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Right after graduating from Arizona State University, my boyfriend, Elijah, and I treated ourselves to a month long adventure in southeast Asia. Here's a rundown of what we did:
Flew into Bangkok, Thailand | We found this to be the cheapest option for us. We flew United.
We stayed near Khao San Road | If you are a backpacker this is where you want to stay! Khao San Road is considered to be the backpacking capital of the world. It is riddled with bars, street food, clothing markets, and hostels. TRY THE SCORPION, but pay no more than 60 baht.
Take tuk-tuks, but be smart | Tuk-tuks are small, covered motorbike-like taxis. They are all scammers, without a doubt. Do not let them take you to a Thai factory that will try and sell you an "Armani" suit. It is not Armani. Do not let them tell you that the temple you want to go to is closed, this is most-likely not true. Majority of temples are open everyday until around 6:00 pm. Prices of tuk-tuks vary upon the driver; they are not metered. We spent as little as five baht up to around 150 baht (which was WAY TOO MUCH). Haggle.
Thai massages | We frequented the Thai massage place near our hotel. They are all over the place by Khao San Road and are lined up outside on the sidewalk. The Thai foot massages are the best! They stay open until around 2 am.
BANGKOK SIGHTSEEING |
Gold Mount: if you are able to walk up the many stairs to the top of Gold Mount and see the amazing view of Bangkok. It is not wheelchair accessible, nor smart if you are pregnant, injured, or elderly.
Wat Pho: My favorite attraction in Bangkok. Be prepared to remove your shoes at any temple you go to and dress appropriately; both men and women need to be wearing pants and shirts the cover your shoulders. Wat Pho is a GIANT, gold reclining Buddha. It is absolutely stunning.
Bangkok National Museum: For some reason most locals don't know what this is when you ask, so make sure you have a map that you can point to. It takes a few hours to walk through completely. You can see old temples, ceremony floats, traditional native garb, and artwork.
Damnoen Saduak Floating Market: Alright. This is the top rated floating market in Bangkok and recommended by Anthony Bourdain, but I honestly didn't think it was THAT GREAT. First of all, it was over an hour outside of Bangkok, which our taxi driver conveniently left out. The tickets are overpriced. A lot of the stands are selling the same exact products and a lot of it can be bought in Bangkok for a lot less. By the time you're done you would have spent close to $100, or 3,400 baht.
BANGKOK FOOD | The best food we ate was street food. Khao San Road is filled with street food every night! You will not go hungry.
We took a sleeper train up to Chiang Mai, Thailand | It is around a thirteen hour train ride, so sleeper train is the way to go if you don't want to waste any precious daytime of your vacation. I would recommend buying your tickets a day or two before you plan on leaving and pay the extra money on getting the lower berth. It is in extra few dollars, but the bed is double the size of the dreaded upper berth and it gets a whole lot darker. Bring snacks!! Train food is overpriced.
We stayed at Yak's Guesthouse | Reasonably priced and great location. Cross over into the square surrounded by a moat and you will find all the food and bars worth visiting. If Yak's is booked, try finding a place through airbnb.com
If you stay in Old City Chiang Mai, everything is in walking distance | You won't really need to worry much about taxis.
If you plan on getting a tattoo, do so here | The shops are extremely clean!! Elijah and I went to TattooLism and had a great experience. We each got unique tattoos—specially drawn for us—and watched movies while doing so!
CHIANG MAI SIGHTSEEING |
Elephant Nature Park:Elephants are definitely the gentle giants of the earth. I was lucky enough to spend most of the day at Elephant Nature Park and learn about these beautiful creatures and how they have been mistreated over the years. The many tricks you see at the circus or the riding of elephants you see on Instagram or at the zoo is very harmful for them. Most of the time the baby is separated from its family and tortured for a week straight by poking them with nails, whipping them, and chaining them to poles so they learn to fear and obey humans. Many elephants attempt to commit suicide by stepping on their own trunk just to stop the horrible mistreatment. I was able to spend time with elephants who have suffered mistreatment in their past; broken bones, clubbed feet, and missing ears all at the hands of man. I fed them, bathed them, and observed them as they spent time with one another and were truly at peace. So please, do not ride an elephant or go to the circus or fall for the cuteness of elephants painting pictures. I WOULD GO FOR MORE THAN ONE DAY!
