We’ve Finished our RTW, so What Were Our Favorite… Ruined Cities?!

We’ve finished our RTW trip. We get a lot of questions about our favorite things on the trip. We’ve decided to start a new series called “So, What Was Our Favorite…” We visited 29 countries on our RTW: Egypt (just 1 day), South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe (just 1 day), Namibia, Germany (just 1 day), Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Greece, Turkey, Ireland, USA, Myanmar, Singapore, Indonesia (just Bali), Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Macau, and Nepal.

This edition looks at our top 10 favorite ruined ancient cities. These are not in order from best to worst. They are just our top 10 favorite in the order in which we visited them.

Butrint (Albania)

Butrint was the first large ruin we visited in Europe. This archaeological site has a fascinating history: it has been the location of Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman settlements. Old structures from all of these are scattered throughout this small park located on a peninsula in a lagoon off the Straits of Corfu.

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Delphi (Greece)

The ancient site of Delphi was a pilgrimage site located in the Peloponnese of Greece. The biggest part of the site is the sanctuary of Apollo, the big destination for those coming to consult the Oracle. Delphi was an active site from at least the 8th century BC up until the 4th century AD (meaning even the Romans kept the site active). Since it was such a popular site, many of the different Greek city states built “treasuries” containing offerings to Apollo to thank the oracle for her advice. The most well-preserved of the treasuries is the Athenian Treasury, built by the Athenians to commemorate their victory at the Battle of Marathon.

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Olympia (Greece)

Olympia was the host site for the ancient Olympic Games from the 8th century BC all the way until the 2nd century AD. These ancient games were not just an athletic competition: they were also a chance for the Greeks to pay tribute to their Gods. Therefore, the site has quite the collection of ruins, both for athletic and sacred events.

Temple of Zeus with fallen columns

Temple of Zeus with fallen columns

Mystras (Greece)

Mystras is the ruins of the medieval fortified Byzantine city located near Sparta. It is considered as one of the last remaining centers of Byzantine culture until the empire fell in the 15th century. It is located on a mountain with the ruins of the castle at the very top, with monasteries, the palace, and residences on the way down. The monasteries were both abandoned and active with some old but well-preserved frescoes that gave a glimpse into the Greek Orthodox culture as it existed during the late Byzantine period.

The ruins of the castle of Mystras

The ruins of the castle of Mystras

Ephesus (Turkey)

Ephesus is on the western coast of Turkey. According to Lonely Planet, it is the most complete classical metropolis in Europe. It started around the tenth century BC and was once part of the Ionian League. It also served as the Roman capital of Asia Minor. Its Temple of Artemis was the biggest on earth and one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Unfortunately, all that is left of that Temple is one solitary, lonely, rebuilt column. The rest of the site is quite extensive and includes a large marble-paved sacred way, lined by different structures, such as temples, fountains, public baths and even a public lavatory. The most impressive piece of architecture is the restored facade of the Library of Celsus.

Library of Celsus

Library of Celsus

Tlos (Turkey)

Tlos was one of the most important cities in ancient Lycia. It is a fascinating site because it has been pretty much continually occupied from the time of Lycia all the way up to the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century! It has the distinctive rock tombs of Lycia, as well as an a Roman-era acropolis, theater, stadium, and baths. In addition there are Byzantine church ruins and an Ottoman-era fortress atop the peak. Another thing that makes Tlos impressive is its absolutely awesome setting, situated in the foothills of the Akdağlar mountain range.

Distinctive Lycian rock tombs and sarcophogi

Distinctive Lycian rock tombs and sarcophogi

Bagan (Burma/Myanmar)

The area of Bagan  is a large plain next to the Ayerawaddy River that is covered with over 3000 Buddist temples built from 11th to 13th century.  After years of neglect, many of the temples have been restored and Bagan is one of the highlights of any itinerary in Myanmar. This site was the largest that we had seen thus far on the world trip.

View from Shwesandaw Paya

View from Shwesandaw Paya

Angkor (Cambodia)

This was another site that was extremely large, stretching over some 400 square km. Angkor  contains the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century. The kings who ruled over the empire constructed large numbers of temples in the city as befitting of its status. They include the famous Temple of Angkor Wat and, at Angkor Thom, the Bayon Temple with its countless sculptural decorations, and many others.

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Sukhothai (Thailand)

The Sukhothai kingdom came into prominence in the mid-13th century AD after the Khmer empire began to decline. It grew into a strong regional power and is known today for the unique artistic style that can be seen in the remaining temples. There are a large number of ruins to be seen which are spread out over a moderately-sized range. We particularly enjoyed Wat Si Chum, which contains an impressive large Buddha that is a great example of the Sukhothai style of art. The location of this image helps amplify its impact: at first you can only see the face, until you slip through a narrow passage and find yourself at the base of the immense seated figure.

Looking up at Buddha

Looking up at Buddha

Ayutthaya (Thailand)

The kingdom of Ayutthaya, located on an island in the middle of a river about 50 miles north of present-day Bangkok, came into prominence a couple of centuries later than Sukhothai. It was the capital of the kingdom of Siam and the major trading port with the outside world. An invading Burmese army destroyed most of the city in 1767, but some restoration has been done. Our favorite part was a unique and curious sight: the head of a Buddha image wrapped up in the roots of a tree. No one is sure how this got here.

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We’ve Finished our RTW, so What Was Our Favorite… Food?!

