More on Melbourne

Pet-sitting has been giving us an idea of what “real life” is like in Melbourne… much more so than the sparsely furnished AirBnBs which are obviously only intended as short-term rentals.

Our first gig was in a southern suburb, taking care of a sweet Australian Heeler named Paddy:

This dog was always this happy
Though it was only a 25 minute train ride south of central Melbourne, it felt much further away. It was a quiet but lovely area full of parks with running & cycling trails, off-leash areas for dogs, public golf courses and tennis clubs.  It was definitely dog-friendly – plenty of cafes with outdoor seating, shops with bowls of water on the sidewalk, and the parks all had doggie drinking fountains and free compostable poop bags. While it wasn’t the most exciting part of town to be in, it was a really nice spot for long walks through all the gardens and parks.

Melbourne is very bicycle-friendly. In the parks, there were often separate trails for bikers and pedestrians.  And in the city, the bike lane is very safe since the parked cars are on the inside… cyclists don’t need to worry about dodging cars that are entering & exiting parking spots.

Melbourne Bike Lanes
Trams are in the center, then cars on either side, then the parked cars, with the green bike lane closest to the curb.
With few exceptions, people have been incredibly friendly.  Cyclists thank you for giving them room to pass on shared paths,  cafe workers are generally cheery and attentive (and tipping is not customary here), grocery store clerks go out of their way to help you find things, and strangers help anyone with a pram or heavy bag on and off the tram.

Eco-consciousness is the standard.  Every place recycles and composts, from private homes to public trash cans. It’s strongly encouraged by the city, as you can tell from the adorable decor on some of the cans:

We saw boxes for donating clothing, household goods and eletcronics all over the place – there is clearly a very concerted effort to minimize landfill. That said, both of the homes we stayed in were on the cluttered side… this could be a side effect from all the encouragement to re-use things.

People are very sensistive to power consumption – while most places have clothes driers, everyone typically hangs their laundry outside to dry (when it’s sunny). And all wall outlets have switches so you can avoid unnecessary power drain by turning them off. Our first petsitting house had a huge tank for collecting rain water, which they used to water their massive garden.

It really seems like eco-consciousness is a way of life here. There’s no need for a plastic bag surcharge at stores because everyone is already sesnsible about their consumption. I’m not sure how this has been achieved, but it’s admirable.

Brunch (and other treats)

Brunch is serious business in Melbourne. It’s available every day of the week, and there are countless great spots for coffee and “brekkie”. We’ve been in many places where brunch isn’t a recognized meal, so I have been reveling in the abundance of smashed avocado on toast with poached eggs, breakfast pastries, and excellent lattes.


And while I’m on the subject of food, gelato is also exceedingly popular here. Pidapipo has excellent flavours which change daily, plus they will add hot nutella to your cup or cone (obviously a brilliant idea). And salted caramel is an expertise here – SF ice cream makers would be blown away by the rich flavour that Gelato Messina achieved. I also loved their  fantastic flavour combinations: Burnt Caramel & Ginger, Salted Caramel with White Chocolate, etc.

Luckily I’ve found some Zumba classes so I can offset all the gelato.

New Year’s Eve

Like any city, there were a million different options available for New Year’s Eve.  I’m typically more interested in doing something quieter with friends for this holiday but since we don’t know anyone in Melbourne, we decided to go out. I saw posters for a party put on by the local “House of Burlesque”. They encouraged everyone to dress in 20’s attire for the 3 course dinner and vaudeville-style show.

I purchased a sparkly dress in Bangkok in anticipation – I knew I would be sad if everyone else was glittery on NYE and I just had my same 6 dresses to choose from.  As we made our way across town that evening, I was surprised to see that people on the train were in shorts and t-shirts… I may have found the one place in the world where women don’t dress up in shiny things for New Year’s Eve!

I was happy to see that others at the event made more of an effort – there was still a fair share of casually dressed folks, but also some fringey flappers, feathered fascinators and strands of pearls, and a couple men in top hats or suspenders.  SF could definitely teach people here a thing or two about theme parties, though.

We were seated at large communal tables and the people next to us were a lot of fun. When they were looking for male volunteers on stage, our gregarious table-mate named Luke tried his best to get The German up there. This backfired entirely and he found himself obligated to compete in a tassle twirling contest:

House of Burleque Tassel Twirling
Luke is the larger guy on the right – they were all good sports about it.
Overall, the show was pretty amateur – I think we are spoiled from the caliber of performance that happens regularly in SF.  On the awkward side, there was a girl pointlessly posing in a giant bubble, some butterfly dance where it seemed a bit like she was wrestling with her wings, and the backup dancers in the Fosse numbers looked lost at best (and occassionally terrified).  Only one girl actually took any kind of clothing off, where she briefly revealed pasties and then quickly put her top back on…  “burlesque” must have a different meaning down here.

House of Burlesque - Bubble
She looked pretty – it was just a little weird.
On the plus side, there was an impressive rendition of Sweet Child O Mine played on a saw, a hilarious performance with a singing skeleton puppet, and the recreation of the Fosse numbers had great costumes and a couple good dancers.

We missed the fireworks because the show was running behind, but it was still a good way to spend NYE – fun people, plenty of bubbles, and I left a trail of glitter in my wake.

Happy 2017!

What’s Next?

We will be cat-sitting in Melbourne until Jan 20th.  It’s a cute little row house in a nice neighbourhood, walking distance to cafes, shops and bars. It’s pretty comfortable and I’ve been enjoying our feline housemates:


Beyond that, we have a few weeks that are still unplanned. In February, we are headed to Bali where we will spend some time at a “coworking and coliving space” before meeting up for some fun with our SF pals, Rick & Randy. Then its a brief orangutan expedition in Borneo before making our way to Japan. There’s still a lot of flexibility, though, so if you’re headed to Asia or the South Pacific, let me know!



