Thailand 2008 v. 2018

I have been to Thailand twice, once in 2008 just as I was about to graduate from college, and almost exactly to the date 10 years later in 2018. You would think the country – or I  for that matter – would have changed at least somewhat drastically between those two periods, yet not much has. I feel the same as my 21 year old self seeing Southeast Asia for the first time. Yet in between, life has happened; 35+ countries and a husband later – I returned to the same spots with my life partner, and new friends re-experiencing this wondrous country.

It’s hard to write a post on Thailand that adds anything new to the body of travel writing dedicated to this beautiful country. Case in point: see here for Bangkok, here for Chang Mai and here for island hopping from Phuket – these three things are pretty much what anyone would recommend you do on your first trip to Thailand. This post will not cover these subjects; instead it is about traveling at large, with Thailand somehow sitting squarely at the intersection of then and now.

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I always tell people that I never knew (and still don’t really know) what I want to be when I grow up, but if there was one thing I do know — I want to travel. So I fed my wanderlust as early as possible. At 17 when other High School seniors were plotting their booze cruises to Cancun, I was working two jobs to go to Italy with my world history class. In college, rather than using my scholarship, grants and savings bonds for food and rent, I took three study abroad programs to Spain, Argentina, and Lao PDR. I threw myself into as much culture shock as humanly possible – and still try to, though the bar continues to get set higher and higher.

While each of these incredible experiences were a life education in their own right, Lao PDR open my eyes wide open. People often ask me what my favorite country is and I always answer with all of them. Every country has something different to offer you and much of your personal experience is shaped by the people you are traveling with (or not traveling with) – it is impossible to have a favorite. BUT I do have a favorite region of the world and that is Southeast Asia. It has everything you want when traveling – it is so incredibly different, safe, cheap, and rich in culture.

Lao PDR (or Laos) was a month of experiences you only get as a student trekking up the mountain side, meeting with local governments and knowing that your life was forever changed. Naturally when on this side of the world – it only makes sense to tack on the likes of Siem Reap (Cambodia) and Bangkok, Thailand.

What was Christina’s focus in Bangkok after just spending a month culturally immersing herself? Go out in Bangkok of course.

We stayed in a hostel (classic), went to moon bar and toured the local palaces.

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Charlies bar was a pop-up bar in the middle of an alley-way my #1 goal upon returning to Bangkok in 2018 was to find this backpacker hideout, but was unlucky. Moon bar, however, is still one of the top rooftop bars in the world. 

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What changed on the 2018 revisit? Not much! I traded 2 girls I randomly met on a study abroad trip for a burly Scotsman. We met up with another British couple, stayed on Khoa San road, ate scorpions and other amazing food.

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What has been fun is returning to the same countries or spots that I have been before only to discover that my first trip didn’t even begin to cover it. I make it a point to never go somewhere twice unless absolutely forced, but I might be reconsidering this stance in future years.

On the second round we did tack on an elephant sanctuary (another must) though the experience was more touristy than both my husband and I would have liked. Chiang Mai is a hipsters paradise, so we of course loved it. There are plenty of articles on which Elephant Sanctuary to support – though make sure to book early.

Thailand represents a crossroad between current travel with my life long love and the traveling I did in my early 20s either solo or with girlfriends. As a younger traveler I thought my wanderlust would be satiated with a few years of living abroad. Now into 10+ years of traveling and living abroad, I now know that wanderlust never goes away. It can never be satiated; it is a lifestyle, it is part of who you are.

Surprised that nothing much has changed in 10 years? Me too. Lets give it another 10.

Myanmar (Burma)

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Emerging out of the ashes of a long held military dictatorship, Myanmar (known also by its colonial name, Burma) is only just opening to the tourism world. As with any emergent travel destination, it is not completely without strife. When we traveled there over the 2017-2018 New Year, the country was still reeling from the Rohingya refugee crisis. Despite this, the country is trying its hardest to attract tourism and dig itself out of its sorted dictatorship past. If you are all about Southeast Asia (as I am) and want to get to somewhere that is largely ‘undiscovered’ – though I am sure this will change – then Myanmar is the place for you.

