A Travellerspoint blog

Calling it a Wrap...

A brief reflection on our travels.

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After flying 55,405 miles each across 23 airports; driving 3,990 kilometers on the wrong side of the road; visiting 47 cities in 14 countries; taking 7,983 pictures; sampling 57 new beers and 17 new kinds of food we’d never before enjoyed, our trip has drawn to a close…

This has been such an incredible journey for both of us. Ryan and I are immensely grateful that we were able to spend 4 months together exploring the world. I can’t believe it is done now! Thanks to all of you that read our blog and sent us so many words of encouragement and well wishes along the way. This has truly been a life-changing experience for the both of us, and we know we will continue drawing upon the lessons learned and the experiences from our journey until we are old and gray. Until the next adventure… Cheers!

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Posted by mcpherson.nyc 20:05 Archived in USA Comments (1)

Tramping Around Australia and New Zealand

... our Grand Finale

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All good things must come to an end. After an amazing 110 days, we're excited to share with you all our final entry on our brief return to Australia and our introduction to the beautiful country of New Zealand...

Sydney, Australia. Four years ago Ryan and I celebrated our honeymoon in Australia, traveling for almost 3 weeks on the eastern seaboard. In 2009 the exchange rate was in our favor, meaning $1 US dollar bought $1.30 AUD, now it has switched and $1 USD buys $0.93 AUD. This unfortunate switch in the relative strength of our dollar made us feel penny-pinched in Sydney. A meal of sharing a pizza, salad, and two beers cost $70 US at our favorite restaurant the Australian Hotel. The same meal was only $40 US four years ago. Accommodation was another difficult aspect to book. We thought $100 US could buy us a decent room at a hostel… not really. Our free (points) nights at the Tokyo Ritz were missed when we stayed in a hostel in Sydney. In a matter of days we dropped from 5 stars to maybe 1/3 of a star. The place was dirty and the toilets were down the hall. Not to mention the shenanigans among all the hostel guests that, while somewhat amusing, went on at all hours of the day and night. The staff was friendly at the hostel and the place was well-rated, but if we wanted to have our own en suite we would need to double our accommodation allotment. Sydney has been ranked the third most expensive city in the world after Tokyo & Osaka, Japan. In only four years, the U.S. dollar lost substantial ground down under.

Nonetheless, we went out to enjoy beautiful Sydney. Walking down George Street to Circular Quay is really pleasant. Our first day in the city, we were fortunate to have gorgeous weather. The Harbor Bridge and the Sydney Opera House were stunning. The air was chilly and crisp with the bright sun warming areas outside of the shade. There are bars that line the harbor and many people were out enjoying the beautiful weather. Ryan had a craving for our favorite restaurant in Sydney - the Australian Hotel. We wandered on memory and finally stumbled across it in “The Rocks” section in the shadow of the Harbor Bridge. We had a tiger prawn pizza with several pints of our old favorite “BeezNeez” Aussie beer. All of the Aussie accents around us speaking English were a comforting change from not understanding Japanese in Tokyo. Our old favorite, The Australian Hotel, didn’t disappoint. Our second day in Sydney was rainy and we opted to go to the Contemporary Museum on the Harbor. We joined a tour and contemplated contemporary work for a couple of hours while it poured rain outside. Our day ended with beer samplers at… the Australian Hotel of course!

After 3 weeks in New Zealand, we come back to Sydney for two more days. I hope we have good weather because we are planning on going to Manly Beach and an animal rescue center full of Australia’s crazy and amazing animals. New Zealand here we come!

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New Zealand.

“New Zealand is like if the states of Oregon and Hawaii had a baby… then that baby grew up and studied abroad for a little while in Scotland.” – Ryan’s astute assessment of New Zealand.

Also, the statistic of 12 sheep per person is true… 4.1 million people, 49 million sheep, and there used to be more!

Christchurch. Whereas Sydney was pricey and difficult to afford, New Zealand was a nice surprise. The U.S. dollar is strong here and accommodation is not expensive. We joined the BBH (Budget Backpackers and Hosteling) group in NZ and it made it really easy to secure decent accommodation all over the country in minimal time. Once in the system, you have access to 250+ hostels all over the South and North Island. Ryan and I laid out maps of NZ and plotted our journey for 3 weeks in Kiwi land. We have a rental car which makes it super convenient to get to different areas.

Our first stop in New Zealand was Christchurch on the eastern part of the South Island. The city was decimated by a February, 2011 earthquake that left nearly 200 people dead and leveled most of the city center and the surrounding suburbs. Christchurch is continuing to build itself back up, but there is visible destruction everywhere. The famous landmarks in the city center are only half standing. Ryan had to get his camera cleaned while we were in Christchurch and spent time visiting with a repairman in the suburbs forced to work out of his garage after his office was destroyed by the quake.

In the middle of Christchurch are beautiful Botanical Gardens free to the public. Between two days, we probably spent 4 hours roaming around the manicured lawns. There is a gorgeous rose garden with many hybrids of roses in one section of the gardens.

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It’s been said that Christchurch is “more English than England” and traveling around Christchurch, you immediately notice the English influence in the architecture. Additionally, there are ads for pies, pints, and fish and chips… how much more English can you get?! Near our hostel was a restaurant called Pomeroy’s Old Brewery Inn that specializes in serving craft beer and entrees with locally-sourced ingredients. The first night we went to Pomeroy’s a jazz band was playing and we got to witness how the Kiwis relax on a Sunday night. I enjoyed a coconut milk stout and Ryan tried a cask edition stout. The food and beers were so delicious that we decided to back and try their fish and chips a few nights later.

Renting a car in New Zealand has made travel much easier for us than relying upon buses and other public transit. The drive from Christchurch to Dunedin is beautiful. As I am typing this now I see sheep, cows, glimpses of the Pacific Ocean, and rolling green hills. Ryan has become a pro at driving on the left side of the road. Out of all the countries that we have visited, Cambodia and Namibia were the only ones that drove on the right side like the U.S.

Dunedin. So if Christchurch yields to an English influence, Dunedin is decidedly Scottish. Dunedin touts its own tartan and is appropriately-enough nicknamed “Little Edinburgh.” The town’s population is 110,000 with New Zealand’s oldest school, University of Otago, near the center of town. A short drive away from the city center takes you to the Otago Peninsula where one can enjoy penguins, seals, sea lions, albatrosses, and beautiful views.

While wandering around Dunedin, we went to the Edwardian railway station and then got some chocolate at New Zealand’s own Cadbury World. The city is really hilly and we got a workout trekking back up to our hostel for lunch. Our second hostel in NZ was called Hogwartz, sporting an obvious Harry Potter theme to justify the name. Although the guests were all ages, the common thread tying everyone together was the desire to explore NZ. While eating breakfast our last morning a 65 year old man and some younger 20-somethings were trying to organize a group outing to see a Rugby match in Dunedin that evening.

The highlights of our time in Dunedin included seeing yellow-eyed and blue penguins, sea lions, and the gorgeous views at Tunnel Beach. The yellow-eyed penguins are an endangered species in New Zealand and there are several conservatories that are trying to rebuild the penguin populations. We got lucky at Sandfly Beach, spotting a few penguins and walking past some giant sea lions. The yellow-eyed penguins are really shy; in order to see them we had to hide out in a blind that was built next to the beach.

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One of the most gorgeous hikes that I have ever done in my life was Tunnel Beach. The views were breath taking. Once you hike down the large hill, there is a tunnel taking you to a small private beach surrounded by cliffs and boulders.

To wrap up Dunedin, we ventured out on the Otago Peninsula and went to the Royal Albatross Center. Although we didn’t see any of the giant albatrosses, we did witness around 50 blue penguins awkwardly hop to shore at 7pm. Our tour guide was named Mary and she was a local Maori with tattoos on her face showing the history of her heritage. She was really informative and took our small group to witness the small penguins come home for the evening. Apparently the blue penguins hop back to their nesting holes at the same time every evening. Even though it was dark, Ryan did manage to capture one picture of the "little blues."

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Milford Sound. The best kayaking trip that Ryan or I have ever done was in Milford Sound. We joined a group at 7AM and kayaked roughly 20 km over the length of the massive fjord to the Tasman Sea. It was a five hour kayaking journey with unbelievable views at every moment of the trip. We felt like small specks against the massive cliffs that line the sound. The highest point on the sound is Mitre Peak at close to 1700 meters, making it the 2nd highest mountain in the world to rise directly out of water. On the rocky cliffs there are trees clinging to the rocky slopes by putting roots down into the moss that has spent years growing into a thick “soil” on the face of the rocks. Every now and again there are tree avalanches that wipe out the forests in certain areas of the cliffs.

The Milford Sound gets 7 meters of rain per year causing many waterfalls to cascade down the cliffs after it storms. The abundance of precipitation creates an ever present mist on the sound. Other members of our group kayaked under Stirling Falls, but with Ryan’s camera equipment we opted to view the beautiful waterfall from afar. Stirling Falls and Milford Sound’s other permanent waterfall, Beckton Falls, are both several times the height of Niagra Falls and Iguazu Falls, but it was a bit difficult to appreciate their massive size as they were made to look almost short by the surrounding mammoth summits of Mitre Peak and Picton Peak.

