Archive | December, 2010
December 31, 2010

Top 10 Photos of 2010

Top 10 Photos of 2010

Happy New Year, everyone! We thought it would be fun to take a look back at our most popular Flickr photos of 2010. Enjoy!

1. Berwang, Austria

Alpine Storm - Berwang, Austria

This is by far our most popular photo and one of our favorite memories. We were driving around the Tyrol Alps in our little rental car and stopped on the side of the road to hike up the rolling hills to get this great shot. The grass was so wet from dew, and cows were grazing at the bottom of the hill.  A few minutes later, we heard a traveling brass band putting on a concert in the village of Berwang, about 200 yards away.

2. Balloons – Cappadocia, Turkey

Balloons - Cappadocia, Turkey

Who doesn’t love a hot-air balloon photo? We had a great time on our early morning ride in Cappadocia. We got up early to take photos only, but we decided we just couldn’t pass up on this popular Cappadocian activity. The price is pretty high, but it was well worth it.  Definitely one of my favorite HDR’s.

3. Auschwitz, Poland

Auschwitz-Birkenau - Oświęcim, Poland

Clark’s dad thinks this our most haunting photo. This train car is sitting on the original tracks inside the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. You can see the main building and gates in the distance. This camp saw the deaths of 960,000 Jews, 75,000 Poles, and 19,000 Roma.

4. Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

The Plitvice Lakes are often overlooked by tourists in Croatia who usually head straight for the coast. This national park in the mountainous region of Lika was one of our favorite sights. The water is amazingly clear and there are countless winding paths with some great views!  We had to semi-hang off a cliff for this shot.

5. Süleymaniye and Rustem Pasa Mosques – Istanbul, Turkey

Süleymaniye and Rustem Pasa Mosques - Istanbul, Turkey

We arrived at the Galata bridge in Istanbul just in time for a great sunset. This is one of our favorite mosque photos. I love the clouds, birds, and glow of the sun.

6. Berwang, Austria

Berwang, Austria

Here’s another photo taken right after shot #1 from the little town of Berwang. In this sleepy little ski village, we enjoyed wandering around the hills and taking in the views. Besides the traveling band, I think we were the only guests in town.

7. Chicago, USA

Chicago Skyline HDR

We took this photo a few weeks before leaving for our trip. The best place to view the sunset in Chicago is from the lawn near Adler Planetarium. Its a long walk to the end of the little peninsula, but worth it, especially on an evening like this!

8. Blue Mosque – Istanbul, Turkey

Blue Mosque - Istanbul, Turkey

We love our wide-angle lens. This photo of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul really captures the immense size of the domes.

9. Sarajevo, Bosnia

Sarajevo, Bosnia

This was one of my shots. While Clark was in Zagreb attending to the broken MacBook, I was exploring Sarajevo and getting some great photos. Bosnia was a very interesting place, and one of our favorite countries. You’d think the war just ended after visiting. A friend and I hiked up a huge hill surrounding the city right before sunset. You can see the collapsed rooftops and remaining war damage if you look closely.

10. The Treasury – Petra, Jordan

The Treasury - Petra, Jordan

Petra was hands down our favorite “sight-seeing” destination. Hiking around in this ancient intricately-carved city is high on our list of travel recommendations. This photo of the treasury was taken around 9:00 a.m. right when the sun peaks from behind the rocks.

Our lives will be getting back to normal in 2011, but we still have a few adventures in store.  Hopefully we will have another 10 great shots to post next December. Happy New Year!

December 22, 2010

5 Tips to Travel Like a Human

5 Tips to Travel Like a Human

All too often, we’ve meet travelers that look like they are straight from the set of 28 Days Later— dirty, stinky, sleep-deprived, emaciated, and hung over.  They drag their feet from castle to cathedral groaning and drooling all the way. How can anyone travel like that and actually get something out of it (besides psoriasis of the liver)?

You travel to see the destination, then you can’t expect to have a productive day in Istanbul if you ignore basic hygiene. It may sound like common sense, but you would be surprised.

Here are a few tips to keep you on the path of humanity as you travel:

1. Keep It Clean

If you live in a major city, you know what it’s like to be sitting on the metro next to a backpacker that looks like he and his bag have been thrown from a moving car. Come on. Unless you are camping or hiking, there really is no excuse to skip bathing. There are people around you that have nostrils!

