5 of the World’s Most Exciting Train Journeys

Blue Train, South Africa, Cape Town to Pretoria review: 31-hour journey  beats flying

For those seeking to escape the hustle and bustle of daily life, a train vacation provides a welcome opportunity to slow down, enjoying spectacular scenery from the comfort of your seat or sleeper, experiencing tantalizing tastes of new cultures and the bygone age of rail travel. From Singapore to Switzerland, we explore a selection of unforgettable train journeys.

1. Eastern & Oriental Express, Singapore to Thailand

Traversing the 1,200-mile journey from Singapore to Bangkok, Thailand, the Eastern & Oriental Express is the height of luxury, boasting an observation car, opulent sleeper cabins, and delectable meals concocted by internationally educated chefs.

In the elegant bar, passengers enjoy artisan cocktails while watching towering mountains, swathes of green, and glittering stretches of ocean pass by.

2. Blue Train, South Africa

Gliding from Pretoria to Cape Town, the Blue Train’s exterior is somewhat modest, belying the extravagance waiting within.

One of South Africa’s most iconic, elegant trains, the Blue Train’s dining car presents lavish five-course banquets, with the main car serving all manner of dainty creations at high tea. Deluxe Suites feature either twin beds and a shower or a double bed and a small bath. The bedroom areas can be converted into sitting rooms for daytime use.

Guests have the opportunity to explore vibrant Pretoria, spending the night at the exclusive Castello di Monte hotel. Once the Blue Train arrives in Cape Town, guests are invited to explore the sights, including Boulders Beach and its world-famous penguins and, of course, Table Mountain.

The Blue Train then continues to scenic Mont Rochelle and its internationally acclaimed vineyards. Guests also have the option of extending their itinerary, hitting the Garden Route, or embarking on a safari.

3. Reunification Express, Vietnam

Few stretches of railway boast the storied history of the North-South Railway, one of the best-loved railways in Southeast Asia. Over the years, the track’s fortunes have ebbed and flowed along with the countries it passes through.

Spanning a distance of 1,072 miles over two days, the Reunification Express transports passengers from Ho Chi Minh City in Southern Vietnam to Hanoi in the north. The train rumbles through fishing villages, lush green paddy fields, dense jungle, and even busy neighborhoods, providing spectacular views of the Vietnamese countryside.

Although it offers fairly modest accommodation, the Reunification Express does present a variety of different seating or sleeping options. The cheapest fare is the Hard Seat, providing passengers with a spot on one of the train’s many unforgiving wooden benches.

The next option is the Soft Seat, with plush chairs and overhead televisions playing Vietnamese programming, offering a (relatively) comfortable option for travelers on a tight budget. However, bearing in mind that the journey from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi takes 30-plus hours, many travelers opt for a sleeper.

As the name would suggest, the Hard Berth is basic, comprised of a room with six beds and no padding. For a few dollars more, the Soft Berth is available, with four passengers sharing. Finally, there are two-bed VIP cabins, which are ideal for couples.

4. Glacier Express, Switzerland

With a duration of 7.5 hours, this somewhat more modest 180-mile journey has earned an international reputation as the slowest, most scenic train journey in the whole of Europe. Winding through the magnificent Swiss Alps, the Glacier Express negotiates 91 tunnels and 291 bridges on its journey through the Oberalp Pass.

With surrounding mountain peaks reaching almost 7,000 feet above sea level, passengers are treated to magical vistas across the surrounding countryside as the train winds its way through valleys, past mountain forests, and along picturesque alpine pastureland.

Updated in 2019, seats in the train’s First- and Second-class panoramic cars feature power sockets and free WiFi. In addition to the audio guide, passengers can also access the newly-integrated infotainment system via their tablets or smartphones, tracking the progress of their journey and learning interesting facts about the region.

5. The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, Italy to the UK

The world’s most famous luxury train, the legendary Orient Express has been reimagined to emulate the Golden Age of rail travel.

In the dining carriages, passengers indulge in the romance of the railway, dressed to the nines in elegant downs and dinner jackets with black ties. Capturing the hearts and imaginations of guests for generations, the dining carriages are ornately decorated with oriental black lacquer panels inlaid with Lalique glass.

Providing a unique opportunity to experience a world of timeless glamor, the train’s six Grand Suites are the height of luxury and unbridled indulgence that, in days gone by, was known only to royalty.

Journeying along one of Europe’s most scenic rail routes, passengers enjoy their own private compartments furnished with gleaming mahogany paneling and damask bed linen. From the Italian Dolomites to the Swiss Alps, guests are afforded spectacular views aboard this timeless jewel.

3 Stunning Ancient Monuments in Asia

Of the world’s most impressive ancient buildings still standing today, many are located in Asia. Built using the latest architectural innovations of the time, many of these structures are on an imposing scale, even by today’s standards.

In this article, we explore three ancient sites in Asia and the civilizations who built them.

1.                  Sigiriya Rock Fortress – Sri Lanka

Sigiriya, the 'Lion Fortress' of Sri Lanka

Rising out of the jungle like a specter, Sigiriya Rock Fortress is an ancient feat of engineering. Touted as the Eighth Wonder of the Ancient World by locals, Sigiriya is one of the most impressive monuments in Sri Lanka. It is also the most commonly visited tourist attraction in the island nation.

Located at the heart of the country between the towns of Habarane and Dambulla, the fortress was built around and on top of a gargantuan natural rock column. Formed by the magma of a long-extinct volcano, this rocky plateau juts 200 meters above the surrounding jungle, creating a striking sight that astonishes visitors for miles.

