Guides by Brooke

Secrets to Booking Cheap Flights in Southeast Asia

Before I came to Southeast Asia, I had heard that flights are “dirt cheap and you can get anywhere”, but I will admit, I was a bit skeptical. After some recent experiences booking last minute flights, I thought I would share some tips if you’re looking to save money traveling in SE Asia:

  1. Utilize Travel Apps: My two favorite apps to use when booking flights are Hopper and Skyscanner. They both have websites, but you can often get better prices on their apps, so I use them more often. When I want to book a flight, I look up flights on Skyscanner to get an estimate for the cost, then check Hopper to see if it predicts whether the price will go up or down in the coming days or weeks. You can also set an alert on Hopper to notify you when prices go down, so even if you forget about that flight you need to book, the app will still remind you. Skyscanner is basically a cheaper and more thorough version of websites like Expedia, and I have found much lower prices on it, so I highly recommend it! I have also heard good things about Momondo, so I may check that out soon :).
  2. Look at all of your airport options: I was in Koh Samui and wanted to book a flight to Luang Prabang, Laos. Booking directly from Koh Samui to LP would’ve costed me over $300 US, so I needed to look into other options. If you are on an island or somewhere not easily accessible, definitely check out other nearby airports. I found out that only specific airlines can fly into the Koh Samui airport and some budget airlines aren’t allowed to fly there at all. After a recommendation from a fellow traveler, I looked into the Surat Thani airport, which is the closest airport on the mainland of Thailand. A flight to Bangkok that would’ve costed me over $100 US from Koh Samui only costed $20 US from Surat Thani! I easily took a ferry to the mainland, then took a bus to Surat Thani to catch my flight the next morning. My experience in Surat Thani ended up being very interesting, considering I did not see a single other western person or meet anyone who spoke English. The plus side of staying overnight somewhere that is the opposite of touristy is that you can stay in a safe hotel with a great location for only $8 US. Long story short, I booked a flight from Surat Thani to Bangkok on Thai Lion Air for $20 US and a flight from Bangkok to Luang Prabang on Air Asia for $50 US, totaling to $70 US instead of over $300! It was definitely worth taking an extra ferry and exploring a new city for a day.
  3. Carry-on Luggage: This one is simple, but can really save you a ton of money in Southeast Asia. If I purchased luggage on my flight to Laos, it would’ve costed me almost as much as the flight itself! Luckily, my backpack is small enough I can sneak it on planes even though it is over the 7 kg limit :). If you are planning a trip to Southeast Asia, definitely consider downsizing your backpack- you will not regret it!
  4. Read the Fine Print: Before booking a flight, always read the fine print and see if checked luggage is included, if you need to print your boarding pass before arriving at the airport, if there are any additional taxes or surcharges, and if there is any flexibility with your ticket. It may be worth paying a bit extra to have the flexibility to change your dates if you need to!
  5. Compare Your Options: Though flying is usually fastest and cheapest in Southeast Asia (depending on where you are going), there are plenty of ways to get around. Before booking a flight, always look into your other options like an overnight train or bus, a ferry/boat, or a combination. There are tourist offices everywhere in most cities and they can easily book a combination ticket for you. Looking online is smart, but there are some modes of transportation that are not listed online. Whatever you choose to do, don’t stress! You can always figure things out on the fly, so I definitely recommend just going with the flow and booking as you go :).

 

Expert hint: Some budget airlines in Asia do not accept foreign credit cards when booking online. Do not fear! In Thailand, you can actually select 7/11 as a payment method when you check out and you can pay cash at any 7/11 location with a print out of your voucher. After a few days of frustration and calling the airline, I was amazed that this actually worked! I have also heard you can pay cash at travel agencies as well, but I’m not sure what they charge for commission.

 

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For reference, some popular budget airlines in Southeast Asia are:

  • Air Asia
  • Nok Air
  • Thai Lion
  • Jetstar
  • Tiger Air
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Hopefully this helps if you plan to travel in Southeast Asia in the future or are traveling right now! If you have any other tips to add, feel free to post in the comments section :).

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Kuang Si Waterfalls & Other Tips for Luang Prabang

 

Laos: the land of roosters, butterflies, incredible landscapes, and limestone caves, with a rich history and French influence. If you haven’t heard of Kuang Si Waterfalls, a quick Google image search will show you why so many people travel to Laos just to see this oasis outside of Luang Prabang. I have been to some incredible waterfalls in my life, and this one is by far the best (even better than Krka National Park in Croatia!). Here are some tips and pictures if you are looking to go in the future or just want to learn more about it:

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The Kuang Si Waterfalls are about a 45 minute drive outside of Luang Prabang and an absolute must-see if you are in Laos. Between the Black Bear exhibit and series of 7 cascading waterfalls, there is a ton to explore at the park.

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How to get there: Find a tuk tuk on the street near the night market and negotiate. Don’t book through hostel or guest house; you will get ripped off! I would recommend a tuk tuk over a minibus/van because you can see the beautiful views better and you are less likely to get carsick on the windy roads with an open air truck (I did both and much preferred the tuk tuk).

Go with a Group: The bigger the group (4+ is good), the lower your price. Tuk tuk drivers may start out with something outrageous like 80,000 kip per person, but believe me, if you try hard enough and talk to enough drivers, you can get it down to 20,000 kip ($2.50 US) per person roundtrip. The driver will wait for you for three hours at the park entrance, but see if you can negotiate 3 ½ or 4 hours- you will want to stay longer!

