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.

Tasty Thai Food at Tom Yum Thai Cooking School in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Food in Thailand – yum! This has been one of our absolute favorite places in the world when it comes to eating.

Della is in heaven eating her fried noodles – whether it be pad thai or pad see ewe – every day! Eric has loved all the different kinds of curries! Everything is delicious and we could probably eat here forever.

For that reason, we were super excited to do a cooking class. We had some time in Chiang Mai and we knew that there were several classes offered. Della picked one where one of the main offerings was Pad See Ewe.

The one we chose was called Tom Yum Thai Cooking School and we loved it.

Our first step was to get picked up by our teacher Oun from our hotel in a minivan. He brought us quickly to one of the markets in the city. Here he showed us many of the different vegetables and herbs we needed to know for cooking Thai food. Some of the more interesting things we learned were:

  1. Ginger and Galangal are almost the same, but different.

    Ginger and Galangal

    Ginger and Galangal

  2. Raw turmeric looks a lot like ginger.
  3. There are 3 different kinds of basil used in Thai cooking: holy, lemon, and sweet. (We mostly used sweet)
  4. There are a ton of different kinds of eggplants – the Thai ones we used were tiny.

    two different kinds of tiny Thai eggplants

    two different kinds of tiny Thai eggplants

  5. Long beans in Thailand are truly long!

    Loooong beans

    Loooong beans

  6. Palm sugar is a thing and can be sold in different ways.

    this is palm sugar

    this is palm sugar

We also just enjoyed wandering the market with someone who knew what everything was.

After shopping for our food, we hopped back in the van and headed to Oun’s house.  Here we quickly got dressed up in our aprons, ate a quick snack of prawn crackers, and then began to cook.

Eric and Peggy getting ready to cook!

Eric and Peggy getting ready to cook!

Throughout the cooking class, we had the chance to cook and eat 5 different courses. For each course, we had a choice of three different things to learn to make. For the most part, because it was Eric, Della, and Peggy taking part, we each did something different.

Course 1: Stir Fry

Della learned Pad See Ewe, but both Eric and Peggy learned Pad Thai. For each course, we learned our ingredients, the best way to prepare them (chopping, smashing, etc), and then the order in which to cook. We won’t tell you too much more: you’ll have to go take the class yourself! Cooking these dishes did make us want to buy a fancy wok when we get home.

Course 2: Soup

Della learned Tom Kha (chicken in coconut milk soup), Eric learned Hot and Spicy Pork Soup, and Peggy learned Hot and Sour Prawn Soup. The base of the different soups was actually quite similar, and there were only a few ingredients that distinguished them. For example, Eric’s soup did not use coconut milk but the others did.

Course 3: Salad

Della learned Cucumber Salad, Eric learned Mixed Fruit Salad, and Peggy learned Papaya Salad. All of the salads used the same homemade dressing, which was a flavorful mix of sweet, sour, salty and spicy ingredients.

Course 4: Curry

Della made Green Curry paste, Eric made Khao Soi Curry Paste, and Peggy made Panang Curry Paste. After all the pounding and grinding to get the paste, we each made the corresponding curry. Eric’s was slightly different as his was more of a curry noodle soup (a Chiang Mai specialty) and his was quite a bit more complicated. He was also the only one in the class who chose this dish so had to do the grinding of the curry paste all on his own! He didn’t report being too sore though!

Course 5: Dessert

We all learned how to make Mango Sticky Rice. Yum! We learned a lot about making sticky rice that we didn’t know: for example, it is steamed, not boiled!

One of the best parts of the class was that we got to eat everything we cooked. It was all delicious and we were quite stuffed by the end!

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Enjoying our meals

 

We can’t wait to get home and try out our new, mad Thai cooking skills. We are hoping that we are able to find all of the proper ingredients at home in Denver. We know we might be making quite a lot of trips to HMart in our future!

Excellent Experience at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary

We knew we wanted to experience some time with elephants while we were in Chaing Mai, Thailand. It was something that had been on our (especially Della’s) list for a long time. However, we had read a lot about elephant tourism and the pro and cons.

