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
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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
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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
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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
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Thailand Elephant Park
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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
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Ralay Beach House
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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.

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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. 

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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!

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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.

Bolivia - Our Quest to the Salt Flats

This is the tale of our quest to see the spectacular Bolivian Salt Flats.  And yes, it was a quest.  Renowned around the world for their striking beauty, it’s a testament to their draw that so many travel so far to see them.  They are in the MIDDLE of nowhere.  No, not even the middle.  They are in the outskirts of nowhere.

The adventure starts in San Pedro de Atacama, which is a desert town that bears a striking resemblance to a Wild West movie set.  The town’s main claim to greatness is that it has a combination of high altitude and dry air, which makes it the perfect star gazing spot.  This past Spring, San Pedro de Atacama became home to the world’s largest astronomy observatory, which allows scientists to probe deeper into outer space than ever before.  Nerd’s delight.  

We took a tour of the night sky by SPACE Star Tours which has the largest telescopes in South America and wonderfully entertaining guides.  Words fail when it comes to the wonder that is outer space.  Our awe at our galaxy, and the galaxies beyond, is as indefinable as the limits of space itself.

They even had a photography telescope so Blakely was able to snap this picture of the half-moon!

HUGE telescopes to see CRAZY things!

The other main activity in San Pedro was obviously planning our next step in the adventure to see the salt flats.  None of the companies will book online, so you have to book in person, and the travel reviews range from fantastic to positively terrifying.  We did our research in San Pedro before booking our transfer, and thankfully, there is a wonderful tourism office that helped enormously. 

We took a day-long transfer in a very dusty car up to Uyuni, Bolivia.  We thought San Pedro was a tiny town, until we drove through the dusty roads leading to Uyuni where there isn’t a sign of street names or human life in sight.  We realized this is officially off the beaten path.  Thankfully the scenery is as breathtaking as the roads are bumpy.

In Uyuni we stayed at a simple hotel called Oasisa Blanco and it paid for itself in its recommendation of a reliable tour company for the salt flats.  We walked around the dusty town negotiating and finally booking our tour for the next day.  It is hard to imagine any place being worth the time and (butt) pain it took to get here, but we would soon be able to decide for ourselves.

The salt flats.  An area twice the size of Rhode Island, this natural phenomenon beats all others.  It doesn’t make any sense to me, but here is the scientific explanation of how on Earth this is even possible:

So, about 40,000 years ago (!), there was a large lake where the salt flats are today.  Over the next 20,000 years, the lake transformed and eventually evaporated, leaving behind all of its salt content. Even today, water sits just under the salt layer, which ranges from 10s of inches to a few meters.  As the water under the salt continues to evaporate, it causes these crazy hexagonal shapes in the salt, which continue as far as you can see.  The entire area (which covers a crazy 4,086 square miles) is exceptionally flat and only varies one meter in altitude.  But then in contrast, the surrounding Andes Mountains explode out of the Earth.  It is THE craziest natural phenomenon we’ve ever seen.

Oh, the flats also serve as a breeding ground for several species of flamingos.  Yes, seriously. 

The breathtaking terrain also serves as a dream opportunity for cheesy photo enthusiasts.  In our group we had some VERY enthusiastic participants, and we obviously couldn’t resist some of the gimmicks. 

During certain times of the year, large portions of the flats flood and create a beautiful reflective surface.  We made it for the very beginning of the season so a small portion of the flat was flooded and served as a backdrop for the most spectacular sunset you can imagine.

Yes, the ridiculously difficult trip to get to the salt flats was very worth it (and that’s saying something).  It is a place that can only be described as otherworldly.  Our trip has been full of natural wonders, but this one is by far the most unique.

Chilean Adventure

Chile is a fantastic country that is full of every type of attraction, fascination, and even contradiction (HOW is Chile so skinny, while making us so fat?).  It’s a fascinating place, with incredibly warm people, and we loved it so much that we came twice!  Our first trip was in the south to Patagonia, but we couldn’t resist all that the rest of Chile had to offer.

We crossed through the Andes to get to Chile and there were some pretty tight turns along the way!

Our first stop was also one of our favorites.  It’s a small city called Valparaiso that is unlike any place we’d been before.  Valparaiso was a major port town until the Panama Canal made it obsolete.  As its citizens abandoned the town and over time artists moved in and took over.  What they’ve built is magical. 

Imagine a hilly port town covered in graffiti.  Sounds awful, huh?  Now, instead of the amateur graffiti most cities deal in, imagine gorgeous, large-scale art murals covering all of the walls and buildings.  The murals differ hugely in style, color and size, and yet somehow they blend together to create a magical place where, around every cobble-stoned corner, a new adventure awaits.

Valparaiso, Chile

We stayed in ViaVia Boutique Hotel, which, besides being a charming lodging, is home to the famous ViaVia Café.  It was a delight from start to finish, and between the great room, delicious food and fun atmosphere, we never wanted to leave.

