Ubud Activities

So after not giving Ubud a raving review, we had some pretty fantastic and delicious experiences in the town. On the advice of our friends Charles and Kate (who came over from Colorado to hike with us in Nepal) as well as another couple we met in Laos (who we ran into again on the streets of Ubud – craziness!), we signed up to do a bike tour. After starting the day with breakfast overlooking one of Bali’s volcanoes and the ocean in the distance, we spent the rest of the day cruising on our bikes (downhill) through the Balinese countryside. Our guide, Wayan (what nearly every first child in Bali is named – boy or girl – so he called himself Joe) was a hilarious little man who learned to speak English from a British woman and had the most amazing British/Balinese accent. He took us into small villages where we witnessed festival preparations (the Balinese have a LOT of festivals and celebrations), and we stopped in family compounds where he introduced us to locals. He walked us through the rice planting and harvesting processes, and put some of our group members to work. He led the way on his bicycle through picturesque terraced rice fields down little paths surrounded by palm trees. And at the end of it all, we were rewarded with a fantastic buffet lunch that blew us away. After getting the feeling that Bali was crowded and that Ubud lacked character, a quick trip out into the countryside reaffirmed that the real Bali is still out there and thriving, and it’s not far outside the tourist bubble if you want to find it.

Batur Volcano

Batur Volcano - breakfast views

Biking in Bali

Biking through the Balinese countryside

Bali Countryside

High fives for friendly local kids as we ride by

Rice patties, Bali

Knee-deep in mud in a rice patty


Joe, our British-sounding Balinese friend

Our other memorable activity from Ubud was an evening cultural show. Sure it was pretty touristy, however, the one we saw was the work of an entire village. Everyone had a role in the show and everyone benefited from the proceeds. The men and boys had a majority of the roles as they chanted, danced and acted out a traditional story. I was impressed with the camaraderie amongst the group as I could not imagine anything comparable in our culture. The Balinese are a very tight-knit group and without the support of or role in your family unit, you’d essentially be a social outcast. The show was incredibly entertaining and stimulating. Unrelated to the story that had just been enacted, the night concluded with one gentleman performing a fire dance, walking over and kicking through hot coals. It was quite the sight to see his black, ashen feet at the end of the performance – proof of the coals’ burning temperatures. We ended our fun evening back at a Balinese tapas restaurant we discovered and loved, and left Ubud the next day feeling happy we went but ready to move on.

Kacek Fire and Dance Performance, Bali

Kacek Fire and Dance Performance

Cultural performance, Bali

Crazy costumes

Bali cultural performance

Fire dancer

Balinese cultural performance

He wasn't faking it!


Bali wasn’t short of WTF discoveries…

Penis bottle openers

Penis bottle openers - available in every other souvenir shop

Seriously, these things were everywhere

Cleaning product supplier on a bike

Cleaning product supplier on a bike

Bu-Oka: Suckling Pig - a local culinary specialty

Suckling Pig

Obviously, we had to try it!

Bali – 10 Years Later

Eat Pray Love

The book that made Bali famous...again

After a fabulous few weeks in Thailand and Laos, it was time to head south for the last leg of our journey. We had a quick overnight layover in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia before we arrived on the Indonesian island of Bali. Bali is truly a special place. Where Indonesia is the most populated Muslim country on the planet, the Balinese are Hindus with their own unique set of beliefs, food, and culture. I had literally just finished reading Eat, Pray, Love as we were landing and it got me excited about where we were headed. The book also does a pretty good job of explaining some cultural aspects of Bali that we would have easily missed or not noticed going on around us.

I traveled to Bali in 2001 when I was down under studying abroad in Australia and I was excited to be going back after 10 years. It was the first place we had been on our trip that I had been before (Ted’s being Thailand).

After a few weeks of very laid-back travel in northern Thailand and Laos, Bali was a bit of a slap in the face – we felt as though we were stepping into a tourist trap, with too much going on, not enough real character, and too many people haggling. It’s a busy place, not only thriving as a tourist destination, but as a pretty heavily populated island with a lot of domestic commerce. Before arriving, we imagined a serene and peaceful oasis, but what we quickly encountered was hectic traffic and bustling streets. But after a good night’s rest, it didn’t take long to realize the beauty and depth of this place – the landscapes are lush and green, and there is wonderful serenity to be found – it’s just not the norm everywhere on the island. We went right from the airport to Ubud, the island’s artistic and cultural center (and where our pal in Eat, Pray, Love hung out). Ubud is not on the water, but it’s a well-known spot that draws its own tourist crowd. I don’t know how Ted talked me into staying inland when we were on a beautiful, tropical island but I’m happy he did as we had plenty of beach time in our future.

