What to Expect at the Mongolian Dinner Table

Sandwiched between Russia and China, Mongolia is a huge country with vast open grasslands, mountains and deserts. Harsh cold winters and gusty winds make it difficult to grow much here. Therefore, the nomadic Mongol diet relies mostly on animal products, such as meat, cheese, yogurt and milk.

So what to expect to eat as you travel through Mongolia?

The capital city of Ulaanbaatar (UB) is comparable to any metropolis in Central Asia. Here you will find all sorts of restaurants, cafes, bars and grocery stores. There are traditional Mongolian places, as well as tourist-friendly international restaurants serving American, Russian, Irish, Japanese, and Italian food. Korean cuisine is perhaps the most popular as many Korean tourists visit Mongolia (it is an easy 3 hour direct flight from Seoul). I even found a few Indian/ Hazara restaurants in UB.

Indian food in Mongolia

A visit to the State Department Grocery Store in UB gives a good perspective on the produce that is imported from abroad. There is generally a small section of fresh organic Mongolian produce, which is more expensive than it’s Chinese counterpart. The variety of fruits and vegetables is plentiful, though not as appealing as I am use to. Think overripe bananas, pale red apples, softening grapes. Isles of sausages and cheese from Russia can easily be found. There are plenty of packages food though – cookies, chocolates, nuts, chips – practically everything you can think of. The cooked food section boasts kimchi, fried snacks and noodles, favoring the spicy tastebuds of the locals.

Outside of UB, there are supermarkets selling all of needed essentials. In some of the smaller towns that I visited, the amount of produce diminished significantly. Here street vendors could be found selling freshly harvested green onions, peaches and watermelon.

While staying at luxury tourist ger camps, we were served three meals daily. Breakfast typically consisted of an assortment of bakery items (bread, cakes, pancakes, waffles), cheese, yogurt, cereal, tea, canned fruits and eggs made to order. I don’t think Mongols are very good bakers as most of the cakes were very dry and flavorless. Some of the places only had instant coffee.

breakfast at ger camps

Lunches were generally picnic style as we were out sightseeing at remote areas. The hotel would pack a lunch box – wraps, salads, sandwiches, noodles, etc. that we carried with us.

picnic lunch in Gobi desert

Sometimes we went to traditional Mongolian restaurants, which I really enjoyed. At the 13th Century National Park, we sat on the floor, watched live performances, while eating delicious Khuushuur stuffed with ground beef (and a vegetarian version for me). This is also the most popular thing to eat (like a hot dog) at the Naadam festival.

Modern Nomads in UB is always packed with visitors who want to try traditional Mongolian dishes in the city. Buckets of grilled meats (Khorkhog) along with chilled beer is the perfect campground treat. Strangely they had chewing gum listed as a snack on the menu!

It is important to note that the Mongolian diet consists mainly of meat (beef, horse, goat, sheep, yak, marmot and camel) as it helps retain fat and heat during the long winters. Though vegetarians wouldn’t have survived here in the past, today there are many meat-free options for those traveling through the country.

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When we were out visiting nomadic camps, we were offered hot milk tea known as Süütei Tsai (made from horse, camel or cow milk), along with local fried cookies, Boortsog and dried cheese, Aaruul. It is customary to accept the offerings from your hosts, even if you are not hungry.

mongolian snacks at Naadam

At dinner, we enjoyed international dishes, such as fresh salad with tomatoes, olives and cheese at Dream Terelj Lodge; pizza at Peace Pub Restaurant; grilled chicken or fish with roasted potatoes or french fries at Dream Gobi Ger Lodge.

All the restaurants served alcohol, beer and wine; vodka being the most popular drink. There are many Mongolian brewed vodkas (many of them named Chinggis) and they are actually very good.

I discovered that there are no Mongolian dessert except for sweet dried fermented cheese, but with the international influence, bakeries have popped up in the city. One that I frequented was Caffe Bene that served gelato, cakes, coffee and juices, and Grand Khaan Irish Pub for drinks and desserts.

Read Mongolian Cuisine Is a Carnivore’s Dream Come True on MilesAway blog.

10 Things I Love About Mongolia

Mongolia was one of the countries that I was fascinated to travel to, but didn’t know much about. In my imagination, I had pictured a vast barren desert with nomadic culture. Though some of that was true, I discovered a lot more in Mongolia during my one-week visit. Here are some of the most beautiful things that took me by surprise…

Lush Green Landscapes – Yes there is a big desert covering a big chunk of the country, but there are also forests with trees, and lush grasslands. The rainy summer season and the rivers help irrigate the area. In winter, most of the country is covered in snow. Note: Ulaanbaatar (UB) is the coldest capital in the world, having a January average of -20 °C (minimum reaching -45 °C).

