We’re Only Happy When We’re Shopping

by Nancy Bestor

I’m fascinated with markets. Show me a market—any kind, anywhere, but especially overseas—and I am happy to wander aimlessly up and down aisle after aisle, perusing the goods on sale, watching folks make purchases, and getting a glimpse into how people in other countries live their lives. On our recent visit to Bangkok, Bob and I visited their Amulet Market, Flower Market, Talingchan Floating Market, Flashlight Market, Chatuchak Weekend Market, and the Wang Lung Market—all in just four days. Each and every market was mesmerizing, just like Bangkok itself.

When our frequent flyer tickets routed us through Thailand’s capital, on our way to New Zealand, we thanked our lucky stars, and arranged to stop over for five nights. We’d last visited Thailand 13 years ago, and had only spent two days in Bangkok, so we felt we were long overdue for another visit. We booked lodging in an out of the way neighborhood, which, although it required extra work to get to and from, proved to be a highlight of our trip. The Siamotif Hotel is an old wooden house, the hotel owner’s original family home. It is located in the traditional district of Thonburi, directly on the Bangkok Noi canal which is part of the Chao Phraya River. My is the proprietor of this charming nine room hotel, which cost us about $100 per night. Although not cheap by Thailand standards, our hotel was stunning in looks, service and accommodation, and included a full and delicious breakfast each morning. We could not have been happier. My and her sister Toon (two of seven daughters in the family) treated us as if we were family members, walking us to the bus stop, telling us to be careful, worrying when I felt unwell one morning, and making certain our experiences in Bangkok were everything we wanted. Staying at the Siamotif required us to take more local transportation to get where we wanted—including ferries and local red truck taxi buses— but in our eyes, this only added to its charm.

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We had no real agenda for our stay, other than to soak up as much Thai culture as we could, and there is no better way to experience Thai culture than at an open-air market. Markets in Bangkok are everywhere, and on our first morning, we took the taxibus to the Talingchan Floating Market, where we feasted on many Thai delicacies, including mango sticky rice and a whole fish—snakehead—with a delicious spicy green dipping sauce. Talingchan is a starting point for canal boat tours. We took a great one, semi-private (with just four others), for less than $5 each. The long boat toured us through the waterways, and for about an hour we saw Thai life from the river, up close and personal.

The Amulet Market was another hit that first day, where serious shoppers (all Thai, we were the only tourists) used loupes to closely inspect statues, buddhas and other talismans. The market was not well lit, and with statues and other talismans staring out at us as we strolled the aisles, it was quite atmospheric.

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The Chatuchak Weekend Market is likely the biggest market I have ever visited. The largest market in Thailand, Chatuchak has over 8,000 stalls, broken into 27 sections. Even with a map of the market, it is easy to get turned around, and from personal experience, if you see something you like, you should buy it, because you may never be able to find it again. We ate great Thai soups, then Pad Thai and papaya salad a little later (wandering in markets makes me hungry) and finally topped our meal off with coconut ice cream, which was the bomb. Our visit to Chatuchak Market was capped off with a foot massage. For 45 minutes, two very strong-handed Thai women rubbed and massaged our feet and lower legs, all for the low price of $5. I could definitely get used to that.

Another fantastic market was the Pak Klong Talad, or in words we can all understand, the Bangkok Flower Market. Although it’s open 24 hours a day, this market really gets going late in the evening and continues into the wee hours of the morning, as that is when fresh flowers are set up, and restaurants and hotels come to buy them. We were on a night bike tour when we visited (more on that in a future email newsletter), and were able to ride our bikes right through several of the market’s warehouses. Once we parked our bikes and walked along the market lanes, we were able to smell the tremendous variety of deliciously aromatic and beautiful flowers for sale. A visit to this market is a sensuous delight.

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Food stalls at all the markets produce an amazing variety of dishes that are both delicious and incredibly cheap. We got fairly good at ordering and eating small portions, so we could try more things more frequently. On our last trip to Thailand, one of our local tour guides told us that most Thais eat many meals out, because it is inexpensive (and dare I say delicious) for them as well.

