Luang Prabang, Laos

Our next stop was the country of Laos to a little city called Luang Prabang.  If you’re heading there from Bangkok, leave plenty of time to get to the airport and deal with all the flight check in and security (2-3 hours).  The flight is only a few hours and remember to bring cash for the arrival visa ($36).  You’ll also need a photo for the visa which you can either bring with you or they’ll copy one out of your passport for $1.

You’ll immediately notice the difference between Luang Prabang and Bangkok as you drive away from the airport.  Luang Prabang is less busy, less modern, and noticeably more peaceful.  The people are also more friendly, and not in the way that they’re trying to sell you something.  They have more of a quiet politeness that isn’t overbearing, but accommodating at the same time.

Of the three countries, Laos was hands-down my favorite part.  It’s impossible not to feel relaxed in the zen-like ambiance of the town.  It’s a backpacker’s paradise, and while there are tourists there, it’s not overrun with them.  And those tourists that are there tend to be the hippie, mix in with the culture type.  With the 11 PM curfew in the country, there isn’t a huge draw for the spring break party crowd.  Note: The curfew doesn’t mean that you can’t be outside past 11 PM.  It just means that businesses have to closed by then.

Businesses and people in Laos accept Thai baht, but it is a little bit of pain, so try and use whatever baht you have quickly and head to the ATM.  The Laotian money is the kip ($1 = 8,000 kip).  It’ll probably take you a little while to get used doing conversions with thousands at first.

Our hotel was The Le Bel Air Resort.  This is place is really nice; we arrived to a refreshing cold towel and lemongrass tea.  Located a quick 10-15 minute drive from the airport, the Le Bel Air sits on the bank of the Nam Khan River.  The resort itself is made up of several bungalows of varying sizes depending on what you want to pay for, but all the options are very affordable.  And while the bungalows themselves look rustic, they’re actually quite modern.  Each are equipped with A/C, HD TVs, and patios overlooking the river.  The hotel offers free shuttles to the center of town as well as free bikes to borrow.  The service there is also exceptional.  We essentially had our own personal staff member, Mr. Un, who was attentive and helpful.


Getting into town is quick, it’s about a 15 minute walk, but there is one drawback to The Le Bel Air.  In order to get to town, you have to cross a very scary, rickety wooden bridge.  The center of the bridge is for bikes only, and the pedestrians have to walk on the side.  It’s a straight-up Indiana Jones crossing.  I’m not afraid of heights, but this bridge is very unnerving (especially at night).  The planks aren’t very stable and will move when you step on them.  Here’s a little video to show you what the walk is like:

Bamboo bridge
Bamboo bridge

Alternatively, there is a bamboo walking bridge that you can cross, but it costs 500 kip, and is only available during the dry season when the river is low.  So as much as I hate to say this, I would recommend staying at a place closer to town if you don’t like heights.  Again, I hate to say that because The Le Bel Air is such a nice place and the hotel does offer a free shuttle, but that is a bit of pain because the shuttle isn’t run regularly and it has to take a major detour around the river to get to the center of town.  So from a time-saving standpoint just walking to town is a lot quicker and easier, but a lot of people would not be comfortable with that bridge.

My next few posts will cover the sights and sounds of beautiful Luang Prabang, including elephant riding, Kuang Si falls, and rice whiskey tastings.


Gaggan and Above Eleven

We had our first fancy dinner of the trip at a restaurant called Gaggan, which was recommended by a friend of ours.  They define their cuisine as “progressive Indian” and it’s hard to argue with that description.  Very similar to the dinner we had a Komi in Washington, D.C., the meal is various courses with each course being a bite or two of very unique and interesting flavors.  The presentation of each course was excellent as well.  The menu comes in three sizes: large, medium, and small.  We each got the medium menu, which costs 2800 baht.

