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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Chiang Rai – Thai Smiles in the Golden Triangle

Wat Rong Khun (วัดร่องขุ่น / White Temple) near Chiang Rai, Thailand

Let me start by telling you how incredibly liberating it is to risk life and limb and ride on the back of a Songthaew. If you aren’t familiar with this Southeast-Asian invention, imagine a pickup truck fitted with two bench seats with a welded frame loosely fitted over the truck bed.

Riding on the back of a Songthaew in Chiang Rai District, Northern Thailand

Now slap a platform on the back and you’ve got an excellent place to hang onto for dear life as your driver whips around the roads and hills of Northern Thailand. I flew around Chiang Rai Province in the hills of Northern Thailand in January, 2013 with my good friend and travel companion Joel Oleson. We were here in between speaking engagements and used Chiang Rai as a launching-off point for getting around to the countries of Burma (Myamnar) and Laos, which I will cover in two separate blog posts. What I discovered was that this side of Thailand was filled with amazing people, fantastic food, and, of course, some mind-blowing transportation options.

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Charming Caucasus – Part II – Armenia

Garni Temple (Գառնի) in Armenia, rare example of an intact and unmodified pagan temple in the region

An incomprehensible speech in an exotic language…a stern glance, and the high priest thrust his blade into the fire in front of me. I had stumbled upon a full-blown Armenian pagan ceremony in the oldest intact Pagan temple in the world, the Garni temple, just outside of Yerevan, Armenia. Here, amidst the ghosts of pagans past, I witnessed a full blown pagan ceremony unfold before my eyes. Not some half-baked Disneyfied version setup solely for the tourists, mind you, but a real ceremony by the descendants of ancient pagans. They were gathered here in a 2000 year old temple to perform a rite of passage for one of their members who was entering into the Armenian military.

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Charming Caucasus Part I: The Country of Georgia

View towards Narikala Fortress (ნარიყალა) from Old Tbilisi, Georgia

What is it about the crossroads of the world that I find so fascinating? Perhaps it’s the rich history, the battlefields of past dynasties, or the allure of the trade routes that pass through them. But more than anything, I think it comes down to the blend of cultures one finds in these areas. Because of the constant movement of people, goods, and ideas in these areas, one finds a dazzling blend of different art, foods, religions, and languages.  The Caucasus most definitely qualifies as this type of environment, as it historically sits on the crossroads between powerful empires, and has been continuously influenced by them over the centuries.  Subsequently, it has been a fascinating area of the world for me to explore and once I had the opportunity to visit this are of the world in November of 2012, I took it.

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Climbing Kilimanjaro on the Marangu Route

Close-up of Kibo Peak during Sunrise on Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

Kilimanjaro.  All you really need to do is say the word and it is instantly recognized worldwide.  This stratovolcano, rising from the African savanna, is famous not only as the highest point in Africa, as one of the Seven Summits, and as the world’s highest free-standing mountain, but also as a formidable hiking challenge.  The highest point on Kilimanjaro stands at a whopping 19,341 feet (5,895 m) above mean sea level!  To climb such a massive mountain would indeed be quite the feat, and several colleagues of mine and I had discussed a trip there at some point to attempt this challenge.

Our opportunity arrived as part of a speaking tour I am involved with called ‘Sharing the Point’ that was sponsored by a phenomenal company called Colligo.  The goal of this tour is to take a Microsoft technology I speak on called SharePoint into areas of the world where it has not had much of a presence.  The first two tours took me and the team to Asia in 2011 and then later to South America and Antarctica, a trip I documented here in post on Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Santiago, and, of course, Antarctica.

So, as we thought through the itinerary of our trip, we pondered…”How do we beat the challenge of heading to Antarctica?”  Quite simply…hike from near the base of a massive dormant volcano up to an altitude where there is less than half of the oxygen at sea level – a challenge indeed!

On this particular tour, called STP Africa, my colleagues and good friends Joel Oleson, Paul Swider, Mark Miller, and Eric Harlan joined me for the climb, with John Anderson supporting us from the base camp and serving as the official blogger for the event.  Little did we realize what kind of physical and mental challenge we were about to undertake.

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Berchtesgaden – Bavarian Paradise with an Unfortunate Past

Bavarian houses on the hills near Berchtesgaden, Germany

My travels in May 2012 involved a trip to speak at a conference in a place that I could hardly pronounce, and was only vaguely aware even existed. A bastion of Bavarian Germany in the Alps called to me, drawing me into an area of untold beauty that has been spending the past 60 years trying to shake it’s association with the evils of Nazi Germany. I was headed to the city of Berchtesgaden in a small sliver of Germany called Berchtesgadener Land.  This city is a destination that possesses all of the trappings of amazing natural beauty; soaring mountain peaks, delicious Bavarian cuisine, and some of the best beer in Germany. Despite all of this, however, I couldn’t help feeling the constant chill of the vestiges of Nazi past here, and couldn’t help comparing the pictures I took to those taken by Nazi soldiers here who shared the same plazas, mountains, and vistas.

Despite the tainted history that the Nazi past imparted on this place, I can sympathize with the residents here who had little control over what became of their mountain paradise.  Great efforts have been undertaken to ensure that this place does not become a Nazi shrine, and tourism efforts here focus solely on the natural beauty and the pre-WWII history.  So, in the end, I discovered a paradise in the Alps that I would recommend to anyone, despite the history.

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Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey – Last Bastion of the Duchy of Normandy

Clouds over Jersey, Channel Islands (Jèrri, Îles d'la Manche)

Just off the Normandy Coast of France lies a series of small islands can be easily overlooked if you don’t look closely. For those that do find them on a map, many simply erroneously assume that the islands are part of France itself. In reality, these islands, known as the Channel Islands (or Îles d’la Manche locally) today, are the oldest possessions of the British monarchy, and have a long an interesting history involving Bretons, Normans, and even more recently Nazis.

At the same time, the islands themselves are gorgeous, the weather is much better than in most of the rest of the British Islands, the people are kind and relaxed, and the taxes are low. For these and for numerous other reasons, these Channel Islands are quite popular for businesses and residents, who come to enjoy these historic and picturesque islands.

My idea for a journey here started with a comment on this travel blog from Gus Fraser, a resident of Jersey, one of the Channel Islands. He noted that the Bailiwick of Jersey and the Bailiwick of Guernsey, both defined as ‘countries’ in the Traveler’s Century Club list of countries that I track were both conspicuously missing from my list. He also mentioned that there is a large IT community here, and that they held regular sessions and that I’d be more than welcome to speak at one. That was all the excuse I needed, and I took the opportunity provided by a trip to speak in Bavaria to take a side trip to these amazing islands, a diversion that proved to be highly entertaining for me.

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Istanbul – Last Capital of the Roman Empire and Modern Turkish Delight

A look across the Golden Horn from the Old City to the Beyoğlu district in Istanbul, Turkey

At the border between Europe and Asia lies a powerful and historic city that has been hotly contested over the years. Once the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, this was a bastion of culture and power during the times while the Western Roman Empire was stumbling through the dark ages.  Originally founded as Byzantium, the city today known as Istanbul was later renamed as Constantinople upon its selection of the new capital of the Roman Empire. This elevation to the capital of the most powerful empire of the time was just the beginning of the history of this proud and dynamic city at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.

In all of the travels I have done over the years, I was painfully aware of the fact that I kept sidestepping a visit to Istanbul. I tried to get there on multiple occasions, but the cruel hand of logistics always got in the way. Well, no more…during a lull between a speaking event in Kiev and one in Brussels, I found an opening, a 24 hour layover in Istanbul! This was my chance, and I grabbed it. And wow, what an experience it was…Istanbul was an even more enjoyable experience than I had expected.  But first, to understand modern-day Istanbul you must first understand its historical past.

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Kiev – Ancient Slavic Capital and Modern Gold-Domed Beauty

St. Sophia Cathedral (Собор Святой Софии) in Kiev (Киев,) Ukraine, with the statue of Bohdan Khmelnytsky (Богдан Хмельницкий) in the foreground

Kiev, the sprawling capital of Ukraine is without a doubt one of the most beautiful and dynamic cities in the world. It has history, architecture, great food, and a highly educated population, all traits of a world-class city. I have been fortunate to visit this great city four times, first in 1999, then more recently in the years 2010, 2011, and 2012.

Kiev has one of the oldest histories of any city in Eastern Europe, having previously served as the capital of Kievan Rus, the predecessor to the modern-day Eastern Slavic states of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. Legend holds that it was founded by the Varangian (Viking) siblings of Kyi, Shchek, Khoryv, and Lybid, with the eldest sibling Kyi being the inspiration for the city’s name.

For centuries Kiev was the capital and most important Slavic city, until the year 1240, when the Mongol invasion completely destroyed the city during the Siege of Kiev, an event that eventually resulted in the axis of Slavic power moving to Moscow, a city where it can be argued it still exists today. Despite this shift, however, Kiev remains a powerful cultural and industrial powerhouse in the region, much more so since Ukrainian independence in 1990.

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Istria – Roman Ruins on a Sun-drenched Coast in Croatia

Sunset in Rovinj, Istria, Croatia

I’ll be completely honest with you…until recently I wasn’t even aware that there was a place in the world called Istria. Even en route to the place, I mistakenly referred to it as part of Dalmatia, only to be corrected by my Croatian friends that this portion of the Adriatic coast of their country has been known by it’s Roman name Istria (Histria) for over 2000 years.

And what a place it is…city after beautiful sparkling seaside city sprinkled along the coast south of Trieste, Italy, each one heavily influenced by their past conquerors, Illyrians, Romans, Venetians, Hapsburgs, Italians, and Slavs.  This place is blessed with a sun-drenched coast, relatively low prices, and an easygoing multilingual population. Most people here speak English, not to mention Croatian, Italian, and German, making it a near-perfect vacation destination.  And did I mention the unbelievable well-preserved Roman ruins? More on that later, however.

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Venice – Visions of Ancient Grandeur and a Powerful Empire

Gondolas near Piazza San Marco in the early morning in Venice, Italy

It’s easy to dismiss the city of Venice as a giant tourist trap. After all, 50,000 tourists tramp through the city every day, stepping over the dwindling population of 60,000 local residents. The truth is, however, that the majority of the tourists stick to the popular sights such as St. Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco) and the Rialto Bridge.  One simply needs to wander down the alleyways and across the bridges of this amazing water-filled city to find the peace and quiet of quaint squares filled with elderly gentlemen sipping coffee and children playing football in the street.

The calmness of the city betrays the historical impact that this city had on the development of Europe and the world as a whole. This metropolis was the most powerful city in the world at one time, and some of the richest and most influential people of the time lived here. The vestiges of that storied past can be found everywhere, from the architecture to the monuments to the influence that the Venetian language has had on world vocabulary. Venice truly is a remarkable city, and regardless of the hordes of tourists, is well worth a visit.

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Breathtaking Balkans – Journey through Albania, Kosovo, FYRO Macedonia and Bulgaria

View of the Šar (Sharr) Mountains and a village mosque from a train traveling through the Kosovo countryside.

The Balkan peninsula is an area of remarkable beauty that also happens to lie at the crossroads of multiple civilizations. This provides for the distinct advantage of enriching the area with trade and knowledge, but also carries the disadvantage of the fact that the area is constantly used as invasion route for numerous armies over the years.  This fact may be one of the main reason why this area of the world does not see much in terms of organized tourism, as fresh memories of wars in the former Yugoslavia, pyramid scheme riots in Albania, and NATO bombings combined with longstanding misconceptions about the area work together to keep away most tourists.

After touring the area with my friends and fellow public speakers Joel Oleson and Paul Swider, I can most definitely say that this lack of interest in the area is a huge mistake…the region is filled with amazing sights, sounds, foods, and a friendly and resilient population.  Like the Northern areas of the Balkans that we visited as part of an earlier trip I covered in a prior blog post, the South Balkans are amazing, inspiring, and highly recommended.  But first, let me begin the story in the country in which it began…Albania.

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Melbourne – Magnificent, Cultured, and Uniquely Australian

The Melbourne CBD as seen from Treasury Gardens in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Melbourne, the capital of the Australian state of Victoria is a city that, in theory, should have a chip on its shoulder. With a population almost as high as Sydney (4.1 million in Melbourne vs. 4.6 million for Sydney,) Australia’s second largest city struggles for attention in a world more acquainted with the major Sydney landmarks such as the Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The citizens of Melbourne simply shrug this controversy off, however, and go on their way building an pleasant, architecturally magnificent, and diverse city near the southernmost point of the Australian continent.

My travels have taken me to Melbourne twice, which is significantly less than the 17 times I’ve been to Sydney, a city I covered in a recent blog post. Despite only having visited twice, I find myself impressed at this Victorian city, and made it a point to explore it as much as possible.

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Sydney: Cosmopolitan Jewel of Australia

Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour at dawn in beautiful Sydney, Australia

There are no two ways about it, Sydney, Australia qualifies as one of my favorite cities in the world. This city has everything…pleasant weather year round, mouth-watering international-inspired cuisine, culture and entertainment, white sand beaches, beautiful architecture, and a strong economic sector that provides for a happy and pleasant population.

Sydney also happens to be the city where I’ve personally spent more time in than any other city other than those I’ve lived in. Over the past four years, I have visited Sydney on more than a dozen occasions and have racked up a cumulative exposure of several months time in the city itself on various work related projects and to speak at events.  Despite all of the visits, I still earnestly look forward to any opportunity to visit this amazing city, and have even gone as far as to consider a move here.  This blog post touches upon some of my favorite sights, activities, and foods in Sydney, but I can honestly say that it really only scratches the surface of what this amazing city has to offer.

Aerial view of Sydney Harbour in Sydney, Australia showing the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Opera House, and the Central Business District

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