Solo Travel Slump…

So it’s been eleven days since my sister left Kuala Lumpur and I became a solo traveler – and even longer since my last post here. The “blogger’s block” is probably due to a combination of reasons, but for the most part I’ll admit that I’ve been in a bit of a travel slump. The transition to solo travel hasn’t been as easy as I might have expected. While I have plenty to write about Malaysia specifically, I’ll leave that for later (I still haven’t seen Penang! And I’m taking a break in Thailand…) and talk about a few things I’ve learned about solo travel over the past week and a half.

This isn’t my first time traveling alone, but in the past I’ve traveled to very solo-friendly settings – busy hostels in European cities, a 5-day dive course on a popular Thai island, a beach in Rio where I had ten days to kill without going anywhere. I’ve come to realize traveling alone is not the same everywhere, and as much as I’ve told people “when you travel solo you’re never really alone!” – sometimes, you have to be ready for alone to mean alone.

Your destination matters. In most big cities or “backpacker hubs” (like Pai, Thailand) you’d be hard pressed not to find at least a handful of solo travelers. Then there are places that are rarely visited by anyone or only used as transit points where you’ll mostly find locals, which can be an adventure. And finally, there are places teeming with foreigners, but they all seem to be couples or families (like most quiet/romantic islands and, apparently, much of Malaysia).

Your accommodation matters. I can’t stress this enough. Unfortunately, I’m not completely sure how to avoid making the mistakes I have in the past couple of weeks, since traveling spontaneously in high season makes it difficult to research and book the right places in advance. In the Cameron Highlands, I stayed at an inn that kind of depressed me due to the strange and somewhat hostile staff and the general vibe of the place. While I did meet some people in the end (who spent several hours discussing how strange the place was), I might have had a better impression of the destination if I’d stayed in a friendlier place. Here on Koh Lipe, I spent the first three nights in a perfectly fine but quiet and up-market resort (less popular due to ongoing construction), that while comfortable made me feel pretty isolated. This was mainly because I was trying to find a place while carrying my pack around and being tempted to stop at one of the first that didn’t have anything wrong with it. This is hard to avoid if you don’t have a place booked in advance (and that’s not always feasible or preferable either).

The activities available at your destination matter. In the Cameron Highlands, the most popular things to do include visiting tea plantations and strawberry farms (only accessible by taxi, day tour or ridiculously long walks) or taking jungle treks by following sometimes unmarked paths (not recommended without a buddy). Activities for solo travelers include sitting at Starbucks (because yes, they have one in Tanah Rata, Malaysia) and reading for three hours while it rains. No, really – someone else I met later had done the same exact thing.

Snorkeling trips to romantic beaches aren’t a great way to meet independent/single travelers. Believe me, I’ve done this alone twice. The first time was four years ago on Phi Phi and I don’t remember much, other than the good snorkeling and the crappy company. The second was yesterday, and my snorkel buddies were two couples, Malaysian and Finnish. The Finns were on their honeymoon. They were nice and talking to them was fun. Watching them take photos of each other on the beach for half an hour was less so.

Don’t be afraid to dump your buddy. Sometimes when it’s hard to meet people, I find myself latching on to the first solo traveler I meet and sticking with them for longer than necessary. But while the first few hours after meeting someone can be something of a “honeymoon phase,” at some point when you’ve spent 50+ hours with someone you’ve just met you start to realize that not everyone is destined to be your best friend.

For two ridiculously long periods of transit (Cameron Highlands > Pangkor and Pangkor > Koh Lipe), I paired up with different guys who happened to be going in the same direction.  While it was nice to have company (though I’m not sure whether the trips would have been more or less stressful without them) and we did have some very interesting conversations, I left my first buddy in Pangkor without telling him I was leaving, and the second one I haven’t seen since a very stupid disagreement* ended our first evening here on Koh Lipe. In the couple of days that followed, when I failed to really meet anyone new, I sometimes felt bad about cutting ties without getting any contact info – but then I’d remember the feeling of being trapped in their company and realize that the whole point of traveling solo is that you get to choose who you spend your time with.

A good book can be your best friend. In the past eleven days, I’ve finished three books. I’m not sure when I could last say that! In particular, the past two days alone on Koh Lipe have been the perfect time to finally get caught up in The Hunger Games series (debating whether to buy the third book on Kindle… or wait two days to borrow it for free!)

