Southern Thailand

We spent December 16 – December 23 in the islands of Southern Thailand. We had an amazing time and definitely, definitely want to come back at some point!! 🌴🌞

Phuket

Phuket is the biggest destination for tourism in Southern Thailand. Although the beaches are beautiful, they were extremely crowded. We spent two nights on Patong Beach (at an awesome hostel!), which was the perfect amount of time.

  • Patong Beach: This is the most famous beach resort area in Phuket. Although the beach was crowded, there were tons of good restaurants and umbrellas for us to hang at.

  • Phang Nga Bay: This bay, also known as Ao Phang Nga National Park, is about a 30 minute boat ride from Phuket and known for its limestone cliffs and caves. We booked a day trip here with an agency called John Gray’s Sea Canoe. We departed Phuket midday and boarded a big boat where we had a delicious, healthy lunch (cooked by the chef and crew onboard) as we sailed towards Phang Nga Bay. When we arrived, we got on a sea kayak with our guide for the day named Dool. Throughout the rest of the day, Dool brought us through many caves and to see many bays. One of the caves was a bat cave, also known as “Tidal Nape Sea Cave,” where we had to lie down in the kayak at one of the openings because the tide was too high! Once we got through the opening, the bay was picturesque! We also saw a rock formation in the shape of a skull and a big limestone cliff that the locals have started to call “Miny James Bond Island” (we decided not to go to the real James Bond Island since it’s just a huge tourist trap and this day trip would be much more enjoyable and have similar, and even better, views). Dool also showed us many of the fish and birds in the area, including jelly fish that surprisingly don’t sting!! At first Mel didn’t believe him, so to prove it to her he simply grabbed the jelly fish from the water with his bare hands!! After our lovely afternoon kayak tour with Doole, we spent the rest of the afternoon kayaking and swimming on our own before having delicious, Thai dinner. After dinner, Dool helped us make a flower “Kratong” that we then set off in the caves while making a wish. While in the caves after sunset, we flicked our hands and paddles in the water and got to see tons of bioluminescent plankton!

  • Night Market: Like most places we have been to in Asia, Patong had a great night market! Make sure to get a Thai pancake (and of course we got ours with peanut butter).

  • Muay Thai: We took a Muay Thai class at our hostel! It was an intense workout and we learned how strong (and flexible!!) fighters need to be 🥊!

Phi Phi

Phi Phi Island is a two hour ferry ride from Phuket. The set of small islands are famous for their appearance in the movie ‘The Beach,” Leonardo DiCaprio’s first movie. The actual beach used in the film is now extremely touristy with dozens of long tail boats. We saw the beach from the ferry, but decided that we could skip it and spend our short time in Phi Phi exploring the main island instead. When we arrived at Phi Phi, we were astonished by how developed it was since we had previously learned that the 2004 tsunami claimed over 1,000 lives. We soon learned that although the tsunami devastated most of the island, it only took two years to restore!

  • Hike to the viewpoints: The island has three main viewpoints that are an easy hike from the main town. The first two viewpoints were nice, but the third hidden viewpoint was the best! Just ask any local to point you towards the trail and it’s a quick 10 minute hike from viewpoint two.

  • Long Beach: This is known to be one of the most beautiful beaches in Phi Phi. We walked there for sunset, had dinner on the beach, and took a private long boat around the bend to get back to our hotel.

  • Aroy Kaffeine: We had a healthy, delicious breakfast here! The menu includes local food as well as our Western food, including peanut butter and açaí 🙌🏼.

Koh Lanta

We went to Koh Lanta for our last stop in Thailand! This island was our favorite, since it is much more easy-going and less touristy compared to Phuket and Phi Phi. We stayed at an amazing resort called SriLanta, which sits on a peaceful, white sand beach.

  • Go scuba diving: Several of the islands surrounding Koh Lanta offer amazing scuba diving trips. Cody dove with Anti-Gravity Divers, who were located next to our hotel and have a large boat that handled the large waves well. On the first day, he dove at Koh Bida which is near the Phi Phi Islands. The limestone cliff-island sinks about 30 meters into the water and offers large coral reefs as well as giant moray eels, snapper, barracuda and a large venomous seasnake. The second day at Koh Haa was even better. A local favorite dive-spot, Koh Haa is larger and has a few cave swim-throughs and large schools of fish around every corner.

