Thailand is famous for its street food. Food stalls and rolling carts whip up your favorite kebabs, noodle dishes, and fried goodness, hot and fresh while you wait. It’s dirt cheap, it’s widely available, and it’s better than any Thai food I’ve ever found in the States.
Bangkok was HOT. I mean, very hot. I mean, about as uncomfortably hot as we’ve ever been. We would be sweating within minutes of leaving our air-conditioned hotel room. In fact, this was the first time we had needed an air-conditioned hotel room, and it was worth every extra penny. Our room/cool box was a welcome and needed relief and we found ourselves making forays out into the sweltering city but only for short stints at a time.
We spent a great afternoon at Chatuchak Market – a massive market for both tourists and locals alike. They have a gigantic selection of everything from clothing, to housewares, from puppies to souvenirs, and of course delicious Thai food. It’s torture to visit a place like this and know that you don’t have enough extra room in your backpack for all the things you want to buy, especially when they are so cheap!
We also ventured into China Town to check out more street vendors and stores selling anything and everything you could imagine, and when we were sufficiently over-heated we headed to one of Bangkok’s many state-of-the-art malls to cool off and see a movie. Bangkok’s malls are incredibly impressive – they are some of the biggest, most modern and architecturally impressive malls that we’ve ever seen. They are definitely a place to see and be seen as we saw thousands of Thais wandering the 10 or so floors, chatting and texting on their fancy smart phones. We don’t have malls this nice in the US.
But mostly we just enjoyed the creature comforts of a developed city and looked forward to our next opportunity to eat yummy and amazingly inexpensive Thai food. Coming from India and Nepal, where everything from purchasing bus tickets, to driving 20km on a hellish road could take hours – Thailand was a dream. Air-conditioned taxis with leather seats; multi-lane highways where people followed traffic rules; customer service agents at the train station to assist travelers with their bookings; excellent English everywhere. Bangkok was a nice and easy place to spend a few days and we made sure to appreciate it!
Bangkok, Thailand is one of the primary hubs of Southeast Asia, and is ground zero for most backpackers setting off (or returning from) an Asian adventure. Chalked full of Aussies and Brits in particular, mobs of people seek out S.E. Asia for the beaches, the food, the cheap and extensive travel options, and of course, the parties.
In Bangkok, the center of the mayhem is Khao San Road. Hundreds of guesthouses, restaurants, bars, spa and massage parlors, food stalls, and souvenir shops can be found in a few block radius. Within hours of landing in Bangkok, we were meeting up with our good pals Dave and Jesse for a night on the town – it had been all of 24 hours since we were hanging out in Nepal, and we were all going through a bit of separation anxiety!
Dave and Jesse had already been through Bangkok prior to meeting up with us in Nepal so we let them lead the way. The night started innocently enough with our first of many amazing Thai meals from a simple stand along the side of the road. Bangkok was HOT so it was obviously necessary that we drink a few Chang beers to cool off. The next stop was a VW van converted into a bar along the side of the road. Not sure what the deal was exactly but it was hilariously decorated, pumped loud music and served buckets of alcoholic drinks. Next up – a group foot massage. Thailand’s massage industry is as prolific as it is inexpensive. I can’t say I’ve ever enjoyed a massage over a beer – another of many firsts on this trip!
Post-massages it was back to Khao San Road to watch the chaos unfold. British folks decked out for clubbing; Australians straight off their surfboards; beautiful Thai women being escorted by unfortunate, dumpy white men; Thai teenagers breakdancing; vendors selling fried insects as snacks; more vendors selling anything from gigantic Zippo lighters, to ridiculous hats, to glow-in-the-dark bracelets; cover bands singing Van Morrison, or the Eagles, or Guns and Roses. It was loud, it was crazy and it was a lot of fun. It was our last evening with Dave and Jesse before our itineraries took us in different directions, so we made sure to go out with a bang!
Nepal has been at the top of Ted’s wish list for a long while, and for good reason. Our time here was nothing short of spectacular, though challenges abound. Trekking the Annapurna will be a travel highlight in our books forever, having friends to join us was a particular treat, though transportation and power in this country created some difficult situations. In no particularly order, check out our favorite moments, challenges, and eats:
Fun People – We spent nearly our whole month in Nepal hanging out with people we love. Cheers to Charles and Kate for making the journey from the US, and to Dave and Jesse for being such hilarious partners-in-crime.
- Shiba – Our guide on the Annapurna trek was a superstar. Best guide ever. We loved this guy.
- Our porters – We couldn’t have done the trek without them. Well, perhaps we could have but we’re glad we didn’t have to.
- Wicked peaks – Every day wicked peaks. In every direction.
