Our Phnomenal Guide to Phnom Penh

We weren’t sure how excited to be for our recent trip to Cambodia. We spent 7 nights there (3 in Phnom Penh and 4 in Siem Reap), and were seriously questioning our decision to go to Phnom Penh based on a few blog posts we read before arriving.

We read through various accounts of purse snatching in Phnom Penh and one story about a woman having to shell out $200 to get her dropped iPhone back from a stranger. We even read one account of a French woman who was killed when a thief attempted to grab her bag, dragging her into oncoming traffic.

From what I gather, Cambodia has changed in the last few years. After an initial upswing in tourism while the country recovered from decades of violence, it now seems to be getting a little rough around the edges. While it’s not our top choice destination in Southeast Asia (Thailand will always hold that title with us!), it was definitely worth the trip.

When you visit Cambodia, you’ll learn about its years of violence and civil war, you’ll be warned repeatedly about the active land mines still scattered across the countryside, and you will likely see poverty almost everywhere you go. But you’ll also meet tons of wonderfully friendly Cambodian people who are making the most of life, especially considering they’ve been to hell and back in the last few decades.

Safir, Our Tuk Tuk Driver. One of the Friendliest People You'll Meet in Phnom Penh

Safir, Our Tuk Tuk Driver. One of the Friendliest People You’ll Meet in Phnom Penh!

Fortunately for us, we had a great trip to Cambodia. We were borderline paranoid about our safety, but I think it was for good reason. Our taxi driver that drove us from Phnom Penh airport warned us about purse snatchings after dark, as did our hotel staff, as did all the travel books. We managed to escape without any safety scares, though we did meet an Expat from Sydney in Siem Reap who had just been mugged! We enjoyed our time in Phnom Penh, though we think anything more than 3 nights would have been too much time there.

Alright, on to the interesting stuff – what did we do in Phnom Penh, anyway?!

We Drank a Lot More than Normal

We Have a Lot of Love for Cambodian Beer

We Have a Lot of Love for Cambodian Beer

Beer in Cambodia costs about half as much as beer here in Chiang Mai. They also have WAAAAAAYYYY more variety – most stores have locally brewed stouts or other dark beers! Naturally, we drank a lot on this trip, because seriously WHO can resist a fifty cent beer, AMIRITE?

We Went to the Russian Market (Toul Tom Poung Market)

The View from our Tuk Tuk in Phnom Penh

The View from our Tuk Tuk to the Russian Market in Phnom Penh

The Russian Market is named as it is because it was mostly frequented by Russian Expats in the years following the Khmer Rouge rule. Now, it is THE place to go to find almost anything. Stalls here sell everything from counterfeit money to peppercorns to raw meat to name brand clothing to noodle dishes.

Raw Meats in the Russian Market

Raw Meats in the Russian Market

The Bulk Foods Section!

The Bulk Foods Section! I Am a Sucker for Bulk Foods!

The Russian Market

The Russian Market

The Russian Market

The Russian Market

Oh You Know, Just Motorbikes Riding Through the Market...

Oh You Know, Just Motorbikes Riding Through the Market…

We read that most of the clothes on sale here are indeed genuine, and are from the various clothing factories around Cambodia. I needed a new bikini, which I easily found for just $8, and Kevin got a couple t-shirts for a couple bucks apiece. Fun fact: if you need to try something on, you either do it over the clothes you’re wearing, or you wrap yourself up in a sarong and try not to moon anyone!

We Visited the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum

S-21 Prison

S-21 Prison

Our day turned in a very somber direction when we visited the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, sometimes referred to as the S-21 prison. The building was a former high school which was taken over by the Khmer Rouge in the mid 70s, and was used to imprison and torture people opposed (or even suspected of being opposed) to the Khmer Rouge rule. It’s reported that as many as 20,000 of the people imprisoned at S-21 were later murdered, including 2 Americans.

The Rules of S-21 Prison

The Strict Rules of S-21 Prison

If you don’t know much about the Khmer Rouge period in Cambodia’s history, I recommend picking up a book my friend Sarah recommended to me called When Broken Glass Floats by Chanrithy Him. Written by a woman who was a young girl when the Khmer Rouge came to power and started their harrowing rule, this book gives insight into what it was like to live under such a cruel regime.

S-21 Prison

S-21 Prison

A visit to S-21 will undoubtedly leave you emotionally raw, but we think it’s absolutely a must see. We walked down the quiet hallways, past windows covered with barbed wire, and through cells where prisoners were tortured and beaten. What really got to me, though, were the photos that were taken of each prisoner when they arrived to S-21. The Khmer Rouge was meticulous about record keeping, and the hundreds and hundreds of photos are a haunting visual of the emotions people were feeling when they were brought here.

We Saw the Royal Palace

The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh

The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh

After a glimpse into such a dark time in Cambodia’s history at S-21, the opulence of the Royal Palace can be a bit hard to take. It’s a complex of buildings used as the royal residence of the Cambodian King, and is the very picture of riches and luxury. The grounds are immaculate and beautifully landscaped. The buildings are covered in jewels, gold, silver, frankincense and myrrh. (Oops, Christmas slip there, ignore those last two.)

The Beautiful Grounds of the Royal Palace

The Beautiful Grounds of the Royal Palace

Normally, I would’ve been pretty impressed by the gilded buildings and sparkly things, but it’s hard to feel excited to see such extravagance when poverty is so apparent just yards away, or when you spent the morning learning about the regime that killed millions of its own people. In stark contrast to the well kept grounds of the palace, many of Phnom Penh’s streets are absolutely littered with garbage. Just one block north of the Royal Palace, entire families are sleeping in the streets. It’s rare to walk anywhere without encountering someone begging for food or money.

Nonetheless, the Royal Palace is a must-see sight in Phnom Penh, and we recommend making a visit. If nothing else, the stark contrast between what goes on inside and outside of the royal walls will open your eyes to how hard so many people’s lives here still are.

Phnom Penh's Royal Palace

Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace

Pagodas at the Royal Palace

Pagodas at the Royal Palace

The Royal Palace Even Had a Miniature Replica of Angkor Wat

The Royal Palace Even Had a Miniature Replica of Angkor Wat

And Here's Kevin, Pretending to Be an Elephant at the Royal Palace. Because That's How We Roll.

And Here’s Kevin, Pretending to Be an Elephant at the Royal Palace. Because That’s How We Roll.

We Hit the Rooftop Pool, a Lot

On a lighter note, we did manage to spend a lot of time relaxing at one of the TWO rooftop pools at our hotel. I’m not sure how Cambodia is SO HOT AND HUMID, even in late November when it’s supposed to be “cool season”. If you ever make the trip, Aircon and a pool are a must.

The Rooftop Bar Next to the Rooftop Pool

The Rooftop Bar Next to the Rooftop Pool

Added bonus? We had a view of the Royal Palace:

Here's Kevin Relaxing, and the Grand Palace in the Background

Here’s Kevin Relaxing, and the Grand Palace in the Background

We Went on a Self-Guided Walking Tour

I am absolutely a sucker for Self-Guided Walking Tours. Nothing makes me happier as a traveler than being able to roam around and read about the sights on my own time. My idea of Heaven is endless self-guided tours in cities all over Europe. (In unrelated news, I have the soul of an 80-year-old woman.)

We got a hold of the Lonely Planet walking tour of Phnom Penh and spent a morning seeing the sights. Aside from all the men yelling “TUK TUK?!” and the shop owners yelling “YOU BUY SOMETHING!”, we really enjoyed our tour. Here are a few photos from around Phnom Penh:

Our Tour Started with a Stroll up the River Promenade

Our Tour Started with a Stroll up the River Promenade

First Stop: Wat Phnom, a Buddhist Temple in the Center of Phnom Penh.

