#1916 | The Broke Student’s Guide to Luang Prabang, Laos

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imagesLuang Prabang, Laos.

Luang Prabang! City of Gold, UNESCO World Heritage site, a relatively recent star in the Southeast Asian tourist bucket lists. That said, I’d never heard of Luang Prabang, to be completely honest, till the team from Unravel Travel SG engaged me to host a travel video campaign for them in collaboration with Changi Airport Group. But I am always game for new destinations and the romantic idea of the unknown – and how glad I am that they ended up sending me, and my girlfriend Cindy, here.

First up, the obvious: Luang Prabang is gorgeous. It is insanely, gut-wrenchingly, in-your-face beautiful. The scenery here is just on another level altogether, but we’re not just talking superficial beauty. When you get past the breathtaking views, you dust off the dazedness to reveal the real beauty of Luang Prabang – the people. I have never met people more open, inviting, and warm, and coming face to face with the culture of Laos is somewhat dazzling. That is something money truly cannot buy, that enveloping sense of tradition welcoming you with open arms. It’s something you have to experience yourself, which brings me to my second point –

Luang Prabang is extremely accessible. Southeast Asia in general usually is, and this in itself gives the destination a huge advantage over other gorgeous choices, simply because you have the option of hopping on a two hour flight and slipping away from Singapore for the weekend. In this way it truly is perfect – for both the busy Singaporean looking for a short getaway, and the ambitious backpacker winding his/her way through the Laos/ Cambodia/ Vietnam route.

So with that, lets get to it: yet another BSG, the Southeast Asian counterpart to my Rome BSG, if you will. The Broke Student’s Guide to Luang Prabang: how to do LP for under a hundred dollars!

*Once again, this hundred dollars does not include my flight there. It includes everything else – food, local transport, entry fees, and so on. Changi Airport Group paid for my flight and accommodation, but here I also include the rough cost breakdown for travellers looking to fly over on their own.

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Getting there

Lao Airlines flies to Vientiane from Changi Airport most days, and from Vientiane there’s a twice daily domestic flight to Luang Prabang. The entire return journey will cost you about 300SGD.

I think that’s pretty decent as it is, but for budget travellers, you can just fly into Vientiane, and then take an overnight bus to Luang Prabang. It will cost you about 140,000kip for the overnight, air conditioned bus. I suggest doing Luang Prabang and another destination like Vientiane, just to make the most of the airfare, or at least staying longer than we did – we only had one full day there. It was a fly in at night, one full day, fly out the following afternoon kind of situation. While we were there though, we met lots of people who had been there over a week and counting.

Getting Cash

This is the only time in my life I can lay claim to the title of millionaires. Laos uses the kip as their currency, which sounds like an adorable type of fish food. The exchange rate when I was there was approximately 1SGD to 6,000kip, which means that the cheap thrill of being called a millionaire can be yours for the low, low budget of 170SGD! Oh, I make myself laugh.

Although you can change your SGD to kip in Laos itself, you’ll have an easier time changing your SGD to USD in Singapore, then changing USD to kip once you touch down. I couldn’t find a place that’d change my SGD to kip directly in Singapore. Once in Laos, USD is more widely accepted and you’re going to need it immediately anyway, getting a taxi out from the airport.

A side point: I found it more helpful to think in terms of the Thai Baht, because 50,000kip is 200BHT, and it’s easier to draw dollar for dollar comparisons since you can find relatively similar things in Laos and Thailand. EG. 1 hr Thai massage in Thailand is 200BHT, 1 hr Thai massage in Laos is 40,000kip. Conclusion: it’s a steal, do it in Laos! (Though honestly, everywhere is a steal compared to Singapore.)

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BTS: early morning shoot for Unravel Travel SG (8am)

Connectivity

There are a bunch of telcos available in Laos – the most common being Unitel, which is frequently lauded as the best telco around. However, the locals told us that Unitel is best for calls, but other telcos are better for internet connection, which works out if you just need connectivity like we did.

We paid 19USD for 10GB of data, valid for 30 days, shared out between the three of us with one of those wifi egg devices (Hafiz brought his). The telco was called M Broadband. There’s a little booth right at the tiny Luang Prabang airport that will sell and set up the sim cards for you, and you’ll be good to go!

Accommodation

We stayed at the Sayo Naga Guesthouse, which was about three minutes walk from the city centre and much more comfortable than its Agoda photos might suggest. It was lovely and functional, but at the same time, accommodation in Luang Prabang is widely available and extremely affordable – basically a backpacker’s dream, so there’s not much to worry about on that front. I’ve heard good things about LPQ Backpackers, which should cost under $10 a night and which is pretty near the city centre as well – we passed it every morning, walking to town.

Sayo Naga Guesthouse
Sisavangvong Road, Town Centre
Luang Prabang, Laos

LPQ Backpackers
Wat That street.
Ban Wat That.
Luang prabang. Laos

Getting around

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You can and should walk everywhere in Luang Prabang because it’s so small. The only time you’ll need to take a tuktuk/ van is to and fro the airport, and when you leave the city centre to get to the famous Kuang Si waterfalls.

1. To and fro the airport

Will cost you 50,000kip for three people each way. That’s 200 BHT, or SGD8.30 in total. It’s a pretty standard cost, but we saw some European tourists get charged 80,000. Basically, you just need to know what the pricing is like and not look gullible or you’ll be taken for a ride both literally and metaphorically.

