The epic love story that built the Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal: it’s one of the most gorgeous buildings in the world, the icon of India, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the Seven Man-Made Wonders of the World. But do you know what this architectural marvel was built for, and the love story behind it?

Romeo & Juliet, Cleopatra & Mark Antony, Tristan & Isolde—to these famous tales of love, we must add the no less legendary (and tragic) story of Shah Jahan and his queen Mumtaz Mahal.

In the early 17th Century, Shah Jahan ruled over a vast Mughal empire stretching across what is now northern India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. His great great grandfather, Babur, had first carved out this realm a century earlier, and through four generations of Mughal rulers, the empire expanded, stabilized and flourished. Shah Jahan’s forebears constructed extraordinary palaces, tombs, and forts, oversaw an artistic golden age, and built a strong and stable economy. But it was under Shah Jahan’s rule that the empire’s art and architecture, and the culture and splendor of the luxurious Mughal court, all reached their zenith.

Shah Jahan & Mumtaz MahalThough he took three wives in total, the crown jewel and his unquestioned favorite was Arjumand Banu Begum, who was engaged to the young prince when she was only 14. Shah Jahan was so taken with her that after their wedding, he gave her the title Mumtaz Mahal (“Chosen One of the Palace”). He showed little interest in his other wives; according to the official court chronicler, “the intimacy, deep affection, attention and favor which His Majesty had for the Cradle of Excellence (Mumtaz) exceeded by a thousand times what he felt for any other.” He bestowed upon her luxuries that none other was given, lavishly decorating her residence within the palace with gold and precious stones and rose water fountains. Drawing upon a seemingly limitless treasury and enjoying a relatively peaceful and secure political climate, the emperor and his favored queen must have enjoyed an idyllic reign after he ascended the throne in 1627.

But it was cut tragically short. Just four years later, Mumtaz Mahal died while birthing their 14th child. Shah Jahan was inconsolable. Legend has it that the grieving emperor went into mourning for a year, and when he appeared again, his hair had turned white, his back was bent, and his face worn. It was then, inspired by grief and love, that he began work on his most spectacular and enduring masterpiece: a massive marble mausoleum to serve as his beloved’s final resting place.

Construction of the Taj Mahal began in 1632 across the Yamuna River from his royal palace in Agra. The project was like nothing the empire had ever seen before: more than 20,000 workers and 1,000 elephants labored to construct this breathtaking structure, including masons, stonecutters, inlayers, carvers, painters, calligraphers, dome-builders and other artisans. It was constructed entirely of white marble, sourced from all over India and Central Asia. The marble was then inlaid with 28 types of precious and semi-precious stones by Mughal lapidarists who learned their technique from Italian craftsmen. What appears to be a delicate abstract scrollwork on the walls is actually massive, finely-inscribed calligraphy in jasper or black marble of verses of the Quran. Shah Jahan spared no expense on his monument to love: when it was finally complete, over 20 years later, his mausoleum had cost over 32 million rupees—one billion dollars in today’s currency—no doubt significantly depleting his vast treasury.

According to traditional Mughal building practices, once completed, no future alterations could be made. Some believe this led to the likely sensationalized story that Jahan ordered that every worker’s hand be chopped off upon completion, so that they could never alter the monument and never create another architectural masterpiece to rival it.

The tower from which Shah Jahan gazed upon the Taj while under house arrestA longstanding myth holds that Shah Jahan planned to build a second identical mausoleum of black marble across the Yamuna River, connected to the Taj Mahal by a bridge, where he would be interred. But he never realized these plans. In 1658, he fell ill, and his son Aurangzeb took the opportunity to depose him and sentence him to house arrest in a tower in Agra’s Red Fort. There, from a high stone balcony, he had a perfect, bittersweet view of his masterpiece scarcely a mile away—an ever-present reminder of his passionate love ended too soon—until his death in 1666.

The mythical Black Taj Mahal was never constructed, though some believe its foundation still lies partially buried across the river. Without a resting place of his own, Shah Jahan was buried next to his wife in the lower chambers of the Taj Mahal—a most fitting resting place for the end of this monumental love story.

Ornate calligraphy on the Taj MahalAs his ambitious son Aurangzeb sought to increase his territory, he instead overextended the empire, and so began a long decline. As Mughal power slowly disintegrated, so did the Taj Mahal, which suffered from neglect and disrepair. However, in the late 1800s, Lord Curzon, the British Viceroy of India, started a restoration of the entire complex, including the sweeping British style lawns.

Today, as you approach through a huge gateway of red sandstone, you’ll see the Taj framed by vast, meticulously manicured gardens and long reflecting pools, a scene of tranquil beauty. The Taj Mahal itself is a study in perfection and symmetry. Its central dome soars 240 feet in the air, flanked by four smaller domes, and then four minarets, angled slightly outward so that they would not fall on the central structure in the event of an earthquake. Inside, an octagonal chamber houses the cenotaph, or tomb of Mumtaz Mahal—flanked by Shah Jahan’s. This area is accessible to tourists. However, these are ‘false tombs,’ and the bodies actually rest in another set of sarcophagi in a lower tomb chamber, not accessible to visitors. It’s an interesting fact that the entire complex is symmetrical in every way, except for one important feature: the stone tombs of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal are offset and different sizes.

Outside, it is said that the white marble domes and turrets change colors as the day ages—appearing pink in the morning, white during the day, and golden under the moonlight. But no matter what time of day you visit, this incredible landmark—one of the greatest testaments to love history has ever witnessed—will take your breath away.

Now that you have the backstory, perhaps it’s time to make the Taj Mahal part of your travel story. You’ll visit this magnificent monument on all of our small group and luxury tours to India. Find your next Taj Mahal adventure now.

3 KonMari-Inspired Tips for Tidy Travel

Packing can actually be a pleasure

You know how it goes before you leave on a trip. You swear you’ll have your loose ends tied up. Get a good night’s sleep. Drink lots of water and eat healthfully. Then you find yourself packing at 11 p.m. the night before and frantically asking around for someone to check on the cats while you’re gone.

Chances are it’ll play out the same way for the next trip—but what if we brought a little “KonMari” to it?

