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Archive for the ‘People’ Category

Rastafarthais

What, you may be wondering, is the meaning of Rastafarthai? It’s quite simple actually, Rastafarai + Thai person = Rastafarthai. We started using this word to describe some of the locals who work on Railay Beach in Thailand, which we visited a few weeks back. And thanks to Google, we now speculate that we may in fact be the original coiners of this well suited term. Although we did not take any photos of said Rastafarthais, we did manage to pull one off the interweb. It was probably taken by some backpacker who pointed their camera way too close to the rasta’s face and then walked away, like we saw so many tourists do. I mean, how would you like it if someone walked into your office, took your picture, and then turned around and left without saying one word to you? #awkward. Anyway, without further ado, here is a visual of a real-life Rastafarthai.

We aren’t sure how dreadlocks and reggae made their way from the Caribbean to SE Asia, but think it’s worth mentioning since many of the activities on Railay are not exactly traditional Thai customs. Most are quite “hippy” really (i.e. tightrope walking, fire dancing, Connect Four, rock climbing, joint smoking, guitar playing…you get the picture). Sure, we’re taking some liberties here by drawing a parallel between rastas and hippies, but it’s not too far off really, is it?

Railay Beach is an interesting place. A drop dead gorgeous place. A relaxing place. An island paradise (that isn’t technically an island). A place with no cars, only footpaths and boats for transportation. A place where wealthy tourists staying at 5-star hotels mingle with backpackers sleeping in $3/night huts. And of course, there are the Rastafarthai who are a strange breed in this predominately Muslim region of southern Thailand.

While the ocean view from our bungalow and delicious food at “Mom’s Kitchen” made the thought of staying for weeks tempting, we decided to relocate to nearby Koh Lanta; while not as abundant as in Railay, the Rastafarthai culture seems to be gaining ground on Lanta as well.

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Please Don’t Rush

The nation of Laos is officially known by the name of Lao P.D.R. (People’s Democratic Republic), but to many travelers this name also symbolizes a deeply rooted part of the Lao identity. It is often said that locals operate on “Lao Time,” meaning that they are friendly and helpful, but in no particular hurry to get anything done. So backpackers have dubbed it with the not so official name of Lao P.D.R. (Please Don’t Rush). We embraced the P.D.R. attitude and took our time exploring the town and outskirts of Luang Prabang.

It was a welcomed change to move away from the backpacker party scene in Vang Vieng and into the beautifully serene and laid back town of Luang Prabang. The town even has a nightly curfew of midnight which contributes to its low-key environment.

We hired bikes one morning and set off to explore the rolling hills that surround Luang Prabang. The Mekong and its tributaries wind through the landscape while temples and shrines speckle the countryside. On our single-track bicycles, we quickly learned that the “rolling hills” are steeper than they appear. Hydration stops and fruit shake breaks helped us get through the toughest parts.

Waking up very sore and stiff the next morning, we opted to take a boat cruise up the Mekong River.  We piled on board with two other couples and set off towards some villages and caves up river from Luang Prabang. There is something so mesmerizing about the Mekong. It really embodies the “please don’t rush” mentality as it meanders its way through the lush green countryside. The muddy brown waters were running high from the recent rains which made the journey to the cave a bit slower than usual but equally if not more beautiful. We stopped in a small village whose specialty is lao lao whiskey, made from sticky rice, had a few tastes for good measure, and kept on our way.

The caves at the end of the trip were more impressive than we’d imagined. For thousands of years, the two caves we visited have been used as places of worship. The native people of Lao used to worship spirits of nature and believed that the riverside caves were connected with the water gods. After Buddhism arrived in the region, the caves gradually became religious shrines and house countless statues of the Lord Buddha left as offerings by faithful pilgrims.

Another well-known attraction in the area is Kuang Si Falls. When it comes to waterfalls, Amy is hard to impress. The many falls of the Colombia River Gorge near her hometown of Portland, OR are tough to beat. This particular waterfall definitely met her expectations. At first, it seemed like nothing more than a fast flowing jungle river with some small drop offs, pools, and rope swings. As we made our way upstream, we stopped for some fun and took a few turns on the swing ourselves before running into one of the most spectacular waterfalls we have ever seen. This bad boy seemed to stretch on forever as it disappeared into the clouds escaping the reach of our camera lens.

Luang Prabang is the type of place where you can easily get swept away by the nightly market, amazing scenery and easy going locals. Our goal of circumnavigating the globe, however, means that we have to keep moving, even when we want to stay. The lengthy bus ride through winding, mudslide-ridden, mountain passes that we took from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang was more than we could handle for a second time, so we opted for a short 30 minute flight to Vientiane. In true Lao fashion it turned out to be the easiest and most stress-free travel experience of our trip so far; factor in the brand new airplane, tasty on-board vegetarian snack and breathtaking aerial views of the Mekong, and it may go down as the best flight ever!

