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Greg Rodgers

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Songkran in Singapore is a Bust

Monday April 14, 2014
Songkran in Thailand

Photo by Wyndham

Songkran in Thailand has been underway since Sunday, although some enthusiastic Thai children were probably splashing people with water for good measure a day or two in advance.

The Thai New Year is an incredibly busy, chaotic, wet, and fun experience -- particularly in Chiang Mai. Rarely do you get to see thousands of people fill the streets to splash strangers with 'blessings' of cold water for the new year. The city fills to capacity for the annual event.

Held annually from April 13 to 15, Songkran is perfectly timed to cool people down during the scorching heat in April.

While, in the traditional sense, a sprinkle of water from a bucket would do, what fun is that? Instead, many participants decide to purchase big water cannons to really spread the love. Adding ice to the water increases the reaction from the crowd. I wasn't dry for four days during my Thai Songkran experience.

And while the splashings are in good nature, Songkran can be a frustrating time for some visitors as the moat surrounding the Old City in Chiang Mai turns into one big party. Road accidents double during Songkran to an average of 52 deaths per day, as people drive intoxicated or crash after getting splashed with water.

Songkran in Singapore 2014

Singapore had planned to get into the Songkran spirit -- and tourist dollars -- this year by hosting the largest Songkran event ever held outside of Thailand. Splashing water at the event, known as Celebrate Songkran, was eventually forbidden. Singapore has long suffered from a scarcity of potable water, so encouraging people to waste water wasn't exactly in line with national campaigns to curb water usage.

The decision came after the TAT Deputy Governor in Thailand stated that Thailand should have exclusive rights to celebrate Songkran. Although festivals -- particularly Buddhist events such as Songkran -- are celebrated widely throughout Asia, the Tourism Authority of Thailand actually considered legal action against Singapore if they hosted their own water fight.

Songkran is also celebrated enthusiastically in Luang Prabang, Laos.

Bali is Getting Busier

Sunday April 6, 2014
Bali Kintamani

Photo by Greg Rodgers

With the island's extreme popularity, pretty much every season is busy season on Bali. But things are about to get even busier.

May marks the end of rain and the beginning of high crowds in Bali. Students on summer break, surfers, families, honeymooners, and everyone else wanting a glimpse of paradise will begin to head to Bali. Peak season on the island is typically between June and August.

Indonesia's little Hindu island has reached capacity. You'll still find plenty of beauty, but you'll have to share. And step over heaps of trash left behind by revelers.

Bali's tiny Ngurah Rai International Airport in Depasar is the third busiest in the country. Despite Indonesia having more than 17,000 islands, a majority of visitors to the country only see Bali before they leave.

Even the Indonesian government recognizes the problem of excessive tourism in Bali. A new airport is planned in the northern part of Bali, and focus is continually put on diverting some tourists to nearby Lombok -- Bali's island neighbor to the east -- instead. You may want to consider adding a visit to one of Lombok's three Gili Islands while in the area.

Is Bali still worth enjoying? Absolutely. But those pictures of paradise and shots of secluded beaches you see in magazines were probably taken years ago or under special circumstances. To sample the real essence of Bali, head to the Kintamani Region or into the island interior; enjoy the green landscapes and blooming vines on volcanic slops.

Asia in April - What to Expect

Tuesday April 1, 2014
Asia in April

Photo by Greg Rodgers

Asia is here! And so are some major weather shifts throughout Asia.

While many countries throughout Southeast Asia such as Vietnam and Thailand have been enjoying great weather, April typically marks the transition into monsoon -- and the low -- season.

Heat and humidity will be hitting highs before the rain comes through to cool things down. The first showers are welcome, particularly to clean the air of dust and smoke.

Places throughout East Asia such as Japan and China will be warming to pleasant temperatures. Spring begins, flowers bloom, and hanami continues to move throughout Japan.

The next big festival to pop up in Asia will be Songkran (April 13 - 15) -- Thai New Year and the largest water fight in the world. Japan will also become busier than ever around the end of the month for Golden Week (April 30 - May 6).

If you've got a trip to Asia planned for this month, read about Asia in April to stay informed of weather changes and big events.

Getting Around in Asia

Thursday March 27, 2014
chicken bus in asia

Photo by Greg Rodgers

Asia is big. And getting from place to place takes patience.

Sure, there are plenty of budget airlines with cheap flights, but by taking to the skies you miss out on a lot of things: scenery, nameless villages, and local interaction, to name just a few.

Then again, ground transportation can be excruciating, or even a hair-raising experience at times. I once rode through Laos on a bus so crowded that I had to sit on a box of onions the entire journey. Buses on rough roads will rearrange your back and riding with caged -- or free-roaming -- chickens is always a possibility.

On the other end of the spectrum, I've enjoyed fast Wi-Fi on luxurious buses between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. With so many people always on the move in Asia, you've usually got plenty of options for getting around.

No matter what your mode of transport, these guides will help you to choose the best seat, stay safe, avoid scams, and generally keep your sanity on long hauls:

Indian Ocean Tropical Cyclone Gillian

Tuesday March 25, 2014
cyclone phailin 2013

NASA / Public Domain

Cyclone season in the North Indian Ocean runs roughly from May to December, however, Mother Nature doesn't always follow our calendar.

Tropical Cyclone Gillian came early this year, hampering an international effort to find wreckage from the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370.

The tropical cyclone, which had winds of around 161 miles per hour, is expected to weaken considerably over the next few days. As the storm moves south, it continues to generate seas of up to 40 feet high.

