“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” -Mark Twain

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Earn Frequent Flyer Miles While Shopping Online this Season

As we head into the holiday shopping season, don't forget about your frequent flyer program!  Before you go online for Cyber Monday (and the rest of December's holiday sales), first visit your frequent flyer program's website to see a listing of all their partner programs.  If you're going to go online for gift shopping, why not treat yourself in the process by earning as much as 12 miles per dollar spent, and sometimes even more.  Many FF programs partner with popular sites such as Nordstrom.com, Target.com, and other major retailers.  Before shopping, visit your FF site's partner sites, log in, then click on the retailer link.  This will ensure that your transaction is tied to your flyer program.

So while you're typing in your credit card number on the behalf of gifts for family and friends, at least get a little something out of it yourself by earning FF miles for every dollar you charge.  Below are links to some frequent flyer partner websites to get started.  For even more free mileage points, double up by using your credit card associated with your FF program, if you have one.  Maximize your miles and happy holiday shopping!
Aug 20, 2012 Addendum: I'm convinced that my current bathroom scale is drunk.  It can only explain the 2# weight fluctuations within minutes some days.  So I need a new one.  I went to AA's shopping site, connected to Bed, Bath, & Beyond, and ordered a new scale.  BB&B won't accept coupons online, so I found out that I can order the scale, then when it comes in, bring my credit card used, receipt, and coupon to the store and get a credit back to my card.  Perfect.  Money saved and miles earned!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Smart Traveler Enrollment Program

Scenario A: At the end of a long day of sightseeing, you're in a foreign country, sitting on your hotel bed with your laptop pulled up and the free WiFi working its magic. You're in a modern city, in a modern hotel, bottled water is at the ready, and all seems right with the world, despite being 12,000 miles from home. When you check your email, you see a message from the US Embassy in the city you're visiting. "Notice to US Citizens," it begins. You are advised that in light of recent political events (which have nothing to do with you or your trip), there might be some local backlash and protests are expected in the vicinity of your hotel. You take a quick glance at your itinerary and see that you're due to depart when the protests are about to begin, and hope that your luck holds out and the airports will remain open. Within days of your departure back to the States, you turn on CNN to see that city erupt in flames, riots in the streets, people gunned down on the sidewalks, the subway system has come to a halt, and the hotel you stayed in has recently been evacuated and the entire neighborhood is shut down.

What would you do if you hadn't left when you did? Where would you go? Where would you stay? How would you contact your family? Would they know where you are, if you're safe? What if the local US embassy had a safe house for you, or arranged transportation out of the city for all US citizens?

Scenario B: You're traveling in a non-industrialized nation and there's a massive earthquake. All standard communications to the US have been cut off. Does your family know where you are? Are you safe? Has your building suffered damage? How do you get word back to the US about your condition and safety? How does the US even know how many citizens are in that country that need assistance and evacuation?

Scenario C: You're hiking along the border of two nations when you're confronted by the local police. They take you into custody and imprison you for an indeterminate amount of time. You're not able to contact your family, and they haven't heard from you in days. How do they know where you are and what happened? They can opt to contact the local embassy and inquire on your last whereabouts and negotiate for your release.

If you register with the US State Department's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), your location, contact info, and travel plans would be known only to the embassy, your family, and you can elect to have your itinerary known to your Congressmen and the media (or not). The embassy would know how to find you, and your family could contact the State Department to learn if you were safe or not. They can also issue instructions about where to evacuate, where to find supplies, assistance for citizens, and other useful information in case of an emergency. All of the above scenarios aren't fictional, they've all happened, and the first scenario I was faced with in Southeast Asia. Due to the regular travel advisories that the embassies send, I was able to be more vigilant of our surroundings and was able to make alternate plans if necessary. Likewise, I knew that my family would be notified if I were in an emergency situation and that I wasn't alone in the world.

Consider the STEP program a vital part of your international travel plans. Like packing your passport and earplugs, take a few moments to register your itinerary online for free peace-of-mind.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Top 10 Tips to Snag Cheap Airfare

They don’t. Especially on international fares, one of these online travel agencies could have a fare several hundred less or higher than another. Check all the online agencies, and use multi-site search engine like Kayak or Booking Buddy. Also, most online travel agencies such as Expedia exclude many of the smaller discount airlines such as Virgin America (which was recently added to Travelocity) and Orbitz only recently added JetBlue.

