We’re experienced world travelers but that doesn’t mean we don’t occasionally make stupid mistakes. From flushing frogs down the toilet to being mistaken for a dominatrix, here are our top ten travel mistakes, so far: Read more

The Petronas Towers

Getting Petronas Towers tickets requires a bit of strategy. Tickets are limited, so if you want to go to the observation deck—at the best time to visit for great photos, or simply a time that works for your travel schedule—it’s best to book ahead. The dual skyscrapers, which were once the tallest buildings in the world, are one of the most popular Kuala Lumpur tourist attractions. We’re glad we went; read on for our review and tips on visiting.

Impatient? Book ahead with Petronas Towers Skip the Line

Looking for a Hotel in KL? COMPARE PRICES HERE

Anyone who watched Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones dangle precariously from two tall buildings in the movie Entrapment will recognize these twin towers, Malaysia’s contemporary architectural jewel. Michael’s not much of a dangler, but he really wanted to visit the observation deck at the top. Unfortunately, there was a problem.

Getting tickets on site: wake up EARLY!

You can purchase Petronas Towers tickets on a first-come, first-served basis, which is challenging because there are a limited number of tickets available for each day. The ticket office opens at 8:30 AM. Unfortunately tickets–which are for timed departure throughout the day–are as popular as front row seats for Lady Gaga. According to the guidebooks, visitors are advised to arrive as early as 6:30 AM to get a spot before they sell out–YIKES! During our travels we met several people who skipped the tour because they didn’t want to wake up early to stand in line (like us). A friend of ours who lives in Kuala Lumpur (or “KL,” as the locals call it) has never even gone to the top because of that supposed requirement.

Uh oh . . . Michael is not a crack-of-dawn kind of guy. He was torn: as a self-proclaimed building geek, visiting the the Kuala Lumpur towers was one of the main reasons we came to Malaysia. (Like visiting the Burj Kalifa was a big draw for visiting Dubai.) Maybe he could send Larissa in the early morning for tickets? [….Um, that would be a “NO!” ] We had to find another way.

Kuala Lumpur Petronas Towers tickets

These students from Indonesia were thrilled to pose with Little Rocky in front of the Petronas Towers Kuala Lumpur

Can you buy tickets for the Petronas Towers in advance?

The short answer is yes. We managed to sleep in and still get to the top.

Ticket alternative: A Petronas Twin Towers “tour”

Fortunately, you can secure a ticket in advance by purchasing it through Viator. The twin tower ticket for Petronas Tickets Skip the Line is reasonable (approximately $30). The purchase process is easy–a few simple clicks online–and tickets are delivered right to your hotel. [NOTE: we recommend bringing your passport along, in case they need to see it upon checking in.]

If you only have limited time in KL, you might want to consider this Airport Transfer/Petronas Tower option, which will pick you up at the airport (not a bad idea–it’s a looong way from downtown), take you to the towers, then drop you off at your hotel.

Petronas Towers Skybridge|visit Petronas Towers tickets

On the 42nd floor Skybridge the limited capacity keeps down the crowds. A visit to the Skybridge is included in the KL tower entrance fee.

Petronas Towers Tickets: The Skybridge & Observation Deck

As tours to the tops of tall buildings go–and we’ve been to most of them–this was by far the best. The ticket office issues a limited number of tickets for each 15-minute time segment, which means it doesn’t get crowded. Show up at the designated time and guides escort a small group of about fifteen to the distinctive 42nd story Skybridge connecting the two towers.  We had about fifteen minutes, which was plenty of time to walk around, take photos, and marvel at the fact that you are suspended between the two towers.

After that the guide boarded us on the high-speed elevator that soared to the 88th floor observatory of the eastern tower. There, we spent another twenty minutes roaming around, filling up the memory card of our cameras.  The building’s unique 8-pointed star shape provides plenty of nooks and crannies, therefore it was easy to find a private spot to take in the view. A Kuala Lumpur tourist map was laid at our feet, with the hills in the distance.  It was a gorgeous view and, best of all, we didn’t have to get up early to see it.

Petronas Towers tickets-the best time to visit is late afternoon for "golden hour" photos

Even allegedly grown men get as excited as little kids on the top of tall buildings. The Petronas Towers is one of the top tourist attractions in Kuala Lumpur.

Visiting the Petronas Towers: Practical Matters

To us, the Petronas Towers is a must on a list of Kuala Lumpur places to visit. Here is a synopsis of the practical tips:

Order tickets ahead:

Skip the Line Petronas Towers.

(If you only have a short time in KL, consider the Airport Transfer/Petronas Towers combo.)

Time to allow:

About an hour for the visit from bottom to top and back again

Best time to visit the Petronas Towers: 

With tickets limited, there are never crowds. If you’re a serious photographer, schedule a late afternoon visit for the “golden hour.”

Who should go?

Lovers of tall buildings and long-range views

Where to stay?

We stayed at the ParkRoyal Serviced Apartments. Nice, large studio in a central location, with kitchenette (perfect for enjoying takeaway meals), and a terrific rooftop pool. A good value. You can also use this handy tool to check KL hotel prices.

Is it worth it to get Petronas Towers tickets?

When you visit Kuala Lumpur, YES! Compared to tours of most skyscraper observation decks, the Petronas Towers tour was well-organized. Knowledgeable guides are available to answer any questions about the building or the views. Touch-screen TVs on the Skybridge provide information about what the visitor is looking at. The are are limited tickets sold each day, as a result there’s plenty of room for everyone; no waiting or jostling at the windows for a view.

If you can’t make it to the Kuala Lumpur towers, here are some Petronas Towers souvenirs.

Some other things to do in Kuala Lumpur

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Disclaimer: We purchased our own tickets to visit the Petronas towers. We are now a member of Viator’s affiliate program, which means if you purchase a tour through our links we receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. This helps us keep things humming here at Changes in Longitude, while providing free travel guidance to our readers. 😊

Changes in Longitude Larissa & Michael Milne at Arctic Circle

We’re Larissa and Michael, your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive updates and valuable travel tips subscribe to our travel newsletter here.

