Visiting Chiang Mai’s Flower Festival
In the hills of northern Thailand, lush jungle, farms, and fruit trees rolled past the train window. As we neared Chiang Mai a fellow passenger cautioned me that the Flower Festival would fill every room in town. I hadn't made a reservation. It was a chore, but eventually I found a room. My hotel was pricey, but right on Kotchasarin Road, on the eastern side of the Moat Road that encloses the old city, a 700-year-old defensive rampart and canal built against the encroaching Burmese.
Chiang Mai, the center of the Lanna Kingdom, was founded more than 800 years ago—the Lanna fell to the Burmese in 1558 but the dynasty and culture remained strong. Ties to Bangkok weakened the Burmese hold and the Lanna eventually merged with the Thai Kingdom.
Thailand's fifth largest city is also called The Rose of the North. Chiang Mai proper has almost 200,000 people, while more than a million people live in the surrounding area. It is the gateway to the hill country and a major launching point for jungle trekking, elephant riding, white water rafting, and visits to the neighboring hill tribe villages.
The economy of the area has always relied on agriculture. The temperate tropical climate is especially conducive to flowering blossoms. For centuries the people of Chiang Mai celebrated the fertile cycle of life and the arrival of the growing season with floral tributes to Buddha and offerings to Vishnu, Shiva, Genesh, and other Hindu deities. These are the ancient origins of the annual Flower Festival, which since 1976 has been staged on the first weekend of February.
Serendipitously my hotel was located along the parade route. The day-long affair featured floats presented by businesses, schools and organizations in the district. The floats were elaborately and beautifully constructed, like giant moving sculptures made of yellow and white chrysanthemums, lilies, pink, white, and red orchids, and a rainbow of roses. Some depicted elephants, dragons, lions, and other creatures; others were floral architectural re-creations of temples and palaces. There was even a giant floral Buddha. The floats were a visual and an olfactory feast, as millions of blooms projected their aromatic essence along the parade route. Some carried contestants in the Flower Festival beauty pageant. Lovely potential Flower Queens smiled demurely, bowing and waving to the crowd. There were exotically garbed processions of men, women, and children from different hill tribes, like the Akha women glistening with silver from the top of their square hats down to their colourful beaded leggings. Marching bands in satin uniforms paraded with practiced discipline. Musician ranged from young school children, to high school kids and adults. The variety of music included classical symphonies; movie theme songs from Star Wars; and an orchestral version of the pop song Gangnam Style.
The happiness was contagious. I watched from my hotel patio, but after a pretty girl in a silk gown handed me a rose, I joined the parade, dancing alongside a group of flower bedecked ladies while snapping pictures of their float, a massive sailing ship composed of orchids. I invested 60 baht ($2) with a smiling vendeuse for a bamboo parcel of sparrows to release for good luck, and shared in their joy at being free.
The floats and the marching bands were at their best when they filed past the judge's stand near the Governor's house where officials declared the winners. The parade ended at the moat-side Suan Buak Haad garden park where the winning floats were put on display with their ribbons and trophies. Also displayed were prize floral specimens from local horticulturalists. There were food stalls and vendors offering botanical advice, flower seeds, and gardening tools.
The flower festival is the pride of Chiang Mai, signaling the end of the cool season, the start of the growing cycle, and the peak of blossoming. For me it signalled the beginning of a great visit to the lush and sensual northern hills of Thailand.
Born in The Hague, Andrew Kolasinski arrived in Canada as a small child riding in the luggage rack of a DC-7. Since then he has felt at home anywhere. As the publisher and editor of Island Angler, Andrew spends half the year fishing for salmon and trout, and in the off-season he travels the world looking for a story. He wrote this article for Tucan Travel, specialists in tours to Thailand and all over Southeast Asia.
Last-Minute Foliage Getaways for Under $150!
