Chilling in Chiang Mai

After Bangkok, we flew to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand with our friends Anna and Sean. We only had a few days in the city together before they headed south, but we made the most of it by exploring all the city had to offer.

One of the things we love most about Thailand is the food and Chiang Mai had tons of options. Every night, several large areas around the city transform from sidewalks to a food lover’s dream: the night markets. Finding something to eat is as simple as walking through the hoard of venders to see what’s on the grill. After choosing your dish, find a table and go to town. Offerings usually include pad thai, fried rice, spring rolls, drunken noodles, various curries, stewed pork, and more. In addition, we also found our two new favorite Thai dishes: pad see ew, a fried noodle and soy sauce dish, and khao soi, a Burmese-influenced spicy coconut chicken noodle soup.

She is known as "cowboy hat lady" and serves up some delicious stewed pork.
Seriously, we ate a lot of khao soi.
A tasting of rice liquor from the mountains to the north as well as one from China.

Apart from stuffing our faces, we managed to get in a solid amount of tourist activities too. We hiked the Monk’s Trail to the top of Doi Suthep overlooking the city and surrounding region, explored the city’s “walking street” markets, and got some amazingly cheap Thai massages for our wedding anniversary.

Hiking up the Monk's Trail.
The path to the temple on Doi Suthep.
Dancing at the Sunday Night Street Market.
A little late night arm wrestling because why not?

Since the region is known for elephant tourism we booked a half day excursion to an elephant sanctuary. We fed and bathed a family of three elephants, played with them in a mud bath, and posed for a bunch of goofy pictures. Aside from a five minute stop in India, this was our first time interacting with elephants. It was cool to see how gentle and smart they are, plus their trunks have so much dexterity!

For many people, the elephants are the highlight of their trip - but let’s be honest: the ladyboy cabaret was the BEST. Laura was the most excited and dragged everyone to the night market to catch a show. Although Vesper and Sean refused to take part, one of our hostel friends participated in the show. It was a hilariously good time!

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Bangkok and Ayutthaya

We know several people who didn’t like Bangkok very much because they thought it was dirty, crowded, and noisy. We found this funny because after India, we really liked Bangkok for the exact opposite reasons: Bangkok was so clean we had to remind ourselves to look up, crossing the street was a breeze, and we could count the number of honks in a day on one hand. The best part was that we could eat anything we wanted, and it had been a long time since we had any meat.

Our friends Anna and Sean were coming to visit us in Thailand, and we were planning to meet in Bangkok. We arrived a few days early to get the lay of the land, run a few errands, and squeeze in a quick overnight trip to Ayutthaya. Bangkok is a huge city so we spent hours walking around the strets and markets, saw a few sights, and enjoyed new beers.

Food and Drink

We were pretty excited to try all the new and different foods that Thailand had to offer so we spent a good amount of time in Bangkok eating. We ate kebabs on the street, fresh fish in the markets, stall-hopped in Chinatown, and avoided any stands selling bugs. Everything was awesome. And the best part? In addition to the standard brews, we found a bar serving Thai craft beer! Let the Boy Die is a tiny bar that serves beers from a few different Thai microbreweries. We learned that while it is technically illegal for Thai people to brew and sell their own beer, where there’s a will there’s a way. Brewers and distributors like Let the Boy Die may occasionally be forced to shut down and pay fines, but they usually find ways to quickly reopen. Our favorites included not one, not two, but three IPAs: Nectar’s Floral IPA, Golden Coins’ DIPA, and Munyuen Brewing’s IPA.

Explorng Chinatown and eating all the streetfood!
Foods available at the markets include kebabs, fish, bugs, and frogs...
A normal sight at any market in Thailand.

The Sights

Innumerable ferries run up and down the Chao Phraya River which winds through the city. We rode the water taxi a few times both as cheap transportation and to see the city from the water. Our first major touristy stop was the Grand Palace, the official residence of the royal family. About a month before we arrived, Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej died and sent the country into mourning. It was plainly obvious how beloved he was by the crowds of people coming to pay their respects. In fact, so many mourners were visiting that the city was providing free food, water, and first aid stations all around the palace.

After wandering around the palace for a few hours, we hopped next door to Wat Pho. Wat refers to a Buddhist temple in Thailand, and oh boy - there are a LOT of wats! Among other things, Wat Pho is home to a 46 meter long reclining Buddha - one of the largest of its kind in the world. It wasn’t really possible to capture the whole thing on film, but trust us: it was big.

