Vietnam on my mind

Vietnam was one of those countries that will forever ignite my five senses when I close my eyes and remember it. We spent about 2 1/2 weeks collectively in this country and that doesn’t even scratch the surface on how much time you truly need here to explore. Our time was split between the north and the south, visiting the cities of Ho Chi Minh (Saigon), Hanoi, Hue, Hoi An, Ninh Binh and Halong Bay. IMG_8640

The best way for me to give you an accurate picture of how different the northern part of Vietnam was to the Southern part is comparing it to the United States. A home cooked meal in Rhode Island is drastically different than a home cooked meal in Alabama, am I right? From political views to accents to pace of life, there is a vast difference between living in the North & South of the USA and it’s the exact same way, in my opinion, in Vietnam.

After 36+ hours of travel from Aruba to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam we arrived at our hotel at 2AM. Remember, this is our first stop in Asia, even though it’s my last post, because we left and entered Vietnam 3 times in our 6 weeks in Asia I wanted to save this blog post for last so I could talk about each location. So getting back to our arrival, we were exhausted, slightly delirious and absolutely starving. Where did we go for our first meal in Vietnam you ask? We walked 7 minutes to the only restaurant that was open and ate 20 chicken nuggets (each) from McDonalds. So embarrassed to admit that but hey, it satisfied our taste buds in every way possible.IMG_5579

We woke up a few hours later ready to explore the city of Saigon. I don’t think anything will ever prepare you for the first sightings of the streets buzzing with motorbikes. We later found out that there aren’t any rules in Vietnam for driving. Zero. It’s a free for all. Motorbikes drive in every direction, despite the regular flow of traffic, helmets requirements for babies are not a thing and they often drive on sidewalks if there’s a hold up on the road. Crossing the street as a pedestrian is a truly skilled art form that you master with time. The key thing to remember is NEVER hesitate. You need to confidently start walking into the traffic with your arm out to signal stop, and gun it. Our friend Lu told us that the motorbikes will take your lead when you cross and move around you but if you stop and panic- that’s when there’s trouble.

We decided that a relaxing massage would calm us down after our morning dodge of motorbikes. When I say relaxing that really means our bodies twisted into pretzels. At one point Andy and I were both positioned in the “Boston Crab” (google Boston Crab wrestling move if you need a visual) and I peeked my right eye open to see if Andy’s body was morphed like mine and let out a giggle when I realized it was. There was not one second of this massage that was relaxing but one thing’s for sure is I went into that massage room not able to touch my toes and left it being the most flexible, stretched out girl in the world. We were human Gumby’s in there.IMG_8477

Our first night we whipped around on motorbikes with Nancy and Lu who showed us around different neighborhoods in Saigon and trying Vietnamese specialities at every stop. At our first roundabout I had to close my eyes as Nancy just sped into oncoming motorbike traffic. I could hug the people next to me that’s how close you are to one another. Absolutely wild. After a few minutes Andy and I both loosened up and the 4 hour food tour via motorbike through the city was one of the best experiences we had in Asia, for sure. Our favorite food stall was on Ho Thi Ky street, called Banh Trang Nuong, their specialty: Vietnamese pizza. It’s made on thin rice paper with duck egg, a bunch of different veggies and maybe some meat? Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what was on it but you just close your eyes and bite into it and it bursts with flavors that you’d never expect would go well together. Semi spicy, a hint of sweetness and the perfect crunch, UGH I can salivate just thinking about it. We also had Bun Bo Hue which (in my opinion) is better than Pho. I know, crazy, but it’s true. The soup has a sweetness about it that goes unmatched to any broth I’ve ever had before. We got to know Nancy and Lu, they told us about their upbringing and how much they want to go to America. They asked us tons of questions about life in NYC and told us about how difficult it is for them to get visas to come to the USA to visit.fullsizeoutput_6ab5

We decided to go to the Cu Chi Tunnels the next morning. These are tunnels that were used by the Vietnamese to hide in and fight the Americans during the war. When you first arrive they show a propaganda video about how the Vietnamese used guerrilla warfare to fight the Americans, running around barefoot setting up booby traps. Without getting in to the war in my blog post it was pretty eye opening to learn about the war from the Vietnamese perspective. Our guide told us that he forgives the Americans but he will never forget. We were able to go down into the tunnels to see how it was for the Vietnamese when they were fighting. The tunnels were made extremely narrow so Americans wouldn’t be able to fit inside them if they did find the entrances. The Vietnamese had a smaller body frame and they built these tunnels using that to their advantage. They widened the tunnels post war for the tourist attractions but they are still extremely narrow and low that you immediately feel claustrophobic. We had the option to go down into the tunnels for 20M, 40M or 100M and with every intention of crouching to the end, Andy and I went back up at 20M. The air was so thin, it was dark and you have to talk yourself into not having a panic attack. No thanks.

Pho. Have you ever tried it? I’ll admit, I’ve always been a Ramen girl so I had never tried it before Vietnam. We tried tons of Pho in every city in Vietnam but our absolute favorite was at Pho Quyen in Saigon. You have to order the Pho Ga and get the iced orange juice for a drink. I will forever crave these two things.IMG_1666

After Laos, we landed in Hanoi which is in the northern part of Vietnam. Vastly different from Saigon, especially when it comes to cuisine. We had our friends Jackie and Ryan with us here and we started off our day on our own little tour of the city. We found the Old Quarter and went on the famous street where the train runs through a narrow neighborhood. You legitimately have to press your back against the walls of the houses to avoid direct contact with the speeding train going over 60 MPH past you. It’s surely a sight to see. We spent the day trying egg coffee, yogurt coffee, spring rolls and over course some cocktails. Because the motorbike food tour was so much fun in Saigon we thought it would be such a good time to do it with our friends. To see the look on Jackie’s face when she entered the buzzing streets of Hanoi, was priceless. We tried Bun Cha, the noodle dish with pork patties and bacon in a sweet soup that Obama tried with Anthony Bourdain last summer, it was so tasty. Of course we also had Banh Mi, Pho Cuon and Xoi Yen.

