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Archive for May, 2010

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Putting violence behind them, Thailand moves forward

Here’s the most recent report from my representatives in Thailand. I was told that the situation in Bangkok has calmed down substantially and life is pretty much back normal. Our Thai representatives have reopened their main office and everyone is back to work as usual.

During the worst of the violence, our office had to close due to its close proximity to the demonstrations and the staff worked out of satellite offices in other locations around the city. Everyone is now back to work and our staff is safe and well.

A few days ago, thousands of volunteers turned up at the demonstration sites around the city and cleaned up the streets to remove all evidence of the protests. My representatives describe an overwhelming sense of relief in that the Thai people appear ready to put these violent demonstrations behind them and move on with their lives.

People from all walks of life participated in the clean up, and judging from the comments of the participants, the people have no intention of allowing a repeat of the past few months. Everyone wants peace.

There are no restrictions or curfews imposed at the airports in Thailand, and all flights are operating. But as usual, all passengers must be in possession of their travel documents to access the airport if curfew hours are put into place by The Centre for the Resolution of Emergency Situation.

We have great faith in Thailand as a destination, and despite the events of the past few months, we are working hard on new programs to Thailand. As soon as these programs are finalized with dates and prices, we will post the new tours and invite our travelers to resume travel to Thailand.

There is hardly a more wonderful destination in the world, and with peace restored, we believe the rush to visit will resume as never before. Stay tuned for details of specials once the new tours are ready. Bookmark the Thailand tag on our blog to stay up to date on the latest information.

A first-hand account of Friendly Planet Travel’s Best of China tour

In case you’d rather read my interview with Ron Beller about his Best of China trip, I’m posting the transcript here. Don’t forget to take a look at his photos too.

Friday’s Friendly Funny

Friendly Planet review: A snapshot of the Best of China tour

It’s nice to have a friend recommend a city, a hotel, and even a restaurant when you’re deciding where to travel. I know it makes me feel more comfortable knowing that someone else has been there and liked it.

Ron with his wife Jan and trusty camera in China 

So when Ron Beller was deciding to travel to China, one of his friends recommended Friendly Planet Travel’s Best of China tour. His friend just returned from the tour and was raving about it. That was enough to sell Ron on the trip.

Ron and his wife Jan booked the tour for October 2009. They had an equally amazing time in China traveling to Shanghai, Yichang, Three Gorges, Guilin, Xi’an, and Beijing.

When he returned, Ron e-mailed us some fantastic photos he took in China. If a picture says a thousand words, these pictures said all that and more.

I had to give him a call to get the stories behind the photos. He told me he was a nature photographer, so he was practically born with a camera in his hand. He was always lagging behind the group trying to capture just a few more photos. He had taken 1,600 by the end of the trip!

We talked about what it was like traveling to China in late October, seeing the 2,200-year-old terra-cotta soliders, the Yangtze River cruise, the camera he used, and more. So if you’re considering traveling to China, listen to my podcast with Ron and then view his photos. He’ll give you a first-hand look into Friendly Planet Travel’s Best of China tour.

Three Egypt tours fit for a Pharaoh

There are few places in the world with more mystery and majesty than Egypt. The contrast of ancient treasures and modern marvels is what tempts travelers year after year.

The one conundrum travelers find themselves in is this: With over 46 centuries of history, there’s so much to see and do in Egypt. That’s why we offer more tours to Egypt than any other country. Right now we’re discounting all of them.

But don’t let the prices fool you. You’ll feel like a Pharaoh staying in five-star hotels in the heart of Cairo, and touring the most elaborate pieces of structure built by man.

Here are Friendly Planet’s Egypt tours.

Pyramids and Nile Cruise. Stand in the shadow of the Sphinx and gaze at the pyramids of Giza on this $1,699, nine-day tour. Walk the temples at Luxor and Edfu, visit King Tut’s tomb, old Cairo, and more. Then relax on a luxury excursion down the Nile River on the Tamr Henna for four nights. If you want more, an optional four-day extension to Petra is available.

