Destinations, Thailand, Travel

Photo of the Week: Elephant Nature Park

May 23, 2016

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From my personal Facebook account this week:

For the past week we’ve been volunteering at Elephant Nature Park in Northern Thailand. Our duties have included prepping elephant food, planting trees, cleaning up elephant poo, cutting grass and corn, and bathing the elephants.

Most all of the elephants at this park have been rescued from the logging and tourism industries. These elephants have been physically and mentally abused for most of their lives. Elephant Nature Park provides the sanctuary and rehabilitation services for these elephants to “retire” and live the rest of their time with dignity.

Last night we had the pleasure of hearing Lek, the founder of ENP, speak with incredible passion and drive to help spread awareness of elephant abuse.

As my plea, I just ask that before participating in elephant tourism (rides, circus, even simply paying to feed the elephant) research and vet the company that you’re about to hand your money over to. Ask yourself whether the activity benefits the animal’s welfare. After spending a week observing the elephants in a near-natural environment, I can tell you it’s incredible to see these magnificent creatures living amongst their families without pressure to ever perform.

Lek and her team have done an amazing job at ENP. I highly encourage everyone to check out their website (elephantnaturepark.org) to learn more.

Destinations, Food, Thailand, Travel

Our Experience with Thai Farm Cooking School

May 16, 2016
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One of the activities I was most excited to take part in while in Thailand was participating in a Thai cooking class. I wanted to learn more about Thai food and expand my obsession beyond Pad See Ew and Pad Thai.

We learned the importance of Trip Advisor and other third-party reviews pretty quickly in Thailand. There are a lot of “tour agencies” all around Thailand and they help you book activities, trips, and transportation. These companies are extremely convenient because they book everything from start to finish for you (including transportation), but there isn’t really a lot of information on the reviews and feedback of the tours that are offered.

We learned this the hard way after booking a snorkeling tour in southern Thailand only to find that almost all of the reviews were extremely negative. Since we don’t have cellular data (WIFI only) we weren’t able to vouch the company before booking the tour. This isn’t to say that every tour the companies sell are negative, it’s just that you really need to find independent verifiers. We only made this mistake once (and ended up switching tours) so while it takes more time, we’re always double-checking companies to ensure they have favorable reviews before booking.

So finding the cooking class was simple; we just chose the best and more frequently reviewed company in Chiang Mai. This brought us to the Thai Farm Cooking School. For about $37USD each we spent a full day with our instructor learning about Thai cuisine, food culture, and how to make popular Thai dishes.

Our day started at 8:30AM with a pick up from our hostel in Chiang Mai. There were nine students in our group under the care of our excellent instructor, Pern. Pern was awesome. She was funny, friendly, warm and helpful – everything you want in a teacher. Before heading to the cooking school, we stopped by a local market to learn more about how Thai people shop for food and learn about ingredients that aren’t as common in the US.

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Once we arrived at the cooking school you could see how serious of an operation this was. Several other classes were going on throughout the farm. I was really impressed by the organization and flow of the entire day.

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Before we started cooking we took a tour of the farm to see how the ingredients we were about to be cooking with actually grew. We saw mangoes, pineapples, cashew nuts, holy basil, eggplant, rice, coconuts and more.

When you sign up for the school you’re able to choose from a selection of dishes that you want to make for each meal. We were all able to pick a curry, soup, a stir-fry, and a noodle dish, and a dessert.

Thai food is based on a mix of five flavors: sour, salty, spicy, sweet and bitter. When balanced correctly these flavors create complex tastes and aromatic meals. The mix of these flavors and balance of the sweet vs. sour and sour vs. salty, bitter vs. spicy, etc., etc., can really change the entire flavor profile of the dish. Throughout the class we would experiment with our sauces to detect the difference in flavor if we added more fish sauce or squeeze more lime juice. Most dishes we made used the same group of ingredients, it was really the preparation and sauce that would completely change the taste of the meal.

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Since most of our class didn’t eat breakfast, we started our day making the soup. The soup didn’t take long at all to make and it was a great starter to satiating our empty bellies. We had the option of either making Tom Yam (a slightly sour soup) or coconut soup (a creamier version of Tom Yam). I went with the traditional Tom Yam but mixed it up a bit with a few teaspoons of coconut milk to give it a creamier base. Adam went all out and made a coconut vegetable soup.

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Tom Yam with Shrimp

INGREDIENTS

1-5 crushed hot chillies
1/2 cup of sliced mushrooms
1 stalk of lemongrass ( slice into 3cm long pieces )
1/4 cup of sliced onion
1/4 cup of sliced galangal
1/4 cup of sliced tomatoes
3 kaffir lime leaves
2 tsp. of lime juice
2 tbsp. of fish sauce or soya sauce
1/2 tsp. of sugar
1/2 tbsp. of shrimp chili paste
2 cups of water
5 shrimps ( take the heads off and keep )
1 tbsp. of chopped spring onion
1 stem of coriander plant
1/4 tsp. of salt
2 leaves of Thai parsley

PREPARATION

Put water in a pot, heat until boiling. Add lemongrass, galangal, shrimp chili paste, shrimp heads and onion. Cook until fragrant. Add tomatoes, shrimp meat and mushrooms. When done, flavor with fish sauce, salt and sugar. Stir thoroughly and finally add lime juice, spring onion, Thai parsley, coriander and lime leaves. If not spicy enough add hot chillies. Serve with rice.

