About Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa is the editor of the travel sites Jessie on a Journey (http://jessieonajourney.com) and Epicure & Culture (http://epicureandculture.com). Along with blogging at We Blog The World, her byline has appeared in publications like Huffington Post, Gadling, Fodor's, Travel + Escape, Matador, Viator, The Culture-Ist and many others. After getting her BA/MA in Communication from the State University of New York at Albany, she realized she wasn't really to stop backpacking and made travel her full time job. Some of her most memorable experiences include studying abroad in Sydney, teaching English in Thailand, doing orphanage work in Ghana, hiking her way through South America and traveling solo through Europe. She has a passion for backpacking, adventure, hiking, wine and getting off the beaten path.

Latest Posts by Jessica Festa

Experiencing Shabushabu in Kyoto Japan

September 17, 2014 by  



One of the most interesting restaurants I ate at during my trip to Kyoto, Japan, was at Gion Gyuzen (323 Gionmachikitagawa, Higashiyamaku) and partaking in some traditional shabushabu. Upon entering the restaurant I was asked to remove my shoes and was escorted to a private room with sliding doors and a low table adorned with two potable hot clay pots filled with water flavored with seaweed. Pretty soon, plates of Kobe beef, pork, octopus, jellyfish, Japanese pumpkin, prawns, crab, scallops, sweet potatoes, enoki mushrooms, sprouts, konnyaku (glass noodles), Chinese cabbage, onion and more were brought in an unlimited fashion for myself and my dinner companions to cook ourselves in a hot pot. It’s particularly fun saying “shabushabu” quickly, over and over, until your food is ready to be smothered in your ponzu and sesame seed sauces and eaten.

For a quick bit of history, the name shabushabu was introduced by a restaurant in Osaka called Suehiro. They trademarked the name in 1955. That being said, actual shabushabu — just not called so — has hot pot origins, thought to come from Mongolia over 1,000 years ago. Today, shabushabu is one of Japan’s most popular dishes for both locals and tourists.

Tip: Save room dessert. The restaurant serves a decadent banana crepe stuffed with vanilla ice cream and thick whipped cream and topped with chocolate and caramel sauces.

What’s your favorite Japanese dining experience? Please share in the comments below.

My trip to Japan’s Kansai Region was sponsored by the Japan National Tourism Organization. I was not required to write this post nor was I compensated for it. All opinions are 100% my own.

Top photo credit: Shabushabu. Photo courtesy of Drew Bates.

6 Off-the-Beaten Path South American Festivals For Your Bucket List

September 15, 2014 by  


Of all the people, on all the continents, South Americans really know how to party.  Their indigenous roots and Christian colonization leads to an amazing assortment of fiestas.  Chose from indigenous harvest festivals to religious holidays to music performances, with celebrations that range from unbridled chaos to more serene and structured.  If you want to visit South America, these South American festivals are worth planning a trip around.

Oruro Festival, Bolivia. Photo courtesy of VMT Bolivia.

Oruro Festival, Bolivia. Photo courtesy of VMT Bolivia.

1) Celebrate The Virgin Of The Mineshaft At The Oruro Festival In Oruro, Bolivia

Travel back in time in one of the highest and most remote countries on earth. Bolivia is rich in both silver and local culture, with more indigenous peoples than any other country in the Americas. You can experience this diverse mix of multi-ethnic cultural experiences first-hand combined with the importance of salt mines if you visit during the Oruro Festival in one of Bolivia’s old mining towns.

Legend has it that in 1756, a mural of the Virgin Mary miraculously appeared in a mineshaft of the city’s richest silver mine. Ever since, the townspeople have honored the Virgen del Socavon (Virgin of the Mineshaft) at their annual Carnival at and around the Sanctuaria del Socavon (Church of the Mineshaft). The carnival starts with a ceremony dedicated to the Virgen del Socavon before about 50 groups of folk dancers perform a pilgrimage to the Tunnel Shrine. Marching bands greet the Virgin with a competition in the grotto of Pie de Gallo and the festival culminates in a three-day parade.

While in Bolivia, further explore the mining culture with a visit to San Jose silver mine. For a truly out-of-this-world experience, visit the Salt Desert of Uyuni with 4,000-square-miles of salt flats. You’ll see locally fashioned structures made entirely out of salt bricks including a historic hotel and Isla de Pescadores, a bizarre island studded with 20-foot cacti. You can also unwind at the luxury hotels on shores of Lake Titicaca, South America’s largest lake.

Candelaria Festival in Puno, Peru. Photo courtesy of Adventure Life.

Candelaria Festival in Puno, Peru. Photo courtesy of Adventure Life.

2) Do The Devil Dance At The Candelaria Festival In Puno, Peru

If you want to hop on over to the other side of Lake Titicaca, consider visiting the Peruvian side. This lake is covered with islands made and remade with totora reeds, which provide home, sustenance and transportation to more than 530 aquatic species. Try to time your visit to coincide with the first fortnight of February each year for Fiesta de la Candelaria in the nearby city of Puno.

Like many South American festivals, it owes its origins to ancient agricultural rituals linked to the harvests. Dancers decked out in sequined costumes and grotesque masks play pipes and make offerings to Pachamama, or “Mother Earth.” You will witness pre and post Colombian dances, as well as the principal Candlemas dance the diablada, or devil dance where people in terrifying devil masks face off with people in sparkling “suits of lights.” In addition to street dancing every day, make sure you attend the 12-hour Folkloric Parade throughout Puno. This is one of the largest festivals of culture, music and dancing in Peru and one of the top three in South America.

