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Life lately and upcoming travels: February 2015 Edition

February 2015 Roundup

In my monthly round-ups, I am looking back at my travels over the past four weeks, what went well and what didn’t, what’s new with Globetrottergirls.com, what’s next for me and the most popular posts of the last month.

Where I’ve been

I spent February in the Philippines and in Thailand, and with the exception of short city breaks in Manila, Bangkok and Chiang Mai, I’ve been island hopping pretty much the entire time.

I promised myself that I’d slow down after my hectic six-countries-in-one-month January and that’s exactly what I did. Still, when I count all the places I visited this month, it seems I got around quite a bit: Boracay, Siquijor, Apo Island, Palawan, Manila, Bangkok, Koh Tao, Koh Phangan, Chiang Mai.February Highlights 2015On the one hand, I wasn’t ready to leave the Philippines at all, on the other hand I was so ready to leave. This trip to the Philippines was one of the occasions when working while traveling weighed on me (I’ll touch more on that in ‘What went wrong‘), and I found myself wishing I could just travel without any work commitments several times during my time there, since sticking to work commitments turned out way more difficult than expected – due to the terrible internet connection on most of the islands I visited.

The responsible part of me was dying to get to a country with better WiFi, the other part of me was longing to see more of this beautiful island nation. The Philippines are an absolute paradise and I wanted to see so many more places there than I had time for. When I boarded my plane to Bangkok, I didn’t say ‘Goodbye’ to the Philippines, I said ‘See you soon’, and I mean it. (Next time I make sure I don’t have any urgent deadlines though).

Philippines
The Philippines

Arriving in Bangkok felt like coming home, and even though I still don’t love the city, I can appreciate it for the many good food options and some big city amenities. Hopping around islands for nearly a month was fabulous, but in my heart I am a city girl, and I couldn’t wait to indulge in some yummy Thai food (the Philippines are not very vegetarian-friendly) and good coffee (which is surprisingly hard to come by in most places in the Philippines, but then again I was hanging out on tropical islands most of the time where people don’t really care about their caffeine fix. Manila of course has great coffee), go see a movie and shop for some gadgets at MBK.

bangkok hotel u sukhumvit
This might have been the real reason why I was looking forward to Bangkok so much?

After a couple of days of getting my city fix I was ready for some beach time again and I already mentioned that I’d be showing several people around South East Asia this winter, so I was ecstatic to start in Thailand (the next visitor is already waiting for me in Bali), and combine island hopping with temple hopping.

I finally visited Koh Tao, an island that I’d been wanting to visit for years because everyone who travels to this tiny island in the Gulf of Thailand seems to fall hard for it. And I would be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted to just stay there for a couple of months and enjoy the laid-back island life instead of moving on to Koh Phangan and Chiang Mai.

Koh Tao
Koh Tao

What went well

Manila
I have to mention Manila here because I thought I’d hate the city, based on the stories I had heard from other people. I love it when a city surprises me and Manila did exactly that – I had a great time there!

The Philippines in general
I had seen the photos of the glorious islands in the Philippines, so I knew that I was in for a treat, but I just didn’t expect to like the country as much as I did. And I am saying this in spite of lack of good coffee, food and WiFi, the only three things I need to be fully content, so you know this must mean something. I am already excited to return to the Philippines.

The beautiful Philippines
Can you see why I fell for the Philippines?

Meeting new people
If you’re subscribed to my newsletter, you already know that my first solo trip went exceptionally well and that I never even had the chance to feel lonely – in fact, I had to escape people sometimes because I am easily distractible, meaning if I’m hanging out with other travelers and they’re going out while I have to stay in to work, FOMO kicks in and I might neglect my work commitments in favor of a fun night out.

What went wrong

Lack of wifi
WiFi is something that is left to be desired in the Philippines – and while I knew that it would be slow, I just didn’t expect it to be that slow. I hard a hard time posting articles because I could barely upload photos, and it took forever for my emails to load every time I connected to the internet.

I ended up being unreliable towards clients, missing out on some opportunities because my inbox was overflowing and I consequently didn’t earn as much money as I would’ve liked. I had several meltdowns because of the WiFi in the Philippines, especially in my last week in El Nido where not even the 3G on my phone worked, and so I was almost completely offline during my stay there.

When I finally arrived in Bangkok and discovered that the WiFi in my hotel room wasn’t working, I burst into tears because I had been waiting for high speed internet for weeks – that’s how frustrated I was at that point. Luckily the WiFi situation improved considerably after that incident.

koh tao office
How a tiny island in the Gulf of Thailand can have faster WiFi than the entire Philippines is beyond me.

Planning fail in the Philippines
I had many more destinations on my Places I Have To See list for the Philippines, but I learned the hard way that you actually have to plan in advance there. While I prefer getting to a place, see if I like it, and then decide when I’d like to move on to the next place, this is often not possible in the Philippines because you have to take flights between most of the islands. While I’m usually good at finding cheap flights, booking a flight a couple of days in advance will cost you, even in the Philippines where you have several budget airlines. Some flights ended up being just too pricey, forcing me to stay longer in some places and having to skip some destinations completely, but on the upside: I now have am excuse to return to the Philippines and I ended up making a detour to some places I might have skipped but ended up loving, like Apo Island (see pictures below).Apo Island PhilippinesInjuries
I severely burned myself on my first snorkeling trip in the Philippines. I thought I was being super careful applying sun protection over and over again, but apparently I missed some spots above and below my butt every time. 13-hour transportation days with a burned butt are no fun.

