Category Archives: Travel Tips

One Sketch at a Time: How to Record Your Travels

This is a story I wrote for Ethos Magazine about University of Oregon Professor Ken O’Connell. Ken offers some great advice and inspiration for unique ways to record your travel experiences.

On a balmy April afternoon, artist Ken O’Connell sits in his office, chatting about art supplies, tiny Italian villages, and Japanese Anime conventions. Quickly, one thing becomes clear: Ken O’Connell would be the perfect travel companion. He isn’t content with simply snapping a photograph of a beautiful doorway or cathedral on his travels. Instead, he chooses to document what he sees in sketchbooks, seventy of them to be exact.

O’Connell’s collection of sketchbooks are individually numbered with the locations he visited while filling their pages. A peek inside the cover of number sixty-eight reads: “Canada, Japan, Germany, Oregon.” The pages burst with pencil drawings, vibrant watercolor scenes, haphazard notes to himself, various addresses, and stamps from around the world.
O’Connell’s life, like his sketchbooks, is packed with color and creativity. As a professor emeritus at the University of Oregon’s Art Department, he teaches digital arts classes and will begin a product design class in Portland summer 2010. He also is the president of his own company, Imagination International, Inc., which imports brightly colored Copic markers from Japan.

Continue reading here…

Taking Pictures of People: How to Get the Perfect Shot

Let’s say you’re strolling through a crowded market nestled deep in the heart of Old Kathmandu. The buildings are crammed and crumbling, giving the area a weathered, medieval look. There are vegetable vendors lining the streets. They’re sitting on ragged tarps covered with a landscape of vegetables stacked in pyramids. There are red tomatoes, yellow lemons, some green bumpy vegetable that you don’t know the name of, dark purple eggplant and heaps of green chillies. Out of the corner of your eye, leaning against an ancient-looking door frame is an equally as ancient-looking woman. The lines and wrinkles on her face probably hold more stories than an entire library. From her ears drip traditional gold jewelery. In her hand she holds a beedi cigarette, which she takes long pulls of every minute. The woman is perfectly framed within the rectangular door setting. “This looks like a National Geographic shot!” you think. You grab for your camera, but hesitate for a second. “Should I take a picture? Would it be rude? Should I ask? The shot would be so amazing, though!” And in that few seconds of apprehension, the woman and the possibility of a photo have vanished.

Some version of this scenario has happened to me many times. I’ll see someone that I really want to take a photo of and then in the minutes of mulling it over, the person will move or disappear. I usually carry my camera everywhere and have taken thousands of photos on my travels through Asia over the last three years. Looking back through my photo library, out of thousands, I can probably pick 100 really, really good ones. Out of those 100, probably 80% are of people. I’m a strong believer that people make the best photo subjects. Obviously Mt. Everest is one of the most majestic spots on earth, but are you really going to capture its essence and beauty in a photograph. Probably not. Forests and lakes are spectacular sites to visit, but, honestly, landscape photos can get boring quickly. After some time, a lake is just a lake. A mountain range will always look dwarfed and less amazing than it did in person.

But people never get boring. It is the people who live in a place that bring the whole scene to life. When I travel I like to see what the people are doing. I want to see how they live their lives, what they do everyday, how they spend their mornings, what they eat, where they work, who their children are, what they wear and what they do for fun. Ultimately, I want to see how other people’s lives around the world differ from my own in the United States. After we strip away the religion, the food choices, the morals and ethics, the language and the education, we’re all the same: just people. I think that is why people photos are so interesting: because when we see someone else’s eyes and face, we can inherintily relate to them, no matter if they are the nomads of Tibet, the city slickers of Seoul, the coffee-shop owners of Singapore or the cowgirls of the American West. Take a look at some of the most successful travel photographers like Steve McCurry. Almost every single one of his famous photos is of a person. Perhaps his most famous photo, the one of the Afghan girl staring out of frame with hauntingly green eyes, is noteworthy for many reasons, but mainly, we can relate to her through her eyes.

