Cuba 101: What You Need to Know

Ramze Cuba
In this week’s Travel Tuesday Interview, I chat with Cuba expert Ramze Suliman. He’s been traveling to Cuba for the past seven years and is the author of two books about the country. (I met him in Havana on the first day of my Cuba trip!) He discusses the cost of traveling in Cuba, safety, how Americans can visit legally and the best restaurants in Havana.

 

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A classic car in Old Havana, Cuba (All photos by Ramze Suliman)

 

Name: Ramze Suliman
Age: 42
Hometown: Las Vegas, NV
Country count: 50
Blog/Website: www.RamzeTravels.com


1. How did you start traveling?
I originally started working for a company that did poker cruises. That gave me a small taste of many countries and from there the [travel] addiction was born. I originally went to Cuba back in 2010 because I have always been a cigar lover. The minute I arrived, I was in love. I have since written two books about Havana (Havana for Americans and Top 100 Places to Eat in Havana) and started my own tour company there:  www.TheCigarLover.com

 

2. How can Americans legally travel to Cuba?
Due to the economic embargo, Americans technically still can’t go for outright tourism. Obama opened it up quite a bit though. There are 12 sanctioned reasons that make it legal to go. Most people just choose either “Support of the Cuban people”, “People to People educational tours” or “professional research.”  These are all very easy requirements to fill and there is currently no real oversight or hassle with Americans traveling for these reasons. The gate agent will ask you when you check in at the airport in the US. That is the end of it.

 

3. When is the best time to go to Cuba?
Cuba shares very similar weather to Florida. The weather stays between 80-90 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, but it is more humid in the summer with more rain. December, January and February are peak months.

 

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Ramze enjoying a cigar and Havana Club at one of Havana’s many amazing restaurants.


4. Where are your favorite spots to eat in Havana?
Havana has some great restaurants and food and a lot of mediocre ones. My top three are Starbien, La Terazza and La Guarida. That said, I live there so I have lots of very inexpensive street foods I love. [FYI: Starbien is my favorite!]


5. What are your three favorite cities in Cuba?
Havana for the energy, Viñales for the sheer beauty and Varadero to just chill on a beautiful beach.

 

6. What’s the average daily cost of traveling in Cuba? Can you share some budget tips?
Cuba has some wild swings in what things cost. You can literally get a shot of coffee for .4 cents and then have to pay $25 bottle of sunscreen. Being prepared and knowing what to bring and where to go is more important than most countries. There are no supermarkets or drug stores on every corner to just pop in if you forgot anything. You can definitely hit the three budget ranges most people associate with though

Backpacker Budget:  $40/day
Average Budget: $100/day
Top Tier Budget: $200-$300 a day

Cuba Budget Tips:

  • Internet is $2 per hour and cards can be bought at all major hotels and at the government office called Etecsa.
  • Hotels currently are overbooked and severely overpriced. You can book at Casa particulars (private homes) for around $30 per night. This is the best option, and you will get a better feel for how Cubans actually live.  Check Airbnb for listings. [I stayed at casa particulars, which is how I met Ramzee.]
  • Learn to eat at the local peso kiosks and restaurants. If you see them full of Cubans, then you know they are cheap and good. The Cuban pesos is 24 to 1 with the CUC or Dollar. You can have a good meal for a buck.
  • The tap water is potable. Carry a small filter and drink the tap. Bottle water isn’t always easy to find and is expensive.
  • Fruits and vegetable markets are widespread in Cuba and are heavily subsidized by the government. So, is bread. You can easily buy both for pennies and make healthy easy meals. Take a jar of peanut butter with you.
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Pinar del Rio, Cuba (Photo courtesy of Ramze Suliman)

 

7. Share one of your travel highlights in Cuba.
I have learned to speak Spanish in Cuba. I took salsa lessons, learned to scuba dive and got some tattoos all while traveling around Cuba. There really is something for everyone and it has definitely enriched my life. I am writing this from Spain currently and it is such a pleasure to be able to speak to the locals here in Spanish!


8. What is the biggest myth about Cuba?
Safety. People always ask if it is safe. I have visited 50 countries and it is the safest I have ever been to! [I agree with Ramze. I always felt safe.]

The Cuban people have always been warm and friendly. They love American tourists the most because we tip and also because we are the closest to their lifestyles. In seven years of being in Cuba off and on, I have never heard of or witnessed any violent crime. I have walked dark streets at night and nobody will even approached me.

 

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Hotel Nacional in Havana is a must stop for their famous Cuban sandwich and fresh piña coladas. The historic hotel has a list of famous guests ranging from Frank Sinatra to John Wayne. (Photo courtesy of Ramze Suliman)

 


9. Name three things you always pack.
My electronics, my flip flops and my cigars

 

10. What is your next adventure?
I am officially moving to Havana full time in June. I am thrilled to finally call Cuba my official home. I have some repeat trips planned this year to Thailand and Colombia and some new ones to other parts of Southeast Asia


Want to know more about Cuba?

To connect with Ramze, check out his blog, Instagram and his two books on Cuba: Havana for Americans and Top 100 Places to Eat in Havana.

Looking for photo tips for Cuba? Check out my Photo Guide to Havana!

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6 Free Things to Do in NYC

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Sunset at Brooklyn Bridge Park

My very first flight was to New York City. It was a school trip during my junior year of college at the University of South Carolina. It was a mad rush to visit all the highlights –  Times Square, Broadway show, Central Park, the museums, etc. My second trip was a 24-hour quasi-layover. I’d flown back from Delhi and was headed to London. (Crazy, I know.) All I did was eat a lot and go for a run in Central Park. Every trip since then has been to visit friends, meet with editors and explore new parts of the city and check off icons that I missed on my previous visits. (I’ll be back again in early June!)

Whether it’s your first or 40th trip to the city, make sure you check these six free sights off your list. (Plus, they are all great photo opps!)

 

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I totally got up at sunrise to photograph Alfred the Gnome on the Brooklyn Bridge.


1. Walk the Brooklyn Bridge

One of the most famous icons of the New York City skyline is the double Gothic arches and crisscrossed cables of the Brooklyn bridge. Built in 1883, the bridge was the first road to connect Manhattan and Brooklyn. Be sure to walk, bike or run across the 1.1-mile pedestrian path. I recommend walking from Brooklyn toward Manhattan to get the best view of the skyline like in the photo above with Alfred the gnome!

How to get to the Brooklyn Bridge:
From Brooklyn: The promenade begins at Tillary and Adams street. Several subway stations get you close to the entrance. If you’re on the A or C train, exit at High Street Station. The entrance is a quarter of a mile north from this station. There are signs marking the entrance but consider using Google maps to help.

From Manhattan: The entrance is just across from the Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall station for lines 4, 5 and 6.

 

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The Staten Island Ferry offers one of the best (and FREE) views of Manhattan.


2. Staten Island Ferry

The free 25-minute ferry is a great way to see both the Statue of Liberty and get one of the best views of the Manhattan skyline. Departures are usually every 30 minutes. Avoid rush hour times, when ferries are packed. (I discovered the ferry on my quest to shoot the most iconic NYC gnome photo but preferred my Brooklyn Bridge shot above.)

How to get to the Staten Island Ferry: From Manhattan, the nearest subway line is the J/Z line to Broad Street or the 1 to South Ferry and 4/5 to Bowling Green.

 

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The High Line offers great views of the city and great spots to relax.


3. High Line

One of my favorite things in NYC is the High Line, the former above-ground train tracks that were transformed into a 1.45-mile public park and garden. The tracks were used to transport goods from 1934 to 1980. Afterwards, nature took over for almost three decades before the City of New York took ownership and transformed it into an urban masterpiece that incorporates many of the original tracks. 

PRO TIP: The Highline offers a plethora of FREE activities including multiple themed tours throughout the week, Saturday yoga classes and stargazing on Tuesday nights. (Check out their calendar.) It’s open daily from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

How to Get to the Highline: There are eleven different access points that stretch from 34th and 12th Avenue to Washington and Gansevoort Street. Check the official website for a great map.

 

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The Chelsea Market is my favorite lunch/dinner spot!


4.
 Chelsea Market

The Chelsea Market is a fun food court/shopping mall/office building combo located close the High Line. While entrance to the building is free, the food’s not.  It’s a great lunch or dinner spot. Los Tacos No. 1 is amazing and Creamline is a farm to tray burger spot.  It’s very budget friendly for New York standards. The best part is that’s it’s air conditioned and a great escape on those steamy summer days.