Increasingly, airlines have “private” sales, reserving their very best fares for their own sites. With the exception of Southwest, which sells fares on its own site exclusively, most of the airlines that do this are smaller domestic airlines or large international carriers, but we’ve even seen Delta do it, and we’re not talking here just about last minute weekend fares.

If you’re at all flexible, you can sometimes save hundreds by adjusting your travel dates, often by just a day or two. Travelocity has one of the best flexible date search options in the industry because it searches 330 days ahead. To use this feature, simply click on the “Flexible dates” button just below the “to” and “from” boxes on the flight search engine (check these step by step instructions if you’re unsure how this works).

Last minute weekend fares are often great deals, but most people don’t realize that they can construct itineraries by combining two of these fares. Let’s say you want to fly from Boston to San Antonio next weekend. If there’s a Boston to Atlanta fare for $128 round-trip, and an Atlanta to San Antonio fare for $108 round-trip, then you can fly to your destination and save creatively.

Southwest offers daily “Ding” deals that pop up on your computer (announced by an audible “ding”, thus the name) that can save a few bucks off their already low fares. American has begun offering discounts of 10-25% when you sign up for its DealFinder feature and enter a promo code on its site. It’s also a good idea to register with airlines’ newsletters because they often send out special deals and promo codes.

It’s often cheaper to buy an air/hotel package rather than airfare alone. When we say “cheaper” we mean that the total package with hotel is often less than the airfare without the hotel component. Lastminute.com is the online leader in this field. Usually, they work best if there are two of you traveling since the hotels are based on double occupancy and they’re especially useful for last minute travel.

Although they’re much less common than in past years, probably because the airlines have installed new software to catch them, some of the best “blooper” fares and other low fares show up on Saturday mornings. We can only speculate as to why.

Because airfares fluctuate like the stock market, you need to check them every day, sometimes two or three times a day, if you’re serious about saving money. Airlines can update domestic fares three times a day during the week, and once on Saturday and Sunday (international fares change less frequently). And another little tip: be sure to clear the “cookies” on your internet browser Why do this? Some fare search engines may return the results you viewed earlier rather than the new, lower results.

It’s often cheaper to buy two fares rather than one. Let’s say you’re flying from New York to Eleuthera in the Bahamas. Check on one of the big sites like Expedia or Orbitz for a single fare (for example, JFK to Governor’s Harbor, Bahamas) and then do two separate searches (JFK to Nassau and Nassau to Governor’s Harbor). Since JetBlue flies JFK/Nassau you’ll want to check JetBlue.com separately). Chances are the two-fare strategy will save you a lot of cash. This fare trick also works for flights to Europe.

Let’s say you’ve done your best to find the lowest fare, and then the day after purchase your non-refundable fare goes down $100. Sure, if you ask for it you can get a refund for the difference if the only thing that changed was the price, but some airlines will charge you a service fee as high as $150 for domestic fares or from $250-$350 on international ones, wiping out any savings.

Monday, November 1, 2010



We've pretty much got it down in America. It's said that Chicagoans are the biggest tippers in the US. Regardless of what we know to tip or not (what, standard 20%?), as soon as we take off from O'Hare's Terminal 5, we're at a loss - at least I am. Sure, there may be standards, like tipping the bellman that brings your bags to your room. But the taxi driver? In some countries, yes. In some, not at all. The problem becomes, how do you know when - and who - to tip, and how much?

I recently read a fantastic tip (pun intended) in a travel magazine: As soon as you check in to your hotel, ask who will be cleaning your room, and tip well right up front on the first day. The author noted that even in a backpacker hostel, her room was always immaculate with fresh towels daily, where other guests didn't experience the same service. I'll have to remember this.

Who to tip varies wildly from country to country. When I'm not sure what to do, I spend a good part of my first day watching the subtleties: Watching people on the street - are they slipping anyone a bill? Hang out in a hotel lobby and watch the employee-guest relationship. Do your research first - I often pick up a Culture Shock (or similar) book so I know what I'm walking into. Visit a cafe and watch/listen to the people around you. At the very least, just ask a local next to you or someone at the hotel front desk what's proper. Obviously you're a tourist or you wouldn't be staying in their hotel in the first place (chances are).