On another snorkeling trip I cut my foot on some coral which caused me to limp for several days. I was lucky both time that it wasn’t worse and I didn’t need to see a doctor (the day before my snorkeling trip a tourist on Apo Island had to be flown to a hospital because he stepped into a sea urchin), but traveling with injuries is something I can do without.

Meltdown at the ATM
In Siquijor, I had a great day touring the island with a local and asked him if we could stop at an ATM somewhere along the way. I had seen several ATMs but learned then that they don’t accept foreign cards – the only one that worked for foreigners was a one-hour detour away. When I finally got there, I let a British girl skip the line and get in front of me – that girl ended up being the last one to get money. After that, the ATM was out of service. A bank clerk told us to wait, and I had no other chance because I wanted to leave the island the next morning and needed money for my guesthouse and for the ferry. Two hours later, I was still in line. The bank had tried to reboot the machine several times, so far without success. It was then when I started to think that I might not get any cash out and felt absolutely helpless. I was just about to start bawling when the ATM magically came back to life.siquijor atm

Side note: Reading through this, I just noticed that quite a few things went wrong this month. Despite these travel fails, this has been one of the best months in a while!

What’s new on Globetrottergirls

You might have noticed that I’ve started posting about my current trip beyond my weekly Polaroid, and I am going to continue to mix in new stories with my posts about previous trips. At this point, my backlog has gotten so large that if I post chronologically and wait to share my new travel adventures, you won’t get to read them until the summer (or even later than that), so I’ve decided to mix up the stories of my recent travels. That way, you’ll get to read some more diverse content as well.

Flight Voucher Giveaway!

Have you seen my latest giveaway? I partnered up with Norwegian Air who were generous enough to offer a $150 flight voucher to one lucky reader. You still have until 24 March to enter the giveaway. Click here to for your chance to win!flight voucher

What’s next for me

I still have another week of touring some of my favorite spots in Thailand before flying to Indonesia – another new country for me! chiang mai wat with buddha

Most popular posts of the month

February 2015

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Tops and Flops of 600 days of travel: Days 501 – 600

housesitting in chicago

We always say that travel ain’t always easy, but it is always exciting. The last 100 days were refreshing, frustrating, active, lazy, a bit embarrassing and entirely gratifying…We went from three weeks in Chicago to a quick stop in Denver and then on to our biggest adventure yet – South East Asia. We traveled through southern Thailand and Northern Laos until finally settling in for the month in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand. Read on for our best and worst travel moments in the last 100 days, some serious food porn, and a couple of travel recommendations for Chicago and Laos.

Favorite travel moments

Dani says: Whizzing through Chicago on a Segway
We have seen tourists on Segways in plenty of cities and, we admit, we judged it as being too touristy, not for us and even a little dorky. After five minutes on our Segways from City Segway Tours though, we couldn’t have cared less how we looked – it was so much fun! Our guide spent time teaching us how to use these funny upright machines (which is actually a little tricky but manageable) and then we were off whizzing along Lake Michigan, through Millennium Park, past Buckingham Fountain and Solider Field down to Museum Campus.

segway tour chicago

Jess says: Hiking with Tracey and Felix in Colorado
Before heading to Bangkok, we made a stop in Denver, Colorado for a week to visit my best friend Tracey and her fiance Felix.  The weather in Colorado was sunnier and warmer than in Chicago – a marked contrast to the blizzard conditions I experienced last time I was out visiting in early 2010. We took advantage of the weather and took in some of Colorado’s inspiring scenery and went on lots of hikes at Red Rocks, El Dorado Canyon and a long hike near Estes Park – which we followed up with a drink watching the sunset at the nearby Stanley Hotel (where The Shining was filmed!). We can’t wait to be back next June for their wedding!

hiking in colorado

Dani says: Learning to cook Thai Food at the beach in Koh Lanta, Thailand
One of our best experience in Thailand so far has been the cooking class we took on Koh Lanta. We signed up for a class at Time for Lime, where our enthusiastic cooking instructor Junie introduced us to the art of Thai cooking in a beautiful setting right at the beach. She taught us about how to cut and prepare the main ingredients, or building blocks, to Thai cuisine, and then we prepared several dishes from Thai Red Curry to Thai fried rice with vegetables. The class was made unforgettable by our great group of seven students, a really high quality cooking facility, and our passionate instructor – plus the fact that our food turned out to taste amazing!

cooking class koh lanta

Favorite places

Jess says: Chicago
Alright, alright, this is a bit biased – me being from Chicago and all. Whenever I am home, however, it is just always so apparent what a magnificent city the Windy City truly is. In fact, the more I travel, the more appreciation I have for Chicago. In the past 600 days we’ve been to over 30 major global cities, each with its own great qualities, of course, but Chicago stays right near the top no matter how much of the world I see. We love all the different neighborhoods, the friendly people, and the food! Chicago has such a wealth of international cuisine, and it’s so delicious. You can go to a small El Salvadorian restaurant for authentic Pupusas, or walk ten minutes for an authentic Serbian meal. Between the architecture, the infrastructure and the fact that Chicago is one of America’s greenest big cities – it just isn’t possible for me to leave Chicago off the list of my favorite places we’ve visited in the last 100 days (or ever).

