Two Days in Phuket

As my SouthEast Asia itinerary came together, I found myself with a few open days at the end of my trip.  As much as I would have loved to explore some of the more remote islands like Koh Tao or Koh Samui, I wanted an airport with easy access to Hong Kong for my flight home.  So I settled on Phuket, despite the reputation as a hard partying super touristy island.  I didn’t have much in the way of expectations, other than a few days at the spa/pool after 10 days of heavy touristing.

I chose the Westin Siray Bay for my visit.  I’m a big fan of Westin hotels, and found a great pre-paid rate of about $93 per night ($110 with taxes and fees…still a bargain!)  I flew to Phuket from Cambodia (via Bangkok) and landed around 8pm on a Wednesday night.  The hotel offered an airport car service, a bit pricey at $35 each way, but well worth it given the evening landing and the 45 minute drive.  Upon arrival, I was upgraded to a 2 room suite, complete with two balconies!  (My favorite hotel feature is a balcony!)

Living room (and 2nd balcony) of my two room suite

While I originally planned to do nothing but relax in Phuket, that plan didn’t last long once I read about Viator’s Phang Nga Bay Sea Cave tour.  OK, so one more long day of activities and then I’ll relax!  The tour started at noon, and included hotel pickup (a huge bonus as my resort was about an hour away from everything on the island!)  This gave me time to order up a fresh room service breakfast to enjoy on my balcony.  I already miss the orange juice in Thailand, which is apparently tangerine juice…so yummy!

Room service breakfast on the balcony

Upon arrival at the marina, we were funneled through a small shop for last minute purchases like soda, sunscreen or souvenirs.  We were then split into two groups of 50 and assigned to our boat.

Our vessel for the day

Lunch was served as we set sail, and each group was assigned a guide.  As a solo traveler, I was paired up with a solo woman from Australia, and our guide, Alex.  After lunch was served, we arrived at our first kayaking spot. Most of the kayaking would focus on islands with caves leading to interior lakes, or hongs. Upon paddling into a dark cave (sometimes having to lie down in the boat to avoid conking our heads) the walls would then open up to a beautiful oasis.

We saw plenty of monkeys on the shores as well, and unlike Cambodia, they did not want anything to do with us. I’m sure they are used to the traffic, but it was nice that they weren’t begging for food or water.

Macaque Monkeys

After a few kayak outings within the islands, we had some downtime while the crew prepared dinner.  Some of us swam, while others attempted a foot race on the kayaks strung together.

While the crew prepared dinner, we had some free time for swimming and a kayak race.

After dinner, it was time to pair up again with our guide and make our krathong.  The krathong is a decorated basket or crown that is adorned with candles and set afloat while making a wish, typically during the Thai holiday of Loi Krathong in November.  The base of the krathong was formed by a banana stalk and then decorated with banana leaves and various flowers.  While I’m not usually big on arts and crafts, the ritual of floating them after dark was quite special.  It was also fun to hear and see the guides get competitive about the best looking krathong.  My new Aussie friend and I agreed, we had one of the best guides on the boat!

Our guide, Alex, with our krathong.  I thought this was the finished product, and was quite pleased!

As the sun set, we got our krathong ready and got back into the kayaks one more time.  We grouped up with two other boats in a nearby cave to light our krathong, make a wish and float them away. (In the normal ceremony, they do just float away, however with so many tourists partaking, it was necessary to re-collect our krathongs after a while)

After this, Alex took us to a more secluded area to see the bio-luminescent plankton and even a few glowing jellyfish.  Something I’d always wanted to see and something I’ll just have to keep in memory as it wasn’t possible to photograph it.  Finally, we had about an hour ride to get back to the marina, and then my car was waiting to take me back to the Westin.  It was a long day and a late night (for me!) but an unforgettable experience!

Finally, the next day, my last in Phuket, I would get my much anticipated down time.  I had no agenda, other than to explore the different pool areas of the Westin.  Sadly, I was so relaxed that I only made it to 2 of the 3 pools!

I spent most of the day at the Horizon pool, including a poolside lunch.

Westin Siray Bay Resort & SpaHorizon Pool

By the time I got to the beach, the tide had gone out, so I skipped on ahead to the Prego pool for the rest of the afternoon.

Westin Siray Bay Resort & SpaBeach at Low Tide

Westin Siray Bay Resort & SpaPrego Pool

My last night in Phuket was extremely chill – room service and reading.  I know, I’m a total nerd, but I can’t resist room service and a good book!

Westin Siray Bay Resort & SpaRoom Service Dinner

So, I can’t say I actually saw any of Phuket itself, but this was a great way to wind down from a very active vacation.  The Westin was great for this type of visit – if you wanted to do more activities, you might want to stay in a more populated area, but as far as resorts go, I loved it.  The one downside to Phuket that I noticed was a return to Western prices – even a crappy sandwich at the airport cost $18!

For the rest my photos from Phuket, click here!

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3 Days in Panama

Thanksgiving used to be my favorite holiday, but between family drama and a few bad cases of food poisoning, I’m over it!  So, in early October, when I read the Solo Traveler Blog newsletter featuring the “Everywhere” option on Skyscanner, I decided to check it out.  You plug in your dates, and leave the destination open.  This is how I found a round trip, direct flight from Chicago to Panama for $307! A quick check of Starwood properties showed a room at the Aloft for $75, including breakfast, so I was sold!  It didn’t take long to convince my mom to join me, either!

Barefoot Panama City and Canal TourCerro Ancon

Most people will laugh at this, but it felt terribly spontaneous to book an international trip just 7 weeks in advance!  Considering I booked my last trip almost 2 years in advance, this is really living on the edge!

