In my travels of Italy, I have no idea why I’d never been to Lecce! What a jewel of Baroque architecture! The city is compact enough to walk in one day and there is beauty around each and every corner! I’m officially in love with Lecce!
Once I arrived in Lecce, I managed to find a hotel that would hold my bags for me while I explored. I had found a couch for a couple of nights but it was on the Ionian Sea in Santa Caterina di Nardo, about 30 minutes from Lecce.
If you intend to visit the heel of Italy’s boot, Lecce is the perfect home base as it’s between the Adriatic and the Ionian Seas and offers easy access to surrounding medieval towns and beaches. Why didn’t anyone tell me this before?! As a bonus, it’s the mecca of paper mache art!
The craft of paper mache isn’t something I’ve ever thought about. I think we all were subjected to it in school but I’ve never seen anything like the craftsmanship you’ll find exclusively in Lecce. I had the privilege of watching a master at work and it is truly an art!
Every corner of Lecce offers up jaw dropping architectural delights! I don’t think I’ve ever been happier in my wanderings! I’d just be walking down a beautiful cobblestone alley and it would suddenly open up to a grand piazza with an array of buildings or churches in the Baroque style.
Piazza del Duomo is breathtaking! It’s enclosed on three sides and contains the Lecce Cathedral, the Bell tower, the Bishop’s Palace and the Seminary Palace.
Winding my way through each alley, I came upon gorgeous buildings that I couldn’t identify and haven’t been able to find a name for online. Some I was allowed to enter but others were closed. A lovely art gallery that I entered had once been a church and still contains murals in the alcoves.
Popping out of an alleyway, I found myself on the main drag, Via Vittorio Emanuele. The street is lined with shops and cafes and is where you’ll find Sedile Palace (now the tourist information center), the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, the Church of San Marco, and the statue of Saint Oronzo, the patron saint of Lecce.
The Piazza Sant’Oronzo is directly behind all of that and is where I was amazed to find the Roman Amphitheatre! I first noticed an archeological site and then noticed the amphitheatre. I spoke with a local and found out that they hold concerts in the center of it nightly during the summer. It’s pretty incredible the layers of history that lie underground all over Italy!
I didn’t spend near enough time in the “Florence of the South”, as it’s sometimes called. Far too soon, my couchsurfing host arrived to drive myself and another couchsurfer to his place by the sea. Hopefully, as I always return to Italy, I’ll one day make it back to Lecce!
I landed at the Bari airport, in the Puglia region of Italy, in the emptiest plane (Posteitaliane) I’d ever been on in my life (and I’ve been on a lot!)! Just prior to boarding, I found and booked a reasonably priced airbnb for 1 night. Only once airborne, did I look at the reservation address and realize that it wasn’t even IN Bari! With no wifi aboard to see exactly where the town of Bisceglie was, I had to just laugh at myself and look forward to the impending adventure!
After only 2 trains, I arrived in Bisceglie during siesta which meant that I couldn’t purchase a SIM card which meant I couldn’t contact the airbnb host. I couldn’t even locate wifi in this ancient town! All I could do was look at the map I had snapped a picture of on my iPhone and trudge in that general direction. Finally finding a little restaurant where I could slough off my baggage, wipe the sweat from…well, everywhere!…and order some food (spaghetti with mussels) and wine, I asked if they had wifi. Of course not! I explained why I needed wifi so the daughter of this family run restaurant offered me her phone to call with! Before I knew it, my airbnb host was there and it turned out that I was very near my room!
Leaving my wine on the table and telling them I would be right back to eat, my host, Laura, took me to my new digs. We dropped off my gear and returned to the restaurant where she joined me for lunch. My wine was exactly where I’d left it. We enjoyed a long meal and conversation and another patron treated us to the local dessert, Sospiro (created for Lucretia Borgia, so I’m told, who once lived in Bisceglie)!
Prior to departing, Laura was insistent that I should visit the town of Trani and that she would drive me there. I managed to wander through the ancient alleyways of Bisceglie for a little bit before she picked me up. Dropped at the marina, I began a pretty deserted walk around Trani. An important soccer match (between Spain and Italy) was going on so the entire town were either at the few open bars or restaurants or at home watching it!
