RTW Budget Update: Southeast Asia

Our trip is now complete. Life is a little bit different here in the states (mostly much colder), but we’ll get to talking about that soon. For now, it’s time to take a look at how much we spent in Southeast Asia. This segment was the longest; all in, over 3.5 months. Originally it would have been a little bit shorter, but changes in plans to nix Australia and New Zealand put us in SEA for a while longer. More sunshine, more rice, more noodles, and more cheap beer is more my style. Let’s take a look at the numbers:

Part 1: Major Transportation

Transportation in Southeast Asia is made for the backpacker. Five hour bus rides can go for $10 or less; Taxis, tuk tuks, and songthaews can be had for just a few dollars, and some routes can be easily done on a train across Thailand and Vietnam. When we decided to nix Australia and New Zealand form the tail end of our trip, we were left with quite a big cushion in the budget. Because of this, we added a few flights to the mix rather than going overland and booked the best class bus or train when we could.

  • Estimated Expense: $2,400
  • Actual Expense: $1,358
  • Variance (+Better / -Worse): +$1,042

Even still, we ended up on the right side of the line, well under budget.

Part 2: In-Country Costs

  • Estimated Expense: $12,320 (112 days at $55 / day / person)
  • Actual Expense: $9,323
  • Variance (+Better / -Worse): +$2,997

But just like before, we need to account for the fact that our budget was based on a different time period spent in Southeast Asia. We spent 11 days less than we planned and we should compare apples to apples.

  • Adjusted Estimated Expense: $11,110 (101 days at $55 / day / person)
  • Actual Expense: $9,323
  • Adjusted Variance (+Better / -Worse): +$1,787

We did really well in Southeast Asia. There were not too many times where we had to turn down an activity for the sake of money. We did everything we wanted to do and we ate everything we wanted to eat. We even stayed in some nicer hotels to mix things up a bit (but mostly because after several long months in hostels and dirty guest houses I needed a little bit of luxury in my life). We visited a rice farm and Kristin learned to weave and dye fabric in Laos. We did some snorkeling tours, some kayaking tours, and some food tours in Vietnam and Thailand. We ate at more upscale restaurants in Saigon, Phnom Penh, and Bangkok. All in, we lived with a whole lot less restrictions than we did in Europe and Africa and still came in far under budget.

True Cost for Southeast Asia: $46 / day / person

Ang-Thong-Marine-Park
Snorkeling in Ang Thong Marine Park
Krabi-Cavemen-Kayaking
Kayaking through caves near in Krabi Province in Thailand
Soul-Food-Bangkok
Full bar at Soul Food Mahanakorn in Bangok

How to Overspend in Thailand

On our first visit to Thailand, I want to say we were young and naive. It was several years ago, in 2011, and we were only 24 years old. We were starting to make more money in our respective careers and our pockets were as deep as ever. So when we visited Thailand with three other close friends, our spending habits were never kept in check. It was a short trip of course, just 12 days. And in those 12 days, we spent more than we would on our current “long-term” travel budget in over a month.

Bangkok-Skyline
The beautiful skyline of Bangkok, where it’s too easy to spend, spend, spend…

I found some notes on our spending, and part of me feels ashamed and maybe a little taken advantage of. On the positive side – I feel better now that we know better. We know how much things should cost and we know how to make our dollars work for us.

Looking at these numbers of past travels, it made me realize why so many locals try to scam the farang (Thai for western foreigners). On recent travels there have been all too many times where a taxi driver refused to take us when we asked him to run the meter, where a tuk-tuk tried to charge two to three times the going rate for a ride, and where we’ve walked by and peeked at the menus overpriced tourist-oriented restaurants. It’s just too easy for these guys to pass you up for a more unsuspecting visitor.

That’s exactly what we were on our first trip. Unsuspecting. Too charmed by the big smiles of the locals to think twice. And boy did they have their way with us.

Here’s a few notes that I found about our spending:

Beer

Singha-Beer
A big bottle of Singha beer from 7-11 for 55 baht ($1.69)

Our first night in Bangkok we arrived pretty late, about 11pm. Worn out by nearly 24 hours of travel, we asked the hotel for a place to go to grab a drink. We were in Silom. Just go down this road, turn right, and there’s a night market. We walked in the night and took in the sights, sounds, and smells of the city. Before long we had arrived at the night market. Turns out we were in Patpong. One of the seedy centers of Bangkok’s red light districts.

We sat down, ordered five Chang beers (the favorite of backpackers), and watched the working girls try to entice customers.

