Visiting Kerala and the Periyar Wildlife Reserve

One of our most popular YouTube videos is of Tara and I riding and bathing an elephant at Elephant Junction in Thekkady, India. The whole experience was extremely memorable, and it was just a puzzle piece in our month-long exploration of the southwestern Indian state of Kerala. It ended up being one of our favorite regions we visited during the two and a half months we traveled around the country.

Tara and Bina share a bath together.

Tara and Bina share a bath together.

Most tourists who visit Kerala choose to sightsee in four cities: Kochi, Alleppey, Thekkady, and Munnar. These are the region’s golden circle of must-visit cities for those visiting the area. We ended up visiting three of the four, skipping out on Munnar simply because it offered mainly the same activities as Thekkady but with higher accommodation costs.

Tara and I started our month-plus visit to Kerala in Kochi. More specifically, we spent about a week relaxing north of Kochi at a remote homestay on Kuzhupilly Beach. We spent our days reading, writing, jogging along the beach and enjoying each other’s company. It was a period of relaxation after a month of quick travel through the north. Continue reading

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A Guide to Buying Couture Clothing in Hoi An, Vietnam

Hoi An, Vietnam

A street in Hoi An, Vietnam.

The skillful tailors of Hoi An are well-known throughout the world. Many of them can trace the trade through several generations of their family, and it’s not only women who are pulling a needle and thread. With deft fingers and a keen eye, they’re known by many as master craftsmen, able to copy any design they see. If you show them a picture of a coat, suit or dress, you can expect a nearly exact replica to be produced within 24-48 hours. The best tailor shops in Hoi An are well-known, and they are the reason that Vietnamese from all parts of the country will encourage you to visit this central city.

Unfortunately, not every business operates honestly. The city has seen an increased number of tailor shops over the years because of those eager to capitalize on the influx of tourists looking for custom-made clothing. A larger variety of shops isn’t a bad thing, but the fallout of this explosion is that many of these tailors produce shoddy work. The supply has yet to exceed the demand and, as a result, some of these shops have less-qualified employees using lower-quality materials. Worse, the demand for quickly assembled clothes has led to the creation of overworked sweatshops. If you aren’t interested in giving your money to a questionable operation, read on for our tips on finding a great Hoi An tailor and how to handle the process of buying custom-made clothes. Continue reading

Vietnamese Recipe: Sugarcane Shrimp (Chao Tom) Spring Roll

Of the many cuisines I encountered around the world, this is one of the rare recipes that I enjoy making as much as I enjoy eating. It is a fun process and a very interactive dish. The end product is a fresh spring roll with shrimp. It takes a bit of work – about an hour – but it is totally worth it! The real recipe calls for pork fat, but since we don’t eat meat we used an egg instead.

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Thai Cooking: Tom Kha Gai Recipe

Tom Kha Goong

Enjoying Tom Kha Goong in Thailand.

We weren’t going to give away any more of Chef Aon’s recipes from our cooking class in Chiang Mai, Thailand, but this ubiquitous Thai soup is just too good not to share. We have used Chef Aon’s recipe to make this soup a couple times since returning to the States. The delicious flavors immediately bring us right back to Thailand. Enjoy!

For this recipe, you can make tom kha gai or tom kha goong. Gai means chicken and goong means shrimp. Some of these ingredients may be difficult for Westerners to find fresh (like galangal and lime leaves) unless you go to an Asian grocery store. If your local supermarket has an international section, you may be able to find these items preserved in jars. Just don’t buy them pickled! Continue reading

How to Make Delicious Vietnamese Coffee

What you’ll need:
•1 single-cup coffee filter
•1 tea kettle (or a pot, something to boil water in)
•1 coffee mug
•2 tablespoons bold coffee grounds
•1/2 cup water (you’re boiling more than you’ll use)
•1 tablespoon condensed milk
•3/4 cup of ice

Making Vietnamese Coffee

The coffee filter sits on top of your glass.

Instructions:
Heat water to a boil. While it is heating, grab your coffee mug and pour the condensed milk in. Assemble your filter so it sits on top of the mug. Add the coffee grounds and place the press inside the filter (on top of the grounds). Once the water is boiling, pour 1/3 cup into the filter and quickly cap it. Continue reading

What I Learned About Southeast Asia

Dressed for the weather in Hoi An, Vietnam

How can this person even see?!

More than a year ago when I was packing for our trip, I decided to bring shorts and tank tops to wear in Southeast Asia. The region is known for its heat and humidity, so those outfits seemed like the obvious choice. But before we left, I was admittedly pretty ignorant to the habits of other cultures.

In America, we dress for the weather. If it is hot outside, you wear as little clothes as possible. If it’s cold, you bundle up. But I’ve come to learn that the East and West are very different when it comes to attire. When you get out of the bigger cities, such as Bangkok, you’ll notice that locals aren’t sporting miniskirts and spaghetti-string tops. Even though Thailand is known for its beaches, many locals do not wear bathing suits or revealing clothes in beach areas. Many dress conservatively no matter how hot it is and even swim fully clothed. This is especially true in Malaysia, where more than half the population is Muslim. Nude and topless sunbathing is completely taboo, though it’s done by some foreigners on the most touristic beaches.

Their conservative clothing choices are a result of their cultural behavior and religious views. But another reason you’ll find Vietnamese women, for example, walking down the street in pants, a jacket, hat, gloves and a facemask is because they adore light-colored skin. They are afraid to have the sun darken their complexion and damage their skin. Aside from protecting themselves from UV rays, they embrace the use of cosmetics that contain whitener. Continue reading

Luxury Cruising on Ha Long Bay For a Backpacker Budget

We opted for the most inexpensive 3-day, 2-night Ha Long Bay cruise that we could negotiate. When the day came to leave, we were on pins and needles worrying whether we just made a terrible mistake.

Minibus from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay

Our minibus from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay.

That morning, we left our hotel and headed to the travel agency we booked the cruise through so they could store our large bags. At 8:15am, a tiny, wiry Vietnamese man representing FantaSea Cruise popped inside the office, “Ha Long?” We nodded and he motioned for us to board the waiting minibus. The vehicle was half full when we boarded, but after a few more stops, it was at its 18-person capacity. The man who collected us introduced himself by saying that we probably could not pronounce his name and so we should call him Peter. He would be our tour guide for the ride to Ha Long Bay pier and for the second and third day (FantaSea runs several boats each day with their own tour guide, so Peter was going on a different boat for the first day).

The ride from Hanoi takes roughly four hours with a break halfway. The rest stop is a glorified attempt to sell goods to a captive audience, but the bathrooms were clean and new and had plenty of toilet paper (always a plus in our book). The building itself had a wide array of items for sale, with an open area dedicated to workers hand-stitching patterns and images on large canvases. Scores of tourists milled inside the building as our minibuses waited outside. Continue reading