Getting to Ujung Kulon National Park

If you want to have the opportunity to see the final stand of the Javan rhino, you have to first make it to their home in Ujung Kulon National Park. You would think a national park relatively close to Jakarta on the most populous island in the world would be easy to get to. Think again! It took me hours to research how to get from Jakarta to Ujung Kulon National Park and nothing I found gave definitive answers.

Ujung Kulon National Park
Trekking in Ujung Kulon National Park – Half the adventure is getting there

I did figure out that I needed to get to Taman Jaya, and the best jumping off point was the Kalideres bus station in Jakarta. Other than that, it was pretty unclear how exactly to get there. I knew I could get there by private taxi or moto-bike, but those options would be five to ten times the amount of taking a bus.

Grab
The beginning of my journey started with this Grab (Uber in Asia) from my hotel to the Kalideres bus station

Kalideres bus station

My adventure started with a Grab taxi to the Kalideres bus station from my hotel. I stayed at the Swiss-Belinn Airport Hotel. The benefit of this place is it is both near the airport and close to the Kalideres station, so you do not have to venture into downtown Jakarta unless you want to. The hotel also kept my belongings I was not taking to the park in storage for free. I also stayed there two nights after returning.

My Grab ride dropped me off at Kalideres without incident. Immediately upon exiting the bus, I was  surrounded by hawkers wondering where I was going. A really nice lady who worked security approached and introduced herself and also asked where I was going. I told her I wanted to go to Taman Jaya via Labuan. She walked me to the correct bus and told me it would be 20,000 Indonesian rupiah. This is about $1.50 in usd.

Kalideres friend
My new friend at the Kalideres Airport who assisted me on my way to Ujung Kulon

Shortchanged on the bus to Labuan

I only had 100,000 rupiah notes, so I gave that to the bus dude that was collecting the money. He did not give me any change back. Sometimes the bus money collectors will give change back later because initially they might not have enough small bills to make change.

Later, I looked at the money collector and saw he had a fat wad of all types of bills. I asked if I could get my change back. The bus dude could not speak English, so he had the nice girl next to me tell me there would be no change.

The nice lady at the bus station gave me her WhatsApp, and during the bus trip messaged me to ask how much I paid. I told her I paid 100k and the dude would not give me the change back. She called me and asked to speak to the bus guy. He sheepishly gave me back 50k.

Mengwi bus station
Read my travel tip for buses in Indonesia

Indonesia bus travel tip

I guess it is not uncommon for bus drivers to take advantage of tourists. I have taken a lot of bus trips in a lot of developing nations, but Indonesia is the first place this took place for me, and it happened more than once. My advice to prevent this is to know in advance how much the bus is and then have exact change. If you do not have change, stop in at a convenience store and buy a pack of gum or some snacks.

The girl sitting next to me seemed impressed that I was able to get some change back. I knew that I still was due 30k, but I was not going to press it. It was not worth the conflict. My neighbor said that he does that to all the foreigners. My WhatsApp friend asked that I take a picture of the bus license plate and send it to her, which I did.

Ujung Kulon National Park
Ujung Kulon National Park was the goal

Enjoyable bus trip

I enjoyed looking at the scenery out the bus window. It was your typical bus trip in a developing country with many stops and delays. When we stopped, impromptu musical groups would enter the bus and play songs and then ask for a donation. There was also no shortage of food options with street vendors entering the bus intermittently throughout the trip to sell fruit, juice, water, and snacks. I took advantage of this and bought some water and jackfruit.

Moto-bike adventure Indonesia
Moto-bike adventure on the way to Ujung Kulon

Confusion at Labuan

Unfortunately, the bus did not drop me off where the bus to Taman Jaya left from. The bus dropped us off on the outskirts of Labuan and the bus to Taman Jaya left from the market in the town. I had to get a ride from a moto-bike driver into town. He explained that I missed the bus. He then offered to drive me for 400k. I am pretty sure he was not telling the complete truth. Later, I found out that buses leave up until 4 p.m., but I am still not completely sure about this. I decided I did not want to wait and took up the moto-bike’s offer and left with him.

Taman Jaya Java Indonesia
Approaching Taman Jaya and the end of the moto-bike adventure

Moto-bike trip was worth it

Looking back on this adventure, I am so glad I took the trip with my moto-bike driver. It was an amazing experience holding on to him while we buzzed through small seaside villages on the way to Taman Jaya. He took a more direct route than the bus. In each village, villages would wave and smile as I passed by.

Java Indonesia beach
Diverting on to the beach to avoid the horrific road conditions

We passed through recent tsunami damage and the road was in horrible condition. We sometimes drove less than five mph as we bumped through some of the worst maintained roads I have ever been on. At one point we actually by-passed the road and drove a couple of miles on the beach. I asked if this was due to tsunami damage, and my driver nodded.

Tsunami damage
Tsunami damage along the coast

A tsunami rolled through this area and killed around a thousand people. The  event was made infamous due to hitting a wedding where a local band was playing and rolled right through their performance killing everyone but the lead singer.

Tsunami warning sign
Tsunami signs were prevalent all along the coastline

It was sad seeing this devastation and a little scary knowing it could happen again. The cause of the tsunami was volcanic activity offshore, so it was unpredictable and sudden. Tsunami warning signs on the road pointed to escape routes in case another dangerous wave made an appearance.

Indonesian driver
Safe in Taman Jaya thanks to my excellent moto-bike driver

Finally arrived in Taman Jaya

My moto-bike driver deposited me at a homestay right on the edge of the national park. I stayed here for two nights before returning on the third. I will write about my Ujung Kulon experiences in a separate post.

