Falling in love with Pai

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We’ve spent the last five days in Pai and we’ve absolutely fallen in love with this little town. A short three hour van ride around 762 curves up the mountain from Chiang Mai to Pai was well worth it. It’s been such a welcomed change of pace from the two cities; since arriving, we’ve mostly just been relaxing by the pool and enjoying the mountain’s cooler weather.

On a quick side note, we’ve been updating our Flickr account with all the pictures we’ve been taking, whether they made it onto our blog posts or not. Feel free to peruse here!

Touching down in Pai, we rented a motorbike right away (140 baht a day, $4.50 CAD) so we could drive around and find a nice hostel. We usually only spend We stumbled upon Chang Pai Resort, a bunch of little bamboo bungalows with a pool, tucked away just one minute from the town center. A bungalow to ourselves cost 350 baht ($12 CAD) a night with AC.

It’s safe to say that the view in Pai is absolutely stunning. You can get to waterfalls, canyons, caves, and temples all in under 20 minutes by bike, and you can walk everywhere in town. At night, there’s a market lining the main streets with the cheapest and best street food we’ve encountered. Everyone in Pai takes life slowly, so we spent most of our days swimming and sunbathing with our Irish friends, Jane and Brian (hi guys!).

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(Pai Canyon. Click the picture to see it full size!)

The Pai Canyon was a 10 minute drive out of town and was both scary and breathtaking. Luke and Brian had fun hiking atop the narrow canyon ridges, while Jane and I tried not to watch nervously. The sun was absolutely scorching on the canyon but you really couldn’t beat the view.

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(Pambok Waterfall and Luke about to jump in)

 

After that, we all headed to the Pembok Waterfall. Although it was the furthest drive from town that we took, it was only a small hike after you park your motorcycle. We explored the waterfall that was nestled inside of the rock cliffs, creating a half cave. The water was refreshing after nearly baking in the canyon. Luke and Brian got excited about climbing the rocks and doing back flips into the water while Jane and I watched on.

By now we felt fairly hungry, so we biked back down to ‘the land split’. This split is a piece of land on a farm where the farmer says that one day in 2008 he woke up to a massive fissure running through his property. Each year the crack grows, and new ones are created. He’s placed year markers atop each ridge and crevice, showing the progression.

Since most of his land is no longer useful for farming, it has become a tourist spot, where the woman serve roselle juice and a spread of snacks. Luke and I tried a passionfruit for the first time! It was delicious, and so was the juice. They also provided peanuts, lady finger bananas, boiled potatoes with salt, and a small bottle of roselle wine. They worked only on a donation system, so if you stop by make sure to give what you think is fair. Given that a small lunch in town would have cost us 30-40 baht, we gave accordingly.

On our way back to town, we stopped by the famous Pai coffee house, Coffee In Love, for an iced latte and a piece of cheesecake. You can’t beat the view from the patio, so if you’re ever in Pai make sure to take a second to stop and have a coffee.

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(I think we managed to get 100% of our sunburn attempting to take this photo)

Since everything in Pai was so close, we had time for one more stop at the Buddha on a hill. The sun was still out in full force, so walking up all the stairs to get to the Buddha nearly melted us. Once at the top however, it was well worth it. As we’ve been finding with Buddhist temples, they’re almost always located on real estate with incredible views of the city.

Later that evening, we did our nightly tradition of street food and walking through the market. Luke and Brian tried baked locust, crickets, grasshoppers, and larvae, which didn’t go over so well. After about two each, they gave up on the rest. Jane and I walked from store to store trying to find the perfect postcards to send home. There are a bunch of shops in Pai that allow you to buy a post-card and stamp right there, sit down to write the postcard, and mail it, all in-store. Very cute! We developed a bit of a postcard addiction…

We managed to squeeze so much into our visit to Pai that at this point, I’m going to have to summarize most of it. Some highlights: tea in bamboo shoot cups at the market (30 baht for the cup and tea, then 10 baht for every refill), thai massages, sunbathing, more iced coffee, finding the best pizza in Thailand, and playing Jenga while sipping Mojitos and Mai Thais in a little deep-house lounge.

It’s with a heavy heart that we split up with our travel companions Brian and Jane. They’re staying behind in Pai to finish a Thai massage course while Luke and I move on to Laos by slow boat. With plans to meet up again, I guess it’s just goodbye for now to our “savage” friends from Ireland. It’s been a gas!