I recently delighted in a wonderful little book called “Spark Joy” by Marie Kondo whose Zen-like “KonMari” approach to tidying up and holding on to only those things that bring us joy and appreciation has inspired people around the globe to see their “stuff” a little differently.

One such person is Brooke Booth, a professional organizer in Detroit who’s in the process of becoming a certified KonMari consultant and bringing Kondo’s methods to her own clientele.

When it comes to packing and prepping for a trip, says Booth, some of the stress we feel comes from the fact we’re not clear what really sparks joy, whether it’s the things we’re packing (a wrinkle-free shirt we think we should bring) or even how we pack (throwing it all in the bag and hoping for the best).

If you haven’t already KonMari’d your home and surrounded yourself only with things you love, packing your suitcase offers an opportunity to do just that.

Tidy Travel Tip #1: Pack with love

“When we’re packing, we’re going through a sorting process,” says Booth. The question is, “Are you sorting through things you love, or sorting through all kinds of things?” Booth explains that KonMari is about taking each item, holding it in your two hands and asking yourself, Does this spark joy? If you don’t feel the spark before you pack it, you definitely won’t feel it when you open your bag miles away from home.

Booth also reminds us that what might spark joy for one journey, such as traveling light and not having a bunch of stuff to haul around, might be different on another journey when we prefer plenty of clothing options for different weather or occasions.

Then of course there’s the KonMari method of folding. The origami-esque folded shirts, slacks and socks, lined up in rows like a file cabinet for your clothing—as pictured in the feature photo above. Lots of room to spare and it’s a smaller-sized carry-on!

A bag packed like this simply “sparks joy.”

So now you have your tidy little bags packed and you’re headed for the airport. You get there and there’s a brutal line for check in, and another line for security you can’t even bring yourself to join. You get through it all and your flight’s been delayed. Hrrumph.

Tidy Travel Tip #2: Seek joy in every leg of the journey

If you stop and think for a moment, isn’t this kind of what you’ve been wanting? A little time to yourself, a little solitude to just be.

Instead of the internal monologue or shared griping about airlines, we can change the self-talk, says Booth. Try instead looking around and saying to yourself, “This is so great, I get a chance to just sit down and relax. I’ve been really looking forward to this. All week we wish we had a few minutes to ourselves and there we are in the airport with time.”

You finally reach your destination. It’s heavenly. The trip is magnificent. The people are great. The food is delicious. You hardly think about home except when you’re browsing for souvenirs.

This is the time when we often fall out of step with being present. “We’re so busy looking for the perfect shell on the beach,” says Booth, “we’re not really ‘on’ the beach.” Or we’re focused on bringing back something that captures the magic of our adventure as though we’re going to forget everything about it. “Fear” is in the background.

Instead of savoring “stuff,” try bringing home a version of yourself that’s been profoundly altered and reinvigorated by the place you traveled.

As your trip winds down, you may start to experience some resistance, maybe even a little bit of dread. The long to-do list when you get home. The Monday morning mediocrity. “Back to reality” is the clichéd refrain.

But what if coming home could be just as juicy as leaving?

Tidy Travel Tip #3: Welcome yourself home

Click your heels, Dorothy, there’s simply no place like home.

Says Booth, “I would use the words ‘joyful anticipation.’ That’s what gets us on the trip in the first place.”

And if we think of a trip as the completion of something—a departure, a journey, a return—the return is crucial to completion. There’s fulfillment in that process. For Booth, coming home is just as joyful as going on a trip.

“To be in my own home, my own bed, surrounded by all my things. To me it’s so delicious, being in my own special comfort place.”

Find something to value in coming home. What will you look forward to? What do you appreciate about your home, your life? What will make the journey have a sweet, happy ending, no matter how the final leg plays out?

Share your comments on using these tidy travel tips. We’d love to hear from you and so would your fellow travelers.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Tapas

Tapas are small savory dishes often served as a side dish to drinks, and they are ubiquitous in Spain. On our Discover Spain tour, we’ve built wine and tapas tasting into the itinerary. But you’ll also have free time on the main tour, as well as on our Barcelona extension, when you may want to venture out and try tapas on your own.

There are several theories as to the origin of tapas. The first is that the thirteenth century Spanish King, Alfonso X, was ill and had to eat small snacks with his wine between meals to maintain his health. After he recovered, he passed this practice as law to maintain the health of his kingdom. Perhaps a more practical genesis lies in the practice of farm workers eating small snacks during the day to tide them over between meals. Although most likely, the practice of tapas has a highly practical purpose. Throughout Spain’s history, bread or small plates of olives or pork were used to cover drinks and prevent insects from getting in, and this food was then eaten. The word ‘tapas’ literally translates to ‘lid’.

Whatever the origin, tapas are now a social mainstay of Spanish culture and a must-try for any visit to Spain. So we’ve compiled these three videos, courtesy of the Spanish Tourism office in America, to help you navigate some of the Do’s and Don’ts of tapas etiquette.

7 things that might surprise you about Cuba

© Jeremy Woodhouse,

I’ve traveled to many places around the world and have had incredible cultural experiences, but one place that always ranks in my top five is Cuba. I’ve made several trips to Cuba since I first started going in 2011, and I find it remarkable in so many ways in spite of, and because of, the U.S. embargo, which has essentially frozen its ability to do business with most parts of the world. So Cuba has adapted, beautifully, in ways that you’d never expect. Here’s what I’ve observed:

Welding a fire extinguisher into a muffler © Jeremy Woodhouse,

1 Cubans see the glass half full.

Cuba is the place that most exemplifies the “glass half full” mentality. Cuban people simply don’t understand the concept of “I can’t do it.” They’ve had to make do with such limited resources that this “making do” has fostered a spirit of innovation.

For example, you never see trash on the ground when you walk down the street in Cuba. You may see broken bricks, rubble, dust, but you never see scraps of paper. Paper is right up there with GOLD. Artists who use paper often have to create their own, that’s how precious the material is. Jeremy Woodhouse, a noted photographer on tour with us in Cuba, once saw a man welding a fire extinguisher next to a broken down mess of a car (of which there are many in Cuba). When asked what he was doing, the man explained he was building a taxi and he needed a muffler!