We’d been in Hong Kong for a week and always noticed a particularly strong aroma of something faintly spicy, with vanilla overtones, on a walkway near our apartment.  We thought that whoever lived there must be an excellent cook. It smelled like whatever they were making was also tinged with a subtle amount of coriander or cumin.

A few clay pots in the walkway held a mix of plants; some arbor vitae, asparagus ferns and a few items we couldn’t identify. Maybe that was the source of the delicious aroma wafting through the air. We ran our hands through the leaves to release the oils and bring out their aromas but it wasn’t a match.

Hong Kong market thousand year old egg

Then we noticed that up the street from our apartment was Khalsa Diwan, the only Sikh temple in Hong Kong. Since it was only two doors from us we passed by every day. All day long and into the night adults and children scurried in and out of the temple grounds, the women resplendent in flowing gowns of various shades of orange appearing like a sun setting over rippled sand dunes.

One night we could see down the long corridor from the entrance a man perched on a large bed. All around him was bright white from the sheets covering the bed to his loose cotton clothes right up to the tall turban perched atop his head. The only dark spot in this sea of white was his long flowing beard. He appeared to be a holy figure in the temple.

Khalsa Diwan Temple Hong Kong

We finally realized that what we were noticing every day was not someone’s exotic cooking but sandalwood scented incense wafting from the temple. We can only imagine how strong it must have been inside the temple walls. For us the closest comparison would be the incense burned on Holy Days in an old-rite Christian Church.

The scent wafting from the Sikh temple defined the neighborhood better than any man-made signs would have done. Hong Kong is like that. For a blind person the city provides many walking hazards but a plethora of olfactory clues; a street atlas made visible by its aromas.

The wet market, with its fresh fish still flopping on the counter, is easy to decipher. As is the dusty, woodsy smell of the dried food market with its pungent aroma of mushrooms and ginseng.

Hong Kong dried mushrooms ginseng 900

The colonial-era tram (or ding-ding as it is called) rushes down the center of the street with its windows open to catch a refreshing breeze. These open windows also let in the fragrance of the city. An observant person can ignore the street signs and tell where they are by just sticking their nose in the air.

Hong Kong is a hyperkinetic city that invades all five senses, in some cases overwhelming them. But for us, we knew that when we smelled the sandalwood that we had arrived home.

28581550060_131210d7e7_mLarissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive our free quarterly newsletter with updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

World ExpeditionsAlthough we’ve traveled to more than 50 countries, there is one part of the world that we haven’t visited. The fabled Silk Road through Central Asia is an area that fascinates us.

Visiting the Silk Road-Samarkand

Visiting the Silk Road: Caravans and Ancient Civilizations

The Silk Road was actually a series of ancient trade routes. It wound its way from China through the Middle East and on to Europe. Centuries before Christ it was the lifeblood for many civilizations.

For us it’s always been evocative of caravans winding their way through the desert. We envision camels at the fore as they brought silk, aromatic spices, and other goods from the East. Historic oasis towns along the route with names like Samarkand and Bukhara even sound exotic. They seem like otherworldly outposts come to rest on Earth.

Visiting the Silk Road: Caravanserai

Somehow central Asia gets lost in the shuffle of Asian travel destinations. People generally focus on China or Southeast Asia. But most tourists haven’t yet discovered the countries (often known as the “Stans”) tucked away in central Asia. We’re love the “off the beaten path” aspect of this slice of the planet.

As readers of this blog are aware, Larissa and I prefer to travel independently. The only group tour we’ve taken was to North Korea, where it was a requirement of visiting the country. While researching travel to Central Asia we realized that an area so remote and unspoiled by tourists also meant a region unused to independent travelers. Coordinating our own road trip would be a difficult task. When exploring the Silk Road, it’s a better idea to travel with someone who knows the intricacies of the local culture and customs.

Visiting the Silk Road: Market stall with exotic spices

Visiting the Silk Road: Practical Issues

As we researched tourism companies that operate in Central Asia, one called World Expeditions kept popping up. Many of their tours are geared toward our demographic: active 45 to 60-year-olds. We fall right into that category (albeit, for just a few more years.) We enjoy a bit of hiking, but we don’t want to cover 10 miles a day getting from place to place.

World Expeditions offers tours to every continent and has been around since 1975, so while trekking tours like these are gaining in popularity, they were doing it before just about everyone else. They’ve earned a strong reputation for their unique itineraries, as well as the quality of their local teams. And they were also ahead of the game in terms of “Responsible Tourism,” a concept that we support. We like their Porter Protection program, which ensures that the safety needs of the local tour guides are as important as those of the paying customers.

Visiting the Silk Road-local man in Kashgar

World Expeditions appeals to us, since it caters to discerning travelers who want to truly experience a destination. They focus on a more enriching experience by learning more about the culture. You can only gain this type of knowledge by going “in country.”

Visiting the Silk Road: Our Wishlist Best Mountain Trek

In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great” would qualify for our Best Mountain Trek, i.e. the trek at the top of our wish list. It’s a kind of tour/trek that offers just the right amount of activity to keep us busy, without grinding our middle-aged bones to dust. It starts and ends in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, while meandering through some of our must-see destinations. Samarkand, Bukhara, Termez, and Khujand, and are on the itinerary. Don’t those names just inspire wanderlust? You get to explore remnants of some of the oldest civilizations on Earth, including historic mosques, bazaars, and palaces.

worldex_interior_architecture_in_samarkand

Before America had yet to be “discovered,” advanced civilizations in central Asia were building stunning architectural marvels. We’re itching to see Registan Square in Samarkand, festooned with minarets intricately decorated with turquoise and azure tiles. In between these ancient cities, the expedition journeys through varying landscapes of stark desert, mountains, and alpine lakes.

Visiting the Silk Road: Haggling over carpets?

One of my main desires for traveling the Silk Road is to explore the bazaars teeming with local products. I love oriental rugs . . . just ask Larissa—when we owned a home I tore up the wall-to-wall carpeting just so I could have more floors to cover with oriental carpets! I have always dreamed of visiting one of these bazaars and haggling with rug merchants over colorful, geometrically patterned carpets. (I’ll leave it to Larissa to figure out how to fit them into our suitcases.)

