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Life lately and upcoming travels: February 2015 Edition

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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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Koh Samui: Thailand’s picture-perfect tropical island

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Koh Samui, Coral Cove Beach
Koh Samui, Coral Cove Beach by Fabio Achilli on Flickr.com

Koh Samui is the third largest island in Thailand and it represents one of the most loved holiday destinations in Asia. The reason why it is so popular among tourists across the globe is its unique scenery and luxurious accommodation offers. Koh Samui is the ideal place to spoil yourself while relaxing on a white sand beach with blue clear water and pleasant ocean breezes.The island’s climate is warm and pleasant throughout the year, tempting us with its tropical rainforests, pristine beaches, fine cuisine and water sports. Koh Samui offers many lavishing ways of enjoying yourself, such as spas, golf courses, swimming pools and gyms. It has something alluring for all types of preferences and tastes.

Koh Samui (THAILAND/LANDSCAPE) II
Koh Samui by Chi King on Flickr.com

The island is positioned in The Gulf of Thailand and it is enclosed by numerous other smaller Islands and by the fascinating Angthong National Marine Park. It is very easy to get to Koh Samui by taking one of the regular flights from Pattaya, Phuket, Bangkok, or the international flights from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Still, no matter how big the distance might be, it is definitely worth it. This is a truly unique holiday destination and once you arrive here you are completely mesmerized by its beauty.

Koh Samui
Koh Samui by Sarah Ackerman on Flickr.com

One of the best parts of Koh Samui is that it offers some of the most luxurious accommodations in the world with exotic key features like an infinity pool, golf course with a stunning view over Koh Phangan, dining lounge with a panoramic view, tropical gardens and lavishing spas. Its luxury villas are famous for their extravagance and opulence, and this is why many tourists prefer to spend their holiday in one of these private accommodations instead of choosing a high class hotel or resort. Of course, the offers are incredibly diverse, for all tastes and needs.

Koh Samui 08/09/12
Koh Samui by Webdesign Samui on Flickr.com

Here, tourists have the possibility of viewing numerous offers with pictures, detailed information and prices before choosing where to spend their dream vacation.If you were searching for a while for the perfect exotic island of natural beauty and refinement, a tourist destination where you can spend a magical holiday relaxing on a pristine beach, enjoying water sports or exploring tropical rainforests, then Koh Samui is the right choice for you.

Sunrise
Sunrise in Koh Samui, by Audrey on Flickr.com
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Five reasons why Thailand is the perfect winter escape

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As I am planning my travels for the rest of the years I have been wondering lately where I’d be spending the winter months. I thought about my requirements for the perfect place to escape winter from and quickly realized that there was only one place that ticked all my boxes: Thailand! I can’t wait to return to the Land of Smiles this winter and leave the grey European winter weather behind me. Read on to find out why in think Thailand is the perfect place for a winter escape:

maya bay long tail boats

1 The weather

This one might be obvious, but there’s just nothing better than getting on a plane in freezing below-zero temperatures and getting off it in tropical heat. Thailand’s rainy season stops in late October / early November – just at the time when the weather gets really ugly in Europe and North America.

maya bay water

2 It’s dirt cheap!

Seriously, it almost can’t get any cheaper than Thailand – a dinner in one of the amazing food markets for $1, a sit-down meal in a proper restaurant between $2 and $3, drinks for $2 to $3, cheap inland flights if you’re planning to hit up some beaches in the south and maybe Chiang Mai for culture and shopping in the north. Hotels are also ridiculously inexpensive- $20 a night will get you a decent room, but $50 a night will get you a 4* hotel with swimming pool and other nice amenities. And if you want to travel on a really tight budget – the rooms we stayed in for $10 a night were usually fine. A 30-minute massage will set you back at $2, why not splurge and get a full hour massage for $4 to $6!?

Tourist attractions are also very affordable and the beaches are free, of course! On most days you’ll have a hard time spending more than $25 per person, everything included.

massage on the beach

3 The mix of culture, beaches and wildlife

Thailand is one of the most westernized cultures in South East Asia, however, it still feels foreign and exotic enough to give you the impression your worlds away from your usual surroundings. The ubiquitous Buddhist temples, the wonderful smells of coconut, lemongrass and sticky rice when wandering through the street food markets, the tropical flora and fauna, the awe-inspiring wildlife. Where else in the world do you have monkeys come visit you on the terrace of your hotel, colorful underwater sea life, elephants roam in the world (admittedly, only few – and please don’t ride any!), exotic birds and butterflies, and other rare animals like civets or leopard cats.
monkey chaw ka cher koh lanta
The Siam culture can be explored all over the countries, and you’ll never get tired of visiting the countless Buddhist temples throughout the country since they all have their own special features and distinct decor. Not to mention ancient Siam cities like Ayutthaya or Sukothai! And last but not least – the serene beaches! There’s almost no other place in the world where you can find such a great amount of beaches with crystal clear water and fine white sand. As if this wasn’t enough, Thailand has also stunning landscapes – from green mountains in the north to lush rainforests in the south and miles and miles of rice paddies in between. The natural beauty of the country is reason enough to visit – there are jawdroppingly beautiful views around every corner. The mix of culture, scenery, beaches and wildlife is what makes Thailand truly unique!

chiang mai wat lok molee

4 The food

Oh, the glorious Thai food! Like I already said in #2, food in Thailand is super cheap – but not only that! It is super delicious as well. The curries, the noodle soups, the rice dishes, mango and sticky rice, fresh coconuts, tropical fruits, you will want to eat your face off throughout your entire stay, I promise. There is just so much good food to be had, and street food is safe to eat here. Almost every town has a big night food market where entire families gather to eat their dinner on tiny stools on the sidewalk. You’ll find anything here from fresh seafood to yummy Thai pancakes to hot stir fries. I have yet to eat a Thai dish that I DON’T like! You don’t like Asian food? No cause for despair – you’ll find about any other cuisine in Thailand as well. Italian food, Mexican, American or Indian cuisine: you’ll find it all, at least in those places that are popular with tourists. And again, it’s all wonderfully cheap!

