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Things to Avoid in East Asia

We enjoyed sharing our favorite places around East Asia the other week! This region is filled with beautiful, exciting, and interesting places. But, in our opinion, not everything commonly recommended to tourists is worth your time. So here’s the other side of the coin – seven places you could go without seeing in East Asia.

Penang Hill, PENANG, Malaysia

After hours on a bus, we arrived at a lackluster location. The cable car was expensive. The view was average. It’s a waste of a day – and years later, my friends still blame me for dragging them there. Don’t make the same mistake! Head to Monkey Beach instead.

Turtle Temple, Hanoi, VIETNAM

The Turtle Temple in Hanoi is one of its most famous attractions. It’s also hugely disappointing! Despite being described as a “must see,” there really isn’t much to it. It’s in the middle of a lake, so all you can do is look at it from a distance. It’s also very small, so the view (and your photos) won’t be that impressive. True, the story behind it is pretty interesting, and we’d recommend looking that up if you enjoy history and myths. But it’s not worth a visit unless you happen to be walking in that area of the city anyway.

Chiang Rai, THAILAND

This little town is a typical stop on Thailand’s tourist trail, but it’s only because of the White Temple. While this attraction is very unusual, it’s also quite small – you’ll barely spend any time on it, and there isn’t anything else in town to explore or even a good nightlife scene. Instead, rent a scooter and head to the nearby mountains for stunning hikes and waterfalls.

The Symphony of Lights, Hong Kong

This is probably the most disappointing, hyped up show we’ve ever seen. How did it become world famous? We could barely see the lights! There was no rhythm with the music, and the lights came from random buildings in no particular order. It’s worst if it’s raining, but even with clear skies it’s very hard to see the weak powered light beams – are they powered with AA batteries?

The South of Laos

Yes, the whole region. Avoid it at all costs! The people are rude, and there’s nothing to see. Its transportation systems are torture. After crossing the Cambodian border, we made the mistake of trying to head north by bus. The North is actually rather pleasant, but by the time we got there we were already tired of the whole country. We had been warned this would happen, but we ignored the advice. Don’t make the same mistake.

Sukhumvit 11, BANGKOK, THAILAND

Bangkok This used to be a favorite destination for our nights out! But it has changed over the years. Several bars have closed down, they no longer serve cheap drinks from vans on the street, and what’s left has very little personality or edge. You’ll mostly find expensive restaurants and a couple of average pubs full of tourists.

If you’re looking for a night out in Bangkok, we’ve got you covered. 

A Guangzhou Boat Cruise, China

This experience was so dreadful! We paid a lot of money to go up and down a river we’d already walked along several times for free. There was no worthwhile view. The particular cruise we chose sold bowls of small tangerines and warm cans of beer – nothing else. We thought we’d eat dinner on the boat. Instead we were starving for the whole trip, and trapped on boat hoping we’d get back to land before most restaurants in the city closed.

East Asia really is stunning with so much amazing stuff to see and do. We would recommend it to anyone! But if your ever in the above areas, consider our warnings.

We’d love to hear your opinions, too! Do you agree or disagree? What attractions or activities let you down?

 

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6 Unusual Temples in Southeast Asia

Temples – they are some of the most frequented sights on the tourist trail in Southeast Asia.

After living here for several years, we have to confess that we usually skip temple visits when we’re traveling. After awhile, they start to blend together and we’ve started to think that many just look the same as the last.

Not everyone agrees with us – and that’s fair. There is definitely some stunning architecture to be seen. If you are a spiritual person, they can also be a very peaceful environment (when the crowds aren’t too heavy).

But even if you are in the same boat as us, we don’t necessarily recommend skipping every temple. Here are some that we find truly interesting and unique:

Angkor Wat – Cambodia

This complex is huge, and if you are committed to seeing the whole thing it would take all day (even if you usually breeze through places with impressive speed). Aside from its size, what sets it apart? The age of the buildings (dating back to the 12th century!) is so apparent, it feels like you’ve stepped into a different world. It’s almost like magic. The surrounding temples are also very unique – some resemble castles, some have mysterious faces carved all over the walls, and some look as if they are being swallowed up by the jungles around them.

Bagan Temples – Myanmar

Also ancient, and also massive, Bagan can be toured in so many fun ways. One of the most popular (but also expensive) tours is a hot air balloon ride. It is surrounded by plains and fields, allowing you to completely escape your modern life.

Shwedagon Pagoda – Myanmar

You’ll also find this shiny, gold temple in Myanmar. It’s makes up a prominent part of the capital city’s skyline, especially when it’s brightly lit up against the all the other darker buildings. It’s a beautiful sight while exploring during the day, and when it’s a backdrop to your night out.

