February 21, 2015

Song of the Broken Road- Cambodia

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Our Cambodian truck driver, who says his name is “Mr. T,” pulls the Nissan pickup to the side of the road and looks back at me expressionlessly. “You get out!” he says. As if to underscore this suggestion, he steps out of the truck himself, unzips his jeans and begins to urinate on the side of the road.

Since I welcome any chance to exit the jammed mini-cab, I follow suit.

I have been riding in Mr. T’s truck long enough to know that he was not being rude with this curt demand. He was merely showing off his arsenal of English phrases, which also includes “I am Mr. T” and “You pay $6.” Every 20 or so minutes, he turns around and says, “This road very bad, ha-ha!” The quip is meant to be a joke, but after two hours of slamming through the unending succession of potholes and washouts known as Cambodia Route 6, I’m not laughing.

Since Route 6 is the only passable road from the Thai border to the ancient Khmer monuments at Angkor Wat, it gets a surprisingly steady stream of tourist traffic. We are currently at the height of dry season, and the road is as brown and featureless as the Texas panhandle in winter. Each time a truck full of glassy-eyed travelers bounces past, I feel like I’m journeying through some sadistic antipode to Disneyland, where the only ride lasts six hours and is designed to underscore just how long, difficult and boring life can be.

As I void my bladder onto the Route 6 shoulder, I notice that my white-haired seatmate, Mr. Cham, is standing a few paces away, watching me. All dandied-up in a brown porkpie hat and a purple polo shirt, Mr. Cham looks like he’s ready for an afternoon at the horse races. I half expect him to break into applause as I take my whiz. Once I’m finished, he hurries down the road to watch the other foreigner — a middle-aged Belgian named Claude — urinate. I’m beginning to suspect that Mr. Cham doesn’t get out of the house much.

Mr. Cham and I have been smashed up against each other in the Nissan mini-cab all morning. For reasons I don’t completely understand, I am sponsoring his ride. The first time I ever saw him was yesterday. He was wearing a black Bon Jovi T-shirt at the time, and had just stolen my sandals. My second encounter with him was this morning, when he showed up at my departure point from a town known as Opasat and informed my Cambodian hosts that I was to pay for his transit to Siem Reap. It seemed like an odd request at the time, but I went ahead and obliged him out of generic courtesy.

Mr. Cham has no personality and smells like a bag of stale Cool Ranch Doritos. If I had it to do all over again, I would have saved $3 back at the truck depot and made him ride in the back of the Nissan with the old women, the chickens and the bags of rice.

As I return to the truck from my toilet break, Mr. T rushes up to cut me off at the door. At first I think there’s some sort of danger, but it turns out he’s just looking for a chance to show off some more English. “You get in!” he says.

In the waning days of the Jimmy Carter administration, when I was about 8 or 9 years old, I dressed up like Batman and, as part of a UNICEF Halloween promotion, went door to door collecting money for the starving children of Cambodia. As I recall, I was far more interested in Batman than Cambodia, and I only mention it now because it occurs to me that Mr. T (who, despite his authoritative name, is no older than me) was probably one of those starving children.

Perhaps out of gratitude all these years later, Mr. T is hell-bent on driving me to Siem Reap as fast as possible. His road style is bold, unorthodox and unnerving, and I’m beginning to suspect that he originally learned how to drive by watching “The Dukes of Hazzard.”

Claude the Belgian, who shelled out $10 for the shotgun seat, is gripping the dashboard with a queasy, defeated look. The rest of the passengers, including Mr. Cham and me, are packed into the mini-cab so tightly that there’s no point in trying to steady ourselves. With each road flaw, our heads bang back and forth in unison, like we’ve just been teleported here from a Judas Priest concert.

Mr. T slows down only for roadblocks that are manned by men with assault rifles. I have yet to figure out if these armed sentries are soldiers or bandits — or if there is even any distinction between those two job descriptions in northwestern Cambodia. The roadblocks seem to be located only in shaded places where one can hang a hammock, and I suspect that anyone in this country with a spare AK-47 and a little initiative can find part-time work as a freelance Route 6 tollkeeper. Mr. T doesn’t pay the tollkeepers much mind, slowing only to toss a 500-riel note (about $0.13) out the window at each roadblock.

When an old codger on a parched section of the highway tries to wave our truck down with a slingshot and a shoddy bundle of sticks, Mr. T slams on the brakes, jumps out of the truck and chases the old man off into the scrub bushes. I’m not exactly sure what nuances lurk behind this confrontation, but it’s the most excitement we’ve had all day. Everyone cheers when Mr. T gets back into the truck.

The strangest detail about Cambodia Route 6 is that it is populated by so many children. Some of them are out fixing road defects with shovels; others help guide the trucks over dilapidated bridges. All of these kids demand a tip for their services, but Mr. T unconditionally ignores them. Lots of the kids are armed with Super Soaker water guns — probably a holdover from the Khmer New Year’s festivities — and we get ambushed with water whenever we slow down.

