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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.

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!

Ten days on the Taste of China tour for $1,099

China has become one of the most attractive travel destinations in the world. Its modern achievements interwoven with an ancient culture, and a recorded history spanning over 5,000 years, entices savvy travelers from all over the globe.

But with its popularity comes rising travel costs. Other tour companies are scaling back their accommodations and trip durations to maintain their pricing — not Friendly Planet. Once again, we’ve maintained our high standards for price and quality with our $1,099 10-day Taste of China tour.

We didn’t cut any corners to get you this price. In fact, we were able to book a better hotel in Xi’an. We’re constantly negotiating better pricing for travelers while maintaining a high level of hotels, service, and programming. It’s not easy to do, but it’s my job to look for new ways to make our trips even more exquisite.

Let me refresh your memory on the attractions Friendly Planeteers will see while in China. Beijing, China’s historic and cultural capital, and Shanghai, often called the “Paris of the East,” are probably two of the most dynamic cities in the world.

Xi’an, which at first glance may appear to be a typical city, is actually the site of one of the world’s most important archeological treasures, an army of 2,200-year-old, terra-cotta soldiers. It includes more than 8,000 life-size ceramic soldiers, chariots, and horses buried there to protect the tomb of the first Qin emperor.

On this tour, travelers will be introduced to the all of the most significant treasures of China, from the Forbidden City to the Great Wall of China to the Temple of Heaven. They’ll also get a taste of what life is truly like in China, when we stop by picturesque villages, a traditional school, and bustling street vendors.

Here’s what’s included in the price: round-trip flights from LAX via Air China (including fuel surcharges), all ground transfers and intra-China flights, deluxe and first-class hotels, 12 meals, comprehensive cultural touring with a local guide, a professional English-speaking tour director, and more.

While you’re in the neighborhood, why not take advantage of your already-included airfare and visit exotic, frenetic Hong Kong, where East truly meets West, for only $599. City-lovers worldwide rank Hong Kong among their must-see destinations, and for good reason. With its glorious harbor, excellent shopping, renowned restaurants, and some of the best nighttime skylines in the world, Hong Kong has it all.

I encourage you to read my previous posts about the Taste of China tour, and also see what our travelers have said about it. It sells out fast, so book our 10-day Taste of China tour for $1,099 by June 30.

For complete details about the tour and the Hong Kong extension, visit our website. Have any questions? Write to me directly.

Vietnam is Anthony Bourdain’s favorite place on Earth to eat

MAIN COURSE: Vietnamese elephant fish

Last week on the Travel Channel’sAnthony Bourdain No Reservations,” Tony traveled to his favorite place in the world to eat, Vietnam. Tony’s got good taste. It’s one my favorite places to go to for the food. Last year on my trip to Vietnam, I happily ate my way through the country.

Like me, Anthony had plenty of good things to say about the food in Vietnam. For starters, you can sample the amazing cuisine of this beautiful country, and not spend a fortune. Whether you choose a restaurant, a sidewalk restaurant, or a market food stall, it’s consistently delicious, aesthetically presented, and quite affordable.

I told you about the succulent five-course lunch I enjoyed at a remote Mekong Delta restaurant.The entire meal, including delicious appetizers, main course, and dessert was prepared for 19 guests on four little burners in a sliver of a kitchen that lacked most modern-day appliances. And like my other meals in Vietnam, it was not only palate pleasing, it was beautifully presented in the Vietnamese way: simple ingredients, artistic arrangement, appetizing, and delicious.

One of my favorite foods, and one of the prettiest, is the Vietnamese spring roll. These spring rolls are created with a thin, flat rice pancake filled with a variety of ingredients. They usually include perfectly cooked shrimp, which are placed in the center, fragrant fresh basil or parsley, a sliver of cucumber or another vegetable, and a fresh scallion.

The pancake is carefully rolled, with the ends tucked in, to hold the contents in place. The scallion’s green end protrudes from one end of the roll like a tail, to be eaten with the last bite of the roll. The roll is then dipped into a delicate, mildly spicy fish sauce garnished with a few paper-thin slices of chili pepper. Ordinarily, a fish sauce would make me say, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Not in Vietnam. The fish sauce adds to the medley of delicate flavor, and the result is simply sumptuous.

What makes Vietnamese food even better is that it is very healthy and extremely low in fat. I came home having lost five pounds, despite eating at every opportunity. It consists of fish and meat in small quantities, plenty of vegetables, and fruit galore. And, while we here in the West love our freezers and microwave ovens, in Vietnam everything is fresh, fresh, fresh!

In the restaurants you’ll find the chef going to the market to buy herbs, spices, vegetables, and fruits two, even three times a day. Herbs that were bought early in the morning are no longer considered fresh by 11 a.m. I have no doubt that the freshness of the ingredients adds to the amazing taste of the food.

One of my favorite spots to visit whenever I travel is a local market. I love to see the types of foods consumed by the locals, and I enjoy tasting when conditions permit. In Vietnam, a visit to a local market is an amazing treat.

