Saturday, April 16, 2016

Southeast Asia trip: Thailand (Part 2)

Chiang Mai

Our second stop in northern Thailand was Chiang Mai. This city is a little less chaotic than Bangkok, but it has a lot to offer as well, such as half-day and full-day elephant tour programs, several outdoor activities, a variety of good restaurants, and less hot weather, which was a nice break from Bangkok's scorching heat. We arrived in Chiang Mai by train and stayed in the city center for three days. Here's what we did: 

Night Train
In order to arrive in Chiang Mai, we took a sleeper train, which has bunk beds and seats that turn into beds so that you can sleep at night. The ride took about 13 hours. We bought our tickets from our hostel in Bangkok and paid 1020 THB per person. Traveling at night is better as it helps you save money on accommodation.

Goofing around on the sleeper train. You can see the bunk beds in the photo.
The sleeper train was very comfortable, and it had a dining room where you could have dinner. They also offered breakfast, which you had to order the night before so that it was ready the next day. The beds were comfortable and clean, which is what matters the most on a 13-hour night ride, I would say. 

Elephant Park
One of the things we knew we wanted to do in Chiang Mai was to visit an elephant park. However, we were unsure as to what park to visit. Before our trip, while doing research into Southeast Asia, we learned that elephants, and animals in general, are mistreated in order to be used for public entertainment. Personally, I don't think I can say I am an animal lover, but I also don't want to see an innocent creature being abused just to make money off of it. In the end, and after carefully choosing from a vast range of elephant parks, we booked a tour with Chiangmai Mahout Training Center. Fortunately, it turned out to be a great experience. We got to interact with four young female elephants, which we fed, rode, and finally bathed in a natural, clear-watered pool. We just loved the experience overall. If you want to book a tour with them, you can follow their page on Facebook. We paid around 1700 THB each.

Group photo at Mahout Training Center after bathing the elephants. It was great!
You don't have to go on an elephant tour if you don't want to, but if you do, we highly recommend asking around and taking your time to find out what the best places are. The amount of elephant parks in Asia is overwhelming, but it's better to be safe than sorry. We met a girl whose experience was not the best because she booked a tour with an unreliable agency. It goes without saying that she didn't have a good time at the elephant park she visited. 

The Grand Canyon
This was definitely one of my favorite places in Chiang Mai. We had no idea of its existence, but we are glad we found out about it. To be brief, the Grand Canyon in Chiang Mai is an abandoned soil mine that was transformed into a giant swimming pool. You can also jump off cliffs here. It's named after the Grand Canyon in Arizona, The United States, because of its resemblance to that place. The entrance fee is 50 THB per person. Here are some photos: 

Us at the Grand Canyon in Chiang Mai. You can see the cliffs all around us.
The Grand Canyon. On the right, you can see people getting ready to jump off.
Swimming with our German friends. They were very nice!
Just like every city in Thailand, in Chiang Mai there are also many beautiful temples. The city itself is also very pretty, especially at night. Here are some photos:

View from our hostel in Chiang Mai. It was right across the street.
One of the temples that caught my attention. It wasn't allowed to climb up to the top.
It wasn't completely dark, but the night was coming up.
One of the things we liked the most about Chiang Mai are the numerous restaurants that it has. There are plenty of food options to choose from, and they're cheap. My favorite restaurant was Bamboo Café. They have western food as well as Asian food. If you come to Chiang Mai, you should definitely stop by this place.

Bamboo Café in Chiang Mai
Unlike Bangkok, the weather in Chiang Mai is a little less hot. But don't expect cold temperatures. That will certainly not happen. You still need an air-conditioned room, or your night will become unbearable. Side note: if you come here during the months of February and March, you're going to notice the air quality is really bad. Why you might wonder? Farmers in this part of Thailand burn their fields in order to prepare their land for the next year. It is illegal, but they do it anyway because it's not enforced. In our case, it didn't bother us so much because we were only passing through, and the burning season had only just started. 


  • You can rent motorbikes in Chiang Mai - just like anywhere in Thailand, honestly - but we decided not to do it because the traffic is chaotic. They also drive on the left side of the road, which we are not used to. But once again, this is just what we did. You're welcome to do what's best for you. Motorbikes as well as bicycles can be usually rented for a maximum of 24 hours. 
  • Our first night market in Southeast Asia was in Chiang Mai. We went there with our very nice German friends that we met at our hostel, and it turned out to be a great experience. We ate and then headed for the never-ending streets filled with clothing, handicrafts, jewelry and more. It was hard to resist. If you are planning on buying clothes, do it here - or in Bangkok - as it is way cheaper than in southern Thailand. 
  • We stayed at Potae's House, which we loved. The owner, Potae, is a very nice Thai girl who enjoys helping her guests out. The hostel was nice and clean and it included breakfast. The only downside to it is that the common area was right next to a very loud avenue, so it wasn't very comfortable to hang out there. We paid around 200-250 THB each for a shared room per night. We recommend staying here. 
  • Chiang Mai is also a very good place to buy souvenirs. It's cheap compared to other places, and its night market is endless. You can haggle prices down to a more reasonable price, so shopping for souvenirs shouldn't be a problem. Just be polite when you negotiate. 
Chiang Rai

