We’d like to share some images of North Korea from postcards we picked up in Pyongyang. Some of them display the incessant propaganda while others are images of the modern city center.

post card from North Korea people holding torch

Unless you’ve avoided all media, you’ve probably noticed that North Korea has been in the news quite a bit lately. When Kim Jong Un started his mysterious saber-rattling a few months ago, we found it hard to take him seriously. But when we visited North Korea we did notice something ominous, the people really believe the propaganda fed to them by the government that they won the Korean War (without any Chinese help by the way). If they believe they won the last war, perhaps they think they can win another.

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The Cambodian Landmine Museum and Relief Centre may be the only museum in the world that prints this disclaimer on their tickets: “Everything on display has been inspected 100% free from explosives.” Would that the fields in the nearby countryside were so safe.

It was founded by Aki Ra, whose parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge when he was five years old. He was later forced to become a child-soldier, receiving his first rifle when he was 10.

The museum displays the terrible toll landmines have taken, and continue to take, in Cambodian lives and advocates the banning of their use around the world. An ancillary mission is to continue the work of demining Cambodia and provide housing for about two dozen children who have been injured by hidden mines that still pose an explosion risk.

Cambodian landmine museum entrance (575x442)The museum was founded by Aki Ra, a former child soldier during the Khmer Rouge era, infamous as the time of The Killing Fields. He started clearing mines on his own in 1997, setting up the museum a short time later. The Cambodian Landmine Museum and Relief Centre is now an NGO that raises funds for mine victims and to continue clearing fields. Over 500 people a year are still injured by mines, many of them children playing or farming in the fields.

Cambodian landmine museum minefield (575x427)

As many as six million mines were placed in the Cambodian countryside. Not surprisingly, Cambodia has one of the highest rates of mine amputee victims in the world.

Cambodian landmine museum pile of mines (575x523)

This building displays the wide variety of these lethal killers. After they were laid in fields the people who put them there often forget where they were  placed, making removal difficult.

cambodian landmine museum

Many of the mines come from Vietnam, the United States and Russia. It’s rather sobering to see all the mines tagged with “Made in U.S.A.” labels.

Cambodian landmine museum mines up close (575x438)

The mines up close. When they are placed in fields most of what you see here is hidden from any unsuspecting passerby.

Cambodian landmine museum gift shop (575x441) Yes there’s even a gift shop. Proceeds go to the Relief Fund.

angkor wat landmine victim band

At nearby Angkor Wat, bands of landmine victims play for tips from the tourists.

Cambodia landmine band Angkor Wat (575x438)

Although this site is a museum, it is not just educating about things that happened in the past. There are still thousands of lethal mines hidden in the countryside. The mission of the museum is to eradicate this ongoing problem.

Further information can be found at The Landmine Relief Fund This registered American charity assists Aki Ra in his demining activities.

For the museum’s website go to: Cambodia Landmine Museum

Sandwiches are one of the universal foods, they’re cheap and convenient. We ate way too many of them on our trip and offer up the 11 best sandwiches in the world.

1) Shawarma in Jerusalem

Shawarma Jerusalem

A shawarma is a Middle Eastern sandwich made from meats (often lamb or chicken) that are cooked while rotating on a vertical spit. While it may look like a human leg spinning around, the spiced meat is delicious. It is shaved off and placed in a pita bread with a choice of toppings; usually hummus, tahini, tabbouleh, cucumbers and pickled vegetables. The flavors meld together into an incredibly tasty combination. The shawarmas pictured above come from side by side stands in Jerusalem.

2) Ham sandwich in Auckland, New Zealand

Auckland French Market ham sandwich

At the Saturday-only French Market in Auckland, you can try one of the great Kiwi bargains; $4.25 USD gets you a freshly carved ham sandwich on a crispy French baguette with lettuce and dressing. 

Auckland French Market Ham sandwich

3) Chopped rib on weck in Saratoga Springs, New York

BBQsa Saratoga rib sandwich weck

PJ’s BAR-B-QSA is one of our favorite barbecue joints. It’s a road trip of American barbecue offering regional specialties from all over the country. The rib sandwich is served on a weck roll, a western upstate New York specialty that is topped with kosher salt and caraway seeds. 

4) Kapana in Namibia

men eating kapana in Namibia

Part of the fun of kapana, the popular street food of Namibia, is how it’s eaten. You tell the vendor how much you want to spend and he pushes that amount over on the grill with his knife. You then grab it with your fingers and dip it into a communal box full of salt and spices. Tasty yes but not a sandwich. To make it a sandwich do what we did. Walk over to one the vendors selling fresh Portugeuse rolls, split it open and stuff the bread with the kapana. Now that’s a sandwich. It might have been donkey meat, we’re still not quite sure, but it sure tasted good.

5) Pastrami sandwich in New York

Katzs deli pastrami best sandwiches in the world

We both grew up in New York where the love of pastrami was drilled into us at an early age. Our favorite is still the classic with pickles and an egg cream at Katz’s Deli in Lower Manhattan. It’s where Meg Ryan loved the food in a famous scene from “When Harry Met Sally,” or maybe she was just faking it.

6) Pulled pork sandwich in Cincinnati, Ohio

Findlay market best sandwiches in the world

The award-winning barbecue team from Velvet Smoke plies its trade at the historic Findlay Market in Cincinnati. The pulled pork offers the right combination of tenderness, flavor and bite.

7) Bahn Mi in Hue, Vietnam (Winner: Best value)

Banh Mi sandwich

The sandwich is called banh mi but that is just Vietnamese for bread, in this case, a delicious crusty French baguette. The stuffing is typically grilled pork, perhaps compressed pig ears, liver pate, cucumber, cilantro, pickled carrots and a spread such as mayonnaise or spicy chili sauce. These bahn mi were 35 cents each, feeding us a delicious lunch for two for only 70 cents. The baguettes alone were worth more than that.

8 ) Hog roast and haggis sandwich in Edinburgh, Scotland

Hog roast haggis sandwich Edinburgh

Nothing like slapping on some haggis before the roasted hog. Haggis, the national food of Scotland and something they are oddly proud of, is sheep’s heart, liver and lungs, oatmeal, onion, oatmeal, suet and spices wrapped in a sheep’s stomach. Seriously. When combined with roasted hog it is pretty intense.

Pork and haggis sandwich castle terrace market edinburgh

Hard to beat the setting just below Edinburgh Castle. For a video of our haggis taste test check out “A Fistful of Haggis.”

9) Porchetta in  Assisi, Italy

Assisi porchetta best sandwiches in the world

You know your sandwich is going to be fresh when the head is staring at you. We have to admit though, it did make us feel a bit guilty.

10) Philly cheesesteak in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Philly cheesesteak Cambodia

Yo, we’re from Philly so we had to include at least one cheesesteak. After a tiring day touring Angkor Wat, Little Rocky approved of this one at the Warehouse in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Gotta love that French baguette.

11) Kokorec in Istanbul (Winner: The best sandwich in the world)

Kokorec best sandwich turkey

And the winner is, the kokorec sandwich in Turkey. It’s so delicious it even earned its own blog post: Damn, that’s good sheep intestine The title sort of gives away one of the main ingredients.

