January 20, 2017

A Day in Essaouira // Morocco


Essaouira is a cute costal town sits about 2 1/2 hours drive west of Marrakesch. It's a darling little adventure to get out of the hectic city of Marrakesch. If you are a Game of Thrones nerd like me, you may also recognize it as Astapor (home of the unsullied). I fell in love with Essaouira the moment we met. It's sleepy calmness is set by the crashing waves of the Atlantic on to the coastline and the medina is full of adventure and shops to explore. I also found the people of Essaouira to be overwhelmingly kind. It's a city I wish I could have spent more time just living a bit of day to day in.


Many tour companies in Morocco offer day trips from Marrakech, private car hires are widely available, or you can also choose to take the local bus (about $10US). We booked a tour through Viator which included a stop at a women’s argan oil cooperative and a quick photo op with the goats that graze in the argan trees. The stops were a nice way to break things up and learn a bit about Moroccan agriculture, but I did feel a bit wary that they were both a bit of a tourist trap situations. Although the goats in the region are actually known to climb trees and eat the argan berries (that are then collected and processed into oil when they...um...pass) and it's a fascinating symbiotic relationship, these goats were pretty clearly staged for tourist. They were set up on the side of the road and the two men called our tour group down and insisted we pay money for photos.  





We arrived in Essaouira to the sun shining and a lovely clean beach. There were a number of upscale looking hotels right on the coast that seemed like a great option for a beach getaway if that is what you're looking for. We were there in November, so the water was too cold to swim, but it was sill a beautiful place to relax by the waves.



As you pass the beach and cross the ramparts into the city, you will find it's home to the winding old fashioned alleys Morocco is known for, but these are much more calm than Marrakech.  Shops and small restaurants line the alleys, so it's a perfect city to wander without much aim and take it all in. Prices in Essaouira seemed a bit lower and I found the shop keepers here to be much more warm and less pushy, so we did most of our gift shopping in town.





We spent just about 5 hours wandering before it was time to meet our tour bus.  The few hours we spent here were some of my favorite in Africa.  There was something about this little coastal city that captivated me and next time I'm in Morocco, this will definitely be a town that I will be getting to know a bit more.



October 4, 2016

Exploring the Souks of Marrakech // Morocco


Exploring the Souks of Marrakech // Morocco // A Suitcase & a Stamp

Within Marrakesch, there is an old city (medina) and a new city (guéliz). While the new city area emits the buzz of modern life, as soon as you pass through the gates of the ramparts aroudn the old city, you are transported into another world. Within the walls of the medina, the old life meets new and echoes of the traditions of this vibrant red city are apparent around every corner.

The medina is where you will find the beautiful iconic wandering alleyways full of colorful shops - the souks. As you meander through the narrow alleys, you'll get a glimpse of the real magic of Morocco. The flashes of brightly colored flowing scarves, the pungent scents of spices and slow cooked tagines, the yell of the hawkers to try to pull you in, and the ting of the hammers hitting metal as you watch the craftsman carefully create works of functional art...it fills you with the realization that you are in a unique and special place.

Exploring the Souks of Marrakech // Morocco // A Suitcase & a Stamp

Navigating the labyrinth

Wandering the souks can be a bit overwhelming. The alleys wind through the old city and connect in seemingly random patterns, so it's easy to get lost, but getting lost is probably the best way to experience it all. If you're worried about getting lost or short on time, GPS or a hired guide is your best bet. The souks start at famous Jemaa el Fna Square and create a labyrinth of vibrant scents, colors, and sounds all the way to the Musee de Marrakech. Each section of souks was historically laid out and divided by the goods being sold there and not much has changed in thousands of years. The deeper you get, the more apparent these sections are - craftsmen working with the mediums in the metal, leather, or pottery areas; fresh produce vendors line courtyards; shoemakers hawk beautiful slippers.

Exploring the Souks of Marrakech // Morocco // A Suitcase & a Stamp

Make the Deal

The shops that are closest to the square are generally the most tourist focused, so these shops will probably have the highest prices. Best bet for a deal is to get a bit deeper into the maze.

Don't be afraid to haggle. In the souks of Marrakech more than most any other place I've visited, the sellers are aggressive and they are prepared to deal and haggle. It's very much accepted here. General advice is to ask for a price, offer half of what is given, and go from there. Don't be afraid to walk if you don't get a reasonable price - 9 times out of 10 the seller will flag you down and take your offer.