chiang mai banana flower salad punpun

5 Amenities and ease of travel

Another reason that makes Thailand the perfect winter escape destination is the fact that traveling there is incredibly easy. As I mentioned before, it is one of the most westernized countries in the region and you’ll find that all the facilities and amenities are en par with European or North American facilities – if not even better! Hotels are oftentimes newer and more modern than their counterparts in the U.S. for example (simply because they are newer), spas are of world class quality, hospitals are state-of-the-art, airplanes and buses are comfy and safe. Wi-fi is just as fast as in western countries, and sometimes even faster, and the shopping malls and cinemas in Bangkok make their European counterparts look tame in comparison. The ease and comfort you get in Thailand and the small price you pay for it make it one of the most pleasant places you can travel in – especially compared to some places in the Caribbean where facilities have not been modernized yet or/and cost a fortune.

chaw ka cher pool with chairs

What’s your perfect winter escape?

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Our Top 5 Favorite Destinations of 2012

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What a year! we really outdid ourselves in 2012, traveling to India, Singapore, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, the U.S., Mexico, Costa Rica, Buenos Aires and now Santiago de Chile. We are putting together lists of our ‘top five favorites’ to help you with some inspiration for where to go in 2013. Earlier this month we looked back at our favorite beaches of 2012and now our favorite overall destinations of the year. We hope you get some ideas for your own travels. As always, we are happy to answer any questions in the comments about your trip planning for 2013.

5. Arenal, Costa Rica

I thought we knew Costa Rica up and down, except for the Osa Peninsula, which is a truly off-the-grid adventure deserving of its own dedicated trip.  That’s why, after our housesit on a small Costa Rican beach this year, we didn’t plan to travel much. We slipped in a short stint at one of our favorite nearby beaches, Samara, and headed to La Fortuna to see Arenal Volcano, which neither of us had been to yet. In a rare move for Central American travel, we rented a car and drove from the Pacific coast,through national parks and jungles, curved and swiveled around Lake Arenal and arrived in town, thinking the gorgeous ride would be the highlight of our stay. We couldn’t have been more wrong. We love everything about the set up in Arenal. Even though it hasn’t erupted in years, the volcano is an imposing figure you can’t miss from anywhere in town. At a certain point on the road out of town, practically every hotel has hot springs and we spent a day at the best choice of them all, Tabacon Grand Spa. There are massive waterfalls and a full range of day hikes around the volcano, depending on your level of fitness. Restaurants in town are overpriced tourist traps, but we opted to eat in the typical Costa Rican ‘sodas’ which offer great value for money and the healthiest option in town, a vegetarian casado.
Arenal La Fortuna Costa Rica

4. Kampot, Cambodia

This little city is not the first place you’ll hear about in Cambodia – that would be the ancient kingdom of Angkor Wat outside of Siem Reap. You would probably also hear about Phnom Penh, the country’s capital and the beautiful coastline of the Sihanoukville area (which we named one of the Top 5 favorite beaches we visited year). Somewhere further down the list is the sleepy city of Kampot, famous for its production of both salt and pepper. Kampot Pepper is served on the table of the finest restaurants in Paris, we were told on a day tour which brought us out to the salt fields, the pepper fields, a fishing village,and a gorgeous hike in the countryside. Everything in this quiet, riverside town is accessible by bicycle and the restaurant scene is surprisingly developed – we had easily the best coffee of our time in Cambodia right here in Kampot.
Kampot Cambodia

3. Mexico City, Mexico

We have spent quality time in Mexico City before, including two weeks in 2010, but there is a specific reason why it makes our list tin 2012. Mexico City has what only the greatest of all cities have, and that is the ability to be all things to all people and yet completely different with every single visit. We returned to Mexico City in August for a long weekend and managed to pound the pavement for hours on end and not retrace our old stomping grounds and favorite spots from our trip in 2010. We spent one day at an art market in San Angel, another in the suburb of Ciudad Satélite, where we stayed at the beautiful Casa Roa Bed & Breakfast,and another on a walking tour of the San Rafael neighborhood. Two months later, we ended up back in the city during a 12 hour layover, so with limited time we headed straight to the Centro Historico and scarfed down our favorite tacos on Calle Uruguay and hit up Dani’s favorite La Ideal bakery for some fresh pastries. As we walked through the streets back to the modern, efficient airport bus that evening, we couldn’t help but notice the smiles. For being such a big city in a country with such a dangerous reputation, the capital is packed with families, lovers, artists, businessmen and women, police, protestors, market vendors and tourists all going about their days and we loved every chance we had this year of dipping into Mexico City life.
Mexico City

2. Chiang Mai, Thailand

Popular with tourists and expats of all kinds, this northern Thai city has the magical ability to make its visitors adapt to its pace and style, which is a far cry from buzzing, booming Bangkok. Both within the brick square mile of its more touristy city walls and out into the more local neighborhoods, Chiang Mai incorporates all the things we love about Thailand without most of the mess we disliked in the capital and down on some of the overrun islands. For example, the city is practically littered with ornate, peaceful Buddhist temples and monks in their orange robes constantly sweep past on motorbikes and bicycles, in tuk tuks and on foot, always with a smile that feels both insanely exotic and totally normal at the same time. And yet, Chiang Mai is also stocked with modern coffee shops, really fun walking markets, super fast internet, fashionable locals and online entrepreneeurs from all walks of life. Most of all, we ate like Kings in Chiang Mai. Organic, healthy food at under $4 a meal, fruit smoothies for under a dollar…yes, we most definitely miss Chiang Mai…
Chiang Mai Thailand