What can I say about Chiang Rai? I suppose I have mixed feelings about it. By mistake, we visited this place twice. The first time, we went on an all-day tour to the White Temple, the Golden Triangle, and the Long Neck Village. The second time, our van stopped by the White Temple for a short rest on our way to Laos. Had we known this, we wouldn't have taken the first tour in the first place. Our main interest was to visit only the White Temple, but all tours include other stops as well. We asked around and made sure to have the itinerary explained to us, but here in Southeast Asia English is not widely spoken, so sometimes you have to learn to embrace whatever comes your way. In other words, if you're going from Thailand to Laos - at least by slow boat - and all you want to do is to visit only the White Temple before you leave, just buy tickets to Laos and the van will most certainly stop by this tourist attraction for a short rest. You will have enough time to go in and around the temple, and to take pictures. We didn't think the first tour we booked was worth it. It was too long, there wasn't anything really interesting to see, except for the White Temple, and our tour guide spoke horrible English. Even Weg couldn't understand him sometimes, and her native language is English... It was just not worth it. 

The White Temple
I hadn't heard of this temple before, even while I was learning about Southeast Asia back in Chile, until a friend of mine sent me a photo of it and told me I should visit it. The photo was amazing, so I included it on my to-do list for SE Asia. In all honesty, the temple is beautiful, but I thought it would be even more impressive in person. Unfortunately, for me it wasn't as impressive as I expected. And the fact that there were hundreds of tourists there also didn't help. One thing they never tell you about all these places is that you will be sharing them with countless masses of people. I'll write about it in another post. 

Anyway, here's a photo of the White Temple that I managed to take without tourists in it: 

Panorama photo of the White Temple.
On the far right, you can see countless tourists entering the temple.
The Golden Triangle
The Golden Triangle is a geographical region where Thailand, Myanmar and Laos overlap. When we booked our tour through our hostel, we weren't told there was an extra free to go on a boat trip along the river and get out in each country. We were told everything was included in the price we paid, but surprise! Once at the Golden Triangle itself - which is no more than a place filled with tourist stores and traditional Thai statues - we learned that we needed to pay another 300 THB in order to take the boat trip. Needless to say, we didn't pay for it. We just walked around and took photos. Here they are: 

Boats by the riverside. It was unfortunately a little too littered.
A collection of the flags of the countries that make up Southeast Asia
The Long Neck Village
I don't want to let you all down, but if you feel like I'm going from bad to worse, I am. Weg was very excited to go to this place, but once we got there, we realized the village has become more of a commercial spot than a genuine local experience with long-necked women. We also felt like they were on display for tourists, so we decided not to take many pictures, and to donate some money to them. Personally, I bought a bracelet from a cute little girl who just stole my heart. She spoke several languages, including my own, so when I heard her speak Spanish, I couldn't resist. Here's a photo of all of us together: 

Ins't she the cutest girl ever? She was also a very god seller.

  • When you book a tour, make sure to ask every question at least twice. Keep in mind that most (if not all) tours include more than just one tourist attraction, so if you're interested in only one place, go to many agencies to check out the different options. Don't just stick to the first offer. Agencies and hotels will try to scam you to buy their tours, so ask around! 
  • If you're considering doing the slow boat tour to cross from Thailand into Laos, you might want to double check the information. We asked whether or not accommodation was included several times, and despite no being the official answer all the time, once at the Thailand-Laos border, we learned that accommodation was indeed included. We had to cancel our hostel reservation at the very last minute, but for some unknown, lucky reason, they didn't charge my credit card. 
  • If you're staying in Chiang Mai, but want to go to Chiang Rai on a day trip, don't! The ride is too long, and there's nothing special about Chiang Rai as you have already probably noticed. If you still want to go, book a hostel there and then cross into Laos. You can also go to Pai from Chiang Rai, but we didn't go there, so I don't know much about it. 
So that's it about Chiang Rai. It wasn't torture, but it also wasn't marvelous like other places we had visited. In the next post, I will write about Laos. Once again, if you have any questions, don't hesitate to contact me. And if you liked what you read, please spread the word! 

Stay tuned!


Friday, April 1, 2016

Southeast Asia trip: Thailand (Part 1)


It's difficult to find time to update your blog when you're backpacking, but I realized I could always write a little during the long van rides and before going to bed every night. After about a month in Southeast Asia, I’ve finally written my first blog update.

Our first stop in Southeast Asia was Bangkok, which I would describe as an eclectic, chaotic city. No matter where you look, there is always street food, crazy traffic, impressive temples, countless paintings of the King (no kidding!), and 7-Eleven convenience stores, which, by the way, will become your best friend in Thailand, especially if you're traveling on a tight budget.

