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10 street foods you must try in Singapore

Chef Jon Ashton samples Singapore's street food © Jon Ashton

When Chef Jon Ashton landed in multicultural Singapore as part of his 5-week-long food tour of Southeast Asia, he had exactly 36 hours to eat his way through dozens of hawker stalls. “I did the most eating I’ve ever done in that time,” he said. “When you get food that is so bloody tasty, it hits your lips and it’s like the best kiss you’ve ever had in your life. You just want more.”

So how did he do it? “I am a clever eater and I wanted to try everything,” said the British-born chef of working his way through Singapore’s legendary street food sold from stalls that line huge food court-like emporiums. Armed with a notebook and his brother filming Jon’s interactions, Jon simply asked at each stand if he could watch them cook and take notes. “I told them I had many other hawker stalls to taste that day and they understood,” he said, managing to only consume a few bites of each dish.

Eating was not the only purpose of his trip. As chef contributor to Parade magazine, Crystal Cruises guest chef for the past nine years, and the host of hundreds of live cooking events around the country, Chef Jon wanted to better himself as a chef.

“I want to evolve and grow my portfolio,” he said. “I wanted to cook in villages with ingredients I’d never seen. I want to have that integrity in my work. If someone is watching me on television or taking time to read a recipe I’ve written, I want that person to trust me. Ingredients are often expensive, so if you buy them, I want you to trust that they will work for you,” he said.

“One of the most exciting things about that entire trip was seeing the food stalls and meeting the people behind them,” said Jon. “Singapore is one of the most expensive cities in the world, and the most famous chefs in the world have restaurants there. But the inexpensive hawker stalls are where the excitement is; the food coming out of them is exceptional. You see the lady who is 90 years old who has probably been at that stall for most of her life.”

Always a fan of starting at the source, Jon urges one splurge while visiting the city-state island at the tip of the Malay peninsula: slipping into a seat at the Long Bar at Raffles Singapore Hotel to sip the national cocktail, the Singapore Sling, created right there in 1915. “It’s something you have to do, like going to Harry’s Bar in Venice,” says Jon.

What else shouldn’t you miss? Check out Jon’s list below, including tips on where to try most dishes.

See Jon in action at his website, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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The 6 best beaches in Thailand

The summer months send American travelers flocking to local beaches. But if you’re in the mood for a more exotic beach getaway, where the water is a gorgeous azure, the sand is soft and powdery, and the people are incredibly friendly, why not venture to a country famed for its more than 1,800 miles of magnificent coastline—Thailand?

Thailand’s tropical landscape and warm climate make it the perfect destination for a seaside escape, but with so many jaw-dropping beaches to visit, it’s hard to select just one. If you’re dreaming of an exotic Thai vacation, here’s my list of must-visit Thai beaches.

1. Patong Beach, Phuket

Venture south to Thailand’s largest island, Phuket, to visit the famed Patong Beach. Patong’s more than two miles of white-sand coastline make it a perfect location for long days spent sun bathing and lounging by the sea. The beach is popular with partygoers, since the nearby town of Soi Bangla is famed for vibrant nightclubs, restaurants, bars, and shops. Embrace the best of both worlds. Excitement and relaxation make for the perfect vacation!

PATONG BEACH: Experience the vibrant atmosphere and exciting nightlife

2. Kata Beach, Phuket

Phuket island isn’t all about clubbing and nightlife. You can escape the hustle and bustle of Patong Beach by venturing just a few miles south to relax among palm trees and soft sand beaches. Visitors can choose between two beaches—Kata Yai and Kata Noi—and spend the afternoon sipping cool drinks under the hot Thai sun.

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Disability, wheelchair doesn’t stop traveler from experiencing a Taste of China

I can’t imagine a more glum situation than sustaining an injury, especially one that hinders you from walking, right before a vacation.

But that’s what happened to Dorothy Kellher from Palm Beach, Fla. right before she went on Friendly Planet Travel’s Taste of China tour.

