This was my first trip to Cuba and I had a few questions that even veteran Cuba travelers couldn’t remember answers to.

What currency do I pay in? Do they exchange Canadian or American dollars?   As a traveler, they will exchange your money into Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC almost 1:1). Cuban Pesos are local currencies that are not exchanged to travelers. We brought both American and Canadian currency with us and had no issues with exchange either at our hotel. However, they do not accept coins.

Where do I get my currency exchange?   Our flight was late at night so the exchange at the airport was closed (although we were told we can get slightly better rates here). Of course, our hotel also provided currency exchange as long as we have our passport and (duh) cash.

Who do I look for when my flight lands?   There will be someone holding up a sign of the tour company you signed up with. As you board the bus, this will be the first time you tip so be prepared to bring some American dollar bills.

Should I book an ocean view room?   At our hotel, to get an ocean view room, we had to pay an extra $10/day/person + 13% HST so we decided against it. When we arrived at the reception, I tried my luck and asked if there’s a possibility of an upgrade. She showed me a list of prices and it was for $110 to upgrade so we shook our head, but then she told us that since it’s our first time in Cuba, we can get it for $65 and of course we accepted.

Should I tip in gifts or money? How much should I tip?   I did both! Every day I left a gift – some clothes I’ve never worn, or jewelry that I never used – along with $1 CUC. For the first day of the week and the last day before I left, I left a nicer gift as well as $2 CUC.

Where should I buy those famous Cuban cigars?   There were cigars available for purchase in the hotel gift shop. However, if you have time, go for an excursion to a cigar factory! They’re much cheaper, and honestly, the tour guide will also have some sort of hook up in the city to sell way cheaper cigars from the factory workers. But that’s at your own discretion.

My flight leaves at 9pm, what do I do between check out and time to the airport?   You have two options. You can either pay extra for a late check out or have your baggage locked up while you soak up the sun! We paid the extra money for a late check out – reason being that after you’re in the sun you’d want a nice shower and possibly a nap! The public shower at our resort closed at 4pm and we didn’t leave till 6pm. Also, if you’re staying at a resort similar to ours, the resort was entirely outdoors and there’s no such thing as cooling down in an air conditioned bar/restaurant.

Are there any other charges?   There is actually a $25 CUC departure tax you have to pay before you leave the airport so be sure not to spend it all! There is no way around it.

Any other questions?

Published in Cuba

Indonesia is a vast and diverse archipelago that continues to impress and surprise longtime expats and even locals. To think that because you've seen Jakarta and done Bali then you "know" Indonesia is to be sorely mistaken. As one expat told me: "Just when you think you're starting to understand Indonesia, that's when you realize you don't understand it at all."

From amazing cultures and regional customs to a seemingly neverending variety of local cuisines, Indonesia is home to more diversity in some of it's larger islands than other nations have in their entirety. Especially when it comes to langauges and dialects, of which the country has over 700 -- and don't think that Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia) is even remotely similar to Javanese (Bahasa Jawa) or Balinese (Bahasa Bali) because its not. After all the slogan of the country is Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, which is Javanese for "Unity In Diversity."

Mount Rinjani, Lombok
Mount Rinjani, Lombok

What To Know Before Traveling Indonesia

Indonesia is home to some of the friendliest and most hospitable people I have even met. During six months motorcycling around the country and making local friends, even doing a tourism film on Sumatra, I had nothing but good experiences with the best of people. All except for while I was in Bali -- but I'll get to that in a second. For now the most important things to know are:

The Street Food Is Better Than Restaurant Food

Both in terms of taste and authenticity, street food kicks all other food's ass. Oh yeah and of course price. Depending where you are in the country you can get a decent meal for around 11,000IDR ($1USD), a little more if you want to splurge and really fill up. Don't worry about getting sick, just go with the street vendor or warung has the most local customers. After all they must be doing something right!

Street food in Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Street food in Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Bakso on the street in Suarabya, Indonesia
Bakso on the street with friends in Suarabya, Indonesia

Expect a lot of variety in dishes and sweetness/spiciness depending upon where in the country you travel. However no matter where you visit there will be lots of fried dishes, such as nasi goreng, mie goreng and ayam goreng (rice, noodles, and chicken respectively -- and of course as you probably guessed goreng is Indonesian for fried). Beyond that the variety begins. For every city you visit make sure to ask the locals what their speciality is.

Learn more before your trip: First Impressions: Indonesia and Basic Indonesian Food Cheat Sheet.

For Every Good Tourist Site There Is An Even Better "Hidden" One

Indonesia has no shortage of spectular views, virgin beaches, challenging mountains, and off the beaten path exploring. When I first arrived there I thought one or two months would be enough. Six months later and I still didn't want to leave. Yet during my travels I had met so many other backpackers, all of which were visiting Yogyakarta, Mount Bromo, and Bali. "Oh plus Gili T and Komodo if we have time" I heard more often than I can count. Hardly any stopped by Sumatra. And none had even thought about Kalimantan or Sulawesi, let alone Papua.

Pantai Sundak, Gunungkidal, Indonesia
Pantai Sundak, Gunungkidal, Indonesia. My ten local friends and I had it all to ourselves!

Trust the locals. Ask them where to visit, what to eat, how to have fun. The friends I've made along my journeys through Indonesia have shown me a world of things not covered in any tourist guide book, from traditional pastimes and 5am fishing trips to lesser-known things like panjat pinang and stick-fighting. And of course more virgin beaches than I can keep track of!

  My friend Trinity is author of the famous Indonesian book series The Naked Traveler. Last week her newest book went on sale, Across The Indonesian Archipelago. If you are looking for ideas on where to travel in Indonesia then this is both a great resource and an enjoyable read. (And yes, it is in English.)

Local Transportation Is Easier Than You Might Expect

Especially on the main island of Java, which has a reliable train network and plenty of regular routes. Outside of Java you will have to rely on buses and ferries, the latter of which can have a bit more of an irregular schedule depending on how remote your intended destination may be. However in places like Sulawesi short flights might be a better, albeit more expensive, option.