Trani is a beautiful seaport on the Adriatic Sea, known as the “Pearl of Puglia”. As I explored, though, I had no idea what the buildings I admired were. Everything was closed due to the soccer game! I apparently saw the Cathedral of St Nicholas the Pilgrim, Church of All Saints, Swabian Castle, and the Scolanova Church.
The following morning, I managed to get a SIM card and a private, free tour of the Church of Santa Margherita. Absolutely beautiful! Then I was off to the station and to Brindisi, where I immediately hiked quite a ways in the wrong direction. Once I finally arrived at my hosts home, we visited for only a couple of hours before I needed to get moving if I was going to see anything in Brindisi! I was leaving for Lecce the next morning!
I basicly ran around Brindisi! It was so late and, me being in traveler mode, I had to try to see it all! Though I walked for miles, I saw little of what there is to see in Brindisi. I did see the port, the monument to Italian sailors, the Brindisi Cathedral, and the Temple of San Giovanni. I may have seen more but can’t recall.
The reason I went to Brindisi is because that’s where I managed to get a couch when searching for one in Bari. Bisciglie and Brindisi were towns in Puglia that I had had no plans of visiting and that I’m so glad that chance took me to!
My fears of finding my favorite place in the world (Italy) just another stop in so many stops and nothing special, were alleviated pretty quickly! Nothing has changed in that, every time I go to Italy, I fall in love all over again!
If you’re ever in Corfu, Greece, a day trip to southern Albania shouldn’t be missed! Saranda is a small town on the Albanian Riviera and tourism is its main source of income. The town boasts beaches and resort hotels but, more importantly, easy access to a visit to the Blue Eye and the Roman ruins of Butrint.
Getting there was simple enough. A bus picked me up (and later dropped me off) at my hotel and, depending on the ferry you are on, it’s only a 30-60 minute trip across the Ionian Sea. Getting through passport control was NOT simple enough! Patience was required and a sense of humor helped! Passport control staff and angry travelers provided entertainment with a lot of yelling, waving arms, and even sobbing!
Once in Albania, I walked around Saranda, enjoyed lunch with a sea view, and then I rented a car. The man I rented the car from offered to go with me to drive since he knew exactly where Blue Eye and Butrint were. I will never do THAT again! There were a lot of stops so he could take care of business and, once back at the port, he insisted that I owed him quite a bit more money. I paid him a little bit more as he did help but then I left him arguing to himself as I ran to just make my return ferry!
The roads getting outside of Saranda were atrocious!! Giant potholes everywhere. I did drive on the way back and did a much better job at missing them than the rental guy had! I honestly don’t understand why the Blue Eye is such a draw. Sure, the spring is pretty and swirly and it’s supposedly 50 meters deep…well, that’s as far as divers have gotten anyway…but so what? It’s called the Blue Eye due to the deep blue center surrounded by a light blue giving it the appearance of an eye. I didn’t see that either!
The water itself is extremely cold but swimmers still take advantage of it! At the entrance, there are cabins and a restaurant so rental guy and I sat to taste the local beer and enjoy the view. The Bistrica River water is so incredibly clear! You can see every plant, rock, and fish in it!
Butrint was amazing! The countryside surrounding it is nothing short of beautiful and the remains of the ancient Roman city are impressive. I think they need to do something to provide drainage of rain water, though, as I’m sure the standing water in some of the ruins is wearing them away. Expect to walk a lot but it’s pleasurable thanks to the history soaked surroundings!
The day trip lasts about 10 hours (I had to get up early too!) so I was extremely tired by the end of it. If you decide to go, I suggest doing a tour bus, the local bus, or rent a car and drive it all by yourself!
From the Aegean Sea to the Ionian Sea, it took a ferry, a bus, and a plane to get me there but I finally arrived on the Greek island of Corfu. As I’d had to hang out in the Athens airport for 4 hours awaiting my early morning flight, I was exhausted. However, there were no buses to my hotel, Pontikonisi Hotel, and the taxis were exorbitant! So I hiked for a couple of miles before a helpful store owner pointed me to a bus stop that dropped me at my destination.