Rachel’s Country Cheat Sheet

Every time we change countries, I find myself scouring multiple resources to cover all the basics.  I’ve summarized them here in case it helps anyone else:


Speak English? Yes, communication was easy
Vegetarian-friendly? Extremely, especially in Ubud
Drive on the… Left
Water Drinkable? No, but ice is fine since the supply is quality-controlled by the government
Do I need cash? Yes. Visa & Mastercard are accepted in some places, but will add 2-3% surcharge for using them.  Cash is handy for taxis, markets, and many cafes are cash only.
Tipping 25-30,000 in spas, 10% in restaurants if no service charge has been added, round up for taxis. Hotels typically have a service charge built in but you could tip anyone who has provided exceptional service.
Uber Highly controversial and nearly impossible to use due to the local taxi mafia. Best to pre-arrannge transport from the airport, then either rent a scoot or get your hotel to help negotiate rides.
Favourite Drink Coconut Frappe from The Elephant


Speak English? Mostly – though Spanish is very helpful
Vegetarian-friendly? Not really
Drive on the… Right
Water Drinkable? Yes
Do I need cash? Yes – many places don’t take cards
Tipping 10% in addition to the service charge (only if service was good), 10% for taxis
Uber No
Favourite Drink Cava

Cape Town

Speak English? Yes 
Vegetarian-friendly? Yes
Drive on the… Left
Water Drinkable? Yes
Do I need cash? Not really
Tipping Wages are low so 10-15% in restaurants (if no service charge added), 10% for everyone else
Uber Readily available and much cheaper than taxis; public transit isn’t generally safe for tourists
Favourite Drink South African wine – delicious and cheap!


Speak English? Pretty much everyone speaks English, and Google Translate works well for signage/grocery stores
Vegetarian-friendly? Yes
Drive on the… Right
Water Drinkable? Yes
Do I need cash? No
Tipping No
Uber Yes, at least in Copenhagen but public transit is good and the locals all mainly use bikes.
Favourite Drink Wine


Speak English? Yes
Vegetarian-friendly? Yes – hummus and falafel galore!
Drive on the… Right
Water Drinkable? Yes
Do I need cash? Only for taxis
Tipping 10-15% in restaurants; round to the nearest 5 or 10 for taxis
Uber Yes, but it is actually more expensive than taxis, which are government-subsidized.  The metro is the cheapest transit, and very easy to use… best to take the metro as much as possible then supplement with a taxi
Favourite Drink Whatever you brought in from duty-free. As a tourist, you cannot buy alchohol outside of hotels and drinks prices are steep.


Speak English? Most people do and Helsinki is fairly easy to get around, but you will struggle in grocery stores. Google Translate is not very useful.
Vegetarian-friendly? Surprisingly, yes.
Drive on the… Right
Water Drinkable? Yes
Do I need cash? No
Tipping Round up in restaurants with good service and for taxi drivers
Uber Locals say there are lots of issues with the police, so best to stick with taxis/public transit
Favourite Drink Long Drink: a fizzy gin & grapefruit drink that comes in a can


Speak English? Yes
Vegetarian-friendly? Easily gorge yourself on pasta and gelato
Drive on the… Right
Water Drinkable? Yes
Do I need cash? Yes, for taxis and some cafes.
Tipping Round up in restaurants with good service and for taxi drivers
Uber No and taxis only stop at specified locations for pick-up. You can walk almost anywhere or use AppTaxi (which works like Uber)
Favourite Drink Aperol Spritz!


Speak English? Only in Paris. Even high school French will be helpful in other cities, as is Google Translate
Vegetarian-friendly? Not really, but the cheese is exceptional
Drive on the… Right
Water Drinkable? Yes
Do I need cash? No
Tipping 10% in restaurants for great service, 10% for taxis
Uber Yes for Pairs, No for smaller cities
Favourite Drink Champagne, of course!


Speak English? Most people do, so even if menus are in German, waitstaff can help translate. Getting around is easy.
Vegetarian-friendly? Shockingly, yes (but you might need to ask for something to be made special for you in restaurants)
Drive on the… Right
Water Drinkable? Yes
Do I need cash? Yes – a lot of places don’t take international cards, especially in Berlin
Tipping 10% in restaurants (at most), round up for taxis
Uber Yes (in Berlin, anyways), but public transit is good and easy to use.
Favourite Drink Gluvine at a Christmas Market – tasty, and it helps keep you warm


Speak English? Not really but moreso in Tokyo. Japanese are often better at written than spoken English, so when in doubt, write it out.
Vegetarian-friendly? No.  It will be tough to avoid fish broth or bonito flakes
Drive on the… Left
Water Drinkable? Yes
Do I need cash? Yes – it’s not uncommon for smaller restaurants to be cash-only, many subway ticket machines don’t take cards, and food stalls are all cash.
Tipping No, and it is generally considered insulting to do so.
Uber In Tokyo, but it’s the same price as the taxis (expensive) and you are better off with public transit.
Favourite Drink Sake!


Speak English? Yes
Vegetarian-friendly? Yes – Indian food is particularly good
Drive on the… Left
Water Drinkable? Yes
Do I need cash? No – Apple Pay works well (even on The Tube), and cards are accepted everywhere (though make sure to ask the cabbie before driving away)
Tipping Up to 10% in restaurants if no service charge is added; round up for taxis
Uber Yes, but taxis know the city better and are always available, The Tube is usually the fastest and cheapest option for getting anywhere.
Favourite Drink Sparkling wine by the bottle in pubs, or the occassional pint of cider


Speak English? Yes
Vegetarian-friendly? Yes, though it’s helpful to know which local dishes are possible without meat. Make sure to specify “no fish or meat” or try to find a vegetarian hawker centre.
Drive on the… Left
Water Drinkable? Yes (in large cities)
Do I need cash? Yes – many places don’t take cards, and hawker centres all require cash
Tipping No
Uber Yes, and are much better than taxis, who are known for scamming tourists
Favourite Drink Gin & tonics – they make terrible drinks there so pick something that’s hard to mess up.