Overall, the experience was great, but you’ll see as you read on, it was almost completely ruined at the end.  Here are the course highlights:

So as you can see, I cannot stress this enough: DO NOT GET THE OLD FASHIONED. It literally almost ruined what was an excellent meal up until that point.  The drink came out in a smoke filled jar, and when the cover was lifted (very dramatically by the waiter I might add), cigar smoke filled the room.  The drink tasted like an ashtray.  Biggest miss by a restaurant that I’ve experienced ever.  This place would have had an A-, but gets a B instead because of it.

So after that horrible drink, we clearly needed another.  We headed to Above Eleven, another one of Bangkok’s rooftop bars.  This one was located on Soi 11 near our hotel which made for an easy walk back.  Above Eleven didn’t have as good a view as Sky Bar, but it was a really nice place to have a drink.  The rooftop is actually 3 levels there (you need to look a little bit for the staircases which are enveloped in ivy), and the vibe is very relaxed.  The theme of the place seemed to be going for a New York City rooftop with a mix of brick everywhere, couches, white Christmas lights wrapped all around, and lounge-y jazz music playing.   Definitely a good spot to go to unwind, and was a perfect spot to enjoy our last night in Bangkok.  Coming up: On to Laos!

Chatuchak Weekend Market and Lavana Spa

Sunday morning we hopped on the Sky Train and took it all the way to the end of the green line (Mo Chit) to the Chatuchak Weekend Market (also known as JJ Market).  Again, I’d like to point out that the trains in Bangkok are very easy to use.  Get a day pass if you think you’re going to take more than two rides and just so you know there’s a 300 baht minimum if you want to use your credit card.

The Chatuchak Weekend Market is probably the second largest market I’ve ever seen (the largest being the souq in Fez).  Despite the thousands of vendors and tens of thousands shoppers, the market is surprisingly calm.  It’s here that you can get pretty much anything: art, clothes, souvenirs, plants, cow penis, jewelry, etc.  Because the market is so confusing you can get a map of it at the information booths. Be sure to bring your ATM card, which we forgot to do, so that you can get cash if needed because most of the vendors do not take credit card.  Also, it can get really hot and muggy, both inside and outside so be sure to be prepared for that.  You could spend anywhere from an hour to a good part of the day here depending on your purchasing wants/needs.

After some shopping, we decided to really treat ourselves and made our way to Lavana Spa.  Again, I feel the need to point out that no, this is not a happy ending massage parlor.  Lavana Spa is a very western, clean, classy place.  It’s here that we purchased a 90-minute Thai massage and herb treatment session for 900 baht ($30 — so freaking cheap).  Lavana Spa started us off with a cup of tea, they washed our feet and then put us in a massive zen room.  I’m not sure how big the whole place is, but the room we got was about the size of a small yoga studio.  The Thai massage wasn’t like a typical Swedish massage with oils.  The Thai massage consists more of putting your body in yoga positions and applying stretching and pressure to work out the kinks.  The herb treatment is what I think was a heated glove with steamed herbs (? couldn’t really tell because my face was in the floor) which was applied to the body to warm and relax the muscles.  It concluded with a nice bowl of vanilla ice cream (kind of random).

When you’re in SE Asia, with the cheap prices for spa treatments, you really must take advantage of it and Lavana Spa is a good place to go if you want to keep it classy.  Want anything more than that?  Just go out on the street and you’ll find someone within 30 seconds.

Bangkok Food Tour, our own Hangover @ Sky Bar, and Chinatown

After getting about an hour of sleep, we somehow miraculously got ourselves up and headed out the door for the Bangkok Food Tour.  If we had known that we’d be out until sunrise the night before, we would never have signed up for it, but since it was already paid for, we just sucked it up and marched on over.  I can’t imagine what the other folks on the tour thought of us at first when we showed up looking obviously like we’d clearly been partying hard just a few short hours earlier.  But we did end up enjoying ourselves quite a bit and despite being aggressively hungover it was real nice having some great conversations and getting to know everyone else on the tour.

