Category Archives: Travel

Trip Report: Three-Day Getaway to Neemrana Fort Palace

At the end of December we took a entertaining, three-day getaway to the town of Neemrana, India

It’s about three hours by car southwest of Delhi, in Rajasthan state on the way to the well-known city of Jaipur.

Our destination: the excellent Neemrana Fort Palace, shown at the top of this post. It’s a 15th-century fort that has been expanded and renovated and made into a comfortable hotel.

Here are some images from our stay. There’s not much happening in the city itself but the palace is great location for relaxing, eating food, sipping coffee or tea and enjoying sunsets.*

The highlight of the trip, for me, was visiting a step well about a 15 minute walk away. Step wells are unique to South Asia; rather than a conventional well, step wells are large and wide and allow people to walk down to the source of the water.

In this case the structure is water-less and seems to be abandoned, but it’s still fun to hike, down and around. More on that below.


On the way down from Delhi. One of the many interesting sights to see on Indian highways.


Entrance to the hotel. 


Blue, blue skies


Inside the hotel


The nearby step well


Looking up toward the step well entrance 


Requisite #StepWellSelfie


Waking Back to the hotel

The hotel itself is spread over many stories, and is fun to explore in its own right; its many alcoves and vistas invite quiet contemplation.

Highly recommended for a quick getaway from noisy Delhi.

*There is also a zipline. I did not try it.

My Top 10 Southeast Asia Travel Tips

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tl;dr:

  1. Don’t rush
  2. For longer trips, use Bangkok as a Base
  3. Next, Look Beyond Thailand to Cambodia, Laos, and Especially Vietnam
  4. More Destinations: Myanmar and Borneo
  5. Eat Liberally
  6. Disconnect
  7. If You Must, SIM Cards are Wi-Fi Widely Available
  8. Don’t Overpack, But Bring the Right Stuff
  9. Ask Friends of Friends for Advice
  10. Do Your Own Research

I spent a decade living and reporting in Southeast Asia: eight years in Bangkok followed by just over two years in Singapore.

Between work trips and vacations, I’ve visited every sizable country in the region, and most on several occasions: Myanmar, Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

Friends sometimes ask me for tips on visiting the region, so I decided to compile my advice here, in one place.

But first, a couple of caveats:

  • The Web abounds with detailed suggestions on where to go and what do in the region. You will certainly be able to find specific tips by simply Googling your potential destinations and interests, but what I’ve aimed to do here is provide mostly my big-picture thoughts — the most important principles you should know when planning a trip.

    I’m also throwing in a few specifics, of course, but this post is meant to be a starting point for trip research and planning.

  • Also, a warning that things change quickly: small, once-quiet towns become overrun (I’m looking at you, Pai, Thailand) and cool new bars and restaurants pop up unexpectedly where they once didn’t exist.

1. Don’t Rush

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This is a no-brainer for seasoned travelers, but it bears repeating.

As Rolf Potts says in his excellent 2002 book “Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel,” few regions in the world offer such diversity of culture, within such close proximity, that can be visited as easily and cheaply as Southeast Asia.

But don’t hurry to try to do too much all at once, with a rapid-fire itinerary like you would compile for a trip to the U.S. or Europe. Transportation links are pretty good, but things can take a little longer in Southeast Asia, which is part of its charm anyway.

If you’re coming from the U.S., for example, you really need two weeks at a minimum, otherwise you’ll be jet lagged much of the time you’re here, and will simply spend too much time on the airplane compared to your time actually on the ground. Longer than two weeks is even better, if you can swing it.

(This is, of course, generally good travel advice wherever you’re going: It’s better to focus on one or two destinations and explore them well than to visit as many places as possible but only get to know them superficially.)

2. For longer trips, use Bangkok as a Base

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Again, this may seem obvious, but a good approach, especially if you’re traveling on a limited budget or have a a lot of time — as in, months — and a flexible schedule, is to fly into the Thai capital.

Bangkok is an excellent choice because:

  • it’s right in the middle of the region, with good transport links
  • has food and lodging that are relatively inexpensive
  • is fascinating in its own right

Those who do even a little bit of investigating will a find a much more complex place than the one featured in movies like “The Beach” and “The Hangover Part 2.”

