Be Brave

I’m in no way an expert, but these are some things I’ve learnt through the years, so bear with me and excuse my rambles.

Know what you want out of your travels.
Do you want to see a city? Do you want to check out every museum there is? That’s cool. Do you want to lie on a beach and jump into the sea whenever you feel like it? That’s cool too. Are you an avid mountaineer? Awesome. Just know beforehand and don’t be disappointed when you might not be able to pack all of the things you want to do into one single trip.

Choose your travel partners wisely.
Traveling can be a real trial of friendship. Choose your partners carefully. Do they want the same things out of the trip as you? What kind of attitude do they have towards other countries and cultures?
If you think that you are too different from each other you might not be happy during your travels if you constantly have to cut back on what you want out of it.
If there are only minor differences, don’t let them deter you. Compromise on some things and you might be surprised to where this will lead you. This leads to my next point:

Embrace the unexpected.
Be spontaneous. Be daring. When can you if not now? Where if not here? Go out and try to see where your limits are. How far can you go? What can you endure and what not?
It’s exhilarating. Scary, yes, but it makes you feel alive.
It’s important to make plans. However, it’s equally important to be flexible enough to let the plans you made go and make new ones at the drop of a hat.

Take care of yourself.
In more than one way. Be careful with your money and who you trust. Get to know your surroundings and get a feel for what is safe to do and what not.
But also, take care of yourself on another level. Say you meet people along the road, you quickly befriend them but then realise you can’t see eye to eye on some things anymore, don’t be afraid to go your own way. In the end you shouldn’t hold back on what you truly want just because of others.
You need to be at peace with your decisions and experiences. If they’re being rude, if their  attitude towards other cultures doesn’t match your own, tell them. If nothing changes, go your own way.

Pack, cut in half, pack again.
So far I’ve never, ever worn all of the clothes I packed for a trip. I always came back home with a couple of still perfectly folded T-shirts or pants which I just never even took out of my suitcase or backpack.
You don’t need much on travels. And you know…. people know how to wash clothes in other countries as well….

Get to know the country you travel to.
What is the religion? How’s the weather? What is the political situation? Learn everything you can before you go there and then learn even more once you’re there. Be open and not afraid to be proven wrong. Being surprised is a wonderful thing.

Talk talk talk.
To natives, to other travelers, to the cook of the roadside restaurant. It doesn’t really matter. Ask questions. Never stop asking even what you might consider to be a stupid question because you will get a whole new experience out of it.
Still, be gentle and aware of cultural differences. Don’t come on too strong and respect the opinions of others.
Try to learn at least a few words and standard phrases in the local language. This will open you doors you’d never expected. People will view you differently. Even small words like “Hello“, “Please“ and “Thank you“ will make a huge difference.
Know when to accept, but also when to challenge and question.

Be patient.
Know that you’re not at home. Things will take time, things will most likely not go as planned but you will get to where you want to be eventually. Don’t stress. There’s no point in complaining that a bus is late or a merchant ripped you off. These things happen. Learn from them, embrace them,

Be open.
Try new things. Eat something you never have before. Reinvent yourself. This is your chance. Take it.

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One weekend, five things to do in Zanzibar

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If there’s one thing I regret (even though I find it hard to actually write these words, as I don’t want to change any second of my stay on this gorgeous island) about my time in Africa it’s the fact that I only spent a weekend in Zanzibar. My time there was short, yes. However, it was filled to the brim with incredible activities, a lot of fun and so many experiences I will take with me for the rest of my life.

Here are five suggestions on how to spend an unforgettable weekend in Zanzibar:

  • A trip to Prison Island

Prison Island has a surprising amount to offer for such a small island. It started out as an island for prisoners, although they actually never used it as a prison. Later on it was used as a quarantine station for people who contracted yellow fever. Now there’s a sanctuary for giant tortoises. This sanctuary started out with a few tortoises which were a gift from the government of the Seychelles, now there are more than 50 tortoises living there. For a small fee you can walk through the little park, pet and take pictures with them. Some of them are nearly 200 years old. Twice a day there will also be feedings which you can watch.

Close by, there are also a lot of beautiful spots to snorkel. If that’s not for you, there’s always the possibility to just lie on the (albeit small) beach and swim in the clear water there. It makes for a perfect day, or afternoon trip (depending on how long you want to snorkel).

