3 Amazing Weeks in Colombia (NOT Columbia)

3 Amazing Weeks in Colombia (NOT Columbia)

This post is more difficult for me to write as this trip was different, and special.  Instead of it being one of my trips where I hop around between 2 or 3 or 4 different places, I spent the entire 3 weeks in Colombia.  I had just finished my contract at the IMF and therefore had plenty of time to spend there while still job searching and taking interviews remotely.  I also spent the 3 weeks with a friend in Bogota who was gracious enough to let me stay at her place and show me around. IMG_4458

I booked a business class super saver award flight to Bogota through United's website.  Luckily, this super saver award was still available when I booked, so the 5-hour flight cost me 35,000 points, which I thought was a good enough deal to pull the trigger on.  The flight was also with Avianca, which is the only airline with direct flights to Bogota from D.C.

Getting around Bogota is quite easy via taxi or Uber.  Taxis are literally everywhere throughout the city.  However, Uber does operate in Bogota and I found it easy to use there and cheaper than the taxis.  If you're feeling adventurous you can use the TransMilenio buses, which are basically express buses that run on the major roads in the city.  They get extremely crowded during rush hour so I would avoid taking it during those times.

One of the first things I did with my friend in Bogota was to visit Monserrate, which is a tall mountain towering over the city center.  To get the top of Monseratte we took a cable car which made for great views even on the way up.  The other options are to take a small train or to walk all the way to the top, which I happy declined.  Maybe another time.  On the top of Monserrate there are amazing views to be had of all of Bogota.  Here is where you really see the sprawling city below and understand how large Bogota really is.  There is also a beautiful church at the top that is very much worth a visit, as well as many shops and restaurants on the street there.

The walk from Monserrate to the city center of Bogota is not far so we headed that way after coming back down the mountain via the small train.  A key tip when you're in Bogota: don't use your smartphone while you're walking through the city.  This is especially true in the city center.  Smartphones are very valuable in Colombia and they will get stolen if you aren't smart about it.  If you are smart about it you will be perfectly fine.  My iPhone was never stolen.

In the center of the city is Bolivar Square, or Plaza de Bolivar, which is worth checking out. Also near Bolivar Square is the presidential palace, called Casa de Nariño, and right next it is the building where the Congress of Colombia is housed.  After walking through this area, we decided to go to the Botero museum which was also close by.  Botero is a Colombian artist who is famous for exaggerating the size of people in his paintings to make them appear larger.  Basically, he painted pictures of fat people.  The museum also has paintings from other artists around the world, such as Picasso.

There are many side trips you can do from Bogota to see smaller towns a few hours outside of the city.  As soon as you come down from the mountains around Bogota and into the rest of Colombia it's gets very hot, very fast, so be prepared for summer-like weather.  One of these smaller town within a few hours of Bogota is Girardot.  Girardot is a really pretty, fun town and is also a good escape from the hustle and bustle of Bogota.  A friend of my friend has a house in a private complex in Girardot and we spent the weekend there.  The complex also has 6 private pools.

The first night there we went to a fun Egyptian-themed club that overlooks the town.  It isn't very crowded unless it's a holiday weekend, but it was still fun nonetheless.  Something you have to do in Colombia is to try Aguardiente.  It is a very popular liquor, and it's also very strong.  Each region of Colombia has its own version of Aguardiente.

During the daytime there we spend most of our time on one of the pools to cool down.  The second night in Girardot we went to a different club in the center of the town called Oasis.  Oasis was really fun as well and there were more people there.  It was a bigger club and more of a party-type atmosphere.  I wish I had good pictures from Girardot, but I think I Snapchatted everything and forgot to save them...ugh.

After the weekend was over we headed back to Bogota.  In the week after Girardot we decided to visit the Museo del Oro, or the Gold Museum.  The museum houses a great deal of Colombia's gold collection from each region of Colombia.  Much of Colombia's gold was stolen by the Spanish during the colonial period, but a lot of what remains is in the museum.  The artifacts that archaeologists were able to unearth and preserve is remarkable and truly worth seeing.  I'm not much of a museum person so I can only handle being in a museum for a certain amount of time, but this one was worth it.

The next weekend we had planned a trip to Cartagena, and we left on Thursday afternoon.  The flight from Bogota to Colombia is about 1 hour and 15 minutes.  To find a flight I used one of my favorite search engines, Momondo, which helped me find a deal for about $215 round trip.   We flew on LatAm, which is a Chilean-based airline.  It wasn't the most comfortable flight in the world, but it was perfectly fine for the short flight.

For our stay in Cartagena we booked an Airbnb in a building called Morris 3.  The building was right next to the beach and there was also an amazing pool in the complex.  If I had the money, I would probably buy one of these flats if there were for available for sale.  That's how much I liked the building and the flat.  I snapped a few pictures amazing of the sunset from the edge of the complex next to the beach:

Of course the first thing we had to do was to check out the Old Town in Cartagena at night. The Old Town reminded me very much of a Spanish-style town with its narrow streets.  I highly recommend making your way over to the Donde Fidel Salsa Club and taking a seat outside across the street.  From here a waiter will serve you alcohol and you can watch the salsa dancing happening inside the crowded club.  More on the Old Town to come.

The first thing we did the next morning was to check out the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, a large castle on a hill overlooking Cartagena.  the castle was built by the Spanish to defend the city from pirates and other invaders during the colonial period.  We walked to the top of the castle and took in the view of the city, before walking through a few of the tunnels inside the castle.  You can also view a video of the history of the castle and of Cartagena.