  • The Unsuspecting Farang Cost: 800 baht (160 baht each) + a 25% tip = 1,000 baht (~$30).
  • The Real Cost: At a 7-11, five cans of Chang would cost 175 baht (35 baht each). At a normal bar, it would go for about 250 baht (50 baht each) + 10 – 20 baht as a tip = 270 baht (~$8.50).

Tipping for Tours

In Chiang Mai, we did a tour that included an elephant camp (which we shouldn’t have done in the first place, but that’s a story for another day), a ride on a bamboo raft, a nice lunch, and a nice minibus to drive us around for the day. The tour cost was a little overpriced, but not grossly. We spent 8,755 baht total, coming in at about 1,750 baht each for the day.

But here’s where we spent too much – tipping the driver and our guide for the day.

  • The Unsuspecting Farang Cost: 500 baht for the guide + 500 baht for the driver = 1000 baht (~$30).
  • The Real Cost: Thai people do not tip often. When they do at restaurants, it’s likely only leaving the change and maybe 20 baht maximum. Although now with western influence, and likely due to America’s extravagant tipping culture, many locals working in the tourism industry come to expect a tip. Nowadays, I would go with something much more modest – 100 or 200 baht for the guide (if they were really good) and maybe 100 baht for the driver = 300 baht maximum (~$9.25).

Laundry

While in Phuket, we were lucky enough to have a Thai friend set us up with a beautiful room in a luxury resort for something like $40 a night. Just 1/4 or 1/5 the going rate for the room. But with a luxury room, comes luxury prices on everything else.

We had our laundry done at the hotel. Of course, being a nice hotel, they charged by the piece. Shirts had a fixed rate, shorts had a fixed rate, underwear, socks, and so on and so on.

  • The Unsuspecting Farang Cost: 1,350 baht (~$41.75) for a couple of day’s worth of clothing for five people.
  • The Real Cost: Most local shops in Thailand do laundry based on weight. Some charging as little as 20 baht / kg and some as much as 50 baht / kg. For several day’s worth of clothes, I’m guessing we had about 5 kg max. At an average rate of 35 baht / kg, that bag of laundry should have only cost us 175 baht (~$5.50).

Food

Kanom-Jeen
Kanom Jeen found at a local market for 20 baht ($.60)
Nam-Prick-Aung
Nam Prick Aung at a local restaurant for 70 baht ($2.15)

They say Thailand has some of the best street food in the world. It’s true, you can eat great food for real cheap. But for a first time visitor, this can be intimidating. Some worry about cleanliness, some worry about the sheer act of sitting on tiny stools on the sidewalk, and some worry about not knowing how to order. So they eat in fancy tourist-oriented restaurants, with English speaking staff, English menus, and pretty decorations.

One meal at this same luxury resort I mentioned, was all that. Albeit delicious, it cost us a small fortune. We ate in a private room and we had dish after dish of excellently prepared Thai food brought to our table.

  • The Unsuspecting Farang Cost: 7,000 baht to feed 8 people (875 baht / person).
  • The Real Cost: There is such a wealth of food options to satisfy any budget. On the street we can eat for 50 baht / person. At a local restaurant, we can eat 100 baht / person. Even at a nicely decorated, modern restaurant, we can eat for 200 baht / person.

Transportation

Taxi and tuk-tuk drivers are notorious in Bangkok for trying to overcharge. Taxis don’t want to run their meters and tuk-tuks want to charge double or triple the going rate. We were staying in Sukhumvit and wanted to go to the boxing match at Lumphini Stadium. It’s just a short 4km drive and we jumped in the first taxi that was willing to take us.

  • The Unsuspecting Farang Cost: 250 baht.
  • The Real Cost: Taxis in Bangkok are super cheap if you can get them to run the meter and take a reasonable route to your destination. Frankly, I think the reason that taxis try to overcharge so much is that the meter rate is just too low. A four km ride should cost you 35 baht for the flag, including the 1st kilometer, and then just 5 baht for each additional kilometer. Total cost for 4 km = 50 baht.

Note: In comparison, the going rate in Vietnam is about 12,000 dong for the flag (19 baht) and then 16,000 dong per kilometer (25 baht). Seriously, Bangkok: you need to raise your taxi rates.

Foreign Transaction Fees and ATMs

This last misstep isn’t a Thailand problem, but a global problem. Banks in the US are notorious for finding a way to charge fees for nearly everything they can. And for an expensive international trip, these fees can add up.

