Life lessons in Hanoi

Robert wants everyone to know that he is the best husband ever.  But, sometimes he needs a little refresher on the rules.  And, he got such a refresher today.  And, it hurt.

Here is what he learned.  It doesn’t matter how badly you want a banh mi.  It doesn’t matter if you haven’t had one in months/years.  It doesn’t matter if your horrible wife hasn’t let you have one in the first 72 hours in Vietnam because she doesn’t eat them and likes to eat meals with her husband.  It doesn’t matter how hungry you are.  This is not where you get your banh mi.

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You will be disappointed.  You will comment that you have had better banh mi’s in Chicago.  You just don’t go to the place full of tourists that is spotlessly clean and hygienic.  Never, ever, ever.  (OK, there might be one exception — if you are recovering from food poisoning you might want to pick this place because it is likely one of your safest options).

Instead, you go to the lady down the block (you know, just about 10 meters away from the first place) who has set up her banh mi station on a street corner with little stools.  You go to the lady with the far superior product at a lower price.  You go to the place that is just a little bit dirty, because that is what makes street food good.  You go to the place where your crumbs drop on the ground and people drive up on scooters to grab their sandwich.  Trust Robert on this.  Don’t make the same mistake he made….  (Because then when you don’t have room for dinner because you had to eat two banh mi’s, you will have a not so happy wife…..).

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Luang Prabang — the good, the bad, and the ugly.

This is about the time I should be writing a blog called “final thoughts on Laos.”  But, since we only visited one town in Laos, that didn’t seem quite right.  So, instead, you get a summary of what we liked and didn’t like about Luang Prabang.  Newsflash, we were overall disappointed with Luang Prabang.

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Boating on the river.

We really should have fallen in love with Luang Prabang…..

The town itself is beautiful.  A nice mix of Buddhist temples and French colonial architecture.  And, it really wasn’t overrun with tourists while we were there (we were there during shoulder season).  It was a completely chill and laid back place.

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One of the many temples in Luang Prabang.

The town is bordered by the Mekong River on one side and the Nam Khan River on the other side.  The scenery along the rivers is stunning.  You can always find something interesting, whether that is men fishing, or boat races, or a random boat floating just off the shore.

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Fishing in the Mekong River.

The Festival of Light was really cool.

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Festival of Light boat.

The cafe culture is outstanding.  There are American style cafes (oddly enough, owned by Canadians) and French style cafes and plenty of other cafes not so easily categorized.  There are plenty of croissants and pain au chocolat and baguettes to be found.  The coffee is good (or so Robert tells me), and there are Italian sodas all over town.

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Pastries at Zurich Bread Factory and Cafe.

The French history means that reasonably priced and at least drinkable quality wine can be found just about everywhere.  And, Robert tells me the Beer Lao was actually pretty darn good.

There are monks everywhere.  I thought there were a lot of monks in Chiang Mai, but there are even more in Luang Prabang.

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A monk sitting on the banks of the Mekong River.

The businesses seem far more ecologically friendly than in other countries.  Many of the cafes have signs up asking “Do you really need a straw?”  There is free drinking water all over town.  We have been very disappointed with how few bottle refill stations we have seen in places like Thailand.  Not so here.  Many of the cafes have free refill stations.  And, many serve free drinking water (even if some tourists frustratingly refuse to drink it because it isn’t bottled so they are afraid it isn’t safe — as if any tourist restaurant would intentionally serve unsafe drinking water).

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Produce for sale at the morning market.

The morning market was quite interesting.  This was one of the few places that seemed to cater to both locals and tourists.  We bought vegetables here when we cooked.  We passed on things like the red squirrel and the larvae that was for sale.

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Some kind of larvae for sale at the morning market.

The coconut pancakes at the night market are some of the best things we have ever eaten (as long as you get them hot).  They are made from coconut cream, rice flour, and sugar.  They are grilled in a special iron plate and then served up in a folded banana leaf with toothpicks to eat them.  They are so good, even Robert liked them, and he doesn’t generally like dessert.  And the jerky made from sun-dried strips of buffalo meat is pretty darn good too.  As is the dried and fried river weed (basically, like a seaweed with sesame seeds and, if you are lucky, garlic)

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Coconut pancakes from the night market.

