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Monday, April 29, 2013

Long Necked Karen Tribal Women of Burma

It is always very fascinating to see people follow their age-old traditions and practices that you would never see in the cities. Myanmar is a land of many tribes and hence it would not be surprising to see many of these ancient habits and traditions. Such a tribe are the Long Necked Karens, who are known for their giraffe necks.

Long Necked Karen Women of Inle Lake, Burma
These tribal women live in the Shan state of Myanmar and have also sought refugee in Thailand to seek better employment opportunities. These women wear heavy brass rings that weigh as much as 2 kilograms in their neck right from a very young age. It is believed that the long necks make their women look beautiful. Today, a lot of these tribal women have stopped this practice for their children, but still follow for themselves to make some money from tourism as tourists are happy to pay to see these giraffe necked women.

The heavy bronze rings that give these women their long necks
These women spend their time weaving scarves, longyis and other clothes and design wooden crafts. I saw them living peacefully in one of the villages on Inle Lake in the Shan State of Myanmar.

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Langkawi: Popular Beach Destination of Malaysia

A lot of locals say that Langkawi was named after the Brahminy Kite, a common bird of prey. But, that is very much debatable. The one thing that is not debatable is the fact that Langkawi is one of the more fiercely popular beach destinations of Malaysia. Its beautiful limestone cliff and forest archipelago of some 100 islands to the north of Penang has an abundance of beautiful scenery and white sandy beaches.

Langkawi Beach
Pantai Cenang and Pantai Tengah in the southwest are the most popular beaches lined with accommodation, restaurants and souvenir shops. In the northwest are the pretty beach of Burau Bay and the seven step Telaga Tujuh (Seven Wells) waterfall, while the Langkawi cable car brings you to the top of the 708 meter high Gunung Machincang for magnificent views of the surrounding forest and the Andaman sea. The northern beaches has some luxury resorts. Other activities include a limestone mangrove swamp tour in the Kilim nature park, island hopping to enjoy marvelous deserted beaches and snorkeling or diving in the clear waters at Pulau Payar.

To plan a Langkawi trip or a full blown Malaysian holiday, look up Malaysia Tourism. If you are flying from India, look up Make My Trip for some great deals and discounts.

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Vazhachal Forests: A fresh lease of oxygen in Kerala

In today’s world that is full of deadlines, a fast paced life, an increased need to earn money, man sacrifices some of those simple things that make life complete for him. In all this traffic and pollution of all kinds, the city dweller is too stressed and is in need of some pure air. If the above describes your current life and if you are in need for some fresh air, then make a visit to the Vazhachal forests of Kerala.

vazhachal forests of kerala
Vazhachal forests of Kerala, in my opinion is the lungs of the south of India. It’s super dense cover, cloud forests and tropical rainforests ensure that the air stays really pure and enriched with oxygen. Such is the pure levels of oxygen that one may get a high from breathing too much pure air. These forests are a great way to detox and lose all those stress from your body. An authentic Ayurveda massage in this terrain will do a miracle on you. A walk into the forests will invigorate your spirits. For those who like some adventure, Vazhachal forests plays host to a lot of wildlife and waterfalls. One of them includes the very famous Athirapally waterfall, nicknamed the Niagara of India where many Indian movies have been shot.

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Sunday, April 28, 2013

23 Random Things about Laos

I spent 3 weeks in Laos, meandering down from their northeastern border with Vietnam to their southern border with Cambodia. During these 21 days, I visited Muang Khua, Nong Khiaw, Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane, Pakse, Tad Lo and the 4,000 islands. Following are some interesting things I found about Laos while I explored different parts of the country over these three weeks.

1) Laos is may be the most laid back country in the world. Do not be surprised when it takes 2 hours for your order to be serviced in some places of Laos.

2) Laos have impeccable 2 lane highways running across their country from the north to the south. This was built by Japan in return for some of Laos’s forest cover.

3) Vientiane is possibly the quietest capital in the world.

4) After a lot of bad news over its drug related deaths, Vang Vieng sells no drugs by its river even though tubing activities have started off again.

5) This is one of those countries, which has 4,000 islands on its largest river, the Mekong.

6) When you wish Sabaidee (hello) to the Lao people, you are bound to be greeted with a louder Sabaidee and a huge smile.

7) Most of the country is mountainous terrain interspersed with large rivers.

8) There is a lot of Hinduism in the folklore of Laos.

9) The fish larp and sticky rice is one of the most favorite foods of Laos.

10) Even though Laos has a lot of forests, it is very difficult to find wildlife in them.

11) The boats of Laos use very low quality diesel and dump the exhaust on the surface of the water. This is bound to affect the country heavily in the long run as they are primarily a river-oriented economy.

12) Apart from tourism, there is hardly any noteworthy industry in Laos.

13) The Lao Kip is not valid outside of Laos.

14) Laos has plenty of waterfalls with copious amounts of water even during the dry season.

15) Thick Lao coffee with condensed milk and sugar is one of the highlights of Laos.

16) The easiest place to get a visa in the world is Laos’s capital Vientiane.

17) The people of Laos speak Thai as they watch Thai television, but this rule doesn’t apply to the people of Thailand.

18) Luang Prabang is a tourist town. The true Luang Prabang is on the other side of the Mekong river and is more a shanty town.

19) Some people in Laos are really rich. You can see this through Land Rovers, Range Rovers and other big cars in the capital near big houses. But, the bulk of the country is still very poor.

20) Laos drives on the right side of the road.

21) Some of the airports in Laos have the quickest security checks in the world. In some cities, the airport ends after its starts.

22) Laos has the largest waterfall in South East Asia.

23) There are places in Laos where time does not move. It crawls. People do things only if they really want to, unlike other places where they need to do work. And that is why a lot of tourists prefer to travel to Laos for a totally relaxing holiday.

