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Dead Sea, the Jordan Side

21 Jun

On our drive back to Madaba, we decided to take a detour to splash around in the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea separates Jordan from Israel and is a prime source of income for the salt and mineral mining industries. In addition, it’s a prime source of tourism on the Jordan side, with fancy Hiltons and Movenpick resorts starting to spring up. Because the Dead Sea has no natural outlet, the salt content keeps increasing. Currently the salinity is 8x that of seawater!

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We went to the only public beach on the Jordan side, and once again had to pay the special tourist pricing. Locals: 0.5JD. Us: 16JD each!

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The public beach had a swimming pool area as well. Many of the visitors pay a few bucks to coat themselves in the local mud–supposedly it’s rich in healthy minerals and good for the skin and body (as well as an effective sunblock).

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Floating in the Dead Sea is an amazing experience. The minute you sit down, you pop right up in the water! The feeling is akin to sitting in an inner tube, although you just happen to be in really buoyant water!

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You can do weird things in super buoyant water. Here, Jerry is literally suspended vertically in the deep water without treading. It takes no effort!

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It’s actually quite difficult to swim in the Dead Sea. So much of your body is out of the water that it’s difficult to propel yourself. You also have to take care not to get any water in your eyes. We also accidentally got some on our lips and boy, does it sting!

The Dead Sea is yet another highly recommended place in Jordan. Visiting Jordan has been one of the highlights of our trip so far. From the friendly people to the wonders of Petra to the uniqueness of the Dead Sea, Jordan has something for everyone!

Petra

18 Jun

“A rose red city, half as old as time.” Isn’t that just so romantic?? The description fits Petra perfectly.

Undoubtedly the pride and joy of Jordan is Petra. We spent 2 days hiking around Petra and it is our choice for most beautiful place in the world. Without a doubt, Petra is one of those places you absolutely must see before you die. The combination of the natural beauty along with human craftsmanship isn’t comparable, there is nothing else like it out there.

To read more about Petra, go here. But really, the entire place is indescribable and pictures don’t do it justice. We’ll just show you how we spent two days there:

Our hotel, Petra Moon, was an easy two minute walk down the hill from the entrance of Petra. We took advantage of our proximity and got our start at 6am each morning when the site opens.

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Day 1:
Whereas we spent half days at other world wonders (3 hours each at the Great Wall and Taj Mahal, 1 hour at Christ the Redeemer), we dedicated two days to Petra. A single day ticket for people daytripping from Israel costs 95JD, whereas a 2 day pass is 55JD. This is the way Jordan encourages tourism in their own country. By the way, similar to the Taj Mahal, nationals pay a fraction of the cost, 1JD.

Booths lining the path to the entrance: Indiana Jones snack shop!

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It’s about a brisk 30 minute walk to the Siq, you can see some carvings along the way.

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We started getting all googly eyed when we got to the Siq. Such a beautiful path! It takes maybe 10 minutes to get through the Siq if you don’t stop to take pictures. Bonus, the Siq is also wonderful because it’s shaded!

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I think our most favorite part of Petra was exiting the Siq and seeing the Treasury unfold in front of us. It was incredibly magical and we were awestruck. The best part about it was that we had the entire moment to ourselves, not a soul was around. We literally just stood there and gawked at the entire thing. It was just so gorgeous. And since it was overcast, the lighting was just perfect for photography.

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We spent a good hour at the Treasury. You can’t go inside unfortunately, but we sat on one of the benches and just hung out. It was also fun to people watch and look at their reactions when they see Petra for the first time.

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We took advantage of the overcast day and went on a 2 hour hike to the Monastery, Petra’s #2 attraction. If you’re up for it, this is a good hike to take because many other attractions are along the way.

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Can’t believe that arch is still intact!

Above: Coliseum Below: This is Petra’s version of Third Street Promenade/La Rambla/Champs Elysses

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Brown University currently has an excavation project going on. Did you know that experts say only 15-20% of Petra has been uncovered? Amazing! Generations to come will hopefully have more to look forward to.

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The Monastery is larger and less intricate than the Treasury. Definitely worth the hike!