After all the walking around in the castle you're probably going to be worn out as we were due to the Cartagena heat.  A pool break back at the apartment building was more than necessary, but not before easing lunch at Restaurante La Casa De Socorro.  Go to this restaurant for lunch while in Cartagena and try the traditional seafood soup.  It is incredible.

At night we checked out Cafe del Mar, which is in the Old Town and has a great view at night.  However, the service at the cafe was terrible and the 1 drink that we had before leaving wasn't much better.  I wouldn't recommended this cafe.  I think it was better in the past but has since gone downhill.  Instead, we found and awesome guy selling cocktails from a street cart in the Old Town.  His cocktails were so much better than Cafe del Mar's.

The next day we decided to take a side trip via ferry from Cartagena to the island of Baru. Baru is about a 40 minute ferry ride away, and ferry tickets are sold next to the main pier in Cartagena.  The ferry left in the morning and came back late in the afternoon, and the round trip tickets included lunch on the island.  The island's beaches were beautiful, nicer than the ones in mainland Cartagena.  I was so relaxed on the beach in Baru that I fell asleep in the afternoon and almost missed the ferry back.

That night after returning to Cartagena via the ferry and freshening up, we had dinner and drinks at El Baluarte San Francisco Javier.  This restaurant also had a nice view over the Old Town and the food and drinks were both great.  There was even a live band performing traditional music as the seating area was also outside.  Though I was pretty dead from the previous 2 nights, it was really nice to spend a view hours enjoying the Old Town.

The last morning we had in Cartagena we wanted to rent motorbikes to ride around the city, and after about an hour of walking we finally found a place to rent them.  I couldn't tell you exactly where it was but it was somewhere in the Old Town.  We rode through the Old Town and then left the Old Town to ride through the parts of Cartagena I hadn't seen yet.  I love riding motorbikes around and I think they are a great way to explore a city.  I remember doing the same thing in Chiang Man when I was in Thailand, and I had just as much fund doing it in Cartagena too.

After that we had to catch our afternoon flight back to Bogota.  That was basically the end of my 3 weeks in Colombia.  The rest of my time in Colombia and the time in between the things I wrote about here I spent just hanging around, going to malls, eating great food and other random things.  If you've had any reservations about visiting Colombia, I really hope this post changed your mind.  I have my reasons for this being a really special trip and probably my favorite trip to date, but I have no doubt that you will really enjoy it as well.  I still miss Colombia every day and find myself wishing I was still there.  Of course if I can offer any more tips as you plan your trip, just ask!

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Poland in the Winter (and Prague)

Poland in the Winter (and Prague)

Call me crazy, but following my trip to Kuwait in mid-December I made a long stop in Poland on the way back to the U.S...in the middle of winter.  I had another friend (of course) who lives in Madrid and had planned his own trip to Prague and then Poland and I decided to meet up with him, his girlfriend and his traveling buddies.  I actually met up with him in Prague because it was easier to access from Kuwait and I spent a day in Prague before moving on to Poland.

I got to Prague by again booking through Chase's travel portal so I could use some of my points to make the flight a it cheaper.  The most reasonable option available was to fly Etihad from Kuwait to Dubai, then Air Berlin from Dubai to Berlin, and then hop on a short connection to Prague.  So essentially it took me 3 flights (2 stops) to get from Kuwait to Prague.  Air Berlin is partners with Etihad, so I didn't make 2 separate bookings, it was all booked under 1 booking.

I won't talk much here about Prague as I only spent a day there.  It was my third time visiting Prague so I was completely find with just spending a day there.  I do however  want to share a few pictures of the Christmas markets and decorations in Prague as it was a really great experience to be able to see these things around Christmas time in Prague.

After Prague, our first stop in Poland was Krakow.  We took a bus to get there (I can't remember the name of the company or track down my ticket) and the trip took about 7 hours.  It was a long trip with a few stops in larger towns or cities but the bus was actually pretty comfortable and was not full for most of the trip.  I will say that locating the right bus in the bus station in Prague was quite confusing, but eventually we found the right one.  I don't really have any tips for figuring that one out.

We had left earlier in the day from Prague and arrive in Krakow in the evening.  I had booked separate Airbnb from my friends which was a little farther out from the center of the city.  Most of the building in Krakow are very old as there hasn't been any new construction or renovation in a long time.  However, don't be fooled by this.  The single-room flat I had booked on Airbnb was surprisingly really nice, and it was cheap.  I had no problem checking in and getting the key to the flat from the owner, who did speak English.

After checking in to our respective Airbnb flats we all met up and walked into the center of Krakow to check it out.  First obvious warning about Poland in the winter, it's very dark and cold.  If you're thinking about visiting Poland in the winter, bring all of your winter clothes and bundle up.  Krakow has really pretty European-style streets that were also decorated really nicely for the holiday season.  I had never been farther east that Prague before so I didn't really know what to expect, but after walking through a few of the small streets everything opened up and we found ourselves in the beautiful, huge main market square in the center of the old city named Rynek Glowny.

During the holiday season in the main square you can find endless little shops selling pierogies, soup, hot wine, souvenirs, jewelry, etc.  Anything you could hope for is there.  There is also a semi-indoor row of shops located in the middle of the square that you can walk through and browse.