You won’t be alone forever. Or even for two days. While the chill-out beach bars on Koh Lipe aren’t the most conducive to meeting people, all it took was a “Hey, are you on your own too?” last night to meet a cool German girl (who is island-hopping by herself for two weeks!) and later hang out with her and a Russian couple at a completely hidden away reggae bar in the jungle I probably wouldn’t have visited alone.

So, things are looking up! Also, I’m here:

*The disagreement was regarding the etiquette (specifically in Thailand) of putting one’s feet on the table. I told you, it was dumb. And after two Thai buckets, I’m surprised I even remember it.

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Siem Reap Surprises!

I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting from Cambodia. Some of the things fellow travelers shared in years past included:

  • the country is so impoverished it’s upsetting to see
  • it’s easy to get sick from the food
  • overland road journeys are treacherous
  • the two main attractions in the capital city deal with genocide
  • the people are incredibly friendly

This all painted a picture of an interesting but somewhat difficult place to visit, aside from the Angkor temples everyone raves about.

Whether the country has made significant progress in the past couple of years or I’ve just experienced it differently, in the week we’ve been here I’ve been pleasantly surprised over and over. Here are some things I never expected from Cambodia:

1. There’s more to Siem Reap than Angkor. In fact, over the first few days I spent more time riding through the absolutely stunning countryside… 

Sometimes by ox cart...

visiting a waterfall… 

Well, a temple-waterfall. @Kbal Spean.

and exploring a floating village on the flooded Tonle Sap

Kompong Phlok village

…than I did seeing temples, even though I did make stops at the smaller ones in those areas.

@Banteay Srei

 

2. Cambodia’s biggest industry is tourism, and it shows… in a good way! A lot of effort has been invested in making Siem Reap convenient and comfortable for all its visitors. The airport is a spotless model of efficiency. The road from the airport is lined with huge luxury hotels, reminiscent of a quieter Vegas strip. Hostels like the one we stayed at cater well to the backpacker crowd. Pharmacies and convenience stores stock things like dental floss and Reese’s bars – neither of which can be found in many other Asian towns. And I don’t think there’s anywhere easier to get a $2 ride home than Pub Street in Siem Reap – you just have to turn down the tuk-tuk offers until it’s time to go!

These amenities cater not only to tourists but to Siem Reap’s growing expat community. Tons of Australian, British, American, European and other expats come to Cambodia for long stints of volunteering or working at one of the countless local NGOs, or simply to live here after falling in love with the country. Many of the people I met in the yoga class offered at our hostel, as well as at the local art expo, were living in Siem Reap rather than passing through.

3. Everything is in dollars. I’d heard that US dollars were accepted in Cambodia, but I didn’t realize that the prices in almost every restaurant, guesthouse and other business would be quoted in dollars, and that Cambodian ATMs would actually dispense American currency! The only thing Cambodian riel are used for, in general, is to give change that’s under a dollar since US coins aren’t used. 1000 riel = 25 cents.

Can you even get a small coffee at Starbucks for $1.25?

Some of the riel we got before realizing we didn't need them.

 

4. Khmer food isn’t spicy. I expected Khmer cuisine to be closer to Thai or Lao in this regard, but in general, most of the food has all the flavor but less of the spice. Many of the popular dishes are coconut-based, and if there is any spice, black pepper is used more often than chilies. Side note: crickets and red ants are decent snacks! Crunchy when fried. But I wasn’t brave enough to try cockroach or tarantula…

Amok with chicken - tons of flavor but no spice!

5. The people are friendly, fun-loving and resilient. I’d heard over and over that in Cambodia, “the people are so friendly.” But it wasn’t until I got here that I understood. It seems like the default facial expression here is a smile. Even in the poorest villages, people can be seen taking time out to have fun – kids jumping rope or playing volleyball, everyone lounging in hammocks (which are surprisingly ubiquitous here, unlike in most of the neighboring countries), everyone laughing, and most of them eager to greet random foreigners passing by. In the floating village of Kompong Phluk, where boats of tourists pass through several times a day, we received such enthusiastic hellos from the kids you would think they either had never seen visitors or were trying to sell us something – neither of which was the case. Many Cambodians – tuk tuk drivers, guesthouse staff, young people – speak passable English, far more than in other countries we’ve visited. It’s hard to believe considering everything Cambodia has been through in recent decades, but even regardless of those events, the people seem incredibly resilient – not letting challenges (like the flood waters that recently inundated Siem Reap) get in the way of their positive outlook.

