Authentic Traveling

Stories from off the beaten path

Category: Asia

The BEST Ramen in Japan

Let me just start by unequivocally stating it – I LOVE RAMEN. In fact, I love ramen so much that when I went to Japan, I ate ramen for 7/9 of the meals I had. To be honest, I get extreme Japanese restaurant anxiety when I have to order things I’ve never heard of. But I don’t get this at ramen shops. Ramen is pretty simple. Just order a bowl with or without egg on top (you should do it with), and enjoy.

While I was in Japan, I had an opportunity to eat at some of the best ramen shops in Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo. As my readers know, I’m not going to the most expensive, high-end ramen shops. I’m going where the Japanese eat. I want the real deal with no frills. So with that in mind, I will share my favorite ramen joints in Japan. Spoiler alert: everywhere I went was my favorite so I will write about each restaurant.

Osaka

Kamukura Dotonbori

Kamukura Dotonbori

This no frills ramen bar is all about getting in and out while stuffing your face with their traditional Oishi ramen recipe. Kamakura in Japanese means “where the respected one sits”. And this is exactly how they treat their customers. Great fast service with a delicious bowl of ramen.

Ichiran Dotonbori Yataikan

Ichiran Dotonbori Yataikan

The famous Ichiran ramen shop is so well-known because customers get to sit alone in private booths for one while enjoying their delicious bowl of Tonkotsu ramen. Eating here was like living in my own private world. I even had a water tap at my counter just for me. After serving my order, they closed the blinds at the front of my booth and let me eat in peace and quiet. The perfect place to stuff my face with an extra large bowl without the shame.

Kyoto

Honke Daiichiasahi Ramen

Honke Daiichiasahi Ramen

Eat like the Japanese do at this local’s only spot near the main Kyoto Train Station. This small ramen joint is one of those places where you’d be hard pressed to ever find a foreigner. And its so popular with the locals that around lunchtime there is always a line outside! But don’t worry – it moves fast.

Kyoto Gogyo Burnt Miso Ramen

Kyoto Gogyo

I’m going to be honest – this might be the best ramen I’ve ever had in my life. Kyoto Gogyo is known for its burnt miso ramen. I’m not sure how they do it, but the miso is actually burnt giving the soup an extremely thick consistency and out-of-this-world flavor. The restaurant is a little more upscale than the others I’ve been mentioning and it has additional menu items besides ramen so it makes for a good place to get dinner or go out on a date.

Tokyo

Rokurinsha Ramen

Rokurinsha Ramen

Rokurinsha Ramen is located along the famed “ramen street” in the mall under Kyoto Central Station. While there are plenty of shops to choose from, Rokurinsha Ramen will always have a line. After tasting this delicious Tsukemen ramen, I knew exatly why.  Tsukemen is ramen separated from a thick broth where people usually will dip their noodles into the broth before eating. I prefer to get them combined together just to make it easier on myself!

Kisurin Ramen

Kisurin Ramen

Finally I like to save the best for last – Kisurin Ramen. I originally found this shop on a list of the meatiest ramen joints in Tokyo and boy did it deliver. Kisurin’s Akasaka location focuses exclusively on Tantanmen ramen – a spicy noodle dish in a curry-like broth that is absolutely loaded with meat. Best part is there are four different levels of spice you can order so everyone can enjoy a meal at this tiny shop hidden away along a side street in Akasaka. If you normally like spicy food, I recommend going all the way.

If you’re still hungry in Tokyo, here is another great list of some of the best ramen spots from Time Out. And if you happen to be in Kyoto, read my guide about the best temples to visit.

Top Things to See in Kyoto

Fushimi Inari Kyoto

Kyoto is one of my favorite places in the world. No visit to Japan is complete without seeing this ancient capital and epicenter of traditional Japanese culture. But Kyoto is literally packed to the brim with ancient temples. How do you decide which ones to see? Lucky for you, I went there and compiled this list of all the places I visited. While I didn’t make to every temple, I wouldn’t make a single change to this itinerary if I did it all over again.

Where to Stay in Kyoto

No visit to Kyoto is complete without spending some time in nearby Osaka. Many visitors choose to spend their nights in Osaka and then make the 30 minute to 1 hour commute into Kyoto for the day. Osaka is known for night markets so it does make a lot of sense to spend the evenings there. The only downside is that Kyoto is best at dawn and dusk when tourists are mostly non-existent. The first trains out from Osaka leave at 6 am. This normally is not an issue except in the summer when the sun rises closer to 5:30 am. Spending the night in Osaka can make it almost impossible to see a Kyoto sunrise in the summer. This may disappoint some, but the temples will still be almost completely empty until around 8 am so taking pictures of Fushimi Inari without anyone to block the view won’t be an issue.

When I was in Osaka, I stayed at Hotel Wasabi literally right in the center of all the action. Wasabi is a pod style hotel kept impeccably clean by hard working Japanese staff. The best part – during the week its only $13 a night. I think I most enjoyed their free miso soup machine in the common area.