Taman Jaya homestay
The front porch of the homestay I stayed at for two nights in Taman Jaya

Return through Serang

On the way back, I took the local bus to Serang. I did this at the recommendation of my guide. I took the 4 a.m. option as there would be virtually no traffic and the bus would be cooler at this time. This was a much better route except for the fact the bus came 30 minutes early. Good thing I packed the night before.

The bus dropped me off at the bus station in Serang, so there was no need for another connection to make through a moto-bike. Another perk of this route is it did not follow the coastline, so we avoided the horrible roads.

I was deposited at the bus station in Serang and easily found the connection back to Kalideres in Jakarta. The bus from Taman Jaya to Serang was 40K and from Serang to Kalideres was 20k.

Adventure on!

 

 

Laos slow boat to Luang Prabang

On my first trip to Southeast Asia, I did not make it to Laos. Just about everyone I met was either on their way to Laos or had returned from Laos and was raving about it. On this trip, after my flight arrived in Bangkok, I made a beeline for northern Thailand and the Laos slow boat to Luang Prabang.

Huay Xai Laos
A lone backpacker steps on to the slow boat at the Huay Xai dock.
Laos slow boat
Plenty of room on the Laos slow boat to Luang Prabang

Booked Laos slow boat tour in Chiang Mai

I booked the tour in Chiang Mai. The tour included transportation to the border, a stop at the White Temple in Chiang Rai, a night stay at a guesthouse in Thailand, transportation over the border to Huay Xai, Laos, and the ticket for the boat. I paid about $65.00 usd with another $35.00 for the Laos visa. The tour did not include lodging the first night in Pakbeng, which is the halfway point to Luang Prabang.

Laos boat
Another boat on the river in front of us

Related: Getting a Laos visa at the border of Thailand

The Laos slow boat a relaxing two days

The Laos slow boat to Luang Prabang was one of the most relaxing experiences ever. Watching the lush green mountainous landscape slowly roll by while listening to the soothing sound of the motor while sucking down a fe Beerlaos made for an unforgettable experience. Laos is notoriously hot and humid, but being in the middle of the river in an open boat while going about 20 mph made for the perfect air-con.

Mekong River
Typical scene of the Mekong River from the Laos slow boat to Luang Prabang

We coasted along the Mekong River with gorgeous jungle covered mountains on either side. The color of the river was dark brown. The brown mud contrasted against the verdant countryside made for an interesting scene.

Laos slow boat
Mekong River shoreline

The Laos slow boat description

The boat had everything one could need for conveniences. It had a bathroom, a bar, and sold snacks as well. I ate a sandwich while waiting for the 11:30 a.m. departure in Huay Xai. This was plenty of food as the boat pulled into Pakbeng around 4:30 p.m. You could buy more food and snacks if needed at the dock area. There was a restaurant that sold fruit and snacks. Travel in Laos is incredibly easy.

Laos countryside
The Laos countryside was mesmerizing
Laos grass huts
Loved these grass huts in the fields in Laos

The Laos slow boat had about 20-25 passengers. It was evenly split between Laos villagers and international travelers. We had travelers from Australia, Spain, England, the U.S., and Germany. There may have been a few other countries represented, but I did not meet everyone.

Mekong River valley
Laos Mekong River valley

The Laos slow boat can be a party

We had two travelers from Manchester, England who were heavy, heavy drinkers. They had already gone through a couple of rounds of Beerlaos before the boat even left the dock. They both seemed to be constantly at the bar waiting for another beer. I enjoyed several beers myself. I thoroughly enjoyed having a few cold beers and watching the Laos countryside slide on by while taking many pictures.

Mekong River fishing
Mekong River fisherman

For different perspectives, I moved around the cabin. This was the slow tourist season, so the boat was only half full. Perhaps there is assigned seating during the busy season, but on this day you could sit wherever you wanted as long as it was not occupied. You could also sit on the front of the boat and the back of boat.

Laos slow boat
Up front on the slow boat to Luang Prabang
Laos boat
The boat inclined upward, so sometimes all you would see is the green on the jungle mountain ahead of you.

 

Back view Laos boat
Looking out the back door of the slow boat

Arrival in Pakbeng

About 4:30 p.m we pulled into Pakbeng. A small riverside community built almost completely around the slow boat tourism. We exited the boat after stepping over the two British dudes who were passed out right on the floor of the boat by  the entrance. There were a handful of hotels right along the riverside. I booked a room at the BKC Villa and the owner was there at the dock to meet me and drive me to my room. There was no one else staying at the hotel.

The hotel was up on the hill looking over the river. The hallway to room was outside and afforded a gorgeous view of the Mekong. There was an elephant sanctuary across the river, and sometimes they can be seen in the morning when caretakers take them down to the river. The room was small, clean, and comfortable. The room was a little more expensive than others in town, but it had air-conditioning, so it was worth it.

Mekong River Pakbeng
Misty morning along the Mekong River in Pakbeng.

The next morning I opened the door and there was a beautiful mist hanging over the river valley. Elephants sounds could be heard across the river. I went down and enjoyed breakfast and also bought a lunch and snacks to eat along the river for day two of the journey.

Day 2

Day 2 was more of the same except the terrain seemed to get a little more craggy. Instead of tree covered smoothed down river bluffs, the terrain got a little more craggy with some rock face cliffs and more pointed mountains. The heavy drinkers from Manchesters were a little more placid on this day. They quietly sipped the hair of the dog and exchanged stories of past travels and past parties.

Mekong River
I loved the contrast of the dark brown water of the Mekong with the green lush Laos countryside.

One thing that really surprised me about this trip is the lack of birds. We did see a flock of egrets every now and then, but not much of anything else. We did not see any eagles or birds of prey. There were no hornbills and not really a whole lot of any small birds either. I remember visiting the Amazon in South America and while there were not as many birds as I expected, there were a whole lot more than I was seeing along the Mekong.