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A lot can happen in a week. Since we last wrote, we’ve played with tigers, ridden on elephants, watched knockout Muay Thai, honed our motorbike skills, climbed Thailand’s highest peak, and so much more.  Where did we do all of these spectacular things? A little place called Chiang Mai.

Not so little actually, Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand making it somewhat of a “capital” for the northern region of the country. While it doesn’t have the skyscrapers, mega-malls, and constant adrenaline of Bangkok, Chiang Mai still seems to have something for everyone. We easily could have spent a month there, but the tourists visas we acquired at the border with Cambodia were only valid 15 days, so we had to leave before we were ready to say goodbye. Thanks to our friends Daniel and Libby, we got a taste of home and some great suggestions of what to do and see in the city. Here is a glimpse at the different faces of Chiang Mai.

On the Wild Side

Amy is a cat lover through and through, and since childhood Mike has been watching Jake Jabs play with baby tigers on those annoying American Furniture Warehouse commercials; so when we learned about Tiger Kingdom just outside of Chiang Mai, we jumped all over it. As the name would suggest, this place is crawling with tigers! Tiger Kingdom does not drug their animals prior to allowing visitors into the animal enclosures. This is evident from their playfulness and alert demeanor. For our visit, we chose to get in the cage with the little guys. The tiger cubs we played with were 2-4 months old and beyond adorable. Unfortunately, we couldn’t come up with a plan for lifting one in the fifteen minutes we were allotted, but we did get plenty of pictures.

As Thailand’s national animal, elephants are an important symbol of the country’s culture and history. Chiang Mai is home to numerous elephant sanctuaries, some more concerned with the elephants’ well-being than others. We took the advice of our friends and visited a place called Maesa Elephant Camp, a place that rescues elephants from bad situations and breeds baby elephants to increase the dwindling population in Thailand. During our visit, we saw a 4 month old calf with his mother, fed bunches of bananas and sugarcane to a herd of hungry elephants, and even rode on the back of an old-guy by the name of Poo Somboon. He was 41 years old and carried three of us on his back like it was nothing. The camp even has a daily show where the elephants play harmonicas, paint incredible pictures, and shoot soccer goals. There is no doubt that the elephant trainers love and care for these animals, and we can only hope that the elephants themselves also have fun preforming.

We also got a close look at one of the most dangerous animals around, the Muay Thai kickboxer. You don’t want to mess with these guys or gals. Muay Thai is the nation’s favorite sport and for good reason. We spent an evening watching several fights at a local arena in Chiang Mai. The night began with two female fights then moved on through increasing weight classes of men. Although gambling is technically illegal in Thailand, throwing down a few Baht between friends is common and makes things a bit more interesting. While small, the female kickboxers who started things off fought with great ferocity. The male fighters, on the other hand, were more methodical in their attacks. Unfortunately, the “main event” didn’t even last one round; a knee to the kidney and kick to the temple ended things quite quickly in a knockout.

The Street Food Scene

We can say with confidence that Chiang Mai has the best street food scene that we have experienced thus far in SE Asia. The weekly Saturday and Sunday markets boast endless options of Thai food and other interesting specialties like sushi, Indian and Burmese food. We spent our weekend evenings in Chiang Mai grazing through the stands and ended up absolutely stuffed each time.

Greater Chiang Mai

For those with more than a few days to spend in Chiang Mai, we recommend getting out of the city center to visit a doi (meaning mountain in Thai). We spent one day with our friends driving up Doi Inthanon, the tallest mountain in Thailand. The air became cooler and less tainted with pollution as we scaled the mountainside. Thick fog had engulfed Doi Inthanon that day, and the rain was relentless, but we still had fun walking through some trails and visiting a few waterfalls.

Another more easily accessible mountain is Doi Suthep, which is a short 25 minute drive from the center of Chiang Mai. We rented a motorbike one day to visit the temple that is perched on the top of this mountain, Wat Phrathat. The temple itself is stunning, and the panoramic views of Chiang Mai cannot be beat.

Taking it Easy

After several action-filled days, we were ready for some relaxation. Having heard of the infamous Thai massage, we wanted to give it a try. You can’t walk down a street in Chiang Mai without seeing two or three spas, so it was easy enough to find a spot. We can’t say that getting a Thai massage is the most relaxing experience, but it definitely awakens your muscles and works out the kinks. It’s kind of like visiting a masseuse and chiropractor at the same time.

An afternoon stroll through the streets of Chiang Mai will lead you by countless ornately decorated temples. We spent an entire day just marveling at these wats and stopping for Thai Tea along the way. Turns out that it was Buddhist Lent during our visit to Chiang Mai, so we saw lots of activity at the temples.

