Thai Islands: Book It or Bust

So much of the success of our trip was riding on our stop in Thailand. If you’ve kept up on my previous blog entries (if not, well why the hell aren’t you??) you’d know that I dubbed TWO of the four destinations a bust, which is not a very good ratio. I was banking on the fact that Thailand would meet my dreamy expectations of being a beautiful, cultured, backpackers paradise.

Come on Thailand, don’t let me down like Bali did!

Originally, the plan was to stay about a week and then finish our trip with 5 days in Beijing, China, but Air Asia cancelled our flight to Beijing forcing us to either spend MORE days in China or more days in Thailand. The choice was easy so we tacked on some extra days in what I hoped to be a magical Thai paradise.

I’ve decided to split this blog into two for a couple of reasons – one being we visited two very different areas of Thailand; the islands outside of Phuket and up north in Chiang Mai. I have a lot to stay about this country and our experience, along with recommendations because we learned some lessons the hard way and know that it’s a popular place to travel, so I want to make sure I hit all the main points!

Our Experience.

We kicked off our trip on Phuket, were we only spent an afternoon and one night as it was mainly just a stop over to catch our boat to the islands. Prior to this trip, I had the perception that Phuket was “the” place to go in Thailand. Boy was I wrong.

While I certainly did not travel to all corners of the island (it took about 1 hour plus to get from the airport on the north tip, to our hotel on the south tip) my impression of what I DID see what very crowded, dirty and far from quaint. We did not make it out to any beaches and stayed near the old town area, so in all fairness, I do not have an accurate idea of the area. From my research though, there are many beautiful hotels and resorts here for VERY cheap. We picked ours based on convenience of location because we had an early boat to catch, otherwise we would have gone with a more exclusive resort in a private location. We loved our hotel though!

The kicker was, our trip was unfortunately timed with their monsoon season and, boy, did it rain! Since it was their low season, many…ok, MOST of the stores and restaurants were shut down in the town area and we literally had a difficult time finding a place open to serve us dinner. It was very odd and desolate there.

We caught the boat the Ko Phi Phi in the morning, which was where we would catch our connection boat to Ko Lanta. Unfortunately, the only way to get to Lanta was via Phi Phi. Our plan was to spend two days in Lanta and two days in Phi Phi on the way back. Because we were an hour late leaving (we impatiently waited for 150 Chinese tourists to board the boat) we actually missed our 11:45am connection to Lanta. They said “Come back at 3!” so we waited around at a restaurant for hours, soaked from the stormy weather, luggage in tow. Three pm rolls around and when we arrive at the dock they say, “No boat! No Lanta today!” I was so furious that I could have pushed one of the little thai men into the ocean, but that would be poor form so I just imagined it in my head.

The problem was, we booked our hotels on hotels.com…where there was NOT a refund for cancellation. Long story short, we ended up having to pay for the most expensive hotel on our trip for a night that we weren’t even there which was infuriating. We spent that night in Ko Phi Phi and ended up catching the first boat to Lanta in the morning.

Ko Phi Phi.

Ko Phi Phi is known as the party island and we were surrounded by 19/20 year old Brits who are living up their gap year or Australians who just never ended up going home. The majority of the bar tenders are just that – they all came to visit and never left! The island has a great little beachside area to walk around (there are no cars or scooters on the island) and a couple of nice beaches.

We stayed downtown at a cheap, dingy hotel the first night due to the itinerary change and when we returned for day 4 on the islands we were whisked away by longboat to our private resort, which was about 20 minutes by boat around the other side of the island.

We were thinking it would be smart to be secluded and away from the party scene, but it turned out to be more of a pain in the arse than anything because, as it turns out, the resort basically traps you there and you have to pay to get yourself to and from the resort. So, if you want to go into town for dinner or do an excursion NOT through the hotel, we had to pay 400 baht per person ($12 or something??) each way. Not to mention, they stop their “service” at 7:30PM. Feel like staying out late? You get to find your own boat that runs about 1200 baht ONE way.

This was a bit problematic for us because we had booked a day boat trip on day 4, which didn’t return until late. We spent about $15US per person for a tour around the islands, snorkeling, lunch and a trip to Maya Beach where they filmed “The Beach” with Leonardo DiCaprio. Even with all of the tourists peppering the secluded beach, it was gorgeous and the sand was as fine as powdered sugar. We even got to see the glow plankton, which was crazy! At night when you create any vigorous movement in the water, you see these clouds of glow plankton light up. Very magical!

While we were not happy with our hotel, it was the most expensive one, yet it didn’t include breakfast, the rooms weren’t nice, the food sucked + was very $$ and we felt trapped, we had our own private beach which was gorgeous.

Ko Lanta.

As great as Phi Phi was, it really didn’t compare to our experience at Ko Lanta. The second we arrived at the island, I could tell it was different. We hopped in the back of a truck bed that was covered and had seats built into it – therefore, qualifying it as a taxi? – and trekked out with a few other visitors to be dropped off at our hotels. The surroundings were very lush and while there were cars and scooters on the road, there wasn’t any traffic and you got the vibe it was one of those chill beach islands.

We pulled up to our hotel tucked down a private drive to see a beautiful, modern building, which was our hotel, The Houbin. I’m not going to lie, when we were picking the hotels for Lanta, this one was a big draw because we read from a tripadvisor reviewer that it was owned by a Belgian and as a result, the bar had an amazing selection of Belgian beers. Win. Sign me up. When we stepped into the small lobby, we were greeted with cool towels and beautiful fresh pressed juice drinks dressed up with flower petals. I felt like royalty!