Speak English? Yes
Vegetarian-friendly? Yes – pretty much every restaurant has adequate vegetarian options
Drive on the… Left
Water Drinkable? Yes
Do I need cash? You can mostly get by on Apple Pay, which will save you the hassle of signing every time you use your card. Cash is handy for farmer’s markets, which is where you should buy your groceries if possible.
Tipping Not expected, especially if there’s a service charge added but 5-10% for great service or throw a coin in the tip cup; round up to the nearest dollar in taxis if they are deserving.
Uber Yes, though trams & trains will be faster if that’s convenient 
Favourite Drink Australian Wine or a Flat White


Speak English? Yes
Vegetarian-friendly? Yes – though beware of refried beans, which often have meat in them
Drive on the… Right
Water Drinkable? No – brush your teeth with bottled water, avoid ice unless you know it was from bottled water
Do I need cash? Many places take cards, but you’ll want small bills (either pesos or dollars) for tipping, especially at resorts. You can get by with dollars but it will be pricier than using pesos.
Tipping Restaurants 10-15%, spas 15-20%, give a few coins if someone bags your groceries for you (that is often their only income), no tipping for taxis, private transfer drivers should get about 100 pesos for good service on a longer drive
Uber Not in Playa del Carmen or Cancun
Favourite Drink Margarita, naturally

San Francisco

Speak English? Yes
Vegetarian-friendly? Yes – just about any restaurant can accommodate any crazy dietary restrictions
Drive on the… Right
Water Drinkable? Yes
Do I need cash? No
Tipping 15-20% in restaurants, 10% for taxis
Uber Readily available and cheaper than taxis, though BART/MUNI might be faster
Favourite Drink Artisan cocktails in a speakeasy bar, or margaritas at Tacolicious


Speak English? Depends. Taxi drivers may not but you can get by with the basics everywhere else.
Vegetarian-friendly? No. It’s a nightmare.
Drive on the… Right
Water Drinkable? Yes
Do I need cash? No
Tipping No
Uber No.
Favourite Drink Sochu


Speak English? Depends. Taxi drivers don’t – get your accommodation address written in Chinese so you can always get home.
Vegetarian-friendly? Not really. Din Tai Fung is always a safe bet and there are a few vegetarian Chinese restaurants, but otherwise expect surprise meat in vegetable dishes.
Drive on the… Right
Water Drinkable? No
Do I need cash? Only for taxis
Tipping No
Uber No. Car services require a China phone number or credit card
Favourite Drink Tea


Speak English? Yes – it’s the national language
Vegetarian-friendly? Yes – Indian food is particularly good
Drive on the… Left
Water Drinkable? Yes
Do I need cash? Not really… only for hawker centres, or taxi fares are cheaper if you pay cash.
Tipping No, unless you had exceptional service in a restaurant, then leave up to 10%.
Uber Readily available and cheaper than taxis, though the metro is fast, cheap, perfectly punctual and so clean.
Favourite Drink TWG Tea


Speak English? Most people do.  Google Translate works well for grocery stores, menus, etc.
Vegetarian-friendly? Yes, but best to check the menu before you pick a place to eat.
Drive on the… Right (but people walk on the left)
Water Drinkable? Yes
Do I need cash? No
Tipping 5-10% in restaurants if there’s no service charge added
Uber Yes, but there’s plenty of good public transit
Favourite Drink Aperol Spritz – why hasn’t this caught on in the US? It’s so refreshing!


Speak English? Pretty much everywhere
Vegetarian-friendly? Yes
Drive on the… Right
Water Drinkable? No, but ok for brushing your teeth
Do I need cash? Yes – food stalls all require cash and many stores don’t accept cards, but those that do usually accept Apple Pay
Tipping Almost never
Uber Technically works but doesn’t seem like there are many cards
Favourite Drink Boba tea!


Speak English? Hotel staff and restaurants that cater to foreigners do, street food might require some gesturing. You can get by, though.
Vegetarian-friendly? It’s doable but takes some effort to avoid fish sauce, especially with street food.
Drive on the… Left
Water Drinkable? No
Do I need cash? Yes – food stalls all require cash and many stores don’t accept cards.
Tipping Up to 10% in restaurants if no service charge is added, 50-100 baht for a massage, a little extra for taxis driver (provided they don’t try and scam you)
Uber Works in Bangkok but we had many problems with drivers getting lost and taking ages to pick us up – factor in extra time.  The BTS Skytrain is easy and cheap.
Favourite Drink Coconut Shake: ice, coconut water and coconut meat blended together – yum!


Speak English? Yes
Vegetarian-friendly? Yes, though best to check menus
Drive on the… Right
Water Drinkable? Yes
Do I need cash? Sometimes – some cafes are still cash-only
Tipping 5-10% in restaurants if a service charge isn’t added, round up for taxis
Uber Yes
Favourite Drink Sprtiz, especially the variation with lemon & elderflower


Speak English? You can get by, especially in places that cater to tourists.  English & Russian are common.
Vegetarian-friendly? Yes
Drive on the… Right
Water Drinkable? No
Do I need cash? Yes – hotels take cards but don’t expect many other places to, even in big cities.
Tipping 5-10% in restaurants if a service charge isn’t added, round up for taxis
Uber Works great in Ho Chi Min City, but be careful not to accidentally request a motorbike.  Outside HCMC, you’ll need to use taxis. (Insist they use the meter.)
Favourite Drink Vietnamese Iced Coffee

Melbourne For A Bit

It was nice to arrive in Melbourne, a comfortably-sized modern city where we speak the language and don’t have to battle cars and motorbikes for use of the sidewalk.

Melbourne is the kind of place where you see people sitting at a sidwalk cafe sharing a bottle of wine at 3pm on a Wednesday, and there are lots of very talented street musicians playing on the main streets and at the markets.  People are friendly (mostly), vegetarians are not unusual, and there is really good coffee on almost every block. It’s an easy place to like.

It’s not all perfect, though. Similar to San Francisco, just because it’s summer doesn’t mean its necessarily warm…  66°/18° feels a bit chilly coming from hot & humid Southeast Asia. And the flies are weirdly aggressive – they are determined to land on your face no matter how many times you swat them away.

We spent the first week at an AirBnB on the edge of the CBD (Central Business District), exploring the city and rejoicing in the availability of good cheese and affordable (and delicious) wine. The first 24 hours was basically a cheese & Chardonnay frenzy for me. I also got the best haircut I’ve had since leaving SF, we went to a couple art exhibits, and generally enjoyed how easy it was to just walk down the sidewalk without dodging motorbikes or gaping holes.

The German has never spent the holidays in the southern hemisphere and is totally weirded out by the mix of Christmas and warm weather.  The shops have swimsuit displays combined with Christmas decor.  And the gift wrapping stations are often on the sidewalk – something that could never happen in Germany as everyone involved would freeze to death and be covered in snow.

We are now stationed in a southern suburb, sharing a house with a dog named Paddy. There is a huge, lush back garden that I hope not to kill while they are away.  It’s not the gorgeous, modern home we had in Singapore and the location is a bit isolated, but Paddy is a sweetheart and it’s nice to relax in the garden and listen to all the exotic birds. (We even saw a flock of Lorikeets on our morning walk.)


