Stockholm, Sweden

May 24, 2019

Since we had so much fun traveling to Barcelona for a long weekend, we decided to do it again and go to Stockholm for Memorial Day Weekend!

On Thursday evening we took a direct flight from Newark to Stockholm. We landed at around 7:30am, took an Uber to our hotel in Östermalm to drop off our bags, and started walking around and exploring the city. Stockholm is very walkable, measuring less than 5 miles in diameter, and is filled with shared bikes and electric scooters.

First we stopped at Nybrogatan 38 to have delicious coffee, an acai bowl, and avocado toast.

We then walked along the water and crossed the bridge into Blockhusudden to reach our first site, the Vasa Museum.

Vasa is a grand naval ship that was built in the 1600s. During its maiden voyage, it sank less than 1,000 meters from the shore into the harbor due to its two layers of heavy cannons. In the 1970s, archaeologists found the ship 30 meters below the ocean and began working to lift the ship. After years of work, the ship was brought to shore and is now the centerpiece of Stockholm’s most popular museum.

After the museum, we continued to power through the jet lag. We stopped into a small cafe along the river for some coffee and the first of many cinnamon rolls.

We then walked back to the hotel since it was time for check in and we needed a power nap.

After our nap, we had some time to spare before dinner. We walked through Park Humlegården to get to a hotel named Scandic Anglais, where we enjoyed some wine on the roof while overlooking the park. It was a little chilly, but we sat under a heat lamp and wrapped ourselves in a blanket.

From our drinks, we then walked about 30 minutes through the city to get to dinner (since it was still completely light outside!). We had dinner at Agrikultur and it was hands down the best meal of the trip.

This Swedish farm to table restaurant reminded us of Blue Hill in New York. They served us an amazing 8-course menu that consisted primarily of local vegetables, fresh fish, and parts of an entire cow that the restaurant purchased a few weeks prior. Our waiter chatted with us about traveling and his favorite restaurants in New York and Stockholm.

May 25, 2019

May 25 will, for now on, be an extremely special date since it was the day Cody proposed!! We are not going to go into details about our proposal on our blog. All we will share is that it happened in Park Humlegården and it was perfect 🥰.

After the proposal (and a not so brief photoshoot) we had brunch at Kajplats 18 (“Pier 18”). The small greenhouse-like restaurant was on the water. We sat by the window overlooking the harbor and shared champagne and a few small dishes.

After lunch we hopped on a ship for a 2-hour cruise of the Archipelago. We found two seats at the back of the boat and enjoyed the views and the comical banter from the tour guide.

After the cruise we walked through Norrmalm to a popular restaurant called Lilia Ego that our waiter from Agrikulture recommended. While we waited for our spot at the chef’s counter, we had a drink and delicious bread outside. Just like our dinner the night before, we were beyond amazed with how much we liked the Swedish dishes served to us!

When we arrived back at our hotel after dinner, we realized it had been about 12 hours of us being engaged and not telling anyone! Soo….we decided it was time to start calling family and close friends. There were many happy tears and lots of excitement. Afterwards, we weren’t ready for bed, so we decided to go across the street for drinks and a second dessert because why not?!

 

May 26, 2019

After sleeping in, we decided to spend some time in the hotel gym. After a quick workout, we had breakfast at the hotel and then headed to Gamla Stan. Gamla Stan is Swedish for “Old Town” and it is one of the largest and best preserved medieval city centers in Europe. The city is on an island and has two very conveniently named streets that circle the city called West Long Street and East Long Street.

During the walking tour it start pouring, so we decided to leave half way through and spend the rest of the day cafe/restaurant hopping! First we went to Kafe Krans and shared a sandwich, tea, and another cinnamon bun (surprise)! Then we continued to walk through the windy cobblestone streets and popped into a traditional Swedish restaurant called Restaurang Mårten Trotzig, where we tried Swedish meatballs made from reindeer and lingonberries! The meatballs were better than those at IKEA, but we decided they are not something we needed to have again 😝.

After we finished eating, the weather cleared up so we decided to walk to the photography museum called Fotografiska. This museum was AWESOME! Not only were there photography exhibits of Emma Watson and Cindy Crawford, but there also happened to be an exhibit called “Vanishing Traces” which featured many of pictures from the salt flats in Bolivia (aka one of our most favorite places!!). After walking through the museum, we spent some time on the top floor cafe to relax, call some more friends to tell them the big news, and take in the beautiful views.

When we were at Agrikultur on our first night, we talked with the head chef who suggested we try their sister restaurant called Bar Agrikultur before heading back to NYC. Since the restaurant is close to the museum, we decided to go there for dinner. Once again, we were blown away by how delicious all of the dishes we ordered were.

After having many pastries and food throughout the day, we decided that it was a good idea to walk back to the hotel.

 

May 27, 2019

We kicked off our last day in Stockholm with some more coffee and cinnamon buns, this time from a different spot called Robert’s Coffee. We then walked about 30 minutes to Oaxen Slip, the “back pocket” restaurant of Oaxen Krog, which is a 2 Michelin Star restaurant in Stockholm. It was very yummy!

After lunch we decided to ride electric scooters to get back into town and make our way to Södermalm, the hipster neighborhood of the city. We popped into a bunch of stores along the way attempting to find an old map of Stockholm, but unfortunately we were unsuccessful.

Before we knew it it was late afternoon and time to go to the famous cocktail spot called Pharmarium! Cody ordered a whiskey cocktail and Mel ordered a golden vodka cocktail.

For our last supper, we went to Matbaren in The Grand Hotel.

Stockholm will always be a really special place for us. Not only did we get engaged there, but also it was the 20th country we traveled together to!! 🇸🇪💕

Barcelona, Spain

Just because we’ve been back in the work/real world for over 6 months, doesn’t mean our travels will stop! When we quit our jobs to travel, we made sure to hit the “further away” destinations and promised we would go to Europe and other closer destinations when we were back to living “real life.” Well…we took our first, quick trip to Europe and it definitely won’t be the last.