The White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) – Thailand

This temple is partly a spiritual place of worship, and partly an art exhibit. This little twist gives it a completely new aesthetic that you won’t find anywhere else. Everything is white and sparkling. Dramatic sculptures are everywhere, from hands desperately reaching out of the ground, to dragons, to skeletons.

Sri Mariamman – Singapore

If you love lots of color, lots of art, and lots of detail, you will be delighted with this Hindu temple. There is so much to look at, it’s almost hypnotizing. The temple is bursting with life and energy.

Prambanan – Indonesia

Not only is this the oldest Hindu temple in all of Southeast Asia, its towering buildings are quite photographic. It is known for beautiful dance performances held at sunset at the neighboring park, with the temples as the backdrop.

Did we miss your favorite temple? Have you ever seen one that was just bizarre? Share it below and tell us why it was so interesting!

 

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An Alternative East Asian Checklist

East Asia is definitely the corner of the world we’ve explored the most.

During our time here, we’ve discovered some amazing places and amazing things to do – we especially love activities that you wouldn’t necessarily think of doing straight away. We’re glad we did them and here are some we would recommend:

Monkey Beach, Penang, Malaysia

Here’s a bold statement: This is the best beach I’ve ever been to in my life.

And I have been to a lot of beautiful, tropical beaches.

It’s also known as Teluk Duyung, and it can be found in Penang National Park in the northwest corner of Penang Island. It’s about an hour’s trek from the entrance, but it’s well worth the journey.

The stunning white sands and epic clear blue waters will blow you away. We went on a quiet day during the week, so nobody else was there apart from us and a lot of monkeys.

A little advice: don’t leave belongings on the beach or a monkey may steal your sun cream, run up a tree, and then squirt it all over you from above.

A Scooter Adventure in Bagan, Myanmar

Bagan is probably the most popular place on this list, but we couldn’t overlook it.

This place is absolutely stunning! It’s an ancient temple town with many different temples to explore. The area is perfect for an adventure, which was its greatest appeal.

You can see it from a variety of unique hot air balloon, or a designated horse and carriage tour. However, we would recommend the freedom of touring it yourself with rented scooter.

Renting a Villa in Thailand

If you’re with a group of friends, skip the hotel and rent out a villa instead.

This option is discussed enough in Thailand travel resources, but it’s cheap, private, and way more fun.

Luxury villas are located everywhere on the coast of Thailand. A few might be uneasy renting to foreigners, or they might say you can’t drink or play music too loudly. Plenty won’t have any of these annoying restrictions, so just keep looking.

Zhangjiajie, China

This breathtaking natural landscape was the inspiration for the Avatar movie.

It’s hidden away in a small town in mainland China, and it will be like nothing you’ve ever seen before. We could have spent all day walking around and taking pictures. It’s also crawling with wild monkeys who will pose nicely for the camera if you offer the, some food in return.

Sliding Down the Great Wall of China

Of course, the Great Wall of China is one of the most well-known tourist attractions in Asia, if not the world.

But did you know that when you’re finished walking the wall you can slide down it in a toboggan? It’s loads of fun and way better than the cable carts most people are using.

Thap Ba Spa, Nha Trang, Vietnam

Our journey from the top of Vietnam to the bottom was long. We saw and did so many amazing things, but we also needed a bit of a break before it was over.

Thap Ba Spa was the perfect resting point in the middle of our trip. It offered luxurious spa treatments, swimming pools and hot springs. More impressively, it was a mud bath spa. This was such a unique (and kind of weird) experience, and it’s definitely one I would heavily recommend.

The Killing Fields Museum, Phnom Penh

It does feel strange to recommend something so increbally sad.

While we don’t really visit museums, this one was truly eye-opening and really made us think.  An audio tour will guide you through, and please listen to every word. It’s something I would encourage you to do because it makes you realize how lucky you are. It really made me appreciate my life and all the opportunities I’ve had around the world.

Koh Rong Island, Cambodia

Just a short boat trip away from Sihanoukville, this place has beautiful clean beaches, perfectly white sands, and stunning waters.

You couldn’t imagine a better setting for an oceanside stroll – but make sure you learn from Simon’s mistakes. He forgot sun cream, enjoyed a two hour walk, and returned looking like a lobster.

Drinking by Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong

Hong Kong has one of the most breathtaking skylines we’ve ever seen, so why not enjoy it up close and personal? The local bars are unbelievably expensive, and none of them can beat the view from the river. Buy some beers, a bottle of wine, or whatever you want at a convenience store for half the cost. Head to the side of the water where they show the light shows. Enjoy the atmosphere and stunning views. That’s the best bar there is in Hong Kong.