  • Relax, do yoga, and get a Thai massage on the beach 🏖

Siem Reap, Cambodia

We spent December 13 through December 16 in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Siem Reap is the second largest city in Cambodia and home to some of the largest religious complexes in the world. While famous for the iconic Angkor Wat Temple, we learned very quickly that Siem Reap has a lot more to offer.

  • Angkor Temples: We hired a tuk-tuk and a local English-speaking guide to explore the temples of Angkor. We arrived at Angkor Wat before sunrise to capture its iconic photo opportunity and then our guide led us on a tour around the massive complex. Built in the early 12th century by the God-King Suryavarman II, the originally Hindu complex features five iconic towers that face West, towards the mountains. The facility’s construction took over 37 years and required stones to be shipped down from the mountains 50km away using bamboo rafts and elephants. We were able to get to one of the highest viewpoints and then our guide led us through some of the more hidden areas. After visiting Angkor Wat, we visited Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom is even larger than Angkor Wat, covering 9 square kilometers and encompassing several smaller temples. Prasat Bayon sits in the middle of Angkor Thom and features 216 iconic faces in groups of four that appear on towers throughout the temple. We also visited the famous Ta Prohn temple, which has many trees growing out of the ruins. While restoration projects are ongoing, the Cambodian government has decided to leave the overgrown trees in Ta Prohn to show the effects of over 400+ years of abandonment.

  • Phare, The Cambodian Circus: This performance was incredible. The circus is a combination of dance, live music, and extreme acrobatics. The Phare performers are graduates of a NGO school called Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPSA). PPSA was founded in 1994 by nine men returning home from a refugee camp after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. In the refugee camp, they found art to be a very powerful tool for healing. When they returned home, they offered free drawing classes to the street children and soon after opened a K-12 school for education and professional arts training. All profits from the circus go to PPSA.

  • Kompong Phluk Floating Village: This village is a cluster of stilted houses built within the floodplain about 16km from Siem Reap. Every year during the rainy season, the water rises 4m and therefore all of the buildings in the village are built on massive stilts. In order to get to the village, we took a boat whose engine went out a few times along our journey 😬. Once at the village, we spent some time speaking English with some adorable kids. Mel spoke with a group of four girls and was really impressed by how great their English was at the age of 9! Cody spoke with a group of young boys who found it funny to try on his sunglasses (and they thought he was 35 years old!!). On our way back from the Kompong Phluk, our guide brought us to see the flooded forest and Tonle Sap Lake.

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  • ATV: We organized an ATV trip with Quad Bike Adventure to see the authentic countryside for sunset. We had an amazing night (even though Mel’s engine died half way through the ride 🙈) and met some adorable kids along the way. Our guide was an extremely intelligent young man who taught us about the ongoing complexities within Cambodia and how over a million citizens have left the country in the past two years in search of decent wages. While Cambodia has an election next year for its Prime Minister, corruption within the country has enabled the top few to benefit from Cambodia’s natural resources while leaving much of the country to fend for itself. Over 25% of the country lives below the poverty line. For those interested in visiting Cambodia, we recommend staying in local hotels (not chains) and supporting local businesses, guides, and tuk-tuk drivers.

  • Night Market: We went here for our first evening in Siem Reap. There are many street vendors selling clothes, delicious Khmer food, and even fried scorpions and frogs! We tried to plug our noses when we passed by the durian stands 😷!!

  • Pub Street: This street has many Khmer restaurants and our favorite was Khmer Kitchen.

Hoi An and Saigon, Vietnam

We spent our last few days in Vietnam in Hoi An and Saigon. Hoi An was one of our favorite destinations in Vietnam. The town is cut through with many canals and beautiful lanterns hang above the streets and along the bridges. Each street is lined with quaint historical homes, cafes, and stores where you can design your own leather goods and suits. We spent two full days in Hoi An and wish that we could have stayed longer. From Hoi An we took an easy, one hour flight to Saigon. Saigon was very different from Hoi An, as it’s Vietnam’s largest and most chaotic city. Although there is tons of traffic and you need to be alert for motorbikes when crossing the street, we still believe that nothing compares to the number and craziness of motorbikes in Hanoi. Saigon is full of rich history related to the war and we tried to hit as many spots as possible during our time there (which was less than 24 hours)!

