Asia, Uncategorized

A short stop in Brunei: Must do’s

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It isn’t any wonder why Brunei attracts visitors from all over the world. While it may be a less known Asian destination, it should be included in your Asian vacation destinations. Brunei resides on the island of Borneo, an island well-known by nature enthusiasts for its biological diversity. The rainforests there are simply a must-visit. After all, rainforests are not as widespread as they once were.  Best of all, Brunei can be visited on a budget, especially if it is a stopover while visiting other Asian destinations. In fact, Brunei can be thoroughly enjoyed in three days.

Before arriving in Brunei, American visitors should apply for a tourist visa. This is a simple process that can be completed online, but it does charge a higher fee than visiting your local consulate, if you live near a big city. Visitors should be aware that Brunei is a Muslim kingdom, ruled by the Sultan. Therefore, tourists will not find the usual bars and clubs as in other Asian destinations.  Brunei is a dry country. However, the government does permit tourists to bring up to two bottles of wine, twelve cans of beer, or two bottles of liquor. The food in Brunei is acceptable, although nothing to write home about. One great tool for food delivery is Food Panda. Travelers can order from many restaurants delivery directly to the hotel room. The real reason people include Brunei on their itineraries- the nature. Take a look at a sample three-day itinerary:

Day 1: Arrive in Brunei

Arrive at Brunei International Airport. Book a hotel that has a free shuttle, or you can pay for a pickup for a nominal fee. Hotels are sprinkled throughout the city, but there are less than 20 to choose from. Always check out the reviews. Booking.com is a great one-stop shop to find the right hotel. Catch the shuttle to the hotel, settle in, and plan for the first adventure. Some ideas for the first day include:

Jerudong Park: Depending on the level of fatigue, this is a very interesting place to visit. At the very least, it merits a walk or drive-by. Horse themed, this ghostly theme park does have some rides and attractions. It costs roughly $15 per person to get in, and is well-kept on the outside. This theme park gives an almost creepy abandoned theme park feeling, but can also be interesting to visit.

-Walk around the city of Bandar Seri Begawan: While it is possible to take taxis galore to and from the different areas, a walk around the city is quite peaceful. Grab a coffee at De’Royalle, a quaint local coffee shop and café. Walk around and appreciate the architecture of the mosques. The top mosques worth a look are: Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, and Masjid Kampong Pandan. The most impressive, however, is the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin as it slightly resembles the sultan’s castle from Disney’s Aladdin.

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-Take a moment to shop: Check out the Kg Kianggeh Open Air Market. The natural beauty of the fruits and vegetables make great photographs and snacks as well.  The mall downtown is also worth a visit.

Day 2: Excursion

The toughest part of this day, is which excursion to take. Some excursions allow an overnight stay in the rainforest. Others allow some of the most spectacular diving in the entire world.  If diving and rainforest trekking are both in your wheelhouse, you should do both. One day for trekking and one for diving. The possibilities are endless.

For diving, try the Oceanic Quest Dive Center or Poni Divers. Diving is surprisingly affordable, by diving standards, and those with very little or no experience can try out diving here as well. The biodiversity is worth the dive.

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For rainforest trekking, a visit to Ulu Temburong National park is a must-do.  A tour guide is essential to really experience and appreciate all of the life all around you. Borneo Guide is an excellent choice. If you only want a day trip, you can try their Ulu Temburong day trip. It is the best of everything with two unique boat trips and a chance to climb onto the scientists’ canopy walk high above the rainforest floor to take in the wide expanse of the oldest rainforest in the world. The tour even includes lunch, snacks, water, and a free natural fish food spa session for only B$135.00 per person! If time permits, you can venture even deeper into the rainforest and possibly be lucky enough to spot an orangutan or proboscis monkey.

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Day 3: Unwind

 

After a day of adventure, you are sure to be a bit tired. Take advantage of a nice massage at one of the spas in town.  Thann Sanctuary Spa is a good choice and is rated by Conde Nast. After a nice massage, try a meal at Energy Kitchen. Finally, wrap up a successful day with a visit to the Gadong Night Market.

 

Wherever Brunei leads you, it is sure to leave a lasting impression. Whether it is getting back to the wild, trying a new adventure, or admiring architecture, it should be added to your Asian travel list. For more information, visit Brunei’s website.

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Asia, Uncategorized

Siem Reap, Cambodia: 10 things to know before you go

A visit to one of the most mystical places on Earth featuring temples visited by the likes of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider definitely draws tourists to Cambodia from all over the world. Offering mystical temples, a peek into simple life on the land, and friendly hospitality all make Siem Reap, Cambodia a place worth stamping your passport for. Although it may not be super convenient to get to Cambodia, if planning on visiting Asia, it is a must see. Nestled between Thailand and Vietnam, a savvy traveler can easily stop in for a visit. From the food to the sights, there are things to know before you go.