– S & L

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Playing with Elephants in Chiang Mai

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It’s not every day that you get to feed, bathe, and play with a herd of elephants. In Thailand though, there are tons of opportunities. We knew that hanging out with some massive, grey teddy bears was on our Asia bucket list, and when we found an elephant retirement home in Chiang Mai, we knew we were in the right place.

It was important to us that we find a place where we felt comfortable with how the elephants were treated, as unethical tourist traps are everywhere here. It’s quite common for the companies to use abusive training or to sell endless rides (which is hard on them) at the animals’ expense.

We had heard nothing but good things about the Elephant Retirement Park, so we signed up.

At 9 AM, we met our guide Yui. We drove in a van with eight other people to the market where we grabbed bananas and sugar cane to feed the herd. It was an hour out of the city, but we had Yui to crack jokes, sing, and tell his life stories in broken English to pass time.

Once we got to the park, we hopped into the back of a pick-up truck and went out to meet the six elephants. As we drove up, we could hear them trumpeting out to each other. It was quite surreal. As we rounded the final jungle hill, we saw all six of them eagerly waiting to be fed.IMG_0750

The herd consisted of two matriarchs, one older male, two adolescent girls (6 years old), and a six month old baby girl. The first command we learned was “bon” – which was what we said to make them open wide for treats. It was important for us to feed each elephant individually, as they had to learn our scent before we joined their play time.

The baby by far was the cutest. She acted like a rambunctious puppy dog, ignoring commands and horsing around. She would constantly head butt people, trying to get them to push back as hard as possible.

The whole group was incredibly playful. Each elephant had their own owner (mahut), who lived and played with them.

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(Luke wrestling with the 6 month old baby girl)

A girl volunteering at the park told us that elephants in Thailand are no longer for sale (unless by black market), so all of these magical animals had been passed down within their respective families, always going to the eldest son. The bond between the mahut and elephant was fascinating to see. You could really see the love between them all as they tugged on the elephants ears, wrestled, and worked with them.

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(Luke before he got stepped on!)

After lunch, we went back to give the elephants a mud bath. The mahuts quickly escalated things to an all out mud-war (which was understandable… they probably didn’t get out much) and the elephants happily flopped around, getting covered in clay and cooling down.

Luke was a bit too eager and got underfoot one of the biggest elephants as she slipped in the mud. The result was a pretty big scratch and bruise, which made any more muddy horseplay off limits. I happily sat on the sidelines watching with him, since I’m not a “get muddy” kind of person anyway.

Overall, it was a great experience hanging out with elephants all day. The guys running the place were so friendly and loving, and the opportunity to spend a day with the gentle giants was priceless. We would highly recommend picking their elephant home if you’re considering something like this in Thailand.

Zipping around in Chiang Mai

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Although Bangkok was interesting and busy, the smog and constant haggling on the street really began to wear on us. As the train pulled into the Chiang Mai station, we instantly exhaled a giant sigh of relief. This city is small and slow. Once surrounded by a moat, the cityscape is perfection: mountain views, canals, and temples. Not to mention a gentle and friendly population.

Our first hostel was a bit of a bust. The room was small, hot, and lacked any privacy. While the staff was very nice, we decided to get out of there as fast as possible. At $5 CAD a night, we learned a very valuable lesson about trying to save money. Luckily, we found The Green Tulip House for $15 CAD next. This hostel has been incredible, and the people we’ve met here are amazing. Our room has AC and a private bathroom, the main floor has a restaurant and plays deep house music all day, and there’s a rooftop patio overlooking the city. We feel right at home here!

Here’s what we’ve done in Chiang Mai so far:

Day one

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(Samie packing up to leave hostel #1. Not sure this was the safest, but we survived.)

We rented a motorbike for 230 baht ($7 CAD) a day (sorry mom!), which gave us access to the whole city as well as the nearby mountains, waterfalls, and temples. The price includes insurance and helmets for two as well and you’re free to make day treks anywhere outside of the city. If you break down, the rental place will come and pick you up. We rented from Mr. Mechanic which doesn’t have a website, but locals highly recommend the place.

