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Archive for the ‘travel’ Category

You Just Know

I don’t know about you, but when I arrive in a new country or city I just know if I could live there or not. I knew about Florence, I knew about Munich, I knew about Bangkok, and now I just know about Japan.

I’ve wanted to visit Japan for a looong time, but for some reason I never managed to organize a trip there. Maybe it’s because I thought it was too expensive (it’s not as bad as I thought), or maybe because I thought it might not be as “exotic” as some of the other places we’ve been traveling to (it was), or maybe because I was worried that it would be too cold (it was absolutely perfect). But somehow, finally, last April, Alex and I went to Tokyo, Kyoto, Kobe and Yokohama for our spring break.

It was amazing.

Really. In every way. It was one of those experiences where you don’t even have to leave the airport to realize that you could be happy living there forever. Literally.

As soon as we left the baggage hall, we could see the carefully marked signs pointing us in the direction of the public transportation. Oh, the joys of public transportation, such sweet relief after having to cajole taxi drivers all around southeast Asia to cart us here and there. No stress about watching the meter or wondering if you’re being taken on the “scenic” route. No haggling about the fare. No barely-functional jalopies that look like they might actually fall apart en route.

But that’s not all, when we actually lined up to buy our tickets, for the bus mind you, there were porters. Wearing gloves. Gently cradling the baggage into the underbelly of the bus.

And of course, there was a system. Buy a ticket, get a baggage tag, tag your baggage, put it in line, handy digital display tells you in multiple languages which bus is arriving and when, when your bus arrives the guard tells you to get on, and the handlers put your luggage on the bus.

And everything runs on time.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. This sounds a lot like Germany, and thats true. But, really, these are the things I loved about Germany. Plus, the country is full of Japanese people. Adorable, respectful, quiet, geeky (in the cool Japanese way) people.

I mean look at this:

What other country in the world would have something like that?

So, long story short, here’s hoping our next move is to Japan (whenever that may be).

And, by the way, the fun didn’t stop in the airport bus terminal. We had a great time the rest of the week too. We:

discovered soba noodles (how had I lived without soba noodles?):

Soba Restaurant Dinner

wandered among the cherry blossoms:

Blossoms

pondered the serenity of a zen garden:

Path

gawked at the stunningly beautiful, traditionally dressed ladies in Kyoto:

All Dressed Up

learned that everything tastes good when it’s pickled (well, just me, really):

Pickled Eggplant

saw some lovely couples getting married in both Kyoto and Tokyo:

Married

contemplated the meaning of life in temple after temple:

Pink & Red

strolled in the many green spaces of Kyoto:

Alex

and Tokyo:

Gate

slept in a room with a view in Tokyo:

Tokyo by Night

hung out with lots of friends, new and old:

Tweet-up Dinner

geeked out on the subway (it is Japan after all):

Geeking Out

crossed Shibuya:

Crossing

and found my true favorite ramen (I only wish I knew what it was called in Japanese or the name of the restaurant we found it or basically anything about the ramen aside from it’s deliciousness in the hopes of someday enjoying it again):

Spicy Miso Ramen

I can’t wait to go back!

Have you ever been to a place where you just know you could live there?

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Always in search of the perfect beach, Alex and I splurged on two fabulous beach holidays this summer.

Ironically, what I realized is that while I do love looking at the beautiful sea, I much prefer swimming in the chlorinated pool. No pesky sand to get all over everything, no sticky salt left behind after drying off, no coral to slice up my feet, and never any slimy seaweed-covered bottom.

Thankfully, I also discovered the sheer bliss of the pool villa.

Our first trip of the summer was to Koh Racha, an island south of Phuket, here in Thailand. When we were booking the trip, we were thinking that it would be our only “vacation” of the summer and the rest of the time would be in the US or here in Bangkok. So, we splurged on a fancy hotel with our very first pool villa:

Our Pool Villa

Private Pool

Yep, that’s our pool – just for our villa, with the view of the ocean through the door.

Now, that’s not to say that the beach on Koh Racha wasn’t up to standards, because it was beautiful:

Perfect Beach

But, I have to admit that I didn’t swim in the sea at all the whole time we were there. It was more than enough to be able to watch and listen to the waves from our private pool.

And now I guess I really am a fancy pants. Because I pretty much only want to stay in pool villas from now on. In fact, I’m so dedicated to my new goal that I actually bought a book called Thailand Pool Villas (clearly a ploy from the Thai Ministry of Tourism, and only available here in Thailand, but one that will serve me well, I’m sure).

