Hanoi

Day 12

After our breakfast at the Box Hotel, we made our way to another hostel, Hanoi Rocks. Chelsea stumbled on a tour offered by the hostel which would take us through each of the places in northern Vietnam that we planned on visiting. Food, lodging, transportation, tour guides… everything included for about $199 per person (the tour was called the Southern Journey, if anyone is interested). With only one day’s notice, Julia at the Hanoi Rocks Hostel was able to book the trip for us. While traveling without a guide had been an interesting and challenging experience up to that point, we were relieved to have some type of schedule over the next several days.

After getting our trip squared away, we proceeded to see Hanoi. A 15 minute walk south brought us to St. Joseph’s Cathedral, a Roman Catholic church built in the late 1800s by the French during their colonial occupation of Vietnam.

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My very amateur photo of the cathedral.

From the cathedral, we strolled another 10 minutes further south to the Hoa Lo Prison. As newly identified prison history lovers, Chelsea and I greatly anticipated the visit to this site. Built by the French in the late 1800s to initially house Vietnamese dissidents, the Hoa Lo Prison has seen its fair share of transformations since its initial inception (which prison hasn’t, right?). We enjoyed walking through the portions of the original structure that remained standing, as a large part of the prison had been demolished to make way for two high-rise buildings. The very pro-Vietnamese videos and articles gave an interesting perspective on the history of the American-Vietnamese relationship. We spent about an hour and a half at the site, and were not disappointed with the visit in the least bit.

Famished from learning, we retraced our steps north and grabbed some lunch at Quan Bia Minh.

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Sipping on a $1 beer. They would get cheaper…

Our table on the second floor gave us an awesome perspective of the popular intersection below. While obviously a bit pricier than street food, the plates Quan Bia Minh were delicious and the beer was cold and cheap.

We searched for Old Town Cafe near Ho Hoan Kiem lake, a popular coffee shop known for its delicious egg coffee and great views of the lake. Not finding it and not wanting to walk past the same people for the sixth time, we decided to move on without our sweet, caffeinated drink.

We moved a bit further south to Ho Hoan Kiem, noticing that the large street that surrounds the lake is closed to traffic on Sundays. This made walking around the serene water that much quieter and calmer without the constant honking of horns and revving of engines. For 45,000 dong we visited Ngoc Son Temple in the middle of the lake, across the Cau The Huc bridge. A brief rainstorm stranded us at the temple, though as with most rainfall in the area it died down relatively quickly.

We continued our walk around the lake, eventually shooting off on a side street to see the Hanoi Opera House.

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Chelsea admiring the old, French-style Opera House.

Turning north at that circle, we walked through the outskirts of Hanoi’s French Quarter along Ly Thai To. By this time, a headache induced by my lack of caffeine and Chelsea’s urgent need for a restroom led us to have our first Vietnamese-style coffee. On ice, the sweet drink is a combination of strong, drip-style coffee and sweetened condensed milk. Not one for iced coffees, I thought it was one of the best drinks I’ve ever had (though that could have been the caffeine talking…).

We retreated to the hotel from there, exhausted from our long day of trekking through the hot, noisy streets. Both of us noticed audible growling coming from each other’s mid sections. Before climbing the three flights of stairs to our room, we stopped by a little cart serving Bahn Mi Pate sandwiches. Little did we know, this cart would serve the best Bahn Mi in Vietnam*.

Around 7:20pm we left our tiny hotel room for a 7:30pm tour of the Hanoi Ancient House. Chelsea and I were the only two guests of the house, which is a merchant’s house from the 19th century that was restored by the Vietnamese government. Two local university students studying Tourism and Hospitality Management led us on a free tour of the home. They explained to us the layout of the home, going into detail about each room and the ancient furniture that adorned them. The tour ended just as we caught our second Vietnam rainfall of the day, so we sat in the house and watched other tourists scramble in the street to find shelter.

That night, we wanted to try a local restaurant that we found online. The restaurant, called 14 Hang Ga, was known for a dish called Bahn Cuon. We wandered the streets west of our hotel until we found the place.

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This was the sign that led us to sit down.

It was a sidewalk restaurant, similar to the place where we ate the night before: small, plastic stools where your knees sit higher than your hips, small tables, and a tiny cart from which the chef prepares your meal. We pulled up our tiny stools and sat down, seeing only another party at a table next to ours, and not seeing a cook. We sat for a few moments until one of the members of the other party rose from the table, went to the cart, and poured soup into two large bowls.

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Chelsea inspecting our meal that night.

The woman who delivered our bowls returned with a plate of noodles for us before heading back to the other table. Chelsea and I looked at each other then down at our soup. It smelled interesting: not sweet, but not savory either. It had meat in it, though even until this day we cannot figure out exactly what it was that we ate.

