A Pennsylvania Native Spends His First Day in Pittsburgh After 36 Years

When I meet someone who’s not from my home state, I tell them “I’m from Pennsylvania.” The east coast people tend to ask how close to “Philly” I am, while everyone else asks if I live near Pittsburgh. Until recently, my answer was that I’d never been there, as it’s on the other end of the state. I’ve always been curious, so for the first weekend of the New Year, I finally explored Pittsburgh.

When I meet someone who’s not from my home state, I tell them “I’m from Pennsylvania.” The east coast people tend to ask how close to “Philly” I am, while everyone else asks if I live near Pittsburgh. Until recently, my answer was that I’d never been there, as it’s on the other end of the state. I grew up in Luzerne County (eastern Pennsylvania) and can drive from there to the George Washington Bridge and back before I can get to Pittsburgh. I’ve always been curious, so for the first weekend of the New Year, I finally explored Pittsburgh. Lonely Planet served as a guide for what I would do there and there were enough sights and activities to easily fill a day.

I started off at the Duquesne Incline with the idea that I would ride one incline in the light and the other in the dark. The Duquesne is not operated by Port Authority and rides must be paid for in cash. When you get to the top, there are some exhibits as well as an observation deck with excellent views.

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My next destination was the Heinz History Center, which is on the southwestern border of the strip district. With seven floors (five open to visitors), you can easily spend a day there. Admission for an adult is $16. AAA will get you $1 off, but student admission is only $6.50.

The Clash of Empires: The British, French & Indian War 1754-1763, From Slavery to Freedom, Pittsburgh: A Tradition of Innovation and We Can Do It: WWII were my personal favorites. I went through the museum in two hours, but you can easily turn that into three or four, depending on how fast you read and how varied your interests are.

From the museum, I walked to Penn Ave and through the strip district. There’s plenty of shopping there and different restaurants as well. Pittsburgh Popcorn Co is located on the corner of 21st Street and Spring Way. They have new flavors every week and offer samples. I bought a bag of cinnamon toast, which nobody else that was in front of me seemed interested in. Oh well, their loss, because it was delicious!

For lunch, I went to Stone Neapolitan Pizzeria, near the Gateway subway stop and then visited Fort Pitt Museum. Although the Heinz History Center is much more extensive, the area around Fort Pitt is great for walking and photo ops. At Fort Pitt, you can learn about the natives of Pittsburgh as well as how the 2nd largest city in Pennsylvania got its name. It was not named after Brad!

Pittsburgh skyline from Fort Pitt

I don’t believe that a visit to any city is complete without using some form or public transportation. I finally used the underground in Philadelphia last summer and since Fort Pitt is near the Gateway station, I boarded the train there and took it across the Monongahela River to the Station Square stop. The stops between Gateway and First Avenue are part of a Free Zone, but I had to pay since I was crossing the river to Station Square. Like the Los Angeles Metro, you buy a card, add value and “tap” when you enter the train. Before arriving at the First Avenue station, the train ascends above ground, so you get to see the river as it crosses.

From Station Square, it’s a short walk to the Monongahela Incline. It was dark by this time and the ride ($2.50 one-way, but only $1 extra if you make the return trip within three hours) only took a minute or two, just like the Duquesne. There’s an observation deck outside the upper station, where I took some excellent photos of the city at night.

After collecting my car, I headed to I Tea Café (Taiwanese) for dinner. They have one of my recent favorites (salt and pepper chicken) with different flavor options. I chose seaweed and also got French fries (something I don’t associate with Taiwan) of the same flavor as well as bubble tea. Everything was excellent and I had room for dessert, so I ordered glass jelly and homemade coconut toast. They are separate on the menu but go very well together. Try it!

Most decent sized cities have at least a bakery or two that sells French macarons. I found Gaby et Jules on Yelp and stopped there to get a box of six. They have the standard flavors as well as ones I’d either rarely or never seen before. I got nutella and salted caramel, which most places sell, but also tried Bailey’s Irish Cream and white chocolate basil.

Heinz Field

After spending my first full day in Pennsylvania’s second city, I can understand why it’s been voted the most livable city in America multiple times. It has professional sports teams, world class museums, a great food scene, more than ten colleges and universities yet does not feel overwhelming. Furthermore, my favorite bands usually stopped in Pittsburgh when they went on tour! Like most major cities, parking is a issue in the center, but unlike other cities with subways, you can ride theirs for free in the most congested areas. Pittsburgh has some great architecture along their ample waterfront, but it’s the inclines that really allow the visitor to fully appreciate it.

