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600 days of travel: Reflections on the last 100 days

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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 bangkokA 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 maiGetting 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 2011Becoming 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 2011Life 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…

Looking back:

Reflections of 100 days of travel
Reflections of 200 days of travel

Reflections of 300 days of travel

Reflections of 400 days of travel

Reflections of 500 days of travel

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Hotel Tip of The Week: Hotel Chaw-Ka-Cher Tropicana Lanta Resort

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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 500 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.

Dani had surprised me with a week-long holiday on the island of Ko Lanta as a birthday gift back in September. When we finally arrived on the island over a month later, our need for a relaxing week was desperate – Bangkok had been a bust and bus rides were bouncy and long. From the moment we stepped out of the shuttle bus at Chaw-Ka-Cher Tropicana Lanta Resort, however, we knew we were in good hands.

chaw-ka-cher lanta resort koh lantaTwo of the nicest (and tiniest) men scooted out to grab our dusty backpacks, and we were escorted to the relaxing reception area where we were served a glass of cool sweet tea and given warm hand towels while we checked in.

Any negative feelings quickly evaporated as we walked through the villa through tropical plants and past a pair of lazy kittens soaking up sun on the front steps of empty bungalows. It was the end of low season, and of the 24 cabins that make up the resort, only a few were occupied at any given time.

chaw-ka-cher bungalowsWe shut the sliding glass doors to our poolside bungalow and felt true peace and quiet envelope us for the first time in over a week. The design was stylish, the contrast of white flowing curtains and deep brown wood was comforting.  The spacious room had plenty of windows and glass doors which let in loads of natural light.  As requested, we were given a bungalow with a king-size bed (unlike our usual adventures with two single beds) and fluffy pillows. The nightly turn-down service included beautiful tropical flowers and was a really special touch. The room’s showcase, however, was outside – the outdoor bathroom.

chaw-ka-cher bathroomLiterally everything was outside – the marble pedestal sink, the shower, even the toilet. It took some getting used to to sneak outside for a wee at night (we took a flashlight), but there was nothing more invigorating than the time spent under the chrome rain shower-head, under the sun or a starry night sky, surrounded by jungle. The high back wall kept this a private affair, but we did have guests staring at us a couple of mornings…an entire troupe of monkeys! Tiny babies flipping freely through trees or clutching onto mama’s belly were super sweet to watch, while protective papas glared at us, watching our every move, was more intimidating. We just stared right back, fascinated at sharing this luxurious space with monkeys in their native habitat. Two of the monkeys even forgot our presence and things got hot and steamy after the others moved further along in the forest! (Keep watching through to the end the slideshow below for some of the naughtier monkey pics (!) before continuing the article below.)

[flickrslideshow acct_name=”Globetrottergirls” id=”72157628369271981″]

Chaw-Ka-Cher is a small off-beach resort with only the 24 villas, a relaxing pool/jacuzzi area (see more in ‘Stand-Out Feature section) and the breezy restaurant/reception nearer to the road. Open to the public for lunch and dinner, breakfast (included in the room rate) is reserved for guests. Each morning, a table is laid out with locally-baked bread (white/wheat) for you to toast to your liking, plus cut-up fresh fruit, interesting Thai sweets, tea and coffee. At our table, we were served carafes of pineapple and orange juice while choosing a main dish off the breakfast menu: pancakes, french toast, eggs and ham or a traditional Thai rice soup.

chaw-ka-cher breakfastIn the main building, the hotel website boasts a library, an internet cafe and meeting rooms, but in reality there are a few bookshelves and three computers, and while there were rumors of in-room wi-fi, several guests with laptops joined us in the restaurant, the only spot with a wi-fi connection. The always-smiling staff went above and beyond to make sure we had what we needed each day (although English was limited) and by the end of our week on the island, they bade us a friendly farewell.

chaw-ka-cher lanta resortKo Lanta is large and spread out, with the main population clustered around three main beach areas. One (Klong Khon Beach) is within easy walking distance. The rest of the island is best reached by motorbike and if you know how to drive one, the hotel rents several for $6 a day. For the rest of us, there are plenty of tuk-tuks to hop in and get round the island no problem. The resort also offers a very handy, free shuttle service at 11am daily, which brings you right in to Saladan (the town on the northern tip of the island), where there is a grocery store, banks, restaurants and all the tourist trinkets you could ever want. You’ll have to hop in a tuk-tuk to get back. The hotel also offers a full listing of massage services, which can be taken poolside or on your own front porch.

