About Robert Schrader
Robert Schrader is a travel writer and photographer who's been roaming the world independently since 2005, writing for publications such as "CNNGo" and "Shanghaiist" along the way. His blog, Leave Your Daily Hell, provides a mix of travel advice, destination guides and personal essays covering the more esoteric aspects of life as a traveler.
Latest Posts by Robert Schrader
My upcoming trip to Europe will mark my eighth unique visit to the continent, and there’s a very simply reason why: Europe is practically overflowing with amazing sights to see, owing to its long history, huge geographical footprint and diverse cultural, ethnic and linguistic makeup.
In particular, I love exploring the cities of Europe, many of which seem like nations unto themselves. Here are five can’t-miss European cities to consider for your next short trip.
The current capital of Italy and former center of one of the largest empires in history, Rome’s streets have an electric energy flowing through them that’s palpable and intoxicating.
Whether you stick to the tourist trail and explore famous attractions like the Colosseum and Vatican City, explore the city’s incredible cuisine on a food tour or meet a sexy local and dance the night away, Rome’s offerings to travelers are as significant and varied as its contributions to Western civilization.
Just as Sweden is sometimes shrugged off for simply being the home of ABBA, H&M and IKEA, Stockholm often gets neglected when people name their favorite European capitals.
And that’s an incredible shame! From old town Gamla Stan, to hipster-filled Södermalm to the archipelago of islands that spirals outward from the city’s center, Stockholm offers a nearly endless array of sights, sounds and activities for visitors. Visit during summer to enjoy the Midnight Sun, Scandinavia’s most alluring natural phenomenon.
Dresden is located just an hour from Berlin, but its architecture, vibe and indeed its imperial history make it seem like another world entirely.
The capital of the Kingdom of Saxony long before the unification of Germany, Dresden is defined by the Baroque architecture at its historical center, which was largely constructed during the reign of the flamboyant King Augustus. And largely destroyed during World War II – Dresden was among the most-bombed cities in Germany.
The first thing you notice about Lisbon, arriving by air, is the terracotta roof tiles that unify the aesthetic of what might otherwise be a very chaotic city.
To be sure, the Portuguese capital offers up far more experiences that its seemingly small footprint would suggest. Take an Americano streetcar up the Tagus River to Belém and explore an ancient fort before indulging in delicious pastries, traipse through historical Alfama or dance the night away in cosmopolitan Baixa-Chiado.
A few days ago, while waiting for my flight over the Pacific in San Francisco, I noticed a young woman walking into the Japanese restaurant where I was having lunch. She sat down and ordered a drink from the waiting server, and began placing her belongings on the ground.
“Are you from Australia?” Another restaurant patron asked her from across the way.
The girl, whose accent was about as far from Australian as one can get, smiled. “Nope,” she shook her head. “American – from Texas.”
I had no choice but to interrupt, the awkward circumstances of her exchange with the customer who mistook her nationality notwithstanding. “Two Texans in one restaurant. What are the chances?”
Our brief meeting proved serendipitous in more ways than one. Sunaina, as I soon learned her name to be, was on her way to southern India, where she would be spending time at a Sufi temple, so when the topic of travel – and, more specifically, the effect it has on spirituality – came up, she had an interesting perspective.
“My philosophy,” she explained, when I described to her, in as much detail as one can in a rushed airport-meal setting, how I believe my worldview had been partially to blame for the demise of my recent relationship, “is to ‘empty’ yourself completely prior to interacting with someone.
“That way,” she continued, “you can fully accept them and their energy, regardless of the extent to which you might be different. Does that make sense?”
I nodded. What Sunaiana said did make sense to me, inasmuch as that it succinctly encapsulated the approach I’ve been trying to employ when I interact with people for a very long time, even if said approach (or, more likely, my implementation of it) had ultimately failed the last time I attempted to put it into practice.
But what I didn’t realize, as I bid her farewell and made a mad dash to gate G92, where my United Airlines plane was already in the first stages of boarding, was how this idea – that we should “empty” ourselves prior to interacting – might apply to travel itself.
I was headed over the Pacific to Bangkok, which I’m using as a jumping off point for my two-week trip to Sri Lanka next Monday. When I learned that Jason, who runs the Hiatus4Life blog, would be in the Thai capital at the same time as me, I was eager to show him the best of my favorite city in the world.
The challenge was to be able to see a city I’ve seen so many times, and at so many different stages of my life, from a fresh perspective, not only to depict it interestingly through my fifth series of Bangkok travel photos, but to present it in a way that would allow Jason to love it like I do. My work – to provide Jason with a comprehensive overview of Bangkok in just one day – was cut out for me.
