Monday, July 20, 2015

General Travel Tips For Traveling to Thailand

Traveling to Asia was quite eye-opening for me. The culture is so beautifully unique from anywhere else I had visited but it took time to learn various cultural expectations and norms.  Below are various notes regarding dress code, interacting with monks and haggling that I hope you’ll find useful if you’re heading to Thailand.

Colorful taxis!
Taxis – When hailing a taxi, keep your hand horizontal, fingers facing down.  Fingers up is considered rude.  Be sure to either ask if the meter is on or ask for the price up front before getting in the car.  Many taxis either don’t have a meter or won’t turn it on in an effort to charge more than they should – so always ask!  You should also be aware of the carbon copy ticket the airport or hotels give you once you get into your taxi.  Hang onto this until you’re out of the cab.  I also found that tipping taxi drivers is very different than it is in the US.  Typically, it’s expected that you round up on your fare.  So a 97 baht fare would be rounded to 100.

Water – be really cautious when it comes to water and ice. If you plan on making coffee or tea in your room, double boil the water (most rooms come with an electric water boiler).  Ask for drinks without ice when at restaurants and be weary of smoothies that contain ice.  You’re typically safer eating ice in nice hotels and restaurants but it’s good to always be aware.

Haggling – everything except food can be negotiated.  As a rule of thumb, I never accepted the price tag as the final price.  Most of the time you can either offer a lower number or try to haggle a package deal (ie: I’ll take 5 of these for 500baht).

Visiting Temples:
  • Attire: make sure shoulders and knees are covered.  Yoga pants are not allowed at the Grand Palace.  Most temples have a place where you can borrow clothing. 
  • Never sit with your feet facing Buddha; sit with your feet facing the back or cross legged.
  • Thai Baht
  • Women are never allowed to touch monks (ie: no hand shakes)

Bangkok Metro system: 
  • There are 3 types of transportation: the BTS, the MRT (metro) and Airport Link.
  • For the MRT, you’ll need coins to purchase tickets.  Go to the cashier desk to get change if needed.  Find the ticket machines and look up the stop you’re going to.  The number associated is the fare amount.  Insert the exact change into the machine and get your ticket.  Callie and I struggled with figuring the system out and a sweet Australian man showed us the ropes.  (He also gave us some travel tips which can be found later in this post)

Air Asia Baggage Notes:
·       Checked bags need to be 20kg/44lbs or less or we’ll be charged
·       Checked bags cannot exceed 81cm (H) x 119cm (W) x 119 cm (D)
·       Each passenger is allowed 1 carry on and 1 purse.  Cannot exceed 56cm x 36cm x 23cm and cannot weigh more than 7kg; 15lbs

Grand Palace
Grand Palace Schemes: Beware that many people will try to lure you away from the Grand Palace entrance and some of them are very, very convincing (we fell for it even though we were on high alert).  For us, someone approached us saying the temple was closed for lunch but he could take us on a tour of nearby attractions for 500 baht while we wait.  While he did take us to 1 attraction (a golden Buddha statue) the rest of the time he shuffled us to various tailors and gem stores where we had to spend at least 15 minutes inside and engage with the salespeople.  Total scam and total waste of time.  Don’t fall for it like we did, just keep your eye on the entrance and don’t stop!

Tips from a very nice Australian we met:
  • Never go to bars that are not on the ground floor.
  • NaNa in Bangkok is where the party scene is.  If you’re looking for a crazy night out, that’s your place
  • Don’t go into any Russian bars
  • Be cautious when eating food on Koh Phi Phi island.  He told us that tourists die every year from food poisoning. 

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Thailand Itinerary and Notes

I have become quite the planner when it comes to trips -especially those that are international!  There are just so many places to visit, so many restaurants to research and since WiFi and cell service is often unreliable, my itineraries become extremely detailed. 

It’s become common practice for me to distribute my travel itineraries to friends and colleagues to help them plan their trips, so I thought I’d do the same here!  Some of the information won’t matter too much to you, but hopefully you’ll find my notes, itinerary outline and attraction tips useful.  So without further adieu, I give you my Thailand itinerary and travel tips:

Thailand Itinerary and Notes

February 4th & 5th: Travel to Bangkok

American Airlines Flight 2413
Depart DFW at 8am CST for LAX.  Arrive at 9:29am local PST

Cathay Pacific Flight 885
Depart LAX at 11:25am PST for Hong Kong.
Arrive Thursday, February 5th at 7:05pm local time.
*Checked bags cannot exceed 20kg; 44lbs.  May be able to go beyond this leaving the US, but getting back will be strict

Cathay Pacific Flight 709
Depart Hong Kong at 10pm local time.
Arrive in Bangkok at 11:55pm

Airport transportation:  taxi.

