Hacking Russian Travel

We’ve just passed our 6 month travelversary! I can’t believe it. Ryan and I are already halfway through this crazy year.

In mid-October we completed the Trans-Mongolian Railway and arrived in Moscow. In one of our upcoming posts I will write about that epic train journey. But, for now, here’s a bit about our time in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Moscow. Moscow really kicked off the “European” part of our world tour. The mix of Soviet and baroque orthodox architecture across the city really stood out. The metro stations around the city are amazing. Each one was designed by a different Russian architect during the Soviet era.

We spent our first full day wandering around the city center, taking in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior and beautiful views while walking along the Moskva River. Along the Moskva, we walked through the Muzeon Park of Arts next to the Tretyakov Modern Art Gallery. The park is now home to many Soviet-era statues featuring Stalin, Lenin and other figures.

We also went to GARAGE Modern Art Museum while in Gorky Park, like Moscow’s Central Park, to view an exhibit of Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. After the park we made our way over to the Музей советских игровых автоматов or the Museum of Soviet Arcade Games where for only $7.50 you can step back in time and play some whacky 80s games.

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Cathedral of the Annunciation inside the Moscow Kremlin

Of course we went to the Moscow Kremlin and Red Square. I found the collection of the Armory Chamber inside the Kremlin Museum to be particularly interesting.

Cosmonaut Monument

Tsiolkovsky Monument

One of the best parts of our time in Russia was visiting with my buddy Nick, an old friend from DC who now lives and works in Moscow. Thank you for hanging out with us and taking us to eat delicious Georgian food!

On our last day in Moscow, I spent the day recuperating from a nasty cold and Ryan headed off to the Cosmonaut Museum. In his words: “The best part was the dogs. The remains of the first two space dogs have been stuffed and mounted. I learned that the Soviet Union had a shuttle program.”

 

St. Petersburg. After spending literally weeks on trains across two continents, it felt incredibly luxurious to catch the high speed train between Moscow and St. Petersburg. Only a few hours later and we were at our destination.

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The Peter and Paul Cathedral inside the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg. The imperial tombs at the cathedral house the remains of almost all the Russian emperors and empresses from Peter the Great to Nicholas II.

A highlight of St. Petersburg for me was visiting the Fabregè Museum. For some reason, my mom and I are both pretty obsessed with the imperial Fabregè eggs. It probably started when I was a kid and we visited the Hillwood Estate in Washington, DC, which has two of the eggs in its collection. Between 1885 and 1917, the House of Fabregè manufactured 50 imperial Easter eggs for the royal Romanov tsars and family. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond also has the largest collection of eggs, five in total, outside of Russia and Ryan and I used to live across the street from the museum. After our time in Moscow and St. Petersburg I can happily say I’ve now seen 25 of the 43 eggs still around.

St. Petersburg is obviously known for The State Hermitage Museum, the largest art museum in the world. Ryan and I wandered around the Hermitage for over 5 hours and still didn’t get to see the whole thing. Its an incredible collection and enjoyable peek into the opulent imperial palace. I also found the information on how the museum protected its collection both during the revolution and WWII of great interest.

Bowling through Laos

There are a lot of reasons not to travel in Laos during the rainy season. The best laid plans can be derailed by a monsoon. The roads can get really muddy. Its shockingly humid. But, in my humble opinion, the beauty outweighs these obstacles. It’s cheaper and less crowded. And I’ve never in my life seen a green so vibrant as the rice fields after a rain shower. Our twenty days in Laos were magical and I hope to return.

Rice field in Xiang Khouang province

Luang Prabang. We flew from Chiang Mai, Thailand. While we’re doing a lot of our travels by ground transport, the convenience of a one hour flight won out over a 24 hour bus over mountain roads. The old town of Luang Prabang is an UNESCO site filled to the brim with temples, bakeries, restaurants and shops. The French influence is really felt here. This was our first stop in Indochina and has been interesting to see the French food/architecture throughout Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The town is situated on a peninsula between the mighty Mekong and smaller Nam Khan rivers. Its a real treat to wander through LP and our inexpensive guesthouse had a lot of perks: excellent banana pancakes, a fresh fruit drink each afternoon and two adorable puppies who patrolled the patio. Across the street was Manda de Laos, an upscale Lao restaurant where food is served next to a beautiful Lotus pond. Thanks to a generous send-off gift from my former DC co-workers, we had a wonderful date night here. On the opposite end of the food spectrum we also went to an all-you-can-eat $2 buffet in an alleyway.

We took a songthaew (benches in the bed of a pickup truck) to Kuang Si waterfall. The waterfall is known for bright blue pools of water because of mineral deposits. Because we’d had a big rain the day before the water was moving too fast to have the turquoise color, but the falls were impressive nonetheless. We also spent an afternoon bowling at one of only 3 or 4 bowling alleys in the entire country. It had been years since either of us had gone bowling and a great way to escape the afternoon heat!