Corpus Christi Harvest Celebration in Celebrate The Harvest in Pujilí, Ecuador. Photo courtesy of Adventure Life.

Corpus Christi Harvest Celebration in Celebrate The Harvest in Pujilí, Ecuador. Photo courtesy of Adventure Life.

3) Celebrate The Harvest With Corpus Christi Festival In Pujilí, Ecuador

Ecuador has a long tradition of indigenous festivals that have been incorporated into the Christian tradition, blending Catholic and native influences. Ecuadorians love a party and put on a show, providing a nearly endless supply of food and drink. What better place to experience one of these festivals than Pujilí, a small town that typically doesn’t see many tourists?

Each June, thousands of Ecuadorians congregate here for the Corpus Christi festival that combines the celebration of Holy Communion and the celebration of the harvest to Inti, the Incan Sun God. This multi-day fiesta showcases regional and folkloric dance, music, cuisine and art and culminates in the El Danzante parade. While in town, check out Pujilí’s local market, featuring pottery, ceramics and clothes that people travel miles to buy.

If you wanted to penetrate another area of Ecuador largely unexplored and unmapped by tourists, visit the Latacunga National Park just ten to twenty minutes away. This park encompasses the stunning lakes and rivers of Andean forests along with Amazonian forest habitats. The park houses over 800 plant, 194 bird and 51 mammal species.

Inti Raymi festival in Cusco, Peru. Photo courtesy of Adventure Life.

Procession during the Inti Raymi festival in Cusco, Peru. Photo courtesy of Adventure Life.

4) Await The Return Of The Sun God At The Inti Raymi Festival In Cuzco, Peru

To attend another celebration of Inti, the Incan Sun God, travel to Cuzco, Peru. The ancient Incans gathered in Cuzco to plea for the Sun God’s return during the winter solstice, when the sun is farthest from the earth. Historically, celebrants fasted for days before the event then enjoyed a lavish banquet of meat, corn bread and chicha (corn beer) as they prepared to sacrifice a white llama to ensure fertile fields. When you visit, you’ll witness colorful dances, processions and skits, culminating in the parade where they feign sacrificing a white llama.

There’s no better place to honor the Sun God than Cuzco, whose imperial city enchants visitors with dazzling temples and access to famed Inca ruins. For beautiful views of the city, visit the Sacsayhuamán ruins. While you’re here, make sure you plan a route to Peru’s best ruins at Machu Picchu.

Argentinian Tango Festival in Buenos Aires. Photo courtesy of Adventure Life.

Argentinian Tango Festival in Buenos Aires. Photo courtesy of Adventure Life.

5) Dance Your Heart Out At The Tango Festival In Buenos Aires, Argentina

Celebrate ‘the world’s biggest tango extravaganza’ in the city that gave birth to this dramatic dance. The event begins with La Festival featuring tango shows and recitals, dance lessons and film screenings at venues across the city – before morphing into the Tango World Championship, where dancers compete for glory. Make sure you watch dancers at the massive open-air milonga, where over ten thousand tangueros float across the cobbled streets of central Buenos Aires.

Once you’ve had enough of Argentinean tango, check out gaucho culture with a trip to San Antonio de Areco, 70 miles (113 kilometers) north of the city. Get a taste of rural living at one of Pampas’s many surrounding estancias, or ranches. Arrange to visit for a day to ride horses, eat asado (barbeque) and watch gauchos’ impressive displays of horsemanship. It’s also a great place to get authentic souvenirs at local silversmith shops selling belt buckles and spurs.

Easter Festival in Quito Ecuador. Photo courtesy of Adventure Life.

Easter Festival in Quito Ecuador. Photo courtesy of Adventure Life.

6) Usher In Easter With Semana Santa In Quito, Ecuador

All across Ecuador, locals prepare for Easter with festive processions through the streets, religious statues carried shoulder high, and thousands of cross-bearing devotees. Residents usher in Semana Santa on Palm Sunday by waving traditional ramas (palm fronds) with the celebrations continuing until Easter Sunday.

Although you can find this throughout the country, some of the most scenic celebrations are found near the Spanish Colonial churches and squares of the capital’s historic center. Make sure you visit “La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús,” built in the early 1600s in the Baroque style with a central nave glittering with gold lead. Also explore the massive two-block Iglesia y Monesterio de San Francisco complex in the Old Town district. Before the week is over, make sure you try fanesca, the delicious stew typically eaten during this time of year.

What’s your dream South American festival? Have you been to any of the above? Please share in the comments below.


Argentina Travel: The All Things Culture & Arts Guide to Buenos Aires

September 15, 2014 by  



buenos aires

For your next trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina, learn how to immerse yourself in local culture, savor tasty delicacies and go beyond the guidebook in this fascinating city.

1. For those wanting to have a Buenos Aires experience not typically found in guidebooks, Buenos Aires has a lot of street art. There are many places in non touristic areas, like Colegiales and Boedo, where you can find the work of our “local Banksy.”

If you are interested in a different experience, like Gaucho Culture, every Sunday there are places called Jineteadas. Gauchos gather here for folk and music and to ride on wild horses and eat local food. Of course there are many Estancias that offer a “gaucho day.” All of them are good, but if you want to know real gauchos in Buenos Aires you must go to a Jineteada. These meetings are every Sunday in different places, about 30 minutes from downtown Buenos Aires. They don’t have a pre established schedule, and to find it is not a easy work. I typically need to listen a local radio to find the next meeting. Ask your hotel if they can help you with this.