The next day I had decided to do a free walking tour through Krakow.  These tours are offered pretty frequently by a company that can be found here: https://freewalkingtour.com/krakow/.  Personally, I love doing free walking tours when I am visiting a city for the first time and I highly recommend it to others.  You will learn so much more about a city and its history from experienced an knowledge guides, and all you have to do is tip them at the end of the tour.

The tour ends at Wawel Royal Castle, which is a huge historic castle sitting upon a hilltop in Krakow.  The tour guide will explain this history of the castle and its relationship to the city.  Krakow is also surrounded by an old medieval wall that still remains mostly intact today.

Another must do in Krakow is Schindler's Factory Museum.  The museums in Poland are incredibly well done and this is a special one.  Poland does have quite dark and depressing history, so prepare yourself accordingly before visiting this museum.  I didn't take any pictures in this museum as I wanted to be respectful of what happened there, and it is defiantly a museum that you need to see for yourself.

The museum is located within a walkable distance from the former Jewish Quarter in Krakow, known as the Kazimierz District, and I highly recommend taking a walk through the streets in the District.  Most of the former Jewish population of Krakow no longer exists there, a fact incredibly depressing in itself, but seeing the history of the District for yourself is a must do. However, don't bother trying out one of the "Jewish" restaurants in the area.  They aren't really legitimate or even run by Jewish families, and the food is mediocre as a result.

That about covers Krakow, so now I'll move onto to our second and last stop in Poland, which was Warsaw.  We got to Warsaw by taking a PKP Intercity train, which you can book here: https://www.intercity.pl/en/.  Trains are quite cheap in Poland and the train ride was just under 3 hours from Krakow to Warsaw.  Do not book a first class ticket, as there is really no difference between first and second class that makes first class worth the extra money. Upon arriving in Warsaw we checked into our Airbnb rooms. Mine was basically right in the center of the city.  This Airbnb booking was a private room on the top floor of the building, which has amazing views of the city which I have to share.

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The first thing we did after checking into our respective Airbnb rooms was of course to walk into the Warsaw Old Town and check it out.  First disclaimer, the entire city of Warsaw was basically destroyed during WWII and the Old Town is really the only visible historical part of the city that is left.  The Old Town is smaller than the one in Krakow, but I found it to be just as charming.  You can also find many restaurants and shops in the Old Town.  I highly suggest trying a kielbasa from one of the shops in the middle of the Old Town.  It is incredible.  I couldn't control myself and ate 2 of them.  The Old Town was also decorated for the holiday season, which made it even more charming.

Just as in Krakow, a free walking tour is a must do in Warsaw as well through the same company if you really want to know the history of the city.  A lot of sites throughout the city you just won't be able to see yourself as they were destroyed in WWII, but the tour guides are really great about explaining what used to exist there and what happened during the war.  If you are like me, I believe that it's very important to learn from the past and take that with you into the future. The first picture I've posted below used to be a park where Jewish people would get together and socialize or just spend some time outdoors, and the other 2 are memorials to what happened in Warsaw during the war.

Remember when I said the museums in Poland are incredibly well done?  Go to the Warsaw Uprising Museum in Warsaw.  Just as in Schindler's Factory Museum in Krakow, I didn't take any pictures so as to be respectful to the history, but take my word for it.  It will take you a couple of hours through the museum as the detail, quality and amount of items that were preserved is stunning.  Warsaw has maybe even a darker history than Krakow, if that is even possible, so prepare yourself and make the visit.

I had a lot of time to wander around on my own in Warsaw and explore the neighborhood where I was staying.  My Airbnb was also very close to the Old Town so it made it easy for me to wander over that direction.  There was a small 24 hour fresh market right down the street from where I was staying, so occasionally I would buy fresh Polish food from the market and bring it back to my Airbnb to prepare.  I should mention that the same thing is easy to do in Krakow, and we actually made ourselves an amazing breakfast with kielbasas included one day in Krakow.

I'll leave you with a few more pictures from my trip to Warsaw that are memorable to me as I look through them. I hope this inspires you to make a trip to Poland yourself.  It will broaden your perspective of the world, I'm sure of that.

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P.S. You thought I was going to leave you without a picture of snow in Poland?!  I don't think so!!

 

Visiting Kuwait

Visiting Kuwait

While Kuwait may not be the first place on everyone's bucket list (and understandable so), the prospect of seeing a long-lost friend and exploring a small but unique country had captured my attention.  Back in mid-December I decided to burn some of my leave from work  and make the trip there.  Given that I now owned a Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card, I booked a flight with Turkish Airlines through Chase's travel portal as my point are now worth 1.5x when booking through the portal.  I wasn't expecting too much of Turkish Airlines as they were the cheapest airline to fly on this trip, but I was happily surprised by the quality of their service.  Everything from check-in in D.C .to arrival in Kuwait went very smoothly, and the food onboard the flight was delicious.  I had a long 8 hour layover in Istanbul airport, during which I ventured into the airport hotel and took a nice nap as I don't sleep very well on airplanes, especially in economy. I lucked out and booked a last-minute Airbnb room for this visit and it worked out great.  Airbnb rooms and accommodations in general in Kuwait are surprisingly expensive so I would advise looking far in advance for accommodations.  Personally I love Airbnb as I enjoy meeting each person or couple and I have yet to have a bad experience.  For this booking, a very nice couple was renting out the empty room in their apartment in the Salmiya area of Kuwait, which is just outside the limits of Kuwait City.