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  • The Forodhani food market (only at night)

One of the biggest regrets I have about the very short time I spent in Zanzibar is that I didn’t have enough time to try all the great food this island has to offer. However, I went to this market twice and it’s just incredible.
The market is made up of lots and lots and lots of stands filled with food. Try the Zanzibar Pizza (savory and sweet), or the seafood (but take care and keep your eyes open to see if it’s still fresh and good). Try the sugar cane juice (though keep in mind that the taste certainly isn’t for everyone). Or maybe you want to try some soup? Have a Samosa too. And don’t miss out on the beef-wrap (kind of kebab) kind of things. There are just so many things, it’s almost impossible to eat and try them all.

Your best bet (and this goes for everything: restaurants, bars, cafés….) is to always go to where most of the locals are. If there are locals eating the food there it’s bound to be authentic and good.

This food market fascinated me not only for the vast array of different types of food and how they were prepared but also because of the location. During the day the park, close to the harbour is very quiet and peaceful. At night the area is buzzing and filled with people – tourists and locals alike and the next morning it’s again as if nothing happened.

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[Above: Seafood galore! |Below: freshly made Zanzibar pizza.]
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[Above: the kind-of kebab (Say: “Weka kila kitu.” This means “with everything.” and was one of the first phrases I learnt. It will also guarantee you a laugh (if not a high-five) from the person you’re ordering from). |Below: This lovely guy is Mr. Lecker Lecker. He learnt from an Austrian chef, knows how to make Semmelknödel and speaks a bit of German. He insisted on taking a picture with us (he also makes the most delicious sweet Zanzibar Pizza. Try Nutella-Mango. Or Nutella-Banana-Coconut).]
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  • Dolphin Bay

This was something I was super, super skeptical about. When I heard about “You will swim with dolphins” all I could think of was “Please don’t let them be in a tiny basin”. There was nothing worse for me than the thought of supporting the captivity of these animals.
I was lucky though. What people forgot to tell me was a single word that made all the difference: “wild”. They should have said “Kristina, you’re going to swim with wild dolphins.” That would have eased so many of my worries.

When we arrived at the bay, we were given diving goggles and flippers (which I refused because they annoy me to no end) and then boarded a tiny boat to drive out and look for dolphins.
In this place I have to say that we totally lucked out on this trip. A local guy who was with us and has been many, many times to this bay has told us that he’s never seen them as close and as many of them as he did that day. Needless to say that we went crazy. We chased the dolphins, jumped from the boat when we were close and then played and swam with them. It was incredible. Mind blowing. Unbelievable.
We swam and swam and swam until we barely had the energy to climb back into the boat anymore. Only then did we allow our boat driver to take us back to shore.

If you don’t want to, or cannot swim with dolphins the beach and sea at this place is also, almost too perfect. It’s the stereotypical white beach, turquoise water picture.

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  • A history tour through Stone Town

You will see various tours offered at about every corner. While I’ve heard only good things about spice tours (they show you different plants, spices and tell you about the process and so on) we decided on a history tour. We started out at one of the two churches where there once was the slave market. We went down to see the slave chambers before changing direction and strolling through the market. Then our guide led us through the labyrinth of Stone Town’s tiny streets and alleys – pointed out various historic landmarks and told us about the architecture, different types of doors and so on.
To me, this was perfect. I loved walking through the tiny alleys and getting some background knowledge made this experience even more special.

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[Above: Morning mist over Stone Town. |Below: Our history tour started at the old slave market. Stone Town has a rich and long history. Some good, some horrid. As it is the case with all countries, I guess.]
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[Above: cute places to eat lunch or dinner can be found everywhere. |Below: doors in Stone Town are breathtaking pieces of art.]
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[Above and Below: the fish and food market is probably not for the faint-hearted.]
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  • Horseback riding (on the beach)

Yes, I’ve already hinted about this a few times when I posted some pictures.
However, this was one of the most incredible experiences I had during my time in Africa. Riding a horse on a beach has been on my bucket list ever since I started horseback riding when I was six years old. For this to come true in Zanzibar, at sunset – on the same day we also swam with wild dolphins? I can barely find the words. Even weeks after it’s hard for me to describe the feeling. I felt so free, happy and light.

