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The miracle of Israel that touches travelers of all walks of life

The following is a guest post from Dr. Steven Derfler, who just returned from Israel with a group.


Traveling to the ancient land of David and Solomon, Sarah and Deborah, the ministry of Jesus, and 3rd holiest place in Islam, is to be profoundly touched by history. The art and archaeology of this biblical world “puts flesh onto the bones” of the literature and religion that shapes the 3 great western religious traditions.

As an archaeology professor who has been a part of many excavations in Israel, and served as the American director of 2 projects, I try to bring the passion of rediscovery to those who travel with me. As a result, in-depth explanation on an archaeology and history-oriented study tour brings the biblical world to life again. Then, when you add in the opportunity to visit the sites with fellow archaeologists involved in the process itself gives a first-hand perspective not often found in study tours.

This was lure of our program this past October. Perhaps the signature site for archaeology and history of ancient Israel is the mountain-top monolith of Masada; overlooking the Dead Sea. The fortress citadel of King Herod over 2000 years ago, this site later went on to become the rallying point of Jewish identity and self-preservation — as defenders were the last to hold out against Rome in 73 CE. Having worked on the mountain myself, one of my closest friends in Israel is the Director of Masada National Park, Eitan Campbell. He would greet the group personally, and offer his own eloquent description of the fortress initially excavated by Yigal Yadin in the mid-60s. It has been the focus of his entire adult life in Israel, and his love for the site came through in his discussion — a fact not lost on the group. (more…)

Announcing the winner of our Exotic Malaysia & Thailand Sweepstakes

Can you believe it? It’s time to announce yet another winner of a free Friendly Planet tour! This one has to be one of my favorites: our Win Exotic Malaysia & Thailand Sweepstakes will award one lucky traveler a free trip for two on our Exotic Borneo & Bangkok tour.

Our winner will get to explore the fascinating culture, natural beauty, and unique history of these Southeast Asian destinations. Whether it’s walking the streets of Bangkok in Thailand, a bustling metropolis with to-die-for cuisine, or exploring Borneo in Malaysia, where a mosaic of indigenous tribes, intriguing history, ancient rainforests, and diverse wildlife await — trust me, this winner is lucky indeed.

Are you ready to find out who this winner is? Here it comes! The winner of our Exotic Malaysia & Thailand Sweepstakes is …

Sara Morgan from Oregon — Congratulations!

We called Sara to let her know about her prize, and she was so sweet. She loves traveling to explore different cultures and experience new things, but doesn’t get the opportunity to do so often. She’s never been to Asia, and works with some Asian species of bears in her role at a zoo, so she’s looking forward to getting to see them in person! She’ll be taking her husband on her exciting adventure to Southeast Asia!

Congratulations again, Sara. I know you’re just going to love your vacation.

Thanks to everyone who entered our sweepstakes. Although you couldn’t all win, we have some great news for you about our super Cyber Monday sale, which will make it possible for you to save BIG on every Friendly Planet tour, so stay tuned. More details coming soon.

Exploring the wonders of Thailand with a devoted and passionate local guide

I always look back on my trip to Thailand with fond memories. One of the biggest reasons why I had such a memorable experience is due, in large part, to our local tour guide Lek, who was warm, welcoming, and extremely knowledgeable about Thailand’s history, attractions, and culture.

Now, as we end our Exotic Malaysia & Thailand Sweepstakes, is a good opportunity for Lek to share with our readers what makes Thailand special from a native’s perspective, and what travelers can look forward to seeing when they visit. Read on for our Q-and-A with her.

Q: Lek, could you please share a bit of your background with us?

A: I was born, raised, and educated in Bangkok. After graduating from high school, I attended the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus [for college]. I was a secretary major, and then joined the travel industry. I’ve worked for several agencies, but I’ve been with Exotissimo, Friendly Planet’s local supplier, for almost ten years!

Q: What made you decide that you wanted to get into the travel industry?

A: When I was young I had contact with foreigners because I attended Catholic school. The nuns who came from abroad taught me English, and I got to know them. My interactions with the nuns and priests sparked my interest in travel, and I envisioned joining the travel industry by possibly becoming a flight attendant.