Once you get to the bridge with the incredible views and photo ops (see below), you may think you’ve reached the top of Kuang Si Falls…don’t worry, there’s more. Continue on the trail (I highly recommend wearing sturdy hiking sandals like Chacos as opposed to flip flops) and you will see a fence with barbed wire and a sign that says “do not pass”. Go against what your gut may tell you and crawl through the fence to reach the best part of your day. You can swim at the very top of the waterfalls, go underneath the 300 ft. waterfall into a small cave, and take some incredible photos. There are typically just other backpackers up there who’ve heard about this “secret spot” through word of mouth, so it’s a great chance to make new friends!

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I didn’t do this the first time I went, but I am so glad I went back to Kuang Si Falls to hike up and around the top waterfalls. If you continue on the trail to the left when you climb back through the “do not pass” fence, you will not regret it. There is a trail at the very top above all of the waterfalls with incredible views of the mountains and there was not a soul up there when I went. You can even follow the signs to get to another cave farther back, but unfortunately, I ran out of time, and followed the trail down the other side of the waterfalls (see photos below).

Butterfly Park: There is a butterfly park about 300 meters away from Kuang Si falls, which is a great addition to a day trip. I wanted to go until I found out it was 40,000 kip for entrance, which is pretty expensive for Laos standards. I’ve heard it’s beautiful, but didn’t get a chance to go for myself, so let me know what you think if you do!

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Though I could visit Luang Prabang just to see Kuang Si Falls, there is also a ton of other activities to do. Here are a few I recommend in order of how much I enjoyed them:

Night Market: Make sure to eat at the buffet at least once (15,000 kip for all-you-can-eat vegetarian food), eat at the noodle place on the corner by the tourist center, try the local coffee at the countless cafes, and support local people by buying their unique handicrafts. If you head to this area in the day, there is an awesome spot with several vendors selling fruit shakes and sandwiches. I highly recommend the chicken, cheese, and avocado sandwich!

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Utopia: This bar and restaurant is the best spot in town with totally different vibes in the day and at night. With views of the river, tons of places to chill out, yoga classes, delicious food, and a sand volleyball court, Utopia is a great place to hang out in the day or around sunset. At night, this is where all of the backpackers come to hang out and drink at the bar. Though there is music and plenty of flowing drinks, this place usually doesn’t get too rowdy and is a great place to meet new people.

UXO Visitor Center: I learned SO much about the history of Laos and how the Laotian people are still affected by the Vietnam/Second Indochina War here. Do not miss this visitor center while you are in Luang Prabang- it was absolutely fascinating, heartbreaking, and eye-opening to learn about the unexploded bombs from the Vietnam War scattered throughout the country and how they even have to teach the children how to identify and avoid them. UXO is an organization that goes to villages throughout Laos to detonate or defuse these deadly unexploded bombs that kill hundreds of Laotian people every year. How did I not learn about this in school?!

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Traditional Arts & Ethnology Center: Another educational spot that should not be missed when in LP. I learned about the different ethnic and cultural groups of Laos and all about their daily lives, crafts such as weaving and embroidering, and how tourists can support the local people. Amazing!

Bowling: As strange as it sounds, bowling in Luang Prabang is basically a daily ritual for visiting backpackers. After Utopia closes at 11 p.m., everyone heads to the bowling alley, as it is the only place open late and is surprisingly a lot of fun when there are that many people there.

Mount Phousi: Hike to the top of this mountain with a temple for beautiful views of the river and the city for sunset. I would not recommend doing what I did and going at 1 p.m. in the peak heat hours of the day (even though the views were still worth it!).

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Royal Palace Museum: If you’re a museum buff, check out this museum to learn about Laos’ history, get to know the royal family, and see beautiful traditional art.

Free Movie Night at L’Etranger Café & Bookstore: Just make sure to buy food or a drink here, and take a night to relax watching a movie in the upstairs lounge. The night I went, we watched The Intern!

Sunset Cruise: I attempted to do a cruise with Sa Sa Sunset Cruise, but unfortunately, not enough people signed up that day (#lowseasonproblems). I hear it’s fun though! If you end up going, let me know how it is :).

Other than that, walking around the Old Quarter is a great experience in itself. There are plenty of shops and cafes to take refuge in from the heat, but my favorite part was just enjoying the French Colonial architecture and walking along the river. There are a few other activities I missed, so make sure to look online or ask around for other things to do, such as seeing the early morning Alms Giving Ceremony.

 

How much to expect to spend: Depending on what you’re doing, you can expect to spend between $10-$15 USD per day including accommodation (this could be more if you buy alcohol).

Hostels:

LPQ Backpackers hostel (40,000 kip/$5 USD per night): Simple, but does the job. I had no complaints about this hostel, other than the rock hard beds and not-so-helpful reception.

Khounsavan Guesthouse (50,000 kip/~$6 USD per night): This hostel had better reviews, more people, and a pool, so I switched here for my last two nights. To be honest, I wasn’t too impressed based on the food, reception/service, and (bath)rooms. The pool was nice and the people I met were great, but I think the signs that say “rated best hostel in Laos” may be a bit of an exaggeration. Regardless, it is still a fun place to stay, especially if you’re looking to meet people and go out.

If you don’t want to book anything in advance, you can very easily just show up near the night market and find tons of guesthouses nearby. However, some of these guesthouses may not be as social as the two I recommended above :).

Booking Busses: Almost everyone is either going to or coming from Vang Vieng via bus, and there are a ton of places to buy bus tickets. I highly recommend going directly to the bus terminal and buying your ticket there, rather than buying at your hostel/guesthouse or at a tourist office. These places will charge you extra and there are a lot of scams for “VIP buses”, which are quite the contrary. I paid 85,000 kip for my “VIP” bus, but others on the same bus paid 115,000 kip because they did not buy directly at the bus terminal. Just an extra tip!

I hope this was informative and showcased all that Luang Prabang has to offer, which is a lot more than Kuang Si Waterfalls! I kept extending my time here because I enjoyed it so much, so I hope you get the chance to go as well :). I will upload my GoPro video of Laos highlight soon- thanks for reading!

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How to Get an Adrenaline Rush in Koh Phangan

Alright, I just have to rave about two of the most fun things I have done in Thailand on the island of Koh Phangan! The Challenge Phangan and Slip n’ Fly are both popular attractions on the island for those looking for a huge adrenaline rush or just to work off a hangover from the Full Moon Party (see photo below). Here is a bit of information about each if you’re looking to go or just want to see more pictures!

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The Challenge Phangan is essentially a giant wipeout course on a lake which will leave you more exhausted than you ever thought possible from an inflatable course. With everything from a swing starting from a 30 ft. high platform to giant red balls to attempt to jump across, the course has a huge variety of challenges for every skill/fitness level. The giant blob is definitely the biggest hit and if you have the guts to do it, the staff will launch you with three people (see photo of my friend Mark mid-air below).

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Where is it?: On the northwest side of the island

Cost: 500 baht per person (~$14 US) for the day (pricey but WORTH it)

Hours: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

How long to stay: Depending on the crowds and the size of your group, I’d go for a minimum of three hours. There is also a small restaurant there with (overpriced) food, but I highly recommend the nachos if you get hungry :).

Facebook page: Check out some of their pictures on The Challenge Phangan’s Facebook page!

Slip n’ Fly Party is equally as awesome as the Challenge Phangan, but in a totally different way. The park has a DJ attempting to play “western” party music, games like pool volleyball, lots of drinks, and of course, huge water slides. If you want to see someone soar, send them face first down the biggest water slide you will probably ever see and hope they nail the landing. Watching other people go down the slides is just as hilarious and entertaining as doing it yourself! If you dare to take a ball down with you and make it in the basket mid-air, they’ll even give you a free drink. I had so much fun at this park and met amazing people there too! The best part is that it was free for me and my friend Harry because I met a local guy who gave me a ride on his scooter the day before (sorry for hitchhiking, mom) and he put us on the list! That saved us a ton of money and made the day even better :).

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Where is it?: Toward the center of the island but easily accessible from the pier area via taxi/songthaew

Cost: 600 baht per person (~$16 US) for the day (still worth the price)

Hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. with happy hour (100 baht drinks) from 5-7

How long to stay: I could’ve stayed here all day! We were there for three and a half hours and I definitely could’ve used an extra hour or two. Then again, I spent a significant amount of time waiting at the top of the slides trying not to chicken out…

Facebook page: Check out some of their pictures on the Slip n’ Fly Party Facebook page!

If the photos aren’t enough, you can check out my GoPro video of my month in Thailand below with even more footage! As always, thanks for reading and have fun in Koh Phangan if you go in the future (you should!).

Chiang Mai in 5 Days

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Spending this past week in Chiang Mai, Thailand, has been an absolute dream! It is everything I was hoping for and more, so I wanted to share a few of my experiences for anyone looking to visit this wonderful city in the future. Disclaimer: I have only spent 5 full days here, so I’m sure there is a TON I am missing. To find more activities and sites to see, I’d definitely check out TripAdvisor, Lonely Planet, local tourist offices, other blogs, and by asking locals what to see. I can only hope these recommendations do Chiang Mai justice!

Background on the city: Chiang Mai sits in the mountains of northern Thailand and is famous for being a religious and cultural center. Home to hundreds of temples, CM is a Buddhist-centered city with tons to offer and a rich history dating back to the 13th century. The old city or “square” of Chiang Mai is surrounded by four “walls” with moats, making it extremely easy to navigate. Most of the temples and things to do are within the square, but there is a ton to see outside of the square as well.

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Weather: The weather is almost always warm to hot, but it can get colder than the rest of Thailand during the cool season (Dec-Feb). Hot season is April-June and is considered a low tourist season because of the tropical heat and humidity (also means less crowds). Rainy season in Chiang Mai is June-November and is actually not a bad time to visit because rain usually lasts for only an hour or so and helps cool you down. This week (end of May), the weather report said to expect thunderstorms every day, but it only rained twice for about an hour each while we were there, which was a wonderful relief from the heat :). Even if there is a short, torrential downpour, you can always buy a plastic poncho from 7/11 for 30 baht (less than US $1). In my opinion, rain jackets and umbrellas are not necessary, so I’m very glad I left mine at home!

How long to stay: At minimum, I would definitely stay 6 days, but I think you can hit the major sites and activities in 7-8 days. Obviously, the longer you can stay, the better! We went at a very fast pace and squeezed in a ton in our 5 days, but it would’ve been nice to take our time. Trust me, there is no way you can do everything you’ll want to do in only a few days!

Where to stay: We booked a nicer hotel in advance a bit south of the square, which was nice to be able to head straight to after 28 hours of traveling. I am super glad we only booked the first night because we were able to find a cheaper place to stay in a better location. We stayed at the Singha Montra Lanna for the first night, which had an amazing pool, Jacuzzi tub, and huge suite, but it was definitely unnecessary and we got a way better deal elsewhere. Luckily, our friend Lexxi lives in Chiang Mai, so she and her friend took us around on their scooters to find accommodation for the rest of the week. Shout out to Lexxi for being a wonderful tour guide!

There are three basic types of accommodation in Chiang Mai: hotels, hostels, and guesthouses. I didn’t do much research, but it really wasn’t necessary because there are hundreds of awesome places to stay, many of which do not have websites and are not on Hostel World. We stayed at an amazing hostel called Give Me 5 Hostel on the north side of the old city, on one of the two main roads which stretch across the entire square. A private room with ensuite bathroom was only 800 baht/night (about $22) for the both of us, which is still a lot for Chiang Mai! The location was great (we could walk basically anywhere we wanted to go in the old city and even to the night bazaar), it was clean, and very reasonably priced. We decided on Give me 5 after looking at a few other places, so don’t settle for the first place you find! Extra tip: You can always ask to see the room before you decide to stay at a place, so make sure to take a look to see if it’s clean and has air-con (we would’ve died without it). Another tip: It is very easy to get around, so you can always switch your accommodation throughout your stay to experience different parts of the city!

What to wear: I won’t write an entire packing list here (you can read my other blog post for that if you’d like), but I wanted to make sure to emphasize a few things about packing:

  1. Do not worry if you forget anything. Literally anything you could need can be bought in Chiang Mai for much cheaper (everything from clothes, to toiletries, to sandals, to backpacks- it’s all there).
  2. Unless you are coming during the cool season, do not bring jeans or pants other than maybe one pair of leggings for travel days, which are really not even necessary because you can buy elephant pants here for USD $2-3. I cannot even fathom putting on pants other than elephant pants, even though somehow locals do (who are used to this weather). As far as makeup and good hair goes, forget it. Just accept that you don’t need to do your hair or put much makeup on- it’s not worth it with the heat and humidity. I’d bring tinted moisturizer, waterproof mascara, and maybe some hair texturizer, but generally, it doesn’t matter anyways. Au natural is the best!
  3. Bring at least one sarong/sweater/shawl/scarf for temples (or you can just buy one there), as you must cover your knees and shoulders to go inside. Elephant pants are the easiest, but I did wrap a big scarf around my legs as a skirt one day to cover my knees- up to you. Please be respectful of the culture and values of Buddhism and do not show up in a tank top and shorts at a temple. Even though there are signs everywhere, you’d be surprised by what some people show up looking like.
  4. Pack what you think you need, then cut it in half. You do not need more than a few outfits and even though I used this tactic and brought minimal clothes, I still could’ve done with less. I literally could have shown up with one outfit and bought the rest there. Trust me- you will want the extra space in your backpack for souvenirs!

 

Getting around the city:

Songthaew (song-tao) or red truck: The name songthaew literally means “two benches” after the seating in the back of the truck with room for 8. This is basically the “Uber pool” of Chiang Mai, but just a lot less safe (sorry mom) and no need for a smart phone :). Generally, a trip inside the city is about 20 baht per person, but drivers may ask for more, so make sure to negotiate a price ahead of time. Also note, drivers can pick up other passengers on the way, so it may take longer to get to your destination. I would give more information about this, but another blogger wrote a detailed article all about getting around Chiang Mai you can check out here.

 

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Tuk-tuk: These three-wheeled scooter carts with room for 3 people (2 comfortably), are also very popular in Chiang Mai, but are a bit more expensive at around 50-100 baht per ride. However, they are faster, can weave through traffic easier, and you won’t be picking up anyone else on the way. Tuk-tuks are the equivalent to UberX :).

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Scooter: Though traffic can get pretty crazy and aggressive in Chiang Mai, I’ve heard it is one of the best places to rent a scooter in Thailand. We did not rent one this week, but we rode on the back of our friends’ scooters, which worked perfectly fine for us. There are tons of places to rent bikes, most of which I saw charge about 100-130 baht/day, but I’m sure you can negotiate a good price :). If I were to rent a scooter, I would get one for the day and drive up the mountain to Doi Suthep temple or for a few days to take a trip to Pai a few hours away. If you choose to rent a scooter, make sure to always wear a helmet, be very careful, and make sure you are confident riding one before getting out on the road. Side note: In Thailand, they drive on the left side of the road, so just keep that in mind!

What to do:

See the elephants: All I will say is this is a MUST do. Seeing elephants was my absolute favorite thing we did in Chiang Mai and I highly recommend it. There are plenty of companies who take groups outside of the city to see elephants, and even some who offer longer volunteer programs. If you have your heart set on going with a particular company, you may want to reserve a spot a few weeks in advance to make sure you get in, depending on the season. We booked Dumbo Elephant Spa a few days in advance and had an amazing experience! This was mostly because we got to interact with the elephants in a close setting (feeding, mud baths, etc.) without riding them, it was cheaper than other options such as Elephant Nature Park, and we learned a ton about the elephants from the locals. To reiterate, there are a lot of companies you can book with, but please make sure to do your research and make sure the elephants are well cared for and they do not allow riding, as it is unhealthy for the elephants, especially when working long hours. I won’t preach about not riding elephants here, but a quick Google search will give you plenty of information :). Here are some photos from our experience with Dumbo Elephant Spa:

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This “mud” bath was mostly elephant poop, but it’s definitely great for some exfoliation!

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Cooking school: This is another must do in Chiang Mai! We had a wonderful experience with Asia Scenic Cooking School, which was a small class (9 of us) at a local farm, which included a tour of their garden and a trip to the market on the way to learn more about the ingredients. I definitely recommend doing a full day class at the farm (as opposed to in the city) with Asia Scenic, but again, there are several companies who run similar classes that have pamphlets at tourist offices, hotels, and hostels. Here are some photos from the 6 amazing courses we cooked:

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Temples: Chiang Mai is home to over 270 temples, all of which have something unique to see. Rather than wandering the city checking as many out as possible, I would recommend hiring a tuk-tuk driver to take you to the most significant temples and other popular sites around the city, such as the umbrella village, silk factory, other markets, etc. We paid our driver 600 baht (USD ~$17) to take us around all day, and it was well worth it! When you do visit the temples, make sure to be respectful of Buddhist customs and dress appropriately, even though it will be hot. This website has some great information about the do’s and don’ts.

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This is actually a wax statue of a monk that I was fully convinced was real:

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This was a temple made of entirely silver!

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Doi Suthep is a must-see temple at the top of the mountain. It’s a huge complex and has incredible views as well:

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Lady boy show: I don’t want to spoil anything for you, so I won’t say much about this other than you should DEFINITELY go to one :). We went to the show at the night bazaar, which started at 9:30 p.m.

Night bazaar: This is where you’ll find the best markets and live music! Make sure to go Ploen Ruedee International Food Market across the street as well :).

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Markets: There are tons of markets all around the city, where you can buy almost anything for very cheap- everything from shoes to electronics to trinkets and clothes. Many shops sell similar products, so definitely barter to get a better price. A good rule of thumb is to offer half of what the vendor is asking for, then meet somewhere in the middle. Have fun!

River cruise: One way to see another side of the city is to go on a river cruise on the Ping River. We did a dinner cruise through Riverside Bar & Restaurant for 150 baht (USD ~$4) and ate as we watched the sunset. There are several companies who run these boat rides, so I’d compare them online or at a tourist office if you’d like to go.

Massages: You will never find a massage this cheap in your home country! USD $5 will get you an hour long Thai massage at any of the hundreds of massage parlors which seem to be on every corner in Chiang Mai. Be prepared for a little pain and lots of stretching, but it feels amazing!

Night life: Chiang Mai has plenty of cool bars and restaurant, but does not have a big clubbing scene like some other big cities. Going out typically involves beer with ice (avoid Chang and go for a Leo or Singha instead) and live music, so definitely be sure to check them out.

Fish “massage”: This is one of the most disturbing and hilarious experiences ever. You can pay a small fee to dip your feet in a fish tank full of sucker fish to clean the dead skin bacteria/dirt/gross stuff off of your feet and legs. I was laughing so hard and squirming the entire time that I could hardly enjoy it, but it was definitely an experience. The night bazaar is a great place to do this, especially after a long day of walking around.

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Day trips: Doi Inthanon and Pai (try to stay overnight if you can) are great trips to take out of Chiang Mai. Unfortunately, we did not have time, but if and when I come back, I will definitely go to both of these places!

Ethical considerations:

  • When many people think of Thailand or Chiang Mai, they imagine getting close to a tiger like they see in many tourists’ pictures. I strongly urge you to think critically about whether you’d like to visit Tiger Kingdom, a popular activity in Chiang Mai. Just know that these tigers are drugged/sedated and it is not natural for humans to interact with these wild animals in such close quarters. Even if employees tell you the tigers are not drugged, just know that they are, and in my opinion, this industry should not be supported. If you do choose to go to Tiger Kingdom, make sure to educate yourself on the facts beforehand.
  • Another popular “site” to see is the Karen long neck village near Chiang Mai, which you may have seen pictures of online or in magazines like National Geographic. Karen women wear traditional brass rings around their necks, smashing their shoulders and rib cages down to make their necks seem longer for both beauty and tradition. Although the long neck women are famous and fascinating, I also urge you to consider whether you’d like to visit what can be considered a “human zoo”. I did not personally visit the Karen long neck village because I didn’t want to gawk and take photos of people who could be exploited for their traditions and culture for tourists. If you do choose to go, I’d encourage you to buy the goods they are selling, interact with the locals, and learn more about their culture, rather than just walk through and take photos. Whatever activities you choose to do in Chiang Mai, just make sure to do your research!

 

Other helpful tips:

  • 7/11: Normally an overlooked convenience store in the states, 7/11 is a godsend in Chiang Mai. After about a day, I realized how amazing the A/C is inside and how you can get pretty much anything you need there. If you go to CM, you will definitely find yourself going inside more 7/11s than you’d ever imagine, especially since there is basically one on every corner!
  • Screen shots: Make sure to screen shot a pin of your hotel/hostel/guesthouse to your phone to show to a tuk-tuk or songthaew driver, as many of them speak very little English and it is easy to point out on a map. Also, find a common landmark nearby because they will most likely be more familiar with the landmark, such as a temple, rather than a location on a map.

Travel Apps:

  • Maps.me: I highly recommend downloading maps.me offline map and downloading each city you are in when you get Wifi. There is literally no need for a physical map anymore with this awesome app! It’s basically Google Maps without using data, so it is very helpful for navigating around anywhere you don’t have cell service/Wifi/data.
  • Currency app: This is extremely helpful for when you want to check how much something costs in your own currency. It automatically converts any amount in any currency you choose!
  • Rome2Rio: This free app lets you type in any destination and it tells you your different options to get from A to B. For example, if I type in the CNX airport and our hostel, it tells me four different ways I can get there with all of the pricing. It also works for longer distances, too! I typed in Krabi to Koh Samui, and it showed me that I can either fly, take a combination of bus/ferry/taxi, or take a train/ferry, etc.

Wow, that was a TON of information! I would love to talk more about Chiang Mai if you’ve been, have anything to add, or if you’re looking to visit in the future. Again, I know I missed a ton of stuff, so make sure to do some additional research if you go :). Thanks for reading! We are off to Bangkok, Phuket and the islands!

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A Guide to Maui

After visiting Maui more times than I can count and exploring just about all that this piece of paradise has to offer, I could argue with anyone that Maui is the best Hawaiian island. If you’re planning to visit or just want to learn more about the turtle-shaped island, check out this guide to Maui!

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I spent this last week in Maui with my friend Lauren, who graciously took me as her plus one to a work-sponsored trip she won through a sales contest for being in the top 5% of sales reps in the company (way to go, Lauren!). Shout out to Indeed.com for an incredible week at the Andaz Resort we will never forget! Though I was inspired to write this guide from this trip, my love for Maui began when I first started visiting with my grandparents growing up. Throughout the week, I was reminded of the years of memories I have with them here and how lucky I am to have such incredible, adventurous grandparents who can keep up with five crazy grandchildren! (G&G, I know you’re reading this, so THANK YOU for opening my eyes to Hawai’i at such a young age and exposing me to all that Maui has to offer on every trip we’ve taken. I love you!)

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This must be where I get it from (my grandma):

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Maui has so much to offer, it cannot be possibly explained all at once, so I have broken it up into different areas with photos from this trip as well as others from my professional camera Google images :).

The airport (and only Costco) is located in Kahului, which is at the “neck” of the turtle-shaped island. Most tourists stay on the west side of the island in Ka’anapali, or on the south side in Wailea. Both areas have a totally different feel and have lots to offer.

Wailea is home to some of the most upscale resorts on the island, which have all the amenities you could ever need on a vacation. I’m sure some people don’t even leave their resort! The Grand Wailea is perhaps the most famous of the hotels on Maui, and is a lavish, over-the-town to stay here, and if you ever get a chance to stay at the Grand Wailea, be prepared to spend a pretty penny, but also have an incredible vacation! There is an ocean front path connecting all of the resorts in Wailea, which is popular for runners and those just looking for a relaxing walk. Just a few resorts up the road is the Andaz Maui, where we stayed this week. Here are a few pictures from this picturesque hotel:

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Kihei is another great spot on the south side, where many locals and people trying to avoid resorts go. There are spots for beginner surf lessons, plenty of local restaurants, and public beaches many of the locals go to. Kihei is more commercialized than some of the resort areas, but it’s also much less expensive (I paid $5 for a Bloody Mary at a restaurant in Kihei that would’ve cost me $17 at our hotel). Here is a picture from “The Cove”, the beginner’s surf spot we went to this trip:

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Ma’alea Harbor is where many of the snorkel tours and sunset cruises begin and is home to the famous Maui Ocean Center. Though it is a pretty central spot on the island, I’d only really recommend heading there for a snorkel tour to Molokini Crater:

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Lahaina is a famous harbor with lots of history, a giant Banyan tree, gourmet restaurants, shops, and even a movie theater. If you’re staying in Ka’anapali, this is the place you’ll most likely go to dinner and go shopping. I’ve done everything from mini golf, to getting a toe ring, to shopping at the Lahaina Cannery Mall, but there’s always more to check out in Lahaina. Kimo’s, Leilani’s on the Beach, Lahaina Fish Co., and the Aloha Mixed Plate are some of my favorite restaurants in Lahaina.

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Ka’anapali is a long strip of picturesque beach scattered with five-star resorts and time shares. There are tons of restaurants, shops at the Whaler’s Village, water activities, and awesome hotel pools with water slides and swim up bars. I grew up going to the Maui Ocean Club by Marriott, which I highly recommend, but all of the hotels in Ka’anapali are fantastic and are frequent wedding destinations. If you’re looking for fun activities, you can go jet skiing, parasailing, snorkeling, cliff jumping, surfing, boogie boarding, banana boating/tubing, and much more, all on one fantastic beach. Even if you aren’t staying in Ka’anapali, it is definitely worth checking out for a day!

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Napili is a few miles north of Ka’anapali, and is one of my favorite spots on Maui. I’ve stayed at Napili Point condos several times growing up, which is a great alternative if you are looking to get away from resorts and to truly unwind. Turtle Bay, directly in front of Napili Point, is perfect for snorkeling, and there are plenty of less-frequented beaches in the area, as well as a small gazebo restaurant on the beach with the best macadamia nut pancakes you will ever have!

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The Road to Hana is one of the most famous drives in all of Hawai’i and is one of the best experiences you’ll have on Maui. The 64 mile long road is extremely narrow and windy, but leads to the Seven Pools, the iconic swim spot at ‘Ohe’o Gulch that you cannot miss. There is also a black sand beach on the way, and what seems like a never ending rainforest with all kinds of plants and wildlife. Whether you’re looking for a gorgeous road trip, amazing photo spots, swimming, cave exploring or checking out old churches, the Road to Hana has it all. If you can’t stay overnight, this is definitely an all day trip, and I recommend leaving as early as possible, preferably by 8:00 a.m., to avoid being out there in the dark (which has happened to me before!). Take a picnic lunch and enjoy the amazing east side of Maui! This website lists some of the top stops on the Road to Hana, so definitely check it out if you go :).

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Upcountry is an often forgotten, but amazing part of the island that I cannot leave out. Most tourists don’t get a chance to explore upcountry, but there are so many great places to check out! Luckily, I have a friend, Ella, who is from Makawao, and when I visited a few years ago, took me out to some local spots I would’ve never found on my own. Check it out if you can!

Here are a few recommended beaches on Maui:

  • Makena Beach (Big Beach)
  • Ka’anapali Beach
  • Honolua Bay
  • Olowalu Beach
  • Kapalua Bay (my personal favorite for a relaxing day)

Photo from a trip with my grandparents in 2010:

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There are tons more; these are just a few!

Other activities on Maui:

Zip Lining– Skyline Eco Adventures: there is a regular tour and a zip n’ dip, which we did this trip (pictures below) and was fantastic! They have awesome guides and it’s very easy to sign up with them (here is their website). You can also go ATV riding here, which looked super fun! Crucial tip if you decide to go: you will get VERY dirty, so make sure to wear old shoes, preferably not white, and clothes you don’t care too much about because the red dirt gets everywhere! Also, if you do the zip n’ dip tour and decide to attempt a flip off the dock, make sure not to do a back flop (me: not pictured) :).

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Bike down Haleakala at sunrise: this 23 mile road is probably the best bike ride you will ever take! I did this once with my grandparents and it was unforgettable. Here are the websites for two popular companies: Bike Maui and  Adventure Maui.

Golfing in Kapalua: I don’t personally golf, but if you do and are looking for a great spot, Kapalua is one of the best!

Snorkel tour to Molokini or Lana’i: I have done several tours to both of these spots and a few others, and it is an absolute must in Maui! I recommend taking a morning tour if you can because the water can get choppy in the afternoon. Several companies run tours, like Four Winds and Pride of Maui, but your hotel concierge can also recommend some good ones and maybe even get you a deal. Here are some pictures from the Four Winds trip we did this trip:

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Fancy dinner: The Plantation House at the Kapalua Resort is one you can’t miss if you’re looking for a romantic and/or splurge dinner. Make a reservation for sunset and you will not regret it!

Luau: You can’t go to Hawaii and not go to a luau! The Grand Wailea Luau is a splurge, but was so worth it on this trip (pictures below). There are several other great ones, like the Old Lahaina Luau, so be sure to do some research and make a reservation in advance through your concierge. Typically, they roast pigs on site, have fire dancers, hula performances, share a bit about Maui’s history, and much more. Here is the unveiling of the pig from this trip:

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Helicopter Tour: there are many companies out there that do awesome tours around the island. This is definitely a big splurge activity, but is worth doing once in your life!

Hike the Iao Needle: Located in central Maui, the Iao Needle is a 1,200 foot landmark surrounded by lush rainforest. Leave early in the morning to avoid the fog and see amazing views of the island!

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And last, but not least… you MUST get famous Maui shave ice! Available pretty much everywhere on the island, this refreshing treat will make your day :). (Just don’t dump it upside down like I did the first time I had it!)

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If Maui isn’t already on your bucket list, add it now! I promise you won’t regret it :). Aloha!

Did I miss anything?! Let me know if you have anything to add in the comments section!

Hamilton Pool: Austin’s Not-so-Hidden Gem

 

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When most people think of Texas, they think of cowboy hats, southern hospitality, BBQ, dry desert land, and football. If you’re lucky enough to visit Austin, Texas, you’ll be amazed at all that it has to offer, like swim spots, incredible food, a huge music scene, and tons of fun activities. One of my favorite places was Hamilton Pool, a collapsed grotto with a waterfall 30 minutes outside of the city. Here are a few photos from this surprising oasis in Travis County:

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In addition to the beautiful swimming hole and waterfall, there are some great hikes in the park. Based on the looks of it, you’d never guess that this lush, fairytale-like area is in the middle of Texas:

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If you’re thinking of visiting, here is some additional information about Hamilton Pool:

  • Entrance fee: $15 per car to park
  • As of May 15, 2016, online reservations will be required for an additional $10. Luckily, I just missed this date and walked right in! During high season, the pool can get extremely crowded, so it makes sense to limit the number of people admitted at one time.
  • Make sure to get there early! By some miracle, the pool was almost completely empty when we went (around 11:30 a.m.), and it was absolute bliss. From what I’ve read online and what others have told me, Hamilton Pool gets super crowded in the afternoons in the summer. In my opinion, early May is the perfect time to go, because it’s right before swim season and the weather is still beautiful :).
  • The park rangers test the water in the pool for bacteria levels each day to see if it is safe for swimming. If you have your heart set on swimming, make sure to call or check their website to see if swimming is permitted. When I checked before we went, it said swimming was not allowed that day, but when we got there, the ranger said we could go in- another miracle! Either way, it is definitely worth checking out.
  • Make sure to hike the river trail as well! It is in the opposite direction of the pool and follows a gorgeous river through tons of trees and wildlife. We saw everything from fish to butterflies to dragonflies! Here are a few pictures from the river trail:
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If you’re looking for more swim spots in the Austin area, I would also recommend heading to Barton Springs, which is very close to downtown. The entrance fee is $7 per person, but you can also go to the “free side”, which has more rocks and lots of dogs (not permitted on the other side), but is still awesome! Jacob’s Well is another spot about 30 minutes past Hamilton Pool, which is cool to see, but in my opinion, not worth the long drive. The well is over 300 feet deep and supposedly is a great spot for experienced scuba divers, but the water is not as clean as Barton Springs or Hamilton Pool and there isn’t much else to see in the area. Do you know of any other swim spots in the area? I’d love to hear about them in the comments section!

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Unrelated to swim spots: if you’re looking for a place to stay in Austin, I HIGHLY recommend HK Austin. This hostel is about $34/night, walking distance from tons of activities, a great way to meet new people, and the manager, Alejandro, is really cool and helpful. I had an amazing experience in Austin and a lot of that was thanks to the people I met at HK Austin. If you’re visiting for the first time or traveling solo, let me know and I’d be happy to give you recommendations for bars, breweries, food trucks, activities, and sights to see :). Thanks for reading!