Pyramids and Petra. On this eight-day, $1,699 tour, embark on an inspired exploration of the pyramids of Egypt, the oldest and only standing Ancient Wonder of the World. Stroll through the world-famous Khan El Khalili bazaars to try your hand at bargaining for unique jewelry and clothing. Then cast your eyes on the remarkable lost city of Petra in Jordan, one of the Seven New Ancient Wonders of the World.

While you’re in the neighborhood, take advantage of the four-day Dead Sea extension. There’s no other place in the world where you can float (without a raft!) in the saltiest and lowest body of water on Earth. Even better, it’s said that the mineral-filled seawater can take years off your skin. ;-)

Treasures of Egypt. And if you want more than a week in Egypt, this 12-day, $2,099 tour will satisfy your appetite. Be mesmerized by Egypt’s sweeping natural beauty on land, then board the M/S Tulip for a seven-night Nile River Cruise. You’ll dock at Edfu, Aswan, Kom Ombo, and more. While at port, wander the world’s greatest open air museum at Luxor and tour Abu Simbel, the site of the Great Temple of Ramses II and one of the most magnificent of all temples in Egypt.

Here’s what’s include in the prices: roundtrip flights from New York (JFK) via EgyptAir, fuel surcharges, arrival and departure transfers, all intra-Egypt flights and group transportation, superior hotels, many meals, comprehensive sightseeing tour programs, English-speaking tour guides, and much more.

To lock in these prices, book the Pyramids and Nile Cruise by June 16, Pyramids and Petra by June 2, and Treasures of Egypt by June 23. I can assure you of one thing. You’ll be itching to return to Egypt after just one visit.

For complete details about the tours, itineraries, and their extensions, visit the website. If you have any lingering questions, write to me directly.

Friday’s Friendly Funny

On paper: Tales of a modern nomad from Matt Kepnes

If the audio sounded a little fuzzy to you on my podcast with Matt Kepnes, it wasn’t your ears. Conducting a phone interview across the Atlantic Ocean is known to cause some connection problems. ;-) Apologies if you were straining your ears, but if you missed any part of the conversation, you can catch the transcript. Hopefully it’ll be easier on your senses.

Part two of our first-hand look at Friendly Planet’s Athens and 3-Day Greek Isles Cruise

View of the Athens Parliament from Syntagma Square

Picking up from where I left off, recounting my experience on the Athens and 3-Day Greek Isles Cruise …

Soon after collecting our bags at Athens International Airport, the Friendly Planet group was met by our tour guide, Heather. First a word about our multilingual travel lifeline.

Heather had come to the country about three years earlier for a job as a guide with another company. She moved to Athens not speaking a word of Greek, but had a month before starting her job to acclimate herself to the city and begin learning the language.

Two days after her arrival she got a phone call from her soon-to-be boss. “Think you could start tomorrow?” She agreed. And after just a week on a tour bus with a driver who didn’t speak a word of English, she was conversational in Greek.

Not surprising, our first conversation with Heather was a vocabulary lesson. On the ride into the city we learned kalimera (pronounced ka-lee-MEra, meaning good morning), yasass (pronounced YA-sass, the polite way to say hello to someone you don’t know), and efharisto (pronounced ef-ka-ree-STO, meaning thank you).

During that drive, Heather also told us an important thing to know about the streets of Athens: Traffic is heavy and the “rules” of the road are seen as more of a suggestion. For the most part, they’re ignored. She strongly suggested that we look both ways (a few times) before crossing the street. :)

Athens’ heavy traffic can be attributed to its dense population. The city lies in a valley, with Mount Aegaleo to the west, Mount Parnitha to the north, Mount Penteli to the northeast, and Mount Hymettus to the east. Over 3 million people live in the Athens urban area, which is about seven times the square mileage of Manhattan.

But unlike the Big Apple, a building height restriction put in place to protect views of the Parthenon means there are no buildings over 12-stories high (except for a handful of exceptions). That means the city is packed with residential and commercial buildings, and Greeks traveling from the outskirts of town to the city center.