There are so many recommendations for Asia travelers scattered around the internet, but we’ve found that many of our favorites don’t get enough credit. These places are either amazing, fun or just truly stunning. We hope we’ve given you a few more ideas.

And we’re sure there are plenty more underrated places around here! What have we missed? Let us know below.

 

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Getting Off Khao San Road: Other Places to Party in Bangkok

Bangkok is one of the biggest cities in the world. It’s well known for its crazy hustle and bustle and its brilliant nightlife.

That’s why it’s a shame when tourists get stuck spending their whole trip on Khao San Road. Many even leave thinking this one backpacker bar street is what the city is all about.

They couldn’t be more wrong! Below we’ve listed a number of other bars/areas for you to get your party on.

Sukhumvit 22

Sukhumvit Road Soi 22

We probably end up here on a Friday more than any other area. Sukhumvit 22 is certainly rough around the edges, but it’s full of small random bars that allow you to control the music via YouTube. The vibe is casual, the drinks are cheap, and the party can last into the wee hours of the morning. There is also a venue with live music and ice bar upstairs, along with several hotel lobbies – you wouldn’t think they’d be top party destinations, but they have welcomed drunk groups looking for a good time in past. Even when Simon crawled up on a counter to dance, the hotel staff just laughed and cheered him on.

Ce La Vi (Formerly Ku De Ta)

Sathorn Square Tower 39FL, 98 Sathorn Square Building, North Sathorn Road Silom, Bang Rak, Bangkok 10500

This sophisticated club is situated on the 39th floor of the huge Sathorn One Building and overlooks most of Bangkok. It’s perfect for a dress-to-impress night with a group of friends. Share a bottle of spirits and enjoy the different music. Genres ranges from hip hop to house to commercial pop, depending on what night you go. The layout is a mixture between a lounge and a club with popular local and international DJs taking to the booth most nights. Enjoy this classy establishment and don’t forget it’s a smart and pricey club.

Sukumvit Soi 4 (Nana)

Sukhumvit Road Soi 4

Soi 4 is so much more than just Nana Plaza. There are lots of bars all down the street that offer a range of different partying experiences. There are also some amazing dance spots. Most bars will shut around 2 or 3 am, but you can stumble to EQ’s late night club for an extended party. As for Nana Plaza itself, the sheltered circle offers a range of go-go bars.

There’s more than just Nana Plaza on this street! 

Patpong

ซอย พัฒน์พงศ์ 2 Khwaeng Suriya Wong, Khet Bang Rak, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10500

Patpong is another area that’s branded as just being a sex tourist destination, but it’s more than that. Yes, of course those bars exist, but so do many others that aren’t as seedy – there is even a night market running alongside all the different venues.

JJ Green

Address: เลขที่ 1 ถนนกำแพงเพชร 3, แขวงจตุจักร, Chatuchak, Bangkok 10900

Speaking of night markets, JJ Green is one of the most popular ones. Along with shopping, you can enjoy a casual beer, watch some live music, and wander around the outdoor stands.

JJ Green is perfect for a chilled evening.

W District

Sukhumvit Rd, Khwaeng Phra Khanong Nuea, Khet Watthana, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10110

Another chill area for drinking is the popular W district. You’ll find a central outdoor circle surrounded by bars and many food stalls. It’s the perfect place to start your evening.

W district is evergrowing in popularity. 

3 Days 2 Nights

Lad Prao Wanghin Rd – Soi Lat Phrao Wang Hin 71, Khwaeng Lat Phrao, Khet Lat Phrao, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10230

Looking for something a little out of the ordinary? This place is themed like an old farm, complete with a fenced in field with rabbits, sheep, and other animals. There is a ton of casual seating surrounding the animals, and a nightclub on site for later once you’ve enjoyed a few drinks. Another plus? This bar is a relatively unknown destination to tourists.

Ratchada 4 Complex

Ratchadaphisek Rd, Khwaeng Huai Khwang, Khet Huai Khwang, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10320

Ratchada 4 is perfect if you want to party with the locals and escape the tourist crowd. This places if often overlooked, but luckily we stumbled upon it. You’ll find a series of loud clubs that all have free entry. There are often live bands and a series of shows across the complex every night of the week starting at 9pm.

When you see this sign, stop and party!

Shrimp Bar

Soi Chaeng Wattana 1

Okay, so we don’t actually know its name, but there’s a huge, bright pink shrimp on the sign, so that’s what we call it. What a find this place was! Here’s another venue where you’ll probably be the only foreigner in sight. It’s very Thai, with live bands, big bottles of whiskey (although we get the brandy) and loud buzzing dance moves. If you head to the outskirts of Chaeng Wattana Soi 1, it’s pretty much the only thing that resembles nightlife on that street.

