Chiang Mai & Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Our first day in Chiang Mai, we got a tasty Thai lunch at our guesthouse, booked a cooking class for the following day, and then set out on a walking tour of the historic part of the city.
We started out visiting Wat Chedi Luang.
It contained a very ancient and large pagoda (although now much of the pagoda has slowly worn away with earthquakes). The pagoda was very distinct from the other Wats in Thailand that we had visited. Interestingly there was also a small temple there that was for men only, due to menstruation making women unholy and thus apparently ruining the sanctity of the temple. Not sure how I feel about this… Luke chose not to enter as well, in a stand of solidarity. I don’t really see much feminism in Thailand, although they seem to show women so much respect in other regards that I didn’t really even think about Thai feminism up to that point. Besides that, it was quite a lovely Wat.

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Before our next stop we found a little stand that was serving up mango sticky rice for unbelievably cheap. So of course we had to buy one (and a passion fruit shake) and it was one of the tastiest mango-sticky rices that I’ve had.

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The next temple we visited, Wat Phan Tao, was very distinct as it was made out of wood and was decorated in gold flags rather than the usually gilded temples that we were used to seeing. It also had a little bamboo walkway along a pond decorated in Chinese New Year flags that was quite pretty and peaceful.

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After this we strolled along a street that was lined in little crafts shops. In general, there was quite the abundance of crafty gift shops in Chiang Mai. This street led us to our final wat, Wat Phra Singh. This was the primary royal wat in Chiang Mai. It was quite the fancy temple complex and much of the gilding and architecture reminded me of the royal temple accompanying the Grand Palace in Bangkok.

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For dinner we decided to head to a little market area to eat some street food. We got Khao Soi, a Northern Thai specialty that is chicken and egg noodles in a yellow curry broth. Half of the egg noodles are regular noodles and the other half are deep fried so that they’re crunchy. It was so so delicious.

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We followed that up with some roti with chocolate sauce which are kind of like bubbly fried crepes with toppings on them. That was delicious as well. After that we wandered outside of the old town to find the night market. It turns out that the night market is a whole street lined with thousands of handicraft-selling booths paired with multiple giant bazaars containing even more handicraft booths. It was overwhelming but fun and colorful. Eventually we found a little night bazaar that reminded us a lot of Portland. The square was lined in hip ethnic-fusion food trucks, the handicrafts that they were selling there were slightly more unique, there was an abundance of cafe lights and rustic furniture (so very portland-esque), and there was a stage in the middle of it all. We found ourselves a little upcycled pallet table to sit at and watched a very pleasant singer-songwriter for a bit while he covered familiar acoustic songs. It was a very charming way to end the evening.

For our second day in Chiang Mai, we started off my lazing around the hostel and catching up on Internet-things. Then it was time for our traditional Thai cooking class! We started off with a market visit where our chef-teacher explained to us all of the vegetables and ingredients that you see at a Thai market and what to make with each one.

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Then we drove out to the organic farm where our cooking class was located. The whole place was quite serene.

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Then school was in session. First we learned how to make curry paste. We followed that by making Tom Kha Soup. It was shockingly easy to make and tasted so delicious, even made by us amateurs!

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Next we learned how to make sticky rice with mango and green papaya salad. After eating those up, we moved on to curries. I made panang curry and Luke made green curry so that we would both learn how to make different curries. Then it was on to Pad Thai, which was also way easier than I was expecting. Luke somehow managed to make his Pad Thai inside of a fried egg (like an omelet), but when I tried to do this it came out looking like a complete mess.. I seem to lack the artful part of cooking. Finally we made holy basil stir fry and cashew chicken stir fry. During this part our teacher taught us how to make the pan shoot up in flames, which Luke attempted but I was too intimidated by. In the end, it all tasted delicious but it was sooo much food and we were stuffed by the time we left the cooking school.

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Our last full day in Chiang Mai, we wandered around the city and got more delicious Khao Soi at a cute little cafe.

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I followed that up with a Thai massage while Luke found a fun little coffee shop to hang out in. It was quite an interesting massage, very different from western massage but it felt phenomenal and was less than $6. They also gave me complimentary Thai iced tea for hydration afterwards. After some post-massage lazy time, we headed out for our final Thai dinner and then returned to the night market to pick up a few souvenirs and a couple clothing items to add to my sparse wardrobe. By this point in the trip I became acutely aware of my terrible packing, as I fully under-packed. Thankfully picking up a few clothing essentials did not break the bank.