- Weather on the circuit – I’m gonna go out on a limb and call it perfect. Sure it was a bit cold in the evenings, but during the day you couldn’t ask for better walking temps, our outrageous visibility, and no rain!
- Thorung La Pass – 17,769 feet. Bagged it.
- Tatopani Hot Springs – Healing, natural hot springs after 10+ days of walking? I think yes.
- Dinner with Shiba – Dinner with our favorite guide in his home and with his lovely family was a treat.
- Sunsets in Bandipur at the Old Inn – A beautiful view, at a lovely old property and cold beer. Perfect.
- Bodhnath Stupa on Buddha’s Big Day – It was quite by accident that we got to hang out with Buddhists on the celebration of Buddha’s birth, death and day of enlightenment.
Road transportation – Terrible, terrible roads. No bus ride or Jeep ride was an exception. It takes hours to go a few miles.
- Bathroom experience along the Annapurna Circuit – No need for detail here, but there were squat toilets all the way, and when you’re legs are tired from walking anyway, this was sad news.
- Power rationing – Kathmandu was without power 8-12 hours a day on a regular basis. Our hotel posted the hours that power would be available in the city each day. A capital city with systematic power outrages is quite unfortunate.
- Strikes – Who knows who was striking about what, but when it was a strike day all transportation would come to a halt. No buses, no taxis and most shops don’t even open. Lucky our travel schedule was so flexible – it could be quite an issue if you were trying to get somewhere on a certain day at a certain time.
- Freezing cold nights – on the Annapurna circuit, we had a couple high-altitude evenings with not quite enough covers. We’re stretching here with things to complain about…
Top 5 Eats
Hot tea on Annapurna – We’re not big tea drinkers but we were on the trek. The hot liquid both kept us warm and kept us hydrated. We drank gallons of the stuff.
- Dal Bhat – The Nepali national dish. We learned to like it.
- Momo Fest 2011/Momos in general – Momo Fest deserves its own post: Check out what our travel buddies had to say about our momo night on the town.
- Pokhara Pizza – Best pizza we had encountered out of the US and it was cheap ($2/pie)! Woohoo!
- Manang’s bakery items – Manang was a little village in the middle of our Annapurna trek. After days and days of the same boring food, we were thrilled and surprised to have the options of fresh croissants, apple danishes and chocolate cakes. A little slice of heaven in the middle of a pretty heavenly place to begin with.
Wow, the tourist area of Kathmandu is insane! After spending weeks in the wilderness and small, somewhat sleepier towns, Kathmandu is a slap in the face. Cruising down the road in Thamel (the tourist ghetto), you are bombarded with hanging signs, and even walking becomes an obstacle course, choosing where to eat is overwhelming, and avoiding tour operators trying to sell you Everest Base Camp hikes requires athletic ability.
Most people arrive into Nepal through Kathmandu however, we were doing just the opposite. It is an excellent spot to arrange trekking, stock up on fake North Face gear and get ready to head into the wilderness, but we had already done that.
So for us, Kathmandu was a place to do laundry, catch up on email and eat yummy food. We overlapped with Dave and Jesse again for a few days, visiting the famous Monkey Temple which is an impressive stupa overlooking the whole city, and splurging on gigantic servings of dal bhat (typical Nepali food), for their last meal in the country. We also had a great meal with Ted’s friend and former boss John Watson from Colorado, who happened to be passing through at the same time (we actually planned to overlap for a night in Bandipur, but those damn strikes got in the way!). All and all, a nice and easy way to spend our last few days in Nepal.
Between pre- and post-trekking and the Buddhism retreat, we spent nearly 2 weeks chillin in Pokhara – the longest of any place we’ve been to date. Though a bit overdeveloped in terms of tourism services, we really enjoyed taking advantage of the many activities and great restaurants in the town. Some highlights of our time here:
Growing trekking beards is a must when you’re on the trail, but when you get back to town, there are many barber shops ready to help you clean up. Dave and I couldn’t pass up the $2 shave (including post-shave massage!).
Across the lake and up the hill from Pokhara’s Lakeside neighborhood (where we stayed), lies the Peace Pagoda. We spent one hot morning hiking up and enjoying the views.
While we had phenomenal weather on the trek, apparently it rained every afternoon in Pokhara. Upon returning, we witnessed the torrential downpour that fell at about 3:30 every afternoon. No big deal for us – we were busy eating and drinking our way through town. Hard rains just meant more beers!
We intended to leave Pokhara 2 days earlier than we did. But, somebody (well, probably a lot of somebodies) in Nepal was angry, and strikes were organized. Nepali strikes focus on freezing transportation, road blocks are put up, and cars that drive on strike days are likely to get stoned. Being stuck in Pokhara for a couple extra days ain’t all that bad though! We took the opportunity to rent some bikes, ride around the lake, and explore some of the neighboring communities.
