Travel like the Tex-Pats

Recently, I was scrolling through my social media posts from our first month in KL to revisit the things we felt were worth “writing home” about at the time. It was a nice reminder of how far we have come, in terms of cultural adjustments and what no longer seems strange anymore. (Of course I grocery shop in the mall! … OK, that one is still a little odd.) In response to one of my sarcastic comments about some first time achievement, a friend said, “You should write travel guides!” I replied, “They would be sarcastic and full of semi-helpful information.” Now that we are coming to the end of our expat year and we have more experience with international travel, I thought I would write about what we have learned. I’ve tried my best to tone down my sarcasm, so here is my semi-helpful travel guide: How to Travel like the Tex-Pats.

Disclaimer 1: We’ve done all of our traveling childless, so far. I reserve the right to update this guide once we start traveling with The Kid.

Disclaimer 2: This style of travel works for us, obviously, but we’re not saying that it’s the only way to travel or that it will work for everyone. If you follow my advice to the letter and hate your trip, you’ve been warned.

Always take time to enjoy the flowers.

Always take time to enjoy the flowers.

The first thing you should do when you are thinking about traveling to a new place is get a travel book and make a plan. If you’ve read this blog before, you might know that we are faithful followers of Lonely Planet.  This really suits our style of living and traveling. So browse your library or bookstore and figure out which series works for you. Lonely Planet has a lot of walking, a lot of self-guided stuff, and a lot of tips for you to maximize your local experience. If you are a “stay at a 5 star resort and be pampered” type of traveler, this series will not be for you.

Sidebar: I’ve shifted to mostly reading books on my Kindle, mainly for convenience. But I would never get an e-version of a travel guide. You’ll want to highlight it, fold the pages, maybe tear out a map, put in some sticky tabs, write some notes about things you wanted to do… Definitely go hard copy for travel guides.

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Now that you are armed with your trusty travel guide, you can start to make your plan. What do you want to do while you’re there? And how long will you stay? The answers to Question 1 are likely dictated by the answers to Question 2. And that’s fine. Both are important questions to answer, no matter which order you tackle them. We’ve gone in both directions. Most recently, I wanted to go to Melaka. I read the section in the book on Melaka and decided there was probably about a day’s worth of stuff we would like. So we’re taking a day trip. In this case, the decision on how long to stay was made by the amount of activities available. However when we went to Penang, we went for a holiday weekend and the decision on how long to stay was made based on amount of time off Micah had from work, without using vacation days. Then the decisions on what to do were made around our flight schedule.

While you are making your plan, stay flexible. You might read about something that sounds really fun in the book, and then you get there and decide that there are other things you’d rather do instead. In Sydney, we thought we wanted to see the Aquarium and the Sydney Eye. Once we got there, we realized we were really enjoying the various hikes and outdoorsy things we did and would rather spend more time doing that. Decide what parts of your itinerary are negotiable and what parts are not. (Seeing the Opera House in Sydney, not negotiable!)

Related to the idea of flexibility is to utilize the local sources. Your hotel probably has great suggestions for things to do and places to eat. In Thailand, we only had a very vague idea of what we wanted to do. We knew there were lots of options available to us, and thought we’d see what the hotel recommended as far as what company to book a boat tour with, etc. As it turns out, arriving in Thailand with very little plan was great because the suggestions from the hotel were wonderful. If we had decided all of our activities in advance, we would have missed out on some great stuff. So finding out what is worth doing from a local perspective will give you a much different picture of where you are than if you stick to the big, touristy stuff. We also had some really excellent food in Thailand based on the front desk guy’s recommendation. Smaller, local restaurants are often much better and cheaper than the big popular ones.

Choose your own seafood!

Choose your own seafood!

Speaking of utilizing your local sources: Go local as much as possible. What kind of experience are you only going to get in that place? What kind of food should you try? What museums or other activities will help you learn about where you are? In our non-expat lives, we make a lot of decisions based on the Go Local mentality. We would much rather support a small business than a chain in most cases. When you buy local, eat local, stay local, your tourism dollars might have a better impact on the local economy. (I’m not an economics scholar, so I don’t know the specifics. But it makes intuitive sense to me!) Not only that, but having a unique experience that is specific to where ever you are is very rewarding and makes great vacation memories. Lonely Planet also believes in this philosophy, which is one reason we like the books so much.