We spent just over a week hopping between Yangon, Inle Lake, Bagan and Mandalay. As I say with nearly every trip – it was not nearly enough. Myanmar is the type of country you want to take your time in. Other areas worth checking out are Mount Popa, Kalaw, Mount Kyaiktiyo, Ngapali and off the beaten track – Pindaya.

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Picture: Open air markets in Yangon. Note the face ‘make-up’ (sunscreen) on the local women’s face. This mixture of ground Thanaka tree (also the name of the cream) is meant to cleanse and protect. The word ‘Thanaka’ not only represents the tree but also doubles as a word for beauty.

We took an international flight directly into the capital, Yangon. The city still has remnants of its British past scattered in between what you would expect out of a developing country.  Roads were a mix of dirt and pavement with impressive colonial era mansions sitting next to tin roofed side shops.

Where we stayed: Merchant Art Boutique Hotel

Top pagodas to see: Chaukhtetkyi Pagoda, Sule Pagoda, Shwedagon Pagoda & Kandawgyi Park

Eat at: Rangoon tea house; grab a drink at the Strand hotel

To get an intro into the city we took a walking tour with our favorite grassroots organization Urban Adventures.  After getting our fill of the night market food options (and all their yumminess) we headed to a different scene at the historic Strand Hotel. Rivaling the Ruffles hotel in Singapore, the Strand was built in 1901 by the same brothers, Sarkies, who made a name for theirselves at the turn of the century.  The British ruled Burma from 1827-1948 and much of that intertwined colonial history is still felt in the cities of Yangon (Rangoon) and Mandalay.

From the city, we hopped to the enchanting and world famous, Inle Lake.

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Picture: Traditional fishing done on Inle Lake. Fisherman are all to happy to demonstrate their prowess fishing with only their legs. A technique that is as much for tourists as it is for practical use today.

Inle Lake is a miraculous community who has built their entire livelihood off of the largest fresh water lake in the country.  They farm, fish, weave and metal work all on stilts of the lake as they have done for thousands of years.

Where to stay: Shwe Inn Tha Floating resort Inle Lake

We booked a ‘short break’ through intrepid to get a closer look at the Inle. Taking our own private boat around the floating city, we were introduced to the way of life of the people. We met a local fisherman in his home, seeing the seemingly floating stilt houses and truly industrious methods of cleaning, cooking and living.

 Picture: One of the many examples of how industries have stayed alive and thrived all the while floating in the middle of the lake.

By far this water town way our favorite stop. The food, people and experiences were only to be matched by the next beautiful city, Bagan.

Many travelers exploring Southeast Asia would have undoubtedly stumbled upon Angkor Wat as a UNESCO world heritage site. A maze of wonderious ruined temples located in northern Cambodia, this beautiful site is only rivaled by its little known regional competitor in Bagan, Myanmar. With over 10,000 pagodas and stupas in an area of 8miles by 5, Bagan has the largest concentration of Buddhist temples in the world. This is where we decided to spend NYE 2018.

Where we stayed: Ostello Bello Bagan

We opted to stay in a hostel while there and celebrated New Years on their rooftop patio with fellow expats. We also just so happened to stumble on this historic and holy site on the week of the Ananda Pagoda Festival. One of the most important and best preserved temples in the maze of Bagan is the Ananda Pagoda. It was crowded more than usual with camping families, goats and celebratory locals. On the final day of the ceremony (coinciding close with NYE and the full moon), trucks of overspilling villagers could be seen honking horns, drinking and blaring loud music.

With so many different temples, you need a lifetime to try see them all. We opted to self tour, though there are guided options, through daily moped rentals and a self-made map. To help riddle it down, we followed top 10 pagoda recommendations. While climbing on top of the pagodas had recently been banned – there were a few that we were able to sneak onto. The view (and experience) never disappointed.