After meeting Jason at the Sala Daeng station of the Bangkok SkyTrain, we headed to Saphan Taksin, where we boarded a Chao Phraya Express boat bound for Memorial Bridge. “We’re going to start,” I explained to Jason, as our boat headed north along the muddy river, “by seeing some less-visited, but no less spectacular Bangkok attractions.”
As we began walking over Memorial Bridge toward Wat Prayun, a “white” temple I’ve visited on my own more than a few times, Sunaina’s words echoed in my mind. Empty yourself completely.
Initially, this proved to be a frustrating pursuit, if not an impossible one. It seemed futile to attempt not replicating shots I’d taken before, even subconsciously. And I didn’t want to impinge upon Jason’s first time in Bangkok by prioritizing photography over tour-guiding.
Yet slowly but surely, as we moved on from Wat Prayun to the Portuguese-colonial Santa Cruz church and then to the epic Wat Kalayanamit, I not only emptied myself of past experiences in Bangkok, but of my typical travel disposition – that is the solo traveler who talks and thinks to himself incessantly, because he is alone.
By the time we crossed back over the Chao Phraya and stopped for lunch, I found myself throughly humbled by what a fascinating, sweet person Jason (who has been my personal friend for quite sometime, in addition to being a reader of this blog) was. Prior to arriving in Asia for the first time, he’d spent more than a month backpacking through Central America.
The tales he told me as we traipsed first through the iconic Wat Pho temple, and then through the Rattanakosin old city up to seedy Khao San Road, were riveting, and not just because they recounted a journey I didn’t take, through a part of the world I’ve never visited. His perspective on the world, on travel and on life was fundamentally different from, and yet in a way totally complementary to, mine.
Not surprisingly, the photos he took of Bangkok were profoundly dissimilar to mine. “It’s kind of surreal,” I gasped while flipping through his camera roll in the tuk-tuk on the way back to where we’d begun our journey earlier in the afternoon, as the moon rose behind us. “It’s as if – and I mean this in the very best way possible – we were in totally different cities on totally different days.”
After Jason and I had dinner and drinks together in Silom, we bid each other farewell, and made tentative plans to meet the next day. Although nearly too exhausted to think, I smiled to myself as I walked through the sleazy Patpong Night Market to my hotel, and reflected on my brief, serendipitous meeting earlier in the week. Thank you, Sunaina.
Top photo credit: bangkok tourist, all other photo credits from Robert.
Sunsets: I have always been a sucker for great ones, but it was not until a few years ago, when I came upon an incredible quote, that I began to consider this seemingly ordinary phenomenon as the magnificent gift it is. All of us saw the sun rise today, but not all of us will see it set.
Traveling around the world for the past half-decade has, not surprisingly, afforded me the opportunity to see some amazing sunsets. So, as the sun gets ready to set on this chapter of my being at home – I will depart on my next trip, which will take me to Thailand and Sri Lanka, on Monday – as I reflect, I thought I’d post some of my favorite sunsets.
Vietnam - this photo depicts a strange blue twilight in the even stranger coastal town of Mui Ne, less than a week after I took the biggest leap of my life.
I spent my first couple months post-”real life” in Southeast Asia, then fulfilled the first of many big travel goals I had: Visiting the Middle East. Continuing with the theme of firsts, I snapped the beautiful sunset photo my first night in the region, in Beirut, Lebanon.
Rio de Janeiro is consistently ranked among the most beautiful cities in the world, so I don’t have to say a lot about this sunset photo, which I took on Ipanema Beach when I visited Brazil.
During a trip to Israel, I went with a friend to the coastal town of Akko, located in the north of Israel, where this incredible sunset picture was taken.
From Israel I crossed into Egypt, and fulfilled another major travel goal of mine: Riding a “felucca” up the Nile river. The incredible sunset I enjoyed from the deck of the traditional sailboat is one of my top travel highlights ever.
The star attraction of Australia’s dusty red center is technically Uluru, which is also known as Ayers Rock, but my favorite sunset from the week I spent in the Outback was actually over Kata Tjuta, a lesser-known (but, in my opinion, even more spectacular) geological formation.
My favorite thing about this sunset photo from the incredible city of Bergen, Norway is the fact that it was nearly midnight when I snapped it.
While in Italy last summer, I made the acquaintance of a sweet boy named Leonardo, who took me up to Villa Dora Pamphili, the highest point in Rome. This was not only a nice place to enjoy a little bacio, but to watch the sun set over the Vatican.
Last fall, you might remember, I became the proudest big brother in the world, after flying my sister Stephanie to Thailand, which was her first overseas trip. This was the second-to-last sunset was enjoyed together, on Koh Mook island in the Andaman Sea.
Like many travelers, I was shocked and amazed – in the worst possible way – upon arriving to Bali for the first time. Where were the picturesque beaches, the relics of migratory Hinduism and the laid-back vibe that drew millions of annual tourists here in the first place?