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While kayaking we encountered many male juvenile fur seals basking on the rocks. A few swam and belly-rolled next to our kayaks at certain points. They liked to pose for our cameras and they put on a show when we kayaked close to them.

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Queenstown. After taking in the stunning views of Milford Sound, we traveled to Lake Te Anau to spend a night en route to Queenstown. The views are breathtaking while driving through New Zealand, and you begin to understand that there really must be 12 sheep for every Kiwi. There are fifty million sheep grazing around the country-side with different levels of fluffiness. Our goal was to find an extremely fluffy sheep that looked like a circle on stick legs while driving.

Queenstown, New Zealand is an adrenaline junkie’s dream come true. There are multiple tour outlets offering bungee jumping, canyon swinging, and hang gliding among other things that I have never heard of before. I am sure all of the tour operators required a signed waiver prior to the chosen activity. We didn’t partake in any of the death-defying activities. We ended up walking around the town and enjoying the gardens and a local pizza parlor during our day in Queenstown. It is a beautiful city set up on a hill overlooking a lake with mountains making a stunning backdrop. In the main garden, there was an 18-hole Frisbee golf course with a group of “golfers” on every hole/ basket.

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Aoraki/Mt. Cook. After staying in Queenstown for a day, we drove to Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park early the next morning to tramp around on several trails (in New Zealand, the term “tramping” is preferred to hiking, making for some pretty funny conversations between the two of us on our travels!). The alpine park boasts New Zealand’s highest mountains and the largest glaciers in the country. The weather was unbelievably gorgeous and the views of Mount Cook and the Hooker Glacier were stunning on our 3-hour hike through the Hooker Valley. The air was crisp, fresh, and windy with the sun peeking out of the moving clouds often. It felt nice to spend a day outdoors enjoying New Zealand’s beauty.

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That evening, we had booked accommodation at a hostel on a sheep farm called Buscot Station. The proprietor owned 7000 sheep, and around 2400 cattle. It felt like staying at your grandparents’ house on a farm. The hostel was full of a group of German backpackers that were working their way through the country. They told me that Central Otago, where we were, was good for apple and cherry picking. They were 20 years old and had just finished high school in Germany. Before they went to college or grad school they wanted to travel for as long as possible. Apparently, there is a backpacker workforce that does minimum wage jobs to extend their travels. New Zealand’s minimum wage is $13/hour and Australia’s is $21/ hour while the U.S. minimum wage is $8 per hour… go figure!

Arthur's Pass. Our next stop on our South Island journey was Arthur’s Pass to take in some beautiful hiking views. Our lofty plans of completing a six-hour hike with expansive views of the Waimakariri River Valley and surrounding mountains was ruined with a two-day rainstorm during our stay. We did suit up in our rain gear and went out to see the “Devil’s Punchbowl” waterfall and complete about two hours of small hikes. Even though it was raining the hikes were beautiful and the lush forest was on full display.

With all of our unexpected downtime with the rain, we watched the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy from start to finish over our 2 days in Arthur’s Pass. It was cool seeing the backdrop of New Zealand throughout all of the scenes. Peter Jackson was brilliant using his homeland of New Zealand as Middle Earth. I have read that the Lord of the Rings trilogy was the best thing to happen to NZ tourism since Captain Cook.
One of the highlights from Arthur’s Pass was meeting one of New Zealand’s endangered native birds: the Kea. These brightly-colored green parrots prefer high altitudes and are curious and fearless. They are intelligent birds and are not afraid of people at all. Their favorite thing to do is to peck off the rubber from vehicles and take scraps of food from unknowing travelers. The Keas almost succeeded in pulling a rubber part off our rental car before we were able to shoo them away.

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Kaikoura. Our unfortunate luck with the weather kept following us. Throughout the past year there has been a drought in New Zealand, but the long streak of dryness broke while we were visiting. A huge countrywide rainstorm lasting almost a week was dumping rain everywhere. Nonetheless, we jumped on the opportunity when the weather cleared for part of the day in Kaikoura.

Kaikoura is famous for whale watching and seeing marine mammals year round. There is also a wonderful day hike around the town. We left the small city center and started in a wooded area and then ended up walking along the coast for the majority of the day. At one point we had to walk through some cow pastures to stay on the path. The air was fresh and the landscape was beautiful. New Zealand has immense natural beauty. We’re so lucky to spend 3 weeks enjoying the country!

The cliffs against the Pacific Ocean were striking. I wonder if there are anytowns in New Zealand with ordinary views. Everywhere we go in this country is stunning. Near the end of our hike we came across Point Kean where fur seals like to take naps. The furry creatures were all over the parking lot and on the walkways sleeping. When a tourist got too close, the seals would bark and claim their territory.

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Along the walking route was a favorably positioned food truck selling fresh seafood, Kaikoura Seafood BBQ. Kaikoura means crayfish food in the Maori language and the city is known for having the best crayfish, or what we call LOBSTER in the U.S. Of course we had to try it along with seafood chowder. It was really good, fresh, and much less expensive than what it would cost in a restaurant in the Kaikoura area.

Across from the seafood truck, was a farm advertising a “Sheep Shearing Show” and after seeing thousands of puffy sheep all over the country we decided to give it a go. We were the only tourists for the show and the farmer answered all of our sheep questions (the difference between a lamb and a sheep? A lamb is a baby. How many times a year is a sheep shorn? Usually once, sometimes twice, etc.). There are several different breeds of sheep with the Merino sheep being the most commercially valuable to farmers. It only took a few minutes for the farmer to shear the puffy sheep. He told us that New Zealand’s record for the fastest sheep shearer was 832 sheep in an eight-hour day. That is like a warehouse of wool!

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Considering that Kaikoura is well known for whale-watching (and previously, whaling), the main bar is called The Whaler. We enjoyed drinking New Zealand beer made by a local brewery called Monteith’s. The second evening we hung out at The Whaler, we watched a Rugby match between the Wellington Hurricanes and the Western Australia Force. While watching, we spent time figuring out what the various rules of the game were and learning about the NZ’s favorite past time.

From Picton (South Island) to Plimmerton (North Island).

Continuing to head north on the South Island from Kaikoura, we drove the Queen Charlotte Drive around Picton. It was again a beautiful backdrop of mountains, water, and lush forests. Our accommodations were a play on Picton’s cemetery that was across the street; the hostel was called Tombstone. The BBH program that we bought memberships for has been impressive and really affordable. Our room with a private bathroom, unlimited WiFi (super-rare in NZ), access to a hot tub, exercise equipment, and a free breakfast in a new and clean hostel was around $68 USD.

The next day we turned in our miniature Corolla at Hertz and took the 3-hour ferry from Picton to the capital city of Wellington. The dismal rain continued and put a damper on the supposedly epic views from the ferry. Luckily, once we got to Wellington there was an amazing free museum in the middle of the capital city called Te Papa that included 5 floors of exhibits on Kiwi history, people, and art.

That evening we stayed at a highly rated BBH property in Plimmerton, which was 30 minutes north of Wellington. The beachfront property was charming and our room had gorgeous views of the water. It was also warm enough to keep the windows open. Walking along the waterfront, we were impressed with the beachfront homes near our hostel. They were elegantly designed and all of them had large windows to take in the beautiful landscape. It would be fun to have a vacation home in NZ… yet the reality of traveling there from the states doesn’t make much sense.

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New Plymouth and the Forgotten World Highway. Our plans changed due to a 5-day rainstorm in New Zealand. The rain providing a needed relief from the 2012-2013 drought, but our outdoor tramping plans were seriously compromised. Initially, we intended to complete the famed Tongariro Crossing trek, but with the constant rain and promises of gale force winds and snow, it just didn’t make sense.

Nonetheless, we made the best of it and stayed in New Plymouth for an evening. New Plymouth acts as the west coast’s international deep water port with many beaches and Egmont National Park just a short drive away. The main attraction is Mt. Taranaki, a large volcano, with the last eruption over 350 years ago. With the rainy weather, we never saw the top of the volcano. It was under a giant cloud the entire time. Although the weather was not in our favor we put our rain gear on and completed a small trek at the bottom of the famous volcano.

Continuing on to our next stop in the town of Waitomo, we opted to drive the Forgotten World Highway. If you have seen Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit , the rolling hills and winding roads look like the Shire where Bilbo Baggins lives. Most of the hills had sheep grazing and due to the recent storms some rocks were crumbling off the cliffs making the road a one-lane drive at certain points. The highlight of the Forgotten World Highway was coming to the Republic of Whangamomona. The quirky town became an independent republic after disagreements with local councils resulting from the proposal to shift district lines requiring the townspeople to play for a new rugby club. Ryan got his passport stamped and we enjoyed lunch at the town’s hotel. In its brief history, Whangamomona has elected a poodle as president, who resigned following an assassination attempt, followed by Billy the Goat. They celebrate a Republic day every other year drawing thousands of people for the vibrant festival. At the local pub, newspaper articles were on display chronicling the history of these shenanigans.

