Saturday, February 27, 2010

Abel Tasman National Park

We headed from Kaikoura to Abel Tasman National Park, NZ's most visited national park known for its scenic 51km (3-5 day) Coast Track. Because of our tight schedule we obviously couldn't do the whole track, but we got a "taster" on a two hour morning hike. Then we hit the road to check out Nelson's famous Saturday Market for lunch en route to our next destination, Franz Josef Glacier...

Friday, February 26, 2010

Whale Watching in Kaikoura

We only have six days to see the South Island of New Zealand, which is a tall order given how much there is to see. We’re planning to make the most of our time by driving around to the top spots that were recommended to us by friends, covering five cities and hours of beautiful NZ landscapes.

We started our “Tour de New Zealand” in Kaikoura , a small city known for its abundance of marine life – whales, dolphins and seals – and its strikingly beautiful setting on the sea with a majestic mountain backdrop.

We got up early to go whale watching (and luckily got two spots off the waiting list on the second boat out) and despite the seriously rough sea conditions, had a great time learning about and seeing the mighty sperm whale in action. We spotted a male sperm whale 6km off the coast and spent about an hour with him. Sperm whales are the largest living toothed animals and the deepest divers in the sea, diving 1-3 kilometers deep for 40 minutes at a time to feed. In between they spend about 20 minutes at the surface hanging out to catch their breath before diving again.

We also learned that the reason for the abundance of marine wildlife in Kaikoura is the underwater geography. The continental shelf isn’t far from the shore, where the seabed drops from approximately 90 meters deep to over 800 meters. The warm and cold water currents converge here, bringing nutrients up from the ocean floor into the “feeding zone” attracting other marine life.

After returning to land we walked the Kaikoura Peninsula trail to enjoy the beautiful setting along the water. Pictures of whale watching and Kaikoura are below.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Don't Dream It's Over

I can’t believe we only have one week left until we return to the US! Here’s a song from one of the top New Zealand bands of all time, Crowded House, expressing what we’re feeling…

New Zealand

Aotearoa, "Land of the Long White Cloud," also known as New Zealand. We arrived this afternoon and plan to spend the last week of our trip exploring the South Island in this little red hatchback we rented. Already getting used to driving on the left side of the street. We're in Kaikoura tonight, hoping to see some whales tomorrow!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Eating our way through Sydney

If there's one thing Sydney does well, it's food. Sydneysiders know how to eat and we've been doing our part enjoying some outstanding meals at a few of Sydney's world-class restaurants.

My favorite: Tandoori-roasted ocean trout with spiced cauliflower salad, eggplant chutney, and buffalo yoghurt raita at Cafe Sydney

Kruti's favorite: Handmade ravioli with spinach, parmigiano reggiano, gruyere, buffalo mozzarella, burnt butter and sage at Pendolino

Sydney and the Blue Mountains

We decided that if London and San Francisco were to have a kid, it would by Sydney. There's a Hyde Park and a Kings Cross, a bay and a bridge. And Sydney definitely combines the charms of London with the natural beauty of SF.

Our photos of Sydney, Bondi Beach, and the Blue Mountains...

Monday, February 22, 2010

Climbing Sydney Harbour Bridge

We climbed Sydney Harbour Bridge today and were blown away by the stunning views of the city, the harbour, the opera house, and the sunset over the distant mountains. The Bridge Climb is a 3-hour journey to the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge (the largest and widest single-span steel arch bridge in the world) that took us along the outer arch of the bridge on catwalks and ladders all the way to the "summit." We climbed at twilight, and the city sky at dusk was truly breathtaking. They don't allow you to take your own camera so we had to settle for the three photos they took of us, but we did get to suit up in their specially designed BridgeClimb jumpsuits and get strapped in with a latch and slider attached to a static line to ensure we didn't fall (or decide to jump) off the bridge. The Brooklyn Bridge should start something like this!




Sunday, February 21, 2010

Chinese New Year in Sydney

We arrived in Sydney just in time for the Chinese New Year Parade. It’s a citywide celebration that runs through the heart of the city.

Here’s a crowd watching from the steps of the Ernst & Young building

The Year of the Tiger

And of course, the finale has to include a dragon!