After a nice long nap, it was time to see Corfu Town. I wandered (I really did!) through the romantic cobbled streets and alleys, gazing up at the beautiful church facades, and dodging tourists. Realizing how hungry I was, I stopped to eat then realized how late it was. It was late enough that the buses were no longer running! I headed to the Sea as I figured I’d reach my hotel if I followed it. Just in case, I stuck out my thumb. Very quickly, an older man, who spoke no English, stopped and gave me a ride on his scooter. It’s a long story on the actual getting to my hotel but he did get me there!
Making sure I had the bus schedule, I spent the following day exploring the sights of Old Town. There are two fortresses, old and new. I did not venture into the new one but fully explored the old, most prominent, fortress. It offered up canons, St George Church, a prison, and incredible views of Corfu and the Ionian Sea.
In my wandering, I found a fabulous spot near the port to enjoy the sunset and a beer. The diverse architecture throughout the city was a pleasure for me. The beautifully paved Liston Promenade is a fantastic spot for people watching while enjoying a rest and a drink or a gelato!
I have to say that I was tired at this point in my travels. I had been moving fast and carrying a heavy load for months and it was catching up to me. This will explain why I was only interested in Old Town and did not take the time to explore the rest of the island. From what I understand, the numerous beaches are gorgeous and I did see that the clear, cobalt blue of the sea is entrancing! Mouse Island (Pontikonisi Island) was actually the view from my hotel, and I actually could have swam to it, but I didn’t bother to visit it or the monastery on it.
Probably because of my disposition, Corfu was my least favorite Greek island and a challenge to truly enjoy. I drank and dined well, had amazing views from my hotel, enjoyed a day of hotel hospitality (private beach, pool, bar, and wifi), and got a lot of exercise. Maybe I should go back one day to see the rest of the island…just to make sure!
Remember the difference between a vacationer and a traveler that I mentioned in my Santorini blog? Well, I decided to give myself a bit of a vacation on the Greek island of Ios!
I booked 2 nights at Rita’s Place but loved it so much that I stayed an extra night! I spent most of my time at the gorgeous pool and in my comfy room. However, I did venture out daily, if only for food! The descent to the port and, subsequent climb back up, was a good workout but I found little of interest there.
The village of Ios Chora is small but, like all of the Greek Isles, charming. There are the usual narrow alleyways with shops, bars, and restaurants. The largest building in town is the church. Where I ate 2 of my meals, they made their own wine and I fell in love with it! I even bought a bottle to enjoy on my balcony my last night in Ios! Unfortunately, they don’t make enough of it to market. It didn’t even have a name!
At the urging of numerous people who heard that I was going to Ios, I went to Mylopotus Beach, the most visited beach in Greece. It was definitely a beautiful beach as was the water! I didn’t stay long though as I’m not much of a beach person and the pool was not only deserted but was amazing!
It’s a wonderful feeling approaching another Greek island from the Aegean Sea! Especially after a bit of a rest! The white, pale yellow, and blue buildings against the brown hills and blue sea are, in themselves, soothing. Hopping off…well, trudging off of the ferry with only some iPhone photos of google directions to guide you. Naxos was no exception.
Having deposited my bags at my hotel, I wandered (as you likely have seen that I have a tendency to do). I was lost most of the time but, at one point, stumbled upon an incredibly cute outdoor cinema! Enamored, I decided that I would return the next night to see the Meryl Streep movie, Florence Foster Jenkins, that would be playing…and I did!
One of the first things you notice when arriving in Naxos is the Portara on Palatia! The first evening and the next day, I made the walk to Palatia. It’s not only a gorgeous sight but is also the view to gods…or so I’ve read. For me, I just love doors. I’m sure psychologists might have some insights as to why!
