Our Yoga Trek to Annapurna

After the chaos and hyper-stimulation of India, we needed some peace.  Our bodies were dusty and exhausted, our minds were overworked and muddled, so we pursued a refuge that pilgrims of our same state have retreated to for thousands of years: the Himalayan Mountains.

Across all different religions, nationalities, ages and interests, the Himalayas are holy.  To locals, the mountains are sacred and worshiped as gods on Earth.  To others, the mountains are a different sort of god, and climbers travel from all corners to try their skill at earth’s highest peaks.  Despite our differences, these mountains somehow connect with the core of our humanity and command our reverence.  And when gazing up, even the secular stand in awe and the cynical mind is silenced.  We’re stirred to reach higher, to be better.

Though peaceful, these mountains are anything but tame.  The range holds the highest peaks in the world, and the vast altitudes create terrain and climate from humid subtropics to dry and freezing desert.  Like all plans involving nature, your hiking trail fluctuates based on the time of year.  This meant we were headed to one of the best base camp trails available: Annapurna.

Annapurna has over thirteen peaks that tower 23,000 feet or above.  The peaks encircle a basin called Annapurna Sanctuary, which is where the base camp is located.  That unique position, along with the beauty of the hike itself, makes this trek our ideal choice for a Himalayan experience.  

This is Machhapuchre (meaning Fish Tail), which is a gorgeous view on the trail.

In a place so drenched in spirituality, hiking without appreciating that would be akin to walking the whole way with your eyes on your feet.  If meditation has a Mecca, this is it.  Ryan found Purna Yoga that fully appreciates exercising your mind as well as your body.  We figured, “If this whole meditation thing ends up being a sham, at least our bodies will get in shape.”  So we signed up for an 11-day yoga and meditation trek up to Annapurna Base Camp.  

Regardless of your trek choice, all roads begin at Katmandu, the capital and hub of Nepal.  Katmandu is still in recovery from the massive earthquake in 2015.  Unfortunately, it is still a bit of a mess, with pollution and lack of infrastructure dampening an otherwise amazing place.  That said, Kathmandu is no doubt a international city and as close to civilization as you’ll get in Nepal.  We recommend getting a red meat meal at Ktoo Steakhouse before your trek.  We stayed at Hotel Ganesh Himal, which we highly recommend.  Katmandu is also a great place to buy any forgotten gear for your trek, but be aware that most stalls sell knock-off name brand items (maybe not best for your down jacket purchase).  We visited the famous and chaotic Monkey Temple, and had lunch at Garden of Dreams for our dose of civilized eating before we headed off.

 Wooden supports hold up many of the beautiful temples around Katmandu.

Wooden supports hold up many of the beautiful temples around Katmandu.

Katmandu Monkey Temple

The Purna Yoga treks start off at the gorgeous Purna Yoga retreat that sits on the hill overlooking the lake. The rooms are cozy and simple, and mimic the teahouses you’ll stay in throughout your trek.  But the gorgeous yoga room is the star with its floor to ceiling windows.  The Purna team was essential in making sure we had all the proper equipment before hitting the trail.

Purna Yoga Nepal Annapurna Base Camp
Annapurna Purna Yoga

This was our trek group-- Chandra in the middle, Anka (another trekker) on the far right, and our two porters (who worked harder than anyone we've ever seen!).  This was taken at the end of the trek, which explains how we're best friends.

Then, we set off.  Our fearless leader Chandra was the perfect person to guide our bodies through the trail and our minds through meditation. Every morning started with a different type of meditation and breathing exercise, then yoga.  We would stop to meditate and stretch at least twice on the trail and then again after lunch.  Then after dinner, we’d have a lesson in meditation theory and a breathing exercise to relax our minds and bodies.  It was a lot, but over the course of the twelve days we became full converts in the necessity of cleaning out our minds to be more productive and effective.  To help our skeptical Western minds, we listened to “10% Happier” by Dan Harris, which is written by a fellow New Yorker and an awesome case for meditation in daily life.  

Yoga Nepal Annapurna Base Camp
Yoga Nepal Annapurna
Yoga Nepal Annapurna Base Camp

A bit about the trek itself: “Teahouses” are the small hotels scattered throughout the trail where trekkers eat and stay each night.  Some teahouses are better than others, and as your get closer to the camp (but farther from civilization) they get more rustic. Firstly, while teahouses offer a very wide range of food, we recommend to go as local as possible—it’s what they cook best!  Enjoy the dhal bat, which is the Nepali meal of rice and lentils.  It’s very filling and comes in different tastes and accompaniments.  We also love a tea made of ginger, lemon, mint and honey to start your day or warm you. 

Yoga Nepal Annapurna food

Secondly, be sure to inquire about hot water, and decide for yourself if a cold shower is better than none (we have differing opinions). Also, bring a very warm sleeping bag as rooms likely don’t have heat, and the heaters you can rent can make the room smell like gasoline.  The walls between the rooms are very thin, so bring earplugs if you’re a light sleeper. Lastly, the rooms have two or three beds in each, so if you’re traveling solo you may have to share a room (this is more than likely the case as you get closer to base camp).  The altitude is also a point of contention, and we recommend giving yourself an extra day of travel so you can adjust (seriously—this is the number one reason people don’t make it to the top).  

Yoga Nepal Annapurna Base Camp

On our last day trekking towards base camp, a snow storm rolled in as we ascended and visibility was nonexistent.  It was a VERY cold situation, and we couldn’t see more than 7 feet in front of us.  We made it to base camp, and hunkered down to stay warm and wait for morning.  That next morning, we woke up before the sunrise and hoped to see the peaks before we headed back down the mountain.    

Storm is rolling in!

This was the view when we got there-- the storm covered the peaks and made seeing them impossible.  It only got worse from here!

It was dark, so we had to wait and hope that visibility was better.  Then suddenly, WOW.  Daybreak hit the highest peak in an orange blaze.  It spread towards the other peaks, not unlike a real fire, and we witnessed the basin come alive.  The air was as clear and crisp, and we had optimal visibility to witness the sunrise. Spectacular.

Before leaving, Blakely tied up prayer flags, which are a traditional way of blessing the countryside. We took a picture by the Annapurna sign, and headed back down.  Blakely of course sprained her ankle on the way down, which is why we do not recommend making this trek without a guide and porter.  She still made it, but having a professional was invaluable.

Nepal is seeped in spirituality and we tried to soak up every morsel.  We will never be the same, and will forever feel grateful that it shared some of its spirit with us.  It was good that we had such a peaceful time, because next we headed to one of the most chaotic bends of our trip:  A Family trip through China!

Trust us, we deserved this!

India Travels Continued...

