OMG how will I ever cross the street !

We arrived to our Splendora hotel in Hanoi late at night.   We learned from other travelers about the crazy motorcycle traffic, but truly we didn’t know what to expect.  In the morning we received instructions about crossing the roads:  “Stand on the edge, when it is a little less busy, walk across the street, at reasonable steady pace, the motorbikes will weave their way around you! DO NOT STOP, KEEP MOVING FORWARD and trust the drivers skills”.  OMG it was real.  And with that mind we went off to explore the city, facing the overwhelming traffic.

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There is a lack of traffic lights around Old Quarters, and crossing the road felt like do or die business.  In addition there was a relentless honking, where after couple hours we were getting agitated at the noise level.

During our visit  we’ve sampled many Vietnameese dishes.  Without a doubt our favorite was Hanoi’s most famous dish  Bun Cha that is served only at lunchtime literally on the sidewalks.

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Our lunch
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Perfect street food
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Valet at the sidewalk restaurant

One portion of bun cha (35,000 Kip) comes with the meat, noodles an  herbs.  The meal is completed with fried spring rolls (8000 Kip /roll and cold glass of iced green tea.   At first we were hesitant to try it, but after being encouraged by the local people we sit down at the small table.  The ordering was easy, as all we needed to do was to  show how many portions we want to order.   It was very delicious!

During our visit we visited:

Hoan  Kiem Lake  surrounding  Ngoc Son Temple, a pagoda sitting in the centre on a small island.   As we were walking,  we saw a group of a local people gathering at the lake , we also joined the crowd.  It was a huge turtle appearing his head out of the water.  Later we learned it is  a very unusual to see the creature.  There are only three other living examples in this species in another lake in Vietnam and two of them in a zoo in China.   Many Vietnamese people believe  you see the turtle, you will have  a Good Luck.  We were so happy to know that !

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View at the lake at night
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Turtle’s head appearing from the lake
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Yes, the water is very dirty in the lake

Hỏa Lò Prison a place known as Hanoi Hilton.  Despite the fancy name It was a prison used by the French colonists in Vietnam for political prisoners, and later by North Vietnam

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Entrance to Hanoi Hilton

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Ho Chi Minh Museum and Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

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Ho Chi Minh Museum

Hanoi Ancient Citadel. In 2010 the citadel was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List as “The Central Sector of the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long – Hanoi”.  While we were visiting the site, there were many young boys and girls there.  It happened to be a graduation date and there were many girls dressed in their traditional dresses and boys in suites.

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The Central Sector of the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long-Hanoi is the archeological site of the old capital of Vietnam, which originated in 1010.

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We spend 2 days in Hanoi, before we headed off to Halong Bay.

Practical Information:

We obtained the Vietnam Visa at the airport, with the obtained Authorization Letter ($20.00/person)  before our trip ( a must have).  The visa cost $45.00/person.  One passport photo is required. Wait time about 45 minutes.

We stayed 3 nights at Splendora Hotel, a newly opened hotel located in Old Quarter of Hanoi.   Our rate was $25.00 included breakfast.  We made arrangements to be picked up from the airport on our arrival.  The fee was $16.00.  The entrances to the museums vary between 30-60 KIPs ($2-$3)

Prices for beer in Hanoi were a true bargain.  Large Tiger beer cost 10,000 Kip at the bars near our hotel.

 

Luang Prabang – can we imagine living here ?

Luang Prabang  is an UNESCO World Heritage city.  It is a small, dream-like town on the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers, in a beautiful mountain setting.

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Temple at Royal Palace
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Entrance to historical Royal Palace

Our four days was spent strolling and exploring the town, stopping in many cafes overlooking the river, stumbling from Wat to Wat and visiting a waterfall.  The town has a magical feel with streets lined with old French colonial houses, cute cafes offering crusty warm baguettes and a very good coffee, boutique hotels  and  many art galleries.

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Beautiful colonial home
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Boutique hotel

 

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Charming street
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Fantastic view

There are over 30 temples in Luang Prabang with  the smallest one and our favorite Wat Chom Si  located on the main hill in the city with incredible views of the whole area.

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There are over 300 steps to the temple
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Stunning sunset everyone was waiting for

It’s also everyone’s favorite temple to watch the sunset.   It was a beautiful but there were just too many people.

