March 30, 2015

Singapore: A Blend of Many Cultures

By Noemi Gamel

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Visiting Singapore has been on my bucket list for years. Its reputation for immaculate cleanliness, international diversity, good food, and fun stuff to do with the family make it a top destination in SE Asia.

The city did not disappoint us! It indeed was very clean. I have never seen bathrooms or a subway station as clean as I did in Singapore. I loved the mix of cultures as the Chinese, Indian, Malaysian, Thai, and Vietnamese worlds blended into one gorgeous microcosm.

While Thailand is known for its pad Thai, Vietnam for its pho, and Cambodia for its Khmer “amok” curry, Singapore does not necessarily have a signature dish. Instead, Singapore is known for its food stalls. The hawker food stalls provide one of the most evident proofs of the Singaporean diversity. When you enter a hawker eating house, you will find hundreds of stalls, each specializing in one dish. All the cultures that come together to contribute to Singapore’s diversity are represented. How do you know which stalls out of the hundreds are the best? As with other places, follow the locals. Chris and Tristan stood for almost half an hour to sample the chicken and rice at the Maxwell Road eating house, and they were not disappointed. Kara and I opted for the curry puffs, being vegetarian.

The food is not the only thing in Singapore that is borne out of a mix of cultures. The architecture features blends of the old, as evident in the Merlion, and the new, which you can see while walking down the waterfront. The Gardens by the Bay also feature modern architecture and breathtaking landscape designs.

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March 25, 2015

What’s a Rafiki?

 

Rafiki” means friend in Swahili!

Ellie,_Grace,_Savannah_Ian_and_Henry_with_the_mentor_in_the_Taurus_mountain_hike

Did you know that each Thomson Family Adventure—with eight or more guests—is accompanied by a rafiki*? Our rafikis work with our guides; their main purpose is to enhance the overall trip experience, and especially to engage the children in their new surroundings. We used to call these companions “mentors,” but the job title didn’t convey the rich benefits of this staff member. We settled on rafiki as an acknowledgement of our flagship destination, Tanzania—and so you would ask “what’s a rafiki?”

Depending on the trip, the rafiki may be local to the destination, or may be American. While the job description may vary with each trip, there are some constants to the work. In essence, a rafiki is the “fun person” on board who provides lots of opportunities for recreational and bonding activities, especially among the children. A rafiki comes prepared as a resource, always offering a fun activity or great information.

 

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A rafiki’s job is:

• To provide kid-friendly enrichment activities for up to an hour each day, enhancing the overall trip experience
• To provide organized fun for kids that helps them get to know each other
• To provide things for kids to do during delays, flights and long bus trips
• To give parents the chance to relax and enjoy a stress-free trip because their kids are engaged in interesting activities that help them appreciate other cultures.

A rafiki is not:

• A babysitter. While there are times when the rafiki will supervise the children, he or she is not there to discipline or take over parental duties.
• A tour guide. The local guide is the trip’s expert on the country visited. Any questions about the itinerary or the country should be directed to the guide. This includes food and lodging issues, concerns about excursions, and questions about local culture or native flora and fauna.

Here’s what past travelers had to say about their rafiki friend:

 

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TANZANIA:

“The guides and rafiki were exceptionally wonderful and very kind! They answered all our endless questions… This is the best trip I’ve had”

–Jennifer Wineman: 12/22/14

 

“Our favorite part of the trip was the animals and hanging out with the rafiki and other kids. We were glad to have the rafiki along as he was willing to discuss political and social issues.”

–Maguire: 07/25/14

 

“Hooking us up with two other families with kids the same age may have been the highlight of the trip. They all bonded well, facilitated by the rafiki. This was appreciated and the rafiki was really good at this work.
–Rosentreter:  07/25/14

“The rafiki was wonderful. He was smart, informative, warm, and great with all ages. He was committed to ensuring a great experience for us all. He was fun to be around, funny, adventurous, attentive, and patient, all with a good sense of humor.”

–Lori Rafkin: 12/21/12

 

ECUADOR:

“Our rafiki made our trip perfect and so easy. She was smart, helpful, energetic, and highly knowledgeable. Do not underestimate the rafiki as a big part of the trip’s success!”

–Freeman: 02/19/11

 

“Our rafiki kept the kids happy and taught them a lot in a very fun way. She was great.”

–Smith-Barr: 02/19/11

 

“Our rafiki very much enhanced our overall travel experience with activities and games. He became part of our family.”

–Doug Listman: 12/21/11

 

COSTA RICA:

“The rafiki was good and especially helpful with the kids.”

–Jeff & Shari Grimes:  06/16/12

 

“Our rafiki was great with the kids, enthusiastic, and energetic.”

–Zilkha: 02/18/12

 

 

SMITHSONIAN:

“The rafiki initiated and anticipated… a great help and enhancement to the trip. She was really a pleasant surprise, how having a rafiki made a better vacation both for the kids and adults.”

–Barb Barney:  07/05/14

 

“It was a wonderful trip. The guides and rafiki made it especially nice. Would highly recommend the trip and hope others got the same guides and rafiki.”

–Linda & Leland Foster: 07/13/14

 

“The rafiki was the nicest and smartest person in the entire world.  She was so nice and I am sad to say goodbye to her. She (and the other family) made the trip.”

–Trip Gorman: 12/26/14

 

“Our guide, rafiki, and photographer went above and beyond to help the children bond with each other and make the activities fun. They enabled the adults to have a great time also.”

– Whitman: 03/15/14

 

*NOTE: There are no rafikis on our Trips with Teens and 20-Somethings, and certain custom and private trips.



March 23, 2015

A Fishy Pedicure

By Noemi Gamel

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You know that nasty feeling you get when your feet are calloused, dry, and flaky? The Thais have found the perfect solution for this! All you have to do is dip your bare feet in a tank and little fish will eat away the dead tissue off your feet.
Fish spas are becoming increasingly popular in Thailand. We had heard about them before visiting the country, but we did not find our first fish spa until almost at the end of our six weeks of travel in Thailand. As soon as we spotted the fish spa while walking down the street in Krabi, we signed up! The fish that do the dirty deed are toothless garra rufa, or “doctor” fish. I don’t think the name is that appropriate since doctors don’t usually give you a pedicure!
The experience was…ticklish! Tristan only lasted a few minutes. Chris, Kara, and I took advantage of the full 15 minutes for which we paid. I was literally twisting my body with laughter because of how ticklish the fish nibbles felt on my feet. Nevertheless, it was fun and at the end, my feet really felt silky and smooth.
Have you ever had a fish spa or similar experience? Let us know in the comments below.

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March 16, 2015

Supporting Good Causes While Traveling

By Noemi Gamel

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While we were in Koh Lanta, Thailand we stayed at a family-run resort that was up the street from the Lanta Animal Welfare (LAW) shelter. One day, upon Kara’s insistence, we decided to stop by and check it out.
I was apprehensive about what we would see there. I was worried we would see animals in smelly cages and poorly nourished. My fears were unfounded. LAW is an organization whose mission is to rescue homeless and abused animals in Ko Lanta. They provide shelter, coordinate adoptions, and arrange low-cost/free sterilization clinics in the area. The facilities were clean and spacious. The dogs, cats, and one rabbit looked well nourished and healthy.
For visitors and tourists, LAW allows them to walk the dogs or cuddle with the cats. We made sure to do both. They also provide tours of the shelter. Some of the stories were very sad, and Kara and I shed some tears. Nevertheless, in the end, we were uplifted to learn that the animals at LAW experienced happily ever afters, whether it was by being adopted or remaining at LAW for the rest of their lives. We enjoyed the visit so much, that we went back another time before leaving Koh Lanta.
You may wonder why we spent time while in Thailand visiting an animal shelter full of dogs and cats. There were no tigers or elephants or other “exotic” animals native to the area. The truth is, we like cats and dogs. We also appreciated the efforts of LAW and wanted to support their cause. I think one of the great things about traveling is that you don’t have to spend the entire time doing something exotic. Sometimes, just sitting and cuddling with a cat, no matter where you are in the world, is all you need to make a good day.
If you ever have the opportunity to responsibly support a good cause while traveling, please do so. If you have other recommendations of good causes to support while traveling, let us know in the comments below.

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March 9, 2015

Accessing Thailand’s Most Beautiful Beaches

By Noemi Gamel

Beach-2The southern coast of Thailand is famous for its beautiful, white-stand, sapphire blue water beaches. The Andalman Sea has a feature that I find most enticing: it is warm!
Unfortunately, many other tourists have discovered that Thai beaches are the place to be, and you will often find yourself sharing the white sands with your neighbors just inches away from you. There are a few things you can do to avoid the crowds while visiting during the good weather months.