First Stop: Wat Phnom, a Buddhist Temple in the Center of the City. It Sits Atop the Only Hill in Phnom Penh!

The Chedi at Wat Phnom. I Loved How the Lions Look Pink!

The Chedi at Wat Phnom. I Love How the Lions Look Pink in the Morning Sunlight!

We Strolled past the U.S. Embassy, Where Christmas Lights Were Being Put Up!

We Strolled past the U.S. Embassy, Where Christmas Lights Were Going Up!

Last Stop, the Central Market. Here's an Arial View from the Neighboring Sorya Shopping Center.

Last Stop, the Central Market. Here’s an Aerial View from the Neighboring Sorya Shopping Center.

The Materials and Shape Reportedly Make the Central Market Feel Air Conditioned. I Might Disagree.

The Materials and Shape Reportedly Make the Central Market Feel Air Conditioned. I Might Disagree… It Was Hot!

Central Market Vendors

Central Market Vendors

I Love How This Gal Is Just Hanging out in Her Hammock.

I Love How This Gal Is Just Hanging out in Her Hammock at Her Seafood Stall.

Beautiful Flowers at the Central Market in Phnom Penh.

Beautiful Flowers at the Central Market in Phnom Penh.

We Celebrated Thanksgiving

Knowing we would be in Phnom Penh on Thanksgiving, I searched far and wide on the interwebs to find a spot where we could have a Turkey Dinner. Last year, we were in Vietnam for Thanksgiving. And while fish that’s grilled in a banana leaf is indeed delicious, it does not scream traditional Thanksgiving to me. So this year, we got a reservation at Alley Cat, an expat-owned restaurant in downtown Phnom Penh.

Look! A Table for Me! Turkey Awaits...

Look! A Table for Me! Turkey Awaits…

Alley Cat was not what we expected. It’s best described as a dive bar, and it definitely smelled like weed. Lynrd Skynrd was blasting over the speakers, the bar had its own dog, and the owner put soccer on the TV (he said that’s the closest thing to American Football he could find!). We felt as though we had teleported to Capitol Hill in Seattle! They even had bottles of Sierra Nevada Torpedo IPA!! (For $4.50 a pop, ouch!)

Like I Said, It Was a Dive Bar. Hence the Dark, Terrible Photo of the Wonderful, Delicious Beer.

Like I Said, It Was a Dive Bar. Hence the Dark, Terrible Photo of the Wonderful, Delicious Beer.

It turns out that the head cook’s mom is from Kentucky, so the man knew a thing or two about ample butter usage. We paid $12.50 each for a delicious, enormous dinner of turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, ham, mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet baked apples, roasted vegetables, green bean casserole, a roll (with ample butter on it), candied sweet potatoes, pickles, and a devilled egg. I was so excited, I was shaking, as evidenced by this terrible photo I took of the food:

An Awful, Blurry Photo of our Delicious Thanksgiving Dinner

An Awful, Blurry Photo of our Delicious Thanksgiving Dinner

And, of course, it came with pumpkin pie for dessert!

PUMPKIN PIE YESSSSSSSSS!

PUMPKIN PIE YESSSSSSSSS!

We Want to Hear from You! What Are You Thankful for This Holiday Season?

After the emotional roller coaster of visiting S-21, seeing the Royal Palace, and witnessing so much poverty on the streets of Phnom Penh, we were walking home from Thanksgiving dinner thinking about how lucky we are. We’re lucky to have such wonderful families and great friends, but we’re also lucky to be born somewhere with so much opportunity. What are you thankful for this Holiday Season?

Surviving Bangkok (Our Guide to Bangkok on a Budget)

I won’t lie, I’m not the biggest fan of Bangkok. I’m a small-town girl at heart, so I tend to avoid huge cities unless I have a very specific reason to visit. I dare you to plan a trip to Bangkok and not get overwhelmed with its sheer size and array of things to do. CAN. NOT. HANDLE.

Aside from being so huge and intimidating, Bangkok is also a full-on assault on your senses. The sights, sounds, and smells are intense. I’m not sure there’s anywhere else in the world where you can be awoken by a rooster outside your hotel room window at five in the morning when you’re in the middle of an urban metropolis with a population of over 6 million people. They filmed a Hangover sequel here for a reason, guys.

But in the midst of the craziness, we managed to find a few things to do that we really enjoyed. We put together a few tips to help travelers survive a trip to Bangkok on a Budget. Safe travels, friends!

Visit the Grand Palace As Soon as it Opens

The Grand Palace in Bangkok

The Grand Palace in Bangkok

We made a huge mistake. We went to visit the Grand Palace, one of Bangkok’s most popular attractions, but we didn’t arrive until after 11am. DO NOT DO THIS. If I had to imagine Hell, it would’ve been close to what we encountered when we arrived. The tourist busses had shown up in full force, and the crowds were thicker than molasses on a cold evening during a harsh Canadian Winter. Women were walking around everywhere with umbrellas to shade them from the burning sun, paying no attention to whose eyes they were poking (spoiler alert: it was mine and Kevin’s).

THIS IS MY WORST NIGHTMARE.

THIS IS MY WORST NIGHTMARE.

It was so damn hot I almost couldn’t handle life. To add insult to injury, I had planned to cover my arms with a scarf to abide by the strict dress code, but that’s not allowed. I had to rent a scratchy, extremely flattering button-up shirt, which was really fun.

How Awesome Is This Button up Shirt? Right? Right???!

How Awesome Is This Button up Shirt? Right? Right???!

All jokes aside, the Grand Palace, though expensive at 500 Baht (or about $15) per person, is a must-see in Bangkok. It’s super fancy since it has been the official residence of the Kings of Thailand for over 200 years. The palace is ornate, opulent, sparkly, magnificent, glamorous, ostentatious, palatial, even gaudy. (Isn’t thesaurus.com great?!)

These Statues Were Really Holding down (or up?) the Fort at the Grand Palace

These Statues Were Really Holding down (or up?) the Fort at the Grand Palace.

So Much Sparkle in One Place!

So Much Sparkle in One Place!

It’s really beautiful, you should totally go, please just visit early in the morning.

Pro Tip: Don't Aggravate the Guys with the Bayonets.

Pro Tip: Don’t Aggravate the Guys with the Bayonets.

Avoid Scams

We almost fell for one of the oldest scams in the Thailand tourist book. We had heard that near the Grand Palace, tourists are regularly approached by helpful people who inform them that the Grand Palace is closed for a special event, and kindly help them find some other attraction to spend their money on until it reopens. (I think these people must get a commission if you spend money on a tour or something.) This scam is so common that an audio loop is played over the loud speakers outside the Grand Palace saying that it ALWAYS open daily from 8:30am to 3:30pm.

We were headed to the BTS Skytrain station to head up to the Grand Palace all the way out in the Silom neighborhood when a “policeman” struck up a conversation with us. He told us the Grand Palace was closed for prayers today, suggested we take a private canal tour, and even showed us his “badge”. He helped us grab a Tuk Tuk to the pier for just 30 Baht. We accepted, thinking it would take us to the same pier the water taxi uses, plus that’s a cheaper Tuk Tuk ride than we could ever negotiate. Alas, we were fools.

Our Scammy Tuk Tuk Ride. SUCH a Bummer.

Our Scammy Tuk Tuk Ride. SUCH a Bummer.

