Tag Archives: travel

Oh the Florida sky.

If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plan.

In my case, if you want to see God roll in the aisles, plan your trip to the Z in TripIt. My mini-moon in Florida Keys could have been the ultimate beach trip, with sunset rendezvous with dazzling glasses of mojito, floating among the whimsical Florida Reefs, playing pirate ghosts in shipwrecks, or parasailing with the wind.

Nah! He sent his pariah named Winter Storm Jonas.

On the day I planned to go diving in John Pennekamp State Park, all water activities, even kayaking in semi-concealed mangrove tunnels. I got really upset! I’m like a spoiled kid when things didn’t go accordingly. But this was no hollow plan. I have wanted to go to the park since I read about the underwater Christ of the Abyss statue and ship remnants that settled there. It’s a chance for me to put my PADI certification in use, and it’s different from other water sites I have snorkeled/dived in.

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John Pennekamp that day.

2 days later, we woke up at 6.30 for our tour to Dry Tortugas National Park, only to be greeted by a cautious ranger. She informed us that the catamaran was still running, but the ride would be very rocky, and snorkeling would be “out of the question”. Despite my longing to see this unique, superlative park, the kinetosis in me cried no. I knew my limit: Dramamine wouldn’t help much, and I would get too cranky and exhausted to enjoy the scenery. Plus, what’s the point of seeing a mesmerizing palette of blue without being to touch it?

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On the Seven Mile Bridge. The GoPro shook like crazy, I had to do multiple shots to get one or two almost neat-looking photos.

Still, we still had a lot of fun dashing through the Overseas Highway and exploring the Keys. It was no California’s State Route 1, but with a Mustang Convertible, the drive was still a classic. Here are some of our interest encounter along the way:

  • Python Challenge: NOT SAFE FOR GEEKS! The wildlife in Everglades National Park is being threatened by the invasion of non-native Burmese pythons, so people are participating in a removal competition. I propose captured pythons be packed and sent oversea to Asian countries, where python fat is used as a kind of alternative medicine (notably burn treatment), but apparently Everglades pythons have high levels of mercury and not recommended for consumption. (Not that Asians care)
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    Kids for scale! This is a humble 13-feet.

  • Robert is Here: a well-known fruit farm in Homestead, FL. Well, for me, it was a sanctuary. There were star fruits, canistels, rambutans, full-sized jackfruits, SUGARCANE JUICE! Sapodillas were twice the size of a regular one, and soursops were twice the prize. I particularly love how the tastes are described: pineapple cotton candy, egg custard, fruity flan… Growing up eating these tropical fruits on a daily basis, I kind of took them for granted, never thinking about how foreigner would perceive these tastes. It’s like… describing colors to blind people.
  • Big Pine Key / No Name Key: I was adamant about dropping by this tiny island to spot the endangered Key deer. We saw 4: a lonesome, mellow buck, and a group of 2 does and 1 tiny fawn. They are tiny and intrepid, but I kept my distance, with respect to their habitat.PicMonkey Collage
  • Bahia Honda State Park: some guides say this state park is passable. I’m glad I didn’t listen. Not much activity was going on the day we came (stormy stuffs), but the beach was sophisticatedly turquoise. I think it’s one of the more beautiful beaches in Florida Keys. It also gave a great view to the old Bahia Honda Bridge, and better, access to the bridge itself.
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The “here and there” view. The clouds looked like watercolor strokes.

  • The Spice & Tea Exchange Key West: a “franchise” that specializes in, well, spices and tea. I purchased a bag of Wuyi tea with relatively good quality (not on a par with my favorites Ten Ren, Harney & Sons, or McNulty though). I have higher hopes for the spices, and can’t wait to try the salmon rub made from black tea and peppercorn.
  • I almost forgot the most important thing: food! While the seafood here is so fresh you can hear fishermen singing, the execution didn’t wow us. We went to restaurants on both the widely praised and the locally recommended sides, enjoyed our meals overall, but neither of us got that euphoria in the tummy. The only memorable dish, for me, is the Asian-fusion tuna tataki, seared rare tuna and wakame salad, at Bagatelle.IMG_20160119_181949 (2)
  • And yeah, conch fritters!

