15 favorites of 2015

Ok, so it’s a good thing the years keep getting bigger in number because my opportunities and experiences keep getting better.  The end of the year is the best time for me to reflect on what I’ve worked for each year, and look back on the opportunities that make me feel the most thankful and happy.

Up, up, up AND away in Myanmar, Spain AND Turkey

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The first 31 years of my life I had lived without stepping foot into a hot air balloon and just like that, I got the chance to take not one, not two, but three incredible rides.  Each overlooking a different landscape, iconic and unique locations, it is hard to pick which one I loved the most so I’ve included them all.  In Myanmar it was a sunrise ride over thousands of temples and pagodas in Bagan.  In Turkey it was floating atop fairy chimney rock formations in Cappadocia and in Spain it was gliding above the rural countryside outside of Barcelona.

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Ride a Water Buffalo in Vietnam

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My Trip to Vietnam was spectacular, an unexpected gem found in my busy travel schedule.  I think I could have easily listed each and every event on this trip as some of my favorites from the year but the highlight had to be the surprise water buffalo rides we had in Hoi An.  Our tour was one of the best afternoons we had spent, educational, enriching and exciting.

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Travel with Family in Europe

 

Don't forget you can still head to some iconic places and have amazing experiences.

Spending time with family each year becomes a blessing and this year I had the chance to spend several weeks with my mother and sister on an Italian excursion that was beyond measure the best time I have spent in that country.  The day they headed back for the states my brother flew to Rome where he and I set off on his post graduation Euro Trip.  Each country offered so many fun surprises made all the more special by sharing with family.

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Giving back in Cambodia

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This was my third time volunteering for Save Elephant Foundation but this time I traveled to Cambodia instead of Thailand.  The project is a protected land located outside of Siem Reap, where I spent time volunteering with the Cambodian Wildlife Sanctuary fostering a project where domesticated Elephants have space to return to the wild.

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Satisfied my Inner Beach Bum

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When I looked back this year I realized I was a bit of a sun chaser, spending most of my time in sunny spots, toes in the sand.  I came to the conclusion that for me beaches are like my children, I just can’t pick a favorite!

Witnessed National Treasures in Arizona

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I finally took the time to take a little American road trip and drove through New Mexico and Arizona.  I had the most fun exploring some of the US I haven’t seen before and went mule riding and hiking around the south rim of the Grand Canyon.

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Survived some travel terrors in Cambodia

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I pride myself on being a responsible, solo woman traveler, but that doesn’t mean I am immune to a few bad events.  I think it’s important to travel to places to  break stereotypes of cultures and communities, to find out for yourself and make your own assessments of a place or people.  Most of the time, it has been my experience that most of it is just negative conjecture.  This year I my purse, along with my passport, ended up begin stolen right from my shoulder only days before I had to leave Cambodia for Dubai.  After several trips to the police station, immigration office, US Embassy and then months of issues and paperwork after the fact, it ended up being just another travel story.  No one was hurt and the one thing I took away from the experience is that because of the actions of one horrible person I was introduced to a dozen more who were willing to help a perfect stranger when she was in need.  It confirmed for me that “Travel Angels” do exist and among stress and sadness you can find hope and beauty.

Nailing Nomadic Life

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I’ve been living out of a suitcase, traveling around this wonderful earth for a few years now and this year proved to be simultaneously difficult and rewarding.  While most of my friends and family are putting down roots, buying houses and having children, I’ve forged ahead with my plan to try and see as much as I can for as long as I am able and after this year it’s clear I’m on a path that works perfectly for me.

Learned to surf in Portugal

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Portugal was a last minute decision and happened to be one of the better choices I made this year.  The people warm, the food wonderful, the weather and surf  were spectacular.  This country is for sure one where I’ll will direct some more attention in the future.

Booked a spontaneous trip to St. Kitts

 

I’ve made some last minute travel decisions in my day, changing itineraries or buying tickets later than I should but this was one of my better travel triumphs.  One of my best childhood friends had been living in St. Kitts and had decided to make a huge life change which involved moving back to the US.  She explained everything in an email at the beginning of the week, including that if we wanted to see her while she lived there it would be the best time to go.  A few emails and flight searches later I booked a flight with my miles to head down for a long weekend to hang out in paradise with one of my favorite people.

