Sweden – Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Tjörn Island

When Qatar Airways had some troubles with their neighboring countries I took advantage of the panic sales and purchased roundtrip tickets from Bangkok to Stockholm well in advance for dates that would be good for me and my Viking Princess.

A few months later she transferred to a different department in the company. Unfortunately due to work requirements she wouldn’t be able to go to Sweden to visit her family during the dates that I booked. Fortunately for me I have a great relationship with her family and wasn’t at all feeling deterred from swapping sweltering Thailand heat for comfortable Sweden cool weather. In this article I will highlight some of the wonderful fun and food I experienced along with the loving hospitality of my other family.

Stockholm – One of the most beautiful capitals in the world!

I spent my time in Stockholm with my gal’s brother (Håkan) and his family. My first full day in the “Land of the Midnight Sun” was spent exploring Stockholm. Our first stop was the Vasa Museet (Museum).

Finished in 1628, the Vasa ship was the Titanic of its day. The most powerful ship in the Baltic sea, equipped with 64 cannons, it was HUGE. Similar to the Titanic it also sank on its maiden voyage–though 1,300 meters was the length of its maiden voyage. It was incredibly top-heavy, lacked enough ballast, and as a result it was capsized by a slight wind before the astonished eyes of the crowds of spectators. The story of this catastrophe isn’t atypical when great things fail–yet many are not surprised by the failure. What is amazing is the story of how it was raised from the deep and how well was preserved.

Kaknästornet – Lunch with a view!

Exploring the Vasa ship is hungry work. Afterwards we went to the Kaknästornet, Stockholm’s 155 meter tall TV tower for a bite to eat. Unlike Bangkok, Stockholm doesn’t have numerous 200+ meter buildings.  As a result the Restaurang Kaknästornet is able to combine impressive dining views of Stockholm with excellent food from its 28th floor vantage.

I enjoyed the view with a large cold Mariestad’s beer and Toast Skagen (shrimp salad with lots of yummy dill on toast). If you’re not drinking Mariestad’s beer when you come to Sweden then you’re doing it wrong.

Stockholm – Beautiful architecture

There’s a saying about modern minimalist Swedish architecture, which paraphrased  would be “take away until you can take no more then the design is perfect“. Newer buildings might appear “boxy” but they afford wide expansive windows to let in lots of natural light (something the Swedes crave during those times when there’s only a couple of hours of daylight), the spaces are very functional and open, and it’s quite cozy. Stockholm has found that balance between maintaining their historically significant buildings whilst erecting new construction without making an obvious contrast between the two.

Rag and Bone

Rag and Bone Statue

One interesting landmark is a bronze statue of a homeless fox wearing a tattered blanket. “Rag and Bone” is located near the corner of Drottninggatan and Strömgatan. When I first turned the corner and saw it I was taken aback. The statue was so out of place in this well to do area of Stockholm. It also took a bit to realize that it was, in fact, a statue. The purpose of the statue is to make you think about all those unfortunate–for those that live and work in a neighborhood of such wealth this statue can be pretty effective at providing a reflective pause.

Recreational public space…

Chess Anyone?

More than architecture, Stockholm also contains a lot of really nice recreational space. Parks, biking and  jogging paths, and well as public gardening areas. When the sun is out, so are the people of Stockholm. I thought this public chessboard in the park was pretty neat!

Drottningholm Palace

I was incredibly lucky during my time in Stockholm. Historically October can be a pretty wet and dreary weather period. Though there were a few showers, for the most part each day that I was there had beautiful blue skies with crisp air that a jacket easily compensated for. Our visit of the Drottningholm Palace couldn’t have happened on a nicer day, and since it was off tourist season we had many picturesque moments without crowds. The Drottningholm Palace is the private residence for the Swedish Royal Family (there are many palaces).

Monster Meals

Tunnbrödsrulle
Tunnbrödsrulle – The monster

One day Håkan and I took an “Under the Bridges” boat sightseeing tour. But before we began our adventure we grabbed a bite to eat from a little hotdog stand. I had no idea what was in store for my stomach. We each got a Tunnbrödsrulle. This GIANT meal contains two hot dogs, generous scoops of shrimp salad, mashed potatoes, relish, mustard, ketchup, and salad wrapped up in a flat bread. They give you a spoon as a joke I think because the only way to eat this thing is to wrestle it with both hands.

I don’t like to waste food but I just couldn’t finish it. For the next few hours of the boat ride I could feel it sticking to my insides and weighing like a brick. There weren’t many pictures taken on the boat ride…this is one of the few that actually came out well.

Pelikan – Historical food in a “new location”.

