Wednesday
May222013

Nature Lovers Love Nepal

Nepal has perhaps the world’s most diverse range of outdoor environments. This small Himalayan nation rises from an altitude of only 70m in its southern Terai region, which borders India, all the way up to the highest point on earth atop Mount Everest at 8,848m, forming the border with Tibet to the north. And this dramatic rise all takes place within 230km from south-to-north!

Nepal’s borders contain all five major climatic zones – from tropical to arctic – creating a rich range of locales and a stunning array of outdoor opportunities. There’s something for everyone that has an affinity for the great outdoors. Whether you’re a world-class athlete looking to climb one of the world’s highest peaks (eight of 14 are in the country), a weekend-warrior mountain biker who enjoys casually spinning the wheels, a rafting enthusiast who wants to plough down ragging rapids, or a nature lover wanting to take the beauty in from a balcony or atop an elephant, this nation has you covered.

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Wednesday
May152013

5 Great things to do in Stockholm for free

There are only a few cities in the world that carry the historic pedigree of Stockholm, and certainly not very many this far north that have played such an important role in the evolution Europe. The earliest records of the name ‘Stockholm’ is from when the city was founded in 1252, but as far back as the 10th century a Norse settlement on the same spot called Agnafit was a major hub in the iron trade. Throughout the centuries the city has played a vital strategic role in the region, and today is one of Europe’s great cultural, political, financial and tourist hubs.

Of course, major European capitals are not known for being cheap to visit, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty you can do without spending much money. In fact, Stockholm is known for its beautiful architecture, clean air & water, and many municipal attractions that mean that there’s plenty to do even if you don’t want to spend a cent! Here are five things you can do in Stockholm for free that will still allow you to soak up the atmosphere, appreciate its beauty, and get to know the local culture a bit closer.

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Wednesday
May082013

Laos Food

For a little land-locked country, Laos sure has some good grub. It's not as bold or fiery as Thai food but offers more spice and adventurousness than Vietnamese or Cambodian food does. Along the western border of Laos, the Isan culinary map overlaps with Thailand but in Laos, preparations of laab (minced pork salad) and tam mak hoong (som tam/papaya salad), contain far less spice and are friendlier to the traveler with a more delicate palate.

Generally, traditional Laotian foods are fresh, lightly cooked and heavily herbed. There's an abundance of stews, steamed or barbecued fish and meat, spicy aromatic dips and noodle soups, and most, if not all, dishes come with a side of raw greens and kaow niaow (sticky rice). In the home, multiple dishes are served up on a ka toke, a circular rattan platter designed for sitting around and sharing, though as a traveler, your experience will likely be more restaurant and street-stall oriented.

Here are some Laos dishes most deserving of attention, easily identifiable, and available without having to gate-crash any local family's dinner time.

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Thursday
May022013

Just what is Feng Shui?

A lot of people in western culture have heard of Feng Shui, and some may even be able to describe how it works, although it’s often in rather broad terms. Most likely you’ll hear it explained as “Something about the way things are arranged…and…the energy of…water? A mountain? The universe?” Well, that’s a start. While Feng Shui isn’t generally considered a hard science, it’s a historic pillar of Chinese culture and has roots that go back over 8,000 years. In that time, it has seen significant study, refinement and expansion in equal measure by practitioners around the world.

The earliest records of something we can identify as Feng Shui date to 4,000 BCE in central China, where buildings were constructed in such a way that their front doors aligned with the sun or certain stars. Later archeological discoveries show its evolution, with shapes and decorations found in tombs that represent celestial objects, and charts that helped early practitioners plan events based on the heavens.

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Wednesday
Apr242013

Hotels of Note: Grand Lisboa, Macau

For visitors to Hong Kong the former Portuguese colony of Macau makes for a popular side trip. While the highlight of the city is its well-preserved historic center, for first time visitors to Macau it may come as a surprise as to how many casinos there are. Macau is often called the Monte Carlo of the Orient or the Las Vagas of the east, but with Macau now surpassing Vegas in terms of gaming revenue (by over 400%!) perhaps it will only be a matter of time before people start referring to Las Vegas as the Macau of the west. In Macau there are already a number of impressive casino hotel resorts, but the one building that dominates the skyline is the Grand Lisboa. 

