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Bikepacking Spain: Andalusia

Spain is one of my favorite countries – the amazing array of cuisine, music, language, art and traditions. Each region has a distinct culture and history, making exploring the country a rich experience. The natural side of things is just as diverse; Spain is home to lush forests, winding rivers, rugged coasts, natural sandy beaches, expansive savanna, snow capped mountains, an island volcano, and even a desert. On top of that, most of the country is at a high altitude, which, combined with the Mediterranean climate, means very strong distinct seasonal changes.

I wanted to travel Spain by bike in order to cover more ground than a hiking trip but also remain in close contact to my surroundings. Although I have visited many times before, I had never made it to Andalusia in the southern area of the mainland. After looking at a few sample itineraries pulled from commercial cycling tours (I do this a lot – a great way to get a template), I decided on a route hitting major historic cities (Seville, Córdoba and Granada) and mixing in a variety of landscapes (orchards along rolling hills, curving river valleys, arid plains full of cacti, rugged mountains and maybe even some snow in the Sierra Nevada). Sticking with about 80 km a day, I would have the freedom to stop and linger in a place, wander a bit off course and keep enough time to camp and hike in the Sierra Nevada mountains all in eight days time, a realistic international vacation length for an American. The route gains about 2,400 meters in elevation, the bulk of that on day five, the second half of the leg between Córdoba and Granada.

Seville to Córdoba

I took off from Seville where I arrived the previous evening. One night was enough to eat a delicious dinner, walk about the old city center and get to know a few other travelers in my hostel. I departed from the beautiful city in early afternoon after zipping around the old quarter for sightseeing by bicycle before a Friday tourist crowd began to build. Seville is very bright and cheerful with a classic historic area, picturesque narrow and crooked streets and a massive bull fighting arena. The most interesting place for me was the Plaza de Toros, the famous bull ring and museum. I’ve visited much of Spain over the last few years yet haven’t seen an active bullring. Within the building, sits the Museo Taurino, a small museum decorated with old posters and images of past events and I enjoyed the photographs and artistic renditions of bullfighting.

The Plaza de toros de la Real Maestranza

As predicted getting through the suburban build up of Seville was a bit of a pain using roads suitable for a road bike. However, once out of the city, the 90 km route to Palma Del Rio felt easy on the legs and pleasantly flat, winding through farm fields and orange groves the entire way. Cacti grow aside the dusty roads along with colorful wildflowers adding some variety to the scorched fields. The area reminded me very much of southern California.

Many of the fields looked empty but I eventually passed a large orange grove in harvest with workers filling massive bins. Many wore a plain blue baseball cap to protect from a strong May sun. By early afternoon the air was thick with serious heat and my white t-shirt was soiled from sweat the dusty air. After battling to keep dry and warm in Portugal, Spain felt entirely different and like a whole new world.

My camping spot for the night was supposed to be in a park near Palma Del Rio. However, after arriving to the site around dusk, I found that camping was no longer offered and the park closed. Due to fatigue I just spent the night wild camping on a river bend just outside of the city. I had no interest in roaming around looking for guesthouses so late an in a transitional season.

Castillo de Almodóvar del Río.

Day two continued from Palma Del Rio to Córdoba after lazily drinking coffees at a cute cafe in the city watching elderly people out on walks, playing dominoes on picnic tables and just enjoying their Friday morning. After an hour or so resting in the town I started back along highway 431 headed straight to Córdoba.

It was foolish to start the day so late and I ended up feeling the heat quickly. Inland Spain doesn’t have a lingering spring like Portugal and leaps right into summertime heat. At round three in the afternoon when the sun was strongest, I noticed a bright blue baseball cap in the ditch near the road. I stopped to pick it up and gave it a once over and noticed what looked like some paint stains and minor use but it looked clean enough to be my new cap! My previous hat was lost to the sea winds between Sintra and Lisbon a week earlier and I very happy to shade my face with my harvester cap.

Some very friendly goats decided to investigate my bicycle.

Not long after, looking into the distance I was able to make out a very steep and high hill with a castle almost cartoonish in its size and appearance; it looked like something out of a movie. As I cycled closer a very well-preserved castle with Moorish details came into view. I decided to check it out and take a break to lunch in Almodóvar del Río. Through a brief conversation with the local townspeople, I found out the castle is 1,300 years old and got some major retouching about 700 years ago. The good condition of the structure has allowed it to be featured as setting for some television shows.