We spent the day driving around and getting to know Chiang Mai. After a few hours, we got really hot and decided to head to the Eco Resort for some swimming. A delightfully designed retreat, there were acres of botanical gardens, as well as hotel-style rooms, a large rustic dinging/bar area, and some private villas. It was 100 baht ($3 CAD) each for pool access for us. Well worth it!

Day two

This is the day where we moved all of our stuff to the new hostel. It was such a relief to be somewhere where we were comfortable. Instantly, we made some friends with two other couples. Luke helped them each get a motorbike as well so they could join us on our way to the Mae Sa waterfalls.

The ride took about 30 minutes and the national park was 100 baht ($3 CAD) to get into. It was trickling rain when we arrived, so we stopped to eat at a food cart. The menu was definitely intended for the locals, with very little looking like it was within our comfort zones. We stuck to charcoal fried chicken, sticky rice, and barbecued eggs (who knew?). The chicken was incredible! If only we were more daring, there was also salted fish and barbecued pork intestines for sale.

When it stopped raining, we made our way up the waterfalls. At Mae Sa, there are 10 locations where you can stop, swim, picnic, and hang out at different levels and waterfalls. It’s really incredible. Some of the locals convinced Luke to jump in the waterfall, and he had a blast trying to stand under the crush of the water. We’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. You can see more here.

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(Luke and Brian taking in a real waterfall massage)

We got caught in the rain on the way home as we were biking, so we stopped in to have tea at this stunning resort called Cool Downs Resort. They let us in even though we looked like a bunch of drowned rats, but we took a look around and were in awe of how gorgeous the set up was with an outdoor infinity pool, a fire pit, and an overall beautiful modern design.

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(Grilled squid, cooked to rubbery perfection.)

Later on after we all warmed up, Luke and I went out in search of food. I stuck with some chicken fried rice, but Luke got his hands on some grilled squid. It was put on the charcoal grill whole, and cooked thoroughly (maybe too thoroughly, as the texture became pretty tough… but at least it was safe to eat!) before they chopped it up and bagged it. Just before we left with our purchase, they offered a sauce. Luke unwittingly said yes, and watched his dinner get doused in a chili-seed marinade. Overall, the squid tasted great – but next time we’ll go easier on the liquid fire.

Day three

We went to an elephant retirement home. But, you’ll have to wait for that post!

– S & L

6 Most Common Scams in Bangkok (and how to avoid them)

Welcome to Bangkok, the land of the most persistent scam artists.

In the one week we spent in Bangkok, there were at least half a dozen scams attempted on us. The first scam we fell for within hours of landing. The sad part for us was hearing the exact same lines being used and reused with most people having no idea how easy it is to spot and avoid these common mistakes. Here is a quick list of the scams, and how to avoid them.

1. Tuk tuk prices

Tuk TukOne of the cheapest forms of transportation around Bangkok are these glorified motorcycles. Tuk Tuk’s are something every traveler should try at some point on their trip to Thailand. They’re cheaper than taxis and fun to zip in and out of traffic. Bear in mind, however, that they have no taxi meter. Locals are familiar with the ‘going rate’ of getting from point A to point B, but tourists are asked for exorbitant rates, hoping they’ll simply agree since tourists don’t know their way around. Our hosts told us that most locals pay 10-20 baht, and never any more than 50. Tourists should expect to pay between 50 and 100 baht for anything under a 20 minute drive (give or take).

Our first tuk tuk ride: 400 baht.

2. Taxi meters

You can spot an available taxi with ease in Bangkok — a cotton-candy pink car with a red digital sign in their windshield. They operate exactly like every other taxi driver you’re used to, except they prefer not to activate their meter. If you make it all the way to your destination without the price having been discussed, you’ll be at their mercy of whatever they ask. If you insist on them turning it on partway through, they’ll begin the haggling then. If you want a fair taxi fee, always insist the taxi meter be used before you get in. If they won’t agree, find another.

3. 20 Baht ‘Tours’

A tuk tuk driver approaches you and asks you if you’d like a tour of the palaces for only 20 baht. It seems like a great deal, but before you know it, you’re in a high-pressure sales pitch at some place you may or may not have wanted to go to. Tuk tuks like to deliver tourists to certain shops and tourist attractions in exchange for a commission, which is why they’ll offer you the cheap ride. While it’s not the end of the world for the tourist, it can get uncomfortable, or you can end up buying things you never intended to.