The world’s worst sandwich: Vegemite sandwich in Australia

Vegemite sandwich

Men At Work made it famous, but the world’s worst sandwich is the Vegemite sandwich. For those who haven’t tried it, Vegemite tastes like salty, fermented toe snarf. Straight from Australia’s Bush country, here’s a video of our official vegemite taste test. Watch it at your own peril.

What is your favorite sandwich?

Here’s our review of pizza on 6 continents: The best pizza in the world, it’s not in Italy

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As we traveled around the world with our statue of Rocky Balboa, there were only two groups of people who didn’t recognize him: North Koreans and the San people of the Kalahari in Namibia. Everywhere else he was quite the celebrity and a real icebreaker who helped us meet Read more

Pizza is our go-to food on the road, our favorite is New York-style. And when we return from a trip it’s usually the first meal we eat. On our year-long journey we tried pizza on six continents, including at its birthplace in Naples, to seek the best pizza in the world. But what surprised us most was where we found the best and the worst pizza.

 Pizza in Asia

best pizza in Hong Kong Paisanos

Paisanos in Hong Kong served up pizza that was very close to New York style.

pizza in North Korea

We hadn’t expected to see pizza in North Korea. But our guides kept referring to their own version of Pizza Hut. While it was a bit undercooked, it wasn’t bad for pizza in, well, North Korea. (Photo courtesy Russell Ng)

Pizza Chiang Mai Thailand

The owner of Pulcinella da Stefano in Chiang Mai, Thailand hails from Italy so his pizza was almost Neopolitan in style. 

best pizza dessert pineapple bali

A pineapple and banana dessert pizza in Bali. What a great idea!

Pizza in Vietnam

We were surprised to find an upscale Italian restaurant in Hanoi, complete with marble columns and tuxedo-clad waiters. This being Vietnam though, it was still really cheap.

Pizza Siem Reap Cambodia

Pizza in Cambodia? Why not, we even ate an authentic Philly cheesesteak there.

Pizza in the Middle East

In the Middle East we ate authentic pizza along with an Arabic version that while not pizza, sure had a lot in common with it.

Pizza in Dubai

No one affiliated with this restaurant in Dubai was Italian, but they put out a pretty good product. 

Israel food Arab zatar flatbread

In the Arab market in Jerusalem we tried zatar flatbread. It was ‘pizza-ish” enough to be included here. Also, we really liked it.

Pizza Tel Aviv

We almost walked right past this pizzeria in Tel Aviv because we thought it was a Dominos. But look closely at the logo, it’s Pizza Domino and no relation to the American chain. It may be the closest we came to authentic New York style pizza.

Pizza in Africa

best pizza in the world Namibia

We don’t surprise easily but were gobsmacked to come across a pizzeria in Swakopmund, Namibia. It was pretty good too. 

Pizza in Italy

Many people have a love/hate relationship with authentic Neopolitan pizza. The type served in Naples is different than what many expect. (Particularly if they were weaned on New York-style since childhood.) It turns out that authentic Neopolitan pizza is kind of soupier than expected. Some say it’s due to using fresh buffalo mozzarella. Either way, it takes some getting used to.

Pizza Naples Italy tomato

A plain  pizza in Naples, a bit soupy for our taste. 

Pizza Naples Italy rocket

Larissa’s favorite topping, fresh arugula or rocket.

Pizza Italy french fries

This is what happens when a self-proclaimed world traveler can’t admit that he doesn’t speak his grandparents language and orders a pizza that he thinks comes with potato slices on it.

Pizza in Australia and New Zealand

best pizza in the world Auckland New Zealand Sals

Sal’s in Auckland, New Zealand boasted of authentic New York style pizza. It came pretty close, even with Wisconsin mozzarella.

Best pizza in the world Australia Clare Valley Stone Bridge winery

Craig from  Stone Bridge Wines in Clare Valley, Australia manages to serve up delicious  wood fired pizza and award-winning wines. This was the runner-up for best pizza.

best pizza in the world Perth Australia

The pizza from Embers Wood Fired in Gooseberry Hill outside Perth, Australia. Although no one working at the place seemed to be over the age of 12, the pizza was the best of our entire trip. This is the Pizza Siciliana  with fresh ricotta, cacciatore sausage & marinated eggplant. That’s right, our top two pizzas were both from Australia. What an upside down world we live in.

The worst pizza we had

worst pizza in the world Pizza Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires is known for being half-Italian (just like Michael) so we were disappointed in this gooey mess. Three fist-sized hunks of mozzarella were placed in the center of the pie before going into the oven. Since they’re too big to melt properly, the chef just smears them around the pie after it’s baked where it turns into a gelatinous clump.

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Tasting pizza on six continents--which is the best?

On the flip-side, Argentina did provide us the greatest taste sensation of our trip: Read “Is dulce de leche the best flavor in the world?”

Is a coal mining town in Pennsylvania the “Pizza Capital of the World?”

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at finding the best pizza in the world in Australia. We may have found the best gelato in the world in New Zealand, where it’s made by a mad scientist from Italy.

What type of pizza do you like? Do you eat pizza with your hands or a knife and fork? To us, a knife and fork for pizza is just plain wrong.

To follow our journey around the world in search of the tasty and quirky and receive valuable travel tips subscribe here.

By Bethaney Davies ~ Surprisingly, there aren’t many free things to do in Bangkok. Many of Bangkok’s attractions (with the exception of the Grand Palace) cost next to nothing to attend but if you’re doing a lot of sightseeing on a tight budget even the smallest entrance fees can add up. Here are five truly free things to do in Bangkok.

Exercise at Lumphini Park

 

free things to do in Bangkok Lumphini Park

Early morning exercise at Lumphini Park     Source: Steffengo at Flickr.com

Bangkok’s largest green space, Lumphini park is a mecca for locals to play, exercise and socialize. Visiting in the early morning or sunset provides the best opportunity to people watch, stretch your legs & lungs with a jog or take part in a spot of Tai Chi or aerobics. There’s a childrens’ playground at the North of the park. Be aware that Lumphini Park gets a tad seedy after dark!

Chatuchak Weekend Market

 

free things in Bangkok Chatuchak Market

Chatuchak Weekend Market     Source: Prof. Tournesol at Flickr.com

If you’re in Bangkok over the weekend, don’t miss out on a trip to Chatuchak. Again, go early! It gets hot quickly in the maze of alleys running through the thousands of stalls that make up Bangkok’s largest market. Bring water and wear comfortable shoes and clothes. Although you can navigate your way through with a map, if you’re not looking for anything in particular it’s best to just meander through without the worry of getting lost. There’s plenty on offer that you won’t want to buy, but it’s interesting to look at – check out the antiques and exotic pets.

People Watching on Khao San Road

 

Khao San Road

Khao San Road at Night     Source: Skoll at Flickr.com

The backpacker ghetto that is Khao San Road makes for excellent people watching – both of the local and foreign variety. The Khao San Road phenomenon brings out the strangest in people. Backpackers come to Bangkok and seem to lose all their inhibitions and sometimes their common sense. An eclectic mix of locals flock to flog their wares, hang out with tourists and take advantage of the unaware. The entire street comes alive at the night with food vendors, bar girls and market stalls. Watch as brave tourists chow down on deep-fried insects. Listen to the thumping music. Don’t take Khao San Road too seriously and you can have a good time.

