When Curiosity Turns to Love in Tanzania

For Cuisine Noir Magazine. January 2018. 

I arrived in Dar es Salaam with Grace Odogbili, a Nigerian-American chef and caterer from Brooklyn. Having worked with New York’s top restaurants and caterers, Odogbili started her own business, Dining With Grace, in 2010 to offer people a chance to savor regional cuisines of the African diaspora. She teaches nutritional culinary arts workshops in Brooklyn’s public schools, introducing underserved communities to healthier lifestyles.

This was the first trip to East Africa for both of us. For the next several days, we explored the cuisine and culture of Tanzania, like a local, with a local. “When I started The African Table, a monthly pop-up dining series in 2013, I hosted “A Night in Zanzibar” dinner at a Brooklyn art gallery where we had a multi-course Tanzanian inspired meal with live music. That’s where I met Justa Lujwangana, who had recently started a Meetup group namedCurious on Tanzania (COT). She was my featured guest and since that day we decided we must go to Tanzania together, ” says Odogbili. Lujwangana is a Tanzania-born African who has lived in Uganda and New York. She also founded COT as an experiential travel company.

Grace-cooking-at-COT.jpgWe headed to Lujwangana’s house in the quiet suburbs of Dar which she calls “the COT house.” The two-story bungalow, with its five bedrooms, beautiful garden and spacious living room and kitchen, is a private guest house listed on Airbnb. Dressed in a brightly colored cotton dress called a kanga, Luiwangana welcomes us to the place she calls home for a few months each year. “Karibuni Tena!” (meaning welcome to Tanzania) she exclaims with a big smile. This is a greeting we got accustomed to hearing many times during our visit. Over a breakfast of smoked eggplant and tomato stew, steamed cassava, chapatti and ginger tea, she tells me how she started COT. “I wanted to give people the opportunity to hear the untold stories of Tanzania and go beyond the safaris,” she explains about bringing groups from New York to Tanzania on dance, music, sporting and culinary tours.

Lunch-in-Dar.jpgTogether we explored the cosmopolitan big city. During the day, busy streets clog traffic as street peddlers walk up to cars selling everything from chopping boards and wood carvings to fidget spinners. At night, restaurants and bars are alive with women dressed in long flowing Western dresses and men in sharp Western wear sipping on cocktails, enjoying the summer breeze. We frequent several upbeat neighborhoods, watch live music and enjoy late night dinners.

The next day we board a ferry to the island of Zanzibar, Lujwangana’s “second home.” Everyone seems to come greet her as we walk through the narrow cobblestone streets of Stone Town. We stay at the Mizinghani Seafront Hotel, a historical building that was originally built for newly married royal couples for their honeymoons.Ornate wood doors, wool tapestry and mosaic floors speak to the hundreds of years of Portuguese and Omani influences left on the island. The island is also home to a small Arab and Indian population.

Grace-tasting-Swahili-pizza.jpg

Our main reason for being here now is the Stone Town Food Festival. A celebration of local flavors featuring over 30 restaurants offering special prix fixe menus, it culminates at a two-day street fair at the island’s gathering spot, Forodhani Gardens. We pay anywhere from $1 to $5 for a tasting and feast on fried sardines, fish balls, beet salad, hummus, pita and more.  Odogbili and I are intrigued by “Zanzibar Pizza” signs that several food vendors display. Minced meat, bell peppers, eggs and cheese are stuffed into a crepe thin like pocket and fried with ghee. Served with hot sauce and mayo, it is not a traditional pizza but a popular local street food no less.

In the morning we head to the island’s oldest vegetable market for produce and then to the home of a Swahili family for a cooking class. All of the female extended relatives and neighbors gather to greet us and give us a change of traditional clothes for wearing at home, which is custom. Odogbili instantly takes charge of the outdoor kitchen while all the women chop, shred, and fry food over a charcoal stove. “Cooking with the Swahili women felt like being home with your tribe of sisters. Everyone must play their part so we can all eat together. It felt like nothing was rushed, it was life and it was sweeter when done in community,” she recalls. After several hours of cooking, we sat on the floor eating with our hands and sharing laughs and stories.

The turquoise blue waters of the Arabian Sea are dotted with dhows, traditional wooden sailing vessels operated by skillful sailors. On one of the days, Lujwangana organized a special sail to one of the most beautiful sand banks off Stone Town and a picnic on the beach. Surrounded by white sand and crystal-clear water, we feast on grilled lobster, prawns, calamari, fish, accompanied by kachumbari salad, French fries and steamed rice. We take turns swimming and snorkeling.

No visit to Zanzibar is complete without a visit to a spice farm. At Jumbo Spice Farm, we get to understand why Zanzibar is named the island of spices. Cardamom, cloves, black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg – practically all of the spices I had ever heard of can be found here. We also got a chance to make our own masala chai blend and received beautiful handcrafted floral gifts and had a delicious farm-fresh lunch. “I’ve used the masala chai spice blend for everything from curries, desserts, dry rubs and more. I make an amazing carrot cake with masala chai cream cheese frosting. It’s delicious,” Odogbili says tempting me a few weeks after our trip.

We end our tour with a safari at Selous Game Reserve, one of the largest animal reserves in the world, where we stay at a tented camp overlooking a river and spot zebras, giraffes, buffalo, impala and a lion. Here, we had a chance to interact with Maasai tribes and bushmen, learning about their traditional dances.

“Tanzania is truly a beautiful country with so much rich history,” says Odogbili and I agree. It offers everything from beautiful beaches, quaint hotels and indigenous art, to diversity of flavors from Arabic, Portuguese, African and Indian traditions. With warm hospitable people who are always smiling and dancing, it is impossible not to fall in love with Tanzania.

Enjoy these recipes for Masala Coconut Caramel SpreadBoiled Cassava w/ Kachumbari and Spicy Beet & Coconut Salad courtesy of Grace Odogbili. For more information about Dining With Grace, visit www.diningwithgrace.com and for Curious on Tanzania, visit www.curiousontanzania.com.

Written for Cuisine Noir Magazine. January 2018. 

 

Why Kerala (India) Is Our New Favorite Place to Escape Winter

For CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. December 2017. 

The lush state of Kerala, located in the southern peninsula of India, is touted as “God’s own Country.” With such a bold tourism slogan, you can expect the bar to be set pretty high. Well, Kerala does not disappoint. It’s filled with pristine beaches, houseboats floating in clear backwaters, spicy Indian food, and fun-loving people. It’s perfect for a yoga retreat, an adventure holiday, or an eco-friendly vacation. Now that’s a pretty divine package. If you haven’t added Kerala to your travel plans to escape the frigid winter, here’s why you need to do so right away.