  • The Unsuspecting Farang Cost: $5 for each ATM withdrawal; 3% on all credit card transactions.
  • The Real Cost: Now that we are on a long term trip, we managed to find ways to avoid these fees. Imagine if we had to pay 3% in foreign transaction fees on $10,000 in spend – $300 in unnecessary costs. Instead, we have credit cards that do not charge this fee at all. No foreign transaction fees anywhere. Kristin’s Capital One VentureOne card has no annual fee. Mine, however, charges $85 annually, but I get all sorts of good stuff from Marriott that makes up for that fee. In addition, we have a checking account through Charles Schwab that refunds all of our ATM fees. So the real cost of bank fees for traveling internationally – $0.

Hanoi’s Secret Courtyard: Cafe Pho Co

Tucked behind a tourist’s t-shirt shop and silk store is one of Hanoi’s not-so-secret coffee shops, except for the fact that it’s easily missed by the casual walker-by. It sits near a congested traffic “circle” in the old quarter, which is surrounded by numerous other similar shops enticing customers with a lakeside view.

But Cafe Pho Co, isn’t out front trying to lure the crowds in. It’s hidden behind these shops, down a dark alley, behind some bird cages, past a bonsai tree, and up several stair cases. Walking in you’ll feel like you’re intruding because in most similar alleys around Hanoi you’ll find local residences. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if there weren’t at least one family residing behind the doors of this cafe.

We ordered at the bottom of the stairs, for me- a Vietnamese egg coffee. Super creamy, lots of sweet, but not enough kick for me. Either way, we enjoyed the view, sipped on my dessert of a coffee and peaked around to find the various eccentricities of the place.

Cafe-Pho-Co-Hanoi
Hidden out in the open…
Cafe-Pho-Co-Hanoi
… and down a dark alley…
Cafe-Pho-Co-Hanoi
… behind some bird cages…
Cafe-Pho-Co-Hanoi
… up several staircases…
Cafe-Pho-Co-Hanoi
… awaits a great view!
Cafe-Pho-Co-Hanoi
… and some Vietnamese style egg coffee.

Angkor Wat: If You Can’t Beat Em,’ Join Em.’

Visiting Angkor Wat is like going to Disneyland: it’s expensive, it’s hot, there’s a lot of walking, and there’s people everywhere.

Angkor-Wat-Crowds
Good luck beating the crowds in Angkor!

We tried to think of strategies to escape it, but alas, they just don’t exist. And we’re usually pretty good at avoiding the crowds. Here are some tips to make the most out of your experience, even when there will always be 1000 people around you at any given point.

1. Buy a multi-day pass. I don’t know if anyone goes to Siem Reap for just one day. Highly unlikely. If you buy a 3 day pass or a weeklong pass it’ll be less expensive in the long run. Also consider that if you visit for sunset after 5pm, the ticket does not need to be validated for the day, but instead will get stamped on the next.

Angkor-Wat-East-Sunset
Quiet sunset on the eastern perimeter of Angkor Wat

2. Eat cheap. There are a ton of restaurants in Siem Reap, almost all of them catering to tourists. That means that most of them are more expensive because, well, they can get away with it. There are some restaurants that aren’t too bad, most of them around the old market area. These will only set you back $2-$3 a meal as opposed to $5-$7 which may not be much, but over a few days it adds up to something.

3. Shop around for a tuk tuk driver. There are tuk tuk drivers everywhere in Siem Reap, and while they may be easy to find, they put up a pretty hard bargain. We managed $15 for the small circuit (day 1), $23 to Banteray Srei along with a few others in the small circuit (day 2), and $35 to Beng Melea, the Roulos Group, and Phnom Bakeng (day 3). That is compared to probably $20, $30, and $40 some people (or cars) were trying to charge for the same things, respectively. Do keep in mind – these guys work hard for their money; they work to put a roof over their head, food on the table, and to send their kids to school. Ask your hotel for rates, ask drivers on the streets for rates, and come up with a number that works for you. Don’t get ripped off, but please don’t get worked up over a dollar or two.

Siem-Reap-Tuk-Tuk
An early morning ride on our tuk-tuk / chariot with our driver, Mr. Pich

4. Pack breakfast or lunch. There are small shops around most temples offering food, drinks, hats, etc. but the temples are also less busy around lunch so if you pack your own it’ll probably be less expensive and maybe a little less crowded. Same for breakfast if you want to see sunrise at Angkor Wat or any other temple for that matter. Bring some apples and peanut butter or muesli and yogurt and eat your breakfast while watching a beautiful sunrise over Angkor Wat.

5. If you want to go to Phnom Bakeng and not be in the midst of hundreds try going around 2-3. We went at this time and we were there with only six other people. It may not be sunset, but I prefer less people to explore than the sun going down.

6. Banteay Srei is absolutely worth the drive. Hands down my favorite temple. Go.

Banteay-Srei
Banteay-Srei- the beautiful details.
Banteay-Srei
The big picture at Banteay-Srei.
Banteay-Srei
A picture framed picture.