Din Tai Fung in Sydney

Ever since I tried the veggie dumplings at Din Tai Fung in Shanghai, I’ve been itching to go back there for more (this Taipei dumpling house was rated by the New York Times as one of the top ten gourmet restaurants in the world in 1993 and has become so popular they have now expanded to more than 30 new locations around the world over the past ten years). So I was super excited to discover a branch in Sydney as we were walking along the route of the Chinese New Year Parade. I ordered two plates of veggie dumplings! We may have to go again when we get to L.A., their only U.S. location...


Friday, February 19, 2010


It's a little tough to see under all the gear, but that's me in the water. I'm now officially scuba certified so we can dive together anytime!

Diving the Great Barrier Reef

We spent the past two days living aboard a sailboat and diving at the Great Barrier Reef. The Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest coral reef system composed of 2,900 separate reefs that form an outer ribbon parallel to the coast that stretches 2,300km from south of the Tropic of Capricorn to the Torres Strait south of New Guinea, and 80km at its broadest; and it's estimated to be between 600,000 and 18 million years old. They say you could dive here everyday of your life and still not see the entire Great Barrier Reef; we chose to get up close and personal with an outer reef called Thetford Reef, about 20km from the continental shelf where the ocean dips down from around 30 meters deep to 2,000-3,000 meters. I experienced some problems trying to equalize my ear pressure underwater which made my first few dives a little bit painful, but the spectacular kaleidoscope of colors was a good distraction. We saw dolphins, giant clams, sea cucumbers, a large sea turtle, and many different species of fish and types of coral. Kruti and I were diving separately (I was already certified and she was with an instructor) but on the second morning we had an E.T. moment when we found each other underwater, grasped hands and made alien-like sounds of contentment through our regulators.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Just arrived in Cairns, Australia, home to the clear blue waters of the Great Barrier Reef (which we could see from the airplane window!). The commencement of the last segment of our trip (Australia and New Zealand)...the beginning of the end as it were. After traveling in Africa and Asia, Cairns looks/feels like we’ve arrived at a country club – green grass, wide streets, and generally vast space. A friend mentioned that Australia would be a good place to transition back to the U.S. Based on the strip malls in Cairns, we think she was probably right.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Year of the Tiger

February 14th marked the Lunar New Year (also Chinese New Year) known as Tet, which is the most important holiday in Vietnam and across much of Asia.

One of my favorite images from the weeks leading up to the New Year was the ubiquitous mandarin orange tree, which symbolizes “fruitfulness” for the coming year. Take a look at the pictures of Saigon and Hanoi all “dressed up” for Lunar New Year!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Trekking in Northern Laos

We did a day trek outside Luang Prabang today, and though the trekking itself wasn’t as scenic or as challenging as we would have liked, we were able to visit some local villages of ethic minorities, including the Khmu and Hmong people. In other countries we’ve visited, visits to villages have sometimes been less than authentic, set up with traditional clothing, songs and dances, and souvenir stalls to sell wares to tourists. These villages, however, felt like the “real deal” with the villagers going about their daily lives during our visit. The village children were shy but curious about the strange-looking visitors and loved seeing their pictures on our digital camera. We could have taken photos of the adorable children all day, but tried to restrain ourselves. Take a look below.

Also, check out the amazing photos from a gallery we came across in Luang Prabang named Big Tree Gallery. Some of their portraits and photos of village life were just captivating so we had to share.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Land of a Million Elephants

Laos, once known as Lan Xang or “Land of a Million Elephants” is now home to about 1600 of these endangered animals. We signed up for a one-day Mahout course with Elephant Village, an organization dedicated to saving logging elephants through tourism. A mahout is an elephant handler, so we learned how to guide our elephants through verbal commands while riding on their backs. My elephant, Mae Kham, was about 40 years old (but didn’t look a day over 30 to me) with amazingly coarse hair and leathery skin, and a lovely temperament. It's rare to be able to interact so closely with such massive and powerful animals so Vipin and I both felt like this was an incredible experience. The highlights of the day were learning to climb up onto the elephant on our own (with the help of its leg) and bathing the elephants in the river. Take a look at how much fun we’re having with our elephants in the pictures below!