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Shwe Na Di Guest House: Cheap Budget Accommodation in Nyaung Oo, Burma

Bagan is one of the more popular destinations of Myanmar and hence most of the hotels located close to the temple are moderate to expensive. The budget travelers stay at a town close to Bagan called Nyaung Oo. This is where the bus stand is and this is where one can find a huge variety of budget accommodation. I stayed at the Shwe Na Di Guest House for 6 days and 5 nights. Below review is based on my recent experience of staying there.

1) Like most of the budget hotels in Myanmar, too much should not be expected of this one too. The rooms are spartan, has an old fan and air conditioner and hard beds.

2) The cost in this guest house is very attractive. For $15, two can share an air conditioned room with a shared bathroom. The bathroom has squat styled toilets. The cost for a similar single room is USD 10. The cost for rooms with attached bathrooms and western toilets are USD 20 and 25.

3) Free breakfast is included into the cost of every room. Breakfast includes bread, butter, jam, fruits and tea/coffee.

4) They are one of the fewer guest houses to have free wi-fi and that too in working condition. I was happy to have been able to make daily skype calls, sketchy, but they did the job.

5) Electricity was sporadic in Nyaung Oo, which is how it is in the rest of Myanmar. The guest house didn’t have a backup power generator. So, during electricity cuts, no fan or AC would work. Nor would be wifi work.

6) The best thing about the guest house are the people running it. They are very helpful and try to make your stay as comfortable as possible. They arrange bicycles, horse carts, taxis and even book bus and flight tickets and all this at zero margins.

7) Old Bagan is a one hour walk walk or a 20 minute bicycle ride away. This is one of the tougher parts of the deal, but the good thing is that it allows you to see temples that start right out of Nyaung Oo.

8) The Nyaung Oo market is a 10 minute walk away and can provide an interesting experience.

9) A lot of good, cheap to moderately expensive restaurants are located close to the guest house. This allows you to save on your food bill, which would have been much higher if you had stayed in Bagan.

10) The bus stand is just a 7 minute walk away from the guest house.

Even though the heat and the lack of electricity didn’t go well with me, I liked this guest house and Bagan. The guest house is ideal for budget travelers and backpackers.

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Thursday, April 25, 2013

Travel Photo: Pharmacy Shop on Inle Lake, Burma

When you travel, you see a lot of interesting things, behavioral patterns, culture, food and more. When I was exploring the area around Inle Lake, I was in this market that was supposed to the be local market for that day (In Inle, the markets change locations every day). This is the kind of market, the locals goes to buy everything from vegetables, meat, groceries, hardware, fertilizer, DVDs and even medicines. 

A Pharmacy Shop in Inle's markets, Myanmar
I have seen many kinds of pharmacy shops, but I don’t think I have seen seen one where all the medicines were laid out at ground level and the only thing protecting these medicines from the elements is a tin roof above it. May be, such a shop in itself is a luxury for the people living on the Inle Lake as getting to a doctor or a proper pharmacy shop must be expensive and require lots of travel.

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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Smiling Burmese Kids: A Photo Essay

Taking photos of kids is the most difficult, but if successful, it can be very rewarding. I was rewarded when I was sitting in the shade of the Sule Pagoda in Yangon on a hot summer day. While I was sitting and hearing an old man explain the Theravada Buddhist religion and culture to me, I noticed a group of kids watching me intently. As is my nature, I waved and smiled at them. They returned the smile, but did not venture further. I tried breaking the ice, but the kids were very shy. I tried some of my usual antics and then tried waving my camera at them. Slowly, one kid moved in closer and posed. I clicked his picture and showed it to him. He was happy and so were the others. Now, everyone wanted to pose for my camera and it was even better when they started smiling, laughing and playing antics.  

Two Burmese Boys at Sule Pagoda, Yangon, Burma
There were 2 boys and 2 girls in the group. The girls were quieter and shy, while the boys were more bold. One in particular was very rowdy and was pulling the leg of the others. As a photographer, it was very heartening to see smiling faces look into my lens. While they kept smiling, I kept clicking and then showed them the results, which in turn made them smile even more.  

Smiling Burmese Kids at Sule Pagoda, Yangon, Burma
I had a great time photographing these kids. I was so happy with the interaction that I bought a popsicle for all the kids as a reward for their smiling faces. The hot day and the water festival was just an added incentive. While I was buying these kids popsicles, the other kids thought that I was buying all kids popsicles, so they joined in on the fun. They were all adorable kids and the cost of the popsicle wasn’t much, so in the end, I ended up buying all the popsicles from the popsicle vendor. The kids were happy, the popsicle vendor was happy and I was happy. And it was happy new year day too.  

Smiling Burmese Girls at Sule Pagoda, Yangon, Burma 
Young Burmese Boys pose for the camera at Sule Pagoda, Yangon, Burma 
Friendly Kids at Sule Pagoda, Yangon, Burma 
I hope you like these smiling Burmese kids.

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Burmese Billiards

Have you ever imagined a game of billiards, snooker, 8 ball or 9 ball without a cue stick? Well, the Burmese imagined such a game. This game is played more or less all over the country and is fiercely popular in the Shan State of Myanmar. I saw this game in live action in one of the markets on the Inle Lake. The game is a mix of traditional billiards and carom board.

Burmese Billiards played with the hands at Inlay, Burma
Basically, the table looks like a large carom board and instead of the balls, there are flat coins that have numbers and colors. Instead of the cue ball, they have a striker coin which is white. They even keep the scoring pattern of billiards in this game. I don’t know what this game is called in Myanmar, but it sure did look interesting.

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Monday, April 22, 2013

ATMs everywhere in Myanmar

Myanmar (Burma) is developing rapidly and is quickly embracing the global practices as it gets more open in its political situation. Earlier, when tourists used to visit Burma, they used to carry huge bundles of pristine US Dollars to take care of their expenses. Today, it is not required to carry as many US Dollars as ATMs can be found everywhere in Myanmar, especially in the bigger towns where they can be seen in all the important areas. The two main banks are KBZ bank and CB bank, while other banks like AGD Bank and others are quickly catching up.

