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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