Tuesday Taste: Kanom Krok

Delicious Kanom Krok

Delicious Kanom Krok

Since I’m bound to run out of tips, but I’m still obsessed with alliteration, Tuesdays will sometimes be Tuesday Taste day instead of Tuesday Tips day.  I think most of our friends know that half the reason we’re over here is because of the food.  I love Thai food more than I love cake.  (I can hear a collective gasp from our friends and family in the U.S. from all the way across the ocean.  I know, it’s a shocking revelation.)  Hopefully you’ll enjoy seeing some of the delicious things we’re trying over here.  Last night, Kevin had an ant larvae omelette, but I forgot to snap a photo. DOH! This week, we stopped at a street vendor in Chiang Mai to have some Kanom Krok, which is a coconut custard dessert that is made in a Kanom Krok pan.  We’ve seen vendors make other tasty things in these pans as well, like cooked quail eggs and mussels balls (batter, mussels and veggies).  Here I am, below, in a time-lapse set of photos, looking very excited about the Kanom Krok.  Eight of these suckers cost us 20 Baht, or about 60 cents.  Worth every Baht.

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If you want to try to make these at home, you’ll need your own kanom krok pan, which I’ve seen on Amazon billed as an Aebleskiver pan.  I tried making these with my sister-in-law Beth not too long ago – we used this recipe which has potential, but we thought that the topping should only have called for 1/2 tsp. of salt!  If you don’t want to buy the custom pan, I’d recommend trying a mini-muffin pan, and seeing if you could alter the recipe to make these in an oven.  If anyone gives this a shot, please let me know how it goes!

Minimizing Your Losses When Obtaining Thai Currency

That's Some Legit Thai Currency $1 USD is roughly 32 Thai Baht, depending on current exchange rates

Thai Currency
Today, $1 USD is roughly 32 Thai Baht

Did you know that a typical ATM withdrawal fee in Thailand is 180 Baht (about $6 US)? Did you know that many credit cards charge a 3% foreign transaction fee? Or how about that many establishments charge an extra fee for you to pay with plastic?  Aside from hotels and nicer restaurants that we don’t tend to frequent very often (such is the life of the unemployed), Thailand has mostly a cash-based economy, and you may get laughed at if you try to offer up a credit card when it comes time to pay.

So how can you minimize your losses when obtaining Thai Currency? Here are a few tips.

For Short Term Travelers:

  • Get a little Thai currency before you leave home, if possible.  Check with your local bank to see if they offer a reasonable exchange rate for Thai Baht. If they do, we recommend changing about $30 USD for Thai Baht. This should get you through your airport connection, and pay for any early transportation costs in Thailand. (This is especially true if you’re traveling to Chiang Mai – Taxi fares in Chiang Mai from the airport to any hotel in the city are currently pegged at a cost of 120 Baht, or about $4. So cheap!)
  • Identify at least 2 credit cards and 2 ATM cards you can use abroad, and call those banks to:
    1. Ask what fees apply to card usage / ATM withdrawals in foreign countries.
    2. Ask the bank to place a travel notice on your cards. Banks may suspect your cards were stolen and freeze them if you use them in a foreign country without notifying them of your travel plans! We all know they do this for our own good, but in a foreign country where calls to the US are expensive and confusing to make, this can be a nightmare!
  • Typically, the best exchange rates are obtained at an ATM.  The fee most foreign ATMs charge tends to be a flat rate regardless of the amount you withdraw, so you should take out as much as you can per transaction.  Many Thai ATMs can distribute a maximum of 20 bills at a time, which means a maximum of 20,000 THB (about $600 US).  This will last you a LONG time in Thailand.
  • In addition to figuring out how which ATM card is best to use in Thailand, it always gives me a warm fuzzy feeling to travel with a little extra U.S. cash.  Withdraw some crisp, new $100 bills from your local bank to bring over from the U.S. to exchange. There are places to exchange currency nearly everywhere you turn in Thailand, and they almost always offer a better rate for $100 bills than for $50s; some will even refuse old tattered bills.  The best currency exchange rates can be found if you go into a bank, rather than the kiosks on the street.