Shock 39 and other taxi driver choices.

39 Phetchaburi Rd, Thanon Phaya Thai, Khet Ratchathewi, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10400

Recently many areas of Bangkok have been enforcing a rule that everything must shut at 2am. But don’t worry, there’s always somewhere staying open until sunrise if you know where to look – or who to ask. One person who will always get you somewhere is your taxi driver. Just say “disco” and they will take you to a number of destinations. One of the most common stops is Shock on Petchaburi 39. This club stays open very late and has a dance stage and floor, pool tables, and a more chilled area to suit all needs. It’s a little bit seedy and rough, but it’s a cracker.

Grab a taxi, say ‘disco’ and see where you end the night.

RCA (Route 66)

Address – 66 Rama IX Soi 8, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon, จังหวัด กรุงเทพมหานคร 10310

Route 66 is one of the most popular clubs in Bangkok. It’s found on the popular club street known as RCA. Famous for its crazy parties, it’s popular with tourists and locals who are dressed to impress. RCA is free for locals but 300 baht for tourists. However that 300 baht can go straight toward drinks as exchangeable coupons. This mazy club has 3 main rooms. One features the latest Thai and Western hits, another is all hip hop, and the last one usually has a live local band playing. There is also a massive seating space outside for people to gather around with a bottle of liquor. The club is open pretty much every night and is very popular with university students.

Soi Cowboy

Soi Cowboy, Khwaeng Khlong Toei Nuea, Khet Watthana, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10110

Soi Cowboy is a small, 150-meter street that has a over 30 different go-go bars. It’s one of Bangkok’s most popular areas for tourists and expats. Most bars will have a waitress service while customers sit around the outside of a stage and watch various performances from girls in bikinis – or completely nude. This colorful street has been transformed into a popular tourist attraction as it’s known as one of Bangkok’s main red light districts.

SukHumvit Bar Crawl

Sukhumvit 

Another idea is just to go to any soi off Sukhumvit and start wandering from there. There are so many different bars in Sukhumvit, you’renever too far away from the next one. Start a random bar crawl and you won’t be disappointed.

Black Wolf Bar

12/17, 12/17 Lat Phrao Rd, Chom Phon, Chatuchak, Bangkok 10900

Finally, here’s a little shout out to a local of ours. This bar is situated right next to Phahonyothin MRT exit 2. It’s a small starter bar that’s actually a revamped hair salon. Drop by and give it the business it deserves.

Find the many party places Bangkok has to offer.

Khao San road is an amazing party but don’t limit yourself to just that! Bangkok is full of fun, diverse, random area. Experience them all.

Any we’ve missed? Where have you had a great night?Anywhere you hate? We’d love to know!

For more information on the best bars and clubs to visit in Bangkok, click here.

 

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An Honest Review of Van Life in Australia

For years, the idea of a long road trip through Australia seemed like such an adventure.

In fact, for many Brits and Americans, Australia is talked about as an ultimate travel destination. For myself, the appeal was the size of the country. There’s so much to see, from the all the coastal cities to the huge outback.

So a couple years ago, I packed up a bag, hopped on a plane to Oz, and started traveling around in an old van with some friends. We worked on farms for funds, food, and boarding. This lasted for 6 months, and here’s an honest assessment of what my experience was like.

Let the journey begin!

The Good

The freedom is unbelievable.

Your life is mobile, so you can go anywhere, any time. You aren’t tied down to anything. Don’t like a job? You can leave the day you began. Or you can just pop to the beach or turn down a road because you see a sign for something interesting. You may find yourself becoming part of the community in a random cheese village called Bega, or maybe you’ll end up camping in the woods surrounded by kangaroos. Your only real possession is a van, the van has wheels, and Australia has many roads to drive them on.

There are some stunning places to drive to.

You’re never far from a place to stay or a grill to cook on.

In most ways, Australia is a very expensive country. Food is expensive. Hotels are expensive. Petrol is expensive. But if you’re up for some camping, you can always find free campsites that provide somewhere to park your van, set up your tent, get some free drinking water, grill up a meal, and take a shower. If you can afford a cheap kangaroo burger, you’ll always have a place to cook it and rest after.

The beaches are plentiful.

Most major Australian cities are on the coast. Wherever your road trip takes you, you’ll probably be pretty close to a beach. Because beaches are everywhere, they don’t get too crowded. I loved having stunning, empty beaches around every corner.

The country is made up of amazing beaches.

