Don’t eat the ice!

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Monkey Beach, Koh Phi Phi, Thailand

THE INTERNET has loads of information for travel planning whether it be short term or long term, and in any part of the world. Whatever destination you are looking for, someone has been there and has written a blog about it. This is very helpful when planning a 7 month trip to Asia, as we were able to leverage others’ experiences including what to do and what not to do. If a rule or suggestion sounded like it had merit, I took note. Anything to keep us healthier, safer or save our budget was something to try. However, once we jumped into the life in Southeast Asia to experience things for ourselves, we learned that some of these rules are meant to be broken and some of the truths are only myths.

1. Don’t eat the ice

I often pictured my worst fear in Southeast Asia:  feeling that gurgle in my stomach, rushing to the bathroom of our hot hostel room, trying to lock a door that is basically nothing more than a saloon door — my new(ish) boyfriend just a few feet away on the other side — and finding the dreaded squatty potty! Is there a polite way to handle extreme diarrhea? Thankfully I haven’t had to test that one out.  But for about a month, I avoided ice like the plague because everyone said, don’t have ice in your drinks.  What they don’t tell you is that the locals don’t drink the tap water or eat ice made from tap water either.  So ice is almost always from filtered water and is safe to have in your drinks.  If you’re still worried, just make sure it looks like it came from a factory (those cylinder “cubes” with the hole in the middle are a good indication someone didn’t freeze tap water in a plastic tray in their fridge). I’m to the point now that I don’t even blink an eye when I get ice in my drinks anymore.  Although I suppose I should remain a little bit diligent to make sure that my worst bathroom fear does not come true!

2. Be wary of anything fresh, and while you’re at it, stay away from pastries, dairy and ice cream

Similar to the ice, we heard don’t eat anything fresh that you didn’t peel or wash yourself.  And we followed that rule for about a month too. However, the little problem with that is not eating fresh fruits and vegetables causes the opposite problem as my fear in #1!  So we had to the take the chance. Again, hotels, restaurants and even the small roadside stalls generally wash all their vegetables in potable water.  As for pastries, a doctor told us the risk is eating something that’s been kneaded or handled by dirty hands and with dairy and ice cream, unpasteurized is a problem (ok I’ll agree with that), but in general, you shouldn’t limit yourself to enjoying the many amazing cuisines in order to follow these rules.  You never know when food poisoning could hit but to give yourself the best chance, use common sense: eat at the stalls with the longest lines, make sure the food hasn’t been sitting out for hours and when in doubt, it’s fine to pass on one stall and move on to the next to find freshly prepared dishes.

3. You don’t need the rabies vaccine

People said, “Nah, you don’t need the rabies vaccine.  It’s so expensive!” And “Stray dogs? I never saw any stray dogs in Thailand.” (side note:  that’s just cuckoo bananas; there are loads).   It’s true though that the rabies vaccine is expensive, painful (3 injections!) and fewer than 1% of the animals in Southeast Asia carries rabies. But bottom line, rabies is deadly and even if the animal does not have the disease, you do not want to take your chances. And the news gets worse — it’s not just a bite; a lick from an animal can be deadly too.  So rabies or not, a bite or lick equals a dreaded trip to an unfamiliar hospital. If you’re already in Bangkok or another big city, this may not be so inconvenient, but if you haven’t been vaccinated many clinics and hospitals in smaller cities don’t have the entire series of injections required, so you’ll have to fly to the nearest big city.  (If you have been vaccinated, you’ll only need part of the series…the part that is in greater supply and can probably be found in smaller cities).

So, this is one of the suggestions we didn’t follow….and even before we departed we both got vaccinated. It doesn’t seem like we’ve gone overboard to protect ourselves against this disease with little probability of contracting. We’ve met people who have had experiences with emergency evacuations:  a guy who suddenly was traveling alone after his buddy was bitten IN THE FACE by a dog and had to fly from Laos to Thailand to get emergency rabies injections. And a girl who was bitten by a monkey in Koh Phi Phi and only later realized she could have the disease. And even Brian, who had a monkey jump on his back and I, myself, who was nipped on the ankle by a puppy. Luckily in our cases, the animals didn’t break skin or we too would have been heading to the hospital.  But already having the rabies vaccination is an insurance policy worth the pain of the injections and the pain to our wallets.  If nothing else, it saves us from having to make an emergency trip to a big city and gives us a bit of peace of mind.