We always joke that the more places we visit, the longer our wish list gets. But exploring the Silk Road is definitely one of the destinations at the top.

To learn more about “In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great,” and other World Expeditions treks go to the World Expeditions website.

Visiting the Silk Road-Tashkent

Thanks to World Expeditions for assistance with this post.

After spending a few weeks on the Indonesian island of Bali, we were excited to explore nearby Java and the bustling city of Yogyakarta. Anyone who likes coffee knows the term “java,” the nickname of which is derived from early coffee plantations on the tropical island that provided large amounts of coffee for export.

Java is also the political and cultural center of the archipelago nation of Indonesia. Some of the most popular sights for visitors are the temples of Borobudur and Prambanan. Yogyakarta (or “Yogya” to locals) is situated right between them, making the city a convenient base for exploring these early examples of Hindu and Buddhist culture. A good choice for lodging in the city is the Novotel Yogakarta which you can find on Traveloka.

Prambanan temple near Yogyakarta

Start your journey at the Prambanan temples (shown above). It’s located only 10 miles northeast of the center of Yogyakarta. The UNESCO World Heritage Site, that originally consisted of over 200 structures, is easily reached by the 1A bus from downtown. Many compare the experience to visiting the famous temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but with less crowds.

Prambanan is simply wonderful, with structures dating from the 9th century AD. For centuries they were lost to the jungle until being rediscovered over 200 years ago. Since the temple complex is so huge, you might want to spread your visit over several days, interspersing days at the temple with sightseeing in Yogyakarta. In fact, for a sight this large and complex, it’s worth your time to focus on just a few temples each day and really explore them in detail. The decorative stonework friezes alone can take hours to seek out every nook and cranny.

borobudur temple complex,

The next temple complex that visitors to Yogyakarta must see is Borobudur, a Buddhist temple from the 8th and 9th centuries. It is surrounded by 72 stone stupas that each contain their own statue of Buddha, truly an incredible artistic feat and sign of devotion by the artisans who create them. The photo at the top of this post also shows Borobudur, with an exposed statue of Buddha out front.

The temples of central Java are truly awe-inspiring. During the 8th and 9th centuries, Europe was in the Dark Ages while the Americas had yet to be “discovered” by those same Europeans. Yet here, on a remote island, some of the greatest achievements of mankind were being created. The fact that centuries later they are still standing is a testament not only to their survival skills and durability, but to the advanced civilization that created them.

The temple complexes of Borobudur and Prambanan have earned their UNESCO World Heritage status for a reason and are a worthwhile destination for a cultural journey.

Back in Yogyakarta there are also several sights worth exploring between visits to the temples. Since I tend to drag Larissa to military history sights, one popular attraction is the Yogyakarta Fortress Museum; it was built by the former Dutch colonizers of Indonesia in the 18th century. Nowadays, in a bit of turnabout, it houses the Independence Struggle Museum, highlighting Indonesia’s fight for freedom. It tells a history of this nation that is often overlooked by visitors.

During a nighttime stroll, we had become lost in the dimly lit, maze-like streets of old Saigon. A series of turns led us into a narrow alley whose sole purpose seemed to be connecting to other alleys. The winding streets felt as though laid out by a two-year-old chasing a kitten.

Locals, cooking their dinner on sidewalk grills, looked at us with amusement, while children stopped their games for a moment to point at us and giggle; obviously, we were well off the tourist path. One elderly man, sporting a wispy Ho Chi Minh beard, waved us away from one alley and pointed to another. We followed his advice, but ended up at a brick wall. Now what?

From an open-air building off to the side, a slight woman in her twenties, head shaved clean and clad in a plain gray robe, approached us and calmly said, “Come in.” Because we had no idea where we were, and only a vague idea of how to get back, we took her up on the offer.

Chaum Lam Pagoda altar (575x477)

Somehow, we had stumbled into the Châu Lâm Pagoda, a Buddhist convent, on the busiest day of the year – the Tet holiday. Sister Huê Chi led us inside to meet the Master of the convent, an elderly woman whose commanding presence belied her short stature. In the background, a nun struck a gong at regular intervals as the others chanted prayers to Buddha. Fragrant sandalwood incense from burning joss sticks wafted over us.

The Master led us by the hand to a table, where other nuns scurried to present us with traditional Tet dishes of sticky rice and bright orange mangoes. After finishing our impromptu dinner, we were led into the sanctuary.

saigon tet buddhist temple hands

Saffron-robed nuns bowed in rows behind small silver tables bearing prayer books. Their hands remained clasped together and their heads lowered as they shot curious sideways glances at us; the only Westerners there. Whenever we made eye contact we were met with a soothing smile. A few minutes later, we joined them in kneeling in front of a yellow-and-red altar dedicated to Buddha.

saigon ho chi minh city tet holiday

This magical event hadn’t been planned; in fact, we had gotten quite disoriented that evening. Though instead of pulling out a map or checking our GPS position on a cell phone, we decided to roll with it. It’s fun to plan your vacation ahead of time, but we find it’s best to just have a broad outline of what you want to see or do. Leave time for those serendipitous events that pop up out of nowhere and are impossible to schedule. Sometimes, to find the most interesting things, you just have to get lost.

We’re your average middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive monthly updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

Update June, 2017: Since our visit to North Korea in 2011, the recent death of American tourist Otto Warmbier, who was detained while visiting the country, is a tragic situation that is inexcusable. Accordingly, despite our feelings that tourism in North Korea has positive benefits by exposing the North Korean people to visitors from the outside world, we can no longer recommend that Americans visit the country. It is too easy for the DPRK to make them pawns for continuing tensions between the two countries.

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Visiting the DMZ on the North Korean side is not everyone’s idea of a vacation. The Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea has been called “the most dangerous place on Earth.”  On either side of the border sits the largest concentration of soldiers and weapons on the planet. Vice President Mike Pence recently visited the DMZ to look out over North Korea. Here’s what it’s like actually being on the other side in the heart of North Korea.