You Can Relax, Rejuvenate, and Experience Life in a Fishing Village by the Sea

As soon as you arrive at the world’s first solar-powered Cochin International Airport, you’ll understand why Kerala is the most literate and advanced state in India. Take a chauffeur-driven car (it only costs a few hundred rupees –  under $5) to nearby Alappuzha District. Stay at Marari Beach Resort, a village-themed boutique resort located at the award-winning yet somewhat secluded Marari Beach. Recharge your energy levels with some fresh coconut water on arrival at this all-inclusive beachfront property. After checking in to an individual thatched roof cottage, take a yoga lesson, walk around the lily pond and gardens, learn how to wear a Kerala sari or pick your own vegetables from the organic garden for a cooking class. Enjoy a relaxing evening at the herbal spa. There is a resident Ayurveda doctor to consult and prescribe treatments based on chronic ailments like sinus, back pain, asthma, digestive disorders or even jet lag — all with natural herbs and oils.

ayurveda

To catch a glimpse of the daily lives of the locals, head to the nearby town of Alleppey, known as Venice of the East due to its intricate network of canals. Early mornings are great to watch fisherman easily maneuvering their white mundu (a long, wrap-around piece of cloth worn by men) and bringing in the catch of the day, and in the evenings, entire families strolling on the beach, playing games and snacking on street food.

Though most tourists come here to board a houseboat cruise, there are some must-see temples and churches in this historic town, and if you are lucky, you may even get to see a traditional ceremony, participate in a unique festival or, if you’re gutsy enough, crash a wedding (there’ll be a thousand guests so no one will notice!).

kerala church

It’s believed that Christianity arrived in Kerala in the first century. Kerala also has the largest Christian population of any state in India, so it’s not uncommon to see Christmas decorations throughout December as well as elaborate feasts being celebrated in remembrance of patron saints.

You Can Get Close to Wildlife, Enjoy Fine Tea, and Explore Exotic Spice Markets

The hill town of Thekkady is much cooler than the coastal areas, making it a great weekend retreat for travelers looking for an escape from the beach. It’s also home to Periyar Tiger Reserve. While you’ll rarely get a chance to spot a wild tiger, you can see elephants, wild dogs, giant squirrels, bison, sambar (a large type of deer), langur, macaque, mongoose, and a large variety of birds while trekking or bamboo rafting through the forests.

tea estate

The other big attractions in the area are the tea, coffee, and spice plantations dotted along the green slopes. Watch how tea leaves are grown and harvested, sample green and black teas, before taking some back home (they are super cheap at the factory outlets). Take a private tour with the owner at Abraham’s Spice Gardens to see hundreds of spices, fruits, and flower varieties, and crush your Instagram following once you post pictures of Vandanmedu, the largest cardamom auction center in the world. In the town, stock up on fresh and very affordable freshly dried spices such as black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla and much more. Also, make sure to pick up deep-fried Kerala banana chips and raw cashews.

kerala spices

Spice Village is the oldest mountain village-style resort and offers traditional huts equipped with modern day facilities, each named after a spice tree. This eco-friendly hotel grows its own food, filters and bottles water, composts food waste, harnesses solar energy, and even makes its own paper. On-site naturalists are ready to escort guests around the property to educate them about the flora and fauna and how it is integrated into the eco-friendly mantra of the resort.

You Can Float on the Backwaters, Take in Some Culture, and Taste Some Amazing Food

Another must-visit destination in Kerala is Kumarakom, located on the banks of the Vembanad Lake. Most backwater cruises rent a houseboat from here for a couple of nights. These boats are fully equipped with bedrooms and a chef who sometimes catches fresh fish and prepares it for meals onboard.

Photo by Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

However, if motion sickness is a problem, you can choose to cruise for a few hours only and stay at Coconut Lagoon, an eco-lodge accessible only by boat. These artistically crafted guest cottages, built with materials gathered from old family mansions all over Kerala, are architecturally inspiring. Here you can enjoy views of the lake from your front porch, row a canoe in the lagoons around the hotel, walk in the butterfly garden, or visit the bird sanctuary next door.

In the afternoons, a local lady known simply as Amma (meaning “mother”) offers homemade tea and snacks from her floating shop. There’s also a live musical performance every day with dancers wearing elaborate costumes and painted face masks, delicately expressing themes from Hindu mythology.

If you like spicy food, you’re in for a real treat in Kerala! Three restaurants at Coconut Lagoon offer a wide range of local specialties including a dosa (India stuffed crepe) station, seafood grill where the daily catch is displayed before dinner, and a buffet restaurant where you can taste a variety of homemade chutneys, pickles, and jams.

Photo by Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

Kerala cuisine is very distinctive from the rest of India and features rich coconut curries, fragrant meat stews, rice flour breads, jaggery sweetened desserts, and lots of shellfish. The friendly chefs are always eager to share recipes and give private cooking lessons, so you can recreate your experience in Kerala with your newly purchased spices once you get back home.

~ Written for CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. December 2017. 

This Is Where You Need to Start Your African Safari Adventure

For CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. November 2017. 

Ready to explore the enormous continent of Africa but don’t know where to start? There are 54 countries in Africa, offering amazing opportunities to immerse in the culture, as well as view nature and wildlife. Most travelers flock to South Africa, not realizing it is farther, more expensive, and already packed with tourists.

If it’s your first time traveling to sub-Saharan Africa and your main goal is to see wild animals in their natural habitat, go to Kenya. The East African nation is well developed when it comes to tourism, with easily accessible flights to Nairobi.

Kiss Giraffes in Nairobi

Kenya Safari - Giraffe Center

The capital city is worth spending a day or two in. It will likely be your first stop in East Africa and will act as a gateway to other destinations around the country.

Nairobi is a bustling city with clogged roads and impoverished slums, juxtaposed to posh condos and luxury hotels. The large expat population (mainly working for consulates and NGOs) has paved way for a vibrant dining and nightlife scene in the city. Talisman, known as one of the best restaurants in Nairobi, is a fun place to grab a drink by the fireplace and taste globally inspired cuisine in an African-Arabic ambiance. Also, their Singapore chili soft shell crab is to die for. To take a break from the congestion, go to Amaniyajuu, a fair-trade restaurant and boutique located in a charming garden inside the city.