Stayed quiet in Bali

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I never thought it would happen once, let alone TWICE!  I returned for the second time to Bali Silent Retreat for some much needed zen time with yoga and meditation.  It was just as powerful as the first time I had been and was a great way to start the year on a fresh note.

Realized traveling alone is both difficult and rewarding

 

This year I spent the majority of my time traveling solo.  It was nice having some friends and family meet up with me along the way but being by myself has continued to give me some perspective.  I’ve had moments where I felt really alone then times where I was proud to accomplish something difficult on my own.  Being a solo traveler reminds me how important relationships can be while at the same time consistently challenging myself.

Culinary chops in Spain

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I spent a month in Spain, several weeks living and working in Barcelona where I ate some of the most amazing foods.  While there I sat in on a few cooking classes with Barcelona Slow Travel and learned the secrets to making the most delectable Paella.

 

Took a Tour of Turkey

 

I usually take way too much of my own free time planning and researching where I’ll be staying, what food I want to try and where I want to explore with each country I visit.  This year however, I decided to relinquish some of my control freak tendencies and went on a three week planned trip around Turkey.  All I had to do was pay, get insured and show up for all the insanity.  It was a bus full of fun, adventure seeking people and some of the people I met on that tour will be life long travel buddies.

 

Finding Joy

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Starting in Southeast Asia, migrating westward back to America by air, land and sea.  Stepping foot in sixteen countries, making countless new friends, spending late nights and early mornings juggling writing, consulting, non profit work while researching, photographing, learning and living 2015 was in no way short of lots of hard work with some out of this world rewards.  I’m thankful that I’ve fostered great relationships in both my personal and professional life to make a year like 2015 come to fruition.  Looking forward to all the amazing endeavors that await in 2016!

 

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Pining for Portugal, a perfect weekend in Porto

The Algarve has the beaches and coastal charm, Lisbon has the culture and city living, but Porto has history and for me much of the heart of Portugal.  You could spend enough time walking through the city just exploring but here are some recommendations of some of my favorite things I stumbled on while in this UNESCO World Heritage city.

Get lost


A small old city, Porto winds through narrow alleyways towards the Duoro River.  The Ribeira is the soul and historic center of the city, the best place to see beauty by the river, colorful tiles and crumbling old buildings.  By night it’s a great place for dinner or drinks.  Aside from the picturesque waterfront, there are several other spaces to find and explore.  The oldest bookshop in Portugal, Livraria Lello & Irmao is a book worm and Art Nouveau lovers paradise.  The shop was said to be frequented by J.K. Rowling and the interior architecture is more than inspiring.


Sao Bento Railway Station is a quick but memorable stop.  Still in use today it has hauntingly interesting history.  The building began as monastery in the 16th century and was a victim of a fire, was renovated and then fell into a state of disrepair.  The city was eager to demolish the building but the plans could not begin until the nuns left.  Refusing to leave their monastery, the city patiently waited until they all perished, with one solo nun living there for years before her death and is said to haunt the station today.  The tile work was completed in 1905 and the history of Portugal is displayed on thousands of alabaster and powdery blue tiles.  Have a minute to spare?  Watch the women who sell basil by the train station, they shoo away potential customers who pinch their plants, with a superstition that you’ll pinch the fragrance out.



There are two bridges crossing over the Duoro that are of significance.  The Dom Luis I Bridge is a double-decked bridge that was the longest of it’s kind during construction in the late 1880s.  The best way is to walk over on the top level, make your way back down through the neighborhoods of Vila Nova Gaia and then head back to the city on the lower level which leaves you conveniently at the main street on the waterfront.  This massive metalwork is not to be confused with the Maria Pia Bridge, engineered by Gustave Eiffel (yes, the Eiffel Tour Eiffel) the other arched metal bridge connecting the two municipalities of Porto.

The Imperial Cafe.  This next suggestion usually goes against what a lot of travelers tell you.  “You’re in a new country, avoid American food.” or “You can eat McDonalds back at home.”  Say what you will about avoiding the mega chain when abroad, but this is one Mickey D’s I recommend you visit, it’ll be the prettiest place you’ll eat a burger wrapped in paper.  It’s conveniently located in Praça da Liberdade, so you can head to the square in town and check out some remarkable architecture.