chicago 2011

Dani says: Chiang Mai, Thailand
Chiang Mai (population 150,000) is the perfect combination of historic and modern Thailand. Our current ‘home’, we love Chiang Mai for the way it balances new-built apartment complexes, chic restaurants and modern shopping centers with hundreds of remarkable Buddhist temples and traditional night markets bursting with simple, affordable, delicious food. There are two parts to Chiang Mai. There is the sleepy old town center, which is surrounded by a moat and parts of the ancient city walls, and then there is everything outside of the moat – which is a bit faster paced, buzzing, busy city with almost everything you could ever want to eat, drink, buy or do, plus a top university, plenty of great health care options and an international airport, train station and bus stations that will get you wherever you need to go.

chiang mai impressions thailand

Dani says: Nong Khiew, Laos
Until we arrived in Nong Khiew, neither of us were impressed with Laos. Why were people raving about the beauty of the country, we thought, as we passed through dusty, lackluster towns. From the minute we crossed over the Nam Ou river in Nong Khiew, however, we were sold! Nestled within a mystical mountain range, this sleepy little town sits on either side of the river, mainly a series of small houses and bamboo bungalow huts connected by an impressive road bridge, and dozen of long, wooden boats below. The village is cheap – private riverside bungalows run between $7.50-$12.00 per night, there are plenty of restaurants with Lao, Thai, Indian, French, Italian, even German, cuisine and our first experience in an invigorating herbal steam room. Had we not already put a deposit down on our Chiang Mai apartment, we could possibly be writing this post from Nong Khiew right now….

nong khiew impressions

Most disappointing places

Jess says: The islands in the Andaman Sea, Thailand
We admit that we might well be spoiled by having spent so much time in the Caribbean last year, but I don’t think it is possible to have been more disappointed by the islands in the Andaman Sea. Whenever we had heard about or seen pictures of the Andaman Sea, it was long, deserted white-sand beaches lined with palm trees. We were practically chomping at the bit to get out there, and Dani even booked me a surprise birthday week-long vacation getaway at a resort on Koh Lanta. We loved the resort, the island itself was alright, but the beaches were far from stellar. Ko Phi Phi was even worse. This tiny, over-developed island is under-equipped to manage the deluge of unappreciative drunken tourists that frequent it. Most of the beaches are tiny, there is garbage floating in the water, and even basic, budget backpacker digs are far overpriced. Yuck.

Then it was on to Phuket, the largest of the Thai islands in the Andaman and by far the worst. We stayed on Patong Beach – which is lined with rows of deck chairs just like Europe in high summer and dead fish floated on the water near the shore, which had a stinky is-this-from-the-sewer smell to it. None of this was as disturbing as the droves of old, wrinkly Western men mounted on bar stools while way-too-young Thai girls mounted them. If I never witness sex tourism again it will be too soon. Double Yuck. We are still hoping that we love some of the other Thai islands, like  Ko Lipe further south or Ko Chang in the Gulf of Thailand.

phuket & phi phi

Dani says: Muang Sing and Luang Nam Tha, Laos
As mentioned above, we didn’t warm up with Laos until we got to Nong Khiew, and this was due, in part, to these two towns. They are not particularly ugly or unsafe or anything like that – they are just unremarkable, with little to impress visitors. We first went to Luang Nam Tha, a town that sits directly on the Laos tourist trail – we couldn’t figure out why. Then we tried to go a bit more local, and drove two hours further up to Muang Sing, a little town just 2 miles from the Chinese border. Although it was interesting to see how strong the Chinese influence was (Chinese supermarkets, Chinese food, mostly Chinese immigrants), Muang Sing also left us with a ‘meh’ feeling.

Best Food Moments

Dani says: Native Foods Cafe, Chicago
After sustaining a terrible diet during our summer road trip, while we were in Chicago we decided to try as many of the vegan restaurants in Chicago as possible. Jess often toys with the idea of going vegan, and this was a great chance to test whether vegan food would satisfy us. Some places were good, some were boring – and then we discovered the Native Foods Cafe. The vegan restaurant is actually a chain from California with three branches in Chicago (and one in Portland). We could have eaten here every.single.day. The dishes are creative, heaping with fresh organic vegetables, and for the quality of the food, it is not too expensive.

native foods cafe vegan burger

Jess says: Breakfasts at Mekhara in Nong Khiew, Laos
Obviously located in our favorite little Lao town, the Mekhara Restaurant quickly became our go-to breakfast spot. We could not get enough of all the sticky rice dishes they served, especially the Lao warm bread – this is a sticky rice patty, dipped in egg and cooked on the stove which you then break up and dip into this homemade chili paste. Knowing I was going to order this breakfast literally got me out of bed in the morning!

Dani says: The vegetarian restaurants in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Like we said – one of the things we love about Chiang Mai is the availability of good food, and the many vegetarian restaurants in Chiang Mai. There must be at least 20 vegetarian restaurants in a city of 150,000 and countless other vegetarian-friendly spots to eat at as well. We appreciate it so much that we are able to order a Thai curry and be 100% certain that it does not contain any meat, fish, or fish sauce. The other great thing about veggie restaurants is that we are able to try out the many traditional dishes of Thailand – in meat free form. For example, one of our favorites is the Khow Suey noodle soup – a traditional northern Thai dish that always comes with meat chunks and a beef/chicken broth. We still have a bit of time left here in Chiang Mai and will be testing out as many places as we can – but so far our favorite are the Dada Kafe, Beetroot Stories, Pun Pun and AUM.

veggie heaven chiang mai

Travel recommendations

Jess says: Get out of ‘The Loop’ in Chicago
If you visit Chicago, the most obvious place to start is The Loop. This area of the city is the cultural, architectural and financial heart of the city. The Willis Tower is located here, as is the Chicago Board of Trade. You’ll find the Chicago Theatre, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Lyric Opera house, the Goodman Theatre and the Joffrey Ballet and the stretch of lakefront in The Loop includes the Grant Park area – host of the glorious Taste Of Chicago fest each year as well as Millennium Park, which features Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate sculpture, known to Chicagoans as The Bean.

