Archives for February 2017

Krabi, Thailand: Koh Lanta

No trip to Thailand would be complete without a visit to one of Thailand’s breathtaking islands. I strongly urge you to skip the overly commercialized Phuket and opt for one of the less developed islands.  During our trip, we chose Koh Lanta, which is located in the Krabi Province. Conde Naste Traveller has listed Koh Lanta in the top 10 islands to visit in Thailand. If you are looking for a low-key boho vibe and nearly deserted beaches, then this is where you want to go; and, may I suggest that you make this destination the splurge part of your trip.

To get to Koh Lanta takes some effort, which is why the party crowd has not yet overtaken this paradise.  We took a regional flight from Bangkok to Krabi.  Once we got to Krabi, our resort staff was waiting for us with a sprinter van. We drove for almost two hours to their private dock where we boarded the property’s speed boat for a 45 minute ride through utter beauty.We chose the Pimalai Resort and Spa, which is Lanta’s first five-star hotel. It is set in a tropical forest on the edge of white-sand Ba Kan Tiang Beach near Lanta Marine National Park.  We stayed in their Chairman’s Villa, which is totally private, beach-side, and has its own infinity pool! The resort itself is a destination. The on-property restaurants are delicious and the spa is top notch!  The resort also has an array of activities you can book, including diving, snorkeling (which Chad loved), island exploration, cooking classes, and treks. I am going to shut up now and let the photos tell the rest of the story (although these pictures don’t do the natural beauty of the island justice, nor do they properly convey the absolute peace and tranquility that this resort provides to its guests; I HIGHLY recommend that you make it to this Heaven on Earth sometime soon!)…

Chairman’s Villa: Private foot path to the nearly private beach: The sunsets were unreal: Relax, snorkel, float…

 

Chiang Mai, Thailand: The New City

It has been over 800 days since Chad and I were last in Chiang Mai, but the memories of our time there are fresh.  We often think back to a moment or a experience we had in this magical little city. It was certainly our favorite city in Thailand, and one of our favorites of all time. Chiang Mai is peaceful, spiritual, friendly, and beautiful. It is a place that stays with you. It is worth a trip to Thailand just to visit this serene city. Allow me to share with you a perfect three-day itinerary for Chiang Mai, Thailand’s principle northern city.

As with most flights, we arrived into Chiang Mai in the late evening and checked into an oasis, 137 Pillars House, a luxury property that is located in the heart of Chiang Mai.  This would turn out to be one of our most favorite properties throughout our journey. The property consist of 30 luxury suites in a literal oasis. We stayed in one of six East Borneo Suites, which had a  large vintage tiled verandas extending over tropical gardens, a vast walk-in closets, and an en suite bathroom with Victorian bathtub and separate indoor/outdoor garden showers. It was like heaven.  Their breakfast was held in an outdoor pagoda and was delicious.  Their small pool area was so serene.  It was like returning home to a haven everyday after long days of touring. The next morning we were met by our private guide, Nikki, who, together with our driver, would be with us for the rest of our time in Chiang Mai. Nikki, like most of the Thai people, was so warm and friendly.  Her goal was to make sure we were having an amazing time, and, she succeeded in that goal. No ask was too great a feat for Nikki!On our first full day in Chiang Mai, a city tour with plenty of temples were on the itinerary! Chiang Mai has some very beautiful temples right in the heart of the city. If your are going to visit the temples, here are some things you should know. First, bring a scarf to throw over your shoulders. It can get pretty warm in Thailand, but bare shoulders for women is a no-no. Second, wear shoes that you can easily take on and off and which you do not mind leaving outside while you visit the temples. Shoes are not allowed to be worn inside the temples. Third, and probably most important, bring a good pair of socks that you don’t mind getting dirty because you will be doing most of your temple walking in socks!