Laos water buffalo
Water buffalo along the Mekong River in Laos

This lack of bird sightings was quite a surprise because the jungle was lush with vegetation and there were not many people around. We would see fisherman here and there and evidence of habitation along the river at points, but for the most part, the boat went through a really remote area of Laos. There were plenty of domestic animals like water buffalo and goats, but no wild animals that I could see, and I was looking.

Mekong River Laos
Sun beating through the clouds over the Mekong River

Rapids and stops along the way

There were a couple of times the slow boat driver had to navigate through some rapids. The river was more than adequately deep and the rapids were more standing waves than actual rocks or impediments.

Laos Mekong River village
An example of the small riverside villages we sometimes would stop at on the way to Luang Prabang.

We made a few stops along the way at little riverside communities to drop off and pick up Laos passengers. The boats also served as transport for goods as sacks of food and other items were loaded and unloaded as we traveled down the river. The whole back of the boat was covered with green seaweed harvested from the river I assume and dried out in the hot Laos sun.

Laos boat poling
The Laos boatmen using poles to push off from the shore.

When we made these stops, one or two of the Laos people on board would pull these long poles that were situated on the front of the boat and use them to push off the bottom to steer towards shore. When pulling off they would push off on the other side of the boat to push us back into the current.

Cliff Mekong River
The terrain got a little more craggy as we neared Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang

Around 4 p.m. we arrived at the dock at Luang Prabang. The dock is actually not in the middle of town, but about 10 km outside. Transport in the form of an open bus with benches was waiting for us for 20,000 Kip per person. The bus dropped us off at the market in town, and I had to walk only a quarter of a mile to my hotel. Luang Prabang is a small town, so most rooms would be within walking distance to the drop off. There is an army of tuk-tuk drivers in case you need a longer ride.

Better in the off season

The Laos slow boat to Luang Prabang was a great way to see the countryside and enjoy my first couple of days in Laos. I think the experience is much better in the off season when the boats are not so crowded. This opinion is based on a different perspective of the trip during the busy season, and it seemed a lot more hectic with some travelers having to sit on the floor. I visited Laos in September, and it was the slow season. The high season for tourism in Laos is November through April.

Kuang Si Falls is a hot Rivendell

A must see natural wonder near Luang Prabang, Laos is  Kuang Si Falls. With its beautiful turqoise waters plummeting down into gorgeous pools, it will remind visitors of the Elvish kingdom of Rivendell in the Lord of the Rings. The comparison will not last long because Laos is freaking hot. I do not remember seeing Bilbo or Boromir in a swimming suit.

Kuang Si Falls Laos
Rivendell like scene at Kuang Si Falls near Luang Prabang, Laos

Related: Getting a Laos visa at the Thai-Laos border

Where to find a Kuang Si Falls tour in Luang Prabang

The question should be more like where can I not find a Kuang Si Falls tour in Luang Prabang. Tour packages and tour options to visit the falls are omnipotent. You can purchase the tour at your hotel, at a tour agency, from passing moto-bike drivers, at the market, at a bar, and many more places. It is not difficult to find a tour to see Kuang Si Falls as it is the most popular tourist option outside of Luang Prabang.

Luang Prabang
In this overlook of Luang Prabang, there are probably 1,000 places to book a Kuang Si Falls tour

I stayed at Villa Mahasok on Kingkitsalat Road. I walked toward the river and soon found a travel agency near the market. Arriving in a pool of sweat, I booked the tour for a half day for around $30.00. In retrospect, I feel the half day was the perfect amount of time to spend at the falls.

Meet at the travel agency

The next day, I returned to the travel agency and soon a van came and picked me up. We made the rounds around town picking up other travelers, and soon bounced are way on the bumpy road to Kuang Si Falls. It took about a half hour to get there.

Kuang Si Falls Entrance
Kuang Si Falls entrance

Park entrance and trail to the falls

Our driver told us to be back in three hours and then let us go. There is a paved trail up to the waterfall that took about 15 minutes. The upper falls are spectacular. A bridge crosses the upper pool right in front of the waterfall, so that is a great place to take pictures. There is also a clearing to the left, which is great for photos.

Kuang Si Falls trail
Well paved trail to Kuang Si Falls

There was a trail that went up some stairs to one side of the falls. I began to follow this trail, but it soon narrowed and went up the mountainside. I did not find any good vantage points to take pictures from up here as it was in the middle of the jungle. It was so hot that I was soon sweating so much, that I lost interest in everything except finding a way into the swimming section.

Kuang Si Falls Laos
Straight on view of Kuang Si Falls

Find the lower pools for swimming

I stumbled back down the stairs in a humidity stupor looking for a swimming hole like a drunk longs for another gin and tonic. There is a trail that follows the river down the mountainside into a series of turquoise pools. They were all pretty, but I did not care as I thirsted for some cool water all over my body. The first set of pools are off limit to swimming.

Kuang Si Falls trail
The trail going up above Kuang Si Falls

Not too far down the trail, I ran into the swimming section of the falls. A gorgeous pool right below a lower waterfall was thronged with people enjoying the cool water. There is a couple of wooden tables for putting backpacks and shirts on, so I put my things there and jumped in.

Lower Kuang Si Falls
Lower Kuang Si Falls and pools – No swimming in these pools just below the falls, but a little farther down is where the swimming hole is.

Swimming in the lower pools

I definitely would recommend coming with a friend and having one person swim while the other person watches personal items. I had my camera and wallet in my backpack, so I was nervous someone might grab it. The likelihood of someone being this bold is pretty slim, but you do not want to put yourself in a position to lose your camera or money while traveling.