If you go to Bagan, a must and possibly the best way to see the temples, is through a hot air ballon. We had booked this as a present on New Years Day, but unfortunately were unable to partake due to poor weather (rain). It is costly (about $800 per person) but 100% worth it for the famous views.

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Photo Credit: Ballon’s over Bagan 

NOTE: If you are planning on traveling to Myanmar do get prepared for Pagodas – there are literally ancient pagodas to see everywhere. Its hard to pick your favorite but after a while they do end up blurring together. I personally cannot get enough of the temple scene, but my husband hit his limit at about tour #10 of ‘famous’ temples. 

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Picture: Monk shaving his head as a part of his daily ritual. Choosing life as a monk provides opportunities many villagers never get and is also not necessarily a permanent station in life. Monasteries usually have consistent meals (donated by the community) and above all – provide opportunities to grow spiritually as well as mentally through educational programs often not accessible to the less fortunate.

Our final stop on this whirlwind tour was Mandalay. More modern than Yangon, Mandalay was the last capital city before the country fell to colonial rule. As such it has a well preserved palace where you can explore the grounds. You can also get a glimpse into how the government operates in present time; the current military headquarters that houses all of the officers families is located in the center of town.

Where we stayed: The Link 83

We chose to hire a private vehicle to drive from Bagan to Mandalay with stops at Mount Popa and U Bien Bridge for sunset. We only stayed for one night in this city on our way onward to Thailand, but you can get a great overview of top 10 things to do here.

Getting around

We took a combination of private cars and flights. Flights are super cheap (under $100pp) and since we were on such a time crunch it saved us some much needed days. Private cars are also cheap and easy – though the roads are as expected. On our journey from Bagan to Mandalay took us through a number of construction spots – including getting stuck in the mud (which we inevitably got out of)

Highlights here was absolutely the time spent in Inle Lake and Bagan. Skip the cities if you can – a day or two was fine for us. We mostly flew local planes to hop from city to city; flights are just under $100 per person and were by the far the quickest way to get around on our short schedule.

Myanmar is exactly why Southeast Asia is by far my favorite place in the world for travel. It offers a totally different culture that is (mostly) peaceful, beautiful, inexpensive to explore and full of wonderful food, sights and people. Happy exploring!

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Into the Jungle

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In Jan 2012 I had the opportunity to travel to one of the oldest tropical rainforests in the world, Taman Negara. Spanning across three states in Malaysia, it is one of the few areas in the world that still has areas untouched by modern civilization.

With few roadways leading to the jungle, we took a long motorized banana boat to reach the floating village of Kuala Tahan. I soon realized I was no longer in Kuala Lumpur – I had intelligently brought my huge rolly suitcase into the depths of the Malaysian jungle, which was probably the poorest traveling choice I had ever made. Struggling up the hillside in 85 degree (F) weather, I was lucky enough to have a wonderful manfriend that kindly sweated over the pounds of clothing I had decided to bring with me (did I mention this was a poor choice?).

The four day trip held many interesting critters and rare animals, but by far the most interesting part of the trip was the day spent with the indigenous populations of the jungle.

I have long been fascinated with the indigenous populations of the world that try to preserve their culture in the face of growing technology of the outside world. These people are no different from those I have experienced in Lao PDR, Rwanda and Argentina.

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The government of Malaysia is faced with an interesting question when it comes to these people, called ‘Batek Negritos’, as they try to bring them into the modern world. They send convoy’s monthly offering medical care, free education for children and other modern niceties such as rice and sugar. Yet the Batek people reject much of these modern attempts to bring ‘civilization’ to their hunter and gatherer lifestyle.

When I asked our tour guide, Agung,  why this was he said “they say modern world is boring. They do not know it or understand it. They grow up in the jungle from a young age being taught how to survive, what to eat and track.” The concrete jungle simply is boring when given the opportunity to climb, swing and hunt amongst tigers, rhinoceros’ and elephants.