1. Buenos Aires, Argentina

Buenos Aires takes the top spot by a landslide, miles beyond anywhere else we visited this year. If you remember, I wasn’t even that impressed with the city when we landed there in November, as it reminded me of anywhere I’d already loved in Europe – Lisbon, Barcelona, Paris. So, it may have taken a little while for Buenos Aires to win us over. It didn’t do so overwhelmingly, or all at once. Instead, it seeped in slowly…the romance, the food, the culture, the architecture, the street art, the hot-blooded protestors, the complicated history and complex politics of ‘isms’ and ‘ists’, the dinners at 11pm, even (and I swore I wouldn’t say this, but I am) the accent that makes ‘playa’ into ‘plaisha’, the rolling Italian speech rythyms and the hand gestures to match. The city isn’t perfect, with garbage on the streets, corrupt politicians, and rates of inflation we’ll never understand, but that only adds to the intrigue. Loving Buenos Aires was unexpected, but knowing it exists settles our wandering souls just a bit. Buenos Aires is our number one pick because it is the only place we say that you really have to go, a place where you could spend a year and not scratch the surface. It is definitely the city we visited in 2012 we could see ourselves returning to multiple times throughout our lives.
buenos aires argentina

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Help lift a broken spirit at the Elephant Sanctuary

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Christmas is coming up with lightning speed, so this Sunday we wanted to take the time to talk about our experience at the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand. We have written about it a bit in several posts, but we never dedicated a full article on this unforgettable experience which both filled us with joy and broke our hearts at the same time. Read on to find out why. If you are inspired by what you read, you could consider supporting Lek and her elephants this holiday season by sponsoring an elephant.  

elephants at elephant nature park chiang maiInstinctually we understood that we would never want to participate in elephant tourism, but for many tourists who visit Thailand or South East Asia this is one of the main activities on their itinerary. We believe that they do this because it seems magical, harking back to an imaginary time where more primitive people peacefully co-existed with the amazing animals who served as friends, laborers and transportation.

What people who ride elephants do not realize is that in order to get these strong-willed, independent creatures to be docile enough to be ridden requires a level of torture and mistreatment that would break their hearts if they knew more about it.

elephant nature park In order for tourists to ride elephants, or watch them paint or stand on their back legs, or even to turn them into loggers carrying tons of wood for miles and miles, elephants must first have their spirit broken.

Breaking an elephant’s spirit means stealing it from their mothers as babies, and squeezing them into a tiny cage where they barely fit. They are then starved, deprived of sleep and beaten with bull hooks and sticks with nails for days and weeks on end until they finally give in and become submissive to humans. After all, these gargantuan animals can crush us in one swift move, so it takes quite a bit of tortue to convince them to submit to the tiny humans around them. They then spend their lives being beaten with bamboo sticks with sharp nails on the end and burning it with electric prods to keep them mentally submissive enough to do those tricks or haul that lumber.

You can read more about why you shouldn’t ride an elephant in South East Asia or watch a video showing this horrible torture here, but be warned, this is seriously heavy and heartbreaking and definitely NOT for the faint of heart. It is so awful, Jess started to cry and turned it off in seconds.

elephant eyeEverywhere you see the opportunity to ride an elephant, or see them in the circus, this terribile act of spirit-breaking has gone on. Elephants are made to carry people on their back all day long and suffer spinal injuries, and the wooden chairs that are attached on some of them are even worse, causing blisters and skin infections that can never heal because they carry people day after day after day.

elephant trunkSadly, elephant tourism is a major source of income in Thailand, and there are still more than enough people who are willing to pay for these things without  thinking about it.

elephant footLuckily, there is a way to experience these incredible animals without causing them any harm by visiting them in an elephant sanctuary. Last year, we had heard about the Elephant Nature Park north of Chiang Mai, an elephant sanctuary that is home to over 30 rescued elephants that had been terribly mistreated by their former owners. The Elephant Nature Park is one of the very few parks in Thailand where elephants have actually been saved from exploitation instead of being exploited.

elephant showering himselfThe tiny Thai founder of the park, Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, has put all of her heart and soul into creating a space where elephants that were previously mistreated or almost worked to death can live the rest of their lives in a peaceful environment. Here we saw elephants in all stages of recovery from the mental and physical stress they had undergone for decades. Remember, an elephant never forgets, and without the luxury of psychotherapy, it takes a very, very long time for the elephants to recover.

shannon & ana washing the elephantHowever, the elephants at the nature park seem incredibly happy in comparison to what they had gone through, and are comfortable around visitors who come to help feed them and bathe them. They even give you kisses with their giant trunks. You can spend time with the elephants on a day visit or, if you have the time, you can volunteer for a week or longer.

elephant baby bathingThe spacious grounds made up of meadows and fields allow the elephants to roam freely in their natural, but protected, habitat. There are various viewing platforms for visitors and a large terrace to get up close and personal to feed them or just observe them from afar.

dani & elephantThe elephants eat A LOT (up to 200 kilos per day) so you have plenty of opportunity to set entire bunches of bananas or watermelon halves onto their trunks, which they then shovel in to their mouths. After the kissing and the bathing and the feeding, there is also an opportunity to be educated on the dark side of the elephant tourism industry. There is a short film covering Lek’s journey to rescue elephants as well as one instance of an elephant’s spirit being broken caught on film. This part of the experience is optional and not advised for young children or overly sensitive animal lovers.

elephant natur park feeding time
elephant with babies
elephant nature parkVisit the Elephant Nature Park

The Elephant Nature Park has an office in Chiang Mai where you can book your tour. A day at the park is 2,500 THB (US$80) and includes transport from your hotel to the park and back, a generous vegetarian lunch buffet, plenty of time with the elephants and the film. All the money goes directly back into supporting the elephants and Lek’s work against elephant tourism in Thailand and South East Asia. If you don’t plan on visiting Thailand any time soon, you can sponsor an elephant or even buy an elephant lunch – see how you can help an elephant here.

