This small shrine sits just beside the much more picturesque Ngoc Son temple on Hoan Kem Lake in Hanoi. While the temple justifiably receives much attention from visitors, tourists, and strangely, brides having their photos taken in elaborate get-ups, this shrine received a fair amount of attention from locals who burned money at the base presumably looking for good fortune and wealth.
We had a chance this week to peek into the Buddhist life of Thais. Monday was Magha Puja; one of the holiest days in Buddhism and the one day when most Thai Buddhists will visit their local temple to ‘make merit’.
It was a fascinating day that ended well into the evening.
Here’s a peek.
Rio de Janeiro is a city of contrasts. Stunning stretches of sand juxtaposed with gleaming city highrises, mountains reaching for the sky, and favelas on every slope.
More than slums, they are home to a good portion of the city’s workforce. With homes, shops, restaurants-of-sorts, and ‘law’ enforcement, they are neighbourhoods unto their own albeit not recognized by any city council.
Places like these grow out of need and it is only social policy that will eradicate them, or turn them into viable communities. It will be interesting, and I assume horrifying, to see how the Brazilian government manages these favelas as the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games approach.
Have you been to Rio and seen the favelas? What did you think?
The city is large enough to have all the conveniences of city living (great apartments, a plethora of coffee shops, plenty of restaurants of every possible type, numerous sites to see, and a diversity of people to make for good people watching) but small enough that we can get out pretty quickly to enjoy some peace and quiet.
We discovered Huay Tueng Tao lake in an effort to
stay get in shape (well, in a shape other than round anyway). Unless dodging traffic on narrow roads while sucking back exhaust fumes is going to become the next Olympic sport (which it totally could now that they have ousted wrestling) there isn’t much point to trying to run in the city proper.
Located about 10KM outside of the city (on Canal Road, or Hwy 121 for those interested) the lake sits in the shadow of the mountains and is the perfect place for a quick morning run. It’s about 4KM around. It really feels like running at home, as if passing by golden Buddhas, farmer fields, and jungle swamps while jogging is anything like home. It’s cool, quiet, and relaxing (in the morning, that is. In the afternoon, and on weekends, it is overrun with city folk kicking back and escaping the city heat).
We started right behind the Buddha that looks out from the back side of the lake. We literally just walked into the jungle and followed an irrigation canal until we caught sight of the trail. Probably not the recommended way of starting a hike but then neither is not telling anyone where you are going or not bringing any food. Hindsight, right?
The trail is pretty easy to follow; even easier if you bring along the map from this Beautiful-ChiangMai.com post that details the hike along with GPS files. It’s a circular hike which I enjoy much more than there-and-back hikes.
What was really interesting about the hike was the foliage change throughout. On the way up (and I do mean up, there were some steep sections!) it was evergreen forest/jungle with ferns, bamboo, and plenty of plants that I can’t identify.
Yes, I already colour corrected the photo. I am that red/pink when I exercise. I get the weirdest looks (and the occasional sniggering at) and have often been asked if I’m okay but it’s perfectly normal for me to turn as red as a beet root at the mere thought of moving. I also sweat. A lot. Yep, it’s a pleasant day in the park working out with me.
Disappointingly there wasn’t much of a view at the top. The summit (well, just below it actually) is marked with a crude helicopter pad that afforded a good place to rest but the hazy day didn’t allow much of a view. Bummer.
The path down was on the other side of the hill and the vegetation there was much different than on the way up. It was much drier, grassier, and only partially shaded by small teak trees whose large leaves were strewn all over the path making the steeper sections of down quite slippery.
It gets better. Each clutch of hutches is associated with a restaurant of sorts. Someone will bring you food and beer!! Wandering vendors visit periodically with treats like fruit, nuts, and bugs. Yes to the sugared tamarind. No to the packaged spiders.
[box border=”full”]Looking to get connected to your trip to Thailand? Here are some great books to try.
The Beach The classic backpacker novel set on one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Once you’ve been here you can understand why they wanted to ‘protect’ it.
Phra Farang A look into Thai Buddhism, and becoming a monk, from a Western perspective.
Sightseeing Set in contemporary Thailand, these are generous, radiant tales of family bonds, youthful romance, generational conflicts and cultural shiftings beneath the glossy surface of a warm, Edenic setting.