Were I a sentimental ironist, I might make some dewy-eyed observation about how these kids represent the peace-loving hopes of post-Pol Pot Cambodia — how these gentle, harmless water guns have replaced the tools of genocide. Unfortunately, I’m not so optimistic. The old ladies and chickens in the bed of the Nissan are completely soaked because of these spiteful little extortionists, and each time Mr. T drives past without tipping them, they shake their fists at him in pre-adolescent fury.

Four hours into our journey, we stop at a village for lunch. “You get out,” Mr. T tells me as we coast to a stop in front of a roadside food stand. I get out.

Since I’m not all that hungry, I stand with Claude the Belgian and stretch my legs. I have stopped trying to talk to Claude because he speaks only French and Khmer. What little English he knows is not much better than Mr. T’s repertoire. I try not to hold this against him, since I studied French for two semesters in college, and all I can remember now is that fromage means cheese.

As Claude and I stand in silence, a Cambodian man across the street takes an AK-47 out from the cab of his truck and starts to fire it into the sky. He is part of a large crowd, and all the women in his immediate vicinity start to scream. Even from across the road, the noise of the weapon gives me a start. The only thing that keeps me from running for cover is Claude, who acts as if nothing is happening.

“What the hell is that all about?” I say under my breath, not really expecting an answer.

“Waiting,” Claude says.

“Waiting for what?” I reply, still under my breath.

“Waiting,” Claude says. “Man, woo-man. Waiting.”

It dawns on me. “Oh, wedding. It’s a wedding party.”

Oui. Waiting part-ee.”

As I am watching the quirky wedding festivities across the street, I feel a tug on my shirt. It’s Mr. Cham, who indicates that he wants me to come over to the food stand. For a moment, I think Mr. Cham has redeemed himself by ordering me lunch; as it turns out, he just wants me to pay for his lunch. I foot Cham’s lunch bill, secretly formulating ways to dump this creepy little freeloader as soon as I get to Siem Reap.

Since I’m already at the food stand, I decide to check out what kinds of cuisine they offer. The lone on-duty chef at this moment is a scowling 8-year-old girl who chops up a dead chicken with fearsome strokes from a butcher knife. When she finishes, she scoops up the gelatinous cubes of deceased fowl and dumps them onto a plate of rice.

Since the bird was never properly disemboweled, each chicken cube resembles a tidy anatomical cross-section of meat, bones, skin and viscera. In all my international culinary experience, I have never seen the likes of this. I half expect an elementary-school gifted-student coordinator to walk up and cheerily announce, “OK, now let’s see which one of you can put that chicken back together!”

I elect to skip lunch. My quest for a toilet leads me to a forlorn strip of cement behind the food stand, which provides a nice view of Route 6 twisting off into the distance. I wish I could say that the midday sun makes the dusty, brown road seem full of intrigue and possibility, but I’m on the wrong continent for that kind of notion.

In Cambodia, there are no hipster myths or soda advertisements to insinuate that the road is some kind of romantic-individualist icon. In the Cambodian outback, the road is little more than a long, dully dangerous, frequently uncomfortable way to get to Point B from Point A — a monotonous, head-banging waltz-with-misery that you endure in the hope that it will eventually stop, so you can begin to forget about it.

I feel another tug on my shirt. It’s Mr. T, who points back to the Nissan. “You get in!” he says.

I get in. But only because there are no other options out here.

 

Originally published on Salon.com, May 18, 1999

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Category: Asia

February 15, 2015

Getting my Open Water in Thailand

Learning to dive was in the front of my mind when I started planning my trip to southeast Asia. Friends had learned in Thailand and I had heard that it was one of the cheapest places to get certified. After some research, we headed towards Koh Tao, an island in the Gulf of Thailand. I was keen to get my Open Water certification, but my husband was not. He agreed to stay on shore and I signed up for the three day course.

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My brain was stretched and challenged as I did my homework each night; I enjoyed learning new terms and pondering the science involved in taking a human body deep underwater. I was back in school and excited to learn about decompression sickness and the volume of the air in my lungs under pressure. Over those three days, I learned the skills I needed to stay alive and also realized a recurring dream I have of being able to breathe underwater. I made new friends and relied on them for my safety. Diving began to feel natural and, at the end of my course, I got my very own photo ID to prove that I was now a licensed diver. While having lunch with my group on that last day, I pondered where this new skill was going to take me.

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Having my OW was nice, but what about deeper dives like wrecks? I wouldn’t be able to dive past 18 meters and having a limitation on the kinds of dives I could do made me consider sticking around. Later that day, on an impulse, I signed up for my advanced course to spend two more days learning a few more skills and practice my buoyancy control and breathing. I dived a sunken wreck and did a night dive where I saw herds of porcupine fish and phosphorescence. In a classroom, I wasn’t enthralled by the science of volume and pressure, but as I watched a raw egg cracked open at 30 meters depth, I marveled at the real world demonstration: holding its shape, floating weightlessly as if in space. After leaving Koh Tao, I started doing fun dives near the Koh Phi Phi islands and had a chance to see some amazing sea life. I practiced using my GoPro on dives and bought a red filter for taking photos and video at depth to bring back some of the red that gets lost the further down you go. There’s still a lot of work to do and perhaps some new gear to acquire, but the opportunity to expand my photography to include underwater shots is also exciting.