Alms at sunrise

We woke up at 6am today to witness the ritual of the giving of alms to Buddhist monks in Luang Prabang. Around sunrise each day, the hundreds of monks line up with their alms bowls along the main streets of LP to receive food alms from the townspeople. They only eat the food (primarily sticky rice) they receive during this ceremony and from their families each morning and only drink water after midday.

For Buddhists, almsgiving is an important element of their religious practice and is a way of honoring their ancestors, but unfortunately this sacred ritual has become somewhat of a tourist circus these days. We saw signs at some of the restaurants in town which read “Please respect our sacred customs” with pictures of tourists getting up close to the monks, even blocking their paths to get the perfect photo. Though we kept our distance to try to be respectful, obviously others hadn’t read the same signs. It was a very sad sight and a reminder of how tourism can ruin something that was once beautiful and sacred.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Tamarind cafe in Luang Prabang

Dinner at Tamarind could possibly have been the best meal I’ve had on the trip. The flavors (particularly the meats) were completely distinctive from anything else I’ve tasted – sharp and aromatic. And the ambiance and service were outstanding to boot. We tried the sampling platter of jaew bong (a thick spicy sweet sauce made from roasted chillies, tamarind and water buffalo skin), roasted eggplant, sweet tomato and peppered cilantro dipping sauces eaten with khai paen (pressed river weed fried with sesame seeds) and Lao sticky rice (the stickiest variety); Luang Prabang sausage, dried spiced water buffalo meat (a delicacy), and meuyang – DIY parcels of noodles, herbs, pastes and vegetables; and chicken stuffed lemongrass. Yes, we overindulged, but the entire meal only cost US$15, and it was delicious!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Paradise found

After our experience with the cold/rain/fog in China, we decided to follow good weather to Laos this week. Though I really wanted to go trekking along the rice paddies in Sapa in northern Vietnam, the weather at this time of year is not great, similar to Guilin (not surprisingly since it is close to the border of China). So based on the recommendations of a few friends and fellow travelers we’ve met along the way, we decided to check out Luang Prabang in Laos. What a great decision!

Luang Prabang is a beautiful, quaint town at the intersection of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers, surrounded by mountains. It feels other-worldly with gold-roofed temples (Wats) all throughout the town and hundreds of monks and novices walking the streets in their saffron-colored robes. Old French architecture (formerly part of French Indochina), little cafes along the sidewalks and streets filled with bicycles, scooters and tuk-tuks add to the charm of Luang Prabang.

We splurged on a room overlooking the river and decided to be indulgent and relax here for the week. Massages everyday, great meals, running along the river, sleeping in – heavenly! This was the perfect spot to recharge our batteries.

Monday, February 8, 2010


 After the family left us yesterday Kruti and I were trying to decide how to spend the next week. Late last night we decided to go to Laos so this morning we taxied to the Lao Airlines office, paid for two tickets in cash, purchased a Lonely Planet guidebook, flew this afternoon, and here we are. I love this aspect of our to go anywhere we choose at any time. We were looking for an interesting place to chill for a bit and Luang Prabang is it. We like this place. I think we’re going to stay a while.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Super Bowl XLIV

Today is Super Bowl Sunday and I’m bummed not to be in the U.S. for it. The game is not on TV in Vietnam and I was too lazy to hunt for a sports bar at 6am so I’m settling for hourly updates on CNN. I’ve actually been missing the States more this past month than previously and I think it’s all related to the NFL Playoffs. Our trip coincided almost perfectly with the season – we left on September 7 a few days before regular season started and now the season is over and we return in a few weeks. It’s weird...I’m not sure whether I feel like I missed something or nothing at all...definitely saved a large amount of time that would have been spent talking football and watching it on TV. Regardless, Kruti and I were talking about it this morning and we’re getting ready (if not excited) to come home (wherever that may be). It’s been an adventure...we’ve explored many new places and met loads of fascinating people doing remarkable things. Most importantly, we’ve been fully engaged in most of our moments over the past five months. Time to get energized for the last few weeks. Go Saints!

Hanoi and Halong Bay

Hanoi is full of images we associate with Vietnam: iconic conical hats, locals sitting on low plastic stools on the sidewalk eating bowls of soup or drinking beer, full families on scooters, and masses of motorbikes looking like swarms of bees in the streets, but we didn’t see or feel the “Parisian charm” that we’ve heard and read so much about this city. Instead, Hanoi feels much like any other lively and busy Asian capital to us.