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Waitomo Caves. The next stop on our NZ journey was the town of Waitomo with the sole intent to experience black water rafting. Waitomo means “water hole” in Maori, and there are impressive underground cave systems throughout the town. Black water rafting refers to “rafting” about 60 meters underground in the caves…SUPER COOL! If you ever travel to NZ I highly recommend this activity. (Due to the fact that it was underground and cameras weren't permitted, there are no pictures for this one...)

Ryan and I were equipped with thick wet suits, a head lamp, and a sturdy inner tube. We joined a group of 16 other travelers to experience the underground caves with two lively young guides. Our training included jumping off a dock backwards into a cold river outside of the caves to simulate how it would feel when we jumped off the waterfalls deep inside the cave. This aspect definitely freaked out some of the other travelers.

Fully equipped with our gear, we climbed slowly into the cave and started to navigate through the underground tunnels. The water was cold yet invigorating and it was difficult to maintain footing while walking through the passageways. Finally, when it was deep enough we all sat in our inter-tubes and the current took us slowly through the underground tunnels. Ryan befriended our guide named Mark, who then told us about the large eels swimming along with us in the passageways. Mark didn’t want to tell the group about the eels because there was a large group of study abroad students who were already slightly hysterical about the experience so far, and the eels were not a threat.

The first waterfall jump gave me an adrenaline rush. After the entire group finished jumping backwards off the waterfall with every other person screaming with delight, we linked up and floated deeper into the underground passageways. Mark stopped the group in an underground hallway and told us to turn off our headlamps. Once it was completely pitch black, we could see thousands of glowworms on the ceiling of the cave. They reminded me of the glow in the dark stickers I had growing up forming constellations on the ceiling of my bedroom. Comically, the “glow worms” are actually, as our guides informed us, "the glow-in-the-dark excrement of a cannibalistic maggot that fishes and sleeps for 9 months, wakes up without a mouth and has sex until it dies." They are really pretty if you do not think about what they actually are…. Thousands of tourists come annually to see the glowing poo! Regardless it made the cave seem magical… only in NZ!

Rotorua. After hiking through beautiful mountain ranges, rafting through black water caves, and kayaking through the breath-taking Milford Sound, it was only par for the course that NZ has a colorful thermal wonderland. Rotorua sits on an area that has been geologically active for thousands of years and includes geysers, hot mud pools, and streaming craters. We visited the colorful park Wai-O-Tapu, which is part of a scenic reserve administered by the Department of Conservation.

Although the views were incredibly interesting, there was a “rotten egg smell” that permeated throughout the park caused by hydrogen sulfide. Ryan thought it looked like a paint ball game gone crazy, and I thought the pools looked like a giant toxic Easter egg dying party. It was wild seeing all of the different colors and knowing that it was 100% caused by nature and the volcanic activity. Another highlight of the park was seeing the “Lady Knox” Geyser explode at exactly 10:15 a.m. The park guide gave an informed speech about geysers and added soap to speed up the natural process. The geyser exploded 20-30 meters into the air, thrilling the crowd.

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After visiting Wai-O-Tapu, we headed to a community with people actually living on the geothermal activity. Whakarewarewa (actually a shortened form of a word initially consisting of 37 letters!) is where the Tuhourangi/Ngati Wahiao Maori people live. That is a mouthful! Basically the Maori people belonging to a tribe live in the community and continue to share their culture and experience with tourists. We joined an informative tour learning what it is like to have boiling water just below the surface of your neighborhood.

One cool aspect that jumped out about our visit was learning about Hangi cooking. Since the water in the ground is so hot, food is put in secure boxes and placed underground just about the water to be steamed. Ryan and I enjoyed corn on the cob and a warm meat pie that was prepared underground. Also, when people take baths in the village they use the warm water from beneath the ground to take a steaming bath. The town’s graveyard is above ground because of the hot water underneath the surface could destroy the graves. Overall the Maori people are able to live in harmony in the thermal village.

A highlight of our visit to the thermal village included a Maori cultural performance. NZ’s famous rugby team, “The All Blacks,” perform the Maori War dance called the Haka before big matches, and we got to see this famous dance performed. The troupe performed several Maori dances, including the famous Haka, and it was really entertaining. It involves the men slapping their chest with their eyes bugged out and their tongue out as far as possible. It also involves lots of grunts and intimidating threats. The point of the dance is to intimidate your opponents and get yourself psyched up for a looming battle. In war it was performed to scare the opposition in hopes they would run away before anyone was hurt. We took a picture with the performers… I don’t quite have the bugged eye look, and I don’t think either of us are intimidating anyone.

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Auckland. Our last stop on the North Island was NZ’s largest and most diverse city: Auckland. With a population of 1.2 million, it is definitely the largest city that we visited in NZ. We opted to take a walking tour to learn about Auckland and a get a glimpse of the local people. From our hostel we walked through an area that reminded us of Little 5 points in Atlanta – a funky, artistic area that was just a little rough around the edges. Shortly after crossing through the artsy area we were in the city center next to Auckland’s main Civic Theatre. There are beautiful museums free to the public close to the city center. A few blocks away from the museum area was the beautiful Auckland University campus.

Walking around downtown Auckland, it was apparent that a large portion of the population is of Polynesian and Asian descent. There were many different types of Asian restaurants to choose from. With Auckland University in the city center, there were a lot of students everywhere making it a young and vibrant city. We made our way down to the waterfront and enjoyed a beautiful, sunny (finally) day without rain. Since we had spent time in Southeast Asia, we chose not to eat at one of the many Asian restaurants and decided to eat at a Belgian restaurant called “The Occidental” which specializes in grilled mussels and Belgian beer. The mussels were amazing and we were able to try a sampler of different flavors like bacon and cheese or parmesan and olive oil. I always feel that it is a good choice to try the local seafood when near the ocean. It was so fresh and enjoyable!

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Christchurch, the sequel. In order to catch our flight back to Sydney, we had to spend a day back in Christchurch… a welcome inconvenience! I am sad that our three-week adventure flew by exploring Kiwi country, and we had to go home so quickly. Our last day in Christchurch, we decided to drive a short distance (12 km) to the waterfront town of Sumner. Sumner is a bit of a paradox: on one hand, it's a relaxing place with great restaurants to enjoy next to the beach, yet on the other hand, Sumner was the community most noticeably impacted to this day by the 2011 earthquake.

Artists in the Sumner area have started an interesting new project. Rather than allow the town to be overrun by shipping containers doubling as rock slide protection, they've thrown giants canvases up over top of the containers and painted some amazing works on them for everyone's enjoyment. The incredible thing about NZ is that you can take a small hike around a town like Sumner and nearby Taylor's Mistake and see breathtaking views from all angles. Everyone was out enjoying the beautiful weather as well. I think a full week of rain made all of the Kiwis crave some bright sunshine.

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Our final meal in Christchurch was at our favorite place: Pomeroy’s. Once again, we enjoyed fresh food, craft beers, and friendly service. Our time in NZ flew by. If you enjoy the outdoors, I highly recommend a trip to NZ. It is a small accessible country with such a breathtaking natural beauty. There are thousands of gorgeous hikes to go on. If you are an adventure seeker your choices are endless in NZ.

The last stop: Sydney, Australia. To wrap up our epic trip, we chose to repeat two favorite activities from our honeymoon from four years prior. Sydney was unbelievably gorgeous our last two days. I felt that all of the tourists and Aussies were out enjoying the crisp beautiful air. Ryan and I boarded the ferry bound to Manly along with the hundreds of other beach bound people. The ferry was crowded because of nice weather, but it was lovely to pass all of the Sydney icons on the way to Manly Beach including the Opera House, the Harbor Bridge and a slew of stunning mansions along the waterfront.

Ryan and I made our way to Manly Grille to repeat a meal we had four years prior. The restaurant has the best oysters and we were not disappointed. I believe we even sat at the same table to enjoy our lunch. After lunch, we walked along the waterfront watching all of the happy people enjoy their time at the beach. It was crowded, but the overall vibe was light hearted.

Our final day of entire journey, we went to Featherdale Wildlife Park near Sydney. The park is full of all sorts of Aussie animals, and you can pet some of them as well. As soon as we entered, we were greeted by jumping Wallabies, Wombats, Kangaroos, and a whole slew of exotic birds. There was even a barking owl. Australia has some of the most interesting wildlife. Maybe because it has been isolated for so long?!—Who knows, but it was such a joy to spend time at the wildlife park.

After one last night time walk along Circular Quay, it was time to close the Australia and New Zealand chapter of our travel book.

