Playa Del Carmen – Day 3

Playa Del Carmen – Day 3

The view of the pool at the Paradisus La Perla, Playa Del Carmen

Upon check-in at the hotel, our concierge guy Marcos convinced us to sit through a 90-minute presentation about the Melia membership club. We were hesitant but, after a lot of back and forth, he promised he would pay for our $200 meal at the Passion by Martin Berasategui restaurant and gave us two 50 minute massages for the price of one at the spa ($150 savings). For a 90-minute presentation at 8 AM over breakfast, the $350 worth of stuff was with the time sacrifice. We researched the presentation before going into it and read a lot about how some people’s tours were 2 hours, how you needed to be very firm with the sales people, and how some people spent way too much money on a membership and couldn’t get out of it. We put together a game plan going into the pitch to make sure we stood firm that we were not going to buy.

Our sales guy was quite nice and apparently, Marcos gave more free perks that he was supposed to. We had breakfast at the buffet and talked before the sales guy showed us a few luxury suites, and then took us to their business office to show us the club membership. The pitch boiled down to a $42K price tag on a partially covered 1 week vacation every year for 50 years, however, there were tons of crazy additional fees and your money bought points instead of hotel nights so the value of what you buy might change arbitrarily based on the chain’s whims. They also wanted the money within 24 months which equalled out to payments more than our rent! We were flabbergasted at the “deal” and were joking about the ridiculous cost with so many caveats.

Our sales guy quickly realized that we were not buying and we were done with the presentation in under an hour. For all the stuff we received, it was very worth it, but some of the other couples we met here had a bit higher pressure sales person and it wasn’t quite as easy to make a get-away. If you do decide to go in for the pitch, make sure you have a game plan ahead of time so you don’t sign up for something you regret.

After the pitch, we found some lounge chairs by the pool and lathered up with sun screen. The weather was perfect and the sun came out right as we laid down. Being the antsy person I am, I left Ryan to nap and headed to the pool bar. I started chatting with this super nice couple who were on their honeymoon. They also had recently visited Thailand, and were thinking about going to Peru, so we had lots to chat about! Eventually, Ryan wandered over and we had a great conversation over some bloody Mary’s, mud slides, strawberry daiquiris, and then rum and Cokes. Unfortunately, all those drinks forgot to remind me to reapply sunblock, and my back got nice and uncomfortably red! Oops!

Around noon, the water-jazzercise started in the pool. We watched the two instructors do some pretty intense water moves outside of the pool for 20 minutes – they were so enthusiastic about their moves we hand to laugh! Eventually, we hopped out of the pool and headed to a sub par, pizza lunch at one of the restaurants. It seems that the cooks “forgot” to add marinara sauce to their pizzas, making for Hawaiian cheesy bread instead.

After lunch, we found a cabana by the pool and napped under the shade for a few hours. Talk about relaxing! Around 5, I attempted to go to spin class but the instructor hurt his back and canceled the class. Feeling a bit woozy on the treadmill, I decided to head back to the room, got ready, and went to a Rodizio dinner at the hotel before hailing a cab to head to Playa’s famous 5th Street.

We heard about 5th Street from quite a few people. It is about 2 miles of cute local and chain shops, beauty parlors, restaurants, and bars. We were dropped off at the end closes to our hotel and we walked for about two hours down the street. There were tons of people! I left my sun hat on the Edventure shuttle from our sea-turtle tour the day prior, so we haggled a few shop keepers until I found a fabulous new sun hat at a great price. I was also very impressed by all the restaurants and bars. They were so cute and each had a very unique theme with amazing décor. It didn’t seem like there were any chain places at all (outside of Senior Frogs) and I wanted to stop and try all of them!

There were also loads of typical American shops like Nike, Sephora, Forever 21, but we only shopped the local ones since those are unique to the area. There were lots of nice leather goods and amazing art at very reasonable prices. I wish our apartment had more room for all the things I wanted to buy – especially the art! There was a full side street of amazing paintings by local artists.