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Another great window shopping experience was a visit to the religious shops block, Th Bamrung Meuang, which is one of Bangkok’s oldest streets. While not a traditional market, these two blocks house shop after shop of religious paraphernalia, including Buddha statues the size of a car, garb for buddhist monks, altars, and much more. This was fascinating, and again, we appeared to be the only tourists.

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We read in our Lonely Planet guide about a Bangkok neighborhood in which several families still make traditional monk alms bowls out of steel and copper. They are the only remaining folks that still make these bowls, as most monks today use inexpensive factory made bowls. The narrow street showcases a handful of different families working outside their somewhat ramshackle shops, hammering away at their creations. It was impossible for us to walk down this narrow alley and not buy a bowl. They are formed from eight separate pieces of steel, representing the eightfold path of Buddhism. The pieces are then fused with copper, and polished with black lacquer. They are beautiful, and we ended up carting home two of them in our suitcases. I highly recommend a stop here.

Try as we might, it’s virtually impossible for us to duplicate authentic Thai food at home. We can make good American Thai food, but it simply doesn’t compare to the real thing. Every once in a while, however, when I pull out some Thai seasonings, I smell something that reminds me of those Bangkok markets, and I smile. I’m ready to go back and wander the markets of Thailand some more.

You Can Check Out Anytime You Want

by Nancy Bestor

When our children were growing up, they loved staying in hotels of all shapes and sizes. They were quite enamored with hotel features and amenities. They loved sitting in fancy chairs in the lobby. They loved taking turns pressing the elevator buttons. They loved swimming in hotel pools. They loved the mini shampoo bottles and the ice machines down the hall.

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I get it. Hotel stays sometimes feel like an escape from regular life. But I can safely say that at 49 years old, I don’t love every hotel I stay in. I’m not so excited by elevator buttons, or swimming pools, or mini shampoo bottles and ice machines. I’ll be honest, I’m a little more discriminating these days. I like quality accommodations. I value sheets with high thread counts and comfortable mattresses. I like roomy bathrooms filled with plenty of soft towels and good toilet paper.

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But if I could bend your ear (or your eyeballs) and tell you about my ultimate dream hotel, it has all of the things I mentioned above (particularly the good toilet paper), as well as some kind of old world charm and/or small family feel to it. I like a little history, but at the same time, I like modern conveniences. I like hotels that are run by families, or people who feel like family. I’m not interested in high-rise structures with hundreds of rooms, but rather prefer an old building that has been a hotel for a hundred years, or a home or unusual structure that has been converted to a hotel. We’ve stayed in a lot of hotels over the years and we’ve been fortunate to find more than a few unique ones along the way, that also offer many of the amenities I prize.

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In New Zealand for example, we stayed at two different “pub” hotels, where rooms were either next door to, or above, a cozy local drinking establishment. Although I worried about the potential noise, in both cases, it was just as quiet as a typical hotel room. In Bangkok, we stayed at Siamotif, a small, family run hotel that had been converted from the owner’s original family home. In Shanghai, we stayed at the Astor House Hotel, which opened in 1846 and boasts a past guest list that includes Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin and Ulysses S. Grant. And in Memphis, we watched the ducks parade in each morning of our stay from their penthouse suite on the hotel roof to the fountain in the lobby at the Peabody Hotel. Now I’ll admit, they didn’t all have sheets with high thread count, but I was willing to sacrifice a bit of comfort for a little history and a lot of charm.

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Maybe the hotel offers guests a lovely local drink when they check in. Perhaps they provide snacks and/or drinks at happy hour every day. Maybe they leave handwritten notes from housekeeping making sure guests have everything they need. These are the little extras that excite me.

The cities of the world offer an abundance of hotels that travelers can choose to stay in when visiting. My ideal hotel certainly isn’t right for everyone, but it’s exactly what I aspire to find when hotel shopping. Here are a few of the things Bob and I do when looking for a hotel. We Google “unique hotels” for our destination and then spend lots of time (arguably too much) reading reviews from other hotel guests. We look at as many pictures (those published by the hotel and by guests as well) as we can find. And then, when we book, we try and make sure our booking can be canceled in the event we find something better.

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Of course we are not always successful. Sometimes our number one choice is too expensive. Sometimes there are no vacancies. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out. But that just makes the times we do find them that much more special.

