Category Archives: Where in the World is the WIT Agent?

Where in the World is the WIT Agent? — Yokohama

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Last week, our agent Pam headed to Tokyo to check out the sights, smells and sounds of Japan. She spent the first few days exploring the capital, and is now venturing out to check out neighboring towns. First on her route outside of the capital? Yokohama.

Located south of Tokyo, this prominent port city on Tokyo Bay is just a half-hour, high-speed train ride away. With a population of over three million, Yokohama is Japan’s second largest city. For more than a century, its conveniently located harbor has attracted a diverse gathering of foreigners–a fact still evident in the sizable Chinatown and the historical Western homes in the Yamate district.

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Here you’ll find the Hakkeijima Sea Paradise, an amusement park that combines aquarium with thrill rides and a market. At the park there are over 500 species of aquatic creatures, some of which are featured in a “touch and learn lagoon.”

Other cool museums are the Sail Training Ship Museum, Cupnoodles Museum, and the Silk Museum. At the Nogeyama Zoo, you can catch glimpses of red pandas, peacocks and giraffes.

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Yokohama also has one of the largest Chinatowns in the world, with over 500 shops and restaurants sandwiched in 500 square meters.

Visitors can take a respite from the hustle and bustle of city life at the Sankei Garden, a classical Japanese garden that spans over 18,000 square meters. It’s a beautiful spot particularly in the spring, when plum and cherry blossoms bloom.

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And if you’re lucky enough to be there the season Pam’s there, you may be able to catch the Kanagawa Shimbun Fireworks Festival (August), an impressive summer event in the harbor.

Call Wittravel to arrange your trip to Japan or to discover more about the Land of the Rising Sun, at 503-224-0180 or email info@wittravel.com. 

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Agent Trip to Thailand/Laos: Part Five — Luang Prabang, Pt 2

Last month, WIT Agent Wailana traveled with our preferred vendor Vexplore Tours through Thailand and Laos. This month we are posting sections from her journal–read on for her insider tips!

In case you missed Part Four on the Mekong Cruise, click here to read it.

After the 3-night Mekong cruise, we disembarked at Luang Prabang for one final night in this charming town. Our hotel was the the Angsana Maison, a lovely, historic hotel just 20 minutes’ walk from the night market. This property had a soothing atmosphere. Its white walls and intimate spa contributes to a simple boutique charm.

That day we drove in a passenger van out to the Kuang Si waterfalls, about 45 minutes to 1 hour from the city. As it had stormed violently the night before, the waterfalls had erupted into an impressive flood. During drier months (early Spring), people can usually swim or wade in the small pools at the base of the falls.

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One of the highlights from the Lao trip I haven’t mentioned yet is the monk walk. Every morning, monks from the local temple line up and collect rice from villagers. They walk around a few blocks with their baskets, stopping for just a second for kneeling townsfolk to scoop out their morning rice. I bought a little sitting map and a large wooden tub of rice and waited for each monk—the older ones to the front, the younglings at the back. The line advances pretty speedily, so you have to move fast to scoop your rice into their tubs!

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If you visit Luang Prabang, don’t forget to hop on a tuk tuk. These are different than Thai tuk tuk cars—in Lao they are quite colorful, blue trucks slathered in strips of bright yellow and red and green. We drove out on one of these to the food market—a delicious collection of Lao goodies you won’t find anywhere else in the world: juicy bacon, marinated meat, lemongrass, buffalo jerky, strong coffee—even wasp eggs!

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That evening after a delicious dinner by the river (steamed fish in banana leaf!), we drove out to a house in the residential district to attend a Baci ceremony. The Baci is a traditional ritual used to celebrate important events. Most Lao people are animists who believe in indigenous gods (phi) and thirty-two khwan, or spirits who inhabit the body. The Khwan bestow health and prosperity onto a person, and their absence directly correlates to illness or harm. The main purpose of the Baci is to call back your spirits, and it is often performed to welcome guests and travelers.

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A band of fifteen elders and a priest greeted us with a tower of bright orange flowers, strings, bananas and sweets. The ritual was brief but beautiful, and involved several dances from five 13- to 16-year-old girls in costume. We each had our wrists bound in simple ropes, which we could keep on for 3 days for full spiritual potency.

WIT Agents have all traveled extensively throughout SE Asia and regularly book clients around the region. Call 503-224-0180 to speak with one of our agents about a trip that’s right for you.

