Bangkok

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After a week in Japan we flew to Bangkok. We spent 4 days in Bangkok, then flew to Siem Reap – Cambodia for 3 days and ended the trip with another 3 days in Bangkok. In Japan we saw very few tourists or immigrants. Bangkok was the complete opposite. There was a level of comfort seeing so many other tourists, but it also felt like foreigners have pushed the Thai people out of Bangkok. There is no order in Bangkok either, which was a total contrast to Japan. People push their way through, and have no problem cutting people off. The traffic is total chaos! Japan was very busy but there was an order and people respected each other. Bangkok is more every man for himself.
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If you haven’t been following the political turmoil in Thailand this year, there was a coup d’etat earlier this year and the country is currently under control of the junta. There is currently a push to get tourism back to the levels they were at prior to the political turmoil, which includes cleaning the beaches and trying to get taxi drivers to use meters etc. We did not see any visible signs of military control while we were there.

The taxi thing was very frustrating because we waited in a long line at the mall, then you get in a taxi and the driver refuses to turn on their meter. We soon figured out the nicer the taxi driver is, and the better their english is, the more they are ripping you off. Every taxi driver we had that used the meter didn’t say a word to us. Every taxi driver that was charging an inflated flat fee wanted to engage us in conversation.

We enjoyed the temples and the reclining buddha, but spent a lot of our free time at the malls. They take their shopping malls and movie theatres seriously! They have theatres with couches/pillows/blankets, and 4D theatres that show current releases. DSCF0483

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We also went to the muay thai fights. It was a good experience, except a few of the fighters were really young and it felt a bit like child exploitation. There are a lot of rules that minimize the risk to the fighters, but it still felt wrong watching throngs of adults betting on these kids. The culture behind it was really interesting and I enjoyed the other fights.

One of my favourite parts was a visit to the Wildlife Friends of Thailand animal refuge. I really wanted to see an elephant up close while we were in Thailand, but while researching I read about the deplorable conditions elephants used for the tourism industry live in. I didn’t want to contribute to the torture of these animals for my pleasure (and I really regret swimming with dolphins in the past). I found http://www.wfft.org/ that rescues animals from these places and lets them live out their lives in suitable conditions with other elephants (they are social animals). We got to meet Edwin Weiks the founder and talk to him for a little while. They do amazing work and we had a great day there! This is a picture of me walking and feeding Boon Me.
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Everyone told us to go to khao san road. Our first hotel was near it, so we headed there the first day. That lasted about 2 mins. After being grabbed by people trying to sell us stuff every 2 feet we got out of there as fast as we could. I think it’s more of a night time drinking place because the market was no fun at all. We decided to try and take the river taxi to the siam paragon mall. It took us quite a while to find the river taxi. Once on it, we were going down this canal lined with little homemade shacks that people were living in. It was a pretty eye opening view of poverty. Then we get off the taxi, walk a block, and we’re in a giant mall with Maserati and Lambourghini dealerships inside. To me, this was the paradox of Bangkok. It was shocking to see such opulence right beside such poverty.
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The old and the new
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Bangkok was interesting to see and experience, but it isn’t somewhere I would make an effort to return to. I don’t think we saw the best of Thailand though, so there may be a trip back there one day. I’ll write about Cambodia next.

We Culture vs Me Culture

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Back from our big trip. It was an incredible experience and I confirmed (to myself) that I am really good at trip planning. Thanks again to tripadvisor for never failing me! There were no surprises. All hotels and activities were as expected and everything went well.

There will be a few blog posts about this trip since we visited 3 countries. This one is about Japan.

Prior to the trip I did some research to make sure I understood proper etiquette (tipping, bowing etc.) I came across an explanation of the medical masks that so many people wear, even though the SARS epidemic is long over, which said people wear them when they are getting sick to prevent spreading germs to other people. Another website talked about how Japanese culture focuses on what is good for the group/society, not the individual. I think the masks is one example of what I called the “we culture.” Other examples of this is the ban on talking on a cell phone on public transit. We rode a lot of trains in the week we were there and only once did I see a person talking on their cell phone, and they had their hand cupped over the phone and their mouth to be as quiet as possible. They are a cell phone obsessed society, everyone is on some sort electric device, yet no one talks on their phone because it’s loud and disruptive. Even when they talk, it’s hushed. It was bizarre being in one of the most populated cities in the world and yet it was quiet. We also saw signs that said there is a bylaw against “doing anything that will annoy other people.” Pretty incredible that this concept runs all the way up to the law.