This brings me to an interesting question – is modernization really the answer? Do we really have a superior lifestyle to these people with our cubicles, box lunches and treadmills? What is our obligation to these types of groups throughout the world? Is it to understand, watch and modernize? Turn them into tourist destinations?

Or maybe we have a thing or two to learn and/or remember how we were meant to live. Free and wild under the scorching sun, in the humid air protected only by the trees above you and the leaves beneath your feet.

Summiting Mt. Fuji

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With my blank wooden stick in hand; I began the morning of 10 Jul to hike one of the most famous mountains in the world. Little did I know at the start of the trip, that it would turn out to be MUCH more of a challenging hike than I anticipated!

Catching a branded stamp on my hiking stick at each of the way stations up the mountain, I soon met a group of Scottish siblings, Mike, Mark & Mary, who became my companions through the journey to the summit. They were doing a group traveling trip to Japan before their sister, Mary, moved to London to finish her post-doc in geology (she obviously picked climbing Mt. Fuji for the boys!). Along the way we encountered a group of monks singing as they slowly climbed the mountain, people sucking down oxygen and a wishing shrine that you stuck coins into for good luck (at this point we are praying for the top!).

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We reached the summit in record time! 4 hrs up, 2 down – and I definitely felt the lack of rest along the way. It took all I had to keep going towards the top – I probably could have stopped to grab some oxygen along the way as well!

After the 6 hour hike, I caught a bus to the neighboring town of Kawaguchi. It is a small lake town that is the closest place to stay for travelers looking to summit Fuji. I highly recommend staying a least one night, post-hike. There are plenty of Onsen’s (Japanese hot springs) and an occasional cloudless view of the timeless mountain known as Mt. Fuji.

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NOTE If you are trying to do it: Personal blogs were especially helpful when figuring out what to do. If you are looking for the same, you should know:

*You DO NOT need to do a tour. The path is well marked and it is easy to find fellow trekker’s along the way. However, if you are planning on doing the rest itinerary (start in the evening, hike for a few hrs, rest and then get up at 2am to hike the rest of the way) it might be easier to go through a companies simply because they book the accommodations for you (however much cheaper to just go it alone)

*Prices get more expensive the higher you go! (which is slightly reasonable since it’s difficult to get the stuff up there) So bring your own or stock up on water/food for your pack

*It’s cold up top! Dress/bring appropriately

*Pace! I speed walked it up which caused me to nearly hyperventilate by the time I reached the top.

*Plan! The hiking season is only Jul-Aug. So plan your trip ahead of time. The trail is less crowded during the day as travelers tend to do the sunrise hike – so if you do go at night, plan on long lines once you have reached the top!

Tokyo in 3 days

First impressions: Japan is vastly different from Korea. Everything down to the Food, history, and culture – Japan is an extremely rich and diverse place to explore. Plus the people are painstakingly polite & nice!

You could live in Tokyo and still not see it all. I attempted to hit the highlights in just a few days – if you have just a short stop in the vibrant city the below are a MUST.

Kabuki

Every seen those pictures of Japanese people with painted faces and crazy expressions? (kind of like what you see below)? Well that is Kabuki – best described as a moving piece of art. Began in the late 1800’s, the performance is rich in history and tradition (as is all of Japan). Kabuki has several sub-sections and types; key to the act of the play is the slow movements and exaggerated emotions, often expressed through its dramatic make-up techniques.

Kabuki is ONLY performed by a certain set of families. As you progress through the ranks you adopt different names according to your age and ability. These actors are just that – actors; no females play in the performance (in fact some male actors specialize in female roles).  The show that you pay for (which was about 3000 yen) is typically 3-4 hours long of short – to long skits involving historical pieces, fables and fight scenes.

Asakusa

I would argue that Asakusa is the best place to visit in Tokyo. It is the ‘old’ part of the city; historical and still preserved, Asakusa gives you a wonder of food, shopping and temples to explore in old fashioned style.

After going there make sure to hit up Shibuya crossing which is the perfect place to showcase exactly how many people live in this large city

Sushi — Do I really have to say it?

If you are one of those terrible people that gets squimish at the thought of raw fish — get over it, close your eyes and dive into the wonderful yummy world of sushi. (and if you are really tried, there’s always noodles, which you can conveniently order out of a vending machine…brilliant!)

Of course there are a lot more areas to hit (try Skytree for the tallest bldg. in the world, Roppongi for the nightlife and the assortment of temples, palaces and gardens). All in all Tokyo is a wonder to explore!

The transition from Asia

I found out in Feb of 2012 that I would be moving to another country: England. Saying I was happy is sorely understating the truth – moving to the UK was/is a dream that I have had since I knew there was work for me there. To have it finally happen was something of a realization of one of my long life goals. I was so happy in fact that I was waiting for my orders to get canceled because something that good couldn’t possibly be happening!

But in July 2012 I found myself on a plane from Seoul to Tokyo – I figured why not stop off in Japan before leaving Asia for good? It’s kind of on the way…not to mention a completely free plane ride courtesy of your hard working tax payer dollars.

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Top 10 Things to do in Korea

OK ladies and gents – I don’t know about you, but whenever I go somewhere new, I constantly look for Top 10’s. Top places, to see, go out and have a unique experience. After living in South Korea for a year, I can safely recommend the following fun-filled experiences:

10. Eat Sushi – I don’t mean the roll kind I mean the kind that’s still squiggling. If there is anything Korea is known for it is its assortment of crazy food. Have you seen those restaurants with lots of things swimming around in them? Well go to them and order one of the octopuses. Koreans love to know their assortment of seafood is fresh – and it will be. Your lovely sushi will literally still be moving around on your plate. Yum…(said no American ever, but you really have to do it)

9. See the changing of the guard at the Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul. Entrance is free and the show is nearly every morning. Absolutely worth seeing.

More information:

http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/SI/SI_EN_3_2_1.jsp?cid=292853

Preview courtesy of youTube:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hdDzWa3aNNE

**A NOTE ON PALACES & TEMPLES in KOREA: Once you have seen one, you have seen them all. Take my word for this and save your time from going to every temple and palace in Korea. They all were destroyed like 5 times between the Japanese, their Dynasty wars and the Korean War. So while the temple may be ‘from 550’ it really is the place of the former old temple and only about 20 years old.

8. Take a tour in Gyeongju. Gyeongju was the ancient capital of the Silla dynasty, one of the 3 major ruling dynasties in Korean history. The Silla dynasty ruled 2/3of the Pen from the 7th-9th century and left some of the few relics left in the country today.

http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/SI/SI_EN_3_6.jsp?cid=255885

7. Party until the sun comes up – because in Korea the bars don’t close until you do. Well of course this is a given, but where to start? As a foreigner I’d recommend the following itineraries:

Seoul – Start off in Itaewon. Tell the cabbie to drop you off at the Hamilton Hotel and just look around. There are a slew of bars filled with expats and particularly military from the post down the road. Anywhere is really great however, my favorite was always just walking behind the Hamilton for the collection of little bars and pubs.

From Itaewon (which would begin around 9 or 10) you can head to either Hongdae or Gangnam. Both offer you two different crowds. Hongdae is located right next to Hongik University in Map-go. This area will give you mostly college students and probably more westerns. Gangnam is the posh area of Seoul. If you are looking to mix up your evening, I would recommend progressing to one of the many electronic clubs there. Out of your choice in Martini bars and house venues, Club Eden was one of my favorites to dance the night away.

http://www.seoulgrid.com/blog/club-eden-seoul/

 

FYI: To any of my hip-hop lovers, your best bet for this type of music will be in Hongdae. Most of the club scene is fairly European and contains mostly lasers and loud beating music. Regardless, I’d encourage you to give it a try. There is something mesmerizing about swaying with the beat filled with  tanqueray.