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Diving is a skill that lets me explore an entirely new part of a country and see things I wouldn’t have been able to see before. I can wander the grounds of the ancient city of Sukhothai one week, and the next be face to face with a lionfish in the Andaman Sea. Who knows where this endeavor will take me?

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Category: Adventure Travel, Asia

February 7, 2015

Lost in Transaction

kyatOne of the most startling travel epiphanies I’ve had in recent years came on a trip to Burma, when I was counting out small change so I could buy a packet of toilet tissues. The Burmese kyat had recently suffered a jag of devaluation, and when I’d tallied up my toilet-tissue money, I noticed that it consisted of twelve small denomination bills.

Given that Burmese tissues came in packets of ten, it occurred to me that it would be more economical to just wipe my ass in kyat and pocket the difference.

Though this Burma experience was an unusually vivid example, travel always has a way of testing one’s faith when it comes to the workings of money. At home, one can pass bills without thinking too much about it, but the arbitrariness of modern currency can be alarmingly apparent when one is abroad.

As a veteran Asia traveler, my bewilderment with legal tender goes back to a day seven years ago, when an elderly vendor in Phnom Penh’s Russian Market refused to accept a worn $10 bill I’d brought directly from the United States. “Too old,” she’d told me. When I asked the woman to show me an example of acceptable currency, she held up a discolored (yet crisp) $20 bill that had obviously been counterfeited locally. In Cambodia, it seemed, the true value of American money was not pegged to its authenticity, but to whether or not it was wrinkled.

Such an idiosyncrasy may well derive from fact that portable currency (a system created in part by the demands of travel itself) has never been foolproof. In areas where a standardized money system has yet to catch on, for example, the act of shopping can prove ambiguous. In the 19th century guidebook The Art of Travel, Francis Galton suggested bringing beads and shells to use as “small change” when traveling in remote regions. Galton warned against knickknack-inflation, however — noting that one African chief had complained that his women were already “grunting like pigs” under the burden of beads given to them by previous travelers.

Other times, the absence of standardized currency has worked in travelers’ favor. Pioneering voyages to the South Pacific abound with tales of an improvised iron-based economy, wherein a sailor could acquire a short-term Tahitian wife through the gift of “an old razor, a pair of scissors, or a very large nail.” In 1767, Captain Samuel Wallis of the Dolphis had to forbid his men from trading nails for anything save wood or water, “to preserve the ship from being pulled to pieces” by horny sailors. Of course, iron isn’t the only item that has served as de facto travel currency. Wandering Norsemen once brokered deals in butter, the nomads of the Sahara traded in salt, and (in a scenario that’s fun to imagine) ancient Aztecs paid off their debts in chocolate. Tobacco was legal tender along the roads of colonial Virginia — a fact that sounds strange only until you consider that cigarettes were used as money in many parts of Europe after World War II.

In fact, paper money — which carries a purely hypothetical value — has only recently caught on as a world currency. The Chinese may have valued paper notes against silk to mixed success 1000 years ago, but a similar effort in 13th century Persia was ruined by counterfeiters. William the Bad tried to introduce leather money in 14th century Sicily — though (given the king’s unfortunate name) it’s easy to conclude that this royal experiment didn’t go over so well. To this day, the uncertainty of paper money has been known to break a regime: In late 2001, forged paper notes reportedly helped destabilize the Taliban government (one naturally wonders what graven image the Afghan Islamists had printed on their money — a grenade? an unplugged TV set? a smashed chunk of Buddha statue?).

Even in the United States, a paper dollar has little inherent value beyond the fact that it’s a part of the largest system of common faith in the world. Indeed, despite doctrinal differences, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and animists readily accept paper dollars — and even the metaphysical workings of the dollar’s “managed system” of value (wherein American banks and the Federal Reserve determine, Old Testament-style, that a dollar Is What It Is) seems firmly rooted in the ways of shared belief.

When such faith begins to crumble, of course — like it did for me in Burma — it’s easy to conclude that, for all its usefulness, paper money is still just paper.

For the record, I went ahead and swapped those twelve banknotes for ten tissues. But only because the latter were more absorbent.

[This Rolf Potts article originally appeared in Yahoo! News on March 27, 2006. All rights reserved.]

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Category: Asia, Money Management

February 5, 2015

Trip Report: how we did Oman for $570 in airfare and accommodations for two

When I first became interested in traveling, airfare and accommodations were the two most daunting expenses. Both such expenses can add up quite quickly.  For example, these days $420 may not seem like enough to pay for airfare and accommodations for two people visiting the Middle East. But when you are willing to combine a few “travel-hacking” strategies to make it happen, it’s absolutely possible to do a trip like this.

Perhaps the best way to tell you how is simply to lay out the exact costs my husband and I had for airfare and accommodations for our recent trip to Oman.