4. Many people will try to scam you

The “broken” taxi meter, the ridiculously cheap tuk-tuk that takes you to gem shops instead of your requested destination, the “Ohh, I have cousins living in [your state], come with me”…

Every country has its scammers and the Lonely Planet highlights these so you know what you may possibly encounter. And while a bit of skepticism can keep you safe on and on your toes to identify these scams, you should not let it rule your entire vacation (which of course, I did in the beginning). Before leaving my dad said, “Don’t let anyone change your plans.”  That is very good advice and I kept it in mind each time a stranger suggested we do something we weren’t already planning on doing.  And I think Brian and I made good choices based on gut feeling.  When a guy standing on the corner of the road in Bali gave us a scratch-off ticket and said after we scratched it, “Brother, you’ve won an iPad! Come get in this car with me and I’ll take you to claim it,” we turned and walked away. (I must say Brian really wanted that iPad though)! However, when a friendly Indonesian guy who Brian had talked to for more than an hour on the plane ride to Yogyakarta said he had rented a car and suggested we tag along with him and his brother, I of course, was hesitant, but Brian had a good feeling so we took a chance, and ended up doing amazing things like off-roading around a volcano and made new friends too. Similarly, a group of “strangers” that we met while diving ended up becoming like family and were my guardian angels when I had my bad accident.  Again, moral of the story is, use your gut and don’t assume everyone is trying to scam you.  Turning down an offer could cost you an experience of a lifetime.

Let it be noted, though, that in general, Manila cab drivers are crooks.

5. It will be really difficult if you don’t know the language

Ok, it’s true that not EVERYONE knows English in this part of the world. But don’t let that stop you from diving into experiences headfirst. Imagine this scene:  we walk into a restaurant knowing only that it’s a chicken restaurant, and the menu is in Indonesian.  I want wings and Brian wants thighs.  How do we ask the waitress? Brian points his own thighs and arms and immediately the waitress knows what we want (good thing we didn’t want breasts or that could have gotten awkward)!

So in general, we did not feel at a disadvantage if we couldn’t immediately communicate. If someone didn’t know English, we either attempted to find the word in their language (via google or our guidebook) or got creative.  In fact, being in another country has helped me find alternative ways of communicating when someone doesn’t understand what I’m saying, and this is not only useful in another language but in English as well….knowing that our communications styles are completely different, it’s helped me communicate a lot better with Brian (added bonus)!

– amanda

Tips on tailoring and buying custom clothing in Hoi An

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HOI AN, Vietnam is a place of beauty and charm.  Every street you cross reveals a piece of history and every corner you turn boasts brilliant colors, but in addition to that, it is the BEST place to buy custom made clothing for super reasonable prices! There are hundreds of tailors and it can be overwhelming, so I’m sharing my best tips on how to get what you want when having clothes made in Hoi An.

1. Be prepared with an idea of what you want

I knew I wanted a dress and Brian knew he wanted a suit.  Easy enough.  I took it a step further and had already made a Pinterest board for the dress styles I might want to have made (ok, dorky I know), but Brian just knew he wanted a suit.  And either method is totally fine.  In most cases, you will be able to choose your clothing in one of three ways:

  • bring your own photographs or designs
  • choose from what they have on display on mannequins
  • choose from the many magazines on display in the shop

Having some idea of what you want can help alleviate a bit of the shock when seeing SO many fabrics and styles…although it won’t necessarily keep you from buying more (as we learned).