But, if truth be told, we didn’t fall in love with Luang Prabang….we didn’t hate it, but it was without a doubt our least favorite place this year (outside of Kuala Lumpur).

It feels a bit “fake” and sanitized and Disney-like.  There is very little mixing between the locals and the tourists.  It seemed to us that most of the places making money are foreign-owned (like Joma coffee that had a big sign up proudly declaring it was owned by Canadians).  It seemed to us that the locals who provide boat service and tuk-tuk service and sell food at the night market were feeling a little bit desperate.

The locals don’t seem all that friendly.  We were staying in a small village on the edge of town and even though we often made a point of saying hello (in Lao) to our neighbors, they rarely responded with a friendly hello back (and certainly never instigated a greeting).  I’ve never been to Door County, but Robert summed it up by saying it kind of felt like we were FIBS in Door County (if you are not from Wisconsin or Illinois, Urban Dictionary can define FIB for you — but ignore the bit about FIBS driving like grandmas, as that is all because the Wisconsin cops are out to get us FIBS).

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Boat races on the Mekong River.

The night market mostly sold mass produced junk that was the same stuff we have seen all over Asia.  I know that is true at most night markets around the world, but I remember being here when some of the women were selling their own handicrafts (and sewing between customers).  Seeing the change is sad.

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Our visit with an elephant.

Our excursions were both busts.  We’ve already written about our visit to the elephants.  I get more and more mad the more I think about how much we paid and how little we got in return.  We also booked a sunset cruise.  The cruise left 15 minutes late because the captain couldn’t get the boat started.  Then, when we were out on the water, the engine stalled twice.  We spent most of the “cruise” drifting down the river with the captain in back trying to fix the engine and nobody even trying to steer the boat.

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Sunset on the Mekong.

The market that caters to locals (Phosi Market) was grim, very grim.  Our apartment was just a five minute walk from Phosi Market and we anticipated that we would be doing a fair amount of shopping at the market so we could cook.  One trip to the market rid us of that idea.  We’ve been to markets all over Asia and this was the most depressing market we have seen.  Very dirty, floors covered with blood (I nearly fell more than once), and not much in the way of appetizing food on offer.  That said, the food was cheap.  We only paid 45,000 Kip (about $5) for a chicken, a dozen eggs, a huge carrot, and several cloves of garlic — and we are pretty sure the chicken lady completely ripped us off.  (Compare that though to the 100,000 Kip we paid for coffee, soda water, and two pastries, and you get a good idea of why the locals can’t afford to visit the cafes….).

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Is this about the saddest chicken you have ever seen?

The food overall just isn’t that good.  We had a few good meals, and some good snacks, but the vast majority of the food was just ok.  Everything seems a bit bland and flavorless.  And, the iodized salt they use here ruins the taste of things.  Seriously, there is so much iodine in the salt that sometimes the overwhelming flavor of a dish was iodine.  Gross!

Although there are Buddhist temples scattered all around town, they just aren’t that impressive compared to those in the rest of Asia.

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Alms giving on the street outside our apartment.  We didn’t go to the main area for alms giving, as the stories of how badly some tourists behave are appalling.

You can’t throw toilet paper in the toilets.  While that is true in many parts of Asia, our hotels usually have decent enough plumbing that they can handle tp.  No such luck in Luang Prabang.  The upside is that, after spending about a year or so of my life in SE Asia, I finally learned how to use the bum gun!  (No, there isn’t going to be a picture of this one.  And, no, there isn’t going to be a tutorial — look it up on Google, just like I did.)

Bottom line, we enjoyed our stay, but we won’t be rushing back anytime soon.

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Visiting Mandalao Elephant Conservation

Finding animal experiences that are ethical is often difficult.  What was considered ethical in 2010 isn’t always considered ethical in 2018.  And, many places call themselves a “sanctuary” or the like, in a bid to entice tourists, but the reality is often different.  While in Luang Prabang, we heard about Mandalao Elephant Conservation.  The reviews were fantastic and the general consensus was that it is about as ethical as you get.  So, we booked the tour referred to as the Therapeutic Trek.

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One of the elephants at Mandalao.

We left with very mixed feelings.  Mandalao does appear to be quite ethical.  We saw no mistreatment of the elephants or any sign of distress on the part of the elephants.  In fact, the elephants were quite friendly and seemed to enjoy interacting with people.  We were told that the elephants are never chained (not even at night) and training is done using positive reinforcement (sounds like bribes of yummy food).  And, the one baby elephant has been allowed to remain with his mother, which most places don’t allow.