Q: What’s your favorite thing about being a tour guide? (more…)

Finding the spiritual side of Thailand

Most visitors to Thailand are struck by the obvious spirituality of the place, a paradox in a way, because life, particularly in Bangkok, is as frenetic and modern as anywhere in the world. Over 93 percent of the population in Thailand practices Buddhism, according to the Pew Research Center, and this religion permeates almost every aspect of life there – from the culture to the architecture to the people.

It’s a very special place, and one lucky traveler will get to experience it for free through our Win Exotic Malaysia and Thailand Sweepstakes. Be sure to enter to win a free trip for two now if you haven’t.

Visiting Thailand was also a very special experience for Liz Hutchins, a member of the Friendly Planet Travel Reservations Team and our resident SE Asia expert. We shared her first-hand account of her trip to Vietnam earlier this year in a blog post, as well as some of her photography and her review of authentic Vietnamese cuisine. But her trip to Thailand was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Liz, and you’ll see why when you read her account of her trip to this fascinating destination.

“My trip to Vietnam last year helped me realize that I absolutely love traveling to Southeast Asia. Once I was advised I was being invited by the tourism board to see Thailand, I literally jumped at the opportunity. The spiritual side of Asia has always been a big part of its draw for me. I was brought up as a Christian, but I have always appreciated and respected all religions, Buddhism in particular. Getting to immerse myself in the Buddhist culture was very eye-opening, and as you can see, was right on time, for I was about to enter a new chapter of my life …

Our tour started in the busy city of Bangkok. Here we saw popular sites like the Grand Palace and the Reclining Buddha. Because of their enormous significance, each site had more tourists than the last, which made our experience feel very fast-paced and exciting. But my favorite temple that we visited was Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep.

(more…)

The top phrases you need to know before traveling to Thailand and Malaysia

If you haven’t already heard, we’re giving away yet another free trip! This one is for our Exotic Borneo & Bangkok tour to Malaysia and Thailand — a true treat for any traveler who wants to experience everything Southeast Asia has to offer.

If you’ve never visited this part of the word, it’s a juxtaposition of new and old, modern and traditional, exotic and familiar. The languages of Malaysia and Thailand, however, are usually difficult for travelers from the West to navigate.

Consider, for example, that there are virtually no similarities between English and Thai or Malay. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn a few key words and phrases that will help you get around and earn you lots of smiles and big-time approval from the locals when you test your skills.

We’ve put together a chart of some of these common words and phrases. Click on them for an easy-to-print version and keep them in your wallet for easy access on your trip! (more…)

How you can win a FREE trip for two to Malaysia and Thailand!

If you didn’t come out on top of our Win Wild South Africa Sweepstakes, don’t fret. We had so much fun putting that sweepstakes together that we’ve got another surprise in store — we’re giving away ANOTHER free trip for two!

This one is a real treat — an 11-day adventure to Malaysia and Thailand on our Exotic Borneo & Bangkok tour. And since we’re conducting this sweepstakes in partnership with Tourism Malaysia and Tourism Authority of Thailand, you know you’ll see the best these countries have to offer. If you don’t need to hear more and want to enter now, simply visit our Facebook page, Like us, and enter your information in the Win Exotic Malaysia and Thailand tab for your chance to win this prize, worth up to $4,900! Since this is a brand-new contest, you’ll have to enter your information (whether or not you participated in our Win Wild South Africa Sweepstakes) to be eligible to win this prize.

Thailand is a beautiful country that’s flush with exotic wildlife, spectacular islands, and rich history. In fact, it’s one of the most visited destinations we offer. On the other hand, Malaysia is an up-and-coming hot spot that offers visitors a fusion of cultures, cuisine, beauty, and adventure that travelers need to see to believe. The lucky traveler that wins this tour won’t be disappointed with all there is to see and do in these countries.