About 25 kilometers after my lunch break I reached Córdoba and went directly to one of the many squares for cake, coffee and people watching. Afterwards began a very difficult and long ascent to Los Villares Park for a night of organized camping. Only nine kilometers out of the heart of the city, the road to the park was incredibly steep and took any remaining energy I had left. I reached the hilltop park at about 9 pm and felt immense relief seeing cars in the parking lot and a small lit building. However, I was a month too early for camping season! The night workers were very kind and said that since I came all the way up on bicycle and darkness was fast approaching, I could pick a spot in the park for the night free of charge. Although that meant no amenities like a shower or a bathroom after the park closed at 10 pm, it was a welcome comprise. The park looked like a gorgeous place to explore and I tried to see as much of it was possible before heading back down to Cordoba the next morning.

A shot from historic Cordoba.

Spain ended up being a tricky place to camp on-the-fly: sometimes “camping” signs with tent icons really meant a site just for RVs or caravans. Many campsites with full websites online didn’t have information about when their season would begin or had possibly never been updated since the previous summer, making it seem open for business. Overall the camp accommodation scene felt a bit disorganized, especially coming from Portugal, where every location was up and running and any campsite located on major mapping apps were in fact campsites. I wrongly assumed camping and outdoor sports would be more common in May before the brutally hot Spanish summer set in. I ‘d recommend planning to stay in guesthouses, hotels or some other form of accommodation in this area in April and May.

I enjoyed grabbing a coffee and just walking the streets and seeing the Moorish-inspired building details in Granada and Cordoba.

Córdoba to Granada

After spending a full day wandering Córdoba and successfully camping (yay!) in El Brillante, actually in the city, it was time for a two-day challenging ride to Granada. Approaching Granada was like entering a magical world. For the first several hours of riding, olive tree fields hug close to the road and go on as far as the eye can see. The terrain slowly changes from flat to dramatic slopes with sudden sharp peaks. On these peaks usually perch fortresses and castles with little medieval towns below. The white red-roofed buildings sit in crooked rows along streets softy coiling around the hill. Highway 432 route passes many of these picturesque towns-Alcaudele, Alcalá al Real, Espejo, Baena. Only in Granada would I hear the term “pueblos blancos” used to describe these places, which apparently makeup a tourist route of sorts, connecting the major cities of Andalusia. I had no idea to expect this kind of scenery and really enjoyed the surprise.

The enchanting Sierra Nevada mountains are visible from far very away and provided a sort of motivation for the toughest part of the trip. It did take a while for me to notice them because snowy white peaks against a very bright sky create an illusion of jagged clouds. It is a strange visual but when you know to look for mountains, it becomes clear. The area between Cordoba and Granada is beautiful and it’s a lot of fun to just ride while enjoying the view.

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Scenes from a wonderful few days in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

The feel of Granada was unique among the Spanish towns. The “old town” is fairly spread out so although the entire neighborhood is dependent on tourism, there is no claustrophobic feeling or huge crowds like the old parts of Seville or Barcelona. There is a small shopping area in the center but it’s less youthful and trendy than Madrid, so there’s a bit less madness. I fount it clean, inviting, relaxing and characteristic of much of Spain, and especially Andalusia.

I initially passed through on the way to the Sierra Nevada but would return to Granada to close out the journey. The first three nights in the area were spent up in the mountains at Los Lomas sitting about 500 meters above Granada near a large reservoir with a wonderful view. Cycling up was tough but very much worth it. The area was just beautiful, refreshingly cool and near a nice network of hiking trails (some going deep into the mountains). Camping for a few days provided a bit of rest and recharging after five days of cycling.

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An archway in the Alhambra. I highly recommend a visit if you are near Granada.

After a few days it was time to go down to the city and see some sights. Andalusia is full of Moorish architecture but Granada is the single best place to see these buildings, along with many courtyard gardens and quaint homes along little streets winding up the hillsides. Even the adorable hostel where I stayed had an open central courtyard! In Granada I really took it easy. I spend a day visiting Alhambra, a palace with an amazing display of 14th-century Moorish architecture located on al-Sabika hill. I normally don’t do things like visit the inside of palaces, temples, etc. but I had a feeling this would be special, dazzling and different. The Alhambra was just lovely and each area had detail and color to appreciate; the visit took a long time and was a great experience.

