In August, I started on a route heading back to DC. I chose the scenic route. After starting in Mumbai, my only plan was to journey eastward. And to eat good food. After three months of experiencing the food, sights, and sounds of south and southeast Asia, I finished the journey east. On this past Saturday, I landed stateside. After two and half years, I’m back!
It was strange getting on the flight from Beijing to DC. A sort of “this is it” feeling. No more living out of my backpack. Back to familiar settings that don’t seem super familiar. I am excited to be home for Thanksgiving for the first time in two years. We’ll see what the future has in store.
Be kind to yourself.
P.S. – I’d recommend the Mobile Passport app for free, expedited entry through US Customs at several approved sea and airports. It’s a cool alternative to Global Entry.
There are millions of smartphone apps, serving a multitude of purposes, (or none at all) at our disposal. Many of these apps are designed to make life easier. The travel life is no exception. Below (in no particular order) are some of the apps that have made my life easier while on the road.
Google Trips – Free – I didn’t know about this one until a few months ago. Once you sign in and allow the app to read your email, it will pull from any transportation/accommodation/etc messages to compile an outline of your trip. There is an option to map out your trip without the template, as well the option to edit any outlines. The outlines includes attractions, day plans, and food and drink suggestions.
Rome to Rio – Free – When moving about in unfamiliar lands, transportation could present a struggle. How do I get from this place to the next place? How much does it cost? What are my options? This app allows you to enter a beginning and ending location, and gives transport options along with estimated costs and websites with schedules (If available). It has made trip planning much better because of the wealth of information. The app doesn’t feature some of the more local options like khombis aground eSwatini or jeepneys around the Philippines. To incorporate those modes into your travel, it’s best to talk to locals.
Toshl Finance – Free (with premium paid options and features) – This is a budget/expense tracker app. One of the things I love about this is that you can enter expenses in just about any currency and it will convert to whatever you selected as your home currency. When the app is online, it updates exchange rates, so they’re pretty accurate. This is one of my favorites. It keeps me on budget. In the free version of the app, you are limited to how many budgets you can add (maximum of two). These limitations, along with others in the free version, did not affect my ability to keep accurate record of my expenses and budget.
Agoda – Free – Surprise, surprise. When searching for accommodation, different sites may list different prices. While it’s okay to just show up in many places, some places need a bit more planning. When I need to book accommodation in advance, Agoda ifs typically the cheapest. There’s also a very useful option to filter out beds that you can book without credit cards, so you can bypass deposits and spend money on actual accommodation.
Google Translate – Free – While this app is not a substitute for learning a few pleasantries in the local language, it is amazing for more complex things. Some languages are available to download for offline use. If a language is available for download in a place that I’m going, I get it. Communicating needs and wants in Vietnamese, Hindi, etc suddenly aren’t as difficult.
Google Maps – Free – You can download maps of a city (or of a custom area) for offline use. Then you can use that navigate without a data connection. This only works for driving directions, but if you can read a map, you’ll be good. One thing to note is that these maps do expire. So if you’ll be in a place for a longer time (more than a month), it would be worth it to find WiFi to re-download the map.
Whatsapp – Free – SMS can be expensive. This is true of domestic SMS in the land of places without unlimited text messaging. This is true of international SMS just about everywhere. Whatsapp is an internet/data based messaging service. Pictures, videos, and voice notes can be sent using Whatsapp, in addition to voice and video calling features. The app requires that the other user be on Whatsapp as well. for messaging/calling friends and family. While there are many similar services, this one has remained a favorite of the people I talk to most.
Viber – Free – This is an app similar to Whatsapp. Text based messages. Voice and video calls. All over a data connection. The difference here is something called Viber Out, which allows you to make VOIP calls to people who aren’t on Viber. After loading credits onto your account, the service does charge based on where you are calling (lowest rates are for calls to the United States). Viber is not only useful for keeping in touch with those lacking smartphones, but also handling business with a company’s 1-800 number.
