Khao San Road is the gateway to Southeast Asia, which means this is the first stop for many young and often inexperienced travelers planning a trip to the region. It has almost a spring break type atmosphere and just about anything goes, before I go into detail about “anything” lets take a quick look at history. According to wikitravel the word khao san itself means milled rice and is an attribution to the historical role of this street in the rice trade. The first business to open on Khao San Road was a small hotel aimed at serving civil servants from the provinces who came to Bangkok on business. The hotel was followed by Sor Thambhakdi, a shop selling monks’ accessories. Four similar businesses moved in after, and Khao San became known as a “religious road”. Let me tell you that the only religious thing about Khao San Road anymore is how people drink religiously when they visit. Nonetheless, Khao San Road is a must-see in Bangkok. You might not choose to stay at one of the cheap guesthouses in the middle of the action, but you may want to do one of the following:
Top Ten Things to do on Khao San Road
1. Drink, I’m not condoning binge drinking here, but this is definitely the place to grab a local Chang beer or a bucket. A bucket is just that a sand-pale style bucket filled with liquor it’s typically whiskey (the local Sang Som) and Coke, but you can pick your poison.
2. Stay awake, Khao San Road never sleeps so you can visit anytime day or night. The morning is the quietest and at night everything comes alive. Once the bars close by 2:00 am or so, the patrons will flood the street moving the party outside.
3. People Watch, this goes hand-in hand with staying awake as night offers the best people watching. Herds of young backpackers roam the streets intermingled with street vendors, lady boys and tuk tuk drivers. It’s hard not to stare at all the crazy characters hanging out.
4. Buy Art, there are some very talented artists that sell their paintings and photographs on the side of the street, it is definitely worth checking out. Remember to bargain and you could take home a fantastic painting for under $20.
5. Shop, Khao San Road is the bohemian capital of Bangkok, so if you are looking for patchwork skirts, a buddha t-shirt or want to get a singing bowl you will find it on Khao San. Make sure you bargain because all the vendors are willing to “make good price for you.”
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Erica and Matt Chua: The Experience that is Khao San Road
The saga of Sapa begins in the small hill tribe villages, whose civilizations have yet to reap the benefits of modernization. They have recently been inundated with tourists, however many of the traditions of the Black H’mong and Red Dao people persist. In particular the traditions that dictate love hold strong and the courtships of very young villagers are short and arranged, but I learned from our young trekking guide Coo that it is a little more complicated than that.
At first glance Coo looked like the twelve year old daughter of one of the travelers in her bright pink, rhinestone studded jacket talking on her cell phone. Upon closer examination I could here that she was clearly speaking in a foreign tongue, wearing a traditional skirt and had long, silky black hair to her knees. As we began our trek I hurriedly caught up to Coo as I had lots of questions for her, much to my pleasure she was happy to chat and eager to share her life with me. We became fast friends.
She was only sixteen years old, but clearly wise beyond her years. She had gone to school up until high school as her family could no longer afford to send her and she could contribute more by supporting her family as a trekking guide. It was clear that her dreams lie in Hanoi where she could get a proper education and have some independence before she married at 25 rather than fourteen like many of her peers that by sixteen already had one or two children. She was rare in the villages surrounding Sapa with her hopes of delaying marriage and going to school, but the constant Western influence of trekking tourists surely swayed her opinions.
As told by Coo the traditional path to marriage in many of the small villages surrounding Sapa started with a “kidnapping” of the fourteen year old soon-to-be-wife to their future husbands home to meet his family and gain their approval. A dowry was arranged for the girl, which often included a combination of money, animals and textiles. The steps that followed were quick, starting with the new wife taking up residence in her husband’s family’s home and then quickly moving into child bearing and child rearing. Love may or may not ever be part of the equation at any step in the process. Her feelings on the subject were clear, fourteen was much too young to marry.
The more we talked the more complex it got; for those of her friends that didn’t have a traditional path to marriage they risked being kidnapped and sold just over the border into China. With China’s strict laws on having just one child, many people abandon girls in hopes of having a boy. This has created an abundance of boys with no prospects for marriage. Girls in Sapa may also be considered a burden or embarrassment to their families because they were not married off. All of this is slowly changing and Coo is an example of that, but she was still saddened when she spoke of friends that had disappeared, presumably to China.