Just a few things about the facility:
The stables we went to belong to a very nice couple from South Africa. They have four horses which are all very healthy and perfectly well looked after. Their temperament and character is great so that they can carry everyone from children to adults. The riding facility is attached to a resort, but you don’t necessarily have to stay there to go for a ride. You can take lessons or go for a ride through the coconut plantation and down to the beach.
They offer to take almost everyone, no matter their skills or experience, though you should have realistic expectations. If it’s your first time on a horse you will not freely canter through the waves and along the beach. However, if you do have some experience, it is very likely that you are able to do just that.
Also: helmets are mandatory. You can borrow one there at the facility.

On the day we were there we (once again) lucked out. While it looked like rain when we started, it cleared up as soon as we came to the beach and we were lucky to see the most incredible sunset. Plus, it was low tide, making it possible for us to canter through the water and along the beach.

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[Read more about Zanzibar here. Posts about my time in Tanzania can be found here.]

Zanzibar

In an earlier post, I already hinted at how perfect my weekend trip to Zanzibar was. I still have trouble believing that weekend really happened and, to me, it still seems like it was a beautiful dream, too good to be true.

After spending a little over a month in Dar es Salaam, I was well used to life in Africa. I was used to how buildings looked, how food tasted and what people were like.

Or so I thought.

This all changed drastically when I disembarked from the boat that took me to Stone Town. It was like I was in a totally different country, if not continent. The buildings had an Oriental touch. The rundown facades mixed with the lush plants and gorgeous architecture immediately took my breath away. I could not tear my eyes from the buildings, the doors, the intricate details on fences – I was so overwhelmed by the beauty of Stone Town.

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However, there’s more. The majority of the population is Muslim so there’s an entirely different atmosphere to the island. While the coastal regions of Tanzania are also more muslim than the north, for example, there’s still a very large percentage of Christians. In Stone Town, as we were told, there are about 49 mosques and only two churches. Plus, if you keep your eyes open, you can find a Hindu temple every so often.
This mix of cultures, even though it’s still so very shaped by the Islamic culture, makes for a very unique atmosphere.

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And then there’s the food. Let’s not forget about the food. Sadly, I only stayed for two nights so the possibilities to check out and try more food were limited. However, I don’t think travelers will have any troubles finding something they enjoy. Due to the various influences and the rich history of the island, it’s vastly different from the “usual” African food.

All in all, I cannot recommend a trip to Zanzibar enough. Maybe it was because I only spent such a short time filled with so many brilliant memories. Maybe it’s because I’m absolutely obsessed with interesting architecture, history, and food. Maybe it’s because I find only little more fascinating than the mix of different cultures. Maybe all of this together, but in the end, I don’t think it matters much. I had a gorgeous time I will never, ever forget.

Thank you, Isabel, for joining me on this trip and thank you, GK, for taking us. It was an incredible experience.

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Tips for when you go to Zanzibar

  • Take your passport.

Kind of a no-brainer, I suppose, but super important none the less as Zanzibar does have an immigration desk where you even have to fill out a form. Yes, it’s been part of Tanzania since the 60s but they still have a lot of autonomy. I’ve heard stories about people having trouble getting to Zanzibar due to what kind of visa they had. If you have an ordinary tourist visa and are there for touristic purposes you should have no problems, but still make sure that your visa is in order.

  • Take a reliable ferry.

If you’re going to Zanzibar from Dar es Salaam, for example, there’s the Asam Fast Ferry. It’s a bit on the pricier side (for African standards at least) but it’s quite fast and safe. I don’t think it’s necessary to tell you to not take a dhow. I guess it’s pretty self-explanatory why going by one of the traditional sailing boats is not a good idea. When you’re near the ferry/speed boat station, people will harass you to no end, offering you the cheapest ticket to go to Zanzibar. If you want to avoid this, do your research before going there so you know where to go and what to buy. This way you can walk with determination and people might back off and leave you alone.

  • Book tours and guides only from sources/offices that seem trustworthy.

There are a bunch of people on the street that offer to take you to a spice tour and whatever else. Please do your research and only book these things with companies that seem trustworthy. These don’t necessarily have to be the big companies, as I’m also all for supporting small agencies, but keep your eyes open and ask a lot of questions before booking to get a feeling of how trustworthy they are. Otherwise you’re just going to be disappointed.