One site I read said that Japanese high school students were asked what the biggest risk is to society in the next generation, and the top response was individualism. This is north american culture. We are all about me, not we. Japan has a real bike culture, but there is no fighting between drivers and cyclists because they ride on the sidewalk. People here panic at this suggestion talking about how dangerous it is, but in Japan it works. People on bikes are aware of the pedestrians and they just go around them or hit the brakes until they can get through. Would that ever work here?

Not that I am sure I would be able to put everyone else ahead of what I want, but it was very interesting to be in a place where you didn’t have people yelling in to their cell phones everywhere and anywhere because they don’t care who listens or who they are interrupting. It was fascinating to experience a cultural theory like this and think about how we treat each other as a society.

Japan is an expensive country to visit, but worth the splurge. Tokyo was cool to see, but it really is a city where people live and not so much a touristy place. The exception to this is Tokyo Disney. We went to Tokyo Disney Sea and it was incredible! It didn’t really feel like a Disney park as it isn’t based on the traditional disney characters but the detail in the design is amazing and the rides were awesome – with almost none of them being the same as the US Disney parks (they have a Magic Kingdom park with the traditional rides). This is the full size Tower of Terror building.
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Osaka has a crazy night scene at Dotombori and shopping at Shinsaibashi, the castle is nice on the outside but a modern museum on the inside. We enjoyed this Namba Yasaka shrine, once we found it.
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My favorite part of Japan was Kyoto. It’s beautiful! The tori gate picture at the top is from a temple that has a trail where you walk through thousands of tori gates. If you go to Japan, don’t miss Kyoto.

I’ll write about Thailand and Cambodia next.

Upcoming Trip

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I was going to write aImagebout some other topics, such as how the future will be shaped by people choosing to have children later in life, but I’m not sure if I want my blog to jump all over the place. So I waited until I had something travel related to talk about.

Soon we’re going to be off on our first big international trip as a family. We went to Spain 7 years ago to visit family. It was international but not the same when you’re staying with people. We went pretty big on this one – Japan (Tokyo and Osaka), Bangkok, and Cambodia (Angkor Watt) in just under 3 weeks. I know people are going to say that you can spend weeks in any of these locations. Everyone has their own travel style and I classify ours as ADD (attention deficit disorder). We find 3 nights in a big city tends to be enough for us. We like to hit the highlights. If we find a place we really like, we’ll come back another time and explore some more. I know there is a lot more on the line when we’re going overseas but southeast asia is a huge travel destination and if we like it, we’ll surely come back.

I tried to use a travel agent but it just doesn’t work for me. I enjoy all of the planning and do not like to let go of control. The first travel agent we went to speak to said she would call us in a few days; we never heard from her again. I emailed a travel agent that replied, then didn’t get back to me for a few weeks, and when they did reply they couldn’t find anything I couldn’t find myself. I got a great deal on our flights by checking some different sites, and setting up an email notification which told me the price of my flight route every day. One night after a few glasses of wine, I checked the route again and the price had dropped from $2100 to $1550 so i booked. The times aren’t ideal and we have a long layover in Seattle both ways but the savings for 3 people was substantial.

The only real plan so far is a visit to an animal sanctuary in Bangkok, to visit the animals and feed an elephant. I really wanted to go to the Tiger Temple and an elephant tour in Thailand. I changed my mind after reading a lot about the damage of animal tourism. When we travel we like to see the sites but we try to avoid overly touristy things when possible. I don’t like being herded around and taken advantage of. I have learned that it’s not that hard to get yourself around and we like to get up and do what we want. Having every moment scheduled sounds awful to me.

If anyone has any tips or tricks, please comment! 

Hotels

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Following on my travel theme, I’ll share my tips for the other major part of a vacation – where to stay.

i mentioned in my post on road trips, that for traveling across the US, there really is no need to plan it all out in advance (except possibly the weekends during a busy travel time). We would arrive in a city, find some free wifi at a coffeeshop or fast food place, and use a combination of http://www.hotwire.com and http://www.tripadvisor.com to find a hotel. Sometimes I would book the hotel the night before if we knew where we were heading the next day.

The number of hotel booking sites and options have exploded since we started going on road trips. Now there are a number of great comparison sites. Tripadvisor used to only provide reviews but now they provide rate comparisons too! This really saves time and work. I am tripadvisor’s number 1 fan! I can say that I have never been surprised by a hotel because I take the time to read through a number of reviews. Just watch for people that complain about things that are out of control of the hotel. You’ll also see that hotels respond to reviews. If you see a bad review, read the response to see the other side of the story. Try for hotels with 90% or higher approval rate. Between 80% and 90% you should still be ok, but anything below 80% is a risk.

