Tag Archives: Asia

Rollin’ On The (Mekong) River

Sorry for the Tina Turner reference, just had to. Anyway, our two-day cruise up the Mekong river was one of the aspects of our trip I was most looking forward too, especially since we weren’t able to cruise from Mandalay to Bagan in Myanmar along the Irawaddy River.

A map of our route

A map of our route

We set off on a misty morning in Luang Prabang, carefully treading down slippery steep steps to the riverbank to embark on our Shompoo Cruise boat, made of teakwood, decidedly rustic and delightfully picturesque.

I chose this spot, and basically didn't move for two days!

I chose this spot, and basically didn’t move for two days!

The boat was prepared for a max of 40 passengers, and since it was rainy season, we were only 10, which was perfect–we could spread out, relax and have plenty of personal space. My favorite area of the boat was the loungers placed at the front and back, where you could stretch out and read, nap or just enjoy the river view scenery. The middle of the boat featured booths, with wooden benches and tables so you could eat or work.

A lone fisherman

A lone fisherman

I took my spot lounging in the front of the boat and didn’t move for about 10 hours! The scenery was breathtaking and very much uninhabited, albeit a few villages here and there and a lone fisherman looking for his catch of the day.

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For the most part, the area along the Mekong is a jungle forest, thriving with huge trees and plants jutting out at all angles. There really isn’t even a “riverbank” along most of the river, especially in rainy season, it’s just water, and then trees and then mountains. In fact, we were told that the river had risen over 20 meters in about a week’s time, as the rainy season had just hit and the rain was really pouring down hard.

Fog over the mountains at sunrise

Fog over the mountains at sunrise

The dewy mist covering the mountains was just stunning. I felt like I was in Jurassic Park or something (well, minus the dinosaurs and Jeff Goldblum). We passed by the occasional village, clumps of broken-down wooden huts, muddy roads and boats as their main form of transportation.

River debris

River debris

There was a lot of debris in the river at times, but not garbage. There is just so much foliage that the trees, leaves and plants break off into the river. There are also landslides then end up pushing a lot of branches and logs into the river. Our captain had to be very carefully to not tread over any of the big logs. At one point we actually had to stop so they could clean out some of the wood from the engine.

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The first day, we stopped at the Pak Ou caves, which consist of two caves, the lower and upper. The upper cave we couldn’t access due to a flooded staircase, but we headed into the lower cave (it wasn’t really a “cave” more of just an overcut).  The caves are famous thanks to their thousands of small, spider-covered, dusty Buddha figures set up throughout the space. The Buddhas have been left in the cave from worshippers, and some are hundreds of years old. Locals still boat up the river to pray and burn incense to the many Buddhas.

A view of the Mekong River Lodge, our hotel for the night

A view of the Mekong River Lodge, our hotel for the night

Rustic, wouldn't you say?

Rustic, wouldn’t you say?

 

The view from our shuttered wooden windows

The view from our shuttered wooden windows

 

After the stop, we cruised until about 5 p.m. having enjoyed the lovely, yet at times monotonous scenery. We docked in Pakbeng, and dropped our bags at the Mekong River Lodge before heading out to walk around the village. The village was nondescript and probably only there for locals and backpackers to stop mid-river for the night. We ate a nice Indian food dinner overlooking the Mekong and headed to sleep.

Sunrise over the river

Sunrise over the river

After an evening in our rustic river lodge, complete with mosquito net and plenty of insects, we awoke to a sunrise over the river. Although it was cloudy, it was still gorgeous, and we enjoyed some morning peacefulness on our balcony before heading down to the boat once again.

A village hut

A village hut

 

A typical Khmu house

A typical Khmu house

Our second day along the Mekong was just as lovely as the first. Relaxing on my lounger and enjoying the scenery plus the occasional nap was paradise! Later that morning, we stopped at a Khmu village along the river. Jorge enjoyed the visit, but it left me rather sad. The village has about 300 inhabitants, and no running water, cars or electricity. The Khmu tribes live in remote areas in Northern Laos and came over from Cambodia in the 4th century.