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Taking a break with one of the elephants at Mandalao.

The guides and mahouts and everyone else we interacted with were friendly and knowledgeable.  We were told Mandalao works closely with the local community to ensure the local community is benefiting from the elephants too.  And, they say they are working towards introducing elephants back into the wild and assisting in conservation efforts.  So, everything was good on that front.

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Taking a break with one of the elephants at Mandalao.

But, we felt the tour oversold and under performed.  Although we were picked up at 9:15 and returned to town around 2:15, and although the Mandalao website suggests two hours will be spent with the elephants, we only got to spend approximately one hour  with the elephants.

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Elephant walking at Mandalao.

And, while we did get to feed the elephants a bunch of bananas before our trek with the elephants started, the Mandalao website indicates there will be two feeding times, not just one.

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A brief glimpse of a momma and baby elephant at Mandalao.

And, the website says that there is bath time, dependent upon the weather.  Well, there was no bath time, and nobody even mentioned bath time.  Perhaps it was too cold that day for a bath, but if that was the case the guide should have told us so.  And, we were pretty much instructed that we had to tip the two mahouts $6 each at the end of the walk even though we had already paid $200 for the tour and everything we have read indicates that tipping is not expected in Laos.  (It isn’t the amount that bothers me; it is the fact that it was pretty much demanded of us in a country where tipping is not common and on a tour that was already way overpriced.)

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Feeding our elephant bananas at Mandalao.

It wasn’t a complete waste of a day.  We did get to trek through the forest for an hour with two elephants wearing oh-so-sexy boots, which was pretty darn cool.

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Elephant at Mandalao.

I just really wish we had actually gotten what we paid for and what was advertised.

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Robert hanging out with the elephants at Mandalao.

So, would we recommend the tour?  If you’ve never before interacted with elephants, absolutely yes.  If you have, we wouldn’t bother.

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Festival of Light (Lai Heua Fai) in Luang Prabang

One thing we are absolutely awful about is planning our travel around festivals.  If we were smarter, we would be tracking festivals in the region and making sure we saw the fun ones (can’t believe we’ve never experienced Songkran in Thailand) and avoiding the ones where everything shuts down (Tet in Hoi An was a really, really bad idea).  But, as we ended up in Indonesia for Ramadan this year, we apparently aren’t that smart just quite yet….

So, you can imagine our surprise when we learned that our trip to Laos coincided with the Festival of Light.

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Small boat outside a hotel for Festival of Light.

What is the Festival of Light?  I’m no expert, but I’ve read and been told that it marks the end of Vassa, which is often called Buddhist Lent.  As I understand it, during the three months of Buddhist Lent, the monks are not allowed to travel, they must spend every night in the same Wat, and they are supposed to meditate more.  And, the really devout locals give up meat, cigarettes, and/or alcohol for some or all of the three month period.  So, as you can imagine, the Festival of Light turns into quite the party.

The purpose of the festival appears to be multi-fold:  to pay homage to the Mekong River and ask forgiveness for any disrespect to or misuse of the river; to send away anything “bad” like sickness or bad luck, to provide offerings to the dead (hence, you will see boats decorated with fake money), and to ask the water spirits (nagas) to bring good luck.

In the days leading up to the Festival, the buildings are all decorated with colorful stars and the like.

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Festival of Lights decoration in Luang Prabang.

Also in the days leading up to the festival, every Wat around town builds two boats out of bamboo and colored paper — one that will be on display at the Wat and one that will eventually be floated down the river.  All of the villages around Luang Prabang also make a boat to float down the river.  And individuals make small little boats of tree trunks, banana leaves, flowers, incense sticks, candles, and the like.  And, the Wats are all lit up at night.

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Wat decorated for Festival of Light in Luang Prabang.

On the evening of the Festival, the boats (which are all numbered) line up on the main road.  We arrived about 5:30 and most of the boats were already there.  There were about 50 boats.  Some were more impressive than others.  At first, the sun was still out which allowed us to get some nice photos.

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Boat lined up before the parade.

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Boat lined up before the parade.