Street food in Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Taken while traveling by train across Java

Renting a motorcycle is also another option. Of course I would only recommend this option for experienced riders, preferably ones already used to driving in the chaotic streets of southeast Asia. For 50,000IDR/day ($5USD) or 650,000-1,000,000IDR/month ($60-90USD) a scooter or motorcycle can be rented, allowing you to go where you want when you want. This has fantastic way to visit small villages and other off the beaten path destinations. It is the only way I ever made it to places like Banyusumurup, the traditional village that makes all of the kris, small Indonesian daggers with mystical powers. Plus despite horror stories of bus thieves and midnight muggings in Sumatra I have yet to encounter any difficulties along the road.

  For more read my newest blog post: How To Travel Indonesia By Motorcycle

Don't Rush Off To Bali -- Explore Elsewhere First

If you only have one month or less in the country then I would say skip Bali entirely. It is an over-priced, Westernized version of Indonesia where the bulk of the individuals working in the tourism industry are not even Balinese but rather Sudanese or Javanese and have come solely to take your foreign money. As a caucasin here you essentially have dollar signs tattooed across your pale forehead. Plus as with any place that attracts massive notoriety as a tourist hotspot so too come the touts, beggars, scam artists, foreign food (so you can "feel at home") and of course the inflated prices. At the risk of upsetting some of my Balinese friends I'll say it: if you get pickpocketed or robbed anywhere in the country, it most likely will happen here. It is a predators' paradise because the prey keep flying in 365 days a year.

Don't get me wrong, Bali is not all bad -- just the southern part is. Kuta, Denpasar, Sanur, Uluwatu, etc. In fact Googling "kuta is hell on earth" or some near varient will produce several interesting articles by other bloggers on why Bali is only for couples or families looking for all-inclusive four- and five-star resorts and not for backpackers. The eastern and northern parts, most specifically Padangbai and Ubud, weren't nearly as bad as the Kuta area but neither were they that good.

Talon of 1Dad1Kid.com and I crossed paths in real life one day in Sanur. Turns out he and I had the same feelings about this island. If you are unsure about visiting Bali then his post will help you decide if the island is right for you.

I basically can’t encourage people to come to the island. Indonesia has some truly amazing areas, and I think a person’s time and money are better spent exploring other parts of the country.

Not A Good Destination For Former Cigarette Smokers

Cigarette ads are everywhere in Indonesia

Indonesia ranks third in the world for total number of cigarette smokers according to the WHO. Almost all of the men smoke, far too many kids, and yes, even the orangutans. The tobacco industry is big business here and as the Western world keeps placing more restrictions on cigarette advertising and marketing the tobacco giants keep pumping more money into southeast Asia. Despite 'No Smoking' signs in places like malls you can often find someone less than a meter away, using the floor as an ashtray.

To make matters worse cigarettes are around 10-14,000IDR ($1-1.25USD) and sold at every family-owned market, corner store and restaurant. Although I quit smoking after moving out of Tokyo in 2009 I have found myself occasionally smoking a kretek cigarette when drinking. Although this is entirely social, if you tried hard to quit cigarettes and do not want to see and smell the temptation everywhere you go, you might best avoid Indonesia. Even as I type this I am sitting in a smoke-filled office in Jakarta.

  House Of Sampoerna, Cigarette Factory And Museum

All in all Indonesia is one country that does not disappoint. There is a reason why so many travelers over the years have come here and then never left. Between the warm, inviting culture, vastness of the country and extensive list of places worthy of exporing, beautiful scenery and delicious food, Indonesia truly has something for everyone. You just have to know what you are looking for.

  Have any Indonesia travel questions? Ask away!

  The Ultimate Unique & Off The Beaten Path Indonesia Travel Guide     Indonesia Archives

Published in Indonesia

So you've decided to hit the road, by yourself – talk about being adventurous and brave!! Congrats! :) Whether this is something daunting or just a walk in the park for you, here are a few thoughts I'd like to share with you...

  1. Have a meal by yourself in a restaurant (before leaving home) – This might not be a big deal to some, however, I've met a couple of women who refuse to sit down in a restaurant and eat alone. Personally, I still have days where it gets difficult to be the only person in the whole restaurant eating by myself – especially during an extended journey and homesickness is setting in. I would look around and every other table is either occupied by a lovey-dovey couple, a group of friends or a family. You will meet new friends as you travel (trust me, you will!) who'd share meals with you but there will always be a meal or two where you have to go it alone and room service isn't an option. So this could be an experiment for you. Take yourself to a nice restaurant tonight. Do not check your smartphone every 5 seconds. Do not plug in your headphones. Do not bring a book / magazine / newspaper. Try to enjoy your meal and the atmosphere of the restaurant. Crack a joke with the wait staff. Surprise yourself.

  2. Familiarize yourself with your camera – Especially if you bought yourself a new one for this upcoming trip. I have done it before and will probably do it again in the future – treat myself to a new camera and not have enough time to learn the functions. Aside from learning how to turn the camera on and off, it's nice to know a few more basic functions. For example the Date/Time setting, I have countless photos taken during the day but the date stamp says ‘pm’ – very silly, really. The camera manufacturers are coming out with very user friendly models, however, sometimes it’s more fun to leave the Automatic setting behind and play around with the other shooting modes. If the User Manual isn't too bulky, take it along on that long haul plane ride.

  3. Be able to read a city map and/or a transit system map – unless you are comfortable with wandering endlessly. These days with many people dependent on their cars and navigation systems, it is not surprising that people are not able to orient themselves with a map. That familiar robotic voice might not be there, suggesting you make a left turn in 500m. I'm not suggesting you need to know how to use a compass...well you should if you are going camping or hiking. It just increases your independence and confidence when you can get yourself from point A to point B with minimal assistance. [N.B. The free maps they hand out in Paris do not show many of the little streets/alleys. So pay attention to street names instead of just keeping count how many street you have crossed – personal experience.]

  4. Upload photos of your family and friends onto your phone OR carry the prints with you – You never know when you need to look at a familiar face to comfort you. They are great for those homesick days. They are also great as conversation starters. Many times on my travels, complete strangers who are locals have approached me to start a conversation – sometimes they are simply curious and friendly, sometimes to practice their English. It is fun and it's safe.

  5. Take a walk in a park or down a quiet street at night – Find your comfort level. You are still in your "backyard" so you know the area but a street can feel completely different at night and empty. To minimize the potential shock to your system of being alone, test your boundaries beforehand. Take along a small flashlight or torch (waterproof if possible) on your trip, it will come in handy, especially if your destination is known for brown outs.