Two days in Granada went by quickly and thus brought an end to a wonderful journey cycling through Andalusia, Spain.

Thanks for reading!

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Bikepacking Portugal (Part One)

Bom dia from Nazaré, 250 kilometers into a dream cycling journey along the Portuguese coast from Porto to Lagos.

My second visit to this beautiful country and my first time backpacking is off to a great start passing along the beautiful coast and through adorable villages, enjoying warm dinners and sunny coffee breaks. I’ve found Portugal is a wonderful and affordable place to explore on your own, especially on two wheels.

I’m touring on a racing bike borrowed from a friend, doctored to accommodate a rack purchased from Decathlon. The light frame and fit will help me maintain a steady pace along a patchwork of roads that loosely follow along the coast and in south, the Fishermens Trail, also know as the Rota Vicentina. The ride is meant to be simple with the freedom to dismount and take day hikes or explore on foot in villages or beaches. A tent, sleeping bag, pad, spare tubes, pump, odometer, power bank, lock, tarp and small supply of clothing are in tow. For ease of travel and to experience the local cuisine along my path, I decided against carrying cooking supplies; Portugal is a great place to find cheap, delicious meals and fresh produce and my route never strays too far from the beaten path. I am however, carrying a wine bottle opener and utensils.

A dinner of Francesinha and wine in Porto.

Planning the route was a challenge as there is no single cycling coastal route. While waiting for the bikes to arrive (shipped from Austria) my travel companion and I explored Lisbon by day and examined maps and organized our itinerary by night. The biggest issue with the planning was eliminating some dream stops from the trip – for me this included Coimbra and Sagres. There are simply too many historical and alluring sites in Portugal for one trip but once we acknowledged this, it was easy to agree to a rough path. The itinerary is loose enough to add days in places we loved, or to wait out bad weather and make small detours if something amazing or unexpected showed itself along the way. We decided to research multiple places to stay each night and pick the option that made the most sense on the go. Our route began in Porto and hits Nazaré, Obidos, Sintra, Parque Natural da Arrábida, Aljezur and Lagos. When cycling paths are available we will follow them but we are also using major roads in some stretches to save time. The journey also includes a train trip from Lisbon to Porto, our starting point, and two short ferry rides, one over the Tagus in Lisbon and the other from Setúbal to the Troia Peninsula. The route will cover about 700 kilometers in total over two weeks.

You could say things officially began in a north suburb of Lisbon where we assembled our bikes and then boarded a train to Porto. We found our tickets a few days in advance on the Rail Europe website. One way to tickets were about 30 USD and the bicycles were free to transport, however, we had to chose a seat on a train that still had room for the bikes. Before leaving we made a stop off at a suburban Decathelon to buy spare tubes, a mini pump, bike rack, sleeping pad and padded cycling bottoms. These items were cheaper than they would be at home and the quality was appropriate for our needs.

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The bike all packed up.

Porto is an interesting city to explore and has it’s own feel, much different than Lisbon. We found a cycling-friendly hostel not far from the train station and after securing our bikes inside we wandered around the Baixa neighborhood and riverfront. The beautiful weather and springtime air added the perfect touch to a lovely evening of rich food and lots of port. I almost wanted to delay the trip to spend more time in the city but I knew I was likely to become attached to every destination and would have to learn to move on – something I always find hard while traveling.

The following morning we crossed the Ponte Luis and took an immediate right onto the Av. Diogo Leite. A bike friendly riverfront road follows along the Douro until the Atlantic coast at the Douro Estuary Viewpoint. We then took off south along the coast on a well marked and maintained cycling path. Cafes and markets are everywhere on the first 100 kilometers and most communities have bike parking and a welcoming vibe to cyclists. It felt largely suburban and was a good opportunity to tweak the bikes and the packing system before we were far from civilization. If we were to have forgotten anything or needed a change it would have been easy to find a bike shop or hardware store.

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The first of a few unplanned wild camping nights. I would recommend spending a few bucks on international or Skype calls to confirm campgrounds are truly operational before showing up.