2. To and fro the Waterfalls

Any tuktuk you approach will try to charge you upwards of 200,000 kip for a return journey to the waterfalls per vehicle. This is a case of gross overcharging – because the standard rate is 50,000 for a return journey per person. To get this rate, you need five or six people to share the tuktuk, the drivers wont leave otherwise, or will end up charging you 200,000 kip. Perfect – because this means that you not only get to save money, you also learn a valuable life lesson/ skill, which is that travelling alone forces you to make friends with strangers on demand.

Food

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Food in Luang Prabang is nothing to shout about, unfortunately. It’s alright, but most of it doesn’t warrant the word delicious at any point. We tried nearly everything – street side noodles, asian style tapas, stick food, lao baguettes, crepes.. and the conclusion is, the most value for money thing to get is the baguettes, available nearly everywhere and starting at 10,000kip for the most basic version with one ingredient. (Each additional ingredient is about 5,000kip more. So: Egg baguette, 10,000kip. Egg and Tuna baguette, 15,000kip.)

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We did, however, get very lucky one night in Luang Prabang – stumbling upon this innocuous noodle store along the streets at the tail end of the Luang Prabang night market. Operated and frequented almost exclusively by locals, it serves up homemade kuay teow noodle soup with pork, minced meat, whatever, for 15,00kip per bowl. Have it with copious amounts of chilli or in it’s original naked form – either way, it was amazing. So tasty and flavorful! Best dish in Luang Prabang, all right. We had it again at Lao Coffeeshop, a little shophouse a short walk from the city center.

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Night Market
cnr Th Sisavangvong & Th Kitsarat,
Luang Prabang, Laos

Lao Coffeeshop
Chao Fa Ngum Rd

Things to see

You can watch my video travelogue – 24 hours in Luang Prabang, filmed for the Unravel Travel SG campaign, once it’s out on the Changi Airport youtube channel! But meanwhile, let’s break it down:

Morning

6AM – Alms ceremony.

Laos is a deeply cultural and religious place. Every morning, the monks embark on an alms ceremony through the town, which is definitely worth getting up for at least once. Bear witness to the ceremony itself and get intimate with Laotian culture – but if you’re looking to also take good photos, please don’t be an obnoxious tourist and wave your camera around in their faces. Respect the ceremony. Opinions on the internet differ on whether participation in the ceremony is a good idea, but as a general rule I think be wary of buying the alms sold by the roadside hawkers in the morning, because I’ve heard that a lot of it is leftover or day-old food that could cause the monks to fall sick.

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We actually woke up at 4AM for this but missed the monks slightly and only caught a smattering of them while looking for the bridge. However, the best place in town to catch them is about a 15 minute walk from the city center, a semi-famous bamboo bridge. There’s a little platform higher up on the steps where you can plant yourself for photographs, and still stay a respectful distance away from the monks. If you’re in town, definitely make the effort to watch the ceremony.

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Sulking because we failed / woke up early for nothing.

8AM – Kuang Si Waterfalls

The entry fee for the waterfalls is 20,000kip, and this is on top of the tuktuk rental. So in total it should set you back 70,000kip. It is worth every cent. Arrange the time spent at the falls with the driver before setting off – they’ll suggest 2 hours, but I think 3 or more is better. You’re going to need the time to climb up and down, especially if you want to swim.

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Water was freezing but you gotta do what you gotta do for that instagram shot.

The waterfalls can be accessed basically all day, but it gets crowded really fast, so I suggest you go early to get beautiful unobstructed views of the pools before they get littered with cheerfully swimming tourists. It actually reminds me of Turkey’s Pamukkale.

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Dream filming location: Check!

At the same time, visit the Luang Prabang Bear Conservatory. It’s included in the entry fee to the Waterfalls, and lets you get up close and personal with bears rescued from the rapidly growing bear poaching culture. Feeding is at approximately midday but varies daily, so check when you’re there!

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Bears having a romp

There was also a butterfly garden right by the Waterfall entrance, but we didn’t have enough time to hit it as well because our three hours were up. However, some other international travellers we spoke to positively gushed about it, so it’s probably worth a visit if you have the time!

Midday – R&R

Rest back in your guesthouse, or go for a massage. There are massage parlours all over town, and they should cost you 40,000 kip for an hour’s thai massage. Alternatively, check out the cafes in town, there are only two or three, so it’ll make for a really straightforward afternoon lounging in the cafes!

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Midday coffee break at Joma Bakery – intense, very intense coffee served up here

4-5PM – Catch the sunset at Phuo Si Hills.

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Entry fee: 20,000 kip. It’s some three hundred steps to the top, tiring, but very worth it. The sun only sets at about 6pm, but this is the best place to watch the sunset in town and it gets crowded really, really fast. See below:

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Ridiculous
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Yes? We went two hours early and there were already a whole bunch of people milling around. It got more crowded by the minute. So go early, and get a seat, because it’s going to be the most beautiful sunset you’ll ever catch in your life.

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8PM onwards – Night Market

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Laotian coffee is an intense contraption with silky condensed milk, often with the option of various types of alcohol added in for an extra kick.

The night market stretches all over the main street in Luang Prabang, and is a treasure chest of trinkets, elephant pants, and smoky street food. One thing to note – you’ll definitely have to bargain if you’re looking to buy anything, they mark up the price by a pretty crazy amount once they realise you’re a tourist. Elephant pants, for instance, should cost 20,000 to 30,000 (I googled this beforehand), but some places tried charging me 70,000 for a pair. Once I shook my head and said 30,000 though, they brought it down – it seems if it’s obvious you know what the pricing should be, they give up on trying to convince you to pay more. So do your research.

