Solo in SouthEast Asia

If I’m being totally honest, Asia was never high on my travel wish list – I pictured steamy hot crowded cities, and a very long flight to get there.  I’m past the age where I want to budget backpack and stay in hostels.  There were just a lot of other places much higher on my list, and easier to reach.  And then, friends of mine moved to Shanghai.  Having a local to visit totally changes the ballgame and is a great excuse to go someplace you normally wouldn’t.  So, in the summer of 2015, planning began.

By Winter 2015, my friends had been called back to the States much earlier than expected.  Oops!  I was too far into planning and booking to cancel my trip, but I had also done enough research that I was getting excited about the things I had planned.  I had only planned a few days in Shanghai at the end of my trip so that was easy enough to cut out. No need to deal with the red tape of China this time around!  So, this is the story of how I found myself roaming around Thailand and Cambodia for two weeks on my own.

I was pretty relieved that my ATM card worked with no issues!

Again, not keen on big, crowded cities, I intended to avoid Bangkok or spend very little time there.  I had a friend who told me about an elephant sanctuary outside Chiang Mai, so I knew I had to get there and it seemed as good a place as any to start my trip!  I found a good deal on a flight to Chiang Mai, with an overnight layover in HongKong.  Even with a hotel cost, it was still cheaper than the next cheapest option.  (With no direct flights from Chicago to Bangkok, I was also trying to avoid a 3-legged start to my trip)

After a quick overnight in Hong Kong, just enough to visit the Big Buddha on Lantau Island, I would have 3 nights in Chiang Mai.  A food tour, photography tour and full day spent at Elephant Nature Park didn’t leave too much down time.

Then, I would take an overnight train to Bangkok, where I stayed at the Aloft Bangkok for two nights.  Originally, I only planned 1 night in Bangkok (mostly so I could sing the song!) but when I found out about Sak Yant Tattoos at Wat Bang Phra outside the city, I changed my itinerary to work this in.  A tuk tuk tour was the only other thing I managed to do in Bangkok!

First class car (First Class is a relative term here)

Expique - Bangkok Night Lights TukTuk Tour

Next up, was Siem Riep in Cambodia to visit the Angkor Wat temples.  I planned to take a bus from Bangkok just for adventure, but at the last minute found a flight for $70 and decided I had better ways to spend 8 hours than on a chicken bus.  In Siem Reap, I spent 3 nights at Le Meridien Angkor, a full day touring the temples, and a whole lot of time at the pool!  (Who can blame me, it was gorgeous!)

Angkor Wat

Le Meridien Angkor

At this point, I originally planned to fly to Shanghai, but instead doubled back to Thailand for some beach time in Phuket.  Here, I stayed 3 nights at the Westin Siray Bay, with a full-day kayak tour and again, lots of pool time!


From Phuket, I flew back to HongKong for 1 more night before my morning flight back to Chicago the next day.

Overall, my itinerary got a little wonky with changes, and I was somewhat limited due to the fact that I originally purchased a flight home from Shanghai using miles (luckily I was able to change it from HongKong for $5 but not Bangkok which would have been much easier), but overall, it worked out pretty well!

  • Total trip Cost ~ $4200
    • Flights (5) – $1723 + 40,000 United miles
    • Hotels (13) – $717 + 30,000 Starwood Points
    • Tours & Tips – $662
    • Food – $365
    • Taxis – $237
    • Souvenirs – $200
    • Spa Visits – $67
    • Laundry – $40
    • Overnight Train Bangkok- 1st class sleeper – $50
    • Cambodian Visa – $30
    • Dog Boarding $100 (only 2 nights…thanks, Mom!)

For those wondering about all the Starwood points, I use a Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card for most of my daily expenses.  I don’t travel constantly, or stay in hotels all that often, but when I do, I try to stay with one chain to maximize my points. Most of my points are earned through everyday purchases like gas, groceries and take-out…so much take-out!  The $95 Annual Fee is well worth it, given how many free nights I used on this trip alone!

Westin Siray Bay Resort & SpaPrego Pool

For all of my photos from the trip, click here!