As the sun goes down, the boats come to life with lights.  Much of the light is provided by candles or small lanterns, but some of the boats had LED and other electrical devices.

 

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All lit up and ready to go.

Eventually, the parade gets going.  We aren’t sure precisely what time it started, as we didn’t want to stand around waiting so we popped into a bar for some cold beverages and french fries (what?  you expected something else from us?).  But, I’m guessing it started about 7:45 pm this year (we had read that other years it started around 7), as we managed to catch all but the first boat near the end of the route starting around 8 or so.

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Boat in the Festival of Light.  This was my favorite boat.

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Boat in the Festival of Light.

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Boat in the Festival of Light.

In addition to the boats, there are plenty of people marching in the parade.  Some looked like school kids, but there were also lots of women in traditional tribal clothing.  Most people carried some sort of light.  (Well, except for the tourists who for some reason decided to join the parade, which we found incredibly odd…..).

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At the end of the parade, there is apparently some sort of judging competition for the most beautiful boat.  Then, the boats are put in the water and float downstream.  Individuals also put their little boats in the water, so there were literally thousands of little lights on the river.  It was beautiful (although next to impossible to photograph).

P1210190If you are thinking of coming to Laos in the Fall, make sure you check the date of the Festival of Light (right around the full moon), as we would really recommend this once-a-year experience.

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Final thoughts on Thailand (2018)

We’ve been to Thailand three times since May 2018.  The first time we visited Bangkok and luxuriated in the idea of being newly retired.  The second time we visited Phuket and Koh Samui, lounging on the beach (and getting some much needed emergency dental work).  The third time we visited Chiang Mai, Sukhothai, and Bangkok, largely sightseeing, eating, and seeing movies.  Below are some thoughts on our time in Thailand.

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Wat Pho.  We take this shot every time we visit.

 

 

 

 

  • We adore Thailand.  The food is amazing, the people are friendly, it is easy to get around, and there are some beautiful things to see.  We are already planning another visit in 2019.
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Wat Pho

  • Thailand has the best soda water.  Seriously, if you are ever in Thailand, go to a 7-11 or Family Mart (they are on nearly every block) and look for a bottle of Singha soda water.  (Look for the red lettering).  Big bubbles that last forever — I’m talking you can put a bottle on your nightstand and it will still be bubbly in the morning.  Or even two mornings later.  No lie.  And only 9 Baht (or about 30 U.S. cents).  Yum!  (Newsflash!  We just discovered they have Singha soda water in Luang Prabang as well.  Yeah!)
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Wat Pho

  • Thailand also has the best packaged snacks.  Again, go to a 7-11 or Family Mart and look for a bag of Tong brand peanuts.  (Look for the blue bag.)  Crunchy, pea-nutty, deliciousness.  And, check out the fried broad beans while you are at it.  And Robert really likes the pre-made sandwiches at the 7-11.  He thinks they are the perfect breakfast before a morning of scuba diving.
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Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho

  • Thai food (outside of Sukhothai) is fantastic.  Robert likes Vietnamese better, but I think Thai is the best food in the region.  Nothing quite compares to a bowl of khao soi, a plate of penang curry, some smoky pad thai, or some freshly made green papaya salad.  Now, if we just had the stomach room to have all of those dishes in one meal….
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Close-up of the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho

  • Bangkok Airways has to be one of the best regional airlines around.  Clean planes, friendly staff, and a meal or snack on every flight.  Plus, they have small little lounges with snacks at pretty much every airport, and the snacks always include popcorn.  And, in places like Sukhothai and Samui, they control the airports and they are often a wonderful little oasis of green gardens and beautiful flowers.  Plus, in Sukhothai, you can even watch zebras and giraffes from the waiting area!  I don’t even mind flying on a prop plane when I’m flying Bangkok Airways.  (Oddly, their prop planes can be more comfortable than their jets.  Go figure.)
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Wat Saphan Hin

  • The Phuket taxi cab mafia are beyond powerful.  They have largely kept Grab and Uber out of Phuket.  Grab supposedly operates, but we couldn’t get the app to work in Phuket (it has worked just fine elsewhere) and Grab charges a surcharge so it is just as expensive as the taxis.  And the taxis are so expensive.  For example, the taxis wanted the equivalent of $15 dollars to go the under 5 miles from Kata to Patong.  In other words, they wanted half as much as we were paying per night for our hotel to drive us less than 5 miles.  Unreal.  Do yourself a favor and just rent a scooter.  Or, if you can deal with the aggravation of never being certain when it will arrive or quite where it will stop, take the new Smart Bus that runs between the two areas.
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Wat Sorasak