The Tuk Tuk driver took us to a private pier for private boat charters, and they wanted $75 for a 1-hour ride! If we didn’t already know that the tourist boat pier was only a block away, we wouldn’t have known what to do. And that’s how we nearly got scammed in Bangkok. It’s a shame, too, because I really don’t want to be one of those tourists who think everyone’s out to get them. It’s sad that these types of things happen so often.

Use the Water Taxi

There are two types of water taxis in Bangkok, the tourist boats with a blue flag (40 Baht per ride, or 150 Baht for a day pass), and the local boats with an orange flag (15 Baht per ride) that run up and down the Chao Phraya River. (Pro tip: at each pier, there are also usually actual Tour Boats that are a lot more expensive! Look around and ask multiple people for directions to make sure you get to the right place!)

Here We Are, Enjoying the Water Taxi Boat

Here We Are, Enjoying the Water Taxi Boat. It gets pretty busy at about 11am!

We liked the tourist boat because, well, we are tourists, and there was a “guide” pointing out various attractions as we passed them. It’s also nice to have someone announcing “If you’re going to the Grand Palace, get off here”. I always enjoy when things are idiot proof, especially because the pier names have nothing to do with the attractions near them.

The Bangkok Tourist Water Taxi Boat

The Bangkok Tourist Water Taxi Boat

Here’s what we recommend to Bangkok tourists. On your first day, make your way down to any tourist boat pier, and just spend a couple hours riding the whole route. It’ll help you get oriented to many of Bangkok’s sights, and it’s just fun to be out on the water. I’m not sure if they kick you off and make you buy a ticket at each end of the boat route, but at 40 Baht/ride, it seems like a steal to me for a river tour.

Go on a Yok Yor Dinner Cruise

The View from Our Yok Yor Dinner Cruise Boat

The View from Our Yok Yor Dinner Cruise Boat

It’s no secret that we now fall into the budget-traveler category. When you’re traveling as long as we are, there are no more splurges to be had. Your dollar just needs to stretch further. So when I discovered that most Bangkok dinner cruises cost upwards of $50/person for a buffet dinner that didn’t include alcohol, I was sadder than a kid on Christmas morning who only got a lump of coal.

Enter Yok Yor Dinner Cruise! I found this little gem on another traveler’s blog. Yok Yor is a local seafood restaurant which recently started running cruises, too. They serve food from their regular menu, and you just order a la carte. A 160 Baht/person boat fee is tacked onto your food bill. While still a bit expensive (we blew about $28 for a big beer, a curry dish, pad thai, rice, and water, plus boat fees), it’s the cheapest dinner cruise you can find, and the food was actually pretty tasty!

The Cruise Boat Docks by the Yok Yor Marina & Restaurant

The Cruise Boat Docks by the Yok Yor Marina & Restaurant

Be warned, though, if you’re averse to Thai Karaoke, this is not the cruise for you! Most of the other folks onboard were local Thai people out celebrating something; there were two birthdays on our boat!

A Birthday on the Yok Yor Dinner Cruise!

A Birthday on the Yok Yor Dinner Cruise!

To get to the Yok Yor Boat, we took the BTS Skytrain to the Saphan Taksin station, then walked down to the ferry pier. A Yok Yor employee was standing at the pier with a sign around his neck that read “Yok Yor Dinner Cruise”. Let him know you’re here to take the free ferry to the cruise, and he’ll radio for their boat to come whisk you away. They ask that you arrive at their restaurant no later than 7pm, so we showed up to the ferry pier at about 6:30pm. The cruise begins at 8 and goes until almost 10pm.

Here's Kevin on the Free River Ferry to the Yok Yor Cruise Boat

Here’s Kevin on the Free River Ferry to the Yok Yor Cruise Boat

Reservations are advised; we recommend calling the number on the Yok Yor website to reserve a table. Don’t even try the online form, you’ll only be met with sad, bitter silence.

Get a Hotel with a Pool

Trust Me. You'll Want a Pool.

Trust Me. You’ll Want a Pool.

Bangkok is HOT. Now that it’s “Winter” in Chiang Mai and temperatures usually don’t climb out of the 80s, I forgot what it feels like to be drenched in sweat ALL OF THE TIME. Bangkok is quite a bit further South than Chiang Mai, but I think part of the intense heat is just all of the cement soaking up the sun all day. I was miserable. We recommend getting a hotel with a pool so you can see the sights in the morning and lay by the pool in the afternoon. Trust us, it’s worth splurging for, it may just save your friendship/marriage/familial relationships some undue stress.

Go to Cloud47 Rooftop Bar

If you’re like us, the only shoes you bring when you travel to hot climates is a pair of flip flops. If someone tells you to wear “business casual”, you just laugh and walk away. We have three dress styles now: casual, swim suit, and gym clothes. We are simple people.

So when we started looking for rooftop bars in Bangkok, we were sad to see most places require “smart casual” (whatever that means, is the opposite stupid casual?). Luckily, there’s a rooftop bar called Cloud47 in the Silom neighborhood that caters to the flip-flop crowd and has no official dress code (though we can’t promise you that the hostess won’t look at you with a hefty dose of judgement in her eyes…)

Cloud47: A Rooftop Bar in the Upper Middle Price Range...

Cloud47: A Rooftop Bar Which Is a Modest Splurge. I’d Say it Falls Into the Upper Middle, or Maybe Even Lower Upper Price Range.

Cocktails start at just $10, which is far, far less than most other places. Beer is cheaper, but we were feeling fancy, in spite of our casual quick-dry clothing and flip flops. It’s worth a visit if you haven’t been to a rooftop bar before. Skip it if it’s raining or if you’re short on time in Bangkok.

Pro Tip: Cloud47 is nearly impossible to find. It’s at the top of the United Center office tower. Once you’re facing the United Center, walk down the alley on the left-hand side until you see a big glass-windowed lobby in the back on your right that looks like it is maybe the lobby of an apartment building. There may or may not be a cardboard cutout by the window that says Cloud47. Walk in, tell the person at the desk you’re looking for Cloud47, and they will help you the rest of the way. Helpful hint: walk through the same turnstile they take you through, or you’ll set off a series of aural alarms. I did this and it was embarrassing. Sigh.

It’s a good idea to call and make a reservation if you’re going after 9pm or on a weekend.

Pick your Neighborhood Carefully

We stayed in the Silom neighborhood, which is the business district. We liked this area for two reasons:

  1. It wasn’t Khao San Road, the backpacker mecca of Bangkok. Backpackers on “gap year” after graduating from high school or college make me feel SO OLD now. We are too old to be surrounded for so long by so many youngsters; it upsets my 10pm bedtime. Plus, I tire easily of a man chasing us around yelling, “I MAKE YOU A SUIT!”. The tailors are aggressive near Khao San.
  2. Easy access to the BTS Skytrain. We took that puppy over to the water taxi pier every day. You can even take it to the airport (though taxi cabs are probably cheaper unless you’re traveling alone).

Know How To Use the Taxis

  • Repeat after me, always ask the taxi to use the meter. If they refuse, take a different taxi. Clear this up before you start rolling.
  • Before leaving the airport, hit an ATM or currency exchange to get some Thai Baht, then buy something small at an Airport store to break down those 1000-Baht bills. Don’t rely on your driver to be able to give you change.
  • You need to know where you’re going. The cab driver will likely not know exactly where your hotel is unless it’s the Four Seasons or something.
  • If you’re taking the taxi FROM either of Bangkok’s airports, a 50 Baht Airport surcharge will be added to your meter fee once you arrive at your destination. This is not a scam, everyone pays it.
  • They should not charge you an extra “passenger fee” if there’s more than one person.
  • If you take toll roads, you are responsible for the tolls. You can ask them to avoid them, but we usually just go for it.
  • A taxi from Suvarnabhumi (BKK) Airport to most places in Bangkok will run 300-400 Baht, depending on traffic.
  • A taxi from Don Mueang (DMK) Airport to most places in Bangkok will run 250-350 Baht, depending on traffic. At 12:30pm last week, a taxi from the Silom neighborhood to DMK cost us just 250 Baht total!
  • Tipping is not necessary, but it is appreciated. I like to just round up the bill to the nearest 10 or 20 Baht.