 

Beach-1First, don’t limit yourself to the beaches on the mainland. Venture out to the peninsulas and islands off the coast. While we were in Krabi, we took a long boat to Railay Beach, which is buttressed by some beautiful rock cliffs. The views were gorgeous! There are no cars in Railay Beach, and while it can be expensive to stay on the peninsula, it makes for a memorable day trip.

Second, arrive early. This has the added benefit that you can avoid the intense Thai sun during the hottest part of the day. Get to the beach around 9:30 am, and you will find a lot of space without the oppressive heat.

 

 



March 2, 2015

Training Restaurants in South East Asia

By Noemi Gamel

When we were in Hanoi, there was one restaurant I made sure we patronized: KOTO. One of the reasons I wanted to eat there were the desserts, because while Asia has amazing food, they are a bit lacking in the sweet department. The main reason, however, was that KOTO is one of the training restaurants in Hanoi.
KOTO’s mission is to train disadvantaged Vietnamese youth in the hospitality and culinary arts. They are also taught English lessons. KOTO is the venue where the trainees are able to hone their newly learned skills under the supervision of teaching wait staff and cooks. The food was pretty good, and the desserts were spectacular. I missed Western cakes and pastries! However, the best part of eating at KOTO was knowing we were helping a good cause.
Training restaurants are common in South East Asia. We also ate at Marum in Siem Reap, which trains disadvantaged Cambodian youth in the hospitality arts and provides them with an education. The parents of the Marum students are also employed for fair wages to make souvenirs that are sold in the Marum shop. Marum is a restaurant approved by Child Safe International, an organization whose mission is to protect children from exploitation and trafficking. In Phnom Penh, we ate at a delicious restaurant called Daughters of Cambodia, which provides employment and training to victims of the sex industry.
Next time you are in South East Asia, I highly recommend you visit a training restaurant. The food quality is excellent, the service meets high standards, and you may learn something about the local people.

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February 23, 2015

The Traditional Arts in Vietnam

Traditional Arts-1In addition to experiencing a culture through food, language, history, and architecture, learning about its traditional arts also gives travelers a glimpse into every day life. A visit to Vietnam is filled with opportunities to witness the local people’s artistry in a respectful and dignified way.
While in Hanoi, we did a Vespa tour which included a visit to a boat building yard, a family who made sleep mats for a living, and another family who made rice crackers. The tour company pays the families’ fair wages (most of whom barely make a living wage by selling their products) to allow the tourists to see them making their products. We were able to participate in making sleep mats and rice crackers. The lovely women who dedicated their life to their particular art form made it look much easier than it was.

We also admired the lanterns in Hoi An’s ancient town. Lantern making is a Vietnamese craft that goes back 400 years. The spirit and culture of Hoi An is embedded in this art. There are about thirty lantern making businesses in Hoi An that contribute to the local economy. A visit to Hoi An must include a walk through the lantern district at night.
In Hanoi, we attended a water puppet theater performance, which Chris and I enjoyed as much as the kids did. Water puppetry originated in the 11th century in the Red River delta. The themes of the shows are usually about rural life and Vietnamese folklore. The colors and movements of in the shows are mesmerizing. We saw water puppet theaters in every city in Vietnam we visited, so no matter where you visit in this country you have an opportunity to witness this traditional art.
During your travels, what has been one of your favorite traditional art experience? Let us know in the comments.

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February 17, 2015

Halong Bay

 By Noemi Gamel

 

Halong Bay-3We have not had great experiences when it comes to boats on our RTW. Between awful sea sickness on the Drake passage on the way to Antarctica, cold winds in Milford Sound, and larger than expected waves on the ferry between Tahiti and Moorea, I was a bit skeptical about doing a cruise on Halong Bay during the Vietnamese winter. I am glad that Chris insisted and I gave in.
After witnessing the power of Iguazu Falls, the striking beauty of Antarctic glaciers, and the raw vastness of Salar Uyuni, I thought there was not much in the world that could impress me. Halong Bay proved me wrong, and it deserves its place among the natural wonders of Asia.
The bay is studded with massive limestone formations rising above the waters. I have never seen anything like it, but as we sailed in our “junk” boat among the limestone giants surrounded by the mist, I felt the same reverence I did for the landscape in Antarctica. We spent the weekend walking or kayaking through caves, visiting a floating village inhabited by the boat people, and enjoying stunning vistas from the deck of our junk.
One of our most memorable moments was kayaking through the “Night Cave”, which was completely dark. We had to paddle upstream through a river within the bowels of the cave. There were times I wanted to turn back, but pushed on for fear of mockery by Kara and Tristan. Our arms felt like noodles at the end. We were rewarded when we spilled out the other end of the cave onto an isolated lake with beautiful views. Talk about an adventure!
I highly recommend a trip to Halong Bay if you are in Vietnam. The waters are calm (no sea sickness!) and even in the winter, the weather is nice.