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It’s not enough to be tall
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Far too many people for the romantic sunset

Luang Prabang is the perfect place to see one of the most sacred Lao traditions, the Buddhist Alms Giving Ceremony.   We woke up at 5am to be ready by 5:30am to participate in this tradition.   While we truly  enjoyed witnessing all the orange robe monks ranged in ages from 9-80 years old,  peacefully wandering the streets, it wasn’t as spiritual nor magical as we were expecting.   During the ceremony there was an overwhelming number of tourists running, shouting and taking pictures.   Despite that we  would still recommend to everyone to experience this tradition.

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Tourist running to take pictures

During our stay we visit one of the waterfalls Tad Sae.   With our new friends we hired tuk tuk for 200,000 KIP and off we went. The waterfalls were indeed spectacular, with stunning turquoise water gently tumbling over limestone rocks.

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Ready for our trip
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Turquoise water
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Boat ride

We spent couple hours at the waterfalls while our driver waited for us.  Since we left in the morning we had the best weather, with the sun poking out of the clouds making the temperature very comfortable.  Later in a day got hot again.

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Night market and street food play a huge role in the daily live of  Luang Prabang.   We loved the freshly made crepes  or fruit smoothies for just  10,000 Kips /each.

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Freshly made crepe to order
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Fresh fruit for smoothies

We spent all our evenings with our newly met friends and had a great time.

We love the city, and without a doubt is truly compelling, but no we wouldn’t want to live there.   Maybe another visit would be enough for now.

Practical information

Our Pakam guesthouse was a good find, at the price $25/night (including all fees and taxes)

There are number of day trips to waterfalls at around 40,000-50,000 Kip /person.  This price includes only transportation.   The entrance to the water falls is 10,000 Kip and  a boat ride $5000 Kip

 

Saying Good Bye to Thailand

After one more night in Chiang Mai we said Good Bye to our wonderful guesthouse owners Victor and Thunya and headed off to Chiang Rai.   This time we took an express bus.   The buses leave every hour and it takes just over 3 hours to reach its destination.   The route was pretty scenic as we drove through the mountains.

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Our express bus to Chiang Rai

Our guesthouse Grandma Kaew House  was located about 300 yards from the bus station and we just walked there.  The guesthouse was really clean and our room was very comfortable with crispy white sheets.  There is not much to do in Chiang Rai.  Most people come here to visit the White Temple, and of course it was our reason as well.

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White Temple

The city’s famous Wat Rong Khun  (White Temple) is a unique temple that stands out through the white color and the use of pieces of glass in the plaster.  Designed by Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, and build in 1997, however the construction is still ongoing.  The artist chose white to symbolize purity.

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The bridge the leads to the main building
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The bridge that leads into main building
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It felt like a fairy world
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The hands clawing at the air
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Heads hanging from the tree

The Temple  was  really stunning and glimmering with the glow of the setting sun.

Another attraction in Chiang Rai is the night market.  It was a great place to have dinner and to do some shopping.

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Food at the night market

We only spent one night there and in the morning we took a  local bus to Chiang Khong.  The bus didn’t have an AC, but it wasn’t  needed as most windows and doors were open throughout our journey.

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Our local bus from Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong

 

Chiang Khong is a small town located on Thailand’s side of the Mekong river.  Our Guesthouse Day Waterfront  was very nice with every room having its own balcony.   The owners were the best.  They welcome us with some traditional Thai snacks, coffee and fruit.   If we had more time, we would have stay one more night there.   We had a very enjoyable stay.

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View from our hotel in Chiang Khong

The next day was the beginning of our 2-day journey on a slow boat from Huay Xai (town on the Laos side) to Luang Prabang.   It is one of the highlights for many travelers in SE Asia so it was for us as well.    For this trip we had a choice of using a public boat or a private boat.  We did some research and learned the public boats are very uncomfortable and overcrowded, as there are as many as 100 people on the boat.  Having this in mind we selected a private company Nagi of Mekong.  We couldn’t make a better choice.

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Our slow boat

We only had nine people on board and we got to know each other quite well during our trip.

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Our slow boat

The scenery was very stunning with mountains and rolling hills on both sides of the wide Mekong river.   It was so beautiful and relaxing.

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Blue skies over the Mekong river

The boats can’t travel at night, and everyone had to stop in the only bigger town on the way.   It was an easy stop for us, we our hotel was already booked and we didn’t have to look for one.    Our hotel probably was the nicest hotel in town.