Other good hotel booking sites. Trivago is another good comparison site, and I find Hotels.com tend to have good prices. Sites like Expedia and Hotwire make you pay the full cost of the booking upfront and there is no option to cancel. http://www.booking.com has options to book now and pay later and the ability to cancel for free. I have never had an issue with paying upfront, but for my upcoming trip I tried to avoid it because I am booking so far in advance. If you do book through a site where you have already paid, the hotel will still ask for a credit card for incidentals. If you don’t use the phone, mini-bar, movies while you’re there, they don’t charge anything.

When you’re choosing a hotel, know your hotel preferences. For me it’s a comfortable bed, free breakfast and wifi. I am not a neat freak and really don’t care if there is some dust on a shelf. Obviously a dirty bathroom is unacceptable but my standards are not as high as some of the reviews I’ve read. I know people who are fine with hostels. We primarily stay in 3 star hotels. With 4 stars I find the public areas to be more opulent and the beds to be a bit better, but they also ding  you at every opportunity; you usually have to pay for wifi, and the breakfast is outrageously priced. Even when I travel for business, I rarely eat breakfast at a 4 star hotel. They also charge for parking, and some even go as far as forcing you to use valet parking. Occasionally it’s a treat to stay at a swanky hotel, but I don’t find them good value for my travel dollars.

If possible, try to find a bed and breakfast. These really add to the travel experience because the hosts are usually very friendly people that have great advice. Also the breakfast is excellent! I know I have a thing for breakfast but I find if we eat a good breakfast, we usually only eat one other big meal in a day, which keeps our budget down.

My last tidbit is on the mystery bookings that hotwire offers. I have done it a number of times and it’s always worked out well. You just have to know the area you are ok with (in more expensive cities, sometimes we’ll opt to stay out near the airport because the hotels are a lot cheaper and just drive in). They give you an approval or recommendation rating. If you stick to over 90%, you’ll get a good hotel. My only complaint was the last time I used this with a Vegas hotel, I didn’t save any money. The amount they charged me was the same as it would have been if I had booked with the hotel. Hotwire lists the prices for regular hotel bookings, so check those before you select a mystery hotel to compare prices. Otherwise, we have gotten some great deals including a 4 star in downtown Toronto for $90/night (of course we had to pay for parking and internet on top of that, but still a good deal).  This photo is the view from the patio at the W hotel in Fort Lauderdale, which was another 4 star treat and one of our favourite hotelsImage

Shopping for Flights

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Still on the travel theme because I’m in the process of planning our summer vacation to Japan, Thailand and Cambodia. Even when I’m not planning a vacation, I still “window shop” for vacations because I like to know the normal cost of things; this helps me recognize a good deal when I see one. This definitely applies to the cost of flights. Here are some of the things I’ve learned about shopping for flights online.

It’s pretty common knowledge that the season and the day of the week you’re traveling have a big impact on the price of the flight. If possible, try to fly on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday. Thursday, Friday, Sunday and Monday are the high demand days to fly. If I need to fly on those days, I try to use airmiles because the number of miles needed to fly is only based on the season. If you’re looking to travel over Christmas, try flying on Christmas day.

What I didn’t know was the day of the week that you book the flights can also effect the price. Lately I’ve been checking flight prices every day, and it looks like it’s more expensive to book flights on the weekend. They go down during the week and up on the weekends.

My favourite websites for flight shopping depends on what I’m looking for. If I’m looking to fly within North America, I like to start with Fly, http://www.fly.com/ca/  On the top, check out the Fare Calendars. This is a great way to see how the price fluctuates depending on the day. My other favourite comparison sites for all flight shopping are Kayak http://www.ca.kayak.com/?ispredir=true , FlightHub (who consistently had the lowest price for our upcoming multi-city trip) http://www.flighthub.com/ and Trip Advisor http://www.tripadvisor.ca/ . Check multiple sites, they are not all the same.

For booking flights, use Flight Network http://www.flightnetwork.ca because they have a lowest price guarantee, which will give you a credit if the price drops on your flights. If you’re booking for multiple people, this could really pay off. Otherwise, I always check directly with the airline because I figure it would be easier if things went wrong to be booked directly with the airlines.

When booking, know your insurance coverage! I once made a $5000 mistake because I didn’t know what trip interruption insurance was and incidentally didn’t have any when I needed it. I have gone with a credit card that has an annual fee, but provides travel and health insurance coverage. There are lots of insurance providers, so shop around, but read the details and understand what is covered and what isn’t.