First, they are incredibly clean, despite the fish, poultry, and meats on display. Then there are the colorful pyramids of exotic fruits, vegetables, and herbs. They say that anything you stick in the ground in Vietnam will grow, and a visit to a local market will prove the point.

Finally, you’ll discover that you can easily taste your way through the country by visiting these markets. Just stop for a snack or a meal at the small stalls, where vendors prepare some of the most delicious treats you can imagine.

There’s so much food to savor in Vietnam, and I’m not surprised at all that Tony Bourdain selected it as his favorite country for eating. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who is interested in a true cultural experience coupled with a gourmet holiday will be delighted by a visit to Vietnam.

If you get a chance, see what Tony’s experience was like. And if you want to taste some Vietnamese food, you can always book Friendly Planet’s Taste of Vietnam or Best of Vietnam tours.

Thailand protests not slowing tourism

This post has been updated here.

Here’s the latest update from my representatives on the political situation in Thailand.

On Sunday, supporters of the former prime minister began protests, described as peaceful, in a small part of Bangkok. Sources estimate about 100,000 supporters showed up and the demonstrations continued through Monday.

As we anticipated, these protests did not affect tourism. The Grand Palace, Wat Po, other tourist sites, shops, restaurants, and businesses all remained open in Bangkok. Even traffic remained light, making access to the tourist sites very easy. Travel to other parts of Thailand has also not been affected.

Here at Friendly Planet, we did have a few travelers who opted for an alternative itinerary during the protests, and we were more than happy to oblige. Other than that, the balance of our travelers continued on their originally planned tour. Either way, it was fine with us!

Stay tuned to the blog for the latest news and updates on the Thailand situation for travelers.

Thailand political protests update

This post has been updated here.

I just got off the phone with our representatives in Thailand. Here’s the latest update. I told you yesterday that supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatrain were going to start protesting today outside of government buildings in Bangkok. I’m happy to report that there is, indeed, very little to report.

Sites where protests were scheduled had very little attendance. There have been no major disruptions in the city of Bangkok. In fact, there was barely any traffic today. Most people either stayed home from work or did not drive their cars into the city. And the roads that we anticipated were going to close, did not.

But this is only day one of the planned protests. I understand that more supporters will be arriving over the weekend, culminating in a large gathering on Sunday. Our contingency plans that I discussed for Friendly Planet travelers are still in place.

We’ll continue to monitor the situation very closely, but my representatives in Thailand feel confident that these protests will pass peacefully and not disrupt tourism. Stay tuned to the blog for the latest information.

Update on the political situation in Thailand

This post has been updated here.

In the past I’ve told you about how we take care of our travelers when the unexpected arises. No sooner had I written that post did I get an opportunity to live up to it.

In my effort to keep you up to date with the political situation in Thailand, I wanted to let you know what is expected to happen this weekend. As I mentioned in my previous post, supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra were planning to hold a rally in mid March. Well, they made a public announcement that they plan to protest around Bangkok government buildings from March 12 – 14.

In anticipating these events, Friendly Planet is planning to reroute some itineraries for our travelers who are in Thailand. These protests could be large or they could be small. We don’t yet know. But either way, we’re taking steps to ensure that our travelers, no matter what, have a great time in Thailand, and are not affected by these demonstrations.

If the roads within Bangkok close due to the protests, travelers booked on tours to the Grand Palace, Wat Po, or Chinatown will be picked up at their hotels and taken to the nearest river pier. They will get to travel by boat to their destination, rather than drive through the city.

New tours will be offered to those who prefer to stay outside of Bangkok completely, at no additional charge. If travelers want to stay in their hotels and not tour, Friendly Planet will refund any of their prepaid tours.

All other tours in Thailand including Klong Tours, Ayuthaya Tours, and Amphawa Tours will operate as usual. As I’ve said before, we would never send our travelers into harm’s way. Safety and security are our prime concerns, and we’re taking these steps to make sure our travelers are well served and enjoy their trip.

If you have any questions or want more information, write to me directly.

Update: Is it safe to travel to Thailand?

This information has been updated here.

Last week there were numerous travel advisories telling people to be cautious when traveling to Bangkok, Thailand. In my previous post, I told you the advisories were issued because the Thai supreme court was announcing its decision regarding the seizure of assets from former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra on Feb. 26. Diplomats were worried the decision would spark demonstrations.

I wanted to update you on what has happened since last week. It was ruled that Shinawatra did abuse his power as Prime Minister to enrich himself, and $1.4 billion of his frozen $2.3 billion fortune will be seized. There was plenty of reaction from Shinawatra’s supporters, but no demonstrations were held.

However, there are reports from his supporters about a mass rally taking place in Bangkok in mid March. With that said, if travel advisories are issued for Thailand around that time, Friendly Planet would take all of the measures I discussed in my earlier post.

There is no need to change any of your travel arrangements if you’re going to Thailand. I will keep you updated here and on our Facebook page if the situation does change. You can always e-mail me with any additional questions.