Although pictures of people are probably the most interesting and beautiful mementos from travel, they are also the most difficult to take. I often think about what it would be like if I were on the other side of the camera, the subject of the photos rather than the photographer. I would absolutely NOT appreciate having my picture snapped as I went about my daily life, eating breakfast and going to work. So, how can you get good photos of people without being intrusive, rude or imposing? It is a fine art that I am learning slowly but surely. Practice makes it slighly easier, but I still have an awkward feeling whenever I am trying to get a close-up photo of a person’s face. Here are some thing’s I’ve learned in my practice and study of photography that will help when trying to get good photos of people:

1)Ask

This can be difficult, especially when there is a language barrier, but it is the most surefire way that you won’t upset your proposed photo subject. If you don’t know how to ask, or the person doesn’t understand your question, just point at your camera and point at them? They’ll probably understand that you want to take a picture and respond accordingly.

2) Offer Money, When Appropriate

I think if you are going to take a picture of someone, it is sometimes fair that you pay a bit of money to them. I usually never pay anyone in the city, but if I am trekking or in the countryside and see someone I want to photograph, I’ll take their picture and then give them whatever small change I have in my bag. Sometimes the person will straight away ask for money, but if not, it’s a nice gesture.

3) Learn How to Say “Can I Take Your Picture” in the Local Language

I asked my Nepali photographer friend how to say: “Can I take your picture?” in Nepalese. Learning this phrase in the local language can be helpful.  When you whip out the phrase in the local language, your potential photo subject may be more willing to agree if they feel that you have made an effort to learn a bit of their culture and language.

4) Read Body Language – if they look awkward, put the camera away

If you take your camera out and your proposed photo subject shrugs away, or starts looking awkward, just put the camera back and don’t take photos. Taking pictures of people, if they don’t agree to it, can be very rude and insensitive.

5) Be Sensitive and Don’t Encroach

There are certain situations that, no matter how photogenic they may be, you probably shouldn’t take a picture of. For example, a woman breastfeeding a child or an intimate moment between two people. I also think it is also necessary to be exceedingly sensitive when taking pictures of poor people or beggars.  I say do NOT take pictures of poor, destitute people just for fun (unless you are going to give them money).  If you are a photojournalist or another sort of professional photographer and you are taking these pictures for some assignment or larger purpose, then it can be alright.


Above: Aashish, one of the young monks at Trungram Monastery in Nepal.

Above: A group of Cambodian kids in the village outside of Battambang.


Above: Thuli Tamang, a 72-year-old woman carries grass to her village.

Above: The busy scenes at the vegetable market in Hoi An, Vietnam.

Above: The monks at Trungram Monastery in Sankhu, Nepal.

Above: Nepali school girls walking to morning classes in Pokhara.

Above: A farmer outside of Pokhara takes a tea break.

Above: Two farmer girls rest at their home outside Pokhara, Nepal.

Above: Two inquisitive girls from a small village in Nepal.

Above: Sadhus, the Hindu holy men, hang out and smoke ganja at Pashupatinath Temple in Nepal.


Above: A vegetable peddler on the streets of Kathmandu.

Above: Farmers harvest rice in Phimai in Northeastern Thailand.

Above: Two Akha women on the trail deep in the jungles of Northern Laos.

Above: A toothy child smiles beneath a big red tikka.

Above: A beggar asks for rupees as the Swayambhunath Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Discovering Ethnic Diversity in Singapore

Singapore may not offer the same sense of rugged adventure and unknown exploration as other countries in the region, but a visit to the thriving metropolis can be equally as satisfying a trip to Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia. One of the most fascinating aspects of Singapore society to observe is the multicultural, multifaceted diversity of the country. For a quick and easy peek at the diaspora living in Singapore, simply hop on the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) train at any stop. Grab a seat, sit back and spend an hour just people watching. You’ll see Singapore residents from all over Asia, and the world, who add to the spectacular diversity of the country.

The majority, around 74%, of the estimated 4,839,400 residents of Singapore are ethnic Chinese. 13.5% are ethnic Malays, 9% are from India 3% are from elsewhere. Although the majority of people living in Singapore are from China, Chinese is not the one official language. In fact, there are four official languages in Singapore including English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay and Tamil. Instead of singling out one language as the national language, the always diplomatic Singapore chose all four so as to include each of the three majority groups. English was kept as an official language after Singapore gained independence from the British in 1965 and Lee Kuan Yew decided it would be beneficial both economically and politically to continue using English for business and administration.

A walk through one of Singapore’s ubiquitous hawker center’s (street food markets) reveals the multilayered, multilingual aspect of the country’s diversity. In one stall a vendor might be mixing vats of black Hokkien Chinese coffee and speaking in a Chinese dialect. Across the food complex, in the halal section of the hawker center where Muslim men wearing taqiyah hats are making dough for roti, the melodic rhythm of Arabic or Malay can be heard. Down the lane in a stall selling fiery curries, the owner might hail from Kerala, India, and would be speaking in Tamil.

On a visit to Singapore you’re not going to find deep jungles or crumbling ruins, but you’ll find an incredible diversity of people, languages, foods and cultures. Observing the diaspora is a thrill in itself and visiting the many ethnic enclaves of the city is a great pleasure. Spend some time walking through hawker centers, cultural neighborhoods (like Chinatown, Little India and Arab Street), listen to the languages and you’ll understand an important and unique side of Singapore.

Singapore Tips and Ideas:
Here are some tips and ideas on things to do in Singapore to understand their multicultural society. Through a mix of street walks, gastronomic exploration, museums and ethnic neighborhood tours, you’ll leave Singapore with a more thorough understanding of the culture and the diversity.

*Visit Little India
Little India is perhaps my favorite area in Singapore. The Tekka wet market there is fantastic (although when I was there last summer it was closed for reconstruction). Spend some time walking through the lanes, the market and the main streets. Try a few Indian sweets and wash it down with a glass of milk tea.


Above: Men in Little India, Singapore. Photo by: William Cho

*Visit Chinatown
In certain parts, Singapore’s Chinatown is very touristy and can get a bit overwhelmed with people snapping photos of everything. Go a bit off the main drag and explore some of the Chinese medicine shops that are full of interesting herbs.

Above: A street scene in Chinatown, Singapore. Photo by: Khalzuri

*Ride the MRT
As I mentioned, riding the MRT around town is a great way to get a sneak-peek at the diversity of Singapore’s population.

Above: The Singapore Mass Rapid Transit (MRT).  Photo by: Charles Haynes

*Asian Civilizations Museum
This excellent museum is located in Boat Quay, across from the grandiose Fullerton Hotel. This museum doesn’t specifically focus on Singapore, but it is bursting with information on the whole region. It’s a good place to go to enrich your understanding of Singaporean culture, and Asian culture in general.

Above: Asian Civilizations Museum by night. Photo by: Keng Susumpow

*Eat at the Hawker Centers
This one’s obvious. How could you go to Singapore and not eat at the hawker centers? I say it’s a good idea to eat at least one meal a day (if not all three) at hawker centers to get a true flavor and understanding of the regional cuisines. Singapore’s food scene is influenced by all the countries in the area, so it will be a bit like you’re exploring all of Asia through your meals.

Above: Chicken rice from a Singapore hawker center. Photo by: Charles Haynes

*Look at the Signs
The street signs directly reflect the diversity of language in the country. Take a look at them and you’ll see that many are written in all four of the official languages. You’ll also notice that signs and warnings on the public transportation buses and MRT are written in four languages as well.

Above: A sign in Singapore written in English, Chinese, Tamil and Malay.

This Week’s Travel Favorites

I spend a lot of time reading, thinking, writing and pondering about travel.  You could say it’s a wee bit of an obsession.  Luckily, my wanderlust is very satisfactorily satiated at my jobs (I work as a magazine writer and television show producer and host here in Kathmandu, Nepal).  I’ve decided to start blogging about and paying hommage to travel “favorites” each week.  These “favorites could be anything from a travel personality, to a travel related book, or travel gear that has given me recent inspiration.

Here is this week’s round up of Travel Favorites:

Travel With Rick Steves Podcasts

When I was at home in Portland, Oregon, packing for Kathmandu, I wavered on whether or not to bring my iPhone.  I decided to throw it in my bag if for nothing else, just to use as a music player.  I am SO happy that I decided to bring it.  Once I arrived in Kathmandu, a friend swiftly “unlocked” it for $10 and now I can use a local SIM card.  I started to peruse the selection of podcasts on my iTunes and stumbled upon the Travel With Rick Steves selection.  I downloaded about 100 episodes and have been exceedingly pleased with the quality material I’ve been listening to every day.

Rick Steves is a famous travel guidebook writer who especially focuses on Europe.  I’ve never read his guidebooks, but his podcasts are excellent.  He conducts a wonderful interview that always leaves me feeling inspired to boldly continue on with my world travels.  Steves’ guests are well-chosen and eloquent.  As a traveler, I value the information and perspective I’ve found in the podcasts and as a writer, I’m always interested in his interview style and the questions he asks.  Travel With Rick Steves is the perfect show to tune in to when going on a long walk, sitting at home or on an airplane.

EatingAsia Food Blog

Pho Ingredients (Photo by katclay-flickr)

I literally salivate over this fantastic Asia food and photography blog created by photographer David Hagerman and food writer Robyn Eckhardt.  The writing is concise and to the point and makes you feel as though you are sitting next to David and Robyn as they sip teas in Turkey or eat grilled fish in Luang Prabang, Laos.  EatingAsia is the perfect fusion of travel and food, two things that I think go together marvelously.  Trying new foods and local cuisines when traveling is, I think, one of the greatest pleasures of being on the road.  I’m guessing David and Robyn of EatingAsia would agree with me on this one. In addition to the excellent stories and descriptions of their travels, the photos are to die for.  The colors, the textures and the perfect composition makes me want to follow David Hagerman around and just watch him at work.  Those lucky enough to live in or travel through Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, actually can do this because David offers food photography walks through the city. (You can follow Robyn Eckhardt on Twitter: @EatingAsia)

Keen Shoes

I would like to personally thank Keen for their excellent quality and versatile shoes.  I bought a pair of Keens three years ago at REI and virtually forgot about then since I returned from my one year Asia trip.  When pairing down my clothes for my current trip,  I rediscovered my old Keens at the bottom of a cardboard box.  I brought them along with me on this trip and recommend them to everyone.  They are not the exact model pictured here (because I bought mine three years ago), but they are similar.  The shoes are black and slip-on with a velcro strap across the top.  They are versatile enough to be worn with nice clothes to work, but can also be work on hikes. The shoes stood up to the test of hiking in rural Nepal in the monsoon this past weekend.  I was on an assignment in Balthali village, which is about 30 kilometers outside of Kathmandu, just beyond the valley rim.  Part of my assignment was to investigate some of the hikes in the area.  The only shoes I brought were my Keens and they gave an A+ performance up muddy, monsoon ruined hills, down slippery rocks, through rivers and across rice paddies.  I returned to the lodge I was staying at with no blisters and perhaps most surprising, with completely dry feet.

How to Become an Expatriate and Maintain Your Sanity While Doing It

Relocating can be difficult, even when it’s in a familiar place. When the relocation is from one country to another, the difficulty factor can be exponentially higher. There’s the language barrier to deal with, different customs and practices, learning the geography and transportation of a new city and figuring out the local food ingredients and how to prepare them. Adjusting to life as an expatriate can be incredibly frustrating.

My first few weeks as an expatriate in Kathmandu were precisely that: incredibly frustrating. I felt that the city was chewing me up and spitting me out, taking no mercy on me. I felt that I was struggling with everything and was precariously teetering on a plank, about to fall into a terrible abyss of insanity. Every time I tried to take a taxi, the taxi driver tried to cheat me. Whenever I went in search of furniture, the shop owner quoted me an exorbitant price. I would walk around my neighborhood, which seemed like an indecipherable labyrinth, for hours in search of my house, only to realize that I had, in fact, been passing my home over and over but didn’t recognize it. When visiting the vegetable market, I had no idea what each item was and absolutely no idea how to prepare it. There were medium sized cockroaches in my room and even larger ones in my bathroom. In short, those were some of the most frustrating weeks I’ve had in a long time.

Finally, four weeks after coming to Nepal, I feel like I’m adjusting to life as a longer-term expatriate. I’ve solved most of the aforementioned problems: I now can identify my house, I’ve figured out how to cook some of the local vegetables, I found furniture and I’ve learned to love (okay, accept) the cockroaches.

My home town, Portland, Oregon, is very different than Kathmandu, Nepal, which made the move even more difficult. I assume that, while there would have been challenges, moving from Portland to somewhere like Sydney, Australia, or London, England, would have been a bit smoother and simpler. But, here I am in Kathmandu, feeling decently well-adjusted to the city and my surroundings.

When making a big move and when becoming an expatriate, there are some things I’ve identified as helpful to assimilation and adjustment. The following things are helpful when easing into a new and foreign life. They’ve helped me feel more at home in Kathmandu, and have reduced my frustrations and insanity levels markedly.

Simple Steps to Adjust to Expatriate Life and Maintain Sanity

When becoming an expatriate, perhaps one of the most frustrating things is that you are moving to a new city, country or continent where you most likely don’t have the same safety net as at home. By safety net, I mean friends, family, co-workers, pets and comforts. When something goes wrong in your new expatriate life, you’ll have no one to fall back upon but yourself.

When I first got to Kathmandu and things weren’t exactly going my way, my frustration levels skyrocketed. At home, when something goes wrong, I can call friend or family to talk it out. Here, there is no one. That’s where Skype comes in. Skype is a very reasonable (and sometimes free) way to keep in contact with people from home. When adjusting to expat life, Skyping someone from home once a day, or every few days is a great way to not feel as isolated.

2) Exercise

Exercise: A good way to maintain sanity. (Photo by mikebaird-flickr)

This might not work for everyone, but it works for me. Exercise was a major part of my life at home and I was initially frustrated in Kathmandu because I couldn’t figure out how to sweat it out. Challenges and hurdles were coming every day that built up my stress levels. Finally, I figured out a way to run in the mornings and my stress levels went down drastically. When becoming an expatriate, a daily walk, run or bicycle ride is a great way to calm down during the hectic assimilation period.

3) Peanut Butter, etc…

Comfort food: always a good choice when adjusting to a new place.

Peanut butter makes everything better. Okay, peanut butter specifically doesn’t make becoming an expat easier per se, but familiar foods can be a comfort in a time of change. Finding some sort of food from home whether it be peanut butter, chocolate, coffee or pizza, can be helpful when thrown into a new world of new foods and tastes. Of course, don’t steer clear of local foods all together, for that is one of the greatest pleasures of being in a new country. But, when you need a little taste of home, go get some comfort food and don’t feel bad about it.

4) Find a Social Group

Social drinking: a good way to forget your problems when trying to become a successfully adjusted expatriate. (Photo by gemma.amor-flickr)

Finding some sort of social group of locals or expatriates can be helpful when forming a network in your new home. This could be anything from a volunteer group, a trekking group, a book club or a running club. One great option I’ve found in Kathmandu are the Himalayan Hash House Harriers. They are a “drinking group with a running problem.” For runners, walkers or anyone who is in need of a good time, seek out the Hashers in your location (they are all over the world).

You Know You’ve Backpacked S.E. Asia When…

You know you’ve backpacked Southeast Asia when…

1) A large percentage or your grungy travel shirts are emblazoned with local beer logos, including this one:

2) You’ve drank a cocktail or two out of what normally would be considered a child’s beach toy:

Sangsom Whiskey Buckets (photo by Kullez-flickr)

3) You know that the term “Yellow Bible” has nothing to do with religion:

Lonely Planet's "Yellow Bible": the holy grail of SE Asia travel books.

4) You have a scar or two on your body from intertubing in Vang Vieng, Laos:

Zip line on the Nam Song River in Laos (Photo by: lanz-flickr)

5) You think street Pad Thai is just about as essential as water:

Street Pad Thai in a wok (Photo by: Charles Hayes-flickr)

6) You don’t think a 17-hour bus ride is particularly long, anything over 30-hours might be pushing it, though:

A bus in Laos (Photo by: joaquinuy-flickr)

7) You’ve grown used to cockroaches and have even snacked on them once or twice:

Cockroach (Photo by: Anil Jadhav-flickr)

8 ) You’ve seen some of the prettiest men ever:

Lady Boy in Patpong, Thailand (Photo by: fitri.agung-flickr)

9) You’ve often found yourself wandering malls just to take advantage of the air conditioning and clean bathrooms:

Mall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (Photo by: Julien Menichini-flickr)

10) You consider a tuk-tuk ride across town a sufficient alternative to using a hair dryer:

Tuk-Tuk ride in Thailand (Photo by: bfick-flickr)

11) You know it’s not uncommon for there to be three 7-11s within a two block vicinity:

7-11s are everywhere in Thailand. (Photo by: iaminthailand-flickr)

Excellent Reader Suggestions:

Here are some extra hilarious ones via Epic Asia Travel readers. Got some more? Make sure to comment below!

12) You start to believe the hose is better than toilet paper after all (Suggested by Jon):

Asian toilet with hose (Photo by: wonder-flickr)

13) You realize that a scooter can easily carry a family of four whilst the driver texts (Suggested by Jon):

Family on a Bike in SE Asia (Photo by: emilio labrador-flickr)

Surviving Long-Distance Bus Trips

Asia is famous for its lush scenery, mouth-watering street food, religious diversity and crumbling temples.  It may also be equally as famous among the backpacker types as home to some of the most harrowing bus trips on the planet.  Traveling by bus is usually the transportation mode of choice by budget backpackers because it is cheap.  Those who are constrained by time (and not by money) usually prefer to fly between cities, rather than take the bus.

10 hour bus rides are commonplace all over Asia.  But, more experienced backpackers know that 10 hours is nothing.  16, 20, 24, even 32 hour bus trips are relatively common in Asia.  Although you might step onto the bus feeling chipper, you’ll likely exit the bus 24 hours later feeling as though you’ve been trampled by a steam roller.  Long-distance bus rides can be bumpy, stiflingly hot, sticky, smelly and all around hellish.  So, whether it’s from Kathmandu to Pokhara in Nepal (7-9 hours) or Hanoi to Vientiane (24 hours), there are some steps you can take to make these extreme journeys slightly more manageable.

1) Ear Plugs

Ear plugs are an absolute must when embarking on a long-distance bus trip, especially one that will drag on through the night.  It is fairly common on bus trips, especially in Vietnam and Thailand, for the bus driver to blast cloyingly sweet and poppy music videos all through the night that will eventually make you want to cut your own ears off with the nearest butter knife.  Be sure to have a set of ear plugs to end the music video madness.  You’ll be happy you did.  Ear plugs will also block out people’s conversations, crying babies, meowing cats (yes, cats have been known to be on long-distance bus rides in Asia), and the sounds of people vomiting.

2) Extra Sweater

Photo by: lululemon_athletica

When you think “Asian climates” you often think “hot.”  This is true, in many Asian destinations, temperatures regularly rise above 90-degrees Fahrenheit.  Despite this fact, long-distance bus drivers in Asia find it immensely pleasurable to crank the air conditioning in the bus to sub-arctic levels.  You’ll quickly forget you’re driving through the sweltering tropics and wonder why in the world you feel like you’re trekking through Antarctica with nothing but a bathing suit on.  Vietnamese long-distance bus drivers are especially notorious for turning up the A/C and refusing to turn it down or off.  The solution is to bring an extra sweater (or two, or three) always when on a long-distance bus trip.  If, for some reason, you do not have icicles coming out of your nose, you can always ball up the extra sweater and use it as a pillow.

3) Baby Wipes

Baby wipes are a definite must for maintaining sanity on long-distance bus trips.  After only a few hours on the bus, you’ll probably begin to feel greasy, grimy and covered in dirt.  There may or may not be someone throwing up continuously in front of your seat (bringing extra plastic bags may be a good idea, too, especially on Laos bus trips).  Baby wipes come in handy for a quick wipe down of your arms and face.  You’ll instantly feel more refreshed and ready to take on the next 10 hours of the trip.