We were able to finish about half of each bowl before making a gesture to the woman who served us. With no menu, we had no idea not only what we ate but how much it would cost. We gave her 100,000 VND, and she then she showed us another 100,000 VND note. Frustratingly reaching into my wallet, knowing that we were getting ripped off, I began to pull out another 100,000 bill, stopping when the woman and her table shouted “No, no, no! 100,000 dong!” before pointing at the bill that I gave her and giving us the thumbs up. Chelsea and I smiled and returned the gesture before all of us laughed harmoniously. As the laughter died down, I caught the eye of one of the guys at the table. He smiled at me and lifted up what appeared to be a large water container filled with a clear fluid. My face must have shown confusion, because he then grabbed two shot glasses from the table and gestured towards me with the glasses and the bottle. I turned to Chelsea, who shook her head from left to right and politely declined. Looking back at the man, I saw that he did not react at all to Chelsea, and only wanted me to join him. I said no at first, but that created the most disappointed look on his face. I took a moment to think, my mind reeling with all of the negative things that could happen from drinking from this bottle.  Another woman at the table took the shot glasses and bottle from him and poured two shots. I reluctantly agreed to drink with him and, after clanging our tiny glasses together, I tilted the glass against my lips. The liquid flowed into my mouth and I winced, expecting a rough taste and a memorable burn. What I got instead was a smooth flavor that went down easily. We smiled at each other after, happy to share that one moment in time over moonshine from a plastic bottle.

I used Chelsea as a crutch for a few blocks before we saw a sign offering bia hoi for 9,000 VND at A Phuong Ha Noi (for those interested, the place takes up three corners at the intersection of Hang Vai and Bat Su. Look for yellow canopies with red and black writing). Feeling pretty good from the earlier activities, we sat down on the familiar plastic stools on the sidewalk in front of the establishment. Before we could straighten ourselves up on the stools, a young man was handing each of us a small, glass mug filled with cold beer.

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Enjoying our $.40 beer. They would get cheaper…

We took a sip of the $.40 drink, pleasantly surprised by its flavor. We sat at that corner for two more drinks each, noticing only before the last glass how the drinks were filled. A man sat beside a large, metal keg suspended above him. A clear tube led from the keg to his right hand, the thumb of that hand plugging the end of the tube. His left hand held his own beer glass, which he sipped in between conversations with other patrons. Once a drink request came to him, he placed his own glass down and removed his thumb from the tube to fill empty mugs. We looked at our own glass mugs and, shrugging, gulped down the cold beverage before paying our bill.

We walked through a night market nearby our hotel, purchasing only a sweet, tapioca and jelly filled drink. Back to the hotel we went, stopping though for one last Bahn Mi from our new friend.

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Pure deliciousness, for 15,000 VND.

 


*Purely opinionated on my part, Chelsea doesn’t even agree with me. A combination of hunger, cost, accessibility and friendliness of the vendor play into this too.

If you are interested in finding this sandwich, head over to the Box Hotel. Looking at the hotel, there will be a small cart immediately to the right of the hotel entrance. The cart will be placed in front of a restaurant: ignore the restaurant, go to the cart. Order the Bahn Mi Pate for 15,000 VND. If an older gentleman is sitting out front and he pulls a stool up for you to sit on while you wait, you’ve found the right place! 

Blogging while traveling

Just a little side note while I have time…

To anyone who is checking this blog: I am so sorry for the lack of updates. When I decided to write a blog while traveling, I figured that the process would be pretty simple:

  1. Experience something
  2. Document it
  3. Write a post
  4. Add pictures
  5. Publish

What I did not foresee in this “simple” process was the difficulty of finding time to write a blog post that properly describes our experiences. I imagined that traveling from one place to another would allot the time needed to write something informative. Running to flights, traveling on night buses, low battery, late nights, early mornings… all of this adds to the difficulty of wanting to be in the moment while also wanting to share that experience with a larger population.

I give a tremendous amount of credit to the authors of travel blogs who have worked around these constraints. Perhaps they have more time while traveling, most definitely they are more seasoned writers than I am, but regardless they have found the time and discipline to sit down and write. That seems to be 85% of the battle.

Thailand, Take One

Days 4 to 11 (Overview)

So, as I write this post, Chelsea and I are currently in day 12 of our Southeast Asia adventure. When we decided to begin this blog, we thought that we would have more time to write posts and thus have super detailed descriptions of our experiences. Well, we were wrong. We have been doing much more running around than expected and this has left us with less time to blog.

In order to catch us up, I wanted to write one post that gives an overview of what we’ve done from days 4 to 11. As I find the time, I will write more detailed posts of each day and link them here, but initially they will be short excerpts.

 

Day 4 – A Wat, A Market, A Train

Day 4 marked our last day in Bangkok for this go-round, as we were scheduled to take the night train north to Chiang Mai. Chelsea and I (sadly) departed Baan Dinso with our belongings and decided to take the 45 minute walk to the Hua Lumphong train station.

Soaked with sweat, we arrived at the train station and dropped our bags at a luggage storage shop. Our train was scheduled to depart at 7:00pm so we had a few hours to spend in the city. We first stopped Wat Trai Mit, a gorgeous temple that houses the largest solid gold Buddha statue in the world.

 

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Chelsea at Wat Trai Mit, wondering how we will make it up all those stairs…

After the wat, we took the metro from the Hua Lamphong station to Chatuchak Park, where the Chatuchak weekend market takes place.

The market has over 8,000 stalls, selling everything from food to pets to motorbikes. Needless to say, we were overwhelmed. After eating some delicious fried chicken, fried pork belly, tiny pineapples, and downing a strawberry-yogurt smoothie, we retraced our steps and took the metro back to Hua Lamphong.

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A little blurry, but still a great looking train station.

After a few Changs in front of the station, we grabbed our bags and made our way to our train. We heard mixed information about the availability of food on the train, so we stocked up with snacks. This wasn’t necessary, as passengers can order dinner and breakfast (albeit for a high price) while on the train.

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Our night train dinner for 150 THB: not the best meal we had, but it was still pretty delicious.

