Monthly Archives: January 2014

Bangkok & The Power of $5

Check out the ornate architecture of Wat Pho along the Chao Praya River

Check out the ornate architecture of Wat Pho along the Chao Praya River

     To most Westerners, the name Bangkok evokes images of ramshackle urban landscapes and sleazy massage parlors. Sure, you can still find it if you go looking for them, but today Bangkok is a surprisingly modern city with all the amenities we’re used to, plus a whole lot of exotic flavor of which we’re not. My own stay was limited to only two nights some ten years ago, but in that short time it became evident that this fascinating city in Southeast Asia is just as exotic as its name sounds.

     First of all, for any potential visitors I have to say this: It is going to be hot. And not just hot—steamy, sultry, to the point that if you are coming from a more temperate clime, you should exercise caution so that you don’t suffer heat exhaustion before becoming acclimated. That said, you’re ready to explore a city unlike any other.

 

A ride along the bustling Chao Praya River offers many unique views

A ride along the bustling Chao Praya River offers many unique views

    Like many major metropolises, Bangkok lines the banks of a river—in this case the Chao Phraya. There are numerous water taxis waiting to take you to various points along the bustling riverside lined with luxury hotels and ancient temples. One such complex, just south of the impressive Grand Palace, is Wat Pho. Here you will see an astounding display of Thai architecture as well as a monolithic 45 meter long reclining Buddha. Still not impressed? Look up at the ornate carvings and colors found in the eaves and above the doorways. It’s not the kind of thing you’ll see everyday, unless of course, you’re already a Buddhist monk, in which case you probably shouldn’t be impressed with that stuff anyway.

     For those looking for more modern experiences, trendy Siam Square will make you feel right at home with its Western chain stores and American restaurants. No trip to Thailand would be complete without an authentic massage, and the good news is that there are plenty of reputable places to be found without a trip to the red light district. The even better news is that an hour foot massage with a little work on the shoulders and neck will run you about $5 US. To be honest, I would have paid that just to sit in the air conditioning.

     Another memorable and rewarding experience in Bangkok is shopping, and the best place to do it in by far is the sprawling Chatuchak Market. This enormous bazaar holds over 7000 stalls selling everything from the mundane to the highly exotic. Great bargains are to be found—and haggled for—on everything from silk textiles to ornate carvings to bric-a-brac of all sorts. Again, you’d be amazed at how far $5 will get you.

Lose your head among the ruins of Ayutthaya

Lose your head among the ruins of Ayutthaya

     Also coming in at about $5, you can get a round trip bus or train ride some 50 miles north to the town and ancient ruins of Ayutthaya—a UNESCO World Heritage Site and former capital of Siam until it was sacked by the Burmese in centuries past. Climbing over the crumbling ruins and looking up at towering spires of stone rising out of the lush greenery leaves no doubt that you are definitely not in Kansas anymore. For an authentic experience, rent a tuk-tuk—a tiny open-backed truck—to take you from site to site. This may be a bit more expensive, like say, maybe $10, but hey, when are you going to be in Thailand again?

     So if you have a taste for the Far East yet don’t want to leave the comforts of modern civilization, consider a stay in Bangkok. And whether you’re cruising down the river, receiving a rubdown, or enjoying the warmth of smiling Thais, remember where you heard about this fabulous secret, and bring an extra twenty to live it up—if only for the air conditioning.

    

     

Categories: Destinations | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

A Day At The End Of The World

Beautiful Bahia Ensenada, Tierra Del Fuego National Park, Argentina

Beautiful Bahia Ensenada, Tierra Del Fuego National Park, Argentina

If asked as to where in the world one would expect to see such alpine scenery as shown here, no doubt the usual suspects would come to mind: The Alps. The Rockies. Maybe New Zealand. But the answer lies both across and down in a seven letter word for ‘the end of the world’—Ushuaia.

 

Please note that the end of the world to which I refer here is not the battle of Armageddon but rather the tip—or end—of the South American continent. Calling itself the world’s southernmost city (made possible by ignoring the tiny town of Puerto Williams, Chile just across the channel) Ushuaia is the main tourist base for exploring the Tierra del Fuego area and is a far more pleasant destination than worldwide cataclysm. It’s even prettier than Armageddon too.

 

Ushuaia is most notably the primary departure port for vessels heading down to the frigid waters of the Antarctic Peninsula. It is here that most of the relatively few visitors to the White Continent get onboard for the often-dicey crossing of the Drake Passage. Flights to Antarctica are technically possible as well, but besides the hefty price tag ($1500 to $2000 roundtrip for a day excursion to a research base), rapidly changing weather conditions and gale force winds often prevent the flights from ever leaving the ground. Fortunately, there’s plenty to see and do nearby—and in temperate conditions as well.