For Long Term Travelers and Frequent International Travelers:

  • Get an ATM card at a bank that refunds foreign ATM fees!  This is the single most important thing you should do if you spend extended amounts of time abroad.  We have a Schwab High Yield Investor Checking account.  In order to open one of these accounts, you also have to open a a Schwab One Brokerage Account and link the two accounts.  With these accounts opened and linked, neither will have any fees or minimum balance requirements.  ATM fees are refunded automagically at the end of each month.  Some helpful tips:
    • Start the application process for these accounts two months before leaving home so you can receive your new cards in the mail with plenty of time to spare.
    • Before leaving home, link the Schwab checking account to one of your other bank accounts so you can transfer money easily.  This requires mailing in a paper form. (I know, what is this, the 80’s?!  Is it time to bust out my stirrup pants and t-shirt rings?!)  Allow ample time for this step!  We sent in the wrong form the first time, of course.
    • As a rule of thumb, we aim to keep a zero balance in the Schwab account most of the time in case our ATM card gets skimmed/stolen.  When we need money, we schedule a transfer (which usually takes 4-5 days to complete) and withdraw the money as soon as its in the Schwab account.
    • Be sure you understand your daily ATM withdrawal limits and what happens if you try to overdraft.  This is important to know, especially if you need to take out large amounts of money each month to pay for apartment rent.  We specifically ensured that transactions would be rejected if the account balance was zero.
  • Get a credit card with no foreign transaction fees!  We use the Chase United Plus card, which comes with perks like bonus miles, free checked bags, priority boarding, and 2 United Club passes per year.  The annual fee of $95 is waived for the first year, but Kevin has been successful 2 years in a row at getting this fee waived by calling and threatening to cancel the card.

Safety Tips

Here I am, acting suspicious at the ATMs.
If anyone sees this, I’m now in a Thai Jail. Please send money. (KIDDING)

  • Because ATM card skimming can happen anywhere in the world, you should follow a few precautions when withdrawing money.  Pick a non-sketchy-looking ATM, however you choose to define that.  We like to find newer ATMs that adjoin a bank, or look for ATMs the locals seem to favor using.  We avoid dark alleyways and ATMs near packs of young hooligans.  Always give the card reader a little tug before inserting your card, to make sure nothing extra has been attached to it to steal your card info.  And always, always, always cover your hand when entering your pin number at the ATM!
  • If you bring over lots of cash, protect it!  At hotels, we like to use a cable and luggage lock to lock up our bags up and secure them to something in the room.  This sure beats carrying a thousand bucks in your purse when you’re walking around unfamiliar places.


Future Posts

We want to post about things that interest you!  I know I’ve talked a lot lately about chapped asses and bathroom escapades, but blogging about those topics alone is not sustainable.  It also makes me feel like a huge weirdo.  In the future, we’re hoping to blog about what we do in a typical day, going to the dentist in Thailand, what we packed, and preparations we made before leaving Seattle.  If you have suggestions for future blog post topics, please leave us a comment to let us know!

Tuesday Tip: Never go anywhere in Southeast Asia without a packet of tissues!

Carry these lifesavers everywhere you go!

Carry these lifesavers everywhere you go!

During our travels in Vietnam and Thailand, we’ve learned that you can never, ever count on a public restroom to be stocked with toilet paper, soap, or paper towels.  There’s no feeling quite like the one you get when you sit down to go to the bathroom, then have that “OMG-THERES-NOT-A-SHRED-OF-TOILET-PAPER-ANYWHERE-NEAR-ME” moment.  Talk about a huge mistake.

I’d estimate something like 20% of bathrooms in Vietnam had toilet paper.  That number is definitely higher in Thailand, but it’s still never, ever a guarantee!