How to Get Here to Chelsea Market: Take the A, C, E or L train to 13th Street.  Walk one block west and one block north. The address is 75 9th Ave, New York, NY 1001.

 

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One World Trade Center borders the 9/11 Memorial.

5. 9/11 Memorial

Everyone must take a walk through the 9/11 Memorial, which is both a powerful and beautiful tribute. The centerpiece is two enormous reflecting pools and waterfalls located at the base of each of the original towers. The pools are lined with the names of those who died on September 11, 2001 and on February 26, 1993. The surrounding plaza is lined with swamp white oak trees adjacent­ to One World Trade Center building, which is the tallest building in the Western hemisphere. Memorial is open 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

How to get to the 9/11 Memorial: The A, C, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, J, Z and R trains all run within walking distance of the memorial.

 

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I paused my run for a quick snap of Bethesda Fountain in Central Park.


6. Exercise in Central Park

On every NYC visit, I always go for a run in Central Park with just my phone, a little bit of cash and my subway card. It’s a great way to explore the park and relax. Pretend you are a local and go for a run/walk/bike ride through the park. The trick is to leave all your bags and cameras in your hotel/hostel so you’re not distracted and can focus on just enjoying the park like a local who’s just out for their morning workout. I always start on the east side of the park near East 59th Street and run along the eastern side to Bethesda Terrace then head to Belvedere Castle before running around the reservoir. When I get tired, I just exit the park and head to the nearest subway stop!

For more about NYC, check out my Travel Tuesday Interview with native New Yorker Jennifer O’Brien, founder of TheTravelWomen.com!

 

The Ultimate Guide to Austin, Texas

Where to go in Austin: Lady Bird Lake

The boardwalk trail at Lady Bird Lake in downtown Austin

Austin knows the key to my heart – flip-flop weather roughly 10 months of the year, a plethora of outdoor activities, amazing food and craft beer. And, live music—of course!

The capital of Texas has been my home for roughly three years (minus that year I spent in South America). It is a nice mixture of all the things I love about the South (biscuits, grits, the word “y’all,” and barbecue) merged together with the things I loved about California (fitness-focused outdoor culture and the ability to recycle everything easily) sprinkled with a little LA-style traffic (52.4 people move into the city limits daily) and no state income tax.

It is literally my job to write and photograph many of the coolest spots in my current hometown and the great state of Texas. If you’re heading to Austin for SXSW, ACL or a football game, here’s my list of all the great places to eat, drink and explore, which are categorized by topic for easy scrolling!

Start planning your trip to Austin NOW!

 

Franklin's Barbecue, Austin, Texas

The brisket sandwich at Franklin Barbecue in Austin. 

Where to Eat

 

Barbecue

 

  • There’s nothing better than Texas barbecue. Wake up early and join the roughly 4-hour long queue outside Franklin BBQ on 11th Street before 9 a.m. Bring a chair and pick up a six-pack of local brews on the way. It’s just like tailgating for a football game minus the traffic. Like many restaurants in Austin, Franklin’s started as a food trailer in 2009 but grew quickly thanks to their delicious and tender brisket.
  • For shorter lines, try Micklethwait Craft Meats for sausage, pulled pork (my favorite) and cheese grits or La Barbecue for brisket and pulled pork. (Bonus: La Barbecue gives out free beer on weekends to people in line. Mickelthwait is my favorite and has the shortest lines and best mayo-based potato salad.)
  • If you want to ship barbecue home, I recommend ordering from Black’s BBQ. I shipped some to my dad in South Carolina for Christmas. He took one bite and said he was moving to Texas!

 

 

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Left: The Crossroads beef brisket taco from Torchy’s. Right: Pad kapow (basil pork) at Dee Dee

Food Trucks


Food trucks like to play musical chairs especially during festivals like SXSW so check their websites/Facebook pages for their current locations so you don’t disappoint your stomach!
 

 

  • Dee Dee has the best Thai food in town. (Trust me on this one, I lived in Thailand and so did the owners.) The pad kapow (basil pork), som tom (spicy papaya salad) and moo ping (marinated pork skewers) are amazing!
  • East Side King is an Austin legend. These two Japanese-inspired food trucks belong to former Top Chef winner Paul Qui. My favorite is at The Liberty Bar, a dive bar with a picnic table-lined patio. Try the deep-fried chicken thighs, pork belly steamed buns and the Brussel sprout salad. The Thai-inspired Thai-Kun truck at Whisler’s is another favorite. The waterfall pork is the closest thing in town I’ve found to my favorite Burmese dish. It’s crazy spicy, which is why I LOVE it, so be sure to order an extra sticky rice!
  • Veracruz has some of the best tacos in town. I recommend the steak fajita and el pastor. Look for the blue truck on 1704 E Cesar Chavez, 7 a.m. – 3 p.m. daily.
  • Torchy’s is a taco stable in Austin with both a food truck and brick and mortar locations. My favorites are the Crossroads brisket taco topped with avocado on a corn tortilla and The Wrangler, a breakfast brisket taco smothered with eggs and potato. Bonus: They serve breakfast tacos all day!
  • Gourdough’s serves big fat hamburger-sized donuts topped with everything from bacon drizzled with maple syrup to fresh strawberries with cream cheese.
  • Via 313 has Detroit style pizza which goes very well with beer!
  • Barbecue trucks. For barbecue, both Micklethwait Craft Meat’s and La Barbecue mentioned above are food trucks. ­­

 

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Clockwise from top left: The Manmosa from Banger’s Sausage House, pecan sticky bun from Emmer & Rye, Thai-basil waffle topped with lollipop chicken from Sway and Cafe No Se’s ricotta pancakes.

Brunch


There are few things I love more than brunch. Sunday is the big brunch day in Austin, but there are a few Saturday options. Go early or be prepared to wait in line for hour or two. If you can’t make it to brunch, try these places out for dinner/lunch!

  • Café No Se is hands down my favorite breakfast spot in town! Start off with one of their signature pastries—a delectable croissant or kouign amann served with homemade raspberry jam. (Their pastry chef, Amanda Rockman, is a James Beard Award Semifinalist.) I also recommend the ricotta hotcakes. 1603 South Congress Ave. Breakfast served daily 7-11 a.m.; Brunch Sat. & Sun. 10 a.m. – 3 p.m.,
  • Banger’s Sausage House and Beer Garden is legendary thanks to the Manmosa, a behemoth-size mimosa. There’s a 104 beers on tap if you aren’t feeling the Manmosa. The menu features house-made sausage, jalapeno cheese grits and gigantic flakey made-from-scratch biscuits. 79 Rainey St., Sunday from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
  • Irene’s is a funky spot off West 6th Street decorated with window panels from an old airplane. On weekends, they have their biscuits and booze brunch. My favorite is the bacon, egg and cheese biscuit! 506 West Avenue, Brunch: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. 
  • Wu Chow serves dim sum on Sunday’s only. Menu highlights include chicken pot stickers, char siu bao (steamed pork buns), scallion pancakes, pineapple puffs and $1 chrysanthemum mimosas. Reservations recommended. 500 West 5th Sundays only 11 a.m. – 3 p.m.
  • Emmer & Rye has a pastry cart filled with gigantic pecan sticky buns dripping in cream cheese icing and other goodies. Need I say more? The huevos rancheros is also delicious, and the glass-wall interior is stunning. Reservations recommended. 51 Rainey Street, Suite 110. Sundays 11 a.m. to close.
  • Moonshine Grill is the buffet of my dreams. It covers multiple rooms in the historic restaurant and features upscale comfort food favorites including four egg casseroles, cornflake chicken, glazed ham and waffles with fresh strawberries and cream. There will be a wait, but trust me, it’s worth every minute. 303 Red River St. Sunday from 9 a.m. – 2 p.m.
  • Isla is a funky Caribbean canteen with bright yellow bar stools located downtown. Choosing an entrée is difficult with tempting choices like sweet potato biscuits with chorizo gravy, Bananas Foster French toast and pineapple sweet rolls with pork shoulder. 208 West 4th Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. – 3 p.m.,
  • Sway is a swanky modern Thai restaurant that serves traditional breakfast items with an Asian twist including Thai-basil waffles topped with lollipop chicken and mussel omelets. 1417 South 1st St.; Saturday & Sunday from 11 a.m. – 3 p.m.,

 

Dessert

 

  • Amy’s Ice Cream is the only place you in town should go for ice cream!
  • Everyone in Austin can spot a Tiff’s Treat’s box from a block away. The cookie shop is known for delivering their boxes of fresh warm cookies. You can buy cookies individually, and I recommend the Tiff Wich – two warm cookies with a scoop of ice-cream between them. Double yum!
  • Sugar Mama’s Bakeshop has the best cupcakes I’ve ever eaten in my life. I’m drooling on my keyboard thinking about them.