The Global Bookshelf….Connecting Travelers To a World Of Stories[/box]
It’s the vermillion orange and the verdant green. The attempted restraint of the wild lushness. The elaborate carvings adorning doorways, altars, and temples.
There is a gracefulness to Bali like nowhere I have ever been. An attention to detail, every detail, so precise that you’re not even aware of but that results in a quiet calmness overseeing everything.
The train is pretty full as we pull out of the station and I wonder how many of us are here for the long haul. Twelve hours according to the schedule but rumour has it that it will be closer to 14 or 15 when it’s all done. Some, like us, are laden with heavy packs while others gather cloth and plastic bagged belongings close to them. Against our normal routine, we haven’t brought any snacks with us today relying on the hope that vendors will board along the way and ease our boredom and hunger. Twelve hours to go, at best.
Cobbled together shacks line the narrow leeway between the tracks and the highway next door; their corrugated tin roofs providing shade from the sun and a noisy shelter from the rain. It is the same here as anywhere. Dogs laze about, children run around them compelling them to play, steam rises from cooking pots, and laundry hangs to dry. Eleven hours to go.
Although the city looms large and teems with people it is not far outside that buildings tumbling on top of each other gives way to alternating fields and swamps. It’s the dry season now and burning the crop remains helps prepare the soil for the next planting. It is a familiar smell; acrid and sweet at the same time. Ten hours.
Snack time. Turns out that this train does not stop to let vendors on and off along the route. No grilled chicken leg with sticky rice. No pork sausage with cabbage and chilis. No omelette on rice. No ice cream. No beer. We start rationing the watermelon and pineapple that we only thought to bring along to cut the grease from the snacks we expected to be able to buy. Eight hungry hours to go.
It’s nap time; the second of four. The rocking and rolling, squeaking and creaking, lulling me to sleep time and again. I wake only when the weight of my head has sunk my neck to an unbearably uncomfortable position. Seven hours.
There it is. I know you wanted to know. Yes, there is a toilet on board and yes I am oh-so-relieved to find it is NOT a squat. It doesn’t so much flush as just empty straight out onto the track. This is it, my one visit to the bathroom during our entire trip. I hate, HATE, using the washroom on moving vehicles be they trains, buses, or planes. I do this thing I call ‘cameling’…I drink almost no liquids leading up to the journey, and only enough during to not get dehydrated thus eliminating the need to, ummm, eliminate. Granted, today’s toilet situation was not too bad at all but I have been conditioned by some pretty awful conditions, believe me. Six more hours.
I’m reading *Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed (like a lot of other travellers it seems). I like Cheryl because she, like most of us, lacks confidence when comparing herself or her efforts against her peers. Yet, when telling her story about her adventure she realizes just how much she is ‘like a hard-ass, mother f*cking, Amazonian queen”. It’s true, I feel that way too. It’s easy to negate what we each do, what we contribute, what we achieve, what we’re capable of. It comes and goes, ebbs and flows, depending only where I am in my heart because, really, where I am for others doesn’t change. I am the one to change. Anyway, it’s a good book; you should read it. I’ll have it completed in the next four hours.
As the sun disappears below the horizon so too does the option of gazing off out the window. Darkness descends quickly here and soon enough there is nothing to see but the occasional light from distant farm houses. Two dark hours remain.
Conductors and engineers appeared and then disappeared again out into the darkness along with any hope that this journey would not stretch out into marathon proportions. Rapid fire Thai punctuated the darkness entering the car as we all held our breath waiting to see how our night would unfold. Nervous smiles on their faces as they reappeared told us all we needed to know; things were not going well.
Word is we hit a cow. I’m not so sure. We’re at the front and, peering out into the inky blackness, I don’t see anyone removing cow parts from the undercarriage. We limp into the next station; the engineers wrenching and hammering at some invisible problem, the rest of us on our iPhones looking for accommodation in whatever god-forsaken town we’re lucky to have landed in. And I mean lucky because we could just as easily be stopped in the middle of nowhere. Unknown hours are left.
Things are looking up though and 20 minutes later we’re on our way to a rendezvous with a new engine. It won’t fix the now broken air conditioning but it does mean we’ll make it. Two hopeful hours to go.
We pass the time watching episodes of How I Met Your Mother and Big Bang Theory. One more hour?
Before we know it we are pulling into Chiang Mai station are are thrust into the mayhem of tuk-tuk and songthaew drivers preying on our late night arrival and vying for inflated rates. But I’m here, and I’m happy.