Activities

La Sagrada Familia

La Sagrada Familia is the large, unfinished church designed by Antoni Gaudi. The Basilica construction began in the late 1800s and is slated to be completed in 2026. Understanding the complication of his design, Gaudi never expected to see the finished product. The privately funded project is nearly complete and the interior was even more mind blowing than the exterior. This first stop on our trip had us planning a visit for 10 years from now.

Recinte Modernista de Sant Pau

Relatively close to La Sagrada Familia is Recinte Modernista de Sant Pau, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Walking Tour of The Gothic Quarter

As we like to do in most cities, we booked a free walking tour of the Gothic Quarter. We booked with Craft Tours and highly recommend it. The tour started in Plaça de Catalunya, which is the transportation center of the city. From there we walked south on Passeig de Gràcia and entered the Gothic Quarter. The Gothic Quarter is the historical neighborhood of Barcelona which was walled in until the Industrial Revolution. The neighborhood was expanded in the 1850s when the Industrial Revolution pushed the city’s population to its limits and a more typical grid-style city began construction. The quintessential neighborhood contains small, winding streets that navigate through small shops, restaurants and churches.

Highlights of the tour included:

  • Chocolate Street: This might be the best smelling street we’ve ever walked on. There are tons of chocolate/sweets shops on this street that sell the famous “chocolate and churros.”
  • Plaça de Pi: This translates to the square of the pine because when the square was opened there was a large pine tree in the middle. The square is now surrounded by beautiful antique shops and old bars.
  • Catedral de Barcelona:  This is a beautiful cathedral that was constructed from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, with the principal work done in the fourteenth century. 
  • Chicken Wire Tribute to the Castellers: “Human Tower” is a professional sport in Barcelona. There are groups of people that will practice for hours on end and compete frequently to see which team can build the tallest human tower. As a tribute to the team that built the tallest human tower, the city now as a very interesting and tall sculpture in the Gothic Quarter.
  • Plaça Reial: This is a very frequented square that contains two light posts which were Gaudi’s first (and last) public work. Supposedly Gaudi was very difficult to work with and spent way more than he was budgeted for, which is why his public service career was very short-lived and he ended up spending most of his professional years working for extremely wealthy families that didn’t mind when he exceeded the budget.

Mercado de la Boqueria

This market was as hectic and filled with delicious food as most of the markets we have visited around the world. We spent about 15 minutes here, got a few bites to eat, and then escaped the chaos.

La Barceloneta

La Barceloneta is the small neighborhood near the man-made beach that was created for the 1992 Summer Olympics. We visited the area to grab some delicious seafood and we were definitely not disappointed.

Passeig de Gràcia

We enjoyed the walking tour of The Gothic Quarter with Craft Tours so we decided to book another tour with them for later in the same day! The tour focused on Gaudi and modernism and took place mostly on Passeig de Gràcia. During the expansion of the city during the Industrial Revolution, this street first became populated by the wealthiest families and today it still remains the most beautiful and expensive street in the city. Several homes were designed by the famous architects and reflect the modernist features of the early 1900s. Highlights of the trip were:

  • Casa Lleó Morera: This is one of three homes on the same block designed for a very wealthy family by a very famous architect. This home was designed by the famous modernism architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner.
  • Casa Bonet: This is another beautiful home on the same block.
  • Casa Batlló: This is one of Gaudi’s most famous homes. The main windows of the home are in the shape of a bat, which is one of the main symbols of Barcelona. The facade of the building is covered in colorful tiles, a common technique of Gaudi’s.
  • Casa Milà: This house is commonly known as La Pedrera. This was the last residence designed by Gaudi before his death.

Park Güell

As we learned the hard way, make sure to book tickets here in advance! Luckily we went on the first day, realized we couldn’t get in, and we were able to snag tickets for early in the morning on our last day. Park Güell was designed by Antoni Guadi in the early 1900s for the wealthy Güell family and opened to the public as a park in 1926.

Fundació Joan Miró

This art exhibition dedicated to Joan Miró is a must see. We took the public bus from Castell de Montjuïc, which was perfect because we passed through the Olympic Village and were able to see many fields and arenas from the 1992 Summer Olympics.

Castell de Montjuïc

We stumbled upon Castell de Montjuïc after visiting Fundació Joan Miró. The Castell once served as a primary fortification and lookout point for the city with views into the sea and mountain ranges that surround the city.

Food/Drink

Cal Pep

This was recommended to us by multiple people and we would highly recommend it as well. You sit at what looks like a diner bar, chat with the waiters, tell them you’re visiting and want to try everything, and then they bring out dish after dish of true, Catalan cuisine.

Arume

This restaurant has a very cozy atmosphere and THE BEST duck paella (yes, that’s correct, DUCK). The waitress was also so nice and brought us complimentary shots of something similar to Bailey’s at the end of our meal.

Can Majó

This restaurant is in La Barceloneta and sits along the beach. We got mini clams and grilled mushrooms, which were both very good!

Cervecería Catalana

This was recommended as a must from a friend who lived in Barcelona for over a year. Although they don’t take reservations, we showed up early enough so we didn’t have to wait for too long. The food was extremely well priced and delicious. We highly recommend ordering their signature dessert which is basically a crembrule in a croissant!

Rasoterra

Our guide from the walking tour of the Gothic Quarter sent us a list of her favorite restaurants in Barcelona and this was one of them. This was a nice change, since it is all fresh from a farm 10 miles away and vegetarian.