Sometimes a little mental preparation can help make your journey a lot more enjoyable. Bon Voyage!

Published in First Time Backpacking

Most people who live in places considered to have a 'normal climate' often long to the south. Yes, sure enough 'south' often has it all, cheap drinks, temperature, beaches, cheap food, cheap hotels, cheap flights...

But what many of these places lack is sights and adventure! And even if they have a bit of that, not too many of us normal people enjoy hiking in the mountains in 40° C (or more!) heat. Most of us at some point get a little sick of the same old thing, even if the beaches on Costa Del Sol might not be exactly like the ones on Gran Canaria, the concept is the same -- Warm, sandy and sunny. As a Norwegian, and particularly a Northern Norwegian, I know all about longing for the southern parts of the world. I may not have been to too many exotic places, but I have spent my fair share of time in Southern Europe, on the beach, flat out, frying in the heat. Now I've "re-discovered" my own country and region that I have gotten a little older.

I moved to the town of Tromso in Troms County, Norway. I moved here predominantly to study, but I fell in love with the town. The town has many positive aspects, firstly during summer time, it never gets dark due to the midnight sun, and during summer there are numerous festivals and activities going on, during the winter, the northern lights dance across the sky almost like magic. The town is located on an island, in the middle of a strait leading up to a fjord. The airport is located in the middle of the island, 5 minutes away from the city centre. The airport has daily flights to other destinations in Norway such as the capital, Oslo, but also international flights linking it to world cities such as London. During my time in Tromso, I worked for three hotels, all at a different end of the scale. The town offers everything from good value 3 star hotels, to high end 5 star hotels. There are major chains located in the city such as Scandic, Radisson BLU and Choice Hotels, yet also smaller chains and independent hotels all offering something unique to the city. As the largest city in Northern Norway. Tromso offers a vibrent night-life, a multitude of shops and leisure, as well as great sights.

The main sights are:

  • The Mountain Cable Car that takes you up to the mountain, giving a panoramic view over the city. On the top there is a restaurant serving local cuisine as well as lighter meal options.
  • The Arctic Cathedral located by the iconic Tromso Bridge, facing the city centre. The church hosts intimate concerts throughout the year yet is also a sight to see on its own.
  • City Museums are the three main museums in Tromso. The Town Museum on the southern tip of the island, which focuses on town history; the Roald Amundsen Museum, which holds a large collection from arctic expeditions and the ship Polarstjernen (an old fishing ship located next to Polaria). Other things worth visiting include: Skipsbroen Bar at the Rica Ishavshotel, the best view in the city. Gründer Bar and Café, the best night club in town. The University with its botanical garden and geological exhibition as well as the Old Town area north of the bridge, containing the largest collection of old wooden, traditional Norwegian houses north of Trondheim.
  • Polaria is part of the Fram Centre, which is a research facility focusing on the arctic. At Polaria there are exhibitions on arctic wildlife, and the centre has seals and arctic marine life on display.

Polaria, Norway and the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis)

Published in Norway

When most people think of traveling one of the first things that comes to their mind is where they are going to stay. Some may hire a travel agent to do the booking for them while others may get online and do the research themselves. Either way, 99% of the time their research will lead them to 5 star resorts offering all-inclusive packages. I'm sure that like me, everyone wishes they could stay at these places. The problem is, for the budget traveler, these resorts are super expensive! Of course you didn't need me to tell you that hahaha. Some people may let these steep prices scare them away from their vacation of a lifetime.

The good news is, there is a much much cheaper option called hostels! Until I started traveling I had never even heard of hostels. The more I researched hostels the more I realized how affordable a vacation, pretty much anywhere in the world, could be. When I say affordable I'm talking about $10-20 per night -- or even as low as $2-3/night in some countries! Yeah you read that right.

Now there are drawbacks such as sharing a room with 3-10 other people (male and female), but thats all part of the experience. Most hostels have shared bathrooms, wifi, and a public kitchen for all the guests (which could be anywhere from 10 to 100 people depending on the hostel and the season). Don't get me wrong, hostels aren't for everyone...but if money is the only thing keeping you from seeing the world hostels are perfect for you!

Here are the top 5 reasons to stay in hostels

01. The people you will meet.   When staying in hostels you will meet people from all over the world doing the same thing you are! It's a great way to practice speaking other languages while also learning more about the planet than you ever did in school. You will quickly realize the similarities and differences between your culture and others. If you are outgoing and open-minded, you will end up with plenty of lifelong Facebook friends from all over the world.

First time backpacking? Be prepared to make lots of new friends!
Be prepared to make lots of new friends from around the world

02. You will eat much healthier (and cheaper!)   As I mentioned before, most hostels have shared kitchens where you can store groceries and cook your meals. During meal times the kitchen can become very busy and congested, but it's fun to watch people from different countries making their favorite foods while you make yours! Again if your friendly and outgoing you can usually trade dishes with your new friends and try some great new authentic foods from around the world!

03. You will learn about the hidden and "non-touristy" things to do in the area.   Most of the people staying in hostels are well traveled individuals that can give you great inside information on things to do in the area you are at, or even their homeland (if you ever make it there). Don't get me wrong, guided tours are great, but with the help of other people at the hostel -- both guests and employees -- you can usually find much better, cheaper options to do with your day. I believe hostels almost force you to get to know the area better because they aren't "all-inclusive." Plus it's always easy to join up with other groups and reduce the cost by splitting it amongst everyone.

04. You can extend the length of your vacation.   To some people this might not matter because they only have that one week of vacation time before they have to return to work. But for those who would like to spend more extended periods of time in an area, hostels are definately the best option. In most countries hostels are pretty common and finding them in different cities along your trip will not be an issue. Of course, sometimes it is hard for me to move on to a new hostel because I do not want to leave all the new friends I have just made!

Edu Hostel Jogja, the fanciest and cheapest hostel in all of Yogyakarta, Indonesia
This magnificent hostel in Indonesia has a staff of 55 (including two professional chefs) yet costs only $6 USD a night!   See More Photos

05. Lets face it, it's all about the $$$$$$$   I tried not putting this item one on here.....but the fact remains that hostel prices cannot be beat. They will save you a fortune while also giving you the most authentic experience you could possibly ask for. Like I said earlier, depending on the season and country, hostels can cost anywhere from $2-20 per night. I don't care if I'm sleeping in a hammock, you simply cannot beat a few dollars to stay two blocks from the beach in Mexico or a 30-second walk from all the fun in Thailand. I'll take it!!