4) Snacks

Photo by: maskoen

Throughout the course of most bus rides in Asia, the driver will stop somewhere several times for food and drinks.  Passengers can get off, go to the bathroom, grab some chips or crackers and stretch their legs.  But, it is not unknown for the bus driver who may or may not have had 15 energy drinks to power straight through to the destination.  Whether or not there is a stop on the bus ride, it is always wise to bring a few snacks for yourself.  While rat-on-a-stick (Laos) may sound tasty to some, others may want to munch their own snacks.  Bring a small stash in your backpack to keep your blood sugar up.  It is also nice to have fresh snacks, like a bag of rambutans or a bunch of bananas.

5) Sit in the Front

Photo by: joaquinuy

It is wise to arrive at the departure bus station early and find seats about half-an-hour before the bus leaves.  Bus drivers and bus attendants in Asia have been known to stuff those silly farangs (foreigners) in the way, way, way back of the bus, next to the stinking bathroom and everyone’s luggage.  If you have no choice and are forced to sit in the back, embrace the adventure.  But if possible, sit in the front of the bus where the ride is infinitely less bumpy and you’ll have easier access to get out on rest stops.

6) Reading Materials/Entertainment

Photo by: Brian Lane Winfield Moore

Bringing a book, a magazine or some music on your bus journey is sure to ease the pain.  To be honest, you might not even touch your book because there is always an endless stream of entertainment outside the bus window. No matter where you’re going, looking out the window is usually always fun and exciting because everything is so new and the scenery is often spectacular.  When you get bored of window watching, having a book is nice, but not always feasible to read, especially if the trip is extra bumpy.

Other Things to Bring/Remember for Your Bus Trip:

Photo by: ToastyKen

*On long-distance bus rides a toothbrush and toothpaste are your best friends.  A quick teeth-clean can be the difference between feeling hellish and feeling normal.

Photo by: swimparallel

*Always keep your passport and valuables ON YOUR PERSON.  It is very important not to stow passport, cash, credit cards, etc… in your backpack that is under the bus.  Sneaky people have been known to riffle through bags under the bus, helping themselves to whatever catches their fancy.

The Trade-Offs of Long-Term Travel

Photo by: laurenashley

Cruising from one foreign city to another with nothing but a backpack and a guidebook is exciting. Hanging out on tropical beaches, exploring crumbling temples and trying new foods: these are some of many benefits and exciting things about long-term travel.  To have the funds and the time to do an extended around-the-world trip seems like a dream for many, and it’s true: an extended travel is guaranteed to be life-changing in more ways than one.

Of course, along with the good also comes some down sides.  I’ve been considering the cons of long-term travel a lot lately because I am about to embark on  a one year trip to Kathmandu, Nepal where I’m moving for a job.  I’ve also been on several long-term trips in the past three years.  The first for ten months, the second for three months.  After these trips, and in anticipation of the next one, I’ve begun to consider both the pros and cons of long-term travel.  Just what are you trading to travel/live/work abroad for an extended period of time?  What are the trade-offs?

I think the major trade-offs of long term travel are the small things, things that you wouldn’t normally even notice during everyday life back at home.  You miss the everyday occurrences and events in the lives of your friends and family. You miss stories about encounters at work, updates about someone’s mood on a particular day.  You miss random phone calls from friends who just want to chat and see what’s going on.

In the age of social media and hyper-connectivity, it is easier to stay connected than ever before.  The internet can be accessed from most places in the world and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter make it easy to send friends and family quick updates.  Skype is available for phone and video chatting and we have blogs to share all the abroad experiences with our loved ones.  But, even with the technological avenues, we still miss the mundane-ness of everyday life.  It is is sharing these run-of-the-mill details that create strong friendships and relationships.

Although extended travel is an incredible opportunity, there are inevitable trade-offs.  The trade-offs are the small things in life, which sometimes make it easy to stay in one place, near home.  Traveling is an incredible opportunity, but there are drawbacks too.  It is necessary to find a balance between maintaining connections at home and being connected to your abroad experience.

How do you stay connected with friends and family while traveling or living abroad?  Do you think there are other trade-offs of long-term travel or other things you miss when away from home?

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.