2. Allow yourself time for 3 fittings

Hoi An is small.  Many visitors don’t stay longer than 2 or 3 days.  So if you’ve completed #1 above (preparation), you may be in a position to pick out what you want on the day you get there.  In our case, we were only staying for 2 nights, and unfortunately our flight from Saigon was delayed so we arrived late on Wednesday night.  However, we hit the ground running at 7pm.  We already had an idea of what shops we wanted to check out (see #3 below) so after an hour or so of talking with the tailor about fabrics and styles, we put in the order for my 1 dress and Brian’s 1…no wait, now it’s 2…suits….AND 2 dress shirts (Hoi An is addictive)! Ordering the day we arrived allowed us the first fitting the next morning (Thursday), the second fitting Thursday afternoon and the third fitting Friday morning before we left for Hue.  (It’s amazing how they can do this work so fast!) It’s especially important you allow time for 3 fittings when you have custom designed pieces (like my dress) or pieces that require a lot of tailoring (like suits).  You don’t want to leave with something that you tell yourself you’ll get tailored when you get home…because let’s face it, you probably won’t. Also keep in mind that you pay for the clothes in advance. And while you might feel uncomfortable forking over millions of dong for services not yet rendered, know that they keep working until you are happy.  So those additional fittings really matter.

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3. Do your research but trust your gut when choosing a shop

Reading blogs and referring to Trip Advisor reviews are great starting points when deciding what shops you want to go into.  But ultimately it is just a feeling you get from spending a few minutes in the shop.  It shouldn’t feel like you are buying a used car. If the tailor is too pushy or unfriendly, feel free to walk next door. Also, most importantly be careful who you trust when getting referrals.  In general any hotel, restaurant or other shop who refers you is getting a commission for doing so, which in turn increases the price you pay by as much as 40%!  So if you go into a shop and they ask you how you found them, feel free to be cheeky and just say you stumbled upon it while walking down the street.  Don’t let this turn you off though.  Some places don’t take commissions and you won’t have to worry if you are being cheated.  Just shop around a bit and ask for prices, and that should give you a good idea of who’s overcharging.

4. Know what can and cannot be changed

As much planning as I did, I could have done more.  (Those of you who know me are saying, “No it can’t be true!”) I showed the tailor the Pinterest image of what I wanted and she drew a tiny sketch of the front and back with the tweaks I requested to give to the seamsters (?)  (most of the people doing the sewing are men).  The next day when we went for the first fitting, I tried on the dress and naturally went to stick my hands in the…. “Oh man! POCKETS! I forgot to ask for pockets!”  Grr…so I asked her if I could add pockets and no, I couldn’t, it was too late.  I also wasn’t completely satisfied with the neckline, but that was a pitfall of my own designing.  That couldn’t be changed either. However, I was able to add tiny belt loops so I guess that was my substitute parting gift.  :/

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5. Know your body and your preferences

This should be a really easy one, but be careful, sometimes the people at the shop can be a bit pushy and overwhelm you into saying yes to something you may not want. They are happy to make suggestions on color and fabrics, and while they are the sewing experts, you know your style and preferences. When I told her I wanted a dress to wear to a party, she kept directing me to shiny taffetas and flowy chiffons that I don’t like. That being said, their suggestions for suit linings were good…Brian wanted lime green (!) but ended up with a beautiful but understated navy blue lining.

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The first fitting

6. Don’t feel limited to 1 shop only

I caught the bug.  After putting in the order for one dress and walking around Hoi An, I saw more that I wanted! After all Brian got 2 suits…it only makes sense I get another dress to wear alongside him in that second suit.  This time there were no designs or thumbing through magazines.  I saw a couple pieces that I liked on some mannequins and decided that’s what I wanted.  Many shops do very similar designs, so I went into a couple to get a feel for price and pushiness factor.  I knew I had found “the one,” a nice lady who, unaccustomed to the Western body type, awkwardly patted my rear and proclaimed I had a “sexy bottom”, so I had her make me a maxi dress and winter coat.  I don’t know if it was because these were simple patterns but they were able to make both pieces in only THREE hours!  And they both fit like a glove, so no additional fittings were required.

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We took the items with us to mail back to the US together with the dress and suits from the other shop (which would be ready the next morning – after that final fitting).  I felt a bit sheepish walking into the shop with a bag from another store — like I had cheated on her by going somewhere else, but they are all fine with that and know you shop around. She had no problem putting all the items from her shop and others in a single box to ship home.