Hoi An Activities

  • Go to the tailor: Hoi An is famous for it’s tailor-made suits and other articles of clothing. Our tour guide recommended that we go to Mr. Xê, and we absolutely loved it! Cody got a bunch of suits (a total of 18 articles of clothing!!) and Mel got a peacoat. We simply showed Mr. Xê a picture of what we wanted, he took our measurements, and we went back a few hours later for some minimal alterations.

  • Basket boat: We took a basket boat through the coconut groves. As soon as we entered our boat, the driver gave us traditional Vietnamese hats and rings made from nearby plants, and then he started blasting music from a boombox. We dangled some bait in search of some crabs in the coconut groves, but unfortunately didn’t catch any.

  • Cooking class: It is very common to go to a cooking class when in Hoi An. We went to Bay Mau and had an awesome time with an amazing teacher named Nhi! We made three dishes: spring rolls with peanut sauce, traditional Hoi An pancakes, and beef stir fry.

  • Evening boat ride: After the sunset, we took a boat through the river in the middle of town. We got lanterns, made a wish, and set them off down the river 😊.

Hoi An Food

  • Madam Khanh: This is the best Bahn Mi in Hoi An! There’s also a juice shop next door which is yummy.
  • Low Land: This is a delicious, Vietnamese restaurant that sits on the water.

Saigon Activities

  • Cu Chi Tunnels: This is a must see when in Saigon. While several networks of tunnels were used for military purposes, most were used as a means to hide from bombings and were not occupied year-round. The Cu Chi tunnels were particularly interesting as they were in a region where allied forces used to drop remaining bombs from aircrafts before landing in the nearby airport. Therefore, the bombings were usually unpredictable.

  • War Remnants Museum: This museum contains exhibits from the various conflicts in Vietnam. It’s extremely interesting to visit and see the Vietnamese views of both the French and American wars.

Saigon Food

  • Since we were in Saigon for less than 24 hours, we didn’t experience much of the food. Our tour guide for the Cu Chi Tunnels took us to a local pho place for lunch which was delicious. While wandering around the city, we saw a ton of coffee shops (their equivalent of Starbucks is called Highland Coffee) and juice shops!

Ninh Bình, Vietnam

From December 8 to December 9 we travelled to Ninh Bình, a beautiful and non-touristy province known for its valleys and caves. After a four hour bus ride from Halong Bay, the bus dropped us off by the side of the main road. We then boarded small taxis that could manage the narrow and unpaved backroads to the homestay. The homestay was a row of about 12 bungalows along the edge of a small lake far into the rice fields. The weather was a bit cloudy throughout the day, but we made the most of our time there and it ended up being great!!

Activities

  • Bike ride through the countryside: Ninh Bình is easily navigable by bicycle. We rode through the rice fields and got to see many goats and water buffalo along the way! P.S. Mel had her own bike, she just hopped onto Cody’s back basket for the photo 😝.

  • Go on a rowboat on the Tam Coc River: We cruised through a network of rivers and caves. The rowboats here are unique because the men and women paddle with their feet instead of their hands. It looks easy, but Cody gave it a try and confirmed it’s much harder than it looks.

  • Climb up the Dragon Mountain Viewpoint: We went here right before sunset to tackle the 450 steps and take in a beautiful view.

Food

  • Make sure to eat goat! While most of our meals were eaten at the homestay, the town is home to several Vietnamese restaurants where goat seemed to be a popular dish.

Halong Bay, Vietnam

We spent December 6 through December 8 in Halong Bay. It is on Vietnam’s northern coast and has over 1,900 limestone islands streamed along emerald blue waters. Halong Bay is Vietnamese for “the land where the dragon enters the sea.” The name stems from a legend about a mother dragon who descended on the earth to help ancient Vietnamese people defend their country from invaders from the North of the sea.

Activities

  • Cruise: We took a large cruise boat through Halong Bay. We really enjoyed our boat because it went a different way then most of the other boats, making it feel less touristy.

  • Kayak: We went kayaking between the limestone cliffs. The views were beautiful and we were even able to pass through a few caves and explore areas that very few people get to see!