Visit Bangkok with Friends!

Travels are always best shared with friends, especially when you spend 24 hours a day with your spouse, which means shiny new conversation topics are harder to come by. (Imagine a world where you always know the answer to “How was your day?” before asking. This is a constant problem and is a running joke in our house!) We planned our trip to Bangkok to coincide with a trip our friends Paul and Amy from Seattle were making to Thailand.

SO Fun to See Friends in Bangkok!

Paul and Amy, visiting Thailand from Seattle!

It was great to see friends, especially so close to Thanksgiving!

We Want to Hear From You!

See, people DO visit us! And you should too. Check out our upcoming travel itinerary in the right hand sidebar (look for “View My Travel Itinerary”, which I always keep updated. If you’re going to be in our area, let us know! Happy Holidays, everyone!

5 Reasons to Quit Your Job and Move Abroad

When you're unemployed, it's easy to drop everything when a friend is in town and just say, "Sure, we'll visit the highest point in Thailand tomorrow."

When you’re unemployed, it’s easy to drop everything when a friend is in town and just say, “Sure, we’ll visit the highest point in Thailand tomorrow.”

Kevin and I have come to realize that many of the things we enjoy the most about living abroad probably have more to do with being unemployed than they do with actually being abroad. We love having flexible schedules and being able to work on whatever interests us the most at the moment. We love being able to work whenever we want, wherever we want, and have completely lost track of the concept of a “weekend”. Our days are categorized as gym-days and non-gym-days now, which means I don’t hate Mondays anymore. Hooray!

There have been many moments where we wish we could’ve had this mini-retirement period from the comfort of our home in Seattle, where we’d be near to all of our family and friends. Here’s the thing though – moving to a city with such a low cost of living is a lot less scary than being out of work in a pricier place like Seattle. We had a mortgage back home in Seattle to worry about, and food costs a lot more than the $1/meal we’ve gotten used to here, and don’t even get me started on how much it costs to foot the bill for your own health insurance in the States. (Don’t worry, we have traveler’s insurance, it’s just a lot cheaper than health insurance in the States.)

While we’re definitely not planning to pick up and move abroad ever again after we get back home to Seattle, we’re thankful we got the chance to do this. We’ve spent a lot of time this Thanksgiving week thinking about things we’re thankful for, and we came up with a list of the 5 Reasons to Quit Your Job and Move Abroad.

It Could Save You Money in the Long Run

Nearly all of our worldly possessions are stored in a single portable storage unit.

Nearly all of our worldly possessions are now stored in a single portable storage unit.

The number one lesson you’ll learn when you spend a year abroad is that you need a heck of a lot less than you thought you did. Less space. Fewer clothes. Less jewelry. Less money. Fewer pairs of shoes. In fact, you realize that having fewer possessions can actually make life more simple. Let me tell ya, I sure get dressed a lot faster with only a handful of outfits to choose from! There’s something really refreshing about simplifying your life. I think that’s an important lesson to learn, and living out of a duffel bag for a year forces you to learn it.

There’s also something magical about an extended period of unemployment that makes you really scrutinize every Baht (or every penny?) that you spend. Do I really need the higher quality hand soap? Can I wait to buy sunscreen because it might go on sale next week? Should I walk the 25 minutes to the cheaper store to save a few bucks? Do I really need to order bottled water with dinner? I hope this habit sticks with me after we go home, because maybe I’ll finally, finally be able to make a trip to Target without spending more than $60.

All these small things definitely do add up, but we think this trip has saved us a boatload of money because we’ve shifted our mindset on how big our home needs to be. Our apartment here in Chiang Mai is only 41 sq. meters (441 sq. feet). Before we signed our lease, I was pretty nervous about renting a place that small. I thought we’d kill each other! Since moving in, however,we’ve realized that 41 sq. meters is plenty of space for the two of us. When we were in Vietnam, we met one family of four who lived in an apartment this size and considered it to be plenty of space. I’m not saying I could peacefully share 441 sq. feet with three other people, but it did get me to thinking a little bit and makes me look at our 1000 sq. ft. house in Seattle a little bit differently.

That change of perspective is what can save you money. Before we left Seattle, we had been saving up to put a big addition on our home. For an old home, and with Seattle’s construction prices, a big addition is going to be in the 6-figures range. If we can avoid spending that money by doing with a smaller space, this trip will have paid for itself. Hurray!

You Will Finally, FINALLY, Catch up on Sleep

One of the most amazing things about moving abroad is that you suddenly find yourself with a lot more free time on your hands. While this is probably mostly due to the fact that neither of us has a “job” in the traditional sense right now, it’s also due in part to the fact that we don’t ever cook or clean anymore and also due to the fact that our social life is, um, pretty subdued now.

This is what happens when your social life is too subdued. Look at these weirdos. Sheesh.

This is what happens when your social life is too subdued. Look at these weirdos. Sheesh.

The only chores we have to do now are laundry and dishes (a maid service is included in our rent). We definitely don’t have any yardwork since we live in a condo. It’s so cheap and quick to go out for food that the only meal we ever cook is breakfast. We also both ditched our previous 1-hour each-way commutes. (Don’t get me started on commute times… what a waste of precious hours in our lives!)

Naturally, since I have some extra time on my hands, eight-hour nights of sleep have made a big come-back in my life. According to my Fitbit, I averaged 8 hours and 47 minutes of sleep per night this week. We have used an alarm clock exactly four times since moving to Thailand in late April. I probably haven’t regularly gotten this much sleep since I was an infant. When I worked at Boeing, I had to be out the door every day by 6:10am on the dot so I wouldn’t miss my vanpool. I’m finally working off the Boeing sleep deficit! YAY!

You Will Have Time to Make a Dent in Your Books Backlog

So like I said above, we have a lot more time on our hands. What do we do with all that time? Well, we do work for about 6 hours a day, 7 days a week. We’re not just being bums over here! But when we’re not working, we read… a lot. Before leaving Seattle, I was lucky to get through more than one book per month. Since we moved here almost 7 months ago, I’ve read 39 books, five of which were fairly dense programming books. I still have a pretty hefty backlog of books I want to read (140 titles and growing…), but there is finally time for it! Hurrah!

You Will Appreciate Things You Once Took for Granted

I know I’ve talked a lot about how I miss things like being near family and friends, wide sidewalks, reliable electricity and reliable internet. But there are a few things I really miss that surprised me.

I miss the smell of the Pacific Northwest. Pine, moss, freshly mowed grass, rain. Ah the smell of rain. I miss it.

I can ALMOST smell the pine through this photo. If you're reading this from the Pacific Northwest, go outside and take a big whiff of the wonderful air for me!

I can ALMOST smell the pine through this photo. If you’re reading this from the Pacific Northwest, go outside and take a big whiff of the wonderful air for me!