When this is done, we will move to catsitting in a cute row house in one of my favourite neighbourhoods, Carlton. It’s a pretty ideal situation – cool house, cute cats, great area – so we will be in Melbourne until at least Jan 20.

Thai Airways Review

Since it was a 9 hour red-eye from Bangkok to Melbourne, we decided to cash in some United miles for a Business class ticket on Thai Airways. I hadn’t flown this airline before, so here’s a full review of the experience for those of you who geek out on these kinds of things.

Check-in was unexpectedly pleasant.  They basically escort you to a line-free counter where you take a seat as they process your documents and tag your luggage:

Thai Airways
Sadly I didn’t get a photo of the awesome sparkly fingernails of our clerk.
They have a special security screening area just for First and Business class passengers on Thai Airways. Suffice to say there was no line – the staff sprung into action as we headed their way, turning on all the machines and helping load our bags onto the conveyor. The immigration area was similarly empty… there were 3 counters for only the 2 of us.

We reclaimed our VAT and then I spent the rest of our baht on duty-free nail polish before we headed to the lounge.  Sadly, there was no champagne but an otherwise stocked bar, a vast selection of hot & cold food, fast wifi, and a spa.

Royal Silk Lounge in BKK
The main lounge was very long with lots of comfy arm chairs
Because we were flying Business (aka Royal Silk) class, we were each entitled to a 30 minute complimentary neck and shoulder or foot massage. I definitely took advanatge of that, even though I already had a 90 minute massage earlier that day.  It was a decent massage in a peaceful setting, followed by tea and cakes. I suppose I can overlook the lack of champagne since the complimentary massage was such a great experience.

Royal Orchid Spa
Massages happen on these comfy chairs in a private cubicle.
For some reason, they made everyone get rid of all their liquids at the gate…  this seemed odd since we cleared security ages ago. I basically had to dumb a bottle’s worth of water into a trash can.

The plane was a Boeing 777-300, with a great arrangement of seats: 1-2-1.  The middle seats alternated between cozied up againast each other (for couples traveling together)

Thai Air - Royal Silk

Or separated by the middle console, for people traveling individually.  This is a great design – everyone gets an aisle and you don’t have to feel awkward about sleeping next to a stranger if you are traveling alone.

Thai Air Royal Silk

The seats has crossbody seatbelts (like in a car)… would these actually be better for you in a plane crash?  If so, is it really fair to make safety a premium service on a flight?

The seats lie completely flat, and even my 6’2 companion was able to get comfortable (though it was a little tight for him). They also have a built-in massage function, which I can only describe as “subtly gropey”.

Thai Air Control Panel

While there was no champagne in the lounge, they had proper champagne on board which they served prior to take-off (and during the flight) in glass flutes:

The entertainment system was the usual UI disaster – tough to use with either your finger or a remote, the type was too small, and there were gratuitous animations that just made the UI seem sluggish.  They had an adequate selection of films to watch, but no exterior cameras as part of the flight info. It was a red-eye flight so we didn’t use it for very long.

The service was hit or miss. The German had very attentive staff on his side of the aisle – welcoming him, checking if he needed anything, bringing biscuits with his tea, etc. My side was very slow and sometimes forgot I had requested more water or a cup of tea.

The food was an absolute disaster – some of the worst I’ve had on any airline in any class. The bread was stale, dry and cold. Even the pineapple was mostly mealy and the English Breakfast tea was horrible. (And I’m not a tea snob! I really don’t know how they managed to make it taste so awful.) There wasn’t a single vegetarian option for any course. (We bought our tickets via United who rarely has my requested vegetarian meal on their flights, so I’m not at all surprised they didn’t have one for me on Thai Air.)

So all in all, a bit of a mixed bag…  it was certainly nice to be able to nap, though we still arrived discombobulated and very hungry.


If you’re reading this, it means I wasn’t killed trying to cross the street in Ho Chi Minh City.

I thought the traffic in Bangkok was bad, but this really was beyond anything I’ve ever experienced.  Pedestrians do not have the right of way, even at crosswalks or on sidewalks. And the traffic is a constant sea of honking cars and speeding motocycles (and the occassional giant cockroach). It’s so bad that around major attractions, there are officials just to help tourists cross the street.

HCMC Traffic
Just a normal intersection. For reals.

As many people advised us, the technique for crossing is to look forward and walk at a steady pace. Traffic will (hopefully) veer around you. We tried to find a local to shadow whenever possible… at the first major intersection we shamelessly used an 85 year old woman as a human shield, positioning her between us and the oncoming cars.

HCMC Traffic
You’re just supposed to say a prayer and step into the street. Seriously.

We got pretty good at it after a few times, but I still found myself holding my breath when the scooters veered particularly close. The German said we “levelled up” when other tourists followed us across the street.

Walking is treacherous and the city is, quite frankly, not that attractive.  However, the people are very nice and the food is great. Vietnam is relatively vegetarian friendly, and Ho Chi Minh City has a lot of great restaurants at very reasonable prices. We had some of the best Indian food I’ve had anywhere, the Vietnamese Iced Coffee was delicious, and we went to a vegetarian spot that made their own tofu and had an overwhelming selection of local specialties made without meat. And the “milk bar” had excellent coconut shakes made with farm fresh milk.

Taking the Train

We had plans to meet some Finnish friends in the beach town of Mui Ne. We opted to do the 4 hour journey by train, which worked out to be less than $20 round trip for both of us. I now understand why it was so cheap.

Trains in Vietnam tend to be old Russian cars. We booked the “soft seats in A/C coach” – the only nicer option was a sleeper bearth, which was unnecessary for a 4 hour trip and tends to be uncomfortable for The German, who is very tall.

It looked ok from the outside… not exactly modern, but ok.
We arrived extra-early, assuming we would get lost at the station. As it turned out, there were only 4 platforms so this wasn’t a problem. We had plenty of time to heave our bags onto overhead racks, which was the only possible place for luggage.

While the large metal seats did have a cushion on them, the car looked like it was from the 60’s and hadn’t been cleaned since then. Everything was dirty and rusty, some of the windows didn’t close so it’s hard to say if there was actually any AC in there, and some seats were stuck in a reclining position.