Read More   Hostel Life: What To Expect

I'm sure that there are plenty of other reasons why hostels could be the best option for you, but that's just it.... It's all about you!! Hostels leave your entire trip up to you, not the tour guides that are just trying so hard to get your precious money. Everyone will have their reasons why they love or hate hostels, because after all they are not for everyone. So if you're looking to book your next vacation, make sure to do some research on hostels and give yourself more money to explore wherever you are visiting!

Happy Travels Y'all!!

Published in First Time Backpacking

Dedicate time to learn a new language! It's important when traveling.

Learning a new language, whether for business or for pleasure, can be hard after adolescent years but don't let that discourage you! What makes it hard is not having anyone to speak the language with. But that can be solved. All is asked of you is to dedicate some time. Knowing three languages myself, you can quickly forget simple words when you do not use your languages often. Here are some tips to help enhance vocabulary and pronunciation:

  1. Vocabulary Books - I'm not a fan of a "Learn Italian in a Day!" books that promise you fluency after completing their assignments. Those can only take you so far, hence, why you don't remember that language you took for 5 years in high school. You need to submerge yourself in the language, but of course, these books are a good start. (Especially for languages that involve different characters than the English language.)
  2. Journal - I keep a journal for words I recently learned a spelling to. I'm a visual learner, so this helps me instill it in my mind. When reading or practicing in work books, write down the words you think you will forget in the future. I'm still learning English vocabulary! The best way is to write them down.
  3. Pocket Dictionary - Pick a word a day to learn and use it in a sentence. And you never know when it might come in handy.
  4. Literature - Start off with children books you are familiar with. Maybe a classical Dr. Seuss book in another language. Read them out loud to your self. Reference your mini dictionary for any words you don't understand. Work your way up to magazines, newspapers, and then novels.
  5. Podcasts - When learning a new language we typically understand more than we can speak. Listen to podcasts provided on iTunes. They have ones to help you in whatever language you would like to learn.
  6. Music/TV - Memorizing songs are easier than memorizing a list of vocabulary. Listen to the local music of the country or region you are learning the language in. Likewise with television. You can Google different kids shows in other languages to start off with and work your way up to soap operas or the news.
  7. Friend and/or Community - And finally the best thing you can possible have is a friend. You absolutely NEED someone to speak to. It's very hard to progress with out it. If you do not have anyone to talk to, check out the live language community: www.livemocha.com You can find someone to help you with your speaking and writing skills by talking through audio or emailing. And its free!

Have any suggestions to add to this list?

Published in Travel Tips

If you travel long or often enough, it is inevitable – something will go wrong.  I’m not talking about life-threatening incidents that fingers crossed, we all manage to avoid whilst on the road.  I’m referring to those moments or events that irritate even the most experienced traveler – plane delays, bus breakdowns, stolen bags, over-booked hotels, scams, bed bugs, lost passport, food poisoning – just to name a few.

When your travel adventure becomes a travel misadventure – and it will – take a deep breath and remember the following:

1. There is always someone worse off

When you refused to eat your vegetables as a child, did your parents respond with the comment “there are starving children in Africa who would love to eat your food”?  Me too – and it used to drive me mad.

But let’s face it - it’s true.

The majority of travel misadventures happen when we are in an unfamiliar territory, so take a moment to really take in your surroundings and put your mishap into perspective.  Bed bugs are itchy but they are not life threatening.  A lost passport can be replaced.  A wallet that has been emptied by thieves can be refilled with money sent from home.  A cancelled flight will be re-scheduled.

Even if your travel misadventure happens in a developed, wealthy country, compare your surroundings to those a hundred years ago, fifty years ago, even a decade ago.  How much more difficult or time consuming would dealing with your mishap have been back then?

It’s all about perspective.

2. Material items can be replaced

You have travel insurance and material items can be replaced.  You do have travel insurance don’t you?  Have you heard the quote “if you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel?”

Even if you cannot afford to replace your item immediately or are not in a place where it’s available for sale, is it really an item you cannot live without?  Will life stop because you don’t have your mobile phone?  Will it kill you to use the internet café instead of emailing from your laptop in the air conditioned, Wi-Fi enabled café?  Is watching the local action movie on the bus instead of blocking out the loud foreign words with your iPod really the end of the world?

Material items are luxuries - life will go on without them.

3. What doesn’t kill us…makes a great story

Misadventures are all part of the travel experience.  Taking a deep breath and viewing your mishap as a future story to write about or embellish over beers with your mates is a surprisingly effective coping mechanism!

4. There is always a lesson to learn

Travel misadventures have the ability to teach you both tangible and intangible lessons.  Patience, tolerance and inner strength are personality traits that are often enhanced by the inevitable challenges faced on long-term or regular travel stints.  The ability to calmly face a travel misadventure head on is quite a liberating feeling and surviving your first mishap will definitely give you more confidence at dealing with the next one.

But there are also practical lessons to learn.  I’ve learned how to recognise and medicate bed bug bites, I know how to replace a lost passport, I can find alternative accommodation when my planned guesthouse is full and I know the numbers to call to cancel my stolen credit card.

I’ve also learned that leaving the camera strap around my neck when my using my tripod will avoid my DSLR going for a swim in a glacier lagoon, leaving my bag on my lap instead of under the table is less likely to attract thieves, and having a book with me is a great way to pass the time when buses are delayed.

5. Some of the most memorable moments happen when things don’t go to plan

I have lost count of the great experiences I have had as a result of something going wrong: delayed flights that result in a conversation in the waiting lounge with a new friend, blocked roads that create an unplanned visit to a location that becomes a highlight of the trip, fully booked hotels that direct you to a guesthouse owned by colourful and entertaining characters or moments of kindness that enhance your experience of a country.

I experienced one such moment of kindness when I was the only foreigner on a bus to Mondulkiri in Cambodia – a bus that broke down as the sun was setting, an hour outside my destination.  As the locals accepted their fate, started passing around a bottle of rice wine and got comfortable in the bus that would provide their bed for the night, I looked for alternative options.  Six hours later, after hitching a ride in the open back of a passing truck, I arrived at a guesthouse on the outskirts of the town I had been heading to.  I was soaked through from the rain, my clothes and backpack covered with mud, barefoot and carrying a broken shoe and legs covered with bites from sand-flies.

As I looked around in darkness, realising the guesthouse was closed for the night, my sense of adventure and humour drained away with the streams of water from the afternoons’ rain.  Exhausted and close to tears, I knocked on the door of the only room with a light on and felt my heart sink when the curtains were opened and quickly closed again.  Obviously the occupant had taken one look at the state I was in and wanted nothing to do with this crazy and dangerous foreigner.

A minute later the door opened and a little old Cambodian man handed me a clean pair of shoes, took my arm and led me to a room.  Unable to speak English, he silently turned on the lights and checked there was hot water.  When I asked ‘how much’ he shook his head, handed me the room keys and said goodnight. This simple moment of kindness remains one of my most heart-warming travel experiences to this day.

Travel adventures all have an element of misadventure – it’s all part of the experience!

Have you had any travel misadventures?  How did you cope?

Published in Travel Tips

I first visited Myanmar in December 2010 shortly after the elections took place, an event that received mixed reactions internationally and signalled that a potential change was on the horizon.

The release of Aung San Suu Kyi from decades of house arrest became a key catalyst for the international community lifting the informal travel boycott that has kept many travellers away from the country in recent times. Myanmar has appeared in every ‘top travel destination’ list online and in published articles this year, as travel companies begin creating new itineraries for group tours and more independent travellers add the country to their round-the-world plans.

Myanmar deserves its place as a ‘top travel destination’. I’ve visited nearly 50 countries and 6 continents and Myanmar remains one of my favourite places.

Visiting Myanmar feels like opening a door into a charming world where time has been standing still. You will share the roads with horse and ox carts, motorbikes, bicycles, trishaws, pedestrians and an increased presence of cars in larger towns. You will witness a strong Buddhist faith where monks interact with civilians on a comfortable and regular basis. You will visit temples that rival those of Angkor in Cambodia and explore a beautiful and diverse landscape of lakes, rivers, mountains, temples and caves. You will be invited into the basic but comfortable homes of friendly locals and will be served tea everywhere you go. You will interact with people living a traditional and basic life in the countryside and will also meet those embracing change, education, modern technology and the future.

You will be welcomed into the country by people who are proud of a culture they are keen to share with you, who are equally curious about your lifestyle and country.

But before you book your flight, take a moment to remember that tourism has the ability to both enhance and destroy a culture.

To ensure you get the most out of a visit to this fascinating country, whilst also remembering you are part of a generation who has the opportunity to shape the impact increased tourism has on Myanmar, consider the following:

1. Enjoy the change of pace. From the moment you step off the plane and join the immigration queue at Yangon airport, you will feel that life has decreased a pace or two. Don’t become that tourist who complains about a bus delay, gets frustrated when a flight is cancelled, sighs during a lengthy hotel check-in or moans about having to wait to board a boat that you can see sitting ready in the water. Instead, enjoy the extra time you have to take in your surroundings, engage with the locals, be patient and most of all keep smiling.

2. Learn to say min-ga-laba (hello) and jeh-za-beh (thank you). Not only is it good ‘traveller etiquette’ to learn a few local words wherever you visit, but in Myanmar this small gesture creates opportunities for some memorable and entertaining conversations. If you can’t remember the local word for hello don’t worry – it will be called out to you so often you will start to learn it by heart.

3. Myanmar has been in the news for all the wrong reasons in the last few decades and it’s difficult not to form pre-conceived opinions and judgements. Leave them at home. The best experience you can have in Myanmar is your OWN experience. Decide if the locals’ reputation for being some of the friendliest people in the world is true by interacting with them and making up your own mind. Assess whether the Bagan temples rival that of Angkor in Cambodia by seeing them yourself. Critique the local cuisine by enjoying local food cooked and served by local people. Educating yourself with the combination of factually correct news and personal experiences is the best way to form opinions.

4. Don’t be afraid to turn left when everyone else turns right. Many of my best experiences were riding a bicycle with no clear destination in mind, coming across a little village or stopping to talk to a farmer on his way back from the market. But if someone tells you to turn right because you are not allowed to turn left, do not let curiosity get the better of you and respect their wishes.

5. The Burmese have a local saying “why use ten words when you can use ten thousand”. They like to talk and engaging with locals is a highlight of any visit to Myanmar. But let them lead the conversation. They won’t mind questions about their family or occupation but if they want to talk about politics or the government, they will bring it up. If they appear uncomfortable with a particular conversation, respect this and don’t pursue it.

6. Leave your cynicism at home. If someone approaches you on the street, don’t assume they are about to try to scam you or sell you something. I found that most locals simply enjoy interacting with foreigners and are genuinely interested in learning about you and your country. I never felt the need to be rude or aggressive or walk away from someone and every conversation I had in Myanmar left me with a smile on my face and a warm heart.

7. If you want to party, stay over the border in Thailand. If you want to observe life in Myanmar, get up early with the locals. Burmese people are most active earlier in the day as fishing boats head out on Inle Lake, vendors set up their stalls in local markets and horse and carts head to the Bagan temples to beat the crowds. One of my best days in Myanmar involved a cold 4am start as I watched the hive of activity by the water in Nyaungshwe before boarding a small wooden boat to glide through the misty sunrise alongside fisherman and locals heading to the markets.

8. Don’t instantly dismiss the offer of a ‘local tour’ if someone approaches you on the street. Outside of the ‘main four’ (Yangon, Bagan, Inle Lake, Mandalay) you are unlikely to see travel agents or local tours advertised in your hotel or guest house. If you want to explore the local area, you will need local transport and some of my most memorable days were shared with a local guide who approached me to suggest something I may find interesting. One of the most entertaining conversations I had was with a trishaw driver who didn’t speak English, as we tried to agree a time to meet.

9. Bring your camera. Burmese people LOVE getting their photo taken and showing them an image of themselves on your digital camera is a great way to break the ice and entertain young children. I lost count of the number of people who approached me and asked me to take their photo, including a novice monk in Yangon, almost every child I met and a woman in Monywa who actually chased me down the street before I realised what she wanted!

10. Be careful of drinking local water like you would in any developing country, but don’t be afraid of street food. Some of my best experiences were sitting on a small stool on the side of the road, chatting with the local
vendor who had just whipped me up a quick meal for less than a dollar.