And, more importantly, where the fuck was Julia Roberts’ cute villa? (I was in search of her sexy Brazilian man, too, but let’s be realistic here.)
The Bali you encounter when you first arrive at Denpasar International Airport couldn’t be further from the one depicted in “Eat, Pray, Love,” from steel-grey waters and trash-covered beaches in Kuta, to the disproportionate numbers of foreigners in could-be-charming places like Seminyak, to the blatant commercialism that has nearly wiped out the semblance of anything local around the island.
The good news is that bits and pieces of Julia Roberts’ Bali are within your reach. Today I’m going to talk about my favorite of them, the Ubud region, which is home to the lush rice terraces, Hindu temples and the gives you the opportunity to get up-close and personal with monkeys.
For many people, Cartagena, Colombia first appeared on the radar at the 2012 Summit of the Americas, when then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made headlines for dancing and drinking at a local bar called Cafe Havana. Although I traveled to Cartagena just weeks after the event – I didn’t make a point of visiting Cafe Havana and retracing Clinton’s footsteps.
I did have just as great a time as Hillary did in Cartagena, however, and that’s what this article is all about – how to see the best Cartagena, Colombia has to offer in just three days.
Day 1: The Walled City and the Castle
Although the Cartagena metro area is huge, both in population and in land area, the portion of the city with which most travelers are concerned – a walled portion of the city, dating back to the 16th century – is very small.
The good news, if you’re a backpacker, is that all of Cartagena’s popular hostels are located within this part of the city, which makes exploring it extremely easy, whether you do it by day, strolling down bougainvillea-line streets and dining at charming cevicherías, or walk up onto the wall itself in the evening, and use it as a vantage point for watching sunset.
The old city is chock full of history – tip: hire one of the official tourist guides near Cartagena’s Clock Tower gate for a half-day walk that feels like a documentary – which is why I recommend capping off the day you devote to exploring it with a visit to Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, which was commissioned by the Spanish crown and took over 100 years to build.
Day 2: Totumo Volcano and Evening Entertainment
One thing that surprises many visitors to Cartagena is that much of the urban area around the old city is, well, kind of disgusting. That’s the bad news. The good news is that, because Cartagena is situated on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, you don’t have to travel far outside the city to arrive quite literally in the wild.
I initially considered not visiting Totumo Volcano, because many fellow backpackers I met in Cartagena said they had been disappointed by it. But I’m glad I did make the trek, if only for the incredible views I enjoyed from the top of the volcano. (Having a sexy Colombian man rub mud on me wasn’t a terrible experience, either.)
Then, enjoy drinks at Cafe del Mar
Whether you hire a car to get to the volcano, or go on an organized tour with your hotel and hostel, make sure and get back to the city before sunset so you can enjoy a local song and dance performance by the Clock Tower gate. Then, if you’re not too tired from a long day in the sun, head to Cafe del Mar at the northwestern corner of the old city walls to enjoy sunset drinks.
Day 3: Playa Blanca
Another major complaint visitors to Cartagena have is that the city’s beaches are…um…horrible. Thankfully, they are also avoidable: Simply book a boat from the Cartagena marina, just past the clock tower, to Isla de Baru, which is where you’ll find the idyllic Playa Blanca.
I’ve listed Playa Blanca as a one-day trip, because you can easily do a day trip there, but the fact is that many people arrive and don’t want to leave. One travel I’d previously met in Santa Marta, just prior to camping in Parque Tayrona, was wrapping up five days on Isla de Baru when I ran into him there.
An alternative beach option if you have more time – and money – is to head to San Andrés island, which is accessible by plane or a very long boat ride. Because of the distance and cost associated in getting there, however, you should set aside at least a few days if you plan to visit the island.
Below, Medellín, Colombia and Yanque, Perú.
I’m a bit of snob when it comes to travel photography. Not because I believe my travel photography is objectively better than anyone else’s, mind you, but because I believe that travel photographers should always prioritize detail, nuance and quality in the images they capture.
Enter the iPhone. On the surface, it’s a travel photographer’s dream – small, lightweight and point-and-shoot. Sure, it’s low quality, but it’s got a bevy of filters, editors and other features that kind manipulate its photos into looking like they’ve been professionally shot. Well, kind of professional.
And that’s the thing about the iPhone when it comes to travel photography: It’s kind of awesome. But it also kind of sucks! Unless something groundbreaking changes RE: iPhone design, you will never see an iPhone photograph on Leave Your Daily Hell, and here’s why.
Technical Limits of the iPhone Camera
Although the iPhone 5 has the most sophisticated iPhone camera thus far – the cameras on the iPhones 4S, 4, 3Gs and (shudder) 3G are much, much less capable – I’m going to analyze the tech specs of the iPhone 5 camera, for argument’s sake.