 

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The Cedar Tavern Bar at Eberly is one of the most beautiful bars in Austin.

More favorites:

 

  • Eberly is a swanky multi-room restaurant with two patios and a separate bar with a stunning centerpiece – a mahogany wooden bar that was moved from New York City’s Cedar Tavern to Austin. It’s the most beautiful restaurant in Austin. 615 South Lamar
  • Fixean upscale Southern restaurant, is famous for their made-from-scratch-while-you-wait biscuits. It’s the best $9 you will EVER spend. 500 West 5th Street.
  • Easy Tiger has beer CHEESE. The bakery bar combo has a full menu of pastries, sandwiches and giant pretzels that go well with the BEER CHEESE. It also has one of the best patios in town. 709 East 6th Street
  • Pinthouse Pizza is your place for pizza and craft beer. They have two locations and brew their beer in-house.
  • Kemuri Tatsu-ya is a funky new izakaya located in an old barbecue restaurant. The Texas-influenced menu includes brisket ramen, Mexican street corn, sticky rice beef tongue tamales and roasted banana pudding. 2713 East 2nd Street

 

 

Kitty Cohen, Austin, Texas

Kitty Cohen is a great Eastside spot for cocktails with a great patio with a pool!

 

 

Where to Drink

Breweries

Craft beer is booming in Austin. There’s no shortage of local taprooms to check out. Here’s a few favorites:

 

  • Hops & Grain has a sleek tap room at the end of East 6th Street that’s open seven days a week. Try their German style brown ale, ALT-eration, which won a World Beer Cup Gold Medal for just a few months after they opened in 2012. Another favorite is The One They Call Zoe, an American pale lager. 507 Calles Street #101
  • Lazarus Brewing Company opened on Christmas Eve last year in an old gas station on East 6th Street. They serve tacos, beer and coffee. Their English premium bitter, Shackleton EPB, and single hop German pils, Naked Sapphire, are a few of my favorites. Both go well with their el pastor tacos. 1902 East 6th Street
  • Thirsty Planet is home to my favorite beer in town, Thirsty Goat—a smooth amber ale with a silly goat on the label sticking his tongue out. They are open 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. every Saturday for tours and beer. For $10 you can purchase a pint glass and get three beers. 11160 Circle Drive
  • Austin Beerworks is located in the industrial part of North Austin and is totally worth a visit. Be sure to buy one of their pint glasses with their hilarious version of the standard government warning label. Try their Pearl Snap German pilsner and Fire Eagle IPA. Open Wednesday to Sunday with rotating food trucks. 3001 Industrial Terrace.
  • Adelbert’s Brewery specializes in hand-crafted Belgian-style ales with some of the most hilarious beer names in town including the Naked Nun wite ale and Scartchin’ Hippo Bière de Garde . For $14, you get a free glass with six pours and a free tour, which is usually accompanied by a few more free pours. Open Wednesday to Sunday with rotating food trucks. 2314 Rutland Drive #100
  • Zilker Brewing Company is another great East side brewery. Open Wednesday to Sunday with rotating food trucks. 1701 East 6th Street

 

 

Ah Sing Den, Austin, Texas

Ah Sing Den has a swanky, peacock-themed interior modeled after an opium den. 

Bars

 

  • Yellow Jacket Social Club is one of my favorite bars in Austin with a spacious patio filled with picnic tables. They have a wide variety of good beer and excellent food. The beet and goat cheese sandwich is amazing and so is the Frito pie. Around the corner is The White Horse, an Eastside honky tonky with live music nightly and free dance lessons. They have a nice patio and food from the Bomb Tacos foodtruck. Two other bars I love are nearby are The Liberty Bar, home to one of the iconic East Side Kings food trucks and The Grackle.
  • If you’re looking for a good cocktail bar, check out swanky Ah Sing Den, which is modeled after an opium den, and Whisler’s, a hip spot on the Eastside.
  • Kitty Cohen’s has the best patio in town with a pool for lounging on hot days and a tropical-themed bar. Be sure to check out the amazing flamingo wallpaper in the ladies’ bathroom!
  • Many of the restaurants I mentioned in the previous food section are also great spots to grab a drink including Easy Tiger, Eberly’s Cedar Tavern Bar and Banger’s.
  • Ask around for the passcode to get into the Red Headed StepChild (also referred to as Floppy Disk Repair), a small speakeasy with great drinks and a creepy décor that looks like the set of a horror movie.

 

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The Nightowls, an Austin based R&B/soul band, performs at the historic Scoot Inn music venue in East Austin.


Best Music Venues

 

  • Mohawk is by far my favorite venue in town. The multi-level bar has both an indoor and outdoor stage. 912 Red River Street.
  • The Paramount Theater is one of my favorite places to photograph live shows. The former move theater was built in 1915 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 713 Congress Avenue.
  • Other favorites include The Parish on 6th Street, Sekrit Theater, a private outdoor event space located in a neighborhood that occasionally hosts public events. Geraldine’s, a restaurant located in the Hotel Van Zandt off Rainey Street has a small stage with great musical acts, Scoot Inn on the Eastside has an amazing outdoor stage and space.
  • Drop by The Continental Club on Monday nights to see local country music legend, Dale Watson. The venue opened in 1955 and is one of the longest continually running clubs in town. 1315 South Congress.
  • Sunday’s in Austin are Chicken Shit Bingo day. The event originated at Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon, a super tiny hole in the wall honky-tonk off Burnet Road. To play bingo, you buy a ticket and hope the chicken literally poops on the number on your ticket. 5434 Burnet Road.

 

 

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Pedernales Falls State Park is one of my favorite day trips from Austin. It’s a great place for photography and swimming!

 

Best Day Trips from Austin

 

  • Barbecue lovers should flock to the tiny town of Lockhart, the “Barbecue Capital of Texas,” which is home to four iconic barbecue restaurants including Blacks Barbecue, the oldest family-owned barbecue restaurant in the state. It’s 45 minutes Southeast of Austin. (In my opinion, Black’s has the best brisket and sides while Smitty’s Market has great sausage!)
  • Head to Enchanted Rock State Natural Area to climb the giant Uluru-style pink granite rock rising from the ground and explore 11 miles of hiking trails. Camping is available. Entrance fee: $7
  • Pedernales Falls State Park is by far my favorite state park near Austin. The 5,212-acrea park is located 30 miles from town along the Pedernales River and features a stunning wide set of short waterfalls, a swimming area, hiking and horse riding trails. Camping is available. Entrance fee is $6
  • Stunning Hamilton Pool Preserve, a box canyon with a 50-foot waterfall, is a great place for a swim. The pool was formed when a grotto collapsed. Reservations are required May through September. Entrance is $10 per car.
  • Other great swimming spots include Krause Springs and the Blue Lagoon in Wimberely.
  • If you love antiques and wine, head to Fredericksburg, a former German settlement known for their annual Oktoberfest celebrations

 

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The Texas State Capital offers free guided tours daily.

