Thailand: Chiang Mai


Although I had a fantastic time in Bangkok, I had a feeling I would like Chiang Mai more, and I was right! We stayed in an admittedly touristy area but it was adorable nonetheless and I loved it. The dense concentration of temples and massage parlors within the ancient walls of the old city and within walking distance of our hotel made for some terrific sightseeing and post-sightseeing relaxation. I received over 5 hours of massage treatments in a single day. Two and a half hours of a traditional Thai massage made me so sore that I had to get a second massage to recover from the first one. If only all my problems could be like this.

We hired a tour guide company to drive us to a famous landmark, Doi Suthep Temple, several kilometers outside of the old city and then went on a three hour trek through Doi Inthanon National Park, which was very beautiful despite the rainy weather. After my second full day of sightseeing I had to admit I was all “templed” out. Chiang Mai was the Thailand I wanted to experience.

See what I saw here:

Thailand: Bangkok

While reviewing our packed travel itinerary over the course of several weeks, I originally decided to cut out Thailand in order to give us a week to rest in between Malaysia and Japan. Although it was a country we’d always wanted to visit, as time went on and we got older, other travel destinations eclipsed our desire to see Thailand. It seemed like one of those places people explore in their twenties. Wild and crazy nightlife was no longer much of an allure after kids, and I recently had my fill of lounging by the beach. What else was there to Thailand?

As a favor to my cousin SW, I agreed to throw some business to her travel agent friend and squeeze Thailand back into the itinerary so long as we could see Chiang Mai in addition to Bangkok. I was willing to check out Bangkok’s bar scene but was way more interested in Chiang Mai’s nature hiking and cultural sights. What a difference a decade makes! My 25-year-old self definitely would not have recognized my 35-year-old self. Not that I necessarily want to be 25 again. Who squeezes in a vacation to Thailand as an afterthought and as a favor to a travel agent? My 35-year-old baller self.


It turned out that two nights in Bangkok wasn’t enough. I was impressed by the temple complex of Wat Pho and enthralled by the magnificence of the Grand Palace, and disappointed that we didn’t make it to Wat Arun because we took the wrong ferry. After dinner we swung by Soi Cowboy to check out Bangkok’s infamous red light district, where I confirmed that large-breasted Thai women (and men) make my husband uncomfortable. We randomly entered Shark, a go-go bar that showcased 20+ semi-naked girls dancing listlessly on a narrow stage. After a drink and 20 minutes of gazing at thinly veiled nipples and vacant expressions, Tom was ready to get out of there. I know what everyone is thinking — Tom didn’t have fun because he was at a go-go bar with his wife, obviously. Not true. Scantily clad, forlorn-looking exotic dancers just aren’t his thing. He’s into 5’2″ Vietnamese women with disheveled hair and a sassy attitude.

I didn’t get any pictures of our Soi Cowboy experience but other Bangkok pictures can be found here:

Malaysia: Kuala Lumpur

Seeing our friend Lu was the primary reason for visiting Malaysia; we didn’t know very much about the country itself. Lu described it as “Truly Asia” and after we got there we understood why. Although a predominantly Muslim country, it has a remarkably diverse mixture of East, Southeast, and South Asian ethnicities with British colonial influences — a truly multicultural society. That can only mean good things for the cuisine, which was a wonderful spectrum of Asian-Indian food. I loved that signs advertising “Dried Shredded Meat Toast,” “Fish Head Curry,” and “Preserved Egg Porridge” were as commonplace in Kuala Lumpur as signs for “Steak and Eggs” or “Salad and Pasta” would be in the U.S. I loved the mall food courts that offered a billion different types of Asian food. I loved that being Asian meant blending in with the crowd, not standing out as a foreigner. Not that there weren’t moments I felt awkward or out of place; sometimes I was a little self-conscious about wearing a sleeveless top in an establishment inhabited or operated by large groups of culturally conservative Muslim men. It’s interesting to compare those experiences with my experiences in the U.S., where I was often aware of my status as an ethnic minority but never self-conscious about my ability to blend in culturally. Like Penang, Kuala Lumpur was very visually stimulating, with juxtapositions of old and new, history and modernism, and these contrasts were evident everywhere, from its architecture to its cuisine, and throughout its communities.

Still, the best part was hanging out with an old friend who really got us, and who could relate to so many things that we were going through, like being an American living outside of America and being a parent to a hyperactive child (or two). It’s nice when someone understands the need to just sit back and stare zombie-like into space, enjoying the silence of unconscious children. It’s comforting to know that becoming old and boring isn’t a tragedy, it’s an evolution. And it’s always fun to share meals with a fellow foodie. On our very last night in Kuala Lumpur, we all had grand ideas about how we were going to spend this Friday night partying like it was 1999. There was talk of bar-hopping, all-night trance clubs, hookah lounges, and foot massages. Ultimately, we ended up vegging on Lu’s couch, sampling exotic teas from his fancy tea set. “We’re having a TEA PARTY,” Lu cried in horror and disbelief when it dawned on him what we were doing. And for at least part of the evening I was completely engrossed in a documentary about the bubonic plague in 17th century England. I know there were and are so many more things to see and do in Kuala Lumpur and in Malaysia, but on that particular night I wouldn’t have rather been doing anything else.

Full album can be found here:

Malaysia: Penang (George Town and Batu Ferringhi)

On a tip from Lu, we flew from Kuala Lumpur to Penang to check out its capital, George Town, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Also on a tip from Lu, we stayed at Traders Hotel in Penang in order to take advantage of its free guest shuttle to an affiliate property in Batu Ferringhi, so we could enjoy a beach-side resort for a day. We straight up copied Lu’s family vacation. The ocean water in Batu Ferringhi was too infested with jellyfish to swim, but the kids thoroughly enjoyed the resort’s water slide and pool.