We were escorted up to our room located on the top floor and as they pushed the door open, we were exposed to a stunning floor to ceiling glass wall that opened up to our balcony…overlooking the ocean. The room was one of the nicest ones I’ve been in and after working in the conference industry, I’ve seen A LOT of hotel rooms! Best part…we paid about $80 per night for the top of the line luxury. J

We were able to rent a motorcycle/scooter for the next two days and really enjoyed zipping around the island on our own terms. This is one of the only places we opted not to do a tour, but that was fine by us. Despite monsoon season, the weather held out for us so we enjoyed a hike out to one of their waterfalls where we were the only people there, and visited an Animal Refuge. As funny as it sounds, it was the #1 rated place to visit on the island!

It was started by a woman who had visited Lanta about 10 years ago and saw the out of control dog and cat population. Long story short, this refuge became a vet and a place to house cats and dogs while they are put up for adoption. I LOVED this visit because I got to snuggle some kitties and love on some pups – I missed my Buddy and Bristol very much so this helped rest my heartache a bit! If we hadn’t just gotten Bristol, I may have come home with one of those sweet dogs!

The surroundings of Ko Lanta were so beautiful and the only downside was some of the activities were closed during low season. I was hoping to attend a couple yoga workshops and possibly go out snorkeling, but the beaches and surf were very rough here this time of the year and the studios were closed. Even though the beaches were not as beautiful as some of the other islands in the area, I just loved the vibe and secluded feel of Ko Lanta. We were so relaxed and enjoyed adventuring around, the cheap prices for food and the fact that we didn’t feel ancient like we did surrounded by young partiers on Phi Phi – Lanta peeps are the type that go to bed around 9pm…just our kind of people!

If you’re interested in visiting these islands, my recommendation is to do so during the spring time so you can catch the good weather! When we booked this trip, we knew it was low season but this was the time we could travel, so we didn’t have much of a choice. The bad weather can really put a damper on your travel plans (and your pocket!) so if you do go during our summer, make sure you book your hotel rooms with cancellation flexibility so you don’t get screwed!

The boat/ ferry rides are pretty brutal and rough (no matter the time of the year) so take some motion sickness pills before you depart. Give yourself PLENTLY of time to catch the ferries because the crowds are insane and island traffic can be so awful. There were times where it literally took us twice as long as we thought to get from point A to point B!

We really loved our time on the islands and could have even spent longer there, granted the sun was out and shining!

I give the Thai Islands a major thumbs up & say BOOK IT!!


Our Spots:

-Ko Phi Phi-

Night 1 Hotel: The Phi Phi Hotel

Night 2 Hotel: The Village Island Resort

Boat Day Tour: Booked through a shop on the island

Anna’s (duck curry)


-Ko Lanta-

Hotel: The Houben

Lanta Animal Welfare

Khlong Chak Waterfall

Why Not Bar (go for live music and fire show)

Scooter Rental

The Drunken Sailor (cool hammocks and coffee)

Diamond Cliff Beach Restaurant (best sunset spot)


Malaysia: Book it or Bust

We entered this country weary from a long 7-hour bus ride, famished & a bit disgruntled from our previous stop in Singapore {refer to Singapore blog post}. We really had no expectations about Kuala Lumpur, KL as the locals call it, but were prepared to make the best of it…only because we were stuck with an already booked exit flight 3 days later. Once we checked in to our (less than desirable) hotel, we took off to wander the streets for some grub and that’s where the adventure began.

We thought Singapore had a great food culture but, OH BOY, does KL give it a run for it’s money! This was the basis of our itinerary for the most part and I had no complaints about that.

The People.

While we didn’t have long to experience KL, only about 2.5 days, from what we saw the people were very kind and respectful. On our food tour we had a chance to meet and “attempt” to converse with locals at various shops, restaurants and market stands and while hardly any of them spoke English, it was so fun to talk with our hands to get the message across. They were all very light hearted, would joke with us (even though we had no idea what was going on) and they had a smile on their face!

We stopped by a market stand with fresh produce and meat on our food tour and the sweetest old lady was working it. She was so spunky and was a ball of fire! We were told she had been working at that very same stand since she was 18 years old and she was 85. We had seen historic pictures from over the years of that section in Chinatown and it’s changed SO much, so it’s crazy to think that she has been there through all of those years.

The Food.

At first thought of KL, you wouldn’t necessarily pin it to be a foodies paradise. In fact, I didn’t have any thoughts about Malaysia AT ALL – aside from associating it with Zoolander and Dereks’s mission to kill the Malaysian Prime Minister (but really, who doesn’t think about that reference when they hear about Malaysia??)

We were a bit spoiled having come from Singapore where the food is great but more on the pricey side and we were able to eat like kings with the same high quality street food but for a much lower price.

It was decided that tours were the way best way to see the cities we stopped in so for KL, we thought the natural option was a walking food tour. Yet again, we happened to be the only people on the tour but we weren’t complaining. We met our guide and were taken around Chinatown and to some of the local spots to learn about the typical cuisines and how they are prepared.

It was so interesting to learn about the ingredients and one thing I learned over the month in Asia is these cultures really pay attention to what they’re putting into their bodies and how the ingredients impact them. They use food as natural remedies for just about everything, which is just the opposite (sadly) of the American food culture where I truly believe we are slowly killing ourselves out of lack of knowledge and education in the industry. Every single ingredient has a purpose in a dish and they worked together harmoniously with each bite.

