Krabi, Koh Phi Phi and Phuket with Travr

Our Travr family started our journey through Thailand south with a flight to Krabi. Though its maybe not technically an island, we had to take a longboat taxi to Railay beach so it certainly had an island feel. There was a bit of beach on either side of a narrow strip of land, no more than a few hundred meters wide and 1 km long , with towering limestone cliffs on either side. We climbed to the top of one for some views, and as if that wasn’t high enough, we also climbed the trees to get a little higher.

climbing trees in Krabi

Travr is cool because if books the journey, mostly the transportation and accommodation, but besides a couple of meals and a handful of activities, you’re left with a lot of free time to eat when/where you want and try things that float your boat. The problem was that all the Travr activities were exactly what I wanted to do, so I got to relax and get some more massages and poolside time.

ATV adventures with Travr

We went ATVing in Krabi, which meant 13 excited young adults shown up, signed their lives away, got a helmet and an ATV, and were set free. A sentence or two for a safety talk, but no lessons or instructions  on how to drive an ATV. We drove around, sticking together as a group, but I’m still impressed no one got hurt or disappeared on their bike. I was certainly tempted to do a little off-roading and a few close calls and tree crashes later, we all came back in one piece.

just when you thought these beaches couldn’t get more picture perfect blue, sunset made them pretty in pink

We had incredible sunsets, infinity pools, and pool games before heading on to Koh Phi Phi. It’s a slice of paradise, and a slice of party, inseparable from each other on this tiny island. We took a longboat tour to do some snorkeling, cliff-jumping, and checked out the eerie, inhabited Viking cave. I got attacked at Monkey Beach, but others were lucky enough to have friendly monkeys pose prettily on their knees or shoulders.

another Travr activity highlight: ziplining and doing the superman!

We stayed at the PP Princess resort, which had only handsome European and Moroccan pool boy waiters, making the pool a very attractive place to waste time at. Sadly the pool shut at 7pm, so we had to find other things to entertain us in the evenings; Thai boxing and beer pong where a thing, as well as fire dancing and neon/black light discotheques.

Pool party in Phuket

At Phuket, we had yet another beachside pool to enjoy, with buckets on Happy hour and Bangla road calling us out in the evenings. We made it to one ping pong show, and I can’t even begin to start explaining what we saw there. Acts that were just as shocking as impressive, and disgusting to witness but too interesting to turn away from… obviously cameras weren’t allowed and words can’t begin to express the sights, so I’ll just stop there. Go see your own ping pong show if you dare!

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Welcome to Thailand, Travr style

South East Asia is a playground for every kind of tourist. I met Cambodian and Thai backpackers in Laos, and Thailand attracts everything from 18 year old Australians with tiny wallets to Russian mafia with extravagant budgets. I came to Thailand first in 2008 as a broke, newly graduated punk from college, traveling with my Canadian best friend and staying in $1/night bungalows on beaches only accessible by boat. This time around, I had slightly upgraded myself; I was traveling Travr style, with 12 Americans staying in 4 and 5 star hotels and traveling by AC ferries, taxis and domestic flights.

The Temple of Dawn in Bangkok

We started in Bangkok at the Grand Swiss Hotel, meeting at the Sky Lounge for introductions. I’d be rooming with Cookie, a nickname that couldn´t have suited her better. We had a welcome dinner at nearby Oskar restaurant, and ended the night at Sky Bar, the 68th floor rooftop bar made infamous by Hollywood’s Hangover 2.

our Travr family

We visited Bangkok, including the Sunrise temple and Kings Palace, cruising on the Bangkok river and eating our tummies full of pad thai at more delicious restaurants. We enjoyed the mandatory night out at Khao San Road, and most everyone squeezed in a Thai massage or some kind of spa time – I finally got a manicure and pedicure.

