Capital City: Madrid
Population: 47 million
Area: 52nd largest country in the world
Religion: Christianity (Catholics)
Being at the crossroads Africa and Europe has given Spain the distinct flavour that sets it apart from other European countries.
Europe’s first city is established. Cadiz, the southwestern city of Spain is regarded as the oldest continuously inhabited city in western Europe. It was founded by the Phoenicians (from southern Lebanon) over 3,000 years ago, who called the area ‘Span’ or hidden land. (I went to Cadiz for a day trip and highly recommend doing a city tour. Click here for Cadiz Travel Tips).
Romans come to Spain. Romans conquered Spain in first century BC, who were followed by Vandals and Visigoths (both were Germanic tribes).
Islam spreads in Spain. In A.D. 711 Muslims (often referred to by the antiquated term ‘moors’) invaded Spain and Islamic culture spread across Spain (thereby giving some stunning architecture in Andalusia such as the Alhambra and the Mezquita de Córdoba). By 1492 Christian kingdoms from north Spain had conquered the Muslims (Granada was the last city the fell to the Christians) and Catholic religion replaced Islam. It was also this time that the Spanish Empire hit its stride, eventually becoming the fifth largest empire the world has ever seen.
Spain’s modern history is marked a bitterly fought Civil War from 1936-39. The war was between the Republicans (left-leaning, communists and socialist groups) and Nationalists (Catholic, aristocratic, landowners, conservative group led by General Francisco Franco). The Nationalists won the Civil War in 1939 and Franco becomes the leader (dictator) of Spain for the next 36 years. More than 500,000 people died in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s.
Franco dies. After Franco’s death in 1975, Spain made the transition to a democratic state and built a successful and relatively diversified economy.
Modern day challenges. More recently, the statehood of Spain has been challenged by the Great Spanish Depression and separatist demands from Basque Country and Catalonia.
Slovenia is an inexpensive holiday destination, and that is one of its many charms. Think of it as having all the charms of Western Europe but without the price tag.
There is a wide variety of choices for accommodation and hotel, from those catering to the backpacker crowd to luxury travellers.
The economic crisis hit Slovenia hard and from which is still recovering. This has resulted in prices still being quite low and hotel and restaurants competing for fiercely for the lucrative tourist dollar. So you can get high quality for low prices. For budget travellers, Slovenia is an ideal destination.
Slovenia’s modern history can be traced to 1918 when the Slovenes joined Serbs and Croats and formed a country called the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (KSCS). In 1929 KSCS was renamed as Yugoslavia in 1929.
Yugoslavia was a communist region but one that continuously distanced itself from USSR’s influence. Slovenia was a ‘republic’ in the former nation of Yugoslavia.
1991 was a crucial year for Slovenia. When the former Yugoslavia disintegrated in 1991 and wars broke out among the resulting republic, Slovenia also broke free and became an independent state. Mercifully, Slovenia remained relatively unscathed from the civil wars.
After Slovenia broke free and became an independent country, it was integrated as a full member of the European Union, joined NATO and became a full-on capitalist and free society. Like many former communists however, Slovenia continues to struggle economically and is still trying to figure out its role in the global economy.
1. Ljubljana – vibrant and pedestrian-friendly capital city.
2. Postojna Cave – a stunning cave system that is 24 kilometres long and is one the top highlights of Slovenia.
3. Lake Bled and area – extremely picturesque but very touristy at any given time of the year but particularly in summer months.
4. Piran – the Slovenian Alps.
5. Logar Valley – great place for hikes in spring months.
6. Skocjan caves – one of only three caves in the world to get a UNESCO Heritage Site designation.
7. Predjama Castle – a medieval castle carved in the mouth of a rock cave.
8. Soca River – an emerald green river that is a fantastic place for watersports.
9. Wine-tasting in Vipava Valley – Slovenian wine is actually quite fantastic!
10. Hike Triglav National Park – Slovenia’s only national park.
Getting around in Slovenia is very easy.
The major cities, including the charming capital city of Ljubljana, are all best navigated by foot.
Driving in Slovenia is safe and roads are in fantastic conditions. The main cities are also very well connected by buses and trains. Because Slovenia is such a small country, it makes little sense to fly between cities. You can see the bulk of the country by going on organized day tours from Ljubljana, driving around yourself or taking buses and trains.
Like the rest of Europe, April to September is the best months to visit Slovenia.
I would, however, avoid the months of July and August.
Word is out that Slovenia is an affordable European destination and during the peak season, tourists descend in hordes. Quite often, these are groups of 20 to 30 years old, often on bachelor/bachelorette weekend benders, who are loud and obnoxious. Plus, there are the cruise ship crowds and new-money travellers from China who often travel in large groups. I would recommend going in April, May or September to avoid the crowds.
I went in late April and it was a great time to go.
Slovenia is a tiny country in Central Europe that borders Italy, Austria, Croatia and Hungary
Capital City: Ljubljana
Population: 2.1 million
Area: 152nd largest country in the world
Languages: Slovene, English
Religion: Christianity (mostly Roman Catholics)
Many people believe that Rwanda is an unsafe destination for tourists.
Nothing could be further from the truth! In fact, when I visited, I was shocked at how safe, clean and welcoming the country is. It seems that the country is trying very hard to redeem itself from the atrocities of 1994. As a result, Rwanda and especially the capital city of Kigali is a bastion of safety and cleanliness which I have rarely encountered in a developing country anywhere in the world.
The top sight of Rwanda are:
1) Volcanoes National Park – see the Gorillas (click here to read more) – the main tourist attraction of Rwanda
2) Kigali – incredibly safe, clean and vibrant capital city of Rwanda (click here to read more)
3) Nyungwe Forest – track chimpanzees, plus owl-faced and colobus monkeys
Unfortunately, Rwanda is not a cheap destination.
I must admit here that I was extremely lucky. A mere few weeks after I bought my permit, the Rwanda Development Board raised the permit price from $750 USD per person and to $1,500 per person.
The cost is now teetering on being prohibitive.
Should you spend $1,500 USD to only spend 1 hour with the gorillas? That is, ahem, the $1,500 question.
For me, seeing the gorillas has been an indelible experience. I have travelled a lot and seen a lot of amazing things. But very few things come close to the seeing the mountain gorillas.
If you can afford it, then do it. I guarantee that you will not regret.
If you cannot afford it, then wait. Chances are that the permit fees may come down again. Another option is to go see gorillas in Uganda, though from my research, I understand that seeing them from Rwanda is a far superior and well-organized experience.
Surprisingly, Rwanda is pleasant all year round. Temperatures vary only little throughout the year due to its geographical position, just south of the Equator. So the good news is that you can visit Rwanda any time of the year!
Regardless of when you go, days are usually warm (shorts and T-shirt) and evenings cool (long sleeve and pants).
Best time to see the Gorillas: June to September are the best months for gorilla trekking.
What I did: I went the last week of July and it was really pleasant.
The event that looms large over Rwandan history is the genocide.
In 1994, an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were brutally killed in just 100 days and by the most rudimentary weapons. Machetes were the main tool used for killing. Moreover, other forms of violence, often brutal, were also perpetrated. While violence was inflicted by both sides, most of the dead were Tutsis and most of the perpetrators were Hutus.
What makes the violence all the more shocking is that Rwanda’ three main ethnic groups, Hutu, Tutsi and Twa, are from one cultural and linguistic group, the Banyarwanda. These ethnic speak the same language (Kinyarwanda), live in the same areas and follow very similar cultural traditions. What makes this part of Rwandan history especially tragic is that friends killed friends, neighbours killed neighbours and in some cases relatives killed relatives.
Today however, Rwanda is a VERY different country. It is a country determined to put its painful past behind and is steadfastly looking to the future.
Population: 12 million
Capital City: Kigali
Area: 147th largest country in the world
Languages: Kinyarwanda (official), English, French
Currency: Rwandan Franc
There are 155 islands in Seychelles and regardless of which island you stay in, you must go and explore others.
To get from one island to another, you have 3 options.
Depending on your time, budget and itinerary, you can choose which one suits you as all are good options.
I found food and drinks in Seychelles quite costly. Even eating out at restaurants, for a semi-decent meal, can be pricey.
The best way to mitigate high costs is to get a self-catering house and rent a car. You can then buy groceries, drinks and cook your meals in your your rented house. Spend the day at the beach and in the evenings in your rented house relaxing, drinking and eating.
You can always at an all inclusive resort but beware, these are quite costly. Unless you are there to splurge, don’t go for resorts, especially beach front ones as they will be expensive.
The best way to get around the island is by renting a vehicle. Above is the photo of the little car that I rented in Seychelles. Unless you stay at an all-inclusive resort, you need a car to move around. (I wouldn’t recommend an all-inclusive because then you are tied down to one area and can’t really explore the island. And most are very expensive).
Seychelles Travel Tip: It is fairly straightforward to rent a car. The owners of the house where I stayed helped me get in touch with a rental company, who came directly to the house with the car. And on my way out, they asked me to leave the car at the airport and give the keys to one of the security person, which I did. It was that easy! Make sure to take your driver’s license with you. I stayed in Praslin for a week and found driving around efficient, safe and easy. Although I chose not to do much driving at night time because then I preferred to stay in the rented house, relaxed after a full day at the beach and enjoy my evening cocktails.
There is no doubt that Seychelles is far.
Located in the Indian Ocean, Seychelles is an African country that is 1,600 km east of Kenya and 3,800 km southwest of India. Unless you live in the central eastern part of Africa, getting there will be a long journey. And this is probably the main reason that most North Americans have not been there.
I flew from Amsterdam to Praslin, the second largest island in Seychelles and total travelling time was about 22 hours!
I flew Kenya Airways from Amsterdam to Nairobi, which was 8-hour flight. Then after a 5-hour wait at Nairobi airport, I took a connecting flight from Nairobi to Mahe, the largest island in Seychelles, which was a 3-hour flight. After a 2 hour and 40 minutes wait in Mahe, I took another flight from the domestic terminal in Mahe to Praslin, which was, thankfully, only 20 minutes.
Yes, it was a long journey and I was tired but it was worth it. I would do it all again in a heartbeat because Seychelles is paradise.
The local economy heavily relies on tourism so you will find people very friendly and accommodating to tourists. While unemployment is quite high, crime rates against tourists are almost non-existent.
The country has a laid back vibe and there is a live-and-let-live attitude.
Seychelles is very close to the Equator and as a result, the temperature remains around 30°C (during the day) and above 20 °C (at night) all year round. There may be occasional tropical showers but they don’t last long. And because no matter where you are, the sea is always just a few kilometres away, you also get a nice breeze. So Seychelles can be visited any time of the year.