  • The drivers in Chiang Mai are actually courteous.  Over and over, they would stop and let us cross the road.  Quite the change from most of Asia.
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Wat Sri Chum

  • It is kind of crazy how different Phuket and Samui are.  Phuket has the Patong area.  We would never stay there, but if all you want to do is party, it is supposed to be fantastic.  We, on the other hand, didn’t even like it during the day (the only reason we went was to visit my dentist).  Phuket also has the Kata Beach area, where we stayed.  Plenty of shops and bars and restaurants.  Parties if you want it, but not in your face.  But, absolutely crawling with Russians on package tours.  Samui (at least the Bophut Beach area where we stayed), on the other hand, was way more chill than Phuket and seemed to attract a mix of visitors.  We probably should have spent all of our time in Samui, but it was way more expensive than Phuket when we were there.
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Elephant sculptures in Samui

  • Chiang Mai is one of those cities we immediately fell in love with.  We visited back in 2007 and we still loved it in 2018.  Yes, it is touristy.  Yes, it is full of digital nomads.  But, there are temples galore, plenty of cafes, khao soi on every corner, and a chill vibe that we adore.  And movies are dirt cheap!
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Wat Sa Si

  • Bangkok is one of those cities that needs time to grow on you.  When we first visited, we pretty much hated it.  Every time we returned, we liked it a tiny bit more.  At this stage, we pretty much feel at home in Bangkok, and I truly think we could live in Bangkok. We have our favorite hotels (all Accor properties because we always splurge in Bangkok).  We have some favorite eating spots (a Northern Thai restaurant right by the Sofitel So and the Or Tor Kor market).  We know how to use the public transportation system and even have a Rabbit card good for the next two years.  We can’t wait to return.
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Wat Traphang Ngoen

  • We can’t quite put our finger on why we didn’t like Bangkok at first.  One guess is that it is really just a big city.  It is dirty, it is smelly, and there really aren’t that many fantastic touristy sites to see.   The hassle/scams at places like the Grand Palace make it so we never want to go back there — and, in fact, on our most recent visit when we wandered near the Grand Palace I blurted out “don’t be nice to anyone around here” — a sad indictment of both myself and the touts.  And with the huge number of Western expats and chain stores and restaurants, Bangkok doesn’t even really feel all that different than any city in the U.S.  Plus, I’ve always been bothered by the blatant prostitution, the bar girls making me feel uncomfortable going into certain places, and the gross, middle age, overweight, Western men with 20 year old Thai women by their sides.  (I know, I know, judgmental much?  And, yes, I know the women are using the men just as much as the men are using the women, if not more so.)  But, once you accept all of that, Bangkok is a wonderful place to visit.  You can find any food imaginable and eat until you can’t move.  You can wonder through parks, such as Lumpini Park with its water monitors galore.  You can see current Hollywood movies.  You can ride the boats down the river.  You can see beautiful temples without getting harassed once you know where to go.  If you were there once and didn’t like it, give it another try.
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Wat Mahathat

  • Woe is you if you find yourself in need of a new bra in Thailand.  With the notable exception of the training bras, every single bra that is designed to do anything other than be promptly taken off is full of padding.  Even the sports bras.  I’m talking more padding in the bras than I have naturally, if you get my meaning.  I don’t get it….
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Wat Mahathat

  • Thailand has some strange alcohol rules.  For example, there is apparently a law that says you can’t serve alcohol between 2-5 pm.  I read it has something to do with those being the hours school kids are on the street.  But, it is only selectively enforced.  We didn’t even know about this rule in Phuket, whereas in Chiang Mai it was followed nearly everywhere.  I’m guessing the more tourist-focused the area, the less enforcement of the rule.
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Wat Mahathat

  • Who knew the Thais would pixelate out scenes of guns being pointed at people on TV, as well as scenes of alcohol and tobacco consumption?  Turns out they do.  At least on some channels.  Strange.
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Erawan Museum

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Reasons not to visit Sukhothai

Sukhothai Historical Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, contains the ruins of the capital of the Sukhothai Kingdom, which existed from the mid-1200’s to the mid 1400’s.

