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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

6 Simple Blog SEO Tips to Rank Higher on Google

Blog SEO Tips for Bloggers and Writers

Search Engine Optimization or SEO as we all know it is akin to Greek and Latin for most of us bloggers. Understanding its various facets can leave you scratching your head or might even give you nightmares. But, all of us bloggers know that SEO is a necessary evil if we wish that our articles get Google’s blessings and reach a wider audience. I know there are tons of technical guides out on the web that will give you a lot of dope on this subject, but this article of mine is not from a technical standpoint, but it is SEO purely from a writer’s standpoint. These 6 simple techniques if ingrained into our daily writing and blogging habits can help us gradually improve the SEO of our blog. And it has nothing to do with meta tags, plug-ins, webmaster guidelines and all the other complex stuff, which is best left to those who are interested in the technical details (either yourself if you have the aptitude for it or a person/organization you hire explicitly for it). And you do what comes best to you, which is write stories, articles and experiences that connect with your audience.

1) Write as you would search

How to rank high on Google search

How do we typically search on the web?

Some examples could be: ’Iran Visa for Indians’; ‘Top things to do in Singapore’; ‘Best Indian restaurants in Dubai’; ‘How to improve SEO of my blog’; ‘Top Food Walks in Paris’; ‘Cheap Flights from Bangalore to Singapore’ and so on and more. Basically, we already have a need or a question in mind and that’s what we end up searching with these keywords and phrases on the web.

When I write my articles, I write for two kinds of people – one for my audience who love interesting content and the other for Google and other search engines who love content that helps people and with unique keywords in it. So sometimes when I write an article and these days it happens most of the times, I think about how this can rank higher on Google and other search engines. The answer is to think like the person to whom your content might be useful and make sure you plant those keywords either verbatim or in a nice combination in your blog post title, in paragraph headers and in 2 or 3 places in your content. Do keep in mind that you not should go over board with this as Google does not take too kindly to it.

Ideally, I would think about putting these keywords in the blog title, first paragraph of the article, any similar labels or categories that I have on my blog and in the blog’s description on the blogging tool that I use.

2) Always name your images

Name all your images for much better SEO

As a blogger and more so as a travel blogger, we click tons of pictures and in all probability use them in our blog articles. Personally, I use countless number of photographs from my travels and have countless more. Google images loves these photographs and with Google’s latest product Google Lens, it is a no brainer that images and videos are going to rule the roost in the future. But, for some weird reason, I often see that bloggers don’t name their images at all. This is a really bad practice as the title of the image and the description (alt text) that you see when you hover on it are actually indexed by all search engines and this would help a great deal in SEO. Think of this, 10 images in an article with proper titles and descriptions means close to 300 extra words for search engines to index. You can do the math on how this can hep you with your blog SEO. And with so many pictures that we click these days, this shouldn’t be difficult at all.

3) Back links from websites with high DA

As bloggers, we understand the importance of backlinks. If our article is featured on a popular website or brand, it augurs well for our brand and thus provides positive reinforcement about our capabilities. Also, if that website or brand seems to have a solid Domain and Page Authority and we end up getting a link back to our blog, that will really help in improving the SEO ranking of our blog.

A lot of us write articles for others to eke out a living and that surely pays our bills, but if you write articles for websites with high domain authority and don’t get paid for it, you will still end up gaining a lot in the long run. That is how important solid backlinks are when it comes to SEO. To check a website’s DA and PA, you can use tools such as SEO Moz. And remember that high ranking websites will not accept articles from anyone. So, be prepared to blow them away with your long, unique and awesome content. Think of this as a long term investment and there is no hurry here. You can do it as and when the opportunity presents itself.

4) Write long, unique articles

Even though attention spans are dropping by the day and readers preferring shot crisp articles, Google and the other search engines still seem to prefer long articles with original and unique content. Stay away from copying and plagiarism as they will take you swiftly to the dumps. Instead, write original content that is somewhere in the range of 1500 to 2500 words. I know that it takes a lot of effort to create such articles and not all readers would read the entire content, but this really yields great results when it comes to improving your blog’s SEO. As a thumb rule, you can write 4 or 5 such articles every month for Google and the remaining short articles for your audience. And when you write such long articles, make sure you link to a lot of your existing contextual blog posts and other contextual high authority external sites (like National Geographic, wikipedia, etc.). This shows search engines that your articles are well connected in that subject both internally and externally.

5) Make sure your blog is mobile friendly

With more and more people consuming content on mobile devices, it was only a matter of time that Google and other search engines started giving importance to how your website looks and behaves on mobile devices. Do ensure that your mobile template is lightweight and that it is responsive. Ideally, opt for a good responsive template design and try and keep all your media lightweight.