7. Beng Melea is far. Two hours by tuk tuk each way. I really wanted to go but Nick hemmed and hawed over the price. On top of the tuk tuk you pay $5 each for entry and then have to tip a guide once they show you around. We got there very early. 8AM. And while this a less travelled to temple, as we were leaving there were busloads of people, probably at least six huge tour buses, a dozen minibuses, and a handful of cars and tuk tuks, dropping people off. If you go when there are tons of people there it’s definitely not worth it. If you go, go in the morning when you basically have the place to yourself.

Beng-Mealea
A real root takeover.

Reunification Palace in Saigon: A Lesson in Style

The Reunification Palace in Saigon was nothing I expected. Expertly designed and decorated, it’s more a lesson in style than history until you stumble down the stairway into the basement bunker. This is where the war was fought. With telephones, communication devices, and maps upon maps on the walls, the drama that took place down there is still present. The upstairs is just as dramatic but in a completely different direction. The juxtaposition of grit and glamour makes it all the more alluring. Take a peek into the palace.

Waiting for a phone call in the bunker.
Waiting for a phone call in the bunker.
Typewriter row.
Typewriter row.
An orange perspective.
An orange perspective.
Mural-ings. Pretty things.
Mural-ings. Pretty things.
Fixture this.
Fixture this.
Loitering in the library.
Loitering in the library.
Around the table.
Around the table.
Cool composition.
Cool composition.
A grand room.
A grand room.
Heli pad on the palace pad.
Heli pad on the palace pad.
Stairs to stare at.
Stairs to stare at.
Windows for days.
Windows for days.

Halong Bay Junk Boat: Not So Junk-y After All

While we were in Hanoi, we knew we had to take the opportunity to shoot east to Halong Bay and jump on a Junk Boat cruise. Junk boats are a popular tour in Halong Bay, as that’s really the only way you can see it, so there are many options to choose from, obviously with a huge range in price. We ended up on an IndoChina Junk boat, more out of availability, but left with a good feeling about how they run their business. Throughout the trip our guide, Hung, explained to us reasons why we go to certain places, reasons why we visit certain villages, and helped us understand the good they are trying to do for the tourism industry in Halong Bay.

Halong-Bay-Junk-Boat
Our junk boat: the Dragon’s Pearl II

Halong Bay is very beautiful. Monolithic islands of limestone dot the water in every direction to what seems like infinity. The water is calm and that’s basically it. That’s the scene for the few days on the junk boat, and outside of the extensively planned meals and some kayaking mixed in, you’re left to entertain yourself staring into the bay (or in the evening- drink heavily after you’ve thrown in the towel on squid fishing). It’s a nice respite from Hanoi, that’s for sure.

Indochina-Junk-Dance-Party
Post dinner dance party

Speaking in tourism terms, Halong Bay can we divided into three sections: Ha Long Bay Center, Lan Ha Bay near Cat Ba Island, and Bai Tu Long Bay. Most junk boat tours tour through Halong Bay Center but IndoChina Junk has managed to wiggle their way into the less trafficked area of Bai Tu Long Bay to offer their clients a much calmer Halong Bay experience. They developed a program called “For a Green Halong Bay” which is supported by the government and the residents of Halong Bay. It is a two part project that focuses on removal and treatment of waste as well as mangrove reforestation in Bai Tu Long Bay and building new cultural houses and schools in fishing villages. Tourism is slowly taking its toll on Halong Bay. Mangroves have been cleared to make way for all the tourist boats and pollution is on the rise among other things. Indochina Junk is trying to reverse it’s impact by actively putting forth energy and constructive processes into the places they visit with their tours.

Vung Vieng fishing village is one such example. This fishing village is located in a pocket of limestone islands, sheltering the residents from strong winds and choppy water. We noticed the second we arrived that it was so much warmer inside their watery home. Hung told us that in the beginning the residents of the village did not like tourists. Indochina Junk ended up striking a deal with the residents. They would help clean up their waters (they were very polluted from day to day activity), they would build a new floating school, and they would exchange the foam floats that hold up their floating houses for plastic ones that would be a long term sustainable solution for them and the environment in which they live.

Vung-Vieng-Fishing-Village
The village from afar
Vung-Vieng-Fishing-Village
Paddling with feet at Vung Vieng fishing village
Vung-Vieng-Fishing-Village
A local school house at Vung Vieng fishing village

This junk boat operator also decided to buy a cave, Thien Canh Son cave, that is. Located in a small island in Bai Tu Long Bay, it is only for visitors of Indochina Junk. This is where they hold the final dinner of the cruise. Now, getting rights to an island was no easy task. There were people living their for gosh sakes. They ended up striking another deal by providing these cave dwellers with alternative lodging.

