About Robert Schrader

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

With All The Frequent Flyer Downgrades, is Business Class Really Worth it?

March 18, 2015 by  

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I was nervous as I waited to depart on my first trip to South America back in 2011: It was my maiden voyage to the continent, a place I’d long heard was a bastion of death and danger. But when I heard my name called out over the P.A. system, I was positively petrified – the gate agent’s request did little to calm my nerves.

“Can I please have your boarding pass?” She muttered with an emotionless look on her face.

I handed it to her with a smile, but was wondering inside: Was my flight canceled? Does Peru require a visa and since I don’t have one, they decided to boot me off the flight? Did I get put on the no-fly list?

All of a sudden, as she handed me back what appeared to be my boarding pass, her face lit up. “Have a good time up there.” I’d been upgraded to business class for the first time in my life, at least for the first time on an international flight.

I was surprised, given that I was a lowly “Silver” elite with my airline of choice at the time, and given that I hadn’t asked a single airline employee about the possibility of an upgrade, let alone thought about or even wanted one. And I was extremely grateful, even if I’d been upgraded on a domestically-configured, geriatric 767, and even if the flight’s six-hour length barely gave me enough time to savor the experience.

I hadn’t asked why I got upgraded – Maybe, I thought to myself as I walked off the plane and into Lima Airport, United upgrades Silvers all the time – so naturally, I got in the habit of anticipating one on every subsequent flight I boarded. But in spite of the fact that I am now a Platinum elite, and in spite of my having taken no less than 100 international flights since that fateful day four years ago, I have never once flown business class again on an international business.

Well, not until a few weeks ago, when I headed to Thailand to meet my friend Dora.

If you’ve ever asked yourself the question “Is business class worth it?”, read about my experience in international business class on two of the world’s finest airlines.

Business Class on ANA: Seattle to Tokyo-Narita on a B787

As much as I remember having enjoyed flying business to Lima on United back in the day, I knew I wanted my first “real” business class experience to be on a top-tier airline, which is why I chose to pop my business class cherry with ANA, or All Nippon Airways. With outstanding service, food and attention to detail, ANA makes every passenger feel like a VIP, even flying economy on domestic or shorter regional routes – ANA is definitely my favorite airline in the world.

The fact that I would be flying business class took a while to set in. The business class lounge in Seattle was nice, but I’ve enjoyed lounge privileges for years as a Star Alliance Gold member. Likewise, while my seat was private and spacious, it took me until it was fully extended into a bed for me to appreciate it size.

But before that, I had to eat. One of my favorite things about ANA is how immediately service begins – literally once the captain turns off the seatbelt sign, unless of course you count the welcome drink (in business class, this is) you enjoy as soon as you arrive at your seat. The first meal on my flight to Tokyo began with a Japanese citrus drink called Kabosu and an amuse-bouche, which segued immediately into the Japanese-style meal I selected.

I’ll spare you all the particular details, because I’m going to be honest: I was overwhelmed with the sheer quantity of the food that I barely had a chance to think about what I was eating. This is, of course, a good problem to have, but one that was compounded by the ridiculous amount of pictures I took.

As far as highlights, I loved being able to eat salmon sashimi on an airplane, as well as eating a restaurant-quality Japanese meal (this one was Sake-steamed channel rockfish in a delightful, thick broth) complete with rice, pickles and miso soup. Oh, and then there was the dessert cart – definitely don’t wanna remember how much I ate off that.

(Quick note: I’m not drinking alcohol right now, but if I was, I’d have been in heaven. From sakes, to Japanese whiskys to one of the fullest bars I’ve seen in or out of the air, you’d have to be sober to walk off this plane without assistance.)

After a cup of Japanese Hojicha tea and a bottle of water, I was almost ready for bed, but not before I headed to the bathroom to wash up with the L’Occitâne en Provence amenity kit ANA provided me with and to join the mile-high bidet club, courtesy of the Japanese-style toilet seat exclusive to premium class toilets on ANA.

A pair of adorable Japanese slippers were waiting for me when I got back, so I sort of assumed the flight attendant would come by and help me make my seat into a lie-flat bed – or at least I hoped I did, since I had no clue how to do it.

Sure enough, a friendly young lady showed up the moment I started unwrapping my comforter and blanket and, after profusely complimenting my shirt, did in seconds what would’ve likely taken me several minutes, leaving me with a task that’s been anything but simple for me in the past: Sleeping on a plane.