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One of the most interesting and slightly heart wrenching things I saw in the night market was the sale of these little silver keychains and cutlery, made from the scrap bits of the bomber planes that devastated Laos years ago in the Secret War. We’ve learnt to make new life from the destruction, the locals shrug, we turn it into new things and sell it as a way to make a living.

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What do you say to that? What indeed.

Total Expenditure for 3D2N in Luang Prabang

Transport: (return trip for the airport and waterfalls) approx 84,000kip.
Food and Drinks: (yes, I kept count) 117,000kip
Attractions: 40,000 (entry for the Waterfalls and Phu Si hills)
Gifts: 140,000kip (elephant pants and their local coffee beans)
Misc: 40,000kip for one massage
Total: 421,000kip, or approximately SGD 70

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Alright, and there you go! The Broke Student’s Guide to Luang Prabang. If you’re adding in flight and backpacker’s accommodation, your entire trip can actually nestle safely under the 500SGD total mark. The thing I love most about this BSG is this – that you can spend so little, and return with so much. Who was it who said that the only thing that makes you richer while spending is travel?

It just blows my mind how accessible the world is becoming for us – I remember a time when a much younger me thought i’d never make it out of Asia, purely due to finances.. and the rapid development of affordable travel vessels (budget flights, backpacker hostels, couchsurfing) and the ease of which a wealth of information is made available to us at a click has just shrunk the globe completely. It’s no longer purely a luxury to travel – over the course of the last year, I’ve met so many people who embody the notion that travel is necessary to truly broaden your mind and world perspective. And so it is.

Right, and so – thanks are in order. I’m endlessly grateful to the Unravel Travel SG team and Changi Airport Group for sending us on this trip, and I’m so excited to see how the videos turn out! Thank you to Hafiz, our videographer, for patiently trailing us around the town and giving us the 911 on waterfall photography. And Laos – thank you for being so unexpectedly lovely. I can’t wait for my next Southeast Asian venture x

X
♥jem

#1915| A short literary one.

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Hey guys,

Hello from Laos – in between filming for a new exciting campaign and prepping a new Broke Student’s Guide to go up this weekend, I made up for my hiatus on the literary blog by releasing a new piece of fiction over there last night:

I know something has changed the minute I walk into the house. I see her standing there by the dinner table, candles lit, steak bloody, and I think to myself, this is it, and even though I don’t know what this is, I know I have been waiting for it and it is here.

Read the rest over at the book blog here.

X
♥jem

#1914| Jemma for Airbnb: Dream Apartments in Bangkok

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Pictures taken on the Nikon Df, with a 35mm lens.

imagesBangkok, Thailand.

For any of you interested in the listing I stayed in this trip, you can check it out at airbnb.com/jemma.

Because who would have known, am I right?

Bangkok is a familiar friend – I’ve been multiple times over the past years, but never with Airbnb. I’ve always just checked in to the ubiquitous hotels around the area almost as something of a reflex – but after traveling Europe for seven months, I’ve learnt that Airbnb has proven quite a gem in the past and would continue to do so for years to come. This time, Lex and I returned to Bangkok ready to get intimate with the city: more than the marathon shopping we’re so used to, we wanted to explore the lesser known nooks of the city and take it easy this time round. One thing led to another and we ended up in this dreamy apartment down in Thong Lor, the upcoming hipster area in Bangkok.

It was something of an accident – I was just browsing apartments and this one popped up one day, zero reviews because it was a brand new listing, no idea what exactly to expect of it. I sent the link over to the Airbnb Team to ask for their opinion, and it turns out the photos of the listing was taken by a professional Airbnb photographer so it was more or less legitimate (you can tell by the ‘verified photo’ label when you click on the pictures), so we just held our breath and booked it. And what a beautiful accident, too.

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I was communicating with Jamie (our host) via LINE chat up to a week before touching down, and he was nothing but helpful. Isn’t that such a dead ringer for a cliche? He was nothing but helpful. But it was the truth, though. He offered in a completely non pushy way to show us around, and when we arrived late at night there were fresh flowers and a fancy bottle of red waiting for us. The entire place smelt like jasmine. It was amazing.

The apartment itself was gorgeous. We’d booked a beautiful duplex loft in a condominium – read: 24 hour security and guards on standby – and I don’t think we’d ever return to a hotel again. We were squealing from the minute the car pulled up to the building: everything just screamed lush, and I don’t think we were ever allowed to open the main door ourselves – the guards on standby always insisted on doing it for us.

How crazy is this, Lex? I asked, as we were tapping into the lift lobby.
I’m not getting excited until we see the room She insisted. Photos can be so misleading.

We reached our floor and I threw open the door.

How about now?

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I was quite rightly smug.

The place was everything I’d ever dreamed of in a girlfriends loft, the kitchen leading seamlessly into the living room and the overlooking loft bed. And the view – oh! the view! I could see for miles. It was incredible. And it helped that the whole place just smelt so good. Freshly cut lilies, right there.

We’re here safely, I texted Jamie.
Good to hear it. I’ll see you girls tomorrow.

And thus began one of the best stays in our life.

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A book he left for us, in case we were the reading type (we are). Good sense of humour, there.