Thien-Canh-Son-Cave-Dinner
BBQ dinner in Thien Canh Son cave
Thien-Canh-Son-Cave-Dinner
The whole group in Thien Canh Son cave

They also now run a kayak shop on the island that houses Thien Canh Son cave, that gives the clients of Indochina Junk a chance to paddle around the islands themselves.

Halong-Bay-Kayaking
Kayaking in Bai Tu Long Bay

An optional, additional night to add onto your Halong Bay tour involves a village homestay on the mainland in Yen Duc Village. The name of this village may sound familiar as it provided us with a great place to ride our bikes. But it was another strategic decision for Indochina Junk. After scouting several villages for a homestay, Yen Duc Village was the winner. Recognized as a national relic in 1993, the village retains traditional agricultural features and a offers a peaceful peek into rural Vietnamese life. When we asked Huong, our guide, what the village people thought of its new place in tourism, she basically said the same thing as the residents of the fishing village. It was a change indeed. At first unwelcome, but with the cleanliness and beautification of the village brought about by the new relationship as well as the creation of new jobs for the villagers, the locals will give you a nice hearty wave and hello upon seeing a foreign face.

When we were kayaking one day there was a lonely bottle floating in the water that Hung went over to snag for the trash. Now, I’m not sure if everything Indochina junk does is perfect, as nothing is, and I’m sure they’ve had their bumps along the way, but it’s clear that they’re taking their effect on the environment seriously and doing their part in retaining the natural beauty of Halong Bay.

Bike Vietnam

Like most SE Asian countries, Vietnam is an assault on the senses, sometimes for good and sometimes not. Between sidestepping your way around sidewalks, scooting through motor scooters, and saying no countless times to ladies trying to stuff your faces with donuts on the street, the cities of Vietnam will have you screaming ‘Serenity now!’ in no time flat. Luckily, there are other places. Unfortunately, most people opt to see these places on stuffy tour buses with more stuffy tourists which will also not lessen your need for serenity. Skip the buses, don’t skip the countryside, and hop on a bicycle. Two wheels gives you much needed freedom to explore the peacefulness that exists outside of the city limits. And while this mode of transportation can probably help you find tranquility in many other places other than Vietnam, I found it particularly awesome here. Below are a few places we jumped off the bandwagon and onto a bike. Serenity now (insanity later)!

Ninh Binh

We were torn on what to do in Ninh Binh. It is a little town and used as a jumping off point for exploring two popular tourist destinations, Tam Coc and the Hoa Lu temples. There are many tours that will take you through these places for a good amount of money and some quality time in an air conditioned bus, hooray. We went in a different direction and took the local bus to Ninh Binh. From there we rented bicycles (relatively new ones for a change) and lost our way into the countryside and into the beauty of Trang An. This was probably one of my most favorite days on our whole trip thus far.

Trang-An-Grottoes
A boat ride after biking to Trang An Grottoes

Yen Duc Village Homestay

After a two day sailing cruise around Halong Bay we opted for a one night stay at the Yen Duc Village Homestay. This is an up and coming tourist village but with it being so new our foreign faces were in for a lot of staring time. Here, besides catching fish with bamboo baskets, planting a garden, visiting the morning market, and learning how to make a northern Vietnamese dessert we also got some bike riding time in. Although we had a guide for the tour, it was a pleasant ride around a little village with some beautiful scenery and of course an abundance of rice fields.

Yen-Duc-Village-Bike
Biking around Yen Duc village

Hue

Hue is an historic town. Boasting several ancient tombs and an ancient citadel along the river, there’s enough to see for a few days. Usually, the tombs are best seen by boat tour. Unfortunately for us it was quite chilly and rainy while we were there so the boat tour was pretty out of the question. Instead, we took a break in the rain to bicycle down to the Tu Duc Tomb to nose around. We passed through tiny streets, cemeteries, people being people, all stuff that you can easily miss on a boat or a bus. I enjoyed the tomb way more than I thought I would and if we had more time I would have liked to explore all three major stops. After the tombs we regrouped and decided to head out to a handmade bridge in the countryside. Commissioned by a little old lady a long time ago, this bridge was quite small. And while the destination might not be all it’s cracked up to be, getting there was the fun part. We passed little kids playing badminton with cardboard box lids and decided to buy them some real racquets. Seeing as it was late in the day we passed many farmers tending their fields, fishing, and picking morning glory from its murky living space, and we were provided tea and dried ginger snacks from a very nice lady at the bridge. All thanks to the humble bicycle.