How to Get from Osaka to Kyoto

Traveling between the two Japanese cities is actually quite easy. I would take the local Osaka subway to Kitahama Station along the Keihan Main Line which is the commuter train running between the two cities. Make sure to get on an express train and transfer back to a local train if necessary to get where you’re going. The express trains between Kyoto and Osaka save a bunch of time, and the maps inside the train clearly explain where the trains stop for transfers between the two.

There is no simple way to just “go to Kyoto” as the temples are in various parts of the city so my best suggestion is to use Google Maps and type in where you want to go. The transit function will give you accurate directions on how to ride the trains to various parts of Kyoto. Google Maps will also tell you how much you need to pay for a journey which is important in Japan because you will need to prepay for your ticket by selecting the fare. When I used the payment console, I couldn’t choose my destination, but rather I had to choose a fare. If I didn’t know the exact fare, I needed to use the complicated reference maps beside the payment consoles.

The total journey is about $5 each way so jumping back and forth between the two cities can start to add up. For those on an extreme budget, given that hotels are around $13 a night, staying in Kyoto could save some extra cash.

Sights in Kyoto

Sagano Bamboo Forest

Sagano Bamboo Forest

Get there early! This bamboo forest is absolutely beautiful and was one of the main highlights of my trip to Kyoto. Even though it is a major tourist location, nothing about it was overrated.

Tenryu-Ji Temple Restaurant

Tenryu-Ji Temple

After checking out the bamboo forest, make your way to the nearby Tenryu-Ji to see a truly ancient Japanese temple and gardens. There are actually two separate places to visit here – the gardens and the temple. Both have their own tickets. I would strongly suggest the garden!

This area of Kyoto is called Arishiyama. Check out this interesting guide for more things to see in this neighborhood.

Honke Daiichiasahi Ramen

Honke Daiichiasahi Ramen

If you’re like me, you got up late and now you’re a little hungry for lunch. My best suggestion is to head over to Kyoto Main Train Station and eat like the Japanese do. This small ramen joint a few blocks from the central station is one of those local spots where you’d be hard pressed to ever find a foreigner. And its so popular with the locals that around lunchtime there is always a line outside. But don’t worry – the line moves fast.

Kiyomizu-Dera Temple

Kiyomizu-Dera Temple

After lunch, I walked over to another beautiful temple on the eastern hills of Kyoto. Kiyomizu Dera is know for its colorful orange pagodas and sweeping views of the city below. You’ll often see Japanese girls dressed up as geishas for professional photo shoots at this temple. If you’re lucky, you can ask for a picture with some of them.

Shinto Shrine

Shinto Shrine, Kyoto. See more on my Instagram @Authentic_Traveling

Shinto Shrine

Next head over to Shinto Shrine in Maruyama Park to see some more traditional Japanese architecture. Take the time to stroll throughout this park walking up into the hills to see some of the even lesser known temples hidden away from most tourists.

Gion Shirakawa

If you’re still not exhausted go over to Gion Shirakawa for a look at traditional Japanese city life. Maybe if you’re lucky, you will see a real geisha making her way to one of her many appointments in various tea houses in the Gion area. Click here to learn more about geisha spotting.

Fushimi Inari Taisha

Fushimi Inari Taisha

Finally saving the best for last, do not make a trip to Kyoto without seeing he famous Fushimi Inari Taisha. My personal suggestion is to save this one for the following day. Get up early and make sure to arrive before the crowds. This temple complex is essentially a long loop walk up into the mountains constantly through orange Japanese toriis. The most picturesque (and crowded) portion of the walk is right at the beginning. After a short time, the gates and crowds begin to thin out making for a nice quiet walk through the mountains. The park signs seem to suggest this walk takes about two hours, but I easily did it in under an hour.

Another place I did not visit, but seems to be quite popular is the Kinkaku-ji Temple. Make a visit if you have the time!

Lastly, if you get hungry, check out my list on the top ramen places in Kyoto, Osaka, and Tokyo. Let me know if this guide helped you in the comments below!

 

 

Brunei Budget Travel Guide

Brunei Mosque

The Kingdom of Brunei is a small nation on the island of Borneo in the Indonesian Archipelago. Besides its costal border along the South China Sea, Brunei is completely surrounded by Malaysia’s state of Sarawak. Brunei is essentially a city-state with several nature preserves, but just one major city – the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan.

Brunei is apart of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), and because I have already traveled to every other nation in this organization, I wanted to make a trip to Brunei so I could claim all ten. While the country itself isn’t much of a tourist destination, I wanted to get there to get my passport stamped and claim another country on my rapidly growing list.

Bander Seri Begawan has some tourist attractions – I would say just enough to justify a one night stay. So in February 2017, that’s exactly what I did. I flew to Brunei for one night to explore this fascinating country. Seeing as not many tourists come to Brunei, there was very little information about this country online for budget travelers. I hope this guide will serve others well looking to make a quick trip to Brunei to check it off the list.