I also saw such ingenuity in gardening. People began cultivating small strips of earth between apartment blocks during the “special period” after the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of aid massive aid to Cuba. And since they didn’t have (and couldn’t afford) fertilizer, they learned how to garden organically. These gardens have produced enough fruits and vegetables to supply small produce markets, where locals can get good (and inexpensive) organic food. These gardens got people through some very difficult times.

But that’s what life is like in Cuba. Creativity is everything.

A young guitarist

2 Cuba nurtures talent and culture.

Cuban kids don’t have PlayStations, iPads and smartphones. They often have to make their own soccer balls and baseball bats, and it’s rare to see bicycles. They really have to make do with almost nothing.

But Cuban families do give their kids plenty of cultural activity. Most children learn to play an instrument, attend art classes, learn classical, salsa, flamenco or other dance forms, play sports, take language classes, or participate in a neighborhood association.

One of the things I love to do in Cuba is visit music schools where you get to see students performing. Having so much exposure to culture really encourages and nurtures talent among the children, and the kids take it very seriously. On one of my visits, I sat in on a dance class at the Lizt Alfonso dance school. The dancing style merges classical ballet with flamenco and it’s amazing and mesmerizing to watch. The wonderful part of the school is that it gives all kids who are interested in learning to dance an opportunity to take classes, even those without enough talent to make it to the professional company that tours the world.

A paladar

3 Cuba is more capitalist than communist.

Cubans are entrepreneurs in many ways. Just walking down the street, you’ll see window ledges filled with all kinds of goods for sale—like baby booties I saw a grandmother crocheting and selling in her front window (to locals as well as tourists).

People pick up scraps of metal and re-purpose them into all sorts of useful objects. In a street market I saw a man selling a frying pan that he had made himself, smelting all the metals and piecing the pan together with screws of various shapes and sizes. The same vendor sold nails, straightened with plenty of elbow grease for reuse. Everything possible is recycled and repurposed. In Cuba, there’s a second life for just about everything.

But by far, Cuban paladars, private restaurants actually often inside peoples’ homes, represent the most remarkable of capitalist trends. In years past, the government typically owned all the restaurants in Cuba. But as travel to the island increased, there weren’t enough restaurants to accommodate all the tourists coming into the country. To fill the void, the government created a new policy of allowing Cubans to open restaurants in their homes as private businesses, employing their family members and others.

The paladar business exploded and soon paladars were springing up all over the country, growing to the point where the paladars began taking over the family living quarters. Some families moved into the back of the house while others found other places to live. It was worth a little uprooting and discomfort in exchange for the income the paladars provided and continue to provide. Today, tourists can find paladars all over Cuba, catering to all sorts of tastes and cuisines. Travel with us to Cuba and we’ll make sure you have a list of the latest and greatest to try during your stay.

There is also a shortage of serviceable hotel rooms, with an abundance of subpar accommodations that tourists just wouldn’t tolerate and not enough “good” hotels to answer to the demand.

Enter the casas particulares, which are private houses, much like bed-and-breakfasts in the USA. This has opened up another source of private enterprise for individual Cubans who can rent rooms in their homes and apartments and earn hard currency in the process. Cubans have been scrambling to renovate rooms (building materials are scarce, mind you), and to add rooms and bathrooms so they can rent to tourists. Many of the casas particulares offer private baths, and while the lodgings are typically very simple, they are very clean and much less expensive than a hotel.

Whenever I visit Havana, I love to stop by the used bookseller’s market, reminiscent of what you’d see along the Seine in Paris although much smaller. The first time I went to Cuba in 2011, the posters cost ten CUC, at the time about $13. The second time I visited less than a year later, the same posters cost twenty CUC, or about $26. The third time they were thirty CUC, about $39. The Cuban government may be communist, but the Cuban people are decidedly capitalist!

A tobacco farmer, Cuba © Jeremy Woodhouse,

4 Cubans welcome Americans to their country.

Cubans could not be more excited to welcome American travelers. The Cubans are incredibly gracious and welcoming, and they don’t hold our government policy against us. (Most Cubans will simply tell us to please go home and lobby to get rid of the embargo.) Obama’s historic visit to Cuba gave a tremendous push to the already robust flow of Americans to Cuba. This has created a great opportunity for Cubans to meet and really get to know Americans and discover for themselves that we are generally very decent and kind. Plus, Americans tip!

Colorful vintage cars, Havana

5 Cuba is not changing as fast as people think.

Record numbers of Americans are going to Cuba with the idea that it’s going to change next week, and they want to see it before everything is different. The truth is, nothing is changing quickly in Cuba. There’s a hotel in Havana that’s been under construction since 2011. I was in Cuba just a few weeks ago and guess what? Construction is still stuck in the same place it was back in 2011.  Anything like hotel construction is really difficult and time consuming in Cuba. It involves having the government as a partner—having someone in the government who can help you get access to the materials, the expertise and the infrastructure. Change takes time in Cuba. Lots and lots of time.

Consider another example.  Wi-Fi in Cuba is limited even if you’re staying at the Parque Central, the best hotel in Havana. During a visit, I went upstairs to the business center to sign up for the Wi-Fi. I discovered, much to my surprise, that I’d have to wait until the next day, until after they had checked out 40 rooms. Turns out the hotel only had bandwidth for 80 people to log on at once. If you’re number 81, you’re out of luck!

Touring Havana

6 Cuba and its people are accessible.

As a destination, Cuba is the perfect place for a real traveler to visit. It’s easy for Americans to get there, and it’s accessible once they’re there. Lots of Cubans speak English (at least in the cities), which they start learning at a very young age. Cubans allow you into their lives in ways not common in other cultures. They are very proud despite all the losing hands they’ve been dealt.

Yet, despite the poor access to wifi, the lack of all sorts of consumer goods, bad phone service and all the other issues that Cubans endure, there’s a lot of happiness and music everywhere you go. If you want to sit and have a Coke or an ice cream cone, you’re going to hear music! And you’ll have an opportunity to buy the musicians’ homemade CD to support them.