Also, check out your local library. They may have some archived travel magazines on hand with plenty of articles about proper tipping etiquette around the world. In the US I wouldn't dare try to slip a $20 to the TSA agent that's patting me down at the airport, yet when walking through the "metal detector" outside the Egyptian Museum, a 5 pound note is much appreciated. Tipping a guard? Isn't that bribery? Not really, depends where you are. Again, watch the people in front of you. Watch some well-dressed locals to see how exactly they're pressing palms.

But also be careful for tipping "scams". Do you want to take a picture of a monument with someone of local attire in your picture? Be prepared to cough up a couple bills for the honor, as in someways it's not a tip, but a means of income.

Lastly, don't be too stingy, when it comes to tips or haggling over the cost of a homemade craft. Likely our US dollar is stronger than the local currency, so if you do the conversion in your head, what's another $0.30 out of your pocket? It's probably worth a lot more to whomever just lent you a helping hand.

Good luck, and I welcome your suggestions!


For some people or some trips, we can pack the hours before we leave. For others, I could spend up to 2 months organizing, then another week "editing" and re-organizing. Those are usually reserved for when I know I'm traveling on international flights outside the US that have harsher carry-on and weight standards. Below are a few tips that I've picked up along the way that have helped reduce my luggage load significantly, and also reduced my odds of paying over-weight or extra baggage fees.

1. Target - Shop at the Target trial size section and pick up some packets of laundry detergent, hand wipes, hand sanitizer, travel toothbrushes, travel hairbrushes (that also have built-in mirrors), and anything else compact that you can fit into your toiletry case. There's no sense in bringing a full-sized toothbrush if you can pack one that's half the size.

2. Flight 001 Pack - I am in LOVE with this in-flight pack from Flight 001. I'm notorious for forgetting small items in the seat back of the plane. So in my carry-on, I stick this 4-pocket seat pack filled with: earplugs, headphones, MP3 player/Blackberry, drink coupons, boarding pass, tissues, ID/passport, Colgate freshen-up disposable toothbrushes, hand wipes, eye mask, itinerary, clean knickers, socks, comb, Xanax/Ambien, granola bars, and anything else you'd need in-flight, or for a post-/in-between flight freshen-up. Then it hooks to the back of the seat back/tray table so I can just grab it and go.

3. If you run out of an envelope of laundry detergent, shampoo doubles as detergent. And chances are most hotels are going to leave little samples in your room, so take this with you to wash your knickers and other clothes. Pack half the clothes you need, and wash the rest on the road.

4. Conditioner doubles as shaving gel. Smooth legs, soft hair. Again, hotels give out sample bottles, so leave your shampoo and conditioner at home.

5. Shout/Tide stain remover - works in a flash to remove stains on the go, then rinse out clothes with shampoo or detergent in the sink at night.

6. Binder clips and a shoelace or bungee cord - Clothesline! Binder clips can act as clothespins on a clothes hanger and hang them to dry in the bathroom, or string up a bungee cord in the room and clip the items to the cord.

7. Space Bags - These are invaluable for reducing the amount of room clothing takes up in your suitcase. They especially work well on shirts, dresses, cottons, synthetic materials, and anything else that can squeeze down easily.

8. Travel size deodorant - You don't need your whole giant container. Chances are you can get a new one at a local pharmacy if you run out. Again, full-size shampoo, conditioner, shaving, and deodorant bottles only add bulk and weight that you'll have to pay extra for at the airport.

9. Power adapters - if you know where' you're going, only bring the adapters you'll need, and not one for every country/continent.

10. EDITING - Edit, edit, edit. You likely won't need half of what you pack, so about 2 weeks before your trip, make a point to remove 1 item of clothing from your suitcase. Find ways to make multiple outfits out of just a few items. Shoes can mix and match (although I'm notorious for traveling with lots of shoes, I've been able to edit enough and not miss leaving a pair at home). My favorite packing tactic is to start a few weeks in advance by throwing everything I can think of into a suitcase. Then eventually I'll start to edit down and compact.

I've toured Southeast Asian for two weeks with nothing but a medium-sized back and a duffel, and still my suitcase was only half full when I left, and 3/4 full when I returned. It may not be a bad idea to buy a small, light portable luggage scale so when you move from airport-to-airport, you can weight your bags and know if you'll be expected to pay overweight charges later. It's also a good idea to keep a copy of your airlines' baggage allowance with your itinerary so you can plan ahead.