How To Get There

The easiest and cheapest way to get to Brunei is through Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. KLIA and KLIA2 combined together form one of the largest air travel hubs in South East Asia. It’s very difficult to travel around this region without transiting through these airports at least once. As I was making my way to Thailand, I had to transfer through Kuala Lumpur so I made a point to stop for a few days and check out Brunei.

AirAsia flies twice a day between Kuala Lumpur and Bandar Seri Begawan. The flight is about two and a half hours, and if booked in advance, one-way tickets can get as low as $20. From the airport to the city, a taxi costs around $7. There is no public transportation to and from the airport.

Where To Stay

Before visiting I had read online about a potential hostel in Bandar Seri Begawan, but this apparent hostel did not accept reservations or have any contact information listed. I had read reports that people showed up and were unable to find a room. Given my short amount of time, I decided to opt for a cheap hotel through Booking.com so that I could have a confirmed reservation and not waste any time. I stayed at Le Gallery Suites Hotel which was a decent place run by Filipino staff that most importantly offered free airport pick-up.

While I was in the downtown area, I did come across a hotel called Joy Downtown Rest-Station that offered single rooms for approximately $15 USD. This option would be a little cheaper and in a slightly better location than my first hotel, but not by much. They can be reached via email or Facebook. Just look at the photos on their Google Maps location for contact information.

What To Do

Brunei is a small place so all the main sights can be seen in just one day on foot. There are other optional activities further away from the city, but I will not go into these as they cannot be done in one day.

When I arrived in Brunei, I arranged with my hotel for an airport pick-up so I was on my way fairly quickly. Once I got in, I put my bags in the room and set out for a day of exploration. The Gallery Suites is across a small river from the main downtown area. When I was visiting the pedestrian bridge was still under construction. Fortunately this isn’t a problem in Brunei because there is a large system of water taxis constantly running around the river. I had to watch a few locals flag down a taxi before I understood the process, but getting around the city couldn’t be easier.

Brunei Water Taxi

For just one Bruneian dollar or $0.75 US, it is possible to catch a water taxi anywhere around the downtown area. There are many docks leading out onto the water, and the best way to flag one down is to do a big circular motion with your hand at a passing skiff. Once on, you tell them where you want to go and pay the dollar upon arrival. Remember the dock number from where you came (or better yet take a picture) so you can find your way back later on.

Once I arrived in the downtown area, I was super hungry so I went to get some of the best chicken and rice in Brunei at Nasi Katok Mama. Nasi Katok is a Bruneian staple. For just one dollar you get a piece of fried chicken, rice, and sambal (chili paste). Nasi Katok Mama is one of the most popular destinations for this dish selling it out of a window to-go. They put all the ingredients together on a waxy piece of paper, wrap it up, and give you a little plastic spoon altogether in a bag to-go. Grab a couple of them and walk down to one of the covered pagodas along the water to enjoy your meal with a nice breeze.

Brunei is quite hot – even in February – so after I finished my lunch I needed to escape the mid-day heat for a few hours. Right along the river I found a nice coffee shop called Piccolo Cafe serving up iced lattes in an air-conditioned room with free wifi. Can’t beat that!

When things started to cool down a bit, I began to make my way north to check out Brunei’s Royal Museum or Royal Regalia Building which also had A/C. As you can see, I really wanted any excuse to get out of the heat! The museum was free and filled with possessions related to the royal family which while opulent wasn’t exactly the most interesting museum. It was however a nice way to escape the heat. I also made a stop at the Brunei History Centre which was really only worth it for a respite from the heat. No admission charge. Unless you’ve got a keen interest in old royal documents, this one can probably be skipped.

Tasek Lama Recreational Park

After the two museums, I continued north to the Tasek Lama Recreational Park, one of the true gems of the city. This park has numerous walking trails, man-made gardens, waterfalls, and even a watch tower for beautiful views of the city. This is a great place to see what Brunei’s natural forest looks like. While here you will see many local people jogging or walking their dogs in the evening. There are even vendors near the entrance that sell whole coconuts for a refreshing drink on a hot day.

As it was getting close to dinner time, I made a short walk from the park to the Tamu Selera food stall area for some awesome ayam penyet from stall (gerai) number six also known as Lam Cafe. Ayam Penyet is basically fried chicken that is smashed with the pestle against mortar to make it softer then served with sambal and rice. I would also recommend the Soto Ayam or Nasi Goreng Ayam from this stall. Soto Ayam is like a yellow spicy chicken soup with potatoes and vegetables, and Nasi Goreng just means to friend rice. If you haven’t figured it out by now, Ayam means chicken in Malaysian or Indonesian! Lastly, if the shop owners don’t quite understand your pronunciation, just point on the menu. For more tips on food in Brunei, check out this interesting guide.

Ayam Penyet

Ayam Penyet

Brunei Food Soto Ayam

Soto Ayam

Now that I was full and happy, I made my way back towards downtown to check out the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque at sunset – the main highlight of my trip to Brunei. This mosque is the main landmark in Bandar Seri Begawan and the tallest building in the city. I had a great time walking around snapping pictures with the golden-hour lighting.