chiang mai elephant nature park

Check out our Flickr Album for more elephant pictures:

[flickrslideshow acct_name=”Globetrottergirls” id=”72157632199376648″]

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Vegetarian restaurants in Chiang Mai: Our top picks

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With over 30 all veg restaurants, Chiang Mai is a paradise for vegetarians! We made an effort to try them all, but slowly starting frequenting our favorites more often instead. Here are our favorite vegetarian restaurants in Chiang Mai:

Pun Pun

Pun Pun is a vegetarian restaurant in the back of an impressive temple, Wat Suan Dok, which is outside of the moat, west of the town center.  Hop in a Songthaew (red covered pick-up public transportation) and get out to sweet spot set up by a Thai-American couple whose focus is on serving organic vegetarian food.  The menu is huge  (it took us ages to order the first time) and features a large variety of classic Thai dishes not seen on menus at other foreigner-friendly spots in town. The price is also nice – most dishes are between $1.10 – $1.30 (35 to 40 baht).  You eat in a courtyard underneath a big Boddhi tree while monks walk to and from all those things that busy monks do. PunPun opened up a second location earlier this year, but we found the menu much more limited and many of our favorites of the original location at Wat Suan Dok were not on the menu.

chiang mai vegetarian food punpunBeetroot Stories

Beetroot Stories is a central staple in the popular Old Town section of Chiang Mai on the corner of Ratchadamnoen and Ratchapakinai Rd. One of several restaurants in the courtyard of the Kad Klang Wiang Plaza. The menu features a variety of Thai dishes, western cuisine, breakfasts, fresh salads and sandwiches, plus giant smoothies for $1.60 (50 Baht). We can happily recommend the chocolate banana coconut or peanut butter banana chocolate smoothies.  The Thai curries are excellent, but we found the vegetable stir-fry a little bland. As the name indicates, Beetroot Stories has quite a few dishes that feature beetroot, such as salads and also several beetroot juices (mixed with other vegetables or fruit). All rice dishes are served with brown rice.

Address: Ratchadamnoen Rd (on Kad Klangwiang Plaza behind the Wawee Coffee Shop)

chiang mai vegetarian food beetroot storiesAUM

AUM is next to the Black Canyon Coffee Shop just inside of Tha Pae Gate. Attached to a second-hand bookstore with loads of English books, there is an upstairs sitting area with low tables and cushions, as well as downstairs seating. The restaurant offers mainly Thai – but also some Western – dishes and a huge selection of vegetarian sushi. AUM was surprisingly good, especially the vegetarian Khao Soi and an interesting appetizer here: big, crispy, deep-fried (basil?) leaves with a sweet’n’sour dip – delicious!

Address: 65 Moonmuang Road/Mun Mueang Road (next to the Black Canyon Coffee Shop, inside Tha Phae Gate)

Khun Churn

Khun Churn is located in a small soi (alley) off Nimmanhaemin Road, and we went once for an a-la-carte dinner and returned to try the lunch buffet. The lunch buffet offered much better value, as many of the items in the menu are part of the buffet so you can essentially sample the entire menu in one sitting. There is a big salad bar, various soups (including a version of Khao Soi, though we prefer AUM’s version), tofu and grilled vegetables, different rice dishes, noodles dishes and a large selection of herbal teas and fresh fruit water are also included in the price of the buffet. If you go to Khun Churn, definitely go for the lunch buffet. It is THB130.00 – not necessarily cheap for Thai standards, but a fresh, vegetarian buffet for just over US$4.00 is hard to beat.

Address: Nimmanhaemin Soi 17

chiang mai vegetarian buffet khun churnDADA Kafe

The Dada Kafe is also inside the old town, just one block south of Tha Pae Gate on Ratchamankla Road. Run by a German-Thai couple, it has a huge selection of solid dishes, both Thai and Western and of course, some German dishes, too. DADA has interesting creations like ‘Carpaccio’ of pineapple, basil and ice cream, fried potato & cheese balls, avocado on toast or fried breaded tofu balls. The prices here are high for Thailand, however, like a German breakfast for $6 (190 Baht), and some of the healthier smoothies sell for $6.40 (200 Baht) which could easily be your entire food budget for the day in Chiang Mai. Everything we ate here we loved, though, from German cakes and sweets to the veggie burger and side of German Potato salad. Plus, the smoothie selection is easily the biggest in town and cure anything from hangovers to acne, to stress, bad vision or sleeping problems. Most cost $2.70, or 80 Baht, including our favorite, the Brainstorm Me. You can also get wheat grass shots or wheat grass smoothies here. Dada Kafe also has free wi-fi and a selection of international newspapers.

chiang mai vegetarian food dada kafeAddress: 20/1 Ratchamanka Road (near the corner to Moon Mueng Road, opposite Juicy4u)

 Juicy 4 U

Despite the funny name, Juicy 4 U is one of our favorite vegetarian hang-outs in Chiang Mai. It is located opposite the Dada Kafe on Ratchamankha Rd. They have a large choice of vegetables (including wheatgrass shots) and fruit juices for $1.60 (50 Baht), Thai dishes (starting at 70 Baht), breakfasts and a decent veggie burger for $2.55 (80 Baht). We especially love the pick-your-own-ingredients sandwich, where you can choose up to 10 ingredients for a sandwich on fresh whole-wheat bread.

Address: 5 Ratchamanka Road (near the corner to Moon Mueng Road, opposite Dada Kafe)

chiang mai vegetarian food juicy4u
Are you a vegetarian and have been to Chiang Mai? What are your favorite vegetarian restaurants?