Lastly, a note about luggage tags: I prefer to make mine 2-sided, one with my destination/hotel address, and the other side I can flip around to my home address. It's complete with dates of where I'll be, and phone numbers. That way my luggage can catch up with me when I'm headed out, and meet me back home. If you're traveling to multiple destinations, make out an accordion list of your destinations, then keep rotating them around in the luggage tag. This will save time at the airport by not having to fill in and mark all those tags for each piece of luggage. Don't forget to put a luggage tag on your carry-on, too, in case that has to go into an overhead compartment and someone accidentally walks off with it.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

To Miss or Not to Miss

Things I'll miss about Thailand & Cambodia:
  • Flipflops every day
  • Mango sticky rice
  • Street food - any food, any time
  • Breakfast: egg omelet w/ scallions on rice w/ chili sauce, sitting on a plastic stool on a sidewalk, for $0.75
  • 3 meals a day for $5 total
  • Bargaining
  • Friendly people, greetings
  • Taking shoes off before entering a home (maybe I'll start this)
  • Chicken soup in coconut lime broth
  • Fast, clean, cheap Bangkok public rail transit
  • Bangkok - clean, green, friendly, alive
  • Heat - a nice change from Chicago
Things I won't miss:
  • Smelling like mosquito repellent
  • Taxis that don't use meters - negotiating rates
  • Scheisters - "One more stop first in tuk tuk ride" or "temple closed today, but I'll show you other temple" or taxi drivers that the longest way around
  • Being hassled by pushy vendors
  • Living out of a suitcase
  • Doing laundry by hand
  • Calculating monetary conversion rate in my head
  • Heat - and changing clothes 3x/day because of it

Cambodia's Tragedy

Since we spent Thursday discovering Cambodia's ancient past, we spent Friday morning in recent history with a visit to the War Museum in Siem Reap. "Museum" is a liberal term. It looked like someone's overgrown backyard full of rusty tanks, helicopters, an airplane, Howitzers, ammunition, and land mines.

Cambodia's civil war was approximately from 1970-1975, then the Khmer Rouge wrested power from the democracy and established an egalitarian state of the cruelest kind: emptying cities and forcing the population into the fields to toil for little food. Many died of malnourishment and from the labor, and the others were executed: mostly intellectuals, journalists, artists, anyone who could threaten power to the KR. Since bullets were expensive, the KR chose to execute people without the "luxury" of a quick death by bullet. In 5 years, 3 million people were murdered, the rice paddies filled with their bodies, hence "The Killing Fields." This was one fifth of Cambodia's population. Traditional arts, crafts, music, knowledge, and other trades were nearly eliminated.

How did the KR obtain their weapons to overthrow the government? They purchased second-hand weaponry from WWI, WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, along with the assistance of the Chinese government, who supported the KR's extreme communist vision. Much of the heavy equipment was Russian- and Chinese-manufactured, and at least half of the firearms and bomb casings were American. What was that feeling when I held an AR-17 rifle in my hands and saw "Colt. Manufactured in Hartford, Conn" in my hands? Shame. Shame that this very weapon that was made in our country, that our government purchased, then sold, and ended up in the hands of the Khmer Rouge, used in the largest genocide since the Holocaust. I was pained to see the 500 pound bomb casing lying nearby with American markings, wondering perhaps if it was dropped during Nixon's secret bombing campaign in the country. Who did this bomb kill? Or those rifles? The family of our guide, who lost 3 fingers while attempting to defuse a landmine, and is still harboring shrapnel beneath his skin? Our guide's family who were all killed during the war and the KR regime, and saw his friends at age 10 and 15 blown to pieces by land mines? Despite the efforts to defuse 10 million mines in the country, it is believed that another 3 million still lie in wait for another innocent victim.

And it made me think, what are we contributing to the world? Sure, we export vaccines, technology, food, and humanitarian assistance. But we're also exporting weaponry, what countries are we selling these to, that after they outlive their usefulness, they're resold on the secondary market? Then used to what purpose, and in whose hands?