All of this sixteen year old drama was interrupted frequently by her cell phone buzzing, which indicated another incoming text message. One from a Singaporean she had guided on a trek a few months ago and another from a local boy telling her he loved her and wanted to get married. All of this made me a little more suspicious of her dramatic love stories, she may be wise beyond her years, but she is still “sweet sixteen.” All of my conversatios with Coo led to one clear conclusion, village love is certainly much different from courtships and weddings at home.
When taking photos one thing always distracts me: monkeys. As soon as they arrive on the scene I watch them carefully to ensure that the crafty primates don’t steal my things. Beyond that my attention is attracted to them because of their facial expressions, behavior and physics-defying leaps. I can’t help but snap a few photos of them, but when time comes to put things together for LivingIF I can’t find a way to work monkey photos into it. Today though it’s time for monkey business, here are a few of my favorite monkey photos and where you can meet these crafty creatures on your own.
In the archipelago of Indonesia you will find monkeys of all shapes, sizes and colors. City dwellers are wise to human’s ways, raiding fruit stalls and harassing house pets while the jungles are home to a wide variety that will be as interested in you as you are in them. Ubud, Bali’s Sacred Monkey Forest is home to beautiful, but pesky monkeys that know humans as an easy source of food.
The wise elderly monkeys sit atop temples watching people pass.
The young scurry around to get food from tourists. This happens one of two ways: the people give it willingly or the monkey scares them into dropping it.
The very young nestle in the safety of their parents.
Like the people of India, the monkeys are often forced to interact with hoards of people in sprawling cities. They have learned many tricks such as raiding rooftop gardens and kitchens.
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Erica and Matt Chua: Monkey Business
My disclaimer on 36 hours in Bangkok is that no sane person should ever attempt to see Bangkok in 36 hours. You certainly won’t be able to get through the aggressive timeline that I lay out below even if there was no traffic, heat or throngs of tourists to deal with. That being said book a few extra days to see this remarkable city and learn the in’s and out’s of the city’s mass transit system because bypassing it will immediately change the way you feel about this Asian metropolis. In fact if you really take the time to enjoy Bangkok you will find quiet wat’s off the beaten path and tree lined neighborhoods that provide a much needed respite from the chaotic city that surrounds you.
1) RELEASE THE BIRDS
Visit Wat Indrawiharn and the 32 meter (over 100 feet) standing Buddha, which is the largest Buddha in the world. To get your weekend off to a good start you can release birds, which is supposed to increase ones positive karma in this life thus leading to a better life in the next incarnation.
2) GOLDEN MOUNT AT THE GOLDEN HOUR
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Erica and Matt Chua: 36 Hours in Bangkok
Traveling around the world is not one trip; rather it is a collection of many small trips. Each country we visit brings unique challenges, especially arranging visas and transportation. Given our travel experience, we can usually nail the logistics down in 10-20 minutes. Here are the most important aspects we’ve learned in planning a trip to another country and pointers that you can put to use for your next adventure.
These steps are in order; they should be followed in this order, because the steps are dependent on each other.
WHERE TO GO
Obviously, you need to know the country or region you want to visit. When we were doing some advance trip planning we ran into a challenge, which I will use as an example; getting to Patagonia in the right time of the year, from Europe, without paying visa fees.
First and foremost, do you need a visa? Is there a fee to enter the country? We are budget travelers, we avoid these fees whenever possible. To figure this out, I google “US citizen visiting [insert country name]” and look for the US State Department website, specifically the “Entry/Exit Requirements for US Citizens” section. Also useful is Project Visa. I avoid visa service websites, they try to steer you towards paying them. If you are a citizen of another country, you should check your State Department equivalent.
OUR EXAMPLE: We will be visiting Brazil, but won’t have time to get a visa prior to our arrival in South America. I checked to make sure we could get the visa while traveling (read: not only in our home country). Chile and Argentina charge $120 for American citizens to enter their country…or so it seems. This fee is only charged at airports, probably only Santiago and Buenos Aires, therefore to gain entry to these countries for free, you have to enter via land. I have traveled overland between the two countries more than a dozen times, never having to pay.