Boat races for the water festival, Kompong Phluk.

My guide, Bantha, posing for one of his "funny" pictures.

Band of landmine victims, performing at one of the temples.

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Vietnam: Hello, bye!

“Hello.. bye!” A woman on a street corner called out to my mom and me as we passed her on a walk through the streets of Hanoi. Using the two words of English she knew, she politely greeted us and made us feel a little more welcome in the chaotic urban jungle.

It’s hard to believe I’ve left Vietnam already, after barely nine days there. But while I’m happy to have visited, and know I only saw the tiniest slice of the country, I can’t say I’m completely torn up about leaving. I heard mixed things from many people who have been to Vietnam, and my own experience was just that, mixed, full of highs and lows. After nine days, I’m no expert on Vietnamese culture, Vietnam, or even Hanoi, the city where I spent most of my time. All I can offer are my limited impressions of the country, both positive and negative.

Exploring the city. Vietnam certainly was a refreshing contrast to Laos. It was clear from the beginning that it offered a very different culture that was easy to immerse ourselves in from the start. One of the things that struck me first (even on the ride from the airport) was the architecture, influenced by the French colonial style but also by Vietnamese property taxes that are based only on the width of the house – leading to tall, narrow, long houses, many of which are brightly painted.

In Hanoi, it’s all too easy to lose yourself in the bustling streets of the old quarter.

Each street is devoted to a different trade, so you come across rows of stores dedicated to everything from bamboo building materials…

to meat grinders…

to funeral accoutrements…

 

Even in the most touristed areas, the huge city is teeming with smells, sights and sounds that are uniquely Vietnamese. The night market, which in places like Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang is specifically geared for visitors, caters only to locals in Hanoi – selling mainly knockoff perfumes, clothing and cell phone cases.

While I found Hanoi to be very disorienting (even on the last day, I didn’t know I was within a block of my hostel until I saw the neon sign telling me so), it helps that the street names are everywhere, not only on signs at every intersection but on shops – every awning is labeled with the number and street name. Of course, that name does change every block or two…

 Crossing the street. Between my sister and me, we have been through cities notorious for their traffic, including Beijing, Moscow, Rio de Janeiro, and Bangkok. But neither of us had ever seen anything like the onslaught of motorbikes and disregard for any semblance of traffic rules that exists in Hanoi. In much of the old quarter, it’s not even about crossing the streets – just walking along them is a struggle, since the motorbikes are as likely to be parked or driving on the sidewalks as in the street.

It takes a certain art to cross the street, so my mom decided to learn from the experts…

 Being too sick to go to Sa Pa. I was looking forward to spending two days in Sa Pa as soon as we arrived in Vietnam, but unfortunately I got so sick the night before we were scheduled to leave that I cancelled the trip in case I wasn’t completely better for the overnight train ride and trekking. Anyway, Alona made it there and returned laden with brightly colored bracelets, embroidered bags, scenic photos and tales of muddy treks and “homestays” that were really guesthouses. It’s too bad I missed out, but I guess every full time wanderer needs a break now and then…

 Vietnam museum of ethnology. Staying in Hanoi afforded me a couple of extra days to explore the city, and I’m glad I had the chance to get out to this museum a few miles from the city center. I got to see model homes (in an outdoor exhibition) and artifacts from the same minority groups Alona was visiting in Sa Pa, and many more.

 Other highlights of the museum were the many temporary exhibits showcasing modern Vietnamese culture, including the way “recycler” women live and work, the Vietnamese hiphop/breakdancing scene and the AIDS epidemic.

The food. It feels like a crime to denounce an entire culture’s cuisine, and I’ll start by saying I definitely didn’t explore Vietnamese food too extensively, mainly because I was hardly eating anything for half my stay due to being sick. But there’s one aspect of it… I got sick in Vietnam, possibly from the street food we ate the first night, and I didn’t completely recover for several days. It’s unfortunate that I became so wary of the street food, since that meal was one of the better tasting ones we had; but I heard from a few different locals and expats that there have indeed been cases of food poisoning from street food in Hanoi.

Anyway, the fact is that while we ate in a few pretty good places, most of the food was just ok compared to the very tasty flavors in the Thai and Lao food we sampled. As someone who tries to avoid pork and shellfish, having those be the mainstays in every dish is a little frustrating. And I’m sorry, but try as I might, I just can’t get excited about pho (rice noodle soup).