The Bad

The Farm Work

If you want to stay in Australia for a second year, you have to complete 90 days of agricultural work. Admittedly, it’s probably a good idea by the Australian government. To earn another visa, you have to give something back to the country. But, good idea or not, it’s just torture for those of us on the farms.

I never even wanted a second year, but I also found that farms were the only jobs with short-term positions available. Unless you have specific professional skills or bar experience, then your opportunities are pretty limited.

Lots of people think three months on a farm will be easy and quick. They’ll just get it done, and then they’ll have their visa sorted. What they don’t account for is just how hard it is!

At first it was kind of refreshing. I had been teaching for a few years, and it was nice to have a break while I did a job that was so simple and mindless. But it wasn’t long before it became unbearable. The farms have you working 12 hour days, 7 days a week, rain or shine. They have you lifting heavy cabbages for three straight hours, and then hacking broccoli until your fingers nearly bleed. It’s monotonous, it’s boring and some of the farmers can be absolute pricks. We lasted 5 weeks on a vegetable farm in Bathurst before we told the farmer to shove it!

This photo is the definition of ‘let’s pretend I’m loving life on the farm for Facebook’

The Cost

It’s a very expensive country! This is not the place for you if you are after a budget trip. Towards the end of the trip I decided to stay on another three weeks in a hostel in Melbourne. The idea was to sell the van during this time, but in the end I was spending money pointlessly in order to get the van money that wouldn’t even repay what I’d spent. Even when you’re making frugal decisions, you’ll feel like you’re bleeding money.

The Culture

Australia is not the best travel destination for Brits or Americans who are looking for a different cultural experience. It’s basically the same as Britain, just a lot hotter and with more beaches.

The Strict Alcohol Laws

If you like a good party when you travel, Australia can be a bit of a struggle. While we had many cracking nights, this was usually because we were naked in campsite pools or crashing a Christmas party at a local pub. It was never because of the bars or the ease of getting alcohol. The bars close far too early, and Aussie bartenders or door staff will decide when you’re too drunk and cut you off. Now when I was 18 – 21, I needed to be told this many times, but by 25 I knew my own drinking limits.

The Van Repairs

Buying your own van is a risk, and we ended up with a right banger. Assume that it will break down a million times. Australia has a lot of middle-of-nowhere roads, so the cost of a breakdown lorry is expensive – not to mention the repairs. I’d also advise not getting too attached to your van. We did, and we ended up paying way more for repairs than the van was ever worth.

Our poor van! 

A lot of people romanticize a van trip around Australia. Yes, it had many once-in-a-lifetime moments, but it also had a lot of struggles that I did not expect before I arrived. I hope this will give future Aussie explorers a more accurate idea of what their experience might be like.

Is there anything we’ve missed? Is there anything we’re wrong about? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

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The Symbolism of Chiang Rai’s White Temple

Over a year ago, I was about to head to Thailand for the first time. Simon asked me to make a list of my top priorities of things to see and do. Near the top of my list was The White Temple in Chiang Rai (known as Wat Rong Khun to the locals).

While many temples around Asia start to look very similar after you’ve been traveling or living here awhile, the White Temple stands out with its surreal statues, surprising references to pop culture, and twisted fairytale-like architecture.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t make it up to Chiang Rai during that trip, but we recently, finally, made it there a couple weekends ago.

Our thoughts? It made for some beautiful pictures, but in person it was a bit smaller than expected.

But! Despite its size, there is a lot going on if you know what to look for. Here is what you should know:

Temple or Art Exhibit?

Years ago, Wat Rong Khun was a typical Buddhist temple that had fallen out of use and was badly in need of repairs. An artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat, decided he wanted to completely renovate the building in an unorthodox way with his own money.

So is the current temple still a religious center or is it all for the sake of art now? It’s a mixture of both. While you can definitely see that an artist designed every inch of this attraction, it is still intended to enlighten its visitors about the teachings of Buddha and eventually provide space for meditation and religious learning. Kositpipat sees his work on the temple as a spiritual mission.

A Story Comes to Life

Exploring the White Temple is essentially entering into a narrative of temptation and redemption. To keep each visitor in the intended progression of the story, no one is allowed to turn back as they explore. They must move through each chapter just as they would a novel – without skipping forward or backward. (So make sure you get any pictures you want the first time around.)

Overcoming Temptation

At first, the artwork in front of the temple is almost disturbing. Multitudes of hands desperately reach out of the ground – this scene is supposed to represent the problem of desire and greed. Visitors pass over it by bridge, entering a state where they are free of worldly attachments and pain.

Mythological Creatures

You will also encounter many strange, mythological figures within and around the White Temple, including:

Kinnarees – Look for statues of half-bird, half-man creatures. They are similar to guardian angels in Buddhist mythology, keeping an eye on humans and intervening when we are in trouble.