IMG_7337Thankfully, we were very happy to have had the food tour that night because the next day we encountered a bit of scene that none of us will ever be able to erase from our memories. We arranged for a cooking class and were sent out to a local Vietnamese market to buy all of our ingredients. The food was fresh, very fresh. You are able to pick out your duck or chicken and right then and there they cut the head off and hand you your meat. The veggies were plentiful and looked delicious but as soon as we rounded the first corner we saw a grilled dog and it was very alarming, to say the least. Understanding this is a delicacy in northern Vietnam, we were not disrespectful but it definitely put our stomachs on a meat strike for the next few days (or weeks, maybe months, for Jackie). The rest of our cooking class was great! We learned how to make Pho (vegetarian style) and rolled our own spring rolls while sipping local beer.

IMG_0152 3Next up, Halong Bay!!! This was a DREAM! We boarded a luxury cruise to see the sights by water and it’s definitely the way to go. We were able to kayak through the bay, practice Tai Chi and wake up to the massive rock formations right outside our balcony. We closed the boat down that night with Karaoke and played Asshole with a few other travelers we met, in the middle of Halong Bay. It was so surreal and you could tell in that moment that all four of us were very grateful to be traveling to such an iconic place.

The next day after exploring a bit more of the bay we docked and I decided that we should go climb up a secret mountain to see the views of Halong Bay from above. You have to knock on a local’s door and she brings you through her house, out her back door, you pay her 5 dong per person and up you go. She just points in the direction the “path” is. We were extremely prepared with no water and wearing flip flops. Sense my sarcasm? Most of the climb you have to do using all fours because it’s a steep vertical route. When you get up there the views are absolutely insane, even on a cloudy and rainy day which we had. We get back in the car and I thought it was only a 2 hour drive to Ninh Binh but our driver shook his head and said 4 hours. Let’s just say I wasn’t the most popular girl in the car after we learned that.IMG_4965 2

Ninh Binh is said to be the Halong Bay on land. And it sure was. We stayed in a small town called Tam Coc where we could ride bikes through rice fields and to temples that have been there for hundreds of years. There are 2 boats you can take in Ninh Binh, Trang An or Tam Coc. Take the Trang An. It’s a bit longer and takes you through caves and around every corner you find yourself staring up in complete awe of these natural formations that are incredibly green and lush. Did I mention our small boat was operated by the sweetest older Vietnamese woman? Her back muscles are likely stronger than the most fit 20 something year old. The next morning we woke up to hike the Hang Mua Caves (The Lying Dragon Mountain). It offers stunning views of Tam Coc with rice fields for days!IMG_6560

Hoi An was our next stop in Vietnam and it was all sorts of magical. The historic town is lined with hundreds of lanterns and it’s hard to not stop every couple of steps, look up and snap some photos. We had some of the best meals here and tried white rose dumplings, cao lao from Morning Glory and the famous banh mi that Anthony Bourdain named the best in the world (Banh Mi Phuong). We found out that the full moon lantern festival was the day we were set to leave and we rearranged our schedule to be able to spend an extra night to see it. Hundreds of people flocked to the ancient town to light a lantern in the water and be a part of the celebration. I’m not a fan of massive crowds in small spaces so if I had to do it again I think being in Hoi An on a regular night is a lot more of a special feeling than the full moon festival, but that’s just my opinion.IMG_6659

Hue, the Imperial City. This was our last stop in our trip in Asia and at this point we were exhausted. We gave in and had Italian food for dinner and ate at Baskin Robbins for dessert. I know shame on us, but at that point all we wanted was a taste of western comfort dishes. We toured the Imperial City but could barely stay outside because of the sweltering heat. You just dripped in sweat for being outside for less than 5 minutes.

Vietnam is a country that everyone should see. It has the most beautiful terrain, history and culture that I guarantee will make you remember it forever.

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Catch you in Cambodia

The best way for me to describe Cambodia is comparing it to 3 scoops of ice cream.

Weird analogy, but just go with it.

You pick your first scoop and it’s something crazy like Phish Food, every bite is something different, you get your swirl of marshmallow in there, then the next bite you get some gooey caramel and then another bite you get a delicious fudge fish. That’s Cambodia’s bustling city life.  IMG_0856

Then you get your 2nd scoop of ice cream and it’s your original and classic scoop of vanilla, utterly satisfying and a flavor that you’ll never say no to, that’s Angkor Wat.

Finally, you pick out your 3rd scoop and it’s honey lavender, sweet & refreshing mixed with unique flavoring wrapped into a ball of pure bliss, that’s Koh Rong Sanloem, an island in the middle of the Gulf of Thailand.

Now as your finishing up your 3 scoops of delectable happiness in a cup or cone, whatever you heart desires, and someone asks you what your favorite scoop was, it’s so difficult to decide because they were all THAT good. Well, that’s exactly how Cambodia was for us. Each place we went, was THAT good and offered something completely different from the other and made us fall in love with this interesting country.IMG_1201 2

We’ll start with Siem Reap and our time at Angkor Wat. Or our classic vanilla scoop, if you will.

We chose this destination solely because of the famous temples at Angkor Wat but little did we know how much we’d LOVE the downtown of Siem Reap. Andy and I had our two good friends visiting us all the way from New York. I know, great friends right?! When we arrived downtown our eyes lit up. Down near Pub Street the roads were lined with lights criss crossing from restaurant to restaurant with loud music booming and merchants calling you to come take a look at their things.IMG_4662-2

It was like we were transported back to a much smaller version of Times Square with all the craziness zipping past us. For the 4 nights we were in Siem Reap we went back every night to try new bars and restaurants.

