Monthly Archives: June 2010

Top 3 Adventures in Nepal

The following is a guest post I did for the CheapOair travel blog:

Nestled between two giants (China to the north and India to the south) sits Nepal, a tiny country famous for the Himalayan range.  Since 1951 when Nepal opened its doors to foreigners, the country has maintained a sense of majestic wonder for visitors.

Despite its small size, Nepal packs a major punch.  Within the country’s borders are some of the greatest adventure opportunities on Earth: Mt. Everest, the Annapurna circuit, raging rivers, craggy cliffs and more.  Nepal is known for its awe-inspiring trekking routes, so here are three other extreme adventures to try out on your next visit.

1) Bungee Jumping

The bridge bungee jumpers dive off at The Last Resort.

The Nepal bungee jump, run by The Last Resort, is the perfect antidote for the extreme adrenaline junky.  Participants jump off a metal suspension bridge that’s strung between two cliffs over the churning Bhote Kosi river.  After being strapped around the ankles, jumpers dive off the teetering metal platform into the 160-meter deep gorge.  Travel agencies based in Kathmandu can arrange the bungee jumping trip, which includes a bus ride to and from the location, the jump itself and lunch.

2) Paragliding

Paragliding is an extreme sport that induces an adrenaline rush while at the same time inspiring an overwhelming sense of tranquility.  Flying high through the Nepal skies is perhaps one of the greatest adventures in the country.  Most paragliding flights open to travelers are based in Pokhara, a town about 200 kilometers northwest of Kathmandu (5-7 hours by bus or minivan).

There are several paragliding companies based in Pokhara, including Frontiers Paragliding and Sunrise Paragliding.  Paragliding companies will arrange tandem flights, most of which depart from a location high on a hill near Sarangkot.  Start out running and glide off the hill with your certified paraglider steering the whole way down.  On clear days, the Annapurna mountain range, including Macchapucchre (Fishtail Mountain), can be seen jutting into the sky.  Try catching a thermal air pocket and soar through the clods with hawks.  Make sure to bring your camera to get snapshots of the shimmering Phewa Tal lake below.

3) White Water Rafting

Churning rapids, raging white water, seething river dips and curves: these are just a few things to look forward to on a rafting trip in Nepal.  All those mountains means a great deal of runoff, which means some epic white water rafting opportunities .  For a surprisingly reasonable price, private trips can be arranged for small or large groups.  Between the heart-pounding sections of river, expect to see some jaw-dropping scenery: lush green jungles, spiky cliffs, herds of goats and huge mountain ranges.  There are white water rafting companies based in both Kathmandu and Pokhara that are readily available to arrange trips and river guides.

Looking for For Cheap Tickets to Nepal?  Check out CheapOair.com.

Thai Street Food: Papaya Salad

A recent (and very unscientific) survey taken via Twitter by Epic Asia Travel asked subscribers: What is your favorite Thai street food?  A seemingly simple questions, but in actuality, this query is very, very difficult to answer.  Why?  Because there are so many kinds of street food in Thailand that you could probably eat a different dish everyday for the rest of your life and still never have tried everything.  There’s an abundance of street meats on a stick, fruits, hot and spicy soups, fried vegetables, glutinous sweets and tangy juice drinks.  One of the greatest pleasures about traveling in Thailand is the street food, which is why this questions is really not so easy to answer.

Despite the depth of possible answers to this query, the overwhelming answer to the best street food in Thailand was: Som Tam, also known as spicy green papaya salad.  Respondents to this question sure do know what they’re talking about because spicy green papaya salad is truly fresh and incredibly delicious.  Vendors usually charge anywhere between 20-40 Baht for a heaping pile of freshly shredded green papaya pounded with spices, palm sugar, chilis, lime juice, shrimp and a number of other zesty ingredients.

Som Tam can be eaten alone for a quick and healthy snack on the go, or it can accompany a larger meal.  Traditionally (especially in the Isan

A Thai street vendor crushes the ingredients together with a mortar and pestle to make Som Tam. (Photo Credit: Ans)

region), Som Tam is eaten with sticky rice, BBQ chicken and some spicy chili sauce.  When ordered from a street-side cart, the vendor whips it up fresh on the spot.  The green papaya is shredded and all the ingredients go into a large mortar.  With the pestle the vendor pounds the many flavors together until it forms one delicious mound of papaya salad.  After the dish is plated, the vendor usually sprinkles the Som Tam with a heavy dose of crushed peanuts to add extra flavor and texture.

All street vendors who sell Som Tam in Thailand have their own recipe and they all differ slightly from one another.  Despite their differences, most have several of the same key ingredients including: shredded green papaya, cut cherry tomatoes, fresh green beans, lime juice, fish sauce, palm sugar, peanuts, dried

Some of the indredients for spicy papaya salad. (Photo Credit: WordRidden).

shrimp, whole chilis, shrimp paste and garlic.  Some papaya salad vendors add dried shrimp and some add whole crabs (shells and all) to add flavor and texture to the mix.

Check out this video below to see a Som Tam vendor in action:

Sihanoukville: Surf, Sun and Sex

Several hours Southwest of Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, sits a strange little beach town known as Sihanoukville.  Sihanoukville is home to

Sihanoukville at dusk. (by aokettun)

a curving coast line, host to a number of sandy, idyllic beaches that draw foreign tourists and vacationing Cambodian urbanites alike.

Sihanoukville could be described as a lazy town: there’s not many action packed adventures to partake in and that’s just the reason that visitors enjoy it.  It’s relaxing, rejuvenating, and on the right beach, it can be quiet.  During the day visitors enjoy the sandy beaches, swim in the not quite clear blue waters, imbibe a bottle or two of Angkor beer and munch on some freshly grilled jumbo prawns or squid.  After a day of beer, beach and BBQ, the sun slowly fades and the day time activities morph into the strange and often zoo-like activities of the night.

Besides the sea food BBQ, Sihanoukville is perhaps equally as famous as the sex tourism capital of Cambodia (at least for Westerners).  As the day becomes night, instead of centered around beach fun, the activities are centered around sex.  Sex, sex and more sex. And a lot of drinking.  Similar to most other sex tourism locations in Southeast Asia, those merry revelers who enjoy the young, nubile flesh on display are older Western men.  There are Americans, Australians, Germans, English, Japanese and beyond.

At around ten o’clock the night’s activities begin.  Prostitutes, many of them in the mid to late teens, pour into tourist bars.  The prostitutes are also known as “taxi girls”: women who rent themselves out to foreigners for a night, a day, a week or an entire month.  These taxi girls are excellent flirts and are very skilled at convincing foreign men that they’re in love, when in fact, this is just their job: a means to an end.

Sihanoukville bartenders gear up for a long night ahead.

There are several main centers for the sex tourism activities in Sihanoukville.  Occheuteal Beach and Serendipity Beach are host to a number of beach bars that are usually packed full until the wee (or not so wee) hours of the morning.  The Occheuteal Beach bars are more popular with the younger backpacker crowd.  Taxi girls are always present, but not as much as on Victory Hill, the epicenter of prostitution in Sihanoukville.

Victory Hill is teeming with bars, clubs and watering holes that especially attract foreign men (average age range is likely between 40 and 65).  When visiting a bar on Victory Hill, you’re very unlikely to see many foreign women, and if you do, the ratio will be about 20 foreign men to 1 foreign woman.   The foreign men attract the prostitutes, or the prostitutes attract the foreign men.  Either way, Victory Hill bars are a spot for sex tourists to check out the available prostitutes, spend the night drinking and flirting and perhaps even take one back to their hotel for the night.

The taxi girls are masters at acting happy-go-lucky, like there is nowhere else in the world they’d rather be than flirting with foreign men 30 years their senior.  It’s true that some may actually like doing their jobs, but it’s easy to wonder: “How do they look so happy?”

Yabba pills. (thai-blogs.com)

Prostitution aimed at foreign men is a double-edged sword in Sihanoukville. The wage taxi girls make from a day or two with a foreigner is usually exponentially higher than the wage they would make at any other job like selling food at the market or working at a hotel.  The money earned from prostitution allows taxi girls to support their immediate family and often their extended families as well.  The downside is, of course, that these girls are working as prostitutes.  They are selling their bodies, a job that absolutely must be degrading and unpleasant.

Drugs are also a major part of the prostitution culture in Sihanoukville.  The drug of choice by many is called “yabba,” a powerful methamphetamine-like drug that makes users have extremely high energy levels, therefore allowing them to stay up all night.  It’s not uncommon to see a drug dealer sprinkling joints with yabba in the middle of a busy beach-side bar or club and then passing them out to his compatriots and nearby taxi girls.  The drug is highly, highly addictive, but allows taxi girls to stay up working throughout the night and the morning.

At first glance, Sihanoukville looks like a lazy beach paradise.  A bit dusty and worn around the edges, but it seems like a relaxing place to let life’s stresses melt away.  Sihanoukville is a strange place because it truly is a Cambodian vacation haven, but it is also a mecca for the bizarre and unsettling sex tourism industry.

On any visit to Sihanoukville make sure you understand both sides of the beach culture: observe the beach bums on Occheuteal Beach and then head to Victory Hill at night to see what sex tourism looks like.  Although observing the industry in action is often unsettling, disturbing and even sickening, it is important to know that behind the facade of a gorgeous beach town, there is a darker side or tourism at work.

What to learn more about sex tourism in Southeast Asia?  Check out Louise Brown’s book “Sex Slaves” to gain a deeper understanding into sex tourism and the sex trade in the region.

Book Review: Video Night in Kathmandu

Video Night in Kathmandu

by Pico Iyer

Pico Iyer is a master wordsmith. Iyer has written numerous books, journalistic articles and essays, many centering on the travel narrative. Iyer often finds himself a stranger in a strange land and captures the essence of wonderment and wanderlust perfectly. He has the ability capture the ironies, humor, beauty, ugliness and sadness about one single place, a place he is most often looking into as an outsider.

Video Night in Kathmandu is a collection of separate travel narratives and essays about different countries in Asia, including Nepal, Japan, India and China. The stories are packed with tales of how Western pop culture and globalization affect locations that we often think of as the “exotic far East.” His observations, all of which have the “East Meets West” overtones, offer brave and thought provoking perspective to Asian countries and cultures.

This book is a must-read for those interested in globalization’s reach. Westerners’ mental framework regarding globalization is often: How do WE affect THEM? Iyer turns this logic on its head and analyzes the question from both sides, formulating a kind of give-take idea about cultural clashes.

Even if Asia isn’t your thing, Video Night in Kathmandu is packed full of amazing writing and narrative structure, a great handbook for all budding travel writers.

Want to learn more about Pico Iyer, one of the most prolific travel writers today?  Here is an interesting interview with Iyer done by Rolf Potts. Check it out here.


Musings on Starting a Travel Blog

About 8 weeks ago I began building the travel blog: Epic Asia Travel.  Two months later I feel like I’ve learned an incredible amount about travel blogging, travel industry, computer coding, WordPress self-hosting and photography.  It’s exciting, but overwhelming.  Although I know I’ve come a long way from not knowing what CSS, RSS and HTML stand for, I still feel like I’ve just skimmed the surface.

Starting a blog is exciting: it feels a bit like starting your own business.  For example, this space (Epic Asia Travel), is a a space for all of my writing, photography, videos and thoughts.  It feels good to have a space just for me.  I’ve also become quite engrossed in building this blog (so much so that I think my final term grades are university may have suffered just a bit).  It’s thrilling to start with an idea and actually build it.  The wonderful thing about blogs, especially WordPress blogs, is the breadth of information and help available to fledgling website designers and bloggers.

For all of you out there that would like to start your own blog (travel or not travel related), I’ve decided to share what I’ve learned with you over the past weeks.  I hope that this information will help you get the ball rolling on your own site and hopefully save you time.

Theme Advice:

Your theme is the pre-made design for how the website will look.  WordPress has a ton of great free themes that are definitely suitable for most purposes.  If you’d like to get into the code a bit more and tinker with the look of the site, a paid theme might be the way to go.  I decided to go for a paid theme for this site.

I have experience with 2 paid themes.  I first purchased Thesis theme from DIY Themes.  Thesis theme is perhaps one of the most highly customizable themes available.  The other major benefit of Thesis is that there is a bounty of information and helpful tutorials available all over the web.  There are countless websites dedicated to Thesis theme tweaks and customizations.  There are also hundreds of people who make helpful video tutorials on how to use Thesis.  The total cost for Thesis theme (standard package) is $87.  Included in the $87 is a free membership to the Thesis theme forum.  I asked dozens of questions on the Thesis forum and received answers back in a very timely fashion.  The forum also is a great resource for looking at older topics and questions that your blogging forefathers asked.

Although Thesis was great, I actually decided to “return” my theme for a full refund within the 30-day allowed grace period.  Even though it was highly customizable, I wish someone would have told me that it is incredibly helpful, if not essential, to have some prior knowledge of PHP, CSS and HTML coding.  The CSS and HTML coding for Thesis is not too tough, but to really get the site looking how you like it, some basic PHP knowledge is a must.  At the time, I did not have any PHP knowledge and was simply hitting brick wall after brick wall.  For this reason, I decided to get a full refund from Thesis.

After becoming overly frustrated with Thesis, I decided to consult with a friend who does web programming for a living.  He recommended Canvas theme by Woo Themes.  Canvas theme also claims to be highly customizable, so I decided to go for it and cough up the $50.  I found a coupon for a discount and Woo Themes was offering a deal: 3 themes for the price of 1.  So, for less than $50 I got 3 WordPress themes.  The theme I am using right now is Canvas.