To be sure, I had initially feared I wouldn’t be able to sleep on this flight, especially since on this flight, the sun never sets as it makes its way over the Pacific. Thanks not only to my lie-flat bed but also, to the incredible lighting features of the beautiful Dreamliner (digital window dimmers and virtual sky simulation, anyone?), I was out cold within 15 minutes.

I’m not sure exactly how long I sustained my sleep – frankly, it was longer than I would’ve preferred, since the entire flight took place during the portion of the day, Tokyo time, that I naturally would’ve been awake – but I do remember waking up, and realizing that the flight was mostly over, and feeling profoundly disappointed, maybe even sad. In general, I’m not someone who tends to complain about a particular flight being too long, but this is definitely the first time I ever wished a flight would be longer.

For most of the flight, I was so present in the experience of flying business class that I wasn’t thinking of how the experience back in economy class might differ, but looking back, it’s easy for me to decode why I felt sad as we sped closer to Tokyo.

The first thing was definitely the personal level of attention, from the meals, to the turn-down, to the periodic food and snacks throughout the flight. This was the first longhaul flight I’ve ever taken where I did not use the in-flight entertainment once. I mean, really, who needs movies when you have nigiri?

Compounding my enjoyment of everything was how private and cozy the seats were, and the fact that they seemed even more cocoon-like when I was lying in my bed and the lights of the Dreamliner got all neon and futuristic. I literally felt like I had the plane to myself (which was actually sort of true – business class was nearly empty).

I showed my newness to the business class experience when, about an hour before our arrival into Narita, I asked when the second meal would be served. “You can order food anytime,” the stewardess said without the slightest bit of condescension, although I felt like a moron.

But by that point, she explained, the “scheduled” meal service was just 15 minutes or so away, and so I waited. And man, was it ever worth the wait: Japanese-style braised chicken, served like the first meal, with rice and miso soup. Real food in the sky! It was delightful, but it was also a sign that the end was nigh.

As I gathered the belongings my obscene amount of personal space had allowed me to scatter during the flight, I feared that any future business class flights I took might seem anticlimactic, what with how perfect my first was. And I didn’t mean distant future: I would be flying business all the way to Bangkok, connecting to a Thai A380 upon arrival at Narita.

Business Class on Thai: Tokyo-Narita to Bangkok on an A380 (Upper Deck)

Thailand and Japan are constantly vying for my “Favorite Country” spot, so I was delighted that I would be immediately following up my business class flight on ANA with one on Thai, which is probably my favorite airline in the world after ANA. It also thrilled me that I would follow up my Boeing 787 business class experience with one on the A380, which is probably the world’s next-most talked about airliner.

The A380 is very hyped but in my opinion, it has absolutely nothing on the 787. I noticed this the moment I arrived to my seat, which in spite of being the same size as the one I had on ANA’s 787, was crammed into the upper deck of the A380 – perhaps by necessity, given the aircraft’s high-capacity nature. Four-across seats made the cabin feel crowded, to say nothing of the narrower aisles, less roomy overhead storage bins, and smaller windows, with comparatively primitive manual dimmers.

But I digress: The A380 is still an excellent aircraft, especially when paired with Thai’s world-class service. Well, world-class compared to any U.S. airline. I have to admit – coming off ANA, this is – that the crew on my Narita-Bangkok flight seem hurried and maybe even a little anxious, which was probably due in part to the larger number of customers they were expected to pamper (to say nothing of their employer’s increasingly precarious financial situation).

And I again digress: The service in Thai’s business class was ultimately very good and the food was also quite good as well, although neither the Panang Curry, nor the sushi-like appetizer, nor the Black Forest Cake flirted with restaurant-quality in the way ANA’s food did. Dammit, I just can’t avoid making comparisons – and this is only my second experience flying in international business class!

My experience flying business class on Thai was slightly less satisfying than business class on ANA, although it’s difficult to tell if it’s due to a marked discrepancy between the airlines’ product and service offerings, or if after only a single completed flight segment in the front of the plane I’m becoming a picky diva. (I doubt this last bit is true, but I’m throwing it out there for balance.)

Indeed my complaints, if you can call them that, are merely superficial. The privacy of the business class seat on Thai’s A380 is exquisite, the service quick and personalized, the comfort of the lie-flat bed greater than many hotels I’ve stayed at, with a built-in massage feature – so Thai. I appreciated other authentic Thai touches as well, from the fresh orchids in the restroom, to the dental floss (Read More: Why I Trust My Teeth to Thailand) offered after the meal.