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Agent Trip to Thailand/Laos: Part Four — Mekong Cruise

Last month, WIT Agent Wailana traveled with our preferred vendor Vexplore Tours through Thailand and Laos. This month we are posting sections from her journal–read on for her insider tips!

In case you missed Part Three on Luang Prabang, click here to read it.

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Mekong Sun

The next morning we embarked and sailed north of Luang Prabang on the Mekong River. This river cruise was truly a unique experience.

Our ship, the Mekong Sun, was a midsize riverboat with 16 crew and 14 cabins. The Sun typically sails 3, 6, or 8 days from Luang Prabang, though there is the impressive 10-day to Chiang Saen or 12-day to Vientiane cruises.

The ship moves at a leisurely pace, so that you might hardly notice the current at all. Like all water traffic on the Mekong, the Sun does not travel during the night due to riparian flotsam and jetsam. Breakfast is Western, lunch is Western/Asian mix buffet, Asian set meals for dinner with some limited choices for drinks. If you’re brave, try lao lao—distilled Lao moonshine served in shot glasses—or any of the delicious South American or French wines.

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lao lao jars

While I was onboard, passengers were a mix of Germans, Austrians, Swiss, Americans, Thai, and one journalist from Hong Kong. There’s ample space onboard—you never feel too crowded with an open-air sun deck and a shaded dining area—however, there’s no A/C anywhere except in the cabins, so travelers during the humid months (summertime) be aware!

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Pak Ou Caves

Three days on the Mekong is a good amount of time—the first night is docked at Luang Prabang, followed by a morning food market visit and afternoon sail up to the Pak Ou Caves. On the third day, passengers can visit a few villages along the riverside and top it all off with a splendid BBQ dinner on a sandy beach.

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Kids at play between school

The marvelous cruise director Ben leads the shore excursions to the villages and serves as a facilitator between the crew and the passengers. He even shares meals with the guests and one evening on the cruise he does an hour presentation on Lao culture and history.

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off to school in the morning

I think the ship would have benefitted with a bit more on-ship activities in the lazy afternoons—tai chi or yoga for example. One afternoon the chef did hold a cooking demonstration on Lao cuisine.

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children reading the side of a temple

The Mekong Sun – Just the Facts, Sir

  • Built in Laos in 2006
    • 2 decks with 11 classic cabins on the main deck (12 m²/129 sq ft), all facing out onto the water and with wide sliding windows with a French balcony providing a fantastic view of the passing landscapes
    • 3 superior cabins, one in the bow of the main deck (16 m²/172 sq ft), two on the upper deck (18 m²/194 sq ft). The two cabins on the upper deck have their own small private balcony; the one in the bow has a superb panoramic view to the front
    • All cabins with en-suite shower/WC and air-conditioning
    • Large sun deck with bar service and restaurant/bar area
    • All guided offshore excursions and meals are included
  • Catamaran, two steel hulls, two decks, with teak and mahogany superstructure
    • Weight: approx. 100 tons
    • Length: 40 m
    • Width: 7,5 m (at its widest part)
    • Depth: approx. 0,9 m
    • Two diesel motors with 550 hp each
    • Fire alarm
    • Crew: 16
    • Construction completed in 2006

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Agent Trip to Laos: Part Three — Luang Prabang

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Tree on Phou-Si Hill

This past September, WIT Agent Wailana traveled with our preferred vendor Vexplore Tours through Thailand and Laos. Read on for her report on Luang Prabang, the artistic center of Laos!

In case you missed Part Two on Ayutthaya, click here to read it.

I flew from Bangkok to Luang Prabang on Thai Airways, a petite but quite comfortable hopper with perhaps 40-50 seats. Please do remember that Laos requires a full page in your passport for the visa, plus USD $37 visa fee (at time of writing), so bring cash. The airport is about 30 minutes’ drive from Luang Prabang.

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Street in Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is the artistic and cultural capital of Laos. At first sight I fell deeply in love with this small, nostalgic city, with its intimate cafes, French architecture and boutique antique shops. Travelers should situate themselves near the Mekong river, within walking distance to the best restaurants and the night market.