The pump, which is the main water source in the village,is shared with a variety of animals and humans

The pump, which is the main water source in the village, is shared with a variety of animals and humans

The villagers live in teak wood huts on stilts, with their animals, pigs, ducks, dogs, chickens and even cows lounging underneath the areas where they sleep and cook. The animals also run amok through the town and around the water pump, the only water supply currently available to villagers. Whereas it was very interesting to see, the villages looked sad, dirty and poor. There was one small schoolhouse, where all the kids go together. Small kids go with one teacher and slightly older kids with another teacher. They are typically married off as teenagers, except for ones that escape the village to work in the “city”–meaning Pakbeng or Pat Tha, the two nearest cities (to me these are both small villages, but it must seem like paradise after living in such a small, remote area like the Khmu’s do).

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While they are taught Lao at school, they speak the Khmu language and they aren’t Buddhists like most of the Lao people. Instead they worship a variety of gods such as a dragon and mother earth. As they don’t have access to medical care (the nearest option for them is two hours by boat to Pak Beng, and I am not even sure if there is a hospital there, but there is a doctor), they turn to the town Shaman to cure them from any mental or physical ailments they may be experiencing. They get pretty much everything they need by working the land (food such as rice, vegetables, fruit and meat, building materials like wood) and for clothes and other supplies they may take the occasional boat trip down the river.

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As I mentioned, it rather depressed me to see people living in such dirty conditions. I have witnessed this kind of living before, in the slums of India or Bangkok or remote jungle areas of Cambodia, but the people seem to be smiling and content, especially the children. In fact, in Cambodia, I actually envied the children, running around collecting coconuts naked, without a care in the world.

A Khmu villager

A Khmu villager

In the Khmu village, people seemed tired and worn. Despite seeing their apparent sadness I am glad we visited. The discomfort I felt clearly wasn’t a nice feeling, but it’s important to be exposed to the way people live. If we don’t understand the conditions in which people live around the world, how can we grow and change? I wonder if there are ways to respect and continue their traditions while taking them into a more modern, comfortable world? Maybe not, but how can I ever appreciate all the comforts I have in my life: running water, electricity, internet, soft mattresses, electronics and access to medical care and education at my fingertips without realizing it’s not a right or given ? It’s essential to understand that not everything has access to these types of comforts and to never take for granted that we can switch on a light, have a dry shelter from rain and clean drinking water whenever we want. It’s clear, especially after seeing this village close-up that not everyone is born with or given such an “opportunity” (or is it a right? Another conversation for another day).

A traditional Khmu house

A traditional Khmu house

Piglets in the village

Piglets in the village

Some typical village kids...the closest thing we got to a smile!

Some typical village kids…the closest thing we got to a smile!

 

After re-boarding my luxury boat (and feeling mildly guilty), I took my spot on the lounger and watched as the scenery changed a bit, banana plantations, rice fields, and more villages. We got to the point where the left bank of the river was Thailand and the right, Laos.

The bus taking us from Lao customs to Thai customs

The bus taking us from Lao customs to Thai customs

The friendship bridge, connecting Thailand and Laos, which we drove over on the bus (approx 10 minutes, 50 cents)

The friendship bridge, connecting Thailand and Laos, which we drove over on the bus (approx 10 minutes, 50 cents)

 

Around 4 pm on the second day, we docked in Laos, the right side of the river. Then we had to take a tuk-tuk about 10 km to go through Laos immigration, take a bus over the friendship bridge to the other side of the river into Thailand and then go through Thai customs. It was slightly tedious but no major issues and when we exited Thai customs, our driver was ready and waiting to take us the two hours to Chiang Rai.

I would also like to point out that we took the two-day slowboat cruise to the border. There are speedboats they make the trip in one day, and they are terrifying. They are small motorboats that fly over the river and it’s extremely dangerous, many people have died. In fact, the passengers all wear motorcycle helmets. No thank you! We saw a few and it looked well, not enjoyable in the least.

A typical slowboat, like ours

A typical slowboat, like ours

 

A typical speedboat. No thanks!

A typical speedboat. No thanks!

I really loved our cruise and would recommend it to anyone who wants to see the rural landscape of Laos along the Mekong.  Especially if you want to some un-interrupted relaxing time without internet!