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Turning 36 in Peru

One thing I like about flights to South America is that they are in the air when I would normally be sleeping.One thing I like about flights to South America is that they are in the air when I would normally be sleeping. After sleeping as best as we could during the eight-hour flight from New York to Lima, we arrived at 8AM. Our guide Giancarlo was there to greet us, sign and all. He and his wife Andrea would be showing us around their city for the next four days. Another great thing about traveling to South America is the fact that time zone differences are minimal.

INTRO

My only trips to South America were both in 2008. I visited Buenos Aires for New Years and then spent the beginning of 2008 between Montevideo and Punta Del Este (both in Uruguay). Later in the year, I spent a week in Chile, between the Lakes District and Capital region. When that trip was over, I thought Brazil would be the next South American country I’d visit, but plans never seemed to work out. I tend to avoid countries that make it more difficult for me to visit, but in November 2013, I was supposed to visit Peru, go on to Brazil and fly back to the United States from there.

When plans for another South American visit fell through at the end of 2013, I ended up going to southeast Asia. I went two more times in 2014 (Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia and then back to Thailand later in the year) and again in 2015 (an unexpected trip to Myanmar). Although another trip to Thailand for my annual Thanksgiving/birthday trip was in the works, I decided that it was time for a change (R.I.P. Owen Hart). The airfare to Lima was less than 1/3 of what it was when I was planning a trip two years earlier. I found a friend to travel with, reached out to a couple we knew and had a pretty good plan in place by the month of the trip.

Like my first trip to Thailand, I didn’t overthink this one (like I tend to do when I go to more “organized” countries). I didn’t start reading the Lonely Planet book until a month before the trip. Our friends helped arrange accommodations as well as someone to show us around Lima and a tour company to take us around Cusco.

The thing I was excited about the most was the food. The closest Peruvian restaurant to my house is an hour away. The ones I frequent the most are more than an hour away.  After Sicilian pie from L & B Spumoni Gardens, ceviche is probably my favorite food. I’d become addicted to Peruvian food in the past year. Just like a love of Thai food led me to Thailand, my love of Peruvian food led me to Peru.

Day 1: Arrival in Lima

One thing I like about flights to South America is that they’re in the air when I would normally be sleeping. After sleeping as best as we could during the eight-hour flight from New York to Lima, we arrived at 8AM. Our guide Giancarlo was there to greet us, sign and all. He and his wife Andrea would be showing us around their city for the next four days.

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Plaza de Armas

Another great thing about traveling to South America is the fact that time zone differences are minimal. In the case of Lima, there’s no time difference. After dropping our bags off at our hotel, we went for brunch and then to the Plaza de Armas. After taking some nice pictures, we visited two sites. The first was the Museo del Convento de San Francisco. This was not part of our plan, but seeing the catacombs was interesting. For us, that was the main attraction there.

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catacombs

Our next stop was the one I was more interested in: Museo de al Inquisicion y del Congreso. There were some chilling images of torture there. Tours were in Spanish only but Giancarlo interpreted everything for us.

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Inquisition Museum

For dinner, we went to La Choza Nautica, where we first met John’s wife, Andrea. We were introduced to frozen lemonade and sampler plates. We would drink frozen lemonade at every meal for the rest of the trip and have sampler plates at most. My observation was that the fish was different. I didn’t enjoy the ceviche any more or less than the first one I tried in the United States last year.

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seafood sampler at La Choza Nautica

Day 2: Museums & Water

Giancarlo was unable to drive us on our first full day in Lima, so we went around with a friend of his who is a licensed taxi driver. I read (and was told) about how important it is to get a “licensed” driver. No matter who is driving, the traffic in Lima is insane! Our first destination was the Museo de la Nacion, which happened to be closed for the rest of the year for renovations. This would not be the first time on this trip that I would get excited to go to a museum, but it would be closed.

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Since that didn’t work out, we went for lunch at El Mordisco. We had read about this place online and it didn’t disappoint. My friend and I shared a seafood sampler, which we really enjoyed. It contained raw, grilled and fried fish. It was the dessert that really stood out. We shared two dulce de leche filled crepes with peaches and extra dulce de leche.

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dulce de leche filled crepe with peaches at El Mordisco

From there we went to the Museo Oro (Gold Museum) del Peru. Giancarlo suggested we visit there to see the mummy. Besides that, there were several old weapons, uniforms, etc. on display.

For dinner, we went to El Bolivariano. Giancarlo and his wife (Andrea) met us there. You have to pay to get a reservation there. Samplers are very common at Peruvian restaurants. The one we got here had fried fish and raw fish (ceviche). Although I’m not into fried foods, you can still taste how fresh the fish is in Lima.

