If food is the best window into another culture, I’d maintain that the arts are the second best. Many of my most valuable travel experiences have come from engaging with local art, and I’m not talking about your average museum. I’ve learned how to paint mountains in the Blue Ridge, formed calligraphy characters in Japan, and, the most out of my comfort zone, spent a day weaving in Laos.
One of the best ways to travel on a budget is to steer clear of destinations in high tourist demand and instead go off the beaten path. Few places in my travel history have been as off the beaten path as Laos. The Southeast Asian country sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam has just enough of a tourism industry to ensure I’d be able to find places to stay, things to do, and restaurants to eat, while keeping the price of all those things under $30 per day. See the full breakdown of what I spent below.
Luang Prabang, despite its position on the Banana Pancake Trail, likely isn’t the first place you think of staying as a creative professional. But the city’s relative remoteness within Southeast Asia gives it a relaxed pace of life and has preserved much of its traditional art and culture. The colonial center is easily the most beautiful town in Laos, and despite the limited availability of WiFi, the city makes a comfortable place to spend at least a couple weeks as a digital nomad.
WorldSmith of the Month is a new feature, showcasing traveling artists and creative professionals around the world. I believe travel in itself can be a creative pursuit, but there are so many ways travel and art can (and do) intersect and fuel one another. Travel can bring you closer to creative endeavors, and living creatively can help you travel more. Read on to meet the newest addition to the WorldSmith community and learn how she balances art and travel.
From creative writer to professional artist’s model to costume-designing Wasteland Warrior, Faith Roswell is the picture of what unique, winding roads creative travelers take to fulfill their passions. “It’s strange to think that it was never an ambition of mine to travel,” she says. “I just wanted to make art, but over the past ten years, it is travel that has had the greatest influence on my art.”
In preparing for the Southeast Asian leg of my RTW trip, I read a lot of horror stories about the slow boat to Laos. The three-day journey from Chiang Mai in Thailand to Luang Prabang in Laos seemed to have been a trying experience for many. At the same time, it seemed the most reasonable way to get into a landlocked, less developed country. A bus between the two cities would have been unbearably long, and a direct flight wasn’t quite in my budget. Plus, deep down, I felt the need to see just how bad it really was.
Either things have changed or the blogs I read about the slow boat were way overblown accounts of people who didn’t manage their expectations well. The couple of days I spent cruising down the Mekong River were an absolute highlight of my time in Southeast Asia! But if you don’t know what you’re getting into, I can see how it would be a shock to the system. Read up on the details of taking the slow boat to Laos and decide whether it’s for you.
I’m not sure I can count all the ways taking a Thai cooking class in Chiang Mai was the best idea. I love Thai food and enjoy cooking at home, which is a bit of a luxury on the road, especially in Southeast Asia. (Most of the hostels I stayed in there didn’t have much in the way of kitchen facilities, unlike similar properties in Europe.) Perhaps more importantly, food is one of the best windows into other cultures, and recipes make incredible souvenirs.
The blog grapevine pointed me to Mama Noi Cookery School, and so I devoted one of my last days in Chiang Mai to their full day Thai cooking class. Like most cooking classes, we started with a visit to the local market, where an instructor pointed out ingredients particular to Thai cuisine like galangal and kaffir lime leaf. After a few minutes to wander on our own, we drove out to the classroom, set in an organic garden.
I had about a half dozen classmates, mostly Americans, which is always surprising to me. We seem to come few and far between on the budget backpacker trail. We each had a menu to select which dishes we’d make in each of several categories. For the rest of the day, we’d cook and eat plates two at a time.
Soup: Chicken in Coconut Milk
Although we all made our dish selections individually, we still cooked as a group. Our instructor was really skilled at balancing the needs of the group, and the structure of each lesson was well thought out with many steps being similar for different dishes. She also had a pretty sharp sense of humor and as she was dividing our group into teams (people who had chosen the same dish), she dubbed my group making the mild chicken in coconut milk soup the “Baby Team.” A mother and daughter preparing a sour and spicy soup were “Mama Team,” while the lone gentleman making the ultra spicy hot and sour prawn soup became “Sexy Man” for the rest of the day. Lesson one about Thai cooking: spice is sexy.
Stir Fry: Pad Thai
The quintessential Thai dish, practically everyone in my group chose to make Pad Thai as our stir fry. Other options were cashew chicken or a stir fried chicken with basil. But seriously, who could resist the call of spicy rice noodles doused in peanuts? I don’t think I ever realized just how many ingredients go into a proper Pad Thai, several of which I’d never worked with before. Palm sugar, dried baby shrimps, and pungent shrimp paste were all on the menu. Once everything was prepped, we headed to the stovetop, where you had to be ready to put in some work. You want a good Pad Thai? You have to put your whole body into stirring the wok.