  • Keep your eyes open.

You might feel safer in Zanzibar because there are more tourists. For me, every time I saw other people with similar skin colour I instantly felt a lot safer. Stupid, I know. I tended to let my guard down and, let me tell you, that is not the smartest thing to do.
Yes, there are more tourists in Zanzibar than, let’s say, in Dar es Salaam, but locals know this as well. Take care and keep an eye on your belongings. Don’t take unnecessary risks. In short: don’t let the feeling of familiarity lull you into a false sense of security.

On a slightly different note: take care when eating seafood. I had more than one person fall sick because they ate seafood that wasn’t good anymore. It’s tempting, yes, but have a good look at the place you want to get food from. I usually go by this rule that if you find a lot of locals in a restaurant, bar or food stand, then the food is great. This is, as you should know, my own personal opinion and not at all applicable to every situation.

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[Five things to do in Zanzibar. Posts about my time in Tanzania can be found here.]

Please note the general disclaimer of my travel stories:

All opinions and recommendations on this blog, but especially concerning these travel stories, are solely based upon my own experiences and in no way imply that anyone else will have a similar experience. All travelers are encouraged to use good sense and to keep their eyes open whenever venturing forth into a new place. Please use your common sense and listen to your own instincts.  Each traveling experience is unique to the person having it and I hope you have many!

Travel Preparation: Before You Go

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Okay, here’s the thing: I originally wrote this post around two weeks before I was meant to leave to Tanzania but never had the time to read through and edit it before I left. It was meant to document my travel preparations, but then I got too busy with all these last-minute arrangements. Yes, this entire trip has been incredibly hectic from the beginning.

I’ve started the process of applying to an organisation that provides internships all over the world in late April when I went to an info event. This included having an official interview. I signed up for the online platform and internship database in mid-May. After that I had to attend two further workshops/meetings, met with a buddy that was assigned to me to discuss my search for internships, and so on. This database offers you a couple of thousand of internships in all over the world and I had huge troubles choosing. I was open to a lot of different projects and wanted to go to a lot of different countries. I’d have been willing to do an internship that wouldn’t have been my top interest, if it was offered in a country I loved. Or I’d have done a really interesting internship even if it was in a country that wasn’t high on my preference list. Can you see the problem here?

In any case, I finally settled on an internship about Gender and Health Improvement in Tanzania (never mind the fact that I ended up doing something entirely different in the end). This was my way of giving Africa a second chance after my experiences last year, and I was actually quite excited about this.

So apart from all the stuff I had to do in order to get this internship, what else does travel organisation include?

VISA

Please check a couple of weeks in advance about the best way to obtain a visa (if needed). Most embassies have websites now and offer a lot of visa information on there. You can either send all your paperwork there via mail, or go there personally. However, be prepared for one or two hurdles along the way (they need more paperwork and other forms, you need to attach this or that… there always seems to be something missing).

Some countries also offer Visa Upon Arrival. This way you can apply for a visa once you’ve landed at the airport (or passed the border). If this is too unsure for you, then just get the visa in advance.

Make sure you get the right visa, though. Depending on the country, there are a lot of different visas offered. For example, multiple entry and single entry visas. Please make sure to read the information on these as well. In India for example, it’s possible to get a multiple entry visa, though they state that there has to be a certain time frame between each entry.

VACCINATIONS & FIRST AID

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Another thing to get done in advance are your travel medications and vaccinations. Some vaccinations don’t require a big time frame but rabies injections, for example, you need to plan well in advance.

If available, it’s best to go to a Centre Of Travel Medicine and get advice from the doctors there. They are very competent and know about which vaccinations are required for which countries/regions. If you don’t have that nearby then discuss it with your personal physician. They will tell you what they feel would be necessary for you, depending on the country you’re going to and the activities you have planned there. In some countries, certain vaccinations are required and people actually check your immunization card before they check your passport, so make sure you are covered.

I’ve been going to the same institute in Vienna for years and I’m very content with that. I’ve never felt like they talked me into getting vaccinations that weren’t all that necessary just for the sake of making money.