2. For those wanting to experience local Buenos Aires culture, tango is a must. Everybody coming to Buenos Aires, goes to a “Dinner Tango Show.” Of course there are many and all of them are really wonderful places with excellent food and terrific tango performances; however, if you are looking for real tango, the place where you can find it is in a “milonga.” Milongas are a kind of social tango club where the locals meet to dance. Here, the most important thing is how well can you dance. These are non touristic places, the atmosphere and the environment are just organized for and by locals. Of course if you go there, you wont need to dance — you can take a sit and have a drink. But if you know how to dance tango you will be well received!

3. For someone wanting to savor a traditional meal, realize that Buenos Aires is located on the Pampa, which is well known for its cattle and meat. If you try a steak, it will most likely be one of the best you’ve ever tried.


Empanadas. Photo courtesy of victomar.

4. When trying to comprehend Argentinian cuisine, understand that Argentina is a big country and is divided in different regions. Each has its own food traditions. In the North West the most popular dish is locro, a kind of stew with corn, beans, pork, beef and vegetables. Empanadas and asado are present everywhere. Asado is barbecue and a typical Argentine cut of cow meat from the ribs. It’s one of the most appreciated dish for Argentinians. Empanadas are also a typical fast food. It is a thick dough filled with chopped beef and onions and cooked in the oven.

Argentina had an important immigration at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth, people from all over the world came to Argentina, many of them settling down in Buenos Aires. It is a cosmopolitan city. The Italians had a huge influence on our cuisine. If you like the Italian food, Buenos Aires is perfect. You won’t forget the pizza and pasta here.

5. For travelers wanting a culinary experience that goes beyond simply eating in a restaurant, there are many places where you can take cooking classes. Some of them are restaurants where, before having dinner, they show you how to cook steak and empanadas. If you want to really know how to cook Argentine dishes, there are excellent schools which offer private cook classes. Gato Dumas or Maussy Sebess are excellent schools.

6. Trying to assimilate into local culture? Know that the locals are called porteños (it means people who live close to the port) and are very friendly. Foreigners are always well received as long as they use common sense and act respectfully.


Art Museum in Tigre, right outside of Buenos Aires. Photo courtesy of Pablo Dodda.

7. Regarding accommodations, Buenos Aires has the best big hotels, like Park Hyatt and Hilton; however, there is a new trend in accommodations. People now seem to want smaller boutique hotels, where you can find the same comfort as with the big brands but in a more intimate environment. The boutique hotels in the neighborhoods of Palermo and Recoleta are the best ranked.

8. To sip a glass of wine paired with a beautiful view, head to Puerto Madero, the city’s newest neighborhood. There are many bars and restaurants where the landscape is wonderful. If you want to watch the sunset over the city from a high place, the bar at the top of Sheraton Hotel is great. But if you want to have a drink in a fashionable area surrounded by artists, designers and trendy people, the bars around Plaza Serrano in Palermo are recommended.

9. A must-have day trip experience from Buenos Aires is Tigre.  It is a part of the Delta del Parana, one of the biggest Deltas in the world. Just 20 minutes from downtown Buenos Aires, Tigre shows a different side of the city. Tigre is b the water, and you can take a boat trip and enjoy a day surrounded by nature an wild vegetation.

Contributed by freelancer Andres M. who was born and raised about 30 minutes outside of Buenos Aires in Tigre, Argentina. Top photo credit: Photo courtesy of Gustavo Brazzalle


Homestay Options For People Who Equally Love Nature & Culture

September 15, 2014 by  



“There’s no place like home”. This phrase is one we encounter often in Christmas carols, romance novels and cheesy TV series. At first, it seems to eliminate the incentive to travel. Why go through the trouble of packing your bags, boarding a plane and figuring out a strange place, just to find the best place is where your journey began?

Fortunately, your home is not the only place where you can feel welcomed like a family member, share home-cooked meals and swap cultural anecdotes. This collection of tours with home stays will allow you to integrate yourself in an authentic experience of a new place, where you will feel welcomed and not alone.

These trips will transport you to a whole other style of living. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a monk in Myanmar? A Polynesian sailor in Tahiti? A self-sufficient pioneer in a remote island of New Zealand? Chose from 12 opportunities to experience places others love, call home and want to share with you.

amalfi coast at dusk

1. Immersive Agriturismo On The Amalfi Coast (Italy)

Join Epicure & Culture Tours — in partnership with G Adventures — on Italy‘s Amalfi Coast for a tour designed to be an authentic immersive experience. Stay in a 16th-century former monastery-turned-agriturismo surrounded by rolling hills lush with vineyards, olives and lemons and spend time interacting with a local family. Hike Amalfi’s “Walk of the Gods” past craggy cliffs, farmhouse ruins and deep valleys, and have experiences like cruising from Positano to Amalfi, exploring Pompeii with a knowledgeable guide, and visiting historic churches and colorful coastal towns. You will learn to cook like an Italian (even picking your own produce!), eat pizza where it was first created and drink lots of wine.

Dates are September 26th – October 3rd, 2015.

Hiking through the Balkans with Locals.

2. Explore The Peaks Of The Balkans Through Kayaking And Hiking (Albania/ Montenegro)

Take the road less traveled with an eight-day hiking trip from Podgorica, Montenegro to Tirana, Albania with Row Adventures. Actively explore rivers and forests as you hike and kayak your way through the Balkan Peaks, at the triangular border of Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro. Throughout your hike, you’ll meet local leaders and citizens who will expose you to an intriguing European and Eastern influences in the area. Simple accommodations in rustic inns, guest houses and home stays get you intimately acquainted with the genuine hospitality this area is famous for. Savor traditional meals prepared from locally-sourced ingredients as you learn about centuries of existence in the mountains, where people survived as shepherds and farmers. Your participation in this tour helps preserve the traditions of this area, which may lose its distinctive identity if its inhabitants continue to out-migrate to larger cities.

