Island hopping in the Stockholm archipelago

Just outside the capital of Sweden, Stockholm, where I live, there is an archipelago of somewhere around 24 000 islands, both inhabited and uninhabited.

I should admit I haven’t traveled much in the archipelago, but since this years coronavirus related travel restrictions made me stay at home, I thought why not give an old travel dream of mine a go: a summery island hopping trip in Stockholm’s archipelago, known in Swedish as Stockholms skärgård. We spent 72 hours in total, with 24 hours on the slightly posh ’party’ island of Sandhamn, and then 48 hours on the more relaxed and rural island of Lidö. We loved both and I think the combination of them was great, but both of course works well for a one stop trip.

Itinerary: Stockholm- Sandhamn-Lidö

We started off by booking the first leg of the trip: Stockholm to the island of Sandhamn, with the Cinderella fastferry with operator Strömma. You can book ahead online, and by doing this you’re guaranteed to get onboard, which you aren’t if you just show up to the ferry. During the pandemic, all operators have much harder restrictions for the maximum number of passengers allowed onboard to avoid crowdedness.

The Cinderella ferries (Cinderella 1 & 2) are quite large and there’s a combined bar, café and restaurant onboard that serve alcoholic & non-alcoholic beverages, coffee, Swedish necessities such as cinnamon buns, and also food such as shrimp sandwiches, toast skagen, and warm food like burgers. I only had a coffee though since it was early and the trip to Sandhamn is around 2 hours. There was a reasonable amount of seating onboard and it wasn’t crowded despite quite many passengers traveling. The views are stunning if the weather’s great and you’ll be passing a few islands on the way out to the final stop Sandhamn.

Sandhamn: food, beach, drinks and Scandi chic

Sandhamn has for long been a hub for sailors, sailing competitions, fishermen, and for the last century, a playground for the rich and famous, sort of. Sandhamn is not overly fancy, but it has a strong connection to sailing and with that apparently there is a craving for good food and drink, for which there is quite a decent offer considering Sandhamns size of only about one hundred year-round-inhabitants.

We opted to stay at Sandhamns seglarhotell which had a surprisingly good deal on a room only a few weeks before our intended trip in the middle of the high season. Included in the room was a surprisingly good and hearty breakfast considering the remote location. The room itself was nothing to write home about, but comfy enough with two single beds that could be made into a double, smallish tv, private shower and toilet, and wifi. Staff were super friendly and the restaurant where you also have breakfast is stunning.

On the island, there are a few beaches with the one named Trouville (after Trouville sur mer in France) being the prettiest. There are also a few other beaches, such as the small Fläskberget (chubby mountain), which is close to Sandhamn village.

Trouville beach is an easy 15-20 minute walk from Sandhamn village trough a pretty forest. There are actually three different beaches, with one calmer beach furthest to the left, a windier in ’the middle’ and a more private, secluded one to the right which you’ll reach by either take a small path through the forest or just walk over the cliffs. Water in mid-July was cold yet still swimable, but the place on a sunny day (or probably any day) is stunning and worth a visit regardless if you swim or not.

When in Sandhamn make you sure to visit Sandhamnsbagerier for a nice island fika. According to Sandhamn tradition you ’should’ have one of their seglarbulle buns, which is pictured above. It wasn’t that amazing to be honest, but their sockerkringla was amazing.

We had dinner at Sandhamns Värdshus, established in 1672. A massive shrimp sandwich and a Vålö island spicy lamb sausage on Swedish thin bread. Both were really tasty, and prices were good.

Two dishes, a shared bottle of rosé was approximately 800 sek, which is pretty good on a fancy island like Sandhamn.

Sandhamn-Lidö with Waxholmsbolaget

From Sandhamn, M/S Sunnan takes you to the ’northern archipelago’ with multiple stops on different islands on the way to the final destination of Arholma. Lidö, which we were headed to is almost as far, and the trip there was about 3,5 hours.

Fortunately there is a bar/café onboard and you can entertain yourself with a cold beer while watching the beautiful archipelago pass by outside. Price for a beer was approximately 75 sek for a 50 centiliter beer, which was quite a deal I’d say. Ticket for the Sandhamn-Lidö trip was about 130 sek per person. Not bad either for such a long trip.

Lidö Island: food, views and an old cannon

We arrived the island of Lidö around 7 pm. The jetty where the ferry arrives is right in front of Lidö Värdshus where we were staying. Lidö Värdshus owns pretty much all the accomodation options on the island, and as far as I understood it there is only one family living permanently on the island, which run Lidö Gård, a farm which for instance supply Lidö Värdshus with meat from the island. Very much farm to table.

Burger with beef from Lidö Gård, sauerkraut slaw, veggies and fries.

Grilled Pork, ramson butter, red wine sauce and a Västerbottens cheese flavoured potato cake.

We had our first dinner there immediately after arriving and found the quality quite good, especially considering the island location. Prices were a tiny bit high, but not horribly and food was delicious and service friendly and efficient. There are menus online but I think our check for a shared starter, two mains and a bottle of wine was around 1100 sek.

Our second night we took a short walk to the nearby guest harbour and ”Oasen” which is Lidö Värdshus’ casual café/restaurant/bar/mini market. They also happen to sell pizza, but they are only open until 18.00/6 pm so keep that in mind if you’re having dinner. We had two pizzas and a beer each which was about 400 sek in total. The pizzas were quite good to be honest, and had creative toppings such as creme fraiche and new potatoes. No gourmet experience, but tasty.