We explored the city by foot on our first day, walking around picturesque Hoan Kiem Lake at the center of town and the Temple of Literature, a Confucian temple which was the site of the first university in Vietnam. In the evening we made time to drink some bia hoi (local beer) on the sidewalk, though it tasted so bad we had to resort to playing drinking games to finish off our cups, before checking out the night market for some souvenirs. And on our final day we squeezed in a visit to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum to see the well-preserved body of the leader of Vietnam’s communist movement.

In between, we took an overnight trip to Halong Bay where we did some kayaking, a bit of hiking and (some of the gang) even braved the cold water for a swim. Though the weather was overcast, the limestone karst peaks still looked amazing. The mountain structures were similar to the landscapes we saw in Guilin and Yangshuo in China, but in Halong Bay, they were island-mountains sticking straight up out of the water which looked even more stunning. Definitely one of our favorite parts of Vietnam so far.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Mirror mirror: who is fairest of all?

I was struck and a bit confused by what some of the women vendors selling souvenirs outside Angkor Wat were wearing. In the 90 degree (F) heat, these women were dressed in long-sleeve shirts (sometimes double-layered), long pants, gloves, scarves and hats. Sweating profusely in my tank top and Capri pants, I asked one of the women if she was all bundled up because she was cold. She laughed and replied, “want to be white-white,” meaning she was covering up to prevent any of her skin from getting tanned by the scorching sun. I was shocked for a moment, especially since the heat seemed unbearable in that much clothing, but then just saddened by the consistency with which (non-European) cultures equate fair skin with beauty.

In India, Fair & Lovely cream launched in the 1970s and is old news, with newer, up-market brands like Garnier introducing skin lightening products targeting both men and women with TV ads that promise to “lighten your skin by two shades.” Here are some advertisements from different brands across Asia.

Unfortunately, social hierarchy and economic class in many countries across Africa and Asia have historically been divided by color lines. Whether because of the white colonial history of these countries or because of the difference in color of the wealthy and the working class (who spent countless hours toiling outdoors under the sun) its sad that what I consider an antiquated beauty idea still holds such importance across cultures today.

The real Elephant Walk

The Elephant Walk in Boston/Cambridge was my favorite restaurant for several years during college (we used to save it for special occasions). They serve Cambodian and French cuisine (separate, not fused) but I never tried the French because the first time I went I ordered Cambodian and the food was so flavorful I never turned to the French menu. Needless to say I was excited to taste Cambodian cuisine in Cambodia. And it was outstanding. A true gastronomic extravaganza. Kaffir lime, lemongrass, turmeric, ginger and coconut combinations created the most flavorful food we’ve experienced on the trip. Even the touristy food stalls around the temples served exceptional Khmer curries. Collectively our favorite dish was amok, fish spiced with kroeung and covered with coconut milk then wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. Absolutely delicious.

Floating Villages

We visited the floating villages of Tonle Sap, just outside Siem Reap. It was quite a sight with homes, schools and businesses all floating on the water. School had just let out for the day so we got some great photos of the kids paddling home!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Siem Reap & Angkor Wat photos

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

We woke up at 5:30am to watch the sunrise at Angkor Wat, which many tourists do. While other tourists were assembling outside waiting for the perfect photo of the sun rising behind the world’s largest religious structure, I headed inside to steal some time alone with the temple. It was still pretty dark so I could have used a flashlight but I wandered in anyway shuffling my feet to avoid tripping on the large stone stairs and waking up one of the night watchmen in the process. I was surprised that no one else had ventured inside. I enjoyed my ten minutes alone with Angkor Wat; the place feels more mystical when you’re alone with it. Luckily Kruti was outside so we still have our own photos of the sunrise ;-)

The Temples of Angkor

My first trip to Cambodia was in 2001 with my sister, Priti, and 15 of her closest friends from Kellogg Business School. I remember being awed by Angkor Wat – its scale, history, symbolism and idyllic setting – so I was excited to see it again with Vipin. Perhaps not surprisingly given my expectations, I was a little bit disappointed, at least initially. The big differences that had an impact on my experience were the sheer number of tourists and the changes made at Angkor Wat to accommodate them. My favorite memory of my last trip was of climbing up the narrow stone steps to the top of the highest tower and enjoying the serene beauty of the temple and its surroundings. Unfortunately, now the stone steps are covered by a wooden staircase and wooden railings/walkways have been built throughout the tower for tourist safety, making it so much harder to imagine how Angkor Wat felt as a place of worship hundreds of years ago. And of course the scaffolding over parts of the temple and wall carvings for restoration is always an eyesore (though necessary, I understand). Luckily we returned to Angkor Wat on our last day to watch the sunrise over the temple and walk around without droves of tourists around – I was inspired all over again.