Connecticut Stay: Arts & Crafts A-Frame Lake House, Ashford (vacation rental) Cost: From $140/night Cool property feature: A spiral staircase corkscrews up to a loft with skylights; downstairs, you'll find a wood-burning stove and a yoga/meditation space. Must-see spot to leaf peep: Natchaug State Forest—take Route 44 for maximum beauty. Ctvisit.com outlines more driving tours farther south. Maine Stay: Owls Head Village Post Office, Owls Head (vacation rental) Cost: From $140/night Cool property feature: Yes, it's an actual converted post office! Sweeping views and the ocean are visible from the cupola up top. Must-see spot to leaf peep: Motor from Rockland to Augusta up Route 17 to soak up the scenery. Maine's dedicated foliage site, mainefoliage.com, can help you plan scenic hikes and drives. Michigan Stay: Quaint Cottage on Lake Independence, Marquette (vacation rental) Cost: From $125/night Cool property feature: Right next to the lake, this cozy home has a boat dock, four-season porch, and a fireplace, plus lake views from several rooms. Must-see spot to leaf peep: Driving M-28 to County Road 550, right along Lake Superior's shore, is a good bet for a beautiful fall show. For more color tours, plus ATV trails, michigan.org has you covered. Missouri Stay: Chateau on the Lake, Branson Cost: From $139/night Cool property feature: Mountain-view rooms showcase the area's peaks, and lakefront rooms overlook Table Rock Lake; miles of trails on property offer a chance to see deer and wild turkeys along with the leaves. Must-see spot to leaf peep: The Ozark Mountains. Get insider info on bike trails and driving tours (both back roads and main highways) at ozarkmtns.com. New Hampshire Stay: Cabernet Inn, North Conway Cost: From $97/night via booking.com Cool property feature: This 1872 cottage serves a free made-to-order "full country breakfast": Maple walnut stuffed French toast and greek omelets are specialties. Must-see spot to leaf peep: White Mountain National Forest. New Hampshire's Foliage Tracker will help you follow the action. New York Stay: Rustic Lakefront Camp on Quiet Lane, Lake George (vacation rental) Cost: From $79/night Cool property feature: You want charm? You got it with this whimsical A-frame, equipped with a gas fireplace and screened-in porch with loungers for gazing at the lake. Two kayaks with paddles serve as nature's entertainment—the property has no TV, phone, or internet. Must-see spot to leaf peep: Adirondack Park. Read the scoop at lakegeorge.com. North Carolina Stay: Asheville Cottage, Asheville (vacation rental) Cost: From $145/night Cool property feature: A picture window with a spectacular view of Mount Mitchell, a shade garden with gazebo, a private creek, and a barbecue area take full advantage of the great outdoors. Must-see spot to leaf peep: Pisgah National Forest—take Route 276, south of Asheville, for eye-popping color. Find more recommendations at exploreasheville.com. Tennessee Stay: Gatlinburg Cabin, Gatlinburg (vacation rental) Cost: From $125/night Cool property feature: A rustic covered deck with sweeping mountain views includes a porch swing, rocking chair, and hot tub. Must-see spot to leaf peep: Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Get all the details at gatlinburg.com.
Why Every Nature Lover Should Pay A Visit To Paracas, Peru
Pelicans march solemnly up and down the beaches, always on the lookout for a dead fish abandoned by a passing fisherman, while seagulls wheel overhead. This small beach town is just a few hours south of Peru's capital city of Lima, but it seems worlds away from the busy, highly populated capital that seldom sleeps. Paracas is a popular destination for national and international tourists. It's the perfect weekend getaway from Lima, an ideal place to break up a long bus journey between Lima and popular southern destinations like Cusco, Arequipa, and Puno. Paracas, in the Province of Pasco, 260 km south of the capital, is easily accessible by long-distance bus or car. Visit the 'Peruvian Galápagos' You'll find Paracas National Park and Wildlife Reserve as well as the sealife rich Ballestas Islands nearby. The Islands lie just off the coast and can be easily visited by a short boat ride from the mainland. It's easy to see why these islands are called 'the Peruvian Galápagos.' The Ballestas Islands are home to many species of birds and marine life. Sea lions lounge on the rocky islands, flirting with the tourists