Travel Tip: The Airline Bag

Most of the time I fly internationally, I try to fly at least business class, but that is not always an option. On occasion, I must fly economy and I know that the vast majority of people who travel overseas are stuck in the same situation. Between cramped seats, minuscule leg room, chairs that don’t recline and bad food, flying economy on any flight over 6 hours is really, truly a nightmare.

However, there are some tricks which make it easier and one of my favorites is what I call “the airline bag”. Now, if you’ve ever flown business class (or above) on any major international flight, you’ll know that each traveler gets a small toiletry bag that contains stuff like a pair of socks with tread on the bottom, chap stick, a pen, a sleeping mask, and other such niceties. While these bags are never distributed to economy passengers, that doesn’t have to stop you from making one of your own in the unfortunate event you end up flying economy!

Airline Bag, by Suz

Airline Bag, by Suz

The best way to start your airline bag is to find and purchase a small zippered pouch to house of your necessary travel items. Michael Kors sells very handy, perfectly sized cosmetic bags, which run around 80 USD. If this is too expensive, other designers and stores sell similar zippered pouches for much cheaper prices (Victoria’s Secret comes to mind). All you need to do is take some time to hunt around and find a cute zippered pouch that’s in your price range. Bonus points if it has interior pockets and compartments, which you can fill later with items you will want to keep handy while aboard your flight. And men, don’t worry–there are many masculine travel kits for you to choose from as well! Just be sure that the bag has a zipper as you don’t want your small items spilling onto the floor or into the airline seat pouch. Oftentimes snaps and other closures accidentally come undone when you’re jamming your bag into and out of either your purse, carry-on, or the seat pocket in front of you.

Once you’ve picked a good zippered bag to turn into your “airline bag”–now fill it up with goodies! Think about the items you commonly need while aboard a plane, the type of items you either fill your purse up with or that you end up digging around for in your carry-on. Also think about any situations that may arise that you would normally be unprepared for–say a coughing fit, or perhaps a runny nose, or maybe dry eyes or, for women, getting your period unexpectedly. Make a list of things you think you would benefit from having handy on a long airplane ride. Once you’ve done this, go to your local Target (Target tends to have a better “travel sized” section than other stores like WalMart or Rite Aid) and try to find small, travel sized portions of the items on your list.

The interior of my airline bag.

The interior of my airline bag.

To give you an idea of what to include in your”airline bag” and to help you determine what you may need, here’s a list of the things I keep in mine:

–Mini deodorant (if you have long layovers or flights, after awhile you start to smell, and if your connections are short, you’ll run a lot and sweat profusely between gates and having deodorant is a lifesaver!)

–Small container of Midol and a tampon (yes ladies, do yourself a favor and add this)

–Ear plugs (for sleeping)

–Eye mask (for sleeping)

–A pen (to fill out customs forms)

–A spare contact lens case + a small bottle of contact solution (because flying dries out your eyes and sometimes those contacts just need to come OUT)

–Eye drops (for dry eyes)

–A mini set of my favorite skin care products (moisturizer, eye cream, and serum–I like Ole Henriksen’s “3 Little Wonders Mini Box“)

–Chapstick

–Hand moisturizer

–Mini toothbrush + paste (you really will enjoy being able to brush your teeth after eating those terrible airline meals!)

–Large, comfy socks (to put over your support hose, which you SHOULD wear)

–Mints/gum (for popping your ears when the air pressure changes AND in case the guy sitting next to you is hot!)

–A few business cards (because you never know who you’re gonna end up sitting next to and airplanes can be a very unique and fruitful place to network)

–Headache/pain tablets (Advil, Midol, etc, in case of a headache or fever)

–A few packets of Emergen-C or Airborne Tablets (these help to dramatically decrease the likelihood of picking up a disease onboard)

–Travel size packet of wet wipes (for your face and hands, because it’s easier than getting up to wash your hands after every meal)

–Nose spray (for allergies on board)

–EpiPen (if you have serious allergies this is a MUST)

–Tissues

–A lightweight cap (to keep your head warm on cold flights; I prefer a lightweight wool cap)

–Back up copies of customs forms for the countries you will be visiting + your arrival slip for return to your home country (so you can have them pre-filled out and not waste time trying to get a copy and filling it out each and every time you fly somewhere).

If you fly First, don't even read this post, lol.

If you fly First , don’t even read this post, lol.

These are just a few items from my “airline bag”, but I hope they give you a good idea of what you can include in yours! Even if you’re not in business or first class, it doesn’t mean you must fly in pain. If you pack an “airline bag” in the outside pocket of your carry-on bag, you can simply grab it, toss it in your seat and be good to go for the flight, instead of having to constantly get up and down throughout the flight, or to dig through your bag for items you may not even have. If you have an “airline bag” along with a pillow and small blanket to put over your legs for those cold, long international flights, you’ve done all you can do to turn your economy seat into an economy plus oasis. Some international airlines do give you complimentary blankets and pillows, but unless you’re familiar with the airline and know for sure what they do and do not provide, it’s infinitely better to be stuck with an extra blanket and pillow than without one at all.

Lastly, don’t forget a good book, your passport, your tickets and your wanderlust! See you in economy (but only if I have to….) 😉

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Driving on the Roof of the World (Leh, India)

Driving along National Highway 1D right outside of Leh, India (in Kashmir). Half of the year these roads are closed due to extreme snowfall, as they pass right through the highest parts of the Himalayan Mountains. The roads are maintained by the Borders Road Organization (BRO) and it’s actually really hilarious because every sign alongside the road says something like “Slow Down, Tight Curves BRO”, which constantly made me giggle. We drove the entire highway from Srinagar to Leh, and even before that we had driven from Jaipur to Srinagar. All within a 2 week period of time. Talk about altitude sickness! It surely was an adventure on the rooftop of the world!

Part of our motley road trippin' crew!

Part of our motley road trippin’ crew!

In this video we are trying to drive to Fotu La, one of the highest mountain passes in the entire world (roughly 13,000 feet above sea level), and a pass that gets about 60 feet of snowfall during the winter. However, it was blocked due to a huge landslide (this was in May and the snow was still melting), so instead we turned back around and went back down (thank god, because I could barely breathe in the van we hired to carry us and our camping gear and actually had an oxygen tank because the air was so thin), and ended up camping down below, just outside of the city of Leh. Which also was perfect because half way through the night our campsite was attacked by a ghost or a yeti (abominable snowman) of some sort, which was absolutely terrifying.

We had stayed for a few days in Leh, and had wandered the markets and found an outfitting company who would lend us tents, sleeping bags, and other such gear for a camping trip. We (I was traveling with several friends) all rented a bus to carry all of the camping gear, including oxygen tanks for the pass crossing, and attempted to get through the pass to a remote campsite. As stated, we didn’t make it, but we did decide to turn back and camp anyways. To make a long story short, we had a helper with us who was a cook as well as a driver and general handyman, and after the sun set and we were all sitting around the campfire, he was off to the side, in a large tent, cooking our meal (lal maas or goat curry of course).

We all were sitting around the fire, drinking, having a good time when we hear a muffled scream and someone choking from the direction of his tent. Of course, a silence fell over us all as we looked over in his direction and about 3 seconds later, he goes flying out of

The outfitter we used for our camping gear.

The outfitter we used for our camping gear.

the tent like someone had thrown him! Now he was not a big man but he wasn’t small either–I would guess maybe 160 lbs–and by the time we all ran over to him to make sure he was ok, his eyes were rolling back into his head, he was foaming at the mouth and screaming about how “they are coming for us”. Everyone was completely freaked out and started praying and chanting the hanuman chalisa, which is a Hindu devotional hymn for protection. One friend had holy ashes in his wallet and started wiping ashes on our foreheads to ward off the demons. I went to grab a hot coal covered stick from the fire and stood guard over the shaking, huddled masses.

Eventually we all moved into a different tent, and sat together, praying for the ghost to leave us. As we had left the fire unattended and we were camping in a wild area (not a campground) that happened to be full of dry plants, I kept an eye on the fire as I was worried that the wind that blew that evening would cause a wildfire. As I was looking at the fire through the side of the tent, I saw it flare up to a large height, and began to worry seriously. As I was about to unzip the tent, I saw a large, human sized shadow walk between the fire and the side of the tent, and I honestly have never been, and probably will never be, so scared in my entire life! I froze. I told everyone to hush and to be quiet. I didn’t know what to do. I knew whatever it was out there was massive and strong and larger than any man in the group of men I was with and obviously much stronger than me.

The site where we camped.

The site where we camped.

After the fire died down and the crunch of the footsteps disappeared, one of the group decided to try to call from his cell for help. Now mind you, this area is very remote. We are talking no cell service, no roads near by, no houses for many miles, no electricity, nothing. I thought our best bet was a nearby Indian army base, and I hoped they would see the fire and maybe stop by in a couple of hours. But one of my friends was able to get weak cell coverage and was scouring his phone for the phone number of the outfitting company whom lent us the tents and dropped us off where we were camping. No one else knew where we were, and since we were totally unprepared, we had no idea where we were either and it would have been impossible for any of us to describe where we were, as we had driven many miles off any conceivable road to reach the spot where we had pitched our tents (which was also surrounded on 3 sides by a small river).

Me, in front of my tent!

Me, in front of my tent!

Mysteriously, the number for the outfitter was erased from his outgoing call list, which was noticeable as it was the last number he had dialed before the driver left. The driver had on purpose had him dial his number “in case of emergencies” so it would have most definitely been the last dialed number in the outgoing call list. But it was gone. He started to really get freaked out that whatever had attacked our handyman was not human but an evil spirit, and as this happened, again the handyman fainted and was out cold.

Luckily, after about 30 minutes of being in the cold tent, in the dark, scared shitless, the phone magically coughed up the number and he was able to get enough cell reception to call the driver, who came an hour or so later to pick us up. You have never seen a group of men run so fast to a truck in your entire life! We left everything behind, all the tents and gear and waded across a freezing stream to rush the van as it came for us in the night. The headlights approaching were a sight for sore eyes, let me tell you! We were also successfully able to carry our passed out handyman with us, and he was revived later on that evening at the hotel. Everyone was so scared, we all slept in one room, 5 people per bed, everyone shaking in fear and unable to even untie our wet, cold shoes.

The boys, figuring out the provisions.

The boys, figuring out the provisions.

The next day, no one wanted to return to gather the gear but as we had rented it, we had to return it. I went back to the site, along with one other guy, and as we were picking up the gear and undoing the tents, I saw MASSIVE barefoot prints all along the ashes of the fire and around the fire pit we had made (well I had made, my friends had never camped before in their lives, and probably will never camp again after this experience, lol). It was the most bizarre shit I’ve ever seen–these foot prints were the size of 2 bricks in length and maybe 1 brick in width. It freaked me out a lot, and I hurried and packed everything up and that afternoon we hit the road back to Srinagar, stopping along the way at one of the most insane dhaba/rest houses I’ve ever stayed at in my life.

But that’s another story for another day….

To Listen: Excellent road trip songs!

  • Party All Night” by Yo Yo Honey Singh, from the movie “Boss”
  • Banjaara” from the movie “Ek Tha Tiger”
  • Mein Sharabi” by Imran Aziz Mian and Yo Yo Honey Singh, from the movie “Cocktail”
  • Aaj Mera Jee Kardaa” by Sukhvinder Singh, from the movie “Monsoon Wedding”

Stone Town, Zanzibar (Photoset)

I visited Stone Town by ferry from Dar Es Salaam, after a long and arduous tour of East Africa (including all the major Kenyan and Tanzanian national parks). It was a welcome and relaxing end to a rough safari, and the ferry ride from Dar Es Salaam to the island of Zanzibar, which sits about 1hr by boat off the coast of Tanzania was absolutely beautiful. On the way to Stone Town, the only major city on Zanzibar island, and the port of entry for all transport for the island, I saw schools of dolphins off the side of the boat, as well as a couple whales blowing sea water into the air!

The ferry terminal in Dar Es Salaam was packed, and the wait was long, and since Zanzibar is an autonomous territory of Tanzania and not exactly Tanzania proper, there was an equally long customs and border crossing wait once we arrived in Stone Town. It took officials about 45 minutes to check our bags and stamp our passports, but once we got through, the beauty and exotic mystique of the island more than made up for whatever inconveniences we experienced.

Zanzibar is a exotic, elegant, swirling mixture of Hindu, Arabic and African cultures. Known often as “spice island”, Zanzibar was a major hub for the trade of spices (grown on the island in huge spice plantations) as well as the trade of slaves from mainland Africa. Situated as it is, and having a good natural harbor, it was an important island in the ancient Indian Ocean trade routes for thousands of years. Though it’s located off the coast of East Africa, for a good long time it was considered part of the Omani Sultanate and was ruled by Oman, which lies on the Arabian Peninsula, far to the north of the island. The Omanis were a seafaring people who dominated much of the spice and slave trade off the coast of East Africa and thus controlled the island, bringing the Muslim religion and Arabic language to the island. Indian traders from the subcontinent brought the Hindu faith and culture, and the slaves and East African slave traders brought Swahili language and culture to the island as well. It is truly a cultural melting pot in the most visceral sense of the term, and a truly beautiful island blessed by naturally blue waters and white sand beaches.

Stone Town is also the home of the famed musician Freddie Mercury, who’s childhood home and birthplace is on the island. He was Persian, and his heritage highlights another interesting cultural component of the Zanzibar history, that of the Persians (Iranians) who also settled the island. Monuments to Freddie Mercury can be found all over Stone Town. The markets here are also a big draw, selling the most amazingly fresh and intense spices (grown locally) as well as all manner of objects–anything from contemporary art by local artists, to wooden furniture (handmade) to shoes made from used tyres.

Zanzibar Curio Shop!

Zanzibar Curio Shop!

One of the best curio stores in the world can also be found down Stone Town’s winding market streets–a place called the Zanzibar Curio Shop. It looks like a typical touristy store, full of cheap magnets and bad souvenir t-shirts, but it is so much more than that! If you poke around for a few minutes, you’ll realize that the entire store actually spans both sides of the road and occupies many rooms behind the main room. In all of this space, there are tons of antiques and items of wonder; one can find everything from old tin adverts in Hindi to old photographs of the Omani ruling family to old scuba helmets and brass globes which hang from the ceiling by brass chains. It is literally the coolest store I’ve ever had the pleasure of walking into, and that’s saying a lot, because I’ve been to curios all over the globe! The Zanzibar Curio’s selection of Arabic light fixtures alone will drive you mad (think of an entire room full of Moroccan style lamps of all colours, shapes, and sizes!).

The store is run by two Indian brothers who hunt the entire African and Indian continents for items of interest, going to estate sales, old backyard garage sales, and business liquidation sales. Their taste in items is to be admired.

All in all, Stone Town was one of those truly unique, utterly exotic places that one can scarcely imagine exists in our bland, globalized, modern world. Every store is a boutique, every item is handcrafted, and the buildings are original and historic and the streets narrow, winding and lovely. I highly recommend a trip to Stone Town and if you’re there, be sure to stay in a historic tea house! Stone Town and Zanzibar island makes for the perfect ending to an East African safari.

To See: Zanzibar Curio Store – “The Most Curious Shop in Stone Town” : Hurumzi Street, Next to Clove Hotel, behind the House of Wonder. Tel: +255 24322077, Email: zanzibar_curio_shop@hotmail.com.

To Stay: Jafferji House & Spa (a historic tea house turned hotel) 170 Gizenga Street, Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania. Tel: +255 24 223 6583, Website: http://jafferjihouse.net/index.php. Rooms run between $200 – $600/night depending on the season, demand, and room type. “Out of Africa” suite is highly recommended!

Jaipur By Tuk-Tuk

A video I shot while riding around Jaipur last winter in a tuk-tuk, so you can get an idea of what it’s like on the streets of Jaipur, India.

Pushkar (Rajasthan, India)

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I’ve visited Pushkar many times, but my favorite time to visit is during the Pushkar Camel Fair! It’s a well known event that comes once a year to Pushkar, usually during the end of October to the beginning of November (in 2014 it will be running 26 October to 6 November). Tons of people from all over the world descend on the otherwise sleepy city of Pushkar for a huge multi-day long event that includes the sale of horses, mules, donkeys and of course, camels as well as tons of local dance shows, religious speakers and all other manner of events.

Other than the camel fair, Pushkar is known for being one of the holiest cities in India for Hindus. It is said that the tears of Lord Shiva, when weeping for the death of his wife Sati, formed the lake in Pushkar, which is a central feature of the city. Pushkar is one of the oldest cities in India and also houses one of the only temples in the world dedicated to Lord Brahma, located here because Brahma is said to have formed the holy city of Pushkar himself. Because of these holy associations, eating meat and drinking alcohol and smoking is forbidden within city limits, although this is a commonly broken law behind closed doors.

A woman who asked for her photo to be taken on the streets of Pushkar.

A woman who asked for her photo to be taken on the streets of Pushkar.

Pushkar is also a hippie backpacker hot spot, and there are tons of Israeli backpackers who come here to stay in the multiple ashrams in the area, as well as other hippie types from America, Australia, and other parts of the world. There are many hashish and opium smokers in the area too, as a response to the hippie backpackers who frequent the area. There are too, many Hindu pilgrims from other parts of India, as Pushkar is one of the five sacred dhams (pilgrimage sites) for devout Hindus the world over.

I have a friend who owns a hotel here in Pushkar, the New Paradise Inn, and whenever I visit Pushkar, I stay that this hotel, which is a very basic backpacker’s spot, but is safe, clean and definitely the place to party if you find yourself in Pushkar. Just tell the cook not to use too much oil in his food! 😉 Also, don’t stay downstairs because there is a ghost which haunts the downstairs rooms. If you’re lucky and you take your food out on the patio on the roof, you’ll probably run into the resident monkeys as well, who love to run up and down on the roof and sneak looks down at you while you eat.

There are many things to do in Pushkar, from camel safaris into the surrounding desert, to hiking the nearby Nag Parbat or “Snake Mountain”. In addition, the best curio store in all of Rajasthan lies in the Pushkar market, just past the local Brahma temple. If you walk down the main road in front of the temple past the main square where you find produce sellers, and continue maybe 300 meters, on the right hand side, right next to a cart full of powdered colored chalk, there will be a store which sells curios of all kind from all over Rajasthan, in addition to amazing historical art pieces and carvings from old temples. The owner of the store, Krishna, generally closes the store during the Pushkar Camel Fair because the crowds get too crazy, but if you go at any other time of the year, you’ll find him tending his store, full of awesome antiques that he buys from estate sales in Rajasthan and collects from local artists, merchants and art dealers. If you have any problem finding him, just ask around the market for Krishna’s antique store, and everyone will know who you’re talking about and lead you in the right direction.

Another fun place to visit in the market is a store called Roots of Pushkar, which sells local music CDs and records, along with all other types of music, from American pop music to the latest Bollywood hits. Roots of Pushkar also sells movies and books as well. They have a collection of recordings of traditional gypsy music from Rajasthan, performed in the traditional way, that’s well worth purchasing because it’s beautiful music and also because proceeds go to a fund created to help support and sustain the local music of the region.

Lastly, no trip to Pushkar is complete without visiting the ghats, or steps, leading down to the famous Pushkar Lake. It’s said that a dip in this lake is akin to a spiritual cleansing and revival, and even if you are not Hindu and even if you are not at all spiritual, the experience of descending the ghat and taking a dip in the lake is one you cannot miss. I can vouch for the benefits of doing so, as each and every time I’ve had a dip in Lake Pushkar, I’ve had something wonderful and miraculous happen to me. Perhaps it’s simply because I believe so strongly in the benefits of the cleansing or perhaps there is some spiritual aspect at work, but I will wholeheartedly say that a dip in the lake will bring you luck.

A tin advert from the curio store in the Pushkar market.

A tin advert from the curio store in the Pushkar market.

I was once stuck in Pushkar, about to run out of an important medicine I take for a health problem I have. I had spent days wandering around to all the pharmacies in Pushkar, unable to find the medicine I needed. I was distraught, as I was not ready to leave India yet, but facing that prospect if I could not find more medicine. I was about to give up, walking through the markets of Pushkar, about to give up the quest to find this medicine, when a small child approached me near the ghats with a bougainvillea flower and asked if I’d like to take a dip in the lake. I said yes, and did so, praying in my head very hard, asking the gods to show me the way that I could stay in India, the way to find more medicine. Well, as soon as I finished my dip, and walked back up the ghat, at the top I was met by an old man who asked me “What are you seeking? I can tell you want something…”. I told him my situation and the medicine that I needed, and he just smiled, turned, and told me to follow him. I did. Low and behold, not more than 100 meters from the entrance to the ghat, was the one pharmacy in Pushkar I had not seen or visited. They had a full month’s supply of the medicine I needed to stay in India. I bought the entire supply for about 50 USD (it would have cost me well over 100 USD in America), and I was able to extend my stay in India for another month!

So I believe in the divinity of Lake Pushkar. This is just one of many stories of this magical city! If you’re in India, and especially if you’re visiting Rajasthan, no trip is complete without a stop in Pushkar and a dip in the lucky lake!

Accommodation: New Paradise Inn, $15 night/per room. Within walking distance of the Brahma temple, market and lake.

To see: Pushkar Camel Fair, Roots of Pushkar, Brahma Temple

Roots of Pushkar: +91 145-2773387 // +91 94-14-415287, owner Ravi Kant Sharma, Varah Ghat, Chhoti Basti, Rajasthan, Pushkar

Pushkar Curio Store: +91 98-28-477812, owner Krishna.

EDIT: I seem to get a lot of traffic to this page from Google searches relating to opium in Pushkar. In general, in the smaller towns and back areas of Rajasthan, it’s not that difficult to find. Oftentimes, there will be little opium shacks alongside the road, with local people sitting and just chewing or smoking opium. These are on the small roads outside of the main cities (i.e. you won’t find them between say Jaipur or Jodhpur, but in places like say Phalodi, or Jaisalmer). Also, as a foreigner, unless you’re with locals, you won’t be alerted to what’s happening, or likely offered any, and if you go asking, no one will tell you what’s going on. Opium is still illegal and while it’s part of the culture in Rajasthan and has been for a long time, and most cops overlook it for local people, as a Westerner, you will not be trusted to handle yourself or the situation. My best advice if you’re LOOKING for opium is to befriend someone local and put the time and effort into getting to know them, and then, when the time is right, ask them for a connection. Trust me, there are plenty of drugs in Pushkar (I’ve seen for sure cocaine, opium, H, meth, and hash) but you won’t be able to just roll on up as a Western tourist and think you can just walk into an opium den. It’s not like that. As with most 3rd world countries, it’s all about who you know, not how much money you have. Bribing people to take you to these places will just result in failure. Also, if you’re into opium, also try Kathmandu–there are tons of opium dens there as well, and again, befriend locals, although in Kathmandu it’s easier to find them than in India. Lastly, don’t think you’re going to walk into some 18th century romantic vision of what you think of as an “opium den”; it’s 2014 and opium dens like that don’t exist anymore, sorry. When I say opium den I mean a place where people take opium. Usually it’s a roadside basic shack with a tarp for a roof and a dirt floor or a dirty, crowded back room in a building with no windows, florescent lights, and a bunch of dirty mattresses on the floor. Be forewarned! Don’t go for the ambiance, basically, go because you love opiates.

Angkor Wat (Siem Reap, Cambodia)

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Siem Reap is best known as the location for the amazing temple complex known as “Angkor Wat”. Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the entire world and was built as a Hindu temple but was subsequently turned into a Buddhist site of worship. Today, there is an interesting mixture of Hindu and Buddhist elements inside the complex, and even some active sites of worship for local Hindus and Buddhists exist to this day.

Angkor Wat should definitely be on every serious traveler’s list of places to see, right up there along with the Giza Pyramids, the Great Wall of China and the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio De Janeiro. Siem Reap is the city nearest to this huge temple complex, about 4 miles south of the main Angkor Wat complex (although there are many other, less known and less visited temple complexes further north of Siem Reap as well) and anyone who visits Angkor Wat will need to stay in Siem Reap, as it is the only nearby town which really offers hotels and accommodation, as well as help with tours of the temple complex.

Me, walking in front of an Angkor Wat temple!

Me, walking in front of an Angkor Wat temple!

Angkor Wat can describe the main temple in the Angkor Wat complex, or the entire complex itself, which is freaking massive, covering over 500 acres of land. Any hotel in Siem Reap can help you actually get to the complex itself, usually by rickshaw, taxi, or on foot if you’re ambitious. Once there, you can buy tickets for entry that last anywhere from 1 day to 7 days, and which cost anywhere from 20 USD to 60 USD. When you get to the entrance, you must have your photo taken and it will be printed on your ticket, which you need to keep with you and carry on you at all times, as you will often be checked for your ticket before being allowed to enter some of the temples inside the complex. Also, fines are steep if you’re found to be wandering around the grounds without a proper ticket, or with a ticket who’s photo does not match your face. Don’t skimp here–just buy a damn ticket and know that the money you’re spending is going toward the upkeep of a beautiful UNESCO world heritage site and is well worth spending.

Once you’ve gotten your entrance ticket, if you don’t already have a local guide and you want one, you can simply walk around and find a tout hanging around either outside the temple complex or just inside. As in India, at the Taj Mahal, these guides should be licensed by the state and will have a lanyard around their neck with their certification. Pick a guide who’s certified and agree on a fee before allowing him to take you around, otherwise at the end of the adventure, you’ll find yourself in an awkward and potentially expensive situation. Guides are not necessary, especially if you have your own guide book, but do remember that they are infinitely more familiar with the grounds than you are, and will help keep you from getting lost, and if you’re constrained by time, they can help you pick which sites are worth a visit and which ones to skip. I personally also like getting a local guide because I enjoy helping out a local who probably needs my money more than I do. A lot of Westerners see these guides as annoying or like beggars, but they are making a legitimate living and the certification to be a guide is not easy, so just remember that it’s not that expensive to hire a guide for the day (I paid 50 USD — 20USD price plus a 30USD tip) and it’s fun to have a local’s perspective on everything and someone you can ask questions regarding the monuments, instead of having to continually flip through a guide book. Bonus points include getting local tips for which restaurants are good in Siem Reap city and perhaps an invite to a local family dinner!

Keep in mind that the Angkor Wat temple complex is HUGE! I cannot state this enough! I recommend buying a several day long ticket (you must use the ticket on consecutive days though, so a 3 day long ticket must be used 3 days in a row) because it’s pretty much impossible to see everything worth seeing in one day. Also, since the complex is so large, walking around it can get tiring, especially if you’re visiting in the heat and the humidity. There are plenty of modes of transport you can hire once inside the temple complex to help get you around–anywhere from bicycles to elephants, to golf carts. Take your pick of which you’d like, or choose to walk if you prefer. Everything is relatively cheap and easy to arrange; no need to do it in advance.

Me, with temple dancers dressed up for photo ops!

Me, with temple dancers dressed up for photo ops!

Also, be sure to grab a map of the complex so you don’t get lost, and enjoy spending the day or days getting lost in the beautiful carvings and huge ancient temples! Be sure to wear good walking shoes because even if you hire transport, you will still be walking often up and down stairs to ascend and descend temples, and often through the temples themselves. And bring a lot of memory cards for your camera as the entire complex is utterly gorgeous and you’ll want to take a ton of photos! There are few vendors inside the official temple complex, although there are some who sell t-shirts and rice paper rubbings of some of the carvings on the temple, which are beautiful by the way, and worth the 1-2USD it will cost you for them. There are also a few places which sell basic provisions like water and snacks, but no real places to eat and no camera stores or places selling memory cards, so just bring what you know you will need with you for the day before entering the area.

A small note on getting to Siem Reap from Phnom Penh (capital city of Cambodia): I recommend a bus, because the journey is relatively short (5-6 hours), on good roads, and it’s fun to watch the countryside roll by and to experience riding a Cambodian bus. The tickets too, by bus, are pretty cheap (if I remember properly, around 10 USD one way, per person). Beware though, that there are two kinds of buses: VIP and non VIP. VIP buses are primarily for tourists only and have onboard amenities like a toilet, a TV which will play amazing Cambodian movies and the occasional Bollywood hit, and if you’re especially charming, they may even play a movie of your choice if you’re carrying the DVD with you (I watched The Dictator on my bus because I charmed the driver into letting me control the onboard DVD player and I had a bootlegged copy of the Dictator from Phnom Penh with me, cuz I travel prepared!). The best of these VIP buses is the Mekong Express, which I chose to travel with. I did see, at one of the rest stops, a bus called the Giant Ibis, which advertised onboard wifi and extra leg room, but I am always wary of “onboard wifi” seeing as how 90% of the buses in South America supposedly offer this but none of them actually ever have it. But if you’re into it, it may be worth checking out.

Buses stop once for lunch and once more for a break to stretch one’s legs, and generally get into Siem Reap around sunset. Once you arrive, you can either have your Siem Reap hotel send a taxi to pick you up from the terminal (VIP buses have a separate terminal from non-VIP buses, so make sure you specify) or you can just grab a local tuk tuk from the station because many congregate in the area and are very accessible and cheap. However, if you have a lot of luggage arrange for a taxi in advance because tuk-tuks can’t handle a lot of luggage or large groups of people very well. From my memory, they do run night buses to Siem Reap from Phnom Penh as well, but I wouldn’t recommend those because I don’t think the security would be as tight and in general, it’s best to travel during the day through rural areas.

Getting a spa treatment at the Golden Temple Villa hotel.

Getting a spa treatment at the Golden Temple Villa hotel.

Also note that VIP buses only cost about 4-6USD more than non-VIP buses and are well worth the extra money for the extra amenities. If you’re super broke, take a non-VIP bus but do expect that you’re gonna be crammed in with the locals and it’s not going to be a fun ride. Fair warning.

If you want to fly in, there are also many flights to and from Siem Reap, both internationally and domestically. Departing Siem Reap back to Phnom Penh, I flew out of the Siem Reap airport on Cambodia Angkor Air, and was pleasantly surprised at how organized, clean and efficient the airport was. They accommodated international flights from Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand, as well as mentioned, to local cities, mainly Phnom Penh. Mostly, the airport was full of tourists, because Siem Reap is mainly a tourist destination due to Angkor Wat. Tickets were right around 100USD for a one way, per person. I enjoyed traveling by bus there and by plane back, and recommend it to everyone as a way to experience a little bit of everything whilst traveling to Siem Reap.

The city of Siem Reap has some interesting things to check out as well, so don’t forget to poke around the city before or after visiting Angkor Wat. The Cambodia Landmine Museum, founded in 1997 by an ex-child solider of the Khmer Rouge, is very interesting and well worth a visit.  The Old Market area (including the old market itself, called Pshar Chas), Pub Street, and Alley West are the best places to hang out in Siem Reap after a long day of exploring the Angkor Wat temples. Pub Street is filled with awesome nightclubs and bars, as well as tasty local restaurants. Alley West has a bunch of boutique stores and art galleries, and the old market is filled with tons of local trinkets, stones, t-shirts, and all other forms of memorabilia and local household items. Things really don’t start to pick up in the Pub Street/Old Market area until after 5pm, so be sure to come after sundown for the best time. If you all are really lucky, I will dig out the footage of me breakdancing with a local 12 year old outside of the biggest club on Pub street! Obviously, I had an amazing time!

Recommended Accommodation: Golden Temple Villa, $20-50/per night; email the hotel directly for booking, and you will probably be offered package rates which include free pick-up from the airport or bus terminal, a complimentary massage in their spa, complimentary drinks and snacks upon check in, and one free meal at their restaurant. They are very competitively priced and offer a beautiful room for the price and have most of the amenities of a 3-4 star hotel in the USA (including wifi, in room dining, and a full service bathroom and lovely bed). Request the balcony room.

To See: Angkor Wat Temple Complex: “Angkor Passes” are sold in one-day ($20), three-day ($40) and seven-day ($60) blocks that must be used on consecutive days. Photo taken on the spot with free of charge is required at time of purchase.

Visiting hours are 5:00AM – 6:00PM. Angkor Wat closes at 6:00PM, Banteay Srey closes at 5:00PM and Kbal Spean at 3:00PM. Always carry your ticket. It will be checked upon each park entry and at major temples. There is a significant fine for not possessing a valid ticket inside the park. A regular admission ticket is not required to visit Phnom Kulen, Koh Ker or Beng Melea, but there is a separate entrance fee of $20, $10 and $5, respectively.

Transport: Mekong Express Bus: $13 per person, one way from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. DVD player, on board bathroom, several stops for fresh air.

Cambodia Angkor Air: $150 apx one way, per person from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap; around $350 round trip, per person.

Cambodian Visa: $25 cost for eVisa, which saves you from having to stand in line and get a visa on arrival when arriving into Cambodia. Highly recommended; easy, fast, and efficient. Just cut out the eVisa and paste it into your passport. Conversely, a visa on arrival is $20, but expect long lines and potential complications.


Ta Prohm, or the “Tomb Raider Temple”: footage shot by me as I was being guided through the complex by a local guide.

How To Buy The Cheapest Airline Tickets

Flying out of LAX.

Flying out of LAX.

The most common question I receive as a frequent traveler is simply: “How do I get the best deals on airline tickets?”. It makes sense, since one of the biggest hurdles to travel for most people is simply the high costs of airline tickets to their chosen destination. Especially when you start talking about international travel, tickets often set you back more than $1000. If you’re going to make such a large purchase, you want to be absolutely sure that you’re getting the best deal you can get!

Since airline tickets are priced dynamically, people very often pay vastly different prices for the exact same flight. The key to finding good fares is timing–it matters greatly when you purchase your ticket. Despite what Travelocity or Kayak may lead you to believe, there is no one website that will get you “cheap tickets” or “the best airline deals”. To get the cheapest flights, it’s a combination of timing and of using the right internet browser!

Tip 1: Clear your search cache and cookies or open an incognito mode window before doing any airline ticket searches! Most of the airline companies and aggregate travel search engines (such as Kayak) will raise the rates of your tickets if they can see you’ve searched for that flight route before. It usually will save you a couple hundred bucks to search from a clean browser.

Tip 2: Don’t shop too early or too late for your tickets. The cheapest rates for domestic travel can be found 3-4 months before the departure date. International travel is cheapest 4-5 months prior to departure. Anything before or after this window will cost you extra.

Tip 3: Leave on a Wednesday, and take the very first flight of the day. I know it sucks to get up at 3am for a flight, but if you’re hell bent on getting the cheapest flight, that’s the one to choose. The most expensive days for trip departures are Friday or Sunday, so avoid departing on the weekend.

Tip 4: Buy your tickets on Tuesday, 3pm EST. Statistically speaking, it is the time where tickets are absolutely the lowest in price they will get for that week. Most of these deals and discounted airfares are pulled on Thursday, so if you wait too long, you’ll find those really great prices will disappear, only to reappear again on Tuesday.

Flying to Delhi from Newark.

Flying into Delhi from Newark.

Tip 5: When you buy airline tickets in bulk (for more than 1 person), the system must price all the tickets at the same rate. Therefore, if there are seats at a cheaper price, you will not be offered those seats, if they airline does not have enough of them for your entire party. It is a pain, but if you’re buying multiple airline tickets, buy them separately. You will probably save a couple hundred bucks on at least one of the tickets.

Tip 6: Don’t forget to check discount airlines! Southwest, Jet Blue, and other discount airlines (like Allegiant Air) don’t show up on aggregate sites like Kayak, Orbitz or Travelocity. You must check them separately. This often applies for overseas discount travel as well; airlines like Air Asia or IndiGo Airlines often do not show up on Kayak search results. However, SkyScanner app and website DOES include these discounted carriers, but only in Asia and not in the USA.

Tip 7: Be flexible! The singular best way to get great airline prices is to travel with a flexible schedule. I know this is impossible for most of us with jobs, but whenever possible, be flexible about your dates. A lot of travel sites will let you see a fare matrix that will pin point the cheapest departure and return dates for your chosen route. Use this, and use the SkyScanner app to get an idea of what days will be the cheapest for you to choose to fly on.

Tip 8: If you live in a smaller city, drive to the closest hub town, or book your fare there separately. This can often save you a couple hundred bucks, especially flying internationally. Most of the best international airfare deals are from major US hubs and cities, so it helps to book your flight from a larger airport, then either drive, take a bus, or book a connecting flight separately.

Tip 9: Fly from alternative local airports. If you live in a large city, be sure to include all of your city’s local airports in your search. Oftentimes, especially for domestic travel, you can fight cheaper flights out of smaller regional airports. This generally is not true for international travel, but is worth a shot just in case.

Tip 10: “Hacker fares”– This is where you purchase your departure and return tickets separately, as one way tickets. This rarely gets you a discount, but it’s worth a shot. Check the one way tickets to and from your destination and see if the total combined price is cheaper than a round trip ticket. If you’ve waited until the last minute to purchase your ticket, it generally will be.

Those are the tips I consistently use to book my own airline tickets, and I can vouchsafe that they work well and work consistently. Just remember that most heavily discounted tickets come with a lot of travel restrictions–you generally cannot alter the date of the ticket’s travel, the time of departure or the airport of departure or arrival. If you’re looking for a ticket that is transferrable or refundable, discounted tickets will never fit that bill (you should go ahead and purchase a full fare ticket). However, if you’re willing to put up with heavy ticket restrictions for a better price and willing to make the effort to follow these 10 airline purchasing tips, you should get the best possible rates for your trip!

Bon Voyage!

Flying in East Africa (Photoset)

Flying in East Africa is a trip unto itself. I was very, very lucky to have escaped the Nairobi airport on the last flight that left before the big fire. Africa was one of the most unique places to fly, and each airport and flight presented a new adventure!

Kyiv, Ukraine

I  visited Kyiv, Ukraine back in the summer of 2010. I had an amazing time there, despite the sweltering 110 F heat and 60% humidity AND despite getting food poisoning from an ill-fated McDonald’s chicken sandwich AND despite the fires in the exclusion zone of Chernobyl that the US government was SURE was going to kill every American who dared to enter Ukraine.

In a couple weeks from now I will be headed back to Kyiv, only this time, under much more somber conditions. I intend to visit and to document what’s been going on over there, the struggle for independence and for the creation of a government that suits the Ukrainian people. I was very lucky to have witnessed history unfold in Cairo in January of 2011 when their revolution began, and I am very hopeful that I can visit Ukraine and help tell the stories of those who have been fighting these last few months for their freedom and their ideals of a right and proper government. I know many people who think me insane to go at such a time, but the struggle of all humanity moves me in a deep way and I can think of nothing more worthy of my words, time, interest and travel than to tell the stories of the Ukrainian people, as told to me.

Last time I was in Kyiv, I made some amazing friends, some of which I still speak to often. I will be staying with Aricio, who own’s the Kyiv Central Station hostel, and who was an amazing and wonderful guide for me the last time I visited. A friend of my cousin, who shall remain anonymous, will be assisting me with getting interviews and translating them for my coverage.

I look forward to my departure soon, and I hope that the Ukrainian people may find whatever peace and justice they are seeking.

Kyiv Ukraine Links (recommended activities and accommodation):

Kyiv Central Station Hostel: $20/night for private double room with shared bathroom to $9/night for a bed in a 12 bed mixed gender dorm. Aricio runs the hostel and is an amazingly helpful guide.

Chernobyl Tour: $145/per person (discounts for groups) — full day activity, totally wacky, somewhat safe, a chance of a lifetime. The cost is basically just bribes to get through guarded check points and to pay for a bus that plays weird patriotic soviet music.

Soviet Bunkers Tour: $130/per person (discounts for groups) — half day activity, very interesting for those who are into WWII history and Soviet memorabilia.

Tank Driving and Shooting Guns: $1100/per person (discounts for groups) — full day activity, literally the most badass thing ever! You do get to drive an actual tank and you get to shoot all sorts of ridiculous weaponry. Highly recommended.

Kyiv Opera House: Seats range from $5-$40 per location per performance. You can purchase them online or pick them up at the box office locally, once you arrive. Performances include ballet, opera, and orchestral music.

Pechersk Lavra: Entrance is fairly cheap (I don’t remember how much because I actually snuck in using a friend’s old expired ticket, so shoot me), but this place is utterly amazing and includes many unique museums and churches all for the small price of one ticket. In addition, there are underground tunnels and even an underground cathedral and mummified monks that are considered very holy. A must see!

 

Oberoi UdaiVilas (Udaipur, India)

Udaipur is probably my favorite city in India, and definitely my favorite city in the Indian state of Rajasthan. It’s such a romantic and beautiful city, deservedly called “the Paris of the East”.

Lack Pichola is the heart of Udaipur, and the city sits on the lake, surrounding it on all sides. My favorite hotel, and my usual haunt, in Udaipur is the famed Taj Lake Palace, but instead of jumping right into writing about that magical place (I could write books!), I’m going to skip instead to covering the UdaiVilas, which lie on the opposite side of the lake from the Udaipur City Palace, and a short boat ride from the Taj Lake Palace (which is a free standing island hotel in the middle of Lake Pichola).

To get to the UdaiVilas, you can either take a boat ferry from a terminal down the street from the City Palace complex, or drive around the lake by car or tuk-tuk to the official ground entrance. I found that the boat ferry was more useful, since most of the time the traffic through the city roads was so bad, it was just quicker to jet across the lake in the ferry. Plus, since the UdaiVilas are on the opposite side of the city from most of the tourist attractions, it’s quite a distance by car to travel to get to see the things you generally want to see. The boat ride at least is novel and fun and allows you to get a unique view of the city while waiting to arrive back at the hotel.

That being said, I do also need to mention that since I am so enamored with the Taj Lake Palace, my review of the UdaiVilas may be biased (just a little). I checked into the hotel for an extended stay of 6 nights on vacation awhile back. I expected, for $600/night, the same price at the Taj Lake Palace, that my check in would be swift, and that the room I had booked would be beautiful and available. Now, for certain, I checked in very late at night after a long and arduous taxi journey, so my time of arrival was not normal. When I arrived for check in, I had to wait a good while for my room to be ready. In addition, the room was no the room I had been lead to believe I was booking when I had called to enquire about booking from America. I had wanted a room with a pool, and I was told that the “Premier Pool View Room with Private Courtyard” would have it’s own pool. It did, sort of. But it was a shared pool with many other rooms and did not exactly lead to the hotel room balcony, as I had envisioned it, and as it had been photographed in the many UdaiVila adverts. So, after waiting a good while to check in (and being very tired), and then being shown a room I didn’t like….it was not a good welcome.

Happily enough, they were able to accommodate  me in the room I did want, for an extra upgrade fee. Understandable. The problems did not end, though, when I found out the next day that the wifi was not working. I wouldn’t mind if the wifi wasn’t working in a $20/night guesthouse. I wouldn’t mind if the wifi wasn’t working even in a $200/night hotel. But I was paying $600/night for no wifi??! It wasn’t acceptable. And then there was no chocolate in the mini-bar! I’m sorry but if you’re going to sell yourself as a luxury hotel, a true 5 star hotel, you must have mini-bar chocolate for PMSing women such as myself. I aired my complaints to the manager, and they sent a private butler to the room with chocolates but still were unable to reliably fix the wifi, thus hindering my ability to do a lot of necessary work.

Due to these issues, they gave me some hotel restaurant credit, and I decided to try the food at the hotel. I had a light Western lunch at Chandi (an open air cafe) and it was quite good. However, dinner at Udaimahal (more formal dinner restaurant) was disappointing, as the malai kofta dish I ordered literally tasted like Campbell’s Tomato Soup had been poured over some potato dumplings. YUCK. No spices at all. I am a connoisseur of malai kofta, as it is my favorite Indian dish, and I have actually never had a worse version of it than at Udaimahal. Again, disappointment. I decided to give the spa a try. Nope. Their facials didn’t involve extractions and for over $100, I’m sorry but I expect a steam and an extraction (their words were “therapeutic facials only” whatever that may mean). I didn’t try any of the massages or pedicures or manicures, although they were available. Their steam room lights didn’t work and there was a lot of mold growing in the changing area. Not impressed.

The last straw came when I had sent wet laundry away for cleaning (one of my friends had thrown me in my private pool with my clothes on and I had sent them to be washed and dried) and the clothes were STILL not washed and dried 2 days later! In addition, I had a private tarot card reader come to my hotel to do a reading and they wouldn’t let him past the lobby to come to my room so I had to walk the 1/2 mile of hallways to the lobby to get him and walk him back to my room. I understand security, and I understand that the culture is different in India and a man alone with a woman in a hotel is frowned upon, but you would think that since I am a guest and a Westerner they would walk him back to my room FOR ME, but they flatly refused. I was not a fan. And then I had someone coming to stay with me one night and they wouldn’t let this person in either without me physically coming to walk them in.

It was really a hassle and after 3 days, I decided to defect to the Lake Palace hotel for the last 3 days of my stay in Udaipur. I felt that, at $600/night, that I could have had a lot better treatment, and since the Lake Palace hotel and the UdaiVilas cost roughly the same thing, I would rather stay at the Lake Palace and built up Taj Inner Circle points and stay with a staff who knew me very well vs. a hotel that obviously was going to treat me like I was staying at my local Super 8 motel.

I’ve stayed at other Oberoi properties in Agra and Cairo and been very happy with their services. I’m not sure what went wrong with the UdaiVilas, but I can safely say I won’t be staying there again, although the property was lovely and I did enjoy the wild peacocks roaming around the grounds every so often in the early mornings. I will also, lastly, add this: if you’re interested in staying in historic properties, choose the Taj chain. They make an effort to lease out or buy up true historical properties (old palaces, old hotels) and restore them to their former glory vs. the Oberoi chain who tends to build replicas of these older properties. For instance, the UdaiVilas is a recently built property (I believe it was built in 2003) vs. the Lake Palace which is the historical summer residence for the ruler of Udiapur. At least for me, the experience of staying in a true former palace is much more interesting and magical than the experience of staying in a replica, despite it being a newer and supposedly better property.

Lastly, I want to note that after secretly commandeering a golf cart and having an undercover speed jetty boat sent to pick me up from the UdaiVila dock to take me to the Lake Palace, I was greeted by name and lead immediately to my room at the Lake Palace, which had been outfitted according to all of my preferences. They even had an ENTIRE CHOCOLATE CAKE waiting for me with my name spelled out in white chocolate ganache!! At the end of the day, the Taj Lake Palace will always be my “go to” spot in Udaipur, but I am glad I tried the UdaiVilas, because at least now I know never to return again.

UdaiVilas: Rooms start at $400/night for garden view and go up to $8000/night for the Kohinoor Luxury Suite (I stayed in and photographed the premier room with semi-private pool).

Taj Lake Palace: Rooms start at $600/night for luxury rooms and go up to $6000/night for the Grand Presidential Suite (I will review this hotel separately in a later post).