Similarly to Singapore, KL is full of many different cultures so you get a wide variety of offerings when it comes to food. Indian food is one of my all time favorites and with the very large indian population here, we were constantly munching on naan, curries and delicious pockets of heaven also known as samosas.

The Culture.

Of all the countries we visited on this trip, I think I can say I was most intrigued by the culture in KL. Mainly because it was a melting pot of so many cultures and was the first country I’ve ever visited that was predominantly Muslim. I wasn’t expecting this at all (like I said, I had no expectations in the first place) but I never quite got used to the shock of cultural differences. There were so many women who were covered from head to toe with those all black garments - abayas, which are the dresses, and niqabs, which are the head pieces which only have a slit for their eyes. I had only seen these on TV from the national news stations and in the movies (most recently American Sniper) and have to admit that I was ignorantly startled to say the least every so often as I had a negative connotation associated with them.

I was so enthralled with this culture and really enjoyed sitting in public places and just observing. On a trip to a large shopping mall, we stopped into an Applebees to grab a cold beer. I just sat and watched several of these women with their children, carrying on with their meals where they’d have to lift up their face covering just enough to feed themselves or take a sip of their drink. I also noticed that they LOVED expensive handbags and a good amount of them would have designer bags or be seen shopping in very expensive stores. There was even a man with what looked to be 5 wives sitting with him at the lunch table. Such a different culture from our western lives and I found it to be quite intriguing!

We spent some time at the national mosque, which was gorgeous, and were required to put on the traditional robes to cover what we were wearing (tanks and shorts) and I had to put a cover on my head as well with a hijab. It was so interesting to see someone else’s place of worship. We even had the pleasure to meet some young monks from Vietnam who seemed to be very intrigued by US and asked to take a picture with us!

Our Experience.

We spent a lot of time walking the city, which was very walkable, and seeing the sights. Aside from the food tour, we spent half a day out at a temple that was built into a cave, hitting up their markets and attempted to go to the twin towers, which used to be the tallest buildings in the world. Unfortunately, they apparently sell out in advance and spent quite awhile trekking out there to be disappointed. We went to happy hour and took pictures of them from the ground instead, which wasn’t all that bad!

KL is another big city and there isn’t a whole lot of charm to it. However, we were told about a city north of KL that came highly recommended, called Penang. I think if I were to do this trip again, I’d spend some time there as it seemingly has the same great qualities of KL, but in a beachy, serene atmosphere instead. 

While Malaysia has never really been on my list of places to visit, I’m glad that we took the time to stop for a couple of days. It was such a unique place with endless, rich culture that’s hard to beat. Prices are cheap, the food is good and the people and great.

Things we did: 

 

All in all, I say Kuala Lumpur is a BOOK IT!

Singapore: Book it or Bust

“GTFO, Singapore.” Were my last words as we rapidly crossed the bridge, passed border control and into Malaysia. Brutal, I know but there were a series of events that led up to those harsh words.

Allow me to start from the beginning.

Singapore had been on our list of places to see ever since we vegged out on the Anthony Bourdain series, Parts Unknown. We’re huge AB fans and if I were to meet him in real life, I’d probably cry… and then buy the man a drink.

I was intrigued about the melting pot of cultures and the obscene high-end architecture throughout the city. Mostly, though, I was way pumped for the food scene! Anthony Bourdain ate his way through the country and it genuinely looked like he was thoroughly obsessed with all of his meals there. So, following in true Anthony fashion we had planned on eating our way through Singapore.

The other perk to the trip was Andrew’s cousin and her family is stationed with the military in Singapore, so we had the luxury of staying with family – good for the soul and the pocket book!

The People.

I literally don’t even know where to begin with this section so I’m starting it with this sentence so it can…start. As far as customer service and hospitality goes, Japan is a tough act to follow. If you read my previous blog on our time there then you know what I’m talking about! When we arrived, we were forewarned that if you want good customer service, Singapore is not the place to be and to not expect others to put you first.

I didn’t think too much of this until Andrew and I were on a bus and witness a handicapped man trying to get off of the bus. He had a cane and as he tried to exit several people entering the bus, pushed him aside to get on…then the bus driver closed the doors on him. I was astonished. Sharon, Andrew’s cousin is pregnant and has had very similar experiences, unfortunately.

Hailing a taxi was also a very frustrating experience when cab drivers would refuse to take you to the places you request…or even stop to pick you up when they’re available. Andrew and I spent an entire hour one day trying to get a hold of one! Sharon mentioned a time she was at the doctor and her toddler was so sick they told her to get to the emergency room. When she hailed a cab, the driver said NO because it was outside of the area he likes to work in. How can you reject a sick child?!! <<That’s insane.

Despite the fiery first three paragraphs in this section, there are nice people in Singapore too. J Our tour guide from the biking tour was really great and we met a guy on the Tiger Brewery tour that was super friendly. Although, now that I think of it he was from Australia…. So there goes that theory I guess….

Enough about that. #rantover

 

The Food.

THIS is why we wanted to go to Singapore and the food did not disappoint! I literally cannot think of a meal in this country that was not amazing – I loved it all! While Singapore is generally an expensive place, there are hocker stands that offer really cheap (think like $3 give or take), really high quality and quantity food. Think of these joints as an outdoor cafeteria…but the cafeteria food we know of back in the states aint got nothing on these! Don’t get me wrong, those turkey and gravy meals we’d get back in elementary school were bomb, but I think I’d rather settle for freshly juiced watermelon, papaya and kiwi with a chicken curry and freshly made flat bread.