After the mosque, I paid another quick visit to Nasi Katok Mama for some breakfast the following morning and hopped back on a water taxi to my hotel. After a day in the scorching heat I was exhausted and needed to get some sleep before my early flight back to Kuala Lumpur.

Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque

Final Thoughts

Everyone I met in Malaysia told me not to go to Brunei. They said it would be boring and a waste of time. This could not be further from the truth. While Brunei is quite a small country, and being a non-Muslim could make it a boring place to live, I encourage anyone considering a visit to take a short trip here and see what this country is all about. The food culture in Brunei is enough of an excuse for anyone to visit, and combined with the beautiful mosques and picturesque natural beauty, this country is a great place to check out for a night or two. Now that Air Asia has such cheap flights, it is easier than ever to visit Brunei and check it off the list.

 

Six Reasons Why I Love Seoul

Seoul, Korea

I only had two nights in Seoul, but I instantly fell in love with this city from the moment I arrived. Here are the six things I liked most about Seoul:

Seoul Coffee Culture

Coffee Culture

Independent coffee shops are everywhere in Seoul. If you’ve got some work to do on your laptop or just want to stop and chat with friends, there are endless joints to choose from. My personal favorite was Cafe Comma by Hongik University. As a blogger sometimes I need a quiet place to work, and this cafe was set up like a library with individual booths taken up by Korean university students studying for their exams. Perfect place to crunch out some work.

Seoul Chicken and Beer

Chicken and Beer

A lot like Bonchon, but it won’t significantly shorten your lifespan, fried chicken is ubiquitous in Seoul. Typically served with sweet mayonnaise and ketchup, this wonderful meal can be found anywhere from high end restaurants to cheap hole-in-the-walls. It’s best washed down with a cold beer or flavored soju.

Seoul Street Food

Street Food

For a city as high tech and developed as Seoul most wouldn’t expect to see anything like cheap street food, but it’s actually sold all along pedestrian routes. Read about the many delicious kinds here.

Seoul Spicy Kimchi

Spicy Kimchi

Having never traveled to Korea before, my only experience with kimchi was the Americanized version they sell back home. I was absolutely blown away by the stuff I tried in Korea. “It’s actually spicy” I told my Korean friend living in the US. You just can’t get kimchi like this in the states.

Seoul Bibimbap Buffet

$5 Bibimbap Buffet

Need I say anymore? At Bibili (비비리) in Hongdae, you can get an excellent unlimited bibimbap buffet for only $5! When I arrived in Seoul, I was a little tired so I went to this buffet, ate myself into a coma, and took an excellent afternoon nap back at my hostel.

Seoul, Korea

Koreans Are Cool

Lastly I think my favorite part about Seoul was the creative culture bursting out at the seams everywhere I went. Koreans are cool people and their fashion sense was out of this world. I honestly at times did not feel cool enough to hangout in some of the cafes around Hongdae.

Staying in a Ger in the Mongolian Countryside

Mogod Mongolia

The highlight of my trip to Mongolia was the three nights I spent in a real yurt helping to herd sheep in the Mongolian countryside. Travelers that are brave enough to stay in a traditional ger (also called yurt) can find tour operators in Ulaanbaatar who can arrange homestays, but I went one step further. As I mentioned in other posts about Mongolia, my Mongolian friend, Misheel, from Washington D.C. linked me up with her family in UB. Misheel’s family arranged for me to stay with her uncle deep in the countryside so my experience ended up being about as authentic as it can get. For better or for worse, I’ll never forget these three days.

Getting to Mogod

Misheel’s uncle, Ganbaa, lives about 15 kilometers from Mogod, a small sum capital in the aimag (province) Bulgan. To get out here, Misheel’s other uncle, Zorig, arranged for me to get a ride with a truck driver taking his recently purchased vehicle back to Mogod. As with all things in Mongolia, the original plan to leave Thursday afternoon at 1 pm came and went. It wasn’t until 4:30 that I actually met up with the truck driver. After just a few days in Mongolia, I quickly learned that nothing ever leaves even remotely close to the scheduled time. But to be honest, things like this don’t bother me. In Mongolia it is important to just go with the flow.

I meet up with the driver and it still took another 2-3 hours to get out of UB as he had multiple errands to run before we left the city. The traffic in the capital certainly didn’t help speed anything up, but finally by 7 pm we were off. On one of these errands we picked up another lady also heading to Mogod making three of us in the front cabin. Unfortunately I got stuck in the middle seat.

Before I left, Zorig and I joked that our conversation would be my last one in English until I got back, and he was completely right. The driver and lady were quite interested in me, but all we could really say to each other was “my name is” and point at one another to learn each others names. They were nice people, and even though the drive to Mogod was extremely uncomfortable in that middle seat, it went by quickly at least at first.

I had incorrectly assumed that the roads would be at least paved all the way to Mogod so I was never too worried we would have trouble finding our way with the setting sun. I was quite surprised though at 11 pm when we took a turn off the main highway onto a dirt road with a sign that said “Mogod – 54 km”. The sun sets pretty late in Mongolia, but at this point it was completely dark. And dirt “roads” on the Mongolian steppe are not usually single paths, but rather crisscrossing tracks leading every direction making nighttime navigation very difficult.