I miss seasons. Before you move to a tropical paradise, you get this idea in your head that the hot weather is idyllic, wonderful, perfect in every way. Once you get here and “swamp ass” becomes your biggest daily problem, you realize how much you love the seasons. (Sidenote: In Chiang Mai, where the daily high in the hot season is regularly over 100 degrees, why does everyone seem to favor leather chairs and cushions? I’ve have more than a few close calls where I’m pretty sure I almost lost half the back of my leg because my skin was SO stuck to the leather.) It really is true that a cold Winter makes those hot Summer days a whole lot more special.

Aside from just missing seasons, I miss the typical seasonal foods in the States. Spring Asparagus. Fall Butternut and Acorn Squash. Summer sweet corn. Oh lordy, the Fall peaches and Summer cherries… I am literally drooling at my laptop typing this. Since I’m missing out this year, will you please do me a favor and try out some of my favorite cold weather recipes? Butternut Squash and Caramelized Onion Galette. Acorn Squash Quesadillas. Winter Squash Soup. You will not regret it.

When we get back, I’m going to make a point to truly appreciate these things. I will be that lady. The lady on the hiking trail who keeps yelling “Doesn’t it smell amazing out here?! NATURE!” The lady who is grinning like an idiot at the Farmer’s market, smelling all the produce, buying ALL THE SQUASHES. I’m going to make myself sick off of cherries. Twice.

Personal Growth

There is no denying the fact that living abroad will change you.

Wandering around a loud, dusty bus station in Bangkok at 6am after getting off of an overnight bus in a complete daze (before coffee!) forces you to learn to just go with the flow. Figuring out how to explain to a bus driver that you need to be let off two miles before you reach town is an exercise in communication skills when you only speak English and he only speaks Thai. Simply living in a country where you don’t speak the native language forces you to learn to rely on the kindness of others, and is a daily exercise in patience. It also makes you realize the power of a simple smile.

Communication 101: If the signs are all in Thai but the food looks good, just walk up and say "One please!" and see what they give you.

Communication 101: If the signs are all in Thai but the food looks good, just walk up and say “One please!” and see what they give you.

I’m also fairly certain that walking past a Durian truck every day has hardened me against bad smells, which I hear comes in handy once you have kids. (Don’t know what durian is? It’s a fruit that smells like death. It’s banned in the subway systems in Singapore as well as in many hotels across Southeast Asia due to the odor.)

Happy Thanksgiving, Everyone!

Alright, I’ve laid out my list of the top 5 things we’re thankful for from our last 7-months abroad. What are you thankful for this Thanksgiving holiday?

Celebrating Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai

Lanterns floating over Thapae Gate during Loy Krathong

Lanterns floating over Chiang Mai’s Thapae Gate during Loy Krathong

Everyone knows Kevin and I love celebrating the Fourth of July in Seattle. I love a good excuse to use my red, white and blue food coloring on festive goodies like popcorn or elaborately frosted sugar cookies. I also never pass up an opportunity to carve a boat out of a watermelon. I did grow up in Kansas, after all – watermelon boats are a food staple there. Just ask my mom, the best watermelon carver I know.

Proof of my over-festive tendencies on 4th of July.

Proof of my over-festive tendencies on 4th of July.

But our favorite thing about the Fourth of July is probably just the general excitement everyone has about blowing shit up. (Be honest, you know that’s your favorite part of the Fourth of July, too. I’m talking to you, DAD.) So we were understandably delighted to learn that there is an annual festival here in Thailand where people set off fireworks for DAYS.

I am both excited and terrified to report that there seem to be ZERO rules about setting off fireworks inside city limits, along with a complete disregard for personal safety. In my opinion, that is a winning combo. People set off bottle rockets at all hours. Kids are lighting firecrackers dangerously close to cars. Motorbikes are zooming through showers of sparks. We even saw a toddler who could barely walk throwing down Snap ‘n’ Pops. The whole city reeked of gunpowder. It was awesome.

What is Loy Krathong?

Contrary to what you might think at this point, Loy Krathong (sometimes spelled Loi Kratong) is about more than just setting off fireworks. For the last 150 years or so, Loy Krathong has been celebrated as a religious holiday to honor the Buddha. Before that, it is believed that Loy Krathong was a Brahmanic or Indic festival held to honor several different gods.

Loy Krathong is held each year on the full moon of the twelfth month of the Thai Lunar Calendar. This year, the full moon fell on Thursday, November 6th, but there were festive events being held every day for a full week! You can’t go wrong celebrating Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai because of all the fun events, and also due to the fact that Yi Peng is typically celebrated around the same time here as Loy Krathong.  (See my previous post about Yi Peng.) People come from all over Thailand, and from all over the World, to celebrate this colorful holiday in Chiang Mai!

Sending Away our Misfortunes during Loy Krathong

Krathongs are made from with banana leaves, flowers, candles and incense sticks.

Krathongs are made with banana tree wood, banana leaves, flowers, candles and incense sticks.

Unlike Yi Peng, which is mainly a Northern Thailand holiday, Loy Krathong is celebrated all over the country. Throughout the Loy Krathong festival, people say prayers and make wishes for better luck in the year to come. Many people release small “Krathongs” into rivers, lakes and ponds. Krathongs are small floating boats made of mostly biodegradable materials (they used to be made from styrofoam, yuck!) with incense and candles. Releasing these lighted boats into the river is meant to symbolize the release of bad luck and misfortune to float away from you and out of your life.

Floating Krathongs in Chiang Mai's Ping River

Floating Krathongs in Chiang Mai’s Ping River.

We released a floating Krathong of our own for good luck. It floated so far down the river that we couldn’t see it anymore – I think that’s a good sign!

Celebrating Loy Krathong in Chiang May by releasing a Krathong into the Ping River

About to release our troubles and worries into the Ping River with our Krathong.

Throughout Loy Krathong week, people are also continuously releasing floating lanterns into the sky, another symbolic gesture to send away bad luck and misfortune. At night, the Chiang Mai skyline is just FULL of these lanterns. It’s beautiful!

Tourists releasing a floating lantern by the Ping River

Tourists releasing a floating lantern by the Ping River. Some people attach fireworks to their lanterns, like the one in the sky in the background!

We’re lucky to have a top floor apartment with huge windows facing the city, so we just pulled our sofa up to the sliding door and watched the lanterns float by for a few hours.

We sat and watched hundreds and hundreds of lanterns floating in the sky, and fireworks going off all over the city skyline!

We sat and watched hundreds and hundreds of lanterns floating in the sky, and fireworks going off all over the city skyline!

Celebrating Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai in style!

Chiang Mai really dresses itself up for this colorful holiday. Lanterns are everywhere!

Lanterns outside of a Wat (Buddhist Temple) in Chiang Mai's Old City

Lanterns outside of a Wat (Buddhist Temple) in Chiang Mai’s Old City

I'm so artsy. A lantern in front of a Wat (Buddhist Temple), with floating lanterns in the sky.

I’m so artsy. Here’s a photo of a lantern in front of a Wat (Buddhist Temple), with floating lanterns in the sky.

Lanterns in our neighborhood.

Lanterns in our neighborhood.

Giant Krathongs and inflatable dragons appear at each of the entrances to the Old City.

Dragons at Suan Dok Gate, the Western entrance to the Old City

Dragons at Suan Dok Gate, the Western entrance to the Old City

A Giant Krathong at Suan Dok Gate

A Giant Krathong at Suan Dok Gate

Suan Dok Gate is pretty festive during Loy Krathong. Here are some folks releasing floating lanterns into the sky.

Suan Dok Gate is pretty festive during Loy Krathong. Here are some folks releasing floating lanterns into the sky.