As a rule: don’t go on cheap tuk tuk tours. When it seems too good to be true, it typically is.

4. Temple is closed

You get in a tuk tuk and ask to head to the Grand Palace, but partway there you are informed that the Grand Palace is closed. Have no fear however, he can send you to a riverboat cruise instead, or to a more interesting destination. This happened to us on the way to Wat Pho, but we called his bluff and arrived at a temple which was (not surprisingly) open. When a driver tries to divert you from your destination, don’t buy it. Stick to your guns – temples don’t close for lunch. Note that guides out front of the temple may attempt this line as well, since they too can get commission for taking you to a nearby ‘travel agency’ to book other tours while you wait for the temple to ‘open’.

5. Commission Scalpers

Friendly strangers or drivers approach you with the same line, “Where are you from, where are you going?” While there’s nothing wrong with chatting, this line of conversation often turns to them suggesting someone for your next tour, or the best railway line, or someone who can hook you up with a cheap bus pass. The reality is that almost every shopkeeper, tour company and travel agent will pay a referral fee. If you need a suggestion for who to book with, feel free to take their advice. However, if you think their suggestions are unbiased and honest, think again. They’re simply recommending the routes which have the highest kickbacks lined up for them.

6. Pickpockets

While a lot of the downtown area has a bit of a pickpocketing problem, the major tourist attractions are where you need to be careful. Some temples have put up signs warning tourists, and several of our tuk tuk drivers took it upon themselves to educate us on the dangers of being careless. When gazing upwards and snapping pictures, bags should be securely zipped up and held close. Back pockets are no place for valuables and make sure to not rest your bag down without keeping a close eye on it.

-Luke

Taking the train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai

It was an interesting couple of days in Bangkok, but we were definitely ready to move on to a slower town.We decided to take the 13 hour overnight train to Chiang Mai.

We bought or tickets the day before from our hostel, paying a 50 baht delivery fee to have the tickets delivered. The number 13 train left Bangkok at 7:35 pm, and was set to arrive in Chiang Mai at 9:55 am.

Getting to the train station was a cheap tuk tuk ride away, and we were told we really didn’t need to arrive early. People began boarding about 30 minutes prior to departure.

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As for what tickets to get, we would recommend two options: first class sleeper, or second class air conditioned sleeper. In first class, you get two beds (so if you’re alone, you need to book the whole room to be alone) with a door and both Western and squat toilets. In second class air conditioned, you get four beds in one nook with no door. There were two squat toilets and one Western toilet.

We decided to go with second class air conditioned, since it was substantially cheaper than first class. Our friends who did take first class were quite unimpressed, so I think we won that gamble. We bought the lower bunk and the upper bunk on the same side. The upper bunk came to 791+50 baht ($29 CAD) and the lower bunk came to 881+50 baht ($32 CAD). Overall, it was a good experience. It’s a bit awkward to have someone sitting right across from you (or sleeping at night), but each bunk has curtains that fully enclose you. There’s plenty of space for luggage storage in each unit. Workers come around at around 9 pm to make the beds, and lights were off around 10 pm.

There was a restaurant car in the next car, and the prices were pretty fair. The ride was a bit bumpy, but everyone was pretty quiet, so it was still easy to sleep. The only thing we would complain about was that it got extremely cold at night – apparently the A/C came without a thermostat. Luke forgot pants, but luckily I remembered mine and I had a spare blanket to share. He made himself into a 6′ burrito and survived the night.

Also, the bathrooms were not the most amazing. I couldn’t get the doors to close half the time (I’m weak!), and the floors were pretty wet. There was no soap and toilet paper was scarce. The last thing I would say is more of a tip rather than a complaint: The wall plugs didn’t work for us, so charge up all your stuff before getting onto the train so it will last the night.

Overall, taking the train made for stunning views, and being able to have a bed to sleep in (and save on paying for a night of accommodation) was pretty great.

Backpackers, Buddhas, and bold street food in Bangkok

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Our week in Bangkok has flown by. We finally got our bearings and decided to try some street food, check out a temple, and meet some other backpackers.

We felt a bit lost in Bangkok, so our hostel host mentioned we should check out the backpackers’ street, Khao San Road. It was a 10 minute walk from our hostel and when we got there, we could tell why it was aptly named. Almost everything was in English, Thai locals were selling everything under the sun, Lady Gaga music was blasting from open bars, and there was a sea of other backpackers.

