Travel Goals Master Checklist: Part V – Asia

This portion of the Travel Goals Master Checklist series of blog posts focuses on Asia. Not surprisingly, much like its counterpart in the real world, it is the biggest in both size and number. Spanning a land area far beyond that of any other continent, Asia is a medley of cultures, technology and history that cannot be matched. From the ancient desert bastions of the Middle East, to the frenetic metropolises of the Orient, Asia holds the lion’s share of destinations on the Travel Goals Master Checklist, and as I’ll go on to explain, that’s for good reason.

But before we do, if you’d like to catch up on the entries from some of the other continents, click the following links for North America and the Caribbean, South America and Antarctica, Africa, and Europe.

Bali, Indonesia

With its dazzlingly green terraced rice paddies, expansive beaches and Hindu temples, Bali is an amalgamation of natural beauty and a deep cultural heritage. Even just mentioning the name Bali is sure to conjure images of exotic beauty, so it was a sure-thing to rank a place on the top 72 world-class destinations.

Borneo, Malaysia

Speaking of exotic, Borneo is the epitome of off the beaten path, with ancient rain forests and Southeast Asia’s tallest peak. Add in some unique animal life, such as the orangutan and proboscis monkey, as well as prolific coral reefs, and it becomes readily apparent why I felt compelled to add Borneo to the checklist.

Cappadocia, Turkey

At the western edge of the continent, this region in Central Turkey is renowned for its surreal landscapes of eroded volcanic rock. Floating above it in a hot air balloon remains one of my favorite life experiences, and given its incomparable characteristics, Cappadocia is a must-see destination for anyone with an appreciation for history, unique architecture, natural beauty or all of the above.

Coral Atolls, Maldives

Though I had been dreaming of getting to the Maldives long before they became an Instagram phenomenon, I still haven’t managed to do so – yet. But that doesn’t make this idyllic archipelago of coral atolls surrounded by some of the most appealing water on earth any less worthy of their spot on the checklist. Just Google a few pictures and you’ll see why this remote destination in the Indian Ocean is the stuff that travel dreams are made of.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates

It’s hard not to be impressed by Dubai. Sitting on the crossroads between East and West, this glittering city is the world showcase of all that is glittery and artificial. Rising out of the barren wastes where the desert meets the Persian Gulf, this incredibly modern playground has become one of the most interesting – and indulgent – urban centers in the world. Love it or hate it, Dubai is a player on the world scene and earns its place on the Travel Goals Master Checklist.

Great Wall, China

In a land full of famous landmarks, the Great Wall of China was an easy Top 10 entrant on the checklist. My own travels brought me only to the Badaling section outside of Beijing, but seeing this famous structure snake its way across the hilly landscape does not disappoint regardless of where on its expansive length you choose to observe.

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

While there are a number of beautiful karstic regions around the world, none are perhaps as famous as Ha Long Bay off the northern coast of Vietnam. Rising precipitously out of the water, these dramatic islands are home to caves, beaches and ancient temples. This geological feature is world-class and Ha Long Bay is a fitting nominee to represent it on the checklist.

Hong Kong, China

With the only skyline that can rival New York, and the cultural bones of its Chinese and British history, Hong Kong is a top contender among world cities, and a worthy destination to appear on the checklist. Despite the overwhelming modernity in its current iteration, there’s still a sense of original flavor despite the homogeny overtaking Asia that makes Hong Kong a must-see city.

Marina Bay, Singapore

While on the topic of must-see cities, the tiny island nation of Singapore has found a pleasant blend of urban necessities and natural spaces that makes it a top rated destination in Southeast Asia. This is particularly evident in Marina Bay and its signature showpiece, Gardens by the Bay; home of the Supertrees, lovely outdoor gardens, and artistic pavilions, all in the shadow of the impressive Marina Bay Sands hotel. I’ve yet to see a nighttime setting quite like this one, and felt impelled to include Singapore on the list

Mount Everest, Nepal

Of the 72 destinations on the Travel Goals Master Checklist, Mount Everest will likely be the last one I could mark off, assuming that I could even get to them all. Even the trek to base camp is far beyond my level of physical fitness. But considering its fame as the highest peak in the world and its role as a perennial bucket list favorite, there’s no way I couldn’t add it to the checklist, even if that’s one circle I’m unlikely to ever cross off.