The part of Angkor Wat that I was amazed by initially and that hasn’t changed at all is the enormous wall carvings depicting scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, two great Hindu epics. Though I’ve seen many beautiful carvings at temples in India and the US, it was incredible to see the influence of Hinduism in this part of the world. Angkor Wat was initially designed by King Suryavarman II and dedicated to Vishnu, though the temple was later converted to a Buddhist temple. More on the history of Angkor Wat here and here.

Beyond the temple, the town of Siem Reap has changed considerably. In 2001 Siem Reap still felt relatively unmarred by tourism. Cambodia only reemerged as a major tourist destination again at the end of the 1990s, after the devastating genocide under the Khmer Rouge and the Civil War that followed ended. Though this period in Cambodia’s history was bleak, the country is now a highlight in the Southeast Asia travel circuit and has benefited greatly from the influx of tourism-related revenues. The downside is that Siem Reap is now full of hotels and souvenir stalls, taking away from the charm of the town.

We only spent three days in Siem Reap, but were able to visit several ancient temple complexes. None of the other temples attract as many tourists as Angkor Wat, so you still feel a bit like an explorer climbing around the ruins. Our three favorite temples were Bayon, Banteay Srei and Beng Mealea.

Bayon has a distinctive design with 216 gigantic faces across 54 towers so you can see a face from any angle (and they can see you). It looked particularly cool in the early morning sun.

Bantey Srei, is referred to as the “jewel of Khmer art” because of its intricate carvings and was particularly interesting because it was dedicated to Shiva (unlike most of the temples which were dedicated to Vishnu). The name of the temple means “citadel of women,” probably because the carvings are so fine they could only have been carved by the hands of women.

Beng Malea is about 40km from Angkor Wat and you have to travel some rough roads to reach there, but it's totally worth the effort. The temple has been “embraced” by the jungle and is largely unrestored, so you can climb over the enormous stone piles and through rooms overrun by tree roots.

An amazing place I would definitely recommend to anyone!

Monday, February 1, 2010

The host with the most

Our friends living abroad have shaped our travel experiences, particularly in large cities, by giving us more insight into local culture than we could ever get on our own and by sharing recommendations of their favorite neighborhoods, sights and restaurants.

In Vietnam, we met up with our friend Henry, who was a section-mate and friend of my sister from business school. After graduating from business school, he moved to Vietnam to start a telecom business, launched and invested in several businesses since, and is now managing a venture capital fund in Vietnam. Despite the fact that we almost made him miss his flight to Hanoi the day we arrived in Saigon and that we are traveling in a group of six currently, Henry has been an amazing host (check out the pic of him on a moto-taxi rushing to the airport!). He drove us all around Saigon, took us to a home-style Vietnamese restaurant, showed us an evening of unforgettable drunken karaoke, invited us to his company lunar new year party, took us to his amazing restaurant Vine and patiently answered our never-ending questions about culture, politics and business.

It was particularly interesting to hear Henry’s perspective on investing in Vietnam. The country’s 10-year average GDP growth rate is estimated at 7-8%, but because of its size (86 million population) it is never mentioned in the same breath as India and China. Henry sees Vietnam as exactly where Japan and China were 30 years ago, and hence his investment strategy is based in part on case studies of successful businesses in those regions. Given the growing middle class with increasing disposable income his most active investment areas are consumer, media and online businesses, and since we've both spent a little time in these sectors we had a great time chatting about his investments. We thought some of the most exciting businesses in his portfolio are YAN music television network; Xalo, an online search business modeled after Baidu; Vinabook, an online retailer similar to; and VinaGame, a leading Asian gaming business. Can't wait to see him again when we return to Saigon!