There is nothing like a familiar face, especially when you haven’t been home in seven months. This blog is dedicated to our friends Daniel and Libby – thank you for sharing your home with us for the past week and showing us a great time in Chiang Mai! The hours spent playing cards, telling jokes, and sipping coco locos made us feel so at home. The farewell lanterns were the perfect end to a great week.

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Any traveler in Vietnam will undoubtedly be told to visit the scenic area of Ha Long Bay. For decades, the limestone peaks of this coastal region in northern Vietnam have attracted tourists from far and wide.  Sadly, its popularity and designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site have turned this natural wonder into an absolute zoo.

For us, there was nothing peaceful about the place; dozens of tour boats crowd the bay, tour operators aggressively try to fill their trips, and the water has become polluted from the thousands of people who visit each week. But don’t despair, another option still exists for those willing to put in a little extra effort. Adjacent to Ha Long is the area known as Bai Tu Long Bay. Like its neighbor, Bai Tu Long is home to countless limestone islands that rise sharply out of the turquoise waters and is relatively unaffected by the tourism industry.

Why is Bai Tu Long better than Ha Long? The same beautiful views without the masses of tourist boats!

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, we don’t like tour groups. Several people in Hanoi tried to convince us that exploring Bai Tu Long on our own was impossible, but we took some advice from one of Amy’s brothers, did a little research and found a public ferry. We boarded a small wooden boat with locals that live on islands in the bay and set off into the landscape of towering peaks.

The public ferry that runs between Hon Gai and Quan Lan Island

View after incredible view of the limestone peaks in Bai Tu Long Bay

Hanging out on the roof of our boat as it slowly puttered through Bai Tu Long Bay

Because we are constantly moving, it can be easy to lose sight of the amazing expedition that we are on. Ironically, the same thing happens to travelers that happens to people at work…days blend into weeks and weeks into months. However, being out on the waters of Bai Tu Long brought back our sense of adventure. The thrill of being on a rickety boat headed to a sparsely populated island with no idea of where we were going to sleep reminded us why we left home in the first place. Watch our video from the ferry ride through Bai Tu Long Bay here or by clicking on the image below.

After a four hour boat journey, we docked at Quan Lan Island (pronounced Gwan-ah). This island is so remote that we were unable to find a map online prior to leaving the mainland, so we arrived with no idea of the layout of the land. Not surprisingly, there were numerous tuk-tuks waiting at the pier, so we jumped aboard and attempted to communicate that we wanted to go to a hotel, any hotel. The driver spoke zero English and gave us a blank look. He showed us 30,000 Dong and pointed to some small buildings in the distance. Having no other choice, we agreed to the price and were on our way.

Tuk-tuks and motorbikes are the only method of transport on Quan Lan.

Turns out there is no real town on the island, but there is one street that is home to a few mini-hotels, ALL of which double as restaurants, convenient stores and motorbike rental shops. They are very entrepreneurial people. It was quickly apparent that aside from the limited lodging, there is little to no tourist infrastructure in Quan Lan, a refreshing change from Hanoi and Ha Long.

In the morning, we rented a motorbike from our hotel (we are pretty sure that it was the owner’s personal motorbike) and took off down the road. While we would never have attempted driving on the crazy streets of Hanoi, riding on Quan Lan was a piece of cake. Little to no traffic helped put us at ease, and having only one main road made getting lost on the island nearly impossible. Peaceful is the best word to describe this place; water buffalo roam the fields, rice paddies glisten in the sun, and waves crash onto white sand beaches.

Nothing but calm

Mike mastering the motorbike

Our trip to this island can be summarized as a relaxing time on the beach. We didn’t do much else. The people of Quan Lan were some of the most friendly that we have encountered in Vietnam. Even though most do not speak a lick of English, we managed to have full conversations with people using impromptu sign language, and we were even invited into a family’s home for a crab dinner one night. It is clear that the influence of tourism has not yet ravaged this island, and we hope it stays this way. However, we weren’t the only tourists there, and we know that more will make the journey with each passing year. If you find yourself amongst them, please tread lightly.

Minh Chau Beach, on the northeast side of Quan Lan

The public ferry from Hon Gai, through Bai Tu Long Bay, to Quan Lan Island was spectacularly beautiful. When combined with the laid back atmosphere and friendly people of the island, we found it to be a worthwhile alternative to Ha Long Bay.

The return ferry ride couldn’t last long enough

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We have finally arrived in SE Asia! While we always strive to live in the moment, we have secretly been longing to get to this part of the world since we left home. Stories of the region’s hectic streets, friendly people and incredible street food make it a legend in hostels around the world. These tales of a backpacker’s paradise sparked our interest long ago.