Before we set out on our temple tour, Nikki made sure we stopped and got a Thai delicacy- mango sticky rice.  We literally stopped at a woman’s house, who Nikki said made the best mango sticky rice in all of Chiang Mai. She was right! What is mango sticky rice, you ask? Well, it is just what it sounds like– warm white sticky rice, topped with sweet, sweet mango, then topped with sweet coconut cream/milk and garnished with a few nuts. Even if you don’t care for mangoes, like Chad, you will like this. You can’t not like it. It’s incredible.Now we ready to temple! Temples, or wats as they are called in Thailand, are the backbone of Thai culture. Our first stop was to Chiang Mai’s best known temple, Wat Phra Singh. The temple houses an important Buddha statue: the Phra Buddha Sihing which gives the temple its name.

We next visited Wat Chedi Luang. While this temple might not look like much from the outside (comparatively speaking), it is stunning inside, and, the most interesting part is that you can buy prayer banner based on your birthday and hang them from the temple ceiling. We also visited Wat Chiang Man, Chiang Mai’s oldest temple. We visited some other smaller temples as well: One of the coolest experiences we had while visiting the temples was a chance to sit with a novice monk and have a monk chat. You can ask the monks anything you want about life as a monk, and it gives the monks a chance to practice their English. While becoming a monk is sort of a process, it is voluntary, and a monk can return to civilian life whenever he chooses. This blog post gives a good concise explanation of the process.  Monks eat twice a day and depend entirely on charity and donations in order to eat.

This is the monk we chatted with:Throughout the day, we had some other monk encounters, like this one:This may be a good place to tell you about one of the stranger Thai customs we encountered: Thai public restrooms. The Thai are concerned with cleanliness, so, at some of the temples, in addition to paying to use the restroom, you also have to wear what they call toilet shoes.  Yes, you read that right, toilet shoes. Oddly enough, toilet shoes are public shoes that they loan you in the restroom facilities that are worn only when using the toilet. You leave your regular shoes outside. Seems kind of opposite of sanitary, right? Also, this is where you become thankful for those socks. Another odd bathroom custom are the signs that instruct you not to stand on the toilet seat and squat, but rather, to sit on the seat.  I am not sure why this needs explaining, but I assume that local or indigenous people who do not have indoor plumbing sometimes take a pilgrimage to the temples and are unaccustomed to using an indoor toilet facility.  I don’t know; all I know is that I was amused and grossed out at the same time.  After a morning of visiting temples, we decided to spend the afternoon at a weaving cooperative where we learned about ancient weaving techniques from Thai weavers. Our next order of business was to get a famous Thai foot massage! Not only was this cheap, it was an hour of pure bliss.In the evening, we visited my favorite temple in all of Thailand, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, to watch the sunset ritual. You have to climb over 300 steps just to get to the temple, but it is sooooo worth it. In addition to the temple, there is monastery on top where regular people can stay and join a silent meditation program. You get a lotus flower when you come in, and, at sunset, the temple bells begin to ring. The monks come out in a processional and all chant prayers together.  You, along with the silent retreaters who are wearing all white, can join the monks as they circle the temple and kneel to pray. It was a magical and spiritual experience, and one of my favorite during out visit to Thailand.  I thought it was going to be hard to top our first day in Chiang Mai, but I was wrong.  On our second day, we visited Patara Elephant Farm, and this was by far my most favorite experience in Thailand. Before I tell you about out incredible experience here, I strongly encourage you to read my post about being a socially conscientious traveler. If you know Chad and I well, then you know that we are major animal lovers, and we would never intentionally support, visit, or participate in an activity that exploited animals.

Elephant tourism is very popular in Thailand, and that often means that the elephant is being mistreated for the sake of tourism and revenue generation. While Chad and I were very excited about the possibility to have one-on-one interaction with these beautiful, gentle giants, we love animals and we did not want visit a program that exploited them. After a copious amount of vetting, we visited Patara Elephant Farm, which is an elephant conservation organization that rescues unwanted or formerly exploited elephants with the goal of preserving the Asian elephant population in Thailand. Patara emphasizes education about the plight of the elephant with programs that allow you to learn about elephants while participating in their daily care. Their “mahout” for a day program, includes a bareback ride on the elephant. We did not see bull hooks being used, and, importantly, there were no chairs or wicker basket strapped to the backs of elephants to facilitate the ride, which hurts the elephant.

