Dead Sea Shore from the road

Israel – Masada & Dead Sea

If you haven’t been following, this is a series on our trip to Israel, when we scored some uber cheap airfare.

Israel – Intro
Israel – Masada & Dead Sea
Israel – Jerusalem
Israel – Galilee & Northern Israel

First, let me start off by saying a couple things.  One, as I’ve mentioned before, there is very little bacon in Israel, but the falafel rocks.  Second, hotels in Israel are PRICEY.  I was origninally planning on using my Club Carlson points and since I have the Club Carlson credit card, you stay 2 nights for one when you redeem points.  Very interesting program.  But, we lucked out even further.  Between the time when we booked our tickets in August and when we arrived in Israel at the end of February, we had some good friends move to Tel Aviv and they offered us a bedroom.  Tres Gentile!  So, we bought them a couple dinners […] one was at a breakfast joint in Tel Aviv which DOES serve bacon […] and rented a car.  Throw in a few meals for us, and our cost for this 4 day whirlwind was pretty reasonable!

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Finished Open Vanity in decent light before install

[Un]Fine Furniture

As I mentioned over a year ago, I’ve been lusting to get into woodworkery.  And I took the plunge this spring and bought a whole host of tools:

  • Cabinet Saw
  • 8″ Jointer
  • Fixed base router
  • Plunger router
  • Thickness Planar

Sure, not a complete shop, but I can do just about anything I want, if I had the skills […] rasied panel cabinetry, tables, chairs, etc .  And it will take some time until anyone uses the word “fine” with any pile of wood and glue I try to pass off as furniture.

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$500 Washer & Dryer

I’ve always lusted after a front loading washer & dryer.  But I could never justify the cost when I had a perfectly working set.

Our Old Washer & Dryer

Our Old Washer & Dryer

I was helping a friend move the other day and he was a little short on space.  I won’t lie, I was a little bothered to go help the guy on a Saturday – which is my prime time to get “stuff” done.  I figured it was the right thing to do though, and I hope if I was in the pinch he was, that some friends would come help me.

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Israel – Intro

It’s not often you come into to work and check out some “morning news” to find flights to Israel for $300-ish roundtrip.  These deals come along once, maybe twice a year and diligence is the key to getting cutting into them.

I was at my old, curmudgeon-y company when this deal went down, so with little vacation days to spare, we decided on a whirlwind tour of 4 days.  Yes, the Holy Land […] which I question how holy a land can be without bacon […] in 4 days.  Boom!

Look forward to the series of posts in upcoming weeks.

Part 1 – Masada & Dead Sea
Part2 – Jerusalem
Part 3 – Galilee and Northern Israel

The finished project back in the cabinet!

The new [and improved] $25 drawer

I’ve mentioned before, our more-than-humble abode is quirky.  I’m sure it was the creme de la creme in 1990, and very few expenses were spared.  Just reading the electrical panel reveals they had a tanning bed somewhere in this old fortress and the initials on the his & her’s faucets let’s one believe they’re in a modern day palace designed by Shah Jahan himself.  Unfortunately, the cabinets were one place they did not go all out.

Fine cabinetry is hard to spot to those who have never embarked in woodworkery.  I meddle in the art, and pretend to know what I am doing […] more on that in upcoming posts.  But, it does not matter if you’re trained or untrained, all can appreciate the beauty and strength dove tail joints bring to woodworkery.  Such beauty is absent from my 25 year old cabinets.

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Blog Roundup #4

Life [….] it has caught up to me.  Between spending about $25 million at my job this last month, 3 trips up to the “badlands” in prime tourist season [that’s said with sarcasm] and having my parents in & out – I’m still trying to hash out my taxes, let alone this blog.  My wife finds me crashed out at my computer just about every night – with TurboTax still displaying $8000 in red.  And I have over $50k withheld already!

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SE Asia Trip I – Myanmar (Burma)

If you haven’t been following, this is a series on our trip we travel hacked to SE Asia.