Wander the Amulet Market

 

Bangkok : Amulet Market

Buddhist monk searching piles of amulets     Source: -AX- on Flickr.com

Located near the river on the sidewalks of Thanon Maharat, Bangkok’s Amulet Market makes a great stop before or after visiting Wat Po or the Grand Palace. You’ll see Buddhist amulets everywhere in Thailand. Once you start noticing them, you won’t stop. Around the necks’ of monks, hanging from a taxi driver’s rear-view mirror, amulets are prized possessions. Wander down the street, admire the vendors’ wares and get a glimpse into a fascinating part of Thai life. It’s a great place to snap photos.

 

Visit a Buddhist Temple

 

Wat Pathum Wanaram    Source: Wiki image

Bangkok’s touristy temples, like Wat Po and Wat Arun, charge a minimal entrance fee (usually around 20 to 50 baht) but there are plenty of temples you can visit for free. Enjoy the wonderful architecture, golden Buddha, saffron-robed monks and a more serene vibe at lesser known temples like Wat Indrawihan and Wat Pathum Wanaram.

All photos sources under Creative Commons License and attributed accordingly.

Bethany Davies flashpacker familyTravel writer Bethaney Davies is one-third of Flashpacker Family – a semi-nomadic, globetrotting family from Christchurch, New Zealand. Bethaney, Lee and their toddler Reuben spend half the year at home and the rest out exploring and enjoying the world. Flashpacker Family has great tales from the road, tips on travelling on a budget & travelling with a toddler and information on living a location independent lifestyle. Bethaney also runs Travel Thailand Guide – an online tourist guide to Thailand. You can follow Bethaney on Twitter and Facebook.

 

From a kitschy throwback hotel in North Korea to a nudist B&B in Portugal, we found a few unique places to stay in the world. Here are some of our favorites:

1) Little Petra Bedouin Camp, Jordan

 

Little Petra Bedouin camp Jordan

The Little Petra Bedouin Camp is so named because of its proximity to Little Petra, a smaller cousin of the world-renowned site of Petra. Just like the name implies, it’s little, but worth visiting as it gets less than 1% of the visitors of Petra. When we visited there were only three other people there. The Bedouin camp offers accommodations in tents. However, we were a little concerned at check-in when the owner cheerfully told us, “I’ve upgraded you to a cave.” So we spent a rather cold night in the cave but it was filled with blankets and pillows and ended up being quite cozy.

Website: Little Petra Bedouin Camp

2) Shichachai Shadow Art Hotel, Beijing, China

 

Unique places to stay Shichachai Shadow Art Hotel

Keen observers will notice that while Larissa is waiting for the next performance she is engrossed in a game of Solitaire.

Hutongs are traditional neighborhoods of small alleys and courtyard homes in Beijing that are rapidly being bulldozed over for new developments. While the hutongs are becoming a shadow of their former selves, will an art based on shadows help revive them? The Shichachai Shadow Art Hotel is in an old hutong neighborhood and showcases the ancient art of shadow puppetry. Banned by Chairman Mao during the Cultural Revolution, shadow puppetry is being revived by another Mao, this one an artist.

Unique Places to stay Shichachai Hotel Beijing

The man behind the curtain is puppet artist Mao.

Mao makes his own hand painted shadow puppets as he revives the lost art. A theater was built into the hotel lobby to showcase regular performances for guests.. Staying here provides the visitor a unique opportunity to experience life in an old hutong while watching an ancient art.

Book a room at the: Shichachai Shadow Art Hotel

3) Belar Homestead, Dubbo, Australia

 

Unique places to stay Belars Australia

The Belar Homestead sits in Australia’s bush country on a 3,000 acre ranch owned by 4th-generation cattle farmer Rob Wright and his wife Deb. In fact, the house was built by Rob’s great-grandfather. The setting off a mile-long driveway is perfect for someone seeking solitude with the only neighbors being a few cows, some chickens and the occasional kangaroo. The remote location provides a spectacular night sky for stargazing. It’s so clear that the Parkes Radio Telescope, which received the video of the first Apollo moon landing, is nearby.

4) Ai Aiba, The Rock Painting Lodge, Namibia

 

Ai Aiba rock painting lodge Namibia

Namibia has become a popular destination in Africa for independent self-drive safaris. Aside from the big game viewing, there are many areas with prehistoric cave art paintings. Ai Aiba sits within a 12,000 acre reserve boasting over 150 of these paintings. On a pre-breakfast hike we spotted some ancient artwork of giraffes while looking over our shoulder at real giraffes munching on the acacia trees. It was a sublime experience.

Ai Aiba rock painting lodge Namibia

Website: Ai Aiba, The Rock Painting Lodge

5) Yanggakdo Hotel, Pyongyang, North Korea

 

Yanggakdo Hotel Pyongyang North Korea

Okay this may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it certainly wasn’t Larissa’s choice, but the Yanggakdo is the place to go when visiting the monolithic country of North Korea and experience some retro-70s style. There’s even a highlight of that era, a revolving restaurant on top. The rooms were nicer than we expected, although coated somewhat with several decades worth of tar and nicotine. The only way to visit North Korea is via an authorized tour operator. We recommend Koryo Tours. Extra bonus: There’s a two-lane bowling alley in the basement that comes with your own cheerleader.

Website: Koryo Tours

6) Casa Amarela, Algarve Coast, Portugal

 

Casa Amarela Naturist resort Portugal

If you’re seeking a vacation where you can pack light, really light, the Casa Amarela may be what you’re looking for. The guest house run by Brits Jane and Stewart is clothing optional. The feeling of diving into the pool and then drying off au natural in the warm Portuguese sun is so … well, you’ll just have to experience it for yourself. And while you’re relaxing just think of all the money you saved on baggage fees.

Web site: Casa Amarela

7) Munduk Moding Plantation, Bali

 

Unique places to stay Munduk Moding Bali

If you’ve dreamed of waking up to a view of a coffee plantation on the island of Bali then this is the place. True coffee addicts can hike the plantation then retire to the lodge for a fresh cup of Kopi Luwak. Made famous as the java of choice for Jack Nicholson in The Bucket List,  it’s brewed from beans that have first been eaten and shat out by the civet cat. Despite that history, Larissa tried it. Fortunately for Michael he’s not a coffee drinker. As an added bonus you can visit the civets in cages and watch them prepare the beans for roasting.

Munduk Moding Plantation Bali

Website: Munduk Moding Plantation

What unique places to stay can you recommend?

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The city-state of Singapore is an intriguing place. An island perched at the tip of the Malay Peninsula, it’s a major trading port where goods have been exchanged among China, India and Arabia for centuries. Eventually a wide array of cultures emerged. In the early 1800s Great Britain colonized Singapore, providing this Asian melting pot with a dash of European flair.

We were only there for a few days, so to see as much as possible we decided to split up for a day in Singapore. Fortunately we knew some native Singaporeans who would be our guides. Constance volunteers at local museums while Russell is a student of history and an endless purveyor of trivia. If you have more time to spend in the city, you can find budget Singapore hotels to stay in.

A day in Singapore Rocky

Our fact-filled guides, Russell and Constance.

We planned to divide and conquer. Michael and Russell would have a typical guy day and tour sites related to Singapore’s pivotal role in World War II. Larissa and Constance designed a more refined tour, learning about both local culture and horticulture.