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The boats in Pakbeng
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Our hotel in Pakbeng

We started our next day early in the morning and throughout the day we were indulging in the beautiful views and conversations with our new friends.  We stopped at two different  hill tribe villages on our way.   The people in these villages were very poor and they live there without electricity and any basic conveniences.

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Hill tribe village
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Hill tribe village

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Our last stop was at the Pak Ou Caves.  They were 2 small caves with many Buddhist figures laid out over the wall shelves.

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We arrived to Luang Prabang at around 5pm.    Our tour also included a transfer to our Pakam Guesthouse.

Practical information:

Our tickets from CM to CR cost 185 THB each.   The tickets are 288 THB if it’s a VIP bus.

In Chiang Rai the local bus to see the White Temple cost 20 THB  and to Chiang Khong cost 65 THB.

Entrance to White Temple is free.

The private cruise Mekong of Nagi cost 4600 THB /person.  In our opinion it was well worth it.

We obtained our  Laos Visa on a border.  It cost $35.00 ( prices varies by  country).  We needed one passport photo, luckily we were prepared.

 

 

Please don’t ever ride the Elephant !

Without a doubt Elephants are the biggest attraction for every tourist visiting Thailand.  Most of the attractions involve riding the elephants, or watching them performing tricks.

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Unfortunately not too many people know the behind scenes facts:   abusive training, insane cruelty,  physical abuse,  no sleep or food.   We came across an amazing place called Elephant Nature Park where the elephants  walk freely and aren’t forced to work.  Currently there are 41 elephants in the park and except the once born at the park, all others bear injuries and  scars from the past .

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When we learned about an opportunity to work at the park , we were sold. Unfortunately the volunteering program was booked about 6 months in advance, and despite checking their website frequently, we couldn’t get the spots we truly wanted.   Once we got to Chiang Mai we went to the Elephant Nature Park  office with the attitude “we aren’t leaving until …” and it worked .   We were very, very lucky,  someone just cancelled their booking. We got in and 3 days later,  our work at the elephant sanctuary began.

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Our room at the Elephant Nature Park

The park is located in a beautiful valley with the river run through it about one hour drive from CM.  The park is also a home to over 400 dogs ( 144  of them were saved from the 2011 flood in Bangkok)  and many, many cats and buffalo.   Our schedule for next seven days looked pretty much the same:  7am breakfast / 11:30am dufinner and 6pm dinner with 2-3 hours work in between.   Each meal was a buffet style with very tasty vegetarian food.  Our group had 48 people different ages and from different parts of the  world.   The accommodation was simple but clean.  We got a bedroom with own bathroom, but some rooms had shared bathrooms.

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Peter is cleaning elephants shelter

Everyone was divided  into four groups and all task were assigned by the group name (A,B,C,D).  Our work included:

Cleaning elephant shelters (the poo job) ,  that job wasn’t as bad as it sounds.   The poo wasn’t really badly smelly and the shelters were partially cleaned by the time we got there.   Armed with shovels and rakes we were picking up the poo and dumping into small tracks.  Each time the track got full, couple people needed to go to unloaded it into the massive mound.

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The truck is ready to be unloaded

Cleaning the park , that was pretty much the same job except we strolled around the park picking up the poo.

Preparing Elephant food, that job mostly involved unloading tracks with watermelon, pumpkin and bananas.   The amount of food was unbelievable.   We also needed to wash the fruit before they were cut into the portion size

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Unloading bananas from the truck

Feeding Elephants, this job wasn’t assigned.   If anyone wanted, just needed to show up during feeding time to feed them

Bathing Elephants,  the first day we did this as a group, but during , the week anyone who wanted to help out could do that.  Mahouts really appreciated our help.

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Bathing the elephant

Planting the pumpkin seeds, this job each group got to do it only once.   It wasn’t hard and the field was up to the mountain with a beautiful view.

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Walking Elephants…by far everyone’s favorite job, when we could get really up close to the elephants.  During our walk we got a surprise visit from the founder of ENP,  Sangduen “Lek” Chailert.   It was a really pleasure to see how she reacts with elephants!

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Sangduen “Lek” Chailert

She is truly a remarkable woman, and we learned about her story and how the park started directly from her one night.  Our week at the Elephant Nature Park  went by really fast but it wasn’t just work.   We also visited the local school where we had time to play with kids and to participate in classroom work.  P1010171

At the local school

During the week we had two tubing trips since we had the river at our door steps.  It was so much fun.  There was a soccer every night as well.DSC00732

Playing soccer

Working at the ENP without  a doubt is going to be a highlight of our trip and many great memories for many years to come.

