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Greg Rodgers

Greg's Asia Travel Blog

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Get to Borneo in June!

Friday May 30, 2014
Sarawak Borneo

Photo by Greg Rodgers

The Gawai Dayak festival kicks off tomorrow evening in Sarawak, Borneo.

A few unlucky chickens will lose their heads in honor of a successful rice harvest, then the real fun begins. Revelry, weddings, family reunions, and lots of traditional activities happen in Sarawak during Gawai Dayak.

Tourists can watch ceremonies and blowpipe gun demonstrations on June 1. Kuching will be buzzing with activity as will be the beautiful Sarawak Cultural Village just outside of town.

June is a fantastic time to be in Borneo, and if you're in Southeast Asia at the moment, you may want to consider a change of itinerary. Grab a cheap flight to Kuala Lumpur, then one of the even cheaper flights to Borneo. Opt for Sarawak to catch the action, then head over to Sabah.

Once the traditional Gawai Dayak festivities finish, you'll have time to explore some of Borneo's amazing natural attractions before the Rainforest World Music Festival begins on June 20. I've been to the festival twice, and covered the event last year; no other music festival will give you as much cultural bang for your buck. The entrance prices are cheap!

Each of the three days of workshops, displays, local food, and fun at the Sarawak Cultural Village end with performances on two stages from bands all over the world. Trust me, not only will you get to learn from these former headhunters, you'll have an unforgettable experience.

Why Go to Asia?

Tuesday May 27, 2014
asia travel

Photo by Greg Rodgers

Asia is changing.

It's that simple. The largest continent on earth is also the busiest. With population growth and the Human Development Index out of control, many of the old traditions of Asia are slipping away to make room for the new.

In developing countries, it's not entirely unusual to see a farmer's donkey cart blocking Lamborghinis. Bamboo huts with thatched roofs give way every day for concrete. No where on earth does the old clash with the new as much as it does in Asia.

Places such as Burma have just begun to ramp up for increased tourism. You'll still encounter indigenous families and former headhunters living without electricity in places like Borneo and Sumatra, meanwhile Asia boasts more millionaires than Europe.

In short, Asia is on the move. Prices are increasing, as are the crowds who come in hordes to once-peaceful places such as Bali. If there was ever a time to enjoy the ancient, fascinating culture in Asia, it's now.

As if you needed more good excuse to visit Asia, here are 10 reasons why you should take a trip to Asia!

Martial Law Declared in Thailand

Wednesday May 21, 2014
Martial law in Thailand

Ed Wray/Stringer/Getty Images

As political unease continues to boil, martial law was declared across Thailand on Tuesday.

Although the move was a surprise to many, the army insists that a coup is not going to happen. Since 1932, there have been 18 attempted or successful military takeovers in Thailand.

Tourism in Thailand is already taking a hit as nervous travelers change plans and cancel flights. A recent crackdown on visa runs and another one coming in August will even stifle the flow of backpackers using Thailand as a base on the so-called Banana Pancake Trail.

So what does the tension in Thailand mean to you?

If you've got a trip to Thailand planned, there really isn't a reason to cancel it. Thailand is still safe, although roadblocks in Bangkok are making traffic an even bigger hassle than normal. If traveling through the city, allow plenty of extra time for delays.

Note: A midnight to 4 a.m. curfew is being enforced by the army. This curfew does not apply to anyone traveling to or from the airport, however, you should be prepared to show passport and tickets. Travelers are advised to keep their passports handy at all times and not to be on the move after the curfew.

There are plenty of other places across the country where trouble isn't necessarily brewing. Check out the peaceful islands in Thailand or one of these 10 great places to go in Thailand.

I've traveled to Thailand to cover political unrest, elections, and even during the violent clashes in 2010. Travel delays and other inconveniences aside, danger was rarely prevalent unless you went looking for it.

Large gatherings and crowds should be avoided. While most of the protests are peaceful, and people are even posing for selfies with soldiers, you never know when a gathering could turn into a riot. Already, there have been instances of drive-by shootings into large crowds that sparked panic and trampling.

Without being able to understand the language, you may not be able to tell when a gathering shifts from passionate about a cause to angry and violent. Grabbing a photo to show off on Facebook really isn't worth the risk.

If you're still uneasy about visiting Thailand, you could head down to Malaysia instead or choose from one of the other nearby countries in Southeast Asia.