We went to the famous Red Piano bar where Angelina Jolie dubbed her favorite cocktail which consisted of lime juice, Cointreau and soda water, now called the Tomb Raider. For every person that orders the 10th Tomb Raider that the restaurant sells, they ring bells and you get it for free. Well, come to find out, Andy and Ryan were UN-lucky number 8 and 9 so we didn’t get the free cocktail, Jackie and I got a kick out of it. Andy was devastated and gave the waitress some friendly banter so they surprised him when they ordered a second round and rang the bells. Andy was SO excited but it turns out, he in fact was NOT the lucky 10th winner, they just wanted to give him the attention by ringing the bells and have everyone clap for him.

We got amazing $4 foot massages for an hour on Pub Street, saw some vendors selling chocolate covered tarantulas & scorpions, tried some rolled ice cream and got our feet sucked on my some hungry fish in a tank. Another favorite bar of ours was Angkor What? pretty clever name for a dark-lit dive bar blasting hits from the USA. It’s a must.

One of the days while we were in Siem Reap we went with our guide, Adam (THE man), and went to Wat Thmey Killing Fields and to a local floating village in Kampong Khleang. Visiting the local village was so eye opening to say the least.IMG_6972 2

Another perfect example of how the locals have very little in terms of clothing & shelter but they are so happy and content.

We docked at a boat in the village that had a few locals playing pool and we hopped off and shot a round. Interacting with the locals and observing was one of the highlights in our time in Cambodia.

Angkor Wat at sunrise has long been on my bucket list and you better believe I was absolutely determined to get the best spot in the house.

We went to bed SUPER early the night before to get up at 4:30AM to make this sunrise an unforgettable one. We scored the best spot in front of the lake where Angkor Wat’s main temple is. Slowly but surely the crowds start pouring in as the clock starts ticking closer to the 6:30AM sunrise. We defended our area and didn’t let the aggressive, selfie stick carrying, tourists from all over the world push us over. Let me tell you our patience sure was tested at 5AM, with no coffee, and the hoards of people trying to sneak their way into the spot you so meticulously picked out and woke up at 4:30AM for. There was no backing down. But the view was stunning and worth the wake up call.IMG_2219 2

We decided to do the small temple circuit which consisted of 3 temples, Angkor Wat, Ankgor Thom & Ta Phrom which was the perfect amount of time for us. At this point, Andy and I had been to what felt like hundreds of temples so were a bit “templed out” but Angkor Wat was like none other.

To think that these temples were built  thousands of years ago by people with their bare hands is incredible. I wonder if they realized at that time that it would be dubbed the largest religious monument in the world and have millions of people every year flock to Cambodia to see the iconic structures.

Impressive.

We got blessed by a monk at the main temple at Angkor Wat which felt incredibly magical. He carefully wrapped a red bracelet around our wrists while chanting a prayer and splashing water on us, which all translated to praying for us to have a happy life.IMG_6003

“In the end, only three things matter: how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.” – BuddhaIMG_1436

Andy and I left our friends in Siem Reap and ventured down to Sihanoukville where we stayed for a night at Otres Beach before we headed out to the island of Koh Rong Sanloem. We had some great food at a restaurant run by an Australian couple. BBQ chicken on the grill with a baked potato for a whopping $1.50. Can’t beat that!! It was delicious!

The next morning we woke up early for our ferry to Koh Rong Sanloem and I don’t think either one of us even knew what to expect when arriving at the dock. But whatever we were expecting, it couldn’t beat what this place actually was.

White sandy beaches, the clearest water and very few people inhabited this isle where dreams come true. We stayed at one of the only hotels that has air conditioning and a pool and for $50/night we were living in luxury. One of the best parts of Koh Rong Sanloem is that there are no day trip boats, you must stay the night. Electricity often shuts off sporadically but that’s okay because you’re so in awe of your surroundings that it doesn’t matter.IMG_1877 2

This island exudes serenity in every way possible. We had so many “oh shit, this is our life” moments and talks about how lucky we are to be experiencing this together. The sunsets were absolutely stunning with the sharp orange bursts and pink undertones, I felt like we were living in a screensaver.

This was the first place on all of our travels the last 5 months that we were very sad to leave. We wished we didn’t have the next couple of weeks booked because we definitely would have derailed and stayed a bit longer.IMG_5382

On to Phnom Penh. After docking at the ferry port in Sihanoukville after such a relaxing time on Koh  Rong Sanloem, soon thereafter we were faced with the scariest car ride we both have ever had. Now we have experienced some pretty crazy driving in Asia but this was like none other. It was raining hard, the roads were slippery and our driver was gunning it.

Our drive was 4 hours and it was like he had a mission to get there in 2. We zoomed past every single car and 4 wheel truck that was in front of us. Tractor trailers would be coming straight towards us and he’d swerve back in to our lane. It got to the point where we had to yell to slow down and thankfully he listened. It wasn’t long after that we saw an accident with a car smashed in the front of a tractor trailer and that definitely spooked him.

We made it to Phnom Penh in one piece!!!

We only had one day here and we decided to spend it relaxing on a rooftop pool overlooking the city. The views were insane and after 4 weeks of exploring the hectic cities in Asia we thought this would be the best day for us.IMG_4712 2

So now that we’re done with the 3 scoops of ice cream what’d you think? It was THAT good wasn’t it? You feel like you want to add Cambodia to your bucket list? Well, we hope so!! It was the best combination of hustle and bustle, tranquility and adventure all in one.IMG_3578

 

Love ya Laos

Laidback & charming with a spoonful of genuine hospitality & tranquility and a dash of rich culture and you’ve got yourself one hell of a country.

Laos, for us, was one of those countries that exceeded our expectations in so many ways. It’s often called the “forgotten country” of Southeast Asia and in our minds this will be one of our most memorable destinations, for many reasons. Nowhere close to ever being forgotten.IMG_0394

We decided to change our plans slightly in Laos and stay for a full week in the Laos’ UNESCO World Heritage Centre, Luang Prabang. This was our third country in our Southeast Asia tour and after arriving from Myanmar we were so excited when we saw the downtown area. Not to knock Myanmar whatsoever but because they aren’t super equipped for tourism just yet, Luang Prabang seemed like a well developed mini city compared to some of the towns we had just visited. From cute cafes overlooking the Mekong River (go at sunset!) to tree house restaurants with chill music & cozy mats overlooking the Nam Khan River, we were in heaven.

