Kathmandu/Lumbini!

After the scariest landing I’ve been through yet, we landed in Kathmandu, Nepal!  The process through the airport was pretty easy. It drives me crazy that with all of the airports we have been through they don’t have a more logical process for people getting visas.  When we walk into the airport we get in the line that says “Foreigners”, only to be told once we get to the front that we have to go to this kiosk section in the corner then to another counter to pay, then back to the “Foreigner” line.  They should seriously have more signs or someone directing a bit better. The smog here is probably the densest we have seen. Flying in it was impossible to see the city until we dropped below the smog level, and it is already a dusty city.  I would suggest having a mask if you have any respiratory issues.

When we stepped outside there were numerous taxi drivers boxing us in.  I would personally recommend just getting money from the ATM at the airport since the service fee is the same as any other ATM in the city, and the same for a sim card.  I would not recommend going to a street stall for a sim card because they take a copy of your passport, and I worry that it doesn’t end up in an organized place. Go to a storefront where they will file your important documents away.  The taxi drivers have a billboard set up outside of their prices, so negotiating is a bit tricky here. In Nepal, 100 rupees is equal to roughly 0.86 cents, and 1000 rupees equal to $8.60. There is a tourist district that somehow neither of us had heard of till we arrived and had already booked somewhere else.  This district is Thamel and has quite a lot of cheap shops for anyone planning on trekking or hiking, and has some pretty cheap good foods. We tried a homestay for the first time. The family was so sweet and had one son about 9 years old. The wife taught Walter how to make some dishes and some bomb-ass chili chutney.  It hurt so well. It was pretty cold here and it doesn’t seem like the houses have insulation so I would suggest having a good sweater and sweatpants for the nights. The days were 70 degrees Fahrenheit. We visited Monkey Temple on our first day. There were monkeys everywhere! The monkies don’t just stay at the temple, they actually integrate themselves within the city.  They also seem a bit aggressive, so if they want your food, you should probably just give it to them and save yourself the cost of a rabies shot. On the way up to the temple, a man approached us; we have learned that almost 100% of the time if someone starts with “Where are you from”, it is going to end with them trying to sell us something. After he asked us where we were from he then stated that he didn’t want to sell us anything, and asked if we knew anything about the temple.  We told him that we did not, and we usually research a place after we discover it. In a slightly condescending tone, he almost seemed offended that we were going without knowing about it. He then said if we paid him, he would tell us the history. So we just ascended the many steps without him. At the top, nearly all of the walking area was overtaken by locals selling little trinkets and there were monkeys everywhere! We checked out the Thamel area after and had momos for the first time!  I LOVE MOMOS! YOU MUST TRY MOMOS! There weren’t too many activities to do here. Obviously, there are a few temples, but the entrance fee to most of them is tripled for tourists. If you are wanting to see Mount Everest you can take a helicopter ride, but it will cost you. The ride costs up to $4000 for up to four passengers and gets more expensive with fewer people. We skipped that activity. There is a national park roughly five hours drive from Kathmandu, but the stays there are anywhere from $20-$50.