My last tidbit is what they call travel hacking – how to travel for free by maximizing rewards programs. Here is a great post by a blogger I follow, Nomadic Matt ,http://www.nomadicmatt.com/travel-tips/travel-hacking-guide/  I was a loyal air miles collector for years but have recently switched to a new program because I am tired of the flights not being available and having to pay the taxes and fees. Now there are a number of bank associated programs that let you use your reward points for all of the cost. Now we put everything on our credit card, in the hopes of taking a big chunk off of our next vacation.

Any additional tips and tricks or comments are always appreciated – I’m learning about travel as I go. Happy travels!

Road Tripping

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I think we have mastered the road trip. As a family we have traveled from Alberta to Vancouver Island, the west coast down to Los Angeles, across Canada to Moncton, New Brunswick, down to Arizona and across to San Diego, and the monster of all road trips – down to Miami (actually the Everglades). We loved all of these road trips, but do not have the urge to drive to the east coast ever again. It’s a lot of driving!

We did bring camping gear on the first couple of trips, but the vast majority of nights were in spent in a nice warm bed in a hotel.

Rent a car. Why put all that mileage and wear and tear on your own car? Check the rules to make sure you can take the car as far as you’re going. I found Avis was the only company that gives unlimited mileage and allows you to take the car across the border. We usually rent a standard or full size car. I make sure I call the day before and request a car with rear cup holders and a usb connection. (A lesson we learned the hard way).

A GPS is worth it’s weight in gold! We don’t book anything in advance. We pick a direction and go. The first trip we got in the car and said where should we go? How about Seattle? Ok! And off we went. The GPS will take you on the shortest route which sometimes results in quieter roads and even going through residential neighbourhoods. Use your common sense. Sometimes I decide to stay on a major highway because I know it’s the one I need. Just ignore the gps when it tells you to turn and it will recalculate the route.

If you want to plan a route or just check out how far things are, use google maps and get directions. You can just type in cities and it will show you the route and the amount of time. This is where I figured out what was feasible.

Back to no plan. When we get to a city, or decide we’re ready to stop, we search for a fast food restaurant or a coffee shop with free wifi (you know who  they are) on the gps and go there. Use the free wifi to find a hotel. I use hotwire, expedia, and tripadvisor. Customer recommendation on tripadvisor should be at least 80%. I search by rating and go down until I find the first one in my price range. Book the hotel, have a coffee, put the address in the gps and go there. We have never been stranded.

We vacation attention deficit style, and find that 3 nights in a city is enough for us, but we’re not in to sitting around the pool, relaxing, or visiting a lot of museums or art galleries. At night I use tripadvisor to find the things and activities we’re interested in. In big cities with tourist areas, we just wander around.

Traveling in the US is a fair bit cheaper than Canada. Hotels are more abundant and cheaper. The changing landscape in the US makes for a nice varied experience. We have done Seattle, Canon Beach, San Francisco, LA, Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon in a 3 week trip.

My blog post is almost as epic as our road trips. The pic at the top was driving between Phoenix and San Diego. If anyone reading has any questions, feel free to ask!

Not Sure Where This Will Go

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I have been thinking about starting a new blog for a while, but I have waffled because I tend to be all over the place and blogs should be focused on a topic. My hope is that if I just start writing, a theme will become apparent or people may just want to see what direction I’m going in today.

I am a wife, mom, and entrepreneur. I love travel, tattoos, animals, and home decor. I wouldn’t say I’m a conspiracy theorist, but I believe that people need to look at the source and understand what people have to gain by decisions being made. Look for the spin doctoring and bias in what is being reported. The internet has given us unprecedented access to information. Thankfully we are no longer at the mercy of mainstream media! But the downside is the information overload. At times I stop following current events because the amount of corruption and greed makes me want to stop the planet and get off, or at least move to an island away from all of this. I call it conscious ignorance; where I choose to ignore things, not read stories on certain topics etc. I know people abuse animals. It breaks my heart. I support animal rescue agencies and all of my dogs are rescues. I don’t need to see pictures and read stories of animal abuse. If there is something productive I can do, I am willing to do it, but reading stories and seeing pictures and videos just causes me stress.

My current obsession is travel. Business is good right now, so we have decided to go on an awesome trip to Japan and Thailand, with a side trip to Cambodia (Siem Reap – Angkor Wat). I spend a lot of time researching and planning the trip. We have done some incredible road trips over the last few years. I’ll make my first official blogpost (after this introduction) on seeing Canada and the US by car.

Thanks for reading! Comments or post suggestions are appreciated.