Our first night we stayed in a private room, with a shared bathroom. In our building there was four rooms per floor and one bathroom. In addition to this there are several bathrooms in the main building that you can use. I don’t love a shared bathroom, but both room and shared facilities were super clean and comfy, on the other hand you pay a price equivalent to an ordinary hotel room.

Our second night on the island we had booked ’Kärleksstugan’, in Swedish: “the love cottage”. It was a cosy little hut, approximately three meters from the water and with amazing views over the channel separating Lidö and the mainland. As with the other room, there is no bathroom and you have to walk the 100 meters or so to the main building to use one. The main problem for us however was that there is no indication to other guests that this is a guest room. Being close to the ferry pier, people constantly stroll past looking in through the windows, which gave us minor heart attacks several times when a face suddenly appeared in the window while we sat inside watching the water. Not super relaxing. At check out we told the staff about it and they sounded like they took it serious, so hopefully they’ll put up a sign or similar for future guests.

What you find on Lidö is calm. There is almost no other people and you can walk around easily on relatively good roads and paths. There is no car traffic on the island, but you might run into the odd tractor or staff golf cart. We walked around most places and for instance visited the WW2 coastal defence gun on the north-east side of the island which probably was the most worthwile trek since the views from there were quite amazing. Compared to Sandhamn you get a feeling of that you’re (almost) in your own island paradise.

Then, to emphasize that feeling after a day of walking, you can pay to rent a sauna or hot tub for an hour or two. We rented the sauna which was slightly expensive at 350 sek an hour, but in the end definitely worth it, as the feeling of sitting in a super hot private sauna and then (after a short sprint) throw yourself in an ice cold Baltic Sea was quite spectacular.

Lidö-Räfsnäs-Stockholm with Romina ”passbåt” ferry and bus

After two great days on Lidö we decided on getting back to Stockholm using public transport to save some time and money. You can catch the ferry back to Stockholm from Lidö, but that takes around five hours and requires a change on another island.

From Lidö there are several ”passbåtar” or commuter ferry crossings per day with m/s Romina to nearby Räfsnäs via island of Tjockö (cost for ferry around 55 sek per person), from where you can catch the SL bus to Norrtälje or Campus Roslagen, from where you can easily (same stop) change bus to one bound for Stockholm. This takes approximately two hours.

Part 12: Where and what to eat in Bangkok

After arriving by train from Chiang Mai, we took the Bangkok MRT to our beautiful hotel, the Amara. We wanted to splurge on our six last days of vacation, so we upgraded to an executive floor room which apart from a better room also came with complimentary cocktails and canapees each night. And I’m very glad we did splurge, as just a month after our return, big parts of the world went into lockdown because of the Covid-19 pandemic which we at this stage of the trip was starting to hear more and more about.

Bonchon Korean fried chicken

Our first stop after checking in, and basically breakfast after spending a few hours walking around the area of our hotel.

We’d eaten only Thai food and before that Lao food for weeks and thought we felt okay to deviate a little bit from the South East Asian fare, while still remaining in Asia. Our first idea was to go for Japanese ramen at Ippudo, but then we saw that a place called Bonchon, a Korean fried chicken restaurant which we’d heard about but never tried was next door. We hadn’t eaten anything since the day before so the sound of famous KoFC for breakfast/early lunch sounded a bit too good to miss.

We tried both their garlic-soy and their spicy fried chicken which were both extremely tasty. For sides we chose rice, kimchi slaw, and we also had some complimentary pickled radishes. So good.

Suppaniga Eating Room

Five years ago I visited Bangkok and went to dinner with a local Bangkok resident. The restaurant was Suppaniga Eating Room, and I remember really loving the food. This time we by chance ran into another Suppaniga branch, close to where you catch the ferry to Wat Arun temple. The location is basically on the river, meaning great views, and the food was as delicious as I remembered. We had their incredibly tasty panang beef curry, the best version of this dish that I’ve ever had with sublime flavours of meat, spices and coconut combined. The crab omelette was also delicious and came with a nice sweet chilli sauce on the side. All this paired with a bowl of sticky rice made for a very tasty lunch.

Amara Bangkok’s sky bar AkaAza

Our hotel, the Amara Bangkok’s sky bar, AkaAza, deserves a mention. There wasn’t that many people and from 7 to 9 p.m. you can enjoy 2-for-1 selected beverages with amazing views over Bangkok. Above picture is taken sitting at the table where we had our drinks.

Din Tai Fung (Central Embassy)

Whenever I’m in a city with Din Tai Fung, I need to go there. They have several outlets around Bangkok and we visited their restaurant in the Central Embassy shopping mall.

DTF is a Taiwanese restaurant chain that has taken one of the tastiest dishes there is, the xiao long bao soup dumpling, to world fame. The 18-times folded little nugget of gold is a dumpling that contains minced pork and jellied broth. When it’s steamed, the broth melts and hence there is soup on the inside of the dumpling. When you bite into it the dumpling (after dipping it in a soy-black vinegar-chilli-ginger sauce) it bursts in your mouth combining all the delicate, delicious flavours in one perfect bite.

Din Tai Fung also serve some other great dishes such as their amazing egg fried rice with garlicky, super tender Taiwanese pork chops; a peanut-y and sesame-y bowl of dan dan noodles, and delicious wontons coated in spicy Sichuan-style chilli oil.