Our first stop was the Japanese-owned Sonphao Restaurant, where we partook on a refreshing set menu of Lao fare. The food is typically light and revitalizing, with flavors of sweet lemongrass, tender pork and chicken, flavorful mushrooms and delicate fish sauces. One of the most tasty discoveries for me was kaipen-khay, or river weed. This is an algae that grows on underwater rocks in the Mekong river, eaten in dry sheets similar to Japanese nori. A local speciality of Luang Prabang is dry khai with sesame, eaten in strips as a side dish. I ordered a Beer Lao, which was a light, decent lager that came with its own story. A few decades ago, Lao students were sent on exchanges to universities in the Soviet Union and East Germany, and one came back with a recipe for beer!

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Lunch at Sonphao, one of the best meals of the writer’s life

One of the major highlights of the city is Phou-Si Hill. A large Buddhist complex is spread all over the hillside in a gigantic and gorgeous maze of curving stairs, eye-popping flora, small spirit houses, Buddha footprints and statues of each Buddha. The view from the top of the valley and river is absolutely stunning. One warning—there are a lot of steps! At the very top, vendors sell frogs and birds in little cages, meant for you to release for good luck—however it’s not recommend to buy these as many frogs and birds die during capture.

At the food of Phou-Si Hill is an amazing Hmong night market, a mile-long string of colorful tents where vendors sell handicrafts, silks and handmade paper gifts. Haggling is a major part of the Laotian culture—but bring your Lao Kip, because only a few vendors take Thai Baht and almost none USD or euros.

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View from Phou-Si Hill

Next to the market is the Royal Palace, home to the monarchy until 1975, when the royal family was banished out of the country by the communist party. You can wander from room to room, no photography and no shoes allowed (but there are lockers to put your stuff in). Old furniture, paintings, art, ceramics, gifts, musicians, even a chariot and a collection of cars and dragonboats are on display. Most impressive was the gift room, a series of glass chests that displayed various gifts given from presidents, kings, etc. all over the world to the Lao royal family. There is even a piece of the moon from the USA!

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Night Market

Next Up: Mekong Cruise!

For more photos from Wailana’s trip to Laos, check out the gallery: https://wittravel.wordpress.com/gallery/laos/

WIT Agents have all traveled extensively throughout SE Asia and we continue booking clients regularly around the region, to top destinations and off-the-beaten-path alike. Whether you’re traveling on your honeymoon or with a larger family, Thailand is a great choice for first-time and experienced travelers alike. Call 503-224-0180 to speak with one of our agents about a trip that’s right for you.

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Wailana’s Trip to Thailand/Laos: Part One — Mekhala Cruise on the Chao Praya

This past September, WIT Agent Wailana traveled with one of our preferred vendors in SE Asia, Vexplore Tours. With their escort, she ventured through Bangkok, Ayutthaya and Chiang Mai in Thailand, and Luang Prabang and the Mekong River in Laos!

She came back with a lot of useful firsthand knowledge of her destinations, plus some insider tips. Over the next few weeks we’ll be posting sections of her feedback. Read on for details!

We arrived into Bangkok at around 11pm, well after rush hour, and transferred via air-conditioned car and driver to our hotel. Vexplore had booked us at the lovely Banyan Tree, a modern property around 10 minutes’ walk of the Chao Praya River on the east bank. The décor is dark and contemporary, with linear lines and traditional flavor that gave it a professional and cozy atmosphere. One of my favorite details in most of the hotels were the use of granite or marble sink bowls in the bathroom, instead of the embedded sinks more common worldwide.

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Wat Pho

The next morning (after a quick detour to Wat Pho to see its impressive reclining Buddha statue) we hopped on the riverboat Mekhala, for an overnight cruise on the Chao Praya up to Ayutthaya. This is a pleasant and relaxing option on the first day away from the fun hustle and bustle of Bangkok; I was able to experience and admire the surroundings while still recovering from jet lag. We took the boat north to the old temples and stupas and the next day drove south via the bus.

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The Mekhala

The Mekhala riverboat is an elegantly restored rice barge constructed mostly of teak, and like most boats is of course economical with its space. Each cabin had two sleeping areas: a very narrow single on the low side and a large double on the other end, which may be quite snug for a party of two and requires some climbing up onto shelves to reach. Bring your sea legs and sense of adventure! The service was impeccable, though the crew of 5 was rather shy and didn’t mingle much. Dinner was traditional Bangkok fare but breakfast was Western.