Village in Terelj National Park/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos
Village in Terelj National Park/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos

Free Roaming Animals – During my long drives through the countryside, I saw hundreds of yaks, sheep, goat, cows, horses and camels roaming around on their own. Because Mongolia still preserves it’s nomadic culture, many families keep a herd of animals, and keep moving to different locations for better grazing access. Note: The Mongolian diet is rich in meat and animal products (such as milk, cheese, yogurt) as this is the only source of food in many areas. 

Two humped camels/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos
Two humped camels/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos

Cute Kids – The children in Mongolia have a blend of Chinese, Persian and Russian looks. They are chubby and adorable! The kids who grow up in the countryside learn survival skills at an early age. They ride horses, milk animals, collect firewood and build gers.

Family at a parade in UB/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos
Family at a parade in UB/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos

Sleeping in Gers – While I am not a big fan of camping, I enjoyed staying at the luxury ger camps – Dream Terelj Lodge and Dream Gobi Lodge. Can you imagine waking up to this view? Here I was able to experience a nomadic home which is constructed using minimum equipment (felt, poles, lattice, cloth, ties). There is a door and an opening on the roof which is uncovered to let the light in. My ger also came with a fan, heater, lights and a private attached bath. Did you know? It takes about 2 hours for a family to construct a ger and only half hour to dissemble it.

Traditional Costumes – The Mongolian national costume is a robelike garment called a deel. It is worn with a thin silk sash several yards long tightly wound around the waist. Attached to the sash are essential objects such as the eating set, tinder pouch, snuff bottle, and tobacco and pipe pouches. Female attires are adorned with ornaments and jewelry. There are different kinds of hats and boots, depending on which part of the country they belong to. Travel Tip: There is a costume parade at the opening ceremony day before the annual Naadam festival in July. This is a good opportunity to see families from all over the country dressed in the traditional clothes. Tourists are encouraged to dress up too!

Mongolian women dressed in traditional costumes/ Sucheta Rawal
Mongolian women dressed in traditional costumes/ Photo by Sucheta Rawal

Winding Back The Clock –  Mongolia’s ancient culture is well persevered at the 13th Century National Park (located 2 hours outside UB). Here visitors can eat traditional food, visit old gers where Shamans practiced religion and Chinggis Khaan’s teacher lived, learn to write in Mongolian script, and play a horse headed fiddle.

Vastness of the Gobi Desert – The Gobi desert is the coldest desert in the world and home to many important cities along the Silk Road. It is said to be high energy place, covered with fossils as old as 100,000 years. Bayanzag aka Flaming Cliffs is a location where the highest concentration of dinosaur bones and eggs have been found. Travel Tip: Travel through the vast region of Gobi can take several days as there are no roads or signs; there are few flights which can be affected by weather conditions; the region shuts down in winters; and there are not many places to stop and ask for directions! 

Flaming Cliffs/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos
Flaming Cliffs/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos

Warm Hospitality – My hosts for this trip were Voyage Unique Mongolie. Khishigjargal and her husband, Dorjpurev took us around the entire time, giving us a very personal experience showing us their country. It felt like we were on a holiday with the family. We sang songs and ate candy during long drives, and stopped to have picnics in breathtaking sceneries. No matter where we went, we experienced the same level of polite and warm hospitality. Even when language was a challenge, the employees at hotels and restaurants would make a sincere effort to address our needs the best they could.

Drinking tea at a nomad's home/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos
Drinking tea at a nomad’s home/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos

Modern Mongolian Music and Dance – The traditional Mongolian dance is bielgee, which is performed by both men and women. Rhythmic movements, fast beats and expressive gestures that represent daily life, are simply captivating. Mongolian musicians are especially talented using deep throat singing, and several local instruments, such as the horse head fiddle, drum and gong. These days, techno and rap are being integrated, creating fun modern tunes. Travel Tip: Watch a traditional concert by the band Tumen Ekh ensemble at National Recreation Center in UB.

Naadam Festival – The annual festival celebrates the ancient sports of Mongolia – horseback riding, archery and wrestling. The entire country goes on holiday while families dress up, go for picnics and cheer the contestants. The main competitions take place at the stadium in UB, but events are also spread out. One of the most fascinating aspects of the festival is to see 5-12 year old kids race horses for up to 10 kilometers. They ride solo, at very high speeds, through the countryside! The winner receives a medal, money and bragging rights.

Horseback racing at Naadam festival/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos
Horseback racing at Naadam festival/ Photo by Amanda Villa-Lobos

Secrets Behind Bhutan’s Happiness

The Kingdom of Bhutan is a tiny Buddhist country located between two emerging superpowers, China and India. How is it that it manages to retain its stance on measuring the country’s progress based on GNH (Gross National Happiness) vs GDP (Gross Domestic Product)? Are the people in Bhutan truly happy, and why? These are some of the questions I was eager to get answers to during my recent visit to Bhutan.