But get on a bike (Chicago is one of America’s best cycling cities) and get out and visit cities north of The Loop – ride along the lake shore and visit Lincoln Park Zoo (it’s free) and the Lincoln Park neighborhood, ride up to Lakeview, on to Boystown. Or jump on the El to get out to the very German area of Lincoln Square and Swedish Andersonville , or head west to Bucktown to spot the hipsters in action. Going even further – visit Evanston, just north of Chicago and right on Lake Michigan. The beaches here are less crowded and you’ll see some of the finest homes in the Midwest if you continue driving north from there.

chicago neighborhoods

Dani says – Bring lots of Dramamine to Laos
Somebody had mentioned to us that the bus rides in Laos weren’t very pleasant before we went – but we had no idea just how bad the roads really were until we experienced them ourselves. The country is so mountainous, and there are no major bridges. Instead, narrow roads wind up and down the sides of mountains, sometimes without offering the opportunity to drive straight for more than one minute. The rides are long, the buses are not great, and a 400km (250 mile) trip can easily take 12 hours. Even locals spend much of their time with their face in a sick bag – so make sure to pack a lot of Dramamine for your journey. You might also want an iPod to block out the sounds of nausea around you and some toilet paper for the random, on-the-side-of-the-street rest stops throughout your trip.

Worst travel moments

Jess says: Bangkok flight cancellation through Orbitz
We found a great deal from Denver to Bangkok through Orbitz and booked it months in advance of our trip. The amount of money we saved made us giddy and proud. And then just a few weeks before our departure date, Orbitz emails that they have rescheduled our flight itinerary as Air China had re-jigged a few flight schedules. Looking at the new itinerary they issued, however, we realize we would not have enough time to change planes in Beijing. The only option given by Orbitz was for them to issue a refund. But we could never have found a fair price so near to our departure date. Back and forth between Air China and Orbitz, neither will take responsibility. I spend countless hours on the phone with both and in the end, we managed to re-book for two days later at no additional charge. We buy tickets according to price, first and foremost, and for that we are very pro third-party deal sites. However, in this case it would have been much easier had we booked directly with the airline.

air china flight to bangkok
Flying AirChina – hopefully never again.

Dani says: Almost getting robbed on the night bus from Bangkok to Krabi
After a scam in Bangkok that involved a good chunk of change and tickets for a bus down to Krabi that never showed up, another bus drove by on its way to Krabi and we were lucky enough to be able to hop on for the overnight ride. At first we were incredibly happy about this, until the entire bus was woken up in the middle of night. A fellow passenger had caught one of the bus employees trying to steal his bag. Chatter and yelling went back and forth, of course the bus helpers denied everything, but no one could sleep at all after that – instead clutching our bags and waiting for the 12 hour ride to finish. Lesson learned: do not book a cheap bus at one of the travel agencies around Khao San Road. This kind of robbery is apparently very common on these foreigner buses, with people waking up after night rides with valuables missing. Book a public bus (they’re much nicer anyway) and travel with the Thais.

Travel mishaps

Jess says: Not reading up on scams in Bangkok before arrival
Anyone who has traveled with us knows that we are usually very organized and well-informed with our travel. We research destinations, know local taxi and bus prices, book rooms and transport in advance where we should and leave it to chance where it’s been advised. After all that time in the States with a car, we got soft, a bit lazy, and we didn’t prepare like we usually do. Once we got to Bangkok, we were jet-lagged and our bodies were stunned by the humid heat. Plus, on our first morning in Bangkok we were so excited that we ran right out and got exploring, instead of reading up on anything. Had we only read the chapter on ‘Dangers & Annoyances’ in our Lonely Planet or the Bangkok article in Wikitravel.org, we would have known that all of those people who approached us were part of a chain of events that allowed this scam to happen. But we didn’t and so we were sitting ducks. We promise to reveal the whole story soon…we’re still working through the embarrassment of going through our worst travel mishap to date 18 months in to our travels…

bangkok tuktuks
The Tuk-Tuk Scam: Only one of many scams in Bangkok

 

 

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600 days of travel: Reflections on the last 100 days

globetrottergirls 600 days thailand laos

Six hundred days…if 600 days ago someone would have said that not only would we still be on the road, but that we would be doing everything in our power to maintain this for at least another 600, it would have been a hard sell to convince us.

While these past 100 days have flung us into an entirely different world yet again, we somehow feel more well-rested than we did in our 500 Days Reflections thanks to a relatively quick and essentially effortless adaptation to South East Asian living. The last one hundred days could have not been more filled with contrasts, as we went from enjoying the creature comforts of Chicago to the sweltering heat of Thailand.

600 days travel mapWorlds apart: Chicago to Bangkok

We were exhausted when we finally pulled in to Chicago after 34 days straight on the road through Canada and the U.S. this summer, but there was no resting – we arrived just in time for Jessica’s birthday – the first she had celebrated at home in Chicago since 2000! Our amazing friend Megan threw the perfect birthday bash. From there we did loads of sightseeing, got through loads of work and spent quality time with friends and family. It felt great to be home for Jessica’s Dad’s 60th birthday – a major milestone indeed.