As if that wasn’t enough, our second trip of the summer (after spending 3 weeks back in the US) was here:

Beach & Restaurant

The Maldives. Basically, paradise on Earth. Sadly, no pool villa for us here, though (I booked this trip before I knew just how much I was going to love the pool villa).

Each island in the Maldives is so small that the country has a policy of one island, one resort. Our little island was so small that we could walk around the whole thing in about 15 minutes.

Our villa was adorable:

Our Villa at Dusk

with basically our own private beach directly in front:

Relax

I actually made sure to document the most crowded beach day:

Two

Two people.

I’d wanted to go to the Maldives for years, but what finally pushed me to actually go this summer was the fact that Bangkok Air (“Asia’s Boutique Airline” according to them) flies directly there and it’s only a 4 hour flight from Bangkok. I guess summer is the “worst” time to go, so flights were relatively cheap and hotels were offering pretty major discounts. Having said that, I would love to go back again, but I might try a different hotel next time.

Maybe one with a pool villa…

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Over the last few years Alex and I have been working on collecting art, specifically paintings, on our travels. Nothing fancy, but Alex now likes to refer to me (sarcastically) as a “patron of the arts.” Whenever we’re on a holiday, we tend to look for paintings by local artists as our souvenirs. Of course this also includes selecting special pieces here in Bangkok.

So, last week, we headed out to Chatuchak to pick up our second painting by a local artist:

Bodhi

This one is a Bodhi tree, the tree that Buddha meditated under, and a common site around Thailand and southeast Asia. I love the heart shaped leaves, a shape which is reproduced in all sorts of temple decorations around the country.

We had our first painting made (by the same artist) last year:

Swirls

This one is more of a modern twist on a similar style. I love the swirling style and flowing writing across the bottom. The three panels make it super easy to transport and gives it a more distinct feel than the single panel.

Both paintings have a dark reddish background with the trees and leaves pressed on in gold leaf. They are so shiny and soothing to look at. I love them!

What do you like to purchase as a record of your travels?

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Both Alex and I have wanted to go to Bhutan for many years. I think we first heard about this little landlocked country in the foothills of the Himalayas while we were living in Munich, and it was back then that we decided we would have to go. Someday.

Amazingly enough, someday happened a whole lot quicker than I thought. Last year, when we moved to Bangkok, we learned that quite a few of our teaching colleagues have been to Bhutan because the school offers a “Week Without Walls” trip for the high school students every year through Rainbow Tours and Treks, based in Thimpu, Bhutan.

Given that the Bhutanese government requires all tourists who travel to Bhutan to use an authorized tour guide, this was the critical information we needed to make our trip happen. As odd as it sounds, working through a tour guide actually makes me totally uncomfortable – you’re basically surrendering your entire trip to one person (who knows full-well that this is probably going to be the only time you’ll ever deal with them, so if they mess it up, they’ve already got your money). For the cynical and hyper-anal traveler, such as myself, this is quite a frightening thought.

So, knowing that so many of my colleagues (and students) had such wonderful trips with Rainbow Tours, I willingly surrendered a wad of cash to the lovely Sonam (you have to pay in full, in advance), in the hopes that we, too, could have an amazing adventure in the Land of the Thunder Dragon.

And what an adventure it was!

First of all, the Bhutanese government requires that all tourists pay US$200/day/person to visit the country, thankfully this is all-inclusive so we basically didn’t pay anything else above and beyond that base fee (except for souvenirs which were equally overpriced and a tip for our guide and driver). So, once we arrived, we just sat back and enjoyed being led around like little children day-in and day-out for our 8-day visit.

We started our trip in Paro, home of Bhutan’s only airport, where we climbed up to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. There was some misleading wording in our travel schedule, something about a 4-hour round-trip climb, which may have lead to some slight crankiness on one member of our two person party, but we made it all the way to the top, on our own, without the help of the horses stationed at the bottom of the mountain.

It was quite a hike, this is the view from the half-way point (where there is an adorable little cafeteria and they serve you piping hot tea and cookies – who says hiking isn’t civilized?!):

And here we are a little closer, the view from just before you start down into the gorge between the side of the mountain you hike up, and the side of the mountain the monastery is on, prayer flags fluttering in the wind:

Speaking of prayer flags, it was absolutely amazing to be walking through them all over the place in Bhutan:

Unfortunately, there were no pictures allowed inside the monastery, but here’s a look at the sweeping view we had of the Paro valley from the top of the mountain:

Little did I know it, but this was to be the first of many hikes in Bhutan. Day two had us driving up to Thimpu, the capital city, and exploring some of the cultural sites:

