MBFW Madrid: Teresa Helbig

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I always adore Teresa Helbig’s designs because they are youthful and wearable. Simple, fun, creative dresses that are trendy but also easy to wear for any occasion. This collection, althought it was for autumn actually seemed a bit summery. As she often does short dresses, and loves to use light colors, most of her styles seem like they are for a spring season as opposed to an autum, but I love them all the same.

This season she “winterized” things by using a lot of leather in my favorite color, army green. This army green leather, combined with pastel pink chiffon, was the perfect juxtaposition. I would absolutely LOVE to wear anything that Teresa puts on on the runway. Some of my favorites were the army green leather looks paired with black sequins as well as a vibrant yellow color that I think would just look incredible on most woman if you have a little sun. All in all, I loved this collection, as I typically always do with Helbig, and I hope to own a few pieces of it!

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MBFW Madrid: Hannibal Laguna

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I always adore seeing Hannibal Laguna because gives me that same feeling of when you are little girl, and you see a princess, and you want to be here. Hannibal Laguna envokes glamour, sophistiactionn and sexiness, and makes me want to play dressup!

He always shows beautiful gowns, fit for parties, balls, dances, weddings etc. The kind of events that you rarely attend, but always wish you could and then when you can, you always wonder what you are going to wear.

The AW15/16 collection was inspired by well, Spain. Flamenco music blared and beautiful gowns walked the runway. I was surprised that with the flamenco music, there weren’t more “ruffles” but a lot of the looks were slimfit or floaty, and there wasn’t a lot of structure as we’ve seen with Laguna in past seasons. Of course, there were his signature pops of purple and pink, though there was a lot a lot of white and beige, as well as a few of his signature tea-length looks. All in all, nothing super “wow” but a beautiful, stylish collection.

It’s probably also worth nothing that for the first time, Hannibal Laguna has created a line of suitcases, which he also showed at Fashion Week. Nothing extremely creative, but some well-made, hard-backed black suitcases. Could be useful for an avid traveler such as myself (unfortunately, way more useful than a ball gown).

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MBFW Madrid: Andres Sarda

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Andres Sarda is always one of my favorites, usually more so in the summer because their swimsuits and excessive, debonair swimsuit cover-ups are absolutely fabulous. For fall, the lingerie line is always a good time. The AW 15/16 lingerie collection entitled “Tic Tac” was related to the looks you’d wear at different times of day. I’m not exactly quite sure I would wear any of these looks at any times of they, but they were still fun and exciting. Women wearing houndstooth leotards and lingerie as they walked their dogs and baby carriages…well, let’s just say I’ve really seen it all!!!

The long, gauzy, sexy gown cover-ups floating down the runway are always my favorite, as impractical as they are, because I just love the way they look in movement. Of course, you’ll never catch me prancing down my hallway wearing one, but a girl can dream, can’t she?

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Adventures in Havana

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If you’d asked me a few months ago if I thought I would be spending a weekend in January in Havana, I would have laughed. However, somehow, I ended up there last weekend!

Plaza mix

I happened to be in Miami for work meetings when my close friend Brian, also know as The Points Guy, decided we should set off for Havana in lieu of the relaxed travel restrictions set in place by Obama. We’d be the first set of American travel journalists to visit Cuban as per the new rules.

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If there is one thing I know about Brian, it’s that when he makes a decision, he goes through with it, and just hours after deciding we wanted to go, we found our selves buckling up on an AA flight to Havana routing through Grand Cayman.

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The new restrictions were supposed to begin on Friday, January 16th, and I truly think we were the first American journalists,  (possibly the first Americans in general) to step foot in Cuba, as our flight arrived at about 12:30 am in Havana!

The view from my hotel room

The view from my hotel room

We finally made it to our hotel, the Memories Miramar and immediately crashed. The next morning, I woke up and POW was hit with this totally awesome view from my hotel window. Although I was tired from the travel day before, I was super excited to begin exploring Old Havana.

First view of the Fortaleza

First view of the Fortaleza

The city is even more stunning that I would have ever thought. After a short taxi ride along the coast into Old Havana, we finally arrived. Riding in is amazing for variety of reasons. First, you round a curve and surprise, you are hit with beautiful ocean views and a sighting of the Fortaleza, which is reminiscent of the same castle, fortress structure guarding the beaches of Old San Juan in Puerto Rico. To your right, on prime ocean-front property, you have creepy high-rise housing projects and grey, forlorn looking communist style buildings.

Some ghetto properties lucky enough to have incredible sea view. #onlyinhavana

Some ghetto properties lucky enough to have incredible sea view. #onlyinhavana

This may be one of the only cities in the world where the poor get to have ocean-front, sea view properties. This isn’t Benidorm, that’s for sure. I am sure, however, once American real estate agents get their hands on this prime real estate, that this area will be covered with over-priced high rise hotels and luxury apartments, like in Miami or otherwise.

Old Havana

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This reminded me so much of so many places, the old crumbling cobblestones of Spain, the spanish railings of New Orleans, the bright colors of Puerto Rico and the general shabbiness of Thailand or Portugal even.

We ending up riding in this 1957 Ford beauty!

We ending up riding in this 1957 Ford beauty!

The plazas were lovely and full of life and music, Gutanamera playing on every street corner. The vintage cars completely blew my mind. I was expecting a few in the tourist center, but they are really on every corner, and probably make up at least 50% of the cars on the the road. We ending up riding home in one later that day, a 1957 Ford Barbie pink convertible, Cuba salsa blaring all the way back to our hotel.

So many amazing vintage cars

So many amazing vintage cars

The best thing to do in Old Havana really is just to wander. You can get a great sense of the city by just walking around. The city is strange because it’s falling apart, but so beautiful at the same time. I feel that same effect in Portugal…I think the deterioration of the buildings somehow adds a special, unique charm.

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The double-decker bus tour is also a cheap (just $5) and easy way to see the city center. Though be careful because some of those trees are low hanging!

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Since we really only had two days, the first day we did our own “walking tour” and the bus tour, and the second day we had a guide, Ozzy, who showed us around Old Havana, as well as the Fortaleza and the Plaza de la Revolucion, where as you might guess from the name, the Cuban revolution took place.

Plaza de la Revolucion

Plaza de la Revolucion

 

Exploring the Fortaleza area was historical, and we also saw the beautiful Cristo Blance statue and got some great views of Old Havana.