OK, so we want to get to Chilean or Argentine Patagonia as quickly as we can from Europe. What are our choices? Looking at Google maps, the land borders are: Brazil (already ruled out), Bolivia, Peru, Uruguay or Paraguay. Knowing we are flying from Europe, we need a major airport, major airports are generally in wealthy, commercial countries, making Peru and Uruguay the targets (no visa fees, good transport to Chile and Argentina).
Returning to Chile from my first date with LOCAVORista, I took a bus from Lima, Peru to Santiago, Chile. It was a grueling 56 hour ride…and Santiago is only halfway to Patagonia. Even being a lovesick adolescent, I promised myself to never take that bus again, therefore, Peru is out. That leaves Uruguay. Checking out the US State Department page, I see there are no visa fees or needs for me to enter Uruguay. Even better, it’s major airport, Montevideo, is a short ferry ride from Buenos Aires.
The more entry points that you have, the better deal you can get on flights. In this case, due to visas and fees, our options were pretty limited. Obviously planning around visiting one country is much simpler.
After knowing the visa situation, the most important thing to know is when to go. Figure out what exactly you want to do, and what months are best. January is summer in Chile, the best time to go to Patagonia, but the worst time to go skiing there.
I get this information from Wikitravel or, if I have it, Lonely Planet.
GETTING THERE CHEAPLY
This takes a little practice to get the hang of, but try it a couple times, it could save you hundreds, if not thousands of dollars over several flights.
Figure out all cities that you could possibly leave from and arrive in. Is there a reasonably short bus or train ride you could take? For example, if you wanted to go to Paris, the cheapest could be to fly into London, Amsterdam or Brussels, then take the train to Paris. The transport from another city is irrelevant for a moment. Write down all the possible locations you could fly to/from. Write departure and arrival country vertically on a piece of paper.
OUR EXAMPLE: even though I know my target is Montevideo, I am going to check prices for Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Santiago, Sao Paulo, and Montevideo. If the ticket price to Montevideo, Buenos Aires and Santiago are the same, it is cheaper to go to Montevideo, but it is possible there will be a fare sale and if flying to Buenos Aires or Santiago is $120 or more cheaper, per person, it is worth paying the high visa fee.
Go to www.kayak.com and type in each possible departure city, one at a time, and write the three-letter airport code for each city down. If there is a code for the city, versus a specific airport, use that. For example, “LON” is “London, England-All Airport” so you can search Heathrow, Stansted, Gatwick and London City with one code.
- If you want to visit Australia, you will probably go to Melbourne and Sydney. If you are flexible in timing, switching the order you visit each may save you big money.
- If you want to visit the East Coast of the USA, there are inexpensive buses connecting many of the major cities including the “Chinatown” buses between New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.
- If you want to visit Disney World you could always fly to Jacksonville or Miami and drive. (And who doesn’t want to go to Disney World? Random aside: My senior year of high school I went to LA to visit colleges. My mother had a meeting the day I was supposed to visit USC…I never actually made it to USC, I went to Disneyland instead.)
- If you want to visit South East Asia, you should look to fly to SIN (Singapore), BKK (Bangkok), or KUL (Kuala Lumpur). From any of these you can get discount airline tickets or buses around the region.
Here’s the greatest thing about KAYAK.com: the ability to search for up to four departure and arrival cities at once! Put in each three-letter airport code, followed by a comma. Chose your travel dates and click “My dates are flexible” to see the range of prices you could pay. Click search.
If you get a pop-up to set a “price alert” do it! This allows you to watch the price for your itinerary, you can even set an alert based on price such as “flights from Minneapolis to Mexico for under $300” Anytime a fare falls below this, you’ll get an email! Seemingly at random, a link will appear in the left sidebar that says “Get a price alert”, allowing you to set it up.