Would I do it again? Yes! I think travel is about the travel; the getting from place to place, not just being in a place. Journeys like this teach us to be prepared, to be patient, and to take it as it comes. We saw a lot of the countryside and now we really know how far it is from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.
Would you choose a train or bus over flying?
*Affiliate Link. You know, in case you want to buy it…I’ll make a couple of cents.
Hua Hin is heralded as the perfect spot for a quick beach holiday. Only two (or so) hours from Bangkok it certainly is easy to get to but, as a weekend get-a-way spot for wealthy Bangkokians would it fit our teeny-tiny budget?
It’s true, the expensive, brand name, hotels and resorts (think Sofitel, Hilton, Grand Centara) dominate the coast line with their high-rise buildings, swimming pools, beautiful grounds, and world class restaurants but there is more to Hua Hin than that and we were determined to find it.
As we had a week to spend, and a desire to settle in a bit and call somewhere ‘home’, I set to looking for an apartment. It wasn’t difficult. Wimdu has a great selection of units throughout the city at all price points. The booking process was super simple; I just entered in Hua Hin as the destination, selected the dates I needed, and browsed the selection of available apartments. Pictures, detailed descriptions, map locations, and prices were all right there to help me choose. If I had any questions, or wanted to confirm dates, I could simply message the owner directly. With discounts given for weekly, and monthly, rentals it soon becomes clear that slow travel is the more affordable way to go.
We ended up in a lovely studio apartment, away from the beach but near many eateries and the night market. With our own, albeit small and without a stove (can it really be called a kitchen then?), kitchen we can prepare morning coffee and breakfast at our leisure, keep our beer cold, and enjoy afternoon cocktails on the patio. Perfect.
At about $43/night, with the weekly discount, it would be a great deal (although certainly not the cheapest room available in town – you can stay in hostels and boarding house rooms for much cheaper) but Wimdu (and most apartment rental sites) add a service fee to the bill which raised the cost to $50/night. I hate service fees. I guess if our stay was a month, or longer, then the service fee is amortized over a longer period which would lessen the impact but to those of us looking to apartments for shorter term accommodation the service fee just sucks.
Hua Hin is a tourist town so there are plenty of places to grab a bite at all price points. From hotel restaurants to seafood houses on stilts, beach front dining to night market fare, and the ubiquitous mobile stands around town, there is surely something for everyone! We’re on a budget so we kept it pretty low key; breakfast in our apartment (we buy yogurt from 7/11 and fruit from various vendors), noodle soup from the corner for lunch, and most often dinner at the night market.
Here are some of our favorite places:
From carts all over. Noodle soup with pork. 20 baht (about 70 cents). This is a lunch time staple.
Night Market; Th Dechanuchit from 5pm onward. Moo Seafood right in front of the 7/11 was our favorite – the places more ‘in’ the market were more expensive. Stay away from the lobster and large prawns and it’s actually very affordable. Wild boar curry, snapper with ginger, and steamed rice + 2 beer. 380 baht ($12.70). The best we had here was the prawns with cashews and squid with thai curry – about the same price but unbelievably good (no pictures that day).
Is this where I confess how much we actually drink? Well, let’s just say that it’s very affordable to quaff one or two here in Thailand. A large Singha beer from the 7/11 costs 42 baht ($1.40) and when out for lunch or dinner we’re paying somewhere around 80-100 baht ($2.70 – $3.30).
We like to have a cocktail in the evening and have taken quite nicely to the local SangSom and soda concoction. A bottle of SangSom is 250 baht ($8.40), and soda and ice can be had at the 7/11 for pennies.
This is kind of where it all falls down for me. The beach just isn’t that great. North of the pier the beach is hemmed in by the concrete wall demarking the city; the beach looks desolate and uninviting. South of town, skulking in the shadow of the behemoth Hilton Hotel, it is patterned with beach chairs and umbrellas almost as far as you can see. There are a few open spaces to spread out a towel but the sand is coarse and the surroundings not exactly inviting. I usually love the juxtaposition of city and beach but here it seems all too separate; the beach is for the foreigners and the city is for the Thais. It’s a shame.
The city center is small enough to walk around, if you’re staying in the city. If you’re not then I’m guessing you’re at one of the resorts and maybe have no reason to leave?
