We opted for one of the buses and headed out to Olympia.  Once there we immediately went to the ancient ruins.  My sister in particular wanted to see the ancient structure where they lit the flame for the Olympics.

Thankfully we had heard before leaving the ship that there was a possibility for rain so we brought a poncho and an umbrella (won during a round of Bingo on the ship- but more on that in the ‘cruise critique’ post).

We made our way to the ancient ruins which were just around the corner from the main street of the now town of Olympia, paid for tickets to get in the site and started to have a wander around.  By the time we were at the ticket office, it was gently raining.  No biggie.

By the time we were basically in the center of the ruins, it began to rain hard… Then about 5 minutes later (only about 20-30 minutes after we had entered) it started to pour down rain!!  And thunder, and lightning and more rain!!  For those who know me, you know at this point I’m in 7th heaven as I LOVE a good thunderstorm!!  However, it wasn’t just me involved.  My dad and sister were with me (my mom decided to skip the Olympia trip and stayed behind to shop in Katakolon) so I wanted to make sure they were being taken care of.  My dad was using the umbrella and my sister and I shared the poncho.  I kept snapping photos of various ruins under the poncho as we made our way around to ensure that we saw the site for the lighting of the Olympic torch!

Lighting of the Olympic Flame
Lighting of the Olympic Flame

At one point the rain was so heavy that we (and all the other tourists there) started to huddle under the trees for a bit more shelter… Not the best idea with lightning around, but hey, strength in numbers?? 🙂  The rain kept pouring but what made us all start to leave the site wasn’t the rain exactly, but that it was starting to flood!  The umbrella and poncho did little to really protect us as we were getting soaked from the feet up.  My sister and I, concerned for our dad, decided we’d better head back.  It took us probably 10 minutes to find a shelter where we could fit (most of the close ones were already taken up by tourists) and that wasn’t flooding out.  We only stayed under the shelter for a few minutes then decide to keep going back to town.  All three of us at a certain point just started walking through the water instead of trying to skirt around it, since we were already wet!

We finally got out and back to town, drenched and chilly, but generally in good spirits!  Since we kept walking to town instead of stopping longer for shelter, we were among the first people back to town, which gave us first dibs on chairs in a restaurant with lovely outdoor heaters!!!  We huddled around the heater, ordered some drink and food, and listened to the rain pour down all around us.

We thought it rather ironic that we had gone just the day before from a place that barely got rain (Santorini) to a place that was now pouring with rain, lol!!

One funny observation my sister made at the restaurant was from a picture in the menu.  It was advertising an Amstel natural brew Radler beer with the caption: “Natural Beer with non-alcoholic lemon”.  My sister then said “hey, look.  They have alcoholic lemons here!!” LOL!! 🙂

Alcoholic Lemons!
Alcoholic Lemons!

After enjoying our meal, the rain had basically stopped but as we only had about a half hour until the bus was going to pick us up again, we opted to hang around town.  Once on the way back the skies turned blue and remained that way until we boarded the ship again.  Go figure!  But there’s my reason to go back:)  AND we did at least get to snap off a photo and see the site of the lighting of the Olympic torch:).

Sunny Skies
Sunny Skies

On to Cruise Critique

Back to Europe

Heidelberg

At this point in my trip, I unfortunately caught the European crud:(  Since traveling from Salzburg, everyone around me seemed to be hacking and coughing and sneezing and sniffling and well, it finally caught up with me.  I wasn’t feeling well at all, but had to power through anyway.  The afternoon I got into Heidelberg I first checked into my hostel (Steffi’s Hostel located just a few minutes walk from the train station) then immediately went back to the train station to check out a store I had spotted that seemed to be a mini-mart.  I stocked up on throat lozenges, teas, vitamin C, apple cider vinegar and tissues to care finally get myself taken care of a bit.  I had dinner at the Chinese restaurant located conveniently downstairs and had soup with tons of sriracha in it, just to help sweat out those germs;)

Heidelberg is a huge University town.  Just about everyone I came across and chatted with was somehow involved in the University, whether studying or working.  It’s a lovely little place with a great young energy and I’m just bummed that I felt like such crap the entire time I was there, but I’m thankful that I was able to get better while there.  In my mind it will always be that quaint little town where I got to rest a bit:)

The next day I still felt like run-over dog but thought “I’m here, I better do something!!”.  So I went for a walk to see the Heidelberg castle:)  I even ended up taking a tour of the castle once there, but honestly don’t remember much of it since my brain was mush from not feeling well:(