After working on the blog some and getting a little bit of reading in, we crawled into our converted beds and slept.

 

Day 5 – Chiang Mai

We both awoke on the train at around 6:30am, and Chelsea crawled into the bottom bunk with me so we both could watch the countryside go past. I didn’t realize that we both fell asleep until the conductor walked down the hall, gently announcing that Chiang Mai would be in a few stops.

From the train station, we took a red taxi to the Golden Fort Guesthouse. Our room wasn’t ready, so we dropped our bags and hit the city. That day, we visited Wat Phan Tao, Wat Chedi Luang, the Sunday market, Wat Phan On, and the Three Kings monument. Tired, and in need of a shower, we headed back to the guesthouse after a few Chang beers.

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The ruins of Wat Chedi Luang

That night, we decided to stay local for dinner. We ate at Tang Nueng, which is around the corner from the Golden Fort guesthouse. The food was awesome, but the memorable part was being given bug spray to apply before our meal. From there, we sought traditional Thai massages from the Women’s Massage Center by Ex-Prisoners (Branch 3). Leaving our masseuses, Chelsea and I were totally invigorated and decided to see some live music. We found a bar that normally has live music, but didn’t while we were there. A few Changs later, we found ourselves in the middle of the Chiang Mai night market. We walked around there, checking out the clothes, food and knick-knacks for sale. Our day ended a little early, in preparation for a vigorous next day.

 

Day 6 – Elephant Nature Park

Seeing elephants was one of the main reasons for our visit to Chiang Mai and it was totally worth it. We booked two, all-day volunteer spots at a project with Elephant Nature Park. Our guide, Sunshine, picked us up at our guesthouse and, along with a lovely couple from Charleston, we rode the 1.5 hours to the project.

The day began with a transfer from our comfy, air-conditioned van to the back of an enclosed pickup truck. We rode on an unpaved (and perhaps non-existent) road until we met with the elephants. Among our small group of four volunteers we had three elephants to pamper. We first fed them, then we walked with them as they continued to feed on the shrubs nearby. The elephants led us to the caretakers’ camp, alongside a nearby river.

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Chelsea with her new elephant friend

There we had lunch, which was a six-step process which Sunshine carefully outlined. Our meal ended as we began to make a special “super food” mixture for the elephants, consisting of salt, rice, some spices, and fruit. We rolled these into softball-sized spheres and set them aside. Sunshine then asked us to cut some pumpkin and watermelons, which we did as we watched our three elephant friends trying to clamber past a gate towards us and the fruit. We fed the elephants the freshly cut fruit, then walked down to the water with them.

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Chelsea chopping pumpkins while I scrubbed them clean. What teamwork…

There, the elephants made their way into the water as we followed. Their caretakers showed us how to bath and scrub them with sand and water from the river. Sitting in the water, the three elephants seemed to enjoy their baths. As the elephants left the river to dry off, a few water fights ensued among the volunteers and caretakers. After a quick swim, we fed the elephants their super food mixture, said goodbye then crossed the river by bamboo raft to access our waiting van.

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Our transport across the river

Back in Chiang Mai, we showered, planned the next step in our journey, then went out for a late dinner. Exhausted, we tried to walk through the city, but quickly headed back to the guesthouse for a good nights sleep.

 

Day 7 – A Hike and a Surprise Boat Ride

We decided that it was time to leave Chiang Mai and found cheap flights to Krabi, a beach town in southern Thailand. With a 3:30pm flight, we had time in the morning to see Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a Buddhist temple atop a mountain within Chiang Mai.

Leaving our bags at the guesthouse, we found a taxi that would take us straight up to the top, wait for two hours, then take us back to our guesthouse. Sitting in the back of the red taxi, we held onto what we could as the car twisted and turned up the mountain. The fumes were a little bit much at times, but before long we arrived at the top. Our driver showed us to the steps of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, and even offered to take some pictures of me and Chelsea.

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If you ignore the tilting, our driver took a pretty good picture.

We climbed to the top of the steps and paid our fee (~100 THB) to enter the wat. The complex consisted of several small temples surrounding a large golden stupa. While this was definitely stunning, the biggest take away was the view from the top.

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The wat was really neat, but this view stole the show.

We took our time down the stairs and proceeded to “hike” further up the mountain along the windy street. The mountain is actually a national park, so we knew that there were hiking trails in the area. Unfortunately, we had some trouble finding these trails. We arrived at the lodging area for the park, and found a few small trails there. As we tried to find one last trail. our driver found us and urged us to go back with him to Chiang Mai. Exhausted, we agreed.

Back in Chiang Mai, we had lunch then found time to visit the Women’s Massage Center once again for another Thai massage. After that, we collected our things, took a red taxi to the Chiang Mai airport and flew to Krabi Airport.

While waiting, we began to look up the best route to our hotel in Railay from the airport. Google Maps showed no possible way to get there by car or walking, so a quick search showed that Railay is only accessible… by boat. We found that boats leave from several locations, Krabi Town being one of them, so we took a 90 THB bus there. After some confusion at Krabi Town (and 120 THB) later, we arrived at Nopparat Thara beach and found a boat that would take us to Railay for 250 THB each. Along with five others, we rolled up our pants and walked into the water before climbing into the longtail boat.

A 30 minute ride took us to West Railay. We walked across the peninsula, a ten minute endeavor, and eventually reached the Avatar Railay Resort.  After check-in, Chelsea and I found the Thai Family restaurant for dinner, then retreated back to the hotel for bed.