Not exactly designed for tall people…

Best of all, The German discovered some large, cockroach-like insect living in the armrest of one of our assigned seats. (The train was full, so there was no option to sit elsewhere.) He bravely offered to take that seat, hoping we could all avoid a major scene with me screaming and generally spazzing out about the bug. (And they say chivalry is dead!) We spent the next four hours constantly checking for the bug, or jumping each time something brushed against us as the train rattled south.

This seat had a bug in it, and a reclining child in front of it.

Mui Ne

Suffice to say we were thrilled to finally arrive at Mui Ne, a beach town especially popular with kite surfers.

Almost every day the horizon line was filled with sails

Our hotel was right on the beach, and just as lovely as we had hoped:

They also had surprisingly fantastic food… in addition to Vietnamese dishes, I also enjoyed the best tacos I have had since leaving California:

It was no Tacolicious, but they were still tasty!

Every day they held a photo contest for guests where the prize was two drinks at the bar. We won several times… mostly likely because we were the only ones entering, but whatever.
It was especially nice to spend time with Teemu, who we know through Apple relationships, and his girlfriend Mimmi. They were happy to trade the cold slush of Helsinki for the warm nights of Vietnam, and we spent many evenings with them enjoying cocktails and watching the sun set over the ocean.

We found a bar with beds overlooking the ocean…

Dragon Beach
The same bar had a step-and-repeat for no reason. (And not a bottle of Tattinger in sight, sadly.0

In addition to being a talented game developer, Teemu is also a fantastic photographer. Just assume any of the good photos in this post were shot by him:


Mui Ne’s main attraction was the ocean, but we felt compelled to try and see something more of the town. The most popular spots were the “Fairy Stream” and some sand dunes.

We hired a local driver who spoke little English and threw us in a ragtop jeep with 4 other tourists. So that means we were 9 people (including him). He actually tried to squeeze in a tenth but we all refused – the only possible way to fit him would’ve been on someone’s lap.

There are 4 people squeezed in behind us…
Teemu & Mimmi show off our fine vehicle…

The Fairy Stream was a shallow stream surrounded by red dirt and white stone and ended in a small waterfall. We were sent on our own to walk up and back (in the actual water), passing all sorts of random things along the way… like a place selling ostrich rides (?), stalls selling coconuts to drink, or you could even have a small meal while seated in the stream. It wasn’t as scenic as we had hoped, but definitely unusual and much cooler to walk in the flowing water than in the hot town.

Next up were the sand dunes… it was surprising to see such huge dunes in the middle of the tropics. It made for great photos (especially if Teemu took them), though we certainly came back filthy and sweaty from walking through all the sand.

Another excellent photo by Teemu

Time flew by, which was especially surprising given that we spent most of it lounging on the beach or in the water.

Thankfully, the train ride back was half empty, and the car was slightly nicer.  However, as we were approaching the end of the journey, some cockroach came climbing along the wall next to me. We can’t have nice things!

The German’s Birthday!

We arrived back in Ho Chi Min City (aka Saigon) to an incredible storm… streets were filled with water and traffic was worse than usual.  Our taxi accidentally dropped us at the wrong hotel, half a block away. Our 2 minute walk down the street left us soaked – it looked like we went swimming in all of our clothing.

Every time you check into a hotel make take a copy of your passport.  Our hotel noticed it was The German’s birthday the following morning and surprised him by bringing cake to the room:


We were flying back to Bangkok in the afternoon (his choice), so we spent the morning checking out all the best coffee spots in Saigon. The German loves a good latte the way I love good champagne, so this was pretty much his ideal start to the day.

We made it back to Bangkok easily but late in the day, so we are having a birthday do-over for him tomorrow. And then in a couple of nights, it’s off to Melbourne!

Zumba in Bangkok

The first class I found in Bangkok was excellent, and we were only here for a week so I didn’t bother trying out anywhere else. The class is taught by Beatriz, who is a long-time instructor and also a Zumba Jammer (choreography teacher for other instructors). She is originally from Guatemala but has been in Bangkok for several years.

In a nutshell, it was a perfect experience.

I found her class on Meet Up, where she included incredibly detailed instructions (along with photos) on how to find the studio, plus class prices, etc. (This is one of the few times I haven’t spent at least 10 minutes trying to find the exact building location or door to a studio.) And as a bonus, when I expressed interest via the Meet Up event, one of her students reached out to tell me how great the class was!

Also, all of her class info on was accurate. (I hate that this comes as a surprise to me now.)

The studio was large, air-conditioned, with a great sound system and mirrors on all four walls!  The other students were incredibly friendly (to me, and each other) – its clear they have a nice little Zumba family. And best of all, her cueing was perfect – it was so easy to follow along.

It goes without saying that she’s a great dancer, and her choreography was super cute, too! Several songs had little sassy moments in them. One song included high-fiving your neighbour (which I think terrified the Japanese guy who was closest to me). I also loved the bollywood song that we did like a “battle” (facing each other), but the choreography was kind of a call & response of different Bollywood moves.

Definitely catch her class if you find yourself in Bangkok!

More Tales from Thailand

We were in and out of Bangkok several times since it’s a major transport hub.  Here are a few other observations and adventures, in no particular order:


I’m obsessed with one of the stops on the Bangkok Skytrain called Nana. The pre-recorded announcement sounds so soothing… I’m sure it could lull even the most stubborn baby to sleep:

Much like the kid in the above video, I can’t help but repeat the name every time she says it, like an obedient cult member. (It’s worth nothing that while slightly embarassing, The German much prefers this to the hours he spent listening to me mimic the British voice of Waze when we drove from SF to Miami.)

Beware the wires…

As I mentioned previously, electrical wiring is a little insane:

Power Lines

It’s not uncommon to hear a humming sound as you walk past.  We were always extra-careful not to brush up against them as it just didn’t sound safe.

One day, we were walking down the street and heard what at first sounded like a gunshot. A bunch of birds flew off as one fell to the ground. Guns are not readily available in Thailand and people don’t seem to be bothered by birds… plus, we didn’t see anyone in the vicinity. And that’s when we had the dreaded realization that we just witnessed a birdie electrocution. (I knew that wiring couldn’t be safe!)