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We also got to see the amazing Tropicana dance caberet show. Being a dancer, I of course adored it, and the costumes were just impeccable!

I got a pic with one of the amazing dancers

I got a pic with one of the amazing dancers

I have no idea how they can dance with all those heavy headpieces on.

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The girls were stunning and the guys even prettier, and I loved every second of it! A total blast. Not cheap at $95 for the best seats in the house, but worth every penny in my opinion.

Tropicana

I really wanted to go to go salsa dancing at the Casa de la Musica afterwards, but unfortunately we were just too worn out.

The following evening we ended up getting invited to a dinner party through friends of friends at the house of talented Cuban artist Damian Aguiles. It was an interesting evening, being able to chat with Cubans and really hear their stories. Throughout the night I chatted with both the ambassador of Norway and the ambassador of Sweden, the artist himself and his sweet wife Pamela, a few young girls, one of whom LIVED in my building in Madrid for a year, (what a coincidence) and one of who was a concierge at the famous Saratoga hotel. I also ended up chatting for quite awhile with a lovely woman who I later found out was Raul Castro’s niece. I find when I travel the world with Brian I really never know where I will end up.

I would like to point out that in general, we were treated so well by the locals in Cuba and I loved getting to know people. Politics and government can hate but aint’ nothing gonna stop Lori from meeting, spending time with and getting to know people from all over the world. We are all, in the end, the same…just people!

I loved  being able to have this amazing experience with such a good friend too. Brian and I have been traveling together for many years, and we always have so much fun together. It’s wonderful having someone in your life you know you can always laugh and have adventure with (though I am very lucky, because I not only  have Brian to do this with but also Jorge, and several amazing travel-minded friends as well)

The weekend trip was a whirlwind, and before I new it, I was back on the plane routing through Grand Cayman heading for Miami. Until next time!

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Animal Kingdom

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I was really bummed to leave the beach (as usual) but I was excited to see what Chiang Mai was like. I was expecting a mini Bangkok, but it turned out I was wrong. Chiang Mai is much smaller and calmer and more like a large town than a small city, and I enjoyed it more than I had expected too. We stayed at the Tamarind Village, which was a peaceful and luxurious boutique hotel. It’s famous for the 200 year old Tamarind tree in the courtyard. Our room was super cute and I got a great night sleep after we did a 3 hour spa package (total cost for 2 people: 30 euros for a one hour Thai massage, 30 minute foot massage and one hour facial—AMAZING) the first day upon arrival at Khunka Massage.

Peaceful walkway entrance to the Tamarind Village Hotel

Peaceful walkway entrance to the Tamarind Village Hotel

Obsessed with our sink at the Tamarind

Obsessed with our sink at the Tamarind

The next day was elephant day, something Jorge and I have been excited for for months. We spend many hours researching a spot, because we really wanted to make sure we picked a place that treated the animals humanely and we finally settled on Ran-Tong Nature Park. Turns out we made a great decision. We arrived at the park and after learning how to command the elephants, we went down to meet them. My immediate thoughts: these animals are adorable, very intelligent, and SO BIG. They are so, so much bigger than I had never imagined, but gentle and funny animals. And boy do they love to eat. We fed them bananas and sugar cane, which they gobbled up. I’d never been that close to an elephant before, and at first it was a little scary but once you see how sweet they are, the fear melts away and you just want to hug them (well, if I could get my arms around one!).

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Then came the time to ride them. You command the elephant to sit down (MELONG) and then you kinda swing your leg over them, and they stand up. I am so short I kinda crawled, not classy at all haha but really mounting an elephant is just not conducive to being ladylike. When the elephant stands up, it’s suddenly like WHOA…you fly up into the air and then you get accustomed to being up there. You don’t really realized how high up you are until the elephant sits back down again.

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After the ride, (Jorge and I took turns going in front of the elephant) we had lunch, and chatted with the other members of the group. Then we got back on the elephants for a longer ride and headed to the lake to bathe them. This was absolutely amazing. The elephants LOVE the water, they lay down and roll around, and splash and play. It was so cute to see them just enjoying it. You just have to be careful they don’t kick or roll on you! I spent a little time with the baby elephant, it was adorable. It just sat there swinging its trunk all day “playing”. I was nervous to get close time more so for the mother—I was afraid she’d get possessive but it turns out she doesn’t—however the mischievous baby is another story. Watch him give me a playful shove in the video below!

At the end of the day I was honestly sad to leave, it was such an incredible experience. I really don’t know how people can harm or kill these magnificent animals, and if there is anything I can do to contribute to worthwhile organizations that are dedicated to rescuing and helping preserve this grand race of pachyderms, I will be doing so. These are just some of the million of photos, so enjoy the montage below!

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The rest of our time in Chiang Mai was fun, but nothing could really top the high of riding a huge elephant through the muddy jungle. The following day we visited the Tiger Kingdom and while it was pretty awesome to hold the baby tigers and scary to be next to the big ones, I found it over touristy and not nearly as exhilarating at the elephants. That being said, I still want a baby tiger (finally, a cat I love).

We then visited the Wat Chiang Man Temple, which had a cool elephant shrine I really liked.

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That evening, we walked through the night market and bought some stuff, and then met up with a friend of Jorge’s from high school. Ironically enough, Jorge hadn’t seen his friend in about 10-15 years, and they reconnected in Thailand! Him and his girlfriend were really nice and we had a great time getting street food with them and drinks at the (rundown but cool) THC rooftop bar.

Buddhist Lori!

Buddhist Lori!

Creepy butterflies at the insect museum

Creepy butterflies at the insect museum

Our last day, we visited the Wat Chedi Luang temple and the insect museum, which was super creepy and weird but I enjoyed it and so did Jorge. It was really ghetto, just frames with dried insects everywhere. I have never in my life seen so many disgusting bugs. An interesting way to end out the trip.

As I sit on the plane and write this, we are headed home, and I feel genuine sadness. After 5 weeks in Asia, I realized that I adore that continent! I fear that no good can come of this, knowing myself. I have a sneaking suspicion that this will be just one of many, many visits to Southeast Asia.

I suppose this means the Life and Style Madrid will now return to it’s regular “Madrid” posts…but I do hope you’ve enjoyed following me through my unforgettable trip!