I had an authentic “old school” Swedish dinner with friends and family at the very famous Pelikan Restaurang. The “Pelikan” has operated continuously since opening it’s doors in 1664. It has moved around the city a few times and now sits at its new Blekingegatan location since 1904. What has not changed over time is its menu. Here you can try historical dishes of plain Swedish food. Pelikan is famous for its “golf ball sized” meatballs (note: do NOT ask for Swedish meatballs in Sweden. Just ask for meatballs.). They are also famous for their super tender fläsklägg med rotmos or boiled pork leg with mashed swedes (note the lowercase “s” as it is a root that looks a bit like a large turnip and tastes a bit like carrot and cabbage and is not mashed actual Swedish people). I also recommend their älgcarpaccio or moose carpaccio as an excellent starter.

A train with a beautiful view…

Räkmacka
Räkmacka (Shrimp Sandwich)

Taking the train from Stockholm to Gothenburg is a comfortable 3 hour and 15 minute ride and a very affordable 198 SEK ($23 USD). I highly recommend traveling Sweden by the rails. Unfortunately for me, my window seat was commandeered by a very chatty elderly Russian woman. I didn’t have the the heart to boot her out of my seat (or maybe I had the heart to let her remain in my window seat?).  After about an hour of “chatting” with her via the Google translate app in both Russian and Swedish I finally made the bold decision to feign sleep until she actually fell asleep (with her mouth wide open, I might add). I then bolted to the dining car where I created this beautiful Instagrammable view. It’s Räkmacka (sweet shrimp piled on bread with lots of dill and mayonnaise) and a tall can of Mariestad’s beer. Yum!

Mats (my gal’s sister’s hubby) was awaiting me in Gothenburg. He was a bit surprised to find me weighed down with luggage and a large backpack–I was assisting the elderly Russian woman. Once we got her to the area of her next train we were off to the Island of Tjörn and a wonderful reception of wine and family!

A wine reception! (Mamma Lola, Mats, and Ann-Louise)

Gothenburg – Things to do on a rainy day.

One of the few rainy days during my visit was the day that we went to Gothenburg. But that didn’t stop us from having a good time. Our first stop was to get out of the rain and grab some lunch at a cafeteria style restaurant near the Saluhallen. Here I feasted on a plate of GIANT kottbullar or meatballs in a delicious rich gravy, mashed potatoes, and lingonberry sauce.

Swedish Meatballs
Meatballs with gravy, potatoes, and lingonberry sauce.

Universeum – Feed your mind!

After feeding our bellies we did the next best thing on a rainy day, we fed our minds. We went to the natural museum, an indoor zoo really, called Universeum.

The museum is several floors of wildlife habitat with an impressive aquarium that has a glass tunnel for sharks to swim over the heads of guests, and a large aviary where you can interact with winged friends. After walking about and building an appetite we went back to the Saluhallen for a fika.

Wait….what’s a “fika”?

Good question. I wondered what a fika was when I first heard about it, too. First off, it has nothing to do with feces. Fika is some point in the day when Swedes get together with friends, colleagues, or family and enjoy a cup of coffee and a snack (usually small cakes or desserts). This particular day happened to be kanelbullens dag or Cinnamon Bun Day. These tasty buns are easy to be found normally, but on this particular day they were EVERYWHERE. So of course we had a few kanelbullar with our fika, and I also wanted some chokladbiskvier (chocolate biscuits) with the fika because they are awesome. These little chocolate domed pastry disks are filled with a custard like filling which I suspect is cocaine based. After a few, you kind of get the shakes but you still want more.

I’m on a boat!

Me and Mats

I was lucky to have arrived to Tjörn in time for the lobster fishing season. That’s about as far as my luck went as far as catching lobsters go. Not a single sign of the “black gold”. That being said, I’m a freaking crab magnet! What we couldn’t find in lobster we made up for in loads of crabs. After awhile we had to start throwing them back in. Deadliest Catch…pshaw!

Partying with the ladies of Tjörn…

I spent a lovely afternoon partying with a couple of ladies from Tjörn, Lola and Ann-Louise. We did some shopping to prepare for the upcoming crayfish and crab party (our recent catch providing lots of crab guests). We did the shopping and then had lunch at the Hotell Nordevik, a hotel where many of the furnishings and decoration are original since its opening in 1952. It’s a great place to step back in time. Every day they have a lunch special and on this day we got the salmon filet with cream sauce and potatoes.

Salmon Filet Nordevik Hotel
Salmon Filet Lunch Special (Nordevik Hotel)

After lunch, and the food put away, we enjoyed some beers with a view, and took the dogs for a walkabout. When Mats got home we did some boozy experimentation with a new snaps and invented a new drink with the peppermint snaps, cranberry juice, and soda water. After several of those we were pretty certain they would be a HUGE hit (make sure you use cranberry juice and not orange juice-it’s pretty gross with orange juice).