Kuang Si Falls swimming
Swimming hole in the lower falls and pools at Kuang Si Falls

I jumped in the pool and was immediately refreshed. I swam toward the lower falls and let the water cascade over my body. The water was surprisingly cool and refreshing despite the intense Laos heat. It was the perfect remedy for the cauldron like temperature. Even though I was visiting in the wet season, it was still insanely hot with mid 90s every day with max humidity.

swim Kuang Si Falls
People enjoying the cool pools at Kuang Si Falls

If you stopped moving for one bit, little fish would nip your feet and flesh. They were harmless, and in fact, some people pay good money to get fish massages. At Kuang Si Falls, the fish massage is free.

Kuang Si Falls selfie
Many places at the falls or in the swimming hole for epic selfies

What to bring to Kuang Si Falls

Since you can swim in the falls, you definitely want a swimming suit, and footwear that is wearable both on the trail and in the water. You do not need hiking boots unless you are interested in doing some serious trekking on the trails above the waterfall. The trails to the waterfall and along the river are well maintained or even paved.

Lower Kuang Si Falls
Lower Kuang Si Falls swimming hole

There are plenty of bathrooms and changing rooms if you want to wear something other than your bathing suit. Other than that, all you really need is your camera, suntan lotion, and some money. There are stalls at the entrance where you can buy drinks, food, and other tourist items.

Kuang Si Falls selfie
One more selfie

Picking the right tour

I thought three hours was the perfect time at Kuang Si Falls. There are some tours that stay there longer and some that are shorter. You can also arrange transport in town and go on your own. That way you can leave when you want. I preferred doing the regular tour as there was no haggling or hassle involved and the tour was the perfect time frame for me.

 

 

 

Getting a Laos visa at the Thai border

A couple of months ago, I crossed the Thailand-Laos border in northern Thailand. I stayed one night in Chiang Khong in Thailand and crossed the border the next morning. I booked a tour in Chiang Mai to cross the border, and I obtained a ticket on the slow boat to Luang Prabang. The visa was $35.00 extra, but the tour agency assisted in obtaining a Laos visa at the border.

Thai Laos border
Sunset in Chiang Khong on the Thai-Laos border

Laos visa and tour to Luang Prabang purchased in Chiang Mai

I arrived in Chiang Mai the night before. Immediately, I took a walk toward the night market and found a tour agency. I purchased a tour to Luang Prabang which included a bus trip to Chiang Rai, two hours at the White Temple, transportation to the Thai border town of Chiang Khong, one-night stay in Chiang Khong, transportation across the Mekong River to the Laos town of Huay Xai, and a ticket on a boat to Luang Prabang. This all cost about $66.00.

White temple Chiang Rai
The White Temple in Chiang Rai, Thailand

What was not included

 The tour mainly included transport and a one-night stay in Chiang Khong. It did not include entry to the White Temple, food on the way to Chiang Khong, at Chiang Khong, and food along the boat tour. It also did not include lodging in Pakbeng, Laos. Pakbeng is the halfway spot along the Mekong River between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang. The boat stopped there for the night at approximately 4:30 p.m.

Tour did not include Visa cost

 The cost for the Laos Visa was also not included in the price of the tour. It was $35.00 for the Laos Visa, which was purchased at the border. The guesthouse in Chiang Khong; however, provided everything needed to make the crossing. They provided change in both Thai Baht, Laotian Kip, and U.S. Dollars, and they even provided passport photos for a small extra charge. I did not have a passport photo, so I had them take a picture and print it on their small little printer.

Chiang Khong Thailand
Gazing at the mighty Mekong River, which forms the Thai-Laos border

Night in Chiang Khong

We stayed at the Nomadic Guesthouse the night before crossing the border. The guesthouse had simple and affordable rooms, but it also featured a beautiful seating area looking over the Mekong River. I sat all night and enjoyed a couple beerlaos while watching the sunset. It was cool to see the lights in Huay Xai, Laos turn on and knowing that the next day I would be experiencing a new country.

Thai Laos shuttle
Waiting for the shuttle on the Thai side of the Thai-Laos border

Crossing the border

 After making sure we had all our documents in order to cross the border, we got in the bus and headed for the border. We first cleared Thai immigration and then waited to board a shuttle across the Mekong to Huay Xai. There was a big Chinese tour group in front of us, and we had to wait about a half hour for the bus to shuttle them first.

Laos visa
On the bus crossing the bridge over the Mekong River to get into Laos and getting a Laos visa

Laos border

 I feared we would have to wait forever for the Chinese tourists to clear the Thai border, but they already had their clearance, so our wait was short once we arrived. We had to stand in several short lines. One to pay the $35.00 Visa fee and then another to wait for the Visa to be attached to our passport. Then we waited in another line to show all our documents, and then we were officially in Laos. We boarded another bus that took us to the docks, and we waited for our bus to Luang Prabang, which left at 11:30 a.m. We got there two hours early, so we had plenty of time to eat and relax while waiting for the boat to leave.

 

 

 

AT&T International Passport plan sucks, sucks, sucks

I recently returned from a one month overseas adventure in Southeast Asia. I opted to get a data plan from my carrier. I found out that the AT&T International Passport Plan sucks, sucks, sucks. It was so bad it needs three sucks to bring the point home.

AT&T International Passport Plan
AT&T logo on a building – Wikimedia Creative Commons – http://istizada.com/understanding-arabic-url-uri-structure-encoding-for-arabic-sites/

Related: Thai Travel Clinic for vaccinations

AT&T international options

There are basically two options that AT&T offers for international usage. There is a daily plan and a monthly plan. The International Day Pass  is $10.00 a day and works in over 100 countries. Unfortunately, this did not work for me as the plan does not work in Indonesia and Laos. $10.00 a day is not bad, but over a month it would be $300.00 if used every day.