I’ve found Canvas to be a lot easier to figure out for the novice web programmer.  There are a number of Woo Themes forums (one for each theme they offer) and the Woo themes staff (“Woo Workers” as they like to call themselves) are incredibly helpful.  They are not as forthcoming when it comes to intricate CSS customization questions, but they are always helpful with suggestions and bits of useful code.

Before Starting Your Own Website:

There are a few things that are helpful to understand before starting your own website.  Here are some good resources to do just that.

Lynda.com

Lynda.com offers a number of video tutorials on everything from CSS, HTML and PHP, to digital photography, Photoshop, and Xcode.  Membership starts at around $25 per month, which allows unlimited access to most of their tutorials.

The Lynda.com videos are incredibly helpful, second best to having a personal computer tutor right there with you.  You can replay the videos as many times as you like to make sure you understand how to use the software or computer codes.

WordPress for Dummies

WordPress for Dummies is a great reference guide, mostly aimed at beginner to intermediate users of the WordPress interface.  This book starts at the most basic understanding, answering questions like: “What is a blog?” and “Where should I begin?”  If you feel like you know all that all ready, you can flip to the middle chapters which are helpful in terms of understanding how PlugIns and self-hosting works.

This is a good reference book to keep on your desk for whenever a WordPress problem arises.

Nomadic Matt’s e-Books

Nomadic Matt offers several different e-books (which you’ll receive upon purchase in PDF format) on building a travel blog and making money from it.  The two e-books I’ve used from Nomadic Matt are very helpful.  They cover the basics of social media, site names, picking your niche, search engine optimization and themes.  I highly recommend his ebook: “How To Make Money With Your Travel Blog.”  It is only $17 and it is definitely worth it for a beginner travel website creator.

Other things to learn about:

After you go over all the above resources, I recommend you learn the basics of HTML and CSS to get you going.

From Sty to Stew: Understanding Hyper-Local Food Systems

You’ve never slaughtered a pig before?” Alia said as he shot me an incredulous look.

I shook my head.

“It’s easy!” he said. “Here, you can give it a try.” Alia offered me the glinting, foot-long machete in his hand.

My heart pounded in my ears as I looked at the 100-pound, squealing pink pig in front of me. I told him, in what I hoped was a nonchalant way, that I would just watch this time and maybe try the next one.

Alia shrugged his shoulders, turned to the pig, and with a swift jerk plunged the machete into the pig’s soft flesh and through its ribs.

After the pig is bled out and the workers are dragging the animal away to be butchered, I kick myself for not taking Alia up on his offer. After all, I did come to Thailand to understand a way of eating that is different from the industrial model I am familiar with in the United States.

On a quest to investigate a hyper-local food system, I find myself on Amee Doyer’s Organic Farm in Northern Thailand. I’ve connected with Alia, the owner of the farm, through an organization called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. WWOOF allows people who want to learn about sustainable growing practices to connect with farmers around the world. In exchange for long days of farm work, Alia provides me with food and a room.

For the rest of the day Alia’s question rings in my head: “You’ve never slaughtered a pig before?” His disbelief jolted me. As I ponder his question, I realize that in fact, I’ve never even seen an animal killed until today. This doesn’t make sense to him because everyday at the dinner table I eat meat with his family. For Alia, he must slaughter an animal before it is consumed. For me, I simply buy it pre-packaged at the store.

Alia, a refugee from Burma, has never bought pre-packaged meat in his life. He has never heard of a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation where most of my meat comes from at home. In this hyper-local food system, consuming meat means slaughtering the animal first. For me, eating meat means buying a package neatly marked with weight and price at the supermarket. The idea that the animals I eat were once alive is so disconnected for me that when I do see an animal killed, I am in utter shock.

As I watch the farmers remove the pig’s organs one by one, it surprises me that the countless times I have consumed pork in my life I never connected the idea of pork with the image of a live pig. The industrial food system I am part of has created such a disconnect in my head that even as a life-long omnivore, I have never truly understood that at one point the animal I am eating was as alive as I am right now.

Later that night, Alia passes me a bowl of stew, which includes pig liver, intestine, and boiled blood. I eat my bowl with satisfaction and a new-found sense of respect for myself as an omnivore and for the animal I am eating.

The fundamental difference between the meat I eat at home and the meat I eat here is that this animal was cared for and respected from the moment it was born to the moment it passes through my lips. I know exactly where this food came from and that makes every meaty morsel even more delectable.

Photo Supplement: From Sty to Stew

The pigs are the farm are cared for every day.  There are several farm workers whose sole job is to mix food for and feed the pigs.


Several of the farmers at the farm clean and cut the pig up into parts.  Almost none of the pig is wasted slaughtered.