Is it safe to travel to Thailand?

This information has been updated here.

You might have heard about a travel advisory telling people “to consider safety matters when traveling to Bangkok, Thailand.” I was asked about it on our Facebook page and have received a couple of e-mails, so let me tell you what I know.

There has been an ongoing legal debate between the Thai government and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. On Feb. 26, the Thai supreme court announces its decision regarding the seizure of billions of Thai Bhat in Shinawatra’s assets.

If the court rules against him, his supporters originally announced they would demonstrate. This announcement caused various government agencies, namely Australian and British, to warn travelers to avoid Bangkok around the decision date.

Fortunately, the demonstration leaders announced that no demonstrations will take place. Travelers can set their worries aside. Go to Thailand and enjoy the splendid white sand beaches, exotic architecture, fascinating culture, and ancient ruins.

However, I wanted to take this opportunity to explain how Friendly Planet handles these situations. We’ve been in business for 30 years, and over that long span, we’ve experienced many travel advisories and warnings for points around the globe.

If the demonstrations in Bangkok had been held as originally announced, we would have rerouted our travelers already in the country to avoid any areas where the demonstrations were taking place.

For customers who were about to depart for Thailand, we would have carefully assessed the situation and made a decision whether or not to operate the tour. If the U.S. Department of State did issue a travel warning, we would have postponed our tour. But, our travelers wouldn’t incur any penalties.

We would never send our travelers into harm’s way. I want you to know that our travelers’ safety and security are our prime concerns. The determining factor behind any of our actions is always for your safety.

I spoke to our representatives on the ground in Thailand, and they told me that the streets of Bangkok are calm, and it’s business as usual. Our Taste of Thailand and Treasures of Thailand tours are happening as planned.

If the situation in Thailand does change, we will let you know about it on our blog and our Facebook page as soon as possible. If you have questions or would like more information, please send them directly to me.

Getting a Taste of Vietnam

It’s been almost a year since my visit to Vietnam. I can’t believe how fast time flies. It feels like I was just basking on the sun deck of the Emeraude, sailing in the beautiful waters of Halong Bay. Vietnam was one of those trips that I just didn’t want to end.

CRUISING: Halong Bay’s stunning emerald green waters

When I was there, I fell in love with the country’s extraordinary beauty and charming people. I’ve never before experienced a country whose people were so warm and receptive to tourists. Despite America and Vietnam’s history, the Vietnamese people hold no animosity towards us.

In fact, if you don’t speak Vietnamese, you really only have to smile to communicate with the people. After spending two weeks in the country, I wanted to make sure our Taste of Vietnam tour was giving something more than just tourism back to the country.

I set out to find opportunities for our travelers to directly give back to the locals of the towns they are visiting. So now on the Taste of Vietnam tour, we bring travelers to KOTO. It is a nonprofit restaurant and vocational training program that is changing the lives of disadvantaged youths in Vietnam. A portion of what our travelers spend there goes directly back to KOTO to continue to improve the lives of Vietnamese children.

Another place we visit, en route to Halong Bay, is a shop where travelers can buy paintings and jewelry. The profits from the shop go to a school that teaches handicapped Vietnamese to become artisans. The students then create all of the artwork in the shop our travelers visit. Everything you buy directly benefits students at the school.

Better yet, these two places are not often visited by tourists. So you get to not only give a little something back to this beautiful country, but you also get to see some places off the beaten trail.

In addition to finding these great social causes in Vietnam, I found more ways to make the eight-day Taste of Vietnam tour even better. For $1,199 you’ll also visit two of Vietnam’s most dynamic and culturally awe-inspiring cities, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and Hanoi.

The price includes round-trip airfare from Los Angeles, all intra-Asia flights and ground transportation, superior hotel accommodations, daily buffet breakfast, and comprehensive sightseeing in each city with a local, English-speaking Vietnamese guide.

The tour immerses travelers in the country’s rich culture, starting with Ho Chi Minh City (still called Saigon by many locals) and ends in Hanoi. They see the country’s floating markets, winding canals, sweeping rice paddies, and bustling cityscapes.

Travelers also take a step back into the country’s history with a trip to Hoa Lo Prison, also known as the “Hanoi Hilton,” and the Cu Chi Tunnels that were part of the underground highway of the Viet Cong.

There is also an array of discounted optional tours, including the Halong Bay overnight cruise, my personal favorite. Travelers stay aboard a deluxe river boat, the Emeraude. It’s a replica of one of the classic steamships of the colonial era of French Indochina. You feel like you’re in the movie, “Indochine,” which consequently, is played on your stay.

And if that still isn’t enough, take advantage of your already included international airfare and spend three additional nights in Bangkok, Thailand. Visit what is often called the “Venice of the East” for its network of canals (klongs), and explore Bangkok by boat.

Book our eight-day Taste of Vietnam tour for $1,199 by Feb. 24, 2010. As I said earlier, it’s almost impossible not to fall in love with this amazing country and not want to leave. For complete details, visit our Web site. If you have any questions, send me an e-mail.

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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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