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Our second dish for the day was a curry. I chose red curry with chicken. Before the cooking began, we first had to make our own curry paste.

The before:

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And the after:

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The red curry was one of my favorite dishes of the day. I love how the spicy flavors of the curry work with the creamy and cool coconut milk. It’s refreshing and brings in the heat in tandem. The curry is the dish I’m most looking forward to recreating at home.

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Red Curry with Chicken

INGREDIENTS FOR CURRY PASTE

2-3 red dried chillies ( soak in cold water about 15 minutes before using )
1 tbsp. of chopped shallots
1 tsp. of chopped galangal
1/2 tsp. of chopped kaffir lime rind
1 tsp. of chopped garlic
1 tbsp. of chopped lemongrass
1 tbsp. of chopped krachai ( or ‘Thai ginseng’ )
1/4 tsp. of roasted cumin seeds
1/4 tsp. of roasted coriander seeds
1/4 tsp. of salt ( or 1/2 tsp. of salt if you would like to keep the paste longer )

OTHER INGREDIENTS

1 cup of sliced eggplants ( or other vegetables like cauliflower, broccoli or potato )
1/4 cup of smaller pea-like eggplants ( MAKHEAU PHUANG )
1/3 cup of sliced onion
70 grams of sliced chicken
1 tsp. of sugar
1 tbsp. of fish sauce or soya sauce
3 kaffir lime leaves
2 stems of sweet basil ( HORAPAA )
1 cup of coconut milk
1 cup of water

PREPARATION OF RED CURRY PASTE

Put the ingredients for the curry paste in the mortar. Pound with the pestle until everything is mixed and ground thoroughly. You can also use a blender.

PREPARATION OF RED CURRY

Pour the coconut milk in the pot and turn on to medium heat. Stir until oil appears. Add red curry paste and chicken and stir until almost done. Add your vegetables, water, sugar, fish sauce, salt and turn the heat up. Stir a little. When everything is cooked, put the sweet basil and lime leaves. Serve with rice.

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Posing with my red curry

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To accompany our curries, we also each made a stir-fry dish. I made the fried chicken with basil leaves and Adam made the sweet and sour chicken. I love the smell and taste of holy basil so I was really excited for this dish.

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Chicken with Holy Basil

INGREDIENTS

100 grams of sliced chicken
2 tbsp. of oil ( soya bean oil or palm oil )
5 cloves of crushed garlic
1/3 cup of sliced long beans
2-3 hot chillies
1 cup of holy basil leaves
1 tbsp. of fish sauce
1 tbsp. of oyster sauce
1/2 tsp. of sugar
1/4 cup of sliced onions
3 tbsp. of water

PREPARATION

Pour the oil in the wok on a low heat. When oil is hot, add garlic, onion and chillies. Stir until fragrant. Add chicken and turn the heat up. Stir until well done. Next add long beans, fish sauce, sugar and oyster sauce. Add a little water. Stir together well. When everything done, add basil leaves and stir once again. Serve with rice.

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For our noodle dish, I opted for spring rolls over making Pad Thai. I’ve been eating a decent amount of Pad Thai (and watching a decent amount be made in front of me), so I wanted to try something new.

Also, at this point in the day, our class was starting to feel like zombies. The double curry and stir fry meals made everyone full and loopy. We were starting to all go a little stir crazy. We felt like little kindergarteners that really needed a nap. The spring roll was a little less intense than the Pad Thai, so I was happy to have a brain break.

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Spring Rolls

INGREDIENTS

1 tbsp. of grated carrot
1/2 cup of finely sliced cabbage
1/4 cup of finely sliced onion
1/2 cup of bean sprouts
1/2 cup of glass noodles ( dried glass noodles have to soak in cold water about 15 minutes until soft )
1/4 cup of sliced tofu
1/4 tsp. of salt
1/4 tsp. of pepper
6 spring roll sheets
1 tsp. of soybean oil
1 stem of coriander
1 tsp. of sugar
2 tsp. of soya sauce

INGREDIENTS FOR DIPPING SAUCE

1 red chilli
1 1/2 tsp. of vinegar
2 tbsp. of sugar
1/4 tsp. of salt
1 clove of crushed garlic
1 tsp. of flour
1/3 cup of water

PREPARATION OF SPRINGROLLS

Heat up the oil in the wok. Add tofu, cabbage, onions, carrots, bean sprouts, sugar soya sauce and salt. Stir fry until vegetables are soft and dry. Turn the heat to low. Add glass noodles, coriander and pepper. Stir fry again until mixed well. Set aside to cool.

Take a spring roll sheet and put some filling on it. Fold the sheet over the filling. Roll a bit, then fold the sides in and roll up tightly. Before closing, glue with some mixed egg. Deep-fry the spring rolls until golden brown.

PREPARATION OF DIPPING SAUCE

Crush garlic and chili. Put in a pot together with water, salt, sugar and vinegar. Heat on a low fire to boiling. Mix flour with some water and add to the mixture to make thicker.

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Masterchef Adam!

For dessert we made one of my favorite things in the whole wide world, mango sticky rice. It’s incredible, two months ago I didn’t even know mango sticky rice existed and now, I don’t want to live in a world without it. It really needs to become more popular in the US. It’s so good and delicious and it just makes you happy. Luckily, now I know how to make it if I’m ever hit with a craving.