ATMs can now be found everywhere in Myanmar
KBZ bank caters to visa, CB bank accepts mastercard and AGD Bank accepts Union Pay cards. All the ATMs allow you to withdraw up to $1200 per day with a maximum limit of $360 per transaction. KBZ bank charges about $6 per transaction as their fee, while CB bank charges $5. Myanmar kyats are widely accepted all over Myanmar. In fact, it is the de facto currency for food, bus commute and miscellaneous expenses. It is only for hotel stays, train tickets, flight tickets, ferry tickets, entrance fees and other government related fees that one needs to pay in US Dollars. However, even here, in some cases, one can pay using Myanmar Kyats. It is so much easier for travelers to manage their finances in Myanmar.

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Gold Star Hotel, Nyaung Shwe: Comfortable Hotel near Inle Lake

Inle lake is one of Burma’s main tourist attractions and hence it is no surprise that there are a lot of accommodation options in Nyaung Shwe (budget) and on the lake (luxury). Nyaung Shwe is a small town and hence it is easy to get around between the hotels. While I was here, I stayed at the Gold Star Hotel in one of the inner lanes of Nyaung Shwe and near the main temple area. I stayed here for 3 days and 2 nights and the below review is based on my recent experience here.

1) The Gold Star Hotel is one of the more decent budget places in Nyaung Shwe. They offer large rooms for a competitive price, free internet, hot showers, free breakfast and more.

2) For USD 25, one can get a large room with an attached bathroom. During the day, one has to use the fan and during the night, the temperature drops so much that it becomes very comfortable to sleep in a blanket.

3) They are one of the few places in town to have free wi-fi. The speed was very respectable as I could do a skype call. The only problem was that during my last night the internet stopped working, but apparently the internet stopped working in the whole town.

4) The people running the hotel are very helpful and help you with maps, directions, things to see, do and more.

5) The reception arranges boat trips, ticket booking, trekking trips and more. Their prices are very competitive and sometimes it is cheaper to book boat trips at the reception than directly going to the boat driver.

6) Since Nyaung Shwe is a small town, getting around is very easy. The market is a 10 minute walk away. This is where all the banks, grocery stores and booking agencies are present. The restaurants are spread all over the town and some of them are very close to the hotel.

7) The hotel serves free breakfast in the morning between 6 AM and 9 AM and the food is tasty and filling.

If you are looking for comfortable budget stay in Nyaung Shwe, this hotel offers a good option. I would be happy to stay at this hotel again when I return to Inle Lake.

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Friday, April 19, 2013

Travel Photo: Burmese Longyi Shop

If there is a country that wears its national dress all year around, it has to be Burma. The Longyi is their national dress and worn by both men and women. While the men wear more checks and boxes, the women prefer floral patterns and more bright colors. Everyone in Burma seems to love this dress. Do not be surprised when you see political leaders, policemen, bus drivers, railway officials, airline officials and normal people wear this for their day-to-day jobs and lives.

Longyi Shop at Bago, Burma
And since there is a huge need, longyi shops can be seen almost in every important area of a town. I saw this shop while entering a pagoda in Bago. A longyi costs between 3000 and 10000 kyats. The ones made in India are more expensive. For those who are from South India, the Burmese Longyi is exactly the South Indian lungi, but knotted in a different way.

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Thursday, April 18, 2013

Tokyo Guest House: Great Guest House in Yangon’s Center

There are a lot of guest houses in Yangon’s city center, but is very difficult to find a quality place to stay for a budget price. It took me 4 hours to find such a place and that place is Tokyo Guest House where I ended up staying 7 days and 6 nights. The below review is based on my recent experience of staying here.

1) Like most of the hotels in the city center, one of the plus points of Tokyo Guest House is its location, its proximity to the Sule Pagoda, the bus stops, the super markets, the ferry terminal, the train station and the umpteen number of lip smacking restaurants located close by.

2) The guest house has a wide variety of rooms catering to different budgets. They have a single fan room for $11 and air conditioned double rooms for $22, $24 and $26. With the increasing price, one gets more space in the room. All the rooms are fairly good with good lighting, plug points, ventilation and air conditioning.

3) Good Burmese breakfast is provided at the guest house every morning. This breakfast is free and is included in your room price. Apart from breakfast, they provide water, soft drinks, iced coffee and beer for an additional price.

4) They have free wi-fi that works fairly good for email and chat, but it can get patchy during skype calls. I guess that is the case with the other places in Burma.

5) One of the main attributes of this place are its people: its Japanese owner and the Burmese manager and his team who are very helpful and ensure that they address all of your needs. I could understand Burma and Yangon, in particular because of the manager who speaks very good English and is very knowledgeable.

6) They provide laundry and ticket booking services for a price.

7) Even though the guest house is located in the city center, it is located on a street that has less traffic and hence less noise. There is absolutely no noise in the night and early morning hours.

8) Like most of the hotels in Yangon, this one too has a shady entrance, but that is where the bad part ends and the good part begins.

I really liked staying at this place and will definitely stay here when I return to Yangon. I highly recommend this place for backpackers, budget travelers and couples. And perfect for travelers from Japan as most of the guest house staff speak Japanese.

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Monday, April 15, 2013

Vientiane: The quietest capital in the world

The capital of a country is supposed to be real busy as it is generally the largest city in the country and is the political hot seat, which means more or less all important decisions are taken in that city. And because of these reasons, the capitals are generally the most crowded, most polluted and most populated part of the country, but when I arrived at Vientiane, the capital of Laos, I was in for pure shock.

The calm Phat That Luang in Vientiane, Laos
Vientiane, in spite of having all the perks of a capital city has a very easy and relaxed atmosphere, which is very much symbolic of Laos. There is no hassling for the tourist, there are hardly any crowds, the cars are less in number, everything is very quiet and relaxed that you hardly feel you are in the capital of a country.