FAQ: Solo Travel in Asia

Traveling solo can be daunting: no one to turn to and no one to rely on but yourself.  Especially for women, even the thought of traveling alone in a foreign country can be nerve-racking.  Questions might float in and out of a woman’s brain before a solo abroad trip: Will I be a target traveling alone?  Will I get kidnapped?  Should I carry a knife?  All these questions are valid concerns, but it should be noted that traveling alone in Asia can be very safe as long as you do it right.  The following are some frequently asked questions I get asked about solo travel in Asia:

You traveled alone? Weren’t you scared?

At first, yes, I was scared.  Maybe the feeling should be classified as nervous excitement more than scared.  I went on my first solo travel when I was 20 years old and backpacked around Asia for 10 months.  One of the first places I landed was in Kathmandu.  My heart was pounding as I stepped off the plane and the heat hit my in the face.  I grabbed my bag and walked outside to find a pack of touts trying to drive me to the tourist area of Thamel.  I didn’t know what to do, but I swallowed my nervousness and hired a taxi driver.  My nervousness about being in Kathmandu quickly dissipated and I quickly grew to love the city.

Should I carry a knife?

I’ve been asked multiple times whether or not I carry any sort of protective device like a knife.  I do carry a pocket knife in my backpack, but this is never for self-protective measures.  I don’t recommend carrying anything like mace or a knife.  Traveling alone is safe, just as safe as walking around your own home town (most likely).  Would you carry a knife with you when you walk around a new place in your country?  Probably not.  Also, in an emergency situation, ask yourself if you are really going to whip out a knife and defend yourself.  The best protective measure is not any sort of weapon, it’s being self aware and assertive.

Did anything bad ever happen to you?

Of course there are the random “incidents” that happen to everyone after they’ve traveled extensively.  If you do get mugged (or worse) try to remember that this incident is most likely not representative of the whole country.  The person who did that to you is an isolated being and should not make you think: “I hate (insert country name here) because everyone is a thief!”

This is very important to remember and I learned it on one of my first days traveling in Malaysia.  I (stupidly) shared a taxi with a random man I didn’t know.  The man and the taxi driver, who were in on the scam together, took me to an isolated ATM in Johor Bahru, forced me to take out $120 or else they would leave me in a slum and then deposited me back at the bus station.  After this whole incident, I was so angry at these men and at myself for being so stupid.  I left Malaysia, almost in tears, and went back to Singapore thinking: “I hate this country! How could they do this to me?”  After some consideration, I came to the conclusion that these people should absolutely NOT be representative of Malaysia as a whole, and the whole thing was my own fault for acting so impulsively.

Everyone seems to have a horror story in regards to their solo travels?

Of course they do!  Those are their battle wounds, their travel scars, the really juicy stories to be told over beers and street food.  People like

"Oh s***...."

to talk about their horror stories because, let’s face it, they’re interesting and harrowing tales of life on the road.  Although all seasoned travelers have a horror story to tell, try to remember that those stories are a TINY portion of their travels.  If someone got food poisoning for two days in their year-long trip to India, don’t think: “Ew! I’m never going to India!”  Those two days were a small percentage of their time traveling, during which the majority of the time they weren’t sick.  Take travel horror stories with a grain of salt, internalize their lesson and go to the place anyway with no fear.

Doesn’t it get lonely with so much alone time?

Yes.  Depending on how long your travels are, it can get very lonely, especially in more removed and isolated locations.  Enter: the book.  Traveling solo is a great opportunity to get to know yourself better and explore your own interests.  Read! Write! Draw! You have all the time in the world to do these activities at a leisurely pace when you’re traveling solo, so enjoy it!  Books are definitely the solo traveler’s best friend.  It might be best to stock up on a few at a time, depending if you’ll be traveling outside cities and urban areas.

But when you’re traveling solo, you don’t need to have your nose buried in a book all the time.  Being a solo traveler means you’re opening

Random strangers will soon morph into friends for the solo traveler.

yourself to meeting loads of new people.  A solo traveler is much less intimidating to approach than a group or a couple.  Being unattached equates to meeting more random people, both locals and travelers alike.  Eventually, these strangers will turn into friends whom you may even end up traveling with a bit.  So, yes, it can get lonely, but there are various ways to make connections while traveling solo.

Do you have any advice about traveling solo?  Add you comments below!