Dear Followers: I Have Moved to a Better Site. Please re-subscribe if you wish!

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Dear Followers,

Thank you for following my travels around the world. I am excited to report my newest site, The Passport Lifestyle. After having spent three years traveling the world, I am settling down for a little bit to pursue professional travel writing and this site will be a big part of this.

Tacos With Chopsticks will no longer exist. The Passport Lifestyle is a fully designed and comprehensive travel site. Tacos With Chopsticks was simply a personal travel diary, however my new site will be more of a site, not a blog in terms of resource content.

Please click the link and re-subscribe if you want to continue to receive my travel insight and advice. The Passport Lifestyle

Also, my new site will focus a lot on traveling but also travel photography and things like how to create the perfect shot while on vacation, etc. Hope to reconnect with you guys again! Take care,

Stephanie

Thank You – New Site Coming Soon!

Thank you to all my followers who have followed me and my travels the past few years. I enjoyed keeping this low key travel diary but I am happy to say that I have been in the process of building my own self-hosted site that will consist of lots of travel resources, photographs, photography tips, travel tips, and more!  I hope to have the site up within a couple of weeks. It will be under a new name. Thank you!

Stephanie

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Why We Chose to Travel to the UAE

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(These are all iPhone 4 shots. I will share some of my professional shots soon.) 

So, this is the 2nd of many intended blog updates about my travels recently. I kinda have a lot to write about from the past few months so it will take time. It’s crazy to think that this exact time last year we spent Christmas day strolling the surreal gardens of Versailles and the lovely Christmas streets of Paris. Of all the places we’ve been to so far, Paris is at the very top of the list of places that I cannot wait to return to. No correction: that I NEED to return to. That and New Zealand. I’ve fallen in love with every place we’ve travelled to; it’s like being in love with more than one person. But talk about falling in love with a city. You honestly need awhile to really see the city, and 10 days was not nearly long enough. I think you need at least a month, but one day that will happen. It takes at least 2 days to walk the Louvre and appreciate all the works of art, not to mention all the other historic places and neighborhoods. Paris is a city best enjoyed at a leisurely pace. I think it’s simultaneously the world’s most loved and hated city. But to me it’s the greatest city in the world!! Shoot, we didn’t even see the Montmartre district!! We reasoned that it’s best to leave it to another time, because we will return sooner rather than later. Well, to France for that matter as well. Tangents like this often happen when I start to think of Paris….

However, this year we found ourselves climbing the dunes of the Arabian desert, 2 hours south of Abu Dhabi just about 15 miles from the border of Saudi Arabia. What a year this has been. It has been so incredibly extraordinary, I honestly think we have given Elizabeth Gilbert a run for her money. But I suppose it was an apropos trip to end our year of adventures. Pictures will come soon. My hard drive is completely filled up now with travel photos so it’s been a process to make room for these new pictures, which is pretty much killing me with suspense. It’s actually what I’m doing up now at 1 in the AM, waiting for my backup DVDs to burn as I write this post. But I’ll likely be posting about this trip through June, or later…

Our decision to go to the UAE was interesting. We never really book our trips that far in advance as we like to keep things spontaneous since we change our minds a lot. But we reserved this time of year to travel between November and February to Thailand, possibly Dubai, Tanzania, or India because that’s the only time to visit these places. Going to India,  well particularly Rajasthan, has long been a dream of mine, but we’ve decided to save that for later when we are starved for more Asian adventures once we settle back Stateside. The visa requirements are too demanding as well, as they require you to actually mail your passport to the States which doesn’t work out for us because we really need them.

After just coming back from Bali and Thailand in October, I had reached my limit of traveling to 2nd world countries for the short term. As much as people think this kind of traveling is a vacation, it’s really not. True, it’s incredibly fun most of the time, but adventure travel and vacationing are two totally different things. Both are fun, but the former involves a considerable amount of stress. Although a part of me thinks that this stress is what makes it fun as well, in an adventure seeking and often sadistic sort of way. Although Lydia and I made a vacay out of our SEA excursion at the end of our trip, most of the trips Daniel and I go on are so packed full with seeing things that we hardly ever have time to just relax. We get up super early, catch sunsets, drive for hours, hop trains, etc….it’s nonstop which really beats you down. But we are using this time in our lives that we have to actually see the world, to see the many different cultures, and to have as many unique and rewarding experiences as possible which is why we travel so much. It’s all about the self growth we obtain and just seeing the world together which is priceless. There really doesn’t seem to be a diminishing marginal return to traveling yet because every new place you visit adds a new layer of perspective to your evolving worldview.