chaw-ka-cher tropicana lanta resortStand Out Feature: The swimming pool

Whether we were floating on our backs looking up at the jungle canopy or lounging on deck chairs listening to the chirping birds, the pool was the most relaxing area of the hotel. The jacuzzi wasn’t running during our stay, but we can only imagine that during high season when the resort is in full swing, this would be another great place to relax.

chaw-ka-cher resort koh lanta poolRoom for improvement: Vegetarian menu options

Thai cuisine is traditionally rich with vegetarian options, so the lack of veggie food – both Western and Thai – available on the menu was disappointing. Restaurants and bars are all a good away, which means that, especially at night, we would have eaten on-site on several occasions had there been vegetarian options on the menu.

chaw ka cher thai curryOverall

Ko Lanta has managed the influx of tourism much better than neighboring (tourist-traps) islands of Phuket and Koh Phi Phi, retaining an almost undiscovered feel in comparison. Located off the beach and in between town makes Chaw-Ka-Cher feel ever more secluded, and the peaceful setting and rustic charm of the hotel makes this an affordable, yet indulgent escape.


Location: 352 Moo 2, Long Beach, Saladan, Ko Lanta, Thailand
Price: Starting at 1,545BHT/$50 per bungalow in low season
LGBT Friendly: Not outwardly
Amenities: Swimming pool, free wi-fi in the restaurant area, book exchange, complimentary breakfast, daily drinking water, free pick-up from pier
Website: http://chawkacherresort.com

Like this hotel? Book it here.

For more from our Hotel Tip of the Week series, check out the following Hotel Reviews:

1. Hotel Helix, Washington DC  Mid-range
2. Belmonte Vacanze, Tuscany, Italy 
Farm Holiday deluxe
3. La Candelaria, Valladolid, Mexico
Budget – one of our Top Picks!

 

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

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polaroid of the week thailand chiang mai phra phikanet ganesha figure

Ganesha, 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: Street Food Stall in Patong, Phuket

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polaroid of the week thailand phuket night market

What did we ‘miss’ most while traveling through Canada and the U.S. this summer? Street food, without hesitation. Central America and especially Mexico have such great food stalls and markets. The only thing similar in most places are the fancy food trucks now populating our North American cities. But while this is food, served on the street, its not the same as grabbing some local grub and pulling up a plastic stool to munch it down with the locals.

For Street Food Junkies like us, Thailand is practically a food Mecca. While the sun is shining, food vendors can be found in markets and just on the side of the road at all times of day. As soon as the sun sets, the streets are practically converted into open air kitchens, packed with food stalls serving up the freshest of ingredients. Whether you’re looking for one of the meat-on-a-stick variations, pad thai, curry or desserts we feel like we just can’t go wrong here! While in Phuket, we hunted down our street food at the night market and came home with two fresh salads (which we built ourselves) spring rolls, sushi, pad thai, a banana smoothie and two coffees – for a total of $6!

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Polaroid of the week: Long-tail boats on Phi Phi Island, Thailand

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polaroid of the week thailand kho phi phi long tail boats

This image of dozens of long-tailed boats lined up in Phi Phi’s Ton Sai Bay could inspire the feeling of an idyllic paradise – a secret cove, home to only a few families of fishermen, fifty years ago. This is a far cry from the overcrowded tourist destination that all of Phi Phi has become, however.

Get up early. When most tourists are still hard at work in their sleep burning off their blood alcohol content from partying all night in the former fisherman huts long-since converted into bars, you can spot those calming moments when the fishermen head out in their long tail boats to catch the island’s fish.

Long tail boats are powered by second-hand car engines with a long propeller connected that extends out several feet into the water, like a tail. The engines can be quite an eye-sore, but most attention is drawn to the front of the boat, decorated with colorful ribbons, garlands of flowers and scarves to protect the boat on their journeys and to bring good luck.

Even though these traditional fishing villages become more and more extinct, the long-tail boats remain a common means of transportation in South East Asia, whether on the canals of Bangkok, on the islands in the Andaman Sea or on the Mekong river in Laos.

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Polaroid of the week: Buddhas galore in Bangkok, Thailand

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polaroid of the week thailand bangkok buddhas

Between 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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