The first time I met up with my friend who lives in Kuwait, also in Salmiya, she took me to Al Shaheed Park.  This is a fairly new park near the middle of the city and it is very well built.  From this park there are great views of the skyline of Kuwait City.  It is also a nice area to take a walk or to visit a cafe.  Cafes are very popular in Kuwait as places to spend time with friends and family.

Another thing that is very popular in Kuwait is going to malls.  As you can imagine, during the summer months it gets incredibly hot in Kuwait and unbearable to stay outside for too long.  The first mall that I checked out is called The Avenues.  This mall has a very open design and you can find all of the popular retailers as well as several very good cafes and coffee shops.

Another excellent recommendation from my friend while she was working was to visit the Souq Sharq.  Souq Sharq is essentially a large market, and next door to it is also a large fresh fish and seafood market.  The Souq is located right on the water in Kuwait City and also right next to the marina.  Here you can take a walk along the water if the weather is nice out that day.  It rarely rains in Kuwait so there's a good chance the weather will be great for a walk along the water.

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Souq Al-Mubarakiya, also known as the Old Souq, is definitely worth a visit and even spending half of a day there as well.  At the entrance to the Old Souq you will find a few local restaurants offering traditional Kuwaiti food.  I strongly recommend sitting down at one for lunch and ordering hummus with pita.  It is beyond incredible.  The best hummus I've ever had.  In the Souq itself you will find endless small shops and markets selling everything you can imagine.  This souq has a different feel to it as it has been around for a very long time.

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A tip I will give you on what not to do in Kuwait is to visit the Kuwait Towers.  The Kuwait Towers are really the iconic part of Kuwait City's skyline, however, going inside the Towers is really nothing special.  You can go to the top of one of the Towers, but the view from the top is not good at all as you are enclosed in glass windows that are not very see-through.  The Towers just didn't appear to be very well-kept on the inside for visitors. However, they are definitely worth a look from the outside.

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I spent a lot of time walking along the coastline Salmiya as well as it is very pretty and has very nice walking paths.  The Scientific Center is also located right on the water in Salmiya and contains a small aquarium that you can visit, as well as many activities for kids.

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A few other tips for other places you can visit in Kuwait are the 360 Mall, the Grand Mosque, and the various restaurants and cafes you can find along the water in Kuwait City or Salmiya.  People in Kuwait are very quiet and family-oriented, especially on Sundays, so don't expect to see or experience anything too crazy in Kuwait.  Especially if you're looking for clubs and partying, you won't find it there.  Alcohol is not permitted to be sold in restaurants, cafes, etc. and can only be consumed in your own home.  Despite this, I thoroughly enjoyed my time exploring Kuwait and experiences a country quite different from the places I normally visit.  I would recommend spending only 3-4 days in Kuwait, maybe 5 at the most if you want some more time to relax and enjoy the environment and culture.  I spent a week there and had a lot of time on my own as my friend was working during the day.  A week was definitely too much time.  Learn from my tips and visit Kuwait if you're looking for something different.  You won't regret it.

 

 

Interlaken and Madrid

Interlaken and Madrid

In my last post about visiting Thailand I mentioned that I actually started off that trip with a short stopover in Europe, visiting friends in Interlaken, Switzerland and Madrid, Spain.  Now I will share with you my experience visiting these 2 very beautiful but vastly different cities, as well as my travel tips that relate to this part of my trip. My trip did not get off to a good start, as you will see in a minute.  I had booked a direct flight on American Airlines from New York to Zurich, which meant that I had a connecting flight from DC to New York about 4 hours prior to the departure of my flight from New York to Zurich.  Theoretically, this should have given me plenty of leeway in case of a delay on my connecting flight.  Wishful thinking on my part.  Despite perfectly fine weather my connecting flight sat on the tarmac of Reagan National Airport in DC for about 2 hours, and then the flight crew announced that we would be returning to the gate and the flight had been cancelled.  As a result, I missed my flight from New York to Zurich and had to rebook with American to a flight from Philly to Zurich the next day, which was the only other flight they could get me on.  Needless to say, I will be avoiding American Airlines at all times in the future.

The good thing is that I had booked my original flight from New York to Zurich through British Airway’s site using Avios, most of which had also been transferred from my Chase Sapphire card.  However, this flight cost me 60,000 Avios, a large amount for an 8-hour flight but it was the best available direct flight I could find.  After I finally had everything sorted about and caught my flight from Philly to Zurich the next day, a Saturday, there were no issues on the flight and I arrived in Zurich early on Sunday morning.

Zurich looked beautiful from the air and I wish I could have spent a day there, but my plan was to hop a train from the airport and head to Bern, which is about a 1-hour train ride from Zurich.  Trains in Switzerland are very expensive and there’s really no way around it, so I coughed up about $55 for this ride.  A word of advice though, just go straight to the ticket counter.  The ticket machines are impossible to figure out if it’s your first time using them.  The train ride was smooth and I arrived in Bern on time, where my friend and her boyfriend who live in Interlaken had been kind enough to meet me at the station and drive me the rest of the way to Interlaken, about a 45 min. drive from Bern.  Even though it was cloudy that day, the landscape of this part of Switzerland absolutely blew my mind.  Interlaken literally means “between 2 lakes”, and the lake that we drove along on the way to Interlaken was Lake Thun.  The lake on the other side of Interlaken is called Lake Brienz. Mountain ranges surround the lakes and Interlaken itself, creating and out-of-this-world backdrop for anyone living, visiting, or just passing through the region.