Lola made boiled pork knuckle with mashed swede (fläsklägg med rotmos) and it was well received by all.

Salt and Sill

We had a lovely dinner at a restaurant and boatel called Salt and Sill. This restaurant faces the sea and dishes out some pretty tasty seafood. I had the herring board which was a sampler of 6 different herrings with accompanying classic accessories and boiled potatoes, the catch of the day (I believe it was flounder) with a rich butter sauce, a chocolate mouse with marinated cherries for dessert. I was excited to try Tjörn beer–it’s always nice to try the local brew.

Crayfish party!

September was the time for crayfish parties in Sweden. Fortunately there’s no such thing as a “bad time” to have a crayfish parties and my family was super kind enough to put away buckets of langoustine (also known as Norway lobsters). The langoustines with the fresh crabs we caught and plenty of Swedish snaps and other drinks made for a fantastic evening.

Time to say goodbye!

The trip had gone so fast and the day to say goodbye seemed to come so quickly. I had a long way to get back to Bangkok, though. First I had to take the train from Gothenburg back to Stockholm, then overnight there before an early flight home. But before I left the Land of the Midnight Sun I had just one more mission to accomplish (aside from the getting all the stuff on the extensive and detailed shopping list provided by my Viking Princess). I had to have a Max Burger. It might seem strange to end this travelogue of amazing food and experiences with a fast food burger. I’m not proud but it is what is.

I had a couple of hours to spend at the train station in Gothenburg. My gal’s always talking about this Max Burger thing. I thought why not? For once Googlemaps actually guided me directly to the nearest Max burger joint without routing me through a mine field, neighborhood of warring gangs, or shark tank. I ordered a Max Burger Classic with fries. It’s not a gourmet burger, mind you (if a gourmet burger is your thing go here), but for a fast food burger it’s pretty good! The patty is a bit like salisbury steak, but the bun and veggies are good (the processed cheese is forgivable as it’s fast food).

Final thoughts…

I had a wonderful time in Sweden. I’d spent a few months acquiring some Swedish language skills through a free online site called Duolingo. Though I certainly wasn’t a fluent speaker, it was nice to be able to speak some simple phrases and also hilarious when boozing it up. I’m glad I did it.

Though I am sure I could have had a lot more fun with my gal being there I’m glad I did get an opportunity to go alone. It gave me time to get to know the family a little better and for them to better know me. I’m super grateful for the time they took take such great care of me. All I wanted to do was eat good food, drink good drinks, and laugh (a lot). They made sure I got all of that plus much, much more.

I know that there’s a popular misconception that Sweden is a cold and expensive place. That wasn’t my experience (though I admit I was pretty lucky with the weather). I will say that whatever the weather be, the Swedes can be very warm and welcoming to make up for any chill you feel. The Land of the Midnight Sun is also able to accommodate most any travel budget and if yours is pretty tight then ride the rails and take advantage of the korvkiosk  (hot dog stand). A Tunnbrödsrulle ought to have enough calories to last you an entire day and you will feel it for most of the day!

Sukhothai – An Exploration of Thailand’s First Capital

Originating during the 13th century, Sukhothai was the first capital of the Kingdom of Siam. Much has certainly changed over 800 years. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site this once magnificent city left a large collection of ruins that are absolutely worth exploring today, as well as recipes passed down through the ages for unique noodle soups and pad Thai dishes that are both delightful and delicious!

Anna and I decided to travel there via train and return back to Bangkok via air flight. The train ride there was a very comfortable 5 hour journey to Phitsanoluk on a Special Express train (they have the western style restrooms!) for 509 baht net ($15.28). From the Phitsanoluk train station we caught a tuk-tuk (it looked like the green offspring of a motorcycle and little Smart car) to the bus station for 60 baht ($1.80). We took a local bus from the Phitsanoluk station to the Sukhothai City station, an hour long ride for 39 baht ($1.17). From the Sukhothai City bus station we arranged for a songthaew truck (a truck where the flatbed has been converted to accommodate two side benches for passengers) for the 30 minute ride (dropping off passengers along the way) at 100 baht ($3) per person to take us directly to our guesthouse in Old Sukhothai.

I had debated much about whether to stay in Sukhothai City or Old Sukhothai. From what I saw of Sukhothai City I was thankful we’d arranged to stay in Old Sukhothai. Old Sukhothai is much sleepier, and everything is within walking distance including the historical park.

