Archive for February, 2008

Feb 29 2008

Emerald Buddhas, Lucky Buddhas & Giant Buddhas

Published by under Bangkok,Thailand

So I’m not going to lie: Bangkok kicked my ass. It said, you think you’ve TRAVELED, GIRL? You think you’ve SEEN THINGS? all sassy-like. And then it gave me such a butt-whoopin’ that, by the end of our second full day there, I found myself curled up in a ball in the corner of my bed, whimpering like a baby.

That morning started out on a better note. We wanted to actually do some sightseeing, so we hopped a water taxi to the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew, two of Bangkok’s top attractions (funnily enough, since Bangkok doesn’t have a comprehensive public transportation system, water taxis along the Chao Phraya river and its canals are popular). Upon disembarking, we were greeting by the typical chaos of streets lined with hundreds of food vendors. Bangkok’s street food is legendary, and rightfully so: it is amazing. I haven’t had such good food since Italy. I’d go into more detail, but I have a feeling I’m going to have to devote an entire entry to Thai food very soon.

We were also greeted by Thai con artists (we can’t escape these people!), whose modus operandi is to tell you that wherever you’re headed is closed, and instead you should come with them to see the “lucky Buddha.” We never did find out where they actually take you. The incredible thing is that even if you insist your destination is open – even if you’re within sight of the door and can see people walking inside – they will maintain that it is actually closed. There’s no use arguing. By the end of our week in Bangkok we’d simply claim that we’d already seen the “lucky Buddha,” and it sucked. They didn’t really know how to respond to that.

entering the grand palaceThe Grand Palace was the former residence of the Thai monarch, so it is of course ornate and huge and great. But the real reason anyone comes to the Grand Palace grounds is to see the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, or Wat Phra Kaew. The Emerald Buddha is a much-venerated Buddha image, with a long and crazy history. It was initially covered in plaster and thought to be just another everyday, run-of-the-mill Buddha, until a fall in the 15th century revealed it’s shiny interior (which, despite the name, is not emerald). Then, of course, it followed your typical and tumultuous valuable Buddha path: stolen by Laos, stolen back by Thai invaders, etc., etc. When it was finally and officially recaptured by the Thais, it was placed in the country’s most splendid temple, Wat Phra Kaew, where it sits today, serving as a popular Buddhist pilgrimage point.

As our first wat visit, we learned the ins and outs of wat etiquette. You must remove your shoes before entering the temple. When you sit on the floor inside, you must be careful not to point you feet towards the Buddha. The Thais regard the head as the most sacred and “highest” part of the body and feet as the lowest and dirtiest, so pointing your feet at an object is a severe sign of disrespect. You must also, of course, be appropriately dressed. Since the Grand Palace is such a tourist destination, they offer long pants and long-sleeved shirts for clueless tourists that show up too scantily clad. So it was hilarious to see large white men walking around in what were basically Hammer pants with a Mickey Mouse print.

Now, I thought I’d seen ornate, having visited celebrated European cathedrals, but I’ve seen NOTHING like these Buddhist temples (which is strange, ’cause isn’t Buddhism all about simplifying?). Every possible surface of Wat Phra Kaew is covered in colorful, glittering glass or jewels or intricate murals. The revered Emerald Buddha sits atop a huge, decorated, gilded pedestal. Given all the build-up, I kind of expected the Buddha to be … well, bigger, at the very least. But not only does it seem small, it gets lost amongst all the trappings around it. The Emerald Buddha does, however, have a different outfit for each season of the year. The king himself comes and ceremoniously changes his outfit each season!

It was about this time when the afternoon heat was really getting to me (how is this the “cool” season??). We exited the complex to find food and water, but of course, when you need something, it’s nowhere to be found. We decided to soldier on to one more wat before stopping to rest.

Turned out to be worth it. Wat Pho contains a Buddha that is nearly 50 meters long. Yes, half the length of a football field. And gold. Seriously. We filmed a video, but it hardly captures the size of this massive thing.