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Checking out the game room and the common lounge

We had quite a bit of an issue getting out of the apartment in the mornings. Not because of any logistical fault – the place itself was quite impeccable. But it was also luxurious to quite an unearthly level, making it an actual, legitimate challenge to bring ourselves to get ready and leave the apartment each day. And the entire compound – Ideo Morph 38 – was quite self sustaining, with its own pool, lounge, and cafe. Right outside the building we had some of the best street food in Thailand – for example, Bangkok’s best Mango Sticky Rice can be found on the streets of Thong Lor and there alone. It even converted Lex, who isn’t very keen on Mango Sticky Rice to begin with.

But let me not get ahead of myself. If we start on the street food of Thong Lor, I’ll never complete this post. I’ll save that for another day. Right now, lets focus on exploring the compound..

Right within the complex sat one of the most eclectic cafes we’d ever seen. The Book Cafe was obviously somewhat inspired by Harry Potter, and featured staircases to nowhere, books falling right out of shelves at you, and the most incredible menu with dishes like Chick Lit Salad, and cocktails called The Ernest Hemingway. Every lit geek’s dream, evidently.

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But even hours spent staring dazedly at the wondrous cafe could not detract us from our main mission that trip – checking out the infinity pool.

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Scoping out the pool the first day from these daybeds on a common balcony overlooking the pool, strong wifi, good for reading or getting some work done to the soft ripples.

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We’d got some takeaway of the best Mango Sticky Rice on Jamie’s recommendation and brought it down to the poolside for an early breakfast on the second day.

There were a couple of reasons why we were so excited about the pool. Firstly, it looked amazing in the photos. Secondly, it would look amazing in our photos. Thirdly, one of the girls Lex works with had sent her some pretty sick floats for us to mess around with. And mess around we did.

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How crazy is this?!

What is it about pools, infinity pools in particular, that have us so ridiculously excited? Has it got to do with the fact that we have a pretty famous one sitting right in our Singaporean backyard, completely inaccessible to anyone else but tourists with the cash to splurge, dyou think? On the other hand, beautiful pools seem to be a kind of standard with airbnb apartments, particularly the ones in Bangkok. I cannot tell you how many times I’d flipped through the listings only to pause and swoon over a particularly dreamy pool. Still, I’m glad we picked this one – just look at how beautiful it all is! We had the best morning, slowly getting browner under the sun as we splashed around and made fools of ourselves.

PS. If you’re keen on the floats, they’re available for rental on a weekly basis from floatrentalsg.

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I’m flipping through the days fast because I’m trying to keep my area guide to a separate post – but either way! Our apartment had a free 24/7 tuktuk service out to the BTS, which basically spoilt us silly – we felt like we never really had to walk anywhere again. We took it out each day to start exploring, and on one of the days we arranged to meet Jamie for drinks and dinner. Drinks and dinner – in that very order, because the bar Jamie suggested just happened to be the best place in town to catch the incredible Bangkok sunset..

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See that tall building at the left corner labelled Ashton? That’s where we stayed. Obviously we had the best views in the city.

Over drinks, we bonded. My favourite part of airbnb, couch surfing, or any type of intimately styled accommodation, is getting to know a local who really knows the city. In this case, Jamie was an American expat who moved to Asia years ago and finally settled down in Bangkok. Here, we play five seconds with Jamie..

Why did you choose to move to Bangkok, of all places?

I’ve always had this fascination with Asia and knew I wanted to try and live here one day. I’ve traveled extensively around asia in the past 10 years and to me Bangkok is by far the most livable city for me. Perfect mix of ultra modern and traditional charm, weather is always good (i hate the cold), great nightlife, music, and creative scene. It’s also a seemingly endless labyrinth of worlds within worlds to explore so i never get bored, and compared to other major asian cities it’s affordable. On top of all that it’s just a quick ride or flight to some of the most amazing beaches in the world.

What’s your favourite thing about Bangkok?

See Above.

Where’s your top secret local hangout – bar, cafe, area, whichever – that you feel is completely underrated but that everyone should definitely hit?

Now if i told you that it would be a little like shooting myself in the foot. Some secrets are better kept as secrets. But I would encourage people to break away from the tourists heard centered around lower Sukhumvit Rd. and Khao San Rd. The Mid Sukhumvit area (Phrom Phong, Thonglor, and Ekkamai) that my Airbnb listings are located is packed with amazing places: great cafes, restaurants, bars, boutiques, and art galleries. Break away from the pack and explore, find your own secret place. It’s always more special that way anyway. This neighborhood has infinite possibilities to do that.

What made you want to get into airbnb hosting?

I had used Airbnb a bit before during my many years of traveling and really enjoyed being able to live like a local, meet great people, and find a place with a bit more style and originality. It can be boring to stay in a hotel and have a generic travel experience. I’ve now gained a fair amount of knowledge and experience about Bangkok and it’s fun for me to share that with others. I’m always happy to make sure they don’t get trapped in the typical tourist rut and have an amazing holiday in the city.

And lastly:

What’s your favourite/ most memorable airbnb hosting experience?

Can’t say one really stands out and i’ve truly enjoyed them all. I had the opportunity to meet some great people from all around the world, and a few have even become great friends. Looking forward to many more great experiences in the future.

These questions were thrown out over the course of the night, amongst other things. We learnt the best food spots in the area, guessed that he was fantastic at yoga, though not at his own humble admission, and listened as he told us crazy stories from his five years in Bangkok. In return, we told him stories from our travels all over Europe (Lex did Paris, I did Germany), and all about life in Singapore, from the perspective of two girls who know next to nothing about the world. Good laughs were had. In this way were three good hours spent. After the sun went down completely, we started getting a little hungry.