 

IMG_2909A main attraction is the lovely Tierra del Fuego National Park, located at the end of Route 3, the Argentinean incarnation of the Pan-American Highway which ends somewhere in the neighborhood of Fairbanks, Alaska. The scenery is rather Alaska-esque as well, with snowcapped mountains and clear lakes amidst verdant forest. Bahia Ensenada is reachable via an easy trail and offers great views of the trailing edge of the mighty Andes Range.

 

The Beagle Channel, Chile

The Beagle Channel, Chile

Nearby and possible on a day excursion as well is a trip through the Beagle Channel, named after Darwin’s ship. This waterway of forests, mountains and magnificent glaciers would give any of the usual suspects a run for their money in terms of sheer beauty. The undeveloped vistas and remoteness are impressed upon you here, and this is where you realize the term ‘fin del mundo’ is not just a marketing phrase for the tourists.

 

So if your travels have taken you just about everywhere else, Ushuaia is a worthy destination. I’m certain that both the end of the road and the end of the world will be far more pleasant than you ever imagined.

Categories: Destinations | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Maximization & Other Made-Up Travel Philosophies

In my previous post If You’re Going To India, Turn Right At Finland, I mentioned the concept of ‘maximization’—a self-invented term of travel philosophy—when discussing the art of the stopover. I will now elaborate further on that concept and how it applies to planning travel. Just a word of caution: I WILL be using some made-up words. English language purists beware!

 

While one can certainly maximize their vacation by means of a well-placed stopover, my maximization philosophy encompasses a wider scope. In a nutshell, it posits: While you’re in the area, see as much of it as you can. That may sound so simplistic as to hardly count as a philosophy at all, but there’s actually a lot more to it than that.

 

Bonus Beach Time! Anse Source d'Argent, La Digue, Seychelles

Bonus Beach Time! Anse Source d’Argent, La Digue, Seychelles

Take as an example a trip I took in early 2009 to South Africa. This country is richly blessed in natural beauty and attractions, and could have easily filled the entire two weeks I had at my disposal. But—and here’s where the maximization philosophy comes in—while we were in the relativish area (yes, that’s a made-up term, in this case indicating a radius of a thousand miles) I opted out of a full two weeks in South Africa, and spent one of them in the idyllic Seychelles Islands. The benefits are two-fold. For starters, this gave us great variety in our vacation activities, allowing us to go from a safari in the bush to some gorgeous tropical beaches—the ultimate surf and turf if you will. We also saved ourselves another 16 hour flight to return to the ‘neighborhood’ of the western Indian Ocean, not to mention the cost of another set of airline tickets. In doing so, we mostified (got the most out of) the fact that we were already going to be within relativish striking distance.

 

Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

Another example would be in 2007, where we took advantage of an open jaw ticket. As the name would suggest, this is when you fly into one city but leave from another. Arriving in Istanbul, Turkey, we saw some of Turkey’s amazing attractions (See the post The Witty Traveler’s Guide to Cappadocia) before taking an overnight train to Greece, and then renting a car to explore all the way down to Athens, before hopping on a plane to finish up in Rome. Again whilst (I know it’s not a made-up word but Americans never use it) in the relativish area, why not take in not one but three former seats of empires?

 

So how can you go about maximizing your next travel plans? You can hire a competent travel professional such as myself to do it for you at a reasonable price (Pardon the blatanistic [i.e. shamelessly self-serving] plug for my Trip Accomplice travel service) or you can get out a map and see what else is in the general area you’re seeking to visit. With a little thought, some imagination, and a handful of guts, you can take your plainified, humdrumicated itinerary and turn it into an awesomotic, fantabulous maximized adventure. Just be sure to turn off spell-check.

Categories: Travel Tips | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Reflections on Ponza: The Pearl of Rome

Port of Ponza, Isola di Ponza, Italy

Port of Ponza, Isola di Ponza, Italy

 I wasn’t the first to arrive. First came the Etruscans. Then the Greeks. Then the Romans. These were followed by a varied cast of characters ranging from prisoners to patriots, pirates to Popes until April 1999 when at long last, I too stepped ashore on the Italian island of Ponza

     This Mediterranean gem situated some 40 miles off the coast between Rome & Naples is the namesake of a small archipelago called the Pontine Islands, and has always been off the beaten tourist track—that is if you’re not counting the period when Ponza, once dubbed as the “Pearl of Rome” served as a summer retreat for the ruling elite. Had I not married a girl who still has family there, I probably never would have heard of the place. Regardless, there I was standing out on deck as the ferry drew us closer to the lumpy silhouette of the island’s northern tip, ready to begin the first leg of my honeymoon.

