Girl’s Guide to Packing for your India Vacation!

“I just booked the trip of a lifetime,  a whirlwind tour of India; Delhi, Jaipur, Agra and Varanasi. After finalizing the travel plans, I realized there were some really important details to work out-like what to wear.”

Shopping In India

Let’s go Sari Shopping!

My friend and I booked the trip of a lifetime a guided tour to Delhi, Jaipur and Agra, with an independent side trip to Varanasi. After finalizing all the travel plans, I realized there are some details we really needed to think about like what to wear and pack. I read through a variety of blogs and travel sites detailing different opinions on what women should wear, some advice more conservative than others. I decided to go more middle of the road and once in India found I had clearly made the right choices! Here are some tips on what to pack for your first trip to India.

Fun Day Sari Shopping!

Fun Day Sari Shopping!

The main question most women have is what is appropriate wear in India? India is a very conservative country, dressing provocatively or too revealing is frowned upon. Rural areas and smaller cities seemed to be more conservative than bigger cities like Delhi and Jaipur. For clothes, I highly suggest to err on the side of caution.

A good rule is to make sure your knees and shoulders are covered and don’t wear anything too tight. Especially if you are visiting rural areas or smaller cities- dress conservatively. I am embarrassed to admit I was surprised that almost all women were wearing a salwar kameez or a sari, and very few were wearing western-style clothes.

Colorful Saris in Varanasi

Colorful Saris in Varanasi

The salwar is a loose pajama type pants and the kameez is the tunic top, while the Sari is like an Indian dress that you have to wrap. Both styles of clothing are so beautiful and come in a variety of bright colors and styles. I wish I could wear these colorful outfits every day! Even though we were dressed conservatively it was still obvious that we were tourists. We even had a few different men politely ask if they could take photos with us.

Most likely a good part of your day will be spent visiting tourist spots so bring some casual pants or outfits. A lot of women tourists wear light-weight linen-type loose pants. It is not appropriate for women to wear yoga pants or leggings without a long top or tunic over it. Wearing just leggings would look like you are wearing underclothing and also they would be too tight. I love the new harem-style pants, currently out that are tight at the bottom and loose everywhere else. These are appropriate and comfortable to wear during the day. One of the most versatile items I packed was a lightweight pair of hiking pants from Columbia. They dried fast, were super comfortable and didn’t wrinkle in my luggage. One exception would be if you were staying at a yoga retreat you could get away with yoga outfits. I did not see any women wearing shorts either, I didn’t see any men wearing shorts either.

Another question is what to wear at the hotel pool. The pool was pretty empty where we were staying but I think a one piece bathing suit is a reasonable garment to wear. I do want to visit Goa and other beaches in India on my next trip so I will have to research this further.

Super Cute Girl at the Taj Majal!

Super Cute Girl at the Taj Majal!

Luckily long skirts and maxi dresses are in this year! I ended up wearing both for the majority of the tour. These can be dressed up for nighttime or down for casual touring during the day. Because it is suggested that you cover up your shoulders, I do not suggest maxi dresses that have skinny straps or that are strapless. A sweater or cover-up sounds like a practical solution except that it is very hot in India. The temperatures range anywhere from 90’s to 105 during the tourist season. For the most part I wore short sleeve tops but I did bring a couple of chunky strap tank tops, more like sleeveless tops and wore them only twice. You definitely do not need a sweater during the hotter months. It was 100 degrees and sunny every day we were there in September. Instead of a sweater, a better solution is a light weight gauzy cover-up.

Village Outside of Jaipur

Village Outside of Jaipur

One fashion mistake I made was bringing a black skirt that had two long slits up the side. By day 5 I was starting to wonder if anyone cares or even notices what I am wearing, so I wore my H & M skirt with the slits on a detour to a small village outside of Jaipur, a woman pointed out the slits and motioned with her hand that they should be sewn together. It was more in a teasing tone as opposed to judgmental but still, I made sure to dress appropriately for the rest of the trip after the public shaming.

Don’t forget to pack a light-weight but versatile scarf to cover your shoulders if you wearing a tank top or if you are visiting a temple or a mosque. You probably will not need to cover your head but the scarf will come in handy if you are taking a rickshaw or walking around a lot as it can get quite dusty and hot. Shoes –everyone wears flip flops or sandals. Even at night unless you are going to a club dressy sandals or even casual ones were appropriate with dresses.

