Fortunate Travel Timing in Chiang Mai: Loi Krathong and Yi Peng

When you travel, sometimes you get lucky. We didn’t realize how fortunate our timing was when we purchased our plane tickets to Thailand months ago. We finally arrived in Chiang Mai just in time for the traditional Thai celebrations of Loi Krathong and Yi Peng.

Chiang Mai Lanterns for Yi Peng

Chiang Mai Lanterns

Both of these events celebrate the full moon. While they are tied to two different Thai calendars, these celebrations often occur in November and always happen at the same time in Chiang Mai. Loi Krathong is a national celebration while Yi Peng is celebrated in Northern Thailand and especially in Chiang Mai. Wikipedia explains them best! Our arrival in Chiang Mai was a fortunate coincidence.

Chiang Mai Parade Loi Krathong

Parade in Chiang Mai for Loi Krathong

At first glance, I would describe Yi Peng as a more interactive “Fourth of July”. Yi Peng is best known for the paper lanterns that are released into the sky. The lanterns are also supplemented by fireworks, firecrackers, and pretty much anything else that explodes or makes noise. Tourists and locals take turns launching thousands of these lanterns. It is considered good luck to launch one and you can write your wishes for the the coming year directly on it. Some people also interpret the lanterns as a way to discard your worries and fears. Either way, it sure looks cool!

Molly and I wanted to give this a try. We found a temple near the center of the city where lantern after lantern were launched to illuminate the sky. We entered to watch for ourselves.

Chiang Mai Lanterns from Temple

Time lapse picture of lanterns launching from a temple in Chiang Mai

In the temple yard we found orange-robed monks helping locals and tourists alike to launch their own lantern. With the help of a monk we managed to launch our own lantern without issue. We watched it sail over the temple to join the migration of light.

Like Yi Peng, Loi Krathong also deploys fire in a celebratory fashion. In this case it takes place on the water. A ‘krathong’ is a small floating disk that is usually made from a piece of banana stalk. It is decorated with flowers, a candle and some incense and floated down rivers and canals.

Krathongs for sale at the market

Krathongs for sale at the market

Like the lanterns, you are supposed to make a wish before you release your krathong. We stood on a bridge over the river and watched the flickering candles drift with the currents. Launching lanterns and floating flower-encrusted boats created a colorful nighttime atmosphere in Chiang Mai. As long as you avoid the fireworks and firecrackers exploding all around you, you will be just fine!

Chiang Mai Loi Krathong Parade Pic

Loi Krathong parade proceeds down the street

The festival didn’t end there. Massive parades, performances and fireworks compliment the main activities. In the end, it was impossible to see everything that was happening in Chiang Mai while we were there. Events happened simultaneously all over the city for the celebrations. The quiet city was transformed into a festival without sleep during our whole time there. Even when we got on the night bus back to Bangkok, we could see the lanterns floating in the distance.

Lanterns in the sky Chiang Mai Yi Peng

Lanterns in the sky over Chiang Mai

When it comes to traveling, you can spend hours and days planning the “perfect” vacation destinations. You may even show up on your perfectly planned time only to be disappointed. Doing your homework is important but don’t let planning stop you from actually diving in. Sometimes the best activities show themselves when you aren’t looking for them and when you least expect it.

I wont forget Chiang Mai and the thousands of lanterns of Yi Peng anytime soon. “Long life and happiness.” What’s on your lantern?

Click here for more articles on Thailand.

The Grand Palace, Bangkok

Stop what you are doing and get to Thailand right now. This is what I wanted to tell the world immediately after experiencing the Grand Palace in Bangkok. Bangkok has only a few ‘must see’ tourist attractions and the Grand Palace is at the top of the list. In our few days here, we found a city with a lot of character and culture. When you aren’t busy exploring the dynamic city, the Grand Palace will give you a great overview about how this city came to be (particularly if you get an awesome guide).

Bangkok Grand Palace Picture

Bangkok Grand Palace Complex

The Grand Palace is actually a walled complex of buildings in the middle of Bangkok. It can be a little overwhelming when you see the size of it. When we came through the tourist entrance, we were greeted by several prospective tour guides offering their services. We spoke to one guide who seemed particularly knowledgeable and decided to take a chance and hire him for a tour. It was an excellent decision which I highly recommend. There are so many details that the free English tour will simply skip over, and a paid guide is still very affordable.