Love Makes the SeeSaws Go Up and Down

by Nancy Bestor

So there I was, sitting on a curb putting a band aid on my sweaty, grimy toe. My feet, although comfortable in my Keen sandals, were tired after many days and many miles of walking the streets of Bangkok. Bob was chilling in the shade next to me, also in Keens. Before I could finish my first aide, a beautifully dressed couple approached, and asked if Bob and I would be willing to pose with them in their wedding pictures. That’s right, Bob and I are sweating in shorts and t-shirts—and don’t forget our Keen sandals—and a stunning couple in full dress and makeup want us to appear in their wedding photos. Without missing a beat, we said yes.

bangkokTheir two professional photographers took at least a dozen shots of the two couples next to each other. He even had us kiss our spouses (or soon to be spouses) for a pose. We didn’t do much talking—as professional models, we took our job seriously—but the wedding couple did ask if we were from America, and told us that they had once been to San Francisco. Before our shoot was finished, we did get a photo on our camera for our memory book too. As we went on our way, the bride and groom thanked us profusely. It’s hard to believe, but they were grateful to have two sweaty Americans in their wedding photos.

And that, in a nutshell is what I love about Thailand. Yes, I love the food—boy do I love the food. And I love its sites, smells and sounds too. But without a doubt, it’s the kind, friendly Thai people that I love most.

We were in Thailand for five days, on a roundabout journey to New Zealand. This being a short visit, we decided to stick to Bangkok, and take our time exploring all its wonders. We booked lodging in an out of the way neighborhood, which required a little extra work to get to and from, but proved to be a highlight of our stay. The Siamotif Hotel is in an old wooden house and is its owner’s original family home. It is located in Thonburi, directly on the Bangkok Noi canal, which is part of the Chao Phraya River. My is the proprietor of this charming nine room hotel, which cost us about $100 per night. Although not cheap by Thai standards, the Siamotif is stunning in looks, service and accommodation, and includes a full and delicious breakfast each morning. It was perfect.bangkok 2But again, the best thing about our hotel was its people. My and her sister Toon (two of seven daughters in the family) treated us as if we were family members ourselves, walking us to the bus stop, telling us to be careful, worrying when I felt unwell one morning, and making certain our experiences in Bangkok were everything we wanted. Staying at the Siamotif required that we take more local transportation to get where we wanted—including ferry boats and local red truck taxi buses— but in our eyes, this only added to its charm. We were all sad to say goodbye to each other when we departed. But this experience was not unique to this Thailand trip. The last time we visited, with our young children, Thai people fawned over them and hotel proprietors were in tears when saying goodbye.

On this trip, at the bustling Chatuchak Market, I fell down. I didn’t see a large crack in the pavement and tripped. Before I could even try to get up by myself, three Thai people were kneeling down beside me, checking to make sure I was okay, and giving me their hands to help me up. Food stall workers were delighted to have foreigners eating at their shops, and enthusiastically helped us try to figure out what they were selling. People riding the local buses pointed and told us where to get off when we were going to a floating market. And Thai children were fascinated with us, smiling, waving, and high-fiving us as we walked by.bangkok 3These are the experiences that we will remember. People being kind and friendly with one another. Because love really does make the world go round.

If You Get Too Cold, I’ll Tax the Heat

by Nancy Bestor

Even travel store owners get stuck with baggage fees. That’s right, last month on a 3 ½ week journey in Thailand and New Zealand, Bob and I had to fork over about $110 for one checked bag when flying from Melbourne to Christchurch. We were traveling with two Briggs & Riley Transcend carry-on bags, which weigh about 8 pounds empty, and two backpacks, all loaded to the gills with clothes and (ahem) purchases from our five days in Bangkok. We had carried them on with no problem from Bangkok to Melbourne on Thai Airlines, but we were flying JetStar from Australia to New Zealand, one of those “no frills” airlines, not unlike Allegiant Airlines here in the US. At the Melbourne airport that day, we learned that JetStar has lots of rules, and charges extra for lots of things.

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We had arrived plenty early to check in for our flight, and when we got to the JetStar counter, the ticket agent asked us to each place our bags on the scale, and informed us that the limit for carry-on bags was seven kilos (15 pounds). This weight restriction was for everything we were carrying on, not just the suitcase, but our “personal item” (in our case our backpacks) as well. Needless to say, we were way over the weight restriction. The suitcases themselves were about 20 pounds each, and my backpack was filled with beautiful bowls that I had bought in Thailand, among other things.