I found an excellent guesthouse called Pottery Street House through Booking.com. The guesthouse is very well kept, clean, and with spacious rooms. The location is perfect for walking to the Sukhothai Historical Park, and to all of the restaurants nearby. Additionally, we found that the pottery shop that they had on the premises had the best prices on pieces than the other places we looked at. We just had to do a little dusting to find the pieces we wanted. The family that runs the guesthouse was very welcoming, and being able to rent bikes from them for 30 baht (less than $1) a day really helped us to get around!

By the time we checked in it was early evening and we were both pretty hungry. We walked up to the main street and found several restaurants which were clearly geared towards tourists. We picked one that had a varied selection of dishes. I was surprised to see “Crocodile Larb” on the menu! Larb is a spicy minced meat dish from Northern Thailand which is usually made with beef, chicken, or pork. It was pretty tasty. All of the dishes we ordered were pretty tasty, actually, with one exception which is a funny story.

On the restaurant’s menu noodle page they had an extensive list of different noodle types but one really caught my eye: “Mamma” noodles. I was thinking it was a homemade noodle, mother’s family recipe kind of thing. When it arrived I was disappointed because it was basically instant ramen noodles. I just didn’t get how all their other dishes were so good and then they use a nasty shortcut like instant ramen noodles in preparation for a dish. Later I found that “Mamma” is a super popular brand of instant ramen noodles here in Thailand! I basically got what I ordered!

After dinner we took a stroll through the only active temple that is located within the ancient Old City walls. Wat Traphang Thong, also known as the “Temple of the Golden Pond”, is surrounded by a large pond filled with hungry carp and catfish (a quick purchase of bread from the nearby 7-11 will have them surface–I swear they can smell the receipt!). It was the first day of Khao Phansa (Buddhist Lent), so the temple was very active with monks praying and worshippers making merit. The original bell shaped chedi was lit making it an extraordinary sight. After our little tour of the temple area we called it an early night and returned back to the guesthouse. After all we had an early morning pick-up scheduled to begin a full day of bicycle touring!

Anna and I never would have thought to book a bicycle tour. While we were on the train ride in the beginning of our adventure, a friend of ours messaged us on Facebook suggesting to us and connecting us to her friend, Khun Siri, who operated her own bicycle touring company called My Way Sukhothai Bicycle Tour. Khun Siri was kind enough to take us on a private tour.  It began with a tuk-tuk pick up service from our guesthouse to Sukhothai City. There we mounted up on mountain bikes and took the scenic countryside tour back to Old Sukhothai. Along the way we stopped to visit with a family of bamboo basket weavers, and a teakwood furniture factory (they will deliver!). It was a gorgeous morning that soon heated up once the sweltering sun rose overhead. Fortunately, on a bicycle you can make your own breeze.

We had an opportunity before arriving to the ancient city walls of Sukhothai to be able to explore Wat Chang Lom. It was wonderful having the site to ourselves while Khun Siri explained its significance. Afterwards we went straight to the historical park to view the major attractions. 

After biking the country backroads all the way from Sukhothai City to Old Sukhothai, and then exploring the outlying ruins of Wat Phra Phai Luang, as well as several other sites, we felt very ready for some lunch. Khun Siri took us to a lunch of phad thai, fried chicken, and som tum salad. 

During lunch I learned that the Pad Thai in Sukhothai is very different from how it is prepared in other parts of Thailand. Khun Siri said that the pad thai noodle dish originated from Sukhothai and that it is made with palm sugar (instead of white sugar) which gives it a creamy and more subtle sweetness. They also do not use dried shrimp or fried bits of tofu–good riddance, I say.  Additionally, they included chopped long green beans to the dish. The menu board was chock full of funny–I think I could make a fortune spell checking menus in Asia. All of the dishes weren’t bad–though they were certainly seasoned for the average tourist. But it was exactly what we needed to reenergize our biking legs and continue on to more historical site discoveries.

Khun Siri was an excellent tour guide throughout the entire experience. She provided lots of details about the sites and their history while also suggesting excellent photo opportunities. By the time we wrapped up all of the major attractions within the park, our legs were pretty worn. We were thankful not to have to ride the bikes back to Sukhothai City as Khun Siri accompanied us back to our guesthouse and then arranged to have the bikes picked up. Anna and I napped–I mean one of those deep slumbering naps that lasts a couple of hours and you wake up confused and wondering where you are!

 

Honestly I think we could have slept the entire rest of the day away if it weren’t for our stomachs. We woke up pretty hungry (and a little sore). We walked up to the main road and found a different restaurant that advertised their “famous” Sukhothai Noodle Soup. I got a bowl with mixed meat and it was pretty good. I learned that they also use palm sugar instead of white sugar in their soups–surprise! Our bodies were craving protein big time so a nice order of pork chops with Thai spicy dipping sauce rounded out the dinner. Since it was still the first couple of days of Buddhist Lent, alcohol sales were still forbidden. As there was no way to self medicate our sore muscles we called it an early morning. This turned out to be a great idea, as the next day we awoke refreshed and even rented bicycles for the day from our guesthouse!