La Pallaresa Xocolateria Xurreria

This chocolate shop is the second oldest in the city and sells the famous hot chocolate with churros. We heard that the hot chocolate would be so dense that the churro stands up in it, but we were still expecting what we know as “hot chocolate.” Instead, the chocolate was really melted chocolate, similar to what you would get for fondue. Of course it was good 😝!

Botafumiero

This restaurant was recommended by a few of our friends, one of whom is from Barcelona! It is very “old school” and definitely a bit overpriced, but we enjoyed the experience.

Southern Sri Lanka

The last stop on our traveling journey was Sri Lanka and it was an absolutely perfect place to end our journey!! When initially planning our travels, we did not intend to go to Sri Lanka. However, many people we met over the last five months recommended it and since it was on our way back towards the USA we thought, why not give it a try!

We started our Sri Lankan journey in Colombo. We landed on January 6 and only had one day to explore the city so we made sure to keep ourselves very busy. After checking into our hostel, we had a quick lunch at Thalis Restaurant Indian Vegetarian Cuisine. This restaurant served both north and south Indian thalis and was absolutely delicious. The owner walked us through the menu and helped us pick out two, simple dishes. He also enjoyed laughing at us as we tried to eat with our hands and handle the spicy food.

After lunch we took a tuk-tuk to Vigaramahadevi Park, the city’s main park which contains the National Library and War Memorial. Surrounding the park are several museums and government buildings.

We walked through the park to get to the Sri Lanka National Museum. The large colonial building takes visitors through the long history, dating back to prehistoric times, of the island of Sri Lanka. We walked from the museum to the Cenotaph War Memorial, which was a bit underwhelming for a tourist.

We then found another tuk-tuk to take us to the famous Pettah Market, a central produce market that has been expanded into an enormous day market for everyday goods. On our way there, we drove through the Fort, the historic downtown area home to the modern financial district. We spent the early evening walking through the Galle Face Green Walk, a park on the water where dozens of small restaurants pop up each evening serving local food. We grabbed a drink at Sugar Bistro & Wine Bar (a sister restaurant of Sugar 41, which a friend recommended) and then went back towards the hostel for an early dinner.

Based on recommendations, we hired a guide to take us around southern Sri Lanka starting from Colombo. We didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into and boy were we beyond satisfied by our time with our guide Prasanna.

On January 7 Prasanna picked us up from our hostel in Colombo. All we had planned with Prasanna was which cities we would be sleeping in each night; we did not know what each day towards those cities was going to consist of.

As we started our 4 hour drive from Colombo towards Sigiriya, Prasanna gave us a brief history lesson of Sri Lanka and told us about some current developments within the country. Sri Lanka’s written history dates back 3,000+ years, but historians trace its prehistoric societies to 100,000+ years. In recent history, Sri Lanka was colonized by Portugal, The Netherlands, and Great Britain. In 1948, Sri Lanka gained its independence from Great Britain, however it experienced a period of turmoil during its 26 year civil war which ended in 2009. Since then, the country has flourished under its free market economy and its exports revolve around tea, clothing, and rice, with a growing tourism industry.

After driving for about an hour, we stopped along the road for fresh, yellow coconut water, coffee, and lavariya (string hopper with coconut honey). Prasanna described how there are many different types and colors of coconuts in Sri Lanka and that the yellow ones yield the most tasty coconut water.

After a bit more driving, we stopped for a buffet lunch. We had chicken curry, dhal curry, mukunuwenna mallum (great for eyesight), and pappadam. Prasanna explained how most locals eat with their hands and showed us the proper way to just use our fingertips. We then got back on the road to reach our first sight: the Dambulla Cave Temple. This temple consisted of five caves which are filled with beautiful cave paintings and many Buddhas.

The caves were home to a king who sought refuge from the Indians in the 2nd century BC for over 15 years. After reclaiming power, the king built the temple and it has been contributed to by following kings since. Interestingly, the Buddhist temple also contains a small Hindu temple, exemplifying how the two religions coexist peacefully in Sri Lanka.

After hiking down from the caves, we got back in the car to drive to our elephant safari. When we arrived at Minneriya National Park, we got in a jeep to head into the land of the elephants! Among all the countries we have visited, Sri Lanka treasures its biodiversity the most. No one is allowed to own wild animals, so elephants roam free throughout the country (and are known to kill people regularly) and it is illegal to harm an elephant. The elephants in the massive reserve were bountiful and free, a stark contrast to what we saw in Thailand.

Towards the end of the safari, a lone male juvenile charged at our truck from about 50 feet away and got very close. We were too frightened to take a picture and the driver sped off before he got too close. We left the park around sundown to head to our hotel for the evening.

On January 8 we had some coffee and then met Prasanna to head to Sigiriya Lion Rock, known as the eighth wonder of the world. The rock has been worshipped in Sri Lanka for centuries and was made famous by a ‘prince’ who killed his father in order to gain power. He sought refuge at the rock for 18 years and built a massive palace with 7 floors atop the rock. Today, only remnants of the structure remain as time and invading armies have destroyed the palace. Pictures on the rock are below, including the old swimming pool!

After our morning hike, we had some roti with banana and honey at a nearby cafe.

We then got on the road to head to a local village. We went to the village by bull cart (known as a “ferarri” back in the day) and a catamaran.

When we arrived to the village, a young woman showed us many cooking techniques that she uses on a daily basis.

We learned how to make delicious roti and a dip for the roti. Her roti recipe consisted of fresh coconut flakes, some salt water, flour, and a little bit of butter. The dip she made to go with the roti was even better than the roti! The dip recipe consisted of a few hot peppers, some pepper corn, salt, garlic, coconut flakes, and onion. She muddled all of the ingredients together with two big stones.

After our cooking lesson, we said goodbye to her, her husband, and their adorable baby boy.