We’ve finished our RTW trip. We get a lot of questions about our favorite things on the trip. We’ve decided to start a new series called “So, What Was Our Favorite…” We visited 29 countries on our RTW: Egypt (just 1 day), South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe (just 1 day), Namibia, Germany (just 1 day), Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Greece, Turkey, Ireland, USA, Myanmar, Singapore, Indonesia (just Bali), Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Macau, and Nepal.

This first edition will cover our 5 favorite cuisines from the countries we visited. These are in order!

5th Favorite: Greek

We spent almost a month in Greece and we only just barely got sick of eating the same kind of food every day. We loved eating delicious Greek salads, and particularly enjoyed slurping up tzatziki sauce. Della, in particular, loved the constant access to delicious olives. Souvlaki wasn’t bad either =)

4th Favorite: Singaporean

We were delighted with the huge variety of food available in Singapore. It is a combination of Indian, Indonesian, and Chinese flavors. We also particularly enjoyed one of their national dishes: laksa.

3rd Favorite: Bosnian

We had been a little tired of some of the food we had been eating in Central Europe which consisted of a lot of heavy meat, starches, and very few vegetables. We were thrilled when we arrived in Bosnia and found much more variety than we had been expecting. We had the best of the meat with cevapi and easy, quick food with burek. But we also suddenly had access to stuffed green peppers. In addition, the food was considerably more affordable than all of our prior countries. Yum!

2nd Favorite: Vietnamese

Overall, the best part of our trip food wise the second half in SE Asia. We really enjoyed all of the noodle and curry dishes in most of the countries in 2015. However, Vietnam really stood out. We had some really great pho, which is one of our go-to foods here at home. But, we also had access to a variety of other delicious Vietnamese foods including spring rolls, bun cha (vermicelli), and many other great soups! Basically, there was very few things we tried in Vietnam that we didn’t love. And, to top it all off, it was quite affordable.

Favorite Food in the World: Thai

This wasn’t unexpected. Thai food is Della’s favorite ethnic cuisine here at home as well. But, the ease of access to really great, really affordable food made Thailand the clear best. They have a wide variety of delightful noodle dishes including some of our favorites: pad thai and pad see ewe. On top of that, we often enjoyed delicious curries of all varieties. Street food was easy to come by and we found several great spring rolls as well. We were excited enough to take a cooking class to learn how to make it easily at home!

Budget: Thailand

This is one of our Budget series of posts to give you an idea of how much we spent traveling around the world. Here we will look at Thailand. Check our posts to see what kind of activities we did and where we stayed!

In Thailand we used the Thai Baht. We converted to US dollars using the current conversion rates at the time of our visit. It was approximately 3 baht to $0.01.

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Total Spent (23 days): $1415.20

Accommodation: $390.07

We stayed in several places in Thailand. Our first time was in Bangkok for a few days in January before we headed to Myanmar. We returned to Thailand on the the 5th of March and we stayed mostly in small hotels or guesthouses. Much of our time in Thailand, we were traveling with Della’s parents. There was one hotel that we stayed at for 2 nights that Della’s parents paid for as a gift.

Activities: $369.65

This included a lot of things! Entrance fees to museums and wats, a movie in Bangkok, a day with elephants, a cooking class, and even a snorkeling trip!

Alcohol: $31.53

We only count alcohol costs when it is not purchased with other food.

Food: $327.73

We loved the food in Thailand and often ate out for lunch and dinner. Only a very few of our accommodations included breakfast, so we often purchased that as well.

Miscellaneous: $46.38

This included a lot of added toiletries as well as several souveniers. It is amazing how many things we start to buy when we know that we can send it home with Della’s parents! 😉 We also had to purchase a new battery for Eric’s fitbit.

Transportation: $249.67

We traveled around a lot in Thailand! This cost is actually quite low when you think about where we went. We traveled by bus from Chiang Rai, to Chiang, Mai, to Mae Sot, to Sukhothai, to Ayuthaya. Then we traveled by train to Bangkok. After that, we flew to Koh Lanta.

This divides out to $61.53/day which is under $100/day budget! Now that’s what we were hoping for in Asia! We even felt like we splurged on activities and accommodations, and we were able to remain this low, so it just goes to show that Thailand can be an inexpensive place to travel.

Lounging on the Beach at Ko Lanta, Thailand

“Mountains or beach?” That’s a question many people ask each other when making small talk. Generally, we choose mountains (as you may have guessed given that we live in Colorado – Della can provide a whole rant if you want), and we haven’t made a big effort thus far on the trip to spend a lot of beach time. Still, we figured it would be a shame to miss out on the world-class Thailand beaches, so we built a few days into the end off our time in Thailand to do so.

Picking a Beach

There are a huge number of beaches in Thailand, and we only wanted to see one. This meant sifting through a vast maze of information, from the recommendations of friends and family to guidebooks and online resources. So many data points just served to confuse us. And, just when we thought we’d made a decision, we’d discover something that turned us off. Wow, this island looks amazing… but it sounds pretty hard to get to quickly. Or This beach would be really easy to get to… but it doesn’t sound like there is much to do once you get there. And so on.

In the end, the island that best fit our criteria was Ko Lanta. It seemed fairly easy to get to for a quick trip from Bangkok, it looked scenic and had plenty of stuff going on, and we could pre-book affordable accommodation. It was nice to get that decision made and get to the beach.