Outside of the Grand Palace Bangkok Thailand

Outside of the Grand Palace Bangkok Thailand

Inside are excellent examples of Thai, Indian and Cambodian architecture constructed by several of Thailand’s kings. Everywhere you look there is something incredible. There is even a building that has an exterior constructed of broken Chinese tea cups. That’s about as ‘green’ as it gets (reuse!). The real gem among these buildings is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew).

Temple of the Emerald Buddah Bangkok Thailand

Temple of the Emerald Buddah Bangkok Thailand

While the Buddha housed inside is not actually emerald, (it is made of Nephrite – a kind of jade) it is a spectacular sight. The Buddha is surrounded by an ornate collection of golden art and artifacts. There are even three different golden outfits that the Emerald Buddha wears depending on the season! You can’t take pictures inside the temple, but your camera will still get a workout throughout your walk. I particularly enjoyed the architecture of the building below.

Grand Palace Bangkok Thailand

Grand Palace Bangkok Thailand

The Grand Palace is a massive building located near the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. You won’t have trouble finding it! The architecture and manicured gardens look like they have been copied from a beautifully written fantasy novel. Our tour guide pointed out that the lower levels are painted white so that the building seems to be floating on top of a cloud in the sky. Sadly, you cannot enter the actual palace. You can, however, take your picture with one of several unmoving guards if you missed that opportunity in London.

Tickets for the Grand Palace are 500 Baht each – which is just under 16 USD. We paid 600 Baht for our guide – about 19 USD. The Grand Palace is one of the more expensive sights to see in Bangkok. This is probably due to the fact that the Grand Palace used to be the king’s home and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha is still the king’s personal temple. With your ticket, you can see the three major sights in the Grand Palace complex. These are the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the Grand Palace and the Royal Regalia Collection. As an added bonus, your Grand Palace ticket includes admission to the Vimanmek Mansion and the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall. Both of these sights are at a separate venue near the King’s residence and you can use your admission up to a week after your visit.

Vimanmek is the world’s largest Teak Palace (or so they claim) and the Throne Hall is a beautiful building which currently houses some impressive works completed by the Sirikit Institute in honor of the king and queen. Getting there is difficult and involves going though a concrete barrier/razor-wire checkpoint. It was a little bizarre yet interesting once you finally get there. If you are in Bangkok for less than five days I would recommend skipping these last two sights. If you do go to Vimanmek Mansion, don’t forget to wear pants! You will not be allowed in with shorts and will have to purchase an eye-scorching neon green skirt.

If you finish the Grand Palace earlier in the day, be sure to check out the Temple of the Reclining Buddha (Wat Pho).

Temple of the Reclining Buddah Bangkok Thailand

Temple of the Reclining Buddah Bangkok Thailand

Wat Pho is located next to the Grand Palace. It is about 10 minutes walking from the main entrance. What you will find there is an enormous Buddha at approximately 43 meters in length. A Buddha stretching from the 50 yard line to the goal line? Sign me up! The entrance fee is well worth it at only 100 Baht (just over 3 USD).

Bangkok Grand Palace at Sunset Thailand

Bangkok Grand Palace at Sunset Thailand

Bangkok is a sprawling city and there are so many things you could spend your time doing. It is a combination of history and the needs of a modern society. We found that Bangkok is much more than just traffic jams and marketplaces. The Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew and Wat Pho are really essential from a historical perspective and you can see these major sites in just one day. We have just begun exploring Thailand, and for me, the Grand Palace has set the bar pretty high.

If you plan to do any traveling in Europe, be sure to check out the new page with Molly’s Long-Term Travel Tips!

Museums of Florence – A guided tour

Florence is a small and very scenic Italian city in the heart of Tuscany. I will direct you to the picture below rather than trying to put it into words.

Florence Italy Bridge

View of the Arno and the bridges in Florence.