Whether Andy realized it at the time of booking our hotel (or not) I somehow tactfully was able to use my sales skills (thanks LinkedIn) to have him agree to an $83/night hotel at My Dream Boutique. Whoever thought of that name sure wasn’t lying because it was seriously, a dream. I know, $83/night in USA standards is a super cheap when it comes to hotel prices, you might get bedbugs or it may be in a not so great neighborhood, but for Asia, you’ll be living like royalty at this price per night. And we were. For the most part in Asia we’ve been targeting $40/night or less and all of our hotels have been so great. So this was certainly a splurge.IMG_1747

One of our favorite parts of this hotel was the location. In order to get to the downtown area of Luang Prabang it was a short walk, over a bamboo bridge. A local family builds the bridge and takes it down every 6 months to prepare for the rainy season and flooding of the Nam Khan. In order to cross it you must pay $0.70 (round trip price) and the proceeds go to the materials for the family to build it. The bridge bounces and moves under your feet when you walk across it so for the weary travelers, that’s your fair warning. It was like a guaranteed adventure at least 2 times a day, we loved it.

The streets of Luang Prabang are lined with local shops, idyllic restaurants & cafes and every other storefront in between is a massage parlor. I’m not even joking when I say we both got at least 1 massage a day here. For less than $4 for an hour, it’s kind of a must. You can tell though that not everyone is properly trained because there were a few times I had to say ouch when they were kneading my spine or shin bone. Andy too. A few times I could hear him say “shit” under his breath and I knew they were probably gauging his bones just like mine. One time I opted to get a head massage for 30 minutes because my bones needed a break from the massaging and I came out with hair looking like I got electrocuted. No joke my hair was fluffed out so much that I couldn’t even put it in a ponytail because of all the knots. My “masseuse’s” secret technique was to take tiny pieces of my hair and twirl it around and pull just a little to give my scalp a tickle. Sounds dreamy right? The few bruises I got and my temporary dreads definitely came with the price I guess. If anything, it was definitely a good laugh between us after comparing our experiences.IMG_3197

So in other news, Andy and I found Utopia in Luang Prabang. Seriously though, we did. It’s a hippy type restaurant with mats and pillows everywhere overlooking the river. Super zen by day with yoga at sunrise and party central at night (of course, closed by 12am for the town wide curfew rule). Utopia had by far the best cheese pizza we’ve had in Asia to date. After weeks of noodles and rice we were craving (and dreaming about) some western food and so after some cheesy pizza and buffalo cauliflower we entered our food utopia.

Two of the nights in Luang Prabang we ate the street food at the Night Market which was amazing. Lucky for us our typical weak stomachs have been doing so well here it’s definitely a small victory we celebrate from time to time, and surviving the Night Market was one of those victories. From homemade dumplings to bbq chicken wings to noodles and pork belly, all for less than $5. The Night Market had stall after stall of handmade crafts, paintings and tchotchkes, it felt like there were hundreds of stalls and amazed us how perfectly each item was placed on the mats. IMG_8476 2Every day from 5pm-9:30pm (ish) they would put the tents up and promptly take them down. The smart stalls had their little kids as the salespeople so it was hard to barter with them because they were so cute. But you have to. It’s part of the culture. They catch you glancing and tell you the price and before you can even say anything they say “special discount for you” and the price goes down. You may be negotiating a difference of $.50 but it’s still part of the game for them, try it out.

Our most rewarding day so far on our entire trip was when we volunteered for a few hours at Big Brother Mouse. We each were able to sit with a local from Laos to help them with their English. I sat with a young boy named Le that has family living in the countryside and he is going to school in Luang Prabang. He comes to BBM every day (2 sessions per day) to get better at his English. We talked about our favorite movies, what it was like to live in Laos and he wanted to know all about New York City. If there was ever a word he didn’t understand he had me write it in his notebook and we’d practice it out loud and I would give him the meaning using different words. IMG_9796Close to the end of our volunteering session I went in the back room to find Andy. He had an entire table full of students! He was surrounded by 5 Lao students and they all asked if I could take pictures of them with Andy. They loved him! I mean it’s hard not to love Andy. But seriously, they were giving him high fives and laughing at all of his jokes. Come to find out after, they asked Andy such tough questions. For example, what’s the difference between have, want, need, must, and have to. The difference between look, see and watch. The difference between nice to meet you and nice to see you. So hard, right?! High of the trip, hands down.

Kuang Si Falls was definitely another highlight of our time in Luang Prabang. We got a tuk tuk and got there at about 11am (definitely get there at that time or before because at noon all of the tour buses start piling in). IMG_3608-2The water is so crystal blue it almost looks fake. Don’t be chicken and take the plunge into the chilly water if you decide to go, it’s refreshing and if I can do it, you can too.

We woke up around 5:30am twice for the traditional Tak Bat. Every morning as the sun is rising Buddhist monks line up from oldest to youngest and carry large pots with lids around their necks. They walk slowly in perfect line formation, meditating, as they walk from their local monastery down the streets of Luang Prabang. Locals wake up early that morning to make fresh batches of sticky rice and set up a mat outside their houses. Kneeling down, hands in prayer, knees and shoulders covered, never looking the monks in the eye are all of the respectful and traditional ways to give alms. One by one as each monk passes by, the locals will give one scoop each of the sticky rice into their pots. We were lucky enough to be able to watch from a distance at My Dream Boutique with only 2 other tourists close by.

IMG_3648After Tak Bat we headed up the 355 steps to the top of Mount Phousi to see the 360 degree view of Luang Prabang from above. It was definitely a great view and I highly recommend coming either for sunrise instead of sunset because it’s known to be so crowded with people that you can’t even snap one photo without a million people in it. 

