July 2011 Archives

Thai Theravada Buddhists in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Image via Wikipedia

Thailand has rapidly grown in popularity with tourists and is quickly becoming the #1 must-see spot in Asia. From idyllic beaches to bustling cities sporting exotic markets and a vibrant nightlife, the lifestyle there is a 180 from the western world. From rumors about epic Full Moon Parties to Hollywood's portrayal in pop culture movies like the Hangover 2, if you're planning a trip east, make sure you add these top 5 things to do in Thailand to your bucket list.

Visit Bangkok

Bangkok, one of the most populated and fascinating cities in the world, is a must-see when you're visiting Thailand. A mixture of intricate traditional architecture and a modern, cosmopolitan feel is what makes Bangkok so interesting. Many of the top things to do in Thailand are in Bangkok itself: the Temple of the Reclining Buddha (Wat Po), the Grand Palace, Wat Arun and more. These wats--religious places like chapels--command a feeling of awe and respect for not only the intricate architecture, but the culture and religion in general. If you can, try to set up a meeting with resident monks at the wats. They can give you a deeper understanding and story of the life of a Buddhist.

Bangkok offers much more for the common visitor. There are fantastic markets and vendors that offer beautiful clothing, delicious (and spicy) food, and an experience unlike any other. A particularly interesting market is the floating market in the Damnoen Saduak neighborhood. Bangkok also offers a bustling Chinatown that shimmers at night through its commotion. It's a city well worthy of your time and memory.

Go Hiking/Trekking

Another one of the best things to do in Thailand is scale its beautiful mountains. During my trip to the country, we went on a trek through northern Thai hills and mountains, and ended up at a quaint and mysterious village, equipped with a foggy morning, mosquito nets and an unexpected Oasis-singing guitar player. Trekking is a fantastic way to get in tune with Thailand's beautiful nature. If you can, catch a ride on a bamboo raft while you're in the wilderness. You won't regret it. Thailand's wilderness may make you reluctant to return to the beautiful cities, but you'll need to see those too.

Ride an Elephant

A popular thing to do in Thailand and throughout much of South Asia is riding elephants. Riding an elephant differs from riding a roller coaster or a go-kart. Feeling each lumbering, slow step is something that everyone will love--whether you want to feel like a queen or king on the back of an elephant or you just want to indulge your inner animal lover. The elephant trip I went on traveled down dirt paths, under green trees and across land bridges overlooking fog-coated mountains. Buy a few bananas at the elevated stands on your trip and see your elephant's capabilities. You'll fall in love with an animal and an experience that you'll never forget.

Explore Chiang Mai/Northern Thailand

Chiang Mai is the equivalent to Bangkok in the northern regions of Thailand, and deservedly so. Tucked in the beautiful Thai mountain ranges, Chiang Mai offers many attractions, from a bustling downtown to quiet religious areas.  Wat Chedi Luang is a historic, towering Buddhist temple that retained its Thai beauty despite being affected by an earthquake in 1545. Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep is a religious temple that is reached by climbing a beautiful but steep 309 steps. It's worth the climb, because the wat offers the beautiful Emerald Buddha and other pagodas, statues and shrines. Chiang Mai offers fantastic markets just like Bangkok, and has a great zoo. If your elephant ride left you wanting more, go to Chiang Mai's Mae Sa Elephant Camp, where the domestication of the mammals wows any guest.

Experience the Unseen Side

Tourists, when coming to Thailand, often are attracted to visiting the big cities like Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Phuket. Because these cities are rich in some of the best things to do in Thailand, extend to the countryside itself. I volunteered at a small village outside of Chiang Mai, and it was a life-changing experience--I visited orphanages and met people that I never would have encountered in the big cities. Whether it is taking an ecotour through the countryside or renting a car to take a few days to wander off the main road, you'll see a whole other world. Don't be afraid to trek around the country, but be sure to bring bug spray and an open mind. Seeing everything that Thailand has to offer will help you realize why this region is so intriguing and appealing to outside travelers.

by Abigail Geiger, Contributing Author

Every country has a national pastime. For Americans it's baseball and for Canadians it's hockey, but for the United Arab Emirates, their sport of choice is something a little different--shopping in Dubai. Suffice to say if shopping were an Olympic sport, the nation would be a gold medal contender and Dubai is right at its center. However, unlike other cities where there are store-lined streets or shopping districts, Dubai is all about the malls. There are literally hundreds of them and some are so large that they could be cities in and of themselves. They offer every brand you could imagine and cater to locals and tourists alike. To the non-shopaholic, Dubai's shopping scene can seem almost ridiculous and unbelievable, but for those that have the shopping bug, it is a consumerist mecca waiting to be tapped.

