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The Lowdown on Food and Water in Asia

One of the most common questions our guides hear is “Is this water safe to drink?” and “Will this food make me sick?” It’s a perfectly legitimate question – after all, no one wants to begin the trip of a lifetime with a magazine in one hand and a roll of toilet paper in the other – in the land of squat toilets, to boot!

But while caution is definitely warranted when you’re out on your own trying new things, the local restaurants that Smiling Albino chooses on our trips are high-quality affairs that use proper ingredients and – even if it doesn’t appear so through a western culinary lens – proper hygiene for an Asian food experience, even if it’s under a bamboo canopy on the edge of a meandering river far from civilization.

First thing to remember is that almost all ice served in Southeast Asia comes from large factories that use treated water (unless you’re reallllly in the boonies, but let’s cross that bridge when we come to it). The main reason for this, sadly, isn’t a noble concern for the delicate stomachs of foreign tourists – it’s pure economics. Mr. Somchai freezing blocks of dirty water in his homemade freezer simply can’t compete with the economies of scale and distribution power of a large ice factory. So that’s one problem done.

But food is another thing. If food is cooked well, you won’t get sick, but, you may still get a bit of Bangkok Belly, and it’s important to realize that they are not the same thing. The reason for this is that no matter how well you cook food, it was still grown, raised, and cooked using local ingredients and methods. Asian ecosystems – from the animals to the microbes – are different from western ones, and there is bound to be a bit of an adjustment period getting used to it. Indeed, it goes both ways – when SA returns home for a trip, our stomachs often take a bit of time to get used to things there too.

All this being said, there are still some well-known rules to follow when it comes to finding food and water in Asia. Crowds are a good sign – if it’s okay for all of them, it will probably be okay for you. As we mentioned, ice is almost always okay to have in your drinks, but if you’re still wary, bottled water without ice is available on almost every street corner.

The one area where westerners need to be careful is if you have any allergies, especially if those ingredients are common in Asian cooking. The same care is often not taken with separating food, and if, for instance, you have a severe peanut allergy, the chef might not understand how severe, and cook a non-peanut dish using the utensils he cooked a peanut dish with. If this is the case, we recommend learning the name of the ingredient you’re allergic to in the local language, as well as the word “allergic”. This phrase and some quick sign language should be enough to get the point across. Another trick is to have someone write “I am very allergic to peanuts” on a piece of paper and take this, or a picture of it, with you to show the chef. Ask us to help with this if you want to be sure.

The bottom line is that Southeast Asia has some of the best food in the world. It would be a shame to not be a little adventurous cuisine-wise while in the region. If there is ever a time to dive into a culinary wonderland, this is it. A few simple precautions and a bit of knowledge on the issue makes a world of difference. Enquire here about some of our culinary tours around the cities and towns in the region. Bon appetit!

Nepal BlogPic

Nepal – One Month After The Quake

It is now clear that the April 25 and following May 12 earthquakes that hit Nepal have created one of the worst disasters to ever strike the country. Over 8,500 people have lost their lives and more than double that number have been injured. Thousands of family breadwinners are out of work with international tourism down to a trickle. But there is hope.

Smiling Albino sent one of their Bangkok-based team members into Kathmandu last week to ascertain the situation on the ground and help formulate a long-term plan of assistance for the battered country. We managed to send 130 kilograms of medical equipment and supplies with him as well as donated cash to help a free school for Himalayan children and our own team and guides in Nepal. What he found was enlightening.

The spirit of the Nepalese is shining bright. Local businesses, schools, monasteries and individuals have pulled together to help those affected. The School we visited, Shree Mangal Dvip School, was organising with the help of donations, trucks and helicopters to take in tons of needed materials to identified villages that had yet to receive any assistance three weeks after the quake.

The city of Kathmandu is relatively intact. Despite seeing reports on the news of the damage of the buildings in Durbar Square, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the capital is functioning as chaotically as it was before. There are actually less power outages. Certain areas of the city were harder hit than others, it is estimated 30% of the city’s buildings will need to be pulled down and rebuilt, yet 90% of the hotels in the Kathmandu Valley are safe and operating.