7. Consider negotiating

In the more upscale shops, you’ll pay a premium for what you get, and especially if there is commission involved, make sure you negotiate hard.  In our case, being on a backpacker’s budget at the moment, we purposely stayed with the mom and pop shops and compared prices among these types.  Of course we still asked for more money off (who wouldn’t?) but we knew from shopping around we were getting a pretty good deal.  In the end, our weekend of shopping in Hoi An looked like this:

Shop:  Miss Forget-Me-Not
  • 1 short dress custom made from my Pinterest design — $30 USD
  • 2 men’s custom 2-piece suits — $70 USD ea.
  • 2 men’s custom dress shirts — $16 USD ea.
Shop: 76 Le Loi
  • 1 custom maxi dress — $25 USD
  • 1 custom winter jacket — $40 USD
Shipping to US by sea — $65 USD

A note on shipping:  if you are planning on shipping your items home, consider this as part of your overall cost of the garments. Air is expensive and sea takes 2-3 months.  But overall, even with the shipping, it is still WAY cheaper to have a suit made in Hoi An and send it back than it would be to buy in the US or Europe.

And a tip on shipping:  if you’ve overpacked for your backpacking trip or if you have accumulated souvenirs along the way, throw the extra stuff in the box and ship it home with the new garments!

Overall, making clothes in Hoi An was a really fun experience.  And now that I’ve learned the do’s and don’ts, I am dying to go back and get more!  Hopefully this post helps anyone who is planning a trip and/or has never had clothes tailored or custom made (like us!).  If you have any other tips feel free to leave comments.

Is the Homestay Right for You?

Is the Homestay Right for You?  What We Learned in Kong Lo Village, Laos

BACKPACKERS HAVE a few options for accommodation when traveling around Southeast Asia.  The hostel or guesthouse can be a reliable option when you want a social atmosphere, access to wifi, and a knowledgable English-speaker at the check-in desk.  However, if you want a more cultural and slightly more challenging experience, then the homestay might be right for you.

In some of the less developed areas, options for guesthouses may be limited.  In our travels from northern to southern Laos, we decided to stop at Kong Lo cave.  The cave sits a kilometer from the tiny village of Kong Lo, located in the Phu Hin Bun National Protected area in central Laos. Kong Lo village has a handful of guesthouses, but many families living in the village offer up a homestay*. Basically a family offers a bed – usually a mat or mattress on the floor – and provides meals for 50,000 kip (US$6) per person. We had been staying only in guesthouses/hostels during this trip and thought Kong Lo would be a great chance to do one of these highly touted home stays.

Finding a homestay 

If you’re not a huge planner then finding a homestay may be similar to how you normally find your place to sleep. If you’re used to walking around from guesthouse to guesthouse when you arrive in a city to find one with a spare room or bed, then finding a home stay will be much easier.  If you are like me and the thought of going to a city without having accommodation already reserved makes you extremely nervous, then you will be pleasantly surprised.

As we got off the bus in Kong Lo village at around 5pm, we looked around not knowing what to do when we were approached by a man who simply asked, “Homestay?” Well that was easy. We said yes, and followed him down the main dirt road lined with mud huts and wide-eyed children greeting us with “Sabaidee!” (hello). At one point we had quite a following of children.

The village kids enchanted by these strange foreigners (us!).

The village kids enchanted by these strange foreigners.

After a 10 minute walk, we arrived at Home Stay #3, our abode for our 1-night stay in Kong Lo.  So far, so good.

Our lovely home for the night.

Our lovely home for the night.

The food

One benefit of the home stay is that meals are included in the cost. For those who like to take a risk with their meals and eat like the locals, this could go either way.  You could potentially be trying something you have never tried before. On the other hand, if you are the type that if you can’t identify it, you don’t eat it, then you might have problems with this option — the hosts don’t exactly provide you with a menu. In our case, they were pretty savvy about the typical Westerner’s eating profile and served us dinner of an omelette on steamed rice.  It was common fare in this part of the world, but it was the best omelette I have eaten to this day!  And in similar fashion, for breakfast, they served us noodle soup.  I wasn’t quite as excited about this, but it did the trick to give us energy for a morning in the cave.