You really, really shouldn’t go to Sukhothai.  Why?  Well, let me tell you.

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Wat Saphan Hin

Sukhothai is hard to get to.  Our understanding is that most people traveling from Chiang Mai either: (1) take a bus; or (2) take a train to a nearby town followed by a taxi or bus.  Information about the direct bus is pretty scarce — we couldn’t find an official current timetable or a site to buy tickets in advance.  All we could find was a website that purported to list a timetable, but when you clicked on “buy tickets,” it said no tickets were available.  And, while information about the train is more robust, information about the follow-on bus is likewise scarce.  Bangkok Airways flies to Sukhothai from Bangkok, but their website wouldn’t let us buy a ticket from Chiang Mai to Sukhothai via Bangkok.  So, we totally splurged and hired a private car to drive us door to door.  And, you know what?  It was 100% worth it.  It shaved hours off of our transit time and we didn’t have to deal with the hassle of going to the bus station, trying to find a ticket office, hoping we arrived close to a departure time, and then sitting on the hopefully not over or under air conditioned bus for 5-6 hours.

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Wat Sarasak

The mosquitoes are fierce in Sukhothai.  Seriously, the mosquitoes here are vicious.  Every night, we slather on the Deet (knowing full well it is probably going to kill us down the road).  And the mosquitoes still attack.  They bite right through T-shirts.  We have a nice little sitting area outside our hotel room and we cannot use it because of the intensity of the mosquitoes.

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Wat Traphang Ngoen

Sukhothai is brutally hot. Our first day here, the “real feel” was 107 degrees Fahrenheit.  It is so hot that we got up at 6:30 to get our sightseeing done before noon.  It is so hot and the sun is so brutal that it isn’t even that relaxing to hang at the pool until the sun goes down a bit and we can be entirely in shade.

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Wat Sa Si

Most people get around Sukhothai by bicycle, and the bikes suck.  I returned one bike after riding a few blocks because there wasn’t enough air in the tires.  The replacement bike simply refused to coast unless going down an incline and had only two gears plus the light didn’t work.  Poor Robert had to bike back to the hotel one day with a flat tire and swap out his bike for another bike.  (The funniest part about that story is that I only barely beat him to the park even though he had to backtrack because he is a biker and I am not).

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Wat Mahathat

The food in Old Sukhothai (where we stayed and the area closest to the Historical Park) is mediocre at best.  Our first night, we were served pad thai that was a glutinous mess — the noodles were so overcooked they were all stuck together in a big ball.  In most parts of Thailand, a chef would be mortified to serve such a disaster of a meal.  But not in Sukhothai.

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Wat Saphan Hin

There do not appear to be any bars in Old Sukhothai.  You can get drinks at cafes, but the options are minimal.  Beer is everywhere, hard alcohol is available some places, but wine is close to non-existent.  I ordered a wine cooler one night (seriously!), and the waiter ran to the 7-11 to buy it.  And, he only came back with one so I felt too guilty to order another round.

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Wat Si Chum

The hotels are overpriced.  We are paying far more for our hotel here than we did in Chiang Mai, and it isn’t nearly as nice.

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Wat Mahathat

But the real reason you shouldn’t visit Sukhothai is this:  it is one of the most peaceful places we have ever been.  There are almost no tour buses.  There are almost no tourists.  The Historical Park isn’t crowded.  We sometimes had temples entirely to ourselves.  There are no touts begging us to buy mass-produced souvenirs.  The tuk-tuk drivers leave everyone alone.  And, if everyone starts visiting, that will change.  So don’t visit!

If you refuse to take our tongue-in-cheek advice and do visit Sukhothai, the Historical Park is divided into five zones.  You have to pay 100 Baht per person to get in the central, west and north zones, plus another 10 Baht per bike in the central and west zones.  We only visited one temple in the east zone and didn’t have to pay to get in there.  And, we didn’t visit the south zone at all.  Many people only spend a day visiting the temples, but we spread our visit over two days to avoid the afternoon heat.

We spent the first day in the central zone, which seems to have the highest concentration of impressive sites.  We thought Wat Mahathat was one of the most impressive.  It is supposedly one of the oldest temples in Thailand and was built in the 13th century.