The Taj Mahal is a tourist attraction that is 100% worth the hype, crowd, and line.  It is an architectural masterpiece, and all eyes travel over the pools and up to the domes exactly how the genius creators intended. It is made of an ivory-white marble, and took about 20 years to build .  Commissioned by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to house the tomb of his favorite wife, the Taj today acts as a mausoleum for both of their remains.

The structure is a testament to symmetry and grace, with the monstrous dome towering 115 feet above the base and surrounding lakes.  The reflective pools and sunken gardens change as they slope away from the dome to keep everything proportional, and then the inlay of precious and semi-precious stones make staring at the Taj a pleasure, whether from near or far.  It is spectacular.

It was a full moon, so we also signed up to visit the Taj by moonlight.  It was much quieter and even peaceful (hard to get at tourist sites in India!), and we highly recommend it if the timing is possible.

Next, we hopped a train to India’s capital Delhi.  The Holi Festival is the Hindu festival known as the “festival of color,” and it signifies the arrival of spring and the victory of good over evil.  This was actually an anchor date for us, as spring and conquering evil are two of Blakely’s favorite things to celebrate!  We found a fun place to go, put on some clothes we didn’t mind ruining, and prepared for fun.  Blakely’s hair was pink for literally over 2 months!

We stayed at a charming B&B called B Nineteen Hotel—it was the perfect tranquil base in an otherwise hectic place.  And then of course, we had to get our tourist on.

Our first stop was to the Qutab complex, a gathering of 27 Hindu and Jain temples and one of the oldest ruins surviving in India.  The main attraction is the Qutub Minar, which is a giant minaret built by the first Sultan of Delhi in the 1300s.  It was fascinating to wander and explore all of the temples, monuments, and tombs.

One of the major attractions in Delhi is the impressive Red Fort, which was the residence and political center for the Moghul dynasty in the 17 and 1800s.   Though most of the valuable artwork and jewels were plundered, the defensive walls were left intact to be admired.

Nerd alert!

After all of that dust, it was time for some luxury in one of our favorite ways:  Tea Time.  Tea Time is the best because of the gorgeous setting, peaceful atmosphere and relatively reasonable price tag if you make it a meal.  Whether in India at the Imperial Hotel or at the Livingston Hotel in Victoria Falls, we very much enjoy acting civilized for an hour or so.  

Our last stop in India was a BIG one, and a place that shouldn’t be taken on lightly.  It is a city shrouded in traditions that travelers can find unsettling.  It is the pinnacle of Indian culture that, while magnificent, is the epitome of culture shock.  We’re talking about the holy city of Varanasi.

Varanasi is the holiest city in the Hindu religion, and is also where Buddha gave his fist sermon which started Buddhism.  Those being the two biggest religions in India make Varanasi pretty significant to its people.  Mark Twain summarized Varanasi as only he can: “Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”  

The city is located on the Ganges River, and the river is considered holy and the base of many rituals. In a country of intense overpopulation and the accompanying sanitation issues, we didn’t wonder why.  Hindus believe that bathing in the Ganges brings absolution of sins, and all Hindus try to make the pilgrimage once in their life. But even more unique, Hindus believe that death in Varanasi will bring salvation and break the cycle of rebirth. This belief makes Varanasi a major center for pilgrimage at the end of life and for families bringing loved ones who have died.  There are countless funeral pyres all along the banks, but these are mixed in with children swimming and locals doing laundry in a combination that you’d only find in India. 

We stayed at one of our favorite hotels, Hotel Ganges View, which is a refurbished mansion located on the river.  The gorgeous terraces and home cooked meals were the perfect comfort and base to explore the rather uncomfortable city.  

We chose Varanasi Walking Tours as our hosts, and did the overview tour as well as the Sunrise Yoga Tour.  Both were exceptional ways to see the city and experience the atmosphere that makes Varanasi so special.  

A must in Varanasi is a boat tour at night and experience the ceremonies on the bank.  The main ritual is Aarti, which is performed by Brahmin disciples and honors the river and deities.  It takes place every night at 7pm no matter the weather, and is full of chanting, incense, and fire dancing.  

Of course, the most frequent ritual is burning the bodies of loved ones in the many funeral pyres.  They request no photos to maintain the holiness and sacredness of the experience, which we respected.

Lastly we participated in a beautiful ritual:  Releasing a candle out on to the river as we made a wish!  Pilgrims all over the world come to Varanasi to release a wish, and the river is full of the votive candles floating into the distance.  We couldn’t wish for a cooler experience in India. It is truly a spectacular place that can’t be explored enough.  If you ever have the chance, please visit.  Bring a sense of humor and adventure, and let India sweep you away.

After the chaos, heat and dust of India, we retreated to a refuge chosen by countless pilgrims before us: the sacred Himilayan mountains.

A Honeymoon in India

India is an all-encompassing experience and a world unto itself.  As we made our way through the country, we read as much as we could, both fact and fiction, to try and soak up this spectacular culture.  We didn’t get enough.

For those lucky enough to have gone to India, there are no neutral feelings about it.  You either are utterly and incandescently in love with India and glow when recounting tales, or you hold a passionate abhorrence and shudder at the thought of it.  We unequivocally fall into the first category.

That doesn’t mean we don’t understand the haters.  India is a LOT to take, and the sensory overload isn’t always pleasant. But it is a spectacular culture, and with 17% of the world’s population, it is a place you have to see.

We started at one of the coolest places: Mumbai (aka Bombay).  We were lucky enough through Honeymoons.com to stay at one of the best hotels in the world:  The Taj Palace Hotel.  Not only is this hotel luxurious and beautiful, it is full of history that runs parallel to that of Mumbai itself.  Read Blakely’s article to learn more, but this hotel is worth a trip to Mumbai.  And of course, we had to take advantage of the amenities.

After exploring the hotel, we wanted to explore our neighborhood.  Until fairly recently (1947) India was a British colony, and Mumbai holds gorgeous architecture that beautifully blends the two very different cultures.  

Mumba is indicative of one of the hardest things for foreigners to take in about India—the sheer number of people.  In India, there is an estimated population of 1.3 billion people, which equates a living space of only 4 square meters per person.  The Mumbai train system transports 7.5 million commuters daily (that's larger than the entire population of Denmark).  But the energy level of the city is unlike any other (this is coming from New Yorkers) and it will remain one of our favorite cities from the trip.  A visit is best paired with reading Shantaram, a spectacular book that offers a visceral glimpse into India in all of its overwhelming magnificence.

Our number 1 recommendation in Mumbai is a Slum Tour.  This sounds bizarre, we know, and photos aren’t allowed so we have very little evidence to show for how extraordinary this tour was (though, the fact they don’t allow photos speaks to the integrity of the company and their protection of the dignity of the people in the slums).  

So first, erase anything you associate with the word slum, ghetto, or similar because Mumbai slums are not that.  62% of the Mumbai population live in a slum, including both our tour guide and our driver.  Many of the slum inhabitants work towards the economy that their slum has adopted (more on that later), and others work very hard elsewhere in the city.  These slum dwellers travel from impoverished villages for the opportunity of the big city, and they’re grateful to be able to live and work in Mumbai.  