Of course, we also did a little hiking:

After a few days in Thimpu, we headed to Punakha and Wangdue, which was actually my favorite part of the trip. Both Thimpu and Paro were comparatively crowded and touristy once we saw the little villages on the other side of the Dochula Pass, look at those stunning Himalayas – you can see clear across to the board of Bhutan and Tibet:

We saw more temples:

Made a few friends:

Saw some beautiful Dzongs:

Some amazing views:

Entered some mysterious temples:

Visited a local school:

And, Alex wore his Bhutanese traditional dress pretty much the whole time:

All in all, it was pretty amazing. Apparently Bhutan has only around 13,000 tourists visit the country each year. It was easy to tell that many of them spend the majority of their visits trekking, so there were very few other tourists every where we went – most places were completely deserted except for the monks and locals in their lovely traditional dress.

I have a few too many pictures posted up on Flickr from just about every moment of our trip, please feel free to check them out!

Basically, for me and Alex, this was a trip of a lifetime. As much as we’d love to go back, we probably won’t (especially now that we’ve heard the price is rising to US$400/day/person next year!).

Have you ever taken a trip like that? Where did you go? What was it like?

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As an expat, I’m constantly on the lookout for places to live when we’re ready to move on. As much as I’ve loved every place I’ve lived, I know there’s always another country to explore just over the horizon. So when we go on our vacations one of the first things I do when I get home is decide if I could live there for a few years.

For example, I could totally live in:

  • Laos
  • Dubai (but only for a few years)
  • Italy (of course!)
  • Denmark
  • Singapore
  • Taiwan
And, as of one week ago, I thought I could live in Shanghai, China. I had such a great time there last year and was so amazed at how vibrant and cosmopolitan the city is. Another great place to live in Asia, or so I thought.
I just went back again for the wonderful Learning 2.008 Conference (where I presented three formal sessions and two informal sessions) and boy did I get a eyeful. Or perhaps I should say a “lungful.”
We were only there for five days, but goodness, I really could not live there. The pollution was horrifying. So bad that when I got back to Bangkok and was walking on Lang Suan (a busy boulevard in the middle of the central business district) I was taking especially deep breaths to enjoy the “clean” air.
I don’t know exactly what was in the air in Shanghai (and I’m guessing the locals don’t know either), but it was disgusting. My throat and lungs actually burned for days afterward. It was like the “haze days” in Malaysia, but I guess it’s standard for Shanghai. The air was so fuzzy (for lack of a better word) that it was a cloudy white color. Yuck.
And then there’s the joys of the tainted food. I’m off milk now for a while just in case, but friends that lived in China last year were telling me that there are always tainted food scares (which of course is kept hidden by the government but eventually gets around to the expat population).
So there’s the bad air, the bad food, of course the restricted internet access, and the tightly controlled media. I guess I’m crossing that one (and a pretty big one at that) off my list….
Image from: http://picasaweb.google.com/johnjlynam/FirstWeekInChina#5059788477298388306

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I may have mentioned my extreme laziness here in the past. Suffice it to say that I refuse to purchase or wear button down shirts because they require not only too much prep time (ironing? No thanks!) but all that buttoning on and off every day is just more than the amount of effort I choose to expend when donning and removing clothing.

Therefore, I was quite disappointed to realize that with our new fabulous apartment downtown, I would now need to wake up an hour earlier to make it to school on time. Thus leaving me with a 5 am wake-up alarm.

At some point in the last two months or so, I (shockingly) decided I wasn’t getting enough exercise. Perhaps it was my fear of being physically unable to climb up to the Tiger’s Nest monastery in Bhutan when we go in October.

So, having purchased an elliptical last year which I had, to that point, never used, I figured I should hop on that little contraption for a half hour everyday after school until I was no longer winded when climbing up the stairs to the BTS.

Of course, my excessive laziness prevailed. Exercise? After school? Totally not happening. After zoning out on the hour-long bus-ride home, there was no way I could muster up the energy to actually “run” (and I use the term quite loosely here) on that thing for any length of time. Basically it was all I could do to fall on the couch and chill out with a new episode of the best show ever, The Wire.

After a few days of trying to enthuse myself about afternoon exercising unsucessfully, I tried something entirely unheard of.

Getting up early.

Yes, that’s right. Earlier than 5 am.

Astonishingly, I seem to be able to wake up (quite angrily for the first 30 seconds or so) at 4:30 am, stumble over (in the pitch darkness) to the guest bedroom/game room/workout room and hop on the old elliptical.