We left our Pyongyang hotel early for the 120 kilometer drive on the Reunification Highway to the DMZ.  As we neared the border the bus passed through a series of checkpoints that were a few miles apart. These weren’t that intimidating, just a guard shack by the side of the road with a swinging gate out front.

visiting the DMZ on the North Korean side

Except for a major roadblock at the DMZ, the Reunification Highway leads directly from Pyongyang to Seoul. Typical of North Korea, traffic is generally not a problem.

But as we approached each checkpoint the mood on the bus got a bit tense. It was one thing to be in North Korea, it was quite another to be scrutinized by army personnel, particularly when carrying an American passport.

visiting the DMZ on the North Korean side

Military briefing by North Korean soldier at the DMZ.

After the final checkpoint the bus pulled up to a large concrete wall where we disembarked. We were led into a building that contained a gift shop, at the DMZ of all places, offering a wide range of ginseng products and books by the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung. We soon learned that ginseng was available for purchase wherever we stopped in the DPRK.

Portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are everywhere in North Korea

We were led into a room that contained a ten-foot high overview map of the area. A North Korean soldier, wooden pointer in hand, proceeded to provide a military briefing on the DMZ.  Like all rooms in North Korea, it had pictures of the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, and the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, beaming down on the proceedings. After the brief pep talk we proceeded to the actual border which was delineated by a concrete curb that even a child could just step over. A series of small buildings the size of mobile homes straddles the border.

Looking at the DMZ from the North Korean side

We noticed that there was also a tour group lined up on the South Korean side.  So while the North and South Korean soldiers stared off against each other to see who would blink first, we had our own stare down with the tourists, likely from the same countries as us, on the other side.

We were permitted to enter one of the small buildings that straddle the border which is used as a conference room when there are disputes between the two Koreas. Through the small windows of the building we could see the South Korean guards about twenty feet away standing in battle ready positions, their arms hanging tensely at their sides with their fists firmly clenched.

Korea DMZ

North and South Korean soldiers are only yards apart at the border, represented by the small concrete curb next to the two North Korean soldiers. Photo courtesy Russell Ng.

As we ambled around the room we walked in and out of both Koreas so technically we were in South Korea at one point. On the bus ride back that was a matter of some discussion among our group as to whether we get credit for going to South Korea based on our brief foray.

After we arrived back in Pyongyang there was a sense of relief that we had survived our visit to the most dangerous place on Earth. Then reality set in and we realized we were still in Pyongyang, the capital city of the most isolated nation in the world.

With the recent death of Kim Jong Il, travel arrangements to North Korea are uncertain. The isolated country does not allow independent travel and all groups are escorted by two minders. But if you are interested in visiting the DMZ on the North Korean side. We traveled with with Koryo Tours. The British-run company has been leading tours to North Korea since 1993.

Click the link for more stories about our visit to North Korea.

Link to United States government information for visiting North Korea. (Spoiler alert: They highly recommend not going.)

Update June, 2017: Since our visit to North Korea in 2011, the recent death of American tourist Otto Warmbier, who was detained while visiting the country, is a tragic situation that is inexcusable. Accordingly, despite our feelings that tourism in North Korea has positive benefits by exposing the North Korean people to visitors from the outside world, we can no longer recommend that Americans visit the country. It is too easy for the DPRK to make them pawns for continuing tensions between the two countries.

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Despite the fact that ancient history in North Korea goes back more than 4,000 years, the country’s rich culture is often masked by current events. It seems that we can’t go more than a few weeks without news of saber rattling from the current regime about missiles, nukes or some other threat.

During our visit to North Korea, we were mostly shown sights related to the iconography of the modern era: monuments and museums propping up the cult of personality related to the dynasty started by Kim Il Sung, passed on to his son Kim Jong Il, and now perpetuated by Kim Jong Un. But that leadership has been in place for only 75 years, the blink of an eye in the Korean peninsula’s long history. 

A recent monument to Kim Il Sung--definitely NOT part of the ancient history of North KoreaStone soldiers guarding a 100-year old tomb-part of the ancient history in North KoreaMonuments from two very different dynasties in Korea’s history. 

The day was hot and sticky as we trudged up the steep hill on Tongil Street to gaze upon yet another massive, gilded statue of the country’s founder, Kim Il Sung. We were in the industrial city of Kaesong, fresh off a visit to the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas, which is only three miles south. The city is laid out in typical DPRK fashion with wide boulevards leading to the city’s high point where we found the gold monument to the nation’s founder. But the Korean peninsula also holds fascinating treasures hearkening back to a different time.

From 918 to 1392, Kaesong was the capital of Korea (which of course was united back then) and the home of the Koryo Dynasty, the source of the name Korea. We left modern-day Kaesong in a bus to visit a rural area that held royal tombs from that era. Along the way we passed verdant rice paddies with farmers harvesting their crops while soldiers on patrol, a common sight near the DMZ, strode nearby.

Hyonjongrung royal tombs from the 14th century. A bit of ancient history in North Korea

After the bus climbed a narrow hillside path, we approached the Hyonjongrung royal tombs, the 14th-century burial site for King Kongmin and Queen Noguk.  The tombs are typical of burial architecture of the era, two large grass-covered mounds set atop the hill with a commanding view over the valley below.

We hiked up several flights of steps to the tombs, passing stone statues of men wearing robes and traditional hats. They are the king’s advisors, placed there to provide eternal guidance to the deceased royals. Seven-ton stone slabs mark the entranceway to each tomb. Gray stone statues of tigers and lambs, representing strength and compassion, guard the tombs in perpetuity.

A soldier guards Hyonjongrung royal tombs-a rare bit of ancient history in North KoreaGuarding the Hyonjongrung royal tombs-a rare bit of ancient history in North KoreaOur guide, Mrs. Lee, was proud of her country’s long history, but in a country like North Korea, current events usually cast a long shadow over the past. “These tombs represent a time when Korea was one country. But as you can see, it is now divided. One wonders whose fault that is?” Mrs. Lee intoned, giving the official government line that the United States and its South Korean “lackeys” are preventing the reunification of the two Koreas.

Despite the message, it was refreshing to view a site in North Korea that truly was historic, not something newer built after the rise of Kim Il Sung. Similar tombs on the South Korean side of the DMZ have been recognized by UNSESCO as World Heritage sites.  The North Korean sites are unblemished by mass tourism and can be seen in their pristine ancient setting.