Now, I’m not assuming that Oman is a particularly popular travel destination. It’s simply an example of a recent trip for which we utilized enough of our travel-hacking strategies to keep the travel-related costs below $500. With a bit of adaptation, you could apply these strategies to a variety of travel destinations.

Trip Details:

We flew from DC to Oman (with a layover in Amsterdam) in economy class and returned from Oman on the same route a week later. Excluding nights spent on the plane in transit, we spent 6 nights in Oman.

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Firstly, let’s tackle the issue of airfare:

Expense: $420 roundtrip for 2 people

(You may notice that this now accounts for the entire “airfare and accommodations” costs. I’ll explain that in a bit…)

Strategy: Mistake Fares

Mistake fares are not the kind of flight deals you can count on if you have a very specific destination in mind. But if you are the kind of person who is curious about a variety of destinations, mistake fares are great.

Just as their name implies, these are simply airfare prices that have come about because of some kind of error in how the price was programmed. These rates disappear as soon as the booking sites who’ve made the errors recognize and fix them, so you have to make your decision about booking quickly. To learn more about how to find these accidental sales, see this post about how to find mistake fares.

 

Now let’s take a look at how we covered 6 nights of accommodations in Oman:

Expense: $150

Strategy: Hotel points and credit card annual fees

Night 1 and 2: 44,000 Club Carlson points for 2 nights at the Park Inn Muscat + $75 annual fee for the Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature Card

I’ll elaborate on the Club Carlson strategy just a bit but the basic strategy revolves around benefits of the program’s Premier Rewards Visa Signature Card, a card with a $75 annual fee.

The first benefit that comes into play is the sign-up bonus. This card currently offers 50,000 points after you make your first purchase and another 35,000 points if you spend $2,500 on the card within your first 90 days.

The second benefit that comes into play is a perk that card-holder’s get when making award bookings. If you redeem your points for a stay of 2 nights or more, the last night of the stay is automatically free. Of course as you can see here, we booked two nights, effectively getting a buy one get one free price in points.

(Please remember that your credit score is a valuable thing to manage cautiously, and therefore using credit card strategies safely depends on your ability to make on-time payments and avoid keeping a high balance on your cards.)

Night 3 and 4: 44,000 club Carlson points for 2 nights at the Radisson Blu Muscat

This of course utilized the same Club Carlson strategy described above.

Night 5: 1 Category 4 certificate for 1 night at the Grand Hyatt Muscat + $75 annual fee for keeping the Hyatt credit card beyond the first year

This strategy, again, requires the Hyatt credit card, a card that has no introductory fee, but a $75 annual fee each year you keep the card.

I’ve listed the expense as 1 Category 4 certificate because that’s what we used, but the card really offers two different strategies. One strategy factors in an annual fee charge (as was the case for us) and one does not. It just depends on where you’re at in your credit-card history.

You could for instance use one of the sign-up bonus certificates instead. The sign-up bonus for this card is 2 certificates for use at any property if you spend $1,000 on the card in the first 3 months of opening your account. Then, each anniversary you will earn 1 category 4 certificate, eligible for use at properties designated as “category 4.”

Night 6: 1 free-night-credit at the InterContinental Muscat

This strategy actually does not involve the InterContinental credit card. Instead, it involves an annual promotion offered by InterContinental Hotel Group. The promotion changes each time it’s released, but the version of the promotion we used for this stay was called the “Into the Nights” promotion. (The current version is slightly different and is called “Set Your Sights.” )

Basically the promotion gave each participant a few “challenges”. For instance one might be “book a night using our app.” And another might be “stay 4 nights”. Not only did participants win points for completing a goal, they won even more points once they completed a pre-set number of those goals. For instance some people received challenges that required them to complete 7 out of 8 goals. Others, 4 out of 5. It was a targeted promotion that varied per participant.

During the “Into the Nights’ promotion, some people were invited to choose either 50,000 points or 2 free-night-credits as one of their rewards. We chose the free-night-credits.

 

Conclusion:

As you can see, travel-hacking requires a blend of strategies. In this case, we saw some amazing and beautiful things in Oman without worrying about crippling costs. Some of it was luck

 

 

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Category: Destinations, On The Road

February 4, 2015

Vagabonding Field Report: Ao Nang, Thailand

Many people head to southern Thailand for beaches, islands, and the relaxed vibe of coastal life. Ao Nang is a bit more relaxed than larger cities like Phuket but still has a vibrant tourist draw and is an easy jumping-off point for many activities like rock climbing, island tours, beach lounging, hiking, and diving.

Cost of living:

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A cost breakdown for the month using our budgeting app.

If you’re trying to save cash and are settling down for a while, a monthly rental can be found here for about 9,000 baht if you’re willing to stay a few kilometers away from the main beach area. Doing this will save you cash and the restaurants and shops get cheaper as you move farther from the beach. A scooter rental will cost you 250 baht per day or only 3,000 baht per month. If you were to eat all three meals a day at restaurants, your daily food allowance would need to be between 350-500 baht per person. However, stocking up on groceries and eating breakfast and/or lunch at home can save some cash and drop your daily food costs down to 150-250 baht per day. Prices at restaurants can more than triple when you get to the main beach strip and the quality of food isn’t any better. Sometimes you have to give in and spend 200 baht on that piña colada so you can watch the sunset at a beachside bar.