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Posted by mcpherson.nyc 20:04 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

Konichiwa from Japan

Overwhelming the Senses in Rainy Japan

rain 55 °F

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Tokyo. I am currently looking out over the massive city of Tokyo watching the sunset near Mount Fuji from the 48th floor in the Midtown Tower. This city has been impressive on many levels: wonderful cuisine, efficient and comprehensive train systems, cleanliness, and cutting-edge technology everywhere. The city has a fast-paced pulse that sees you witness young professionals rushing to work (or drinking furiously until the wee hours after work) followed by you catching a glimpse around the next corner of an older woman in a kimono walking down the street reminiscent of an earlier time.

At times, Tokyo confused us with its two different subway systems (the Metro and Toei lines), but after a few inadvertent purchases of the wrong tickets (and some subsequent Japenglish conversions with the local police), we figured it out… but you can see why it might have been a little tricky:

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Luckily, the week Ryan and I came was during the coveted cherry blossom season and right outside our hotel was a public park lined with the beautiful trees. We were in Tokyo for 6 days and we only had one sunny day. Fortunately, we did not send home our winter gear because it was chilly and rainy in Tokyo.

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Our first day in Tokyo, Ryan and I went to the Imperial Palace and walked for several hours around the city. The famous cherry blossoms were in bloom and it made the views beautiful. We were struck with the impeccable cleanliness of Tokyo while walking around the city. There are recycling bins next to the many vending machines on the streets. It was a stark contrast to the trash that I saw on the streets and beaches in Cambodia.

Another slightly silly thing I want to point out about Tokyo is the toilet technology. I have never been to a country with such fancy toilets. One evening at a restaurant with friends I got anxiety because it was not clear on how to flush the toilet. There were ten different buttons with Kanji descriptions and no regular flushing handle. Thankfully trial and error worked, but seriously the toilet situation is the best in Asia. After spending time going through rural Cambodia, this was the space age.

Ryan and I were really lucky in Tokyo to meet up with an old friend of mine and her family. My friend Laura moved here with her 2 year-old son while her husband Jason was relocated to work in Tokyo for at least a year. We met them in their neighborhood, Roppongi, and enjoyed Okonomiyaki (pancake) Japanese food along with many Asahi beers. The giant pancakes were cooked on the skillet that made up the middle of the table where we were sitting. It was so much fun to catch up with an old friend and hear about their adventures as Gaijins (a non-Japanese person) in Tokyo. In addition to eating at the Okonomiyaki restaurant in their neighborhood, Laura made us an “American” meal with lasagna and apple pie for desert. It was such a treat to have a friend make us dinner one evening after travelling for months!

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Over dinner, we mentioned wanting to get out and see some of the “quintessentially (modern) Japanese style” that we were sure were lurking somewhere in this behemoth town. Following Laura’s advice we went to Harajuku for the Sunday parade of fashion (and also spent a bit of time in the Meiji Shrine area). Harajuku was really entertaining and it seemed like the young population was waiting for their turn on the imaginary runway. Every Sunday the young fashionistas come out and showcase to the world what the new trends should be. There are also people dressed up in different costumes from anime, manga, comic books, and video game characters to name a few.

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Right next to the happening fashion area with tons of stores and restaurants is the Meiji Shrine area. The area was wooded and once we made it to the shrine area we were able to witness a wedding procession walking through the courtyard. The parade of people walking to the shrine all had difficult shoes to walk in and the formal procession shuffled along slowly.

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One of the main tourist attractions in Tokyo is the Tokyo Tower close to Roppongi; it is a retro icon for the city. Tokyo Tower is a red and white copy of the Eiffel Tower, and it tops its Parisian model by a couple of meters. The tower was built in 1958 and provides views of the entire city on a clear day. Next to the Tokyo Tower is the Zojo-ji temple that had many small jizo statues that capped in red bonnets and decorated with plastic flowers and windmills. The particular jizo statues at Zojo-ji served as memorials to stillborn children from their parents. The parents leave small offerings to remember their children and hopefully secure comfort for them in the afterlife.

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Tokyo Foodie Update. When I think of Japanese food my mind immediately thinks of sushi, but that only makes up 20% of the cuisine of Japan. Tokyo has over 500,000 restaurants and the options are endless. Even though Tokyo is the most expensive city in the world, there is quite a range on food prices and we found it to be quite manageable for any budget. I got drawn into a McDonald’s advertising a green tea milkshake and seaweed/sea-salt French fries. I had not eaten at a McDonald’s in years, but I wanted to try the Japanese-inspired fast food version.

One evening Ryan and I went to Ganchan in Roppongi to try Yakitori. It was raining outside and other Yakitori restaurants were on a wait at 8:30 pm on a Tuesday evening with the patrons patiently waiting in the rain. The restaurant that had room for us fit about 12 patrons around the counter, 2 lively chefs keeping everyone entertained, 1 chef’s assistant and a surprisingly solid collection of American rock n’ roll cassettes/CDs from the 60s and 70s. Yakitori style involves cooking small portions of food on a skewer over wood coals (on a VERY small grill space). We ordered a set course, and sat back and enjoyed the subsequent ten rounds of delicious food presented to us. Some of the tasty items included: Asparagus wrapped in bacon, quail eggs, pork loin and basil, marinated chicken meatballs and wings, chicken skin, fresh shitake mushrooms, and a rice ball with a pickled cherry. Of course dessert included some green tea ice cream. The two-hour dinner was extremely enjoyable and tasty.

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The next morning we ambitiously woke up at 3 AM and traveled to the Tsukiji fish market in hopes of being one of the first 140 people allowed in to witness the tuna auction at 5:30. The Tsukiji fish market was definitely a highlight of our trip to Tokyo. We arrived to the venue at 3:45 AM in the rain and promptly joined the line of other serious early morning tourists. Our punctuality paid off because we were given vests to wear for the first tour starting at 5:25 AM to watch the Tuna auction. Admission for tourists to view the auction is on a first come first serve basis. Any visitors attempting to watch the auction after the first 140 people have been admitted are denied admission and sent home (around 4:00). In the first group there were 70 tourists including us that were shuffled into the auction room to watch the giant tunas get sold from 600,000 Yen to 1,000,000 Yen or up to $100,000 USD. Of course with everything else in Tokyo, it was very organized. The fish were laid out according to size in neat lines. They were huge! The prospective buyers cut small sections off the fish and tasted and felt the consistency between their fingers. I have no idea how to tell what a tuna is worth; there was a lot going on at the fish market that I did not understand.

So naturally, at 5:50 AM it was time to go get a sushi breakfast after we were ushered out of the auction area. There were lines 20 people long waiting outside in the rain of the well-known sushi establishments before 6 AM. We chose a restaurant where we could sit down immediately and were not disappointed. The quality of the fish was unbelievable. The fatty Tuna (toro) and sweet shrimp melted in my mouth. The yellow tail, salmon, mackerel, squid were all top of the line. Any other sushi meal I have in my life will not compare to the unbelievable quality of the sushi at the fish market.

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After our early morning adventure, I opted to go back to rest up at the Ritz while Ryan wanted to travel to a small town a couple hours away called Nikko to experience some history. In addition to catching up on my sleep, I wanted to hang out with my friend Laura and her son Drew for a few more hours before we had to leave Tokyo. Tokyo was our final splurge of Marriott points. We cashed them in to stay at Ritz-Carlton in Tokyo midtown, and I wanted to enjoy it before we dropped back to hostel status!

(from Ryan) After leaving Margaret behind in Tokyo, I ventured out into the madness that is several connections on Tokyo’s two subway systems followed by a two-hour trip/nap (thanks to our 3am wake-up call) to Nikko, Japan. After a 30-minute stroll through the center of Nikko and a quick stop at the Shin-kyo Bridge I arrived at my targeted destination: Tosho-gu Shrine.

Tosho-gu is a Unesco World Heritage site built originally in 1617 by Tokugawa Iegaru, the first of Japan’s shoguns. Initially, the shrine aond surrounding buildings were modest and understated, however once Tokugawa Iegaru’s grandson came into power in 1634, he renovated the existing buildings and built many more in an over-the-top memorial gesture to his deceased grandfather. Interestingly, he was able to finance all this extensive work by cleverly levying heavy taxes on rival lords (daimyo) in the nearby areas. Taxing the daimyo in this manner not only paid for the massive construction job, but served another purpose by creating financial parity amongst these lords at a time when violence among them was threatening to destabilize Japan.

A series of impressive worship halls, belfries, drum towers and tombs awaited me once inside. Among my favorite were the “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil” monkeys carved into the side of the royal stables (a testament to the three major principles of Tendai Buddhism), the Yomei-mon (or Sun Blaze) Gate with its immaculate wooden carvings, the “Roaring Dragon” hall and the numerous drum towers scattered among the grounds.

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After finishing my tour of Tosho-gu, I made my way over to the neighboring Futaransan-jinja and Taiyuin-Keibyo complexes. Futaransan-jinja predates Tosho-gu having been built in 782 by Shido Shonin while Taiyuin-Keibyo is the mausoleum of Japan’s third shogun (and the builder of Tosho-gu) – Tokugawa Ietmita. Among the highlights of these locations were the ornate carvings at Taiyuin-Keibyo dedicated to the gods of Wind (green) and Thunder (red). After the over-the-top style of Tosho-gu, it was nice to spend some time in environments with a more traditional feel to them.