 

Day 8: Railay

Exhausted from the long night before, Chelsea and I slept until 9:00am. We had breakfast then immediately headed out to see the Railay lagoon and viewpoint, wanting to get there early enough to avoid the crowds.

We walked down the East Railay coast, following the “Lagoon ->” signs until we arrived at a spot on the side of a mountain with warning signs about continuing.

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The caution sign for the lagoon/viewpoint trail, and the trail behind it.

With our Keen-brand shoes and an urge for some heavy-duty hiking, Chelsea and I braved the climb up the mountain side. We continued to the lagoon, having to go down again in order to reach the watery paradise. Needless to say, it was one of the most beautiful places either of us have seen.

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Well worth the effort to get to the lagoon…

We left as soon as the crowds began to form, making sure to stop by the viewpoint before heading back down the mountain again.

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…and the same can be said for the view!

From there, we continued along the East Railay path until we came to Princess Beach. We explored some of the caves there before walking along the beach and cooling off in the water. Late in the day, we went back to the hotel to shower and relax.

Wanting a nice sunset, we headed north along the East Railay path towards the Tew Lay Bar. This place had bamboo platforms that extended out over the ocean and offered a great view of East Railay and the sunset.

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Laying in a hammock over the water

 

Day 9: Kayaking, Monkeys, Spelunking

Wanting some more time on the sea, we chose our ninth day for kayaking. For 500 THB, we rented two individual kayaks for two hours. While we moved slow in our tiny plastic boats, we were able to see a great deal. We first visited an isolated island that contained a multitude of tiny, pumice-like rocks hanging from trees. From there, we went across the Railay West beach and visited two rock formations in the open water. One of them offered an opportunity for use to explore a cave in our kayaks, and Chelsea didn’t hesitate to go in.

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Inside the cave while in our kayaks.

Not used to such physical exertion, we were both exhausted by the time it came to return our boats. After our kayak trip, we swam a bit then retreated for lunch and a nap. We suited back up and visited the Pranang-Nai cave. It reminded both of us of a much smaller Carlsbad Caverns, but even so this had mighty beautiful formations still.

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The Pranang-Nai Cave had some really stunning formations.

Walking back from the cave, we found ourselves in the middle of a downpour and took refuge under a rock overhang. From there, we were able to watch a troop of monkeys move about the trees right before us.

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If you look hard enough, you can see a monkey in the middle of that photo…

Along the same rock wall, we noticed an opening and Chelsea wanted to head right in. I followed, curious but apprehensive. We explored the cave a bit, finding ourselves adopting rock climbing skills to move throughout it.

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A good deal of climbing was involved in this cave.

After this long day, we had dinner in East Railay, then headed back to the hotel to rest up.

 

Day 10: Goodbye Railay

For our last day in Railay, we wanted to get an early start to things. We headed down to breakfast around 8:00am, walking through a little drizzle to get there. As we were eating, the little drizzle turned into a harsh, windy downpour, soaking us and shutting off the electricity to the hotel. We retreated to our room.

Once the rain slowed, we visited Princess Beach for one last cave exploration. High tide slowed our progress, so we watched a group of rock climbers attempt some routes on a nearby wall.

We checked out of our hotel then tried Princess Beach one last time, around 11:00am, only to find that it was still high tide. Chelsea and I decided to find one last viewpoint of Railay, from the West beach. We hiked up the side of a mountain, trying to follow a steep, overgrown path. Near the top, we stopped our progress as we came to a point when a rope climb was necessary to move up a completely vertical rock face. If it hadn’t rained earlier, we would have continued. Regardless, we found a satisfactory viewpoint before slowly maneuvering down the mountain.

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While we didn’t get to the top, we did still find this awesome view of West Railay.

On our way back to the hotel, we met a Spanish family who was looking to rent a longtail boat to Krabi Town. Looking for a deal, we joined them, paying 300 THB each for the trip. The 40 minute journey was bumpy but offered great views of the stunning coast.

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Our longtail boat docked in Krabi Town.

Once in Krabi Town, we checked into the Amity Poshtel before making our way to a market for food. After having our fill of chicken, pork and fried dough, we walked through Krabi Town, settling for a coffee the Easy Cafe. Our taste buds heightened, we found a lingering desire for our old friend Chang, and found a nearby newer bar for a few drinks.

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You can see Chelsea pondering while looking out of the bar window.

After a little bit of rain, we made our way down the riverside, finding a bar across from the Crab Statue. One last Chang with some live music ended our night in Krabi Town.

 

Day 11: End of Thailand, Take One

Day 11 marked our last day in Thailand, on our first go-round. We skipped breakfast at the hostel, opting instead for a local place down the corner. Pork soup, salapao, shrimp dumplings and fish balls filled our stomachs in preparation for the day.

After breakfast, we went on the search for tickets to the airport shuttle bus. We retraced our steps from our first bus ride through Krabi Town on Day 7. Luckily we found the station, paying 90 THB each for a bus ticket. Our staff member told us that the bus would pick us up at an Esso gas station near our hostel. Weary of this, we made our way back to the hostel.

We checked out around 11:00am, taking our bags with us as we visited Wat Kaew Korawaram. Saying goodbye to our dog friends, we left for the Esso gas station.

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Chelsea giving me some veterinary lessons.

We arrived at the Esso 15 minutes early, not knowing what sense of time we were dealing with. We waited by the curb, searching desperately in the distance for the familiar large, white bus. Ten minutes after our scheduled pickup time, the bus rolled to a stop before us and we climbed in. After 30 minutes on the bus we arrived at the Krabi Airport.