Wandering, determined to go to the beach at some point, I found jewel after jewel in Naxos, one of them being a fabulous alleyway restaurant, Metaxi Mas, where I enjoyed the most amazing dish of veal, baked with vegetables and feta cheese!! I was still enjoying my wine when they closed but they just locked up and said goodnight! I love the Greek!
Finally, I found the beach, St George Beach! As usual, I didn’t stay long. I had a beer and watched the wild array of people and left. I enjoyed my wanderings and discoveries on Naxos island!
Upon arriving at my next Greek isle destination, Paros, I dropped my packs at a luggage storage spot and wandered the port town of Paroikia. I had a couch in Paros but my host couldn’t pick me up for a couple of hours. Once he did, we went directly to Tango Mar beach where he swam and I ate some lunch and we got to know each other a bit.
Having dropped my stuff off at my hosts’ amazing home, we headed to the village of Noussa. He had things to take care of so I wandered. I enjoyed a beer at an adorable cafe facing a cove of Aegean blue and, further down the road, I helped an older gentleman set up his outdoor restaurant tables for the dinner crowd.
After a brief rest at my hosts’ home in Kostos, we hit the road again to meet up with his friends. After dinner, 2 of his friends, he, and I went to different Paros villages bar hopping. We had a great time and arrived back home in the early morning.
It was hard to believe how much of Paros I saw in ONE day!! I had an incredible time and am so glad that we did so much because, though I was supposed to stay another night, the cheaper route to my next destination meant that I needed to leave that night. My considerate host and one of his friends drove me to the port to catch my ferry and I can’t say enough about the men, the Greek men, that I spent a day and night with in Paros!
Every Greek island offers up its own treasures and I hope to be fortunate enough to explore all of them! Paros was my last Greek isle in the Aegean Sea…for now!
I have been to Santorini before and it is the reason I had to go back to Greece! It is beyond beautiful, unique, and is one version of Heaven! However, the last time I was there, I was on vacation. This time, I was a traveler! There is a big difference between the two. A vacationer is more interested in relaxation, luxury accommodation, shopping, and some sightseeing. A traveler is on a budget and wants to see as much as possible in the time available.
I had a couch but, as it was literally right beside the airport, it was quite a distance from everything. I decided to rent a 4-wheeler so that I had more freedom, reliability (the buses can’t be trusted), and so that I could see the entire island (unlike my last visit)! However, on my first day, I simply hiked through the gorgeous alleyways of Fira all of the way to Imerovigli.
I hadn’t been to Imerovigli before so had no idea that there was a huge rock that could be hiked! This rock is Skaros Rock which was apparently the first fortress in Santorini! I only had my flip flops on but I couldn’t help but descend to the peninsula and hike to the top! The views of Santorini were amazing, the climb back up was not.
After renting the 4-wheeler, I immediately drove to Oia. I ambled the gorgeous streets and colorful shops. I then ate a nice dinner where I met a couple of fun, American girls sadly at the end of their backpacking journey. Before I could make it back to my hosts home, the rain commenced! I’ll just say, it was an interesting ride!
The next morning, I drove to the village of Kamari where I had some lunch and visited Santorini’s black beach. From there, I drove up the steep, narrow, and winding road to Ancient Thira. The ruins, the history, and the views had me sitting down to imagine it all!
Back aboard the 4-wheeler, I drove all of the way to the other side of Santorini island to it’s red beach. A gorgeous beach but extremely windy! Off I then went for a wine tasting at Boutari Winery where I learned something very interesting! Because of the terrain and wind in Santorini, the grapes aren’t grown on your typical vine. The vines are placed low to the ground, pruned in the shape of a basket, and the grapes grow inside of that basket! You certainly don’t see that anywhere but in Santorini!
For my last evening in Santorini, I wanted to find a good place to watch it’s fabulous sunset. So once I was done driving around, trying to make sure I had missed nothing, I turned in my 4-wheeler and wandered back to Imerovigli. After a bit of scouting, I found the perfect restaurant so settled in to wait with pizza and wine.
Early on during the sunset, there was a weird, spooky effect when clouds rolled in below me. At times, it completely blocked any view of Skaros Rock and the Caldera but held its own beauty! I really had found the perfect spot to watch from!