Luxury Cinema

The German really wanted to see Arrival, but it hasn’t been released in Thailand yet so I got to see Fantastic Beasts instead. There are plenty of large cinemas in Bangkok, several of which offer a “luxury” experience. (I’m not sure why these are so rare in the US – it seems like a missed business opportunity!) The tickets were only about $2 more than a normal show, so we decided to check out the Emprive Cineclub.

It started with a lobby reminiscent of a nice hotel. The staff were all friendly, there were no lines, and the tickets looked like boarding cards.

The concession stand had 4 kinds of popcorn: salted, caramel, BBQ or “corncheese”. It turns out this is popcorn with both cheese and corn flavouring… it wasn’t awful but it was definitely weird. (Why does popcorn need artificial corn flavour added to it?)

Emprive Cineclub

We went mid-week, mid-afternoon and there was literally only 1 other person in the massive theatre! The seats were large leather recliners, and the theatre provided blankets (which was nice given the AC is always blasting).

Before the movie started, there were the usual ads. It was entertaining to try and guess what they were for since they were entirely in Thai.

Then there was some sort of propaganda piece about how great the King was, shot in the style of “behind the scenes” footage. They showed a group of people sitting around a table discussing how impossible it would be to convey the incredible wonderfulness of the King in only 2 minutes. Some of them wiped away tears as they talked about him, others talked passionately about how his image appears on all the currency (?)… it was certainly interesting,  I’ll give them that!

Next up was  a message in Thai and English that said everyone should rise to honour the King (which we did – they have thrown people in jail for years for making jokes about the King so we weren’t going to risk it, even with only 1 other person in the theatre)

The tribute that followed was presumably the 2 minute piece the weepy table folks were discussing. I actually found it very moving – lots of authentic footage of people gathering at the palace to mourn, singing and holding candles. When the visuals abruptly changed to the trailer for Assasin’s Creed, we figured it was safe to sit down.

All in all, the movie was a fun bit of escapism for a couple hours, but the whole experience of having comfy recliners in a nearly empty theatre made it even better!


There’s not really any distinction between “breakfast foods” and other foods here.  While there are fewer hawker stalls in the mornings, you still see people eating anything from spicy noodles to chicken satay to seafood soup for breakfast. This is how I justified eating mango sticky rice for breakfast on our last day.


I desparately needed a haircut – it had been at least 8 weeks since my last one.  I did a lot of research online and found a salon that seemed to be popular with expats. I thought this was a good approach since my short and thick hair is the opposite to that of the local girls’, plus being able to communicate in English was imperative. After a brief email exchange with a salon, they set up an appointment with one of their “master stylists”. I told The German he was obligated to come with me.

I didn’t realize at the time that the location was in the middle of nowhere… it looked like a deserted mall next to a freeway.  Our Uber driver got extra-lost taking us there, and our Uber driver for the way back also struggled to find us.  (I had to get someone from the salon to explain in Thai where we were.)

I walked into the salon, and while it was full of expats, they were all getting hair extensions put in…  if the drive over wasn’t already a bad sign, this definitely had me worried.

It started with them washing my hair in ice cold water. The stylist then took a brief look at my reference photos, asked the assistant to use her iPad to take a pic of the photo on my phone (?), and starting cutting away at the back of my head. Every time he made a cut, I held my breath and looked to see if The German, who was sitting behind me, had a horrified expression or not.

The only question the stylist asked was if I parted my hair on the side.  I offered him the reference photo again halfway through but he said he didn’t need it.

By the time he was done, I was relieved to have a solidly mediocre haircut. Though I discovered later he missed cutting one chunk behind my left ear, it’s not a total disaster so I’ll consider myself lucky. And all for the bargain price of $15 (plus 2 Uber rides).

I am looking forward to getting it improved in Melbourne.

Other Highlights

We also went to the Sky Bar that was a location in the movie The Hangover II. This photo doesn’t do it justice – stepping outside of the building takes your breath away… the view of Bangkok is excellent and the bar feels like it’s hanging off the edge of the world.

Sky Bar

And since we were traveling on the The German’s actual bday, we had a do-over  that included more lattes and a giant steak:

Cocotte Steak House
Martinis and rib eye for the bday guy!
It’s a bit challenging to try and make a birthday extra-special given that we don’t really have any sense of “normal” anymore… we are constantly changing countries or hotels/apartments, which results in us changing any semblance of a daily routine, too. Plus, we don’t have any friends around and we don’t really have room for more “stuff”… hopefully a vegetarian-organized steakhouse made it feel a little out of the ordinary.


Now it’s time to head to Melbourne!

Having spent several months in the hot & muggy  weather of Southeast Asia, I’m worried it is going to feel cold by comparison! (The current forecast shows termperatures ranging from high 70’s to high 50’s). While I am not looking forward to things being more expensive, I am excited to be able to read everything, see some friends from SF, and get some good wine & cheese (as I am having serious withdrawals).

We are committed to staying in Melbourne through the holidays, then it’s all loose until mid-February when we head to Bali. We’ll see what happens!



Hua Hin, Thailand

I felt like it would be unacceptable to come to Thailand and not experience the fabulous beaches I’ve seen in everyone’s vacation photos.  Unfortunately, the majority of those spots (like Koh Samui, Phuket, etc.) meant an expensive plane ticket and inflated accommodation prices, so we just couldn’t justify it. Instead, we opted to visit Hua Hin – a seaside resort town that is popular as a weekend getaway for residents of Bangkok, including the King.  If it’s good enough for the King, it’s good enough for us, right?

We wanted to take the train, but unfortunately, it was sold out? (Though in hindsight, that may not have been true – the Thai websites were confusing and not always available in English.)  The same website offered us tickets for a minivan, which was cheaper and faster than the train (less than $11 for both of us), so I assumed there had to be a catch, right? I envisioned a 12 seater van with about 20 sweaty people in it and I’d have to hold a chicken on my lap.

The departure point was nowhere near other public transit (which is a strange choice, but whatever) so we took Uber from the hotel. Our Uber driver decided we didn’t know what we were talking about and took us to a different destination. (To be fair, half the time we don’t know what we were talking about, though this time we did have a voucher with a different address, which we did try to show him.) He insisted the southern bus station had recently moved and thought he was doing us a favour. It sounded plasuible, but after 45 minutes of checking with various attendants, we were fairly confident we weren’t in the right place.  Yet we also couldn’t deny there were buses and vans to Hua Hin departing from where we were.