However, two fractures in Dorothy’s hip didn’t slow her down. After weighing her options, she decided to use a wheelchair and go on the tour. And she doesn’t regret her decision for a second.

Friendly Planet Travel’s tour guides took excellent care of Dorothy and made sure she had just as great of an experience as everyone else in her group.

But enough of me telling you why Dorothy enjoyed Friendly Planet Travel’s Taste of China tour so much. I pasted the e-mail below (verbatim) she sent to me when she returned to tell you all about it herself.

“I was planning to cancel my participation in the tour, having recently sustained two fractures in my right hip. At the last minute, hoping I would not be a drag on the rest of the group, and being assured that a wheelchair would be made available, I made the trip. The accommodations, food and service at all the hotels were first-class. The optional tours were too good to miss. The guides did a fantastic job in keeping us informed as to what we were visiting, and, more importantly, in continually checking that we were enjoying every experience to the max. We were given excellent opportunities to indulge in shopping, but were never pressured to buy. All our guides made sure I was part of the group at all times, and my temporary disability proved no drawback. My use of the wheechair was discarded after I reached the top of the Great Wall with the help of my cane. You are fortunate to have Peter Pi as a national guide. Both he and Jon Wang went way beyond their duties to befriend every tour guest. For me the tour gave new meaning to ‘The Experience of a Lifetime!’ Thanks Friendly Planet.” — Dorothy Kelleher, Palm Beach, Fla.

Dorothy, I’m so happy that you had a wonderful time on your trip! I hope you recover quickly from your injuries and are able to join us on another tour in full health.

More on how to save money on a trip to Asia

The other day I told you how to save on flights and hotels when designing your own trip to Asia.

Today I’m giving you more tips on how to save on tours, currency exchange, and restaurants once you’re in your destination. So let’s get started.

Tours
Unless you are fluent in the local language, it’s probably best to book tours through a known agency. But check carefully to determine how much touring you really need to buy. I always begin my exploration of a new destination with a simple city tour.

This is for orientation purposes. I like to get a feel for the city and to get an overall idea of what there is to see. An orientation tour also gives you a great feeling for the lay of the land, that is, how far (or near) things are. Once you’ve oriented yourself, you can quickly determine how much touring you want to do with a guide and how much you can do on your own.

In some places, signs are not translated into English, making self guiding a real problem, so check carefully before you set out on your own. In other places, signs are posted in many languages making a self-guided tour a joy.

Book tours to the places you’ve always dreamed of visiting to be sure you don’t miss any of the important facts and details. Or, prepare yourself well in advance. Use a guide book to supplement your tour, but never use it to replace a real guide.

It’s better to save money by booking only those absolutely necessary tours through a reputable agency than to hire a private guide off the street (or even through the concierge at your hotel).

When you don’t go through a reputable agency, you don’t know your guide’s experience or knowledge of the city. Again, do the research before you depart. The Internet will give you lots of information about local tour companies. Even if you book and pay on the spot, you’ll already have identified whom to contact, saving time and trouble once you get to your destination.

Currency exchange
Never change money prior to departure. Every airport I’ve ever been in has a “change” desk where you can get enough money to see you through your first day. If you’re on a guided tour, your guide will know precisely where to change money.

And if you have an ATM or credit card that allows you to take out cash, that’s going to be your best bet. Capital One is the very best credit card for this purpose. It has no foreign currency service fee associated with it, and it’s the one I carry when I travel abroad.

However, even my AMEX or ATM card does the trick. After fees and exchange rates, I’m still generally getting a better deal than at the bank. And I can put my card into the ATM machine and ask for a modest amount of money to get me through a couple of days. Because in every Asian city and town I’ve visited, there are ATM machines readily available.

Restaurants
My main consultants for restaurants have become shop owners. I love to browse and wander, and shopping is part of that experience. Shopping doesn’t even need to include buying, but those shop keepers and clerks are eager to talk to foreign tourists, and they always know their towns well enough to give great recommendations. I’ve gotten tips about incredibly inexpensive spots to enjoy a meal with locals, where the food has been awesome and the socializing spectacular.