Dubai's malls offer much more than just places to max out your credit card and many have become attractions for tourists in their own right. They offer cafes, restaurants and have enormous indoor entertainment. In fact, Dubai is home to the world's largest mall, which houses a giant aquarium, ice-skating rink and theme park, and sits next to the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest tower. The Mall of the Emirates holds the world's biggest indoor ski slope and most importantly, all are air-conditioned, so even tourists who visit in the dead of summer should have a pleasant experience. Another selling point? Unlike American malls that have shortened hours on holidays and Sundays, Dubai's malls are open seven days a week, generally from 10 am to 1 am for those ultra dedicated shoppers who want to make the national pastime an evening activity.

As if the malls weren't enough, Dubai is also home to numerous Arabian-style souks, which each offer one type of specialty product. There are several souks in town, most notably the Gold Souk, the Spice Souk and the Textile Souk, which generally act more as tourist attractions than real areas for consumerism. However, they are definitely worth exploring to get a taste of old world Arabia.

The Dubai Mall

The Dubai Mall is the jewel in Dubai's consumerism crown. It is not only the world's largest mall, but is also next to the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, and houses nearly every brand name on the planet. It's so popular it attracts over a quarter of a million visitors each week. Stores range from big department stores like Bloomingdale's and Debenham's to electronic powerhouses like Sony, Bose and Samsung. There are also places to find home furnishings, floral arrangements, traditional Arabic wear, books and stationary. Attractions include a world-record holding aquarium where you can do things like cage underwater snorkeling and an ice skating rink when you get tried of shopping. The mall also features a number of fast food stops, cafés and restaurant options, including American chains like Chili's and Outback Steakhouse, in addition to Asian fare and traditional Arab options.

Mall of the Emirates

This is a photo of the Mall of the Emirates, l...

Image via Wikipedia

The Mall of the Emirates is another top shopping destination in Dubai. A new fashion wing has brought several high-end labels into the mall and the near-ridiculous Ski Dubai indoor ski slope is regularly one of the top draws for tourists.  Featuring 520 international department, fashion, lifestyle, sports, electronics and home furnishing brands,  two of the top draws are the department store Harvey Nichols and Boutique 1. The family leisure offerings also include a Magic Planet entertainment area, a 14-screen multiplex cinema, a five star Kempinski Hotel, The Pullman Dubai Hotel, the Mall's 500-seat DUCTAC community theatre and accompanying arts centre, and over 85 coffee shops and restaurants. With all of these amenities, it would seem you never have to leave.

Festival Centre

Rising along the banks of the historic Dubai Creek, Festival Centre is Dubai's premier waterfront destination for style and sophistication, showcasing an exciting selection of prestigious retailers, international food and beverage outlets and world-class entertainment, including a 12-screen Grand Cinemas complex and bowling center. The mall features over 400 shops, with 25 flagship stores and over 90 cafes, restaurants and bistros. One of the mall's biggest draws is one of the biggest IKEAs in the world. Other notable stores include Forever 21, Marks & Spencers, Calvin Klein, Hugo Boss and Lacoste. The mall is also part of the larger Dubai Festival City, which is a 1,300-acre, premier waterfront urban community that has been designed to capture the groundbreaking 21st Century spirit of Dubai. The city even has its own schools, commercial offices and residential living options. Talk about a one-stop shop!

Ibn Battuta

While Ibn Battuta may not be the most convenient of the Dubai's malls, located toward Abu Dhabi, what it lacks in location it makes up for in character. Named after the famed Arabian explorer, this sprawling mall is notable for the various geographical "themes" in its six main courts, allowing you to skip between "China", "India" and "Persia" sans plane. The mall also boasts the only IMAX theatre in the country and offers a 21-screen Cinema Megaplex, located in the China Court. There are two large food courts at both ends in the Andalusia and China sections of the mall, as well as several coffee shops, scattered throughout. The mall also features exhibits of ancient technological inventions, especially from the Middle East, and is home to European favorites Debenham's and Primark.

Fenway Park on June 21, 2008

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America's best ballparks feature something for everyone from the casual game-goer to the lifelong fan- supersized televisions, cushy private boxes, gourmet food, cold brews and massive scoreboards. In the last decade or so, cities across the nation have made substantial improvements to existing ballparks and introduced a series of new fields that constantly amaze, with jaw-dropping amenities and dazzling feats of architecture to celebrate America's favorite pastime. From Major League Baseball's oldest parks to new constructions, ballparks are great places to spend the summer with family and friends while catching a little bit of baseball fever, as well.