We’re going to look for tilapia fish, We announced.
Wait, you mean that huge salted thing they roast on hot coals? Can I come with you? I’ve never tried it.
How can you have never tried it?! You’ve lived here five years!
I don’t know, they’ve always looked kind of intimidating.

It was understandable. The three of us trooped over to the rows of street food blinking at us right outside the apartment. (See, we’ve ended up on the topic of street food somehow, against my better judgement.)

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It was, as expected – completely amazing.

Over dinner the plastic chairs theory was developed – food tastes better when you sit on those grimy little plastic chairs to eat, does it not? Somehow street food in Bangkok really is the thing that hits the spot, no restaurant truly comes close. Not even.

We flip through the days some more and arrive on our last afternoon in Bangkok. Lex and I were coming back after a full day of wandering down Thong Lor, exploring various new cafes and getting intimate with the local florists (8 baht for a single rose stalk! 8 baht!), and wanted one last shot at the Tomyum down the road. We had checked out earlier in the day, since our flight was a late night one, and were supposed to coordinate a time to meet Jamie at the lobby to be tapped into the building for our bags. While Lex ordered, I sent Jamie a text to let him know we were nearby:

We’re right down the road, Lex is just trying to get her last fill of authentic tomyum.
Haha. Tell Lex to chill. Enjoy your tomyum – I’ll meet you there with your bags.
What? No. Don’t. We have a ridiculous amount of stuff. It’s a girl thing.
See you there.

Sure enough, in under a half an hour, just as we were wiping up the last of our tomyum, Jamie appeared with all our bags in tow. I should state now that we each had one trolley luggage piece and one handcarry. I have no idea how he manoeuvred them all down to us successfully, but I have to say, we were very touched. And sizeably impressed.

Saying goodbye to Jamie and the apartment was possibly one of the hardest things we had to do in Bangkok, ever, all past trips combined. How do you bid farewell to an apartment like that? And after so long – Jamie seemed more like an old friend than a faceless landlord.

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This trip was incredible and so much more.

Thank you for making this trip possible, Airbnb! And thank you, Jamie, for being such a wonderful host.

For any of you interested in the listing I stayed in this trip, you can check it out at airbnb.com/jemma. Credits for your next trip too, if you use my referral link there!

What an insane trip. Bangkok, you never fail to delight.

X
♥jem

#1913| Mocha Mondays: Dutch Colony Coffee Co

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All photos taken on the Nikon D610 on a 35mm lens.

Mocha Mondays is a new and semi-regular feature on cafes and how workable they are, for freelancers or students looking for a place to park themselves at while getting work done. It may or may not actually feature mocha.

Happy Mocha Monday you guys! Today (or rather, sometime a couple of weeks ago), we hit Dutch Colony Coffee Co.

DCCC is one of those cafes that I’d actually love to live in, and is also one of those cafes that abbreviate funny. Honestly though – I’ve seen so many photos of it on instagram that it’s become one of those places girls seem to go to just for the pictures. Which, if you think about how big instagram is becoming, isn’t that bad really.


TL;DR
Dutch Colony Coffee Co
Famous for: A very instagrammable interior
Seats: Sufficient
Wifi: Yes
Power points: Yes

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Thai milk tea loaf and Earl Grey Citrus loaf

I read in an interview lately that cafes nowadays seem overly concerned with getting their vibe right and not concerned enough with getting their food right. That, I can testify to, having visited my share of disappointing cafes with gorgeous interiors and some form of pretentious exposed brickwork and dried flower decorations. However, DCCC isn’t one of these. The place was gorgeous, sure, but the food was pretty top notch as well. This is coming from someone who doesn’t like sweet things..

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Gold Josie ring c/o byinviteonlystore

Granted, we didn’t go there for a meal. We popped in because we were in the area and heard that the loaves were pretty good after a brunch session at Coast and Company. I never thought of (bread) loaves as a viable form of dessert, but these loaves were essentially a thick, dense cake, infused with an intense flavour. I’m not keen on sweet things, so I actually preferred the Earl Grey Citrus loaf, but I have to say, the Thai milk tea loaf was pretty legit.

I also had a pretty good flat white – I don’t know exactly what it was or what went into it, because I essentially told the staff to surprise me with whatever they thought was good. I realise that makes this review pretty useless, but hey – there’s a reason why I do this for fun and not because I’m anything close to being a professional food blogger eh? For what it’s worth – the coffee was smooth, comforting like a warm blanket, and less intense than the one over at Coast and Company. I actually prefer the strong flavour of confrontation the coffee at C&C, but the one they serve here is pretty damn good too.

Something else DCCC does well – the staff are extremely friendly – or at least, this girl was. I asked one of the waitresses to help us take a picture, and because of space constraints, had to demonstrate to her how she had to manoeuvre her body and twist in a way that got the picture to turn out proportionate. The more I attempted to demonstrate it, the more mortified I got and the more giggly she got. This was the photo:

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And we snapped a picture of her doing it, because she was so sporting:

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You go, girl.

We asked her if she wanted the photo afterwards (it’s quite a nice picture what right??) but she just laughed and demurred. Oh well.

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That was basically DCCC for us. Bright, beautiful, sweet. Would I return? Probably, if someone I knew was driving. Frankel avenue is really the type of place you kinda have to be rich to get to – it’s pretty inaccessible by public transport, and for some reason everytime I’m there it’s sweltering. But other than that, I can totally imagine myself planted in the cafe with my laptop, being more concerned with how the light falls on the wood tables illuminating my coffee cup for instagram, than the actual work to be done. You know how it goes.