Slovenian Grape harvest

3. Walk And Picnic Through Hilltop Settlements (Karst, Slovenia)

Want a self-guided hike through some of the greenest landscape in Europe? Try On Foot Holiday’s 8-night hike through Karst in western Slovenia. Enjoy picnic lunches as you walk through the hilltop settlements of Stanjel and Tabor. This rocky, volcanic region contains incredible scenery, including disappearing lakes and extensive cave systems as well as fertile ground for delicious food. You will stay in farmhouses that produce their own honey, ham, fruit and wine, most notably of the Teran variety. These products are often featured in local dishes. Depending on the season, you may try Karst roast beef in Teran wine and pršut (the local prosciutto), rabbit stew, soup with locally pickled mushrooms, or venison medaillons — all finished with honey ice cream. Each day, you will walk approximately 3-5 hours to work up an appetite for your next Slovenian feast.

Learn how to catch and cook crayfish over a beach barbecue in Fiordland National Park, New Zealand

4. Hunt And Fish Through Fjordland National Park (South Island, New Zealand)

Want to develop pioneering skills in a remote area, a three-day walk from the nearest town? Alpine Adventures will arrange an overnight tour that allows you to learn how to hunt and fish in New Zealand’s rugged South Island. You will fly over dense rainforest, glacier-carved valleys and rugged beaches as you travel to the World Heritage Area of Fjordland National Park. After a picnic lunch, you will meet your local guide: a sports photographer who worked on international yachts before returning home. He will teach you how to fish, cook you dinner at a beach bonfire and hunt possums after dark. You’ll stay in a canvas tent on the beach and share meals in the original hut where your guide grew up.  The next morning, you will learn about the area’s rich deer stalking history as you wander the remote island with a rifle.

Your host family will cook you dinner over an open fire during your Sapa home stay.  Photo courtesy of Buffalo Tours.

5. Travel Back In Time With A H’Mong Homestay (Sapa, Vietnam)

Join Buffalo Tours for a first-hand experience of a Vietnamese ethnic-minority community. You will travel back in time when you spend a night with H’Mong people without modern conveniences. To get there, you will hike three hours through terraced rice paddies where you can watch farmers move water buffalo, woman do the laundry and children return from school. After lunch, you will meet your H’mong hosts who will tell you stories as you help them prepare dinner over an open fire. After eating, they may challenge you to a card game or offer you a drink before you retire for the evening. The next morning, your host will serve a breakfast of coffee and pancakes before you hike back to Sapa, Vietnam, traversing more terraces accented by the surrounding colorful landscape.

Learn to chose fabrics and cook on the side of a volcano with the Karanki community of Ecuador

6. Sleep On The Side Of A Volcano And Sail Through The Galapagos (Ecuador/Galapagos)

Join Collette on a ten-day tour of Ecuador and the Galapagos, where you’ll connect with multiple Ecuadorian communities and encounter unique Galapagos wildlife. Your journey begins with a train ride through the Andes Mountains, surrounded by volcanic peaks and fruit and sugar plantations. Choose between spending the night in a 300-year-old Andean hacienda or join the Karanki community of La Magdalena for a home-cooked meal and home stay on the slopes of a volcano. Immerse yourself in the daily life of these indigenous people through watching herding around the farm, tasting homemade bread and cheese, sampling medicinal teas and witnessing craftspeople making artisan textiles. After you leave Ecuador, the focus shifts to local wildlife. Spend four days cruising the islands, snorkeling to see marine iguanas and manta rays, walking by blue-footed boobies and visiting the main nesting site of Galapagos sea turtles.

View from Amantani, Peru: site of your home stay

7. Enjoy Andean Hospitality On A Peruvian Island (Lake Titicaca, Peru)

Real World Holiday’s Southern Cross tour will ensure that you visit all the major sites of southern Peru, while giving you the chance to stay with a local family on the island on Amantani on Lake Titicaca. The tour takes you down the coast for a boat tour of local wildlife at the “Baby Galapagos” Ballestas Islands. From there, you’ll fly over Andes foothills, explore a canyon filled with hot springs and condors then head to Lake Titicaca. Here, you can elect to stay with a local family who will cook you an Andean meal and lead you on a star-gazing stroll around the island. The next morning, explore the island on your own before heading back to the mainland and the ancient Incan city of Cusco. The remainder of your tour features Incan ruins and Peruvian valleys, ending in the Lost City of Macchu Picchu.

You can chose the 16-day holiday or just the home stay (1 night including lunch and dinner with the family) which costs $110.

Enjoy a gourmet meal in a Portuguese manner.  Photo courtesy of Solares de Portugal.

8. Snack On Seafood And Shellfish In Portuguese Stately Manors (Portugal)

With Solares de Portugal, stay in privately-owned manor houses, elegant country homes and rustic farmhouses throughout the country and be treated as part of the family. The owners greet you with a warm welcome and share their knowledge about nearby sites, regional gastronomy, festivals and traditions. Many homes have large yards where you can wander the gardens, fruit orchards, woodlands and vineyards that produce delicious in-house wines. Other leisure facilities can include horseback riding, a swimming pool and games room. You can create your own tour of Portugal with these accommodations or follow a pre-arranged schedule. For example, their 7-night gastronomy tour will lead you to homes in areas famous for distinct culinary dishes. When you visit coastal Douro, dine on ‘Arroz de Marisco’ rice, shellfish and fish stew, complimented by the region’s best white wines. When you visit the North, wake up to a bowl of Caldo Verde soup – a mix of shredded cabbage, potato, garlic, onion and olive oil – served with slices of good smoked ‘chouriço’ sausage or ‘salpicão’ jerky and corn bread.