Patuxay Victory Gate, An important landmark in Vientiane, Laos
The life is easy here for a tourist. Most of the places can be either covered by foot or on a bicycle. The traffic is so easy that there is hardly any trouble. Only the sun can get a bit harsh. But, for that, you either stay indoors in a restaurant or in one of the many wats (temples) near the river. During the evening as the weather cools down a bit, the life next to the market wakes up with the night markets and one can enjoy a sunset over the Mekong.

Hazy Sunset over the Mekong River at Vientiane, Laos
If you wish to enjoy the city in a relaxed way, which is the way it should be done, visit the morning market near the shopping mall for a flavor of locals Laos markets, see the Patuxay victory monument to find out what makes the people of Laos really proud and the very revered and calm Phra That Luang, the largest stupa in Laos.

Phat That Luang - One of Laos's main monuments at Vientiane, Laos
Then, there are many temples in and around town that can be visited at leisure. The French colonial buildings and the big buildings running the country of Laos. Wherever you go and whatever you do, you will definitely not miss the easy pace of life here. And that is why Vientiane is the quietest capital in the world for me.

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Travel Photo: Yellow Scooter at Luang Prabang, Laos

I was walking through the UNESCO World Heritage old town of Luang Prabang and had just visited the very beautiful Wat Xieng Thong, the temple of the golden city. I was walking through lanes of French colonial buildings when I saw this beautiful yellow scooter that stood contrasting against the dull green doors of a colonial building.

Scooter in Luang Prabang, Laos
And to add to it was the red tiles of the flooring. This setting make a very colorful frame tempting me to photograph it. You can see a lot of similar scooters in Luang Prabang, but this was the one with the bright yellow color.

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Sunday, April 14, 2013

Yangon and Kolkata: Why they are similar?

From the moment I stepped foot in Yangon, I have been feeling that I am in Kolkata, but in a different time. May be, a time before I was born. I have lived in Kolkata and now I am exploring Yangon and see a lot of similarities. Below are the similarities that have come to my attention so far.

Colonial Building in Yangon, Burma
1) Both cities have got their name changed. Calcutta to Kolkata and Rangoon to Yangon.

2) Both cities were capitals of the British empire in their respective geographies.

3)They share a similar weather pattern, which is warm and humid throughout the year with a strong monsoon season.

4) They have colonial buildings everywhere in the city.

Sule Pagoda, Yangon, Burma
5) They have a multi-cultural population that is cosmopolitan and spans many religions.

6) They love their street food. Noodles, fish and potatoes are a favorite.

7) Both cities are close to the Bay of Bengal, but don’t have a beach.

8) They have a big river’s distributary flowing next to it. Kolkata has the Hooghly river. Yangon has the Yangon river.

Shining Sule Pagoda from the top of a pedestrian bridge, Yangon, Myanmar
9) Both cities are next to a delta of the country’s largest rivers. Kolkata is close to the Sunderbans, the delta of the Ganges and Yangon is close to the Ayerawaddy delta.

10) The people in both cities are very nice, very cultural and very colorful.

11) The men of both the cities like chewing betel nuts and paan.

12) Both places celebrate their festivals with great gusto.

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Saturday, April 13, 2013

Happy Thingyan (New Year) from Yangon, Burma

It is New Year time in South East Asia and South India. To be specific, it is the New Year in Burma, South India, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and South China. I am in Burma to celebrate their New year which is called Thingyan. This is to celebrate the movement of the sun from Pisces to Aries and is celebrated all over the country as the water festival.

Enjoying the water festiaval - Thingyan at Yangon, Burma
This festival typically lasts 4 days in full fervor, but the whole country comes to a stop for 6 days. Since this also coincides with the summer holidays in schools, it is celebrated with full enthusiasm all over the country. I am in Yangon currently and have been seeing the events unfold from yesterday.

Water Festival at Myanmar
There are big water stations located at all important locations of the city and the smaller water stations can be seen all around. Then, there are people using water guns, buckets and mugs to splash water around all the tourists and locals. This is part of the fun and you can repay the favor too by splashing water from your side. The most fun comes with the water stations, both big and small. While the big ones have live music being played, it is the small ones that use fore hoses to wash you down with full intensity.

A water station near Sule Pagoda, Yangon, burmaIn the big ones, it is more like sprinklers that make it feel like widespread rain. Both the small and big water stations are enjoyable especially if it is a hot day. Both of them are organized with a dedicated passage for vehicles to enter and the stations are wide so everyone gets an opportunity to get fully drenched. I have been enjoying the water festival for the last two days and I hope to keep enjoying the next four days. The only thing to keep in mind while you enjoy the water festival is keep your money and gadgets dry by keeping in a waterproof or dry bag.

Happy Thingyan to all of you from Myanmar!

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Friday, April 12, 2013

Cruising Scandinavia and the Baltic region

Cruise holidays have become about much more than sun-decks and cocktails in recent times and nowhere is this demonstrated more potently than in Scandinavia and the Baltic Region. Visiting cultural meccas like Helsinki, pushing the boundaries of the Arctic Circle in Greenland, travelling all the way east to St Petersburg and embarking on Norwegian fjord cruises, these cold climes offer fantastically varied voyages on the waves.

Typical North European itineraries set sail from ports like Copenhagen or Hamburg and either hop from capital to capital, or concentrate on specific Baltic regions such as Stockholm's islands. But it's along the extensive coastline of Norway where the Scandinavian cruise trip really comes into its own.

The sparkling fjords and snow-covered ports of the Norwegian coast have been attracting attention from holiday-makers all over the world, and deservedly so. A country perfectly suited to sea exploration, World Heritage sites like Geirangerfjord, the chill beauty of the North Cape and modern cities like Bergen make Norway an essential segment of a northern sea trip.

To get the full Norwegian experience, make time for an eight or 11-night cruise of the west coast, beginning in Bergen and cruising through no less than 34 ports, plenty of those famous fjords and, if you travel in summer, the magic of the Northern Lights. Night-time dockings are made even more special with the midnight sun out in full force during the warmer months.

Journeys turn heel at Kirkenes, near the Russian boundary, but not before taking in the verdant mountains and magnificent waterfalls around Geiranger and remote islands like Mageroya, home to the most northerly fishing village on earth. In addition, there are also mini-cruises to explore Oslo's breathtaking estuary in depth or discover the Arctic delights around Lofoten and the Trollfjord in the far north.

In fact, there are few places in the world that resemble the splendor of the Norwegian countryside, and with tour operators specializing in fjord cruises as well as multi-country options, there are many opportunities to see it first-hand. With ships departing from various UK ports including Southampton and Dover, you won't even need to fork out for an airfare to make a start on the Scandinavian adventure of a lifetime.

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Thursday, April 11, 2013

Best shopping streets in Europe

During a visit to Europe, you'll want to be sure to check out some of the city's very best shopping streets. Spend a few hours, a few days or your entire stay browsing through the wide variety of stores found here, carrying everything from the latest apparel to hit the fashion industry to fun souvenirs to take home for friends and loved ones. The best way to shop within Europe is to use credit cards from American Express. Travelling with credit is much safer than carrying around large sums of cash with you on the streets. In addition to all of the amazing safety features that credit cards offer, you may even be able to take advantage of special discounts and receive points just for doing what you love best, shopping!

Oxford Street in London Oxford Street is known around the world as one of the best shopping streets out there. This world renowned street is one of the largest and busiest destinations for shopping in the entire world. Here you will find a wide selection of flagship stores, larger shops, department stores and locally owned businesses offering merchandise at all price ranges. From upscale boutiques to affordable chain stores, Oxford Street has it all. Some of the most popular stores that visitors will find here include none other than Selfridges, Topshop, House of Fraser and HMV.

Grand Vía in Madrid Grand Vía is known as one of the most upscale shopping streets in all of Madrid, Spain. Starting out at Calle de Alcalá, the Grand Vía shopping district stretches all the way to Plaza de España. In addition to shopping, this street is also home to a variety of entertainment venues, restaurants and hotels. Local shops and commercial stores can be found while walking around this tall-building lined street.

Avenue Montaigne in Paris Located in Paris, France is the famous Avenue Montaigne. Because Paris is known as one of the fashion capitals of the world, Avenue Montaigne features many luxurious boutiques and high-end stores for your shopping pleasure. Splurge on fine jewellery and apparel from shops such as Moët Hennessey Louis Vuitton, Dior, Chanel and Ralph Lauren. While this street was once known for women who would gather to mourn here in the early 18th century, it has now transformed into one of the most popular high fashion shopping streets in all of Europe as well as in the world.

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19 Random Things about Vietnam

I spent 33 days traveling the whole length of Vietnam from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh city), Mui Ne, Nha Trang, Danang, Hoi An, My Son, Hue, Ninh Binh, Hanoi, Cat Ba Island, Halong Bay, Sa Pa and Dien Bien Phu. It was during this interesting journey that I experienced and came to know some of the below interesting things about Vietnam.

1) If you are born a male in Vietnam, you are supposed to smoke. If a male does not smoke, he is not considered a male in his group and is rejected by his friends. The men smoke absolutely anywhere, inside homes and inside air conditioned buses.

2) The women in Vietnam do more work then the men.

3) In Vietnam’s tourism world, prices are always over-exaggerated and that leads to a huge bargaining potential.

4) The Vietnam script uses the English alphabets with some notations for their various tones.

5) Apart from the tourism belt, most of the country does not speak English.

6) A Hindu empire can be found in the center of Vietnam.

7) It is very difficult to find vegetarian food in Vietnam. They use chicken and pork in all their dishes for flavor. Even the broth in the soup is either from beef or chicken. And the best part is that all the meat is of very less quantity.

8) Vietnam’s favorite sport is baseball. They watch it with as much fervor as the Thai do with Thai boxing and the Indians do with cricket.

9) Halong bay is very beautiful, but also equally dirty.

10) The people in the countryside who are far away from the easy money from tourism are very nice and welcoming. It is just the opposite with the others.

11) The country comes to a standstill during their New Year ‘Tet’ and the whole country can be seen holidaying for as much as 10 days at a stretch. This is also the time that all the hotels get over booked, the public transport prices go over the roof and even restaurants hike up their prices.

12) Vietnam is growing at a rapid pace and this can be seen in the increased developments taking place and can be felt in the poor quality of the air in the cities.

13) Clothes are very cheap in Vietnam and they are known for stitching a quality suit in less than 24 hours in Hoi An.

14) Most of the country’s ocean is cold water, which is very unlike the rest of South East Asia.

15) Half of the country is in love with Ho Chi Minh and the other half do not want to talk about him.

16) Pho or noodle soup is like the national dish of Vietnam. It can be found all over the country in different broths and in different forms (color, texture).

17) Vietnam has sleeping buses or nicknamed the capsule, due to the individual beds that are extremely short even for the tall Vietnamese.

18) Meat desserts and meat cakes are a favorite here.

19) There are places in Vietnam that see four seasons in a single day.

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River Garden Guest House: Simple Wooden Huts next to the river on the South side of Don Det, 4000 Islands, Laos

Don Det and Don Khon in the 4,000 islands is a great place to relax for a long time. While Don Det’s north side is the sunset side and the more busier side, the south side of Don Det and Don Khon is the more quieter side. I stayed on the south side of Don Det at the River Garden Guest House for 2 days and 2 nights. The below review is based on my recent stay with them.

1) For 30,000 kip, you get your own hut with a double bed and an attached bathroom and a private sit out with 2 hammocks.

2) The hut is close to the river and is separate from other properties.

3) They have an in-house restaurant that serves good food. The other restaurants are a short walk away.

4) Since this guest house is on the south side of the island, it doesn’t get too warm inside the huts even in summer.