At first glance, I saw a lot of poverty, undeveloped infrastructure and lack of resources even in the country’s capital, Thimphu. There were a few hotels and restaurants, the shops were selling television sets one found in the 1980’s, cars were freely emitting exhaust, and people throwing garbage out their windows. When I walked into souvenir shops, I wasn’t greeted or welcomed, and attended to only when I asked something. On the streets, people had serious faces and went about their daily business. From an outsider perspective, I would say these were not signs of happy people.

people of bhutanHowever, when I had one-on-one conversations with people and asked them about the meaning of happiness, they gave me a refreshing response. The Bhutanese people grow up in a Buddhist lifestyle. They pray everyday, believe in karma (which includes doing good, not harming animals, taking care of the environment), and furthering their lives collectively. They live as a community and everyone comes forward to help each other in times of need, be it death, birth or illness. There is a strong sense of culture which is reflected through their lifestyle, costumes, and celebration of festivals.

bhutan prayers

I also interviewed Mr. Saamdhu Chetri, executive director at Gross National Happiness Centre. He told me that the idea of GNH was started by the 4th king of Bhutan who studied at Cambridge and traveled extensively. The King realized that people in the western world had much too consume, but weren’t really happy. He decided to create a new framework for his own government, in which he would focus on the well being of his people and the country’s resources, rather than how much they can produce. He appointed a team of statisticians, psychologists and ministers to create standards of measuring happiness i.e. GNH index based on 33 questions. The index surveys all citizens of the country on psychological wellbeing, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards. They survey does not measure income.

Saamdhu Chetri bhutan

Here are some of the results the GNH Index reveale about happy people of Bhutan:

  • Men are happier than women on average.
  • Of the nine domains, Bhutanese have the most sufficiency in health, then ecology, psychological wellbeing, and community vitality.
  • In urban areas, 50% of people are happy; in rural areas it is 37%.
  • Urban areas do better in health, living standards and education. Rural areas do better in community vitality, cultural resilience, and good governance.
  • Happiness is higher among people with a primary education or above than among those with no formal education, but higher education does not affect GNH very much.
  • The happiest people by occupation include civil servants, monks/anim, and GYT/DYT members. Interestingly, the unemployed are happier than corporate employees, housewives, farmers or the national work force.
  • Unmarried people and young people are among the happiest.
  • There is quite a lot of equality across Dzongkhags (districts), so there is not a strict ranking among them. The happiest Dzongkhags include Paro, Sarpang, Dagana, Haa, Thimphu, Gasa, Tsirang, Punakha, Zhemgang, and Chukha.
  • The least happy Dzongkhag was SamdrupJonkhar.
  • The ranking of dzongkhags by GNH differs significantly from their ranking by income per capita. Sarpang, Dagana, and even Zhemgang for example, do far better in GNH than in income.
  • In terms of numbers, the highest number of happy people live in Thimphu and Chukha – as do the highest number of unhappy people!
  • Thimphu is better in education and living standards than other Dzongkhags, but worse in community vitality.

bhutan female monkThe results are used by the kingdom and the government to make decisions regarding administrative policies, planning, resource allocation, monitoring and evaluation of development. They use the survey results to prepare strategy for the country’s development with values that includes equality, kindness, humanity, screens policies and measures sufficiency in every Bhutanese life. As a result, education is now freely available to even the remotest locations of Bhutan.

When compared to other happy countries of the world (such as Denmark, Finland), Bhutan doesn’t compare as those ranking account for economic prosperity as well. Bhutan being a small third world country, where hardly anything is manufactured or exported from, does not stand a chance.

According to my understanding, happiness is a difficult thing to measure. When you ask someone, “Are you happy?” most people respond “Yes”. It is also subjective. On the other hand, mental, physical and spiritual wellbeing are more reasonable measurements that defines if the environment hold all the factors that would enable someone to be happy. It is good to know that the basic principal of Bhutan is to govern based on the citizen’s well being and many countries are now looking towards Bhutan for advice on the same. Mr Chetri himself has been meeting with global leaders to consult them on how to implement the concept in their own countries.