Luckily the lady in the passenger seat knew the area quite well so she was using mountains and hills slightly visible in the distance to help us navigate. At one point we went down a small track and got quite off course. Most people would just turn around and go back, but on the steppe there are virtually no natural obstacles so we just drove the truck perpendicular to the main road hoping we would eventually come across it in the dark. We ended up having to do this a couple times with each attempt to find the main road seemingly longer driving further anxiety in my mind that we were totally lost.

I still don’t know how they found it, but somehow in the night we made it to our passenger’s ger to drop her off before continuing to Mogod. As tradition in Mongolia, we were invited inside for some tea which quickly turned into vodka shots. Not wanting to be rude, I ended up taking three before the driver saw I wasn’t too keen on anymore and said we should get going.

It was another 30-45 minutes to Mogod from here, but at least I could relax in the passenger seat. After several hours sitting on the hard middle seat, I felt like my tailbone was going to break off. Around 12:30 am we reach Mogod where I was greeted by Ganbaa’s son, Tuvshin, and his wife.

Mogod

Ganbah’s 25-year-old son Tuvshin

Staying in the Ger

Early Friday morning Tuvshin wakes me up and tells me to get to the car because we’re going to the ger. It was about a 15 minute drive to Ganbaa’s new home. I say “new home” because Ganbaa is a nomad so he moves his house from time to time depending on conditions. He does this so his herd of sheep will always have green grass. When I arrived, he had only been living in this current location for a couple of weeks.

As is Mongolian tradition, upon arriving we stepped inside the ger for some tea. Mongolian’s drink a type of tea called tsai which is essentially a small amount of tea combined with a whole lot of milk. Every couple of hours throughout my stay we always went back inside the ger to drink some tsai. In fact, outside of Ulaanbaatar I don’t think I’ve seen a single Mongolian drinking actual water. They only drink tsai. How they don’t die – I really don’t know.

After tea I presented Ganbaa with a gift of some vodka I brought up from Ulaanbaatar. Of course with a new gift and guest around we all needed a few shots of vodka before breakfast. When we eventually got around to eating, we had tsuivan – a traditional Mongolian noodle dish with mutton.

Coming from UB and arriving late the night before, I was exhausted so the family prepared my bed and let me sleep a few hours following breakfast. The ger layout is quite simple – at the middle there is a stove with the pipe poking out from the center while all of the furniture or possessions are lined up along the circular edges of the tent. In this particular ger, they just had one bed currently occupied by their 27-year-old daughter, Amraa, while the parents and I both had sleeping pads on the floor for our beds. Ganbaa’s son, Tuvshin, went back to stay at his home in town.

Mongolian Ger Stove

Cooking soup in the ger

Over the first day or so our routine pretty much consisted of eating a massive meal, taking a nap, doing a little work, and then eating another massive meal and continuing the cycle. Ganbaa is a big guy so he definitly likes his food. After my post lunch nap, Ganbaa took me out to their small farm patch, and I helped him dig water drainage trenches for the plants. Digging trenches with Ganbaa was essentially about 10 minutes of actual work before taking a 10 minute smoke break. Needless to say we didn’t get a lot of digging done at this pace before going in for another meal.

Food in the Mongolian countryside, while delicious, is extremely simple. For the most part, just about everything we ate came from the land itself. We usually had soups cooked over the fire. Every meal had mutton that was originally dried out, stored in the ger, and then cooked again so that it would become moist. The only food brought in from the outside was flour. The flour was used in endless different ways to make noodles, dumplings, and bread. Milk was also usually mixed into the stews, served hot as a drink, or boiled down to make urum – a sort of thick butter – to be spread on bortzig, a type of Mongolian biscuit. We would often sprinkle sugar over the urum once we scooped out a bit on our bortzig. Even though the food sounds simple, it was the best I had in all of Mongolia. Nothing can compare to eating food right from the land I was sitting on.

Mongolian Countryside Noodles

Preparing noodles for our soup

If there was a main highlight from my trip, I’d have to say it was the food. Mongolian food is extremely unhealthy because its mostly just meat and fat, but it is so delicious. My favorite meal Ganbaa’s wife made was buuz – a Mongolian dumpling. I’ve had buuz throughout Mongolia, but nothing will compare to the buuz I had in Mogod. I literally ate myself into a coma after this one meal.

Herding Sheep Mongolian Countryside

Herding sheep with a motorcycle

Farm Work

Throughout my time in Mogod, I helped Ganbaa with various tasks around the ger. Sometimes helping meant riding on the back of his motorbike while we herded up the sheep, but other times, I was sent out into the field with a big stick and told to round up the sheep and move them to another area. When it came to milking the cows or goats, I mostly just watched, but I was surprised to learn how intricate the milking process actually is. Often the younger calves will be locked away in a pen to attract the mother. When the mother comes, they let out a calf to get her milk started then send him back to the pen. At this point, we would milk the cow for a little bit, and then let the calves back out to finish the mother off.