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The next Gaudi? Spectacularly strange White Temple in Chiang Rai, Thailand

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To call the The White Temple aka Wat Rong Khun ‘unconventional’ is the understatement of the century. Located just outside of Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand, this temple experience is the closest thing you could ever come to hallucinating sober. This is a modern temple, completely unorthodox and creatively crazy. Elements of pop culture merge with images of devils, aliens and the pits of hell show how inclusive the creator of the temple has attempted to be.

white temple chiang raiConstruction began in the late 1990s, but areas of the facade are still blank slates ready to be covered. No matter how that turns out, the white temple is unlike any Buddhist temple in the world. In fact, although worshippers come here daily, this is more of an elaborate art project than a devotion to the Buddha.
chiang rai white temple ornamentsThe temple was designed by popular contemporary Thai artist Chaloemchai Khositphiphat. Aware of how rare his project would be, Khositphiphat was prepared for the work to take years to finish, likening the project to Gaudi’s work in Spain. It’s been 14 years since the project started, so regardless of the comparison being slightly arrogant, it would appear to be true. Some of the work is beautiful, other aspects are disturbing to say the least.

chiang rai white temple sculpturesAt the entrance there are two ‘demons’ right and left depicting the sinful addictions of the human being: alcohol and cigarettes.

chiang rai white temple smoking sculptureBefore entering the actual complex, you must pass two trees with dozens of heads hanging down  – some just weird-looking, others creepy. (Jess saw this guy with the snake coming out of his eye in her dreams for a few nights after we were there!)

chiang rai white temple chiang rai white temple creepy facesThe temple is reached by a long ornate bridge with mosaics and two scary sculptures at the beginning of it:

white temple sculpture white temple sculptureBefore you even get there though, you must cross a little pond loaded with hungry fish, followed by what we found to be the most fascinating element of all – hundreds of clay hands desperately reaching out of the pit under the bridge, some holding skulls, others holding pots for alms. Known as the ‘Pit of Hell’ these hands represent people trying to escape. Not your average entrance to a Buddhist temple…

chiang rai white temple hands white temple chiang rai
chiang rai white temple hands white temple hands
white temple skull chiang raiThe bridge represents a crossing over to the Abode of Buddha from the cycle of rebirth. The semi-circle seen in the image below represents the human world. The fangs in the larger circle represent the mouth of Rahu, meaning impurities in the mind, a representation of hell or suffering.

white temple chiang raiAround the pond there are more creepy sculptures, like a fish eating a human hand…

chiang rai white temple faces
white temple chiang rai

white temple art sculpturesThe main temple building, the ubosot, is entirely white to symbolize the Buddha’s purity, with white sculptures at the entrance and mosaics to decorate the figures on each side of the temple.

chiang rai white temple
white temple creepy sculpture
chiang rai white temple
white temple sculpturesPictures are prohibited once inside the temple, but let us paint you a picture: The Buddha faces the back wall, which is painted orange and depicts a bizarre combination of scenes straight from American life: Spiderman, Superman, Alien, Star Wars, cell phones, computers, McDonald’s, Neo from The Matrix movies, Bin Laden and George W. Bush, plus the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers. Not what you would expect inside a temple! Even parts of the small main temple were unfinished, so we can only imagine what type of images will be added to mix!

white temple creature
white temple dragonOnce through the temple out into the back part of the grounds, another pond and another white bridge leads to a bright white pagoda.

white temple pond & pavilionThe gardens around the temple are filled with tiny details, such as these skulls that covered the fences:

white temple skull
white temple skulls chiang raiA yet to be finished gazebo, also bright white, with fantastically detailed animal sculptures on top:

white temple animal sculptures
white temple ratsOnce it is completely finished, there will be nine buildings: the ubosot, the hall containing Lord Buddha’s relics, the hall containing Buddha images, the preaching hall, the contemplation hall, the monk’s cell, the door façade of the Buddhavasa, the art gallery  and the bathrooms.

chiang rai white temple ornamentsAnd look at these golden bathrooms – have you ever seen such fancy toilets?!

white temple bathroom
white temple bathroom door How to get there: The temple is located in Ban Rong Khun, about 13 kilometres south-west of Chiang Rai. Public buses (40 Baht) leave regularly from the bus station in Chiang Rai, just ask someone what gate the buses to Wat Rong Khun are leaving from. The ride takes around 20 minutes.

You could visit in an hour or so, but plan in some time to take in all the little details that you will see the closer and longer you look.

white temple creepy sculpture
white temple in chiang rai

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Things we love about Chiang Mai

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Imagine you have 365 days a year to travel, to go anywhere you want to…if you were to go back to one place three times in five months, you must really love it, right? That’s exactly what happened to us. The love grew slowly, but we realized just how much we love Chiang Mai, Thailand after visiting it three times during our stint in South East Asia this past year.

Our first visit to the northern Thai city was for the breathtaking Loy Krathong lantern festival. We came back after traveling in Laos for a few weeks and ended up spending a month in town. When we left, we thought it was a final goodbye, but ended up returning a month later again, for a third time, this time after being offered a month-long housesit.

Chiang MaiAlthough Chiang Mai doesn’t impress the way that cities like New York or Singapore might, we find the city to be an excellent place to visit, or stay in longer term. Our love of the city was a slow burn, one that took awhile but we are deeply committed to returning to again one day. We’ve put together a summary of all the reasons why we love Chiang Mai.

The size

Chiang Mai is a comfortable size for a city, large enough to stay interesting but small enough not to get lost or worry about having a car or even a scooter. We rented bicycles for a month and we were able to cycle from one end of town to the other in under one hour. For those who live more centrally, you can walk almost anywhere within 30 minutes. Although over one million people live and work in the greater Chiang Mai area, parts of the city are very spread out so that it never feels crowded at all.