Over the past month I’ve upped my morning jogs from 10 minutes to 30 minutes and now I’m at the point where I actually feel like I could run for ages (this must be that mystical “runner’s high” people have been confusing me with for the last three decades). But I probably won’t because that would mean I’d have to get up even earlier.

Either way, it’s quite an achievement for me (aka: the laziest person I know).

I’ve always know that if I can make something a routine, I’ll just keep doing it forever, I guess I just never thought about trading sleep for anything. Ever.

So, since I am apparently on some sort of health kick, does anyone have any other simple routines I can pick up and add to the agenda? Keep in mind that getting up before the first number on the clock is a 4 is a deal-breaker, though.

Tiger’s Nest image from: http://www.leopalmerphotography.co.uk/tiger.htm
Alarm Clock image from: http://flickr.com/photos/laffy4k/367822192/

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As usual, it’s hard to believe the summer is over… You won’t hear me complaining, though, I know a good thing when I see one. Eight weeks off every year is a pretty sweet deal, that’s for sure. Even though it went by at lightening speed, we had a great summer (as we always do!).

Our first two weeks in Munich were fabulous. It’s hard to believe we’ve been away from the city for three years already. It felt like we were living there only yesterday as soon as we stepped out of the airport. So many things have changed, but thankfully, most of our old favorite spots are still just the same:

We had some spectacular schnitzel at Steinheil:

Steinheil Schnitzel

Enjoyed the lovely, long summer twilight in the city’s many parks:

Frauenkirche

Got to see the highly protected, secret, back courtyard of the Augustiner Keller on Landsbergerstr:

Augustiner Keller

And, of course spend tons of quality time with our fabulous friends we miss so much:

Neil and Sabine

Sabine and Neil (check out the guy in full Bayern wear in the seat behind us – just a regular Saturday in Munich).

Martine and Chris

Martine and Chris (who flew down from London to see us!)

Mithra and Frank

Mithra and Frank (our steadfast lunching companions)

Trish and Martin

Martin and Trish

Once we got back to the States, we spent two weeks relaxing with my family in Connecticut:

Spent a few good days at the pool:

Lisa, Kim and Jay

Reconnected with one side of my family that I haven’t seen for 15 years (a post is soon to come on that story):

The Cofino Family

Enjoyed some fantastic meals, and just enjoyed being home.

For the last part of our vacation, we headed out west to Eugene, Oregon for two weeks, where we spent some quality time with Alex’s family and got to:

Experience the Oregon Country Fair:

Crowds

Go whitewater rafting on the MacKenzie River:

On the raft

Taste some delicious Oregon wine at the Kings Estate Winery outside Eugene:

Hills

Enjoy the stunning Oregon coast:

Crash

And hang out with our old friends, Annaliese and Jeremy, that now live in Portland:

Reading with Ken Kesey

Aside from some airline related travel snags (Hello, domestic travel in the US sucks big time!) It was a pretty sweet trip, I must say. Even so, it feels great to be back home in Bangkok – especially being able to hop in a taxi from the airport and find ourselves home, downtown, in under 40 minutes!

So, now that we live downtown, and we’re going to be here for more than a month (which was about the amount of time we had in our new place before we left for the summer holidays), what should we do that’s off the usual tourist/expat path?

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As you might have guessed, one of the absolute best things about being a teacher is having the summers off. Now, we work mighty hard during the year, and the responsibilities and challenges of working with children (and their lovely parents) all year definitely lends itself to requiring an extended break at the end. So it’s not like this whole summer thing is just fluff. We seriously need it.

Oddly enough, every summer I have a little bit of trouble adjusting to not working. It takes me about three or four work days to realize that I don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn or rush around like a madwoman “getting everything done” during my “free time.” Usually it takes until I’m on the plane back to the US for me to really realize that it’s vacation time.

This year is a little different though. For the first time since I’ve been a teacher (the first summer in eight years), Alex and I are actually going on our own vacation before we head home to the States! On Thursday we’re leaving for two weeks in Europe! We haven’t been back since we left Munich in 2005, so we’re both overly excited to visit our home away from home!

It’s hard to believe that it’s already been three whole years since we were in Europe – it still almost feels like we live there and we’re just on an extended vacation (I guess that just shows you how at home we felt there). Plus, so many of our friends still live in Munich so not only do we get to go back to our old home, but we get to see tons of wonderful friends while we’re there. Aren’t we lucky?

While we’re hanging out in Munich, we’re planning to spend a little bit of time in northern Italy, yet another one of our all time favorite regions of the world. Hopefully we’ll head down to the lakes region for a few days to visit with one of my oldest friends in the world, Susan, who was an exchange student from Milan during my senior year of high school, and her partner, Daniele. 