     As we drew near the port, I marveled at the chalky cliffs of eroded sandstone sculpted and bleached by eons of sun & wind that would be a geologist’s dream. Often there would be a cluster of pastel colored boats at their base, bobbing up and down in the turquoise coastal waters. The pastel motif continued as we docked at the port—a two-tiered crescent of shops, houses, and restaurants curving around the sheltered waters of the harbor. Rising above it all were the mottled yellow-green slopes of Monte della Guardia which formed a backdrop that appeared right out of a model railroad set with the ruins of its namesake guardhouse perched on top. Stepping ashore, I was at once struck by the quaint architecture that seemed quintessentially Mediterranean—flat roofed houses with shuttered windows and ornate iron railings enclosing their balconies. There was also the faint scent of fresh seafood wafting on the steady breeze, barely overpowering the stench of diesel exhaust from the line of cars freshly disgorged from the bowels of the ferry.

     My first order of business was to join my wife and her uncle in one such car, and with our bags stuffed in the trunk and ourselves crammed in the backseat with our knees around our ears, we set off through the ancient tunnel that provided us with intermittent views of the harbor dotted with the local fishing fleet and sleek yachts of visiting jet-setters. After just five minutes I fell in love with this place. After ten I was already making plans to return.

Chiaia di Luna, Ponza, Italy

Chiaia di Luna, Ponza, Italy

     On Ponza it is refreshing to see that you will not find chain hotels or sprawling resorts. During the summer months the island swells with vacationing Germans, Romans, and other Italians who live most of the year on the mainland yet still retain their hereditary roots and properties. It was on my second visit in the late summer of 2002 that I got the chance to see Ponza in its peak season splendor. Little had changed aside from the climate, which was decidedly drier and hotter than in April, with brilliant sunny days and comfortable nights. Come summertime, the main attraction is Chiaia di Luna—a rocky beach ringed by towering vertical cliffs named for its half-moon shape. What the beach lacks in comfort it makes up for in scenery. With the aquamarine water lapping at my feet as I stared out at the nearby island of Palmarola, I found it hard to imagine a more idyllic setting. Yet on this island, my imagination more than met its match, especially at a place called Le Forne, and a small cove called Cala Feola.

 

Cala Feola from above, Ponza, Italy

Cala Feola from above, Ponza, Italy

    Viewed from above, I couldn’t help but remark at how the boxy, light-colored houses draped along the rocky slopes to meet a sapphire sea looked like something right out of a postcard. (As it turns out, such a postcard is available at the souvenir shops down by the port.) Traversing the brutally steep incline of the road on foot, it was a moderate hike down to the natural pools at the base of the cove. In fact, aside from a soccer field at the north end of the island, I’d be willing to bet there isn’t a flat surface anywhere to be found.

     The strain on the hamstrings seemed well worth it once I sprawled out on the smooth skirt of rock populated with glistening sunbathers in various states of undress. Later we explored the cove by paddleboat, every so often plunging into the inviting water to cool down. Not a bad way to spend a weekday afternoon, I mused, though fortunately there are plenty of similar experiences to be had to last many an afternoon.

     An easy and inexpensive day trip is a circle island tour, taking in the coastal highlights and usually including stops at uninhabited Palmarola to the west. Here we had the opportunity to take a dip, snorkel in the surprisingly high-visibility waters, and admire the nearly surreal rock formations jutting out of the water like crumbling monuments. We also had a delicious lunch miraculously prepared in the tiny wheelhouse of our boat, consisting of spaghetti marinara washed down with a glass of vino and a shot of espresso. Only in Italy!

     Three times I’ve had the privilege of visiting Ponza, which means by default that three times I’ve had to tear myself away. Yet it is authentic memories such as these that have elevated Ponza to the special place that it now holds in my heart. Normally I have a rule of never visiting the same place twice, since there are still so many places I’ve yet to see once. Yet Ponza has an allure that makes it an excusable exception, one that leaves me longing for a fourth time and even a fifth. Perhaps it’s because that while I know I will never be a true islander, Ponza has become part of my history as well, like so many others who have come before me. In that, I’m sure, I am once again not the first. 

Categories: Anecdotes, Destinations | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

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