Chicago skyline from buckingham fountainFrom Chicago we stopped for a week in Denver, Colorado, to visit Jessica’s sister from another mother Tracey and her Cuban fiancé Felix before boarding our longest long-haul flight to date – Air China from Denver to Bangkok via San Francisco and Beijing.

Bangkok could not be more different to Chicago. It wasn’t only was the change in climate (roughly 40 degrees warmer over here) that shocked our systems – everything from the food (no cheese, no bread, Thai food day and night!) to the people and the language (Thai – which with its five tones and entirely unfamiliar script is more challenging to learn than training for a marathon) were worlds away from Chicago.

view over bangkok & templeIt turns out that the food could not have been a more welcome change. After months of stuffing too much American food down our ever-unhealthier bellies, the freshly-prepared, nutrient-dense Thai food was good for our bellies and our wallets – for $2-$4 a meal (in a restaurant)! After just a few days, we also became surprisingly accustomed to having monks around every corner. Monks on bikes, monks on their cell phones, monks at the temples, ceremonies involving monks – even making small talk on public transport with monks. It’s hard to imagine a life without them now!

The weather took a bit longer to get used to. We knew it would be hot, but suddenly it was as if we were stuck in a sauna day and night. There is a solution to this – and it is called the mall. Bangkok’s famous MBK Mall is an incredible structure where, short of livestock or airplanes, you can buy just about everything in the world. However, as we quickly learned, a mall in South East Asia is not simply a temple for capitalist worship as it has become in the United States. The mall is a true lifesaver in the fight against the unrelenting heat and humidity of its immediate environs.

mbk bangkok

A tough start in Asia…

Truth be told, however, our Asian adventure got off to a rocky start. We were scammed in Bangkok. Big time. Look for more in a separate post coming soon, but it took weeks for us to get over this slimy, sneaky scammy scheme and we were particularly bitter that it happened in a country known to everyone else as the friendly Land of Smiles. We felt tricked and cheated when we then arrived to the island of Koh Lanta, and just as we recovered from that incident, Dani went head first into a ditch within the first ten seconds of our first motorbike rental.

We planned to do most of South East Asia on a motorbike, so that was discouraging to say the least. Despite that set back, we enjoyed our week on Koh Lanta (and our wonderful little holiday getaway there) but were then terribly, utterly incomparably disappointed with the other islands we visited in the Andaman Sea before flying into Chiang Mai.

dani & jess at doi suthep temple chiang mai

Getting our mojo back in Chiang Mai

This northern Thai city is certainly no hidden gem – in fact its smack dab on the tourist map – and we couldn’t care less about that. Chiang Mai is possibly the easiest, most comfortable city to settle down in for a while – and there is no question why so many digital nomads just like us make this city the place where they spend extended periods of time.

In fact, in the city has everything we needed to give us our travel mojo back: every kind of Western and Thai food (including the best Tex-Mex we’ve had outside of America), countless coffee shops, 80 degree sunny days and cool, comfortable evenings and excellent company. We met up with dozens of fellow nomads and bloggers and got started on some bigger projects we’ve been meaning to create for a while now. Our 30-day tourist visas were nearing expiry, but instead of simply moving on to Laos, we decided that we would visit Laos, pick up a longer Thai visa, and head back to Chiang Mai for a month. The day before leaving on our three-week tour of Laos, we booked a nice apartment in a modern building within walking distance of everything in the Old City for $320 a month. Sweet!

chiang mai - impressions 2011

Becoming backpackers again in rural Laos

Ah, Laos…We love it now, but it took a while to warm up to Laos. The first few stops were truly unremarkable, but it seems that we may have sort of snuck in to the back door of the country. That is, until we arrived to Nong Khiew.

This sleepy river town easily became one favorite place in Laos and one of our favorites of all time. We hiked, we cycled, we slept, we ate and we even stayed an extra day. From there we visited a dreamy little place we don’t even want to tell you about (because we love it so much and want to keep it that way), made obligatory stops in larger cities like Luang Prabang and Phonsavan and went through the bizarre loop-hole laden Thai visa process in Vientiane.

impressions of laos 2011

Life is good

As much as we have grown to love a bit of stability in this nomadic life, getting our backpacks back on and settling in to weeks of heavy travel re-introduced all those feelings of excitement, exploration, and learning about other cultures that we so loved during our time in Central America last year. The rural villages of Laos were a huge change to well-developed Thailand and we had the opportunity to get to know many people whose lives are so much simpler than what we know from back home.

While we try not to be naive, and not to simplify this too much, we honestly do find that many of these people are much more content and way more friendly than people back home.

Overall, there is less stress (no one in Laos is worried about their credit score or making it to the post office before it closes) and families spend much more time together. From the smallest villages to the capital of Vientiane, families still gather around an outdoor stove or fire where white and sticky rice cook, and around it they eat together as a family each afternoon and evening. While on the one hand we have a huge appreciation for the advantages we have had and the fact that we get to travel and do what we do, we are equally mindful that a simple life is may just be the best kind overall (but with Macbook Airs, iPhones and coffee).

rural laos 2011In a short span of six weeks, we covered nearly 4000 miles (6320km) in Thailand and Laos, so after moving around quite a lot again, we are happier than ever to be enjoying Chiang Mai and celebrating the holidays with like-minded folks – after a lonely Christmas and unspectacular New Year’s in Honduras last year.

What’s next?