Our first stop in SE Asia was Hanoi, Vietnam. Our first impression? Holy motorbikes Batman! When we went to Marrakech, we thought the traffic was crazy. Then, we came to know the streets of China, but neither prepared us for the motorbike madness that exists in Hanoi. We have heard that cities like Bangkok and Singapore make maneuvering Hanoi look like child’s play, but our first thought when we gazed upon the raging river of motorbikes was, “WTF, how are we ever supposed to cross the street?!”

Quintessential Hanoi

After a few days, we became accustomed to walking in the street (the sidewalks are too cluttered to actually walk on) and weaving our way between bikes and cars. Our heart rates gradually lowered, and we started soaking up the good vibes that flow through this city.

The word sidewalk shouldn’t be used in Hanoi. They are all unofficial parking lots, shops, or restaurants.

Before arriving in Vietnam, we had heard stories from other travelers about tourists getting fleeced right and left. More than one person told us that they will never return to Vietnam; it made the Vietnamese sound very unwelcoming and unfriendly. We found it to be the exact opposite. Every local we met in Hanoi said hello with a smile, and not one person tried to overcharge us, much less steal from us. It is the people of Hanoi that create the positive and upbeat vibe that we mentioned above.

There is no doubt that Hanoi is an epicenter of history, and although the city has a handful of tourist sights, we most enjoyed simply walking around the old town and seeing how the city works. It is really quite fascinating to see the systems that exist below the layers or chaos. We didn’t want to spend our whole time there just lounging around, so we dedicated about two half days to sightseeing at the following places.

Hỏa Lò Prison, called the “Hanoi Hilton” by American POWs. Built by the French and used to imprison Vietnamese revolutionaries. Its most famous American prisoner? John McCain.

Offering of incense in front of the Temple of Literature.

Tran Quoc Pagoda in West Lake. The oldest pagoda in Vietnam.

Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum has strict visitor policies, similar to that of Chairman Mao. After having visited Mao’s Mausoleum in Beijing we chose to forgo looking at another wax-covered corpse.

The One Pillar Pagoda, a Buddhist temple.

Sightseeing in Hanoi will really take it out of you. With the temperature over 30˚C and humidity close to 100%, we could only handle walking around town for a few hours at a time. Multiple showers per day, constant hydration and brief visits to buildings with air con helped us beat the heat. Many people cautioned us to not visit SE Asia in the summer because it is the hottest time of year and the rainy season, but to us, the frequent afternoon downpours are always a welcomed occurrence.

One of our favorite mid-day activities in Hanoi was stopping for some “bia hoi.” Bia hoi is Vietnamese for “fresh beer” and is quite possibly the cheapest draft beer in the world at 5,000 Dong (25 cents) per glass. It is not the most flavorful drink around, but in the sweltering heat it really makes you smack your lips and say “ahhhhhh” as your body temperature drops a couple degrees.

Our favorite bia hoi

There are many places around the city to quench your thirst, but on our first day in Hanoi we found a spot that we liked and kept coming back. We spent many hours there chatting with the owner, playing with her son and drinking with the locals. After a few days, we felt like part of a small community there and were sad to say goodbye.

Never drink a bia hoi without a snack. Shrimp chips, peanuts, and pork in banana leaves seem to be the munchies of choice.

Can you find Mike?

One of the things that we liked most about Hanoi is that it is easy to distinguish the tourist traps from the genuinely local places. We have learned that the backpacker trail through Vietnam is well defined, with Hanoi being a hub for nearly all tourists that visit the country; therefore, Western-oriented establishments are ubiquitous. Ones that consist of very small plastic stools and tables on the sidewalk are a good indication that you are in for the real deal. These types of restaurants are the definition of hole in the wall. Sometimes they have a small portable cooking station on site, other times your order is relayed via cell phone to a kitchen down the street, and 10 minutes later someone comes walking down the block with your meal in hand.

Check out this kitchen. The health department in Hanoi must have very strict standards.

We didn’t know a whole lot about Vietnamese cuisine before arriving, and while we don’t have a firm grasp on the regional specialties just yet, we certainly got our fill of phở while in Hanoi. We were on a mission, just like Anthony Bourdain, to find the best bowl of phở around. We ate it every day for at least one meal, and came across a wide variety of styles. There is no way to decide on the best bowl of phở in Hanoi, but there are a few indicators that will let you know you’ve found a great phở spot, which Bourdain’s video explains in hilarious detail (watch it here). We couldn’t have said it better ourselves!

Phở, phở, glorious phở.

Hanoi electrified us, kept us on our toes and eventually made us feel at home. While getting advice from fellow travelers can be an incredible resource, the moral of the story here is that you shouldn’t always believe what you hear. The only way to know for sure whether or not you are going to like a city is to experience it for yourself.

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A friend recently asked us, “What’s your perception on America after being away?”  Truth be told, we don’t spend a whole lot of time pondering this type of question. Maybe we should, but for the most part we are simply trying to enjoy the world and soak up every moment. Nonetheless, her question was a good one and did get us thinking about America. In honor of the 4th of July, we wrote this post to share some of our reflections about our home country after being away for the past half year. This is by no means a full summary of everything that’s going on in our heads, but is simply some food for thought. To all Americans at home and abroad, happy Independence Day!