9. Stay With Monks In Myanmar (Pan Hone, Mynamar)

If you have been dreaming about a local way to experience a country that has recently opened up to tourism, try a Myanmar tour arranged by Jacada Travel. They will customize an itinerary for you, many of which include home stays. For example, spend 9 days trekking in Pan Hone and Namp Pan, staying and enjoying meals with hospitable Burmese natives. Feast on authentic Mandalay dishes, such as mee shay (rice noodles with meat sauce), mohinga (rice and fish soup) and nan gyi thohke (rice noodles with chicken curry). You can also spend a night in the Pa Laung hill tribe village, where a translator will facilitate your interactions with villagers sharing their ancient traditions. Finally, join monks staying in a monastery. Rise at 4 AM to help them wash an 11½ foot tall Buddha with scented water then brush its gold overlaid teeth.

Sail through Polynesia, making new friends and learning new things along the way

10. Take a Crash Course In French Polynesian Culture From Marquesan Sailors (Papeete, Tahiti)

Board the MS Aranui 3 to travel through 800 miles of the spectacular Marquesas Islands, accompanied by a Polynesian crew. Unlike many cruises where the crewmen do not associate with the guests, this colorful crew is encouraged to befriend guests, which facilitates a cultural interchange. Along the way, you’ll savor Marquesan meals including barbecued rock lobster, poisson cru (raw fish marinated in lime juice and soaked in coconut milk), curried goat, breadfruit, taro and sweet red bananas. Make on-shore stops to hike past waterfalls, lagoons and jungle ruins as well as visit a pearl farm, meet local artisans and tour museums. An onboard lecturer ensures your trip is educational in addition to enjoyable and socially satisfying.

SSCA group shot TIF edited

11. Forage For Wild Food (Asheville, NC, USA)

Join “No Taste Like Home”  for a wild food foraging adventure. This Asheville-based eco-tour company will teach you about finding, cooking and using these handpicked ingredients in medicine, brewing, crafting and more. On a short walk, their expert guides show you how to safely identify, appreciate, and savor 12-30 varieties of wild plants, mushrooms, and other extreme cuisine. After “shopping” in the forest for ingredients, you can bring them to a local restaurant to prepare for free. To elongate your time in the mountains of Western North Carolina, chose from a variety of home stays in the surrounding area.

Rice planting with host families

12. Yak Farming On The Flanks Of The Annapurna (Nepal)

Many trekkers hike through the Annapurna region of Nepal, but few venture off-the-beaten-track. Himalayan Quests integrates hiking with home stays,  cooking classes and local festivals together in an immersive, multifaceted experience. This tour is best for people of moderate fitness level with a real sense of adventure, who can embrace basic conditions to experience mountain life in Nepal. The tour guide ensures that your visit benefits the local communities and often caries rice and food to supplement local subsistence-style farming. Along the way, visit a village-weaving workshop, paper making workshop and cheese making factory. You will spend a night at a yak farming project on the edge of the Annapurna. The trek culminates with a visit to the sacred Khayer Lake (4,500m), a peaceful place surrounded with shrines, rhododendron plants and towering Annapurna peaks.

Have you ever experienced a homestay? What was it like? Please share in the comments below.

Cooking classes and learning about the local cuisine is often a focus of a homestay experience — Top Photo courtesy of thea0211.



Chiang Mai Thailand: From Elephants & Festivals to Food & Local Culture

September 14, 2014 by  


Yi Peng Festival

Thailand isn’t all about beaches and Bangkok. Be sure to check out Chiang Mai in the north. Below are some interesting food trends, local culture and tips on travel to Thailand’s north including background on how to travel responsibly.

1. For those wanting to have a lesser-known Chiang Mai experience, some of the best things about the city aren’t the things a guidebook would write about. To me, the best thing about this city is how friendly and open people are and that the experiences you have when you just wander outside of the walls of the Old City can truly be some of the most memorable moments from a visit here.

So, for those wanting have a Chiang Mai experience not in the guidebook, my advice would be to go and get lost. To go, map-free, for a wander across the moat that separates the “old” from the “not as old” and explore. Head to some of the more local markets, like Warorot, and across the river and through the maze of sois (small streets that oftentimes are barely large enough to fit a car). Get in one of the public cabs, called songthaews, that aren’t the red ones which take you within the city limits. Yellow, white and other songthaews lie at the bank of the Ping River just near Warorot market and for under $1 USD can whisk you to smaller towns nearby.

2. For those wanting to experience local culture in Chiang Mai, befriend shop owners at places you frequent and talk to them. It isn’t always easy to find the local hot spots, but they are there. I recently came across an adorable little restaurant/bar about a minute from my house and had no idea it even existed. There isn’t even a sign outside saying what it is called, just a square block of twinkling lights.