11. Don’t visit Myanmar if you don’t like attention. Foreigners are still a novelty in many parts of the country and almost all locals you meet will greet you with a smile or simply stare at you with wide eyes. On my first day in Mandalay I was sitting in the back of a trishaw returning waves and even having conversations in moving traffic with locals who were passing me by on motorbikes and bicycles. Whilst the constant attention may become tiring, you are unlikely to feel hassled like you may in other countries. If you need a break from the constant attention take a nap behind a closed door rather than be rude to someone who only has friendly intentions! If you have chosen to join a group tour in Myanmar, don’t become a ‘tourist on a group tour’! Don’t mistake curious and friendly attention with being hassled.

12. Don’t plan a fixed itinerary. It’s ok to have a general plan, especially if you have limited time but leave enough flexibility to stay longer at places you like or to cope with that inevitable bus cancellation or broken down vehicle. I chose to stay an extra day in Monywa and I was forced to stay an extra day in Inle Lake when all the buses were full. Adapt to changes in your schedule without getting stressed by them.

13. Bring enough money! There are no cashpoint machines in Myanmar and USD is the easiest currency to change. But don’t think reports of notes needing to be in pristine condition are exaggerated – they are not! I had a $50 note that had a curled corner and had difficulty changing it. Carry your foreign notes somewhere where they will not crease, fold, tear or curl – inside the pages of a thick book for example. Also bring more than you think you need, as there is nothing worse than missing out on something you want to do because the money you need is sitting safely in a bank account that you can’t access.

14. Recognise the existence of poverty without ignoring or contributing to it. The existence of poverty in our world is a difficult reality to accept, especially when you have a full stomach, warm clothes and a comfortable room to return to at the end of the day. As difficult as it is, don’t encourage children to ask foreigners for money by giving it to them. Avoid hand-outs and don’t take advantage of someone who is trying to make a living, by haggling to a price you know is below what a service or product is worth. I also like to spread my travel wealth by using different drivers, guides and vendors.

15. Keep your wits about you. It’s extremely rare to hear negative stories about crime or attacks on foreigners but don’t be too naïve about the friendliness of locals, you just never know. Last but not least, never forget the phrase “your shadow stays with you in Myanmar even when the sun goes down”

The phrase ‘you get out what you put in’ is particularly applicable to a visit to Myanmar. Taking the time to engage with the locals, endure local over-ground transport and explore the countryside will reward you with an energising, thought-provoking and inspirational experience.

Published in Myanmar

The last time I paid a visit to Sin City was when I was 10 years old, approximately 13 years ago, to visit relatives. As one would guess, I wasn't able to partake in any wickedness the city is known for. I made up for that with my recent trip to Vegas.

I had covered the basics of Las Vegas in 2000; touring the Strip, seeing Sigfried & Roy's white tigers, going on the New York, New York roller coaster, taking in the light show on Fremont Street, and the like. This time around, yours truly got to see a whole lot more of Las Vegas. Unfortunately I can't share everything with you, (what happens there stays there, remember?) but will be happy to tell you my travels and tips!

Our hotel view-love those mountains!

 

 

My three-day trip first began when my boyfriend and I (whom I will refer to as 'S') got a good price on a hotel not too far from the strip. They had a great deal going on at check-in where for $50 dollars you could pick two tickets to a large variety of shows, plus get 2 free buffets and $50 worth of playing money at the Luxor. Sounds awesome, right!? Like any deal, it was mostly too good to be true, as we had to endure a 1.5 hour spiel about time shares. But, we got an additional free lunch out of the offer, and once the presentation was over we were on our way (and feeling pretty good we didn't cave and buy).

For the show, we chose Cirque du Soleil's Mystere. I had previously seen Saltimbanco and loved it, and wanted to add another Cirque show to my plate. Mystere was interesting, for lack of a better word. The acrobatics were amazing, but I was a little thrown off by the theme-and the adult baby that kept making an appearance throughout the show. Don't get me wrong, it was a great show, but I probably would not go see it again. After the show we decided to take a stroll down the Strip and use our gambling money at the Luxor. I had forgotten how much fun it is to see the hotels and all that they offer! In the casino, I decided to try my hand at Black Jack, which I had never played before (or any card games, for that matter). Both me and S ended up ahead, so we erred on the side of caution and decided to stop. It was so much fun though-I can't wait to play again! After that, we headed down to the buffet area and I was overwhelmed at first. Sure, I'd been to a buffet before, but nothing like that. I spent a good five minutes planning my strategy and execution, and quickly decided salad bar was out. Who was I kidding, I was going to end up with five desserts anyway, so no need to have salad take up any space. Even after all that planning, I ended up taking those desserts but not having room for any of them. Later, we decided to go out on the town. I foolishly wore a pair of black heels that night that I hadn't worn for over a couple hours at a time, and by this point I'd been wearing them all day. So naturally, by 9 PM, I wasn't up to much walking. I decided to power through it as this was our only night to live it up in Vegas. We went to a couple bars but realized it probably wasn't the best night to go as it was a Wednesday night during the off-season, and there were not many people around. That didn't stop us from having a good time, though. After an hour or so I suddenly remembered that I had to check off one of my Bucket List items: dancing on the bar at Coyote Ugly. Ever since I had seen that movie I promised myself I would do it one day. Not wanting to disappoint my 12 year old self, we went to New York New York and visited the bar there. It was not very crowded and I wasn't so sure about getting up there anymore, and I kept waiting for a good song to come on. Finally after about 5 subpar songs, I decided to just get up there. I danced around to a stupid 80's song and came back down. Sadly, it wasn't up to my expectations, but I was glad to be able to check it off my Bucket List! Next time I'll have to visit the real Coyote Ugly-Hogs and Heifers Saloon, and maybe then I'll feel a bit more satisfied. 

The Strip At Night


The next day, we got up early and went back to the strip. We had originally planned on going swimming, but as luck would have it we were there during an unseasonably cold streak, so we decided to visit as many hotels as we could and do some exploring. With so many different themes and activities, it's hard to pick a favorite hotel! I really liked the style of the Venetian, with the indoor canal and gondola rides available. It let us have a small taste of what Venice might be like. 