Save yourself some trouble, and be sure to purchase some travel tissue packs and hand sanitizer before leaving home.  Or, if you arrive unprepared, that sort of thing is pretty darn cheap at any 7-11.  Hopefully this post will help to keep you from making a huge mistake!

Is there any item you never travel without?  If so, leave us a comment, we’d love to hear it!


Finding an Apartment in Chiang Mai

Mistake: Expecting Too Much out of our Chiang Mai Apartment Search

Finding an apartment or condo for rent can be tricky in Thailand, but here are a few good lessons we learned in our saga to find a new 7-month home in Chiang Mai.  Our apartment search began a couple weeks before we left Seattle.  We contacted Chiang Mai based property management company Perfect Homes, and connected with Noon.  She emailed us a few listings before we left Seattle, but warned us that apartments tend to come onto the market and get rented fairly quickly, so it’s best to wait until we arrive to see what’s available.

Before leaving Seattle, we came up with a list of our apartment must-haves:

  • Pool
  • Air conditioned gym
  • Hot water
  • Kitchen with fridge and hot plate
  • At least two separate work spaces, since we’ll be working on lots of projects here
  • Good natural light
  • Good walkability to restaurants and a fresh market (we won’t have a motorbike during our time here, so this was important!)
  • Budget: $700/month
  • 7-month lease

The Search

We looked at a dozen apartments, all shown on the map below.  Click on a pin to see more detail about a particular apartment.  Our search began in May 2014, which is considered the low season in Chiang Mai when apartment rent tends to be lower than the November-December High Season.

We focused our search in the Nimmanhaemin and Chang Klan areas.  The Nimman neighborhood is one of the trendiest areas in Chiang Mai, and is home to many expatriates from various other countries.  It’s hard to pop into one of Nimman’s MANY coffee shops without meeting someone from the US, Australia or New Zealand.  Over the course of our entire search, we looked at 3 apartments in Green Hill Place, 1 unit in Punna Residence, 1 unit in Hillside 2, 1 unit at One Plus Suan Dok, 1 unit in DD Park, 3 units at Twin Peaks, 1 unit in Peaks Garden, and 1 unit at Riverside.  A dozen units!  It was exhausting!

On Day 1 of our apartment search saga, we worked with Noon from Perfect Homes and saw 6 different apartments.  Unfortunately, Perfect Homes doesn’t provide transportation to and from apartment complexes.  We hadn’t quite figured out how to use the many transportation options in Chiang Mai yet, so we ended up walking over 11 miles in 95-degree weather!  I know I promised in my Beijing Post not to talk about my chapped ass unless the situation got extremely dire.  Let me tell you, 11 miles of walking in 95-degree weather was DIRE.  To top it all off, we got caught up in a thunderstorm on our way home when we had our laptops with us, and had to spring back to the hotel!  Lesson learned – use a Songathew or Tuk-Tuk to get from point A to point B, and carry a damn poncho!

Day 2 was a dud.  But we did get Thai phone numbers and spent some time at the pool!  Little victories.

On Day 3 of apartment searching, I was at anxiety level orange thinking we might not find a new home.  We decided to expand our search and meet with agents from Satihoga Properties and Chiang Mai Properties.  Between Noon and the two other companies, we saw six more units which were all at the very top of our budget.  The best thing about Chiang Mai Properties is that they provide free transportation service to and from apartment viewings.

On Day 4 of our saga, we decided to return to the One Plus Suan Dok unit with Noon, which was the very first apartment we saw in Chiang Mai.  This was one of the smallest apartments we viewed, coming in at 41 sq. meters, but it also had the lowest rent price of any apartments we viewed at just 14,000 Baht, or about $430 USD.  The larger units we saw mostly came in over 65 sq. meters, but cost at least $200 USD more per month in rent, and all that extra square footage wasn’t always utilized efficiently.  In the end, we decided to go with the cheap apartment and use that extra $200 USD to get more Thai Massages and spend more time at coffee shops.