This was our last day in Sukhothai as we had scheduled a return flight departing at 6:45 pm. So off we went with our rented bikes to explore all of the side streets and outlying smaller ruins unattached to the main historical park. For each of these ruins we had the entire place to ourselves. It was wonderful being able to explore without worrying about compromising someone’s camera shot or having a gaggle of people walk through your own view lens. It was also amazing just how green everything was. After a little time in Bangkok I kind of forget about greenery, unless I’m looking at life through the bottom of a Chang beer bottle!

Speaking of which, on this last day the ban on alcohol sales was removed. After biking about all day we had worked up quite an appetite. Our final meal turned out to be the absolute best meal we had during the trip at a roadside restaurant called Ploy Champu Kitchen. So good in fact, I wrote an article about it here. Maybe it’s a coincidence that we had beer with the meal and it turned out to be the best meal we had…read the article and judge for yourself!

After lunch we returned to our guesthouse. They were kind enough to let us have a very, very late checkout (4:30 pm). This was great for us as it allowed us to keep our luggage in the room through the day, and even shower and clean up before we went to the airport (for a reasonable fee they also took us to the airport). 

The Bangkok Airways Sukhothai Airport

We decided to fly back to Bangkok instead of taking the train simply because of the times that the trains were leaving from Phitsanoluk. We would have either have had to wake up super early to catch the train in Phitsanoluk or we’d have had to take a later train and would have arrived back to Bangkok in the early morning hours–no fun! Bangkok Airways operates direct flights from Sukhothai Airport. The price was 2,290 baht ($68) for the 1 hour and 15 minute flight. Doesn’t the airport look like a resort?

To view more photos of our weekend getaway, and to listen to an awesome Northern Thailand 60’s folk song that is sure to make you want to visit, click the below video.


If you’re looking for a weekend getaway from the Big Mango, or interested in Thai historical sites, I would definitely recommend a visit to Sukhothai. It can be done in a weekend if you plan your transportation wisely. The people of Sukothai are very kind (and delighted if you attempt to speak in Thai to them), the food is absolutely wonderful, and it’s very easy to get around to see all of the major sites (especially if you rent a bike or take a bike tour). 

Dear Reader,

This blog is a labor of love, and love is all I can afford to put into it (not advertising dollars). I really hope to have an active audience reading my articles. If you enjoyed this article, and feel that others would as well, please consider sharing it on your preferred social media platform.  Thank you!

Luang Prabang, Laos: A Restful Vacation with Many Wonders

Nestled between the Mekong and Nam Kham rivers, Luang Prabang, once the ancient royal capitol of Laos now a UNESCO World Heritage site, provides a restful getaway with activities sure to please everyone and accommodate any budget. A tiny town which is easily walkable, it packs several gold gilded Wats (Buddhist temples), impressive river views, and a myriad of criss-crossing streets with varied foodie opportunities ranging from fine French dining to Fear Factor foods like jungle rat. Nearby activities include jungle treks, waterfalls, bear and elephant conservations, as well as boat journeys up the Mekong River to explore sacred caves and whisky villages.

A worry-free, pampering accommodation…

Normally we like to stay at mid-range hotels, or no frills guesthouses (so long as I’ve seen reviews that they are clean and have comfortable beds), but in this instance we decided to spoil ourselves with a more upscale accommodation at The Belle Rive Boutique Hotel. It is a French colonial style hotel, with large rooms with hardwood floors and Lao decor, giant walk-in showers, and soft beds with plush comforters. The staff was incredibly friendly and attentive, and there were many perks such as free bicycle rentals, and complimentary evening sunset cruises on the Mekong River. But one of the really enjoyable things about the hotel is that you can have your made to order breakfast on a large wooden deck overlooking the Mekong River!

 

River breezes cool down the town…

We were nervous about what the weather would be like because all of the reports predicted constant rain showers and oppressive heat and humidity. Basically the same weather we were seeking to escape from Bangkok. When we arrived it was hot and humid, but as soon as we got into the sleepy little town the river breezes immediately cooled us down. We found a little Mom and Pop riverside bar/diner (the Mekong River has plenty to choose from) and settled in for some cheap ice-cold large Beer Lao bottles and an incredible sunset over the opposing jungle riverbanks.

Night time Mekong River View Luang Prabang

Feats of strength and determination!

