The Gastronomic Trail – The Amazing Adventure Bangkok

The Amazing Adventure Bangkok puts on several super fun tours around the city.  They organize these trips like scavenger hunts, giving you new missions as you go, along with opportunities to collect bonus points.  My tour choice was The Gastronomic Trail, a food tour which started at Suan Plern Market in Rama 4 Mall at 10am, and lasted until about 2pm.  It took us too several different neighborhoods using many different transport options.  Full disclosure: I got to go on the tour for free as a travel blogger ambassador, but my opinion is totally genuine and it is that this tour is awesome!

Our first mission on The Amazing Adventure Bangkok was find a ride to the Khlong Toei Market, the biggest fresh food market in Bangkok.  Once at the market we had to round up all the ingredients to make “som tum”, the classic Thai spicy green papaya salad.  At the start of the adventure you are given a purse with all of the money for the tour.  By negotiating the prices and finding cheap alternatives, you can score more points by having more funds remaining at the end of the day.

Amazing Adventure Bangkok
Kissing a live fish for bonus points!

We took a bus to the market because we had five people on our team (an awkward number for a taxi or tuk tuk ).  The Bangkok local buses are super cheap and pretty easy to navigate; use our guide to get yourself around the city!  Once at the market we split into teams, each taking half of the salad list.  The market was a very local type of place, with every type of food you could imagine (and more).  We searched for ingredients for our salad, first picking up a green papaya, some limes and chilies, peanuts, tomatoes, then the palm sugar.  Along the way we found some fish in a bucket.  One of the bonus points was to “kiss a live fish” so it was of course my job to complete this task.

With all of our salad fixings assembled, we split up into two tuk tuks and had a race to the next destination.  We drove like mad and our tuk tuk won of course.  We walked down a street to a small restaurant where they had some cooking tools set up for our salad-making.  They showed us how to grate the papaya, how much palm sugar and fish sauce to add, long beans and garlic as well as tamarind paste, limes, chilies, tomato, and peanuts.  Everything gets put into a giant mortar and pestle-pounded a little bit, releasing the juices which become the delicious sauce.  I got extra points for eating the whole thing– not really a challenge for me.

Our next mission was the cross the Chao Phraya River.  On to a ferry we went and minutes later we arrived on the far bank.  This area was Bang Krachao, “the green lungs of Bangkok.”  So close to the city, Bang Krachao seemed so far away.  Small elevated sidewalks connect the villages and everything is slower paced.  The peacefulness of the area made me feel happy and calm, the hustle of the city fading away.

After being dropped off by the ferry it was time for a bonus challenge.  I had to eat a whole century egg.  Century eggs are fermented in clay, lye, and salt for several weeks to a month until they turn deep black and become the texture of jello.  The flavor is salty and fermented, the texture hard to overcome, especially when you get to the black, runny yolk.  However, I won the challenge and we continued on to our next destination.

Mounting bicycles we rode for 5-10 minutes to a small lake.  Waiting for us was a local woman with a basket of lotus flowers.  She proceeded to teach us how to fold the flowers to reveal their beautiful insides, like a natural form of origami.  The lotus flower is the most sacred flower in Buddhism, so after folding them we paced the flowers into our bike baskets to take to the temple later.

The Amazing Adventure Bangkok continued the gastronomic trail to our next challenge; a blind-folded taste test.  We tasted two dishes and it’s amazing how hard it is to tell what food is without seeing it.  My group-mates knew I was a chef so they put a lot of faith in me, but it was the Thai people who were way better at picking out the flavors.  I could not distinguish between fish sauce, oyster sauce, and soy sauce…ah!  Maybe in time.

We made our way back to the ferry, ditching our bikes at the shop on the river’s edge.  Back in Bangkok we went to a nearby temple where we left our lotus flowers for the Buddha.  The guides explained to me about the Kau Cim sticks, in a bucket near the altar.  After kkneeling and praying, you pass the sticks around incense three times and then begin to shake the sticks, focusing on your question.  After shaking harder and harder, eventually a single stick pops out.  On this stick is a number which corresponds to a paper you draw from a basket to get your fortune.  From here you find the paper with your number which then states your fortune.  I liked parts of mine, but I’m not sure if I did the process right.