A Visit to the Taj Majal

A Visit to the Taj Majal

A few key factors to consider are temperature, culture, length of vacation and itinerary when packing for your trip. My friends from India suggested buying clothing when we got there, but before you rely on shopping abroad, I would review your itinerary to make sure you have time to do this. We arrived in Delhi late afternoon and after checking into the hotel and eating dinner, it was pretty late to venture out alone to purchase clothes.
Overall, I was happy that I packed a mix or comfortable but stylish clothes; we didn’t have time to shop until about day 4, which is when we did get a chance to buy some scarves and even a Sari. With some careful planning and packing your trip to India should be as amazing as ours!

Packed and Ready to Go!

Packed and Ready to Go!

Explore the Old Quarter of Hanoi, Vietnam

“Hanoi’s bustling Old Quarter consists of over 70 streets selling everything from hand tailored suits to souvenirs. Visitors should not miss the Don Xuan Market; one of the largest and oldest covered markets in Hanoi.”

dong xuan market

Dong Xuan Market

Hanoi is a fast paced and colorful city where ancient culture and modern practices collide. Hanoi offers visitors a vastly different experience as opposed to Ho Chi Minh City due to its fusion of Chinese, Vietnamese and French influences. Although Hanoi is Vietnam’s second largest city most visitors tend to focus on the vibrant Old Quarter and the nearby Hoan Kiem Lake area .

A Visit to Hoan Kim Lake Hanoi

One of the most iconic images of Hanoi is Hoan Kiem Lake. It is a memorable experience to stroll around this scenic lake in the evening when the lights of the bridge and pagodas are lit up and reflected in the water. After a long day of sightseeing visitors can relax on one of the surrounding benches and enjoy an ice cream or a cup of coffee; a favorite pastime with locals as well as tourists. One of the most scenic images of Hoan Kiem Lake is the illuminated Bridge of the Rising Son that leads to the Ngoc Son temple.

Hanoi

Bridge of the Rising Son

Experience Hanoi’s rich cultural history by taking in a traditional Vietnamese show at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, located across from Hoan Kiem Lake. This lively puppet show is a must see for any visitor to Hanoi. Puppeteers and live musicians enact traditional Vietnamese tales using intricately designed wooden puppets that splash and move across a watery stage.IMG_0537

Escape the crowds by ducking in for a cup of coffee at nearby Highland’s Coffee, located in the five story building overlooking Hoan Kim Lake. Anyone of the viewing decks in the building is a great place to watch the endless parade of scooters and crowds down on the street from high above.

Navigating Hanoi’s Old Quarter

Hanoi’s Old Quarter is filled with a variety of colorful shops and markets. Traditionally many of the city streets are named after the items they sell. For example Hang Gai is known for items made of silk, Hang Ma sells paper decorations and Hang Bo sells baskets. This area is coined the original 36 streets as it refers to the original guilds established there and the items they sold and produced. Now the Old Quarter consists of over 70 streets selling everything from hand tailored suits to souvenirs. Located on the far northern end of the Old Quarter is the Don Xuan Market. This historical market is Hanoi’s largest and oldest covered market.

IMG_0405

Old Quarter Hanoi

One distinct feature of the Old Quarter is its unusual architecture. Many of the buildings are a fusion of Vietnamese and French influences. One style specific to Vietnam is called a tube house, these buildings line the Old Quarter streets and typically house a business on the ground level and the top floor is a narrow and tall tube-like living space.  Visitors to the Old Quarter will have to try the regional specialty Pho; a traditional noodle soup served with slices of beef or chicken and fresh bean sprouts. Pho is available at any number of crowded small store front restaurants that line the streets of the Old Quarter.

Getting Around Hanoi

IMG_0342

Scooter Girl Hanoi

The Old Quarter is best explored by walking, but even those equipped with a detailed map and the best navigational skills will have a hard time maneuvering the streets according to plan. Part of the charm of Hanoi is getting lost in the maze-like streets lined with colorful shops and overflowing markets.

Aside from walking, an exciting way to tour the city center is by Cyclo. These bicycle or scooter driven taxis are fun and safe way to experience the lively and crowded streets. It is essential to negotiate the price before getting in to ensure the best deal.

Visitors to South Asia will enjoy Hanoi for its unique fusion of French, Chinese and Vietnamese influences, its endless shopping opportunities, and the hustle and bustle of every day life.

Culture Shock Hanoi!

Hanoi is a vibrant city with an intense energy that captivates its visitors, sweeping them up in a whirlwind of chaos and excitement.

