72 hours in Okinawa, Japan

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In the space of 72 hours I came face to face with whale sharks in Churaumi Aquarium, learned about the Ryukyu Kingdom in a visit to Shurijo Castle, feasted on fresh sashimi and combed the shopping street of Kokusai Dori. Okinawa may not be on the top of most visitors’ to do list in Japan, but it was refreshing to see a laid back Japanese city that traces its roots back to the dynasties of China. It had a distinct culinary flavour and an island vibe that you’d expect, but not lacking in the eccentricities and quirks unique to Japanese culture which most travelers are fond of (the ubiquitous vending machines, ‘chirping’ pedestrian traffic light crossings, heated toilet seats and so on).

Road tripping around Ireland

Early this year we road tripped around Ireland to see more of its countryside and natural scenery rather than city hop via public transport. It was one of the best decisions we made to rent a car and use an old fashioned road map to guide us. The road trip turned out to be so rewarding. We covered so much ground in 5 days and it cost us next to nothing! I highly recommend hiring a car to see the real beauty of  Ireland. The roads are incredibly easy to navigate (we didn’t need a GPS!), the locals are the friendliest and so helpful and it helped shelter us from the often rainy and windy weather!

Here’s a quick recap of our road trip:

After spending a few obligatory sightseeing days in Dublin, our first stop was Killarney National Park.

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Killarney National Park was one of my favourite parts of the trip with its many lakes and tufts of grass floating by the lake shore resembling hair balls. There were also really lush parts close to the Torc waterfall that looked like leprechaun hiding spots with dense moss covered rocks and trees. It felt very ‘Irish’ ;)

The next day we drove to the Gap of Dunloe which was easily the best part of the trip.

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The Gap of Dunloe is a photographer’s heaven. We were there in the early part of the day when the light was best, but the rocky terrain, shimmering lakes, empty winding roads and curious sheep made it all the more photogenic.

From there we continued on to the Dingle Peninsular and saw magnificent cliffs and drop offs amidst the rough Atlantic sea.

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On the third day we drove to the Cliffs of Moher and saw the most stunning coastal scenery of Ireland. We felt very tiny amongst these spectacular cliffs and it gave me jelly knees as we walked along parts of it.

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We continued driving towards Galway, our pit stop for the day. The next morning we made our way to Connemara National Park and did a short hike while the weather held up for us.

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A road trip around Ireland is incomplete without seeing at least one castle, and Ballynahinch Castle impressed us with its grandiose architecture. We also saw plenty of sheep along the way, some marked very colourfully as if they have been paintball targeted.

On our last day we made our way north to Belfast and it was interesting to see speed limits and signs change from kilometers to miles. I’ll save Belfast for another post in the future, but for now road tripping around Ireland remains one of our fondest travel memories so far.

Top 6 Cycling Experiences

Exploring a new place on two wheels can be very rewarding. I’m not much of a cyclist but I’ve discovered the immense pleasure of cycling leisurely along a flat road with the wind in your face and an endless view to die for. It makes the uphill slog and leg exercise worthwhile.

Here are my six best cycling experiences, accumulated from our travels around Europe and Asia, and in no particular order.

1. Lucca, Italy IMG_1211 IMG_1218

Lucca is a beautiful medieval city in Tuscany with intact city walls that circle the old town. Cycling the city walls is a perfect way to get to know the charming old town. My favourite bits are exploring the old town through the many narrow back lanes and hopping on and off our bikes for a quick gelato break. Oh, and the bikes we hired were so cute I wish I could take them home with me!

2. Yangshuo, China IMG_0204 IMG_9407

Yangshuo is famous for its distinct limestone karst terrain that covers a huge area best explored by bicycle. We would wake up very early in the mornings and cycle to neighbouring villages, passing rice paddies and locals going about their daily lives. In the afternoon as it got hotter we would retreat back to our rooms and venture out again in the evenings to explore other areas. It was so simple and idyllic that it became a routine for us during our time there.