life in extra large

The highlight of our first few days was definitely Elephants World. It’s an Elephant sanctuary, where no one rides or beats them but keeps them free roaming and tame to one or two caretakers. We came to spend a day in the life of a caretaker, feeding the toothless old Elephant with some hand mashed bananas and vitamins and the toothless baby elephant hand-peeled bananas. We fed the other elephants hand-picked grass, which was transported by truck it was so tall and plentiful. And then, they put us in a muddy pool and told us to give the elephants a mud bath – we had become the spa! We picked up slimy handfuls of mud, mixed with lots of poopy fiber floating around, and rubbed the parts of the elephant we could reach. Once in a while the elephant would take a trunk full of muddy water and spray it over his back, and all of us, so we all ended up looking like muddy elephants.

mud bathing with elephants

We then moved over to the cleaner, flowing river, where we were given buckets and brooms to clean the elephant, and ourselves, swimming around these peaceful giants when it got too deep, and lying on their backs when we got too tired. I’ll never forget the feeling of watching that elephants face watching us – his eyes were really smiling, just as much as we were.

watch out for crossing trains

On the way back, we stopped at the Bridge on the River Kwai, which the British & Americans destroyed at the end of WWII . We were nearly pushed off the edge when a train came thru, slowing down but not stopping, assuming the dozens of tourists wouldn’t mind moving over to the tiny spaces we had to avoid getting run over. Looking down was also tricky since the spaces between planks was probably large enough to slip a foot thru, but I was mostly worried if that rickety wooden bridge could really support the whole weight of the train for so long, but then got distracted by all the smiling faces hanging out the open windows and waving at us as they passed.

Laos, country #216

I’ve started to lose count of countries now that I’m older than 30, but Laos should be #216. It’s a place I’ve skirted around, having visited all the other south east Asian countries, and never known much about, but it felt familiar when I finally arrived. It has a lot of Vietnamese influence, a language related to Thai, and a revived buddhist culture that reminded me of Myanmar. There’s plenty of Chinese and Indian money, as is everywhere else in the ASEAN countries. And comfortingly enough, there were plenty of solo female travellers too.

plenty of buddhas at Pak Ou Caves near Luang Prabang

It’s a $32-42 visa on arrival for most European passports, and I was threatened deportation for not wanting to use the same passport as I had used in Vietnam. Even though I had flown from Hanoi to Luang Prabang, it was impossible I had arrived on a clean passport page since landlocked Laos is nearly always arrived to thru a neighbouring country.

monks collecting alms from lay people

Luang Prabang was a breath of fresh air, literally and figuratively. The days were hot, but the air clean, and getting up at 5 am was actually cool. Monks would start shuffling through the streets as early as 5, to collect alms and make it to temple by sunrise. The procession was a silent, mesmerising sight, one you couldn’t help but photograph and follow through the streets, but still felt strange for staring at something that’s not meant to be a spectacle, but a way of life.

river day

The city was beyond charming – a colonial town filled with temples and the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers weaving around its many banks. It was clean, safe, peaceful and friendly, the smiles of the locals even bigger than the content tourists. Everyone goest to see the Kuang Si waterfalls and “freethebears” sanctuary (aka Tat Kuang Si Bear rescue center), which is well worth a visit. Make sure you swim in the turqouise blue water for a free foot scrub, or munch, rather, from the Garra rufa ‘pedicure’ fish.

Kuang Si falls

I visited a whiskey village and a buddhist cave during my day on the river, and spent the rest of my time walking in crooked circles to try and find as many monks and temples as I could, getting tired enough to deserve a Laos massage. Its more like a physiotherapy session – no oil, but a lot of pressure and bending, grunts and groans, as the masseuse crawls all over you and stretches you out.

the infamous Nam Song tubing river in VV

I overlanded to Vientiane through Vang Vieng, a small riverside town I hadn’t heard much about, except that it was famous spot for tubing with drugged, drunk backpackers. I found the tubing shop and 3 incredibly kind (and sober) backpackers to share an early cruise down the river, and either the bars have shut down from safety crack downs, or we were just too early to see the party crowds. I was grateful, since the road from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng was thrilling enough – a 5 hour journey not even the safest bus driver could manage without stressing out all the foreign passangers. At one point, there wasn’t even a road, but piles of rockes from a landslide, and the edges cliff-hanging turns seemed just a bit too narrow for us to make, even without oncoming traffic.

how about some bat for dinner?