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Throughout the park, you’ll be asked persistently and constantly to pay for camel and donkey rides. We must have been asked at least 2 dozen times on the first day. The locals won’t take no for an answer. Here’s the deal:

Even though your ticket gets you a “free” ride from the entrance to the Siq, you still have to pay “tip.” We opted to explore the entire park on foot. I read that the camels, donkeys, and horses are abused, beaten, and overworked. Jerry actually even saw a worker drop kick a camel in the head, which was so sad. At our age, it’s easy to turn down rides because we can handle the distance and heat. However, I can see that an older person or a young kid might benefit from paying for rides. Petra is so huge that you realistically can’t explore the entire thing in one day. We had the luxury of two days, which not everyone opts for.

Day 2:
Again we left at 6am and had the Siq/Treasury to ourselves. Day 2 was looking to be a very sunny day, so we immediately left for the hike that gives an overlook of the Treasury.

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Along the way, we explored some tombs.

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The natural colors are so gorgeous!

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This dog was annoying at first because it kept following us around and sniffing our food. It was also quite dirty and so we didn’t want to pet him for obvious reasons. However throughout the hike he grew on us and we even named him Buddy. He was sort of like our hiking guide, it was endearing! In some areas the trail was not marked as well, and so Buddy would “guide” us in the right direction.

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Left: We are back on the ground a few meters from the Treasury. I’m pointing to where we hiked up to! Right: Up on top is a nice tent like structure, perfect to relax and rest before going back down.

We opted out on seeing Petra by Night (Jeannie kept wanting to call it Paris by Night, those of you who are Vietnamese would get this joke), because we heard it was crowded and very touristy. The description sounds romantic, seeing Petra in all it’s glory by candlelight/moonlight. But after watching youtube vids and reading online reviews we gathered that we’d essentially be herded with other tourists in a large group and be forced to watch a “cultural” show with music/dancing, and whatnot. Not our idea of a good time! It’s also pretty pricey and not included in the 2 day ticket.

Other tips:
Bathrooms are really clean, well at 10am, I don’t know about 5pm, but up to date plumbing and western style. They are also a decent number of facilities throughout the park.

Food is very expensive inside the park, so at dinner each evening before, we ordered a few sandwiches to go and we also picked up fruit and drinks from local markets. Of course this only works if your hotel room has a fridge.

Petra is the name for the Archeological Park/site. When you book accommodations and eat out, you’re actually in Wadi Mousa, the town that serves as a gateway to Petra. We thought we’d clarify this because we were initially confused as well!

Definitely go for the two day ticket. The weather was perfect at 6am when we headed back to the hotel by 1-2pm or so, it was pretty uncomfortable. As we made our way back shortly after lunch, we saw folks that were barely heading out. That’s too ambitious for us! Also, the later you go, the more crowded it is, that’s when the hordes of tour buses caravan dozens of tourists at at time. There is just nothing comparable to having the Treasury to yourself, even for a few minutes!

The view from our hotel. Beautiful!

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Indiana Jungs!

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All in all, Petra was our favorite place on this trip so far. We’ve got a month to go before we fly back to SFO, so it’s safe to say we don’t think anything will top our Petra experience.

So what are you waiting for? Book your ticket now! While Jordan is a very safe country at the moment, who knows what the future will bring. The region is so volatile (latest news: Syria), and so it would be a shame if Petra ever went the way of the Bamiyan Buddhas. Although I highly doubt that would happen (would be the travesties of all travesties), one can’t really predict the future. Especially for a region like the Middle East.

We hope you enjoyed this post! Our next post: floating in the Dead Sea. We ❤ Jordan!

Koh Tao, Thailand

6 Jun

What’s Thailand without its world famous beaches?

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On our RTW, we happened to be in Thailand during the buffer season which is mid-May. At this time, the winds pick up on the west side (Phuket side) and the snorkeling becomes rougher and the Surin and Similian islands close down for tourists. So we decided to visit Koh Tao (aka Turtle Island), a smaller island on the eastern side of Thailand. We flew a 2 hour plane ride from Chiang Mai to Koh Samui, which for some reason has a large number of tattooed smoking white guys. Not exactly our type of company. Then we took a 1h45m boat ride over very choppy waters to Koh Tao (we had to close our eyes the whole time, it was that bad!), where we were picked up by our resort and then proceeded for another half hour over some 4wd terrain just to get to the resort. Whew!