Lying in ruins today, the fort complex comprises remnants of a once grand palace, as well as gardens, fountains, ponds, and canals. Inhabited since the third century BC, Sigiriya was first home to Buddhist monks and ascetics who lived in caves and shelters carved into the side of the rock. King Kashyapa elected to construct a royal residence there in the fifth century AD.

Although much of the original structure has been lost to time, the rock’s northern side still bears witness to a massive carved stone lion façade—its huge feet still survive. The palace was covered in frescoes, some of which also survive, depicting women believed to have been King Kashyapa’s wives and concubines. Other features at the site include the mirror wall, which was once covered in polished white plaster so that the king could see his reflection. The plaster wore away, however, and the wall now is covered with inscriptions and poetic verses carved by visitors, most dating back to the 8th through tenth centuries.

2.                  Temples of Angkor – Cambodia

Attracting around 2 million visitors annually, the ancient Khmer capital of Angkor encompasses more than 1,000 temples of various sizes across a 248-square-mile area in Siem Reap Province. The ruins of the ancient city represent one of the most important archaeological sites in the world.

Angkor Wat, the main temple, was constructed under the direction of King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century as the state temple. It is celebrated as Cambodia’s heart and soul, features on the country’s flag, and was voted the world’s number 1 tourist site by Lonely Planet.

The largest religious structure in the world, the temple is a sprawling, multi-level building made of sandstone blocks and laterite and consisting of several galleries and terraces. Five lotus bud-shaped towers rise from the top; they symbolize Mount Meru, the sacred five-peak mountain from Buddhist and Hindu lore believed to be the center of the world. Extensive bas-relief decorations depict gods and figures from ancient epics, including the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire for several centuries and may have been home to as many as 750,000 to 1 million people. Archaeologists have also concluded that the city at its peak was the largest in land area in the pre-industrial world—it rivaled modern-day Paris in size. The Khmer Empire dominated Southeast Asia for six centuries and is the precursor state to modern Cambodia.

3.                  Shwedagon Pagoda – Myanmar

Shwedagon Pagoda - History of the gold plated diamond studded Shwedagon  pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda is Myanmar’s most important Buddhist pilgrimage site, towering over the country’s largest city, Yangon. Many people visit Myanmar just to see the spectacle of the pagoda’s golden dome rising above the city skyline, gilded in pure gold and crowned by a 76-carat diamond.

Day and night, Shwedagon Pagoda buzzes with the prayers and chants of Buddhist monks and worshippers. The site is also home to four important Buddhist relics, including the eight hairs of Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism. According to legend, the Buddha gave the hairs to two merchant brothers from Yangon, telling them to enshrine them on a spot on the hillside where relics of three previous reincarnations of the Buddha were buried.

The precise age of Shwedagon Pagoda is disputed, although some historians believe it may date back to the time of the Buddha himself, making it 2,500 years old. Known as the Golden Pagoda, the pagoda has a mystical atmosphere after dark and is illuminated by spotlights. Each corner of the pagoda is decorated with a Buddhist image, accompanied by a planet and animal sign, in accordance with Eastern astrology. Here, devotees burn candles and offer flowers. Shwedagon Pagoda has four entrances, each guarded by an enormous chinthe, a mythic lion with a golden head and white body. The upper interior walls are decorated with intricate depictions of the Jataka tales, telling stories from Buddha’s previous lives.

At the center of Shwedagon Pagoda is the main stupa, a half-spherical structure containing the enshrined Buddhist relics. Large numbers of devotees travel vast distances to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda each day. They walk around the stupa in a processional ritual and make offerings to the Buddha.

5 of the Most Spectacular Tourist Attractions in India

Steeped in history, India has a unique blend of cultures and religions, attracting travelers from all over the world. In this article, we explore five of the most incredible tourist attractions India has to offer.

1.   The Red Fort – Delhi

Dating back to 1648, the Red Fort in Delhi served as the principal residence of the Mughal emperors. Emperor Shah Jahan, who had previously commissioned the construction of the world-famous Taj Mahal to honor his late wife, used the same architect to design the Red Fort. Shah Jahan built the Red Fort after deciding to relocate the capital of India from Agra to Delhi. The Red Fort was once home to the priceless Kohinoor diamond, which was at one point part of Shah Jahan’s Peacock Throne.

The octagonal fort was originally decorated in red and white and known as Qila-e-Mubarak or “the blessed fort.” The complex lies on the bank of the Yamuna River, with moats surrounding most of the fort’s walls.

In 2007 the Red Fort received UNESCO World Heritage Site status. It is also Delhi’s largest monument and a place of national significance. The prime minister of India visits the complex every year on August 15, India’s Independence Day, to raise the country’s flag and deliver a nationally broadcast speech from the fort ramparts.

2.   The Palace of Winds – Jaipur

Hawa Mahal or “Palace of Winds” was commissioned in 1799 by Maharaja Pratap Singh. Featuring more than 950 small windows and intricate latticework, the five-floor exterior resembles a honeycomb. It was designed this way to allow royal ladies to observe everyday life, as well as festivals, on the streets below without being seen since they had to conform to the strict rules of purdah, which forbade public appearances without a face covering. This architectural feature also facilitates the passage of cool air, keeping the building and its occupants cooler in the stifling heat of summer.

The palace is shaped like a mukut, the crown that adorns the head of Lord Krishna, a Hindu god. Maharaja Pratap Singh was a Krishna devotee, and he dedicated the Palace of Winds to his deity.