The 2013 Indian Ocean cyclone season consisted of five cyclonic storms. Cyclone Phailin (photo shown), the strongest of the year with winds of around 130 miles per hour, was the second-strongest to ever make landfall in India. The 2013 cyclone season did an estimated US $1.5 billion in damage.

Let's hope that the upcoming cyclone season this year is less severe!

The Smoke in Thailand is Back

Sunday March 23, 2014
smoke in thailand

Photo by Greg Rodgers

An annual problem, the smoke and choking pollution is back in Northern Thailand.

And this time, the sputtering tuk-tuks and heavy traffic circulating the moat can't take all of the blame.

Caused by slash-and-burn agricultural fires that get out of hand around this time each year, the air quality in Chiang Mai and surrounding areas is poor enough to cause health problems.

Residents are already donning masks and reporting respiratory problems connected to the lingering haze. Despite plenty of criticism, and threats from Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the fires continue to burn. At least until the first monsoon rains come sometime in April or May to clean the air.

Particulate matter in Chiang Mai was at around 125 micrograms per cubic meter on Friday. The European Union considers anything above 50 micrograms per cubic meter to be unsafe. That puts the air quality in Chiang Mai almost three times above the safe limit.

Bad news for one of Thailand's tourism hotspots, especially this time of year when thousands will be filing in for the Songkran festival next month. And the problem isn't only in Chiang Mai. Fires burning along the border of Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand are creating enough smoke to cloud Pai, Mae Hong Son, Chiang Rai, and other popular areas for tourists.

Travelers with asthma and respiratory problems should probably avoid that part of Thailand and opt for the cleaner air near the Thai islands instead.

See some better destination ideas for Asia in April.

Holi 2014 Begins!

Saturday March 15, 2014
Holi in India

Photo by Poras Chaudary / Getty Images

That writhing, colorful mass of people aren't deranged artists -- they're participating in the annual Holi Festival in India!

Holi 2014 kicks off on Monday, March 17.

One of the largest Hindu festivals celebrated throughout the world, Holi is big. And messy. Millions of people will cover each other with water and powdered dyes. Bhang -- made from cannabis -- is consumed by many, only fueling the frenzy.

So why cover each other with dye? The practice is thought to have started by throwing turmeric, paprika, and other colorful -- and medicinal -- spices on each other to stem off sickness brought on by the season change.

In modern times, spices are too expensive to sling carelessly, so synthetic dyes are thrown instead. Ironic, because some of the dyes used are toxic and cause respiratory problems!

Write Your Name on the Great Wall?

Thursday March 13, 2014
great wall of china

Photo by Greg Rodgers

Why some people feel the need to carve their names onto ancient landmarks is a mystery. Perhaps it stems from some deep-rooted self esteem problem.

Regardless, authorities have been futilely trying to keep visitors from carving names into the Great Wall of China for decades. That is, until now.

Newly designated 'graffiti zones' are being set up along China's most famous landmark where tourists are encouraged to leave their marks.

The first of many graffiti zones will be located at Mutianyu -- a heavily touristed section of the wall about an hour northeast of Beijing. The thinking is that if foreign tourists are invited to get their name-leaving tendencies out into the open, less actually damage will be done throughout the wall.

But the ancient stone won't be marred. Officials plan to install plastic screens where visitors can write their names in ink. The screens will be thrown out from time to time. Even electronic boards are being considered.

Will vandals be happy with the impermanent solution for getting their names onto something famous? The Chinese government hopes so, as most of the names carved into the wall are in foreign languages rather than Chinese.

Are Those Chopsticks Poisonous?

Monday March 10, 2014
chopsticks

Photo by Greg Rodgers

Snapping apart those disposable, wooden chopsticks is a familiar ritual before enjoying meals at Asian restaurants.

But sadly, it may come with a risk.

The Daily Meal recently brought to light the fact that disposable chopsticks are made by boiling them in toxic chemicals. Notice how all throwaway chopsticks are nearly uniform in color? That doesn't happen on accident; bleach and even preservatives are used in the manufacturing process.

A frightening concept given that China alone produces around 80 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks -- per year.

With such demand, quality control is often a low priority. Undoubtedly, chemicals leak out of the wood while you are eating -- particularly if you break one of the rules of chopstick etiquette and suck sauces off of your sticks.

The long-standing myth that disposable chopsticks are produced with scrap wood products just isn't true. In fact, an estimated 25 million mature trees are logged each year just to make chopsticks that are used once.

Some travelers have actually began carrying their own sets of chopsticks when traveling in Asia. Unfortunately, the greenest and safest bet is to stick to using metal chopsticks -- Korea's preference -- but they can be quite weighty and slippery at times.

So do yourself -- and the earth -- a favor: decline those disposable chopsticks the next time you enjoy Chinese food. Bring your own clean set from home and wash them afterward.

King of the Road or Disappearing Soon?

Wednesday March 5, 2014
jeepney in the philippines

Photo by Flickr user oldandsolo

Many countries in Asia seem to have their own well-loved, cheap modes of public transport. Many have even become symbolic of the places they serve.

In Thailand, it's the tuk-tuk. China and India have the rickshaw. Indonesia uses the bemo.

But hands down, the unofficial king of the road in Asia has to be the trusty jeepney that rumbles daily through streets in the Philippines.

Jeepneys began as repurposed military jeeps left behind in the Philippines after World War II. Later, they were stretched, modified, and as you can see in the picture above, turned into a colorful fiesta on wheels.

Jeepneys are tough, no doubt about it. Their rugged frames and big tires are perfect for not-so-great roads on various islands throughout the archipelago. But you'll find just as many roaring down smooth roads in Manila as well. You can't possibly visit the Philippines without seeing -- and perhaps riding in -- quite a number of jeepneys along the way.

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