An Introduction to Laos

Home to the beautiful Khone Papeng Falls (largest in southeast Asia), ornate temples, while being the “World’s Most Bombed Country” from the Vietnam War, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic has endured a long history of hardships.  Like most countries in Southeast Asia, Laos has been a target for colonialism from France, as well as Japan. Laos gained independence as a constitutional monarchy in 1953 from the French but with the impact of Vietnam War, they faced their own arduous civil war (1953-1975) that resulted in the establishment of a communist government in 1975. Laos

Currently, Laos struggles to develop as a nation, however it does not stop their people from being known for their honesty and simplicity, often attributed to their Buddhist roots. A large part of Lao culture is derived from the influences of Theravada Buddhism. Even with the invasions from foreign nations, Laos was able to maintain their Buddhist religious culture from the eighth century.  Buddhism is a vital part of the people in Laos. Every village has a Wat (temple) where the people worship daily in the morning and the evening. The most revered Buddhist stupa is thought to be established since the third century, the Pha That Luang is covered in gold, and shines bright in their capital city of Vientiane. Although Buddhist influences dictate an important part of Laotian culture, there are influences far before the establishment of Buddhism.

muangngoi-laos-women-rice field workersMusic and food have been two consistent aspects of Laotian culture that have prehistoric origins. The khene is their national instrument created from bamboo pipes which is traditionally used to play folk music. The khene has uniquely Lao origins and is still used in ritual ceremonies and festivals to courting women.  Stick rice is another staple of prehistoric Lao traditions which has more meaning to their culture than one may think. They consume the most sticky-rice per person than any other country in the world.  Yet, it is more than a tasty part of their everyday meals. They see it as a vital part of their culture, some groups of Laotian people plant a unique khao kam rice near their home in reverence to their dead parents or they will plant it on the edge of their rice fields to indicate that their parents are still alive.

Laos-Khon Phapheng WaterfallThroughout their history of annexation and occupation, they are still able to maintain their culture and thrive in their agricultural industry.  Eighty-percent of their exports is surprisingly not rice! Laos is especially known in the southeast Asian region for their coffee production. They have ambitions to expand their market in beer production and have started creating a buzz around the world.  Laos still encounters many challenges as any other developing country but being able to preserve their culture over the past thousand years has been a remarkable accomplishment for a country that has been constantly exposed to foreign influences.

To learn more about Laos, attend Go Eat Give Destination Laos on March 19, 2016 at Pattaya Cafe in Atlanta, GA. Click here to learn more. 

~ By guest blogger, Lilly Iijima. Lilly is a student at Oglethorpe University pursuing a major in International Studies with a minor in Japanese. Growing up in a multi-cultural household, she has seen first-hand the power of personally experiencing a different culture to eliminate previous misconceptions. Through this work, Lilly is committed to educating others about different countries and regions while learning about them herself.

6 Must Try Food and Drinks in Indonesia

Indonesia is a country brimming with sights, shopping, and fabulous food. As a country known for its diverse use of spices, its cuisine is one of the most colorful and vibrant of any in the world. Here is a quick overview of some of the most traditional and popular foods of Indonesia, and some of what you can taste at Go Eat Give Destination Indonesia on March 26th in Atlanta…

 1. Gado Gado

Gado Gado is a traditional Indonesian dish suitable for every foodie, including vegetarians. The dish, translated to “mix-mix,” is a blend of various vegetables, tofu, and tempeh in a peanut sauce. It is sometimes served with crispy crackers as a snack, or on its own as a side or entree with rice.

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2. Saté

An Indonesian dish the is well known in the West and is similar to a shish kabob. Sate consists of different kinds of meat roasted over coals on bamboo skewers, and is often times paired with a peanut sauce. The meat may include chicken, beef, pork, tofu, and more. Saté originated in Java and was a creation of the Indonesian street vendors, but has spread around Indonesia and to neighboring countries.

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3. Kerak Telor

This dish is a crispy Indonesian “frittata” made with sticky rice, shrimp, coconut, shallots, and spices. Duck or eggs are commonly added to the meal based on the customer’s preference. Kerak Telor is one of the most popular street foods in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, and derives from the Betawi culture. The dish also is said to resemble the western omelet though its spice and crispness set it apart.

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4. Rendang

Rendang originated in Pandang, a city in Sumatra, and is one of the most flavorful and iconic dishes of Indonesia. It is referred to as “West Sumatran caramelized beef curry” by culinary experts and was named the #1 most delicious food in the world by CNN International readers. The dish is made with beef, which is marinated, in a special curry for hours. Rendang can also be served dry as a soft jerky, but this is reserved only for special occasions.

Beef-Rendang-Served-with-Steamed-Rice

5. Cendol

Cendol is a traditional Indonesian dessert drink that is unlike anything you’ve ever seen or tasted before. The base is made up of coconut milk, palm sugar, and shaved ice, and is mixed with various kinds of jelly noodles. The noodles are made out of red beans, rice, or even grass jelly. Iced cendol with durian fruit and chocolate milk is also popular in Indonesia.

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6. Bintang Bir Pilsner

If you ever find yourself in Indonesia during a night out, you’re bound to run into someone drinking Bintang Beer. It was introduced to the country by the Heineken brand during the 1930s under the original name Java Bier, and later took on its’ current name in 2006. Bintang means “star” in Indonesian, and the Bintang bottle features a red star that is reminiscent of the classic Heineken bottle. Additionally, the taste of Bintang is said to be very similar to Heineken with its’ malt and hop flavor.

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9 Places to Visit in Lebanon

Lebanon is a beautiful country in the Middle East, bursting with history, great food, and great culture.  It being a classic traveler’s destination, how can you decide where to go and what to see?  Since planning a trip can be quite the task, Go Eat Give has named the nine must see cities in Lebanon for your touring pleasure:

1. Beirut

This capital city of Lebanon is nicknamed “The Paris of the Middle East,” and is bustling with things to do. Along with great shopping and beautiful scenery, Beirut has a rich cultural history to explore. There are many museums and sacred religious sites there, such as the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Saint George, the National Museum of Beirut, and the Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque.

Beirut

2. Baalbek

Baalbek is located on the western end of Lebanon and is home to some of the most well preserved Roman ruins known to mankind.   The city dates back over 9,000 years and was previously known by the name of “Heliopolis,” or The City of the Sun, during the period of the Roman rule. Jupiter, Venus, and Bacchus are all believed to have been worshipped at the Baalbek temples.

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3. Jeita Grotto

Located in the center of the Nahr al-Kalb valley in Jeita, Lebanon, the Jeita Grotto is an amazing sight. The interconnected limestone caves, which can only be accessed by boat, span around nine kilometers in length. To make the grotto even more intriguing—it was a finalist to become one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature.

Lebanese journalists and photographers tour the Jeita Grotto by boat during a media day to campaign for the selection of the Jeitta Grotto as one of the seven natural wonders of the world

4. Sidon

This is a Lebanese town that is filled with old history and remarkable sight seeing.   Located on the western coast of the country, it was one of the most important Phonecian cities and is now known as an active fishing town. Sidon is home to the largest Lebanese flag and also the Old Souk, a famous marketplace.

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5. Tyre

Tyre is another city in Lebanon that contains very interesting ruins and historic sites. One main attraction here is the Roman Hippodrome—an ancient stadium for chariot and horse racing! The Tyre Coast Nature Reserve is also the largest sandy beach in the country.

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6. Beit ed-Dine

Beit ed-Dine is a town famous for its’ magnificent Beiteddine Palace (shown below). This one-of-a-kind palace was built in 1788 and hosts the annual Beiteddine Festival and Beiteddine Palace Museum. Interestingly enough, after Lebanon’s independence in 1943 the palace was officially renamed the “People’s Palace” since it had been created by the people’s hard work and will.

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7. Faraya

Lebanon is known for it’s interesting climate, and this town is the perfect example why. Above this village lies the Mzaar Resort, which is a ski resort. The resort is only about 20 miles away from Beirut, meaning you could experience warm weather and winter all in the same day!

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8. The Cedars of God

Cedar trees are sacred and known to have covered Mount Lebanon in the past, but The Cedars of God is one of the last forests left in the country. This was caused by persistent deforestation by Lebanon’s ancestors, such as for shipbuilding and construction. The snowy area has great hiking and beautiful views.

Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 11.28.24 PM9. Deir el-Qamar

The name of this Lebanese village can be translated from Arabic into the “Monastery of the Moon.” It’s home to many important religious sites such as Saydet El Talle and the Mount of the Cross. This village is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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How to Prepare for a Visit to India

The first visit to Asia is always the most memorable. All of your senses will be blasted the moment you get off the airplane and arrive in the land of a billion plus people. Each year, I take a group of travelers for a cultural and volunteer journey to North India, where they first hand experience authentic food, people and projects. Here are some tips I have put together for the first time travelers to north India to help them mentally prepare for an experience of a lifetime!

Indian chai in Kolkata

1. Follow the chaos – One of the first impressions people have in India is of having little to no personal space as there are people everywhere. You will see hundreds of people, cows, dogs, cars, cycles, motorbikes, pushcarts – all sharing the same streets. The smells, sounds and sights can be overwhelming for the first time visitor, but one gets accustomed to it. Often times, you will be in small spaces with lots of people, thinking there is a fire hazard. Also, there is no custom of forming lines or taking turns anywhere. My advise – follow the chaos, or wait forever.

Chaos in the streets of India

2. Dress conservatively – Someone once told me, “I don’t tell Indians how to dress when they come to the US, so why are they telling me what to wear in India.” Blending in with the locals in any part of the world would not only attract less attention, it would also give you respect. Remember that as a foreigner who looks different from everyone else, you already draw some attention. On top of that, you don’t want to wear shorts, mini skirts, baseball hats and stand out more. While big cities in India are more tolerable with their attire, North India (New Delhi, Punjab, etc.) demand a more conservative approach.