Rahu – This creature is a beheaded serpent, and Hindu myths teach that he will determine the fate of each soul upon their death.

Nagas– You will also see plenty of snake symbology with their full body still intact – these are Nagas, and they are minor deities that guard the temple.

Pop Culture

When you actually enter the building, you are no longer surrounded by figures of ancient myths. Instead, you’ll see a display of movie posters, western celebrities, and popular fictional characters alongside news photos of war, terrorism, and other horrors. Again, the message is that the world is full of sorrow, vanity and destruction.

Where’s the Toilet?

Even the bathrooms have become an elaborate work of art. They are housed in an ornate building designed to contrast the spiritual purity of the White Temple with a materialistic, worldly gold coloring.

There’s Much More to Come

Kositpipat has many more plans for the temple in the future – according to his timeline, the entire project won’t be finished until 2070.

For those of you who have traveled around Asia, has any specific temple caught your eye? Why did it impress you?

 

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Anna Maria Island – Insider Information from a Local

A few things have happened this week that made me think of home.

First, Facebook thoughtfully reminded me that it has been 1 year since I moved to Thailand, and 2 years since I arrived in Guangzhou, China. Which also reminded me that I haven’t actually been stateside for 2 years now.

That might be a bit too long – I’m coming for Christmas! I promise!

Then I found out that my hometown’s manatee, Snooty, passed away.

As I was telling Simon about Snooty, I was aware that mourning a town manatee is not particularly a normal thing, but my hometown is not always the most normal place.

Although I am hoping to spend the rest of my life abroad, I do really love where I am from. I did not run to the other side of the world because I thought Anna Maria was boring, or because I didn’t like the people there, or even because I thought I’d find somewhere better (just different – I always want different).

And if you are traveling in America, I wouldn’t hesitate for second before recommending Anna Maria for a Florida island experience.

Want some insider information from a local? Here you are:

Let’s start with the manatees!

Anna Maria is in Manatee County, and it’s not difficult to spot our love for the giant sea creatures we’re named after. Snooty, the manatee mentioned above, has been our county mascot since 1979, and any child who also grew up in the area has celebrated his birthday and had a sleepover next to his aquarium.

Manatees are an endangered species, but they aren’t uncommon in our waters. Many houses (including plenty of vacation rentals) are on canals, so you can see these gentle beasts right from your backyard. Look for their noses coming up to surface – they are mammals so they rise up frequently to breathe.

A manatee sighting in my backyard

If you aren’t staying on a canal, going out on a boat on the bayside of the island can also bring you up and close and personal with a manatee. Make sure you drive slowly and carefully – manatees are hurt too often by propellers, and you will notice that we post many signs warning boaters to keep our manatees safe.

Enjoy some Old Florida charm.

Along with love for our manatees, we are also proud of our efforts to preserve Old Florida culture. It has always been important to the island’s residents and local government to keep our community authentic and different from the bigger popular beach towns. We want to be a quieter, homier, old-time alternative to Miami, Panama City, or Daytona.

To start with, you won’t see sky-high hotels lining the beaches. Laws prevent buildings higher than three stories anywhere on the island. You also won’t see too many franchises – most stores are locally owned and designed with Old Florida architecture as the inspiration.

Head to Pine Avenue if you really want a taste of Old Florida. You’ll find plenty of local shops, a small history museum, and a historical church. The avenue dead ends at the ocean, where you’ll find the city pier, built in 1910.

The Historical Anna Maria City Pier

How to find a quiet beach:

During tourist seasons, our tiny roads are often at a standstill and the beaches are packed – at least the beaches most tourists know about.

If you want a more peaceful beach day, I’d recommend you head to the northeast region of the island. There won’t be signs (or parking spaces) for these beaches, but if you look carefully you’ll see a few nearly-hidden paths between houses that will lead to beaches that are almost always empty.

At the northern tip of the island is Bean Point, a beach named after George Bean, the first permanent resident on the island. He believed it to be the most beautiful place on the island. Despite this, it rarely draws a crowd. Probably because it is not obviously marked, there isn’t a parking lot, and the waters aren’t very safe to swim in because of strong riptides. But it’s the perfect place to quietly watch the sunset.

A few more quick tips:

The entire island is actually a bird sanctuary. One reaction I’ve heard from every visitor is that they love all the different birds they see – some are beautiful and some look like something out of a horror movie, but we have quite a variety.

Skip the rental car. There is a free trolley that regularly circles the entire island.

It is also easy to rent a bike or a golf cart (which you can legally drive on all island roads) for your trip. Biking is very common, and most businesses have bike racks.