The greater distance you get from the Old City, the greater the cultural opportunities are, in my opinion. The northern part of the “Downtown” area of Chiang Mai is far more Thai than other parts, and across the moat from the Old City is a neighborhood called Santitown. Here, you can find some great coffee shops and food stalls. If you’re looking for Thailand nightlife, head to spots like Warm Up in the college/hip Nimmanhaemin or northeast of the city to D Bar and the line of clubs/bars there.

khao soy

3. No trip to Chiang Mai would be complete without savoring the local food culture. For someone wanting a traditional meal, they should try Khao Soy! This soup is a northern Thai specialty and extremely flavorful and delicious. It is a coconut milk-curry soup with egg noodles and then served with pickled cabbage, red onions, shallots, a wedge of lime and roasted chilies and topped off with crispy noodles. It often comes with chicken or pork, but can also be vegetarian/vegan depending on where you go. Hands down, that is my favorite dish.

4. For those wanting to take a cooking class or have a culinary experience that goes beyond eating in a restaurant in Chiang Mai, cooking classes in Chiang Mai can be found everywhere. I prefer to recommend ones which source organic products or are vegetarian/vegan, so am a big supporter of Anchan’s cooking class. Outside of restaurants, some amazing culinary experiences include hitting up a local’s BBQ — locals here are really friendly and if you get to chatting with some, a BBQ invite could be forthcoming — as well as trying some of the street food offerings.


5. For those wanting to assimilate into local culture, there are a few Thailand cultural tips I would recommend for visiting Chiang Mai. I see so many travelers come here who unknowingly are quite insulting to the culture. For one, cover up. It is absolutely not appropriate for females to wear skimpy clothing. I lost count at least a year ago of how many females I have seen wearing those muscle tanks that clearly show their bras or tiny shorts. This is especially important when visiting temples. Shoulders and knees should be covered.

Also, travelers tend to not remove their shoes when stepping into businesses. A good rule of thumb is if there are shoes lined up outside the door, then you should take off your shoes, as well. Moreover, never put a Thai person in a position to lose face. Losing face is a big deal in the culture and Thais will do what they can to avoid this.

Confrontations — be them quiet or loud — are not appropriate. Don’t ever touch someone’s head. If you are a female, don’t touch a monk. And the list goes on. But, these are good starters!

6. For a local accommodation with personality, locally-owned guest houses are everywhere in Chiang Mai. They are cheap and often times have a lot of character. It really depends what a person is looking for, though. I personally am dying to stay at 9 Moo 9, which is a tiny hotel with artistic rooms themed after the zodiac signs. The place I stayed and really liked when I was traveling here before I moved no longer exists, sadly.

7. For a drink paired with a beautiful view in Chiang Mai, any spot on the river is gorgeous. Riverside is popular with locals and at night, the river looks so pretty with the lights of the city reflected in it.

8. Must-experience day an weekend trips from Chiang Mai are abundant. My personal favorite for a day trip is Sri Lanna National Park (Mae Taeng District, Chiang Mai). Here, you hop on a long-tail boat and take it to an area where there is a floating dock with a restaurant and little bungalows. Chiang Rai is a popular option with the White Temple. But, Pai, hands down is the most popular weekend trip. It’s nestled into the mountains and has a laid back vibe that people relish.

elephant nature park

9. For those visiting Chiang Mai concerned about responsible tourism, understand that ways to be an irresponsible tourist far outweigh the responsible options. Animal exploitation is prevalent here, so skip the places which sound like they are too good to be true options, or place the animals in situations which are not normal. Elephant tourism is prevalent, but the not-so-good trump the good.

I always suggest spending a day or night at Elephant Nature Park. The elephants here are rescued from tourism and more, and don’t have to work for people. They get to spend their lives off chains, with their other elephant friends, and don’t face abuse. The park does not allow bull hooks or other instruments of pain to get them to listen, there are no shows, there is no riding, no painting. Here, people can observe them be happy, and feed them and bathe them. Personally, spending the night is amazing! There’s nothing like falling asleep listening to elephants chatter.

Disclosure: I volunteer for ENP, but I truly believe it is the best example of responsible elephant tourism in the region.

 Contributed by travel writer Diana Edelman. Top photo Chiang Mai Yi Peng Festival. Photo courtesy of Takeaway@Wikimedia.org.



Bangkok Thailand: 10 Cultural Things for the Foodie & Responsible Traveler

September 13, 2014 by  



For your next trip to Bangkok, Thailand, take in the following food trends, local culture and must-have experiences in this fascinating city.1. For those wanting to have a memorable Bangkok experience, head to Chinatown and Silom Road to enjoy some traditional Thai street food (yum!). Also, take a dinner river cruise on one of the small boats. Banyan Tree has their own rice barge that has been made into a beautiful restaurant. It can be a little pricey but worth it, as the service and the food is excellent. It also provides for a better experience than one of the big “party boats.”

Make sure to also go for a ride on the Sky Train. This is probably nothing for people who come from a country with a good public transport system; however, for us coming from Australia where our public transport isn’t very impressive we had a lot of fun riding the Sky Train.

2. For those wanting to experience local culture in Bangkok, street food is must. Also, check out the Royal Grounds and the temples in the city, but be sure to wear the appropriate clothing (pants and a t shirt, no short skirts or singlets). Jump on a little boat and go down the canals that come off of the Chao Phraya River and make sure to visit the float markets. Moreover, visit some of the local markets — the sights and smells are a shock to the senses but it’s an amazing experience.

pad thai

Delicious Pad Thai. Photo courtesy of Luca Nebuloni.

3. No trip to Bangkok would be complete without savoring the local food culture. For someone wanting a traditional meal, I would highly recommend my favorite Thai dish, Pad Thai! Pad Thai is usually served as noodles with tofu (or chicken or beef), bean sprouts, onion and peanuts ground up. If you like something a little hot and spicy I would recommend the Thai Green Curry, although be aware that it does have a bit of a kick. If you don’t like it too hot just ask for a “not spicy” (“mai phet”) or “a little bit spicy” (“phet nit nawy”).