A few of my favorite Bangkok destinations and activities include:

  • The Jim Thomspon House — an excellent first-day-in-Bangkok place to visit, with a lovely shaded restaurant where you can have a cool drink after the tour
  • Chatuchak Market, the famous weekend bazaar, great for shopping — or simply people watching via the handful of bars and restaurants there
  • the restaurant Arun Residence, from which you can take in Wat Arun, across the Chao Phraya
  • the roofop bar at the Banyan Tree hotel
  • Smalls, a new-ish neighborhood bar on Soi Suan Phlu
  • Lumphini Park — great for a walk or jog, especially in the mornings and evenings, when it’s a bit cooler
  • Eat Me restaurant in Silom
  • Soul Food Mahanakorn restaurant in Thonglor
  • river taxi ride on the Chao Phraya
  • a shopping mall food court at a place like MBK, where you can sample just about any Thai dish imaginable

From the Thai capital, you can travel up to the northern city of Chiang Mai or down to some of the beaches, depending on your inclination. (One fun way to get up to Chiang Mai is the overnight train. You can book tickets from a local travel agent or from your hotel concierge in Bangkok.)

Chiang Mai:

  • has excellent food
  • has many picturesque temples
  • has a climate is slightly cooler than Bangkok’s
  • is fairly walkable, for Thailand, at least in the center of the city

Note: It is, however, a city; many people imagine it to be a small town, but it does suffer from big city ills like surprisingly thick traffic at times, and occasionally aggressive touts.

For budget hotels in Chiang Mai, I have had some nice stays at 3 Sis.

And for khao soi noodle soup, a northern Thailand specialty, my favorite restaurant is the nearby Huen Phen. (For Huen Phen, note that khao soi is served at the restaurant during lunchtime; the more upscale restaurant inside doesn’t serve it for dinner.)

Outside Chiang Mai, I really love the far northern town of Mae Hong Son. We had a fun trip there several years ago and stayed at Fern Resort.

Another option, from Bangkok, is go to the beach.

Popular destinations in the Gulf of Thailand, just several hours drive (taxis are bookable through hotels) are:

  • Koh Samet
  • the resort city of Hua Hin

Some of the best beach trips we took from Bangkok involved simply renting a car and driving the three or so hours down to a resort or hotel in Hua Hin.

Koh Samet and Hua Hin aren’t as exotic as some of Thailand’ more far-flung seaside spots, but they’re easier to get to.

Farther afield are beaches you’d need to fly to, but where you’ll find more options:

  • the island of Phuket
  • Krabi

Parts of Phuket are over-developed and seedy, while others a quiet and contain gorgeous, serene beaches. The thing to remember about Phuket is that it’s so big that it offers all kinds of accommodations, even though many people are only familiar with its less attractive parts.

Meanwhile, a longtime favorite location of ours in Krabi is Railei Beach Club, though I haven’t been in several years and I hear the area has gotten quite crowded.

Further afield: One of the most memorable trips I did in Thailand was in 2008, when, for a Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia story I rented a car and drove along the Mekong river, from the city of Udon Thani in the north to the city of Ubon Ratchathani in the east.

Few tourists venture to this part of Thailand, the rural Isaan region, and I very much recommend visiting to see how a huge portion of Thai people live.

So, to sum up: Bangkok is an fascinating and fun city, and gives you access to Chiang Mai in the north and the beaches in the south.

3. Next, Look Beyond Thailand to Cambodia, Laos, and Especially Vietnam

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If you have more than ten days or two weeks, you also visit somewhere nearby like Angkor Wat, next door in Cambodia. (It’s possible to travel overland from Bangkok, to Siem Reap, where Angkor Wat is located, but flights are cheap, plentiful, and safer.)

A few additional destinations nearby are Laos, where you could visit the sleepy capital of Vientiane, or the even sleepier riverside city of Luang Prabang.

That said, Vietnam deserves special mention – it’s where I’ve had many of my most exciting and interesting travel experiences in Asia, particularly on motorbiking trips.

I’ve done two on World War II-era Minsk motorbikes with Hanoi-based tour group Explore Indochina.

I did another one independently, taking the bike on a train overnight from Hanoi to Sapa, a city in the north, and riding back to Hanoi over several days. There’s no better way to see the countryside and interact with people than on two wheels.

Hanoi, the cultural capital, is especially atmospheric, with a dense downtown area full of cafes and shops. Ho Chi Minh City, the commercial hub formerly known as Saigon, is buzzing and has incredible food.