After dropping off my luggage at my friend’s apartment, they decided to take me to Trummelbach Falls for my first Switzerland experience.  Trummelbach Falls, I would later find out, are the world’s only accessible glacier waterfalls.  They are truly unique but the water flows down the mountain so fast its almost scary.  Even more stunning is the valley where the Falls are located.  Mountains cover both sides of the valley and a very long waterfall is visible out in the open.

By then it was mid-afternoon and I was starting to crash from jetlag, so we made the short drive back to my friend’s apartment and I took a nice nap.  Euro Cup 2016 was going on at the same time as this part of my trip and though I missed the Switzerland game the day before, Germany was playing that evening and the game was being shown on a cool outdoor big screen in Interlaken.  We walked over there from my friend’s apartment after my nap and watched the game, which Germany won, while enjoying a few drinks from the makeshift bar that was also set up outside.  After the game, we walked further into the downtown area of Interlaken to grab a late dinner at a bar/restaurant in the middle of the city.  Interlaken, while not a large city by any means, has a very charming downtown area.

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After calling it a night and getting a good night’s sleep, I awoke the next morning to find the clouds gone and the sun shining.  A little luck was on my side as I got to experience a beautiful, clear day before my time in Interlaken ended.  Sitting on my friend’s porch and taking in the view, I could not believe that she had such a stunning view from her porch.  I snapped a few pictures and spent about 10 min. just taking it in.

The next day was a Monday and my friend had taken off work to take me up the mountain right behind where she lived.  I can’t remember the name of the mountain, but we took a lift all the way up to the top and whatever mountain it was, the views were incredible.  I’m sure if you went up to the top of any mountain in the general vicinity, you would experience the same incredible views.  There even happened to be a school at the top of this mountain, which again blew my mind that children got to go to school on top of a mountain.

We then decided to rent “standing bikes” as they were called and ride them all the down the mountain.  These bikes were actually more like scooters that were made for riding downhill and just had handbrakes to slow them when riding.  The trip down the mountain would normally have taken about an hour, but we stopped a few times along the way to take pictures.  About three quarters of the way down the mountain we rode through a cool little village where people actually lived, overlooking the lake and Interlaken.  Here we stopped at a small inn for a drink before finishing our ride down the mountain.

We ended up at a different part of the bottom of the mountain and had to take a bus back to the center of Interlaken, but first we got to take in more views while standing next to the lake.  From there, we walked a bit through Interlaken and stopped in a souvenir store so I could buy some things to take back home with me.  We then sat outside and ate dinner at a nice little French restaurant.  That day’s Euro Cup 2016 games were also starting around that time so after dinner we headed to another bar, this one with outdoor TV’s and a seating area.  This is where we spent the remainder of the night until the last game was over.

After just 2 days in Interlaken it was time for me to head out to Madrid.  This time, I took an early morning train with my friend who was headed to work in Bern.  We both got off the train in Bern, where she went to work and I switched trains for the rest of my trip to Zurich.  This ride cost me about $75 since I took it all the way from Interlaken to Zurich, about a 2-hour trip.  I had booked a flight on Air Europa, a low-cost airline, from Zurich to Madrid.  The cost of the trip was about $100 for the 2-hour flight, and pretty solid price in my opinion.  Air Europa was not the most comfortable airline I had ever flown, but you can only expect so much from a low-cost airline.  Comparing it to EasyJet which I had flown before, I’d say EasyJet has the slight edge.  However, the flight was smooth and I arrived in Madrid on time.

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My first impression of Madrid was this: it was hot.  Very hot actually.  It was quite a change for someone coming from the mountains of Switzerland.  But the good thing was there was very little humidity like there is back home in DC, so the heat was actually bearable as long as I drank enough water.  Another good thing is there is bus that goes from the airport straight to Atocha station, which is very close to the center of Madrid, for something like 5 euros.  There I met up with my friend’s girlfriend who would be accompanying me for the day while my friend who lives there in Madrid was at work.

After dropping my luggage off at my friend’s apartment and taking a short break since I had been up since 6:00am, my friend’s girlfriend took me to La Percera del Circulo de Bellas Artes which is a restaurant/bar on the rooftop of a fine arts museum.  This seemed to sort of a hidden secret in Madrid by the way she described it to me, and the rooftop did not disappoint.  The views of Madrid from this rooftop are amazing, and sangria and other drinks can be had for just a few euros each.  There are even comfortable lounging-type seats underneath a tent used to block out the sun, but be warned they are a hot commodity (no pun intended).

After hanging out at the rooftop for a while, we then headed back toward the area around Puerta del Sol, which is a large public square not in Madrid not too far from my friend’s apartment.  Here we stopped by a small bar for a few drinks before heading to a restaurant in the same area.  I wish I could remember the names of these places but I cannot track them down.  The great thing about bars in Madrid is that most of them will give you something to eat for free if you just order drinks.  These plates can vary from just a small bowl of nuts or pickled eats to a well-sized play of bread and sliced meat, usually jamon (ham).  At the restaurant we pretty much went all out and ordered enough food to feed an entire family for a few days, but of course we finished it all in one sitting (proof below).

As could be expected, this was the end of our night as it everyone had had a long day and were now going into massive food comas.  Madrid does cool off to a fairly comfortable temperature once the sun goes down, and this made for a nice walk back to my friend’s apartment before passing out.

