Troubling Around

On five travel methods. Which one fits your dream trip?


Unplanned Serendipity - Thailand

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by SeenThat on February 16, 2010

Serendipity is a much overlooked factor while travelling, yet it may become the most significant, the one providing the most joy and opening new and unexpected gates to future trips.

People travel away from jobs, homes and troubles seeking new experiences, a different culture that would help them forget – at least for a while – whatever they left behind. Before the trip they go to the nearest bookshop and buy a guide of the desired destination. Many travellers insist in its being the latest one, as if cities could change significantly within a year or two. Actually, if they did change so fast then something dramatic happened there and they probably aren’t a leisure destination anymore.

After buying the book, for days and weeks they sit at home – after having worked the whole day – and plan every second of the desired trip. They have never been there, they ignore the pace of the place and its culture, but they have a plan detailed down to the last second that would allow them to completely ignore their surroundings. The reason for this obtuse behaviour is simple: paying attention to the details would cause unexpected delays. Who could resist that fabulous, but unplanned dish spotted out at a street market? This is unacceptable for the over-planed traveller, time would be lost. Beyond becoming a race between attractions, such a trip probably becomes a source of stress and misses most of its goals.

Is there any alternative? Can a travel model based upon serendipity be implemented without falling into a semantic trap? Planning what cannot be planned; unplanning the planned. The answer is yes, but not everywhere. Some areas are so difficult that they demand careful planning. The Himalayas are a good example of these. Yet, other places have an excellent infrastructure and a comfortable climate during the entire year allowing the perfect serendipity trip: an unplanned one.

Read nothing about Thailand. Take the first plane to Bangkok. Probably you’ll land there around midnight; most international flights to Bangkok land late due to the large distances involved. Exchange some money at the airport and walk into the warm night. Regardless the season, the nights are always warm. A row of taxis waits beyond the bus stop; the drivers stand chatting together next to the first taxi in the row. Approach them. The Thai tones hit your ears without mercy. They’ll begin naming places and prices; their English is difficult to understand at first. They accent the words at unexpected places; the Thai affirmation hum sounds confusing. Yet, without knowing much about the city, you manage reaching the main hotel areas, which are invariably located next to main attractions or main commercial areas. Nearby, the Skytrain is adorned with attractive, curvy letters.

Well after midnight a room is found. It may not be perfect, but it is comfortable and the air conditioner works. Nothing else really matters since next morning a different hotel can be found. Meanwhile, sleeping is impossible. Excitement builds up. The - until now - unknown place is providing new experiences. The city is not anymore an abstraction in a book. Noises penetrate through the windows. Food smells win a battle against the air conditioner. Would you wait until the morning to begin exploring the city? Who knows? There are no plans. Every minute you didn’t spend planning the trip at home is now a minute of gained freedom.

While passing through the reception a bunch of brochures are picked up randomly. Names of attractions are rapidly memorized, mnemonic tags placed upon names unheard until now. Instead of following a dry list of places, attractions, travel methods and timetables down to the second, you follow your senses.
How can these apparently randomly ordered letters be memorized? It doesn’t matter. Maybe they would be highlighted with a marker on the brochure, or written on the back of a hotel card; regardless the method used, the traveller is following now a track designed by serendipity. A trip more updated than any guide, more alive than any book, as real as any of Marco Polo travels.

Planned Trip - Nepal

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by SeenThat on February 16, 2010

"Let’s go to this town!" the unplanned traveller says while reading an eye catching poster in a bus station. Next day he is there. The process repeats itself several times, each time leading him in a random direction and transforming him into an oversized Brownian Particle. This is incredibly fun and interesting but unsuitable for certain locations. Travelling in the Himalayas requires careful planning due to the extreme climate conditions. Many visit Nepal for the sake of trekking or climbing. Few countries offer a better infrastructure; none offers higher mountains. Among the various areas available for such activities, the Sagarmatha Park is the most prestigious due to the simple fact it houses the highest mountain on earth.

Yet, planning doesn’t mean spending months of careful preparations. Usually that’s also a difficult process to be performed from far away, regardless how good the travel agencies, books or websites are. You need to fit the trip to your needs, and only in the site you can get accurate information about what is available and possible, and about last minute changes.

This is where Thamel – a Kathmadu’s district – becomes handy. Despite its humble surroundings, Thamel occupies a premium spot just west of the Royal Palace, north of the Durbar Square and south of Bouddhanat. Thamel’s layout is definitely complex; many alleys connect between the main roads, others are just dead ends. The maze is three dimensional, many establishments’ are located on upper floors; reaching them may demand from the traveler substantial amounts of ingenuity. I described its layout elsewhere, and now would like to put an emphasis in its usefulness to the planned traveller.

