Koh Tao, Thailand

Koh Tao >> Life In Limbo

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I spent a week on Koh Tao with my sister, and it was absolute paradise. We stayed in this little cabin only steps (maybe 10, to be precise) from the beach and the bright blue clear water. Our cabin was part of the Big Blue Diving school, and we got to stay there because I was taking my Open Water Diver certification. Most of the scuba schools on the island provide well-priced accommodation for people taking their programs, and the programs are so cheap on Koh Tao that it’s worth it to take a certification.

Besides me taking my course, we didn’t do much for our days on the island. We drank a lot of local beers, watched a lot of absolutely unbelievable sunsets, read on the beach and went swimming when it got too hot, made friends with the island’s golden retriever, and ate delicious food at cute beachy restaurants. Despite the bumpy overnight bus + ferry to get there and back, every second was worth it. We had an amazing time, did some bonding (especially when Lindsay came out on the dive boat with me to watch me go on some deep sea dives, then subsequently get sick in the water with all my gear on), and left feeling refreshed and happy. What we did not do was take a lot of photos of anything besides the sunsets.

Favourites:

Big Blue Diving: This school was close to the beach, had a lot of really cool instructors, and I felt safe and knowledgeable by the end of my course. Plus, we really liked our accommodation and met some cool people.

Portobello Bistro: You’re not coming to Thailand to eat Italian food, but in case the mood ever strikes you, this place is awesome. It’s a little fancier than some of the other places and has a lovely atmosphere.

Bang Burgers: This little hut on the side of the island’s main road serves up delicious burgers and fries. We came twice for the sweet potato patty veggie burger.

Zest Coffee Shop: This place was great for breakfast, we went several times and enjoyed it every time.

The Queen’s Cabaret Show: This cabaret was a lot of fun – high energy, amazing dancing, great costumes, and you get to experience something different.  It’s free, but you have to purchase one drink to get in.

Note: I went to Koh Tao, Thailand in late April, 2015. 

Observations in Ecuador / 01

Observations in Ecuador / 01 >> Life In Limbo

As you may know, I’ve been living in Quito, Ecuador for almost two months! My boyfriend and I live in a bright apartment with yellow walls and a gorgeous view of Pichincha Volcano. Just like when I moved to Korea, I have been noticing the tiny little differences between Ecuador and where I’m from. I am really loving my time here and to me, the country is definitely less foreign to me than Korea was. It’s such an interesting and wonderful opportunity to live in another country, and I love to notice the little things that make up a country’s distinct culture.

Here are some of my initial observations from my time in Ecuador:

On almost every single street corner, there are street performers doing everything from contortion to harp-playing to juggling to acrobatics. They perform in front of the cars stopped at a red light, and time their performances perfectly so that they have time to walk down the rows of cars collecting tips. There are also a lot of classic window-washers and people walking among the cars selling everything from Ecuador soccer jerseys to mandarin oranges, but the street performers are the most interesting to me. Apparently my boyfriend even tried juggling as a street performer just for fun when he was a teenager!

Observations in Ecuador / 01 >> Life In Limbo

There are mountains absolutely everywhere. Never have I ever seen so many mountains, even having lived in Busan, a city built amidst mountains. Quito is wedged between two mountains, so you can see gorgeous vistas from almost everywhere in the city. There are also a handful of volcanos nearby!

In Quito, there are a lot of gated neighbourhoods with 24-hour guards. Once you’re inside the gates, these neighbourhoods are totally normal and seem like nice suburbs back home, apart from the tall walls and additional gates around the houses. There are tall walls and gates in front of almost every house, whether or not it’s inside a private neighbourhood. Some of the walls have electric shock wiring around the top, others have barbed wire or broken glass affixed to the top.

Observations in Ecuador / 01 >> Life In Limbo

There is a ton of traffic in Quito, so much so that there are a number of protocols in place to improve the flow. One of these is that one of the major tunnels between the downtown and suburbs (which is surprisingly only two lanes, one each way) becomes unidirectional in the morning and at night to get people into and out of the city. Another rule is something called “pico y placa” which means “peak and plate”. Depending on the last digit of your license plate, you aren’t able to use your car between 7 and 9:30AM and 4 and 7:30PM, one day per week – for us, it’s Fridays. I personally find this rule highly annoying for planning purposes.

Unlike in Korea, in Ecuador you see animals wherever you go, even though we live in a big city. Walking in the park near our house, I’ve seen little dogs and cats, of course, but I’ve also seen a huge pack of llamas, horses hanging out near the edge of the cliff, and cows grazing in the woods by themselves. And on trips out to more rural areas, we’ve seen even more animals, including goats, sheep, and adorable little black pigs.

Observations in Ecuador / 01 >> Life In Limbo

In Quito, they have typical convenience stores like back home, but they also have corner stores for fruit and vegetables! These are called fruiterias, and they’re really just tiny stores selling a few bags of chips, maybe a few drinks and candies, and a bounty of fresh produce: watermelon, oranges, cucumbers, papayas, pineapples, almost any kind of produce that your heart desires.

In the park near us, there are little barbecue stations you can rent out and host your own cookout with your family. Most of them have stunning views, a BBQ pit, a picnic table and are covered by a roof in case it rains. We haven’t tried them yet, but I can’t wait to have a little barbecue with this kind of view.

Observations in Ecuador / 01 >> Life In Limbo

Basic household things are more expensive here. It definitely doesn’t help that the currency in Ecuador is the American dollar and the exchange rate with Canadian dollars right now is abysmal. But even with that being taken into account, things are more pricey. My boyfriend encouraged me to buy shampoo and other toiletries in Canada before coming because they’d be twice as expensive here – and it’s been so true.

On most big streets around Quito, in our apartment building, and at parking garages around the city, there will be at least one person working to help you park properly (parking tends to be tight here). You usually tip them about 40 cents for their help.

***

So far, I am loving Ecuador. This country has a beautiful and totally unique culture that I’m only beginning to discover. I’ll officially be coming back to Ecuador after Christmas for a few more months at least, so I’ll be able to keep observing and learning about this lovely place.

Bangkok, Thailand

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In total, I went to Bangkok five times on my travels, although 3 of those times I was really only in the airport, and 2 out of 3 times I was having a little sleepover at BKK. For me, this enormous city was a bunch of extremes all mixed together. There was the most intense heat, but even-more-intense air conditioning. There were so many people, but so many chances to be almost completely alone. You could go from eating lunch on a tiny plastic stool at a street stall to having drinks on the top of the world in the evening. You could walk down the most obnoxious tourist street in the world and then go home to a hostel in residential Bangkok the same night. There are some of the most spectacular temples in the world, and some of the most amazing skyscrapers. Everything is all mashed up together, making Bangkok an incredibly fascinating city.

The two times I spent time in Bangkok were very different. The first time, with my sister, we tried to see as many of the main attractions as we could manage in only a few short days: the gorgeous temples, views from boats going down the river, the overwhelming and beautiful markets. The second time, I tried to go as slowly as possible, spending an entire day in Lumphini Park listening to podcasts, reading my book, and watching komodo dragons, another day riding a bike around Bangkok’s “green lung”, and my evenings having drinks as high up in the sky as I could manage. On both my visits, I really felt like I got to experience so many sides to the city, even though there’s still so much more I would love to explore.

Favourites:

Vertigo Bar at the Banyan Tree: Without a doubt, this is the best rooftop bar in Bangkok. There are 360 degree views of the city, delicious (though expensive) drinks, and a lovely atmosphere. Just remember that there is a dress code, so no flip-flops.

Cloud 47 Rooftop Bar: This bar is also really nice, but a little less fancy – but there’s still a dress code. We went to this one before Vertigo, which I would recommend lest you be disappointed, but the views here are lovely too.

Baan Nampetch Hostel: I stayed here with my sister, and it was clean, had blissful air-conditioning, two twin beds and was only a 15 minute walk to one of the piers to take the boat to all the tourist sites, 10 minutes to the Golden Mount, and 10 minutes to Khao San road (which we did not really frequent).

U-Baan Guesthouse: Be aware that this hostel is a bit of a hike from the more touristy parts of the city, but the woman who runs this place is kind, funny, and hangs out and drinks beer with her guests. I would recommend renting a room with a friend or two if possible, because the dorms are….cozy to say the least. It’s very close to the SkyTrain, so it’s not far to get to places like Lumphini Park, Silom, and the enormous malls.

Bang Krachao: The green lung of Bangkok! It’s so peaceful and calm here that you feel like you’ve magically been transported to a jungle hours from the big city. You can easily rent bikes in the parking lot of the Talad Nam Peung floating market and then just get lost on the little concrete paths that spiderweb throughout the jungle. It’s not an island (we took a taxi there and back), but it feels like one and is absolutely beautiful. The market has a lot of yummy local treats too!

Jim Thompson House: Yes, it’s worth it to go and look at someone’s house, mostly because it’s a gorgeous house with so much character and history. You have to sign up to go on a guided tour of the house which is a little shorter than I would have liked, an there are no photos are permitted, but it’s still worth it. I wished that we could have had more time to explore the house itself (you can only explore a limited section of the grounds after the tour) but the whole complex is beautiful and for me, very inspiring. Jim Thompson created a lovely, traditional-meets-modern Thai house in the middle of the city and it still feels like an oasis. Ps. there’s a youth discount so don’t forget your ID!

Café Bangrak: This restaurant is near Vertigo, so if you don’t feel like paying their terrifying prices for dinner, just walk over to this tiny adorable place. Most of the time I was in Bangkok, I ate at street stalls, and this is the only restaurant I loved enough to recommend/could even give you directions to. I had the red curry fried rice and it was delicious. I got the recommendation from this great blog post, which suggests some other Thai places that look great too.

Note: I was in Bangkok in late April (the hottest time of year), and then late May (not quite so bad) of this year. 

Chiang Mai & Pai, Thailand

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I don’t have a lot of photos from Chiang Mai, because the majority of our time spent there was during Songkran, a massive yearly water festival for Thai New Year. It was total madness, but a lot of fun. People spend a week spraying each other with water guns, dumping buckets of water on each other’s heads, and of course drinking cold Chang all day. The water fighting is supposed to stop after sundown, but after friends of mine were stuck on a corner for an hour waiting for the guys with buckets to go away so that they wouldn’t be totally soaked for dinner, we quickly learned that we were never safe. That being said, the water festival is purposefully held at the absolute hottest time of year (40C+) so it was refreshing too. Also it was so fun because I was in Chiang Mai with two great friends from Korea and my sister, who joined me for the Thailand portion of my trip!

A highlight of our time in Chiang Mai was a day spent at the Elephant Nature Park. We were very lucky to squeeze in a reservation (so book early!) and got to spend a day with the elephants out at their beautiful property surrounded by mountains. Lindsay and I love elephants but didn’t want to ride them, so this park was perfect: you get to bathe them, feed them, take photos with some of them, and just watch them be themselves. They are all rescue elephants so many are disabled, and their stories break your heart. It’s just a pretty special place to be.

Then we headed up to Pai in a minibus and had an absolutely beautiful time there. We rented little scooters for the week, learned how to ride them, and spent most of our time riding around the quiet country roads looking at the gorgeous scenery, out to waterfalls and around fields of flowers. We didn’t love Pai town, it was fairly full of Western tourists of the hippie variety. But we did have some nice nights walking down the market street and ducking into bars with live music.

They were hot, summery days with absolutely beautiful sunsets and lots of laughs. We were still settling into our travel lifestyle, but I couldn’t have asked for a better experience.

Favourites:

Chiang Mai

Taste From Heaven: Very delicious vegetarian food!

The UN Irish Pub: They have a lovely garden terrace with fairy lights and yummy (Western) food.

Bamboo Bee: Some of the best Thai food I’ve ever had! I’d had this tiny little hole-in-the-wall recommended to me by lots of different people and it lived up to all the hype. Order the Khao Soi.

The Sunday Walking Street Market: Where we had some of our favourite pad Thai from a street vendor, gorged ourselves on mango sticky rice, bought beautiful scarves and had smoothies. There is a peaceful temple courtyard where food vendors set up on Sundays and sell all kinds of goodies. I wished that this market was every day, except that in the evening you could hardly walk down the street for all the people (but remember too that it was Songkran).

The Riverside Bar: So much fun. They have a beautiful terrace overlooking the water, an awesome cover band were playing, lots of candlelight and lanterns, and a great mix of Thai people and foreigners.

Pai

Big’s Little Café: A tiny place on the main market street with unpredictable hours (often we’d show up just as he was closing) but really delicious food made with fresh ingredients and a charming chef.

A strawberry shake at Love Strawberry Pai: This place is the definition of a tourist trap but we had fun there. The shakes are huge and sweet but perfect to split.

Pam Bok Waterfall: This was our favourite waterfall. It was small but not crowded, stunning, had a small cliff jump, was cool for those scorching days, and very beautiful. We would go for a dip and then get back on our bikes with wet suits underneath our dresses to dry off.

The Land Split: On your way to Pam Bok is this small property called the Land Split (you can’t miss the signs) where a family have set up a by-donation rest stop. Their generosity is astounding: as soon as you come in, they tell you to sit on the hammocks and bring you a huge spread of fresh food, all homemade: rosella juice, tamarind jam, roasted sweet potatoes, papaya, roasted peanuts, plantain chips, and rosella wine.

Secret Garden Bar: You have to go down a long hallway and you come out into a little courtyard where there are delicious drinks, cushions, a colourful proprietor and live music.

Café Boomlicious: Where I had the best bruschetta of my life with feta and homemade pesto, amen. Such fresh, good food here.

Na’s Kitchen: Wonderful Thai food.