The following morning, I waited at the airport bus stop for the bus to Fira where I would take another bus to the port. From there, I was taking a ferry to the island of Ios. The unreliable bus finally showed up and unloaded passengers at the departures section of the airport. I stood at the stop with all of my packs and it drove right past me!! I couldn’t believe it! Not having a clue how long it would be until the next bus, I loaded up and started hitchhiking. Soaked in sweat (it was a very sunny day) and about 2 miles down the road, an Australian woman picked me up! God love her! She dropped me just outside of Fira and I made it to the bus and, not long after, to my ferry. Don’t rely on buses when visiting Santorini but DO go!!
Landing in Chania, on the Greek island of Crete, felt like heaven after the scorching heat of Cairo! After a bus ride, hiking in circles then finally just taking a taxi, I settled into the studio apartment I had rented for 3 nights and walked the 2 blocks to the beach.
The beach offered up cute restaurants, a beautiful sunset, and scenes of children of all ages playing soccer and paddle ball, sunbathing, and swimming. Walking along the beaches and losing myself in the view, I followed the Greek example and relaxed my first day in Crete.
On day two, I found my way to Old Town and fell in love! Chania is a beautiful old city that hugs the Venetian Harbor and serves up an amazing array of restaurants and cafes, churches, museums, and narrow streets full of shops. The harbor itself seems to change as the sun makes its journey west but is always captivating.
I was so charmed by Old Town with its obvious Venetian influence that, after soaking it in for what was supposed to be my last day there, I decided to stay 2 more days…but in the heart of it! I booked a room through Airbnb right next to the Church of the Trimartyri and enjoyed another day of wandering the narrow streets and harbor, conversing with shop owners, dining in unique restaurants, eating gelato, and drinking the local beer and wine.
My final day on the western side of Crete, I took a bus to the White Mountains and hiked the Samaria Gorge! It took me 4 1/2 hours to hike Europe’s longest gorge (11 miles/18 kilometers from Omalos to Agia Roumeli) and it was a workout! It’s almost all downhill…steep at first (not great on my bad knee!) then just plain rocky! I would have to stop to look at my surroundings as watching where I stepped was paramount to not twisting an ankle or worse!
Eventually, I came the ruins of an ancient Samarian village where I, and many others, stopped to enjoy our picnic lunches and to rest among the agrimia goats which are mountain goats only found in Crete. Moving on, I crossed then hiked alongside of a mountain stream before going through a very narrow part of the trail. This section is known as the “Iron Gates” and is the narrowest part of the gorge.
Finally making it through, I departed Samaria National Park and hiked down to the village of Agia Roumeli. I ate, drank, and hid under a beach umbrella while waiting for my ferry to arrive and deliver me to Chora Sfakion (the southernmost part of Europe), where my bus was waiting to return me to Chania. I must say too how amazing the views were from the bus on the way up and back down the mountain!
I found myself painfully (I was so sore from the hike!) hauling my backpack through town to catch a bus to my next destination, Malia. I had honestly never heard of Malia until I was offered a couch there when I did a search for the Heraklion area! Apparently, it’s a party mecca for young British tourists who revel in alcohol and noise! Lucky for me, I arrived about 2 weeks before those shenanigans!
During my time in Malia, I rented a 4-wheeler and randomly drove around, visited the Minoan Palace, walked through the old village, relaxed on the beach (beautiful beaches in Malia!), enjoyed a bar that had swing seats, ate well at a gorgeous family restaurant, and watched a movie with my amazing couchsurfing hosts.
I was on my way to Heraklion, the largest city of the island of Crete, after my 2 nights in Malia. I managed to get a couch for my first night there and my host picked me up from the bus station. After dropping my things at his place, he took me to Knossos Palace before taking himself back to work. Knossos Palace is quite impressive! Being the center of Minoan civilization for over 2000 years doesn’t hurt! After wandering through the ruins for a couple of hours, I ate a late lunch then caught the bus to Heraklion’s city center where I roamed and shopped until my host picked me up.