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On my walk back through town, I stopped at a local art gallery where a guy from Nikko painted a personalized piece of “Dragon Art” for our home back in Atlanta and enjoyed sharing some stories with him about the town I’d be bringing his work back to. Finished in Nikko, it was time to hop a ride on the Tokyo-bound Ginza line to meet back up with Margaret (stopping briefly in Tokyo to snap a few pics of the Skytree at night).

... Together again after a whopping nine hours without one another’s company (somehow, our longest time apart in 3+ months), Ryan and I took one last stroll through the cherry blossoms near our hotel before calling an end to our last day in Tokyo. Sayonara, Tokyo! Arigato gozaimasu! Thank you very much!

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Posted by mcpherson.nyc 00:45 Archived in Japan Comments (2)

An Overdue Update on Cambodia...

Sometimes relaxing. Sometimes moving. Crazy driving at all times!

sunny 98 °F
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Siem Reap. Traveling from Bangkok, Thailand to Siem Reap, Cambodia was an adventure. Ryan and I had done our homework and already received our Cambodian visas prior to leaving Atlanta. Thankfully, we were prepared for all the scams that were attempted on us at the renamed Scambodian border (all on the Thailand side, it should be noted):

First our bus from Thailand didn’t let us off at the town that was printed on the ticket. Instead they took us closer to the border, but we didn’t know that at first. The bus driver took the remaining “tourist” passengers to a parking lot where they tried to usher everyone in to a nondescript building to get a Cambodian visa (NOTE: we were STILL IN THAILAND!). Even the bus driver from Bangkok was in on the scheme. Two fellow Americans from West Virginia that we were chatting with on the bus got whisked up into the building even though they had read about all of the scams. Although we already had visas, they were still trying to get us into the building for some reason or another. First attempted scam—successfully bypassed!

Next, while walking with some European travelers to find the border entry in the town a tuk tuk driver lied to us saying that it was a couple of kilometers away. We were carrying all of our stuff and heavy backpacks so we asked to be taken to the border. He charged us 40 Baht for driving us in a circle and down the block. We got tricked about where the border actually was, but our mistake only cost us $1.40. After leaving Thailand we went to a town called Poipet and proceeded to enter into Cambodia. Our new friends from West Virginia joined us at immigration after paying an additional $35 to get their Cambodian visas over what was required. Foreigners are not allowed to rent cars in Cambodia so you have to secure transportation another way. Fortunately the four of us were able to split a car from the Cambodian border to Siem Reap.

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If we thought Thailand’s driving was bad, Cambodia’s driving conditions were much worse. After an exhausting two hour drive dodging motorbikes our driver stopped at a parking lot on the outskirts of Siem Reap next to several tuk tuks. The tuk tuk drivers proceeded to explain that they were going to help us out by finishing the drive to our hotel. Ryan and I immediately started asking questions because we had already paid to be taken to our hotel. The tuk tuk drivers had already pulled our luggage from the trunk, and our original taxi driver was peeling out of the parking lot. The guy calling the shots told us that our hotel was too far away and was trying all sorts of creative tactics to take us to another place. We told them that we already paid and that they needed to take us to the hotel. He also wanted to secure one of the tuk tuk drivers to be our guide the next day, but we already had one booked. The guy was clearly annoyed at us for not falling for all of the things he kept trying to offer us. As I was getting on the tuk tuk the driver peeled out of the parking lot with my leg still on the ground. Ryan and I found out later that our WV friends were told to pay an additional $8 (a small fortune in tuk tuk fare) to be taken to the hotel even though they had already paid for it. So at the end of the journey Ryan and I paid an additional $1.40 but our new friends got taken for a ride of an additional $43 for the same – no small amount considering that you can stay at a decent hotel and eat for around $50 for two people in Cambodia. We all finally made it to the lovely hotel and were able to relax and laugh about the day in the hotel’s restaurant. I am so grateful that we were prepared for that insanity. It was kind of entertaining anticipating the creative scams. An entire industry has been built around taking advantage of tourists that don’t know any better.

All of the travel effort paid off the next morning when we watched the sunrise over Angkor Wat. Ryan and I secured a highly-rated English speaking Cambodian guide named Nat. He picked us up from our hotel at 5:00 am, and our car joined the tuk tuks, tour buses, bicycles, and the parade of people heading to the temple to witness the sunrise. Thousands of tourists ascend onto the temples of Angkor every day to see the amazing temples from the tenth century. Once we got to the ticket booth, we had our pictures taken for the passes and then we walked with the early risers to see the wonder of the temples.

As we sat watching the sun come up, there were monks chanting in the background. This was a moment that took my breath away. As soon as the sun peaked out above the temple, you could hear the crowd of people oohing and aahing.

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Angkor Wat is an expression of genius; the only thing I have seen that compares on our trip was Machu Picchu. Angkor Wat is the earthly representation of Mt. Meru, the Mt. Olympus of the Hindu faith. The temple has three levels. The lowest represents hell, the middle represents the earthly life while the upper-most represents heaven on earth. The Cambodian god-kings from the 9th to 11th centuries strove to one-up the size of the structures built by their ancestors thus leaving many magnificent structures – with Angkor Wat being the heart and soul of Cambodia.

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Since Cambodia has suffered through many wars and the devastating Khmer Rouge Regime, the periods of destruction brought about a lot of looting and beheading of Buddha images. It was sad walking around the temples seeing places where Buddha images were stolen or vandalized.

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Around Angkor Wat are beautiful bas relief sculptures depicting different stories from Hinduism and Mythology. One of the most well-known bas relief murals is the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. There are 88 asuras (devils) and 92 devas (good gods) churning up the sea to extract the elixir of immortality. This is just an example of the many stories that are carved into the walls though out Angkor Wat. There is almost one kilometer of bas relief stretching around Angkor Wat depicting the epic events from that time. The story of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk is perhaps the most frequently seen throughout Angkor and the greater Siem Reap area; depictions of this story can be found throughout the region on temple walls, gates, etc.

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The next place we visited was our favorite after Angkor Wat: Bayon. The temple was created by Cambodia’s legendary king, Jayavarman VII. Walking around Ryan and I asked our guide if Jayavarman VII was an egotistical man because the temple has 216 faces that are a mix of the king’s face and Buddha looking out in all directions. Our guide books say that he was an egotistical yet enigmatic figure, but our guide said that he was just a great and respected ruler. Most importantly, he made an environment where Hindus and Buddhist were able to peacefully live side by side. There was also a shift to Buddhism during his rule in the 10th century.

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Ta Prohm temple has been swallowed up by the jungle in certain parts, and it was built as a Buddhist temple to honor Jayavarman VII’s mother. This temple is popular because there are root formations throughout the temple strangling various parts of the buildings. Angelina Jolie’s Laura Croft character made this temple famous in Tomb Raider. It was so much fun climbing through the ancient doors and seeing how nature continues to envelop the temple. There are sections of the temple area that are just piles of ancient sandstone and lava stone. Our guide told us to go have fun climbing and like small children Ryan and I started exploring the ancient stones on the back side of Ta Prohm.

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While traveling around the temples at Angkor, there are children and adults pleading for you to buy souvenirs. It was shocking for me to have a 3 year old girl chase and beg me to buy bracelets for one dollar. She followed us all the way from the exit back to our car begging us. Even once we got in the car she started knocking on the window. It was heartbreaking. I didn’t want to purchase anything from her because I didn’t want to condone the behavior of her family exploiting her to work at that age. The kids would beg Ryan to buy things, but they hung on to me until we left the area. It was so disheartening and depressing to see the children begging us to buy things in such an aggressive manor. In the poorer areas of Africa we were taught not to give out money to the children because it makes them dependent on foreigners. Rather if you feel inclined, you should donate to an orphanage or school to help them that way. Well, this was a new wrinkle because the children were not outwardly begging, but they were pleading with you to buy their items. Furthermore, after doing some digging, we found out that while SOME of these children are likely being exploited for their youth and relative ‘cuteness’ by older adults, some are working at these tourist destinations during the day while their parents are off working at a manufacturing job or something else outside the tourist world.

I could never imagine my friends’ daughters in the states running around and pleading with tourists. The poverty in Cambodia is so intense, and I broke down the second day and carried around a bunch of singles. Ryan and I bought 26 postcards of Angkor Wat, and still another little girl was pleading with us as we left one of the ancient temple sites. She started getting angry with me saying, “one dollar lady!” I showed her that I already had what she was selling and told her no thank you in Khmer, but it didn’t matter. Also it’s common to see beggars around Cambodia that have been injured from the abundance of land mines still found in certain areas. When traveling in Cambodia, it was important to not step off any established paths or trails because there could be land mines from the many wars in Cambodia over the last century.