Biggest Buddha EVER from Brittany & Ben on Vimeo.

Having spent hours enduring the oppressive heat and smog of Bangkok without food or water, I pretty much threw a hissy fit right after we left Wat Pho, so we waved down a tuk-tuk to take us home.

our tuk tuk driver
Our tuk-tuk driver.

These are not the romantic tuk-tuks of yesteryear (which I’ve always envisioned as a wheelbarrow pulled by a nimble and swift Asian man). They are basically glorified golf carts. And they weave through traffic as they please, ignoring other vehicles, pedestrians and traffic laws. Not only are you holding on for dear life, convinced you’re going to die with each near-miss, you’re also swallowing exhaust fumes and gasping for oxygen. The tuk-tuk drivers (and pretty much all street workers in Bangkok), have to wear surgical masks because the pollution is so bad. I don’t carry around surgical masks in my purse, so you can imagine how the tuk-tuk ride improved my mood.

Which is how I found myself, at four o’clock in the afternoon, passed out on my bed in my room, where I stayed until eight o’clock the next morning.

We learned several important lessons. You cannot, in Southeast Asia, push yourself like you can in Europe. Always, always carry water. Take lots of breaks. And visit Wat Pho because huge, reclining Buddhas are sweet.

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Feb 27 2008

So I won’t say we’re famous, but…

Published by under Travel

Because he has extremely good taste and can recognize genius when he spots it, we were recently contacted by Eric from to see if we’d be interested in doing an interview for the site. As if our blog doesn’t give us enough self-indulgent opportunity to spout off about ourselves, we excitedly agreed. If you want to read MORE about us (and the ups and downs of traveling as a couple), you can check out the interview here.

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Feb 25 2008

Introducing the Trip Planning section!

Published by under Travel

Because we get so many questions about how we travel, and because the know-how of fellow travelers was invaluable during our own trip preparations, we’ve launched a “trip planning” section, accessed through the above menu bar. It includes tips on accommodation, transportation, budget travel and packing for long-term travel (and we hope to add a restaurant reviews section shortly!). We’ve been compiling this information since Greece, but only now getting around to publishing it. We’ll be continually updating and changing the information, so stay tuned! Please let us know if you have any questions or would like to see something added. Enjoy!

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Feb 23 2008

Bangkok block!

Published by under Bangkok,Thailand

You can’t breathe. Exhaust fumes from the thousands of speeding cars and motorcycles choke your every attempt in this oppressive humidity, and turn the cloudless sky a hazy gray. You look up anyway, and see the cement underbelly of the SkyTrain track snaking between two high-rises up the street. You can feel the vibration from the train rushing overhead, but its roars are obliterated by the blaring car horns as a tuk-tuk driver caroms his way across eight lanes of traffic, and skids to a stop in front of your sidewalk. He shouts to you in broken English to get in for a ride, but you keep walking, and resist the urge to pull the city map from your pocket. The neighborhood you’ve wandered into has no street signs anyway, and looking lost will quickly attract every taxi tout and con artist in the city. About all you can be sure of is that you’ve managed to find yet another sex-trade district, and it’s gotten so hot this afternoon that you’re now visibly sweating through your second shirt of the day. But nothing can bother you this afternoon, because you’re on your way in flip-flops to visit a Buddha statue you hear is longer than half a football field, and you’ve got a plastic bag of fried banana slices in your hand. Welcome to Bangkok.

Honorable Ronald McDonald in Bangkok's Siam SquareIt’s been said that Bangkok is a city you will either love or hate, and it’s easy to see why the metropolis is so polarizing. Think of Bangkok as a the New York City of Southeast Asia: it’s severely overcrowded, terribly polluted, and the most expensive city in this part of the world. On the other hand, its cultural diversity makes for amazing dining options, the shopping is the best we’ve found on our trip, and its nightlife is deservedly world-famous. But before we could decide on which side of the love/hate fence we sit, there was plenty to explore in this first stop on our SE Asian adventure.