Tu-Duc-Tomb-Gate
Feels like fall at the Tu Duc Tomb
Tu-Duc-Tomb-Kristin
Exploring the Tu Duc Tomb

Mekong Delta

The Mekong Delta was another question mark in our trip. Do we go or not go? Do we go there for a few days or take a day trip from Saigon? Looking into it further, it seemed that the day trips were a whole lot of driving and not a whole lot of doing much of anything. Most of them head to My Tho which is the northernmost town of the delta and I’m guessing the most overrun with visitors. After reading some travel blogs and conducting a little more research we decided to go for it, but to go further into the delta than most people. Here, we opted for another homestay, Nguyen Shack, which is a little down the river from the town of Can Tho. We took a bus to Can Tho, then a taxi to a bridge and then from the bridge they came and picked us up from a tiny dock and took us to the homestay by boat. Boat is the only way in and out. Peaceful and inviting on all accounts. I knew I wanted to do two things in the delta: go to the floating market, and go bike riding. Unfortunately we were only able to go to the floating market as Nick came down with something, but I assure you the bike riding would have been awesome. The guy who manages the place offers bike tours for a few bucks or you can just take bikes for free and ride around yourself. He’s even nice enough to draw you a little map of where to go. That was what we were going to do had it all worked out.

Nguyen-Shack-Homestay-Pano
The quiet countryside of the Mekong Delta

But not everything always comes up evens. Next time. Even so, Vietnam by bike is beautiful and undiscovered. Find your own bliss on two wheels.

Living With the Land in Luang Prabang

Slowly but surely, but really quite quickly, a food movement has taken hold. Part of this movement is the demand from the foodies and hipsters of the world to know where their chicken comes from. Is it from Illinois? Iowa? What did it eat? Did it have friends? What was its name? Can we visit the farm? While not many people take it to the extreme and actually visit the farm that their food comes from, we happened to have the opportunity; and we took it.

Being in SE Asia, we’ve eaten a lot of rice. And although at home we may not give a second thought to the blood, sweat, and tears that go into growing and harvesting those tiny morsels of deliciousness it’s really hard to ignore it here. Rice paddies spill out in front of you as soon as you leave any city and reach the countryside. Rice farming goes way back. Every day you can see the conical hatted farmers in their fields- sowing their seeds, fussing with their rice shoots, reaping their crop.

While in Luang Prabang we had the chance to visit the Living Land Farm on the outskirts of town. It’s a relatively new venture started by two brothers with a long family history of farming. But these guys are of the new generation. Turning a profession that leaves most living barely above the poverty line into a program that’s pushing them into the towns elite. The farm sells the best organic produce to the top restaurants in town and spends most mornings educating tourists on rice farming while charging each person what would equate to a weeks pay for the average farmer.

The program takes you through each stage of growing rice.

Prepping the Land

First step is to plough the fields. Fill the paddies with the right amount of water and put your tractor to work prepping the soil for new seedlings. Traditionally, this is done with a water buffalo. For most farmers this has a two-fold benefit: 1) Buffalos are way cheaper than a real tractor. Under $1000 compared to up to 10x that amount for a tractor. 2) Buffalos provide fertilizer. That’s right. These friendly beasts are a rice farmer’s best friend.

Our water buffalo for the day was named Suzuki. There’s another on site that we didn’t get to meet named Yamaha.

Living-Land-Farm-Suzuki
Suzuki: the resident tractor

Germination

While the farmers are busy prepping the paddies, one section of the farm is closed off for germination of this season’s harvest. Lumped close together these young seedlings are nurtured until they are ready for the next step, transplanting.

Living-Land-Rice-Farm-Germination
Young seedlings well into germination

Planting

Here’s where the pain begins. The seedlings that are properly germinated are picked by hand and transplanted to their final home. Arched over, ankle deep in the mud we planted each seed, one by one, 20cm apart, in a nice little row. Well at least it started in a nice little row. The guide laughed at us a little bit as we are hard at work and mentioned that most of the time he has to re-do what had been done by the day’s visitors. We tried. We’re told this process takes a minimum of 240 man hours of back-breaking work for each hectare of rice.

Living-Land-Farm-Transplant
Transplanting the crop seed by seed

Harvesting

Cutting

Once the rice has dried out it’s time to harvest. A sickle, which you can find for sale in any market in town, is the tool of the trade here. Harvesting is also a plant by plant operation. Each individual shoot is sickled by itself. Take hold of the plant, place the sickle at the base of the plant, and pull to cut. Once you have a handful of these you have your first bundle. Use one of the plants to tie around the bundle in your hand. Now repeat until you’re finished harvesting the field.