A day in Singapore

He Saw: The Fall of Fortress Singapore by Michael

Russell and I watched a Singapore Air Force F-16 fighter plane roar overhead as the pilot maneuvered into ever tightening circles. The high-pitched screams of its engines provided a thundering counterpoint to our quiet stroll through the manicured lawns of the Kranji War Cemetery, the final resting place for thousands of military personnel killed in the World War II battle for Singapore. The British lost this battle to the Japanese, leading to the largest surrender of British forces in their long history.

The names on the headstones revealed the extensive reach of the British Commonwealth at that point. Alongside typically English names like Kirby, Lyon, and Roberts are Ibrahim, Abdul and Muhammad. Most of the world’s major religions are represented, at one time all fighting for a common cause. This ignominious defeat was the first step in the dismantling of the British Empire; the one on which the sun never set.

A day in Singapore Changi Cemetery

Earlier we had visited Fort Canning, site of the Battle Box, a series of bomb-proof underground bunkers where British commanders led the doomed defense of Fortress Singapore in February, 1942. These impregnable concrete structures lay buried and undisturbed until their rediscovery in 1988. The doors were still locked, just as the Japanese left them when they eventually surrendered to Allied forces. When reopened they were unchanged; in some rooms Japanese handwriting still covered the walls.

A guide handed us headsets before leading us into a damp, fetid bunker. Without warning the lights flickered and the sounds of bombs dropping reverberated in the headsets. The special effects gave us a small sample of what it was like for the British soldiers as they withstood the Japanese attack.

In a concrete meeting room life-like figures reenact the mounting tension of the British officers as the island’s supplies dwindled. Visitors are drawn into the painful conflict of commanding officer Lt. Gen. A.E. Percival as he wrestled with the dreadful decision to hoist the white flag.

A day in Singapore Battle Box

Touring the Battle Box with Russell was particularly poignant. The war took place before he was born, but his father, mother and older brother were among the last to leave Singapore before its fall. Their ship was captured and they remained prisoners of the Japanese for the remainder of the war.

After watching the intense debate about the decision to capitulate, we drove to the Old Ford Factory, to see where the actual surrender took place on Feb. 15th. The factory was commandeered by the Japanese as their Army headquarters during the battle. It sits on a hill so visitors trudge up the same driveway as Percival and his small entourage on their dreadful mission to hand over the British flag.

For such a dramatic event, the actual surrender took place in a rather prosaic place, the main conference room used by Ford executives. It’s set up just as it was when the Japanese and Commonwealth officers squared off on opposite sides of the table. A tape recording replays the agonizing moment when the British general reluctantly gave in. Additional exhibits tell the story of the harsh conditions imposed on civilians who were not able to escape Singapore before the onslaught.

Back at the Kranji War Cemetery I thought about the awful consequences of the war. My gaze rose from the lines of headstones up to that fighter plane circling overhead and wondered, over 60 years later, what lessons have been learned?

She Saw:  The People of Singapore, Four Hundred Years of Blended Culture by Larissa

I wanted to see some of what makes Singapore a unique blend of cultures. Our first stop was Little India; a neighborhood burgeoning with shops selling all things Indian, from spices to saris. We browsed in the food and fabric halls. Of special interest were the tofu stalls, selling the multiple varieties of soybean product so essential in vegetarian Indian cooking.

It was late morning, so Constance suggested a snack. We walked over to the food hall, known in Singapore as a hawker stall. Briyani kiosks vied with those selling chapatti, curries and anything else I’ve ever seen in an Indian restaurant. The sound of papadams sizzling vied with the hawkers calling out their daily specials. The aromas wafting over my head included chilies, coriander and a hint of cinnamon. Wanting to try something I hadn’t seen before, I chose a mutton curry. It was served on a banana leaf, a signature of Singapore.

Singapore day mutton curry

Thus fortified, we made our way across town to visit the Peranakan Museum. Housed in a former school, the museum presents the story of the combined Chinese and Malay culture that emerged in the 15th century. Singapore was a major trading port along the Malacca strait. Situated in a protected spot where Asia meets the Indian Ocean, the port was ideally situated for the exchange of European and Asian goods.

Wealthy Chinese merchants spent half the year living along the Malacca Strait, eventually marrying local Malay women. These blended Chinese/Malay families became known as “Straits Chinese” or Peranakans, a derivation of the Malay word anak, which means “to give birth to.”

Peranakans, didn’t fit into Chinese or Malay societies, so they quickly established their own. The wives became excellent businesswomen, maintaining the family shipping concerns while their husbands returned to China for part of the year. An entire matriarchic culture evolved with unique foods, dress and furnishings.

A day in Singapore day Peranakan architecture

Constance is a docent at this museum, so today she acted as my private tour guide. She led me through exhibits featuring various aspects of Peranakan daily life over the past 400 years. A series of interactive displays, especially the section on clothing, made it a fun tour. Even grown women (including us) could play “dress up,” trying on the sarongs and kabayas; the skirt and blouse combo unique to Peranakan women.

We left the museum and drove to the Blair Plain Historic District, the last remaining example of a Peranakan neighborhood in modern Singapore. Row houses in vivid shades of periwinkle, turquoise and tangerine cluster together on narrow streets, each displaying decorative tiles and ornate plaster ornamentation.

Inspired by the colors displayed in Blair Plain, we moved on to see color in nature in the form of orchids. Singapore boasts the largest outdoor orchid display in the world at the National Orchid Garden.  Orchids are finicky but the moist equatorial climate is perfect for them so they grow in abundance.

Over 600 varieties are shown at any given time, drawn from more than 2,000 species in the Garden’s collection. Orchids of every shape, color and size jostle for space and spill over onto walkways, drape from arbors and peek out from under trees. Petals of crimson and jade vie for attention with more traditional purples and whites, a wildflower meadow on tropical overdrive. Fortunately there are numerous winding paths that allow the visitor to absorb this splendor at their own pace, often with no one else around.

This natural beauty made it easy to understand why so many diverse cultures wanted to be a part of Singapore. The result is a blend of sights, aromas and tastes that are hard to resist.

Singapore also has one of the most entertaining airports in the world. Travelers even try to have a multi-hour layover there. Click the link to read about the Singapore Airport.

The historic port town of Malacca, Malaysia offers a wonderful blend of Asian and European influences. Also spelled Melaka, it bears traces of Malay, Chinese, Indian, Portuguese and Dutch cultures.

This varied background is displayed by the colorful trishaws, a form of bicycle-powered rickshaw, Read more

Update June, 2017: Since our visit to North Korea in 2011, the recent death of American tourist Otto Warmbier, who was detained while visiting the country, is a tragic situation that is inexcusable. Accordingly, despite our feelings that tourism in North Korea has positive benefits by exposing the North Korean people to visitors from the outside world, we can no longer recommend that Americans visit the country. It is too easy for the DPRK to make them pawns for continuing tensions between the two countries.

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We’ve been to more than 25 countries so far on our year-long around-the-world journey, but one has generated more questions than all the others combined: North Korea. People wanted to know how to travel to North Korea? Others asked why would two Americans visit a country that is so isolated? As boomers we grew up with the Cold War, so we were curious to see firsthand its last outpost. If you are interested in going somewhere that truly is like no other place on Earth, North Korea should be on your list.