Our next stop was the Lakruka Wood Shop. Here we learned about the many different types of wood that are gathered in Sri Lanka and saw the workers carving and making beautiful pieces. We bought a small elephant with its trunk facing towards the sky symbolizing “good luck.”

From the wood shop we made our way to Regent Spice and Herbal Garden. We were expecting to learn about the different cooking spices grown in Sri Lanka, but this was not the case. Instead, the private tour was more focused on home remedies and medicines that the locals use many herbs and spices for. At the end of the tour, we got complimentary massages and then met with the herbal doctor to learn about the different, natural medicines we could be using.

After the spice garden we made our way into Kandy to settle into our hotel. We had a causal, early dinner at The Garden Cafe.

On January 9 we had breakfast at our hotel before getting picked up by Prasanna. Our first stop for the day was The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, an extremely special Buddhist temple. This is the most famous temple in Sri Lanka and is host to the country’s most valued relics and religious ceremonies. The old capital of Kandy is extremely well fortified with only three roads leading to the city through massive walls. Prasana was very excited to show us what he deemed as the most important Buddhist temple.

After spending time at the temple, we had bite with Prasanna in town and then went to the car to start our day’s journey to Nuwara Eliya. Our first stop on the way was Hemachandras (Kandy) Limited, a famous gemstone center. At this gemstone center we watched a movie explaining the excavation process and then we went in the factory to see the workers.

As we continued to make our way higher and higher in the mountains to Nuwara Eliya, we passed beautiful tea plantations.

We stopped at Glenloch Tea Factory where we got to get a tour of the factory and learned how the tea is made.

We then drove about 10 minutes to reach Ramboda Falls. We hiked a bit towards the falls and then had a late lunch overlooking the falls.

After lunch we went to two more tea plantations: Blue Field Tea Factory and Danton Tea Factory.

We then continued into higher and higher elevations to reach the town of Nuwara Eliya for the evening.

January 10 was a big driving day. We drove about two hours from Nuwara Eliya to Ella and stopped for some coffee at Chill. Then we drove about five more hours before reaching Weligama. Along the way we stopped at a waterfall and at some markets along the road to try some local bananas and the famous Sri Lankan curd with honey.

After checking into our hostel in Weligama, we walked along the beach to find a casual spot for dinner. We ended up eating at Catamaran and ordered traditional chicken kottu roti. We spent the evening relaxing at our hostel, Basecamp (another great hostel we looked into is Ceylon Sliders, but it was fully booked).

We spent the remaining five days of our travels between the beaches in Weligama and Mirissa. We enjoyed complimentary, local breakfasts at Basecamp, laid on the beach, surfed, did some sunrise yoga, and laid on the beach some more.

We took some initial surfing lessons at Batu Surf School and then, once we were pros, we rented boards from Surfer’s Paradise.

We had local (and a few Western) lunches at Hangten, W15, Zephyrs, and The Doctor’s House.

And some amazing spots for dinner were Tiki Bar, Chef Akila, Kama Mirissa, and Big Fish.

Weligama is truly a surfer’s paradise with amazing food and a perfect climate. Surf board rentals are less than $2/hour and the food was amazing. Everyone we met was exceptionally welcoming and we were amazed by the hospitality of all the locals. We couldn’t have asked for a more perfect place to end our 5 month journey!!! 😁

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

We spent two full days in Kuala Lumpur. The people in the city were beyond friendly and everyone spoke English. We definitely want to go back to Malaysia, as there are so many other places in the country to see!

Activities:

  • Menara Kuala Lumpur: Once the tallest building in the world, Kuala Lumpur’s space needle is a large tourist attraction with a viewing area from 250 meters high as well as a 360 degree restaurant and rooftop viewing area. The hill that it is constructed upon also has a small zoo, 4D theatre, and the “upside down house.” We opted to go to the observation deck and see the views of the city, including the iconic “twin towers.”

  • Petronas Twin Towers: After seeing the towers from Menara, we walked to the base of them and sat in the nearby park.

  • Flea Market Petaling Street: This was a typical, Asian flee market in downtown Chinatown. It was crowded, hot, and full of fake designer bags. Definitely not a “must” when in Kuala Lumpur, but it was still entertaining!

  • Batu Caves: These are caves and temples on a big limestone cliff located a short train ride outside of Kuala Lumpur (about 20 minutes). We went in the early AM to avoid the crowds, which we definitely recommend. The caves were interesting, as they were the first Hindu caves that we have seen on our journey. However, there was a ton of trash and a lot of construction at the caves which was a little disappointing.

  • Stroll around the Sultan Abdul Samad building: We spent the day walking around to see what we could find! This intricate building among the bustling city once housed the government and more recently the Judiciary.

Food:

  • Lokl Coffee and Co: This was a great coffee shop in Chinatown.
  • Restoran Yusoof Dan Zakhir: This was a delicious, extremely casual Indian food restaurant near the Central Market.
  • Alor Street Food Night Market: This is one of the most visited places in urban Malaysia. There were tons of restaurants with roadside dining, as well as the typical street market kiosks.

  • Dining in the Dark: Their website says it all. This was an extremely unique dining experience. Upon arrival, we were given a smoothie with three ingredients and asked to identify them all – we only got carrot correct (it was orange in color and didn’t taste like an orange). Next, we were blindfolded and asked to find paper clips out of a box of dry rice – this also proved to be extremely difficult. Finally, we removed our blindfolds, put our personal belongings into a locker, and were introduced to our waiter Yus, who is blind. He led us Congo-line style into the pitch dark dining room and to our table, helping us into our chairs. After getting a little oriented with the table setup, he brought us our first course of four appetizers. We then had a soup dish consisting of two soups, a main dish consisting of three separate plates, and a dessert dish! Eating blind made us appreciate the taste and texture of each portion of food, as well as have a greater understanding for how blind people feel on a daily basis. We had a very difficult time identifying the secret menu that would only be explained after the meal.

Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan

Day 1: December 24

On the morning of December 24, we arrived at Narita International Airport in Tokyo, Japan!! After figuring out the train and subway lines, we arrived at our AirBnB in Shibuya. We explored the area a bit while waiting for Jordan, Laura, and Fred to arrive. By mid-day we had all arrived and, although exhausted, we were eager to go out and see Tokyo. We decided to take the subway to Shinjuku station on a mission to find the famous “Piss Alley” (also known as “Shinjuku Omoide Yokochō”). After walking in the wrong direction for 15 minutes, we were finally able to find the hidden alley!

The alley is lined with tons of small, authentic restaurants that seat about six people. Although it was a bit crowded, we decided to have our first dinner at one of these restaurants. When we found a restaurant with all locals, we knew we were in a good place. After dinner, we went back to the AirBnB to relax and head to bed early since we were all running on very few hours of sleep.

 

Day 2: December 25

On December 25, we slept in and had breakfast at the AirBnB before getting picked up at 10:00am by our tour guide, Ari. Ari was born and raised in Tokyo and currently organizes privately guided tours of Tokyo for visitors like us. Our first stop with Ari was the Imperial Palace, the primary residence of the Emperor of Japan. While Japan has an elected legislature, the Emperor represents an important office similar to the Queen of England. The Imperial Palace was once a massive fortress, however today it contains a few small buildings for the family and a public park.

We then went to Tokyo Station to activate our JR Rail Passes and book our tickets for the bullet trains to/from Kyoto.

Ari then took us on the subway (which puts NYC subways to shame!) from Tokyo Station to Omotesando Hills. Omotesando Hills was built in 2005 and is a shopping complex in central Tokyo which reminded us of Fifth Avenue in NYC.

After walking along Omotesando Hills for about 15 minutes, we reached the Meiji Shrine. Ari taught us that most Japanese people are both Shinto and Buddhist and that this shrine is a Shinto Shrine. She taught us how to purify ourselves before approaching the shrine and the proper way to bow and clap when praying to the Shinto gods.

After a delicious ramen lunch with Ari, she brought us to the Harajuku neighborhood. Here we saw tons of colorful, interesting outfits as well as a “cat cafe.” Ari explained that people go to these cafes to have a cup of tea and play with cats…

We then went to the Shibuya neighborhood to see the “Shibuya Crossing,” rumored to be the busiest intersection in the world. It is said that over 1,000 people cross each time the light turns green. After witnessing it from a great viewpoint above, we believe it!!

In Shibuya, Ari took us to a very trendy cafe and then a famous department store called Loft. After exploring the interesting products in Loft, we thanked Ari for a wonderful day. After saying goodbye to Ari, we found a bar nearby and had some tea and beers before heading to dinner at Kaikaya. This restaurant came highly recommended from a handful of friends and lived up to our expectations. The family run seafood restaurant sources its fish from their own boats and the restaurant offers a cozy, casual experience.

 

Day 3: December 26

On December 26 we took the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. Along the 2:45hr trip, we passed Mount Fuji. After checking into our AirBnB in Kyoto, we walked to the famous Nishiki Market. This food market is filled with tons of fish, green tea deserts, and Japanese bean pastes. We tried lots of food as we strolled through the market, some of which we liked and some of which we really didn’t like.

We then walked to Nanzen-ji Temple, known to be one of the finest temples in Kyoto. It is surrounded by a big park that consists of many sub-temples.

After exploring the temple we went to an amazing sushi dinner at a small, family owned restaurant called Kikyo.

 

Day 4: December 27

We started December 27 with a delicious breakfast at Smart Coffee before heading to our two hour walking tour. Our tour guide was extremely knowledgeable and showed us all around the Ginza district and taught us a lot of Geisha culture.

After our walking tour, we had a quick lunch and then went to Chion-in, a grand temple dating back to 1234. One of the most famous Japanese Buddhists taught at this temple before starving himself to death.

After walking through the temple, we then went up the hill to see the monks ring the 2:00pm bell.

We spent the rest of the day walking along Nene-no-Michi, one of Kyoto’s most scenic streets. Along this street we passed more Shinto shrines and many touristy shops.

After walking down some more scenic streets (Sannen-zaka and Ninnen-zaka), we reached Kiyomizu-dera Temple. This temple has a hall with a huge veranda and stunning views of the hillside and Kyoto city. The area around the temple consists of many pagodas, one of which is the “child bearing pagoda.” At the base of the temple is a waterfall where you can drink sacred water for good health.

After lots of walking, we went to Ki Bar to relax before our dinner reservation at Tempura Yoshikawa. This dinner was a very special, traditional nine course dinner. We were seated in a private room overlooking a beautiful zen garden. Our two waitresses were dressed as geishas and explained each course to us in great detail.

What a perfect dinner to start off Cody’s 27th birthday!! 🎉

 

Day 5: December 28

On December 28 we started our morning at a delicious cafe called Sentido. We then met our group for the day to explore Kyoto and Nara. The first stop was Ryoanji Temple, home to one of Japan’s most famous rock gardens.

The second stop was Kinkau-ji, which includes the famous Golden Pavillion.

The third stop was Kitano Tenman-gū Shrine, a Shrine dedicated to education. Many students in Kyoto come to this Shrine before big exams to pray to the gods.

After a quick lunch with our group, we boarded the bus to go to Nara! Our first stop in Nara was Todaiji, a religious complex known for housing one of the world’s largest Buddha statues.

After being blown away by the size of the Buddha, we then went next door to the deer park to feed the deer. The deer bow three times (yes, they are actually very obedient and legitimately bow!!) and then humans feed them “deer snacks” (which are sold throughout the park).

Once we all got a significant amount of deer bites, it was time to head to Kasuga Shrine. This Shrine is known for its 3,000+ lanterns that line its interior.