One bit that I do recall from the tour however was of the story of Perkeo.  Perkeo was a short, red-headed Italian who  didn’t speak German, yet lived at the castle as the keeper of the wine!  Seriously, this barrel of wine in the basement of the castle is absolutely HUGE!!  According to Wikipedia it can hold over 57,000 gallons of wine!!  Anyway, as the keeper of the wine (and being Italian of course) Perkeo was quite fond of wine and drank quite a bit of it.  Because he didn’t speak German and the Germans didn’t speak any Italian, when he was offered wine he would simply say “Perche No?”, which means “why not?” In Italian.  Perche no… perkeo… see the similarity??  He was the keeper for some time and as the humorous yet untrue story goes, one time someone went to play a trick on him.  They offered him some wine (to which he said “perche no?”) but instead gave him a glass of water.  Perkeo took a sip and fell dead in that moment;)  Too funny!

Another cute story revolved around the King and his wife.  King Frederick V was quite the romantic!  In the archway that leads to the entrance of the castle there are lovely etchings of nature and animals sculpted into it.  It is said that each animal is a symbol of love to his wife.  Once it was constructed he simply told her to search the gardens of the arc to find little mementos of his love for her…  Awww!!

Lovers Arc
Lovers Arc

After the castle tour I wandered the gardens, which after having been to Versailles definitely seemed to lack;)  At this point my body and mind were getting severely tired from being ill and just couldn’t do much more.  I headed back through town to the hostel and passed out.

The next day I was feeling quite a bit better and decided to head to the zoo!  I took the bus there and arrived just as it was opening.  I spent the day wandering back and forth from animal enclosure to animal enclosure just taking in all the critters.  It isn’t a huge zoo by any means, but they do have a decent variety of animals and because it was so small, it made it easy to get around to each of the feeding shows .  The sea lion feeding was like many of the sea lion feedings in other zoos where they tell you about the critters and have them do a variety of tricks for the fish.  This one was a bit unique for me however as the feeding was all in German, so I hadn’t a clue about what was being said.  It was still quite entertaining however:)

Some things I noticed about this zoo that was different from others I had been to was first the amount of babies they had.  Baby sea lions, baby camels, baby porcupines, baby monkeys, babies everywhere!  Second, even though they were a small zoo there were staff members everywhere all throughout the day working in one way or another; cleaning, preparing food, moving the babies from the nurseries to the adult pens for some acclimation time, etc.  Generally I never notice zoo staff around, but at this one they were very present, which I found nice!  Finally, of all the zoos I’ve been to, never before had I seen a feeding for the tigers and lions…

Oh my goodness… I can’t describe how amazing it was to see the tigers literally going from “look at that beautiful/cute tiger” to “never in a million years would I ever want to tangle with one of them!!!”.  The wild and the instincts came out in a flash the second the food arrived.  Claws scraped the enclosure bars trying to get a quicker grip on the meat about to be fed to them.  It was just amazing to see such a wild nature so close!

The lions were much more relaxed about the feeding.  It was a group of lionesses and it was easy to see which was the Alpha female.  She got her meat first (quite patiently compared to the tigers) and headed to her eating spot as the others then practically lined up to get theirs.  The order and calm in their enclosure versus the “fear for your life” energy from the tigers enclosure was incredible!  I would go back just to view the feeding again.

After the zoo I headed to the hostel once again and spent the evening plotting how to get to and where to stay in Füssen, Germany.  The “Fairy Tale” castle of “Mad” King Ludwig II, located in South Germany in a little town called Hohenschwangau was a must see on my list.  Thankfully all my plots to get there worked out and after several relaxing days of actually taking care of myself in Heidelberg I was ready to set out once again.

On to Füssen

Back to Europe 

Versailles

The meeting point for the Versailles tour was again at Place St. Michel early the next morning.  Train tickets were included in the price and part of what I really appreciated is that we would all go as a group to Versailles for the tour of the gardens, but we didn’t have to return to Paris as a group.  We were each given our own return ticket for the train, shown where to go and told bon voyage once the tour was over:)

The train was about 40 minutes but honestly it felt much shorter than that!  Along the way I chatted with an older woman from Thailand (I’m going there in less than a week now!!) picking her brain on various bits of information about the Country.  Once we arrived we zoomed past the lines for the castle tour and headed straight to the gardens.  I should note that I only purchased a ticket for a garden tour so never went into the castle.  I did contemplate it but after only watching the lines to get in get longer and longer, there was no way!  Something to go back there for:)

Note to travelers:  If you do plan to visit the castle of the Sun King Louis XIV in Versailles, I would suggest that you get there FIRST in line!!!  I’m not kidding- the lines to get in were at least a couple miles long and they didn’t get any shorter throughout the day!  Also, there are TWO SEPARATE lines… One line is to purchase tickets, the other is to get in line for the tour.  If you get into the wrong line (i.e. the tour line) without a ticket, they will refuse you and send you into the other VERY long line to purchase a ticket.  You’ve been warned!  All this information was provided kindly as a warning to us from our garden tour guide, so I’m passing it along:)

Another brief “warning”… Bring your walking shoes and something to nibble on/drink!!  The gardens are HUGE and while there are some benches here and there to sit on, they are generally always full with other tourists taking a break.  There is the option to rent golf carts (go figure) if needed for those who aren’t that into walking however. Last “warning”: the fountains do NOT run all the time.  They run for a few hours in the morning, then for a few hours in the afternoon.  AND (if memory serves) they only run on Sundays and Mondays… You will have to double check that for sure, but the point is that check before you go whether you will be going during a day/time that the fountains will be running!  It’s just so much nicer when they are active:)  Also on the days that the fountains run they have a grand finale at 5:30 where the largest fountain starts up.  All the others in the garden shut down during this finale.  Also, portions of the garden are closed on some days…  In other words- don’t just show up to this location if on your own.  Do your research first to ensure the best experience:)

Thankfully the guide for this tour was awesome!  She had personality, character and obviously knew her stuff as she was full of great information and history- both new and old on the Gardens!

Louis the XIV was quite the character… He fancied himself a God and named himself the “Sun King”.  He began his reine at the tender age of 5 and reigned for 72 years, which is the longest in European History for a major country and he is often depicted showing off his legs in paintings as he was quite fond of them.  He was a vain man but also very clever.  For example the Hall of Mirrors was constructed to be used as an intimidation trick against those who opposed him.  At that time it was extreemly difficult to get A mirror, let alone an entire hall of them so not many people had ever seen their reflection before.  Side note: the mirrors were first developed and made in Venice:)  If people were invited to see the King, they first had to pass the hall of mirrors.  You could imagine, having never seen your reflection and stepping into a hall full of them that whatever you might have been wanting to say to the King would quickly escape your mind!

There are 50 fountains in the gardens that expand over 1900 acres!!  Each was constructed with the Sun King in mind as there are mythological Gods and symbols throughout.  The Sun King wanted the fountains to run each and every day, all day regardless of whether he was on the grounds or not!  As you might imagine there just wasn’t a large enough source of water to do so all the time, so workers began shutting off the fountains when Louis XIV wasn’t present.  He found out about this however and wasn’t pleased.  As a solution he simply said to funnel water from nearby rivers.  This wasn’t popular among the people as they needed the river water for their vineyards to make wine!  They acquiesced however but it still wasn’t enough water to keep the fountains going non-stop!  So the King simply said to take the water from the River Seine!  Thankfully for the people he passed away before constructions began to funnel water from the Seine to feed his fountains, lol!

This fountain was probably one of my favorites.  It was of the God of the Underworld, Hades.  They play sounds of thunder as you walk around the arches surrounding the fountain to represent the wrath of Hades that in turn creates an earthquake.  The sculpture of him trying desperatly to escape the Underworld with water shooting out of his mouth is just too cool!!

If there was something King Louis XIV wanted, nothing stood in his way to get it.  One of the fountains in the gardens today (mirror fountain) is a tiny version of the fountain outside the Bellagio Hotel in Vegas.  It’s nowhere near as grand or great as that one, just a small simpler one but as our guide said: had such technology existed at the time and had King Louis XIV known about the Bellagio fountain, he would have bought Belgium and turned it into one giant fountain, lol!!  That’s just the kind of King he was.

Mirror Fountain
Mirror Fountain

Quick fun things also told to us by the guide: not long ago the gardens of Versailles were rented out for 4 consecutive days for a whopping $26 million dollars for the wedding for the daughter of a technology (if memory serves) tycoon in India!!  Kim Kardashian and Kanye West apparently could only afford a 45 minute reception, lol!  The history of the “French bath”: it is noted that the King himself in his 77 years of life only showered 38 times… He and others of his time simply perfumed themselves to death to cover their otherwise rank odor.  Hence people who over-perfume themselves today are said to have taken a French bath:)  Yes, that is REAL GOLD on the front gates of the Palace.  Just sayin…

The stories and history spoken to us by our guide was absolutely endless and honestly this was a tour I feel I could have (and should have) taken twice just to be able to soak in all the information properly.  From the history of King Louis XIV, the gardens, the fountains, what each garden bit and fountain represented and even a bit on poor Marie Antoinette, our guide was full of information!!  Though honestly I was expecting the gardens to be more floral in nature as opposed to bushes and trees, it was an awesome experience and place to be!   And one day to revisit of course:)

On to Heidelberg

Back to Europe