 

 

Best Free Things to Do in Austin

 

  • Austin’s Barton Creek Greenbelt hiking and biking trail covers eight miles with multiple access points for swimming or wadding into the water. Twin Falls is one of my favorite spots. Here is a great guide with access points/parking.
  • Explore the outdoors. Mayfield Park and Preserve, a 23-acre nature area with a historic cottage and two gardens filled with peacocks. It’s walking distance from The Contemporary Austin’s Betty and Edward Marcus Sculpture Park at Laguna Gloria, which is a stunning outdoor space. Nearby, Mount Bonnell, a ridge-line peak overlooking the Colorado River, is great for sunset.
  • Explore the lake. Run/walk/bike the 10-mile trail around Lady Bird Lake in the heart of Austin. It’s the most popular outdoor recreation area in the city with plenty of free parking options. For more info, visit the City of Austin’s website.
  • Free museum days: The Bullock Museum focuses on the history of Texas and offers free admission the first Sunday of every month. The Blanton Museum of Art offers free admission on Thursdays.
  • The Texas State Capital is the icon of the Austin skyline. The stunning four block complex is taller than the U.S Capital in Washington D.C. Free guided and self-guided tours are available daily.
  • Watch the graffiti artists at the Hope Outdoor Gallery on 11th and Baylor Street.
  • Go see the BATS. The world’s largest urban bat colony lives under South Congress Bridge. From mid-March to November, the bats’ mass exodus from under the bridge every night is a spectacular show. Check here to find the best time to see the bats nightly. For the best photos, watch the bats from the Statesman Bat Observation Center adjacent to the Congress Avenue Bridge.
  • Be on T.V.! Sign up for a chance to win tickets to an ACL Live taping! All tickets are disturbed for free via a lottery. If you don’t win, you can also wait in line to see if there are extra tickets available. (I’ve won tickets to several shows including Iggy Pop!) For more info about upcoming tapings, http://acltv.com/upcoming-tapings
  • Follow the Instagram account WWW ATX, for a list of upcoming events, which are mostly free.

 

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I always take my friends to Lady Bird Lake to canoe, paddle board or kayak!

 

 

Best Outdoor Activities in Austin

 

  • Stand-up paddle boarding on Lady Bird Lake is a must! There’s several places on the lake, but I prefer Zilker Park Boat Rentals, which is located adjacent to Barton Springs Pool. They offer buy-one get-one coupons on weekdays!
  • Austin’s Barton Creek Greenbelt mentioned in the previous section is a great hiking and biking trail that covers eight miles with multiple access points for swimming or wadding into the water. Check out this guide with access points/parking.
  • Explore the waterfalls and hiking trails at McKinney Falls State Park. The park lies within the city limits and is only 13 miles from the Texas State Capital. Camping and swimming is allowed. Entrance fee: $6
  • Go for a dip in Barton Springs Pool, a spring-fed pool that’s 68-70 degrees year-round, located in the heart of Zilker Park. (Austin residents $3, non-residents $8)
  • Swimming in the oldest swimming pool in Texas is a must. Deep Eddy Pool is a man-made pool that just celebrated its’ 100th birthday! (Austin residents $3, non-residents $8)
  • There’s also plenty of places to go tubing near Austin. The Comal and Guadalupe Rivers have great tubing. Here’s a great guide of all the places to float!

 

Last but not least…. If you are driving to Austin, you must stop for gas at Buc-ee’s. The gas station chain is known for their gigantic Texas-sided stores. Some stores have up to 120 gas pumps, which sets the bar high for the convenience store world. The stores sell an endless array of Texas souvenirs including many decorated with their iconic beaver logo. (You must take a photo with your friends holding an armful of the stuffed animal beavers they sell! My friends and I have an ongoing battle to top each other’s previous photos!)

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Buc-ee’s has the cheapest gas and cleanest bathrooms in Texas!

Where to Go in Japan

 

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The Kanmangafuchi Abyss in Nikko, Japan is lined with statues of a Jizo, a Bodhisattva who is the guardian of travelers and children.

 

The more I travel, the more one place reminds me of another in small ways. Japan is one of the few exceptions. There’s no place in the world as safe, bustling or as efficient as this tiny island nation, which houses 127.3 million people on land mass smaller than California.

I spent three weeks zipping around Japan on bullet trains visiting friends, hiking ancient cedar forests and photographing mountain-side shrines. My travels always revolve around stunning landscapes or architecture. My photography (and stomach) fuel my adventures and dictate my itinerary. I’m also intrigued by Buddhist philosophy.  Japan had no shortage of either and did not disappoint.

If you’re planning a trip to Japan, here are nine places not to miss. Some are obvious spots but others are short day trips from large cities that are too often skipped.  (All places mentioned are accessible directly by train unless otherwise noted.)

 

 

Mazurek_Yakushima_TreeRoots

Yakushima is an island covered in ancient cedar forests, 73 miles south of the town of Kagoshima.

Yakushima

 

Hiking through the ancient cedar forests of the Yakushima, a subtropical island off the southern coast of Kyushu, was one of the highlights of my trip to Japan. The island is covered with trees that are more than 1000 years old. The only downside is that the island is the wettest place in the country so prepare to get soaked. Stock up on ponchos and rain pants at Daiso, the Japanese dollar store. Both worked well for me! Also, the island isn’t cheap, but it’s totally worth the cost to get there!

How to get to Yakushima: The cheapest way to reach the island is to take the normal slow four-hour ferry (Yakushima 2) from the town of Kagoshima, which is easily accessible by train, (ferry cost one-way: 4900 yen/$43 USD; Return: 8900 yen/ $78 USD.) There is a more expensive high-speed ferry that runs six times a day and take less than two hours if you get the direct route (one-way: 8300 yen/$73 USD). There is also an airport on the island.  Buses around the island are limited so plan your schedule around the buses unless you rent a car.

 

 

Mazurek_Golden_Temple

Kinkaku-ji, known as the Golden Pavilion, is located in Kyoto and was rebuilt in 1955 after being set on fire by a frantic monk.


Kyoto

 

Kyoto is Japan’s shining gem. The former imperial capital is known for endless temples, gardens and shrines. Wander through the beautiful streets of Gion, the geisha quarter and entertainment district. Don’t miss the enormous Kiyomizu-dera temple built in 1633 and postcard-perfect Golden Pavilion, known as Kinkaku-ji, which is covered in gold leaf and perched on the edge of a reflecting pool. Both are part of the 17 monuments that comprise the UNESCO site known as The Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto. The best time to visit the city is in the spring for the cherry blossoms or the fall for the colorful foliage. Set aside several days or a week to explore the city and the surrounding area!

 

 

Kyoto, Japan

Clearly, I had to get an iconic shot of Alfred the gnome at Fushimi Inari, where a few scenes of the film Memoirs of a Giesha were shot.

Fushimi Inari 

 

Thousands of red torii gates line the pathways of the scared Mount Inari, named after the Shinto god of rice. The main shrine lies at the base of the mountain and smaller shrines line the trails to the top of the mountain. It takes roughly two to three hours roundtrip to hike to the top. For more about my trip to Fushimi Inari and how to photograph the site without people, check out this post!

How to get to Fushimi Inari: Take a JR Nara Line train from Kyoto station two stops to the Fushimi Inari Station. The shrine is walking distance from the station.

 

 

Mazurek_Japan_Nara

Nara is a very walkable city filled with eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It’s an easy day trip from Kyoto. 

 

Nara

 

In the year 710, Nara was established as Japan’s first permanent capital known for the wild deer that roam the streets. The town is home to the oldest and largest temples in the country including Todaiji, which features the largest wooden building in the world housing a 15-meter-tall Buddha statue. My favorite writer, Pico Iyer, lives in Nara. He writes about the town occasionally especially in his book, The Lady and The Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto, which is a must read for any trip to Japan.

How to get to Nara: It’s a 45-minute train ride from Kyoto Station to Kintetsu Nara Station.

 

Mazurek_Japan_Bamboo

The Arashiyama bamboo grove is very short but extremely photogenic. Arrive early for the best photo opportunities!

Arashiyama (Bamboo Forest)

 

The stunning bamboo groves of Arashiyama are famous. While the groves are gorgeous, they are very small and crowded so go early if possible. The town is also filled with a plethora of scenic temples and gorgeous gardens and make a great day trip from Kyoto.

How to get to Arashiyama:
The town is a 15-20 minute train ride from the Kyoto Station. The central part of town is a short walk from the station.

 

 

Mazurek_Tokyo_Shinjuku

Five pedestrian lanes merge to create the Shinjuku crosswalk in Tokyo, which is rumored to be the busiest in the world.

 

Tokyo

Tokyo was like a posh version of India – a city of beautifully organized chaos. Set aside a few days to explore the cities various neighborhoods – the madness of the famous Shinjuku crosswalk, the sleek electronics district of Akihabara and the majestic Meiji Shrine that’s only a few minutes away from the hip fashion scene in Harajuku. Don’t miss the collection of tiny, charming dive bars of Golden Gai or a baseball game. Karaoke is clearly a must! Take your stomach on a tour of all the incredible cafés of the hip Shimokitazawa neighborhood, which Tokyo Becky talks about in her Travel Tuesday Interview that’s filled with Japan travel tips!