Close your eyes and picture “an American.”  We’ll wait………..What does he or she look like?

The words “melting pot” are regularly used to describe the United States. Since the founding of our country, people from all over the world have made their way to the U.S. in search of their dreams. If there is one question that we have been asked more than any other during our trip it is, “Where are you from?” Surprisingly, many people look at Mike and say, “You don’t look American. Where are you really from?” As one man in Turkey put it, “Americans look like her” (as he pointed to Amy).  At first we didn’t know how to respond, but now whenever a conversation arises about what Americans are supposed to look like, we respond by saying that in our eyes, they too look like an American.

Early on in our trip we noticed that despite what you hear on the news, most people do not harbor anti-American sentiment. On rare occasion, some people that we’ve met have expressed frustration about our country’s foreign policies, but for the most part Americans are still well-liked, and the U.S.A. ranks high as a country that people would like to visit.  This positive attitude towards Americans is different than what we expected to encounter. A common joke we heard before leaving was, “If you get into trouble, just tell them you’re Canadian.” At the six month mark of our trip, we are happy to report that we haven’t claimed to be anything but American. Traveling has emphasized to us the importance of separating individuals from politics, and the value in engaging in dialogue with foreigners.  Like it or not, every traveler is an ambassador for their country.

More and more, we have come to realize that Americans do not travel internationally as much as our world neighbors. For that reason, we are often received with surprise and curiosity by locals and other travelers. “Why don’t other Americans take long trips?” people often ask. Travel is so engrained in the lifestyle of people in other developed countries, but not so much in the United States. For instance, many Australians and Kiwis travel during their gap year between high school and university. Europeans take summer holiday for months at a time. We have been pondering this trend, and it seems that Americans don’t travel abroad as frequently because they simply do not have the time. What do you think prevents Americans from traveling abroad?

Due to the fact that we generally stay in hostels, we are constantly engaging in conversation with other travelers. As we mentioned previously, many people view Americans in a positive light and want to visit the U.S., however, a lot of would-be tourists are not able to get permission. This trip has made us realize how difficult our country makes it for foreigners to visit. Tourist visas, work visas and green cards are incredibly difficult to get. Not to mention, the system for acquiring access to the United States is not created with equality in mind; the level of difficulty has a great deal to do with one’s country of origin. We think that allowing more people to visit and work in our country would be a great way to share our culture with the world.

Some of our perceptions of America have changed during our RTW trip, others have not, and our views will further evolve as we continue to make our way around the world. On this 4th of July, we are particularly cognizant of how grateful we are to have been born in the U.S.A. We don’t know when we will be returning stateside, but we will always be happy to know that it is our home.

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One of the first things that any traveler will notice about Kyoto is that there appears to be a temple or shrine on nearly every block. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but Kyoto’s reputation as the home of traditional Japanese culture is well deserved. Once the Imperial Capital of Japan, Kyoto is now a modern city where the traditions of the past live on. In the midst of crowded, multiple-story malls, you will find a number of women shopping in traditional Japanese Kimonos, and when you exit the mall, you are likely to find monks worshiping at a temple just around the corner.

Kimonos are a common sight in Kyoto.

We spent our week in Kyoto visiting only a handful of the many temples and shrines, but the ones we did visit were magnificent. From the moment we set foot in Japan, we were truly humbled by the kindness and respect that people show one another. Even those who have never traveled abroad would feel safe and welcome in Japan. Nonetheless, it was helpful to have a Japanese-speaking guide to get an insider’s perspective on the culture of Japan. Our friend, Patricia, who lives and works in the Shiga Prefecture, met us in town one day to show us around to Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Temple) and Fushimi Inari Shrine. It made the experience that much more authentic.

Enjoying a tasty tempura and noodle lunch in Kyoto with Patricia. Thanks for a fun day!

Kyoto’s Golden Temple

The temple is coated in gold leaf, similar to the dome on the capital building in Denver.

The gates of Fushimi Inari Shrine wound on and on for miles. Each one varies in size and bears the name of the individual or group that purchased it.

The foremost structure at Fushimi Inari Shrine.

Before walking through the network of orange gates at Fushimi Inari, Patricia convinced us to dress up in traditional garb at a kimono vendor’s stall. We had no intention of purchasing kimonos, but after we got all decked out, the thought crossed our minds. While they would have been fun Halloween costumes, we eventually realized that they would have collected dust 99% of the time.

Dress up time

Another highlight of our visit to Kyoto was our trip to Arashiyama. We learned about this neighborhood of town from our hostel’s “things to do” board. At a first glance, it seemed like nothing more than something to do on a rainy day; however, it turned out to be one of our favorite places in Kyoto. The paths that make their way through the area are canopied by a forest of bamboo.