6) Do ensure your blog loads quickly

No user in their right mind would be interested in a website that takes ages to load. Neither does Google. There are a lot of free tools out on the web to see how your blog loads (I use Pingdom) across different form factors (laptops, tablet, mobiles, etc.). A high res image always looks good, but too many such images will make your site sluggish. Hence, optimize all your images for fast web and mobile web browsing. Similarly, ensure that your template is lightweight, leverages browser caching and does not have too many redirects to external sites (I am talking about all those Javascripts to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, etc. that we all have on our sites). If you badly need these javascripts, tell your website designer to compress it in the template.

I hope you use these simple techniques in your future day-to-day blogging efforts and reap the benefits of an improving SEO. And following this healthy blogging practice might help you rank higher on Google sooner than later.

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Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Tanzania: The Complete Experience

Adorable Wildlife of East Africa

When you travel to a new location and witness a new culture, you usually get to pick what you're in the mood for - beach, shopping, wildlife, trekking, people, and culture. This is where Tanzania, in East Africa, wins big - you'll never have to truly choose and just jump headlong into whichever of the above would quench your thirst for travel.

Famed for its pristine white sand beaches in the spice islands of Zanzibar and its safari parks in the shadow of the awe-inspiring World Heritage Site Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania offers all sorts of exciting opportunities.

Africa’s Tallest Mountain

Amboseli Wildlife and Mount Kilimanjaro

A complete round of Tanzania would begin with what is called the 'Northern Circuit', beginning in Arusha in northern Tanzania, where it's easy to make your way to Mount Kilimanjaro, which lies 100 kilometres northeast.

The imposing natural structure, the highest free-standing mountain in the world and the tallest mountain in Africa, is an essential trek for those with a passion for adventure. It takes around seven days to reach the summit and witness the glorious sunrise spread across the continent from its snow-capped peak.
Though not exactly among the most difficult treks, it can be a daunting climb, but one that will ultimately be rewarding in unimaginable ways.

Mecca for Wildlife

Lioness getting ready for the chase

To the west of Arusha, is the Serengeti National Park where travellers can witness one of the 'seven wonders of the world': the mass migration of wildebeest, zebras, elephants, antelopes, cattle, goats, sheep and more. Their journey is fraught with danger - there are the famous Serengeti lions, about 3,000 at last count, and leopards, cheetahs, hungry hyenas and monster crocodiles.

A vast, treeless plain; the best time to visit magical Serengeti is between December and June to view the impressive natural event in all its immensity.

Combining the trip to Serengeti with one to Ngorongoro Crater would be the wisest way to go. As it's on the way, it would be a massive shame not to see the stunning views it has to offer. Stretching from the Rift Valley to the Serengeti, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area spans 8,300 square kilometres. The crater is the world’s largest inactive and intact volcanic caldera, and is lush with life, the primary reason for which is the abundance of permanent water.

Sunset in the east African bush

The crater is home to almost every individual species of wildlife in East Africa, and the rare concentration of wildlife practically warrants sightings of zebra, gazelle, and wildebeest herds, as well as the marvellous Big Five. With an estimated 25,000 animals living within the crater, the caldera also boasts around 30 endangered black rhino.

Making the whole experience more majestic is the fact that the crater also has the highest density of predators in all of Africa. This sets the stage for a natural drama to unfold as prey and predators graze and stalk through the open grasslands, woodland and swamps on the crater floor.

Lake Victoria

Sunset at Lake Victoria

While in the northern circuit, try and include Lake Victoria in your itinerary. It is the biggest tropical freshwater lake in the world and the largest lake in Africa, shared between Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. It makes for an invigorating break from the wildlife safari circuits and throngs of tourists, offering calm, quietude and relaxation.

Tribal Cultures

A march past like traditional Maasai dance performed by the warriors of the II-Oodokilani

People in the country are also incredibly hospitable. Even though that may relate to the fact that tourism is one of the biggest money makers for Tanzania, you also have the opportunity to meet local tribes such as the Masai, the Barabaig and the Hadza. Also, Tanzanians love to greet, so say hello or 'Hujambo' at every opportunity.

The Maasai are easy enough to find - most have settled near tourist areas and have given up their hunter-gatherer ways and now rear livestock. The Barabaig, a relatively new tribe in the area that look after animals, are much like the Masai in their ways and culture. While the Hadza are a monogamous people, the Masai and Barabaig may have as many as 10 wives.

Visiting their hamlets is an enlightening experience because you learn that no matter how different each tribe may be, most are facing similar problems. It’s a sad truth but many tribal communities now depend on tourism even though it was tourism and development that is the reason for most of their problems.

Sunny White Sandy Beaches and Zanzibar

A Zanzibar Low Tide Moment

Once your heart has had its fill of adventure, it's time to head to Zanzibar to soak up some sun and relax. With its abundant history and white sandy beaches, it is a cultural haven that will give you more than just a small peak into the colourful past of the area.