Chiang Mai ThailandThe coffee shops

Thai people love coffee, and its preparation has become a bit of an art form in Chiang Mai. There are more cafes here than any other city we visited in South East Asia. Some are tiny, no more than two tables, others are trendy art cafes, plus there are large coffee shop chains as well. One of the best (read: strongest) takeaway coffees we ever had came out of a coffee truck, which had rows of flowers on a makeshift bar and a full coffee menu. One thing is certain – they all own and operate some sort of state of the art coffee machine, and most have wi-fi, which is great for the hundreds of people in Chiang Mai like us working wirelessly. Among our favorite cafes are: Old Chiang Mai Café, Coffee Zebra, Akha Ama Café, and Doi Chaang. If you’re a coffee-holic like we are, you might also enjoy this list of 30 cafes to visit in Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai coffeeshopsHeaven for vegetarians

Chiang Mai is one of the most vegetarian-friendly cities in all of Thailand – we counted over thirty vegetarian restaurants. Despite making a valient effort to sample them all, there were still some that escaped us – until next time. Our friends Erin and Simon did a better job here and covered the best vegetarian restaurants in Chiang Mai. Our favorites are: PunPun, Beetroot Stories, Juicy4U, AUM, Dada Kafe and Khun Churn for the vegetarian lunch buffet.

Chiang Mai Thai food..and all the other food!

Chiang Mai is a food lover’s paradise! Not only can you get some of the best Thai food in the country here, but because this is a city of over one million people, its easy to get your hands on a perfectly prepared thin-crust Italian pizza, a good English breakfast, Spanish Tapas, Indian curry, Middle Eastern falafel, German sausages or Mexican quesadillas. There even is a cake buffet – can it get any better?! Some of our (non-Thai) favorites are: Bake n bite, iBerry, Beetroot Stories, Salsa Kitchen and La Lanterna di Genova.

Chiang Mai international foodThe temples

I have to admit that I am a huge temple geek, and I can spend hours walking around the ornate Buddhist temples all over Chiang Mai. Given that there are over 300 temples, there are always new temples to discover when cycling around town. The big golden Buddha statues or crumbling ancient stupas never cease to amaze me. Among our favorite temples are Wat San Duok, Wat Chiang Man, Wat Lok Moli, Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Montien and Doi Suthep.

Chiang Mai templesThe monks

With the temples come the monks, and there are hundreds of Buddhist monks in Chiang Mai. In 2011, there was even one weekend with a lot more than that, when over 12,000 monks gathered in Chiang Mai. The really fun part is seeing the monks hanging off the back of motobikes, riding public transportation, topping up their cell phone credit, all with their bald heads, orange robes and peaceful smiles. When you do meet them in a temple, they are usually eager to practice their English and often strike up conversations with foreigners, making it easy to feel connected to this aspect of Thai life.

Chiang Mai monksThe markets

We can pick up a plateful of steaming hot Pad Thai for under $1 next to a stand selling T-Shirts with creative graphic designs, or walk down a few minutes for fresh fruit smoothies and a look at wood carvings or other traditional handicrafts. Chiang Mai simply has great markets, like the Saturday Night Walking Street and the huge Sunday Night Market (both admittedly very crowded after 6:30pm). What we love most, aside from the amazing street food, is that what is on sale isn’t only tourist trinkets. Thais also flock to these stands to pick up any number of creative items from clothes, jewelry and toys to paintings and furniture. One night, we also stumbled across an out of-the-way hip Thai market that reminded us a lot of the East London markets we love so much, where primarily Thai hipsters shopped for cool clothes, second-hand shoes and other accessories.

chiang mai marketsThe hipsters

Speaking of hipsters – Chiang Mai is a university town stuffed with young, trendy Thais hanging out everywhere, but especially in the area around Nimmanhaemin Road with its cool bars and cafes. The great thing about that is that unlike in many cities in the West, the Thai hipsters might be on the cutting edge, but they are still polite and low-key, so its fun to all hang out together. If looking to escape the Western tourists in the Old Town,we really recommend staying and hanging out over near Nimmanhaemin for an authentically Thai feel.

Thai hipsters Chiang MaiThe creative vibe

We also loved the creative vibe that you feel in many of the neighborhoods, starting with cool street art to innovative shop design or brilliant art exhibits in one of the many galleries located throughout the city.

Artsy Chiang MaiThe festivals

Chiang Mai has so many festivals – almost every month there is a big parade or other festival. Some top ones include the Umbrella Festival in January, Flower Festival in February, Songkran in April, Visakha Bucha in May, Yi Peng and Loi Kratong in November and the Rose Festival in December – there is always something to celebrate!

Chiang Mai festivalsThe cost of living

One thing that draws expats, retirees, and visitors alike to Chiang Mai is how cheap it is to live there. You can find a small studio apartment for $150 – $200 a month, or even rent an entire house for $300 a month outside the city center. Street food is usually less than $1, and if you sit down in a local Thai restaurant you will usually pay between $1 and $2 for a meal. In the more touristy areas, meals in a restaurant are between $2 and $4, and even the more expensive Western food is never more than $5 to $7. Seeing a movie in the theater is around $3.50, you can get (really good) massages for $4 per hour and public transportation within the city limits is $0.65. A trip to the dentist office (excellent facilities) for a teeth cleaning is under $30 and other hospital check-ups are equally as cheap. Living life to the fullest, doing as you please, it’s hard to overspend in Chiang Mai. Read these articles by fellow bloggers JetSet Citizen, A Little Adrift, Stop Having a Boring Life and Nomadic Notes for coverage on living in Chiang Mai for around $500 per month.