If you want to go further afield there are plenty of taxis, tuk-tuks, moto-taxis, and Songthaews to get where you need to. We love the freedom of having our own moto-bike. You can rent a scooter for about 200 baht ($6.70) for the day. The roads here are quite busy so it’s not a beginner move but if you’re comfortable riding a moto-bike in Thai traffic it’s a great way to get around.
For me, Hua Hin didn’t deliver what I was looking for. It lacks the charm and laid back attitude that other beach towns possess and, quite frankly, was filled with retirees or those looking for a place to retire (now I know that at 45 I’m no spring chicken but I was positively a baby in this town!). Next time I will take the time to head farther south.
Sinop, in northern Turkey, was a pleasant surprise. The fresh, salty air was a nice reminder that we were back on the coast and the ability to enjoy a pint in one of the seaside bars made it clear that we weren’t in the heart of conservative Turkey any longer.
We followed the ancient wall around the outside of the city for a while and then climbed the most prominent hill to get a birds eye view of the peninsula. There is nothing like being up high while the call to prayer wafts up on the wind from the various mosques below like a round robin of ethereal beckoning.
Definitely worth the climb.
Have you heard the call to prayer; with its lilting tones and dramatic pauses? Here is a YouTube video of the call from the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. I wish I had recorded it myself while there but this will give you an idea of the music that filled the hillside that day.
We are officially in the middle of nowhere. Central Laos is not overly populated and we are and hour and half outside of the nearest town of Phonsavon. Lumbering along the dirt roads, through pine forests and small villages, the only regular sound is the drone of the scooter under us.
It is hot. Really hot. My butt is burning from a combination of the heat of the engine under it and the incessant vibration caused by the uneven road surface. We break often to make it bearable.
But I love it. I love being way off the beaten track; love not knowing what we’ll find while using a faded, oft-photocopied, hand drawn, map to navigate. I trust we won’t get really lost. We pass by people often enough and I know that even without a shared language the local people would easily be able to point us in the direction of civilization.
We’re here to seek out one of the many Plain Of Jars sites in the area. Coming up on them is surreal; massive jars carved from stone dot the landscape. There is nothing else here. No other ruins indicating a long lost civilization or any hints as to what they might have been used for. They just lay, scattered in no discernable pattern, in the middle of nowhere.
We know we’re heading to Thailand but, as you know, we don’t know anything after that. This makes it a little difficult to manage our time in a country that limits how long you can stay without a visa.
For most holidayers it’s quite easy; most nationalities can arrive by air and enter the country for 30 days without a visa. Argentineans, Chileans, and Brazilians are able to stay 90 days without a visa. Some, though, can only stay 15 days and must apply for a visa when they arrive. The Thai Visa Wikipedia page outlines which countries fall into which category.
For us this means we could arrive and stay for 30 days before having to do a border run in order to stay longer.
But 30 days likely isn’t long enough and a border crossing entry only nets 14 more days. This would mean we’d have to head out of the country every two weeks in order to stay any length of time. Seeing as my plan is to settle in a bit and work on my new project (The Global Bookshelf) we were going to need to work on our plan.
A little research showed that we could get a double entry Thailand visa that would let us stay in the country for two 60 day periods.
I found all the rules and the application form for Thai Visas on the Canadian Thai Embassy website (American version here) and found that the closest consulate is in Vancouver. We could either attend the consulate in person with our applications or, alternately, mail them in to obtain a visa. As much as I would love to spend time in Vancouver the budget was the deciding factor so mailing it in was the solution.
As the instructions on the websites indicate, all we did is send in the completed application, a passport photo, flight information, a money order for the application fee ($80 each for us), and a postage paid return addressed envelope. Easy-peasy.
We sent the applications in right before Christmas and they were returned to us by New Years. Showing up at the consulate would have been even quicker. Can’t argue with that!
Remember, this was my experience. I recommend you read all the visa information on the websites to determine what type of visa you’ll need and how to apply. Thailand visa information has changed often with little notice in the last 5 years and continues to evolve. Always check with consulates and embassies rather than assume that other sources (including me!) are correct.
I’m working on a new project! The Global Bookshelf will be a place for you to find books and stories that will connect you to the trip you’re already planning, or the one you are dreaming of. I would love it if you would sign up for updates; you can use the form right there in the sidebar. And thanks!
The Global Bookshelf. Connecting travellers to a world of stories.