Up until my return from my Southeast Asian adventures in October, we had decided to travel to Sri Lanka and the Maldives in December and were excited about this. We really wanted to go on a safari in Sri Lanka and the country looks super interesting since it still hasn’t really branched out too much into tourism because it just recently ended its long civil war so you can see a lot of culture without a lot of Western influence. Plus, it’s practically India so it will be something new and exciting to see. But these kinds of trips do tend to be a lot more stressful and deep deep down we both just really wanted to take an actual vacation. So we scratched those plans.

Dubai was always on my list of places to see in the world but it never really was at the top. It’s another city and you know how I feel about staying in cities. It was more at the top of Daniel’s list than mine because he was fascinated with the Burj Khalifa and I’d be lying too if I said I didn’t care to see the world’s tallest skyscraper. It turned out that nonstop round trip tickets from Tokyo to Doha with a small layover were actually less than $500USD.  That had to be some mistake, but it’s not. It’s really baffling to us as to why this is since the flight itself was over 12 hours long!! So, Dubai it was. But I still felt like I didn’t want to fly half way around the world just to go to another city, especially just Dubai. I REALLY want to see Istanbul so we toyed with the idea of flying there for the 2nd half of the trip. I even MORE want to see Petra, but the conflict in Syria has brought some issues to Amman and it’s just best to go later. But it’s probably a good thing we didn’t go to Istanbul because a large snowstorm hit the region at the time we were there which would have made things interesting. Although seeing Istanbul all snow covered would have been a site to see!!

I did some more travel research and found some things we HAD to see in Abu Dhabi. Primarily the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, which as it turns out Rihanna of all people was kicked out of from recently for having a photoshoot, which I can imagine haha. They were insanely strict there; it was really an odd feeling.  But after seeing some pictures, we knew this was a must see place on our list. Lastly, the peak of our trip was at an ancient inspired fortress in the rollings dunes of the Arabian desert. As much as I wanted to see Istanbul, I gladly put that on hold upon seeing this place. It also made this trip a lot more stress free since it was super easy to plan. I literally spent like 1 hour travel planning for our entire trip!! But the both of us couldn’t stop talking about it before the trip. I think we showed all our friends pictures on the net of QAS and were like “check this place out! this is where we’re going to next!” It was always met with the same wide-eyed reaction every time. I’m shocked this place isn’t more common in the travel community.The QAS is a 5 star luxury resort and we spent the morning watching sunrises, the evenings hiking dunes and watching more sunsets, the days at the oasis pool, activities such as riding camels, and meals sprawled out on our bed ordering room service or attending the elaborate buffet spreads. It was certainly the vacation of a lifetime. And I think for the first time on our travels, I gained 5 pounds which has been brutal hell trying to get back into working out, especially after the splurge of Christmas dinner. But it was totally worth it, but I’m really paying for it now.

So there you have it. The UAE of all places was pretty much the coolest travel experience we’ve had as of yet. I would not have guessed that at all. New Zealand was still the most beautiful in terms of landscape, but the vast dunes in Arabia were actually just as strikingly beautiful. I’m a bit worried now that Petra will be a letdown after seeing the QAS. Indiana Jones would have felt very much at home here. This just reaffirms again that there are so many amazing places in this world, beyond our comprehension.

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Qasr Al Sarab: The Coolest Place in the World?

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Currently sitting at the stunning pool at the Qasr Al Sarab, more so shaped like a desert oasis with none other than the vast beautiful Arabian desert dunes extending endlessly beyond into the distance in front of me. If I had a vision of my life just 10 years ago, being able to travel to this place would have not entered my expectations. Dare to dream, and I’m a dreamer. I’ve been really fortunate to have spent the greater part of the last two and a half years traveling, but also staying at some pretty incredible places. I’ve written about how the landscapes of New Zealand were the most incredible sites I’ve seen and how the Phulay Bay Ritz Carlton Reserve in Krabi, Thailand was the best place I’ve ever stayed at. We even had a personal butler and our room was 5 times the size of my apartment. But the beauty and design of the place is why we fell in love with it. Luxury without natural beauty is just vanity. But this resort tops it all. When you start to travel frequently, you grow tired of seeing cities because they’re all the same and it takes more and more to impress you. This place seriously gives me a natural high being here and just when you feel like there’s nothing supremely impressive left to see, you discover these experiences. It always happens this way.

We chose to fly to Dubai for this trip because plane tickets from Japan were insanely cheap. And we both kinda wanted to see The Burj Khalifa and Daniel was even more excited than me this trip to see this new culture. Dubai really didn’t interest me enough on it’s own to see, but the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi did as well as the two hour drive towards the Saudi Arabian border to reach what I can only describe as a hybrid of Indiana Jones, The Mummy, and every classic Arabian movie or book you can imagine. Qasr Al Sarab in Arabic stands for “The Mirage,” alluding to the mirage it creates in the desert to ancient eras. The holy shi* factor for this resort is jaw dropping and even after staying at some of the finest luxury hotels, this place wins the gold medal. I had high expectations for this place and it’s one of the few times they were not only met but exceeded.

The architecture and design is old world and is pretty much a giant castle fortress in the desert out of Game of Thrones. The rooms are all dark wood with high castle ceilings, expansive views and old world objects in the library like bronze globes, period compasses, ancient maps, and of course plenty of Arabian dates.

Last night we went into the desert to shoot some photographs of the night sky. The moon was full and beaming down onto the quiet and monstrous desert of Arabia. Not the best lighting for shooting star trails but I was able to capture some pretty cool night landscapes.

This morning we got up for sunrise, grabbed the tripod and the camera and headed out into the dunes for a couple of hours of hiking through untraversed sand. The air was cool and the view was breathtaking.

And yesterday we had a nice little photo-shoot on the dunes and you bet I planned my wardrobe and shots for this trip. Daniel snapped a few awesome pics of me that I wanted. It’s been a great trip so far.

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These are all iPhone shots. I won’t be able to post my dslr shots until we get back! They don’t do this place justice.

Autumn Adventures Around Japan: Little Europe in Asia

IMG_0054About two and a half weeks ago during the middle of November at the peak of Autumn in central Japan, I took at day trip to Lake Kawaguchiko to see Mt Fuji up close and to photograph kouyou at its most beautiful. We are fortunate to have an immaculate view of Mt Fuji from our 27th floor balcony and the sunsets and sunrises are extraordinary. But, I’ve never actually seen this monstrous volcano up close and personal.

This particular area of Japan is part of the Fuji Five Lakes, but Lake Kawaguchiko has a reputation for being the most beautiful during kouyou, or autumn season. So I woke up super early one morning, grabbed my tripod and my gear and then hopped trains a few times over the three hour commute to arrive at Kawaguchiko station. It was generally a flawless ride up there, but traveling Japan is always a little challenge. I really didn’t do any trip research at all either, other than look up specifically where the reddest kouyou was located along the Lake. Time was limited, so that would do.

I arrived and looked around 360 degrees, with no sign of Fujisan through the clouds. That was disappointing, but I knew she’d come out sooner or later. For all I knew, this monstrous mountain was standing a short distance in front of me. That felt kinda creepy.

But I decided to just hire a more expensive cab rather than to wait for the bus to take me around the lake since time was of the essence. This is usually a great idea I’ve come to learn. As usual in Japan, the cab drivers are always kinder older men with a fetching curiosity about what this white girl is doing in their country. As usual, I’m asked where I’m from, how long I’ve lived here, why am I here, and then comment on the weather before saying  “nihongo jouzudesu,” for which I always reply “arigato gozaimasu demo nihongowa mama desu demo chotto benkyoushimasu.” Thank you, but my Japanese really isn’t that good I study a little.

He dropped me off after a 15 minute ride around an area very well lit with beautiful vibrant red and yellow trees – precisely what I was up there for to photograph. Unfortunately that day, Fujisan was partially covered all day until around sunset when the clouds parted and I was finally able to get a few decent shots. However, I really wanted the classic shot of kouyou in front of Fujisan, but that just wasn’t meant to be. But I grabbed lunch at an adorable cafe in a garden facing the lake and Mt Fuji, and I spent a good four hours walking around the small village, which really reminded me of an adorable little village in the Swiss Alps. It did feel like Europe. Around sunset, I had no idea where I was going, but I just decided to wing it and walk back using simply intuition to make my way back to the train station. When it comes to traveling, I’ve learned that Daniel and I are polar opposites. He needs to know on the GPS precisely where we are and what direction we are heading. That’s the submariner in him I suppose. But I’m a more intuitive type and don’t really care for GPS unless I’m lost. I’ll just wander in a certain direction that peaks my interest and then hop into a taxi if I get lost.  I almost never fret about directions unless I see bars on the windows, which doesn’t happen in Japan.  But it was a good 40 minute walk but I caught Fuji around sunset which was spectacular and I ended up meeting another super nice expat on the way back who was also here in Japan, which made the experience of the day all the more interesting as we chatted the entire way back to Tokyo. All in all, a successful and memorable day of travel.