Basically my plans for the entire time we’re in Europe consist almost entirely of eating (during quality conversations with all my friends, of course). Creamy gelato, crispy schnitzel, salty prosciutto, chewy brezen, fresh mozzarella, real chocolate, almondy mandel-hoernchen, sweet strawberries, crunchy organic granola, oh the tasty treats that await me! My mouth is watering already! And it will all be so cheap, compared to how much that kind of food costs here in Bangkok!

After two weeks of gorging, anticipating that I can actually fit into my airplane seat, we’ll be on our way back to the States for just over a month making all our routine stops. A few weeks in Connecticut and New York with my family, a few weeks in Oregon with Alex’s family, then in a bizarre twist of planning, back to New York (so Alex can take a formal exam for his ESL teaching certification) for a few more days before we head home to Bangkok.

And, clearly, by the time we get back here, we’re going to be just as exhausted as we were before we left. Who planned this crazy adventure anyway?

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I think I’m getting a little spoiled. You see, I’ve been to some pretty spectacular beaches over the past few years. And I’m starting to get a little uppity about my “beach” vacations. Now, unfortunately, every beach is held to the “Redang Standard” – mostly because when we lived in KL, we could get to Redang (a stunning beach in it’s own right) in under 1 hour on an easy charter flight leaving from an airport only 20 minutes away from our house. Basically it was an hour from our front door to the beach chair. When I found out we were moving to Thailand, I thought for sure I’d have that beat. I mean Thailand is known for it’s beaches, right?

Well, I’m starting to think I had it pretty good (by beach standards) in KL. Not that I haven’t enjoyed the beaches here in Thailand, but they’ve been pretty built up compared to Malaysian beaches. And I definitely haven’t seen that perfect powder white sand with crystal clear blue water yet. Maybe I still haven’t been to the right place, though… 

Either way, we did have a great time in Phuket last week (pictures here). It was, by far, the most relaxing vacation I’ve ever had. We ended up staying at the JW Marriott because friends of ours are vacation club owners and scored us three nights free and a reduced rate for the rest of the week. The hotel has three gorgeous pools, a totally secluded pristine beach (sand was a bit grainy and water definitely wasn’t that perfect clear blue), phenomenal restaurants and an awesome spa.

The only problem is that it’s totally isolated. I mean totally. The resort is far enough from downtown that the shuttle-bus actually charges to take you down (what kind of resort shuttle bus costs money? I ask), and there is absolutely nothing around the resort. So basically we spent the entire week hanging out on hotel grounds. Which is quite rare for us. We never splurge on the resort restaurants – and definitely not for lunch! 

Thankfully, we had the fantastic Marriott Gold Card (for Thai residents only) and everything was 50% off. Otherwise we would have gone broke from the meals alone. They were pretty fabulous meals though. The Italian restaurant was fantastic, and the deli had this breakfast sandwich… yum… I’m drooling just thinking about it.

So, we did a lot of eating. A lot. And a lot of sleeping. I actually read almost all the books on my list and I got two amazing spa treatments. We went on a nice snorkeling trip and got to play with the hotel’s baby elephant. Plus we got to hear the Marriott vacation club spiel, which I’m surprised to say, they were not able to sell me (and I really wanted to buy).

It might not have been the perfect beach, but it was a perfect relaxing vacation, that’s for sure! Now I just have to find that “Redang Standard” beach here in Thailand. Anyone have any hints?

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Ah, vacation is finally here!

This year has gone by so fast, I honestly can’t believe it’s already Songkran (Thai New Year). Amazingly, this is the first vacation where we haven’t either had friends visiting or been on our way to visit friends in new exciting countries. Tomorrow we head out to Phuket for a week of eating, sleeping, swimming, and enjoying the antics of the hotel’s baby elephant.

I’m definitely looking forward to the extensive relaxing sleeping (on the beach, at the pool, wherever I can get horizontal) I plan to do over the next week.

Just in case I can muster up the energy to do a little old-school reading, in between naps of course, I’m bringing along a few must-reads:

Actually, these books serve a dual purpose, not only are they entertaining for my “awake time,” but they do a mighty good job of reserving a table at the all-important breakfast buffet. And, truly, what kind of vacation is complete without the breakfast buffet eat-a-thon? Either way, I’m pretty sure that 90% of these books will end up accompanying me on my next vacation, but a girl can try right?

See you in a week!

Karon Beach, Phuket image from yeowatzup

Tags: travel, Thailand, Phuket, reading, books, personal

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