On the night of the full moon, people put tons of candles outside their homes and businesses.

Beautiful candles in front of  one of our neighbor's homes on the night of the full moon.

Beautiful candles in front of one of our neighbor’s homes on the night of the full moon.

The entire city has a warm glow, and lanterns are floating throughout the sky. It was so neat to be here to see it.

Check out this huge crowd after one of the parades!

Check out this huge crowd after one of the parades!

There are TWO parades during the week, because one would clearly be insufficient. There are also two beauty pageants – one for women, and one for men. I’ve never seen a male beauty pageant before, but we lucked out and happened to pass by during what I can only assume was the swimsuit competition (see photo below). Score!

The Male Beauty Pageant near Thapae Gate

The Male Beauty Pageant near Thapae Gate

FIREWORKS YEAH!

Finally, the fireworks! I’m pretty sure everyone in Chiang Mai is a pyromaniac.

We were walking down a PACKED street after a parade, and people had to scramble when one hooligan set off this spark shower!

We were walking down a PACKED street after a parade, and people had to scramble when one hooligan set off this spark shower! KIDS TODAY…

During Loy Krathong, it’s easier to locate and purchase bottled rockets than it is to buy beer. (Sidenote: did you know you can only buy beer in Thailand between 11am-2pm, and after 5pm?) In fact, it’s easier to find and purchase fireworks than LOTS of everyday things I used to buy in the States all the time: all purpose flour, baking soda, soft toilet paper, dark chocolate, good wine, decent quality closet hangers, unscented laundry detergent, tampons (overshare?), coffee beans, chocolate chips, canned pumpkin, reasonably priced sunblock, bagels, cheddar cheese, I could go on and on…

Our neighbors set off their fair share of fireworks!

Our neighbors set off their fair share of fireworks!

Since we live outside Chiang Mai’s tourist area, we got to see this holiday through the eyes of our Thai neighbors. We watched families setting off fireworks on the small street we walk down each day. We watched a toddler throwing snap ‘n’ pops everywhere. We even saw our fruit lady’s husband setting off bottled rockets.

Many of our neighbors put out lanterns and flowers for Loy Krathong.

Many of our neighbors put out lanterns and flowers for Loy Krathong.

The entire city smelled like gunpowder, and a cloud of smoke settled down over everything, giving all of Chiang Mai an eerie glow.

The smoke blanket that settled over Chiang Mai during Loy Krathong.

The smoke blanket that settled over Chiang Mai during Loy Krathong.

There’s a reason people travel from all over the world to be here for this holiday!

 

We Want to Hear From You!

Have you been a part of any huge celebrations around the world? Carnival in Rio? Oktoberfest in Munich? New Years in Times Square? Burning Man in the Nevada desert? Leave us a note to let us know!

Our Plans They Are a-Changin’! (We’re changing travel plans… again!)

Thailand has been good to us (where else could we have THIS for our front yard?!) but it's time to go.

Thailand has been good to us (where else could we have THIS for our front yard?!) but it’s time to go.

I was perusing our “About Us” page the other day and realized that it is laughably out of date. I am not lying when I tell you that we change our travel plans more often than I drink Bubble Tea, and I drink Bubble Tea almost every afternoon. I’m serious- we just walk in now and say “Same Same” and they serve up two bubble teas. Is that sad, or awesome? I’m not sure.

Well anyway, we’re changing travel plans yet again!

Remember that time we moved to Thailand and then there was a coup like a week later?

Remember that time we moved to Thailand and then there was a coup like a week later?

This is just a short post to announce our new plans, and keep our friends, family, and blog readers posted about our whereabouts.

The Old Plan

Between April 2014 and April 2015, our plan was to hit Thailand (check!), Singapore (check!), Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia (we’re going soon!), the Philippines, and Indonesia.

We had a great trip to Singapore (here's Kevin lounging in front of the skyline)

We had a great trip to Singapore (here’s Kevin lounging in front of the skyline)

We’ve definitely axed the Philippines for a number of reasons. Mainly I’m afraid I’d feel compelled to try Balut, a delicacy in the Philippines. Ok, that’s not the real reason, but we heard the internet is terrible and the food is really heavy, so the Philippines is axed until later in our lives. Laos and Myanmar are officially axed as well since we’re tiring of tropical weather. Indonesia is now also OUT due to the intolerably slow internet speeds.

We've learned a lot, including how to plant rice!

We’ve learned a lot, including how to plant rice!

For awhile we toyed with moving to Mexico (maybe Puerto Vallarta) in January. That was probably inspired by Halloween and Dia de los Muertos. Or a craving for Mexican food? I do miss refried beans, chips, and salsa… and cheese… annnnnd now my mouth is watering. I haven’t had cheddar cheese since April!

We Had a Heck of a fun time in Seoul!

We had a heck of a fun time in Seoul!

We even considered spending a couple months in South Korea after having such a great time on our layover there.

The New Plan

We’re moving to Europe! We leave for Paris on December 30th, where we’re staying for a week in the apartment belonging to the family of one of my parents favorite exchange students. After that, we’re heading to Seville, Spain, where the winter weather is moderately warm and there shouldn’t be too much rain. We’ll be in Seville from January 5 thru February 4 – we’ve even lined up an apartment already!

Maybe we'll even get to go to Oktoberfest again!

Maybe we’ll even get to go to Oktoberfest again!

We’re thinking we’ll head to Portugal in February, and maybe Italy in March. We are only permitted to be in the Schengen Visa Area for 90 days in any 180-day period, so we’re planning to split April, May and June between a handful of Non-Schengen Countries: Croatia and Turkey, and maybe Bulgaria or Romania if we get the urge.

In July, our 180-day period resets, so we can head back into the Schengen Area. We’re planning on July in Prague and perhaps Estonia in August.

Based on our recent history, there is approximately an 8% chance that we’ll adhere to this schedule.

Change is a Constant

For many long-term travelers, the only constant in life is change. We’ve hung out with two other traveling couples we know from Seattle, and they’re also shaking up their plans constantly. You think you know exactly what you want before you leave home to travel, but every destination and every experience changes your perspective. Each time your perspective changes, it craps all over the plans you had previously laid and things shuffle around.

How Do We Choose Destinations?

There are a few things we look at when we’re trying to pick a new place to “live”:

  1. Cost of Living (if the numbeo.com cost of living is higher than Seattle, it’s a no go!)
  2. Internet Speed
  3. Type of Food (honestly, this should probably be ranked #1…)
  4. Weather (we only have warm-weather clothes!)

We get some of our info from Nomad List, a website with a wealth of information on the cities around the world that are popular with digital nomads.

We Want to Hear From You!

We’re wide open to destination suggestions from friends and family. Have you visited any cities in Europe that would be great spots for us to hunker down for a month or two? Is there anywhere you’d come visit us in Europe? Leave us a comment to let us know!

The Best Restaurants in Chiang Mai

We recently realized that the single biggest driver behind the locations we choose for vacations is the local cuisine. We visited Vietnam last December because of our deep love of Pho. We travelled to Germany for the beer. We made a trip to Southern Thailand mostly so we could order a peanut sauce and noodles dish that we remembered from a different visit last year. We recently nixed Laos from our travel list because we realized we probably wouldn’t like the food. So it should come as no surprise to you that we’re mainly living in Thailand because we love the food here.

We have a lot of people coming to visit us here in Chiang Mai in the next two months (Miles, Jenn and Lindsey, Pio, Becca and Albert, I’m talking to you!), so I thought it would be appropriate to post about what we think are the best restaurants in Chiang Mai. Most of them are out west in the Nimmanhaemin neighborhood where we spend most of our time.  But I also think that food in the Old City (the area more popular with tourists) tends to be more expensive and less delicious. That combination makes me shudder and want to cry. If you prefer to pay more money for worse food, you are never allowed to visit me. Ever.