Ahora…la vuelta a Madrid! Un beso a todos.

 

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Paradise At Last

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We arrived in Koh Samui tired but happy. It had been an incredible two weeks touring through Cambodia and Vietnam, but I was totally ready for some serious beach and relax time. Anyone who knows me loves that my absolute favorite moments are passed lying in the sun, with a good book on my kindle and a little lounge music playing, cocktail in hand.

Our first AirBNB rental. A cool studio!

Our first AirBNB rental. A cool studio!

Our first few days in Koh Samui were spent catching up on sleep and exploring some of the beaches on the island. We started off on Bophut beach, and then visited Chaong Non and Silver Beach the following two days. We also checked out the walking street in the Bophut Fisherman village, which was more like a night market. We chose to stay at a cool studio apartment near the airport in the North of the island, which was a very cool space…pool table included. Several lizards also included. In fact most of our stay in Asia included un-bargined for wildlife (foot long geckos, giant bugs, terrifying spiders and what I swear was a crocodile but apparently not).

My favorite thing to do: LOUNGIN

My favorite thing to do: LOUNGIN

Silver Beach

Silver Beach

Silver Beach

Silver Beach

sunset in BoPhut

sunset in BoPhut

Anxiously awaiting the arrival of my very best friend Marisa and her husband Eric, we then checked into a two bedroom house we rented in the Mae Nam area of the island on our fourth day there. The house was entirely made of wood and a pretty cool space, although the house manager Ron was pretty lame.

Marisa and Eric arrived in tow with their friends Danielle and Jeremy and Jorge proceeded to lead us on a wild goose chase to find a bar I had selected for us to visit for dinner and drinks. As we walked through the jungle, I silently cursed Jorge for yet again getting me lost…and then finally, we found it!The funny part is, once we’d found it, we were greeted by the owner, Pui, and it was like we were home! A warm welcome made our jungle hike suddenly forgettable, and Nature Bar became our hangout spot for the week. The owner Pui and his girlfriend Noi were totally awesome and made our stay unforgettable.

The teak house we shared with Marisa and Eric

The teak house we shared with Marisa and Eric

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Hanging out at Nature Bar

Nature Bar

Nature Bar

 

Kayaking at Anthong National Park. Part of the movie "The Beach" was filmed in this cave.

Kayaking at Anthong National Park. Part of the movie “The Beach” was filmed in this cave.

The group

The group

 

During the week, we hung out on our local beach and Nature Bar, rented scooters and headed again to Silver Beach and to The Cliff Bar for pricey drinks with a great view, and also day a day excursion to the Anthong National Park, which included kayaking, snorkeling and a boat ride to the archipelago that conveniently made Jorge and I seasick, as the boat battled a rocky sea. We also got a few massages, set off those flaming lanterns, and accidentally went to a lady boy brothel to karoke.

 

Jorge and I (my arm looks extra skinny in this pic thats really why I posted it)

Jorge and I (my arm looks extra skinny in this pic thats really why I posted it)

Antics.

Antics.

The group at The Cliff Bar

The group at The Cliff Bar

Marisa and I

Marisa and I

The most memorable parts of the week were simply spending some well needed time chilling on the beach and enjoying some quality time with Marisa. We’ve known each other since the sixth grade and she’s been an influential person in my life pretty much ever since. One of the things I adore about her is how no matter what is happening in my life, turbulent travels, job changes, moving across the nation or even the world, Marisa is a constant. She is home. She’s the sister I never had, someone who I know will immediately ground me and take me back to a safe and happy world of happiness, humor and comfort. She’s one of the people I miss most at any given time in my life, and we don’t get to spend nearly enough time together, so I was really happy we had this wonderful vacation together.

 

Aww.

Aww.

A quick lantern wave

A quick lantern wave

Ready to light them

Ready to light them

All good things must come to an end, and our whirlwind week with Marisa and Eric flew by. We headed to Koh Phangan on the ferry and I kept my chin up, knowing I would probably see Marisa this fall and of course, headed to tropical paradise, I couldn’t stay down for long.

The glass cottage: our magical beach hut

The glass cottage: our magical beach hut

The view from our beach bungalow!

The view from our beach bungalow!

 

Koh Phangan is, in all honesty, heaven. At least the heaven I hope to enter someday (fingers crossed!). Tropical paradise. White sands, palm trees, clear water for days. Pure perfection.

We arrived and were immediately picked up by the owner of our AirBNB rental, The Glass Cottage.

The Glass Cottage. This is the stuff dreams are made of people. I can’t believe I stayed in such a peaceful zen place. A small bungalow made entirely of glass, with incredible views of what was pretty much our own private beach. So romantic and tranquil! I could just curl up there staring at that view and never get tired of it.

 

Bottle Beach perfection.

Bottle Beach perfection.

We just couldn't stay out of those crystal clear waters!

We just couldn’t stay out of those crystal clear waters!

Most of the time on Koh Phangan was simply spent lounging at various beaches, snorkeling, reading my kindle and floating in the arms of mi amore, Jorge (sorry to get cheesy, but this cottage was romance inducing, as I previously stated). We did make an exception to our relaxing routine to hit the Full Moon Party, which was insane.

I didn’t really drink much or get too crazy because of all the horror stories I had read about people getting robbed and stuff, but it was definitely an experience to be there, and watching the sun come up on the beach was special! (I am sure it would have been even more special if I was “on” what everyone else was, but you know me…not one to get too crazy these days!). The party was fun, an experience for sure, however I think I would have really enjoyed it more in my late teens or early twenties, those carefree youthful days! Of course, Jorge loved it. I had to talk him out of jumping rope on the fire rope though, thank god. I mean I really didn’t want to miss quality tanning time the next day tending to burn wounds at the hospital, so I was relieved when he actually listened to me.

My favorite experiences were snorkeling at Mae Haad beach and taking the water taxi to Bottle Beach. Bottle beach is so remote that there is no road to get there! So you have to arrive by a wooden boat. Magical! The snorkeling was amazing, the water is shallow so you have to be careful not to cut your stomach on the reef but I saw some amazing fish, some bigger than a foot long! I don’t know much about fish species…but I saw stripes, solids and polka dots! I also loved eating extra spicy fish at the Beach Lounge restaurant, which is rated number 1 on Trip Advisor in Koh Phangan, and for good reason.