BUSAN: This is the best place to go in the summer. Skip Seoul, go to Busan if it is warm outside — and be prepared to be stared at if you put on a skimpy suit. Koreans don’t believe in sun exposure of any kind.

Where to stay — don’t book any kind of a room. Get a cab to drop you off at the Busan Aquarium. Cross the street and walk behind the BMW dealership. Look left down the alleyway. There you will find a smattering of Love motels. Basically Korean hotels that don’t require anything but to pay in cash. Do it – you won’t regret the experience.

Start your night with Wolfhounds or the Rock n’ Roll bar, both within walking distance of eachother and in the same square as the love motels. Both cater to expat clientele but you may make some local friends there as well. After you have had your fill of beer, head to club Maktum. There is a cover, but it will get a drink and an evening full of fist-pumping dancing.

http://www.facebook.com/clubmaktum

Don’t think this is the end of your night. An evening out in Busan is not complete without a late night swim and watching the sunrise on a new day (or the end of a really awesome one).

6. See a traditional Korean dance show. There are a ton of free shows held throughout random festivals in Korea, however, if you want to see quality, go to the Korea house. They offer dinner and a show in a small intimate room all within the bustling city of Seoul.

Korean tourism website:

http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/SI/SI_EN_3_1_1_1.jsp?cid=268146

Korea house website:

http://www.kangkoku.or.kr/eng/index.html

5. Seasonal – if you are lucky enough to hit four seasons in Korea (or are just in the country for one), these two are a must. Summer – go to the Boryeong Mud Festival. Winter – Go Skiing.

2nd-3rd week of July: Boryeong Mud Festival marked my first weekend in Korea. Little did I know this event was most of my friend’s top event to go to in Korea. Just think water park, except the water is replaced with Mud and nearly every westerner is drunk.

http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/SI/SI_EN_3_2_1.jsp?cid=697135

Dec-Mar – Skiing in Korea is fairly good. The best slopes are in the north, about a 5 hour drive from any major city. Yongpyong  resort will host Alpine skiing in the 2018 Olympics. Most of the resorts get booked completely fairly early so don’t wait if you want to stay on the resort. However, a cheaper option is to just stay at a local spa for 10,000 won ($10) or Love motel just outside the resort, which is what we did when skiing in Yongpyong. The below website has a listing of the resorts and their locations:

http://www.lifeinkorea.com/travel2/skiing/

4. Hike. Really you could go almost anywhere – Korea has an array of well-preserved hiking trails Korea’s extensive tourism website has loads of trails. The most famous is Seoraksan national park up in the northern part of the country. Worth a trip during the fall when the leaves are changing all kinds of lovely colors.

http://www.hikekorea.com/

3. Do a TEMPLE STAY. Absolutely worth it. Honestly, there is no better way to experience one of the most influential things in Korean culture. My previous post on temple stays should be a good intro, but simply look up temple stays on the Korean tourisms website  and you’ll find a listing of options all over the country.

2. Norabong it – aka make it a Karaoke night. First, make sure to bring a big group of friends (if you have Korean friends, even better) and be ready to belt your heart out. Whats better, is if your singing skills are as good as mine (terrible) you will be in your own separate room, so your friends will be the only ones to laugh at (or with) you.

1. Go to a Jimjilbang (aka Korean Spa). Everyone is naked. The pools are ridiculously hot and you can sleep in the facility for only 10,000 won (about $10). There are a ton scattered around the country, but my favorite by far was located in Busan in one of the largest department stores in the world, Shinsegae’s Spaland:

http://www.tripadvisor.com.sg/ShowUserReviews-g297884-d1625598-r122860635-Shinsegae_Centum_City_Spaland-Busan.html