Temple in the museum in Kaesong-a bit of ancient history in North Korea

Unfortunately, the interiors of the tombs were plundered by Japanese troops during their early 20th-century occupation of Korea. However, some relics were saved and are now preserved at the Koryo Museum back in Kaesong. Housed in a former Confucian Academy that trained the children of nobility, it displays relics of the Koryo Dynasty that include several royal tombs and statues. The museum, flanked by a pair of 500-year-old gingko trees, is a revered link to the past set in a green oasis slightly removed from the city.

At a wedding in Kaesong, where the bride's costume reflects ancient history in North KoreaOutside one of the temples we watched a wedding couple as they posed for their official photos, the bride resplendent in a traditional Korean choson ot dress in a scarlet red fabric, while the groom wore a Western gray suit and the slightly dazed expression exhibited by grooms everywhere on their wedding day.

As we saw at Kaesong, the Korean peninsula has been ruled by centuries-long dynasties. We drove out of town and passed once more under the shadow of the statue of Kim Il Sung. One wonders if that icon will still be standing and venerated centuries from now.

Pin it!

Despite all the hype of the current regime, it's still possible to find ancient history in North Korea

We’re global nomads who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011 seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive monthly updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

Tet, the Lunar New Year in Vietnam, is the most important holiday of the year. For me it is also the prettiest. There are displays of blossoms throughout the city, along with fireworks displays on New Year’s Eve. In Ho Chi Minh City the crowning glory of events is the Tet Flower Festival right in the center of town.

Tet Flower Festival-Ho Chi Minh City

Every year during Tet, Nguyen Hue, the main street in the central business district is transformed for one week into Nguyen Hue Flower Street. During this time traffic is banned on the wide boulevard and the central islands are decorated with magnificent floral displays. Throughout the week Vietnamese of all ages stroll through the impromptu park snapping photos and having fun.

Nguyen Hue Flower Street-Ho Chi Minh City

“Eternal Spring” was the theme of the festival for 2012, also the Year of the Dragon. All along Nguyen Hue the eponymous dragon was displayed, in both floral and paper mache versions.Nguyen Hue Flower Street-Ho Chi Minh City-Dragon

At the head of Nguyen Flower Street the statue of a benevolent “Uncle Ho” floating among lotus blossoms presides over the festival.Nguyen Hue Flower Street- Uncle Ho

Family photos are a popular souvenir with the beautiful floral displays as a background. Here one of the official event photographers organizes a family for their portrait by the dragons.Nguyen Hue Flower Street-Ho Chi Minh City-Family

Hotels enter a competition for best flower arrangement, interpreting the theme of “Eternal Spring”. This entry from the New World Saigon Hotel features anthuriums, pussy willow, orchids, roses, lilies and an unusual accent of winter cabbage.Nguyen Hue Flower Street-Ho Chi Minh City- Hotel Arrangement

Notice how the dad in this family is wearing a “Florida” shirt while his family mugs for the camera. . .Nguyen Hue Flower Street, Ho Chi Minh City-family with Florida shirt

Of course, a big event like this brings out all the celebrities, including this uber-chic little miss in her sassy pink dress!Nguyen Hue Flower Street-Ho Chi Minh City-Sassy little girl

For 2013 the Nguyen Hue Flower Street Festival will run from February 11-16, celebrating the Year of the Snake.  Anyone who will be in Vietnam on those dates should plan to visit Ho Chi Minh City to see this beautiful exhibit. And as the Vietnamese say:

Chúc mừng năm mới! (Happy New Year)

Nguyen Hue Flower Street-Ho Chi Minh City-pretty little girls

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Satay grilling over coals made of coconut shells . . . fresh fish wrapped in banana leaves . . . fragrant coconut rice . . . these are some of the tastes of our recent visit to Bali.  The island’s cuisine relies heavily on its abundant fish and produce, using techniques that are similar to its parent country of Indonesia.  Somewhere along the way, however, a spice or a fruit or a special touch manages to make it uniquely Balinese.  The minced meats for satays are mixed with shredded coconut.  Three varieties of fresh ginger are used to prepare a basic curry blend.  Tiny limes the size of marbles give a salad a refreshing tang.  Wash it all down with a Bintang beer and go back for some more tomorrow . . .

Bali food ingredients

Lemongrass, candlenuts, fresh turmeric, galangal, sweet & hot red chillies and shrimp paste are among the ingredients in base gede, the ubiquitous Balinese yellow sauce.

Bali food mushroom soup ingredients

Mushrooms, lemongrass, red chillies, limes, Thai basil and kaffir lime leaves for clear mushroom soup.

Food of Bali

Jukut Urab – A salad of coarsely grated grilled coconut and chopped snake beans tossed with base gede and garnished with crispy shallots.

Bali food chicken sate

Chicken satay is served over flaming hot coals right at the table. A peanut sauce is on the side.

Indonesian rijstaffel

The ultimate in Indonesian food, rijstaffel, which is Dutch for rice table. The multi-course, multi-dish meal is a treat. The Balinese style satay is wrapped around lemongrass stalks.

True Balinese food connoisseurs may have noticed that we left out Kopi Luwak, the famous coffee whose beans are, um, extruded from the working end of a civet cat. Look for an upcoming video with a Kopi Luwak taste test.

Like it? Share it . . . Pin it!Fresh vegetables, succulent curries, the aroma of grilling wafting through the air . . . the foods of Bali make this island paradise even more special

On a gray, overcast day I was driving by endless miles of verdant green rice paddies to the central Vietnamese hamlet of Son My. In 1968 this was the site of the notorious incident known as the My Lai Massacre; when American soldiers killed over five-hundred civilians, mostly old men, women and children and then torched the buildings. The hamlet has since been reconstructed to look as it did after the carnage.

My Lai massacre memorial site

The village today displays rice paddies and the burned out foundations of homes.

I was only seven years old when the My Lai massacre occurred, but I still remember seeing disturbing photos of it in Life magazine. Now I was standing at the irrigation ditch where over one hundred of the bodies were found. My Lai is an emotionally tough place for anyone to visit, let alone an American.