Passport
My passport cost less than an AT&T International Passport Plan (which sucks, sucks, sucks)

The other option was a monthly plan. I chose this and it is $60.00 a month and works in over 200 countries. The problem with this plan is it is a two month minimum. I was going for one month and two days, so I had to pay $120.00 due to the two month minimum. It was still cheaper than $300.00, so I felt like it was the best option.

frustration
Me trying to figure out my AT&T bill because they double charged me – By Tanya Little – Flickr: 9 of 365 ~ Frustration, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25700112

Off to a bad start

When I got my first bill, AT&T overcharged me because they were charging me the $60.00 a month for the International Day Pass, and they charged me $10.00 day for 4 days in Thailand on the daily pass. I had to take time out on my trip to study my bill then open up a chat with an AT&T representative. It took over an hour to resolve. I have better things to do with my time while traveling.

head in hands
Me when I got texts alerting me I was getting charged for $50.00 – Wikimedia Creative Commons – By PrisonImage – Prisoners Advice Service, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70060717

Ten days into the second month

I backdated the plan, so the first month covered two days I was in Thailand and the second month covered the last 30 days I was in Southeast Asia. Eight days into the second month, I got a text that I had used 80% of data. I then tried to use the rest of my data sparingly and put on airplane mode when not using.

Middle finger
I felt like giving AT&T the middle finger when getting these over usage text alerts – Wikimedia Creative Commons – By Letmeeatyouras – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=78322207

Despite the data saving trick, I ended up going over the data twice resulting in a $100.00 charge. They only give you 1 GB for the $60.00. Every extra GB used is $50.00. I ended up paying $220.00 for the month abroad. In retrospect, I could have gone with the daily plan, but that did not work in the countries I was wanting to visit.

Bali Indonesia
No International Daily Pass in Bali, Indonesia

The upshot is the AT&T International Passport Plan sucks, sucks, sucks

This $220 charge was on top of the $130.00 I pay each month. The AT&T International Passport is a rip off. The only reason I went with this option in the first place was because I am taking care of my mom, and it was important that I have my phone active.

AT&T International Passport Plan sucks
Get away from anyone trying to get you to sign up for the AT&T International Passport Plan because it sucks, sucks, sucks

Alternatives to the A&T International Passport plan (which sucks, sucks, sucks)

Wi-Fi and WhatsApp

There are some options to using the AT&T International Passport plan or whatever international plan your carrier provides. You can stick to Wi-Fi only. Southeast Asia is pretty connected via Wi-Fi. Just about every hostel, guesthouse, hotel, restaurant, and many public places provide free Wi-Fi. You can usually make calls and texts through Wi-Fi. You can also use WhatsApp for phone calls and texts assuming the people you want to contact have it also.

Whatsapp
Use WhatsApp when in a friendly Wi-Fi zone

Buy a phone and local Sim card in each country

The cheapest way to use a phone in Southeast Asia and in most countries is buying a local Sim card. If you are on a plan with your carrier they may lock your phone, so the Sim card may not work. In this case you may have to buy a phone also. You can buy a cheap phone and then sell it back when you leave.

If you have any other ideas to save money on a phone plan while traveling, please share in the comments.

 

 

Chiang Mai Mandala House

There must be a thousand hotels, guesthouses, and hostels in Chiang Mai. The amount of options can be overwhelming. I was on a bus from Ayutthaya to Chiang Mai scrolling through Hotels.com, and I stumbled on the Mandala House.

Mandala House
Mandala House in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Mandala House amenities

I was looking for a pool, air-conditioning, Wi-Fi, hot water for the shower, and a relatively budget priced room. I also wanted a spot close to the action in Chiang Mai, which meant close to the night bazar. My plan was to book a tour the next day in Chiang Mai, so I wanted a place I could walk to a local tour office. Mandala House checked all of those boxes and also offered breakfast, so I booked.

Mandala House pool
Pool across the street

Related: Thai Travel Clinic for innoculations in Bangkok

Bus drop off

My bus from Ayutthaya dropped me off at the bus station a little outside of town.  I got a tuk-tuk ride to the Mandala House for 50 baht. The nice thing about booking on an app is the app shows the location on Google maps. Therefore, I could follow the progress to the location and even give navigation tips to my driver if he did not know where the location was. With so many lodging options in Chiang Mai, even local tuk-tuk drivers will not know where every place is.

Chiang Mai lodging
Spacious bed and room

Easy check-in

Mandala House was located in a narrow street just off the main drag in Chiang Mai. I showed my passport, and dropped off my backpack in my room. My room was clean and spacious enough for one person. Staff was of course exceedingly friendly and helpful. Every hotel staff in all of Southeast Asia pretty much is.

Chiang Mai night market
Mandala House was close to the night market

Mandala House super convenient location

I immediately departed to hit the night market area. The booking app indicated Mandala House was .6 miles from the night market. It turned out it was even closer to the main action. In just a couple of turns I was on the main road. Before I even came across the night market, I found a booking agent for the next leg of my trip. I then proceeded to the night market and bought dinner and some clothes. I could not have been more happy with the location.

Chiang Mai Thailand
Bathroom with hot water and free water

Breakfast and check out

Next morning, I walked down to the entrance and had a choice of breakfast. I choose the fried egg option, and I inquired about the pool because I had not run into it yet. I was informed it was across the street. Sure enough, the pool was conveniently located right across the street. This was not far because the street was quite narrow.

Backpacking Thailand
Another view of the Mandala House room with air-conditioning and TV present

Conclusion

The Mandala House in Chiang Mai was exactly what I was looking for. The price for the room turned out to be only $16.00 and the breakfast was around another $3.00. I know some backpackers prefer to spend under $10.00 and sometimes even under $5.00. There are plenty of options available in Chiang Mai for those prices, but I was looking for a single room, a pool, and A-C, so I was willing to spend a little more. I am glad I chose Mandala House and would happily return.