Stone Town in Zanzibar City is unmissable, an experience unlike much in the world. Also known as Mji Mkongwe (Swahili for "old town"), its vibrant energy will suck you in as you wander the streets soaking the sights and sounds. As it can easily be explored on foot, Stone Town, which was once a flourishing trading hub, gorgeously represents what a melting pot it was for various cultures - African, Arab, Indian and European.

The architecture itself has a story to tell - from large Arab villas with lattice work and Indian homes with ornate doorways. It's also a shopping haven, there are boutiques along Gizenga Street and on Kenyatta Road near the old Post Office and many antique shops near Sokomohogo Square. Tharia Street is the home for some jewellery unlike anything you'll have ever seen before. And don't forget that Tanzanians love to barter!

From museums and refurbished hotels, to fantastic restaurants and the world's last open slave market, it's all there for the soul to feast upon.

Scuba Diving in the Indian Ocean

Dolphin Sighting in Zanzibar, Tanzania

If you're still not satiated by all the adventure, head down to the city of Chake-Chake in Pemba, the northernmost island of the Zanzibar archipelago, which is a popular base for scuba divers. Coral reefs, bright fish, underwater caves and small sandy islands make for some gorgeous, unforgettable sights. More so, kayaks are available for exploring the mangroves.

To wrap up the trip of a lifetime, it's an easy drive to Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda so your African adventure needn't come to an abrupt end even though you're bidding farewell to a country of wonderful wildlife, outstanding natural beauty and rich culture!

Note: Some of the pictures in this article (specifically the ones without the ‘Be on the road’ logo) have been borrowed from wikipedia under the Creative Commons License. Each photograph has been linked to its host page on wikipedia.

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Monday, October 09, 2017

WD My Passport Wireless Pro: Simplifying all Post Processing and Storage Workflows

WD My Passport Wireless Pro hard disk simplifies life of photographers

‘Content is Knowledge’. ‘Data is King’. These adages make a lot of sense in this data crazy 21st century where we seem to be creating content at an astonishing pace. With our many technologically superior gadgets, data churn is extremely high. And that is where data backup becomes integral. After all, a lot of this content is our intellectual property and we do not wish to lose sight of it. This especially holds true for people who make their livelihood from this intellectual property. Prime examples are photographers, writers, bloggers and other creative content creators.

In an ideal world, we would all like to keep our data on the cloud, but unfortunately, it is easier said than done, due to poor internet connectivity and expensive storage options. And that is why, we prefer portable hard disks, but they come with their own fair share of challenges, especially transfer speeds, maze of wires and a lot of complicated workflows. So, the key question is what do we do? What should a photographer on the field do? How does he ensure backup of his photographs and then seamlessly check his work, make his edits and share it with his client or on platforms.

I found most of my problems solved in Western Digital’s latest portable hard disk called the ‘My Passport Wireless Pro’ that allows you to travel, shoot and edit anywhere with freedom from laptops and cords. With a SD 3.0 slot, it allows you to wirelessly transfer your photos, videos and data. And then you can stream it on to your mobile, tablet or any device of your choice. And it has a powerful battery backup to last all day. In case I have piqued your interest, here is my detailed review of the WD My Passport Wireless Pro hard disk and why I think it simplifies all post processing and storage workflows for photographer and other content creators.

1) Wireless storage and access whenever and wherever

I have always hated wires and the tangles they create in my travel kit. And that is why I have absolutely fallen in love with the wireless storage and access capabilities of the Western Digital My Passport Wireless Pro hard disk.

Latest Wireless 802.11ac Technology

If your camera provides you with wireless access and if it is compatible with the hard disk, you can quickly transfer images and videos wirelessly from your camera to your hard disk.

Blazingly Fast SD 3.0 Port

Western Digital Wireless Hard Disk and SD Card slot

If your camera doesn’t have wireless feature, then simply plug in the SD card from the camera into the SD 3.0 port of the hard disk and offload your camera’s SD card in one move. And in case you use a CF (compact flash) card, you can connect SanDisk’s ImageMate device into the USB 3.0 port of the hard disk and transfer the contents of the CF card into the hard disk. Either way, your storage workflow is simplified a great deal.

Wirelessly Access Files with your mobile devices

Now, that you have all your data backed up on the hard disk and say you are either on the field or in travel mode and do not wish to open your laptop to see the content, this is where you will find the wireless access feature of the MyPassport Wireless Pro to be super handy. All you need to do is download the My Cloud mobile app on your Android or iOS device, switch on the wireless button on your hard disk and you can view, organize, edit and share your media files from anywhere with your smartphone or tablet. And did I mention that this app also allows you to view RAW files.

Integrated with Adobe Creative Cloud

And if you have an Adobe Creative Cloud account, the My Cloud mobile app directly allows you to get your images directly into the Creative Cloud ecosystem. Personally, I do not have an Adobe Creative Cloud account, but for those who do, I see this as a huge plus as you can access the Creative Cloud ecosystem right from your mobile device.

