Thailand Trekking: Traveling by Elephant in the Land of Smiles

Thailand Trekking: Traveling by Elephant in the Land of Smiles

I grew up really LOVING “Ripley’s Believe it or Not”, reading the comic strip, reading the books, and later watching the shows.  I imagined myself having a job like his.  Travel the world and capture images and stories the bizarre and fantastic.   My trip to the golden triangle of Thailand included amazing animals including elephants, tigers, monkeys, and cobras, with people so far removed from my world, from indigenous people living off the land, to refugee hill tribes are simply happy to find peace.  The refugees escaping oppression and seeing extreme contrast in Thai joy and Burmese oppression. Visiting the hill tribes especially the long neck Karen tribe was the fulfillment of a childhood dream.  What a joy to spend time in the “Land of Smiles.”

Long Neck Karen - Giraffe Hill Tribe

The big question is why did they start putting these rings on their necks?

Long Neck Karen Children Weaving

There are a number of reasons to describe why they have the rings on their necks.

  1. The rings actually coils make them more beautiful are a sign of beauty and wealth
  2. The coils are designed to protect their necks from tigers!
  3. The coils make the women unattractive to the nearby tribes.

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Cultural Philippines in the heart of Manilla

Cultural Philippines in the heart of Manilla

Getting Ready for Battle

I really, really love South East Asia.  Going to Manila was a huge treat.  One thing that’s always important to me whenever I visit a place is to see the place in it’s authentic beauty and warts.  I want to see the best and not best of a place.  We were staying at the amazing Shangri la hotel, one of the most beautiful hotels in Asia.  They are famous as having 5 and 6 star hotels in the big capitals in Asia.

Paul (black t-shirt) and I (in the red shirt, yes flash, and yes Big Bang Theory) were happy to pose with the staff.  Beautiful hotel.  Very posh.  We were definitely very pampered.  One thing you should know about Manila is it is very easy to spoil yourself.  Manila is very modern, and you can get anything you need.  My friend Dux Raymond Sy, who is very popular in the SharePoint community grew up in Manila.  It was great to meet his family.  Dux moved to the U.S. and if you talked with him you’d have no idea where he came from in fact he speaks perfect English.  No accent at all, and smart, very smart guy.  We were all in town for Sharing The Point Asia which would get us to China and Vietnam as well.  Fabulous tour.

We had a day in the nicer parts of Manila, and had some amazing food.  I was then very anxious to try other foods.  One early morning Michael, Dux and I escaped early to catch the sunrise over the sea.  We got up early enough we could get the first catch.  We had squid in it’s ink, prawns, and very fresh sushi.  Amazing seafood breakfast.

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Secrets of Cambodia from Angkor Wat to the Killing Fields

Secrets of Cambodia from Angkor Wat to the Killing Fields

The largest religious complex in the world.  Angkor Wat is one of the most amazing structures in the world.

Sure, Karnak in Luxor, Egypt is the largest religious structure, but Angkor Wat stretches over miles and miles including many many buildings.  I’d like to see a comparison of Tikal to Angkor Wat.  It’s a UNESCO world heritage site for good reason.  The complex itself was built 1110-1150.  It’s estimated it would take 300 years to do today, but took 40 years back then with thousands of workers brining in stones from all over.  Ok, read more on Wikipedia article on Angkor Wat beyond my research… If this was the only building that was constructed it would still be one of the most amazing in the world, but it is among 74 others in the complex of buildings many many miles apart.

This is definitely a bucket list item.  A New Seven Wonders runner up.  One of the most amazing places in the world!

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Virgin Tourist Destinations: Albania and Kosovo

Virgin Tourist Destinations: Albania and Kosovo

Albanian Art
Albanian Art

When I said I was flying into Albania and traveling across Kosovo to Macedonia some thought it was a very odd choice.  After having done it, I really enjoyed this trip and would recommend it for those looking for more of a raw European experience.  Some of the cheapest areas in Europe with the least number of tourists with some incredibly beautiful terrain.  At the end of this trip, from my UN country list I’m only missing Andorra from continental Europe, that may also explain our odd choice, but again, great adventure.  Did you know Mother Theresa is ethnic Albanian?  She was born in Skopje, Macedonia.

The Balkans are one of my favorite areas in Europe.  Dubrovnik, Split, Sarajevo, Mostar, Budapest and Belgrade continue to be some of my favorite cities in Europe.  The Balkans fail to get the best mention for beauty because of stains of war, but this history shouldn’t keep you from enjoying what hasn’t yet been claimed by tourists.  Seriously, you are missing out on the best if you ignore this region.