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The next morning both my friend and his girlfriend went off to work and I headed out on my own for a free walking tour of Madrid.  Whenever I do a free walking tour in Europe, it is always with the Sandeman’s New Europe tour group (http://www.neweuropetours.eu).  Overall my experience with this group has been very positive and the only catch is that you should tip your tour guide at the end of the tour if you enjoyed the tour.  This is always up to your discretion, but it’s the source of income for the tour guides as the tours themselves are free.  I won’t detail the entirety of the tour here, but the tour started at Plaza Mayor and ended at the Royal Palace, both of which are shown in the pictures below.

After the tour I had decided to knock off the final place on my list of things to do during my short stay in Madrid, Buen Retiro Park, but somehow first ended up in the main shopping district of Madrid which is in between Gran Via, Plaza Mayor, and Puerta del Sol.  The district is partially covered from the sun and has a nice feel to it.  Here you can find stores such as Zara, H&M, and endless others.  Of course I had to do a bit of shopping now that I had ended up there, and walked away with a small bag or 2 of new clothes.

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I finally did make it to Buen Retiro Park, which is massive mind you, and walked toward the center of the park.  Already tired from walking around in the heat all day, I wasn’t exactly thrilled to discover the actual size of the park.  Nonetheless, I did make it to the center and came across the large, beautiful lakes that sits near the center.  Many people were out on the lake in little rowboats either rowing around or just drifting and taking in the scene.  I quickly decided that I was going to lay down in the grass under the trees along side the lake and take a nap, which was wonderful.

After probably 2 hours or so of laying in the park, I found the energy to head back to my friend’s apartment and clean up for dinner.  This time for dinner we went to one of my friend’s favorite tapas/wine bars.  Again I wish I could remember the name of the place but I can tell you it was along Calle Cava Baja, which is a great area for tapas and bar hopping.  Both the tapas and wine were amazing at the place my friend took me too, though I tried not to stuff myself this time around.  After dinner we ended up back at Plaza del Sol and this is where my friend left me as it was a Wednesday night and he still had to work the next day.  Plaza del Sol is the meeting point for many of the nighttime pub crawls, so I found a random pub crawl and joined them for the night.  I don’t remember nearly every detail of the rest of the night, so you know I had a good time.  You can easily party in Madrid until 5:00 or 6:00am the next morning, but I at least ended up back at my friend’s apartment around 4:00am, so it could have been worse.

The next day I had a late afternoon flight from Madrid to Bangkok (with a stop in Dubai), but I don’t think I moved from my friend’s couch until noon so I didn’t have much time left for sightseeing.  I had pretty seen all that I wanted to see at that point though so I decided to just grab breakfast and coffee and wander around a bit looking for souvenirs.  After that I grabbed my things and took the subway a few stops back to Atocha station, where I hopped on the same bus that took me back to the airport.  I’ve already written about my flight from Madrid to Bangkok in my last post so I’ll skip that part here.  All in all, I think I experienced a lot of what Madrid has to offer, though my friend did keep telling me that I needed to be there about a week or so to really get a feel for the city.  He’s probably right, and another trip to Madrid will definitely be in store for me in the future.

 

Visiting Thailand

Visiting Thailand

I recently visited Thailand with several friends of mine from home (Washington, D.C.) and would like to share my experiences for anyone else considering a similar trip, or for anyone who enjoys traveling in general.  I hope to also offer general travel and accommodation tips as I describe my visit that may be beneficial information for others. While the several friends of mine began their trip to Thailand from home, I had begun my trip early and made a stop in Europe to visit a friend in Interlaken, Switzerland and then another friend n Madrid, Spain, but that part of the trip is for another post.  As I was in need of a flight(s) from Madrid to Bangkok during the planning phase of my trip, this is where I will offer my first general tip for booking long-haul flights such as this one.  I normally use first Google Flights (https://www.google.com/flights/) when searching for flights to check availability and prices.  Flights for this part of my trip were actually surprisingly cheap, starting at around $500 for the approximately 12-13-hour journey.  There were, however, no non-stop flights available from Madrid to Bangkok.  Since I knew I would need to pay in dollars and not points for this part of my trip (I will offer tips for using points later on), my next step was to check a favorite site of mine, staTravel (http://www.statravel.com).  This is a site that offers student fares for flights, hotels, etc. and while I had only used this site while a student prior to this trip, I had read that there is no harm in booking an attractive student fare even if I am no longer a student as airlines do not check this.  Therefore, I grabbed a student fare for a flight from Madrid to Dubai, and then Dubai to Bangkok for about $450 total on Emirates in economy class.  This was my first time flying Emirates and as I would later find out, the airline lives up to its hype and this was a total steal at this price.  Furthermore, the layover in Dubai was less than 2 hours.  To sweeten things even more, when I arrived at the airport in Madrid and stopped by the Emirates reservations counter I was able to upgrade the first leg of my flight, the overnight leg, from Madrid to Dubai to business class for about $500 more.  This was totally worth it to enjoy Emirates amazing business class service and sleep almost the whole 6.5 hours to Dubai.

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Upon arriving in Bangkok after my journey from Madrid and then Dubai, I grabbed my luggage, hopped a cab (an experience in itself as you have to wait in line for a lane ticket outside the airport) and made the approximately 30 min. ride from the airport to the place where I was staying in the Khlong Ton Sai area of Bangkok.  My friends and I booked through Airbnb for each of our accommodations in Thailand (highly recommended).  In Bangkok, we were able to stay on the penthouse floor of the Lighthouse Condominum complex in a 2-story condo.