3.   The Golden Temple – Amritsar

Also known as Harmandir Sahib or “abode of God,” this open house of worship brings together people of all faiths, from all walks of life. Records show that Lord Buddha stayed at the sacred site, which at the time consisted of a lake surrounded by thick forests. Lord Buddha declared the site an ideal meditation ground for saints and sadhus.

Today, more than 100,000 visitors flock to the Golden Temple daily. The Golden Temple was built around 400 years ago, taking almost eight years to complete. It gets its name from the layer of gold foil that covers the building. It is the most spiritually significant Sikh shrine, attracting devotees from all over the world.

Constructed around a manmade pool, the temple complex comprises a collection of buildings, including Akal Takht, the principal center of religious authority of Sikhism. The complex also features a museum, a clocktower, and a langar, a Sikh community-run kitchen that serves free vegetarian meals to all visitors.

The pool surrounding the temple, Amrit Sarovar, is considered sacred by Sikhs. Before prayer, they bathe in the Sarovar’s holy waters, believing that the sacred pool can cure ailments and disorders, as well as enabling them to connect with the spirits.

4.   The Ellora Caves – Aurangabad

Dating back to the fifth century, the Ellora Caves at Aurangabad were built by Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain monks. This UNESCO World Heritage Site features 34 intricately carved chapels, monasteries, and temples. With temples for different denominations built in proximity, this site shows the elevated level of religious tolerance that existed throughout this period of Indian history.

In the Buddhist monastery caves, visitors can see shrines and carvings of Buddha that date back to the fifth century. Carved from the top down, the Hindu caves are much more complex, with just one rock-cut temple requiring the removal of around 200,000 tons of rock.

5.   Taj Mahal – Agra

This UNESCO World Heritage site was built by the Mogul emperor Shah Jahan in honor of his late wife, Mumtaz, who died in childbirth. Surrounded by tranquil gardens, the white-domed structure is ornately decorated inside and out, the gleaming white marble studded with precious and semi-precious stones.

The building’s most spectacular feature is the tomb’s marble roof, which stands almost 115 feet high. The dome is decorated with a lotus design, accentuating the building’s height. The building itself contains inscriptions of passages from the Qur’an. The Taj Mahal’s architecture combines Islamic, Indian, and Persian styles, and its construction cost somewhere in the region of $1 billion in today’s money. In 2007 Taj Mahal was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

United Goes Supersonic: Airline Signs Historic Deal with Boom

In June 2021, United Airlines announced plans to start offering supersonic passenger flights by 2029. The US airline has agreed to purchase 15 new supersonic aircraft as part of its efforts to “return supersonic speeds to aviation.”

The last supersonic flight touched down in 2003, when the Concorde was retired by British Airways and Air France. The United deal is conditional upon the new airliners meeting safety standards—the aircraft, named Overture, is yet to be flight-tested. Overture’s Denver-based manufacturer, Boom Supersonic, reports that they designed the net-zero carbon aircraft to fly on 100% sustainable aviation fuel.

What is supersonic flight?

Supersonic flight occurs when an aircraft accelerates past the speed of sound, breaking the sound barrier. While a typical passenger jet cruises at around 560 mph at an altitude of around 40,000 feet, supersonic flight demands a minimum speed of 660 mph at about 60,000 feet.

Overture is expected to almost double that benchmark, reaching speeds in excess of 1,120 mph and cutting in half transatlantic journey times such as flights from New York to London. Boom claims their Overture aircraft could complete that journey in just 3.5 hours. The Concorde, which first started flying commercial passengers in 1976, was actually faster, reaching maximum speeds of around 1,350 mph.

Supersonic flight sparks two major concerns: pollution and noise. As Boom’s Chief Commercial Officer Kathy Savitt explained to the press, to fly supersonic, you need more power, which requires more fuel. Nevertheless, she maintains that Overture will operate as a net-zero aircraft in terms of carbon emissions.

Another potential concern with the new United fleet is noise on the ground. When an aircraft breaks the sound barrier it creates a sonic boom, which on the ground may be mistaken for an explosion or clap of thunder—hence the manufacturer’s name. Civil aviation laws dictate that aircraft cannot break the sound barrier above populated areas since the bang is incredibly loud and would disturb residents. Typically, a supersonic aircraft must wait until they are out over the ocean to break the sound barrier.

Boom maintains that Overture will be no louder than a regular passenger jet during takeoff, flight, and landing. A spokesperson for the company said that significant improvements in aircraft design since the days of the Concorde would help reduce and mitigate the sonic boom.

How can supersonic travel be sustainable?

Overture will be powered by sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), according to Boom. This could take the form of biodiesel derived from everything from agricultural waste products to purpose-grown high-energy crops. However, the world still has nowhere near the capacity needed to produce enough biofuel for the entire aviation industry.

Nevertheless, Boom maintains that power-to-liquid processes, where renewable energy is used to make liquid fuel, could close the gap. As a Boom representative explained, the company expects that with billions of airline commitments and investments across the sector, biofuel production will be ramped up well before 2029.

What happened to the Concorde?

The Concorde was one of only two working commercial supersonic jets to date. Operated by British Airways and Air France, 20 Concorde aircraft were built in total, of which 16 flew.

Launched ­in 1976, the aircraft was in service for 27 years before being decommissioned in 2003 following a farewell tour around the UK and North America. Capable of carrying around 100 passengers and a crew of nine, the Concorde once travelled from London to New York in just 2 hours, 52 minutes, establishing a new record.

Due to the sonic boom, the Concorde was banned from flying over land. Because of this, it primarily served the transatlantic route between London or Paris and Washington, DC, or New York. Because of the significant time savings achieved by the Concorde, combined with its elite status, operators charged as much as $12,000 (in today’s dollars) for a round trip. This meant that the aircraft only had to fly at half capacity in order to break even.