I ate some traditonal Laos food, my favourite being the Larb spicy salad. There were also similar versions of Pad Thai and pho soup, but I was most impressed by their craft beers. Beer Lao had lagers, whites, ambers, dark ales and even a black rice beer. The rice wine however, or rice whisky as they incorrectly called it, was regrettably bad.

I ended my trip in Vientiane, at Ali Backpackers where I could literally see Thailand across the river. I spent the day and night alone, doing some yoga, walking around the little city that looked more like Hanoi than Luang Prabang, and window shopping at the night market. I took a local bus to the airport, which was only a few kilometers away, and changed my last kip for some baht. I was on my way to Bangkok to meet a group of twelve Americans and discover what Travr life meant.

Vietnam on-your-own

Vietnam takes backpacking to a whole new level; it is literally a country that has mastered mass tourism thru solo-backpackers, and with visa free offers to 24 countries and a visa on arrival for some 46 countries means its accessible to travellers from all corners of the world. The price of things also makes it accessible for the poorest of tourists – a hostel costs €2 a night, and a meal with a drink, about the same. If you’ve got a more expandable budget, splurge on a $3 pedicure or a $5 massage, and you’ve still got leftover money to go on a pub crawl for $1 beers and free vodka or whiskey during happy hour.

pretty feet in Vietnam

I was feeling spendy and tried all sorts of more inexpensive things. I ate Pho from the popular chain Pho 10, with lean beef and lots of red chilli. I tried the Vang Ðo da lat wine, a locally made red wine which wasn´t terrible. I enjoyed egg coffee, an espresso shaken with condensed milk and egg white to create a sweet, frothy top. I tried some kinds of local vodkas and rice wines, which were hard to swallow, but they weren´t expensive and you definitely got what you paid for.

the view from the narrow rooftop of Nexy hostel in Hanoi

Hanoi was a charming city, built on one-tenth of the space a similar city with as many people and shops would take in North America. The narrowest buildings and tiniest spaces were built up for something, and the skinny streets had to fit buses, cars, scooters and pedestrians, because all of the sidewalks were parked up with scooters and motorbikes so tightly you couldn´t even squeeze past them.

congested Hanoi

I was surprised to see a few pet dogs, mostly tiny purse dogs but also some larger, long haired ones. They were all on leashes, and I didn´t see a single street dog, so I wonder where the dogs without leashes end up. I didn´t think about it too much but avoided unrecognizable meat, especially in soups.

Ha Long bay from the top of Ti Top island

The main destination wasn´t Hanoi, but Halong Bay. I spent 3 days, 2 nights, cruising around the limestone islands, mountains seemingly floating on the blue-green water. It was probably closer to a shade of brown-green, but it was cloudy most of the time and dozens and dozens of other leisure boats congested the bay so it was hard to be sure.

Sung Sot Cave, aka Surprise Cave in Ha Long bay

We, along with every other boat, visited some caves, hiked to some viewpoints, and watched monkeys steal whatever edible treats you would offer at Monkey Island. I was relieved to get to Cat Ba island, where the national park there actually offered some solitude in nature. It was the first time I hiked without someone directly infront and behind me, and reaching the peak made the fittest of fit break a sweat. Our guide made some excuse why he couldn´t hike with us, but ensured “Everything I do, I do it for you.” Tourism is the main industry on Cat Ba island, but he explained that Vietnamese believe in destiny, so they really don’t care too much about anything. But, when it´s time to get married, the engaged couple has to see a fortune teller to help them pick their wedding date, since that ‘lucky day’ can’t be left to fate.

at the end of the Cat Ba national park hike

Staying in the pleasant little town of Cat Ba was relaxing, and with a bit of rain came more quiet. I made friends with a French Canadian acro-yogi and a couple of professional photographers living in New Mexico, so I didn´t spend much time alone, but it was a relief to be away from the hordes of Chinese boat tourists.

new friends, other female solo-travellers

Leaving Hanoi, I nearly missed my flight because of an accident on the bus route to the airport, but just made it in time to check-in. Going thru security and boarding my plane to Luang Prabang, I had to smile at all the sun-kissed tourists boarding the same flight – everyone was carrying their must-have tourist item, a Vietnamese rice hat, and it brought me back to Fall 2006 when I was last in Vietnam on Semester at Sea and literally 500 college students had done the same.