Notes on taxis: When you get into the taxi, make sure the meter is on and showing 35 baht. On arrival at your hotel, you’ll have to pay the fare on the meter, plus an airport surcharge of 50 baht that is not shown on the meter. In addition there may be optional expressway tolls of 75 baht which you should pay directly at the two toll stations. Typical cost: 250 to 400 baht in total (including metered fare, surcharge and tolls) depending on distance and traffic conditions. The average seems to be around 300-350 baht to most inner city destinations. Average Time : About 30 to 45 minutes.

Taxi drivers are not normally tipped, although rounding of odd amounts (e.g. 97 baht to 100 baht, or even sometimes of 101 baht down to 100 baht!) is commonly practiced.

Bangkok: 2/5- 2/8

Hotel: Hilton Sukhumvit Bangkok
11 Sukhumvit Soi 24
Bangkok, 10110, Thailand
+66 2 620 6699

Places to go:

·       Sirocco: tallest open-air restaurant/bar in the world.  Go at sunset for a drink
·       Grand Palace.  [Closes at 4pm; audio guides stop at 1:30pm; must have your knees and shoulders covered and pants cannot be tight]
·       Temple of Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew)  looks like it’s located within the Grand Palace
·       Temple of Dawn (Wat Arun) most famous and photographed temple in Bangkok.  Pretty close to Grand Palace, just West of the river and down South just slightly.
·       Jim Thompson House – he has plenty of stores throughout Bangkok, this is more of a house tour.  Looks like it’s on the way from the Hilton to the Grand Palace.  Could also do it on our way to Sirocco possibly.

Grand Palace
February 7th:
Dinner at Hamilton’s Steakhouse at 7pm
Dusit Thani Bangkok Hotel
946 Rama IV Road,
Bangkok 10500
+66 (0) 2200 9000 ext 2345

Bangkok Notes:
·       Skytrain is also known as BTS
·       There are 3 types of transportation: the BTS, the MRT (metro) and Airport Link
·       13 hours ahead
·       Ask taxis to always use the meter, otherwise negotiate on cab fare

February 8th Travel to Phuket

Air Asia flight FD3005
Depart Bangkok (DMK) at 12:45pm
Arrive Phuket (HKT) at 2:00pm
*DMK is Don Mueang International Airport; different from when we flew in

Air Asia Baggage Notes:
·       Checked bags need to be 20kg/44lbs or less or we’ll be charged
Catch Beach Club
·       Checked bags cannot exceed 81cm (H) x 119cm (W) x 119 cm (D)
·       Each passenger is allowed 1 carry on and 1 purse.  Cannot exceed 56cm x 36cm x 23cm and cannot weigh more than 7kg; 15lbs

Airport transportation: taxi

Phuket: 2/8 – 2/11

Hotel: DoubleTree Phuket Surin Beach
106/27 Moo3, Cherngtalay Surin Beach
Phuket, 83110 Thailand
+66 76 303 300

February 10: Koh Phi Phi Island Tour
Koh Phi Phi Island
Andaman Leisure Phuket Co
Koh Phi Phi + Maya + Bamboo island day trip
Contact: nick Candu
+66 (0) 818 955 766
Pickup at hotel at 8:40am.  Return around 5:30pm
Price per person is 3,300 TBH + tip.  Pay in person
*bring sunscreen, nausea meds, beach towel and maybe water shoes

Things To Do in Phuket:
·       Beaches, gyms and yoga studios mainly
·       Phuket Big Buddha – on the Southern tip of Phuket; taxis may be expensive.  Look into public transit if we want to go.  May be cool around sunset.
·       Catch Beach Club – across from hotel, will rent out bean bags on the beach, restaurant and night club

February 11th: Travel to Chiang Mai

Air Asia Flight FD3161
Depart Phuket (HKT) at 10:35am
Arrive Chiang Mai (CNX) at 12:30pm