Restaurants, guesthouses, convenience stores, travel agencies, trekking and climbing services companies, souvenirs and T-shirts stalls; on each of these categories Thamel provides an incredible variety of options. It may seem unappealing, but this eclectic reality is a powerful magnet even for the most resilient snobs. Moreover, Thamel houses a significant number of second-hand English bookstores – definitely more than Khaosan Road in Bangkok – and is the recommended place for stocking up and exchanging these oddities. This is the best place for finding detailed maps of the trekking areas; many of them are not available elsewhere.

Despite the ubiquitous travel agencies offering special treks and climbing expeditions, the trekker should remember that trekking is basically an independent activity and that the Nepali teahouses scattered along all the main routes make the activity an easy and friendly one. However anything classified as "Trekking Peak" and upwards demands special permits and local guides. That’s when the agencies become useful.

Many of the shops in the area sell equipment related to climbing and trekking. They can be easily categorized into those selling inexpensive equipment produced in Nepal or in nearby China and those selling equipment brought from Europe – mainly from Germany. The merchandise in the last is substantially more expensive than in Europe, while the merchandise sold in the first would barely last one trek.

Probably the most professional place for the independent trekkers is KEEP (KATHMANDU ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION PROJECT). KEEP specializes in providing services to trekkers in Nepal within an extra-comfortable environment; much better than sitting within a cold travel agency next to the noisy street – customers are attended on the first floor. The main information services available are on the most popular trekking routes and on how to trek responsibly, giving the last issue a heavy environmental focus. They call this "minimum impact trekking." Here the trekker can plan his trek while having access to the latest and most professional information.

Walk Plan

Walking in Nepal is different that walking in a New Mexican altitude desert or the Bolivian Amazonian Basin. There is more to a trek than walking, yet that action is at the very heart of the adventure and some attention should be given to the way it is performed while planning the adventure.

I found the same behavior in Nepal and Bolivia and concluded highlanders walk differently. Most of us would try to find the flattest path between two points. Walking around the peak is better than climbing to its summit and then descending. That’s not so in Nepal. Most paths follow the shortest possible way between two points regardless the slopes. It is tiring, but unless the trekker is ready to create new paths, that’s the only option. That means that the calculation of the time to be spent on the path in a given day should be done carefully. Walking up-and-down is slower than walking on plains.

Keeping a steady pace is the best way of covering large distances there. The best way of learning it is watching the porters for a while. The recommended speed varies with the terrain conditions, but the average speed should not cross the 2 kilometers per hour mark; it may sound slow, but keeping it for eight to ten hours per day – day after day - in a mountainous area is difficult.

A constant temptation is rushing downwards at every opportunity. That’s not only dangerous – falling down and suffering damage is a real possibility here - but also may lead to overstrained muscles. At the first opportunity, measure the time it takes you climbing a hill and then how long the descent takes. A proper pace is if the way down took 80% of the time the way up took. If it takes less, then it’s too fast.

Depending on the season and the time of the day, the trekker may encounter extreme temperatures. Cold is worse a problem than heat, since if the muscles cool down too fast after a walk, beginning walking again is difficult. Strange as it may seem, that’s the reason for the location of the porters’ teahouses along the way. They are roughly located an hour away from each other – that is if you walk like a Nepali. These simple huts are immediately recognizable: the smoke rising from them is a clear sign of their having a fire inside. Here, fire means tea. Moreover, they are always located along the way. Strange platforms next to them allow the porters to put the heavy baskets down comfortably.

The idea is walking 55 minutes of any given hour and resting the other 5 minutes next to a cup of steaming, sweet tea. No more than five minutes, otherwise the muscles cool down. No more, otherwise you get sleepy and the day is lost.

There isn’t a sadder way of spoiling the perfect vacation than climbing beyond the altitude limit where the body can get suitable amounts of oxygen from the atmosphere. The problem is that this limit is not steady, it varies as the body gets accustomed to the altitude; a process known as acclimatization. I did comment on that extensively.

Planner’s Plan

Even if the traveller finds planning a trip an obnoxious activity, sometimes escaping it is unavoidable. Yet, if performed properly, let’s say in a cosy room in Kathmandu after having eaten a few momos, even that can become an agreeable activity, maybe not less enjoyable than the trip itself.


Vasting Around - China

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by SeenThat on February 16, 2010

Some destinations are special due to their vastness. How can a traveller truly expect to see China in a month or two? How can that be done while keeping the appearances of a leisure trip, without transforming the experience into forced labour? Achieving that may be impossible, but the traveller can successfully get the illusion of having accomplished just that. The trick is not concentrating in one area but in the travel methods.

China is a roughly circular country with its geographical centre at Lanzhou; however, the main travel hub is a bit eastwards of there in Xian, one of the country’s old capitals. China’s shape hints to a radial approach; thus, every attempt to travel around the country must take this last city into account and preferably as the trip’s focal point. A trip around the country borders is still not feasible.

The huge distances among Chinese cities forced the creation of a very efficient and comfortable network of trains between the main cities. This is the best way of moving around, no other transport offered equal accessibility, comfort, speed and close contact with the land and its people.

However, other transports are also handy. The Hoover speedboats connecting Hong Kong with Macao are an exhilarating experience and the over one hundred years old tram still working in Hing King offers a glimpse into a long gone Victorian Era. Buses are the main transport method south of Kunming in Yunnan.

Flexible Approach

An ancient capital of the Middle Kingdom, Xian is the central transport hub of the country, has the best preserved walled city, and an intriguing army of terracotta warriors. Beginning the trip here is possible but not recommended; yet, beginning the trip plan from here is certainly helpful. Can flexibility be kept, while attempting to cover up just a vast region in a limited time? With some limitations, the answer is positive.

Draw a line on the map from Xian to the west, passing through Lanzhou. This city offers great views of the Yellow River – the cradle of the Chinese culture - and a glimpse into the people of Central Asia. The railway continues west to Urumqi on the far west; the farthest city from the oceans offers a fascinating mixture of Chinese, Central Asian and Russian features. South of there, Kashgar is a city on the Silk Road with a weekend market that has changed very little since Marco Polo visited it.

Draw another line to the south, connecting Xian with Yunnan, a most colourful province in the boundary zone between the Chinese culture and the Southeast Asian ones. Kunming and Jinghong are two major attractions, the last being in Xishuangbanna, the cradle of Thai, Lao and other peoples. It is possible to travel from Kunming to Hong Kong via Nanning, which offers some of the most beautiful natural sights in the country. This is important since if adopting the plan proposed here and wanting to avoid flights within the country and to trace back the way to Xian, then at least one trip connecting the north-south axis with the east-west one must be performed.

The third line would connect Xian to the southeast, to Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Macao. The former British territory is a dizzying twister of activity, beautiful bays, green mountains and shopping malls, while the former Portuguese territory offers a startling blend of Sino-Portuguese cuisine and architecture. From this area is possible travelling to Shanghai, on the northeastern axis of this plan.

Draw the fourth line to the northeast, reaching Beijing and Shanghai. The last imperial capital is nowadays one of the main world’s cities, where the Forbidden and Summer palaces coexist with sturdy Communist plazas and monuments. The Mao Zedong Mausoleum, the nearby Dashalan Market and the rapidly disappearing Hutong neighbourhoods offer a very local flavour to such a visit. Nearby, is Badaling – a wonderfully restored stretch of the Great Wall. The economical engine of the country, Shanghai has a beautiful European quarter just in front of ultra-modern skyscrapers.

Planning in such a fashion, most of the main attractions would be covered. Now all that remains is transforming it into a feasible plan. Place the desired arrival point at the end of one of these lines; from there, advance to Xian and explore other two lines. The last line should lead to the departure point from the country. The east-west and north-south lines can be connected through one of the loops proposed if time allows. This plan is not perfect, but is feasible in a tight month since all the locations are excellently connected through the railway. Moreover it allows a vast degree of flexibility; it can be begun by land from Southeast Asia, or by a direct flight to Shanghai.

Snow covered dunes, wild camels, the original ravioli, thousands of terracotta warriors, colourful pagodas and a million types of dumplings covered in a month? A month and a half would be better. This can be achieved using the regular thirty-day visa, while taking advantage of the fact that Hong Kong and Macao issue visas on arrival, or by buying the more expensive long-term multi-entry visas.

"Sacrilege!" some readers may be thinking. "What about hotel reservations! I have my member card! I must plan and book ahead!" Over time I visited China several times. I always reached my destinations without making hotel reservations. I never booked trains in advance. Except for the Chinese New Year season, I never had trouble finding suitable rooms; even during the holidays I never was left without a bed to sleep on.

Vasting Around

Exploring the large distances between attractions in a vast country is possible even for a traveller with limited time. All it takes is some strategic planning and being ready to treat this plan lightly, only as a base for changes, since, in such a vast enterprise, serendipity would for sure play its role.

Anti-Destinations - Singapore

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by SeenThat on February 16, 2010

Vast destinations. Frozen ones. Friendly ones. The variety seems endless. Some of them are even tiny. How long can you enjoy a country in which a subway travels around it in less than an hour? In essence this is the anti-destination for a traveller – there are no distances to cover. Relaying too much on serendipity in such a trip would land the traveller into another country after a few seconds. The trick here is paying attention to the details, and Singapore offers plenty of these.

City

A feeble ocean breeze from the southern seas attempted to brush away the tropic heat of the long gone day; desert streets and closed shopping malls hid their shame under a gentle fog, the streetlamps-light was attractively diffused. Not far away, downtown’s skyscrapers resembled a studiously deconstructed pyramid. In a subtle way, scenes from Blade Runner come to mind. Singapore’s ultramodern downtown area includes beautiful Victorian buildings and awesome food plazas in shopping malls connected by a maze of subterranean passages, Chinese and Indian eateries offer everything from extra-sweet milk coffee to stewed turtles; laksa, Chicken Biryani, Ice Kachang: great names for extraordinary dishes. BreadTalk is worth of a dedicated trip to the city-state.

The Bugis Shopping Mall was once a neighbourhood; covered with a transparent glass ceiling and freshened with air conditioners it became an extraordinary shopping mall in colonial style. The Raffles Hotel takes its guest back to colonial times. In front of it, the Raffles City Tower provides a glimpse into the archetypal super-shopping-mall-hotel-offices tower(s) connected with bridges, escalators and subterranean tunnels to every other place that matters. And it has a wonderful food plaza. A surprise in every corner, the downtown area is worth a very detailed visit.

Nature

Singapore includes enough parks for them to become the main occupation of the thorough traveller. Those include the open zoo and the adjacent night safari, the Jurong Bird Park, the botanic gardens, Sentosa and others. Each one of them is considered among the best in Asia in their specific categories; a remarkable example of the efforts taken in order to achieve that is the fact that the zoo keeps happy polar bears and penguins very close to the equator line. Moreover, Jurong hosts the world’s largest walk-in aviary with the tallest man-made waterfall. The Sentosa resort occupies an island just south of the city. From its Palawan Beach is a suspension bridge that leads to a small islet; this is the southernmost point of continental Asia. What traveller will claim the last is not a proper destination?

Since Wildlife Reserves Singapore is the parent company of the zoo, the Night Safari and the Jurong Bird Park, combined tickets valid for one month exist and are highly recommended. The tropical climate created wonderful beaches also in the downtown area, creating a sharp and delightful contrast with the urban area.

Shopping

Shopping in Singapore is one of the most exciting activities awaiting the traveler after a few months in the Southeast Asia’s backwaters. The city is a paradise especially for electronic products; the main shopping district is on the central Orchard Road, which can be comfortably explored by foot. A plethora of restaurants and coffee shops – including all the main international chains – cater for the shoppers; most of the malls include their own food plazas and coffee shops. The shopping malls practically touch each other.

And "shopping" in Singapore is a synonym for "Orchard Road." The last begins at the intersection with Orange Grove Road, next to the Orchard Hotel, and advances south-eastwards until it ends at the intersection with Handy Road, where it becomes Bras Basah Road. It is a one-way street and has an extensive underground infrastructure, including underground pedestrian walkways between the malls. Several subway stations provide direct access to the malls.

The street got its name from the nutmeg, pepper and fruit orchards that delimited it in the nineteenth century; only in the 1970s it became a shopping area. Yet a lush trees canopy still covers the street creating an especially pleasant environment for the shopper in the tropics.

On Anti-Destinations

By not rushing away and letting the place tell its story, even a tiny destination which if not paying attention to the details may seem boring and unappealing may provide an exciting couple of weeks for the traveller in Asia.

The Grasshopper Traveller - Asia

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by SeenThat on February 16, 2010


After a while most travelers would find themselves as an intercontinental grasshopper passing through random airports in unknown cities. A few hours in Johannesburg in the way from Hong Kong to Sao Paulo. Incheon as a break between Bangkok and Los Angeles. Can these short, insubstantial stops be transformed into something meaningful?

Here planning ahead is essential, not as much as how to enjoy the brief stopover, but regarding which stopover to choose. Some airports allow travelling around, while others - like Bangkok - are an exciting destination by themselves providing a meaningful view of their culture. Others - like Hong Kong - are a kind of international bubble providing a bit of everywhere and a lot of nowhere. Reality is that the largest and best airports in the world are in Asia, providing thus one more reason for visiting this wonderful continent.