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Mango Sticky Rice

INGREDIENTS

1 cup of steamed sticky rice
1/2 cup of coconut milk
1 ripe mango ( peel, remove the seed and slice into pieces )
1-2 tbsp. of sugar
1/4 tsp. of salt
1 tbsp. of roasted mung beans

PREPARATION

Put coconut milk, sugar and salt in a pot. Heat until boiling. Turn the heat off. Add steamed sticky rice. Mix together well. Let it cool. Serve with mango and top sticky rice with mung beans.

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Bon appetit!

We really had the best day at the cooking school. It’s up there in the top of my favorite activities while traveling list. It was definitely great to make these classic Thai dishes, but my favorite part was just hanging out with a great group of people and goofing off and learning together.

All recipes via Thai Farm Cooking School

Destinations, Food, Thailand, Travel

Photo of the Week: Enjoying Street Food in Chiang Mai

May 13, 2016

This week has been relaxing. We’ve been in Chiang Mai for a little over two weeks and have crossed most of the tourist “to-do” items off of our checklist. We’re starting our adventure at Elephant Nature Park in a few days and we’re still a little unsure of how physically intense the volunteering will be. So instead of running ourselves ragged around Chiang Mai and showing up to ENP exhausted, we’ve been just hanging out and centering our day around finding food and coffee. It’s been most pleasurable.

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One of my absolute favorite things about Chiang Mai (and Thailand) is enjoying street food. There is something so wonderful about ordering a delicious bowl of freshly made noodles and then posting up at a little table street side to people watch. On top of that, you can also walk over to the nearest 7-11 (there’s always one within a few feet) and grab a beer for about $1USD to accompany your noodles. Heck, sometimes the beer is more expensive than your dinner.

Thailand is a place that assaults all of your senses and my favorite time for that to happen is while slurping down a bowl of noodles.

Travel, Travel Bloggers

Travel Blogger Series: Suzanne from PhilaTravelGirl

May 9, 2016
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Today’s featured blog guest is Suzanne from PhilaTravelGirl. Suzanne’s blog is a great resource for budgeting for your trip. We’re attempting to fly back to the US on rewards points only, so Suzanne’s blog has been a helpful to learn new tricks and tips.

Suzanne is also a Virtuoso affliliate travel advisor so now you can read about her travels and reviews, Being an affiliate, Suzanne can help book similar travels for you. The new site is Arden Road Travel www.ardenroadtravel.com.

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Suzanne with the Fiat500 tour in Florence

How do you stay healthy when you travel?

I try to walk as much as I can, sign up for bike tours and use the stairs whenever it makes sense (definitely on cruise ships but not always on the London Underground). Having a good workout routine at home, Lithe Method, allows me to take a workout break to indulge on the road without much guilt – there are too many great wines and desserts to sample around the world! I divorce my food journal, count zero calories and really enjoy my travels

Any tips to learning more about a culture and meeting locals when you don’t speak the language?

Antipasti at La Rosa Sorrento

Antipasti on a private tour of Sorrento in Italy

I’ve hired many private guides to show me the popular and hidden spots in their hometowns. Learning about the food gives you a peek into the culture – In Sorrento, I had a fabulous tasting lunch at a local restaurant, in Split and Lisbon, we stopped roadside to order local sandwiches from the food window. In Lima, I attended a cooking class and made local Peruvian foods (those chefs are miracle workers as my food was actually edible!). Bike Tours, Walking Tours and Behind the Scenes tours are also great options to learn more about a destination.

What’s your favorite thing about traveling?

The ability to escape my bubble at home and reset my mind, body and spirit while exploring the world and learning more about people, culture and myself along the way. I love to meet new people around the world, share stories and return a changed person. Nothing is more relaxing and exciting than a window seat looking out at the clouds, the sunrise or the sunset knowing that my journey is just beginning.

What’s your travel pet peeve?

  • Solo (Single) Supplements – I hate them as they prevent many people from traveling.
  • Gate lice (the hoards of people in the US at the gate trying to get ahead of others to get their bag in the overhead bin)
  • Travelers in Business Class walking in and out of the bathroom with bare feet and then putting their feet on their seat (yuck!)
  • Hotel Check In Times – I hate to wait to get into my room, we need more hotels on a rolling 24/7 check-in/out schedule
  • The $30+ Hotel Breakfast

What’s the most surreal place you’ve ever visited?

Okavango Delta Botswana

Okavango Delta in Botswana

In 2012, I had the amazing opportunity to redeem for award travel to Easter Island in Spring and Africa for a month in Fall. It was a crazy year of surreal experiences. One highlight (of many) was the Okavango Delta in Botswana is where I sat in my mokoro boat guided on the water watching the African sunset and realizing how blessed I was to have the desire to learn more about the world. We had just finished our walking safari tracking animals and I was gliding back through the channels of reeds blowing in the warm wind content that I had found a part of the world unspoiled and still off the grid. They say Africa changes you and for me it definitely did as I started writing about my travels, found a community of travelers around the world I now call friends and gave me the opportunity to start my own business, Arden Road Travel, planning travel for others interested in exploring the world with a side of luxury.

What are some of your “must pack” items? Why?