Kenya Safari - elephant orphanage

Watch baby elephants rescued from all over Kenya at Sheldrick’s Elephant Orphanage as they are fed every morning. If you’re an animal lover like me, you may end up fostering a young elephant for a $50 donation. Head over to the Giraffe Center for the perfect Instagram photo opp kissing a giraffe in its natural habitat.

Walk with Zebras at Lake Naivasha

An hour outside of Nairobi is a freshwater lake located on the elevated Kenyan Rift valley. Lake Naivasha is home to over 400 species of birds as well as a sizable hippo population. Lake Naivasha Crescent Camp is a good base to glamp (luxury camp) on the bank of the lake and take a boat ride to spot pelicans, eagles, storks, and cormorants.

For a unique experience, get off at Crescent Island Game Park and freely walk among wild animals. Zebras, giraffes, gazelle, waterbuck, and wildebeest are free to roam around as the park is not fenced in. Here you can find more animals per acre than any other park in Kenya and it’s completely free to visit.

Watch the Big Five in Masai Mara

Kenya Safari - Masai Mara

Over 4% of Kenya’s total area is made up of wildlife reserves and the Masai Mara game reserve is best known for its wildebeest migration, where millions of animals cross the Mara river during the months of September and October.

Plan to spend at least two nights in the Mara to see the famous “Big 5” game animals – lions, rhinos, elephants, leopards, and buffaloes. Sekenani Camp, located right outside the park’s entrance, is easily accessible within minutes. Individual tents come with comfortable beds, hardwood floors, private bathrooms, and even bathtubs. Fancy a hot soak while hearing the lions roar in the background? You can do it here!

Kenya Safari - Lions in Masai Mara

Ride in an open jeep during a game drive through the park (which is not fenced in like many other reserves in South Africa), as thousands of zebras, giraffes, gazelles, wildebeest, and impalas pass by. Given the open terrain, it’s easy to spot animals in the Mara. I was thrilled to see over 70 lions, cheetahs, and leopards hunting, mating, eating, roaring, and snuggling like kittens – up close!

Race Donkeys in Lamu

Most travelers to Kenya choose to visit one of the beach towns in the Archipelago. Lamu is one of the oldest Swahili seafront towns and a UNESCO World Heritage site. This is where you can feel the Arabic influence on the architecture, food, people, and religion of the region. Walking through narrow streets dotted with hole-in-the-wall food stalls, ornate wooden doors, and modestly dressed women covered in veils, you may feel like you’ve gone back in time to the 17th century.

Lamu is also known as “donkey island”. No cars are allowed on the island, so all goods are transported on donkeys. As there are 6,000 of these beasts on the roads, there are also major donkey traffic jams!

Shela Village in Lamu is a quiet place to stay with renovated Swahili villas converted into rentable apartments. There are a handful of restaurants and you get to know most residents if you’re around for a couple of nights. During the day, enjoy secluded beaches, swim, snorkel, and taste freshly caught seafood, and at sunset, take a dow (traditional sailboat) with snacks onboard. The Lamu Cultural Festival held in August, with its donkey races, swimming, and dhow sailing competitions, attracts visitors from the mainland and abroad. The Village Experience, a socially responsible tour company, partners with local businesses and helps uplift impoverished communities around the area.

In Kenya, there are lots of opportunities to get up close to the animals and bring back lasting memories (as well as great Instagram shots). It is, no doubt, the best place to start your African safari adventure.

~ Written for CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. November 2017. 

Creatively Traveling the World

For Cuisine Noir magazine. October 2017.

Eight ways to travel safer, cheaper and make a difference.

Wish you could travel more? Perhaps a limited budget and time is holding you back. Or maybe you are waiting for a friend or spouse to accompany you on your journey. Travel is an important part of our lives, an experience that opens our minds, makes us more confident and helps us be creative. But it doesn’t have to be something only the rich or retired can afford.

Here are a few ways you can travel more frequently, for longer periods of time, without breaking the bank. You can even use some of these tips to even travel for free.

Home Exchanges – Remember the 2006 movie, “The Holiday,” with Cameron Diaz who lived in Los Angeles and Kate Winslet in London, swap homes at Christmas after bad breakups with their boyfriends? If you have a house, condo or even a rented apartment, you can swap with another traveler from a different part of the world. It’s a great way to save money on hotels and you get to experience what it is like to live in that country. Just register on home exchange websites such as HomeExchange.com and iLoveHomeSwap.com, indicate where and when you want to travel, and send a request to exchange a home.

House Rentals – If you are not comfortable with swapping your place to complete strangers, you can still rent a home or a room on your next vacation. Websites such as Airbnb.com, HomeAway.com, and VRBO.com allow you to rent directly from homeowners by the night, week or month, cutting out the middle man.  Hosts will often share the best local spots in the city to eat, visit and party, as well as which areas to avoid. Also, having access to a kitchen means you can save money on eating out.

During a solo trip to Italy last summer, I stayed with a couple in Naples through Airbnb. They mapped out my daily explorations so I would avoid the not so safe areas of town and be able to take a more scenic route. They even guided me to the best pizza places in town that the tourists didn’t know about.

Volunteer Travel – Many for-profit and nonprofit organizations organize one-week to a few months long volunteer tours that include lodging, meals and sightseeing for a small price. Volunteers Initiative Nepal charges roughly $10 per day to place with a host family in exchange for helping in the villages with construction work, teaching or health care. Vaughan Town covers your hotel stay and 3-course meals in charming resorts across Spain and Germany if you teach conversational English. By engaging in volunteer work you get to meet locals and other travelers, so you will never feel lonely.

I have volunteered abroad in a dozen countries through Go Eat Give and other organizations. What I the enjoy most is the ability to meet people from all realms of society and understand their issues on a deeper level. As tourists, we don’t get a chance to see beyond the pleasurable side of the destination.

Farm Stay – Many families are turning toward farm stays to have productive bonding time, teach the kids important values, be close to nature, and experience country living. Help harvest grapes, press olives, make wine, rear pigs, milk cows or make cheese in exchange for free food and accommodations in Italy, Canada, Australia, France and more paces. On WWOOF.net, you can find opportunities to work on organic farms in 120 countries.

Barter for Work– If farming is not your thing, but you still want to exchange your skills for room and board and have a culturally immersive experience, register at Workaway.info or HelpX.net. Some of the projects listed on the sites include developing a community center in Italy, running a hostel in Brazil, and dog-sitting in South Africa. By working abroad, you get to understand the local culture, practice the language and make new friends.

House Sit – This involves the least amount of work and gives you access to some of the most luxurious homes around the world, for free! All you have to do is keep the house safe and clean, water the plants, take care of the pets (if any), and enjoy the facilities. Look at HouseCarers.com, MindMyHouse.comand Trustedhousesitters.com for where you can go.

Work on a Yacht – Can’t afford a yacht but love to sail? At the sites FindACrew.net, CrewSeekers.net and DesperateSailors.com, you can find yacht delivery jobs around the Atlantic, Caribbean, Mediterranean and more, as well as captains looking for extra nautical help onboard.

Working Holiday Visa – If you are between 18-30 years old, you can get a working holiday visa in countries like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, France, Ireland and Singapore. This allows you to work and stay for up to a year without having to apply for work permits or sponsorships. Working part time at a bar, restaurant or theme park means extra cash in the pocket to make your vacation last longer.

~ Written for Cuisine Noir magazine. October 2017 digital issue. 

Need a Unique Vacation? Train to Be a Yamabushi (Mountain Hermit) in Japan!

For CheapOAir Miles Away. September 2017. 

If you’ve been to Japan, you’ve probably been overwhelmed by enormous crowds walking through streets filled with skyscrapers and glistening neon lights, mechanical sounds of pachinko slots, and colorful plates of weird looking creatures passing around on conveyor sushi belts. Stepping out of Tokyo, you may have visited majestic Buddhist temples, Zen gardens, and the iconic Mount Fuji. But on your next visit to Japan, you can try a completely new experience that has only recently opened to foreign visitors.

You can sign up for a Yamabushi vacation.

What is a Yamabushi?

Yamabushi are Japanese mountain ascetic hermits who, according to traditional Japanese mysticism, are believed to be endowed with supernatural powers. They have also served as sendatsu, or spiritual mountain guides, since medieval times for pilgrims. Like Native Americans, they connect with nature by living in the forest and hiking for days. Their practice, known as Shugendō, evolved during the 7th century from an amalgamation of beliefs drawn from local folk-religious practices, embodied in Shinto, Taoism and esoteric Buddhism.

The Japanese people have been doing Yamabushi training for 1300 years. In fact, many Japanese take solitary retreats in the mountains to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life. While it was more popular among older Japanese men to embark on Yamabushi getaways, younger generations are realizing the importance of taking a break and connecting with nature. Many professionals go for Yamabushi to relieve themselves of stress and find better focus at work. It’s the Japanese alternative to a spiritual retreat!

Retreat participants train with a Yamabushi master and many find that, while they’re likely NOT to attain supernatural powers, they can resolve a lot of challenges, questions, or decisions in their life.

The Yamabushi retreat I attended, designed by the Japanese company Megurun and called Yamabushido, is the first of its kind to led by an English-speaking master, and included exposure to Japanese culture and cuisine, along with authentic Yamabushi instruction. Yamabushido’s 3 and 5-day programs run throughout the year and range from 150,000-300,000 Yen.

My retreat was run by a 13th-generation Yamabushi, Master Hoshino, and a business professional turned Yamabushi, Master Takeharu Kato, in the sacred mountains of Dewa Senzan in Yamagata prefecture, an hour flight north of Tokyo.

Discover the there’s more to Japan than Tokyo and read our post Small Towns & Cities of the Japanese Countryside You Need to Visit.

Prayers by Zen Buddhists. Photo by Sucheta Rawal

My Yamabushi training took place during an impending typhoon in the area. We spent a day at a Zen temple learning from a Buddhist monk how to maintain proper posture, meditate, and pray. Then we practiced applying focus and being in the moment through the art of calligraphy. During the next three days, we stayed at a pilgrimage lodge which provided very basic, shared facilities.

Dressed in all-white Yamabushi attire, we climbed the three sacred mountains of Deva in the pouring rain, each mountain symbolizing death or letting go, ascension into heaven, and rebirth or the future. We climbed what seemed like hundreds of steps, rocky boulders, and wooden paths across Mt. Haguro, Mt. Gassan, and Mt. Yudono, surrounded by towering beech and cedar trees.

During the hikes, we were encouraged to remain silent and feel our surroundings. We also stopped to pay tribute at the different shrines along the way and chanted the Heart Sutra at some of the pagodas and temples.

Hiking in Mt Haguro. Photo by Sucheta Rawal

Yamabushi training involves pushing one’s physical and emotional limits so that you can learn to put mind over matter. Waking up before sunrise, eating very little, hiking for hours, bathing in a freezing gushing waterfall, and meditating in a smoky room – are all part of the challenges one needs to overcome to graduate.

At the end of the training, we jumped over a small fire to represent rebirth into new life. Then we shared an elaborate lunch of over 15 dishes and sake with our masters while they commented on how they saw our progression during the program. Though our journey was mostly in silence, the masters could tell when we were struggling and what we needed to do to better in our lives.

Master Tak and Master Hoshino at graduation lunch. Photo by Sucheta Rawal

We finished the last day at a boutique ryokan in Tsuruoka, relaxing in the mineral-rich hot springs, and dining on beautifully crafted seafood dishes.

Don’t make a faux pas on your Japan! Read our post Watch Your Manners in the Japanese Countryside.

After the program, I felt stronger and accomplished. Others whom I spoke to told me they had renewed energy, a deeper appreciation and higher sensitivity to surroundings. Whether you are an avid hiker who enjoys nature or a city dweller looking to push your limits, Yamabushi training can be a wonderful experience, both spiritually and physically rewarding.

~ Written for CheapOAir Miles Away in September 2017. 

Why Georgia (the Country) is the World’s Best Kept Travel Secret

For CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. August 2017.

While most people know of Georgia, the peach state in the southern US, very few are aware of Georgia, the former Soviet republic that’s tucked between Europe and Asia. The country is one of the oldest in the world, and has a rich culture that has managed to survive foreign occupation by Persians, Ottomans, and Russians.

Nowadays, tourism is beginning to develop in Georgia, so things are relatively cheap and uncrowded. Here are a few very good reasons to go to Georgia NOW before the secret gets out!

Diverse Offerings

The best way to see Georgia is by driving through the country. You’ll pass by lush green valleys, a sprawling wine country, the snow-capped Caucasus Mountains, thick forests, and black sand beaches – all located within a few hours’ drive.

Image via Amanda-Villa Lobos/ goeatgive.com

Walk around the capital of Tbilisi through its winding, narrow cobblestone streets, charming bazaars and cafés offering local cuisine, drinks, and hookah. Spend a weekend at one of the lakeside resorts in the Kvareli region. Enjoy the romantic town of Sighnaghi, which offers picturesque views of the Alazani valley and even has a round-the-clock wedding chapel. Find a quiet spot along the beaches by the Black Sea, or gamble all night at a casino in Batumi.

Ancient Sites With Interesting Stories

Georgia adopted Christianity as a country in the 4th century and even today is predominantly Georgian Orthodox. It’s believed that Saint Nino carried a cross made of grape twigs from Cappadocia (in Turkey) to Georgia, converting many of the locals. The first Christian church in the country was built in Mtskheta, Georgia’s oldest continuously inhabited city. Due to its historical significance and numerous ancient monuments, the “Historical Monuments of Mtskheta” became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.

The Svetitskhoveli Cathedral here is said to house Jesus’ robe that was recovered after his crucifixion. The cathedral has also played an important part as a site for the coronation and burial of the kings of Georgia.

Image via Amanda-Villa Lobos/ goeatgive.com

About 45 miles away is Ananuri castle complex, another notable historic site that’s beautifully perched amidst turquoise river water and towering mountains.

The 14th century Holy Trinity Church near Gergeti village, located on a steep mountain cliff, is an iconic symbol of Georgia. It’s noted that, in times of danger, precious relics were brought here for safe keeping.

Image via Amanda-Villa Lobos/ goeatgive.com

Vardzia, a spectacular cave monastery stretching along the slopes of the Erusheti Mountain and which once housed 2,000 monks, is another must-see.

You can witness Georgia’s rich history in many such monasteries, churches, and cathedrals that are spread throughout the country.

Tons of Fun for Outdoor Adventurers

Georgia is a great destination for those who are looking for active vacations on a budget. There are abundant opportunities for hiking, trekking, and skiing in the Caucasus. Drive through the Goderdzi Pass for high adrenaline off-roading, where you can also enjoy views of mountains covered with wildflowers, thick pine forests, and well preserved remote villages.

Image via Amanda-Villa Lobos/ goeatgive.com

In Gudauri, you can rent a room at a traditional B&B including meals for $30/night, while ski lift passes go for an average of $30/day.

Another beautiful and much easier drive is on Georgia Military road that runs between Tbilisi (Georgia) and Vladikavkaz (Russia). Passing alongside the Aragvi River, you can enjoy beautiful views of fertile green valleys, crystal clear rivers, and majestic snow passes.

Many travelers enjoy the comforts of an upscale mountain lodge, like at Rooms Hotel Stepantsminda ($100-150/night), before heading on to trek Mount Kazbek, the third-highest mountain in Georgia at 5,034 meters. Here, you can see snow-covered peaks year-round.

Kazbegi is also home to one of the world’s most spectacular marathon routes.

Unbelievable Food

Every meal in Georgia is a feast, called Supra. Fresh baked breads, assorted salads, and farmers’ cheese (called sulguni) are staples. Then comes badrijan nigzit, eggplant with walnut paste; khinkali, drum shaped dumplings with soupy minced meat, cumin and pepper; or shashlik, tender grilled pork.

Image via Amanda-Villa Lobos/ goeatgive.com

The Georgian national dish is khachapuri — bread stuffed with cheese. While it’s made differently across the country, the most popular one is adjarian khachapuri, baked boat-shaped bread filled with gooey, melted, tangy cheese, a whole egg yolk, and some slivers of butter.

Meals in Georgia last for several hours, with multiple shared plates and endless toasts. Dried and fresh fruits are always served for dessert. Of course, everything is fresh, locally grown, and oh so tasty!

A Very Old Wine Culture 

Georgians have been making wine for at least 8,000 years in traditional methods by storing grapes (including skin and seed) in large clay barrels (known as kvevris) underground.

As a result, the wine has a dense and robust flavor. This method has been listed in UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. There are hundreds of varieties of indigenous grapes that aren’t found anywhere else in the world.

Kakheti is the most fertile wine region in Georgia, known for Kindzmarauli wine, a semi-sweet red variety. There are several local wine makers in the area. Winery Khareba is one of the largest winemakers and offers factory tours where they take you through their cold underground granite cellars. Pheasant’s Tears is an award-winning winemaker, producing artisanal natural wines, owned by an American-Georgian couple.

One of the monasteries I visited, Saint George Monastery of Alaverdi, has been making wines since 1011 AD and the monks residing there still grow and sell their wine for $50/bottle.

While in Georgia, also try Cha-Cha, a local distilled alcohol made from wild grapes. Due to its high alcohol content (45-60%) it’s also called “Georgian vodka.”

Pure Water Everywhere

The first thing you’ll find out when you arrive in Georgia is that, not only is it okay to drink the tap water, it’s actually good for you! Mineral water is Georgia’s number one export and you can get all these rich minerals for free straight from any tap.

At Azarfesha restaurant in Tbilisi, expect to find a “water menu” as part of the wine and beverage list. Originating from Georgia’s different regions, the water selections are described as “soft and silky”, “saline notes,” and with “lactose like sweetness.”

The capital of Tbilisi (meaning ‘warm water’) was first built around hot Sulphur springs. Even today, you can find dome-covered public bath houses in the old city where you can enjoy a hot bath and a scrub.

Image via Amanda-Villa Lobos/ goeatgive.com

Borjomi is another popular spa resort town known for its hot springs and mineral waters. People from all over Eastern Europe flock here to fill their bottles with Borjomi water, which is believed to have medicinal properties.

Written for CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. August 2017.

 

6 Charming Small Towns of Croatia You Need to See Right Now

For CheapOAir Miles Away blog. May 2017.

This Eastern European country has been popular among tourists because of its magnificent national parks, long coastline along the Adriatic Sea, and enchanting islands frequented by sailboats and yachts. But Croatia also has many small towns that offer natural beauty, authentic culture and local cuisine. Here are some places you need to check out.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

1. SAMOBOR

Located less than an hour drive from the country’s capital Zagreb, Samobor is a weekend getaway that mainly attracts hikers. Start your day fueling up on Kremšnite, the famous local fare — a flaky pastry filled sweet cream custard. Hike through the small town that is nicknamed the “Venice of Croatia” due to its colorful houses along the canal, while passing by the 15th century church of Saint Anastasia and quiet cottages with manicured gardens.

At the main square, visit Silvia Krajacic, at her souvenir shop Srčeko. She is among one of the 20 families in Croatia that still practice Licitar, the traditional art of making ornamental cookies in heart shapes. It is noted that in the 16th century, giving licitar was more romantic than giving roses! Down the street, Brigiti Mihina at Arko also carries on this tradition, which is listed in the Intangible Cultural Heritage for Croatian culture.

Snack on the local delicacy, Greblica, that looks like a flatbread stuffed with Swiss chard, walnuts and cheese, and wash it down with a glass of Bermet, aromatic red wine.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

2. VARAŽDIN

The former capital of Croatia may appear to be just a business town at first, but the old town with its castle, cobblestone streets and 13th to 18th century buildings has a unique European charm about it. Varaždin is known as “The City of Festivals” as there is at least one festival every month. There are Baroque nights through the summer where people dress up in historic costumes, parade and perform around the squares. You can’t miss the angelic installations adorning many of the buildings, created by a local artist, giving it another name of “The City Where Angels Sleep.” Visit the angel museum, Anđelinjaka, which houses donated angels from all over the world.

Ride a bike through the vineyards outside the city, stay at a family farm guest house, and soak in one of the many hot springs in the area. Stop by the craft square to pick up locally made honey brandy (rakia), handmade hats and souvenirs.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

3. ZAGREB

Though Zagreb is the largest city in Croatia, it still feels like a small town. The city is organized in a U-shaped network of parks, allowing for plenty of green spaces trimmed with flowers. It is easy to walk around town in a day and visit the squares, opera house, parliament, museums, churches, and take a few coffee breaks in between. Croatians love to take coffee breaks!

The Museum of Broken Relationships is one of the most unique museums in the world, displaying memorabilia of ordinary people whose relationships did not result in happy endings.

Zagreb also has a great nightlife scene with lots of restaurants, bars, and live music venues. Visit the Dolac Market in the morning for cheap local fruits and grab lunch of fresh fuji pasta with Istrian truffles in at Vinodol restaurant.  Nature lovers can spend a day at Maksimir Park walking around the meadows, creeks, and five lakes that make up the oldest public park in the city.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

4. SPLIT

The city center of Split is marked by Diocletian’s Palace, which was built by Romans in the 4th century and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Now, the labyrinth of streets inside the palace takes you through residential apartments, boutique stores, charming restaurants and heritage hotels. One can easily spend an entire afternoon wandering through the palace and stop for a coffee at one of the plazas overlooking the Roman ruins for people watching.

Another fun thing to do is hike or bike to the peak of Marjan where you can enjoy panoramic view of Split, the sea and surrounding hills.

Split is located on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia and has ferries running to many of the Adriatic Islands. Get on a party sail boat during summer and chill out with a beer or two.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

5. HVAR

The island of Hvar is only an hour-long ferry ride from Split. It has been an important tourist destination in Croatia since 1868, boasting beautiful turquoise waters, rocky beaches, and hills full of wild lavender and vineyards. Hvar City, located right at the port also has an active nightlife in the summer months, transforming this Venetian naval base into a modern party city.

During the day, discover the island by visiting old abandoned villages on a bike tour with local tour company, And Adventure and catch some spectacular views on the way. Break for lunch at a family run establishment in the countryside and continue to visit some of the wineries in the area. Swimming and sea kayaking in the Adriatic is also fun as the water is crystal clear in this area.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

6. DUBROVNIK

This is perhaps the most well-known town in Croatia due to its visibility on the TV series, Game of Thrones. The walled city is listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site and is nicknamed “Pearl of the Adriatic.” The best way to explore the Old Town is by walking on the city walls. It gives a good perspective of how the 40,000 or so people reside in the historic town as well as offers spectacular views. Don’t miss the Dubrovnik Summer Festival, with its outdoor theaters, classical music concerts and dance performances that transforms the city into a baroque town.

Just a few miles outside Dubrovnik are small villages worth visiting. Konavle offers agro-tourism destinations that have been run by families for hundreds of years, complete with lodging and dining, while the Pelješac peninsula is good for coastal drives and oyster and mussel farming. The medieval town of Ston with its longest city walls in Europe is a good place to stop for local seafood.

~ Written for CheapOAir Miles Away blog. May 2017.

Looking for a Hollywood-Like Adventure? Take a Trip to South Jordan!

For CheapOAir Miles Away blog. March 2017. 

What do the movies The Martian, The Last Days on Mars, Prometheus, and Red Planet all have in common? They’re all science fiction movies set on other planets and they were all filmed in southern Jordan. In fact, from Lawrence of Arabia to The Hurt Locker, international filmmakers have been coming to the “lower half” of this Arab country for decades — drawn by its unique settings, tax incentives, and liberal mindset. But even if you’re not making a major Hollywood film, it’s a still a destination you should add to your bucket list.

ALL of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, which a little bit smaller in square millage than the state of Maine, offers diverse landscapes and ancient cultural sites. From castles of Azraq and Amra in the East, Lake Tiberias and the Golan Heights in the North, Mount Nebo, Holy Land and the Dead Sea in the West, there is a lot of history and nature in Jordan.

But if you’re looking for adventure, breathtaking landscapes, and awe-inspiring history, then you need to head south.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

The Surreal Landscapes of Wadi Rum

A little under an hour’s drive from the southern governate city of Aqaba (and only about 3 and half hours by car from Jordan’s capital city Amman), lies the sand dunes and colored cliffs of the Wadi Rum protected area. A Unesco World Heritage Site, Wadi Rum’s nickname is the “Valley of the Moon,” because it will make you feel like you’ve stepped on another planet, which is probably why it’s where movies set on Mars are often filmed. There are miles and miles of granite rocks and sandstone, with no other life in sight. Yet, if you look closely you might find thousand-year-old inscriptions carved into the rocks. If you time your visit during off-peak hours, you may also find yourself to be the only person out there, along with your Bedouin jeep driver of course.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

The Ancient Architecture of Petra

The Lost City of Petra was carved out of towering rose-colored rocks around 312 BC by the Nabataeans, an industrious Arab tribe. The city was abandoned after a series earthquakes in the 1st century and wasn’t discovered by the wider world until 1812. It’s among the “New 7 Wonders of the World” and, like Wadi Rum, is also designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. Movie fans will likely recognize it as the temple that held the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and it’s one of Jordan’s most popular tourist attractions. Petra is a little over 100 kilometers north of Wadi Rum and you should plan on spending an entire day there to watch the rocks vary their shades from brown to pink and capture some wonderful photographic opportunities.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

The Thrilling Adventures of the Desert

Walking around and taking in the awe-inspiring scenery isn’t the only thing to do in Southern Jordan. One of the best ways to see Wadi Rum and Petra is by air and tourists can ride in their choice of  a helicopter, hot air balloon, or glider over the canyons and valleys.

For adventures on the ground, you should connect with the Zalabia Bedouin. They’re a local tribe that lives in Jordan’s desert areas and mainly work in tourism, leading trekkers, rock climbers, and camel and horseback safaris through the area with overnight camping under the star-studded Arabian sky.

Tourists can also rent ATV’s and 4-wheel vehicles for day trips racing through the sand dunes. Just be prepared to come across a Bedouin camp in the middle of nowhere, where you’re more than likely to be offered hot tea and handmade souvenirs.

If you prefer a package experience, Desert Paramours is a Jordanian family-run tour company that offers caravan style group trips. Their tours allow you trace the footsteps of great explorers, by riding camels or donkeys and staying with nomads in tents.

~ Written for CheapOAir Miles Away blog. March 2017. 

We Bet You Don’t Know These 10 Things About Myanmar

For CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. December 2016. 

The country of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is located in the South Asian peninsula, between China, India, Laos, Bangladesh and Thailand. Until recently, the country had an embargo on foreign visitors. Therefore, much of the land is still untouched by tourists. This off-the-beaten path destination has a lot to offer in terms of natural beauty, historic sites, delicious food and raw authenticity.

Here are some things you probably did not know about Myanmar (that’ll make you want to head there straightaway)…

You Will Be One of The Few Tourists There

Visiting Myanmar feels like stepping back in time, and participating in the life as it has been for decades. Many of the locals commute by ferry to the largest city and former capital of Yangon to work, wearing colorful sarongs (known as longyi). Here you can see hawkers selling everything from boiled quail eggs and dried fish heads, to mobile sim cards. Spot the nomadic fisherman living on traditional wooden boats. Travel by trishaw through the small villages, shopping for fresh vegetables and seafood in the wet markets. It is a country where you will experience the real culture, and not find many fast food restaurants, designer stores or name brands.

You’ll Be Surrounded By the Friendliest People on Earth

Burma was recently named the world’s friendliest country in the world by InterNations Expat Insider 2015, with more than 96% of respondents positively rating their affability toward foreigners. The locals are always smiling, making jokes and are very welcoming. Despite the language barrier, they will still try to help you in some way.

Did you know that the famous long-neck women wearing brass necklaces are originally from the Padaung Tribe in Myanmar?

You Can See All Different Kinds of Ecosystems

The geographical location of Myanmar makes it diverse in natural beauty. There are the Hengdun Mountains in the north, picturesque fishing villages on the banks of three major rivers, inland lakes and wildlife reserves, Buddhist temple complexes, expansive coral reef in Mergui Archipelago, to white sandy beaches along 1200 miles of coastline, Myanmar has it all!

Did you know that Southeast Asia’s highest mountain, Hkakabo Razi, at 19,295 feet, is located in Myanmar?

Myanmar is the Most Generous Countries in the World

According to the CAF World Giving Index by the Gallup World Poll, Myanmar is the most giving country in the world, with 91% of the population donating money, 55% volunteering, and 63% helping a stranger. Though Myanmar is also one of the poorest countries in the world, a widespread generosity comes from Buddhist teachings, which preaches that accumulation of merit through charity and good deeds (karma).

There is So Much History and Beauty to Uncover

The beautiful woman Myanmar in Kuthodaw Pagoda on after sunset blue hour, treaditional culture myanmar,Mandalay Myanmar

There are tons of historic and spiritual attractions in Myanmar. Stroll through the broad avenues dotted with colonial buildings with traditional wooden architecture in Yangon, and find yourself gleaming at a pagoda at practically every corner. Once known as “the garden city of the East” Yangon had public services and infrastructure on par with London by the early 20th century.

In Yangon, visit the world-famous 2,500-year-old Shwedagon Pagoda, adorned with 5,488 diamonds and 2,317 rubies, and see one of the largest reclining Buddhas in the world at the Chauktatgyi Pagoda. With 1,000 Buddhist statues on its grounds and within its halls, the Kothaung Paya is impressive, to say the least. The city of Bagan looks magical with its 3000 pagodas and temples built between the 9th and 11th centuries. Mandalay, the second largest city and the last royal capital, is home to Buddha’s sacred tooth relic replica, and one of the oldest Buddhist temples in the world.

Did you know? Kuthodaw Pagoda in Mandalay is known as the World’s Biggest Book as the entire Buddhist scripture (known as Tripitaka) is inscribed on its 792 stone slabs.

Buddhism Is Everywhere

The population of Myanmar is 89% Buddhist. It is the most religious country in terms of the proportion of monks to civilians and the proportion of income spent on religious purposes. The history of Buddhism in Myanmar is over 2,000 years old. Until recently, all men were required to be a monk for at least two years. Even now, every male will go and live in a monastery for three times in his lifetime for at least a week at a time. Monks can be found roaming the streets and knocking at doors asking for their daily offerings. Also, a number of temples, pagodas and Buddha statues fill into the landscapes all over the country. There’s no escaping spirituality when you are visiting Myanmar.

It is Called “The Golden Land” (and You’ll See Why)

With all the gold-layered palaces, temples, pagodas and Buddha statues, there is a lot of glam that makes Myanmar earn its title of the Golden Land. Gold leaves are sold outside the religious monuments where people can stick the gold on to the building or statue.  It is believed that by building or donating to the pagoda, you will receive blessings, and take a further step towards salvation.

Did you know – Yangon, though the largest city, is not the capital of Myanmar? The capital was moved to Naypyidaw in 2006 by the ruling military. 

You May Never Have Better Food After a Visit

Myanmar is an emerging foodie destination, and those who have tried the local cuisine can attest to the fact that it is spicy, diverse and delicious. With influences of Indian, Chinese, and Thai, regional Burmese dishes are largely based on rice, vegetables and seafood as staple ingredients. A typical meal would balance four primary flavors – sour, salty, spicy and bitter. Many dishes are served and eaten family style. Savory salads, rice noodles in thick broths, curried fish and prawns, spicy stewed lentils and grilled flatbreads are among a few staple foods. One of the most popular dishes is Laphet or fermented green tea leaf salad with sesame seeds, peanuts, fried garlic, dried shrimp and sesame seeds.

Your Money Will Go a Long Way

Traveling in Myanmar is quite affordable, with several hostels catering to backpackers charging $10 – $25 per night to 3 and 4-star hotels at $60 – $100 per night, with everything from guesthouses and boutique hotels in between. Food is quite inexpensive and there is a range of options from street food to upscale cafes ranging $0.20 – $5.00 per dish. Only the luxury hotels serving Western food are pricier.

Generally, hotels will take US dollars and the local currency, Kyat, for street and food purchases. As of recently, ATMs and credit cards are possible to use in the country.

Myanmar Is Now Open for Tourism

Direct flights to Yangon are available from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Qatar, Germany and India. Visas can easily be obtained online in a few easy steps. There are also many tour operators, hotels and resorts offering great deals throughout the country. Themed tours include food, diving, beach, spiritual, and yoga journeys, among others.

I traveled to Myanmar on Silverseas Discoverer Andaman Sea expedition inaugural cruise to the country. A handful of small cruise ships that can sail into Yangon through the Irrawaddy Delta are now offering itineraries that include stops in Myanmar. Cruising is a great way to experience some of the highlights of the country without having to deal with the hassle of local transportation, tours and hotels. Being an expedition journey, my ship arranged for offshore sightseeing with English speaking guide, internal flights, and authentic meals at local restaurants included in the cruise fare.

Whether you are seeking a spiritual, cultural or outdoor adventure, Myanmar is great destination to explore before the rest of the world gets there!

For CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. December 2016. 

You *Have* to Eat This: Bangkok’s Best Street Food

For CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. December 2016. 

There’s no doubt that Bangkok is one of the most bustling and abundant cities in the world when it comes to street food. The smells of steaming noodle soups, simmering coconut curries, slow roasting chicken and frying fish cakes draws crowds from near and far into an around-the-clock eating frenzy. Street hawkers, scooters with sidecars, designated food markets, roadside restaurants, everyone seems to be selling food all of the time! While some sell precooked meals and others make it to order, each one specializing in one unique dish and a recipe that has been passed on for generations. The street food here is fresh, hygienic, and cheap.

Since many of the vendors sell the same foods, it can be daunting to find which ones are the best, so I decided to go around the historic district of Banglamphu (also known as Old Town Bangkok), escorted by a local guide. Chinnapatt Chongtong aka Chin, who runs a local food tour company called Chili Paste Tours, knows the area quite well, as she tours the markets every single day. All of the vendors know her as their “sister” and offer samples of their best dishes. Here are some of the things that we eat on the streets of Bangkok

Rolled and Stuffed

At first I couldn’t tell the difference between all kinds of little rolled balls I saw on the streets. But after tasting, I realized each of them had a unique flavor ranging from savory to sweet, and sometimes both rolled into one.

Saku Sai Moo – These thin tapioca dumplings are stuffed with coarsely ground peanuts, and sometimes pork. There is also a variation made with butterfly pea flour that appear more white in color. The chewy bite-sized balls make for a great snack and is believed to be traditionally served to the Thai monarch.

Kaow Tom Mud – As I curiously observe the perfectly square banana leaves, one of the vendors starts unwrapping the leaf and offers me the mixture of sweet sticky rice it contained. Variations of this snack contain coconut, bananas and red beans. They are steamed inside the leaf for added flavor.

Kha Nom Krok –  Sweets snacks are collectively known as khanom and mostly made with coconut, palm sugar, cassava, jellies, and fruits. These sweet coconut and spring onion pancakes are cooked in a cast iron mold and served hot off the griddle. They are golden brown on the inside and soft on the inside.

Kha Nom Tom – The colorful rice balls found on street cars are made with glutinous rice powder, coconut sugar and boiled in water. Some include gelatin and artificial coloring.

Fried and Grilled

Generally, these kinds of meats will be cooked right on the street carts and served as you order. The meats are seasoned for hours with lots of spices including soy sauce, sugar, chilies, shallots, ginger, lemongrass, basil, lime, etc.

Kai Jeow – The deep fried Thai omelet is eaten for breakfast and as a snack. It can be cooked with chicken, pork or cucumber and seasoned with soy sauce. Order it with rice and chili sauce to make it a meal. It is always made to order.

Tod Mun Pla – These fish cakes are made with ground white fish and red curry paste and kaffir lime. Small patties are deep fried to perfection and have a kick that would awaken the taste buds. Believe it or not, the locals eat this for breakfast!

Gai Yang – BBQ lovers will enjoy grilled chicken that is marinated slowly in a flavorful bath of cumin, turmeric, coriander, pepper, garlic, lemongrass and fruit juice. Half chickens are placed on bamboo sticks and grilled to perfection over mangrove tree charcoal for added authenticity.

Pla Pao – Some of the street vendors specialize in a dish of whole fish on the rotisseries. These are seasoned with sea salt and wheat flour, then chargrilled until the skin in dark. It is served with a sweet and spicy dipping sauce made with bird eye chilies, sugar, and lime juice

Noodles and Salads

Made with egg or rice, noodles are an important part of Thai cuisine. On the streets of Bangkok find vermicelli noodles, thick glass noodles, flat rice noodles, fried noodles, Chinese rolled noodles, noodle soups, and much more.

Bami Haeng Pet – Juicy braised duck meat known as Ped Thun, served with egg noodles, makes for a perfect lunch. It can also be ordered over steamed rice and hot chili sauce.

Laab Plaa – My guide Chin walks behind one of the kiosks to mix her own fish salad. She debones a roasted catfish, removes the meat and mixes it with roasted rice, chili, green onions and kaffir lime to make a traditional dish from Isan region in northeastern Thailand.

Khao Gang – These are curry rice restaurants that offer a selection of curries of the day served with rice. There is no set menu and you can get whatever is available at the time of the visit. Many locals pick up an assortment of salads, rice, noodles and curries individually packed in plastic bags to take home for a complete meal.

Fruits and Drinks

Being a tropical country, Thailand enjoys a bountiful array of fruit that’s in season throughout the year. Street vendors sell sliced fresh pineapples, pomegranate, watermelon, papaya, mangoes and jackfruit… And all for only a few cents! Also, try the cold-pressed juices and fresh coconut water.

Khao Neeo Mamuang – It is impossible to pass up the ubiquitous Thai dessert, sticky rice with fresh mango. The rice is steamed in coconut milk in a bamboo hat and served with a creamy sauce of coconut milk, sugar and salt.

Cha Yen – Thai iced tea is a popular drink found at train stations and restaurants. It is a cold beverage made with brewed black tea, sugar, condensed milk, orange blossom water, star anise and tamarind. Additional flavors such as chocolate, coconut, strawberry, and tapioca may be added on order.

For CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. December 2016.