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Thanksgiving Day in Tokyo at The New Sanno Hotel

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(All photos snapped with my iPhone4) 

It’s been an incredibly crazy busy year, but definitely the most exciting year we’ve ever experienced. I can’t believe that just less than a year ago we were planning our 11 days in Paris for Christmas and earlier last November, we were on our tour of Northern Vietnam and Cambodia. Never in my wildest dreams 2 or 3 years ago did I imagine that we’d have this kind of lifestyle. It is seriously a surreal dream come true to be able to travel this much together. All of this feels unreal at times and 2013 has certainly been a phenomenal year as we’ve managed to travel to 4 different continents. Wow, it has gone by fast. But we have much to be thankful for.

But we decided this year to not cook for Thanksgiving. No correction, thatwasn’t going to cook for Thanksgiving. I usually really quite enjoy the marathon holiday cooking process, as there’s nothing I love more than a nice challenge and the preparation of a beautiful holiday feast. There’s also nothing I love more than having a week’s worth of my favorite Southern style cornbread dressing and sweet potato casserole with marshmallows waiting for me in the fridge when I wake up at 3am or to heat up for a delicious midnight snack. But this year has been crazy and the 5 hour commute to the Yokosuka Commissary and the full day of preparation just wasn’t in the cards. It makes me tired thinking about that. We’ve been planning another big trip too in a couple of weeks and I just got back from a Ryokan experience with a friend of mine on Monday in Japan so my energy is wavering.

We made reservations at The New Sanno Hotel in Tokyo for 12:30 this afternoon. The New Sanno is a beautiful diplomat and military hotel in Tokyo located close to Roppongi in a very nice part of town. The hotel is famous for its ridiculously cheap nights, like $50 a night, which in Tokyo is insane. Most hotels this nice in Tokyo cost an upwards of $300. But the New Sanno has this old classy charm to it but the rooms are actually really comforting for an expat because the decor is classic American and you even get your standard American TV channels as well. For some reason, watching American television with the ability to channel surf feels like a comforting luxury when abroad. At home, my brilliant husband has figured out a way to obtain every possible movie and TV show through our Apple TV, but there’s something speacial about being able to flip through those old channels again on the remote.

But the Thanksgiving buffet at The New Sanno was really good and certainly met our requests. In a ballroom with hundreds of other expats, I made my first round and came back with a plate of turkey, roast beef, ham, dressing, mashed potatoes, and a heaping of sweet potato casserole that dwarfed the tiny ass plate Daniel got. After having not eaten anything all morning, he was amused at how fast I devoured this massive heaping of food. I went back for seconds, but soon enough I hit a wall and felt very sleepy. Thankfully, this feeling passed.

After we finished eating, we decided to go take the Ginza line close by to a station near Ginza that dropped us off near the government and political district. It was an absolutely beautiful afternoon, the sun was shining, the temperature wasn’t cold and the leaves were still vibrantly yellow lining the streets near the Diet Building. We ended up strolling all the way to the Imperial Palace, admiring more beauty and history mixed in with so much modernity, and then headed to the Marunouchi district nearby. We love this district because Tokyo has a very particular old yet distinctly Japanese feel to it. It’s why I love Tokyo, but sometimes you need a change in scenery because it’s so oppressively monotonous. This district reminds me of London because of the combination of modern and neoclassical architecture. It’s beautiful, and before long we stumbled upon a pastry shop by none other than Joel Robuchon, streets lined with shops, various brasseries, and a quaint sculpture garden next to an art museum. We strolled through the streets, blissfully in our turkey coma, remembering how our first thanksgiving as expats was spent in Taipei, while last year’s was spent with some good friends in Yokosuka.  We wandered in and out of shops, feeling much much better after having walked off all that dinner. Walking the city streets for a couple of hours isn’t really your traditional Thanksgiving Day tradition, but it felt awesome since I knew all those carbs weren’t going to go directly to my ass.

We came back and rescued our little baby dog who had a meltdown that we left him on Thanksgiving. Before that, we stopped off at the SOGO food basement to pick up some dinner for the night. We ended up with a bag full of Indian food – chicken curry, saffron rice, and naan while we cuddled up and watched Mission Impossible Ghost Protocal. Benji was elated about this. It was a beautiful day with my love.