My final Crete destination was Amoudara Beach, outside of Heraklion’s city center. My couchsurfing host had to leave town so he had convinced one of his clients to give me a 30% discount at the beach hotel, Yannis Apartments. I spent my final day on the amazing island of Crete, dozing on the beach, eating seafood, and reading my book.
I was already in love with Greece and the Greek but Crete’s beauty and my experiences there have sealed that love! If you haven’t been yet, GO!!
Cairo is a city of incongruities! The Nile, the Sahara Desert, Pyramids, the Sphinx (half man, half lion), high rises and buried cities. This massive city embraces it’s ancient customs yet craves advancement in modernity.
I arrived via Egyptair from Jordan thinking that I would have 3 days in Cairo. This was a total plan fail! I arrived in the evening and had to leave the hotel at midnight my last night there. I had 2 full days to see what I could so, through my awesome hotel manager, I hired a driver to take me to Giza to experience the Pyramids and Sphinx.
Driving to Giza, I began to see how huge this city of Cairo was! My driver was wonderful, stopping to allow me to take photos of the Nile as we crossed it and giving me a history lesson as we went. As we drove, I saw heavy smog hanging over both the ancient and the new Cairo and the amount of trash littering the highway was appalling! I finally asked my driver if there were street cleaners and, as he threw his soda cup out of the car window, he said yes.
When going to Cairo, be prepared for the salesmen! I bought a ghutra, oil, papyrus art, and paid probably too much for a camel and my Giza tour. I tried to decline but not only were they persistent but I felt for their situation. Tourism is down due to terrorist threats so income for them is as well. Also, if you are there in the summer, be prepared for the heat!! It IS the desert, after all!
I requested my same driver to take me to a dinner cruise down the Nile. It was a fun night and part of the fun was watching how happy and important he felt accompanying me! The food was okay, the entertainment was better! It started with a band, then a belly dancer and moved to Tounura dancers, an Egyptian folk dance. It was actually a lot of fun!
The next day, I walked around downtown Cairo and the Egyptian Museum. I’m not much of a museum person anymore as I’ve been to so many of them. They tend to bore me now. This was no exception. I had decided to go because…well, it holds the world’s largest collection of Pharaonic antiquities. Where else are you going to find Pharaohs?
I couldn’t believe the seeming disorganization! Unopened crates shoved into corners or just left where they would possibly later be opened. Dust on anything that wasn’t a tourist draw. Children played chase, running unattended throughout this place of history! I decided that maybe the attendants were so used to antiquities, in the museum and out of it, that it was like home.
Though my friends questioned my safety in going to Egypt, I had no fear before or after arriving. The people of Cairo that I encountered were all very welcoming and happy that I was there. Tourism is down so that was part of it but the people of Cairo that I encountered are good, giving, and decent human beings! Except for thinking I was going to die from the heat, I enjoyed my short time in Cairo!
All of the photos in the world can’t prepare you for the wonder that is Petra. This “rose city half as old as time” truly has to be seen to be believed!
I arrived in Jordan and, after a couple of hours of aggravation (which I won’t go into), I finally hit the road in my rental car. After losing my way a few times, I got on the right track and made my way to Wadi Musa which is the small town on the outskirts of Petra. It was late afternoon but, having only 2 nights there, I bought a 2 day ticket and began exploring!
The entry ticket allows for 1 free horseback ride to the beginning of the Siq (the Shaft), a narrow gorge of soaring, rose-red sandstone walls stretching almost a mile long. It is the main entrance into Petra and ends at Al Kahzneh (the Treasury). I took advantage of the horseback ride and ended up getting a number of free rides both days in Petra…by horse, donkey, and horse drawn carriage. I paid a very cheap price for a camel ride as well.
There is no other word but “awe” to describe the feeling on first sight of the Treasury! It’s massive! Of the more than 800 monuments in Petra, the Treasury is by far the most dramatic! As you step out of the Siq, you are humbled by the sheer size and beauty of the façade, carved directly out of the rock face! Even though it is called the Treasury, no one knows for sure what’s its function was. The most common speculation is that it was a tomb or place of worship. It was featured in the movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, among others.