If you’re from Vienna here are two places you can check out:

One last thing about the topic of malaria and mosquitoes. I have never taken malaria pills to India, Nepal or Thailand so far and I haven’t had any bad experiences. However, (and this goes for those countries as well as Africa) be smart! There are two ways to protect yourself. One is to use repellant. Wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts and sleep under mosquito nets. This is about 80% of how to avoid catching malaria. Two: take malaria pills if you are in regions where this is an issue. Again, your doctor will provide you with more information about this and will help you choose the malaria pills that will be best suited for you.

But don’t forget that the pills are only part of the deal. Minimize the threat of being bitten by mosquitoes first.

Again for people in Austria or Germany: I have had very good experiences with “No Bite” and “Anti Brumm”. Both are available at pharmacies. You can buy repellant for skin, but also for your clothes, which is also recommended. Furthermore you can also buy already impregnated mosquito nets, they might be a bit more expensive – it’s entirely up to you if you feel like this is necessary or not.

For all things first aid and travel sickness related I have to repeat myself once again: get advice from your doctor or pharmacist, but here are a short list of what I usually take with me:

  • Something for diarrhoea
  • Band aids
  • Disinfecting wound spray
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Pain medication
  • Something to bring down fever

Also, do not forget to have your teeth checked by your dentist before you go on longer trips. There’s nothing worse than having toothaches while miles and miles away from home.

INFORMATION

Inform yourself about the country you’re going to! Just to throw some questions at you:

  • What is the dominant religion?
    This might influence the time you want to make your trip, as people usually advise you against going to islamic countries during Ramadan for example. Therefore it is also important because it can influence the clothes you need to pack.
  • How is the political situation?
    Is it safe? Are there areas, times or activities you need to steer clear off?
  • What is the weather like?
    Summer? Winter? Rain season? Dry season? No season at all?
  • Are there ATM’s I can access? Is it better to take Visa or MasterCard?
    Visa, by the way, is better in most countries. You can run into some problems with MasterCard, but you best check this with your bank.
  • How’s the medical situation?
    What standard are the hospitals? Where can I find them? Do the people there speak sufficient English?
  • What are the costs of daily life there?
    Is it cheap or expensive?

Try to get as much information about the country you’re visiting as you can. This will help you make your stay a lot smoother.
I was debating whether to write this or not, but please also inform yourself about the legal situation regarding alcohol and drugs. You might want to know that in Thailand, for example, the possession and use of drugs are punished very severely. And trust me, you don’t want to end up in jail in Thailand just because you’re having fun at a full moon party.

FLIGHTS

Get your flights booked and confirmed in advance. This might be necessary as some embassies require a confirmed flight (and return) ticket to issue you a visa.

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I had a lot of fun writing this. I guess for me it was quite therapeutical at the moment, because apart from the information and vaccination I hadn’t done anything from my list when I wrote this. I was trying to get all the paperwork needed for the visa for weeks, but ultimately ended up getting a Visa Upon Arrival for the first time. I was praying that it would go off without a hitch and it did. The wait was quite long but apart from that I had no troubles at all. My flights were still not confirmed because I was flying with staff tickets. It’s utterly chaotic and stressful – as it is every time I travel but there’s no sense in worrying now. The flight to Tanzania turned out well, the flight back was a nightmare. Some tears were shed in frustration and desperation but it all worked out somehow.

This entry is supposed to give you some ideas on what travel preparations (can) involve. I do not claim that it is complete. If you think something major is missing please do let me know. Also, and I cannot stress this enough: I do not have a medical degree. Please contact your physician and talk to them regarding travel vaccinations and medications.

Travel Stories: Water & Food Culture

Let’s talk a bit more about food, water and food culture, okay?

Water:

I’ve been sick because I drank bad water before. It happens. I’ve never had something serious (thank God!) but it’s definitely annoying. Still, it’s very important that you stay hydrated. Especially in countries like India, Thailand or Nepal where it can get super hot! (Believe me, fainting twice in the middle of a sightseeing tour is not a fun experience!).

So what do you have to look out for? Again – most of this is probably common sense:

Don’t drink tap water. Just don’t. Maybe you’re not used to drinking tap water anyway, but in Austria we have great tap water, super clear. I usually always prefer tap water to any other drink if I’m thirsty so this is something I always have to remind myself of.

A lot of private households will have a filter installed and it’s mostly safe to drink the water. The occasional ice cubes in a drink won’t kill you either, but if you’re unsure, just say you don’t want ice in your drink. That problem is solved easily.