The next day Luke headed back to the US. Thankfully I didn’t have to check out of the hostel until 5, so I spent the remainder of the day packing and planning my next steps in Vietnam. After dinner, I got a tuktuk to the airport and proceeded to have a fairly miserable remainder of the night. I spent ~5 hours in the Chiang Mai airport and then ~5 hours in the Bangkok airport. This was followed by a terribly messy situation with immigration that was solved by an airline representative taking me through the back route of the airport, bypassing immigration. It was very confusing. Finally I arrived in Ho Chi Minh yesterday at 7 am having gotten a total of 45 minutes of sleep. Thankfully it is so organized here and I got on a bus that took me straight to the hostel in no time. By the time I was able to check in to my room I was so exhausted that I ended up spending the remainder of the day sleeping, waking only for dinner at a nearby Pho stand (so so tasty and cheap!) with a British journalist staying in the same dorm as me. After a bite to eat, I got my two complimentary beers from the hostel and spent a few hours chatting with other travelers in the common room. Almost everyone here is a solo traveller which is super nice for social purposes and everyone has such different backgrounds so it was fun to spend a while chatting with people.

Today I woke for an amazing complimentary breakfast (between the 2 free beers, decadent complimentary breakfast, and really incredible amenities at dirt cheap prices I don’t see how this hostel makes any profit). After a post breakfast rest I headed out to discover some of Ho Chi Minh, or as everyone prefers to say, Saigon. I wandered all over, through various markets and down all sorts of streets.

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At one point I actually stumbled upon a catholic cathedral. It wasn’t particularly magnificent but it was so oddly out of place amongst all of the temples of SE Asia that it was interesting. Then I ate an incredible Banh Mi for lunch before wandering (a bit lost) back towards the hostel.

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Bangkok & Siem Reap

We made it to Thailand! It’s so hot and humid here but thankfully not too mosquito-y. Getting here took a bit of effort due to both Luke and my flights getting canceled due to weather. My flight was rescheduled for earlier while his was rescheduled for later, so I got to Bangkok about 12 hours before him and headed over to our hostel to pass out.

My first morning in Bangkok I slept off a bit of jetlag and then wandered down a canal near the hostel.

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I ended up at a temple complex called Loha Prasat. It was a 5 story building and each floor was laid out a bit like a labyrinth with Buddhas throughout.

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After a bit of walking meditation I wandered through an old historic neighborhood and found another temple called the Golden Mount. It has a huge constructed mountain in the middle with Buddhas relics enshrined at the top. It was a bit of a trek to the top but once I made it I was rewarded with this gorgeous view.

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After the climb up the golden mount the heat was really getting to me so I headed back to the hostel where Luke arrived soon after. We lazed around for a little while before heading out to explore. We walked along the main canal and then cut through The Grand Palace. The nationally adored king Bhumibol passed recently, and there was some sort of mourning service happening as we walked thorough. Then we headed to Khaosan Road and Soi Rambuttri to check out the tourist scene there (those are the main tourist streets in Bangkok) and grabbed our first Pad Thai dinner.

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We were both too jetlagged and exhausted to do much in the way of night life so we got a couple of Thai beers to drink on the roof of our hostel before heading to sleep.

Day 2 in Bangkok, we woke up early and walked back to the grand palace. After a bit of confusion we finally made it to the temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Pra Kraeow). The temple grounds there were so magnificent. All of the tile work and gilding on the temples and statues was so intricate and colorful.

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Next we walked to Wat Pho, another gigantic temple. We spent a couple hours meandering through the many different temple structures, each containing unique Buddhas telling different chapters of the iconic Buddha life story. The reclining Buddha was also truly amazing. It’s scale cannot be captured by photograph.

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During our touring of Wat Pho we stumbled upon this market that was serving up a free Thai lunch. Of course we had no idea what we were eating (although we definitely spotted some chicken feet in what otherwise looked like tom kha soup) but it was nice getting a tasty free meal as long as we didn’t end up with food poisoning from it.

After Wat Pho, we took a ferry across the canal to Wat Arun. Much of this temple was closed due to restoration efforts but we still took a brief stroll and lots of photos before hopping on a canal express boat to Chinatown.

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Visiting a Thai Chinatown fascinated us both, with a blend of cultures that seemed surprisingly at home together. There were little shops selling made-in-China goods everywhere and the abundance of street food made the sidewalks almost impassable yet so vibrant and colorful.

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Eventually the heat and crowdedness got a bit overwhelming so we headed back to the canal ferry and took it for a while up the river. It’s nice because it’s less than 50 cents and essentially a boat tour for however far along the canal you want to go. Each ‘stop’ was more like a ‘float-by’ as there was very little time to get on and off. Seeing the city from the water was cooler in every way.

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We got off near our hostel, hung out there for a bit and then set off across town to find a little restaurant that was supposed to have some of the best pad Thai in Bangkok. It was quite delicious and very unique as it was wrapped in fried egg, almost like an omelette of pad Thai.

The next day we woke up quite early and got on a flight to Siem Reap in Cambodia. The flight was quite quick, the Siem Reap airport was very unique, and the Cambodian visa on arrival process was a piece of cake. In no time we were carted off by the tuktuk driver sent by our guesthouse. Immediate impressions of Siem Reap were so great! It’s got a ton of character and in a lot of ways reminds me more of Nicaragua than Thailand. Our guesthouse is great and we were greeted by delicious Khmer curry and 50 cent beers. We lazed around the guesthouse for a bit and then went out to a very fun little restaurant with delicious tropical cocktails that were so good and not overly sweet whatsoever (something that usually turns me off of tropical cocktails) and amazingly delicious and cheap food. Then we walked all through the Night Market and Pub Street and got some more 50 cent beers while watching geckos hunt.

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Yesterday was the first day in Angkor Wat. Our same TukTuk driver from the previous day came and picked us up early in the morning and whisked us off to our first temple. We arranged for him to spend the whole day driving us around (which sounds expensive but was actually ridiculously cheap). Our first stop was Pre Rup, a Hindu temple-mountain in the “Big Loop”.
It was quite a trek up some giant and steep stairs up to the top but it was a great way to start off our temple-ing. Also we were there at ~7:30 am so we beat the crowds which was quite nice.

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Next we went 23 km north to Banteay Srei, the Citadel of the Woman, named so (according to lonely planet) because the stone carving there is so intricate that there is no way a man could have done it. It was astounding, the carving was beautiful and the stone was in so many different colors, but it was unfortunately totally swarmed with tour groups.

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After this we backtracked to the Banteay Butterfly Center where we saw all of the species of butterflies in the area and got a very ecologically informed tour (although despite our tour guide’s knowledge of butterflies, his accent made it a bit difficult to understand). We saw all of the butterflies at various forms of life including gold flecked pupae and outrageous looking caterpillars. Also the tour guide told us about the center’s initiatives to teach locals (especially local children) how to farm butterflies so they can sell the pupae/chrysalises back to the center to be distributed to global butterfly centers. All and all it was a very pleasant and beautiful little stop.

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East Mebon was next, another Hindu temple in the big circuit. This one is known for having an abundance of elephant sculptures. Again it was quite breathtaking with its sculptures, architecture, and stone carvings.

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Next was Neak Pean, a Buddhist water temple. The hike out to this temple was so beautiful, on a boardwalk across a bog/flooded forest. The temple itself was very different than the others with its structures all surrounded by ponds.

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Here we stopped for some fairly lame and overpriced lunch. It’s quite the scheme because no one thinks about bringing lunch with them and then everyone’s forced to eat at these eateries. But it wasn’t terrible and it was still cheaper than the US. Also the waitress was very cute and seemed to have a crush on our tuktuk driver and their little flirtation was fun to watch.
After lunch we headed to our last temple of the day, Preah Khan. This temple was the highlight of the day for me. It’s a giant temple that is primarily Buddhist but has some satellite Hindu structures. A lot of it was overgrown with jungle vegetation and unlike the other sites, there were so few tourists. There were also little butterflies flying all over the overgrown temple with made for an incredibly peaceful experience.

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Thankfully after this we were headed back to the guesthouse because the afternoon sun was brutal and the breeze not quite strong enough. We made it back to the hostel, rested, did some laundry, and then wandered down the block to another incredibly cheap restaurant for delicious dinner and cocktails.

Today we woke up at 4 am to get to the main temple, Angkor Wat, for sunrise.There were absurd numbers of tourists, but it really was stunning watching the sun rise over this gigantic temple. Then we explored the temple in the early morning light.

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Today was our tour of the main circuit of temples so we next headed to Bayon, in Angkor Thom. I actually studied Bayon in a Buddhist Art class in college so seeing it in person was quite exciting. There are 216 faces on the 54 towers in Bayon. There are supposedly the faces of Avalokitesvara but also closely resemble the king who commissioned the creation of this structure. We got a fresh coconut and wandered around, eventually stumbling upon a group of monkeys. A couple of the monkeys had sweet little babies climbing on them as well.

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From there we walked past a couple elephant temples to find our tuktuk driver and drive to the next stop, Ta Keo. Ta Keo is only partially finished but was still very impressive. It reminded me of the first temple we visited, Pre Rup, as it was quite the mountain and we had to scramble up multiple sets of ridiculously steep stairs to get to the top. It was worth it though for the view and the breeze. Coming back down those shallow and steep steps was really the tough part though, but we made it and ate some pineapple fried rice at the base.

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We completed our “small tour” with a visit to Ta Prohm, a Buddhist temple that was once a monastery and university for the whole temple complex. This is another temple that has been left to the jungle in a sense. There are huge trees growing over many of the ruins which makes for quite the viewing experience. The movie Tomb Raider was actually filmed here, which you could recognize immediately if you’ve seen that movie. Although there were lots of tourists here, there were so many pathways and hallways that you could easily escape all of the hustle and bustle. We actually got lost in the maze of ruins while trying to find our way out which was kind of fun.

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That concluded our day at the main temples and we headed back to catch up on sleep after waking up at 4 am.

We returned to the restaurant from last night for dinner and filled up on more delicious Cambodian specialties and amazing cocktails while our wonderful waiter August taught us snippets of Cambodian.

One and a half more days left in Siem Reap and then its back to Thailand for the beach.