I am aware that people travel on a very tight budget. However, even the most basic hostel has a shower. You can find free soap and shampoo most of the time. We went for several weeks just using leftovers in hostel bathrooms. Do yourself and everyone around you a favor and take 10 minutes to bathe each day. Even if the water is lukewarm and you are afraid to touch the slimy walls, it is still better than nothing.

2. Don’t Over Do It

Another typical state of backpackers is the perpetual hangover. It’s fun to party all night with your new hostel pals, but is it worth missing an entire day of sights in Paris? Maybe I’m just getting too old, but I don’t want to be squinting through sunglasses and popping aspirin all day at the Louvre.

Go out and have fun, but remember to take it easy.

3. Get Your Beauty Rest

This goes right along with the above tip. You need sleep to stay healthy. How can you expect to have a productive day in Salzburg if you were out all night? If you had a fun night, just sleep in. It’s okay! Don’t drag yourself out of bed at eight in the morning for the Sound of Music tour. It’s lame, anyway.

4. Just Eat It!

We once ran into a guy who only ate a piece of bread each morning and then a small snack in the evening. We called him Skelator. He was often dizzy and seeing spots by dinner time. Is the cost savings really worth starving yourself? Also, food is one of the best parts of travel, so just eat something!

You don’t have to eat out for every meal. Go to the grocery store or market and buy some bread, fruit, and cheese. That’s always pretty cheap, or you can usually make some kind of meal out of the free food section in the hostel kitchen. Eat a couple of times a day and you’ll feel much better. We usually eat a moderate sized lunch around 1:00 and a light snack for dinner (with an ice cream stop in there somewhere). Avoid the tourist traps. The places where the locals eat are usually affordable– plus, you will learn a few things about local cuisine.

5. Take Your Meds

Another habit of backpackers that pushes them closer to Zombieland is refusing to buy medicine. If you’re sick, you need to take the time and effort to get well.

I’m not talking about aspirin or Pepto-Bismol. We’ve run into travelers who have infected cuts, rashes, or horrible tooth pain who are simply putting up with it. European pharmacies are happy to help you diagnose your problem and find a medication to ease your pain. A trip to the pharmacy won’t bust your budget. Even when I burned my leg on an island in Southeast Asia, I was able to find the necessary bandages to keep myself healthy.

December 20, 2010

Krispy Kreme: A Thai Delicacy

Krispy Kreme: A Thai Delicacy

You can’t go wrong with fried carbohydrates covered with carbohydrate glaze. We discovered this local bakery while shopping one afternoon. I can only assume it is some kind of local delicacy. After taking this photo, I had to understand the reason for these insane crowds.

Krispy Kreme has fallen on hard times in the States and other Western countries, but the donut biz-nass is booming over here! They are selling like hot cakes.

Bangkok’s Siam Square is home to the first Krispy Kreme franchise in Thailand. On the ground level of the Paragon shopping mall you’ll see a bright, shiny store with a line that twists and turns out the door and around the block. Pre-diabetic Thais wait for as long as three hours to max out their 2.5 dozen per person limit. You see people carrying big plastic bags filled with Krispy Kreme boxes everywhere, even posing for photos with their boxes. The funny thing is that I’ve never seen someone actually eating a Krispy Kreme. Is this just some sort of bizarre fashion trend? Like purse dogs? Are you not cool unless you have 30 donuts on you at all times?

We’ve walked by several times now, and there are always about 100 people in line. You can even get them on the black market. Just like Omega watches and Armani suits sold on every corner, I’m skeptical of the authenticity. I asked one guy, “Are these actual Krispy Kremes or imitation Kripsy Kremes? I’m not paying 200 baht for knockoff donuts.”

The last thing I want is a box of Mr. Donut or, heaven forbid, Dunkin’ Donuts.

December 18, 2010

A Message on Thai Massage

A Message on Thai Massage
Stone inscription

Stone inscription by Erik Hartberg, on Flickr

You won’t get far in Thailand without hearing “Thai Massaaaaa?” whispered at you from every other shop. We sampled a few different massages during our time in Thailand from a basic foot massage to a full, traditional Thai massage. These are a very different variety from the intense turn-your-muscles-to-jelly-type massages that are popular in spas in the U.S.