Seemingly endless grove of bamboo trees.

The trees towered so high that they drooped over the path to create a natural canopy.

Last but not least…the food. A post on The Chamborres Expedition is not a post without writing about the cuisine of a city. We took a suggestion from a friend and sought out a grocery store located in the basement of a department store. We know that doesn’t sound like an exciting culinary adventure, but trust us, some of the best and most affordable sushi in the world can be found in such places. We scoped out our dinner selection early one morning, but lucked out by returning after 6:00PM when much of the sashimi was marked down 20 and 30 percent. No one wants day old sushi.

Sushi, anyone?

Everything in Japan is an art form, even the desserts. We were continually impressed by the presentation of products in the artisan sweet shops. The colors, textures and designs are a treat to the eye.  Having only known the deliciousness of mochi from home, we were amazed by the taste and freshness of the ones in Kyoto. At over 150 yen/piece, they are not cheap, but they are an incredibly delicate and subtle way to end a meal.

Hand-made mochi at Nishiki Market

Funky see-through mochi

Yesterday, we overheard another traveler saying, “I am so happy, it was something I have always wanted to do.” That is exactly how we felt when we arrived in Kyoto. We have always wanted to visit Japan, and exploring Kyoto was the perfect way to start our visit. It allowed us to see the temples of old, experience the food of today, and get a glimpse of the trends of tomorrow that awaited us in Tokyo.

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It has been a while since our last post. The reason? We have been bumming around on the beaches of Busan, South Korea for the past eight days.

Before getting into our fun in the sun, we’ll take you back to our last moments in China. On our final night in Beijing, we liberated ourselves of the massive Lonely Planet China guidebook we had purchased and felt a great weight off our shoulders (both literally and metaphorically). Guidebooks can be a double-edged sword; they provide you with valuable information and are a one-stop shop for planning a trip, but they also leave you feeling like you have to see and do everything. We now know 100% that we prefer to travel without them.

When all was said and done, we spent five weeks maneuvering the crowds, traffic and tourist hotspots of eight different Chinese cities. Don’t get us wrong, we loved China, it’s just that we were ready to plant ourselves in one place for a while. Simply stepping out of the airport in Busan had a very calming effect. People formed lines, cars stopped at cross walks, streets were clean and tidy and everything just seemed so smooth and orderly.

Our little paradise in South Korea – Haeundae Beach

We knew that Busan was a city with some nice beaches, but to our surprise, there was an international sand festival taking place at Haeundae Beach, just minutes from our hostel.  When it comes to de-stressing and just having fun, there are few things better than an ocean side festival.

These guys make it look easy.

Incredible 3D sand sculpture

We got inspired to create our own work of art. It was so much fun to play in the sand that day. Quite a few people even stopped to take photos of it, which made us feel like we were part of the festival. The sad part is how sore we were the next day, and for several days after.

Amy working on Mrs. Scraggle Tooth

Don’t ask us what it is…we have no clue.

At first, we had considered taking a train up to Seoul for a few days or setting off for some hiking in the nearby mountains; but, in the end our desire to just max on the beach prevailed.  We decided that we could still experience many great aspects of Korean life, namely the food, without trekking very far. We had only to walk two minutes from our hostel to Haeundae Market to find many of the nation’s culinary delights. After just a day, this market became one of our favorite markets in the world.

Our favorite little street in Busan

This lady served up the tasty tempura snacks day and night.

The amount of different sea creatures available at Haeundae Market is incredible.

The combination of fresh seafood, delicious vegetables, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, street food and shops was perfect. We ate everything from kimchi dumplings, to sushi rolls, to tempura . One night, we even ate a meal that included 11 different types of sashimi: two species of eel, sea snails, crab, sea squirt, shrimp, sea cucumber, three unknown types of delicious sliced fish, and a whole grilled fish.

Amazing spread of “hue” (pronounced hway), which is Korean sushi, and more!

If seafood isn’t your thing, South Korea has you covered too. Enter Korean Barbecue. These great restaurants are perfect for dining as a couple or with a group of friends.  A charcoal pit in the middle of the table allows you to grill up your own meat while you enjoy bottomless side dishes of kimchi and vegetables.

Koreans are very methodical eaters. Everything has to be prepared just so, each item paired with its particular garnish. We definitely mixed it up at the Korean BBQ and some people looked at us funny. One couple even stopped us mid-meal, to show us how it was done.

Man and grill. Need we say more?

One of our friends from DU is living and teaching English in South Korea, and we had a blast hanging out, getting the inside scoop on the country, and visiting her middle school class (more on that in a future post). Thanks again Danielle for a great time!

Enjoying laughs with friends old and new.