Ciao Mekong River!

Ciao Mekong River!

Next stop, coming soon….Chiang Rai, Thailand!

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The Ancient Temples Of Bagan, Myanmar

DAY 1

BAGAN

BAGAN

We excitedly arrived in Bagan and our hotel, the Oasis Bagan was a short taxi ride (about 4 euros) away located in Nyang-U. There are three sections of Bagan: Old Bagan (where most of the temples are and super pricy luxury hotels) New Bagan (far away from everything) and Nyang-U (mid-range hotels and great restaurants, a short ride away from temples).

At the airport we had to purchase a temple pass for $20 p/p (it was just $10 last year, so things are growing fast) and in the end we were asked to show it at two temples, so make sure you buy it at the airport because I am not sure where else you can purchase the pass.

Our boutique hotel, the Oasis Bagan, was sparse yet cute and we settled in and headed out for dinner. We ate at a little spot called “A Little Bit of Bagan” (I am getting ahead of myself but DON’T EAT HERE YOU WILL REGRET IT) and then headed to get some shut-eye.

Before turning in, we discussed our options for seeing the temples the following day.  Basically, you have the option of horse and carriage, taxi, e-bike (which is really a small electric scooter/moto) or regular bike. It was super hot, and so we decided our best option having three days to explore the temples was to start with a taxi and have him route us through the further temples. Then, the following day we’d rent e-bikes and explore the closer temples on our own. Bicycles are not recommended unless you are super fit and love the heat, because it’s a lot of work in a hot climate and you have to ride through a lot of sandy dirt roads which is not ideal.

The horse carts are something I see dying out soon. They were quite popular before the e-bikes made an appearance about 2 years ago but the horses are also exhausted in the heat and it’s a bumpy, uncomfortable ride. So we opted for the taxi tour, which would go from about 830-1230 am and then pick up again from 4-7. This way, you can have a rest and lunch during the hottest part of the day. The full day taxi tour with English-speaking guide was about 30 euros. We booked it and headed to bed.

Trees and temples

Trees and temples

Jorge woke up in the middle of the telling complaining of intense stomach pain, which worsened. I got a bit worried, but gave him some Pepto Bismol and that did help, but neither of us got much sleep. Nevertheless, we powered through and got up the next morning for our 8:30 am guided taxi tour.

Us on the top of Butheyi temple enjoying the view

Us on the top of Bulethi temple enjoying the view

I will include the full list of temples and pagodas we visited below, but for now I will just talk about my favorites. Bagan has about 3,211 temples located throughout a dusty area of 60 miles, though about 2,000 are still standing and not in ruins, so you have a lot of territory to cover.

Temple time

Temple time

They range from small shrines to looming broken-down palaces, and it was really cool to see how each one was unique.

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We were able to start with about 6-7 temples in the morning. We saw a few you could hike up the steep, uneven stairs for gorgeous panoramic views, and I think those were my favorite. The shrines, elaborate with gilded gold Buddhas are beautiful, but sometimes they all begin to run together, whereas climbing old, dark cement stairs hopeful for a new glimpse of the clouds over the temple-tops, well that is where the real magic lies.

We loved climbing up the temples, especially Jorge!

We loved climbing up the temples, especially Jorge!

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We bought some paintings for our house at one of the temples and chatted for awhile with the girl selling them. She repeatedly offered to “trade” me items she was selling for items of my own like lipstick or bangle bracelets. They really can’t get that stuff here, and it made me wish I had brought alone all those bracelets I never wear or brightly colored lipsticks. I just would have given them to her!

My new decorative art for the apartment! 5 euros!

My new decorative art for the apartment! 5 euros!

 

Some temples are famous for things like having unique Buddhas inside, a reclining Buddha, or other unique characteristics like a leaning top, painted walls, etc. We also  saw one that is white-washed by villagers once a year and a few with gilded gold tops. By about noon Jorge was looking a bit green and so we headed back to the hotel for our mid-day break. He immediately fell asleep and would stay that way for about four hours, and I took a one hour nap and then headed out for lunch on my own.

Just couldn't get enough of the views

Just couldn’t get enough of the views

 

This trip wouldn't be nearly as much fun without my favorite partner in crime, Jorge!