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3 Days in Chiang Mai, Thailand

While the main reason I chose to visit Chiang Mai was the Elephant Nature Park, the more I read, the more excited I was to visit!  Chiang Mai is apparently an expat/digital nomad haven, so there are plenty of travel blogs covering the area.  The city was still larger than I expected, but much more manageable and charming than Bangkok. (10 million people vs 400,000!)

Wat Chiang Man - meeting location of food tour

I chose Le Meridien Chiang Mai as my home base for 3 nights – this was my first visit to a Le Meridien property and for only 4,000 Starwood points per night, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but was pleasantly surprised!  Le Meridien had all the amenities of a luxury hotel, and was within walking distance of the old city. It seems that Chiang Mai has everything from luxurious spa jungle retreats to backpacker hostels of all ranges.

Seeing as this was my first trip to Asia, I wanted to ensure a smooth arrival.  I pre-booked an airport car service from ChiangMai Buddy for 650 Baht (about $20.)  When I landed after a 3 hour flight from Hong Kong, there was no car to be found.  Disappointed, I headed to the taxi counter and got a taxi for 160 Baht ($5)  The folks at ChiangMai Buddy were very apologetic when they finally got back to me, and issued a full refund, but in hindsight, there was no need to spend so much money for a reserved car.  The taxi was just fine!

The first morning in Chiang Mai I had booked a food tour with Chiang Mai Food Tours.  The Taste of the North & Old Town Chiang Mai Walk ended up being a private tour for me! I met my guide, Rain, near a temple in the Old Town.  We visited several temples, and Rain did an excellent job explaining Buddhism, the history of Thailand and Lanna, and we visited many interesting food stalls.  Left to my own devices, I will default to pasta and pizza (yes, I have the palate of a 9 year old) so it was great to have someone ordering for me!  We sampled many local specialties, such as Chiang Mai sausage and Khao Soi.

Somphet Market10 is about 30 cents

Another food stop where we tried several things - all were good, but of course...spicy!  Thank goodness for plain rice :)

The tour lasted from 10-2 and I’ll admit that eating so much food in the heat of the day was difficult. This was my first day in the Southeast Asian humidity, so I was really dragging for the last hour.  Early morning or evening tours were a better bet for me!  Fortunately, the tour ended at the lovely Makka hotel with lemongrass tea and sweet treats that Rain had picked up at the market.  When the tour was over, she helped negotiate a good tuk-tuk price to get me back to the hotel, where I promptly collapsed at the pool for the rest of the day.

Sweet treats to end the food tour; and lemongrass tea, which was tasty!

Later that evening, I had booked a photo tour with Chiang Mai Photo Workshops.  I was very excited for this tour, as I still didn’t fully understand the functions of my DSLR camera and often still shot in “Auto” mode.  Shortly before sunset, I met Kevin and his wife, Pu, near the iron bridge, which was a short stroll from my hotel.  Again, I was the only one signed up for the tour, so I had private instruction.  Kevin was a great instructor, helpfully answering all of my questions and giving pointers on shooting the sunset over the river in front of us.

After the sun set, we moved on to our second location, which was a pedestrian bridge over a market area, where we would play with long exposures and shooting the traffic below.

2nd location - pedestrian bridge over a market

Our third and final stop was Wat Chedi Luang, where the goal was to photograph the temple under night lights.  However, we lucked out and happened upon young monks in training leaving their sessions for the evening, so we got some great shots of them as well.

The next day I spent at Elephant Nature Park.

For my final day in Chiang Mai, I had no specific plans, but I wanted to put to use some of the new photography skills I’d learned from Kevin and Pu.  I was up quite early and decided to just roam the streets in the general direction of Old Town.  It was really cool to see the quiet side of Chiang Mai before everyone was out and about.  One of my stops was Lila Thai Massage, where I got a 1 hour foot massage for $4. Lila Thai offers post-release employment for graduates from the prison’s massage training program.  The foot massage was essentially a full leg massage – it was heavenly and it wasn’t the last one I’d get on this trip!

After a morning of sightseeing, it was back to the pool for the afternoon until it was time to catch the evening train to Bangkok.  I really enjoyed my short time in Chiang Mai and would highly recommend it to anyone visiting Thailand!

For all of my pictures from Chiang Mai, click here!

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