Grab a ride from a Tuk Tuk, which is basically a wagon attached to a moped, to get around Cambodia cheap.

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Grab a Tuk Tuk from the airport to save some green. Elana E. Nichols

 

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See the temples…your way! Elana E. Nichols

 

  1. Tour Responsibly

Poverty is a big plague in this part of Asia. It is actually a bit of a clash between fancy, sometimes rich tourists and poorly fed, often struggling locals. The key to remember is that Cambodia has spent a lot of money on tourism to entice travelers to visit, hoping to stimulate the economy and even alleviate some of the poverty problems. If you have a few weeks to spare, visit the Concert Cambodia website. If you give them plenty of notice, they will pair you with an organization that will make your travels to Cambodia extra memorable. From volunteering as an English teacher to working on a medical team, there is really something for everyone who wants to provide a helping hand. The feeling of knowing you are doing some good is priceless. If it will be a quick trip, you can help out by eating in restaurants like Green Star (a non profit restaurant that donates proceeds to Gecko kids) or purchasing souvenirs from non profit shops. Giving wrapped food or school supplies to children in the streets is welcomed as well. One word of caution: please do not give money – often children are hired and they never see any of the money in their own lives.

  1. Beware of Scams

The very fact that Cambodia suffers from poverty is the reason why many whole-hearted tourists fall into deceptive scams and traps. One famous and wicked scheme is called the Milk Scam. Women and young children often parade the town holding sleeping babies with empty milk bottles claiming that they do not want money, only milk for the baby. Upon entering the store with her, she will choose the biggest and most expensive bulk formula only to sell it back to the store and not feed the baby after the traveler purchases it. In fact, these encounters can even get violent. I was actually a victim and was scratched by the girl for not purchasing the formula. Another popular scam is orphanage shows. Not only is the treatment of these children questionable, so is the usage of the money given. Please use reputable organizations to help you find good and credible places to help out. Also, many children will gladly accept wrapped non-perishable snacks from you.

  1. Know your temple viewing expectations

Many websites will tell you that it is impossible to see the temples around Angkor Wat in less than three full days. This is simply not true. My husband and I saw the temples in a matter of hours. It really depends how in depth you wish to get. You can hire a local tour guide who you can find hanging around the temples or you can walk through on your own. If you are like me, exploring on your own is more exciting and less demanding and can even give you more free time. Through your hotel (or on the street) you can hire a Tuk Tuk to take you in and around the temples. To go inside of the temples, you will need to purchase a ticket for $20 each ($40 for a three-day pass). However, you can actually see the outside of all of the temples for free. Just let them know you want to take pictures of the outsides of the temples. Be sure to see Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm (where Tomb Raider was filmed), Angkor Thom, and Bakong. If trekking through sometimes ankle sprain invoking rubble sounds a bit less than desirable, you can also see everything from an air balloon for around $20 using Angkor Balloon.

  1. Wild Animals Roam

On your trip, you will see monkeys, wild hogs, snakes, bats, wild dogs, and more. While most tourists do not find peril without interacting with these animals, attacks are possible. The numerous wild dogs roaming the land can be dangerous, especially if they are in a pack when you see them. Rabies is not eradicated either. The rabies vaccine is an option, but as long as you mind your p’s and q’s and do not engage any of these animals, the chance of an attack is low. Even the packs of dogs interact with people in the town on a daily basis. One way to avoid a potential attack is to use a bicycle or Tuk Tuk instead of traveling on foot. When interacting with the temple monkeys, remember that they should be approached carefully and the only direct interaction you should have with them is handing them a banana. Take care not to have any other food on you or hanging bags or straps.

  1. Check out Aspara Dancing and the Night Markets

At the night market, visitors can attend a show free of cost. If dinner is desired with the show, check out The Mondial, otherwise, just see the free version in town. After some haggling and shopping at the night markets, it is a great way to relax. Be sure to also check out the massage parlors inside the night markets where you can get a fishy pedicure and a massage for only $2.

  1. The price given is much more than what it can be sold

When shopping in and around town, remember that haggling is common practice. “For you, special price” is usually the most expensive. Try aiming a dollar or two under what you want to pay for the item. Once they drop their offering price, if it is not what you would like to pay, walk away. Most often, they will meet your price when they see your sudden lack of interest. Lades, you can score some amazingly life-like replicas of some of your favorite brands of handbags. Even my most high-brow bag friend cannot tell the difference in my replica Coach bag and the real thing. I paid $20 instead of $500.

  1. See Tonle Sap (Stilt Houses) sans tourist trap

If a boat ride is on your to do list, do it. Otherwise, save $20 for tons of souvenirs, food, and drinks. In all honesty, a lot of very interesting stilt houses can be seen just on the $2 tuk Tuk ride there. Tonle Sap is a very expansive lake that has many diverse parts to offer, but if it is just the stilt houses you want to see, just enjoy a ride through the countryside.