© Jeremy Woodhouse,

7 You could do Cuba on your own but you’d miss out on so much.

People often question whether or not they need to join a tour to get the most out of a visit to Cuba. The short answer is no, you don’t really need to go on a tour. But if you go it alone, you’re going to miss two important things:

  1. The deep connections that companies like Friendly Planet have with Cuba are what makes your visit unique and worth the time and money. There’s too much you’d have to research and make happen to have a similar experience.
  2. It’s a fantasy that you’ll save money. You could book a flight, get a visa, obtain the mandatory insurance and add up the cost of food, a guide and so forth. But the cost will be, if not more, certainly not less—plus you’ll have missed out on the most important thing: the inside view of Cuba.

As a traveler, I’ve worked to integrate my own rich and rewarding experiences into the People to People tours we offer at Friendly Planet. So come see for yourself.  Join us on our next Cuban adventure!

UPDATE: Miracles from pennies: the Trailblazer story

In early June, we brought to your attention the Trailblazer Foundation and their mission: building wells to bring poor villages in Cambodia clean, drinkable water. The Foundation is in dire need of a new truck so they can continue to deliver well building materials to outlying villages.

Their fundraising campaign to raise $7500 is coming to an end on Sunday, August 7th. Trailblazer was actually able to sell their old truck for $1500 and put the money towards the campaign. They now only need $1830 to reach their goal. That’s only 92 people donating $20! Once Trailblazer reaches their goal, we will match a final $2500 so they can purchase a brand new truck and continue serving the poor of Cambodia. If you would like to help us and Trailblazer reach the goal, you can donate any amount to their campaign on IndieGoGo.

And if you haven’t already, read below to learn more about Trailblazer and their amazing work.

Scott & Chris Coats (2nd & 3rd from right) of the Trailblazer Foundation in Cambodia

Meet Chris Coats, co-founder with her husband, Scott, of The Trailblazer Foundation. Friendly Planet has supported Trailblazer since 2007, when we first discovered we could pay to dig wells in the Siem Reap area and help provide clean, potable water for the villagers surrounding the World Heritage site of Angkor Wat—a site that we visit on our tours. We’re proud to support the Trailblazer Foundation, and through our own Friendly Planet Foundation, we look forward to working together to help improve the lives of the villagers of Siem Reap who so graciously welcome us into their communities. The Trailblazer Foundation is currently running a fundraising campaign to help buy an equipment delivery truck, which they desperately need to continue their mission. To help raise awareness of the campaign, Chris took some time to tell us a little bit about herself and her husband, and why they started Trailblazer. She said:

I have been involved in some sort of volunteer or community service work for most of my life. This has included projects with my church and as a foster parent. Eventually, this personal commitment led me and my husband Scott to turn a short-term visit to Cambodia into a long-term project to support the people of Siem Reap province.

When our daughter was ready to head off to college, Scott and I saw our soon-to-be empty nest as an opportunity to dive deeper into community service work, and we knew we wanted to do that work in an international context. I began researching volunteer opportunities and planning for a long term experience.

In early 2001, Scott closed the doors on his custom furniture business, and I left my job with the school district. We set off to be international volunteers for projects in Fiji, Western Samoa, New Zealand, Kosovo, Estonia, Vietnam, and finally, Cambodia. During the next two years, through these experiences, we learned a lot about which rural community develop strategies worked well, and which ones didn’t. It became clear to us that a grassroots approach that empowered the people, coupled with a hands-on participatory practice, was the most effective way to ensure the success and sustainability of any rural community develop project. We knew what type of work we wanted to do. Now the question was where?

Children in Cambodia

We first visited Cambodia in February 2002 while en route between volunteer placements in the South Pacific and Europe. We went as tourists to see the temples of Angkor Wat. The easiest way to describe what happened is to say we fell in love with the country and the Cambodian people. We could also easily see an obvious need for support, and Scott and I decided there and then that when we were finished with our existing commitments, we would return to Cambodia. We didn’t know what we were going to do when we returned or how we would make it happen. We simply knew there was a need, and we knew we wanted to help fill that need. We had the willingness to show up, the desire to work hard to help and the faith that we would find an important niche for our newly acquired skills in rural community development.

In 2003, we returned to Siem Reap with our daughter, to try and source out an established project to join, but we couldn’t find one we felt we could trust. Based on our previous volunteer experiences, it became clear to us that that in order to “do it right,” we would have to create our own organization. That was our impetus for co-founding Trailblazer Foundation in 2004.

In order to officially become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, we had to decide on a specific purpose and project. In May 2004, I returned to Cambodia, specifically to the Siem Reap province. There, I met with officials at the Angkor Thom district of Siem Reap province who told us that a village called Sras needed a school. Sras was one of the poorest villages in the District, and the officials told us that no other organization would help there as it was too difficult a place to work. Despite the warning, we committed to building the school, promising we would return soon to start construction. That was the Trailblazer Foundation’s first project.

Schoolchildren in Cambodia

Having raised enough money to start our new professional adventure, Scott and I returned to Cambodia in January 2005. From the earliest days of our work on the school project, we realized that the lack of clean water available for families living in Sras village was a bigger problem than not having a school. After all, without potable water, kids were getting sick and were unable to attend school. Immediately, we decided to drill two wells at the school site to help resolve this huge problem. During the remainder of 2005, we focused on getting the proper infrastructure set up, establishing agreements with the appropriate government offices, opening a bank account, and raising the $55,000 needed for the project. We also found and hired a local Khmer to help us source a construction contractor, manage the project, and act as translator.

By December 2005, right around Christmas Day, we broke ground on the school project despite the fact that contributions were coming in too slowly to pay for the project. In order to finish it, I had to cash out a retirement fund, but what might have been a major sacrifice at the time was actually the beginning of better luck. In February 2006, we met a representative of the organization GlobalMedic, who introduced us to the bio-sand water filter, which would make water from our new wells even safer to drink. GlobalMedic donated a construction mold for these water filters to Trailblazer, thereby kicking off what has become a staple of Trailblazer’s work: our water filter project

One of Trailblazer's wells in Cambodia

From a simple desire to help, and the faith to plunge ahead, Trailblazer’s programs in health, food security, education and economic development have evolved. From that very first school construction project in Sras village, Trailblazer has grown to become a successful organization helping thousands of people across fifty villages. It is an organization and a mission about which I am so proud.

And now, 12 years after we started, we find ourselves in need of a new equipment delivery truck, so we can continue to transport the necessary tools and materials to dig our wells and construct the pumps and filters in more villages. We’ve started a $10,000 fundraising campaign on IndieGoGo. If we can raise the first $7,500, Friendly Planet has agreed to chip in the final $2,500 to meet our goal.

The most important goal of this campaign is simply to raise awareness of the need for potable drinking water in Cambodia—if we do this, we have succeeded. However, if you can donate to our fundraising campaign, please visit our IndieGoGo campaign and find out how.

7 reasons you’ll love Sri Lanka

Judy Poliva is the Product Development Manager at Friendly Planet Travel. She traveled to Sri Lanka to plan our new Best of Sri Lanka Tour. She took some time to write about her favorite parts of the adventure, and here’s what she had to say:

In February, I traveled to Sri Lanka to plan a brand new Friendly Planet adventure. It’s important for me to experience first-hand the sites, hotels, food and transportation, so that I know exactly how the trip will feel for our travelers (and it’s my favorite part of the job too!). Not only was I not disappointed, I completely fell in love with the country. From the bustling modern capital city of Colombo, to the tea highlands and game safari, there was so much to savor.

As I prepared for my trip, it occurred to me that despite having visited and planned tours for many destinations, I really didn’t know very much about this small island nation south of India. I discovered that it’s a wild and ancient destination known for its lush rainforest, tea-growing highlands, diverse wildlife and world-class Buddhist ruins—with a history dating back to 3,000 years ago. And while it’s an up-and-coming travel destination that has made the “must see” lists of various well-regarded travel publications like Travel & Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler, it hasn’t yet breached the beaten tourist path, which is great news for world travelers who revel in the newly discovered places that offer authentic cultural experiences. Here I compiled some of my favorite experiences from my trip to give you a better idea of what Sri Lanka has to offer.


1 The Colors

You’ll first notice the incredibly vibrant colors when you wake up in the morning, and they’ll stay with you every second of every day. There are infinite hues of green;  from the lush jungle vegetation thriving in the warm and humid climate of the lowlands and middle elevations, to the deeply saturated green of the tea plants in the highlands, to the ubiquitous rice paddies, cashew and rubber trees and coconut palm that populate the country.

Then there are the sparkling lakes that perfectly compliment the dominant green landscape. Construction of these reservoirs dates all the way back to the fourth century BC, the purpose of which was codified by the ancient Sri Lankan monarch, Parakrama Bahu the Great, who said: “Let not even a drop of rain water go to the sea without benefiting man.” The tanks, irrigation channels, sluices and embankments built by by-gone Buddhist civilizations create a living landscape today, collecting water to meet not only the irrigation needs of present day Sri Lanka, but the navigation, recreation, and bathing needs as well. In fact, it’s surmised there is no denser concentration of ancient irrigation systems anywhere on earth: not even in Greece or Rome!


2 The Wildlife

Speaking of concentration density, did you know that Yala National Park in southeast Sri Lanka has the highest concentration of leopard on the planet? If leopard spotting is your goal (no pun intended), then Yala is your best bet for finding and viewing the elusive cat. You’ll also have the opportunity to see wild Asian elephants, sloth bears, crocodiles, and yes, even peacocks—talk about colors! Ironically, the park used to be a hunting ground for the elite under British rule, but now it’s a protected area accessible to safari-goers hunting only for Instagram-worthy photo-ops.

And of course, no trip to Sri Lanka is complete without about a million and one encounters with monkeys. Obviously you will see monkeys in the wild jungles, but you’ll also see monkeys at your hotel, monkeys in the city, monkeys on the road, and monkeys at many tourist sites. (But please don’t feed them.) Also, resist the urge for a monkey selfie. It’s absolutely best for you and the long-term well-being of Sri Lanka’s monkeys if you snap your shots from a healthy distance.


3 Food

Sri Lankan food is colorful, aromatic, and bursting with unfathomable flavor. The country is most well-known for its rice and curry dishes. These curries vary in flavor and heat (remember, you can always ask for mild spiciness if you are sensitive), made from seasonal vegetables, chicken or beef, and even dried fish. Curries are usually accompanied by sambals, the Sri Lankan version of the Indian pickle.

The hopper came from humble beginnings and is now very trendy. It’s a puffy, crepe-like pastry made of coconut milk batter cooked in a round bottom pan with an egg in the middle and is a breakfast delicacy. And don’t forget to try lamprais, rice prepared in broth with sour aubergine (eggplant) or chicken curry, wrapped in a plantain leaf and gently baked. Fruit is fresh and abundant. There are more varieties of bananas, different sizes and flavors, than I have ever seen. One my best experiences was drinking fresh coconut water from the shell, then scooping out the flesh for a tasty snack.

Then there are the spices, the prime culprit responsible for the color, smell and flavor of all Sri Lankan cuisine. The use of these spices is indispensable to cooking, and you’ll see them stacked in wicker baskets in kaleidoscopic colors in the markets and adorning the tables of many a kitchen. Cinnamon, saffron, ginger, turmeric, cardamom, cloves—the unique character of each spice is the perfect metaphor for all the unique experience you’ll encounter in Sri Lanka.


4 Fortresses & temples

There are several renowned ancient fortresses and temples in Sri Lanka, but two of my favorite were Sigiriya, and the Temple of the Tooth.

Sigiriya is a fortress built on a 200 meter majestic rock tower that holds court over the surrounding valley. Walking through the beautiful gardens, then climbing through the enormous carved lion’s paws that guard the entrance to the royal staircase, then finally making it to the pinnacle of the fortress and staring out over the ruins to the celadon valley below, you really start to feel like King Kasyapa, the ruler who built Sigiriya.

Back down on the ground, in Kandy, you can visit the Temple of the Tooth, Sri Lanka’s most important Buddhist temple. This very accurately named temple holds a tooth relic of the Buddha, and according to local political lore, whoever holds this tooth holds governance over the country. Kandy was the last capital of the Sri Lankan kings, so maybe the legend is true. You be the judge! This meticulously detailed temple with a pristine, whitewashed exterior shelters an interior that is anything but.  Inside you can lose yourself in intricately patterned walls of gold and vermilion, gilded Buddha statues, saffron robed monks and sky blue murals.


5 Ceylon Tea

You’ve probably heard of Ceylon Tea. You can buy it in most supermarkets here in America. But did you know the tea takes its moniker from the former name of Sri Lanka under British colonial rule, Ceylon? And these days, tea is one of the primary exports of this small country, so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to steep yourself in tea culture and bring fragrant, tasty tea back as souvenirs.

I visited the highlands of Nuwara Eliya, taking a scenic train journey from Kandy. Watching the saturated green hills rolling by from the train window, seeing the woman tea-pickers expertly removing the leaf tips from the bushes and tossing them into their woven sacks, then learning the process of how tea is produced at the plantation, was, without a doubt, one of the highlights of my trip.

Then I got to drink a cup. So fresh, delicious and straight from the source.


6 The People

Of course, the sites, wildlife and food are terrific, but the allure that drives me onto a plane to fly halfway around the world is always the people I’ll meet when I arrive at my destination. Sri Lankans are warm, friendly and hospitable. Smiling faces greet you everywhere. Many locals wear traditional dress, saris for women and sarongs for men. Children, dressed in school uniforms which are often white (how do they keep them clean?) tumble into the streets when classes let out. Street stalls with colorfully dressed vendors line the main roads of towns and villages, selling fruit and snacks, pots and pans, tools and parts, everything a household could need. I was fortunate enough to be in country on a full moon, or Poya Day which is a monthly public holiday, when entire families make a pilgrimage to a Buddhist temple and visit local parks, shrines and attractions. It’s the best time to indulge in one of my favorite travel pastimes,  people watching.


7 Gems & traditional crafts

Sri Lanka, since biblical times, has been world famous for its gemstones, and in particular, brilliant blue sapphires. I visited a museum and lapidary to learn about the process of mining, cutting and polishing the stones, then turning them into gorgeous jewelry.

Sri Lanka has several other traditional crafts, including masks. Culturally, these masks have depicted gods or animals and have been used in ancient rituals. Nowadays, the masks are used more for dramatic adaptations and dances; however, the same artisan families that produced the masks centuries ago still do so today. In a similar vein, there are local artisans who create batiks, or handmade, colorfully dyed cloth panels, as well as wood carvings and lace products.

Though these days the crafts exist more for the tourists and visitors than the locals, they do have their roots in the history and culture of Sri Lanka, and they offer the opportunity to indulge in another of my favorite travel pastimes, shopping.


There are many other aspects of Sri Lanka that make it a wonderful, emerging destination for eager world travelers. During my visit, I discovered a truly magical destination, and I absolutely intend to return soon for a second visit. If you’re ready to experience Sri Lanka for yourself,  check out our newest tour!

What you should know after the Ecuador earthquakes

Ecuadorian woman

I recently returned from a press trip to Nepal, where I accompanied a small group of journalists to check out the country after last year’s devastating earthquake. While there, I got an up close and personal look at what it means to live in a country that depends upon tourism for its livelihood, and how crippling it is when the tourists stop coming. Like Nepal, Ecuador has just suffered a massive earthquake of its own, and while the effects of the quake in the major tourist areas of the country are not as significant in Ecuador as in Nepal, there is a real fear among Ecuadorians that travelers will cancel or simply not book trips to the country.

Like Nepal, Ecuador’s people are poor, and they rely on tourism in a big way. The country’s major tourism centers, Quito, Cotopaxi, Cuenca, the Amazon, the Galapagos, to name just a few, have been spared the earthquake’s devastation, which appears to have been limited mostly to the country’s central coast. In most of the country, hotels are functioning normally, airports are open, and touristic activities are continuing as usual.

Friendly Planet has an extensive program to Ecuador, and fortunately, none of our itineraries have been impacted by the earthquake. All of our partners in Ecuador are fine, including our passengers who were in Quito at the time of the earthquake, and our tours are proceeding as usual. I’m happy to report that despite dire predictions that tourism to Ecuador would crash after the quake, we have not had any cancellations, and reservations continue as usual.

If you’re planning a vacation to Ecuador and the Galapagos, please take a moment to read this short piece by Laura Dannen Redmen of Conde Nast Traveler.

5 Incredible Creatures You Might Find in Borneo

Limestone pinnacles, Mulu National Park
The opportunity to travel to faraway exotic destinations gives us unparalleled personal access to cultures, plants, animals and ecosystems we can’t experience at home. On this Earth Day, we wanted to take a moment to celebrate one of the most exotic, wild and scenic locations on our planet, Malaysian Borneo—a destination we’ve grown to know and love over the many years we’ve visited.

Borneo villagers © Tourism MalaysiaThe deep and mysterious jungles of Borneo have played host to headhunting tribes and giant man-like apes—and they are rumored to be the true setting for Mogli, Baloo and Sheer Khan in The Jungle Book. But for the modern-day explorer, Borneo is a unique treasure trove of biodiversity where the opportunities for discovery are limitless.

You can travel through scenic countryside lush with verdant rice paddies and tropical orchids. You can explore quaint tribal villages where entire communities live in a single longhouse and some still hunt by blow dart. You can discover birds with plumage that defy imagination, flowers with colors you’ve never conceived, and one special, orange primate that will hold a place in your heart forever. We are incredibly lucky to still have a place like Borneo—a place that maintains its unexplored, off-the-beaten-path feel while still being accessible to travelers like us.

And because of the untamed nature of the island, many species of rare, indigenous animals call Borneo home. So in honor of Earth Day 2016, we’ve compiled a list of five incredible creatures you might only find in Borneo.

1 The Bornean Orangutan

Every traveler to Borneo undoubtedly seeks profound encounters with orangutan, the most well known of the island’s inhabitants, with Borneo and Sumatra being the only places to view them in the wild.