When you see a fixed price that looks too good, know that it is probably is. It is a tactic to get you talking and bring you in, so be prepared. A scarf hanging with a 10 dirham ($1 USD) sign might be the most boring scarf they have and the seller will certainly try to sell you on a more expensive scarf once he knows you're interested and he may not even seem willing to sell you the cheaper item at all with his sales tactics, but hold your ground. It's ok to haggle or to keep walking.

Exploring the Souks of Marrakech // Morocco // A Suitcase & a Stamp

Stay Safe

Dress comfortably, but respectfully. The souks can get very hot in the summer, so bring water. Keep an eye on your valuables because with all the chaos going on in the market, it makes to distracted easy pickings for thieves. Be sure to be aware of your surroundings and stay to the sides and motorcycles and horse drawn carriages also zip up and down these alleys. Be courteous and know that some folks are not keen on having photos taken, so be aware when you are trying to snap your shots.

Exploring the Souks of Marrakech // Morocco // A Suitcase & a Stamp

What to buy

The options are seemingly endless in the souks. Morocco is known for fine leatherwork (thanks to the tanneries in nearby Fez), so it's a great place to pick up a new bag, an ottoman, or pair of shoes. Tea sets, colorful bowls, tagines, and shops full of spices are wonderful for stocking the kitchen. Lanterns and rugs are beautiful here, but both can be tricky to get home.

It's important to note that not all items in the souks are going to turn out to be the beautiful one of a kind items they might seemed to be. Tourism is big business in Marrakech and there are lots mass produced items made to look authentic being sold by many different sellers. That's perfectly ok and those items can make great souvenirs, but just be clear about that so you're paying an appropriate price. The handmade one of a kind gems are there, but they require a bit more of a premium for the craftsmanship.

Exploring the Souks of Marrakech // Morocco // A Suitcase & a Stamp

Don't skip the food vendors. The souks are home to one of my favorite Moroccan dishes - lamb tangia. The taingia is similar to a tagine. The lamb chunks are placed in a clay urn (called a taingia) with onions and a mix of moroccan spices. They are then covered with parchment and placed in the hot coals to cook for a full day. The result is the most amazing tender meat I've ever eaten. You can spot places selling this dish by looking for the urns.

Exploring the Souks of Marrakech // Morocco // A Suitcase & a Stamp

Exploring the Souks of Marrakech // Morocco // A Suitcase & a StampExploring the Souks of Marrakech // Morocco // A Suitcase & a Stamp

Exploring the Souks of Marrakech // Morocco // A Suitcase & a Stamp

September 27, 2016

8 Reasons GoogleTrips Might Be My New Travel BFF // Travel Tips


The roll of technology and travel is a kind of complicated one.  There's a balance, right?  Many people travel to get away from technology in a lot of ways.  We seek to have real experiences and be in the moment in these beautiful places and that means we have to put down our phones and unplug to do that.  On the other hand, technology is an amazing tool that is making travel easier for us.  It's helping us to plan effective travel routes and connect with other travelers to find the best hotels and the best spots to eat sushi in Tokyo.

Google just introduced a new travel app to add to the tools in our traveling toolbelt called GoogleTrips.  Have you seen the ad?

I have to be honest, I'm already kind of hooked.  It's the kind of simple tech app that is really easy to use and it makes travel easier and what's not to love about that?  It is still in it's infancy, so it has so growing to do, but I see a lot of promise.  It could be a really amazing new addition to my travel planning if it works out a few kinks and continues to expand.  And so, I give you...

8 good reasons that GoogleTrips might be my new travel BFF...


1. Automatic Imports : GoogleTrips automatically connects in to your Gmail (with your permission of course) and finds all the relevant details relating to upcoming and past travel - your car rentals, flight reservations, and hotel bookings - so that when you launch the app, all of your upcoming trips are listed on the home screen!  It also has a listing of your past trip information which I think it always nice to be able to reference.   
The downside: If you don't use Gmail for your travel bookings, you get none of this magic.


2. Offline Mode : Data coverage abroad can be expensive!  And wifi is iffy at best in some places, so all the great internet based apps in the world can fail if you don't have an offline option.  GoogleTrips allows offline options that could save the day.  By flipping the "available offline" switch, it will download and store the reservations, maps to your hotels, and destination information.


3. Need to Know :  Part of planning any big international trip for me always includes taking an extra moment to document all the emergency numbers, details on currency, and tipping notes.  GoogleTrips takes care of that for you in the "Need to Know" section.

Area of Opportunity : Currency conversion would make this so much more dynamic.  Also, this section is not available in all destinations yet.