International Bubble

The Hong Kong International Airport is a bit difficult to define, simply is too vast, nobody knows how many languages are used within it. Inaugurated in 1998, the airport was built on the island of Chek Lap Kok on reclaimed land. The airport has one of the world's largest passenger terminal buildings, operates twenty-four hours a day and is considered to be one of the best and largest in the world. An airport that has defined itself as "a destination in its own right" requires a long visit, though not necessarily for shopping, just walking around its highly attractive and large space is fun.

Food is a very strong point of this airport. One of my favorite coffee shops in Hong Kong - Pacific Coffee Company – has two large branches near the check in area, designed in an "open-space" fashion. Despite the relatively expensive coffee and foods, it is worth to approach them due to the coaches, the excellent background music, the warm lighting and smart furniture, the courtesy internet and newspapers, and other treats.

The airport includes a 4-D movie theater, where the fourth "D" is for the scents, smoke and artificial snow. The Aviation Discovery Center shows aviation related exhibits, including a cockpit simulator and a full-motion plane-cabin ride simulator, while Asia Hollywood provides visitors with the opportunity to experience the local film industry. Another attraction in the endless list of those featured by the airport is i-Sports, where simulators of soccer, basketball, golf, boxing, skiing, car racing, and other sports can be enjoyed. But, what really caught my attention were the ready meals sold at a tiny branch of 7-Eleven, which included even eels on rice. A bit of everything for everyone.

Cultural Showcase

Unexpectedly, the reactions to Suvarnabhumi Airport are strong; some love it, others don’t stop criticizing it. The last mention secondary issues of short delays and difficulties moving within this vast structure; however, does anybody expect a Thai enterprise to behave with the exactitude of a Swiss watch? Instead, don’t we prefer the Thai smiles? In any case, it is clearly one of the most strongly characterized airports in the world; Thai art and culture is in graceful display everywhere, offering to the traveler a delightful experience.

I quickly forgot the unclear signs and was overwhelmed not only by the size of the building, but mainly by its elegance. It was shaped as a series of huge oval tunnels and it imparts mainly a feeling of being a lightweight, floating, well-lighted structure. Wooden pagodas adorn its interior adding a touch of local culture and in one of my visits, traditional Thai puppet shows were performed at one of the main junctions. Larger than life representations of Thai mythology can be enjoyed in the boarding area.

The shopping and entertainment options are overwhelming. It seems every brand in the market has an especially dedicated shop here; exploring everything while waiting for the flight is impossible. A surprising and delightful touch is the small dining areas resembling traditional Thai markets located amidst designers’ shops. Arriving early before departure is essential for enjoying what is with no doubt one of the best experiences of Thai culture in Bangkok.

Bypassing the Stopover

Inaugurated in 2001 on land reclaimed from the sea, the Incheon International Airport is huge. It’s size isn’t all; it has been several times rated as the best airport in the world and received a 5-star ranking by Skytrax, an award shared only by Hong Kong’s International Airport and Singapore’s Changi Airport. Few airports of this size manage to keep uncluttered, functional and friendly surroundings. Incheon does that due to its simple design; its three main buildings fulfil distinct functions, and navigating within the complex is straightforward.

After passing through a few airports, the scene becomes clear: a shopping mall, security checks and fast food. What can an airport add? Local culture! Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi offers wonderful touches of the Thai culture, including traditional teakwood structures and Thai dancing. Incheon Airport in Seoul offers a rich display of Korean art and craftsmanship but added also an unusual touch: tours to the surroundings for the benefit of transit travelers.

However, the trips demand passing through the immigrations and thus passing all the tedious security checks again upon return. The trips are arranged according to their length; the shortest ones are operated several times during the day while the long ones depart only in the morning hours. They include attractions like the Yonggungsa Temple, the Korean Wave Hall - the biggest shopping center in the country – featuring the Traditional Korean Cultural Exhibition, Incheon City Tour offers a visit in Incheon’s Chinatown, the Namdaemun or Dongdaemun markets in Seoul, and if the stopover is especially long, even a visit to the DMZ between South and North Korea, allowing experiencing two countries (though one only by sight) in one stopover.

A stay at an airport is usually unpleasant. Crowds, security checks, immigration stamps, custom forms, ticketing and checking in or out transform the experience into a questionable one. Visiting one of the biggest airports in the world could hardly hold a promise of joy. Despite that, I found the reason why Incheon has been repeatedly voted the best airport in the world. Simply, it was enjoyable.

Choosing

How to choose among these and others for short stops? Except for Incheon’s tours, most airports are bubbles. Short stops in between destinations allow a fun break and experience of another culture. As such, they should better not be taken too seriously. Choosing each time a different one holds the promise of maximising our experiences as Grasshopper Travellers.


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