The first night of camping was a dream staying on sand near Reserva Natural das Dunas de São Jacinto, about 70 kilometers south of Porto. The sound of the sea and the soft sand was very comforting to me and I was really grateful such a wonderful place was our stopping place for the night. Although the day’s terrain was flat, navigating the continuous urban landscape was tiring; we were almost constantly checking our map app to ensure we were on the right course. We made so many errors and took “the long way” several times so that our odometers read 90 kilometers when we made camp. Navigation is a big frustration of going your own way but something we were mentally prepared for.

About 150 km south of Porto, the modern buildings and bright seaside settlements thin out before Nazaré and the landscape is dominated by forest. It was at this point we realized how unfamiliar we were with Portugal itself. We had seen a forested camping area on the map and decided it would make a nice place to camp that night, however, unknown to us it had been destroyed a year before in a devastating wildfire. The entire area around Marinha Grande was ashen and grey, it was honestly frightening to see. Although a few long sections followed an even cycle path, even the roads are damaged (as of 2018) – partially melted and with a rough riding experience similar to cobblestone. Fortunately, some patches are already starting to recover with wildflowers and shrubs in every color bursting through the soil and deer exploring the hollows.

After two nights of camping we wanted the third night spent indoors at Nazaré Hostel and take it easy. The city is absolutely gorgeous, known for it’s massive waves and extreme surf competitions. Nazaré is what I imagine when I think of Portugal – dramatic cliffs and oceanscape with a little town set along a hill dotted white washed houses and red roofs (thanks Sue and Brian for suggesting this pretty town).

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Nazare in the evening.

After three days what do I think of the route? We arrived in Portugal directly from a three month trip in Southeast Asia and managing our private belongings and working with what we already have dictated the way we packed. I have a 40L backpack strapped to the bike rack and am not using actual panniers. This works well most of the time and forces me to travel light but on uneven roads it jiggles loose. My travel companion is was able to get two of his own bikes shipped to us from his home for about 50 USD. The trade off with the huge savings is that the bike I’m using is a little too big and not meant for rough roads. It does seem to be working well for what we have done so far. A nightly ritual is chaining the high value bikes up with a padlock to keep them protected. Edit: at no point in the trip did anyone attempt to take the bikes. We felt the peace of mind was worth carrying around the lock and chain. Drivers seem attentive and we feel safe on the road,  however aggressive dogs have caused us problems. I was actually bitten in the leg south of Nazaré on a busy public road but had enough thick layers on to prevent puncture. Edit: To us, dogs ended up being the most threatening part of the trip, which was overall very safe.

If we enjoy our adventure on the Portuguese coast we will immediately follow up with a two week trip through southern Spain. I look forward to updating you!

Thanks for reading!

Hanoi, Vietnam

My ten-day* visit to Vietnam began in Hanoi. Upon arrival I noticed a completely different feel from anywhere I’d been before. Heading into the city at night from the airport, it was difficult to get a good view, however, it was quite easy to hear the noises of the metropolis. With roughly eight million people calling Hanoi home, the city is very much alive: talking, shouting, laughing, honking, screeching, music booming and roosters crowing. Even so, I enjoyed my short introduction to Vietnam; meeting other travelers was very easy and visiting alone worked perfectly. The city is full of exceptionally outgoing people and most days I was invited to a beer, dinner or coffee by a total stranger. *I loved my short visit so much that I soon returned for a road trip across the country – an experience I’ll write about soon.

Trying to piece together a vision of Hanoi before visiting was difficult. Easy-to-find information for prospective travelers is, unfortunately, repetitive and covers narrow ground; doing a circuit of war museums, gawking at the famous train street or grabbing bún chả where President Obama and Anthony Bourdain dined. I also found an appalling amount of “tip” sites exclusively directed at men focused on when and how to pick up drunk or drugged female backpackers or how to buy local women (tourists’ feelings of entitlement in Asia can be extreme and alarming)I filled information gaps with stories and pictures from small travel/personal blogs run by women, travelers living outside the U.S. and Australia, and Vietnamese people traveling their own country. Some of this was found on WordPress but many social media channels were used. After a bit of work I had a simple list of activities and places unique to Hanoi that would get me out and about and getting to see things for myself. In reality, it was challenging to actually follow the plan because of how social other travelers and local people turned out to be. Everyone wanted to chat, hang out, show me something or go exploring. I’m always a concerned while traveling alone that there may be times when I feel lonely or bored but I think it might have been impossible for that to happen in Hanoi.