In Singapore you get a variety of different cultures since everyone is from somewhere else (Singapore is just 50 years old!) They also have some strict rules and regulations for dining establishments, so the food is generally safe, clean and of good quality. They have food inspectors visit restaurants and stands frequently and will even shut down eateries on a regular basis to thoroughly clean the area.

Some of the best things I ate: pork rib noodle bowl, flat noodle stir-fry and many fresh juices!

The Culture.

There are so many interesting laws in Singapore. The joke is that you get fined for everything! Chewing gum is even illegal and is a pretty steep fine if you get caught. While some of the laws seem a bit crazy, I do have to admit that it is by far the cleanest and safest city I’ve ever been to. In the states if you drop something on the ground we have the “5 second rule” to pick it back up and eat it…Singapore, I’d give a solid 10-15 seconds it’s so clean!

One crazy point is homeless people don’t exist in Singapore. The government has public assisted housing and they basically give flats away to citizens  - including homeless people. Some speculate that is actually a big problem with cultivating a lack of work ethic among the youth. The government even gives out money to citizens each year on their independence day, so in the minds of some youth they think ‘Why do I need to work hard when everything is given to me?’

Aside from government assisted housing, basic flats start from around $400,000 US. You think that’s steep? To own a car the cheapest, basic model Toyota is in the 60-70k range (sing) PLUS you have to have to buy the rights to own the car, which is another 50,000. Get this…you can only own the car for 10 years and then it is scrapped! You would think that this would deter people from owning a car completely, but they are so into status symbols that people still desire to buy a car.

These are only just a few of the bizarre laws they have implemented into the system… but the list goes on.

 

Our Experience.

There were a few differentiating factors that would set apart our experience from that of other travelers. First of all, since we were staying with family we were in a residential area far outside the “tourist” zone, so we didn’t necessarily always have accessible sights to visit. However, we also had a car and were driven around. This was great because there were a couple of sights that would have been tough to get to without one – the Tiger Brewery, for example.

We visited the brewery and went on a mediocre tour of the factory…more like rooms they designed specifically for the tour to corral guests. The perk was unlimited beer at the end, which included Guinness, Heineken and several other brands that they brew there.

The highlight of the trip was on our last day, which in retrospect we wish we had done on our first day to get the lay of the land. We did a bicycle tour of the city and happened to be the only two people on it! Singapore is a great city for biking around and once we got to see the harbor, the best markets and some interesting history and background on the city, it really opened our eyes. The harbor at night offered a free light and laser show and the cityscape lit up is very stunning.

Here are the links to a few of things we did while we were there:

Hawker Stands

Biking Singapore

Flower Dome

Tiger Brewery

Treetop Walk (nature reserve hike)

Our overall thoughts on Singapore are if you had a lot of money to spend, it might be a decent place to visit. With the steep prices of accommodations, food, tours and transportation it make it difficult to justify for a backpacker.

Walking away from our experience, the highpoint for us was being able to see family, which we loved but in the end it is not really a place that we’d recommend. The people are so difficult and displeasing that it really makes it hard to love it! Also, I can't support a country that doesn't approve of gum and alcohol... 

As a result, I vote Singapore a BUST!

Vanessa and I were fortunate to have family here in Singapore so that made our stay much more affordable. Here's a look at our few days, as the country gets ready to celebrate their 50th. birthday. IG: @backpackers_budget


Bali: Book it or Bust

Picture this: You step onto a secluded beach in a tropical paradise. The breeze is just enough to alleviate the heat from the blaring sunshine. As you sink your bum in the sand, a tall, ice cold crappy pilsner beer appears in your hand and as crappy as it is, it seems to just hit the spot and refresh your palate. Lunchtime rolls around and you retreat back to the empty resort for a cheap, delicious spread and post-lunch yoga overlooking the water.

Ain’t too shabby, right?

This was the painted fantasy I had in my head about Bali. I had heard from other travelers that Bali was “overrated” yet I was determined to have a beachy, yogarific paradise of a time tapping into the wanderlust zen side of me.

Now, before I rip Bali a new one I do need to preface many aspects of our trip that were impacted by our choices. Spoiler alert: I did not get that painted paradise of a time in Bali – although, I do believe that MAY exist somewhere on the island…but I’m not positive where.

Allow me to break down the trip experience a bit from our perspective!

The People.

I really had no expectations on how the locals would treat us as tourists. Sometimes, you go to these touristy places and you just feel like a big piece of meat. For the most part, the people of Bali were absolutely wonderful! Some of the most genuine people I’ve met on this trip thus far. They were so interested in learning about us, wanted to know where we were from, how much we like Bali, what our itinerary was and they spoke pretty good English so you could hold great conversations with them.

 Our hotel staff buddies from The Citadines!

Our hotel staff buddies from The Citadines!

We ended up making friends with a couple staff members from our hotel – one was hilarious because he was obsessed with America! There are not a lot of Americans in Bali, mostly Aussies followed by Europeans, so when an American does come around they always seemed extra surprised. We stood in the parking lot for about 30 minutes chatting with them and he went on with his very own “I have a dream” speech that was, no joke, so inspirational and adorable to hear! 

He talked about how some of his friends from his village have moved to the US to work and ever since he was a little boy, it’s been his goal to do the same. He moved into the “city” at Kuta Beach to work in tourism to gain experience so he can eventually try and start a life in the states on his own. It was precious.

 Dewa, our driver &amp; tour guide!&nbsp;

Dewa, our driver & tour guide! 