Like most international visitors to Bangkok, our first impression of the city was its giant airport, which is the hub for all SE Asian air travel, and threatens to quickly overwhelm any first-time visitor. Luckily for us, my aunt Nancy put me in touch with some friends of hers living in Bangkok, who had given me some tips on navigating the airport experience. We waded our way through the masses to immigration control, where we had our pictures taken for security, and were granted visiting rights for up to 28 days. If we want to stay longer than 28 days in Thailand (which we do), we need to exit the country for one night, and then return, which somehow resets our 28-day limit. Using this in-and-out method, we don’t need to apply for expensive visas. Strange but true.

Once the busy government employees at immigration control decided to allow us into the country (hooray!), we hurried to the baggage claim, where we were relieved to find that Etihad Airways (who we would highly recommend for your intercontinental needs) managed to not lose our checked luggage. Special thanks, by the way, to Brittany’s family, for taking home our giant suitcases full of winter clothes from Paris, and leaving us their smaller, nimbler versions. Baggage claim leads you toward the exit, and an inviting desk with an English sign that reads: OFFICIAL TAXIS. This one probably would have fooled us, but we already knew from my aunt’s friends that these “official taxis” are actually expensive limos, so we ignored the smiling ladies at the desk and their ride invitations in fluent English. Instead, we marched downstairs and through an unmarked door to the outside, where we found a sidewalk desk setting up everyone but the suckers upstairs with colorful “non-official” taxis. 45 minutes and 450 baht ($15) later, we had arrived at our new home for the week: Asha Guest House.

The backpacker style of accommodation in Thailand is a sure sign that you’re not in Europe anymore. All across Europe, hostels cater to the long-term traveler by offering relief from expensive hotels in the form of dorm-style bedrooms. This system allow you to rent a single bunk in a room with several other backpackers, and share a bathroom with the other travelers on your floor. But because Thailand is so cheap for most foreign visitors, hostels are few and far between. Instead, backpackers flock to the abundance of guesthouses, which tend to combine the community atmosphere of a hostel with the affordable luxury of private bedrooms. To give you an idea of the price difference, consider that we were happy to pay 15 euros each for hostel bunk beds in Western Europe. With the current painful euro to dollar conversion, that’s a total of $45 per night. In our Bangkok guesthouse, a private fan-cooled double room costs 300 baht, or $10 per night. We sprang for a room with A/C, which set us back a whopping 450 baht ($15). And did I mention our guesthouse has a swimming pool, koi pond, free WIFI, and a great on-site restaurant? All of this in the most expensive city in SE Asia. You can understand why we’ve been asking ourselves why we didn’t come here sooner.

The next morning, we inexplicably found ourselves wide awake at 7:30. Since the only days I’m used to seeing this hour are the ones in which I’m suffering through the insomnia and regret of another overnight bus ride, I looked at my watch suspiciously. But when the clocks in the guesthouse confirmed the time, I concluded that air travel must throw me off schedule even more than I thought. The early start was great news, however, because we had a pressing need to tackle. Namely, we made the mistake of arriving in Thailand without any sort of guidebook, which had more to do with the Paris bookstore prices than any desire to disavow ourselves of the wisdom of those that came before us. Fortunately, several people had recommended an apparently famous chain called Asia Books for our English-language book needs. We found one listed in Siam Square, which turns out to be a big shopping destination in Bangkok, and is sort of the center of the city. We jumped on the BTS SkyTrain (what’s that word? monorail!), and hopped off in Siam Square with no real idea where we’d find this alleged “Asia Books.” So we simply started to wander around amongst the towering department stores and restaurants, all of which looked very expensive, and packed with super-chic Thais.