However, my review of the Bangkok Food Tour is this: if you’re already typically an adventurous eater, I wouldn’t bother.  This is not a criticism of the tour itself.  Our guide was great, and like I said, it was actually amazing that we were able to get along and have fun with all the other tourists in our condition.  But for my buddy and I who are already always trying exotic foods on the menu, the food at the stops that we made didn’t really live up to what we already do on a regular basis.  But I’ll give you an overview of the tour anyways and you can decide for yourself whether or not it’s worth the 1200 baht.

The tour stops at 5 local spots and here’s the food that each offered:

  • Pig leg at a Chinese restaurant.
  • Rice Noodle in Yellow Curry with Egg, Coconut, Milk, Peanut, and Beef along with a Chicken pastry at a Middle Eastern/SE Asian fusion place.
  • Thai Salad (very spicy), Deep Fried Chicken with Lemongrass, Pork and Mushrooms at a very local, alleyway place.  This was probably the best of the stops in terms of food and getting to go to a real “local” eatery.
  • Green Custard Buns and Thai Iced Tea at a Chinese bakery.
  • Green Curry Chicken w/ Roti and Coconut Sorbet at an Indian/SE Asian fusion restaurant owned by a member of the Thai royal family who has an affinity for Indian food.

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So like I said, it was a perfectly fine tour, but not worth it if those food options don’t “excite” you.

After that, we napped for a good while and then headed to the Sky Bar at the Lebua Hotel.  If you’ve ever seen the Hangover II (ironically, we went hungover as well), this was the bar featured prominently in that movie and in turn posters of the movie are featured prominently in the hotel’s lobby.  It is easy to see why the movie producers chose this for the film.  Bangkok is known for its multitude of rooftop bars, but I can’t imagine one with a view more spectacular than the one at Sky Bar.  From the bar you can see a solid 270 degrees over Bangkok.  We showed up at sunset and had a perfect view of the sun coming down in the West.  The drink prices are expensive, probably even a little expensive for Western standards, but this is to be expected because the clientele are all wealthier tourists.  But a drink or two is a small price to pay for the relaxing atmosphere, great view, and surprisingly not too packed bar area.  There is a smart casual dress code, so make sure to shower and change before you go.

From Sky Bar we made our way to Chinatown for dinner.  It’s here that you can really find street food central.  The chaos isn’t all that much different from a lot of other Chinatowns around the world, but the difference here is that the sidewalks aren’t for walkers – it’s for all the tables set up for the street food carts.   So essentially the road is full of cars, cabs, Tuk Tuks, and pedestrians (Keep Your Elbows In!).  I can’t honestly say for sure I knew what some of the food was that we saw, but we kept it relatively safe and tried a bunch of different carts featuring food I recognized including:

  • Roast BBQ Pork noodles.
  • Shrimp at this one cart where the cook was putting on a ridiculous fire show with his wok.
  • Pad Thai — the best Pad Thai we had on the trip.  Word of advice: look for the Pad Thai carts that throw a whole fried egg on top of the noodles.


All of this food cost 300 baht per person ($1 = 30 baht).

A couple of other quick places we stopped in on our way back to the Landmark on Soi 11.

  • Oskar Bistro: Typical expat bar with a good amount of porch seating to watch the party scene on the streets of Soi 11.
  • Levels Club:  We came in here to see what the club scene is like and this place is the place to go if you want to dance.  You take an elevator up to the second floor club consists of two floors.  Go-Go dancers perform at the front by the DJ and there are multiple bars making the wait for a drink very short.  There’s also a large outdoor porch area if you want to get away from the loud music for a bit.  Folks keep in mind, there are prostitutes lined up along the edges of the dance floor ready to pounce.

Bangkok: The Grand Palace, Wat Pho, and Wat Arun.

