Tag Archives: southeast asia

Prachaup Khiri Khan, Thailand

After spending three months in Southeast Asia, Prachaup Khiri Khan was one of my favorite places to visit. The small city, along a series of crescent shaped bays, is a perfect place for a solo traveler in Thailand. The laid-back feel, beautiful beaches, adorable monkeys (as well as some naughty monkeys) and a modest travel scene create an unparalleled atmosphere. It takes just a half day train ride from Bangkok to reach this paradise and it’s absolutely worth it!

I sort of stumbled on this location while researching hikes in preparation for visiting Thailand. I read about an amazing trek up Khao Lommuak that offers a magical view of the surrounding bays and islands. Unfortunately the grounds are only open to the public on special weekends and holidays, none of which occurred during the time I would visit Thailand. However, after reading a little about the adjacent town, Prauchaup Khiri Khan, I decided to visit anyway. The proximity to the sea, as well as multiple national parks was really attractive and it seemed less crowded than Hua Hin, the busy tourist town to the north which has similar features.

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Every night offered a watercolor sunset along the bay.

If you ever get to this part of Thailand, you must visit Kui Buri National Park! Seeing wild elephants was an experience I will remember forever. For about $30 (round trip taxi and entrance fee) myself and a few ladies from my hostel traveled to Kui Buri National Park. Once there, with guides in a truck, we played “hide and seek,” driving slowly with binoculars glued to our faces. The deal is that you pay to go into the habitat along a few dirt roads and if any elephants are spotted the trucks will pull over to let you observe (from a safe distance, for you them). If the animals can’t be spotted, that’s just bad luck. They are respected as natural beings and never forced out for visitors and you must keep a distance of at least 100 meters  (no elephant selfies). Patrons are allotted a few hours but many trucks will stop the tour after one or two sightings, thinking that guests have gotten their money’s worth. Fortunately, some of my companions were really outgoing and kind and somehow talked the staff into giving us our full three hours even though we saw a lot of elephants in the first hour. I’m glad she was so smooth because it was one of the best nature tours I’ve ever done and I didn’t want it to end. Also, after visiting a few national parks in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, this one was one of the most professionally run and the staff seemed to really like what they were doing and dealing with foreign visitors (that’s not always easy). No outside guide is needs to take you into the park in order to get a full experience, fees are upfront and simple, facilities clean and customer service is great.

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Elephant family in Kui Buri National Park.

Animals can also be found much closer to the city; adorable, natural monkeys live aside the gorgeous Kao Lom Muak. The Dusky Langur monkeys are small and shy but will show themselves to visitors. Their location provides some protection to them as their status is close toThey are found specifically in Wing Five of the Air Force Base where visitors are allowed in for free, one passport required per group. . This is adjacent to Ao Manao Bay, one of the cleanest beaches I saw in Asia. It is very much worth a visit to just run around in the sand and sea without worry of bottle caps or sharp trash. I was able to bike to the spot from my hostel in 20 minutes.

Now a bit of a warning: beware of the naughty monkeys in the northeast area of the city around “monkey mountain,” another hill with a temple on top, formally known as Khao Chong Krachok. The view of the islands and bays from “monkey mountain” is great but the monkeys living on it are a little creepy and aggressive. They are mostly known for stealing flip flops off feet and taking food – nothing horrible – but their waste litters the site and some are very obese and loaf in the center of stairways or sun shelters. They are known to some as the “bad” monkeys, while the Dusky Langurs are the “cute” monkeys. Maybe it’s not a fair label but it’s worth confirming which kind of monkey you will encounter while exploring the city. The “cute” monkeys will not steal your items or scratch you.

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A Dusky Langur

As with Kanchanaburi, Prauchaup Khiri Khan had a lot of solo travelers but this town attracted much more people in their 30’s – 50’s. This constantly shifting group of people were great to explore with and get to know. The city isn’t exactly out of the way or challenging to reach for foreigners but most of those visiting all had a lot of time devoted to seeing Thailand or the region. Some had awesome stories (one had biked there from the Netherlands!) and great advice about things to see and do throughout the country.

I absolutely never felt alone and met a lot of people at Safehouse Hostel. We went on bike rides along the bay (all day rentals are everywhere for about $2), ate delicious and spicey dinners ($1 – $3) or out for Thai Whiskey and music.  No matter where you stay everything in the city is in walking distance. The experience in Prachaup Khiri Khann was the perfect balance of fun and relaxation. Although I was not able to visit them during my visit,  both Khao Sam Roi National Park and Namtok Huai Yang National Park are realistic day trips from the area and provide even more opportunities for nature and exploring.

All these wonderful things made staying in Prachaup Khiri Khan of the best experiencesI had in Southeast Asia.  Originally, I planned to stay just two nights but extended my time into four. I wish I could have stayed longer! If I visit Thailand again I will have go back.

Thank you for reading!

Ruby

 

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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.