The name itself is telling: orang meaning “person” and utan meaning “forest” in Malay and Indonesian. These “people of the forest” reside primarily in trees, building elaborate nests constructed of foliage and branches night after night. Noted by scientists for their intelligence, compared to other great ape species, orangutan use and make tools for different tasks, such as scratching their backs with a stick, or protecting themselves from the sun with giant leaves forming a canopy over their heads. An estimated 54,000 Bornean orangutan survive in the wild, offering plenty of opportunities for you to have your own chance encounter with these extraordinary animals.

Pygmy Elephants
2 The Borneo Pygmy Elephant

You can’t get much cuter than a pygmy elephant, also unique to Borneo. Even the fully matured pygmy elephant has a baby face with giant ears and a long tail that sweeps the ground. Partly because of their docile and passive nature, people long believed these miniature elephants were descended from a domesticated herd belonging to the Sultan of Sulu. Thanks to modern genetics, we know for sure that the pygmy elephant is a bona fide indigenous Borneo islander, which somehow got isolated some 300,000 years ago from its slightly larger cousins in other parts of Asia.

Sumatran Rhinos  Photo by Charles W. Hardin
3 The Sumatran Rhino

Even rarer than the pygmy elephant is the Sumatran rhino, the smallest living rhinoceros and the only Asian rhino with two horns. Also known as “hairy rhinos,” these endangered animals live in isolated pockets in the dense mountain forests of Borneo. There are so few left that they have only been spotted on infrared cameras. Until recently, that is, when the World Wildlife Federation was able to capture a young female Sumatran rhino—the first physical contact with humans in 40 years—with the intention of moving her to a protective sanctuary. Unfortunately, the young rhino died of a leg infection caused by a snare from an earlier poaching attempt. However, as a very thin silver lining, her successful capture and attempt at rehabilitation served as a crucial first step in an eventual long-term program to bring this species back to life.

Sunda Clouded Leopard
4 The Sunda Clouded Leopard

Another rarity of Borneo is the clouded leopard, a medium-sized wild cat found in the lowland rainforest areas, named for its stunning coat of large, cloud-like spots. Genetically unrelated to leopards as we know them, the clouded leopard of Borneo and Sumatra was reclassified in the last 10 years as a species distinct even from its mainland Malaysian clouded leopard cousins. On Borneo, the Sunda Clouded Leopard ranks as the largest predator on the island yet its hunting strategies, as well as breeding behaviors in the wild, are little known.

Spectacled Flower Pecker  Photo by R.E. Webster, Oriental Bird Club5 The Spectacled Flower Pecker

In 2009 biologists discovered a bird species previously unknown to science in Sabah, located in “the heart of Borneo,” a vast, biologically diverse rainforest area in the center of the island. The spectacled flower pecker flaunts white rings around the eyes and a white tuft resembling a stripe down its chest. It rarely flies beneath the canopy, preferring instead to feast on fruit high in the trees, and has yet to be seen again since the first sighting (This image is the only one we could find!). The Spectacled Flower Pecker highlights an amazing and encouraging fact about Borneo: scientists discover an estimated three new species of wildlife every month.

Unfortunately, as with many tropical areas around the world, the rare and exquisite flora and fauna of Malaysian Borneo are losing their habitats due to deforestation for commercial timber and the planting of palm oil plantations. And the increase in these activities has also enhanced the illegal wildlife trade, as cleared forests offer easier access to remote areas. We hope after reading this you’ll consider the absolutely incredible array of animals on Borneo, and everywhere on earth, and think about our responsibility as humans and world travelers to preserve them—on Earth Day and beyond.

Interested in traveling to Borneo? While we can’t guarantee sightings of the spectacled flower pecker or Sunda clouded leopard, we do offer two tours to Malaysian Borneo, with itineraries designed to immerse you in the incredible flora, fauna and human cultures of this exotic island. Check out those tours here.

7 Surefire Ways to Beat Jet Lag

Beat jet lag

One of the best things about international travel is just that: it’s international! You’re crossing cultures, you’re crossing paths with new friends, you’re crossing off that bucket list…but unfortunately, you’re also crossing time zones. And the last thing you want while exploring the ancient sun temple of Machu Picchu or absorbing the grandeur of the Taj Mahal is a bout of jet-lagged induced drowsiness dragging down your travel groove. So here are some of my best strategies for overcoming jet lag, gleaned from 35 years of travel to faraway time zones.


1Overcoming jet lag begins in the days (or nights) prior to your departure. Even though it’s hard to be organized enough to be well rested before you depart, you should try hard to get quality sleep before your overnight flight. It’s easier to deal with jet lag if you’re not overcoming several nights of poor sleep before you’ve even begun your trip.


2Try to simulate your new schedule (the one you’ll follow at your destination) starting a couple of days before you depart. If you’re going east, try to have dinner and go to sleep an hour or more earlier than usual. If you’re going west, do the reverse and try to wait until later to have dinner and go to bed.


3Reset your watch as soon as you take off. This is a symbolic move toward your new time zone, and it will help set your perspective toward thinking later (or earlier). It’s a psychological “trick” that helps keep you focused on the time zone at your destination.


4Do not drink alcohol during your flight. Instead, drink water, and lots of it. Staying hydrated is very helpful to your body, which in turn is helpful in coping with jet lag.


5Try to sleep on the flight. Avoid the temptation to eat a heavy meal that is often served at 11 PM or even later, followed by a movie. Put on an eye mask, use your headset to listen to relaxing music and settle into whatever sleep you can manage. Every hour you rest during your flight is an hour you won’t miss when you arrive at your destination.


6When I arrive after an overnight flight and find myself 7 or 8 hours ahead of my normal time zone, I stay awake until it’s time for bed in my new time zone. This is really important, even though it’s hard to do. If you can make it until 8 or 9 PM on that first night, you’ll have taken a big step toward overcoming the jet lag that can spoil your trip for days. The next day, when you awake, you’ll be ready to explore and enjoy your adventure. If you typically have trouble staying asleep the first night or two when you travel, consider taking a mild sleeping pill. While it isn’t a good idea to rely on chemical sleep aides on a regular basis, they can be helpful in getting you through the first night or two without middle-of-the-night pauses.