Our grand prize package includes:

  • Round-trip airfare from Los Angeles or New York including fuel surcharges, taxes, and fees
  • All intra-Asia flights and ground transportation
  • Accommodations in deluxe and superior first-class hotels
  • Buffet breakfast daily and five lunches
  • Comprehensive sightseeing tours
  • Professional English-speaking tour guides

So read the full itinerary and then be sure to visit our Facebook page to put your name in the hat! Don’t forget to invite your friends to enter! You’ll earn an extra entry for every friend that enters through your invite, increasing your chances of winning.

The sweepstakes will close at 11:59 p.m. on November 15, and we’ll announce the winner soon after. To all of our travelers, good luck!

 

Find out who’s going on a free trip to South Africa!

It might be Monday, but I was excited to come into work today. That’s because I got to let one lucky traveler know that she’s going on a free trip to South Africa, on us! It’s been a blast to read your comments on our Facebook page about how much you love South Africa, and I’m sad to see our sweepstakes come to an end — I wish you all could win! And hopefully, some of you who have gotten a chance to learn more about this great destination will be motivated to join us on tour, even if it’s not for free.

But one lucky person will take home this amazing prize. So without further ado (drum roll please), the winner of our Win Wild South Africa Sweepstakes is …

Mary Wood from Oregon!

Congratulations, Mary! I know you and your guest will have an amazing time taking in the beauty, majesty, and adventure of South Africa. Take lots of pictures for us, and we hope you’ll share your South Africa story on the blog upon your return.

But hold on, travelers. If you didn’t win this prize, don’t lose hope! We have a very special announcement that we’ll reveal tomorrow. You never know — we just might be giving away another trip! Come back tomorrow to find out.

South African Explorer Series: 7 foods you can’t miss

To everyone who loves travel, exploring local cuisine is one of the best aspects of visiting a new place. And as we’ve been covering all things South Africa because we’re giving away a free trip for two to this fascinating locale on our Facebook page (now closed), we couldn’t help bringing you our take on the “hit list” of South African foods in this installment of our South African Explorer Series.

South Africa’s cuisine has Malay, Dutch, French, British, Indian and Eastern European influences, which, when combined with locally available food, results in a unique assortment of tasty treats. Here are seven of the most popular and delicious foods available in South Africa.

Braai (Pronounced as in “rye”). The most popular type of food in South Africa is braai, which is Afrikaans for “barbecue” or “grill.” It also refers to the social custom of gathering friends and family over for a pot-luck style meal that focuses mainly on barbequed meat. Chicken, pork, beef, lamb, mutton, or “boerewors” (see below) is prepared over an open flame made with wood, charcoal, or briquettes, although using gas has also become more common in recent years.

Braai is often served with pap, a thick type of porridge, along with various sauces, such as Mrs H.S. Ball’s Chutney, a bottled chutney sauce brand that is wildly popular with South Africans. In South Africa, “ketchup” as we know it is referred to as “tomato sauce.” Chutney is used by many South Africans the way Americans use ketchup.

Braai is a very important social custom in South Africa. It’s how locals celebrate Christmas, birthdays, graduations, and special events in their lives. You’ll get plenty of chances to taste Braai when you visit South Africa.

Boerewors (Pronounced bur-eh-vors). This is the most important meat for your braai and practically a national institution. It looks similar to Italian sausage with a very distinctive flavor. But don’t call boerewors “sausage” in South Africa, or you’ll get a hot dog! No self-respecting South African would consider a braai without boerewors, and here’s a tip. You can brush your ‘wors’ with Mrs H.S. Ball’s Chutney before putting it on the braai!

Rusks. You’ll certainly encounter these hard pieces of bread if you travel to South Africa. They’re most commonly served with tea or coffee before a game drive. When you return after your game drive for a hearty South African breakfast, you’ll likely see them on the buffet again. (Rusks taste best dunked in coffee or tea.) 

Rooibos tea (Pronounced roy-boss). The rooibos plant is native to South Africa, and the leaves are used to make one of the country’s most popular drinks — rooibos tea. It’s often served in the same fashion as black tea with milk or sugar, although it is caffeine-free. Rooibos tea is becoming popular around the world for its health benefits, including its antioxidants and phenolic compounds. It’s said to help with tension, allergies, and digestive issues.