Bring your pets! Many businesses and accommodations are pet-friendly. It isn’t uncommon to see small dogs with their owners inside stores or at outdoor restaurants. But don’t bring them to the beach – you might get a fine.

Dogs aren’t allowed on the beach, but they’ll enjoy our canals in a kayak!

October is the best month to visit. It is still warm enough to enjoy the beach, hurricane season is quieting down, and tourists are few and far between – this also means hotels and vacation rentals are cheaper.

Tourist season is late February through April, when most schools in America are on spring break.

The island is also busier in winter because of our “snow bird” community. A snow bird is a retiree who keeps a winter house in Florida, but lives up north during the warmer months.

Don’t discouraged if your beach day suddenly features a huge thunderstorm. Rain usually comes and leaves very quickly. Seek shelter for a few minutes, and you’ll most likely be able to carry on your day.

For breakfast, head to the Rod and Reel Pier or the Sign of the Mermaid.

For lunch or dinner, I recommend the Anna Maria City Pier, The Waterfront Restaurant, or The Sandbar.

It’s your turn – tell me about your hometown! If I came to visit, what would be your top tip most tourists wouldn’t know?

 

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Singapore Budget Travel Tips

This post is sponsored by 5footway.inn, but all opinions are ours.

Singapore is a lot of things – fun, bustling, modern, elegant, artistic.

And expensive.

If you are traveling Southeast Asia, where costs are usually comfortably low, this city-state might throw you.

But we could never recommend skipping it. There is too much to see and do. If your budget is an issue, you’ll just need to make very conscious choices to keep yourself from overspending.

Here are our best tips!

Accomodations

During our weekend in Singapore, we stayed at 5footway.inn‘s Project Boat Quay. This hostel is located right in the city center, so we were able to avoid expensive public transportation because we could walk everywhere we wanted to go (besides the airport). We were minutes from the main tourist attractions and surrounded by restaurants and bars. The hostel had very simple rooms, but a great view of the river from its balcony. At the time we were there, the prices matched the rates of other budget accommodations in the area, although I don’t think any other hostel in that price range could compete the location. To make it even cheaper for you, we have a 10% discount code to share. Email promotion@5footwayinn.com with code KD10.

Our view from the hostel

Food

While the restaurants in Singapore may come at a high cost, the city is also full of some amazing street food. Head to Chinatown or Little India, or seek out the hawker centres food stalls for a good deal on dinner. Street food is a huge part of Singapore, and the low price does not compromise on taste.

Drinks

You can’t spend time in Singapore without trying a Singapore Sling. While many travelers head to the Raffles Hotel, where the drink originated, you can find the exact same recipe at most bars around the city for a much lower cost. Walk along the river and look for good deals – happy hours and buy one get one promotions are usually advertised on signs outside.

We also discovered that sometimes you can create your own deals. Our first night we asked if we could get another two margaritas for the price of one. The bartender hesitated then countered four for the price of two, which we accepted. It never hurts to ask, and many places in Singapore are open to a little negotiation.

Enjoying our Singapore Slings

Activities

Since we were on a budget, we decided that we would have one splurge when it came to sightseeing – we wanted to go to the roof of the Marina Bay Sands and watch the sunset.

But aside from, we didn’t pay for any other activity. We recommend the same strategy for other budget travelers. Pick your top priority, and then enjoy the rest of the city for free.

Just walking around was an experience. We saw so many beautiful murals and bizarre statues, it was like the entire city was a giant art museum. We also saw an amazing light show at the Gardens by the Bay. I took so many pictures, my phone ran out of storage!

The light show at Gardens by the Bay

There is no denying that Singapore is an expensive place to travel. But it is doable on a budget if you set your mind to it, and you can still have a lot of fun. Have you ever visited? What are your best money-saving tips?

 

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Songkran: Behind the Party

Those who find themselves in Thailand for Songkran, the country’s New Year Festival, will enjoy huge water fights and parties with both locals and fellow visitors. It’s quite the experience: hilarious, a little mischievous, and pleasently random from the western point of view.

But how many travelers truly understand what they are celebrating and why these traditions exist?

When participating in a foreign holiday abroad, knowing a little background on the festival often makes it a more memorable and meaningful experience. Here’s what you should know about Songkran:

  • It’s name comes from a Sanskrit word that speaks of the passage of time and transformation. It is believed to signify  a fresh start. You can put old mistakes and struggles behind you and start anew.
  • There are three rules you are meant to follow on this particular day. 1) Put your work aside for the day, and don’t encourage others to work by shopping, eating out, or hiring any services. 2) Do nothing to harm other humans or animals. 3) Only tell the truth.
  • The water fights and chalky pastes are for purification. Think of it as washing away the negatives in your life. After the celebrations, you are clean and ready for a new year full of hope.

