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 scheduled 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! This is my SouthEast Asia itinerary for two weeks of solo travel.

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

Hong Kong Arrival

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) My overnight in Hong Kong gave me just enough time to visit the Big Buddha on Lantau Island before catching my late morning flight to Thailand.

Chiang Mai, Thailand

I spent three nights in Chiang Mai.  A food tour, photography tour and full day spent at Elephant Nature Park didn’t leave much down time.

Bangkok, Thailand

I then took an overnight train to Bangkok, where I stayed at the Aloft Bangkok for two nights. My first class sleeper car came with a pet roach, so I got no sleep that night! 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.  An evening tuk tuk tour was the only other thing I managed to do in Bangkok! The heat was oppressive!

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

Expique - Bangkok Night Lights TukTuk Tour

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Next, I flew to 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. (After my first class train experience, I’m so glad I opted to fly!) 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. I hoped to visit Victoria Peak, but it was rainy and cloudy and I was exhausted at this point, so the rest of Hong Kong would have to wait for another trip.

Trip Budget

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!


SouthEast Asia Itinerary


3 Days in Chiang Mai, Thailand

The main reason I chose to visit Chiang Mai was the Elephant Nature Park, but 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!) Here’s how I spent 3 days in Chiang Mai.

Wat Chiang Man - meeting location of food tour

Chiang Mai Food Tour

The morning after my arrival from Hong Kong, I joined Chiang Mai Food Tours for their Taste of the North & Old Town Chiang Mai Walk, which ended up being a private tour! I met my guide, Rain, near a temple in the Old Town.  As we strolled through several temples, Rain did an excellent job explaining Buddhism, the history of Thailand and the kingdom of Lanna. Being a food tour, of course 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 are a better bet for me!  Fortunately, the tour ended at the lovely Makka hotel with lemongrass tea and sweet treats that Rain picked up at the market.  When the tour was over, she helped negotiate a good tuk-tuk price to take 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!

Chiang Mai Photo Workshop

Later the same evening, I joined 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, a Kiwi who lived in Thailand for several years, is 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.

Elephant Nature Park

The following day, I visited Elephant Nature Park for the day. You can read more about my day with the elephants in this post.

Chiang Mai Old Town

For my final day in Chiang Mai, I had no specific plans, but I wanted to practice some of the new photography skills I’d learned from Kevin and Pu.  I was up quite early (thanks, jetlag!) 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 had 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 only one I had on this trip!

After a morning of sightseeing, I returned to the pool for the afternoon until it was time to catch the evening train to Bangkok.  (Tip: take the flight if you can afford it!) I really enjoyed my 3 days in Chiang Mai and would highly recommend it to anyone visiting Thailand!

Le Meridien Chiang Mai

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 has all the amenities of a luxury hotel, and is within walking distance of the old city.

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


3 Days in Chiang Mai

Elephant Nature Park – Chiang Mai, Thailand

This story originally appeared as a guest post on Route Bliss.

The main attraction that drew me to Chiang Mai on my solo trip to SouthEast Asia was the Elephant Nature Park, an elephant rescue located in the hills outside Chiang Mai, Thailand. A friend had visited the prior year, and raved about it. Once I became more active in the travel blogging community, I saw this elephant rescue mentioned very frequently! Visiting Elephant Nature Park became the starting point of my trip.

Many people associate Thailand with elephant rides. In fact, several people, upon hearing that I was visiting Thailand, wanted to tell me the best place to ride an elephant. It’s sad that this practice still happens, and is supported by otherwise lovely people who just don’t know any better! (At least, that’s what I’m choosing to believe, even though it doesn’t take much research to know how awful it is) Just after I visited Angkor Wat, an elderly elephant collapsed from the heat. I could barely carry my camera bag in that heat, so I can’t even imagine the suffering of this poor animal.

Looks like a nice pic, but if you look closely you can see the iron hook the mahout carries to keep the elephant in line.  An elephant died here from heat exhaustion not long after this :(  Elephant riding is a horrible practice.

If you look closely, you’ll see a metal hook in the mahout’s hand – this is used to harm the elephant and keep them in line.

In order to be domesticated, elephants are put through a horrible process called Phajaan, or “the crush.” Baby elephants are tied up and tortured until their spirit is broken. There is ample documentation on the web, including horrific pictures, which I won’t post here. Suffice it to say it’s an awful process that should be stopped. The best and easiest way to do this is not to spend your tourist dollars on elephant riding or elephant entertainment! (Read more: The Truth Behind Riding Elephants)

Elephant Nature Park offers many options for visitors to interact with rescued elephants. There is rustic lodging on-site and volunteer programs lasting as long as a week. For my visit, I chose the Pamper a Pachyderm single day visit. For about $200 USD, we spent a full day with 4 lucky elephants who no longer have to work for a living, including “Happy” who is 75 years old!

Resting in the shade

The day started with a van retrieving each of us from Chiang Mai and about an hour ride out to the park. Along the way, we were shown videos of the Phajaan process, and the importance of the work done by ENP. We also received brief instructions on how to interact with the elephants. (Hint:  Human with food=Happy Elephant!)

We first met our 3 ladies and their mahouts at a hut where we stored our belongings and received our banana bags and water bottles. We paired up and began to feed them watermelon and cucumbers.

After this, we were deemed ready for closer interaction and headed off to a nearby field where the banana feeding began. These girls aren’t shy! They know what you’ve got and where you keep it and if you let your guard down, you’re liable to feel a slimy wet trunk probing and prodding your bag, looking for bananas.

We had a long leisurely walk over the river and through the woods, stopping several times for banana snacks, and also gave the elephants some play time to cool off with mud, which they enjoyed immensely!

Mid-way through the day, we arrived at a hut in the woods, where a simple vegetarian lunch was served and the elephants and mahouts went off for their own break from us tourists. After lunch, it was time to amble back along the river to the highlight of the day, which was bathing the elephants in the water!

The “Pamper a Pachyderm” package normally includes white-water rafting at the end of the day, but Thailand was experiencing a drought when I visited, so rafting was not possible. Instead, we had more time with the elephants.  After bathing them, it was time to part ways. The humans headed back to the main buildings, visiting other elephant groups along the way. We had some time to enjoy snacks and refreshments purchased on-site, as well as visit the gift shop before jumping in the van for the ride back to Chiang Mai.

If you are an animal lover like me, you will love following Elephant Nature Park on Facebook – they post daily photos, videos and stories showing just how special these animals are. A new baby was born in May 2016, and there are lots of adorable videos as he learns how to be an elephant. I highly recommend a visit to Elephant Nature Park – they also have projects in Cambodia and soon in Phuket! Visitor slots fill quickly, so make your reservation as early as possible. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen someone wait too long, and then ask around for other ethical alternatives. Many places claim to be a sanctuary, but please do your research as they aren’t all as they seem. Elephant Nature Park is well known as the standard-bearer for Thailand elephant rescue.

Riding elephants in Thailand is BAD! Supporting @ElephantNatureP is AMAZING! Put it on your 2018 vacation plans! Click To Tweet