Figure out public transportation options. Many places have tourist passes, some kind of unlimited pass that you can buy. This might be really worth it! It’s definitely good to have some idea of what bus options and subway options you have. My original sarcastic comment that spurred the idea for a travel guide was, “All public transportation is basically the same. You will need a ticket, and you will need to know what stop to get off at. Acquire a map and figure out how to get a ticket and you will be unstoppable!” I intended it to be snarky at the time, but it’s true at its heart. Familiarize yourself with the map and figure out how to get a ticket. Now you can go anywhere!

One thing we don’t use Lonely Planet for is hotel recommendations. I’m sure their recommendations are great. But the hospitality business changes more rapidly than they publish new editions. There are always new hotels and changes at old hotels. Trip Advisor is a much better current source for hotels. You can search by price range, area where you want to stay, rating, or a combination of all of them plus more. You can read customer reviews and decide which “3 star” things you are willing to put up with and which ones you are not. We like to look for smaller, boutique-type hotels. I think the service is a little more personal and they often have a good network of local businesses to recommend. Plus, our theory of life is to support a small business over a chain.

This might sound silly, but in choosing a hotel, consider your location. Even if you think you’ll only be at your hotel to shower and sleep, this is very important. You can usually save some money by staying outside of the city center or town, but then you might spend that on cab fare or waste a lot of time getting to where you want to go. To me, it’s worth it to leave my hotel in the morning and be walking distance to the things I want to do. This is especially true when you are somewhere for a long weekend. If you only have 2 days to see the sights, you don’t want to spend an hour or more getting to them! Your criteria probably will change depending on where you are. In Cambodia, we stayed in the middle of nowhere for a cheaper price rather than in the heart of downtown Siem Reap. But we knew they had free transportation to town and also would arrange our tours with no booking fee. As it turns out, the hotel in Cambodia was our favorite place we’ve stayed.

Most of all, be flexible. (If you are a careful reader, you might notice that this is the second time I’ve said this. That’s not an accident. It’s that important.) There will be things that go wrong, things you don’t get to do, or other potential disappointments. Don’t stress over them and certainly don’t dwell on them! Enjoy the trip you are having, rather than spend time upset about the trip you didn’t have. For example, in Penang we were really enjoying the national park and spending time on the beach. We stayed longer than we had planned and didn’t end up having time for several other activities we wanted to do. We decided staying on the beach was worth skipping some things and if we could only do one more thing in Penang, it was going to be to find a hawker center. We would really regret not having some amazing street food, but we wouldn’t miss seeing some of the other sights. Dinner at the hawker center more than lived up to our expectations. And we were in the right place at the right time to see a Wesak Day parade after dinner, too! Dwelling on the things we didn’t get to do had the potential to ruin the rest of the trip, but it just wasn’t worth it. The trip to Penang was really fun. In the end, that’s what we will remember and look back on, not the stuff we didn’t do.

So, let’s recap. How to Travel Like a Tex Pat in 4 Easy Steps (patent pending): Be prepared. Do local things. Be flexible. Enjoy your trip!

Happy Travels from the Tex-Pats!

Happy Travels from the Tex-Pats!

The Grand Tour Continued!

Cambodia, Post 5, the finale. Previous posts, in chronological order: Arriving in Cambodia, Sunrise at Angkor Wat, Angkor Wat: The Small Tour, The Grand Tour. I had the best intentions of not writing a lot about this trip and instead having lots of pictures. Apparently “not writing a lot” is a very difficult proposition for me.  But I do think I have delivered on the “lots of pictures”!

Towards the end of our second day of temple hopping, we were running close on time for sunset with two temples left. The temple our driver had picked out for sunset only allows about 300 people in, and you have to get there around 4pm to make sure you can get your spot. Sunset happens just before 7pm, so there is a fair amount of waiting to be done once you are there.  We decided to skip a formal lunch and just eat the trail mix and snacks we had packed, and we even decided to skip the smaller of the two temples. This left us an hour for Preah Khan. Preah Khan was a temple we had heard of, and we decided we wanted to see it more than we wanted to eat!

Preah Khan was massive. We practically jogged through it and I wish we had more time. This is why it would have been good to have moved the first two “extra” temples to a different day. Skipping one temple and not having enough time at another were not ideal. Not eating lunch was also not ideal, but it was much worse to not have time to take in the temple.  Most of the temples in the Angkor era were originally built to honor Hindu deities; over time, as the state religion switched to Buddhism, the temples were simply repurposed. Preah Khan is interesting because it was originally built to honor both Hinduism and Buddhism.