  • My Nordstrom Tissue Cashmere Scarf – it’s lightweight yet warm and functions as a scarf, blanket or head covering
  • Fleece Pullover – I get cold everywhere including the plane so this is always in my carryon
  • My Snack Bag of Chocolate, Cashews & Cookies – I’ve made many new friends and bribed a few others with chocolate and/or cookies. It’s hard for people to be grumpy when eating chocolate or cookies. The cashews are great snacks but not great bribes.
  • Bags, Bags and More Bags – I generally have a collapsible duffel in my suitcase in case I need to make check in weight on an overseas flight or ship my clothes from one city to another. I have a reusable bag for market treks and my LuLuLemon bag for snacks. These three plus lots of ziploc bags (great for takeaway food, icepacks and jewelry) make me a bit of a bag lady ready for a plethora of situations.
  • Magazines and Books – I prefer to disconnect and catch up on the pile of magazines in the house and read a hardcover/paper book. I can then share them once done with other passengers (it drives me crazy when folks fly with nothing to do but stare ahead for hours), flight crew and others along the way.

What do you use for luggage? Are you team backpack or suitcase?

I’m team “kneel on the suitcase to expel all possible air out to make the checked luggage weight”
Depends on the trip, but usually I have backpack as carryon with the important things (camera, laptop, contact solution/glasses and 1-5 above) and a suitcase as checked luggage.

Any tips for jet lag?

Know your body and what works for you. For travel to Europe on the overnight flights, I will often pay extra for the hotel room the night before to guarantee an early arrival (say 7 a.m.) so I can go to sleep and reset my body. I’m not a fan of sleeping in the lobby waiting for check in time. For Australia, I recently went via Asia and stayed overnight to get sorted on the time zone. It was the first time, I wasn’t down for days due to jet lag. It’s all about a routine – I bring my cookies and snacks (powerbars, cashews, etc.) to keep my stomach on food it knows.

What are your favorite travel apps?

  • WhatsApp
    XE Currency
    TripLingo (language app)
    WordLens (translate menus and other foreign words on screen)
    Your Rights (EU transit rights)

If I visit your country, what’s one meal I can’t miss?

The U.S. has amazing foods by region and cities so there are a plethora of can’t miss meals depending on where you are. For Philadelphia, I enjoy taking visitors to the Reading Terminal Market where they can sample a Cheesesteak, Roasted Pork Sandwich, see the Amish and taste their popular doughnuts made fresh in front of you (the lines are worth it). With vendor stalls throughout the market you can also enjoy Italian cannoli, freshly made chocolate, PA General Store locally made foods and the Sour Cherry Sea Salt Chocolate Chip Cookie from Metropolitan Bakery.

Can you share your favorite hidden treasure (place, food, event) that you found while traveling? I understand if you can’t!

Azure Window Gozo

Gozo in Malta (Azure Window)

  • Paul A Young Chocolates in London – I’m addicted to the Popcorn Pave of Sea Salted Caramel, Chocolate and Popcorn in thin squares
  • The Underground Tour of Street Art in Paris
  • Garry of Longhorn YOUnique Tours in Melbourne – the Great Ocean Road was made even more fabulous with Garry and his homemade treats on a small private tour
  • Malta and the Island of Gozo
  • The Okavango Delta of Botswana

What’s your favorite thing about travel blogging?

I don’t have a ton of readers but it only takes one to say “thank you for writing about x, we went there and loved it” – that’s just such a great feeling to know I helped someone travel. I’ve also connected with travel bloggers around the world who are now friends and great resources.

If you can answer, favorite place to visit?

London, Paris, Sydney, Seattle are on my repeat list

Where is the next place you’re traveling to?

I’m planning on going back to the Toronto International Film Festival in September as I love the movies from around the world. It’s a great showcase to show no matter where we live, what our backgrounds might be, we all strive for the same things – to be happy in our work, to provide for our families and to be loved. No language translation apps needed – the emotional stories are on the screen.

I’m also planning on hopefully taking my mom on her dream trip to Ireland.

Destinations, Thailand, Travel

Photo of the Week: Relive Resort in Chiang Mai

May 6, 2016
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We’ve been in Chiang Mai, a city in Northern Thailand, for the last week and for four of those days we stayed at the most wonderful resort about an hour outside of the city. I found Relive Resort through airbnb and it looked like the perfect place to just get away and be in the country for a few days.

We’ve been in big cities like Bangkok and Singapore for the last couple weeks, so it was a really nice break to finally see some green grass and mountain landscapes.

At Relive we slept in a bamboo hut and ate each and every one of our meals from the resort restaurant. The food was wonderful, the staff was beyond great, and even better – they had two hilarious little puppies at the resort. It was a stress-free few days.

We took one small zip lining adventure while in the mountains, but most of our time was spent relaxing, eating, and for me – reading the Harry Potter series over again. I’m through book three and have no intention of slowing down.

We still have another 11 days in Chiang Mai before our next big adventure at Elephant Nature Park begins and I’m seriously tempted to escape again to Relive Resort. It was that awesome.

Life

Updates from Thailand

May 4, 2016
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Hi, everyone! Today I’m linking up with Jenn and Jessi to share what’s been hap-pinning with me lately.

// We’ve been in Asia for a month! That is crazy to me. You wouldn’t know it from my blog (still working on those New Zealand recaps), but we’ve been in Thailand (and a little bit of Singapore) since April 5th. Wild.

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Oh hey, that’s me right now!

// Thailand has been interesting. I’ll write about the country and days in more detail, but suffice to say nothing is what it seems in Thailand.