The next day was a marathon for me. I’d broken my ankle in 3 places a few months prior (falling down the stairs in my house or a Muay Thai fight with a great white shark whilst saving a baby from a burning building (if I’ve had a few beers)). If you’ve ever broken anything major that really affects your life, then you know how that first month and a half of convalescing gives you plenty time for painful refection. You have time to think on how your life has been and what you want it to be.

I wanted to take more advantage of the traveling opportunities in my life. We had Luang Prabang already booked so I could only hope that I’d be well enough to enjoy it. As the days came closer to my travel, and with my doctor’s optimism with my healing progress, I began to fantasize about grandiose achievements such as climbing (conquering!) the top of Mount Phousi (okay….it’s actually better described as Phousi Hill but in my imagination and so as not to diminish the effort, I prefer the impressive Mount Phousi (which is recognized by Trip Advisor!).

We started our day with an exploration of Wat Xieng Thong, a Buddhist temple, located on the northern tip of the peninsula nearby our hotel. Afterwards we headed directly to Mount Phousi so I could conquer it’s 355 steps to reach its 150 meter summit!

You can’t keep a good man down!

I know these pictures don’t adequately capture the feeling I had at the top of Mount Phousi so I have added this (poor quality) video clip to give you an idea of how it all went down.

 

A lucky chance encounter!

During our walk to Wat Xieng Thong we met a boat driver who offered his services for a private tour. Normally I do not accept unsolicited offers, but after chatting with him for a bit I really got a good vibe from him. We settled on a payment of around $50 ($30 cheaper than other quotes I’d seen). We arranged to meet the following morning for a private half day boat tour up the Mekong River to Pak Ou Caves and a little whisky village stop on the return. It was absolutely one of the highlights of our tour. If interested I would be happy to provide his contact details to anyone interested in his services.

A perfect day for a cruise…

There is no finer feeling than cruising along the muddy waters of the Mekong River on a cool, quiet morning. This river is in many respects the primary transportation pathway to many of the little villages and outlying sites. We experienced it before it had fully come to life. It was so serene with only the wind on our faces and the sound of the boat motor pushing us through the current as the driver guided us past jutting rocks and little whirlpool jetties. We watched children playing, water buffalo grazing, and people fishing or going about their morning rituals on their own boats.

All to ourselves…the joys of private tours.

Because we left earlier than the tour groups we arrived to both the Pak Ou caves and the whisky village to find that we had the place entirely to ourselves.It was wonderful to be able to explore the cool depths of caves that have for thousands of years held such religious experience for travelers that it has accumulated over 4000 Buddha icons. We were free to take our time and explore without hassle or selfie stick obstacles. In fact, as we pulled away we witnessed a stream of boats pulling up to the main docking areas…suckers

Next stop, whisky village!

After the caves we headed back to Luang Prabang with a brief stop at a whisky village to do some shopping. I assumed it was a tourist trap so I was prepared to be disappointed. Actually it’s a good experience for shopping. The prices were very fair and there was quite a selection. If you’re interested in buying Lao Lao (the local whisky) or rice wine then you should definitely stop there. The prices are much much cheaper than what’s available in Luang Prebang. I grabbed two bottles of purple rice wine, two big bottles of Lao Lao whisky (don’t you judge me!), and a small bottle of Lao Lao for our boat driver, Mr. Kham. I made sure not to “sample” too much as I knew walking back down the muddy riverbanks steps could be challenging if I did.

Lunch with trainees!

We arrived back in town just in time for lunch. I’d researched on TripAdvisor for possible places to eat and we settled on a place called Khaiphaen. They have an interesting story in that it’s a restaurant “in training”. Basically the folks that run it use it as a tool to train the local population for entry level positions in the tourism/restaurant industry. It’s actually nice because you get a wait staff that’s super attentive and focused on making sure you get what you ordered and have a pleasant dining staff. It was a fantastic meal, too! I’m not sure if the cook staff are in training, but if they are then they are getting excellent instruction and have really honed their craft.

You really can’t go wrong with anything you order on their menu. I recommend a sampling of local dishes, but make sure you’re hungry as they don’t skimp on the portions!

The joys of cooking!

That evening we had the opportunity to learn how to cook some Laotian cuisine through the Tamarind Cooking School. I wrote all about it in a separate article here. I try to learn something about the local food when I travel as it is nice to be able to bring those new ideas to my own home kitchen. This was an excellent experience for us, an evening learning how to prepare amazing dishes in a jungle kitchen which ended with a huge feast of our results! 

Early to bed, early to rise.