City escape to Algiers

I´ve tried, and failed, multiple times to visit Algeria. The land border between Morocco and Algeria is (mostly) closed. There wasn´t a visa available for Icelanders or Canadians in Tunisia, since Algerian embassies only process visas for residents of the country they´re in, so London threw the same answer in my face and told me to ask Stockholm since Reykjavik doesn´t have an Algerian embassy.

the statue of Emir Abdelkader and one enormous flag

I succeeded in Sweden and flew to Algiers via Barcelona. It’s a short, one hour flight over a small piece of the Mediterranean, and arriving there wasn´t different than arriving in Marseilles – the French architecture and French-Arab street language, with a mix of other African nationalities, felt like I was at home in Southern France.

our couchsurf hosts

The goals in Algeria were simple – the live and enjoy the city life of Algeirs with two locals, our couchsurfing hosts. Mary and Daniel were both Algerian, born and raised in various cities, but had both spent a significant amount of time living and studying in Paris. They lived in a 12th floor apartment in a highrise on a hilltop overlooking the city, the port and the sea. Most of the outside walls were glass windows, offering spectacular views and light all the time, although one had broken and wind and rain could meander its way inside anytime.

the fish market

We wanted to find the best local food, and in a city of 3 million, there were only three restaurants worth trying: El Djenina, Le Caid, and El essaoura (all with doorbells you had to ring to enter). The secret was that the best food in Algiers is found in the homes of Algerian´s kitchens. We shopped at the fish market and cooked BBQ meat at home, with Algerian wine to pair. We bar hopped too all the dark and grungy corners of the city, the few places where mostly older men gather to drink in smoky bars, where no windows or doors were left open to avoid the taboo of being seen in a bar. The restaurants that served beer or wine would only serve it with food, but you could buy shots without eating since their liquor license permitted serving aperitifs and digestives without food on the table.

not the most welcoming entrance – it reminded me of a prison door

We were there for Halloween, which noone seemed to notice since it was overshadowed by the November 1st holiday, which celebrates the Anniversary of the Revolution. Not everyone was sure which revolution or even which victory it refers to, but at midnight there were dozens of canons fired into the sea, not all at once but one at a time in a slow, melodramatic kind of way, with 45 seconds of fireworks in a far away square. It was a new and unusual way for me to spend Halloween.

how to get free tickets to the soccer game – take the gondola from the Botanical gardens to the top of the hill to get this view

The couchsurfers took us on a walking tour of the Casbah, were we walked past decaying buildings and piles of trash. The old town of Algeirs was once nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage site listing, but after a whole bunch of money was granted and thrown into the project, only a handful of buildings were renovated and the rest of the money seemingly vanished into thin air. While passing some ruins on rue Barbarossa, they told us tales of pirates, and I asked if there were still any pirates. The answer was yes – the government. Hopefully that changes soon, and then the casbah might stay standing long enough for future travelers to enjoy.

Must-try eats in Tel-Aviv

There´s a nightlife district in Tel-Aviv´s ancient fort city, an old neighbourhood called Jaffa, with plenty of great wining and dining options. Happy hour at Raisa bar on a hightable outside people watching is definitely a highlight, but any bars on the streets running north-south in that pedestrian area can lure you in, depending on your mood and company.

