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#SETRAVELS: Lively Temples and Idyllic Beaches in Thailand

With famed beaches, delectable food and grand temples, you can easily understand why Thailand is the travel hub of Southeast Asia. Once you get past the 20 hour flight, you’ll be awarded with rich cultural attractions, great shopping and your fair share of lazing on the beach.

Bangkok is usually the start of most adventures through Thailand, so that’s where we began. From there, we made our way south to Ko Phi Phi, Ko Lanta and then to Phuket. For two weeks, we covered quite a bit of ground, but it wasn’t enough. An encore is definitely necessary in the near future.

As a metropolis, Bangkok offers heat and humidity but also a bustling energy. Bangkok is filled with temples and palaces, complete with intricate and historically significant architecture. The three biggest being: the Grand Palace (the official residences of the kings since 1782), Wat Pho (the Temple of the Reclining Buddha) and Wat Arun (the Temple of Dawn). Not far from the temples, you can find yourself at Khao San Road, a short street in central Bangkok which offers a bounty of fresh coconuts, “massage” parlours, street vendors and budget accommodations. Although, this street is usually a zoo, it isn’t one that should be missed.

About an hour outside of Bangkok you can find yourself in a floating market. The Damnoen Saduak is the most notable, making it a huge tourist attraction. Even so, we had to check it out. With riverside stalls and vendors selling things directly out of their boats, it gives you an idea of what life was like in days past.

Another day trip that shouldn’t be missed is Ayutthaya, a city just 76km north of Bangkok. As the second capital of the Siamese kingdom, the city is now an archaeological ruin complete with magnificent stone temples and palaces. Since the ruins aren’t quite close together, the two best ways to get around are by bicycle or tuk tuk (a motorized rickshaw).

Once we had enough of the heat, smog and chaos, we decided it was time to relax and soak up the island life. We made our way to Ko Phi Phi (Phi Phi Island), an island with a laid-back attitude, breathtaking views, not to mention, a divers paradise. This island is quite popular with tourists, so you’ll often find yourself surrounded by more tourists than locals.

If you want a look into real island life, you might want to hop on a ferry from Ko Phi Phi to Ko Lanta. When we arrived on the island, we noticed that the tourists were almost non-existent. We had endless stretches of beaches to ourselves and dined at local establishments where the owners knew us by name and offered us rides back to our hotel when it started to get dark. It was a nice change from the more touristy locales.

Our adventure ended in Phuket, an island off the south west coast of Thailand. If you want beaches and nightlife, this is the place for you. This island boasts an abundance of sandy beaches and crystal clear waters. For some, beach life and partying goes hand in hand. In Phuket, you won’t be disappointed. Along Bangla Road, you can find many foreign animals, partying hot spots, not to mention, plenty of go go clubs, pole dancers and lady boys (think The Hangover 2). On Bangla road, dull moments rarely exist.

What We Ate
I’ll start with this, you can find Pad Thai any and everywhere. Fried noodles and fried rice can be found at restaurants and street vendors – and both are equally delicious. I can’t say that I’m the most adventurous when it comes to food (fried bugs? Hmmm…) but when it comes to travelling, food is great way to get a taste of the local culture, literally. My favourite dish by far was recommended by the owner of a restaurant we dined at, Massaman curry. He explained that it is a muslim origin Thai curry dish, which is flavourful but not spicy. Most Thai dishes are very flavourful with the blends of spices, but many are also quite hot. I learned this the hard way when I tried a dish at another restaurant where I cried and sweat profusely. Note to self: When a Thai woman tells you a dish isn’t spicy, it probably is.

Where We Slept
Accommodations, like almost everything else in Thailand, are relatively inexpensive. You can get a 4* hotel for about $100 a night and anything less is even cheaper. In the bigger cities, we opted for hotels that offered roof top pools, a necessity in the Thai humidity. In the smaller islands, we either stayed at local hotels (where we got to know some of the owners), or in bungalow-style accommodations. No matter what your budget, you’ll find something suitable for you. And a word of advice, for the extra $5, I wouldn’t pass on the air conditioning option.