Luang Prabang, you might have bruised our limbs but you stole our hearts so that’s all that matters.

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Myanmar: A Magical Untouched Country

There are 195 countries in the world. For 60 years, one of those countries, Burma, (now known as Myanmar), was isolated from the rest of the world. For 60 years no one was able to see what this country had to offer. It blows my mind. After one of the world’s longest running civil wars, Burma opened up its doors to tourism in 2012.

Myanmar, lucky country #40 for me and #28 for Andy, quickly became one of our favorite destinations, hands down. From the thousands of pagodas in Bagan, to the floating gardens in Inle Lake and chaotic streets of Yangon, this country surprised us in so many ways.IMG_9367

Myanmar was one of those countries that I’m not sure I even knew existed until about a year ago. I pride myself on being a geography buff (thanks to my World Map shower curtain from Amazon..YOU NEED TO BUY THIS) so I’m actually kind of embarrassed admitting that to you. A few months back I started seeing photos of Myanmar from a few travel bloggers I follow and quickly added “see the balloons on top of a pagoda at sunrise in Bagan, Myanmar” to my bucket list.

After doing a bit of research we had to adjust our 6 weeks in Asia slightly so we were able to see the balloons over Bagan (they stop launching around April 15th due to weather conditions). We planned only 1 week in Myanmar and it was the perfect amount of time for each of the cities we chose but there are still a few other locations that we wish we added to the itinerary. Sometimes I like leaving a country knowing that there was way more to see, just means we will have to come back one day. SO…we planned 3 nights in Inle Lake, 2 nights in Bagan and 1 night in Yangon.IMG_7919

When we arrived at Heho airport we realized how underdeveloped this country is. You arrive in one big open room where you’re greeted by a couple super friendly Burmese men and they show you to a stand. The stand resembled that of a kids lemonade stand, but it wasn’t a lemonade stand, it was the Immigration counter. A double door opens up right next to the stand and the airport crew start throwing the checked luggage on to the ground, it was actually a much easier process to collect our bags here than the fancy belts that JFK have. We were off! Inle Lake is about an hour drive from the airport and up until you get to the archway of Inle, the scenery is pretty sparse.

Mingalaba (hello) Inle Lake!

For 12,500 kyat each ($10 per person) we were in! Our driver stopped a couple of times to let us watch the locals tend to their floating gardens. We arrived at our resort which was right on the lake, fit with a large deck with reclining wooden chairs for a front-row sunset view over the water. Pretty spectacular, to say the least. We were welcomed to ourIMG_8778 room by a baby tarantula that was hanging out in our bathroom and was so excited to see Andy that he ran right over his foot. I’ll let your imagination create the picture for you but for some context, there were loud girly screams (x2), high jump-style leaps onto the bed and an immediate phone call to housekeeping. Guess that was our big welcome to Asia! The 2 women who showed up to kill the eight legged monster were giggling and had no fear putting it in a rag. Andy felt extremely emasculated afterwards but soon got over it.

ANYWHO- the next day we took our bikes and went to the neighboring village of Mine Thauk where we walked along a long wooden bridge that connects the land village to the water village. We decided to eat at a local restaurant there where the only way to get there was by a boat to drive us about 50 feet across. We sat on tiny stools only a few inches from the ground and enjoyed our Myanmar beer for a whopping $1.50 for the big boy. From 12-3pm it is SO hot here that it makes riding your bikes nearly impossible. If you come here, especially during hot season, make sure to find a hotel with a pool (Few recommendations: mid-range stay-Inle Lake Resort (where we stayed) and for a little bit pricier places but gorgeous: Novotel or Sanctum Resort).

IMG_0270The following morning about 7am we headed out onto the lake for a private boat tour which ran us about $35 total for the entire day. We sped past local fisherman balancing on the edges of their boats while they paddle with one leg, visited local silversmiths, wood-carving shops and silk factories. Our favorite part of the day was visiting the village of Indein where we got lost in the sparkling gold pagodas of Shwe Inn Thein. On our way up we bartered with a women in the market for a white handmade shawl for me ($6) and it was there where we heard the phrase “lucky money” for the first time. She took our kyats and brushed them all over her scarves and shawls that she sells repeating lucky money. She told us it meant that when someone buys something and they brush the bills over the products they sell it will bring them luck for the rest of the day.

We absolutely loved Inle Lake and if you decide to go there feel free to email us for recommendations (inthebestsworld@gmail.com)!IMG_2979 2

Balloons over Bagan

Oh Bagan. Bagan is where we made friends with a local, An Cho, climbed to the top of a secret temple and learned that Andy Best cannot drive an e-bike. I’m not being mean and I am not exaggerating when I say there were about 6 times when I feared for my life and the life of my husband. His knuckles were white, his back was dripping with sweat and he was as stiff as a board. That being said, he did improve tremendously over the 48 hours we were there and I am very proud.IMG_0607

Bagan was one of those places that you just have to see for yourself. I’m not sure my words or pictures can even do it justice but I’ll give it a whirl. The best times of day and most popular times to be outside (as a tourist) in Bagan are at sunrise and sunset. For just $5 for the whole day you rent an e-bike and get lost in the thousands of pagodas that are still standing. Of course there are the larger temples that all the guidebooks say “you must see” but Andy and I found that our favorites were the smaller pagodas that had no one else there.

Until about a year ago you were able to climb up the temples, a lot of them have steps on the outside or secret entrances on the insides, but after a tragic accident Bagan banned climbing on pretty much all of them. A few travel bloggers have found “secret” temples that you can get away with climbing and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t determined to find one of them. I had to cross that off my bucket list!