3. Loire Valley, France IMG_5627 IMG_5581

Exploring the Loire Valley of France was a challenging 4 day adventure of cycling from one chateau to another with one too many wrong turns, uphills and glorious sunflower fields to distract us. Of course, we could have easily visited all four castles by train or car but the satisfaction and pride from completing 160km for a newbie cyclist like myself is something worth boasting about ;)

4. Lake Bled, Slovenia IMG_6923 IMG_6942

Bled is such an underrated place that I wish more people would know about. Cycling around the most exquisite turquoise waters of Lake Bled was the highlight of our time in Slovenia. Your eyes are constantly drawn to the stunning lake which occasionally throws you off your cycling course! We could stop any time at our whim and fancy, take a few pictures and have a sandwich by the lake with our feet dangling over the waters and ducks waiting to catch any bits of our crumbs.

5. Paris, France IMG_1628 IMG_1646

Paris remains one of my favourite cities in the world and when it’s not freezing cold, cycling on the busy streets, by the Seine or along Canal St Martin is an amazing way to soak in the city. Chic cafes and stylish Parisians line the sidewalks and you get a glimpse of La Tour Eiffel every now and then. The velib system is also easy to use and so cheap to get around town.

6. Tulip fields in Netherlands IMG_0228 IMG_0274

Cycling amongst blooming tulip fields in Holland in search of more blooming tulip fields felt like a kid unwrapping presents on Christmas morning. We would be cycling along a stretch of striking red tulips and then spot a streak of purple tulips ahead that we would race down the flat road to get to that field. It was a fun experience of finding tulip field after tulip field, with each discovery getting better and better.

These places really do exist in real life…

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I’ve been procrastinating this post for a while now. It’s not that I dread writing about it, rather it’s a challenge to try and describe in words my most favourite part of China. Not to mention selecting only a handful of the hundreds of photos we took in this region.

Often we see pictures on the internet and wonder if such beautiful places really do exist in this world, and that’s what went through my head as I sieved through our endless pictures of Yangshuo and Xinping in the region of Guangxi. These places are very real and none of the pictures have been photoshopped or edited.

This region is most famous for its limestone karst scenery. They are literally everywhere. I first laid eyes on limestone karsts in Vietnam and fell in love with it. But this tops it without a doubt. You can scale any peak in this region and see hundreds of limestone karsts as far as the eye can see. These peaks resemble hunched giants, quiet, unassuming but impossible not to notice. And sunsets in this region are truly breathtaking. Layer upon layer of shadowy peaks bathed in golden light.

I remember as a kid drawing multiple mountain peaks in an upside down ‘U’ or ‘V’  for art class, and realised as I grew older that my drawings were too far fetched and that such peaks probably don’t exist in real life. But seeing these limestone peaks before my very eyes proves that our imagination may not have been too far from reality. These things really do exist in real life..

An Indian Wedding

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We were privileged to be part of a 3 day wedding extravaganza in India and suffice to say, it lived up to our expectations. We expected non stop dancing (check), lavish costumes (check), loud drums (check) and warm hospitality (check). The event culminated in a carnival like procession of the groom’s party to the wedding venue on a main expressway, where most of the pictures above were taken. We were bewildered by the ‘no expenses spared’ approach to this wedding. There was the brass band in red and gold uniform, a trio of drummers, gypsy dancers, a chariot with horses, fireworks, lanterns and beautiful expensive sarees. It was nothing short of colourful and I can still hear a faint drum beat ringing in my ear.

Being the only non Indians in the wedding we pretty much got the same spotlight as the bride and groom, well almost. Everyone welcomed us with open arms, dragged us on stage to dance and explained ceremonial proceedings and customs to us patiently. It was a unique once in a lifetime experience that we’ll hold dearly in our treasure chest of memories.

The wonder that is Taj

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There are a few things in this world that one must see in their lifetime. Some may say the Eiffel Tower or the Grand Canyon. To me, it has got to be the Taj Mahal.

As you enter the main gate leading to the Taj, you see the arch of the gate slowly unveil this majestic piece of architecture and framing it in the process. It literally takes your breath away. You can’t help but stop and take in this wonder of a sight right before you. Then you whip out your camera and take a zillion photos of this perfectly symmetrical and incredibly photogenic man made creation.

What makes the Taj all the more special is the story behind it. Emperor Shah Jahan was so heartbroken by the death of his beloved wife Mumtaz that he commissioned the building of the Taj as a mausoleum in memory of her. Add to that the outrageous myth that every craftsman and builder had their hands chopped off to prevent a replica of the Taj from being built. It is impossible not to be charmed by this architectural marvel.