Tag Archives: culture

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

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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!

Traveling with an Anxiety Diagnosis

There are some things I’ve missed out on or know I cannot do because of my anxiety but solo travel is not one. I took my first solo trip abroad after my anxiety diagnosis. Although I had to work at it, I want to share the fact that I have anxiety and still travel abroad alone. Social stigma leads us (those with mental health conditions) to believe we are incomplete as people and inadequately manage our own lives. That’s simply not true! With proper preparation and coping we can travel, be brave, meet new people and break out of ruts.

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I cope on-the-go with sunshine, exercise and sleep. Many trips are focused on hiking.

Readers of this blog know I love an urban bike ride. Unfortunately biking can be dangerous and a few years ago I received a concussion after falling off a bike and landing on my head. If I hadn’t been wearing a helmet, I wouldn’t even have the ability to bike again, so I feel lucky being in the place I am. However, after my brain injury instead of responding to stress in a healthy way, I felt confused, panicked and moody.  I was soon diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and since have taken daily medication. Hopefully I will fully heal one day but I have adapted my life to fit my circumstances, although, still push to retain independence and feed my curiosity.

For years I thought about traveling abroad (studying abroad in college was economically out of reach for me) and visiting a Francophone country since taking French classes as a twelve year old. In my 20s I waited for an opportunity to travel on such a trip with friends, family or a partner but things just didn’t work out that way. Eventually it became clear that if I was going to visit France, or any other way away place, I’d need to go alone. After some research I chose to go to Paris; I couldn’t get bored with the art, movie theaters, live music, delicious food and day trip options. It wasn’t cheap (!)  but culturally France is not too different for an American to manage, with entire areas of the city geared toward foreign visitors. The idea of walking all day seeing sights in the sunshine and at my own pace seemed very calming and fun, not stressful at all.

Unfortunately, many people reacted negatively when I first explained my idea to travel across the ocean and stay a week in Paris by myself, and none of it had to do with the challenge of managing anxiety in a new place. I was warned about the dangers for woman traveling alone and some people even mentioned terrorism should keep me out of Europe. Some questioned why someone would want to go somewhere new and foreign by themselves (only a lonely person would do that). After sometimes being a person that skips things out of worry or fear, it felt strange to hear people come up with wild excuses about why I should be afraid to travel and see those comments as laughable and almost anti-social. It made me think about why I should even worry about traveling at all. I would be spending eight days traveling alone, not reinventing the wheel, so I decided to just focus on building the trip of my dreams and enjoying the adventure.

A few people were very encouraging and even shared their own stories of traveling alone. Hearing coworkers, neighbors, and teammates speak fondly about a period of military service, school, volunteer trips and just regular vacations and how they adapted and what they enjoyed about it was really cool. Listening to them made my plan feel more “normal” – if all these people did it before, then I can do it too.

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Paris at dawn and dusk is amazing.

Being concerned about becoming a person that gives up on things after a health setback, I made sure to go into the experience with an open mind and understanding that a smart traveler is flexible and prepared. If I didn’t enjoy the experience I’d never have to do it again. Even though some things did go wrong (my iPhone ended up falling into a sewer, lost forever), I loved the experience and will maintain that it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made – hence my enthusiasm for solo travel and this blog. Now I even make a point of taking winter trips to help stave off the winter blahs for a while and if I’m having a bad day, a future trip gives me something to look forward to. If you are battling moderate depression or anxiety and would like to travel, please do not feel discouraged. With planning it’s possible to have a wonderful, safe and healthy experience. If you are comfortable sharing, I’d like to hear your input on traveling with anxiety or depression.

Thank you for reading!

The Delicious Side of Travel

I’m very excited to visit Germany over Easter weekend – another quick trip, this time to the Frankfurt area. To prepare a bit and get in the mood, my weekend involved learning about wine from the Rhine and Mosel regions. Unable to name a German wine beyond Riesling and Gewürztraminer, I was desperate for insight into what is available and a nice choice for an Easter picnic (rain or shine!). No, this post isn’t to share wine secrets I uncovered but to ask if you have discovered a favorite food or drink while traveling? Have you ever planned a visit or day around a certain restaurant or hunting down a specific food? I’d love to hear what treats have made it into your personal memory book!