Lounging at Beach Lounge!

Lounging at Beach Lounge!

 

Besides the energetic the full moon party, the island of Koh Phangan holds memories of a calm and beautiful natural spot that can rejuvenate anyone of any ailment. After my five days there, I felt inspired…calm, de-stressed, and ready to channel my inner fabulousness once again! Isn’t that what vacay’s are for?!

We ferryed back to Koh Samui, spent a day at the Nature Bar and the beach, and then headed to Chiang Mai…the last stop on our Asia itinerary.

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Natural Wonders: Halong Bay

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I heard so many horror stories about terrible cruises through Halong Bay, so I was really nervous to embark on our two night, three day cruise.

We’d read tons of Tripadvisor reviews and splurged a bit on a more expensive cruise to avoid all the awful stories we’d heard, like overcrowded boats, dirty and insect filled cabins, unsanitary food and even boats sinking and accidents. Some of the cruises costs as cheap as $24 per night per person, and we realized that that was just a disaster waiting to happen—no thank you!

Embarking on the Paradise Luxury

Embarking on the Paradise Luxury

In the end, we went with Paradise Luxury Cruises, which weren’t the most expensive, but were on the higher end of the cruises. We spend about $400 each, and that included pickup and drop off in Hanoi via van (the drive is almost 4 hours each way), two nights and three days on a “luxury” boat in a deluxe cabin with balcony, excursions, a visa approval letter (this took the visa cost down from 85 dollars a person to 45 dollars, so worth it) and all meals provided.

The shuttle promptly picked us up at 7:30 to start the (harrowing) drive to Halong. People in Vietnam drive like complete nutcases, so I simply closed my eyes and prayed for the best. 4 hours and several bumps, horn honks and driving on the wrong side of the road later, we arrived (safely) to the Halong Bay docks and boarded our boat.

Our cabin, cosy and bright!

Our cabin, cosy and bright!

 

Our balcony...a splurge I am glad we made!

Our balcony…a splurge I am glad we made!

 

We were escorted to our cabin, which was lovely. It was small but clean and modern, and the balcony was great. The bathroom was much larger than I had expected, and I was pleased with our accommodation. They even tossed ross petals over as we boarded haha—cheesy but fun. The rest of the boat was also nice. There was a big dining room to fit everyone in for meals (maybe 25 people or so max) and a rooftop deck area with lounge chairs.

Fruit for dessert, anyone?

Fruit for dessert, anyone?

The cruise took off and we started with a buffet lunch. The food was amazing on the cruise, a great mix of Western and Vietnamese dishes. It was definitely luxury, with dishes like sea bass, steak and a variety of tasty Asian food as well.

Some pretty amazing views

Some pretty amazing views

The scenery started to amp up and Jorge and I were in awe. Really, it’s difficult to describe the peaceful, beautiful cliffs jutting out from the green water, and photos don’t do it justice. Pure zen is the best way I can describe it, just so peaceful and calm.

We enjoyed the scenery for awhile until the first excursion started. We docked the boat and walked up and down several steps to see a natural cave. It was cool and reminded me of the Neptune Grotto we had seen just last summer in Sardinia. However, it was packed with pushy, obnoxious tourists shoving everyone (dude, relax, you will see the damn cave!) which rather irritated me, but I tried to enjoy myself despite the annoyance.

The inside of the cave (sharing it of course with a zillion pushy tourists)

The inside of the cave (sharing it of course with a zillion pushy tourists)

Standing outside the cave

Standing outside the cave

 

After that, we boarded the boat again and had the opportunity to kayak around a few of the islands. It was the first time I had been kayaking in years and it was pretty amazing. Then we headed to a rather touristy beach on one of the islands.

Both excursions were fun, but extremely crowded and touristy. However, I knew we’d be getting a little further into the cliffs and away from the tourists on day 2, so I didn’t really care too much.

The crowded touristy beach

The crowded touristy beach

Our first kayaking adventure

Our first kayaking adventure

Following this, we headed back to the boat for happy hour, where we indulged in some overpriced but well deserved glasses of wine. We watched and participated in a cooking demonstration, where we learned how to roll spring rolls in rice paper. Jorge competed against a 6 year old girl to make the best looking roll. I am sure I don’t need to tell you who won, for those of you who don’t know, Jorge is skilled at many things, but cooking is not one of them!

It's very important to drink wine after kayaking to refuel

It’s very important to drink wine after kayaking to refuel

Even six year old girls can make better spring rolls than my life partner, Jorge

Even six year old girls can make better spring rolls than my life partner, Jorge

I look rather nice in a chef's hat don't I?

I look rather nice in a chef’s hat don’t I?

Eating the spring rolls was fun, and then we headed down for a delicious seafood dinner filled with clams, mussels, lobster, crab, squid and more underwater delicacies. We were then presented with our cooking class “certificates” in which they had artfully destroyed both of our names, which you can see below. Where they got Jan Vanderbosenback (or something like that!) from Jorge Ortega Villanueva, I have no idea! But it was pretty funny.

YUM

YUM

I think they might have misspelled our names.

I think they might have misspelled our names.

My new boyfriend, Jan!

My new boyfriend, Jan!

 

We were exhausted by this point and headed to bed. Breakfast was served at 8 am the next day, followed by several excursions and we wanted to be fresh (needless to say, we did not wake up for the 630 am Thai Chi class!)

Pretty breakfast!

Pretty breakfast!

 

Day 2 started off with a fulfilling breakfast (I wish I had an omelette station in my house!) followed by a rowboat trip to a trip to a traditional floating village, where 200 people actually live on floating houses on the river. It was extremely interesting but also a bit of a shock seeing how they live. Jorge immediately integrated himself by playing hacky sack with the locals, and I roamed around checking out the one room school house. I took a photo of two little local kids and then showed it to them, and they were fascinated to be able to see themselves on the camera screen.

Sorry, but we had to be dumb tourists and wear the hats!

Sorry, but we had to be dumb tourists and wear the hats!

The floating houses

The floating houses

Ready to row to the fishing village

Ready to row to the fishing village

 

Local boys in the fishing village

Local boys in the fishing village

The one room school

The one room school

Jorge and his new buddies

Jorge and his new buddies

 

 

We headed back to the boat and spent a short while checking out an oyster pearl farm. We saw how they grow pearls and extract them, which was really cool. Then of course there was an opportunity to buy pearls, but I wasn’t super interested in that…pearls aren’t really my thing, but it was nice to see.