Standing there I tried to contemplate the madness that occurred on this peaceful spot. Roosters crowed in the distance and the pungent smell of burning brush wafted over the village. It was an ordinary day, just like the one when the massacre occurred. Then I looked down and noticed hundreds of bare footprints along the path, many of them the tiny footprints of young children. They were interspersed randomly with imprints of army boots.

When the memorial was built the muddy pathways among the rice paddies were recreated out of brown concrete. Before it hardened they placed random imprints of army boots and bare feet to represent the killing frenzy that took place here. Boot prints lead up to individual houses and then build to a crescendo at the ditch.

My Lai massacre memorial site

A toddler at My Lai today.

The effect is that of the Guernica painting come to life on the ground. The imprints reflect the slaughter that took place that day; barefoot civilians being led to their death by booted soldiers. It’s a thought-provoking touch that effectively takes a visitor back to what happened here.

My Lai massacre memorial site

Uncle Do alongside the irrigation ditch.

A small Vietnamese man tugged at my elbow as I was trying to absorb it all. He started pantomiming what happened on that fateful day, making shooting and stabbing motions. Then he pointed to the ditch and demonstrated how all the bodies were laying there. He stood behind the trunk of a palm tree, as if demonstrating hiding behind it. It occurred to me that he was about my age, was he demonstrating something that happened to him?

The man’s extended family of about twelve people walked over to us. I had been speaking to Uncle Do, the head of the clan. The family ranged in age from about six to seventy-six: children, parents, grandparents.  Their age range approximated those of the victims.

His fifteen-year-old niece Mong spoke some English and asked where I was from. I hesitated. Considering where I was standing it was the first time I was tempted to say I was Canadian, but I said “US.” What happened next surprised me. The family surrounded me, shaking my hand and asking to take photos together. We were standing at the site of the worst American massacre of the war and they were greeting me like a long-lost friend.

My Lai massacre memorial site

Meeting Uncle Do's family.

Uncle Do took my arm and we spent the next half hour wandering about the preserved remains of the destroyed hamlet, somber Pied Pipers for the rest of the family tailing along behind us. He pointed out various points of significance along the way, even leading me inside one of the homemade bomb shelters where many of the villagers had been hiding before they were forced out by the troops. When our trek was finished each of the family members shook my hand and, through our ad hoc interpreter Mong, wished me well on the rest of my journey.

My Lai massacre memorial site

Standing astride the footprints are a proud father and grandmother.

It was an experience that would be repeated throughout Vietnam. A few days later Larissa and I were deep in the jungle climbing around the ruins of My Son, a 10th-century temple complex. Parts of the temple are still standing but one area is a pile of flattened rubble due to an errant US Air Force bombing run. In halting English a local visitor asked where we were from. Upon hearing my response he stopped and said, “US-Vietnam friends” before going on his way.

My Son temple Vietnam

Amid the rubble of the 10th-century My Son temple these men welcomed us.

Vietnam is a country that is poised between a violent history and a potentially bright future. While they remember the past they don’t dwell on it and, if our experience is any indication, they certainly don’t hold a grudge. We left Vietnam with warm feelings for all the people we met. They have replaced the pain of the past with hope for the future. In a sense they are forging new footprints.

My Lai massacre memorial site

The statue at My Lai represents the unbending will of the Vietnamese people.

Click the link to read more about our travel to Vietnam.

The echoes of war have gradually faded in Vietnam as the country has rebounded from decades of conflict to create a thriving modern economy; one sign of the forward looking times, former adversaries are now welcomed. Visiting Vietnam today is an eye-opening experience, particularly for an American visitor. Read more

Update June, 2017: Since our visit to North Korea in 2011, the recent death of American tourist Otto Warmbier, who was detained while visiting the country, is a tragic situation that is inexcusable. Accordingly, despite our feelings that tourism in North Korea has positive benefits by exposing the North Korean people to visitors from the outside world, we can no longer recommend that Americans visit the country. It is too easy for the DPRK to make them pawns for continuing tensions between the two countries.

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Sights in North Korea scream “look at me,” much like a regime that consistently tries to make news in shocking fashion. Although the country is small—the size of Pennsylvania, with an economy comparable to Kalamazoo, MI—they sport some whoppers: the tallest, biggest, deepest and more. Read more

From guest writer Ray Uzanas ~ I was barely ten years old when I drew a picture of a Komodo dragon lizard; the image copied from a library book about reptiles. I was fascinated with the forked-tongued creatures that look like relics from prehistoric times and dreamed of some day seeing one in person.

Though decades have passed, my interest in the Komodo dragons of Indonesia stayed strong. They are only found in Komodo National Park, comprised of a few islands in the Indonesian archipelago. Since my personal “Bucket List” includes a visit to the land of these nasty looking carnivores, whose appetite for large mammals, including humans is legendary, I took off for Indonesia.

Komodo national park sign

I joined a sea kayaking expedition that departed from the white sandy shores of Indonesia’s Flores Island. Guided by a Flores native, our group of four people paddled for 10 days among the islands hosting the Komodo. I was about to realize a lifelong dream; but that dream would come with challenges.

Daytime temperatures remained in the upper 90s throughout our voyage, while nighttime offered little relief from the stifling heat. With no cooling breeze, sleeping in our tents was difficult—hot and stuffy, especially after dousing ourselves with copious amounts of DEET to protect against mosquito bites in a region rife with malaria. We also had limited amounts of fresh water to wash away the sunscreen that covered our exposed skin.

Indonesia boy in water sunset

These were the conditions we happily endured to experience up-close sightings of Komodo dragon lizards while trekking in their island habitat. The latest surveys show about 2,000 of the remaining wild population of Komodo dragon lizards live on the islands of Komodo and Rinca.

Since the dragons are easier to find on Rinca, we began our adventure there. A park ranger led our hike into the interior of this rough-and-tumble island; it was miserably hot and dry with dense forests often giving way to grassy savannas and scattered watering holes.