The flights from Krabi to Bangkok and Bangkok to Hanoi went without any problems. In Vietnam for the first time, we had to present our E-Visa to immigration control. I expected a delayed, complicated process, but after handing our E-Visa slip and my passport to the guard, he stamped my passport and waved me past with a smile.

After picking up a SIM card and using the ATM, we decided on taking a shuttle van from the airport to our hotel. For 120,000 VND per person, we made the 40 minute journey to our hotel, even receiving free water and a snack along the way.

At our hotel, we checked in, dropped our bags, then wandered into the Hanoi night searching for food. We first stopped at a restaurant in a night market, though the prices were more than we wanted to pay (300,000 to 500,000 VND). We instead found a Bahn Mi cart run by a pleasant woman. She made us our first Bahn Mi for 15,000 VND. Needless to say, we scarfed the sandwich down before searching for more edibles. We stumbled on a few plastic stools on the sidewalk surrounding tiny plastic tables. An older woman was sitting by a large pot, and she welcomed us to two open stools.

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The best places in Hanoi are right on the sidewalk.

We both shared one bowl of pork soup, sipping on a warm Hanoi beer. Filled and satisfied, we made our way back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep.

 

Ayutthaya

Day 3

Bangkok is a huge city: 8.2 million people with a population density of 14,000 per square mile1 (compare this with New York City’s similar population but with a density of 28,000 per square mile2). Chelsea and I couldn’t possibly see all that the city has to offer in the few days that we were there. We were happy with what we did see, however, and decided to venture outside of the city a bit.

Our destination for our second full day in Thailand would be the country’s capital before Bangkok: Ayutthaya. We decided that this would be our place to visit the morning of our trip, during breakfast. We had to scramble to pack and get out on the street to find a taxi. It took us some time, but we finally found a cab that would take us to the Bangkok Train Station, informally called Hua Lamphong. We arrived with 30 minutes to spare, so we purchased a coffee, sat for a few minutes, then boarded the train to get a seat.

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In Hua Lamphong station, checking out all of the folks sitting in the lobby.

Ayutthaya is about an hour drive north of Bangkok. By train, this trip take about two hours and change. Chelsea and I were fortunate enough to get a seat, so the trip was comfortable and seemed quick to us. We mainly focused on what passed us outside the windows: a tantalizing combination of small villages, farms and open grasslands. We stayed alert for our own stop, though this was not necessary as the conductor of our car made sure to stop by our seats and tell us personally that our stop would be next. What amazing service…

We debarked the train and immediately searched for bike rental places. If you know me and Chelsea, you know that we have some pretty good experience with riding bikes in urban areas. We decided that this experience would translate well in another country. What we didn’t expect was the difficulty of finding a bicycle for rent! The places near the Ayutthaya train station were not renting that day, so we took a ferry to the other side of the Pa Sak River.

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On the ferry, heading from the west side of the Pa Sak River to the east side.

There we easily found bikes to rent for the day. We rode less than a mile from the bike rental place to the Rama Public Park to visit Wat Mahathat. We were both amazed by the size of the site, having seen wats in Bangkok that were much smaller than this wat in Ayutthaya. Having been built in the 14th century, this entire complex was a shell of what it once was: the center prang, once standing at 164 feet tall collapsed in 1904 and again in 1911 to now only stand about 25 feet in height. Regardless of the disarray of the temples and prangs, the complex was still a sight to see, even with the hot sun rising over our heads.

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The umbrella isn’t for show: the sun was blistering that day.

After visiting Wat Mahathat we regrouped on our bikes and rode west toward Wat Phra Si Sanphet. We rode along a busy road to get there, so we were glad to see a dedicated bike lane on the side of the road as one would see in major US cities. What we did not expect was that this lane would be used by all kinds of bikes: bicycles and motorbikes alike. We carefully trekked along on our 1970s era cruisers, eventually arriving at Wat Phra Si Sanphet. After purchasing our tickets (30 baht each), we walked into the complex, our eyes locked on the three spires rising into the air.

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The Wat Phra Si Sanphet chedis really dominate the Ayutthaya sky.

We took our time as we walked alongside the three chedis that stood imposingly in the center of the complex. Despite being built in the 14th century, the chedis still showed incredible detail in their design. The complex included ruins of old temples and halls, all enclosed by a border wall.

Nearby Wat Phra Si Sanphet is Wihan Phra Mongkhon Bophit, a modern Buddhist temple. Unfortunately, the temple was closed for renovations (this was a frequent occurrence for us, as we were visiting in the off-season). We took some time to rest, apply sunscreen and plan our next steps. We created a route around the city that would allow us to at least ride past some of the recommended sites. What we did not expect was that the map given to us by our bike rental place would not be to scale. The route we planned was much longer than we wanted it to be, and we missed several places that we planned to see. One thing we did come across was our first exposure to elephants. There was a herd of around eight or so elephants at Khun Phaen’s residence, each with a mahout lounging in a saddle on its back.

With the sun beating down on us, the temperature rising, and the traffic becoming worse and worse, we decided to continue on our way to Wat Phra Ram. While not the largest of the three complexes that we saw that day, Wat Phra Ram still retained its large central prang, something that Wat Mahathat lost decades ago.

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We really enjoyed the detail of the central prang  at Wat Phra Ram.