We hired a private driver for about $35 a day to take us around for two days and he showed us all of the beautiful sights of Bali. One thing we learned is traffic is HORRID in Bali and it takes forever to get anywhere. It was nice to have a driver so we didn’t have to worry about taxis in the traffic and a lot of the beautiful sights were way far away from where we were staying.

 

The Food.

Where we stayed was the major tourist spot on the island so there was just about every type of food you can think of; Indonesian, Curry, Chinese, Sushi, Burgers, Italian…with all of your typical touristy spots like sports bars, Hard Rock Café, McDonalds, KFC, blah blah blah.

One thing that shocked us was how pricey everything was. We half expected cheap meals, and we were able to scout out some, but most everything was around the $10-15 range and it was near impossible to find really cheap drinks! The last night, we found two joints that had ridiculous drink prices (like $1) but they also gave us a headache the following morning, so choose wisely ;)

Traditional Balinese food is sort of a mish mash of other Asian cuisines – a little bit of fried rice, rice noodle stir fry dishes, kabobs and grilled fish. If you can find a good joint, it’s not half bad.

The Culture.

As I mentioned earlier, the majority of people you’ll see here are tourists & mostly from Australia since it’s only a short flight away. We stayed in the area called Kuta Beach which most certainly caters to tourists and it was very interesting to get some insight on the real culture of Bali from our driver. We had asked him whether or not tourism is a good thing for Bali and he replied with, “With tourism, everything is alive.” He said Bali would be nothing if they didn’t cater to the tourists.

Our hotel staff buddies said something similar and mentioned that they love working in tourism because nobody is sad about being in Bali. When people come visit, they are happy, carefree & relaxed so they love helping smiling faces every day! I thought that was a cute perspective!

A couple of negative experiences we had with the tourism culture… one was when we were checking out at a convenient store and the clerk tried to take advantage of the fact that we were tourists and changed the price total to a higher price. Andrew watched him delete the total and re-enter and Andrew lost his ISH! To give you perspective, a US dollar is equivalent to about 13,600 rupiah so it would be very easy to confuse a tourist if they’re not paying attention and doing the math! Andrew called him out and he denied it at first, and then realized that we were messing around and apologized. LOL

The other experience we didn’t care for was when we were walking the street markets – the shop owners were VERY aggressive and would grab our arms to pull us into the store. Awwww helllll noooo, don’t you go touchin me! I was not havin’ that…

Our Experience.

So here’s the part where I’m going to break down where we made some choices that did impact our Bali experience. Andrew wanted to go all out and get a luxury hotel (which are very good priced!) and we were looking at a couple out in the middle of nowhere. While these would have been closer to the image of Bali I had painted in my mind, I knew that we were also going to some small islands in Thailand where we would have the same experience. I opted for a cheap hotel that was simple, modern, and quite nice in a popular and accessible area.

Upside: we could walk to dinner, paid less, were close to shops and across the street from the beach. Downside: It was disgustingly touristy, busy and NOT tranquil whatsoever. Ugly area. Tit for tat. However, had we staying in the mountains we would have been two hours away from anything, which is not very convenient.

What I LOVED about Bali were the spas EVERYWHERE for ridiculously cheap. The ideal demographic for Bali truly is a bachelorette party from Australia because they can get pampered all day, go to the beach and party at night. We spent our anniversary in Ubud, Bali which is a central tourist town that’s known for the spas. For $40 each we were pampered for 5 hours – couples massage, body scrub, manicures, facials…it was marvelous! I’ve never felt so fancy in my life and the location was gorgeous.

Here’s the link: http://www.tripadvisor.com.sg/Attraction_Review-g297701-d4770487-Reviews-Karsa_Spa-Ubud_Bali.html

That was the good spa experience ;) I was also set on getting eyelash extensions in Bali because they were so cheap and welp, I got what I paid for! On our first night there, we spontaneously stepped into a spa and I decided to go for it without doing research on the place, which is very unlike me. The experience was great until he was finishing up and it felt like he was painting my lashes with glue. Oh, as it turns out he was actually.

He finished and I got up and looked in the mirror and was LITERALLY speechless for about two, very long, minutes. It looked like a disgusting fake strip of plastic lashes had been glued to my lid – one was flat and crooked and the other was misshapen. I cried, I freaked out and I made them removed them immediately, which was the most PAINFUL experience I’ve had and they ripped out so many of my natural lashes and burned my eyeballs like CRAZY! I was furious.

Moral of the story, don’t get lash extensions in Bali!!!!

Here’s my recommendation: If you are just going to Bali, I would definitely stay somewhere remote for at least a section of your stay so you get the full vibe of the island. We knew we were going to have that experience elsewhere on our month long trip, so we chose not to go that route, but there are tranquil, yoga-esque places in Bali!

Brief highlights from our 2 activities with Bali Jetpacks. Parasailing was $16, and you're in the air for about 2 minutes. Snorkeling is $25 and you're out for an hour.

In the end, we enjoyed our trip overall but it was not what I expected. We were surrounded by American shops (they love Polo Ralph Lauren for some reason…they’re everywhere!) and our experience didn’t really feel authentic. Thank goodness for our driver, Dewa, because had he not taken us around we would have really been disappointed!

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I didn’t like Bali. Our time spent there was fine but part of me wishes we had splurged on a yoga retreat or fancy resort. Our experience would have been much different then. Kuta Beach area is something you can SKIP for sure if you’re looking for a relaxing vaca.

For this reason, I’m tagging Bali as a: BUST! 