Equipped with a crumpled up map of a walking tour I copied from Frommers online, I felt confident I could navigate the winding maze-like streets of the Old Quarter of Hanoi to find the Dong Xuan Market. But as soon as I stepped out of the hotel onto the main street the buzz of a hundred scooters whizzing through the streets made my head spin. Weaving through a wall of brightly colored scooters we crossed the road carefully but quickly in a frogger-like fashion. They don’t believe in traffic lights I told my friend as we somehow made it safely to the other side.

The flower festival was going on and according to the map we had to head straight through it to get to the market. Although I am not sure I understood what was going on it was quite the occasion! Throngs of people crowded the streets and carts overflowing with bright yellow, pink and purple flowers lined the thoroughfares along the reflective Hoan Kim Lake.  Uniformed guards dressed in conservative green and gold uniforms stood stoically along carefully measured points along the sidewalk keeping the peace. After wandering around the lake for a bit we decided to focus back on our original goal; the market.

We were on our way to Dong Xuan Market; the largest covered market in Hanoi filled with mass quantities of clothes, trinkets, vegetables, and household goods. What I didn’t realize was that to get to the market we would have to navigate through the 36 streets of the Old Quarter of Hanoi. Coined 36 streets because each street is named after the item they sell; a tradition carried over from Hanoi’s distant past when guilds made up the quarter. The term 36 streets is a little misleading because the area actually consists of a tangled web of 70 plus streets. Each street begins with the word hang, which means store or shop.

For example, Hang Dao is an entire street that sells silk products, and Hang Ma street sells paper products like decorations and paper lanterns, Hang Mam sells fish and fish products like sauces and dried goods. There is one whole street Hang Gai dedicated to selling just hemp and rope. Its overwhelming to see an entire  street with every single shop selling one item! Crossing through the maze of Hang streets is not as easy as the map made it look.

It was hard to focus on the map without getting sidetracked. I was in sensory overload- bordering on culture shock. A bicycle sped by carrying a multitude of straw brooms in all shapes and sizes. An older Vietnamese women zoomed up out of nowhere selling little doughnuts from a black box attached to the back of her bike. Crowded restaurants sit on every corner, their mini blue or red plastic tables filled with hungry people eating Pho; a traditional type of Vietnamese noodle soup.

We wandered into a covered market filled with rows of tables, big plastic buckets overflowed with live eels, fresh fish, shrimps and even worms. The intense odor of briny fish, the whirl and fumes of the motor scooters, the constant chatter of a million voices, and the chaos of throngs of people will inevitably overload even the calmest person. I felt irritated, agitated and excited all at once. Culture shock!

I decided to give in to the madness and ditch the map, all the Hang’s were starting to look alike anyway. Finally, after hours of wandering around looking through shop after shop we found Dong Xuan Market. What looked like a short distance on the map turned into an all day excursion. Located on the corner of Dong Xuan and Hang Chieu streets, this bustling market houses about 50 businesses selling everything from food and appliances to clothing and shoes.  By now we were both getting tired and hungry so we headed back to the Hoan Kim Lake area.

Tired of shopping at this point we intuitively made it back to Hoan Kim Lake rather quickly. Before attempting to cross the crowded festival again, we stopped at Highlands Coffee in the five-story building overlooking the lake.  Standing out on the balcony, I was mesmerized by the sheer number and movement of people below. Even from high above I felt energized and excited. Hanoi has an infectious energy, the chaos of the crowds, the noise of the scooters, its hard not to get swept away in its chaotic whirlwind.

My advice? Ditch the map and get lost in the maze of winding streets and shops of the Old Quarter.  Grab a coffee and stroll around the beautiful Hoan Kim Lake.

To read more about Hanoi check out my article “Explore the Old Quarter of Hanoi Vietnam”

Karen Long Neck Hill Tribe of Thailand

Located in the northern most area of Thailand is the culturally rich city of Chiang Mai.  The city is a good base for those heading out on a variety of local tours.

With a number of tour options available for visitors it can be hard to decide which ones are worth your time and money. You can bamboo raft down the Mekong River, catch an elephant show, ride an elephant through the mountains,  or tour the area by ox-cart. Cultural tours to visit the hill tribe people are popular as well. There are seven different hill tribes residing in Thailand including the Karen, Lisu, Lahu, Hmong, Akha, and Mien tribes.

On a recent trip to Chiang Mai, I visited an elephant camp, floated down the river on a bamboo raft and also rode an elephant! all of which was great fun, but the most fascinating component of the tour was the visit to the Karen Long-Neck Tribe. I found out that the Karen Padaung Hill Tribe people are political refugees that fled Burma in the late 80’s and 90’s and were granted asylum in a number of areas of Thailand.  Little villages such as the one depicted in the photo above are located in many areas of Thailand, including Chiang Mai. 