The iPhone’s camera resolution is a mere 8 megapixels, which is less than that of the $200 point-and-shoot I was using circa 2007. The clearness of the iPhone’s shots suffers even more when you attempt to zoom, which results in hugely pixellated captures.
Another major disadvantage of the iPhone camera – which also, to be fair, applies to non-smartphone point-and-shoot cameras – is that it isn’t particularly tactile. Every element of control you have over a shot relates to a button on the screen or, worse, a post-processing technique. Your physical connectedness to the act of photography is several hampered when you use an iPhone as a camera.
Advantages of iPhoneography
The obvious main advantage of using the iPhone as a travel camera is how convenient it is. Not only is the iPhone small and lightweight, it’s discreet and always at the ready – it’s easy to sneak an iPhone into places where you “can’t” take photos.
Another advantage of using the iPhone is that what the phone lacks in root technical capabilities, it makes up for with some pretty cool bells and whistles, such as the ability to take panoramas. The iPhone is also capable of HDR, or “high dynamic range” shots, wherein it digitally combines underexposed and overexposed versions of the same picture, to create very dramatic effects.
The iPhone also makes post-processing, from cropping, and correction, to “filters”, a matter of tapping the screen, with apps like Instagram, Hipstamatic and even Photoshop Express for iPhone. The iPhone might not take great travel photos, but you can definitely make its crappy photos look great!
iPhoneography and Travel Blogs
No one knows this better than the Russian tourist who used an iPhone to photograph his stripper-looking girlfriend in exotic locales around the world. But this example notwithstanding, is the iPhone really appropriate as a means of documenting round-the-world journeys followed by thousands or even millions of readers?
When I see fellow travel bloggers posting iPhone photos to their personal photos or fan pages, it kind of makes me cringe. With the continuing death of print media, after all, we’re the “professionals” in this arena. Why would you fly all the way to a remote island, then photograph your amazing seafood dinner with your phone as if you were grabbing pizza down the street?
And that’s another thing: Travel bloggers who practice iPhoneography tends to photograph things that are superfluous. There’s definitely something to be said about the amount of work it takes to haul around a DSLR camera, and to have it at the ready, but each photo that comes from putting in this work is worth 1,000 iPhone photos.
One of my only problems with Thailand, as I often mention, is that there are simply too many awesome things to do and places to see in Thailand. So, my goal whenever I write about the kingdom is to make it easier for you to find the truly awesome experiences there. Below is a list of some of my favorite things to do in Thailand, which may or may not be the “best” things to do there.
1. Visit With Tigers
Go and hang out with tigers of all shapes and sizes. Is getting into a cage with tigers dangerous? Perhaps. Ethical? Probably not. But Thailand is one of the only places in the world where you can easily get face to face with tigers of all sizes, and if this has ever been a bucket list item for you, I highly recommend you do it at Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
2. Island Hopping
Hop between islands a long tail boat. If you’ve never heard anything about long tail boats, I have one piece of advice for you: Don’t investigate before you get on one for the first time. Riding in one of these janky boats is half of why hopping between different islands in Thailand is so much fun, whether you head south into the Andaman Sea and visit islands like Koh Kradan, or stick to islands like Koh Mak in the eastern Gulf of Thailand.
3. Meander Through Bangkok on a Tuk Tuk
Explore Bangkok, where ancient Siam meets modern Thailand. Traditional tourist wisdom advises travelers against spending much time in the Thai capital, but I strongly disagree with this – in fact, Bangkok is my favorite city in the world! If you don’t mind adhering to a schedule, you can see the best of Thailand “City of Angels” in just three days.
Travel through Bangkok and other Thai cities and towns on a tuk tuk. Thailand is one of the kitschiest destinations in the world, from the rickety “tuk-tuks” that transport you around cities, to scandalous “ping pong” shows you find at clubs and bars throughout the country, to markets filled with counterfeit versions of goods you didn’t know could be counterfeited. Thailand’s kitschiness puts off many travelers, but I urge you: Revel in it!
4. Take In a Ladyboy Show
See a ladyboy show. Don’t go chiding me for using un-PC language – “ladyboy” is a perfectly acceptable word to describe male-to-female transsexuals in Thailand! Whether you see the iconic Tiffany’s Show in Pattaya, or a different ladyboy revue somewhere in the kingdom, no trip to Thailand is complete without seeing a ladyboy show.
5. Visit Buddhist Temples
Visit Buddhist temples, such as Wat Pho in Bangkok. This one might seem too obvious, or too generic. But the reason I make a point of saying you should visit Buddhist temples while in Thailand is that they’re one of the things I miss most when I’m not there.