Get tipsy


I hadn’t had much experience with Port wines  before coming to Portugal.  For some reason I had a preconceived notion about Port being overly sweet without any flavor profile but I quickly learned that if you want to change your opinion about something, go to the source.  Port can be on the sweet side, but if you taste a quality purveyor, it’s delicious.  Port wine comes from grapes in the Douro Valley region of Portugal, it’s barreled and aged before bottled.  Much like other wines there are several different styles of Ports; Tawny, Ruby, Rose and White along with vintage reserves and late bottle vintage wines.  Take a few hours one afternoon and have a tour of some of the wine makers in town and if time allows head out on a day trip to the Douro Valley to see the lush wine making landscape that flourishes along the river.

  

There are Port Houses as far as the eye can see but there are a select few that are pumping out quality port.  Ramos Pinto has a Port wine museum and you can get a great look at their massive cellar along with their famous vintage port posters.  Offley Cellars are a great place to see an original Port house and taste some top notch wines as well as nearby Taylors.  Fancy some Fado music with your wine tasting?  Quevedo conveniently has both, so get out your map and start creating your own wine walk.

The Frankenstein of Sandwiches

Portuguese for “little Frenchie”, this sammie is anything but.  I dubbed it the Frankenstein sandwich because in my mind it had to have been an invention from a mad scientist turned chef.  The story is that the creation is a high caloric take on the classic french sandwich, Croque Monsieur, locals may tell you that Daniel David Silva tried to lure beautiful French women in with the promise of a French “inspired” food.  This sandwich is a meal on it’s own, with ham, sausage and beef stuffed between two thick slices of bread, topped with melted cheese, a fried egg and then a spicy tomato & beer based sauce is drizzled on top.


Where’s the best place to stuff your face?  For this particular feast there are a couple of local spots.  Restaurante A Regaleira is a diner style spot great for local dishes, Cafe Majestic is a beautiful touristic cafe on a popular pedestrian shopping street and Cafe Santiago is a no frills spot with some great home cooked food.  Get adventurous and try all three!

Room for Dessert?


If you have already eaten and drank your way through the city, there is one thing to make room for.  A small local sweet shop where the best chocolate cake I’ve eaten is being baked.  If you can find Cozinha Doce it is worth

Travel Tip:  This place is A. not easy to find and B. if my memory serves me the woman working there doesn’t speak much English and usually caters to locals and not tourists.  She must have been in love with our tour guide because that morning we had a small group and he took us there, she obliged and the desserts were so delicious a handful of us went back later in the evening and she begrudgingly gave us more cake after some persuading and hand gesturing.  It’s heaven in your mouth and worth all the hassle.

Sunset at the The Yeatman


Stroll across the bridge, head up to the luxury Yeatman Hotel, they have wonderful cocktails and a Michelin Star restaurant if you can’t afford to stay there, make a reservation and enjoy the view, I think it was the best place to see the sunset and look out over all of Porto.  If the Yeatman is too swanky for you, I’d also suggest the rooftop bar at the Espaco Porto Cruz.  An 18th century building with modern interior, the port house has a gallery area, restaurant and ultra modern tasting room in addition to the 360 top floor views.

The Particulars


Where to Stay?

I stayed at Yes! Hostel, they have a location in Porto and in Lisbon.  Clean, good location, busy but attentive staff.  They have activities if you are traveling solo to join in with the group or private rooms if you are looking for a low cost accommodation option.  Portugal is a relatively inexpensive European vacation destination so you can find nice hotels at a good value.

How to get around?

By foot is my preferred option and their is no better way to get acquainted with a city than with a walking tour.  Did I mention it’s free?  I spent the morning with Porto Walkers, it was a fun, well informed tour that was a great introduction to some things I went back and explored later.  If you can’t get enough of your tour guide, they also offer afternoon Port wine tours, a must when in THE city that makes the wine.

When to go?

Portugal as a whole is a wonderful place to visit in the summer, sunny and warm.  Porto has a Mediterranean climate so May to September are ideal times to visit for heat and sunshine, while October through April can be cool and rainy.  I stayed for a week in early June and it was perfect.