Mount Fuji, Japan

Few natural landmarks are as inherently entwined with a national image more than Mount Fuji, Japan. This almost perfectly conical mountain on the outskirts of the megalopolis of Tokyo is a peaceful counterpoint to the modern megacities that surround it. I know I was quite impressed when seeing it for the first time from the window of a bus, and given its easily-recognized iconic value, it was a no-brainer for inclusion on the checklist.

Palawan, Philippines

Though my own travels in the Philippines did not take me to Palawan, travelers in the know recognize the island – and its main draw, El Nido – as a tropical playground that can easily be confused with paradise. The islands of the Philippines are simply stunning, and I chose perhaps the most famous of them all for the list in honor of this recognition.

Petra, Jordan

Even if you couldn’t care less about history, Petra, with its cities carved out of rock, is world famous thanks to its cinematic exposure. While you’re not likely to find the holy grail inside (see the previous sentence for context), this World Heritage Site has both the historic, architectural and recognition value to represent the wonders of the Middle East on the Travel Goals Master Checklist.

Phuket, Thailand

Phuket and the surrounding Phi Phi and Similan Islands are a convincing stand-in for paradise. With gorgeous beaches, tropical foliage and amazing dive sites, if peninsular Thailand’s most popular destination is not on your bucket list, it’s time to revisit your list.

Seoul, South Korea

It’s impossible to discuss the topic of major cities in Asia without mentioning Seoul. It has emerged as an economic and cultural powerhouse that punches well above its weight. I haven’t yet visited myself, but recognize that it is a player on the world scene, and deserves its spot on the master checklist.

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Home to the sprawling Angkor Wat complex, Siem Reap is like something right out of an adventure movie. The remnant pagodas and temples smothered in rain forest draw visitors the world over, making this an indisputable candidate for the list.

Taj Mahal, India

In over 25 years of travel, I’ve yet to see a building that could match the splendor (yes, you read that right, splendor) that could equal the Taj Mahal. This is one of those places you can see a million times in pictures or on TV, but when you see it in person it makes a far deeper impression. Only the Pyramids and Eiffel Tower could be considered on par with the Taj Mahal in terms of recognizability, and as such, its place on the checklist was instantly assured.

Yangtze River, China

Had I not seen the Yangtze in person, I may have overlooked it as a candidate for this list. But after seeing not only the majestic scenery but also the major role the river plays in the lives of those who live alongside it, I was convinced that this impressive river and the region that surrounds it belongs on the checklist. See it for yourself and you’ll likely agree.


The Travel Goals Master Checklist

With Part V of the series I’ve now covered 65 out of the 72 destinations on the master checklist. How many can you check off? Even if that number is zero, the beauty of the checklist is that it inspires a person to new adventures and specific travel goals. If you’ve enjoyed the artwork and want a Travel Goals Master Checklist to display in your home or office, please visit my Custom Travel Art store, or my Etsy store to order a copy for yourself or the traveler in your life.

Coming soon, Part VI . . . Australia and Oceania


Have you been to any of these destinations? Or do you have a favorite in Asia that you feel should have made the list? Share it with your fellow travel lovers by leaving a comment!



Why the Taj Mahal Will Land Your Husband in Hot Water

The obligatory "Taj" portrait
The obligatory “Taj” portrait

“It appears like a perfect pearl on azure ground. The effect is such I have never experienced from any work of art” – British Painter, Hodges

“Not a piece of architecture, as other buildings are, but the proud passions of an emperor’s love wrought in living stones.” English Poet, Sir Edwin Arnold

“A massive marble structure, without weight, as if formed of ether, perfectly rational and at the same time entirely decorative, it is perhaps the greatest art work which the forming spirit of mankind has ever brought forth.”  German Philosopher, Count Hermann Keyserling

