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.
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!
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!
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).
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.
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….
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…