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Rooftop view.

The first day I simply wandered the streets and alleys stopping when anything delicious came into view (or, as a coffee addict, the aroma of roasting beans hung in the air). Common Vietnamese dishes known to westerners – phở, chả cá, bánh mi, cốm and bún cha are easy to spot, as well as traditional, and all sorts of fusion and foreign eateries, including American fast food. During meal times groups of people just take over the sidewalk, and on occasion the street, with little plastic chairs and tables to sit outside for talking and eating (peoplewatching is top-notch in Hanoi). With so many people around it was fun to ask for recommendations for bars, coffee or snacks. One evening, after speaking with three different groups of people, the same corner was mentioned twice (a noodle stall served there) so I decided to find it. I ended up wandering the same few crowded and noisy blocks for about an hour before finding the place. While I had a big bowl of pho, I talked to the very friendly young lady running things. She laughed after I told her all the trouble that went into finding her place and informed me that Americans sometimes pronounce the Vietnamese word phở as they should for the word “đường phố, which means “street.” Apparently, when I thought I was asking for the nearby pho shop, I sounded like I was asking where the street was.

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Egg coffee and pho.

Getting around the city, even on foot, was an adventure in some of the busier neighborhoods. Nicer motorbikes and cars get parked on any empty patch of sidewalk available and people often converge on curbs and street side restaurants during meal times or just drink in hand, pushing walking traffic into the roadway. From the little alleys to main thoroughfares, everything turns into a gridlocked mess in the evening and traffic looked heavy most of the time. In the French Quarter the madness sometimes worked in my favor, allowing me to slowly walk into what looked like a parking lot and push through. When things weren’t jammed, I watched amazed at how effortlessly Vietnamese drivers just flow through the streets on scooters like a school of fish. They can avoid bicyclists, snail-paced walkers, buses, and opposite traffic even in nightmarish seven-way intersections; I don’t know how it’s possible. Although the tourist area is compact and very walkable, when it made sense to use wheels I found rides on the ride share app Grab – this way I didn’t have to haggle or negotiate a fare. (After Thailand, I never want to haggle again. Ever.) Buses were great for longer trips, though I was very dependent on my hosts to locate the correct pick up spot.

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The long history of the Vietnamese capital, and the almost constant attempts by outsiders to influence and control the country going back millennia, can be read through examining the architecture and layout; Taoist temples and other remnants from Chinese rule, French colonial buildings and related Haussamannization, the modernist-Soviet style monuments and squares, Vietnamese flags in every public place, pro-state propaganda with military imagery, run-of-the-mill modern office buildings, hip eateries and luxury apartment complexes are all mixed together. Going into the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum was interesting as well as visiting historically and politically significant places; seeing how the Vietnamese state defines itself verses the American-approved narrative of Vietnam’s history is illuminating and will be interpreted by each foreign visitor differently. It’s useful to seek out these different visual representations of some elements of modern Vietnamese life. However, the distinct atmosphere and many essential features of the culture will elude travelers that stick to museums and monuments; you will get a much more thorough feel for the city if you can ditch the tours and guides and get out into real life.

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Temple of Literature & National University, originally built as a university in 1070 CE and dedicated to Confucius and scholars. This temple is also  on the back of the 100,000 dong banknote.

Many aspects of life in Hanoi are very modern yet in many places the people face clear development issues. To a visitor on the street sanitation and infrastructure challenges are apparent. Hanoi air is usually of poor quality and it can really knock you on your ass if you are fortunate enough to have lived your life in a place with very clean air – I noticed travel forums and bloggers mentioned this frequently – be prepared, should you visit. Even though I was warned about public health problems and tried my best to take care of myself, after just three days I was struck with both pink eye and a respiratory infection. I will say, treating my conditions was easy with basic pharmacies all over the city, and exceptionally cheap while effective medications. Looking and sounding a bit ghoulish made it harder to make new friends but didn’t get in the way of enjoying the city – no grudge held!

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The fans!