Dutch Colony Coffee Co.
113 Frankel Avenue
Singapore 458230

X
♥jem

#1912| Isle of Dreams: Ponza, Italy’s Best Kept Secret

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Oh, Ponza.

Italy’s best kept secret. Isola di Ponza. Island of my dreams.

When people ask me what my favourite destination was in all my seven months of traveling Europe, my answer is unequivocally Ponza. I’m constantly torn between the desire to keep it secret and bubbling on about it to everyone I meet. Ponza was just one of those places, you know? Where everything just went right. It was literally the perfect holiday. I fell in love and wanted to go back over, and over, and over again..

We discovered Ponza quite by accident, the way most beautiful things happen. I believe we were lounging indoors one afternoon in Prague, roundly defeated by the heat, refusing to leave the room. I was nagging at the boyfriend to bring me to Greece. Santorini! Everyone has been except me! He was poking around at google maps for fun. If we’re going to go to Santorini, we have to book our tickets now, I said. Wait a minute, he replied, look at this..

That was how we discovered Ponza, the boyfriend zooming in on a funny shaped little blob off the coast of Italy. Neither of us had heard of Ponza prior to this: we pulled up a picture of it on Google and were instantly mesmerised. Santori-what?

Thus began the long and hard journey to Ponza. It was long and hard because when I say it’s Italy’s best kept secret, i do mean it’s Italy’s best kept secret. Nobody knows how to get there except Italians. Firstly, it seemed nearly impossible to find the place. It took us awhile to figure out that getting to Ponza really meant booking a boat to the Pontine Islands. We tried booking the boat from Naples through their national website, but couldn’t seem to click through. We emailed the site owners several times to be quite pointedly ignored. We were all but about to give up on our Ponzian dreams when I ran into an Italian girl, trying to buy a cup of freshly squeezed orange juice from a street vendor in one of the back alleys in Istanbul, Turkey. We struck up conversation and I mentioned Ponza – and her eyes lit up. Ponza! I love that place!

“Well, we’ve been having some trouble figuring out how to get there. We can’t seem to book the Naples-Ponza boat.”
“That’s because it’s been out of service for three years now.”
“But it’s on their national tourism website!”

She shrugged: that’s Ponza for you. Look, she said, scribbling her email down on a scrap of paper, I have to go, but text me. I’ll tell you how to get there. And she was gone. I looked down at the scrap: her name was Cecilia.

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Back and forth with Cecilia via email and it transpired it was just as difficult to understand her as it was to understand the Italian websites. What was it with these Italians? In any case, she directed us to a website, which in turn directed us to another website, and here we are today at this website where I will tell you in no uncertain terms:

How to Get to Ponza

You can get to Ponza via ferry or hydrofoil. The main difference is that the hydrofoil is two times as expensive but takes half the amount of time to get there. The website that worked for us in the end was http://www.ok-ferry.com. It looks extremely dodgy and we were pretty afraid right up till the point where we got on the ferry itself. It will get you there – don’t worry.

1. Under routes from/to, select Pontine Islands.
2. Enter your dates.
3. Choose your routes.

I took the Formia-Ponza route. Technically, most people go from Rome – Anzio and Terracina are the ports outside of Rome, you take a train there and then board a ferry. I was coming up from Naples (pompeii!!) so I ended up in Formia, less than an hour’s ride from Naples. It’s up to you.

The ferries that don’t accommodate cars are lighter and go faster. The ones that accommodate cars are slower and about 10EUR cheaper. Pick whichever suits your budget/ timings. It should cost you about 50EUR total, max, if you’re taking the fast ones, and there is also a booking fee of 12EUR. Even though you’ve made payment, this booking confirmation is not a ticket. You’ll still need to collect it from the ticket man at the dock, then present it to board. The ferry should be this giant one under the company Laziomar, you’ll know it when you see it.

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Getting Around Ponza

Ponza is basically a tiny, beautiful, Santorini. It is also a long, scythe shaped island. On one end you have the harbour and docks, on the other you have the beaches and most of the accommodation. It’s so small that there’s only one bus that goes back and forth the two ends of the island, which will cost you just one euro each time, if I remember right. You also have the option of taking this slow leisurely disney-esqe choo choo train, a great way to take in the sights from one end to the other, but I only saw it once in my entire time there so in my head I’ve started referring to it as the magic train. Alternative options include taking a cab or renting a scooter, both of which I didn’t try.

Accommodation in Ponza

One of the things that struck me most about Ponza was how laid back everyone seemed to be. Perhaps it’s Italian culture. It’s lovely when you’re there, but when you’re planning for it and need information, it can be incredibly frustrating. We emailed several airbnb hosts but got no replies. Funny – you’d think they’d actually want to rent out their places. Finally, one of them replied us, only to say that his place was already booked for the dates that we wanted. We must have sounded desperate / he must’ve taken pity on us though, because he replied us again to say, okay, fine, but I do have a friend who owns a hotel…

We booked our accommodation through him (his name was Enzo) and crossed our fingers hoping desperately he wasn’t a fraud. He said we could just pay him and he’d arrange for us to stay in his friend’s hotel, and the disappeared on us for awhile. We got a little worried – and then he returned to say here, turn up at Hotel Ortensia when you reach. They know you’re coming.

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It was the best thing that could have happened to us.

The people at Ortensia were amazing. I could have sworn we were the first Asians they’d ever seen – sure enough, we didn’t see a single other Asian on Ponza when we were there – and they blinked hard at us. How did you hear of us? They demanded. How did you know of Ponza? Can you bring all your friends?