Our New Home, The Winner

  • A 1-bedroom, 41 sq. m top floor corner apartment in the One Plus Suan Dok condominium.
  • Location, location location!  We have a gorgeous temple right in our front yard (see photo below).  Wat Suan Dok is home to beautiful gardens, ornate buildings, and our favorite Vegetarian restaurant, Pun Pun.  There is also a fresh market right down the street.
  • Onsite gym (with aircon!), pool, and sauna (HA, like I’d ever use a sauna in a place as hot as Chiang Mai… good one, guys…)
  • YOU CAN FLUSH TOILET PAPER DOWN THE TOILETS HERE.  Words can’t express how excited I am about this.  In most bathrooms in Thailand, including some upscale hotels, you throw tissues into a waste receptacle instead of flushing.  I like to call the waste receptacle the “bin of doom”.  Luckily, this apartment will not be filled with doom.
  • Security: there are several 24-hour security guards onsite, and our building is accessed by fingerprint scan.
  • One note about the One Plus Suan Dok free internet – it is unbearably slow and requires you to login through a secondary sign-in screen several times throughout the day when you’re connected via wifi.  To quote Kevin, “If I imagined internet in Hell, this would be what it’s like.”

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What We Learned

  • Lower your expectations before arriving – no one finds the perfect apartment without shelling out some serious cash.  We compromised on space, but spent way less than we anticipated.
  • Use Perfect Homes for your property search in Chiang Mai!  Noon has gone way above and beyond the call of duty.  After we signed the contract and moved in, we expected her to disappear.  Instead, she helped us upgrade to faster internet and helped us set up weekly drinking water delivery!  These two things would’ve been impossible for us to do ourselves because the only Thai we speak is “Hello”, “Thank You”, and “How much”.
  • Utilities: Ask how much utility costs are – some condos inflate the government rate of 4 baht/unit for electricity!  Electric bills can be paid at your neighborhood 7-11, water bill is paid to the condo administrative office.  Maybe in the U.S. you should be able to pay bills somewhere you can also buy beer, I think that would take the sting out of winter heating bills.
  • Apartment Deposits are paid in cash!  For this apartment, we had to pay 2 months security deposit plus 1st month’s rent at contract signing, or 42,000 THB (about $1300 USD).  That’s a lot of cash, so bring some along or spread your ATM withdrawals out over several days!
  • Rent is also paid in cash!  Every month, we’ll take 14,000 THB to the bank and deposit it into our landlord’s account.
  • If you have time several months before arriving in Thailand, start your search on websites such as airbnb, flipkey, or tripadvisor vacation rentals.  Send messages to apartment owners to ask if they offer a monthly rate – more often than not they will knock several thousand baht off of the listing.  We started doing this after we arrived, but found that everything was already booked up.

We don’t think we’ve made a huge mistake in picking the small apartment; our mistake was expecting to find a huge, modern apartment in an awesome building with a great location and mountain view for just $500/month.  Because of this, we strung our search out over 4 days instead of going with our gut and renting the first apartment we saw.  Only time will tell whether picking the small apartment was a mistake – if we’re still married in 6 months, I’m calling it a success.

Have you had any crazy experiences searching for lodging on your travels?  If so, leave us a comment – we’d love to hear about your experience!  Safe travels, friends.


Tuesday Tip: Always Carry a Poncho in Thailand

Kevin Soaked

This week’s tip: Unexpected storms in Thailand will really rain on your parade, so carry a poncho!  We are trying out a new type of blogpost – Tuesday Tips.  Every Tuesday, we plan to post a small blurb with a tip for surviving successfully in Southeast Asia.

Everyone in Southeast Asia seems to carry around a cheap plastic poncho to throw on when a thunderstorm sneaks up on you.  We were out and about with our laptops when a thunderstorm rolled in and it started downpouring.  We had to run back to our Hotel so our laptops wouldn’t get wet!  After the storm, we picked up cheap plastic ponchos at the 7-11 (there is a 7-11 on nearly every corner in Chiang Mai) for less than $1.  We’ll never leave home without them again.