This trip wouldn’t be nearly as much fun without my favorite partner in crime, Jorge!

Our afternoon portion picked back up with more temples and finished with an amazing sunset view. Although the temple was crowded, the view is absolutely awe-inspiring. Photos just don’t do it justice. I tried to embed the glowing sky hovering over the ancient temples in my mind forever. I feel lucky to have been able to experience such beauty in this fleeting lifetime.

The sunset over the Bagan temples and plains...just marvelous!

The sunset over the Bagan temples and plains…just marvelous!

 

Okay enough of me getting all poetic justice here, there is one other interesting fact I would like to share and that is some info about laundry. I know, pretty mundane after just speaking about what may just be some of the most majestic ruins in the world, but it is interesting.

Obviously traveling with a backpack requires that during a six week trip you will eventually have to do laundry, in fact, several times. Especially when it’s super hot outside and you are constantly sweating.  Last year we did laundry in Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam and it is super cheap. Typically they charge by kilo and for a couple plastic bags full of dirty clothes they charge you a few euros to wash, dry and iron.

Myanmar is a totally different animal. THEY DON’T HAVE WASHERS! Yes, you heard me. They wash all their clothes by hand, just like I previously mentioned when I saw people doing laundry in Mandalay in the river.

So we dropped off our laundry in the morning, and it was 300 KYAT (about 23 euro cents) per small item (tanks, undies, a pair of socks) and then 500 KYAT (about 40 cents) for larger items like pants. We actually had about 33 small items and 8 big items to wash, and they hand washed every single item (I feel slightly weird knowing my dirty underwear was washed in the river by some random person, but what choice did I have) dried (obviously they have no dryers, so air drying only) and ironed it during my day at the temple, and couldn’t have been more good-natured about it all and thankful for our business. The total was about 11 euros, and it’s one of the most expensive things I’ve done in Myanmar, but it was certainly an interesting experience.

DAY 2

Encountering some road blocks on my e-bike

Encountering some road blocks on my e-bike

After an awesome first day, we were completely exhausted– especially Jorge who was feeling better but who still was a bit ill. So we slept a solid nine hours and then woke up ready to take on the e-bikes. It’s funny to me that they are called e-bikes because this conjures up an image of a typical bike with a small motor, not unlike the ones in Madrid used for the Bici Mad bikeshare program. Instead, e-bikes are more like motorcycles or scooters, but electric. There are various kinds and ones that have more power, but the most basic ones sorta reminded me of a faster version of those scooter cards old people drive around Walmart in the USA.

E-biking our hearts our

E-biking our hearts out

We started out around 8 am, paid about four euros each to rent the bikes and were on our way. Again, full list of visited temples below, but we saw some of the most popular ones today, as well as a smaller complex with a semi-leaning temple that the locals refer to as the “Leaning Tower of Bagan”.

Of course we had to take this photo at the Leaning Tower of Bagan!

Of course we had to take this photo at the Leaning Tower of Bagan!

I personally prefer some of the smaller, quieter temples. They may not be quite as grand as some of the more famous ones, but they allow for peaceful, reflective exploring as opposed to knocking knees with people shouting in other languages and Myanmar kids trying to sell you touristy trinkets.

A temple along the river

A temple along the river

Another interesting fact is that the temples often have fresco paintings inside. Some are destroyed and others more intact. The images are beautiful, showing Buddhas, typical life in Bagan, elephants etc. We went to one temple which was especially cool because the whole inside of the temple was dark with paintings. No photos were allowed and you needed to use a flashlight (I was overjoyed, Jorge made fun of me for taking a mini-flashlight along and it came in handy!) to see them. It was eerie walking about the dark temple shining the flashlight to see the huge paintings all over the walls and ceiling.

Happy on my e-bike

Happy on my e-bike

Many of the temples allow you to buy these gold papers for about a $1 where you actually peel off bits of gold and press it onto the Buddha. This practice seems to be very popular among locals and we gave it a shot. I think the concept is that you are supposed to make a wish or desire and press the gold on, and then it will come true.