  1. Bring U.S. Dollars and enjoy the low prices

Cambodia has its own currency. However, bringing U.S. dollars is a great idea. Not only are most menus and goods sold in U.S. dollars, you will not have to pay any exchange fees (if you are from the U.S.). A meal can run anywhere from $1.50-$5.00, a drink from $0.50 to $6.00, and goods as cheap as $.025.

  1. Tourism is still relatively new and growing

Don’t expect your bartender to know how to make a Mai Tai or a Blue Hawaii. Tourism is new and growing and people are happily learning. Be patient with the people you interact with within the hospitality venues. They will appreciate knowing your happy and will only benefit from having the patience from you as they learn their craft.

  1. Come prepared for the mosquitopocalypse

Mosquitos seemingly come from all over the world to this very place to breed and spread diseases like Malaria. There is a mosquito net around your bed for a reason. Siem Reap is majorly flooded with many areas of stagnant water and flash flooding. This is the perfect home for those pesky insects. Be sure to come prepared with a good bit of mosquito repellant and even pants and long sleeves if you can bare wearing them in the extreme heat.

With the right attitude and preparation, Cambodia will be an everlasting memory for travelers everywhere. Knowing what to expect and how to help are half of the battle. Cambodia offers a treasure chest of wonder and mystique for those who walk its ancient grounds.

To join in on the conversation on my Facebook page, click here! Or, feel free to send me an email atAbroadwithabrain@gmail.com.

© 2013 Elana Nichols, All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without prior permissions from the author.

Middle East, Uncategorized

Top 6 things to do in Dubai

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Dropping by Dubai? You wouldn’t be the only traveler to do so (and there’s good reason for that!). The truth is, Dubai is packed with people, activities, and sights. The show Ultimate Airport Dubai did not start because it is a small uncharted destination. So, with all this grandeur going on, it is important to have a plan when going to visit the city of the world record breaking Burj Khalifa. Set your sights on a cool itinerary that will enable you to get the most relaxation out of your trip.

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Burj Khalifa Elana Nichols

Burj Khalifa

Guinness recognizes this mastodon as the tallest tower in the world. While the top of your list may include a ride to The Top, did you know that its observation deck is actually not the tallest? For the tallest observation at 488 meters, you will actually have to hop another plane to Guangzhou, China for the Canton Tower. While Burj Khalifa is the tallest, its observation is actually at 452.1 meters. So, save the 30-100 bucks and appreciate her beauty from the outside. The record breaker can be viewed from virtually everywhere in the city and the best up-close viewing is at the Dubai Fountain accessed from Dubai Mall.

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Desert Safari/Dune Bashing Elana Nichols

Desert Safari/Dune Bashing

A trip to Dubai is truly not complete until you embark on a Dune Bashing excursion. Imagine climbing steep sand dunes in a SUV and weaving up and down their steep peaks without flipping and there you have it. Drivers let air out of their tires and tear into some major sand. Often referred to as a desert roller coaster, it is fun for the whole family. Just be sure to go with a certified company. Most excursions can also include camel riding, henna tattoos, belly dancing, and dinner as well. Expect to pay around $35 U.S. dollars per person. Try Desert Safari Dubai.

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Sunset at Kite Beach Elana Nichols

Sunset at Kite Beach

Skip the pay-in beaches and head to Kite Beach. You can walk for miles without paying a dime and get dazzled by the flips and tricks of the many kite surfers along the beach. The desert wind makes this sport a big hit here and the beach is quite beautiful. Go at sunset when you can actually view all the sights along with the Burj Al Arab as the sun creates a splash of color as it sets in the sky. Expect to see strange shells along your walk as well.

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Mall Mania Elana Nichols

Mall Mania

Dubai Mall and Mall of the Emirates simply must be on the list. These are not your average malls. Mall of the Emirates has an indoor skiing park and Dubai Mall hosts a gaggle of sharks in their large aquarium. Which mall is better? Well, it is really your preference, so try to do both. Both special attractions can be viewed from inside the mall without purchasing tickets. At Dubai mall, you can enjoy a cupcake from Project cupcake while watching giant sharks circle next to you. If sharks are not your thing, you can skate around the ice rink, enjoy the indoor Sega theme park, or watch a movie. The malls are pristine and also boast the biggest collection of ethnic foods from around the world in their food courts. So, in the mood for whatever? You can find the food you are craving at either mall.

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Souk Searching Elana Nichols

Souk Searching

A visit to the Dubai Souks is also a must-do. While the gold souk is a bit disappointing as it is essentially a row of jewelry stores, the spice and gift souks are quite the sight. The array of spices is visually pleasing and a wonder to see. You can find fun knick knacks including the UAE flag and even a hat with the president on it. Whatever you decide to buy, remember to bargain with the seller to get the price you want.

