Visiting Japan

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Early Morning, Kyoto, Japan

 

They served fish on the plane.

To my left and to the right my fellow fliers are tucking in with abandon to the main course of the ANA dinner service. I recognize very little on my tray apart from the package of wet soba noodles and the chopsticks that accompany the platter to eat with. I spend several minutes curiously examining my plate quietly contemplating what is what and which bag of accompaniment sauces goes over and with which item. I’m doing my best to look like I know what I am doing but I am totally unsure of the proper order and way and equally unsure of what it is exactly that I am about to consume. It is some type of fish and it’s proving to be a medley of unfamiliar flavors and equally unfamiliar textures. The entire meal can best be described as slippery. Based on the small collection of lingering bits that I find throughout the rest of the flight on my seat, it is also evident that a greater proportion of the meal made it to my lap rather than my mouth. I have the sinking feeling that this may be the first of several meals to come that I will curse my regression and inaptitude with all utensils lacking tines and likewise begin an internal self-flagellation for a palate that is unsophisticated, unrefined, with a disproportionate predilection for flavors that come from further west. If the airline meal was a test, I failed it spectacularly.

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Why yes, that is the look of fear in my eyes.

 

Nothing in my pre-trip read of Memoirs of a Geisha quite prepared me for arrival in Tokyo, followed by what turned out to be a very long odyssey and more specifically, a grand test of patience to navigate the public trains to our outskirts of the central city of Tokyo accommodations. The finding of the train turned out to be the easy part. The purchasing of the actual tickets? An absolute ferocious, confusing, and highly intimidating process. There likely is no better way to signal your arrival and draw attention to yourself as a foreigner than to have a very long line of commuters behind you wanting to buy their rush hour tickets home. Also worth a mention that we were  walking on the wrong side of the stairs in the station, a major taboo. Orderly and proper traffic flow is just about everything in the largest city in the world.

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Waiting for the Light to Change, Tokyo

 

 

The organization of our sixteen days in Japan was largely dictated by our budget and the availability of frequent flier flights. Unlike the other places on our journey where we have pretty much just shown up and winged it, Japan required a more thoughtful curation. Simply put, it is not a cheap place to travel to, or in, or around, though I will say that money is well spent there, albeit very quickly. Kobe beef is as expensive as it is in New York, as is sushi. Though I grant you, the quality and freshness is superior in Japan. I can also vouch for the dumplings and desserts in the 7-11’s, and a lot of the vending machines. They are delicious and more to the point, affordable. Ergo, there are very few backpackers running around Japan.

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This sake vending machine is everything.

We touched down in Tokyo for six nights and divvied up the remainder between the former Imperial capital Kyoto, Hiroshima, and Osaka.  Each of these cities is different in look, feel, vibe, cuisine, as Los Angeles is to Cincinnati as it is to Albuquerque as it is to Miami, which is to say that they have very little in common with each other at all.  And while there was quite a bit we missed in all, in retrospect it would have been unsatisfying to have skipped over any one of them.

Tokyo

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Shrine Time, Tokyo

Yes, we took in the requisite sites of Tokyo, which were impressive and fully deserving to be on the Tokyo must see hit list. No, we did not go to the Robot Show (go google the ticket prices and see why).  Yes, we filled our bellies full of ramen (in fact I’m still thirsty from it). No, we did not go to any cat, hedgehog, bunny, owl, nor maid cafes (that last one is not a typo, go google that one too). We did spend time in an extremely smoky and overbearingly loud pachinko parlor, (which incidentally is fascinating and ranks very high among my absolute favorite experiences), also quite fun was our time spent “researching” local hipster watering holes, and of course chilling out in several branches of Muji and Uniqlo. And no, I still absolutely do not “get” Hello Kitty. At. All.

Just drop me on a corner anywhere in Tokyo for just one more afternoon. I would be happy to sit for hours in this largest and quietest of cities and admire the constant stream of fashionably dressed men and women walking by (in trends that will hit NYC in two years). I’d like another 24 hours to gaze at the elegantly presented packaged goods in all the stores, and I would be thrilled for just one more night time stroll among the neon lights of Shinjuku.