We were each on high alert since humans are also potential prey for Komodo lizards. The villagers living on Rinca are in constant danger of attack. They live in houses constructed of wood, corrugated metal, and thatching that are raised several feet above ground to protect them from the occasional Komodo dragon visitor. The dragon lizards can’t climb into the houses.

komodo island vilalger

The night before our visit, a hungry Komodo made off with a villager’s goat and sadly, a year earlier, a young girl wandering into the nearby forest met the same fate. Despite the danger they pose to people, the Komodo now enjoys protection under an endangered species act and is considered a mystical and revered ancestor by the local people.

Given all these risks, what was our protection against the dragons? A seven foot long wooden stick, forked on the business end, was all that stood between us and the hungry behemoths. As I resolutely gripped the stick in my hands, I wondered how an aggressive, carnivorous creature over 9 feet long and weighing 300 lbs. could possibly be discouraged by such a simple weapon.

The three of us walked in single-file close behind the park ranger, carefully peering through the dense underbrush for dragon lizards. I held up the rear, still clutching the stick for dear life, hoping that any dragon lizards would be spotted ahead of us and not from behind.

komodo dragon on rock

After thirty minutes, our patience was rewarded. Perched atop a car-sized boulder, an adult male relaxed in the shade, at least until he spotted us. Slowly, while poking his intimidating forked tongue towards us, he slid off the rock in our direction.

I got down on one knee to snap several photos of the dragon of my dreams that was gliding toward us from less than 10 feet away. I was immediately scolded by the guide as he quickly darted between me and the lizard, fending him off with his stick to keep the lizard at bay.

komodo dragon tongue sticking out

We followed the intimidating reptile as he slowly meandered into the grassland, eventually retreating toward a watering hole where the moist, cool area provided a comfortable spot to await the next visitor and potential meal; wild animals and, sometimes, other Komodo dragons. Using their bacteria-laden saliva and venomous glands, the dragons usually only need one bite to kill their prey. They patiently watch while the poisons take their toll on the unfortunate victim.

After witnessing them in their native habitat, I remain in awe of the power and fierce reputation of the Komodo dragon lizards. Decades after my first crude rendering of these beasts, the dreams of a ten-year-old boy finally came true.

Ray Uzanas with stickOur good friend Ray Uzanas is a global explorer and travel photographer. He’s posing with the stick that protected him (barely) from the komodo dragons.

In Malaysia we witnessed a Hindu infant head shaving ceremony known as Mundan. We were visiting Batu Caves, a large Hindu Temple built atop a hillside, outside of Kuala Lumpur.

Take a tour of Batu Caves.

Visiting Batu Caves

There were the typical souvenir stands outside it selling an interesting combination of shiny stuff and religious offerings. Read more

From guest writer Nico ~ It is the end of the wet season and the land is a rich hue of greens. The deep terraced valleys and floodplains are covered in a quilted patchwork of rice paddy fields. The rice has been planted in rotation; some is ready to harvest, the stalks heavy with grain bend and shimmer in the breeze, while the short green shoots bursting through the soil in other places tell of a field freshly planted.

On the highest hills the paddy fields vanish and are replaced by endless rows of short coffee plants, sprinkled with the glistening red fruit of the ripe berries.

tana toraja view

I am visiting Tana Toraja in the central highlands of the island of Sulawesi and it is simply stunning. For holiday makers visiting Indonesia seeking something a bit different from the classic tourism hotspots of Bali and Lombok, Tana Toraja is the perfect escape. Here are some of my favorite activities when visiting this exotic region.

Hiking in Tana Toraja 

I was constantly amazed by the landscape in Tana Toraja, the fertility of the soil, the friendliness of the people and just how picturesque the villages are. They all make hiking in the region such a joy.  While most tourists hire a guide, which officially costs Rp300,000 per day ($35), it is perfectly safe to simply walk off into the countryside by yourself.

tana toraja rice paddies

Take a local bus out of Rantepao and have it stop in one of the small villages outside of the town. From there you can do a nice day walk through the rice paddy fields and down rutted country tracks. To find nice hiking trails talk to the receptionist at the hostel or hotel where you are staying.

A Cultural Tour of Tana Toraja 

The traditional houses of Tana Toraja are a popular tourism highlight. The old-fashioned houses are large square structures built of wood and painted in geometric designs of gaudy red, black and yellow. The thatched roofs extends beyond the walls at the front and back of the building and curve upwards like buffalo horns.

tana toraja village

Outside of these houses, normally in the front garden of the home, you will find family mausoleums. These buildings share many of the same architectural characteristics as the houses. They are a reflection of wealth, the largest homes will have up to six mausoleums lined up two rows deep in the front of the property.

The Sunday Water Buffalo Market

Water buffalo play a major role in the lives of the people of Tana Toraja. Every Sunday thousands of locals head to the Rantepao Water Buffalo Market. I watched over 300 buffalo waiting to be auctioned off. Most of the buffalo sat lazily in the middle of the muddy field, while the prime specimens stood proudly at the entrance to the market, the owners cooling them down with endless bottles of water.

rantepao water buffalo market tana toraja

A buffalo at the Rantepao Buffalo Market can cost as little as a few hundred dollars, while the prime specimens go for upwards of $40,000. Many of the buffaloes will be fattened up and then slaughtered at funeral celebrations.

Coffee Tasting

 coffee plant indonesia

The Arabica coffee grown in the hills of Tana Toraja is famous all over Indonesia for its rich flavor and earthy taste. One of the best places to sample this coffee is Mama Siska’s homestay in Batatumonga. Here you can see how coffee is traditionally prepared and sample the delicious beans.

Nico small crop (228x250)Guest writer Nico spends his days balancing the need for a regular income with his desire to experience new things. For the last four years he has called Indonesia his home and uses the country as a base to explore the region and occasionally the wider world. He shares his thoughts and adventures on his personal travel blog A Travellers Journey.

 

Update: August, 2019. This continues to be one of our most visited posts, and also one of our most controversial. Updates from readers (along with our continued research) indicate that Bali’s beach/trash situation has unfortunately not improved. While we typically seek out the good in any destination, we felt compelled to share this disturbing story in 2013 and still do. 