Visiting the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as it’s officially known) is not easy, but it is allowed by both the US and North Korean governments. Given the nature of the totalitarian state, that surprised us. Group tours through a DPRK-authorized agency are the only way to see the Hermit Kingdom, with entry through China, North Korea’s closest ally. We chose Koryo Tours, a Beijing-based outfit with the most experience touring the DPRK. Run by Nick Bonner, a British filmmaker who has made several documentaries about the country, Koryo has been leading tours to North Korea since 1993.

North Korea DMZ

The DMZ seen from the North Korean side.

Our tour was a 5-day visit that included a trip to Pyongyang and the DMZ. Groups attend a pre-tour briefing the night before departure from Beijing that focuses on what to expect and how to behave in the DPRK. Anything our group did that broke the rules would reflect poorly on our North Korean guides and potentially cause future visitation restrictions.

The North Korean government is notoriously skittish about any information from the outside world, particularly as it relates to South Korea. This is a society where the people don’t have Internet access or a free media. Books, magazines or any information about North or South Korea are prohibited. Cell phones, computers and GPS devices are not allowed. They are confiscated upon entry and returned when leaving. Clothing with political slogans or flags of foreign countries (particularly South Korea and the USA) is taboo.

Larissa Michael Kim Il Sung Square Pyongyang

Kim Il Sung Square in downtown Pyongyang.

While we were allowed to bring cameras and encouraged to take pictures, the size of zoom lenses was limited. We also could never, and we do mean never, take pictures from the bus. That’s too bad because we saw some pretty interesting buildings and monuments from the bus that we couldn’t capture on film. We were also forbidden from taking pictures of military personnel or installations.

Given all those rules, we had a fair amount of latitude to take pictures when we did leave the bus. These excursions included trips on the subway and to parks where we freely mingled with locals and were allowed to snap away at will.

North Korea Kim Il Sung tomb

Women wearing the traditional choson-ot pose outside the tomb of Kim Il Sung.

Our tour included the usual highlights: the DMZ, Kim Il-Sung’s Tomb, and the USS Pueblo, which was of particular interest since we remember its capture in 1968. Somewhat incongruously, we spent an afternoon at the Pyongyang Gold Lane bowling alley. We timed our visit to coincide with the Arirang Mass Games, which take place in September. Billed as the largest mass participation event in the world (many things in North Korea seem to be the largest in the world) the Mass Games truly are spectacular.

With over 100,000 participants, they’re a multi-sensory performance that evokes Cirque de Soleil, military parades, Super Bowl half-time shows, ear-popping odes to the Dear Leader and frenzied flag-waving. One side of the stadium is filled with over 20,000 youths creating giant card mosaics depicting historical events in North Korea’s history: from military heroics to nature to burgeoning factories that highlight the country’s supposed industrial might.

North Korea Mass Games

The Arirang Mass Games are like no other show on earth. 

North Korea is a fascinating country. A visit there provides insight into the Cold War Communist mindset. But underneath all the propaganda and hubris we met people who, while devoted to their rigid ideology, were friendly and open. Visiting the DPRK has been one of the most memorable experiences of our journey.

For more information on North Korea please check the following:

US State Department travel information for North Korea.

Koryo Tours: www.koryogroup.com 

This post originally appeared on the travel blog My Itchy Travel Feet.

One of the things we’re tasting on this journey are donuts from around the world. But there was one donut that smelled so awful we couldn’t eat it. It pains us to even think of donuts in a bad way, but we met our match in a durian donut in Malacca, Malaysia.

Durian night market Singapore

It appears this vendor at a night market in Singapore let her love of durian go to her head.

Durian is rightfully known as the stinky fruit. When it’s cut open it emits a foul odor that I can only compare to a combination of sweaty sneakers, old fish and sewer effluent. It’s popular in Asia but there’s a reason many hotels have signs in the lobby that say “No Durian!”

No durian sign

Signs banning durian indoors are common throughout Southeast Asia.

We were walking around Malacca (which is a great place to visit with a unique culinary heritage) when we saw a sign for “Big Apple Donuts.” Though we’re no longer surprised when we see New York City food references in far-flung locations, we decided to check it out.

Durian donut store

The durian donuts are filled to order so they don’t stink up the other donuts, or perhaps the bakery and drive away customers.

We saw one tray of donuts off to the side that looked spiky, like a puffy version of a durian fruit. At many shops in Asia the donuts are given names with cute plays-on-words. So naturally the durian donut was called “Durian Durian.” This made us hungry like a wolf so we decided to try one.

The lady behind the counter explained that they are filled to order and we soon understood why. We took the donut to a table where Michael served as the guinea pig for a durian donut taste test. Click the white arrow below to watch a video of it, but first a warning, the results are not pretty.

Durian donut larissa stinky

Larissa was a bit skeptical of my reaction so she tried one herself.

Click the link for more donuts around the world.

LaZat Cooking SchoolMalaysian cooking was a mystery to me. The country is a dynamic blend of cultures: half Malay with the rest mostly Chinese and Indian. Over the years their cuisines have mingled, creating fantastic flavors but making it difficult to distinguish traditional Malay cuisine.

LaZat Cooking School offers a variety of hands-on classes that showcase many facets of Malaysian cooking. Located in a suburban Kuala Lumpur house, the school’s customized classroom is divided into two sections: a demonstration counter and individual cooking stations. Each class holds a maximum of ten students, which allows the two instructors ample time to spend with each student.

Malaysian food Lazat cooking school

Modern kitchen with 10 cooking stations at the LaZat Cooking School.

I chose the Traditional Malay Class, where we would cook dishes served for family gatherings—the kind a Malaysian grandmother would make. Our menu included:

  • Cucur Udang/Prawn Fritters
  • Beef Rendang/Traditional Malay Curry
  • Acar Timun/Spicy Cooked Cucumber Salad
  • Kueh Koci/Sweet Grated Coconut in Glutinous Ball wrapped in Banana Leaves

The class was set up as a series of brief demonstrations followed by hands-on time at our own cooking stations. I like this type of class best since you can try out what you’ve learned while it’s still fresh in your mind. Everyone has their own station so each student makes every dish.

We started with the cucur udang. Chef Saadiah explained how to mix fresh shrimp and vegetables with water and cornstarch while her assistant Sue demonstrated how to deep-fry them in palm oil. The cornstarch kept them light and crisp. Paired with sweet chile sauce they made for a tasty appetizer. (Or in the case of our mid-morning class, a late breakfast.)

Malaysian cooking Lazat school

Sue adds fritters to the palm oil.

Next came the beef rendang, known in Malay cooking as “a festival dish” that is served on holidays. Every Malay cook has a unique recipe, and each cook is convinced that hers is the best. Rendang is a stew prepared with chilies, onions and other condiments, sweetened with coconut milk and served either wet or dry according to preference.

Rendang is similar to an Indian or Thai curry, but not the same. Aromatics including lemongrass are sautéed with spices and then the meat and water are added to simmer. Saadiah explained that the signature ingredient here is coconut that is toasted and ground before adding to the stew. It adds a unique nutty flavor and serves to thicken it slightly.

Malaysian cooking toasting coconut

Keep swirling the pan so the coconut doesn’t burn.

Coconut milk is added near the end to give the rendang a creamy consistency. In this class we used a beef tenderloin which cooks quickly, however home cooks often use tougher cuts of meat that need more time to tenderize. Ironically, these less expensive meats make a more flavorful rendang since the ingredients are given more time to meld.