After a much needed night of rest, we set off early for The Grand Palace.  Outside the palace, there isn’t a lot of good English signage to direct you to the entrance, so just follow the ridiculous amount of crowds and you’ll eventually end up at the ticket office.  Be sure to get there early, one, to try and beat the rush a little and two, if you’re in Thailand during their summer months, it will get muggy as all hell.  Another reason to get there early is to be sure you’ll be able to rent a 200 baht audio guide, which was indispensable (when we returned them at noon, they had a sign up saying they were all out).  Keep in mind you’ll need to leave a passport or credit card with them.

The entrance fee to the palace is 500 baht, and when you walk in it’s pure chaos.  Any outdoor signs that say “No Picture”, you can completely disregard because everyone else is.  However, they do crack down on the picture taking inside certain temples, so this post won’t be able to show you some interiors.  Also, there are several places where you can’t wear shoes, so make sure to have socks on if you’re there in the summer because the stone ground does get very hot.  I was also surprised by one thing.  Generally in places with no shoe policies, like the Blue Mosque for instance, the smell is pretty bad.  Somehow, that wasn’t really an issue here and I’m not sure how they got away with that.

What you’ll notice immediately is how much gold there is and how tightly packed all the buildings are next to each other.  It almost feels like you’re in an Epcot Center showcase country, but in this case it’s the real deal.  The highlights:

  • The Temple of the Emerald Buddha with its beautiful illuminated blue Buddha statue atop a golden temple.  The Buddha has 3 robes that are changed each season by the King.  The walls of the room are lavish red, white and gold murals of the life of the Buddha including a Thai version of Michelangelo’s Judgement Day.  The floor is a beautiful Italian marble.
  • Amarin Winitchai Throne Hall inside the Grand Palace displays the impressive gold throne covered by the nine tiered umbrella representing the King.
  • Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall gives you a closer look at a different throne and there’s a weapons museum displaying a multitudes of swords, spears and other military relics.
  • Like the British Palace, you can take your photos with a royal guard who maintains his disciplinary pose.


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After our stop at The Grand Palace, and a quick 50 cent mango snack from a street cart, we walked down to Wat Pho.  We made the mistake of not looking at the map first before leaving the palace,  which made our walk there far longer because we left at the wrong exit.  So check to see which direction to leave from before walking out.  The entrance fee for Wat Pho is 100 baht, but it includes a bottle of water, which was very welcome in the 100 degree heat.  There are no audio guides sadly, but there are a good amount of English information signs throughout.

The main highlight of Wat Pho is the giant, and I mean giant, reclining Buddha.  It’s almost amusing to look at because you’re staring at this huge Buddha who’s laying there like he’s just chilling.  The Buddha even has a little smirk on his face I think.  The scene is far less chaotic, and it’s a bit more civilized in that they give you bags to hold your shoes in instead of having you leave them in a giant pile outside the monastery.  Keep your eye out for pickpockets.  Of all the places we went, I could see how this place is the easiest to fall victim to them because everyone is just staring up and there’s not a whole lot of space.  When you look at the Buddha, pay special attention to the feet with the 108 auspicious symbols of Buddha and you can pay 20 baht to drop coins into 108 bronze bowls in the corridor as a way to bring good fortune, and to help the monks maintain the monastery.


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From Wat Pho we headed to Wat Arun, but before we did we just happened to stumble upon a great place for lunch (and because we were lost).  Eat Sight Story deck/restaurant is located on the Chaophraya River across the way from Wat Arun.  From there you get a spectacular view of Wat Arun and the parts of Bangkok that you can see up and down the river.  To find it, look for Arun Residences on Soi Ta Tian alley.  The food is decent enough, but it’s priced higher than most places because they know people are going to come for the view.  And the view really is worth it.

From Eat Sight Story, we could see where to take the 3 baht ferry across the river (remember $1 = 30 baht) to Wat Arun.  Sadly, the wat was under renovation so a good portion of it was covered in scaffolding.  The entrance fee here is 50 baht and again there was no audio guide.  Compared to the Palace and Wat Pho, Wat Arun is relatively anti-climatic.  That being said, the pagoda at Wat Arun is one of the more picturesque ones and the surrounding gardens make it a very calming visit after the hysteria at the other sites.