On my final day in Hanoi, the Vietnamese men’s football team played in the Championship match for the AFC U-23 tournament. That morning the city erupted into a football frenzy with people driving slowly down the streets, blasting music, waving flags and wearing all kinds of red and yellow decorations, creating an infectious excitement. By afternoon televisions and radios had been rounded up and brought into any and all bars and cafes for public viewings of the match. Not wanting to miss out on watching, I ducked into a packed coffee house to watch the first half of the game among many families and children. During the half break I ran to a main street and found a bar with three huge screens outside and about 200 views jammed around little plastic tables covered with beer glasses and plates of food. Viewers even spread out into the road with a small clearing for delivery drivers, taxis, policemen and other people at work who wanted to pull over for a game update. Everyone was in a good mood and I was immediately offered a spot to sit with a group of strangers. My new friends didn’t hesitate to keep my beer glass full and filled me in on the team so much as language barriers would allow. As the game progressed the crowd erupted into different cheers and songs in several languages. Even though Vietnam would lose the match to Uzbekistan, it was some of the most fun I’ve had watching football and was yet another personal experience hinged on the friendliness and welcoming attitude Vietnamese people show towards visitors.

After the game I would catch an overnight bus to Cao Bằng, to the north, for a lovely few days exploring the rugged nature along the border with China.

Thanks for reading!

 

Thailand in Pictures

My first visit to Asia, originally a five week trip, turned into twelve and has kept me too busy to update this blog. Now that things are coming to a close I am able to finally share what I’ve been doing in Thailand and the other places that have been a part of my winter.

Thailand was a mixed bag for me. It was full of trash, smoggy cities and the sky was smoky from crop fires. I felt a constant stress from being badgered by peddlers or needing to salvage a situation after a business promised something it couldn’t deliver – not something you want on a holiday. On the positive side, I met many kind and amazing travelers and Thai people who I hope will remain friends into the future. I ate the variety of delicious food found throughout the country and every city felt generally safe to be a woman traveling alone. Like most visitors to Thailand, I really enjoyed the colorful nature and animals.

The following are images of Thailand that best highlight the journey – there is so much to recap and it was hard to pick just and a few memories.

Seeing wild elephants was an experience I will remember forever. I skipped seeing captive elephants, deciding it best to spend money on parks and infrastructure keeping these creatures living free. For about $30 I traveled to Kui Buri National Park and, with a guide in a truck, played “elephant hide and seek,” driving slowly in the park with binoculars glued to my face. We were very lucky to spot a few small groups including one with a baby (!) and a few solo elephants – one was an aggressive male that spotted us from 300 meters away and stamped around a bit to show who is in charge.

A friend and I had a great time biking around the forest and roughly 200 ruins that make up Sukhothai Park. The structures date from the 13th and 14th centuries CE. We enjoyed comparing the differences in architecture and decorative details of the well preserved pieces. Some corners of the park are free of people and make nice places to just relax.

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Erawan National Park hosts a river with a seven tiered waterfall. Each level has clear-blue pools available to visitors for wading or swimming. This was the first major nature area I visited and loved it! Reaching the top tier was challenging as the path became increasingly reclaimed by nature but it was the most fun I had on a hike.

I’m not the biggest fan of Bangkok but the complex of temples around and including Wat Arun is gorgeous and worth an afternoon boat ride across the river. I actually visited twice, once around noon to see architectural details in full sunlight and once again in the evening to enjoy sunset over the city.

A trip to see Huay Mae Sai Waterfall in Chaing Rai turned into a hike in the hills. Behind the waterfall a trail leads into the surrounding mountains with no end in sight. The path zigzags through pastures and forests. I wish I’d had enough time to see where it went.

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Prachuap Khiri Khan, a half day train ride from Bangkok, was my overall favorite location in Thailand. It’s the most beautiful and quiet seaside town. Adorable natural monkeys live aside the gorgeous Ao Manao Lime Bay (inside an air force base! Visitors allowed in for free). Everything is affordable and the few travelers I met were all outgoing and friendly. After a few days the place felt like home.

I’m not a pretentious eater and just dove right into whatever I saw. Street food, evening markets and small Thai cafes helped make my $25 a day budget possible. My favorites were fresh lime juice, coconut ice cream (pictured), pumpkin curries (pictured) and pork larb. Only once did I eat something too spicy and only twice did I get a Thai whiskey hangover.