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February 9, 2015

Hoi An Vespa Tour: A Different Perspective

By Noemi Gamel
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For the last seven months, with the exception of the time we rented a car during our three weeks in New Zealand, we have been exploring the different towns we have visited on foot. We occasionally take a car (or tuk tuk!) to a particular site, but for the most part, we go to restaurants, town centers, and tourist sites by walking. While this is great exercise and allows us to experience the local culture in a slow, intimate setting, it also means our radius of exploration is rather small. We decided to do something a little different in Hoi An, the foodie capital of Vietnam. We went on a Vespa tour. This is exactly what it sounds like. Four young men on Vespas picked us up from the house we rented in Hoi An, we climbed on the back of the bike, and then off we went! 

As soon as the Vespa took off with me clinging to the passenger handle for dear life, I thought I had made a mistake. The Vespa rode a lot faster than I anticipated. Even though I was not the one actually driving it, I felt unstable and wobbly. I was afraid we would hit a pedestrian or car. I kept having visions of Kara or Tristan’s Vespa crashing and the kids flying off onto the street. My pediatrics training came back to rear its ugly head with full force! Fortunately, none of my fears came to pass. We all wore helmets and our drivers were safety-conscious. After we left the city, we explored the countryside, including the rice fields and small fishing villages near Hoi An.

We visited a family that made sleep mats and another that made rice crackers for a living. They graciously allowed us into their homes and shared their way of life with us. Our guides also took us to a local Vietnamese coffee shop and then we had lunch at a seafood restaurant on the beach. By trying a different mode of transport, our world opened up. We saw places and met people we would not have done so if we had stuck to our typical routine of walking and occasionally taking a taxi to a further destination. Our Vespa guides/drivers were nice, funny, and professional. If you are ever in Vietnam, consider trying a Vespa tour. You will not be disappointed.

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February 2, 2015

Humans of Cambodia

By Noemi Gamel
2 Sinath

 

Cambodia has carved a special place in my heart. Its raw nature, resilience, and warmth remind me of Bolivia. We have been fortunate enough to get to know some of the people during our time in Cambodia, and we want to share their unique stories with you.

Mao was our tuk tuk driver for four days while we were in Siem Reap. We met him when he drove us from the bus station to our homestay and offered to be our driver for the rest of our stay. He was a soft-spoken young man who was kind, helpful, and patient with us. He joined us for lunch one day and shared his story. Mao is the youngest of seven children. He is 32 years old and has been a tuk tuk driver for 15 years. He left school at age 16 years because his family was very poor and he needed to work to help them survive. He spoke English well, and he said he learned it from working with the tourists. He never had any formal English lessons.

Sinath was our guide at the War Museum Cambodia in Siem Reap. Like many stories in Cambodia, Sinath’s is both heartbreaking and uplifting. Sinath went out to find food for his starving family one day when he was 9 years old. When he returned to his village, his entire family (both parents, 2 brothers, and 1 sister) had all been killed by the Khmer Rouge. He lived on the streets on his own for four years until he finally joined the Khmer Rouge with other child soldiers.

Sinath said he joined Pol Pot’s regime in exchange for food and clothing because he was starving on the streets. He says the Khmer Rouge recruited children as soldiers because they were easier to brainwash. In 1979, Sinath joined the Cambodian Army to fight the Khmer Rouge. He fought to liberate Cambodia from the regime responsible for the horrific genocide until 1988, when he lost his right leg to a landmine. Sinath was wounded 10 separate times but miraculously survived. He has been working as a guide at the War Museum to preserve the memory of all his friends and family who have died because of the war. Listening to Sinath tell his story brought tears to my eyes.

Rithy was our landlord in Phnom Phen. He is a multi-lingual engineer with a highly entrepreneurial spirit. He designed the beautiful apartment we rented from him as well as the restaurant he owns and runs with his chef wife. We loved talking to him and his kids, who lived in the apartment below us. They were friendly and proud of how far Cambodia has come in such a short time.

Cambodia has endured some extreme hardships over the past few decades. Despite these hardships, it is a country full of amazing, warm people.  We were happy to meet some of them and to learn the details of their stories.

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