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View of Bangkok Riverbank

The boat ride up the Chao Phraya is very calm and steady, the scenery always changing. The river is full of large water plants and the water is very brown and murky. Interesting diversity of houses along the way, from wealthy teak houses to shacks that are falling apart. There’s also a gigantic gold Buddha and copper priest on the way. In the early morning, a longboat sped up and down selling fresh crabs to the houses lining the river.

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Dawn on the River

We stopped at the Mon minority village, and enjoyed a refreshing walk through the village while admiring the exquisite yet humble architecture. The Mon emigrated here from Burma a century or so ago. We also stopped briefly at the night food market of Pathum Thani to pick up some fresh fruits and vegetables for dinner. Overnight the boat docked at the harbor beside Wat Kai Tia, a simple temple overlooking the river.

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Wat Kai Tia

Next Up: Ayutthaya and its Temples

For more photos from Wailana’s trip to Thailand, check out the gallery.

WIT Agents have all traveled extensively throughout Thailand and we continue booking clients regularly to this country’s top destinations, including Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Koh Samui, Krabi and Phuket! Whether you’re traveling on your honeymoon or with a bigger family, Thailand is a great choice for first time and experienced travelers alike. Call 503-224-0180 to speak with one of our agents about a trip that’s right for you.

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Thailand & Laos with Vexplore

Check out the photos from our agent Wailana’s educational trip to Thailand and Laos, Sept 2014! Stay tuned for her trip report–coming soon!

THAILAND

 

 

LAOS

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Where in the World is the WIT Agent? – Viking Cruises, Russia

WIT Agent Nancy Fowler is currently escorting a group of 70+ passengers on a Viking River Cruise through Russia! From August 24 to Sept 5, Viking’s ship Helgi sails from Moscow to St. Petersburg on the Volga-Baltic Waterway.

Nancy will return next week with some firsthand feedback, but in the meantime here are some of the highlights they will experience on their journey (excerpts from VRC’s At a Glance):

Creative Commons (c) Adam Jones

Creative Commons (c) Adam Jones

The World’s Largest Art Museum

Over the span of 250 years, the collection of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russi has grown to over 3 million items including works from noted artists such as da Vinci, Michelangelo, Matisse, Rubens, Cezanne, van Gogh and Picasso. These treasures are housed along the embankment of the Neva River, in the heart of St. Petersburg. The highlight in this architectural ensemble is the Winter Palace, former residence of Russian Tsars including Catherine the Great.

Creative Commons (c) ninara

Kizhi, Creative Commons (c) ninara

An Architectural Feat

On the island village of Kizhi, walk through the Open Air Museum of Architecture. Kizhi contains ancient wooden houses, windmills and churches, the most stunning of which is the three-tiered Preobranzhenskaya (Transfiguration) Church. This fairytale structure was built in 1714 without the use of a single nail.

Creative Commons (c) flowcomm

Kremlin, Creative Commons (c) flowcomm

The Heart of Moscow

In Russian, the word kremlin refers to any major fortified complex. But in Moscow there is one very special Kremlin, adjacent to the Red Square. Inside its crenellated red brick walls are four palaces and an array of churches and monasteries—as well as one enormous bell. The Kremlin also serves as the official residence of Russia’s President.

Creative Commons (c) Dennis Jarvis

Amber Room, Creative Commons (c) Dennis Jarvis

A Legend Restored

Constructed of amber panels backed with gold leaf and mirrors, the Amber Room was given to Peter the Great by a Prussian King in 1716. Installed at Catherine’s Palace in Pushkin, it was later exnteded to cover nearly 600 square feet with over six tons of amber. During WWII, German soldiers disassembled the room and it was never seen again. In 2003, a painstaking reconstruction was completed, enabling visitors to once again enjoy its brilliance.

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Pirozhki, Creative Commons (c) malan10

Russian Specialties

A large country, Russia has quite a varied cuisine—but some things everyone loves. A staple of the Russian diet is pirozhki, small pastries stuffed with fish, meat, eggs, potatoes, cabbage or mushrooms and either baked or quick-fried. Another traditional dish is blini, thin crepe-like pancakes served with butter, sour cream, fruit preserves and/or caviar. Vikings’ guests will taste these local delicacies on board.

Willamette Intl Travel has years of expertise with river cruises in Europe and Asia. Our agents are well versed with Viking and many other cruise lines. Please call us for more information.

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