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Watching elephants
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Beautiful surroundings

We hope we can visit the park again!P1010228

Our group

The park visit for one day is 2,500 THB, the overnight visit is  5,800 THB and one volunteer week is 12,000 THB

 

Preparing the perfect Pad Thai

There are many cooking schools in Chiang Mai.  We weren’t  really planning to take any classes but when we realized it’s going to rain all day during our week stay in Chiang Mai, we  thought cooking class will be  the best way to spend the day.  Upon a recommendation of our new Polish friends we signed up for Gap’s Thai Culinary Art School.

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We got picked up from our hotel in the morning and our first stop was the local market.  The market was  very clean with an abundance of fresh fruits, veggies, herbs and many other things.  We got an explanation of all the herbs and ingredients we were going to use in our cooking class.  We picked up few things  and off we went to the Gap’s school to start cooking.

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The kitchen was set up very professionally.  We had eight people from a different parts of the world in our class.   Each of us got the own work station with everything else we needed.

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We had eight dishes to prepare throughout the day, five dishes for lunch and three dishes for dinner.   We started with learning how to make Green Curry Paste  from fresh ingredients.  We placed all spice mixture  ingredients in a mortar and pound it until the curry got ground and mixed thoroughly .   The fragrance was very  intense.  We already loved it, even though we haven’t started cooking yet.

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All  five dishes we prepared for lunch we so delicious, with a harmonious blend of the spicy and tasteful.    We truly enjoyed our lunch and we  couldn’t even finished all the dishes we prepared.

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In the afternoon we learned how to  cook the remaining  three dishes , one of them it was our favorite dish Pad Thai.   We’ve  been on a mission to try Pad Thai in almost every place we went to and we have to say the dish we prepared that day,  was perfectly season, so flavorful, limey and sweet.   We loved it!   All the afternoon dishes were placed for us in boxes,  as we were too stuffed from what we eat at lunch.

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We received a professionally printed cookbook with all the recipes that we prepared that day to take home with us.     The cooking school was 900 THB (around $30.00) and we felt it was well worth it.  It was a great day and we would highly recommend to everyone to try Gap’s  Thai culinary art school

Lighting up the night sky…

We heard and read  many good things about Chiang Mai but when we realized our earlier planned visit to  Chiang Mai  happens during Loy Krathong Festival we were so ecstatic.  What a great opportunity to be part of this one of the most illuminating, spiritual and fun celebration.  The festival  last for three days and it is one of the most popular festivals in Thailand held on the 12th full moon of the year.   Everyone can participate in the festival by releasing lanterns in to the air and by floating krathongs down the river Ping.

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Even though we were in Chiang Mai for the duration of the festival, our most memorable night was with  Ela and Hania, Polish girls we met at the train station in Bangkok.  We started our evening by purchasing our krathongs from one of the vendor (there were multitude of vendors selling beautiful krathongs  from as little as 15THB).  We made it through the crowds of people to the river banks, where we released our Krathong and watched it successfully float, making a wish that  our love and happiness will last forever!

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Even though the main release of the lanterns took place a week earlier during Yi Peng Festival, there were still many, many people lighting rice paper lanterns and setting them adrift into the night sky. The releasing lanterns represents  sending your worries and problems away so of course we had to do it.   The joy in releasing it and watching it rise into the sky was an incredible experience.

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The rest of the evening we spend watching the Floating Krathong parade from the old city Tea Pae Gate towards the Ping river.   It was a magical presentation of Thai tradition with beautiful women and men  smiling the entire way.

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As we were walking back to our guesthouse we couldn’t stop talking about how fortunate we are to be here  in this special place.

Kanchanaburi, Bridge over the River Kwai and a train ride

Bangkok was truly wonderful but after 3 days in the city we wanted to see some countryside.   We went to Kanchanaburi (site of the Bridge over the River Kwai, made famous by the movie with the same title).  There are many one day trips offered there from Bangkok, but we decided to make this a 2 night trip.   You can get there by taxi, bus or train.    We thought taking the train is going to be more fun plus we can see the countryside on the way there.   The train took 4 hours, but the time went by quickly as we met and talk with other travelers.