In 2000, the plane was grounded, after an Air France accident killed all 109 passengers and crew onboard, as well as four people on the ground. It was the only fatal accident of the Concorde in its history. Significant modifications were mandated for the remaining fleet, with the first Concorde flight to take passengers since the accident landing in New York on September 11, 2001, minutes before the first plane hit the World Trade Center. In the wake of 9/11, the bottom fell out of the premium airline industry, leaving British Airways and Air France unable to recoup their modification costs.

Despite the astronomical development costs, the Concorde did become profitable in its last years of operation. Although some experts maintain that the world’s wealthiest travelers will stick with their private jets rather than travel with other people, Boom argues that its research suggests otherwise. Company founder and CEO Blake Scholl explained that being able to travel twice as fast will allow passengers to experience the benefits of “life lived in person,” like longer, more relaxing vacations to far-off destinations, and more productive business relationships.

9 World Famous Thai Dishes That Every Visitor Should Try

Thailand is internationally renowned for its sumptuous cuisine, and with good reason. With a tropical climate, the country is rich in fresh produce, including exotic fruits, vegetables, and aromatic herbs and spices.

Its temperate waters are also bountiful in seafood. In fact, Thailand is the world’s third-largest seafood exporter, generating $8.31 billion in revenue from the seafood industry every year.

Presenting travelers with the opportunity to sample a myriad of different dishes and flavors, from street food to high end restaurants, Thai cuisine has a dish to satisfy all tastes. From the silky noodles of Pad Thai to Kao Niew Ma Muang, a sumptuous sticky rice and sweet mango dish, we look at nine delicious Thai dishes.

1. Pad Thai

One of the most famous of all Thai dishes, Pad Thai is served throughout Thailand, from street carts to chic restaurants. With a dash of fresh lime juice and a sprinkle of peanuts, this slippery noodle dish has a signature sweet-savory flavor.

Made with thin, flat rice noodles, there are numerous variations of Pad Thai, but it is typically cooked with a protein, the most popular being shrimp or chicken, tofu, scrambled egg, beansprouts, and garlic chives. The stir fry sauce is made with brown sugar, tamarind, oyster sauce, and fish sauce.

2. Khao Soi

With origins in Northern Thailand, like Pad Thai, Khao Soi is a delicately spiced dish that is particularly appealing to the Western palate, making it hugely popular among tourists. This coconut-based curry usually incorporates a chicken drumstick topped with fried noodles and flavored with garlic, shallots, ginger, cardamom, turmeric, coriander seeds, and a hint of chili.

3. Khao Pad Sapparot

Served in a hollowed pineapple, this Thai fried rice takes on the fruit’s sweetness, the aromatic herbs and spices adding depth of flavor and cashew nuts adding a nice crunch. The end result is a sweet but delicious dish that is popular with travelers and locals alike. The dish is typically made with shrimp or sometimes chicken.

4. Gaeng Keow Wan

Translating as “sweet green curry,” Gaeng Keow Wan is the fieriest of all Thai curries. Balanced with coconut milk, Gaeng Keow Wan is made from a variety of delectable fresh ingredients, including coconut milk, ginger, and eggplant. It gets its color from the fresh green chilies that are pounded with a pestle and mortar.

Surging in popularity in the early 1900s during the reign of King Rama VII, Gaeng Keow Wan is usually served with thinly sliced fish or chicken breast, and accompanied by steamed rice to temper the spice.

5. Tom Yum Goong

This hot and sour soup is a signature Thai dish, commonly featured on many Thai restaurant menus in the West. Usually made with shrimp, Tom Yum Goong is served at Thai Square in London, an establishment widely accepted to be one of the finest Thai restaurants in the UK.

Made from a fusion of fresh herbs and spices including kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, crushed peppers, and galangal, fish sauce and lime juice are added to the paste, which is then stir fried in oil. Tom Yum Goong is usually made with shrimp, but these may be substituted with pork, chicken, or even beef.

6. Hoy Tod

This popular dish is essentially an oyster or mussel omelet. There are two distinct types of the dish, made with different types of batter: a spongy version that is always cooked with oysters, and a crispy-fried version that may be made with either oysters or mussels. Hoy Tod incorporates crispy beansprouts and is often served with chili sauce.

7. Pak Boong

One of the tastiest dishes in Thai cuisine, Pak Boong is stir-fried morning glory plant. A rare find in the West due to the scarcity of its main ingredient, which is also known as water spinach, the tender shoots and leaves are much-loved in Thai cookery for the way they take on other flavors so beautifully.

8. Lod Chong

This simple dessert is made from sweetened coconut milk, green noodles, and crushed ice. It is the perfect antidote to a heavy meal and is incredibly popular in Thailand.

Sold by street vendors and restaurants alike, the sweet jelly noodles have little flavor and are there simply to add texture. The sweetened coconut, on the other hand, is tasty and refreshing.

9. Kao Niew Ma Muang

This mango and sticky rice dessert is simple yet delicious, making it an all-time crowd pleaser. The sticky rice is soaked in coconut syrup before being topped with salted coconut sauce, and served with sumptuous, sweet mangos.

Rather than being steamed, the rice is cooked in a pot on the stove, with coconut and brown sugar added to sweeten the flavor. It is important to use the ripest, sweetest mangoes possible for the dish, which is relatively easy to make at home.