Luke decided he needed some lighter shorts, so we haggled with some venders to get him two pairs for $12 CAD. We sat down and had some Pad Thai and garlic chicken, watching all sorts of backpackers walk past. While it was a welcome change to the confusion that Bangkok had been thus far, it still left a bad taste in our mouths. Seeing hordes of loud, obnoxious and predominantly very white pedestrians from our restaurant table was at first amusing, then disheartening. Is this how we looked to the Thai locals? Our bar had a band of overly vocal Aussies draining draft beer from a tower, and the bar across the street wasn’t faring much better. Still, we were eating something that had an English label on it, so we took the good with the bad.

After that, we headed back to our hostel to meet up with some friends so we could head to the vegetarian food festival in Chinatown. The seven of us piled into two Tuk Tuks and swerved through rush hour traffic before hitting the busy Chinatown festival. The streets were packed and there were food venders everywhere.

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At long last it was time to dig into Thai street food in earnest. We ate veggie fried noodles, roasted chestnuts, and a delicious cashew fruit slushie. If you’re not sure what to picture when we say cashew fruit slushie, don’t worry – neither did we. It looked like a Sunny D concoction, but tasted like they had added butter and some subtle herbs. We tried imitation sausage, which was tofu seasoned and seared just right. For sweets, we had coconut griddle dumplings and pure frozen coconut ice cream.

There was a man selling Durian fruit, which could be described as a mix between avocado, mango, a spike ball and a stink bomb. Our American friend told us that it’s illegal to transport fresh Durian on public transit in the United States on account of the smell. IMG_2633To get to the edible part, you have to crack open and discard nearly 80% of the fruit matter to get to the heart of it. Our verdict: It tasted pretty gross. It had the texture of foam but had a sweeter taste with a sulphur finish.

The next day, we woke up nice and early to check out of our hostel. After I made sure Luke didn’t forget anything, we wandered towards our first temple in Thailand. We had decided on Wat Pho so we could see the Reclining Buddha. This Buddha is 43 metres long and fully ensconced in gold leaf; the feet have over 100 symbols of Buddha engraved on it. To say impressive and ornate would be an understatement. The entire chamber seemed unable to fully showcase the beauty and overwhelming size.

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The entire area was awe-inspiring. Beautiful gardens, many little Buddha’s, all wrapped in gold-leaf, mini-waterfalls, and decorative bonsai trees, all littered the grounds. Since it’s Thailand’s rainy season, we got caught in the daily monsoon-style rain at the end of our tour. We took cover in one of the shrines while the water absolutely beat down for an hour, but we didn’t mind.

When the rain let up, we headed back to our hostel and collected our bags and headed to the train station. Up next, our overnight trip on the Oriental Express.

First 24 hours in Bangkok

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We’ve just finished our first 24 hours in Bangkok and I think it’s safe to say that we’ve packed a lot in. Yesterday we were way too tired to do much of anything, so checking out the Thai massages being offered everywhere on our street seemed like the best idea.

We opted for a 120 baht ($4 CAD) 30 minute foot massage at a place called Spaya. It was really clean, friendly, and we got to lay back in comfy lazy boy chairs. The massage was absolutely to die for. They went the whole 30 minutes, ending with a neck and head massage for the last five. It was the perfect way to shake off all the traveling we did the two days previous.

After that, we headed home and took a 10 hour “nap” followed by a marathon of Suits before going back to bed. Jet lag really got the better of us.

When we woke up, we headed down to the Thai Travel Clinic since I needed to grab one of the vaccines I couldn’t get at home. I’ll write more about how you can save money getting vaccinated in Thailand later in a full blog post.

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(Click to enlarge)

The walk was an hour away, so we left nice and early so we could take our time and enjoy the sights. Although we were sweating our faces off, it was nice to stumble upon so many temples and it was cool to be able to dip into all the side markets and check out all of the street food. We dipped down one small street that reaked of fish to check out the stalls and sure enough, there was live catfish and eels flopping around in buckets while their friends were getting their heads cut off. Chicken legs laid plucked on ice and cauldrons of soup bubbled as we walked by. Stray cats were staring at us hoping for food as we left. Sorry kitties!

Bangkok as a whole sort of has this fishy, spicy aroma to it. They’re worn down and a lot of the shops are closed. The sidewalks aren’t very busy, but I have to say that crossing the street is probably the most dangerous thing we’ll do here in Thailand. Drivers are insane!

On the way, we bumped into Dusit Zoo and decided on a whim to go in and see the giraffes, big cats, and monkeys. For 150 baht ($5 CAD), it was well worth it.IMG_2600 The park is nicely laid out, but small enough so you’re not backtracking too much. They had manmade tree-top walkways that allowed you to see most of the exhibits from above. The reptile and nocturnal animal exhibit is air conditioned too, so we were able to grab two nice cold breaks from the hot and humid day. You could feed the hippos if you want — they’re hilarious to watch.

Once we got home, Luke decided that he really wanted to catch a Muay Thai match. He found that the Rajadamnern Stadium held matches on Wednesdays so we walked over. Stopping to grab some rice and eggs off a street vendor before heading in, it was officially our first attempt at buying something off of the street. I promise, we’re working up to being more adventurous. But, for now, an egg and rice was all I could handle. IMG_2586 (1)

Luke had read a ton online about how the Muay Thai stadium gets Westerners to pay anywhere from 1000 baht ($34 CAD) – 2000 baht ($68 CAD) each night while locals only pay around 250-700 baht. He had his heart set on getting our tickets for the local price, but we read all over the internet reviews that it’s next to impossible to get local price since they simply won’t sell cheap tickets to white people. He tried to ask locals how much they were paying, but the crowd wasn’t really the chatty type. After 15 minutes, we called it in and grabbed the 1000 baht stadium seats. Luke: 0 – Muay Thai: 1.

Here’s a tip if you’re thinking about catching Muay Thai: The “guides” at the front who speak English will tell you that the 2000 baht floor side seats are the best way to go. You can sit! There’s popcorn! Who wouldn’t want that? Well, it looked pretty lame to us. The floorside seats were all white, Western people who looked incredibly out of place (to put it gently). You can sit in the stadium seats for half the price (the guides tell you it’s standing only — which isn’t true). In the 1000 baht seats, you’re sitting with all the Thai fans who are yelling, betting, standing, chanting, and cheering. There’s tons of space and everyone is smiling and friendly.

Definitely something to check out!

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Our view from third stadium level at Rajadamnern Stadium Muay Thai.

Arrival in Bangkok

After an exhausting 28 hours of travelling where we lost a full day of our life to time change, we’ve finally landed in Bangkok. To say we are tired is an absolute understatement.

We flew from Toronto on Sunday at 6pm to Dublin. Then Dublin to Abu Dhabi. Then Abu Dhabi to Bangkok. I think we’ve consumed more airline food than we ever need to in our life in just one leg of the trip.

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(Saying good-bye in Toronto)

Getting into Bangkok, we decided to take the City Train (45 baht) to downtown and grab a Tuk Tuk, rather than grabbing a cab. The train was about 30 mins and the Tuk Tuk ride took about 10 mins. We had read in our guidebook that a cab would cost 50 baht to get into St the airport, take anywhere from 50-100 mins and cost 70 baht in tolls and 300-350 baht in fare.

Once we got off the train, a nice Thai man started up a conversation and helped us grab a Tuk Tuk. I was too tired to haggle, so we agreed upon the first price of 400 baht. Probably a rookie move on our part, but we agreed it was one we were willing to let slide. The driver was so nice, spoke English, and pointed out a bunch of places we should check out.

I would definitely recommend this method of getting from the airport to downtown. The view from the train was amazing and it was actually incredibly easy. Maybe we are just familiar with the Toronto subway, but the subway system is all in English so I think it’s safe to say anyone can make this route work.

After passing some incredible street meat boroughs, lots of stray dogs, and several soldiers holding machine guns (the Royal Army is stationed near our hostel), we pulled up to a quaint and cozy hostel named Khaosan Baan Thai. Highly recommended by HostelWorld as the best budget accommodations, we weren’t let down. At $9 each/night for a private room, this seems like a perfect launchpad for our travels. We arrived several hours before our 1PM check-in, but the receptionist graciously allowed us to stash our bags and roam.

With that, it’s time for us to grab the biggest bottle of water we can find and take the longest nap.

– S&L