Be mindful of the tradewinds. One thing to watch out for is the tradewinds which can cause seaweed to build up in certain parts of the islands. They are harmless but make it less than ideal for swimming and take away from the beauty of Seychelles’s otherwise pristine beaches. This is especially true for Praslin. Generally speaking, May – September is when seaweed washes up on Praslin’s south coast. Between October – April, seaweed washes up on Praslin’s northwest coast and currents are very strong on Mahe’s northwest coast. Having said that, Praslin and La Digue are quite small islands so you can drive around and find and always find a suitable beach.
Capital City: Victoria (on the Mahe Island)
Area: 180th largest country in the world
Languages: Seychellois Creole, French, English (in order of importance)
Religion: Roman Catholics (however, I did not find Seychelles a particularly religious country)
Currency: Seychellois Rupee
Jordanian prehistory goes back 250,000 years. Jordan (officially known as The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan) has seen habitation as far back as 250,000 years. Jordan’s impressive archaeological evidence shows inhabitance by Homo erectus, Neanderthal and modern humans.
Semitic nomads arrive in Jordan. Prehistoric period ended about 2000 BC when Semitic nomads arrived in Jordan. The main tribes were Ammon, Edom and Moab. Romans conquer Jordan.
The Roman Empire conquest of Jordan starts in 63 BC. Roman conquest at this time also included Syria and Palestine. Roman and Byzantine conquest of Jordan has left behind a highly impressive collection of artifacts, which can be seen throughout the country.
Jordan becomes part of the Byzantine Empire. In late 400 AD, the Roman Empire fell and Jordan became part of the Byzantine Empire, also known as Eastern Roman Empire.
Islamic Jordan begins. In 661 AD, Jordan came under the control of the Umayyad Empire, the first Muslim dynasty. In subsequent years, Jordan was controlled by several Empires: Abbasid Empire, Mongols Empire, Christian Crusaders, Ayyubids Empire and the Mamluks.
Ottomans conquer Jordan for 400 years. In 1517, the Ottoman Empire conquered Jordan and ruled for 400 years until the Ottoman Empire fell in 1922. During the Ottoman years, Jordan was largely neglected. Jordan becomes a British protectorate. After World War I, coinciding with the Arab Revolt, the Ottoman Empire fell. At this point, the League of Nations assumed mandate over much of the Middle East. Britain and France divided up the area. France took control of Syria and Lebanon and Britain took over Palestine and Jordan, known as Transjordan.
Jordan becomes a kingdom, albeit under the watchful eye of the British. In 1922, Britain assigned Abdullah I, belonging to the powerful Hashemite noble family, to govern Transjordan. Jordan remained a British protectorate until its independence.
Jordan becomes an independent state. On May 25, 1946, Jordan became a sovereign state. Abdullah I continued to be the leader of the new state.
Jordan enters into troubled Middle East politics. Jordan opposed the partition of Palestine and creation of Israel and joined the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Israel won the war and many Palestinian refugees fled to Jordan. In 1950, Jordan annexed West Bank and East Jerusalem and in 1951, a Palestinian assassin killed King Abdullah I because of the land annexation.
Jordan loses West bank in the Six-Day War. Jordan, along with Egypt and Syria, entered another war with Israel, the Six-Day War in June 1967. After losing the Six-Day War, Jordan lost control of the West Bank to Israel.
Jordan supports Iraq and loses the grace of the US. Jordan supported Iraq during the Gulf War (1990 – 1991), thereby causing deterioration of relations with the USA and its allies. Post the Gulf War period, and partly because of its fall from grace with the international community, Jordan suffered significant economic decline.
Jordan makes peace with rivals and begins modernization. In order to return to good graces of the international community, in 1994, Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel. By making peace with Israel, Jordan ended almost 50 years of hostile relations with the Jewish state. Today, Jordan is one of the very few countries in the Middle East that has formally re-established diplomatic relations with Israel. In 1999, King Hussein died and was succeeded by his son, King Abdullah II who has since embarked on aggressive economic liberalization policies. In spite of its turbulent past, Jordan today is a safe and economically stable country. Tourism is one of the top sources of income for and Jordan has invested tonnes in capital to make infrastructure amenable to tourism.
Population: 126.4 million
Capital City: Tokyo
Area: 62nd largest country in the world
Religion: Shintoism, Buddhism
Currency: Japanese Yen
Population: 92 million
Hanoi, in the north of the country, is the official capital city.
Saigon is the largest, and the financial capital of the country.
Area: 67th largest country in the world
Currency: Vietnamese Dong
Turkey is where East meets West
Being at the crossroads of Asia and Europe, the history of Turkey, or Türkiye in Turkish, reflects this unique geographic reality.
Turkey’s early history is actually a history of two regions: Anatolia, the Asian part of Turkey, originally inhabited by groups of Turkic tribes and Eastern Thrace, the European part of Turkey, inhabited by Thracians, a group of Indo-European tribes).
Rise of the Ottoman Empire
Of course, the history that is inextricably tied to Turkey is the Ottoman Empire (1299 – 1922), the reverberation of which is still felt in many of Turkey’s tourist attractions but also in many other countries in the world. Founded in early 13th century in Anatolia, Ottoman Empire was one of the largest the world has seen. At its height, the Ottoman Empire controlled most of southeastern Europe, western Asia and northern Africa.
End of the Ottoman Empire
It was World War I that ultimately led to the demise of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire entered World War I (1914–1918) on the side of the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary) and was defeated. After World War I, Ottoman Empire was broken up and forced to give up large parts of it territories to Greece, Italy, Britain and France. Turkey was neutral in World War II (1939–45) but eventually abandoned neutrality and joined NATO.
The Ottoman Empire was formally abolished on November 1, 1922.
Turkey becomes a modern Republic
On October 29, 1923, the Republic of Turkey became a republic and established it capital at Ankara. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk became the first president of the new ‘secular’ republic country.
Many reforms were made under Atatürk to dislodge the shackles of the antiquated Ottoman Empire and to make Turkey a secular, modern country. Turkey has been largely successful in adopting Atatürk’s grand vision for modernization. However, to a large extent, Turkish society and politics continues to be heavily influenced by religion.
Did you know?
Saint Nicholas (known around the world as Santa Claus), was born in Turkey.
Chicken can be eaten as dessert!
In Turkey, Tavuk göğsü is a dessert made from boiled chicken, milk, and sugar, dusted with cinnamon. It tastes like…chicken!
The tulip flower, which is the symbol of The Netherlands, was originally discovered in Turkey.
Oil wrestling is the national sport of Turkey.
Cambodia is warm year round and depending on how long you are planning to stay, you could visit it any time of the year.
I went at the end of August for a few days to see Angkor Wat. It was hot and humid but not as bad as what I had anticipated. And a big plus was that I avoided the big crowds.
November to March is the dry season. November to February are the best months to visit Cambodia but also the busiest.
March to May are good months as well but the hottest. If you go this time, best to visit Angkor Wat during the early morning and spend the afternoons lounging by the pool.
May to October is the rainy season.
Travel Tip: Some people go really early in the morning to see the sunrise. While the experience could be magical, I have heard that many people have the same idea and the crowds can be large.
Namibia’s history can roughly be divided into following four time periods:
People have lived in Namibia for a very, very long time. Humans have lived in Namibia for over 45,000 years. The first settlers were the San, Damara, and Khoi-khoi (Nama) people. They were followed by Bantu people who came from central Africa in the 14th century and Oorlam people who came from Cape Colony in the late 18th century onwards.
2. German Colonial Rule (1884 – 1915)
Germany claims Namibia. Namibia became a German colony in 1884. During this time, the Herero and the Namaqua fought against the harsh German colonial rule between 1904 to 1907 which also the time when Herero and Namaqua genocide occurred. In the genocide, German forces killed 10,000 Nama (half the Nama population) and 65,000 Herero (80% of the Herero population).
3. South African Rule (1915 – 1990)
South Africa claims Namibia. South Africa occupied Namibia from 1915 onwards after defeating the German forces in World War I. The apartheid policies that white politicians applied in South Africa were also extended to Namibia.
Independent Namibia, finally! After many years of struggle, Namibia finally achieved independence on 21 March 1990, making it one of the youngest countries in the world.
Namibia was the first country to include protection of the environment into its constitution.
Population: 2.5 million
Capital City: Windhoek
Area: 34th largest country in the world
Languages: English (official), Afrikaans, German, Oshivambo, Herero, Nama
Currency: Namibian dollar
Taxis in Spain are very affordable. In fact, taxis (and walking) are my preferred method of getting around in major cities of Spain.
Going from city to the another is also extremely easy. If you going really far distances (from one end of the country to another) and are in a hurry, you can fly. You have many options: Vueling (Spain’s main discount airline), Ryanair, Air Europa, Iberia Airlines (Spain’s flag carrier airline), etc.
Other very good options are taking the high-speed train, Renfe (http://www.renfe.com/EN/viajeros/), which in some cases can be faster than flying.
Or take the bus (ALSA). I have taken both Renfe trains and ALSA buses and recommend both. I found moving around in Spain by train and buses comfortable, reliable and fast. (I have not however taken any domestic flights in Spain).
Spain is a very affordable country to visit. Other than Portugal, I found Spain to be the most affordable country to visit in western Europe.
The Spanish financial crisis (also known as the Great Spanish Depression), that began in 2008 and continues to this today, has hit the Spanish hard. At the peak of the Depression, almost a third of Spaniards were unemployed.
One of the ways in which the country has tried to recover is by relying on tourism, its 3rd largest economic sector.
The result has been a win-win situation for both the tourist and the Spanish.
As locals compete for the lucrative tourist dollars, there are plenty of affordable hotels, bodegas, restaurants, etc., on the offer. No surprise then that visitors have flocked to Spain in droves, making it the 3rd most visited country in the world last year (and on its way to becoming the second most visited). For the Spanish, the tourists are welcomed because frankly, millions of livelihoods depend on it.
Without tourism, effects of the Great Spanish Depression would have been far more devastating.
Spain generally is very safe.
Do watch out for pickpockets, especially in tourist areas in Barcelona (especially the Las Ramblas Sagrada Familia area) and Madrid (public transportation and Plaza Major).
Barcelona is often regarded as pickpocket capital of western Europe.
Just as Spain has diverse regions, it also has diverse weather. Given this diversity in climate, you can visit any time of the year.
As a general guide:
For best weather all around, go in late Spring or Autumn.
Some general rules of thumb:
Northern Spain is always much cooler, even in the summertime. It also gets a lot more rain, even in the summers. Think of north Spain as more like Scotland / Ireland.
Madrid has extreme weather. It gets very cold in the winter and very hot in the summer.
Southern Spain gets very hot in the summer. Most Spaniards (and other Europeans) flock the to the southern coasts of Spain, and to the Balearic Sea and the Canary Islands.
Along the coast of the Canary Islands, it is always quite windy. Although the winter temperatures are quite mild, if you hit the beach, expect sand blowing in your face. I was there at the end of May and the winds on the beach were very strong.
Of all major cities, Barcelona has the mildest winter temperatures. I visited in December one year and it was quite pleasant and didn’t rain once.