It was pretty much impossible to capture the Buddha in one shot.

Ayutthaya

Ayutthaya, two hours north by train, used to be the capital of the Siam kingdom until it was razed by the Burmese in 1767. Since we were in the area, we decided to make it an overnight trip. It was a great place to rent a bike and visit the many ruins, archaeological sites, and wats.

In total, we spent over a week in Bangkok and still didn’t explore the whole city. We’re planning to go back for a least a quick stop as that’s where we’ll probably get Vesper a new passport. It may not be a city for everyone, but we can’t wait to go back!

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One Year of Traveling Complete

It’s awesome to say that we’ve officially been traveling for over a year! We spent it learning about other people and places, and we learned a few things about ourselves too.

We are comfortable ordering food pretty much anywhere in any language, even if it involves pantomiming. We have become more adventurous eaters, often going out of our way to find the better, cheaper local food. When the little old lady shakes her head and points to something else on the menu, don’t ask questions - it’s going to be delicious! We can figure out any toilet or shower, even the ones that electrocute you. Living out of one daypack and backpack per person has taught us to be minimalists. Everything we need for all four seasons, rain or shine, is in those bags. There are things we miss every now and then, but for the most part it’s pretty liberating not being constantly concerned with stuff. These might sound basic, but they were not at first. They took practice, patience, and a lot of good humor.

Apart from learning about ourselves, we’ve also learned a lot about the world and the people we share it with. Lesson one? The world isn’t a big scary place, and most people are genuinely friendly. Sure, you can find dangerous parts in any city or country, but be smart! Do your research, keep your head up, and trust your instincts. There have been numerous times when our parents were concerned about our safety - Columbia (you’ll get mugged!), Rio (you’ll get Zika!), India (you’ll get raped!) - but there hasn’t been one instance in which we’ve felt unsafe. Yes, there will be times when you’ll be ripped off or you run into the occasional jerk, but most people are happy to help if you ask for it. Don’t be afraid to ask! You might even learn a few things or get invited to share a beer.

We’ve also learned that long-term traveling isn’t as expensive as you might think. “How much did you save up?” is one of the top questions we’re asked. The answer? That doesn’t matter! Traveling is much cheaper than people assume because you aren’t vacationing. You aren’t staying in the luxury, five-star hotels or eating at the #1 rated Trip Advisor restaurant every night. You’re staying in hostels that can be as cheap as $2/night (and include breakfast!) or staying at a private room in an Airbnb and living with a family. You’re eating whatever the native foods are and sitting on plastic stools in market stalls elbow-to-elbow with locals. Yes, you’ll splurge on Western food every now and then because hello: pizza! But for the most part, travel is about experiencing how people actually live in the area you’re visiting.

Finally, do we have any regrets? Hell nah! Well ok maybe we should have skipped a few things, but those were learning experiences and for the most part we’ve been pretty smart in our research and doing things we actually want to do. We’ve had several people ask us if we worry about finding jobs when we come back home since we’ll have a gap in our employment. The way we see it, we’ve been gaining experiences that working a 9-to-5 wouldn’t ever be able to provide.

And now for some stats!

Places

  • Number of continents: 4
    • 5 if you count a couple hour layover in Casablanca, Morocco. We were supposed to have a 15 hour layover there and make Africa an official stop, but 12 hour delays are what happen when you fly Royal Air Maroc.
  • Number of countries: 31
    • Breakdown:
      • 5 in North America (not counting the US)
      • 7 in South America
      • 15 in Europe
      • India
      • 3 in Southeast Asia
    • 32 total if you count a 20 minute bus stop in Bosnia & Herzegovina when we were traveling from Dubrovnik to Split, Croatia.
    • 33 total if you count a miserable six hour layover at the King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia since that’s probably the only time we’ll ever even be able to travel there (they do not currently issue tourist visas).
  • Favorite country: Peru
    • Thailand is a close runner up, but we’ve only been to Bangkok and the north so we don’t have a judgement on the southern part of the country yet.
  • Least favorite country: Bolivia or India
  • Favorite cities: Rio, Brazil and Budapest, Hungary
  • Favorite region: Patagonia (in Chile & Argentina)
  • Places we want to return to the most:
    • Patagonia with camping gear so we can do more hiking.
    • Colombia since we only made it to Bogota, and there are so many more amazing places to visit there.