Choosing an Elephant Park

One of the biggest negatives we had heard about was some of poor practices that have traditionally been used in elephant tourism. Often elephants are ridden or trained to do shows for tourists. In recent years, there has been a lot of effort in educating tourists on the dangers some of these things cause for elephants. We had read several articles like this one by the blogger Nomadic Matt with the same theme: elephants have been treated poorly during training, so we were thinking hard about the place we would like to visit. Almost all of the articles mention the Elephant Nature Park as a place using proper practices.

But, as we arrived in Chiang Mai and saw the plethora of options available to us, we decided to do a little more research. The most highly rated elephant park offers elephant riding (without a seat), feeding, and bathing the elephants. After reading several lovely reviews of that park though, we came across this blog. It describes a counterpoint experience between two places and mentions that the most highly rated camp both chains its elephants and uses bull hooks on them. This turned us off. However, the description of Elephant Nature Park, while lovely, seemed a whole lot like an experience we had in Africa with actual wild elephants. We weren’t sure we needed to pay for that.

But finally, we found a brochure for the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary and further research led us to this blog. We scoured the pictures and saw no chains or bull hooks. It also showed that the elephants were rescued by and living in a Karen village. Many of the students Della teaches are Karen refugees so we were excited to visit an active village in Thailand. That sealed the deal.

Visiting the Park

We were more than excited on our day to visit the elephants! We were picked up by Ken (maybe Chem) in the morning in a songthaew and drove the almost two hours up to the village. The majority of the road is highway, but the last hour or so were on curvy mountain roads. We were very happy when we arrived as we were on the verge of car sickness. We walked a short way through the currently dry rice fields to arrive in the village. We were given our uniform for the day: beautiful Karen shirts!

Our group consisted of 9 people plus our leader Ken. There were about 2 other groups of about the same number. Each group headed off to a different group of elephants. The first group we met was a male and female elephant, both retirees of logging. Ken explained that they were “boyfriend and girlfriend” and enjoyed spending time together. The female elephant was indeed pregnant and we were told she had one year left to come to term. We enjoyed feeding the elephants bananas and stroking their trunks. They were calm and friendly and we saw no chains or hooks. The mahouts used verbal commands when needed. Each elephant wore a bell, which we were told was how the mahouts locate them at night as they are never chained. Ken also pointed out many times that both the elephants seemed fat and happy. He showed us some remnants of their time as logging elephants though, as shown by their ragged ears.

Our next stop was to visit what we’ll call the Old Lady Elephant. She was very calm, but loved her bananas!

Our final feeding stop was really the most exciting. We met two momma elephants and their two babies. We can’t quite remember the ages, but we think the larger baby was more than a year and the smaller one was less. The larger baby was quite rambunctious and enjoyed shoving some of the mahouts around. We truly enjoyed interacting with these super cute creatures!

After feeding the elephants, we headed back to the main area of the village for lunch. It was delicious Karen food which we enjoyed while overlooking the river. With a little time to relax, Wayne headed down to take a swim (of course)!

The next part of the day consisted of the “mud spa.” The mahouts brought down Old Lady elephant and Momma elephant with the Big Baby. They were SO excited to enjoy the mud. It was a lot of fun to go into the mud and experience their glee! They would pick the mud up in their trunks and fling it all over themselves, catching us in the process sometimes. They rolled around and rubbed their faces on the mud wall. We were invited to help them by throwing mud on them and rubbing it on their bodies. We really enjoyed this, as did all of the other tourists. The only thing we worried about was that the elephants (particularly Momma and Big Baby) were so excited that they were practically running around. Without keeping watch and being ready, we could see an accident happening. The mahouts believed that the elephants would never have trampled the humans, but we were content to keep our space while they were moving and hope that future visitors will also be thoughtful about not getting themselves in dangerous situations. The elephants are clearly happy and well treated here, but we are concerned that this might change if there was an accident with one of them hurting a tourist.

After the elephants (and us) were thoroughly muddy, we headed down to the river. The elephants loved splashing and rolling in the water. We were given buckets and scrub brushes to help clean and cool them off. We never got on top of the elephants, and we kept our distance when they were so excited that they were rolling their big bodies around and climbing on top of one another.