SE Asia Trip I – Intro
SE Asia Trip I – Hong Kong
SE Asia Trip I – Cambodia
SE Asia Trip I – Thailand

In 2007 I went to Thailand for work.  And I had planned to visit Myanmar (aka Burma).  Then some stuff went down [….] you know, like shooting people and monks in the street.  I chickened out, probably for false reasons, and have regretted it ever since.  So, this was a little “personal” for me.  My wife is a good sport, and I’m grateful she comes along for these crazy trips with me.

We took Air Asia’s DMK – MDL flight, which was relatively new for the time.  I opted for this flight because it put us upcountry where we wanted to be anyway and saved us the horrible overnight bus ride.

Despite everything I could dig up research wise for traveling in Myanmar, we should have had reservations for hotel rooms.  Problem is the economic sanctions, so no one can take “collateral” for a reservation.  Because of this, the hotels either tell you they are full but they really aren’t or they trust people to show up who end up making a boat load of reservations and then the hotel waits for them and then ends up with an empty room they won’t rent to you.

We just trusted things would work out and had no reservations.  Against many people’s advice.  But the best beta I could dig up was on Thorn Tree (Lonely Planet’s discussion board).  There is a contributor there named Montyman and he has been to the country many times and willingly shares and helps people out.  At the very least, he can fake a good traveler, but I think he’s legit.  He put together some information in Thorn Tree’s SE Asia FAQ, and it is known as Montyman’s FAQ73 (which is really 75 somehow).  Montyman seemed to be telling people just going would work out, and I trusted it would.

I had actually tried to make arrangements through a travel agent and they wanted $3000 or something stupid.  That was the same amount I spent for our entire trip!

Mandalay

We landed in Mandalay which put us upcountry already.  How I was sad to miss out on an overnight bus ride.  We did our song & dance at the airport and as walked out – BOOM!  Taxi drivers up the wazoo.  Prices were being thrown around and we had 2 different guys attached to us.  The further we walked, the cheaper it got.  Then they started bidding against each other.  I just stood there in what I thought was pure negotiating genius.  Eventually, I could tell one was a little bothered by where the price was going and we accepted an offer.  Then we realized we were being thrown in a shared Taxi, but the 2 “chaps” from the UK were nice enough and let my wife sit shotgun.

View of Mandalay from the Airplane

View of Mandalay from the Airplane

We asked to be dropped off at the train station, as we wanted to take the train.  We followed the advice of the Man in Seat 61 which I believe to be generally good advice.  Unfortunately, this is one of those times the advice sucked.

The Scene at the Train Station

The Scene at the Train Station

How the Burmese wait for the train

How the Burmese wait for the train

We purchased our train tickets and then had 10 or so hours to burn.  I had read somewhere that we could leave our bags at the tourism office at the train station, but we couldn’t find it and after asking many people, we gave up.  We walked across the street [which is an adventure in itself] and there was a hotel.  We decided to ask if we could pay a bit of money to have them store our bags until the evening – which they kindly did for free.

With the burden of our luggage literally off our backs, we roamed the town.  My wife was disgusted at all the Betel Nut in the street.  But, we had things to see.  My wife loves antiques, so we went shopping for some.  The first place we looked for was a bust.  We then crossed town [and popped into a Cyber Cafe real quick to let our parents know we made it ok] and landed in heaven for my wife.  We went to the Sunflower Arts & Crafts.  The man had a lot of good stuff, and frankly I wish I would have bought more from him.  My wife ended up getting a good sized laquered horse puppet for $100.

"Restaurant"

“Restaurant”

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Peanuts Roasting

Market in Mandalay

Market in Mandalay

Mandalay night market

Mandalay night market

With our shopping success behind us, we headed out to find some Dinner, check out the night market and then catch our train to Bagan.

We then headed to the train station to await what I thought would be a good night’s sleep on a train.  Turns out, there was good reason we were the only westerners on the train.  I also had to promise my wife I would never put her on a train in Myanmar again [….] done!