While our rendang was simmering, we made our dessert. Kueh koci are a Malay take on truffles:  sweetened coconut enrobed in a rice dough instead of chocolate. We melted chunks of palm sugar in coconut milk and added shredded coconut to make the candied center of the “truffle.” Rice flour mixed with water formed dough that we wrapped around our coconut. We wrapped them in banana leaves and set the pretty little packages in the steamer to set the rice dough.

Malaysian food kueh koci

Kueh koci ready for the steamer.

It was time to eat, so we quickly composed our Acar Timun, a warm salad of flash-sautéed vegetables that we dressed with a sweet/tangy dressing and garnished with sesame seeds. This recipe was Saadiah’s own, developed when she was a chef at a resort on the Malaysia coast. She said it matter-of-factly, but a sparkle in her eyes revealed she was very proud of it (the secret ingredient is shrimp paste).

By now the rendang had reached its desired slightly dry consistency and our little coconut desserts were steamed. We sat down to taste the fruits of our labors, accompanied by the traditional plate of steamed rice. The rendang and salad were delicious, familiar flavors mixed in new combinations that snuck up on my taste buds. I loved how the toasted ground coconut both thickened and flavored the rendang. The warm salad had a pungency and crunch that contrasted perfectly with the stew.

Malaysian cooking beef rendang food

Beef rendang and acar timun salad

The coconut dessert was tasty, but I can’t say I really liked the glutinous rice coating—perhaps it’s an acquired taste. If I made the dish again I’d simply leave the glutinous rice out and steam the sweetened coconut alone in the banana leaves.

Malaysian food prawn fritters robin

Classmate Robin shows off the prawn fritters.

I had set out to learn about Malay culture via the kitchen. As I sat in the garden under a palm tree in suburban Kuala Lumpur, Saadiah tasted my rendang and pronounced it authentic. I beamed with pride, a Malay-for-a-day, and dug into my meal.

*Please note for my gluten-free friends that this is a celiac-friendly menu.

Malaysian cooking school instructors

Chef Saadiah with her assistant Sue after another hot day in the kitchen.

Click the link for more information about the LaZat Cooking School.

For another cooking class, click to the link to learn how to make pasta.

One of the more sobering aspects of our journey has been the environmental abuse we’ve seen, sometimes in the least likely places. Although we’ve traveled all over the world and written about some incredible sights, the story that resonated the most with readers is the one we wrote about the plastic trash on the beaches of Bali.

The tropical paradise of Bali was anything but. We visited during what some locals call the “trash season.” This coincides with the rainy season as garbage-filled storm drains flow rivers of plastic into the ocean, which then flings the trash back in waves onto the beach. It’s not exactly the recycling program that they need. Despite all the pretty pictures we have posted, the one below has garnered the most worldwide attention to our site.

Bali Kuta Beach trash

A lonely mermaid washed up from a sea of trash in Bali.

A week before our visit to Bali we saw the result of an aggressive trash awareness program. Perth, Australia boasts miles of spotless beaches that were cleaner than any we’ve seen. The local Waste Authority, with the catchy slogan “Too Good to Waste,” promotes an active recycling program. But recycling alone won’t solve the problem. The main issue is the abundance of plastic being produced.

In the US alone over 40 billion plastic water bottles are used each year. And that’s in a country with a potable water supply. Reusable containers are gaining in popularity but as yet are not as ubiquitious as disposable plastic bottles.

Plastic shopping bags are being eliminated in many communities but are given out with abandon in much of the world; as if the cashier made a commission on every bag used. Sometimes this has led to comical situations where each piece of fruit is nestled in its own plastic bag. Even when we showed the vendor our recyclable cloth bag at markets in the Middle East, they would wave it away and shove our purchase in a plastic bag. Meanwhile, just halfway across the Mediterranean, the island of Malta charges for plastic bags so shoppers are diligent about bringing their own reusable bags with them.

Israel plastic recycling cages

This container on a street in Tel Aviv promotes plastic recycling. Unfortunately, due to security concerns it has to be an open cage.

After we published our story about Bali we became aware of an Australian group called “The Two-Hands Project.” Founded by Paul Sharp and Silke Stuckenbrock in 2010, the volunteer organization focuses on cleaning up the world’s beaches and making people aware of the dangers of plastic. They’ve used social networking to encourage clean-up efforts in over 35 countries. Their Facebook page highlights photos of successful clean-ups from around the world.

We asked Paul what primary message he’d like to get out to readers about their mission:

 “Plastic pollution is a symptom of failed design. Cleaning up is important and helps protect wildlife, though it will not fix the problem. Manufacturers need to move away from disposable design and implement reusable packaging and refund systems to ensure near 100% recovery of packaging and end-of-life products.”

He’s got a point, all the recycling in the world won’t make a dent in the huge amounts of plastic trash being produced daily. Until the plastic trash generation is cut off at the source, groups like theirs will be fighting a losing battle with their clean-up actions.

Thailand temple plastic recycling

This Buddhist temple in Thailand promotes biodegradable alternatives to plastic.

Part of the mission of the temple in Chiang Mai that is pictured above is to increase awareness of alternatives to plastic. Food containers made of compressed banana leaves instead of styrofoam are becoming more popular. We’ve also seen biodegradable “plastic” utensils made out of corn and other plant sources. While not a perfect solution, at least they won’t be floating onto the world’s beaches for decades after their use. Perhaps by then Bali’s “trash season” will become an unwelcome vestige of the past.

Click the link for more information about the Two Hands Project and see how you can lend a hand.

As we were leaving the temple of Angkor Wat a boy who looked to be about ten years old sidled up alongside us. It’s hard to guess someone’s age in Cambodia, where the people are slight, even by Asian standards. His little legs matched our stride as he walked with us and offered to sell 10 postcards for a dollar.

After touring Asia for two months we’ve grown accustomed to aggressive hawkers, so we usually put on our game face and stoically work our way through the throngs selling everything from t-shirts to ginseng to who knows what else. But we hadn’t been approached by a child vendor before.

We had heard stories of child beggars and seen a few in Bali, where they congregate at major intersections pressing their imploring faces up to the windows of taxis at red lights.  Our driver there shook his head sadly and said to ignore them, that it’s organized begging controlled by local criminal groups, that some parents even hire their children out for the day.

angkot at child vendors

In the streets of Siem Reap, the local town for Angkor Wat, a meal at a sidewalk café is often interrupted a few times by children, some looking as young as 6 or 7, selling postcards and souvenirs. Both restaurant owners and diners treat them as another nuisance to swat away, just like the mosquitoes borne on the humid air. Everything we had read advised us not to give handouts on the street but to make donations through approved groups instead, pretty much the same advice we get back home.

Back at the temple though, something about the pint-sized postcard vendor made us hesitate. He wasn’t begging, he was offering something in return. Caught off guard, we somehow didn’t associate what he was doing with large corporations employing child laborers in sweatshops.

We thought we were pretty street-savvy but this kid was even more so and could sense our ambivalence. He tried to engage Michael in conversation and asked if he was from England.

“England?” Michael responded, “No way.”

The child replied, “If I can guess where you from buy some postcards.”

He ran through an impressive list of countries before finally settling on the United States. As Michael nodded his head the child eagerly continued, “US, capital Washington.” The kid certainly knew his geography.

Michael bought the postcards and we went on our way. After we slid into our taxi Michael asked our guide if it was okay to buy the cards. He said it was. But as we drove away we couldn’t help thinking, “Shouldn’t that kid be in school right now?”

Travel creates moral dilemmas that are amplified by vast cultural and economic differences. We still don’t know if we did the right thing or not.

What would you have done?

 

 

Siem Reap, Cambodia ~ We bounced along the road in a tuk-tuk—picture a rickshaw attached to a moped—anxious for our first glimpse through the trees of the temple of Angkor Wat. Our imaginations flared with visions of hacking our way through the overgrown jungle, then quietly discovering the nearly nine-hundred-year-old stone towers with nothing but a solitary monkey looking on. Perhaps we’ve watched too many Indiana Jones movies.

Angkor is the largest, and perhaps most exotic, religious complex in the world. The most prominent structure is Angkor Wat—it’s pictured on the Cambodian flag—but it is just one temple of dozens in the vast complex. Accordingly it’s a perennial favorite on travelers’ bucket lists, attracting over two million tourists each year.  As we neared the magnificent site it seemed most of those visitors had chosen today to make their pilgrimage.

Angkor Wat main west entrance

The hordes descend on Angkor Wat’s main western entrance. We’ll show you a quiet alternative.

We usually try to avoid the tourist horde. But what’s a privacy seeker to do at one of the world’s most visited sites? It turns out there are ways to find a quiet corner at Angkor Wat without crowds.

Angkor Wat itself covers almost 600 acres, and it’s not even the largest temple. We used that massive scale to our advantage. All those people couldn’t be everywhere at once. With a little advanced planning, and the help of a knowledgeable guide, we sought out tranquil spaces and dark winding hallways within the stone temples.

Angkor Bayon monks

Official guides to the park and temples are available for about $25 per day. Our guide, Pheara, quickly picked up on our desire to avoid the crowds.

Most visitors give themselves just one full day for a grueling marathon of a guided tour that could be called “the greatest hits of Angkor Wat.” They usually start at sunrise and many don’t finish until after sunset.  Marathons aren’t our speed so we spent a week in the nearby town of Siem Reap, a wonderful place in its own right.

A three-day pass allows a visitor to explore the temples at their leisure. As usual, the tour books say to get there early to avoid the crowds and, as usual, that’s when it gets most crowded. Instead we arrived at midday, just as many people were leaving.

Angkor Wat quiet corner

With a bit of planning Angkor can be all yours.

We started out at the western entrance to the temple of Angkor Wat. As we neared the structure Pheara turned left, avoiding the narrow main entrance where tourists were lined up like a gaggle of geese. He led us about fifty yards to a smaller doorway where there was — nobody. We felt like we were entering a secret garden as we stepped through the narrow opening into a vast hallway decorated with weather-worn bas-reliefs friezes depicting epic Hindu tales.

Seeking out solitude became a pattern as we continued our explorations.  Angkor Wat is built as a series of ever-rising concentric squares surrounding inner courtyards. Most tourists were clustered along the same section of each courtyard. As we reached each new level Pheara led us to the opposite side, which had similar ornamentation without similar crowds.

Angkor Ta Prohm trees Lara Croft

A visit to the temple of Ta Prohm using the same strategy worked well.  Known best as the temple used by “Tomb Raider” Lara Croft, Ta Prohm has been left in its native state.  Giant spung trees have reclaimed much of the temple, with some spots seemingly swallowed up whole by nature.  We ventured off the well-worn path to seek out intriguing nooks and crannies.  Pheara showed us a rare stone Buddha’s face peeking out from an opening in a tree trunk, it escaped destruction by vandals due to its embracing protection by the tree.

Angkor Wat Ta Prohm trees

A statue of Buddha peeks out from a tree that has protected it for centuries at Ta Prohm.

Armed with a detailed map, we opted to explore some of the remaining temples on our own a few days later.   Preah Rup, built by King Rajendravarman II in 961, is smaller than Angkor Wat but would be a major attraction anywhere else in the world.  The five-towered laterite and brick structure is well preserved.  But because it’s not on most tour groups’ one-day itineraries we practically had the place to ourselves.

Angkor Preah Rup people on stairs

Seek out the less visited Preah Rup and have it virtually to yourself.

We climbed over the stone parapets at will and scaled the large steps of the central tower to find a tiny Buddhist temple nestled inside.  In the spirit of the moment, a saffron-robed monk guided us in lighting joss sticks as we gave thanks for our journey and prayed for loved ones back home. From our solitary vantage point atop the tower we spent a few quiet moments admiring the unimpeded view of the jungle canopy below.

Angkor Preah Rup Buddhist offeringA Buddhist shrine atop the steps at Preah Rup offers a moment of solitude.

By now it was late afternoon, the perfect time to take in Bayon, the 12th-century temple of many faces.  Over two-hundred carved stone faces, each over six feet tall, stand watch over the site. With their enigmatic smiles they are called “the Mona Lisa of Southeast Asia.” Although Bayon is one of Angkor’s “greatest hits,” by this hour the bus tours had left and there were only a few stalwart souls enjoying the grandeur.

bayon temple angkor wat

The sun plays across the enigmatic faces of Bayon Temple.

Our newfound knowledge of crowd avoidance led us to revisit the main temple of Angkor Wat—this time via the little-used east, or back, entrance.  This part of the temple has been left in its natural state; the surrounding vegetation has crept back towards the temple walls.  As we watched the towers gradually emerge through the trees we finally had our Indiana Jones moment and, no kidding, a few monkeys even scampered by.

Angkor Wat east entrance

The little-used east entrance to Angkor Wat is crowd-free.

Also read about a moral dilemma as we met the child vendors of Angkor Wat.

 

We really looked forward to visiting Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. Travel writers outdid themselves crafting clever similes to describe its ethereal beauty and local color. Others used one word repeatedly to describe it: amazing. That overworked description should have been our first clue that it would be anything but.

Just another tourist ghetto?

Perhaps Chiang Mai was once a magical place for a visit. But whatever attracted those early tourists has morphed into what our Canadian friend Markus calls a “tourist ghetto,” places where the visitor and their wallets are fresh meat. The amenities of such a place are usually no different from hundreds of other similar towns around the globe.

Chiang Mai

In Chiang Mai each block takes on a monotonous sameness: hostel, laundry, pub, souvenir shop, 7-11, cross the street and start over again. One sign of a tourist ghetto is a locale where the burger and fried chicken joints outnumber places offering the local cuisine, which in Thailand is a real sin.

Adding to the atmosphere, quite literally, is the incredible air pollution hovering over Chiang Mai. After spending a week hacking and wheezing through the gray air of Hanoi, we looked forward to finally getting out in the country and giving our overworked lungs a break. That was not to be.

Burning season in Chiang Mai

As our flight from Bangkok descended into the muck of Chiang Mai we noticed a change in the cabin air quality, as if some long-lost “Smoking” sign had turned on and the first twenty rows obliged. A view out the window revealed sporadic fires spewing various shades of gray on into the horizon. Farmers here engage in a form of slash-and-burn agriculture that creates a burning season as predictable as spring or summer. Add to this the local custom of burning trash wherever it sits and it appeared that we were descending into Dante’s Inferno.