We stayed on 5th the entire time and felt very safe. After so much walking, our feet started to complain and we hopped in a cab to head back to the hotel and then to bed.

 

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Bangkok – Day 2

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We woke up naturally at 5:30 AM since our body clocks were so out of whack. That actually worked out perfectly because we had enough time to visit the hotel’s breakfast buffet for a fantastic breakfast before we met Kiwi for our 7 AM tour pick up time.Breakfast at the So Sofitel Hotel in Bangkok Thailand

We hopped into the Jeep with our guide and driver and it took about an hour for us to turn off the highway for our first stop. Our nerves heightened as we drove under the highway, past some very sketchy looking food stands, to basically a small wooden train station dock. The area was so sparse and the train ride was not on our itinerary so Ryan and I were a bit worried as we got out of the car, but we trusted Kiwi and she promised that the experience we were about to have was worth it. Apparently, our driver was the lead coordinator of transportation for Tour with Tong and he suggested we make the extra stop since we had time. He was super nice to do so because the tour service usually charged extra for the train market tour stop. Anyways, we waited for about 15 minutes for the train to come and Kiwi directed us to the very end cart. She talked with the conductor and we got to sit in the conductor booth at the very end of the train. We thought we did that just for pictures, but it was for something much cooler!

The Maeklong Train Market is literally a market on the train tracks. All of the tents fold back to make way for the train that comes through every 30 minutes, and then immediately go back into place for the sellers to keep selling their produce which literally sits in the train tracks! We got such a cool view of the train speeding by the market and all of the tents going back into place by sitting at the back of the train!

We ended up getting off of the train at the market so we could walk through. You could buy almost any type of meat, seafood, vegetable, or fruit imaginable in the market. The market was basically a single file line in each direction since it was so narrow and Ryan almost got pick pocketed being in such close proximity to all of the people around! He was also way too tall and had to duck. We only walked about a block within the market before it became to claustrophobic for us to go through anymore. Still a really neat thing to experience!

We walked through the streets, found our driver, and took off to Damnoen Saduak floating market. It was about another 30 minutes in the car before we arrived and we parked within the market. Kiwi knew tons of people at the locations we stopped at, and brought us to a certain market stand where we would get the best prices on merchandise. The lady who owned the shop said she had been working with Tong from our tour service for over 20 years and encouraged us to go see if we found better prices on the river for anything she sold. We decided to do so and walked down to our market boat.

We had a little old lady as our paddler but boy was she strong – we had some serious speed going through the market! Both sides of the market were lined with shops and there were tons of boats selling all types of food. Kiwi knew all of the best tasting food vendors and encouraged us to try spring rolls, coconut ice cream, and mango sticky rice. The spring rolls were delicious and the ice cream was so decadent! We saved the rice for the next car ride and keep floating through. I was super glad both of us had hats as the sun was very strong and it was hot and muggy. We paddled through a bunch of canals and saw one with some interesting art. After quite a bit of haggling on my part, Ryan and I ended up buying a very pretty canvas painting of an elephant for our apartment. Kiwi was impressed (?) by my haggling skills and kept laughing as I tried to drive the price lower. While the guy would go to my “highest price” of 1,100 BHT, I ended up caving at 1,200 BTH – a whole $3 difference! He rolled up the painting so we could travel home with it and we took off through the market for some more browsing.

We didn’t end up seeing anything better than what was at Kiwi’s friend’s booth, so we stopped there to get some tea cups and a tank top. They gave us a very fair price and were really nice. With our goodies in hand, we hopped back in the car and indulged in our sticky rice on the way to the speed boat that was to take us to see the monkeys. Let me tell you, mango sticky rice is AMAZING! It is basically like a desert and I could have eaten bowls and bowls of it. We also stopped off got some Thai Tea at Kiwi’s insistence which was also delicious. I wish we had more of these things in the States!