On our way to Old Bagan, we pretty much got driven off the road by a slow moving car, and our soon to be friend, An Cho pulled over to see if we were okay. We were fine (don’t worry Barb!). An Cho started chatting with us and  we got into a conversation about climbing temples. He said there is a “secret” temple that he’d show us and it’s a spot only locals know about. An Cho quoted, it has “the best view in the mornings to watch the balloons”. My eyes instantly lit up.IMG_0659

Okay so when you were just reading that, were you thinking to yourself, come on guys why would you follow a local to a “secret” temple, HELLO, that screams, scam, money pit, semi-dangerous? I know you did. Because at first, we did too. I hate that we instantly felt that way, but I think it’s a product of the world we live in in America. It’s not a bad thing to be super cautious but in this part of the world, I think in certain situations, it’s okay to be open to random meetings like that.

So we get to the temple with An Cho and it was AMAZING. Afterwards we sat under Buddha downstairs and had An Cho (did I mention he was an artist?) show us his paintings. He taught us about how Burmese people name their children, by the days of the week, and from what plants he got his colors from. We ended up negotiating and bought 3 paintings from An Cho. Lucky money everywhere!!!! He showed us how to get to a veggie restaurant we were dying to try and then we said our goodbyes. Meeting An Cho has been one of the highlights of our trip so far.IMG_1286 2

About midday on in Bagan is so extremely hot you NEED to find a pool. We opted for the cheap & chic hotel called Sky View Hotel that was $25/night that had a great rooftop but no pool. Luckily, our good friend had recently visited Myanmar and told us about a great little travel hack and we confidently strolled into a beautiful hotel to use their pool for the day.  I’ll pay it forward if you want to know about how you can stay in Bagan for cheap & also live the secret life of luxury at the same time. Just drop me a line!IMG_1002

We woke up at 5am to hop on the death trap I mean e-bike to go to our “secret” temple. Turns out, the temple wasn’t so secret after all. It didn’t have the loads of tourists that the man made hill that Bagan created to watch sunrise/sunset but it had about 15 people on the top of the pagoda. I was bummed obviously but somehow we scored the best seat in the house with no one in front of us. We watched the sky go from black, to light blue, to golden-orange as the balloons started to rise up from behind the pagodas. Not sure if I’ll ever experience another sunrise like that in my life.

Yangon, you crazy city you.

IMG_0058 4Based on recommendations we strategically planned one night in Yangon. For us, it ended up being the perfect amount of time. We stayed at The Merchant Boutique Hotel ($40) which also had an awesome rooftop that had a great view of the iconic Shwedagon Pagoda which glimmers high at 325 feet above the rest of the city. This place was stunning. From monks walking around to prayers being said, it was surreal.IMG_3104

We headed down to Chinatown around 19th street to try and find some famous Crab Rangoon at the Rangoon Tea House but they were all sold out! Bummer. The rest of the food was great though, definitely recommend checking this place out. After walking around for a solid 30 minutes in 98 degree, sticky heat, we both looked at each other and decided to call it a day. The streets were SO hectic and crowded but it was surely a sight to see.

To us, Myanmar felt like one of those countries that are on the brink of an absolute tourist explosion. We are so happy we came here before that happens.

The people, pagodas and way of life are truly impressive.

Onto Laos!

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All you need is…family

Family: (n) a basic social unit consisting of parents and their children, considered as a group (according to Dictionary.com

Well, in today’s day and age the dictionary definition of family has changed in so many ways and what we define our family to be is different for every single person.

After 4 months of traveling, I’ve identified one major theme across the board, no matter what country we are in, or what culture we get exposure to, the importance of family reigns number #1. The definition may vary but your family will always be a unit.

That unit sticks together, through good times & bad, because that’s just what family does. IMG_8016 2

Andy and I have such a unique life right now with very little consistency. I’m not complaining, seriously, I love going on safaris one day, getting lost in city streets another day and sitting doing absolutely nothing but people watching the next day. But no matter what your day to day lives may be, we all need a support system to lean on. The support we have from our families to live out our dreams of exploring the world has been exactly what we needed. They answer our texts at weird hours in the day, look through all the pictures we send them and are genuinely interested in what adventures we are having. They hear about the annoying days we have, the not so great food in some countries, the complaints about mosquito bites & not having enough clothes (from me not Andy). Even though they’re thousands of miles away, it’s like they’re right around the corner.

That being said, the 4 month mark was the absolute perfect time in our trip to have the opportunity to see my side of the family, my unit, for a few days on the beautiful island of Aruba. For a very special occasion, might I add. My dad married my sister’s best friend’s mom, Mary. How cool is that?!

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Quick background info for you in case you don’t know our story: Tess (my sis) and Keri (my new sis) met when they were 5 years old and have been best friends since. Keri’s 3 older brothers, Sean, Ryan & Kyle and I all went to high school together and we all grew up one neighborhood over from one another. Queue Mary. 

There’s just something about Mary. Bonus points for whoever knows what I did there. Mary is the modern day Wonder Woman. She protects kids in her day job and raised some pretty great kids in her everyday life-job. About 4 years after my mom died, my dad gradually got the courage to make Mary more than just a friend. And thank God he did!

So finally, after 6 years together, my dad & Mary tied the knot in front of all their kids, their significant others & 2 grandchildren. It was both intimate & incredibly moving to be a part of such a special ceremony for two people that deserve the best “Plan B” that life is offering them. We’ve all been calling one another brothers & sisters for years but to officially now have 4 more siblings that I get to annoy for the rest of my life is SO exciting!!! Kidding, guys!!IMG_8086

Aruba, ‘One Happy Island’ they call it. With sparkling blue ocean water, dazzling sunsets & 80 degree weather, what’s there to be sad about?! I did get a little sad though when my 4 year old niece took me aside in the pool and said “okay let me tell you all the things you’ve missed out on”…I mean…come on….heart melted. After hours of catching up with everyone, rounds of a new drinking game we invented called, Patrumble (don’t ask) and a few of us dancing on stools at the bar, our first official family vacation came to an end. 

y%IyWlxTRweCJbodp7XTJgMy family dynamic has changed drastically in the last 10 years. One constant that has remained throughout has been the support they’ve always provided. Our “unit” is far from ordinary, extraordinary to be exact. In the best way possible. My family went from 2 parents & 1 sister to 1 parent and 1 sister, to now, 2 parents, 2 sisters, 3 brothers, plus 1 sister in-law and 2 brother in-laws. Sounds like a weird math problem right? We’re basically the modern day Brady Bunch. In all seriousness, with all of the subtractions & additions to my family unit, the final outcome, in my eyes, has always, and forever will be, positive.

Family: (n) a support system that you know will always have your back, no matter what. (according to me)

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Living in Medellín, Colombia

“How many of your parents said you’re fu%k!ng crazy for coming to Colombia?” This is what our native, Medellín tour guide asked us two minutes after meeting him.

I mean, 25 years ago this city was dubbed the most dangerous city on earth. Even 10 years ago, this place was seriously violent with pockets and neighborhoods you absolutely did not want to roam around in, even in the daylight.

So I get it.

I get why 100% of the people on our tour, people from all over the world, raised their hands when Juan asked this question, including us.

But after 4 weeks of living in Medellín I can honestly say that this city is FAR from dangerous and probably the most inviting city I’ve ever lived in.IMG_0615

Juan also asked another question, in 3 words what comes to mind when you think of the country Colombia, 9 times out of 10 people answered with: cocaine, Pablo Escobar (he who shall not be named) and coffee. Juan said nothing was “off limits” we could ask whatever question we wanted and he would answer it. People asked a lot about the racial profiles of Medellín, a few questions about Narcos (which Juan crushed immediately and said only about 10% of that show depicted what really happened) and a lot of questions revolving around drugs and the presence they still have in the city.

There were times during that morning where I would catch myself staring into space, staring at Colombian locals that were around 30 years of age or older, thinking about what they must have seen growing up. This city averaged 17 homicides PER DAY at one point during the ‘he who shall not be named’ reign. (Side note: I call him that because Juan said mostly everyone in Colombia hates this terrorist and if we said his name loudly it would spark outbursts by locals J0W94q0NRlqkdwiy+lmTwwbecause it brings back such awful memories). 

Okay enough of the doom & gloom.

The good news is, this city has overcome a lot and to this day Medellín still has to live with the stigma about being dangerous & unruly which is far from reality. My hope after you read the second half of this post is that you’ll book your ticket here and see what it’s all about.

We chose to live in El Poblado which is a luscious tree lined, hip neighborhood filled with tons of restaurants, cafes, boutiques and bars, located in the hills of Medellín. 

It was PERFECT for our 4 weeks living here.

Day 1 in Poblado and we realized that our 3 phrases we knew in Spanish weren’t going to get us very far so we enrolled in some Spanish classes. Gabriela was our teacher at Toucan Spanish School and she was great. There was not one word spoken in English the entire class, come to find out, at the end of our 10 hours together (2 hr classes for 5 days) we found out she didn’t speak a lick of English. Blew our minds. We thought she was justdaGlzZkvS0aRKpb7yCJzrQ trying to hold us accountable for speaking only Spanish while we were there. Any time I was practicing my verbs and adjectives in Spanish I would tease Andy and insert English words when I was unsure and she would laugh her ass off. She especially enjoyed how Andy doesn’t have the ability to roll his R’s.

So in short, Gabriela and I had a special bond making jokes about Andy, we now know more than 3 phrases in Spanish and can get through an entire dinner at a restaurant not speaking a word of English to our waiter. Success in my book.IMG_3094

Okay now it’s my favorite part of the blog, to tell you the Top 10 Must Do’s in Medellín:

  1. Stay in El Poblado or Laureles (Laureles if you want more of a quieter/residential neighborhood that still has cute cafes and restaurants just not really a party scene that Poblado has)
  2. Do the free walking tour of Medellín with www.realcitytours.com (try and go on a Thursday and get Juan as your guide)
  3. Try buñuelos, arequipe, empanadas and ajiaco soup (our fave!)
  4. Book a day trip to Guatapé and climb El Peñol (679 steps to the top, maybe don’t wear flip flops like I did) make sure to explore the town of Guatapé it is so colorful and pretty!
  5. Get cocktails at the Envy Rooftop of the Charlee Hotel in Parque Lleras (Poblado neighborhood) right before sunset for great views of the city.
  6. Go to Mercado del Río for lunch or dinner. It’s an upscale cafeteria market where they have food from a variety of restaurants and cuisines. Think Chelsea Market in NYC or Time Out Market in Lisbon.
  7. Go see Comuna 13 and either book a graffiti tour or read up on the history before you go and create your own tour. It used to be one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Medellín and now has the famous escalators you can go up to see the way the people of Comuna 13 live with great views of the city. The graffiti is seriously mind blowing.
  8. Climb to the top of Pueblito Paisa which is an old Antioquian village in the middle of Medellín that also has great views.
  9. El Castillo was a fairytale-like castle in the middle of the Poblado neighborhood. Pack a picnic and go find a spot in the gardens to lounge & eat.
  10. Create your own food and drink tour of El Poblado and go to these places: order the meat & cheese plate at Bonhomia, sit at 37Park with cocktails in hand and munch on the free popcorn, go to Pergamino Café & Café Velvet for the best cappuccinos, get tacos at Criminal Taquería, book a reservation at Carmen (if you didn’t try it in Cartagena), eat at Il Castillo for the best italian in Medellín, try the arequipe crepe at Crepes & Waffles, order the crunchy tuna tartar at Delirio, eggs benedict at Ganso y Castor and make SURE to find yourself dancing one night at Chupitos or another hole in the wall, Christmas-light blinking club in Parque Lleras.IMG_8962

So if Juan were to ask me again what 3 words would I use to describe Colombia, now having lived here for a month, I’d probably say: resilient, welcoming & strong.

The biggest takeaway Juan wanted us to leave with on our tour was to tell people not about the awful times Medellín encountered but how these people overcame the brutality to make this city one of the most lively of all South America. So after 4 weeks, Andy and I will definitely be leaving with a great sense of respect for this country and would encourage everyone to come spend some time here.

Oh and Andy still can’t roll his R’s, in case you were wondering.

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Picture Perfect Cartagena

The artist is back!

Today I’m going to be your teacher and the work will be called, ‘Cartagena, the city of vibrant colors’.  Pick up your paintbrush, use my words and channel your inner Botero to paint your masterpiece.

Ready? Let’s go.

The dazzling blue waters of the Caribbean ocean meet the edges of an old historic ancient city wall. It’s golden hour and the hues of light pink, baby blues and canary yellows hit the ocean perfectly making the ripples in the waves glisten so brightly that you can’t take your eyes off of them. You look around and because you’re up aboveIMG_9355 standing along the city walls you see cobble stoned streets lined with palm trees wrapped in twinkle lights. The streets are filled with extremely tenacious salespeople showcasing their bracelets, CD’s, sombreros and mochilas. Music is starting to get louder and louder as the clock keeps ticking and you see a few Colombian locals dancing in the palm frilled plazas with the colorful buildings behind them.

How’s that to get your masterpiece started?

When I lived (still cannot believe that is past-tense) in New York City a fun weekend getaway was always a must from time to time. You’ve got to escape the concrete jungle, especially this time of year, to get your healthy dose of Vitamin D, leave your stressful job and get lost in a brand new world for a few days. Cartagena would be my weekend getaway choice for you Northeast folks. A quick 4 hour-ish flight and you’ve got yourself a perfect little holiday filled with endless ceviche, rooftop sunsets and dancing!

Where to stay?

Andy and I are big proponents on staying in Airbnb apartments as much as we can. Why? You get to feel like a local. It’s one of my favorite parts of traveling. You should try IMG_6231 2it if you don’t already. More planning goes into it because you want to make sure you’re staying in the best part of the city that fits your interests but it’s totally worth the extra Google searches.

We opted to stay in the walled city of Old Town Cartagena and I HIGHLY recommend this. You’ll be in the center of it all, steps away from the top restaurants and bars, and the best part is you don’t have to take a taxi anywhere! You can walk everywhere in Old Town and because it’s not that big you can absolutely see it all in your little weekend getaway. Our apartment was in a tall building that was a renovated hotel building, close to Parque Fernandez de Madrid. We were lucky enough to score a high floor apartment with amazing ocean and city views. Hotel Bastion was one street away if hotels are your thing and you don’t want to give Airbnb a shot and I’ve heard great things.

What to do?

Get lost. No I’m not being rude. Really. Get lost.

Our favorite thing to do in Cartagena was step out of our apartment with no wifi on our phones and walk through the streets, up, down, across, all over Old Town with no agenda at all. The doors to the buildings are so intricately designed that it makes you want to go home and rip your front door down and get one of these babies installed.

Walking around Cartagena reminded me of a mix between Marrakech meets Havana meets Old San Juan. For all my travel junkies out there, you’ll know what that means! IMG_6204

ALL OF THE COLORS in Cartagena are unreal. Even if you wake up hungover and miserable you can’t help but be happy when you’re walking down these narrow streets. It’s like a million rainbows fell from the sky and painted the most picture perfect place.

While you’re walking around, snapping photos of these idyllic doors and flowered balconies make sure to grab a fresh arepa from the guys selling on their carts in the street for a tasty afternoon snack. IMG_2036

Find good spots to take in that sparkling sunset. Here are a few for you:

  1. Townhouse Boutique Hotel & Rooftop. Take the elevator to the roof just about an hour before sunset to grab a good table and order the Gin fizz cocktail. This new rooftop only fits about 30-40 people, has great music and a tiny pool that you can stick your feet in as you watch the sun go down.
  2. Top of the Movich Hotel. We decided to skip out on taking a boat to the islands on this time around. We were just in the Maldives & south coast of Sri Lanka so needed a tiny break from the island life. Instead we bought a couple day pool passes at Movich, and it was SO worth it. For $70 each you get access to their rooftop pool and bar from 10AM-7PM and $35 of that money goes towards your food/drinks. It has unbelievable views of Cartagena! A little oasis atop of Old Town.
  3. Cafe Del Mar. This is a VERY popular bar on top of the wall that overlooks the ocean with no obstructions for your sunset view. It’s over-priced and filled with tourists. We opted to sit on the wall next to Cafe Del Mar, could still hear the music and enjoy the sunset from there. A little anti-social of us but hey, I hate sitting next to other Americans when I’m in a foreign country.

Where to eat?

I got a list of recommendations for restaurants from a bunch of friends before I left. A few that I will pass on the recommendation for: Maria, La Cevicheria, Donjuan, Cuba 1940, Juan Del Mar (when you make your reservation make sure they seat you in front of the band) and for a great breakfast go to Mila. You really can’t go wrong in Cartagena for food. Everywhere is great. I’d argue though that my empeñada on the street was the best thing I ate there. So maybe one night skip the restaurant and support the local street food vendors instead. IMG_2179

Two pieces of advice before stepping foot off that plane.

Make sure you have enough space on your phone for all of the photos you will take. I  just looked and I’m embarrassed to say that I took 486 pictures in 4 days. How is that even possible? Most of them are doors, balconies and me in front of them. Andy has really mastered the burst feature on the iPhone, he nails it every time!

Second piece of advice. Brush up on your Spanish. Seriously. Or else you’ll get really good at pointing on your trip. Pointing at your menu and your Google Maps when asking for directions or ordering. Memorize a few key phrases so you can try to speak the same language.

So when you’re sitting at your desk day dreaming about the Caribbean ocean, maybe forego that US virgin island you’ve been to before (no offense USVI) and try the vibrant South American city of Cartagena.

You will be in for a special treat.

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