7Eat lightly the first full day or two in your new time zone. Your body is expending lots of energy accommodating itself to the new time. If you eat unusual or heavy foods on that first day or two, you’ll be stressing yourself, and you’ll be facing middle of the night wakefulness rather than peaceful sleep.

Downton Abbey Christmas 2016: Bittersweet Endings to New Beginnings

Liz in LondonLiz Hutchins is a Reservation Agent at Friendly Planet Travel and an enthusiastic Downton Abbey fan. Liz took our Downton Abbey Christmas Ball with London tour in 2014 and absolutely loved it. We asked her to blog her thoughts about the tour, and here’s what she had to say:

Well, fellow Downton enthusiasts, it’s been a wild ride. With the close of the sixth and final season of Downton Abbey, we were left with a happy ending and a sad, but fond farewell to our favorite characters. It was wonderful to see the weddings, the birth of Mr. Bates and Anna’s son, and finally a triumph for Mr. Barrow. We all had so many things to appreciate, and now, with the series behind us, it is time to look ahead. What better event to look forward to, than our annual Downton Abbey Christmas Ball!!

Of course, when faced with the amazing opportunity to take this tour two Decembers ago, my thoughts went to the most important aspect of this special event…

What the heck was I going to wear?

We were advised that for men, a suit and tie is required. For women, “Cocktail Attire”. My first instinct was to go for period costume. I was thinking about something from the 1920’s, and close to the costuming on the 3rd and 4th season of Downton Abbey. A good compromise would be to wear a simple, but elegant black dress, and then to find a necklace or some accessory as a nod to my favorite fashion era. It was helpful that I have a vintage costume jewelry collection, but as we move into summer and fall, lots of flea markets and yard sales will be coming up. Those are the best places to find excellent pieces, and for very little money.

Heading to the Ball!BUT, being the dedicated Downton fan that I am, I had my dress custom made, by Bobby Goodrich, of Bobby Fabulous Designs. I kind of held back. I mean, my dress did have a cape, which was amazing by the way…but I think I could have gone a bit further. Upon seeing my travel mates, in their evening finery, I was downright jealous! Some had beaded vintage 1920’s style gowns, more than a few wore opera length gloves, others were bedecked with tiaras, diamonds, and pearls, and one couple had matching white tie tuxedos. The Dowager Countess would have been so proud!

With the plan for my special outfit all settled, I turned my mind to the interesting and enjoyable things to do during my time at leisure in London.

When it comes to a decadent way to spend an afternoon, a champagne high tea is tough to beat. It’s such a treat to get dressed up, and have a lovely glass of bubbly while you select your tea. They then bring it out in such a beautiful tea set, traditionally accompanied by scones with clotted cream, tiny pastries, and tea sandwiches. You will have a Champagne Tea included with your fellow travelers this year. If you would like to arrange one on your own however, there are hundreds of hotels in London that offer this service. Keep in mind a couple things when picking which one you will enjoy.

G. F. Trumper shop Photo by Ewan MFirst, most of the well-known establishments will be booked up on weekends, so always make sure to have a reservation. Tea time is traditionally around 4 pm, but it’s totally acceptable to have tea for lunchtime, too. You can make online reservations, and if you take care of it 30 days or more from the day you want, you should be able to get a confirmation without a problem. Secondly, make sure the place you choose is well reviewed. TripAdvisor will be your best resource for this.

Another thing I loved was the shopping—especially Geo. F. Trumper. I know it’s a little strange for me to be excited about a Gentleman’s Barber and Perfumer, royally approved since the late 19th century, but bear with me. In Curzon Street, this little shop is known for having some of the best soaps, scents, skin care and shaving equipment. The packaging is worth the money alone, but the quality of their products is superb. You can get a proper straight razor shave there, but if you are a lady like me, you’re there for the holiday gift opportunities.

Of course, we are ultimately here for Downton, right? While in England, you’ll have the free time to visit some must-see Downton filming locations:

Prince Albert Memorial, Hyde Park Photo by AlbyPrince Albert Memorial: It will probably be too cold to have a picnic at the memorial like the Allsopps and Levinsons, but don’t miss this beautiful and important monument. You would also be within walking distance to the Princess Diana memorial fountain, and Royal Albert Hall is right across the street.

Rules Restaurant: Visit this historic restaurant used in three scenes of the show. Relive another moment of Edith with her first love Michael Gregson, as they met for lunch when she first considered writing for his magazine. Then imagine having a toast to Rose’s upcoming wedding, as she, Tom, Edith and Mary all had lunch there together. Lastly, you could always have a quick drink before dashing off, like Edith and Bertie before the magazine deadline.

Oxfordshire Cotswolds: For serious Downton fans, you can visit the towns they used for many locations, like the Crawley family home, Downton Cottage Hospital and Downton parish church.

Highclere Castle © Highclere Castle Enterprises LLPFinally, one question I get all the time since I have been to the Ball is, “Where can I take photos at Highclere?” You will have the option for photos in a few places, and I have some suggestions as well. I recommend going to the lobby early before your pick up at 4pm. This way, you can have a drink at the hotel bar and get to know your fellow travelers before you leave. How will you know who is going to the Ball? Well, just look for the other impeccably dressed passengers, and it’s likely they are with our group. The hotel lobby had a lovely Christmas tree and made for a great backdrop for photos. Now you will also have the opportunity of being photographed in front of the tree at Highclere Castle, but it’s a bit pricey; you should budget about $50 minimum for a photo to be printed and mailed to you. Another photo op will be in front of the Castle at night. When you drive up, you can’t help but “ooh” and “ahh” when you see Highclere flood lit in the distance. You can take photos of the facade before you enter, but taking photos inside the castle is prohibited.

Highclere Castle Library © Highclere Castle Enterprises LLPI am so incredibly excited for anyone who gets to experience the Downton Abbey Christmas Ball this year. It is truly the trip of a lifetime for any Downton fan. If you have questions I didn’t mention, just give me a call at 1-800-555-5765. You can also email me at I hope to hear from you soon!

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