As if a week of maxing on the beach, grubbing tasty Korean food and hanging out with friends wasn’t enough, viewing the Venus Transit across the sun was icing on the cake. The view of this rare astronomical event was said to be the best in this region of the world. Foolishly we tried to look at the sun using only two pairs of sunglasses. Epic fail. But we were lucky enough to run into a group of local physics students who had telescopes set up on the beach. Win!

Mike scoping the awesome view of Venus crossing the sun. Guess we’ll have to wait until 2117 to see it again.

There it is!

We didn’t have a guidebook when we got to Korea, nor had we done much planning beyond booking a hostel, so we really didn’t know what to expect from Busan. Half the beauty of traveling is making it up as you go, this time things went our way and we couldn’t have picked a better time to be there.

So where are we now?  We managed to peel ourselves off of the beach in order to fly to Japan today. We’ll spend a few days in Kyoto before heading off to work.  You’re eyes are not deceiving you; yes, for the first time in over six months we will be getting paid. We’re heading to Yokahama to work a booth at a stem cell research conference called ISSCR for Amy’s previous employer. It will good to hang up our travel gear for a bit and get back in touch with our professional selves. Not to mention it will be nice to see our bank account increase instead of decrease for a change!

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Before diving into Shanghai itself, we must talk about how we got there. There are many ways to get from place to place in China; for the budget backpacker, overnight trains are the best option. We opted for “hard-sleeper” beds, which, as the name would suggest, are quite firm and stacked three-high in a car without doors or curtains; basically a moving bunk room with 70+ beds. While it’s not the most private way to travel, it is actually quite fun! Small tables and folding chairs line the corridor, making for a very communal feel. All of the train cars are equipped with steaming hot water taps, and we learned early on that dried noodle bowls are the meal of choice for long train rides. Add a deck of cards, a good book and a flask of whiskey to the mix, and you’re set with all you need to make the most of the 23 hour, 950 mile journey.

I’m on the night train!

Our bunk mates eating the standard Chinese night train fare of cup-o-noodles.

We spent our first day in Shanghai visiting the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Museum. It has to be one of the most oddly located museums in the world. With the address and Chinese name in hand, we arrived at what we thought was the entrance. At first, we weren’t certain we had found the right place as it was just a big apartment complex. The security guard handed us a business card that pointed us around the corner and down a floor to the basement of building #3.

Who would have thought this was home to Shanghai’s Propaganda Poster Museum?

The museum houses a very extensive collection of original Chinese Communist Party propaganda posters. Almost all of these posters were destroyed following Mao’s death, so a collection this size is quite remarkable. The dates of the posters range form 1930-1979; the imagery and verbiage used on the posters are both powerful and thought-provoking. We highly recommend visiting this museum on your next stop in Shanghai.

Viva la revolucion!

“Grandpa Mao” as they refer to him in China.

Possibly Shanghai’s most well know attraction, The Bund, is a historic part of city with predominantly European architecture. It was home to many important residents, businesses, and government offices during the British rule of the city. Today the area is a meeting ground of old and new. Sitting just across the Huangpu River from The Bund are countless ultra-modern skyscrapers that fill Shanghai with neon lights each evening. For us, the view was somewhat reminiscent of Hong Kong, but let there be no mistake about it, Shanghai is mainland China through and through, not an SAR.

The Bund after nightfall

View of the Pudong skyline (East bank of the Huangpu River) from The Bund.

Another remnant of Shanghai’s colonial past is the neighborhood known as The French Concession. Its wide, tree-lined boulevards, well-kept mansions and designer fashion stores transport you far from the chaos of the city center, and can almost convince you that you are in Europe not Asia. We strolled through the area one afternoon and stumbled upon something we had been missing since we left home, a micro-brewery. Yes! Any cold beer goes down easily on a hot, humid day, but the beer in China leaves a lot to be desired. Being from Portland and Denver (the micro-brew hubs of America) we require a good craft beer from time to time; Boxing Cat Brewery in the French Concession fit the bill.

These red and pale ales tasted incredible to our taste buds after months of watery, light beer.

Each region in China boasts its own local flavor. In Shanghai, the regional specialty is dumplings. Every restaurant and street cart sells their own version. We came to love the dumpling vendor on the corner next to our hostel, and stopped by every morning for breakfast. We never quite figured it out, but each day we paid a different price for the same dumplings. It seems that China is one of those places where you can decide what you’re going to pay for a product; hand the person your money with confidence and they will likely accept it with a smile.

Rice dumplings – the real breakfast of champions

Beyond dumplings, we enjoyed many other delicious treats from vendors on the street in Shanghai. Some of our favorites were two well know dishes in the western world, fried noodles (chow mein) and fried rice (chow fahn) prepared on a makeshift, propane-powered stove top that was attached to a bicycle.  Ready in less than two minutes, these dishes were phenomenal late-night snacks.