For now, I think I’m done with Florida. Temporarily. Maybe I’ll be back a few years later to explore the off-beaten paths this sunshine state has to offer. But in the mean time, 2016 will be the year of lakes and mountains!

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Descending the quiet desperation

Recently I applied for an educational counselor position, and as part of the application, I had to write a “personal statement”. I almost didn’t want to follow up out of laziness, but there was a topic I wanted to write about anyway, so yeah, I did it. This year, the common application has enforced a strict 650-word-limit so my essay had to oblige to that regulation. Turn out, I’ve reached a phase where writing complete yet meaningful sentences, not to mention “conveying your thoughts and describing your growth” in under a thousand words is really, really hard.

It was fun writing this bit, though. I still feel like it misses something, but compared to my actual college essay 10 years ago, it is a big, big leap.

And it’s only “based on a true story”. I love how that phrase is just a glorified, but justified way to fabricate the truth.

The sub-zero temperature chilled my bones, to the point that I had to frequently pinch myself to assure my senses weren’t numb, as well as to stay awake because I was afraid I might get hypothermia in my sleep. I huddled with my friends to keep warm, even though it didn’t help much. I spoke gibberish to the girl next to me, and the story of how I got here, the summit of Mount Fuji, became clearer to both of us.

It started with the news that I failed the H1B lottery and must leave the US within two months. I tried to downplay my disappointment by condemning the US immigration policy for its pure dumb luck system. But I couldn’t lie to my consciousness. My job was my quintessential dream. It was where my career was headed, the goal of many classmates’, and I attained it all on my own. Now, the symbol of my self-esteem was ripped off of me, and there was nothing I could do about it.

It wasn’t the end of the world. There were easy ways out for me: a marriage to my fiancé, a doctoral program, a promising career in my homeland. But whatever decision I chose wouldn’t be a decision I made. I wanted things to happen on my own terms.

So three weeks later, there I was, on this iconic mountain. There’s a saying that people climb it for the sake of the status. That was exactly what I was looking for. I didn’t even know to whom I was proving myself. I just knew that if I had to postpone my future, it had better be for an awe-inspiring reason.

I reached the summit two hours earlier before the sunrise. It would have been a proud moment for me, had it not been for the freezing rain. Amid the hallucinations from exhaustion, sleep deprivation and the cold, I found words flowing out of my mind, unrestrained. In a disrupted and inebriated-like voice, I told the girl next to me that I had always been defined by my career, I made it the sole focus of my life. Now that I lost it, I became so desperate for recognition that I was risking my life in this strange place. Then I hit the epiphany. I wasn’t Thoreau searching for transcendence. I was just a self-pitying narcissist, disguised as an inexcusable, so-called “soul-searcher”.


Maybe it was the cold hard truth that wore me down, but my mentality gave in. I dozed off for 15 minutes when my friend woke me up and led me to the viewpoint. The furrowed clouds swept around the sky, hemmed in by a golden haze. Then, the Sun slowly ascended from the horizon, spilling its orange-hued rays over the mountain. Soon enough, it laminated the whole landscape with warmth and light. Everyone cheered and applauded, while I stood still, dumbfounded and teary-eyed. It felt oddly, yet naturally soothing to be vulnerable and inadequate in front of a wonder this monumental.

My friends and I then headed down to a nearby onsen. I must have picked up some Japanese spirit along the way, because for the first time, I didn’t feel self-conscious at all. I skinny dipped into the hot water. Nobody was peeping at anybody. We relaxed our muscles, exchanged brief pleasantries, and overlooked the Sun, which had haughtily reigned over the unassuming mountain. In the back of my mind, I knew I’d boast of this achievement on Facebook later. But at that moment, I just wanted to enjoy this scene as long as I could. It was a long overdue compensation for many sunrises and sunsets I had missed whilst working 10 hours in a city office.