Spain is not just one country. It is a decentralized state, not a federal one, composed of 17 autonomous communities.
And most regions have had their own culture, political identity and even language (Catalonia, Basque, Galician) that has developed centuries before all regions were unified as one country.
The 17 autonomous regions of Spain are (region and cities that I have visited are in bold):
Andalusia (main cities: Cadiz, Cordoba, Granada, Malaga, Torremolinos, Seville, Almeria, Huelva and Jaen)
Aragon (main cities: Huesca, Teruel and Zaragoza)
Asturias (main cities: Oviedo, Gijon, Aviles)
Balearic Islands (main cities: Ibiza and Formentera in the South-West, and Mallorca, Menorca and Cabrera in the North)
Basque Country (San Sebastian, Bilbao, Vitoria-Gasteiz)
Canary Islands (consists of 7 larger islands: Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura, Lanzarote, Tenerife, La Palma, La Gomera and El Hierro)
Cantabria (main city: Santander)
Castilla-La Mancha (main cities: Toledo, Cuenca, Guadalajara, Ciudad Real, Albacete)
Castilla y Leon (main cities: Avila, Burgos, Leon, Palencia, Salamanca, Segovia, Soria, Valladolid and Zamora)
Catalonia (Barcelona, Girona and Tarragona)
Extremadura (Merida, Caceres, Trujillo, Guadalupe, Plasencia, Badajoz)
Galicia (Santiago de Compostela, A Coruña, Vigo, Lugo, Ourense and Pontevedra)
La Rioja (main city: La Rioja)
Madrid (the capital of Spain)
Murcia (main cities: Murcia, Cartagena, Mazarron, La Manga del Mar Menor)
Navarra (main city: Pamplona)
Valencian Community (main cities: Valencia, Alicante, Costa Blanca, Costa Azahar and Castellon)
Europe’s first city is established. Cadiz, the southwestern city of Spain is regarded as the oldest continuously inhabited city in western Europe. It was founded by the Phoenicians (from southern Lebanon) over 3,000 years ago, who called the area ‘Span’ or hidden land. (I went to Cadiz for a day trip and highly recommend doing a city tour. Click here for Cadiz Travel Tips).
Romans come to Spain. Romans conquered Spain in first century BC, who were followed by Vandals and Visigoths (both were Germanic tribes).
Islam spreads in Spain. In A.D. 711 Muslims (often referred to by the antiquated term ‘moors’) invaded Spain and Islamic culture spread across Spain (thereby giving some stunning architecture in Andalusia such as the Alhambra and the Mezquita de Córdoba).
1492 is a key date in Spanish history. By 1492 Christian kingdoms from north Spain had conquered the Muslims (Granada was the last city the fell to the Christians) and Catholic religion replaced Islam. It was also this time that the Spanish Empire hit its stride, eventually becoming the fifth largest empire the world has ever seen.
Spain’s modern history is marked by a bitterly fought Civil War from 1936-39. The war was between the Republicans (left-leaning, communists and socialist groups) and Nationalists (Catholic, aristocratic, landowners, conservative group led by General Francisco Franco). The Nationalists won the Civil War in 1939 and Franco becomes the leader (dictator) of Spain for next 36 years. More than 500,000 people died in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s.
After Franco’s death in 1975, Spain made the transition to a democratic state and built a successful and relatively diversified economy.
Recent troubles in Spain. More recently, the statehood of Spain has been challenged by the Great Spanish Depression and separatist demands from Basque Country and Catalonia.
Officially, the name of the city is Ho Chi Minh City. To southern Vietnamese (and locals in the city) and many Westerners, it is Saigon. To the north Vietnamese, older generation of Communists and its allies, it is Ho Chi Minh City. All the while, interestingly, the airport code is SGN (Saigon).
So is it HCMC or Saigon?! As my tour guide assured me, regardless of what you call it, people are not going to get offended. Even locals call it by both names. Either is fine. As a tourist, you won’t offend people by calling it one or the other.
What makes Turkey (and even the capital city Istanbul) an especially attractive place (in addition to the endless list of things to see, do and eat), is that it is inexpensive.
There are endless options for accommodation and food, catering to all sort of budgets. And because there are so many choices, hotels (hostels, Air BnB, etc) provide very competitive prices. Shop around on the web and you will inevitably find a good deal, even during peak season.
This is especially true for the moment since, unfortunately, tourism in Turkey is down significantly because of current political strifes, terrorist attacks and general perception (though largely unfounded) that Turkey is unsafe.
Unfortunately, this is the question I get asked the most when I tell people how amazing Istanbul is. So before extolling virtues of Istanbul any further, let’s get to this question.
The short answer is ‘yes’ (but like most places, exercise caution).
To keep things in perspective, in 2017, Istanbul has had 9.24 million visitors, making it the 10th most visited city in the world. If Istanbul was so unsafe, it would not rack up these numbers. Since 2014, there have been 7 reported terror attacks in Istanbul. On the other hand, since 2015, there have been 9 reported terror attacks in Paris remains the third most visited city in the world.
Visiting cities where there have been repeated terror attacks is a very subjective decision. Fear, after all, is subjective. It is often in the mind rather than based on objective facts. At the end of the day, if you are a squeamish traveler (the kind that who would be constantly looking over their shoulder rather than enjoying the sites), then this is not the time to go.
Layer! Layer! Layer!
Regardless of when you go (I recommend summer and early autumn), you are likely going to get some rain, snow, wind and chilly weather.
So it is best to take layers and a rain jacket.
It can be quite tricky to decide what to wear for a Namibia tour. My travel tip is to take layers. Desert can get quite chilly at night while during the day, it can be quite hot. So dress accordingly. I would not worry about rain too much as Namibia is a very dry country and during the hot season, you are unlikely to get rain.
Japan is one of the safest countries in the world. Japan is famous for its low crime rates. Things that are commonplace in most Asian countries – pickpocketing and other petty crimes, or being ripped off when buying things from street venters – are not a problem in Japan.
But of course, exercise usual precautions that you would when travelling.
Day 1 – arrive into Istanbul
Day 2 – Amman City Tour and eat and drink in Rainbow Street
Day 3 – Day trip from Amman to Jerash/ Ajlun/ Um Qais/ Amman
Day 4 – Move to Dead Sea and on the way, see Mount Nebo / Madaba) and stay overnight at a resort in the Dead Sea area
Day 5 – Move to Petra early in the morning and spend the day in Petra
Day 6 – Petra and move to Wadi Rum, overnight at a bedouin camp in Wadi Rum
Day 7 – Wadi Rum tour and move to Aqaba and relax (for as many days as you want!)
Drive back to Amman
Friday, April 14 (Travel Day)
14:40 from AMS, KL 861
Saturday, April 15(Day 1) – 8:40 arrive at Narita Airport (Terminal 1), Tokyo.
Leave Tokyo in the morning / arrive in Otsu (4.5 hours) / Relax
Hotel: Biwako Ryokusuitei, Japanese-Style Superior Room (B) – see notes
Sunday, April 16 (Day 2)
Otsu – Kyoto
Afternoon self guided tour of Nishiki market (lunch)
Gion Night tour @ 5:30 (Hands On Kyoto Night Tour)
Meeting point: in front of the Minamiza Theatre on the southeast corner of Shijo/Kawabata intersection, right next to the Kamo River
Hotel: Schmied Nishinotoin (paid)
Monday, April 17 (Day 3)
Kyoto – Bicycle all day tour at 10 AM (6-7 hours) – Cycle Kyoto
Meeting point: Cycle Kyoto, 7 Higashikujō Nishisannōchō,Minami Ward, Kyōto City (paid)
Hotel: Schmied Nishinotoin(paid)
Tuesday, April 18 (Day 4)
Arashiyama + Sagano walking food tour (11AM) – 3.5 hours (paid)
Meeting point: Ticket gate of JR Saga Arashiyama station
Wednesday, April 19 (Day 5)
Nara day trip – 10 AM, Narawalk Tour http://www.narawalk.com/nara-park-classic-tour/
Meeting point: Ticket gate at JR Nara Station (Reservation not needed)
Thursday, April 20 (Day 6)
Himeji – day trip (on our own) / Relax / See Kyoto
Friday, April 21 (Day 7)
Kyoto – Mount Koya (2 hours) / stay overnight at temple-ryokan
Go early to walk around town and visit cemetery (Oku-no-In) after dark.
Hotel: Fukuchi-in Ryokan-Temple – 8 minutes Local Bus from Koyasan Station (D, B)
(Check In Time: 15:00. If you arrive early you can drop off your bags in the lobby. Check Out Time: 9:00. Front Gate is Closed at: 21:00. Breakfast is Served at 7:00-8:00) (paid)
Saturday, April 22 (Day 8)
Mount Koya – Hiroshima (approx 5 hours) / Self guided city tour in the evening / Relax
Hotel: Hiroshima Washington Hotel / Double Room with Small Double Bed – Non-Smoking
Sunday, April 23 (Day 9)
Miyajima + Peace Memorial Park tour – self guided
Monday, April 24 (Day 10)
Hiroshima – Kanazawa (approx 4.5 hours) / Relax
Hotel: Nikko Kanazawa / Comfort Double Room – Non-Smoking(6 min walk from Kanazawa St.)
Tuesday, April 25 (Day 11)
– Kanazawa – see notes
– Kenroku-en Garden (35 min walk) or take bus. Kenrokuen is also a stop along the tourist oriented Kanazawa Loop Bus – can do it as part of loop
Hotel: Nikko Kanazawa / Comfort Double Room – Non-Smoking
Wednesday, April 26 (Day 12)
Kanazawa to Takayama (2.5 hours)
Shirakawa-go tour in the afternoon – Isite Tours 1:20pm. Meeting point: JR Takayama Station
– the bus stop is just in front of the Washington Hotel Plaza. It is NOT the standard route bus terminal (NOT the Nohi Bus Terminal) (paid)
Hotel: Oyado Koto No Yume(must book onsen in advance) (3 min walk from station) (B)
Thursday, April 27 (Day 13)
Daytime food tour of Takayama – starts at 9:30
Meeting Point: Takayama Jinya (1-5 Hachiken-machi, Takayama City) Wait in front of the Takayama Jinya main gate.Please find a guide wearing an orange vest.
Back to Tokyo – come back in evening / Takayama to Tokyo-Asakusa Station (5 hours)
Hotel: Richmond Hotel Premier Asakusa International (10 min walk from Asakusa St.)