Just go.

Bo.Lan

When visiting Gaggan restaurant last time I was in Bangkok I had my best ever meal. That is until I stepped into the doors of Bo.Lan during one of our final nights of the trip. We started off with a yummy Thai whiskey cocktail and some snacks while selecting which menu we were going for.

We were then taken to the kitchen where the first dish, a little spoon of crispy deliciousness was served. Both Bo and (Dy)lan were there and said “hello”, which made me just a little bit starstruck.

After the kitchen we were taken to our table. The menu at Bo.lan is “Essentially Thai” meaning it is their interpretation of Thai food. We went for one of their middle of the road tasting menus paired with Thai craft beers. An excellent choice as the beers worked so well with the dishes.

Starters, round one. Caramelized crab on rice crackers, local squid salad, organic rice dumpling.

Thai rice whiskey with a green mango and tamarind skewer, and pandan leaf mouth spray. First a sip of the whiskey, then a bite of fruit, then a spray. Yummy things happen in your mouth.

Crispy minced pork with plum sauce and fermented tofu, steamed fish pudding, sticky rice, caramelized coconut, and chicken.

It was all incredible, but the best dish of the night was this: Thai gnocchi with coconut broth and prawns. Amazing.

A bit into the meal they’ll just bring you everything they’ve got. Fresh veggies with nam prik chilli dipping sauce, fried chicken, grilled seafood with eggs, Jay Fai (Michelin street food lady) style crab omelette, duck panang curry, and a beef soup so spicy it sort of ruined my experience a little. It was so spicy I had to take a 10 minute break from eating while mouth spraying and drinking beer. 😅

There were some desserts too. This was a coconut pudding/soup with little nuggets of slimey rice dough. Unusual, but tasty.

The dinner was finished in the lounge where some magic was applied to coffee snacks and different candies.

We left Bo.lan tired, full, slightly tipsy, and very happy.

Price, you may wonder? Well, compared to Thailand in general, this is super expensive, but sonsidering quality of food and the general experience it’s not that bad. We paid around $400 for two tasting menus with their Thai craft beer pairing, and a cocktail each upon arrival.

Kua Kling Pak Sod

I received a recommendation to visit Kua Kling Pak Sod on Instagram, and when i looked it up found that one of their outlets were in the building next to the Amara hotel where we were staying. In a gigantic city such as Bangkok that is quite lucky, and naturally we decided to go.

The food is from southern Thailand and hence it’s even spicier than the food in the north and central parts of the country – which still is quite fiery, if you ask me.

Upon ordering they asked us if we wanted spicy, and we replied “just a little bit” which they took as “yes”.

We ordered their curry with coconut milk, eggplant, green curry and tofu; stir fried long beans with red curry and pork belly, as well as southern style dry khua kling curry with minced pork. Everything was super delicious, and of course super spicy. We downed several plates of rice to handle the heat, but it was absolutely worth it as the food was so good. Be prepared however or tell them that you don’t want any chili at all if you’re sensitive. 🙂

Ink & Lion Café

One of the best cup of coffees we had in Bangkok was at Ink & Lion in hipster neighbourhood Ekkamai. A really perfect flat white with a deep toasty aroma. Mmm.

Chatramue

My all time best lemon ice tea is from Chatramue. We went to their outlet in Siam Paragon shopping mall’s food court. So, so good.

Ruen Urai

Close to Amara hotel is Ruen Urai, located partly in an old style traditional Thai house and partly in a nice little ‘secret garden style’ courtyard, next to the Le Meridien Surawong hotel.

The food is inspired by traditional herbal medicine, and we enjoyed it very much. We had woked flat noodles with shiitake mushrooms, pork coconut green curry, and woked lemongrass-cashew chicken. It was a tad expensive, but quite delicious.

Paris Mikki

If you’re craving high quality French style pastries, visit Paris Mikki, a nice little café next to the Terminal 21 shopping center. We went their for my partner’s birthday as she wanted something birthday cake-ish and we were very pleased. Coffee wasn’t great, but the pastries were.

Allegedly their croissants are the best in Bangkok, but we didn’t try them unfortunately. They looked very good though.

Ba Hao (Chinatown)

Despite having visited Bangkok two times prior to this visit, i hadn’t been to its Chinatown.

This visit it was time however, and we caught a Grab (like Uber) to Ba Hao, a fancy 1920s Shanghai style bar and restaurant in the midst of Bangkok’s Chinatown.

Ba Hao serve great cocktails and bar food-y takes on Chinese classics. We started with Opium, or ‘Chinese negronis’ with ginseng and herb liquor, and then ordered from their food menu. The dishes aren’t huge, so you’ll probably need at least two each to get full.

Dan dan noodles.

Duck wontons.

Chinese pancake stuffed with pork.

Great food, great drink and great ambiance. You can also rent a room above the bar if you’d like the full Chinatown experience.

Part 11: Taking Train number 10 from Chiang Mai to Bangkok in a VIP sleeper

After spending five days eating and touring Chiang Mai, the end of our quite extensive South East Asia trip approached. But first, one of my most anticipated events of the trip awaited us: catching the number 10 train to Bangkok.

How to book the train

Allegedly, you can book through Thailand State Railways’ website about two months/60 days in advance. As we were planning this trip far earlier than two months before, I couldn’t really wait and instead (again) opted to use 12go.asia for our tickets.

