Holy Chitwan!

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Nepal is a country with a plethora of natural wonders. Yes the grandest, tallest, most mystical mountains in the world are located inside its borders, but within this small country, are subtropical lowlands filled with wild animals and breathtaking landscapes.

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Chitwan National Park is the oldest national park inside of Nepal, and boasts over 68 species of mammals, including the ever-elusive Bengal Tiger. The park also holds the highest population of sloth bears, around 200-250, as well as leopards, rhinos, and wild elephants. As a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is highly popular with tourists (that’s us!) who hire young locals to take them on 2-day walking safaris to seek out connections with nature, and if lucky, catching a glimpse of some magnificent creatures.

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The Elephant Breeding Center in Chitwan might be one of the only places to see elephants, unless they are wild, and in that case it’s almost better not to come across one because they are extremely aggressive and are known to charge villages and kill at least one local per year. Although the elephants bred at the center are primarily to be ‘riding’ elephants, it was fascinating to see them up close, especially watching the 40,000 muscles multitasking in their trunks!

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Day one of the safari began with a sunrise excursion to find a rhino, and a sleeping rhino we found (thank you for not waking)!

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The watch towers are located all around the park, and were lovely to climb up into for sunsets and animal spotting. Just don’t assume that a tiger can’t climb up there!

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We ‘tracked’ a tiger for 5 hours early morning of the second day. Really, how much can you track a tiger, if anything it was tracking us. Our guides were phenomenal when it came to searching for clues of where the animals had gone. Checking for urine, scratching posts, and taking time to connect with the noises of the forest helped us get very close to rhinos, a sloth bear, and even a tiger. The only problem was when we finally came in close contact to a rhino, they gave us sticks and rocks to defend ourselves, more likely to knock ourselves out if the rhino charged our way.

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nepal_chitwan_viaje_asia_2014-2015_img_7678_simon_uribe-conversHakuna Matata Pumba!

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We weren’t the only monkeys in the forest, if only we could move around as quickly as they did!

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To get back to the main city, we had to hop on the back of a construction truck because there was a bus strike and barely any buses were operating in the region. There was no way we could have seen any more animals as that truck rumbled through the trees, but it was quite the experience!

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Both of us enjoyed every moment of our Chitwan Safari. We were able to see many different animals, and spend time with our guides who were just as exhilarating to behold how they tracked the creatures. We still had one more stop as we traveled by land from Nepal to India, and just a few days after traversing in the jungle, we round up on Buddha’s doorstep.

Traveling to Nepal’s Past; Bhaktapur

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After a few days in busy Kathmandu, we decided to take a day trip to Bhaktapur—a nearby town filled with temples and ancient buildings. It was great, we walked on the cobbled streets going from temple to temple, watched traditional ceramics being made, and enjoyed delicious Juju Dhau, literally “king of yogurt”!

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Bhaktapur still conserves its traditional water ponds that were used as communal water sources by the community. You can see people bathing, washing their clothes, or worshiping a nearby statue.

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A day spent in the ancient city was a reminder of the living history of Nepal. It is filled with religious devotion, breathtaking architectural and artistic treasures, incredible food, and many friendly faces. We really liked it here, a much needed respite from the rickshaw and motorcycle filled capital. In Bhaktapur, life goes by slowly…

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Simon got a bit  obsessed with the ever-present chickens! 😉

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200 days and counting

Today is our 200th day travel anniversary and a good time to reflect on our journey.

I hope you enjoy it.