The women in the the Karen Paduang tribe are called “Long-Neck” because they wear brass coils around their necks;  a traditional practice among the tribe dating back long before their arrival in Thailand. The coils serve a decorative purpose and give the illusion of elongating the neck, when it in fact it actually pushes the collar bone down.  Children as young as five are fitted for their decorative coils starting out with one or two brass links, each year adding one or two rings.

There  has been a steady decline in recent years among the younger women in Burma  wearing the coils for both health and social reasons.  However, in Thailand there has been a resurgence of this traditional practice,  possibly due to the need to generate tourism dollars for the tribe.

Keep in mind, visiting any of these villages will not give one much insight into the cultural practices of the tribe. The village is  set up mainly as a tourist attraction to help  generate money and work for the tribes people.

The “village” section that is open to the public consists of rows of stalls selling colorful scarves, purses, clothing and traditional looking handicrafts. The women were friendly and wore beautiful traditional clothing.  

I had mixed feelings about visiting the the village but it’s apparent that tourism is their main source of  a much needed income. Because they are political refugees they are not eligible to attain citizenship in Thailand. Therefore, they do not have the same access to medical care, education, or legal employment as do the citizens of Thailand.  The majority of their income is dependant on tourism. A donation box is located at the entrance of the village where you can leave money to help contribute to education and medical necessities for the village.

A visit to the Karen Tribe is usually part of a longer day tour, usually combined with an elephant trek, the elephant show, a ride on an ox-cart or bamboo rafting down the Mekong river.  The tours are a great way to see a lot of Chiang Mai in a short amount of time and also a way to help funnel money to people who need it.  An interesting day to say the least!

Cruise Through the Floating Village of Chong Kneas

“Every visitor to Siem Reap Cambodia knows the star attraction is Angkor Wat. But after a few days of hiking through the jungle ruins you might need a break!  Just 30 minutes outside of the city is the floating village of Chong Kneas. Brightly colored house boats bob up and down on the choppy waters, small boats buzz back and forth carrying kids to their watery school, there is even a giant floating basketball court. With just a short 3o minute trip to the village you too can experience this floating water world that many Vietnamese and Cambodians call home.”

Floating Village

Floating Houseboats!

 

A visit to the village of Chong Kneas is a unique experience not to be missed. Along the way visitors will feel as though they have been transported to another world; farmers with oxen harvest the lush green rice paddy fields that dot the countryside and brightly colored stilt houses rise up from the farm land like rural skyscrapers.
This is not a tourist attraction, this is a real village that many Vietnamese and Cambodians call home. Unlike the average community we envision in the states though the residents live in the brightly colored houseboats that bob up and down on the choppy water and worship at the local floating catholic church or mosque. During the week children are sent to school by boat rather than bus to their house-boat school. After their lessons, the children get to play at the large floating basketball court, surrounded by netting so the ball doesn’t fall out into the water. All day motorboats buzz up and down the waterways carrying passengers to conduct their daily duties. Don’t be surprised if a rickety wooden boat flies up selling coconuts and other beverages to tourists.

Floating Basketball Court

Floating Basketball Court

The viewing deck from the floating restaurant offers a great panoramic view of the marine city from above. In the village is the Gecko Environment Center, where you  can learn about the conservation of the Tonle Sap River. The floating center offers information on the ecology of the waterways and the fishing industry and other facts about the village. Really the main attraction of Chong Kneas is the 1000 plus brightly colored houseboats that line the waterway. This fairly large community consists of a network of 8 villages that lie along the Tonle Sap water way, migrating with the rise and fall of the water levels. About 6,000 residents live in the villages, mainly of Khmer and Vietnamese origin.

Although It sounds charming, life on these waterways is hard. Inhabitants live mainly in wooden house boats, some of the more poor live in makeshift stilt houses you will see out on the shore. Don’t expect too much in terms of tourist attractions, this is a working village where people live.  One criticism of visiting the village is that the residents don’t profit too much from tourism, and there is a level of extreme poverty.  I did have mixed feelings about my visit.

Viewing Deck

Viewing Deck

 

Chong Kneas is about a 30 minute drive outside of the city. The paved road to the village passes through a number of rural villages made up of wooden shacks and brightly colored stilt houses. It is easily accessible by car, tuk-tuk, or arranged tour. It’s best to leave early for a visit as it gets extremely hot in the afternoon. There are a number of options available for getting to the floating village. Tuk-tuks or taxis are readily available to take visitors from Siem Reap to the boat docks. From there it is necessary to make arrangements at the marina for the two hour round trip boat ride. The price to hire a boat is usually $15.00-$20.00 USD.