Thailand has layers in every part of life, just like anywhere else. You can really do anything and build the travel experience that works for you while getting to know the culture. I’m glad I was able to see the huge metropolis that is Bangkok, tiny island villages, mountains, rivers, jungle, 1000-year-old temples, modern arts, take a swim in the ocean, go biking, do aerobics in Limphini Park with 300 other people, eat something totally new, binge on Oreos and other familiar treats, make new friends from every continent, visit English learning classrooms and meet students, and stay with a Thai family. Spending five weeks was enough time to get a feel for the country.

I’ve appreciated some of the challenges of the last few months. It’s an amazing privilege to go half way across the world and see how things work and people live in another place, even if it’s not always wonderful.

Goodbye, Thailand! Maybe I’ll be back again some day.

Thank you for reading!

Ruby

Bangkok, Thailand!

My five-week visit to Thailand and Vietnam has just begun. This trip is my first to Asia and likely the last multi-week adventure abroad for a while* so I’m really excited for the experience to play out. The itinerary is scattered but includes, Bangkok, Prachuap Khiri Khan, Kanchanaburi, Chiang Mai, Hanoi and Cao Bang. Each day I hear about something new to see, eat or do so plans are sure to change.

I wasn’t sure how to prepare for this trip since it would be so different from anything I’ve done before and especially Bangkok, home to more than 8 million people and thus the largest city I’ve visited. I’m happy to say I found that Bangkok isn’t intimidating, public transportation is easy to figure out, I generally feel safe (drivers are very scary though) and it feels like a fusion of other metropoles I’ve visited giving it a comfortable somewhat-familiar vibe for me. I like seeing the way space is used here and I’m very excited to slowly explore various areas of town and become acquainted.

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The first few nights I’m staying in a hostel in the Phaya Thai district. Not necessarily near the main sights but a refreshing location. Through past travel experience I’ve come to understand that sometimes I don’t enjoy staying in areas reliant on foreign visitors or tourism as they tend to be more expensive, have plenty of trendy restaurants but few food shops, and can be a bit “fast” or full of people lacking respect for the neighborhood. I’ve had some great stays while in areas that are built for daily life of the local population. Bangkok is the second most visited city in the world so everything is going to be geared towards the experience of the tourist, for better or worse, for some of us. Bangkok has a lot of sex tourism and many travelers come to party but I’m not interested so I’ll keep a bit outside the main tourist zones where this is facilitated and encouraged and likely not the most comfortable place for a woman to be on her own.

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The little alley leading to the hostel. Closer to the main road food stalls line the alleyway and a man with a fruit cart makes his way down, bells ringing, twice a day.

I’m pleased with the hostel I found- $10 a night which is actually a middle price point for the city. It’s quiet, has a coffee shop on the first floor and a very friendly French Bulldog loafing around. The shared bedroom is an interesting little space – a large room is portioned off into four smaller areas for each person, kind of like an office cubical space but way more attractive and cozy. I haven’t seen any other Americans staying here yet but it’s only been two days, and I was able to get some trip tips from a fellow guest already! Happy about that! Language barriers haven’t caused any issues yet but little bumps are sure to come up once more complicated interactions are needed for daily activities.

I feel like I’ve already done so much even though things are just getting started. This afternoon was spent in Chatuchak Park admiring the flora and being frightened by the fauna, specifically big monitor lizards! When it started raining I ducked into J. J Mall and browsed around for a while and tried some spicy lemon candy (it was good) and had a coffee. Yesterday I got a foot massage, ate some great food and checked out two beautiful temples. Tonight I plan to read (thank God the hostel has a book exchange) and rest up.

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From Queen Sirikit Park, which was so empty it felt like my own place.

The 30 hour journey to BKK from MSP wasn’t as brutal as I feared; I was able to get at least some sleep and the airline, although considered budget, fed me plenty, had good movies and was on time. In Bangkok I feel that I’m mostly adjusted to the time change but the heat, 100 degrees (Fahrenheit) greater than the temperature in Minneapolis when I left, is tiring and I probably won’t acclimate. I do know that soon in Chiang Mai and Vietnam it will feel a little more comfortable and I just try to think about that every time I start to sweat.

That’s all for now after 48 hours in Bangkok.

Thank you for reading!