We went to three different types of slum. First to Dharavi, the second largest slum in India.  We visited the portion where their industry is recycling, which makes it less fortunate because of the fumes.  However, the industry employs approximately 250,000 people, exports goods all over the world, and is estimated to turnover between $650 million to $1 billion dollars per year.  This was far from a utopia—the fumes were thick, the homes congested, and filth over every surface.  But every single person was busy working.

Next, we went to Dhobi Ghat where most of the city (including luxury hotels) send their laundry.  Through a complex labeling system, these workers collect the laundry, sort by color, handwash, dry and return TONS of laundry efficiently and correctly. Pictures were allowed here, but ours don't convey the immense operation this slum operates.  

Lastly, we went to the portion of Dharavi that house many of the city's hotel and tourism workers.  The bustle of the people in their crisp attire and focused walk dispelled any remaining prejudice we had against the slum.

The second thing we'd recommend is the Prince of Wales Museum, now called the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (with India's independence, they renamed everything to honor native history.  Real confusing for the tourists, but fair!).  It is located in a beautiful building in the Victoria Garden, and our favorite was the gorgeous ivory and saris.

We couldn’t stay in Mumbai forever, so next we flew to the north-western region of India called Rajasthan where we would stay for a couple weeks.  Our first stop was a city called Udaipur, which is also known as the City of Lakes.   Incredibly beautiful and romantic, the city’s main attraction is its palace and that’s where we headed first!

Ornate and immense, the palace took over 400 years to construct and is the largest palace in Rajasthan.  It provides breathtaking panoramic views of the surrounding lakes and city, and listening to its story was a great snapshot into India’s history of Maharajas. Coupled with a lunch at the Palace View restaurant, and even a couple dusty travelers like us felt glamorous!

Blakely next stopped by an art school to learn about the traditional form on miniature art.  This technique is practiced all over India, and uses tools like brushes made of camel eyelashes to make miniscule brushstrokes with natural dyes.  The bottom picture is one that is now hanging in our home!

Next, we took a road trip through Rajasthan.  Budget friendly India allowed us to have a driver to escort us, which enabled pit stops and roadside views that made the journey even better than the destinations.  Among other sights, we stumbled upon a colorful road crew and Blakely couldn’t resist stopping.  Most road crews we saw in India were women, which is extraordinary enough.  What makes it even more remarkable is that the women wear the most gorgeous saris while performing their work.  This group of women was full of laughs and energy, and taking pictures with them was a true highlight.

Isn't the fabric gorgeous?

Midway between Udaipur and our next destination was one of the stops we could NOT miss—the Ranakpour Temple.  The temple is carved out of white marble, and the extravagantly intricate pillars, arches, and porticoes epitomize Indian architecture.  There are 1444 marble pillars, and no two are the same.  The marble creates a calm and coolness even in this chaotic sun-torched area.  Absolutely stunning.

Our next destination was Jodhpur, which is known as the Blue City because most of the dwellings surrounding the city’s fort are painted a gorgeous bright blue.  We stayed at a charming house that was converted into Hotel Singhvi. The Mehrangarh Fort rises out of the desert and, if I was a desert trader under constant threat of being robbed, it is exactly where I would go.  It holds several palaces, which in true Indian fashion are full of gorgeous carvings and refreshingly cool courtyards.  The museum is one of the best in Rajasthan, and holds costumes, paintings, and arms used by the Majarajas in the 1400s.

Next up:  Glamping in the Indian desert of course.  You can read about our adventure at Damodra Camp here.  We met some of our favorite people and had adventures that could only be had in the desert of India.

Next we made a quick stop in Jaisalmer, called the Golden City, to tour its magnificent fort. Again, the vast size coupled with the intricate detail makes walking through these fort/palaces a delight.  

We next hopped on a train to Jaipur, where we stayed at the gorgeous palace/hotel Alsisar Haveli, which you can read about on Blakely’s Honeymoons.com article here.    Jaipur is the capital and largest city in Rajasthan, and it is known as “The Pink City” due to the gorgeous coral color of the palace and surrounding city.  

Just outside of town is the magnificent Amer Fort. Constructed of red sandstone and marble, this fort and palace holds four levels for different purposes, and massive facilities to house the royal family.  Our favorite was the huge courtyards, where water fixtures run through the walls and ground to keep the air cool.

On the way home, we stopped by our last tourist attraction of Rajasthan: the Jal Mahal, which is a palace in the middle of the lake and appears to be floating over the water. We weren’t finished though!  We visited one of the local textile factories to spur the local economies.  Absolutely gorgeous hand printed and embroidered fabric, but be prepared to negotiate!

Our time in India was so full, we divided it into two posts.  Next, read about our time at the Taj Mahal, the Holi Festival in New Delhi, and the spiritual capital of the Hindu world Varanasi!

Singapore - Welcome to the Future

Singapore is like stepping into the an episode of the Jetsons.  It's unlike any other place we’ve ever been, and it stands in juxtaposition to all other countries in SE Asia with its cleanliness, efficiency, and economy.  Needless to say, the nerds in us loved this place.

A quick back-story—Singapore was a British colony until granted independence shortly after World War II.  Unfortunately, the war had destroyed its infrastructure and the country was a mess.  The government merged with Malaysia in an attempt to get balance and upswing, but the two governments disagreed on huge amounts of policy.  The result was a vote in 1965 by the Malaysian Parliament to kick Singapore out of the club .  What happened next defies all normal standards.

Singapore was left with no economy, infrastructure, or organization of any kind.  A family friend, who has lived through Singapore’s tumultuous 50 years, describes the Prime Minister’s speech as saying “We are on our own.”  The government’s first stroke of brilliance was allowing the British forces to stay on the island at their base, therefore protecting the island from invasion.  With safety guaranteed, they fixated on economy.  To oversimplify, the government focused on making Singapore the ideal place to invest.  In the span of a single generation, Singapore moved from a third-world economy to first-world affluence.  Today, it is an international hub of commerce, finance, and transportation with the 3rd highest GDP per capita in the world. 

There is nowhere else like it.  The taxi drivers beam with pride when speaking of Singapore’s technology sector.  It’s illegal to chew gum or spit in the street (after going to the rest of SE Asia, we understand why…).  The Botanical Gardens alone are a testament to scientific achievement and advancement. 

Unfortunately it’s also expensive, so we were back on the hostel route so we could focus on activities.  First up was a walk around to get our bearings and admire the gorgeous architecture.  WOW.  Next we hit up a Blakely delight—the Gardens by the Bay.  Gardens by the Bay is a national park spanning 350 acres and is part of the strategy to transform Singapore into a “Garden City.”  The Gardens consist of three waterfront gardens that each showcase different flora and fauna.  They hold conservatories, themed gardens, a flower dome, children’s garden, and on and on. 