The last Khmer Rouge stronghold finally collapsed in 1998 along with the death of Pol Pot, but unfortunately, corruption still permeates this alleged "democracy." Former KR officials now hold office in the government and the courts. Despite local and international efforts to both defuse the mines, as well as nurture and preserve the near-dead Cambodia arts of apsara dance, silk weaving, ceramics, and shadow puppetry, this country has a very, very long way to go.

Our feelings were mixed as we left Cambodia. How did we help? We pumped plenty of cash into the local economy on handicrafts, paid directly to the merchants, but what about that $25 departure tax? A government-imposed fee that puts my money directly into their pockets. Am I helping or hindering? Is this fishbowl tourism, visiting a place to see how differently they live, then I hop on a comfortable plane and relax in my air-conditioned hotel room and call for room service. What kind of footprint did we leave behind?

If anything, travel has shown us our good fortune as Americans, and opened our eyes to what is so blantantly in our faces: poverty, child exploitation, corruption, scams, and lack of historical preservation. Travel creates awareness, but one must be prepared for how that awareness can be more of a downer than an uplifting vacation. On the other hand, it has opened our hearts to causes we had otherwise never considered. Cambodia may be experiencing a rebirth of sorts, but their tragic recent history is still within our generation, too soon perhaps for significant change.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Angkor Temples

Angkor Wat
Today we awoke at 4am to grab some bikes to trek up to Angkor Wat to catch the sunrise. Despite our will to sleep in, we knew we'd miss an opportunity. The ride up was pitch black. In town there were lights, but as soon as we left town, no lights, few cars, and just a couple tuktuks (reameau in Cambodia), and a few other bikers. For a while we were operating blindly through the jungle hoping a dog, monkey, or whatnot wouldn't jump out at us. Couldn't see a thing. Arrived safely, locked up the bikes and camped to watch the sun come up over Angkor Wat. Google-image it. Amazing, breathtaking. A few thousand other people had the same idea, but it was manageable.

Following that, we explored the stunning temple complex a bit more, then biked up to Angkor Thom to explore The Bayon and the Terrace of Elephants, then to Ta Prohm (see also: Tomb Raider). The jungle has really swallowed and destroyed that complex.

We completed the small loop around the temple park, now we're back in Siem Reap planning the evening. The hotel is showing a movie on the rooftop (a Khmer Rouge documentary) so we might catch that, then head to the night market to finish shopping and catch an apsara dance show. Tomorrow we might head down to the floating villages on Tonle Sap lake, but I hear the waters are low this time of year. Shall see.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Elephant Nature Park and Live from Cambodia

When was the last time I posted? How many days ago? Am losing track. Today it's Wednesday, and I'm writing from Siem Reap, Cambodia. But before we arrived, I'll begin where I left off.

Saturday was George and Anna's wedding, which was held at the Anantara Resort - gorgeous! The reception was back on the beach at the Muang Samui and we partied like pros in the sand late into the night. Nothing beats a great beach party. Sunday we departed for Chiang Mai.

It's a quaint little city, old, and free of the Bangkok's noise and Koh Samui's hustle. We stayed in the old city inside the ancient walls and moat at a lovely boutique hotel. Monday Jeff and I visited the Wat Prah That Doi Sutep shrine atop the mountain which towered over the west side of the city. A tuk-tuk ride, a pickup ride, and 300 steps later, we climbed to the top of the golden shrine that overlooked Chiang Mai. Tourists and pilgrims alike were visiting, and monks giving blessings in different areas of the temple. We then spent the afternoon lounging in Chiang Mai. I can't even remember at this point what we did that evening.

Tuesday we took a 1.5 hour ride north into the Mae Tong region to the Elephant Nature Park. ENP and the founder "Lek" Chailert rescue orphaned, abandoned, injured, sick, and abused elephants. This is an amazing preserve with a small elephant hospital with 2 vets on staff, guest houses for volunteers, a river, and acres of open pasture for the elephants to roam. This is no zoo, people. It brought tears to our eyes to see how much love and care they're given, and I will never, EVER again patronize a circus, any elephant rides, or the like that have a history of elephant mistreatment. These beautiful animals belong in the wild, not lugging tourists or balancing clowns on their backs. They had two babies which were playful and mischievious little critters, with quite the personalities. We fed them, bathed them in the river, and got a wet, sloppy kiss on the cheek (Nette was "blessed" with a kiss to the chest!).