A Thai massage, or nuat phaen boran, is more of a stretching, invigorating process that focuses on pressure-points. The Thai name translates to “ancient pressure massage” or “traditional pressure massage”. The modern Thai Massage is derived from ancient health practices and focuses on the major sen (or energy lines) of the body. Advocates of this type of massage profess that it improves circulation, increases alertness, relaxes the muscles, and flushes toxins from the body. I just know they feel great.

Sometimes travelers get a bit intimidated at the prospect of pointy knees and elbows being shoved into the soft and sensitive parts of their bodies. Don’t be. Your massage shouldn’t be overly painful, just intense, and you’ll feel great afterward. They’re also really cheap (about $7 to $10 an hour). If it is your first one, don’t be afraid to let the masseuse know. She’ll help you out by telling you when and were to shift and move. She’ll probably even ask you if a certain amount of pressure is o.k. or too much.

I should also mention that there are different kinds of “Thai massages”. If you are looking for a relaxing, non-sexual massage, look for the shops where the women are dressed in normal clothes like a polo shirt and yoga pants. Not every masseuse will be extremely well-trained, but even the amateurs do an all right job. The heavily made-up, younger girls dressed in heels and mini skirts are offering a different kind of massage entirely. That variety will cost more than $7.

A typical Thai massage will take place on the floor on a soft mat. You will either be in a private room, or one large common room with curtains separating customers. On the islands you’ll most likely be in an open air hut. Your feet will be washed and then you’ll be given some form of baggy pajama-like outfit to put on before you are led to your mat. This is so you feel less exposed when your limbs are being twisted in odd ways. A towel will also be layed over you to keep your body warm.

Most massages start with the massagee on his or her back. The woman will squeeze your feet, twist and turn your ankles, pull and pop your toes, and even punch the bottom of your feet. She’ll apply pressure on your pelvis, legs, knees, and ankles, gently, but firmly pushing them into the soft mat. Your legs and calves will be kneaded and squeezed. If you are ticklish, this part can be a bit intense. After a few minutes you’ll get over the sensitivity.

Photo from

You’ll then have your legs stretched in yoga-like poses. She’ll push your knees to your chest and down to the mat in ways you didn’t know your body could contort. The masseuse will sometimes use her feet to push your body one way while she pulls your limbs another. All of this happens very slowly and shouldn’t be painful, just a little uncomfortable, like any deep stretch. Make sure to keep your muscles as relaxed as possible or your massage will be more painful than it should be.

Your arms and hands are next. Your hands are treated in much the same way as your feet, twisting your wrists, popping your fingers, squeezing your hands and arms. You’ll then turn over and she’ll starting putting most of her weight onto your back and butt. I usually just got knees, but Clark’s masseuse walked on his back. I really loved it when she sat on my back and pulled my arms behind me, lifting me off the mat, and stretching me backward.

Next, she’ll ask you to sit up, cross legged while she uses her arms and elbows to massage your shoulders and back, again putting a lot of her weight on you. You’ll hear your muscles and bones popping and crackling. My favorite part of the massage is the head and neck. They know exactly the right spots to apply pressure to the back of your head and temples that feels great and relieves any sinus pressure you may have. The massage will end with some more pulling and stretching of your arms and back. She’ll probably put your hands behind your head and pull your body around to pop your back as well.

After you get dressed and head out to the lobby you’ll be served tea. You won’t feel hazy and sleepy but alert and relaxed. Sit and enjoy your tea, chat with other customers or your masseuse if she speaks enough English. A typical tip for your masseuse is 50-70 baht. Go ahead and tip 100 if you want to be generous since the women work mostly on tips. Tipping $3 won’t break you, but it might just make her day!

December 14, 2010

Koh Lipe to Bangkok in Only 27 Hours

Koh Lipe to Bangkok in Only 27 Hours

Malaysian and Thai islands are beautiful. The sand is bright and clean, the water is clear, and the sunsets are stunning. Who wouldn’t like relaxing on the beach with a cold Chang after an hour-long massage?