What I can say is that Florence has a little something for everyone. When it comes to tourism, they are going for the high score. You could easily spend days just taking in the sights, sounds and food. If you can tear yourself way from the views, I would highly recommend taking a day or two to experience the incredible museum collections. There are some unique museum offerings that you would have trouble finding anywhere else.

The most popular museum choice is the Uffizi Gallery. Travelers come and wait in long queues to glimpse the treasures inside. Admission is €11 (€6.50 if there is no special exhibit, but there usually is a special exhibit.) and you can reserve a time for €4 extra and skip the line entirely if you wish. As budget travelers, we did not pay extra and spent an hour waiting in line despite being there before 9AM. There really are some outstanding pieces of art. Di Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael are all present. They are incredible to see if you successfully fight your way past the tour groups and get an unobstructed view. The museum is, in a word, busy.

If you are in Florence and are interested in a more relaxed alternative to the Uffizi Gallery; I have a secret for you. Museo Galileo is located directly next to the Uffizi Gallery. Find the hour long line at the Uffizi and go around the corner; you can’t miss it.

Galileo Museum and Uffizi Museum Florence Italy

Uffizi (left) and Galileo Museum (right). I told you that you can’t miss it.

If you love science and technology as much a Molly and I do, you wont be disappointed. You may feel like enrolling in a physics class, however. It is incredible to speed through over 500 years of scientific history in just a few museum floors. The collection houses historically significant globes, sextants, original Galileo telescopes, orreries, and Armillary Spheres!

Galileo's Telescopes, Galileo Museum, Florence, Italy

Original Galileo telescopes!

Armillary Sphere Galileo Museum, Florence, Italy

Giant Amillary Sphere! Just like in your living room, right?

Some pieces are historically significant, others intriguing and some true head-scratchers. If you don’t like scientific equipment – how about Galileo’s middle finger? It’s there too.

Galileo Museum Interior, Florence, Italy

Interior of Galileo Museum. Don’t touch those metal objects, by the way.

We spent over four hours walking the Galileo Museum but you may be able to see it all in about two. There were no lines and no groups fighting to see the educational videos. Admission to Museo Galileo: €9. Pro tip: Save your ticket stub from the Uffizi gallery and get a €2 discount at the Galileo museum!

As wonderful as Museo Galileo was, it still wasn’t the best value in Florence. For only €10 per person you can get a ‘combo-ticket’ that will get you to the top to the Duomo (Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore), the crypt of the Duomo, the top of Giotto’s bell tower, the Baptistery and to the Gallery Opera di Santa Santa Maria del Fiore. The views are tremendous from the Duomo and the Giotto’s bell tower. You can practice taking ‘selfies’ in all 360° of the Duomo’s roof if you like.

View from middle of Giotto's bell tower Florence Italy

View from the middle of Giotto’s bell tower.

Roof of Duomo, Florence, Italy

On top of the Duomo.

Best part? The combo-ticket is valid for 24 hours from when you first use it. We used part of the combo ticket in the morning and completed the rest of the activities after a break for lunch at Dolce Vegan (So good! Go there and get the lasagna. You’re welcome).

If you get the combo ticket, be sure the visit The Galleria dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore. It has some incredible pieces which compliment those highlighted at the Uffizi in addition to ‘The Gates of Paradise.’ I’m not sure which was more interesting to me; the gates or the immense environmentally-controlled preservation chamber.

The Gates of Paradise Florence Italy Galleria dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore

The gates of Paradise in Galleria dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore. They look the part.

Get your combo ticket and take your time visiting any or all of the five attractions situated in or around the Duomo. Oh, and be prepared for some stairs.

Florence, in my estimation, is the perfect storm of Italy. Pizza, pasta, (vegan) gelato, amazing views and incredible museums. Go and make Galileo proud. If you want to make us proud, please like us on Facebook!

For more Italy information, check out Molly’s post about Venice.

Travel Cost Breakdown From Our Time in the UK and Ireland

People say to us all the time “Wow, how can you afford to travel for six months?” Travel can be expensive and, as long-term travelers, we are always very aware of our costs. Since we finished traveling in the United Kingdom and Ireland some time ago we are going to share actual numbers from our trip so you can get an idea about long-term travel costs in these generally expensive areas.