We had originally planned to explore Vietnam and Cambodia after our stint in Thailand, but as they have a habit of doing – our plans have again changed unexpectedly. This almost always has to do with a housesitting gig – and this time is no different. We will be watching an apartment and its resident cuddly cat in Kuala Lumpur in January. So we are headed to Malayasia for that and to finally get some quality beach time in again before spending time in Singapore and Indonesia. And then, we guess Vietnam and Cambodia – but as always our plans are ever-evolving…

No matter where we end up – we’re excited to see more of South East Asia and if you have been to Kuala Lumpur, let us know your tips in the comments below.

globetrottergirls 600 days thailand laos
Stay tuned for our Tops and Flops of 600 days of travel…

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Street food junkies on the hunt in Thailand

food markets in thailand

When we started planning our time in Thailand, the only thing we heard about more than beautiful beaches was the food, specifically the street food: fruit smoothies, sliced fruits, sweets, noodles and, yes, insects!

We’re known to love street food, and after months in North America without it (no, food trucks and pizza slices don’t quite count), this almost mythical street food in Thailand was calling. As soon as we touched down in Bangkok, we set off to find some of the Thai delicacies that people were raving about.

Follow your nose

Seeing these two ladies pushing their carts in Bangkok’s traffic, we knew they were going to set up their stalls somewhere and decided to just follow them… if there are two, there must be more!

bangkok street food cartsIt turns out, we were right. Throughout our time in Thailand we never had any trouble finding a night market, a day market or a walking market to test out Thai street food.

bangkok street food vendorsPad Thai for 30 Baht ($1) – score!

chinese bun and jessJess discovered these steamed Chinese buns filled with red bean paste and had to eat them every time…

Glorious Tropical Fruits

bangkok fresh mangoMangoes taste the best in Thailand.

bangkok fruit vendorsMost stands don’t specialize only in mangoes, though. There’s papaya, pineapple, dragon fruit and mixed fruits…

street food stall with fresh juice…and we love our daily dose of fresh squeezed orange juice, for only 20 Baht ($0.60)!

So…what do we have here?

bangkok street foodWe pass food stand after food stand of vegetable dishes, and meat, served with either rice or noodles. Sometimes, it’s hard to identify what things are…

bangkok street foodThese mini toasts looked delicious, but with the meat on top this wasn’t for us. In fact, we realize that much of the street food out there isn’t for vegetarians…

bangkok street foodLoads of meat on a stick…Nope, not for us…

bangkok street meatNot sure what this is supposed to be when it’s ready…

bangkok potato chipsBut then we discover this genius invention. Chips on a stick. Yep. This deep fried goodness might not be the healthiest snack, but it.is.so.good and well worth the 20 Baht ($0.60).

street food ThailandLike anywhere in the world, in Thailand much of street food is deep fried: vegetables, fish, potatoes and even bread.

chiang mai noodles in marketBut these markets don’t just have snacks. Full noodle dishes are usually available for $1 or less, such as this Pad See Ew (far left in the picture above), served with vegetables and sometimes egg. This is one of our favorite Thai dishes.

omelet in banana leafAnother popular snack are omelets grilled in a banana leaf. Usually there is one more ingredient added, such as mushrooms or shrimps.

Thai street foodAnother egg snack: a sort of grilled hard-boiled eggs in a chili sauce. I like these, Jess can’t stomach them at all!

quail eggs chiang maiNeither of us can make ourselves eat these eggs above. These tiny little eggs are quail eggs. It’s hard to explain why we’ll eat chicken eggs but no other bird eggs, but even the 10 Baht ($0.30) price tag can’t get us to nibble on these popular bite-size eggs.

street food ThailandEven more popular are fried silk worms, but we definitely didn’t eat these!

chiang rai fired crickets… or these guys – whatever they are!

pork on a stick chiang maiInitially we wanted to sample what we thought was tofu on a stick…until we found out that these are made of pork.

Thai street foodSame with these little banana leaf parcels – looks vegetarian from the outside, but it’s filled with pork.

Thai street foodFinally something we can eat – these little parcels were indeed vegetarian, filled with sticky rice.

sticky rice lollipopsMore sticky rice: grilled sticky rice ‘lollipops’…these we could eat, but they are not that good.

street food ThailandMuch to our surprise, we discovered that sushi is a Thai street food favorite! While the quality of the sushi in the night markets is not always great, there are tons of varieties, including veggie ones like seaweed, avocado, tofu or egg.

Thai street foodAnother popular snack is Mieng Kham, a little leaf parcel that combines Thailand’s four main flavors spicy, salty, sweet and sour. The leaf is filled with peanuts, honey, chili and lime (and shrimp fot the salty flavor in the non-veg version). Just these basic ingredients create a flavor explosion in your mouth! We came to love this snack in our cooking class in Koh Lanta, and we were always happy when we found Mieng Kham in the night markets.

Going Bananas for Sweets in the Streets!!

Let’s move on to sweets – my favorite part of a visit to a night market.

chiang mai cake ballsThai people love their sweets, so there is a huge selection of foods to satisfy even my sweet tooth: cakes, crepes, fruit, rice pudding, pancakes. This list is really endless, especially if you like bananas, which are served up baked, fried, deep-fried, on a stick, inside a waffle, inside a pancake…

street food thailandWhile the waffle bananas were delicious (obviously!), we weren’t big fans of the sticky rice with banana…

fried bananas thailandOne of my favorite banana snacks: deep-fried and battered bananas, cut in little pieces and drizzled with sweet condensed milk. Yum!

deep fried bananadessert toast thailandIt seems simple, but why not? These pieces of white toast are usually served with sweet spreads, jams, chocolate or fruit sauces.