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Local Cuisine Elana Nichols

Local Cuisine

A quick stop in to get some local fare is a must do. From hummus to falafel, you can find your fancy at any of the many “hole in the wall” restaurants around town. Don’t be surprised when you actually enjoy the aroma from the Shishas being smoked by other patrons. The aroma usually smells like grape or vanilla and is very pleasant in contrast with cigarettes.

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Plan your trip! Elana Nichols

Plan your trip!

Whether seeking adventure or relaxation, a trip to Dubai is one that will not be forgotten. After all, this desert oasis boasts some of the most amazing sights in the world.

To join in on the conversation on my Facebook page, click here! Or, feel free to send me an email at Abroadwithabrain@gmail.com.

© 2013 Elana Nichols, All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without prior permissions from the author.

 

Europe, Uncategorized

Get a whiff of how to tackle an aufguss sauna in Europe

Get a whiff of that? It’s not teen spirit, it’s German ingenuity. Bashful? Well, most Americans are, especially when they walk into a nice “clean” sauna only to find that clothing is not optional, rather, discouraged. A rather large “no bathing suits” sign can be discovered upon entering the  sauna, and if the aufgiesser sees you sans nude attire, he just may send you out, you clothed fool! Welcome to the European Sauna. It is a whole new experience, and one, if you’re not too prude, just may satisfy your relaxation bone.

Have I lost you yet? Well, let me give you something that may reel you back in. How do you feel about chocolate aromatherapy? Imagine a hot heat hitting your face followed by the smell of swimming in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Now, I see I have your attention. While the thought of nude people covered in chocolate may sound disgusting, it’s okay; it’s white chocolate paste, no worries. The chocolate room is one of the many “experiences” you can acquire in and around the spa when you choose to experience an aufguss sauna. And if you are a young guy getting your hopes up, stop. It’s just not like that at all! In fact, no one really even looks at anyone else. It’s really more of a medical wellness thing. No perves allowed.

The German spa has everything to offer you. From the sauna to the steam room to Jacuzzis, to pools to swim indoors and outdoors, there really is something for everyone. While most areas are clothing optional, if you feel a bit shy, you can wrap yourself in a nice fluffy white towel. (Hint to girls: bring two towels. One can cover you and the other you can put underneath you).

Upon entering the spa, guests receive a nice trendy, watch-looking, plastic wrist band. No, you can’t tell time with it and no, you can’t keep it, but it will be your device that decides how much you pay for your birthday suit adventure depending upon how much time you spend there. Prices vary per spa and often Groupons can give you the all-day experience at a lower price. Once in, you can visit your men’s or women’s locker room to change into something, well, more comfortable. And yes, you can wear your bathing suit around the spa (in most – not all). You can get a massage for an additional fee, but you may find that the best use of your time is to just hang out in the many pools, hot springs, saunas, and steam rooms around the area. In fact, many have hot mineral springs that are fantastic for your skin.

You will want to ask for a schedule for the aufguss. There is something special about them that you simply must experience. Sure, you can walk into any of the many saunas any time for a real heat up, but the thing to do is to find the schedule to experience a real aufgiesser’s work. What is an aufgiesser? Simply this: a man (don’t worry, he wears a towel to cover his nether regions) or woman who sprinkles magical scents on the hot rocks in the sauna. Sometimes he may have some singing bowls to rub to make some cool soothing noises. Sometimes he will have a fan. Other times, he will use a towel. He pours a secret solution of smells and therapeutic oils onto the hot stones. Usually there is particular scent in the solution. It may be eucalyptus, chocolate, or other herbal concoctions. He then whiffs and pushes the extra hot air and scent IN YOUR FACE. Yep, the uber scalding smell is wafted straight into your nostrils and pores. Intense? Yes. Worth it? Oh yea.

One waft of the magic technique will relax you intensely. One word of caution though: beware how close you sit to the stones. Some of the sauna rooms have seating surrounding the hot stones and if you are too close to them, when he wafts the hot air it could feel so hot that you may wonder if you are being scalded alive. Be sure to take it at your own pace. If you feel like you are going to pass out, step outside for some cool, fresh mountain air. Each scheduled session usually lasts around  three to ten minutes.

Now, back to the chocolate therapy option. I did mention that you are covered in non-edible chocolate, right? Well, afterward you will need to rinse off. One very brave and daring thing to do would be to rinse with the cold water bucket. It is a very large bucket with a string. Pull the string, and you get the idea! Just try not to laugh when you hear grown men scream like small girls.

All in all, this experience is worth the taking. It just depends how opposed to nudity you are. While you never have to participate in the nudity, it WILL surround you, so, this experience is not for the faint of heart. However, if you can muster some courage and stick on some blinders, go for it! Let it all hang out! And remember, unless there are some fellow Americans in there, no one is looking anyway.