After our relatively quick walk through of Preah Khan, we were on our way to Phnom Bakheng for sunset. This temple is on top of a very large hill, requiring you to hike up a good ways to visit it. It makes for stunning views though and it’s easy to see why it’s a favorite for sunset. By the time we arrived, there were quite a few people already there. Since I am much slower at going up hills or inclines these days, we agreed that Micah would just hike up as quickly as he could and hold a spot in line while I took my time and would meet him at my own pace. (As it turns out, when he got in line, he only had to wait about 5 minutes for me to catch up.  So I’m not that slow yet!)

When it was our turn to go into the temple and up to the top, we quickly claimed a spot at the edge of the temple. I stayed put and Micah did a quick scan to see if there was a better vantage point. Then we swapped and I did a quick scan to see if there was a better view. We both agreed there wasn’t, so Micah began to set up the tripod and I went to walk around and enjoy the views from the other sides. When I came back, Micah was taking down the tripod. Apparently tripods are not allowed. We clearly had no idea about this rule, so we were just thrilled to have carried it around all day for absolutely no reason. (We brought it on the trip specifically for sunrise and sunset photos.  Actually, we bought it specifically for this trip for those reasons!) But while I was checking out the view, I spotted a familiar sight in the middle of the jungle. You could see Angkor Wat quite clearly! As frustrated as we both were about the tripod issue, it was thrilling to see it through the afternoon haze and calming to spend a few minutes on the opposite side of the temple from where the sunset viewing was best, and away from the majority of the people.

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Watching sunset was tremendous. You have an impressive view of rice fields and Western Baray lake. I had envisioned being able to see the sun drop down into the lake and take some stunning sunset-over-water pictures. The haze that hangs over the jungle, however, put a damper on those plans. The sun dropped into the haze about 15-20 minutes before it would reach the horizon, and at that point the sunset was over for our intents and purposes. The temple guards started herding us towards the exits and we descended the hill in the twilight.

Our driver had told us specifically which tree he would be parked underneath, so it wasn’t difficult to find him among the crowd. The way back to our hotel was crazy with a lot of traffic. Seeing sunset is a popular activity for tourists, in fact, it’s listed as one of the “must do” events. It was even popular with a lot of the locals as we saw families with picnic blankets spread out across the moat from Angkor Wat.

On the way back through the city, we noticed that there were no street lights, or traffic lights, or really any lights anywhere. We got back to the hotel and commented on this to the driver. He didn’t seem too concerned about it, apparently sometimes the entire city loses power. At the hotel, they said that there was an accident- that a car hit a transformer and the entire city was out of power. But the hotel had a generator, so they could still run normally. This was good news! It would be a long night with no AC!  (Though they did have to turn off the generator for a few hours in the middle of the night, so there were a few uncomfortable hours around midnight.)  We went swimming to cool off and then had dinner at the hotel restaurant. We were the only guests eating there, so it was actually very romantic to have a private, candle light dinner, in the beautiful garden setting to end our trip.

We had planned an afternoon flight on Monday so that we could have one last adventure on Monday morning. We thought about visiting one of the museums, or maybe going back to Angkor Wat for a few hours, but my joints were really aching from the whirlwind tours we had done the previous few days. That, coupled with the fact that the power was still out in the whole city, helped us decide to just relax and soak in the pool. We had twinges of “we should be doing something,” but sometimes it’s important to listen to what your body needs and just take a break! (That’s true for all travelers, by the way, not just the knocked up ones!)

Overall, we loved our time in Cambodia and will probably return at some point in our lives.  We saw a lot, but not nearly everything that we wanted to.  It’s worth spending a good chunk of time, a week or so, so that you can take everything in without having to rush.

I’ve updated our Flickr site with a few extra pictures and captions.  Please Enjoy!

Coming Soon:  Lessons from traveling

Shrewd Growth Scheme

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My Forces of Nature pictures come from the plant life we have seen on our hikes in and around Kuala Lumpur.  Specifically, these photos were taken at the Forest Research Institute Malaysia, or FRIM.

These curly cork screw vines can be seen in any forest in Malaysia.  Well, at least in any of the forests we have been in.  They are opportunistic, growing around another plant and reaching their way to the canopy and towards the sun.  Eventually, they smother their host and the original plant rots away while the vine retains the whorled shape.

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