You really can’t go wrong with any island in Thailand (there are so many to choose from!). It really just depends on your taste and what you’d like to do. However, a word of caution, if you’re prone to seasickness, you might want to stay at an island that you can directly fly into, such as Phuket. Phuket is quite overrun with tourists, which is why we didn’t choose to stay there, but at least you won’t have to endure that terrible boat ride!

We stayed at Jamahkiri resort, which is a high class resort and has a nice view of Shark’s Bay in southern Koh Tao. We also specifically picked it because you can go snorkeling directly from the resort, versus needing to book a separate snorkeling trip.

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The snorkeling was fantastic (as long as you stay away from shore, as it’s a little shallow over the coral at this time of the year) and we were able to find some low-cost food at a backpackers type place called Rockys next door, which was a pleasant surprise. The food at our resort was a little too fancy schmancy our tastes and wallets. We did the very same thing on our honeymoon in Fiji- stayed at a resort with nice amenities, dined at a backpackers cafe. Jeannie was also able to get a nice full body massage, wrap, and facial.

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Our little find.

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Red fleshed dragon fruit!

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Best thing about SE Asia, all the fresh fruit.

We had pretty much typical hot beach weather the entire time. It started to get stormy on our last night and because all rooms at the resort have ocean views, we were treated to a fantastic and lengthy lightning show from the comforts and safety of our room. Gotta love the simple and free entertainment.

All in all, it was nice to be in a place for a couple of days where there’s not much to do. There’s infinitely more stuff going on in big cities, but with that comes pressure to try to squeeze in a lot. We’re glad we included a nice relaxing mini island vacation in the middle of our whirlwind trip!

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Chiang Mai, Thailand

5 Jun

Note: Heavy photo post! But the elephants and tigers are so cute!

Chiang Mai is the second-largest city in Thailand. It’s a destination city that is known for hosting many of the outdoor and wildlife activities that Thailand has to offer. In addition, all of the activities are child-friendly and the Elephant Nature Park is particularly enlightening.

In our 3 days in Chiang Mai, we were able to walk the old city and visit the huge Sunday Walking street market, hike a 10-level waterfall, play with live tigers, go to a Thai cooking school, and visit an elephant nature park where injured, sick, and orphaned elephants are given a good home for the rest of their lives.

But first, we had to get there. We booked a private first-class cabin on a sleeper train, and it turned out to be a pretty rough experience. Train travel on the Internet is a little romanticized, with the main positive points being transportation and sleep accommodations all rolled into one. The reality is that it’s small, cramped, and uncomfortable, with dirty bathrooms and bad overpriced food. We had our own cabin with private sink and two fold-down beds, but the western toilet/shower combo did neither function well. 15 hours later, we arrived at 9:30am, an hour and a half late. Neither of us were well rested and we looked forward to taking a nap before visiting the Sunday Walking night market.

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The train station in Bangkok. It was a little ghetto to be honest. FYI if you order your ticket online, they won’t give you a hard copy at the counter. Instead they’ll direct you to an Internet cafe. We solved this problem by taking the train to our hotel, explaining that we were going to check in the following week, and asking if they could print for us. Cost us 50 cents, but cheaper than an hour at the Internet cafe! Thanks Holiday Inn Express!

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Different modes of transportation in Thailand- modern subway and elevated “sky” trains, rickety old school trains, and trucks converted into passenger bench taxis.

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The Sunday Walking night market sells a collection of handmade goods and excellent food, all for a buck or so. This was one of the better markets in the world that we’ve been to, and easily surpasses Mongkok, Temple Street, and Saigon Ben Thanh in terms of variety, quality, and price. Instead of tacky fake goods, there tended to be well crafted handmade wares. Similar to Unique LA, without the hipster factor.

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Bugs anyone? Crunchy!

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Flowers are huge in the Thai culture

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What’s nice about the market is that the paths take you to some wats along the way, sightseeing and shopping all in one.

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Fresh donuts/street side foot massages

Refreshing Thai iced tea, super cheap and strong at a cafe.

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On day 2, we hired a private driver to take us to the Maesa waterfall and Tiger Kingdom. Maesa was nice but the 100 degree heat and high humidity quickly drained our energy. And after having been to Iguazu Falls, sadly other waterfalls aren’t the same to us.