Getting There

It wasn’t quite as easy as we had hoped, but we made it there in one piece.

Where We Stayed

Based on the recommendation of some of our travel friends, we booked a bungalow at The Hut on Khlong Nin beach. (Even once we had decided on the island, we still had to pick the beach on the island to stay on.) Our bungalow was nice and spacious, with a covered front porch and a large bed. We did have an attached bathroom with a Western toilet and cold-water shower… but no sink, which we found inconvenient. The only cooling apparatus was a fan; no A/C, which would have been nice on the hot, muggy days, although we managed to cool off enough at night to sleep. The staff was very laid-back – almost a little too much so at times, but maybe we just don’t have the correct attitude for a beach ;-).  The location was not on the beach itself but just across the road, so not too bad. The price (about $15 a night) was pretty reasonable compared to other bungalows we priced out as well.

What We Did

We were looking forward to some relaxing times and we definitely were able to achieve that. Both the first and second days we didn’t emerge from our bungalow until it was time for lunch. The first day we just stayed on the beach after lunch and read and took turns swimming in the warm waters of the Andaman.

The second day we intended to rent a motorbike to see some of the other sights on the island… but when we admitted to the staff at The Hut where we were going to rent from that it was our first time, they refused to rent to us. Too discouraged to try another place, we spent another afternoon lounging on Khlong Nin beach.

In the evening we headed over to check out what we had seen advertised as a free beach exercise session followed by a yoga class. We were a little skeptical, but it turned out to be exactly that! A South African named Yakut first led us through a variety of exercises he seemed to make up on the spot, many involving the use of a large volcanic rock we picked up nearby. After a refreshing swim to cool off, the yoga session started. The yoga instruction itself was a little hit-or-miss, but the opportunity to do a sun salutation towards the setting sun was pretty incredible. We also enjoyed listening to Yakut espouse some of his personal philosophies.

The third day we decided to be a little more active and book a snorkel tour to the Four Islands area. We debated which company to go with, and ended up choosing “Lanta Nature Tour” since it was the cheapest. We were taken on a small “longtail” boat along with five others, including someone from Boulder, Colorado and a German who had gone to the University of Colorado for a year of study abroad – talk about a small world! We stopped at two small islands and hopped out for about 20 minutes of snorkeling. We didn’t see anything amazing, and the coral seemed a little worse for the wear, but the water was crystal clear, and we enjoyed swimming among schools of a smaller type of fish that had no fear.

The third stop was at the Emerald Cave, where we hopped out and swam into a natural opening underneath the limestone karst. Just past the entrance we got to see where the cave got its name from, and the water beneath us glowed in an emerald-esque color as it was lit from the sun outside. After we swam about 100 meters, we emerged into an interior oasis of a small beach open to the sky. It was quite pretty, although the effect was marred a bit by the vast crowds of loud tour groups talking excitedly.

We couldn't take any pictures of the cave since we had to swim into it, but we did get to enjoy a Pepsi afterwards

We couldn’t take any pictures of the cave since we had to swim into it, but we did get to enjoy a Pepsi afterwards

After we swam back out the cave, we headed to our final stop: lunch on the beach at Ko Ngai. This was our favorite stop; the view from our table of the longtail boats bobbing in the bright blue water above a white sand beach with limestone karsts in the distance was exactly what we had hoped to see on the beach in Thailand. We had about an hour to eat lunch and then relax in the water before we took the long ride back to Ko Lanta.

Where We Ate

Khlong Nin has a nice selection of restaurants along the beach, and we visited quite a few of them. Since it was our last few days in Thailand, we tried to eat our fill of curries and fried noodles. Della was especially insistent on choosing places that offered her favorite dish, pad see ewe.

Many of the beachfront restaurants offered happy hour deals on beer, which was great since the beach faces west. We took advantage and made sure to find a good seat to watch the sun fade below the horizon.

Final Thoughts

We are glad that we made our way to the beach, and Ko Lanta was very scenic. Khlong Nin was the right beach for us to choose (we saw some of the party beaches on the way out and were glad we didn’t choose them). It’s hard to say if we chose the right island or not. The frustrations of getting there and the relatively high prices once we arrived soured things a bit, but we might have had similar issues at many of the other islands. So, our trip to the Thailand beaches didn’t change our affiliation as “mountain people,” but it did provide for a scenic and relaxing way to say goodbye to Thailand.

Monthly Recap: Month 9

Another great month! We’re really starting to feel like the end of the trip is coming and we’re feeling more and more rushed to get through everything that we wanted to do. It’s funny how you can plan to be traveling for almost a year, but still end up feeling like you don’t have enough time =) However, we did take time this month to meet up with Della’s parents again a couple of times. They decided to have a big trip for themselves and as we write this update, they’ve been out for about 5 weeks and plan about 2 more. We haven’t stayed together the whole time, but have sort of met up and parted as our schedules allowed. We saw a lot of great things and explored a lot of new places this month. Our only complaint is that it is hot season here in SE Asia and we are REALLY hot all the time. We only have about 2 more weeks in this part of the world before we fly again to explore different parts of Asia.

Here are our stats for this month.

