BANGKOK – WITH EVERY BITE YOU WANT MORE

I was not sure about Bangkok. I didn’t really think I liked it when we got there first. But the longer we stayed and the more we explored, my affinity for it grew. We saw Bangkok in few small increments. We stayed at three different neighborhoods, in two chunks of time. We first got there when we were going to pick up Biniyam from the Bangkok airport and fly to Krabi. Of course, due to some issues with border crossings, our plans changed a bit. We came back to Bangkok 3 days later, picked up Biniyam from the airport and found our hostel in town. We stayed there for about 48 hours – then we left for Angkor Wat. We came back for a night and took a mini-van to Hua Hin. Finally, we came back from Hua Hin and stayed for another 48 hours right before leaving Thailand and heading to Hong Kong via Singapore.

Our first stay was a bit away from the main tourist spots. We stayed close to the Victory Monument in a quiet hostel that I really liked. Victory Park Hostel was ran by a super-friendly Thai guy who worked on Disney cruises for many years. Now he has settled down back in Bangkok and is running the hostel along with his sister. He helped us with planning and gave us great suggestions for Bangkok.

We have decided to start with some major sightseeing – the Grand Palace and a couple temples. We ended up not getting on the palace grounds because the boys had shorts on and there was a dress-code that disallowed shorts. It is a ridiculous rule in a city that is notoriously hot and humid and where it is fine to go to most temples in shorts. But that’s the rule. Honestly, we were not too disappointed. Crowds in front of the gates and the number of tourists everywhere were staggering. We stood in a mob similar to a rock concert just to cross the street to get to the main gate. It was hot and humid – almost unbearable. We gave up the palace without too much of a worry. Instead we visited Wat Pho. It is a complex of religious buildings – home to the reclining Buddha. It was great and beautiful but a very sunny and hot day…

Later we visited Khao San Road – a famous walking street full of stores, stalls, and street vendors. In almost every store, one can get a t-shirt or a tattoo. Your choice! We did come to Khao San Road with a tattoo in mind. We found a great tattoo studio on-line and the address took us to the Khao San Road. Max Tattoo is a small shop full of super talented tattoo artists. We made an appointment for a week later when we are done with beach and swimming to get tattoos for all three of us. We were giddy with excitement.

Bangkok is known for a horrendous traffic. We had a few opportunities to experience it, but that afternoon we opted for a water bus from the old town to our next destination – a new night market just south of China Town. The water bus ride was thrilling. We passed lots of Bangkok on a river with the crew super efficiently docking the boat in about 16 docks on the way. They flew both through the river and through the stops. We loved it! Our stop was in Asiatique.

Asiatique is an area with a nice night market, a mall, a ferris wheel and a lot of river front restaurants. It was different from most of the night markets we saw in SE Asia. It was very well organized, clean, new and just a bit preppy. It seems to me that this is a Thai and expat spot to play. Not too many tourists were there. We walked around, stopped for a really good pizza and hang out until later evening. After our fun outing we tried to catch a bus to our hostel but the bus listed on the bus stop simply didn’t stop there and was nowhere to be seen. So, we went back to our reliable mode of transportation and ordered Uber. The traffic at night was the same as rush hour. Took forever to get back!

 

The tattoo experience in Bangkok was a great one, too. Antonio and I had already got tattoos in Tokyo at the start of our trip. Now we wanted another one to commemorate the trip and to include Biniyam in the process, as well. Max Studio was excellent. The process was swift, but clean, safe, and full of fun. We had three tattoo artists working on us for various amounts of time. My tattoo is the smallest and cutest (my opinion). Antonio’s was the biggest and Biniyam had a medium one. Here are some picks.

When we came back to Bangkok for our tattoos, we stayed closer to Khao San Road on another pedestrian backpacker-type tourist street. It was a very fun neighborhood with lots of street food, street bars, and night markets. We stayed at a really inexpensive place called Lamphu House. It was ok, but not my favorite. Food was super cheap all around and we loved the vibe. In the evening, we stumbled on a bar with live music (every bar has some sort of live music). This one had an awesome reggae band from south Malaysia. We spent the entire evening with them enjoying great music, camaraderie, and few drinks… It was a perfect end to our Bangkok experience.

