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Shenandoah National Park: Scenic Views, Waterfalls & a Special Surprise

In honor of the 100th birthday of the National Park Service, celebrated just a few days ago on Aug. 25, 2016.

I’m starting to fall in love with our National Parks. We’ve only been to a handful — Joshua Tree, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Zion, Arches — but I don’t think I could ever get tired of them. So much to see! So little time. This past Memorial Day weekend, we added one more to our list: Shenandoah National Park, which spans 300 square miles of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the southern Appalachians.

We entered the park on the southern side through Skyline Drive, a scenic road that runs the entire length of the park. I had heard it’s a popular drive among motorcyclists — the road twists and turns for 105 miles, and there is no shortage of places to stop, rest, and soak in the magnificent views. In fact, there are 75 total overlooks!

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Deserts, Mountains & Prairies: Our Cross-Country Road Trip

Now that it’s almost Christmas, I finally have some time to blog about our cross-country road trip back in September. (Life happens.) For those of you who haven’t seen our photos yet, picture this — Will, me and our cat riding in the snug cab of a 16-foot Penske truck housing all our belongings (including Will’s Harley), pulling a trailer with our car on it. This is how we made the move cross-country during a warm September. Why? Because, how could we not take the opportunity to explore America the Beautiful? Our move was the perfect excuse.

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We followed Interstate 70 for most of our journey from Los Angeles to Virginia. It took us 11 days, but only because we stopped for three or so days to visit Will’s family.

The weather was perfect, the cat behaved wonderfully (despite spending long hours in her carrier every day and being shuttled from one hotel room to another), and it was fascinating to see the landscape change from desert to endless prairies to verdant. If you’ve never driven cross-country, here are some of the highlights from our trip for you to consider checking out someday. Continue reading Deserts, Mountains & Prairies: Our Cross-Country Road Trip

Yosemite National Park – Our Last California Adventure

Quite a few things have happened since our travels across Southeast Asia. We finally returned to Los Angeles from living abroad and were just getting settled in and readjusting to life in America, when, several weeks later, we got news we would be moving to Virginia. Yes! On the move, again.

When you’ve lived somewhere for 10 years and then find out you’re moving in just a few weeks, reality hits. Wait, I haven’t done this! Or been there! Or seen that! Thankfully, we were able to check off a couple of sights before leaving SoCal. Can you believe I’d never been up to the Hollywood Sign? So we finally hiked up to the sign, starting at the Griffith Observatory trailhead. Check. Phew.

Hollywood Sign hike - you can either hike to the front of the sign, or behind it.
Hollywood Sign hike – you can either hike to the front of the sign, or behind it.
Hollywood Sign hike - finally!
Hollywood Sign hike – finally!

I wish I’d made more of an effort to visit the many national and state parks in California. One of our last weekends in LA in late August, we drove up to Yosemite National Park. Let me tell you — it may not have been peak waterfall season, but it was still absolutely breathtaking.

Our plan was to spend a full day there, including the four-hour drive up.  We headed straight into Yosemite Valley, where you can basically loop around multiple viewpoints and trailheads.  Once you drive through the park’s main entrance, you still have to drive another 45 minutes or so to get up to the valley. No complaints there.

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Southeast Asia Vacation Part 3: A Week in Phi Phi Islands Paradise

We knew we wanted to end our vacation with some beach time. But how do you decide where to go, when Southeast Asia has some of the world’s best beaches? Since we were already going to be in Thailand, the question became, do we go to Krabi, Phuket, or the Phi Phi Islands? Ultimately, we liked the thought of getting away from the mainland and hopefully being around fewer tourists.

Thailand’s Phi Phi Islands (pronounced PEE PEE) are comprised of two main islands, Ko Phi Phi Don and Ko Phi Phi Leh, and several tiny islands — “Ko” means island. Ever since the movie The Beach (2000) featuring Leonardo DiCaprio was filmed there, the islands have become an increasingly popular tourist destination.

Getting there was an adventure in and of itself. We flew into Phuket, drove to the Rassada Pier, took a ferry to the Tonsai Pier on Ko Phi Phi Don, then took a long-tail boat to our resort. Pulling up to the islands was an experience I’ll never forget:

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From a Grand Palace to Grand Reptiles in Bangkok

The Grand Palace in Bangkok is the very definition of opulence. It has been the official residence of the Kings of Siam since 1782 and is only partially open to the public as a museum, since it still houses several royal offices. The large complex also features other buildings and pavilions, including Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha). Everywhere you turn, you see some amazing building or detail, it’s almost overwhelming. Everywhere you turn, you also see droves of fellow tourists … and their parasols.

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Seriously,though, what an incredible place. Again, you have to cover up before going in. If you don’t have a wrap, they provide you an outfit.

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Southeast Asia Vacation Part 2: Bangkok’s Ornate Temples & Bustling Streets

Bangkok, Thailand, seems to be a popular destination among people who travel to Southeast Asia. Personally, I think we could’ve skipped it. That’s not to say we didn’t have fun there or that the city doesn’t have anything worthwhile to offer, but we could’ve happily gone without a big-city experience during our vacation.

We were surprised during the drive to our hotel to see such a sprawling city with so many high-rises and skyscrapers — wow! I’d argue there are way more high-rises in Bangkok than in L.A. We also spotted numerous mosques and halal-friendly hotels and buildings, which was a first for us (we’d never seen entire hotels with a golden dome on top).

From humongous billboards along the highway and super luxurious shopping malls to crowded markets and dilapidated homes along the Chao Phraya River, Bangkok was a hodgepodge of sceneries. Here’s the view from our hotel, the Hotel Icon Bangkok. It was nice, our room was spacious and clean, and the hotel provides free shuttle service to the main avenue where you can catch the train.

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Our favorite Siem Reap temple & the Cambodian Circus

I mentioned in my previous post that Cambodia wasn’t what we expected. It’s a very poor country. At least in Siem Reap, we saw many dirt roads and wooden shacks on stilts. If you’re one of the tourists who stay in a hotel in the center of town, you may not really notice the level of poverty. The area by the Angkor Night Market and Pub Street is littered with restaurants, shops and hotels.

Our hotel, however, was quite removed from the center of town. We had to drive over many dirt roads, huge potholes, past dozens of stray dogs, past many bareboned homes where residents killed time outside watching a small TV set or lying in their hammocks, past many hole-in-the-wall local businesses — hair salons, barber shops, massage parlors, seamstresses, mechanics, laundromats — to get to our resort. It was one of those experiences that just puts life into perspective. Especially the night we were riding back in the tuk tuk and a roach flew smack dab onto my chest! Will came to my rescue. But seriously. Our hotel even had literature warning against giving money to child beggars (or buying things from them), as it encourages the cycle of begging and keeps them from seeking a proper education. We had to turn down many children during our visits to the temples.

So, on to our favorite day in Cambodia. To visit Banteay Srei, we had to take the tuk tuk about an hour outside of Siem Reap. This ride gave us the chance to see the Cambodian countryside. We drove past many rice paddies (dried up, as the dry season had just ended) and lots of farmland, skinny cows and chickens, past kids playing in the dirt pushing soda cans with sticks, past locals relaxing next to their cows outside. There was a curious sensation of being near the ocean and feeling the ocean breeze, even though we were nowhere near the ocean. Beautiful, lush, serene. Take a look:

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Banteay Srei is unique in that it’s built out of red sandstone and it’s of a much smaller scale than many of the other temples in the Angkor area. Continue reading Our favorite Siem Reap temple & the Cambodian Circus