 

 

Mazurek_Nikko_Laterns

Nikko is a postcard-worthy town filled with scenic shrines that’s an excellent day or weekend trip from Tokyo.

 

Nikko

 

Nikko is one of the many great day trips from Tokyo. It’s the gateway to the Nikko National Park, which is filled with hiking trails, waterfalls and scenic mountainous views. The town is famous for one of the most lavishly decorated shires in the country, Toshogu, and a great spot for fall foliage. Be sure to stroll down the walking trail by the scenic gorge known as the Kanmangafuchi Abyss that is lined with stone statues of a Jizo, a Bodhisattva who is the guardian of travelers and children.

How to get to Nikko: To reach Nikko using a Japan Rail Pass, take the Yambaito or Nasuno Shinkansen from Tokyo for 50 minutes to Utsunomiya. Change to the JR Nikko line to the JR Nikko station (45 minutes). Be sure to check trains schedules for the Nikko line in advance since they can be limited.

 

 

Hirmoshima

Hiroshima Prefectural Industry Promotion Building is only building left standing in the city center after the atomic bomb was dropped in 1945.

Hiroshima


On August 6, 1945, the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The only visible sign of the bombing in the lush green city center are remains of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industry Promotion Building, known as the A-Bomb Dome. The building is located along the Motoyasu River in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, which is home to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which is a must-see. (Admission: 200 Yen/$1.76 USD) The museum depicts life in the city before and after the bomb was dropped including artifacts from the victims and personal stories from survivors. Everyone should see this museum if only to fully understand the disastrous effects of nuclear weapons.

 

 

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Clockwise from top left: Istukushima Shrine, statues at the Daisho-in Buddhist Temple, lanterns in the cave temple at Daisho-in Buddhist Temple, and wild deer near the “floating” torii gate in Miyajima.


Miyajima

 

Miyajima is a small island near Hiroshima is famous for a large “floating” red torii gate that is surrounded by water during high tide. Wild deer also roam the island. The main highlights include the floating Istukushima Shrine, a stunning mutli-building Shinto shrine. (Admission $2.50 USD)

Aside from the floating torii gate, my favorite part of the island was photographing the Daisho-in Buddhist Temple, a massive complex with statue gardens and many prayer halls. It is located at the foot of Misen Mountain and is the main temple of the Shingon Buddhist school of Omuro. One of my favorite photographs was the latern-covered ceiling of the Henjokutsu Cave, home to 88 Buddhist icons.

How to Get to Miyajima: From Hirmoshima station, take the JR Sanyo Line to Miyajimaguchi Station (covered by Japan Rail Pass) to the ferry port. There are two companies who run ferries  (10 minute ride, 180 yen one way).

 

 

Mazurek_Japan_SandDunes

If you get temple fatigue, spend a day at the Tottori sand dunes and Sand Museum, which is three hours from Kyoto by train. 

 

Tottori Sand Dunes

 

There are 16 kilometers of large sand dunes along the coast of the Sea of Japan near the city of Tottori located in western Japan. The dunes are the largest in the country and up to 50 meters high, which is a nice leg workout. There is one lone camel on the dunes that you can pay to ride, but the distance is extremely short for the steep $12 USD price. (I love camels so I considered it.) The Sand Museum (admission: 600 yen/$5.29) is adjacent to the dunes and features intricate large-scale sand sculptures from artists around the world. The museum itself was impressive, and I totally recommend it.

How to get to Tottori: From the Tottori train station, take the local bus at stop #0 in front of station that’s bound for Tottori Sakyu and get off at the last stop. The ride is 20 minutes and costs 370 yen/$3.26 USD.

 

 

 

MAZUREK_NIKKO_SHOES

 

Japan Transport & Logistics

 


Japan Rail Pass

The most efficient and cost effective way to travel around Japan is to purchase a Japan Rail Pass, which vary in length from seven to 21 days. They offer unlimited travel on ferries, buses and all trains except the Nozomi and Mizuho trains.

 

Length Green (First Class) Ordinary
7 days 38,889 Yen ($345 USD) 29,110 Yen ($258 USD)
14 days 62,950 Yen ($559 USD) 46,390 Yen ($412 USD)
21 days 81,870 Yen ($727 USD) 59,350 Yen ($527 USD)

 

You must purchase your rail pass BEFORE you enter Japan. You will receive an exchange order which you redeem for your pass once you arrive in Japan. The pass is only intended for tourists and not residents of Japan. (I purchased the 21 day pass in Singapore before I left for Japan.)

Download the Hyperdia app for timetables for all trains. It provides up to date train times and departure platforms. For more information on the rail pass, check out http://www.jrpass.com/.

 

Pocket WIFI Hotspot

Another great investment for any Japan trip is a pocket WIFI hotspot. You will never get lost. You simply reserve the hotspot online, pickup at the airport then drop it in a mailbox with the prepaid envelope when you leave. I recommend renting a hotspot for the entire trip instead of getting a SIM card because most SIM cards only come with data access anyways. (Most of Japan is on a CDMA-based phone network.) For more on internet in Japan, check out this guide.

 

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Vending machines are everywhere in Japan. If you’re lucky, you might find one selling beer!

 

Budget Tips for Traveling in Japan


The most expensive part of Japan is transport (rail pass) and accommodation. Hostels range from $40 in big cities to $15 in places like Kagoshima. Eating cheap is easy if you stick to local spots to keep meals between $3-10 USD. Remote places like Yakushima are expensive but are totally worth it.

  • Onigiri.  These triangle shaped rice snacks are my favorite and good for the budget. They come with various fillings and are available at every train station or convenience store. They are a great meal substitute or snack!
  • Diaso, the Japanese dollar store, is the most amazing place in the world. They have EVERYTHING you could ever need – rain gear, hair clips, ceramic gnomes (You know how much I love gnomes!) and great snack options! This is where I bought my rain poncho and rain pants for my Yakushima hikes!
  • Currency Converter. To keep yourself on budget, download the XE currency converter app. It works offline and is great for checking the cost of purchases so you don’t accidently overspend.
  • Take a reusable water bottle. The water in Japan is total safe to drink. Save the environment and your wallet by simply refilling a stainless steel or BPA free plastic water bottle. (I’m a big fan of Klean Kateen’s insulated stainless steel bottles.)
  • Skip the rail pass. If you don’t want to splurge on the rail pass (which is totally worth it), buses are a cheaper option, but you’ll need Japanese travel agents to help book. Japan is extremely safe so hitchhiking is fairly common. Slow ferries are also good budget options.
  • All-You-Can-Drink Karaoke. Many karaoke places offer all-you-can-drink rates, which are a good deal if you want to party and sing your heart out especially in Tokyo!
  • $3 Meals. For cheap beers, Torikizoku is a yakatori chain in Japan, and everything on the menu is under $3. For cheap meals, try Yoshinoya, a restaurant chain that sells beef bowls for $3-5 USD, which are actually pretty good.
  • Avoid ATM fees. Japanese ATMs will charge you a fee for taking out cash. Considering opening a free Charles Schwab Investor Checking account that waives ATM fees and currency conversion rates. For more details, check out my Travel Banking 101 post. FYI: Not all ATMs are open 24-hours.
  • Pick and Choose Temples. Most of the famous temples charge a small admission fee, which can add up quickly. Research the main temples or places you want to visit in advance. (For me, this means to Google everything to find best places for photography.) Make a list of your top must-see places. Then, focus on visiting lesser known sites off the beaten path that do not charge an admission fee that are often less crowded, which is another perk especially if you’re into photography!

For more about Japan travel, check out the Travel Tuesday Interview with Tokyo Becky, an Ohio native that’s been living in Tokyo for 12 years, and my post about photographing Fushimi Inari at sunrise. 

 

A Photo Guide to Thailand

Bon Mai village, Thailand

Rice fields during the monsoon season in Bon Mai village in Northern Thailand


The hardest part of any trip to Thailand is deciding where to go. The choices are endless – the white sandy beaches of the Andaman Coast, indulging in Chiang Mai’s signature (and savory) soup curry, climbing Bangkok’s gleaming Buddhist temples and biking through the 13th century ruins of Sukhothai. Did I mention it’s one of the most budget friendly travel destinations?

I lived and worked in Thailand for three long summers running photo trips for high school students, teaching English and volunteering with an NGO. In between those gigs, I traveled extensively to every corner of the country. There is no place I love and know better than Thailand.