When we arrived back in Kyoto from Nara, we grabbed a beer at a nearby bar called Craft Beer Pub. We then went to dinner at Hafuu, a Kaiseki restaurant which is a traditional multi-course cuisine in Japan. We all had wagyu beef and it was by far the best we have ever had!

 

Day 6: December 29

On December 29 we slept in for a bit before grabbing breakfast at a coffee shop near Nijo Station. After breakfast, we took the subway west to Tenryū-ji Temple, which was initially built in 1339. The temple was built on the former site of an Emperor’s villa because a priest has dreamt that a dragon was rising from the nearby river, therefore meaning that the Emperor’s soul was at unease. As a result, the temple was built to ease the Emperor’s soul and it was named “Heavenly Dragon.” The temple building that stands today was built in 1900 and is surrounded by a 14th century Zen garden.

After walking through the Zen garden, we reached the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. This bamboo forest is a “must see” in Kyoto. Walking between the bamboo stalks is atmospheric and somewhat magical!

At the end of the Bamboo Grove, we arrived at the entrance of the Okochi Sanso Villa, which is the home of the famous samurai actor Okochi Denjiro. We spent some time walking through the gardens surrounding the Villa since they were absolutely beautiful.

We then went across Togetsu-kyo Bridge to reach the Arashiyama Monkey Park. Once we arrived at the entrance, we hiked about 20 minutes uphill to see the monkeys. Over 200 Japanese monkeys live in the park. This park is extra special because while the monkeys run around free, all of the human visitors are in cages!

After feeding the monkeys, we hiked back downhill to find a place for lunch. We ended up having delicious soba in town at Togakushi. After lunch we took the subway east to Keage Station to go to The Philsopher’s Walk, a pedestrian path that follows a canal and is lined with cherry blossom trees. We started at the southern point of the path (Nanzen-ji Temple, which we already visited on our first day in Kyoto) and walked North. We stopped along the way at a beautiful temple named Zenrinji.

After exploring The Philsopher’s Walk, we took a cab back to our AirBnB to relax before having an early dinner.

 

Day 7: December 30

We spent our last day in Kyoto exploring Fushimi Inari Taisha, a shrine that sits at the base of a mountain. We got to the Shrine early and hiked for about two hours through thousands of orange gates.

For those interested in visiting this shrine, we highly recommend going early. On our way back down the mountain, the trail was packed with tourists!!

After visiting the shrine, we had ramen in Kyoto Station’s “Ramen Alley” before boarding the bullet train back to Tokyo. For dinner in Tokyo we went to a Shabu-Shabu restaurant. Shabu-Shabu is a Japanese hotpot dish of thinly sliced meat and vegetables boiled in water.

 

Day 8: December 31

Most of Tokyo shuts down for New Years, but we were still able to find some fun activities. We spent the morning at Tokyo Tower to see beautiful views of the city from above.

We then went to Akihabara Electric Town, Tokyo’s “Times Square.” After being blown away by all of the crazy lights and electronics, we decided to do as the Japanese do and go to a cat cafe! 🐱

We then had a late lunch and relaxed at the hotel before heading to our New Year’s Eve cruise on Tokyo Bay.

The cruise was great! There was a live marching band, open bar, and fireworks!

 

Day 9: January 1

After a late night, we all decided to sleep in. After grabbing a late breakfast/early lunch in Tokyo Station, we took the train to Odaiba. In Odaiba we walking along the water and explored the nearby mall.

We took the train back just as the sun started to set and the views were beautiful!

We had dinner at a bbq place in the Ginza District. We barbecued many of the meats ourselves, including tongue! 😬

 

Day 10: January 2

For our last, full day in Japan we decided to explore Ueno Park. In the morning while it was still a bit chilly, we went to the “Van Gogh in Japan” exhibit at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. It was interesting to learn that while Van Gogh was very influenced by the Japanese, he never actually ever visited Japan!

After the museum we went to the Ueno Zoo to see some pandas 🐼.

For lunch we went to a conveyor belt sushi restaurant.

We spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening strolling around the Imperial Palace (where the emperor appeared earlier in the morning). We reached the Andaz by 5:00pm for our last evening drinks and dinner!

 

Day 11: January 3

We all went our separate ways on January 3. Jordan, Laura, and Fred went to the airport early to head back to NYC. We relaxed for the day and strolled around Ginza before heading to airport for our flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. All in all, Japan an amazing, memorable vacation!! 🇯🇵❤️

Southern Thailand

We spent December 16 – December 23 in the islands of Southern Thailand. We had an amazing time and definitely, definitely want to come back at some point!! 🌴🌞

Phuket

Phuket is the biggest destination for tourism in Southern Thailand. Although the beaches are beautiful, they were extremely crowded. We spent two nights on Patong Beach (at an awesome hostel!), which was the perfect amount of time.

  • Patong Beach: This is the most famous beach resort area in Phuket. Although the beach was crowded, there were tons of good restaurants and umbrellas for us to hang at.

  • Phang Nga Bay: This bay, also known as Ao Phang Nga National Park, is about a 30 minute boat ride from Phuket and known for its limestone cliffs and caves. We booked a day trip here with an agency called John Gray’s Sea Canoe. We departed Phuket midday and boarded a big boat where we had a delicious, healthy lunch (cooked by the chef and crew onboard) as we sailed towards Phang Nga Bay. When we arrived, we got on a sea kayak with our guide for the day named Dool. Throughout the rest of the day, Dool brought us through many caves and to see many bays. One of the caves was a bat cave, also known as “Tidal Nape Sea Cave,” where we had to lie down in the kayak at one of the openings because the tide was too high! Once we got through the opening, the bay was picturesque! We also saw a rock formation in the shape of a skull and a big limestone cliff that the locals have started to call “Miny James Bond Island” (we decided not to go to the real James Bond Island since it’s just a huge tourist trap and this day trip would be much more enjoyable and have similar, and even better, views). Dool also showed us many of the fish and birds in the area, including jelly fish that surprisingly don’t sting!! At first Mel didn’t believe him, so to prove it to her he simply grabbed the jelly fish from the water with his bare hands!! After our lovely afternoon kayak tour with Doole, we spent the rest of the afternoon kayaking and swimming on our own before having delicious, Thai dinner. After dinner, Dool helped us make a flower “Kratong” that we then set off in the caves while making a wish. While in the caves after sunset, we flicked our hands and paddles in the water and got to see tons of bioluminescent plankton!