Ginger tea and pho ga (when sick!) I’ll clarify – I can’t get *excited* about pho or consider it a go-to meal when I’m very hungry. But when I was eating like a sick person and wary about spices, oils, dairy products, etc. – pho with chicken proved to be relatively safe and satisfying option. The other perfect thing was ginger tea, and I was happy to find it on most menus. The only thing is that it varies from *amazing*  (tea completely infused with sweet-spicy ground ginger) to just ok (water with some sliced ginger that takes a while to steep) and you never know what you’re going to get. But ginger is ginger, and in general, I’m addicted.

XQ embroidery. I first saw a gallery of this work at the museum of ethnology, and it blew me away when I realized what I thought were painting were actually embroidered! After that I started seeing embroidery work everywhere, in all the big souvenir shops, but none of it came close to the XQ style. I later found their gallery in Hanoi, on Hang Gai street, and exploring it was almost like visiting a museum. Some of the craftswomen were even doing their work on the spot! I would love to visit their main “creative space” in Dalat someday.

Ha Long Bay (itself). Don’t get me wrong, Ha Long Bay is beautiful. But the main part of the bay, where our tour cruised the first and last days, wasn’t that impressive for a few reasons. It was mostly hazy/overcast – unclear whether that was just the weather, or affected by the smog from Hanoi. As a result, the karst scenery wasn’t as spectacular. It was crowded – when we laid anchor for the night, it looked like we were part of a huge city of boats.

Worst of all – it was dirty. And when we went kayaking to the “floating village” around the corner, we understood why – people live on the water! Many of them. Doing the things people do, which includes producing garbage – some of which unsurprisingly ends up in the water. So while it’s understandable, it’s still a shame that what’s up for nomination as a Wonder of the World is being treated as both an amusement park and a dump. I found Ang Thong National Park in southern Thailand to be a lot more beautiful, even if it’s on a smaller scale. The water was cleaner and there was a lot more life in it (you can go snorkeling!)

Lan Ha Bay/Cat Ba Island. I’m glad we opted to do a three day, two night trip, since we made it out to Lan Ha bay, visited Cat Ba and stayed on a tiny island called Nam Cat, at these bungalows. The water there was cleaner, the air clearer, and kayaking to nearby beaches and around some of the karst formations was really nice.

 

Scams/unpleasant people. We heeded the warnings and opted for a private transfer from the airport, so we avoided being scammed right off the bat, but over the course of the week I saw some pretty disheartening things, including:

  • Vendors trying to give or take the wrong change (by a factor of 10), taking advantage of tourists unfamiliar with the local currency.
  • Taxis with fake meters, that start at the going rate, then suddenly skyrocket ($12 for a five minute ride, when it should be $1). We got caught in one of these, gave him a bill worth $2 and jumped out.
  • Amputees that beg for change, then specifically ask for Euros instead of Vietnamese money.

This sort of behavior probably isn’t unique to Vietnam, but I hadn’t encountered it to this degree anywhere before. Not being able to trust taxis (aside from two major companies that weren’t always available) was the most frustrating part, since at some point I’d get tired of braving the hectic streets and just want to jump in a cab. You’d think you could hire someone to get you from point A to point B without worrying about a scam.

Amazing/helpful people. Aside from a few unpleasant encounters, most of the local people we dealt with were overwhelmingly nice and helpful. Some examples:

  • Candy and Mike, owners of Hanoi Hostel where we stayed for most of our trip. I can’t overstate how incredibly helpful they were from the second we got there until (and even after) we left. They did everything from getting us in touch with our parents to giving me extra medicine when I was sick to helping me with the logistics of getting my camera out of the Hanoi post office (still in progress… now that I’m in Cambodia…)
  • When I took a public bus to get out to the museum of ethnology, and the bus driver told me to get off the bus early, the guy who happened to get off at the same stop happened to have great English, told me I was in the wrong place, and negotiated a reasonable moto-taxi fare so I could go directly to the museum.
  • The many Vietnamese students (mostly from outside of Hanoi) that asked me to pose with them for pictures, as well as the pair that followed me around the museum for half an hour to practice their English, were pretty adorable.

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Trekking and tubing

So, we booked a two-day trek with Fair Treks/Tiger Trails, an organization that supports the local community through ecotourism in Laos. We were a little wary of the “5-7 hours” of trekking the first day after the strenuous jungle hikes at the Gibbon Experience. But the trek turned out to be a pleasant mix of strolling along green rice paddies, walking through teak orchards and forests, with just a bit of scrambling over rocks near the karst cliffs to make us sweat a little.