Japan: Book it or Bust

I have to admit that traveling to Asia hasn’t always been on my list, but something in the last couple of years triggered my desired to hop around and experience the culture there. I probably can thank Anthony Bourdaine for that, as he is pretty obsessed with Asian countries and always seems to uncover the most unique things at each of his stops.

What I loved about Japan is how different their customs and traditions are. There were several things that I noticed during my time there that would always make stop and stare inquisitively because it’s just not something I’d see in the states.

What I loved:

The People.

I’ve traveled to many countries where as an American I seem to get treated differently (poorly) because of political relations or they just frown upon our culture. I can’t say that I haven’t pretended to be Canadian (who can hate a Canadian??) or even German ;)

I never once felt like someone had ill feelings toward me, even though I stuck out like a sore thumb with my blonde hair and was several inches taller than most. Despite the severe language barrier, shop owners, restaurant servers and metro staff among others were so genuinely kind and were always happy to help us out in a pinch.

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One thing that worked in our favor was utilizing a language translate app where you can select your languages and speak into the phone and it will not only write out, but also speak your phrase, translated, to the other party. This was a LIFE saver and made communication so much easier!

The other perk that made our experience a bit smoother than normal is we chose to stay with a home host through couch surfing. He graciously offered up some bedding on his floor and the three of us shared his tiny room, all as part of a cultural exchange. He had the time to show us around the city one day and even went as far as chauffeuring us back to the airport for our departure. Kazushi is studying International Communications, so he was very interested in learning about us and spent time with us when possible.

If you’re interested in learning more about Couch Surfing and how the program works, check out this YouTube video created by my husband, Andrew, on his channel The Backpackers Budget.

Forget spending half your travel budget on a place to stay! Couch Surfing offers a unique cultural exchange, and an opportunity to live like a local. www.couchsurfing.com https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qRJB-rW5mjw

The Food.

Oh sweet Lord. It’s a good thing we left after a few days because I was absolutely loving the food culture in Japan! Sushi is among one of my favorites and the fish is so incredibly fresh in Tokyo. In fact, it’s home to the world’s LARGEST fish market! Coming from Seattle where we have Pike Place Market, I’m not easily impressed (I mean, we have flying fish…how do you top that?!) but this was pretty spectacular and the food was so beautifully crafted and hard to beat.

I also had my first bowl of REAL udon ramen…as in NOT the stuff from a cup where you put hot water in it. It was ridiculous. Everything was so fresh and I know for a fact it was because you can watch them cook your meal right in front of you!

Growing up, I was trained to properly use my fork and knife and unfortunately those fine tuned skills really didn’t come in handy in Tokyo, whatsoever. Word to the wise…practice using chopsticks before you get to Japan (or any Asian country for that matter) because that’s all you will have to eat your food with!

Funny enough, I actually learned how to use chopsticks from two of the most adorable Chinese grannies when I was little. We were visiting China Town in San Francisco and I still remember vividly them giggling about my form and coming over to my table to show me how it’s done.

Well, I had déjà vu all over again because when we were eating our sushi at a little, tiny 4 person stall an adorable aged couple sat down next to us and the grandma was CLEARLY laughing at me as I was attempting to dunk my sashimi in the soy sauce. I mean, I’m no expert but lets just say the food was {mostly} making it into my mouth!! She grabbed a pair of chopsticks and grabbed my hand, showing me the finger motions on how to do it. Apparently, I never got it right ;)

One of my FAVORITE parts about the food scene is they are obsessed with sweets!! There is candy and beautiful hand made sweets around every corner and it was so difficult for me to pass anything without trying. They had beautiful rice cookies, these cute little chocolate bean filled waffle things that were made from a little press, sweet dumplings, ice cream everywhere you looked, candies, crepes galore… you name it!

The other funny thing that was different on the food scene was the fact that they had vending machines EVERYWHERE! I swear like every street block was yet another vending machine with a variety of options…and when I say options, I mean they have every kind of drink you can think of. Cold coffees, energy drinks, several types of bottled teas, sodas, flavored waters. Often times, I would want to try something new but it was really a guessing game and judgment on how the bottle looks since I couldn’t read the labels!

The specialty beer scene has started to pop up everywhere in Japan and it’s growing at an astonishing rate. We had our “goodbye beers” at home before we left for our trip, unsure we’d be able to find anything other than a piss pilsner (sorry, I just really don’t like them!) We were able to find microbrews and imported beer almost everywhere and were very impressed!! We even came across the most beautiful brewery I’ve every been to, and that’s saying a lot. Spring Valley Brewery offered a high end pub fair in a gorgeous, modern building with tasty beers to boot. Muti-millions must have been put into this thing. I was impressed.

 

The Culture.

SO many things about this country were interesting and surprising to me. Staying with our couch surfer was so helpful because when I had questions about why something was a certain way, he could explain that to us.

-FASHION-

I knew that Tokyo had a big fashion scene but HOLY MOLY I wasn’t expecting this! Keeping in mind it was something like 90 degrees and very humid, one would think you would dress according to that weather…my mind says shorts, tanks, moisture wicking materials, hair in a top bun, etc. Not for the women in Tokyo. They were constantly dressed to the nines wearing heals all around town, beautiful skirts, dresses & sweaters (yes, sweaters), their makeup was flawless and hair styled.

Not to mention there is a serious love for designer handbags. It put my petit Marc Jacobs cross body bag to shame. Everyone had a designer handbag, and I mean men too! Chanel, Louis Vuitton, YSL, Tory Burch were among the favorites…everyone downtown had designer everything.