Bunny chow. The recipe for bunny chow is simple: curry with mutton, lamb, chicken, or beans in a hollowed-out bread loaf. It’s a delicious treat unique to Durban that dates back to the 1940s. Here are a few tips for ordering your bunny chow: It comes in a quarter, half, or full loaf. According to local slang, simply ask for the size and the kind in one short phrase. If you want a quarter loaf of mutton, say “quarter mutton.” Oh, and yes, Mrs Ball’s Chutney goes well with bunny chow, too!

Biltong (Pronounced bill-tong). This is the national snack of South Africa, and is similar to beef jerky, although it can be made from a variety of meats, such as beef or game. This is eaten at sports games, at home, and anywhere.

Bobotie (Pronounced bor-bor-tee). This is a dish of minced meat with egg topping, similar in consistency to meatloaf. It was among the first dishes created in South Africa that takes influences from both the East and West, and the result is a spicy, flavorful dish. Bobotie has a mild curry flavor and is eaten with rice and Mrs Balls Chutney. If you’re getting the idea that Mrs. Balls Chutney goes with a lot of foods, you’re right! South Africans are known to put it on everything, from bobotie to scrambled eggs.

Braai, bunny chow, bobotie — I’m hungry just thinking about it! Which would you want to try first in South Africa? Let us know in a comment below.

Going on safari with Entabeni Private Conservancy’s head ranger

Most of us work our regular jobs so we can afford life’s special pleasures, like exploring unknown destinations through travel. But what if your job was to explore those unknown destinations every day? That’s what Darryn Murray gets to do as Head Game Ranger at Entabeni Private Conservancy in South Africa. He spends his days taking travelers on safari through the bush in search of the Big Five game and other wildlife that call South Africa their home.

We wanted to get a glimpse into what Entabeni is like through the eyes of a game ranger, so we asked Darryn to answer a few questions for us, and he was happy to oblige. Read on for our Q-and-A with him!

Q: How did you become a game ranger?

A: Well, it started off with my parents. I grew up in Johannesburg, and I was very involved in taking holidays on game reserves and things like that. So it was just a natural thing that I got into when I finished schooling. I did a two-year course studying game ranging and lodge management at Damelin West Rand, and then we did our practical at Entabeni Nature Guide Training.

Q: What’s a normal day like for you?

A: No two days are alike at our job. A day could be anything from getting up at 5:30 in the morning and taking travelers on a morning game drive or bush walk. Or I could come in around noon for an afternoon game drive. We also do night game drives along with star gazing. It all depends on what the guests are looking for, and what’s the best way to spend their time that day.

Q: What’s the wildest thing you’ve ever seen in the reserve?

A: We’ve seen two or three lion hunts with guests on game drives. We’ve also seen cheetahs hunting. But I think probably the most memorable thing is the time we got up close and personal with a lion while on a bush walk with guests. It was kind of scary — a 200 kg male lion coming that close — but everyone was OK. It was a great source of adrenaline, and a fantastic memory — once it was all over! (more…)

South African Explorer Series: Learn the language

Any seasoned traveler will tell you how important it is to prepare for a trip abroad by learning the basics about your destination. You should be able to speak a few words in the local language, enough to respect its traditions and culture, and become familiar with its food. This is even more important in multicultural destinations like South Africa, home to 11 national languages and several ethnicities. There’s an abundance to see and do in South Africa, and knowing a few key phrases will help you fit in and make new friends as you enjoy the sights and sounds.

To help get you started speaking like a local, we’ve put together the first of a three-part blog post we’re calling our South African Explorer Series. These will offer insight into several major components of your trip: language, food, and culture. If you haven’t heard, you can also win a free trip to South Africa by entering on our Facebook page (now closed)!

Our series begins today with a list of the most common phrases and words you’ll hear when visiting South Africa. Pay close attention. Some of the words look and sound like English, but the meanings are completely different.

  1. “Sawubona!” This means hello or welcome, and is usually directed at one person. Feel free to greet anyone you meet in South Africa with this phrase. Learn how to pronounce it here. (more…)
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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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