 

 

 

 

Thai Travel Clinic for travel innoculations

When traveling to different parts of the world, one of the most difficult questions to figure out is what vaccines are necessary and where to go. In the broken U.S. healthcare system, there is no shortage of places to go, but there are many problems. The Thai Travel Clinic in Bangkok, Thailand is a great affordable and easy way to start your Southeast Asian adventure.

Thai Travel Clinic
Thai Travel Clinic inside the Hospital for Tropical Diseases near the Victory Monument

Related: Getting to Khao Yai National Park

Avoid expensive travel vaccines in the United States

Even if you have good insurance, travel vaccines in the United States can be pricy. Often times insurance does not cover the costs. For example, Twin Rix can run up to $150.00. The Yellow Fever vaccine can cost between $150.00 and $300.00. At the Thai Travel Clinic, these vaccines will set you back $23 and $36 respectively. Most vaccines here are in the  $10 to $20 range.

Travel vaccines
Entering to get my shots

Another reason not to get these shots in the United States is can you really trust your doctor/clinic to give you the advice you need? Since healthcare is for profit, clinics in the United States will advise you to get as much as possible. The costs at the Thai Travel Clinic are so affordable, that even if they do suggest unnecessary vaccines, it will not break your budget. I did not feel like they swayed me to get unnecessary shots at the Thai Travel Clinic.

Make an appointment online

I made an appointment online, and submitted the questionnaire to their email. I immediately received a confirm email and then a follow up reminder email.

Thai Travel clinic map
The map on the website for the Thai Travel Clinic

Getting to the Thai Travel Clinic

I would suggest leaving a little early as it is a little confusing getting there. Get off at the BTS Victory Monument Station. The map on their website for arrival is accurate; however, exiting the BTS can be confusing. If you do not choose the right exit, you will not be on the right street. The Clinic is inside the Hospital for Tropical Diseases. It is on the third floor. You can give a taxi that information, and they be able to find it.

Victory Monument
Victory Monument – A ten minute walk to the Thai Travel Clinic

Last appointment of the weekend

My appointment was for 3:30 p.m. on a Friday. They were motivated to get me in and out as soon as possible, so they could start their weekend. They took my blood pressure and weight, and I was immediately ushered in to see a doctor.

Doctor consultation at the Thai Travel Clinic

I informed the doctor of my medical history, past inoculations, and about my trip. She recommended I get a flu shot, tetanus shot, and a Japanese Encephalitis shot. She also recommended a rabies prevention shot. Unfortunately, the rabies shot requires two inoculations in a one week interval. If you want a rabies prevention shot, you need to be able to have the second shot administered in one week. I was leaving Bangkok in three days, so I could not get this one.

Pantanal Brazil
Thanks to getting a Yellow Fever vaccine, I am now good to go for an adventure in Brazil. – Wikimedia Creative Commons By Alicia Yo at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1780749

I also requested a yellow fever shot. For $36, this was a deal I could not pass up. I would like to visit Brazil in the near future, and I know they require a yellow fever shot, so I am now covered to visit Brazil. Check out their website to see available vaccines and prices.

travel vaccines
My four shots from the Thai Travel Clinic

Thai Travel Clinic staff were efficient and super friendly

The staff at the Thai Travel Clinic were incredibly nice and friendly. Not a surprise if you have spent any time in Thailand. The doctor and the nurses spoke enough English to effectively communicate. I speak almost no Thai, so any problems were on me, but nothing that impacted the service and the experience.

travel shots
I received two shots in one shoulder and two in the other

Four shots for under $100

I left the Thai Travel Clinic $100 lighter in my pocket, but with the peace of mind that I would be safer on this trip and in upcoming travels. I highly recommend bypassing the overpriced United States healthcare system in order to get your vaccinations done in Bangkok.

vaccine booklet
My cute little vaccine booklet

Travel vaccine book

Before I left, I was given a handy travel vaccine booklet showing I received the yellow fever shot and the other inoculations. I can now show this upon entry to countries that require this vaccination. As I was leaving, three nurses and the doctor waived and wished me a great trip.

 

Masaya Volcano 15 minutes of red hot fame

Nicaragua is known for volcanoes. There are 19 throughout this small Central American country. Each volcano has a specialty in regard to adventure travel. The specialty for visiting the Masaya Volcano is staring down into the crater and seeing molten lava. You cannot loiter long though as fifteen minutes is your limit.

Masaya Volcano
Getting my 15 minutes with the Masaya Volcano

Related: Four Nicaragua Adventures

Masaya Volcano is the closest to Managua

The Masaya Volcano is the most accessible volcano in the country due to its proximity to Managua and Granada. The town of Masaya is located almost halfway between Managua and Granada. It is easy to secure tours from either Managua or Granada. Since not many people stay long in Managua, Granada is probably a better hub to visit the active volcano.

Related: Hiking Concepcion Volcano on Ometepe

Tours leave at night

The best time to visit the Masaya Volcano is at night in order to easier see the lava. During the day, the volcano can be seen for miles around thanks to the smoking miasma billowing out of the blown out crater. I could even see this phenomenon from the top Concepcion Volcano on Ometepe Island.

Hostal El Momento
Hostal El Momento

I stayed at Hostel El Momento. They offered a tour for $25.00. The tours left every day at around 4 p.m. I paid them and secured my spot. There are numerous tour agencies in town. If there are not enough people in the hostel going on the tour, they just outsource to another agency.

Masaya Volcano National Park
Hiking into Masaya National Park while our tour guide checks in

Picked up at the hotel

I was picked up at the hostel in a mini van. There was a couple from Amsterdam and a family from Wyoming already in the van. The van had air-conditioning, which is key even at night in Nicaragua.