// I’ve had one bout of sickness that lasted for about four days, but otherwise I’ve been doing well. Luckily my food poisoning wasn’t terrible. It was mostly inconvenient and a little painful. But not as bad as other stories I’ve heard. Adam has a stomach of steel and he’s been almost 100 the whole time we’ve been here. I’m hoping my stomach and bacteria toughened up during my short period of sickness.

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Thailand loves temples

// I’m going to start a new weekly feature on the blog where I post a photo of the week. Since my bulkier recaps are so far behind, I wanted to post something that’s a little bit more relevant to how the current week is going. So on Fridays, I’ll be publishing a short post with a photo and small update on how our week has been.

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My favorite activity, eating

// I really need to figure out how to watch Game of Thrones over here. I’m about to quit Twitter for the rest of our trip just so I’m not spoiled. I’ve already been a little spoiled and I don’t know how to avoid it besides just giving up social media!

// I, like the rest of the world, am obsessed with Lemonade. I even signed up for Tidal Singapore. The things Beyonce makes you do. I still haven’t listened to Views; Drake is farther down the totem pole.

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We went zip lining!

// We booked our return trip! We’ve been monitoring dates and flight miles for the last month and a really good deal popped up yesterday. We’ll be back in the good ole U S of A on June 25th. Now that we have a return date I really feel like we’re under a deadline! Only a little over 7 weeks to go! Eeek. We’re over halfway done with this trip.

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Celebrating Songkran, Thai New Year, in Bangkok

// We’ve also booked out the rest of our flights for the duration of the trip. Our remaining time is about another month in Chiang Mai, a night in Malaysia, 4 nights in Cambodia, 4 in Hong Kong, 15 in Vietnam, and then a week in Japan. So we’re basically chilling out for the next month and then it’s go, go, go our last four weeks.

// America, I thought you guys would be done with Trump by now. Please. Stop him.

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What up, America!

// I am newly obsessed with dim sum and am upset it’s taken me so long to discover. My only plan in Hong Kong is to eat as much dim sum as possible.     

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Just navigating through a million market stalls to get to our hostel

Hope you’re having a good week!

Destinations, New Zealand, Travel

Exploring Wellington, New Zealand

May 3, 2016
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We had the best time when we hiked the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. The weather was perfect, the hike was challenging yet doable, and we were able to get away from a busy city and stay in a lodge for a couple nights.

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Our accommodations outside of National Park

There were pros and cons to staying in a lodge in the middle of nowhere. Pros: quiet, peacefulness, calmness with nature, and opportunity to meet a lot of other people in the lodge without distractions.

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The hallway of the lodge

Cons: No access to food except what you brought. Now this wouldn’t be a big deal if you planned well, but if you were like us and only considered your food for the hike (not the other dinners and breakfasts where you needed food) then you’d be screwed. And screwed we were.

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A monster-sized table that was at one point going to be used for the Hobbit movies

The National Park is where we discovered the goodness of the Free Food box in hostels. The Free Food box is normally full of oils, rice, and other basic items. It’s the food backpackers leave behind because they either have no room in their bags to carry it to their next location or they’re just really sick of eating rice.

We ended up taking advantage of the free food box (rice and pasta FTW) plus the bread, bananas, peanut butter, apples, granola bars and tuna lunches that we brought. We weren’t eating much of a diverse diet for those few days; however, it was enough calories to get us through. We weren’t indulging, but we were fine.

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Totally carb-loading for the hike the next morning

Also as a side-note: if we really did need food, we could have asked someone at the hostel to drive us 15 minutes to the store or hitch hike there. Hitchhiking is actually super common and safe in New Zealand. We wouldn’t have starved at the lodge.

Anyway, all of this is a long way of saying that once we made it to Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, we were really happy to be in a city setting again where it was easy to find and walk to everything we desired.

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Wellington was a really cool little city. It had a lot of things to do, but was small enough that we were able to walk everywhere. Wellington is situated at the southernmost point of New Zealand’s North Island on the Cook Strait.

We stayed in Wellington for two nights, but only had one full day in the city. We ended up fitting a lot within that day: we walked through Wellington’s Botanical Gardens, explored downtown Wellington, and then spent the evening along the waterfront and in the National Te Papa Museum.

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At this point in our trip we’ve been to lots of botanical gardens, but Wellington’s still ranks right up there with some of the best. The rose garden, in particular, has been the best rose garden I’ve ever seen. I could have spent hours walking around and looking at the different varieties of roses. I started to take pictures and write down the names of my favorites, but quickly realized that the list would never be manageable. Instead I just stopped to enjoy all of the beauty of these sweet blooms.

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In addition to the rose gardens, there were great plants and flowers within the conservatories and in other gardens throughout the area.

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The peak of the botanical gardens overlooked the city. It was an awesome view. We were right by the location where the cable car runs up and down the city. Wellington is full of hills and steep streets, so the cable car would have been an easy way to get back to the waterfront. We chose to make the walk instead.

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The walk down was steep. Again, I’m used to living in a place that’s totally flat, so any sort of incline is new to me.

Once we were in downtown Wellington and closer to the waterfront, we were on a mission to find some food. Doing what we normally do, we just chose a place based on the line out of the door. This ended up being a great plan. We found a sushi a’la carte restaurant where you can pick and choose pieces from a ton of rolls. Prices ranged from $1-$3 a piece. Another plus, since it was in the middle of the afternoon, it was half price sushi. We were both well fed for about $10 USD. This has to become a thing in the US if it isn’t already. Please let me know if you know of places with grab and go sushi.