Recommended spas with aufguss saunas:

Domaine Thermal de Mondorf

Bad Fussing

To join in on the conversation on my Facebook page, click here! Or, feel free to send me an email at abroadwithabrain@gmail.com.

Follow me on Twitter@Caligirl7508.

© 2013 Elana Nichols, All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without prior permissions from the author.

aufguss

Asia, Uncategorized

Phuket, Thailand and all its life-changing wonders

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The land of smiles promises to bring a smile to the heart of any and every traveler, no matter which part of Thailand is visited. Phuket is no exception. This tropical paradise has so much more to offer than just a t-shirt that tempts friends at home to mispronounce the name. Phuket takes travelers on a journey to another time and place. A place where the traveler is king (or queen) and every whim is suddenly somewhat important.

Flying into Phuket was more like landing in a dream. As we were descending, I saw a tropical oasis of magical mountainous islands tickling the drizzling sky. It was the same sulturous land that Leonardo DiCaprio frolicked in the movie, The Beach. My feet were not even on the ground, and I was already melting away pounds of stress and feeling true relaxation set in.

After landing, there was a bit of confusion after our debit card was stolen (we were tired and left it in the ATM machine for a second) and we had to find a taxi. Let this be a warning to keep a close hold on all of your personal affects as they could be stolen otherwise. The people are very kind in Phuket, but many poor people gather in tourist-heavy areas to get a chance at obtaining something of value. Travelers may need to purchase a visa upon arrival (depending which country you are coming from) and cash is preferred. We read not to take the taxis directly outside of the airport, so we ventured into the tropical drizzle, passed the parking lot, and across the street to try to find a “metered” taxi. Another warning for you: just because a taxi is across the street and reads, “metered” does not necessarily mean that it truly is. After giving the “metered taxi” man an attempt at swindling us, we went back in the airport and rented a car. It was about the same price as a taxi. In the end we never really used the thing, but whatever you choose to do, it should run you around 100 bucks (for a two way taxi ride or three to five days of car rental).

Renting the car proved to be a bit of a setback for us. We were in Thailand in Monsoon season, so a mountainous drive with Orlando-esque rains and 10 M.P.H. scooters proved to be quite a challenge. We forgot to pack our GPS, so we ended up making a four hour drive of what should have been an hour and a half from the airport to our hotel. After finally stopping at a gas station and getting help from a Thai cross dresser with a sharp beard, we finally found our hotel and realized that we had passed it about a dozen times.

Here’s where the real king and queen feelings began. We parked at our hotel and were immediately greeted by a nice man who scolded us for trying to get our own suitcases. What? You’ve had that experience at a fancy hotel in America? Well, we did not have to tip him; in fact, he was insulted when we tried to! Tips are not expected or welcomed in Thailand as a part of local culture. This was, of course, enhanced when we checked in and the woman behind the desk escorted us to our villa with umbrellas and a white glove. Once there, she gave us a tour of our room and told us she would be at our disposal. We stayed at the Access Resort. While it is not located on the beach, each villa includes a king sized bed, private entry into the resort-wide pool, and uber cheap local buffet breakfast in the morning. Oh, and there are two wet-bars you can swim up to as well. However, the real kicker is that this place only set us back around $60 per night. Take that, fancy American hotels!

Since our hotel was so dreamy, we spent a lot of time there. You know, accessing our private pool entry, ordering room service (which is delivered by gondola) and lounging around our over-sized room. After a few days of enjoying the feeling of being royal, we decided to do some Phuket exploration. A walk around the tourist area of town is really interesting. You pass all sorts of bars, but one thing that really stands out is the Australian bars. Everyone assumed we were from Australia since Phuket is a hot spot for Down Under dwellers. The beach is just a short two-minute walk from all that is touristy in Phuket. You will find palm trees jutting out of the sand, Cliffs nearby, and even soothing waves tantalizing you to enter. A day on the beach alone with change your entire life. We Floridians are accustomed to beaches, but nothing quite compares to the beaches of Phuket.

If you so desire, you can take a tour of the Phi Phi Islands where The Beach was filmed. We skipped that since it was an all-day venture and involved going over by boat. It was also quite rainy while we were there, but November through February are the most promising months to visit as far as rain goes.

Don’t be surprised if you notice a bit of rice with candy placed strategically around a building or in the middle of a walkway. All around Asia, including Thailand, these offerings are set out daily. Just be careful where you step so as not to disturb the local customs.