Masaya Volcano National Park entrance
Masaya Volcano park entrance

Hike and Visitor Center

It takes about 45 minutes to get there. The driver and guides need to check in with the park. There was a long line to do this, so we were able to hike into the park along the ride while they waited in line. It was sunset, so we were able to get some nice pictures of the lowlands below the volcano.

Masaya Volcano lowlands
Masaya Volcano lowlands

We then had about 45 minutes to spend in the Visitor’s Center once it got dark while we were waiting for our time on the crater. The Visitor’s Center had a lot of information on the Masaya Volcano, creatures that lived inside the park, Nicaragua, and other volcanoes in the country.

Once we were done in the Visitor’s Center, it was our turn for 15 minutes of volcanic fame. We got back into our van, and they drove us to the top of the volcano.

Masaya Volcano Visitor's Center
Masaya Volcano Visitor’s Center

Masaya Volcano lava

At the rim of the volcano were barriers like one would see at Grand Canyon or Zion. We lined up along the railings and peered down into the volcano to see the red glow of the lava. I felt like I was in a Lord of the Rings movie. There were a couple of vantage points to see the molten lava.

Fifteen minutes was plenty of time. It was really amazing to see the molten lava, but after staring at it for ten minutes, I was ready for a tona. We got back into van and drove back in Granada knowing that our 15 minutes of fame on top of the Masaya Volcano was well spent.

Please note

The author visited Masaya Volcano in March of 2018 before the political crisis. I would not recommend visiting Nicaragua at this time. Please check the U.S. State Department for current travel information or your country’s travel warnings for more information.

Unlocking adventure at Mombacho Volcano

Mombacho Volcano looms ominously over the city of Granada. It is a favorite photo op especially with Granada’s beautiful church in the forefront. However, not many travelers make the trek to the tropical forest and trails that cover the dormant volcano.

Mombacho Volcano Granada
Mombacho Volcano looms over the city of Granada

Related: Hostal El Momento in Granada

It is extremely easy to travel in Nicaragua if you stay along the main tourist trail. Once you step off, it can get a little more difficult, especially if you do not speak Spanish. Mombacho Volcano is only less than 20 kilometers from Granada; however, not a lot of people go there. It can be a little bit of a challenge to travel there.

Mombacho Volcano Nicaragua
Mombacho Volcano from near my hostel

How to get to Mombacho Volcano

Take a taxi

The first step is getting there. Granada is the most likely stepping off point, since it is so close. There are basically three ways to get there. You can take a tour, take a taxi, or take a chicken bus. Taking a taxi would be the easiest. Just stop any taxi in Granada and ask to go to Mombacho. It should not cost more than $4.00 to $7.00 depending on your taxi and negotiating skills. If they want more, I would recommend trying another taxi.

Mombacho Volcano
Mombacho Volcano coming into view from the window of a tuk-tuk

Take a tour

You can set up a tour in Granada to visit Mombacho Volcano. There are both day tours and overnight tours. A day tour should cost anywhere from $25.00  to $40.00 depending on what is included. If you do an overnight tour, it should cost around $75.00 to $80.00.  I tried to set up an overnight tour, but the company I inquired with was not running it for that day, so I went with option number three.

Mombacho Volcano hiking
Hiking the tropical forest on top of Mombacho Volcano

Go your own way

Option number three is to go there yourself. If you are renting a car you can drive there, but if you are backpacking, you can take the bus. Go to the main bus terminal for Rivas and jump a bus going to Rivas. Let them know you are going to Mombacho. It cost around one dollar to get to the road to Mombacho. It then cost me $4.00 for a tuk-tuk to my hostel. You can also hike up, but it is uphill and about 2-3 kilometers depending on where you are staying.

Where to stay

If you plan on staying the night near Mombacho, there are several options. If you leave early in the morning, you can do Mombacho in one day and return to Granada, but I recommend staying in the area at least one night.

Auberge la Granadilla
For a real authentic Nicaragua experience, stay a day or two at Auberge la Granadilla

Alburgue la Granadilla

This hostel is basically a room with a family that lives near the volcano. They charge $20.00 a night. They serve three meals a day that are fresh and tasty. The only issue is no one in the family speaks English, but as far as a cultural experience, it does not get any more authentic than this. Despite the language barrier, I did not have much trouble communicating, and they helped arrange a ride to the gate of Mombacho Volcano for $1.00.

Mombacho Volcano Hostel

There is a hostel at the top of the volcano. For travelers the price is $50.00 with meals included or $30.00 without meals. It is a little pricy, but it is worth it to stay on top of the Volcano and have easy access to the trails.

Mombacho Volcano road
The top of the road that leads to the trails, visitor center, and hostel on top of Mombacho Volcano

Eco-Lodges

There are a few higher priced lodges within a short distance of the reserve. El Respiro Eco Lodge and Mombacho Lodge cost around $80.00 to $100.00. With the lodges there are obviously more amenities and comfort.

Getting up Mombacho Volcano

Once you have made it to Mombacho Volcano, the next task is getting up to the top. The park entrance is down below, but to get to the trails, you have to get to the top. You can either hike or pay for transport. The price for transport is included if you stay at the hostel. If not, it costs $10.00.

Mombacho Volcano road
The cobblestone road makes the hike look cute, but it is a son of a bitch

I highly recommend paying for the ride because it is an exhausting hike straight up the volcano. The incline is insane. It takes over an hour and you will arrive tired and sweating. Save your energy for the trails at the top.

Mombacho Volcano
More incline up the Mombacho Volcano

Hiking Mombacho Volcano

There are several trails at the top. Some require guides and some do not. I hiked the crater trail that did not require a guide. The Puma Trail is the main long trail and this cost $22.00 for an English speaking guide or $17.00 if you can speak Spanish. It also costs $6.00 to enter the trails.