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Category: Asia, General, Vagabonding Field Reports

January 18, 2015

Solo travel when you’re not traveling solo

Traveling slowly with my husband across Southeast Asia has been a great way to leave our jobs and lives in Canada behind to explore the world on a small budget. It also means we spend a lot of time together. Every meal, every walk, every bus ride to a new city, is together. Where once we saw each other only in the evenings and on weekends, we now see each other all the time. Where we once had schedules and habitual activities alone, there was now a much more shared and aligned schedule. This is fine, really, but we don’t always agree that something is worth our time or energy. Sometimes we need to split off and spend some time apart.

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When we were living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I felt the need to take our scooter to some neighboring towns to see other temples, other roads, other food stalls. This little adventure interested only me so I took off down the highway with the scooter and left the husband behind to revel in his alone time with his fantasy football activities. I put a single earbud in, had Google maps speak directions to me and put on some music. I immediately got lost on a small residential road due to my inability to grasp the distance of 200 metres and turned too soon. I almost ran over a chicken that was literally crossing the road (why it was crossing the road is beyond us all.) Once back on the highway, I decided to trust the navigator voice and made my way south on Highway 106 to Lamphun. The drive passed under towering rubber trees that lined the road and went in and out of clouds of incense and smoke from barbecued pork. Each rotund tree had an orange swatch of fabric tied to it, indicating it was blessed by monks, therefore protecting it from logging. The roots had overgrown past the road and were pushing up the pavement along the edges. I took it slow and drove only as fast as I wanted with Blood Orange’s Chamakay setting the mood.

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I stopped at a couple of different wats (temples) in Lamphun: Wat Phra That Hariphunchai and Wat Kukut respectively. The first was almost deserted compared to the wats I had visited in Chiang Mai. No more than four tourists and about five or so Buddhist monks were wandering the grounds. This was a much more peaceful way to visit a wat than pushed around in a throng of tourists, constantly moving and talking over each other. Little bells blew around in the wind and broke the silence with soft tinkling sounds like wind chimes. Wat Kukut was completely deserted. The only human I saw was a Thai man who came into the front gates briefly to release a small bird from a tiny wicker cage and then leave. I had a great opportunity to take my time and photograph every small detail that fascinated me: small wooden elephants casting long shadows, tiny figurines placed in flower pots and along walls, standing Buddhas along the walls of the chedis, catching just the right amount of light on my lens.

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On the way back to Chiang Mai, I waited at a stoplight and saw a small girl staring at me from the car beside me. She shyly opened her window and waved. I waved back from my scooter with a big smile and saw the delight in her face right as the light turned and I sped off up the rubber tree highway, Kanye West’s Bad News taking me home.

Had my husband been with me, this day trip would have looked quite different. On the back of our scooter I would have been navigator, looking at my phone and directing rather than driving at my own pace, stopping whenever I wanted, and taking my time in the deserted wats. I probably wouldn’t have had my headphones in. Sometimes it’s nice to have a soundtrack of my favorite music to accompany an experience. It was nice to have a day that was my own with my own agenda. If we had been on a short two-week vacation, we would have been rushing to maximize our time and fit as many activities into our schedule as possible. A day trip to Lamphun wouldn’t have been considered when there are flashier attractions nearby that we would both enjoy. It’s a healthy exercise to spend time alone and be forced to rely on your own strengths and spend time with your thoughts as you travel. Growing up as an only child, this was standard. Spending time alone used to come so naturally to me. Since being married, I can sometimes forget the way my brain works and thinks differently alone. While it is an incredible journey my husband and I have taken on together, having a solo adventure here and there has enriched the overall experience.

To read more about Maryanne’s travel adventures check out Unknown Home.

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Category: Asia, Family Travel, General, Solo Travel

January 16, 2015

Field Report: Port Lincoln, Australia

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Cost per day?

We camped at the Big 4 campsite which was a fantastic campsite, but you can pay through the nose in peak season. We paid $40 a night but were reasonably central. There are various other sites but if you want to enjoy a drink or just a short stroll into town then you could find yourself too far out to walk. The campsite also had great kitchen and BBQ facilities, so cooking was cheap, however part of the appeal of Port Lincoln is its various bars and restaurants, as well as its entertainment. I would say $100 a day would get you a great day out.

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Describe a typical day?

Port Lincoln is beautiful and needs to be explored, so I put on my running boots and ventured out. The local council seem to have invested a lot of money in taking care of its water front. The agriculture is well maintained from the great pines to the grassy lawns, everything feels fresh and alive. The great weather gave a fantastic glow to the area and the aroma of fresh sea air allowed you to grasp what makes this town truly fantastic. Rolling hills stretch up to the skies and made for a good run which gave astonishing views of the town. Unintentionally I found myself lost, however that was half the joy. I didn’t need an excuse to explore further and found myself running the beach track back to the campsite.

Catching up with my better half, we decided to make our way out to the various viewpoints that look over Port Lincoln. The walking trail was quiet, which was a great opportunity to take in the beauty of the town below. It’s not a long walk but is worth it for a romantic stroll. We took many pictures to capture these beautiful moments.

Time to undo all my hard work, we strolled into town for afternoon lunch. A pub on the local green served chicken parmagana with unlimited salad bar which we washed down with a beer. We sat out on the terrace looking out on the green. The lawns of the town centre were busy with various families, tourists, and locals gathered eating picnics and ice creams. The mood was joyous as we sat and watched the world go by. A small funfair was in town so rides lined the waterfront, the sounds of laughter and excited screams filled the air.

Well fed, we took a look round the various shops. Like most Australian seaside towns the shops would sell merchandise that would let you know just how great they thought their town was. Every other shop would sell various t-shirts, fridge magnets, bumper stickers etc. tagged with Port Lincoln insignia – we bought a sticker for the camper and strolled back to the lawns. Treating ourselves to an ice cream we sat on the grass and lapped up the sun.

Stopping by the local butchers it was time to grab some burgers and sausages and head back to the campsite. We watched the sun go down by the pool. The Big 4 put on a film each night through its outside cinema. We sat back and enjoyed a BBQ and a film. The night was mild and various holiday makers sat around the pool and BBQ area eating and drinking. So we night capped with a glass of wine before retiring to bed.

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What did you like? Dislike?

I couldn’t find anything I didn’t like, if anything there is little in the way of tours but this wasn’t an issue, the appeal is the town itself. However, there are various activities to enjoy. I loved the great atmosphere and the friendly service we came to find. The great couple that ran the campsite were lovely and had a lot of time for guests. It was obvious they had invested a lot of time in bringing up the standard of the site. The town was beautiful.

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Describe an interesting conversation?

The couple that ran the campsite had settled some years ago after leaving England in order to tour Australia. A spontaneous decision had led them to turn their whole life around and eventually to run this campsite. He had been a lorry driver that was struck off and out of work, with little else to lose they had decided they would to take the risk to move to the southern hemisphere and neither have ever looked back. It was inspiring as you could clearly see their happiness shine through and above all you could see they were a truly happy couple. It just goes to show you can find happiness if your willing to take a risk for it.

Where next?

Sydney for New Year!!!!

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Category: Oceania, Vagabonding Field Reports

January 13, 2015

What the frugal foodie eats in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Stroll past the dozens of stalls serving food to the fascinated tourists excitedly pointing at giant, steaming woks of noodles, dried sticks of skewered insects and whirring blenders filled with local fruits, and you’ll find the experience to be an exquisite assault on the senses. Bright lights above each stall harshly illuminate the menus, which are rarely also in English. If the menu can even be seen through the steam and smoke from the never-ending cooking, the blended smells will only confound customers looking for something recognizable for dinner.

Although the intense variety of culinary choices attracts some foreigners to Thailand, many more are drawn by the comparatively low cost of living. Begin always by knowing what the currency conversion rate is so you can have a strong understanding of what prices really are. One Canadian dollar works out to about thirty Thai baht, but I wouldn’t get too hung up on being precise; Thailand ends up being so cheap that it’s not worth counting pennies over it. 

Chiang Mai is a city that is always in motion, yet retains the slow, old-world charm that Bangkok seems to have long ago left behind. The centre of Thailand’s second-biggest city is a grouping of several blocks consisting mostly of old temples, schools, and residences, and shaped almost as a perfect square. Protecting the old city is its moat that symbolically keeps modernity from encroaching too far inside. The food, however, hasn’t been able to maintain the same degree of separation from the influences of the new millennium and the globalization that increased tourism brings.

For the traveller looking for something delicious and different from the norm, Chiang Mai not only offers reliable favourites, such as the ubiquitous Pad Thai and green curries, but lesser-known meals such as Khao Soi and Som Tam salad can be sampled for about a dollar. International dishes are very easy to locate, as one can find a bacon burger or cheese pizza being served beside someone else grilling an entire squid over a barrel fire.

The way to really travel and eat cheaply is to seek out the food stalls and put aside any unfounded lingering fears over the possibility of food poisoning. Cooks take great pride in serving tourists something authentic, clean, memorable, and probably a little spicier than expected. It can all be done without making a significant dent in anyone’s wallet.

Chiang Mai Food

Typically, a cheap walking-street dinner is done by visiting several carts that sell a few bites of some sort of tasty local dish. A meal might start with a light appetizer, perhaps a fried spring roll, sliced curry sausage, or a piece of grilled chicken on a skewer. Patrons jostle for the vendor’s attention, and those clutching exact change will find their order quickly filled. My large elbows are a blessing in times of hunger, and my stomach thanks them for their unwieldy size as they help keep my position at the front of the queue. I’m not a monster, I’m just hungry.

In Chiang Mai, it’s crucial to try the regional dishes that are nearly impossible to find back home, and that includes Khao Soi. With neither pictures nor translation for one to point to, the cook will only need to shout its name and everyone will know what to expect. Served in a bowl, it is a wonderful lightly spiced chicken curry sauce poured over fried yellow noodles, topped with pickled vegetables, often accompanied by a stewed chicken drumstick. The server directs customers to sit at a nearby folding table and it is lined with locals working their way through their own bowls. One serving could fill the void in most travellers’ stomachs, yet I must remind myself to avoid the compulsion to order a second bowl, for Khao Soi is oily, and there remain far too many other things to try. 

A voracious appetite might need a plate of Som Tam to fill the cracks at this point. It’s a papaya-based salad that is tossed with sweet and spicy ingredients, mixed with a clay mortar and pestle only at the moment it is ordered. Although sublimely refreshing, Som Tam can set one’s mouth ablaze if proper care is not taken as to the level of hot pepper added; it has the potential to create a serious need to guzzle a gallon of ice water or beer. Speaking of beer, the cheapest brand of lager is Chang, followed by Leo, Tiger, and Singha. None is particularly remarkable in terms of quality, but I am not one to complain about cold beer after spicy food.

Dessert is acceptable, no matter how full the last three dishes have made anyone feel. On the off-chance that fried dough with sweet milk seems too heavy, there is always the Thai classic: ancient ice cream. Ancient ice cream surprises most with its rectangular shape, and that it is served on a stick. Made with coconut milk and ice, individual portions are cut from large slabs, and can be eaten as is, or inside a piece of bread. With no dearth of flavours from which to choose, the usual suspects such as vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry are common favourites. While coffee, caramel, and coconut are some of the more subtle flavours, the few brave will try durian, matcha, or maybe red bean. The alternative to ice cream is roti, a flattened piece of soft dough, which can then be filled with bananas, chocolate, egg, or any sweet fruits, then fried gently on a large pan. It is wrapped up in itself, chopped into bite-sized morsels, and never runs more than a buck fifty.

The reaction inside my body at this point of dinner is overwhelming. It is not from excessive spice, nor is it something possibly undercooked that my stomach is trying to digest. The feeling is one of incredulity at how much time I’ve wasted in life not eating this amazing cuisine. It is appreciation for the opportunity to travel just to appease the foodie nature of the heart. It is a sense of smug satisfaction at having spent only four dollars on stuffing my belly so completely that I feel like giving away the rest of my budgeted money. It is contentment. Chiang Mai is accessible to the world, and it is a place of deep exploration for the lovers of food. It can be pursued and discovered again and again in every meal eaten.

 

Tony Hajdu writes more over at Unknown Home. Head over there and bookmark it!

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Category: Asia, Food and Drink, General

January 8, 2015

New Years Eve vs. St. Stephen’s Day for fireworks in Budapest

If you’re like my husband and I, you can’t help but do a little bit of research or at least some Google-Image searching when you’re about to embark on a trip you’re particularly excited about.

For instance we spent New Years Eve in Budapest, Hungary this year and made sure to get a hotel right on the river (using our IHG rewards points for a free room with an incredible view.) This was, we believed, where the New Years Eve fireworks would go off.

Why did we think this?

Because that’s where the St. Stephen’s Day fireworks had been the year before on August 20th.

That fireworks show had been so impressive, so long, and so extravagant that we expected to be in for a treat. What we saw instead was an entirely different experience, yet not without its own…explosive qualities.

 

First let me share a bit about St. Stephen’s Day.

St. Stephen’s Day is essentially Hungary’s independence day, celebrating not only the foundation of the Hungarian state, but also Stephen, the first king of the kingdom of Hungary.

Much like the United States’ independence day, Hungary celebrates this day with a huge fireworks display in the capital city. Unlike any fireworks show I’ve seen in the States however, this show is a 45 minute explosion of non-stop fireworks, bursting forth from the famous Chain Bridge and casting vibrant reflections on the surface of the Danube.

When my husband and I accidentally happened upon this holiday and thus, the fireworks show last year, we could not believe the extravagance. It is still on my list of 5 most serendipitous travel moments we’ve ever had.

Screen Shot 2015-01-04 at 3.42.18 PM

 

Now I’ll spend just a moment detailing New Years Eve in Budapest

When the concierge at the InterContinental Budapest told us that there were no official events to speak of in Budapest New Years Eve, we were quite skeptical. Our skepticism was enhanced by the fact that tourists were beginning to crowd along the river, as if to catch a glimpse of another huge fireworks show.

Perhaps they too had done a quick Google-Image search of “new year’s eve Budapest” as we had.

Besides…since when has the internet been an infallible resource for FACTS? :)

Instead of the glorious and extravagant display of impeccably choreographed fireworks, we found the streets littered with spontaneous explosions. Venders paced along open courtyards, store-fronts, and sidewalks selling fireworks to tourists and locals alike. And once purchased, for this night alone, the fireworks could be detonated just about anywhere.