We’d only been wandering for a couple of minutes with a friendly old woman approached us and asked if she could help us find what we were looking for. We asked for Asia Books, and she pointed out the direction of the store, but said that it was closed for lunch at the moment, and would re-open in just a couple of hours. In the meantime, she suggested we enjoy some shopping in the city, because as luck would have it, we had arrived on Valentine’s Day, which meant there were some amazing one-day only sales in lots of stores. This sounded appealing enough, and her next suggestion was that what we should REALLY do while in Bangkok is get some clothes tailored at prices impossible to find back in the United States. She was walking with us as she talked, and all of a sudden, wouldn’t you know it? We somehow happened upon a tuk-tuk driver parked by the side of the road. The old lady selflessly offered to tell this tuk-tuk driver to take us to the best tailor around, with really cheap prices. She asked him how much it would cost to go to this particular tailor’s shop, and when he quoted the low low price, they both looked at us expectantly. I’m happy to report that we did NOT fall for this scam, which we have since learned is one of the most popular in Bangkok. As it turns out, the overpriced tuk-tuk leads to a sketchy overpriced tailor, who only accepts payment before making your clothes, and then delivers a terrible product, if any product at all. We quickly declined the offer at the tuk-tuk, and as we hurried away, I heard the old lady mutter something in Thai to the driver she had supposedly met at the same moment we did. Bangkok block!

But I have to hand it to the Thai thieves – they go for the charming approach, rather than the blunt hand-in-your-pocket approach native to European scoundrels. The old lady was well-dressed, acted grandmotherly toward us, and put on a show like I’ve never seen from a sticky-fingered gypsy. The only problem with these scams (which range from shoddy tailoring to fake gems) is that they can’t work twice. Since that first old woman, we have been approached at every potential tourist magnet in Bangkok by friendly people who try to convince us that the attraction we came to see is closed. The sites have never been closed in any of these instances, so we never stick around to find out what each con artist is trying to sell. Twenty minutes after ditching our elderly companion in Siam Square, we finally found Asia Books, in the precise opposite direction that she had pointed. And surprise! It wasn’t closed at all.

After buying an English-language guidebook, we decided to look it over in a nearby cafe. There we bought overpriced drinks, which seem to be the favorite kind for elite Thai shopaholics. I was confused to find that my iced coffee was served with some kind of clear gel in shot glass. It had no smell, but tasted very sweet, and I figured it must be a palate-cleansing post-coffee refreshment. I liked it so much that I even asked the waiter what it was called, and he told me the Thai name: “sugar melted in water.” I suffered through Brittany’s laughter as it slowly sunk in that this gel was a sweetener for my coffee, not the tiny independent refreshment I had consumed it as. The waiter did an excellent job of stifling his laughter in my presence, but forgot that his restaurant has thin walls – immediately after he returned to the back of the house, I heard the entire kitchen staff burst out laughing. Glad I could bring some joy into your lives, my new Thai friends!

Erawan Shrine in BangkokThanks to our new guidebook, we discovered that this cafe that we could now never revisit was very close to a popular shrine in the middle of the city. We set out in its direction, and found the Erawan Shrine to be an outdoor altar dedicated to a 4-headed Brahman satatue, which all seems very out of place sitting in one corner of a Grand Hyatt complex, and underneath several criss-crossing overpasses at a busy traffic intersection. Nevertheless, the little shrine was packed with devotees lighting candles and incense, hanging wreaths on the statue altar, and even setting tiny birds free from hand-held cages. All of these items (soon-to-be-liberated birds included) are available for purchase at sidewalk stalls just outside the shrine boundaries.

The statue here is believed to grant wishes, but considering that we arrived on a random weekday mid-afternoon, I mentioned that it seemed surprisingly crowded. Then Brittany reminded me that it was Valentine’s Day, and it all made sense again. And since I’m sure you can guess how the rest of the day goes once the stupid boyfriend has to be reminded that it’s Valentine’s Day, we will call this THE END.