Our travel budget has one simple strategy. Write it down! If you write down every single purchase and expense while traveling – and know your spending limits – you will always know where you stand.

Molly examining trip expenses in our travel notebook

Molly calculating trip expenses in our travel notebook

Writing it down will keep you from forgetting that $2.00 coffee or falling into the ‘How much was lunch last Thursday?‘ trap. Keeping track will also allow you to do one of my favorite things: Data analysis! I broke down all of our expenses for the 32 days we spent in England, Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Scotland into five cost categories. These categories are lodging, food, entertainment, transportation, and miscellaneous. We use the Currency app by Jeffrey Grossman on our iPhone to convert all of our costs to USD.

Lets lay out the big number first. Our average total cost of travelling in the UK and Ireland turned out to be $131.43 per day (or, just under $66 per person per day). We have each made our $66 dollars go pretty far. In most cases we have had our own private room, eat out for lunch, pay for museums/entertainment and travel to a new location about every 4-5 days. The one expense not factored into the UK/Ireland numbers above are our flights from New York to London via Iceland. We budgeted intercontinental flights separately and will talk about these costs at the end of our trip. Travel costs for this post reflect all local travel throughout Ireland and the UK including one flight, two train trips and numerous bus trips. Every item adds up and the chart below shows how our daily costs were divided, percentage-wise, among our categories:

For our ‘once in a lifetime’ around-the-world trip we are not looking to set any records for traveling inexpensively. If you enjoy couch surfing and eating ramen noodles i’m sure you could spend less. We happen to be spending a significant amount of our budget on awesome vegan food. (Vegans – go to London, you won’t be disappointed!) We are personally traveling to see all of the great sights and experience all of the wonderful (vegan) cuisine. The occasional $15.00 entree does not have to break your entire budget if you leave room elsewhere.

It should be noted that Molly and I aren’t big drinkers. We did seek out local brews/wines/ciders wherever we were, but we purchased them from grocery stores. I think we only went out to a bar once (to watch the Chelsea vs. Manchester United soccer game while we were in London), but they happened to be pouring the cheapest cider and beer I’ve ever seen. In other words, if you plan to go out drinking all over Europe, you should adjust your budget accordingly.

Our ‘miscellaneous’ category is almost non-existent. As long-term travelers, we do not have much extra real estate in our backpacks or our budget. This means that we almost always say no to souvenirs. We have a week of clothing which we wash and only replace when needed. Our few miscellaneous purchases have been things like a beard trimmer, stamps and postcards, batteries, etc. And we are not carrying any solar-powered waving Queen Elizabeth figurines home with us in our bags.

As a result we have made our money go far. We spend almost two entire weeks in London which is one of the most expensive cities you can travel to. Dublin can be costly as well. There are places in the UK and Ireland which are more budget-friendly that we also traveled to such as Liverpool, Glasgow, and Derry. If you are willing to venture away from Dublin and London to some smaller cities you can find some great deals.  AirBnB has been one of our favorite resources to find an affordable place to stay. In most places we found that $50.00-$60.00 per day is a reasonable target for a private room.

Eating, sleeping and traveling will encompass the vast majority of your expenses. This is especially true for vegans who want to experience all of the great food in London (parts #1, #2, and #3), and Dublin, and Glasgow! Entertainment costs may actually be lower in the UK and Ireland when compared to other countries. Most major museums in the UK are free and there are a ton of affordable options. Check out our post on affordable activities in London, or our post on affordable options in Dublin, or our post on an affordable and different day in Glasgow.

I can recap the entirety of this post for you in three sentences (for those who aren’t interested in the numbers): Don’t let the strength of the Pound and Euro against the dollar scare you off from traveling to the United Kingdom and Ireland. There is plenty to do and see and eat for a budget traveler. Just be aware of the numbers and you’ll be fine!

Now get to traveling!

Board Games and Vegan Treats: Berlin’s Friedrichshain Neighborhood

I have a little travel secret. When I go to new places, I often google around to see if there are any cool game stores in town. When Molly and I are home in New York, we often play board games with some friends. It has been fun traveling around the world and seeing what kind of games people like in different countries. But Berlin really took the cake because Berlin has a “play cafe” called Spielwiese.

Spielwiese storefront, Berlin

Spielwiese storefront in Berlin

We were quickly hooked and actually stopped in twice more. Let me illustrate what I mean by a “play cafe”.

Spielwiese, Berlin

Molly with Powergrid! Surrounded by other board games

They have hundreds of board games and card games of all types imaginable. You pay a small fee to use the games and can stay as long as you like to play. Spielwiese also rents our their board games. There is a small cafe (sadly, no vegan options) and a refrigerator full of people-pleasing beverages of both the alcoholic and non-alcoholic varieties.

Spielwiese Berlin

Molly and I playing Powergrid

If board games are your scene, and you happen to be in Berlin, I highly recommend checking out Spielwiese. It’s a unique cafe with offerings that you do not see very often. I do have some good news for you gamers located in New York City. The man working at Spielwiese informed us that a similar style cafe will be opening soon in New York near NYU.  The Uncommons currently has a Kickstarter campaign if you are interested in supporting or following the project!

The only problem with Spielwiese is that they have NO vegan food. What are two hungry vegans to do? Lucky for us, there are some excellent options in Berlin’s Friedrichshain neighborhood.

You know you have arrived in a veg-friendly town when you see not one, but two Veganz locations – a supermarket where every product is vegan! The store location pictured below at store location at Warschauerstraße 33 is about a 5-10 minute walk from Spielwiese.

Veganz, Berlin, Vegan

The inside of Veganz in Friedrichshain, Berlin!

The model for Veganz is clearly working. According to their site they plan to have 21 stores open throughout Europe by the end of 2015. (Maybe New York next?? Please?!?) Veganz is great for picking up a wide variety of grocery and household items to cook up your own vegan feast! If you are in the mood for baked goods in Berlin, the Veganz locations also house the vegan bakery Goodies. Their chocolate croissants and cinnamon buns come highly recommended by us!

Goodies, Vegan, Berlin

Vegan baked goods from Goodies! (Housed in Veganz, Berlin)

After a marathon shopping session at Veganz you would be wise to check out Mio Matto. Mio Matto is a vegan restaurant conveniently located above this same Veganz store at Warschauerstraße 33. The restaurant opened just two weeks before our visit to Berlin and upon our arrival they were already on top of their game. Each dish really blew us away. Check out the pictures below of our feast.

Berlin, Vegan, Mio Matto

Antipasti for two at Mio Matto in Berlin

Vegan, Berlin, Mio Matto

Vegan Calzone at Mio Matto

Vegan, Berlin, Mio Matto

One of many pizza options at Mio Matto

Vegan, Berlin, Mio Matto

Vegan Hot Chocolate!

Vegan, Berlin, Mio Matto

Cannoli at Mio Matto

Yes, the dishes were as good as they looked. What surprised us about the food was its affordability. Most of the pizza and pasta dishes were in the $8 – $10 (USD) range. You will find a huge menu here of mostly pizza and pasts dishes. There are other less carb-filled options too. It was a great value for a nice evening of vegan dining.

If you are looking for something a little bit more quick and casual, but just as delicious, you should head to Voner. It is just down the same street as Spielwiese. Look at these spuds!

Vegan, Berlin, Voner

Vegan “special” fries at Voner

Do yourself a favor and get an order of these”special” fries. Molly and I agree that they are the best vegan cheese fries we have ever had. They are seasoned fries that come topped with cooked onions and vegan cheese sauce. Yum yum. We ordered two additional items from the menu including the signature vegan doner! Doner is the same as shwarma, as far as we could tell. Voner makes their own vegan doner “meat”, and it is really very good!

Vegan, Berlin, Voner

Vegan Doner at Voner!

Vegan, Berlin, Voner

Vegan Cheeseburger at Voner

Voner takes the crown for quick and affordable food. Our entire meal – with a local beer – was around 15 euro and it was far too much food! The fries and doner are worth the trip – or perhaps multiple trips!

There was too much great vegan food in Berlin to cover in one post. Please check back soon for more Berlin coverage!