While there, we watched a group of schoolkids pass us and begin to climb up one of the four sets of stairs that led to the doors of the central prang. Not understanding a word that they said to each other, we enjoyed watching local children play in the centuries-old structure that had such strong significance long ago. They yelled at us in English as we snapped pictures of them and waved from afar.

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Children playing on the central prang at Wat Phra Ram. They yelled at us in English after we took this picture.

From there, we journeyed on our metal stallions back to the place where they once came. Tired, sunburned, hungry and partially dehydrated, we took the ferry back across the river and found a vendor selling fried chicken wings. We took our bag of chicken and the cold water we found to the train platform and refueled there. After few Chang beers and some happy toast, our train to Bangkok arrived on time. We climbed on board, found a seat next to a sleeping man, and rode in the quiet Thai night back to the country’s largest metropolis.

While exhausted, our night did not end there. We were hungry from our long day, so we decided to stay local for dinner that night. A ten minute walk from our hotel took us to Thipsamai, a local restaurant known for its pad thai. When we arrived, we stepped into the line that extended into the street. Quick service got us into the restaurant about ten minutes later. Our waitress handed us the menu. They were not just known for their pad thai: all they served was pad thai.

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The menu at Thipsamai. Easy and simple! 

While waiting for our food, we noticed that the walls were adorned with American, Australian and British news articles that touted Thipsamai for its original pad thai dish. We looked around, seeing mostly tourists in the shop. We didn’t care: we were tourists, and a good pad thai dish was what we wanted. We shared both dishes and they were completely clean in a matter of minutes.

On our walk back, we were sucked into a small beer shop by an overwhelmingly friendly and outgoing shopkeeper. I can honestly say that I have never seen someone so proud of his or her beer selection. He continually touted his “Thai craft beer” as he pointed to the glass door of the small refrigerator. We checked a few of his bottles, and while they were definitely craft beers that I had never seen before, none of them were brewed in Thailand. Wanting something local, I picked up a Leo from the selection. His face dropped as I placed the lager on the counter. Thank goodness Chelsea was there with me and picked something from one of the shelves which he had been referring to. This picked his spirits back up as we paid, and we walked down the quiet Bangkok street back to the hotel.

…but we didn’t make it back just yet. Feeling positive after our experience with our bottle shop friend, we decided to see Khao San Road during its prime time of 11:30pm. As we grew closer and closer to the street, we saw more drunk tourists stumbling, heard louder house music blaring and rejected more offers for shirts, food and tuk-tuk rides. We turned down the once quiet road that we experienced only two days earlier and found ourselves in an environment that we could not possibly expect. The quiet shops that lined the streets had transformed into bars. The street that saw scooter and car traffic by day now was flooded by bleary-eyed, drunk youths. At first we enjoyed the transformation, watching extremely drunk hooligans stumble from one side of the street to another. As time went on, however, we became less and less entertained by the ever increasing crowds. We strolled along Khao San Road and another sister street nearby, though quickly made our way back to our hotel for safety: hearing the seventh man yell “ping pong show” in our faces and making popping sounds with his mouth was enough for us.

 


1- “Table 1 Population by sex, household type and household by type, average size of private household by region and area: 2010”. Statistic tables, NSO website. National Statistics Office. Retrieved 18 September 2012.

2- NYC Pop: Community Facts for New York city, New York, United States Census Bureau. Accessed May 26, 2017.

Bangkok

Day 2

It is difficult waking up in a new time zone at 9:45am, when your body is accustomed to 10:30pm. The mental grogginess is somewhat overwhelming, and physically your muscles do not move with any type of coordination. Your bed, which is an automatic upgrade from an 18.3-inch wide airplane seat, is incredibly more enticing than it normally would be at home. The air conditioning, which keeps out the extreme mugginess and heat of a Thai morning, makes you even less excited to leave your bedroom.

But, what makes this all easier is knowing that you have a complimentary breakfast at your hotel, which ends promptly at 10:00am. It was this fact that rushed Chelsea and I out of our beds and downstairs to the garden of our hotel.

Our stay at the Baan Dinso Hotel included a complimentary breakfast each morning, something which we made sure to take advantage of.  There were three options on the menu: an egg and meat dish (Western option), a prawn soup (Eastern option) and a vegetable spread (Vegan option). Our standard go-to during our stay at the hotel was the egg and meat dish, which was definitely satisfying, though I did try the prawn soup one morning which was still delicious.

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That is a super tired smile.

We took our time eating breakfast and pulled out our customized Google map on the laptop. While sipping our tea and coffee we strategically planned our morning events, knowing that we would have to move quickly from one place to another to avoid missing any sites before they closed. Sometime during our planning session, we were joined by a seemingly friendly and lethargic cat, who later revealed his unfriendly, food-seeking nature.

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He looked like a Henry, even though that is an incredibly un-Thai name.

As the day was planned and we realized that it was reaching 11:00am, Chelsea and I quickly finished breakfast and readied ourselves for the day. Our first step was to buy a sim card for the mobile hot-spot device that we decided to bring. We asked one of the employees at the hotel where we could buy one and she told us that Khao San Road would be our best bet. We took our packs and off we went.