  • Freedom Island: We stayed one night on a private island. The island was about 100m wide and had a volleyball net and two beautiful beaches. For each meal we ate the seafood that the staff caught from the bay earlier in the day.

Food

  • Eat the fresh seafood!!

Hanoi, Vietnam

We stayed in Hanoi for a few nights before and after our journey to Sapa. Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and is know for its architecture and rich culture. We stayed in the Old Quarter, where the narrow streets each represent a different trade. We stayed on Hàng Buóm, which is the street of “sails merchandise,” meaning years ago all of the stores on the street only sold sails for boats. We thought the traffic in NYC was bad, but nothing compares to the craziness of the motorbikes going in every direction on the confined streets in the Old Quarter.

Activities

  • Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum: We went here with a local guide who spent about 30 minutes describing how important Ho Chi Minh was and still is to the Vietnamese people. The country takes so much pride in their former president that they actually have his body on display within the building. We were unable to go into the building because the week we visited was the one week per year that the professionals go in and restore the body.

  • Ho Chi Minh’s Vestige in the Presidential Palace Area: After visiting the Mausoleum, we went to the palace area to see where Ho Chi Minh lived.

  • One Pillar Pagoda: This is one of Vietnam’s most important Buddhist temples. It is close to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex.

  • Lacquer Arts Center: The art of lacquer is considered to be the national art of Vietnam. At the Lacquer Arts Center, we saw how meticulous and talented the workers are at creating beautiful pieces!

  • Van Miêu – Quôc Tu (The Temple of Literature or The Confucius Temple): This temple hosts the Imperial Academy which is Vietnam’s first national university. It has many beautiful pavilions, statues, and gardens.

  • Bát Tràng Village: This village is over 500 years old and is located about 30 minutes outside of the city. There are many workshops in the town focused on ceramics and pottery. The people that work in the workshops are extremely talented!

  • Trân Quôc Pagoda: This is the oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi and is located on a small island near the West Lake.

  • Hanoi Water Puppet Show: This was entertaining and interesting to say the least. There are water puppets in the middle of the stage and musicians and singers on each side of the stage singing in Vietnamese.

  • Vietnamese Women’s Museum: This museum is dedicated to Vietnamese women. It has powerful displays of their role in the family and their leadership in wartime. It is very powerful and we highly recommend it.

  • Hoa Lò Prison (commonly known as The Hilton Ha Noi): This prison was built by the French colonists in 1894 for political prisoners and was then later used by North Vietnam for US Prisoners of War, primarily pilots. It was interesting to read the Vietnamese perspective and propaganda.

  • St Joseph Cathedral: This is the oldest church in Vietnam and was built on the land of what was once a Buddhist temple. We stopped by here and were surprised with how much open space there was compared to the rest of the areas in the Old Quarter!

  • Ride in a Rickshaw: Although it’s touristy, it almost feels safer than walking!

  • Hoan Kiem Lake: We went here a lot to run in the evenings and to just sit and relax on the benches along the lake. There are many locals that sit near here and wait for tourists to come by to practice their English.

Food

  • Whenever you see a lot of locals eating at low tables on the side of the street, go and eat there (and don’t think about hygiene 🙈)!!
  • Bahn Mi 25: The TripAdvisor reviews say it all. This spot is incredible.
  • Orchid Restaurant: Go here for a full, Vietnamese meal.
  • HN Time Coffee: This place is very hidden and absolutely amazing. Make sure to get the famous Vietnamese egg coffee while sitting on the balcony looking over the lake.

Sapa, Vietnam

On the evening of November 30, we took an overnight train North from Hanoi to Lao Cai. It was our first overnight train experience and it ended up being extremely comfortable! We had a “VIP” room on the Sapaly Express, fully stocked with beer, water, snacks, and toothbrushes.

When we arrived in Loa Cai on the morning of December 1, we took a shared van for about an hour up into the hillsides of Sapa. Sapa is considered “The French Alps” of Vietnam. It is a popular trekking base overlooking the terraced rice fields of the Muong Hoa Valley.

From December 1 to December 3 we trekked with an organization called Sapa Sisters. The organization was started nine years ago by a group of four young women wanting to provide a local trekking experience for tourists. With the help of a Swedish teacher living in Hanoi, they launched a website and began offering tours. Today, 48 women, most of whom are mothers, work for Sapa Sisters providing genuine treks through the mountains to visit many of the local villages.