Thailand street foodWe weren’t sold on the toast, but we do love these odd coconut cream taco concoctions you see everywhere!

crepes night marketWhile Jess can usually be found munching on those potato chips on a stick, I am hunting down my absolute favorite Thai sweet – these delicious crepes, freshly made, piping hot with the toppings of your choice.

Sure, there are plenty of meaty street food options, but the fact is that Thailand has the best street food we’ve come across, with a much bigger selection than in Central America or Mexico, our other two favorite places in the world to hunt down the best street food!

Have you been to Thailand? What’s your favorite Thai street food?.

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Hotel Tip of the Week: Old Capital Bike Inn | Bangkok, Thailand

hotel tip of the week

Welcome to our Hotel Tip of The Week series. Being on the road every day of the year means we stay in countless hotels, and at over 600 days as nomads, we have stayed some of the best (and worst) accommodation the world has to offer. We cover everything from budget to luxury accommodation, and believe that any hotel worth recommending must be comfortable and clean, offer good value for money and treat people as guests, not clients. We have personally stayed in every hotel we recommend to you here on Globetrottergirls.com. This week: The Old Capital Bike Inn in Bangkok, Thailand.

I haven’t even taken my bag from the trunk of the taxi yet, and already there is a woman behind me who wants to take it for me.

‘You stay at this hotel, here, with us?’ she asks. ‘Yes, yes we are staying here,’ I say with a surprised smile. I want to continue by saying… but my bag weighs more than you do, you adorably tiny Thai lady, but instead I just say ‘Don’t worry, I’ll bring the bag inside’.

Dani does the same, and we pass under Spanish moss and hanging plants that decorate this small part of an otherwise busy side street on our way inside the Old Capital Bike Inn.

Old Capital Bike InnAs the name suggests, we are staying at a small, cozy typically Thai Inn (just getting our big western bodies and backpacks through the two slim dark wooden front doors is a challenge) and from the minute we walk in, I am sure we are going to love the place.

There is no lobby, just six or seven round wooden tables, antique sofas and an eclectic mix of traditional Thai knick-knacks and paintings. The room is bright, thanks to two picture windows on either side of the door, and we sit down while we check in, sipping the cool glass of sweet tea customary at most quality Thai hotels.

Old Capital Bike InnOutside, motorcycles buzz by like bees, buses with squealing brakes stop just out front and the bright pink or yellow taxis whiz by on their way to drop off or pick up a fare. Almost entirely silent, just enough noise comes through to remind us how quiet it actually is, just a few feet from Bangkok’s constant chaos outside, forming the undertones below comfortable classical music pumped in nonchalantly at a level high enough to enjoy, and easy enough to ignore.

Our room is through another set of slim wooden doors and up the stairs, and there are three similar rooms upstairs and four on the ground floor. Immediately I am struck by the fact that the room has two single beds (an issue we are constantly going through as most hotels see us as two friends, not as a couple), the typical Thai decor and the low hanging antique-looking candelabra chandeliers, one between the bed, the other hanging over a third mattress/couch on the floor, which is right below a set of large double windows. A computer monitor on an antique desk unit at the head of the beds serves as a TV and computer – there is broadband internet on the computer, but no wi-fi. The weekly weather forecast is tucked in right by the three remote controls (TV, DVD and Air-Con), so that it can’t be missed.

The bathroom is lovely, with a pedestal sink, the shower has organic body soap and shampoo in gorgeous ceramic containers, and there is also an adorable pillow with thread and needles, an original spin on the standard hotel room sewing kit that makes us want to have an excuse to sew something.

Old Capital Bike Inn BangkokThe reason we were interested in the Old Capital Bike Inn initially was for the hotel’s eco-friendly policies, which were plain to see throughout the room. As part of the Texas based Green Hotels scheme, the hotel has put eco-friendly policies into place. For example, water comes in a large glass serving vase with a note explaining just how many gallons of oil are used to produce plastic water bottles each year. Toiletries are in re-usable bottles, and towels are requested to be hung up unless we want to have them washed.

Old Capital Bike Inn BangkokWarning: this next part is nitpicky, but there are two tiny details in the room I really appreciate. First, there are hooks everywhere: five in the bathroom and a few on the walls throughout the room. Second, there are light switches everywhere, so that I don’t have to shut off the lights and night and stumble back into bed, or wake up entirely in the dark. Both of these things might seem small, but it means that thought has actually been given to the guest experience – not just the decor, the design, and the end profit.

Old Capital Bike Inn BangkokOn the downside, the regular rooms feel a bit small. For a higher nightly rate, there are two incredible suites at the Old Capital Bike Inn which afford guests a much more regal experience. We are able to peek into the Lotus suite the next morning – the Honeymoon suite was booked. The suites have large double beds set in the middle of spacious, intricately decorated room. A walkway through to the huge, tiled outdoor bathtub also serves as a luxurious indoor/outdoor shower experience. Up a small flight of stairs is a lofted second ‘bedroom’ of sorts, making this suite perfect for families with children.

Old Capital Bike Inn Bangkok

Stand Out Feature: Thai traditional theme

The Old Capital Bike Inn Bangkok has plenty of great features that stand out, but overall it was the execution of the theme from start to finish. The look and feel, with wooden paneling, antique furniture, beautiful Thai paintings, allows guests to really soak up a traditional side of Thailand that is hard to come by in the metropolis that is Bangkok, in addition to providing a truly peaceful escape from the noise outside.