5) There is free wi-fi at the guest house, but only till 10:30 pm in the night when the router gets switched off.

6) The rooms have mosquito nets and a fan, but nothing more in terms of luxury. They are very basic.

7) There is no hot shower in the bathroom.

8) The busier side of the island is the north side and that is where the bulk of the restaurants and shops are. So, it will take you about 30 minutes to walk to that side from the guest house. But, that is the point of staying away from the crowd.

9) The Don Khon bridge and the waterfalls are a short walk or ride away. For the big waterfall, one needs to take a boat.

This is a great place if you are a budget traveler who is looking for some quiet place to read a book, spend some time with your partner, do some relaxed swimming and/or just put your feet up on a hammock.

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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Vibrant Casino Experience of Macau: The Monte Carlo of the Orient

When one thinks of casinos, it is always Las Vegas. For most of us, that is the first and the only thing that comes to our mind, but may be that is because of the movies. But, what people do not know is that the casinos of Macau has more gambling revenues than the ones in Las Vegas. Traditionally, Macau, located on the east coast of China and south of Hong Kong was known to be a Portuguese old colony with some heritage monuments, churches and good Portuguese tarts and other baked items. Gambling used to exist, but in a very nascent form and preferred only by people from China.

Night Lights at Casino Lisboa, Macau
Today, casinos account for more than half of Macau’s GDP. The biggest players are from China and Hong Kong. Casinos are such a big attraction here that people from Hong Kong and mainland China come every weekend to try their luck and this has led to a special weekend price in Macau where the price of hotels and everything related to tourism doubles for the weekend. This increased demand for gambling has ensured that the traditional Chinese style of gambling got morphed into the more international style with more western casino brands joining in on the casino brigade.

Colorful Casino District of Macau
The demand is so high that the tourists who come to Macau are more casino tourists than general tourists looking to explore the UNESCO World heritage site, eat some local food and do some shopping. The casinos and their five star hotels have risen up to this demand by coming up with great shows and unique experiences. Some do the laser show. Some do the water show. Others do the culture show with dragons and more. Then, there is the house of the dancing water, a very popular dance show. All these shows evolved around the casino business.

Vibrant Grand Lisboa Hotel at Night
There are about 33 casinos in Macau. Some of the key names include ‘The Venetian’, Wynn Casino, Casino Lisboa, Sands Casino and others. Out of these the biggest is the Venetian, which is entirely modeled after Venice and has its own waterways and gondolas. A lot of tourists who come to Macau over the weekend have just enough time to explore the Venetian. Such is its size. The best part about all these casinos is that anyone can enter, play any amount of money and play any game of their liking. All you need to be is dressed decently. This is not because it is a rule, but it is because everyone else is very well dressed and if you are dressed poorly, then you stand out easily.

Wynn and MGM Hotels also decked up at Macau
Inside the casino, you can notice a multitude of games being played: poker, blackjack, roulette, boule, Sic bo, Fan Tan, keno, slot machines of amazing varieties and much more. Depending on one’s budget, one can pay the cash and get the equivalent in chips and pick any table or machine of their liking. If you are new to the gambling world, it is worthwhile to be a spectator on a table or a slot machine, just to help you understand the rules and the possible techniques of winning. If you are on a short time leash, you can practice online though online gambling sites and hone your skills. Ideally, this should help you understand the basics and even some level of logic, but it is much different when you play on a table with real people.

Colourful lane of casinos in Macau
The casino life begins after sunset and goes on till sunrise. It is during this time that you will find that the Chinese are getting very rich and also see some of the finest cars and clothes on display. The latest Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche, Rolls Royce, etc would be vrooming their engines in the quiet night of Macau and all the people sitting inside it would display their Gucci, Versace, Armani, Prada and other designer labels. These casinos form a good holiday for the normal tourist who is looking to break away from his monotonous life and indulge in some fun.

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Tamnak Lao Restaurant: Best for Lao Food!!

Unlike Thai, Malaysian or Vietnamese Food, Lao food is not that popular the world over. But, that is not because the food is not good, but that there is hardly anyone who is taking Lao food to the masses. It is only when you get to Laos and taste the food that you know it can be a cuisine on its own in an international kitchen. One such restaurant, which is a good exponent of this tasty cuisine is Tamnak Lao. Tamnak Lao is located in Luang Prabang and Vientiane where it is not too far away from the most popular sights in these respective cities.

Tamnak Lao Restaurant - Great place to eat Lao Food
This restaurant, which doubles up as a cooking school dishes out a great variety of Lao food and its specialties include the Lao Fish Larp, steamed Lao fish in banana leaf, Lao Salad, Bamboo Salad and more. In Vientiane, they are only open during the evenings, while at Luang Prabang, they are open both for lunch and dinner. The restaurant staff speak decent English and will ensure that you have a great dining experience. In fact, this is one of their better selling points. The food here is slightly on the expensive side, but once you get a taste of their food, you are bound to return many times in spite of it putting a strain on your wallet. In addition to their great food, they have dedicated menus for vegetarians and diabetics, which augurs well for those with special needs too.

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Saigon Champasak Guest House, Pakse: Luxury for reasonable price

When I was scouring the roads of Pakse in search of budget accommodation, I found out that all the truly budget guest houses were full and that is how I landed at the Saigon Champasak Guest House. Even though, it is slightly pricey when compared to the budget guest houses, it is total bang for the buck and gives you essential luxury for the hot summer at a reasonable price. I stayed here for 3 nights over two separate trips and this review is based on my recent experience.

1) For 80,000 kip or USD 10, one can get a large air conditioned room with wardrobes, an attached bathroom with good hot shower, a TV set, a fridge and a very comfortable double bed.

2) This guest house is the type of place you would stay if you want to take some quality rest or want to get your strength back or simply indulge in some luxury.

3) The place is run by a Vietnamese family who don’t speak much of English, but are very helpful. They ensure that your stay is as worry free as possible.