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Erica and Matt Chua: 10 Minute Trip Planning
At Valley Forge George Washington participated in a cricket game with his troops. This may have marked the highpoint of cricket in what would become the USA, but why is this so? Can’t Americans enjoy cricket? How does it compare to watching baseball? We attended the T20 World Cup of Cricket in Sri Lanka to find out and offer the ultimate comparison…
As for excitement value, cricket matches baseball in dullness. Both sports excel in offering vies of people standing around. Better yet, just like baseball, you don’t have to worry about blinking…you won’t miss anything if you do…
EXCITEMENT WINNER: Draw, both of these sports are better in highlights than live.
What makes slow sports enjoyable? Beer. Cricket doesn’t fail the spectators, offering beers for $0.92 each. Referring to this handy 2012 MLB beer price guide I see that the average beer at a baseball game costs $6.17. To adjust for size, on a per ounce basis, cricket’s beer costs $0.12 per ounce versus the MLB average of $0.41.
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Erica and Matt Chua: Can Americans Enjoy Cricket?
I love weddings, so when we got the invitation to attend our friend’s Indonesian wedding we couldn’t pass up the opportunity, considering we would be in Asia anyway. We arrived in Jakarta happy to see the familiar faces of friends Adrianne and Tom. However, with all the details of an Indonesian wedding, they were busy much of the time with rehearsals and last minute preparation. Lucky for us we were welcome to tag along for a first-hand cultural experience, one I couldn’t resist.
All the planning paid off, as the three-day event was beautiful, steeped in tradition and symbolism; providing a crash course in all things Javanese. The bride and groom and the groom’s family, whom live in Jakarta were incredible hosts. The extravaganza started with a welcome dinner where the guests were given gifts, swords for the men and jewelry for the women. The flavorful food, amicable guests and delicious food set the tone for the next two days.
Siraman: Bathing Ceremony
Tom and Adrianne anxiously awaiting the bathing ceremony to begin, cleansing them in preparation for marriage
The festivities got under way on day two with a traditional bathing ceremony known as Siraman. This ceremony is meant to cleanse the bride and groom both physically and spiritually to prepare them for the bond of marriage. With Adrianne and Tom dressed in traditional Javanese batik and draped in jasmine flowers, which smelled lovely. Nine family members are chosen to pour ladles of water over their heads. The water used in the ceremony is collected from different sites of familial importance making the ceremony very specific to the bride and groom. I couldn’t resist snapping pictures of the surprised expressions resulting from cold water being poured over their heads.
Tom and Adrianne being cleansed during the bathing ceremony
Ijab: Signing of Wedding Documents
The wedding day itself consisted of two consecutive ceremonies, the first of which is the Ijab, the official signing of documents. The bride and groom, father-of-the-bride, witnesses and the Imam (religious officiate) are all seated at a table for the transaction between the bride’s father and her future husband. Much of this ceremony was just between the families as dowry was discussed and everyone exchanged handshakes. Lucky for Tom, Adrianne excepted his dowry and did not ask for more even when prodded jokingly by the Imam. It was fascinating to watch and culminated with the signing of the marriage documents and exchange of rings, similar to a ceremony in the U.S. without any official declaration or kiss.
The signing of the official wedding documents known as Ijab takes place at a table with the family, imam and witnesses
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Erica and Matt Chua: A Wedding to Remember
After spending nearly three years on the road, we look back on all that we put up with to save a dollar. Were all the long bus rides and sleeping at airports worth it to keep the expenses in check?
You’ll never hear me claim that there is a better way to travel than budget travel. Getting as close to the locals’ spending as possible is the best way to understand how their life is…and isn’t that why to travel? Not only the experiences, but also the differences between experiences in different places are enlightening. Exposing yourself to where the locals eat, stay and play will teach you more about a place than a tour ever would.
If I wanted something easy and comfortable I’d try to have that at home, not in some distant land. Why would I put my money towards temporary comfort instead of investing in permanent comfort? At home I want the most comfortable things possible, but on the road I want the most locally authentic experiences possible.
This does create some problems though. It’s caused us to end up in some places where I was deathly allergic to things. It’s led us to some pretty dirty places. It’s made us terribly sick. The romantic idea of living like a local is much better than it is in reality.