2) Powerhouse Battery

With USB 3.0 and SD 3.0 ports, My Passport Wireless Pro totally rocksWhat about its battery capabilities? A device with so many wireless capabilities, it is bound to drain the battery. Right?

All-day Battery Life

Lasting about 10 hours of continuous use, the My Passport Wireless Pro is equipped to last for an all-day photo shoot. Its powerhouse battery allows you to take it on a long field trip and continuously stream videos and images on the road or in flight without worrying about losing charge.

Built-in Power Bank

Another handy feature of the My Passport Wireless Pro is its integrated 6,400 mAh power bank that allows you to charge your smartphone or other USB devices on the go. This feature is very useful considering that smartphones these days invariably run out of juice during a work day.

3) Fast USB Transfers

The My Passport Wireless Pro device comes with 1 USB 3.0 and 1 USB 2.0 ports. Both the USB ports support fast transfers, but it is the USB 3.0 port that allows up to 5 GB/s. This means you can copy those humongous RAW files and 4K and HD videos in a jiffy.

4) Live Streaming to many devices

The New Western Digital My Passport Wireless Pro hard diskWestern Digital has tied up with Plex Media Server to help you beautifully organize and stream your content. Through one interface, your entire media collection is visually enhanced through detailed descriptions, plot summaries, posters and so much more. Plex also allows you to wirelessly stream the content stored on your hard disk to all your devices – PC and Mac computers, smartphones, tablets, Smart TVS and more.

One of the perks of this wireless streaming feature is that it allows you to stream up to 8 HD videos simultaneously. So, whether you are looking to share the footage from your latest field trip or you wish to keep your friends entertained during your holiday, this feature will be much appreciated.

I hope you know understand why I am so gung-ho about this new wireless storage device from Western Digital. There is still a bit of photography workflow that has to be done manually, but I like the fact that this My Passport Wireless Pro device has simplified a lot of my photography and storage workflows and completely removed the mess of wires from my photography and travel kit.

To know more about Western Digital’s My Passport Wireless Pro hard disk, its product specifications, full feature set, its price and dealer information, look up the product page on Western Digital site. You can also buy them on Amazon.

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Saturday, October 07, 2017

Reliving Younger Days on India’s Longest Train Journey

Vivek express india's longest train going through the lush forests of Assam

A huge food basket with theplas, chappatis, idlis, namkeen, savouries and a lot of other delicious food, a big Milton jug to store cold water for the entire family, a pack of cards, some Jeffrey Archer, Robert Ludlum, Tinkle, Chandamama and other books, a twinkle in my eye, a joy in my stride and oodles of curiosity…that’s how I remember my childhood train sojourns when my family and I would travel by train from the Eastern part of the country (Jamshedpur) to the Southern part (Kallidaikurichi, Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu).

India's longest train Vivek Express chugs on

This journey made in the peak summer months would take somewhere close to 55 hours. Even though, we traveled by the sleeper class, I don’t remember it ever being inconvenient, though I do remember smelling like the train and feeling the rocking of the train in my body for days after the train trip. All I remember is the game of cards with family, the tunes of Antakshari with other train travelers, the umpteen number of books I read, getting down at every station to fill water from the taps at each station, digging into fresh lip smacking savouries at different stations (Puri Bhaji for breakfast at Rourkela, Jhaal Muri and Chanachur on the train especially in Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Orissa, Mango delicacies at Rajahmundry, Bananas at Anakapelle and hot piping Idli Vada Sambar in the South), standing next to the train doors at every major bridge (the highlight was always the Godavari river bridge crossing near Rajahmundry) and so many other delightful childhood train memories.

Jhaal muri vendor inside Vivek Express train

I am sure many of us Indians have similar memories of travel travel in India. I think it was an integral part of my childhood and my passage into adulthood. Unfortunately, now, we don’t travel by trains as much as we prefer air travel. While air travel is very effective, both in terms of cost and time these days, it doesn’t offer the romance that Indian railways does. Which is why I had wanted to go on a long train journey in India for a bloody long while. And what better train journey than India’s longest train journey and one of the best train journeys the world over to feel the romance of train travel once more.

Lush Indian countryside and Vivek Express train

This train, called the Vivek Express, starts at Kanyakumari, the Southern tip of India and travels all the way to Dibrugarh in the far North eastern part of India. I had booked myself tickets on this train on four different occasions and ended up cancelling the first three due to various reasons. Thankfully, I somehow managed to board this train the fourth time around and ended up completing the entire journey.

Railway Track Maintenance Staff taking a break, Assam, India

Covering a distance of 4,233 kilometers, this Vivek Express train traverses through eight Indian states – Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, West Bengal, Bihar, Nagaland and Assam. I spent 4 nights and 5 days in this India’s longest train and if I remember right the journey took close to 90 hours. In terms of absolute numbers, the Vivek Express holds the record for the longest route in the Indian subcontinent, both in terms of distance as well as time.