The one farm task I’ll never be able to forget was when we had to castrate the bulls and goats. Sunday morning after breakfast, we all went out to the goat pen for the annual ritual. Being Buddhists, they brought out some incense and said a prayer for the animals then we got to work holding them down while Ganbaa performed his surgery. In order to ensure that only the strongest goats reproduce and to keep the rest from being too aggressive, herders will castrate their youngest goats annually towards the beginning of summer.

As we continued to do the deed, the testicles piled up into a small bucket we took out to the pen. Now you’re probably wondering what we did with that bucket when we were finished? Well this is Mongolia after all so I won’t beat around the bush. We took them back to the ger, cooked them, and ate them! I was not looking forward to this part, but I had to give it a go. I’ll just say this – they don’t actually taste that bad. If I didn’t know what I was eating, I would have been fine. They taste something like liver.

Castrating Goats Mongolia Bull Testicle

My New FriendBaby Lamb Mongolian Countryside

On my second night before sunset, I went out for a little walk to take a look at some of the sheep and goats. While I was out there I noticed a little sheep wandering alone far from the pack. I went up to approach him and I was surprised to find that he wasn’t afraid of me at all. We took a few selfies together, and then I put him back down. But I was even more surprised to see him follow me all the way back to the ger.

I later learned that he was one of the rejected lambs, and he was never able to fully integrate himself into the pack. Lambs are actually extremely friendly and sociable animals, and if they are one of the rejects, they will often cling to humans and act like they are their mother. In this pack there were actually three rejects of varying degrees. One morning we went out to milk the mothers so that we could provide the milk to the rejects so they could grow up strong as well.

Milking Goats Feeding Lambs

I was even further surprised to find out that Ganbaa’s family was totally okay with allowing these lambs into the ger to hang out with us. They’re unbelievably cute, but I was just so surprised that lambs acted had this social side. To be honest they remind me a lot of dogs. I even did some research and found out lambs can be house pets. Aside from the mess, a little lamb would be such a cute pet!

Gomp

During my stay in Mogod, my verbal interactions were extremely limited because no one in the family knew any English. Often all I could do was repeat certain words, but I did know how to say “my name is” – “minii neriig … gedeg”. About halfway through my stay, Ganbaa had an idea that I should get a Mongolian nickname. He knew right away that he wanted to call me “Gomp”, and the name instantly stuck.

Before long I was walking around the ger telling everyone “minii neriig Gomp gedeg.” As this was pretty much all I could say in Mongolian, this sentence became almost a catchphrase for me constantly repeated to express approval with whatever I was trying to communicate. Later on when we met some of the neighbors, I proudly said “minii neriig Gomp gedeg!”

When I got back to UB, I found out that Gomp or Gombo is a common Mongolian name that roughly means someone that likes to eat a lot – that couldn’t be more accurate.

Riding Horse Mongolian Countryside Mongol Gomp

Getting Back to Ulaanbaatar

The way back to UB was much quicker than they way there. Ganbaa’s son, Tuvshin, had to head back to UB for something – I don’t know what because I don’t speak Mongolian – so he drove me and his sister back to the capital.

One thing that’s probably oversharing, but she’ll never be able to read it was Ganbaa’s daughter, Amraa’s, reaction when we left the ger. Through my experience staying in the countryside I learned how important the nomadic lifestyle is to Mongolians. To me the experience was nice, but I really wanted to get back to UB to take a much needed shower. But to Mongolians, living in a ger and being able to move their home around represents the ultimate freedom. City life is just a burden; the true Mongolian needs to be free in the countryside. As we packed up the car and begin to leave, Amraa broke down in tears because she was leaving her true calling – living in the countryside with her parents. Even though we could never have much of a conversation, I instantly understood what the countryside meant to her. While just a small moment, I think this was probably the most revealing part of the “Mongolian mindset” I was on the trip.

Mongolian Countryside Ger

Full Mongolian Life

In my two weeks in Mongolia, I visited Terelj National Park, spent time in Ulaanbaator, and traveled down to the Gobi desert, but this opportunity to stay in a traditional Mongolian home was absolutely incredible and something I will never forget.

For someone who has been to over 70 countries, saying something like this can really attest to how nice, welcoming, and friendly Ganbaa and his family were to me. I am forever indebted to Misheel for setting up this incredible opportunity. Experiences like this are really what “Authentic Traveling” is all about. Taking a leap, going into the unknown, meeting locals, and really getting to truly understand a country are what I strive to do.

If you enjoyed this story, let me know in the comments below!

 

Staying in a Tree House in Thong Pha Phum, Thailand

Thong Pha Phum Tree House

My best memory of Thailand without a doubt was taking a trip to one of the least known places among Thais and foreigners, Thong Pha Phum National Park, hidden away in the mountains along the Thai-Myanmar border. This park is perhaps most known for it’s treetop accommodation where one can stay in a tree house high up in the peaceful fog covered mountains of this stunning national park. Equipped with running water and electricity, the tree houses are not only authentic but comfortable as well.