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Enjoying sushi in the park      

After enjoying sushi, we explored the Te Papa museum, New Zealand’s National Museum. The museum was fantastic. We learned a lot about sea and wildlife around New Zealand, New Zealand’s history in World War I, past and future earthquakes, and general New Zealand history. At this point in the day my phone had died (I took too many pictures of flowers), but I just want to reiterate how great the museum was. We were really impressed. Admission was also free – another bonus.

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Wellington was a great place for us to chill out and explore for a couple days. We were able to really slow down our traveling pace and catch our breath. One of the little things that made me laugh the most was spotting this magnet in our hostel:

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It was good to know that fellow Cats fans approve of Wellington too.

Travel, Travel Bloggers

Travel Blogger Series: Ashley from The Wandering Weekenders

May 2, 2016
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Today’s Travel Blogger guest is Ashley from The Wandering Weekenders. I’ve been reading Ashley’s blog for awhile so I was really excited that she’s participating in this series. Whether you’re taking a quick weekend trip (hence the name!) or planning a longer vacation, Ashley’s blog offers up a ton of great tips and advice. Ashley and her husband, Chris, live in Texas with their sweet pup Dart.

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How do you stay healthy when you travel?

On our trips we try to do as much hiking or walking as we can to try and stay active. It always amazes me how many more steps I get when we’re on vacation than a normal weekend at home. When we visited Universal Studios in January, we got over 20,000 steps both days we were there!

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Butter beer!

Any tips to learning more about a culture and meeting locals when you don’t speak the language?

Unfortunately we haven’t been too many places where they don’t speak English or Spanish, but that will all change when we go to Europe in September! I’ve always found that food tends to bring people together, and I have a feeling that’s where we’ll be meeting a lot of locals and getting to know the culture when we’re there!

What’s your favorite thing about traveling?

I think that the obvious answer to the question is all the wonderful new experiences we have in the places we visit, but I’m going to go for the not so obvious answer, all the food! It’s no secret that I’m a big planner when it comes to traveling, but the thing that I probably plan out the most when we travel is where we’re going to eat. There’s nothing we love more than getting to try out some amazing local food!

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What’s your travel pet peeve?

Slow pokes in the airport! After all the weekend trips my husband and I have taken, we’ve kind of become pros at making our way through the airport. The one thing that always makes the security line a little worse than usual is when you get a slow poke in front of you! It’s even worse when they try to put their shoes and all their accessories on right at the X-ray machine!

What’s the most surreal place you’ve ever visited?

I think that I’d have to say Kauai was the most surreal place that I’ve ever visited. The natural beauty of the island was just so awe inspiring, that I kept on turning to my husband and saying “I can’t believe we’re here!” Kauai is not only home to Waimea Canyon, the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, but also the Na Pali Coast which is an absolutely beautiful and rugged section of coast that’s only accessible by boat, foot, or helicopter. There are no roads that go on that side of the island.

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Kauai

What are some of your “must pack” items? Why?

iPad- I don’t think that there’s anyway that I could survive without my iPad on a trip. I have my Nook and Kindle accounts on it, and there’s no way I could survive without a book on the plane!

My Camera- I’m a huge shutterbug on our trips, and I love looking back at our pictures from our trips to remember all the fun things we did!

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Portable iPhone Charger- I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been gone all day long on a trip and I had my phone almost die! Now there’s not a trip that we don’t go on where I don’t remember to bring my portable charger!

What do you use for luggage? Are you team backpack or suitcase?

We’re definitely team suitcase when it comes to traveling! My goal is to pack in a carry on for our trip to Europe, and that’s going to be a big stretch for me. I don’t know if we could pack for a long trip in backpack, so major props to Carly and her husband for being able to do it!

Any tips for jet lag?

We really haven’t had to deal with jet lag (yet!), but I’ve heard that trying to sleep when you’re going to a time zone that’s ahead of you will help to wake up fully refreshed. The opposite is true if you’re going to a time zone that’s behind you, you’re supposed to stay awake on the plane.

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Ashley’s dog Dart


If I visit your country, what’s one meal I can’t miss?

Technically Texas is kind of like its own country, so I would say you couldn’t leave without eating Tex Mex! There’s a lot of people that will probably tell you that you need to try BBQ (which is amazing as well), but I think that our Tex Mex is out of this world!

If you can answer, favorite place to visit?

For me, I think that it’s a toss up between Northern California and Hawaii. I think that both places have so much incredible natural beauty that I could spend years just exploring and taking a ton of pictures, but they also have a ton of stuff to do! You could probably live in San Francisco for years and not get a chance to do everything the city has to do, not to mention the amazing areas surrounding San Francisco like Big Sur, Napa, and Lake Tahoe. Hawaii has kind of the same thing, each island has their own personality that you could spend years getting to know and exploring.

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Pacific Coast Highway

Where is the next place you’re traveling to?

We have a couple of weekend trips planned for the near future, but our first non-weekend trip of the year is to Portland, Oregon. I can’t wait to explore this amazing city that I’ve heard so many wonderful things about, and, of course, eat all of the amazing food!

Destinations, New Zealand, Travel

Taking on The Tongariro Alpine Crossing

April 28, 2016
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Get ready for picture overload. No apologies; I just could not stop taking pictures during the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. For two main reasons: 1 – it’s incredibly beautiful and I wanted to be able to capture as much of it as possible. And 2 – taking a picture gave me an excuse to take a break from the crazy difficult hike.