Curry: Massaman Curry
If you had told me a year ago, I’d make my own curry paste from scratch, I wouldn’t have believed it. But one mortar and pestle, and 10 minutes of some serious elbow grease turned that particular culinary achievement from “I’d never” to “I did.” Most Thai curries are red, made with dried chiles, and green, made with fresh chiles, which makes green curry the spiciest style of curry. I opted for something I wasn’t already familiar with: Massaman curry. Cinnamon and star anise are added to a basic array of curry ingredients for a mild to moderately spiced, Indian influenced dish. Other options included Penang curry – a thick and sweet red peanut curry – and Khao Soy curry, another novelty to me. Khao Soy is totally unique among Thai curries because it is served with crispy egg noodles rather than rice.
Thai Iced Tea
To tame the heat from our curries, we also made Thai iced tea. The leaves for Thai tea really do produce that bright orange-red color, and sweetening with condensed milk rather than sugar is a must. I’ve tried to make Thai iced tea at home before and it’s always been close but no cigar. Lots of sweetened condensed milk is the key.
Fried Spring Rolls
I’ve always been a little terrified of deep frying. I’m still not sure I can bring myself to stick a vat of boiling oil in my kitchen, but I was really happy with how my fried spring roll turned out in cooking class. Rather than everyone making a full serving of spring rolls, we worked as a group. One guy volunteered to work the wok to cook the filling we would all share. We each took a wrapper, learned the right way to fold, and then fried our rolls in batches of two to three before topping it with a sweet chile sauce.
Appetizer: Green Papaya Salad
This was another category that nearly every member of the class agreed on. Green papaya salad is one of northern Thailand’s most famous dishes. Green papaya itself doesn’t have much flavor, but it’s just the right texture for creating long, thin, almost noodle-like strips to be doused in a sour and spicy dressing. I was a little surprised to learn this salad is prepared in a large wooden mortar and pestle. Other appetizers on the menu were a spicy ground chicken salad and a glass noodle salad.
Dessert: Mango Sticky Rice
Ever seen sticky rice that looks like it’s been dyed a completely unnatural color? It’s not unnatural! Our final lesson of the day, dessert, kicked off with making natural food dyes for bright blue and green sticky rice. The green coloring comes from pandan leaves, which are mildly fragrant and sweet but unlike any ingredient you’d find in the west and thus somewhat indescribable. The blue comes from butterfly pea flowers, which have a host of homeopathic applications and are often found in Southeast Asian beauty products as well as treats like sticky rice. For both colorings, you chop and crush them in a little water and squeeze out all the pigment you can. If you add a little lime juice to the butterfly pea flower dye, it will change from bright blue to a gorgeous purple. Our dyes went right into a sweetened coconut milk mixture on the stove which we stirred glutinous rice into, to be served alongside a fresh mango. Sesame seeds and mung beans went on top for a little extra crunch. Most of our group made mango sticky rice, but there were a couple less popular desserts also on the menu like fried bananas and a dish called “red rubies” – a uniquely textured dessert made from water chestnuts and coconut milk.
Perhaps the biggest highlight of the day was getting sent home with a cookbook, so we each got all the recipes regardless of what we chose to make that day. Like I said – recipes make the best souvenirs.
This is still simply scratching the surface of Thai food. Read up on more awesome dishes in this quick foodie guide to Bangkok.
Thailand may have been the first travel destination I ever became aware of. My dad grew up as an army brat and spent three years of his childhood in Bangkok. So I grew up hearing endless stories of the former kingdom of Siam. Naturally, no matter what the country’s reputation in the larger travel community was, I would have carried a big soft spot for Thailand. But I’ve been lucky enough to not only get to know my dad’s childhood home, but to also discover a country famed for its convenient and budget friendly travel. How much does it cost to explore Bangkok and Chiang Mai? I break down every dime I spent from airfare and accommodations to every last Thai iced tea I sipped on.
Few places have as strong a reputation among digital nomads as Chiang Mai in Thailand. The northern city has become an expat mecca, and much of my motivation to head north from Bangkok instead of south to islands was driven by the desire to see for myself just how friendly the town was to remote work. I’m certainly not the first to have been lured by promises of strong WiFi, cozy cafes, and an easy pace of life. Of everywhere I’ve been on my RTW trip, no place fits all the living abroad criteria quite like Chiang Mai, often called the Boston to Bangkok’s New York. And while the city itself has become rapidly Westernized, it still provides a great base for exploring Thailand’s north and getting some unique cultural experiences.
Sometimes I feel like a bad tourist. Bangkok definitely inspired that nagging voice in the back of my mind as I spent my first several days in the city doing nothing but eat. But food is one of the best windows to a new culture, and Thai food is some of the best in the world! Thai cooks have a true, nearly incomparable skill at balancing sweet, sour, and spicy flavors in dishes that are just explosively, mind-blowingly good. Bangkok in particular has a serious reputation for awesome, affordable eats, so I won’t consider those first few days wasted. Below are nine meals, snacks, and drinks to fill up on in the Thai capital, from comfy full service restaurants to basic street stalls.
Hostels are one of the staples of budget travel, whether you’re on a year-long RTW trip like me or a shorter vacation. Found nearly everywhere outside the US, these shared spaces help travelers save money and make friends. Though they have a bad reputation among many less experienced travelers, there are plenty of hostels that are clean, comfortable, and safe. Sometimes, however, it’s true that you pay a different price for that tempting low nightly rate. Below are all my worst hostel experiences from nearly a year on the road.