  • Night Market: Like most places we have been to in Asia, Patong had a great night market! Make sure to get a Thai pancake (and of course we got ours with peanut butter).

  • Muay Thai: We took a Muay Thai class at our hostel! It was an intense workout and we learned how strong (and flexible!!) fighters need to be 🥊!

Phi Phi

Phi Phi Island is a two hour ferry ride from Phuket. The set of small islands are famous for their appearance in the movie ‘The Beach,” Leonardo DiCaprio’s first movie. The actual beach used in the film is now extremely touristy with dozens of long tail boats. We saw the beach from the ferry, but decided that we could skip it and spend our short time in Phi Phi exploring the main island instead. When we arrived at Phi Phi, we were astonished by how developed it was since we had previously learned that the 2004 tsunami claimed over 1,000 lives. We soon learned that although the tsunami devastated most of the island, it only took two years to restore!

  • Hike to the viewpoints: The island has three main viewpoints that are an easy hike from the main town. The first two viewpoints were nice, but the third hidden viewpoint was the best! Just ask any local to point you towards the trail and it’s a quick 10 minute hike from viewpoint two.

  • Long Beach: This is known to be one of the most beautiful beaches in Phi Phi. We walked there for sunset, had dinner on the beach, and took a private long boat around the bend to get back to our hotel.

  • Aroy Kaffeine: We had a healthy, delicious breakfast here! The menu includes local food as well as our Western food, including peanut butter and açaí 🙌🏼.

Koh Lanta

We went to Koh Lanta for our last stop in Thailand! This island was our favorite, since it is much more easy-going and less touristy compared to Phuket and Phi Phi. We stayed at an amazing resort called SriLanta, which sits on a peaceful, white sand beach.

  • Go scuba diving: Several of the islands surrounding Koh Lanta offer amazing scuba diving trips. Cody dove with Anti-Gravity Divers, who were located next to our hotel and have a large boat that handled the large waves well. On the first day, he dove at Koh Bida which is near the Phi Phi Islands. The limestone cliff-island sinks about 30 meters into the water and offers large coral reefs as well as giant moray eels, snapper, barracuda and a large venomous seasnake. The second day at Koh Haa was even better. A local favorite dive-spot, Koh Haa is larger and has a few cave swim-throughs and large schools of fish around every corner.

  • Relax, do yoga, and get a Thai massage on the beach 🏖

Siem Reap, Cambodia

We spent December 13 through December 16 in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Siem Reap is the second largest city in Cambodia and home to some of the largest religious complexes in the world. While famous for the iconic Angkor Wat Temple, we learned very quickly that Siem Reap has a lot more to offer.

  • Angkor Temples: We hired a tuk-tuk and a local English-speaking guide to explore the temples of Angkor. We arrived at Angkor Wat before sunrise to capture its iconic photo opportunity and then our guide led us on a tour around the massive complex. Built in the early 12th century by the God-King Suryavarman II, the originally Hindu complex features five iconic towers that face West, towards the mountains. The facility’s construction took over 37 years and required stones to be shipped down from the mountains 50km away using bamboo rafts and elephants. We were able to get to one of the highest viewpoints and then our guide led us through some of the more hidden areas. After visiting Angkor Wat, we visited Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom is even larger than Angkor Wat, covering 9 square kilometers and encompassing several smaller temples. Prasat Bayon sits in the middle of Angkor Thom and features 216 iconic faces in groups of four that appear on towers throughout the temple. We also visited the famous Ta Prohn temple, which has many trees growing out of the ruins. While restoration projects are ongoing, the Cambodian government has decided to leave the overgrown trees in Ta Prohn to show the effects of over 400+ years of abandonment.

  • Phare, The Cambodian Circus: This performance was incredible. The circus is a combination of dance, live music, and extreme acrobatics. The Phare performers are graduates of a NGO school called Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPSA). PPSA was founded in 1994 by nine men returning home from a refugee camp after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. In the refugee camp, they found art to be a very powerful tool for healing. When they returned home, they offered free drawing classes to the street children and soon after opened a K-12 school for education and professional arts training. All profits from the circus go to PPSA.

  • Kompong Phluk Floating Village: This village is a cluster of stilted houses built within the floodplain about 16km from Siem Reap. Every year during the rainy season, the water rises 4m and therefore all of the buildings in the village are built on massive stilts. In order to get to the village, we took a boat whose engine went out a few times along our journey 😬. Once at the village, we spent some time speaking English with some adorable kids. Mel spoke with a group of four girls and was really impressed by how great their English was at the age of 9! Cody spoke with a group of young boys who found it funny to try on his sunglasses (and they thought he was 35 years old!!). On our way back from the Kompong Phluk, our guide brought us to see the flooded forest and Tonle Sap Lake.