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Nun cookies in Toledo, Spain

Here are some of my favorite indulgences:

Portugal: Pastel de nata! A shop in Belem is known for making these pastries but Lisbon proper has dozens of bakeries with excellent versions that will be subtly different. I once brought some home, direct from Lisbon, to friends who love this treat. Also, in Portugal don’t miss you chance to have port wine; It’s easy to find and sometimes for only one euro.

Spain: Honestly, I think Spain is my favorite place to eat and I love Pulpo gallego! Be on the look out for convent bakery items as they are new and unusual for an American.

Belgium: Try as much beer as you can. From an American perspective the prices are amazing. Don’t be a fool and fall for a beer tour or head to an overpriced beer bar (especially in Brussels). Instead visit a brewery or head to a neighborhood bar. Going to a brewery alone doesn’t have to be intimidating and you don’t have to be a beer nerd to enjoy it. It’s the perfect place to go if you are still figuring out what you like. If you can convince yourself that you belong, everyone else will believe it too.

Germany: Another country with of too many excellent beers to name. I think  what stuck out to me in Germany was how people are always getting together outdoors for food and drinks. Whether on a mountain or in a city park, or the street corners like in Dresden, there are always people outside enjoying themselves drinking this or that and maybe having a bite too. This social element is completely absent where I am from and I really liked it.

Poland/Czech Republic: In both countries I ate a lot of wild blueberries – fresh blueberry juice, various desserts and even blueberries in savory dishes with meats to give subtle flavor and add a bit of color to the plate.

Thailand:  Beef larb and anything with curry (especially if there is pumpkin) is amazing. It was hard to eat so much hot food in humid, warm Thailand but it tasted so good I couldn’t help myself. This is probably the country I ate food that I loved most often.

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Egg coffee in Hanoi (cà phê trúng). Super delicious and not hard to find as coffee shops are all over, especially near the touristy French Quarter.

Vietnam: I’m a slave to coffee and Vietnam was an excellent place to try all sorts of it. There’s the egg coffee found in Ha Noi, strong Robusta coffee with sweetened condensed milk in most of the country and then there Da Lat, Vietnam, epicenter of the nations coffee farms. You can any kind of coffee in or around Da Lat, including Kopi luwak, or civet coffee (the famous “cat poop coffee”) which I tried!

Reading up on local food and drinks is a lot of fun and an easy entry point into learning about a place or culture before visiting. Savoring something you cannot find at home brings so much joy and adds a layer to a travel experience. When traveling alone, connecting with either local people or other travelers can be made so such simpler over food or drinks and if you’re with a friend or partner sharing something new together is a delicious way to just get closer. I’m excited to find out what you have to share.

Thanks for reading!

 

 

Goodbye 2016

Now that the sun has begun to set on the year, it’s a natural opportunity to remember all the wonderful things that came out of it. The last twelve months took me away from home for forty nights, visiting four countries as well as eight U.S. states. I was very fortunate to have more travel opportunities than 2015. It made life fascinating and rich, which is exactly how it should be. The experiences were diverse – traveling alone, with family, with friends, with a partner and for work. Adventures included oceans, mountains, castles, redwoods, bears and whales. I got lost, fell ill to food poisoning, cried, and slept on an airport floor. On the whole it was a beautiful year and I’m so thankful the way it unraveled. There were a few ups and downs, one captured in what turned out to be the most popular post of 2016, Mending Myself. Fifty six of you checked it out the day it was published! Take a look if you haven’t seen it.

Over the next week or so I will write about the best things 2016 gave me.

Thank you for reading! I’m happy to know you all take interest in my travels. Also, thank you to my family and friends that encourage travel, join me on adventures and put up with my schedule! These kinds of support add meaning to these experiences.

Steets of Los Angeles: A Wonderland of Public Art

Los Angeles is a wonderland of street art and state-commissioned public art pieces. The city hosts world-class art museums such as The Getty, LACMA and Hammer Museum. However, one could spend an entire weekend discovering public art treasures and the ever-changing street art scene (particularly around Alameda Street and the Arts District).

One of my favorite public art pieces from a recent trip to Los Angeles is this mural by internationally known Chicano artist Frank Ramero, created for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. “Going to the Olympics,” about 100 ft. in length, consists of five pastel cars driving against a background of hearts and trees.  It is located on Highway 101, near Alameda Street, and it brings incredible brightness and beauty to the dull concrete. This piece, along with many others along Highway 101, has an interesting history and was restored in 2013, just in time for the 30th anniversary of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

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Going to the Olympics by Frank Romero

Los Angeles is a must for any art lover.

Thank you for reading,

Ruby