We made one last stop before getting to the speed boat for some fruit for the monkeys. The bananas at the fruit stand were too ripe, so we got 4 huge bags of this potato looking fruit that the shop owner hacked up into pieces for us. Our driver also got us some coconuts to drink, one was a raw coconut and the other had been grilled. The grilled coconut milk was much sweeter and we both like the raw milk a bit more.

Anyways, we finally arrived at this very colorful housing area to transfer to our boat and use the loo. For most places in Thailand, you have to bring your own toilet paper and the majority of toilets, especially for men, are just holes in the ground. While I was able to find actual toilets to use, it made for an interesting experience for Ryan….

We hopped in the boat and took off to down the river. The description of the tour was not very robust online (literally just said “monkey island”) so we did not know what to expect. We saw some very large water monitors right off the bat and thousands of crabs lining all of the beaches. It was low-tide so there were mudskippers cruising through the muddy beaches and some were 6-inches long. We left the inlet into the ocean and all of the beaches were lined with sticks which indicated each cockle shell farmer’s land. The farmers also had these really high huts to sleep in at night to watch their property and make sure no other farmer infringed on their shells.

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We stopped at one of the high huts to drop off our lunch and then headed out further into the ocean. The lines of stick fences went on for miles and we eventually got to a section of higher sticks that held oysters. It was super cool! There were mini crabs all over the oysters during the low tide and we held some that really tickled!

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Our next stop was to an inlet to find some monkeys. As soon as we started driving into the small river inlet, Kiwi and our boat driver made us start howling to call out the monkeys. It was so weird and I felt awkward making those noises until hordes of monkeys started to line the shores! There were lots of mom monkeys with babies on their back, medium monkeys, and then the big alpha-males that were quite aggressive if another went for their food. We threw the potato-like fruit out to them and then closer in the water to draw them nearer. Eventually, we set the fruit right on the side of the boat and the monkeys would hop up next to us on the boat! I even handed them fruit! The monkeys were super muddy and they would jump off the boat quickly and their tails flung mud all over us. I was covered! It was so gross but we were having too much fun to stop. At one point, an alpha-male monkey jumped on the boat and tried to take off with Ryan’s bag of fruit, Ryan tried to grab it back and the monkey almost tried to fight him! Eekk! We let him have it, he hopped off, and our driver used a stick to ward off the bigger monkeys from jumping on board and causing trouble. From then on, a lot of mom and baby monkeys hung out with us on the boat – so cute! Eventually, we ran out of food and had to leave, but it was by far one of the best experiences of my life.

We got out of the jetty and headed back to the hut to eat lunch. After washing up, we had quite a spread of grilled crab, curry, baked fish, veggies, and more. It was quite a delicious lunch with an outstanding view! We didn’t eat too much since we had a large dinner coming our way and so the staff ate the rest of what we didn’t touch.

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After lunch it was sadly time to head back. We had about a 1.5-hour drive back to Bangkok and it was a good time to rest up before the night’s activities. We stopped at an ATM to pay Kiwi and our driver and I almost left my debit card in the ATM – ahh! Thankfully Kiwi alerted me and I grabbed it. We said our good-byes at the hotel and headed up for a much shower. I have to say, we could not have booked with a better service than with Tour with Tong and our guide Kiwi!

Due to the monkey mud, it was time for a much needed shower before our dinner at Gaggan! I first heard about Gaggan through an episode of Chef’s Table, a Netflix original series that documents top chefs throughout the world. Gaggan and his restaurant were voted the best in Asian in 2015 and his elevated take on Indian food was not to be missed while we were staying in Bangkok, especially since it was right across the park from our hotel! We headed off to our 6 PM reservation and were surprised to be taken upstairs under the atrium to a mini-kitchen. We were picked at random with some other diners from all over the world to test Gaggan’s new concept where the sous chef and team prep the dishes in front of us! What a treat and so unexpected! We started the night with a delicious Thai-jito and got to know some of the chefs. One was an American from Miami and was so delighted to talk football with a fellow American football fanatic, Ryan. We had a great banter back and forth as the 18 courses started to flow.