When I originally started planning our trek on the Crossing, I had assumed it would be a nice day hike. I totally underestimated it. It’s recommended that you be “moderately fit” to complete the Crossing. But those are New Zealand standards and I’m not quite sure they’re the same as what I would qualify as moderately fit.

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is 19.4 kilometers and spans the length of Mount Tongariro. Mount Tongariro is an active volcano that has erupted as recently as 2012. The recommended path of the crossing begins and ends in two different locations, so having transportation drop off and pick up at both locations is required.

For a little perspective, here’s the elevation chart of the hike. The peak at the Red Crater is 6,188 ft. The tip of One World Trade Center is 1,792 ft. And the tip of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world is 2,717 ft. So we hiked a little over two Burj Khalifas.

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All smiles and nerves at the start

I knew I was in trouble when I was feeling a little worn out by the first big checkpoint. For about the first hour and half we were on a slight incline until we hit Soda Springs. While stopping and waiting in line to use the bathroom, I couldn’t help but get scared while looking at how high we were about to hike. I have never walked, hiked, climbed, whatever, anything that steep. I didn’t know if my legs would be able to handle it. Little did I know, what I was looking at was only the first big incline.

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Half of the walk from Soda Springs to the South Crater sucked. Specifically the part where we were walking uphill. It was so steep. It’s called the Devil’s Staircase for good reason. My lungs gave out way before than my legs. I learned pretty quickly that the key to making it up would be to stop every 5 minutes or so and catch my breath. Coming from the Lowcountry, I’m used to a life with no elevation. One time my ears popped while driving over the bridge. No lie. Elevation and I are not familiar.

Adam on the other hand was a champion. His plyometric workouts made him much more conditioned for the hike. Once I realized I would be holding him back with all my breaks, we ended up splitting up a little bit from each other. He would reach a good waiting point and just hang out until my weak ass made it.

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The second half of the walk from Soda Springs to the South Crater was great. It was the only flat part of the entire hike. I loved it. Like I said, we were ridiculously lucky and had fairly clear weather conditions that allowed us to take pictures of Mount Ngauruhoe. The hike was actually closed the day before due to poor weather and we met a couple that did the hike the day after us and they said the weather was terrible. Tongariro can be so hit and miss. We were extremely lucky.

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Every time the clouds cleared out hordes of people started snapping pics. The weather can change within minutes on the mountain so you need to get your shot when the moment is right; round 2 might not happen.

Because of the volatility of the weather, deciding what to wear during the hike can be tricky. We ended up both wearing two layers of pants and tops as well as bringing along both of our rain jackets. We also brought gloves and hats in our backpack in case the weather dropped. The weather stayed fairly warm throughout the day. There were only a couple times I had to wear my jacket and it was when my body cooled down after a break.

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The flat walk was so nice and appreciated, especially because Hell Part 2 was right around the corner. Although, the flat part of the hike screwed with your head. It made you think that things were nice again and that the hard part was over. For a moment I enjoyed myself. I was able to walk for more than 5 minutes without catching my breath. Well screw you said Tongariro because soon enough I wouldn’t be able to walk for 2 minutes without catching my breath.

The hike from the South Crater to the Red Crater was out of control hard. It was so steep and difficult. I don’t have many pictures of this part because I was totally focused on making it to the top. There were a few parts where we were walking around the volcano and it was so steep that we had to pull ourselves up with a metal chain. I really had moments where I didn’t think I could make it. 6,000 feet in the air is the highest I’ve ever gone without flying. We went above the clouds! Crazy.

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An accurate representation of how I felt. Adam wasn’t getting a smile out of me.

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Once we reached the peak I was so relieved and happy. I don’t hike a lot or participate in too many challenging activities so it was a moment where I was truly proud of myself. I did something that wasn’t easy and I didn’t give up. I might have griped here and there, but I felt so good once we were at the top. Tongariro may have just made a hiker out of me yet.

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The Red Crater

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The views at the top were gorgeous. In one direction we still had great views of Mt. Ngauruhoe and in the other we were treated to the Emerald Lakes. The Emerald Lakes look like they’re straight out of another world. We’re on this hike where there isn’t much color at all and suddenly these incredibly intensely colored lakes appear. The contrast between the lakes and the sand and rocks was shocking.

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I must sound like such an ignorant newb, because I also didn’t take into account how steep the climb down would be from the peak. From the Red Crater to the Emerald lakes there was an intense descent. Adding to the challenge, the path was essentially scoria – a loose sandlike lava. People were slipping and sliding everywhere. I just slowly took my time (a common theme) and walked down like a crab. It took forever, but I didn’t fall. Adam did end up slipping once because he picked up too much speed. It was dangerous!

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Once we finally made it to the Emerald Lakes we sat down and had lunch. It was a great break and the food was much needed at that point. The lakes were the perfect spot and view to rest and charge back up for the descent.

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One of the lakes snuck up on us. We started walking after lunch and I noticed a few people heading in the opposite direction of the crowd. I was feeling adventurous and followed the near empty path. At the end was the most beautiful blue lake without any sort of crowd. It was incredible. The color was insane. I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that something this color can exist in nature.

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We hiked Tongariro on a Saturday with good weather. This means we hiked along with a couple other thousand people. There were people everywhere all day. This didn’t necessarily bother me, I would have felt safe if I was injured, but it was so nice to find this quiet, gorgeous lake not surrounded by hordes of other hikers.