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seafood sampler at El Bolivariano

After dinner, we went to Parque de la Reserva, which Giancarlo referred to as the “water park.” I’d never seen anything like this before. There were around a dozen different water/light shows going on in two different sections of the park. Besides the cliffs of Miraflores, I ended up taking more pics here than during any other part of the trip (including Machu Picchu).

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Water Park in Lima

Day 3: How do the Peruvians do other food?

After eating nothing but Peruvian food for two days, I wanted to see what kind of other food we could find in Lima. Andrea (Giancarlo’s wife) and I (separately) found the same Thai restaurant. We all agreed to try Siam Thai Cuisine and it looked nice on the inside. I was curious as to whether or not any Thai people actually work in this place. Although I enjoyed the food, it turned out that the owner spent time in Thailand, but that was the closest to Thailand the restaurant came.

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Pha Pao Ma Monug (grilled fish with fresh mango, lime juice & vegetables)

Owner and head chef Carlos Zegarra came out to talk to us about his experiences and what led him to open one of the only Thai restaurants in Lima (and probably all of Peru).

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creperia outside of Amor Park

After lunch, we went to Amor Park in Maraflores. From there, you get an excellent view of the Pacific Ocean. You can walk down to the ocean from there and there are plenty of restaurants nearby as well. Some of the more expensive places (sure to have menus in English) extend out into the Ocean.

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Amor Park in Miraflores

For dinner we tried Italian food. This was 100% my idea. I wanted to see if Lima had any Neapolitan style pizzerias that I enjoy dining at in New York. I found Spizza online and on the inside, it felt like we were in NYC. The menu was very similar as were the clientele. We shared a beef carpaccio, a margherita pizza and desserts. This restaurant would do very well in most American cities, with the possible exceptions of Manhattan, Brooklyn and San Francisco. Like the Thai restaurant we tried earlier, there is not much competition at the moment.

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Margherita Pizza at Spizza

After dinner, we drove up to the tallest Jesus statue in Peru. I have a fear of heights, so I enjoyed this part of the trip the least. It reminded me of what I may have to look forward to if I visit Rio.

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Lima at night from the Jesus statue

Day 4: A Fortress & American football in Lima

Giancarlo had a (American) football game. He invited us and we didn’t want to say no. It was a very interesting area and we were very tired from having to be ready at 7AM. Even early on a Sunday, it took about an hour to get to the game. I ended up walking around and taking some pictures and slept during much of the game. Unfortunately, Giancarlo was injured during the game.

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After the game, Giancarlo’s wife Andrea met up with us and we drove to Zoilita on the beach. We had the customary frozen lemonade and ceviche. What made this experience different was sitting on the beach. I’d done this twice last year: February in Bali and December in Ko Chang (Thailand).

bartender at Zoilita in Lima
Zoilita

After our late lunch/early dinner, we went to Real Felipe Fortress. Guided tours are in Spanish only, but Giancarlo was there to translate. When you go to the top of the fort, you can see the shipping containers, boats, etc, off in the distance.

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view of Pacific Ocean from Real Felipe Fortress

From Real Felipe Fortress, you can walk to the La Punta district. As the waves crash into the shoreline, you can see Isla San Lorenzo off in the distance. A lot of young couples come here to take in the romatic atmosphere.

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top of Real Felipe Fortress

The last thing we did during our last full day in Lima was to go see Chinatown. I’ve seen it on Globe Trekker and always heard of Lima having the largest Chinatown below the border between the United States and Mexico. There are certainly enough Chinese restaurants scattered throughout Lima, but the “Chinatown” is a couple blocks in two different directions. The visit took less than 30 minutes. It was disappointing, but like most things, I’d rather see something and be disappointed than wonder what it’s like.

Day 5: Off to Cusco

The first day of December. We had to wake up extremely early to catch our Star Peru flight to Cusco. We were both looking forward to saying goodbye to the congestion of Lima. Our flight was just over one hour. Upon arrival, our guide was there to greet us and take us to the Amaru Hostal. As soon as we left the airport, it was obvious we were in a different place. It looked like a different country.

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view of Cusco from 2nd floor of Hostal Amaru

After checking into our hotel, we went to try the Cicciolina restaurant which was recommended to us by the owner of the Thai restaurant we ate at in Lima. It was less than a 5 minute (downhill) walk from our hotel, but closed during the duration of our visit for renovations.