The day of departure, we hang out in the city and finally stopped at Chow bar in Hotel Metropole. The hotel kept our bags and the boys played pool for a couple hours… it was time to say good-byes… We left for Singapore and Biniyam had to go home to Addis. Good byes are always hard, but we all felt that we will see each other again very soon. Now we will work to actually make it happen.

Overall Bangkok was great. It is a very big city and it has its problems. But it is a super friendly place, it has good bus system, it’s inexpensive and it offers lots of various ways to spend time. I would love to visit again!

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HUA HIN – WHERE THE KINGS VACATION

Hua Hin is a small seaside resort about 250 km south of Bangkok. In the 1920ies, the Thai king built a summer residence there… It’s a resort popular with Thai vacationers.

We took a minivan at Mo Chit – Bangkok’s north bus terminal to reach Hua Hin in 4 hours. Traveling by mini van between cities is very common in Thailand.  We stayed at Moon Hostel  – not a bad place next to the clock tower and very close to the night market.

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Hua Hin has a nice beach and I am sure, if we explored the surrounding beaches we could find even better. We stuck around the beach within 10 minute walk of our hostel in front of Hilton Hotel.  The sea was darker and wavier than the south Thailand experience, but had so much fun there…  And the seafood there was amazing!!!  The night market has restaurants with fresh sea creatures and fish ready to be grilled to order.  We also had really good crepes there!!!

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Bini was my model for the pictures on the beach!  It was his first time in the sea, so he loved to stay in the water!  I had a great time watching both of them hang out in the water for hours!  Antonio doesn’t like me taking lots of pictures but Bini was more cooperative!

 

Here are some more pics… I couldn’t resist.  Biniyam was a great model!!!!

 

TONLE SAP LAKE – AN EXPERIENCE WE COULD DO WITHOUT

Tonle Sap lake is a huge lake. It is a muddy, yellow mass of water (especially in the dry season!) stretching somewhat north-south, the south-east corner pointing toward the capital of Phenom Penh and the north-west end stretching toward Siem Reap. Tourists often come to Tonle Sap Lake to look at the floating villages or the villages on stilts. There is a lot going on on and around the lake.

We decided to take our tuk-tuk and go 28 km to the settlement of Kampong Phluk and rent a boat to go on the lake. About 5 km from the lake, there is a booth where a tourist can pay for the boat. We paid $20 each for a 2 hour ride on a small skinny boat for about 10 people. That was very expensive $80 a boat… We should have thought about it twice, but we just did a long tuk-tuk drive, so we went with it. Another 10 minute tuk-tuk drive on an orange road with huge rice fields along..  and we got to a place with lots of little stands.

 

A young kid was going to take us to the boat. We walked not too far to get to a pier with hundreds of boats. He pointed at the boat, we got in, and he (the kid looked 13 years old) along with another child (looked about 5 or 6) proceeded to unhook the boat. So, the two kids will be our captains? Yes! Great!   Now I have to worry about us and two young kids! No life jackets on board. I asked for a set. The boys got closer to another boat and took them. I asked them, if they knew how to swim – they didn’t get the life jackets. They nodded. Later I realized that they know no English.

The boat ride was an unsettling experience, to say the least. I would not do it again. I am sure that the kids were used to the waters and were driving boats since they were young but, in no world, were they mentally mature to know how to react in a dangerous situation. We all felt uncertain when they couldn’t control the boat while we were disbarking at some point (they also couldn’t explain why we had to leave the boat). Most of the ride is along long canals where the villages on stilts are covering the shores. Once we got to the open lake, they stopped the engine and said. “We stop”. I asked “why?” but they couldn’t understand. So, we asked them to start the engine and we returned. The entire trip was: (a) a rip-off in terms of the price, (b) a not very interesting trip, (c) an unsafe situation, and (d) child labor issue. Unless there is a better control over this type of trips, I would not recommend it.

ANGKOR WAT – BUILT ALMOST A THOUSAND YEARS AGO!

Cambodia deserves more than a quick 3-day/3-night break. But this time, it was just that. We flew from Bangkok to Siem Reap to see the world famous Angkor Wat and enjoy some Khmer life in the town. That’s, of course, a huge overstatement. We have no clue about the Khmer life, but we did enjoy some of the foods and beverages there.