 

The Venetian

When I was 10, I remember walking into the MGM and having that feeling of being overwhelmed and in awe of the sheer size of everything. This time around, I was starting to wonder if I'd get that feeling again. We had stepped inside nearly every hotel on the Strip and while I admired every one of them, I still hadn't gotten that "feeling". Granted, I was about 4 feet tall back then so everything looked bigger-but still. Finally, the lobby of the Luxor changed my view-it was huge! I was a happy camper and glad to have the feeling of awe back. 

 

The Luxor Lobby

That night, S told me he had a surprise for me and of course a thousand things were running through my head; A helicopter ride over the city? Tickets to a sumo-wrestling match? A life size sculpture of me made out of candy? After all, this was Vegas and virtually anything could be possible. He led me to the Mirage Hotel and there he surprised me with tickets to the Beatles Love Cirque du Soleil show. I had wanted to see this show SO BADLY and had a hard time trying to contain my excitement. After jumping up and down and making a bit of a scene, we waited in line for the doors to open. Finally we were let in to the lobby and it was awesome, it was decorated exactly like I imagined it would be; tons of colors,  fun props and of course, Beatles music. 

 

Walking into a Beatles Wonderland

 

We were then led to our seats and I kept wondering when the guy would stop walking and point us in the direction-he kept getting closer and closer to the stage and I started getting more and more excited, until we were directly in front of the stage in the first row. I looked at S and thought there must be some mistake-I had never been this close at a show before. It wasn't a mistake, so I sat down and thanked my lucky stars-and S-and waited for the show to begin. It is hard to describe the whole show, and I don't want to give anything away, but it was honestly the BEST show I had ever seen in my life. If you love Beatles music, or even like it somewhat, you have to see this at some point. It showcased a good 20 songs, and every song had its own theme. There was so much going on, and I would say it was a 4D experience. I was amazed throughout the whole show, and didn't want it to end. If you ever have a chance, GO SEE IT!

 

 

 

After the show, we headed back to the hotel to get a good night's sleep, as we had to get up at 5 AM the next morning! We had purchased tickets for a bus trip to the Grand Canyon and Skywalk, and while I was excited it was hard to be enthusiastic about anything at 5 in the morning. Since we purchased the tickets online, I wasn't sure what to expect about the whole thing, but once we got to the tour headquarters I felt more at ease. They gave us more detailed information and sent us off with coffee and a granola bar. Our bus driver was great-really funny and knowledgable. We drove through Las Vegas and the surrounding counties until we hit the Hoover Dam. I hadn't seen it before, so it was nice to have a few minutes for pictures. 

 

Hoover Dam

 

After that, we got back on the bus for another two hours. I hadn't realized how far away the Grand Canyon was from the Vegas area. I had always assumed it was pretty close but it is actually a good 3 hours away. No wonder this trip was designated 12 hours on the website! But, our tour guide had great commentary along the way and entertained us pretty well. After a long and bumpy road, we had finally made it to the Grand Canyon! It was definitely worth the drive as it's not very often you get to see a view like this:

Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon experience was different than I imagined. I had always pictured it as being very sunny and hot, while climbing up and down various hills and spotting tourists on donkeys every now and then (blame it on the movies, or maybe I just totally made all that up in my head). It was a tad different, as we were there in November in the coldest week they'd had (low 50's), and it was cloudy and windy. Also, I didn't spot any donkeys. However, the weather didn't change the amazing view of the Canyon, and it was truly spectacular. It definitely put things into perspective for me, seeing something so naturally breathtaking. I also never knew how close you could get to the drop-offs as there are no barriers! You could literally fall right off! Every time I got about five feet from the edge I got a little dizzy and a big adrenaline rush and decided to knock it off and be sensible. S and I had a really fun time with our mini photo shoot and have some great pictures to show for it. 

 

We also had tickets to the Skywalk, which is pictured above. It's built so it juts out approximately 70 feet over the edge and the drop from the Skywalk to the ground below is between 500-800 feet. The floor is made entirely of glass. Camera's and any other personal items are not allowed on the Skywalk, so if you want a picture you have to purchase one. There are a couple photographers on the walk that take multiple pictures of you in different poses. We ended up choosing one that looked like we were about to fall off the ledge. Yeah, a bit cheesy, but you just gotta do those things once in awhile. We were able to stay on the Skywalk for about 10 to 15 minutes. If you ever visit the Canyon, I would say spend the extra money and get a Skywalk ticket, it was definitely worth it and added a unique perspective of the Canyon. 

 

After the SkyWalk we had one more trip to the Hualapai Ranch, a Western/Cowboy themed place not far from the Skywalk. The brochure said there would be a "Wild West Show", so again, I got excited thinking it would be like the movies; an old fashioned cowboy quick draw. It may have been because we were there during the off-season, but it looked more like a ghost town than anything else. There wasn't any type of show to see, but there were little stations set up where you could throw a tomahawk, learn how to rope, and quick draw. We tried our hands at roping and it's a lot harder than it looks! I was a little better at the tomahawk throw-and a little better than S. :)

 

It wasn't perfect, but at least I hit the board!

We ended our trip with a red-eye flight back home, very tired but happy we could fit so much in our 3 day trip. Las Vegas has so much to offer, you definitely can't see it all in one vacation. I can't wait to come back and make some more memories! What's your favorite Vegas memory?

Published in United States

Although in recent years I’ve largely travelled alone, my first steps into the big wide world of foreign adventures (with my parent’s safely on the other side of the world) were within a group environment. Traveling as a group can be fun, there is always someone to talk to, and there can be a lot of variety, meaning that usually there is never a dull moment. Travelling as a group can also be a little stressful, with added logistics, politics and the formation of cliques, especially among larger groups. Here are some ideas to help keep the chaos to a minimum:

Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth

It is a fact that having a lot of people in one place, with limited space and facilities can be very stressful. It’s nice to be inclusive when planning a trip, but there is a point when it is wise to limit numbers – accommodation and transportation are usually the deciding factors. Think about what you are trying to accomplish – 2 weeks doing practical volunteer work lends itself to different numbers than inter-railing around Europe (e.g. 4 people building a school in Kenya? 20 people cramming onto a Deutsche Bahn ICE and expecting to sit in the same carriage, let alone near each other? Think again!). Have a reasonable idea of how many people on the trip is practical, and comfortable, and stick with that number.