Countries visited:  3 (Laos, Thailand, Vietnam)

Beds Slept In: 13 (We only stayed one night in two towns on the slow boat journey to Thailand and then we went quickly through a couple of places: Sukhothai and Ayuthaya)

UNESCO Heritage Sights Visited:  3 (Historic Town of Sukhothai and Associated Historic TownsHistoric City of AyutthayaHoi An Ancient Town) Total on RTW: 40

We traveled by 3 planes this month.

We traveled by 2 boats this month.

We traveled 5 long distance buses/minibuses.

We traveled by 2 trains this month.

Top Moments:

~ We had an amazing time interacting with elephants at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary outside of Chiang Mai!

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Runners Up for Top Moments:

We had a bit of a hard time coming up with this list, because for the first time we had slightly different opinions of what to choose!

~ At Kuang Si Waterfalls outside of Luang Prabang, we took in some amazing scenery, got to watch some cute moon bears play, and took a refreshing swim.

Eric's jump

~ Also in Chiang Mai, we took an excellent cooking class in which we learned all about how to each the different yummy Thai dishes that we love!

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~ In Mae Sot, we meandered through a lively market which brought back great memories of our time in Myanmar.

Lively colorful market

~ We struggled for a long time to choose a Thai beach to go to. We had seen some really neat pictures of white sand beaches with large limestone karsts in the distance and longtail boats near the shoreline, and hoped that we could find a scene like that. The island we chose, Ko Lanta, doesn’t have those characteristics, which was a bit disappointing… but some nearby islands do! The last stop of our snorkeling tour was at Ko Ngai, and when we pulled up to the white sand beach we realized we had found just what we were looking for!

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Items Missing, Broken, Discarded, or Added:

Discarded/Broken:

  1. Old toothbrushes
  2. Our large bottle of sunscreen that was new in January
  3. Our large bottle of bugspray that was new in January

Added:

  1. New toothbrushes
  2. New insect repellent

Packing Update:

We feel like we’re a bit of a broken record here: we’re still happy with the contents of our bags. In the hot, humid weather it would be nice to have more shirts, but it wouldn’t be worth carrying them. We’ve also found that we probably could live with fewer socks and underwear because it is quite tempting to rinse them out in the shower or sink often (almost every night). Still carrying unused cold weather gear, but it’s still in hold for Nepal. We haven’t used our tupperware very much here in Asia. We find we don’t pack our lunches very often as food is plentiful and cheap (and really good!)

Books Read: (Have you read any of these??)

Della has read UnSouled by Neal Shusterman (4), A Place Called Freedom by Ken Follett (3), The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (3)

Eric has read All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy (4), Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (4)

Eric and Della have BOTH read The House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell (4), Saigon by Anthony Grey (5/4.5)

The rating system is for Della’s mom who is refusing to look at Goodreads. It is 1 to 5, 5 being the highest.

Make sure to catch up on all our monthly recaps: Monthly Recap 1, Monthly Recap 2, Monthly Recap 3,Monthly Recap 4, Monthly Recap 5, Monthly Recap 6, Monthly Recap 7, Monthly Recap 8

Moments of Misery: Long, Frustrating Travel Days (Bangkok to Koh Lanta)

Most of our posts on this blog will be happy recollections of some moments of our trip. But life on the road won’t always be fun. We feel like we’d like to share some of these moments of misery too. (OK, and vent a little about them too…)

Sometimes travel is exhilarating and challenging… sometimes it is just frustrating. When you’re on the road, you have some relaxing days, some big adventurous days, and some just travel days. The travel days are the ones where you have to move between locations and if you’re lucky, it is a quick and comfortable trip. If you’re unlucky, it can be the opposite.

We had spent a long time deciding which Thai beach to visit and had ultimately picked Koh Lanta after reading some amazing reviews on other blogs and looking at some pictures. The only problem with Koh Lanta is that it is relatively far south of Bangkok, actually a bit closer to the Malaysia border. We had heard that it wasn’t really that hard to get to though – just a quick flight from Bangkok to Krabi and then grab a minibus from the airport that will drop you off at your accommodation on the island. Sounds easy right?

Our long day started in Bangkok where it was hot and sticky. We knew we could get to the airport via the metro/train and were intrigued by the challenge of getting there on our own. Even our hostel hadn’t known about this connection! Their first instinct had been to take a taxi! But, we thought we could do it more cheaply (and more adventurously) ourselves. This involved a 10 to 15 min walk to the metro and a quick trip (just one stop) to the Hua Lamphong stop which is also the main Bangkok train station. We bought our tickets quickly (and cheaply for only 20 baht… though for some reason they were more expensive than the train tickets we had bought a few days earlier that had taken us all the way from Ayutthaya to Bangkok), got on the train, and headed to the Dong Muang airport. It actually all went according to plan! We should have been pleased… except we didn’t take into account how horribly humid Bangkok is. We were leaving relatively early (about 7:15 am) in the morning so we had figured it wouldn’t be too hot yet. But we were wrong. By the time we arrived at the train station, we were already dripping (yes, actually literally dripping) with sweat. The train was unairconditioned. We got some seats (which was lucky) but they weren’t right under the fan which was unfortunate. So we sweated more. When the train was moving it wasn’t too bad as the windows were open, but for some reason the train stopped a lot! By the time we arrived at the airport, Della felt like she had just stepped out of the shower, except instead of being fresh and clean she was stinky and dirty.

The Bangkok train station

The Bangkok train station

 

Our flight actually went quite smoothly, no problems at all! But it was on a budget carrier (Thai Lion) that we hadn’t used prior and the space for your knees was the smallest we had ever seen!

The next part was what we were least sure about. Multiple sources had indicated to us that we could just grab a minivan from the Krabi airport straight to Koh Lanta. So, once we landed, we set out to do this. Unfortunately, information at the airport was unhelpful and told us we had to go into Krabi town. We found another desk selling minibus transfers to multiple islands. They had one to Koh Lanta, but it was 490 baht instead of the 350 baht we were expecting. They told us they could take us into Krabi town to the pier for just 90 baht. They also said that the only way to get any bus at all would be to go to Krabi town. We thought we might be able to find the cheaper transfers from there so we got the ticket.

We piled onto a crowded bus and headed into Krabi town which was unfortunately 30 min away (in the opposite direction from Koh Lanta). When we arrived in town, we definitely did not go to the pier, or even to downtown, or even where there were any businesses at all. They dumped us off the bus at their main office and we had one choice – to take their expensive minibus. Either that or to head off into town on a hot day with our bags, not really knowing where we were going or how far that might be. So, we bought the tickets.

They said they would drop us off at our accommodation at Klong Nin Beach in Koh Lanta. There was some confusion as they had never heard of our place and didn’t seem to be able to read the map we were showing them. But they threw up their hands and just shoved the tickets at us. We assumed that meant that the driver would know. After the exchange was made, it was 1:15 and we thought we were going to get on the 2 pm bus. They hadn’t bothered to tell us that the 2pm bus was full so we would have to wait for the 3pm bus. Ugh.

With nothing to do but wait, and having had no food since breakfast, we decided to eat (at their restaurant). We were a little frustrated to give this annoying company more of our money, but we were hungry so we did anyway.

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At 3pm, our bus pulled up. We tried to talk with the driver to make sure he knew about our accommodation. He didn’t speak much English and walked away from us without ever communicating. Rude. But, we piled on with several other tourists. We were almost full to capacity when we left. Then we drove back to the airport!  Here we picked up about 5 more people… even though we had been told when we were at the airport 2 hours earlier that this was impossible. The new arrivals crowded into the bus that only had 2 seats left… Luckily for us, we weren’t squished so badly, but others in the bus had to sit 3 or 4 to 2 people seats. Then, finally we set out for the island.

It is a long drive (about 2 hours by any calculation) with 2 ferry crossings. The first one was fine. But, for some reason, the second ferry crossing took us about 45 min. The crossing itself is quite short, but it must have been rush hour on the island or something because we waited in a line of vehicles for about 35 min before we even got onto the ferry. By this point, everyone on the bus was hot, crowded, and grumpy.

Other cars getting loaded onto the ferry

Other cars getting loaded onto the ferry

After the long ferry crossing, we headed farther onto the island. The minibus stopped at the first main beach where some people got out either to stay there or to be transferred to a taxi to get to their accommodation. Here we tried to communicate again where we were staying. Our driver still didn’t understand us so got one of the taxi drivers to come and help. We said we needed to go to our place on Klong Nin Beach. He said, oh no, this minibus doesn’t go there, you will have to pay for a taxi. This seemed outrageous to us, so we absolutely refused. We had been told we would get to our accommodation and the minibus was going to take us there.

Ultimately, it was no problem, the minibus headed for Klong Nin, and we weren’t even the last ones off the bus. However, they did not take us to our accommodation and we did have to walk a ways. By that point, we were just happy to be off the bus.

We finally arrived at almost 6:30 pm. Luckily, our room was waiting for us. It was fan only, which we knew, but we could have really used some AC just then. We were also surprised that while having a toilet and a shower, our room did not have a sink. Strange?

But nothing really went wrong, and we made it safely and in one piece. Still, days like these can be so taxing. Heat, frustration, fear of getting ripped off, and delays can really take their toll.

Back in Bangkok

On our way south through Thailand, we knew we would end back up in its capital and largest city, Bangkok. You may recall that we already visited once in January, but we didn’t see all of the main sights, so we spent a few more days to discover more of what this immense metropolis has to offer.

Getting There

We were coming from Ayuthaya, which is pretty close to Bangkok – only about an hour or so by bus. Since we had done many long distance buses in a row, we decided to switch things up and ride the train into town. We had no idea what this entailed beyond that there were trains every hour or so. We were shocked at how low the price was: 15 baht (50 cents) per person! But this made a little more sense when we discovered that this was not a luxury train but a basic train car with open windows and old electric fans. It was pretty crowded, so at first we weren’t able to sit next to each other, but as the stops went on the crowds thinned out and we were able to be together. In the end it dragged a little bit and probably took longer than the bus would have, but it did take us into the heart of downtown and to a MRT subway station that was convenient for getting to our accommodations.

Where We Stayed

If you search on the Internet for travel blogs about Bangkok, you are bound to stumble upon a good number that rave about their stay at the Lub d Hostel. We had read enough about it that we decided to see for ourselves if this slick, modern hostel was all it was cracked up to be. We booked a “railway twin” room at the Silom location. The design scheme of the entire hostel felt “industrial chic,” with plenty of metal railings and exposed ductwork. The shared bathroom was large and nice. There was a bar and common area down below. We were very excited that they had a washer AND dryer for use for a small fee. They also had a movie room – but strangely no DVDs that one could borrow, so it seemed somewhat pointless.