A good tour operator will give travelers plenty of advice and suggestions on most of these issues. Friendly Planet Travel offers every traveler a comprehensive destination guide for each place we visit, complete with great tips on where to shop, what to buy, and where to dine.

I hope these tips come in handy when you travel to Asia! And remember, you can use Friendly Planet’s new travel search engine to search thousands of deals on flights, hotels, and rental cars in Asia. And better yet, if you use our search travel engine, you still get Friendly Planet’s great savings and award-winning service. Enjoy your time in Asia!

How to save money on a trip to Asia

A few weeks ago, Michelle Higgins of The New York Times called out our Taste of China tour as a great way save money on a trip to Asia. But when I was exchanging e-mails with Michelle about Friendly Planet Travel’s tour, it got me thinking of other ways travelers can save money when planning a trip to Asia.

I know a lot of ways to cut costs without cutting the experience of a trip. Being in the travel industry for over 30 years has taught me a thing or two. It’s why Friendly Planet Travel’s tours are so extraordinary.

However, I also know that some travelers like to design their own itineraries when they travel. But even if building your own trip is your travel preference, everyone loves to get advice from other travelers who’ve been to that destination before.

The Friendly Planet team, myself included, has been to Asia at least a dozen times. So I wanted to share with you ways to save on flights, hotels, tours, currency exchange, and restaurants.

But since there’s so much to tell you about, I’m splitting this post into two. Look for part two in a few days. Let’s start with ways to save on flights and hotels when booking a trip to Asia.

Flights
Asia is far away for American travelers. That means you’re going to be flying for a very long time, no matter which carrier you select. But if you do your airfare research, you’ll discover that there are wide variations in pricing. In booking flights, I typically look for the least expensive deal I can find.

Sometimes that double connection actually saves hundreds of dollars per ticket off the single connection or nonstop flight. Keep in mind that the single connection and nonstop flights still take a long time, and if you can save $300, 400, or more on your tickets by choosing the longer flight, you might want to take advantage of the savings.

Or, consider departing one day earlier, take a relatively small part of your savings to pay for an extra hotel overnight at your destination, and give yourself the gift of a day to rest and recover from the jet lag. You will need the extra rest regardless of the flight you take. But saving money on the ticket will give you the money to indulge in the luxury of sleeping off the impact on your body of the long flight. You will still enjoy the savings from your tickets, and you’ll be ready to explore the destination with plenty of energy.

Hotels
Hotels in many Asian destinations can be tricky. The price is not the sole consideration for selecting a hotel. I start with the location of the hotel. Make sure that it’s very close to, or even at, a public transportation station.

In many, many Asian cities, gridlock is what you’ll find all day and into the night. Traffic is a nightmare and getting around the city can be a horrible and time-wasting experience. Even if your hotel is practically free, if you have to spend hours getting around, the value of your entire vacation will be eroded by the inability to do the things you really want to do.

On the other hand, if you’re near a tube, light rail, or (last choice) a bus line, you’ll make much better time. The extra cost of a hotel in a location that is very close to good public transportation will be well worth it.

Also, when you do your comparison shopping for a hotel, be sure your breakfast (buffet, American style) is included in the cost, as well as taxes and other fees. Otherwise, you may think you’re paying a bargain price only to discover the real cost is 50 percent or more more than your budget. I would NOT recommend staying in anything less than superior tourist class hotels in Asia, unless you are staying in a B&B owned by a good friend.

So, if designing your own trip to Asia is more your style, try using Friendly Planet’s new travel search engine. It lets you search thousands of great deals on flights and hotels. Our travel search engine is an easy way to arrange your next vacation, while enjoying Friendly Planet’s great savings and award-winning service.