Hong Kong & China 2008 - My team had a really good sense of humour and kept positive even when our accommodation in Guangzhou fell through and we had no idea where we would be staying.

 

Two’s Company. Three’s a Crowd

Trust me. In certain situations this works (e.g. you are all family, have hung out as the Three Musketeers for years, you’ve somehow managed to make a ménage-a-trois work, etc.) but generally it’s something to avoid. Typically there are either two situations: someone gets left out, or the “third wheel” begins to piss one or both other people off. While prime numbers are good for making majority decisions, it probably sucks to be the one ending up on their own (refer to Walter, Gary & Mary’s trip to LA in “The Muppets” for a case study).

 

Sharing is Caring

I recently stayed in a hostel in Rio de Janeiro and was driven crazy by Dutch travellers (particularly f the female variety) each taking 30 minutes in the bathroom – twice a day! If it’s important respecting fellow traveller’s need for facilities and space when you don’t know them, it is even more important to respect those you are actually travelling with. Limited number of electrical outlets? Even more limited number of socket converters? That means the person spending hours on their laptop (You fly half way around the world to use a laptop? ) can kick that habit and let other people charge their phones and cameras, and use electricity for more important things than checking non-essential emails and playing solitaire for hours on end.

If there are introverts in your group, allow them time and space to unwind alone. If someone has a case of Dehli Belly, maybe consider that you taking hours in the bathroom might actually be making their plight worse. If someone is jetlagged, give them time to sleep it off. Offer to help out with chores like cleaning when you leave and washing up rather than letting the same person do it all the time. And never, ever, EVER walk across someone’s futon with your dirty feet (Because I DESPISE sleeping in a gritty bed!).

 

Teambuilding

Before going to China we spent time getting to know 

each other through various activities such as playing 

sports on a surprisingly sunny Scottish beach

Before you go try to get to know everyone a bit better, especially the people you don’t know so well, whether be going for a drink together, having a pizza and movie night, fundraise as a team (if you are doing some kind of voluntary work) etc. It breaks the ice for sure, and might give you an idea of other people’s personalities, needs and quirks before you go.

 

Culture Shock

By this I don’t mean culture shock from being in a different country, but culture shock from being among people from different backgrounds can arise too. In Swaziland I was the second youngest person on the team (the youngest was there with their parents, and the oldest was a 79 year old woman there with her daughter!) while in China I was the second oldest person there not leading the team (and most others were still in high school). Different generations (particularly older generations) can have very different outlooks, which can be frustrating, especially if they don’t give you an easy time for being young (or credit for having more experience than them).

Then there can be problems caused by different social, educational and religious backgrounds – the list goes on. Basically anything in the country that can give you culture shock, you can probably also find in your travel group (if it is a very mixed group, or you are the odd one out). The best thing is to realise you have as much to learn from your fellow travellers as you can learn from the foreign culture. Be open, be flexible, talk and share what you are thinking and feeling.

 

Cameras

Imagine the amount of time it takes for one person to take a good group photograph. Now multiply that by a factor of the number of cameras in the group. Add a few extra minutes in for good measure. Now multiply that by the amount of things you’ll want to photograph while away. The answer? A lot of wasted time.

For that reason, limit the number of people taking photos at any time. To keep happysnapping to a minimum, assign a few people to be responsible for photos each day. Take 20% of the total number of cameras with you. If someone has a good camera and is really into photography, let them take most of the photos (but also give them the opportunity to be in some of them as well). Also as a guide, the person photographing EVERYTHING (usually repeatedly) is probably not the best photographer – a good photographer has an eye for a good shot, and so will only take photographs when they have a good shot. This means you get a smaller number of consistently very good photos that you can use, rather than endless bad photographs not even worthy of Facebook.

 

Remember the Outsiders

Be aware of people not interacting much with the rest of the group or seem a little withdrawn. Check they are ok, and give them plenty of (varied) opportunities to join in. Do things that can involve the whole group. Include them in conversations and invite them to give their opinion. Even ask them what they would like to do. They might just want some alone time, but they might also want to be involved but are struggling to interact with the rest of the group, perhaps due to strong personalities, unfamiliarity with people, in-jokes or activities, or simply being shy.

 

Cliques

Don’t invite a known clique to be part of your group – it should be all or nothing, simple as that. Likewise inviting a loved-up, young couple to be part of a group of singles can also be a bad idea (as if claiming the double bed, spending all their time together and not interacting with everyone else was bad enough, don’t even think about the consequences of a lover’s quarrel, let alone a break-up!). Let couples go on couples’ holidays and strong cliques go on holidays by themselves. If a clique forms while away, don’t panic too much (unless you are all out there for months) – people do have their preferences of whom they get on well with. As long as you get them mixing with other people and it doesn’t become a problem, you should be fine, at least until the end of the trip.

 

Chill Out

Be gracious, overlook imperfections, laugh things off, don’t make a big deal about insignificant things… etc. Take a deep breath, count to ten and relax. As we say in the UK “Keep Calm & Carry On”.

 

Conflict Resolution

Sometimes taking a moment doesn’t work and tempers can still flare up. Deal with conflict as soon as possible, long before it flares up. Talk. Try to see it from the other person’s side. Take some time out if need be. And ALWAYS be the first to say sorry. Forgive and forget – it’s not worth your trip being ruined.

 

Choose Wisely

Malta 2010 - A bike trip with some guys I knew 
well from a previous trip - no problems!

Ultimately choose wisely who you take with you. The person with the fiery temper or the serial drunkard causing all sorts of problems? Probably not a good idea. The really disorganised one or the girl who always brings too many clothes? Think again too. Or at least be aware of their behaviour before you go, and don’t be surprised if they let it all hang out when free from the confines of home. And remember, even if you don’t pick wisely, it isn’t forever and do your best to enjoy it while it lasts.

 

Fortunately for me, I've not had a particularly difficult time traveling in a group. Perhaps I've been lucky, but getting to know each other and having a good sense of humour have definitely helped gel the group together. Certainly I've had a much easier time than my siblings when traveling (my brother in particular has some horror stories). 

 

There's no point worrying about having a bad time. Most likely you will have a good time with a group of people, and never a dull moment for sure. But do bear in mind some of the pitfalls that can occur. By thinking ahead and identifying potential problems before they occur, you can avoid any mishaps and make sure your trip is an enjoyable one.

Published in Travel Tips
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