Tag: Thailand

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.

The Slow Boat

Though we weren’t quite ready to leave Thailand yet, we’d worked ourselves up to the northern border with Laos, so we decided to cross it.

After a quick boat across the Mekong River from Thailand to Laos (and our first of many baguette sandwiches – a culinary staple left from the days of French rule), we had another much longer boat ride ahead of us – from the border town of Huay Xai to the French colonial city of Luang Prabang. Until very recently, the only way to travel between these two cities was by boat. However, there is now a new highway connecting the two places providing a faster (10 hour overnight bus ride vs. a 2-day boat ride) and more financially intriguing option. But though the highway certainly has some factors in its favor, the boat ride is a helluva lot more fun.

River-cruising slow boats

So that is how we found ourselves on the “slow boat” with 68 other travelers and 5 locals heading down the Mekong, the largest un-dammed river in the world. There is indeed a “fast boat” alternative, but people are regularly killed on these dangerous journeys. One must wear a helmet while the driver dodges rocks, rapids, and whirlpools, and they are so incredibly fast and dangerous that the guidebooks strongly advise against them due to the frequency of accidents. Ummm…no thanks.

One of the five locals on our boat

We looked something like this as we cruised down the river

As the slow boat is no longer the fastest or least expensive option, the appeal is the experience itself. The two-day boat ride with an overnight stop in the remote village of Pak Beng was quite a treat. It is pretty fantastic to be cruising along one of the world’s most famous and mighty rivers with nothing to do that day but appreciate the scenery. On the boat, we cruised through dense, lush, green forest, witnessing fantastic unique-shaped mountains, temples built into sheer rock walls, remote villages inaccessible by road, and even elephants coming down to the river to drink! It was a great way to get introduced to the landscapes and the pace of life in Laos.

Mekong River vistas

Wicked cool mountains along the Mekong

Cruising the river

Though this may all sound idyllic and serene, what I have yet to mention is that the average age of our fellow boat riders was approximately 23, and having two days to cruise down a river is an excellent opportunity to drink a lot of BeerLao. So as you can imagine, the slow boat became a bit of a booze cruise as the day went on. The good news is that we both like to drink beers too and the great part is that we met incredibly fun people from all over the world that we proceeded to run into throughout the rest of our time in Laos. Even if we didn’t say a word to one another on the boat, recognition of being on the same vessel was grounds for striking up a conversation when we crossed paths 2 weeks later!

68 of our new best friends

Partying with our new friends

When we rolled into Luang Prabang late in the afternoon on our second day of cruising, we felt like seasoned riverboat travelers. The slow boat was certainly an experience – definitely not a cultural one nor necessarily one we’d need to do again – but ultimately a great time.


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!

A Local Connection Makes a World of Difference

Our visit to Nat’s village was one of the more unique and special experiences we’ve had to date. Many travelers wander their way into remote parts of Thailand, but few have close ties to someone from these rural areas. While our ties were 2 degrees of separation apart, those degrees were very small, and as a result, we experienced something that I believe few travelers encounter – a familial welcome.

A bit of background – Our very good friend Mark and his college buddy Matt lived in northern Thailand teaching English for 8 months back in 2005, right after they finished school. Matt lived in Maetachang, earning the trust of the local community and falling in love with a local girl named Nat. When Mark took off to head back stateside, Matt stuck around and ended up marrying Nat, and the two now live in Hawaii. Nat and Matt regularly visit Nat’s family in Maetachang, and they even built another wing on the family’s house, including a bedroom (that we stayed in) as well as a “modern” kitchen (meaning it has running water, a gas stove, and a refrigerator). Matt has also helped to pay for his nephew’s (Pong, our friend and quasi-translator) college education as well as the scooter he uses to ride back and forth between home and school in the nearby Chiang Rai. Needless to say, Nat’s family is grateful for how much their son-in-law has done for the family, and hosting his friends as they roll through northern Thailand is probably a welcome opportunity.

Pong and Chanon

A typical home in Maetachang. A whole family lives in 1 big room

Enjoying the slow pace of life in Maetachang

But, we didn’t know any of that. All we knew was that Matt married Nat, and Matt called the family and told them we were coming. We were both nervous about the whole scenario beforehand. We had put ourselves in challenging situations many times before – some of which turned out great, others that were painfully uncomfortable – but never before with quite so many unknowns: Not sure how rough/dirty it was going to be, not sure anyone would be there to pick us up from the bus stop, not sure what to expect from Nat’s family, not sure what we would do, not sure how much we were going to be able to communicate, not sure how long they expected us to stay, not sure how to arrange onward transport, etc. In some ways, it turned out to be the challenge that we anticipated – hard to communicate, uncertain of how to interact with our hosts, unsure of how to appropriately express our gratitude, etc. However, it was also easier too – the accommodation was significantly less rustic than we expected (after all Matt and Nat built it for their visits!), we had Pong there to help us communicate, the food was great, and we had Matt who communicated with them and paved the way for us (in many ways).

Life in Maetachang is very laid back (by Western standards), living comfortably with what feels like plenty of what you need, but not much more. A slow pace of life, to be sure. Nat’s family has a very interesting mix of modern amenities juxtaposed with some traditional ways of life. In this rural village, they enjoy 24-hour electricity, running water, a refrigerator, a washing machine, a TV with satellite reception (meaning they get 4 channels), and a gas lawn mower. But subsistence farming is everyone’s primary occupation, food is still cooked over an open fire (despite the fact they have a gas stove built by Matt!), and the whole family still sleeps in a single room in a traditional stilted home.

The old kitchen, which was used exclusively during our visit

Wood-burning stove - double burner!