At the end of the day, we cleaned the rest of the mud off in the river and headed back to camp. We were given the opportunity to buy Karen souvenirs before we headed out. Della bought a Karen bag and Wayne wanted a different kind of souvenir. He asked for and was sold an elephant bell!

A new elephant bell for Wayne

A new elephant bell for Wayne

Overall, we absolutely loved our experience here and everything we saw indicated that their elephants are happy and treated well. We hope that future visitors will show proper respect to the animals and make sure not to get in their way so that no accidents will happen!

Logistics

The cost of the day was 2400 baht (about $73) per person (so quite a splurge!!), but when we booked through our guesthouse, they gave us a small discount.

The trip up and down took about 2 hours each way, so be prepared to spend a lot of time on the road.

Wear swim suits that you don’t mind getting muddy. The mud stained some of the white portions of Della’s suit.

Be careful and enjoy these amazing creatures!

Meandering up the Mekong on the Slow Boat to Thailand

After Luang Prabang, our next major stop was to be Chiang Rai in Thailand. One can get there a variety of ways, including a long bus ride or a plane trip, but instead we decided to take the “slow boat” up the Mekong River. It is so named because the journey takes two fairly long days of travel just to get up to the Thai border. But, we figured that it might be more scenic and more of a unique adventure.

Day One: Luang Prabang to Pak Beng (Laos)

The Lonely Planet says that the boat dock is in town, but luckily we had done some extra research and discovered that the boats now leave from a dock 11 km north of town. We made sure to get a sŏrngtăaou (pickup taxi) to get us there in plenty of time so we could make sure to get good seats. We were the first people to get our tickets at the ticket office, but then panicked because a large group beat us down the hill to the dock. Luckily, they ended up heading to a different boat and we were able to choose good seats.

Waiting for the ticket office to open

Waiting for the ticket office to open

The boat looked as expected, a long narrow configuration with a roof. The seats seem like they should be in passenger vans and are mounted on bases which are moveable. When it became apparent that the boat was not going to be full, we spread out so each of us had a set of two chairs. A good number of locals got on board but all sat in the forward cabin. We also had to wait while some motorbikes and roofing tiles were loaded up front. They asked us to take off our shoes as well, like we were in their house.

As we cruised along the river, life moved pretty slowly. At first it was a little chilly with a cool breeze coming off the water. We managed to stay in the shade as well. We all read our various books – Eric even finished one! The only food on sale on the boat was chips and instant noodles, but we had planned ahead and had some snack foods to eat for lunch.

The scenery outside was pretty nice. Lots of wooded hills on either side. Plenty of water buffalo lounging by the water. A few fisherman using large nets in the river. Not too many other people except for at a village where we stopped and unloaded the roofing tiles.

The river moves quite fast, especially when going through some of the narrow rocky stretches. Since we were moving upstream, it was kind of fun and bumpy in these stretches.

We arrived at Pak Beng, our stop for the night, at around 4:45. There were already a lot of boats tied up at the pier, so getting off was a challenge. We first waited for them to get two motorbikes off the front, then we went off the front and had to scramble up some rocks and sand before finding steps.

As we walked through town there were plenty of guesthouses offering rooms for about the same rate. We had expected this and didn’t even book ahead, which is a first for us in a long time! Wayne had read about one called Monsovanh and zeroed in on that. They got a room with AC for 130,000 kip ($16). Eric wanted to negotiate more so we headed on further. We ended up with a room with a fan at a place called Vassana for 80,000 kip ($10). The room was pretty nice and clean actually.

As the sun set, we found a nice wat in town which gave a good vantage point over the river. Restaurant options were not very exciting in town, so we just chose one that seemed cheap and had a nice terrace looking out over the river. The food was ok, but took quite a while since there just seemed to be one person working there.

We picked up some snacks at a mini-mart in town in preparation for the next day. It was also pretty interesting to walk down to the docks and see all of the boats tied up for the night.

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Even though we didn’t have AC, it got cool in the evening and we didn’t even use the fan. Overnight we had to hush a loud cat outside our window but other than that it was a pleasant sleep.

Day Two: Pak Beng to Houay Xai (Laos)

We got up early to make sure to get to the pier in plenty of time to get a good seat… and to confirm that the seat was on the right boat, since it wouldn’t necessarily be the same one!

