Monday, June 22, 2015

Savvy Traveler Tips: Always Chat Up the Taxi Driver

Traveling is fun, but it can come with its ups and downs. To ensure you have more high times, take heed of a few of these savvy traveler tips:

Map Your Itinerary. Capture all of your important travel details in one document: include flight itineraries, accommodation confirmations, transportation instructions, area attraction information, etc. In case your electronics aren't cooperating in your new locale, stash away a hard copy or two of this info in your bag. If you are traveling alone, or even if you aren't, it is a good idea to leave the details with a friend back home.

Notify Your People. It's a good idea to check your mobile phone plan to understand if it will be usable out of country. Some plans will show service but incur high roaming charges outside of your home country. It may also be wise to call your bank or credit card company to inform them of your travels; this will prevent undue stress if you plan on using your card while away. As an added bonus when traveling in Europe, secure a credit card with a chip embedded; this will allow you to use it at more businesses.

Travel Light. Avoid checked baggage at all costs. Do you really want to trust a handful of strangers with your stuff? I've traveled for six months with only a backpack and a roller board suitcase, both carried on the plane. Must haves: passport, electronics chargers, converters/adapters, comfortable shoes, luggage locks, neutral mix and match clothing, ear plugs, mosquito repellent, sunblock, toothpaste, sunglasses, camera, pens and paper, water bottle, over-the-counter medicines, and first aid kit.

Learn the Basics. When traveling to a new place, research the basics before you arrive. Learn how to say hello, please and thank you in the local language. Know the key facts about the location: time zone, currency, religions, attractions, inappropriate conversation topics. It's also good to research transportation and accommodation ahead of time and know which areas to avoid for safety reasons.

Carry Cash. When arriving in a new country, it's best to obtain some local currency before leaving the airport or train station. Make sure you have small bills and coins. It's also a good idea to stash away a few larger bills of your home currency in a safe place if by chance an emergency should arise.

Befriend a Taxi Driver. Who knows the city better than the local cab driver? Before jumping in, scope out the cab, tuk-tuk or bike taxi drivers fighting for your business. Select one who has a decent grasp of the English language and looks presentable. Strike up a conversation to learn a little bit about your new surroundings. What are a few of the most popular places to see? Any recommendations as to where to grab a bite to eat?

If you like what you hear, your new taxi driver friend just might be the most economical and pleasant way to explore your surroundings. I've done this in dozens of places and found that if you meet the right cabbie, you're set up for an unforgettable low-budget adventure.

Pictured here are a few of my favorite drivers/impromptu tour guides from Vietnam, Nepal, Cuba and Cambodia.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Bristol, New Hampshire: Rick's Roadside Grill - June 2015

Fancy a box of fresh-cut fries? How about a cup of slow-cooked chili or a bacon cheeseburger grilled fresh while you wait?

No need to see the hostess at a crowded restaurant, instead park yourself at a picnic table with a view of the river and stroll up to Rick's Roadside Grill.

A picturesque vacation spot year round, the northeastern area of the U.S. considered "New England" is comprised of the states of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. Each state is unique and boasts claims to fame from clear water lakes and rolling mountains to museums and amusement parks.

Rick's Roadside Grill sits in sleepy Bristol, New Hampshire off route 3A and just south of sprawling Newfound Lake. Swing by while you are passing through town to head to the 50,000 year-old polar caves or the White Mountain National Forest and order up a hearty meal cooked while you wait.

Rick started his picnic on wheels in 2014 with the goal of serving hot and tasty food for the locals and tourists alike. "I had always dreamed of opening up a hot dog stand," Rick explained with a smile. "A place where families could come and grab a bite while relaxing under a shade tree or reading the newspaper and enjoying the outdoors." Rick pursued his life-long dream and now is the owner operator of the Roadside Grill servicing middle New Hampshire - just the spot where he vacationed as a child with his grandparents every year from their home in New Jersey.

Whether you are enjoying the crystal clear lakes in the summer or leaf peeping in autumn, stop by the friendly food truck and say hello. You can indulge in a warmly-toasted BLT or grilled tomato and cheese sandwich, and while in the neighborhood may be interested in hiking the nearby trails over the rail bridge or fly fishing in the river that flows near the picnic grounds.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Siem Reap, Cambodia: See the Country through the Eyes of a Local

Guest Blogger: Sun Same
Cambodian Driver & Guide

My name is Sun Same. I am 29 years old, and I am an official English speaking guide and driver in Siem Reap. With 13 years experience, I have formal training in tourism and am very familiar with the Angkor Temples, the history of Cambodia as well as Cambodian culture and cuisine.