Good To Know
– The local currency is the Thai Baht and it’s best to have a few on you, although most airports and convenience stores will have ATMS. Most hotels and restaurants will take Visa or Mastercard but some charge a 5% fee. The markets only accept cash.
– The Thai population is a mix of Buddhist and Muslim and even if they aren’t practicing, most are quite spiritual. At the temples, you must cover up your shoulders and knees. If you’ve forgotten long pants or a t-shirt, they do have items for you to borrow (I just can’t say how clean they are).
– Always haggle. They expect you to haggle and if you don’t, it’s your loss. There were times when we haggled down to a quarter of the price. At the end of the day, they are happy they made a sale, and you get to walk home with a bargain.
– Thai people are very friendly. They are alway smiling and more than happy to help you but you should get to know a few of their local customs. For example: shoes are not to be worn in many stores and it is rude to raise your voice.
– It won’t hurt to learn a few Thai greetings while you’re there. You’ll notice that most Thai people will say hello or goodbye with a prayer like pose with the hands and a soft bow of the head. “Sawadeeka” (“hello” in Thai), “kop khun kap” (“thank you” in Thai) and you’re on your way!

– Chenessa Lam

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#SETRAVELS: How NOT to Look Like a Typical Tourist

Just Because You’re a Tourist, Doesn’t Mean You Should Look Like One.

When travelling in a foreign country, remember that you’re the foreigner. Instead of acting the part, why not try to blend in? By sticking out like a sore thumb, you’re more likely to get suckered into tourist traps and you also become easy prey for pick pockets. Here are a few simple tips to ensure that you don’t look like a typical tourist.

It’s 2013. In the era of smartphones and technology, there is no need to whip out a gigantic map in the middle of the street to get your bearings. No matter where you are, the second you open up a map, you’ll be spotted as a tourist. Instead, download a map of the current city you’re travelling and anytime you’re lost, take a peek at your cell phone. Those passing by would just think that you’re checking an email or text.

In North America, almost everyone speaks English, but then again, that’s North America. If English isn’t a main language spoken, try to keep your conversations at a low level. You don’t want to be known as the ignorant North American, or worse, get pick pocketed or mugged.

Just because sneakers, shorts and tank tops are acceptable here, doesn’t mean they are there. Here, we dress fairly casual but that may not be the norm where you are going. So essentially, ditch the baseball caps, logo tees, fanny packs, white socks and runners – we beg you. Also, be aware of the religious and cultural landscape. In some places, baring shoulders and knees in public is not acceptable. You want to dress accordingly so you don’t invite unwanted attention but also to respect their culture.

You may not be a local, but it won’t hurt to play the part. You’re travelling to experience and learn about their culture. Sometimes you’ll inevitably stick out, I know I often do. When I can, I try to pick up a few key words, rent an apartment (instead of a hotel) and maybe make a friend or two who know the language and locale. Just remember, when in Rome, do as the Romans.

– Chenessa Lam

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#SETRAVELS: Morocco’s Breathtaking Blues and Sandy Sahara

A few times a year, I am enveloped by the urge to jetset. Ideally, to a foreign country I’ve never been to before. We tend to get so wrapped up in life and forget what’s out there but I travel to put things into perspective. We often take the little things for granted but when you’re away from home, it’s easy remember how lucky you are.

Last month, Morocco popped up on my radar, and it was game over. Whether you’re looking for a beach, a hike through the mountains, a trek through the Sahara or just to wander through old city streets, this North African country has you covered.

Our journey consisted of visiting three main cities (Chefchaouen, Fes and Marrakech) and the Sahara desert. The number one thing to do in these cities is the medina, the old town of the city. With winding streets, souks (open-air markets) and plazas, one can easily get lost in the mayhem and madness.