Chiang Mai Zoo: Will need to take a taxi if you're staying in Old City. A lot of feeding opportunities with the many animals housed there; bottle feed piglets, throw food to monkeys, feed emus bananas, elephants fruit, and drop veggies into a hippopotamus mouth. It's a large zoo, so I would recommend renting a golf cart. Donate what money you can so they can work on the exhibits.
Night Bazaar: I loved the Night Bazaar, but Elijah wasn't a huge fan. It is definitely very crowded and touristy, but the experience is unbeatable. Row upon row of art, leather goods, vintage clothing, Thai materials, plants, live music, and FOOD. Runs for about eight hours and would recommend going early to beat the crowds.
CHIANG MAI FOOD |
Sushi Box: We were craving sushi our second week into eating solely Thai food three times a day, so we frequented this place a few times. Super cheap sushi and great quality. I stuck mostly to their tuna and loved it. Also, they have delicious smoothies, try the blueberry with yogurt.
Street food Khao Soi: This dish is my favorite Thai food I had the entire trip. This is only served in the northern part of Thailand and is a must when in Chiang Mai. It's a soup in a curry-like coconut milk broth, yellow egg noodles, shallots, lime, ground chillies, and any type of meat you'd like! I had mine with squid.
Zoe In Yellow Bar: This is definitely more of a great bar to hang out at after dinner. Cheap drinks and great atmosphere. There's a DJ and dance floor and is connected a strip of other bars.
Do more than we did | We were pretty lazy in Chiang Mai and spent most of our time eating food and relaxing. I would recommend doing one of the cooking classes and definitely a zip lining tour. We didn't really visit many of the temples in Chiang Mai simply because we went to so many in Bangkok. Maybe pop up to Chiang Rai and Chiang Pai, a little more north of Chiang Mai.
We flew over to Hanoi from Bangkok | This was the best/cheapest option for us. About an hour flight.
We were picked up by the cruise service we purchased | We chose the Scorpion Cruise, a three star cruise ship. They picked us up from our hotel in Hanoi and drove us the four hours over to Halong Bay.
Kayaking: We went kayaking two out of the three days. The first day we went through a small arch and came out surrounded by mountainous islands. We could hear the birds and monkeys that lived on them, it was so peaceful. The second day we kayaked to a cave that we explored.
Tai Chi: One of the mornings was a brief Tai Chi lesson where we were all taught a sequence. It started at about 6 am and lasted for only about twenty minutes.
"Cooking class": I honestly think our crew forgot about the cooking class until we mentioned it our last day. We were taught how to make fried spring rolls. We watched them mix the ingredients together and then we were taught how to prepare the rice paper and roll them up. They later fried them and we ate them with our lunch.
Cave exploration: We went to two different caves. The first one we kayaked to and none of us were prepared. We all had swim suits and flip flops on when we really needed some sneakers. It was an absolutely incredible view though and definitely worth it. The second cave we went to on our last day and it was a lot bigger. It was very touristy, but beautiful.
"Squid fishing": Well, squid fishing didn't really happen. The first night our light was broken so we weren't able to go and the second night we stood out there for an hour and caught nothing. I never saw a squid.
Pearl Farm: I loved this!! The Pearl Farm was awesome. We visited this on our second day and learned all about the process of harvesting pearls. We watched a surgery performed on an oyster and saw a pearl be extracted from another. Very informative.
Beach: One thing that was kind of a bummer is that you are not allowed to go swimming in Halong Bay, except for this one beach. So if you have dreams of jumping off the back of your ship and swimming around... think again. There are a lot of safety regulations in the bay and that is one of them. The beach is kind of overcrowded and the swimming area is pretty small, but it may be great in the off-seasons. You can also hike up to the top of the island and get a complete 360 degree view of the bay.
Food: We were served food three times a day (breakfast, lunch, dinner). I really enjoyed the food. Breakfast was more of a buffet with fresh fruits, pastries, meat, and eggs; I stuck mostly to bread and fruits. Lunch was different everyday and never dull. Different soups, spring rolls, fruit, and fish treats. Lunch and dinner are both huge meals, three or four courses each. Dinner was typically my favorite; one night we had a seafood feast, complete with oysters, clams, prawns, and squid!! I was in heaven. If you are not a seafood fan they also served chicken wings.
Drink: Alcoholic drinks were pricey. This was the only thing that wasn't included in the fare. Twice a day they had a happy hour, buy two and get one free; typically before and after dinner. The bartender poured strong...thankfully.