1st Class seat on overnight train to Bagan - no recommended

1st Class seat on overnight train to Bagan – not recommended

Bagan – Land of a Million Pagodas

Our overnight train got to the train station at some stupid time.  It was still dark.  As soon as we arrived some man walked on and said he was our taxi.  Unfortunately for him, we hadn’t arranged any transport and I wasn’t ready to just hop in the car with some weird guy [which, btw, differs from a normal taxi somehow?].

My wife had to use the restroom and she asked a guy at the ticket office where one was.  He shook his head like he knew exactly what we needed, grabbed a key and took us to a locked room which said “VIP” above the door.  It probably had the cleanest western toilet in all of Myanmar.  We decided to hang out in the VIP room until the sun came up and we would then walk into the city.

After some time passed and being a “VIP” in Myanmar had run its course, we walked the 2-3 miles into the city.  Bagan has to be the only city on earth with an airport closer to the city than the train station.  We enjoyed the walk and the friendly Burmese people smiling and waving.

Friendly Burmese girls as walked into Bagan

Friendly Burmese girls as we walked into Bagan

Truck of Boys smiling, waving and saying "Hello!"

Truck of Boys smiling, waving and saying “Hello!”

With all the scuttlebutt about not being able to find a hotel room, our number one priority when we got to town was to look for a hotel.  Another reason we didn’t want to catch a Taxi to town at 4 am, there would be no place to go.  We were wondering around town and a man with a horse cart offered to take us around and help us find a hotel room.  By this time, it was about 9 am and people were checking out – so that was good timing.  He wanted a couple bucks for each hotel we stopped at, but I just arranged for him to get us a room and then take us around Bagan for the day.  My book published in 2008 [actually released in 2007] said it should cost about $6-$8.  In all reality, it was $25 4 years later.  Stepping back the 300% increase is a little stunning, but still an excellent deal to have help finding a hotel and someone to take you to all the sights for an entire day.

What's a $25/nt room look like?

What’s a $25/nt room look like?

[....] and the bathroom

[….] and the bathroom

We went to about 6-7 hotels and it was nice to just have the guy yell through a window or door so we didn’t have to go in to all the places.  We found an opening early on, but I didn’t think my wife would be happy with it for $15/night.  So we moved on and found a place at the Eden Motel Bagan (old complex).  The rooms were decent with air con and much better than the first available room we found.  And for $10 more per night, well worth it.

After dropping our bags off, we booked our bus ticket over to Inle Lake for the next day and then set off to see the sights.

 

Bagan is known as the "land of a million pagodas"

Bagan is known as the “land of a million pagodas”

Larger Pagoda Complex

Larger Pagoda Complex

The laquerware we purchased from "The Golden Cuckoo" getting our name engraved in it

The laquerware we purchased from “The Golden Cuckoo” getting our name engraved in it

Inle Lake

Our final stop was at Inle Lake.  It is a beautiful lake surrounded by mountains in the Shan state.  The bus ride, although it took all day, was a beautiful ride.  And when we arrived, we were told there wasn’t a single hotel room available in Nyuangshwe – which is the town on the lake.  Since foreigners can’t technically stay anywhere other than licensed hotels, we were told the loop hole was at the Buddhist Monastery.

We actually got a bit excited about the possibility of staying at the Monastery.  We arrived, excited when a “representative” of the monastery told us they wouldn’t take us in.  The story goes [….] hotels had rooms open and they were pissed at the monastery because foreigners would rather stay with the monks for next to nothing than pay a little more than next to nothing to have their own room.  I asked where these supposed “open and available rooms” were, as I was at this point more interested in sleeping than arguing over where I was going to sleep.  The monastery, of course, had no idea.

We left, feeling rejected that not even Buddhist Monks would have us, on a search for a needle in the haystack – the elusive “available” room.  Some fellow foreigners told us to head to the Remember Inn which was close to where we were anyway.  These people were way helpful and the guy called like 15 hotels for us so we didn’t have to walk all over.  No dice.

We were then told by the guy working the front desk to go back to the Monastery and tell them he had called 15 hotels and none had rooms.  If they still wouldn’t take us, he had a room his nieces lived in and an occasional bus driver would sleep in there when the rest of the rooms were full – that would be our room.

We headed back the monastery where the “representative” went back to the grand master or whatever he is and pleaded our case.  While he was gone, we got the low down about the monastery from a guy who was stranded in town for the last 3 days.  All you really need to know is this – 1 toilet, 60 people.

The grand master rejected us a second time, but we at least had an ace up our sleeve.  We headed back to Remember Inn and the guy had the room ready for us.

The next step was finding our ride out of Inle Lake – in which my hope was an overnight bus to Yangon, tour the city for the morning and then catch our flight back to the states.  Buses were booked for a week out, flights were booked for a week out and trains were booked for a week out.  We worked with a “travel agent” who said she would call in the morning and try to get us a flight as that was our best bet.  We also booked our boat tour with her the next day.

Exhausted and hungry, we ate at a little food stand across the street and I went to bed.  My wife wanted to see a puppet show so I sent her out alone.

My Favorite Place to eat in Nyuangshwe - a Shan noodle "cart"

My Favorite Place to eat in Nyuangshwe – a Shan noodle “cart”

Shan noodle soup

Shan noodle soup

Puppet Show

Puppet Show

The next morning we got up to take our boat tour.  You may have noticed the fisherman on the featured image.  That’s show with the traditional dress and old style fish net, but they really do fish that way.  They stand on the end of the boat on one leg, wrap their other leg around the paddle to maneuver around and then they have both hands free to deal with their nets.

We then headed to Indein which one must fight all the touristy kitch to see the amazing pagoda ruins.  We also dodged the “camera fee” by walking around back.

Inle Lake is shallow and large.  So you can go to the middle of the lake and many people live there.  We visited a weaving shop where they notably took lotus stems and turned it into thread, which they then wove into certain textile products.  We bought a small scarf about 5″ wide and it ran about $60.

The last notable site to see while on Inle Lake are the floating gardens.  The people “harvest” the plants growing in the lake and then pack around the roots of what they want to grow as the dirt.  They then grow vegetables to trade at the market.  Pretty cool stuff!

Our Longboat for the day

Our Longboat for the day

Indein

Indein

"Floating Village" home

“Floating Village” home

Floating Gardens being tended to

Floating Gardens being tended to

Rainbow on the lake

Rainbow on the lake

We then arrived back to town and got the good news from our travel agent.  She had booked us two tickets to Yangon for the morning we were suppose to depart back home.  It worked out perfectly, but I’m a nervous nelly and I didn’t like there was no contingency plan [….] it was the only option I had.  We got issued our “tickets” which we carbon copy books that the travel agent filled out.  That didn’t help my nerves.

Homeward

We caught our plane early in the morning and landed in Yangon right on time.  The original plan was to ditch our bags and then head out to see Yangon.  But we landed in hot & humid Yangon from the nice cool mountains.  And we were at the end of an intense trip which left us exhausted.

We walked from the domestic terminal to the much more chaotic international terminal and found a seat to park our cabooses.  It’s kind of a shame when the Shwedagon pagoda is so close to not go see it, but we were beat.  We actually ended up switching flights to catch an earlier plane to Bangkok.

Myanmar has to be my favorite country I ever visited and I hope to return some day.

What is your favorite place you’ve ever been?  Where is the one place you want to visit? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Federal Income Taxes – All the options to file

If you’re like me, you’re dreading 4/15.  Dreading it.  Not because I hate paying taxes [well, maybe I do], but because I hate gathering all the information.  Let’s face it, putting numbers into a computer program and watching something poop out the other end isn’t that bad.  Gathering all the documentation is a PITA.

But, if you’re cheap frugal like me, you’re looking for options to file as easily and cheaply as possible.

Fill out the paper forms

Yes, you heard me right.  You download the forms from the internet [….] you no longer have to go to your library to pick them up [….] and then you fill them out long hand.  The IRS also has forms where you enter numbers using a computer and they do all the calculations.