Singapore Skyline
Singapore skyline
Gardens by the bay
Gardens by the Bay
Gardens by the bay
Gardens by the bay
Gardens by the bay
Garden by the Bay
IMG_8927.JPG

The Supertrees deserve their own entry—they are vertical gardens for unique and exotic ferns, vines, and orchids.  They are outfitted with technology that mimics the function of trees—harnessing solar energy, rainwater, and even serving as part of the conservatories’ cooling system through intake and exhaust functions.  So.  Cool.  As if that isn’t enough, at night there is a music show called the OCBC Garden Rhapsody, and when we went it was Broadway themed.  Blakely’s heaven realized.

Supertrees
Supertrees
02-IMG_9325.JPG
Supertree Night Performance

In a world of juxtaposition, it somehow fits that besides efficiency, cleanliness, and economy, Singapore is known for its street food.  Our two favorite places were the Singapore Food Trail and the Maxwell Food Hawkers.  Absolutely delicious.

Maxwell Food Hawkers
Hawkers Food

To complete our garden tour, we headed to the famed Botanical Gardens, which holds the world-renowned Orchid Garden.  Of course, being Singapore, this isn’t merely a garden, but an opportunity for botanists and scientists to mix super-orchids.  Then, the PR team comes in to dedicate each unique orchid to a world celebrity.  Brilliant.  We even went back later for a picnic and performance by the orchestra!

Singapore Botanical Garden
Singapore Garden
Singapore Orchid Garden
VIP orchid garden
Singapore Orchid Garden
Singapore Orchid
Singapore Orchid Garden
Singapore Orchid Garden
Singapore botanical gardens

The last nature activity we recommend is a MUST: The Singapore Zoo.  You’ve likely been to zoos before, but none like this.  The cleanliness, organization, and range of animals are of course incredible.  But feeding the giraffes stands as a highlight of our entire trip.  Their purple tongues are huge and it was such a surreal experience (in a trip of many surreal experiences).

Feed Giraffe
Giraffe tongue
Feed Giraffe Singapore Zoo
Giraffe Tongue

When this next museum was recommended to us, we were a little skeptical.  However, it’s no exaggeration to say it was one of the most fascinating we’ve ever been to.  The Singapore City Gallery is a museum dedicated to Singapore’s development over the past 50 years (sounds like a snooze fest, but trust us).  Full of interactive exhibits and even an enormous model replica of the country, we never expected a development museum to be so cool.  Living in New York has given us a huge respect for city planning and efficiencies, and learning more about Singapore was invaluable in understanding its uniqueness.  The museum is an absolute must.

Singapore City Museum
Singapore skyline
Singapore Skyline

We didn’t only tour and nerd out—one night we dressed up and headed to swanky cocktails at Mischief and the fabulous Marina Bay Sands casino for a taste of how Asians gamble.  VERY bizarre experience.

Marina Bay Sands Casino

Gambling is HUGE in Asia, where luck and superstitions are constantly considered when making everyday choices.   Even casinos in the U.S. have caught on and market heavily to Asian tourists as well as provide food and entertainment to interest them.  But this Singapore casino was far from the Vegas experience—no smiles, no loud voices, and we were the only ones we could see drinking.  The blackjack dealers don’t give advice based how close you are to 21, but how lucky the numbers are that you’ve been dealt.  The patrons took their gambling seriously, and it was clear that this was not a game to them.

Our last favorite was one of luxury, and cheating on the roughing it theme of our adventure.  But when spending 12 months in transit through foreign lands, these breaks become necessary.  We treated ourselves to a full American diner dinner, a walk around one of the gorgeous luxury malls, and a full movie in blissful air condition.  Worth the cheat night.

Singapore Luxury Mall
Singapore American Dinner
Singapore American Dinner

This break was especially necessary because of where we headed next.  Continuing our current theme of contrasts, we headed to a country that is possibly Singapore’s opposite:  India. 

Thailand = Thigh Land

Thailand was one of our favorite places on our trip.  This wasn’t only because of the spectacular country, but because of the spectacular company-- we were lucky enough that a group of our best friends came to meet us there!  They said it was to spend time with us, but we know it was to check that we were still speaking to each other and hadn’t succumbed to too many travel bracelets.  Whatever the reason, it was a blast.

Everyone flew into Bangkok, but we didn’t even pause before jetting off to Chang Mai.  Ok, we paused for a second so that some of us could get a fish pedicure, but that was it.

Thailand Fish Pedicure

Chang Mai is in Northern Thailand, and it holds many of the cultural treasures of the country.  It is situated at the foot of gorgeous mountains, and it offers enough activities for two weeks.  We had three days.

We started with animal life.  The opportunities to fawn over nature in Thailand aren’t limited to watching from a distance.  This crazy place let’s you get REALLY close and personal with animals, even scary ones.  We headed to Tiger Kingdom and were able to pet (yes PET) the tigers.  We tried to pose for photos, but the fear in our eyes says it all.

Elephant Park Chang Mai Thailand
42-IMG_8435.JPG

We next headed to Baan Chang Elephant Park.  This park rescues elephants from the horrific conditions, and then lets crazy tourists like us come to take care of them for a day.  We got to feed, pet, bathe and ride these magnificent creatures.  They are huge, but amazingly gentle and playful.  It was an awesome experience.

Elephant Park Kisses
elephant park chang mai
Elephant kisses
54-IMG_8503.JPG
65-IMG_8611.JPG
Thailand Elephant Park
IMG_0813.JPG

In Chang Mai we stayed at a beautiful boutique hotel called Duang Champa, a renovated villa that was right in the middle of town.  The beautiful white wash walls and colorful decorations were the perfect retreat to the outside chaos. 

Speaking of chaos, the Sunday Market was directly outside our door and it was people watching heaven.  We were able to pick up gifts for friends back home (and ourselves of course).

No question, one of our favorite activities from Thailand was a fantastic day spent at  Benny's Home Cooking School.  Benny is an absolute character, and the ideal match for some of the kookier members of our crew.  She’s charming, hilarious, and the perfect host to teach us about Thai cooking.  We started at the local market, and she steered us through buying tips of the trade.  After purchasing our goods (and avoiding the more questionable sections of the market), we headed to her house to pick herbs from her garden and to cook.  Our cooking stations were set in the shade beside a beautiful rice field, and if the company and view wasn’t enough, the food we created under her guidance was divine. 