New Delhi Becomes Most Polluted City

Friday May 16, 2014
New Delhi Air Pollution

Photo by Jenspie3

India's Center for Science and Environment announced in January that levels of PM2.5 -- the most dangerous airborne particulate matter -- had reached 575 micrograms per cubic meter.

That means the air quality in New Delhi is 60 times worst than what is considered safe.

Beijing held the ominous title of most polluted city, with peak levels of PM2.5 at around 400 micrograms per cubic meter. I was there on several occasions when air quality became so dangerous that officials advised people to stay indoors. 'No-drive' days were initiated by the government to try to force pollutant levels down before the 2008 Summer Olympics. Athletes such as swimmers and runners, people who traditionally make every breath count, had their work cut out for them.

For comparison, London, even with their world-famous traffic, usually sees an average PM2.5 level of 20 micrograms per cubic meter.

So what's all the fuss about PM2.5? The label refers to the size of pollution particles. PM2.5 particles are small enough to enter the bloodstream when inhaled, unlike larger particles that get trapped and hopefully hacked out of your lungs later in a fit of mucus.

While visiting New Delhi in 2012, I noticed how my eyes were constantly stinging. But the air quality situation has deteriorated further since then. One of the worst culprits for pollution is the limitless fleet of three-wheeled auto rickshaws, India's version of the tuk-tuk. Most of the vehicles spend far too much time idling unproductively in an endless clog of traffic. Several Asian companies are in a race to bring practical electric tuk-tuks to widespread market. While electric versions of the tuk-tuk and even the Philippine Jeepney exist today, adaptation has been limited.

Travelers with respiratory problems may want to carry a mask, or even give New Delhi a miss altogether. Sadly, Agra -- the home of the famous Taj Mahal -- isn't far behind and also ranks among the world's most polluted cities. Instead, consider heading north to Manali, Mceod Ganj, and the cleaner air of the Himalayas.

Air pollution aside, India is still a fascinating place to visit. And hopefully the new visa regulations set to take affect this October will make visiting the subcontinent even easier.

Earthquakes, Visa Changes, and Other News in Thailand

Monday May 12, 2014
Chiang Mai Thailand

Photo by Greg Rodgers

There seems to be quite a bit of news happening in Thailand recently. If you've got a trip planned, you'll certainly be interested in the following:

Earthquakes in Thailand

A 6.3-magnitude earthquake rumbled Northern Thailand on May 5 -- the strongest quake to hit the country in decades. The only fatality and a bulk of the injuries and damage occurred in Chiang Rai, however, the tremor was felt in Chiang Mai and even in neighboring Myanmar.

After scores of aftershocks, another 5.0-magnitude quake hit today in the Mae Lao district of Chiang Rai, further damaging homes and Buddhist temples in the area.

Thai Visa Crackdown

The Thai Immigration Bureau announced on Saturday a new crackdown and tighter visa restrictions. The crackdown targets people crossing in and out of the country overland, presumably to reside and work illegally in Thailand. While the tighter visa restrictions won't cause problems for most travelers, backpackers who often cross in and out of countries frequently may have complications.

The new visa restrictions will also cause a big jump in the workload for the Thai consulates in Laos, Malaysia, and other neighboring countries. Expect longer delays if you'll be applying for a Tourist Visa outside of Thailand. The Immigration Bureau has also warned that an additional crackdown will occur on August 12, however, they have yet to announce what it will entail.

New Interim Prime Minister in Thailand

The Constitutional Court ordered Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra -- the first female prime minister of Thailand -- and nine of her ministers to step down last week. The country has been dealing with anti-government protests and unrest that some fear could lead Thailand back into a coup.

Niwatthamrong Boonsongphaisan, who served as Yingluck's deputy prime minister, has been been placed as interim prime minister until elections can be held, possibly in July.

Getting Ready to Go - International Travel

Wednesday May 7, 2014
Getting Ready to Travel

Photo by Greg Rodgers

Planning a big international trip is exciting, but don't let anticipation turn into stress as your departure date creeps forward.

Along with the usual tasks of closing up shop for a -- hopefully lengthy -- vacation, getting ready to travel internationally presents several new challenges. Forgetting some to-dos such as letting your debit and credit card banks know that you will be traveling, could cause a lot of hassle later.

Trust me, having your ATM card quit working while abroad can be a serious pain.

Fortunately, other than checking on visa rules and possibly vaccinations, if any, most of the items on this pre-travel checklist can be handled fairly quickly!

The Thriving Markets in Asia

Monday May 5, 2014
markets in asia

Photo by Greg Rodgers

Wandering through the sprawling, chaotic markets of Asia is certainly one of my favorite experiences.