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Then we cruised for another hour and the scenery just got better and better. We ate a nice lunch on the boat, again, excellent food. The sun came out (hoorary!) we anchored and were given the opportunity to kayak to small secluded beaches. This was by far the best part of the trip.

Kayaks ready to go!

Kayaks ready to go!

Breathtaking (at least the scenery!)

Breathtaking (at least the scenery!)

Jorge and our kayak

Jorge and our kayak

Sorry...we had to do a jumping pic!

Sorry…we had to do a jumping pic!

The beaches were absolutely stunning and there was no one else there! Jorge and I explored a couple of the beaches and kayaked around. A couple hours later, we returned to the boat, and enjoying the sun and scenery with some iced coffee.

It looks heavy... (it wasn't)

It looks heavy… (it wasn’t)

I never wanted to leave our secluded spot!

I never wanted to leave our secluded spot!

View from our little beach

View from our little beach

Jorge having a swim

Jorge having a swim

 

Little did I know my peaceful zen would soon be disturbed due to poor organization by the Paradise staff

Little did I know my peaceful zen would soon be disturbed due to poor organization by the Paradise staff

Everything was going just splendidly until the dock boy handed me a 80′s nokia phone and said “for you”. I said hello and it was our cruise ship manager, telling me she had to switch us to a different boat (a little context, for the excursion we had boarded a day boat from about 9-5 that was smaller in order to be able to get to the sites faster. The four main cruise ships, Luxury 1, 2,3 and 4 all had people on them, most of who headed home on our Day 2 as they had only booked a one night cruise. Anyone who was leftover on the four boats came to the Day 2 excursions on the day boat with us—maybe 20 people max from all the boats. We were originally on Boat 4, and the cruise manager wanted to move us to boat 1). I said it seemed a little weird, but I didn’t want to make a big fuss, and said that when we re-boarded the main boat after the excursions, we would pack our things and move. This is where things got fishy. She said she would call me back.

The next call came and she told me that no problem “We’ve already packed all your things and moved them”. This is where I got pissed. I explained it was completely inappropriate for them to have entered our cabin, packed our things (including moving the entire safe with all our “valuables”) and moved them WITHOUT ASKING US FIRST. We docked to the new boat where I again chatted with the new manager, where I pleasantly explained to him how this was ridiculous. We checked all our things, and luckily nothing had been stolen, but still! Picking our underwear off the floor and shoving in into our suitcase without our permission is just NOT OKAY.

The new manager Jimmy, sympathized with us and had already placed a bottle of wine in our room (how did he know wine fixes everything?!) and also offered us both 30 minute complimentary massages in the spa onboard. I figured, nothing was missing, they obviously knew it wasn’t okay to have done that, and they tried to fix it, so I graciously accepted the massages, uncorked the wine and let it go. I didn’t want to ruin what had really been a beautiful day enjoying the bay.

 

Wine fixes pretty much anything

Wine fixes pretty much anything

Jorge agrees that wine fixes everything

Jorge agrees that wine fixes everything

A cloudy but picturesque sunset on Halong, made better with wine

A cloudy but picturesque sunset on Halong, made better with wine

 

Jorge and I relaxed on the balcony sipping the wine and enjoyed the perfect views. Finally, a chance to just chill out. It was perfect! We headed up top to see a clouded sunset, and then enjoyed another great dinner. Jorge then tried his hand at squid fishing unsuccessfully when we realized how much cooler fishing SOUNDS and in reality, it is boring as hell. So we went to enjoy our massages and hit the sack.

The next morning was an early one, and we enjoyed a rowboat ride (a rainy one!) to see a cave and some monkeys that live inside—they were so cute! Then it was another breakfast and check out and head back to the shore. After paying a ridiculous amount of money for the few glasses of wine and a bottle of sparking water we consumed at dinner the first night, we checked out and waited for our shuttle bus to take us back to Hanoi.

Us on a rainy rowboat...spot the monkey behind us?!

Us on a rainy rowboat…spot the monkey behind us?!

OMG ITS A MONKEY

OMG ITS A MONKEY

 

Despite the mix up with moving boats, I loved the cruise and Halong Bay is a fascinating wonder of nature that I can’t believe I was lucky enough to see in this lifetime. I think EVERYONE should do this at some point, just may sure to do it when you can splurge a bit, because I saw some of the other boats and some were ghetto. If you do choose Paradise, it is definitely a great time, I would just make sure things are clear and organized when you arrive to avoid any confusion or boat changes.

Halong Bay, I will miss you and your beauty, but it’s onto our next adventure, meeting our favorites Marisa and Eric at the beach in Thailand! Koh Samui, here we come!

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Good Morning Vietnam!

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So next stop on the trip was Hanoi, Vietnam. We arrived uneventfully via Vietnam Airlines (a nice experience, and although they are Skyteam unfortunately you can’t get Skymiles for flying them, boo) and there was a driver waiting for us to take us to our hotel, about an hour ride. Since it was evening, we couldn’t see much, but there was a lot of traffic, especially motorcycles, and it reminded me of Bangkok.  

We then arrived at the Splendid Star Grand Hotel, where Martin, the owner, kindly welcomed us and offered us fresh mango juice, which we gladly accepted. He informed us that he had upgraded our room, which we proceeded to, juice in hand. Boutique hotels in Asia are adorable, again, towels folded into cool shapes (elephants this time) and rose petals everywhere. We crashed almost immediately so we’d be ready for our Hanoi kids tour the next morning.

Elephant towels!

Elephant towels!

A little background on Hanoi Kids Tours. The tours are operated by young high school or university students who are members of the Hanoi Kids Club. The concept of the club is helping youngsters improve their English by giving tours to people, therefore also getting a taste of new cultures and providing a great service to the community. We had heard rave reviews of the tour and couldn’t wait. We chose the tour option one, which was a tour from about 9-3 pm which included seeing the Temple of Literature, the Sword Lake and turtle pagoda, walking through the Old Quarter and the French Quarter, as well as the Ho Chi Minh complex. The tours are free, however you must pay for your guide(s) to eat lunch or a taxi with you if you use it. A great deal in my mind.

Sword Lake

Sword Lake

Us hanging out at Sword Lake in Hanoi

Us hanging out at Sword Lake in Hanoi

 

Our guides arrived promptly at the hotel at 9 am, Viet and Tung. They were both university students around the age of 20, and super nice. We started off at the lake, where they graciously took a million pictures of Jorge and I, and told us the legends and history of the lake and the pagoda. We also conversed about their families, their university and all sorts of things related to Vietnamese culture and food, and learned quite a bit from them.

The Turtle Pagoda

The Turtle Pagoda

From there we headed to the Temple of Literature, which was an old university and temple, where they explained to us a lot about the history of the temple.

The Temple of Literature

The Temple of Literature

I may have forgotten to mention earlier that it was over 100 degrees and humid outside, absolutely sweltering, so after this, we thought it to be a good idea to hit a museum (air conditioning!). We headed towards the Women’s Museum, which was a tribute to all things women in Vietnam.

Crazy hanging baskets

Crazy hanging baskets

They carry so much stuff in here!!!

They carry so much stuff in here!!!

 

The most interesting part was the documentary on women street vendors. They interviewed women on why they were selling things in the street, and it was a great insight to their culture and social status. Many of them live in villages and come into Hanoi all week and sleep in boarding houses with other women in order to sell as much fresh fruit, flowers and other items as they can in order to pay for their children to go to school.

Us being dorks

Us being dorks

Traditional Vietnamese Fashions

Traditional Vietnamese Fashions

 

The fashion exhibit was also enjoyable, though small, showcasing many different clothing items through the history of Vietnam. There was also a section on women who fought as guerrillas in the mountains, which was a great display of their bravery.

Now they we had cooled down a bit, headed back outside and asked the boys to take us to a local, sit down restaurant. They took us to Thuc Don restaurant, ordered for us and explained to eat each of the foods we ordered, which I of course made videos of.

My favorite dish, the pancake. You take the rice paper, add the veg, then take a piece of the pancake, add some sauce, and roll it like a burrito!

My favorite dish, the pancake. You take the rice paper, add the veg, then take a piece of the pancake, add some sauce, and roll it like a burrito!

The English/Vietnamese menu and me pointing to my favorite dish

The English/Vietnamese menu and me pointing to my favorite dish

Everything was absolutely DELICIOUS, especially the Bun cha, the pancake and the sticky rice. I was thrilled with the tour and their lunch spot choice.

Our lovely tour guides graciously posed for a photo with us after lunch

Our lovely tour guides graciously posed for a photo with us after lunch

After lunch we braved the heat once again, and strolled (more like sweated) through the French Quarter over to the Ho Chi Minh complex. It was cool to see it, but since it was Friday, we didn’t enter to see the embalmed body, which was fine with me. Preserved dead people…weird…anyway, it was interesting to see the outside.

The Ho Chi Minh complex

The Ho Chi Minh complex

The boys then helped us to find Jorge a SIM card for his phone and set it up, which was amazing because we never could have figured it out alone, nothing was in English! They walked us back to our hotel and after giving us several other restaurant recommendations, including street food, they sent us on our way.

I loved the tour and it was so much fun getting to know such lovely locals. I really felt it was the ideal way to see Hanoi and I would absolutely suggest this tour to anyone looking to see Hanoi from a great insider perspective.

A last selfie attempt in the sweltering heat with our monopod

A last selfie attempt in the sweltering heat with our monopod

After a shower and a nap, we braved the heat again to check out the street food and the night market. Crossing the street in Hanoi (especially without our local guides) was no easy feat. Hundreds of motorcycles, bikers, taxis, tuk tuks, and cars and absolutely no traffic signals. They don’t stop for you, they just go around you. The trick is to go slowly and steadily. We survived it, and we also survived sticky rice and boiled chicken on the street with no stomach issues, hoorary!

We then headed home to get some sleep–we needed to be on our way to Halong Bay at 730 the next morning.

I will do a separate post on Halong Bay next, but I may as well finish out our last day in Hanoi after the tour here.

Me in front of the prison. Even though I am smiling, it was not what I would consider a "happy" spot

Me in front of the prison. Even though I am smiling, it was not what I would consider a “happy” spot

We decided to visit the Hoa Lo prison (nicknamed “Hanoi Hilton”), which was creepy and weird. I liked seeing it, but it did have a lot of propaganda about the Vietnam War (they call it the US War). They first show how the French used it as a prison in the 1800′s and then it later became used for the Vietnamese to imprison American war pilots. They rave about how wonderfully they treated the pilots, like kings. Now I wasn’t born until after the war, so I guess I can’t really say, but the Americans say they were tortured immensely in the prison, so I guess it’s just weird seeing that live and not really knowing what went down. I made sure to read up on the prison before to get some info, and I am really not sure what I think about it all. In any case, it was eerie and weird but I am glad I saw it.

I have a feeling maybe this isn't how it really went down...but what do I know?

I have a feeling maybe this isn’t how it really went down…but what do I know?

In the midst of all this we ate some lovely food at La Restaurant and Highway 4, both which were amazing. I am a big fan of Vietnamese food, especially their hot Chili sauce which I need to figure out how to source in Spain. Highway 4 was cool because you had to take your shoes off and sit on the floor.

Highway 4...chicken with vegetables sitting on the floor. They even make you take your shoes off!

Highway 4…chicken with vegetables sitting on the floor. They even make you take your shoes off!

 

Loving this sign in the bathroom at Highway 4!

Loving this sign in the bathroom at Highway 4!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some pork spring rolls and Hanoi beer at La.

Some pork spring rolls and Hanoi beer at La.

 

We plan on getting some of the famous Hanoi coffee before we leave–updates to come on that. Stay tuned for my next post on Halong Bay!

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Temple Hopping in Cambodia

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I have been wanting to visit the Angkor Wat temples and Terracotta Army since the Asian history unit in my language arts book in 4th grade. Also, growing up watching the amazing kids game show “Legends of the Hidden Temple” also contributed to my intense need to see ancient ruins live and close up.

Seeing the Teotihuacan pyramids outside of Mexico City contributed towards feverish love for temples and ancient ruins. Macchu Picchu is also on the list. For now, the Angkor Wat Temple trip has turned reality and here I am in Cambodia.

Flying into Siem Reap was just about one hour on the lovely low cost carrier Air Asia. After an uneventful flight (though secretly rather petrified a rougue Russian missile may launch my way…I know, I know, I just don’t like flying okay) we landed in the tiny but international Siem Reap Airport.

Major points for me, as I insisted Jorge and I do our E-Visas pre-arrival. We swooped past customs as an uninterested officer simultaneously watched youtube videos and made sure I wasn’t a threat to the country, all while a HUGE line queued up at the “Visa Upon Arrival” counter.

This is one of those types of situations where everyone makes fun of me for being overly organized, and I of course, have the last laugh. MUHAHAH.

Anyway, our Tuk Tuk driver, pre-arranged with our hotel, was there waiting for us, and of course Jorge couldn’t contain his excitement about getting to ride in a Tuk Tuk. I too found it entertaining, however my bottom less so. Driving through the dusty town was crazy. Seeing how people carry EVERYTHING on bicycles and motorcycles is crazy. Bamboo sticks, huge baskets of straw and fruits, entire families (max we saw were four on one motorcycle, I have seen up to six in Morocco though), babies (of course no helmets on anyone) and even a ladder. There are no traffic lights and it isn’t uncommon to see people driving on the wrong side of the rode.

And this man has a restaurant as a side car...amazing

And this man has a restaurant as a side car…amazing

 

We made it to the hotel, the Siem Reap Evergreen, which was charming and boutique-like, my favorite style of hotel. The staff was welcoming and quite charming really, and helped us organize our visit.

After lunch, a pool dip and a nap, we wandered down towards Pub Street and the night market, which was just a little too touristy for my liking. However, I did enjoy the night market and look forward to wandering through it more during my visit. We headed back home early to get some rest for our first day of temple exploring, Indiana Jones style.

Getting the three day temple pass  ($40 pp) seemed to be the best decision, and we also chose to do our visit via Tuk Tuk. For just $15, we had our driver for an entire day, choosing to see as many temples as we could. Sunset and sunrise visits were $5-10 more and so was seeing some further out temples.

Day One at Angkor

Day One at Angkor

 

The first day we started off with the famous Angkor Wat temple that everyones seen the photos of. It was super crowded and busy, and while I found it awesome, I realized later on that it was actually my least favorite. After getting to see some more deserted temples further out into the jungle, I realized that all these temples I’d never hear about were even more awesome.

Adorable yet naughty monkeys sharing stolen goods

Adorable yet naughty monkeys sharing stolen goods

I kinda want a baby monkey!

I kinda want a baby monkey!

 

We also loved the wild monkeys that run around. They are so cute, but they are naughty little creatures too! We saw one climb onto a moving Tuk Tuk and steal a girls bushel of bananas. It was hysterical, but I certainly held on a bit tighter to my bag after that!

My quads are still burning after this vertical walk!

My quads are still burning after this vertical walk!

Back to the temples. Most of the temples in this area are from the 12th century. Most were originally created to honor Vishnu (Hinduism) and then later turned Buddhist, which I found extremely interesting. The next temple we saw was the Banyon group, which is actually a complex of several temples requiring you to walk through the jungle to get to each of them after the first.

Banyon Temple

A Banyon Temple face carving

Day One at the Banyon Temple

Day One at the Banyon Temple

 

The main one was amazing, as it had a ton of faces carved into the rock. They really must have copied this one from “Legends of the Hidden Temple”(LOL). Following that were some more pyramid like structures, and then a terrace like temple honoring elephants. I had minor heatstroke in these temples, at this point it was well over 100 degrees and soooo humid. It finally started to rain a bit, which was actually pleasant as I was dying.

We had a brief lunch, where I tried the Chicken Amok, a type of curry that has spices and coconut, pretty good!

Jorge "meditating"

Jorge “meditating”

Jorge Climbs

Jorge climbing, typical

 

Me thinking I am an explorer...LOL

Me thinking I am an explorer…LOL

 

The last temple we hit was my favorite one, Ta Phrom, also called the Tomb Raider temple. This one is pretty famous for the trees literally growing in and out of the temple. It was so fun exploring this temple, we actually got lost within in several times, finding doors and openings and climbing over rocks and running over a jungle bridge. I really felt like a kid, exploring this giant temple, running around in the rain, getting all muddy, and not even caring! Jorge, in typical Jorge fashion, insisted on climbing on every single rock and having his photo taken, which I of course whined about but this is secretly why I love him. I discovered a creepy looking lizard snake creature hiding under a rock, which was awesome (I am my father’s daughter, after all). There were many times were Jorge and I were completely alone in areas of the temple, and all we could hear was jungle sounds. I tried to close my eyes and just listen and smell: the rain, the insects, the birds. These are the kinds of things people dream about and here I was, living it!

The famous tree at the Tomb Raider temple

The famous tree at the Tomb Raider temple

We finally got a solid pic of the famous photo that everyone has seen-the huge tree enveloping the temple when our camera died. Good timing though! Absolutely knackered at this point after nine hours of temple viewing and heat in major humidity, we headed back to the hotel where I promptly dove into the pool.

The jungle bridge!

The jungle bridge!

We headed to bed early, as we had decided to do the sunrise tour the next day and had to be up at 4:30.

The so-called sunrise at Angkor

The so-called sunrise at Angkor

I actually don’t think I have ever been up that early in my life (not counting airport runs and staying out the night before). It was suprisingly not that bad, perhaps the excitement masked the exhaustion? We got to Angkor with about a million other people and then slowly realized that due to the cloud coverage, there wasn’t going to be a sunrise. One moment it was night, the next it was cloudy. Voila. We laughed about it–oh well! There is nothing you can do about weather, and continued on our tour. We did the outer circle of temples, which was cool, but not as amazing as Ta Prohm in my opinion. However, we did see a few that involved more water, one called Prean Khan that was pretty nice. We were the only people there, so it was like we were exploring on our own which was so cool. Another was super tiny, but we had to walk for awhile on a wooden bridge, which was also unique.

Jorge being Jorge

Jorge being Jorge

IMG_7243

I couldn’t believe it…a deserted temple!

Trees and temples grow together!

Trees and temples grow together!

 

 

This will look fab in my bedroom!

This will look fab in my bedroom!