We watched fireworks shoot off with lopsided angles, sometimes straight into the crowd that circled the open square. We watched debris cast off from the firework’s cartridge fall down into the crowds. The haphazard explosions of amateur fireworks exploded literally right in front of our faces and I wondered to myself why I wasn’t hearing a constant noise of ambulances.

It was thrilling. But also, in a way, quite harrowing. The videos I snapped on my phone look just like scenes from a war film.

We spent most of the last hour of 2014 standing observing these sporadic explosions from a safe distance back where we could see both the fits and spurts of the courtyard and the subdued anticipation of the tourists along the river.

Nothing much happened over the river that night. Just a few explosions could be seen of other amateur fireworks displays in other open courtyards across the river. Just as sporadic. Just as haphazard. And from the distance across the river, quite small.

 

I suppose the moral of this story in my mind, is to remember that Google-Image search is indeed fallible.

 

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Category: Europe

December 21, 2014

What adults can learn when traveling with their parents

My dad returning to Yosemite Valley, a place he knew well as a teenager in the 60's.

My dad returning to Yosemite Valley, a place he knew well as a teenager in the 60’s.

While not everyone grew up in a traditional family structure, this article can apply to anyone who has a loving relationship with a family member who was part of your upbringing. For me, that was my parents, but I recognize that some people were raised by foster families, the parents of your childhood friends, aunts, uncles, grandparents, or siblings. This article still applies no matter who was an integral part of your childhood or who you consider a parent or family.

Growing up, my family took a lot of camping trips. We could never afford to take trips outside of North America, so we stuck close to home in the mountains and forests of the Pacific Northwest. Traveling together as a family was such an important part of my upbringing since it taught me a lot about living simply and enjoying each other’s company as well as the world around me.

As adults, we carry these memories and values with us, shaping us as travelers, friends, spouses, and lovers. We have our own travel stories that range from road trips with friends, camping trips with spouses, and solo long-term trips abroad that redefine travel for the rest of our lives. However, there is something to be said about coming home and re-experiencing time with our loved ones. Traveling with our families, as adults, kicks this up a notch in a really special way.

Your parents can still pass on travel wisdom

You may be well-traveled by now, having taken your own adventures, maybe even becoming an expert in the art of travel. You may have surpassed anything your parents may have done when they were younger. You’re the travel expert in your family. This doesn’t mean that you have nothing left to learn from your parents. Taking a trip with a parent as an adult allows your parent to get back into their own travel groove. They’re not tasked with caring for you like they were when you were a kid and this lets them shine in an area they may know well.

This last summer, my cousin was coming back to California and I hadn’t seen her in twenty-one years. A family reunion was organized, so my dad and I decided to make it into a camping road trip and stop at many of the national parks on the round-trip trek from Vancouver. I was reminded how good at camping my dad really is. He had packed things that I never would have thought to pack, and those things ended up being small comforts and luxuries that I really appreciated. He even brought small pieces of sample carpet to put in front of our tent doors to help us brush our feet off when getting in and out of the tent. They were all particularly useful things that I’d incorporate into my next car-camping trip.

Exiting your context

You likely know your parents in a particular context. You see them in their home for holiday meals, you go out for dinner at your favorite Mexican place, or they come over to help you with your taxes. These places and situations have become so familiar that each interaction is usually quite similar to the one before it. The familiarity is comforting and your relationship can become strengthened by this. One thing that may surprise you is that once you exit this context by traveling, you may not recognize your parent or you may see sides of them that have been tucked away for years. Traveling with my dad reminded me that once upon a time, he was a young man who did exciting things. He shared memories of camping with his uncle in the 60’s, setting off firecrackers from the roof, and encountering bears in the woods. These stories didn’t always have a context at home, but in Yosemite Valley, memories came flooding back and I was there to hear about them.

Creating new memories

If you have had the chance as an adult to travel with your parents, the memories you share will be held dear to you. The snapshots and stories from those experiences stand out in your mind from the rest you had as a child, and your parents will feel the same way. They have an opportunity to spend time with their children in a new and exciting way and they’ll cherish that as well. I not only have the memories of the familiarity and the usual but the memories of an incredible two-week road trip through three states and six state and national parks. I have the wonderful memory of my dad and my husband trying to see who could keep their feet in a freezing river the longest, contorting their faces in pain as I watched and laughed.

 

While camping in Big Sur at the beautiful Pfeiffer State Park, my dad and I spent sunset discussing long-exposure photography.

While camping in Big Sur at the beautiful Pfeiffer State Park, my dad and I spent sunset discussing long-exposure photography.

My dad was capable of camping, hiking, and driving for days on end, but not all parents are. Travel can still happen in many different ways. For example, a week in Hawaii at a resort, a cruise through Europe along the winding Danube, or, for the more adventurous, even a camel trek through the deserts of India. The possibilities are endless and the memories are waiting to be made!

To read more about Maryanne’s travel adventures check out Unknown Home.

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Category: Family Travel, North America
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