Just what is it that makes a baseball stadium great? Is it the history and tradition? The latest upgrades and technology? Or is it simply whichever ballpark your favorite major leaguers call home? There is perhaps no bigger debate in sports than what teams have the best digs.  With literally millions of dollars going into these accommodations, catch a game at one of America's best ballparks.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Baltimore, Maryland

Oriole Park has one of the best locations in the nation in beautiful downtown Baltimore, just North of Washington, D.C., and just South of New York City; it offers the perfect weekend getaway for a number of East Coasters. Baltimore may not be the travel hotspot of the Atlantic, but its got charm and character, with quaint neighborhoods, cobblestone streets and rocking bars with live music. The ballpark is known as a throwback park, even though it was completed in 1992. The architects looked to classic parks like Ebbets Field, rather than the Skydome for inspiration and more importantly, it changed the ballpark business model. Instead of just selling Oriole baseball, the owners decided to sell wine, Baltimore's famous jumbo lump crab cakes, barbeque, and funny knickknacks to make the atmosphere feel more like an experience than simply a destination. For those seeking to take in a two-fer, hop on the MARC train, Maryland's public transit system, and head about 40 miles south to Washington, D.C. for a Nationals game, where the newly constructed Nationals Park offers one of the best views in all of Major League Baseball.

Fenway Park, Boston, Massachusetts

Fenway Park would probably win the People's Choice Award for America's best ballparks, and is also the oldest in the nation. Built in 1912, Fenway is rich in history and has some of the most fiercely loyal fans in all of baseball, which would scoff at the thought of tearing it down for something more modern. However, just because Fenway is old, doesn't mean that it hasn't had its turn of upgrades. Instead of building a new park, they built up more seats, on the third base, first base, and right field roofs, and on the far left field wall, the legendary Green Monster. Unfortunately, it does have some drawbacks because it's such an old park built along city blocks. Fenway has many obstructed views, especially down the right field line, but the view isn't exactly what Sox fans come for, it's more for its unparalleled atmosphere and charm. Aside from the ballpark, Boston is a great city with lots of attractions, bars and restaurants to visit pre and post-game. Be sure to take part in one of the daily tours of the park before you head out and then make your way to one of Boston's other great attractions, like the Museum of Fine Art or the New England Aquarium

PNC Park, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

PNC Park may not have the hundred years of life that parks like Fenway have, but since it was built in 2001, it has dazzled all that have entered. One of the best things about PNC Park is its architectural design, which has positioned it well for spectators, giving them a spectacular view from the seating bowl, especially on the third base side. The park also provides stunning views of the Allegheny River, the Roberto Clemente Bridge, the ultra impressive skyline, and perhaps best of all, Mount Washington. Among its impressive features are 69 suites with their own concourse level, club seating at both the field and mezzanine levels with their own respective lounges, an outfield barbecue run by former Pirate Manny Sanguillen and an outdoor terrace and river walk. PNC Park also features the Trib Total Media Hall of Fame Club, offering a casual dining and sports bar atmosphere with wait service before, during and after every game for all ticket holders. The ballpark also houses retail areas along the Federal Street and General Robinson Street corridor, including Atria's Restaurant, Diamond Pizza, merchandise shops, PNC Bank and the Pirates administrative and ticket offices.

Wrigley Field, Chicago, Illinois

The welcome sign at Wrigley Field.

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No list of America's best ballparks would be complete without Wrigley Field. Built in 1914, Chicago's Wrigley Field is an institution in Major League Baseball. The park features high rises and bleachers built right into the roof for easy viewing no matter where you sit and has been the site of many of baseball's most iconic moments, including Babe Ruth's "called shot" during Game 3 of the 1932 World Series. As the second oldest stadium in the Major Leagues behind Fenway Park, Wrigley also has a lot of character. The bleachers and scoreboard were constructed in 1937 when the outfield area was renovated to provide improved and expanded seating and the original scoreboard still remains intact, for example. If you tire of baseball, Chicago is also a great city to visit and has a lot to offer. Many of the biggest names in comedy got their start at the city's Second City Chicago Theater and music wails nightly from Chicago's oldest blues club Kingston Mines.