We took our midday break for lunch, pool and nap and then headed back for a sunset, this time at a less-touristy temple. The view was just as great and there were about 10 people there vs. about 100 yesterday. Unfortunately, the sunset wasn’t quite as beautiful as it had clouded over, but we still had a nice time.

DAY 3

The keyholder opening the gate for us!

The keyholder opening the gate for us!

We managed to get up at 4:30 am to catch a 5:30 am sunrise! We wrote our e-bikes to the temple Law ka ou Shaung through dark dirt roads. We also managed not to get too lost, thankfully. We carefully selected this temple for two reasons: it wasn’t super touristy and also because there is a neat process to get inside the temple. You actually have to go to the hut behind the temple, where the dogs & roosters alert the “gatekeeper” of our presence. He comes out and unlocks the temple gates and directs you up the spooky, dark stairs so you get walk up to the top and watch the sunrise. Unfortunately, it was so cloudy that there wasn’t really a sunrise, but the experience was still really special, and we were the only people there which made it very peaceful as well.

We decided to take advantage of the cooler temps (it was so early in the morning) and then headed around through Old Bagan and to the Bupaya pagoda which overlooks the river. Apparently the pagoda was destroyed in a 1975 earthquake, but it’s been rebuilt and gilded with gold. It was a great time to go (around 6-630 am) because people were there taking their early morning prayers and meditation before starting the day.

It’s actually worth nothing that one thing that makes the Bagan temples so riveting is that they are active temples. You see locals visiting them, praying in them, meditating, monks paying visits to their Buddha among the tourists. I think it’s so cool that these temples are not just being used for tourism and that local people enjoy them as well.

Jorge with a local girl

Jorge with a local girl

 

We walked down the riverfront and saw some of the boats taking off along the Irrawaddy. I was actually bummed because our original plan included taking a 12-hour slow boat from Mandalay to Bagan, but then we realized it only operated in the dry season, so there went my illusions of slowly sailing past the Burmese countryside. At least we will have our cruise up the Mekong coming soon in Laos.

Riverfront child

Riverfront child

Riverfront people

Riverfront people

 

We then headed over to some smaller temples on the way home where we encountered the typical beggar kids trying to sell us things. They were really cute, but I hate supporting the idea that they beg and don’t go to school, so we reluctantly left without purchasing their coins, souvenirs or hand-colored postcards.

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My heart went out to this child, but I didn't have the heart to give him any $$, though I wanted to!

My heart went out to this child, but I didn’t have the heart to give him any $$, though I wanted to!

By that time we were destroyed from our 4:30 am wakeup call, so we headed back for a nap and breakfast. It started to rain and didn’t stop for awhile, so we were so glad we woke up early and got those few hours in of temple time. Around 5:00 pm it stopped raining and we were able to get in one last cruise with our e-bikes and visited a few spots. Although it was slightly drizzly and overcast, it was fun because the temples were completely deserted!

Jorge being Jorge

Jorge being Jorge

 

Dusk on our e-bikes!

Dusk on our e-bikes!

Bagan is amazing!

Bagan is amazing!

 

If you take away anything at all from this long winded explanation of my travels, it’s that you need to see Myanmar, and you need to see it ASAP. In even just six months things will be so different and so go, go now, go soon and experience this pure and authentic one-of-a-kind country!

Next stop, LAOS!

Temple & Resource List 

DAY 1

Temples taxi: guide Win: thiriallright@gmail.com
09253599515

MORNING

  • Bulethi (went up, great views rec’d for sunset)
  • Su la ma ni pato
  • Dhamma yan gyi temple (smelled of bats)
  • North guni (great views recd for sunset)
  • Dhamma ya zi-ka Zedi (all gold), like a pentagon, 5 buddhas
  • Lay myet hnay-white washed by man-nan-thu villagers once a yr
  • Tayoke pyai

AFTERNOON

  • Shwe-kun char (amazing river views)
  • Teak wood monastery Nat Htauh Ryacn (not so interesting)
  • Mingala-zedi
  • Gu-byauk-gy (painting, no photos)
  • Ma-nu-ha (near Myinkaba village) with reclining buddha
  • Sunset: shwe-san-daw Paya (asked for pass)