Hectic? Yes. Fun? Absolutely. A whirl of business, bartering, and exchange takes place in markets daily. Fish flop, chickens cluck, veggies...well, do whatever veggies do. Walking through the labyrinth of market stalls is a sensory assault. Smells -- some nice, others best left undiscovered -- sounds, and sights come from all sides.

Asian markets aren't just about buying cheap fakes, although you'll find plenty of two-dollar sunglasses on offer. Markets actually serve as the social hub and beating heart of many urban neighborhoods and small villages. Markets are where you go to hear the latest gossip, taste whatever is in season, and see who grew the largest papaya this year.

For a visiting Westerner, busy markets -- particularly the ones away from tourist areas -- can seem a bit overwhelming. Never mind the stares, just dive in and start asking for samples. You'll often find the cheapest lunch, drinks, and treats at hidden counters throughout the market.

Tipping in Asian Culture

Monday April 28, 2014
Philippine money

Photo by Michael Francis McCarthy

Gratuity is a Western concept. In fact, the word 'tip' is thought to have come from the old days when customers would buy the barkeep or server a tipple (drink) to reward hard work.

For the most part, you don't need to tip much while in Asia.

And while tipping has caught on in a few places, leaving money on the table in some Asian countries can be confusing or even misinterpreted as a rude gesture!

Times have changed. More and more hotels and restaurants in Asia, particularly high-end ones frequented by wealthy travelers, are beginning to expect tips on top of the usual service charge added to your bill. Leaving gratuity in countries without a history of tipping actually causes cultural mutation and inflates prices over time.

There are some exceptions and instances when a tip is not only appreciated, it is expected. Use these guides to know when tipping in Asian countries is acceptable.

And more countries can be found in this guide to tipping in Asian culture.

Here's to Surviving One More Round

Thursday April 24, 2014
drinking in japan

Michael Hitoshi / Getty Images

I've found myself in some seriously hairy situations over the years of exploring Asia's backroads.

Maybe not dangerous in the traditional sense, but having glass after glass of a hellish local spirit thrust into your hands by well-meaning hosts can indeed get dangerous.

If there's one thing that closes a cultural divide quickly, it's drinking together. Even if you don't speak a common language, choking down spirits together is a way to forge friendships, not to mention businesses.

When staying with an indigenous Iban family in a remote part of Borneo last year, I had to present the longhouse chief a bottle of brandy as a gift. And to prove my mettle, I was expected to consume half of it as everyone in the extended family wanted to toast to the guest -- me. Even the grandmothers didn't cut me any slack.

In many parts of Asia, grown men are simply expected to drink. And local spirits often fuel festivals, ceremonies, banquets, and social occasions. But unfortunately, as a guest, you're already at a disadvantage. No doubt your hosts have already had years of practice at gulping down the local moonshine. And all eyes may be on you -- that's what you get for being the guest of honor.

From the jungle to executive board rooms in Asia, knowing how to empty a cup without gagging is often an important part of interacting. At business banquets in China and Japan, you'll need to know some proper drinking etiquette so that the rules of saving face are followed.

Use these resources to help you survive your next encounter -- good luck!

First Everest Wingsuit Jump Canceled

Monday April 21, 2014
Mount Everest

Photo by Joe Hastings

Discovery Channel has announced that Joby Ogwyn's much anticipated wingsuit jump from Mount Everest has been canceled.

The stunt, planned to air live tentatively on May 11, was to be the first ever wingsuit jump from the summit of Mount Everest. As if climbing the mountain wasn't difficult enough, Joby Ogwyn planned to reach the summit then jump from 29,000 feet if weather conditions permitted.

The announcement to cancel the stunt came following the deadliest avalanche in Mount Everest's history this past Friday. Joby's Sherpa team were among the at least 13 fatalities who were setting up routes for the upcoming climbing season. Most attempts on the summit are usually made in May when conditions are most favorable.

The deadly avalanche has also triggered an outcry in the Sherpa community and even a call for boycott. Sherpas risk their lives season after season, while the Nepalese government profits from climbing fees. The government has announced that the families of each climber will receive the equivalent of US $415.

The average annual salary in Nepal hovers around US $700, however, Sherpas can sometimes earn US $5,000 in a single season.

The Himalayan Trust is the official charity set up by Sir Edmund Hillary -- the first climber to summit Everest -- in order to help the Nepalese people and families of Sherpas. Sir Edmund Hillary passed away in 2008 at the age of 88.

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