During dinner that night our host informed us that Shiva holiday was coming up and invited us to celebrate it with their family.  We graciously accepted. We have been wanting to experience this type of cultural setting. Most of Nepal, including our host family, is vegetarian.  She informed us, however, for the Shiva holiday they were allowed to eat horse and partake in drugs. We quickly declined that part. On the day of, all six of us crammed into their little car and set off for their family gathering.  It was a scary hour drive. The drivers/traffic here is worse than anything I’ve seen in Vietnam. It is just chaos here. Potholes everywhere so people are dramatically swerving to miss them. We will quickly go from 60mph to 20mph when they slam on the breaks instead of just driving slowly.  The roads through the mountains are tight fits like they were really only meant for one large vehicle. We saw quite a few accidents, with one happening right next to us. It isn’t like America though, people just put their cars or bikes back together best they can and seemingly go on their way.  We arrived at a partially built structure, but what they regarded as a temple. I was originally excited to experience this, but didn’t take into account we would be the only white people there. It wasn’t a problem, but I couldn’t sink into the background and observe when what seemed like over a hundred people were all stopping to stare at us.  Some Nepali approached us to offer food, but mostly the children were the brave ones. Running up to us and yelling, “NAMASTE!”. We eventually accepted food from them, but what our host said had popped into my head. I quickly asked him, “Is this vegetarian?”. He said yes. Linguistics is everything here people. I then asked, “Is there horse?”.  He said yes. We then just ate our veggies and secretly got rid of the rest. There was also a large vat of liquid at the end that people were drinking by the cup full, pitcher full, or handful. We asked our host what that was and she said that is the drugs. Also, stayed away from there. It was honestly a great experience, I just wish we hadn’t stuck out like a neon sign.  Another part of this holiday is children blocking off the roadways with rope and not allowing cars to pass through until they had been given money. Most complied, some ran their rope over.

Along with the momo’s, the naan bread was delicious!  A staple food in this culture is dal bhat. A mix of veggies with curry spices and a few other things.  We ate this every day at our homestay. After a few days, we said our goodbyes, caught a bus from Kalanki and made our way to Lumbini.  By the way, Kalanki doesn’t seem to be an actual bus station. It’s more like, hope you’re in the right place at the right time. It seems better to catch the bus from Thamel that way there is someone to drive you to the bus.  No matter where you go, it seems that the bus tickets are going to be about 800 rupees. Lumbini is the birthplace of Buddhism so Walter was stoked to finally be exploring this place. The town is quaint with monkeys and cows roaming about.  The curry and naan bread was delicious! Since tourism hasn’t really hit here yet all of the foods were pretty cheap, maybe $1-$2 per person. I would recommend getting money out of the atm in a bigger city. Not a single atm here would accept my card. After like the fifth one, I was getting pretty nervous, but luckily one finally worked for Walter.  Power outages are an everyday occurrence in Nepal. They always seem to happen at the same time. Most people in the towns have started using generators, but when it comes to hot water, I learned the sad way that they use solar power to heat the water.  I imagine everyone is the same on the shower concept. Once you do all the work to get ready for a shower and get naked, you are taking that shower. So even though it was 50 degrees out, I came this far and wasn’t turning back. Directly across from the city are the temples.  Architects from numerous countries came here to build a temple that resembled what they have back in their home. I think there are maybe 20-30 temples here, each from a different country. It takes a few hours to walk around this place, or you can hire a tuk tuk for the day. These guys were pretty relentless and one even went as far as to get out of his tuk tuk and follow us into a temple.  Another strange incident happened when we were talking by ourselves down a side road to get to the next temple, two men on a bike circled back to stop and ask us if they could shake our hands and take a picture. While this weirded me out, it wasn’t the first time it has happened. Near the front gate is the main structure. Rubble from what is left of the original temple when Buddhism was discovered, and they built another building around it to better preserve it.  There is no talking or photography allowed inside the building. We only spent one night here since we were just visiting for the temples, and honestly, one night was enough. If you’re an animal lover like myself, just remember they aren’t pets to this population. I walked away from Walter to go pet a goat until I got closer and saw that his buddy just had his head chopped off, and he was probably next. It was a sobering moment, but I do accept that this is their livelihood.  Once again, another 6 am bus then we are off to Pokhara for our last stop in Nepal!