We spent two days visiting the ancient city and a day at Tonle Sap lake and relaxing. We spent a lot of time in tuk tuks going from one place to the next.

The airport in Siem Reap was surprisingly efficient and nice. The visa on arrival process was interesting to watch. We got out of that airport pretty quickly and met Rob who just flew in for the weekend to spend the time with us in Cambodia. Our hotel arranged two tuk tuks and we were driven to check-in. We stayed at Pages Rooms Hotel. Out of the dozens of places we stayed on this trip, this hotel was the most attractively looking and most comfortable. We are trying to keep our hotel budget under $50 a night.  We stayed in many hotels between $30 – $40, but some places are more expensive and we went a bit over $50.  This room was a steal at USD$40 a night (including a good breakfast). The hotel had a modern, industrial design – created from an old school by a French architect. I loved the look and the feel of the place. Service was very good, as well. And, to my delight, this was the first place in SE Asia that actually was environmentally friendly and made sure that guests knew it. I would highly recommend this hotel for its great design, functionality, location in town, comfort, good service, and ambiance.

We started our sightseeing the next day. The first stop was the ticket booth where one can buy a 1-day, a 3-day, or a 7-day pass to the greater Angkor Wat complex. The tickets are somewhat pricey but it is not a deterrent. We bought 3-day passes for US$62 each. Cambodians use both their local currency and USD. All prices in restaurants and shops are listed in USD and cash machines give out USD or Cambodia Riel.

Angkor Wat is, no surprise, spectacular. It is an absolute “must see” in SE Asia. It is hard to see the whole thing in one day. It is possible but very tiring. People can decide how to “travel” the place. We had a tuk tuk that took us from one location to the other. Some were in big tourist busses, private cars, and on bicycles.  Our first stop was the Angkor Wat complex.  It is spectacular.  Despite large numbers of visitors at any given time, there are many spots where one can feel alone and one with history…

We saw monkeys that were quite comfortable with people.  We also saw some young monks and one sat and did blessings – see Bini get blessed by a boy monk in Angkor Wat! Does it get any better than this?

We didn’t go to the next usual place – another massive complex of Angkor Thom.  We opted for Ta Prohm – the temple with trees growing out of it.  It was made famous by Tomb Raider. I think they have cut some of the trees to preserve the temple and the remains of the walls.  It was not as spectacular as the older pictures show.  It was still interesting…

 

Finally, we ended up at Phnom Bakheng for the sunset.  It is a temple located on a hill – the highest point to observe Angkor Wat and the area around.  It’s a 9th century Hindu and Buddhist temple.  There are only 300 people allowed on the hill at any one time and to watch the sunset, it’s advisable to be there a couple hours early.  We did arrive in time but the clouds didn’t allow for an amazing sunset.  It was still pretty nice!

We spent the evening in town enjoying the Pub street and all it has to offer.

We decided to start the next morning with a visit to Angkor Thom – the great city of the ancient Khmer empire.  I find this part of the whole Angkor Wat complex the most fascinating.  Here is the famous Prasat Bayon – the temple of 2,000 faces occupies the center of  – of Angkor Thom.  The elephant terrace and Terrace of the Leper King are large and full of impressive detail.  I would love to be able to spend hours there without the tourists.  I am sure every other person had the same thought!

 

We ended the day with a visit to the Landmine Museum.  It’s a very interesting place to go and learn a bit of more recent history of Cambodia.  The English audioguide walks through the events that led to the civil war that killed about 2 million of Cambodians and caused one of the greatest crimes against humanity of the XX century.  The personal story of Aki Ra is a moving example of an extraordinary life.  Two big lessons: everyone is redeemable and one person can make a huge difference in the world.  Here is his story on YouTube.

 

Finally, the last stop was Banteay Srei Temple – about 38km away from Siem Reap.  It was somewhat close to the Landmine Museum.  We probably wouldn’t go there just to the temple and maybe a tuk-tuk was not the best way to get there, but we went and we liked it.

 

This is how our tuk-tuk driver waited on us… looks pretty comfortable!

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Here here are the view from the long ride back… the are around Siem Reap is spectacular!

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AO NANG BEACH!!! BEAUTIFUL SOUTHERN THAILAND…

Don’t know this for a fact, but Thailand surely must have some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. We visited Ao Nang beach and were swept away!