Traditionally after receiving your stick you should toss the Jiaobei blocks which have a round side and a flat side.  A correct fortune will result in both stones facing opposite directions, while two rounded sides up means NO or that the gods are displeased with the question.  Two flat sides up can mean NO or that the gods are laughing at you.  If you get this you should repeat the process.  My number was 13 and my Thai guides said “interesting”, but they didn’t go so far as to tell me what that meant!

One last mission of the Amazing Adventure Bangkok was to get back to the starting point and order lunch in Thai.  The five of us, much better friends now, crammed into a four seat taxi.  Very soon we were back at the beginning and we sat in the food court.  Our last challenge was to use Thai words to order certain foods.  All the signs were in Thai as well so we had to ask around, finding certain dishes.  We got some Tom Yum soup, an omelet, and some stir-fried pork and basil leaf.  The food was delicious and as we ate I tried to learn some new Thai words.

The Gastronomic Trail tour put on by The Amazing Adventure Bangkok was a fantastic time!  Much more than I expected, the price of the tour includes everything listed above, even the large meal at the end.  I really couldn’t have eaten any more.  The guides were very knowledgeable and I learned a lot about the city, going to some places that I wouldn’t have found without the tour.  Check out their website for prices and a list of other tours which they put on.  The tour would be especially great if you only had a few days in the city.  Being able to experience the local market and Bang Krachao are things that a normal three-day-tourist can’t accomplish.

Thanks Amazing Adventure Bangkok for a perfect tour!

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Peru’s Lake Titicaca Islands: Floating Islands and Taquile Island

Puno is a great base for exploring some of Lake Titicaca‘s amazing islands on the Peru side, including the Floating Islands and Taquile Island.  We originally wanted to spend a night on one of the islands but it didn’t work out with our schedule.  Instead we opted for the more common day tour (40 Soles=$15, not including lunch), worried that it might be too cheesy and touristy for us.  While it was popular and touristy, it was for good reason and we still loved it!  The magical islands are just too cool to not enchant all who visit!

We left Puno’s dock around 7:30am in a group of 25 in a slow boat that thankfully had heating and comfy seats.  After about 30 minutes we arrived at the famous Islas Flotatantes, or Floating Islands.  These are exactly what they sound like…islands that are floating on the lake surface!  They were built by the Uros people several hundred years ago in an attempt by the tribe to isolate themselves from other cultures (kind of like the Amish).  The islands are made by lashing together a bunch of totora reed roots, and then layering cut totora reeds over and over again on top.  The islands are about 2.5 meters thick and they have to add a new layer of reeds every two weeks!  The ground kind of squishes when you walk on it and you can feel the motion of the water.  In all there are about 70 floating islands clustered together, each with five or six families living in one-room houses, also made of reeds.

Peru's Lake Titicaca Islands: Floating Villages
One floating island and one of their awesome ceremonial boats.

The residents of the Floating Islands we visited are totally dependent on tourism–they receive visits from the boat tours every day (making money from the tour companies) and also sell handcrafts to the tourists.  It made me happy to know, however, that there is another group of Uros on other floating islands further out on the lake who are still living traditionally, untouched by tourism.

Peru's Lake Titicaca Islands: Floating Villages
Uros woman showing off a tapestry she made.

At our stop on one floating islands we watched a demonstration of how the islands are built, looked inside one of the houses, looked at the handicrafts for sale, and learned more about the Uros culture.  A couple more interesting tidbits:

The Floating Islands in Peru are usually staked because “we don’t want to float to Bolivia without passports,” we were told.  However, for certain events which require more space, such as weddings and football (soccer) games, the people will push two or more islands together!

Peru's Lake Titicaca Islands: Floating Villages
One of the houses on the floating island.

Titicaca is .08% salt.  Our guide blamed the salty water for the Uros women being “a little bit round.”  He said this out loud in English and then whispered it in Spanish so they wouldn’t hear him!

Peru's Lake Titicaca Islands: Floating Villages
Row row row your boat.