Benny Cooking School
Thailand Benny Cooking Class
Benny Cooking School Thailand
Benny's Cooking School

Unfortunately we had to leave Chang Mai, but our next destination made the parting worth it.  We hopped on a plane and headed south to one of the gorgeous beach destinations Thailand has to offer, Railay Beach.  We stayed at one of our favorite places from the trip—Railay Beach Club, where we rented a house that was the perfect cross between the Swiss Family Robinson and Bachelor in Paradise.  Our beach house gave us plenty of privacy, while also keeping us close to the action.  Also, the island is in the sweet spot of having plenty of amenities for travelers, and not yet being overrun or inauthentic.  We hiked, relaxed, and took advantage of the super cheap massages and delicious food the Beach Club provided.  Between card games over sunset cocktails and hikes through the gorgeous lagoon, we unwound and fully realized the magic of Thailand.

Ralay Beach
Ralay Beach Card Game
Ralay Beach
3-IMG_8818.JPG
Ralay Beach House
13-IMG_0420.JPG
IMG_0493.JPG
2-IMG_8804.JPG
1-IMG_8770.JPG

We couldn’t relax forever, and we said goodbye to Raley beach to travel to its antithesis:  Bangkok. 

A sprawling city and the industrial heart of Thailand, Bangkok is a beast.  The city holds an attraction for everyone, and we tried to hit them all.  First, for the tourist, a visit to the famous War Phra Kaew, or the temple of the Emerald Buddha.  This is the most sacred temple in Thailand, and the craftsmanship of the structures is magnificent.  Be sure your clothes cover your knees and shoulders, as these guys do NOT mess around with their dress code.  Though crowded, the colors and detail on these temples is staggering.

Bangkok Temple
Bangkok Temple
Temple Bangkok

You also can’t miss the giant Reclining Buddah in Wat Pho—pictures simply can’t do justice to this 46 meter long and 5.5 ton statue made of solid gold.

Reclining Buddha

If the heat and congestion is too much, a boat tour along Chao Phraya River is exactly what you need to refresh your dusty eyes.  Thailand's canals used to be its main form of conveyance and transportation, making it the "Venice of the East."

Bangkok Boat Tour

Lastly, if you’re in Bagkok, you HAVE to go to the Chatuchak market (or JJ Market), in which there are a crazy 15,000+ stalls over 27 acres.  It has 27 sections, and holds everything from paintings and antiques, to food and clothes, to ceramics and souvenirs.  An absolute don’t miss is the animal section, which has the most bizarre inhabitants imaginable.  Lastly, stop by Viva 8 for delicious Paella and people watching.

IMG_3870.JPG
IMG_3872.JPG
IMG_3866.JPG
4-IMG_8829.JPG

In Bangkok, we stayed at the highly recommended MUSE hotel.  The rooms were spacious, tasteful and with beautiful views.  Plus, the rooftop bar and restaurants are some of the best around, which is very convenient in such a sprawling metropolis.  The rooftop pool isn’t so bad either!  Gorgeous and luxurious, MUSE was the perfect finale.

Muse Hotel Bangkok
Muse Hotel Bangkok

Of course a trip to Bangkok isn’t complete without enjoying the nightlife, and this group wasn’t going to leave that part unexplored.  We started at one of the famous rooftop bars, Moon Bar, which is on top of the fabulous Banyon Tree Hotel.  The Bagkok skyline was breathtaking and the sleek white modern atmosphere was just what we needed.  Afterwards, we headed to the world renowned Nahm for a Thai meal of which dreams are made.  Lastly, we made our way to the very touristy but fun Khaosan road area.  It definitely lives up to its nickname “the backpacker ghetto."  It was a blast and entertaining, and we certainly don’t mind venturing to the beaten path when the situation calls for it. 

Screen Shot 2017-09-28 at 10.11.53 AM.jpg
Thailand Nightlife Khaosan Road

Our whirlwind tour through Thailand gave us glimpses into the depth and vast differences that each part of the country offers.  The only comfort in leaving is that we’ll have the memories with us forever.

Thailand Tuk Tuk

Guest Post- Last Minute Checks before Heading to your Gap Year

This is a contributed article from 1Cover. 

It’s nearly time for you to head off on your big adventure. You’re getting excited about heading to the airport and taking off. But have you remembered all the essentials?

Although you can pick up most things abroad, the products might not be exactly what you want. So it’s best to take some items with you in your luggage. We recommend checking you’ve got the following:

1.    Something waterproof

You might be heading off to warmer climates, but it will still rain. In fact, it could pour down for days. Make sure you’ve got a coat to keep you dry. If you get one that packs down to a size that will fit in your pocket or backpack, you can take it everywhere with you and be prepared.

2.    Medical supplies

It’s a sensible idea to pack a basic first aid kit to cover you for minor illnesses. You could include painkillers, cold and flu medication, Imodium, plasters, antiseptic cream, and malaria tablets. You’ll thank yourself later.

3.   A lock

When you’re travelling, your bag will probably contain some precious things you need. Your money, phone, passport and other important documents. Put a lock on your bag and prevent yourself being a target of petty crime.

4.    Flip flops

Flip flops will become your go-to pair of shoes while you’re travelling. Easy to throw on or attach to your bag, you can take them across countries. They’ll be useful pretty much everywhere. Whether you just use them at your accommodation or to walk into town, you won’t regret packing a pair of flip flops.

5.   Ear plugs

You might be patient for your first flight and the first few nights sharing a room at a hostel, but after a while the noise of other people gets annoying – especially when you’re trying to rest. But there’s no need to start complaining. After all, no-one wants to be that kind of traveller. Just pack yourself some ear plugs.

6.    Face wash

Having a fresh face can make all the difference. It’s also worth packing some zip-lock bags to keep all your liquids away from the clothes in your bag.

7.    Loads of underwear

You might be able to get away with wearing the same t-shirt for a week (just), but you’ll need plenty of underwear to get you through the times where you’re away from washing facilities.

8.   A smartphone

Last up, remember your smartphone. It can be your guidebook, map, torch, camera, music, and connection to family and friends across the world. Pack a travel converter to make sure you can make use of this handy tool whenever you need to.

Are you a keen traveller? Share your packing recommendations with us.

 Sources

 

Laos or Bust

Laos is one of the few places in Southeast Asia that remains off the beaten path.  That makes it more valuable of a trip, but also more difficult to explore.  Luckily, Blakely’s hometown friend Ryan found love and relocated to a charming, old French colonial town in Laos, and he showed us the best and behind the scenes spots of this spectacular place.

Luang Prabang is the cultural center of Laos and the headquarters for any visit.  We stayed in a fabulously central hotel called the Vilayvanh Guesthouse, which allowed us to walk most places on our list.  Our first dinner was a treat:  Buffet with the locals where we barbequed our own meat in hot oil in the center of the table.  YUM.

The next day, Ryan and his fabulous wife Daolinh took us to a festival that her family’s village had that day in honor of the harvest season.  It was an invaluable opportunity to be hosted in such style by her family and friends.  We tried to keep up, but these people know how to party!