We narrowed our list of the Best Restaurants in Chiang Mai down to just 8 restaurants, all shown on the map below.  Read on for details!

 

The 40 Baht Spot (a.k.a. Organic Vegetables or O-Veg)

The Scoop: Consistently delicious food for a bargain! We eat dinner here almost every night, and we almost moved away from Chiang Mai forever when they were closed for a whole week. An English menu is available. (Note that this place isn’t actually called The 40 Baht Spot. Rather, we gave it that nickname because all chicken/pork/tofu dishes are just 40 Baht. We don’t know the real name.)

The Hours: Open for Lunch & Dinner daily except Sunday

The Best Dishes: Red Chili Paste Fried Rice with Pork (40 Baht), Fried Glass Noodles with Egg, Vegetables and Pork (40 Baht), Yellow Curry Fried Rice with Pork (40 Baht), Fried Mixed Vegetables with Pork (40 Baht).

The Location Hints: Look for the sign with “Organic Vegetables” on it, or for the blue and white umbrella. It’s a few doors west of the Burmese Restaurant and Library, before you reach Anchan.

Look for this Sign and the Blue and White Umbrella!

Look for this Sign and the Blue and White Umbrella!

Chili Paste Fried Rice with Pork and Vegetables (40 Baht)

Chili Paste Fried Rice with Pork and Vegetables (40 Baht)

Yellow Curry Fried Rice with Pork (40 Baht)

Yellow Curry Fried Rice with Pork (40 Baht)

Fried Glass Noodles with Egg, Vegetables and Pork (40 Baht)

Fried Glass Noodles with Egg, Vegetables and Pork (40 Baht)

Pun Pun Vegetarian

The Scoop: Delicious, beautifully presented food for a moderate price tag. Beware, sometimes it really lives up to it’s “Slow Food” label. We avoid this place whenever it’s busy – it’s best to arrive before 11:45am if you want speedy service. Menus are available in English and Chinese (and obviously also Thai).

The Hours: Daily 8am-5pm, closed Wednesdays. They often close early because they are “out of food” too.

The Best Dishes: Any Curry, but mostly we love Massaman Curry, Yellow Curry and Penang Curry (all are 60 Baht), Som Tam Thai (40 Baht), Salad Pak Polamai (70 Baht).

Som Tam Thai (40 Baht)

Som Tam Thai (40 Baht)

Salad Pak Polamai (70 Baht)

Salad Pak Polamai, a great way to sample fresh tropical fruits! (70 Baht)

Massaman Curry (60 Baht)

Massaman Curry (60 Baht)

Cherng Doi Chicken

The Scoop: Widest variety of Som Tam available in all of Chiang Mai – not to be missed if you’re a Som Tam fanatic like me. An English menu with tons of photos is available.

The Hours: Daily 11am-8:30pm, closed Mondays.

The Best Dishes: Roast Chicken (60 Baht), Steak Jaew (60 Baht), Tam Khao Pod (corn Som Tam, 40 Baht), Tam Pol La Mai (cucumber Som Tam, 50 Baht). Don’t forget sticky rice (10 Baht)!

Kai Yang Nung Krob, or Roast Chicken (60 Baht)

Kai Yang Nung Krob, or Roast Chicken (60 Baht)

Steak Jaew or Pork Steak (60 Baht)

Steak Jaew or Pork Steak (60 Baht)

Left: Tam Khao Pod or Corn Som Tam (40 Baht) and Right: Tam Pol La Mai or Cucumber Som Tam (50 Baht)

Left: Tam Khao Pod or Corn Som Tam (40 Baht) and Right: Tam Pol La Mai or Cucumber Som Tam (50 Baht)

Pad Thai Family

The Scoop: An awesome family serving awesome pad thai for an awesome price. All you need to do is walk up and say “One, please!”

The Hours: Open most days at 6pm until they’re out of noodles. It seems like they are closed one day per week, but it’s entirely unpredictable which day. I have a hunch it’s usually a Saturday or Sunday, but I’ve been bitten on weekdays too.

The Location Hints: These folks set up every night on the South side of Suthep Road, right next to the pedestrian stoplight a block or two west of Wat Suan Dok. See the map above for exact location.

Look for this food stall!

Look for this food stall!

You can eat-in or take-out, it's 30 Baht either way. Here's a peek at eat-in Pad Thai.

You can eat-in or take-out, it’s 30 Baht either way. Here’s a peek at eat-in Pad Thai.

Anchan

The Scoop: Arguably the healthiest food you can find in Chiang Mai, this vegetarian restaurant is always changing their menu to serve what’s in season. This is my favorite spot to take out of town guests willing to spend more than $2 on a meal. Excellent English spoken here.

The Hours: Open Tues-Sat 11:30am-8:30pm

The Best Dishes: Their menu is always changing, but we loved the Pumpkin Red Curry (95 Baht) and Fried Rice Anchan (95 Baht) during our last visit.

The Website: Facebook

Look for this sign to find Anchan

Look for this sign to find Anchan. The restaurant is up the flight of stairs right by this sign.

Fried Rice Anchan (95 Baht)

Fried Rice Anchan (95 Baht)

Pumpkin Red Curry, possibly the best curry I've ever had (95 Baht)

Pumpkin Red Curry, possibly the best curry I’ve ever had (95 Baht)

Siri Mankalajarn Food Stall

The Scoop: We call this place the “Siri Mankalajarn Dive” for a reason. I’m pretty sure the people running this food stop hate us, or are just not nice to any foreigners, but DAMN they make a delicious Pad See Iew. They don’t speak a lot of English here, but they have an English menu with pictures.

The Hours: Open daily from around 10:30am until 8pm or so.

The Best Dishes: Pad See Iew (30 Baht) and Kao Soi Kai (30 Baht)

The Location Hints: This is the first food spot South of Kaweh Cafe on the West side of Siri Mankalajarn.

We call it a dive for a reason, here's a look at the interior!

We call it a dive for a reason, here’s a look at the interior!

Pad See Iew Moo (Moo means pork, 30 Baht)

Pad See Iew Moo (Moo means pork, 30 Baht)

Kao Soi Kai (Kai means chicken, 30 Baht)

Kao Soi Kai (Kai means chicken, 30 Baht)

The Suthep Soup Spot

The Scoop: These folks serve up the best bowl of soup in Chiang Mai! Everyone who works here is super friendly, and they always have someone around who speaks English.

The Hours: Open daily for dinner, but they seem to start closing up at about 7 or 7:30pm. (I’m not sure about lunch, we’re never over there during that time.)

The Best Dishes: Order the soup from the photo below, just point at the picture on the menu that looks like the photo below. It’s 30 Baht.

The Location Hints: We’re not sure what this place is actually called. See the map for the exact location. It’s on Suthep Road, and it’s the 2nd place down from the corner.

Best Soup Ever, comes with Pork and Rice Noodles (30 Baht)

Best Soup Ever, comes with Pork and Rice Noodles (30 Baht)

Why Not?

The Scoop: For those times when you just NEED to have pizza, this spot is a good choice. We walked all over Chiang Mai and did the math for you – if you order the large pizza, you’re getting the best price per square inch you can find. We prefer pepperoni.

The Hours: Open Daily from 5-11pm.

The Best Dishes: Pepperoni Pizza!  With Tip, we usually blow 400 Baht here on a large pepperoni pizza and a large Chang beer.