Chiang Mai

Out of our time traveling, I think I would have to say Khao Soi is the most amazing thing I have tasted!  Khao Soi is a coconut based curry. I haven’t come across this curry in Bangkok or Southern Thailand, so to my knowledge, Northern Thailand is the only place to find it.  Chiang Mai has so many cheap eat spots. A few of the places we tried were the Blue Noodle, the Coconut Shell, Khao Soi, Jok Sompet (porridge and dim sum), and some street foods around the old town.  The Blue Noodle dishes reminded me of Vietnam, something similar to Pho. The Coconut Shell had the usual Thai dishes and most of the curries (yellow, green, coconut, red, Khao Soi). I tried Khao Soi at pretty much every place I could and my absolute favorite is Khao Soi Khun Yai.  It is only open from 10-2 every day. I arrived at noon, waited in line for 20 minutes and another 20 minutes to receive my food. They sold out before 1 pm. There were locals along with tourists at this place so you KNOW it’s gonna be delicious! Walter took a cooking class while we were in Chiang Mai and was given a book with recipes afterward so he gets to make me Khao Soi when we get home!  A slightly more expensive place we ate was The Crazy Noodle. Here you have the option to make your own curry or noodle dish by picking the noodles, sauce, protein and a few more things. Again, so amazing! When it came to a curry place we only spent about 50 baht per person ($1.75). Uuuhhh salivating…..

Chiang Mai!

For the time being, I am going to skip my Bangkok blog since Walter and I will be going back for a few days here and there.  Bangkok is one of the most affordable airports to fly out of to get to neighboring countries so it will be a hub we use a few times.  From Bangkok, we took an overnight bus to Chiang Mai which is Northwest of Bangkok. We contemplated doing an overnight bus, but it would have been $20 more expensive per person.  The overnight buses are not as comfortable as they were in Vietnam. You just get a partially reclining seat that may or may not have a functioning reclining ability. There is not a guarantee if you will have charging ports on the bus, which is a let down because you will obviously need to look up directions to your stay when you get to town.  We got to Chiang Mai at six in the morning and took a taxi to our hostel. We stayed at 248 Hostel because of its proximity to the city and it had a pool. They don’t allow early check-in, however, they will let you store your luggage in a locked room. Good enough. Chiang Mai is a fairly large place and has an “Old City” and “New City”. I feel like these should describe themselves, but for those of you that struggle; the old city is where you’ll find temples, street foods, and cheaper clothing stalls.  The new city has department stores, malls, more expensive restaurants. Everything is close enough to walk to, but if that isn’t your favorite activity, simply flag down one of the big red taxi trucks and they will cater you around for a few baht. I usually list off the cheap eats places we found for other travelers that may read this, but really this place has no shortage! Every night and especially weekends street food carts are in full swing with eats so cheap you’ll want to buy a few different bowls of numerous foods.  We ate at a Korean food cart where each plate was 30 baht ($1) so naturally, I ordered like five different things. Chiang Mai is known for their Khao Soi (spelled many different ways), and this is a MUST try! If you ever listen to me, do it now. My favorite Khoa Soi place was only open from 10a to 2p, but when I was there the line was 20 minutes long with travelers and locals, which really speaks for itself, and they sold out of everything by 1 pm! I’ll write about this along with the address under my Eatables section. I had Khao Soi at least once a day, sometimes twice.  I would recommend walking around the old city at night. Usually, the temples close at dusk, but in Chiang Mai, they leave a few open after dark and start lighting things up. We came across a somewhat hidden beautiful prayer area that has us mesmerized for a while.