In all, we spent 4 nights at the Aloft Panama, but with travel days, we had 3 full days to explore. (All other free time was spent at the air-conditioned malls, haha!)

Day 1 – City and Canal Tour with Barefoot Panama

I wanted to start with a city tour so we could get our bearings.  The night before, we received email instructions with staggered pickup times, letting us know exactly when we needed to be ready.  (unlike the Viator tour the following day) We were picked up at our hotel by Jeff, our tour guide for the day.  Jeff is a Canadian who’s lived in Panama several years, and was a wealth of information throughout the day.

Our first stop would be Cerro Ancon, the highest point in the city, which gave us great views of both Panama City and the Panama Canal.

Barefoot Panama City and Canal TourCerro Ancon

Barefoot Panama City and Canal TourCerro Ancon

Next, we headed over to the Miraflores Locks on the Canal to watch a couple of ships pass through.  We spent about 2 hours here – watching ships, touring the museum and watching a short film.  Honestly, watching a boat crawl slowly through a lock isn’t terribly exciting, but it’s cool to see something you’ve heard about your entire life….a man, a plan, a canal….Panama!  You can’t visit Panama and not see the canal!  The observation deck was packed!

Barefoot Panama City and Canal TourMiraflores Locks - packed with tourists and selfie sticks!

Barefoot Panama City and Canal TourMiraflores Locks

The following day, we saw ships piled as high as the observation decks with containers!

Next up, we headed out the Amador Causeway for lunch at Mi Ranchito, and our first sampling of ceviche.

Barefoot Panama City and Canal TourCeviche at Mi Ranchita

Our final destination for the day was Casco Viejo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  We had a great walking tour of the old town, and a chance to sample the “most expensive coffee in the world.”  There are some beautiful churches here, and a lot of renovation going on, but some original buildings as well.

Barefoot Panama City and Canal TourCasco Viejo

Barefoot Panama City and Canal TourCasco Viejo

This building was being renovated, and if you look closely, it’s just a wall with nothing behind it!

Barefoot Panama City and Canal TourCasco Viejo

Casco Viejo

Originally, we thought we’d just stay in the area until dinner, but the heat was getting oppressive, so we opted to head back to the hotel pool until evening.

For dinner, we took Jeff’s recommendation and walked to Patagonia Grill for a steak dinner.  (Well, we walked in the wrong direction, took a 2 minute cab ride and figured out how to walk home!)

Day 2 – Soberania National Park Tour with Viator

While we had a fantastic guide, and ultimately had a nice day in the jungle, our experience with Viator left a lot to be desired.  We booked the “Best Sobarania National Park Day Trip” for $180 per person.  The website description is very vague and in hindsight, we should have gotten more information prior to booking.  I’m honestly not sure why this tour costs $180 when their Soberania, Monkey Island and Indian Village is only $135.  Except perhaps that this was a private hiking tour.  We were not really prepared for 4 hours of jungle hiking, as the description doesn’t mention this, nor did the confirmation suggest we dress for it.  The website says the tour starts at 8am, and again, the confirmation mentioned nothing to the contrary, so we were confused when the guide called us from the lobby at 6:30.  Sleepily, we asked him to come back at 8:00 which is when we thought the tour started.  Little did we know, this meant we would arrive in the jungle as the heat was building and the animals were heading to siesta.  So, the expectations and communication from Viator were extremely disappointing.

Day 2Viator Tour - Soberania National Park

Viator Tour - Soberania National Park

That said, our guide, Jorge was fantastic, as was the driver Vladimir.  Both spoke excellent English and had great knowledge of the area as we drove out to the park.  After a quick stop for a gas station sandwich (included in our $180 tour price!) we set off on our hike along the pipeline road.  This is a car road, but we walked along, and the hike was “out and back” meaning whenever we reached our halfway point in time, we would just turn around and head back to our waiting car and driver.  Jorge had great knowledge of the flowers, trees, bugs and birds that we saw along the way.  He came armed with several wildlife identification guides as well.  We saw sloths, capuchin monkeys, lots of birds and butterflies, and a cayman. We heard the howler monkeys but didn’t see them.

Viator Tour - Soberania National ParkSlaty-tailed trogon

Viator Tour - Soberania National ParkBlue Cap Malaky(?)

After showers and naps at the pool, we headed back to Casco Viejo for dinner at Casablanca, another recommendation from Jeff, our Barefoot tourguide.  Their corvina (seabass) was my favorite of the trip!  And Plaza Bolivar was a great place to dine outside.

Dinner at Casablanca in Casco Viejo

Day 3 – Ferry to Isla Toboga

After two days of hot, humid touristing, a day at the beach was exactly what we needed!  (Not to mention a day to sleep in)  After breakfast, we took a cab to the harbor at Amador Causeway, and purchased a r/t ferry ticket for $14.  We thought we might faint from heat on the way over, so when we landed at the dock, and headed towards the beach, we threw money at the first person offering shade.  For $15, we rented an umbrella and 2 chairs and parked ourselves there for the rest of the afternoon.  The water temperature was perfect, and the beach was great for finding shells and seaglass!

ferry to Isla Toboga

Isla Toboga

After showers and naps (again!) we returned to Casco Viejo for our final dinner at Feelings.  The corvina here was also good, but I had already gorged on garlic focaccia and couldn’t finish my dinner.

Casco Viejo

All in all, I really enjoyed this quick trip to Panama.  For the price, and relatively short flight (5 hours from Chicago) it was well worth it to experience a whole different culture, climate and cuisine!  I look forward to exploring more countries in Central America in the future!

For all of my pics from this trip, click here!

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Casco Viejo Panama City

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