The World Trip Poem

The World Trip Poem

We reigned among steel giants made on gold,

A Neverland, as rough as it is fair.

Then dared to test in what legend foretold,

That we could leave and make it anywhere.

Inadequate in all but choice to go,

We gave up all in order to explore.

Nothing but questions, yet a peace to know:

The hearts we leave behind will weigh much more.

Such mysteries unraveled over land;

That bravery and fear would come as one.

And being strong, so long as we held hands,

We set off on our dream to chase the sun.

We dove with dinosaurs, showered with bees,

And swam across the thunder where smoke furls.

Held death defying orphans on our knees.

Their lives will revolutionize our world.

We read the language only gods could know,

And chased the purples through our year of Spring.

Slept under palaces and scorpio,

and bowed to peasants after hunting kings.

We kissed in ancient tombs where camels graze,

And felt insane on board the untamed train.

We marveled holy giants in a blaze,

And grieved on through the quartered town of pain.

And then, the rose gold city (please undo).

Where I, your hero. You, my champion.

And ancient wrongs battled our tribe of two.

Our heart’s blood shed to aid a war not won.

But through these tales, too numerous to name,

The miles, clicks, eons of our grand world tour,

They shant tell where our true adventure lay.

And none compare my heart’s journey in yours.

In that, more wonder, passion, history

Than where the swastikas and stars align.

More beauty, danger, heat and mystery,

Than where the dust holds animals divine.

Though home, I can’t see where we started from.

We face adventures, dangers yet unseen.

I’ll rest in this: When I’m with you, I’m home.

Beside you is the only place I’d be.

He Said, She Said. Part III

“People traveling here are either searching for something or running from something.”

-Ryan Millar, our friend in Laos, on SE Asia backpackers

“I want to be sick of massages by the time we leave Asia.”

-Ryan. We were successful!

“The problem with staying in a beach hut is that if you’re inside and can’t see the beach, you’re just staying in a hut.”

-Blakely

“I think the bus drivers and masseuses are in business together.

-Ryan

“There is nothing better than being believed in.”

-Blakely, after her first Huffington Post article was published

“Hush your mouth, and give me Park Avenue.”

-Blakely, angry with Ryan when he started saying ways Singapore is better than New York

“I hope there’s a bathtub at the Taj Mahal Palace. We need to wash some clothes.”

-Ryan

“Enjoy your Tour of Pakistan!”

-The head of Damodra Camp being sarcastic as we drove off for our dune tour

“No. Yoga is trying to get your pants on, while wearing flip flops, in the shower, without letting a pant leg or your feet hit the floor.”

-Blakely on skills acquired on our meditation/yoga trek up to ABC

“To make a Nepali child sleep by themselves is punishment.”

-Anka (our 3rd hiking member), who volunteered at an orphanage in Nepal before trekking with us

“Don’t hurry. But be quick.”

-What our Nepali guide Chandra would always say when he wanted to get us moving

“I’d like to think I’m a reasonable feminist. For instance: I don’t mind when a man we’re talking to won’t speak to me. I’m an exceptionally beautiful woman. I’d be scared to speak to me too.”

-Blakely

“I won’t pretend that wasn’t a blow.”

-Us whenever something bad happened

Japan, We Love You

When handing out awards, Japan is the dark horse of our trip. We didn’t know much about the country or culture, nor did we know many people who’d visited. We’d traveled through 11 countries in Asia at this point. We’d been through Africa, the Middle East, and South America and had traveled constantly for the past 9 months. We got comfortable and felt that nothing could surprise us. And as usual, the world proved us wrong.

Japan’s culture is unlike any other in Asia, which is a good (incredibly clean) and bad (incredibly expensive) thing. Incredibly conservative and polite, there is a huge emphasis on respect, manners, and honor. We learned some of our favorite customs here. For instance, one never turns their back on a customer. So when a conductor travels through one of the high speed bullet trains and must turn his back in order to walk down the aisle, he turns around at the end of every train, takes his hat off and does a very deep bow. This is at the end of EVERY single car.

Or, there is absolutely no tipping. So when you accidentally leave money on the table, one of the waiters will chase after you to return it!