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We stayed at Jim’s Guesthouse that we booked on line.  Even though we were happy with our selection, there were many choices in town at much lower price.    The following day we took the train again to go to Nam Tok (the Death Railway – the construction of the railway ( 250 miles ) was done using POWs and Asian slave laborers in a very harsh conditions. The work  was completed in only a  year and due to the difficult terrain, thousands of laborers lost their lives).  The main highlight of this route is the Vampo Viaduct on the river Kwai.   It’s truly stunning.   We also visited Sai Yok Noi waterfall.   The next day we walked to the River Kwai Bridge as this is the main reason why so many people are coming here, to see the train crossing over the bridge.  You can actually stand on the bridge while the train crosses  it.  Overall we fund Kanchanaburi as a great small town w/great food and good atmosphere.

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We went back to Bangkok on a minivan.   The journey wasn’t a long as a train ride, but it still took 3 hours mostly due to traffic in Bangkok.  It cost 100 THB /pp and an additional 10 THB for each backpack.

Practical Information:

To get to the train station in Bangkok  was a bit tricky as we needed to get on the other side of the river.  We took taxi from the hotel to the Central pier (65 TBH).  From the pier we took the river boat to pier N10 (15TBH /pp).   From there we actually walked to the train station about 3/4 of a mile but we would tax a taxi the next time.

 

Bangkok, start of our South East Asia adventure

 

Royal Place Complex in Bangkok

After 2 days in cold and windy Warsaw we boarded the plane to Bangkok with  one connection in Doha (Qatar).  We landed in Bangkok early in the morning.  To get to our hotel we decided to take the train to the city (express train to Makkasan station and from there MRT train to Lumpini station.  It was an easy  60 minute ride. Our hotel Aetas  was located just couple hundred yards from the MRT station. We were so happy to learn the room was ready for us this early in the morning (9am).

Our hotel Aetas Bangkok  was new and modern with a 9th floor swimming pool overlooking the city.   The room was large and super clean.   The breakfast ( included in our room rate) offered fantastic choices for everyone.

 

Pool at our hotel (Aetas Lumpini) in Bangkok
Pool at our hotel (Aetas Lumpini) in Bangkok

 

After a short nap it was the time to start exploring  Bangkok. The City of Angels  has lots of things to offer:  fantastic markets, great food, crazy nightlife, noises and smells…  As we were exploring the city was growing on us … We were blown away by this thriving metropolis!

Lumpini Park in Bangkok
Lumpini Park in Bangkok – rare open public space , trees and playgrounds in the hart of the city.
Longboat seen from water taxi
Longboat seen from water taxi

There a few “must-see” places in Bangkok, without the doubt Royal Palace is one of them. The palace was constructed in 1782 and Thai kings lived here for over 150 years. It is no longer the residence of the king and it’s open to the public for visit. It is a magical display of Thai craftsmanship.

Royal Palace gardens
Royal Palace gardens
Royal Place complex
Royal Place complex
Royal Palace complex
Royal Palace complex
Royal Palace Complex
Royal Palace Complex

Another seriously impressive site (next to Royal Palace) is Wat Pho, home of the giant golden reclining Buddha. Wat Pho complex also features many gardens lined with  stupas and Buddha statues.

Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho
Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho

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You can find many Golden Buddhas at Wat Pho
You can find many Golden Buddhas at Wat Pho

 

Street food in Bangkok on Silom street

Visit to Bangkok wouldn’t be completed  without shopping either at the Night Markets or at the Shopping Malls.  These malls were Huge!  Even though we didn’t buy anything, simple because we wouldn’t have any place in our backpacks, but it was a great experience.

Food and Drinks

There are many food choices in Bangkok.  We love spicy food therefore there are many varieties to choose from.   We  tried street food and it was very tasty.   Nothing can complete the meal like a good local beer Chang or Singh.    We never paid more for our meal than 200 THB and for beer around 100 THB

Transportation

There are multiple ways to get around Bangkok using public transportation. We took Express train from the Airport to MRT underground (35 THB/pp). We also used the Skytrain (BTS), underground (MRT) rail systems to visit shopping, business areas of the city (20 to 40 THB/pp depending on the destination). To get to Royal Palace we took river boat (15 THB/pp) that  can be used to get to many historic sites at the riverside. Taxis are cheap to get get around, but make sure to get one with the meter, plus the traffic is very unpredictable).