Air Asia Baggage Notes:
·       Checked bags need to be 20kg/44lbs or less or we’ll be charged
·       Checked bags cannot exceed 81cm (H) x 119cm (W) x 119 cm (D)
·       Each passenger is allowed 1 carry on and 1 purse.  Cannot exceed 56cm x 36cm x 23cm and cannot weigh more than 7kg; 15lbs

Airport transportation:  Resort is sending a complimentary car

Hotel: Oasis Baan Saen Doi Spa Resort
199/135 Moo 3 Chonpratan Road, Mae Hia,
Muang, Chiang Mai 50200 Thailand

Blue Elephant Tour
Booked: 2 Paradise of Oasis treatment from 14:00 – 18:00.
3,920 TBH after the 20% discount; however, there is a 17% VAT and tourism fee.  Include tip as well.  Pay after services.

February 12: Day Trip
Blue Elephant Super Day Trip: Elephant Interaction + Chiang Mai Zipline + lunch at tiger Kingdom
Price per person: 4,900 TBH to be paid in person.  Tip is encouraged
Pickup at hotel at 6am
Contact: Surin Riangtong
*email Surin with our room number once we arrive
Blue Elephant Tours.  +66 (0) 81 884 3295
Highly, highly recommend this tour!

Blue Elephant Tour
Things to do in Chiang Mai:
·       Salsa Kitchen – North of walled city; Mexican food; knows about Celiac
·       Yummy Pizza – fairly close to the hotel; good reviews; $3-$15; Australian owned
·       Note on food: Butter is Better and Blue Diamond Breakfast Club sometimes offer gf baked items, but they are not actually gluten free. Stay away.
·       Wat Chedi Luang – used to house the Emerald Buddha, ancient ruins; #3 in TA
·       Wat Phra That Doi Suthep – beautiful, 30 minutes outside of city.  Reviews say it’s not to be missed, view of chiang mai from top is amazing (stairs are involved), see monks and maybe get blessed.  Can get guided tours that talk about Buddhism.  Bring offering. Traveler’s Choice Award.  Looks really cool.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
·       Wat Phra That Doi Kham (Temple of the Golden Mountain)
·       Wat Suan Dok
·       Royal Park Rajapruek – flower gardens.  Close to hotel

Other Notes:
·       TripAdvisor reviews mention a shuttle that takes guests into the walled city and back every day.  May only run 2 times a day, but may be worth asking about

February 14: Travel to Hong Kong

Dragon Air – HKG Flight 233
Depart Chiang Mai (CNX) at 6:25pm
Arrive Hong Kong (HKG) at 10pm
*Checked bags cannot exceed 20kg; 44lbs.

Hotel: Regal Airport Hotel, connected to airport

·       Hong Kong Airport Express takes passengers from the airport to the city center; located in the airport.  It operates until 1:15am with the last train leaving Hong Kong Station at 12:48am.  Journey time from airport to Hong Kong is 24 minutes; roundtrip ticket is $28 or 180HK$.   If we do want to go into the city, we may be able to train there but we may have to taxi back based on time. Hotel also offers shuttles based on availability
·       $1 USD = $0.78 HKD
·       14 Hours ahead

February 15 Fly Home:

Cathay Pacific Flight 806
Depart Hong Kong (HKG) at 11:50am
Arrive Chicago (ORD) at 12:20pm on 2/15 local time
*Checked bags cannot exceed 20kg; 44lbs.

American Airlines Flight 2335
Depart Chicago (ORD) at 2:38pm
Arrive DFW at 5:20pm

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Celiac-Safe Foods In Thailand Part 2: Restaurants Worth Noting

As previously mentioned, Thailand is a pretty easy country to navigate for Celiacs given the fact that rice is their main staple.  When eating out, sauces should be one of your top concerns as oyster sauce, plum sauce and sometimes fish sauce can contain wheat (see my blog post about this for more information).

Before embarking on our Thai trip, I researched restaurants in the 3 cities we were visiting who had gluten free menus.  I stored each restaurant in an app called CityMaps2Go and it really was a life saver.  I highly recommend downloading this app for both domestic and international travel.  It doesn’t even use WiFi!

I have to admit though that we ate a lot of meals at our hotels.  Both the Hilton Sukumvhit and the Doubletree Phuket made me feel as comfortable as I am in my mother’s kitchen, so it was hard to pass up a meal that I felt completely safe with.  The Doubletree even told me that they could make whatever Thai dish I wanted gluten free, so I had a blast exploring Asian cuisine without any fear of being glutened!