Since we all arrived in Bangkok around 9pm at night, as is common with flights from the States to Southeast Asia, we decided to get a good night’s rest and be ready to explore Bangkok first thing the next morning.  Once we did get going that next morning, we wandered though some street markets and took a quick ferry ride up river to Wat Pho and the Grand Palace.  Wat Pho is a large temple famous for tis golden reclining Buddha inside, but also has a large outside area to wander around in.  The Grand Palace is the former home of Thai Kings and also once housed various ministries.  Believe it or not the Thai sun is incredibly draining, even through the clouds, and this is about as much walking as we could do before we needed to take a break back at the condo.

That night we decided to check out the nightlife at Khao San Road, an area lined with bars that is known for its street partying as partygoers are allowed to take their drinks outside to the street.  Khao San Road is a ton of fun and we all had a great time partying there until 3am or so.  If this is your scene, one of the great things about Khao San Road is the very cheap liquor buckets, which sell for $4-5 per bucket and 2 of them are enough to last you all night.

Our 2nd day in Bangkok we picked another temple to visit, Wat Traimit, which is a beautiful white and gold temple with a solid gold Buddha inside at the top of the temple.  Since it is much smaller than Wat Pho, it does not take very long to walk through the temple and visit the top before returning to the exit at the bottom of the temple.  After visiting just these two temples, we quickly realized that this would be enough as all of the temples in Bangkok share enough similarities.  The rest of the day involved eating lots of Thai food and saving our energy for the next day, for which we had bigger plans and an early wakeup time.

Our 3rd and final day in Bangkok we left our condo at about 7am for a full day trip outside of Bangkok to Erawan National Park (https://www.thainationalparks.com/erawan-national-park).  The trip took about 2.5 hours each way to and from Bangkok, and several tour operators offer different types of tours to the park.  For us, we chose to hike around the many waterfalls at the park and take several dips in the water by the waterfalls to cool off along the hike.  Each waterfall was beautiful in its own way, with the biggest and best waterfalls being at the top of the hike.  The oddest experience about the waterfalls is the fish in the water who are harmless but will persistently nibble at your feet and legs.  We also had the luck to run into a monkey at the highest waterfall who sat in the tree above of and posed with us for pictures.

After our final day in Bangkok we caught an early morning AirAsia flight to Phuket the next morning.  Although AirAsia is a low-cost airline, the experience was surprisingly smooth and comfortable.  I’d even go as far as to say the service and comfort of AirAsia thoroughly beat out many airlines carriers operating here in the U.S., and for an almost unbelievable price of just $40 for the 2-hour flight, which even included a small meal!  Count me as a fan, and I’ll be taking AirAsia again in the future.

We arrived at our Airbnb in Phuket around noon that day, which was a villa owned by an incredibly nice family right on the water in the Rawai area of Phuket.  Our host, Rita, was so nice and genuine and went out of her way to ensure that everything was taken care of for us during our stay in Phuket.  Our first day in Phuket we just wanted to go to a nearby beach for some rest and relaxation after all of the walking we did in Bangkok.  Rita knew of a beach nearby named Nai Harn Beach and even offered to drive us there herself.  Nai Harn Beach was just what we were looking for and we spent several hours there before returning to the villa.  On our way back to the villa we stopped by a local 24-hour supermarket to pick up some beer and snacks to last us the night.  Back at the villa we all hopped in the pool and spent the rest of our night poolside.

The next day we had decided to catch and early 8:30AM ferry to Koh Phi Phi, a popular island that is about an hour and a half ferry ride from Phuket.  There are several companies who operate ferries between Phuket and Ko Phi Phi, and our host Rita has kindly purchased the tickets for us beforehand.  During the night the weather had turned a bit on the island and it was now cloudy with scattered rain showers, which in turn has made the sea quite choppy during our ride to Ko Phi Phi.  This did not bother us much however as any rain showers actually felt pretty good in the Thailand heat.  I should mention that Ko Phi Phi is actually a group of islands to the east of Phuket, and Ko Phi Phi Don is the main island to which we were headed.  Our ferry captain took us around the smaller island of Ko Phi Phi Lee on our way to the main island, so we got a bit of a scenic tour during our ride.

Ko Phi Phi also has the reputation of being a great party island, and as such we had planned to go out on a party boat for the majority of the afternoon that day.  However, the weather continued to turn worse and the scattered rain showers turned into full-on downpours throughout the afternoon.  As a result, the party boat ride was cancelled and we spent the day on the island hopping in and out of local tourist bars.  The island does have a lot of charm to it, especially with the way the streets wind throughout it, many of them lined with street carts selling various items and food.  We then took a break at our villa on Ko Phi Phi that we had booked, also though Airbnb, to stay on the island for the night.  I can’t remember the name of the property where our villa was located, but it was just past all of the bars and shops in a quieter part of the island.  Nighttime is when the real partying happens on Ko Phi Phi and after our rest at the villa, we headed back out to Carlito’s Beach bar first for a few drinks and hookah.  We also got a watch a fire show and a game of limbo while enjoying our drinks.  Later on we headed further down the beach to Slinky Bar for a lot of music and dancing, which easily took us to 3 or 4am before calling it a night.