And stay tuned. I’ll talk about ways to save on tours, currency exchange, and restaurants in part two. But before I get to that, have you been to Asia recently? Please share some of your own advice on ways to save in a comment on this post.

Vietnam: The last place on Earth you’d ever associate with luxury

When you think of Vietnam, you probably remember the war overseas and civil unrest in the United States. But the truth is, the war ended in 1975 and the relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam has been mended. More recently, Vietnam has become one of the most exotic destinations on Earth to experience.

That’s why JustLuxe asked me to cover it. JustLuxe is an online magazine that focuses only on the most luxurious things in life, especially those unexpected luxuries that they can reveal to their readers. And Vietnam is, for obvious reasons, the perfect fit. Its beauty and simplicity of life, juxtaposed against its emerging economy, makes it one of my favorite countries to visit.

During my last trip to the country, I got to enjoy a luxurious overnight cruise aboard the Emeraude on Halong Bay. In my guest article, “Sail the Halong Bay and Explore Vietnam on the Emeraude,” I share every detail about my stay aboard the ship. Read what my experience was like, and if you have questions about Vietnam, leave them in a comment on this post.

Thanks again JustLuxe for featuring my article!

The New York Times calls out our Taste of China tour as a great way save money on a trip to Asia

Asia is a popular destination for savvy travelers, but it’s usually an expensive one.

But if there’s one person who can tell you how to trim your travel budget without trimming your experience, it’s Michelle Higgins of the The New York Times.

Her Practical Traveler column is widely read by travelers who want to see the world at a reasonable price.

So you can imagine how thrilled I was when she featured Friendly Planet Travel’s Taste of China tour in her article, “Saving Money on a Trip to Asia.”

She uses it as one of the ways to save when booking a trip to Asia because it combines air and hotel. I was even able to tell Michelle how travelers can experience all the wonders of Asia for hundreds of dollar less simply by going in the off season.

There’s one thing about Friendly Planet Travel that differs us from other money-saving tours. We don’t just save you money, we give you the extraordinary for the price of ordinary.

Thanks Michelle for featuring Friendly Planet Travel in your column! Head over to the article to get all of Michelle’s money-saving tips. And if you’re interested in traveling to Asia, look at the 13 tours Friendly Planet Travel offers.

Taste of China tour guides shine bright in one couple’s eyes

Tour guides can really make or break an experience in a new country. Anyone who has ever gone on a group tour can attest to that, including Nicole Zuchelli and Zack Grahama. They just returned from Friendly Planet Travel’s Taste of China tour and thought their tour guides took their experience to a whole new level of enjoyment.

Nicole and Zack sent me a detailed e-mail about how wonderful their tour guides were and what they thought were some of the highlights of the group tour. I copied and pasted the e-mail (verbatim) below. Give it a read. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Nicole and Zack in the Forbidden City

“Dear Friendly Planet and CITS,

We just returned from Friendly Planet’s “Taste of China” tour and we are two incredibly satisfied travelers — it was fabulous. Although we’ve been fortunate enough to travel pretty extensively in our lives, this was our first experience with Friendly Planet and our first trip to Asia. We’ve barely been back in the states for 48 hours and we’ve already converted our families into Friendly Planet fans via our ‘Taste of China’ travel tales.

We must tell you that National Guide, David Bai, runs an absolutely excellent tour. David is personable,exceptionably knowledgeable and is careful to keep things lighthearted and fun, all of the essential ingredients for magnificent group travel.

He went above and beyond to ensure that we enjoyed a unique and memorable experience and for that, we are grateful. We’re already thinking about returning for the ‘Best of China’ tour and hope that David can be our guide. Local guides, Alan (Shanghai) and Susan (Xi’an) were wonderful as well, taking extra care to answer all of our questions and it was obvious that all three of our guides took extreme pride in introducing their country to us.

The hotels were fantastic(particularly the Grand Mercure in Xi’an)and the food was delicious and plentiful — no one ever left hungry. Every restaurant that our guides took us to was great and almost all were filled with locals, so we really felt like we were experiencing the “inside scoop” as far as cuisine was concerned.