Day 1: December 1, 15km

After arriving at the Sapa Sisters office at about 7:30am, we ate a quick breakfast and stowed away our large backpacks, packing only what we needed for three days in our daypacks. At 9:00am we were introduced to our guide, Pang, who provided us with a map of where we would be going.

At 9:30 we started our trek from downtown Sapa. While Sapa itself has become very commercialized in the past few years with large hotels and even a gondola to the highest nearby peak, a short five minute walk led us to a trail downhill through rice patties and out of the view of the city.

Our group of three (us + Pang) was accompanied by two other women heading in the same direction. Their names were Moo and Shishoo. While we were both hiking in our Asics, Moo and Shishoo (who also had her 8 month old strapped on her back) sped ahead of us in their sandals and helped as we carefully navigated the slippery terrain. Shishoo was so sweet and made Mel a heart out of a fern and Cody a horse out of straw. Throughout every minute of the morning’s trek, the scenery was breathtaking with hills and rice fields in every direction.

By noon we reached the village of Y Linh Ho. Moo and Shishoo told us they would be leaving and showed us some beautiful patchwork that they made. We bought three pillow cases from them and said goodbye. After that, Pang explained to us that she has over 150 cousins in the area and that for lunch we would be eating in the home of one of her cousins. Pang’s cousin was so friendly and cooked us a delicious lunch inclusive of rice, pork, potatoes, cabbage, and spicy sauce.

After lunch, we trekked for about three more hours. Since it had rained a few days ago, the trail was muddy and slippery so we had to focus and make sure not to fall! Along the path we passed many women with big red dots on their foreheads. Pang explained that this is simply “cupping” and it is used to treat their headaches and the marks usually last for about a week. Throughout the three hours of trekking, there were no moments of silence with Pang as she continually answered all of our questions about the Vietnamese culture. We learned that the prominent religion in the villages is Catholicism, while the prominent religion in the cities is Buddhism. We also learned that many of the women in the villages around Sapa marry (via arranged marriages) and have children by the age of 16-18 years old. Pang explained that she is 26 and unmarried because she wants time for herself before she gets married and has a family. Luckily her parents are very open and accepting of today’s progressive culture. She said most families in the villages are still extremely traditional and disapprove of her choices.

As we finished the day’s trek in Lao Chai (village of the Mong people), we stopped at a nearby market and bought sugar cane for a mid-afternoon snack. We then trekked for about 10 more minutes before arriving at Pang’s brother’s home. His home sits adjacent to the home where Pang grew up. We met Pang’s two nieces and one nephew, as well as her brother and sister-in-law. After having a cup of green tea while overlooking their rice patties, we got a quick tour of the home and sat near the fire where Pang and her sister-in-law prepared dinner. We helped by making Vietnamese spring rolls and fried pork. Our delicious dinner with Pang and her family was followed by shots of their homemade plum rice wine.

Day 2: December 2, 21km

We slept in until about 8:30am and then had some breakfast with Pang, her brother, and her sister-in-law. Towards the end of breakfast, the kids came home with some of their baby cousins!

Our morning trek was very long. We trekked from Lao Chai to Ta Van to Giang Ta Chai. Along the path we passed ducks, huge water buffalo, and some adorable baby pigs. Luckily it didn’t rain overnight, so the path was a bit less slippery than the day before. Every view throughout the entire morning was picture perfect.

We took the path less travelled to get from Giang Ya Chai to Su Pan. By doing so, we actually got to pass through a bamboo forest and see many four leaf clovers!

We reached Su Pan at around 3:00pm for lunch. After a delicious lunch of pork fried rice and chicken fried rice, we continued to trek towards our homestay for the evening. Within a few hours we reached the village of Ban Ho. The homestay was quite large with about 14 beds on one floor with room for more in the attic.

Dinner comprised of steamed rice, pork, chicken, spring rolls, vegetables and chili sauce. After chatting with a few new friends from Belgium, Australia, and Singapore, we were all exhausted from a long day of trekking and called it an early night.

Day 3: December 3, 5km

Our last day of trekking was much easier than the first two. We woke up for breakfast at 8:30am and departed at around 10:00am. We walked through the village, got some sugar cane as a snack, and soon reached a beautiful waterfall surrounded by tons of rocks to climb on.