In the unlikely event that I am becoming addicted to business class travel so early in the game, my experience with Thai has definitely hastened that process with its excellence, rather than pushed it in the other direction because it ever so slightly pales in comparison to ANA.

How Much Does It Cost to Fly in Business Class?

Business class is expensive, but thankfully, I didn’t pay to fly in business class – not cash, anyway. Instead, I redeemed 80,000 United MileagePlus miles for my one-way ticket from North America to Southeast Asia (an economy class one-way, by comparison, would’ve cost 40,000 miles). Using miles enabled me to select an itinerary to fly on United’s Star Alliance partners ANA and Thai at no additional charge, which is one reason I’m glad I didn’t pay outright.

Indeed, if I had paid cash for this exact ticket, a quick Internet search reveals that I would’ve paid at least $6,200 to fly from Seattle to Bangkok, via Tokyo, in business class. On the other hand, if I had opted to take United from the U.S. to one of the Star Alliance hubs in Asia before connecting to Bangkok on a partner flight (United no longer flies to Thailand on its own metal), I would’ve paid a minimum of $4,000 fly business class to Bangkok.

Now that we’ve established how much it costs to fly in business class (irrespective of periodic fare sales, of course), I can answer the question that inspired this article in the first place…

So, Is Business Class Worth It?

Maybe? If it was as simple as answering “yes” or “no,” I wouldn’t have written this article. Hell, if life were that simple the only word in my vocabulary would be “yes.” But I digress.

Allow me to remind you, first and foremost, that this was my first experience flying proper international business class, and so my scope of experience in business class is rather limited. On the other hand, I’ve taken no less than 100 longhaul flights in coach, on dozens of airlines all over the globe, so my context for comparison is very large and nuanced – I’m not so much answering the question “Is business class worth it?” as I am “Is flying in business class worth paying several times as much as you would in economy class?”

Unfortunately, my answer is still “Maybe,” especially if you’re paying with cash instead of miles. I mean, I guess 80,000 miles isn’t a ton if you fly a ton, but over $5,000 for an airline ticket is a lot of money! For the price of many one-way flights in business class, you could buy a used car, or a new wardrobe, or a few purebred puppies, all of which will be yours for years.

Existentially speaking, the idea of shelling out of a few grand for an experience that lasts only a few hours, even if it is one of the best experiences you’ll ever have, and even if the comfort of said experience makes it significantly easier to get work done miles above the ground, seems insane. I do think it’s slightly less insane if you do it on a premium airline like ANA or Thai (especially ANA), as oppose to a half-assed one like United or American (especially United), although you do tend to get what you pay for – or pay for what you get, as it were.

I almost equate it to paying someone extremely good looking for a quick fling, when you can sleep with someone who’s perfectly attractive and compatible with you on the regular, and absolutely free of charge (I have never done the former, FYI, except in my mind). But I might one day, just once, and that’s what I ultimately have to say about the big business class question: Business class is worth it, maybe just once (or twice if you’re lucky), because until you have the experience, you’ll never stop wondering what it would be like.

I mean, if you’re a total baller – or if you become a total baller – I guess you could fly business all the time, but for me it’s a decadent splurge, one I justified as a gift to myself for my 30th birthday (which is Thursday). And actually, even if I were a total baller, I don’t know if I would want the incredible experience I had in business class to become my new status quo. It truly was a luxury, and a privilege, to travel halfway around the world with such exquisite hospitality, service and food – I do think the high price tag of business class is appropriate, even if it might not be “worth it,” depending on your financial situation.

With all that being said, I hope I don’t have to wait ’til 40 to fly in business class again!

Alas, Cold & Mishap in Hokkaido Japan

March 12, 2015 by  

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Everyone goes to Otaru to see the canal, but the ocean was calling my name. The seascape seemed greyscale as I began walking toward it, but with every footstep I took due north, the dull bay beamed an ever-electric turquoise, the sooty city snow brightened, the mountains over the bay in the distance glowed a more majestic purple, even the ancient cargo ships lurching out of the port seemed polished and new again.

While setting up my tripod for a self-portrait, I noticed a starfish frozen perfectly in the snow. I took a few photographs to try and place it in a less cruel context, yet in spite of how utterly lifeless the creature was, and how unsurprising its suspended state was given how clearly I could see my own breath, I wedged it from its icy tomb, one leg at a time, and delivered it lovingly back to its home.