The Taj Mahal has received its fair share of accolades. All are entirely appropriate, I assure you. But when I joined the ranks of those fortunate travelers who have seen this magnificent tribute both to love and human endeavor with their own eyes, my quote might be considered far less eloquent. It goes as follows:

“Thanks a lot, hotshot! How am I supposed to compete with that?” – Travel Writer & Jealous Husband, Ben Pastore

Yes, widely considered to be the greatest monument to love, the Taj Mahal is an edifice truly without equal. The problem, you see, is that in constructing this crowning achievement of artistry and architecture, the emperor upped the ante for all future husbands, many of whom – like myself – are a few tens of millions of dollars short of competing, regardless of how deep and true our love and devotion to our wives may be.

Like I said. Thanks a lot.

Yet all is not lost. No husband since Shah Jahan (1592-1666) has been able to trump this particular card, and most wives have been able to get past it. Built essentially as a tomb for his beloved wife Mumtaz (who died while giving birth to their fourteenth child – apparently despite being royalty they didn’t have cable TV), this white marble jewel on the banks of the Yamuna River was erected to memorialize their great love. Ironically, being dead, she wasn’t around to witness the marvel he created in her behalf, leaving him to miss out on scoring what I’m sure would’ve been major brownie points. You fellow husbands can take comfort in knowing that despite all his efforts, the Shah ended up in the same boat as the rest of us, namely, that there’s just no winning.

Instead of just reciting facts and figures about the Taj that you can find in any Google search, I’ve decided to to present this piece as a guide to what to expect when visiting. For all you husbands, the first step is making sure that you tell your wife that you love her – perhaps that might soften her disappointment when she compares all you’ve done and given her with what she’s about to see. As for you wives, your first step should be to remember that very few women actually get to be an emperor’s wife, and you probably shouldn’t use the Taj Mahal as a legitimate gauge as to the depth of your marriage. Oh, and don’t be surprised if your husband starts buttering you up before you walk inside. He’s just trying to temper your disappointment in him.

The Taj Mahal receives many thousands of visitors daily, many of whom arrive in mid to late morning. To avoid the heaviest crowds and also catch the best lighting, come early and if at all possible, hire a guide. Doing so means that you won’t miss out on the myriad of intricacies and nuances that could easily be overlooked by someone who doesn’t know all there is to take notice of. They can also double as a marriage counselor should the need arise.

This world being what it is, one must pass through a security checkpoint and metal detectors before proceeding on to the main attraction. But you’ll get over that real fast as your see the gleaming white dome poking over the high walls leading to the entrance gate. If you’re prone to getting goosebumps, this is likely where they’ll start.

First sight
First sight

Passing through a dark tunnel, the Taj is framed by an archway that opens up to a viewing area that will give you your first glimpse at its ethereal splendor. Much like the dignitaries quoted above, describing accurately the sight of this pearlescent structure isn’t fully possible and you’ll probably burn through a thesaurus or two before even coming close.

As for myself, I remember thinking ‘I cannot believe a building could be so stirringly beautiful to look upon’. Glancing to my right and noting the look of awe in my wife’s expression, that thought was followed by ‘Man, am I in trouble’.

Due to the prevalence of wood-burning fires coupled with pollution, the skies of Agra have a gauzy, hazy quality, which when viewing the Taj Mahal give the tangible sensation of walking through a dream. Seeing the building reflected in the elongated pools in front of it, and the open-air backdrop (deliberately designed so that no other structure would be visible to spoil the view) it could also be compared to walking through every post card you’ve ever seen of it.

It may look doctored, but this image is 100% untouched
It may look doctored, but this image is 100% untouched

At the far end of the first pool is a raised marble platform offering more of the classic panoramas made famous in books and movies. Along the way are various vantage points dispersed throughout the manicured gardens where tourists can have their portrait taken for reasonable prices, and by doing so possibly score some points with the wife – maybe.

The artistry up close
The artistry up close

When you finally approach the building itself, you’ll be required to don the pair of slippers you’ll have been supplied with earlier when you entered, by fastening them over your shoes, thereby protecting the marble base and simultaneously polishing it as well. Here you will be struck by an overwhelming sense of symmetry as you contemplate the minarets (slightly off-plumb so that in the event of an earthquake they would fall outward, away from the tomb), arches and geometric designs. Boldly embossed on the fascia is a quote from the Quran, cleverly constructed in such a way that the text appears uniform despite the laws of optics that would dictate that the text at the top should appear smaller. I’ve got to hand it to the guy. He might have made life harder for the rest of us husbands, but he sure knew how to pick a winning design.

Yet it isn’t just the size and scope of the undertaking that leaves one so impressed. Examining the artistry up close to see the intricate designs in bas relief and the opalescent sheen of figures composed of semiprecious inlaid stones, I couldn’t blame my wife for being so impressed. It would take me a lifetime to replicate even one panel, yet it took only about 22 years to make the whole thing. Granted, Shah Jahan imported an entire army of artisans to work on it (of whom many of their descendants still ply the trade in craft factories and tourist traps just outside the grounds) but even so, considering the technology available at the time, that in itself is an amazing feat.

Inside the mausoleum there are a pair of (empty) cenotaphs for the Shah and his wife. I guess that’s sort of romantic if you don’t focus too closely on why they’re there. As far as final resting places go, it certainly trends to the opulent, once again putting me and every other husband I know at a disadvantage.

When it was time to leave, my wife posed the inevitable question as to what I would do for her in the event of her untimely demise. Feeling dreadfully inadequate, I calculated my best estimate and offered to build her an honorary gazebo. She didn’t say anything, but I got the distinct feeling that she wasn’t all that impressed.

The Taj Mahal will bring a gleam to your eye too
The Taj Mahal will bring a gleam to your eye too

The Taj Mahal, more than any other building on earth, is one of those places that must be observed in person in order to fully grasp its beauty. Sure, it might put a strain on your marriage but hey – so does football season. You wives must be prepared to forgive your husbands for their inability to match the tangible token of the immortal love of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz. And you husbands, bring your wives to see this wonder of the ancient and modern world even if you have no shot to compete. Maybe the fact that you’ve brought here will help her recognize that you’re really not such a bad guy after all.

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Why The World Heritage List Should Be On Yours

What do the Great Pyramid, Great Barrier Reef, and Great Wall of China all have in common, besides the title “great”? Interestingly, it is the same thing they have in common with the Tower of London, Mt. Kilimanjaro, and the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu. Give up? They are all considered World Heritage Sites, a designation by UNESCO-the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Great Wall, Ba da ling Section, Near Beijing, China
Great Wall, Ba da ling Section, Near Beijing, China

Regarding the World Heritage List, UNESCO’s stated goal is to “encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity.” In layman’s terms, it seeks to preserve the most meaningful, historic and naturally beautiful places on earth. And while the list’s occupants such as the historic center of Rome, or the Galapagos Islands may be familiar to most people, their status among the world’s premier destinations may be relatively unknown.

When it comes time for me to begin considering ideas for a trip—also known as: always—my first order of business is to peruse a given destination’s World Heritage Sites. It’s been my experience that in the 66 WHS I’ve visited (out of 981 total worldwide) every last one was worth the trip. Most are no-brainers. I mean, who doesn’t visit the Taj Mahal when in India? But there are lesser-known sites that were like finding hidden treasure. A case in point is the Goreme National Park, in the Cappadocia region of Turkey. This unique collection of troglodyte dwellings and surreal rock-formations is unlike anywhere else I’ve ever heard of—let alone visited. So as a rule of thumb, when considering a destination, always check to see if there are any World Heritage Sites within striking distance. Your photo album will thank you for it.

Goreme Open Air Museum, Goreme, Turkey
Goreme Open Air Museum, Goreme, Turkey

To find a complete list of World Heritage Sites along with more information, you can log onto the official web site at http://whc.unesco.org. There is also a fantastic unofficial site at www.worldheritagesite.org where travelers the world over post their comments, observations and words of wonder at these bright spots on the world map. After perusing them yourself, you just may be so moved with appreciation to include one or two of these World Heritage Sites on your next trip at home or abroad.

Have you visited a World Heritage Site? Tell me about it!