Days: I’ve Lost Count! My Journey Through Asia Update: A Real Adventure

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Chillin on the streets of Bangkok. I wanted a pic in front of this restaurant we just ate it. I had just scarfed down yet another plate of fried rice in record timing, in a desperate attempt to ward off mild hypoglycemia and weakness from waiting to eat all afternoon. I liked this location, I thought it looked cool and perfectly captured Bangkok street style. I handed Lydia my camera, she took two shots. She looked at me wanting approval, I looked at the shots and then chastised her for cutting out my Converse. “Try again, but this time get the Converse, please. I like my Converse.” She looked at me with that classic “did you just say that to my face expression,” and then said “fine, I’ll get your damn Converse,” as I handed her back the camera. We laughed like fools. She then snapped one of just my Converse alone attempting to provoke another assanine request out of me, thus over-demanding her skills as an amateur fashion photographer. But I really actually liked the shot she took. She’s got some promise.

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But what a phenomenal trip the last 3 weeks have been. A true adventure. Here are some figures:

12 different hotels, 21 days, God knows how many cities, 8 flights, 1 pimped out luxury Ritz C van, approx 24 hours on the road driving, approx 20 cab drivers, about 10 orders of room service, 2 hair therapies, 4 two hour thai massages, 3 bruises on me legs from massages, 3 hour long reflexology foot massages, 3 infinity pools, 16 plates of fried rice, 6 world class hotels, 1 ultra- luxury experience at a Ritz Carlton Reserve, 1000 laughs, hundreds of jokes, a bottle of wine finished watching the sunset over the Andaman Sea in Phuket, 8 hours alone with elephants, 2 lost cab drivers for 7 hours, 2 world class rooftop bars (Sirocco at Lebua in Bangkok & Ku De Ta at the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore), 2 Singapore Slings, 5 filled up compact flash cards, 2 major tropical storms caught in with my camera, 4 beautiful paintings acquired at a night market in Chiang Mai, 1 new purse, 6 new books, NOTHING but a single lens cover lost, 2 tree house stay experiences, 1 night in the jungle, 2 sleepless nights from roosters crowing, and 3 pounds of weight lost from not eating on some travel days. I can’t do most airport food.

Well, keeping a truly up to date travel blog is rather difficult, and is seriously a lot harder than just keeping a written travel journal like wanderlusts of the past centuries. Writing with a fountain pen in journal is preferable to typing on a tiny iPhone 4. There’s something more romantic about the stream of consciousness from thoughts on to paper. But it’s too stressful to write long updates on my phone. I don’t travel with a computer either so updating my blog is solely done through my iPhone4, which tends to bog down at times. But I did pretty well on blogging for the first week, although it reached a point early in our trip that we honestly experienced so much that blogging about it all would just require way too much time and effort, and we reached a few days when we were both hanging on a thread, energy wise.

It took us WEEKS to plan this trip, hours upon hours Facetiming each other which actually went absolutely flawless which was really quite a strong indication of how well Lydia and I would get along traveling. She’s always been one of my best friends, but you really get to know someone when you travel together. You may have a lot of friends in life, but there are really only a select few that you can honestly have this much fun traveling with through Asia. And I mean real fun, and also no catty female bullshit. We had more laughs along the way, more massages, and truly marched to the same exact beat. Lydia is really one of the most level headed, down to earth, good humored, and composed individuals I know.

But traveling Asia and traveling Europe or America are two totally different experiences. Europe and America are cut out for money starved college students who like to crash at hostels, catch that fancy Eurorail and then hop off without a care in the world. Often times drunk or high. Or it’s for those who love to simply experience the finest pleasures of the first world. Man I love Europe, so much of it and I can’t wait to travel it extensively. BUT it’s really a piece of cake to travel around, not much stress at all involved, and there’s a reason why Indiana Jones was never filmed on that continent, outside of Nazi Germany.

But yes, Asia. Asia is an adventure at heart and this is why I love it; but it is also why it can break you. Although I’m just talking about Asia, but I really mean every 2nd and 3rd world country. Traveling these countries forces you into so many foreign situations that test you and if you choose to take it on, the journey will amount to a marathon. It really is quite a fundamentally different experience than traveling the beautiful streets of first world Europe, and I’ve actually learned so much about myself these past two years traveling around Asia, more than I could have ever imagined. It sounds cliche, but you do have this sort of renewed perspective on life and your own capabilities once you immerse yourself into the heart of Asia. And this past trip, Lydia also made the same admission, which was something completely unexpected for her, coming from the lands of West Hollywood and Russia.