Stand Out Feature: Breakfast

One specific Stand Out feature of the hotel is the breakfast, which was simple and truly delightful. In addition to the choice of egg/meat/bread breakfasts, there is practically a buffet of exotic fruits – from small bananas and juicy mandarins to mangoes, pomegranate, mangosteens, Chinese pears, dragon fruit, and plenty of others we have seen but can’t name. One of the hotel owners, a polite older gentleman, even has a book with all the Thai fruits in order to show foreign guests just what they are eating and what it is called. As a side note, the eggs I order with my brown bread are also scrambled to perfection.

breakfast selection

Room for Improvement: Bed Quality

For some reason, mattresses in Thailand tend to be rock hard, but my bed was more unforgiving than most. On the other hand, Dani had a great night’s sleep in her single bed.

Overall: The Old Capital Bike Inn Bangkok

There are hundreds of hotels in this middle price range in Bangkok and the quality varies extremely between the best and the worst rip-offs. What we enjoyed so much about the Old Capital Bike Inn is the value for money: clean, well-decorated rooms, traditional Thai atmosphere, impeccable service and delicious breakfast – along with the total peace and quiet in the center of Bangkok’s busiest area.

old bangkok inn

The Old Capital Bike Inn Bangkok – The Details

Location: 607 Pra Sumen Road, Pra Nakhon, Bangkok 10200, Thailand
Price: Starting at 2,090BHT/US$65 per double room
LGBT Friendly: Not outwardly
Digital Nomad Friendly:
without in-room wi-fi, unfortunately not
Amenities: Complimentary breakfast, free wi-fi in the restaurant area, DVD library, daily drinking water, guide book library

You can book a room at the Old Capital Bike Inn Bangkok through Booking.com.

 

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Polaroid of the week: Buddhas galore in Bangkok, Thailand

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..polaroid of the week thailand bangkok buddhasBetween the blaring horns, speeding scooters, whizzing tuk-tuks on the buzzing streets and the overall constant bustle of Bangkok, the Buddhist temples (and there are hundreds of them) provide perfectly peaceful havens to escape it all.

After six months traveling in North America and Europe, our arrival in Thailand’s capital city slapped us with quite a bit of culture shock at first, but we adapted quickly by jumping into a tuk-tuk and touring a few of Bangkok’s beautiful temples, or wats, as they are called in Thai. We would whip along main roads and around back streets in the open-air tuk tuks, only to arrive minutes later to near-silent temples with spectacular golden Buddha statues, known as Buddharūpa, which means Form of the Awakened One. Some wats have a particularly large golden buddhas, as high as 32 meters, either standing or reclining, while others instead have a number of buddhas lined-up together in the cross-legged lotus position, like the ones pictured above.

Watching the Buddhists paying respects and bringing offerings at any hour of day, and witnessing the monks collecting the alms in the early mornings has been like a very easy crash course to this fascinating culture and a great way to begin our travels through Asia.

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Polaroid of the week: Phra Phikanet (Ganesha) in Chiang Mai, Thailand

polaroidoftheweekphoto11

.polaroid of the week thailand chiang mai phra phikanet ganesha figureGanesha, one of the five Hindu deities, is known as Phra Phikanet or Phra Phikanesuan in Thailand. When Hindus spread out to South East Asia, they took many aspects of their culture with them, including Ganesha. In Thailand, he is worshiped as the deity of fortune and success and there are Phra Phikanet shrines all over the country. Many Thai Buddhists pay their respect not only to the Buddha, but also to Phra Phikanet, and bring him offerings such as sweets, incense, flowers and fruit, hoping that in return he will help their businesses flourish.

We think we’ll start traveling with extra donuts and flowers to leave with Phra Phikanet, too!

 

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Polaroid of the week: Novice monks at Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai, Thailand

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..polaroid of the week thailand chiang mai wat chedi luangIn perfect harmony with all of its modern conveniences, Chiang Mai in northern Thailand also has over 300 Buddhist wats (temples) woven into the fabric of the city. They are hidden off small backstreets, set dramatically on main roads and they dot almost every street corner – and no two temples are alike. Wat Chedi Luang, pictured above, is one of the oldest temple complexes in Chiang Mai, built in the 14th century. Until it was destroyed by the great earthquake in 1545, this main chedi (temple structure) was the largest in Thailand for many years, with a height of 82 meters and a base diameter of 54 meters.

Only few of the massive stone elephants stampeding out of the structure held up against the earthquake. Despite its destruction, this ancient temple is still one of the most impressive wats in Chiang Mai. Beat the tourists to Chedi Luang early in the morning to be alone with the Buddhas, (stone) elephants and the novice monks passing through on their way to monk school.

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Polaroid of the week: Pretty poodle princess in Chiang Mai, Thailand

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..polaroid of the week thailand chiang mai poodleAfter having seen countless injured stray dogs in Central America, it has been a relief to discover that dogs are treated much better in Thailand! Stray dogs here live in the Buddhist temples and are fed by the monks, and actual pets are treated like little kings and queens! Now that the temperatures have dropped from 100F to 80 – 90F (the Thai version of winter), many dog owners dress their little darlings in dog shirts and even shoes, and we regularly see dogs being driven around in strollers which seem to have been bought specifically for the dogs. Poodles are particularly popular in Thailand, often styled like princesses with ribbons and bows, as in the picture above.

 

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