What you do is that you pick and pay your choice on their website, in our case for a private VIP/deluxe sleeper and then, when tickets are ready, 12go staff will go and purchase a ticket in your name. If the ticket you wanted has sold put immediately, you’ll get your money back (possibly excluding some kind of admin fee). Also, be wary that other train numbers than number 10 – or 9 if going from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, means less modern trains which may not have the same standard as in this post. But you choose your specific departure on 12go, so it’s only on you to pick the right one.

Getting on the train

What you finally do before boarding the train is that you need to pick up your ticket(s). You can pay to have them delivered to your home country, a hotel in Thailand, or you can pick them up at the Bossotel just across the road from the train station, which is what we did. It was super easy with a sign and we just walked in, showed our passports and was handed our tickets and a surprise partial refund since we initially had overpaid. Nice!

You can also stock up on some snacks, drinks and food items from the seven eleven which is next door to the hotel to enjoy onboard. They also sell alcoholic drinks, but big signs on the train made it quite clear: no drinking (alcohol) onboard!

Right on time, together with a beautiful Thai sunset, the train rolled into Chiang Mai’s main railway station, and our trip to the Big Mango begun.

Deluxe sleeper on Train no 10

As mentioned, we had opted to go for the maximum comfort onbord, which is the deluxe sleeper or VIP compartment. It’s by no means super luxurious, but quite comfortable and for instance nicer than the night trains I’ve been on in my native Sweden (it does not beat my number one experience on the Nightjet to Zurich last year though🤓).

Anyways, when you board the train, the lower bed is in sofa mode as you can see from the picture above. After an hour or so a staff member came and turned it into two beds as can be seen on the picture below. The beds weren’t that comfortable, but not bad either.

There is also a tv-screen per bed which shows a map where you currently are positioned and the next station. You can also (theoretically) order food from it, and I have a vague memory that you also in theory might’ve been able to watch tv or some video too. Neither food service or any video content worked for us though. There was however a great function which allowed you to see when one of the three bathrooms in our carriage was available. Cell phone connection was spotty at best, but worked here and there.

The train bumped a bit, during the night and sleep quality was so-so, but who cares when you’re on a train going straight through South East Asian jungle.

One of my favourite moments during the ride was around midnight when the full moon came out and you could actually see what was outside of the window for the first time since the sun went down an hour or so into the trip. I probably spent an hour sitting in my bed looking out the window at tiny villages, hills and jungle. I crossed my fingers to see some wildlife, but no luck unfortunately. Imagine to see a rare Thai tiger from the train. But I’m guessing the few remaining ones stay well clear of loud moving trains.

After a slightly rocky, but still decent night of sleeping, we approached Bangkok. For the last hour before arriving we went through cityscape while the big red sun was going up. At approximately 6.30 a.m. we rolled into Hua Lamphong railway station. Leaving the train was a quick affair and just minutes after relaxing in our cosy compartment, we suddenly found ourselves in the midst of a crowded megapolis.

We went to the super long taxi queue to try to get a taxi to our hotel as we for once had opted out from a hotel pick up, as they charged something ridiculous for the five minute or so ride. But the queue was super slow and we had read that the railway station is connected to the subway, so we thought “why not”. Our hotel (Amara Bangkok) was just one stop away, and using Google Maps we managed to get ourselves there in about 20 minutes.

Part 10: eating in Chiang Mai

Khao Soi Islam

One of northern Thailand’s most famous dishes is the delicious khao soi noodle soup. In Chiang Mai, we had it twice; the first time was at restaurant Khao Soi Islam. The soup consists of a coconut-y broth (I chose chicken as protein) and then also both soft noodles in the soup as well as crunchy deep fried noodles on top. On the side there’s lime wedges, raw red onion and other condiments to add to your soup as you like. Very delicious

Price: low

Lemongrass restaurant

Lemomgrass is a quite touristy Thai restaurant situated close to the Chiang Mai night bazaar. With staff quite actively trying to persuade people passing by to get in, it felt more tourist trap than it actually is. We passed by most night and it was usually quite crowded past 7 pm.

During our visit we tried a few Thai classics such as paneng gai chicken curry, the local laab/larb spicy salad (it was very spicy), and a plate of springrolls. All very tasty, and with English menus and decently affordable beer. Just next to Lemongrass is also a very nice massage place that we visited one evening.

SP Chicken

One of the best meals in Chiang Mai, and probably during the entire trip was enjoyed at SP Chicken. It’s a small, almost hole in the wall, kind of restaurant located on a backstreet in the old town. Their specialty is roasted chicken, and they do it incredibly well.

We ordered a whole chicken to share, and it was really the perfect roasted chicken. Meat was moist, juicy and tender. Skin was crispy, and flavours were great with a hint of garlic, charcoal and salt. As recommended we ordered a few sides of super tasty, tangy and spicy som tam papaya salad with crunchy peanuts and rice. Included were also veggies and a couple of sauces. So, so good.

Price: affordable.

Khao Kaa Moo Chang Phueak (Cowboy Hat Lady)

Of foodie fame is this small but world famous food stall. Having been visited by food celebrities such as the great Anthony Bourdain, you probably could call Khao Kaa Moo Phueak a foodie institution in Chiang Mai, and the food is pretty good. We arrived just before the official opening time, navigating by using Google Maps. We were seated immediately, and just a short while after it was almost full. We ordered their classic pork rice which basically is pulled pork style slow roasted pork on top of rice with creamy yolk boiled eggs and cabbage. It’s quite simple, but delicious and affordable.