I met up with Paul Swider in Istanbul for his birthday, and Michael in Tirana.  You’ll hear a lot about these guys… my traveling companions for many adventures.  The night before our flight I was walking with Paul on the famous Taxim.  A walking street in Istanbul that’s known for it’s incredible night life, shopping, food, and it may have a million visitors in a day.  It’s pretty incredible area for getting the vibe of the city and just people watching.

Mega ATM Machine
Mega ATM Machine

Can you tell this city is interested in tourists?  This ATM machine spits out dollars, euros, pounds, and Turkish Lira!  Minutes later we’d be talked into going into this lounge.  They sell drinks for crazy high prices.  I had warned Paul, and thankfully we looked at the pricelist.  A couple years ago I was in a similar situation, but not with any knowledge of the scam that happens in that area with dancing Ukrainian girls sipping champaign, and within 20 minutes my buddy I had met that night had racked up a charge of over 500 Euros and was looking to split it.  Uhhh, no thanks.  Just a quick word of caution to not be talked into going into boring lounges with crazy expensive drinks.  Thirsty girls that just want to talk, is a bad sign.

As avid travelers Paul and I were so crazy impressed by the Turkish Airlines international lounge at the Istanbul Airport.  It wasn’t just the massage therapist who was walking around giving back massages, or the high speed wifi, the omelet bar, the huge free drink selection, breakfast buffet, but when you lockup your bags in a digital locker area with tons of space, a theatre room with rows of leather recliners, a news room area with 9 screens all showing different news programs all over the world and head sets where you could tune in at will.

Turkish Airlines Lounge in Istanbul
Turkish Airlines Lounge in Istanbul

I hadn’t really done much research, but after landing in Tirana, Albania and checking into our hotel, I quickly did some searches and found we were only about 40 minutes from the coast or better.  Tirana is named after a castle and is relatively a new city in European terms, but Durres, a roman port town was an easy drive.  So I convinced my traveling companions we needed to head for the coast.  After walking around down town, we saw some remnants of the communist era as well as a mosque that luckily survived 40 years of no religion in Albania and a touch of modernism.

 

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Cappadocia Turkey: Underground Cities and Cave Churches

Cappadocia Turkey: Underground Cities and Cave Churches

Cave Houses and Ferry Chimneys
Cave Houses and Ferry Chimneys

When I first learned about Cappadocia, I was up late watching a late night Sci Fi show on Ancient Alien God theory.  The spokey of underground cities where 20,000 people could live in caves.  The spoke cave cities of 13 levels deep and how for thousands of years these caves had lasted time.  No one really knows how old these caves are… you can’t carbon date a cave.  They think they are at least 1700-2000 years old.  These caves helped save Christianity at a time where it was illegal and the Romans were looking to wipe it out!  How do we know?  There are hundreds of early 3rd and 4th century cathedrals built by these Christians.  IMG_6663They went on to say there are 36 such cities that could support a hundreds of thousands of people…. underground!  Some cities are connected by 9 KM tunnels.  Only 10% of the caves had even been excavated.  What!!?  Seems to me like we’d learn more about ourselves and where we came from if we knew more about these caves.  Why have I not heard of such an incredible place before?  I immediately added it to my list.  About 6 months later, when I was planning a trip to Sofia, Bulgaria I remembered these incredible stories and decided… I must go.  I priced it out and for less than $200 I could visit this place.  You can fly to within an hour of the place.  I decided I needed to see how much of this was real.  Much to my surprise, these crazy facts were real!  I read as much as I could and gasped at the amazing pictures on any image search.  I dare you to look.  If you’re a world traveller, you’ll immediately add this to your list, and if not it will be a bucket list item.  Don’t wait till you’re too old for this one.  Remember there’s hiking and walking in caves.  You don’t want to hurt your back.

How this destination of underground city supports a population larger than most civilizations at the time still boggles my mind.  No way.  Too incredible.  Who wiped out these ancient people?  Who were they, what did they believe?  Was it an attempt to escape an alien overlord?  Doesn’t matter.  Despite whether you believe aliens built the multiple thousand year old tunnels or believe it was the Hittites an ancient civilization that’s no longer around, the mystery of these crazy tunnels and underground cities are no less of a wonder.  There’s a lot you can read about Derinkuyu, the largest underground city in the world, less than 30 minute drive from Goreme.  562343_10150787036148783_613898782_11776192_940521962_n[1]It’s only been available for tours since 1969.  There are plenty of tours that take you on organized tours or you can rent a car and take it at your pace.  The tunnels are excavated.  I went 8 levels deep on my tour and there were at least 4 or 5 tunnels that went off into the dark, one such tunnel my guide explained went to the next city.  In the underground city you’ll find a winery, church, animal stalls, wells, ancient phone system, ventilation shafts,  and a morgue.  I visited all of these places on my tour.

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