At the end of our time on the floating island most of the group took off in one of the crazy boats for 5 Soles extra.  Zach and I opted not to, and we were glad we did because we ended up getting to talk to some of the Uros more casually.  One lady even gave us some reeds to eat after we saw her munching on them and asked to try.  She said they were “muy dulce” (very sweet) but after trying them and finding they tasted like nothing but water I felt bad for her for probably never trying any real desserts!

Next we took off on a three-hour trip to the center of the lake to Isla Taquile.  Good naptime with the noise and vibration of the boat!!!  Taquile is a real island (not floating) inhabited by a group of Aymara people.  We got off the boat and walked 400 meters uphill on a beautiful stone path.  Others in our group were struggling with the walk (remember Titicaca is at 4000 meters altitude!) but we charged up the hill, thankful for our Inca Trail training and one month of acclimatization in Cuzco.  The views of the lake from the main plaza were stunning.  Isla Taquile is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the intricate traditional knitting done by both the men and women.  We browsed through knitting museum and shop, full of amazing hats, gloves, scarves, and sweaters, but only bought seven cool little bracelets for 7 Soles ($2) from some kids.  Knitting and clothing is obviously a huge part of the Taquile culture.  Everywhere we went kids and old people were spinning thread on spools or knitting something.  Their beautiful handmade clothing also has cultural meaning: men whose hats are all colored are married while men whose hats are white on top are single.  Likewise, women who wear dark clothes are married and those who wear bright clothes are available.  The kids of different ages even wear different colored hats.

Peru's Lake Titicaca Islands: Floating Villages
Lake Titicaca from Taquile’s main square

Walking around the narrow stone streets of Taquile was so refreshing-no cars, no pollution, and gorgeous turquoise blue lake in every direction!  After lunch we continued walking across the island looking at the simple houses and hills terraced with stone walls for farming.  We got to the other side of the island and walked down 100-ish steps to another dock to our boat.  Three hours back to Puno had us snoring away again.

Peru's Lake Titicaca Islands: Floating Villages
We had to pay this man 1 Sole to take his picture. Then he had his eyes closed. Still a great face.

Despite the inundation of tourism, I was impressed with how authentic the island cultures of Titicaca seemed.  Between the craziness of the floating islands and the gorgeous tranquility of Taquile, the island tour was downright magical.

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Cuzco Free Walking Tour – Peru’s Inca City

Cuzco free walking tour

Loki Hostel a daily Cuzco free walking tour.  The tour takes you to some of the famous sites around the city, as well as a couple cool restaurants that the hostel is promoting.  The first stop was a free vegetarian restaurant owned by an Indian family.  They ask for a donation that goes to feeding poor children in nearby small villages.  We sampled the food and they told us about how to volunteer to help feed the kids.  We are trying to go do it before we leave Cuzco.  Next we walked to the Plaza de Armas, Cuzco’s famous square.  From here you can access many famous churches and restaurants.  The flag of Cuzco is actually rainbow stripes, causing many people to mistake it for the gay pride flag!

Cuzco free walking tour

After the plaza, we walked to the Museo do Cacao where they let us sample cacao-leaf tea and showed us where chocolate comes from.  We also sampled the “aji” (spicy) chocolate and the dark, which were both amazing.

Cuzco free walking tour

Next, we walked down an old alley; on the right was a wall built by the Incas.  The Spanish had knocked down the top of their building, but the bottom 10 feet or so remained.  The blocks were huge, some a couple feet wide, and fit together perfectly (you couldn’t fit a piece of paper between them).  The best part was that every rock was a different size and shape, the coolest one having 12 sides.

Cuzco free walking tour

Another cool part of the tour was playing with an alpaca and a vicuña!  The vicuña thought our blonde hair looked similar to the grass they eat in the wild.  Thus we kind of had to watch out to not get bitten on the noggin!

Cuzco free walking tour
Vicuña
Cuzco free walking tour
Alpaca!

We spent the end of our Cuzco free walking tour at the food market, satisfying our appetites with seafood soup and beer smoothies!!!  All in all, the Loki free walking tour was a great time!

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