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How I Used Travel Hacks to Save Over $1,000

“How do you afford to travel so much?!”: a question I am asked more often than I’m asked what I’m doing with my life (that’s for another conversation :)). Instead of a potentially sassy sarcastic comment, I thought I’d respond with some tips for how to save money when planning to travel, whether you’re planning a weekend vacation or a big international trip. There are tons of travel hacks out there, but here are just a few I’ve used recently:

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1. Take advantage of travel credit cards:
Credit cards can offer amazing benefits, especially when it comes to traveling. Many credit card companies offer promotions if you open up a new account, which have unbeatable perks. After plenty of research on the best travel credit cards, I recently opened a Chase Sapphire Preferred card to get 50,000 bonus points to use for my upcoming trip to Southeast Asia. These bonus points were worth $600 and paid for my flight to Thailand in full, with still plenty to spare! (Finding cheap flights is an entirely different topic :)) Disclaimer: there are spending minimums to get these bonus points, and if you’re worried about not spending enough within the allotted time, there are also ways of hacking that (I’m happy to share if you ask me). If you’re interested in applying for the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card or want to know more about it, let me know and I can send you a referral email! There are plenty of other travel credit cards out there, so just make sure to do your research before deciding and be smart about paying off your balance to avoid accruing interest.

2. Book through Chase Ultimate Rewards:
If you have a Chase Sapphire Preferred card, you have access to Chase Ultimate Rewards, which is a convenient way to book flights, hotels, cars, and activities at a 20% discount. You can also redeem your Chase points directly through Ultimate Rewards, making your points go even further! For example, if a hotel is $100/night on another website, you can book that same room through Ultimate Rewards for $80 or 8,000 points/night either with your card or with points. This is how I booked my flight to Thailand and how I will book hotels and hostels while I’m in SE Asia- super easy and saves you even more money! Many people who already have Chase accounts don’t know about this feature or how it works, so I wanted to be sure to include it.

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3. Don’t pay foreign transaction fees or ATM fees:
Many travel credit cards do not charge you foreign transaction fees, but paying countless ATM fees while traveling abroad is inevitable… or is it? I wish I knew this hack before traveling through Europe the past two summers! This one is a little more complicated, but stick with me. Charles Schwab Bank not only allows you to use any ATM in the world for free, but they also reimburse you for fees charged at any ATM. The way you can take advantage of this awesome program is by applying for a high-yield investor account through Schwab, which comes automatically with a checking account. There are no service fees, minimums, or restrictions on the checking account (you do not have to actually use the investor account if you don’t want to). Once you set up the account, you can order a debit card, and voila! You can use that card at any ATM in the WORLD and get reimbursed for every ATM fee. I’ve already tested it and can’t wait to use it in Asia! Bonus: the checking account also serves as a great virtual “piggy bank” to put away money for future travels.

Here is a link with some FAQs about this type of account.

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4. Subscribe to email newsletters:
This may sound like an email clog, but it is totally worth it! You can even set up an email specifically for these types of newsletters to make sure your important messages don’t get lost. There are a ton out there, but I recommend subscribing to newsletters for major airlines, websites like TravelPirates, Expedia, SkyScanner, SecretFlying, and The Points Guy. I recently got a GREAT deal on my flight to Austin on a JetBlue flash sale (saved me over $150 from original fare), which I found out about through their email newsletter. I also recently saw an error fare for roundtrip flights from LAX/SFO to New Zealand on Qantas for $220! No joke! These flash sales/error fares don’t last long, so it’s important to be the first to know about them.

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5. Be loyal to a few major airlines:
If you travel often, always try to fly on the same few airlines. Through traveling for work for the past two years, I was able to land lots of free flights through Southwest Airlines because of the points I earned. In my opinion, Southwest has the best rewards program without needing a credit card, so I try to stick with them. If you’re really loyal to one airline, think about getting their credit card to earn even more bonus miles/points. I personally do not have one because I can transfer points on my Chase Sapphire Preferred card directly to Southwest points at a 1:1 ratio, but I have heard positive reviews for several airline credit cards. I also fly frequently with American Airlines, and am planning on using those points to book my flight home from Asia. Step one: set up a frequent flyer account with all major airlines and write down your FF number to use when booking flights!

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6. Use your spare time to earn free frequent flyer miles:
This one is newer for me, but I have recently started using E-rewards.com to fill out marketing/research surveys to earn extra Southwest points. Here’s how it works:

  • Set up an account
  • Receive emails when new surveys are available
  • Fill out surveys to earn money in your E-rewards account
  • Redeem E-rewards money for Southwest points

Surveys vary widely by topic, but can include questions about your eating/drinking habits, opinions about restaurants or cars, etc. Some are short, some are longer, some pay a dollar, some pay more- it all depends. What I like about it is it gives me something to do if I ever have a free couple of minutes, and I can choose when and how often I fill out surveys. If you want to set up an account to earn Southwest points, you can use this
link.

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7. Apply for TSA Pre-Check:
This one doesn’t save you money while traveling, but it certainly saves you time! I highly recommend applying for TSA Pre-Check for domestic travel and Global Entry for frequent international travel. Pre-Check allows you to cut the security line and walk right through without removing your shoes, laptop, or liquids. I cannot tell you how many times this has saved me from missing a flight!

Click on this link for more information about TSA Pre-Check.

Click on this link for more information about Global Entry.

Though it requires an in-person interview and a fee of $80, TSA Pre-Check is well worth the investment (shout out to my previous job for paying for mine!) and membership lasts five years.

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Now you just have to pick a spot- the globe is yours! I know there are plenty of other travel hacks out there, and these were just a few. If you think of any I missed, feel free to comment or message me and let me know :). Happy travels!