Price: Affordable

Nakwan Café (at Siripanna Resort)

While it might not be worth a detour if you’re staying far away, I still wanted to include one of our hotel restaurants since we had a very delicious bowl of Khao Soi noodle soup there before we jumped on the train to Bangkok.

I actually found it as good as Khao Soi Islam which is famous for the dish. So if you’re staying at or close to the Siripanna Resort it might be worth a visit. An added bonus is that you can walk around the beautiful hotel gardens, pools and rice field if visiting.

Price: Expensive-ish (for Thailand)

Coffee

Into the Woods

Into the Woods serve some great (and Instagram worthy) coffee. Situated in the old town, just next to the river. It is also close to where the Cowboy Hat Lady’s restaurant is located if you wan’t to tick off two worthwile places at once.

Ristr8to

Very tasty coffee in a cool venue in the hip Nimman area of Chiang Mai which serves great, very artsy coffee (as can be seem above). We visited on our way back from Doi Suthep mountain temple complex for an early afternoon coffee break and managed to snag seats almost directly, despite the place being quite full. We also shared their waffles with ice cream that were delicious.

Bonus: what to do while visiting Chiang Mai

A visit to Doi Suthep temple features both the beautiful temple itself as well as stunning views over Chiang Mai.

Visit an “ethical” elephant park, such as Elephant Nature Park.

Drink Chang beer while people watching at the night market area. And of course – shop away if you’re interested.

Part 9: the luxury Green Bus from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai

To get from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai, we opted to take the luxury Green Bus.

Green Bus has an English website, but when we booked we found it a bit confusing and instead we chose to use 12.go, an English language site that lets you buy tickets for various forms of transport around Asia.

They charge a dollar or two extra, but has a really easily navigated website. We paid for our tickets with credit card (approx $25 for both of us) and was sent a PDF ticket that we printed and showed to the bus attendant when boarding, that was it.

There are three different classes of Green Buses from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai (and from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai). A standard one, one first class, and then the VIP bus that we chose. Apparently they are all quite nice, but it was only a $5 or so difference between the regular one and VIP so we thought we’d splurge for the 3,5 hour ride.

The bus left from Chiang Rai’s bus station in the city center, close to where the clock tower is. It also made a stop at another bus station in the city before it went straight to Chiang Mai.

The onboard experience was quite nice. There are plush comfy leather seats, there’s a bus attendant handing out water bottles and a small snack, and the driving was also very nice.

I remeber reading that the bus was super cold due to the air condition, but I was fine in a t-shirt. If you’re sensitive to cold, you might still want to bring a sweater.

There is a bathroom onboard, but we never used it during our trip.

The trip took around 3,5 hours with some really nice scenery along the way. When leaving Chiang Rai you can spot the White Temple in the distance on the right side of the bus. You still should go there properly, but if you didn’t you can at least see it whizz by.

All in all a very comfy ride, and I’d definitely would recommend it.

Part 8: Chiang Rai and a day trip to Myanmar

Before moving further in Thailand we opted to spend two days in the city of Chiang Rai. Except for a short day visit to Myanmar and the Golden Triangle (of drug fame), basically our only plan was to visit the White Temple and eat local food.

The White Temple of Chiang Rai is actually not that old and, despite being a “real” temple, it is in fact an artwork made by Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat in 1997. To tip: come early if you want un-crowded pictures. It’s a few kilometers outside of Chiang Rai, so we rented a taxi that picked us up in our hotel and then waited outside while we visited the temple, before taking us back.

Food: Sai Oua and (Thai) Khao Soi

Khao Soi in Thailand is very different from the herby, tomato-y Lao version we had in Luang Prabang. In Thailand the broth is coconuty, and apart from boiled noodles, the soup is also topped with deep-fried crunchy noodles. It also included chicken and optional flavourings such as lime, chopped onion, and something pickle-y.

We also had sai oua sausage which like Khao Soi has its Laotian version, but where the Thai sausage it’s spicier and in my mind more flavoursome.

The restaurant we visited was called Four Stars and was located very close to the Chiang Rai clocktower.

Day trip to Myanmar

Before leaving for our trip, we had found out that you could do a day trip to Myanmar from Chiang Rai, and since I have my visit-new-countries-habit, naturally we had to go.

We booked online with a company called Green Trails, that is seemingly owned by Chiang Mai A la Carte (we received confirmation and communications from both companies which confused us a little at first).

Despite booking many months in advance, our (super funny) tour guide arrived on the minute in our hotel, and then drove us straight to the border, while giving a lot of interesting context of the region and of Myanmar.

At the border, we were stamped out of Thailand and then literally walked across the bridge to Myanmar. There, to our guide’s great surprise, they did not keep our passports as per usual protocol, but instead handed them back to us. Apparently Swedes are trusted to not escape into the country as you’re only allowed to visit Tachileik city on the land border visa we got. Also remember that you can only enter Thailand by land border twice in a year (at least as an EU citizen). As we used a land border to cross into Thailand from Laos, this was our second. This might be easy to forget, as a day trip might not seem like a ‘real’ border crossing.