3. Eat everything – Food is a very important part of Indian culture. You will be served chai (tea), soda or water at shops, offices, homes, etc. often accompanied by a small snack. It is impolite to decline food or drinks offered by your host, no matter what time of the day. Even if you are not hungry, you have to accept it, thank them and at least take a bite. If someone invited you for dinner or a visit, they will make sure you eat until you cannot move, offering second and third helpings of food. Saying no means you didn’t care for the food and an insult to the chef.

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3. Ignore the beggars and street peddlers – This is hard to do as you may have never seen such adjunct poverty before. Indian streets are full of beggars and it is very difficult to look away from the innocent kids asking for pennies or trying to sell boxes of tissues so they can feed their younger siblings. How these kids come to work on streets and if supporting them is ethical, is a topic of controversy. As a tourist, it is better not to indulge in giving alms on streets as it would result in hundreds of more people surrounding you.

4. There is no fixed price – Haggling is part of the shopping experience and very few shops offer fixed prices. This would comprise of high end boutiques or shopping malls. Everywhere else, you will be quoted a price based on how you look and speak (tourist trap). The general rule is to offer 1/3 off the quoted price and settle in the middle. You will see that no two people walk away from a store paying the same for the exact same item.

5. Partake in the gift change culture –  In India, it is customary to bring a hostess gift when visiting anyone’s place (whether for a meal or not), such as sweets, cakes, flowers or gifts. Although everything is now available for sale in India, the locals still appreciate items brought from abroad. If you take a small gift such as souvenirs, chocolates, make up, toys, clothes, etc. for your hosts, maids, drivers, etc., they would appreciate it more than cash. Often times, your host will give you gifts as well, simply for visiting their home in India.

6. Act like a celebrity –  If you have fair complexion, blonde hair or light eyes, prepare for a lot of stares, especially from kids. They will look at you as a specimen they have not seen before, and may approach you with curiosity. Be friendly and smile back, acting like a well mannered celebrity. And don’t be surprised if an entire class of high school students, along with their teachers, want to take photos with you as the centerpiece.

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7. Keep the clock, lose the time – Concept of time in India is different from what we are use to in the West. If someone says they will see you at 9am that does not mean at that exact time. You never show up for a party until 1-2 hours after the invited time. Flight, buses and trains mostly stick to the schedule, so don’t be late for them.

8. Respect everyone – In Indian society, we hardly address people by their names, unless its a professional environment. Anyone elder to you is your “aunty” or “uncle”, anyone around the same age as you is a “bhaiya” brother or “didi” sister. An older person can call a younger person by first name or “beta” son or “beti” daughter. This approach follows though daily interactions in shops, restaurants, homes,  etc.

The tips mentioned above are not meant to be “rules” that you must follow, but suggestions that would significantly improve your experience during your travels.

Going Beyond Bangkok at Destination Thailand

Go Eat Give’s October event, Destination Thailand, allowed me to experience Thailand in a multi –dimensional way that I hadn’t been exposed to. Before Destination Thailand, my knowledge about the Southeast Asian country was slim, as the closest cultural thing I knew about Thailand was the pad thai that I would order during cramming for midterms and finals during college.

Before the event commenced at the Thai restaurant, Zen on Ten, I met guests who were excited about the event as they were preparing their first trips to Thailand. They then got the chance to meet with other guests, members of the Thai Association of Georgia, who shared their travel recommendations of the best places to visit in their homeland.

The owner of Zen on Ten, Tom Phing laid out a buffet which included some of the best Thai cuisine with vegetarian som-tum ( a spicy green papaya salad), fried wonton, crispy vegetable rolls, panang curry with beef, massaman curry with chicken, vegetarian pad thai, thai fried rice, and steamed rice. The food was the prefect combination of sweet and spicy, typical of Thai cuisine. Once all the guests had their food, the show began.

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Owner of Zen on Ten, Tom Phing (red shirt), helps unveil the Thai buffet for the evening
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Guests help themselves to the Thai buffet

Auraree Montroy and Vivian Sihachack, dance instructors from the Thai Association of Georgia, performed a traditional Thai dance, Thepbantheong (Angels Delight). The dance is performed as a welcoming gesture and expresses blessing for honored guests, which were our entire guest of the evening. The dancers were adorned in traditional Thai clothes of bright silk patterns and gold jewelry, which moved elegantly as they dance barefoot with their delicate hand movements.

After the dance performance, the master of ceremonies, King Tantivejkul, Chairman of the Thai Association of Georgia, gave the audience a lesson in Thai. We learned a few Thai words including the most important Thai word, sawasdee, which is used a greeting or farewell. Saying sawasdee, is accompanied by the wai, similar to the Indian namaste, and which is done with a slight bow and the hands pressed together like in prayer, and a smile. Our Thai guests performed this gesture many times through the night, which is symbolic of respect. King also told us that pad thai was influenced by Chinese culture and didn’t become popular in Thailand until World War II. I was surprised that the most popular cuisine in Thailand was less than 70 years old!

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Divya and I salute the wai with the dancers from the Thai Association of Georgia
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Head-to-toe view of our dancers in traditional Thai clothing: bright silks adorned with gold jewelry

After Mr. Tantivejkul lesson, our keynote speaker, Dr. Sutham Cobkit, professor of Criminal Justice at Kennesaw State University, took the audience to Thailand with his speech, “BKK is Far Beyond the Capital of Thailand”, which was as informative as it was funny. Dr. Cobkit, highlighted that BKK to him, meant far more than the airport code of Bangkok. For him, BKK symbolizes Thai culture with the acronym, Buddhism.Kingdom.King. Dr. Cobkit spoke of the importance of Buddhism in Thai culture, which has influenced the positive and respectful attitude among the Thai. Dr. Cobkit continued that although Westerners may see bowing to someone as a submissive act, it is quite the opposite and represents love and respect. Dr. Cobkit shared his own experience being a monk in Thailand, with photos of him bald during his month long career as a monk. I didn’t know much about monks, so I found this part of his speech interesting as he shared how monks beg for food, as they are not allowed to cook.

For Kingdom, Cobkit spoke about Thai history. Thailand used to be the Siam Kingdom and was the only country in Southeast Asia that hadn’t been colonized. The Thai people are very proud of their history and how they resisted colonization. The pride of their kingdom also extends to the second K, for King. The king of Thailand, Rama IX is the longest ruling king in the world. I learned from Dr. Cobkit’s speech that the Thai people revere him as he is unlike any other king. During his reign, he as worked alongside farmers extensively throughout the country on public development works and through the pictures of him in the presentation, it was hard for me to distinguish him as the king from the other Thai people. It was remarkable to see a king act so humble.

Dr. Sutham Cobkit giving his speech
Dr. Sutham Cobkit giving his speech

At Destination Thailand, I learned about the rich culture in Thailand and what makes the Thai people proud of their heritage. It was a beautiful to witness many Thai people coming together at Destination Thailand to teach others about their culture and offer a glimpse of their homeland.

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Sucheta and Kelly with members of the Thai Association of Georgia

 

The Buddhist Experience in Thailand

What is Buddhism? Theravada and Mahayana

Budda isn’t just a happy idol you see when you go eat at your favorite Chinese or Thai restaurant, but it’s a philosophy that manifests into a culture, and a particular way of thinking in many Asian countries, including Thailand. Buddhism is based on the teachings of the Buddha, “the enlightened one.” It is a compassionate and tolerant religion that aims to alleviate suffering. 95% of the Thai people practice Theravada Buddhism, and it is the official religion of Thailand. In fact, Thailand is perhaps the only country in the world where the king is required to be Buddhist.

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Buddha shrine in Thailand

Theravada Buddhism is the second largest sect of Buddhism after Mahayana Buddhism. Theravada Buddhism is prevalent in Southeast Asia, especially in Thailand, Sir Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos; therefore it is sometimes called “Southern Buddhism.” Therevada means “Way of the Elders” and is the oldest branch of Buddhism. The Therevadians believe that they are most closely followed the original beliefs and practices of the Buddha and the early monastic Elders. The authoritative text for Thereavadas is the Pali Canon, an early Indian collection of the Buddha’s teachings. The purpose of life for Theravadians is to become an arhat, a perfected saint who has achieved nirvana and will not be reborn again.

Inside Wat Chiang Mien in Chaing Mei, Thailand
Inside Wat Chiang Mien in Chaing Mei, Thailand

Mahayana Buddhism “ The Greater Vehicle” is known as the more liberal and accessible version of Buddhism. It is a path available to people from all walks of life and not just monks. Mahayana followers are mainly found in North Asia and the Far East, including China, Japan, Korea, Tibet, and Mongolia, and are known as Northern Buddhism. However Mahayana Buddhist hope to not become arhats but boddhisatvas, saints who have become enlightened, but who unselfishly delay nirvana to help others attain it as well, like Buddha did. Mahayana Buddhists teach that enlightenment can be attained in a single lifetime, and this can be accomplished even by an average joe, unlike in Therevada, which believes enlightenment only possible for monks and nuns who devote their entire lives to the task. Thus, in the Theravada sect, the best outcome for an average man is to be reborn in the monastic life. As a result, Southern Buddhism tends to be more monastic, strict and world renouncing than its Northern counterpart, but also has a more philosophical than religious approach than Mahayana Buddhism.