And then they upgraded us to the best room in the house.

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I’m talking top floor, sea view business. It was insane. It was completely unnecessary. It was so kind. They even threw in a free breakfast for us each morning, which wasn’t what we’d paid for. We’d paid for some airbnb room somewhere, not the works, yknw? It was just incredibly kind.

Already Ponza was exceeding expectations, right from day one.

Hotel Ortensia
Via Piscine Naturali, 04027 Ponza LT, Italy
+39 0771 808922
Facebook | Website

Ponza: Top Three Things to Do

The beauty of Ponza is, it isn’t a tourist destination. The main holiday makers here are Italians escaping from Rome for a weekend, and the occasional non-Italian European. We saw about two Americans the entire time we were there, and apparently Lionel Messi was there as well – but off the coast, in his private boat. Obviously.

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The rest of Ponza consists barefooted little children running around playing, tanned Italians selling overpriced crafts and homeware, and leathery fishermen. There is no shopping to be done on Ponza, obviously, and only a smattering of hotels scattered along the island as if by afterthought, to accommodate the accidental tourist. It is anything but commercialised. In fact, it’s so technologically oblivious that their national site hasn’t been updated in three years. That said though, the best thing to do on Ponza is essentially to take a step back and relax. How this differs from other destinations: relaxing on Ponza is a whole new ball game.

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1. Watch the sunset as you dine by the harbour

There aren’t that many restaurants on Ponza, and most of them are concentrated along the dock. If you’ve been following me for awhile, you’ll already know that I use foursquare a lot to decide where around me is good for dining, attractions, getting to the toilet, etc. (Re: Top Five Free Travel Apps) But because comparatively, so few tourists end up in Ponza, there aren’t that many places that actually end up listed or even reviewed. We ended up our first night in this cute little restaurant along the dock called Osteria By Ponza Fish.

It’s important to remember that being a fishing village, nearly all the seafood you have on Ponza will be impeccably fresh. By that rule it is generally safe to walk into any restaurant.. though not having tried every single one, obviously, I wouldn’t be the best judge. I remember feeling like Osteria was a little overpriced although the food was good, so walk on and find any one you like the ambience of.

So dinner and sunset by the dock – is a given. After dinner, walk along the harbour and trail the little winding shophouses. You don’t have to buy anything, but it’s just incredibly relaxing. A shop will inevitably be playing some form of music, and there’s a lot of open laughter and banter in rapid Italian you won’t be able to understand. You’ll feel like a fly on the wall, given an intimate glance into life in Ponza. People won’t make way for you. It’s a nice feeling, after being fawned on all over Italy for being Asian.

Outside of the little shophouses though, things get different. We had our dock dinner already, and we wanted to go all out for another dinner on a different night, so we tripadvisor-ed the best restaurant in Ponza and ended up on the other end of Ponza, on the higher side nearer to our hotel, at Il Pescatore.

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There are times you want to blend in, there are others you don’t. I have to say – being possibly the first Asians they’d seen was a huge advantage when getting around Italy. Il Pescatore is rated Ponza’s best restaurant on Tripadvisor, and they were fully booked when we sauntered in unassumingly. They shook their heads at first, then looked us up and down again, and went: You know what? Come in. We’ll make it happen.

And then they made a table appear out of nowhere for us.

I kid you not. The staff started unfolding and setting up this tiny table and within minutes they’d produced an entirely furnished dinner table for two. I must have been gaping a tad too obviously, because one of them winked at us. We just want you to have beautiful memories.

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Lets not even talk about the fact that the view was, obviously, gorgeous. Watching the sun set over the white cliffs.. Lets focus on the food. Everything was incredibly fresh, and surprisingly reasonably priced for Ponza’s top restaurant. I believe we paid only slightly more than what we did at Osteria. What they do at Il Pescatore is pair a type of homemade pasta with its complementary seafood dish, and then suggest the wine pairings to go with it. White wine became a very big part of my life *ahem* in Italy, and the one they served at Il Pescatore was delicious!! They actually grew and produced it themselves behind the restaurant. It was lovely.

Something particularly funny happened halfway through dinner. One of the servers hung around our table quite a bit, with all the appearance of someone who needed to say something but couldn’t get it out. Finally, under the pretence of topping up our water, he rushed out:

Are you from Tokyo? It’s just, you know, I watch Fast and Furious. And the face is the same.


In hindsight I think we laughed a little too much. His face turned bright red and he mumbled something in Italian embarrassingly, which I believe translated to fml. After that, every time he passed our table he’d laugh a little in this self conscious way. He was also extremely handsome. I don’t know why I put that in, but he was.

After dinner, the chef came out with a bottle of homemade Limoncello. Limoncello is an Italian lemon liqueur mainly produced in Southern Italy, and when he produced it after we’d finished with our meal we looked at him blankly: we didn’t order this. He smiled that broad italian smile and put it down on the table. With compliments, he said. Shane and I exchanged an amazed look. What was this sorcery?

We concluded that we loved Italy, and Italians. We really do.

On the way back from the restaurant to the hotel, we ended up heading to the sundeck on the hotel’s rooftop and catching the first meteor shower of the season. I lay there stupid happy, satisfied, watching the stars fall while listening to Shane point out the various constellations and explain their mythology to me. It was such an incredible night.

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2. Take a boat out for a day.