DAY 2

  • Rented ebikes for 5000 each from Sulatt store in Nyang-U
  • Route: drove along bagan Nyang-U road
  • Shwe-zi-gon Paya
  • One near hti lo min lo
  • Hti lo min lo (asked for pass)
  • Leaning tower of bagan otherwise know as Khay- Min-Gha
  • That-byin-nyu (grey and gold) at first we thought it was Ananda
  • Ananda (popular, 4 standing buddhas, jorge bought gold paper to press on the Buddha)
  • Afternoon sunset–dirt road to Guni (north)
  • Dinner at Spice restaurant: carrot salad, eggs, rice for a total under 2 euros (very good!)
  • Rec’d for sunrise: Pyat thut gyi,  Pyat tha da or Law ka ou Shaung (gatekeeper with key)

Day 3

  • Ebikes again
  • Sunrise: Law ka ou Shaung
  • Bupaya (along the river)
  • Small temples without name along Nyang-U road

–Note—Restaurant that gave Jorge food poisoning: “A Little Bit of Bagan”—don’t eat there!

A Chilled Out Bangkok

Our second day in Bangkok was relaxing and fun, albeit hot. We woke up feeling fairly well rested and set off for the Wat Arun temple, aka the Temple of Dawn. We started off by taking the ferry there. We then realized upon arrival that the actual temples were ages away from the ferry stop so we contemplated what to do. Jorge thought it would be fun to take the moto taxi, aka licensed drivers who take you on their motorcycles. We each got our own helmet and popped on the back of two different motorbikes for a 10 minute ride (would be been at least 40 minutes walking). It was fun zooming through a section of Bangkok that was relatively un-touristy.

Temple reconstruction in full force

Temple reconstruction in full force

Once we arrived, we headed into the temples, and much to my dismay, they were mostly under construction, so we really couldn’t get that full sense of awe, but it was okay. It was actually pretty cool to see the people hand-renovating the temples using hammers, plaster and paint, going to painstaking lengths to make sure every detail was perfectly represented. We enjoyed a nice walk around and then realized that we could get a quick boat to the ferry we needed to be on to get back to our main area. By then the hunger pains had set in and we hada great lunch at one of my favorite BKK restaurants, Tongue Thai, and then went back to hotel for a swim.

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Hammering away

Yum! Lunch at Tongue Thai

Yum! Lunch at Tongue Thai

After a few hours, we headed back out to Khao San road to grab a Singha beer and do a little shopping for cheap shirts/ Chang pants and enjoy some street food. Once we’d had our fill of the tacky backpacker street and were all shopped out, we got a foot massage at a nearby joint and then took a Tuk Tuk over to Cloud 47, a newish rooftop bar. The city views were incredible and the drinks were flowing.

View of Bangkok from Cloud 47

View of Bangkok from Cloud 47

I highly recommend checking out Cloud 47. We decided we wanted a more local, sexier rooftop experience than the typical one from Hangover 2 at the Le Bua towers, so we did a little research and it paid off. Insane views, nice service, no dress code (Jorge happily sported shorts, a tank and flip flops) and best of all—just a few bucks for a beer instead of $15 which is what several other rooftop bars charge. Go there! You will love it.

The pool at the Royal Orchid Sheraton overlooking the Chao Praya River

The pool at the Royal Orchid Sheraton overlooking the Chao Praya River

Our last day in Bangkok included a morning at the gym and pool (gotta work off all that curry) followed by an afternoon at the Siam Paragon mall complete with the VIP movie theatre. I told Jorge that Magic Mike XXL was an action flick and he agreed to see it with me (hehe!).

The VIP movie theatre lounge

The VIP movie theatre lounge

We purchased the special VIP tickets for $30, which typically I would NEVER pay for a movie but I really wanted to experience this VIP cinema I’d heard so much about. The ticket includes: movie entrance with seats that recline into beds (similar to a first class airline seat) and before the movie you get your choice of wine/beer plus snack in the swanky, heavily air conditioned lounge. You also get a 15 minute massage which you can enjoy before or after the film. We started off with wine and popcorn, got our 15 minute massage and then headed into the movie. Jorge was surprised that my definition of an action film included male strippers, but the experience was fun and different, great for a one-time activity.