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Wat Mahathat

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Wat Mahathat

We also really enjoyed Wat Sa Si in the central zone.  It is built on an island and was built in the late 14th century.

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Wat Sa Si

We saw a few other temples in the central zone, but I would say Wat Mahathat and Wat Sa Si are the two you absolutely cannot miss.

On day two of our stay, we started by biking to Wat Saphan Hin in the western zone.  It isn’t that far — only about 3.5 miles — but by the time we arrived, we were both hot sweaty messes given the sun and the heat (even early in the morning).  And then, when we arrived, we realized it was on top of a hill.  But the climb was worth it.  The temple is fairly small, but there is a large (12 meter high) Buddha and nice views of the countryside.

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Wat Saphan Hin

After Wat Saphan Hin, we biked over to the northern zone to see Wat Si Chum, another 13 century temple,  This is the only place where we ran into large tour groups, but none of them stayed long and we were able to get some amazing photos of this very unique temple.

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Wat Si Chum

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Wat Si Chum

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped briefly into Wat Sorasak, a temple that is not really in any of the zones.  The elephants were pretty impressive (although we are pretty sure they were restored instead of originals).

Wat Sorasak 2

Wat Sorasak

Bottom line, we loved the Sukhothai Historical Park and are very glad we visited it (even after all the temples we visited in Siem Reap).  If we are being honest, we didn’t love Old Sukhothai, but sometimes you have to put up with the bad to get the good.

 

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Drowning in Khao Soi in Chiang Mai

If you are what you eat, I am currently nothing but a big bowl of khao soi. We spent 14 nights in Chiang Mai, and I ate 17 bowls of khao soi in that time. I know, I know, some of you (ahem…mom) are thinking “she is going to get fat eating all that khao soi.” So, let me remind you that in 14 days there are at least 28 meals (more if, unlike us, you eat three meals a day). And, you should know that: (1) I walked up to 6 miles (roundtrip) for a bowl (no, I’m not claiming it was uphill in the snow both ways, as Chiang Mai is pretty flat and I doubt it has ever snowed there); (2) with the exception of our food tour and a night at a street market, I ate very little other than khao soi while we were in Chiang Mai; and (3) that serving sizes of most bowls of khao soi are quite small, even for Thailand.

What is khao soi you might ask? The short answer: a little bit of heaven on earth. The long answer: Khao soi is basically a curry soup with both soft yellow egg noodles and crispy fried noodles. The protein is most typically a chicken leg, but you can find chicken breast, beef, pork, and even seafood depending on where you go. It is served with a plate of accoutrements on the side — generally lime, shallots, and some sort of picked green. Opinions vary as to what is the defining bit of a bowl of khao soi — some people swear by the broth and the level of spice. Some swear by the soft noodles and their texture. Some swear by the drizzle of coconut milk on the top. Those people would all be wrong — while all of the components work together to form the perfect symphony, the crispy noodles really make or break this dish in my humble opinion.

If you want to know where to grab a great bowl, a very good bowl, an ok bowl, or a horrible bowl of khao soi in Chiang Mai (with all due respect to Anthony Bourdain and Andy Ricker), keep reading.
The grand champion and purple ribbon winner is…..

Khao Soi Khun Yai. This nondescript restaurant tucked into an alley/parking lot on the side of a temple serves one fine bowl of noodles — so good I nearly picked up the bowl and slurped down the remaining sauce after the noodles and chicken were all gone. The sauce was on the thicker side, approaching a gravy consistency, with a drizzle of coconut milk on top. The spice level was fairly high, but in a good way. The crispy noodles were very thin and out of this world delicious. The protein choices were chicken (which was cut into small pieces), pork, and beef. The portion size was small, but at only 40 Baht I didn’t feel at all cheated — instead I seriously just should have ordered a second bowl but I was saving room for trying additional an restaurant later that day. Note that you order your meal at the counter, sit, eat, and then pay. My only regret is that I ate here near the end of our trip and didn’t have time to return. Next time!

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Khao Soi Khun Yai

Blue ribbon award winners (in no particular order) are:

Khao Soi Nimman. OMG this was some amazing khao soi served in a very trendy neighborhood. Not too much coconut milk, just the right amount of spice for my mid-western palate, layers of flavors, and plenty of crispy noodles. A wide choice of proteins was available (including seafood, which I didn’t see anywhere else), but I stuck with the tried and true chicken on both our visits. Robert got two different types of pork. I know some people don’t like this place because it is touristy and upscale, but I thought it was quite good. A little over 100 Baht per bowl, depending on your protein, so on the expensive side, but worth it.