One touristy thing that we did that left us with a bit of a sour taste in our mouths was a long boat trip to the floating villages on Tonle Sap Lake. There are many houses, stores, and schools that are floating in the lake. We had to pay $40 for a boat to take us out. (Cambodia uses the US dollar along with the Cambodian Riel as their official currencies). Considering our hotel only cost $26 per night, a one-hour boat ride should not have cost that much. Our boat was also extremely dingy and in poor condition. Not a big deal, but I asked our tour guide Nat how much the boat owner received from our fare. He had no idea… my guess was 40 cents. It is frustrating to pay hiked-up tourist rate knowing that the actual employees helping you look so incredibly impoverished. We later found out that our boat driver and his wife lived on the dingy boat. The old couple recently lost their home at a floating village when their son died in a car accident. His death caused them to have to pay $2500 to an insurance company, thereby plunging their lives into poverty facing the need to live their “retirement years” on a dilapidated long boat. At one point our boat driver wanted to take us to a floating visitor center area. There were children in big pans paddling around begging for money. We couldn’t handle that after all of the children that I encountered at Angkor earlier in the day. We ended up just floating in an area away from the center watching the sun set. The experience was depressing on many levels for us.

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On our final day in Siem Reap we visited the oldest structure at the temples at Angkor called Preah Ko. It was incredible walking around a temple that was constructed in the year 879 A.D. Some of the carvings on the sandstone looked as though they were carved yesterday – but in truth were created nearly 1300 years ago!

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The next temple showed a juxtaposition of old Angkor and present day Angkor. The temple Bakong was dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva but shared its location with a modern era monastery. This was the only new structure that we saw near the old monasteries and temples. While walking to the temple we were able to talk to some of the Cambodian kids who were on lunch break from school. They happily posed for a few pictures for Ryan and got a kick out of seeing the immediate results on our camera.

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In addition to enjoying all of the temples at Angkor, we visited a silk farm being run by an NGO helping provide jobs to Khmer people, the “locals’ market” and went to a local dinner show one night featuring Apsara dancers. The Apsara dance is a Khmer classical art form. The dancers tell stories through their graceful movements. The movement is slow and fluid with intricate hand poses. The women wear gorgeous form-fitting costumes with elaborate headdresses. After seeing all of the bas relief structures of Apsara dancers at Angkor Wat, it was a treat to see an actual performance.

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We enjoyed our stay in Siem Reap. Even though our private tours were pricey, the U.S. dollar goes far in Cambodia. Our hotel cost $26 per night which included a free massage and welcome drink upon arrival. Our second night in Siem Reap, Ryan and I opted to get a couple’s massage for $6, $3 each for one hour at our hotel. What! The Khmer restaurant at our hotel was really enjoyable serving traditional Khmer dishes. The ingredients were always fresh and rice is served with almost every meal. Our favorite chicken dish came in a coconut with a bunch of vegetables. To Ryan’s satisfaction, fresh chili peppers accompanied almost every meal as well.

Phnom Penh. Traveling from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh was extremely easy. Our bus had WiFi, blasting air-con, snacks and movies playing continuously. Each ticket was $13 and included a pick up from our hotel and the five hour journey to Cambodia’s capital. Who knew that traveling inside of Cambodia could be so nice?

Phnom Penh was the most emotionally trying city of our trip. We learned more details about the Khmer Rouge and all of the devastation that Cambodia has faced in the last 40 years. The communist Khmer Rouge regime under Pol Pot was blamed for the death of at least two million people through torture, execution, hard labor and starvation from 1975-1979.

The regime targeted and killed the educated, intellectuals, professionals, teachers, artists, and people who wore glasses (to point out the absurdity) among many others. Parents and children were separated and placed into different labor camps. The regime attempted to brainwash children into believing that their parents did not love them and the Khmer Rouge leaders were their family. From 1975-1979 there were no banks, no schools, and no basic human rights. During our time in Phnom Penh we visited one of the FOUR HUNDRED killing fields as well as S-21 – a high school turned into a prison where people were tortured (before being sent to a killing field for execution). Both of these locations told horrendous stories and described what happened during the genocide. Ryan captured a pretty interesting moment below when he observed some Buddhist monks reflecting over one of the memorial walls at S-21 dedicated to the torture victims that passed through the walls there.

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The devastation from the Khmer Rouge regime is still felt throughout Cambodia. Socially and economically the country was reset and had to start over after the regime ended in 1979. Even with the Khmer Rouge out of power, the overwhelming majority of the country’s educators and educated were executed, the financial system was effectively obliterated and almost all infrastructure was destroyed when all was said and done. After the Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodia then experienced roughly 13 more years of tumult in the form of civil wars and internal struggles.

Nat, our guide from Angkor lost his father during the regime and his brother was blinded by land mines in the years that followed. Although Nat was only a one-year old at the start of the regime, his entire family was affected by the insanity. Even though the Khmer people have been to hell and back in the last 40 years, we were consistently amazed by their kindness and welcoming spirit. Nat talked about how much he loved his country and how he wanted to see it continue to progress. It was inspiring to hear these comments after learning so much about the atrocities that the Khmer people have endured.

In addition to learning about Cambodia’s painful history in Phnom Penh, we visited the National Museum, the Royal Palace, and an animal rescue center. The National Museum houses the world’s finest collection of Khmer sculptures, and there is a beautiful courtyard garden in the center. At the museum, there was a video exhibit showing how Angkor Wat would have looked in its prime. It was interesting seeing the digitally enhanced Angkor temples and imagining what it was like back then. The Royal Palace is the official residence of King Sihamoni, and parts of the compound are closed to the public. However, we were still able to visit the famous Silver Pagoda boasting a floor made of over 5,000 pounds of silver-tiled floors, an emerald Buddha and a life-sized gold Buddha decorated with 9,584 diamonds.

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My favorite part of Phnom Penh was traveling out to the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center. We elected to take the more economical transport option and ventured out to Phnom Tamao on a “remork” (the Cambodian version of a tuk tuk). The center is a home to animals that were rescued from the illegal wildlife trade. The ones that are able to go back to the wild are released while others needing medical treatment stay longer. We did not see the center’s famous elephant, Lucky, but apparently she has a giant prosthetic leg. Ryan and I saw the (relatively diminutive) sun bears for the first time and watched gibbons flip around their cage. During our visit we bought food from the local children to give to the animals that we were able to feed. The Khmer children were trying to help us with our limited vocabulary and we helped them with their English. (Bonus points if you can figure out the meaning of the girl's t-shirt in the picture with Margaret below).

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Koh Totang (Nomads' Land). After all the activity and sobering education in Phnom Penh, we were ready to head to the beach for several days. Instead of going to the built-up beach area called Sihanoukville, we opted for an isolated island with a population of 12 people at a rustic resort called Nomad’s Land. Our journey to the location went smoothly with a 4-hour car ride and a short boat ride. The owners were a really charming and hippy-like Swiss couple.

Our hut did not include any running water. The shower situation involved using a bucket from a giant basin. The residents of the island collect rain water during the wet season and disperse it the rest of the year. For electricity there were solar panels set up to offer limited use. Although the island lacked regular creature comforts, the isolation from tourists and hearing the waves crash 15 feet from our hut were huge advantages.

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During our time at Nomad’s Land, we kayaked around the entire island, relaxed, and watched the sunset every day. There was a resident yoga couple teaching during the afternoons, and I took advantage of those classes. We also enjoyed spending time with a few of the island’s other residents and eating freshly harvested cashews straight off the island’s trees (courtesy of “Om” – Khmer word for grandma – living next door to Nomad’s Land).

There was another Swiss couple on vacation there and we ended up hanging out with them in the evenings playing new games that they taught us. Every day the owner Karim went out and spear-fished a live catch to prepare for dinner. The food was extremely fresh and healthy. The total experience was very Zen-like and relaxing, but I look forward to a proper shower from our next stop.

Aw khun ch’ran, Cambodia! (Thank you very much). Leah hai! (Goodbye). You were intense, yet beautiful. Next stop… Tokyo!

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Posted by mcpherson.nyc 02:44 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Sawasdee!! from Thailand

... time to eat and relax!

sunny 90 °F
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Bangkok, Thailand. We arrived in Bangkok after a redeye flight from Dar es Salaam (via Narobia, Kenya). Traveling on a redeye will make anyone not feel their best. Fortunately, we had nice accommodations once we arrived in Bangkok at the Renaissance. After a month of travelling in Africa, the high-speed internet, a/c and complimentary snacks were a welcome change of pace.

I decided to take a yoga class at the gym in the hotel with a room overlooking the expansive city. I believe the yoga teacher was also a Thai masseuse because she kept manhandling the students into the positions. People in the class kept crying out when she stretched them, but I loved it because my body was tight and cranky from traveling overnight. After arriving to our hotel in the afternoon, Ryan and I were exhausted from traveling and decided to chill out in our hotel. It was fine because the lounge had really good Thai food. Already, I was falling in love with the hospitality and food and I hadn’t even left the hotel.