After hanging at the waterfall for an hour, we trekked back to the homestay for lunch. While everyone ate their fried noodles, Pang invited Mel into the kitchen to have steamed rice with her, another Sapa Sister, and the owners of the homestay. They were all very kind and taught her the “proper” way to use chopsticks 😝.

After lunch it was time to say goodbye. We took a van back to Sapa, hugged and thanked Pang, and took a bus to the station for our overnight train back to Hanoi.

Luang Prabang, Laos

We spent November 25 – November 28 in Laos. It was an easy, one hour flight from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang. The town of Luang Prabang is really small, which made it easy to explore. It is full of great restaurants, many of which offer beautiful views of the Mekong River. The town has a French influence from the French colonial period and it was funny to see the local street vendors selling French baked goods. Most vendors sold crepes, smoothies, and Laotian food.

Activities

  • Kuang Si Waterfalls: This is probably the most popular spot in Luang Prabang. The beautiful waterfalls are overrun with tourists, but we were able to escape by hiking to the top of the falls and enjoying the view.

  • Boat down the Mekong River to Pak Ou Caves: On our second morning we took the public boats along the Mekong River to the Pak Ou Caves about two hours upstream. The caves are located at the intersection of the Mekong River and the Nam Ou River. The lower cave is called Tham Ting and the upper cave is called Tham Theung. Both caves together have over 4,000 Buddha icons that are mostly made from wood that date back hundreds of years!

  • Night Market: Every night of the week beginning at 5:30pm, people from the town set up stands at the night market. There are Laotian woven scarfs, jewelry, and much more. We bought beautiful pillow case covers to put on our bed or couch when we get back to the USA!

  • Mount Phousi: This is a quick hike that has beautiful views at the top.

  • Alms Giving Ceremony: On our last day before our early flight, we woke up at 5:00am to watch the special ceremony for the local monks. We bought sticky rice from a local woman and sat with her and she motioned to teach us what to do as the monks pass by. As each monk pass, we kneeled down and gave him a ball of sticky rice. The idea of the alms giving is for the Buddhist monks to make merit and also to collect food for their one meal a day. The ceremony was special and we were glad to have participated in it.

Food

  • Manda de Laos: This is one of the best restaurants in Luang Prabang! We came here for Melanie’s birthday dinner and had a great Laotian meal including buffalo steak, duck, soup, fried spring rolls, and of course, banana and ice cream for dessert.
  • Novelty Cafe: This is a cute coffee shop with strong WiFi.
  • Tamarind Restaurant: This is a Laotian restaurant that also offers a cooking class.

Northern Thailand

We spent our first week in Asia (November 18 – November 25) in two cities in Northern Thailand!! 🇹🇭

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Chiang Mai is the largest city in Northern Thailand. The city has tons of Buddhist temples, extremely friendly locals, amazing street markets, and lots of activities to do. We never found ourselves bored or hungry in Chiang Mai!

Activities

  • Thai Massage: When in Thailand, it’s imperative to get a Thai massage. We went to Khunka Massage, where they even give you a stylish outfit!

  • Zip lining: This is a bit expensive for Thailand standards, but definitely worth it. We did our zip lining with Eagle Track. Minus Cody getting rope burn on his fingers, we had an awesome time!

  • Visit the temples: It’s nice to spend an afternoon meandering around the city and popping into the temples. Definitely make sure to go to Wat Chedi Luang.

  • Thai Cooking Class: We did our cooking class with Basil Cookery, but there are many others to choose from as well. Our class included going to the local market to get our ingredients for 6 dishes. We now definitely understand what they mean by “Thai spicy!!”

  • Bua Thong (aka the sticky waterfalls): We booked a half day tour through TakeMeTour and absolutely loved it. Our guide, Piangduan, explained the history of the falls, climbed the sticky waterfalls with us, and made us a delicious Thai lunch (inclusive of pad Thai and sesame sticky rice).

  • Wat Phra Doi Suthep: This temple is located on a hill about 15 minutes outside the city. We went at sunset to see beautiful views of Chiang Mai 😍.