Monkey Forest Road - Downtown Ubud

Monkey Forest Road - Downtown Ubud

Ubud is super trendy, full of culture, very ornate and well decorated, with lots of artistic presentation, lots of delicious food, and quite a bit of up-market options. Interesting, but not exactly the vibe we were going for at this point in our journey. I liked all the cute shops and nice restaurants but the place lacked authenticity. Everyone you met was out to sell you something and I was having flashbacks to India about how regularly we had to turn down offers for transport and tour bookings (“You need a taxi? Ok, how about later? How about tomorrow? How about a massage?”). You would literally have to say ‘no, thank you’ to or ignore a dozen people on a short walk from our hotel to a restaurant – it was the first time since India that we have been haggled to the point of antagonism.

Amazing Indonesian Tapas Platter

Amazing Indonesian Tapas Platter

And where Thailand and Laos were filled with hundreds of other long-term travelers, the visitors to Bali and Ubud were primarily just folks on a short vacation – usually from Australia. That resulted in a non-traditional vibe that permeated the whole city and drove up prices. As a short-term visitor from the U.S. or Australia, lodging, food, and activity prices may have seemed like a good deal. However, coming from Laos to Bali, our money didn’t go nearly as far. The money we were spending was top-of-mind as we neared the end of our trip and the end of our bank accounts. The fantastic news is that we scored a pretty great room that had a sweet swimming pool on-site. Escaping the urban hustle for some quiet time by the pool each day was the perfect way to unwind and get into the Balinese vibe.

Great pool in Ubud

Sarah enjoying the pool at our Ubud guesthouse

Mainland Southeast Asia Top Ten

We didn’t get to spend long enough in either of these fabulous countries, and for that reason we are going to lump our Top and Bottom lists together for Thailand and Laos. With Thai food in the mix, we’ve gotta do a food Top Ten – five just won’t cut it. You know the drill.

Top Ten (ok, Top Eleven – We liked it that much)

  1. Exploring wats by bike

    Value for money – Thailand and Laos are a cheap date. Both the accommodation and food options provided a lot of value for a little bit of money. After paying out the wazoo for crappy hotels in Africa, and paying nearly nothing and getting what we paid for in parts of India and Nepal, Thailand and Laos over-delivered on nearly all aspects.

  2. Bangkok party night – Shout out to JDMesh! We couldn’t get enough of our world traveler friends, this being the 4th country and 3rd continent we’ve chilled together (not including our home country/continent), and we went out with a bang on our last night of hanging together on the Big Trip. Fun times ensued.
  3. Chiang Mai – Yep, the whole city. If Ted and I pick up and left the U.S. on a whim and you want to know where to find us, Chiang Mai should be one of the first places you look.
  4. Thai cooking class on our anniversary – I love Thai food. I love learning new things. I love Ted. All these reasons and more made this experience a Top 10 in this part of the world.
  5. Namo yoga with Poncho – Our traveling pals connected us with Poncho prior to arriving in Chiang Mai. Not only is he a fun and fascinating person, he is one heck of a yoga instructor. We had lots of fun with Poncho both at class and around town.
  6. Lots of wats – and Buddhas for that matter. You can’t spend time in Thailand and not visit at least one wat. In fact, you’ll probably visit a dozen. Very unique and special places, we enjoyed exploring the different wats that Thailand has to offer.
  7. Village life – Talk about getting off the beaten path. Our time spent in the village of rural Thailand was pretty damn cool. Challenging and rewarding – good words to describe both this experience and traveling in general!
  8. Mekong slow boat journey

    Slow boat to Luang Prabang – Why spend less money and get there in a shorter amount of time when you can ride for two days on a riverboat down the Mekong with seventy 20-somethings from around the world who like to drink Beer Lao?

  9. Waterfall day in Luang Prabang – Unbelievably beautiful waterfalls in a hot, steamy country with lots of fun people around. Yep, hard to beat.
  10. Tubing day in Vang Vieng – Sure we hated being the crazy Westerners contributing to this insanely over-the-top debauchery, but we still managed to have a pretty fantastic time.
  11. Motobike extravaganzas – Having your own transport is a fun and liberating experience for people who have been relying on others for transportation for a long time. From Chiang Mai touring to completing The Loop in Laos, we dug it.