If you’re out sightseeing and you buy a bottle of water from street vendors or little shops, make sure that the cap is still sealed and cracks when you open the bottle. Sometimes people will collect used bottles and fill them with dirty water, put on the top and sell it again. Please pay attention to this!

When I discussed this with a group of friends, a different topic came up: namely the issue of waste. If you drink about 3 litres of water per day – that’s a lot of garbage. Especially in countries where the recycling system isn’t as elaborate as it is in Europe or North America.

We came up with a couple of alternatives:

1) Chlorine tablets: This may not taste so great and it’s probably also not the healthiest solution if you’re staying long term, but it makes the water drinkable.

2) Solar filter: This is a bit pricier but my friend swears by it. She said she traveled for months and always used this and never got sick and would recommend this to everyone who’s traveling for a longer period of time. It’s a small solar filter you can stick into a bottle of water for a few seconds and the water’s clean. I have no personal experience with this but it may be an alternative.

Food Culture:

Don’t waste food. Only take as much on your plate as you can eat – you can always get a second serving if you’re still hungry.

I know from my experience in Nepal and India that people sometimes can consider it rude if you don’t help yourself to a second serving. In this case it might be wise to purposely take less at first so you can agree on a second serving.

Be a bit adventurous. Try new things – you might like it (or you might not at all, but try it anyway!) I’ve had fish ice cream (there was this store in Singburi, Thailand that only sold food made from fish. Cakes, chips, ice cream… not my favourite but a lot of fun to try!) I’ve also tried scorpion (uhh…. what can I say? It tasted very bitter….). These things might not be culinary highlights but they’re fun and if you get the chance, why not give it a try?

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[Above: Fish ice cream | Below: Scorpion we ate on Khaosan Road in Bangkok]
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However, it doesn’t have to be stuff like that: Asian countries are well known for their great food. Try curries, salads, noodle and rice dishes. In touristy places they won’t be very spicy (if you ask them to make you authentic Thai food, they will be though!) anywhere else: spice is good. I love spicy Asian food because even though the seasoning is hot, it doesn’t override the actual taste. With European food, if you eat hot there’s the possibility that all you taste is spicy and hot and no actual taste – that’s not the case with Asian food (if you eat well, of course ;))

Keep in mind: spicy is healthy. It will quickly clear out a blocked nose, for example.

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[Above: a typical Thai-BBQ. The water heats up so you can boil vegetables while you can grill meat in the middle. | Below: Self made Papaya-Salad (Som Tam). Super easy to prepare and super tasty – However, take care, this can be extremely spicy!]
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[Above: Pad Thai. Personally, I don’t quite like the texture of the noodles. Nevertheless it is one of the most well known thai dishes and still very delicious. | Below: My lunch during my week at the beach in Koh Samet. Just some fruit – it was too hot for anything more than that.]
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Some more important info:
Thai’s like to decorate and season with peanuts. Be conscious of that if you dislike nuts or are allergic and make sure that you tell them when ordering your food.
In general vegetarians shouldn’t have huge troubles finding food they can eat. If you travel to places that are less touristy, ask a receptionist (who almost all speak English as well as Thai) to write down that you’re a vegetarian on a piece of paper in Thai script. You can show this paper at a restaurant and people will understand.
If you eat in a typical thai restaurant, you will probably never find a knive. Knives only exist in the kitchen. Cutlery consists of forks and spoons. This is mainly due to the fact that typical thai food doesn’t consist of huge pieces of meat that you have to cut (like a big steak). Most of the food will have the meat and other ingredients cut into small, bite-sized pieces. Not having a knive makes things like spreading butter or nutella or jam on a piece of toast kind of interesting, but it does work with a spoon as well. It just takes some time getting used to ;)

DISCLAIMER:

All opinions and recommendations on this blog, but especially concerning these travel stories, are solely based upon my own experiences and in no way imply that anyone else will have a similar experience. All travelers are encouraged to use good sense and to keep their eyes open whenever venturing forth into a new place. Please use your common sense and listen to your own instincts.  Each traveling experience is unique to the person having it and I hope you have many!

[If you think these posts are helpful, or if you think there’s something missing then please let me know! They’re part of a presentation  I gave with a group of friends and we will hold it again twice next autumn. If there’s something we can do to improve it I’d really appreciate some feedback! Thanks.]