IMG_7312

Epic, truly epic

In the last temple, there was a vendor selling handmade paintings on rice paper, and Jorge and I picked one out for our bedroom. I am really excited to find a frame and put it up…and I know that every time I see it, I will remember this epic adventure I have been able to embark on.

We also had a nice chat over a coffee with our Tuk Tuk driver. He explained to us that he grew up on a rice farm and now has a family and they live in the village of Siem Reap. His kids go to public school, which is only three hours a day, because there are so many kids (and so few schools) the kids go in shifts. The teachers work all day, six days a week and do two/three shifts of kids a day. Most people can’t afford private school ($8-10 a month) so this is just how it is. His dream is to own his own Tuk Tuk (he uses one that belongs to the hotel), but they cost $900, so many a few years from now.

The amount of poverty here is extreme. Little kids selling things and people living in unsanitary conditions are the norm, but I must say, I envy them in a way. They seem so happy and free, you often see kids simply playing with leaves and rocks, adults napping in hammocks, and people smiling and laughing. They have simple, happy lives, work and eat off the land, and life is good for them, despite the fact they don’t have iPads or fancy cars (isn’t this the Buddhist way, after all?) If only Western life was that simple!

We ended up heading back to the hotel around noon, but considering we’d been temple hopping since 5 am, we thought that was enough. Tomorrow, we are going to take a break (we don’t want to get temple burnout–apparently it’s a “real” condition) and head to the markets. Wednesday, we will use the last day of our pass to see more temples via Tuk Tuk, and then Thursday, it’s off to Vietnam.

I adore the Cambodian food, culture and people. They are friendly and kind, and are proud of their jungle land! I love it here, and I think everyone should see these temples in their lifetime, they are truly a marvel.

Until Vietnam!

Until Vietnam!

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The Sights and Smells of Bangkok

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After a long but relatively smooth flight, we arrived in Bangkok fairly exhausted and jet lagged, but excited. First item of business, get to the city center. I had mapped out directions, but in typical fashion my phone wasn’t working so we were on our own! Through some serious gesturing with some nice Thai airport workers, we got a handle on the situation.

We took the airport train into the city center and then the BTS above ground subway system to the Chong Nonsi stop, and walked over to the W Hotel. We found out our regular room was upgraded to a suite, (SWOON) and it had the most amazing bathtub I had ever seen.

The amazing bathtub at the W Hotel Bangkok.

The amazing bathtub at the W Hotel Bangkok.

The view of a coming monsoon from our window at the W Bangkok

The view of a coming monsoon from our window at the W Bangkok

Two baths and one nap later, we woke up ready to hit the city. First we strolled around in our neighborhood (kinda the finance area) and had lunch at a yummy secret spot called Fueng Nara. After some delectable Thai food, (spicy for me, nonspicy for Jorge!)We started off by taking the subway over to the free ferry to take us to the Asiatique Market. It was clean and tourist centered, but we still loved walking around and seeing everything. We then got foot massages (30 min for about $3 each person) that were to die for, and headed back to the hotel.

The Grand Temple

The Grand Temple

Jorge being...well, Jorge.

Jorge being…well, Jorge.

Day 2 started with exploring the temples. It was about 100 degrees and excessively humid, and in out of respect for Mr. Buddha, you have to be wearing long pants and a shirt covering your shoulders to enter most temples, especially the Grand Palace. When we finally entered in the main temple, I was happy to sit down among the other tourists, locals and Buddhist monks praying. I stretched my tired legs out in front of me, only to immediately be reprimanded by a stern guard “don’t point legs towards Buddha. Shows disrespect”. Oops! A dumb American tourist error I suppose! I aint mean no disrespect Buddha!

Us at the Reclining Buddha

Us at the Reclining Buddha

Although I thought I might literally die of heat (this coming from a girl who sweats it out daily at Bikram yoga!) the temples were stunning. After the Grand Palace (and almost getting scammed by annoying tour guides outside the palace lying to us and telling us the palace was closed and we should go with them…we suck and weren’t prepared!), we headed over to the Reclining Buddha, which I actually liked even more. It’s a huge gold Buddha lying down, and it’s just so different from anything I have ever seen.

Pool time at the W Bangkok.

Pool time at the W Bangkok.

After sweating out literally my own body weight, we thought it was time to head back to the hotel and enjoy some pool time and a mini nap, which was marvelous after the hot day.

In the evening, we braved Chinatown and some street food (yes, still alive and so is my tummy-for now) which was rather dirty and overwhelming, but I am glad we experienced it. I was surprised that I didn’t see the typical fried bugs and stuff, it was really mostly noodles, rice and fried dishes. There were a lot of locals there and not as many tourists as I had expected.

My incredible rice/chicken/basil/ginger dish at Tongue Thai.

My incredible rice/chicken/basil/ginger dish at Tongue Thai.

Day three started off with lunch at a restaurant I had researched called “Tongue Thai”. I had spent some time searching online for the perfect lunch spot, and it certainty paid off. For the equivalent of about $8, Jorge and I shared some kind of fried noodle appetizer, followed by Pad Thai for him and some sort of Spicy lemon ginger chicken for me. Jorge got a coke, and I opted for freshly squeezed watermelon juice, which really hit the spot! Finally, fresh pineapple and watermelon for dessert ended the meal on a great note. The presentation was gorgeous and the waitress was super sweet–this place was an amazing find.

We then headed over to Khao San Road, the famous backpacker street, where Jorge and I used our freshly learned bargaining skills. We ended up getting 4 tank tops for about 8 euros. Not really sure if we got cheated or not, but it seemed a good price and it had started off much higher! We also enjoyed some more 30 min massages (this time only 2 euros each) and tried Thai beer-both Singha and Chang (I prefer Singha…lighter and crisper!). Here I got my wish, I was repeatedly haggled to buy friend scorpions, which I politely declined each time, but not before morbidly staring at the fried creatures.

Jorge posing on the commuter ferry!

Jorge posing on the commuter ferry!

Bangkok is a huge, dirty, crowded city…but I must say, I kinda loved it! I went with low expectations and ended up really enjoying it. The ferry boat service was super fun and cheap, and we ate amazing food for super cheap as well.

I wouldn’t hesitate to return to Bangkok again, especially if I needed a layover somewhere in Asia. It’s a great destination to visit for a few days.

Stay tuned for Cambodia!

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