The Stunning Southwest: A day at the Grand Canyon

We formed a row up against the worn, splintered split rail fence, like football teams at the line of scrimmage, we faced our opponents.  A half dozen pack mules stood at attention, their reins draped over the post, standing across from us patiently awaiting their instructions.

FullSizeRender-44Like my gym teacher in middle school pairing us for square dancing, the head rancher assessed our riding ability and introduced us to our trusty steeds for the morning, I was paired with Biddy, sweet but spunky.

FullSizeRender-49I mounted the little beast and we all filed in a close line, making our way towards the trail head, on our way to the ride a mule along the rim of the Grand Canyon.

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Or Would You Rather Be A Mule?

Aside from some experience horseback riding I’ve never been on, or even around a mule before.  I had a preconceived notion that the animals were stubborn and stupid, probably from this  Little Lulu cartoon my sister and I watched as kids.

So I’ve obviously gotten a chance to learn a lot more about these pack animals since this song from 1944…

FullSizeRender-62Mules, I’ve come to learn are smart and hard working creatures.  I also found out that a mule is a product of a horse mating with a donkey, and that mules themselves can’t procreate.  They have athleticism and endurance making them the perfect animal to carry packs and passengers up, down and around the Grand Canyon.  Mules have been used in the area since the late 1800’s, they were used to entice visitors who didn’t want to make the trek by foot by still wanted to experience the new terrain.  Since then there are several tours you can still take by mule both along the South and North Rim and an overnight trip into the Canyon with a stay at Phantom Ranch.  The wait list for the overnight can be up to a year long so it’s wise to plan early.

FullSizeRender-51Our group road along the rim, it was my first time seeing the Canyon in person and on the back of a mule who is walking adjacent to the edge with a mile long drop is an amazing viewing perspective not for the Acrophobic.  The guides were so knowledgeable, both having decades of experience on horses and pack animals, riding trails through the Grand Canyon day after day, knowing the landscape he would line up our mules along the ridge line sharing the geographical and anthropological history of the gorge, pointing out specific trails in the distance and indigenous plants that Native Americans and Canyon explorers would rely on.

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Total Loss for Words

FullSizeRender-47So growing up you see the Grand Canyon in photos, videos, it’s in the background of some famous movies and your best friend probably went there on a summer road trip and told you all about it the first week back to school.  I knew the specs, the sheer size and I thought I could fathom its scale in my mind, but upon first view, I was still dumbfounded.  It is one of the only famous landmarks where with all of my attempts to visualize how I thought it would look in my head, in person it’s magnitude amazed me.  Then, when you get into the geological background your mind really gets blown.  It’s taken over 17 million years to create the Grand Canyon with other evidence of history dating back 2 BILLION years, including prehistoric traces.  You feel like a tiny speck.

FullSizeRender-50At some parts the Grand Canyon stretches 18 miles across, and squinting into the floor there are sections where the Colorado River looks like a delicate string snaking through the jagged rock.  This is one of the main contributors in the creation of the canyon, the flow of water constantly cutting through creating a channel over time.  The ecosystems of the canyon are impressive.  There are five different zones throughout the region all with varying plants and wildlife dependent upon the elevation, temperature and rainfall.

FullSizeRender-53Another mind blowing fact about the Grand Canyon is the National Park that surrounds and protects it.  There are over 1 million acres of land in the park space.  Driving through the park gives you a better idea of the size, I only had the opportunity to spend two full days exploring and quickly realized you could take your whole vacation here camping and hiking.  It’s so massive is has it’s own school and library within the park.

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Travel Tip: I used the library wifi to do some much needed work one afternoon, it’s quiet and a great place to relax.  The deer just graze around the parking lot so you can sit outside and have wildlife as your coworkers.  

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The Particulars

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How to get there?

By far the best and most iconic American way to see the Grand Canyon is by taking a good old fashioned road trip.  I drove through New Mexico and Arizona in a rental car and then flew out from Phoenix but the possible itineraries are endless.  Las Vegas is a short ride away and a popular destination point in conjunction with the canyon trip.  Get all of your information about the park on the National Park Service site.

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When to go? 

If you plan to stay in and around the park a little planning needs to be made in advance.  The South Rim is more popular than the North Rim so during the busy season the South will be a lot more crowded.  Most of the region is a desert climate, I was there in late September and it was still hot hiking in the afternoon heat.  The best times to go are March through May or September through November, when the temperatures are right and the crowds are thinning out.  Be aware that due to weather certain sections of the park close down, for instance the North Rim is closed from mid October and reopens mid May.