Railway workers keeping southern railways clean

For me, it wasn’t the record status that egged me on, but the fact that I would get to experience a long Indian train journey after close to 18 years. I traveled on the train in a 2nd AC compartment as I could not garner enough courage to travel by sleeper class in the warm weather. Especially for such a long journey! May be, I should have realized then itself that I had changed, but didn’t and had to actually experience the entire journey to realize that I am the not same person that I was 20 years ago.

Tea Gardens of Assam as seen from Vivek Express, India;s longest train

Well, don’t get me wrong, I was supremely excited to be on board the train and really enjoyed the entire train journey. And didn’t find it tiring too. But, those card games, antakshari sessions and that childlike sparkle for train journeys wasn’t there. I had to experience India’s longest train ride to realize that. May be, somewhere in the past two decades, I had grown older in my head and may be evolved differently in how I perceive travel.

The AC Coach Attendants - Vivek Express train, India

Indian Railways still has the charm, the facilities are definitely better, but, us people, we have changed. The connection with gadgets has robbed us of those interesting train companions. Such companionship still does exist, but only in parts and that too once you cross the Northern stretches of West Bengal coz until that point, India is fairly well developed and people have lots to do and are definitely occupied in their head.

Vivek express - India's longest train ride

Food served on the train is simple and good, but I so wished that they served something aside from potatoes and dal every day. Food served on the train stations is sub standard and so is the water. That is one definite change from my childhood days when both food and water served on the train stations were of good quality. These days, people don’t necessarily travel with huge food baskets and instead live on the offerings of the train’s pantry car and the food stalls at the stations. Today, there is more packaged food and bottled water, which I consider the bane of today’s world. Somewhere in between, there is this vendor from the countryside who prepares lip smacking Jhaal Muri that instantly teleports you to those train journeys of the eighties and the nineties and may be, the juicy mangoes of Andhra Pradesh that haven’t lost their deliciousness. But, apart from that, there wasn’t any food related aspect of the train journey that made my memory jog to my younger days. Even a good ‘ol cup of tea has lost its zing in today’s world and I see that as a huge change in our country over the past 20 years.

Vivek express India's longest train crossing a railway bridge

The highlight of the train journey is the lush greenery, dense forests, tea estates, gorgeous countryside and a true connection with India’s yesteryear roots when the train traverses from New Jalpaiguri (West Bengal) on the 4th day to Dibrugarh (Assam) on the 5th day via Alipur Duar, Guwahati and Dimapur. These two days set a fantastic precedent to a holiday in India’s amazing North East. I am pretty sure that the views would be similar when the train traverses in Kerala, but unfortunately, this travel takes places in the night. Likewise with the iconic Godavari bridge, which again passes by in the late hours of the night. The Mahanadi river, Bhubaneshwar and Cuttack come by during the day, but for some reason, the landscapes look bleak. Some parts before and after Malda are also extremely beautiful and this is also the area where the train starts getting delayed.

Vivek Express Train and lush green Indian countryside during the monsoons

Like I mentioned before, some amount of charm and romance is still intact in an Indian train journey, but things are very different otherwise. May be, it is because, we have evolved as different travelers! Or may be, India has vastly changed in the past 20 years. The local food and drinks is definitely a low point. But, some high points still exist and which is why train travel in India will continue to mesmerize one and all. And like me, you will have stories and possibly share those memories with the world! India’s longest train journey was definitely a special experience for me and it certainly help me relive my younger days.

Vivek express train entering Hasimara jungle, Assam, India

About the Train


Vivek express train standing on a railway station in Assam, India

The train that I am talking in this article is called the Vivek Express. It carries the train number 15905 for the one traveling from Kanyakumari to Dibrugarh and 15906 for the return journey. It travels only once a week for either direction.

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Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay: Magic on Earth

Sunset colors at Halong Bay, Vietnam

It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is also often listed as one of the top natural wonders of the world. I simply call it ‘magic on earth’! This magic is formed by the blue waters of the bay coupled with the densely forested limestone islands that rise mysteriously out of the ocean floor at about 1,600 places.

>Vietnam's Halong Bay - one of mother nature's best creations

Immensely popular with backpackers around the world, Ha Long (descending dragon) bay in Northern Vietnam’s Quang Ninh province is seriously special as it provides you with the experience of some of the most scenic ocean karst topography in the world. Most visitors soak in these lovely views while living in a local cruise ship on the Halong bay waters for a few days to a few weeks.

Kayaking in misty Halong Bay, Vietnam

They fish, they swim, they relax on its pristine beaches and they make merry. They climb to panoramic viewpoints, they watch different flora and fauna, they go on cave adventures, explore hidden lakes, experience floating villages and a lot of partying during the night.