The next morning (after we’d recovered from our travel exhaustion) our first priority was to experience a Bangkok food tour recommended by friends back home. We set out to navigate Bangkok’s Sky Train and to find the station where our food tour would begin. The sky train and subway system in Bangkok are both state of the art. They don’t cover the mileage that most major city transit systems do, but Bangkok’s version has ice cold air conditioning on the subway cars and the bulk of it has been built in the last ten years or so. The stations are kept impeccably clean. Ryan and I want to thank NYC for helping us quickly navigate foreign subway systems and Atlanta for making us accustomed to sweltering heat. Bangkok is hot and muggy like Atlanta during the summer. Luckily, we were not in Thailand during the upcoming monsoon season. I read about how the rain comes down in sheets and you’re instantly drenched.

The sky train and subway systems in Bangkok have numbered exits to simplify meeting people and finding new places. It seems such a simple idea, but as a foreigner it’s really helpful to meet someone at exit 4 or head to a tourist site from Exit 2. We headed to “Saphan Taksin” Sky Train stop and met our Bangkok Food Tour group. Our guide was named Nushi and our group had 8 people from Utah, a couple from Singapore, and a couple from San Francisco. This was the most Americans on a tour that we had encountered on our entire trip. Our guide gave us ear pieces so she could talk to all of us at all times throughout the tour because a group of 14 would be tough to communicate with on the noisy streets of Bangkok.

If you’re a food lover, I would highly recommend taking a food tour in Bangkok. Our tour was around 3 hours and took us to five different restaurants. We would never have ventured to some of the places on our own—and I probably would not have tried such an assortment of food. We enjoyed traditional roasted duck served on rice, curry noodles with chicken, crispy catfish, green mango salad, Thai style green custard bun, Thai BBQ pork bun, original Thai curry, and coconut ice cream to name a few. Of course we also had tasty Thai iced tea. It was amazing; each dish was so flavorsome. Thai food has a wonderful balance of sweet, salty, spicy, and savory. When ordering a dish, the servers always ask if you would like it spicy. The Thai chili chopped up in your food can make your mouth go numb if you’re not used to the spiciness. Ryan has a much higher tolerance than I do and was always requesting more chili peppers. On our tour, some of the restaurants were off the beaten path owned by families through the generations and others were fancier where business lunches were taking place. Throughout the tour we walked quite a bit so we could quickly build up an appetite before making it the next place – sort of! Whatever weight that we had lost through our travels would quickly come back in Thailand.

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Several things that immediately stand out in Thailand are the Monarchy, Buddha images, and monks. Everywhere you look there are images of the current king and queen: Rama IX and Queen Sirikit. It is a crime to speak poorly of the Thai Monarchy, and if you’re caught bad-mouthing the government you can receive up to 20 years in prison. Also, there are Buddha images or shrines on almost every street corner. There are multiple flower stands set up so people can purchase flowers to leave as an offering. We commonly saw people walking down the street and bowing to different Buddha statues and images. Monks come only just beneath the monarchy in the social hierarchy. We probably saw twenty-plus monks per day while walking around. Whenever other Thais greeted us with a wai (a bow with hands in a prayer form) we would reciprocate with the “foreigner” bow. There are multiple ways to wai, but as tourists there is no way we could figure out which type of bow was needed. The safest bet for us would be to place our hands under our chin and bow if they did it first.

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The guide books warned us to stay away from the tuk tuk drivers that are everywhere in the city. One of the main scams the drivers pull is to take tourists to certain shops and gem stores were they get a commission for bringing unknowing tourists. Also, the tuk tuk drivers like to tell tourists that certain locations are closed because of a Buddhist holiday. Without fail walking around Bangkok after our food tour, tuk tuk drivers were trying to take us to “nicer areas” or show us Bangkok. They offered their services for 10 Bhat per hour ($0.33). I think we politely told a few of them we were not interested, and then we just started putting our hands up, ignoring them, or waving them away.

Thailand has a reputation for amazing massages. I am not referring to the “happy-ending” ones, but traditional Thai massages. Within 9 days of being in the country I treated myself to 3 different massages, and I made Ryan accompany me for his first massage ever. It was hardly a spending splurge. Each massage cost 300 Baht ($10 US) and they were so good that I usually tipped 30%. Amazing!! The technique of a Thai massage includes combining elements of yoga and acupressure. As well as stretching muscles and loosening joints, it seeks to stimulate pressure points along the body’s energy lines, in order to address energy imbalances and release blockages, stimulate blood circulation and detoxify organs. Holler! I wish a Thai masseuse could have been a part of all my dance contracts over the years.

One of the biggest attractions in Bangkok is the Grand Palace. It’s a huge complex, which encompasses Thailand’s holiest and most beautiful temple, Wat Phra Kaeo. The temple holds an emerald Buddha which attracts thousands of visitors per day. Ryan and I took the sky train to the “Saphan Taksin” exit and headed to catch a tourist boat on the Chao Phraya River to make our way to the Grand Palace. The boat ride cost 40 Baht per person, and it was a fun trip to see all of the different temples and shops heading north on the river. Once we arrived near the Grand Palace we had to weave our way through tons of street vendors and try to squeeze past all of the tourists trying to board tour buses. Since the Grand Palace is so popular, the fee to enter has been raised. For foreigners it cost 1000 Baht for two entrance fees and we opted for an audio guide to learn about what we were seeing. All of the shrines and temples were beautiful.

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After seeing the Grand Palace, we elected to see the enormous Gold Buddha lying down at Wat Pho a few blocks away. This Buddha weighs in at a massive 15 meters by 43 meters making it the largest such Buddha in all of Thailand.

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All of the walking around made us in the mood for another food tour. We enjoyed our first tour with Bangkok Food Tours so much that we booked a more ambitious one that went through China Town at night. This adventure would not be for anyone who has an aversion to strange foods. We met our tour guide and an Aussie couple near the entrance of China Town. All of the roads in China Town were developed to look like a dragon from an aerial view in Bangkok. After viewing a few temples we stopped near an ornate Chinese shrine to see the Goddess of Mercy. Although she is a Chinese goddess, Thais still hold tremendous respect for her. Around her shrine was a Children’s Hospital. Many people were praying and offering donations to help the children.

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Our China Town tour included visiting 7 different places and tasting probably around 15 different items. It was a Saturday night and some of the restaurants were packed. The previous tour we did was in the morning, and restaurants were prepared for our group with the food waiting for us upon arrival. We had the pleasure of trying: dim sum, curry scallops, sea bass with ginger, river prawns with chili sauce, peppery soup, Thai tea ice cream, and several different types of tea to name most of the foods we tried. The street vendor that we got the peppery soup from was extremely popular. The soup tasted like the name implied and there were different organs from a pig in it. There was pig tongue, heart, lungs, “sack” (which we could never get our guide to more specifically define – YIKES!) and liver in the soup along with noodles. As we ate our peppery soup a line formed around our table waiting for our seats. In spite of the contents, Ryan said he thought the soup was among his favorites from the night.

China Town in Bangkok was buzzing with energy, and there were people everywhere. It was sensory overload… or rather an assault to all five of my senses. One of the Aussies on our tour noticed a family of 5 on a motorbike speeding by on the street. He had made a bet with his wife about who would see 5 people on a bike first. There were cars, motorbikes, pedestrians, and tons of vendors selling all sorts of food. I was trying just to keep my wits about myself and keep up with our guide. Fortunately, after eating all of that strange food I never got sick. I seriously was worried about my stomach for the next 48 hours, but both of us remained perfectly healthy.

(Warning—don’t read if you’re squeamish) The Aussie who was on our tour told us the strangest story about the last experience he had in Thailand’s Chinatown. He used to live in Bangkok and did business with a Thai and Chinese firm. For those of you familiar with the opening dinner from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – you may know where this is going: At a fancy business dinner in Chinatown he said that after dinner had been served, the hosts ordered a live monkey out to the table to finish their meal. It was supposed to be an honor and delicacy costing 100,000 Baht. Here is where it gets crazy… The restaurant’s servers pushed up a live monkey under the table with his head exposed through a hole in the center visible to all of the guests. Then they chopped the top of its head off right in front of the guests. After that, the business dinner guests ate the raw brains from the monkey. What!! Ryan and I were so shaken after hearing this story. Yet, walking through Chinatown you get the sense that anything is possible. The Aussie said he needed an enjoyable experience from Chinatown to replace that awful memory and our outing was hopefully going to do that.

On the tour, one of the more interesting foods we tried was deep fried duck beak. Our guide didn’t tell us what it was until everyone tried it. She said our group was more adventurous than her other clients. Usually all the group members don’t try everything like we did. I did regret eating some chili sauce with a river prawn. My mouth and cheeks were numb from the spiciness for about 20 minutes. Other than that, it was a very interesting experience. Ryan and I successfully tried probably 30+ Chinese and Thai dishes within our 10 days in Thailand. My preference is for Thai food while Ryan seems to like the Thai versions of Chinese food a little bit better.