The prices for Mombacho Volcano are  not that high, but they add up. I ended up not doing the Puma Trail. I enjoyed my time at Mombacho, but I would like to come back and do the Puma Trail and stay at the hostel in the park. If you stay at the hostel, you can also do a night hike, which does cost another $10-$15.

Mombacho Volcano Crater Trail
Outstanding view from Mombacho Volcano Crater Trail

The Crater Trail is less than a mile and goes through sections of the forest and then out into some fabulous overlooks of Granada and the surrounding area. You can even see the smoking Masaya Volcano.

Granada church
Many people photograph Our Lady of the Assumption Cathedral in Granada with Mombacho Volcano in the backdrop, but not many capture the church from Mombacho Volcano

Recommend coming to Mombacho

The Mombacho Volcano is a bit off the tourist trail, but it is worth making the effort. If you stay on the Granada, Leon, Ometepe Island, San Juan Del Sur tourist trail, you will not see a whole lot of wildlife and nature. At Mombacho Volcano you have the opportunity to see wildlife and there are 278 species of birds seen throughout the year.

Mombacho Volcano
I recommend squeezing a day or two into your schedule for a trip to Mombacho Volcano

Another perk for coming to Mombacho is the climate is a little cooler than the rest of the area. Mombacho Volcano is a tropical forest and due to its elevation makes for a more pleasant environment.

Mombacho Volcano howler monkeys
Howler monkeys seen walking up to Mombacho Volcano

The adventure is up to you

As you can see, there are many options on how to tackle a Momacho Volcano adventure. Depending on your budget, time frame, and fitness level, you can experience a lot here; on the other hand, you can have a cool experience in just a day. Mombacho Volcano is worth getting off the tourist trail for a day or two.

Check out this website for more information on visiting Mombacho.

Cornerhouse Bed & Breakfast on Ometepe Island

My Lonely Planet Guide informed me that there were only four rooms at the Cornerhouse Bed & Breakfast. Furthermore, the rooms were not reservable. They were first come first serve. I wanted to stay here, so I hoped one room was free when I emerged from the ferry.

Ometepe Island
Stay at the Cornerhouse Bed & Breakfast when at Ometepe Island in Nicaragua

Arrival in Moyogalpa on Ometepe Island

The location was easy to find on a corner of the main street in Moyogalpa, Nicaragua on Ometepe Island. I stopped in to reserve a room.  They had a vacancy. I deposited my backpacks in the room upstairs, and then I sat down and ordered a fresh fruit smoothie and enjoyed lunch.

Cornerhouse Ometepe
No surprise to find Cornerhouse Bed & Breakfast on a corner

Lunch and secured Concepción Volcano guide

The girl that took my room reservation was also my waitress. She was really friendly, which comes as no surprise since just about every person from Nicaragua I had met so far was friendly and helpful. Moyogalpa and Ometepe Island is a small village on a small island, so the friendliness was even amped up more here.

Concepción Volcano
My guide Roger patiently waiting for me as we near the summit of Concepción Volcano

I asked about the possibility of securing a guide for a hike up Concepción Volcano. She called someone and in a few minutes the owner of a tour company was trying to sell me a tour. No need for the salesmanship, I am buying. I paid $25.00 for the guide and the entrance to the park, and we agreed upon an early departure the next morning.

Related: A grueling hike up Concepción Volcano

Cornerhouse Bed & Breakfast closes early

The only negative thing I would say about this location is the early closure. After I checked in, I went upstairs and rested for awhile. Then I read the literature in the room, and saw they have an option to pack a lunch if you are going on a trek. They offer free breakfast, but if you do not have time for breakfast, they offer a complimentary packed lunch. I went downstairs to inquire about this option, but it was closed up for the day.

Cornerhouse Moyogalpa
Great hangout spot upstairs at Cornerhouse Bed & Breakfast

They did not open until 7 a.m. the next morning, so this was too late for me to order the lunch. I went across the street for breakfast and then stopped at a grocery store to buy snacks for my hike. If you are going on a trek the next day, make plans to order the packed lunch in advance.

The room

All four rooms were upstair above the restaurant and cafe. The room was clean, comfortable, and Spartan. There was a bed and a fan with a bathroom. Standard fare for the adventure traveler.

Cornerhouse Bed & Breakfast
Spartan but comfortable accommodations at Cornerhouse B&B

Places to sit and hang out including a hammock and some chairs overlooking the street lined the hallway in front of the rooms. The chairs above the street were a personal favorite for me. I enjoyed watching island life go by as I chilled from above.

The food

It turned out I did not have to worry much about a place to stay here. Both nights I was the only occupant in the four rooms. In contrast, the cafe is a hot spot and at times, nearly filled up. The coffee was decent, but it was the best coffee I experienced in Nicaragua. This was not saying much as the rest of the coffee I had was pretty mediocre.

Cornerhouse cafe Ometepe
Where the breakfast takes place – See the only good cup of coffee I enjoyed in Nicaragua and empty smoothie glass at bottom right

I had three meals here, and they were all tasty. Lonely Planet gives kudos to this place as both a place to stay and a place to eat. Perhaps that was why the cafe received good traffic during their open hours. I enjoyed a steak and chicken sandwich and an omelet for lunch.

Cornerhouse cafe nicaragua
My delicious chicken sandwich lunch to go from Cornerhouse after being in my backpack for several hours on a hot Nicaraguan bus

Lunch to go

Remember I said that I did not get my first complimentary breakfast because I had to leave for my volcano hike? When I had breakfast my last day and was checking out they asked if I wanted a lunch to go since I did not get one on the first day. I thought that was a very nice and fair way to compensate for the missed meal. I took them up on that offer and ate my lunch at Laguna de Apoyo later in the day.

Check out this website for more information.

I highly recommend Cornerhouse Bed & Breakfast as a place to stay and eat while in Moyogalpa.