4. Recommendations : Check through lists of things to do or places to eat based on different categories that might suit you personally such as "family friendly" or "outdoor adventures"

The downside: While it seems to feed you the star ratings from TripAdvisor, it doesn't make those ratings clickable to see the actual reviews at a glance.


5. Save Places : When you find a restaurant or a thing to do that looks like your kind of fun, hit it with a star and it goes into your saved places.  The saved places then get put into maps so that when you are planning your days, you can easily see how close those options are to each other.  Saves so much time from manually mapping and makes for more efficiency to see all the things you're dreaming of.

6. Day Plans : An offering of a few ideas are listed here or you can create your own using your saved options and search features.  It then maps everything out for you and give you the time breakdown and transportation information to go from place to place.

The downside: This feature needs more manual input options in order to actually replace an itinerary for me.  It only recognizes certain locations and I think it should auto recognize your hotel here to give you your natural starting and ending point option.

7. Getting Around : A listing of taxi numbers, public transport information, airport shuttles, and basic driving rules are all located in one place.


8. Local Specialties : Sometimes when you are traveling to a new country, it's hard to keep track of all the amazing dishing and what all the new culinary words mean, so I appreciate this little spot on the food and drink section with some local specialties so you can reference that in addition to just run of the mill restaurant recommendations.  This is also nice to check in less exotic locations just to see what dishes they are known for.

What do you think?  Have you tried it yet?

September 19, 2016

A Scooter Tour of Bangkok // Thailand


Continuing on with sharing my trip to Thailand, I wanted to share a really fun experience I had the first day I was there - a scooter tour of the city!

Bangkok is infamous for traffic jams. It's a big city with a population of around 8 million people - about the same as the population of New York City.  It can be hard to cover a lot of ground without the right transportation and I quickly learned why the one of the most popular methods of transport in Thailand is by scooter.  Scooters are able to weave in and out of traffic, get off the beaten path, and cover a lot more ground than sitting in a traffic in a taxi ever could, so I am really glad I was able to set up a tour of the city via scooter on my first day there!

I booked my tour through Best Bangkok Tours and I am so glad I did!  It was a perfect introduction to the city and the culture and it was also really fun and exciting! It gave me a good glimpse of the experience I was about to embark on! My tour guides met me at my hotel and set me up with a walkie talkie and professional scooter driver.

A Scooter Tour of Bangkok // Thailand // A Suitcase and a Stamp

I hopped on the back for the scooter, reluctant and nervous at first, but after a few minutes, I was so engrossed in the beautiful sights of the city that every fear or hesitation I had just melted away and quickly turned to excitement and enchantment! Weaving in and out of traffic and feeling the wind on my skin, I felt such freedom and I felt like I was seeing Bangkok like a local. I was lucky enough to have the benefit of the knowledge of two guides as one was training! Both Susan and Leighton were lovely, they were both American expats who obviously had a deep love and appreciation for the city they were showing me. I learned so much in my hour and half tour and I saw so much in that short time.

A Scooter Tour of Bangkok // Thailand // A Suitcase and a Stamp


A Scooter Tour of Bangkok // Thailand // A Suitcase and a Stamp

Not only did I get to see the traditional sights you find in the tourism books like the flower market and Chinatown, but I also got to see the more "secret" local gems like the best happy hour spot to see the sunset.  I felt much more like I was seeing Bangkok as people live in it instead of just the tourist viewpoints.  My guides answered every question I had and gave me extensive insight into the Thai culture and the little nuances and customs that differ from life in the States. It was an absolutely perfect way to be introduced to the country I would be spending the next two weeks exploring and it really helped me get my bearings in this big city.

A Scooter Tour of Bangkok // Thailand // A Suitcase and a Stamp

Before my arrival, I was uneasy over the news of violence and protesting in Bangkok, but as we drove past the Ministry of Defense building, my guide stopped to point out the small strands of pretty pastel ribbons that were tied along the bared wire. She explained that this was done by the protesters as an act of peace. It put things in perspective and perhaps shifted the way I perceived the situation and the Thai people. The juxtaposition of hard, guarded barbed wire with softly colored pretty pastel ribbons was striking and emotional for me. We also rode past the camps of the protesters and although I would keep my distance from the situation, I felt a little more at ease and gained new perspective.

A Scooter Tour of Bangkok // Thailand // A Suitcase and a Stamp

 My guides made me feel safe and comfortable.  There were a lot of breaks and chances to get off the scooter for quick photo shoots and exploration. They were both so sweet and gave me lots traveling tips and restaurant recommendations and really went above and beyond by letting me know that I could call or email them if I needed anything during my trip.  As a solo traveler, it is really lovely to be able to dive in and really get a chance to experience the city in that way with so much helpful guidance.