That brings us to today... Matt and I arrived in Siem Reap for some serious shopping (silks, carvings, and shadow puppets), plus an entire day at the Angkor temples. We're getting up to grab a couple bikes at 5am and ride up to the Angkor Wat to watch sunrise. Then we head to Angkor Thom, then Ta Prohm (see: Tomb Raider), then probably back here for a nap, followed by more shopping (I have a list), and drinks at the FCC. This city is beautiful, not quite urban, a touch of tourism, but you can still see the poverty, the dirt parking lots, dilapidated buildings, and crumbling infrastructure, although I hope this is on the rebound. There's something about this town that has touched me already, to hear some people's stories about how they lost their hands while trying to battle the Khmer Rouge, or the children in the streets, or the fact that this city was completely emptied not 30 years ago by the rebels. What other stories lurk behind the faces of those that lived through that era, and survived the genocide? It's almost an eerie feeling to be walking the same streets that saw blood flow in my lifetime.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Beach

Two days ago we took a boat ride 1 hour out to the Ang Tong Marine Park, where we went snorkeling and swimming, then kayaking around the islands. There are hundreds of these tiny islands with tall limestone cliffs. After a hearty lunch on the boat we moved down to another island where we docked off a beach, then climbed the cliffs up to an overlook where we saw The Beach. Rather, the isolated landlocked saltwater lagoon that's not visible from the ocean, the lagoon that inspired the movie The Beach. The climb down brought us to lake level where we saw barracuda and sea urchins. Later we relaxed on the beach ocean-side before heading back to Koh Samui.

We found a tiny Thai food shack around the corner from our resort that the entire group frequents. The curries are delicious, the staff very friendly, and the price can't be beat. Koh Samui is pretty expensive by Thai standards so we're trying to keep the damage to a minimum to save our pennies for a shopping extravaganza in Chiang Mai. We head up north in the morning for a few days.

Yesterday we had nothing on the agenda so spent the day mostly on the beach and in the pool. It felt good to have nothing to do for a whole day. Today we have a few hours of leisure before Anna and George's wedding this evening on the beach.

It's fun travelling with a group. Every day is a new adventure with a different person, and the next day at breakfast we reconvene to hear the stories from the night before. Let's see, Matt has a stalker chick, each day at least one person is nursing a damaging hangover, stories of "those crazy Aussies,", and the goods and wares from the beach vendors certainly differ between night and day.

I'm also digging this custom of taking your shoes off before entering a room, building, and sometimes a shop. I want to live in a world where I wear shoes only half the time.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Bangkok in the ER

Street Food
"This is quite possibly the best idea we've ever had" ...per Matt Cardoni. We arrived in Koh Samui today and we barely left the incredibly small, quaint, open-air airport of Koh Samui when we were struck by its beauty. We were promptly brought to our hotel/resort where we were greeted and seated, adorned with orchid leis, and treated to fresh coconut milk still in the coconut, and given cold wet towels scented with lemon and mint. This is when Matt stated, "This is quite possibly the best idea we've ever had." Word. They checked us in to the resort right there on the sofas in the open-air "lobby". The room... the room is off the hook. A massive suite where we can wander in a circle and my roommate Kate and I never bump into each other. Our patio doors open to a teak walkway over a coy pond to a private patio. The shower is open to the jacuzzi that was already prepared with oils and orchids, and the rest of the bathroom... well you can always tell an amazing room by its loo, I believe. This does not suck. The rest of the resort winds through more private villas down to the infinity pool which looks upon the soft white sands of the Gulf of Thailand. The sun is warm, the breeze is soft, and I'm in paradise. It's currently 11:45pm and I'm sitting in an internet cafe on the main road in Chaweng Beach. I hear pulsating club music behind me, the horns of so many scooters dodging between traffic. This place makes Spring Break Panama City look like childs play. Fireworks are going off above our heads from the all-night beach parties just a few meters away. This is exactly as I had pictured Koh Samui: idylic by day, debauchery by night. I'm hard-pressed to find Americans, as we're surrounded by every color of the globe represented. It's more international here than Manhattan. Amidst the chaos, Jeff pipes in with, "So there are quite a few ways to die here, I see." Word #2.