Even with our early arrival, we weren’t the first ones there. Most of the other people from the previous day were already on board, so we only got ok seats. (And it was a different boat with a different crew.) This time we got four seats in a group from the start. There were even less locals on board, and it seemed a few people had stayed longer in Pak Beng, so the boat felt maybe only a third full. The boat was a little less nice as well – it felt a little narrower and the railing was higher so it felt like you saw less.

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As we got going, we realized that the motor also seemed louder. We tried to have some conversations but realized that reading would just be easier. As the morning went along we all read and relaxed. The scenery was a little less impressive but the time still went by quickly. We read and relaxed – Eric finished another book – and chatted with some fellow passengers (Wayne especially).

At one point in the late afternoon, we noticed two of the passengers helping bandage the hand of a local guy on the boat. Then we realized he was missing a finger! Apparently he had just lost it in an accident – although not on the boat. Wayne dug out some extra painkiller to give to him. What was amazing was that the patient was just smiling the whole time!

We knew we were close when we went under the big cross-border bridge. After that it still took about 30 minutes to get to the jetty in Houay Xai.

Tuk-tuk drivers were waiting there to take us into town, but it seemed like it was just a kilometer so we decided to get some exercise and walk. A few other passengers from the boat had the same idea so we walked into town together. We formed a group and went door to door to a few guesthouses in the “center.” In the end we went back to the first one we had tried since it was 10,000 kip cheaper and got rooms for 70,000 kip – about 9 dollars.

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We found another basic restaurant for dinner along with our new travel friends. We were a little sad that our last meal in Laos wasn’t at a fancier place, but we were still able to get one last laab.

We returned to the room and got ready for bed. While Della was showering the power went out! We looked out in the hallway and all the lights seemed off, so we figured the whole place had lost power. But the Internet was still working, which seemed odd… We opened up the windows to let the cool night air in and headed to bed.

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Day Three: Houay Xai to Chiang Rai (Thailand)

When we woke up in the morning to roosters crowing and a loudspeaker blaring, we noticed our power was still out. Preparing to write a scathing TripAdvisor review, we then noticed that the pwer was back on in the hallway. This seemed odd… we finally went down to the front desk to ask and they saw that the circuit breaker for our room had tripped! So the whole time it was just our power and no one else’s that was out. Della is afraid that it was because her hot shower caused the breaker to flip. Oops!

The shower that might have caused the whole problem...

The shower that might have caused the whole problem…

The previous night we went ahead and booked a combination ticket through an agent in town that would get us to Chiang Rai, our first stop in Thailand. Some of our friends from the boat also booked the same thing, so we were happy to have some nice travel companions along as well.

Buying our tickets

Buying our tickets

Step one was a 15-minute sŏrngtăaou ride to the Laos immigration office, where we got stamped out of the country. Step two was then to ride a shuttle bus (included in the ticket price) over the Friendship Bridge and onto the Thailand side of the river. Getting stamped into Thailand went quite smoothly. We were especially happy because we got a 30-day visa – everything we had read suggested that land crossings would only give us 15 days, and we weren’t sure that gave us enough time in the country. But 30 days should be plenty!

Unloading from the souengthaw

Unloading from the sŏrngtăaou

The final step was a minivan transfer from the border to Chiang Rai. This seemed the most dubious step because no one accompanied us over the border. Instead, we were just given stickers with the name of some guesthouse and were told that someone in Thailand would come pick us up using the stickers to identify us. No one was waiting when we got over, so we were a little nervous. After about 30 minutes they finally showed up and turned out to be legit, so we got our ride into Chiang Rai.

The ride was pretty nice, although we were annoyed that the driver asked us for an extra payment to take us to our guesthouse in Chiang Rai. He claimed that otherwise he would have to drop us off at a bus station way outside of town! This seemed somewhat silly to us, but he was only asking about $1 a person ultimately so we just decided to pay it anyway.

Final Thoughts

We are happy that we used the slow boat to get to Thailand from Luang Prabang. It helped us see some parts of Laos that we wouldn’t have otherwise, and also to get more of a feel for the rural areas in general. The ride was very comfortable and relaxing, and allowed us plenty of time to catch up on reading and just enjoy the serenity of watching the scenery go by.