Once it was determined that we were indeed both over the weight limit, the kind JetStar agent told us to move over to the side and try and get as much weight into one of the suitcases as possible. This in the hopes that our remaining bags would meet the 15-pound maximum. While it was certain that we’d have to pay to check one, the question became whether we’d have to pay to check two—and the airport charge for checking a bag was $110. So if we could get one of the bags and backpacks under seven kilos, we could “save” $110.

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So there we were, “those” people, frantically trying to repack a suitcase on the airport floor. I’m certain we provided some entertainment for the other folks in line. We tried stuffing all the heavy items into Bob’s suitcase after expanding it. All the shoes went into that bag, as well as books and heavier clothing. I sat on the bag so Bob could zip it closed. But to no avail. Try as we might, we could not get even one suitcase and backpack combo under seven kilos. The closest we got was the suitcase by itself (without a backpack) at eight kilos. Thus we gave up, resigning ourselves to the fact that we would just have to pay $110 for each bag to get checked through to New Zealand. (And those cheap Thailand souvenirs just got a lot more expensive!)

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So with our overweight suitcases and backpacks, we got back in line. This time we were helped by a different (yet equally kind) JetStar agent. She began checking us in for our flight to Christchurch, and once we told her our story, she gave us a reprieve and charged us for only one checked bag, telling us to carry the other overweight bag on the flight. Since we had resigned ourselves to paying $220, the $110 charge for one checked bag didn’t seem as expensive anymore. And let’s be honest, it was our own fault. Had we checked the restrictions online ahead of time, we would have paid to check a bag when we bought the ticket, which I know was cheaper than the baggage charge at the airport. How much cheaper you ask? I don’t know, and I don’t want to find out.

Meet Hula-Hooper-Extraordinaire and Travel Essentials’ Employee Lauren Skinner

by Ember Hood

photoBorn in California, Lauren has spent most of her life on the West Coast of the United States – growing up in Tacoma, Washington, for many years before moving to Portland, Oregon. When it came time for college, she chose Southern Oregon University in Ashland because she has family in the area and loves the small town feel and abundant culture of the Rogue Valley. In her spare time, Lauren likes to hula-hoop, and she has one trusty travel hoop that she’s taken with her on trips to both Mexico and Canada.

A lover of language, Lauren studied Spanish in high school, and took her first international trip to Costa Rica when she did a six-month study abroad program. She was placed with a great family, who she has gone back to visit several times since.

In college, Lauren took some French classes, but she decided she wanted to do something different – so, she found a study abroad program in Thailand. She loved being immersed in a completely new culture, and a language she didn’t speak at all. “The Thai language is really beautiful, and so different from ours, it seems almost alien,” she said wistfully. “And the Thai people are so friendly – they always smile and make eye contact. Not like Americans.”

Over the course of her four-month study, she got to take a few trips within the country, visiting rural rice farming villages in northern Thailand’s Mae Chaem district, and beautiful ancient ruins and temples in Sukhothai and Ayutthaya – where she saw the biggest golden reclining Buddha statue she could have ever imagined.

The final trip her group took was to a Lisu village, up in the mountains. The village’s livelihood comes from growing diverse crops – coffee, tomatoes, sugar cane and string beans, and everything in between. On Lauren’slauren1 twentieth birthday, her group hiked up to visit the fields of fresh fruits, vegetables and legumes, where they were promised lunch. But out amongst the crops, away from any structures or kitchens, Lauren wasn’t sure how that would be accomplished. To everyone’s delight, their hosts lay down palm leaves and proceeded to prepare a feast of raw salsas and fresh beans, with fresh sugar cane to chew on, too.

Since most of Lauren’s travels have taken her to Central America and the Far East, she plans to see Europe next. “Spain, because I speak the language,” she told me. “But also France. Rural France, as well as Paris.” And, she added, “I’ll have to take my hula-hoop, too!”