I had forgotten to add in the first entry. At 8am the PA speakers in train stations play the national anthem. Ever see those guerilla dance parties on YouTube break out in Grand Central Station where everyone dances at once, or freezes at once? That happened when the national anthem played. Everyone in the entire station froze. When it finished, went about their business.

Reclining Buddha
I pick up yesterday when most of the group took off for the floating markets up north. Jeff and I stayed behind in Bangkok and decided to check a few items off the list from the "1,000 Place to See" book. We stopped at the Oriental Hotel for pictures, then walked to the pier to hop on a river taxi. Was it the right pier to take us to Wat Pho? Would the right boat show up? Which direction would it go? How much did it cost? We didn't know, but got on the first boat that showed up. Travel Tip #1: Know where you are and where you're going. We got out at Wat Pho temple and the shutterbugging commenced. Spent 3 hours in there snapping hundreds of pictures, including the Reclining Buddha.

Monks at Wat Pho Temple
That evening Kate and I decided to hit the Soan Lum night market - I needed a new bag (my Mexican bag broke from the stress). On the way back we got kidnapped by a taxi driver that had NO CLUE where he was, where he was going, or where our hotel was. We were in a figure 8 for a half hour, until he stopped to ask directions. Long story short, we were delivered as planned after furious hand gestures and only paying half the fare.

At 3am I woke practically blind. Long story very short, eye infection, and I paid a visit to the most gorgeous hospital (private, international, expat) I've ever seen. Antibacterial eye drops, ER visit, and Rx: $40. No wait. When I get back I'll get on my soapbox about the state of American healthcare.

I'm off to the hotel now to rest up for a 7:15am call for kayaking. Sawat dii ka!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Bangkok, Day 1. Or 2. Or 3.

We've done so much on our first day that it feels like 3 days. Awoke at 6am to go to a local expat sports bar to watch the Super Bowl. It felt a little odd to be around so many Americans (and Chicagoans!) in a bar in the early morning watching football in 90 degree weather. They had a free breakfast buffet so that helped get us started. On our way there, we passed so many street food vendors! Now I know where I'm getting breakfast tomorrow - this city smells fantastic, the smells of different cooked foods roasting over coals or in woks out in the open. On the way to the train we also saw some monks begging for their morning alms. Men and women in suits dressed up for work were buying them food to put in their bowls, then taking their shoes off and kneeling right there on the sidewalk in front of the monks - for a blessing I assume? It was humbling, the spirituality of this city. Shrines of all sizes are everywhere, in every nook. Near our hotel on the corner is a large shrine where people gather to lay garlands of flowers, burn incense, and pray. Today a Chinese dragon dance was being performed, and a human pyramid built.

Later we set off for Baghlampu area, to Thanon Ko Sahn (sp?) which was chock full of colorful shops hocking bags, jewelry, shoes, knicknacks, and everything in between. Lots of foreigners to match the variety of goods. We popped a squat on the sidewalk after ordering some fresh pad thai from a street vendor, grabbed a Pepsi, and relaxed in the shade watching the tuktuks and backpackers go by.

Next we headed out to the river and took a longboat to another pier and passed the Grand Palace and some huge, gorgeous wats/temples. We'll visit them tomorrow. The day brought us back to the hotel to unwind in the pool, shower, and catch a disco nap. Around 9pm we headed out to a eastern neighborhood to a night market we heard about. We stopped in at one little makeshift garage of 4 street food vendors and ordered up some crab noodle soup and beers. Delicious! Hung out for a while, as a little baby pitter-patted between the tables.

On the way back a rat ran over Jeff's foot, and 3 cockroaches chased Ivann. This evening we're winding down for the night, with some people heading out to a floating market in the early morning, and the rest of us to the Grand Palace and Wat Pho.

This is a beautiful city, much cleaner than I had expected, and less congested, as well. Not much different than rush hour in Chicago. It has helped to know a few Thai words, know the map, and figure out how to give directions and get back home. Smiles abound and we're having a blast. And it's so CHEAP here!

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Orient Express

Rather, the Far Eastern Orient Express, and that's where we're headed. In 5 very short days, I'll be off on a Southeast Asian adventure with 10 other lovely friends. I'll be live blogging from the road every few days (where an internet connection permits), but this is our basic itinerary: