Danang and Hoi An, Vietnam

I haven’t been doing a great job keeping up with the blog lately.  It wasn’t because I didn’t have anything to write about, but I was doing too many things the last couple of weeks and I just wasn’t able to squeeze in some time to write. Today I’m able to empty out a bit of time during my transition day to Kao Tao Island in Thailand. I arrived at the Koh Samui Island by plane from Cambodia in the late afternoon and I’m only here for one night before taking the early boat to Koh Tao tomorrow. So I couldn’t think of better things to do than chilling at the bungalow at my beach front hostel and writing while enjoying the ocean breeze. And to help myself remember my backpacking experience, I’ll dedicate this post and the next post to capture something interesting about each place I’ve visited in Vietnam and Cambodia.

Da Nang, Vietnam

Since I’ve already written a post about Hanoi, I’ll start with the second city in Vietnam I’ve visited. Da Nang is third largest city in Vietnam after HCMC and Hanoi. It is a coastal city with great beaches and seafood. Originally I didn’t have any plan of visiting here until my mom told me about the delicious seafood at cheap prices. Being an obsessive seafood lover, I decided to give it a try and spend a night here. When I arrived at Danang, I was still a bit suspicious of the city and the people here due to some unpleasant experience from the last city Hanoi. However, surprisingly Danang has dramatically improved my experience in Vietnam since I’ve actually met a Vietnamese friend Anh who is from Saigon/HCMC from the hostel I stayed at. 

Meeting Anh took me by surprise but I was so naturally intrigued by Anh and attracted to building a friendship with her. When I entered into my room in the hostel, I actually didn’t realize Anh was sleeping in her bed behind the curtain and I was making a bunch of noises while unpacking my stuff. All of a sudden I heard the sound of someone opening the bed curtain behind me. My first reaction before looking at her was, “Shoot, someone must be mad at me now for disturbing her sleep”. Surprisingly, Anh was really chill and initiated a conversation with me in her soft spoken voice without feeling disturbed at all.  After a quick introduction, we established an immediate friendship and decided to venture out together for food. I rode onto the back seat of the motorbike that Anh has rented in Danang and then she took me to try a famous Vietnamese dish called Bun Xieo, which is wrapped in rice papers with lettuce, pickled vegetable and grilled pork or pork omelette mixed in the flavorful salty shrimp past sauce. The food was so good, especially mixing with the sauce.  Anh and I got along so well together and we shared so many stories with each other even though it was only our first day of meeting each other. We talked about family, love life, ex boyfriends, jobs, passion, etc.  Hanging out with Anh that day in Danang really was one of the highlights of my backpacking trip. Anh showed me the pure kindness and welcoming nature of human relationships. And just like being with an old friend, I hung out with Anh for the rest of the day exploring the beaches together and even meeting her friends who are from Da Nang for dinner in the evening. Knowing that I came to Danang for the seafood, Anh and her friends took me to a local seafood restaurant and ordered so many delicious dishes. We even went for dessert and drinks after dinner and relaxed by the beautiful marina. The day went by quickly and it was time for us say goodbye to each other before Ann’s early morning departure, but luckily Anh was also heading to Hoi An where I was going next. We then decided to meet up in Hoi An again a few days later. 

Bun Xeo before Wrapping

Me and Anh at the Beach

Excellent Seafood in Da Nang

Hoi An, Vietnam

I cannot explain to you how cute Hoi An is.  You just have to go experience it. It is a well preserved ancient town recognized by the UNESCO as a historic site. There are yellow old houses next to each other all around the old town quarter, completed with colorful lanterns hanging above the streets and surrounding houses. A narrow river filled with small old fishing boats rowed by the Vietnamese old ladies wearing the traditional Vietnamese fisherman hats. Hoi An old town is also a biking and walking town so no motorcycles are allowed. I’ve found it very nice not to see motorcycles in this small town and I was happy that I could actually ride a bike to get to places. Many people think Hoi An is too touristy but it is still a beautiful town and I really think that everyone should visit this town whem backpacking Vietnam.  

Biking in Hoi An

Hoi An Old Town

I came to Hoi An without knowing how beautiful this place was. I actually came to Hoi An for one purpose – custom tailoring. Hoi An is known for making custom tailored clothing for much cheaper prices than the western countries. And this city did not disappoint. I ended up getting 6 pairs of pants, 3 blazers, 3 dresses and 1 trench coat for myself. I also got my boyfriend’s measured sizes in the US and made him 2 full suits and 4 dress shirts. The prices turned out to be a bit more than I expected but I’ve convinced myself it was worth it because I chose the best materials available out of all the options. The tailoring process was actually quite long. It took 3 full days of being in Hoi An for ordering, measuring, choosing materials and going back for 3 different fitting sessions.  It is also recommended to research the styles in advance and provide the tailor some pictures to give them an idea of what you like. The process was long and could be stressful, but I left the tailor shop with a happy smile feeling that I’ve accomplished something big. I also can’t wait to receive all the custom made clothes when I’m back to the US.

Custom Tailored Dress

Anh arrived to Hoi An on the last day when I was there. We then went for another round of binge eating. We tried the best Bahn Mi sandwich in town, sweet soup and of course seafood again. Anh and I got along so well that we decided to meet again in Saigon in a week when I arrived there. Anh even offered to take me around Saigon for the weekend and introduce me to the best food and coffee in the city.  We said goodbye to each other again as the day ended but knowing that we would meet again in Ahn’s hometown in a few days. I then headed to my next stop Dalat, Vietnam.

Vietnamese Sweet Soup from the Street

To be continued in the next post soon…

Hanoi, Vietnam

I am now in the 4th week of my backpacking trip. I also haven’t written anything for quite a few days. To be honest, I started to feel tired of the constant traveling, sightseeing and the heat. I felt exhausted the last several days and felt less incentivized to go see places. Also, I think the noise level in the hostels started to affect me since I haven’t been able to have one full night sleep without being woken up by the noise the last 3 weeks. I’m not sure how the other backpackers can do it for months without getting tired. I surely felt the exhaustion and have decided to treat myself better as a “break” for my 4th week.
This week I made it to Hanoi, Vietnam. Instead of staying at hostels, I used the Hilton points I have accumulated to exchange for free nights. The Hilton hotel service in Asia is so much better than the US. First of all, it took me a lot less points to exchange for a night here in Vietnam. It only took 10,000 points for a king size bedroom compared to normally 30k to 50K for a night in the US. In addition, they upgraded me to a suite and provided me free breakfast since I’m a Diamond member. The breakfast was amazing! It had the typical American breakfast items plus the Asian breakfast food such as congee, stir fried noodles, steam dumplings, etc. and many options of pastry. I was definitely spoiled the last several days with a nice bed, hot tub and some quietness and privacy. That instantly made me feel better. 
I spent the last several days in Hanoi mainly walking around the Old Quarter and also trying out different Vietnamese food. I feel like Vietnamese pays much closer attention to culinary and has more styles of food in comparison to Thailand and Laos. In the other two countries, I had street food most of the time and didn’t feel that I had to try certain restaurants, but here in Vietnam I have been getting so many recommendations from friends and online reviews that I had to try certain types of food. So far I’ve tried the best Bahn Mi sandwich shop called Bahn Mi 25, the Obama visited restaurant Bun Cha, this really popular restaurant closed to my hotel called Nha Hang Ngon and a very well known local restaurant Quan An Ngon. The sweet soup desserts here are so yum. I literally had sweet soup every night because they were so delicious. 

Noodle Soup with Crabmeat and Snail at Nha Hang Ngon

This sweet soup with water chestnut, jelly and coconut juice is to die for!

Bun Cha Obama became famous after Obama and Anthony Bourdain visited this place. They renamed the place and even created the Obama combo.

Hanoi is a very vibrant city. There are always so many people and motorcycles on the street, especially at nights. I love how picturesque the city is, especially the Old Quarter with French influenced colonial houses built compactly close to each other. I also loved the exciting night life here with many people sitting outside of the bars in the little alleyway (called Ta Thien I think) drinking Hanoi beer. I wish I had someone to drink beer with the first night I was there in this alleyway. I definitely made a note of it and hope to return one day with someone special to drink beer with. 🙂 

As much as I love the food and the city atmosphere, there are two things I did not like about this city though. One is the insane traffic where cars and motorcycles don’t necessarily follow the traffic light. Even when the light is red and the pedestrian light is on, the cars and motorcycles will run through the light if they see no cars are crossing in front, which then left the pedestrians waiting even longer for all the cars to pass even though the pedestrians are supposed to have the right to cross. As a pedestrian, you have to be so aggressive but also careful when crossing the roads. You basically have to learn how to dodge and act quickly and maybe say a couple of prayers at the mean time hoping that you don’t get hit every time you walk out on to street in Hanoi. I literally feel stressed every time I walk across the road in Hanoi. The traffic intensity here is something that I have never experienced in other countries, not even China!

The other thing I didn’t like was how certain street vendors and even tourist organizations tried so hard to take more money from tourists. It got so bad that I just had a hard time trusting the local vendors after staying here for only a few days. In Thailand and Laos, bargaining is a usual business but in those countries people bargain fairly and honestly, but here in Hanoi the street vendors tell you one thing but you could end up paying a lot more at the end of the service plus a potentially forced “tips”. You should have as much change with you as possible, otherwise, you might end up not getting your change back because people take your extra money and say it’s their tips. It has already happened to me a couple of times. Even in an organized local tour with a travel agency to the Perfume Pagoda, the tour guide literally kept pestering us for tips to the driver, the boat driver, and others. Tipping is not a cultural thing here in Asia, but people here in Hanoi asked for tips because they know some western countries such as America pay tips. The funny thing was the tour group I was with had mostly French and the French don’t have a culture of tipping, so the tour guide really pissed off the French on my tour. At the end of the day, nobody wanted to tip because the tour guide made it to be such a big deal and really ruined everyone’s mood.  

Other than these minor incidents, Hanoi was still a great city to visit. My favorite experience was the 2 days 1 night Halong Bay Cruise with the company Swan Cruises that included kayaking, swimming, squid fishing, cooking demonstration, garnishing and Tai Chi activities. I think 2 days 1 night were perfect for visiting Halong Bay. It was especially nice to be on the cruise for the sunset at Halong Bay. I also really enjoyed kayaking and swimming at the Bay for over 2 hours. The scenery at Halong Bay is so unreal that I recommend everyone to do the same cruise if you get a chance!

Tomorrow I’ll leave Hanoi and head to Da Nang for a day just for the seafood before getting to Hoi An. I’m a huge seafood fan and there’s no stopping when it comes to seafood. So goodbye to Hanoi, goodbye to the nice hotel break and hello to the backpacking lifestyle again!

“Prost” to My German Friends

The greatest thing about solo traveling is meeting people from all around the world and building friendship at instant moments. The saddest thing about solo traveling is saying goodbye when you have to continue with your journey without knowing whether you will ever meet again in life.

I met Anna, Lisa and Henri when I was crossing the border from Thailand to Laos. We took the same long minivan ride, spent two days on a crammed slow boat and stayed together at a couple of shitty hotels for two nights (pardon my language but the backpackers language could be a bit infectious) before making it to Luang Prabang.  It’s always interesting to me how the human mind works when forming friendship and alliance. Out of all the people I’ve met when crossing the border, as a solo traveler I’ve found having Anna, Lisa and Henri with me very comforting through the whole ordeal.

Anna, Lisa and Henri are all from Germany. Anna and Lisa are from south Germany traveling together on a 2-month backpacking trip in SE Asia. Henri is from west Germany who has been traveling in Australia and SE Asia for about 7 months and still have 2 more months of travel. All three of them are about 19 and 20 years old and taking some time off prior to entering university. I have to say as a 28 year old (just turned 28 on May 1st!), I don’t have that many friends that are 8 or 9 years younger than me. It was so refreshing to watch these young kids travel with so much sipirit in them and so much courage to try something new.

Anna and Lisa are typical girls at their early 20s with so much energy and excitement to experience the world, but what set them apart is their strong and independent personalities accompanied with constant contagious laughters. Backpacking is not an easy lifestyle, but it was impressive to see these two young girls doing everything themselves, carrying those giant backpacks, trying to figure out all the logistics and also dealing with the world without even being fully introduced to the “real world”. It was also amazing to see how strong these two girls were and how positive they remained no matter how poor the backpacking condition could be. 

Henri has a pretty laid-back personality. Seeing Henri reminded me of my step brother.  Henri could be quiet at times, but he was always so funny when he spoke and he was also very well rounded in all kinds of topics. I was very impressed by Henri because I can’t imagine doing a 9 month backpacking trip alone myself, let alone doing it at early 20s.  I also admired Henri that he worked in Australia while traveling to earn money to support his travel.  Not every 20 year old is independent enough to support himself or herself financially and I think it’s amazing that Henri was already doing so to make his backpacking trip possible. 

I don’t know how we started forming this friendship but I’ve loved every conversation with all of them.  Hanging out with them in Luang Prabang has been the highlight of my backpacking trip so far. We drank Beerlao and tried Lao cuisine for the first time by the Mekong River while being eaten away by mosquitos and bugs. We tried Lao style French crepes by the street food stalls while dripping in sweat under the high heat and humidity. We celebrated my birthday hanging out at the coolest bar in town called Utopia and talked about random shit. We drove a scooter for 50 minutes each way through the countryside to the most famous Kuang Si waterfall and rewarded ourselves with almost a full day of swimming and never ending photo sessions in the refreshing turquoise color pool water.  We hung out at the rooftop bar overseeing the night market reminensicing the few days we’ve spent in Luang Prabang and refusing to believe that it was almost time to say goodbye.

Goodbye is a hard word to say. Saying goodbye when you’re on a backpacking trip means you might never see that person again.  We sent well wishes to each other when we had to move on with our individual journey and hoped for the best that one day we will meet again. Maybe in Germany, maybe in the United States, or maybe in somewhere else in the world. No matter where that will be, I truly hope that one day we will meet again. When that moment comes, I would love to raise a glass and say to you guys again in German “Prost!” 

Crossing the Border from Thailand to Laos

I’ve now spent almost two weeks backpacking SE Asia. The last two weeks in Thailand were quite chill. It was a lot of sightseeing, temple hopping and hiking around the nature. I thought I had mastered this whole backpacking concept after two weeks of travel. However, it was not until when I had to cross the border from Thailand into Laos and take a 2 day slow boat from the north into Luang Prabang did I realize the true exhausting nature of being a backpacker. 
My bordercrossing journey began with a 7 hour bus ride from Chiangmai to the Thai boarder town Chiangkhong. The ride was long but the minibus was manageable with cool enough air conditioning. I’ve met a few friends from Germany and Norway on the bus ride and have learned that they were also going to Luang Prabang by taking the slow boat the next morning. We arrived at Chiangkhong around 4pm in the afternoon and checked into this simple hotel by the Mekong River. The hotel offered quite a nice view of the Mekong River at the balcony, but the room itself was less than comfortable. As soon as I opened the door, a moldy smell came straight into my nose and the room only had a couple of fans with no air conditioning. I had stayed in bad hotel rooms in the past, but this room was probably one of the worst. I chose to ignore it and learned to adapt to my one night stay here by trying to stay up at the balcony as long as possible until I was attacked by millions of bugs. I ended the night with staying in the room and playing with my phone for the next two hours since my randomly assigned roommate did not feel like talking.

The next morning, I woke up at 6:30 and could not wait to get out of the place. We ate breakfast provided by the hotel and exchanged some Laos kips and were ready to head to the border. Our hotel had about 30 backpackers mostly Europeans waiting together to go to the border. Everyone of us had a giant backpack. At around 8:30 in the morning, we were all shuffled into the back seating area of these minivans with open windows and no door. Although these minivans were not that big, somehow they were able to fit 10 to 12 of us along with our giant backpacks. We went from strangers to friends very quickly in the short 10 minute ride to the Thailand immigration boarder control to depart from Thailand.

Back of a Minivan with Backpackers

Departing from Thailand was easy and simple, all we needed was just filling out the departure slip given to us when arriving at Thailand and then showing the officer our passports for stamping. However, there was always that one person or two who forgot where they kept the departure card and had to search through the entire backpack. Me and several friends that I met along the way made it through the Thai border control quickly. Each person then paid 20 bahts to take another bus from the Thai border control to the Laos border control. We were handed the applications for the arrival visa as well as the Laos arrival and departure slips. As soon as we arrived at the Laos border control, it was then when I felt crossing the boarder was quite exhausting. Since we had a lot of backpackers at the border by the time we arrived, the process of waiting for a visa took at least half an hour. We also had quite a few people who didn’t have brand new dollars or had received old dollars from the hotel and could not use them to pay for the visa application fees (Laos likes dollars a lot more than kips due to the continuous devaluation of the Laos kips). What’s worse was that the electricity went out at the border control and those travelers couldn’t even withdraw US dollars from the ATM. After another half an hour of talking and working with the border control officers, the officers were eventually willing to accept kips for the visa applications and allow some of my friends go through the border. I was happy for them and was also thankful that I had brought enough dollars to pay for the visa. For future travelers going to Laos and to Cambodia as well, remember to bring some fresh dollars for the visa applications. 

Backpackers Waiting at the Border

After we crossed the border, we waited another 20 minutes for another minivan to arrive to take us to the slow boat. Again, 10-12 of us were shuffled into each minivan and we were headed to the slow boat. After taking several different transportations and constantly picking up and dropping off my giant backpack, I was truly exhausted. It was about 11:30 am by the time we arrived at the boat after 3 hours of border crossing process. 
After dropping off my backpack one more time and handing it to the boat personnel for storing, I was so happy to be seated and just do nothing. At that point, everyone of us on the boat was sweaty and tired, but the overall atmosphere on the boat was still great and cheerful. People then started buying snacks and Laos beer from the only vendor on the boat. Then it was a lot of picture taking, cheering, laughing and singing. That lasted for about 2 hours until people started falling asleep and doing other business.  

The boat ride to Luang Prabang from northern Laos was a 2 day boat ride with about 5-7 hours on the boat each day. The boat ride on Mekong River was quite enjoyable with beautiful scenery passing by every second. Mountains, greenery and boat houses passing by under the foggy sky were extremely mesmerizing. I almost felt surreal that I was taking a boat and enjoying such a beautiful scenery. I also could not believe I was one of the backpackers who went through this whole border crossing journey with all the sweat and anxiety and was rewarded with such a captivating scenery in front of me. As the cool breeze lifting my hair and as the boat rocking from one side to another, I wish my camera could capture all of this and all of my backpacking experience, but no matter how many pictures I take and how much I write it would still be hard to explain to others what I’ve experienced and what I’ve seen. 

Was this whole border crossing journey exhausting? I would say definitely. Was it worth it? I would also say yes. I could have made this more comfortable by taking a flight from Chiangmai to Luang Prabang, but then there’s something so special about experiencing the hardship before being rewarded with the beautiful scenery of nature. It was not the first time I was scolded by my family for making things so difficult to myself, including taking a backpacking trip on my own with a low budget. Yes I could have gone to nice vacation towns and I could have stayed in beautiful resorts, but how much would I remember about those comfortable trips when I get old? I see life not as a journey to get to somewhere comfortable, but a journey to take on challenges in order to appreciate what I have in life and to grow from my experience. I want to be able to recall the experience that defines me and my value. Maybe I’m stubborn and maybe I’m different, but sometimes being different brings the most out of life. 

Banana Trees

There’s something about banana trees here in SE Asia that I really love.  They reminded me of my childhood in rural China back in the days before all the tall buildings started rising.  On my way from Chiangmai to the border of Laos today, we passed by many many banana trees and many many rice fields.  They reminded me home where people worked so hard and lived such a simple yet happy life. As our minibus drove through village after village, I experienced a déjà vu of my past. 

A few months ago my company hired a photography company to take self portraits of us with a message that represents ourselves written on our arms or other upper body parts. The idea was intriguing but difficult. What message represents you and your life? It took me several tries to come up with different messages but they all fell short of representing me and my value.  As the facilitator continued to probe questions of our past to understand what represents us, I suddenly remember the small village where I call home.  It was then I decided my message to be “I’m still that village girl.”

I spent the first 12 years of my life growing up in a very small village in China with about one thousand people.  Life was so simple back then. What I did most of the time was climbing trees, running around, sucking flower juice from stems, poking beehives and chasing pigs and dogs.  Everyone in the village knew each other and somehow they always knew where I was when my great grandfather walked around the village with a beating stick to try to get me home.  I never meant to be a rebellious one but I’ve always wanted to do something different and go somewhere different where my family couldn’t get a hold of me. I hid, I jumped, and I ran. I hid between banana trees, I jumped around fences and I ran into rice fields with my bare feet.  I wanted to run so far and run so fast, not to run away from home but to run to show my family, “Look, you can’t find me.”

Growing up, I was very spoiled. I was spoiled partially because I can always get away with things because of my good grades.  I think that allowed me to venture out to do things quite different than most kids growing up in the village. Skipping over the next 15 years, I found myself living in a city called Atlanta with a culture completely different than the village where I grew up in. I love Atlanta and I love everything about that city, but I always remember a place called home where I can run freely.

It’s been four years since I last visited home. In the US where I live, there are no banana trees and there are no rice fields.  Last time when I went home to China, I saw so many new buildings and new houses rising from the ground in my village. I was happy for the people getting a richer lifestyle, yet I was sad to see that the banana trees that accompanied my childhood were nowhere to be found. The vast landscape of rice fields from the past is now replaced by paved roads and highway bridges. The village I once grew up in was no longer the same.  Wealth has replaced the authenticity of the village lifestyle.

As I was crossing through the village roads from northern Thailand to northern Laos today, I stared out of the window for the longest time and refused to fall asleep. I value so much of what I’m seeing here in SE Asia and I’m afraid they will be gone soon one day as commercial development takes over this place.  Just like the village where I come from, it’s no longer the same as it used to be. I guess that’s the way life is. You gain some and you lose some. But no matter what happens one day, I hope my heart will continue to stay true to its core value and stay loyal to the the village I come from. 

One day, if you come visit SE Asia, I hope you can also pay attention to the banana trees and remember what they look like.  Remember all the simple things that represent you and your value and go search for them no matter where you are in life. 

From Strangers to Friends

The beauty of traveling solo is meeting people along the way anywhere you go. Yesterday marked the end of my first week of traveling and I don’t think I’ve felt one iota of loneliness on this trip. I was surprised by the friendliness of the people in Thailand, both the locals and the tourists from all around the world. I was impressed by everyone’s travel experience and their openness to accept different cultures and opinions. I enjoyed all the conversations I’ve had with others talking about lifestyle choices, politics, religions, photography, and even work/accounting (I was actually quite surprised by the number of people I’ve met who are ex-consultants at Big 4 or will be).

In every conversation I’ve had I tried to take it all in and absorb as much knowledge as possible. I cherish these conversations and all the memories I’ve made and I don’t want to lose them in the future. Therefore, I decided to write about the strangers I’ve met who have now turned into friends. After all, what would be a better way to remember than writing stories about people? What would be a better way to learn from others than recollecting the best traits about these individuals from their stories?

It Began at the Street Stall – Meet Keigo

Keigo and I met on my last night in Bangkok at a table next to some street food stalls.  Meeting Keigo was quite a surprise to me because my original idea that night was to get some food quickly before heading back to my hostel early to pack for my flight the next day.   Once I ordered my food I saw there was one seat opened at the table right across from an Asian guy with a pony tail in oriental hippie yet simple clothing.  I went to that table and asked if I could share the same table with him. He accepted and it was then when we started chatting as we ate together. We started the conversation with some basic background questions. I’ve learned that Keigo is from the south part of Japan and he usually travels for half a year and then goes back to Japan for the other half of the year to take care of his farming business. What impressed me about him was his creativity in making travel possible.  According to Keigo, farming is a very profitable business in Japan and it doesn’t require him to attend to the farm all year.  When he works, he works hard to earn money for traveling. When he travels, he goes buy some unique jelwery around the world and sell them back home tripling the selling price to make money.  He’s been to so many countries and he’s already planning a trip to the US in August to attend the Solar Eclipse festival in Oregon.  I was completely mind blown by this guy and was so amazed by how he makes travel sound so easy.  His chill attitude to see travel as a lifestyle rather than a one time adventure is also quite refreshing.  To those who think traveling is hard, Keigo would be a great role model and inspiration.

Keigo and Me Trying Some Thai Style Wine on Khao San Rd

Does Age Really Matter? 

One misconception about traveling a lot of people have is that traveling is only for young, solo, and free sipirited people.  Personally I don’t agree with that.  Travel is always possible if you have made up your mind to do it, regardless of age.  During my stay in Chiangmai, I’ve met this lady from Belgium who has been traveling for the last 20 or 30 years of her life.  She stands out to me of all the people I’ve met because she did not let life stop her from traveling and she continues to believe in the beauty of solo traveling. We talked about the cultures of different countries she’s been to, fashion and even politics. It was so fascinating to learn from someone who is truly an experienced traveler. She travels so freely, strolls around the market in the early mornings to get coffee or breakfast, and reads in the local coffee shops whenever she likes.  Compared to the younger people I’ve met who come to Thailand for the parties and the night life, to me this lady is the true definition of traveling for the culture and the arts. In the future I hope I can be like her and travel as freely as I wish regardless of how old I am.

There’re still so many more people who I’ve met that I found so interesting.  I’ve met Cristal from New York when hiking at the Doi Inthanin national park and have learned so much about photography from her. She has also become my amazing photographer for the day. I’ve met Clemens at the Elephant Santuary who is a physicist from Germany with vast amount of knowledge in different areas including US  and French politics.  I’ve met a family from Poland with two little girls that I really liked. Both the wife and the husband used to work for one of the Big 4 accounting firms and we clicked immediately talking about internal controls, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and business process risks (sounds really nerdy but I really enjoyed the conversation!). I’ve also met another random guy on the street who had dinner with me. He liked judging people and tried to decipher my beliefs, which I found slightly uncomfortable but tried my best to be open minded about it.  It’s only been one week so far and I’ve already learned so much from others.  I can’t wait to see who I’ll be meeting in the next 10 weeks.

Crystal My Photography Teacher

Sightseeing Recommendations in Bangkok, Thailand

Before I visited Bangkok, I’ve always heard that there’s not much to do in this city.  Most people who visited Thailand tend to spend most of their time on the islands and maybe reserve a day or two for Bangkok. I came to this city also with such a skeptical mind, but I decided to stay here for four days to adjust for my jet lag since it’s my first backpacking stop. After four days of visit, I can tell you that I’m truly blown away.  Bangkok actually has a lot to offer and four days were barely enough.  Look no further if you’re looking for what to do in Bangkok. Below is summary of my itinery for the last several days and also some quick tips from my experience.

Day 1  

I visited the Grand Palace and Wat Pho (Reclining Buddha temple) in the morning. These two places are very close to each other so I would recommend start with the Grand Palace and then walk to Wat Pho.  For the afternoon, I spent most of the time resting and then visited Khao San Rd at night. If you have enough energy on the first day, you could consider checking out the Thai National Museum in the afternoon to learn about the Thai arts and culture. 

Quick tips – 

1. To visit the Grand Palace, both ladies and gentlemen have to cover the entire legs and shoulders so that means no tank top and no shorts. Also, no tights or yoga pants for the ladies either. There’re a lot of places nearby that sell sarongs and pants for covering up, but they might not have as much variety compared to other markets. 

2. Try to arrive at the Grand Palace early in the morning since a lot of tourists come here and they come in groups. The Grand Palace opens at 8:30 so I suggest getting there as soon as it opens. Otherwise, a bunch of random people will show up on your pictures.

The Grand Palace

Wat Pho

Day 2

I hired a tuk tuk driver to take me around the city to see different temples from 9am to 2pm for  700 bahts. The tuk tuk drivers are very knowledgeable about the city and usually have a map with them to show you which temples they recommend taking you. Trust their knowledge and let them take you around for a little bit of adventure. The temples I’ve visited were Wat Indrawiharn (Giant Buddha), Wat Saket (The Golden Mount), Wat Benja (The Marble Temple), Wat Traimit (Golden Buddha), and Wat Arun. My favorites were definitely Wat Arun and Wat Benja. The details and the decorations are marvelous!

Tuk tuk

Quick tips – 
1. In Thailand, almost everything is negotiable so it is expected to negotiate with the tuk tuk drivers. However, please be nice and friendly. I’ve always found that smiling and joking around can get you a much better deal!

2. When you visit Wat Arun, you can take a boat to see it if you start from the pier (Phra Arthit) near Khao San Rd.  I recommend taking the express boat with an orange flag if you’re only using the boat for round trip only. This will only cost 30 bahts in total (15 each way). And you can get off right in front of Wat Arun close at the Tha Tien stop. There’s also a tourist hop on and hop off boat that costs 40 bahts. It’s worth it if you want to take it multiple times, otherwise, just do the express boat. 

Wat Arun

Day 3

For Day 3 and Day 4, I signed up for a couple of trips with a travel agency called Mama Tour on Khao San Rd. For the morning, I visited the floating market at a nearby village. This was absolutlely one of my favorite experience. There are so many boats in the canal and somehow they all magically fit through all the traffic. The tour starts with a 30 minute boat tour around the floating market, then it gives you about an hour of time to check the market on land, and ends a speed boat tour into the village to see the houses nearby. 

Floating Market

Floating Market

Quick tips – When you sign up for the floating market tour, make sure you ask if the paddle boat is included. Otherwise, you would have to pay another 150 bahts at the market to get on one. The half day floating market tour cost me 350 bahts. Again, you can negotiate to get to a reasonable price.

I returned to the my hostel around 2pm in the afternoon.  After a quick nap, I took a taxi to visit  one of the biggest malls in Bangkok called Central World. There’s a bus to get there from Khao San Rd but taking a bus seemed too challenging (read my previous post to find out why), so I decided to take a taxi. You can negotiate with the taxi driver to decide on a price before you get on the taxi.  For a longer length trip, it is highly recommended to negotiate a price rather than using the meter. It cost me about 150 bahts to go to Central World from Khao San Rd. I like this mall because there’s a pretty big street food area with about 50 vendors right in front of the mall. The prices are not negotiable here, but the street food here are actually slightly cheaper than Khao San Rd! Also, inside of the mall there’s a dessert place called “After You” that is very popular in Thailand among the locals. They are known for their French toasts made in a variety of ways.

Central World

Day 4

I did a full day tour with Mama Tour to visit a nearby city called Ayutthaya.  Ayutthaya used to be the capital of the Kingdom of Siam.  Therefore, there are a lot of remaining temples and ruins from the old city.  Ayutthaya also has about 50 UNESCO heritage sites so it is definitely worth the visit. The tour company takes you around to see about 6 temples and also provides lunch. These temples are all ruins so they are very different than the new temples that are built in Bangkok. 

Quick tips – Make sure you verify they date the tour company writes on your ticket! I didn’t check it and then realized the agent wrote the wrong date when no one came to pick me up. I called the tour company and then realized I had the wrong date on the receipt. Luckily, the tour company was very nice and was able to find me an extra seat. So I want to shout out a big thank you here to Mama Tour for being flexible! This tour cost me about 650 bahts.

Both the floating market tour and the Autthaya tour are highly recommended. I would suggest visit both places with a tour company since they are about an hour to two hours away from Khao San Rd. It would be challenging to navigate on your own to visit these places. Plus, the tour company also offers a guide who explains the history of these ruins to you! I found the value of these tours worth the money. 

If you have more than 4 days in Bangkok, I would also recommend visiting the Jim Thompson house, MBK mall, and the Terminal 21 mall. You can also consider watching a water puppet show and a Muay Thai boxing match at Rajadamnern Stadium at night. I’ve found these places from my research, but unfortunately I don’t have enough time to see them.

Lastly, as I’m writing at the moment I’m thinking about finishing Day 4 with a Thai massage! Thailand is known for their cheap massages. I couldn’t think of a better way to end my time in Bangkok!