4. Typical Thai cuisine is about strong and subtle flavors and bright colors. I couldn’t find a major difference between the cuisine in Bangkok, Koh Samui or Phuket — the places I have traveled. There is also Western food throughout these areas for people who don’t have the stomach for Thai food, or cant eat it for every meal.

5. For those wanting a culinary experience that goes beyond eating in a restaurant in Bangkok, cooking classes are a great way to experience traditional Thai food, how it’s supposed to be made and how its supposed to taste. Lonely Planet suggests a number of cooking classes. I have heard that Baipai Thai cooking school is excellent. There are also locals who are willing to take strangers into their houses and feed them. The best way to find them is by making friends with street vendors or vendors at markets.

thai woman

Smiling Thai woman. Photo courtesy of Jean-Manuel Fernandez.

6. For those wanting to assimilate into local culture, Thailand has a number of etiquette rules for different situations. Don’t say or do anything disrespectful towards the King or you will land in a lot of trouble. In relation to food and eating, make sure to take your time. It’s not a race. Take only a small amount of food as you will be expected to eat everything on your plate. Moreover, don’t leave your chopsticks in the bowl. It symbolizes death and is very bad luck.

7. For a local accommodation in Bangkok with character, there are a number of B&B’s around Bangkok that can provide an authentic Thai experience.

8. For a drink paired with a beautiful view you’re in luck, as Bangkok is the city of rooftop bars. My favorite Is Vertigo at Banyan Tree which has great city views. Otherwise try Sirocco and Sky Bar Rooftop Bar and Restaurant, where you will get a better view of the Chao Phraya River. I recently updated an article of places to eat/drink in Bangkok.

Ayutthaya Kingdom

Ayutthaya Kingdom. Photo credit/Sam & Pete.

9. For a must-experience day or weekend trip from Bangkok, I would highly recommend the Ayutthaya Kingdom, which is known as “The Ancient Capital of Bangkok.”It’s a place of ancient and modern temples and buildings, some destroyed by the Burmese. There is a lot of history in this area, and it’s highly recommended to go along with a tour guide. You can learn more by clicking here.

10. For those visiting Bangkok concerned about responsible tourism, don’t fall into tourist traps such as visiting the Tiger Temple. This is something we did but wouldn’t recommend to others, as we were silly and didn’t know much about it. We don’t condone animal cruelty.

Contributed by Sam & Pete from Travelling King. 


India: Spiritual Experiences For Inner Peace On Your Journey

September 13, 2014 by  





Being the birthplace of world religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, India attracts millions of tourists from all across the globe who visit the ancient country in order to seek spirituality and enlightenment. Due to the presence of several religions and beliefs, India is famous for its various pilgrimages and spiritual retreats. Indian religions like Hinduism and spiritual disciplines like Yoga, have been recognized all around the world and ever since the arrival of the Beatles in 1968 in Rishikesh, India became one of the most recognized hippy hotspots in the world which further strengthened its significance as one of the most spiritually and culturally rich countries in the world. If you’re wanting to experience spiritual India, here are a few destinations to add to your itinerary.

1. Gangotri, Haridwar

Gangotri refers to a glacier located in the state of Uttarakhand and also a glacial river, considered to be the source of the holy Ganges River in India. The river begins at an average elevation of 3,415 meters (11,204 feet) above sea level amidst the Greater Himalayan range. Gangotri is also the name of the town that surrounds the glacier and the temple was originally built by a Gurkha leader in the early 19th century. Being the very source of the most holy rivers in India, Gangotri is visited by thousands of Hindu pilgrims during the year and is also a part of the Chota Char Dham pilgrimage of the Hindus. This is a must for any spiritual India itinerary.

Bodh Gaya

Walking meditation marks at Bodh Gaya. Photo courtesy of Lyle Vincent.

2. Bodh Gaya, Bihar

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Bodh Gaya is located in the state of Bihar and is famous for being the place where Lord Buddha achieved enlightenment. Thus, Bodh Gaya is one of the most important pilgrim destinations for Buddhists across the world. The Mahabodhi Temple and the Bodhi Tree are few of the prime attractions for visitors. The Bodhi tree was considered to be the exact place where Siddhartha Shakya meditated and received enlightenment. The original temple, now known as the Mahabodhi Temple, was built during the 3rd century BC by King Ashoka.

3. Balaji Temple, Tirupati

Also known as the Tirumala Venkateshwara Temple, the Balaji Temple is located in the state of Andhra Pradesh atop a hill and is an amazing place for those looking for a spiritual India experience. The temple is known to be one of the richest places of worship and is also the most visited temple in the world. Balaji Temple is one of the finest examples of the Dravidian temple architecture, built and expanded during the reign of the various dynasties of southern India such as the Chola, Pallavas and Vijayanagara Empire. Today, the temple is visited by nearly 10,000 pilgrims and tourists each day.

Golden Temple

Golden Temple. Photo courtesy of Carlos Adampol Galindo.

4. Golden Temple, Amritsar

Built in the 16th century AD, the Golden Temple, or Harmandir Sahib, is located in the Indian state of Punjab and is the prime pilgrim spot for the Sikh community of India. The name of the temple literally means the “Abode of God” and is represented through a marvelously designed temple complex in the middle of a man-made lake, beautifully decorated with gold leaf. The water from the lake is considered to be the holy nectar ‘Amrit’ and is fed by the waters of the River Ravi. The temple is best visited during the festival of Baisakhi, which falls around the second week of April every year.