I joked a lot about this trip being “an obstacle course.” Traveling outside of the first world is harder, more stressful, very few people speak English, your shit can get stolen at any moment from a motorbike passing by, anything you eat can potentially make you sick, your drivers may end up getting lost and dropping you off in the middle of nowhere, terrorist threats are a serious problem, creatures of the rainforest, malaria, a complete lack of governmental codes and laws when it comes to food safety and driving, gem scams, tuk tuk scams, drug implantations, deet in your drinks, a lack of toilet paper in the stalls, obnoxiously unsanitary bathrooms, rabies from all those dogs wandering the streets, horrific traffic fatalities all over Thailand, and then a lack of Western doctors and first world amenities if you were to get hurt, tourist bus crashes, rampant drunk driving, experiencing tsunamis and earthquakes in countries where buildings likely have no code, contaminated tap water at your hotel and out in town, unsanitary food preparations not similar to the first world, countless taxi scams where the meter is “off,” and so much more stuff to worry about. Traveling Asia, specifically Indonesia, Central Asia, and SEA is the real deal; it takes some serious travel and cultural knowledge and self-awareness to have a good trip and it actually takes effort to stay alive. But this is also the part that I find exciting.

It seems that there are two types of travelers. 1) Those who just like to vacay and 2) Those who like adventure and the actual act of traveling. I (and Daniel) fall heavily into the 2nd type, although it gets to the point where I burn myself out and need some serious rehab afterwards. Lydia as well falls into the 2nd type, but she too soon discovered that these stresses of traveling Asia nonstop will beat you down and break you if you don’t stop and chill out. And that it’s TOTALLY ok to God forbid, acknowledge your first world nature and admit that it’s ok to splurge on nicer accommodations and beg for a Starbucks latte to revive you. Yes, there’s nothing wrong with this and I don’t care if it makes me a borderline yuppie, although I don’t have any desire to flaunt my wealth which is what a yuppie really is. But I’ve realized long ago how much I depend on my first world comforts, so why bother making yourself miserable in situations you aren’t accustomed to? And this is why we get a long so well. She’s also the type that knows her comfort zone, enjoys a good splurge, but is still rough and tough enough to step out of it and venture out into the unknown.

I have too many travel stories from this trip and others in the past, as well as jokes I’d like to share. I think it’s better reserved if I just write them all for a collection of short stories to publish in a book that I’ve been wanting to write.

Day 9: The Drama of Two White Chicks Heading Into the Jungle

(Written on my iPhone during transit times. This happened a few days ago.)

Last night we spent the night in a tree house in Northern Thailand. And this was a rustic treehouse, with rustic serving as a euphemism for borderline livable for two first world yups. It’s called the Rabeang Pasak Tree House which is located about an hour and a half outside of Central Chiang Mai. Upon booking our lodgings last month Lydia expressed a desire to stay in a treehouse. It sounded like a fun enough idea so we found one with excellent reviews on Trip Advisor and decided to reserve just one night.

Our amazing resort in Chiang Rai set us up with a private driver who works for them to take us to this treehouse, since taking the local bus wouldn’t be sufficient enough to get us to our treehouse located deep inside the jungle. But what began as only about a two hour drive, ended up taking well over four hours – a rather unpleasant ride through the windy roads in the tropical rain, remnants from a typhoon that passed days earlier in Vietnam.

Characteristic of every hired driver you will meet in Asia, they all nod “OK,” while speaking very little English but accompanied by the same self-assured expression that comes from pretending to know where exactly they are going always. It’s a kind of false confidence that’s reflected in a sterner facial expression that perhaps comes from over compensating for their lack of directional knowledge.

We finally reached Chiang Mai’s city limits after a long two hours ride and we thought we were pretty close, half an hour range, so I decided to hold off on using the restroom because I limit my exposure to public bathrooms, especially the ones in second world countries. It needs to be an absolute emergency. You’re lucky to get toilet paper, the stalls are often soaked from those personal cleaning hoses and more often than not the trash bins are filled with used paper that for the love of God I can’t understand why. But I really had to pee because I drank two bottles of water and a Gatoraid prior to counter my dehydration, so the discomfort was becoming exponentially harder to bear as the roads became bumpier and muddier. But I thought that I could make it about another half an hour so I took the risk.

We passed through Chiang Mai central, then turned down another road which led us through a rural countryside and then eventually led us into the jungle. We passed cows, goats, local markets, misty green mountains, girls on motorbikes riding miserably bare in the pouring rain, typical second world sights, and two very bad car accidents all within ten miles of each other. Lydia and I looked at each and felt spoiled for living in the first world where the roads are cleaner and even in the poorest of cities, people still have cars to drive in the rain. And more importantly, we have laws for driving. Driving in Thailand is to be avoided as much as possible, at least for people like me which frighten from driving in general. It scares the shit out of me, even more than I expected it to. I was braced in a full alert position, hunched over on watch for the entire drive, watching car after car engage in an endless game of chicken around curve after curve. Many people complain about the fear of driving and walking around Vietnam, but there’s a harmonious flow to the traffic there at least so you don’t feel like it’s flat chaos. In Thailand, there is no flow; it’s just very aggressive.