4. More Destinations: Myanmar and Borneo

Myanmar

If you’re interested, now seems to be a good time to visit Myanmar. The country is largely undeveloped, and can be difficult to travel in, but began several years ago the process of political and economic reforms. That means tourism will likely pick up in the future. I haven’t been to the temples of Bagan, but I hear they are worth visiting.

Yangon, the former capital, is home to the remarkable Shwedagon Pagoda. Meanwhile the new capital, the largely deserted Naypyidaw, is increasingly drawing curious onlookers.

Consider Borneo. Travelers often forget about the gargantuan island, shared by Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, but it’s not too far a flight from Singapore or Kuala Lumpur.

I highly recommend Gunung Mulu National Park, where you can take in a curious sight known as the bat exodus.

5. Eat Liberally

Khao soi

Street food, in most Southeast Asia locations – and certainly in Thailand – is generally safe to eat. Though you should follow the well-known rule of avoiding food that’s been sitting around for a while and aim to eat freshly cooked items. And when in doubt, don’t eat fresh vegetables that haven’t been cooked.

For Thailand eats, I suggest checking out my pal Austin Bush’s blog. He’s a longtime Bangkok-based food writer and photographer and knows a tremendous amount about the region’s cuisines, especially Thai food.

You can search his site for specific dishes or cities, and he also has an annotated food map of Bangkok on Google Maps.

I also suggest my friend Chawadee Nualkhair’s Bangkok Glutton blog.

Chaw also has a book I recommend called “Thailand’s Best Street Food,” which tackles Bangkok, Phuket, Chiang Mai and more.

6. Disconnect

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You will likely be excited and want to show images from your travels, as soon as you capture them, via Facebook and Instagram. You may want to Tweet things.

You should not.

Wait until the trip is over to delve into your social media feeds. That way you can focus on the present and enjoy the moment. Read books or listen to music instead.

Definitely document things by taking photos and writing down your experiences, but sharing them in real-time will only divert your attention unnecessarily.

On several occasions after getting through especially frenzied periods of work in Bangkok, I decamped to Chiang Mai, where I spent a few days decompressing, enjoying novels while sitting next to the river drinking coffee (or beer).

These periods of offline reflection were always rewarding.

7. If You Must, SIM Cards and Wi-Fi are Widely Available

Smartphone

Although I advocate disconnecting while traveling for pleasure, I often like to have a local number while I’m in a different country to make calls and get mobile internet access for mapping and other uses.

SIM cards for (unlocked) smartphones are widely available in Southeast Asia. You can buy them when you arrive at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport, for example, and at most other airports in the region these days. In Thailand they are often available in 7-Elevens, as well.

Wi-Fi is also available at not just at hotels, as you’d expect, but in places like cafes and restaurants.

8. Don’t Overpack, But Bring the Right Stuff

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Yes, Southeast Asia’s climate is tropical, so you’ll want warm weather clothing like shorts and short-sleeved shirts. But keep in mind that people in cities, especially, tend to dress conservatively despite the heat, eschewing shorts for trousers and often wearing long-sleeved shirts.

My opinion: You should aim to blend in, not stick out. So save your swim suits and battered T-shirts for the beach or pool.

And a word on sandals: These generally shouldn’t be worn in cities. Some nicer bars and restaurants in many Southeast Asian cities require patrons to wear closed-toe shoes. So bring some along, and when in doubt, dress in a more respectable manner than you might assume is necessary. It’s always better to be slightly over-dressed than under-dressed.

9. Ask Friends of Friends for Advice

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Traveling years ago with my pal Matt Gross, a fantastic food and travel writer, taught me the importance of hitting up friends — and friends of friends — for travel tips.

When researching his New York Times travel stories, Matt was a master at using his vast network of contacts to suss out where to go and what to do in particular destinations.

So, before you embark on your trip:

  • Email all your friends to ask if anyone has recently been to the countries you’re considering visiting
  • Put out a call on Facebook and Twitter for advice
  • Ask everyone you know to put you in touch with people they might know who live in the places you’re targeting

The tips you get this way — from people to whom you may only be loosely connected — are often highly valuable. Of course, you’ll want to do your online research, but advice from people on the ground is always important.

10. Do Your Own Research

Flying

Reading the Lonely Planet tour guide history section for the destination you’re exploring is better than nothing, but if you’re not delving more deeply into the region’s history, you’re doing it wrong.

Some books I recommend:

Happy traveling!

Two and a Half Days in Istanbul: How to Have an Amazing Time

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A and I recently spent two and a half fantastic days in Istanbul.