4) Wi-fi is free and the speed is among the faster ones in Pakse. They have a router for each floor which helps.

5) Like most other guest houses in Pakse, this one too is situated close to all the restaurants, booking agencies and supermarkets.

6) The best part about the rooms in this guest house is that the rooms and the bathrooms smell fresh and the rooms are very well aired.

This guest house is ideal for budget travelers who can speak a bit more than true budget. And it is definitely worthwhile for people seeking rest.

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Beating the heat with a Buffalo

A couple of days back, I was in Don Det, one of the 4,000 islands on the Mekong river that is located in Southern Laos. The temperature was in the early 40’s, but it felt like it was in the late 40’s. In addition, it was extremely humid and sticky. I was feeling so hot that me and the other folks decided that a swim in the Mekong would be the most appropriate activity at that point in time.

Sharing the Mekong waters with a buffalo to beat the heat at Don Det, Laos
And when we reached the sunset beach on the island, we were pleasantly surprised to see the tourists sharing the waters with a domestic water buffalo. Both of them badly needed to cool down and nothing better than sharing the waters of the mighty Mekong. Some of the tourists were even kind enough to give the buffalo a bath. The buffalo seemed to enjoy it. In line with the other tourists and the buffalo, me and my fellow traveler friends also dove in and shared the water with everyone else.

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Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Tad Lo: The Scenic Waterfall Town in Southern Laos

Laos is a country that is possibly the most easy paced in Asia and it has a lot of places where one can unwind and relax a long while. Tad Lo, located in the Bolavan plateau of the South of Laos is one such place. It is one place where you can find a swift flowing river and lots of water in its waterfalls in the peak of summer. And it is also the place where you can get some of the best coffee in Laos as most of Laos coffee is grown in the Bolavan Plateau.

The Beautiful Waterfall at Tad Lo, Bolavan Plateau, Laos
Generally, tourists give the Bolavan plateau a miss and visit the more touristy places of 4,000 islands, Pakse and Champasak in the South Laos, but if you are a traveler, you will hire a motorbike in Pakse and do either the short loop (Pakse –> Tad Lo –> Pakxong –> Pakse) or the long loop (Pakse –> Tad Lo –> Salavan –> Seekong –> Pakxong –> Pakse). The short loop should take you 2 days, while the longer one will take you 3-4 days.

Tad Lo Waterfall, South Laos
It is during this journey that you will come across Tad Lo, a sleepy town located next to a fast flowing mountain river and a lovely waterfall that is perfect for a shower in the summer. All the guest houses are either located close to the river or the waterfall and thus provide easy access. The cost of stay and food here is possibly the lowest in Laos and the people are very nice, making it a perfect place to enjoy a long countryside holiday. The dense green cover, the fast flowing rivers and the umpteen number of waterfalls close by make it a hot favorite for me in Laos.

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Monday, April 08, 2013

Mamapap Homestay: Less than $1 for stay

Cheap homestay accommodation, lots of good food for a cheap price and friendly family members is how I would describe Mamapap Homestay that is located in the village of Tad Lo and close to the Tad Lo waterfall in the Bolavan Plateau of Southern Laos. I have been traveling for 5 months now across South East Asia and have never stayed in a place that cost me less than $1. I paid a little over $1 in Vietnam, but the 7,500 kip ($0.95) that I paid for a bed in Mamapap Homestay is the cheapest that I have stayed anywhere. Due to time constraints, I was able to stay at Mamapap Homestay only for a night. Below review is based on my recent stay here.

1) For less than $1, this place is a steal. For this price, you get a big double bed (that you need to share for 7,500 kip or take the full one for $15,000 kip) with a mosquito net in a room with 7 or 8 other such beds. There are two fans for the room. The room is warm in summer when you sleep, but as the night sets in, its gets pleasant.

2) The homestay comes with its own restaurant that delivers some lip smacking fare in jumbo sizes. For $1 or $2, you will get meals that will ensure that you stay full for a very long while.

3) The place does not have wi-fi like most of Tad Lo, but if you want to use the internet, you can go to the café opposite the homestay and use it on a pay per use basis.

4) The elderly lady running the place is very kind, speaks some basic English and is very resourceful.

5) The waterfall is located just a short walk away and hence one can enjoy a swim and a shower almost any time of the day.

6) The toilet in the homestay is a traditional Lao squat style toilet that has to be shared with everyone else.

This place might not be ideal for long stays, but perfect for one or two day stays for all kinds of travelers. I would definitely return here for the food and the waterfall.

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Funky Monkey Hostel in Vientiane, Laos: Value for Money Hostel

Most of the hotels and hostels in Vientiane are located close to the Mekong river and more or less offer the same price. While the hotels in Vientiane do not have the variety in budget of Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng or other destinations, the hostels are more or less the same price. But, they vary in quality and service and that is why I feel the Funky Monkey Hostel is a good value for money hostel. I stayed here for 4 nights and the below review is based on that recent experience of mine.

1) For 40,000 kip per person, this hostel offers a bed in a large air conditioned dormitory and offers free breakfast that is full and healthy.

2) Unlike other hostels in the area, this hostel does not switch off the AC when people are in the dormitory and the AC remote is in the control of the hostel inmates and not someone sitting in the reception.

3) The hostel has a lot of shower rooms and toilets that ensure there is hardly any crowd to take a shower or to use the loo.

4) The breakfast is simple fare, but is enough to make you full.

5) The people running the place do not speak much English, but are always willing to help you out with your various requests.

6) There is free wi-fi at the hostel, but sometimes the speed leaves a lot to be desired.

7) The hostel is close to the night market, the mini marts, the restaurants and the booking agencies. This gives it great brownie points.

8) The hostel also sells bus and train tickets and arranges tours.

9) Like all hostels, this one too is a great place to meet other backpackers who make interesting company.

This hostel is perfect for those solo travelers, backpackers and budget travelers who are looking at value for money places in Vientiane. I would definitely recommend it and would love to stay with them again.