Tasty chow mein, MSG and all.

Last but not least, KTV. We had heard a lot about it since arriving in China, and were excited to partake in this beloved Chinese pastime. One Friday night in Shanghai we met up with a friend of a friend to see what KTV was all about. Essentially, it is karaoke, but is much different than the karaoke bars found in the US. Forget the dive bar with a large screen where you sing in front of a crowd of strangers. Now, picture walking into the lobby of a high-rise, heading up the elevator, exiting into a fancy corridor of numbered rooms. Behind each door: couches, a flat-screen TV, song selection computer, microphones, bottles of liquor, snacks, dice games and, most importantly, a good group of friends. We stayed at KTV with our new Chinese friends until 4am, and it was truly a night to remember.

The KTV crew

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Upon arriving at the dock in Yangshuo, we said goodbye to our boat full of new Chinese friends and set off for our hostel.  We heard many stories about the budget accommodations and even cheaper food to be had in China, but until Yangshuo, we had yet to fully experience them.  Our hostel was awesome and we were shocked to find beds for only $2.50 USD.  We instantly realized the cost benefit of traveling in China; no wonder so many backpackers flock to this region.  Our one-year trip may have just been granted an extension.

The center of Yangshuo with the spectacular karst peaks in the background.

The cruise down the Li River offered spectacular views, and during our four days in Yangshuo we continued to be wowed by the magnificence of the limestone peaks.  At home we spend much of our free time hiking and enjoying the outdoors, so naturally, we like to do the same while on the road. One of the best bike rides of our life happened in Yangshuo, through the Yulong River Valley.  We cycled for 20km up and down the river on rocky paths exploring small villages, rice paddies, and the surrounding peaks.  The farmers who live in the region work hard under the heat of the sweltering sun, but man do they live in a beautiful place.  We found ourselves wondering if they realize that their home is situated in one of the most unique landscapes on the planet.

Adventure biking along the Yulong River.

Glistening rice paddies.  If you have to work knee deep in mud, this is the place to do it.

Mike cruising the trails alongside acres upon acres of farmland in the Yulong River Valley.

We spent another one of our days in Yangshuo hiking toward the town of Fuli, but this time the heat was too much to handle.  We only made it about 6km into the hike before opting for a more enjoyable plan: beers in the shade along the Li River.  At our apartment in Denver, we frequently enjoyed sitting on our balcony and taking in the view with a beer or glass of wine, and we enjoy doing the same while traveling.

View of the Li River from our secluded beer drinking spot in the shade.

Throwing up the peace signs is a must when taking photos in China.

One of the many villages that sit along the Li River. Beautiful sky, but man was it hot!

On our last day, we took a bus to the nearby town of Xingping.  You can never really get tired of the amazing mountains in the area, but what we most enjoyed about Xingping was the town itself.  Its relaxed vibe stems from its small size, smiling locals and lesser influence of tourism than its neighboring cities of Yangshuo and Guilin. We considered changing our travel plans to relocate there for a few days, but the Longji Rice Terraces to the north were calling our name.

The view of the Li River from the town of Xingping.

Back home, cooking and savoring fun and inventive meals is something we truly love, and it’s no different when we find ourselves in a foreign place. We were surprised by a cafe in Xingping where we enjoyed one of the best Chinese meals we have had so far. The pineapple duck and side of taro root with bok choy lingered deliciously in our mouths for the rest of the afternoon.

Roasted duck with real, fresh pineapple! “Please Sir, I want some more.”

The walls of the cafe where we ate in Xingping were covered with notes of praise from customers from across the globe.

Our week of biking and hiking in Yangshuo made us feel at home. May 16th marked four months since we arrived in Barcelona to begin our RTW trip.  At times we honestly do get a little homesick, especially when our friends and family reach milestones in their lives.  Even though we are living our dream, we know that life goes on back home for those we love.  That being said, we are going to end this post with a throw-down of shout outs to some very special people; they have been in our hearts and minds throughout the journey (events in chronological order, no favorites here)…

Abe – We miss you greatly, but your love for travel lives as we explore this amazing world.

Max & Tamara – Another Siler, yes!  We are so excited to meet Paul!

Cindy & Marisol – Congratulations again on your engagement!  We will 100% be there to celebrate with you on your wedding day!

Alina & Mike – We welcome Sebastian into the world and our family!

Liz & Alyssa – Sorry we couldn’t make the Portland Juice Press launch party. So proud of you and looking forward to our first taste of the juices upon our return!

Nick – You the man! Congrats on your graduation and starting a new chapter in your life. We love you!

Christina – You’re done with law school! Congratulations friend!  We hope to celebrate with you down south after you take care of that pesky bar.

And a big thanks to ALL of our readers! Sharing our experience via The Chamborres Expedition makes us feel a home wherever we may be.

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