In Tachileik we hired a tuk tuk and then went around town, visiting the sights such as their golden pagoda, a wet market and a few other markets and temples.

We finished the visit with a yummy Burmese lunch consisting of a buffet of local dishes.

Deep fried samosas, spring rolls and buns to start. Super tasty.

Little bowls of deliciousness: pork curry, corn, bambo shoots, okra, fermented funky fish (okay, not that delicious), soy beans, vegetable soup and more. As Myanmar also borders Bangladesh, the food also has a touch of Bangladeshi and Indian flavours.

After the lunch we went back to Thailand, visiting the Golden Triangle Area. We made an interesting stop to the great museum The Hall of Opium, and also visited a couple of nice viewing points from where you could see Thailand, Laos and Myanmar at the same time. A loooong but very interesting day.

This was pretty much what we did and saw in Chiang Rai. It’s a nice town, and I would love to return some day to see more than we were able to during our two days.

Part 7: cruising the Mekong

After a tranquil week in Luang Prabang, it was time to hit the road, in this instance: a floating one.

We had researched the different companies doing the cruise from Luang Prabang to Huai Xai and ended up with Luang Say cruises. In hindsight I did regret it a little since they charge around $450 per person when booking in advance online, and when in Laos we found that in their local office the price was almost half at around $250. There is also another company called Shompoo cruises that was around $150 that we saw during the trip that looked fine as far as we could tell. Their boat looked similar to ours.

Anyway, there are fortunately quite a few positives as well with Luang Say. At the morning of departure we were picked up by a tuk-tuk driver and taken the few hundred meters from our hotel to the pier, located below the Callao Hotel. The boat is clean and quite comfy, and we had a super friendly guide that spoke very good English. As the boat was only half full (at best) there was also plenty of space – maybe lower those online prices a bit Luang Say Cruises? ?

As we began our cruise, breakfast was served mini buffet style at the small bar towards the end of the ship. We had fresh delicious croissants with jam and butter, baguette, boiled eggs and coffee. Meals, coffee, water and tea were included in the cruise by the way, and I do not think I’ve ever had so much coffee.

First stop: the Pak Ou caves an hour or so from Luang Prabang.

Lunch, also buffet style – with mushroom and chicken stew, woked pork, fried fish and rice. Tasty, but not amazing in any way. Since the cruise was pricey (I know, I’m bitter) my hopes for the food was a bit higher.

We visited two villages accompanied by our guide during the cruise. It was quite interesting and at the same felt a bit weird to walk around and stare at people doing there daily routine. We did contribute to the local economy though by purchasing some silk shawls made in one of the villages, and our guide teached us how to spot the difference between locally made and mass produced Chinese which was nice.

And after approximately 10 hours on the river we were in Pakbeng, a small town on the Mekong.

The perhaps biggest perk with going with Luang Say Cruises is that they own a lodge, aptly named the Luang Say Lodge, next to the river, where we stayed the night. This is the view from our room, a small hut connected to the rest of the hotel with wooden walkways. So cool. I would’ve liked to stay a couple of days here.

Dinner was served and while totally edible not very impressive either compared to all the amazing food we’d eaten in Luang Prabang. I know I am whining, but if you charge a lot of money, why save on cheap basics such as ingredients? Drinks were extra by the way and a beer was $3 and a glass of wine possibly $6 or 7.

Day two was similar to day one. We had breakfast at the lodge and then cruised until lunch where we had another lunch onboard featuring curry and rice.

After lunch we made our second village visit, and after that we were on the final stretch.

The best thing with the Mekong cruise in my mind is the views and the tranquility. You do not really have much choice but to lean back, listen to the sound of the engine and just take in the mostly amazing views of the river, life on the river and the surrounding landscape. I really appreciated this.

Around four in the afternoon we gently docked in Huay Xai. We were then taken by mini bus to the border crossing to Thailand, got instructions how to cross, and then we suddenly walked into Chiang Khong. Thailand!

We had pre-booked a transfer through Luang Say ($85) and our driver was waiting with a sign with our names on. Two hours later we were in the city of Chiang Rai for a week of Northern Thai food and adventures.

Part 6: Luang Prabang

We arrived Luang Prabang and Laos by a comfortable direct 1.5 hour flight from Siem Reap in a Vietnamese Airlines airbus A320 (I do not love to fly in propellered planes that otherwise are common on domestic routes in the region). A top tip is to buy a local sim with a data package in the airport, they had a booth at bagage claim and it took like a minute, costed $7 for about 8 gbs lasting a week, and they did all the setting up for me.

Luang Prabang, also spelled “Louang Prabang” is a cozy little city of approximately 50 000 people, situated by the confluence of the mighty Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers. Its old town where we stayed at the excellent Mekong Riverview Hotel, is filled with French colonial buildings, temples, a former royal palace, small restaurants, guest houses, shops, markets and bars. And, importantly, being in South East Asia it’s surprisingly super relaxed. We had just arrived from Siem Reap’s hustle and bustle with crazy traffic, stray animals, thumping music and drunk tourists, and were therefore prepared for something a bit similar. How wrong we were.

There is pretty much a general sense of calm at all hours in Luang Prabang. Of course there will be the odd vendor calling for attention, or tuk-tuk drivers offering a ride, but not that often. You can also walk everywhere as the roads and sidewalks are good and traffic as mentioned is quite calm.