When we got to Patara, we were introduced to the baby and juvenile elephants and got a chance to feed them and interact with them. This included petting them and getting elephant hugs and kisses. I was already in love. After a couple of hours of that, we were taken to another part of the park where we were assigned a uniform and an elephant whom we would be responsible to care for that day.  Our elephant’s name was BunJin. He was the largest elephant, the only adult male, and the baby daddy to all the other elephants.  Needless to say, he was a pretty popular guy. But, even popular guys need to eat and be cleaned, and that was out job! We also learned simple hand gestures and commands in Thai that the elephants knew, like telling them “Didi” which means that he or she was a good boy or girl, that helped us interact with our elephant. This is my sister, Haroula (Ha-Rue-La), and this is a fun story that would probably embarrass her! Needless to say, her very Greek name isn’t the easiest to pronounce for American people, let alone the Thai! Well, they guy who assigned to help her decided that since he couldn’t say Haroula, he would just call her Colorado! And then, to top it all off, as the day went on, this young Thai boy fell in love with Colorado, so we began calling her Colorado, the Asian temptress. This name turned out to be pretty appropriate as the trip went on!
After BunJin was groomed and fed, it was time to ride him for an hour through a hillside jungle where we would find a pool in which to bathe him in. Have you ever mounted and dismounted an animal that is taller than you standing on your head and weighs as much as house? It ain’t cute, I can tell you that. How do you get up? Well, you climb onto his head from the trunk or you hoist yourself onto his back from his leg. Getting off? Now that is the sexy part.Don’t we just look like an advertisement for visiting Thailand? If you could only hear the expletives that we were whispering to each other as we were trying to stay balanced on this gigantic creature who liked to look down, chase lady elephants on the trail, and always (without fail) tried to shove himself between two trees because the scratch felt good! Remember, we are riding bare back, so there is nothing keeping us on this elephant but pure balance! Also, he’s got coarse little hairs poking us in the butt, and, as Chad will later learn, a colony of fire ants on his back! Alas, we made it to the pool alive! BunJin just walked us right in, rolled over and then demanded to be bathed.  After splashing around with the elephants for a while, we were treated to a delicious picnic.This truly was an incredible experience. Nonetheless, I continued to wonder whether riding an elephant at all was ethical. I have read several articles about this since then, and while it is probably best to not ride an elephant at all, the safest way to ride an elephant is bareback and on the neck, like we did at Patara. Also, I can honestly say that I did not see any of the elephants being mistreated, and all the locals truly seemed to care for and have bond with these animals.

The best option in Chiang Mai is probably Elephant Nature Park. They have several elephant interaction day programs to choose from and even overnight and week-long volunteer programs, but none of them allow riding. Another beautiful aspect of this operation is that they have an on-property dog rescue.

Along the way during our travels in Thailand, we met other travelers who had also visited Tiger Temple and Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai, places that Chad and I made the conscious decision to avoid. I urge you to do the same. These tiger attractions have captive tigers and allow visitors to pet not only baby tigers but also full grown adult tigers.  Based on my research, they are known for drugging the tigers to keep them sedated enough to not attack tourists and also beating the tigers when they are too sedated to interact with the tourists.  It literally made me sick to hear that people were supporting these attractions and perpetuating the exploitation of tigers. So, I implore to you avoid these inhumane places if you go to Thailand.

Another popular but controversial tourist draw in Chiang Mai is visiting the Karen Long Neck Villages. The artificial hill tribes popped up around the northern Thai border in the mid-1980s as a result of a civil war. The tribe has a custom whereby female tribe members have elongated their necks as a result of years of wearing heavy brass rings around their necks (from as early as the age of 4 or 5), thereby inspiring tourism to these villages. Many international tour companies discourage these visits because it is like visiting a human zoo, which was why Chad and I avoided the visit. This article does a nice job of explaining why the visit is considered exploitative of the tribe’s people, particularly the women and children. However, that does not stop thousands of tourists from visiting these mostly fabricated villages to buy “local” goods, watch children perform for tourists, and snap pictures of themselves with women and children who have the golden rings around their necks. To be fair, there are other articles that discuss respectful/socially responsible ways to visit these hill tribes.