It would have been nice to spend another day on Ko Phi Phi as 1 day wasn’t quite enough, but the next morning we caught another 8:30am ferry back to Phuket.  The rest of the morning/afternoon on Phuket was uneventful as the weather was still rainy and we were exhausted from the night before, so we basically just packed our things up and grabbed more Thai food before heading to the airport to catch our flight to Chiang Mai.  Again we flew AirAsia for around the same price of $40, by far the best option available.  It was another smooth and comfortable process and we arrived in Chiang Mai at our scheduled arrival time.  We settled into our last Airbnb booking, a cozy 2-story house just outside of the city center.  Unfortunately, I cannot find any pictures of the house so you’ll have to trust me that this was perhaps the nicest of the three Airbnb bookings and the cheapest.

Chiang Mai gets a lot of hype as the best city to visit in Thailand and we were excited to start exploring the city.  The morning after our flight we had decided to make the short trip by Songtaew (red truck taxi) up the mountain to Doi Suthep-Pui Natonal Park.  Songtaews are much cheaper and more plentiful than normal taxis in Chiang Mai and are pretty fun to ride in despite the ride being less comfortable.  The national park is also home to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep RatchWarawihan, a Buddhist temple at the top of an extremely long staircase that will help you get your workout in for the day.  This is where the amazing views of Chiang Mai can be found at a viewing ledge to the right of the entrance to the temple.  The park is also home to beautiful gardens that many people visit.  At the entrance to the park are numerous street carts selling hot food and fresh fruit.  My favorite foods were from the carts were corn on the cob and fresh mango, which was far fresher than any mango I have ever had back home.

After coming back from the national park we went straight to the Night Bazaar after a short break at our house.  The Night Bazaar is a massive collection of street vendors and shops lining one of the larger roads in Chiang Mai.  Basically anything you might want can be found in the Night Bazaar and it is on you to bargain the vendors down to a reasonable price, which isn’t too hard to do.  There’s also at least one food court, and the one we went to had a great selection of food and drink stands.  After the Night Bazaar we ended our very long day and got some rest for our next adventure.

We saved the best part of the trip for our 2nd day in Chiang Mai, visiting the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary (http://www.elephantjunglesanctuary.com), which is about an hour and a half ride from Chiang Mai.  Our 7:00am Songtaew ride there was organized by the Sanctuary and upon arrival we received a verbal introduction to the Sanctuary and the elephants.  Essentially, we chose this Sanctuary to visit because the elephants are treated humanely and there is no riding on the elephants as they were not meant to be ridden and riding them can be harmful to the elephants.  After the verbal in introduction, we helped carry food such as bananas and watermelon to the elephants and they ran right over to us looking for the food.  Asian elephants are a bit smaller than African elephants so it was nothing too scary, and there was even a small baby elephant there who was just a year or two old.  The elephants were all so friendly and just kept waiting for us to feed them more and more food, while also grabbing some of the food laying around themselves.

After feeding the elephants for a good half an hour, we followed the elephants and our tour guides down to a small waterfall in a stream that runs through the Sanctuary.  Here we got to bath the elephants and play around with them in the water, another amazingly fun experience.  The elephants were incredibly calm and friendly the entire time and had been trained very well by the trainers at the Sanctuary.  As all good things must end, we eventually had to say goodbye to the elephants and return to our starting point for a quick meal provided by the Sanctuary.  After the meal, we were provided with another Songtaew ride back to Chiang Mai and arrived back around 2:00pm.  I highly recommend this trip as a must-do when visiting Chiang Mai as it will be an experience like never before.

That night, after taking a much longer break back at our house this time due to our early morning departure, we headed out to check out the bar scene in Chiang Mai.  We had gotten a recommendation from friends to check out Zoe’s Yellow Bar so this is where we headed.  I’d say this was a great recommendation as the bar had a large outdoor area and is connected with another bar right next door.  This made for a great couple of hours enjoying some downtime and the nighttime air.  While Zoe’s doesn’t quite live up to the nightlife in Bangkok or Ko Phi Phi, the city still holds its own.

On our final half day in Chiang Mai, a Sunday, the last thing we decided to do was to rent mopeds are ride around the city for a bit.  It is probably better to do your research ahead of time and find a quality moped place, but they can be rented almost anywhere so we just walked up to one of the larger places and rented them.  The mopeds are very cheap to rent, about $7-8 for the entire day, and in our case we only have to show one passport at the time of rental.  This is also and experience definitely worth doing in Chiang Mai, and also an easier way to see more of the city.

Finally, when it was time to head home I first took a Dragonair flight to Hong Kong that afternoon.  Dragonair is operated by Cathay Pacific and had one of the only nonstop flights from Chiang Mai to Hong Kong.  I would be flying Cathay Pacific back to New York and since Cathay Pacific is based in Hong Kong, I first had to fly there.  I booked my Cathay Pacific flight using British Airways Avios, and since the two airlines are partners I could do this through the British Airways website.  For just 40,000 Avios I was able to book premium economy class the entire length of the trip, which had a short 50 min. layover in Vancouver on the way to New York.   I had earned these points mostly though using my Chase Sapphire card, and had then transferred the points to British Airways at a 1:1 ratio.  I considered this to be a great use of points for the approximately 16 hours of total flight time.  To sweeten the deal even further, Cathay Pacific upgraded me to business class for the flight from Vancouver to New York at no cost as the flight was not at all crowded.  While I was sad to be leaving Thailand and returning back home, the return trip was about as comfortable as I could have hoped.

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