Luang Prabang is a sleepy little town. Things close early at night–there are options for late night revelry but for the most part things are pretty well locked up before 11:00 pm. As they are early to bed, many are also early to rise. Every morning, if you’re willing to wake up at 5:00 am, you can witness the giving of the alms. Because there are several Buddhist monasteries in Luang Prebang there is a high concentration of monks that rely on the locals to make merit by offering food. This offering is supposed to sustain the monks through the day as they study. It really is something to witness the long procession of orange robe clad monks lined single file collecting rice from kneeling locals who woke up early to make merit and do their part. 

Giving Alms Luang Prabang

Some etiquette guidelines…

If you decide to view the alms giving please be respectful:

  • Wear respectful clothing, not skimpy, tight shorts.
  • Silence is appreciated–loud chatter/laughter is not.
  • Stay out of the way–don’t interfere with the procession for a better photo opportunity.
  • If you’re not a practicing Buddhist, you have no reason to be making merit or “participating”. It’s tacky.

That being said, you will probably see all of the above behaviors from others; pat yourself on the back for being a good tourist.

The last day…

Our final day was spent walking about the town taking random photos of daily life. We let the day take us where it wanted to. A cup of coffee at a little cafe, some nibbles along the river, capturing the contrasting view of an old colonial town through the glass of a well made Old Fashioned as the sun sets and the main streets shut down for the Night Market–the perfect place to shop for gifts and then hit the street food market for our dinner. 

Our 4 days in this sleepy little city were absolutely amazing. So impressed was I that I’ve already booked a trip back to spend Christmas there. This time I’ll get to cover the waterfalls and elephant sanctuary (I wasn’t comfortable with my ankle to attempt either). If you are looking for a quick getaway from Bangkok, this hour and 20 minute flight is what you need. If you’ve been traveling all over Asia and are just looking for a restful place to cap off your journey then you should seriously consider Luang Prabang as a destination!

 

Dear Reader,

This blog is a labor of love, and love is all I can afford to put into it (not advertising dollars). I really hope to have an active audience reading my articles. If you enjoyed this article, and feel that others would as well, please consider sharing it on your preferred social media platform.  Thank you!

Istanbul, Turkey – A Foodie’s Delight!

Between the years of 1999 and 2002 I lived in the small Aegean city of Izmir, Turkey. I will never forget the warm and enduring friendships I made during my time there, the amazing food I was introduced to, or the kindheartedness and hospitality of its people. The country where I rang in the new millennium has always had a special place in my heart; and though I was fortunate enough to travel throughout the country I never had the opportunity to visit its crown jewel Istanbul except by passing through its airport.

In October of 2015 I was living in Niamey, Niger and Anna was living in Bangkok, Thailand. Istanbul seemed like the perfect middle ground for us to meet, and an excellent place for us to discover together! After a bit of research I decided we should stay in the Sultanahmet area of the city as it was within walking distance of most of the historical sites and had plenty of reasonably priced boutique hotels. The hotel handled the airport pick-up service and Anna and I timed it so that we would arrive fairly close to the same time together. Because we arrived so early in the morning we were able to check-in but not able to have our rooms. So we dumped off our luggage and headed out to have a few Efes beers (yes, for breakfast!) and an extraordinary view of the famous Blue Mosque.

Sultanahmet Cami a.k.a. The Blue Mosque

Once we were able to get into the room we freshened up from our travels and hit the road. First stop: lunch! I researched through Trip Advisor and found a wonderful seafood restaurant nearby called Balıkçı Sabahattin which is famous for its small mezze dishes and seafood. After my time in Niger it was a real treat to dive into all these fresh salads without fear of the consequences later. We enjoyed a small bottle of rakı with the meal because as the Turks say, “Eating fish without rakı makes the fish cry.” I’ve never wanted to have crying fish weighing heavy on my conscious, so drinking rakı with it when I can seems the least I can do.

 

If you just have a couple of days to discover Istanbul I would recommend staying in the Sultanahment area. The majority of the “must see” sights are within walking distance of each other (The Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapı Palace, and the Basilica Cistern to name a few), and there are tons of reasonably priced places to stay, dine, and drink. There are also many places where you can get rooftop views of the sites as the sun sets or just to soak in the scene with the call to prayer emanating from all the mosques nearby. 

Istanbul is the only city in the world that spans two continents: Europe and Asia. Most of the hotels and tourist sites are on the European side (where we stayed). There is plenty to see and do on the European side and for the most part the Asian side is mostly a residential area that doesn’t get much tourist love. For the best vantage of the two continents divided cross the Galata Bridge near the Egyptian Bazaar and head up to the Galata Tower. It’s only 9 stories tall but you can get an amazing view of Istanbul straddling both continents. There is also plenty of bars, restaurants, and shopping as you make your way to Taksim Square (a very politically charged area of Istanbul — as Haight-Ashbury was in San Francisco at one time). All of which is laid out within a maze-like network of cobblestone streets with a steep incline which is sure to give your calves a workout and earn you a beer (or çai and a sweet).