Pictured above: Prayer area in the old city hidden from view of the road

We did a day trip to Chiang Rai that costs 1000 baht ($30).  We had always planned on seeing the White Temple so we decided on this day trip since it had the White Temple, Blue Temple, Black Temple, lunch, and a village called Long Neck Karen.  These temples are modern compared to the usual ancient temples. The White Temple was built in 1997 and has American depictions everywhere. In the main temple on the walls, there are paintings of Spongebob, Scooby doo, and Marvel/DC characters.  Around the gardens, there are sculpted faces similar to these paintings. I was pretty confused on the meaning. In hindsight, I would have just paid for a bus to take us to Chiang Rai and rent a motorbike to see all of these places on our own. The ride was 4 hours each way, which we did not know.  All of the tours going on that day went to each place at the same time, so when we arrived somewhere so did a few hundred other people, but when we drove by the White Temple an hour later it was empty. They provided a lunch buffet which was not that great. We only had about 30 minutes at some of the temples.  We lastly went to Long Neck Karen village. This is a village of a tribe of women that wore gold rings on their neck to stretch it out. Once the neck is stretched out they can not remove the rings due to their weakened neck muscles. Every tour tries to bring you to the village, but after some research on our part, we stayed near the van while everyone else went in.  On top of the tour costing 1000 baht, it was an extra 300 baht to see the women. I don’t like doing these village tours because the guides prod people to take pictures like these women are in a zoo, but really they are in extreme poverty and only surviving on some of the money they get from people visiting these places.

Picture below: White Temple in Chiang Rai

Pictured Below: Blue Temple and Black Temple (also known as Wooden Temple)

One of my “have to do” things while on this trip is going to an Elephant Sanctuary, and after many hours of research done, I decided this might be the best place.  If you go to an Elephant Sanctuary please go to an ethical one! They are at least $10-$15 more than unethical ones, but if you can’t afford to go somewhere they don’t abuse animals, maybe you shouldn’t go at all.  This goes for tiger and big cat sanctuaries. There is mounting evidence showing that these tigers are drugged all day so tourists can get close enough to get a picture, lay on them, or pet them. Don’t encourage this bullshit.  Go pay for a Jungle safari in Cambodia or Laos and see wild tigers. We decided to go to Kanta Elephant Sanctuary. We booked through the hostel and it costs 1200 baht per person ($35). They pick you up from the hostel, provide fruit and snack, provide some free photography, and obviously give you a ride back.  It was one of the best experiences of my life and induced an emotional response that really surprised me. It’s amazing to touch them and hug their snout all while knowing they could kill you pretty easily, but really they are just gentle giants! That is what made it emotional, to witness their caring nature and think of how their whole life they were treated as props and beaten if they didn’t perform.  We were able to feed them sugarcane for about an hour, then made them medicine balls that they take a few times a day, and finally rubbed them down in the river! Everything really exceeded my expectations! On our last day there Walter broke his tooth. We would get to figure out just how good our insurance and the medical care here was. Walter emailed our insurance company (Geo Blue) to figure out what the next steps would be and if he was covered.  It took about four days to receive a response from the insurance, which goes to show even American travel insurance can be shit. We had already waited two days without a response, and I was overreacting thinking he might be at risk from endocarditis ( which is a serious bacteria that affects the lining of your heart from entering in through the gumline) so after we arrived back in Bangkok we decided that no matter the price it wasn’t worth waiting any longer for.  Especially being in a country where the water isn’t clean, or maybe food isn’t properly cooked the risk for something to happen was a bit higher. Without any prior notice, we walked into a hospital, located a periodontist, filled out two short papers and he was in the dental chair within ten minutes. The procedure (exam, Xrays, and new filling) took about 40 minutes, and everything without insurance and out of pocket costs $75! The process in America just to get into the office would have taken days, and the costs of all of this with insurance could have easily cost a few hundred dollars out of pocket!  We were astounded at the quality of the work and price. The insurance eventually got back to Walter (four days after we reached out) and told him to fill out a form to see if they would cover it. He is still waiting to hear back. Next stop, South Thailand!

Cambodia! (Angkor Wat area)

Amok! I’m already salivating

This will be short and sweet!  For the two days (coming back later) we spent in Cambodia we only tried a few places (Angkor Wat), and Amok is a MUST!  It is the dish that, at least this area, is known for. I’m sure there is a lot more to it, but Amok is comprised of freshwater fish, Khmer spices, and coconut milk along with a million different types of spices.  But it is Cambodia’s signature dish, so why not try?

