By Noemi Gamel
The 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.
First, 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.
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.
In 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.
By Noemi Gamel
We 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.
By Noemi Gamel
There is something about temples that draws us to them, no matter what our religious or spiritual stance. We spent two day visiting the temples of Angkor in Siem Reap, Cambodia. We liked some of them so much we visited them twice, such as Angkor Wat (the centerpiece of all the structures) and Ta Prohm (the jungle temple)
Angkor Wat is the best known temple in Cambodia. It is even featured on the Cambodian flag. We learned that Angkor Wat was built in a swift 38 years by the power of one million people and 4,000 elephants. We spent two hours walking through the causeways, open rooms, shrines, and stairways. We were humbled to find that some of the visitors were not simply there to admire the architecture or take in the historical value: they were there to worship. They burned incense and kneeled before the Buddhas in reverence. While I will not pretend that I understand the features or history of Buddhism, I appreciate its beauty and simplicity.
Ta Prohm was one of my favorite temples. It is over 900 years old and has been partly reclaimed by the surrounding jungle. Seeing the trees breaking the stone and intertwine themselves as part of the temple’s architecture is like looking into a time capsule.
I think we learn a lot about a culture when you look at its history and architecture. You learn what they cherish the most. Visiting the temples of Angkor was like peeking in the window of Cambodian culture.
By Noemi Gamel
One of the best ways to experience a culture is through its food. While simply eating the cuisine is fun, learning to cook local foods allows you to take the cultural experience to a higher level.
While in Bangkok, we took a Thai cooking class. At first, I was concerned that Tristan, who is eight years old and only recently learned how to work the toaster, would be bored or hesitant to participate. I was wrong. Kara and Tristan not only had a blast during the class, they completed all the activities without help.
Our instructor, Koong, was fun and had a knack for engaging all the participants, including Kara and Tristan, who happened to be the only children in the class. We started by visiting the fresh market to learn about the types of ingredients that are essential in Thai cooking. We then walked to the school, where we prepared five dishes: Tom Yum soup, pad Thai, a green curry dish, chicken or tofu salad, and mango with sticky rice. We were able to do so much because the staff had the ingredients already chopped and prepared, so all we had to do was the “fun” part of mixing and cooking everything together.
Learning to cook local cuisine is a window into some of the cultural color. For example, we learned from Koong that Thai brides-to-be impress their future mother-in-law by vigorously pounding the curry paste with the mortar and pestle. If the bride does not hit the pestle hard against the mortar, this is a sign she is lazy. Take note, ladies! She also said that Thai cooking is influenced by Chinese and Indian cuisines, which is an insight to its crossroads location both geographically and culturally.
We returned to our apartment with stuffed bellies and a cookbook of all the recipes we prepared. I cannot wait to get home to try my hand at Thai cooking.
By: Noemi Gamel
Before coming to New Zealand, I was secretly ashamed that I was most looking forward to visiting the Hobbiton movie set on the North Island. My shame diffused when I saw the safety video on the Air New Zealand, which featured a Middle-Earth theme complete with hobbits, dwarves, and promotional words by Frodo himself, Elijah Wood.
To further add to our excitement about visiting Middle Earth, I mean, New Zealand, we watched the third installment of the franchise The Hobbit in Queenstown. When we finally arrived for our tour of the Hobbiton movie sets, we could barely contain our excitement.
The kids took a picture with Gandalf and then we were taken by bus to the sets. It was truly a magical experience. The hobbit holes were delightfully detailed. We learned Peter Jackson’s secret of forced perspective to make the hobbits look small and Gandalf look tall. We saw different sections of the set where various scenes were filmed, including when Gandalf and Frodo first enter Hobbiton at the start of The Fellowship of the Ring; the scene of Bilbo’s party under the birthday tree, and the scene when young Bilbo in the first Hobbit movie runs through a field to catch up to the dwarves after changing his mind about going on the adventure.
I am a casual Tolkien fan. I read The Hobbit as a teenager, but I have not read The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I have watched all six of Peter Jackson’s films. Walking through the set made me appreciate the time, effort, and investment that the whole country put forth to make these films happen. No trip to New Zealand should go without a visit to Hobbiton
By: Chris Gamel
New Zealand has embraced the marriage of the two predominating cultures that make up its people: the Maori who arrived by boat approximately 1,000 years ago and the Europeans who arrived 600 years later. In order to experience both cultures, we visited a Maori village one evening and then spent the following morning at the Agrodome, a exhibitionary a sheep and beef farm.
We drove from Tauranga, the small town where we were renting a house, to Rotoroa, the stronghold for the Maori people on the North Island. From the information center, we were taken by bus to the Tamaki Maori village about thirty minutes away. We picked the company because it is owned and operated by Maori people. The tour essentially mimicks the process of one tribe (the tourists) visiting a traditional Maori tribe in their village, beginning with the startling challenge of peace, the sharing of unique cultural elements, a performance of traditional songs and dances, and ending with a delicious traditional Maori dinner of “hangi”, which is essentially meat and vegetables steam cooked in an underground pit. The experience was both educational and respectful of the Maori culture.
The following day, we returned to Rotoroa to spend the morning at a working sheep, beef, and agricultural farm that is open to tours. We watched a sheep show where they introduced us to the nineteen types of sheep found throughout the world and culminated with a sheep sheering demonstration. We also briefly saw a sheepdog at work, herding and managing a group of sheep around a field. In addition, we received a tour of the farm where we saw the paddocks housing sheep, cattle, alpacas, and deer, and we saw the orchards of kiwi fruits, olives, and manuka. To further highlight the continued marriage of the old and “new” cultures in New Zealand, we were surprised to learn that the Agrodome had actually been bought by a Maori family two years ago.
While New Zealand is known for hobbits and high-adrenaline adventure travel, it is also a mecca of cultural experiences. If you are planning a trip to New Zealand, make sure you take the time to learn about the Maori and the European cultures that make up its people.