Take a Walk on the Wild Side

by Nancy Bestor

deerI’m always surprised when I see tourists getting up close and personal with “wild” animals. In Costa Rica, I remember a woman feeding an iguana bits of her bread. Bits that is, until another iguana launched itself from a tree branch into her lap and took the whole sandwich. The deer in Nara, Japan are also a hit with the tourist crowd. Thousands of these animals, sacred to the residents of Nara, roam the streets, eating as much as tourists are willing to feed them with special food purchased from carts and vending machines. It was cute at first, but when I saw aggressive deer nipping at tourists hands, and trying to eat their purses and bags, the cute factor was replaced by the fear factor. And don’t get me started on the deer poop. Let’s just say, like the thousands of deer, the poop was also prolific.

monkeyOn our recent trip to Bali, we ventured through the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary of Ubud. More than 500 Balinese long tailed Macaques (monkeys) live in the Sanctuary, and as stunning as the temples inside the Forest are, most tourists seemed preoccupied with taking photos of the monkeys and feeding them bananas. The Forest boasts Indiana Jones like temples and statues, surrounded by rope-like tree branches. I expected to see Harrison Ford (in his ahem, younger days) hurtling down at any moment. But these fantastic surroundings were lost to many tourists in the shuffle of trying to get up close and personal with the Macaques.

sarah_editNow it’s one thing to hand a banana to a monkey, or even an elephant, as we did once in Thailand. But, in my humble human opinion, it’s quite another thing to badger a monkey into shaking hands with you until it hisses and bears its teeth at you (witnessed in Ubud), or encourage monkeys to jump onto your traveling companion’s head so you can have a perfect photo opportunity (true story). Wild monkeys are just that – wild. It’s true that some may be desensitized and therefore gentler from spending so much time around humans. But I’m here to tell you, when they hiss and try to scratch you with lightning speed I’m reminded that they are referred to as wild for a reason. With the exception of my children, I’ll stick to appreciating wild animals from afar.

I Need A Photo Opportunity

by Nancy Bestor

One part of traveling in a foreign country that always surprises me is how fascinated locals seem to be with my family. The looks many give us make me feel like some of them have never seen a Caucasian tourist before. This happened quite frequently in parts of Bali this past summer, particularly to my 19 and 17-year-old daughters. You would think they’d be used to it though, because it’s been happening all their lives as we’ve taken them on travels around the world.

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It started in Thailand, when the girls were 7 and 5. Two Caucasian girls visiting somewhat remote islands in Thailand gave many people pause. They would stare, smile, wave, sometimes touch them, and frequently ask to have their pictures taken with them. Often times they’d offer the girls gum, candy, fruit, and more. It wasn’t just locals either. Tourists, particularly those from Japan, also wanted their pictures taken with Emily and Sarah.

People in Vietnam were very friendly to our girls as well. And it appeared to be even more unusual for a Caucasian family to be visiting this country. I’ll never forget being in a local outdoor market outside of Nha Trang where we were definitely the only tourists, and it felt like the Vietnamese could not take their eyes off of us. I swear a woman started following us there too, but that is another story. Locals stared in Turkey as well. The only ones brave enough to ask for a picture though, were a group of about seven girls, ranging in age from 8-16.

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Fast-forward 12 years to our trip this past summer to Bali. Locals and tourists are still staring at our girls, sometimes smiling and waving, and still asking for pictures with them. We met a family who insisted that their younger daughters (who they said were “grumpy today”) take a picture with our daughters. Emily was asked by a man to have his picture taken with her, and then he brought over the rest of his family to take a full on family portrait with her as well.

It’s not always just our girls though. A group of Japanese tourists in Bali were delighted when Bob and I passed by them on the beach, and they enthusiastically motioned him over for a photo opportunity. Bob is certain they had mistaken him for George Clooney.

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The folks we’ve met in these impromptu photo sessions over the years rarely speak much English, but they almost always ask us where we are from. Interestingly, when we answer “the United States”, they tend to look at us a bit blankly. We quickly learned that the best way to answer the “where are you from” question is to say “America.” Nine times out of ten, in whatever country we are visiting or whomever we are talking with, the locals reply with a big smile and an “Ohhhhh…….America!”

I’d like to think this is what Heidi Klum and her family feel like when they vacation. I’d like to think I look a little something like Heidi Klum too. No comments from the peanut gallery please.