Then I closed my eyes, not looking for a nap, but dreaming of what the rest of Asia would offer me in the next 12 months.

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Ramble on and around Loy Krathong

English version below.

Nếu ai đã xem Tangled thì không thể quên cảnh Rapunzel và Flynn lênh đênh trên thuyền trong khi hàng trăm nghìn chiếc đèn trời được thả lên cao. Cảm hứng cho hình ảnh này chính là lễ hội Yee Peng/Loy Krathong, được tổ chức hàng năm ở các thành phố miền Nam Thái Lan. Năm ngoái mình có may mắn được là một phần của Loy Krathong tại Chiang Mai (nơi lễ hội được tổ chức tưng bừng nhất), nghiên cứu rất nhiều nguồn, nói chuyện với một số người dân bản xứ, và nhận thấy có nhiều nhầm lẫn về các lễ hội xung quanh sự kiện này nên muốn viết lại. Để biết thêm là chính, chứ mình nghĩ có chút nhầm lẫn cũng chẳng ảnh hưởng đến việc tận hưởng vẻ đẹp của Chiang Mai.

1. Loy Krathong thực chất là gì?

Collage 1Krathong tiếng Thái nghĩa là “đèn hoa đăng” nên Loy Krathong, trước nhất và trên hết, là lễ hội đèn hoa đăng. Đây là dịp người dân cảm tạ thuỷ thần, thuỷ linh đã mang đến nguồn nước dồi dào trước khi mùa khô đến. Đèn hoa đăng được tết thành hình hoa sen, ở trên cắm hoa, nến và cây hương. Trước khi thả trôi sông/nước, mình bỏ lên đó một ít tóc để bỏ đi những phiền muộn và điều dữ trong cuộc sống.

Một hoạt động lớn khác của LK là biểu diễn xe hoa đăng. Các xe tham gia diễu hành được trang trí rất cầu kỳ, đa số có ý nghĩa Phật giáo.

Tuy nhiên, nếu đến Chiang Mai đợt Loy Krathong, mình thấy mọi người vẫn thả đèn trời là chính, chứ không hứng thú lắm với việc thả đèn hoa đăng. Quả thực thì thả đèn hoa đăng không “thích” bằng thả đèn trời vì nhiều lý do: (1) thả đèn hoa đăng khó hơn vì bờ sông khấp khểnh, nên đa số không tự thả mà xếp hàng, đợi có người ngâm mình dưới nước để đẩy cho đèn trôi, (2) đèn hoa đăng không sáng bằng đèn trời, dễ bị thổi tắt, nên không phục vụ được mục đích chụp ảnh, và (3) lý do tương tự – đèn hoa đăng chỉ trôi sát mép sông chứ không rải rác cả bầu trời được.

2. Một lễ hội đèn lồng khác.

Yee Peng Festival và Loy Krathong Festival diễn ra cùng thời điểm nên bây giờ được coi như là một. Yee Peng Festival là lễ hội “đặc trưng” của miền bắc Thái Lan, có nguồn gốc từ Vương quốc Lanna. Đủ các thể loại đèn lồng – đèn treo, đèn cầm tay, đèn lồng xoay và đèn trời – sẽ được trang trí ngoài cửa nhà và trong chùa.

3. Thế dịp nào là thả đèn trời?

Ở Chiang Mai, có 2 sự kiện mà hàng nghìn chiếc đèn trời (lom khoi) sẽ được thả đồng thời (mass release).

Lanna Kathina Ceremony là một lễ hội Phật giáo, được tổ chức bởi Giáo hội Phật giáo và các cơ quan chức năng cấp quốc gia và địa phương, diễn ra phía sau Mae Jo University. Thường thì khách sẽ phải đến rất sớm để giữ chỗ, nếu ai lười có thể thuê các tour du lịch để đưa đón từ nhà và giữ chỗ cho mình. Sau khi các nhà sư đã tụng kinh, hàng loạt chiếc đèn sẽ được thả lên trời cùng một lúc, tạo nên một cảnh tượng vô cùng thanh tao, và đẹp đầy xúc cảm.

Tuy nhiên, xét về khía cạnh tôn giáo thì mass release chỉ là một phần của lễ hội. Trọng tâm chính là lễ “trao áo cà sa” (kathin), là dịp người dân cảm tạ các nhà sư bằng cách dâng công đức (áo cà sa, tiền, thức ăn). Chiang Mai là cố đô của Vương quốc Lanna, thời cực thịnh của Phật giáo, nên có rất nhiều chùa chiền, và các nhà sư rất được coi trọng. Các ngôi chùa ở đây có kiến trúc đa dạng, không khí vừa linh thiêng vừa trầm mặc, mình không theo đạo nhưng bước vào cũng cảm thấy rất yên bình. Ở Wat Chedi Luang, khách còn có thể đến trò chuyện cùng các nhà sư về Phật giáo, văn hóa, hay bất kỳ chủ đề nào (monk chat under the sun).

Lanna Kathina Ceremony là lễ hội cộng đồng nên ai cũng có thể tham dự, nhưng hãy nhớ ăn mặc kín đáo, lịch sự để tỏ lòng tôn kính. Dịp lễ được tổ chức vào ngày rằm, còn ngày tháng chính xác thì 1 tháng trước đó mới được thông báo chính thức: www.tourismchiangmai.org

Yee Peng Lanna (Mae Jo) là một sự kiện bán vé, được tổ chức bởi một nhóm Phật giáo tư nhân tên là Duang Tawan Santiparb Foundation, không thuộc quyền quản lý của hội Phật giáo. Đây là bản sao của Lanna Kathina ở chỗ sau lễ tụng kinh là mass release đèn trời. Khác ở chỗ, sự kiện này diễn ra bằng tiếng Anh để phục vụ khách du lịch, và ngoài ra không có các sự kiện tôn giáo nào khác.

Yee Peng Lanna diễn ra khoảng 1-2 tuần sau Lanna Kathina, giá vé $100 bao gồm đưa đón và đồ ăn, số lượng người tham gia hạn chế. http://www.yeepenglanna.com/index.html

4. Nên đi lúc nào?

Chiang Mai là vùng đất tôn giáo và văn hóa của Thái Lan, vậy nên nếu mục đích là đi để tìm hiểu và khám phá thì dịp nào cũng được cả. Dĩ nhiên, mass release đèn lồng là cảnh tượng nên xem một lần trong đời, nên nếu canh được đúng hôm ấy thì là chuẩn nhất.

Mình thì lỡ hẹn với Lanna Kathina, và không bào chữa được với việc bỏ $100 (5 ngày ở CM mình tiêu chưa đến mức ấy) cho một sự kiện “bản sao” nên đi vào dịp Loy Krathong. Tuy không có được những shoot ảnh thần tiên, nhưng chỉ đứng thả đèn và ngắm nhìn ánh sáng lung linh trên nền trời và sông nước cũng đã đủ cho mình một cảm giác rất lâng lâng và mơ màng. Chiang Mai còn có rất nhiều thứ để khám phá: đạp xe lang thang, thăm thú chùa chiền, ăn khao soi đến khé cổ… vậy nên nếu không xem được mass release thì mình nghĩ cũng chả có gì phải xoắn.

Công viên quốc gia Doi Inthanon, nơi có ngọn núi cao nhất Thái Lan / Doi Inthanon National Park, home to the highest mountain in Thailand.

If you remember Tangled, you must remember being intrigued by the scene in which Rapunzel & Flynn float on the river while watching hundred thousands of sky lanterns released on her birthday. That captivating moment is inspired by a festival in northern Thailand, called Loy Krathong/Yee Peng. Last year, I was fortunate to travel to Chiang Mai and be a part of it. I did a massive amount of research, talked to the natives, and found out that many people (me included), have some confusions about the festivals and events surrounding this sky-lantern release. This is a comprehensive note to clear things up (even though it doesn’t matter if you just want to enjoy the beauty of Chiang Mai).