Living Land Farm Rice Bundle Sickle
Harvesting rice using a sickle bundle by bundle

Threshing

Now that you have your bundles of rice it’s time to remove the seeds. Something to the likes of a nunchuk are involved in this process, alone with something that looks like a cornhole board without the hole and the party game. Put the rice stalk bundle in the nunchuk and then beat the bundle (with the seeds facing down) on the board. This will send the rice flying off the stalks and onto a mat. Once you’ve completed this with all your harvested rice you fan any of the remaining stalks off the rice pile with a rice dance and song (pictured).

The rice in the current form still has the husk on it. You’ll notice it’s brown in the picture and not white like the grains we are used to seeing. Removing the husk is a two step process. A scoop of rice gets put into a stone bowl in the ground. Then using your foot and a lever contraption with a stone at the end, you push the lever up and down to ‘beat’ the husk off the rice. For one batch this takes about 40 minutes. Yikes. After all that your rice and your husk are still living in the same place and they need to be separated. This involves a highly skilled technique of flipping the rice around in a tray and blowing the grains out. Apparently, if you’re a woman and don’t know how to do this, then no one will want to marry you.

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Fanning the rice away from the stalks
Living-Land-Farm-Husks
Separating the husks and grains

And that’s it. Hours of our hard work and we were left with just a few cups of rice. Enough to feed a few of us, which is exactly what happened. The day ends with a few snacks: some sticky rice (with a buffalo skin chili paste for dipping), sweets made from rice flour, and some sugar cane juice to wash it all down. It was a pleasant day on the farm where we learned a lot about the work ethic of rice farmers. If there’s anything we can do to thank them for all their work it’s this: next time you order rice with a meal, you better eat every last morsel on that plate. We will.

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Our souvenir for a day’s work

The Wrong Way from Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang

It’s been done many times before. The tour groups have long pushed this route along the banana pancake trail and it’s in every guidebook on ‘an experience not to be missed’. The slow boat down the Mekong starts just over the border of Thailand and Laos and takes you into Luang Prabang. It’s a long journey, but after our mis-adventures in Africa I assumed we could handle it.

Chiang Rai to Chiang Kong (morning of Day 1)

The trip started easy enough out of the bus station in Chiang Rai: we showed up, hopped on a rickety, old bus and were off. This was a local bus, however, and with all things local come surprises. Just outside of the bus station we were waved down by someone trying to a hitch a ride. He had his pickup filled with produce, some rice, maybe a few motorbike parts, and a few boxes of who knows what. We loaded up, he hopped on, and we continued down the pothole-filled roller coaster road to Chiang Kong. 65 baht lighter, and 3 hours and a sore back later we had reached the Thai frontier.

Crossing the Border (afternoon of Day 1)

I was looking forward to a nice, easy border crossing into Laos, leaving us enough time to buy tickets for the next day’s slow boat. But after getting off the bus, we were accosted by tuk tuk drivers eager to take us to the new bridge in town. Just a short two weeks earlier the Thai-Laos friendship bridge had been opened, closing the old boat crossing in town, and sending Thais and farang alike 10km out of town to the new land crossing. So Kristin, myself, and a curious Turkish guy, who spoke no English, hitched a ride across the border with a smiley tuk tuk driver who must have been super excited about all the new business that would be coming his way.

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The brand new border crossing in Chiang Kong

We arrived at the crossing 15 minutes later and I’ve got to say, the new buildings and bridge are quite impressive. Nothing like the land crossings we had seen before, and brand-spankin’ new. There was no funny business after that and we exited Thailand, payed 20 baht for a shuttle across no man’s land, got our visas processed into Laos for $35 each, and continued onto Huay Xai.

Huay Xai to Pakbeng (Day 2)

For some, Huay Xai may warrant a stop over for more than a night. We met a German fellow who was there for the Gibbon Experience, a highly-rated trek to swim under waterfalls, zipline through the jungle, sleep in tree houses, and for the lucky- spot some local gibbons. But we had places to be and headed for the boat landing to buy tickets. Unfortunately, it was closed for the day and we made plans to get up early the next morning to make sure we got a nice seat and not one crouched inside the engine compartment as we had heard from others. Our hotel did offer to buy tickets for us at $40 a pop, including a nice $12.50 commission above the normal price of $27.50 (220,000 kip). How nice of them, but I’ll pass.