Eating at Onza restaurant on a Monday or Frida means live music on the street, which is also where they set up their overflow tables, as the diners spill onto both sides of the road getting their fill of world-class dining. The wine list is one of the best in Israel, including local special varieties, and the food cooked by Turkish chefs Darhani and Magriso will impress any gourmande.

Mashya

The best restaurant in Tel-Aviv is hands down Mashya. Sit at the bar and chat with the bartenders, and be mesmerised by their cocktail making skills. They´ll always answer a question about the menu with a personal touch, and definitely trust any recommendations they have for food or drinks. If you have the time and money, I´d suggest going back twice or thrice so you can try all the cocktails and plates.

dazzle your senses (and your wallet) at the Carmel Market, which sells street food that could make even Michelin chefs jealous

Haifa is a pleasant surprise, especially the stretch of (Ben Gurion) street leading up to the Bahai garden terraces and the view from the top of the staircase down to the city and nearby port and train station. Eat and drink at Fattoush, by far the best spot on the strip. The ambience, atmosphere and full tables attest to it´s popularity, and the price and portions were generous, especially by Tel Aviv standards.

If you´re going to Nazareth or Tiberias, don´t expect much in the restaurant, bar or shopping scene, but it´s still worth going for the scenery and vineyard region in and around the Galilee region. Don´t pass up the chance to get into the private home cellars of some family winemakers for wine tasting. Another highlight is of course the Sea of Gailiee – you can get a natural foot fish spa by dipping your feet in from the shore, which seems to be sinking as fast as the Dead Sea, so its definitely worth going sooner rather than later!

Stockholm & Åland

Sweden is the only Scandinavian country I´ve been to only once, back in 2009, so I was overdue for a second visit. My intentions were wrong – I was going to get access to the Algerian Embassy since the Stockholm mission handles Icelandic visa applications (we don’t have an Algerian embassy in Iceland, but to get a tourist visa you have to apply in your resident country, a perfect catch-22). What I didn’t know was that I´d fall in love with Stockholm in the four nights I had to stay there waiting for the visa processing.

Stockholms stadshus in Kungsholmen

I stayed in Gamla Stan, getting voluntarily lost in the old island-esque city center, and wandered the more modern streets of Norrmalm. I wined and dined with Scandinavia’s second best chef of 2009, eating at the Michelin restaurant Ekstedt. We were on the waiting list to get into the 3-star Frantzén, but no luck this time, which gives me a valid reason to go back a third time.

sunrise ferry time

We arrived on a Wednesday, just in time to apply before the embassy closed at 1pm, but they admitted it wouldn’t be ready by Friday and they´d open next on Monday. This sparked the possibility to squeeze in a weekend trip to Aland, a sort of sovereign country-state that’s outside of the EU, owned by Finland, but Swedish speaking.

picturesque Åland

I bought a ferry ticket for €2, return, with Viking line supposedly making profits off €1 tickets since passengers buy so much cheap booze and cigarettes from the technicality of leaving the EU. I couchsurfed two nights with a friendly Alander in Mariehamn who had a Finnish sauna in his apartment, and could walk anywhere and everywhere along the coast and an incredible network of pink trails. The roads were pink too – the granite used to make paths and streets are called red by the locals, but it was all very pretty in pink to me.

they´re pink, no?

The highest point of the island isn’t very high, at least not high enough to be called more than a hill, but what Aland didn’t have in highland they made up for in islands; countless islands, all shapes and sizes, with or without vegetation, and most, with cabins. My host explained that some were summer houses, vacation homes, and others, lived in all year. People arrived by private boat, and all had a Finnish sauna to warm up in after a dip in the sea, whatever season.

one of the many bustling food halls in Stockholm

I couchsurfed my last couple nights in Stockholm near Solvandan, sleeping in the loft of a top floor apartment where a ladder led me to my room I couldn´t quite stand up in. My host gave me a city bike card, so I had access to free bicycles to explore the city further. We found some live jazz, delicious risotto, and a wine bar whose goal is to cover their walls floor to ceiling with corks. Ill have to go back if/when the gets accomplished – yet another reason to visit Stockholm again.