1. Loy Krathong

Krathong means “water lantern” in Thai, thus Loy Krathong, first and foremost, revolves around water lanterns. People pay tribute and express gratitute to water spirits for the water resources by floating lanterns along water banks. The lanterns are usually in the shape of a lotus, and carry offerings (candles, incenses, flowers). You also put a small chunk of hair on it, resembling sending troubles and predicament away.

Another event that attract tourists are parades. The floats are deliberately decorated, mostly with Buddhist tributes.

But yeah, during Loy Krathong, people choose to release sky lanterns over water lanterns anyway. To be honest, it’s more fun with sky lanterns, for many reasons. (1) It’s harder to float the water lanterns. The banks often hinder their flows, so people usually queue up for a guy in the water to help send their lanterns away, (2) water lanterns are not as bright as, and more fragile than sky lanterns, so they are not up for photo-taking purposes, and (3) similarly, water lanterns only floats along side the banks, compared to the sky lanterns, which fly all over the sky.

2. The other lantern festival

Yee Peng Festival and Loy Krathong Festival are now considered one, due to the proximity in their dates. However, the latter is celebrated throughout Thailand, while the former occurs only in northern Thailand. There are all kinds of lanterns involved – hanging lanterns, hand-carried lanterns (with a long handle), revolving lanterns, and yes, sky lanterns. They are decorated in front of houses and temples, as to lure away darkness and predicament. DSC07840 (3)

3. The one we’ve all desired: mass release!

There are two events in which sky lanterns (lom khoi) are released simultaneously.

Lanna Kathina Ceremony is a Buddhist festival, administered by the Buddhist Sects and the Thailand Authority of Tourism. After a night of chanting and prayers, hundred thousands of lom khois will be released into the sky. This is an ethereal and emotion-provoking moment that everyone should experience once in a life time.

However, religiously speaking, this moment is only a part of a much more significant ceremony: “robe (kathin) offering”. Laity and people will bring donations and offerings to monks in the form of new robes, money and food. I think Buddhism in Chiang Mai is beautiful (couldn’t find a better word). The temples are diverse in architecture, and they have a hallow atmosphere that captivate even a non-religious person like me. Just strolling around the city, visiting different temples, engaging in conversations with the monks at Wat Chedi Luang gives me such peace of mind.

Meanwhile, Yee Peng Lanna (Mae Jo) is a ticketed event by a private Buddhist group named Duang Tawan Santiparb Foundation. This is a tourist’s version of Lanna Kathina the mass release occurs after the chanting and prayers, except that it is conducted in English, and there is no robe offering ceremony that day.

Yee Peng Lanna is usually 1-2 weeks after Lanna Kathina, and only a limited amount of tickets are sold at the price of $100pp, including transportation and food.

4. My verdict

Last year, I missed the public mass release. At the same time, I didn’t see myself paying $100 for a ‘faux’ event. Even though Loy Krathong didn’t give me any breathtaking shoots, just standing among the crowds, looking at the bright lights floating in the night sky was dreamy and ravishing enough for me. After all, Chiang Mai has a lot more to offer than a few minutes of beauty. I had an amazing time biking around, eating khao soi 3 times a day, discovering the live music scene… so if you can make it for the mass release event, it would be the best. But if not, honestly, don’t sweat it.

Source: TripAdvisor, thaizer.com

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My travel planning tools

I am by no means a travel guru, but I’ve been around enough to know a thing or two about traveling. So this post is not really a guidance – most websites I list are already popular. I just want to talk about the joy I find when planning a trip, share some useful tips, and talk a little bit more :).