It sank quickly – as quickly, from my perspective looking down at it anyway, as it had fallen through the air – and by the time I looked over to where I’d first seen the cold star to see if had left an impression behind, a snow drift had erased the remaining terrestrial evidence of its existence. I had barely lifted a finger – my own or those of the starfish – and yet I felt as joyful as Lazarus the morning after the crucifixion.

I was exactly where I needed to be, doing exactly what I wanted to do – and then my camera broke.

I knew from the sputter my not-so-trusty Nikon made that it was done for. It was a pathetic sound, a mechanical whimper. I should’ve felt sorry for it, since my frequent use of it no doubt drove it to that point, but instead I was furious. Of all the moments my camera could’ve crapped out; of all the places in Japan, its fucking birthplace!

Hurling it at the ground was as pointless as Jodi Arias shooting Travis Alexander after he was already dead, yet probably even more satisfying, since I won’t have to face a grand jury for murdering a piece of electronic equipment.

My initial impulse, after adding insult to my camera’s mortal injury this is, was to pack up and head home – I came to Hokkaido, after all, to capture images of Japan in winter. My trip was shorter than the repair would’ve taken had my camera still been under warranty (and had I noticed decided to smash it as a means of catharsis); and the nearest place I could possibly travel to purchase a replacement was Sapporo, which seemed a million miles away from the sweet spot I’d found away from the Otaru Canal, amid the cargo ships and the frozen starfish.

And so, if you can believe it, I canceled the remainder of my hotel reservations and booked myself a seat on a flight back to the U.S. the next day: I was over Hokkaido, just minutes after arriving in my first destination.

Or at least it seemed that way, until the hotel cancellation and flight change emails began to roll in, allowing me to see the fruits of my hissy fit spelled out. What the fuck did you just do, Robert? You’ve had this tripped planned for months! You are not going home, boo.

The good news is that, upon coming to my senses, I managed to track down my exact camera model at a shop in Sapporo (at a huge discount from what I originally paid, no less) and re-book my hotels and my original flight before they filled up again. The bad news is that I lost about $500 worth of fees in the process, although I suppose in a way this is also good news – I’m not going to make the mistake of canceling an in-progress trip again anytime soon.

I did, of course, worry that perhaps my initial instinct had been the right one, particularly when I finally did visit the iconic Otaru Canal by night. It was gorgeous (at least when I was able to crop all the hotels built up along its south side out of the frame) but it was nearly impossible to enjoy thanks to the throngs of tourists walking along the slick snow of its banks, crowds that seemed more befitting of Tokyo than backwoods northern Hokkaido.

My train southward to Hakodate the next day, a rickety old number that seemed to stop at every station in spite of it being a “semi-express,” compounded my trepidation, quite literally – I found myself wedged between a trash can, a toilet and no less than three dozen other human beings who had also been stupid enough not to make seat reservations during the high season.

And yet Hakodate was an absolute revelation. A large-ish city wedged between a pair of bays at the foot of a towering mountain, and with a level of Western influence that belied its homogeneous population, Hakodate reminded me of San Francisco, visually anyway, albeit without the endemic homelessness (and, among the non-homeless, hypocrisy) that defines America’s city by the bay.

I took a liking to Hakodate the very moment I walked over one of its squid-embossed sewer covers, but it wasn’t until the following morning, when I was on my way to its daily seafood market, that our love affair was official. The pre-dawn sky began to glow with purples, pinks and oranges, and on account of Hakodate’s strange geography, I was able to quickly make my way to an eastward-facing section of coastline, giving me an unobstructed view of sunrise, and a completely private one – not a creature was stirring, not even a local.

In fact, with the exception of the Hakodate Ropeway which, in winter, is the only option for ascending Mount Hakodate to take in the iconic “night view” of the city, Hakodate was entirely devoid of tourists, a fact that when combined with its walkable footprint made it one of the most delightful places I’ve ever had the pleasure of exploring.

It sounds like I’m being hyperbolic, but I’m not: I’ll be writing a dedicated article that sings Hakodate’s praises within the next few weeks – be on the lookout for it.

Unfortunately, my adoration for Hakodate only served to highlight how lukewarm I felt about Hokkaido’s capital Sapporo, which in turn made me feel shitty, since Mayumi (a friend of a friend who had provided me priceless assistance during my camera crisis) had also been kind enough to chaperone me around the city.

Sapporo is woefully uninspiring, a flaccid version of so many other places I’ve been: Its urban core is but a poor man’s Tokyo; its famous Snow Festival is mere flurries compared to the spectacle I recently saw in Harbin; it lacks the quaint charm of Otaru or the picturesque setting of Hakodate.