Our guide was Phut, who grew up in Luang Prabang but is originally Khmu, the ethnicity of the people in the village visited. He had very good English and could tell us about the different crops and cultures we encountered. Another guide-in-training, Wade, came along, but he didn’t speak to us much.

Phut

Our six hours of trekking took us through a Khmu village, near a Hmong village to stop for lunch (where we bought bracelets from the local women and witnessed a minor bullfight) and over some hills where we passed more Hmong homes and saw men working in the fields at the hottest hour of the day.

Khmu kids greet us at the first village

Satellite dishes, essential for Thai TV viewing!

Hmong woman selling crafts

We met some friends along the way.

We had brought books we purchased in Luang Prabang through the Big Brother Mouse organization, so we stopped at the school in the first village to donate half of them. We sat in an office with the school director and all the kids crowded around the door and window trying to get a peek.

When we got to the village we were staying for the night, we went to the school there and in addition to donating the books the teacher encouraged us to teach an English lesson! Alona taught the numbers from 1-10 (which the kids already knew) and the days of the week (which were a bit more challenging). The kids would later chant “Monday, Tuesday…” when they passed us in the village.

 

Alona teaches numbers

We stayed in a structure built for guests in the middle of the village, along with an older Dutch man who was doing the same trek (for the most part, it was just us with our two guides). It was a little disappointing not to actually stay with a Khmu family, which is the general definition of “homestay,” but we were pretty exhausted from trekking in the sun and didn’t feel like doing much after we arrived. Various kids did come by to say hello (Monday, Tuesday…) and to stomp on spiders outside (with bare feet). We also had the company of a local dog who very intently waited for scraps as we ate dinner.

He was pretty hardcore.

As it got dark around 6, we went to bed very early – by 8! Until 10:30, the generators were running and a group of villagers gathered across from our place to watch Thai TV (via satellite). A woman at the door charged them 500 kip (6 cents) apiece for the privilege.

The second day, we had an easy hour of trekking to get to the Tad Sae waterfall. After getting over the fact that this natural waterfall has been engineered into a swimming pool/waterpark, we decided it was still more beautiful and fun for swimming than the other waterfall we visited, Kuang Si. We were lucky to see Tad Sae at its peak — it only flows a few months out of the year.

Tad Sae waterfall/swimming pool

There is a small elephant camp at Tad Sae offering rides and a chance to wash the elephants in the waterfall. I visited the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand on my last visit and the experience there turned me off to most other elephant facilities and the idea of elephant riding in general. But riding an elephant bareback, especially in the water, seemed like the lesser of evils. We were also the first visitors to the waterfall & elephants that morning, and the elephants did seem in need of a bath…

Anyway, elephants apparently become hippos when they get in the water! They would stay under for a ridiculous length of time, and since Alona’s elephant was small, she had a hard time even staying on his back when he was submerged.

Ridiculously fun...

Riding an elephant in a waterfall, nbd.

The last part of our trek was kayaking three hours back to Luang Prabang. We started out with the two of us in one kayak and the two guides in the other, but at the halfway point we decided to switch it up since we were getting tired. That’s when we discovered that the guide in training had no idea how to steer a kayak. Phut told us either I could get in the back of the kayak again, since he trusted me to navigate the rapids, or we could cut the trip short and ride back to town. The fact that I was supposedly better at kayaking through rapids than a local didn’t inspire much confidence, but we went ahead and the rapids weren’t bad after all.

Expert kayaker?

In the evening, back in Luang Prabang, we met up with Phut and his friends and got a taste of Lao nightlife. After starting at a centrally located place we moved to a big bar a motorbike ride away, with soccer and Thai soap operas on TV in the background and later a nightclub where everyone dances in place around tables. Both bar and club have yellow BeerLao-sponsored signs and serve copious amounts of the stuff.

Popular Lao bar - note Thai drama in the background

After finally skimming the surface of “Lao Laos,” we headed straight to the place that’s known for exactly the opposite – the “backpacker hub” of Vang Vieng. To be honest, we were somewhat dreading the place, with its wild parties on the river and mediocre restaurants that show “Friends” and “Family Guy” episodes on loop to make the backpackers happy (along with the “happy” shakes and pizzas that make them a different kind of happy).