On our first day in Bali we headed for the famed Kuta Beach. The current Lonely Planet guide offers a list of “Top 25 Experiences” in Bali, with Kuta Beach right up there.  According to their experts, “Tourism on Bali began here and is there any question why? . . .Kuta Beach was and always will be Bali’s best beach.” At least that’s the Lonely Planet version.

An unhappy discovery

If our experience today is anything to go by, we can pitch our Lonely Planet guide in the trash. Or perhaps just pitch it on Kuta Beach. Because when we got there all we saw was trash, lots and lots of trash: on the sand, in the water and even clinging to the stray ankle. Plastic bags, bottles, cans, papers and heaven knows what else. It was downright filthy. This is the dirtiest beach we have ever seen, anywhere.

Our research told us that Kuta was one of the more built-up areas of Bali. Therefore, we were expecting crowds, but what we saw was not the detritus of a few too many holiday merry-makers. This was a public sanitation disaster.

It’s not surprising that the beach was practically devoid of people, though there were a few intrepid souls sizzling away on the sand. They were lobster-red and had the look of folks who had come to Bali to enjoy the beach, and were damn well going to, regardless of the rubbish.  One sad-looking girl sat at the water’s edge amidst sodden debris, a lonely mermaid washed ashore from the sea of litter.

kuta beach bali trash

Trash walking on Kuta Beach.

Trash on Kuta Beach: the explanation(?)

Surely this couldn’t be the normal state of affairs–there must be some explanation. Perhaps a garbage scow had recently overturned? Maybe the beach patrol was on strike. Bali has a reputation for being one of the most beautiful places on earth, so how could this be happening?

Unfortunately the explanation is not a good one. After further research we learned that this is an annual event at Kuta Beach. According to the Jakarta Post, “Beached garbage is an annual problem for Kuta. From early December to late March, strong wind and powerful currents send waves of garbage from the ocean onto the beach.” Locals even refer to it as the “trash season” and say the debris comes from the nearby island of Java.

But we’re not so sure we accept the “Let’s blame Java” approach. You see, the sides of the roads in this part of Bali are convenient open-air trash receptacles piled high with the same stuff we saw on the beach. In the rainy season (which we were well into) storms wash the trash into gutters, out to sea and then back onto the beach . . . where it waits to be washed out to sea again. It’s not quite the recycling system that Bali needs.

An alternative (and deceptive) viewpoint

We left the beach via the grounds of the nearby Patra Resort.  Almost immediately we were amidst manicured lawns, trickling fountains and a sparkling pool.  We glanced back at the beach where we saw lounge chairs nestled on gently raked sand, with nary a speck out of place.

are bali beaches dirty

This is a view of the exact same beach taken from the shore side. (These chairs are visible in the photo of the woman on the beach at the top of this post.) From here the trash is hidden from view.

Because of the slope of the shore, the garbage wasn’t visible from here.  But we wondered how many of the hotel’s guests actually venture down to the waterline.  We saw one family do so. Then, in a few seconds they came scurrying back like sand crabs escaping the tide. We bet they won’t go back for a second look.

Overall we loved the Balinese people; they were warm and welcoming, and much of the island was beautiful. But visitors should be aware of the trash situation on Kuta, along with other beaches on the southern part of the island. You really need to do your homework before visiting a place. With Bali, we thought we had.

If you’re interested in cleaner beaches, check out “Activist Abby,” a remarkable teenager from Illinois who is trying to rid the world of plastic bags: Activist Abby on Facebook

What places in your travels have not lived up to your expectations?

Pin it!Believe it or not, the tropical paradise of Bali has a "trash season." Do your research to avoid spending your holiday on a trashy beach in Bali.

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Update June, 2017: Since our visit to North Korea in 2011, the recent death of American tourist Otto Warmbier, who was detained while visiting the country, is a tragic situation that is inexcusable. Accordingly, despite our feelings that tourism in North Korea has positive benefits by exposing the North Korean people to visitors from the outside world, we can no longer recommend that Americans visit the country. It is too easy for the DPRK to make them pawns for continuing tensions between the two countries.

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Photos of North Korea

North Korea is a fascinating country that is truly like no other place on Earth.  Traveling to the last vestige of the Cold War is like entering both a time warp and a distorted hall of mirrors. However, while the regime spouts a continuous stream of propaganda at its citizens, the people were friendly and gracious, the same as people everywhere. We were particularly entranced by the children who ranged from curious to shy to just plain goofy, like any group of kids.  Here are some photos of North Korea from our recent trip there.

Photos of North Korea workers monument

The Korea Workers’ Monument. In an unusual move for a Communist country, the creative class is also represented, seen here in the paint brush.

North Korea DMZ

A rare view of the DMZ from the North Korean side. The actual border is the small curb between the blue buildings where two North Korean soldiers are facing each other. Just steps away a South Korean soldiers stands guard.

Pictures of North Korea women choson ot

Women approaching Kim Il Sung’s mausoleum wear the traditional choson ot. For many, it is the pilgrimage of a lifetime.

North Korea Arirang Mass Games

With over 100,000 performers, the Arirang Mass Games are the largest show on earth.

North Korea Choson ot Mass Dance Pyongyang

A traditional Mass Dance in Pyongyang on National Day.

Ryugyong Hotel North Korea

The 105-floor Ryugyong in Pyongyang is the tallest hotel in the world. Just don’t try making reservations. Construction stopped about 20 years ago.

USS Pueblo North Korea

A guide at the USS Pueblo, the only commissioned United States Navy ship still held in foreign hands. It was captured in international waters by North Korean forces in 1968 and its crew held hostage for 11 months.

North Korea Hureung royal tombs

With all the modern Communist iconography it’s easy to forget that North Korea has an ancient history. The Hureung tombs were built in the 15th-century to house the remains of a king and queen of the Joseon dynasty. These are statues guarding the tombs.

North Korea wedding party

A Korean wedding couple at the historic village of Chosin. Like grooms everywhere he wears an expression saying, “What am I getting myself into?”

Click on the link to view our Flickr album with more pictures of North Korea

Changes in Longitude Larissa & Michael Milne at Arctic Circle

We’re Larissa and Michael, your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive updates and valuable travel tips subscribe to our travel newsletter here.