Beach time - Koh Lipe, Thailand

Pantai Beach - Langkawi, Malaysia

However relaxing they may be, their is a significant tourist factor. The accommodations are cheap on Koh Lipe ($20/night for non-air con room), but it is nearly impossible to find local-priced street food. Everything was greatly marked up for tourists. We decided it was time to move on. We popped in to one of the many travel agencies and charted our course from Koh Lipe straight up to Bangkok.

The plan: 9:00 AM speedboat to Pakbara, 11:30 AM shuttle bus to Trang, 5:20 PM overnight train to Bangkok.  It was a long day, but it sounded simple enough.

Here’s how our 27-hour journey panned out:

  • 8:00 AM: Drag ourselves out of bed for our march to the beach in flip-flops.
  • 9:00 AM: Wade into the water, toss our bags precariously on a long-tail boat, and climb in.

Beach time - Koh Lipe, Thailand

  • 9:15 AM: Climb from the long-tail boat onto a floating pier, rip my skirt in half trying to hoist myself up, and then climb down into the speed boat.
  • 9:40 AM: After enough passengers have filled the speed boat, set out on the fast, bouncy ride. Running about 40 minutes late.
  • 11:50 AM: Something appears to be wrong. The engines sputter and the boat comes to a stop while the crew looks on anxiously. The captain keeps trying to turn the engines over to no avail. Not thrilled about this. Should we get out and push?
  • 11:00 AM: A second boat pulls up with extra fuel. Apparently we ran out of gas.
  • 11:10 AM: Fail to get the boat running.
  • 11:20 AM: A third boat pulls up to fuel us up again. Really? You didn’t fill it up enough the first time?
  • 11:30 AM: Success! A few engines start up and we slowly putter toward Pakbara port.
  • 11:35 AM: We slow down enough to make a jump for the pier. No railing, ladder, or bridge for us. This is quite a fete for me with my little legs and oversize pack.
  • 11:40 AM: Search for a man holding a sign with our names that is supposed to meet us and take us to the shuttle bus. No man to be found.
  • 11:45 AM: Wander around holding up our ticket asking strangers for the bus to Trang. Finally stumble upon someone who recognizes our ticket.
  • 11:50 AM: Push down some decent Pad Thai as our bus was not leaving anytime soon.
  • 12:30 PM: Hand our bags up to the driver who is piling them high on the roof and strapping them down with bungees.

  • 12:50 PM: Depart Pakbara for Trang and grow increasingly anxious about our bags. Running about two hours late now.
  • 1:00 PM: Driver pulls over to check the luggage after nervously looking in the mirror after every bump and turn. For some reason, we left our MacBook in my backpack, so we get out and ask the driver to hand us my bag so we can remedy the situation.
  • 1:45 PM: Pull into Trang, grab a light dinner, and use some super-fast WiFi.
  • 5:00 PM: Grab our 2nd class A/C seats (two lower bunks).
  • 5:20 PM: Train pulls out right on time for a change.
  • 9:00 PM: The conductor converts seats to beds and pulls down the top bunks…for everyone except us. He refuses to convert our seats until the very end. I think he had a thing against Westerners.
  • 10:00 PM: Close our curtains and fall asleep in the surprisingly comfortable and clean bunks. Besides a few bugs crawling by our heads, it was a very nice ride.
  • 1:15 AM: Wake up to the sound of inconsiderate backpackers boarding the train and climbing into the bunks above us. One sticks his backpack almost inside Clark’s bed and knocks his curtain down repeatedly.
  • 6:00 AM: Wake up to the sound of women walking up and down the aisles selling coffee and little fried things for breakfast. Loudly.
  • 9:00 AM: Arrive in Bangkok relatively on time, grab a tuk-tuk and overpay for a ride to Siam Square.
  • 9:20 AM: Wander around in the heat trying to find the hostel.
  • 10:00 AM: Sit at Starbucks and enjoy a frosty drink while Clark continues to try to find the hostel.
  • 10:30 AM: Finally find the hostel and try to begin the check-in process. The hostel employee tells us and several other people to wait five minutes.
  • 10:35 AM: Try to check-in again and are told to wait five more minutes
  • 10:50 AM: Try again. We are asked what room number we are in repeatedly before getting across that we don’t have a room yet, we are checking in. Yet again, we’re told to wait five minutes.
  • 11:15 AM: Explain our two Hostelworld reservations to the extremely out of it employee and try to check-in again.
  • 12:00 PM: After a confusing thirty minutes, we’ve paid at least.  Told to come back at 2 p.m. to get our room key
  • 2:30 PM: Come back to check-in.  We are asked for our room number.  How could I know my room number if I haven’t checked-in yet?  They were very confused.  Finally got a key and rested before heading to MBK for a little shopping.