who pass by on the boats, flashing their cameras, while enough species of birds to make a twitcher squeal in delight circle in the sky above. You can spot birds like the guanay guano bird, the blue-footed booby, and the tendril, among others. There are also Humboldt Penguins hanging around, as well as two varieties of seals on these rock formations which cover around 0.12 square kilometers. A boat ride to the islands from the seaside resort of Paracas takes around two hours and sea lions will often get friendly with the tourists, coming close to the boats. The boat passes an unusual geoglyph on its way to the islands, not unlike the lines visible at nearby Nasca. The 'candelabra' is from the Paracas culture and its purpose and meaning remain a mystery. It's visible from the boat ride to the islands and is thought to have been a beacon to people out at sea, but this is just one of the theories. The sea lions' haunting cries, echoing around the islands, just add to the sense of mystery. Adventure Sports in Paracas If you're more into adventure chasing than bird watching, there are plenty of more adrenaline-filled activities available. Enjoy sand boarding or zooming up and down steep sand dunes on a dune buggy? Nearby oasis and holiday resort Huacachina has some excellent options for both of these activities, but Paracas also has some impressive dunes to test your courage. Not keen on the idea of getting sand in your eyes? Have a go at hang-gliding. If you're looking for a good adrenaline buzz, this is the right sport for you. Soar high above the dunes and ocean either solo (if you've had training!) or attached to an experienced glider. Another popular sport in the area is diving... And with such a bio-diverse area, you will have plenty to see! Other guided tours include the Julio C. Tello Museum, the reserve's visitor center and, further afield, tours to nearby Pisco (where the famous Peruvian liquor, Pisco, is made), Huacachina, and Ica. Paracas used to be a small, unassuming fishing town, but the popularity of its bio-diverse Ballestas Islands and natural reserve have made it a popular destination for people interested in Peru's history, adventure sports, and wildlife. Staying, eating, and drinking in Paracas Recently built hotels, restaurants, and bars line the seafront—there's something for everyone's budget. Cheaper options are, of course, further away from the sea, but it's worth paying a little extra to wake up to the view of the Pacific Ocean stretching away from you each morning. If you want to stay at one of the top-end resorts, you need to reserve your room earlier rather than later. There is a variety of food on offer, but I'd highly recommend that you try a dish with fresh fish or seafood. Ceviche—raw fish marinated in spicy ají and lime juice, traditionally served with a raw red onion salad and a cold slice of 'yuca,' is typical in the region, as is hearty fish and seafood soup, 'Parihuela.' Paracas is a beautiful place to visit at any time of year and if you're looking to make more of a trip of it, you can easily tag on the fascinating Nasca lines and a visit to the calm oasis resort, Huacachina. Whether as part of a bigger trip or on your own, you're sure to have a pretty special time here. This article was written by Hannah Vickers, who has lived in Lima, Peru, for a year and a half and is the editor of Peru this Week. You can read more of her work on her blog. She wrote this article on behalf of the Tambo Blanquillo, a family-owned lodge in the Peruvian Amazon, the perfect place for encountering nature in Peru.
5 Best Cheap Eats in Buenos Aires
Argentines as a nation would appear to be prone to cultishness. From Eva Perón to soccer to psychoanalysis, their reverence towards their idols quickly takes on religious overtones, as evidenced by the "Gardel Lives" and "Maradona is God" inscriptions still visible on some walls in Buenos Aires. Gastronomically, their supreme object of worship is one and one only: beef. And with good reason. Argentina's steaks are notoriously succulent and flavorful, much to the despair of dieters everywhere. Given this veneration of el bife, it's not surprising to see diners in Buenos Aires thronging the city's five-star parrillas night after night, pouring money into the city's $20-billion-a-year restaurant industry as they continue their quest for The Perfect Cut. However, you don't have to be a member of the expense-account set to join the cult of the