Potentially the best thing about Pokhara’s overly-developed tourism ghetto is the extensive options of delicious food. The best and cheapest pizza on the trip – Pokhara Pizza: $2. Our favorite local food (well, kinda local, the recipes were brought over by the exiled Tibetans) was undoubtedly momos – steamed or fried dumplings stuffed with veggies, potatoes, or meat. We ate lots of momos on the trek, but we really embraced these dumplings during MoMo Fest 2011, a tour of all the local momo shops in Pokhara. Read Jesse and Dave’s hilarious account of our momo progressive party here.
Needless to say, Pokhara was good to us, and I’m certain that we’ll be back someday.
After returning from our hike, we exchanged contact info with our guide and new best friend Shiba with the promise to send potential clients his way and to stay in touch in general. As we were hanging around the town of Pokhara for a few more days, Shiba generously reached out and invited us to dinner at his home. Unfortunately Charles and Kate had already left, but Dave, Jesse, Ted and I happily accepted.
With Shiba once again as our navigator and translator, he was able to direct our taxi driver to his neighborhood. Shiba was there with his 3-year old daughter to meet us. His daughter set eyes on us for one second before bursting into tears. We were unable to win her over, even with Jesse’s tempting offer of sweet treats.
At Shiba’s home we met his mother, his wife and his newborn son. We happened to be visiting on Nepal’s version of Mother’s Day, so we hope they didn’t mind us crashing their celebration! Though Shiba’s English is excellent, neither his wife nor mother speak any English so smiles and handshakes made up the bulk of our communication with them.
Before we even arrived we knew were going to having dhal baat for dinner. While we were eating various forms of Western food on the Annapurna Circuit, Shiba was eating dal bhat. Dal bhat is the typical Nepali meal, eaten twice a day, every day. It consists of rice, dal (lentil curry), and usually a separate vegetable curry. When dal bhat is served in a restaurant, there are endless amount of refills, and this was the case at Shiba’s house too. We were served small portions of chicken as well as a glass of apple brandy, which were fancy touches for us guests. Awww, so sweet!
After dinner we showed Shiba and his family some of our favorite pictures from the hike, and presented him a small photo album we made as a keepsake of our trek and time together. It was the least we could do for a man that put up with the six of us for 10+ days in the mountains!
Dinner at Shiba’s was an absolute treat. A rare opportunity for most trekkers in Nepal, we felt honored to spend some time in a Nepali home with our new best friend and his family. If you ever plan to visit Nepal, let us know – we’ve got the best guide in the country already lined up!
What makes hiking in Nepal so unique is the concept of teahouse trekking. Few other places in the world can you set out on 3+ week backpacking trip and not have to camp and make your own food. Many of the trails throughout Nepal connect isolated villages to each other, and as trekking has become more and more popular, many Nepalis have converted their homes or built new guesthouses to accommodate international visitors.
A teahouse may sound quite lovely, however, the accommodation is very basic and it was always interesting to see where we’d end up. The quality and charm varied from place to place but in general we were getting a room with a double bed and a shared bath. By ‘bath’, I mean a squat toilet. A couple places had actual showers but most spots involved bucket hot water showers. That is, the teahouse owner heated hot water for us, put it in a bucket and then we used a cup to pour the water over our bodies to rinse off. When we got to high altitudes, the showers stopped for a few days as it was too cold for us to shower and required too much energy/logs for them to boil water at that altitude.
The food also varied in quality, but certainly not in options provided. Nearly every menu along the 11 day route was strikingly similar – some were completely identical. The major and featured foodstuffs included carbohydrates with a side of carbohydrates: fried noodles, fried rice, curries, potato in many forms (fried, baked, and our favorite, the Swiss rosti), eggs and momos. Momos are essentially dumplings stuffed with meat or veggie and they were our saving grace. Once in awhile a bigger village would have something wonderfully exciting that we hadn’t seen in days – like a sandwich – and we would be overwhelmed by our options and good fortune. But in general, our food selection (or lack thereof) was our running joke throughout meal times because nothing was particularly memorable or even appetizing after awhile. That being said, the food was hot, it was caloric and it was made by someone else so though we laughingly complained, we usually cleared our plates!
Time for another wrap-up. Normally we do a Top 10, a Bottom 5, and our 5 Favorite Food and Drinks. However, wild-and-crazy India needs a Top 10, a Bottom 10 and a 10 Favorite Food and Drinks. We’ll try and keep it short as this is a lot to cover. Here we go!