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  • ATV: We organized an ATV trip with Quad Bike Adventure to see the authentic countryside for sunset. We had an amazing night (even though Mel’s engine died half way through the ride 🙈) and met some adorable kids along the way. Our guide was an extremely intelligent young man who taught us about the ongoing complexities within Cambodia and how over a million citizens have left the country in the past two years in search of decent wages. While Cambodia has an election next year for its Prime Minister, corruption within the country has enabled the top few to benefit from Cambodia’s natural resources while leaving much of the country to fend for itself. Over 25% of the country lives below the poverty line. For those interested in visiting Cambodia, we recommend staying in local hotels (not chains) and supporting local businesses, guides, and tuk-tuk drivers.

  • Night Market: We went here for our first evening in Siem Reap. There are many street vendors selling clothes, delicious Khmer food, and even fried scorpions and frogs! We tried to plug our noses when we passed by the durian stands 😷!!

  • Pub Street: This street has many Khmer restaurants and our favorite was Khmer Kitchen.

Hoi An and Saigon, Vietnam

We spent our last few days in Vietnam in Hoi An and Saigon. Hoi An was one of our favorite destinations in Vietnam. The town is cut through with many canals and beautiful lanterns hang above the streets and along the bridges. Each street is lined with quaint historical homes, cafes, and stores where you can design your own leather goods and suits. We spent two full days in Hoi An and wish that we could have stayed longer. From Hoi An we took an easy, one hour flight to Saigon. Saigon was very different from Hoi An, as it’s Vietnam’s largest and most chaotic city. Although there is tons of traffic and you need to be alert for motorbikes when crossing the street, we still believe that nothing compares to the number and craziness of motorbikes in Hanoi. Saigon is full of rich history related to the war and we tried to hit as many spots as possible during our time there (which was less than 24 hours)!

Hoi An Activities

  • Go to the tailor: Hoi An is famous for it’s tailor-made suits and other articles of clothing. Our tour guide recommended that we go to Mr. Xê, and we absolutely loved it! Cody got a bunch of suits (a total of 18 articles of clothing!!) and Mel got a peacoat. We simply showed Mr. Xê a picture of what we wanted, he took our measurements, and we went back a few hours later for some minimal alterations.

  • Basket boat: We took a basket boat through the coconut groves. As soon as we entered our boat, the driver gave us traditional Vietnamese hats and rings made from nearby plants, and then he started blasting music from a boombox. We dangled some bait in search of some crabs in the coconut groves, but unfortunately didn’t catch any.

  • Cooking class: It is very common to go to a cooking class when in Hoi An. We went to Bay Mau and had an awesome time with an amazing teacher named Nhi! We made three dishes: spring rolls with peanut sauce, traditional Hoi An pancakes, and beef stir fry.

  • Evening boat ride: After the sunset, we took a boat through the river in the middle of town. We got lanterns, made a wish, and set them off down the river 😊.

Hoi An Food

  • Madam Khanh: This is the best Bahn Mi in Hoi An! There’s also a juice shop next door which is yummy.
  • Low Land: This is a delicious, Vietnamese restaurant that sits on the water.

Saigon Activities

  • Cu Chi Tunnels: This is a must see when in Saigon. While several networks of tunnels were used for military purposes, most were used as a means to hide from bombings and were not occupied year-round. The Cu Chi tunnels were particularly interesting as they were in a region where allied forces used to drop remaining bombs from aircrafts before landing in the nearby airport. Therefore, the bombings were usually unpredictable.

  • War Remnants Museum: This museum contains exhibits from the various conflicts in Vietnam. It’s extremely interesting to visit and see the Vietnamese views of both the French and American wars.

Saigon Food

  • Since we were in Saigon for less than 24 hours, we didn’t experience much of the food. Our tour guide for the Cu Chi Tunnels took us to a local pho place for lunch which was delicious. While wandering around the city, we saw a ton of coffee shops (their equivalent of Starbucks is called Highland Coffee) and juice shops!

Ninh Bình, Vietnam

From December 8 to December 9 we travelled to Ninh Bình, a beautiful and non-touristy province known for its valleys and caves. After a four hour bus ride from Halong Bay, the bus dropped us off by the side of the main road. We then boarded small taxis that could manage the narrow and unpaved backroads to the homestay. The homestay was a row of about 12 bungalows along the edge of a small lake far into the rice fields. The weather was a bit cloudy throughout the day, but we made the most of our time there and it ended up being great!!

Activities

  • Bike ride through the countryside: Ninh Bình is easily navigable by bicycle. We rode through the rice fields and got to see many goats and water buffalo along the way! P.S. Mel had her own bike, she just hopped onto Cody’s back basket for the photo 😝.

  • Go on a rowboat on the Tam Coc River: We cruised through a network of rivers and caves. The rowboats here are unique because the men and women paddle with their feet instead of their hands. It looks easy, but Cody gave it a try and confirmed it’s much harder than it looks.

  • Climb up the Dragon Mountain Viewpoint: We went here right before sunset to tackle the 450 steps and take in a beautiful view.

Food

  • Make sure to eat goat! While most of our meals were eaten at the homestay, the town is home to several Vietnamese restaurants where goat seemed to be a popular dish.

Halong Bay, Vietnam

We spent December 6 through December 8 in Halong Bay. It is on Vietnam’s northern coast and has over 1,900 limestone islands streamed along emerald blue waters. Halong Bay is Vietnamese for “the land where the dragon enters the sea.” The name stems from a legend about a mother dragon who descended on the earth to help ancient Vietnamese people defend their country from invaders from the North of the sea.

Activities

  • Cruise: We took a large cruise boat through Halong Bay. We really enjoyed our boat because it went a different way then most of the other boats, making it feel less touristy.

  • Kayak: We went kayaking between the limestone cliffs. The views were beautiful and we were even able to pass through a few caves and explore areas that very few people get to see!

  • Freedom Island: We stayed one night on a private island. The island was about 100m wide and had a volleyball net and two beautiful beaches. For each meal we ate the seafood that the staff caught from the bay earlier in the day.

Food

  • Eat the fresh seafood!!