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Khao Soi Nimman

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Khao Soi Nimman

Kanjana. This was a delightful little (actually, this was a big one) bowl of khao soi. Very heavy on the coconut milk, which made it extremely rich. But with enough spice to cut the richness. Unlike most places, this khao soi was served with breast meat. It also wasn’t served with the usual accoutrements — no concern here since I only use the lime. It was so good, I had it twice! I’m pretty sure it was 105 Baht.

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Kanjana

Khao Soi Mae Sai. A bit outside the city walls, this place came highly recommended by our street food tour guide who said it was her absolute favorite. I hadn’t planned on visiting this restaurant, but squeezed it in on our last day after that recommendation and, I have to admit, it was pretty darn good. One of the spicier bowls I ate, but nicely balanced. And the crispy noodles were plentiful. Definitely worth the trip, especially at only 45 Baht per bowl.

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Khao Soi Mae Sai

A red ribbon goes to….

Galangal Cooking Studio. I made my own khao soi here. Sadly, it was badly in need of an additional kick (my own fault – I should have added more curry paste). And, the crispy noodles weren’t very good. So, not blue ribbon quality. But, I now know how to make my own khao soi (or, more accurately, Robert can now make this for me in the future….) so that means this has to get a ribbon!!!!

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Galangal Cooking Studio

A green participation ribbon goes to (in no particular order)….

Dash. Absolutely fine, but nothing special, and a rip-off at 180 Baht per bowl.

Sunday night walking street vendor. I have no idea of the name of the vendor, but she was set up inside the grounds of one of the wats on the south side of Rachadamnoen Road. She had a big pile of boiled noodles and another big pile of crispy noodles and a big vat of curry sauce and combined them to order. Plus, she had a side table full of accoutrements. I didn’t even care that I was eating out of a plastic bowl. I think this one was 40 or 50 Baht.

Street vendor at Le Dta’ Wan Food Market. Plenty of crispy noodles and quite a bit of spice, but I would say it was way overpriced for what it was at 100 Baht.

Coconut Shell. The broth here had a nice flavor with a nice kick. There were a ton of egg noodles, but they were very poorly cooked — some were under cooked and others were over cooked. Plus, there were not nearly enough crispy noodles. I would have it in a pinch, but it wasn’t a favorite. Can’t recall price.

Writer’s Club and Wine Bar. Sadly, a very one dimensional bowl of khao soi and the crispy noodles tasted like wet cardboard once dipped in the soup. Plus, it was a bit oily for my taste. Can’t recall price.

The vendor at the Sunday night walking street. Again, no clue as to the name. She was on the far Eastern side of the market. Only 40 Baht.
Black dishonorable mention ribbons have to go to four places….

Khao Soi Lam Duan. So….this one pains me. Both Anthony Bourdain and Andy Ricker recommend this place (which is well outside of the walls of the old city and, in fact, across the river), and I entered with high hopes. This was certainly the spiciest bowl I ate, but it was one-dimensional. And, there were barely any crispy noodles at all. It doesn’t even look good in the photo. Right? And there were no fans going so I was dripping wet while I ate. Maybe I went on an off day? Maybe they haven’t been able to deal with the Bourdain effect? 50 Baht per bowl.

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Huen Phen. Not good at all (even though it was supposed to be on of the best bowls in the city). Had an odd taste of chili powder and the bright red color was a bit off-putting. Not nearly enough noodles. Not recommended at all. In fact, I didn’t even bother to finish it, although Robert enjoyed the hard boiled quail eggs that came on the side. I’m pretty sure it was 105 Baht.

Bird’s Nest Cafe. This was the first bowl of khao soi I ate in Chiang Mai and it was very disappointing. For starters, it was covered in pea shoots. What? And, the soup included carrots and pea pods. Again, what? I think they were trying to go for upscale and it just resulted in weird.

The Gallery. I didn’t know khao soi could be absolutely tasteless until I tried this bowl. No flavor, no spice, no fun.

What is your favorite bowl of khao soi?

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