It is exploitative experiences and attractions like these, found all over the world, that I emphatically encourage you to avoid. There are so many other alternatives and more meaningful and authentic experiences to have in the world that do not contribute to the suffering of an animal, a child, or a woman. You just need to spend a little time fully researching the activities, attractions, and experiences that your travel agent, your friend, or the internet recommends.

Okay, I am climbing off my soap box now. After a wonderful day spent at Patara, we decided to spend the evening at Chiang Mai’s famous night market. You can find everything from food, music, massage, and handicrafts at the markets. If you are adventurous, you can find almost any insect or bug to eat. No thanks, but you can. On our final day in Chiang Mai, we decided to indulge. We spent the day at the best hotel in Chiang Mai, the Dhara Dhevi. The Dhara Dhevi is like a luxurious Vegas hotel. It has beautiful grounds, several restaurants, gorgeous shops, and a top notch spa. It is an incredible hotel, but I still preferred the intimacy of 137 Pillars House, so I recommend a day trip here.

We came for the brunch, which, although pricey, was exquisite. It had offerings of every kind, including carving stations, full seafood buffets, made to order sushi, and the most beautiful deserts ever. After eating way too much, we strolled the grounds and visited their beautiful on-property temples and shops, including their macaron and pastry shop!  We next indulged in a nice long massage followed by tea! We ended the night in one of their fabulous restaurants where we enjoyed a traditional Thai dance and dinner show. Chiang Mai is like Shangri-La. It has beautiful scenery, friendly people, and amazing experiences just waiting for you. It is a clean, budget friendly city with relatively mild temperatures and serves as the perfect place to start your journey of Northern Thailand. Chad and I truly loved our time there and would like to return to experience the Yi Peng Festival, where thousands of lanterns are released into they sky (Google image search it if you just want to swoon).

If you have been to Chiang Mai or are planning a trip there, drop me a line. I would love to hear about your experience in Chiang Mai. Until then, sawatdi.

Iceland: A Guide To Visiting The Blue Lagoon

BL16The Blue Lagoon in Iceland is probably the most famous geothermal pool in the world.  It is certainly the prettiest and most luxurious. There are hundreds of geothermal pools all over Iceland; but, people travel all the way to Iceland just to visit this one. Trust me, I get it. It is every bit as beautiful as it looks online. So, here is all you need to know about the Blue Lagoon in one neat little post. You are welcome!

The most important thing you need to know about your visit to the Blue Lagoon is that you need a reservation; and I sure hope you made your reservation way in advance of your actual visit, because if not, I am sorry, but no lagoon for you! Only a certain amount of people are allowed into the lagoon per day and reservations are a must.

You can book your reservations online.  They have four different packages, ranging from standard to luxury, that include different benefits. The most basic package includes entrance into the lagoon and use of their silica mud masks for about $50.00.  The luxury package includes entrance, the mud mask, use of a towel, a free drink, an algae mask, use of a bathrobe and slippers, reservations (but not the cost of the actual meal) at their restaurant (LAVA), wine with your meal, a product set, and access to the exclusive lounge for about $234. In my opinion, the premium package (which includes everything that the luxury has except for the product set and exclusive lounge access) is the way to go, and that is what we did. With this package, you don’t need to worry about bringing your own towel, slippers, and bathrobe.

If you are on a budget, the standard package is fine; just remember to bring your own towel, cover-up or robe (you need this because it is freezing once you get out of the water!), and slippers.  You may want to also bring your own snacks or lunch because food at the lagoon, like in the rest of Iceland, is very expensive. There is a water fountain. Otherwise you have to purchase your drinks.

When you make your reservation, you will select a time. Depending on the day and time of year, the lagoon is open from 8:00 a.m. through 11:00 p.m. Also, it is open every single day of the year! In my opinion, the earlier you come, the better. If you come right when they open (at 8:00 a.m.), you will practically have the whole place to yourself! The picture above was taken around 9:00 a.m. The later you come, the more people you will be sharing the lagoon with. When planning your visit, keep in mind that from April 23 to April 27, 2017 the Blue Lagoon will close for renovations.