Continuing on into the valley, there are so many tombs and monuments to see and explore! I certainly can’t recall the names of all of them! There are also trails to hike into and out of the valley (you need much more time than I had in order to do that, though!). There is a Roman-style amphitheater, a Byzantine church, colonnaded streets, temples, and a killer amount of rock cut steps (800-900…I didn’t count them!) up to the Monastery (Ad Deir), the 2nd most impressive building of Petra. If you’re not up to climbing or descending by your own steam, you can pay to ride a donkey. Beyond the Monastery, you can climb to viewpoints higher still. There were souvenir stands here and there throughout Petra as well as Bedouins offering rides.
Needless to say, I could have wandered this amazing wonder of the world a few more days but I think 2 days was good! I certainly got a workout! It blows my mind that about 85% of this ancient Nabataean city is still untouched underground.
There were other towns and sights somewhat nearby that were recommended to me to visit but I wanted to make sure to get the car back on time so spent a little bit of time driving around Amman, Jordan’s capital, then made my way to the airport. If you EVER get the opportunity, do yourself a favor and visit this “lost city”!
Arriving in Bangkok, I found myself immediately bouncing off to another Thai destination! I arrived from Phuket only to spend the night then take off to Koh Samet (or Koh Samed or Ko Samet, depending on where you look) with my friends, Gene and Ethel!
Prior to our departure, though, I was introduced to a little bit of the crazy Bangkok nightlife. Not something you see everyday, for sure! I was informed that Soi Cowboy was the PG rated red light district so I count myself lucky! Hahaha!
Koh Samet is a small island about 4 hours travel time by car and boat from Bangkok. Upon arrival, we hopped into a taxi (ie. small truck bed), which took us to our beachfront hotel room. It was an absolutely gorgeous beach! While in Koh Samet, we led the lazy beach life, rented scooters (this was the first time I’d driven one in 39 years!), rode all over the island, ate and drank very well, and I even parasailed for the first time! The people were amazing and it was a wonderful visit!
Once back in Bangkok, Gene prepared for a week away for work and Ethel and I did the same but for a few days away for pleasure! She and I were off to Chiang Mai. The airfare from Bangkok to Chiang Mai was crazy cheap at only about $17 USD roundtrip! We walked for miles while in Chiang Mai and I’ve never seen so many temples in my life! There are over 300 temples in this city of about 1.5 million. It is a nice city with large markets for shopping and a lot of different dining options. We hired a taxi to take us around to see some of the temples and we shopped.
Our second day, we took a tour that delivered us in Chiang Rai, among other places. We visited some hot springs that weren’t impressive in the least but then found ourselves at the jewel of the tour, Wat Rong Khun, better known as the White Temple! Privately owned and designed by its owner, its other worldly appearance is awe inspiring, to say the least! The best word that I can find to describe it is phantasmagorical!
From there, we were driven to the Golden Triangle. It is so named for its tri-point borders of Thailand, Myanmar, & Laos. In case you didn’t know, it is the second largest opium production & trafficking location in the world, next only to Afghanistan! We boarded a boat which took us along the Mekong River to a small island in Laos where we paid a small “entrance” fee. Any other entry into Laos would have required an expensive VISA. There was only a small market to explore but we only had 30 minutes anyway. Free tastings of the local whiskeys (scorpion, cobra, and tiger penis, among other “flavors”) were offered of which I sampled two. I also tried some of the local beer and then it was time to cross the Mekong back to Thailand.
Our next stop was a very memorable one for me as it was not only educational but disturbing. Disturbing to me because women of this culture accept the pain they are subjected to for the sake of beauty. The Karen Longneck Villages in Thailand continue the traditions they brought with them from Myanmar with pride and dignity. From the age of 5, the girls are fitted with their first brass coils which are removed primarily to be replaced with new, longer coils. The coils create the appearance of elongating the neck but, in reality, the weight of the brass pushes their shoulders and ribcage down. They also wear them on their forearms and shins. As women, we tend to joke about the things we do for beauty but I can’t see altering my bones, breathing capacity, and freedom of motion for it! I met a 52 year old woman with 28 brass rings around her neck! She didn’t move around very well. Just outside of this village, I also met women of the Akha Tribe. They originated in China and have distinctive, colorful traditional clothing.