Along my three week motorbike trip throughout Thailand, I stopped for a night in Thong Pha Phum, and it was something I will never forget.

Getting to Thong Pha Phum

Reaching this national park is extremely difficult due to the treacherous road leading high up into the mountains. Located in Kachanaburi province, the only way to get to this park is through the provincial capital taking Highway 323 deeper into the mountains. This region of Thailand can only be accessed through this one road because as it is entirely sealed off from the rest of the country by huge mountain ranges on either side.

Thong Pha Phum National Park Map

Midway between Kanchanaburi and Songklahaburi is the tiny town of Thong Pha Phum marking the turn off for the national park. Though it may seem promising to already reach the town, this is only the beginning of the brutal 60 km climb up into the mountains. While the climb is only gradual, the switchbacks are relentless. I drove up on a motorbike, and I was happy that the road wasn’t too steep, but even while driving, I began to feel sick halfway through the trip. The national park is about 6 kilometers before the tiny mountain village of E-Thong right on the Burmese border making the end of the road.

The scenery on my drive up was absolutely stunning. During the last 20-25% of the ride, the forest opens up to jaw-dropping mountain ranges covered in fog. Unfortunately just a few minutes before reaching the park, the sky opened up completely drenching me and my possessions. I was able to find a pagoda to wait out the storm, but this was after completely being soaked by the rain.

When I arrived at the park, I met the park ranger, and she took me to my tree house accommodation for the night. My best advice is to book this ahead of time by contacting the park directly so that your room will be ready. Not many people visit this park and they many not be able to host guests if they are unprepared. Unfortunately the contact number online and in Lonely Planet is incorrect or out of service. I stopped at another national park in Kanchanaburi province, and asked the park rangers there to help me contact Thong Pha Phum so I could place a reservation.

The Tree House

The tree house lived up to every expectation I had and even more. I was staying in their only one-person accommodation so it had the extra charm of being their smallest home. Fully supported by the tree, the room is built around the trunk with a wooden staircase circling up the trunk to reach an outdoor balcony before entering the room. Once inside the room, there was a single bed connected to a bathroom with a sink, shower, and toilet all with running water. There is also a light inside the room and on the balcony, but electricity turns off around 9 pm.

Check out this short MTV Cribs-style video I made about my accommodation:

As I mentioned earlier, a large storm had just come through but many of the storm clouds still remained in the surrounding mountains. Even though it wasn’t raining on my home in the park, I spent the night listening to thunder and seeing flashes of lightening from my tiny bed up in the trees.

Thong Pha Phum Tree House Thong Pha Phum Tree House

E-Thong

With the early shut off for electricity, there wasn’t much of a point staying up any later so I went to bed around 9 pm setting my alarm to get up early for the sunrise. When I initially arrived at the park, the sun was setting so I didn’t have an opportunity to check out any of the beautiful look out points around the camping area. That next morning the sunrise, however, was absolutely magical.

Thong Pha Phum Sunrise

After taking enough photos, I hopped back on my bike and headed up to E-Thong (sometimes called Pi Lok) for some breakfast. As a side note the park has a restaurant, but it will only be open during peak season. It was not open when I arrived so I had to go the first night without dinner (fortunately I had a few snacks). There are no streetlights, so driving to E-Thong from the park at night would be quite difficult especially with the wet roads from the storm. I wasn’t going to risk it.

E-Thoeng

E-Thong

E-Thong was a lovely town to stop for breakfast, and I think this town would make a great tourist destination in and of itself. The town is quite popular with younger Thais visiting from Bangkok so there are plenty of cheap accommodation options and restaurants/coffee shops around the main lake marking the center of the city. It is also possible to go up to the Thai/Myanmar border and even cross (illegally) into Myanmar as nobody seemed to be guarding the post. I only walked 20 to 30 meters into Myanmar, but I am sure that if I kept going, they would probably have a checkpoint somewhere else along the road. It was pretty cool walking into Myanmar though because the border is along a very steep ridge so once I was over onto the Burmese side, I couldn’t see Thailand anymore. It was a pretty surreal experience.

Thong Pha Phum

Thong Pha Phum National Park

Besides the tree house accommodation, Thong Pha Phum National Park is also known for ranger-led overnight treks to Chang Phuek Mountain. If I had more time here, I would have definitly gone on one of these hikes. It is a very popular weekend activity for many Thais so if you want to do the hike, it is best to call ahead so a ranger will be ready. The park can provide sleeping tents, bags, and pads, but it would be best to bring a large backpack to carry these things. The hike reminds me a lot of the time I went on a ranger led hike to Doi Jung Mountain in Lampang Province.

The tree house accommodation was a steep 1,000 bhat a night – worth it for just one night – but quite expensive nonetheless. This price would come down with more people in some of the larger tree houses, but it is also possible to rent tents from the park rangers and sleep in the campground nearby.