One thing that all visitors to Thailand must do is the Elephant jungle trek. You may be tempted to don a loin cloth as you mount this gentle beast and roam the jungle up a mountain passing natural fauna and flora and even pristine butterflies. We chose Kok Chang for our elephant trekking needs. The elephants were allowed to roam there and seemed to be treated very well. The price will run you 600-100 THB per person ($19-$32). Our elephant was amazing. She took us up a mountain that was sparkling with beautiful plants and butterflies. Once we were at the top, we saw the ocean and mountainous terrain. Our guide was very nice and helpful. He actually took photos of us the whole trek and never asked for a fee. You can feed the elephants there before and after riding as they have buckets of bananas for you to choose from. The owner has a bar with some local rum and even a small sort of shop where you can purchase nick-knacks and keepsakes. Thailand still incorporates elephants into their daily lives for various tasks, so don’t be surprised if you see one while you are out and about.

The food in Thailand reigns king over all other food. While I realize that this is a big claim, it is true. My advice to you would be to steer clear of the touristy restaurants. Not only are they pricey, but they often have a commercialized feel to them and may not include true local authentic favorites. Our favorite restaurant was a short walk from our hotel on the back road that leads up the mountain. It looked like more of a shack, but the people were friendly and warm and the food was spectacular. The portion served is more like an American restaurant while the price is like something from 1957. For a full meal and a drink, we paid under $5.00 per person. Again, tipping is not expected, a smile and thank you is much more appreciated.

Phuket, Thailand was an experience that I feel privileged to have enjoyed. I will always keep fond memories of the people, the food, and the serenity. The only problem with Phuket is the desperate desire to return and never go back to the way life used to be.

To join in on the conversation on my Facebook page, click here! Or, feel free to send me an email at Abroadwithabrain@gmail.com.

Follow me on Twitter@Caligirl7508.

© 2012 Elana Nichols, All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without prior permissions from the author.

Europe, Spain, Uncategorized, Weird Festivals

La Tomatina Festival: Bunol, Spain

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Getty Images

Another Successful Tomatina Festival in Bunol, Spain has come to a firework clashing close. What is the Tomatina Festival, you ask? If you’ve never heard of it, here is what you need to know: Tomatina is one of the biggest food fights in the world. Yep, remember that last food fight you had in your high school cafeteria? Well, it really does not compare to the craziness experienced in the streets of Bunol, Spain for this August Festival.

Still combing random tomato peels and seeds from my hair, I feel a sense of accomplishment as I realize that I have, in fact, survived the tomato smashing party in the streets. I started my morning off in Valencia, staying at the Tryp Airport Hotel in Valencia. With a convenient shuttle and nearby proximity to the metro system, it was obviously a prime choice. Armed with Sangria, we began our journey by metro and train to Bunol.

After some rather awkward moments riding with morning commuters sweeping off to work at around 8 a.m., we pulled into the train station. Upon stepping foot off of the metro, the toxic musk of confusion, partiers, and angry cab drivers set in.

“Don’t wait in this line for the “beep” train!” Yells a taxi driver, desperate for business. He got it too. If you plan on staying outside the city and taking the train into Bunol, be ready for a gargantuan line to purchase tickets.

The line was long, but we knew how taxi drivers tended to err on the side of an underestimate of the cost it will actually take to get to point B. So, we staked our claim in line and waited out the mad rush. In an effort to “prepare ahead” we did not bring cash (everything you have on you WILL be soggy afterward) which proved to be a slight problem when one of the machines did not take “tarjeta de credito.” Luckily, we did end up with tickets and happily zipped through the gate to await the train. As far as what to bring, be minimal. Do not bring cameras (unless it is waterproof) and other items without a very mighty Ziploc bag of some sort.

As for boarding the train, be ready to throw down like Ludacris and drop some major bows. People WILL run you over and stop to say sorry some other day. So, just resolve to be ready to protect your own life and everything will be fine. Seats will be few and far between, so plan on standing for around 45 minutes. And ladies, guys are lazy too, so don’t expect to be given a seat for your beauty. You have to earn that seat, and everyone agrees that if you find one, you get it for life.

Once we arrive in Bunol, the smell of smoked sausages, alcoholic sweat, and random urine notes fills the air. We pass some people using the bush as a bathroom since there is not one anywhere in the train station. However, had they held it an extra five minutes, they could have kept their dignity and used a porter potty (well, at least SOME dignity). Try a bocadilla-it’s a type of Spanish sandwich that is sure to please even the pickiest eater.

The walk into the heart of the festival runs you about 15 minutes. Get in there as quick as possible to try to catch a peek of the slippery pole-it is very entertaining to watch a bunch of inebriated guys climbing on top of each other to try to retrieve a ham.

Now, the difficult part of the journey- the crowds. You can plan on exceeding what it feels like to be a true sardine. People will be jabbing arms and elbows into your rib cage. You will feel like you are going to suffocate/die at some point in the day. If you are claustrophobic or have a fear of being run over by huge dump trucks, turn around and meet your party afterward.