  • Visit an Elephant Sanctuary: Going to visit elephants is a must when in Chiang Mai, but make sure not to go somewhere that has you ride elephants (these places do not treat the elephants well). Some of our friends recommended Elephant Nature Park, but we ended up going to Elephant Jungle Sanctuary and absolutely loved it. We fed the elephants bananas and sugar cane, gave them a mud bath, and then brought them to a nearby stream to play in the water. We wish we could have stayed for longer!!

  • Night Bazaar: This night market is open all days of the week. It is huge and has unlimited Thai clothing, jewelry, and fake Ray Bans and designer bags. It was an experience, but definitely not a “must” when in Chiang Mai.

 

Food

  • Tikky’s Cafe: This is a hidden restaurant off the main road and has amazing, fresh smoothies and juices.
  • My Secret Cafe in Town: This place had amazing coffee, peanut butter and Oreo cake, and an art gallery upstairs.
  • The Barn: Go here if you want a quick bite. It’s a bit “Western,” but the food and feel are great!

 

Things we didn’t end up doing, but wanted to:

  • Monkchat Meditation Retreat
  • Muay Thai match
  • Ladyboy Show

 

 

Pai, Thailand

Pai is located about 3 hours north of Chiang Mai. Many people rent scooters and drive through the winding roads to get to Pai, but we decided to play it safe and travel via van. Pai is known as a “backpacker’s getaway,” since it’s casual, hippie atmosphere attracts young travelers. There are many sites to see outside the town during the days, and there are amazing street markets to wander through at night.

Activities

  • Night Market on Walking Street: There is no need to go out to dinner when you can wander down the streets at the night market and get all kinds of delicious food. There’s traditional, northern Thai food and also all different other types of food. We definitely recommend getting a Nutella and banana spring roll 👌🏼.

  • Kiu Lom Viewpoint: This viewpoint is on the way to Lod Cave. It’s worth stopping at, especially to ride on the crazy swing!

  • Lod Cave: This was definitely the highlight of our stay in Pai. A local woman took us on a 3 hour tour of the ginormous cave. At the end of the tour, we left the cave by taking a bamboo raft through a stream where there were tons of catfish that we fed.

  • Sai Ngam Hot Springs: The hot springs were crowded, but beautiful and worth it!

  • Mor Pang Waterfall: This is a beautiful waterfall that we got to climb.

  • Hike Pai Canyon: We went here for sunset and it was spectacular!

 

Food

  • Coffee Stains: We ended up going here twice since the food was great. Although it’s not traditional “Thai” food, it was refreshing to interrupt our Pad Thai diet and get some avocado toast and Acai bowls.
  • Charlie and Lek’s: This place has great, genuine Thai food that comes out quickly.

 

Things we didn’t end up doing, but wanted to

  • Climbing up the White Buddah (Wat Phra That Mae Yen): This is an easy hike (about 2km from the center of town) that’s supposed to have great views from the top.
  • Om Garden: Multiple people recommended this place to us, as it’s supposed to have incredible breakfast. Unfortunately it was closed while we were in Pai 😩.

Medellín, Cartagena, and Santa Marta, Colombia

We spent the last week of our time in South America in Colombia!

On Tuesday, October 31 we flew from Guayaquil, Ecuador to Bogotá, Colombia to Medellín, Colombia. Unfortunately our flights were delayed and we didn’t get to Medellín until late in the evening. We took an Uber (which we learned later is technically “illegal” in Colombia) from the airport about 45 minutes to our hostel. For those going to Medellín, stay at the hostel we stayed at! It’s in the best part of the city called El Poblado and has free yoga and cultural classes each day.

Despite arriving late on Halloween, we were still able to make it to the bar in our hostel to celebrate. We had some Colombian beer (Club Colombia) and a burger and salad. Many people were dressed up and dancing to live music!

November 1 was our only full day in the city, so we decided to take advantage. We went to the two most famous (and delicious) coffee cafes in the city – Pergamino Cafe and Hija mía Coffe.

After our mini coffee tour, we visited Parque El Poblado before heading to lunch at Verdeo.

We had an early lunch so we could make it to our 4 hour walking tour (which we highly recommend) on time.

Our guide was a local and she focused a lot on showing us some of the most culturally important places in the city. The tour was one of our favorites in all of South America because the guide was so intriguing and exposed us to the positive and negative parts of Medellín, while making us feel safe.