Also, from the reservations page, you can book your transportation to the lagoon. Buses will come pick you up from your hotel or even from the airport if you are doing a layover visit (Yes, this is a thing)! Transportation will run you about $30 round trip. You can also drive yourself and park in their lot. From the reservations page, you can also request a reservation for an in-water massage at an additional cost.

If you are coming from the airport, there is a handy luggage check area where you can leave your bags while you visit the lagoon. If you forgot to bring your swimsuit, no worries, they will rent you one along with a towel, robe, and slippers!Blue Lagoon Iceland Luggage StorageOnce you arrive, you will take a winding path to the entrance.  Just before the entrance are little trails you can take to see the outside of the lagoon.BL blue lagoon to cieland entrance path Blue Lagoon Iceland Outside 2 Blue Lagoon Iceland outside Blue Lagoon Iceland EntranceWhen you walk in, you will line up based on the package you purchased to check-in.  At check-in, they will assign you your towel, robe, and slippers, and give you a bracelet that acts as your locker key and your credit card on the property.Blue Lagoon Iceland Entrance Inside Blue Lagoon Iceland check in Blue Lagoon Iceland locker keyFrom the check-in, you will be escorted to the locker room where you will choose a locker. You must shower before entering the lagoon. The locker rooms have restrooms and shower facilities, but don’t expect the same amenities as a spa. They have a soap and like one blowdryer, so bring your own toiletries and blow dryers if you need them for afterwards. Blue Lagoon Iceland lockersThe locker rooms lead out to the lagoon entrance area.  There are two ways to enter the lagoon: from the inside pool that has a door that leads to the outside or from the outside using a sloped ramp. There are places to hang your towels and robes inside and outside, but space is very limited. Blue Lagoon Iceland Exit from Lockers Blue Lagoon Iceland Map Blue Lagoon Iceland inside entrance to pool Blue Lagoon Inside pool entrance Blue Lagoon Iceland door to pool Blue Lagoon Iceland hanging rack BL3 BL7Once inside the lagoon, there are shallow and deep areas. There are also saunas and steam rooms as well as swim up bars where you can buy drinks and from where you can get your mud and algae masks. If you plan to take pictures while inside the lagoon, make sure you bring a waterproof case for your camera or phone.BL10 BL6 BL12 BL8 BL9 Blue Lagoon Iceland main building Blue Lagoon IcelandThe water temperature is between 98 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit (37-40 degrees Celsius). Apparently, there are 9 million liters of water in the pool that renews itself every 40 hours. It is about 2 feet at its shallowest point and 5 feet at its deepest point. There is no visibility under the water. Because it is so hot, it is important to stay hydrated before, during, and after your visit. Also, the sulfuric water can really dry out your hair, so load it up with conditioner and try not to get your hair wet.

The water is made up of silica, algae, and other minerals.  The water is looks blue because the silica reflects sunlight; however, the water is actually a whitish color.

The Blue Lagoon has three dining options.  There is a small snack bar right outside the locker rooms on the ground floor, a cafeteria, and a full-service restaurant.  If you want to eat at the restaurant, you must make advanced reservations.  You can order a la carte or from a three-course pre-fixe menu.  The food is tasty, but be prepared to splurge on lunch.  We did the pre-fixe menu, and our meal was about $125.00 for lunch!Blue Lagoon Iceland Cafe Blue Lagoon Iceland dining Blue Lagoon Iceland restaurant BL17 we2 Blue Lagoon Iceland patioIn addition to their exclusive lounge, there is a rest and relaxation area, a gift shop, conference rooms (so you can hold a meeting or event here!), and a full service hotel (as in you can sleep at the Blue Lagoon, which has its own set of perks!).Blue Lagoon Iceland shop Blue Lagoon Iceland Relaxation AreaAlso, if you are going to get a massage or other treatment, you are taken to a secluded pool that has these floating beds where your treatment takes place. Every few minutes they dip you into the water to keep you warm.Blue Lagoon Iceland massage treatment areaAlthough it is majorly touristy and pretty pricey, the Blue Lagoon is certainly worth a visit. I loved that we went during the winter.  There is something sort of surreal about being in your bathing suit while the ground is covered in snow, and you are bathing in super hot water while snowflakes hit your face. It was definitely a memorable experience!