Compounding this was the fact that photography is, for me, a profoundly selfish pursuit, which meant that in order to respect Mayumi’s kindness in having taken me around the city, I had to largely half-ass the way I visually represented Sapporo, which resulted in it being even more disappointing in my photos than it is in real life, if that was even possible. Mayumi was absolutely lovely, however, and I experienced a lot of joy during the time I spent with her, my feelings about Sapporo itself notwithstanding.

(I also enjoyed an extremely stellar meal in Sapooro – thinly-sliced lamb meat prepared in a style known as “Genghis Khan” – and got a hug from the most kawaii character I’ve ever come across in person.)

I said goodbye to Hokkaido in Jozankei, a hot spring town in the mountains just outside of Sapporo, whose pristine natural landscape (and questionable manmade one) proved a fitting summary of my week on the island – nothing more to say about that.

With the notable exception of Hakodate, Hokkaido was far from my favorite place I’ve ever visited, although I bear some of the responsibility for that: I chose to rely on its train network, not knowing how primitive it was compared to the rest of Japan’s, which restricted me from exploring some of its wilder reaches.

I really wish I’d enjoyed my trip to Hokkaido more than I did, but it’s whatever – Hokkaido, and the way I feel about it: Cameras break, people lose their tempers and we can’t all be soulmates.

In and Around Australia’s Surfers Paradise

March 9, 2015 by  

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Australia Zoo

With a name like “Surfers Paradise,” its difficult to imagine wanting to leave the glittering surf town at the heart of Australia’s Gold Coast, even if you aren’t the world’s most talented surfer. Surfers Paradise is much more than paradisical beaches and massive waves, whether you’re in search of world-class shopping or delectable dining.

If you do need a break from Surfers Paradise, however, you needn’t worry – plenty of amazing day trips are available, whether you’re in search of alternative beaches, rugged hikes, or the convenience of a big city.

Visit (Another) Surfer’s Paradise

The idea of taking a day trip from one Australian beach town to another might seem strange, but you also have to consider that Surfers Paradise, as time passes, is less of a town and much more of a city. If you want a more private version of paradise, then, you might head to nearby Queensland beaches such as Mermaid Beach, Kirra and Broadbeach.

Hike in the Gold Coast Hinterland

Most of Australia’s population lives along the coast – and most of Australia’s spectacular nature exists inland, away from this. One area that illustrates this perfectly is the Gold Coast Hinterland, a massive rainforest that dates back to the time when all of Earth’s continents were one.

Even if you don’t do the aptly-named “Great Walk,” a 20-or-so mile trail that requires an overnight stay – and a lot of stamina! – you can access the Gold Coast Hinterland at Binna Burra, which is less than an hour’s drive from Surfers Paradise.

Hit the Big City of Brisbane

The only thing crazier than the fact that an ancient rainforest sits an hour away from Surfers Paradise is that driving an hour in a slightly different direction takes you to Brisbane, Australia’s third-largest city. The more Surfers Paradise develops, the less advantage there is in coming to Brisbane for modern conveniences and creature comforts, but Brisbane is nonetheless a great city trip destination. Ride the ferris wheel in Southbank, catch a theater show at the Queensland Centre for the Performing Arts (QPAC) or see what’s hot at the Gallery of Modern Art at the Queensland Art Gallery.

Go Wild at the Australia Zoo

The Australia Zoo is about an additional hour north of Brisbane, but it’s definitely worthy of the two-hour trip from Brisbane, even if you’re too afraid of crocs to get up-close-and-personal with them. The brainchild of Steve Irwin, whose memory lives on in images, videos and the very existence of the place, the Australia Zoo is a particularly smart choice if you’re traveling with children, who will enjoy the large variety of animals there and the ease of getting to know them.

The best thing about taking a day trip from Surfers Paradise? You never really have to leave the idea of paradise, even if you leave your surfboard behind.

Thailand’s Red Lotus Sea, For All Things Pink

February 23, 2015 by  

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Thailand's Red Lotus Sea

I was surprised last week, after having teased my uncharacteristically luxurious route to Asia on Facebook, at the reaction some people had to my destination. Thailand, again? Weren’t you just there a few months ago?

All my trips to Thailand have been special, but this particular one had two very unique elements. The first was that my friend Dora (with whom I traveled to India in 2009 and who came to see me in China in 2010, when I was living there) accompanied me this time. It was her maiden voyage to Thailand and it was an honor to be able to walk beside her as she discovered the Kingdom for the first time.