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Nightfall, Tokyo

Kyoto

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Before the Crowds, Kyoto

A quick ride on the Shinkansen, speeding at 250 mph past Mt. Fuji (still impressive at that speed) to the next stop. Kyoto, it is the historical heart and soul of Japan and its myriad of temples, zen gardens, shrines, palaces, does not disappoint an architecturally minded visitor. Or that of several hundred school groups. Or senior citizens bus tours. Or just about any other  hoard tour you can imagine. Even on a Tuesday. And/ or a Wednesday. Do not misunderstand me, Kyoto is stunningly beautiful but I’ll admit it is challenging to get your proper zen on while herded among throngs of tourists, domestic and otherwise that come to visit.  When we were not poking from behind people and their cell phones four deep, we met scores of young and very polite students (in quite possibly the most unattractive uniforms ever designed) tasked with practicing their English with foreigners. By the end of day one we had posed for twelve different proof of interview photographs and could easily recite the answers to student surveys before they even asked the questions. “America.” “Sixteen Days.” “Yes.” “The people.” It is very likely that our faces are gracing the bulletin boards of several middle schools throughout Japan.

Hiroshima

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Never Again, Hiroshima

Simply put, Hiroshima, the peace museum and the surrounding grounds is the reason to visit the city of Hiroshima and one is deeply rewarded with a deeper understanding of the events and aftermath that shaped a significant portion of the 20th century. More importantly, the lessons and message of the museum are still relevant to the way of the world today.

Osaka

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I’ll Have That, Osaka

It was purely the flight track that took us to Osaka. Neither of us knew very much about the city, but like so many other stops on our thusfarandaway journey, it turned out to be the dark horse.  It’s got a reputation as a food centric and workers city, not nearly as fashion forward as Tokyo, but nevertheless it is edgy and dare I say, a tad bit gritty, in a particularly Japanese way. I can describe it as a little bit more Brooklyn than say, Manhattan, with a well-established street food and busker scene.  There is no better way to pass an evening than to amble into the smallest and smokiest matchbox of a standing bar just to share a round of drinks in a crush of hipsters.  Oh, and I cannot forget to mention that cup of noodles and instant ramen was invented here. Yup, there is an entire fabulous museum dedicated to them…

 

 

 

A While Ago We Were in Australia

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A funny thing about Australia. If you were to ask either of us if it was our favorite place to visit, we would both answer no. Yet if you were to change the question slightly and ask where some of our favorite experiences have been, we would both answer that they happened in Australia. Allow me to set the record straight, it’s not that we did not enjoy our time spent down under. In fact, it’s quite the contrary. We drank some of the very best coffee from the coolest little artisan independent coffee houses that we have ever seen all over the country. Starbucks be damned, it was like returning to the distant past to the time before the chain even existed and swallowed up local coffee spots whole. The neighborhoods we crashed down in both Sydney and Melbourne were vibrant, artsy, oozing with cool (so much that we questioned if we were in fact hip enough to stay in them), and all the food and drink we consumed was interestingly prepared and fresh, albeit not exactly affordable (ie. our budget friendly). We found both cities to be refreshing and modern and while they are both incredibly different, each exuded a common optimistic groove. It probably helps the happiness factor that Sydney is set beautifully upon the harbor, the weather is phenomenal, and the public transit system is easy and reliable to navigate including stops on expansive surf beaches. Not to be outdone of course, Melbourne, while lacking in some of the natural attributes and in the weather department, has a thriving and soulful art, fashion, and culture scene. With a little more globalization and a few more decades, we suspect Melbourne will get a lot more air time on our side of the world.

Without the constraints of time, which is the likely the biggest hindrance facing visitors to Australia (it’s giant and it takes a really long time to get there) we were very lucky to be able to experience so many different facets and destinations on the continent, to the point that the trip there felt like a series of individual separate trips rolled into one. Money was perhaps our greatest obstacle (let’s be frank, it’s not a cheap place to visit), but we have become pretty adept at navigating around our budget, horse trading between dinners out, drinks in, and the occasional (sometimes regrettable) stay in hostels rather than hotels. To come all this way with all this time and to skip the Great Barrier Reef or Uluru, well, that would simply be blasphemy.