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What to do?

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The outdoor activities are endless and range from just shy of lazy to super hero hiker.  You can take transit throughout the grounds of the park, conveniently dropping you and picking you up at observation locations scattered throughout the canyon so you can view some of the more iconic areas.  There are hikes that start near visitor centers that vary in ability and if you want to get really serious, you can venture down into the canyon making for a tough adventure.  Check out the FAQs HERE on the parks website.  There are mule rides, jeep excursions, rafting trips, and helicopter tours if you want to see the canyon from another perspective than on foot.  Whatever way you decide to do it, make sure you just enjoy the all the beauty.

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Berlin & Its Wall in Photos

berlin 6This week marks the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall when twenty-six years ago, on November 9th an act of removing a barrier changed a country and in turn, the rest of the world.  We walked along the remainder of the wall this summer on a rainy afternoon and we were so impressed by the colorful art and what it represented, from then to now.

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ber2Since then the city has taken the reminder of the past and like a caterpillar, the grey, bleak concrete morphed into a butterfly, an art project that began in the 90s to alter the symbol to one that represents peace and joy in it’s final stage.

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ber3The East Side Gallery is a large section that is left of the wall, with street art and graffiti images along it’s 1km section.  There have been over 100 different artists that have contributed, all from dozens of different countries coming together to transform the wall into a living art piece, the largest open air collection of it’s kind.

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There are several murals that depict some famous stories of escapes over, even through the wall.  Zip lines, tightropes, in uniform and in tunnels, there were several creative ways.

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The murals have been restored over the years, the wear and tear of the elements in addition to souvenir “taggers” or graffiti artists putting their mark on the iconic wall.

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The project creates a dichotomy between a cold past and images of hopeful future, a small beacon of light through a dark time.

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Aside from the art installation on what is left of the wall, Berlin itself seems to present itself to its visitors as an outdoor gallery space.  It’s a great excuse to get out, take a walk and get lost in the city.  There are few buildings that are untouched with some type of graffiti or street art, you’ll be pressed to find a corner without some little hidden gem of art.

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The street art ranges from the bright to the bizarre, thought provoking pieces or just a wistful expression.

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While walking from place to place don’t forget to look up and around the corner, there is always a large mural on a side of a building on a corner of a street.  One afternoon we created our own street art tour and went on a hunt looking for some of the larger works in town, several are located not far from the East Side Gallery in the Kreuzberg area of town.

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These larger works have put Berlin on the map as a city with some of the best street art.  Although these massive murals are interesting, the smaller graffiti you’ll walk by on your way to work everyday is equally as compelling.  Sometimes it’s more fun trying to find the little treasures.

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There are several famous artists and you can find similarities in composition or repeat tags in each of their projects, like finding XOOOOX black & white images throughout different parts of town.  One of my favorites was on the side of what looked to be an abandoned building on Oranienburger Strasse, with a simple message and chilling image.

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Snapshot Sunday: Women of Vietnam

Girls run the world.  If Beyoncé sang it than it must be true.  I just returned from a phenomenal trip to Vietnam and while there I uncovered a country where women are the most hardworking people I’ve ever met.  They have participated in revolutions and wars, they farm, row boats, run businesses and raise families all with a quiet strength and a smile.  The ladies we encountered were the friendliest people who taught us their skills, shared with us their stories or welcomed us into their homes and I was truly inspired by not only their work ethic but overall happiness.

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Culinary Chariots: A street food tour of Bangkok

The city of Bangkok is a lot like your first ride in a tuk tuk.  She’s a unique, speedy vessel that isn’t always glamorous but will whiz you around, showing you one wild ride.  It’s a fitting vehicle then for a tour exploring food stands and iconic dishes of the city, whipping you around on a wonderful journey.  Buffalo Tours offers a great guided tour in Thailand that takes you on an evening ride through town that you and especially your stomach won’t soon forget.  Seeing how locals live and more importantly eat with a small group is the best way to truly experience how “foodcentric” Bangkok comes alive at night.