Life in the Plaka

After driving from the airport into the heart of downtown Athens, we arrived at our centrally located hotel, the Titania. The afternoon was spent exploring our surroundings. We were walking distance from some of the most beautiful neo-classical style buildings in the city, including Parliament and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where we watched the changing of the guard; the Academy of Athens; and the Vallianios National Library.

Having wandered through Syntagma Square (or Constitution Square), we found ourselves in Plaka, the historical neighborhood of Greece that wraps around the base of the Acropolis. The tangled web of narrow streets here are lined with beautiful old homes, street vendors, shops, and cafes.

It was just a few quick hours wandering the Athens streets (we’d be back in a few days) before we headed back to the Titania to resist a nap, meet with our tour group to discuss cruise embarquement procedure, and finalize the list of shore excursions we would take at each of the islands we would visit.

Dinner that night was at the hotel restaurant. Sure we were thousands of miles from home, but we managed to find ourselves at a place called The Olive Garden. Not the chain you find in the U.S. No endless soup, salad, and breadsticks here. Just incredible views of the Acropolis. :) We went easy on the wine, because it was a 6 a.m. wake-up call the next morning when we’d head to Piraeus, the port of the Athens where our cruise ship, the Aquamarine, was anchored.

But more on that in my next post. Plus: Lifeboat dry runs, sunset picture #1 of 3,000, and how to confuse a pirate.

Friendly Planet review: If you’re going to Vietnam, go with a group

The other day I wrote about an article in Redbook that talked about making the most out of group travel. No sooner did I post it, I read this unsolicited e-mail from Bruce Partridge about his group tour experience.

Bruce and wife traveled on Friendly Planet’s Best of Vietnam tour and opted for the Angkor Wat extension. Read on to hear why they believe they’ve been missing out by not traveling with groups more often. And as always, this e-mail is verbatim. My fingers didn’t touch a word. :)

“My wife and I usually travel on our own — in all to more than 60 different countries. So, this tour was one of the few we have ever taken with a group. It was so good, we have decided that we’ve been missing something. Tour guides were knowledgeable and pleasant; accommodation and arrangements were excellent, our fellow travelers engaging — and in the long run, a lot less hassle at less cost than if we had traveled on our own. We tell our friends — Friendly Planet is the only tour company we will even consider, and is even better than travel on our own.” – Dr. Bruce Partridge, British Columbia

Bruce, I’m delighted to hear that you’re a group travel convert. Let us know what tour you plan to book next!

Thailand: Our hearts are with you

This post has been updated here.

This morning I received more bad news from Thailand. Our office in Bangkok is located just across the street from the Dusit Thani hotel — ground zero for the political demonstrations. The situation has become violent again, and we’ve moved our office to other quarters for the time being to make sure everyone stays out of harm’s way.

During the past few weeks, I have closely watched the deteriorating situation in Bangkok. I was sure that King Bhumibol Adulyadej, revered by all Thais, would speak out with a demand for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. But there has been nothing but silence from the king.

I was positive that the naturally peaceful and warm nature of the Thai people would ultimately cause the demonstrators to go home, the government to call for new elections, and life to go back to normal. Nothing of the sort has come to pass. The determination of both sides has created quite the stalemate, bringing a sense of tension and fear to the heart of Bangkok’s most affluent and popular neighborhood.

My heart is broken. I realize that until the Thai people decide once and for all to settle their differences through elections and not through force, there will not be peace. I worry for all the wonderful friends and colleagues who depend on tourism to feed, house, and clothe their families. And I’m sorry for all of us, who are deprived of visiting this gorgeous and friendly country. It is one of the most amazing vacation destinations in the entire world.

So it was with great regret and sadness that Friendly Planet had to cancel all travel to Thailand for the time being. But rest assured, the moment the current crisis is resolved, we will be back with more tours to Thailand. I will continue to pray that moment comes very, very soon.

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About Peggy

Peggy Goldman is a specialty tour operator and travel expert, who owns and operates Friendly Planet Travel, a full-service company that specializes in tour packages to exotic worldwide destinations at affordable prices.   More about Peggy

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