Of the favorite experiences that were referenced at the beginning of this post, for Michael it was the afternoon spent on the Great Barrier Reef. Between the two very large sharks, the thousands of colorful and funny looking fish, it was the best day he had on the entire trip thus far. I’m guessing that the fact that Jennifer stayed behind on land might have added to the joy. Hey people, we have spent nearly 24 hours a day together non-stop for months now, so a little bit of alone with nothing but fish might have been extra peaceful. And no, the day spent on land alone in Cairns, was not the highlight for Jennifer. It was surfing. Or rather learning to surf WITH Mike in Byron Bay. We went for it full on, slept in a van beachside, we were impaled by waves (now we know what it is like to be laundry inside a washing machine), we got up! and then were knocked off our big foamy beginner boards… but the most important part was we had fun…because I can assure you we did not look particularly cool while doing so (though Mike does have surfer hair now). And did I mention the drum circle? Byron Bay, you are our favorite little spot in Australia and we can’t wait to come back again soon for so much longer.

Oh and did we forget to mention hanging out with our friend Craig and the koala’s (just not at the same time)?

New Zealand Is A Playground

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Looking East & Going Up, Mount Cook

Just like that, you board a plane. The extradition of self, physically and mentally from the fully immersive experience that is South East Asia, commences.

I watch out the window as the plane climbs higher into the atmosphere, the dusty cities of the third world quickly begin to fall away. Not more than a few minutes have past and the region that we have spent the last 130 days criss-crossing is no larger than a mere speck on the ground below. And then it is gone from view completely. This rather ordinary and mundane mode of transportation suddenly feels like a time travel machine.

We are en route to New Zealand.  Having eaten our way across land borders and binged ourselves on temples, shrines, and local customs that are quite apart from our own, I am awash with exhaustion, giddiness, and a slight feeling of apprehension. Of these exhaustion is the easiest to define. The constant motion of travel and unfamiliarity of place takes its toll over time.  Routines are non-existent and each new destination is its own puzzle of place to solve. It is a constant loop of the same decisions but different place; what is the transportation here, where and what do we eat, where do we sleep, where is the ATM, how to say hello, goodbye, thank you…we are constant strangers to our surroundings, always exploring and at the ready.

Back to it, giddy with excitement for New Zealand, a place that has been beckoning the adventure seeker side for quite some time. It will require an entirely different mindset on arrival. We will no longer be the obvious outsiders by appearance alone.  We will drive a car. We will cook for ourselves. We will be able to read all the signs. We will stretch our currency as far as it can go and still feel very far behind. And we will hike, climb, paddle, and camp for all but four of our 37 days in country.

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Us…Roy’s Peak, Lake Wanaka

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Morning Paddle, Milford Sound

Arrival in New Zealand. Supermarkets overloaded with a grotesque amount of variety, the onslaught of cash registers, credit cards, and orderly and abiding traffic flows. Where the previous struggle was simply identifying what flavor the toothpaste is, it is replaced by navigating an entire aisle full of boxes and brands, all touting very similar yet different benefits while brushing with them. We are constantly looking over our shoulders as we walk on the street.  Sidewalks here are intended and maintained for pedestrians rather than as additional road way lanes for motorbikes. You mean we can actually walk in this area without fear that we shall be mowed down? Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa New Zealand. Here we are, in the place that is renowned for Sauvignon Blanc, pristine lakes, jagged peaks, volcanic mountains, even the sheep, and we are praising the asphalt. That’s the South East Asia effect for you.

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On the Routeburn Track, Mount Aspiring National Park

One tent, two sleeping bags, a camp stove, two pairs of hiking boots, and a handful of assorted necessary outdoor gear purchased, plus one rental car later, and off we go to circumnavigate the North and South Island. No longer two bags each, the only thing that is considerably lighter about our luggage is our wallet.

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Home For The Night, Cape Reinga

If home is wherever you set down your tent for the evening (now raise your hand if you thought we were jetsetting), New Zealand provides an ample and sublime landscape that is both backyard and playground.  When the skies are clear, the night is illuminated by the moon and stars too numerous to count, as the sun rises over the mountains, the horizon turns pink for minutes that are fleeting.  The glaciers rumble and purr as shelves of ice break and drop away.  Volcanic steam rises and drifts, obstructing crystal clear water pools that fill ancient craters.  It is rather impossible to compare New Zealand to any other place that we have been, as it is simply like nowhere else at all.

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Fleeting Skies At Sunrise

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Soft Light Sunset

Myanmar in Snapshots

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Sunrise Over Bagan

Beautifully chaotic and deeply fascinating, Myanmar (Burma) is like no place else I have ever been. Off limits to foreigners for decades and with travel and information still largely controlled and restricted by the fists of the government, discovery often comes as quick glances and snapshots in time. Travelers here are welcome, but are largely held at a distance by the locals with an underlying caution, anxiety, and perhaps a little bit of suspicion. Individual interactions tend to be transactional, always with eyes averted and with very soft voices indeed. Seldom are conversations with outsiders or foreigners extended beyond need which can initially come across as a rushed indifference. This is not to suggest that the Burmese are not warm nor engaging (they are quite the opposite, but more aptly, as a society and culture they are quite insular.

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Quiet Study

Travel in Myanmar is not easy. In fact it is often difficult, uncomfortable, and certainly not for the faint of heart, the feeble of body, nor the weak of stomach. People are desperately poor and very young children work 12 hour days in the streets and on trains. The air tastes dirty. The infrastructure that exists is crumbling and getting sick is inevitable (they call it Burma Belly for a reason). Yet the landscape is incredibly beautiful, the sheer size and scale of religious sites and buildings is completely overwhelming, and the way of daily life is staggeringly hard. Three and a half months in the surrounding regions and I think it is fair to say, that no stop quite prepared us for the immersion into Myanmar. It is so vastly different culturally, religiously, and economically from its neighbors that in spite of a relatively short distance traveled to reach it, Myanmar very much feels worlds away.

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Morning Catch, Inle Lake

Night buses took us from Yangon to Bagan, Bagan to Kalaw. Our feet took us onwards to Inle Lake and then a final hurrah on the night bus back to Yangon. exhausting and bumpy are the two words that come to mind. Along with hell froze over. As the planes in Myanmar have a tendency to fall apart and on occasion have fallen out of the sky, night bus travel was an unavoidable evil.

At least there were no babies to step on this time.

SNAPSHOTS

Early morning ride on the Yangon Circle Train

Daily life unfolds inside and outside the windows of this rickety old narrow gauge commuter railway.  For three hours the train continuously rocks and rambles, covering the 45.9 km of track and 39 stations that form a circular loop around Yangon. The full ride costs under $1.00 and passes from city to village to countryside and back again. Each stop brings an exchange of people along with the myriad of things that they carry, lug, sell, eat, and sort in the carriage. I chose not to photograph any of the children at work on the train.

As seen on the streets of Chinatown, Yangon

Chickens. And their heads, their feet, and all of their other parts in between. Alive, dead, cooking, and consumed, it all happens on the crowded and hot streets of Chinatown. Nothing quite prepares one for the assault on the senses and there is no greater motivation to become a vegetarian.

 

The long walk to Inle Lake

The 40k walk from Kalaw to Inle Lake winds through the rural villages, over hills, and through many fields. Farming tools and techniques are as they were in the 19th century. Carts are pulled by oxen, wheat is cut by scythe, and the harvest is carried on back and by hand.

 

Like nowhere else at all

Peace out Myanmar

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I left my heart in Cambodia

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Battambang, Cambodia

More specifically in Battambang.

Eight hours north of Phnom Penh (the fascinating waterfront capital that is undergoing a rapid transformation entirely fueled by mounds of foreign investment), three hours west of Siem Reap (exploding boomtown that is the gateway to the temples of Angkor Wat), Battambang is a small city that feels more like a large town. It is fantastically dusty, has a burgeoning art scene, and it is architecturally interesting.  When the full sun hits the colonial era buildings, the effect is distinctively Hopper. Soulful, lonesome, melancholy, if it were anywhere elsewhere, Battambang would be the perfect setting for the great American novel.

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Chinese shopfront-style buildings of Battambang

A chapter could easily be written for every street corner of Battambang and the colorful residents would no doubt be an endless source of inspiration. Tuk-tuk drivers spend much of the day sitting idle, whistling and calling at locals and visitors, in search of a fare. Say no once, they try again. Say no twice, well, you have three more times to go until they truly believe you might just wish to take a stroll on your own two feet. During the heat of the day their motivation vanishes and they line up on the side of the road by the riverbed, napping in hammocks underneath the trees.

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Going nowhere fast in Battambang

On the main road of Battambang, past the traditional Chinese medicine shops and the school that is in a perpetual state of recess, a row of barbers cut hair on the street. I’m not entirely sure if an appointment is necessary, but if you find yourself in pants that are to long while waiting, you can step into a nearby doorway where five little ladies sit, their foot pedal sewing machines ready to make a new hem. Amble on a bit further to reach the by day antiques and curiosity shop that by night, transforms into a bar and boutique hotel. Owned by an eccentric and lovely Australian ex-pat couple with the gift of gab, the scene inside is a comedy unto itself. Oh the stories they do tell about the going on’s in Battambang.

Of the local art scene, Phare Ponleu Selpa, is the anchor. Based in Battambang, the performance complex and associated art school grew out of the post-Khmer Rouge era refugee camps and is a source of pride not only in the city but for the entire nation of Cambodia. Need some inspiration in your life?  Watch a cast of fifteen and sixteen year old students perform a full length circus that they have written, choreographed, and scored that fully resonates with an international audience. And this is without the benefit of fancy costumes or elaborate props. This same spirit spills over into other visual art forms filling the streets with galleries and cafe’s.

And did I mention that there is also a bamboo train?

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All aboard the bamboo train!

A 45 minute joyride to nowhere and back that is hysterical, ridiculous, and just simply fun. Locally called the norrie, the train consists of a bamboo platform set on two sets of thingy’s that resemble barbels and is powered by a guy and his small motor stuck on the back. With a little bit of an incline, the train can get up to at least 35 mph. It runs on a single track that serves traffic in both directions. When two trains converge on the same spot, one direction must jump off and their train gets fully disassembled. Once one passes, the undone train gets put back together again.

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Giving the right of way

Is it safe?  Definitely not.  Is it fun? Absolutely!!!!!!

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Have you heard the one about the 5 monks riding a bamboo train?

 

 

 

Sojourn to Singapore

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Singapore!

After you experience food poisoning, there is a stretch of time that you lose all sense of logic and reason. Blame it on dehydration, but at the time booking plane tickets for a two-hour flight to Singapore, in order to avoid a four-hour ferry ride to Phuket seemed perfectly reasonable.  This is especially true if you are someone who was born to have feet on land and land only (even with fistfuls of Dramamine and an arm full of pressure point sea-bands), where any crossing that does not require an open sea is particularly enticing. And so began a very long day that had us on just about every form of transportation available to mankind…starting with an early morning tuk-tuk, followed by an overpacked minivan, then said minivan on a ferry-boat (15 minutes across the channel), a plane, a bus, and finally ending with a train.  After a full eight hours of transport, I’m still pretty convinced that it was an upgrade.

Oh, but the destination point was Singapore! A modern metropolis in all respects and after two and a half months in the netherparts of South East Asia, even more of a spectacular vision of utopia. The streets are immaculately clean (as in if you were to drop a piece of sushi on the ground, you could pick it up and eat it-well past the 5 second rule-and no we did not attempt this),the public transportation is easy and efficient (attention MTA, you should be embarrassed), and above all else, the Singaporean’s are diverse, engaging, and incredibly helpful (if you look lost or unsure of your way, at least three people will fall over themselves to assist) (note to self: good karma to repay, no longer growl at tourists in the way on the streets of NYC, or at least try not to, for a week).

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Chinatown is sparkly clean!

Arriving in the few days before the start of Chinese New Year, the city was decked out in red and gold (including giant inflatable roosters everywhere) and by chance we stumbled upon a number of colorful rehearsal parades (with funky floats and neon inflected dance routines). It all felt a little bit magical.