In true McPherson fashion, we booked a bike tour around Bangkok. We went on the tour on a Sunday in hopes to avoid the most traffic. I feel that we are now bike tour specialist considering we have been on so many. Unfortunately, our standards have become really high, and this tour fell short in some aspects. One of the laws in Thailand is that only Thais can become tour guides. That is a great idea to preserve these jobs for locals, but only if their English is understandable. I should not criticize because I don’t speak Thai, but it was billed as a historical Bangkok tour in English. Our guide was super smiley, but he could barely communicate with our group. On one of the side streets near China Town an older woman from Belgium on our tour wiped out on her bike while trying to avoid one of the numerous cats. She was in such a cute outfit but now was covered in sludge from her fall. I felt that I basically spent four hours riding through the little streets around Bangkok and China Town trying not to fall off my bike or run over a cat. To be fair, we did see several key sites but I was more concerned with not getting run over by the erratic Thai drivers.

The highlight of the bike tour was meeting a couple tourists (one from Texas and one from Spain), eating lunch, and getting a pedicure from a bunch of fish. The U.S. has outlawed the fish that eat off dead skin on your feet probably due to sanitary reasons. That didn’t stop Ryan and me from squealing with laughter as we dropped our feet in into the fish spa.

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Before our trip Ryan and I made some deals; Ryan took a tango class with me and therefore I had to go with him to a Muay Thai fight in Bangkok. It was by far the priciest tourist thing we did in Bangkok. To watch the fight a tourist ticket costs 2000 Baht each. We never found out how much the locals paid. Muay Thai fighting is a big part of Thailand’s culture. When we used to live in NYC, Ryan would take classes to learn the technique from a Thai boxing champion at his studio near Canal Street in Manhattan. Now in its birthplace we had to see how it was really done. Muay Thai fights take place every night in in Bangkok.

Once making it to Ratchadamnoen Stadium I was surprised that the stadium was not as big and daunting as I had anticipated. There were musicians who would drum during the 3 minute rounds of each fighter. We ended up seeing 5 different rounds of young fighters. The boys were in weight classes with the lightest being 77 lbs. and the heaviest contender was only 126 lbs. There was not an ounce of fat on these young athletes. Ryan and I ended up sitting ringside (thanks to our expensive tickets) and next to our bike tour friends that we had met previously during the day.

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With two food tours, multiple temple viewings, a bike tour, a Muay Thai fight, and hours of walking through Bangkok we were ready to head to the beach and relax after so much activity. Our flight to Phuket went smoothly, but we encountered some trouble driving to Khao Lak. The JW Marriott Resort we were staying at was around an hour north of the airport and we were supposed to stay on route 4. At one point we came to a stop with 3 different options of roads to take that were all named route 4 with some other words in Thai on them. It was hysterical… Our first choice of Route 4 dead ended into a National Park. Eventually trying all the different routes we finally made it to the most beautiful resort that I have ever stayed in.

Khao Lak, Thailand. I feel like Marriott is sponsoring our trip. Our entire stay in Thailand was at different Marriott properties, and we are using rewards points that have accrued over ten years. Sometimes certain airlines make you feel like a 3rd-tier passenger for redeeming points whereas Marriott always made us feel really welcomed. Nonetheless, the luxurious accommodations were incredible and peaceful. After the fast pace hustle and bustle of Bangkok, this resort was relaxing. JW Khao Lak also has the largest pool in Southeast Asia. An enormous river pool connects all the buildings with larger pool areas that have bars. All five nights that we spent at this resort involved enjoying free cocktails in the Infinity Pool at Sundown. Whoever designed this resort was brilliant with placing the sunset in perfect view from the bar framed with palm trees.

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Ryan and I ventured off the resort and tried beach front Thai restaurants that were amazing. It was funny being a “budget traveler” while staying at the JW. The fancy meals that were offered in the resort were really pricey and around 8 times what you pay at a local place… seriously. On our third night we finally found a gem of a restaurant called “Ma Ma’s Greeting”. The tables were set up on the beach with small white lights cascading around to provide the guests with light. A meal including several Chang beers for Ryan and me plus water, salads, entrees and a fruit dessert cost around 500 baht or around $16 US total. The food was so good! I am getting hungry just thinking about the tastiness and high quality of the ingredients. The Papaya and Mango salads were really fresh and tasty along with Pad Thai, Thai Curry, Green Curry, and Ryan’s favorite: Basil Chicken. Down the beach the JW offered a Thai buffet on the beach for around 4000 Baht per couple. I am sure it was amazing, but Ma Ma’s restaurant was perfect for us to spend three evenings watching the waves at night.

I have been blessed or rather cursed with pale Irish skin with freckles. I find spending time at the beach relaxing in the shade or when the sun sets. Even when I put copious amounts of sunscreen on, I usually manage to still get burned somehow. So, it was nice that Ryan and I went to hang out in the pool around 5pm every day, and then spent the evening on the beach at a local restaurant. We did float around the expansive river pool one day, but overall we were pretty lazy. I have never spent time at a resort like this before… but I guess that is what guests are supposed to do!

Of course with all of this laziness, I needed to get a Thai massage from one of the huts on the beach. I felt guilty for being so indulgent, but I rationalized that for three months out of every year for the past 8 years I have worked as a Rockette. Every season involves 90 + shows, rehearsals, and a lot of wear and tear on your body. By eating well and getting massages was healing me… maybe! Nonetheless, it was awesome getting a massage on the beach. The Thai women stand on top of you and stretch your body into all sorts of different angles. From dancing for the past 15 years, they are always shocked at my flexibility and make a big deal to their co masseuses. I felt like a big white doll at the beach front Thai massage place. My masseuse probably was no more than 5 feet tall and definitely weighed less than 100 pounds. When the massage was done she asked to braid my hair, and then wanted to fix my feet. She was not trying to earn more money from me because I tried to tip her for these unsolicited services- she refused. I finally had to just grab my towel and escape the massage hut. The whole experience was funny to me, and once again couldn’t be replicated in the States.

We did venture away from the resort one of our days and drove back to Phuket to experience a speed boat tour of the smaller islands across Phang Nga bay in the Phi Phi Islands National Park. While visiting the resort in Khao Lak we opted to rent a car to give us more freedom. Most guests that stay at the resort don’t rent cars - probably because they don’t want to deal with extremely erratic driving. Ryan had to dodge motorbikes coming at him from all different directions and large SUVs were prone to merge into your lane cutting you off. From my assessment, it seemed that whatever car was larger had the right of way. There were also no speed limits posted unless there was a sharp curve and then a warning sign would be posted to lower your speed.

Thailand has a reputation for amazing beaches and islands that sprinkle throughout the Gulf of Thailand- and we wanted to see what the hype was about. Our tour started at 8 AM in Phuket with Bamboo Island first on the itinerary. There were 14 other passengers on our speed boat including an Atlanta couple from Canton, GA (small world). Once at Bamboo Island, our guide ushered off the boat and quickly demanded that we take pictures before the hordes of tourists showed up. As you can see from the video and pictures, the views are breathtaking. The sights calm your soul and then all of the tourists start showing up. Large speed boats started docking and dropping off multiple tourists. We were able to get a quick video and some photos before the island was overrun.

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Afterward we enjoyed snorkeling in a bay near Bamboo Island called Hing Klang. There are giant limestone cliffs overlooking the water, and just below the water surface the limestone structures have eroded making cool passageways to snorkel through. It was really fascinating going through the passageways and seeing the fish in the carved out areas. There were colorful Parrot fish everywhere. Back on the boat, our tour headed to Phi Phi Don Island for a traditional Thai lunch. It was another beautiful island advertising rock climbing on the giant limestone structures. The Thai food was excellent of course. As we sped away from the island, the guide pointed out individuals climbing the massive limestone structures.

Our next stop was Phi Phi Ley Island and Maya Bay. This island was featured in the movie The Beach with Leonardo DiCaprio. The water was pristine, the beach was white and sandy, and the limestone structures created a gorgeous backdrop. The only problem was that thousands of other tourists wanted to see it as well. Over half of the area on the sand was covered with speedboats parked right next to each other.

Afterwards, our guide took us to Phileh Lagoon to take some fun pictures while jumping off the speed boat. Ryan was able to do a back flip into the aqua marine water. The water was warm and it felt great to swim after cruising around on the speed boat. The last stop our guide pointed out was Viking cave where bird’s nest soup is harvested. This is one of the most expensive animal products consumed by humans. The nests have been used in Chinese cooking over 400 years. From the boat, I could see the workers inside the cave and the scaffolding used to extract the nests.

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Kob Khun Ka Thailand! That is how a woman says thank you in Thai. Ryan and I really enjoyed traveling through this beautiful country. The food was incredible and the beaches were stunning. Next stop Siem Reap, Cambodia to see Angkor Wat!

Posted by mcpherson.nyc 14:42 Archived in Thailand Comments (1)

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