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expect to pay 5 soles if you want a picture

Instead, we ate at Mi Manera, which is right next door. It was here where I tried my first trout ceviche. The ceviche is Lima is made of a different (local) fish. The trout ceviche was just as good as what we ate in Lima, if not better.

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troute ceviche at Mi Manera

Another thing I tried for the first time at Mi Manera was alpaca, which is llama meat. It tasted like ostrich I ate in South Africa five years earlier, which is to say, it reminded me of a sirloin steak. I did not see this on any menu in Lima and was told that it’s illegal there.

Cusco from the top of a mountain 11-30-2015

Our afternoon tour did not start until 2:30PM. Our first stop was Convento de Santo Domingo del Cusco. The tour also included Saqsayhuaman, Q’enqo, Pukapukara and Tambomachay. The stops were brief photo ops. I did not get out of the van for every stop, because I was simply too tired. My body did not adjust well to the change in altitude. Neither of us had the energy to eat dinner. When we arrived back at our hotel, we got some disturbing news.

Jesus on top of a mountain in Cusco 11-30-2015
Jesus on top of a mountain in Cusco

Day 6: Machu Picchu

We were supposed to be in the hotel lobby by 4AM to get the van to the train to Machu Picchu. This turned into midnight due to a strike which would have supposedly made it difficult to get out of the city. Situations like these make for a good story after returning home, but at the time, it’s extremely annoying to go to bed at 9PM and have to wake up before midnight. The only plus is that we did not have to drive.

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Ollantaytambo Train Station

I tried to sleep as best as I could during the drive to Ollantaytambo train station. While I’ve learned to sleep in an airplane, I’m lucky to sleep more than two hours at a time while on the road. We arrived at the Ollantaytambo train station more than three hours before our scheduled departure. Nothing was open when we arrived so we had to sit in the crowded van for two hours until the opened the waiting room at the train station. I was in a terrible mood. I wasn’t convinced that leaving that early was really necessary.

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By the time our train departed for Aguas Calientes, it was light outside. Sitting in the station’s waiting room was very uncomfortable and I was relieved when I was finally able to sit down inside the rail car. Although I remember some of the mountainous scenery, I slept for most of the ride.

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When we arrived, I was not feeling well. The bus ride up to Machu Picchu was a bit unnerving, but I was too tired to get anxious. When we finally arrived after what seemed like an hour (but was probably more like 30 minutes), it started raining. I knew it was calling for rain during our entire stay in Cusco, so I had umbrellas packed.

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They broke off our group into two groups: English and Spanish. We were told during the bus ride that more people visit Machu Picchu from Japan than from any other country. That was not apparent to me. It seemed like a very mixed crowd walking around Machu Picchu making good use of their cameras.

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me on top of the mountain

I managed to take less than ten pictures. I barely had the energy to take my iPhone 6 out of my pocket and lift it to take pictures. I tried to suck on cocoa candies and take pills for altitude sickness, but nothing seemed to help. Our guide was used to people being sick on the tour, but I seemed to be an extreme case. The guide seemed worried about me.

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I managed to keep up with the group, but needed someone else to carry my back pack as I did not have any extra energy. One thing that stood out was the amount of llamas grazing on grass around Machu Picchu. The rain was not consistent. It died down after we started the tour.

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When we arrived back in Aguas Calientes, we had around three hours of free time. We hadn’t eaten anything, and at the time lunch seemed like more of a way to pass the time than an absolute necessity. We ate at Toto’s House Restaurant. They had an all day buffet, which was fine with us. Like most buffet food, it was good, but not quite as good as food that is prepared just for you. They had trout ceviche and alpaca carpaccio. Yes, I had the chance to eat raw lamb. I ordered a beef carpaccio at Spizza during our third night in Lima and everyone enjoyed it. I probably would have enjoyed the food more, if I had some energy, but it was our last full day in Cusco. The most exciting thought to me at this point was that I would be turning 36 the next day and did not have to wake up early.

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After a couple hours of sitting in Toto’s House and taking advantage of the free wifi, we made the short walk to the Aguas Calientes train station and boarded the Inka Rail train back to Ollantaytambo. Again, I slept for most of the train ride. I also slept for most of the bus ride back to Cusco.