Chiang Mai ThailandIt’s not all roses

Of course it is not all sunshine and roses in Chiang Mai. We have to admit that apart from the temples and the historic city wall, the architecture in the city did not blow us away – there are mostly functional concrete buildings, not the charming colonial houses that we loved in other cities in South East Asia or the colorful colonial towns of Central America. The apartment building where we spent our first month seemed to be mostly inhabited by old, single Western guys and the number of young Thai girls we’d come across in the hallway or lobby was astonishing. The historic center was a bit too touristy for our taste, filled with lots of cheap hostels and backpacker bars, and we often fantasized what Chiang Mai would be like without the high number of seedy expats and tourists. The number one factor that we didn’t like about Chiang Mai though was its location. Even though the surrounding Lanna countryside is beautiful and you can easily visit places like Chiang Rai or Pai, we missed having a beach nearby, and Chiang Mai is pretty far from everything else.

Still – all the things we love about Chiang Mai are all reasons for us to go back, and we’re already looking forward to it.

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Have you been to Chiang Mai? What are the things that you love about Chiang Mai?

 

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Street food junkies on the hunt in Thailand

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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).

fried food night marketLike 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 Si 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.

breaded eggs chiang maiAnother 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.

chiang rai friede silk wormsEven 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.

rice & chicken in banana leavesSame with these little banana leaf parcels – looks vegetarian from the outside, but it’s filled with pork.

sticky rice in leaves chiang maiFinally 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.

sushi night marketMuch 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 snack Mieng KhamAnother 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…

banana snacks 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 banana

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

bangkok coconut cream crepesWe 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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Day 601 to Day 700: The Tops and Flops

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Last Saturday we reflected on the last 100 days which we spent exclusively in South East Asia – Thailand, Malaysia and Cambodia. We came across an interesting observation: while there have been countless ‘Tops’ moments, these last 100 days have had surprisingly few ‘Flops’. Read on for the highs, lows, travel recommendations, fellow online entrepreneurs and bloggers we met and a whole lot of delicious food!

Top travel moments

Playing with elephants at the Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai, Thailand
When you get to Thailand, you will immediately be bombarded with options to get up close and personal with elephants – but making the right choice is key. If you visit the Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai, you will learn about the terrifying torture that work/tourism elephants undergo, a process called ‘breaking’ the elephants, in order to make them docile enough for work (you can learn more about it and watch a video here, but warning – this is heartbreaking stuff). Essentially, they torture the wild out, and then continue to mistreat and abuse these amazing creatures throughout their 70+ years. Luckily Lek, the tiny owner of the Elephant Nature Park has made it her life’s work to save as many elephants as she can, giving them a second chance at a happy life. No elephant riding here, and no circus tricks either. Instead, along with our friends Shannon and Ana, we washed, fed and just enjoyed seeing the elephants in a safe, happy environment amongst friends.

elephant nature park thailandThaipusam
This is one of those must-see experiences in life. The extreme nature of the self-mutilation, the bright colors, the loud music, thousands of Indians gathering, worshiping, and some taking as many pictures as the tourists is almost more stimulation than simple minds like ours can handle. But when we heard that we were actually going to be in Malaysia during Thaipusam, we made sure to be in Penang to experience it. We opted to avoid the 1 million plus crowd expected in Kuala Lumpur, deciding that the over 200,000 gathered at the second biggest procession in the country would do just fine. This was easily one of the highlights of our entire 700 days on the road thus far.

Thaipusam 2012 in Penang MalaysiaHiking in the Cameron Highlands
Malaysia is seriously sweltering, so the prospect of cooler weather in the mountains brought us out to Cameron Highlands. We thought we’d visit the Boh tea plantation (which we did), have tea and scones (which we did) and visit the Mossy Forest, an area of forest completely covered in moss (which we did). But when we set off for a short morning hike, we did not expect to be challenged the way we were. Initially, the hike was a piece of cake, but by the end we found ourselves hiking up and down steep ravines, shocked each time we passed a marker and had only gone one-fifth of a kilometer. Sinking in to muddy pools with our boots, washing off our faces in babbling brook that caused these extremes, exerting ourselves, the challenge of this hike felt great, as did scarfing down the delicious treats at the nearby strawberry farm directly after. These treats included strawberry sundae, strawberry pancakes, spinach and strawberry salad, even deep fried strawberry ice cream.

hiking in the cameron highlands malaysiaMeeting so many like-minded travelers, bloggers and expats
There is something in the air here in South East Asia, a specific scent that attracts nomads from around the world. It could be the cheap prices, good food or great internet connection – but it also has something to do with the sense of community over here. In just a few months, we have managed to meet so many inspiring, interesting people IRL (In Real Life) who are all out there living a life like ours. These include:

Keith of Velvet Escape, Mei of Cumi&Ciki, James of Nomadic Notes, Corey of Where’s Waldner, Shannon of A Little Adrift, Christine & Drew of Almost Fearless, Erin & Simon of Neverending Voyage, Raymond of Man on the Lam, Daniel of Canvas of Light, David of MalaysiaAsia, Lauren of Never Ending Footsteps, Dustin the Skinny Backpacker, Betsy and Warren of Married with Luggage, Christy and Kali from Technosyncratic, Lash, Shawna and Chais of Full Course Travel, Heather of Ginger Nomads, Dina & Ryan of VagabondQuest, Jodi of Legal Nomads, Dave of What’s Dave Doing, MonicaMcCarthy, Jen of Directionally Challenged, Tom & Lieve, Alex of Hejorama, John the JetSetCitizen, Ian from Where Sidewalks End, and we’re afraid we might be forgetting a few.

meeting other bloggers & friends on the roadFavorite places

Cenang Beach on Langkawi, Malaysia
To be honest, when we decided to fly to South East Asia last year, we thought we would island hop and beach bum our way around South East Asia. But we haven’t been impressed by most of the islands and beaches – until we got to Langkawi. The island’s Cenang Beach was exactly what we were looking for: white, powdery sand, coconut palm trees and crystal clear shallow water. We spent a couple of days in what turned out to be our favorite boutique hotel so far and, although we meant to move on to Koh Lipe in Thailand from there, we ended up enjoying the laid-back vibe here too much and spent eight days sunbathing, swimming, walking up and down the beach and taking in the stunning sunsets every night.