Food & Drink

  • Favorite food:
    • Street food: Mexico
    • Overall: Thailand
  • Worst food:
    • Most overrated: Hot pots
    • Weirdest dish: Chicken throat cartilage and cow hearts in Huaraz, Peru
    • Overall: Bolivia
  • Beer:
    • While we desperately miss our American craft beer, the best beer scene we encountered had to be Krakow, Poland. Mikkeller Brewing out of Denmark is amazing, but unfortunately way above our current price point.
    • With Europe as the exception, whenever we’ve found good beer abroad, we later learned that it almost always has an American as the Brewmaster. Figures.
    • In general, most countries have a couple generic light beers that everyone drinks. While we won’t say no to a cold one, hunting out the good beer bars has given us the opportunity to meet a lot of awesome people from around the world who share our passion!

Packing & Clothing

  • Most essential packing items:
    • Hiking boots: sneakers just don’t cut it when you’re hiking through the mountains, snow, and mud.
    • Same rule as Day 1: always carry toilet paper and hand sanitizer!
    • Imodium. Hopefully not used frequently (or at all!), but if you’re eating sketchy foods, you’ll never want to be without it before a long bus ride.
    • We made an effort to pack versatile clothes, and we got rid of items we realized weren’t essential.
  • Overall packing tip: other countries have stores too! You don’t need to stock up on toiletries, specialty clothing, etc. Some things like contact solution might be more expensive, but there’s no reason to carry around extra weight so you can have your special brand of shampoo.
  • Clothes we’ve lost along the way:
    • Two pairs of jeans after the knees blew out.
    • Two pairs of shorts and another pair of pants because they were too big from the weight we’ve lost. Walking five to ten miles a day helps, plus sometimes we see who can get the hangriest before we finally cave and find a place to eat.
    • Vesper’s sneakers wore out a week ago (hole in the bottom let in too much water), but he’s refusing to replace them and plans to only wear his hiking boots and flipflops until he deems it absolutely necessary to buy new ones.
    • The Ali Baba pants we bought in India fell apart pretty fast, but served their purpose while we were unable to wear shorts.

Budget

  • Cheapest country: Mexico
  • Most expensive country: Norway
  • We’re proud to say we’re currently under budget! We spend a lot of time recording expenses and tailoring our activities to stay on track. Although Europe was hard on the wallet, Southeast Asia is a great place to help us bring our costs down.
  • We continue to DIY as much as possible. Yes, organized tours and excursions are convenient and easy, but you almost always pay a huge markup for these. By doing it yourself, you get to meet and interact with locals, try what you actually want to, skip the things you don’t care about, and save lots of money. Going this route usually involves more time and patience, but if you have that luxury: do it! Or, if it’s the type of activity that requires a tour, try and book with the agency directly to cut out the middleman and save money that way.
  • So far, we’ve only found Europe to be the place where booking ahead will save you money. South America and Southeast Asia are awesome places to fly by the seat of your pants and not worry about costs as you go where the wind takes you.
  • Don’t think you can afford long term travel? Think about how much you’re paying per day just on your rent or mortgage. Back in Madison, we were paying over $50/day on rent and utilities alone! Now we’re averaging less than $20/night on lodging - and, no offense to Madison - enjoying it in some way cooler places.

Thanks for following along with us on this amazing year long adventure. We thought this traveling thing was going to get old, but it definitely hasn’t. And don’t worry! We’ll come back someday, just not today. Here’s to several more months on the road!

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Kolkata: Our Final Stop in India

When we first arrived in India, we knew three things: we were flying into Mumbai, we needed to see the Taj Mahal, and the cheapest flights to Thailand were out of Kolkata. As Kolkata was our final destination in India, we had plans to explore and learn all about what made the city special - but by the time we arrived, we were tired.

We were tired of city hopping every few days. We were tired of being stared at. We were tired of fending off tuktuk drivers, of listening to drawn out stories that always ended in pleas for money. We were tired of always feeling like we were being ripped off. We were tired of having to look down ALL the time to avoid stepping in trash or poop. We were tired of being really careful of what we ate. We were tired of… ok, you get it. We were tired of India.

Part of the reason we took so long to write these India posts is that we felt we needed to find some distance. When we first arrived, we knew India would be a challenge but we were determined to love it. Don’t get us wrong: there are plenty of amazing and fascinating things to love about India, but it is stressful as well. The worst part was when we’d had enough and could not bear to hear another “your hotel is closed but I know a nice place” story. We started to blow people like that off even though some of them were probably just trying to be nice. Another traveler said it to us best: “People travel to India to find themselves, and it turns out I’m an asshole.”

The most positive experience was staying with Lehar’s family. When traveling, you often only interact with those associated with the tourism industry and looking to make a buck off of travelers. It was a breath of fresh air every time we had the chance to meet and learn from “normal” people to see how life really works in India. Between Lehar’s family and the few other genuine locals who let us into their lives, we were able experience India in a way we would have never dreamed of otherwise.

Since we were pretty beat by the time we got to Kolkata, we spent most of the last few days relaxing in our hotel. We did manage to see the memorial for Queen Victoria, a large marble building surrounded by gardens.

We also went searching for craft beer. Unlike in New Delhi, we actually found non-Kingfisher beer, but it was so bad we’re not even going to mention either brewery.

One of the breweries we visited and one last Kingfisher.

Apart from touristy things, we also got to partake in the Indian currency demonetisation while in Kolkata. A few days before we left the country, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that all 500 and 1000 Rupee notes were no longer valid and all citizens had fifty days to turn them into the bank for new ones as part of a large-scale effort to combat corruption and counterfeit currency. This meant that we had to stand in line at a bank for about four hours trying to change the last of our now worthless money. We felt a bit silly trying to change our notes worth only $45 or so while other people had stacks of cash that may have been their life savings, but it was an eye-opening experience to see.

Looking back, we definitely have a love-hate relationship with India. There are plenty of things we could rant about, but we can’t forget the amazing experiences we had too. We might go back someday, but next time we would do things differently. Either way, it proved to be a learning experience for us even as well-seasoned travelers and left us with memories that will last a lifetime.

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The Holy City of Varanasi

Varanasi, one of the oldest cities in the world, is located along the Ganges River and is one of the most important spiritual cities in India. Many pilgrims come here to bathe in the sacred river along the numerous ghats, some of which are used as Hindu cremation sites where funeral pyres burn 24/7. To us it was impossibly crowded and dirty, yet offered a fascinating insight into religious rituals previously unknown to us.

Hindus believe that if your remains are deposited in the Ganges, you are able to escape the cycle of rebirth and make it to heaven. Because of this, many people travel here from all over India to die. Although there are many ghats along the river, only a few are used for cremation. Near those places it’s almost impossible to avoid running into a funeral procession. We had to squeeze against the wall while families carried their loved one through the streets, down the ghats, and into the river. Family members wade into the Ganges to wash the body before carrying it back out and placing it atop one the funeral pyres. Cremations often happen simultaneously so there might be several families waiting along the ghats. While we were observing these rituals, one of the funeral workers came and gave us a quick lesson on what was happening.

  • We had noticed that there weren’t any female family members in attendance, and he told us that women are not allowed by law to attend the ceremony; instead, women can only watch by boat on the river. These laws have come about to prevent the practice of sati where a widow immolates herself (sometimes forcibly) on her husband’s funeral pyre.
  • The worker we were speaking with was in charge of wood collection, and we learned there are different types of wood ranging in costs to use for the pyres. The most expensive is a special type of wood that burns hot and clean to make the fire odorless and to ensure the bodies are fully ash. Many people cannot afford to pay for the amount of wood needed to keep the pyre burning long enough so it’s not always ash that gets deposited in the river.
  • Some people are not burned at all as they are already pure and do not need a fire to cleanse them. The worker told us this included pregnant women, infants, holy men, and (apparently) lepers. Instead, these bodies are just placed into the river.
  • Corpse pollution is a problem. As a cleanup, India once released 25,000 flesh-eating turtles into the Ganges. Yes, you read that correctly.
Stacks of wood used for funeral pyres.

Apart from cremations, there are many other religious events occurring continuously throughout the city. Every night, a large religious ceremony takes place on the city’s main ghats. Huge crowds gather on the shores and on boats to witness and take part in this elaborate ritual with smoke and flames, flowers, bells, song and dance, audience participation, and more.

Watch out for kids trying to make a buck by forcibly blessing you before you know what's happening.

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