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We started off our trip heading to one of the city’s many night markets.  Arty, our wonderful guide, explained that there was currently a vegetarian festival in the city called Gin Je, a nine-day cleansing celebration with Chinese heritage that is held throughout Thailand.  You’ll find yellow and red flags adorning the street food stalls quickly showing you which vendors are participating and although many practice vegetarianism and veganism during this period, it isn’t impossible to still find some tasty meat dishes as well.

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We had a taste of crunchy fried tofu, similar to a corn chip, as a little “amuse bouche” to get our evening started.  Afterward our group headed down a narrow street on foot, passing by dozens of fruit & vegetable stands, fish mongers and purveyors of a variety of meats barbecuing on sticks before we came to a small lane alongside the main street.

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A family operation had a prep table set up with several woks lining the alleyway, hot, oiled and at the ready.  The older woman of the group turned with a large slotted spoon, dipping into her deep metal basin fishing out several crispy, hot spring rolls for us to sample.

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Our trip down the lane wasn’t complete without trying one (or two) Khanom Krok, a favorite sweet treat of mine.  Crust on the outside with a gooey coconut center the best part about getting an order aside from eating it is waiting patiently, watching the cook pour out the batter over a cast iron skillet, the mix sinking into its dozens of divots in the pan.  She waits with precision patience, for the right moment when two long chopsticks spin the doughy ball around, the top now cooked on the outside and it quickly creates a yummy, spherical dessert.

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We boarded our tuk tuks and headed back on the road to the next destination, something you may not see everyday, a local roadside butcher.

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There was a thud as the enormous body of the pig thumped onto the metal table.  The butchers worked swiftly, wielding large wooden handled knives with surgical artistry.  The curved metal blade slicing through the swine with ease and within one or two motions each section was dissected and placed into their respective baskets as restaurant owners and locals alike stop by to pick up orders and collect their fresh cuts of pork.

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We made our way through the maze of melon stands where our drivers awaited us roadside.  We climbed back into our culinary chariots heading towards our next location.  We slowed to a long line that was forming outside of a restaurant, got out of the tuk tuks and proceeded to join the crowd.

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Thip Samai is known for one thing, Pad Thai, and they have become THE place in Bangkok to try this famous dish.  They have several woks cooking over large burners street side, each person is responsible for one part of creating the dish which makes the assembly line one well oiled machine with many parts, cranking out dozens of Pad Thai dishes at record speed.  Be sure to order the Pad Thai Haw Kai Goon Sot it’s the national favorite you know and love but wrapped in egg like a delicious little gift.

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After devouring our Pad Thai, we set off for a different flavor.  Roti Mataba has been serving customers looking for that wonderful blend of Indian, Muslim and Thai flavors that is so popular in this region.  They make sweet or savory roti, a crepe like pancake with a variety of fillings.

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Giving our stomachs a break we drove to a feast for the eyes, Wat Pho or the temple of the reclining Buddha.  I had seen the temple complex during the day but with the stupa and pagodas lit up at night it adds a dramatic effect while gazing into the dark sky.  After our peaceful stroll including some iconic mango and sticky rice snacks, we followed Arty and headed up several flights of stairs for a drink at Sala Arun Hotel’s Eagles Nest overlooking the Chao Phraya River with Wat Arun sitting across the bank.  The brightly illuminated tourists boats slowly cruised along the river as we sipped our drinks and took in the view.

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The calm was quickly exchanged for the chaotic as we made our way to the flower market.  The market is open 24 hours a day but the real action happens late into the night when deliveries come in, hundreds of shop fronts and tables are set up preparing flowers for temple offerings, clipping and creating into the early morning hours when there is the biggest rush for the freshest of arrangements.

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It is an amazing place to see the energy of the city come alive.  Smells of jasmine and roses waft through the sidewalks and it’s a scene that will put all of your senses right where Bangkok wants them.  The constant street interactions, the unique foods and the loud humming of the motorbikes and tuk tuks are everything that makes this city special.

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With our quest for Thai cuisine coming to a close, the little row of three-wheeled taxis sped off in different directions into the evening, sending our group home in the most hospitable way, happy and well fed.

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Find out more about this and other amazing opportunities to get a glimpse of local life with Buffalo Tours.  They kindly took our little group for the evening but like all of my stories, the opinions are all my own.