The views of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers are everywhere as the old city lies on a peninsula surrounded by them. You can also see large mountains towering in the distance. It’s a super scenic place, and we really loved it.

What to see

Except for eating a lot of food we also climbed Mount Phousi to watch the sunset (as will many others, it’s quite crowded). We also visited the beautiful Kuang Si waterfall, a top tip is to arrive early before the crowds. We hired a taxi driver and arrived just as they opened at I think around 8 a.m.

Much also happen on the river(s) and there are plenty of different cruises and boat trips to go on, for instance to Pak Ou Caves.

[Breakfast in our hotel Mekong Riverview Hotel, on of the best I’ve ever had, especially considering the view.]

How about the food then? Well I can honestly say that we had a few of the best meals of our almost six weeks long trip in Luang Prabang. Lao food is quite similar to the more famous northern Thai cuisine, with shared dishes such as the local sausage Sai Oua, which in Laos is made with pork and herbs – in Thailand they also add chilli and lemongrass. Both are incredibly good. Other shared dishes are the famous spicy herb laab (also known as larb or laap) salad, and khao soi noodle soup. The latter is only similar by name though, and that they both are noodle soups. The Lao version is tomato-y while the Thai uses coconut milk.

Below are our favourite Luang Prabang restaurants:

Phonheuang Café

Make your own spring roll wrapper with crunchy chopped up spring rolls, cold noodles, spring onion and herbs. Put in a lettuce leaf, roll and dip in the amazingly delicious sesame dipping sauce.

The black stuff in the upper left corner is the local specialty kaipen, which is crispy river weed with sesame seeds.

To the right is pork laab, one of the best we had during the trip. This place is quite tiny but you’ll find it using Google maps.

Price: Inexpensive.

Saffron coffee

If you miss your big city latte art hipster coffee, fear not, Saffron’s got you covered. We saw at least two outlets in Luang Prabang and they serve a quite decent cup of coffee. Their tamarind and apple tarte was decent but served icecold.

Price: Medium

The Belle Rive

The Belle Rive is a quite touristy (but not in a terrible way) place which offers one of the best views of sunset over the Mekong River. They also fortunately have very nice food, and given the location, prices aren’t that bad.

We had (from left): Oua Si Kai, lemongrass grilled chicken (so good); Jeow Mak Khuea, smoky eggplant dip, served with veggies; spicy green papaya salad with ground peanuts, and fresh spring rolls filled with veggies & rice noodles, served with a peanut dip.

Price: medium

Xieng Thong Noodle Soup

Only open at lunch time, this place serves a delicious bowl of khao piak sen which includes thick rice noodles, pork, bean sprouts and spring onion in a quite mild salty broth. Finally a pile of crispy roasted garlic is added which gives the soup a really nice depth.

Price: inexpensive, a bowl was around $1,5 or 15000 kip.

Paste at the Apsara

Our first proper fine dining meal of the trip was at Paste Laos on New Years Eve. Paste also has a restaurant in Bangkok which has been awarded a Michelin Star so we were super excited to try their smaller Lao sibling’s fine dining take on local food.

Jaew bong: Mekong river crab, river weed, chilli relish.

Seared scallops, tossed in a salad of mangosteen, lemongrass, young coconut.

Sour River Fish Soup with lemongrass,chili, sugar cane,shrimp paste and fermented fish sauce (pa dek). Finished with young tamarind leaves.

Crunchy cured rice balls with sour sausage, kaffir lime zest, red curry paste, river weed and rose pepper leaf.

Salad of cured eggplant, air dried buffalo, ginger flower with kaffir lime, guava and dry spice mix.

A recreation and slight reinvention of the classic recipe for Laos Duck Curry-Kalee Ped.

Stir fried glass noodle with mixed mushroom, sweet bamboo shoots and fermented bean curd sauce.

Banana with coconut milk cream and fresh jackfruit.

The food was delicious. It tasted exactly like I had hoped, local but with fancy cooking techniques that made it an exciting contrast to the more ‘home cooking style’ restaurants we’d so far visited. Especially the salad dishes were “out of this world” (I’m starting to sound like my mom now- thank you thirties?).

Price: Expensive, about $140 for two with a shared large beer and one glass of wine each. They pour super small servings of wine so buy a bottle, or stick to beer which was more reasonably priced.

Khaiphaen

Run by the Tree Alliance Group that employ and train former street kids and other marginalized children and youth in hospitality. We had some of the best food in Luang Prabang here with a yummy, spicy chicken laap salad; crispy crackling pork belly with pumpkin puree and the best grilled Lao sai ua sausages on the whole trip.

Price: A tiny bit more expensive than other restaurants we visited, but still very affordable.

Khao Soi Luang Prabang

Located on the main street, Sakkaline Road, towards Wat Xiengthong, we found a great Lao khao soi shop. It’s just a few seats, but usually quite busy with a lady spooning up delicious bowls of the local version of Khao Soi. As you might know, Khao Soi is a famous dish of Northern Thailand, but apart from being soups with noodles in, they aren’t very similar. The Lao version contain minced pork that has been slow-cooked and then it’s added to a spicy, tomato-y broth that kind of reminds me of a South East Asian take on a bolognese. In the soup are rice noodles and the usual “choose yourself” fresh herbs such as mint, coriander and spring onion. Incredibly delicious.

Price: Not much.