I was born in Siem Reap city. My father was killed during the Pol Pot era and my life has always been difficult. After the collapse of the Pol Pot government, the country needed peace; I firmly made up my mind to join the national service and experience the life of a soldier. When I was 15 years old, while helping my parents in the rice fields, I saw my friend talking to some foreigners. I asked my friend what language he spoke and where to learn it. After my friend told me, I immediately started learning English in my village. Through the years, I've learned that being a guide is more about bringing my country and the temples to life than just simply telling the facts.

Cambodia has emerged from its tragic past to become one of the most attractive tourist destinations in the Southeast Asia. Aside from the beautiful temples of Angkor, it is an exotic, mystical, enchanting country with an amazing history, spectacular ruins from the Khmer Empire, beautiful beaches, remote hill tribe villages, untouched nature and much more. Based on my experience, I have prepared the must see temples, as well as many of the smaller monuments that cannot be missed. This is a suggested itinerary that can be tailored to suit your interests:

Day 1: The Great Exploration of Angkor Temple
  • Angkor Wat: The most famous and best preserved of all temples within the Angkor complex and a magnificent ancient archaeological wonder of the world from early 12th century.
  • Bayon: Located in Angkor Thom city, with more than 200 splendid smiling faces over 54 towers. The city is also home to Phimeanakas, Baphoun, Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King.
  • Ta Phrom: One of the early temples in the jungle left to be reclaimed by Mother Nature and further made famous by the Hollywood movie, Tomb Raider.

Day 2:
Adventure to the Most Beautiful Carving Temple in Pink Color

  • Banteay Srie: Built during the Khmer Empire in the 10th century and located 40 kilometers north of Siem Reap, it is the most beautiful carving temple in pink color.
  • Banteay Samre: A miniature layout of Angkor Wat built in the early 12th century; this temple will help further understand the grandeur of Angkor Wat.
  • We will then take you through the local villages along the countryside and enjoy a spread of great local food followed by lazing in a hammock, or explore to see the traditional way of life and say hello to the Cambodians living there.
  • Pre Rup Temple: A large brick mountain built in the 10th century. At the end of the day, we will stop at Bakheng Mountain to see the sunset.

Day 3: More than Just Temples

  • Sunrise at Angkor Wat.
  • Tonle Sap: Take a glimpse of the daily life of the local people living along and visit the floating village in Tonle Sap which is the biggest fresh water lake in South East Asia. Tonle Sap was classified as a biosphere reserve by UNESCO in 1997 as it is one of the world’s most productive bodies of fresh water.
  • Beng Melea: One of the most beautiful jungle temples from the 11th century and located 60 kilometers northeast of Siem Reap. This is a newly discovered temple untouched by restoration.

I look forward to guiding you in experiencing our beautiful country and famous hospitality. We Cambodians are very gentle and friendly people, and I am sure you will enjoy your visit very much. I also have an excellent knowledge of the areas surrounding Siem Reap and would be happy to advise you on your vacation plans. I am a flexible tour guide and will happily discuss all options with you over email or when we meet in Siem Reap.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Top Ten Bizarre Foods: My Stomach Has Been Violated

Throughout my travels I've eaten a lot of questionable food - sometimes out of curiosity, often times to be polite and on few occasions due to downright hunger. While I've walked away from broiled dog in China and am still fearful of swallowing a live baby octopus in South Korea, I have boldly sampled these bizarre delicacies and lived to write about it:

10.) Durian Fruit (Southeast Asia): Served cold and sliced; a spikey melon-like fruit that locals adore. It smells like feet and tastes even worse. Don't let it near you - it can stink up anything within a five mile radius.

9.) Sea Urchin (St. Lucia): Served roasted with the spikes still intact on the outer shell. The putty-like body is pretty tasteless but the thorns can wreak havoc in your mouth. Completely overrated tourist trap.

8.) Shark (Thailand): Served diced in curries and stir-fries. Meaty and absorbs seasoning and sauce flavors well. Not too shabby - a lighter alternative to beef and chicken.

7.) Snake (China): Served shredded in a thin broth soup. Tastes like chicken; very mild, but watch out for the tiny bones.

6.) Poisonous Brain Mushrooms (Finland): Also referred to as gyromitra esculenta, the toxic shrooms must be boiled several times before being chopped and served in soups and sauces. One of the most delicious flavors I've ever tasted.

5.) Ox Tongue (Croatia): Served as a slab of meat, lightly seasoned. I couldn't get past the fact that I was eating an ox tongue. Just couldn't do it.