Brief History of Buddhism in Thailand

It is widely believed by Thais, that Emperor Ashoka from India sent Buddhist missionaries to Thailand in the 3rd century B.C. Today this influence can be seen in Thailand, several thousands of years later, as evidenced by numerous images of Vishnu, Shiva and Buddha, found in early sites in Thailand. Animism found in Thailand before both Hinduism and Buddhism in Thailand and has persisted to the present day as well, mainly in the form of spirit shrines in doors, yards and businesses.

By the 6th century A.D. Buddhism was well established in south and central areas of what is now Thailand, after the Mons of southern Burma adopted Theravada Buddhism and later invaded the central valley of Thailand. They left numerous stupas and a distinctive style of Buddhist image.

Wat Chaiwatthanaram, a Buddhist temple in Thailand.

Theravada Buddhism in Thailand was further strengthened after King Anawrahta of Burma captured Thailand in 1057 A.D, he spread Theravada into northern Thailand. Later, when the Thai Kingdom of Sukhothai was formed in 1238 A.D. Theravada Buddhism became the state religion. As Thailand was never conquered by any colonial European powers, thus wasn’t subjected to assaults by Christian missionaries or imposed Western influence.

How does Theravada Buddhism manifest itself in Thailand?

Buddhism in Thailand is infused with many spiritual beliefs, which are likely the result of lingering animist, and Hindu beliefs from centuries earlier.  Most Thai homes and places of business feature a ‘spirit house’ just outside the building, where offerings are made to appease spirits that might otherwise inhabit their homes or workplaces.  Furthermore, Buddhist monks are often brought to new homes and businesses to ‘bless them’, and Thai people frequently light incense and make prayers to both Buddha images and a host of Hindu gods, whose shrines are located throughout Bangkok and the countryside.

Visitors to Thailand will encounter Buddhism in many aspects of Thai life. Many foreigners view “The Land of Yellow Robes” as the vision of yellow robes of the Buddhist monks are seen from the moment one steps inside the country. Senior monks are highly revered in Thailand and it isn’t uncommon to see their images adorning walls of businesses or homes or upon ornaments inside of taxi cabs. In many towns and villages the neighborhood wat (temple) is the heart of social and religious life. Buddhist holidays occur regularly throughout the year (particularly on days with full moons) and many Thai people go to the wat on these and other important days to pay homage to the Buddha and give alms to monks in order to make merit for themselves. Meditation, a primary practice of Buddhism is also popular as  a means of self-reflection in order to identify the causes of individual desire and ultimately alleviate ones suffering.

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Monks in Thailand in prayer wearing their yellow orange robes.

 

To learn more about Thailand, attend Destination Thailand in Atlanta on October 16, 2014!

Where are the best casinos Asia has to offer?

When travelling across the continent of Asia, there are many casinos found throughout the region. Many of them are fairly new as many nations have made increasing tourism a top goal for themselves. Of all the places in Asia, Macau is probably the best choice for casino gambling. After all, it is the top grossing country in the world in terms of gaming revenue. Some of the casino built in Macau are quite grand and should not be missed. Many of these casinos have been developed by Vegas entrepreneurs who sought to expand their influence by building sister casinos in Macau to their Vegas venues.

Photo by WhereisMacau.com
Photo by WhereisMacau.com

For instance, the Sands located in Macau is definitely a casino to visit. While it is owned by the same company who owns the Sands in Vegas, the Macau Sands was built to be much grander. When it first opened, the casino floor only measured 165,000 square feet. However, two years later this space underwent an expansion project which resulted in a total of 229,000 square feet. This seems like a natural progression, but due to the advent of successful online establishments such as Gaming Club, who can offer many games without having to purchase floor space and other expenses, it is also essential in today’s economy.

Another Vegas developer built the MGM Macau here as the sister to the MGM Grand in Vegas. As is the trend, the MGM Macau is much larger. The gaming floor is about 300,000 square feet of gaming space. When it first opened in 2007, it was known as the MGM Grand Macau. However, three years later the Grand was dropped from its name.

Photo by macau.citsmacao.com
Photo by macau.citsmacao.com

The Venetian Macau was also inspired by another Vegas Casino. The result this time is the largest casino in the world and the largest hotel in Asia. The entire resort sprawls out over 10.5 million square feet of land. The casino itself offers 550,000 square feet of casino space. For entertainment and sporting events, the Cotai Arena was also built here providing 15,000 seats for guests.

Book your stay at the Venetian Macau Resort Hotel now!