Friday, April 28 (Day 14)
Nikko day trip / Back to Tokyo
Asakusa Station – Nikko Station (2 hours)
Nikko Station – Toshogu Shine (35 min walk) or 15 min by bus
Toshogu Shine – Carving of 3 Monkeys (7 min walk)
Carving of 3 Monkeys – Rinnoji Temple (7 min walk)
Rinnoji Temple – Shinkyo Bridge (5 min)
Shinkyo Bridge – Kammangafuchi Abbey (22 min) – Nikko Station (40 min walk)
Hotel: Richmond Hotel Premier Asakusa International
Saturday, April 29(Golden Week, Showa Day) (Day 15)
Tokyo Bicycle Tour – meeting at 8:50 (6 hours)
Meeting point: On the sidewalk next to the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Shinjuku.
Sunday, April 30 (Day 16)
Tokyo (book tour)
Monday, May 1(Day 17)
Tokyo (book tour)
22:55 from Tokyo Haneda – 04:30 arrive in Paris, AF 293
Tuesday, May 2 (Travel Day)
07:20 from Paris – 8:40 arrive in AMS, AF 1240
Japan unfairly has a reputation for being an expensive place to travel.
Yes, it is expensive when compared to the rest of Asia. But a visit to Japan certainly will not break the bank.
The truth is that you can eat quite inexpensively (see Japan Travel Tip #2 below), save a lot of money on transportation by buying the Japan Rail Pass, see a lot of Japan for free (see Japan Travel Tip #4 below), etc.
Here are some Japan Travel Tips to mitigate cost when visiting Japan:
Minimize your time in Tokyo. The megapolis is the most expensive place in Japan. While food is not bad, accommodation here is quite expensive, unless you stay at a Capsule
Don’t eat sushi every day. I love sushi and sashimi. I can literally eat this every day! But even in Japan, sushi is expensive. The Japanese people I met told me that they eat sushi on special occasions (like birthdays) because the cost is prohibitive. So stick to ramen (noodles), yakitori (skewers, okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake). These are all quite inexpensive, even in Tokyo, and you can find many, many restaurants. With a glass of beer, they make for a very satisfying meal. You can read more about food in Japan at Foods to Try.
Eat at markets rather than restaurants. Every major city in Japan has a market, such as Nishiki market in Kyoto, Omicho Market in Kanazawa and Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. You can find lots of inexpensive stalls for eating delicious food. Go to the ones that are busy. And stay away from sushi as even in markets, good sushi is expensive.
Many of Japan’s best sites are free!
Nara (Nara Travel Tips coming soon!)
Miyajima (Miyajima Travel Tips coming soon!)
See panoramic views of Tokyo cityscape for free at Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
See hordes of humanity crossing streets at Shibuya station, the busiest intersection in the world
Walk along Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto (go during the Cherry Blossom season in Autumn for best scenery)
Japanese have a deep reverence for nature and this is reflected in Japan’s many gardens, parks, hiking trails. They are beautiful, very well maintained and free!
Okunoin Cemetery in Mount Koya
A more comprehensive list coming soon!
Japan is officially divided into the following eight regions:
1. Hokkaido – second largest island of Japan and least developed. The main attraction here is the unspoiled nature
2. Tohoku – main attractions here its countryside, mountains, lakes, hot springs, top quality rice and cold winters.
3. Kanto – a densely populated region, its main cities are Tokyo and Yokohama.
4. Chubu – Mt. Fuji and hot springs.
5. Kinki/Kansai – commonly known as Kansai. It used to be the political and cultural capital of Japan for many centuries. Main cities are Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, and Kobe.
6. Chugoku – commonly subdivided into the heavily industrialized Sanyo Region and rural Sanin Region. The main city is Hiroshima.
7. Shikoku – fourth largest island. The good place to see traditional architecture, Edo castles, and Shinto shrines.
8. Kyushu (including Okinawa) – it’s the ‘Hawaii of Japan’. The climate is subtropical, with temperatures barely falling below mid-teens in winter. Okinawa (particularly Yaeyama Islands) is famous for beaches, snorkelling and surfing. After WWII, Okinawa remained under US administration until 1972 and today, controversially, thousands of US military troops are still stationed on the island.
Most first time travellers spend the bulk of their time in Kanto and Kinki/Kansai regions.
The following is my itinerary, which I was able to do comfortably in 2 weeks:
Masada and the Dead Sea Tour
Pass the Inn of the Good Samaritan on the descent through the Judean Desert to the Dead Sea. Ascend Masada by cable car and see the remains of the Herodian fortress where the Zealots were overcome by the Romans in 73 CE. Enjoy the therapeutic benefits of a mud bath and a swim in the Dead Sea. On the return journey view the oasis of Ein Gedi, the caves at Qumran in which the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered and Jericho, the oldest city in the world.
As we descend 1,200 meters from Jerusalem through the wilderness of the Judean Desert to the Dead Sea, we pass the Inn of the Good Samaritan and stop briefly at the “sea level” marker. In the distance we see Jericho, the oldest city in the world, perhaps due to its luxuriant oasis and its proximity to the Dead Sea, an ancient source of salt and we recall the conquest of Jericho by the Israelite tribes, led by Joshua, who had just crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land. (Josh 6).
We continue along the shores of the Dead Sea to Masada. As we ascend in the cable car, we look down at the Snake path which was used two thousand years ago when King Herod built this fortress like palace. In fact, there were two palaces, as well as a swimming pool and a well-preserved beautiful bath-house.
Maintained by a small Roman legion after the death of Herod, it was seized by Jewish zealots at the beginning of the Jewish revolt against the Romans which culminated in the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE. We stand over the ramp, built for the Romans by their Jewish slaves, which facilitated the breaching of the wall after three years of siege.
The synagogue, which was built by Herod, proved conclusively to those who doubted that there were synagogues even while the Second Temple stood. We see where the first piece of parchment to be discovered in an Israeli archaeological excavation was found. And on it, legible to the naked eye were the words of the prophet Ezekiel, the “dry bones” prophecy, ending with the promise “I will take the children of Israel from among the nations … and bring them in to their own land … and the nations shall know that I the Lord do sanctify Israel …” (Ezek 37)
On our return journey we pass the oasis of Ein Gedi where David hid from the wrath of King Saul (I Sam 24:1ff) and Qumran where the two thousand year old Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.Finally we enjoy a therapeutic swim in the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth, where the water is almost 35% salt and even those who cannot swim can float.
Nazareth and Sea of Galilee
We travel north along the scenic coastal plain or HaSharon area and then turn eastwards through the plain of Armageddon (Rev 16:16), with a view of biblical Megiddo. (II Ch. 35:20-27) As we make the ascent to Nazareth we briefly stop at the Mount of Precipitation (Luke 4:28-30).
Our first stop in Nazareth is at the beautiful Church of Annunciation built on the site where the angel Gabriel appeared before Mary (Luke 1:26ff). Adjoining it is the Church of St. Joseph, recalling the carpentry where Jesus and Joseph worked.
As we leave Nazareth on the way towards the Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee, we pass Cana, site of the first wonder performed by Jesus, the turning of the water to wine. (John 2:1-12). On the sea front, at the foot of Mount Beatitude, we visit both Capernaum, home of Peter, and the Benedictine Church commemorating the miracle of the Multiplication of the Loaves and the Fish. (Mark 6:30-44)
Continuing along the shores of the Sea of Galilee we recall how Jesus calmed the stormy waters and walked on them. (Mk 4:35-41 and 6:45-52). With the Golan Heights in the background, we pass modern Tiberius, built on the ruins of the city built two thousand years ago and named in honor of the Roman emperor Tiberius.
On the southern end of the Sea of Galilee, at Yardenit, there may be an opportunity for those so desiring to be baptized in the waters of the Jordan River. (Mk 1:9-11)
On our return journey we will pass Mount Tabor, site of the Transfiguration (Mat 17:1-9)
Jerusalem and Bethlehem
We start with a breathtaking view of Jerusalem. As if in the palm of our hand, we see the Old City and the Temple Mount area spread before us and imagine the Second Temple destroyed in 70 CE and Solomon’s Temple before that, destroyed in 586 BCE.
As we drive along the Kidron Valley we have an excellent view of Mount Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane and the Church of All Nations as well as of the monumental ancient Jewish burial tombs. We enter the Old City through the Zion Gate, passing the Armenian Quarter to the excavated Byzantine Cardo. Although this fifteen hundred year old main street of Jerusalem was partially destroyed and unused during the Moslem conquest it had a brief new lease of life during the Crusader period and the excavated Crusader shops are now modern stores.
Continuing through the Jewish Quarter we proceed to the Western Wall (Kotel). This two thousand year old wall is part of the encircling and supporting wall built by King Herod when the Temple Mount area was enlarged.
As we walk along the Via Dolorosa we join the many pilgrims who are following the Stations of the Cross ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the church built over the place of the crucifixion of Jesus and the burial tomb. Originally built in the Byzantine period, it was partially destroyed during the Persians and Moslem conquests and then rebuilt and slightly altered by the Crusaders.
We stroll through the market alleys before departing for Bethlehem, (city of bread), hometown of Jesse, father of King David (I Sam 16:1), and birthplace of Jesus (Mat. 2:1).
A short walk across Manger Square brings us to the well-preserved Byzantine Church of Nativity. First built in the 4th century and enlarged in the 6th, the original mosaic floor is revealed through trapdoors in the later floor. Unlike most churches in the Holy Land the Church of Nativity was not destroyed by the Persian and Moslem conquerors but the entrance was lowered forcing us to crouch as we enter.
If we look carefully we can see the faint Crusader decorations on the columns. Descending to the Grotto of the Nativity we see the star indicating the place of the birth, with the words “Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary” in Latin. Opposite are the Manger and the altar dedicated to the three Wise Men. Both the Church and Grotto are Orthodox.
During the centuries after the expulsion of the Crusaders little was done to maintain the Church of Nativity, which suffered both earthquake damage and a fire. Partial restoration was undertaken during the British Mandate and since 1967 extensive repairs have been carried out under Israeli auspices,
As we depart, in the distance we see the Field of Ruth. This is where Ruth the Moabite, daughter-in-law of Naomi, great grandmother of King David, gleaned in the fields of Boaz. (Ruth 2:1ff).
When you arrive at immigration, make sure the authorities don’t stamp your passport with an Israeli visa. Officially, Israel no longer stamps passports of visitors so it should not be an issue but be vigilant, just in case.
Due to Arab League’s boycott of Israel, certain countries (Lebanon, Kuwait, Iran, Pakistan Saudi Arabia and even Malaysia can give you problems) will refuse you entry if they see that you have visited Israel in the past.
What do to instead? Ask for a supplementary card in lieu, which contains all the information that a visa would. And make sure not to lose the card as you will need to show it to the authorities during departure.
Like in Islamic countries, weekend is observed in Israel on Fridays and Saturdays.
Capital City: Jerusalem
Population: 8.2 million
Area: 146th largest country in the world
Languages: English, Hebrew, Arabic
Religion: Judaism, Islam, Christianity
Currency: Israeli Shekel
The areas now known as Israel and Palestine has been inhabited for around 2 million years.
Is Vietnam a safe country to visit?