The Location Hints: Why Not? has a big footprint. You can find it from both Nimman Soi 11 or Nimman Soi 13.

The Website: Facebook

CHECK OUT THE SIZE OF THIS PIZZA.  Large Pepperoni Pizza and Large Chang Beer runs about 400 Baht

CHECK OUT THE SIZE OF THIS PIZZA. A large Pepperoni Pizza and Large Chang Beer runs about 400 Baht

We Want to Hear From You!

Did we leave any of the best restaurants in Chiang Mai off of our list? Do you have any suggestions for additions? Leave us a comment if you do!

Chiang Mai’s Yi Peng Lantern Festival

Yi Peng 2014 in Chiang Mai

Yi Peng 2014 in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai’s annual lantern festival is a truly magical event. I figured it would be a pretty “neat” experience based on photos and videos I had seen online, but “neat” definitely didn’t do it justice. Attending Yi Peng changes you in some imperceptible way, sort of like seeing the ocean for the first time. It marks you somehow emotionally, or in my case, it left a small mark on me physically (see my note about safety below). We were fortunate enough to be in Chiang Mai for this year’s Yi Peng Lantern Festival, and managed to make our way up to Mae Jo to experience the magic.

What is Yi Peng?

Yi Peng (or Yee Peng) is a Lanna (Northern Thai) Festival of Lights that is usually held each year in November. Yi Peng literally translates to 2nd Month, and is always held on or near the full moon of the 2nd month of the Lanna Calendar. During Yi Peng, Sky Lanterns called Khom Loi are released to pay respect to Buddha. Launching one of these lanterns is believed to send a person’s bad luck and misfortunes away into the air, especially if it disappears from your view before the fire goes out.

We Released Two Lanterns

We Released Two Lanterns

The Yi Peng festival is held each year on the grounds of the Lanna Dhutanka Temple behind Mae Jo University. Usually, it’s about a 25-minute drive North of Chiang Mai, but the drive can take nearly three times as long before and after the festivities. People start to crowd into the grounds as early as 2pm to snag a primo spot, but the ceremony preceding the lantern release actually doesn’t begin until 6:30pm. Lantern release starts at about 8pm, and is followed by fireworks!

Check out these crowds!

Check out these crowds!

It’s a good idea to arrive early (by 3 or 4pm) to stake out a spot, because it gets ridiculously crowded.

When is Yi Peng?

Two separate Yi Peng lantern release events are held each year. The first event has no admission charge, and is primarily attended by local Thai people, expats, and tourists-in-the-know. Because it’s free, this first event is typically VERY crowded. A second event is held a week or two later specifically for tourists, and a limited number of tickets are sold for about $100 each to keep crowding down. The ticket price includes transportation to and from Mae Jo, dinner, a lantern, and even a seating mat and scarf. Plus you won’t have to contort yourself into strange positions in order to fit into the small space you staked out on the temple grounds.

There is a Ceremony happening up there somewhere!

There is a Ceremony happening up there somewhere!

The date of the free lantern release is typically kept under wraps until last minute in an attempt to limit the number of tourists who flock to Chiang Mai to attend. I can understand why they want to limit the number of tourists at the event, because I saw some people being pretty darn disrespectful while we were there (see my note about respect below).

For 2014, the free event was held on Saturday, October 24. The paid event is scheduled for Saturday, November 8 (get tickets here).

The Best Way to Experience Yi Peng

Kevin Holding our Lantern

Kevin Holding our Lantern

We opted to attend the free event because it’s so darn hard for us to stomach paying $100/ticket. That’s like 100 dinners for us here. CAN. NOT. HANDLE. Plus, I like to experience local traditions with the locals. I think it just means more to experience this Buddhist festival with people who actually know about the religious customs and traditions.

Yi Peng 2014

Yi Peng 2014

We’ve learned an important lesson here in Thailand, based loosely on the 80/20 Pareto Principle. In Thailand, you can usually spend just an extra 20% and increase your comfort level by 80%. We decided to splurge on a 500 Baht/person (about $15) round-trip air conditioned van ride to Mae Jo. And let me tell you, it was a HOT day, there was a TON of traffic, and we were thrilled to have aircon. We could have saved $3 each by booking round-trip in a Songathew. (A Songathew is a pickup truck taxi with bench seating in the covered truck bed.  Definitely no aircon, but plenty of dust and exhaust.) We could have saved $10 each by just flagging down a Songathew and haggling over price, but that would involve walking a few miles in the heat and haggling, two things guaranteed to turn me into a monster. We could have saved even more money by borrowing our landlord’s scooter, but I’m fairly certain I’d be making this post from a hospital bed right now if we had done that! Do yourself a favor, just pay up front for the round trip air-conditioned transport. You can thank me later.

Yi Peng 2014

Yi Peng 2014

Booking round-trip transport for Yi Peng is easy – any hotel reception desk or tour company can do it for you. We walked into a hotel near our condo the day before the festival and asked them to book it for us. The real trick is finding out the date – we would’ve missed it were it not for the ridiculous number of Chiang Mai Facebook groups I’ve joined.

A Note about Safety

Lantern Lighting 101

Lantern Lighting 101

If you’re skiddish about being in huge crowds, this event is not for you. If you’re afraid of fire, this event is definitely not for you. Each year for Yi Peng, people pack into the temple grounds nearly shoulder to shoulder. At some point after everyone crams in, hundreds of torches all throughout the crowd are set on fire, and people start to light their lanterns on these torches and send them floating, on fire, into the air. Some lanterns catch on fire, like the one in this video, which landed right next to us:

There are a very limited number of small exit points, and no one announces an emergency evacuation plan. In fact, the exits are so insufficiently sized that it took us about an hour just to get out of the temple grounds after the ceremony ended. To top things off, I even got burned at Yi Peng this year! Some people get torch wax on their lanterns before releasing them, so hot fiery flaming wax rains down as the lantern floats off into the air. I’m sporting a nice red burn on my arm this week, so that’s fun. At least I was consoled by fireworks:

So let’s recap: huge crowds + open flames everywhere + floating fiery lanterns + hot flaming wax raining down from the sky = SIGN ME UP, AMIRITE?! Crowd control and liability are treated a bit more loosely here. It’s good and bad; you just have to be sure you’re watching out for yourself. In spite of the crowds and the fiery wax falling from the sky, Yi Peng is still definitely worth attending. It’s truly magical – I just might recommend wearing a hat and long sleeves, or bringing a small fire extinguisher.

A Note about Respect

Yi Peng 2014

Yi Peng 2014

Yi Peng is a wonderful, spectacular experience, one I’ll never forget. Unfortunately, a lot of the tourists who attend either don’t know or don’t care that it’s a religious ceremony. It’s hard to enjoy the experience when the guy next to you is playing games on his iPad during the ceremony, with the sound on. It’s pretty annoying when everyone is standing up to take photos in spite of the announcer’s repeated attempts to get people to sit down.

Yi Peng 2014

Yi Peng 2014

We even saw a couple girls whose clothes were so skimpy that I was afraid I would see some boobs if they so much as sneezed or coughed. I can’t wait for the day when I’m an old, spunky grandma that can walk up to girls wearing shorty shorts and say, “You know I can see your ass cheeks, right?” Luckily, there are students stationed at the entrances who will turn you away if you’re not dressed appropriately. Shoulders and knees should be covered, but you get bonus points if you go traditional Lanna style and wear all white.

We Want to Hear From You!

Have you had any experiences on your travels that are must-dos? Leave us a comment and let us know!