Xieng Thong Phonsavanh Restaurant

We found out that our hotel was next door to famous food blogger Migrationology’s favourite restaurant in Luang Prabang, so we though it would be wise to pay it a visit. We tried their (very delicious) fish laap salad; tasty holy basil fried chicken, and, after being told off by the chef/owner for not ordering it, also their super spicy and delicious fish roe dip ”jaew kee pa”.

Price: Slightly more expensive than other restaurants in the area, but still very affordable.

Part 5: Siem Reap

In Siem Reap we had one main goal, and that was of course like most other visitors to visit the famous Angkor Wat temple area.

We used a company called Journey Cambodia, which offered a combination package of a Angkor Wat sunrise tour with a half day trip to the “floating village” on the Tonlé Sap the following day for $59 per person. The Angkor Wat tour was a full day starting with a pick up at 4.10 in the morning, allowing us to buy permits to visit the Angkor Wat park ($37 per person for a 1 day permit) before lining up in front of the small lake facing Angkor Wat and wait for sunrise. Unfortunately, many others does the same and it’s quite a crowd waiting for the perfect photo. So be early, or there will be a lot of people in your pics. After the sunrise you’ll be having breakfast before visiting the other temples in the area. A loooong day, but worth it.

The Tonlé Sap floating village tour was more comfortable though. We were only four people in total sharing a mini bus and as we were early did not see many other tourists during our visit. Unfortunately it was very dry when we visited so the normally floating village wasn’t very floating.

Food and drink in Siem Reap

We had a few nice experiences in Siem Reap when it comes to food and drink.

Pot and Pan

Inexpensive and quite tasty, we had taro spring rolls, chicken Amok and a chicken and peanut stir fry. Total cost with a beer was around $9.

Khmer Touch

Recommended by the New York Times, and when we arrived totally deserted. We initially though we’d give it a miss and go somewhere with people. But then we changed our minds and decided to try it. Fortunately that was a good decision. Their green mango salad with deep-fried tofu; the velvety chicken curry and the beefy Lok Lak were all fantastic. We took advantage of some kind of wine promo they had, so the bill (including a shared dessert) came in at just under $40 for two with all food and a shared bottle of white.

Num Pang Paté

Cambodia’s answer to the Vietnamese Banh Mi. A crusty baguette (Cambodia used to be a French colony) filled with patê, pork, a custard-meets-mayo sauce, pickles and papaya slaw. Can’t exactly tell where this was, but you should be able to find them in the night market.

50 cent beers at Pub Street

Siem Reap’s infamous pub street isn’t so bad if you’ve been out in let’s say Patong, Thailand. But it’s quite lively in the evenings and nights, and yes, a draft beer in most places are 50 American cents, or two beers for $1.

Miss Wong

1920s style Shanghai Bar. Good cocktails, amazing decor. Also a tad pricey (or super pricey compared to the 50 cent beers on Pub Street a stone’s throw away. But worth a visit.

Coffee

We visited four cafés while in Siem Reap and they were all high quality and similar in price so I won’t go into too much detail. I have however put them in order after which I found the best.

Missing Socks Laundry Café. Tasty cheesecake and great coffee.

Brother Bong. Great coffee, dry cookie.

Red Fox Espresso. Also great coffee but slightly more expensive than the others.

Sister Strey, good coffee, nice location. Decent vegan “snickers” cake.

Where we stayed: Khmer Mansion Boutique Hotel.

$70 a night with free a la carte breakfast that included eggs benedict, laksa (pictured above) and fried noodles. Room’s were nice, but some nights the volume from nearby bars made it hard to sleep. The small pool and garden are quite nice as well and usually not too crowded. Staff very friendly, but almost overly friendly at times. An extra bonus were free airport transfers in the hotel’s car.

Location is quite good, close to Pub Street and plenty of restaurants, and also a few smaller temples. We walked pretty much everywhere, but tuk-tuks were (extremely) available. 🙂

Part 4: a night in Sihanoukville

After arriving back on the mainland we checked in at the White Boutique Hotel in Sihanoukville.

The last five years has transformed the former relaxed beach town of Sihanoukville, mostly to the bad, according to the locals. Gone are beach shack bars and pure white beaches, instead; high rises under construction, Chinese owned casinos and hotels, as well as pollution and dirt.

We did not spend much time on the actual streets of Sihanoukville, but from what we saw, the rumours were true. It felt like a giant construction site; dirt roads, half finished skyscrapers and trash.

Fortunately, the White Boutique Hotel was a small oasis. As soon as you enter the lobby, and this might sound exaggerated, it’s like another world. Lounge music, a pretty swimming pool and a sort of New England style beachy vibe. There’s also a (small) private stretch of beach, but you need to cross a road that according to our sources 🙂 was decided to be built going straight through the hotel area despite their opposition.

Breakfast is a choice of a few local and Western dishes as well as a small buffet with toast, toppings, fruit and similar. Included were also fruit shakes and “specialty coffee” such as cappuccinos.

Sihanoukville – Siem Reap by private taxi



After our night at the WBH we got picked up by our pre-booked driver, who drove us straight from Sihanoukville to Siem Reap in the north, which took about 10 hours including a lunch break. The company can be contacted through their website Cambodiaprivatetaxi.com, if you’re interested in doing the same. I sent them an email a few months in advance and got quick replies and a decent quote (approx $180) for the trip. The car used was a roomy Lexus RX300 and the driving felt very safe despite the road from especially Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh being relatively basic.