And then there’s the food. Another surprise. Japan is a foodie paradise with an incredibly wide range of traditional dishes and you’re sure to find one you’ll love. From sushi to ramen, you could eat a traditional dish every night for a month and not repeat. We’ll recount some of our favorites as we go through our itinerary.

We started in Tokyo at Anne Hostel. Unfortunately, Japan is more expensive than other places on our itinerary, so we kept accommodations simple so we could splurge on experiences. We immediately set to work seeing the sights.

First on our list was the famous Tsukiji Fish Market. About 2,000 tons of seafood are traded here daily, but the most sought after sight is the Tuna Auction held in the VERY early morning. We got up at a casual 3AM in order to earn the privilege to watch this auction in action. Experts from the best restaurants in the country review these gigantic tuna brought into the port in the past night, and then a Japanese man spouts off prices until the highest bidder is found. We’d seen a lot by now, but this experience was bizarre.

Tsukiji Fish Market Line
Tsukiji Fish Market Auction

The next day we continued to hit Japan hard. We headed to the Meiji Shrine, which is located on a park of 170 gorgeous green acres. The shrine is dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meihi and his wife Empress Shoken to commemorate his role in the Meiji Restoration. (Pssst the Meiji Restoration was in 1868, when Japan realized how behind it was from the West, it opened up its doors to foreign trade and technology. This was further done after WWII, and is the reason the country is so changed from our grandparent’s generation to ours). The shine and park were beautiful and wonderfully peaceful.

Meiji Shrine Park
Meiji Shrine

On the walk home, we experienced Tokyo’s fashionable district and soaked up the glamorous beauty that is Tokyo. We. Love. Cities.

Tokyo Night Skyline
Tokyo Shopping District

Next we headed to the Imperial Palace, which is the primary residence of the Emperor of Japan. The grounds and architecture were gorgeous.

Japan Imperial Palace

Next, we took advantage of our incredible luck to be in Japan during the Sumo Wrestling Championship! The Japanese absolutely LOVE sports (more on that later). Sumo is their national sport and indicative of their deep heritage. It is a ritualistic form of wresting from ancient times involving two overweight men clothed in loin cloths with their hair in topknots (like hipster man buns) battling out their strength to try to force their opponent out of the circular ring or into falling to the ground. Though that is the technical explanation, there is much more to it than that.

Sumo wresting isn’t just a sport, it is literally a way of life. As usual with the Japanese, they go all in. The wrestlers are required to live in a heya where they train and live. Their diet and lifestyle is heavily regulated. These guys may look fat, but in real life you can see they are HUGE mountains of muscle and disarmingly flexible. These mountains crashing together was a sight we’ll never forget.

After the sports, we needed to support the arts! We did so by visiting one of the largest art museums in the world: The Tokyo National Museum. Located inside a beautiful Ueno park, the museum is dedicated to art works and archaeological objects of Asia with a particular focus on Japan. We finished off the day with a walk through Otaku, Tokyo’s anime or gaming district (Japan is OBSESSED) with skyscrapers covered in neon lights and anime characters dancing around us!

Tokyo National Museum
Tokyo National Museum
Japan Anime District

All of this touring made us hungry and we visited one of our favorites (that we even came back to later!). Kikanbo Spicy Ramen. The craving returns just by typing the name!

Kikanbo Spicy Ramen

After Tokyo we headed to Kyoto, which is considered the cultural capital of Japan due to its rich history of the Imperial time. The city holds the vast majority of Japan’s National Treasures and UNESCO World Heritage Sites and is obviously a must if you travel to Japan. Even the Japanese citizens go here to learn more about their own heritage.

The Arashiyama Bamboo Forrest is a gorgeous must, and it transports you to another planet. A quieter planet. Be sure to get there early as it is a (rightly so) popular spot.

Bamboo Forrest
Bamboo Forrest

Another must is Fushimi Inari-taisha, which is the mountain shrine that holds the pathway with the thousands of iconic orange gates. We were grateful to have each other on the two hour walk, as once you get lost in the pathways, the sound disperses and it becomes eerily quiet and isolating. Though it is technically one shrine, it holds as many as 32,000 sub-shrines.

Now, it is time for a confession. After the sumo wresting match, we went to dinner with an Australian couple who sheepishly asked us if we liked Harry Potter. Blakely tried to play calm and casually said yes. They then proceed to tell us about the UNBELIEVABLE Harry Potter World located at Universal Osaka. Even though the couple weren’t fans themselves, they were impressed. Again, Blakely tried to act casual, but Ryan received multiple kicks under the table which communicated that their plans were set.

If you get the opportunity, the Japanese culture is made for theme parks. The impeccable cleanliness, unwavering respect to strangers, and relentless cheerful demeanor make them the perfect hosts in this imaginary land. Plus, they’ve got the funds and the following to invest in these ventures, and the Harry Potter world alone received an investment of over $400 MILLION. We couldn’t help but be taken in, and were grinning madly from the moment we got in line.

Universal Osaka

OF COURSE, Harry Potter world was the first place we went. We’ll let pictures describe the utter joy that filled Blakely’s being. It was complete system overload. While standing in line for a ride (The Flight of the Hippogriff, thank you for asking), Blakely asked Ryan urgently for 5,000 yen (about $50). This was A LOT for our world trip daily budget, and far more than the souvenir department ever requested on a whim. She offered no explanation but Ryan handed it over. 10 minutes later, Blakely came back with her very own Harry Potter wand. Yes, these wands perform magic in the park (she hasn’t tried since leaving because she’s worried about breaking the International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy).

Universal Osaka Harry Potter
Universal Osaka Harry Potter

We went on to enjoy TONS of rides and calls to our childhood like Jaws and Jurassic Park. We consumed cheesburgers and huge cokes with tons of ice. We walked down the streets of “New York” and ended the day at TGIFridays. Then almost fell asleep in utter exhaustion on the ride home. It was a wonderful day.

Universal Osaka Jurassic Park

And the treats weren’t over, because next we headed to a Glamping.com assignment in Miyama with some of the most charming people we’d ever encountered. Read about the amazing experience in our gorgeous thatch roof hut here.

Glamping Japan

Of course, another must is to view the ruins in Osaka, where the US dropped one of two atomic bombs during World War II. We were there for the historic visit from President Obama, and it was an honor to be present as our two countries met to continue the healing from that horrible time.

Lastly, we headed to the mountains for a little relaxation. It’s a fairly well kept secret that Japan has some of the best skiing in the world. While we were there during off season, we still got to enjoy amazing hiking.

Japan mountain hike

Another mountain must was a Japanese tradition and a Blakely delight: The onsen.

An onsen is a Japanese hot spring with spas, inns, and bathing facilities built around them. Since Japan is volcanically active, thousands of onsens are scattered throughout the country.

We were very skeptical. Firstly, it’s intimidating because, like many traditional Japanese activities, onsen bathing is seeped in etiquette. We shouldn’t have been hesitant, because also like other traditional Japanese activities, the rules are clearly explained and (even better) make sense!

So the onsen ritual is essentially bathing in a hot spring. This used to happen with both men and women, but since the Meiji Restoration the bathing has been separate.

The main etiquette for onsen bathing is ensuring cleanliness before you get into the bath. There are showers with toiletries, and you are expected to clean yourself THOROUGHLY and rinse off absolutely all traces of soap before entering the onsen. Love this rule.

Bathing suits are normally not permitted, and towels and wash clothes are normally not allowed to be dipped into the bath. This is all to preserve cleanliness.

Onsen bathing was absolutely one of the most relaxing things we’ve ever done. The only regret is not finding one in every city!

We ended our Japanese adventure back in Tokyo where we experienced entertainment unlike ANY other in the world. A Japanese baseball game.

Yes. The Japanese absolutely love baseball. While the game resembles its American cousin, it has been Japan-i-fied with choreographed cheers, multiple life-size mascots, and skimpily dressed beer girls. Our seat neighbors promptly lent us gear in the proper colors once they realized we didn’t have any team paraphernalia, and the stadium was perfectly clean when we left. Such a cool experience.

As we said at the top, Japan was the dark horse of our trip. No place delighted us more, surprised us more, or welcomed us more. We can’t recommend it highly enough, nor wait to go back.

Bali Paradise

Bali, a name that is synonymous with Paradise, couldn’t possibly live up to that reputation.  Incorrect.  Bali is the single most relaxing place we’ve ever been.  Enough activities so you don’t get bored, cheap enough that you never feel stressed, easy enough so you never feel strained, and small enough that you never feel rushed.  We are HUGE Bali fans.

Of course, it’s also an incredibly romantic place, which was perfect because it was over our anniversary, and hilarious because Blakely’s little sister tagged along!  Thankfully, she’s the perfect travel partner who was up for anything and demanded nothing.

Bali sister trip

We started in the main city Semenyak.  Blakely booked our accommodations beforehand, and they were suspiciously underpriced for such good reviews.  The group was a little skeptical as we headed down a dirt driveway with cement walls and shacks on either side.  But then, the walls opening up to a gorgeous lawn and pool with a small boutique hotel and outside eating area.  We’d arrived at Kubu Cempaka and we were home.

Of course the first thing we needed to do was get our bearings and head to the beach. Thankfully, there are restaurants all along the beach so our dinner option was easy!  We soon found out that eating in Bali is spectacular because ex-pats from all over the world move to Bali because it is such a wonderful place to live. They set up restaurants from their native lands so the foreign fare is as authentic as it could be!  Add that to local delicious seafood and you’re set! 

Bali beach

Soon we formulated our plan. We decided to do a small loop which included Bali and neighboring island of Lombok.  After Seminyak we took a ferry to Lembogan, then to Gili Air and lastly Ubud.  Here are our highlights.

Yoga.  Bali is arguably the capital of modern yoga and you should take FULL advantage (while also paying attention to the types you don’t like. For example, we aren’t big Hatha fans. Too much breathing, too little action). By far, our favorite yoga place and a highlight from the ENTIRE world trip is the Yoga Barn in Ubud.  People travel to Bali solely for the opportunity to go to the Yoga Barn and we don’t blame them.  World-class teachers in a gorgeous open air studio, this place has a culture completely onto itself.  We started plotting our return before we left.

Photo from https://thenorthernboy.com/yoga-barn-ubud

While on the subject of activities, you should also find time to do some surfing and scuba diving. We surfed in Seminyak and loved it, but the opportunities are endless.  Talk to your hotel whenever you are near the ocean.  

Massages.  Take advantage of the incredibly inexpensive massages ($5 for 90 minutes.  Seriously.) on every block in every city.  Get a recommendation from your hotel or poke your head into a few to find your favorite.  Ryan is quoted as saying he wanted to be sick of massages before he left SE Asia, and in Bali he did his best!  In addition to full body, we recommend simply getting a foot massage every night, just because you can!

Bali Massage

Motor Bikes.  So fun.  We rented bikes in Lembogan and it was such a great way to spend the day and explore.  We went over to Le Pirate for pool time and fabulous drinks, and then Mamma Mia for delicious lunch!

Bali Motorbike

Beachside Drinks. Speaking of drinks, we absolutely loved the fresh fruit smoothies (we recommend the watermelon mint delight!) while looking out on the water.  For a more club-ish scene, we liked Ku de Ta in Semenyak, Le Piarate in Lembogan, and Deus ex Machina in Canggu.  One of our favorite tricks was to get everything mocktail.  We know it sounds lame, but this way you don’t have to limit yourself! And, as you can see, we didn’t limit ourselves!

Bali+beachside+drinks
IMG_2097.JPG

Lastly, the Art in Ubud is some of the widest variety that we’ve ever seen in one place.  Take advantage of the vast array of artists on all mediums and of all subjects to pick some pieces that can transport you back to Bali when you get home. 

Bali was the perfect recovery for our wild ride around China, and we couldn’t recommend it more highly. The people, sights, activities, food, and energy facilitate an atmosphere that will be the greatest memory of your time there.  We can’t wait to go back.

Bali Paradise

Our China Crash Course

Our adventure through China was an absolute whirlwind that covered almost 3,000 miles in 10 days. To see China in that amount of time is like taking a 10 day trip to see New York, D.C., LA, and Seattle. It was absolutely insane.

But we had a good reason for the quickness—Blakely’s family came to join us and they only had a small window. We enjoyed the company (and the upgrade in accommodations!).

This sums up our Chinese invasion!

We started in Hong Kong, which is a great gateway into China since it is much more connected to the outside world. Reminder: the Chinese government significantly limits news flow of its citizens, and this makes them culturally cut off from the rest of society. While Hong Kong technically falls under Chinese jurisdiction, it was a British colony until 1997 when the Brits returned it to China. Hong Kong maintains a separate political and economic system from China, but the mainland significantly influences the legislation. China continues to broker more influence, and unfortunately protests don’t make much difference despite making international news.

Blakely and Ryan arrived 2 days earlier than the rest of the group, which was best as we were VERY dusty from our time in Nepal. We stayed at the Kowloon Shangri-la Hotel, which, as could be expected, were MUCH better accommodations than our norm.

We enjoyed the hotel then headed to explore the city. Of course, a highlight for us was the spectacular architecture. As city folk we really appreciate a good skyscraper, and Hong Kong has plenty of those! Hong Kong has a gorgeous skyline, with more skyscrapers than anywhere in the world, and Victoria Harbor elevates the view further. Ryan’s favorites were the HSBC Building, International Commerce Center, and Bank of China Tower. Then we went to Man Mo temple, which is dedicated to the gods of literature and war. The incense and atmosphere make it a calm and gorgeous stop.

That night, we headed to the fabulous SoHo neighborhood (not to be confused with the SoHo in NYC, this stands for South of Hollywood Road) which has one of our favorite features: escalator sidewalks. First we hit a wine and cheese bar, and then one of our favorite restaurants Little Bao. So fun, so delicious, and everything we needed.

Finally, the rest of the group arrived. We didn’t pause long before taking them on a walking tour the neighborhood. Then for dinner, we headed to the world renowned Din Tai Fung restaurant for delicious dumplings and noodles. Finally, we headed to Temple Street Night Market for a bit of chaos and shopping! Unfortunately the market is MUCH more glitz than glamor, and as many things in China, focused on the shiny quantity over quality!


The next day was a big one. We started on a tram up to Victoria Peak to see the sights. Due to the crazy fog, the view half-way up was better. Then we took a boat tour to see the floating village of Aberdeen and the temples there. Afterwards, a little tea time at the Peninsula hotel, then cocktails while watching the harbor light show.

Honk Kong China
IMG_1470.JPG

Next, we jetted off to Guilin and immediately went to the gorgeous Reed Flute cave. In case the natural structure isn’t enough, the gorgeous light displays make the cave even more mystical and impressive (though a few thought they were tacky and preferred the natural landscape!). In Guilin, we stayed at the beautiful Guilin Shangri-la Hotel.

Next on the itinerary was a drive out to Longji, with hiking to see the gorgeous rice paddies. Absolutely worth the hike (to say nothing of needing to work off those dumplings!), this was a trip highlight for all of us.

That night we took a light cruise around the lakes of Guilin. The Chinese LOVE a light show, and we were pretty impressed ourselves!

The next day was a highlight: A boat cruise along the Li River. This site has inspired painters and artists for centuries, and it inspired the artwork on the 20 yuan note today. Blakely couldn’t resist the beauty recreated by a local artist on rice paper, which is now hanging in our house!

After the day’s craziness, we took a flight to Xian and settled into the Wyndham Grand Xian hotel, another fabulous place!

Xian attracts visitors from all over the world with the incredible Terracotta Warriors. Even with all of the hype, they do NOT disappoint. Here’s the skinny:

When the first Emperor of China Qin Shi Huang died around 210 BC, he was buried with an army he commissioned to protect him in the afterlife. There are approximately 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots, 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses. Additionally, there are officials, acrobats, strongmen and musicians. All of the statues are life sized, uniquely carved and painted, and buried in different sized pits. The largest of the pits is housed in the museum for viewing. It is INSANE to see.

Even cooler: the army is just a portion of the remains left to be discovered. Excavation is ongoing, but ground-penetrating radar detects a larger city resembling the emperor’s imperial palace and court. Next we gobbled down some delicious beef noodle soup!

The next day we had a gorgeous bike ride around Xian’s ancient city walls, which were built in the 14th Century and form one of the best-preserved fortresses in the world. After earning our treat, we had a walk through the Great Tang All Day Mall and celebrated with Popsicles and BBQ. This is a market of which we all approved!

After Xian we flew to Shanghai and got to visit the historic and beautiful Zhujiajiao village. We felt like we stepped back in time! We had a canal cruise, did a little shopping (of course) and went to see a historic mansion with traditional Chinese gardens.

Shanghai was absolutely our favorite city in mainland China, with a gorgeous skyline and metropolitan atmosphere. As discussed, we love cities. We walked along the river and had a fabulous dinner before enjoying one of THE most bizarre and fantastic shows we’d ever seen: The Amazing Acrobats of Shanghai. We will never be able to see another acrobat show again.

The following day the boys and girls separated, and the boys took a tour of the mind blowing Shanghai port. Afterwards we all flew to our last stop (WHEW) Beijing.

The next day was a highlight and it started with Tian’anmen Square. According to our official guide it is “the largest city square in the world” (it is actually only one of the top 10) “and the spiritual heart of China, where the national flag is raised exactly at sunrise every day.” Of course, what isn’t mentioned in the paraphernalia is that this square is infamous for the horrendous massacre of protestors in 1989. Troops with automatic rifles and tanks killed hundreds of demonstrators who were trying to block the military’s advance to the square (where a student protest was happening).

Today, Tian’anmen is a heavily regulated area and indicative of Chinese policy in general. Before entry, visitors and their belongings are searched and IDs checked. Protests are strictly forbidden, and discussion of the massacre nonexistent. Furthermore, in the 70s the square held ginormous portraits of 6 dictators (including Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and Joseph Stalin), but upon the death of Mao Sedong (founding father of the People’s Republic of China) the other portraits were removed and only his remains. Don’t worry, the other portraits are still brought out in a parade around the square on Labor Day and National Day.

For all its dark past, Tian’anmen Square allows entrance to one of the coolest places in China: The Forbidden City. The Forbidden City is a palace complex in Central Beijing and housed the imperial palace from 1420-1912. Now, it is a Palace Museum and provides an excellent snapshot of gorgeous Chinese architecture, artwork, and artefacts. Our personal favorite was the Hall of Clocks, a display of 200 clocks and watches from the imperial collection.

Forbidden City China

Last stop for the day, we visited the Temple of Heaven, a complex of religious buildings that was visited yearly by emperors to ensure a good harvest.

Ok. Now for the part we’ve all been waiting for. The famous symbol of China, an architectural wonder of the world, stretching 6,700 km and over 2,000 years old: The Great Wall of China.

The wall was constructed over many different dynasties to protect the ever-changing empire borders. The most extensive and modern construction occurred as recently as the 14th Century. Effectiveness of the wall varied, and our guide informed us that bribery decreased the walls success. Unfortunately, with the invention of air invasion, the wall was largely unproductive in modern era. That said, it is magnificent to see.

IMG_1967.JPG

You can see some of the family VERY small in this picture!

Though it can’t be seen from the moon (common misconception), it can be seen from space at a low orbit when the conditions are right.

Maybe one of our favorite parts was the ride down. Take a look.

To get to the wall we enjoyed the Sacred Path, which is lined with animals, mystical beasts and officials who serve the emperor in his afterlife. Sitting emperors perform rituals there for the ancestors once a year.

Our last stop in China was one of our favorites: The Summer Palace. This was an imperial summer resort of the Qing Dynasty and it has gorgeous grounds that are the recognized as the most splendid classical gardens of China. The incredible decoration on the buildings made us constantly look up, and we loved finishing our trip with such a gorgeous example of Chinese art. Our only complaint was that we visited on a holiday so we felt like all of China was there with us! One thing is for sure: China has a LOT of people!

So ended our blitz through China, and if you’re tired from reading it you can imagine how tired we were for doing it! The only answer: a blissful vacation to Bali.

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.