Many folks do not recommend dining at any of the seafood restaurants that are located under the Galata Bridge. I am willing to bet that there is some truth to them all essentially being overpriced when compared to other seafood restaurants throughout the city, and that the food is essentially the same at all the restaurants. That being said, I am glad that we did it as it was one of the highlights of our travel experience. We essentially spent about $100 on a meal of various mezzes that filled us up (not great food, but not bad, and really scratched that itch for Turkish food), a few beers, 3 bottles of rakı (where the REAL expenses came in), all whilst listening to the soulful voice of Sezen Aksu and watching fishing lines dance over the bridge guardrails (sometimes getting a lucky catch!) as the sun slowly sank behind the Blue Mosque providing an amazing skyline. The owners treated us well, and plied me with just enough booze to improve my Turkish without fully unleashing my wallet. I’ve no regrets for the meal under the bridge. In fact, it was so nice we went twice!

I’m a fan of the Hop-On, Hop-Off style service for an easy way of orienting yourself to a new city and discovering where all of the landmarks are to visit. I first discovered it in Paris, and I’ve used it ever since in those cities that offer the service. It’s nice to be able to get on and off wherever you want and convenient that the stops are usually nearby the sites folks want to visit. We got two tickets on the Big Bus tour (which we found out is cheaper to get online). Anna and I enjoyed our open air, double decker bus style orientation of Istanbul. However, because of the traffic, the amount of folks using the service, and frequency of the buses on the route, we found it a great service for orienting and seeing the sites but not for being able to use it as a transportation service (hopping on and hopping off again whenever we pleased). But for getting a quick tour and orientation of the city this is still a great service and deal. What IS an excellent transportation service is the Istanbul Tram which has lines that go throughout the city with convenient stopping locations and a set fee for riding the line (as opposed to a calculated fee for which stop you want to go to–a fee to ride the line is the same one stop or all the way to the end of the line).

We took a boat trip to Princes’ Island. Many well to do folks have summer homes there and it’s a great escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. The island is quite small, and you can hire a horse and buggy to give you a tour around the island. I can see how folks living in the city would want to do something like this, as it would be decompressing from the chaos of the city. But for Anna and I we found it a little boring, and for the amount of time we spent getting there, waiting for a ferry to return, and then the additional travel time to get back we found it not worth the effort. If a horse and buggy ride is high on your to do list I would recommend it. Otherwise, skip it.

I am not much of a shopper (that’s Anna’s thing). But I did enjoy the time we spent getting lost in the Grand Bazaar. I liked the history of it all–it’s amazing to think this place has been around for centuries (it began construction in 1455 and was completed after 1730). Granted, the prices needed to be seriously negotiated–the begin with a price that is seriously inflated. I also enjoyed the Egyptian Bazaar. If given a choice to visit one or the other I would choose the Egyptian Bazaar. It’s not out of the way, it’s compact so you can get in and out quickly, and to me it seemed more vibrant and alive. But if you like mazes and shopping then you’ll probably love the Grand Bazaar! 

If you like to travel to have a cultural experience, eat good food, see historical sites, and shop until you drop, then Istanbul should be on your list of destinations. I know that since my visit Turkey has had some political turmoil and bombings, nowadays I don’t think there’s a 100% “safe” place to travel. I personally wouldn’t feel unsafe visiting Istanbul now, not anymore unsafe as visiting Paris–both of which have had their share of recent terrorist activities.

We were super fortunate to connect with one of my long time friends, Selen, who was kind enough to treat us to a Turkish feast on one of the evenings. I’ve known Selen since ’93 when folks were connecting on the young Internet in mIRC channels. It was such a treat to be able to see her!

For Anna and I it was one treat to the next, with a lot of walking to earn the next beer/meal. Every few steps you’d see someone making homemade mantı (think Turkish raviolis in a yoghurt sauce) or rolling out and frying up fresh gözleme (think Turkish crepes with meats, spices, and cheeses inside). Every turn a new dining adventure. When we left we filled our luggage with cheeses, meats, olives, figs, dates, nuts, and the best sun dried tomatoes you can imagine for a fraction of the cost in Asia or the States. I actually felt like we made money on that trip just in shopping savings! Looking at these pictures, and remembering the fantastic time we had, I feel like it’s about time for another shopping trip, too. 

Dear Reader,

This blog is a labor of love, and love is all I can afford to put into it (not advertising dollars). I really hope to have an active audience reading my articles. If you enjoyed this article, and feel that others would as well, please consider sharing it on your preferred social media platform.  Thank you!