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Communication

Neither our host, who we will call “L” because we can’t spell his full name, nor his wife and 3 kids could speak English.  And we didn’t know ANYTHING for our cave visit the next morning including where the cave was, how to get to there, what time to be there, what to do with our luggage, and we had no map.  This is all stuff we would be able to ask / get at a guesthouse. But have no fear; it is all still possible to figure out. It is just a bit more challenging.  With our guidebook, wristwatch and lots of hand gestures, we asked the questions.  L, once he figured out what we wanted, got out a piece of paper and drew us pictures that would help us find our way the next morning.

Passing the time

So you’re in a tiny village in a stranger’s home and can’t speak Laotian or English with him.  What do you guys do all night?  After 15 minutes of sorting out how to get to the cave, we didn’t know what to do with L.  We sat there for a couple minutes saying nothing to each other, until we decided to show him some pictures on the iPhone of the other places we had visited in Laos. That only took a couple of minutes.  We were struggling now.  That’s when we decided to do a language lesson. We would point to objects and tell him the English name and he would tell us the Lao word for them.  So that was a win-win!  We all learned some new words and the time we could take on this little activity could last all night, so no more awkward silences.  However, it didn’t take all night.  It abruptly ended at around 9pm, when L showed us our bed.

Brian and our host

Sleeping

The house was one open room that encompassed the dining room, living room and bedroom. (Kitchen and toilet were in another small room at the back).  There were no dining room table and chairs.  There were no couch and ottoman. There were no Western-style beds.  But that was ok.  There was a mattress on the floor in front of the TV where we later found out the entire family slept — both parents and 2 children (the teenage daughter was out all night).  And behind us in a dark corner about 6 feet from the family’s bed was our bed:  a mattress on the floor under a mosquito net.

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Brian reading the Lonely Planet by the light of one bulb, while the children watch TV from the family bed.

When L showed us to our bed, we didn’t realize he actually wanted us to go to bed. It was only 9pm!  Ten minutes later, the lights were out and the whole family was tucked into their bed just a few feet from us.  Through whispered laughs, we tried to figure out what to do; we weren’t at all tired and we were still in our clothes, not having showered or brushed our teeth.  So we fumbled around in the dark under the mosquito net to find our PJs and headlamps and stayed awake for a few more hours. {We bypassed the shower, as there was no running (let alone hot) water and the shower is a bucket you stand in and pour water on yourself). Neither one of us got much sleep that night.  And on top of that, we found out the reason for the 9pm bedtime:  they are awake when the cock crows…4:30 am!  So of course that is when we were awake too. On the bright side, there was definitely no risk of being late for the cave tour.

Culture

Some things just cannot be experienced when staying at a hostel or guesthouse.  We got a firsthand account on how the local people live, and it couldn’t have been more eye opening.  Although they may not have a lot of possessions, they are happy and friendly people.  They work to make a living to support their families, and they have a great sense of community.  We felt the warmth and kindness of the family as if were two of their own.  In fact, our favorite part was something that we never could have experienced at a guesthouse.  Before dinner L tied a white string around each of our wrists and said something in Lao like a chant or prayer.  We later found out that he was ceremoniously binding to us the 32 guardian spirits of the body (a practice that is officially banned in Laos!).

We were definitely open to a cultural experience, something that would be one of a kind.  Our biggest hesitation was not knowing how to get to the cave and potentially missing the tour, something that could be easily sorted out at a guesthouse, but once that worry was out of the way, we really enjoyed our look into how the local people live and would definitely recommend a cultural (albeit awkward at times) homestay.

Hooray for the homestay!

Hooray for the homestay!

– amanda

*The term homestay can be used to describe many different types of accommodation.  Some hotels call themselves homestays to give a family feel, and some are actually homes with multiple rooms and service like a hotel.  In this blog post this home stay is the most basic type:  living in the same one room home that the family lives in.