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Feb 22 2008

A Love Letter

Published by under Travel

Dear Europe,

It is with mixed emotion that I leave you, after five months of living with you. You’ve given me the best experiences of my life thus far, and I will never forget you. Unfortunately, in return, you’ve taken all of my dollars, you wily minx, you, so I must bid you adieu.

Who are you, Europe? Do you know? You are immensely proud of your glorious past, that’s for certain. It’s true: you were the shining star of centuries come and gone. Now you are fiercely defensive, insistent that your fifteen minutes are not over. You’ve jumped the shark, mon cher, and it’s time to face it.

Is there room for you, Europe, with all your history and art, in this internet age? Globalization is knocking at your door, threatening to dissolve individual cultures and identities. Is it possible to modernize without forsaking your heritage? You must find a way, Europe. Nations of the world will once more look to you for guidance as their cultures become endangered. This is your opportunity to lead again!

You’re an interesting place, Europe (I know, you hate it when I refer to you as a collective). Your tiny little space on the globe is jam-packed with dozens of distinct nationalities, all attempting to coexist despite centuries-long political, religious, and racial strife. Thank God for football where all remaining tensions can be played out on the field.

Not only are all your bits and pieces trying to live peacefully together, you must tolerate the ever-increasing influx of foreigners landing on your shores each day. I’ve never been to a place that both desperately loves and loathes tourists as much as you, Europe. It kills you to admit it: I know, you need me, don’t you? And yet you want to wring my little American neck, too. Thankfully, we have the Germans, our common scapegoat, who everyone in Europe loves to hate. It’s okay: let’s all hate them, so we don’t have to hate each other! They are ridiculous, aren’t they?

I feel comfortable with you, Europe. I feel as if you could plop me down in any one of your magnificent cities and I’d have a pretty good idea of how to get around. Thank you for making me confident that I could make a life in a foreign land, something I never knew or trusted about myself before. Unfortunately, my complacency with you is just another sign that it’s time to go.

Once in Prague, we recognized, amongst all the Czech, a woman speaking Greek, and we were able to greet her in her native tongue. On my very last day with you, I decided to take an early-morning walk to the Sacre Coeur to enjoy the beautiful, misty Parisian views one last time. While walking back, I was approached by two Spanish-speaking tourists. They asked me for directions in very uncertain French, and were surprised when I was able to direct them using Spanish.

So, thank you, Europe, for making me feel like a woman of the world even though I know I am so not.

Thank you, with your smorgasbord of ethnicities, your natives, immigrants and visitors, for showing me that everyone in the world is so different, but also so much the same.

You have stolen my heart; I will return. Until then, mon amour…



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Feb 20 2008

The Top 5 Reasons Why Versailles isn’t Lame After All!

Published by under France,Paris

IMG_4370There’s enough to keep you busy in Paris from now until the U.S. adopts the euro, but like most visitors to Paris, we reserved one day in our week for a daytrip to Versailles. I’ll admit I was bearish on the idea at first – I mean, what is there to DO in Versailles? Look at some gardens? Fortunately for me, I was outnumbered on this aspect of the itinerary, and we hopped the short train ride despite my misgivings.

I didn’t even realize what a minority I composed until we stepped off the train in Versailles. Before the palace complex even came into view, we saw this sign posted on the sidewalk:


Since we showed up in February, the point was moot – we walked right up to the palace and through the entrance gate with no line whatsoever. But this does highlight two points. First, and contrary to all prior evidence, visiting an establishment that sees billions and billions served need not end in heartache. Or any other ache! Or… actually, let’s stop there. Second, traveling in the low season is still severely underrated. Wait 3 hours in the sweltering summer heat, or wait 0 minutes in the cool sunshine of a February afternoon? The choice is yours.