Gorgeous view of limestone karsts from Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

The adventure enthusiasts have a much different kind of fun. From rock climbing to cliff jumping and from kayaking to caving, Halong bay spoils the ocean adventurer. The many different crags on these limestone mountains excite the rock climbers, who sweat it out while climbing these steep rocks and then finally cool it off by diving into the ocean waters for a relaxing dip. As most of the limestone karsts are closely packed together with shallow waters between them, the cruise ships cannot come close to them. Rather, it is the kayakers who can explore its many hollow caves, shallow waters and the many desolate, white sandy beaches that are teeming with hermit crabs and other exotic marine species.

Beautiful nature at Halong Bay, Vietnam

The land adventure lovers are not to be left far behind as there are the many rich and biodiverse islets that are home to many endemic floral and faunal species that have made this place their home amongst the tropical evergreen oceanic environment. You can simply climb up the small ones for deeper exploration and panoramic views or trek through the dense foliage of the much larger ones to be simply amazed at the variety that this place has to offer. And sometimes you can climb into the hollow confines of some of these islands that are home to enormous cave systems and gape at the wonders of the numerous stalactites and stalagmites.

Sunset view from Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

Whatever be your thrill, this natural wonder called Halong Bay is bound to delight you with its magical elements. I am pretty sure that most of you will have it right up there in your Vietnam travel bucket list, but even so, do ensure that you keep some time at hand to experience the magic of Halong bay!

Best Season to Visit

Yellow boathouse at Halong Bay, Vietnam

The summer months are usually the best time of the year to explore Halong Bay as that is the time when the days are bright and sunny and the views are clear. Usually winters are wet, cloudy and gloomy with poor visibility. But, having said that, ocean weather is unpredictable and can change any time. Halong bay is open all year around except for when there are heavy rains and/or storms.

How to get there

Remote white sandy beach in Halong Bay, Vietnam

The nearest airport is Hanoi and it is the nearest large city for all emergency and luxury hotel needs. The nearest road access is Halong city. Usually, visitors opt for tours from Hanoi, but I would also recommend staying at Cat Ba Island and exploring Halong Bay from there, either as day trips or on cruise ships.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

ZenFone 3s Max: Powerhouse Travel Phone

Unboxing the ZenFone 3s Max phone, a powerhouse for travel

As a traveler, what do you look for in the phone that you want to carry on your travels? Is it a great camera? Is it lots of storage capacity? Is it good entertainment capabilities? Or do you simply want a sturdy, good looking phone?

As a traveler, travel blogger and travel photographer, a great phone is akin to being a lifeline for me. A phone doubles up as a camera for me at many times. And it is possibly the device that I use most often to stay connected. These are the things that I usually look in a phone that I want to carry on my travels:

1) Powerful Internal Mechanics – From capturing high quality videos and photos to playing games, listening to music and watching movies and TV shows during long travels and layovers and from using the phone for all online content consumption and fulfilment to using it as my permanent travel companion, I usually put my travel phone to its fullest test. And that is why I look for phones with solid technical specs, like a great processor, high clarity full HD screen and decent RAM memory.

2) Long Lasting Battery – At most times during my travels, I find smartphones run out of battery. I do carry a battery backup, but I always yearn for more. I cannot reduce my use, but always love a device that can last longer.

3) Decent Camera – There are times during my travels that a moment goes by before I can pick up my big DSLR camera. At such times, I find a phone camera come in super handy as they are able to capture that fleeting moment. And that is why I prefer phones with good cameras so that not only do I have it for memory sake, but I can leverage it as a high quality image. Manual modes and long exposure modes are great features to have.

4) It should be Inexpensive - Contrary to most of my friends and travel companions, I prefer to carry an inexpensive phone with me on my travels so that if I lose it or drop it, it isn’t a deal breaker.

5) Dual Sim - On my international travels, I almost always keep my India number active and hence prefer a dual sim phone to allow me to use the local sim (international) in the same device.

Now, you know what I look for in my travel phone. I am always in search of a phone that keeps helping me make the most of my travels. For the last few months, I have been using the newly launched Asus Zenfone 3s Max phone and I have to say that I am seriously impressed with its technical capability, functionality, powerhouse battery and overall bang for the buck. And what’s even better is the fact that the price of the phone has been slashed to INR 12,999 in celebration of the upcoming festival season.    
   
This detailed review is based on the experience of using the Asus ZenFone 3s Max phone in many situations: from bustling city markets to remote forests and mountains.