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After the Emerald Lakes, it was time for the descent. I had originally written off the descent as being easy – I mean, it didn’t look that steep on the map and how hard is going downhill? Well, it was hard. Hiking up was difficult on my lungs, but hiking down was more difficult on my knees and hips. My body isn’t used to walking at a decline for an extended period of time.

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The descent was a combination of zigging and zagging down the mountains and through a forest. Back and forth, back and forth we went for hours. Since there were so many other people hiking Tongariro is also meant being passed by a lot of people and passing a lot of others. There was a bunch of bobbing and weaving. The decline portion was more mentally challenging than anything; if felt like it would never end.

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The end of the hike popped out of nowhere in the forest. We thought we might be getting close when several hikers started to run by us, but the opening to the car park really came out of nowhere. Just like that we had completed the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

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It was amazing. It was hard. It was rewarding. Tongariro was a beast that I was proud to take on. We finished the crossing in just under 7 hours.

Travel, Travel Bloggers

Travel Blogger Series: Eileen from Pure Wander and Crooked Flight

April 25, 2016
Travel Blogger Series

Today’s travel blogger feature is Eileen from Pure Wander and Crooked Flight. Pure Wander is geared towards family travel adventures and Crooked Flight is a travel site for female and couple travelers. Both blogs offer some great resources for planning and trip and suggestions once you’ve arrived to your destination. Eileen is originally from Boston, Massachusetts, but is currently living the expat life with her husband in London. You can keep up with Eileen’s adventures via her Instagram and Twitter.

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How do you stay healthy when you travel?

Hydrate. Always. I hydrate not only by drinking water but try to keep my skin fresh with things like Evian spray, which also helps me feel alert and awake. Sometimes food can be a challenge, but I do try to keep meals as balanced as possible to avoid feeling sluggish or bloated. It’s way more fun to see the world when you feel your best!

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At a waterfall in Iceland

Any tips to learning more about a culture and meeting locals when you don’t speak the language?

Respectful observation and humility are ways to get a glimpse into other cultures. If you see something you’d like to take a closer look at, don’t shove your camera in or get in the way. Have a look at the musicians, try your hand at crafts if invited, but realize it’s a privilege to be included at all. Not knowing the language is always a challenge, but I really do try to have a dozen words memorized before I go somewhere – even please and thank you in a local language goes a really long way!

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Stonehedge

What’s your favorite thing about traveling?

I like that it’s not hard to find spontaneity while on the road. Even if you have your whole itinerary mapped out, the unexpected will happen and keep you on your toes. I like breaking up my routine and seeing how other people live their lives. I’m also a sucker for a beautiful landscape, from mountains to the sea.

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The Amalfi Coast

What’s your travel pet peeve?

People who don’t go with the flow. Anything and everything can go wrong, so there’s no use making yourself and others miserable because of changes in plans.

What’s the most surreal place you’ve ever visited?

I always think I won’t be surprised anymore, but most destinations have floored me in their own special ways. The north island of New Zealand was pretty wild, covered in tropical fern forests and endless beaches. Recently, Morocco surprised me with its welcoming vibe and beauty, from the chaotic cities to the staggering Atlas Mountains.

What are some of your “must pack” items? Why?

I’ve been digging my Ollo clip lately – it’s a lens that goes over your iPhone for wide angle and macro shots. Much less bulky than my DLSR and fun to use. Otherwise, I might just pack a few pairs of jeans, a dress and some tops, but I ALWAYS pack extra underwear and socks!

What do you use for luggage? Are you team backpack or suitcase?

I’ve been meaning to make the switch to backpack but haven’t committed to one yet. For now, I have a small wheeled suitcase – just about small enough to fit as carryon.

Any tips for jetlag?

Jetlag really is the worst, but I again try to drink water and void too much booze on the plane. I also allow myself to have a day and just rest on either end if it’s a big trip. I rather take it slow at first then ruin the rest of the experience because I feel awful.

What are your favorite travel apps?

I still swear by Google Maps – if even just for the compass feature so I can get my bearings quickly. I also enjoy playing around with Duolingo before I go to a new place to learn a few keywords in the local language.

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If I visit your country, what’s one meal I can’t miss?

I’m from Boston originally, and you have to dig into the in-season fresh seafood. Lobster, shellfish, all of it. Amazing. Here in London I love all the food and can’t miss a Sunday roast with fluffy Yorkshire puddings, which are more of a pastry bread than a sweet!

Can you share your favorite hidden treasure (place, food, event) that you found while traveling? I understand if you can’t!

Around Easter time in Seville, Spain, the whole city shuts down for an even called Feria. Everyone goes all out with flamenco dresses, horse drawn carriages, dancing and decorated casetas, or tents that line the streets.

What’s your favorite thing about travel blogging?

I just love the freedom. When I get to work in different places all over the world and share those amazing destinations with a global audience, there’s no bigger thrill on earth for me.

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If you can answer, favorite place to visit?

My heart belongs to southern Spain, especially the city of Seville. I was a student there years ago and returned as an au pair for a while too. The Andalusian spirit, or ‘duende’ is beautifully woven into their music, food and welcome to visitors.

Where is the next place you’re traveling to?

I’m currently in the Marrakech, Morocco airport on my way home to London. Next stop this month is either Poland, Sri Lanka – or both!