The first 1o courses came out in a rapid fire style, one quickly after another, and the Indian flavor profiles exploded onto the scene almost immediately after each item was placed in our mouths. Not only that, but the plating was amazing.

The wine started to flow as we got into the main courses, consisting of increadable flavors, textures, and the most tender lamb chop I have ever eaten ….

During the desert courses, Gaggan himself joined us upstairs and let us try this new dish he was preparing for his new menu that replaced what we had in the very next week! We tried this amazing chicken stock soup type cracker that was out of this world. Gaggan talked with all of the guests and was quite a character, just like his fellow chefs.

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After we had our fill, we said goodbye to our new chef friends and some of the other diners we made friends with throughout the experience. This definitely went down as one of the best dinners I have ever had!

We went back to the hotel and, while I had every intention of visiting another night market, sleep called my name and our 6 AM wake up for our flight to Chiang Mai the next morning dictated that some Zzz’s were in order.

Bangkok – Day 1

Bangkok – Day 1

The view of Bangkok city form the So Sofitel Hotel in Bangkok, Thailand

There was a button next to my side of the bed in the So Sofitel hotel that opened the blinds. I tried to see the view when we arrived at 1 AM, but being so dark, I thought our view nothing special but boy was I wrong! I hit that blind button and unveiled an insanely amazing view of a huge park and amazing Bangkok skyline! We could even see a 5K going on in the park below, as well as people doing Tai Chi! Incredible. Still not yet used to the time change, we got up around 6:30 AM and headed down to the best breakfast buffet I have ever had. Not only was the view the same as our room, the buffet had an amazing assortment of fresh food from pastries of all kinds made daily to Thai soup, dim sum to traditional “American breakfast” foods, and then fruits of all kinds. I went to town on the passion fruit – it is so expensive in Texas so I over indulged. Hey, it is vacation for a reason right?

Breakfast at the So Sofitel Hotel in Bangkok, Thailand

Anyways, after breakfast we went downstairs to meet Kiwi, our guide for the next 1.5 days from Tour with Tong. Kiwi was super friendly and had a tuktuk waiting for us to go to the sky train. The public transport in Bangkok is amazingly cheap and easy to use. The sky rail, for example, was under $1 USD each way. Not too shabby! We took the sky rail to the river to hop on a water taxi. The orange water taxi ferried us to the port where one of the flower markets was. There were hundreds of thousands of flowers everywhere and Kiwi showed us which types of flower arrangements were used for different ceremonies like weddings, cremation, and praying to the Buddha. She took us to one stand where a girl was putting flower bracelets together and showed me how to string them. I was definitely not as good as her but I tried – A for effort, right? Anyways, the flowers smelt amazing but apparently, you should only smell the ones  you buy because it is bad luck to smell the flowers that someone else will buy in the future. On the way out of the market, we bought some Lotus flowers to bring to the temple since the Lotus flower is a very important symbol in Buddhism. Kiwi told us that every day of the week has a color and your color is the day of the week you were born – mine just so happens to be pink and Ryan’s blue, so we bought pink Lotus flowers to bring to the temple.

Hopped in another tutu with our flowers and rode to Wat Pho. What a remarkable place! Before we went in too far, Kiwi taught us how to open the petals of the lotus flowers and fold them to be pretty for the Buddha. Vendors sell the flowers opened inside of the temple, but it means more if you do it yourself, it is cheaper, and it is kind of fun. Odd numbers, specifically 1, 3, 5, and 7 are considered lucky in Thailand, so we had 5 lotus flowers each. Once we were finished, we brought them to a prayer area with the status of the different Buddha poses – again, there is one for each day of the week. My day is the reclining Buddha to which the entire temple is devoted! We lit a prayer candle and incense and knelt before the Buddhas and then we took gold leaf flecks and placed them on 3 Buddha of our choosing for luck and good fortune. I chose my Buddha, the lucky Buddha which is most recognizable for his big belly and hearty smile, and then Ryan’s Buddha to place my flecks on. A neat tradition to partake in.