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Year of the Rooster

In a weekend we managed to pack in a trip to the famous Singapore Zoo (amazing!), a walk around the orchid gardens , replaced the infamous green tea toothpaste with actual mint, and indulged in some very overpriced but needed western / hipster food. One cannot underestimate the spiritual impact that cloth napkins, a couple of taco’s, and a few budget busting margaritas can have after a 75 day diet of street noodles and rice.

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Hipster Party

And I’ll spare you a few paragraphs on the joy of simply running a toothbrush under the sink tap instead of a bottle of water (which incidentally never has enough water left in it to do the job properly).

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A tiger is a more interesting photo than a toothpaste tube.

Leaving with a little more bounce in the step than we had on arrival (and a much lighter wallet), onwards we go for the next leg of our journey…Cambodia.

#truthoflongtermtravel (edition 4)

Southern Thailand Beaches

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Paradise Found-Koh Ngai

Warning: If you are reading this and you are someplace that is cold, wet, and full of snow, well, you may not want to scroll any further. That is, unless you are prepared to purchase a plane ticket right now. Southern Thailand seduced us with warm turquoise seas (perfect for just floating), long swaths of golden sand (biggest decision of the day: under which palm tree to park your bum), and big skies painted by sunsets. It was torture to stay there.

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Relax Bay, Koh Lanta

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Sunset, Haad Khlong Dao, Koh Lanta

So what did we do on Koh Lanta? A whole lot of nothing at all. Except we managed to loose track of time and day of the week. Many a traveler has had their itinerary eaten by Koh Lanta and it’s pretty easy to understand why. And I’m pretty sure we extended our stay “for just two more days” at least three times…

If you are silently cursing us, not to worry, karma did eventually catch up in a rather epic way. Food poisoning that was nasty, messy, projectile, and as a bonus included two long ferry rides!  And while most will remember their visit to Koh Phi Phi for Maya Beach (where the movie “The Beach”was filmed), our day trip to the island will be recalled with affection as the most stunning place that we have ever vomited.

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Koh Phi Phi- A pretty place to puke

The best way to recover from food poisoning in paradise?  Two days in these chairs!

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Today’s Agenda: Absolutely Nothing!

 

THE Cookbook

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It’s pouring rain. And not just buckets either, this is more of the biblical kind. l lean over the wooden bridge and watch the small vegetable fruit laden boat float beneath me. It’s powered by oar by an old woman and she is wearing a round straw hat. The rain suddenly stops and I wipe the drops from my brow and pull out my camera.

Snap, snap, snap.

And then it hits me. It’s the book cover.

THE cookbook cover. THAT COOKBOOK COVER.

Thailand: The Beautiful Cookbook

The heavy and oversized- more coffee table than cookbook- the one that just appeared on a random Tuesday in the household of my childhood. THAT book, which I used to flip through for hours without the intention of ever preparing a recipe (not much has changed), but was absolutely enchanted by the glossy photos and descriptions of a world that was so very colorful and so very far away.

And I am here.

Pinch me damn it.

Please enjoy some additional highlights from Amphawa& Auyutthaya, Thailand

Urban Soul Revival in Bangkok

img_1790So here we are. Two months of travel in the books and only a little bit worn and ragged from sensory overload and decision fatigue. Long term travel, as freeing and fantasy filled as it is- is at the same time, frustrating and exhausting. Routines are non-existent and we have become accustomed to feast or famine when it comes to things like availability of shampoo, Advil, snacks, contact lens solution, or for Mike, a sink with hot water to shave. Turning up in a new place every couple of days is definitely exciting, no complaints, but the fantasy of the unfettered traveler is tempered by the rather annoying reality of ensuring  proper shelter, food, transportation, and because this is 2017- please add wifi and ATM’s- which incidentally are pre-requisites to the former.

In this way, it’s fairly simple to understand how an intended “one night in Bangkok” slipped easily and without much debate into three. Throw in some fancy rooftop cocktails, a comfy bed, and some big fluffy hotel towels, and next thing you know, five days have gone by. Sawadee ELOISE, and welcome to Bangkok!

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Chinatown

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7 Levels of MBK-Anyone need a copy watch?

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$5.00