Like everywhere else in Asia (and the world), keep your wits about you. Take care of your belongings. And especially take care when crossing streets. And you will be fine.
Getting around in Vietnam is easy!
Intra-City Travel in Vietnam
Ride-sharing apps are booming in Vietnam. The 2 most common are Uber and Grab.
I used Uber (only because I don’t have the Grab app) and it made travelling within a city so easy. Also, instead of a traditional taxi, you can also take a motorbike-taxi with Uber and Grab. Motorbike-taxis cost mere cents!
What is especially fantastic is that major airports in Vietnam have free wifi and the connectivity is quite good. I experienced this first hand at both HCMC and Da Nang airports. As soon as I landed, I connect to the free airport wifi while waiting for my luggage. Once my luggage arrived, I called an Uber taxi to go to my hotel.
Taking a taxi when travelling
is an experience I dread. In a lot of countries, taxi drivers know you are a tourist and they will often 1) refuse to use a meter, 2) way over-charge, 3) take a circuitous route or 4) all of the above!
But in certain countries (like India, Jordan for example), you can bypass the hassle by ordering a taxi through an app.
Inter-City Travel in Vietnam
Flying domestically within Vietnam is cheap with a number of airlines all competing for customers. The main carriers being 1) Vietnam Airlines, 2) Vietjet and 3) Jetsar. I flew from from HCMC to Da Nang on Vietnam Airlines. It was pleasant enough.
HCMC has 2 terminal: international and domestic. They are right next to each other.
To save your yourself time walking around with your luggage, make sure you specify to the taxi driver which terminal you want to be dropped off at. I did not think to do so and was dropped off at the international terminal and had to walk around to find the domestic terminal.
There are 3 ways to get a visa:
1) From February 2017, eVisa (getting a visa online) is available for select countries (this is the best option). See the link: https://evisa.xuatnhapcanh.gov.vn/
2) Visa on Arrival (VOA) (read next paragraph for my experience in obtaining a VOA); or
3) Getting a visa at the Vietnamese embassy in your home country (this should be your last choice).
I chose option number 2: Visa on Arrival (VOA) Scheme. This was NOT a good idea! Read below.
Frankly, I found obtaining a visa for Vietnam at HCMC airport chaotic! Granted it was the Christmas season and it was busy. But the whole immigration process was a total unorganized mess. One blogger has described it as ‘like stabbing yourself in the eyes’. I agree.
Essentially, Vietnam has a Visa on Arrival (VOA) process (option #2 above) is as follows.
1) Fill out an application form online and pay whatever fees they charge by credit card. CAUTION: there are hundreds of companies offering this service online and charging varying prices. (I used http://vietnamvisapro.com solely based on what I read on Tripadvisor. It was fine).
(I should also mention: A couple weeks later, my credit card company called saying that my card was compromised. Someone was using it in Vietnam to make fraudulent charges online.)
2) You will get an approval letter in 1-2 business days.
3) Bring approval letter, 2-3 passport photos (4cm x 6cm) to Immigration office. Don’t forget the photos as it is critical. (Someone people I saw didn’t bring the photos and they were using their iPhones to take photos and send it to immigration officer).
4) If everything in Step 3 is in order, you will get a visa. BE PREPARED TO QUEUE! This was a very frustrating experience. There was no real system in place. People who arrived later than me got their visa well before I did. On top of that, large tour companies seem to get priority and jump the queue (maybe they pay commission?). I waited well over an hour. It doesn’t sound too bad but if you are flying for 18 hours like I did, all I wanted to do was get to my hotel and sleep. Plus, when the Immigration Officers call names of the people, they speak softly and have heavy accents. Many people couldn’t hear or understand when their names were being called. This also added to the mass confusion. This experience made me want to scream! One of the worst (I think THE worst) immigration process I have encountered.
5) Show your visa to immigration officer and then leave the airport.
(The whole process took 2 hours. To make matters worse, when I existed, my luggage was missing. At first, I thought someone stole it while I was going through the visa process. I then had to line up in another queue and file a complaint. Thankfully, it wasn’t stolen. It didn’t make my connection flight. Argh).
Next time, I will go with option 3. Here is a useful link on how to navigate the new eVisa process: http://onemileatatime.boardingarea.com/2017/10/16/vietnam-evisa-us-citizens/
The food in Vietnam is sublime! (Some point in the future, I will do a blog post on foods in Vietnam). There are so many wonderful, interesting, things to eat.
The best foods in Vietnam (like many Asian countries) are not found in high-end restaurants. But they are street foods and foods in small or medium-sized restaurants, usually run by family members.
The problem, however, is how do you know if the food is safe to eat? Is it something that you can eat, which will not give you an upset stomach and ruin your holiday?
Travel Tip: Do a food tour! Or a Vietnamese cooking class! Or do both of them (which is what I did)! One of the first things that I do when I land in a country that is renowned for its cuisine, like Vietnam, is a food tour. Food tours are a great way to see a fair bit of a city and eat some delicious local food at the same time. Food tour companies source the hygienic food stalls and restaurants and remove the risks typically associated with street foods and small local restaurants in developing countries.
I have done many food tours in many countries and have never been sick.
You can find food tour companies on Tripadvisor. I did a fantastic food tour on the back of a motorbike, driving across different neighbourhoods in Ho Chi Minh City. I also really enjoyed the cooking class that I did. (In the future, I will do a blog post on my experiences).
For a relatively small country, Vietnam has a complex (like its history and culture I suppose) weather pattern. There are three different microclimates, and ‘best time to go’ depends on which regions you want to visit – North, Central or South Vietnam.
November to April is the best time to go overall. You can see most of the country with least amount of rain. However, be aware that this is not a guarantee of good weather. The kind of weather you will get depends on which parts you go to and when (and luck of course!).
North Vietnam: April – March are the best months (my tour guide confirmed that this indeed the case). Avoid the typhoon season between July to October.
Central Vietnam: January – July. Central Vietnam can be affected by typhoon season (October – early December). When I went in late December, Typhoon Tembian was passing by. It rained or lightly drizzled throughout the day. However, it was still +22 to +25 degrees celsius during the day. I was able to walk around with an umbrella and in shorts, sandals and a rain jacket.
South Vietnam: October – early May are best months. Avoid typhoon season between late May to October.
My travel tip is that if you are planning to see the whole country, expect some rain regardless of when you go to Vietnam.
I went in late December and had fantastic weather in Ho Chi Minh City and Mekong Delta area.
However, I had rain every day in Central Vietnam. (To be fair, when I was there in late December, a typhoon was passing in the South East Asia region). My tour guide told me that notwithstanding the typhoon, it is typical to get rain December in Central Vietnam. Even though it rained, it was never really cold. During the day, I toured around in shorts, sandals, a long sleeve shirt and an umbrella.
Vietnam is a country that has been ruled, either directly or indirectly, by a number of foreign powers and their influences are present everywhere.
Han Chinese: Han Chinese rule over Vietnam began in 111 BC and lasted over thousand years deeply influenced many aspects of Vietnam. As with any colonial relationship, the Vietnamese and Chinese relationship is complex. On the one hand, they have been deeply influenced by the Chinese (food, architecture, language, religion, Communism etc), while on the other hand, the Vietnamese have actively fought or resisted Chinese dominance. They are the best of frenemies.
Champa: The Champa polity, who were Hindus, ruled various parts of Vietnam from 192 AD – 1832. Vietnam is unique among Southeast Asian countries in that they have been dominated by both Han Chinese and Hindu Champas simultaneously.
Japanese invaded Vietnam in 1940. Today, it is Vietnam’s top aid donor.
France occupied Vietnam (French Indochina) from 1887 – 1954.
Americans, Russians and Chinese, amongst other nations, engaged in a proxy war (the infamous Vietnam War) that lasted from 1955 – 1975.
Communists won the war and ruled from 1975 – early 1990s. Even though Vietnam today is a one-party state, it is by no means a Communist country. Capitalism is the de rigueur.
Of course, various Vietnamese kings and dynasties have also ruled Vietnam from 2879 BC (Hùng Kings of theHồng Bàng dynasty) to 1954, when the last emperor of Vietnam, Bảo Đại (Nguyễn Dynasty) abdicated.
Today, there are over 50 ethnic groups that live in Vietnam today. There’s also a multitude of religions (Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants, Hoahaoists, Muslims, Hindus, various traditional folk religions). There are even some religions that originated in Vietnam: Cao Dai (established in south Vietnam in 1926 and currently has over 4 million followers) and the Coconut Religion that advocates drinking only coconut milk and eating only coconuts (founded in 1963 but currently discontinued).
Before visiting, I had no idea how deeply rich and complex Vietnamese history is. This enormously diverse cultural and political history is what makes Vietnam so fascinating to visit! Plus, there are stunning landscapes all over the country, people are friendly, and the oh-so delicious food! A big draw for visiting Vietnam is that is to a large extent it is still not corrupted by tourism. (You can still take photos without someone hassling you for money. People will smile, wave, come up and say ‘hello’, without expecting anything in return. Unfortunately, this is becoming increasingly rare).
Vietnam, however, is rapidly changing. It is being influenced by capitalist/tourist culture, and sadly, as a result, slowly losing its charm and authenticity. Before it becomes just like any other tourist destination (fast food, coffee, clothing chains start popping up everywhere), I suggest you visit Vietnam now.
Day 1 – Fly into Muscat, the capital.
Day 2 – Half Day Tour of Muscat (Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, Beit Al Zubair museum, Mattrah Souq, Al Alam Palace)
Drive towards Wadi Shab, see Bimah Sinkhole en route
Hike around Wadi Shab and swim
In the evening, visit Ras Al Jinz Turtle Reserve to watch Big Green Turtles.
Stay overnight in Sur
Day 3 – Move to Wadi Bani Khalid. Hike and swim in Wadi Bani Khalid. Then proceed to Wahiba Sands. Dune bashing in 4WD in the Wahiba sands. Overnight camping in Wahiba Sands.
Day 4 – Move towards Nizwa. See Nizwa fort and Friday market.
Then move to Jebel Shams (Sun Mountain). On the way, visit Birkat Al Mawz ruins.
Day 5 – Move to the Saiq plato on top of Jabel Akhdar mountains. On the top of Jabal Akhdar see the picturesque ‘Diana’s viewpoint’ and see many mountain settlements in the area.
Visit Wadi Bani Habiband top of Wadi Tanuf gorge. Drive back to Muscat.
Day 6 – Move from Muscat to Al Ain, UAE (alternatively, fly from Muscat to Dubai).
Day 7 – Al Ain city tour (Jebel Hafeet, Al Ain Palace Museum, the old fortress, Al Ain National Museum, Al Ain Camel market and Al Ain oasis).
Day 8 – Move to Khasab, Musandam Peninsula
Day 9 – Visit Jabel Harim, Khawr Najid, Al Khalidya Nature Park and the area
Day 10 – See Arabian Fjords, swim and snorkel in Telegraph Island, Musandam Peninsula. Overnight in Khasab
Day 11 – Drive back to Dubai
HOW MANY DAYS TO SPEND IN OMAN?
2 weeks is a reasonable amount of time to spend in Oman.
While I spent about 11 days in Oman, I was on the go every day. Ideally, I would have added on another 3-4 days to relax by the beaches in either Muscat or Khasab.
Check out my itinerary below.
Public transportation is not very good in Oman. Therefore, to get around the country, you need a vehicle.
The roadways are modern and well connected so getting around by car is not a problem. You can either rent a vehicle yourself or go on a tour. Many tourists rent vehicle and drive around without hassle.
What I did: I went on a tour through a company.
Very easy to obtain. I obtained a visa on arrival. For a list of countries eligible for visa on arrival, see: https://www.omanairports.co.om/Page.aspx?MID=26&PGID=66
General rule (for both men and women): Dress somewhat modestly. Keep chestand legs (from the knee up covered) when touring around the country. When visiting mosques or other religious sites, both men and women should keep their legs and shoulders covered and women must wear headscarves. At a beach, modest bathings suits are fine.
Oman is a warm country. When I visited, I wore shorts and T-shirts almost the whole time I was there. Except when I was visiting religious sites, I wore a short sleeved shirt and long pants. (I kept shorts and T-shirt in the car and changed after mosque visits. It was too warm to be bundled up!).
Omanis will be dressed very differently. Men wear dishdasha, ankle-length, collarless gown with long sleeves. Women also dress very conservatively and almost always have arms, legs and heads covered. Incidentally, in the Bait Al Zubair Museum (very recommended) showcases Omani female dresses attires from different regions of Oman.
On the whole, Omanis are very welcoming people and tourism is becoming more common. So they are used to how tourists typically dress when visiting hot countries. If you are doing a tour, your tour guide will let you know if how you dress is inappropriate.
How many days to spend in Oman
I was there for 10 days which included visiting northern half of the country, driving through UAE (and spending one night in Al Ain) and visiting Musandam Peninsula. If you are not pressed for time, 12-14 days would be sufficient to see all the major sites in the country.
2. Wadi Shab
3. Bimah Sinkhole
4. Wadi Shab
5. Ras Al Jinz Turtle Reserve to watch Big Green Turtles.
7. Wadi Bani Khalid
8. Wahiba Sands
10. Jebel Shams
11. Birkat Al Mawz
12. Jabel Akhdar mountains.
13. Wadi Bani Habib and Wadi Tanuf gorge
14. Khasab, Musandam Peninsula
15. DJabel Harim, Khawr Najid, Al Khalidya Nature Park
16. Arabian Fjords
17. Swim, snorkel and see dolphins in Telegraph Island
18. Ride in traditional boats on Strait of Hormuz
Avoid the hot summer months of June – August. Otherwise any time is a good time to visit.
July –October are the peak time for turtle watching in Oman.
June – September are the best times to watch khareef in southern Oman (Salalah is the capital of south Oman). Khareef is a unique weather phenomenon in the south when the dessert and brown landscape is transformed into lush green forests. It is however a very busy period with domestic and foreign tourists.
I visited in December and the weather was fantastic.
Keep in mind that like rest of the Middle East, weekend is observed differently in Oman.
Weekend is Friday and Saturday. You will find many places closed on Fridays. Tourist spots will be open under reduced hours. So make sure to check before going on a Friday and Saturdays. The only exception to this rule is restaurants, which tend to keep regular hours as Fridays and Saturdays are when friends and families gather at restaurants to eat and socialize.
This applies for all Muslim (and Jewish) states.
The only complain I have about Oman (and there really is this just one thing) is that is not a cheap place to travel. Backpackers will have a difficult time.
Absolutely! One of the safest places in the world. And Oman, along with Jordan, are the safest places to travel in the Middle East region.
Capital City: Muscat
Population: 2.9 million (Only 2.1 million of whom are Omanis; the rest are foreign workers from Asia and other Arabic countries)
Area: 71st largest country in the world by area
Religion: Ibadi Islam, which is a distinct form of Islam from both Sunni and Shi’a. Read more here.
Earliest people in Oman. Human beings have been living in what is now Oman at least 105,000 years ago. They likely came from Africa across the Red Sea.
Persians used to rule Oman. From the 6th century BC onwards, Oman was controlled by the Persian (modern day Iran) dynasties: the Achaemenids, Parthiansand finally the Sassanids. The Persians ruled Oman until the rise of Islam in the 7th century AD.
Oman embraces Islam. Oman embraced Islam from mid to late 600 AD onwards
Sultanate rule of Oman commences. From the late 1600s, the Omani Sultanate became a powerful empire, competing with Portugal and Britain for influence in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. At its peak in the 19th century, Omani Sultanate either directly controlled or heavily influenced a vast region, from the Strait of Hormuz to modern-day Iran and Pakistan, and as far south as Zanzibar. The founder of Oman’s current ruling dynasty, the Al Saids took power in 1749.
Oman splits into 2 countries. In 1913, Oman split into two countries: Imams ruled the interior based on strict Islamic principles while the Sultan ruled in Muscat and the coast. With the help of the British, the Sultan and his allies captured the interior in 1959after four years of fighting, uniting the coastal areas and the interiors of Oman.
Oman’s bid to diversify away from oil. Oman has modest oil reserves compared to its neighbours (its oil and gas reserves are only 24th largest in the world). A big part of of its economy relies on tourism and trade of fish, dates, and agricultural products.
Oman has mideast’s longest serving ruler. Oman is an absolute monarchy. Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said has been the leader since 1970.He is currently the longest serving leader in the Middle East and world’s third-longest reigning monarch.
If you have not been to the Middle East, then Oman is the perfect place to start.
In a region where excessive wealth (UAE, Saudi Arabia) or abject poverty (Yemen, Iraq) abounds, Oman is the perfect ‘middle of the road’ country for a first timer’s visit to the Middle East. It is safe, has an astounding amount of natural beauty, people are welcoming, weather is great most time of the year and very easy to travel around.
Oman is not the flashiest country in the region, but it should be. It has plenty of reasons to boast:
Quite and impressive list of things to see and do, no?
Obtaining a tourist visa was hassle-free. Citizens of most countries can obtain a visa-on-arrival at any of the entry points.
Jordan is investing heavily in tourism and as a result, getting a tourist visa to Jordan has become pretty streamlined. Obtaining a tourist visa for Jordan was a pretty hassle-free experience. Citizens of most countries can get a visa-on-arrival at any of the entry points.
I arrived by plane to Queen Alia International Airport, which is a very modern and well-functioning airport. The immigration process was also smooth.
Regarding the visa process, my travel tips are:
Make sure you get a Jordan Pass before arriving. I would strongly recommend getting a Jordan Pass and you can read more about it under ‘Best way to see Jordan? Get the Jordan Pass!’.
Don’t forget to get a printed copy of the Jordan Pass to show the authorities and the process should take no more than 5-10 minutes (other than standing line with other tourists).
What is the Jordan Pass? It is the most cost-effective way of seeing the country. Jordan Pass:
1) allows you to visit 40 attractions and
2) the tourist visa fee is waived if you stay for at least 3 nights.
There are 3 types of Jordan Pass, the only difference being how much time you spend in Petra.
If you spend 1 day in Petra, the Jordan Pass is 70 JD or 99 USD.
If you spend 2 days in Petra, the Jordan Pass is 75 JD or 106 USD.
If you spend 3 days in Petra, the Jordan Pass is 80 JD or 113 USD.
All 3 types have the exact same benefits, with the only difference being how much time you spend in Petra. How much time should you spend in Petra? See my Travel Tip on ‘How Many Days to Spend in Jordan’.
Where can you buy the Jordan Pass? You can buy Jordan Pass online at https://www.jordanpass.jo
Make sure to print and take a hard copy of the Jordan Pass. And keep a backup copy on your phone. I found that admissions people at tourist sights were more receptive when I showed them the hard copy of the Jordan Pass. One day I forgot the Jordan Pass in the hotel so I showed the copy on the phone. I was able to get in but it was more of a hassle trying to convince that the electronic copy on my phone was a valid one.
Since Jordan is a small country, you can see and do a lot anywhere from 6 – 12 days.
7 days are enough to Amman, north areas (Jerash, Um Qais and Ajlun), Petra (2 days), Dead Sea and Wadi Rum. This also includes travelling time.
If you want to spend extra days relaxing by the beach in Aqaba, I suggest 2-4 days.
I would strongly recommend combining Jordan and Israel as part of a Middle East trip. If you are planning to visit Jordan after Israel, then heads up about getting your Isreal visa stamped in your passport. At the immigration in Israel, make sure to ask that you don’t get Israeli visa stamped in your passport. Instead, get a ‘visa-card’ which you can keep in your passport. You can read more about difficulties you can have when entering some countries if you have an Israeli visa on your passport under ‘Visa’ on the Israel Travel Tips page.
Day 1 – arrive into Amman
How to dress in Jordan?
Jordan is a modern and (relatively) secular Middle East country. Amman, the capital city, is very modern and liberal capital.
A good rule of thumb is that men should keep their shoulders and legs (from the knee upwards) covered. Women should keep their shoulders and legs covered. For women, it is also a good idea to carry a scarf with you all time in case you need to cover up. Women can get away with wearing shorts in tourists spots such as Petra, Dead Sea and Wadi Rum.
Generally, women dress very stylish in Amman.
For both sexes, wearing bathing suits is fine at resorts, Dead Sea and Aqaba beaches. Just don’t make it too skimpy.
When visiting religious centres, always cover up your legs and shoulders (men) and in addition to legs, shoulders, women should also cover their heads.
For both sexes, don’t wear tight-fitting or revealing clothing. Jordanians are welcoming people and nobody will yell at you for wearing skimpy clothes but you will get raised eyebrows.
Is Jordan Safe?
Jordan borders Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Israel+Palestine. But surprisingly, in such a volatile region Jordan, is a safe haven for tourists.
TOP SIGHTS IN JORDAN ARE:
1. Amman, the capital city.
2. Jerash, Um Qais and Ajlun, lesser-visited sights which in the very north of the country but really worth seeing.
3. Petra – the most famous site of Jordan.
4. Wadi Rum – the out-of-this-world desert area in the south.
5. Dead Sea
6. Aqaba – diving, snorkelling and beach time!
7. Al-Maghtas (Jordan River) where Jesus was baptized
8. Mount Nebo, from where Moses saw the Promised Land.
WHERE TO GO?
I would break down the country into 3 regions:
North Jordan (Jerash, Um Qais and Ajlun) Click here for Northern Jordan Travel Tips
Central Jordan (Amman, Al-Maghtas, Dead Sea, Mount Nebo) Click here for Amman Travel Tips
South Jordan (Petra, Wadi Rum, Aqaba) Coming Soon!
Your options of getting around in Jordan are:
1) Rent a car and drive yourself.
Renting a car and driving around yourself is doable as the road infrastructure is very good in Jordan. I saw some tourists doing this. Some things to watch out for, however. Overtaking on roadways is very common as are police check stops and radar traps for speeding. There are also plenty of unmarked speed bumps. Finally, I would not recommend driving in Amman, the capital city, itself but outside of Amman, it is fine to do this. At all times, I would avoid night driving.
2) Hire a car with a driver, which is what I did. It is the costliest option. I hired a car with a driver for 700 USD for 3 days and albeit expensive, I think this is the best way to see Jordan. It takes the stress away from driving.
3) Go as part of an organized tour.
Going on an organized tour is another option but shop around as Jordan is not a cheap destination and it may be costly to all-inclusive tour. Read more about to save money under ‘Cost (and how to save money)‘ on Jordan Travel Tips page.
Jordan, to my surprise, was not a cheap place to travel.
To see the country comfortably, food, accommodation, transportation and sightseeing can cost you about $100-300 per day.
However, you can mitigate costs. To mitigate costs, the best Jordan Travel Tip I have is to buy the Jordan Pass. It is a fantastic deal and you must get it. You can read about the Jordan Pass in more detail under ‘Best way to see Jordan? Get the Jordan Pass!’
Another tip I have is that book everything on your own and just hire a car and driver just through a tour company. Often, tour companies in Jordan will sell you a package that includes accommodation, food, driver, car, visa on arrival assistance at the airport and entrance fees to tourist sights.
In selling you a package deal, tour companies can really overcharge. If you buy the Jordan Pass, then you don’t need to buy a visa for Jordan as it is included in the Jordan Pass. Also, you can save money because you don’t have to pay any additional entrance fees. And if you book your own accommodation, then you really mitigate the cost of travel.
Spring (March-May) is the best time to go. Weather is warm but not unbearable. Springtime is also when you will see hills and valleys, something which Jordan is famous for, become green and colourful with wildflowers.
Another good time to visit is the shoulder months of late Sept – early November. Jordan doesn’t have a distinct Autumn season but these months in between the Summer and Winter season can be pleasant as well.
Avoid the summer months (June– early Sept) when the most of the country is scorchingly hot.
Also, avoid winter months (Dec–Feb), when you will find bitingly cold winds, rain (and in places, snow). The only places worth visiting in the winter months are Aqaba (Red Sea) and the Dead Sea area.
Population: 6.5 million
Capital City: Amman
Area: 110th largest country in the world
Languages: Arabic, English (second language, widely spoken by middle and upper-class Jordanians)
Religion: Islam (Sunni), Christian (very small minority)
One thing I wasn’t prepared for is how large the Angkor Wat complex is. It is the largest religious monument in the world and covers 402 acres. There are 72 major temples and structures in the main Angkor Wat complex (and several hundred additional minor temple sites scattered throughout the surrounding areas).
It is impossible to see it all as a tourist and you have to choose how many days you want to spend exploring Angkor Wat. As of writing this, you can buy a 1-day, 3-day or 7-day pass.
If you want to see it at a leisurely pace, then get the 3-day pass. If you are a serious Khmer-Cambodian history buff, then, of course, go for the 7 days. But if you are pressed for time and want to do a survey of the main sites, then 1 days pass is enough.
What I did: I bought the 1-day pass and spent the whole day there. If I had more time, I would buy the 3-day pass and see it at a more leisurely pace. But seeing in one day (albeit one long day) was just fine also. The next day, I hung out by a fantastic pool in my hotel and relaxed.
Angkor Wat Travel Tip: If you go when temperatures are scorching, then you may want to get the 3-day pass. See the sites early in the mornings, have lunch and then relax (preferably) by the pool when the afternoon sun is at its hottest. This way you can see more and at a leisurely pace.
Angkor Wat Travel Tip: Because how large the Angkor Wat complex is, and because it is a historical site (and therefore, it has tonnes of history), I would highly recommend hiring a guide. A guide will be able to direct you where to go and explain the history behind the complex, which will make your trip more meaningful.
And there is another important reason to hire a guide. Cambodia is a poor country, partly because of colonialism, civil war and corruption. Like many towns in Cambodia, Siem Reap is also a poor town and a vast majority of people earn their living from the tourism industry. Hiring a local guide is a form of ‘responsible tourism’. It is also a very good idea to tip your travel guide. A few extra dollars or euros go a long way when covered into local currency.
Angkor Wat Travel Tip: Where to hire a guide? And how much to pay? You can hire a guide from your hotel or find a reputable tour company on Tripadvisor and hire a guide through them. You can hire a guide (without a vehicle) for $10-$20 USD per day.
What I did: I hired a car and guide from the hotel that I stayed at. Albeit pricier, major hotels only work with licensed guides so you know the quality will not be compromised.
Angkor Wat Travel Tip: Don’t hire just any guide. Stay away from those randomly coming up to you near the ticket office. These guides may not be licensed tour guides or be of poor quality. Usually, younger tour guides have a better grasp of English.
Angkor Wat is not just one building. It is a vast complex of 72 major buildings.
Construction of the Angkor Wat complex, which took 35 years to complete, began in the first half of the 12th century during the reign of King Suryavarman II of the Khmer Empire.
Initially constructed as a Hindu temple for god Vishnu, it gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple towards the end of the 12th century.
If you have been to Mỹ Sơn temple complex in Vietnam, Angkor Wat is an interesting contrast (click here to read about my trip to Mỹ Sơn Sanctuary in Vietnam). The Mỹ Sơn temple complex is devoted to Hindu god Shiva and Angkor Wat is devoted to god Vishnu. For the uninitiated, in the Hindu religion, there is a trinity of deities: Brahma (the creator of the universe), Vishnu (the caretaker of the Universe) and Shiva (the destroyer).
Namibia can roughly be divided into 4 regions:
Northern Namibia – click here for Northern Namibia Travel Tips
Southern Namibia – click here for Southern Namibia Travel Tips
Central Namibia (coming soon)
Caprivi Delta – tiny strip in the northeast region of the country, near Botswana border. Those to travel to Caprivi Delta usually combine the trip with Botswana.
Canadians, Americans, British, Japanese (and few other) tourists do not require a visa to enter Namibia for tourism stays under ninety (90) days. However, citizens of South Korea and Eastern European countries do require a visa. Best to check if you will need a visa as the rule vary somewhat, depending on the country.
I found the whole immigration process in Windhoek quite easy and efficient. Windhoek airport (Hosea Kutako International Airport) is quite small and very easy to navigate.
Namibia, along with Rwanda, is one of the safest countries in Africa.
People often say that if you have not been to Africa, then South Africa is the gateway country to Africa. Personally, because how easy and safe it is. I’d say Namibia is the true ‘gateway country’ to Africa.
Namibia is a very dry country and doesn’t get much rain. So you can visit Namibia pretty much any time of the year. I went in early August and found it to be a great time to go for wildlife viewing, hiking, camping in the desert, etc.
There are some general travel tips you should keep in mind:
For wildlife viewing, the best months are July to October. Rain is sparse and wildlife gathers around watering holes, really increasing your chances of seeing all sorts of wildlife.
Regardless of when you go, deserts are hot during the day and very cold at night. Dress accordingly! To read more about how to what to pack for Namibia, see ‘What to Wear’.
I found Swakopmund, on the Western Atlantic coast, quite chilly even during the day in August.
Good news is that compared to other Safari destinations (Tanzania, Rwanda, South Africa), a safari in Namibia will not break the bank.
A Namibia safari can be whatever you want it to be: cheap, extremely expensive and everything in between.
One of the reasons you can explore Namibia inexpensively is that it has very well maintained roads. If you rent a car with a navigation system (I saw quite a number of tourists do this, including a solo female traveller), buy groceries at supermarkets, bring your own tent and gear for camping (most campsites are well equipped with toilets and showers), you can travel around extremely inexpensively.
What I did: I went with a small group safari tour. For part of the tour, I camped overnight in tents (with shared bathrooms outside the tent) and part of it, I paid extra for upgraded accommodations (with beds, private attached bathroom and hot showers). For me, this was the best way to see Namibia. By camping, I got the experience of sleeping in nature (one night I got out of my tent at 4am and saw the Milky Way!) and it was nice to have a hot shower and a comfortable bed every second or third night.
One word of caution if you plan to do self-drive to Etosha National Park. Without an expert guide, it will be harder for you to spot wildlife. Especially since there is less volume of wildlife than say a country like Tanzania and animals camouflage easily. I highly recommend hiring a guide. I met people who missed some great wildlife viewing because they didn’t know where to find them.
In the event, you do go to Etosha National Park with your own vehicle but instead of tents, you want to stay in lodges (with comfortable beds and attached bathrooms), you can find information on accommodation here
Getting around in Namibia is quite easy.
There are 2 ways to see Namibia:
– tour company (either a group tour or private tour).
Self Drive: During my travels, I saw plenty of tourists travelling around by themselves in rented vehicles. In fact, one my friends rented a car by herself and saw quite a big part of the country by driving around by herself, without any issues. In the event, you do go to Etosha National Park with your own vehicle but instead of tents, you want to stay in lodges (with comfortable beds and attached bathrooms), you can find information on accommodation here: http://www.etoshanationalpark.org/accommodation
Private tours are of course much more expensive than group tours. The best way to do a mitigate cost of a safari is to do a group safari tour, which is what I did. (I was quite happy with the tour company I used and if you want more information, send me an email).
Travel Tips: One word of caution if you plan to do a self-drive tour in Etosha National Park. You are at a disadvantage if you don’t hire a guide. A professional guide is going to know how and where to spot wildlife. Since wildlife in Namibia is less prolific than say Kruger, and the animals camouflage extremely easily you will constantly have to be on the lookout. To avoid the hassle of navigating, driving safely, while at the same time looking around for animals, it is best to hire a guide. I met people who missed some great wildlife viewing because they didn’t know where to find them.
06:25 Oslo 11:48 Myrdal – The Bergen Railway
12:13 Myrdal 13:10 Flåm – The Flam Railway
13:20 Flåm 15:30 Gudvangen – Fjord cruise
15:40 Gudvangen 16:55 Voss – BUS
17:10 Voss 22:25 Oslo – The Bergen Railway
Get off at the Myrdal station and then approximately 23 minutes later, take the Flam Railway to Flam.
Get off at Flam station and head to the pier. It is a short walk and route is clearly marked (double check this). The herd of tourist will be heading that way so you can just follow them. Travel tip: sit close to the window so you can take photos. The train makes couple (one?) stops at waterfall (s).
It’s an easy way to see Norway’s famous natural beauty in a day: deep lush fjords, waterfalls, tiny villages, towering canyons. It’s an especially good option for those who want to just see it and be done with it or those who don’t have tons of time in Norway.
Redo ‘Considering Norway In A Nutshell? Read This First.
Travel tip: Get a hotel close to railway station
Oslo is an immensely charming, albeit expensive capital. It is one of my favourites in all of Europe.
Top Things to do:
There are many wonderful things to do in the city such as but my favourites are:
Oslo Bike tour: Viking Biking
3) Finish this yet
Sognefjorden is the largest fjord in Norway and third largest in the world. It is the longest ice-free fjord in the world and stretches 127 miles (205 km) inland from the ocean
Buy the Japan Rail Pass and travelling from one city to another becomes very easy! To use the Japan Rail Pass you must be be a a) non-Japanese national,b) stay for less than 90 days and c) be visiting for a tourist purposes.
Here is a step by step process on getting your Japan Rail Pass.
1) Buy the Japan Rail Pass online at https://www.japan-rail-pass.com. You can get a 7-day, 14-day or 21-day pass. You must buy it before arriving in Japan.
You can buy the ‘Ordinary Pass’ or ‘1st Class Pass’. Ordinary Pass is plenty good enough (I travelled around with Ordinary Pass). Japanese trains are very clean (by far the cleanest I have seen in the world). It is mostly business/professionals who take intercity trains. And people always line up for trains in orderly fashion. (The images of people being pushed into trains only applies at peak times and in local trains in Tokyo. I personally never saw anyone being shoved inside).
2) Wait for your JRP Exchange Voucher to be mailed to you (You won’t receive the actual Pass in the mail but an Exchange Voucher which you exchange for the actual JRP when you arrive in Japan). Buy it well in advance of your trip so you have the JRP Exchange Voucher in your hands before arriving in Japan.
3) On your smartphone, download the Hyperdia / Hyperdia by Voice app. This app is fantastic! It has up-to-the-second train schedule of trains in Japan. I used this app a lot while I was there.
4) Activate the JRP – upon arrival, after clearing immigration and getting your luggage, give your JRP Exchange Voucher and in exchange, get your activated JRP.
Where to exchange your JRP Exchange Voucher get your activated JRP?
If you land at Tokyo International, look for JR East Travel Service Centre – this is the point of exchange for the JR Pass.
If you arrive elsewhere, you can find a complete list of where to activate at https://www.japan-rail-pass.com/common-questions/where-to-activate-japan-rail-pass
And don’t worry to much about finding the location of where to activate. This is Japan and people are very helpful – just ask someone after clearing immigration!
Things to keep in mind about the JRP:
• Remember, the validity of JRP is consecutive 7, 14 or 21 days (depends which pass you buy) and starts as soon as you activate it in Japan. As soon as it is activated, you cannot change it.
• You’ll need both your Passport and Exchange Voucher in order to activate the JR Pass. Be sure to keep them ready.
Funny story – I had my Exchange Voucher in a folder and left it on the plane when I landed. I didn’t realize until after I collected my luggage and had a moment of panic! Again this is Japan so no reason to panic. I went to KLM counter (the airline I took) and told them what happened and my seat number. Less than 30 minutes later, I had the folder in my hands, along with the Exchange Voucher.
• When taking the inter-train, everything is clearly marked. The name of the destination is in English and platform number is clearly designated. When you arrive at the platform, you will even see symbols (triangle, circle and square) demarcating where you should stand for which train. It’s all very user friendly.
Obtaining a visa on arrival was very easy. Friendly staff were lined up to manage the flow of people and direct them in the right line. Of course, there were friendly staff there to show people where to go. That’s so Japan!
As of July 2017, citizens of over 60 countries don’t need a visa if visiting for less than 90 days. For a complete list, see http://www.mofa.go.jp/j_info/visit/visa/short/novisa.html
Spring (March to May) and Autumn (September to November) are when Japan is at it most beautiful.
I went in April, which coincided with the Cherry Blossom season. It was absolutely magical! But some areas can be very busy with tourists.
Okinawa (sub-tropical are that is more like Hawaii) can be visited all year round. For the best weather, visit between May and October.
Caution: Avoid Golden Week. At the end of April and the first week of May, there is a collection of days off (Showa Day, Constitution Day, Greenery Day, Children’s Day), collectively known as Golden Week. The Japanese don’t have many public holidays. And they take full advantage of having a whole week off during Golden Week. The whole country is on the move. Trains, airports, tourist spots, all will be very crowded. And accommodations fully booked and prices at their peak.
Ironically, if you are in Japan during Golden Week, the best place to be is in a big city like Tokyo. This is because many people leave big cities for smaller centres. I was in Japan from mid-April onwards and visit my coincided with the beginning of Golden Week. I purposefully stayed in Tokyo at that time and it was fine.
One of the oldest and continuously inhabited cultures, Japan’s prehistory goes as far back as 30,000 BC. In a nutshell, Japanese history can be divided as follows (all of which have shaped the Japanese sensibilities that exist today):
1. Ancient Japan (30,000 BC – 538 AD)
2. Classical Japan (538 – 1185)
3. Medieval Japan (1185 – 1568)
4. Early modern period (1568 – 1868)
5. Modern Japan (1868 – 1912)
6. Taishō period (1912–1926)
7. Shōwa period (1926–1989)
8. Heisei period (1989 – present).
The modern history of Japan can be said to have ‘started’ in 1853, prior to which, Japan was an isolationist state. Until 1853, Westerners weren’t allowed in the country and Western influences were very strongly discouraged. The only contact with the western world was trading with Dutch ships that docked in Nagasaki.
In 1853, Matthew Perry of the United States Navy ‘invaded’ the Tokyo Bay and shelled a few buildings in the area. This eventually lead to the signing Convention of Kanagawa, a treaty that opened the Japanese some to U.S. trade, thus effectively marked the beginning of modern Japanese history.
During World War II, Japan sided with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy (officially by signing the Tripartite Pact) and suffered devastating losses. After World War II, Japan was in shambles. However, within a just few decades, it bounced back like never before. Japan, thanks in part to American backing in exchange for its marine and airspace, experienced massive growth (known as ‘Japanese economic miracle’) to become an economically developed and highly advanced society.
Today, Japan is unlike any other country in the world.
I think the best (and the most cost-effective) way to see Norway is by doing the ‘Norway in a Nutshell’: http://www.norwaynutshell.com
How does it work? You buy a ‘Norway in a Nutshell’ pass which allows you to do a round trip from Oslo – Bergen – Voss – Gudvangen – Flåm – Myrdal – Oslo.
You will travel around by train, bus, and boat. The train ride includes the famous Flamsbana.
You can read about this in more detail below on the ‘Norway in a Nutshell‘ page.
If Norway is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, it is also, unfortunately, one of the most expensive. Cost of food, drinks, and accommodation can really add up.
However, there are some ways you can offset the cost.
More expensive European countries like Norway (and Switzerland), to offset high costs for tourists, offer deals. For example, if you buy the Oslo Pass, you can get free entry to more than 30 museums and attractions and free travel on all public transport. It would be worthwhile getting the Oslo Pass. You can get more information at https://www.visitoslo.com.
Instead of staying at a hotel, stay an apartment-hotel, which are becoming increasingly common. Apartment-hotels have a kitchen and you can make your own meals so instead of eating out at restaurants, buy your groceries at supermarkets and ‘eat in’ rather than ‘eat out’.
Take advantage of Norway in a Nutshell, which is a cost-effective (and a fun) way of seeing quite a bit of Norway. You can read more about it here.
Best way to get around is by public transportation. Train runs from airport to city centre every 10 minutes and cost (approx 10 €) and takes 40 min from the airport to the central station, Trondheim Central Station.
Taxis are expensive. I arrived really late at night on a Friday and was very tired. I took a taxi from the airport to my hotel in the centre and it was very costly (around 200 €)! Uber is also currently operating in Oslo and would be a better alternative.
If you want to avoid the cold, May to September are the best months to visit Norway.
June – August are the warmest but also the peak tourist months when prices are highest. Either May or September would be better if you want fewer crowds and lower prices, and still get decent weather.
If you don’t mind the cold, then except October, November to April is a good time to visit Oslo.
October is not ideal because this is a ‘transition month’. Summer is over (and most summer attractions will be closed), the autumn leaves have fallen (so there will be almost no pretty fall foliage to enjoy) and there is not enough snow on the ground yet to enjoy winter sports.
I went in early June and found the weather to be very good.
Capital City: Oslo
Population: 5 million
Area: 68th largest country in the world
Languages: Norwegian, English
Currency: Norwegian krone
In Norway, you can buy alcoholic beverages only from stores named Vinmonopolet. There are only two in each city, and none in the countryside.
Vinmonopolet is owned by the Norwegian government and the cost to buy alcohol in a Vinmonopolet is quite high. This is part for Norwegian government’s policy to limit the consumption of alcohol.
Dublin, Ireland was founded by Norwegians in A.D. 836.
Do women (and men) need to cover up when traveling around?
No, unless you are visiting a religious site.
Istanbul is a very cosmopolitan city. As such, you will see women and men wearing everything from T-shirts and shorts to being covered from head to toe. (To be fair, it is mostly tourists who will wear T-shirts and shorts; most locals are far too chic and fashionable to dress shabbily in T-shirt and shorts).
So go ahead and wear what you are comfortable with. Of course, be reasonable about it (i.e. no bikinis or short-shorts) and if you are planning to visit a religious site, observe these rules:
When visiting religious sites, both men and women must cover 1) their legs and 2) arms and shoulders and 3) and in addition, women must cover their heads (with a scarf).
And no shoes inside religious places! You will have to take your shoes off and put them in a communal shoe cubicle. So best not to wear your fancy pair of shoes on such outings. I have not seen it happen, but there is a chance it can disappear when you come back to collect it. In some place, they will give you a plastic bag to carry your shoes in.
Spring months are the best time to visit. The best times to visit Istanbul are the Spring months (March to early May) and Autumn (September and November). This is when crowds are less, temperatures are manageable and hotel prices are reasonable.
June to August is when it is really hot, the crowds are plentiful and hotel prices are higher.
Avoid the winter months (December, February and early March). They are the cheapest months to go, and crowds are at their lowest, but there can be lots of rain, wind and even snow. Unless you have absolutely no choice, avoid the winter months.
I went at the end of May and the weather was just great!
Population: 79.5 million
Capital Cty: Ankara is the political capital whereas Istanbul is the largest city (and the financial and tourist capital)
Languages: Turkish, Kurdish (minority)
Religion: Islam (98% and majority practise Sunni Islam), Christianity (2%)
Currency: Turkish lira
France, in Western Europe, encompasses medieval cities, alpine villages and Mediterranean beaches. Paris, its capital, is famed for its fashion houses, classical art museums including the Louvre and monuments like the Eiffel Tower. The country is also renowned for its wines and sophisticated cuisine. Lascaux’s ancient cave drawings, Lyon’s Roman theater and the vast Palace of Versailles attest to its rich history.
President: Emmanuel Macron Trending
Prime minister: Édouard Philippe