We took a walking tour around Valparaiso with “Tours for Tips,” our absolutely favorite tour company in South America.  They operate with volunteer guides, who are young, energetic and knowledgeable.  We’ve loved every tour we’ve taken with them.

Though we hated to leave Valparaiso, leave me must.  Next, we spent a brief two days in fabulous Santiago, where we enjoyed another tour from Tours for Tips.  Their walking tours are such a fun way to get acclimated in a new place and learn history at the same time.

Santiago has some incredible murals of their own!

Santiago even has art in their Subway stations.

In Santiago, we stayed at an awesome guesthouse called Hostel Amazonas Riveras.  A redone Tudor mansion, it has tons of ambience and clean simple rooms.  Plus, they were great help with activities and transfers. 

After Santiago we flew to North Chile to enjoy our favorite: Adventure.  

Patagonia or Narnia?

A few times in life, an experience is everything that your mind built it up to be.  Welcome to Patagonia.

Patagonia stretches across southern Argentina and Chile, and both countries heavily protect their National Parks.  Tourism is strictly monitored and the number of visitors contained so that the treasures found here will be enjoyed for many generations to come.  We almost sang with delight—here’s a place that not only lived up to the hype, but where the countries understood the preciousness and fiercely defended it accordingly.  Ok, that’s a lie.  Blakely did sing.

To add to the wonderfulness, Ryan’s family came down for a visit to check on our sanity after months of travel, and enjoy the general splendor Patagonia provides.  In at least one, they weren’t disappointed!

We started of in El Calafate to get our first glimpse of Perito Moreno Glacier.  Wowza.  I’m not sure what we expected, but nothing prepared us for the colossal vista of this natural wonder.  Who knew ice could be so astounding?  It towered over and surrounded us, and whenever a piece of ice broke off into the water (called “calving”), the resounding splash thundered like a cannon! 

We stayed at the fabulous lodge Esplendor, which has a cozy decor that perfectly matches it's gorgeous surroundings.

From El Calafate we traveled down to Torres del Paine to start the trekking portion.  We stayed at the charming Hotel Las Torres, a lodge nestled amongst some of the best trailheads in Patagonia (which is saying something!).  After a quick hike around the grounds, we got some rest to prepare for the great treks ahead.

The W is a famous multi-day trek around Torres del Paine that allows hikers to explore some of the most breathtaking nature in the world.  So, to the Dubya we would go!  The first portion of our route was advertised as a “lakeside stroll,” and promised to be the easiest portion of our trek.  Incorrect.  While it started off this way, the steep incline/decline of the last few hours (!) laid us flat.  Literally.

Thankfully, the scenery around us provided a significant distraction.  WOW.

There are basic lodges (or “refugios”) and campgrounds of all ranges along the W.  We decided on a decided on a unique type of refugio and stayed in the Domes Frances, which has cozy domes built for warmth and peaceful rest.  The delicious food and cozy beds made a perfect, and necessary, resting point.

The view from our Domo window!

The next day we opted for a hike up into the French Valley and were astounded with views that, though very different than they day before, were just as beautiful!  Around every bend were lake views, thundering booms of the calving glacier, waterfalls, and landscapes that made us feel like we’d dropped into Narnia.

The next day we headed back along the lake and, whether our expectations were better set or our legs in better shape, the trek was much easier this time.  What we didn’t expect was the tremendous wind!  Patagonia has a reputation for tumultuous weather and we witnessed it on this day.  At some points, the wind actually blew us over and off the trail!

"Hang on Meggy!"

"Hang on Meggy!"

Once back at the Hotel Las Torres, we settled back in for a night of stretching and delicious cuisine.  And maybe a cocktail or two!

Andre and his ostrich.

The next day we headed off to the iconic Las Torres.  Hotel Las Torres has a well-stocked stable, so part of the group was able to do the traditional hike, while others of us traversed the trail on horseback!  We joined each other halfway up the mountain at Chileno, and all hiked to victory at the signature vista of Patagonia.  The rocks of the Torres pierce the sky, standing above a glacier fed lake and defy all reason.

After all of the fabulous trekking in some of the best known and loved trails, it was time to get off the beaten path.  Way off.

It took a plane, car, and boat to get there, but the luxury lodge Aguas Arriba was more than worth the travel.  Set on the gorgeous fresh water lake and in the middle of a National Park, Aguas Arriba is a retreat that everyone should experience once in his or her lifetime (Or twice.  Or every year, until forever.).  The lovely owners Ivor and Patricia treat their guests as honored family and their retreat centers on thoughtful hospitality, understated luxury, amazing food, and conserving the precious natural gifts surrounding their lodge.  They excel in all categories.

Every dish at Aguas Arribas was astounding!

If you can tear yourself away from the cozy cabin, sun filled porch, and gorgeous views of the lodge, the trails around Aguas Arriba take you through forests truly untouched and untarnished by man.  This is it.  This is what you dream of when you dream of Patagonia.  The few days we spent there added years to our lives and we’ve never been more sad to leave somewhere.

The hiking was over, but there is much more to Argentina and Chile.  We’ll take you there, next post.