steak. Buenos Aires also abounds in restaurantes populares, cheap neighborhood emporia where for more or less what you'd pay for fast food in the States, even those on a budget can render homage to the Almighty Beef. Many of these eateries actually trump their glitzier brethren from the tourist guidebooks. The secret is knowing where to look. To accompany you on your forays into shoestring porteño dining, here's a list of mom-and-pop establishments offering outstanding values. Many are off the tourist track. All are well known to locals. And in nearly every case, you'd be hard pressed to spend more than $10 on an entree. ¡Buen provecho! Desnivel Defensa 855 (San Telmo) 4300-9081Raucous, fast-paced, and super-friendly, this neighborhood parrilla sports an intimidatingly vast menu and gut-busting portions—and for prices that are a steal. Atmosphere is a big part of the attraction. The old-timey saloon is located along a cobblestoned street in San Telmo, the quaintest, most historic neighborhood in Buenos Aires, and the interior has charm to match—think open kitchen, lots of wine bottles, nostalgic black-and-white photos lining the walls, and big communal tables with families laughing and celebrating. The bife de chorizo is scrumptious, but take advantage of the vast menu to try other, less-obvious options: Patagonian lamb, or the beef tips in spring-onion sauce. And go during a soccer match for the full effect. Very highly recommended. Burger Joint Jorge Luis Borges 1766 (Palermo) 4833-5151Being the beef capital that it is, it makes sense that the hamburgers in Buenos Aires are a force to be reckoned with. This hipster hole in the wall serves what are probably the city's best. They're thick and juicy, covered with imaginative toppings, and the staff honors special requests. Try the Tevez, which comes with salsa chimichurri, or the Mexican, which has jalapenos and salsa picante. The fries are worthy companions to the beef. Bohemians will relish the décor (the place is plastered floor to ceiling with pages torn out of magazines) as well as the selection of artisanal beers. Nota bene: because of the restaurant's proximity to the popular Plaza Serrano, if you go late, the lines can be long. Che Taco Balcarce 873 (San Telmo) 4361-1707Mexican food in Argentina? The answer of the swarms of porteños who frequent this cozy café in a romantic side street is a resounding "¡Por supuesto! (Of course!)" International food can be hard to come by in Buenos Aires, and Che Taco offers a welcome alternative to the city's endless parrillas. Added to which, the beef used in the tacos and burritos here is pure Argentina, offering hungry visitors the best of both worlds. Try the shredded-beef tacos or the pozole (traditional Mexican corn-and-beef soup), with agua jamaica or a spicy beer to wash it down. The two Quevedo brothers who own the place are friendliness personified. Parrilla Peña Rodriguez Peña 682 (Almagro) 4371-5643This no-frills, unpretentious parrilla has steaks, chicken, pasta, omelets, and little else. The décor consists of wine bottles on the wall, there are no reservations, and the management accepts only cash. It's also closed on Sunday. Despite this only-the-basics approach, however, porteños flock to eat there, especially late at night. The reason? Simple: the meat is outstanding. Try the colita de cuadríl (rump steak) and the papas fritas a la provenzal (French fries with garlic and parsley). The neighborhood steakhouse at its best. Juana M Carlos Pellegrini 1535 (Recoleta) 4326-0462This spot in Recoleta bills itself as a parrilla, but it's more. The quiet underground setting (the cavernous dining room was once an orphanage), the candlelit ambiance, and the ample menu, complete with all-you-can-eat salad bar, make it more like an intimate bistro—though of course all the usual steak-and-fries classics are available. Try the beef or pork brisket, or the breaded hake in mushroom sauce. Also, be sure to talk to Juana herself, who comes around to attend to the diners personally. Prices here are a bit higher than at some parrillas, but well worth the extra. Mike Gasparovic is a freelance writer, editor, and translator who devotes his free time to studying the history, art, and literature of the Spanish-speaking world and learning about its people. He currently lives in Lima and wrote this article on behalf of South American Vacations, providers of tours to Argentina and throughout all of South America.