This traditional preparation of purple rice cooked in bamboo was absolutely fabulous.

Crunchy crickets were....crunchy.

That day, we also stopped by a local treasure, the beautiful Kuang Si waterfalls.  It was perfect for the hot day and gorgeous to explore. 

Laos Waterfall

For dinner, they took us to Secret Pizza—an absolute must for your stay in Luang Prabang.  They serve delicious Italian cuisine (our favorite and something we hadn’t had in QUITE a while!) and the ambience is super fun and casual.

One of the coolest things to see around Luang Prabang were the monks.  More on them later!

Laos Monks

 

For the weekend, we traveled to a river village called Nong Khiaw for a little getaway.  The hotel, Nong Khiaw River Cottages, had gorgeous standalone cottages that overlooked the river (I guess the name is a giveaway!).  They perfectly combine comfort with luxury. 

Nong Khiaw holds lots of fun activities, but first we chose a bike ride to the local caves.  The countryside is gorgeous to bike through, and the caves were super cool, even though Blakely isn’t such a cave person.

The next day, we took a boat ride down the river with a few friends of Ryan and Daolinh.  Not only did they catch our lunch, they proceeded to grill it right on the riverbank using bamboo.  We ate on huge banana leaves, and we tried to act like this was something we did every day.  What the photos can’t show is the crazy music blaring—Laotians LOVE their music. 

Afterwards, we had drinks at the boat driver’s house with his lovely family, where the music and fun continued.

Laos Drinks

This baby was absolutely passed out, despite the blaring music!

Laos Picnic

That night, we had dinner at a local nameless duck restaurant, and then had one of the best nights of our trip.  We were met by two of Daolinh’s friends, who were off duty from guiding a tour group.  We loaded into the tour van, and they took us to a local karaoke place.  If you’ve never been to karaoke in Asia, YOU MUST.  It is a necessary cultural experience because it is SO different from any other karaoke.  Singers remain seated, and grown men in business suits go by themselves and proceed to sing love ballads endearingly, though rather quietly, into the mic.  This particular karaoke place didn’t have many English songs or a list of what songs it had, but we were in luck and were still able to sing our rendition of New York, New York (with all of the hand motions, of course).  In our passion for the song, we forgot the no stand-up custom, but our performance was all the better for it.   Obviously, Blakely wowed with belting out, at the top of her Southern choir trained lungs, I Will Always Love You.  While there is footage of the performance, it will never see the light of day.  To our valued readers, we do offer these snapshots so you can fill in the blanks.

 Every performer knows you end on a curtsey.

Every performer knows you end on a curtsey.

We’re positive those poor businessmen will never be the same. 

We finished our fabulous time at a late-night bocce bar (they call it pétanque, thanks to the French).  Who won the game?  No idea.

We went back to Luang Prabang, but before departing Laos we were able to witness a must—the Alms Giving.  Every morning, the monks travel around the city to collect their food for the day.  The citizens turn out in droves and give food on bended knee.  Super early, but really cool to see.

Laos alms giving
Laos Alms Giving

Our time in Laos was exceptional to our trip, and it was all thanks to our remarkable hosts, the warm welcome of every Laotian we met, and a fabulous karaoke hut.

Cambodia: Lara Croft vs Indiana Jones

So, a little background first:  Siem Reap in Cambodia holds one of the most fascinating cultural treasures in the world—the city of Angkor.  Ankgor is a humongous park (over 1,000 square kilometers) with over one thousand temples and, as you wander and explore, you begin to glimpse the awesomeness that this ancient city once was.  The city held one of our world’s greatest civilizations, the Khmer people, and ranks up there with Rome, Athens, and our other magnificent ancient cities.  The city’s prime was from the 9th-15th centuries, when it wasn’t only wealthy and technologically advanced, but held an enormous percentage of the world’s population.  At its peak, the city occupied an area greater than modern Paris, and its buildings use far more stones than all of the Egyptian structures combined (Wowza).  

Today, Angkor is one of the world’s top travel destinations and we were able to Indiana Jones/Lara Croft style explore the gorgeous temples (minus the tomb raiding of course).  Each temple was more marvelousness than the last and they peak at the great Ankgor Wat, the world’s largest single religious monument.  While you can zip in and out in 2 days, we splurged and spent 4 days exploring.

Explore Angkor Cambodia

The unstoppable jungle has crept up on Angkor, but the result is a beautiful blend of nature and man.  Massive vines encircle the crumbling temples, which give way to gigantic trees that have replaced the temple ceilings.  And the size of Angkor means that, despite two million visitors annually, you get much of the complex to yourself.

We hired a local tuktuk driver and he became our guide and friend for the 4 days.  With Mr. Reth’s help, we visited over 15 temples!  So as to not bore you with nerding out on all of them, here are our 3 favorite visits.

 

The Bayon— aka The Temple of Many Faces

This temple is our favorite because, while being breathtaking, it is also strikingly different from every other temple in Angkor.  Its most notable feature is the over 200 gigantic faces that cover the towers.  All of the faces have a serene smile that exude an enormous amount of peace, despite 400 eyes on you being slightly unsettling.  The temple is primarily dedicated to Buddha, which brings us to another interesting fact about Angkor.

The years of Angkor’s greatness saw two major religions:  first Hinduism and then Buddhism.  What’s amazing about this is that the transition of the two different religions was peaceful, and some temples are actually dedicated to both religions simultaneously.  This isn’t the only case we saw of Hinduism and Buddhism coexisting peacefully—Asia is full of examples where this is the case.  In a world that religious differences sow the most bitter and destructive divides, it’s remarkable that two major religions could be parallel as well as peaceful.

Angkor Wat— aka the ‘Why Everyone Comes to Angkor’ Temple

Angkor is the largest religious monument in the world and, as it continues to be a place of worship today, it is also the longest used religious site in the world's history.  It is certainly the largest and most elaborate of the Angkor temples, and a sure highlight to any visit.  Angkor Wat is the symbol of Cambodia and the epitome of Khmer architectural style.  It was designed to represent the Hindu’s equivalent of heaven, Mount Meru, and the home of the Hindu deities (the Mount Zion of Hinduism).  It is humbling to behold, especially if you get there for sunrise.

Ankgor Wat was originally built as a Hindu temple, but gradually transitioned into a Buddhist temple as the culture of Ankgor changed.  Today, the orange garb of the monks and shrines contrast beautifully with the dark stone of the temples.

The Museum— aka What Does This All Mean?

If you have time, we highly recommend a stop by the Angkor National Museum to give meaning behind the beauty you’ve seen.  The museum building itself is gorgeously designed to showcase their well-done exhibits.  The galleries teach you of the Khmer empire using sculptures, interactive displays, movies and descriptions in 7 languages.  The museum does an exceptional job of informing and condensing the history and art of one of the greatest and most underrated ancient civilizations of the world. 

 

While the cultural aspects of Siem Reap are certainly the draw, we'd be remiss to not mention our other highlight:  The Phare Circus.  

The Phare Circus

The Phare is put on by the PPSA, which was founded by 9 men returning to Cambodia from refugee camps.  The men had found in the camps that art was a valuable tool for healing, and they began giving free drawing classes to young street children.  Over time, their efforts grew into a full K-12 education and art school and today they teach over 1,200 pupils.  All for free.

Ryan got a teensy bit too into it...

The Phare was a spectacular show and you absolutely can't miss it if you're in town.

It was a quick but full trip, and we were better for our time in Siem Reap.  We said goodbye to Mr. Reth, but promised to keep in touch on facebook and to always remember what we learned with him.

Next:  Visiting old friends in their new lives in Laos!

The Best of Vietnam

Vietnam is absolutely one of our favorite places on our trip around the world.  It was a quick visit, but full of amazing sights, welcoming people, and some of the best food in the world.

The food.  We have to start there because it was the star of the show.  Vietnamese food is some of the healthiest in the world and is celebrated for its use of fresh ingredients.  The food is governed by the need for balance between all five fundamental tastes: spicy, sweet, bitter, salty, and sour.  Additionally they try to balance textures of crunchy, silky, fried, steamed, soup and salad.  AND use the freshest ingredients possible.  Yes, please, thank you.  Each street food vendor makes one specialty; they slow cook it all day to blend the broth and herbs to perfection.  Plus, Vietnam was a French colony and that influence seeped into these Asian dishes.  We ate it up (see what I did there?  I’m very clever...).

And done.

We started in the capital of Hanoi, the heartbeat of Vietnam.   The city bursts with raw energy.  Despite coming from the Philippines, Hanoi is the first place we felt we were in Southeast Asia.  Cone hats included.

Vietnam Cone Hat

A crazy 4 million motorbikes swarm the streets and there are very few streetlights.  Yes, it’s as insane as you think.  To cross the street, you literally walk out into traffic and everyone simply moves around you.  The system works, so long as you don’t balk and no matter how scary you keep walking.  Yikes.

We stayed in one of our favorite budget hotels of the trip the Paradise Boutique Hotel—very clean, convenient, and some of the nicest and most helpful people we encountered.  It was also located in the heart of Old Quarter, a neighborhood that packs its narrow streets with architecture, chaos, and all of the quintessential sights of SE Asia.

Our favorite sights won’t surprise you, especially this first one.  The Temple of Literature is beautifully designed garden and temple.  While it wasn’t overflowing with books as Blakely hoped, it provided a beautiful garden walk (and some hilarious people watching).  The temple is dedicated to Confucius and honors Vietnam’s finest scholars. 

Unclear.

Hoan Kiem Lake is a beautiful and peaceful walk, with banks full of people from every age group exercising and also temples floating the lake’s center.  Close by is Bach Ma Temple, which is believed to be the oldest temple in the city.  Also near is the Hoa Lo Prison Museum, where US prisoners of war were held during the war.  It’s remarkable that we could peacefully and safely walk the streets where conflict reined so recently.

Of course you must walk by Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, if to only fully realize how different Vietnam is to home.  The complex is incredibly important to the Vietnamese who come to pay their respects to the man who liberated Vietnam from French colonialism and founded the communist party.  He also led the Vietnamese opposition of the US in the Vietnam war.  The mausoleum is closed once a year when Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body is sent to Russia for maintenance. Yuck.

Counterbalance the mausoleum with the Fine Arts Museum, which is very well done and a great introduction into Vietnamese art.

We moved on from Hanoi to a highlight:  Halong Bay.  A fabulous surprise awaited: We were the only two people who signed up for our cruise, so we had the entire boat to ourselves!  And we fully lived it up.  The staff was unbelievably accommodating, the rooms were gorgeous, and the Bay constantly amazed.  Between the cooking class, squid fishing, cave tour, kayaking the bay, and tai chi, we were kept very entertained!

Halong Bay

On the way back from Halong Bay we stopped at an art exhibit that was incredibly special.  The program is set up by the government to provide opportunity to people with disabilities.  They produce some of the coolest artwork we’d seen and it was refreshing to see a government program so beautifully done.

After Halong Bay we flew to Hoi An.  What a fabulous city.  Dubbed Vietnam's "most civilized town," it is bursting with life and oozing with charm.  Hoi An was an important port until the Vietnamese moved the port down river.  When they relocated the port, the town died and the inhabitants left gorgeous architecture in peace until recently when tourism fired up interest again.  The result is a very well preserved colonial town that was a Downs delight.

We took a cooking class/bike tour with Ms. Vy where we traveled to the local market and then to a farm to see how the food is gathered before we cooked it.  We had a blast, and besides cooking, were even taught some farming skills!

Our favorite restaurants in Hoi An were two greats:  Ms Vy’s Market and Villa Soksan Square.  Both were fantastic.  They managed to be authentic and foreigner friendly, which made us fall in love with Vietnamese food even more.

Ms. Vy's even educates with traditional food divided into categories.  Our favorite was the weird and wonderful (obviously!).

Duck Egg Embryo

You don't want to know what he's eating.

Our last tourist activity was a MUST-- a day trip to Hue.  Hue was Vietnam's capital for 150 years until the 20th century and therefore it holds some of Vietnam's greatest architectural treasures.  

Our first stop was a Buddhist temple and an icon of Vietnam:  Thien Mu Pagoda.  The complex is full of structures and even caves to explore-- the temples exude peace, which is a nice refuge in the bustle of Vietnam.

This photo can't do justice to the magnificent size of the cave-- the Buddha looks tiny but was gigantic!

Next we visited the Imperial Enclosure which is a small royal city within a citadel.  It holds the emperor's residence, temples and the main buildings of state.  Unfortunately it was very badly bombed during the French and American wars, but those buildings that remain are fascinating.

Dragons and cannons and scowling.  So much masculinity in one picture...

Construction of our next stop, the magnificent Khai Dinh Tomb, took 11 years.  Because Vietnam was controlled by the French at this time, it is a fascinating blend of Asian and European styles.  Even the stone guards in the Honor Courtyard have a mixture of Western and Eastern features.  The outside is a dark grey stone, while the inside is bursting with color.

The last thing we did in Vietnam was also the most bizarre—we followed the path well traveled to get custom clothes.  We opted for Kimmy Tailor and were set up with two stylists who amazed us with their knowledge on style.  The shop had iPads for you to browse options, but the best way order clothes is to pull up your own reference from the internet and have them copy it.  It felt odd getting fitted for such glamor wear, but we loved it!

178-IMG_7477.JPG

With our bellies and hearts full of Vietnam, we left knowing it would top the list.  We pushed back our departure from Hoi An (twice!) but eventually did have to leave.  We couldn’t miss the next spot:  Cambodia! 

He Said, She Said. Part 2

“This reminds me of New York.”                                                                             -The best compliment we could give a place.

A picnic in Central Park is our favorite

Our favorite New York restaurant Joseph Leonard

We asked all of our Egyptian tour guides if they were offended by the term "Muslim Extremists."  Aboudi said it best: “I simply cannot call them Muslims.  They are evil men, who twist the Quar’an for their own gain."     

“Trust in Allah, but tie your camel to a post.”                                                                  -A Muslim proverb                         

“Always uncomfortable, never unsafe.”                                                                -Our motto for the trip                                                                

Aboudi and other tour guides brought Egypt alive for us

We went to many places where terrorist attacks had happened or could happen.  And while we were very risk averse, we refused to not go to a site because of fear.  Terrorists win when that happens.

“Is that…?  Yep, Mmbop is playing on the radio.”                                                -Ryan during a taxi ride in South America

A woman in Buenos Aires, after she finished giving Blakely directions to the train, finished with: “Watch your purse, and don’t talk to anyone.”

“No, you don’t understand.  I need clothes with serious durability.  Like half spandex, half tire leather.”                                                                                      -Blakely, while shopping to refresh her backpack, to a naive shop attendant pushing cashmere

“There’s a Hermés on our block.  We’re good.”                                                  -Blakely checking out the safety of our new neighborhood in Buenos Aires

Our neighborhood was full of gorgeous French architecture.

And rose gardens of course!

“Watch your head!  If you hit your head, watch your language!”                       -Our boat driver in Belize

“You know what word I can’t get behind?  Abreast.”                                           -Blakely to Ryan on a long bus ride in South America.  People ask us what we talked about.  The answer is: Everything.

Philippines = Paradise

The Philippines.  A group of 7,000+ islands of paradise in the South Pacific, and also one of the places we looked forward to the most. 

We started in the capital city of Manilla, which we mainly used it as a headquarters for launching our itinerary.  When there are 7,000+ islands to choose from, your itinerary in the Philippines can be the biggest challenge.  We decided to take the boats less traveled down the West side and thoroughly enjoyed it.  While in Manilla, we stayed at the Boutique Hostel, which was simple but really well located, and enjoyed a fabulous food market at night.  

This was our first stop in SE Asia proper so wow.  $5 beach massages, all the fresh juices you could drink, and warm people who take hosting visitors very seriously.

Our first of MANY tuk tuk rides in SE Asia

We took a short flight south to the biggest city on the island of Palawan called Puerto Princesa.  Besides being a great city full of awesome restaurants, it is the perfect hub to start off exploring the island.  We started big.

A short drive from the city is a magnificent natural wonder of the world called Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park.  This name does NOT do it justice.  Into a limestone mountain, there is a cave that stretches for 15 miles (!!!) with a river winding through it.  And yes, you can take a boat into this massive cave.  So yes, we did.

A few of the shuttle boats to get to the cave.

On the boat, headed into the cave.

The National Park is extremely well done and preserving the cave’s natural structure is top priority.  The only boats allowed are registered rowboats, so the fumes of an engine wouldn’t disrupt the air quality or sound waves of the cave.  The boat tour has an exceptional audio guide, with headphones so as to not disrupt the cave’s natural environment.  While the guide does have a light, it is used minimally during the 30-minute tour.  All of these restrictions keep us from disturbing the cave or its living inhabitants.

Yes.  Living.  There are a whopping 9 different species of bats found in the cave, among other reptiles (Oh don’t worry—just some lizards and casual pythons) and birds found in the park.  Luckily, as you glide through this cave, the massive structures and chambers distract you from all of that.  The largest chamber is about 2.5 million square meters in volume.  So crazy. 

The entrance to the cave is minuscule compared to the gigantic caverns inside.

VERY skeptical...

On our way out-- VERY grateful to see the sun!

The next day we moved from Puerto Princesa to another highlight:  A teensy island town called Port Barton.  This is the place that SE Asia dreams are made of.  We stayed for 3 nights, and operated on a strict schedule.  Yoga.  Brunch.  Relax.  Massage.  Dinner.  Sleep.  Repeat.

Blakely's favorite reading hammock.

Blakely had one of the best days of her life in Port Barton.  In addition to the above, her first Huffington Post article was published while here.  As if being published wasn’t enough, floods of congratulations and love came to us from across the world.  Not too bad.

We also got out for a kayak trip to our very own island (something there are PLENTY of here!).  So fun to get out on the water.

We moved on from Port Barton up to El Nido, which is one of the better known destinations in the Philippines.  Instead of staying right in El Nido, we got the recommendation to stay a cove over at Corong Corong Beach.  Very good call.  This beach is charm in itself—somehow a community of French ex-pats have moved in and created a sub world for themselves.  We ate delicious food, rented a sailboat from our new friend Thierry, and took an island-hopping excursion to find hidden beaches and private islands.  All musts.

Next was another must:  the small town of Coron on Busuanga Island. 

To get there we took a very memorable ferry, of which we only have these two misleading pictures.  It was 7 hours of the biggest waves we've ever seen.  The compartment where the passengers sat was plastic chairs and benches.  For most of the ride, the huge waves meant we were letting on water so they had to close the wooden slabs that should be opened to let air flow in.  7 hours of being locked in a wooden box, rocking and tumbling.  It was awful.  

On the plus side, we met two people who were on the shuttle the next day. Their same shuttle took on so much water that their boat had 3-feet of sitting water in their compartment.  It's vital to check weather before taking these boats.

Smiles of two people who have no idea what they're in for...

The main reason for going to Coron is a good one:  Scuba diving World War II wrecks.  It is listed by Forbes as one of the top 10 scuba diving sites in the world, and with good reason.  The Japanese occupied the Philippines during the war, and a dozen sunken Japanese warships of all different depths and difficulty make a gorgeous backdrop for diving.  We chose Neptune Dive Center and were thoroughly impressed (which is hard to do after our diving in Palau)—for a super reasonable rate, we got a private boat, guide, cook and boat driver.  We love SE Asia.

Ryan’s grandfather served in the Navy during the war, so we were able to talk to him about the wrecks we dove and he looked back in his journal to compare where he was when they sank.  It was fascinating and a bit bizarre to dive through war wrecks—a stark reminder that the violence of one generation can give way to peace in the next, or vice versa.

Neptune Dive Center took us to the Morazan Maru, Olympia Maru, and Teru Kaze Maru wrecks.  You’re able to see where the blasts occurred, and admire gorgeous coral and fish surrounding the wreckage.  All were absolutely amazing.

Coron Wreck Diving

So ended our time in the Philippines.  From mile-long-caves, to yoga on the beach, to underwater wrecks and as many massages as we could handle, it was a fantastic introduction into SE Asia.