Even with the few set-backs we weren’t too exhausted by the time we got to our room. We actually slept better on this train than any of the European sleepers cars we took. For those planning to island hop in Malaysia and Thailand, here’s some advice: Don’t be in a hurry, accept that you will get wet, and try to keep your cool.

There are lots of little frustrations that start to build up on long trips. The screaming kid on the train, the taxi driver who refuses to use the meter, or the hostel employee who has no clue how to check someone in really start to get to you after awhile.

Now we’re settled in Bangkok and quite enjoy being back in a city. Bangkok has just the right amount of chaos and noise. We’ve been shopping a lot and eating some great street food. We’ve even enjoyed a few Western luxuries like pizza, donuts, and Häagen-Dazs.

I’m particularly fond of the hot pink taxis!

Photo by SpecialKRB

We have even picked up a few things for home, but that will have to wait until a different post.

December 5, 2010

The Indian CouchSurfing Scam

The Indian CouchSurfing Scam

Antonia and Kim CouchSurfing - Jaipur, India

India is synonymous with scam. Wherever you go, you are squeezed for every rupee. Luckily, even if you pay triple the normal price for a bus ticket, it’s still only $5. I know this sounds very cynical, but unfortunately, we have had our fair share of hassle on the subcontinent. After a few days of hustling, we were ready for a more authentic and hassle-free experience.

We were eager to taste some of the “Indian hospitality” that the guidebooks and other travelers talk about while avoiding the pricey home stays. What better way than to CouchSurf…or so we thought.

We had surfed six times before on this trip, and we’ve only had great experiences. We still keep in touch with most of our hosts, and we look forward to hosting them when we resettle in the United States. We had no reason to believe Jaipur, India would be any different. Before you assume we were robbed or tortured, know that nothing all that bad happened. We don’t even regret surfing in India, but we are compelled to share these warning signs.

Here are a few things we found suspicious about our CS experience in India:

1. Incomplete Profiles

Many of the Indian profiles are incomplete, don’t have a pictures, and seem a little off. It was hard to find a handful of people that we were comfortable sending a request to.

2. Fast Responses…a little too fast.

We only sent two requests to two families for a last minute couch for four people. The other couple didn’t have a profile, but we vouched for them and hoped it wouldn’t turn off a host. Both responded with a “yes” very quickly. In the past, we’ve sent out dozens of requests for just the two of us and still had trouble getting hosted.

3. Cab drivers knew our host by name

When we got off the bus in Jaipur, the usual group of taxi and rickshaw drivers were crowding around us and yelling prices at us. We picked one and showed him the address. He said, “Oh, CouchSurfing! Yes, I know this man. I take his people.” Okay…a little weird, but he knew where to take us at least.

4. Warning from the driver

The taxi driver was very friendly and told us that he doesn’t force people to go shopping or visit restaurants. He is against taking commission for things like that. Sure, buddy. He chatted for a little bit about his painting and tabla playing hobbies. Then, he said he felt he should tell us that in India there is a CS scam going on. Hosts will be very friendly and hospitable and offer to drive you to the sights.

Then, they will tell you they need to stop to pick something up at a store. They tell you how good the quality is and that the prices are very fair, not touristy. You end up buying something and your CS host secretly gets commission. He told us some stories about our specific host that he had learned from other guests and begged us not to tell our host so that he told on him. Do we trust a taxi driver of all people? Hard to say, but we tried to keep an open mind about our host.

5. Details not disclosed

The house had one spare room for guests and it was taken by another CSer, which we were not aware of. Instead of sleeping in the main house, we slept in the basement and had to use the toilet and shower built just for CS guests on the roof. That is fine, we were last minute guests, but we weren’t told about the other guest ahead of time and the facilities seemed a bit off. It felt like checking into an hostel instead of coming into someone’s home. Our host barely asked us a single question about ourselves.

6. Let’s go shopping!

As we got to talking to the other guest, we found out that he had gone shopping with our host that day. Convenient.

Our host was taking him around to some temples and said he needed to stop in to a new shop to look at bedspreads. He also showed him a nice suit jacket that he had purchased there for a very good price. The guest ended up spending $700 on two suits and a handful of dress shirts when he planned on buying nothing at all. Shouldn’t he have gotten more for his money in India? He also mentioned that the people seemed to know our host pretty well, but attributed that to him having just purchased the jacket there a few weeks before. Hmm…a little suspicious.

7. Tall tales

Our host liked to entertain. He did some card tricks and told lots of jokes and stories. He also told us about some negative CS experiences he had. His stories were very elaborate and somewhat unbelievable. Conveniently, his wife felt guilty for leaving negative feedback, so there is no record of these guests on his profile.

We were also warned about the taxi scams, shopping, restaurants, gems, etc. He even went so far as to mention our specific taxi driver (the same one who had secretly warned us about him) and said he wasn’t sure if he could be trusted. It seems like they were playing a game with each other. Do we trust the driver, our host, both, neither?

A few other little details about his life also seemed fishy. His three Masters Degrees, insanely high salary (for India), and family history stand out. He told us he hoped to have a daughter someday because he had no sisters. Later, his wife showed us their wedding photos and pointed out his sisters to us. We clarified to make sure something wasn’t lost in translation, but she knew English well enough and confirmed that those were his sisters.

8. Pressure to stay longer

He wanted us to stay and “chill” with him the next day and he would drive us around, even though he had to work for part of the day and take his wife to the doctor. We didn’t want to be a bother, so we booked a car for our sightseeing. He seemed very put off by this and acted a little cold to us that evening.

He was also very adamant about us staying an extra night to just hang out with him for a day. He asked us to cancel our bus tickets and told us he could get a ride for us to Jaipur, or find us another CS host in Pushkar. He wanted us to stay and hang out with him all day. He told us we should relax. Again, it could have just been him being friendly, but he was very pushy.

9. Internet, phone, and tuk-tuk weirdness

He was very reluctant to let us use his internet or phone even though we needed to book trains and hotels for our next stop. We asked him a few times about the internet and he mentioned something about his office being disturbed and so we just didn’t try again.

The morning we were to leave we asked if we could call a car. His wife called him and he told her that we could just walk to the main road and grab a tuk-tuk. We wanted to call our same driver. Our host called back and said we could all four take one tuk-tuk. We told him no thanks, we’d just get a car. The tuk-tuk driver showed up anyway and hour early. Quite annoying.

So, scam or not?

Not sure, but I know it was a very bizarre CS experience. Our host never specifically asked us to go shopping or recommend we go anywhere, but we didn’t get the usual friendly feeling that CSing brings. Again, the experience really wasn’t all that bad, but I’m convinced it would have been if we were a bit more naive. His wife was actually quite friendly when he wasn’t around, she told us how they met, showed us the wedding album, and gave us henna tattoos. But, we didn’t feel like we were in someones home because it was very business-like. We felt like he was entertaining us more than getting to know us. He asked very few questions about the four of us. He may have been pushing us to stay so he could stop by a shop with us, but we’ll never know.

He has lots of positive reviews, so we aren’t sure what to think. The guy that he took shopping seemed to think nothing of it. He had no clue that our host may have gotten commission from his shopping spree. Can that many CS guests be so naive? Or, did he just begin the scam after his positive profile was built up? Was the taxi driver just out to ruin CS hosts because they are taking profit away from hotels? There are too many possibilities!

We tried to leave Neutral feedback and he bombarded us with messages and had other CS members send us messages as well asking us to remove it. It was quite annoying. Unfortunately, CouchSurfing has some restrictive policies for member reviews, and our review was flagged as “speculation”. Our feedback was removed. Maybe this is why he only has positive remarks.

Scam or not? You decide, but this experience left us wondering if one can do anything in India without being fleased. This is a word of warning to others. I don’t want to discourage people. Just keep your eyes open for suspicious activity! If you’ve had similar experiences or positive ones, please leave a comment!

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