Heavy Duty Battery
 
The first thing that I noticed about the phone is its powerhouse of a battery that allowed me to stay unplugged for days in spite of my insanely high use. This incredibly long lasting 5000 mAh battery provides upto:

1) 34 days of 4G standby time

2) 28 hours talk time on 3G

3) 25 hours of web browsing over Wi-Fi

Not only do these incredible battery specifications allow you to travel unplugged, it also allows you to leverage this battery as a power bank through its reverse charging facility. Basically, what I am trying to say is that, there is no more battery related worries especially if you going on those long mountain treks, long train journeys or simply travel in places where you can’t find the opportunity to charge your phone. It’s super saving and power saving modes even allow you to stretch this battery capability to even much longer, which comes in super handy during those emergency situations that we do see from time to time in our trips and journeys.
 
Strong battery for the Zenfone 3s Max phonePower Saver mode of Asus ZenFone 3s Max phoneLong lasting battery - perfect for long treks and trips

What I also like about the battery of the Asus ZenFone 3s Max is that in spite of the high capacity, it doesn’t add much weight to the phone. In fact, at 175 grams, the phone feels perfect in my hand and its lightweight presence is hardly felt in my hand, pocket or bag.

Stunning Camera Capabilities

Monsoon holiday in Meghalaya

While the powerhouse of a battery is definitely the top feature of the Asus ZenFone 3s Max phone, its camera capabilities are not too far behind. With a 13 megapixel PixelMaster camera and a sensor that handles apertures upto f2.0, the phone camera captures excellent details even in low light conditions.

I used the camera at day, at night, while stationary and while moving and in cold and hot conditions and I have to tell you that the camera focussed fast and clear and captured excellent details in all conditions. The Asus software in the camera app and the good camera specs work like a beautiful 1-2 combo and the results are so good that sometimes I wonder if I really need to carry my professional DSLR. And not just that, the 6 super helpful photography modes of the camera allows you to take your phone travel photography to a much higher level.

These are the 6 modes that I am referring to:

1) Super Resolution Mode

Stunning Akbar's tomb at Sikandra, Agra

This mode allows you to capture gorgeous high-resolution landscape photos that are as big as 52 megapixel. In spite of the camera having just a 13 MP camera, the phone’s special image processing technique ensures that clarity and detail are not sacrificed and noise is kept to a bare minimum.

2) Low Light Mode

Traditional fire dance at Laxmi Niwas Palace, Bikaner

The place where I have found phone cameras lack the most is in lowlight conditions. But, I was surprised at the low light capability of the Asus ZenFone 3S Max phone. Apparently, its low light mode increases the light sensitivity of the sensor by up to 400%, allowing for crisp pictures at fast shutter speeds. This means that one can easily capture those dim lit dinner events or simply any kind of night photography

3) Panoramic Mode

A feature that is found in most cameras these days, but nonetheless a super helpful feature is the wide panorama. This camera mode allows you to pan the camera to automatically capture different frames while seamlessly stitching them into one spectacular panorama shot for you.

4) Backlight HDR Mode

The insides of the luxurious Golden Chariot train

Another useful night photography mode is the backlight HDR mode, which intelligently adjusts the exposure of your frame by brightening the dark areas and lightens the bright areas. This makes for great pictures.

5) Beautification Mode

Sadhu baba snapped in his element at Orchha, Madhya Pradesh

For all those selfie lovers and portrait fanatics, this phone’s beautification mode allows you to smooth skin tones, thin cheeks, enhance eyes and other cool features that help you create an eye popping portrait or selfie.

6) Manual Mode

Trek to the living root bridges of Meghalaya, India

Long exposures, background bokeh and some DSLR like features can be replicated on mobile phones these days. Sounds fancy, but pretty easy to use. Such is the flexibility of the manual mode feature that if you have a gorilla pod for your phone, you could even try your luck at capturing the star studded skies in the mountains and the deserts.

Gorgeous Build and Design

The Asus ZenFone 3s Max phone looks slick and sleek from the outside and definitely catches the eye. From the inside, it is packed with serious power. Powered by an Octa-core processor 64-bit processor, 3 GB of RAM, a Mali T860 graphics processing unit, a LTE category 4 sub-system and a 5.2 inch high definition IPS display, using this phone is a smooth experience. Whether I am playing a game, recording a full HD video, watching HD movies, downloading content, browsing the internet or simply multi tasking through different apps on the phone, the phone is always super responsive and extremely user-friendly.

With a best in its class, 75% screen to body ratio, consuming content on it is an absolute pleasure. The in-built blue light filter is a blessing for all nocturnal users like me. Even in the audio department, the loudspeaker produces good clarity sound. The in-built Audio Wizard allows you to customize the audio settings based on your choice of music or video and hence a pretty useful feature. With good quality ear or headphones, sound quality is even better.

Oodles of Storage Space

When we travel, we tend to go berserk with clicking photos and videos and it is a shame that we have to delete some of them for lack of space. After all, each one of those photos and videos count towards our rich travel experiences and I personally hate deleting them because my phone is full.

