Why Vietnam?

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As Americans, many people have asked us “why, of all places, did you choose to visit Vietnam?”. Honestly, it wasn’t a question I was prepared to answer at first. I hadn’t really thought about justifying it to anyone. Some people asked because their only exposure to Vietnam was related to the US and Vietnam war, while others were concerned for our safety. And then of course, the question that got posed the most frequently, “why travel so far for vacation?”.

The answers to these questions are always impossible to communicate without a more in-depth conversation. Which can be said for most of our trips. It always comes back to “why we do what we do”. That why is rooted in a specific feeling. It’s the feeling of stepping off of an airplane and knowing you are in a completely different part of our world. The people are different, the language is different, the food is different…literally everything is different. That newness sparks curiosity for us. It ignites adventure. It makes us remember how small we are. For Kailah and I, it isn’t just a “vacation”. I try not to even use the word because it comes with the implication of escape. We don’t want to escape anything. We just want to live more. And for us, that living is defined by experiencing new cultures.

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We chose Vietnam because we had such an amazing experience during our first trip to Asia and we wanted to have another adventure just like it (Not to mention the low cost!). We decided that our perfect recipe this time around would be “a dash” of city and the balance spent near a beach, with copious amounts of culture. After visiting Thailand, we knew we wanted to explore some of the other surrounding countries like Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. We also knew that during our time frame, the most southern Asian and Indonesian countries would be in the middle of Typhoon season, so we wanted to be certain to avoid a dreary trip. Following in-depth research and conversations with other travelers, we landed on sunny southern Vietnam.

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A deciding factor, the culture piece is so important to us when traveling. Like anyone else, we enjoy lounging on the beach with our beverage of choice, but we also generally try to combine it with a new authentic experience. In Vietnam, we were able to get the best of both worlds by exploring Ho Chi Minh city (formerly Saigon) for a couple days and then spending the balance of the week on the tropical island of Phu Quoc. Bustling Ho Chi Minh gave us exposure to the chaos of everyday life in Vietnam’s capital, delicious Vietnamese restaurants (shout out to Bep Me In) and the bustling night life of Bui Vien Walking Street. In Phu Quoc, we were able to slow way down, enjoying more Vietnamese cuisine on the beach, but also exploring a nightly open air market, organic bee farm, pepper farm and panoramic gondola over to Hon Thom island. I will never forget the garlic and herb, pork Bun Cha dish served near our hotel. It was a simple, traditional, mouth watering dish served by smiling locals.

There ya have it. The “why” for Kailah and I. We will continue to return to Southeast Asia (and everywhere else we can get our hands on) in continued search of the curiosity and inspiration that we get from stepping off a plane for the first time. Hopefully this helps put in perspective why we love to do what we do. More details coming soon on our Vietnam adventures!

Safe journeys,

Kyle

The Affordable Beauty of Chiang Mai

Dollar for dollar, Chiang Mai is the most valuable place that we have ever visited. It offers age old temples around every corner, distinct and delicious northern Thai cuisine, proximity to jungle landscapes and wildlife, open air markets, traditional Thai massages, and of course, it's people. Sounds amazing right? The crazy part is ... all of these experiences are extremely low cost by American standards...

Take our arrival into Chiang Mai for example. We had just touched down on our 10 AM flight from Bangkok and were heading for ground transportation. When we arrived, a woman dressed in a suit and holding a clipboard asked if we needed a ride. I had done some research ahead of time and I hadn't arranged a car to pick us up - planning on public transport. So, I obliged and told her we were going to the Chankam Boutique Hotel in the old city (about a 13 minute ride). She gave me a concerned look and said "sir will 160 baht be OK?" in broken English. I opened up my phone's calculator and punched in .028 (conversion for Thai currency to dollars) and multiplied it by 160 and got $4.48! Our cab ride cost us four dollars and forty eight cents. Oh and I hadn't even haggled her down like I was supposed to. Upon arriving at the hotel, I realized that I only had Thai Bahts in 1,000 bills (fancy huh?) and my cab driver couldn't make change for us. So I asked him to wait and I walked inside to the front desk, where the hotel staff was awaiting our arrival. I asked for change and they couldn't break my bill either. At this point I was getting a little confused. How much money is in my pocket? Because behind that 1,000 bill, there are nine others that look just like it ($280 total - not a ton for an "exotic" vacation right?). Get this...one of the staff members had to go into the back office and pay our cab driver out of his own wallet, in order for us to be all square. This would serve as a prelude to the kindness and hospitality of the Thai people, but lets continue to focus on the dollars for now. Once the driver was on his way, we were directed to relax in two empty chairs alongside a couple of ice cold towelettes and two glasses of chilled fruit juice. After cooling down a bit, the staff took some pictures of us in the extravagantly laid out lobby. There was Asian inspired art decorating the walls, a bubbling stream flowing and many comfy poof chairs to lounge in, if you so desired.  We then were led upstairs to our room. The key word here is "led", not directed. In America, we are used to being given a key and told to go find room 413. In Asia, they bring you to your room and make sure everything is exactly to your liking. There is no mistake about how you are supposed to feel - and it goes much further than I expected. Once inside, we were shown around - private balcony, king size bed, mini bar, marble bathroom with rain shower...oh yes and our $700 toilet (which our host proudly pointed out). Guess how much this hotel was? $70 per night. The equivalent of a motel 6 in America...

After settling into our room, we realized that we were both starving, so we headed downstairs and got direction from the front desk on their lunch recommendations. We had done "restaurant research" before we left, but I find it's always just as important to get the perspective of the locals. They pointed us towards one of the main streets in the old city, known for it's lunch cuisine. The old city in Chiang Mai, is aptly named because it is completely surrounded by a moat and a wall - both of which were used as protection in bygone eras. Inside the walls, you can visit many of the cities beautiful, historic temples. But for now, our goal was food. When we arrived on Rachadamnoen road, we walked the length of food vendors and makeshift restaurants to try and decide where to eat. Given that this was our first day and we didn't know the lay of the land, we chose one of the giant open air food stalls. We could see a whole chicken being roasted on a spit at the entrance and chicken skewers being cooked over open coals beside it - so we were comfortable with the food preparation. A waiter led us to our table and gave us rudimentary, but practical menus. We ordered the roasted chicken, with white rice, 20 chicken skewers and two 22 oz Singha beers. Sounds like a simple meal right? It was DELICIOUS. Probably one of my favorite in Thailand. And then we asked for the bill. I'm sure it's obvious where I'm going with this. The check read "300 baht". That's around $8.50! It's difficult to get a 20 oz beer at a restaurant in the United states, with tip, for $8.50. Say nothing about two beers and a full meal. At this point in the day, I was beginning to get concerned that I may not be able to spend the money I had so diligently extracted from the ATM a few hours earlier. Not a bad problem to have...

 

Although affordability was constant in Chiang Mai, there were two other experiences that really stuck out to us. The first was shopping. We were fortunate enough to be visiting on a Sunday, when they close several streets in the old city to street traffic and invite vendors from all over northern Thailand to bring their wares to be peddled. This is very literally called the "Sunday Night Market" by us English folk. You can find anything here. There is street food, handmade goods, art, bags, clothing and name brand knock offs - to name a few of the items. I purchased a beautiful pair of "Ray-Bans"...that melted in the sun a few days later (oh the irony). But the sunglasses were an exception and not the rule. I bought sandals for $5, a hat for $5, a new backpack with leather fittings for $10 and Kailah bought several pairs of light pants and other clothing items for $5 a piece. The wild part about this shopping experience for us Westerners was probably the ability to haggle. It is expected in Thai culture for customers to offer less than a listed price on an item. This gets very difficult when you realize that you are haggling cents on the dollar. "I'll give you $5.50 for that $6 t-shirt". It's sort of demotivating to even bother until you realize that this is their culture and it is required. So we learned to have fun with it and see how many dimes could be saved. Needless to say, we returned to the hotel with much more than we left with, in terms of goods and money. And since this wasn't the only Chiang Mai market, our bags were bursting by the time we touched down in Boston 10 days later. The other big Chiang Mai affordability surprise was the traditional Thai massage. These one hour massages are known for being rougher than the traditional American version and, as I learned, require more flexibility (Kailah laughed when I told my 4' 11'', 90 lbs masseuse that she was the strongest woman I had ever met). All in all, they are a great experience and can provide a nice option for down time and relaxation in Chiang Mai. In keeping with the theme of this article, the price is obviously not what I would have expected. In America, or even the western world as a whole, an hour massage will usually cost $100 or more. In Thailand however, we found one of the highest rated massage parlors on TripAdvisor and paid $11...for both of us! Essentially $189 cheaper than the most reasonably priced US version.  

I know I focused primarily on the cost of Chiang Mai in my stories above, but that alone isn't the main reason we should all spend time there. It is the value gained at this cost. There are many places that you can travel cheaply. But there aren't many places that give you this valuable culture focused on service, combined with amazing food, beautiful temples and sprawling landscapes. In addition, it is a great home base to head up north to the Elephant Nature Park (www.elephantnaturepark.org) where you can learn about these gentle giants and spend the day taking care of them. I am already looking forward to my next Singha, red curry and pad thai. 

Kyle

 

Alex's Kabobs (Krabi, Thailand)

I had never had a Thai kabob before until I met Alex. I didn't even know his name the first time I ate at his food stall. It was around 10 AM on our second day in Krabi, Thailand and I had ventured off of our resort in search of the only thing that could displace me from my chair in the sun - cold beer (don't judge, I'm on vacation :) ). I could easily have had one delivered to my seat, but I love exploring and I knew I'd pay four times less by not being lazy. To set the backdrop, I was surrounded on all sides by dense, green, jungle; sparkling, clear, green-tinted water and towering limestone cliffs. 

 

As I made my way down the white sands of Railay beach, I noticed a small alley opening in the wall of resorts to my right. There was a walkway that led inland away from the water. I passed a restaurant, several food stalls and a few places for tourists to buy souvenirs. I wasn't overly hungry at the time and wasn't in need of a "I Love Krabi" t-shirt, so I walked until I found a small convenience store with a beer fridge. I could pick my poison - Singha, Chang, Leo and some imported Heineken. I grabbed a 22 oz Singha for 130 baht (roughly $3.50 at the time), popped my top with the opener on the counter, and wandered back out into the alleyway. 

 

As I started towards the beach, I paused briefly outside of a food stall and heard "hey buddy, what'r ya thinking? Breakfast or lunch?" in almost perfect, but slightly Thai accented English. I smiled and said "I'm thinking lunch". To which he smiled back and motioned to my beer "yes, I see you already have breakfast". Ha, I liked this guy already. As I read down the menu, he could see I didn't know what to order, so he told me to try the kabob. That's when I noticed a spinning tower of chicken being slow cooked directly to my left. I decided, ah what the hell, let's give it a shot. He recommended the mild chili and thousand island sauces, with all the veggies. I paid him the 100 baht ($2.80), thanked him and continued my barefoot trek to the sand. 

 

It took one bite to realize that this wouldn't be the last time I gave my money to Alex. It was the best combination of tender chicken, crisp vegetables and delicious sweet and tangy dressing that I had ever had. Sometimes it's the people that make the food. Sometimes its the food that makes the people. In Alex's case it is both. In future visits to get kabob wraps I would learn his name, that he spent 28 years in Hawaii after attending the University of Hawaii (hence his English) and was born in Thailand. He is an extremely talented and smart man, who chose to move back here because of his love for the ocean. He could probably do anything, but he chooses to cook amazing food and be happy.

 

I love these experiences. They provide authenticity by helping us meet new people and also learn more about the local culture that we are visiting. If you are traveling abroad, take a chance to strike up a conversation - it may broaden your perspective.  

Thailand here we come!

It's official. Kailah and I just booked our flights to Thailand in mid-March. It doesn't seem real that we're going to travel to the other side of the world. I can remember growing up, my parents would tell me that if I dug a hole deep enough, I'd end up in Asia. Now I'm going to have the opportunity to experience the world from their perspective...no digging required.

We booked round trip tickets out of Boston, connecting in Dubai, UAE and landing in Bangkok. The first leg is 12 hours on a Boeing 777 to Dubai where we have 3 hour layover before getting on a double decker jumbo jet A380-800 to cruise another 6 hours down to Thailand. We ended up paying an extra $40 a seat right after booking through Emirates website to secure exit row seats between Boston and Dubai (as well as the return journey). This is money well spent for me, as my 6' 5" frame doesn't enjoy any flight crammed into a standard economy seat - I can't fathom 12-14 hours. We basically have the same flights coming back, but the reverse order and a shorter layover. We actually considered choosing a longer layover in Dubai on the return, so that we could step out and see the city. While this sounds appealing now, I'm guessing the combination of long flights and time zone changes would cause me to be swearing at myself in March (Lets just get home!). 

As for our plan when we get there...well we don't really have one yet. This trip idea came pretty suddenly. We've done some primitive research on where we want to go, but the flights were the first step (always are). At a high level, we want to spend a few days in Bangkok and the rest in a tropical location on a beach. We want to interact with monkeys, visit an elephant sanctuary, take a Thai cooking class and go zip lining. Most of all, we want to experience Thailand and learn about its culture. Nevertheless, we are super excited to put this trip together - after all, it is right around the corner.

Kyle