George Town was an assault on the senses. It’s got a lot of character, and I don’t mean that as a euphemism for dirty, old, and smelly, although it’s all those things too. It’s a historically rich and vibrant town, with pockets of ugliness and decay; and, with an open sewage system, one’s nostrils are indeed assaulted every so often with noxious odors. But there’s an organic beauty and charm about the cityscape that makes it so much more interesting than you might think at first glance. Amidst the grittiness and grime are also pockets of exquisite loveliness, hidden gems of visual, culinary, and cultural delights. George Town is known for its hawker food stalls (some of which we enjoyed more than others) and its urban street art (which we loved). Although the kids were reluctant to walk around searching for street art at first, after we rewarded them with jelly beans and promised more for each picture taken, they were urging us and each other on enthusiastically with exclamations of “Let’s find more art!” If it takes jelly bean bribes to expose our kids to culture, then so be it. I didn’t take pictures of most of our meals in Penang but we hit up a lot of the famous classics: Char Koay Teow (flat rice noodles stir fried with garlic, prawns, bean sprouts, eggs, and chives), Penang Assam Laksa (rice vermicelli in a tangy fish broth seasoned with lemongrass, chilies, and tamarind and topped with onions, herbs, cucumber, lettuce, and prawn paste), Chee Cheong Fun (steamed sheets of rice flour rolled, sliced, and served with chili paste and shrimp paste), Roti Canai (Indian-Muslim style flatbread served with lentil or chicken curry dipping sauces), and Fried Oysters (in a crispy egg omelette).

There were many tourists, like us, with their cameras, but it didn’t feel touristy. It felt genuine and authentic and real. I’m so glad we got to explore George Town at this particular moment in its history, and I hope it never gets gentrified or stripped of its quirky, unique character.


Full album can be found here:

Singapore: A Neat Freak’s Paradise

We flew to Kuala Lumpur with the kids to visit our good friend Lu and to squeeze in some side trips to Singapore and Penang. We got to Lu’s apartment late Wednesday night and the following morning immediately set off for Singapore, which is a 5 hour bus ride from Kuala Lumpur. Singapore is such a tiny city state that we budgeted only two days and one night to see the sights. With two young children who don’t enjoy walking, we probably should have stayed an extra day or two, but were still able to cover an incredible amount of ground during our brief visit. The metro and taxicabs made it easy to get around. It’s such a modern, beautiful, and CLEAN city; what a welcome change from Vietnam! And even though we didn’t bring our double stroller to Asia, the kids soldiered on like champs. I’m proud that they’re developing into such well-seasoned travelers!

No litter in sight -- so freakin' clean!
No litter in sight — so freakin clean!

The entire album can be viewed here:

I Hate Getting Ripped Off

On our last morning in Saigon before departing for Malaysia, Brian, Ariana, the kids, and I went to the famous downtown market, Cho Ben Thanh, for brunch and souvenir shopping, while Tom stayed at the hotel to work. We had taken multiple trips between our hotel and that area so we knew that cab fare costed no more than 50,000 VN dong (roughly US$2.50). Brian and Ariana decided to stay behind to get some hair and nail treatments so I hailed a cab to take the kids back to the hotel. I gave the taxi driver the name of the hotel and the address in Vietnamese. As we approached the hotel a few minutes later, I glanced at the meter and saw that it had inexplicably jumped to over 150,000 dong. Alarmed, I asked the taxi driver how it could possibly cost over 100,000 dong when previous rides had costed between 35,000 to 40,000 dong. He immediately became hostile and defensive, arguing that the price for getting to the market was different from the price of leaving the market because the route was different. I called him out on his bullshit and asked how many kilometers did we travel because we had been in the cab only a few minutes. He wouldn’t back down and persisted in arguing with me, probably embarrassed because he realized that, even though he picked me up from a tourist trap and I spoke VN with an American accent, I knew exactly what I was talking about and how much the cab fare should be. When I told him to make a right turn into the hotel driveway, he suddenly made a left u-turn and parked across the street from the hotel. He accused me of giving him the wrong address and asked me to just get out where we were parked. The meter read 180,000 dong and I was pissed, flustered, and unsure of what to do next. I didn’t have the nerve to exit the cab without paying, but the smallest bill I had was a 200,000 dong bill. I knew that he would never give me the right change if I handed over 200,000 dong. I felt like I was being taken advantage of because I was a solo mother with two young kids, and I was furious. After feeble attempts at negotiation, I ended up paying 170,000 dong for a cab ride that should have costed 50,000 dong, or roughly US$8 for what should have costed $2.50. I called him a cheater, grabbed my kids and slammed the taxi door shut behind me. What’s the big deal, right? Really, what difference does $5 make, in the grand scheme of things? It’s not the dollar amount, it’s the principle of it. I can live with getting ripped off when I don’t know I’m getting ripped off. When I know it’s happening and I’m impotent to stop it, that’s when I hate myself the most. I realized that he didn’t want to drop us off at the hotel lobby entrance because the hotel porters would have come to my aid. I should have demanded that the taxi driver drop us off directly in front of the hotel or I should have refused to pay at all. But I was too chicken and flustered. I never know the right thing to do and say in the moment. I hate it when I’m treated badly, but I hate it even more when I don’t have the confidence and wherewithal to put a stop to it.

Saigon: A Nice Place to Visit, But…

After returning from Siem Reap, we explored Saigon with Brian and Ariana during their last two days in Vietnam and stayed at the 5 star Hotel Nikko Saigon, a Japanese franchise. It’s way more fun to visit Saigon as a tourist than to live like a local!