When planning the trip, we tried to decide which beach to visit. We knew there were two coasts – the Andaman Sea coast where Phuket and Phi Phi Islands are and the Gulf of Thailand side (east side) with Koh Samui, etc. There are lots of other places, but those are very popular and known to be beautiful. We decided to fly to Krabi and transfer to Ao Nang beach. Ao Nang beach is on the Andaman coast (not on an island) but it is well connected to both Phuket and Phi Phi Islands. We had a really good plan. We were going to stay on the beach for four days, chill out and do nothing other than visit some islands. All we had to do is to pick Biniyam up from the airport in Bangkok on Saturday and fly with him to Krabi. Who is Biniyam? Biniyam is one of these super-nice, friendly, intelligent, and beautiful people we sometimes get to meet in our lives. He is 22 years old, lives in Addis Ababa and is in his last year of studies at the university there. He is joining us for 10 days in Thailand and Cambodia. Unfortunately, some powers beyond our control delayed his trip by three days and he couldn’t join us at Ao Nang beach. But he was able to fly to Bangkok on Tuesday, so we cut our beach time short and came to join him on Tuesday in Bangkok. He ended up extending his stay for a couple days and we have another beach in mind for the end of his vacation with us.

Ao Nang beach is a resort type town based around a sandy beach. The beach is nice, the town is nice, there are lots of tourists and a lot of them are from Eastern Europe. We started hearing a lot of Russian, Polish, Czech, etc. We stayed at iRest Ao Nang Beachfront  (across the street from the beach) and it was a great location. This is a hotel/hostel type – it has dormitories as well as private rooms with bathrooms. We had our own room and it was fine. We encountered some ants climbing on our beds but nothing hugely problematic. Ao Nang is expensive when it comes to food and drinks. It is so much more expensive than northern Thailand! It is still pretty good deal comparing to travel in Europe or Japan, but things cost double the prices in Chiang Mai. You know you are in a resort!

We had only a couple days to play, so we spend one on the beach/walking around town, and the second visiting Phi Phi Islands.

Four types of businesses occupy the main drag of the town: shops, restaurants, massage places, and tour agencies. There are hundreds of tour agencies selling lots of excursions, flights, attractions, etc. We found a company we liked and chose to go with them on a fast boat to Phi Phi islands for a day. The company is called Sea Eagle tours and it seems to be widely liked. They offer a few stops – for snorkeling, swimming in a lagoon, Maya Bay (The Beach – filming location), Phi Phi Don (lunch buffet), Monkey Island (just a drive-by) and bamboo beach. It was great. The speedboat took about 20 people. All of the stops were great. Some of them were way too full of tourists. Maya Bay is like Manhattan – thousands of boats stop there… Not really fun to see. But, all the places were breathtakingly beautiful. The nature seems to just give the best it’s got.

Bamboo Island

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Maya Bay

Sea Eagle tours did really well. I would easily do other tours with them. They also offer Hong Island tour and Four Islands (a bit closer to the main land).

Some people do not like these types of tours and I get it. It is a mass produced attraction that costs quite a bit ($50 a person) and it doesn’t offer that unique experience that you desire. I would have done it differently, if we stayed there for a week or two. We just didn’t have enough time to get to places on our own. There is a ferry to Phi Phi Islands that takes off in the morning, but I didn’t really want to stay in the populated part of the island. It was nice to go to those places that you can only get on a boat. We were never really away from other tourists but we did get to see some amazing beaches and some amazing nature. Here are some picks…

Monkey Island

The Sea…

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AYUTTHAYA – AN UNEXPECTED GEM!

When we left Chiang Mai at 6:30AM it as still cold for about 3 hours. Mornings and evenings are chilly in Chiang Mai. We spent 13 hours on the train and when we arrived in Ayutthaya at 7:15PM, we knew the climate has changed. Ayutthaya is only an hour away from Bangkok. It is warm and muggy – hot during the day and quite warm at night. The times of cool evenings were over.

We got to our small guesthouse and were warmly greeted by the owners and their super sweet and friendly dog Maddie (got the pic of Maddie but not the owners…). The meeting with the owners set the tone for the rest of the stay in Ayutthaya. We loved the Chommuang Guesthouse and we really got to like the wonderful Thai couple that run it. They gave us all the information we needed to use the day we had there in the most productive way.