This is unquestionably the best decision we made in Ponza. Once again – only something we would have known if we had known a local, which we kind of did because everyone was so friendly. Remember Enzo, the airbnb guy who didn’t have any space for us? He sent us the contact of one of his friends, who does daily boat rides from about 10am to 4pm. It was about 25 Euros per person, to island hop, lunch included. I remember we shrugged and just went for it because we didn’t know what else to do on Ponza anyway. Best. Decision. Ever.

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We never learnt his name – he spoke no English, and we spoke no Italian. Come to think of it, no one on that boat spoke much English. He did press a flyer into my hands though, with motobarca beluga printed in large, bold, type, and you can get him at 349.4742538 – 0771.808557 which I presume is a sort of telephone number. Ask anyone on the island, and they’ll direct you to him!

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He picked us up from our hotel in a minivan and drove down to a tiny bay nearby, where his yacht was docked. From there on, it was an entire afternoon of sailing from place to place, stopping at random beautiful areas to snorkel and swim with the fishes while he played romantic classical Italian music from the boat and sung along. Picture this, okay? The clearest of waters. Floating on your back, being serenaded by an Italian tenor, voice drifting from the yacht. Losing track of time. It was perfection.

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This woman was, I believe, teaching her dog to swim…

We swam up to the boat after a good hour of swimming and snorkelling, and Italian Man had whipped up a meal of pasta and white wine while we were gone. Remember what I said of white wine being a big part of my life when in Italy? This is what I’m talking about..

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It was so crazy delicious even though it was so simple.

We also docked at a couple of islands that might as well be private islands, for all the quiet and seclusion we enjoyed. I had a good time pretending that it was basically a private beach just for us. We basically explored the island then flopped on the sand, intermittently napping and suntanning. I came back from Italy very, very brown.

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Beyond that, he also sailed to several spots where the water had significantly different shades of blue, just so we could go for dips and take photos. This particular island had turquoise water..

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It was the perfect afternoon. I foresee myself using the term perfect way too many times in this post, but it is what it is. I can’t believe it only cost us 25 Euros – that would have been the price of a good lunch in Europe, alone.

motobarca beluga
349.4742538 – 0771.808557

EDIT/ An Italian reader added: his website is http://www.ponzagitainbarca.it, for anyone interested! Thanks Gisella!

3. Cliff dive and snorkel in Piscine Naturali

Piscine Naturali stands for natural pools, and these were formed by the intense volcanic activity on Ponza long ago. Water in Ponza is amazing – it is quite literally crystal clear at any point, any beach, any pool, but the Piscine Naturali (5 minutes walk from our hotel) was a league of its on.

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People on Ponza are incredibly friendly. We went relatively unprepared – no snorkelling equipment, just us, a couple of beach towels, and a watermelon. Once we reached, however, it became apparent that we were missing out. The place was teeming with fish, coral, and other types of beautiful marine life. People were diving bottoms up just to get a glimpse, and we didn’t even have basic goggles. I ended up trading a polaroid picture for a snorkelling equipment loan from this guy who worked at the shop – it seemed noone had seen an instax camera before either, all over Europe when traveling people stared at my instax whenever I took it out in wonder, some even coming up to me to comment: Cool camera.

I was just generally very impressed that this random dude agreed to lend us his snorkelling equipment for free when you could buy it right there, from him, for some marked up price. Just bring it back in one piece, okay? Okay.

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The natural caves were incredible. Everything – everything was incredible. I had the best swim of my life there, in cold, clear waters, cannonballing off the edge of a decidedly shorter cliff than the one in Cinque Terre. I remember precisely this one point where I came up from a dive in this white cave, alone in this giant cavern with incredible water sparkling off the walls, fish swimming around me unperturbed by my presence, and thinking this is what I want the rest of my life to be like.

I have a penchant for exaggeration, all writers do, but I do believe I meant it.

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The sunset view from the dinner restaurant in Hotel Ortensia.

On our last day in Ponza, we packed up, went for our last swim, and came back to the hotel to dry off and clean up. Our boat out was only 4pm, so we actually had quite a bit of time, and since we’d checked out that morning we had no access to our room to shower. No issue – the hotel’s staff let us into this other shower they had on standby for hapless guests like us, which was extremely sweet of them. We headed down to the bus stop outside the hotel with all our luggages, clean, happy, waiting to take the bus back to the harbour.

The bus came and went.

I think this was our first real moment of panic in Ponza, that the buses were so incredibly full that none of them would stop for us. We went back to the hotel after the buffer time we gave ourselves to get to the dock was fast running out, asking the desk staff if they could call a cab for us. They heaved out this phone book with the number of every single cabbie on the island and started calling them one by one. This alone was incredibly sweet of them, going to all that trouble. And then the lady snapped the book shut and shook her head.

No one is free. We will drive you. Get in the car.

The hotel owner’s husband started up their family car, loaded our bags in, and drove us all the way down to the harbour, then refused to accept a cent from us. We just want you to have had a good stay in Ponza he explained, shaking off our offers of payment. Now hurry – or you’ll miss your boat.

And we left Ponza thus, overwhelmed, with our heads turned back towards the slowly disappearing shore.

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Could Ponza have been any more perfect? I don’t think so. It was just one of those holidays where everything seemed to have gone right, where people were unreasonably kind, where the place itself was straight up stunning. The boyfriend and I have already made a pact to return every five years – and it is pretty much hands down my favourite destination in all of Europe. It took me so long to write this post because I wanted to get it right, I didn’t want to have to rush through it, but even now I don’t think I do it justice. It was just the most breathtaking gem.

Ponza – thank you.

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♥jem