Bottom Five

  1. Heat – To avoid sounding like a whiner, I’d just like to note that this part of the world was melting hot. My Scandinavian self could hardly bear it. We almost bailed on Laos because of heat concerns, but boy I’m glad we didn’t do that.
  2. Gap year debauchery – especially in Vang Vieng. After Western Europe, Thailand and SE Asia are the meccas of backpackers. These young’ins are incredible partyers that are a little over-the-top.
  3. Our travel companion’s crash on The Loop – Talk about an adrenaline rush – and not in a good way. I don’t do well with the sight of blood and knowing this poor kid was hundreds of miles from decent medical care was a scary thought.
  4. Sarah losing her glasses to the Mekong River – You could blame it on our tubing day in Vang Vieng and you would be right. After 9+ months of carting around my prescription sunglasses, I lost them on that fateful day. They certainly had a good run.
  5. Not having enough time to enjoy these places – Cliche but true. Each of these fabulous countries deserved more time. I wish we could have given it to them.

Food Top Ten

  1. Bangkok street food – Where to start? Late-night pad thai? Grilled meat on skewers? Big bowls of soup? The list goes on and on. No shortage of fab options and of course they were all at a steal of deal. Life is good for food lovers in Thailand.
  2. Khao Sawy

    Dinner with the Chads – The Chad living in Chiang Mai invited us to a great restaurant right by his house and did the ordering for us. We ate a lot of things that I didn’t recognize and I know my mouth was on fire by the end of it which makes me think it was quite an authentic experience.

  3. Khao Sawy – A regional specialty of Northern Thailand, this curry-like soup was fantastic. Ted specifically sought it out the moment we hit Chiang Mai (he remembered from his last visit 10 years ago). At one point, we found a spot that impressed Ted so much he immediately ordered a second bowl after finishing his first!
  4. Fruit smoothies from our juice lady in Chiang Mai – One of Poncho’s many pearls of wisdom, this lady worked in the market just down the road from our hostel and we visited her once if not twice a day.
  5. Lao BBQ – You do the cooking yourself on a set of coals brought to your table. Brilliantly, the system allows you to cook meat, veggies, and soup simultaneously! Very fun.
  6. Laap and sticky rice

    Laap (and sticky rice) – Laap is a Lao specialty and to eat it with sticky rice is the only way to do it. Laap is essentially meat or fish chopped into tiny pieces and seasoned and spiced to perfection.

  7. Baguette sandwiches – Merci to the French. It sounds hard to believe, but sometimes you just can’t eat another meal of noodles. Getting to snack on fresh-made baguette sandwiches was a fun and unexpected delight in this part of the world.
  8. Beer Lao – Prolific and refreshing in this steamy country. We enjoyed many a Beer Lao.
  9. Mekong fish-on-a-stick in Luang Prabang – Don’t mind if we do!
  10. Mango Sticky Rice – Best Thai desert ever!  Perhaps best fruit desert ever.  Fresh mango with some cream-infused sticky rice.  Mmmmmm….

Be sure to check out our Best of Mainland Southeast Asia photos to see some of our favorite moments from this wonderful part of the world.

A Mighty Fine Capital

We hadn’t heard the greatest reviews of Vientiane, Laos’ capital city, but it was inevitable that we would need to travel through it and spend the night at least once. No one had anything particularly bad to say about the place, it just didn’t have any not-to-be-missed sights or activities. So we were headed into town without high expectations – but found ourselves pleasantly surprised.

A beautiful riverfront

Healthy street food!

And, of course, all the BeerLao you can drink!

As we imagined, Vientiane isn’t full of a lot of hustle and bustle. Rather, it’s pretty chill, kinda like the Lao people in general. Things just move along at a medium pace. Walking around that first evening, we were very impressed with the vibrant street scene, the french-inspired architecture, the remarkably clean streets, and the overall feeling of modernity. After spending time in places like India, which are mentioned in the news for their developing global economy yet are very much in disarray in terms of public services and general operations, we were quite surprised that little ole Communist Laos, one of the world’s poorest countries, had such a lovely capital city. Nice sidewalks, all sorts of landscaping and greenery, an awesome riverfront, tree-lined streets, flower-lined avenues, and just no trash anywhere. No clue how they they got so on the ball, who’s paying to keep it clean and landscaped, but it’s nice. The Lao people have something good going on here.

The French influence is very much alive here

Street restaurant owner, thanking us for our business

The amazing meal we ate at this guy's restaurant - Lao specialty, Laap, with sticky rice!

Though we didn’t leave ourselves much time for tourist activities, we did enjoy a lovely sunset walk along the newly-completed Mekong riverfront path (funded by foreign aid). The riverfront was booming with activity – kids playing soccer, couples watching the sun set, teenagers just hanging. One activity we did not expect to encounter – literally hundreds of Lao folks out for their evening exercise. Throughout our trip we had not seen a lot of exercise for exercise’s sake – most people in developing countries have much larger concerns than their level of fitness. Ted got ridiculed in India when he went for a jog – why is this guy running?!? But in Vientiane, we saw runners, walkers, joggers, people on bicycles, roller-bladers – the works! The big kicker was a strangely popular waterfront aerobics class – literally dozens of participants moving in unison in the shadow of a gigantic statue! There were also public exercise stations and stationary bikes lining the path that appeared to be quite popular.

Vientiane riverfront at sunset

Riverfront fountains and art

The Lao fitness craze - who'd a thought?

I have no idea why there were so many folks on board the fitness train in Vientiane, but we’ll tack it on our list as another one of the many unexplainable things that we’ve encountered on our travels.

Eating Our Way Through Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is a lovely little town in Laos that is unlike anything we expected to see in one of the world’s poorest counties. Once upon a time, Laos was a French colony and the French colonial legacy is very much alive and well in this little place along the Mekong River. Though it’s most notable in the architecture, you also can’t help but notice that some of the most popular street foods bought and sold are freshly-made baguette sandwiches. Mmmm!

French-influenced architecture

And speaking of surprising food encounters, we had quite a few unique and unexpected eating experiences in our few days there. For instance, just around the corner from our hostel we stumbled upon the welcome oasis that is JoMa Café. Now, JoMa is nothing more than a coffee shop – a traditional, run-of-the mill American-type coffee shop. But please remember, we are in a developing country that didn’t reopen to foreign tourists until 1989. It was pretty remarkable to go in and order a bagel breakfast sandwich and a latte and enjoy life’s little luxuries in air-conditioned comfort while reading the newspaper! Though expensive and far from an authentic cultural experience, we loved our little JoMa Café and found ourselves there most mornings.

JoMa java!

To counteract our unadventurous breakfasts, we had some pretty traditional dinners – including at the night market. Luang Prabang’s night market is incredible. Yes, it’s a tourist market and not a local hang-out, but the variety of products and the vibrancy of colors is something to behold. I challenge you to walk through it and not buy something. And Laos is home to non-aggressive salespeople, which was a welcome relief to us after time spent in other countries. From umbrellas, to shoes, to wallets, and artwork – we definitely had to find more room in our backpacks after this spot.

Luang Prabang's night market

Colorful umbrellas at the night market

Colorful patters

The night market also features amazing eating that entices travelers with such deals as $1 for everything you can fit on your plate. Remarkably we turned that down and opted for Mekong fish-on-a-stick. We wouldn’t have picked it ourselves based on sight, but after being treated to a bite by a friend from the slow boat, we were sold. And we topped that off with these delicious coconut rice cakes that just melt in your mouth.

Mekong River fish-on-a-stick!

All-you-can-eat for $1!

Delicious coconut milk rice cakes

On another evening away from the night market, we ate some BBQ. Laos-style. This involved a bucket of coals brought to our table, covered with an interesting frying apparatus that allowed for simultaneous cooking of soup, noodles, veggies, egg, and three different kinds of meat! So there we were BBQ-ing our own meal at the table – very unique, and delicious, indeed!

Multi-function grill!

Excited for this meal! Lao Lao Garden BBQ

From fancy coffee shops where you least expect them, to fish-on-a-stick that exceeds all expectations, we learned that our presumptions about this quiet little Southeast Asian country were continuously going to be turned upside down.


Over the past 9 months, we’ve eaten some strange things.  It’s part of the adventure, and half the time we don’t even know what we’re really getting.  One thing we did take a pass on was bugs, beetles and scorpions.  We saw carts full of them in Bangkok, but our most memorable bug-eating experience happened as we were relaxing with Pui in Maetachang.

We’re hanging with Pui while he cooks some vegetables wrapped in a banana leaf on a little fire next to this sort of covered patio structure we’re chillin on.  A huge black beetle comes flying by, and to our surprise, Pui reaches out and grabs it mid-flight and holds it up to show us.

Look what I caught!!

Again to our surprise, he throws the beetle on the fire next to the vegetables, and it cooks for about 30 seconds.  We’re thinking, well, that’s kinda cruel, but if we lived out in the middle of nowhere, maybe we’d do that too.

Patiently waiting for the beetle to cook

Then, to our biggest surprise, he plucks the beetle off the fire, cracks it in half, and bites off the juicy torso of this beetle.  Yum.  WTF?!

Snack time!

Thai Markets

I would like to take a quick moment to mention the impressiveness of the Thai markets. You can buy anything you may ever need or want at markets. Just as we shop at grocery stores and shopping malls (which you can also do in Thailand), the majority of business gets done at the local markets. Of course the market in Chinatown selling everything from fresh octopus to gold jewelry is very different from the tourist market selling beautiful scarves and local artwork, but the point is, they are both fascinating, diverse and a wonderful places to visit.