Turner Field, Atlanta, Georgia

Since opening in 1997, the "Home of the Braves" has quickly become an Atlanta landmark and a turning point for all future park design. Turner Field combines the nostalgia and an atmosphere of old-time baseball with state-of-the-art family entertainment. Children love the game area called Scouts Alley and The Braves' Museum. The stadium is also one of the most tech savvy in all of baseball and fans are entertained and informed of Turner Field activities through superior sound systems, the BravesVision video board in center field, the PlazaVision board in the Fan Plaza and over 500 television monitors situated throughout the complex. The field offers three levels of seating supported by four concourses and the second level includes 58 private suites, three party suites and the 755 Club, the ballpark's private membership club. The third, or upper, level does not go all around the park and provides fans there with a view of the downtown Atlanta skyline. Once you're done at the ballpark, take in a little history with trips to the Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park, Oakland Cemetery, and the Atlanta History Center, which all transport visitors back to the Civil War.

Photo © by Jeff Dean

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Canoeing and kayaking are two sports under the umbrella term of paddling. Not for the faint of heart, these beloved water sports are as invigorating and as challenging as you make them. Some of the world's most beautiful scenery can be viewed the bow of a boat, be it floating down a river or on the open sea.  But don't limit your watery adventures to the conventional cruise ship.  Canoeing and kayaking allow you to immerse yourself in your surroundings more than you can from an observation deck, and they provide many people with a great sense of gratification.  If you are looking to explore the outdoors--a tranquil meander down a river, a thrilling race through rapids, or somewhere in between, then your best bet is to gear up for a canoeing or kayaking trip.  Domestic and abroad, there are many destinations that are bound to take your breath away.  Here are some of the world's best places to paddle, regardless of whether you are a novice or an expert. 

Zambezi River, Southern Africa

Zambezi - Elephants crossing the river 12.11.2009

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If you are looking for a canoe expedition that doubles as that African safari you've always been meaning to do, then the Zambezi River in Southern Africa is the destination for you.  While we do not recommend you do it alone--for hippos are not as friendly as they appear--there are many options for guided trips along both the Upper and Lower Zambezi.  The Upper Zambezi provides the adventurous with the opportunity to try their hand at mild rapids, and offers the occasional glimpse at the white rhino, an endangered species.  The Lower Zambezi Valley is home to Mana Pools National Park, one of the best places in Africa for viewing game such as elephants and black rhinos.  If you are up for a challenge, why not do both sections?

Dordogne River, France

For those who are looking for history, scenery, and relaxation, look no further than the Dordogne River in France.  Flowing through the southwestern region of the country, this river is wide and slow moving, making it the perfect way to enjoy the countryside and save the adrenaline for another day.  There are several affordable places to rent canoes and kayaks close to the river, as well as many campsites along the shore.  Your float down the majestic river will take you past medieval castles and Gallo Roman ruins, straight through the heart of the countryside.  Don't expect to have the river to yourself, as this is a popular tourist attraction.  For more privacy, consider taking a trip in the spring or the autumn.  Chances are that the weather will still be beautiful.

Coastal Thailand

A great way to experience Thailand is from the water.  Float around Phang Nga Bay exploring the "hongs", or limestone caves, from the comfort of a kayak or a sea canoe.  The hongs are a system of collapsed caves that have become home to a diverse array of wildlife including monkeys and birds.  Phang Nga Bay is a popular tourist destination, and kayaking tours are among the most popular activities in the region.  To avoid the crowds, you may want to consider going to Ang Thong National Marine Park, an archipelago of over 40 islands around which you can paddle, fish, and snorkel to your heart's content.  The kayak is the perfect vehicle for delving into the heart of the reserve.  

Broken Group Islands, Vancouver, British Columbia

If a tropical trip does not tickle your fancy, perhaps the Broken Group Islands of Vancouver, British Columbia will.  Not only are these islets and coves ideal for spotting the best of North American wildlife--think bald eagles, grizzly bears, and orca whales-- they are also remarkably peaceful and undeveloped.  Camp along the sandy shorelines, explore caves, and put your mind at ease.  The islands are favorable for canoeing and kayaking because they are largely protected from the elements of the open ocean.  Many choose to explore the islands with a guide, but it is also navigable alone.  Expect to share the experience with a few scuba divers, some sailboats, and a handful of sea otters and porpoises. 

Ha'apai Islands, Tonga

If you truly want to leave the world behind, then head to the South Pacific.  You will find that sea kayaking around the Ha'apai Islands of Tonga will be the perfect getaway.  Referred to as the "sea kayaker's dream," these islands are truly off the beaten path.  Explore the coral reefs and secluded beaches while paddling through schools of colorful fish.  If your timing is right, you may even cross paths with a humpback whale, which migrate here annually for mating and calving season.  You will probably meet some Ha'apai islanders, who are known as the friendliest people in all of Tonga.  Float past towering volcanoes and through secret lagoons to capture the island vibe. 

by Dorothy MacAusland, Contributing Author


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