This is a great way to meet new people. We loved the group we were paired with (twelve people total), and met people from all around the world!
Keep in mind that this was a three star cruise, which for two recent college graduated was the only one we could really afford. There are five star cruises that probably offer a lot more!!
We got a ride back | Scorpion Cruise bussed us back to Hanoi and dropped us off at our hotels.
We stayed at The Aquarius Hotel | Really great location! Down the street from the cathedral, bars, good food, and walking distance to Turtle Lake.
HANOI SIGHTSEEING |
Hoa Lo Prison Museum: This is where John McCain's flight suit is housed and where he was kept prisoner during the Vietnam War. It was originally built and used by the French when they occupied Vietnam and so has heavy French influence on the architecture, as does all of Hanoi. You get to walk through cells and see videos taken from Vietnam war time.
Hoàn Kiêm Lake: Also known as Turtle Lake. At the center is an island with a temple.
Water Puppet Show: We went here for Elijah's 21st birthday. Such a wonderful Vietnamese experience. The entire show is in Vietnamese, with live accompaniment, and wonderful theatrics with the puppets. Great way to escape the heat and enjoy a new culture.
Temple of Literature: We somehow chose a day where they happened to be having a large event going on, but regardless it was breathtaking. It was built around 1070 and is still standing today. This was Vietnam's first national university.
Vietnam Museum of Ethnology: This is an all day activity. The museum is huge! Enjoy traditional tools and garb, statues, life size houses that you can walk through, and artwork. Some buildings have little to no AC...so be prepared.
St. Joseph's Cathedral: We were lucky enough to be staying down the street from this gorgeous cathedral. It's almost puzzling seeing a European style cathedral in SE Asia. You can't really go in unless mass is taking place. Really beautiful walking in to everyone singing hymns.
Vietnam Fine Arts Museum: This requires a couple hours. Building after building, room after room, decade after decade of art. Really interesting seeing the Vietnamese depiction of the Vietnam war... or what they call the American war. Worth a visit if you are interested in the arts.
HANOI FOOD | The best food we had on our trip was right here.
Pho: Noodle soup with your choice of meat. 49 Bat Dan Typically a breakfast item here. They open and close early and are packed the entire time. This was the best pho I had. Every table is a community table...get friendly. 49 Bát Đàn, Cửa Đông, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Bún Cha: Grilled pork and noodle dish. You dip the noodles into the sauce and pork. Huong Lien This is where Anthony Bourdain and Barack Obama ate together a week before we showed up. Within a week they had photos blown up of the two men dining all over the restaurant. IT IS CROWDED. Be prepared to sit next to strangers. 24 Lê Văn Hưu, Phạm Đình Hồ, Hai Bà Trưng, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Bánh Mì: Vietnamese sandwich. Banh Mi 22 This is a little food cart with tiny tables and chairs along the sidewalk.
Banh Cuon: Your choice of meat or veggies wrapped in a thin, sheet of steamed rice batter and topped with crunchy french onion topping. Banh Cuon Gia Truyen We came here twice because it was THAT good. This had to have been my favorite meal I had my entire trip in SE Asia. This restaurant gets packed. 14 Hàng Gà, Hàng Bồ, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Ngô Xéo Trang: Very, very sticky rice. Xôi Yen Recommended by Anthony Bourdain. Very filling and tasty. Would suggest eating as a snack rather than a meal. 35B Nguyễn Hữu Huân, Lý Thái Tổ, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Bun Bo Nam Bo: Stirred beef vermicelli. Bun Bo Nam BoWe came here with our friends from the cruise and all ordered the same thing. This was so delicious. 89 Hàng Điếu, Cửa Đông Hoàn Kiếm Hà Nội, Vietnam
Mojito Bar & Lounge: This is the best place for cocktails in Hanoi. You can get a cocktail that actually tastes like pho, I know it sounds weird, but it was bomb. Elijah and I went here almost every night we were in Hanoi and got a different drink each time! Some nights they have live music. 19 Nguyễn Quang Bích, Cửa Đông, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Street food: Street food here consists of seafood and snails. If you are a fan of either of these then pop a squat on one of the tiny chairs and order up!! We got a bowl of clams and snails one night and had WAY TOO MUCH food! Order wisely.
ITEMS I FOUND USEFUL:
Along with these, always keep a roll of toilet paper with you at all times, especially in Thailand. Majority of the restrooms will not have any. Bug spray is a must in a northern Thailand. Sunscreen...always.