Khao San Road is a stretch of about four blocks that transforms from an urban market by day to a crazed and well-traveled party spot at night. We experienced the former on our first venture out into Bangkok, and were quickly exposed to possible problems with the language barrier. We entered into a familiar-enough 7-Eleven at the recommendation of the Baan Dinso employee. Chelsea and I desperately struggled to select the correct sim card for our needs, eventually settling on the 8 Day Tourist option. From there, the 7-Eleven employee working with us then began working on registering the card. He rejected the hot spot when we offered it to him, explaining several times in Thai and in English that he needed a cell phone to get the sim card registered. Red in the face and somewhat nervous, we stepped away from the register and fumbled through our day packs for any cell phone. After what felt like hours of trying to get the sim card out of my phone, we returned to the register and offered the device to our hopeful savior. He looked at the phone, then looked at us, and finally rang up the sim card and asked for payment. We gave him the Baht he requested, then he turned to the next customer in line for servicing. Taking our tiny plastic card with us, we decided to get on with our day and figure the technology out later.

Walking through Bangkok as a foreigner is an experience in and of itself.  In the land of Thais, Chelsea and I stood out like a sore thumb. Stepping outside of 7-Eleven, we were bombarded with requests for taxis, tuk-tuks, clothing, purses, food… Wanting to be polite, we calmly addressed each petition as it came, as we knew where we wanted to go and how to get there. One man approached us for a tuk-tuk ride, explaining that he could show us all around the city. After our first rejection, he maintained the smile on his face as introduced himself as a Columbian transplant to Bangkok. He wanted to show us how to get to our next destination quickly, and offered to do so for free by foot. Chelsea and I never really said yes, we just continued to walk in the same direction in which we were originally going. He walked quickly ahead of us, turning from time to time to chat quickly about a Wat or our own personal lives. We deviated slightly from the path that we laid out on our map, and he quickly ushered us into a travel agent store before shaking our hands and leaving. A friendly woman greeted us as we entered, and took us to a desk where another smiling woman asked us about our travel plans. With our Colombian guide gone and our first breath taken after entering, we realized that this may be some sort of a tourist scam. We explained that we intended to go to Chiang Mai after Bangkok, and had no plans after that. The seated woman, offering little information, explained that she could help us purchase our tickets to and lodgings in Chiang Mai. My mind raced during this time: what would make a salesman walk 20 minutes with a couple of tourists to a travel agent? Why did this woman offer to purchase something for us every time we mentioned a new thing that we wanted to do? After a few moments, I finally realized that we were most likely in the middle of a scam: the travel agency books tickets, lodgings or events for tourists at higher than normal prices, and our Colombian friend receives a small kickback for his service of bringing the tourists there. “We actually have everything purchased that we need already, so thank you for your offer.” I replied confidently to the woman behind the desk, just before watching her smile quickly turn into a disappointed and misunderstood frown. Chelsea and I quickly made our way out the doors, while the other employees there asked us about our travel plans. We didn’t look back.

We set our sights on a dock called Tha Tien, intending to take a ferry across the Chao Phraya River to see Wat Arun. We wandered through a few tiny streets, eventually stumbling on a checkpoint where we had to show our bags and our passports. We complied, as the guards there were friendly and seemed to want us to go through. We collected our belongings and continued, only to realize that the checkpoint was the way into the Grand Palace compound, the de jure residence of the King of Bangkok. The fortified complex is surrounded by four enormous walls, which Chelsea and I followed until we found the entrance. Once inside the walls, we understood why this was one of the most famous tourist sites in Thailand: well groomed grass, Wat Phra Kaew and its Emerald Buddha, gold statues and monuments at each turn, buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries, gorgeous murals, and the palace itself. We spent a few hours in there, reading each of the information placards placed about and even becoming celebrities when another tourist asked if he could take his picture with us!

After the palace, we continued on our way to Tha Tien. A friendly tuk-tuk driver offered to take us to the dock for 10 baht each (about 30 cents) after he takes us to see a giant standing Buddha statue.

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Nothing like a five-story golden Buddha statue on a hot, humid day.

We agreed, mostly because riding on a tuk-tuk was on our bucket list but also because we thought it to be a deal. The driver repeated the offer multiple times throughout the trip, eventually throwing in another place to visit: “Thai fashion.” Neither of us knew what that was, though it all made sense after we arrived at a tailor shop. “John” was our guide at the shop, and he took us into a private room and showed us some lovely pictures and fabrics, offering to make suits, shirts and dresses for us. We politely declined everything, slowly making our way back outside to the tuk-tuk driver while John’s smile grew weaker and weaker. Back in the tuk-tuk, the driver was less talkative than before, and dropped us off at a dock that was farther south than Tha Tien. At this dock, we were greeted by several people offering boat tours around the canals Wat Arun. We told the tuk-tuk driver several times that we did not want to do such a tour, though he decided to drive us there regardless. We found a Chinese couple who had the same misfortune, and who were also looking to take the ferry to Wat Arun. They joined our team and the four of us made headway as we rejected every tailor, masseuse, tuk-tuk driver and ferry captain who offered us a “great deal.” The Chinese couple ended up purchasing a bag of mangoes and the ferry tickets for us. We never did learn their names.

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Chelsea at Wat Arun, sitting at one of the four prangs that surround the larger prang in the center. 

From there things were a slight blur. We did Wat Arun, walked down the river to Wat Pho, then headed back to the hotel for showers and rest. We decided to hit Bangkok’s Chinatown for dinner, hearing that they have a wonderful night market on Yaowarat Road. We walked the 30 minutes through Bangkok streets to get there, and the long walk in the hot, humid weather was worth it. We walked up and down Yaowarat Road, eyes opened wide at the multitude of food options available to us. We called it quits after a fried noodle dish, two Chang beers (the large ones), pepper soup (which is as spicy as it sounds), Thai crepes (aka Khanom Buang), and a rice and pork dish.