The other main restaurant that we ate here was Cuisine Wat Damnak.  This is a Michelin star restaurant. Most of Cambodia’s ingredients are imported from outside of Cambodia, but this restaurant uses ingredients only found within Cambodia making it an authentic experience.  The menu changes every week, so you will unlikely be able to feast on what we did, but I’m sure it will be just as delicious! The chef is originally from France but studied in America, then settled in Cambodia.  This was one of the most remarkable dinners I have ever had the pleasure of eating. Instead of describing all of the ingredients, I will post pictures of the plates and menu. I chose tasting menu 1, and forgot to take a picture of the first dish, my bad (pictures are in order with menu!). While we usually do “cheap eats”, however, one of our close friends recommended we try this Michelin star restaurant with them, and in all seriousness, it was an amazing experience and one I would recommend with friends!  There are plenty of budget options. My secret to finding them is literally just typing “cheap eats” into Google and reading through quite a few articles. I’ve said this before, if you are traveling on a budget, do not bother reading TripAdvisor. They are bubbling over with bullshit.  

Tasting menu 1

Dalat Foods!

Since Dalat is a mountain town it was on the pricier side of what our usual budget was.  We try to stay around $2-$4 per person when it comes to food, which is easily doable. Trip Adviser of course only has crap recommendations.  They really need to hire some budget travelers to get out there. We tried Oz burgers due to its high ratings. It really wasn’t anything to get excited over.  Also, what kind of monster puts beets on burgers? After eating here, I decided that maybe I’ll wait till I’m back in America to have a burger. We ate at Brew and Breakfast.  Now I am not a vegetarian by any means, but I figured I would finally try my first vegetarian restaurant. It was amazing! Since this time I have probably recommended this place at least a hundred times.  I am really missing my buffalo sauce from back home, so when I saw fried buffalo mushrooms I was sold! My bowl consisted of sauteed tomatoes, caramelized onions, pickled pink onions, spinach, hummus, and vegan eggs with a side of what looked like McDonald’s hash browns (oh yeah baby), and like I said the buffalo mushrooms.  I am salivating just thinking about this bowl. Walter ordered a bowl with cashew butter, bananas, coconut, oats, cashews, chia seeds, and some other little things. Again, amazing! This place left such a mark on me I told him for dinner we were going back. Don’t be fooled, even though it has the word “breakfast” in the name, it does have a different menu for dinner.  We both ordered loaded salads. The costs for each meal was roughly 100,000 per person ($4), although I would have paid a little more. Numerous locals had mentioned that we eat at the night market. This ended up being a bit disappointing. There were only about 3 different cheap eats options to choose from. The pricey restaurants moved their tables outside, so it looked like it would be cheaper, but they were charging about $15 a meal per person.  Out of the cheap eats options, there was Pho, Corn balls, and Vietnamese pizza. I had the corn balls and Vietnamese pizza (banh trang nuong), but shortly found out they contained the same ingredients. The pizza was a rice paper with an egg yolk spread out over it with shrimp paste, pork, and sriracha paste. The cornballs contained these ingredients on the inside. We didn’t eat out too much here since our hostel offered free breakfast.

Hue!

We are beginning to figure out that in Vietnam there is a difference between Vietnamese food and authentic Vietnamese food. In Hue, we got our first taste of this! We found an amazing restaurant, Hanh Restaurant, that has authentic food. The banh beo was amazing! It is these little plates with a rice pancake that you pour sauce on then slurp down like an oyster! We ordered about seven different items and our bill was only $110,000 Vietnamese dom! ($5 American dollars). Another dish to try here is Bun Bo Hue, it is different from your everyday pho dish, but a bit tastier. There were other cheap eats that we found but they were the typical fried noodle, pho or bun cha. We also tried Korean food here since we had not seen it elsewhere. It was nice to have something a bit different from Vietnamese food. This could be found at Kicochi House. Definitely spicer than the previous food we’ve had!