Standing at 261-metres tall (856 ft), this 58 floor tower is the tallest building in Macau and a prominent landmark on the edge of the old town area. This is not your average grey glass box tower though – the building is modeled on a massive lotus flower and sits on an 8-storey sphere of colorful glass.

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Wednesday
Apr172013

Big City Transit: Tokyo

The good news is that Tokyo has one of the best public transit systems on the planet – truly a gargantuan, mind-blowing monument to human ingenuity and planning. Think about what it takes to provide punctual rail transit to a city of 13 million people spread out across 2,200 sq.km; Tokyo nailed it. The bad news is that it’s the granddaddy of confusing transit systems. The first time you get lost (and this will happen), take solace in the fact that you’re not alone – the same thing even happens to lifelong residents from time to time. But with armed with a good subway map, a transit pass and an independent traveler’s sense of adventure, you’ll be getting around handily in no time.

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Wednesday
Apr102013

Thai Spirit Houses – What’s the Deal?

Walk down almost any Thai street big or small, and eventually you’ll see it – a small little house, usually made of wood but sometimes stone or plastic or glass. More often than not, they’re tucked away in a quiet corner, sitting on top of a pillar a few feet off the ground. To untrained western eyes it seems like a doll’s house, or maybe a model to be used in a movie. In fact, most new arrivals to Thailand utter the question sooner or later – “What are those little houses for?”

Those little houses are one of the most visible and enduring parts of Thai culture. The basics are this: many ancient beliefs are still observed in modern-day Thailand, and that includes the belief in spirits, which inhabit the land, the trees, the mountains and the buildings that we humans make our homes in. In order to ensure prosperity and peace from unhappy spirits, we must make offerings to appease them, and that includes giving them a place to live and a visible token of our respect. Hence, the spirit house, or saan phra phum in Thai.

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Wednesday
Apr032013

What to eat in Nepal – dal bhat

Considered the national dish of Nepal, dal bhat fills the bellies of nearly everyone in the country at least once per day. Often, people think that dal bhat refers to a single dish, but it’s actually a set meal that normally includes rice complemented with soup, vegetables, and occasionally a meat-based curry. Pull back a curtain to enter a local restaurant in Nepal, ask for dal bhat, and you’ll be given a filling home-cooked meal that’s very satisfying.

In literal terms, dal is a soup made from lentils or other legumes, cooked with onions, tomatoes, and garlic. Compared to an Indian dal, which has the consistency of gravy, Nepali dal is usually thinner and more soup-like. Bhat normally means steamed rice, though it can occasionally refer to other staple starches such as maize, millet, or wheat, boiled with water and thickened into a lump called dhido. Together the combination of dal and bhat makes up the most basic form of a Nepali staple meal.

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Wednesday
Mar272013

What’s in a name? In Asia…a lot.

To western eyes, the cultures of Asia are a weird and wonderful adventure for which an almost endless list of questions can be asked. One of the most common, especially for those newly-arrived, is the topic of naming conventions, which are far more complex than you might think.

In most western countries, our names are easy: First, Middle, Last. John Harold Smith, for instance. From this you can assume that one of John’s ancestors was probably a blacksmith, while the first and middle are usually chosen to honor family or simply because they sound nice. But in Asia, there’s a lot more to consider, so we asked a few of our Asian friends to tell us how names work in their home country.

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Wednesday
Mar202013

Cambodian Cuisine

Cambodian food is a bit of a mystery. After the Khmer Rouge wiped out much of the country’s historical records – including cook books – what remains are recipes passed down through generations of families. Influences come from India, China and, later, France. And, like much of Southeast Asia, noodles and noodle soups are ubiquitous, as are coconut-derived ingredients and fish sauce. You’ll see root dishes, ancestors, of popular Thai and Malay foods, and some very local delicacies you’re unlikely to find elsewhere in the world – and for good reason in the case of fried tarantula.

Cambodia is still rebuilding itself as a tourist destination and while cosmopolitan upscale dining venues are present, they’re the exception. International foods – pizza (famously, the “happy” kind), Mexican, Indian and Pacific Rim – also abound, but for some dishes that represent contemporary Cambodian cuisine and provide a glimpse Khmer culture and history, here’s a quick list of culinary must-tries.

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