It seemed as though image is very important to their culture (in the city mostly.) What I thought was really interesting was how the women are value light skin. No matter how hot it was, I’d see women completely covered with these little arm sleeves so they wouldn’t damage their skin. I kid you not I saw some of the most beautiful, flawless, porcelain skin of my life…no wonder they didn’t have any wrinkles! This was just so amazing to me because in the states it’s quite the opposite and being tan is more desirable.

-TOILETS-

This might sound strange, but I was REALLY impressed with their toilets!!! I called them “smart” toilets because they had all different functions and buttons to push. If you get pee shy, you can push a button that makes a flushing sounds so you can do your business without anyone hearing you. There were also two different kinds of bidets and some of the toilet lids would automatically pop up and close when you walked in and out, which in my opinion solves a life long battle between men and women!

-MONEY-

One absolutely shocking issue that we had in Tokyo, which caught us off guard, is it is so incredibly difficult to find places that accept visa. Most shops, restaurants and ATMS don’t take VISA!!! It’s totally bizarre and landed us in a few tricky situations when we were almost stranded at a metro stop because we couldn’t buy our tickets with our visa, and we couldn’t use our visa in the ATM to get cash to buy our tickets… hmmmm. So, if you do travel to Tokyo, just because it’s a massive city and world hub doesn’t mean you can use your card all the time! Plan on travelling with lots of cash so you don’t get stuck

-METRO-

Before we got to Tokyo we read many complaints from previous travelers that the metro was hard to navigate. They must have also had too much sake because in our opinion is was pretty dang convenient! The ONLY thing that I can see confusing is the fact that there are multiple companies that own certain parts of the metro lines – sometimes one terminal can have two or three separately owned lines, meaning you have to exit one “area” and re-enter in another part of the station. To stay on top of this, just make sure you know which “line company” you’re riding with and follow the signs. Most stations have English names on the maps as well. What’s great about the metro system is it’s HUGE and it will take you virtually anywhere in the surrounding areas! We didn’t take a taxi once.

The one thing that SAVED us in navigating was our Google. Google has a train direction feature so you can map out your journey and it will literally tell you which lines you need to take, how long/how many stops it will be and how much it will cost. Definitely consider getting T-Mobile or an international data plan with you carrier so you can use this function!

Overall, we absolutely adored our time in Tokyo and would do it again in a heart beat.

The verdict....Tokyo: BOOK IT!

Vanessa and I just spent four days logging a lot of miles in this massive city! In total we spent about $500, including accommodations, food, transportation and entertainment.

The Ultimate Travel Survival Kit

It’s no secret that preparing for a long trip can be a stressful thing to plan for, especially when it’s a new place, a new culture and you’re unsure what to expect. I’ve learned a thing or two when it comes to packing and unfortunately, many times I’ve had to learn the hard way! Here’s my tip… pack for the unexpected!

My dad has always been the master of packing. He’s quite the traveler and picked up the travel bug from him. Thanks, Dad! ;) What’s funny is when it comes to packing he and my mom are total opposites. He’s a minimalist, while my mom…well, she likes to be prepared with THE perfect outfit for each occasion ;) Having observed both travel styles over the years I’ve basically learned that if you can pack lightly while looking stylish, you’ve hit the jackpot!

If you’d like to take a look at how I efficiently pack all of my cute, yet functional, travel outfits take a peek at this vlog my husband put together and it’ll give you an inside scoop on the process! Follow his YouTube channel, The Backpackers Budget, to get valuable tips on how to travel the world on a dime.

-The Backpackers Budget-

OK now that we got our travel wardrobe out of the way, lets talk about the Survival Kit! This list of goods has {almost} literally been a lifesaver for me. This kit is made up of things that will definitely come in handy when the unexpected happens. While the list may look extensive, there have been so many occasions where I’ve been in a remote place internationally, desperately needing something and can’t get my hands on it!

Here’s a look at what my pre-travel Target trip looked like. There are essentially 3 different categories that I focus on: 1. Snacks 2. Meds 3. Personal Care

 

-SNACKS-

I’m someone that is constantly eating and coincidentally the LAST person you want to see get hangry, ‘cause lemme tell ya…it ‘aint pretty! When I’m packing for snacks I just have flashbacks of the time we were spending the day wandering around Versailles, France. For us, it was dinner time…about 5PM. For the French? Not even close. They eat very late and many of the cafes weren’t even open. The no snack situation escalated very quickly and went from bad to worse. In the end I’m pretty sure I inhaled an entire baguette, but I had to beg the server for it in my broken French. From that moment on I said NEVER AGAIN!

Now, I always pack Lara bars with me because they’re so easy to throw in my purse. Nuts and dried fruit are always great, as well as prunes… don’t even try to pretend you don’t also get backed up when you travel… ;) Last summer in South America, we brought Shakeology with us and it was a LIFE saver to have on hand! What was great is there was so much fresh fruit and juices there so we were able to take it to smoothie shops and have them blend it up for us for a quick and healthy meal on the go. My typically sensitive tummy had never been happier! We don’t leave home without it.

Lara Bars for the WIN!

 

-MEDS-

Medications and first aid items are so important to bring, especially when travelling internationally. You just don’t know what other countries will have available and certainly don’t want to get stuck without what you need…trust me on that one!

The hard lesson learned for me on this one was on our honeymoon of all places. We had gone to Playa del Carmen, Mexico and I somehow managed to pick up Montezuma’s Revenge, as they call it, on the very first day. For a lack of better words, everything when right through me!! It was awful and had ZERO stomach meds on hand. Finally, about a week in it was so bad we had to call the resort doctor. Antibiotics, Tylenol and some Gatorade cost me over $200. Never again.

