Wednesday
Jul032013

Exploring Kathmandu by Foot

Most travelers want to connect personally and deeply with the destination they’re visiting in Asia. The term street-level is often used to describe such experiences and there’s truly no better way to explore new areas than by foot. Sure air-conditioned taxis are comfortable and rickshaws novel at times, but striking out by foot is truly the best way to see a city. Indeed, when you visit an older and not centrally planned city like Kathmandu, taking a hike becomes even more appealing, practical and fun.

Nepal’s capital Kathmandu is a treasure trove waiting to be discovered, but navigating its labyrinthine streets and passageways efficiently and not sitting in traffic is the key to having the best possible time. With roughly 2.5 million people calling the greater Kathmandu Valley home, this is a sprawling, yet accessible metropolis. People have been living here for about 2,000 years, and it’s been a well-established trader’s meeting point for centuries. Indians from the lower subcontinent didn’t want to go higher than the city’s 1,400m elevation and traders from the Tibetan Plateau found any lower point too hot, so this is where they met. Areas grew into towns, towns into cities and along the way they all became connected by a series of roads, paths, and passageways, making foot the best way to commute. After all, cars didn’t even come to Nepal until the late 1940s when the first one was literally carried in over the mountains.

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Wednesday
Jun262013

City Insider: Syracuse

It sounds horribly like a travel writer’s overused cliché, but the beautiful Sicilian city of Syracuse really and truly does have it all.

And what exactly is “it”, you may well ask. Let’s just say that Syracuse has historical monuments galore, a busy, picturesque harbor, narrow winding cobblestone streets, amazing churches and cathedrals, great food, brilliant markets – pretty much everything one needs for a perfect holiday. Oh, and the shopping is elegant, too. This is Italy, never forget.

Let’s start with the city’s history, of which there is far too much to cover in a simple blog post. The Greeks first visited in the 8th century BC, settling on the island of Ortygia, which is now connected to the rest of the city by three small bridges. The famous Roman philosopher and statesman Cicero once described the city as “the greatest Greek city and most beautiful of all,” and wandering through the spectacular Greek theatre – the famed teatro Greco – you tend to agree with him. Far from Greece, in a little corner of an Italian island, overlooking the sea, the theater is a jewel. It’s in amazingly good, unrestored condition, and if you visit off-season you’ll likely find it almost empty. You can wander at will or simply sit and let centuries of history wash over you.

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Wednesday
Jun192013

Hotels of Note: Raffles Hotel

Out of all the colonial-era hotels in Asia, one of the most well-known is the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. The “grand lady of the Far East” is famous around the world for being a luxury hotel that has retained much of its heritage from a bygone era. Its international fame is also helped by the fact that it was the birthplace of a famous cocktail (more on that later).

The Sarkies, Again

The hotel was established in 1887 by the Sarkies, Armenian brothers from Persia (now Iran). The Sarkies had already established themselves in the region with the Eastern Hotel and the Oriental Hotel in Penang, which later became the Eastern & Oriental Hotel.

The hotel was originally located on the seaside but the little island city has been gradually reclaiming land over the decades, and the property today is located in the middle of town and not on the waterfront. The original 10-room hotel was expanded 12 years after it opened with the construction of the neo-Renaissance building that stands today.

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Wednesday
Jun122013

The Indian Thali

A thali, which literally translates to “plate,” refers to a self-contained set meal in India. The basic dishes that make up the meal generally include rice, roti, dal, a variety of curries, curd, a hot poppadum (a type of flatbread), and sometimes a sweet dessert. While many restaurants in India serve a full a la carte menu, if you’re looking for something that will be tasty and fresh with a variety of different flavors, order the thali.

There are several varieties of thali and what region of India you’re in will determine what it includes. While curries are common throughout the country, they are often paired with whatever the staple is in that area. Even with each state serving a different form of thali, many large Indian restaurants simplify their menu to just include either a single thali from their region, or a choice of a south or north Indian thali.

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Wednesday
Jun052013

Big City Transit: Manila

Manila is the quintessential Southeast Asian metropolis: decentralized, congested and a nightmare to navigate during rush hour. And as if that weren’t enough, the city twists the knife with a sparse rail network, taxi drivers who shun the meter and an inadequate bus system.

Okay, so you’re not going to leave Manila praising transport system, but it’s not all bad news. On a hot day, a ride on the air-conditioned MRT is divine; and so long as you have the routes down, a quick jaunt on a Jeepney will leave you feeling like a born-again local. And even if Manila’s public transit network could use a serious overhaul, with fares this low, who’s complaining?

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Wednesday
May292013

Chiang Mai side-trips

Any Thailand vacation deserves a side trip to Chiang Mai, up in the north of the country. Though it's one of Thailand's largest cities, it's refreshingly free of the bright lights, pungent aromas and noisy, frenetic whirl of places like Bangkok. Though it has all the accoutrement of a proper city – an international airport, a lively night scene, big malls and luxury stores etc – Chiang Mai is more like a big spread-out hillside town and a popular retreat for Bangkokians.

The pace might be slower in Chiang Mai, but there’s plenty to do within city limits. Inside the old city walls and moat are an array of drinking and dining spots by the River Ping – many with delicious affordable Thai food and live bands. The night – and day – markets are must-visits, and there's the zoo, where the country's cutest four-legged celebrities reside (pandas Lim Ping and mum Lin Hue). Chiang Mai is also where you'll find wholesalers and manufacturers of Lanna style furniture and various cultural artefacts for much better prices than in Bangkok. Days could be lost visiting the wholesalers on the outskirts of town.

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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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