I really did consider that I would not make it out of this alive about three times. The first was when some wider than tall man barreled his way through causing a domino effect amongst the packed crowd. The second was when I was in the streets after the second firework went off and got squeezed between a quite hairy man and a dump truck. The third was when I got elbowed in the center of my upper head by someone throwing a tomato. Aside from all that, I was good.

My advice is to take the wall side of the street to avoid being crammed in the middle of the streets. After a firework goes off, dump trucks attack the streets full of low quality tomatoes. Some people stand on top of the trucks and pelt people in the face with tomatoes from above. The rule is to “squish” the tomato before throwing it. However, from personal experience, I can tell you some do not meet that qualification. Before you know it, you are drenched, have a rotten tomato taste in your mouth, and your once beautiful outfit is destroyed. Don’t wear flip flops. You will lose them. After trucks pass, everyone scrambles into the streets to pick up loads of tomatoes and throw them accordingly.

Goggles are recommended, especially since tomato juice will get in your eyes and can cause infection. I did not have them, and I can tell you I am sorry I did not. I also recommend ladies to wear a shower cap, otherwise you will be pulling dried tomato pieces out of your hair into the next couple of days.

There is something so fun and juvenile about throwing tomatoes. Maybe it’s the age-old “rotten tomato at the bad comedian” thing. Maybe it’s because you never got the chance to join in on a major food fight because you did not want it on your school record. Whatever it is, it is fun. Just be sure to bring goggles and ear plugs and leave your bad attitude at home!

If you feel brave enough to face the semi-rotten tomatoes in one of the biggest food fights in the world, you can attend by visiting Valencia then taking the train to Bunol. The festival is every last Wednesday in August. To find out more, you can visit the Tomatina Website. 

Europe, Nordic

Best of Copenhagen

square

One step into the streets of Copenhagen, and you feel as if you’ve entered a magical world of whimsy and wonder. It is not hard to see why the guy who brought us some of our favorite fairy tales like The Little Mermaid and Frozen grew up right in the heart of it all. Yes, Hans Christian Anderson had about as good of a situation as it gets with location inspiration in writing. From the fortress to the cobblestone roads to the colorful canal houses, it is not hard to see why this creative writer and story teller developed his craft here. In fact, I challenge you to visit Copenhagen and hold back a smile. You simply cannot. The smile will simply take over your weary traveler face. Yes, if you were wondering if you should visit this Scandinavian city, the answer is yes. Do not hesitate, just go! Weather you visit in winter or summer (or anywhere in between), I assure you, you will absolutely fall in love with this city.

Where to Stay

You can really find a good variety of nice hotels that fit into any budget. I recommend the Ascot Apartments. They are very clean and nice and boast a great location- near the train station as well as main attractions and sights like Tivoli. The street that accesses the hotel is also a bit quieter so you don’t have to worry about carrying luggage through busy pedestrian areas. Every apartment comes equipped with a small kitchen so you can cook as well (if you so desire).

Things to Do and See

Copenhagen has a brilliant selection of things to see and do whether you are a museum fan or a wandering meanderer. Here are a few of the must do’s:

nynhaven

Nyhavn

Just picture your classic colorful Scandinavian buildings with reflections in the water below. Boom. There you have it. If you only do ONE thing in Copenhagen, this must be it. You can walk there from the train station in about 30 minutes, or you can hop a bus or bike. You will also see some really nifty boats, even one with its very own beacon! Be sure to check out No. 20, where Hans Christian Anderson lived and wrote The Princess and the Pea. (Again, it’s no wonder he wrote such amazing stories living in this beautiful place!)

church-of-our-savior

Church of our Savior

This one can actually be enjoyed from afar. However, if you are aiming to go, there is a very unique quality to this church: it has spiral steps to the top that you can actually climb! So, if you want a bird’s eye view of it all, you can definitely experience it here. There is a fee to get in, and you may want to watch your time as the church does close to visitors in the late afternoon. You will be able to see the spiral top from Nyhavn, so you can choose to admire from afar if you are pressed on time.

castle

Rosenborg Castle

This place is fit for royalty. That is just how you will feel gazing at the rose gardens and intricate stone patterns around the castle grounds. If you wish to exploit its riches, you can pay a cool $12 to go inside. You may even get a glimpse of the crown jewels! If you’re like me, you can appreciate all its glory from the outside as you sniff the roses (or lack thereof in the winter). My advice: pull up a seat on a bench and just daydream about what life could be like living in a castle. Then, take a picture (or two) and march on to the next site.

stroll

Take a stroll

They always say the best things in life are free, and walking around the magical cobblestone streets of Copenhagen are no exception. If you are not much for walking, you can rent a bike, just like locals do. In fact, you will see more bikes than you expect! One word of caution: if you choose to explore as a pedestrian, you will need to be aware of all the bikes whirring by! If you aren’t careful, you could get a toe run over! On your stroll, you can stop by any of the eclectic little coffee shops or restaurants.

runde

Rundetaarn

Christian IV had this astronomical observatory built. If you get starry eyed about the wonder of space, don’t skip this one. Even if you could care less about the universe, it is a cool tower to stop by. Going in will cost you a small fee, but you can also enjoy it from the outside. Hans Christian Anderson used the tower as inspiration for a simile about the dog’s eyes in The Tinder Box. Oh, and this place has a really cool spiral to walk up inside.

Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek

So, it’s no secret that I am no museum groupie. However, I realize that many people are. And if you are, you should swing by this one. It has an impressive collection (or so I hear). Around $10 USD gets you the rights to stare at the relics. If not, the building is pretty from the outside. You can gasp, “So pretty!” as you walk by at the very least! For my beer drinkers, yes, that is the same “Carlsberg.” It was actually the son of the beer founder! Cheers.

church-of-our-lady

Church of our Lady

Church of our Lady is just gorgeous inside. It has more of a modern feel, but the domed ceilings are impressive as are the statues inside. The old wooden pews are also very whimsical and majestic.

the-littel-mermaid

The Little Mermaid

Look at this stuff, isn’t it neat? We wouldn’t have that song if it were not for Hans Christian Anderson writing The Little Mermaid. You can see her here, perched on a rock, longing for her prince. And hey, if you want to belt out some songs from the beloved Disney version, go for it! No one will judge.

fortress

Kastellet

Journey up on high as you pass windmills and old cannons. You will see red buildings reminiscent of barns. It is a great place to walk, and convenient after you see The Little Mermaid.

fred

Frederiks Kirke

This church is in the middle of a royal square (where royalty stays in winter). You can see some guards here as well. Overall, a great panoramic photo opportunity lies here. It is a great place to see.

 

What to Chew:

Ahh, food glorious food! It is what many of us thrive on when we travel. “I want to try the local fare!” you scream. However, let me tell you a secret. You do not have to spend $50+ per person to enjoy local flavors. Yes, my husband and I did not spend over $50 TOTAL, per day. No, I’m not kidding. Here’s how we pulled it off:

Breakfast:

rister

Risteriet

This coffee bar is cute as a button. It is small, but offers a few seats to sip on your joe. The best part (besides the awesome coffee and snacks) is the cute little smiling teapots that wink at you while you drink. The total cost for one large coffee and pan chocolate was around $7. We split the large coffee and the giant pastry and we were good to go!

Lunch:

duckit

Copenhagen Street Food

This place is almost as trendy as it is delicious. Getting there you may feel like you’ve entered some restricted dock area, but once you are inside your senses will love you for it. You can walk around and sample some of the dozens of food “trucks” that entice you will unique and imaginative food combinations. My top recommendation? Duck it. We had pulled duck with fries. It was the equivalent of $13 USD and it was more than enough to split (it was gargantuan!). Or, if your appetite is heavy, you can always add another dish as well.

Dinner:

Bronx Burger

Okay, okay. So it’s not really “local” food, seeing that it has hamburgers. But, man, is it delicious! One burger will set you back about $17 USD and you can add fries and even some nice local beers. (Try the Carlsberg IPA. You can thank me later). This place is hip and the burger is delish. We split it and we were way full.

SAS Airport Lounge

Before you scoff at this suggestion, check this out. They have good food. We sampled some local favorites like smoked salmon and sausages. It was amazing. What would have cost us around $30 USD per person was…included. Thanks airplane ticket. It was only a few bucks more to book the “SAS plus saver” on our flight out from Copenhagen to Amsterdam. So, with that ticket, we enjoyed more room on the flight, premium food and drinks, and lounge access. Worth. It.

Drinks:

heidis

Heidi’s Beer Bar

A half-liter of beer is only 29 DKK here before 10 p.m. here. The coolest thing? It doesn’t feel like a dive bar. And, if you feel heroic, you can try your luck on some of the games in the bar, like hammering a large nail into a piece of wood. Oh, and it’s German themed-right down to the lederhousen of the bartender.

Other options for cheap food:

MAD Cooperativet

It’s like a fancy, pretty, grocery store. You can even sip water off the tap while you shop. You can get snacks, drinks, and even prepared meals here.

7-eleven

Surprised? Well, don’t be. These places are all over the world, even Thailand. And hey, if you need a quick nosh without the pocket emptying, this place has your name on it.

Copenhagen at Christmas:

Copenhagen offers some of the most beautiful and amazing Christmas markets and décor. Here, you can sample some tasty treats, ciders, mulled wine, and unique gifts. It is truly a must-do experience. If you only see one market, be sure to stop by the one near Nynhavn.

Whatever you choose to do in Copenhagen, you are sure to have a grand ole time. Just let the magic of the place take over your imagination and melt your stress away. Find some cool little shop or restaurant and just sit back and enjoy!