With all these amenities and all of the rave reviews, we were expecting to love the place. But, as we have discussed before, high expectations are hard to live up to. We felt the service, especially at check-in, was a little slow and impersonal (they kept us waiting for about 10 minutes while filling out unnecessary paperwork, made us bring up the receipt on our phone even though they clearly had it on the computer, and didn’t bother to tell us to remove our bags or that our rooms weren’t ready until we had been standing there, sweat dripping, waiting to head up the stairs with our bags for over 10 min). The place was so big that we never made a connection with anyone (although I guess we could have tried to party more down at the bar…). It seemed like a lot of other travelers really had a good time though, so maybe we just discovered that the large, slick hostel is not our scene. It was also very expensive. We got a deal somehow, booking through agoda.com. But, the room that we were splurging on by paying $25/night (for almost no room, bunk beds, and shared bathroom) was apparently really worth $37/night. WAY too much. Especially since Della’s parents booked a ginormous room at a place with included breakfast, a jacuzzi, and a pool for $50/night. Lesson learned.

What We Did

Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace – We had missed the city’s main attraction on our first stop in Bangkok so we made sure to visit this time. It was a visual spectacle, but also so crowded that we aren’t sure we’d recommend going out of your way to see it!

Getting there was a bit of an adventure. The grounds are located in an area that is not served by the Sky Train or metro system, so to use public transportation requires a bit more advanced planning. From the Silom district where we stayed, it seemed like one of the fastest and most interesting ways was to take the public boats that run up and down the Chao Phraya river. We lost a little bit of time by heading to a stop that is not currently operational (which begs the question of why stop 2 is still a numbered stop in the first place, but we digress). Once we got to the right stop, we got to see the intriguing loading of the boats for the first time. They try to move very quickly, so they zoom up to the docks, quickly tie a rope, and then back into place. You have to be speedy if you want to hop on or off!

We got off at the Tha Chang stop and headed with the crowds to the palace entrance. We paid our steep (500 baht = $15) entrance fee and headed into the first part, Wat Phra Kaew, a.k.a.the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. We first explored the colorful chedis, then braced ourselves and dove into the big crowds squeezing in to see the Emerald Buddha itself. The statue was pretty, but far away and a little small, so we didn’t linger.

We left the wat and then walked through the grounds of the palace. This was formerly the residence of the Thai royalty, and there are many fancy buildings that show a mix of Thai and Western architectural styles. Most are closed off to the public, but a few of the throne halls are open, so we wandered through them to see the splendor and take a brief respite from the heat.

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We followed a tip from Wayne and Peggy, who had visited the previous day (they chose to come to Bangkok while we did Ayuthaya), and finished our visit at the slightly out of the way Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles, which allows free admission with a palace ticket. Our first intention was just to take advantage of the AC and uncrowded bathrooms, but we also checked out the exhibit on the Queen’s fashion and were fascinated. Apparently, before a world tour in the 1960, she helped revive some classic Thai styles and designed nine different outfit styles that are still used by the Thai women today. There was also an activity room that described silk fashions, and Della got a chance to try on a traditional outfit.

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Wat Pho – Next door to the Palace is this major attraction in town, and one that we turned out to enjoy even more than the higher billed Palace. The highlight that you encounter when you first enter is a large, reclining Buddha. We took the prescribed route around, admiring the decorations on his feet. The rest of the grounds also proved peaceful and interesting to stroll through. Highlights were colorful royal chedis, monks leading schoolchildren in classes, and old educational inscriptions that helped serve the purpose of educating the populace on a variety of topics. The visit here was much calmer (and much cheaper) than the visit to the palace, so if you only have time for one, we think we’d recommend this one!

Saw a Movie – We had heard that the Thais love heading to a movie, so we thought we had to try and see a film while we were in the country. Each of the fancy malls has a nice theater, but we opted for a vintage experience and headed to the one-screen Scala theater. Luckily, it was showing a movie that we intended to see anyway: Insurgent, the second movie in the Divergent series. (Funny that both movies we have seen on the road are sequels in YA dystopian series). The inside of the theater felt old-school, with red velvet seats and ushers in yellow suits escorting us by flashlight to our assigned places. The screen and sound system were nice and modern however. One interesting experience unique to Thailand was that after the previews, they played the national anthem while showing a montage of clips of the king, throughout which the entire audience stood out of respect. The movie itself was good. It diverged (get it?) quite a bit from the novel, but in a way that made it have more action so it was pretty exciting.

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Danced in Lumphini Park – We joined Bangkok residents in their nightly workout routine!

Where We Ate

The Silom neighborhood where we stayed is more of a business district than a tourist district, so our cheap restaurant and street food options were a little limited. The Lub d staff did point us to one alley, Silom Soi 20, where there were some stalls and a few restaurants set up. We ate here twice, both times choosing restaurants with indoor seating to get out of the heat.

After visiting the Palace and Wat Pho, we decided to check out the Khao San backpacker area in the Banglamphu area to see what we were missing out on. We hoped to be able to find a lot of cheap street food, but we were looking in the middle of the afternoon and didn’t see nearly the variety that we had hoped for. We ended up choosing a small sit-down restaurant that was open and had Della’s preferred dish, pad see ewe.

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Before we saw the movie, we decided to visit a mall food court for lunch. We decided to branch out (the last time we had visited MBK’s two courts), so this time we went to “Food Republic,” the food court on the upper level of the Siam Central. It felt a little fancier than the cheaper court in MBK, but the prices were reasonable and the selection was pretty good. Della was able to get a pad thai and Eric had green curry with roti (Indian fried bread) instead of the standard rice.

Final Thoughts

We’re glad we had a few more days to see more of the sights in Bangkok. It’s a big city, so we still didn’t even see everything on our list! The heat and humidity made it hard to want to push to see lots of things, so we’d like to come back when it’s a little cooler. It was nice to be back in a big city and have easy use of public transportation as well. Bangkok’s a little frenzied and the climate isn’t the best, but we think we like it!

Dancing in Sukhothai and Bangkok, Thailand

The heat of Sukhothai was sticky and oppressive, even though it was finally dark. Despite that, we were excited about the prospect of visiting a new town, and hungry for some delicious Thai street food. As we exited the hotel, we saw lights dancing across the river and could hear the bass booming. Something was going on! We wandered across the bridge and found ourselves in a lively night market, boasting all sorts of yummy Thai delicacies- most of which we didn’t even know what they were. We browsed the choices, noticing coconut drinks, fried squids, unidentified balls of something squishy (and delicious, it turns out), Sukhothai style noodles, and frying Roti. After stuffing ourselves, we found our way out of the market into the adjoining park where people we relaxing, working out, and watching a dance performance.

 

About 20 women, wearing what looked like cheerleader uniforms, were dancing together in the middle of the park in front of the stage of musicians. The dances looked memorized and rote, as if they were well known line dances and occasionally other women from the audience would join. The music was loud, the lights were flashing, and people were watching. We settled ourselves down on nearby steps to take in the sight.

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It wasn’t long before a local man – gregarious, bearded, and possibly drunk – ran up to to us, bringing plastic chairs. They somehow had appeared and he wanted us to have them. He found more and more till each of us had a seat. Then, he waggled his eyebrows, wiggled his hips, and threw out a hand to Della. Somehow, he must have known that it is impossible for her to say no to a dance. He led her to the stage, where they joined in with the rest of the women who were now doing some sort of circle line dance.

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The man wriggled and shook, and sort of followed the group. Della tried to pick up the steps and after a few shared smiles with the other women felt like part of the group. A few laughs were shared through a few more dances until the friendly man brought her back to the family. With a quick smile and bow to Eric and Wayne, he disappeared back into the park to join his friends.


As in Phnom Penh, the ladies of Bangkok (and some men) enjoy a good dance aerobics class. We had enjoyed Lumbini Park on our first trip through the city, and were pleased to learn that there should be dancing in the evening there. After a bit of a lazy, more at home kind of day, which consisted of sleeping in, heading to the mall for lunch, and watching a new release movie, we took a train to the park.

There was slight wind, which was a great relief as it wafted by us, slightly cooling our sticky bodies. We wandered through the throngs of joggers, walkers, and general exercisers until we found an area with big speakers set up. We stopped to wait, assuming we had found the place, though there seemed to be no gathering people. We entertained ourselves by watching a group of young Thai men practicing their acrobatic skills – running and flipping off of the rocks on the grass.

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As it got a little later, people began to converge on the spot, and suddenly, the music boomed out and it was time to start. The group became huge, close to a hundred dancers, with up to 3 or 4 leaders, spread out so all could see. We danced hard, working up quite a sweat. The routines were simple and easy to follow and we felt in our element.

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But, all too soon, after only about 25 min, there was a quick stretch and the music stopped. What? So soon? We drank down a bunch of water, trying to rehydrate after we had sweat all of water out, and began to pack up to head home. But then, the loudspeakers played the song we had come to recognize. The music must have said: prepare yourselves, it is almost 6 pm, it is time for the national anthem and respect to the king to be paid. Movement continued, people continued to talk, joggers kept jogging until 6 o’clock on the dot. The anthem started to play and the entire moving park came to a stop. The streams of runners, the walkers, dancers, and even the acrobatic kids were still for the anthem – about a minute. And then it was done, the pause button unpressed, and life moved on.

Our dance class started back up. Part 2 was much harder, much more complicated! They must do the same class every evening, but there were those around us who knew exactly what to do, with almost no instruction. It became more and more tricky with long sequences back and forth and even turning around in circles. We flailed around, not really able to keep up with the group, but enjoying our clumsy attempts. Another 30 min passed, we admit this one went a bit slower. We were relieved, sopping wet, when the stretching finally came.

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Once again, we really enjoyed participating in a non-tourist activity, and seeing a community come together to exercise in the evening. All these cities in Asia really have it right!

 

The Ancient Thai Kingdoms of Sukhothai and Ayuthaya

In between Chiang Mai and Bangkok are two sites of special historic significance in Thai history: Sukhothai and Ayuthaya. Both were the seat of ancient kingdoms that are seen as predecessors to the modern government of Thailand, and now both are UNESCO World Heritage listed sites. We debated only visiting one, but ultimately decided that we needed to see both to better understand Thai history.

Sukhothai

The Sukhothai kingdom came into prominence in the mid-13th century AD after the Khmer empire (the one that was based in Angkor) began to decline. It grew into a strong regional power and is known today for the unique artistic style that can be seen in the remaining temples.