Step 1. Google Flights

I love serendipity, but not spontaneity. I don’t like the idea of “just hopping on a plane/bus/train and wandering to the unknown”. As I am closer to the 30s than the 20s, I’ve learned that freedom with discipline is the best kind of freedom. Whether if you want to pull a Walden move or sunbath on an exotic island, you need to know the place to avoid getting lost, or even worse, stranded, or get in troubles with the local laws. That’s not adventurous; that’s negligent!

That is when Google Flights comes in the picture. It has a lot of analytical features that are sure to find you the best prices, such as predictions, suggestions and price display for the whole month – which you should totally take advantage of if your dates are flexible. But what kindles my love for GGF is its generous search function. If you don’t know where to go, just type in the region, even continent, and the page will show a price map, beautifully and comprehensively listed for your browsing’s convenience. Or if you are even lazier, there’s always the “I’m feeling lucky” button to take care of your unsettled mind. It gives you the freedom to choose, but keeps you grounded with your budget and goals (because who wants to wanderlust in Gary, IN). Once this first and most difficult decision is made, the rest becomes as smooth as mojito by the beach.

However, many low-cost airlines such as Southwest, Frontier and Virgin won’t show up in GGF, nor any third-party flight search engine. So you might miss out on some better deals (*might* because these airlines often have weird bag/late policy to compensate their cheap seats – so beware!). Last I checked, JetBlue and Southwest both have a similar “go anywhere” function.

+ Jetblue’s result page is just a boring list, which is a minus point for a visual person like myself, but if you are straight to the point you might like how the prices look like they are eager to slam in your face.
+ Meanwhile, Southwest’s map only shows the prices, not the destinations. Not helpful for slackers, given that you need to scroll the mouse, but it does add some extra mystery to the place in a split second, doesn’t it? I also use it to test my knowledge of US geography.
—> Edit: If you zooms in the screen the names will show, but it won’t cover the whole map. It’s a lose-lose situation.
Flight search

Google Flights, JetBlue, Southwest

Note: if you are traveling in a foreign country, try their local search engine. For example, I just searched for flights from Chengdu – Lhasa. GGF gives me $410, while eLong shows results cheaper by $30 (same date). There might be some hidden fees adding up further in the purchase, but it’s worth a try.

Step 2. Budgeting (+ Planning)

The fun is gone when visions becomes numbers, but you’ve gotta do it anyway. These days, Mint has made it way easier to keep track of your spending. It categorizes your expenses for you and exports to Excel or CVS for calculation. However, one downside of Mint is that it includes all kind of expenses – traveling, credit card bills, and any other expenses paid during your travel period, but not for traveling purposes. You might have to manually add tags or do manual calculations if you want to review your traveling expenditures.

The only smartphone app with which I’m mildly satisfied with is TripBudget, available on Google Play. It allows me to plan my expected budget AND document my actual spending, and compare them side by side, by categories. Other apps would lack either one of these. I can also add my traveling companions so you can split money later.

If you are really that picky, Google Drive is your best bet to make a comprehensive plan. It can be as exhaustive or as simple as you want, to each his own. This is my template – I used it extensively when traveling alone in China last year – not only to monitor my budget, but also to inform my parents of my whereabouts and how to get a hold of me.

My verdict: you should use Mint anyway to manage your personal finances, because traveling should be considered a part of, instead of just a period of time you disassociate from your real life. Plus, it costs you no effort. However, if your traveling budget is really strict, I think a separate app/document will keep you more focused.

Step 3. Airbnb

Accommodation is the second biggest expense, so it deserves meticulous planning and selecting. Airbnb has been my go-to site since forever, having enabled me to live in a tree house, a Victorian-style home, and with a host who has his own Wikipedia page. Saying Airbnb gives you a genuine stay sounds cliched, but it’s hard to get a slice of homemade hospitality when you stay elsewhere. Hotels and such are designed to treat you like a guest (amenities for short-term usage, unfazed attention, all-inclusive services, that smell), while accommodations like Airbnb, with people actually living there everyday, make you feel like home, or at least, like a friend crashing another friend’s house.

Airbnb is particularly fun to use while traveling in Asia, because prices! I have in my wishlist a private island ($60) and a cottage that overlooks a river with elephants ($35). How do you beat that?

Step 4. Planning

For a type-A person like myself, planning is not a chore, it’s part of the fun! So beside the Google template above, I only trust TripIt to keep track of my plan for me. What TripIt wins me over Google Docs is that it is highly automated. You can just email your reservations (flights, car, hotels, restaurants, tours) to plans@tripit.com, and they will be added to the existing plan for you. It is really a one-stop shop with ALL your information – addresses, reservation numbers, directions, additional notes, etc. in one place. It details your trip to the hour and minute so you don’t miss important deadlines (i.e. car return, check-out).

Even better, it works offline and notifies your companions when changes are made! That is my passive-aggressive way to let my unconcerned travel companion(s) know how hard-working I am.

Step 5. Research

I mostly follow travel photographers on Instagram, not only for the genuineness of the views, but also for the unlimited resources and inspirations. Particularly, after I’m settled on a destination, instead of googling _____ hidden gems to see names  of places I already knew about, I search for #location, discover photographers (in loosest terms) based in that area, and follow them for lesser-known attractions, food reviews, and local spots such as bookstores, coffee houses, tea rooms, bakeries. I was never disappointed.

Similarly, a “_____ blog” search term (no quotation marks) might lead you to local bloggers with more unique, authentic contents than any travel guide.

Step 6. Journaling

my journal

These are pages from my journal!

I’m old-school when it comes to writing, so I keep a paper journal with me. Of course, it helps that my journal is pensively beautiful. But to be honest, most of my thoughts came to me while I’m actually on the road, and since I can’t read or write on a moving vehicle, I resort to typing my thoughts on a phone, then cursively transferring them to the journal later – to avoid mistakes, scribbles and redundant sentences (again, type-A personality).

Evernote has topped almost every list, but my biggest pet peeve is that the offline access is not free. So the next best thing is Google Keep, a built-in feature for my Android phone. Granted, it doesn’t organize well like Evernote, but you can revisit and update your notes anytime and anywhere. Plus, I actually like that I can rearrange them to my liking.

My verdict: Evernote is better for your multi-purpose note-taking, but I think Keep works perfectly if you just want to jot things down quickly.

So now, where should my nest destination be? (I’m dreaming of Ireland)

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Travel tidbit: The spirits of Takayama, Japan

Takayama was an add-on to my tourist’s route in Japan, just because I found the name somewhere amidst the colossal research. It turned out to be a pleasing, serendipitous experience that only a small town can bring.

My first impression off the train: a lot of Western backpackers here. It could be either a good or bad sign, depending on your purpose. At least this meant there wouldn’t be vast crowds of tourists.

And that was an understatement. After checking in my ryokan and enjoying their indoor onsen, I walked out to the door. The town, all of a sudden, fell deep in a decorous layer of silence. For half an hour, I roamed over the streets with my own shadow. I didn’t know what awaited me behind the darkness, but as far as the street lights touched, humanity seemed like it was relinquished by an apocalypse.

And then there were the autumn wind and small shrines to remind me that, no matter how much the sun would come out and the human will be back tomorrow, this landscape belonged to the night, and the night belonged to a rarefied world out of this one.

The rest was left to my own fantasy as I kept walking, pretending not to know about the spirits and statues discreetly going on about their life. I had my tranquility. It was their turn.

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Travel tidbit: In Nashville, cobia is the new black (tuna)

I’m not a fancy eater, but I’ve had my fair share of fine dining to know what to expect on a dinner menu. And even with that knowledge, deciding on the dish is still a fierce battle. Great chefs always have that finishing touch that defines the aftertaste of their food. Many times, what linger at my taste bud are not necessarily the meat, but the garnish, condiments, sauce and sides (and it’s not a bad thing, because you can grill that cut at that temperature for that long, but one distinctive addition and your food will turn to a whole new direction).