Since it’s the most common place I get asked for travel advice, I put together this extensive photo guide to help YOU plan your Thailand adventure. The guide includes all the highlights, logistical tips for transport and when to visit!

 

Photo guide to Thailand: Bangkok's Grand Palace

Bangkok’s colorful Grand Palace

Bangkok

Bangkok is a kaleidoscope of both Eastern and Western culture – sleek shopping malls just blocks away from traditional Buddhist temples. The capital city is filled with amazing sites and is the perfect place to recover from jet lag.

  • The Grand Palace, the former royal residence, is a must for your first trip. One of the highlights is the stunning golden 1782 temple complex of Wat Phra Kaew, home to the Emerald Buddha, the most revered image in Thailand that dates back to the 13th and 14th century. (Admission: 500B/$14 USD)
    • EXPERT TIP: Cover your knees and wear long sleeves or you’ll be forced to rent clothing. Be prepare to pay higher taxi fees because there are no trains near here. Go early and get out before rush hour when prices jump drastically and drivers might refuse to pick you up! Avoid Sundays when taxis use pricey fixed rates.
  • Wat Po is nearby and home to the largest reclining Buddha in the city.  (Admission: 100B/ $2.80 USD)

 

Photo Guide to Thailand: Bangkok's Wat Arun

The view from the top of Bangkok’s Wat Arun is worth the steep climb.

 

  • Was Arun. Take a boat across the river from the Grand Palace and climb the steep stairs of the 82-meter high Khumer-style tower of this grand Buddhist temple complex located on the Chao Phraya. (Due to construction, parts of the tower are closed for climbing as of late 2016.)
  • Jim Thompson House: This is the best thing in Bangkok. The house/art museum is the former home of American silk trader and antique collector Jim Thompson. The complex consists of six Thai-style houses moved from other parts of Thailand to the current location, which is walking distance from the MBK center and Skytrain. His art collection includes Buddha sculptures dating back to the 8th century along with paintings and porcelain. Photography is not allowed inside the houses. (Admission: 150B/$4 USD)

 

Photo Guide to Thailand: Bangkok's Wat Suthat

A monk walks through the courtyard of Bangkok’s most stunning temple – Wat Suthat.

 

  • Wat Suthat is not only visually stunning but also holds one the highest ranks of royal temples in the country. The photogenic courtyard is lined with Buddha statues, which is why it’s one of my favorite temples to photograph in Thailand! (Admission: 20B/$0.50 USD)

 

Photo Guide to Thailand: Chatuchak Weekend Market

A food vendor at Bangkok’s Chatuchak Weekend Market serves one of my favorite Thai street foods – moo ping, grilled pork skewers with a sweet dipping sauce. 

 

  • Chatuchak Weekend Market is my favorite place to shop. The sprawling complex is separated into 26 sections ranging from local artists to trendy boutiques to potted plants. The entire market is open on Saturdays and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and is close to both BTS Skytrain and subway (MRT) stops.
  • MBK Food Court: The food court at MBK, a sprawling multi-level maze-like shopping mall, is the best. It’s hidden on the sixth floor behind all the chain restaurants and vendor stalls. The food court consists of a series of stalls lined up side by side. (Don’t get it confused with the restaurants on the fifth floor, which is more obvious from escalators.) You have to buy tickets to purchase food and can redeem unused tickets for cash afterwards. You’ll see the ticket booth before you enter. They have everything from curry to papaya salad. Both the Terminal 21 and Siam Paragon shopping malls also have food courts. The food court is located on the top floor of Terminal 21 and the bottom floor of the Paragon behind all the normal restaurants.

 

Wat Suthat

A scenic view of Wat Suthat

Bangkok Tips

  • The cheapest and fastest way into the city from Suvarnabhumi Airport is to take the Airport Link Train and connect to the BTS Skytrain.
  • There are multi-trip passes available for both the BTS Skytrain and MRT subway.
  • Taxis are ALWAYS cheaper than auto rickshaws/tuk tuks.
  • Avoid the tourist trap of Khao San Road in Bangkok. To be blunt, it’s sketchy, trashy and unsafe at times. Do not take any long distance buses that pick up or leave from there.

 

 

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Monks swim near Chiang Mai’s mountain top temple, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.

NORTHERN THAILAND


Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is the laid-back posh hub of Northern Thailand. Stroll through the old town, a 1.5 km square surrounded by original walls and moat. There’s a stunning temple on pretty much every block and an endless array of culinary treats. Here are a few other highlights:

  • Climb the 306 steps to the mountain top temple of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, which is a short trip outside of the city.
  • Be sure to stop by the Chiang Mai Night Bazzar, the 1km long sprawling nightly market.
  • Try a bowl or two of Chiang Mai’s favorite dish: Khao Soi, a delicious soup curry.
  • Stayed within walking distance of the old city. (I stayed at the budget hotel Micasa and loved it.)

 

Photo Guide to Thailand: Chiang Rai's White Temple

Chiang Rai’s temple-inspired art project, Wat Rong Khun, features images of Hello Kitty and Keanu Reeves in the interior.


Chiang Rai

The small town of Chiang Rai is often overlooked but worth a visit if only to see the famous white temple, Wat Rong Khun. The temple is a contemporary art project by local artist Chalermchai Kositpipat that opened is 1997 and is still not yet completed. It’s open daily for visitors with a small entry fee (50 Baht/$1.39 USD).  Another local artist, Thawan Duchanee, is known for a 40-building complex known as the black temple that features a dark and controversial interpretation of Buddhist philosophy. The city itself has great food, budget accommodation, stunning temples and is a good base for nearby excursions.

Pai

Everyone loves Pai. The bohemian outpost is surrounded by lush mountain scenery and is one of the most visited parts of Northern Thailand. The city center is filled with trekking agencies, boutiques and an endless array of restaurants. The edges of the small city are best if you’re looking for solitude.

 

Photo Guide to Thailand: Ayutthaya Wat Mahathat Buddha Head

Ayutthaya’s ruins are famous for a Buddha head entangled in tree roots at Wat Mahathat, which was destroyed by the Burmese in the 13th century.

Sukhothai & Ayutthaya

If you love ancient Buddhist ruins as much as I do, then don’t miss these two UNESCO World Heritage sites. Sukhothai was the first capital of Siam in 13th and 14th century, and Ayutthaya was the second. Both are historical parks and most sites are easily visited by bike. (I personally prefer Sukhothai because it’s not as crowded, and there are far less annoying vendors.) Ayutthaya is 80 miles north of Bangkok while Sukhothai 135 south of Chiang Mai. Both are easily accessibly by bus. (For more on Sukhothai, check out this post.)

Photo Guide to Thailand: Ko Phi-Phi Don

Long-tail boats docked on the sandy shores of Ko Phi-Phi Don in Southern Thailand’s Andaman Sea. 

SOUTHERN THAILAND

The trickiest part of visiting Thailand’s beaches is deciding between the Andaman Coast or the Gulf Islands. The gulf islands of Koh Tao, Koh Samui and Koh Panenag are close together, while the islands on the Andaman coast are scattered. Both have white sandy beaches and clear water, but the Andaman Coast is known for towering limestone cliffs.

Gulf Coast Islands

Ko Tao is a diving mecca of Thailand and second in the world for the annual number of dive certifications.  It’s also one of the cheapest places to be PADI certified. If you want to dive, there’s no better place in Thailand.

Ko Samui is a swanky resort island of the trio and probably the nicest island in Thailand with the cleanest beaches due to the amount of high-end tourism. All taxis are fixed rate so it’s pretty expensive to get around. Songthaews, pickup trucks with covered rows of seats, are the cheapest options.

Ko Pha-Ngan
is the infamous party island know for the Full Moon Parties, a never ending beach rave filled with electronic music and backpackers covered in neon paint. The party rages on both before and after the full moon. To escape the party scene, head to the laid-back and less visited northern parts of the island.

 

Photo Guide to Thailand: Ko Samet

Alfred, the traveling gnome, takes in the scenic view from the sandy shores of Ko Samet.

Ko Samet is my favorite island in Thailand and where I spent my birthday one year.  Despite being the closest island to Bangkok, it’s still an underdeveloped destination with a thick jungle interior. The southern portion of the island is more secluded and parts of the island only accessible by motorcycle or ATV, which are easy to rent. There are no white sandy beaches here, but the water is still clear.  There’s a direct three-hour bus from Bangkok’s eastern bus terminal to the ferry dock.

How to get to Gulf Coast Islands: You can fly to Samui from Bangkok easily on a few airlines. The cheapest way is a bus/ferry combination from Bangkok’s southern bus terminal. You can also take the train/bus/ferry combination from Bangkok, but the bus/ferry option is way easier.

 

 

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Kayakers near the limestone cliffs of the Ko Phi Phi Islands in Southern Thailand

Andaman Coast

Krabi Town is a key transport hub nestled between towering limestone karusts. Ao Naug and Railay are the nicest beaches nearby. While the town of Ao Naug isn’t the nicest, it’s a great place to grab a boat over to Railey, a tiny picturesque white sandy beach village accessible only by sea.

Of course, there’s Phuket, the celebrity of Thai islands and the largest island in the country. It’s a sprawling 30 miles long, which means you have to decide exactly what part of the island to book accommodation. Transport between the main town and other beaches is pricey. It’s a big luxury destination filled with swanky resorts, which is why I’ve always avoided it because that’s not my travel style or budget. Both Phuket and Krabi are good transport hubs to other islands.

 

Photo Guide to Thailand: Khao Lak

Clouds move in during the monsoon season along the beach in Khao Lak, north of Phuket.


Khao Lak
 is a small town with a nice beach an hour north of Phuket. I spent several weeks there volunteering with an NGO, the Foundation for Education and Development. It’s a great location for day trips to the Similan and Suring Islands, Khao Sok and Khao Lak/Lam Ru National Parks.

Ko Phi-Phi Don is a backpacker island accessible by ferry from Phuket or Krabi. I was disappointed by the trash on the beaches but loved the nightly fire shows. It’s nearby sister island, the uninhabited Ko Phi-Phi Leh, is a gorgeous national park island. You’ll probably recognize the soaring limestone cliffs jutting out of crystal clear waters from the movie The Beach that was filmed there.  It’s a popular day trip with great snorkeling opportunities. Tours cost roughly 700-800B ($20 USD) for a long tail boat and 2500B ($70 USD) for a motorboat. There is a 400B ($11 USD) park entrance fee.

How to get to Andaman Coast: Phuket is the largest airport with international flights, and Krabi is usually the cheaper option. Phuket is easily accessible via overnight bus from Bangkok. There is an endless amount of ferries between all the islands.

 

mazurek_chiang-mai_01

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai


When to Go to Thailand

The rainy season lasts from May to October, but it only rains a little each day. (I was always in Thailand during those months and didn’t really have any problems.) Temperatures don’t vary much year-round near to the equator. The north is less humid. Avoid the burning season near Chiang Mai in February/March.

March to May are steaming hot across the country so avoid this time of year if possible. November through February is peak travel season when temperate drop (low 80’s Fahrenheit) and prices increase dramatically. The water festival (Songkran) in mid-April is another peak travel time so book ahead for accommodation.

 

 

tuktuk

Thailand Transport Tips & Logistics

 

TRAINS: The trains in Thailand are good but usually late by at least 30 minutes to a couple hours. Sleeper trains are quite comfy and one of my favorite forms of travel. (Always get bottom bunk – it’s bigger. Plus, the air conditioner makes the top bunk FREEZING.) Book directly at train station. Bottom bunks sell out so try to buy a day or two in advance.

BUS: Buses are more efficient. Always take the second class buses instead of the VIP tourist buses. It’s half the price and nicer. (The VIP buses are always blaring music all night and are targets for people to get robbed since it’s all foreigners. The bus staff will go through the bags I’ve heard.) The second class buses are usually only locals so they are safer in my opinion. They have air conditioning and bathrooms, too. There are plenty of budget airlines as well. AVOID buses that drop or pick up on Khao San Road, the sleazy backpacker district. Those are targets for thieves and drop you off on the street at odd hours of the night.

TUK TUKS: Tuk tuk (auto rickshaw) prices are outrageous in Bangkok. Always get a taxi in Bangkok  – it’s significantly cheaper to pay by taxi meter than the horrible flat rate tuk tuk prices. They can be cheaper in other parts of the country. Always negotiate a price beforehand.

Banking

Exchange rates are always better in Bangkok than at the airport. The best rates are usually from the ATM. All ATMs in Thailand are now charging ATM fees for withdrawals. To avoid these fees, be sure to open a fee-free travel bank account before your trip, which will save you a significant amount of money. For more details, check out my post on Travel Banking 101.

 

Thailand Photo Guide: Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai

How to Dress

Thailand is very conservative so be sure to cover your knees and shoulders in temples! Many temples in Bangkok even require long pants and long sleeves, and they will require you to rent clothing if you are not dressed appropriately. Be respectful at all times. Normal shorts are okay in Bangkok’s streets but avoid tank tops. Anything goes along the beaches in Southern Thailand.

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COMING UP:

 

White Sands New Mexico, Photography by Anna Mazurek. Image may not be reproduced without permission.

 

Best of 2016

Next week, I’ll wrap up 2016 with a recap of the most popular posts and adventures from the year to inspire your 2017 New Year’s travel resolutions! Tell me your New Year’s travel resolutions in the comments below!

Where to Go in Southeast Asia

Where to go in Southeast Asia - Luang Prabang

Built in 1560, Wat Xieng Thong in Luang Prabang is one of the most important Buddhist temples in Laos.

 

Southeast Asia is the PERFECT travel destination – it’s cheap, safe and absolutely beautiful. Plus, it’s always flip-flop weather!

There’s no place I love more than Asia. (I spent five summers running photo trips for high school students in India and Southeast Asia.) Every year, I would travel on my own for a few months and explore nearby countries. It’s the most common place I get asked about for travel advice so I thought it was time to write a guide!

Here is my list of the top six places to visit in Southeast Asia:


1. Luang Prabang, Laos

 

Luang Prabang is one of my favorite cities in the world and a traveler’s dream. The World Heritage site is surrounded by lush mountains and sliced in half by the mighty Mekong River deep in the heart of Laos. The former French colony opened for tourism in 1989 making it one of Southeast Asia’s best-kept secrets. The former royal capital of Luang Prabang is known for well-preserved golden temples and the daily morning procession of monks who walk the streets collecting alms from locals. The center of town is lined with delicious French restaurants, cafes and bakeries like JOMA, which specializes in local fair-trade coffee. Don’t miss the local street market one block over – fresh crepes, fish and local stir-fries are available every morning for cheap. (Street crepes are the BEST!) Be sure to hike the impressive Tat Kuang Si Waterfall and take a boat trip down the Mekong to visit the Buddha-filled Pak Ou Caves.

IMPORTANT TIP: If you go to the alms ceremony, be respectful to the monks! Take photos from a distance and not directly in their faces.  Dress conservatively, and do not stand higher than the monks. (You’ll notice most locals are seated.) Avoid giving the monks food because there’s been a huge issue with on-site street vendors selling foreigners old food that makes the monks sick. Let the locals give food.

HOW TO GET TO LUANG PRABANG: I always take the bus from Vientiane, the capital of Laos by the Thai border. It’s a grueling (9-13 hour) journey through curvy mountain roads. (ALWAYS get the VIP bus.) You can fly from Bangkok and other major cities on local airlines, which can be a bit sketchy. Lao Airlines had a bad reputation for a long time so I’ve always avoided them. The other two options are usually propeller planes like Bangkok Airways or Vietnam Airlines. (I hate flying so I always take the bus because those particular airlines scare me.)

WHEN TO GO: I prefer the rainy season which lasts roughly from April to October, which usually means brief showers daily. (I’ve always been in August.) March is the hottest month. November to January are the coolest months and most crowded.

 

Where to go in Southeast Asia: Sukhothai

Wat Mahathat, Sukhothai Historical Park, Thailand

 

2. Sukhothai Historical Park, Thailand

 

My favorite place in Thailand is Sukhothai Historical Park, the site of the 13th and 14th century capital of Siam. Within the old city walls of the UNESCO World Heritage site, there are 21 sets of gorgeous ruins and another 70 in a five-kilometer radius, which are best visited by bike or motorbike. (I always rent a bike by the park entrance for less than $1 USD.)