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Afterwards, we hopped back into the car and 5 minutes later were at the Tiger Kingdom. At TK, they breed and raise the tigers from birth, and socialize the tigers with humans every day in order to make them somewhat domesticated. This allows them to make money by giving visitors a chance to get up close and personal with the tigers. They have 4 sizes of tigers to “play” with: small (2 months), medium (6 months to a year), medium-large (1 year), and large (18 months). There is a huge difference between the ages, even though all of them can be considered juveniles. We chose to visit 3 cages: medium, large, and small.

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The medium tigers were our first cage. We were a little apprehensive at first because we’ve never been close to a tiger and these medium tigers could easily kill you without much effort. The trainers were nice and showed us various poses to with the tigers and even how to lay down on them. General rules for approaching tigers: approach from the rear, pet with a heavy hand, and do not touch the head, face, or front paws. After visiting the medium tigers, we played with the large tiger and small baby tigers in their respective cages. Though the biggest and smallest tigers made for the best pictures, we found that we enjoyed the medium tigers the best. They were more interactive and playful. The big ones are lazy, sleepy, and lethargic, and the little ones were a bit ADD. The mediums were the most fun to watch! PS, did you know tigers sleep 16-18 hours a day??

The Tiger Kingdom is certainly for tourists, and if you’re a PETA activist this place isn’t for you. But for those who want to do something crazy? stupid? fun? this place fits the bill.

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The next day we made an all day trip to the Elephant Nature Park. Here, they don’t offer elephant rides and the elephants don’t do tricks. It’s a nature conservatory where abused, orphaned, and handicapped elephants are brought to give them a sanctuary for the rest of their lives. Most people don’t know that domestic elephants are accorded the same rights in Thailand as livestock. Its sad to see that they are beaten, abused, and overworked to the point where they break down. One elephant was blinded by its former owner, who shot out its eyes to try to get the elephant to carry lumber faster. Another elephant had stepped on a land mine and lost a foot. It’s sobering to see these elephants, but good to know that they have a good home at the park. We were able to feed them, pet them, and play in the river with the elephants. It was a wonderful experience and something that will be remembered for a long time.

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Finally, we also took a Thai cooking class. I’d say that equally attractions in Chiang Mai are a third animal related, a third massage/spa, and a third cooking schools. We chose Basil cooking school because of great reviews and also because the kitchen is more modern. Tip: choose the evening cooking class, the weather is cooler, and the food doubles as dinner.

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Chiang Mai is a great place to visit, both kid and adult friendly! We highly recommend it.

Iguazu Falls: Argentina vs Brazil

27 Mar

A tale of two sides: Iguazu Falls. Iguazu Falls is one of the seven natural wonders of the world and it’s easy to see why. Iguazu is at the intersection of 3 countries: Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. Due to its geography, Paraguay got unlucky and none of the views and touristic opportunities fall on its side. Which leaves us with the other two.

Argentina. The Argentines sure know how to develop an area and make the most of it. The Argentine side is crowded, claustrophobic, and concrete. The first thing that came to our minds was Disneyland! There are huge queues of people waiting for the trams and boats, and tons of those photographer people who take your picture and try to sell you the prints. The Argentine side allows hikes right up to the edge of many waterfalls, which gives you a sense of the sheer power and volume these falls contain. Unless you have boundless energy and are immune to the effects of high heat, it’s very difficult to explore everything on this side in one day. As an FYI for anyone interested in visiting, you can get 50% off admission on day 2.
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Garganta del Diablo. Incredible and breathtaking. As Eleanor Roosevelt reportedly said, “Poor Niagara!”

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Tons of people jostling for pictures.

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The Brazilian side is more natural, quieter, and cooler. Less commercialized. You start with a 20-minute open-air bus ride through the forest before you arrive at the falls. From there, you get beautiful panoramic views of falls on both the Brazilian side as well as on the Argentine side. There are less people which gives more opportunities for picture taking and leisurely walks. We like the Brazilian side better and feel waterfalls are best viewed from farther away.

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We are glad we had the chance to visit both sides. Despite personally not enjoying the Argentina side as much as the Brazil side, both have much to offer. It definitely was incredible to be up close and personal with Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat) on the Argentina side.

Anyone been to both sides and have a preference?

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