When my 18 year old brother with his freshly minted driver license suggested that we rented a car to visit the golden triangle region in northern Thailand AND offered to do the whole drive himself – it took me a split second to decide that it was the most brilliant idea, ever!
My mom was throwing up on the side of the boat, our guide standing by her side holding on to her just in case she got thrown off the boat. All around us the water of Sunda Strait, the stretch of water separating Java and Sumatra, was bucking in giant swells.
I took more pictures of people in Burma (Myanmar) more than anywhere else during our trip around the world. This is due to the following reasons:
I’ve learned that looking back at my pictures, those with people on it tend to be some of my favorites. I have horrible memories and sometimes looking at a picture, taken less than 1 year ago, I’d be drawing a blank, “Where was this?” – but I remember more about a place and its people when the act of taking a picture involves an interaction with a person. Somebody. Anybody. Even if the interaction is as simple as asking them for permission to take their picture.
We really didn’t know what to expect when we decided to come to Thailand, that was why a lot of the things about Thailand came as such a nice surprise.
One of these nice surprises was discovering traditional Thai massage. We got addicted to this (and for $7/hr, it’s hard not to) and got one at least every other day (what a tough life traveling can be).
Places offering Thai massage are everywhere, and some sidewalks have been converted into an impromptu spa simply by placing some reclining chairs.
I have always found that even the deep tissue massage one gets here in the States is never – and not trying to sound too masochistic here – painful enough. Some of you will know what I mean, no?
Thankfully, I never had that problem with traditional Thai massages. This is the massage for those who crave that invigorating feeling, that ‘Oh, it hurts so good’ sensation.
My first time getting a Thai massage came as a mild shock. It was a lot different than what I was used to.
First, they ask you to change into a pajama/robe thingy and proceed to wash your feet.
Second, the masseuse use not only her hands, but her arms, elbows, knees and feet – that’s right, feet – to apply the pressures.
Third, some of the areas they work on are just simply more intimate than your regular Western massage. Your butt, inner thighs, outer thighs, and your groin area are all fair game. And not only that, they get pretty close to you – physically. As in, they get all over your body while pulling, stretching, and bending limbs.
And fourth – I had the skinniest Thai women with an amazing vice-like grip that made me go ‘Oh my holy mother gaaawd’. I mean, the one masseuse I liked to go to in the states was this burly Mexican guy (who has sadly moved to Texas) and whom compared to these Thai ladies, had a grip as soft and gentle as a fluffy kitten. How did they get so strong?
And if the vice like grip is not enough, they stand on you. I found out about this as I was laying face down and noticed an out-of-this-world strong pressure on my pelvis. I was like, “What the heck?” – craning my neck I noticed the shadow cast on the wall.
“Eeeek, she’s standing on my back!!”
Which, was awesome. If you like hard massages.
Thai massage is for you if you:
– find regular deep tissue massage is not deep enough
– are looking for an invigorating more than a relaxing massage
– are not particularly ticklish or shy
Thai massage? One more reason why we love traveling in Thailand so much.
Where to find a good Thai massage place in Bangkok and Chiang Mai
Unfortunately, not all Thai massage places are created equal. If you ever had to endure a bad massage (where 1 hour feels like an eternity), you know it’s important to find a place that works for you.
For a Thai massage place in Bangkok, we love Boonsita in Soi 1, Sukhumvit (the best Thai massage yet!), and in Chiang Mai, we like Lila Thai Massage (3 locations in Chiang Mai) that employs rehabilitated women prisoners. Some hotels in Bangkok and Chiang Mai also offer good Thai massage but these will be more expensive.
Would you consider getting a Thai massage?
The limestone karsts that line the river in Tam Coc is often compared to that of Halong Bay. As a matter of fact, the Tam Coc riverway is often referred to as Halong Bay on Land (or Halong Bay on River).
Since we had such a crappy weather in Halong Bay the previous day, I thought it would make a good opportunity for us to see what we missed out on there.
It was unfortunate that the weather in Halong Bay when we were there plainly sucked. The fog was so thick we could barely see the limestone karsts that make Halong Bay so famous.
I mean, if we squinted really hard… we could sorta, almost, see them.
Many times I felt like reaching up and draw the low-hanging curtain of milky whiteness away.
Thankfully, my brother was just excited to be going on a cruise (it was his first time), and I was in one of those moods that allowed me to shrug the whole unfortunate weather situation off.
Our fellow passengers consisted of a Vietnamese couple who didn’t talk to anybody, a nice German couple, two Chinese friends who got into a fight and ended up not talking to each other before the 2 day trip was over, and a mom and son team from Malaysia.
Because of the shitty weather, we were all forced to stay inside the boat all the time. We got to know each other pretty well because of that.