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To every weird meal, nasty bug bite, drop of sweat, sketchy moment, trust in strangers, acceptance of the present, embracing the moment, savoring the flavors and praying for clean sheets. To the haggling of goods from a scarf to liters of water, hawkers selling you sunglasses, maps, fans, weed and whatever they see, tuk-tuk drivers asking if you need a ride whilst being in another tuk-tuk. The heartbreak of begging mothers holding children, kids picking up trash for hopes of a rice meal. The teen girls standing outside of a Girlie bar secretly hoping no fat Westerner makes his way inside. The broken down bus from here to there, down to up and everything that’s always going wrong. All the struggle and what appears to be little reward. Until it’s realized that tomorrow is far away and today is an adventure. From the flashpackers that share special moments in kindness with locals, to the pouring rain on an island while the tears on your face are the driest object in the room, the joy of seeing the sun and the dread of the heat. To all the mistakes on your face and all the stress on mine. For finally figuring out how to pack wisely and forgetting to think that even for one second we understand. To the uncountable bowls of noodle soup and even more local beers. To you, for taking each situation, problem, joy, and anger with equal sincerity and just grateful to be here. For all the ‘oh shits’ and frustrations. I tell you, you don’t win. There is no win or lose here, only growth and acceptance. No finish lines, just borders. No best, just breathe. No knowing but asking. Take the pride for yourself and toss it out with all the extra weight from your backpack. Give in to the situations in front of you, always keep steady. Take pride in the ability to make a local laugh and playing with their children. Toss a coin, throw up your hands, limit your limitations and step out into adventure.

Tracy Ciel
October 9th 2014

 

New Country, New Adventure: Yangon, Myanmar

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Myanmar, or Burma depending on who you ask, has become the new and ‘exotic’ destination among travelers. Opening its borders to travelers somewhat recently, the country has seeing a flood of tourists to its main cities and attractions. The strong and repressive government that we all have heard about allows tourists to move freely within a designated area, while controlling which hotels can host foreigners, the bus companies that connect the cities, and the entry fees to cultural attractions. All of this results in elevated prices with a low ratio of comfort to money. For example, a standard double room in Yangon is at least $25 USD while an equivalent room in any other South East Asian country is $12 USD. Nevertheless, the country, and mostly the Burmese people, are wonderful and definitively worth your time.

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The Shwedagon Pagoda, otherwise and obviously known as the Golden Pagoda, is a beacon for thousands of pilgrims who attempt at least once in their life to make it to Yangon and see/pray in person. For the people of Myanmar, the day of your birth holds a very spiritual significance, which is why there are 12 planetary posts conforming to the days of the week around the stupa’s base, where locals find their appropriate place and begin to worship. The rest of Yangon might not be as bedazzling as the Golden Paya, but it holds an intriguing history where the government saw local adherence, violence, backlash and resilience of the Burmese people.

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We spent our days walking around the markets and temples of the city but one of the most rewarding experiences was taking the circular commuter train around Yangon. The ride takes around 3 hours in which you see the whole city, farmlands, villages, and many many smiley people. It’s a great way to spent the afternoon and to see how the real people live in the city.

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Myanmar_Yangon_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_3202 Tracy making friends whilst waiting for the circular train to take us on a journey through the city by the railways

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Jungle Trekking in Pak Chong

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After the hustle of Bangkok, we decided it was time to reconnect a little bit nature and so we travel to Pak Chong, and more specifically, to Khao Yai National Park. The park is beautiful and home to a few wild elephants, apparently just one crocodile, and many many monkeys and deer. We went on a jungle trek for a day, met some wonderful people, and enjoyed trekking. We also went to a cave to visit the thousands of bats that inhabit it, and watch them leave at sunset to feed. This was a spectacular sight! Every single bat leaves the cave at the same time and you can see a “river” of bats against the fading sun.

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Thailand_Pak_Chong_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_1938Jungle team! Urs, Gabriela, Justine, and the Monkeys. Notice the very stylish anti-leech socks that didn’t really worked that well…

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Thailand_Pak_Chong_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_2085A very ‘traffic adapted’ mother carries her baby across the road

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Thailand_Pak_Chong_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_1804Into the batcave

Thailand_Pak_Chong_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_1870Thousands of bats leaving their cave to feed

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Into the city: Bangkok

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We arrived to Bangkok after a long bus ride from Siem Reap and settled in our hotel for the night. Luckily, we found a nice hotel outside the overly touristy area of Khaosan Road but close to everything else. Hungry and tired from traveling, we went out to find some street food—something that is extremely easy and rewarding to do in Thailand.

Thailand_Bangkok_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_1359First of many tuk-tuk rides

Thailand_Bangkok_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_1761Delicious braised pork food stall, give me more!

Bangkok is a very large city and has many things to offer, countless temples, shops, palaces, and restaurants can keep you busy for weeks! We started the temple marathon by visiting Wat Po, one of the largest and oldest temples in the city and house of the reclining Buddha. The statute is 43 m (140 ft) long and 15 m (15 ft) high and is entirely covered with gold leaf. Wat Po is also home to one of the oldest Thai massage schools and we, of course, couldn’t pass that opportunity.

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Thailand_Bangkok_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_1585The feet of the statue are beautifully  covered with mother of pearl

Our trip continued with a visit to the Royal Palace and to Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn. Both of these places are a must see while in Bangkok, regardless of the intense heat and the hordes of tourists that visit them.

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Thailand_Bangkok_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_1720Crossing the river to Wat Arun

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The rest of our days in the big city were occupied by visiting the flower market, getting our visas for Myanmar, and enjoying the amazing Thai cuisine. With all the street food that there is in this city, trying to taste as many things as you want can be a challenge!

Thailand_Bangkok_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_2014-10-21_19.21.00Sharing our table with some very kind Thai and eating the one and only, Pad Thai

Thailand_Bangkok_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_1735Orchids at the flower market

Thailand_Bangkok_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_1452Thai life

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Pepper, Crab, and Kep

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Just a 30 minute bike ride from Kampot lies Kep, a small beach town known for the tantalizing green pepper and blue crab dish. Kampot pepper is regarded as one of the best peppers in the world and Kep has an abundance of crabs and seafood, creating the perfect combination of sweet salty crab and aromatic pepper. We went for lunch and saw our crabs being plucked from the ocean while we patiently waited sipping on our Cambodia beer. To top it all off, the dish comes with a  lime and freshly grounded black pepper sauce that is to die for. Bon appetit!

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Cambodia_Kep_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_8876One of the best dishes we’ve had on our trip!

Phnom Penh

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Our welcoming to Cambodia came by boat after a six hour river trip from the Mekong Delta in Vietnam to the shores of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia as well as a major spot in local history of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge and their leader Polpot. As always, being the largest city in a developing country means hearing noises we’ve never heard, smells that we never wish to smell again, and all of its charms. We took three days to explore the city, taking time at the Royal Palace, local markets, and the infamous S-21 prison of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Cambodia_Phnom_Penh_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_8669One Cambodian culinary tradition is amok, where curry is steamed in banana leaves for a unique, and mouth-watering flavor

Cambodia_Phnom_Penh_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_8676Coconut ice cream treat

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Cambodia_Phnom_Penh_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_9482Street style barbershop

Cambodia_Phnom_Penh_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_8776One of the more humble buildings residing at the Royal Palace

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S-21, a school turned makeshift prison where the Khmer Rouge sent at least 17,000 of its own people for prosecution to have only 12 come out, houses many atrocities from the government and is truly a modern example of just how little the rest of the world wanted to be involved after the Vietnam War. There is plenty of information on the web and a handful of books that examine how and why the Khmer Rouge decided to murder one fourth of their population, and I definitely encourage everyone to educate themselves on this horrible and sad history. We were both amazed that this topic is barely mentioned or thought in the western hemisphere. Regardless, I am not going to attempt that kind of explanation but rather how after visiting the prison and reading a fraction of available material, there is no way to understand how the people of Cambodia feel about their own history. Instead, it only brought more respect and amazement of how after such a horrible regime, Cambodian people are consciously grateful for everything they have and are happy to move past their history.

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Cambodia_Phnom_Penh_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_8726Some of the countless faces that passed through this terrible place

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Cambodia_Phnom_Penh_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_9488Outside of the National Museum where many statues from Angkor Wat live for safe keeping

Beautiful Hoi An

Vietnam_Hoi_An_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_6589Extremely excited to be leaving Nha Trang for the UNESCO World Heritage city of Hoi An, we knew it would hold much better experiences and it did not disappoint. Within the city limits there is an ‘ancient city’ that holds a plethora of museums, meetings halls, open-air markets, and enough tailor made shops rivaling to be some of the best and quickest in the world. Obviously, there was no need to convince me that I should have a custom fit slinky dress and blazer sewn.Vietnam_Hoi_An_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_6577
Out of all the places we visited in Vietnam thus far, Hoi An is definitely a ‘foodie’ atmosphere and for eaters at heart. Local dishes such as cao lầu, white rose dumplings and banh xeo (rice pancacke) keep any traveler and local very satisfied. The dish most unique to the area is cao lầu, the noodles are much thicker and chewier than typical rice noodles, and are made from water in a specific well in the center of the ancient city. Close to the open market, everyday shows many shop owners making their pilgrimage for buckets of well water. Then the noodles are burnt with ash, giving them their very distinct flavor. Assembling the dish, people layer the noodles with fresh herbs and lettuce, slices of pork, and crispy croutons made from stale baguettes. As we have consumed multitudes of noodle dishes and bowls in Vietnam, we both agree this is the most unique and mouthwatering of them all.

Vietnam_Hoi_An_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_6887Delicious cao lầu

Vietnam_Hoi_An_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_6889White rose dumplings

If anyone visits Hoi An during the daytime, they are missing the reason for its enchantment, the lanterns. Along the Thu Bồn river in the ancient city there is every kind of shop, restaurant, bar, and all of them hang lanterns of all shapes and colors. When strolling along, it is much easier to ignore the people asking you to come eat at their restaurant when the lanterns provide visual stimulation. The river, colonial houses, and lanterns are perfect for any photo opportunity and a stop to enjoy a bia hoi (fresh beer).Vietnam_Hoi_An_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_6927

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Vietnam_Hoi_An_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_6717The local market is yet another sight not to be missed in the city. Being a coastal town, Hoi An enjoys really fresh seafood as well as having the diversity and richness of tropical fruits. At noon, when the heat is almost unbearable, the shop owners take a break to play domino in the shade or to simply take a nap.

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And as if all this was not enough for someone to fall in love with this place, merely 40 km away from the city you’ll find Mỹ Sơn—an abandoned Hindu complex dedicated to worship god Shiva—that was built between the 4th and the 14th centuries.Vietnam_Hoi_An_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_6945

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There is something necessary to say of Vietnam. Even though it is a communist country, there is very much a capitalistic spirit alive in most (tourist) places. However, as the base of communism includes education and healthcare, many people we talked to have no illusions that the government does not provide any benefits. As one young man explained, the Vietnamese government gives three things for free to citizens: sunshine, rain, and air. It’s quite simple to see the seriousness upon many Vietnamese faces, and the corruption does not heed any attempt in hiding. Regardless, Vietnamese culture pervades and leaves no doubt that they are proud of their country and welcome everyone to it.

Vietnam_Hoi_An_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_2014-09-22_13.46.33When it rains in Vietnam, it rains hard!

Little Russia

Vietnam_Nha_Trang_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_6567Kids playing on our way to Nha Trang

About four hours north of HCMC, lies a resort town with sandy beaches, and just as many hawkers as there are pieces of trash in the sea. As one wanders the sidewalks nearly unwalkable as motorbikes perch the entire area, there is an undeniable feeling that Russian tourist are everywhere. Should someone visit Nha Trang? Nah, trang.

Vietnam_Nha_Trang_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_6571The beach is like a Monet: it looks better from afar

Vietnam_Nha_Trang_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_0107Russian paparazzi