Prepping for some Magic Mike XXL

Prepping for some Magic Mike XXL

Comfy seats

Comfy seats

 

We then headed out to our last night in the nearby airport hotel to wake up early for our flight to Mandalay. Stay tuned for Myammar!

Run BKK

Back in Bangkok…a mess of sweaty, humid love and energy! Smells wafting at me every which way…potent durians, pollution, toothy grins , flip flops and worn crow’s feet among the locals…I couldn’t be happier to be lost in this contaminated, sparkling (a grimy glitter, if you know what I mean) urban circus.

A grey, humid welcome to BKK!

A grey, humid welcome to BKK!

We landed after a 12 hour flight from Madrid tired but happy. Luckily, the lovely staff at the Royal Orchid Sheraton let us check in at the wee hour of 8:30 am! After a two (five) hour nap I clearly felt exuberant enough to take on the city.

We started off with some spicy curry and Chang beers from nearby restaurant Tealicious. While it wasn’t much to look it, the familiar bursts of Penang peppery curry exploded it my mouth as I happily wolfed down what would be the first of many curries I will surely be indulging in this trip! Of course this was followed by some Tums, also the first of many I will be indulging in during this six week spicy adventure.

Penang me please

Penang me please

After lunch, we headed down to the Taskin pier to catch the ferry boat to the Asiatique Market. We got 75 minute foot + head, neck and shoulder massages (400 THB per person, about $11), which was literally heaven after 12 hours in economy seating (though I can’t complain, we did have an exit row!), followed by a stroll through the shopping/market area.

Love (and intense humidity) is in the air at Asiatique

Love (and intense humidity) is in the air at Asiatique

I purchased a notebook for 60 THB ($1.50) and enjoying checking out all the clothing etc. We also messed around with the new Go Pro which is super fun even when you aren’t doing extreme sports!

A little Asiatique action

A little Asiatique action

After this we headed back and it seemed to get more and more humid by the second, so we thought a dip in the pool might be a good idea! More to come tomorrow after we get a good night of sleep and hit some temples!

Natural Wonders: Halong Bay

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.

IMG_7972 IMG_7999 IMG_8018 IMG_8023

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!

Good Morning Vietnam!

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!

From Madrid…To Asia!

My poor Life and Style Madrid! How I’ve neglected you so these past few months. Needless to say, I haven’t been in Madrid much at all. Career wise, I have been very blessed lately, and have had a lot of opportunities with The Points Guy and Best Dressed Man on the Planet (among some other exciting new projects in the works, coming soon!), which has included traveling around to many destinations around the world. But, it’s time to vamp things up and again and I really want to get back into my posting for LSM, so I promise to be a better blogger.

Lately, when I have been here in Madrid, I have been visiting the newly opened Sport Mind Club, which offers a variety of workout classes such as TRX (suspension training), yoga sculpt, bikram yoga, vinyassa flow, and pilates—all in the extra hot room. It’s so addicting. The studio is clean and modern and the teachers are friendly and helpful, which is great.

I haven’t been able to yoga it up as much as I would have liked because I have been traveling a ton as I previously mentioned. I was able to hit up fashion weeks in both London and Milan and January and June, all fantastic. I will be seeing one MFSHow Men, Emidio Tucci before I head off on my 5 week Asia trip.

The five week Asia trip! It’s finally here. I have spent so long organizing and planning, it almost seems surreal that it is really here. I will be heading to Thailand (Bangkok, Koh Samui, Chiang Mai, Koh Phangan) Vietnam (Hanoi, Halong Bay) and Cambodia (Siem Reap/Ankor).

Can't wait for our cruise through Halong Bay in North Vietnam!

Can’t wait for our cruise through Halong Bay in North Vietnam!

Perhaps I should change the name of my site to Life and Style SE Asia?! I know it’s not technically related to Madrid, but I would love to share my updates and travels on here. I am super excited to see some amazing people, places and things and I feel it wouldn’t be right if I didn’t post a little bit on my travels. So, stay tuned for some exciting travel posts, starting mid July!

XO Lori