We feel as though we received amazing value for our money and returned home with a deeper appreciation for travel, a greater understanding of another culture and new friends halfway around the world. What more could you ask for? Xie xie!” — Nicole Zuchelli and Zack Grahama, Los Angeles, Calif.

Thanks for your note Nicole and Zack! Drop us another e-mail if you decide to book the Best of China tour.

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.

How much responsibilty should you take for your vacation?

For those who might have missed Chris Elliott’s latest article this past Sunday (I caught it in the Philadelphia Inquirer), I wanted to share it with you here today.

In the article, a traveler wrote to Chris for help because a hotel refused to honor a price they had mistakenly printed as a keystroke error. The hotel manager still gave the traveler a significantly discounted rate, and waived other associated fees with staying at the hotel, such as the mandatory valet parking fee. Still, this traveler was adamant that the original price be honored.

Clearly, this traveler expected Chris — the champion of travelers’ rights — to side with him. And here’s where some readers might have been surprised. Chris did not believe a hotel should be forced to honor a price that was printed in error, if the price was obviously too good to be true — such as a $28 night at the Westin.

The point that Chris drove home in his article is that just as vendors have a responsibility to travelers, we as travelers also have responsibilities as consumers. We’re all human, we all make mistakes, and we all need to have understanding.

In my own opinion, that traveler was being unnecessarily demanding, especially considering the many ways the hotel tried to make it up to him. So I greatly appreciated Chris response. This leads me to the subject I wanted to write about today: What happens when something goes wrong on your trip?

What happens if a weather delay grounds you in an airport in the middle of a vacation, when you’re supposed to be en route to a new city? We had to deal with this exact situation this past week on one of our Taste of China tours.

Thumbnail image for FP_delays.jpg

A heavy fog prevented a plane of Friendly Planet Travel passengers from landing at the destination city of Shanghai. Instead, the plane landed at the next nearest airport. The problem was, people had signed up for a tour, and this was not part of the plan!

The Friendly Planet Travel operator — who wants very much to accommodate the group the best way possible — turns himself into a pretzel to find an alternative way to get 34 to Shanghai as quickly as possible. He finds a way — at a minimal cost —  and ultimately saves the day. But wait. These new arrangements — everything from new tickets to accommodations — will now cost our travelers an additional $157.50 out of pocket.

Some of our passengers were NOT happy. I spent the entire afternoon fielding complaints from livid customers who had not been told they would have to pay this extra amount. And immediately Chris Elliott’s latest article was called to mind. What should you expect when you travel? What should a responsible person be thinking about? How should you really prepare for a trip? Are there times when you have to know that things can go wrong?

There’s a situation known as force majeure: situations that no one can control (such as bad weather). You can’t, as a travel dealer, create a fantastic deal that includes a great trip, wonderful arrangements, all for an incredibly good price, and still have the buffers to cover $157.50 for 34 people.

So I wrote a letter to everyone on the trip, explained what had happened, and apologized that they hadn’t been told about the cost. I asked them if they would be willing to pay this extra cost, so that our China rep wouldn’t be liable for this money himself.

Out of 34 people, 23 immediately paid the $157.50, and the there were another few that said they would pay later. The remaining members were still angry. In situations such as this, most people are very understanding, but there is truly something to be said about having some responsibility for the way life sometimes works. As I said, force majeure — when something is no one’s fault.

My takeaway: When you prepare for a trip, don’t forget to mentally prepare yourself for situations that can arise when you’re away from home. Friendly Planet Travel promises to take care of you when you travel with us, but we still ask that you understand that in situations beyond our control, we sometimes need a little wiggle room from you.

We will always make the decision that we feel is right for you, no matter that. That said, every traveler needs to make the decision to travel responsibly. And as every experienced traveler knows, life happens. (And sometimes, life makes for the best stories ;))

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