After our walking tour, we had an amazing dinner in El Poblado at a restaurant called oci.mde. We sat at the bar, became friends with the bar tender, and had incredible food and drinks!

On November 2 we flew to Cartagena to meet our friends for the weekend!! We had planned the trip over the past few months and couldn’t believe the weekend had finally arrived!

When we arrived at the AirBnB in Getsmani, Lizzy, Hallie, and Shane were already there. We met our chef, Nelson, and got in our bathing suits to relax by the pool while we waited for the others to arrive!

Once everyone settled into the AirBnB, we had beers on the roof and then got ready for dinner. Before going to our reservation at Don Juan, we decided to check out the cocktail bar next door called Alquimico. The bar was very swanky and had many fancy drinks. There was also a rooftop, but unfortunately we weren’t allowed up because there was a private event.

Our dinner at Don Juan was amazing! For those going there, definitely order the steak and the fish tacos!

After dinner we walked to Café Havana to listen and dance to some salsa!

On Friday, November 3 we decided to walk around the town and do some touristy things. First we went to Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas. Along the way we started profusely sweating, joked about how our touristy walk wasn’t going to last very long, and bargained to get some Colombian sombreros.

After making it to the top of the castle, we decided to walk to the Old City. The streets were beautiful – Spanish colonial architecture crawling with vines and flowers.

While in the Old City, our crew split up. Some went to a rooftop bar, others went back to the AirBnB to jump in the pool, and the two of us went to the grocery store. Luckily Nelson wrote us a shopping list so we knew exactly what to get so he could cook us a typical, Colombian dinner the following evening.

We spent the rest of Friday just relaxing and hanging on the roof.

For dinner, we went to Vera Cucina Italiana. It was recommended by a few of our friends, but they had a much different experience than we did. Sure the food was good, but it took over an hour for our drinks to come and the restaurant was very empty and quiet. We definitely don’t recommend it for those heading to Cartagena – there’s no need to have Italian food at a touristy hotel when you’re in Colombia!!

Saturday, November 5 was a big day. We woke up at 9am to get picked up by a van to take us to our private boat cruise of the Rosario Islands (for those interested, book your boat through Boats4u)!! The day was hands down the best and most fun day of the trip! Our captain and crew took us to Isla Grande, Isla Cholón, and Playa Blanca.

At Isla Grande we jumped out of the boat to swim in the clear water and we also ordered lobsters from the local fishermen!!

Next we sailed to Isla Cholón to join a huge boat party and have lunch!

Our last stop was Playa Blanca. It was much more low key than Isla Cholón, so we decided to get cabanas, beers, and massages!

We then took the boat back to the port and asked our van driver to drop us at Cafe Del Mar for the sunset!

When we got back to the AirBnB after drinks at Cafe Del Mar, Nelson had dinner prepared for us. We had fish, coconut rice, and avocado salad.

We spent our last evening bar hopping in Getsmani.

Sadly on Sunday, November 5 we all parted ways. We got in a van to take us about four hours to Santa Marta. Santa Marta is a city on the Caribbean Sea in the northern Colombian department of Magdalena. It’s a very popular vacation spot for Colombians because it is the gateway for trips into the Tayrona National Natural Park.

When we arrived to the city and checked into our hostel, we decided to grab an early dinner and go to bed early. The weekend was so fun, but extremely tiring and we were excited to relax 😁.

Monday, November 6 was our only full day in Santa Marta so we decided to take advantage and go to the beaches that everyone raves about. First, we took a cab to Taganga where we bargained with a few companies to get a boat to take us to Playa de Bahia Concha.

Once at the beach, we found a cabana and ordered some local fish from the one restaurant on the beach.

At around 5pm, we took the boat back and then took a cab back to Santa Marta. Thanks to a friend’s recommendation, we went to Lulo Cafe Bar where we had the best arepas ever!

November 7 was our last day in Colombia. We spent the morning walking around the city and finding a bunch of tasty coffee shops. Our favorite spot was called Ikaro Cafe ☕️.

We spent the afternoon at the famous, boutique hotel in town.

At around 4pm we said goodbye to Santa Marta as we prepared ourselves for a few flights and long layovers back to Boston.