The German tried calling the “if you have any problems, call this number” listed on the voucher.  I heard him say a few times, “We can’t find the departure point…” and apparantly they just kept answering “45 minutes”… so we abandoned the voucher and bought tickets for another van which was leaving from where we were standing at that moment.  We had to buy an additional seat for our luggage, but all said and done it was less than $20, so not the most expensive mistake we’ve made this trip.

The van was certainly a tight squeeze, but I didn’t have to share my seat with a chicken and it had air conditioning, so it was already working out better than I expected!

Van to Hua Hin
I sat over the wheel with my knees close to my chest.

What would’ve been a 4 hour train ride was 2.5 hours by van, thanks to our driver, Speed Racer. At no point did I feel a need to screem out loud, so I guess that’s saying something, and no one was barfing so it was better than the Zanzibar ferry experience.

Hua Hin Beach

The resort we chose wound up being lovely, though Hua Hin beach wasn’t exactly the “Thailand beach paradise” I had pictured… there wasn’t much of a beach, and the water was more brown than blue.  Still, the pools at the hotel were lovely, it was very affordable, and it was nice to be in a smaller town.

Thai Massage

Massage is very popular in Thailand, and it’s not uncommon for locals to go multiple times per week to relax.  You see tons of storefronts offering massage services, and they are always very full in the evenings. (And yes, these are legitmate massage parlours, though there are certainly places in Bangkok that also offer additional “services”.)

I’ve had a lot of massages, but never Thai style.  It’s very different… they don’t use any oil and it’s much more physical. They give you these loose-fitting pajamas to wear, as they climb all over the table (and you) as part of the experience.  In the movies, Thai-style massage is where the girls are walking on people’s backs. While they don’t do that anymore, there is a lot of facilitated streching, and even back cracking. They bend you into all sorts of different positions, then use their elbows, knees, feet and hands to massage you.  If you like deep tissue massage like I do, it’s fantastic.  But if you’re looking for a more relaxing, light massage, this isn’t the one.

You can get a 90 minute massage for less than $15, so I figured I should get as many as possible!

Elephants, Gibbons, and Otters – oh my!

I really wanted to have some kind of wildlife experience while we were here, but the last thing I wanted to do was contribute to the abusive practices of elephant tourism, or take photos with tigers or monkeys who had been sedated and stolen from their mothers. So I was thrilled to learn about the Wildlife Friends Foundation, which is located not too far from Hua Hin.

This sanctuary rehabilitates animals that have been abused, and whenever possible, releases them back to the wild. They also do a lot of educational outreach, and try working with the Thai goverment to advocate for animals.  You can visit the sanctuary for a day, or volunteer for a week or longer… if we didn’t already have flights to Vietnam, I would certainly still be there!

My day started with a tour of some of the habitats, where we got to hear the stories of how each animal came to be there.  Suffice to say, these aren’t happy stories… if a non-domesticated animal (like a monkey or bear or elephant) is being used for tourist activities, it has certainly suffered some major abuse. (Details on how elephants are broken for the trekking industry are here if you’re interested.) If you like animals at all, you should never support these industries – these practices will only stop when demand goes away.

WFFT has had great success releasing gibbons to the wild.  Most gibbons that wind up there have previously been kept as pets, usually in tiny boxes or cages.  To rehabilitate them, they start them in small cages, where they are often kept solo to adjust.  Then they move on to larger cages, possibly with other gibbons or in sight of them, so they can re-learn how to be a gibbon. They eventually go to a cage-free island habitat before releasing them to the wild. This helps them transition from being pets to wild animals again.

They recently rescued a pair of 2 month old gibbons who are ridiculously adorable… I could have watched them all day:

They have everything from monkeys to bears to porcupines.  All of them were illegally taken from the wild to be used for entertainment or as exotic pets.  I missed the story about how these otters came to be there as I was overwhelmed by their adorable squeaky sounds:

The highlight of the day was my time with the elephants.  I had the chance to see how happy they are here, to feed some of them, and to walk and bathe one.  It’s an indescribable feeling to be walking down an open road with a 4 ton elephant following behind you, completely free of any fences, chains, or ropes. It was really magical.

One of the volunteers demonstrates how to lead the elephant by periodically doling out fruit.


Elephants used in the trekking industry rarely have the opportunity to get into water.  We had a chance to help bathe an elephant (which they are accustomed to from their former lives):

Bath Time
This was harder (and messier) than it looked…
Thirsty Elephant
She didn’t hesitate to help herself when she got thirsty…


At WFFT, all the elephants have access to ponds, though they can be unsure about hot to react to this luxury. The staff try and encourage them by tossing fruit into the water.  This guy obviously loves going for a swim, based on his entry technique:


All in all, it was a really amazing day and I got back to the hotel smiling and filthy. (Who knew their trunks were so slobbery?) You can tell the volunteers and the animals are all very happy to be there. I am definitely going to look into visiting more sanctuaries and seek out volunteer opportunities, as it was such an incredible experience.

Next up, we are bouncing back to Bangkok for a couple nights before heading to Vietnam…

One Night in Bangkok (And Then Some)

I am so grateful to my amazing friend Dan, who speaks Thai fluently and has spent a ton of time in Thailand, for giving us an incredible amount of detailed advice.  We could have stayed here for months following his recommendations, and we arrived feeling better prepared because he educated us on all the basics.

That said, we started in Bangkok (against Dan’s recommendation). He warned us that the city can be overwhelming, especially the choatic, never-ending traffic. He wasn’t kidding. On the way to our hotel from the airport, our Uber got rear-ended. It was not our driver’s fault and everyone was fine (we were stopped in the ever-present traffic and someone rear-ended the person behind us, who got pushed into us). We then spent about an hour on the side of the road while all the drivers sorted out the details and received paperwork from the traffic cop. Welcome to Bangkok!

Traffic really is relentless. Hotels and other venues hire staff specifically to stop traffic just so cars can enter and exit their driveways. And walking is also a challenge. In Pengang, you had to be constantly vigilant about large holes, pipes, parked motorbikes or a million other things that could be obstructing the sidewalk.  In Bangkok, if there even is a sidewalk, you have to dodge street vendors, motorbike taxis and the occassional giant cockroach. Plus vehicles don’t stop at the few crosswalks that do exist, so crossing the street is a nightmare unless you can find a pedestrian bridge. In other words, its like playing an advanced game of frogger, but you only get one turn.