Chelsea Noodles Chinatown Bangkok
Yes, that is a cast iron plate and yes, the noodles were crispy on the bottom…

Our walk back to the hotel was slow and strenuous, tired from the day and groggy from the food. We slept well that first night, excited for our second take on Thailand’s biggest city.

Packing and Travel

Day 1

It’s 11:30pm. You’re leaving for a trip the next morning at 6:00am. Dinner has just finished and you have yet to pack anything. Not really an unfamiliar scenario, right?

Well, this isn’t a trip to some familiar big city, like San Francisco, somewhere comfortable like Disney World, or even somewhere somewhat exotic like Madison, Wisconsin. This is a month-long trip to a place that is nowhere similar to what you’ve experienced before, a place where the customs and languages are so unfamiliar that months of research still leaves you scratching your head. The place is Southeast Asia.

This is the way our trip started and, as I write this mid-flight to Detroit, everything has worked out perfectly. We successfully delivered the puppy to my sister and brother-in-law, made a hodge-podge, fridge-clearing dinner (of quesadillas, grilled asparagus, and a cheese board), enjoyed a glass of white wine (it was going to go bad), and finished packing, all between 8:00pm and 12:00am. After four and a half hours of sleep, we shot out of bed and finished prepping so we could catch our 5:30am Uber to the MegaBus stop at 30th Street Station.

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This poor child has no idea what she is in for…

Our first trip drama started on the bus ride to New York. It began with my loud snoring, which was disruptive enough to wake me up and I’m sure aggravate the daily Philadelphia-to-New York commuters who were forced to endure it. Chelsea and I started staring at our watches as we sat on the bus, stationary, for close to 30 minutes outside of the Lincoln Tunnel. Negative thoughts rushed into our minds: Are we seriously going to miss the first flight on our trip? Can’t our driver do anything about this? Why do so many people live in New York? Will Chelsea’s bag make it through security as a carry-on item? Fortunately, our driver was the Dale Earnhardt, Jr. of buses and weasled his way out of the mess and into the dedicated bus lane. We watched victoriously out the windows at the non-bus vehicles, proud of ourselves for doing absolutely no reason (after all, it was Mr. Megabus who got us going again).

Once across the tunnel and off the bus, everything flowed smoothly. We caught the E line to the Roosevelt Street bus depot, then jumped on the Q70 bus to LaGuardia.

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This fella looks a little out of place.

Further drama ensued as we entered the TSA security line. A lone watchdog, confidently wearing her LaGuardia staff polo, us out of the line. Her next words brought back the negative thoughts that I created on the bus: “Ma’am, your bag is much too large. You will have to check that. Sir, your bag is perfectly fine but hers is overpacked.” Chelsea and I pleaded with the woman, even taking off Chelsea’s day pack offering to redistribute the items across our four bags, though her last phrase sealed our fate: “Ma’am, because you are being difficult, you will most certainly have to check your bag now…” She left your two lone travelers staring at each other and trying to understand what just happened. After a few “Ummm’s” and stupified looks, a TSA agent who watched the whole ordeal approached us. “Now, why don’t you two just get back into line…” She started while darting her eyes back and forth for any other members of the Bag Police. “…Your bag should be fine as it is. Just don’t put that little bag back on…” She finished just before bringing her finger to our lips, showing us that we are not to share this with anyone and instantly becoming friends with this TSA stranger.

We flew through the security line, even after my bag was pulled from the line for a necessary swab test (baby wipes were the culprit) and made it to our gate with an hour or so to spare. After people watching and placing our necessary phone calls to loved ones, we boarded our 12:45pm plane to Detroit 20 minutes late. Here we sit now, those negative thoughts of missing flights rushing back as I calculate how much of our one hour layover we lost in Detroit.

So, those are the first six hours of our 26 day adventure. I definitely consider it a good start, and look forward to the next 618. Now, another trip-related topic for this post is packing. Chelsea and I really did some homework on packing tips and essentials, hoping that we would hit that sweetspot between packing way too little and overpacking.

 

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This is what we started with…

Well, only time will tell if we accomplished what we set out to do. However, I did want to lay out what we did pack. For clothing, we both focused on making sure that we had enough items to last us a week. We plan on doing laundry two or three times during our trip, and maybe swapping some old clothes for new ones while we are here. Chelsea, being the smart lady that she is, purchased packing cubes for both of us.

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…and what was left after the packing cubes!

These packing cubes have worked out great so far, and it has only been one day into our trip! They not only help with packing, but they keep things organized while in our bags!

Some of the other things we packed included:

  • A mobile hot-spot, which is compatible with sim cards in each country we are considering
  • Two external batteries, just in case we need on-the-go charging
  • Laptop
  • Nice camera
  • Sleeping bag liners, for the random guesthouse that doesn’t have sheets
  • Kindle Fire, plus a few books outside of that to leave abroad
  • Microfiber towels, as some places may not offer towels to guests
  • Eye patches and ear plugs, for long, loud train or plane rides
  • A concoction of medication that could put a grown elephant to sleep then wake it up again
  • Two day-packs, one for each of us to take out on urban or rural hikes

As I wrote earlier, only time will tell if all of these things were necessary for our trip. I’ve used each item at least once already (save the external batteries) so I would say they’ve been pretty great so far!