We were flying to New York from Hong Kong on Turkish Airlines, and simply arranged to have a very long layover in the city.

It was a scandalously short amount of time to spend there, of course, but we had a lot of fun and were able to take in much more than I had anticipated.

With the caveat that these were simply our experiences visiting the city for the first time and others may well have better advice, here are some tips for making the most of out a short stay there.

Sleep

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We stayed at Levni Hotel, which we picked mainly because of its close proximity to sites in the old city like those listed below.

Though we often use friends’ recommendations when picking hotels, we found this one on our own, and were convinced by its many good reviews.

The rooms were tidy and ours had a nice view of the Bosphorus. The staff — especially those at the concierge desk — were extremely helpful in providing advice on navigating the city.

Another approach, when choosing hotels in Istanbul, is to stay on the Asian side of the city, which makes sense if you want to explore that area more. But we figured given the short amount of time, it was better to be in the middle of the more historical zone, on the European side.

Sightsee

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You’ll want to make the most of your time. Here’s what we took in:

  • Sultan Ahmed Mosque, known as the Blue Mosque, is strikingly beautiful.
  • Not far away is Hagia Sofia, a building with a remarkable history. I was somewhat awe-struck to be able to stand just a few feet away, for example, from the Omphalion — the very place where emperors of the Eastern Roman Empire were once crowned.
  • The Grand Bazaar is incredible: densely packed, enormous, teeming with activity.

    An excellent shop, if you’re looking for souvenirs like pestemal (towels) and soaps, is Abdullah.

  • The Spice Bazaar is also worth a visit.
  • One evening I walked from the hotel down to the Galata Bridge, where people were strolling about, fishing, and chatting. It offers a nice persepctive from which to take in the city.

Eat and Drink

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  • One evening we took a taxi to Istiklal Avenue, a long street that is blocked off for pedestrians. It’s a great place to wander around and people watch.

    I’m a sucker for views, so we went to a rooftop bar called 360 Istanbul to watch the sun go down over the city (see the image in the middle of this post). The service was…well, not great. But the vistas sure were.

  • For simple, down home Turkish fare, you might try Ficcin. It’s just off Istiklal Avenue, not far from 360 Istanbul. We sat at a table on the street, which was quite atmospheric.
  • For Turkish delight and other sweets, check out the storied Hafiz Mustafa 1864, near the Grand Bazaar, pictured above. More info here and here.
  • We had an enjoyable lunch of kebabs at Buhara Restaurant, in the old city.

Other Resources

Have fun!

By Me Yesterday: The Taj Mahal Just Got Free Wi-Fi

The post, at our Digits blog, begins:

The Taj Mahal: India’s most famous monument, where visitors can take in a striking example of Mughal architecture, gaze at the edifice’s gleaming white marble, and…surf the Internet via free Wi-Fi.

Wait, free Wi-Fi? You better believe it.

India’s federal information technology minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, on Tuesday took to Twitter to kick off a new service in which state-run telecom Bharat Sanchar Nigam is providing the service at the famed 17th century mausoleum.

Click through to read more.

Do we not live in an amazing world?

‘Bangkok Airport’ — Trailer for New Show Coming to BBC Three

Given my many previous posts about Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point this out.

Embedded above and on YouTube here: A trailer for “Bangkok Airport,” a series of six hour-long shows about the facility and the people who work there and pass through it.

It looks…quite entertaining.

Thailand Uber-blogger Richard Barrow has more, and says the show begins Jan. 22.

Additional details from a BBC press release:

Bangkok Airport (w/t) – 6 x 60 minutes

Bangkok airport, the gateway to South-East Asia, is a thriving, bustling hub of excitement and anticipation, of pale arrivals to tanned departures and everything in between. BBC Three has gained unparalleled access to all aspects of the airport in this thrilling six-part series which sees young Brits passing through to embark on adventures of a lifetime. Each episode follows some of the thousands of youth British travellers checking in and checking out, run-ins with the tourist police, incidents in immigration, customs, treatment at the on-site medical centre, missed flights, expired passports and emergencies abroad. The action takes place inside and occasionally outside the airport – at island trouble spots and the British Embassy in downtown Bangkok. And in a unique twist, contributors’ UGC (user generated content) will be used alongside fly-on-the-wall docusoap content. Bangkok Airport is made by Keo Films. It is series produced by Fiona Inskip and executive produced by Paula Trafford. BBC commissioning editor is Sam Bickley.

Yes, This is a Photo of Me with Giorgio Chiellini

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File under: Brushes with iconic soccer players in Jakarta. Related post from May: Meeting Fulham and Manchester United great Edwin van der Sar in the Jakarta airport.

I’m back after an excellent holiday break.

In the week or so I spent offline with friends and family, I had plenty of time to daydream, catch up on sleep, read books — books!* — and consider all the excellent things that happened during 2014.

And I realized: I forgot to tell you, dear friends, about how I met** Juventus and Italy great Giorgio Chiellini*** in Jakarta in August.

Yes, that’s the two of us in the photo above.

I was in Indonesia working on stories and, one afternoon, visited a five star hotel in Jakarta.

It just so happened that storied Italian club side Juventus were staying there, as they were in town for an exhibition game.

And who did I see? Yes, it was Chielini, the powerful Juventus and Italy defender.

Yes, the player who Luis Suarez bit during the World Cup last summer:

It was remarkable to see him in person.

And the answer is: No, I did not pose for the photo — like this one — as if I were biting him.

*More to come soon on a remarkable novel I read during my down time.

**By “met,” I mean that I approached him as he strode across the hotel lobby, gestured to my phone, and then stood next to him for approximately five seconds as we had our photo taken together. After which he walked away. It was not a lengthy interaction.

***No, given my love for all things goalkeeper-related, I did not bump into Juventus and Italy’s legendary Gianluigi Buffon.

Aunt Cece and Her Pecan Pie Make Their WSJ Debut

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Longtime Newley.com readers will recall that I have blogged, in past years, about my Aunt Cece’s pecan pie.

I absolutely love it. And I make a point to bake one every Thanksgiving.

I’m happy to say that her fantastic dish figures in this story I wrote for WSJ Expat about connections that folks who live abroad feel to food from home:

American holidays and customs resonate strongly with me during this time of year, even amid the heat and sunshine of my adopted Southeast Asian home.

The nostalgia surprises me sometimes. Born in Oregon and raised in South Carolina, when I still lived in the U.S. I never really cared that much about Thanksgiving, for instance. Then I moved to Thailand in 2006. It was only there, surrounded by central Bangkok’s gray concrete buildings, with puttering tuk-tuks buzzing in my ears, that this most American of holidays firmly took root in my heart.

Perhaps it was homesickness mixing with a bit of sentimentality I didn’t know I had. The result was a hankering for down-home side dishes like deviled eggs, mashed potatoes, and—best of all—my Aunt Cece’s South Carolina pecan pie, not to mention cranberry sauce and my mother’s oyster pie. My wife—also an American—and I used these dishes to maintain a connection to home and celebrate with our close-knit group of friends since our relatives were so far away. We moved to Singapore in February and continue to celebrate American holidays here, in this similarly tropical city-state.

It turns out I’m not the only foreigner whose view on his or her home country’s holidays have changed over time, though not always in ways you’d expect.

Click through for photos, input from other expats, and — perhaps best of all — the recipe for Aunt Cece’s pie.

Worth Reading: An In-Depth NYT Travel Story on Cuenca, Ecuador and the Country’s Southern Coast

Long-time Newley.com readers will recall that about a decade ago I spent a year living and working in the fascinating, staggeringly picturesque city Cuenca, Ecuador, which is situated some 8,000 feet high in the Andean foothills.

I loved my time there, met some great people who remain my close friends, and think of the country often.

Indeed, I still keep an eye on international news about Ecuador, and came across this recent New York Times travel story by Michelle Higgins, headlined “Three Sides of Ecuador“:

On our nine-day trip in July we focused on three of these offerings — beaches, mountains and colonial charm. The plan was to head north along the Pacific coast, then head east into the Andean highlands for high-altitude trails before spending time with family in the beautiful colonial city of Cuenca, where my mother was born. (We ended up doing it all, but not in that order, given our detour.)

Many travel pieces about the country focus, understandably, on other places: destinations in the north (the capital, Quito), the east (the Amazon jungle), and/or the far west (the Galapagos).

But this story, I was delighted to find, is not just about Cuenca, but about other areas I know well, like Cajas National Park and towns along the country’s southern coast coast, such as Puerto Lopez.

The food, the people, the insane driving conditions, and even the whale watching: there’s lots of good stuff here. And there’s a slideshow of photos by Meridith Kohut.