We walked through the 80 acre grounds to the temple in which the laying Buddha resides. He is 46 meter long and used to be outside, but they build a temple for him to keep him preserved. To be respectful, I had to use my scarf as a cover up for my shoulders. To gain respectful entry into all of the Wats, you must wear longer than knee-length skirts or pants, have your shoulders covered with no cleavage showing, and remove your shoes and hats. I planned for that ahead of time but it was a bit sad to see other girls in short everything tries and sneak past in inappropriate wear into these sacred places. You could tell that the people working there, the guides, and the local Thai people who go to the temples to pray frown upon those breaking the dress code. Anyways, I will get off of my soap-box…

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The temples themselves were breathtaking as the gold and mirrors that lined the walls from edge to edge shimmered in the sun. Inside, the walls of the temples were all hand painted in dark red tones with murals of legends across the lower portions in gold leaf. If you looked close enough at the figures, all of them had long fingers and ears which resemble long life for the character. The middle of the temples housed huge monuments that build up to gold Buddhas at the top. Astonishingly pretty and ornate.

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I grew up watching The King and I, a musical based in Siam (now Thailand), and it was delightful to see the similarities from the images and figures I know so well in that movie and the Thai temples and murals on the walls and in the status in the Grand Place. We took a short bus ride to the Palace and I bought a white shirt to cover up more before we entered the 120 acer grounds. We entered in between two huge statues of the villains in Thai culture – the green demon and white-faced monkey. There were at least 6, 20-foot tall statues of those two symbols as we walked through the grand palace.

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As can be seen when you visit almost anywhere, there are indications in the Grand Place’s architecture of cultures outside of Thai. There are two temples specifically with tops from different counties – one from Cambodia that looks very similar to the ancient wats there, and then a colorfully flowered top that most certainly was influenced by the Chinese. It is amazing to see different cultures come together and form buildings so diversely beautiful. This is going to sound funny, but I couldn’t get over how fantastically sparkly some of the temples were too.

We walked past those ornate buildings to the main one that housed the Emerald Buddha who has an estimated value of over 157 MM BHT, that’s over $5MM USD! He also is quite fashionable and gets three outfit changes by the King each year – one for summer, the rainy season, and winter. That Buddha is really amazing.

After we saw the Emerald Buddha, we were getting pretty hot and tired. Not only was the jet-lag getting to us, but it was insanely humid and the sun is much more potent since we were closer to the equator. We left the palace and went across the street to a vendor wielding a machete! With one stroke, she hacked into a coconut, popped in a straw, and handed me a deliciously refreshing drink that made me feel so much better! Ryan got a mango drink which was also amazing.

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With some hydration under our belt, we then hopped into a tuktuk and headed to a massage house. Kiwi took us to a well-known, non-sketchy, spa right next to the sky train so we could find our way home after, and left us with the massage menu. For just $60 a person, we got 2 hours of Thai, deep tissue, and aroma therapy massage. Despite the fact that Ryan’s masseuse was hitting on him throughout the massage, and that both of our massage ladies were talking about “lady boys” and other things in Thai during those two hours, it was super relaxing!

We then walked across the street for lunch at this cool looking BBQ place. There was a small grill in the center of each table and you ordered an assortment of meats and veggies to grill to your liking. There were tons of super fresh and yummy food and it cost us a total of $16 USD – I love Thailand and I need to bring this concept to the US like ASAP!

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Being extremely relaxed after the massage and now in a slight food coma, we decided to head back to the hotel to rest. Ryan took a nap and I decided to check out the pool and boy was I glad I did! Talk about nirvana! There was an endless pool looking over the park and city with awesome lounge chairs and yummy cocktails! I swam, had a drink, and enjoyed the view until an impending storm looked threatening enough to send me inside.

After some journaling, I woke Ryan up so that we could go check out a night market. We took off in a taxi and, in about ten minutes, were dropped off at the end of the Patpong’s market. It was a long street lined with tents that sold fake bags, clothes, watches, sun glasses, and souvenirs. I bought a few things and tried to haggle my way down to good prices, but ended up paying way too much for a pair of sun glasses. I know I paid too much because the sales girl started celebrating after I gave her the money – oh well! Along either side of the tents were stores and what appeared to be strip clubs so we stayed in the middle lane of the shopping vendors. As we neared closer to the main road where our hotel was, the tents got a bit more rated R with some very graphic t-shirt designs and XXX shops. In retrospect, we should have gone to one of the better night markets. I suggest doing some Googling to double check local advice. After about an hour of markets, we headed back to the hotel for some much-needed sleep.

Bangkok, Thailand

Antigua, Guatemala – Day 2

Antigua, Guatemala – Day 2

For the first time on this trip, I got to sleep in… to 9:30 AM. I was ready to go by 10, but the other girls were a little more slow-moving as they tried to wake up. We finally left our secluded cabin around 11:30 to walk into Antigua for a traditional breakfast. We sat at a quaint little restaurant that had a big garden that was under construction so we were surrounded by equipment, but that didn’t matter. The food was scrumptious and there was tons of it with bread and oatmeal to start and sausage, plantains, black beans, eggs, and coffee to keep us going for the day. Almost all meals in Guatemala come with black beans and they are SO delicious! I must have had them at almost every meal.

We decided to walk off breakfast with a stroll through the market and main squares. We bought Guatemala’s version of M&Ms from a little girl who was selling them out of a basket on the side of the street but, in retrospect, shouldn’t have. Guatemala is full of kids and women selling trinkets and snacks, but you should only buy from the adults as buying from kids will keep propelling adults to use kids as sales vehicles instead of sending them to schools and the like. The income inequality in Guatemala is astonishingly apparent and it makes you feel very lucky to be in your situation instead of theirs.

A little girl selling candy on the streets of Antigua, Guatemala

After a few hours of buying gifts and souvenirs for everyone at home that we could think of and haggling prices like pros, we walked to a large, ornate, open wooden door. Again, Guatemala’s streets are lined with high, concrete walls so you never know what is awaiting behind each wall’s doors. Unbeknownst to my fellow USA traveler’s and I, the door Cass led us through took us to a small slice of paradise; a hotel called Santo Domingo in which Cass has her heart set on getting married in one day.

The hotel was beautiful with huge gardens full of rainforest type foliage and gorgeous parakeets and macaws. In the main outside square of the hotel, there is a river walk with over 3K candles lining the path that leads to a ruined Cathedral in the back of the hotel. It is huge and probably one of the most romantic settings I have entered in my entire life. I totally get the appeal of having that as a venue!

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After touring the hotel, we walked to a coffee shop and went to its rooftop for a drink and the view. Almost all of the restaurants and bars in Antigua have views like the below and it’s the place to be to watch the sun set over the volcanos.

A few of the girls decided to go to Mass, so Cass’s friend Isa and I walked down the street to a rooftop bar and had micheladas, basically a love child of beer and a Bloody Mary, while talking about Guatemala and watching the Fuego volcano erupt in the distance. Seriously, it was an evening out of the movies and it was so surreal watching lava slide down a mountainside!

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After the girls were done at Mass, we said our goodbyes to our new friend Isa and took off back to Guatemala City for a delicious home-cooked Pad Thai dinner at Cass’s casa and much-needed sleep before our trip to El Salvador the next day!

Antigua Tips:

  • Try micheladas – such a yummy and refreshing drink! (And you get your daily serving of veggies through the tomato juice.. right?)
  • Watch the sun set on a rooftop bar and stay until dark to watch the Fuego volcano erupt
  • Haggle in the markets for some great deals on trinkets
  • Do not buy from children selling goods in the markets