So back to my initial question: what is there to DO in Versailles? Curiously enough, you look at some gardens. Or some furniture if you prefer, but I think you have to pay for a ticket to see that. I’d tell you to just put your face up against the glass windows like I did, but it turns out that squinting through windows at rocking chairs is slightly less thrilling than it sounds. The gardens, on the other hand, are much cooler than you’d think. Unless you’re one of the niche enthusiasts with the inexplicable purchasing power to make “Gardening TV” a viable channel in my cable lineup. Then it’s probably about as cool as you’d think. For the rest of us though, I come bearing good news. Here, for the first time ever, I present to you…

The Top 5 Reasons Why Versailles isn’t Lame After All

1. Versailles is gorgeous, even in the winter. From the trees by the lakes to the flowers by the fountains, the grounds are meticulously groomed to preserve this perennial picnic paradise. That’s 4 P’s if you count “preserve.”

2. The scale of the property is epic. I don’t remember how many hectares it covers, but it’s of little consequence, since I still don’t know what a hectare is, and no one will ever tell me. Not even the ones who I’m pretty sure know good and well what it is no matter what they may say, which has been a frustrating theme of this trip.

3. You can rent bikes! The hourly rate is sort of expensive, but then again, the bike rental place is in a perfect position to extort you, since they know you need the bikes in order to compete with your companions to see who can receive the most reciprocal “bonjours” from pedestrians when bicycling by and greeting them in your best silly French voice.

4. Versailles is an aerobic athlete’s Eden. It’s free to get into the gardens, so runners (and bikers) take advantage of the many hectares ACRES’ worth of scenic paths. Jamie was preparing for an upcoming track meet during our week in Paris, and he jumped on the chance to take our leave for an hour of running around Versailles.

IMG_43995. Marie Antoinette’s Fairytale Village. I don’t know at exactly what age Marie Antoinette married into royalty because I haven’t yet seen Kirsten Dunst’s theatric portrayal, but I do know that Versailles is home to a mock village constructed entirely to be her personal play area. Lonely Planet advises that she came here to “play milkmaid,” which sounds like some sort of veiled entendre on the part of the author that I just don’t get. Anyway, I think we can all agree that the whole thing reeks of creepy. Or should I say, reekED of creepy. Today the little hamlet beckons you like something straight out of a fairytale, and we wandered through a little vineyard to watch a swan floating on the pond by Hansel and Gretel’s cottage.

But enough about Versailles. I think everyone would have lived there happily ever after if possible, but the hoboes have a lot more experience in turf wars than we do. Plus, the next day (Friday) was Brittany’s family’s last full day in Paris, so I should probably mention it.

Let’s see… the ladies spent the morning shopping for clothes, while Jamie and I spent it sleeping, and then going to Nike Paris. Everyone was pretty tuckered out from the day before, which didn’t bode well for our evening. We’d learned that something called the “Louvre” is free for anyone under 26 on Friday nights, so we waited until our last night together to finally go. I would describe our visit as a “Let’s just see the highlights because my feet are already killing me and we’re not even inside yet” type of tour. We managed to see the biggies, but I was really struck by the size of this “Louvre” – I think you could make several day-long visits without looking at the same things twice.

Hammurabi's Code could be easily tippedThe highlight for this history nerd was seeing Hammurabi’s Code on the lower floor. What’s crazy is that this tablet is something like 4000 years old, and they’ve just got it standing in the middle of the floor, separated from the viewer only by a flimsy knee-high barrier. I expected something of its magnitude to be on serious lockdown, and here you could just reach across and tip it over? I instantly had visions of getting my own name (and picture, hopefully) right next to Hammurabi’s Code in the textbooks, but then I reflected that I wouldn’t want someone to tip ME over, so I restrained myself.

Well, I’m fresh out of corny history jokes, so I’ll wrap this up. Brittany’s family flew back home the next day, and BOY, WERE THEIR ARMS TIRED! Right? I swear, I’ll never understand why no one reads our blog.

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