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Bangkok, Thailand

I’ve been pretty blessed so far to have started 2015 with trips to Australia (I’m still working on those Great Barrier Reef pics, more to come on that) and now — Southeast Asia.  The 12-day trip of the region consisted of Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia.  Starting off in Bangkok, which is essentially the international hub of SE Asia, was the natural choice for the first part of our trek.

The flight over is long and arduous, so if you can afford it, I would highly recommend choosing an airline carrier that is on the higher end.  We flew over, with a stop in Dubai, on Emirates Airlines.  Despite the long travel, that flight was easily the most comfortable flight I’ve ever been on.  I fully admit that it helped that I had an entire row to myself for the 14-hour leg, but on top of that the flight attendants treat you like you are in First Class, the TVs have every imaginable movie (I pretty much watched all the Oscar nominees) and outside the plane camera views. The more bizarre, yet cool part was when they dimmed down the light to let people sleep, the ceiling of the cabin illuminates like a starry night.

I do have one gripe that’s not on the airline. And it’s a tip to you all: Don’t push on the TV monitor buttons so hard.  It’s not your iPad, it’s the back of someone’s seat.

Now that that’s out of the way, we landed in Bangkok in the late afternoon and it was the typical chaos in the Bangkok airport.  Getting a cab was far less of a pain than we anticipated, as they have a cab stand with an organizer directing passengers into cabs.  The cabs should cost around 300-400 baht ($1 = 30 baht) for the 30-minute ride into the city, but our cab told us 500 baht flat rate.  At this point we were too tired to care about arguing and paid the extra $3.  This will be a trend throughout.  SE Asia is ridiculously inexpensive once you get there.  Food, taxis, bars, whatever — it’s all really cheap.

After an interesting cab ride where the driver told us about some good lady-boy bars, we arrived at our hotel, The Landmark Bangkok.  Though the Landmark isn’t anything special, a good solid western hotel (we will eventually stay at cheaper, more native lodging in Laos and Cambodia), what is an advantage of staying there is its close proximity to Soi 11, the popular going out street in Bangkok, and it’s a block away from the Nana train stop.

The trains in Bangkok, by the way, are really modern (just built in 2008), are cheap, and are super easy to use in Bangkok.  This is key because you’ll want to use the trains especially during rush hour.  Cabs at those times will be charging high flat rates because rush hour traffic is so bad that what typically would be a 15-minute drive could turn into an hour or two.  The train will be faster and cheaper.

After we checked in and cleaned up a bit, we went out to explore the area.  The streets are packed with vendors and the hustle and bustle that goes with that.  Right on the first night, I learned the #1 survival tip of Southeast Asia: Keep Your Elbows In!   At all times.  If you don’t, you’re likely to get the hit by a Tuk Tuk, or you might hit some person enjoying their street food on the sidewalk, or any number of things.  Keep them in.  I know doubt will be saying this again in the next few posts; it’s easily the mantra of the trip.

Walking around the streets of Bangkok, I immediately noticed something.  While the noise and energy of the streets was no different than the vibe in say for instance Cairo or Lima, there was an added element of dirtiness to Bangkok.  I don’t mean it physically had more trash.  I mean the sex industry is much more in your face than those other more conservative Third World cities.  There are a ton of “massage parlors” everywhere and lady-boys walking up and down the street.  The vendors on the sidewalk amusingly sell boxes of Viagra and Cialis next to the souvenir trinkets and t-shirts.  It’s a very unique experience walking around that for that for the first time.  But you do get used it.

Since we had no dinner plans, we did what the locals do and grabbed $1 soup noodles from a food cart on the street, which was delicious, and grabbed a 75 cent chicken skewer at a different cart.  We also grabbed a few beers at a dive bar on Soi 11 called The Alchemist (a good place to go if you want a chill vibe and some live music).

The night didn’t last long.  Jet-lag won and we passed out.  More to come on the sights and sounds of Bangkok.