Nami Jo chops up plant material that will eventually be used for making peat

Next up, I am put to work grinding the leaves

Once Pong left to go back to school (after our first day there), communicating became very difficult. It was a challenge even when Pong was there, as his English is not that good, but at least we could get the point across eventually with the help of his dictionary. Once he left, there wasn’t a lot that needed to be said, but we certainly missed his presence and his ability to convey our gratitude. But despite the communication challenges, there was an additional layer of unspoken comfort here – We didn’t feel too weird about showing up, eating their food, chillin on their deck, playing with their kids, and just taking it all in. The fact that we were friends (or rather, friends of friends) with their son-in-law somehow made it feel like we were truly welcome. It’s this kind of local connection that makes a world of difference when you’re on the road and far from home. Now, just gotta meet Matt and Nat…

Chillin with Pong

Village Life

After the urban metropolis of Bangkok and the happening university town of Chiang Mai, we were off to see the quiet side of Thailand. Thanks to our good friend Mark, who spent 8 months living in the region, we got to spend time in a rural village that does not see many Westerners (with one significant exception). You see, the connection goes beyond Mark – his travel buddy Matt stuck around after Mark returned, and ended up marrying Nat, a girl from this little village. So, after a series of emails with Matt, we were connected with Nat’s lovely Thai family that lives in the tiny, rural village of Maetachang.

A couple hours north of Chiang Mai by bus, we were the only passengers to be getting off at the sleepy town of Mae Suai, a short drive from the sleepier Maetachang. We didn’t travel with cell phones and were told the family didn’t speak any English, so we were hoping that the message had been relayed correctly and that someone would be there to meet us. However, there was no need for us to worry as we easily stood out and our host’s grandson, Pong, had no trouble finding us.

The truck ride from Mae Suai to Maetachang

The pretty rural Thai countryside

Pong became our friend and quasi-translator for the next two days. Though raised in the village where we were visiting, he currently attends university at the next big town up the road. He is the only one from his town attending university and he was nice enough to come home from school over the weekend to show us around. His English was very limited but as our Thai was non-existent, we were nothing but grateful and impressed. In fact, even if we did speak Thai, the family we stayed with spoke a local dialect so we still would have had difficulty communicating!

Our hosts were extremely generous and accommodating and though we certainly regretted not being able to ask more questions or properly express our thanks, I hope they were able to tell how much we appreciated them opening their home to us.

We were visiting during a quiet time as far as work in the surrounding rice fields were concerned but we no problem finding fun things to do.

Sarah plays frisbee with Pui

Ted jams with Pong

A guided tour through town and the surrounding hills

Ted gets a REAL Thai massage

Our iPod touch was the hit with the local kids

Pui harvests fresh fruit for us

And delicious is was!

We ate our meals together, gathered around a small table and sitting on low stools to enjoy some wonderfully flavorful soups and stews – always served with lots of rice. We got to explore Maetachang and nearby hills by foot, asking Pong a lot of questions about life in the village and about his time at university. When Pong had to return to school, his adorable young cousin, Pui, stepped in to serve as our guide. Pui was 9-years old and didn’t speak any English, yet he happily picked up where Pong had left off by walking us into the nearby hills and taking us to scenic spots along the river.

Dinner with Nat's family - Sarah, Baht Yee, and Pong

Pui leads us on a hike

Though a short but sweet peek into village life, we were very happy to have visited Maetachang and left wanting to learn more.


Big multinational corporations have to make some adjustments in their products and marketing to be locally successful.  For instance, McDonalds doesn’t sell beef in India (that’s right, you can’t get a burger in Micky D’s!), and here in Thailand, they make sure Ronald is demonstrating proper Thai etiquette.

Namaste Ronald!

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.

A Wat with a View

One of our favorite days in Chiang Mai was to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Though quite a mouthful, this wat is particularly unique because it is set in the forest-covered hills overlooking the city. While it was hot and sticky walking around town, it was breezy and pleasant as we cruised on our motorbike up the windy road to the base of the temple 15 miles outside of town.

The entrance to Doi Suthep

According to Lonely Planet, the location of the temple “was ‘chosen’ by an honored Buddha relic mounted on the back of a white elephant; the animal wandered until it stopped (and died)” and a temple was built in that spot to preserve the relic. It’s pretty fantastic that the poor elephant died in such a lovely spot. Literally thousands of people make their way to this sacred temple each day.

To get to the temple required a pretty intimidating set of stairs, but it was totally worth it. The inside of the wat was spectacular too – literally covered in gold.

A grand entrance, and a lot of stairs

A beautiful wat!

A visitor pays respects

Colorful statues

Ornate entranceways

After the temple, we continued on up the road and saw the Thai King’s summer residence. Thai people are fanatical about their royal family – if you wanted to become immediately unpopular as a foreigner, insulting the King would be the first thing you could try. Everybody in the country is required to have a photo of the King somewhere in the house, and it is actually illegal to step on money in Thailand because the King’s image in on all coins and bills! We passed on touring the residence and instead continued on our motorbike to a nearby Hmong village further up the road.

Views of beautiful Chiang Mai from above

Road trip on the moto!

Our day-trip on the motorbike was a great success. Ted was an excellent driver, I was a happy passenger and the road trip was just what we needed to escape the heat and rejuvenate!


As we explored the many wats of Chiang Mai, we stumbled across a few influential lamas (high priests, teachers) that have been preserved for generations to come.  Ok, well, not actually preserved, but a scarily-realistic wax version of the lamas, often encased in glass, on display for inspiration and devotion.  WTF?!

Seriously, I think i saw this guy blink

Kinda creepy wax lama

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