5. Minakshi Temple, Madurai

Dedicated to the Hindu deity, goddess Parvati, who is the consort of Lord Shiva, this temple is located at Madurai in the state of Tamil Nadu. It is one of the richest temples in India alongside the aforementioned Tirupati Balaji temple in Andhra Pradesh. The temple is said to have been constructed by another Hindu deity Lord Indra and has been mentioned in the Tamil literature for more than 2 millennia. The temple is built in a stunning Dravidian architecture with a total of 10 gopurams (towers) decorated with stucco figures and spread across an area of 45 acres (18 hectares).

India is a land of various religions, each with its own set of customs and beliefs. The above-mentioned places are just a few of the several places of worship across the country. Apart from these five, there are several other attractions –such as Varanasi, Kedarnath, Sun Temple, Kanyakumari, Vaishno Devi and Pushkar — also worth visiting to experience spiritual India — unlike no other place in the world.

Contributed by freelancer Rohit Agarwal. top photo credit: Gangotri. Photo courtesy of shimriz.


Get out of Bangkok to Experience an Off-the-Beaten Path Thailand

September 12, 2014 by  




Thailand is on everyone’s list. Even if you’ve been there before, below are ten great recommendations on how to best immerse yourself in local culture and go beyond the traditional guidebook offerings.

1. For those wanting to have a Thailand experience not typically found in guidebooks, get out of Bangkok! The capital city has plenty to see and do, but so much of it is filled with tourists of the mainstream variety. Live a little. Head to the area surrounding Bangkok, specifically Nakhon Pathom. There’s the Jesada Technik Museum (containing dozens of awesome cars you’ve probably never seen before) and the Thai Film Museum, both in the same area about 30 minutes outside of Bangkok. If you’re ready for a day trip to see some swimming monkeys, head to Amphawa to see those.

2. For those wanting to experience local culture in Thailand, this will really depend on what interests you. And yes, that sounds like a cop-out. Sorry. Chiang Mai gets points for offering everything from Thai cooking classes to Thai massage classes to elephant experiences done right. There’s plenty of destinations around (Ban Jang Nak is awesome — a place where they carve wooden elephants), but head to Chiang Mai for the experiences.

pad thai

3. For someone wanting a traditional meal, a simple, humble bowl of noodles with pork or chicken from any street food stall. If you’re in a Pad Thai sort of mood, a place in Bangkok has been making the dish for over 40 years. It’s called Thip Samai, and they’re THE original. They’re in Western Bangkok and it’s doable by bus, though a taxi driver will likely know about it as well.

4. For those wanting to partake in some adventure, the “Flight of the Gibbon” tour or any of the zipline tours offered in Chiang Mai are worthy of being called adventures. You’re basically sailing through the forest on a zipline, taking in the trees. Bring the GoPro!

5. For backpackers and extreme budget travelers heading to Thailand, here are some tips. If you’re staying in Bangkok, Khao San has some of the cheapest hostels around, but frankly they’ll be little more than a roof and a bed. If you’re looking to stretch your travel budget, get out of Bangkok. Chiang Mai and Isaan (the northeast region of about 20 provinces) both offer great deals for a few hundred baht (about 10 USD) or less. You’ll only see temples that charge admission in Bangkok, but do offer donations where you can to help keep the place up.


6. For those wanting to assimilate into local culture, keep these things in mind. Beyond the obvious “take off your shoes before entering temple buildings,” I’d remind people that things happen on their own time scale here. A bus may come on-time; it might be 45 minutes late. The national saying “mai pen rai” — no worries — is seen and felt everywhere. Patience and calmness trump hurriedness any day. And yelling at a local will cause them to shut down and stop responding. Stay classy, people.

7. For a drink paired with a beautiful view in Thailand, head to any of the hotel bars in Bangkok along the Mekong river. Just know this experience isn’t the most budget-friendly.

8. To party like a local in Thailand, the “hi-so” (high society) scene in Bangkok is on the pretentious side, in my humble opinion, but one place to take it in is called RCA in Bangkok. Think of RCA as the old-school club district, and still where the Thais go. A dress code will apply at some bars – collared shirts and no shorts typically – and the upscale prices will match the clientele. Any taxi driver worth his baht can get you here – it’s a little distant from public transportation, though.

Another great option with more variety (and no dress code) is Thong Lo, easily accessed from Bangkok’s BTS (the sky train system). Pretty much everything from German beer to Italian food to a Thai cover band playing Beatles songs are all here. The area changes so fast that I’ll sound out-of-date if I try to name specific restaurants, though. One constant is the ability to pre-game dinner at a street stall if you’d rather spend your money on drink.

white temple bridge

9. One must-experience day or weekend trip in Thailand is driving a motorcycle, if you’re cool with that, with Chiang Rai as a base for a couple of days. The White Temple and the Black House are the two bigger destinations, but there’s also a worthwhile Hill Tribe Museum explaining their history and culture.

I’ve actually put together a 7-day itinerary for Northern Thailand, which includes day-by-day directions and places for Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, and Lampang.

10. For solo travelers heading to Thailand, know that most of the country is really rather safe. The only times I’ve felt anything less than safe was on the streets at Bangkok late at night. While in Bangkok, standard street smarts apply – don’t flash your cash, keep your phone and devices tucked away, and wrap your bag across your body with a hand on the bag itself. Also (and I feel silly for having to mention this), don’t get too drunk while in public. You become a rich target that’s easy to hit up.

Contributed by freelance blogger Chris Backe. Top photo credit: Macaques in Thailand. Photo courtesy of Moyan Brenn.


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