A Scooter Tour of Bangkok // Thailand // A Suitcase and a Stamp

A Scooter Tour of Bangkok // Thailand // A Suitcase and a Stamp

After the tour, they even emailed me the customized google map with every sight that we saw so that I could easily make my plans to to back and spend more time visiting the sights that interested me most! So perfect! They also took some super cute fun photos for me and emailed them as a momento of our trip.

A Scooter Tour of Bangkok // Thailand // A Suitcase and a Stamp

If you are planning a trip to Bangkok, I hope you consider going on a scooter tour with Best Bangkok! I really can't say enough about how wonderful it was! Follow my blog with Bloglovin

September 17, 2016

Elephant Nature Park // Thailand


Elephant Nature Park // Thailand

Animal interactions in Thailand are plentiful and animals are very much a part of the life and culture of the country.  Animals are pretty much my heart, so when I travel, I really do try to make wildlife a central part of my experience if possible.  Before arriving in Thailand, I did a lot of research on how to have these experiences responsibly without participating in any experiences or supporting businesses that cause harm to animals.  I won't get on a soapbox and pretend to be an expert or tell you how to live or travel, but I do encourage you to take some time to do your own research and follow your heart if you plan to make animals a part of your travel experience.
Elephant Nature Park // Thailand // A Suitcase and A Stamp

Asian elephants are a beautiful and important symbol of Thai culture and they are also endangered, so I knew I wanted to learn and experience them while I was there.  I choose the Elephant Nature Park for my experience based on lots of research and some inspiring bloggers experience there.  It is run by a wonderful woman named Lek, who started the park years ago when she rescued an elephant from the illegal logging industry. She believes elephants should be respected and trained using positive reinforcement and love instead of hooks.  The money raised with tourism to the park goes toward the elephant care and towards buying other elephants in bad situations in need of rescue.

Elephant Nature Park // Thailand // A Suitcase and A Stamp


The day started out with an hour drive from Chiang Mai into the beautiful mountains, we watched a video about the park and about elephant treatment in Thailand as we drove.  Once we arrived, we met two of the park's residents - two old girls, one blind from being shot at with a slingshot in her time as a logging worker, the other her best friend who never leaves her side and has protected her for years.  The story of these two friends brought me to tears and genuinely inspired me with their way of loving.  We fed them their favorite snacks of melon, squash, and bananas and they waved their ears (a sign our guide told us meant they were happy - like a dog's tail wag).  

Elephant Nature Park // Thailand // A Suitcase and A Stamp

Next, our lovely guide, Kai, took us for a walk to meet some of the other herds around the park.  She told us stories about where each elephant came from and she was full of knowledge about each of them.

Elephant Nature Park // Thailand // A Suitcase and A Stamp

One of the things about elephants that really touched me was they way they form bonds with each other and make families even though they are unrelated. And these bonds last a lifetime.

Elephant Nature Park // Thailand // A Suitcase and A Stamp

We had lunch at the park and then watched a documentary about elephant phajaan or "crushing" - the way most elephants are tamed to work in logging and tourism in Thailand.  The movie was heartbreaking at hard to watch, but it was important and I felt grateful that education was such a large part of the mission of this park.  It really made me understand why elephant riding is not acceptable & I would be careful to make good choices in my travels.



After the movie, to soothe our heavy hearts, we came to one of the best parts of the day - bath time!  We met our elephant, Medo, at the river with buckets and gave her a nice cooling rub down.  Medo had a very obvious broken hip for being forced to haul more than she was able in her work in logging, but she was sweet as can be and seemed to appreciate the attention.  


Elephant Nature Park // Thailand // A Suitcase and A Stamp





The rest of the afternoon, we followed our guide to meet more of the herds - including these sweet little babies!


Elephant Nature Park // Thailand // A Suitcase and A Stamp

Elephant Nature Park // Thailand // A Suitcase and A Stamp

Elephant Nature Park // Thailand // A Suitcase and A Stamp

Elephant Nature Park also offers sanctuary for stray dogs and I loved that.  Thailand's streets are filled with wandering dogs and cats and it was nice to see some of them had found a nice home among the giant elephants with good care.  Kai took us to the kennels and it was so hard not to take one of the sweet dogs back to the states with me! It was a nice way to end the day.


Elephant Nature Park // Thailand // A Suitcase and A Stamp




All in all, the Elephant Nature Park was an incredible day!  I learned so much and had experiences that will stay with me for a lifetime!  My dream is to be able to visit Thailand again and spend time volunteering for them.