It is very hard when you are traveling for 10+ months and you want to buy lots of things that you see but you ultimately know you can’t the stuff in your backpack. However, even when you have no interest in buying bundles of red hot chilis, or fish on a stick, it is quite entertaining to wander the isles and try and figure out exactly what you are looking at.

Chilis galore

Spices and grains

Seriously, fish on a stick

One of my favorite markets was the night market in Chiang Mai. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of stalls lining the streets at night and catering their wares to tourists. Ted scored a “Billabong” swimsuit for about $6 and I got some “Ray Ban” sunglasses for $3. However, if shopping is not your thing, nearly all markets have a food area where you can get delicious, piping hot food for very very cheap.

Chiang Mai's night markets

Knock-off designer brands for cheap

Stall after stall of clothes, textiles, food, and jewelry

For shopping, eating, exploring and people-watching – it’s hard to beat a local Thai market.

Happy Anniversary to Us

While in Chiang Mai Ted and I celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary. If someone had told us in 2006 where we’d be five years later, I’d hardly have believed them. However, I would have been thrilled to know that we were actually doing our round-the-world trip that we were already dreaming about back then!

We had a lovely day, beginning with delicious fresh-fruit smoothies from the best juice lady in town. After an awesome yoga class taught by our new Mexican friend Poncho, and lunch with fellow yogis Juanse and Clari from Puerto Rico, we spent the rest of the afternoon digesting in preparation of our Thai cooking class.

This lady made the best fruit smoothies in Thailand!

Juanse and Clari after yoga class at Namo studio

Lunch with our yoga crew

We had such a fantastic time at our Indian cooking class, that we decided another class was in order, as Thai is up there with Indian food as one of our favorites. Unlike India where things were more informal and where we literally cooked in our teacher’s kitchen, the Thai cooking class was a very neat and orderly operation on a large outdoor patio where we each had our own wok and cooking station. We lucked out and had the owner, Gayray, as our instructor so we got to learn from the best (our expat friend Chad turned us on to Gayray’s class – there is quite the cooking class culture here, so we were thankful to have the excellent recommendation).

Gayray explains our options for cooking class

We were in a group with four other people – 3 fellow Americans and 1 Canadian. Our not-so diverse group had to decide which types of food/courses we wanted to learn how to cook and we selected: appetizers, noodle dishes, soups and curries. As you can imagine, there was plenty of food to go around.

Ted mans the wok

Sarah grinds with the mortor and pestle

Group shot with Gayray

The next few hours flew by. Before we knew it we were cranking out spring rolls, pad thai, tom yum soup and massaman curry. There is a surprising amount of overlap between dishes so once you have the base of your soup made or your chili paste mortared and pestled, you can easily make several different delicious options quite easily. We learned about the importance of fish sauce, oyster sauce and oil to nearly every dish and it was fun and surprising to learn about the different items used to make dishes sweet, salty, spicy and sour.

Yeah, we made that! Tom Yum soup

Khao Sawy, a northern Thai speciality

Needless to say we had a memorable and fun 5th anniversary dinner, and I look forward to finding out where we will be celebrating in another five years.

Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is a wonderful little city and one of our favorites stops of the whole trip. North of Bangkok, we traveled to Chiang Mai via night train. Not only were we quite impressed with the space and cleanliness of the train compared to our experiences in India (not to mention the guy that came to make our beds for us!), we also had the opportunity to meet two guys named Chad from the United States. One of the Chads had been living in Chiang Mai for nearly two years and it was great to be able to ask him some questions about Thai culture and what we shouldn’t miss on our visit to his adopted city. We later met up with the Chads several times over our next few days in town and got a little insight into (and visits among) the ex-pat community – which is thriving in Chiang Mai, and quite intriguing!

Meet Chad and Chad

This jazz bar is a popular ex-pat haven

After the business and chaos of Bangkok, Chiang Mai felt like the perfect spot to spend a few days and relax. And relax we did. We met some great fun people, did a couple amazing yoga classes, ate lots of amazing Thai (and Burmese! And Mexican!) food, and cruised the whole city on our rented motorbike.

Cruising Chiang Mai on our moto

Northern Thai specialties Chad introduced us to at his favorite local digs

I don’t know what it was about this little university town, but we grew to love Chiang Mai in a few short days. It was culturally exotic and rewarding while also feeling livable and comfortable. We had never imagined ourselves seeking out the opportunity to live in Asia before, but if we were to do it, Chiang Mai would be at the top of our list!

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