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Saturday, April 06, 2013

Travel Photo: Sunset at Pakse, Laos

After exploring the Bolavan plateau on a motorcycle for 2 days, I returned to Pakse only to find that most of the budget guest houses were either full or below par for that price. Hence, I started scouring the main street (Route 13) of Pakse. It was during this walk that I saw the beautiful orange red sun set in front of me.

Sunset at Pakse
The sight was so beautiful that I could not help, but take my camera out and capture this surreal moment. This was a different sunset for me as I was on the road (east side) and buildings on north and south. This was one of those rare moments that I felt the beauty of the sun over its warmth (The summer in Laos is getting better and all you can feel is the heat constantly).

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Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Indian Passport and Thailand Tourist Visa

Attention Indian Passport Holders,

If you want to go holiday in Thailand, either apply for a Thai visa from India or get the visa on arrival at the airport. The visa on arrival allows you to stay in Thailand for a period of 15 days and no extensions are allowed. The visa from India allows you to stay in Thailand for a period of up to 2 months and this visa can be extended. The sad part is that we Indians cannot apply for our Thai visa at any other embassy from around the world. This totally sucks for those looking to travel from one country to another without entering India.

I don’t know why we have been placed in such a category, but it seems like there are a lot of illegal Indian immigrants in Thailand and hence the rule. Whatever the true reason may be, I hope the Indian and the Thailand governments should work something out. It is us travelers who have to face the brunt.

I found all of this when I went to apply my Thai visa at the Thai Consulate in Vientiane, Laos. Not the best way to find out, but for the time being I am happy that there is at least a 15 day visa on arrival at some of the land borders between Laos and Thailand.

While this article is primarily targeted for people looking for a tourist visa, those looking for work permits, business visas and jobs in Thailand can look up the Search Jobs Abroad website.

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Mixok Inn, Vientiane: Comfortable Hotel in Tourist District

There are a wide variety of hotels in Vientiane’s tourist district, but either they are really expensive or really cheap and the standards vary accordingly. It is tough to find a place that offers decent stay for a reasonable price. Thankfully, I found one when I stayed at the Mixok Inn for one night. It was more expensive than the dormitories and budget rooms, but for their price of 130,000 kip, they offered decent accommodation. Below review is based on my recent stay there for one night.

1) The place is like a good hotel with good soft beds, not too big a room with air-conditioning, a window, television, attached bathroom, hot shower and free breakfast.

2) Wi-fi is free here and it is of good speed when compared to the rest of the hotels around.

3) Breakfast that is served free is good enough with baguette, 2 eggs, butter, jam and coffee/tea.

4) The hotel is located close to the river, the night market, the booking agencies, the restaurants n all.

5) The hotel arranges bicycles and motorbikes for rent and provides other booking services.

6) The reception is pretty helpful and professional and try to accommodate your need.

The hotel is good if you like some basic luxury and it is always good to find a clean, quiet and comfortable place once a while. For 130,000 kip for a twin room, it is slightly expensive, but it is worth the splurge.

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Monday, April 01, 2013

How to get a Myanmar Visa from Vientiane, Laos

The easiest place in the world to get your visas has to be Vientiane. The crowd is so less that there is hardly any trouble and all kinds of requests are taken. I went to the Myanmar embassy in Vientiane today to get my visa done. Typically, the visa takes three days to be processed, but the folks at the Myanmar embassy were very kind to process the visas in one day for those who didn’t have another day in Vientiane.

Myanmar Visa from Vientiane, Laos
The Myanmar embassy is next to the Embassy of South Korea and one on the same road as the Indian embassy. It is about 5-6 kilometers from the center of town and towards the Thailand border. I cycled there today from the center of town and it takes about 15 minutes and costs 10,000 kip (for the whole day bike rental). A one way tuk tuk ride should cost you 40,000 kip. The embassy opens at 8:30 AM and accepts applications till 11 AM.

All you need before you reach the embassy are:

1) 3 colour passport photographs (with white background)
2) Passport with 6 months validity and 2 empty pages
3) 20 US Dollars (for the visa fee…no kip or baht accepted)

Once you reach the embassy, the security guard will guide you to the visa office and here someone from inside will notice you and provide you 2 forms to fill up. It is good to know a hotel address in Yangon for the visa processing. Flight tickets, hotel vouchers and other stuff is not required, though it is good to know the approximate date that you will be landing in Myanmar. As a standard, the embassy gives visas that are valid for one month from the day of application and allows you to stay for a period of 28 days in Myanmar from date of entry. If you request, they will give you longer validity visas too. I saw a fellow traveler get a visa validity for 3 months.

A total of 6 people, including me applied for the Myanmar visa today in the 2 hours that I was there. In spite of this low volume, the visa process takes 3 working days. But, if you show a ticket to another destination or give a plausible reason, the Embassy staff are kind enough to consider your request and provide your visa on the same day.

The visa directly from the embassy costs USD 20. If you go through a travel agent in town, the cost is USD 42 for a 4 day turnaround and USD 50 for a single day turnaround.

The embassy staff will ask questions like:

1) What is your purpose of visit in Myanmar?
2) What is your job in your home country and would like to see some kind of ID or business card?

It is perfectly alright if you do not have any evidence, but give a honest reply. The people seem to accept honest replies here. Once you finish the process, the embassy staff will give you a receipt for your visa payment and ask you to collect it between 2 and 4:30 pm on day 1, day 2 or day 3, depending on your request. The embassy is open from Monday through Friday from 8:30 am to 12:30 pm and from 1:30 pm to 4:30 pm. It is closed on all Laos and Myanmar national holidays.

Overall, it is very easy to get a Myanmar visa from Vientiane. I recommend you get yours here than in Bangkok if you can or are traveling to Laos.

While this article is primarily targeted for people looking for a tourist visa, those looking for work permits, business visas and jobs in Myanmar can look up the Search Jobs Abroad website.

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