Not a long time ago, I’d have beaten myself up over the fact that we just spent $90 on an overnight stay on a junk boat in Halong Bay sans the Halong Bay. But if there’s one thing I had learned on our trip, it’s that things like weather don’t give a s**t about my carefully laid out plans and there’s not much I can do about it – so I could either whine about it, or I could whine about it for just a little bit then make the best of it.
And that’s what I did.
Besides, even with the less than perfect weather, I still got a glimpse of why, for many, Halong Bay is the highlight of their trip in Vietnam.
Is weather your best laid plan’s worst enemy?
Our Halong Bay “junk” was Alova Gold ($89) – it was a good boat with good food (always more than we can eat) and service. Can’t complaint.
Vietnamese food ranks pretty up there among my favorite ethnic food. But eating out in Vietnam, and just pretty much like a lot of things in Vietnam for us, turned out to be an adventurous affair. Especially if you’re a picky eater like me.
With the combination of Vietnamese tonal language (which makes it bloody hard to learn even the simplest phrase) and lack of English among Vietnamese, it’s wise to hone up your miming (and drawing) skills before hitting the sidewalk for food.
Food was everywhere on the streets of Vietnam. Everywhere in the morning you see people sitting on little stools slurping on a bowl of noodle to the point that you couldn’t tell whether it was a small street eatery, or just a family enjoying a bowl of noodle together for breakfast on their doorstep.
So you go there and you’ve made sure you learned the word for a bowl of chicken noodle soup which was ‘pho ga’ – and what you want to ask was of course ‘Can I get a bowl of soup, please?’ But the way they look at you afterwards sometimes makes you wander if you’ve just asked to borrow the underwear they’re wearing.
(Although that’s probably what you’d look like if you’re having breakfast in front of your house and someone starts muttering intelligible things while pointing at your breakfast)
And of course it’s a lot trickier if what you’re actually trying to say was ‘Does it have chicken in it? I’m a vegetarian. Maybe you can make it without meat?’
(Yeah, good luck with that.)
Regardless, even though street food proved to be a challenge for me, we still managed to eat our way up the coast of Vietnam – from Saigon in the South to Hanoi in the North.
Which goes to show how finding good food in Vietnam, is really not that big of a problem after all.
What to eat in Vietnam – Here are some of our favorite Vietnamese food
Pho – the national food of Vietnam. A brothy bowl of rice noodle served with bean sprouts, basil and lime. Add a dash of plum sauce and spicy Sriracha sauce for full effect. Chicken and beef are the most common. The vegetarian version can be found in bigger chains such as Pho 24 and FYI, Pho 2000 in Saigon that serves the best vegetarian pho I’ve ever had.
Bánh mì – if Pho is the national food, Banh Mi should be the national snack. Stands selling these Vietnamese sandwiches can be found on a lot of street corners. The meat version can be filled with liver pate, meat, canned sardines, stringy pork floss, etc. The vegetarian version comes with fried egg and cheese – eaten with a dash of homemade mayo, pickled carrot, and cilantro – all wrapped in crunchy and airy French baguette. SO GOOD! And for less than $1, it’s definitely our snack of choice.
Mi Quang – this Da Nang region specialty consists of flat rice noodle served with boiled eggs, meat, shrimp, and basil leaves with just enough broth to keep the noodle wet. The addition of peanut and crackers distinguish this dish from other Vietnamese noodle dishes.
Banh Bao Vac, or White Rose – a type of shrimp dumpling wrapped in a translucent skin, also a Hoi An region specialty. Qualities vary so much, but we found that we like those with flavorful broth, extra crunchy fried onions, and thinner, less doughy skin.
Cao Lao – Apparently real Cao Lao can only be found in Hoi An because real Cao Lao noodle can only be made from the water from a well in Hoi An. Well, I’m not sure if any of the Cao Lao we ate in Hoi An was the real Cao Lao, but they were all good (at least that’s what my brother said): thick chewy noodle, pork slices, crunchies, in a light pork-based broth. Simplicity at its best.
Bia Hoi – places selling Bia Hoi, or locally made draught beer, are abound in Hanoi. Sipping on these 50 cent beer while munching on pumpkin seeds, and sitting shoulder to shoulder with the locals are a fun way to spend an evening. Don’t expect too much of the beer – Biere Larue is the less watery of the bunch, we think.
Some useful Vietnamese food-related keywords to learn:
Mì, Bún, and Phở: different types of noodles
Many a night we’d stroll through the old town of Saigon or Hanoi among hundreds of diners taking their place on the sidewalk, taking a peek at what everyone is eating and it made us realise that Vietnam is truly a paradise for those who are gastronomically adventurous (snake wine, anyone?).
My brother was delighted. But as for the vegetarian in me, I was secretly glad we were heading back to Thailand afterwards.