The second unique element of this trip (and the one that perhaps best dispels the notion that my frequent returns here are somehow un-exciting) was the so-called “Red Lotus Sea” (Talay Buadaeng in Thai), a flower-filled lake just outside the northeastern city of Udon Thani, near the Lao border.

A surreal landscape not entirely different from Indonesia’s Kawah Ijen or Brazil’s Lençóis Maranhenses in its otherworldliness, the Red Lotus Sea (whose flowers are actually pink and are technically water lilies) is the antithesis to the idea of Thailand being ordinary. And, well, I guess I’ll let my photos do the rest of the talking when it comes to that.

How to Visit the Red Lotus Sea

If you want to see the Red Lotus Sea, the first thing you need to do is come in the right season. January (when the official “Red Lotus Sea Festival” occurs) and February are the only months of the year where flowers cover the surface of the lake enough to replicate the experience you see in the pictures above, although you can go out on the lake whenever you wish.

To reach the Red Lotus Sea, fly or take a train to the northeastern Thai city of Udon Thani (airport code UTH), from which Nong Han Kumphawapi Lake is about 30 minutes away by taxi. Unless you’ve practiced speaking Thai and its many tones, I recommend you simply screenshot a picture of the Red Lotus Sea, rather than trying to tell its official name – again, Talay Buadaeng – to your driver.

You can visit the Red Lotus Sea anytime of day, but I recommend going just before sunrise (leave Udon Thani no later than 6 a.m.) for the best lighting and most manageable crowds. A taxi for return journey will cost you between 1,000-1,500 THB, while a 90-minute boat ride on the lake costs 50 THB as of February 2015.

 

 

 

The Coconut Palms and Pristine Beaches of Koh Samui

February 22, 2015 by  

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Koh Samui, Thailand

With white sand beaches, swaying palms, and unobstructed access to the Gulf of Thailand, Koh Samui seems like paradise 365 days a year. Depending on your travel preferences, however, there’s probably a certain period of the year that’s better for you to visit than others. If you know you want to visit Koh Samui, but aren’t sure when, continue reading to help you decide when to hit Koh Samui’s shores.

Koh Samui’s Peak Season

Did you know Koh Samui’s local population of 63,000 swells to more than a million every year? That might sound like a lot of people to squeeze on an island – even if it is the second-largest in Thailand – but thankfully, if you go at the right time of the year, you can mostly avoid the crowds.

Irrespective of the seasonal monsoon, the majority of foreign visitors to Koh Samui come during the Christmas holiday, when it’s cold in Western countries like the U.S. and U.K., where the majority of Thailand’s visitors come from.

Avoid the Monsoon – or Don’t

Like much of the rest of Southeast Asia, a seasonal monsoon influences Koh Samui’s climate, so if you’re not a fan of rain at the beach, you’ll need to take this into consideration. If you want to avoid Koh Samui’s monsoon, don’t travel to the island between September and November, which is when most of the rains arrive from the north.

With this being said, you should also realize that Koh Samui’s monsoon is not as inundating as monsoons can be elsewhere in the region – it doesn’t rain all day, or even every day. Additionally, coming during the monsoon, which is a sort of “calm before the storm” of the busy season, can come with a fairly significant cost incentive, albeit with a less convenient ferry schedule as well.

Consider Your Overall Trip

If you’re planning a larger trip to Thailand or even Southeast Asia, consider where Koh Samui fits in the context of the trip before deciding when you’ll come. If you’re island hopping, for example, Koh Samui will occupy a less unique place in your itinerary than if you’re trying to juxtapose its calm surf with the chaos of hectic cities like Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, the wild jungles of Borneo or the Mekong Delta, or the towering volcanoes you find in Indonesia and the Philippines.

Then again, Koh Samui is about as close to paradise as you can get on planet Earth. So, even if you have a rainy day or two during your trip, and even if the only time you can visit is at the peak of peak tourist season, regrets have no place in the shadows of the coconut palms that tower over Koh Samui.

 

 

Your To Do List for Munich Germany

February 20, 2015 by  

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Munich, Germany

With a population of nearly two million, several high-profile annual events, and a history spanning centuries, it’s not hard to understand why planning a trip to Munich can be an imposing task. Even if you simply visit during Oktoberfest (which actually takes place mostly during September), there are dozens of variables to consider. No matter what made you choose Munich in the first place, follow these tips to plan the ultimate trip.

