Journey through the Baltics – Part I: Estonia

Sunrise over the old city of Tallinn, Estonia

4:30am and the sun started to rise over the Scandinavian-looking rooftops, igniting splashes of reds, oranges, and purples across the Baltic sky. The muted laughter of tipsy late night revelers echoed up through the narrow streets and off the impressive masonry of the city walls as I sat staring down at the city, taking it all in.  It was my first morning in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, and already I had decided that this is one of my all time favorite cities in one of my new favorite countries.

Medieval buildings in the Old Town of Tallinn, Estonia

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Shakaland – Unforgettable Zulu Experience in South Africa

Zulu children at the main lodge in Shakaland, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

“Whomp, whap whap, Whomp, whap whap WHOMP!” The beat grew louder, and the tempo increased. Unamplified, the sound of the Zulu drums boomed, vibrating the very seat I sat in and echoing through the lodge. It was here, deep in Zulu countryside in South Africa, where I witnessed the most impressive and awe-inspiring show I have ever experienced.

The show was only one piece of a form of audience immersion that they put on here in Shakaland, north of Durban in the South African province of KwaZulu Natal. I had heard of the place before but, to be honest, had dismissed it as some type of Disneyland experience, most definitely not for me. But, after a few glowing recommendations I decided to head up there with my South Africa friend Veronique Palmer in October of 2010 to see what all of the fuss was about. What I saw blew my socks off…

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Top Seven Experiences in Bangkok

View of the Chao Phraya River from Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn,) Bangkok, Thailand

“Pow!” A roasting chestnut exploded right as I walked by, throwing white bits of shredded nut skyward. Startled, I stumbled back in astonishment, my mind spinning in an attempt to comprehend what had just happened. Dusting myself off, my face reddened as I hurried on along my way, noting to myself that a walk down the street in Bangkok, the colorful capital of the Kingdom of Thailand can be quite the experience, and one that on occasion requires quick reflexes to dodge the occasional errant flying foodstuffs.

My travels around the world have taken me to the capital of the “Land of Smiles” twice already, once in January 2011 and again in January 2013, and each time I was blown away by this thriving metropolis.

Let me tell you thing…exploring Bangkok is not necessarily for the faint-hearted. It can get very hot and humid in the city notorious as the setting for ‘Hangover 2.’ The cacophony of noises, sights, and smells can overwhelm many, and the city is as more crowded than most westerners will be used to. But for those like myself seeking adventure, this is one of the world’s greatest cities to do it in, and Bangkok does not disappoint in terms of experiences. So, without further ado, here is my own personal list of the top seven experiences that must be had in Bangkok!

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Moroccan Enchantment inside the Walls of the Ancient Medina of Fes

Looking down into the ancient 11th century tannery in Fes, Morocco

“Cherchez-vous une chambre?”

The deep throated request echoed through the narrow passages of the Medina, catching me off guard and forcing me to pay attention to the dark, foreboding character approaching me through the mist. His face was shrouded in the night and he wore a pointed hat that immediately reminded me of a character from a Harry Potter movie.

“Oui, Monsieur,” I responded with all of the gusto of a second-year French student, out of practice for several decades. The robed character muttered something in incompressible French and motioned for me to follow him through the winding streets of the ancient city. With no better recourse, I followed him, eager to rest after a long night journey via taxi from the northern border of Morocco.

It was here, in the heart of the world’s largest car-free city that I was introduced to one of the most underrated tourist destinations in the world – the ancient city of Fes inside the African Kingdom of Morocco. Here in a former Moroccan capital, at the crossroads of Moorish, Berber, Arabic, and European influences, I found a friendly people at peace with themselves and the ancient world they inhabit.

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Inside the Fascinating Kingdom of Tonga

The blowholes of Tonga

Imagine the most impressive blowhole you’ve ever seen. Now multiple that single blowhole by a factor of several hundred and stretch the lot of them across five long kilometers of coastline. To add to the experience, have them erupt continuously like a series of massive chain explosions constantly moving up and down the coast.

Now throw in an ancient Stonehenge lookalike and some pyramids and you’d probably be convinced I dreamt up the place. But this fantastical place does exist, and I was fortunate enough to have a short visit there in June, 2013. It is officially known as the Kingdom of Tonga, the last of the Pacific Ocean’s monarchies and one of the most impressive tourist destinations I’ve seen in a while.

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Northern Laos – Lazy Days on the Mekong

Morning over the Mekong River in Ban Houayxay (Huay Xai), Laos

Occasionally in my travels I stumble upon one of those rare places in the world where time slows down, colors sharpen, and I become vividly aware of the interconnectedness of myself with the world around me. Perched above the banks of the Mekong River in a remote northern village of Laos, watching the flaming orb of the setting sun reflected off a golden Buddhist stupa, I became acutely aware that this was one of those moments. All was good in the world, and a warm feeling of calmness drifted over me.

Sunset over Thailand, looking across the Mekong River from Laos

Here, surrounded by curious teenage monks emblazoned in burnt orange robes, I took stock of my life, my family, and humanity. The bothersome minutia that typically flits about annoyingly now faded away into obscurity and I was left with a simple feeling of bliss. By the end of my trip here to Northern Laos, I had been an honored guest in a Laotian wedding, sampled some exquisitely sublime food, and cleared my mind in one of the most relaxing places I have visited to date.

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Touring Burma without a Visa

Friendly Ahka villagers near Tachileik, Burma (Myanmar)

A lot has been written about how the country of Burma (officially known as the Republic of the Union of Myanmar or just Myanmar) is the next tourist hot spot. But despite the recent thawing of relations between the military government and western nations, it can still be a challenge to arrange for a tourist visa, and many embassies such as the one in Washington DC are overwhelmed with applications and can take months to process.

The reality is that it is possible for citizens of most Western countries to get into Burma without obtaining a visa in advance, and it can be done at land border crossings. My good friend Joel Oleson and I tested out this process in January 2013 while we were in Northern Thailand, and found it to be relatively easy.

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