Staying with Sasank in Delhi – Great guy, generous host, wonderful apartment. Lucky us.
- Holi – A holiday like no other. Kinda like dyeing Easter eggs, but with us being the Easter eggs.
- Rooftop sitting – Drinking chai, escaping the insane streets and enjoying sunsets.
- Udaipur Cooking Class – First cooking class experience was both informational and a lot of fun. Who wants to taste what we learned when we get home?
- Meherangarh Fort – We can confidently say that this is our favorite fort in the whole world.
One doesn’t usually have strong feelings about forts, but this fort just knocked our socks off.
- Camel safari sunset – How could you not love a beautiful sunset over rolling hills of sand that you arrived at by camel?
- Sikh Love – Didn’t meet a Sikh we didn’t like!
- Border closing ceremony antics – Though it might have been wrong to laugh so hard at something not aimed to be funny, we did and it was.
- Taj at sunrise – She’s a beaut and at that hour we had the place mostly to ourselves.
- India’s unbridled energy – Though a vague concept, there is no place else like India. Its uniqueness and intensity are at times overwhelming, but ultimately that’s what makes it so rewarding.
- Delhi belly – We’d toughened up our stomachs a little bit before arriving, but Delhi/India toughened them up a bit more.
- Obnoxious salesmen who won’t take no for an answer – Rickshaw? No, thank you. Rickshaw? No. Rickshaw? NOOO!!!!
- Salesmen that blatantly lie – Did you know that Richard Gere has visited this hole-in-the-wall textile shop in Jodhpur and that Giorgio Armani sources his fabric from this same place?
- Salesmen that are syrupy sweet nice when they are trying to make a sale that become rude or hostile when they realize that you aren’t going to buy anything.
- Filth – Really gross stuff. I don’t even want to write some of it down because it’s so gross. But imagine garbage, cow poo, public urination and the smells that go with it.
Poverty – There is such a gap between the Haves and the Have Nots and it’s unavoidable to see. People literally live in improvised dwellings on the sidewalks of streets while others are driving by in their Audis. It’s just brutal to see with your own eyes.
- Car horns – Though the horns make lots of different clever sounds, they are all loud and all overused. A walk or a bus ride on any road is hard on the ears after about 5 minutes.
- Everything is a negotiation/nothing is straightforward
- Different prices for foreigners – This is institutionalized. Sure our rickshaw drive will be pricier than for the locals, however, everything from the Humanyan’s Tomb to the Taj Mahal has a significantly higher sticker price for us non-Indians.
- Staring – Unnerving, to say the least. I know most folks don’t mean any harm, it’s just weird to be brazenly watched for no particular reason.
Favorite Food and Drinks – We primarily ate vegetarian in India as Hindus don’t eat meat, thus it is a very easy thing to do. However, once in awhile a chicken curry was in order!
Masala Chai – Or simply chai tea, if you will. It’s prolific, it’s delicious and it’s cheap. We drank some every day.
- Lassis – Pretty much a yogurt milkshake. I particularly liked banana lassis for breakfast!
- Aloo Parantha – Speaking of breakfast, this is what we liked to eat. It is an Indian bread stuffed with seasoned potatoes served with curd (yogurt) and pickles (chili sauce) for dipping.
- Naan – Or roti or parantha. At home we always ate garlic naan with our curries but we found out in India that naan is usually only served for special occasions. For everyday eating it is either roti or parantha (same thing but called by different names in different regions).
- Thalis – A medley of different curries, if you will, served with rice, bread and sometimes a dessert. Most restaurants serve unlimited refills, however, we usually split one between the two of us because it was so much food.
Butter Chicken – Chicken in a creamy, tomato curry. Mmm!
- Masala Dosas – Super thin pancakes/crepes wrapped around some curry.
- Curries in general – So many options and oh-so-good. Even mediocre food in India is better than most great Indian food at home.
- Gulab Jamun – Pretty much a donut hole soaked in a sweet syrup.
- Pakora – Deep-fried battered pieces of vegetable. Hard to not like.
Don’t forget to check out our Best of India photos.
Chai (or more specifically, Masala Chai) is the staple liquid of India. A milk-based black tea flavored with cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and lots of sugar, chai is more ubiquitous than coffee, and in my opinion, is far superior in taste. Served by street vendors known as “chai wallahs (a wallah is a person that performs a service – you have your laundry ironed by a “press wallah”, your shoes shined by a “shoe wallah”, etc), you can order a chai in a train, in a food stall, in a museum, in a restaurant, or basically on any corner in all of northern India. Sometimes served in a teapot, other times in a glass, and occasionally in a plastic bag, masala chai will forever be one of my favorite hot drinks.