Don’t Limit Yourself to One Season

Munich is infamous for its ambiance during the early autumn, when beer buffs from around the world gather in its Old Town to give a collective “Prost,” but the Bavarian capital is blessed with four seasons, and you owe it to yourself to take advantage of them. Indeed, you could argue that frothy German lagers are even more refreshing during Munich’s hot summers, while there are few experiences more relaxing than a spring day in the Englischer Garten, Munich’s largest green space.

Winter is also an amazing time to visit Munich, for a few reasons. First and foremost, because heavy snows give Munich attractions like Frauenkirche and the Neues Rathaus an almost ghostly quality, to say nothing of the Bavarian Alps that surround the city, which are the perfect place for a ski trip. Plus, Munich’s winter prices are as low as its temperatures, offering you the best bang for your euro. Whichever season you choose to visit, don’t forget to do a bit of research on cheap hotels in Munich before your trip.

Give Yourself a Little Wiggle Room

Munich isn’t as heavy on tourist attractions as other German cities like Berlin and Hamburg, but there’s nonetheless plenty to discover – don’t needlessly limit yourself on time. This is especially true if Munich is your first stop in Europe after arriving from overseas, in which case you should give yourself a couple days simply to relax.

In general, an ideal amount of time to spend in Munich is three full days: one to explore the museums and historical buildings in the Old Town, another to sample food and beverages and to relax amid nature, and one more for a day trip to somewhere else in Bavaria.

Plan to Take a Day Trip

One day trip, or many – there’s so much to do in Bavaria that you could easily spend a few weeks exploring it. The most popular day trip in Munich is undoubtedly Schloss Neuschwanstein, a medieval castle perched on a bluff in the Bavarian Alps, which seems culled right out of a fairy tale, especially when it’s covered in winter snow. Speaking of winter in the Alps, there are few better times or places to test your skiing or snowboarding skills, or simply to relax with your friends and loved ones.

Stay a While if You Can

Munich Airport is one of Germany’s largest international gateways, which makes it the perfect place to begin your trip to Germany or Europe as a whole. Even if you only stay in Munich itself for a few days, use the city as a jumping-off point for a train trip through the Fatherland or a backpacking adventure across the European continent.

No matter how you decide to structure your trip to Munich, the most important thing is to go with a sense of adventure, an open mind, and a resolve to be present in every moment. Prost!

 

Things to do in São Paulo Brazil

February 20, 2015 by  

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One Day in São Paulo, Brazil

São Paulo, Brazil is one of the largest cities in the world, with a population of more than 11 million, so if you want to experience everything São Paulo has to offer, you’ll want to spend a few days there. If you’ve only got one day in São Paulo, however, or if you’ve got many days and just want to get the ball rolling, continue reading to learn how to have the perfect day in Brazil’s largest city.

Start Your Day With Açaí

The sweet, purple Amazonian açaí (pronounced ah-sy-ee) berry is synonymous with Brazil all around the world, and there’s no better place to enjoy some than in São Paulo. Stop in at any açaí shop along cosmopolitan Avenida Paulista and order Açái Tradicional, served in a bowl with bananas and granola.

Take a Morning Walk in the Park

São Paulo is Brazil’s answer to New York City, so why not finish off your morning with a walk through Ibirapuera Park, Sao Paulo’s answer to Central Park? Whether you enjoy a walk along one of the largest lakes in the park, have a small breakfast picnic under a tree, or simply marvel at the way the greenery frames the skyline, Ibirapuera Park is like a slice of the jungle in the middle of the city.

Eat Your Way Through Mercado Municipal

Although São Paulo is a decidedly modern metropolis, it’s got a lot of history as well. One of the best places to experience this is at the Municipal Market, or Mercado Municipal. Housed in a 19th century building in the heart of the old city center, it’s the perfect place to sample São Paulo specialties like pastel bacalhau trout pastries and feijoada, an irrisistible pork and bean soup.

While you’re in the neighborhood, take a stroll through the Portuguese Language Museum (Museu de Lingua Portuguesa), which brings to life the entire history of Brazil’s official language. If you visit on a weekday, ascend to the top of the Banco do Estado de São Paulo (BANESPA) building for a panoramic view of the São Paulo’s impressive skyline.

Go Japanese in Liberdade

Speaking of food, after finishing up your afternoon, head to São Paulo’s Liberdade neighborhood to end your day on a decidedly Japanese note. Home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan, Liberdade is the perfect place to sample sushi, sake, and soba noodles, to say nothing of Liberdade’s picturesque Japanese garden.