We ended up doing a tame version of Vang Vieng; tubing a couple hours earlier than the masses (around 12:30), sticking to free shots of Lao Lao whisky and plenty of water to wash it down (and prevent us from feeling any of the effects…) and finding the one restaurant that played something other than Friends or Family Guy (…South Park and Borat). We met a few people, played a few card games, and had a decent time – but one day in Vang Vieng was definitely enough for us.

Early tubers (#15-16 on the river)

One of the "extreme sports" offered on the river

Tubing!

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Looking for Laos

While the Gibbon Experience took us out into the jungles of northern Laos and allowed us access to a rural village and a couple of Lao guides, it was a packaged trip and we were looking forward to exploring the rest of Laos as we moved on. But finding anything resembling an “authentic” Lao experience with the limited time we had was proving to be a challenge.

We took the two-day slow boat to Luang Prabang…

…along with hoards of Western travelers.

...some of whom insisted on claiming two seats apiece, while others had to sit on the floor.

The views were nice, anyway...

 

When we finally got to Luang Prabang, we ate at the night market, which serves decent but relatively bland buffet-style Lao food to Western travelers.

The roast chicken was actually quite good.

And we did fall in love with these little fried cheese things that were a lot like the Russian sirniki we make at home.

 

After dinner, we ended up going with some Spanish partiers (coming off a full six days in Vang Vieng) to a bar catering solely to Western travelers.

Alona joined them for late-night games of volleyball (at the bar) and bowling (which stays open later than the bars in Luang Prabang).

 

Over the next couple of days in Luang Prabang, we saw a sunset…

…with hoards of Westerners.

Woke up at dawn to see monks collecting alms…

…with hoards of Westerners.

Yes, monks are a prime tourist attraction in Luang Prabang. We were sure to keep a good distance and not use flash, but it was still pretty embarrassing.

 

And aside from visiting the national museum (former palace)

a few temples

and a waterfall

 

…we engaged in such authentic Lao experiences as eating burgers, playing Yahtzee for three hours and teaching English travelers to play Durak. By the end of day two, we were wondering if we were ever going to see any of the “real” Laos or interact with Laotian people who said things other than “you go see waterfall” or “need room for tonight?” We decided there was only one way to get even a little off the beaten track in the two days we had. Just four days after returning from the jungle exhausted, we would set off on another trek…

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Chiang Mai Cooking Classes – Compared!

I stopped in Chiang Mai last week to meet my sister Alona and decided that a day in the city would be best spent participating in one of the many Thai cooking classes offered there. I actually did the same thing when I passed through Chiang Mai two years ago, so I had an idea of what was in store. A trip to the market, a few hours of “cooking” (with lots of hand-holding) and an absurd amount of delicious, fresh, filling Thai food.

The course I took two years ago was with Asia Scenic, and the one we did this time was with Siam Rice. We didn’t choose too carefully – each guesthouse partners with a different cooking school and offers discounts and convenient pickup.

The courses are very similar, so I thought it would be fun to compare them in each of the things they offer. Keep in mind that since my experience with Asia Scenic was two years ago, things may have changed.

1. Instruction. I feel awful for not remembering the names of either of the instructors we had, but anyway… both were good and had decent English. I found the Siam Rice guy more entertaining and the woman at Asia Scenic more informative. At Siam Rice there was an assistant which was helpful considering the larger class size. He also saved us from oil fires and knew how to grind a curry.

2. Market visit. Pretty similar – I remember learning more about the different types of rice with Asia Scenic, while we learned more about different vegetables and coconut products with Siam Rice. But in addition to the market visit, Asia Scenic had an awesome organic vegetable garden in-house. And at Siam Rice the guy smeared turmeric on my arm staining it yellow for several days, so that was a bit silly.

3. Cooking. In both of these courses, it’s hard to consider the process of making the food true cooking. The meat portions are already measured, onions are peeled, etc., and the process moves quickly with every step being guided by the instructor. Even though you do the chopping, frying, and grinding, they make it near impossible to mess up any of your dishes. It’s efficient and a lot of fun, but not particularly practical.

I found that Asia Scenic moved just a little bit slower – for example, we cooked the garlic in oil for before adding other ingredients, whereas at Siam Rice garlic was thrown in along with the meat. Siam Rice also added an entertainment/extreme factor, setting several of the fried dishes on fire, which many people may appreciate but which I did not in particular (being sandwiched between three firy woks…) Clearly, I’m not about to start oil fires in the kitchen at home, and given the results, I don’t think it’s the best way to cook food.