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food art at MUTU Food & Drink

The bus did not take us back to our hotel door, so we found a place to eat. It felt sort of half hearted, but the place we found was good. Mutu Food and drink was just a couple block from our hotel. What stood out the most was the art project that they gave us to dip our bread in and the sorbet sampler I ordered for dessert.

sorbet sampler at MUTU food & drink in Cusco 12-1-2015
sorbet sampler at MUTU Food & Drink

Day 7: Sleep, change of airlines and one last meal in Lima

After sleeping in a train and sort of sleeping in a van, all I wanted to do on my 36th birthday was sleep. We ended up checking out late, but we did not have to be at the airport until midafternoon. When we finally checked out of the hotel, we went for a walk and visited the Museo Inka, which gives a good overview of Inka history as well as what was before and what came after. Since exhibits are mostly in Spanish, English speaking guides are available for a suggested tip (in addition to the ten soles it cost to enter).

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After trying to visit another museum, the rain came pouring down, nearly ruining my shoes. The worst part of it was that the museum I was walking to when the rain started was no longer open. By mid afternoon, it was time to head to the airport.

After landing at LIM airport and collecting our bags, we had around 4 hours before we had to be at the gate for our flight back to New York. Giancarlo and Andrea dropped came to meet us and take us out for one final dinner in Lima. In our first trip that seemed to take less than an hour, we went to Cala Restaurant & Lounge in the Barranco section of Lima. It was the most high-end restaurant we had been to in the entire trip and I got to try two of the things I was meaning to try: arroz con pato and “Peruvian” sushi. While the arroz con pato was good, it was the “Peruvian” sushi that really stood out. Of course no meal in Peru was complete for us without frozen lemonade. I’d never drank frozen lemonade as consistenly as I had on this trip. When I didn’t drink frozen lemonade, I drank frozen orange juice. The best frozen orange juice I had on this trip was at Cala.

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To top it all off, they brought me raspberry sorbet and sang happy birthday to me. Before that, we all looked at the dessert menu, but nobody ordered anything. I didn’t finish my arroz con pato.

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my birthday dessert

Again, the ride back to the airport took less than an hour. We arrived just on time, but our flight was delayed and then our gate changed, so we ended up having plenty of time at the airport. By the time we got “in” the plane (not “on” the plan….R.I.P. George Carlin), I was tired and slept for most of the flight. At least when we landed at JFK Airport in Jamaica (not the country), I had an exciting two days of leisure in NYC to look forward to.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Anyone reading this might think that I had a miserable time. The traffic in Lima as well as the altitude in Cusco were certainly frustrating, but I don’t regret going at all. While parts of the trip were more frustrating than I ever expected them to be, it was a great experience. And that’s what travel is meant to be. Many life-changing experiences are not fun while they are happening.

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I got to do (or at least try to do) most of what I set out to. Two museums that I really wanted to see were closed and I never had a chance to eat in a “Chinese” restaurant. I was told by Giancarlo that most of the “Chinese” restaurants are actually Peruvians cooking Chinese food. If we had one more day, he would have taken us to a Chinese restaurant owned by actual Chinese people who speak Spanish. I wanted to see a Chinese person speak Spanish in one of the restaurants there, but we decided to eat Peruvian sushi along the Pacific Ocean during our last evening together. I’m sure that was a better dining option. The Chinese food would have been more of an experience than anything and the food probably no better than we can get in the United States.

Once I landed in New York, I was happy to be back in my favorite place in the world. After a week in Peru, I’m still not sure if my 2nd favorite food is Peruvian or Thai. I would say it’s a tie. There are probably more Thai dishes that I enjoy and I can eat Thai food more frequently, but I prefer ceviche over any Thai dish. Although I’m assuming my next trip to South America will be to Brazil, I’m happy to have relieved my curiosity about Peru. It was certainly much different than the other South American countries I visited seven years earlier.

Apparently, I haven’t seen that much?

I have not been to any of Lonely Planet’s “best places in the world to travel in 2016.”

37 countries spanning 5 different continents, but I have not been to any of Lonely Planet’s “best places in the world to travel in 2016.”

V-day feast

I brought my gracious Thai hosts Godiva chocolates and french macarons (not the Laduree they requested) and I was greeted with all of this great Thai food.

I’ve been cooking for myself before I was old enough to drive. I’ve lived alone for 10 years, so I’m either eating what I cook at home or going to restaurants that cook things better than I can or that I can’t cook at all (these are all at least 30 minutes from my house). I brought my gracious Thai hosts Godiva chocolates and french macarons (not the Laduree they requested) and I was greeted with all of this great Thai food, just like when I visited a few months earlier. Before my last visit, I was nervous about staying in someone else’s house, but I really enjoyed it (so much that I was back a few months later). Although Sathing Phra is not a tourist area, it was nice to see the places the tourists don’t go. I couldn’t even find Sathing Phra in my Lonely Planet book. I’m always making my own plans, but when I go to Thailand, I’m used to being taken care of & I enjoy it.