Huay-Xai-Slow-Boat-Ticket-Office
Posted ticket prices in Huay Xai

Instead, at 8:00 am flat the next morning we made our way back to the boat landing. We were the first to arrive. No sign of life besides a guy stripped down to his underwear bathing in the river. Eventually we found a guy hiding behind the ticket office and bought tickets for the day’s boat. And then we waited. And waited some more. Some people showed up. More waiting. We loaded our bags on the boat. And continued to wait. At 1:00 pm, with 200 people and 2 boats loaded up we were finally starting our journey on the slow boat down the Mekong.

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Locals on a neighboring boat as we depart

It was peaceful. The sun was shining and we gazed at the sparkling temples on the hillside. We laughed at a few Thai and French children warm up to each other and then laugh and play while running up and down the aisles. But not more than an hour or two later I had gotten bored. I started to take swigs of the Thai whiskey that I had bought the night before. I ate the chicken sandwich we bought before leaving. I practiced some Thai. I went and bought an overpriced coke and then poured a liberal amount of whiskey into the can. Kristin gave me dirty looks while telling me that I looked like an alcoholic. I fell asleep.

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These Thai and French kids kept the boat entertained with their shenanigans

As the day wore the sun started to hide behind the hillside. It started to get cold and I began a ritual of 15 minutes in my seat and then another 15 minutes hovered over the exhaust pipe of the engine trying to stay warm. Eventually, just a short 7 hour hours after we had left Huay Xai, we were pulling into Pakbeng.

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A beautiful, but chilly view from the boat

It was dark, we couldn’t see much, but we eventually found our bags and made our way up the hill to the guesthouse that I had emailed. I should have expected it in a town like this, but we were told that the place was completely booked up and they had no record of my emails. We were out of luck and stumbled around to other places in the area trying to find a place to sleep to no avail. The one place we found with availability told us $45 / night. Another couple had just wandered into this place at the same time as us and told us they scouted the other side of town without any luck on availability. So we spent the money for a night’s sleep, an amount that we haven’t spent on a room since we were in Europe.

We ate an Indian restaurant while enjoying some Beer Lao. Our server was wearing a Cleveland Indians hat and I told him I liked it. He smiled and walked away, likely not understanding what I was saying. We watched a 10 year old cooking in the kitchen and eventually our food had arrived. The “mixed salad” was a sliced up tomato and cucumber arranged on a plate. The “naan” was a flour tortilla. Before arriving in Pakbeng, we had heard people describe the place as a bit of a hole. I’d have to agree.

Pakbeng to Luang Prabang (Day 3)

The next morning we loaded up and headed to the docks for our second day on the slow boat. This day was colder, partly due to the fact that we were leaving first thing in the morning and partly due to complete lack of sunshine. I repeated my routine from the prior day- a little whiskey, a little Thai practice, a walk back to the engine room to warm up. Nothing eventful on this trip, and I spent a lot of the time staring at the map trying to figure out how far we had traveled and when we were going to arrive.

Boat-Landing-Mekong

At 4:00 pm, we were pulling into the outskirts of Luang Prabang. The boat dock has changed a little bit from what I had read and we weren’t landing directly in town. Instead, we fumbled up a muddy hill where tuk tuks were waiting to take us the 15 minutes into town where we were dropped off at the entry of the night market.

Conclusion

This trip took us 3 full days. Some describe the journey as either love it or hate, and I fell in the latter category. I was left sick for a week afterwards and we didn’t see too much along the way. So my recommendation for the trip- take a bus to Chiang Mai and catch the 1 hr direct flight into Luang Prabang. And then if you’re itching for a ride on the Mekong, hire a boat from town to take you to the Pak Ou caves. I wrote previously about a journey that we did the right way, from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. This time, however, we clearly took the wrong way from Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang.

Chiang Rai’s Enchanted Garden

It was our last night in Chiang Rai and we wandered the streets of the city searching for something sweet. Something that I’ve found us doing often due to Kristin’s sweet tooth. As we turned the corner a few minutes from the clock tower, we encountered a small crowd of people strolling under bright lights in Flag and Lamp Park. Because we happened to be in town during the city’s annual flower festival that’s only on for a few weeks in the end of December to early January.

We had heard that it was happening, but come on – how interesting can a flower festival be? Turns out, it’s well worth a trip. We strolled around the fairyland amongst the locals and admired the mist fall slowly over the freshly planted, enchanted gardens. Trimmed neatly and placed deliberately. After seeing this, I’ll admit in the manliest way possible… flowers can be really beautiful. Maybe I’ll take up gardening when we get back to Chicago.

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Chiang-Rai-Flower-Festival

Chiang-Rai-Flower-Festival
Chiang-Rai-Flower-Festival

Chiang-Rai-Flower-Festival

Chiang-Rai-Flower-Festival