 

Osaka Japan, the World’s Best Food City?

February 9, 2015 by  

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Osaka, Japan

I covered a lot of ground during the three weeks I spent in Japan last April, but one place I missed was Osaka. I tried to rationalize my decision to skip Japan’s third-largest city by scouring Google for evidence that it was somehow boring or not worth visiting, and although I found plenty, I knew in my heart that I would eventually need to visit Osaka.

“Eventually” came last week – and I must say, I really do regret my decision not to have visited Osaka sooner.

Only about 24 hours passed between my arrival in the city on a train from Kyoto and my departure from Kansai Airport back to the United States, but my day in Osaka was one of the most delightful, transformational days of my life – I say this without the slightest hint of exaggeration.

As I snacked on some of the best food I’ve ever had and traipsed through ancient temples, my affection for Osaka and its people swelling the whole while, I felt as I’d lived through all of “Eat, Pray, Love” within one city’s limits and the span of two sunsets.

Why the hell, I thought to myself as I snacked on takoyaki octopus fritters in the shadows of a 1,700-year old shrine, didn’t Elizabeth Gilbert just come here?

The World’s Best Food City

The one thing people told me about Osaka, even the Tokyoites who talked mad shit about their smaller neighbor to the southwest, is that the food was amazing. Knowing I would have only one day in Osaka, at least this time around, made me fear I wouldn’t be able to experience the city’s culinary scene.

What if I can’t find any good spots? I worried, as I stepped out of the railway station.

Looking back, of course, this seems ridiculous: Delicious food is literally everywhere in Osaka, from the Dotonbori pedestrian area, whose restaurants use massive 3D signage to direct you to Osaka classics like takoyaki (octopus fritters), gyoza (fried dumplings) and kani (crab); to food trailer parks in the shadows of 16th-century Osaka Castle; to random eateries in subway stations, alleys and other places you wouldn’t necessarily think to eat.

Trust me: You’ll find a amazing meal in Osaka, even if you aren’t looking for one.

Spiritual Eating

Osaka is conspicuously modern, which is why my highest priority, after eating of course, was seeking out ancient spiritual sites. My first stop was Tennoji Temple, which is the first and oldest Buddhist temple in all of Japan. Centered around a five-story pagoda, the structure itself reminded me of what I’d seen in Nikko last April, while the juxtaposition of the ancient temple with the modern city made me think of Sensoji Temple in Tokyo.

It was a pleasant experience, although not as transcendental as I’d hoped. As I made my way back toward Tennoji station, past some bizarre love hotels and onto Osaka’s last surviving streetcar line, I had a feeling my experience at Sumiyoshi Taisha, a 3rd-century Shinto shrine that is currently the most important one in all of Japan, would be much more impactful.

The first thing I noticed as I got off the streetcar, however, was not the massive stone torii signaling my arrival at the shrine’s entrance, nor the glorious, orange bridge the led to the shrine itself. It was the makeshift food market that had been set up there, which literally held me up for more than an hour as I sampled in all of its delights.

I’ll eventually get in there, I promised myself as I looked in the general direction of the shrine, a tray of soba buckwheat noodles in one hand and an okonomiyaki pancake in the other. But I’ve already had my spiritual experience for the day.

Love in Japanese

OK, so I suppose you probably feel deceived now. I mean, my “eat” experience in Osaka was arguably as rich as the one Elizabeth Gilbert had in Rome, but I didn’t “pray” the way she did in India. Frankly, I was praying that the 57 meals I ate in Osaka wouldn’t make me as big as the city by the time my flight left the following evening.

Indeed, the “love” I experienced in Osaka didn’t take the form of a hunky Brazilian biking through rice paddies, but an all-encompassing sense of peace and satisfaction that culminated with me looking out onto the sparkling skyline from the top of the Umeda Sky Building. I was in love with the city. I was in love with myself. Hell, I was in love with the whole world! I felt so damn happy.

So, regardless of how long you plan to spend in Japan or your reasons for going there, here’s my advice: Get off the train in Osaka when it stops there, whether you’re on a shinkansen between Tokyo and Hiroshima, or a local express from Kyoto or Nara. Spend the whole day there, even if you can’t afford a hotel or just don’t want to get one, and go out into the city without much of a plan, like I did.

You’ll be a few pounds heavier when you leave, but you’ll run so fast to get back to Osaka in the future it will all melt away.

 

 

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