The size of the park makes it easy to escape the crowds. The ruins are more centralized and much less crowded than Ayutthaya, whose sites are spread across the town and surrounded by pushy street vendors. My favorite ruins are Wat Si Chum featuring a famous giant Buddha statue above; Wat Mahathat, the largest ruin and former royal palace, and the Khmer style temple, Wat Si Sawai, that is reminiscent of Angkor Wat.

HOW TO GET TO SUKHOTHAI: The park is a few hours north of Bangkok and the perfect stop en route to Chiang Mai. Catch a bus from Bangkok’s northern bus station, Mo Chit. The closet train station is Phitsanulok, an hour away. The park is 12 km from the new town of Sukhothai and easily accessible by tuk tuk or a songtaew (pickup truck style bus). The entrance fee for foreigners is 100 Baht ($2.80 USD) for each zone or 350 Baht ($10 USD) for all five zones.

WHEN TO GO: Avoid March and April when it’s steaming hot. November to Feburary are the best weather months. June to October are the rainy season. (I’ve always gone during these months.) It cools down between October and January.

 

Where to go in Southeast Asia: Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

A bird’s eye view of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.


3. Ha Long Bay

 

Ha Long Bay is one of those places like Machu Picchu that you must visit once in your life. The scenery is postcard perfect: limestone pillars and tiny islands scattered through the Gulf of Tonkin’s emerald waters. It is the number one attraction in Vietnam. The best way to experience the bay is to do a multiple-day cruise on a houseboat to explore the islands, swim and eat year weight in fresh seafood! There are short boat trips and overnight cruises for every budget. I recommend spending a night or two on a houseboat!

How to Get Ha Long Bay: Boats depart from the less-appealing port town of Halong City. It’s four hours north of Hanoi by car or bus.

When to go: Avoid February to April when it’s cool and drizzly. Peak season is June to mid-August, which also corresponds with tropical storm season. (I went in July.) November is best for blue skies and calm seas.

 

Where to go in Southeast Asia: Bagan

The temples of Bagan rank at the top of the list of the world’s greatest archeological sites along with Machu Picchu.


4. Bagan, Myanmar (Burma)

 

Bagan is the Angkor Wat of Burma. The ancient city lies in a valley dotted with over 2200 temples and pagodas dating back to 11th and 13th century when it was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan, which later became current day Myanmar. The 26-square kilometer area is home to three towns – Nyuang U, Old Bagan and New Bagan, which are only a few miles apart. All accommodation is centered in these areas. You can rent bikes, taxis and horse drawn carriages to see all the sites. (I did all three while I was there.) Be sure to get up at sunrise every morning to shoot the skyline. It’s unbelievable! Hot air balloon rides are available in the dry season at sunrise.

HOW TO GET TO BAGAN: Nyuang U is accessible by overly air conditioned buses from across Burma. You can always fly on domestic airlines from across Burma. (The airlines are even sketchier than the ones that fly into Luang Prabang. My general rule of thumb: Always avoid government owned airlines in Asia because they tend to not be very safe.)

WHEN TO GO: The heat is horrible from March to May. The rainy season lasts from June to October, which means it rains a little each day but not enough to spoil a trip and hotel prices drop. (I went in August.) November to February is peak season. This is the only time of year when the hot air balloons fly so keep that in mind. (I’m honestly planning to go back so I can photograph the skyline with the hot air balloons.)

 

Where to go to in Southeast Asia - Singapore

Singapore’s famous Merlion, a half-lion and half-fish statue guards Marina Bay.


5. Singapore

 

Singapore is the New York City of Southeast Asia, filled with sleek skyscrapers, world-class museums and culinary delights. My friend Trevor (who I met in Burma) lived here so I always went to visit him at the end of every summer. It was my reprieve from my travels – I could drink the tap water!

The only way to fully understand Singapore’s kaleidoscope of cultures (Chinese, Malay, Indian and Western) is to explore the museums. My favorites are The National Museum of Singapore and the Peranakan Museum, which focuses on the history and contemporary culture of the locally born Chinese. Other highlights include famous “Supertree” grove of vertical gardens at the Gardens by the Bay and the view from rooftop bar of Marina Bay Sands resort.

Despite its sleek and sophisticated exterior, the heart of the city is the countless food stalls that serve up tasty treats like traditional kaya (coconut jam) toast, fresh squeezed orange juice for super cheap and Hainanese chicken rice.

TIP: Leave your chewing gum at home. It’s illegal because too many vandals were jamming the train doors with it and disrupting service so it was banned.

HOW TO GET TO SINGAPORE: You can fly to Singapore from just about anywhere. It’s has one of the nicest airports in the world. (Trust me, you WANT a layover here.) It’s easily accessible by bus from peninsular Malaysia and by ferry from parts of Indonesia.

WHEN TO GO: Monsoon season lasts from November to January. June to September is when the rain clears off and temperatures spike a bit. Overall, it’s usually 81-87 °F year-round. (I always visit between August and October.)

 

Where to go in Southeast Asia: George Town, Malaysia

The colorful streets of George Town, Malaysia are lined with 3D street art.


6. George Town, Malaysia

Like Singapore, George Town (the capital of the island state of Penang) is a mixture of three cultures and various types of architecture. Ranging from Chinese shop houses to British colonial buildings. It’s also the street art capital of Southeast Asia. Pick up a map at local hotels or the tourism association to guide you through the labyrinth of streets for both 3D artwork and murals like the one decorating the shop where Penang native and famous shoemaker Jimmy Choo first apprenticed. Be sure to eat the crispy chicken with plum sauce for dinner at Tek Sen! Other highlights include the house musuems including the famous Blue Mansion boutique hotel.

HOW TO GET TO GEORGE TOWN: It’s easily accessible by plane from across Southeast Asia. There is train service from Kuala Lumpur (KL) and buses from all over Malaysia. (I took the bus from KL, which was comfy and nice.)

WHEN TO GO: The weather doesn’t fluctuate much here. Holidays like Chinese New Year will be crowded. November and December are when temperatures drop a little.

 

Sukhothai, Thailand

This hat was clearly made for a gnome. The hat was bought in Hanoi, Vietnam but photographed in Sukhothai, Thailand.


Southeast Asia FAQ

 

How much does it cost?


Aside from Singapore, the rest of Southeast Asia is fairly cheap. You can eat street meals for a few dollars. Accommodation ranges from $6-15 USD for hostels and budget hotels. All buses are always less than $20 USD. My budget in Asia is always $30/day or less including all expenses. Burma is a bit more expensive than the rest of Southeast Asia. (Hotels can start at $25/USD.) Singapore is like NYC so expect to pay up. Little India has cheap accommodation and hawker centers offer low cost yet delicious meals. Keep an eye out for happy hour for drink specials!

 

Do I need a visa?

For many nationalities, visas are available upon arrival in all countries except Burma and Vietnam which require them in advance. Both can be obtained before your trip or within Southeast Asia. (I got both of those visas in Thailand.) If you are going to be in Thailand for a while (months), then look into extended visa options. For more visa info for Americans for all countries, visit travel.state.gov.

 

How can I teaching English or work in Southeast Asia?

There are plenty of options to teaching English along with other opportunities. Check out my Working Abroad Guide for more details!

 

What about safety?

Aside from Japan and Iceland, Southeast Asia is one of the safest places I’ve been. (And, I’ve been to 46 countries.) Forget the scary movies you’ve seen, The New York Times reports that motorized vehicle accidents are the leading cause of unnatural deaths for Americans abroad.

Here are a few tips to stay safe:

  • Check travel warnings before booking flights for potential military, political or weather concerns. (Americans should check travel.state.gov for warnings and sign up for the STEP Smart Traveler Program, which provides free email updates.)
  • Read recent travel guides.  These are a good resource for reported safety incidents and high theft areas.
  • Dress Conservatively: Aside from Bangkok, the beaches and Singapore, the dress code is fairly conservative across Southeast Asia. Out of respect, avoid skimpy tank tops or short shorts at any time outside of these areas. Cover all shoulders and knees before visiting temples or palaces.
  • Talk to the locals & other travelers. Tell them about your plans and ask about any potential safety concerns especially if you are traveling solo.

For more details, check out my Travel Safety 101 post.


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COMING UP:

Photo Guide to Thailand

 

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I’ll continue my Asia Travel Guide Series with a detailed guide to the best places to visit in Thailand. I’ll also touch base on logistics. What do you want to know about traveling in Thailand? Email me, and I’ll be sure to answer your question in my post!