*I’ve begun the visa process for a job located in Harbin, China! More details to come on that.

Central Europe: Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia 

After four weeks traveling around Central Europe I finally found time to share what I’ve been seeing and doing. My plans have undergone numerous changes, most notably skipping the Tatras, but I have been having a great time with most days spent hiking or wandering cities. Either way, a lot of time spent outside!

I avoided coming to this part of Europe before because the language is really different from what I know and have studied. However, like most languages, you start to notice patterns quickly and it’s not impossible and depending on what you’re up to, your vocabulary might work across a few borders in the region (Vodopad is used in multiple languages in central Europe for the noun waterfall, pivo/piwo for beer,  and good sounds similar, so greetings like good morning, good day etc will sound similar). I would advise against relying on a general translation app, like Google for more than individual words because it’s incapable of changing grammar structures so a full sentence will come out a little weird. Young people are always helpful as the younger a person is the more likely it is that they will have studied English or had some informal exposure to it. There seems to be very low expectations for travelers’ Polish, Czech, Slovak or Croatian language skills but per usual, a good rule is to learn how to say please, thank you, hello, goodbye, yes and no.  I noticed that culturally, the people in Central Europe appreciate a modest and polite traveler; if they interpret your behavior as condescending they will not do anything for you, even if they are someone who would generally helps strangers.

I haven’t run into any safety issues. I see less other women traveling alone in these areas than Western or Southern Europe but we cross paths from time to time. For the most part getting around is easy using public transportation apps. Actually, I’m really impressed with the public bus networks of Poland and Czech Republic! It’s possible to stay in one central location and take a bus, quite cheaply, to any number of national forests, national park or other nature areas. Sometimes it takes one to two hours but the time goes quickly with a book or at the end of the day, just recovering. This is a great service and you see all kinds of people out hiking or biking – because wonderful natural areas are so accessible! What a dream it would be if I could do this at home and hop on a bus in Minneapolis and end up 40 miles away at one of the Minnesota state or regional parks! 

August was a heavy hiking month with about 400 kilometers covered in three countries. Forest, wetlands, mountains and sandstone labyrinths were my playgrounds. All the hiking meant an excuse to try a new beer almost every night and a wide variety of traditional and contemporary fusion dishes. My favorite things included blueberry ice cream and roasted duck.

Adršpach-Teplice Rocks National Park in Czech Republic is full of gorgeous blue lakes and sandstone formations (I loved the polar bear rock). This was one of the most crowded natural areas I visited but it was definitely worth seeing. I visited on a day with on-and-off rain which made all the colors of moss and lichen throughout the park pop.

View from the top of Sněžka (1602 m) which is the highest mountain in the Czech Republic. Located in Krkonoše National Park which is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve it offers sweeping views over both Czech Republic and Poland. The mountain range and park offer numerous (and absolutely free) hiking opportunuties and I covered about 75 kilometers in three days on the lovely trails.

Enjoying the view after a 1,000 meter ascent. Turning 30 at the end of August meant an interest in abusing my knees and hips while they were still “young.”

A view of Cesky Krumlov, UNESCO Heritage Site and the number two tourist destination in Czech Republic. A very beautiful and charming city with a castle set on a winding river. This was the perfect setting for relaxing outside after a long day of hiking the nearby wood trails.

The castle tower in Cesky Krumlov with beautiful coloring and ornate reliefs. It apparently has the nickname “Birthday Cake.”

A picture from the Wawel Castle grounds in Krakow. I have avoided this city in the past do to its popularity; I feared it would feel very crowded. The old town is heavily trafficked but there is much to see, do and eat while still feeling like you’re getting a modern, authentic experience. The older parts of the city are nice for wandering and have a rich yet disturbing history.

A view of Bratislava Castle. I spent a long weekend in Bratislava, Slovakia and found it to be more enjoyable than some of the other major cities I’ve visited. Notably the smaller crowds, cleaner streets and very efficient public transportation. History blends perfectly with modern urban life here. Also the surrounding forests are a nice place to spend a day getting lost on foot or cycling.

Right now I’m in Croatia waiting out a long rain spell and recovering from 19 hour travel marathon to arrive at Plitvice Lakes National Park. I’m beyond excited to visit this park and share the experience.

Thanks for reading!