Here is one great example. We thought we had scored a great deal on a place to stay in Seoul, in a student building, on AirBnB. The listing made it clear that it could sleep two, evenings were quiet times, and there was free rice. They had me at the price, but I fell in love with the idea of free rice. See the photo above? That’s how we slept for three nights. On the fourth day I ran into the building manager, the same person who had checked us in, and he asked how we were sleeping. I responded that we were doing fine. Then he asked the key question, “would you like another mattress?” Why yes we would! How had he failed to mention this earlier, such as when the two of us checked in?
The funny situations like this one are the good, bad and learning of budget travel. I would never experience this at the Ritz…
Budget travel is not for everyone. It is not a vacation complete with private beach bungalows and drinks with little umbrellas. It is hard work, long bus rides, cold showers and beds with no pillows. It is the path we chose for many reasons, first and foremost to save money and travel longer, but also to live a little bit more like the locals.
This trip was never about just seeing the world, it was about experiencing it. Which meant dining where the locals did, taking the long bus rides and lower class transport. Some of my most fond memories are from the crazy things we did to save a few bucks. But, there are a few things that I just didn’t like about budget travel:
Ordering food from right to left, when price is your main concern I often found myself reading the menu from right to left- look at price first. Several times I passed up the item I really wanted for something more affordable.
Cold showers, I got pretty tired of trying to get the soap to lather while showering with the glacial water on offer at many of our budget hostels and hotels. Hot water is a luxury when your trying to stay on budget. Along those same lines I hated that space was also a luxury, bathrooms in most places we stayed would have the shower right over the toilet and everything in the bathroom would be soaked.
Overnight buses were the bane of my existence, especially in South America where averaged one overnight bus every 10 days. Not only did you get a terrible nights sleep, but you had to worry about your stuff getting stolen, which happened to us on an overnight bus in Bolivia.
These three things may have saved us a considerable amount of cash, but I’m glad that there is no overnight bus in my future or terrible two dollar meal around the corner. Ultimately these were small sacrifices to fund our 37 country tour and I would do them again in a heartbeat, but life is better with hot showers!
Three months, 11,000 miles of travel and visiting more than 20 cities, we are leaving China. After all this, what do we think of China?
China brings to mind one word: wow. I knew very little of China prior to coming here. All I knew was that we had three months, where we would go and what we would do was completely unknown. Wow, how time flew, we did so many things, traveled to so many places. Wow, the people I met. Wow, this country is beautiful. Wow, the trains. Wow, the people. Wow, the history. Wow, China, wow.
Some big, eye-opening wows I am not going to miss: etiquette and hygiene. I found that no matter what, I can’t stand it when people chew with their mouth open. I can’t eat when lips are being smacked together and half-chewed pieces of food are falling from people’s lips. I can’t believe that children are expected to do their business on the sidewalk, when there are public bathrooms everywhere. It is not that the infrastructure for cleanliness doesn’t exist, they have made an honorable effort, but etiquette and hygiene just doesn’t seem to be the cultural norm. Wow, I look forward to being in a place where people are not spitting on bus floors and I have to dodge human feces on the sidewalk.
As good a place as any?
A father holds his child while it defecates in the middle of the Forbidden City, one of China’s largest tourist attractions. A bathroom was less than 100 meters away.
The good, no great, wow, surpass my gripes. My biggest wow was the honesty of the people. I have traveled all around the world, dealt with people of all cultures, yet I have seen few as honest as the Chinese people I dealt with. There was no foreigner pricing, what the locals pay, you pay. I didn’t have to negotiate for a bowl of noodles like in Hanoi, worry about getting overcharged for entrance tickets like in Thailand, or worry about being robbed like on buses in Cambodia. Sure, prices at markets are quoted to be negotiated, but the daily transactions, complete with posted prices, was amazing. A few times I tried to round up my bill to not have a pocketful of change, but was forcedto take my change. Wow, thank you China, for your honest people. Clearly they exported all their shady people to the world’s Chinatowns.
Wow, the infrastructure. China is pumping money into its roads, trains and national infrastructure. It is clear that not very long ago this infrastructure was pretty bad. We rode on many unpaved streets, riddled with holes, but were happy to see that brand new highways and streets are being built almost everywhere. We rode every type of China’s trains and were amazed by their quality and service to everywhere. It is true, you need to buy your tickets early or you end up in the “cattle class” of hard seats, but any higher class and “wow”, what a nice, affordable way to travel. We rode the trains almost 10,000 miles and have no complaints. Wow.