Bouncing back to Bangkok, we did some shopping at Chatuchak Weekend Market, one of the world’s largest weekend markets. I’ll just say that I kept a few vendors in business! We also visited Train Market one night and I very much recommend it!! Great shopping, live music, food, and drinks!
I had a week left so Ethel became my Thai tour guide! Their condo was perfectly situated for the train services to all Bangkok destinations, including the international airport. We also had the use of a private car and driver. We took public transportation to Asiatique one evening for a nice dinner and to wander through the many shops along the riverfront. There were amusement rides available and a beautiful river view as well.
Another day, we rode the ferry around to all stops along the river before deciding which stops we wanted to explore. As it was getting late, we only hopped off at 2 stops: Traimit Temple, in which resides a massive, solid gold Buddha, the world’s largest, in fact, weighing in at 5.5 tons! Khao San Road which is popular with the backpacking crowd as food, shopping, and lodging are cheaper! The Alex Garland book, The Beach, christened it “the center of the backpacking universe” but that doesn’t necessarily hold true now as tourists and locals alike converge on this lively neighborhood. Besides dinner, we indulged in massages…mine was the best EVER!
Another day, we took advantage of the car and had the driver drop us at several locations. The Tiger Temple was one of them. Since my visit, it is in the process of being shut down due to tiger trafficking. Since government officials moved in on the “temple”, the extent of tiger abuse and slaughter that they found is deplorable! As many other people before me, the prospect of being able to spend time with the big cats, pet them, and be photographed with them was thrilling, but I also wanted to see for myself if they were sedated or not (the temple still denies that they were sedated), and how they were treated. My experience can’t be related to please everyone so I won’t try. Just please do what you can now to help these tigers (147 of them) who are struggling to survive the changes they’re now faced with (raw food, proper vitamins, and new surroundings). I’ve been unable to find any site asking for donations or volunteers and the news and refuge websites are graphic and not what I want to convey here. It, unfortunately, looks like few culprits will actually be charged and tiger trade from Thailand will continue. Please follow their story and do whatever you can to help make a change!
I couldn’t miss a trip to Damnoen Saduak Floating Market where you pay a small fee, board a longtail boat and cruise past shops both on land and in boats (you can purchase the same items elsewhere cheaper but the experience is worth the trip there and the boat fee). The Grand Palace and Wat Po (where the famous Reclining Buddha resides) were must visits although overpriced. We also wandered around Ayutthaya Historical Park, the ruins of a once great Siamese city. In the ruins, you’ll find an iconic figure…a Buddha head that was lopped off of its sculpted image centuries ago and is entwined in the roots of a tree.
Soon enough, it was time for me to move on…backpack still heavy thanks to the fabulous clothing and prices in Thailand and despite shipping all of my camping gear home! As you can see, there is much to see and do in Thailand and I’m sure I left some things out!
I did learn an expensive lesson when I arrived in Bangkok that I thought I would share. Never take a taxi from the airport that isn’t from the taxi queue!! Upon arrival, a man ran up to me and offered a taxi and I accepted. Once I was settled, he got in the passenger seat, and the driver drove a short way from the airport before stopping to tell me that it would cost the equivalent of $30 USD!! I thought that was high and it was! I should have only paid about $3 USD! I was extremely tired (it was after midnight) so I agreed. Lesson learned!!
Bangkok offers an abundance of activities and sights and has an excellent public transportation system to get you there! The taxis are cheap too (when you’re paying attention!). It’s a massive city with a crush of diverse people and traffic so is not for everyone and certainly something to consider before visiting.
I have to thank my friends, Gene and Ethel, for their hospitality and making sure that I got to see and do all that I did! Kop kun ka!!