How to do Oslo on a Budget
"Oh, you're going to Oslo? You know it's expensive, right?" I can't tell you how many people told me that on learning I'd booked a week-long trip to the capital of Norway. Didn't they realize I live in New York City, one of the most expensive cities in the world as it is? It got so annoying that I made it my mission to do Oslo as cheaply as possible. Getting there, and when to go Norwegian Airlines currently leads the way in long-haul, low-cost carriers. I got a round-trip ticket from New York City to Oslo for $450. The price is so low because certain "extras," such as checked baggage and in-flight meals, are a la carte (but do you really want to pay for airline food anyway?). The airline is proud of using Dreamliner jets, but not all customers get the chance to fly with them since their fleet is still quite small. Just make sure you know which airline your flight is being operated by—if your Dreamliner is switched to a different aircraft, Norwegian will issue a full refund, or let you re-book for free. Most people think Norway is perpetually cold, so everyone usually comes in the late spring and summer. I wouldn't rule out a winter trip to Oslo, though. The city is charming all year round, and there are still a lot of things you can do both indoors and outside that will make you forget you're close to the Arctic Circle. Flights and accommodations are also cheaper in the winter, and no one is around. Seriously. Most locals will be like, "Oh cool, you're the first American we've seen since October." The Oslo Pass The Oslo Pass includes entrance to over 30 museums, all public transportation, discounts at restaurants, and discounts or free entrance to some non-museum attractions, like swimming pools and ski parks, as well. It's one of the best ways to save in this city, especially if you plan on doing all of the touristy things you read about online. The pass pays for itself in the walking tours. There's a different themed walk every day—do them all. I did a walk about Henrik Isben, Edvard Munch, and the Norwegian art scene, a tour of Ekeberg Park, and a tour of the Akershus Fortress. Each one goes for 150 NOK normally; the cost of a 72-hour Oslo Pass is 535 NOK, just a little more than the price of three tours. (Full disclosure: I was provided with a VIP pass from Visit Oslo; however, I still calculated the cost of a pass into my expenses). Booze and nightlife This is by far the most expensive aspect of any Norwegian trip. Alcohol is heavily taxed here, so casual drinks at the pub after a long day of sightseeing is not realistic. Norwegians are well traveled, but I think it's because once you leave immigration control, you're ushered into the duty-free-alcohol-free-for-all section of the airport where you can buy any kind of liquor on the planet. I bought a bottle of Aquavit, Norway's traditional drink, for less than 79 NOK. It lasted me the entire week. While you'll see people in bars during the week, the weekends are when Norwegians go in Oslo. Start by pre-gaming with your bottle of duty-free alcohol, and then head to whatever bar or club looks fun. Treat yourself to one alcoholic beverage, and nurse that sucker—the cheapest bottle of Aass beer I found cost me 60 NOK, which is way more than I'd pay even in New York City. There's an organized tour called the Oslo Crawl which, for 199 NOK, gets you a cocktail, a shot, and discounts on drinks at some bars and clubs around Grünerløkka. It's more of an excuse to hang out with other travelers and have fun than a legit pub crawl. Or you could do something crazy, and just not drink at all. Some nights I was so tired from exploring the city, the last thing I wanted to do was get wasted. I didn't feel bad about it either. Coffee culture It's estimated that most Norwegian adults drink an average of 1,000 cups of coffee year, so I opted to use my booze allowance instead towards purchases of the most amazing coffee I've ever tasted. A cup of black coffee will run you between 24 NOK and 34 NOK, but it's so delicious you won't need to upgrade to those fancy Starbucks-esque concoctions. I splurged a bit on coffee from Oslo's famous Tim Wendelboe coffee house, but because it's more than just a cup of coffee—it's an experience. The brewmasters will entertain you with their good looks and coffee knowledge. Some of the Oslo Winter Walks also include a hot beverage after the tour, so you can try the coffee for free if you use your Oslo Pass. Eating After booze, food is the second most expensive thing about Oslo. Even something like a McDonald's Extra Value Meal will cost over 96 NOK. Most restaurant entrees run 169 NOK to 245 NOK, even for stuff like burgers and sandwiches. I obviously couldn't afford to eat out every day for that price, so I had to be creative. The solution? I brought my own food. For $10, I packed boxes of macaroni and cheese, single serving bags of rice, some Knorr side dishes, individual cups of peanut butter, and a box of pasta. These are lightweight, non-perishable, and Customs-friendly items that take up very little space, even in a backpack. You can go even cheaper if you live off ramen noodles. For another $15, I picked up vegetables, fruit, bread, milk, eggs, and some chicken breast at a local market. I cooked breakfast for myself every morning, packed peanut butter sandwiches and salads for lunch, and ate at home for three out of the six nights I was in Oslo. I didn't want to deny myself the chance to taste Norwegian food, however. With the money I saved with the Oslo Pass and cooking at home, I was able to eat at some of Oslo's cheaper restaurants—reindeer cakes at Kaffistova (discount with Oslo Pass), smoked salmon at Fyret Mat and Drikke, and fresh trout at Restaurant Schroeder are good picks for meals that will cost less than 149 NOK. There are farmers markets on the weekends where you can load up on samples of cheese, smoked fish, bacon, and more, or pick up an elk burger for 80 NOK, or a pancake and a coffee for 50 NOK. You can save even more money by going vegetarian, eating pizza, doner kebabs, or heading to the café at the Grünerløkka library, where you can get a slice of pizza, a chicken roll, a waffle, and some other snacks for less than 20 NOK (that's like $3, say WHAT?!). Getting around I took the Flytoget high-speed train from the airport to the city center; the express route is 19 minutes long, and you can get a student ticket for 85 NOK. It's an awesome experience, super clean, has free wifi, and you get to see a bit of scenery. Oslo's infrastructure is insane. They have trains, buses, trams, a metro, and ferries—all of which you can use for free with the Oslo Pass (for Zones 1 and 2), or any of their regular transportation passes. Oslo is also an incredibly walkable city. The streets are clean, the architecture is gorgeous, and there's a lot of nature even within the city. I never took the metro because I enjoyed walking the streets so much. Accommodations Oslo doesn't have the same hostel culture as most other European cities. There are a few places, like the Oslo City Hostel and the Anker Hostel, which offer dormitory beds starting at 230 NOK a night. The cheapest hotels are the Anker Hotel and the Comfort Hotel Xpress, starting at around 579 NOK a night. Couchsurfing is an obvious choice for a free night's rest, and in the warmer months, you can camp for free at Ekeberg Park. I knew I'd be working while in Oslo, so I opted for an apartment through Airbnb. For $485, I got a studio apartment with kitchenette and private bathroom, in Grünerløkka, for seven days. I could have cut costs even more by splitting the place with a friend or renting a room in an apartment elsewhere. I was able to check in when I wanted, come back and crash when I needed, and had a quiet space to work. Those little conveniences are worth any extra cost above that of a hostel or camping. Seeing stuff Oslo is often seen as a "stopover" city, en route to Fjord Norway, or other places in Europe. Most people don't spend more than a few days there, and my friends were skeptical I'd be able to occupy myself for an entire week. I found Oslo to be incredibly stimulating though. The Oslo Pass is what really helped me avoid boredom. I didn't even get through one-third of the things that were included. If you can't justify the cost of the Oslo Pass (which is dumb, but oh well), there are still tons of things to do in Oslo that won't cost you a single dime: • Visiting Vigeland Park or Ekeberg Park• Island hopping through Oslofjord• The comic book section of the Grünerløkka library• Free tours of Parliament on Saturdays• Art galleries often host shows that are free and open to the public.• Hiking and nature stuff—there are tons of trails all around the city.• Free concerts with the Frank Znort Quartet on Sundays• Most of the museums are free on Sundays—some, like the Armed Forces Museum, Norwegian Museum of Magic, and the Intercultural Museum, are always free.• Creativity walks—many Norwegians will walk around the city, with no purpose other than to enjoy their surroundings. Take a cue from them and enjoy the environment, or hone your photography, sketching, or writing skills. I suggest doing a bit of research before you make an itinerary (or decide to be spontaneous), however; depending on the time of year, some attractions and museums are closed (especially on Mondays). Verdict Because of my planning, I spent an average of about $50 a day in Oslo. My total cost for a seven-day trip, including flights, lodging, food, activities, and souvenirs, came out to $1,285. Oslo, of course, isn't Southeast Asia or South America cheap, but it's not so expensive that you'll end up selling your kidneys to get back home. My advice is this: If you're willing to spend money on a trip to New York City, Tokyo, Moscow, or London, you can definitely afford a trip to Oslo. *Conversion rate at the time this story was written: 1 USD = ~ 6 NOK This article was written by Katka Lapelosa and originally appeared on the Matador Network. It has been republished here with permission. If you liked this article, check these out, too: How to Travel Iceland on a Budget, How to Budget Travel in Cuba, and When Your Boyfriend Travels Abroad to Propose to You.