Below is a list of restaurants we ate at along with a few others I had noted. 
Italian food at the Hilton

  • Hilton Bangkok Sukhumvhit- This is the hotel I stayed in while in Bangkok and both their food and service receive my accolades.  If you stay here as well (which I highly recommend), make sure to alert the hotel of your allergy before you travel.  They had gluten free bread for me every morning at breakfast and walked me through their breakfast foods.  Their Italian restaurant, Scalini, is also not to be missed.  They actually ran to the grocery store to get fresh gluten free pasta for me!  Both my meal, and my non-Celiac friend’s meal, were delicious and one of the highlights of our trip!
  • Hamilton’s Steakhouse – My friend, Callie, wanted to splurge on a nice steak dinner on her birthday, so this is where she picked.  It’s a fun New York style steakhouse nestled in the Dusit Thani Bangkok hotel.  I was surprised to find that gluten free items were already noted on the menu – score! I went with the roasted rosemary chicken and it was delicious.  The best part though was that they offered an assortment of delicious gluten free breads 
  • Other restaurants in Bangkok that I noted to have gluten free selections but didn’t visit included: Cabbages & Condoms (sounds very odd, I know but people rave about their food), Olive ad Mrs. Balbir’s.  (Thanks to Marley’s blog

GF Pad Thai at the DoubleTree

  • DoubleTree by Hilton Phuket Surin Beach – The staff at this hotel were so gracious and extremely accommodating of my allergy.  When I arrived, they told me that they had bought gluten free bread for breakfast and had gluten free soy sauce so that they could make me anything I wanted.  Each meal they’d ask me what Asian cuisine I had always wanted to try and they’d whip up a gluten free version.  I’ve never felt that safe outside of my own kitchen and the DoubleTree deserves a huge round of applause.  Callie and I ate literally every meal at the hotel and I wouldn’t change a thing!
  • Other restaurants in Phuket that I noted to have gluten free selections: Lady Pie Bakery & Café, Aqua Restaurant and the JW Marriott.

View from the Restaurant
Chiang Mai:
  • Country Club near the Oasis Spa Baan Saen Doi resort.  Our lovely boutique hotel was across the street from a beautiful country club.  The club had traditional Thai food and were very accommodating of my gluten travel cards.  If you come here for dinner, be sure to get there early and ask for a table overlooking the mountain.  The views are absolutely gorgeous.  I stuck to curries mainly but the fish and chicken dishes looked to be naturally gluten free.
  • Other restaurants in Phuket that I noted to have gluten free selections: Yummy Pizza, Salsa Kitchen, Butter is Better*, Blue Diamond Breakfast Club*

Red Curry
o   *I found blog posts that mentioned that both of these restaurants offered gf items but there seemed to be inconsistencies with their foods.  One blog post warned against both restaurants.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Celiac-Safe Foods In Thailand Part 1: Breakfast, Snacks & Sauces

Believe it or not, Thailand is a great destination for Celiacs.  Because the country’s staple is rice, not wheat, there are plenty of naturally gluten free options to choose from.

Breakfast in Bangkok
Let’s start with breakfast.  In my opinion, this was the easiest meal and I think I ate more at breakfast than I did at dinner. Most hotels offer both Western and Asian items, so you’ll see everything from traditional eggs to thai curry, sushi and rice porridge.  Ask if your hotel can walk you through the breakfast selections to tell you what’s safe or not – most hotels are very receptive to food allergies.  Each morning I ate yogurt, fresh fruit, eggs (usually an omelet), Thai curry with rice and gluten free bread (if they had it).  I’m telling you, I feasted at breakfast!

Mouth full of bamboo sticky rice
Snacking is also super easy in Thailand. My favorite go-tos were bamboo sticky rice and banana leaf rice.  Both are slightly sweet and can be found just about anywhere.  The banana leaf sticky rice is easy to eat as you just unwrap the leaf but the bamboo can be a bit trickier.  To open the bamboo, squeeze the top of the stick together to create cracks in the stem.  Remove the grass from the top of the stick and peel the stick down to reveal the rice.  I promise it’s delicious and filling!  If you’re not feeling up for rice, fresh fruit is also readily available.  Smoothies are also pretty easy to find but be careful, the ice may not be made with filtered water.
Another great breakfast!