During our first stay in this beautiful country, we visited three major cities: Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Chiang Rai. We will head south in a few weeks, where we will spend most of our time at beautiful beaches, but let's not go off topic and let's focus on the previously mentioned cities instead. I don't want to bore you with unnecessary details, so I will try to be brief and give you (what I consider) the most relevant information.


As I previously said, this city is chaotically diverse, but in a good way. If you stay in the touristy area (around Khao San Road), you will find everything you need, ranging from cheap food to a variety of guesthouses, and travel agencies. Of course, there are plenty of other areas where you can stay, but we chose Khao San Road because that's where most (if not all) backpackers stay when visiting Bangkok. It's also a very good place to buy souvenirs. There are many stores to choose from, and it's not expensive. It's definitely worth it to at least visit it before leaving Bangkok.

Chao San Road during the day. At night, it becomes a chaotic, yet fun street.
One of the first things that caught my attention in this city were the numerous amounts of temples that you can see almost everywhere you go. My favorite was the Grand Palace. 

The Grand Palace in Bangkok
Likewise, keep in mind that when you visit a temple, you must dress respectfully. In other words, your clothing must cover your shoulders and knees and it mustn't be see-through. If you don't want to pack extra clothes before your trip, make sure to buy some on the streets. However, some temples do have the option to rent clothes before entering, which is cheap and practical. You must also take your shoes off before entering a sacred place. 

Shoes outside of a temple in the Grand Palace complex
I was also very impressed by the infinite number of statues around Bangkok. Most of them are huge, but there are also smaller ones. Regardless of their size, they are all definitely something.

Tuk Tuks
Tuk Tuks - Thailand's most common means of transportation among tourists nowadays - are also one of this city's highlights. At our hostel, we were warned not to ride in a Tuk Tuk because, as foreigners, we were likely to be scammed. However, we decided to try it out the next day. Before getting in, we made sure to negotiate a price and haggle it down. If it was too expensive, we would politely decline the offer. Coming to Thailand and not riding in a Tuk Tuk just didn't feel right for us.

Tuk Tuk on the left. Motorbikes are also very common in Thailand.
Series of motorbikes parked together (almost) on the sidewalk
Make sure to always be polite when you disagree with someone. We've heard stories of people who've received death threats for being disrespectful toward Thais. Whether these stories are true or not, we are not sure. But what we are sure of is that Thai society is very communal and respectful and they have very strict social rules, so don't be tempted to break them, or you might get in trouble.

Street Food
There is an infinite amount of street food carts in Bangkok, but we stayed clear for the fear of food poisoning. However, if you're not afraid to try something new, you won't have to look far to find delicious food. Just walk outside of wherever you are staying and hundreds of street food carts will be waiting for you. Side note: most of the street food we saw is fried (which I personally don't like at all), but there's also fruit and vegetarian dishes.

Pad Thai at the Weekend Market in Bangkok. It was delicious!
Iced tea. Extremely sweet. Very refreshing.
As backpackers, we’re always trying to save money. 7-Eleven convenience stores are perfect for this. You can get breakfast for less than 50 THB, and lunch for about the same price. But not only is there food at 7-Eleven! You can also find toiletries and personal care products. It’s really a life saver for travelers. 

This is the 7-Eleven sign

  • In Thailand, the local currency is the Thai Baht (THB). The largest bill is 1,000 THB (approximately USD 28). 
  • If you don't know how to get from Suvarnabhumi airport to your hostel, let me tell you the easiest, safest way is to take a taxi, especially if you're new in Bangkok or if your flight arrives during the night. The official taxis are outside of the airport on the first floor. Print out a ticket from one of the ticket dispensers outside, and go to the taxi number indicated on it. Or just follow the signs. It's idiot-proof, really. It shouldn’t cost more than 500-600 THB. 
  • At a hostel, the average price per night is about 200-350 THB. Sometimes even 100 THB per night, but keep in mind that the cheapest option might not always be the best option. We stayed at Erawan House, and paid about 350 THB per night. 
  • When you book a hostel room in Thailand, especially in Bangkok, don't forget to ask for an air-conditioned one. A fan will NOT be enough to escape the humid heat. We speak from personal experience. 
  • Tipping is not customary in Thailand, but 20-50 THB won't hurt your pocket, especially if the service was good. 
  • Be careful when you go sightseeing. Traffic is crazy, and what's more, people drive on the left side of the road, so look both ways when crossing the street. Side note: don't expect motorcycles to stop for you. 
  • Food is relatively cheap in Thailand. For 80-100 THB, you can find decent dishes. Street food is much cheaper, but then again it might not be the best option if you're not used to it. 
I'm sure there's more to say about Thailand, but too much information can be overwhelming. If there's anything else you would like to know, just drop me a line. I will do my best to help you.

Stay tuned!