This is where I like the Asus ZenFone 3s Max phone, which comes with an in-built 32 GB memory that is expandable upto 2 TB (Terabytes). This means no more deleting of captured travel memories. I am not just talking about one single trip, but may be many trips. I can store ebooks, music, movies, TV shows and more in addition to my travel photos and videos.

Dual Sim

When I am at home, I use only one sim, but when I am traveling outside of India, I prefer to opt for a local sim as they are much more cost-effective. For such international travels, I prefer carrying a dual sim phone instead of 2 different phones. That way, I get to leverage all the content stored in the device while staying connected (data and voice – local and roaming) on the same device. This is not an essential feature, but having it saves so many headaches for me. 

Runs on Latest Android


For Android power users like me, I love the fact that this phone runs the latest version of Android – the Nougat. This gives me a familiar interface and the best of the breed Android features. I am not usually one who likes a UI layer on top of my Android, but I kind of like the helpful features provided by the ZenUI 3.0 interface like the ZenMotion Touch Gesture and the GameGenie. Regular Android users will definitely find a lot of use for these handy features.

Verdict: Value for Money Powerhouse Travel Phone

After having using the phone on my travels and having put to the test in real life conditions, I can safely say that the Asus ZenFone 3S Max phone is great value for money and is a high power and low budget phone that packs a punch with its battery and camera. I would definitely continue to use it in my travels and I would recommend that you give it a look.

After all, it address my travel phone needs beautifully. Don’t you think so too?

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Sunday, September 17, 2017

Assam’s Mishing Tribal People: A Photo Series

Master weaver artisan of Panbari mishing tribal village wearing her mekhla and chador creation

North East India is one of the best places in the country if you are interested in unique cultures. These 7 states house more tribes than the rest of the country. And the best part is that these tribal people still follow their ancient traditions and that offers a fantastic experience for a rural tribal holiday with them. One such tribe is the Mishing tribe of Assam. These meat and fish loving Hindus who live on the flood plains of the Brahmaputra river are known for their artisan weavers, their house on stilts, their delicious food, their hospitable nature and their many amazing traditions.

I had the privilege of staying with them in their village and watching their life from close quarters. I liked this rural experience so much that I want to return there at the earliest and explore more of their unique cultures and traditions with them. It is from this rural holiday in Assam that I bring this photo series. I hope these photographs of the Mishing Tribal people egg you on towards this part of Incredible India.

Above Photo: The women of Assam are known for their colorful traditional apparel called the Mekhla and Chador. This woman in picture is a master artisan weaver and the Mekhla Chador that she is wearing has been hand woven from her.

Mishing Tribe man and his traditional rain hat called Zaapi 

This Mishing gentleman is wearing a traditional hat called the Zaapi. This Zaapi comes in extremely handy to beat the sun and the rain while they work outdoors.

Elderly Mishing tribal man weaving a basket, Assam

While younger men work in the farms, the older men work inside the home. This 60+ year old gentleman is weaving a bamboo basket here. The work is slow, but the final products are very rugged.

Local women working in the tea gardens of Assam, India

In addition to weaving, the women of the Mishing tribe also work in the tea gardens and the neighbouring forest. In this picture, they are returning with a head load of firewood from the forest.

Mishing tribal woman learning the art of weaving at Panbari, Assam, India

Here, a Mishing tribal woman is being trained on the latest weaving techniques. The Indian government arranges such training to create sustainable livelihood for them.

Mishing tribal woman working in the tea gardens, Assam, India

The Mishing women work in the tea gardens and farms as well. In this picture, the woman is returning home with some greens from the forest.

Mother and daughter - a beautiful moment at Panbari Mishing Tribal Village, Assam, Kaziranga, India

This is a mother and a daughter from the Mishing tribe of Assam. The daughter was all smiles after chomping on a chocolate biscuit and the mother cannot stop but feel happy for her daughter.

Portrait of a man from Mishing tribal village, Panbari, Assam

Work for Mishing tribal men is strenuous as can be seen from the weather beaten face of this middle aged gentleman.

Portrait of Mishing tribal woman weaving on her traditional loom, Panbari village, Assam

A Mishing Tribal women is weaving on the traditional loom in front of her house. As a thumb rule, women weave once they are done with all the house chores. They try and weave for a few hours every day.

Smiling kids of Panbari Mishing Tribal Village, Assam, India

These kids are all smiles as I train the camera lens at them while interacting with them in their traditional bamboo stilt homes.

The bemused look of a Mishing tribal woman, Panbari, Kaziranga, Assam

This Mishing tribal woman with her big red bindi gave me the smirk when I was photographing the weaving training facility in the village.

Traditional loom being prepared by hand by Mishing Tribe woman, Assam

A Mishing tribal woman wearing a colorful Mekhla is preparing the comb for the traditional loom.

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Copyright © 2009-2017 Sankara Subramanian C (www.beontheroad.com)
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