Life in Slow Motion: 6 of the Greatest World Heritage Sites in Asia

From ancient temples to breathtaking natural wonders, Asia is home to numerous UNESCO sites. The sheer size of this continent—the world’s largest—makes it exceptionally diverse ethnically, culturally, and environmentally.

In this article, we explore some of the most spectacular UNESCO World Heritage Sites to be found on the continent of Asia that draw visitors from all over the world.

1. Volcanoes of Kamchatka, Russia

On Russia’s eastern fringes lies the Kamchatka Peninsula, a region densely populated with active volcanoes. Lying between the Pacific Ocean and a sprawling landmass, the area’s rivers, lakes, and coastline are abundant in wildlife, including peregrine falcon, Stellar’s sea eagle, white tailed eagle, sea otters, and brown bear.

Described by UNESCO as one of the world’s most outstanding volcanic regions, the interplay between glaciers and active volcanoes compounds the peninsula’s beauty.

In 1996, the United Nations approached NASA’s Earth Observatory, asking whether the Volcanoes of Kamchatka should be granted World Heritage status. The Committee’s response was akin to explorer Stepan Karasheninnikov’s comments about the peninsula in 1755, when he pointed out that no other region in the world has so many hot springs and volcanoes within such a small area.

2. Luang Prabang, Laos

Nestled in a lush mountain valley, Luang Prabang lies at the point where the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers converge. Once the country’s capital before the monarchy acceded to the French in the late 1800s, today European facades fill in the gaps in between ancient red-and-gold-roofed temples.

Luang Prabang is a fusion of cultures, where Buddhist monks draped in saffron robes float serenely past crumbling Colonial facades. Translating as “city of the Golden Buddha Phra Bang,” Luang Prabang comprises an eclectic mixture of attractions.

The Royal Palace was constructed by French colonialists in 1904. The building is an interesting blend of French and Lao architecture, incorporating a grand throne room gleaming with lapis lazuli elephants, mosaic emerald palms, golden robes, and silver rivers.

Dating back to 1788, the palace of Wat Mai is world famous for its gold stenciled hall and intricate bas-relief work.

Luang Prabang

3. Gunung Mulu National Park, Malaysia

Situated on the island of Borneo, Gunung Mulu National Park cover 528 square kilometers of ancient rainforest and bottomless caverns. It is characterized by its towering karst peaks: shards of stone that rise up out of the jungle. The sandstone peak of Mulu dates back 60 million years. The mountain also boasts some of the world’s largest caves.

Gunung Mulu National Park is one of just 20 natural UNESCO World Heritage sites worldwide to meet all four qualifying criteria: superlative beauty, biodiversity, ecology, and history. Mulu has been the place of legends since ancient times, attracting tribes from near and far. Today, 96 percent of the park’s workforce are proud Sarawakians.

4. Kyoto, Japan

Kyoto was Japan’s imperial capital from 794 CE until the 1800s. Here, secular and religious architecture flourished, while the city’s gardens influenced countries around the globe from the 19th century.

Incorporating a total of 17 separate sites situated in the cities of Kyoto, Uji, and Otsu, the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto was a thriving center of Japanese culture for over 1,000 years. Kyoto is renowned for its traditional wooden architecture, impressive Buddhist temples, grand palaces, and, of course, iconic Japanese gardens.

5. Komodo National Park, Indonesia

The fearsome Komodo dragon inhabits five Indonesian islands, two of which—Rinca and Komodo—lay within Komodo National Park. Guided treks afford visitors a unique opportunity to observe the world’s largest land lizard at close quarters.

Capable of bringing down an animal three times its size, the Komodo dragon will eat virtually anything, including pigs, deer, carrion, water buffalo, and even smaller members of its own species. Komodo dragons are opportunists, lying in wait for prey to come along before springing up and using their sharp claws and serrated teeth to tear into prey.

Other interesting and rare species that can be spotted in Komodo National Park include the Timor rusa deer, crab-eating macaque, Asian palm civet, saltwater crocodile, Russell’s viper, Javan spitting cobra, blue lipped sea krait, and Timor python.

6. Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, Philippines

Lying in the Sulu Sea, far from the coast of Puerto Princesa, Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park is open to visitors between March and June each year. The only way to reach the park is by “liveaboard,” multi-day boat hires utilized by SCUBA divers to reach the world’s most tantalizing reefs.

With just a handful of operators running trips to Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, it has remained relatively obscure and off the beaten path, although it is becoming more well-known. The reefs’ crystal-clear waters are also shallow enough for snorkeling in places.

The park is inhabited by a myriad of colorful marine life, including Napoleon wrasse, green and hawksbill turtles, and even the occasional whale shark.

9 of Borneo’s Most Spectacular Attractions

Luring travelers from far and wide, Borneo is more than twice the size of Germany and ranks as the world’s third largest island. Administered by Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei, it is not only home to more than 200 ethnic groups, but also one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet, boasting more than 15,000 plant species, including the world’s largest individual flower, Rafflesia arnoldii.

In this article, we look at 9 of Borneo’s most exciting sights.

1. Mount Kinabalu, Sabah

The tallest mountain in Southeast Asia, where the outlook for a post-pandemic resurgence in tourism is largely positive, Mount Kinabalu reaches to 13,345 feet (or 4,095 meters) and requires two days to summit. Deriving its name from a Kadazan word meaning “the revered place of the dead,” it is Borneo’s state emblem and one of the most important biological sites in the world, hosting an estimated 6,000 plant species – more than those of Europe and North America combined.

Mount Kinabalu

2. Derawan, Kalimantan

Located off the east coast of Borneo, the Derawan Islands have been noted for their white sand, lush interiors, and hidden lagoons. This region of the Sulawesi Sea offers exceptional diving opportunities, its submerged reefs and islets accommodating 500 types of coral and 872 species of fish.

3. Danum Valley, Sabah

A protected region of East Sabah since 1995, Danum Valley has largely escaped the deforestation that blights other parts of the island. Encompassing approximately 438 square kilometers of rainforest, Danum Valley boasts not only a dipterocarp forest that dates back more than 130 million years, but also thousands of species of flora and fauna, including orangutans.

The valley also includes comfortable bungalows to accommodate visitors taking part in jungle treks, night safaris, or canopy walks. Situated in the middle of the jungle, two hours from the nearest town, Danum Valley offers an exciting opportunity to immerse yourself in the sights and sounds of the jungle while escaping the hustle and bustle of urban life.

4. Kuching, Sarawak

The capital of Sarawak, Kuching is known as “the city of cats” and boasts stunning heritage buildings and colonial architecture, colorful temples, and floating villages in addition to its famous cat statues.

Like most cities in Borneo, the focal point of Kuching is its river. Meandering along the Sarawak River on a sampan is an excellent way to explore the city, providing impressive views of the Victorian fort, 19th-century Chinese shophouses, a golden-domed mosque, Malay villages, and the magnificent wooden-roofed palace set against a stunning mountain backdrop.

5. Sepilok, Sabah

One of Borneo’s most famous attractions, the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre opened in 1964. Since then, its staff and volunteers have cared for baby or orphaned orangutans, victims of poaching, deforestation, and the like. Around one-third of the 80 resident primates are babies. The best time to visit the center is feeding time, which takes place at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. daily.

6. Bako National Park, Sarawak

One of Borneo’s most beautiful attractions, Bako National Park showcases a convergence of deserted islands and beaches with a jungle experience. Despite the national park’s modest size, it offers an impressive array of rare and interesting wildlife. Home to approximately 150 proboscis monkeys, the park is one of the best places in the world to observe the endangered species. Other species that can be spotted here include the Bornean bearded pig, long-tailed macaque, monitor lizard, plantain squirrel, and silvery langur.

7. Sipadan Island, Sabah

Voted one of the best dive sites in the world, Sipadan Island is the only true oceanic island in Malaysia, rising 600 meters from the ocean floor. Its stunning underwater visibility enables visiting divers to observe a myriad of rare marine life, including sea turtles, reef sharks, and huge schools of barracudas. With hundreds of coral species and over 3,000 species of fish, the region is classified as one of the richest ecosystems on Earth.

8. Niah Caves, Sarawak

Niah National Park has earned an international reputation for its vast caves, Iron Age cave paintings, and Paleolithic and Neolithic burial sites. The region was once a major center of human settlement, with remains discovered at the site that date back 40,000 years.

The walls of the Painted Cave are adorned with illustrations depicting boats carrying the dead to the afterlife. Remnants of these “death ships” found on the cave floor are now exhibited at Sarawak Museum.

9. Monsopiad Cultural Village, Sabah

Nestled on the banks of the Penampang River, this living museum is named after a fearsome warrior who lived more than 200 years ago. The main building is dedicated to Monsopiad and his descendants, displaying ceramic items, and the ceremonial costume of Bobohizan Inai Bianti, a senior high priestess and direct descendent of Monsopiad. Other interesting exhibits include a huge monolith, as well as the House of Skulls, containing 42 human skulls reputedly collected by the Kadazan headhunter.

The Cuisine of Southeast Asia: 4 of the Region’s Most Popular Dishes

Possessing a tropical climate, fertile soil, and crystal-clear waters, the lands and oceans of Southeast Asia produce an abundance of mouthwatering produce. Encompassing Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines, the region has been influenced by numerous people and cultures throughout the centuries, culminating in an exciting fusion of different cooking styles. In this article, we look at a selection of Southeast Asia’s most celebrated dishes.

1. Martabak – Indonesia

From the sugar-white beaches of Bali to the orangutans of Borneo, Indonesia lures travelers from all over the world with its ancient temples, exotic wildlife, and breathtaking landscapes.

Little known outside of the country, Martabak is an incredibly popular Indonesian street food. Available in both sweet and savory versions, it is cooked to order and served hot and fresh.

A savory Martabak from a reputable vendor is typically made with duck eggs, featuring a two-egg filling as standard, although customers could order up to five. The vendor works a small piece of wheat dough with impressive dexterity, stretching it so thinly that the dough becomes translucent, to make a very thin base.

The dough is laid flat in a large shallow pan and fried in hot oil until it starts to bubble and blister. Meanwhile, the vendor adds cilantro, chopped green onions, and seasoned cooked ground chicken to the beaten eggs. The cook stirs the mixture, then spreads it across the center of the bubbling dough to form a thin layer.

The vendor then makes a series of folds, culminating in a neat, crispy rectangle, which is cooked until it turns golden brown before being served with sour pickled cucumbers, radishes, and raw hot chilis. The filling resembles fluffy scrambled eggs with a fresh herb flavor.

2. Bak Kut Teh – Malaysia

From the ultra-modern Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur to the azure waters of Langkawi Island, Malaysia’s eclectic blend of ancient temples and customs and chic, modern cities attracts tourists of all ages.

Made with Chinese herbs, garlic, and pork ribs, Bak Kut Teh translates as “pork bone tea soup”. Traditionally made in a clay pot, the recipe involves hours of slow boiling, resulting in pork that is so tender that it melts in your mouth.

Bak Kut Teh contains tofu puffs and Shitake mushrooms, as well as being infused with herbs like star anise, cinnamon, and Dong Quai, filling the kitchen with tempting aromas as it cooks. The dish is commonly accompanied by stir fried vegetables, rice, and a small plate of minced garlic, chili, and soy dipping sauce.

The soup is believed to have its origins in Fujian Province, China. Historians suggest that Hokkien migrants introduced the dish to Malaysia in the 1800s. Bak Kut Teh is said to have been a popular breakfast among Chinese laborers, setting them up for a day of backbreaking work.

3. Pho – Vietnam

From bustling Hanoi to the emerald mountains of the north, Vietnam is home to several UNESCO World Heritage sites, including mystical Ha Long Bay and the imperial city of Hue.

The origins of Pho are thought to date back to the 1880s in northern Vietnam. Heavily influenced by both Chinese and French cooking, Pho is a delicate rice noodle soup that is made from beef bones, green onions, fish sauce, yellow rock sugar, and a variety of aromatic species, including fennel seeds, cinnamon, star anise, cardamon, and ginger.

Served sprinkled with chopped fresh herbs, Pho is considered a national dish of the Vietnamese, its complex flavors capturing the attention of Americans following its introduction to the West by Vietnamese migrants. Today, there are an estimated 2,000 Pho restaurants across the United States and Canada.

This versatile, adaptable dish is prepared in a range of different styles as chefs experiment with different ingredients. Typically made with beef or chicken, contemporary versions of this Southeast Asian staple contain pork or seafood.

4. Adobo – The Philippines

The Philippines is an archipelago comprising more than 7,000 Pacific islands. Famous worldwide for its white sandy beaches and crystal-clear waters, the country is home to many amazing natural waters, including an underground river and some of the finest diving spots in the world.

Adobo is a popular dish in the Philippines. It is made by marinating meat in soy sauce; garlic; and cane, rice, or coconut vinegar. Whole tomatoes, bay leaves, black pepper, and white onions are added, before the stew is cooked. Adobo is typically garnished with green onions and served with steamed rice. Traditionally, adobo was cooked in small clay pots, although metal pots and woks are commonly used today.

Adobo is usually made with chicken, pork, beef, or a mixture of different meats, although the seafood and vegetable versions are sometimes prepared. It is a popular daily meal as well as a feast dish. Since vinegar preserves meat by inhibiting the growth of bacteria, adobo has a relatively long shelf life. The dish keeps well without refrigeration and is commonly packed for Filipino travelers and mountaineers.

7 Off-the-Beaten Track Travel Adventures in Thailand

As the world slowly returns to some kind of normalcy as the covid-19 pandemic wanes in many countries, experts predict a rapid resurgence in international tourism.

With its vibrant cities, ancient temples, tropical beaches, and lush vegetation, Thailand figures prominently on the bucket lists of many international travelers. In this article, we eschew the many delights of Bangkok, seeking out a path less traveled in the Land of Smiles.

1. Mae Hong Son

Located in northwest Thailand close to the Myanmar border, the small town of Mae Hong Son is the perfect base from which to explore the local countryside, visit nearby waterfalls, and experience village life. Just outside the town is a Buddhist wat (temple) built in the middle of a vast rice paddy, which is accessed via a handmade bamboo bridge. Another impressive wat is located in the town center. Visitors to Mae Hong Son can spend a relaxing evening at one of the lakeside restaurants, enjoying impressive views of the vast, ornately decorated wat and its shimmering reflection in the water.

2. Mu Ko Chumphon National Park

Covering more than 317 square kilometers, including 70 kilometers of coastline, Mu Ko Chumphon National Park is a paradise for nature enthusiasts as it’s home to a wealth of rare and interesting plant and animal species.

This national park encompasses a variety of wildlife habitats, including mountains, mangrove forests, and dozens of islands in the Gulf of Thailand. Mu Ko Chumphon National Park is particularly popular with scuba divers and offers ample diving opportunities for both novice and experienced divers alike.

3. Wat Phutthabat Sutthamat, Lampang

The mountainous province of Lampang is a 1½ hour drive from the northern city of Chiang Mai. Known as the “unseen cliff temples of Lampang,” Wat Phutthabat Sutthamat is a unique destination that fewer international travelers to Thailand ever visit. Tourists can combine a tour of this site with a visit to nearby Chae Son National Park, with its hot springs, cave complexes, and Chae Son Waterfall.

With rugged rocky cliffs surrounding the temple, Wat Phutthabat Sutthamat is accessed via a bus ride up the mountain, before negotiating a winding, 800-meter path on foot. From the small, white-washed pagodas, visitors can experience panoramic views of the valley below.

4. Sala Kaew Ku

Sala Kaew Ku is a park that features many impressive statues that are notable even among the countless representations of the Buddha across Thailand. One such statue, which measures 25 meters tall, features Buddha in a meditative pose, under the protection of a seven-headed Naga serpent deity.

The park was built over the course of two decades. It was commissioned by Luang Pu Boun Leua Sourirat, a Thai mystic who died in 1996. In addition to many Buddhas, Sala Kaew Ku features a myriad of enigmatic statutes of Vishnu, Shiva, and other deities. The main building is packed with hundreds of smaller sculptures, as well as photos of Luang Pu at various stages in his life.

5. Ban Chiang Archaeological Site

Located near Udon Thani in northeast Thailand, Ban Chiang was discovered by an American college student in the 1960s. He was conducting research for his political science thesis in Ban Chiang when he tripped over a tree root, tumbling face-first into a piece of ancient pottery. He took samples of the pots, which were subsequently dated back to 2000 BC.