Various ride sharing apps – Free – Many countries have some service that you can use to order a taxi/transport. Some of these services even allow you to order food from local eateries. I’ve found it to be not only cheaper, but also much more convenient. It definitely beats extended negotiations with drivers, unless you’re in the mood for that. I’ve found that even if I don’t use a ride service, it’s still helpful to get an idea of how much things should cost. It can also be cost effective to shop around between the services themselves. Of course, you will need some sort of data connection to book the ride. Some of the services available include: Uber (South Africa/India), Taxify (South Africa), Ola (India), Grab (Malaysia/Vietnam/Philippines/Singapore/Indonesia), Passapp (Cambodia), and GoJek (Indonesia).
Maps.Me – Free – For those choosing to eschew Google products, or for those who just want a really well made offline map app, this is it. The app allows you to download detailed maps for where you’re going. The user interface isn’t as attractive as Google Maps (to me), but it works extremely well. I’ve found that the app doesn’t always have everything (businesses, eateries, etc) on the map, but it usually has everything I need. Users can submit updates as well.
Kiwix – Free – If you know anything about me, you know that I’m a huge fan of Kiwix, the offline Wikipedia browser. There’s an Android app, so I keep WikiVoyage downloaded in the app so that I can research where I’m going/where I am when I don’t have internet. This is extremely useful when looking up where I might want to go next. There are a few phrasebooks as well to help you with local language when you’re on the ground.
Couchsurfing – Free – People all over the world offer up their couches, beds, or free space to travelers in the name of friendship and cultural exchange. Even if I don’t end up using Couchsurfing to stay with someone, I always try to check the app when I get to a new city. Almost always, there are people looking to hang out and explore the city. Couchsurfers also organize events to explore or showcase the city, or various aspects of it. You do need take some time to create a complete profile on Couchsurfing, but it’s extremely worth it.
I should note that I carry an Android device. While it’s likely that these apps are available on iOS, I didn’t bother to look so I don’t know. If you have any favorite, must-have apps while traveling, feel free to shout them out in the comments.
Be kind to yourself.
Yesterday, I had a long layover in what some consider to be the world’s greatest airport, Singapore’s Changi Airport (SIN). As I’ve previously written on this blog, I’m a huge fan of long layovers especially when the country offers visa free entry and decent food. Singapore ticks the necessary boxes. While I was looking at various things to do on a 16 hour layover, I found the usual recommendations for tourist sites and good eating around the city. However, another recommendation kept resurfacing: the airport itself. I never thought of an airport as an attraction.
After landing, I was headed towards immigration to head into the city when I noticed a kiosk advertising free Singapore tours. I stopped by. During the day, there are free heritage tours to the city. In the late afternoon and evening, there are free city lights tours. My flight arrived just in time for one of the late afternoon city lights tours. The tour was led by a local tour guide named Daryl. About 20 folks from all over the world joined Daryl’s group and boarded an air-conditioned tour bus to the city. Daryl taught us about some of the history of Singapore while pointing out some of the famous sites. One of the stops was Gardens by the Bay. The massive garden features super trees, which are concrete and metal structures in the form of trees that are home to various plant life. At night, they are brilliantly lit. Not too far away is Satay by the Bay, a food centre with various types of tasty local cuisine. After 2.5 hour jaunt around the city, we were headed back to the airport.
When we returned to the airport, some of us decided to check an art installation in the airport called Kinetic Rain. The installation features several copper-coated droplets moving artfully in sync.
The airport is home to different gardens including a cactus garden and a butterfly garden. For the tired feet, there is a plethora of foot massagers. There are several lounge spaces with comfy chairs to relax. In Terminal 2, there’s what they call the Entertainment Deck. Several video game stations are set up for the traveler’s leisure. The selection of games is pretty good, as well. Around the corner, there was a room with computer gaming and an arcade-style setup for various (mostly fighting) games. In Terminals 2 and 3, there are small movie theatres. Each has a daily rotation of 5-6 movies. There are also several computer terminals set up for internet browsing in addition to free WiFi.
All of the above mentioned stuff is free. There are paid options as well. For example, there’s a gym, a few spas, and several paid lounges. For those that need to rest in more traditional settings, there are hotels in the airport. One of the hotels has a swimming pool available to their guests, and outsiders (for a fee).
After my short stay in Changi, I can definitely see why it’s considered the world’s greatest airport. It seems to be an airport designed by someone who spent too much time in airports twiddling thumbs thinking, “there has to be a better way”. It absolutely challenged what I thought an airport was, and could be. Of the airports that I’ve been to, Changi just might be the best. It’s definitely the most engaging. It’s also the place that I’d most want a long layover, or a flight delay.
Be kind to yourself.
Last week as I was riding around the island of Siquijor, I saw one of the suggested tourist sites. There was a massive tree that was more than 100 years old. At the base of the tree was a small pond. The pond was home to several fish of varying size. All of the fish were very eager to chomp on some dead human skin. Luckily for them, I had some to contribute. I had heard of such fish foot spas around Asia, and I had been intending on going. But intentions fall victim to the immediacy of life. Alas, here I was.
The initial rush of fish on my feet was part startling, part tickling, part strange. A few seconds in, followed by many more seconds out. After several cycles of this, I was comfortable enough to relax and enjoy the fish nibbling. Even the larger ones. The above video was recorded once I actually relaxed.
Be kind to yourself.
After a brief stay in Hue, I took a bus to Phong Nha. The small town is the base for many local and international travelers visiting the national park of the same name. Apparently, ten years ago, the main road in the town wasn’t paved and businesses were sparse. While the road is tarred and small businesses catering to travelers are plentiful, the town maintains its small town feel. The biggest attractions of the national park are the caves.
After meeting up with some other backpackers at a local hostel, we walked along the main road to the Phong Nha-Ke Bang Tourist Centre. This is where you can buy entrance tickets and rent a boat to go to the Phong Nha cave. Boats seat up to ten people and cost the same price regardless of how many people (up to ten) are in the boat. Thankfully we were able to divide the cost among seven of us. The return boat trip includes a captain and assistant. To visit this cave, a boat is necessary as a river flows through the cave.
While I’ve been to caves and caverns before, this was my first time exploring one with an actual river inside. During the war, the American military bombed the region heavily during the day. For protection, many local people lived in the cave. There was a field hospital, school, and living quarters among other things. As we floated through the cave, the sheer massiveness of it was impressive. It was like a small town into itself. As I walked around the caves, I remember thinking, “it’s truly amazing what millions of years can do”.
There are other caves in the park open to visitors as well. To my knowledge, none of these were used for similar purposes. The only other cave I visited was the Paradise Cave, and it was just as massive. I wouldn’t be surprised if entire communities and market systems existed in it at one point. While I didn’t visit the Dark Cave (named such because it has no artificial lighting inside), I was told that it was amazing and included a lot of fun activities like zip-lining, kayaking, and a mud bath. A motorbike ride through the national park was quite spectacular with sights to rival nature’s most picturesque scenes.
Be kind to yourself.
Moving around in Vietnam can be done many different ways. Private cars can be hired. Bus, plane and train tickets can be acquired for travel. Then, there are motorbikes. Scooters. Motorcycles. Mopeds. They are extremely popular around the country. I learned shortly before visiting Hoi An (in central Vietnam) that it was possible to take a motorbike tour from Hoi An to Hue, a city about 100 kilometers north also in central Vietnam. I had also heard that the route was absolutely beautiful.
For the motorbike bike tour, there were two options. Option one would put me on the back of a guide’s motorbike to relax and enjoy the ride with the views. Option two would give me a motorbike to ride on my own with the guide riding another motorbike. I promptly chose option two. Last week, the time had come for me to leave Hoi An and set off for Hue. A tour guide and two motorbikes arrived at my hostel during breakfast. We were on our way.
One of the biggest attraction of the route is the 21 kilometer long Hai Van Pass. The mountain which the pass runs through separated two kingdoms in what is now Vietnam. Other than a few flash rain showers, the sun shone through some clouds throughout the day. The entire route was a visual treat. I remember riding and questioning whether or not what I was seeing was actually real. I was wondering how I’d somehow transitioned into a postcard or painting. It’s just that amazing. The photo above is a view of DaNang Bay from the Hai Van Pass.
Be kind to yourself.
P.S. – here’s a picture of me on my motorbike for the day. All smiles!