There are a large number of ruins to be seen which are spread out over a moderately-sized range. We rented bicycles by the entrance booth to make sure that we could reach the further-out sites. We also rented audio guides, which proved to be quite helpful both for understanding what we were seeing and helping us choose which of the sites to focus on. (One tip for future visiting couples – each guide player has two headphone jacks, so if you bring an extra pair of headphones you can share a player).

The park is split into a few different zones that each require their own ticket. We focused our visit on the Central Zone and the Northern Zone.

The Central Zone contains the majority of the interesting sites worth visiting. One of the most impressive is also the biggest: Wat Mahathat. There are many ruined columns of old gathering places, and Buddha statues and chedis (a.k.a. stupas, cone-shaped structures that hold a relic).

The biggest attraction of the Northern Zone is Wat Si Chum, which contains an impressive large Buddha that is a great example of the Sukhothai style of art. The location of this image helps amplify its impact: at first you can only see the face, until you slip through a narrow passage and find yourself at the base of the immense seated figure. Buddha’s tapered fingers are now golden after having gold leaf applied to them.

There are many other temples worth seeing in the two zones as well. We visited the different sites listed as stops on our audio guide. One interesting feature we noted was the influence of the Khmer empire was still felt: many of the temples had towers that would have looked at home in Angkor Wat.

There is also a National Museum on the grounds that we visited mostly to try to understand more about what we had seen but also to escape the oppressive sun and heat outside! The air-conditioned space had a decent presentation of artifacts from the various periods of Sukhothai history.

Ayuthaya

The kingdom of Ayuthaya, located on an island in the middle of a river about 50 miles north of present-day Bangkok, came into prominence a couple of centuries later than Sukhothai. It was the capital of the kingdom of Siam and the major trading port with the outside world. An invading Burmese army destroyed most of the city in 1767, but some restoration has been done.

The sites in Ayuthaya can be divided into two areas: on the island and off the island. We rented bicycles to visit the sites on the island, and took a boat cruise to see those off the island.

The largest and most important site on the island is Wat Phra Si Sanphet. It is just south of the what’s left of the palace, and its convenient location made it a popular temple for the kings to visit. Today the most important pieces remaining are three large chedis that house the remains of former Ayuthaya rulers.

The other big temple to visit on the island is Wat Phra Mahathat. It was also an important temple during its heyday, but now is a big tourist draw because of a unique and curious sight: the head of a Buddha image wrapped up in the roots of a tree. No one is sure how this got here.

At both of these two large sites we rented an audio guide. Whereas in Sukhothai the guide covered multiple sites, in Ayuthaya they had detailed guides only for the two big sites.

We also took short visits to the modern Wihan Phra Mongkhon Bophit, which houses a large bronze Buddha statue, and Wat Thammikarat, which has a chedi with lion statues at the base. Unlike Sukhothai, which sold a pass for each zone, Ayuthaya charges a fee at each site, so there were a few larger temples we just admired from a distance.

There is a national museum on the island, but instead of paying money to visit it we decided to follow the Lonely Planet recommendation and visited the Ayuthaya Tourist Center, where we got more information about what to see (they are really good about giving maps in Ayuthaya) and also enjoyed visiting a free exhibit about the history and culture of the site.

Our accommodations in Ayuthaya offered a boat cruise to see a few of the different sites off the island and just off the river. Our small boat took us and a few other people on a big loop around the island, stopping at three different places. Wat Phanan Choeng had a large Buddha image and a platform out on the river where one could earn merit by feeding the fish below (and the fish certainly knew this). Wat Phuttai Sawan  had some ancient ruins, a reclining Buddha, and a large Khmer-style prang.

The highlight of the boat trip was definitely the last stop at Wat Chai Wattanaram. It also felt very much like something that could have been plopped down in Angkor. The setting sun made for some nice light against its different Khmer-style prangs.

Logistics

In Sukhothai, we stayed in the town of New Sukhothai, which is about 10 km away from the historic center but has the majority of the accommodation options. To get to and from the historic park, we took the local “bus” which was basically a large pickup. We stayed at a slightly fancier place, Pai Resort, than we would normally because it had a pool. We took advantage of this in the heat of the afternoon each day and it was quite appreciated.

Our dining options in Sukhothai turned out to be a bit frustrating. We were staying near a few different restaurants that were in the guidebooks, but they were all closed on both days we were there! It seemed like the town was already shutting down for the low season. We ended up eating at a neighboring guesthouse twice because they were the only ones open. We did enjoy one nice meal at the night market, where we had a variety of street food. The most fun part of the market was when Della got to dance… (more on this later).

In Ayuthaya, there were plenty of accommodation options on the island that the historic park is on. We chose to stay at the December House, a small guesthouse that is a bit far from the park but is very near the ferry that will get you to the train station. They also rent bikes which allowed for a quick ride into town.

We ate dinner in Ayuthaya at two different night markets. These were a little smaller than other markets, but had a decent variety of food. We ate lunch during our day of temple exploring at a local noodle shop where we were able to get a basic noodle soup for very cheap.

Final Thoughts

On one hand, we are glad that we visited both sites to be able to understand more about the Thai history and to see the evolving styles of art and architecture. On the other hand, by the end of our time looking at temples we were starting to get a little burned out, and the sites weren’t that different from each other. It’s hard to say which is “better”: the tourist infrastructure and town of Ayuthaya seems to be set up better, but the ruins in Sukhothai seem to be in better shape. So we can’t give a simple recommendation, but can assure you that whatever you chose, you won’t be disappointed!