When we got off the plane we noticed that the air was actually worse than Bangkok, a crowded city of 18 million people. Chiang Mai sits in a bowl formed by the nearby mountain ranges. All that smoke has to go somewhere but it can’t. Instead it gets breathed in and filtered by the people trapped below.

Chiang Mai street scene

The sex trade in Chiang Mai

On the ground our impression of the place didn’t improve. We knew that Bangkok had a notorious red-light district and was a world leader in sex tourism. We didn’t think that Chiang Mai, a city with over 300 Buddhist temples also offered its own tawdry side.

One night after dinner we strolled a few blocks from our hotel. We came upon a street that appeared to be the type of pub row found in many tourist areas. Upon looking in the open-air bars a little more closely we noticed that the typical male tended to be a Westerner in his 60s, gray-haired and paunch-bellied.

Sitting out in front of the pubs were clusters of understandably sullen twenty-year old Thai women available for the hour, the day, the week; legs splayed provocatively to show off their wares. Their lips were painted such a bright scarlet they practically glowed in the dark, as if they were each advertising their own personal red-light district. Now that’s a simile the writers never use to describe Chiang Mai.

What places have disappointed you in your travels?

Click on the link for our candid review of a rubbish-filled beach in Bali. Instead of a burning season this one has a “trash season.”

Chiang Mai air quality update

One of our readers suggested we do a bit more research on the air quality in Chiang Mai. We did and found this interesting story in the Bangkok Post which addresses some of the deteriorating air qualities issues in Northern Thailand. It looks like we were sort of fortunate because the air got even worse during the month after we left. Lesson learned here, even if a place sounds great do your own thorough research before going there. Since we’ve been traveling for so long we got a bit careless and didn’t do so.

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Airports say a lot about how a city feels toward its visitors. The chaos of JFK conveys the message “Hey, we’re New York. We know you’ll come here no matter how we treat you. Get over it.” The long lines of Heathrow say, “You chose to come to London. Now queue up and stop grumbling.”  And don’t even get us started on the dougnut-shaped Terminal One at Charles De Gaulle. But Changi, the Singapore airport, conveys a totally different message.

But why do travelers look forward to spending time at Changi Airport? Like seemingly everything else in this efficiently run city-state, the airport is a well-organized welcoming place. The message it sends to weary visitors is, “Relax, we love having you here. Is there anything we can do for you?” In the movie The Terminal, Tom Hanks ended up living at an airport for close to a year. At the Singapore airport it really wouldn’t be much of a sacrifice.

Changi Airport Singapore Immigration

A site you’ll never see at Heathrow, immigration without lines. Even Leo looking down on it all approves.

The Singapore airport prints out a nifty 28-page guide complete with easy-to-read floor plans highlighting all the shops, restaurants and amenities. There are suggested itineraries based on how much time the passenger has to fill, or as they call it “Recommended Transfer Experiences.”

Those with only two or three hours before their next flight are directed to computer terminals with free Internet, a stroll through the world’s first airport Butterfly Garden or a free foot massage. The glass-walled Butterfly Garden is located right next to an active runway. In a neat juxtaposition of flight the fluttering butterflies frame A380s roaring overhead.

Children can play in the fun park and whiz down the world’s tallest airport slide. (We’re guessing it’s also the only airport slide but at four stories high it’s still pretty cool.) A mobile Post Office on wheels even roams the terminal so you can mail out those last-minute packages or postcards.

Changi Airport Singapore sign

Clear signage directs passengers to some of the amenities.

For a four to five-hour layover how about a refreshing dip in the rooftop swimming pool? Or perhaps take in a free current-run movie after a hearty dinner at one of dozens of restaurants.

For those trying to while away five or more hours, free city bus tours are offered to take in the sights of Singapore. Or if you’re still suffering from jet lag you can just catch up on your sleep in one of the designated rest areas instead.

The overall Changi Airport experience says a lot about Singapore itself. It’s clean, modern and welcoming. When our flight to Siem Reap was finally called we were reluctant to leave. Can you say that about your airport?

Click the link to see more about life at Changi Airport in Singapore.

From Hoi An, Vietnam ~ One of the reasons to travel the world is to taste the wide varieties of food out there. Vietnamese food is one of my favorites and the best examples are often sold by street vendors.

However, before leaving on our journey we met with our family doctor, who also specializes in travel medicine.  She pumped us full of vaccines (who knew they still had yellow fever?) and loaded us up with prescriptions to combat potential bugs.  Her last words of advice as she handed us a scrip for Cipro were “do NOT eat street food.”

Vietnamese street food

This lady is known as the “Queen of Banh Mi,” it’s a sort of Vietnamese hoagie.

But when you go to Vietnam, what’s a food lover to do?  Street food is as much a part of the Vietnamese culture as Ho Chi Minh.  In the cities, where living space is tight, locals eat their meals out on the sidewalk in front of their home.  Throughout the day little stands pop up out of nowhere and suddenly there are clusters of people perched on tiny stools slurping pho or munching banh mi.

Hoi An Vietnamese food tofu custard lady

The tofu custard lady is a regular stop on the market circuit.

Despite the fantastic aromas and gorgeous displays of ingredients, my doctor’s warning kept echoing in my head.  Should I miss out on this vital part of Vietnamese life, or forge ahead and risk earning a first-class ticket on the Immodium Express?

I finally found a solution when we got to the town of Hoi An, the culinary capital of central Vietnam.  During our Hoi An Itinerary, I signed up for “A Taste of Hoi An,” a combination food-tasting and walking tour around the town.  It’s run by a displaced Aussie and self-proclaimed foodie named Neville Dean.  A few years ago he found himself in a similar situation and set out to do something about it.

Hoi An vietnam food

Neville, the Aussie Dean of Vietnamese street food.

Neville’s solution is to take up to six guests for a stroll through the back streets of Hoi An. Working with a nutritionist he has personally inspected all stops to ensure they use sanitary cooking practices and fresh ingredients.  For about four hours (or more if he gets really chatty) Neville will guide, educate, and share anecdotes about Vietnamese food, street food in particular.

Through the course of the morning we stopped at local fresh markets, small “one dish” restaurants, and many of those street stalls that are so intimidating to a newcomer.  We sipped fresh fruit shakes, nibbled smoked sausages with local chili sauce and slurped the ubiquitous pho bo just like the locals.

Vietnamese food

These vendors specialize in varieties of bean sprouts.

We also learned how to pick out the good markets and street stalls.  Markets with no smell (and no flies) have fresh food.  The vendors bring fresh foods daily and close when they sell out.

For street stalls, ironically, the key is to find a place with lots of trash around it.  The Vietnamese keep their streets scrupulously clean, sweeping in front of their shops and stalls constantly.  Diners drop their order chits on the ground, where the stall owner will sweep them up at the end of the day.  A good stall is one where there are many chits on the ground—a sign that it is has constant traffic—and therefore good food.

Hoi An vietnamese food
All those pieces of paper on the ground are receipts from prior customers. If a stand has many that means the food is good.

In total we sampled almost 40 (yes 40!) different items The key here is sampled, so we always had room for just a little more.

By the way, the food must be healthy. The woman selling ginger in the picture at the top of this post is ninety-six years old.

For more information:  www.tasteofhoian.com