cenang beach langkawi malaysia

Kampot, Cambodia
At first glance, Kampot doesn’t look like much – especially if you arrive during midday when everyone is taking refuge from the heat. The wide dusty streets are strewn with building material, as everything in this town seems to be under construction. But after a while, this little French colonial city set on the Kampot river really grew on us. The people are so friendly and laid-back, and as soon as the sun starts to set, everyone comes out to play volleyball, cycle and walk along the riverfront. There are tours to see the salt fields and the pepper farms (Kampot pepper is apparently world-famous), and an old Hindu shrine in a cave nearby. All the construction, you soon realize, is due to growth – hotels, shops and a big new tourist market are set to be finished shortly. Go there soon, we say, as this is the kind of city you know is going to feel entirely different in a few years’ time.

kampot cambodia

Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
We fell instantly in love with Georgetown, the main town on the island of Penang in the Andaman Sea. The colonial town is a fascinating mix of Chinese, Indian and Malaysian culture and is filled with Hindu temples, Chinese Buddhist temples and mosques alike. Despite the merciless heat, we explored different parts of this bustling city every day, admiring the charming crumbling architecture and discovering new foods on the many hawker food stands, although we must admit that our stomachs were dedicated to Little India, where we had some of the best Indian meals we have ever had!

georgetown penang malaysiaMost disappointing place(s)

Ipoh, Malaysia
We were lucky enough to only have gone to one place that we didn’t really like. On the way from the Cameron Highlands to Penang, we made a stop in Ipoh, won over by the description in the Lonely Planet which reads: A town with an elegant lay-out and design…Chock-full of faded tropical mansions and a few green lungs…showcasing elegant colonial architecture and the magnificent train station known locally as the Taj Mahal.

Sounds great, right? Well…we were underwhelmed on arrival and increasingly disappointed the more we asked locals what there was to see and their reply was usually, ‘We have a nice mall,’ (which wasn’t very nice at all). After 700 days we’re pretty good at nosing out interesting aspects of almost every place we visit. We can say this: Ipoh seems an easy, nice place to live for families but, as plenty of Malaysians confirmed for us after our visit there, for tourists, Ipoh is no more than quick rest stop on the way to Penang.

crumbling houses in ipohTravel recommendations

Budget airlines in South East Asia

As we wrote in the 700 days Reflections post, traveling overland still feels like the most authentic way we travel, but budget airlines – AirAsia, Firefly and others – make air travel here in S.E.A. such an attractive option by shaving hours off your travel time for prices that still lie comfortably within your budget.

Buses still connect the dots between cities most effectively, trains cover longer distances comfortably but best of all, short and long distance flights are available at incredibly cheap fares. In the last one hundred days, we have taken four flights, three of which were domestic (departure and arrival in the same country). One flight connected us from the Malaysian island of Penang to the neighboring island of Langkawi. Booked less than 24 hours beforehand, the flight cost just a few dollars more than the ferry, but was only 25 minutes rather than four hours of bouncing up and down in the ocean. For $50 we flew internationally between Malaysia and Thailand, and we have booked our flights to India across an ocean for under $100 each as well.

air asia plane

Stay near the Skytrain in Bangkok, Thailand

On our first stay in Bangkok we made the mistake of staying far away from the Skytrain, which meant we relied on tuktuks and taxis – which are often involved in scams. The Skytrain is clean and new, efficient, cheap at $0.50 a ride, and not only helps you avoid scams, but also the crippling Bangkok traffic jams. When you fly to Bangkok, the Skytrain is the fastest and most air-conditioned way into the city as well!

bangkok skytrainTop food moments

Banana leaf meal in Little India, Kuala Lumpur
We both have been huge fans of Indian food for many years, and we are not sure how we didn’t know about Banana Leaf Rice until this past January when our friend James took us out for one in Brickfields (Little India) in Kuala Lumpur. They are a Southern Indian specialty and are an assortment of vegetables, rice, curry and poppadum served on a big banana leaf. The Indians eat these traditionally with their hands, but while our friend Corey along with James didn’t blink twice and tucked in, we both still used a fork…

banana leaf rice in kuala lumpur malaysia

Vegetarian Chinese buffets in Malaysia
Neither of us loves Chinese food, but on a friend’s recommendation we tried out a veggie buffet at a Chinese temple in Kuala Lumpur and we were hooked! Knowing that everything was meat free, we piled our plates high with veggies, mushrooms, salads, rice and a selection of seitan, tempeh and tofu. The owner of Campbell House recommended a similar vegetarian Chinese buffet around the corner, and for around $1.50 each we stuffed ourselves silly with healthy, delicious food. Our only regret is that we didn’t try this earlier!

vegetarian chinese buffets malaysiaWorst travel moments

Okay, we wouldn’t recommend a trip to Ipoh, but our stay there was still far from being considered a bad travel moment. To be honest, we haven’t had any bad travel days in the last 100 days.

Top travel mishaps

No travel mishaps either! We have thought long and hard, but we couldn’t come up with anything that we could state under ‘mishap’. Of course we picked the wrong hotel here and there, ate a few unexciting meals, but overall, the last 100 days went surprisingly smoothly.

Maybe we’re getting the hang of this after all!

If you made it all the way down here, you might be interested in our previous Tops and Flops as well:

Our Tops and Flops of 600 days of travel: United States, Thailand, Laos
Our Tops and Flops of 500 days of travel: Portugal, Canada, USA
Our Tops and Flops of 400 days of travel: Panama, Germany, Italy, Spain
Our Tops and Flops of 300 days of travel: Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica
Our Tops and Flops of 200 days of travel: Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and El Salvador
Our Tops and Flops of 100 days of travel: Las Vegas, California, Arizona, Mexico

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