Extreme cooking class. Me - trying to enjoy it.

 

4. Food. The most important part!

Each class offered a variety of options for each course. At Asia Scenic, I did a morning class that included SIX courses:

  • Appetizer (I made papaya salad, Som Tam)
  • Soup (Chicken in coconut milk, Tom Kha)
  • Noodles (Pad Thai)
  • Stir Fry (Chicken with cashew nuts)
  • Curry (Penang)
  • Dessert (Mango w/sticky rice)

Best Pad Thai EVER (Asia Scenic)

Som Tam (Asia Scenic)

Tom Kha soup, chicken w/cashew nuts, Penang curry (Asia Scenic)

Mango/sticky rice! (Asia Scenic)

The small portions at Asia Scenic were appreciated, since after all the courses it’s still a ridiculous amount of food. I ended up so full I couldn’t think about food for the rest of the day, but at least I could finish most of the dishes.

At Siam Rice, we did an evening class with FOUR courses – but I got to try some of my sister’s choices too.

  • Soup (Spicy basil – Alona made Tom Kha)
  • Noodles (Wide noodles, Pad See Ew – Alona made Pad Thai)
  • Curry (Red curry with eggplant – Alona made Penang)
  • Stir Fry (Chicken with cashew nuts – Alona made some crazy spicy thing)

Spicy basil soup (had to eat half before taking a picture) and Pad See Ew (Siam Rice)

Chicken w/cashews (Siam Rice)

Red curry w/eggplant

The results? The Pad Thai and chicken stir fry at Asia Scenic were some of my favorite dishes I’ve ever had in Thailand. That’s part of why I wanted to do another cooking course! Unfortunately, I didn’t find those two particularly good at Siam Rice – the chicken with cashew nuts was somewhat overcooked and less flavorful after having been set on fire. But the coconut soup at Siam Rice was better, and the spicy basil soup was delicious as well. I think the curries were all about the same, and the process of making curry paste was a lot of fun.

Red curry, pre-grind

Red curry!

Green, Penang and red curry pastes

5. Recipe book. Both schools provide a recipe book to allow participants to take home their new skills. The Asia Scenic one was cute, being bound with a cinnamon stick, but trying to use it over the past couple of years, I find the recipes a little lacking in description. I’ve managed to make some basic stuff, but some of the instructions are confusing and the ingredients (“mouse-ear mushrooms”) aren’t adapted to what’s available at home. At first glance, the Siam Rice cookbook is a little bit better, with ingredients like oyster mushrooms and instructions to put all curry ingredients in a blender rather than grinding them up by hand the way we did in the course.

In the end, I would recommend either of these courses but would be more likely to go back to Asia Scenic myself — there’s a smaller chance of my hair catching on fire there!

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Things I learned at the Gibbon Experience

Before going on the Gibbon Experience, I read plenty of existing blog posts on the topic. So I’m going to keep this one down to a few things I learned at the Gibbon Experience. The final video shows the ziplining…

1. Getting there is half the experience.  It rained the night before our departure, and below is what we had to deal with. I would NOT recommend the program during rainy season, which various accounts on Tripadvisor can attest to. We were very lucky that in our case, this only added to the “adventure” and didn’t mean a 5 hour trek through the mud.

Team effort.

 

2. Braking on the zipline is less important than making it to the platform. There was one special moment the first day when I made it to 5 meters from the end, then didn’t grab the wire in time and started going backwards – to the center of the 200+ meter wire! I had to be pulled back by a guide from the other side…

I feel like a gibbon.

 

3. There are only two directions in jungle trekking: uphill, and what’s going to be uphill on the way back. 

These got a lot steeper.

 

4. I should find an alarm clock with a gibbon setting.


 

5. It’s not a “rainforest shower” if you don’t have a rainforest view.

Shower with a view.

 

6. Leeches and gibbons like to sleep in. We got up at 5:30 the third day to trek over to a different treehouse in the hopes of seeing some gibbons. The gibbons didn’t wake up until we were eating breakfast at 9, when we got to watch them from our own treehouse… At least the leeches that were all over the path the day before were also asleep for our morning jaunt!

 

Best shot of a gibbon (black thing in the tree)... looked better through my binoculars. We watched him sing for a while and saw two others!

 

7. Zipping across the canopy at sunset is nothing short of spectacular.

 

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