As for wildlife, there are signs up and down the road to E-Thong telling motorists to beware of wild elephants. While it is probably extremely unlikely to see a wild elephant, I did see a beautiful horn bill bird right at the visitor center before leaving.

Horn Bill Thong Pha Phum National Park

Elephant Crossing Thailand

Caution: Elephant Crossing

Final Thoughts

After breakfast, I returned to my tree house, packed my bag, and got ready for the long ride ahead to Kampaeng Phet on my epic motorcycle journey. Staying a night in Thong Pha Phum National Park was by far one of the best things I’ve ever done in Thailand. The remoteness of the park gave me the truly “away from it all” feeling, and the scenery was some of the best I’ve seen anywhere in the world. Next time I am back in Thailand, I will surely be heading back up to Thong Pha Phum to make an attempt at Chang Phuek Mountain and to spend more time taking in the beautiful mountain views.

 

Guide to Gorkhi-Terelj National Park

Terelj National Park

Gorkhi-Terelj National Park is the third largest and most visited national park in Mongolia. Its close proximity to the capital, Ulaanbaatar, makes it an easy to reach and popular tourist destination for many visitors. On my recent trip to Mongolia, I spent two nights here in May and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. For those on short schedules, Terelj National Park is a great way to see the Mongolian countryside without straying too far from the capital. Those with more time in Mongolia may want to pay it a visit, but Terelj isn’t exactly “the number one thing to do in Mongolia”. The park is a nice place with traditional Mongolian culture, but this can also be seen elsewhere in the country.

How To Get There

Traveling in Mongolia is difficult. The language barrier is a real problem making independent travel very hard. I was fortunate enough to have a Mongolian friend arrange transportation to the park. They took me to a bus station and helped me find a shared van to Terelj. They told the driver where I needed to be dropped off so I didn’t have to communicate in any Mongolian.

I met other people that also traveled independently to Terelj with a piece of paper with where they wanted to go written on it in Mongolian. Many guesthouses in Ulaanbaatar can help visitors arrange “ger camp” reservations and then prepare some papers for them to travel independently to the park. This is the probably the best way to visit because finding a place independently once there with the language barrier would be next to impossible.

There is an afternoon bus from Ulaanbaatar that goes into Terelj leaving from near the center of town. Hotel or guesthouses can point out exactly where and when to catch the bus. Similarly coming back there is a bus as well. I was fortunate enough that one of the staff members from my ger camp needed to go to Ulaanbaatar the day I was leaving so I took a ride with him.

Guru Camp, Mongolia

Where to Stay

In the national park there are various “ger camps” of different price points for every kind type of traveler. I chose to stay in “Guru Camp” which was $30 a night including meals. Rooms have anywhere from 2-4 beds so additional people really only cost the additional surcharge for food. There aren’t many hotels in the region, but I’ve been told they won’t be as nice as the ger camps dotting the landscape.

The ger accommodation was probably the highlight of my stay. There is nothing like spending a night covered up under blankets in a Mongolian ger as the wind whistles through small cracks in the tent. For facilities, there was a separate shower and toilet building on site with hot water as well as a restaurant and bar. My only advice would be to bring a few large bottles of water since the camp only sold small ones. Not ideal for hiking. In the winter, the camp staff will provide firewood to heat the small furnaces in each ger.

A funny note on the language barrier – toilet is a pretty common word in almost all languages from Russian to Spanish. Most people can assume that when going abroad, this common word will be understood by pretty much everyone. That’s not the case in Mongolia. I asked the camp host simply “toilet?” using my hands to point in two different directions, and she had no idea what I was talking about! I hope she just misunderstood me, but this small interaction really reinforced how strong the language barrier is for travel in Mongolia. Fortunately I found it shortly after because I wasn’t about to play charades with this one…

Gorkhi-Terelj National Park

Terelj National Park

While Terelj National Park is a beautiful destination, there isn’t really anything specifically to see there. There aren’t actual trails so when I wanted to go hiking, I just went and charted my own path. The two main highlights are in the park “Turtle Rock” and a Buddhist monastery. To me, turtle rock was just a big rock, but the monastery is worth a visit for the beautiful view.

Aside from hiking, it is possible to ride horses and even see some hunting eagles. There are also opportunities to take guided walks over night either on foot or horseback deeper into the park, but these must be arranged ahead of time.

All the main sights are of the park basically in a large valley with mountain ranges on either side. Just hiking around to various ridges in the valley can be a fun activity or, for those with more energy, it is possible to hike up all the way to the top of some of the mountains for a magnificent view. There is a dirt road that runs up along turtle rock to the monastery, but I think it is better to hike around the area adjacent to the road to get to the monastery.

Final Thoughts

The reason people come to Gorkhi-Terelj National Park isn’t necessarily to see something specific, but rather to relax and enjoy nature. The highlight of my trip was sleeping in a ger and eating my heart out at the restaurant. Every meal they served was absolutely delicious with more food than I could possibly finish. Hiking around was nice, but the mind set for hiking here should be going on a fun walk instead of actually hiking somewhere specific. Just look what sees interesting and go.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén