Archive for August, 2009

Amazing Amsterdam

AmsterdamSay what you will about the United States and our cities compared to the cities of Europe but at least we don’t make every metropolitan area into a proverbial maze of dead end and one way streets too narrow for most cars to pass through. With the exception of Boston and then selected neighborhoods of other east coast cities, cities in the US were mostly well organized and thought out – true models of the power of urban planning. By contrast, the cities or Europe – considerably older than anything in our fair nation – more or less just popped up over times as feudal countryside gave rise to villages and towns and then finally the cities we know today. As a result, these cities were clearly not built with the idea of making transportation to, from and around town easy and, especially in cities like Venice or Amsterdam, getting around can an absolute nightmare.

While Venice is most clearly famous for its reliance on waterways and canal taxis this is not to say the city is without paved streets, roads, and sidewalks. While you might assume these would be relatively easier to navigate the reality is that these are some of the more confusing streets in Europe. Every other corner brings a bride or a tunnel or an overpass over the canals and, after you’ve seen 16 different bridges they have a tendency to start to run together. During my stay in Venice it took me over three hours to find my way home one night – the combination of confusing streets and my inability to speak Italian really complicating matters and making things more difficult.

As I mentioned above, I found Amsterdam to be equally confusing but for different reasons. While not relying on its canals so much as the Venetians, Amsterdam’s canals and semi-grid layout make every single block look exactly like the previous one. While a grid would seemingly make the streets easy to navigate they are not numbered in any order like in New York for example, and as I said they all literally look exactly the same. Despite these flaws in design, however, Europe’s cities are amazing places to visit and I would encourage anyone to visit these cities at their leisure – particularly Venice and Amsterdam; just make sure you bring a compass or a GPS device as they are likely to save you time, energy, and frustration.

Prague Holiday

pragueDespite the fact that so many people rave about what a great time they had visiting Prague in the Czech Republic, I for one had a downright miserable time in the former soviet satellite and don’t know that I would recommend a visit to a friend or enemy alike. When you speak to someone who has been or visited, they will likely rave to you about how beautiful the city was or how amazing inexpensive the food and or entertainment was. They might go on and on about what a great bargain they got in their hotel or how cheap it was to enjoy a four course meal. What these people often neglect to tell you, however, is just how much the quality suffers when the price is reduced.

Now sure, there is no question that you can get around Prague for pennies on the dollar, but in the end, you often find you will get what you paid for (or didn’t pay for). Take my own experience for example: my girlfriend and I visited the city and booked three nights in a hotel with king sized bed and kitchenette for less than 60 dollars US a night. The brochures and website promised a world class hotel complete with restaurants and entertainment and that we would be pampered and treated like a king and a queen. The sad and ugly truth is that the hotel was nothing more than elaborate smoke and mirrors. Our kind sized bed turned out to be two twin beds pushed together and covered with a pad and sheet. Our “kitchenette” was a sink and microwave and the much hyped entertainment turned out to be a ski ball machine and internet access (which cost a premium price). As for the world class food, we discovered pizza that could have very well been prepared in a microwave and gnocchi that was indistinguishable from gruel or some old world portage.

Now don’t get me wrong, we did have a couple good meals and some good times while in Prague and we did enjoy our time together, but on a whole I felt Prague was a grimy and dirty town that is not nearly as wonderful as people describe it as. In the end, I think it is fair to say that I would have likely enjoyed Prague more had I not heard so much overhyped tales and stories first.

Five Good National Parks in Southeast Asia

phnom-kulenVacationing in Southeast Asia is about more than the cities, the museums and the food. Indeed, no vacation to the region is complete without a trip to a few of the region’s many pristine national parks. One of the first parks on the list of important national parks is Kinabalu National Park in Malaysia. Located on the island of Borneo, Kinabalu Park is dominated by Mount Kinabalu, a popular destination for mountain climbers and hikers.

The park is on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites for its unique ecology and natural beauty. This includes a variety of orchids and carnivorous plants. The park spans four climate zones. It’s possible to arrange for a guide through the park administration but whether you’re seeking a guided climb up the mountain or simply a leisurely hike through the grounds of the park, it’s a beautiful natural landscape that attracts thousands of tourists each year.

Another important national park is Phnom Kulen National Park in Cambodia. The site is of national and religious importance in the region and has played a role in everything from the founding of the Khmer Empire in 802 AD to the end of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. The water is sacred to Hindus and underneath the water are hundreds of ornate stone carvings depicting Hindu religious scenes. The site is also notable for its two waterfalls and an eight-meter long Buddha statue.

Gunung Mulu National Park in Indonesia is important not because of its history but because of its caves. The park is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is home to the largest cavern in the world. Many of the caves are uncharted and the aforementioned largest chamber in the world (named the Sarawak Chamber) was only discovered in 1981. Today, the park can be reached by helicopter and there are a variety of ecotourism activities on offer for visitors.

Ba Be National Park in Vietnam is also home to a cave but the focus of this park is more on its freshwater lake. Surrounded by forests and limestone cliffs, Ba Be Lake is home to a variety of wildlife including King Cobras and European Otters. It’s visually arresting and its biodiversity makes it the perfect place for ecotourist activities such as hiking, bird watching and boating.

Khao Sok National Park is the final park on my list. Located in Thailand, Khao Sok is notable as a rainforest with more biodiversity than the Amazon. The park also includes a reservoir and is known for a variety of flowers and animal life that make it an important ecological preserve. Perfect for hiking and photography, the Khao Sok Park sounds somewhat more tame than the other parks on the list but with water, forests and wildlife, it’s a good place to get away form the urban bustle of modern Thailand. Indeed, these parks are all great getaways from the modern economies and urban centers that often define Southeast Asian tourism today. Hiking may be much simpler than touring a modern city but it’s equally enjoyable and important in an Asian vacation.

© 2010 Pat Travels the World
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