Power Lines
Electrical wiring is also a good metaphor for Bangkok’s traffic.

His Royal Majesty

Thailand’s king died on October 13, 2016. He reigned for 70 years and was beloved by the people (as mandated by law).  Even though we arrived over a month after his death (the first 30 days are the most intense mourning period), there was still plenty of evidence of his passing.  Many people were still dressed in black, and the king’s portrait (surrounded by tons of flowers) and messages of condolences were everywhere. Entertainment, like concerts and sporting events, ceased and many bars and clubs had to close early, though that seems to be lessening now that the first month has passed.

Every single building has some kind of display honouring His Majesty  – usually a portrait in a gold frame, surrounded by fresh flowers and black and white ribbons. Here is a small selection of photos, which I took subversively as I was unsure if it was ok to photograph them:

One day we wandered into the area of the Grand Palace, not realizing that for the first 100 days there is a chance for people to pay their respects at the king’s grave.  Thousands of people per hour head there every day to mourn the king, clad in black and carrying their own portrait of him. Impressively, everything is calm and organized, facilitated by a huge community of volunteers who offer information, prepare food, distribute water, etc. Everything was provided to the mourners for free, which was so lovely – even the flowers to place on his grave were being given to each person as they entered the palace gates.

As we stood near the gates looking bewildered, a volunteer came over and welcomed us in. However, neither of us was wearing black and my passport (which was needed to enter) was at the Vietnam Embassy receiving a visa, so we didn’t venture inside the walls.

 The Unicorn Cafe

On a lighter note, I read about a unicorn-themed cafe and felt it was imperative to check it out.  It’s pretty much what you’d expect/hope for: a pastel coloured room filled with sugary treats, playing non-stop Disney music with stuffed toys and figurines of all sizes on every available surface.  Even the ceiling was decorated with unicorns. And they have unicorn onesies you can wear while you eat.  The German was a very good sport about this (and not the only guy who had been dragged there).

Apple Reunion

We were surprised to discover that two different friends from Apple were randomly in Bangkok so we all got together for dinner. Caro was on her way to Bali with her boyfriend, while Ivan was on his way back to SF, having just completed a motorcycle trek in Nepal.  It was so fun to see some familiar faces and catch up!


We met up with Ivan again on a subsequent evening, and found ourselves in the charmingly named “WTF Bangkok” bar, where a local demanded everyone join her in singing along to everything from Britney Spears to David Bowie to Guns & Roses.

Several drinks later, it was time for a midnight tom yum fix:

Soi 38 Street Food
The German spent the entire next day with food poisoning, so this may not have been the best idea.


We finally decided to heed some of Dan’s advice and book a day trip to Ayutthaya, which was a capital city of Thailand until the Burmese invaded and destroyed it in 1767. There are so many temples there it would be impossible to see them all in a week, let alone a single day.  We managed to visit four before taking a boat ride back to Bangkok.

Thailand’s Buddha is tall and thin and always has a peaceful expression.  Even though we were part of a large group, we had time to explore on our own and I found it very calming to be in the temples with the soothing smile of the Buddhas.

The temples tend to be very ornate (if they haven’t been destroyed by war). Though our guide made far too many jokes along the way, he was also very knowledgable and it was really nice to learn more about Buddhism, the customs, and how to enjoy the temples without interfering or accidentally disrespecting anyone.

We ended the day by taking a boat back to Bangkok. It was interesting to see the various buildings go by – from temples to modern skyscrapers to small houses and even the Grand Palace. Though I think the most exciting part was when we barely cleared a low bridge and everyone had to hit the deck:

Everyone was torn between taking photos and diving to safety

 Spirit Houses

Most buildings have ornate little altars out front. They are always covered with fresh flowers and often have drinks (with straws) and small dishes of food in them.  It turns out these are designed to appeal to spirits. Some spirits are mischievous, so giving them a nice place to stay deters them from causing trouble in the home or business. I find this approach to problem-solving very charming… rather than trying to get rid of the spirits, they make them feel very welcome somewhere else.


Now we are off to a smaller, coastal town to take in the quieter side of Thailand before we head to Vietnam. Though we will be bouncing in and out of Bangkok a couple more times since its such a central transit hub, so I think I am destined to keep humming “One Night in Bangkok” for a couple more weeks.

Distance is hard sometimes…

Being so far away is a double-edged sword.  With US politics being so depressing and overwhelming, its nice that I can just step away from the internet and have a break from it all (which I am assume is much harder to do if you’re physically in the US).

Its a different story when the news is more personal. In the same day, I found out that 2 wonderful people had passed away. When things like this happen, I really feel the distance… 12-15 hours time change makes it difficult to connect with anyone. And while Facebook used to be an adequate medium for staying in touch, its now a relentless source of bad news – death, sickness, hate crimes, and panic-inducing political updates. Its more painful than comforting to wade through it all.

Aunt Ellen was quite old and had been suffering from Alzheimers for years. Even after she no longer recognized anyone, she was always kind and full of joy. She always knew what to say or do to make the people around her happy.

When I was younger, her house was always the most fun – we would get the dogs fired up and have them run after me, skidding across the floors and barking.  She had a room full of pachinko and some antique parlour games that I loved to play with… one day, I accidentally pulled one over onto myself and was crying because I thought I broke something valuable, but her concern was just that I was ok.

She was the kind of person who sent me a fondue pot, just because its frivulous and fun she knew I’d love it. She gave me the ring off her finger because I commented on how much I liked it. And when my grandfather was dying, she insisted on taking me to lunch away from the depressing hospital waiting room, because she knew I needed a break. I wish I tried harder to do more for her.

Kit was only a few years older than me. He had been battling cancer for several years, and recently taken a turn for the worse. Though he was a quiet person, he was outgoing in his own way and part of such a large community of folks.  He & Kirk came to my Zumba class regularly, were always out dancing at Space Cowboy events, and willing to attend any costume party (no matter how ridiculous the theme). I don’t think I ever saw Kit without a smile on his face.

His husband, Kirk, has been unbelievably strong throughout all the chemo treatments, and did everything he could to help Kit make the most of his last days.  I can’t even begin to imagine how he’s feeling or how he managed to be so brave.  I hope he’s surrounded by some of the many people who love him and loved Kit – my heart breaks for him.