Chefchaouen was our first stop and it was the perfect city to ease into Moroccan life. The “blue city” offers a brightly painted medina, which was painted blue by the Jewish refugees who lived there during the 1930’s. The beauty of the blues is breathtaking. As a calmer and smaller city, we had time to soak up the architecture, relax in the plazas and wander the city streets without fear of getting too lost.

Our second stop was Fes, noted as Morocco’s cultural and spiritual center. We entered through Bab Bou Jeloud, a.k.a. The Blue Gates, which take you into one of the largest car-free urban areas packed with street vendors and restaurants. After spending a good part of a day shopping in the souks, we sought out the leather tannery and the Kairaouine Mosque (Mosque of al-Qarawiyyin), one of the oldest universities in the world. With a predominantly muslim population, Morocco has many mosques that offer magnificent architecture.

When most people think of Morocco, Marrakech (our next stop) comes to mind. It was given the nickname of the “Red City” or “Ochre City” because of the red sandstone used in its walls. In the medina and souks, you can find various handicrafts, fabrics and food. In the middle of all this, you’ll find Jemaa el-Fnaa, the main square, with food and orange juice stalls, belly dancers, story tellers and even snake charmers. If you want to learn about Moroccan culture, this is the place to do it. You can indulge in a traditional hammam, learn to belly dance or take a lesson or two in Moroccan cuisine.

Before journeying into the Sahara, we drove through the Atlas Mountains and stopped by a Berber village. The Berbers are the indigenous people of North Africa and consist of many tribes. Their kasbahs (fortified villages) were built out of mud and clay. I had a geek-out moment when I was told that Game of Thrones was shot in the kasbah we were visiting (think Daenerys Targaryen, when she buys the Unsullied). A handful of other movies have been shot in the villages, including The Mummy and Gladiator, to name a few.

And now to the climax of our adventure. A trip to Morocco isn’t complete without a trek into the Sahara, the largest desert in Africa. After an hour long camel ride (and a very sore derrière), we found ourselves at home for the night. Although Berber tents were set up, we decided to sleep under the Sahara stars – how often is that even an option? We climbed up the vibrant orange dunes, which complement the bright blue sky and then relaxed and patiently awaited the sunset. Watching the moon rise and the shooting stars fly by was an unreal experience. I even woke up early to sneak in a quick yoga session atop one of the dunes. To say that this trip was a once in a lifetime experience would be a huge understatement. Now that Morocco is marked off my Bucket List, it’s time to start counting down to the next adventure.

What We Ate

In Morocco, tagines and couscous are your main options. Tagine is a historically Berber stew cooked in a clay pot. It usually has vegetables, meat and is rich in spices. Couscous is traditionally served with a meat or vegetable stew spooned over it.

Where We Slept

Forget the hotels, Riads or Dars are a must-do when in Morocco. These traditional guest houses within the medina are often peaceful and exquisitely decorated. A few of ours had rooftop terraces which offered a stunning view of the city.

Good To Know

– The local currency is the Moroccan Dirham and it’s best to have Dirhams and/or Euros on you. We found that the souks gave better prices with the Dirham but some riads offer a better exchange on the Euro.

– Since the population is predominantly Muslim, baring shoulders, knees and excessive skin can be offensive, not to mention you’ll attract unwanted attention. Although tourist areas tend to be more forgiving, it might not be a bad idea to invest in a pair of harem (Aladdin) pants.

– Bring toilet paper and soap everywhere. Chances are you’ll be fine in your riad or dar, but the public bathrooms are another story. Some have toilets, some do not, but most won’t have toilet paper or soap. I treated mine like gold and toted it with me no matter where I went.

–  If you’re a vegetarian, beware. The streets are often lined with food vendors and some of which have animal heads on their counters. The tannery is also an experience you might want to avoid if you’re sensitive.

– If you’re staying/visiting in the medina, a map is useless (the streets are very windy and without any signage). Instead, pay someone a few Dirhams to take you to your desired location.

– The Moroccans are very hospitable, you’ll be offered mint tea almost everywhere you go. So drink, relax and enjoy!

– Chenessa Lam

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