After awhile longer, our driver dialed our resort on his flip phone as he meandered aggressively around slower moving cars, to clarify his location again. We were much relieved to speak to a young man named Mink on the phone who spoke beautiful English. Talking to Mink was comforting to us because he was the first English speaker we met yet in Thailand and he sounded really knowledgable. Part of the frustration in traveling around Asia at least is that it seems a lot of the people we encounter are too easy going and don’t bother with the details. I like a good solid plan. I like to know everything. Take me from Point A to Point B and don’t surprise me in between then.

We thought we were close, but then another hour passes and we are still headed deeper into the jungle. It’s still raining just as hard and the road begins to narrow as the green jungle starts to flow over into the pavement from both sides. We pass forests full of trees but not a place in sight. In the meantime, I’m in more pain than I can bear and my bladder is at it’s absolute stretched out limit. I try squirming around in my seat, loosing my seatbelt, unbuttoning my pants button, doing what I can to ease the pain as Lydia looks onto me with pity on her face as I whine. At this point we are clearly in the middle of the jungle, the rain is still not relenting and I am more than ok with going number one in the woods. The problem was just how exactly to communicate this with our driver. I envision a very unsuccessful game of charades with the stern faced driver which would only result in more delay and disturbing confusion. Option two is simply waiting until the car stops and just bolting out of the car into the woods, leaving Lydia with the burden of explaining to our driver what just happened to the other white girl. We then spotted a 711 sign tacked to a tree in the woods so I decide against option two and just bear the pain, reminding myself it will soon pass and praying a toilet is near.

Shortly after, we arrive at the entrance of some kind of lodging in the woods, indicative only by a small sign hanging over another wet and muddy red road leading further into the woods. Still no place in sight. Our driver certainly wasn’t expecting this kind of journey we joke, as his face grows more stern as he scans the road ahead with much reluctance and timidity, kinda like a cat trying to venture across an uncomfortable amount of water in its path. The man did not want to take his car through the dirt road any further. But we needed to get to Point B and being dropped off in the muddy jungle under a sign that might lead us to Point B was definitely not an option. Understandably the road was pretty wet and muddy and he was worried about getting stuck. But it wasn’t that bad so at the most his car will just need a good bath after all this. He insisted that this was the entrance to our hotel,(hell if we know since it was written in Thai), but we pointed down the road and said “no, further, more.” The nerve of this man wanting to just drop us off with our luggage right there. Assuming this was even our lodging, it’d still be impossible to drag our bags through this wet and muddy road that led to God knows where and also forked off a several places. He lost his tip after that. But Lydia and I died laughing at the thought of that particular situation unfolding. This story would have been lots more interesting. But he mumbled something under his breath and then proceeded to drive us forward slowly through the wet dirt road.

Deeper into the jungle, we reached a fork in the road – a three path split. The reality of finding a bathroom seemed nonexistent now and I panicked at the unbearable thought of
having to hold it any longer. There was a small sign pointing to the right and we drove down that road. A few minutes later we finally reached some kind of lodging built in the woods, but by all appearances it looked nothing at all like the treehouses we booked. Surrounded by small shacks which looked more like minority huts with straw roofs, a local woman stumbles out to meet us with a flock of chickens following behind her and I jump out of the car, hunched over pleading “toilet! toilet!” It turns out that the word ‘toilet’ is universally understood, thank God! She laughed and pointed to the left and I hobbled to it hunched over unable to walk in the rain to the one and only Western style toilet on the property. At this point those Eastern squatting things I’ve always refused to use in Japan would have been a Godsend. The driver and the locals watched with much humor as the crazy white girl hobbled off into the distance desperately in search of a bathroom. Moments later I yell for Lydia because as expected the toilet paper was null. What a good friend. She slipped me a Kleenex.

Come to fine out, our hotel was within ten minutes away and apparently our driver couldn’t read Thai because this was certainly not our place. We arrived shortly after and were greeted by the sweetest little old man who ran the property and the sweetest little wet dog who was so exited to see the guests arrive. She made sure to lead the way for me.