4.) Crickets (Thailand): Served dried and crispy; popular bar snack. Crunchy and leggy, but if you are craving something salty and have a beer to wash it down with, it isn't too bad.

3.) Donkey (China): Served cooked and thinly sliced with a plum sauce. More tender than beef and similar to dark meat chicken.

2.) Guinea Pig (Peru): Served roasted and plated with eyes, face and claws. This was a tough one for me. I took a few bites and was ill for a week. I don't enjoy my foot staring back at me.

1.) Squid Ink Sack (Philippines): Preparation and serving method unclear. All I know is that there was a large black ink sac on my plate. When I took a bite, the outer casing was reminiscent of gelatin and the inside had the consistency of thick caramel; it was exhausting to rid my teeth and lips of the salty, black substance.

Honorable mentions: rose petals (Estonia), kangaroo jerky (Australia), seaweed chips (Thailand), bear (Estonia), goat (India), snails (France), alligator (USA), and reindeer (Finland).

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Parikkala, Finland: The Lost Maiden's Freezing Glance - May 2015

Tucked in the southeastern Finland birch forest hugging the border with Russia is the small town of Parikkala. The sleepy town was once home to the most prestigious boarding school in all of Europe. Kings and queens and the most revered nobility would send their young boys all the way to Finland to receive the very finest education.

Boys were sent to the school at age eight and often times stayed on the school grounds until they graduated at age eighteen. The headmaster, the instructors and all the staff were men: all having attended the most reputable universities and having been hand-picked from throughout the world. The school was hidden in the forest to provide the pupils little distraction and to allow for the needed focus on their studies.

One crisp morning while the boys were taking part in their daily calisthenics, the most beautiful woman happened to stroll onto the school grounds. Having lost her way after picking blueberries, she heard the laughter from the school boys and sought help.

As the woman with sun-kissed golden hair walked up to the school yard, one by one she caught the gaze of the curious school boys and with her glance instantly froze them in their place. The woman ran through the grass to rescue the paralyzed boys but upon touch realized they had been turned to stone. Nearly one hundred years later, the stone bodies of the boys remain on the school grounds in the precise position in which they each saw the lost maiden.

Just kidding. No one really knows why Veijo Rönkkönen carved the more than 500 concrete statues, mostly of naked boys, in the forest, but it's an oddly fascinating sight and definitely worth a visit. According to the sculpture park's care takers, Patsapuisto is one of Finland's most popular tourist sites attracting upwards of 30,000 visitors annually.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Vyborg, Russia: A Stolen Finnish City - May 2015

The constitution of Finland declares that it is compulsory for all young men to serve at least one year in the military. The Finnish people see this as imperative so that the country can maintain a formidable presence and rally the needed resources in the event of war. The most likely threat: Finland's surly neighbor to the east, Mother Russia.

The small city of Vyborg sits in the northwestern part of Russia on the Gulf of Finland. Fewer than 100 miles from St. Petersburg, the town and its people have a storied and tumultuous history. Border lines have been drawn and redrawn in this area countless times over the last several centuries. The town's most recognizable landmark, Vyborg Castle, was originally built during the Third Swedish Crusade in 1293. Vyborg, with its desirable trading location on the gulf, was then a part of Sweden until it was captured by Russia in the early 18th century. Following the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917, border lines were once again redrawn, and Vyborg, sitting within the boundaries, emerged as part of the newly-independent country of Finland. Vyborg, called Viipuri in Finnish, flourished to 80,000 inhabitants under Finnish rule and became the second-largest city in the country behind Helsinki.

During World War II in the winter of 1939, the Soviet Union sought to take back the land of Vyborg and the Karelian Isthmus. Nearly all of the 80,000 residents were uprooted from their homes and evacuated to western Finland. For a brief period, the USSR successfully took control of the empty city; however, in 1941 Vyborg was recaptured by Finnish troops. Some 20,000 Finns returned to see more than half of their city destroyed, but sadly it wasn't long before they would need to evacuate again. Admitting defeat at the close of the war in which they sided with Nazi Germany, Finland officially relinquished the town of Vyborg and the Karelian Isthmus back to Soviet control in 1944. As with many areas in the western part of the country, people were gathered from all parts of the Soviet Union and sent to Vyborg to rebuild and occupy the empty and badly damaged town. Two naval bases were also built nearby.

The Finnish citizens who once called Viipuri home now require a visa to cross the heavily-armed border and visit Vyborg. With its colorful buildings and cobblestone streets, the city hints to a more prosperous time but is now trapped under the blanket of the current-day communist regime.