China is an amazing country. If you haven’t been, add it to your future travel plans. In the future, with all the changes, travel here will only get better. I assure you communication will be a problem, but the people will work with you to help you. The storekeepers will help you get what you need. The trains will take you where you want to go. Wow, I’m going to miss traveling in China.
Saying ‘goodbye’ to China will be like saying goodbye to a close friend, she has treated me so well and provided so many amazing memories. I have to admit I was nervous about what people were saying about her before I came and how it might affect my relationship with her. But, China has far exceeded any expectations I had and while not everything was perfect it wasn’t the horrible experience everyone warns you about, like when you room with your best friend in college. Regardless about what people say about my new friend behind her back I will always defend her, because until you get to know her you have no right to comment.
Yes, there are the glaring examples of poor hygiene and bad table manners, but past that the other issues regarding travel in China are surmountable. The vast distances to travel are combated with nice, clean trains even if you do have to plan ahead. There is a considerable language barrier, but the people are surprisingly helpful in trying to understand you. Best of all they won’t rip you off just because you don’t speak their language. I was always shocked by the low prices of things and that it was the same price as the locals paid.
What I will miss most about China is the scenery, which never failed to amaze me. Around every corner was a new panorama of breathtaking beauty. The sights in China are so unique as well, no other country has a 5,500 mile wall, five holy mountains, including the best view of the world’s tallest mountain and countless awe-inspiring temples, monasteries and Buddhas. The amount of things to see in China could keep you busy for years. It certainly kept us running at a frenetic pace to see over 20 cities in the past three months, but it was more than worth it. From back alleyways in Pingyao and the rice terraces of Yuanyang to the majestic mountains of Tibet, China’s superlatives will be hard to beat.
Next to the scenery the best part of China is the food, the sheer variety and incredible tastes of this vast country were delicious to explore. I loved the skewers of meat hot off the grill and pitchers of beer for just a dollar in our first China stop: Qingdao. Since then the Peking duck in Beijing, spicy Sichuan food in Chengdu and the interesting yak options in Tibet made for some of my best food memories thus far. With meals costing between 50 cents and fifteen dollars you can’t go wrong.
The only thing that can make great views and delicious food better is sharing it with amazing people and China delivers on this front as well. We met some of the most intelligent, interesting and well traveled people on the road in China. From English teachers in Qingdao to fellow travelers on the hiking trail in Tiger Leaping Gorge the people we met in China will remain one of the highlights of China. It was always fun to get to a new hostel and run into an old friend, many a times this caused us to be up until all hours of the night catching up on each others travels. I will miss all of our diverse China friends.
I will try not to cry, but I won’t say “goodbye,” instead I will say “see you soon” because I will most definitely be back. I know there will be a lot of changes between now and then so; “keep in touch, will ‘ya?”
Number one tour guide in Vietnam? Me. Being your own tour guide can save you money, but could present you with unexpected adventures such as needing a quick repair job. When we got to Mui Ne Beach I saw that the town was a straight line along the beach, a very long line. It was roughly 20km roundtrip to see Mui Ne and another 40km roundtrip to Phan Thiet. To tour both Mui Ne and Phan Thiet would be about $30 USD, but renting a motorcycle was $10. Quick math and motorcycle experience made it a clear choice, rent the bike.
I gave LOCAVORista the full Mui Ne tour and continued to Phan Thiet. I made it 3/4 of the way through the city tour and thought, “I hope this thing holds out, I am a long way from where we started.” Within 5 minutes I felt the rear end shimmy as the engine began to cut out. Immediately I made LOCAVORista get off the bike and asked, “Is it flat?” She laughed and responded, “Completely”.
I walked the bike over to the repair shop and they immediately started speaking to me in Vietnamese, because they, as everyone here, thinks that I am Vietnamese. Irregardless of what I may look like to them I had no clue what was going on. This clearly was a repair shop but they were saying no and pointing.
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Erica and Matt Chua: Motorcycle Maintenance in Vietnam