Our experience at the treehouse was bittersweet because the people who ran it were so sweet and I loved all of the animals there and the dinner they cooked was exquisite. More on this place later, but in short, it wasn’t the most comfortable night of sleep and it’s already been a few days since we left so I’m thinking neither of us has contracted malaria. Whew! But I suppose everyone needs a little adventure when they come to Thailand.

Day 8: Loving Chiang Rai, Thailand

We’ve spent the last day and a half in Chiang Rai, Thailand and we are a little sad that we’re here for such a short time. We got in to the Bura Resort around 10:00pm two nights ago and we are leaving this afternoon. This place is really special and beautiful and we both agreed we could have stayed here for half the trip.

Neither one of us was that impressed at all with our resort in Bali, and sadly Lydia left with not the best impression of Bali because of that. My last experience in Bali was really very different and it all has to do with the resort you stay in because a lot of Bali, even Ubud, is still very undeveloped and is not that spectacular on its own enough to warrant a whole lot of time. So you mostly hang around your resort and relax in the surroundings. This time around, the Ayung Resort just didn’t have any charm. It was a huge resort located in a truly beautiful location, but it was made of vast marble and looked like a gaudy palace so it didn’t have a true Balinese feel and touch. Last time at the Komaneka at Bisma, I felt like I never wanted to leave, but time around the Ayung Resort really had no special attraction in itself that made us want to just hang around it. It felt separate from the Balinese culture and didn’t harmoniously blend in with the rainforest IMOP. Plus, the resort has some things to work on. Our first couple of days at a local guesthouse in Manggis were FAR better and exceeded all of our expectations though. This was a perfect experience.

But the Bura Resort in Chiang Rai, Thailand is so memorable. It’s located within the hillside but the rooms are breathtaking and the landscaping on the property is so beautiful. It almost resembles The Flintstones caves. But the rooms are spacious and half of our room is facing the lush hillsides with its floor to ceiling windows, including the sliding doors. The floors are beautiful dark hard wood, as well as the frames of the windows, the bed, the desks, and the ceiling. It blends so perfectly with nature at its surrounding and we’ve never seem anything like it.

The last two mornings I’ve woken up around 7:00am to this tiny yellow bird that won’t stop fluttering outside the door. It has lasted over an hour. Because the door is a long window as well, I’ve just been watching him trying to capture him on my camera. I think he’s smart because when I start moving around he retreats for a little while, and then starts flapping into the door again; it’s a little strange. He’s literally trying to fly through the window and then falls to the ground once he fails, and then tries again repeatedly and even tries a running start. I just crept out of my bed to try to take a video and I guess he sensed it and flew away.

Yesterday when we woke up, it started raining hard until around noon so we had the best time sitting with the windows open, watching and listening to the beautiful rainfall on the deck and over the hillside. We were still tired from the long travel day before. I tried to take some good snaps as well and taught Lydia how to use my tripod.

We were both feeling better enough by 1:00pm to go get some food out in town. We spotted a Vietnamese/ Northern Thai restaurant and wanted to try it. Evidently the locals running the hotel have never heard of it. They speak poor English so it was a little difficult trying to communicate our day and intentions to them. They handed us a grey slim old school Nokia phone with preset numbers to call the taxi and the resort, which proved to be really useful.

What we like about this stay is how personal and local the staff are. The property is so well managed but it’s run by some young people, maybe a family. But it was cute when they greeted us at the airport with a warm smile and a sign, then took us back in not your typical shuttle van, but their car, then swung us by the 711 to grab some food because the restaurant was closed at that hour.

But lunch yesterday was incredible. The cafe was great and I tried my favorite Vietnamese dishes Banh Cuon and Thit Nuong but it was mixed with Northern Thai style. This was Lydia’s first Vietnamese food experience and she fell in love.

Afterwards we went to visit the White Temple and were floored with its beauty. At this point of traveling Asia, I’m sick of seeing temples but this place was a work of art, only 20 years old. It was by far one of the coolest pieces of architecture I’ve ever seen.

We then came back and had dinner on the woodsy terrace at the resort. The Thai fried rice was perfect but we both ordered the beef salad which was so heavily peppered that it would likely send us both to the hospital if we ate them all. Lydia had to collect herself after her first unsuspecting bite. But it was a great day and I’m liking Thailand more than Bali. It’s very much like Vietnam, which is probably why.

These are all IPhone shots: Our beautiful wooden villa, Vietnamese/Thai blend of Banh Cuon and BunThit Nuong, and the White Temple. The adorable little chihuahua’s name is Kit Kat and he’s the watchful eyes at Connect Cafe

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