Pro: Cheap.  Con: Time consuming, especially if you make a mistake. 

Free IRS e-file

If your income is less than $58k you can do a free online e-file through the IRS website.  The $58k is regardless of your tax filing status, so it isn’t $116k/yr if you are married filing jointly.

If you’re income is $52,000 or less, you can take advantage of VITA, which are volunteers “trained” by the IRS which offer free clinics and tax preparation help.

Pros: Free and Fast.  Cons: Not available to everyone.

Go to a Tax Preparer

You know the guy in the Statue of Liberty outfit standing on the corner holding a sign all day?  Ever wonder how often and where he goes to the bathroom?

These people offer you to bring in all your crap and then they’ll save you all this money.  If you think the frumpy woman in her mid 40’s reading 50 Shades of Gray while she waits for a customer to stroll in is the best place to get tax advice [….] this is your place.  As you can tell, I’m not a big fan of these operations.

They’re also expensive, plan to pay $190+.  They also have an online option.  One company’s fees range from $0 – I assume that is only if you file a 1040EZ and no other schedules – to $50 if you need to file a schedule C when using their online option.  It’s another $28 to $37 if you need to file a state tax return.

If this is the route you want to go, you can look up a local provider through the IRS webpage.  Common providers are H&R Block, Liberty and Jackson-Hewitt.

Pro: A “professional” can help you navigate the daunting tax forms.  Con: Pricey, dicey “professionals” doing your taxes

Purchased Software

These are very common, and a useful tool for modeling taxes throughout the year.  The most popular of these is TurboTax.  There are many editions and you can select the one for you based on which schedules you need to file.

As always, you’ll need to either pay or find another method to file your state income taxes [….] assuming you have them.  Some editions allow for multiple filings of federal taxes, so if you split up the small $20-$80 cost 5 ways, it becomes more economical.

The software you purchase is a great tool.  And once you start using it, it will pull your previous year’s information in – which is way handy.  We use TurboTax and find it to be worth the cost.

Pro: Automated & easy.  Con: Costs money.

TaxAct.com

This is very similar to TurboTax, but it gets its own category.  If you love TurboTax, but hate spilling the money each year – TaxAct.com is your solution.  It is accurate and easy to use – just like TurboTax.  The only way it differs is it is free for federal returns.  We would use TaxAct but we split TurboTax with my in-laws [….] actually my in-laws supply it to us.

Pro: Automated & easy, free.  Con: ???

Use a Professional Tax Preparer

You can hire someone, like a CPA to do your taxes.  These people tend to be more knowledgeable about more complex situations than the franchised “pros.”  You usually get a human to answer the phone and excellent customer service.  Especially since a lot of these people have gone out on their own, you seem to get the attention you need.

We used to have a CPA we hired to do our taxes.  She ran about $500.  Some people love the personalized service, but I found it to be just as much of a PITA than doing it myself [which costs $500 less].  We still had to gather all the forms and answer a bunch of questions – which I figure to be about 90% of the work.  These companies just have a software equivalent of Turbotax.  We also had a blatant error by our then CPA and when I pointed it out to her, she had no interest in helping with our audit for the state.  It goes without saying [….] the relationship fell apart after that.

Pro: knowledgeable, excellent service. Con: Way spendy.

How will you file your federal income taxes? 

 

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Guest Bathroom Remodel

I have a beautiful office in the new house.  Beautiful.  It has raised panel walls with stain grade wood, built in cabinets and bookshelves, and my favorite – coffered wood ceilings.  So, you can understand my frustration when I was unpacking boxes in my beautiful new office and water was pouring down on my head.  My mother was showering in our guest bath right above the office.

Some background [….] we shopped for a home in Denver for a while.  The house we got is a nice house, has a nice layout, but isn’t anything we would build ourselves.  It did come with over an acre, and that is a big deal in Denver.  It was a screwed up deal to begin with, but a long story short, the seller’s WAY underlisted it.  Our appraisal came in almost $90k higher than our purchase price, which is almost unheard of.  In turn, the sellers quickly realized this and we didn’t get a home warranty.  And I probably wouldn’t have wanted the home warranty to fix the bathroom above our office, as I wanted to remodel it.

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SE Asia Trip I – Thailand

If you haven’t been following, this is a series on our trip we travel hacked to SE Asia.

SE Asia Trip I – Intro
SE Asia Trip I – Hong Kong
SE Asia Trip I – Cambodia

After our horribly long wait to cross the border, we found a Tuk-Tuk (150 Baht that we shared with another gal we met in Banteay Chhmar) to take us to the train station.  We opted for the train because it was cheap (~50 baht or just under $2) and I think there is some value in riding by train than a “van.”  It took slightly longer especially since the kid trying to fill the van could have hopped us to the front of the immigration line.

Thai Border Nonsense

Thai Border Nonsense

Nonetheless, we made the train with a few minutes to spare and I grabbed some snacks for the road.  Here is where I think I made my mistake [….] I was hungry and a man walked by with some snacks.  I bought a “Thai Hot Dog” which my wife claimed tasted like fish.  More on that later.

This was my second time to Siam and it was to be a short one.  We enjoyed our ride through the Thai country side, enjoying the breeze on our face.

Thai Countryside as seen from the train

Thai Countryside as seen from the train

We arrived in Bangkok’s Hualamphong Train station after dark.  We then caught the subway to the skytrain to our hotel in Sukhumvit.  If you’ve never been to Bangkok, Sukhumvit is a more modern area of the city which has a Sky Train.  Sukhumvit is also known for its ex-pat community.  If you’re worried about navigating Thailand, Sukhumvit is a good place to get your feet on the ground.

We checked into our windowless room on Soi 8 and then went out for a quick bite followed by a massage.  It was a long day of traveling and we hit the sack.  My wife was excited to go to the Chatuchak Market the next day.

Thai Leg Massage - about $10 for 1 hr

Thai Leg Massage – about $10 for 1 hr

We awoke and I felt like I had talked down to the King.  My stomach hurt and well, I spent the next day in the hotel room.  I’ll let you all read between the lines there.  Not wanting to ruin my wife’s trip to the market, I sent her on her way as you can simply take the Sky Train.  She loves shopping for “deals” and I would have hated to deprive her of that. Besides, hanging out with me in a windowless hotel room in the condition I was in would be like getting beat with a sack of potatoes.

Chatuchak is a great market, and you can literally buy anything there.  My wife was after baby girl clothes, and that is what she mainly came back with.  Here are some of her pictures.

Chatuchak

Chatuchak

Inside of Chatuchak store

Inside of Chatuchak store

For our second full day, we had booked a cooking class.  We booked through Blue Elephant.  It was a good class, but rather pricey.  It was no better than the Chiang Mai Cooking School I had been to a few years prior.  All cooking classes in Thailand are probably pretty similar [….] you’ll learn a fair amount, but you’ll always feel like cattle being pushed through the program.  Because they are all so similar, I wouldn’t pay a premium for any.  The one advantage of the Blue Elephant morning class was we got to go to a market and see how to select various ingredients, sort of worth the cost of the Blue Elephant school.  Sort of.

Blue Elephant Building

Blue Elephant Building

Blue Elephant Classroom

Blue Elephant Classroom

Market Tour with Blue Elephant

Market Tour with Blue Elephant

Produce from Blue Elephant market tour

Produce from Blue Elephant market tour

Blue Elephant Setting - the food we actually cooked!

Blue Elephant Setting – the food we actually cooked!

The next morning we awoke early to catch our flight to Myanmar.  Air Asia is a great airline [….] translation: cheap.  They had recently just moved their operations from Survarnabhumi aka BKK [the “main” airport] to Don Muang aka DMK.

We hopped a cab which was about 300 Baht or $10.  The flight to Mandalay aka MDL [….] which was a new thing [….] was smooth and on time.  It was interesting, as it was loaded with westerners and I’ve never felt the excitement and anxiety that everyone had.  We were all excited to go to Myanmar, and it showed.