ALL HAIL PINTEREST for this AMAZING idea to organize your pills! Not only did this save me so much space, but it make it so easy to carry around multiple meds while you’re travelling. I always include a pain reliever, cold medicine, allergy pills, melatonin (natural sleep aid) and some tummy meds just in case. In another baggy I have some Gas-x, tums, probiotics and lactade pills to throw in my purse if need be. We do a ton of walking so I also include a stick of Icy Hot for my knees or other sore areas if they get bad.

 

-PERSONAL CARE-

The name of the game with traveling is low maintenance, on the go and sometimes you just don’t have the luxury of a daily shower. Smelly people are no fun to be around so here are a few things to make sure you’re making new friends and not driving them away!! Baby wipes are AWESOME for a quick “shower” and will help keep you fresh. Baby power, a can of dry shampoo, translucent face powder will allow for a quick little bathroom makeover when you’re in a pinch. Don’t leave without some sunscreen and bug spray because there is nothing worse than being itchy or God forbid you get a horrible burn at the start of your trip!

Essential oils are so versatile and you can use them for just about anything – I bring a couple of little roller bottles with me to help me stay relaxed, combat sickness, prevent inflammation and the list goes on. I started packing some beachy hair spray as well for those days where I cant blow dry my hair (which usually happens when I fry my blow drying because I plug in the wrong converter!! **guilty**)

Keeping all these items on hand will be such a relief when you need them most! Don’t be caught without them. Traveling can be stressful enough as it is and being prepared will be the best way to ensure things run smoothly and go according to plan!

 

Bon Voyage!

Top 5 Tips to Survive Airport Travel

Traveling can be a hectic and stressful thing, especially if you show up unprepared! I grew up with the travel bug and have learned a thing or two over the years when it comes to prepping your mind and body for a big trip. I got my itch from my Dad, who is a transplant from England, and he’s spent most of his life traveling all over the world.

Got our passports and Shakeology...we're ready to go!!

Once I experienced it for myself and had the opportunity to see and live among another culture, I was HOOKED for LIFE! Traveling is my jam, for sure. One thing that has always gotten in my way is my health and struggled with digestive issues throughout my travel adventures. It wasn’t until recently that I finally got it down to a science and unlocked a few personal secrets to healthy traveling that always seem to do the trick.

Tip #1 : Workout the morning of your flight

While it might not always be feasible to fit one in for a 6am flight (been there, done that) you will feel so much better and think so much clearer when you get your bod UP and moovin and groovin! If you’re going to be sitting on a plane for several hours or all day, it’s the least to can do so you don’t feel so restless. When you’re not restless, the flight will go by faster!

Tip #2: Pre-pack those snacks!

Thank you Lululemon for giving me super cute airport approved clothes to wear :D 

HANGRY is my middle name when I get caught off guard and have nothing to eat on hand! Throw in a foreign place where you’re trying to find your way and you have a recipe for disaster. I always pack mini lara bars in my suite case and I swear to you, these things have SAVED my LIFE! They’re super convenient, have natural ingredients  and I can throw them in my day bag for easy access. I always bring packets of shakeology with me too because I can have them blended into coffee drinks and smoothies, or just shake it up with water in a pinch. BONUS: it totally keeps me regular. YEP. I said it, but it’s true!

Tip #3 : Eat Clean & Digestible Foods

Step AWAY from the salted peanuts! You know what’s ironic? One of the worst things you can probably eat when you’re flying are those little devilish packets of peanuts and assorted snacks they hand out to you for free on flights. Those are packed with sodium (which will make you bloat) and have a hard time getting digested. Eat as clean as possible and if you failed at the previous step for whatever reason…you CAN find healthy alternatives at some popular food chains! Starbucks has a few healthy options; for breakfast I go for their oatmeal (sans brown sugar…ya I know, I’m no fun.) but they also have some great fruit and veggie trays that although are overpriced, they are much healthier alternatives than their apple muffin/pumpkin loaf/frosted donut counterparts. Your body will thank you for that!

Tip #4 : Drink a TON of water

Here’s the catch with this. Travelling can make for some really long and hectic days where you are bouncing from planes trains and automobiles for HOURS on end. You MUST drink water to stay hydrated (duh) but it keeps your body balanced, clear and flushes out all of those icky toxins.

The issue comes when you drink a lot of water you have to pee, and lets be real… it’s the WORST when you are sitting in the window seat and you have to wake up the person next to you so you can get out. Am I right?? American’s are also pretty spoiled with the large number of public restrooms around which is not the case in many other countries!

Hunger can also be mistaken for THIRST so if you aren’t drinking enough water every day, not only are you going to be dehydrated but you’ll probably be stuffing your face at every one of those junk food kiosks in the airport. 

Tip #5 : Oil ‘er up!

Roll on essential oils are really handy! Just throw them in your purse.

Essential oils are an amazing way to not only fight off sicknesses but they can be calming and a great disinfectant! If you REALLY think about public transportation and flying on planes notably, they are so disgustingly dirty! I’ve seen some pretty nasty things in my time and it really reminds me that all I can do is take precautions to ward off the icky yuckiness that is lurking behind every seatbelt buckle and tray table. Prior to the flight you can take oregano oil (a couple of drops under your tongue) and it will ward off a cold after that guy behind you just sneezed and you felt his spray all over your face. During the flight I like to dab some lavender oil on my temples and on my upper lip to relax my mind and body.

And just like that, follow these 5 tips and you’ll be rearing to go when that plane touches down! Bon voyage!!