The former residents of Ban Chiang left behind thousands of pots featuring intricate designs with red circular swirls, dots, and waves. Archaeologists also unearthed Bronze and Iron Age tools at the site, as well as finding early evidence of rice cultivation.

6. Emerald Cave, Koh Mook Island

Typically reached via the neighboring island of Koh Lanta, Koh Mook is a tropical island located in the Andaman Sea. Here, visitors can enjoy white sandy beaches, warm sea waters, and traditional Thai villages, making it the perfect spot for swimming, snorkeling, and sunbathing. It’s also great for vacationers keen to escape the glitz, party scene, and resorts of many other Thai islands.

To reach Emerald Cave, visitors are advised to set off at sunrise, renting a kayak to reach it in comfort, although some people opt to swim instead. The caves are accessed from the sea, with visitors paddling or swimming through a small hole in the rock face. They continue through the darkness for 80 meters, before emerging to find a stunning scene.

The Emerald Cave is actually roofless: its looming, jagged walls are festooned in tropical vegetation and give way to blue sky above. The vista is complete with a white sandy beach and turquoise lagoon, making for a truly breathtaking scene.

7. Kaeng Krachan National Park

Located near the border with Burma, Thailand’s largest national park has tremendous biodiversity. Visitors are likely to encounter hornbills with their large yellow beaks, as well as porcupines, monkeys, black squirrels, and thousands of butterflies. The park is also home to elephant and leopards, with the occasional tiger sometimes spotted.

Optimism Surrounds the Potential for Travel in Southeast Asia

The pandemic has had a devastating impact on global tourism, and Southeast Asia is no exception. Encompassing the region historically known as Indochina, including Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, and the Peninsular Malaysia, Southeast Asia is home to 655 million people. With its ancient temples, vibrant cities, tropical beaches, and exotic wildlife, the region attracted visitors from near and far prior to the arrival of Covid-19. We explore the potential reopening of travel across Southeast Asia in 2021 and beyond.

The impact of Covid-19 on Southeast Asian countries

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Covid-19 did not spread as rapidly in Southeast Asia as it did in many other regions. Indeed, WHO suggests that the rest of the world may have much to learn from the response of Southeast Asian nations, who acted promptly following the emergence of the novel coronavirus, taking robust steps to contain the pandemic despite having only limited fiscal space.

Nevertheless, with Southeast Asia home to some of the most tourism-reliant nations in the world, coronavirus-induced global lockdowns have had a massive financial impact, reaping devastation on regional tourism. Throughout the summer of 2020, while many European travel destinations were open for business, Southeast Asian borders remained largely closed. A report published by WHO reveals that the Asia and Pacific region experienced a decrease in visitor arrivals in the first quarter of 2020 alone. In Southeast Asia, as in many other regions, the pandemic hit already vulnerable demographics the hardest.

Global vaccination programs and a potential bounce back in tourism

As countries around the world implement Covid-19 vaccination programs, market analysts predict a rebound in international travel, facilitating recovery from last year’s slump. According to research from travel market analyst IPK International, 62% of travelers are intent on venturing abroad in 2021.

IPK International’s report cited the fear of contracting Covid-19 as the most commonly given reason for avoiding international travel. Of those respondents who were intending to travel, 90% confirmed that they were willing to be vaccinated.

However, the research reveals one significant change in tourist behavior. Vacationers are showing a strong preference for staying within their own region, with Europeans, Asians, and Americans typically choosing trips on their continent for 2021. The report revealed a 70% decline in outbound international travel throughout 2020, with Asia hardest hit. Globally, international holiday bookings fell by 71%, with international air travel down by 74% worldwide in 2020.

Although the pandemic is largely under control in most Southeast Asian countries, many remain reluctant to reopen their borders too quickly, for fear of triggering a rapid rise in infections.

Some Southeast Asian countries are cautiously welcoming international travelers

Cambodia accepts international vacationers, subject to certain restrictions. Visitors must organize their visa in advance. They must also return a negative Covid test result within 72 hours of departure. In addition, they must have travel insurance with at least $50,000 in medical coverage. All international visitors must quarantine for 14 days, either at a government-approved hotel or government facility.

Thailand is officially open to travelers from all destinations, except India. As in Cambodia, visitors must organize their visa in advance of travel, as well as quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. In addition to the requirement for a negative test result within 72 hours of departure, international tourists are retested twice while in quarantine.

Although Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia (including Bali) are currently off-limits to international travelers, and Cambodia and Thailand imposing lengthy spells in quarantine, the recovery of the regional tourism industry appears promising.

Government efforts to bolster the industry by promoting domestic tourism

All over the world, 2020 was the year of the staycation, with few vacationers venturing too far from home.

The Thai and Vietnamese governments have both invested heavily in domestic tourism campaigns, with Thailand launching a $641 million scheme providing travel subsidies to boost tourism, incentivizing domestic vacationers by facilitating significant discounts on transport and accommodations, as well as offering e-vouchers to cover food and other services.

Since April 2020, the Vietnamese government has been encouraging citizens to explore their own country, increasing domestic flights and discounting fares.

Prior to the arrival of Covid-19, domestic travelers represented 29% of the market in Asian Pacific hotels. From China and Japan, to Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, governments across the Asian continent are continuing to concentrate their efforts on domestic travel as part of an effort to bolster the tourism sector.

In many Southeast Asian nations, domestic travel is serving as a vital boost to the economy. Fortunately, with strident vaccination programs underway in many countries, in terms of international travel, for 2022, and potentially even the latter part of 2021, the picture looks much rosier.