Some of Nepal’s famous trekking areas have been disrupted by avalanches. Parts of Langtang and Everest will take some time to clear. However, out of 10 National Parks, only one has been affected. There are still many breathtaking areas around the country that were untouched and provide pristine adventures.

The government has responded haphazardly. Corruption and mismanagement has delayed relief supplies getting into the country and being distributed to those in need. Nevertheless, pressure from the people and international aid organizations is persuading the government to start moving in the right direction.

The best way one can help Nepal rebuild is to visit yourself. The Nepalese are a friendly and hospitable people ready to welcome guests. The benefits of travelling to Nepal, both for guests and locals, have never been greater than now. We have some awesome (in the true definition of the word) adventures planned for this year. In the spirit of meaningful travel, take this unique opportunity and enquire here.

 

Intelligent Luxury

Placing Intelligence into the Art of Luxury

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A private cultural show we arranged as a birthday surprise.

 

Quick question for you – what’s your favorite James Bond film? Dr. No? Goldeneye? On Her Majesty’s Secret Service? Certainly not The Living Daylights. Point is, there’s no single answer – Bond is a subjective experience that everyone appreciates differently. It might seem like a bit of a stretch, but luxury travel is defined by the same paradigm – one person’s perfect adventure will not have the same elements as another person’s perfect adventure.

The luxury travel arena has gone through a pretty amazing transformation over the past decade. Not long ago, a perfect high-end getaway was defined by lavish fluff – silk sheets, a chauffeured car ride, silver cutlery, maybe a private plunge pool. While those things certainly are nice, they are not unique – they are merely expensive.

The modern definition of luxury travel encapsulates so much more than expense. Rather than overwhelming the traveler with a coat of luxury paint applied by roller, we believe that the luxury experience needs to be applied with a fine brush. Finesse over speed; personalized over off-the-shelf.  Flash no longer impresses, but the attention to detail.

A recent article by Ad Age revealed that 92% of people with above average wealth agree with the phrase: “To me, small indulgences can be just as meaningful as purchasing a high-end luxury product.” We couldn’t agree more.

All of these attributes fall under a new type of travel we like to call Intelligent Luxury. This is for busy people with refined sensibilities who are not impressed by big and fancy. When someone with high expectations is traveling within the bureaucratic spiderweb of Asia, it’s the unexpected speed bumps that pull them out of the adventure. Things like showing up to your 5-star hotel and finding out breakfast is an extra $40 a day, or running out of water to drink in the middle of a day trip, or rushing through a tour itinerary because the guide finishes work at 6pm.

None of that happens with Smiling Albino. Those are the details that matter – worry-free hotel experiences, unlimited drinks whenever you need them, a guide who finishes their day when you do. Got kids? We’ll have diapers and toys. Bad knee? We’ll have ice packs and Aspirin… just in case. Our aim is to eliminate the unexpected, to provide the support you didn’t know you needed, and ensure that the only surprises on your trip are the good ones.

Luxury travel has existed in a holding pattern for years, and – ahem, much like our website – it’s great to see that it’s finally getting a new coat of paint for a new type of traveler.

The next time you splurge on a vacation, don’t do someone else’s trip. The only person you need to impress is yourself. And that’s our job. Contact us for intelligent luxury Southeast Asian trip enquiries.

 

Deluxe Cycling Tours

Smiling Albino’s Deluxe Cycling Tours

Biking Nontaburi

Smiling Albino offers deluxe cycling tours in and around Bangkok as an addition, or even included, in your Thailand travel adventures.

We have city tours that appeal to history and architecture buffs, rural tours for nature lovers, or a combination of the two, with distances and routes tailored to all levels of cyclists. What is constant is our attention to detail, creating unique experiences and balancing adventure with comfort.

We’ve been cycling around Asia and leading tours ourselves since 1999 and can honestly say that exploring new places by bicycle can be the best way. The smells, the sounds, the people, the culture, and the freedom to stop at any time to record or just savour the experience, all make for a memorable adventure. And there’s no better way to explore one of Bangkok’s famous floating markets, a real one visited by locals and not bursting with tourists.