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Maddie!

We really didn’t know much… Ayatthuya – an old capital of the Kingdom of Siam. It was prosperous for few centuries, starting in 14th to 18th when it was attacked and taken over by the Burmese. We knew it had lots of ruins of the old city and that they were Unesco World Heritage site.

Next day we got to experience the beauty and greatness… I don’t really need to write too much about this town, because the pictures speak for themselves.

If you have time, go and visit Ayutthaya. Some people do a day trip from Bangkok, but I would spend the night and a couple days there. Again, I wish we had an extra day to see more.

Our one full day was spent on seeing the temples and the ruins of the palace within the historical park and an afternoon/evening boat trip on rivers around the town (Ayutthaya is located on an island between three rivers) with three stops at three additional temples.

We met a couple American girls at the guesthouse and had some fun with them. They were super sweet to share their food and beer with me! We enjoyed each other’s company! It was great.

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In the evening, we went to the night market and saw a few local specialties – street food… Here are a couple pics…

Next morning we were going to Bangkok airport to meet up with Biniyam and go to Krabi for the beach portion of our travels. Biniyam is a young man from Ethiopia who is joining us for 10 days in Thailand and Cambodia. Unfortunately, late at night, we got a bad news that he was not able to board the plane to Bangkok due to some passport complications. We are hoping that he will join us soon!!!

Nevertheless, we still had to go to Bangkok International Airport for our flight to Krabi. It was my most successful cheap leg of our trip yet. We walked to the station (instead of spending 80 – 100 Baht for a tuk tuk), took a local ferry through the river for 5 baht each, took a local train for 11 baht each to the old domestic airport and then took a free shuttle bus to the international airport. 3.5 hours later and $1 USD (32 baht), we made it to the airport. Just FYI, the shuttle between the airports is only free, if you have a flight from the other airport.

Of course I wouldn’t have figured it all out on my own. Chommuang owners suggested the way. I was very thankful. So, if you’re planning on visiting Bangkok, include both Ayutthaya and Chommuang Guesthouse in your plans.

I forgot to mention the haircut!  Antonio got a haircut and had the most awesome hairdresser!

 

 

 

 

CHIANG MAI – CITY OF TEMPLES

Chiang Mai is known for its vibe. It seems to me that there has never been a person who went to Chiang Mai and said it was just ok. People generally really like their visit there. Tourists and the backpackers often stay in the old city within the old city walls/mote. It is a very fun place to go for many reasons. There is a lot to do in the city and around it. In the city, I think the biggest attraction is a number of elaborate Buddhist temples (hundreds of them). I am sure there is more but we didn’t stay long enough to see. The ambiance in the old city is great. Lots of guesthouses, bars, restaurants, shops, and galleries fill in the small old streets. There are lots of tourists, but it’s not a bad thing. The tourists there are the backpacker types. It is possible that I didn’t see the big bus tours and they were there somewhere… Chiang Mai offers a lot of day trips, as well. It is located in the northern mountainous area of Thailand and there are lots of treks, hikes, hmong village visits, elephant adventures, golden triangle and many more… We didn’t spend a huge amount of time in Chiang Mai and I would gladly go back.

We stayed at two different guesthouses in Chiang Mai – first was fine, the second was more fun (but it was a short stay after elephants). I went to a local hairdresser to color my hair. No language in common but we figured it out!!! Good color for $17.

We enjoyed a few cafes and restaurants. The smoothies with passion fruit were still my favorite…. Lots of places had cats and dogs, so that was fun!

We left Chiang Mai on a train.  It was one of the slower trains going to Bangkok.  We were going to Ayutthaya (1 hour north of Bangkok).  The journey of about 380km took over 12 hours – daytime.  It was an experience.  We will probably never forget the hundreds of local vendors going through the train selling food.  They had their way of advertising their products and it was very funny at first and a bit annoying at the end…  As the travel progressed, more and more bugs crawled on the floor.  We ended up traveling with our feet up for 10 hours.  As we were leaving, the bugs started to crawl on the walls…  I wonder why all that happened so gradually, but it certainly intensified toward the end.  We left the train quite relieved that we don’t have to go all the way to Bangkok.  But the trip was a steal at about $12 a person!