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Kuang Si Falls

Phonsavan. From Luang Prabang we took a bus to the town of Phonsavan in Xieng Khouang province. This area, known as the Plain of Jars, has thousands of megalithic stone jars scattered in dozens of sights around the region. Xieng Khouang is also known as one of the most heavily bombed areas by the United States during the Vietnam War. We visited sites of the “Secret War” with our guide, Mr. Vang. The legacy of the war is still visible today in bomb craters across the landscape and thousands of unexploded ordinance that continue to injure and kill in the community to this day.

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Vientiane. The capital of Laos. Unlike other big cities in the region, Vientiane doesn’t have a ton going on. For me, that’s kind of the charm of Laos. There’s a nice night market and strip of restaurants along the Mekong. We found some really good and cheap ex-pat food. The “sights” like the historic Sisaket Temple and Patuxay Monument can all be seen in about half a day. At this point in the trip we needed a place to spend a day with good internet to plan out the next couple months and Vientiane was a great location. We also knew there was another bowling alley here! We can now proudly say we have bowled in at least half of the alleys in Laos.

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Wat Si Muang

Pakse and the Bolevan Plateau. From Vientiane we took the “King of Bus” (see on our instagram!) overnight to the town of Pakse and launched into a 3-day motorbike loop around the Bolevan Plateau. This is a popular backpacker loop and the Bolevan Plateau is known for beautiful scenery, waterfalls and coffee. The Plateau is also a higher elevation and so was an escape from the heat and humidity. We visited the ancient city of Champasak and Wat Phou. This Wat (temple) is from the Angkor period and was actually built before Angkor Wat. Our first full day on the loop we drove through rain and fog, obscuring the waterfalls. However, it felt great to be off the tourist path and we found a small guesthouse in the tiny town of Paksong. The next day the weather cleared and we were treated with spectacular views of rice paddies and coffee fields. We stopped at a homestay in an ethnic minority village for a cup of coffee (hand round in mortar & pestle and served in a bamboo stalk pour over) and stayed the night by the Tad Lo waterfall.

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Wat Phou, Champasak

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On the road on Bolevan Plateau

Si Phan Don. Si Phan Don, or 4,000 Islands, is an archipelago in southern Laos along the Mekong River. A French couple we met in Tad Lo had just come from here and recommended the guesthouse Mama Leauh on the island Don Det. In all our travels so far, I have never heard people recommend a place more vehemently than this couple so we knew we had to stay here. It did not disappoint. We stayed in a charming riverside bungalow and just relaxed and explored the islands for five days. The food was phenomenal. Not all traditionally Lao (their specialty was Schnitzel!) but super scrumptious. Despite the humidity, Ryan was able to get some runs in around the island and I rented a bicycle with no brakes for $1 to explore.

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Sunset on the Mekong

The Beach and Bangkok

Ok, we've been in Laos for ten days and I am finally getting around to posting about our time in Thailand! Here's a bit about the first half of our 20 day trip…

After a quick overnight stop in Krabi Town, we set off for a relaxing few days on the Andaman Sea. Though not an island, Railay Beach is still only accessible by boat. The iconic karst cliffs that cut off Railay from the mainland are formed through the erosion of limestone and can be found throughout the region. We waited around the dock until another backpacker joined us to share a longtail boat to Railay.

We came just after the high season, so while we had more rainy afternoons, there were also smaller crowds and cheaper accommodations. The coast was probably the most expensive part of our Thailand trip. We splurged and stayed at the Avatar Railay Resort. A splurge for our budget was $45/night. In real vacation terms it was a total steal and the pool alone was well worth it. Railay is tiny (the walk from East Railay to West took 4 minutes) but there is still a lot to do. Beside relaxing by the pool or on the beach we rented kayaks and spent two nights hanging out at Kamar Bar where the wildly entertaining owner Ning had us laughing all night.


On our last full day, we went on a Phi Phi Islands Tour. We snorkeled, swam in an absolutely stunning lagoon and stopped for a photo op at Maya Bay where the movie The Beach was filmed.

From the beach we took a night bus from Krabi to Bangkok. On our first day we hit up some of the quintessential sightseeing spots like the famous temples Wat Pho and Wat Arun. These temples are across the river from one another so there is a ferry that runs between them every couple of minutes.

Our first night in Bangkok we walked around the famous backpacker area Khoasan Road. Right next to Khoasan Road is the street Soi Rambuttri. Soi Rambuttri is basically a older, tamer version of Khoasan Road. For example, Khoasan Road is where you go to see young drunk people get stupid tattoos on the street. On Soi Rambuttri, the 30s crowd is still knocking back Chang beers, but they at least get their tattoos inside actual parlors.

We also explored several Bangkok markets and night markets, visited the Jim Thompson house, and even went to a free Sunday taping of Muy Thai boxing at the Chanel 7 Stadium. My favorite meal in Bangkok was seafood barbecue at the Ratchada Night Market. It was basically a Thai-style Louisiana boil. They dumped a pile of saucey seafood on our table and handed us each a pair of plastic gloves. No utensils required.

Next up… we take a Thai cooking class, play with elephants and learn to ride motorbikes in Northern Thailand! Stay tuned…