  • It’s not all a party. Traditionally, the mornings tend to start on a more serious note. People will sprinkle water over the elderly in their family, the graves of their ancestors, and a statue of the Buddha.
  • It’s also a time for charity. Donations are made and food is given to monks at the local temples.

  • Bright colors are worn to celebrate Spring. You will see a lot of bright floral shirts and flower necklaces. This is welcoming and celebrating the warmest time of the year in Thailand.
  • Fireworks are set off to scare away malicious spirits. These displays are most common in the South.
  • Similar to China, each new year is represented by an animal. The same animals are used, but the years do not match. In Thailand, 2017 will be the year of the Monkey, a time for playfulness, optimism, curiosity, and fun.

 

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Songkran Festival – Where to Celebrate and What to Know

Once a year, Thai streets fill with happy party goers holding water guns, hoses and buckets. It’s Songkran, and it’s right around the corner. Are you ready for a massive water fight? We’ll help you prepare.

What is it?

Songkran is Thailand’s New Year festival. The new year begins on the 13th of April every year, with the festival usually lasting from the 13th – 15th April, if not longer. Thailand’s Songkran festival ties in with many lunar new year festivals and holidays being celebrated across Asia in countries such as Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Sri Lanka and parts of India.

Traditionally the celebrations center around a water festival. Everyone, young and old, gathers in the streets with their families and engages in water fights and street parties. The water is used to clear away the misfortunes of the old year and signify a fresh start to the new one.

Where should you celebrate in Thailand?

Bangkok – While most of the city vanishes to their hometowns, Bangkok becomes pleasantly quiet for the period. Even so, there is no shortage of places to gather and have a splashing time. RCA has a stage and arena set up for an all-night party. Khao San Road is usually bustling with locals and backpackers, while Silom Road (Patpong) closes for traffic and fills with celebrations. Many locals will take to smaller sois while various hotels and residences offer tickets for Songkran pool parties.

Join the party on Silom Road

Chiang Mai – The party is centered around Tha Pae Gate. You’ll find stages, music, plenty of water, and crowds of party goers. There are also many street stores, so you’ll never run out of food, water, water guns and beer.

The Southern Towns and Islands – Wherever you choose down south, there will be some sort of Songkran celebration going on. Two popular islands include Koh Samui around Chaweng Beach and Phuket around Patong Beach. Other beach areas we’d recommend are Ao Nang and Krabi. Wherever you end up, you’ll find plenty of party opportunities by the beach.

Where can you celebrate around the world?

Not in Thailand this year? There are a number of other Asian countries that embrace the Thai New Year festivities and water parties, although they’ll tend to have a more traditional approach. You can find celebrations all over Laos, but specifically in Vientiane. Other places include Siem Reap in Cambodia, Yangon in Myanmar and parts of China.

Songkran lovers celebrating in China.

What should you know?

Clothes – It’s true that Thailand is scorching hot this time of year, and Songkran is a water fight, but keep in mind that Thailand and many Asian countries are conservative Buddhist countries. Depending on where you are celebrating, your clothes should be respectful. Take note of what everyone else is wearing – especially the locals.

Nighttime – Want to party all night? You’ll need to find the right place. Festivals on the streets shut down quickly when darkness falls. Designated party zones usually keep going until the early hours of the morning. If you find yourself in a place that seems to be winding down, you’ll need to be flexible. Find a street or party that’s still hopping, and don’t continue to soak people who are ready to call it a night.

You can’t stay dry – It’s just impossible! If you don’t like the idea of getting splashed, Songkran isn’t the festival for you. Even a quick walk to the store will result in someone throwing a bucket of water on you. If you dare to look annoyed by this, three more buckets will take aim. Smile and enjoy yourself!


You won’t know what to expect – Sometimes the water is freezing. You might even notice some ice cubes in the mix. Sometimes the water will feel like warm bath water. Some water has soap in it, so you’ll want to avoid getting it in your eyes or mouth. You just don’t know what’s coming until you’ve been splashed!

Motorbikes and Scooters – The most common time for motorbike accidents and traffic fatalities in Thailand is Songkran. If you decide to drive a bike during the water festival, stay alert and move slowly. Water will be thrown at you as you drive, and the roads will be slippery with soap.

Protect your valuables – It’s easy to find waterproof phone cases during Songkran. Buy one; you’ll need it.

Think before you splash – Be thoughtful and don’t throw water over monks, babies or the elderly.


Got a funny story from Songkran? What did you like? What did you hate? Let us know.

 

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