Smiling Albino supplies our own well-maintained Specialized mountain bikes fitted with Schwalbe road tires which we’ve found most suitable and comfortable for the routes. Everything is inclusive; hotel pickup and drop off, van and boat shuttles, all the water you can drink, snacks and the best meal stops on the routes. Support vehicles are on hand when necessary.

The routes we’ve planned stay away from large roads with traffic and follow small neighbourhood streets, bike lanes and canal paths. You’d be surprised what a fun and pleasant experience cycling just outside of the city can be. With the breeze in your face, it’s much cooler than walking, and the welcoming “Hello!”s from the locals, accompanied by wide smiles, always leaves you feeling uplifted at the end of the day.

Smiling Albino also hosts amazing cycling tours through the jungle ruins of Angkor in Cambodia, the Mekong Delta in Vietnam and the hill tribe areas of Northern Thailand.

Enquire about our tailored cycling tours today, we can fit the perfect diversion into your travel itinerary.

 

White water rafting Blog

White Water Rafting in Thailand

White water rafting the mighty Nan-wa River in Northern Thailand

White water rafting the mighty Nan-wa River in Northern Thailand

It’s often said that Thailand has two seasons – hot and dry, and hot and rainy. It’s actually a bit more complicated than that, but yeah… we can see how it might seem that way sometimes. When many people hear ‘the rainy season’ it sometimes puts a bad picture in their head – who wants to vacation when it’s rainy? But we’re here to tell you that not only is the rainy season a great time to visit Thailand, but in many ways it’s the best time to visit Thailand!

First of all, during the rainy season (roughly August-October) it usually only rains for a few hours at a time, most often in the afternoon. Bring an umbrella with you when heading out in the morning and build a bit of flexibility into your schedule and you’ll be fine. Second, the extra rain means that there’s never a better time to see Thailand in all its lush glory. During our first rainy season touring Thailand’s amazing countryside, we were unprepared for just how many shades of green there actually were in nature. But one of the best reasons to visit Thailand during the rainy season is because of the amazing white water rafting that’s available, especially in the northern part of the country. While the sport is often overshadowed by the gleaming beaches in the south and elephant/trekking/hill tribe village tours in the north, it’s well worth your while to think about making rafting a part of your trip.

Thailand’s mountainous north provides the perfect environment for battling rapids, which is especially true in the rainy months. All that water needs to go somewhere, and that somewhere is the Gulf of Thailand. Most rivers in this area eventually drain into the Chao Phraya River, which passes through Bangkok before emptying into the sea, but before it gets that far, it provides the perfect opportunity for some amazing water-borne adventures.

Most rafting north of Bangkok takes place in the vicinity of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Pai, Umphang, or Prachinburi, depending on the type and duration of the trip, be it a quick one-day outing or a multi-day rafting/camping adventure combined with other activities. There are a lot of companies offering the service, so make sure you do some research first to find out which one has a good reputation and – most importantly – doesn’t cut corners when it comes to safety. Helmets and flotation vests must be worn at all times.

And with all of this going on, it’s no surprise that Thailand actually has a white water rafting festival! The Kaeng Hin Phoeng festival takes place in Khao Yai National Park, just a few hours northeast of Bangkok. From July to October, you can rent boats and safety gear, and head onto the Sai Yai River in groups to battle rapids that are fun but not too challenging. There are also races, food, music, dancing, and numerous other festive celebrations at various times during the festival.

One final bonus about white water rafting in Thailand – the water’s pretty warm! No need for thermal wetsuits, which lets you enjoy yourself in the water rather than trying to ignore how cold it is. So no matter what you read, the rainy season is still a fine time to see Thailand. The food is still delicious, the people are still friendly, and the adventure is still very real. And the added bonus of a white water rafting adventure just makes it all the more appealing!

Whether you’re interested in some adventurous white water challenges, a casual fun family day on a river or just spectating, we can plan a safe and comfortable experience for you around the rivers of Thailand. Contact us here.

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