Etch is a young and prospering addition to the food scene in Nashville. Exhibit A: it will appear in most “top restaurant” lists you find on Google. Exhibit B: even the bar seating was full, and we went on a weekday. Exhibit C: it donates $1 to the local food bank for every sale of the signature appetizer – roasted cauliflower with truffled pea pesto, salted almonds and feta dip. In 2014, $22,012 was raised. With Saturday dinners only and Sundays closed, that’s 76.69 dishes served per day (#ididthemath).

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Roasted Cauliflower – truffled pea pesto, salted almonds, feta dip

As first-time eaters, we ordered the popular: the roasted cauliflower (why not eat good and do good both), butter tasting (came in 4 ramekins, the butter stayed loyal to its creamy texture, but each contained a unique twist). Then a strange name caught my attention: Cobia. In a moment of pretentiousness, I stealthily looked it up online. Turn out, just like Nashville, it is also one of the up-and-comings. Other names include black salmon, black kingfish, sergeant fish, and – prodigal son! Those extravagant names might have something to do with its sizes – an average cobia is huge and often mistaken for sharks. Most cobias are farmed and under management, so it’s sustainable. It’s delicious, so it makes a nice alternative white meat. Cobia has been making it ways to several lauded restaurants, but only a few keeps it on as a regular (check out The Gramercy Tavern if you’re in NYC). Even fewer has managed to make a big hit like Etch.

Cobia - turkish spiced, brown buttered oranges, capers, olives, raisins, almonds, feta, beignet

Cobia – turkish spiced, brown buttered oranges, capers, olives, raisins, almonds, feta, beignet

Let me start about the fish itself. In the words of my friend who took a bite of my plate, “it taste[s] like tofu”. Granted, he was not totally wrong. The texture did resemble that of medium firm tofu, but denser and more luscious. The challenge with fish, I find, is that it could easily taste bland and dry. Pan-searing, thus, helped contain the flavor and moist.

The Turkish spices brought out the sweetness of the white meat. Admittedly, I didn’t know what exactly was in that spice mixes, but they weren’t too bold. Citrus fruits are commonly used with seafood, but here, brown-buttered oranges were more than just a garnish – it was a featured component. The sourness was prevailing, but relieved by the generous portions of raisins and almonds. And then there were capers and olives, each a little salty and bitter. It was an almost-perfect blend, except that the orange sauce was sourer than my taste bud could take.

And I think that was when the most interesting attribute came into the picture: the beignet. I think it was made chewy on purpose, because when I dipped it in the orange sauce, it got not only softer, but also lessened the sauce’s immensely tangy citrus flavor. With the big pastry and extra sauce, I had the happy ending that every culinary tale needs.

So, if you are ever in Nashville, stuff yourself with a Southern feast, wander around food trucks, or challenge your tummy with the hot chickens, but consider other eclectic restaurants like Etch. It isn’t widely considered a food city for no reason.

Photo credits: Etch Restaurant’s instagram. I’m refraining from taking pictures of food out of respect for the chef.

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Travel tidbit: Hida Beef of Takayama, Japan.

Hida Beef on Houba MisoHida beef is a treasure of the Gifu prefecture, beside onsen and the Japanese Alps. It is widely regarded to have comparable quality to Kobe or Matsusaka beef. This beef is grilled over magnolia leaf on top of a burning charcoal stove, topped with soybean paste. The texture fits one of those “melt in my mouth” food description clichés, because it is so tender and delicate you are afraid to take the next bite. The taste is an amalgam of the earthy flavor from the leaf, the minimal and slightly fermented miso and of course, the joyful fattiness that just imparted your umami.

I had this dish in a small family restaurant named Kotaro, a capacity of 4 tables at most. I was tasting the delight while the other couple talked about how they was recently ripped off in Vietnam. Even that harsh truth of reality couldn’t bitter down the juice.

Maruaki is a popular Yakiniku restaurant with a selection of beef at a variety of grade levels (up to A12).  Look at the beautiful, sleek marbled patterns!

Don’t they sparkle like the first ray of sunshine after a long winter?

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