The sauces are where things get a bit sticky (pun intended).  Thailand‘s main sauce is fish sauce, not soy sauce, and while this is a mini victory for Celiacs, it’s not a 100% safe bet. Below is a list of common sauces used in Thai food and what you need to know based on my research:

·       Fish Sauce: low-moderate risk
o   Thai translation: námplaa
o   Gluten free brands (based on my research): Tiparos, Squid, Golden Boy.
o   Not gluten free brand: Three Crabs
o   Found in: noodle dishes, fish dishes, can be in curry and pad thai, also served as a condiment

·       Oyster Sauce: high risk
o   Thai translation: Naam Man Hoy
o   Found in: stir-fried vegetables, meat/seafood/noodle dishes
o   Most sauces do contain wheat flour in them.  Make sure to ask or verify before eating!

·       Tamarind Sauce: low risk
o   Thai translation:
o   Commonly found in soups and noodle dishes
o   Most tamarind sauces are gluten free; in fact, I haven’t found one that isn’t yet!

·       Plum Sauce: high risk
o   Thai translation: Hoisin
o   Commonly found in Chinese dishes; stir fries, added to meat as a glaze or served as a dipping sauce
o   Most plum sauces have wheat flour in them.

·       Soy Sauce: high risk
o   Thai translation: Naam See Eew Khao; See Eew
o   Commonly found in Chinese dishes
o   Most soy sauces contain wheat flour.
o   Note: some international restaurants will carry gluten-free soy sauce but be sure to ask before ordering!

Interested in researching other sauces, ingredients or brands?  One of my favorite resources was

Tips for Traveling to Thailand with Celiac Disease

One of my best friends and I decided a few years ago that  one year we’d travel for both of our birthdays.  Sounds quite ambitious I know, but with enough planning and airline miles we made it work! My birthday in September was spent in Italy (posts coming soon) and her birthday in February was in Thailand.   

Thailand is a great gluten-friendly destination as most of their culture revolves around rice, not wheat. That being said, the vast majority of Thais will not understand what gluten is, so I did a TON of research before our trip.  I’m happy to report that I never once got glutened during our 11 day trip and hope that my tips and research will help you as well!

Tips for Traveling to Thailand with Celiac Disease:

1.  Use the hotel reservation comment box to your advantage.
Make sure to alert your hotel before check in of your special diet.  I was surprised to find that my hotels went out of their way to make sure they had gluten free bread ready for me at breakfast.  They also graciously walked me through the breakfast buffet and explained what was safe to eat.  I’ve found that this is the case with most hotels as long as you give them enough of a heads-up.

            2. restaurants beforehand and store their locations.  
Callie downloaded an app called CityMaps2Go and it was a real life saver.  It’s a map that allows you to store points of interest (attractions, your hotel, restaurants, etc.) but doesn’t run on WiFi – so no international roaming charges!  I highly recommend storing restaurants with gluten free selections in this app before leaving.

3. Pack plenty of snacks.
I packed about 3 meal bars for each day we were over there along with a package of rice cakes, a jar of peanut butter and a box of crackers.  Make sure to take a good amount of snacks on the plane as well.  While most of the long-haul flights offer gluten free meals, many of the shorter routes do not.

4.  Bring your translation cards.
These are absolutely essential! I took these everywhere I went and everyone I presented them too was really receptive.  I’d suggest bringing two copies just in case one gets lost or messy (I had one chef assume it was his to keep and threw it in the trash).

5. Ask your hotel concierge to write a simple allergy card.
This may seem redundant if you have your translation cards, but I found this was a much faster and more relatable tactic to use when on the go.  I had my hotel concierge write out  "No Soy Sauce. No Wheat. No Oyster Sauce.”
Quick allergy card my hotel wrote for me

6.   Have an idea of safe food options.
Plain rice, bamboo sticky rice and banana leaf rice were all my favorite go-to snacks while in Thailand and most could be purchased absolutely anywhere.  I’ve also developed an extensive translation card where I’ve noted what should be okay and what shouldn’t be okay.  (More about that in a later post)

7.    If the sauce is dark and you’re in doubt, go without.
While Thailand’s sauce of choice is fish sauce, not soy sauce, a few varieties of fish sauce actually do contain wheat.  The same goes for plum sauce and oyster sauce as well.  So, if you’re served a dark sauce and the restaurant cannot verify that it is wheat-free, go without.  [See post about safe foods for a list of gluten-free fish sauce brands]

Bangkok's Grand Palace