Stilt Houses Cambodia

Stilt Houses Cambodia

Another option is to arrange for a private tour. As this is a half day excursion, it would be practical to combine this trip with another half day tour. For $75.00 per person, Peace Of Angkor Tours offers an air conditioned car with driver and a guide, private boat, and a half day trip to one of the outer areas of the Angkor Wat Complex. Check with them directly for current prices. Most hotels in Siem Reap are able to make arrangements for a tour as well.

A visit to Chong Kneas is an exciting opportunity to experience the culture and countryside of Cambodia. The colorful houseboats and floating village alone are worth the trip but getting out of Siem Reap and seeing the countryside and small villages is a unique experience in and of itself.

 

How to Make an Elephant in Ten Easy Steps…

“The city of Siem Reap, Cambodia is known for the amazing temples of Angkor Wat, but visitors will find this bustling city is alive with many bars, restaurants and unique shops. One shop in particular stands out among the others; Artisans d’ Angkor, a sustainable network of shops committed to providing fair trade for locally produced art. The profits get invested back into the ten workshops that train and then employ nearly 1000 emerging Cambodian artists. “

Artisans d' Angkor

Artisans d’ Angkor

A visit to any one of the local markets; like the night market, will provide shoppers with a wide range of souvenirs and traditional crafts to take home. But for high-quality locally produced items, Artisans d’ Angkor is the place to shop. Artisans d’ Angkor is a network of self-sustaining stores and facilities that are committed to providing fair trade, locally produced Cambodian art. The Chantiers-Ecoles facility, located in the heart of Siem Reap, offers free informative daily tours in multiple languages. Visitors can watch local artisans handcraft many fine products such as silk paintings, wood and stone carvings and metal plated art, then after the tour, purchase a number of  these items from the gift shop.

How to Make an Elephant!

How to Make an Elephant!!

 The artists  specialize in intricately designed wood and stone carvings, silver-plated objects, silk painting, scarves, and hand lacquered art. Intricate stone carvings similar to those found at the Angkor Wat temples are wonderful souvenirs to take or ship home. The traditional art of stone carving in Cambodia is a skill that pre-dates the Angkor Wat era. Using the same techniques and materials as their ancestors, these skilled artisans produce high quality sandstone sculptures and statues depicting ancient deities and kings.
Artisans d’ Angkor also specializes in hand-crafted scarves and shawls made from 100% locally produced fine silk. These beautiful scarves and shawls come in a variety of hand-dyed natural colors and can be purchased at any one of their shops. Many other items such as luxury hand-woven and hand-dyed pillow cases, hand bags and wallets are also available. For those interested in the production of silk and silk crafts, there is an opportunity to visit the Angkor Silk Farm. The ancient art of silk weaving is a highly skilled process that requires much time and practice. During a tour of the silk farm, visitors can learn about the production of local silk products from start to finish. Watch how silk is collected from the cocoon of the Mulberry Silkworm and then made into silk products using the traditional techniques of silk weaving and hand dying.

Elephants!

Souvenir Shopping and Economy

Although bargaining at the local markets is a common practice for shoppers, not only in Cambodia but around the world, it is not appropriate to do so at Artisans d’ Angkor. This is not a typical souvenir shop; this facility serves a cultural as well as an economic purpose. Artisans d’ Angkor offers a business model that promotes sustainability and fair trade for the artists they employ. On a cultural level, they are preserving and promoting the traditional heritage of the Khmer empire. Reviving the traditional skills and crafts that were lost during years of political instability are a critical piece to a more unified Cambodia. On a larger scale they are providing economic support to Cambodia’s lagging job market by creating new jobs.
Artisans d’ Angkor is actually a network of ten workshops that trains and employs nearly 1000 emerging Cambodian artists. They recruit about 60 new apprentices per year providing not only a job, but a sustainable career. These organized workshops provide young people with a skilled trade and educational opportunity that would not be otherwise present in Cambodia.

Although there has been a recent boom in Cambodian’s tourist industry, it remains one of the poorest countries in South East Asia. Years of war and political turmoil have caused a deeply entrenched economic and cultural instability that has been hard for the country to overcome. The government lacks the necessary resources to provide adequate jobs, education, medical care and other basic necessities to their own people.
Shopping at Artisans d’ Angkor is one small way shoppers can use their tourist dollars for a good cause. This partnership provides shoppers with high-quality, locally produced products and the artist is guaranteed a fair wage for their labor while growing a sustainable career.

%d bloggers like this: