100 Days – Reflections and A Guide for Adventurers

Have you ever wanted to take a break from your daily routine to travel around the world?  If it’s on your bucket list, but seems like only a distant dream, take a minute to consider what roadblocks are standing in your way.  Jobs, family, finances, and other commitments can all seem like insurmountable obstacles, but none are impossible to overcome.  Sometimes, you just need to follow the signs.

About two years ago, my wife Alisa and I started this journey with a question:  What would you do with 100 days?  The question led us to think more seriously about what we wanted from life and how we would address all the things that seemed to stand between us and acting on a dream of ours.

Piecing together our trip around the world was like an epic match of extreme problem-solving.  Each piece of the puzzle was shaped by first giving ourselves permission to dream big before we addressed each obstacle with equal parts creativity, determination, and resourcefulness.

We braced for substantial resistance from our families, bosses, co-workers and friends, and instead received surprising amounts of support.  That’s in part because “no” wasn’t an option.  We were committed.  Because when you articulate your “why” behind a life-long goal, people can relate and want you to succeed.  We are too often reminded how short life is.

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This post is the official wrap-up to our trip around the world and the final edition of the 100 days travel blog.  From our home base in Portland, Oregon to our first destination in Wellington, New Zealand all the way to our last stop in Reykjavik, Iceland, we tracked West until our circle around the world was complete.  We only went to cities where we’d never been and New Zealand was the only country we’d previously visited.  We experienced all places through a fresh lens and discovered some remarkable things about these cities and ourselves along the way.

Highlights, Packing and Budget Travel Tips

Here is the curated guide to 100 days for your enjoyment. Check out any of the previous posts about these places by clicking on the links below.

Top 4 Best Experiences

It’s hard to narrow this category down, but these four experiences rose to the top and are well worth a life-altering trip to any one of these places.

Hiking Abel Tasman National Park (South Island, New Zealand)

Snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef (Port Douglas, Australia)

Pampering Elephants at Elephant Nature Park (Chaing Mai, Thailand)

Exploring the Temples of Angkor (Siem Reap, Cambodia)

Not far behind these giants of tourism were the occasions we spent time with friends (new and old) on our travels.  Getting to know Mark, Mike & Barney in Melbourne, touring around Sydney with Anita and Natalie, meeting Deanna and Silas in Siem Reap, enjoying a Stockholm City Hall tour with Matilda and dinner with Natalie’s family, relaxing at a BBQ with Rob, Rosa and family in Lisse, having lunch with Robert and Anne Marie in Heemstede, and ending our travels with Chandra in Iceland — each of these experiences helped ground us in a place through the love and friendship of people.  Some of these folks we knew well before our trip, others not at all.  These connections deepened our experiences on the road and gave us several “happiness boosters” along the way.

Top 3 Big Cities

We hit a LOT of world cities on this trip and our list of favorite world cities is now very different from when we started.  These cities (in no particular order) represent an amazing mix of culture, nature, and interesting people, with public transportation systems that make them very easy to explore.

Melbourne, Australia

Stockholm, Sweden

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Top 3 Mid-Sized Cities

Not every destination needs to be a booming metropolis, and these manageably sized cities did not suffer from a lack of great food, art, shopping, and outdoor activities.  In fact, there were many days when these places were just right.

Wellington, New Zealand

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Utrecht, The Netherlands 

Top 3 Small Cities

Sometimes it’s good to take the foot off the gas when you’re traveling and relax into a small city.  Each of these places did not disappoint with their combination of beauty, access to nature, and essential amenities.

Nelson, New Zealand

Hoi An, Vietnam

Luang Prabang, Laos

Top 3 Places we would have Skipped

Truth be told, hindsight is definitely 20-20.  When we started this trip, we were very excited about a few places and not as enthused about others.  Our expectation vs. experience ratio almost flipped completely over by the end of the trip.  We discovered that our four most important factors about whether we would enjoy a place were: the ease of public transportation, the friendliness of locals, the weather, and how expensive it was to visit.  Here are a few spots in the world that rated pretty low with those factors.

Copenhagen

Bangkok

Reykjavik 

Packing Tips

Harkening back to Alisa’s pre-trip packing post, her instincts were spot on.  One backpack and one carry-on roller case per person was sufficient and let us stay nimble. Less was indeed more and allowed us to pick up a few things along the way.  And we shipped a few boxes home to lighten the load.

Best packing decisions…

  • Icebreaker wool underwear – the secret is out, thanks to the Kiwis.  Run, don’t walk, to the nearest Icebreaker outlet for a quick-drying, low hassle undies.
  • A 24 oz. Hydro Flask water bottle – came in handy everywhere we went.  Kept cold water cold and hot water hot.
  • Starbucks VIA packets – if you travel, be prepared to drink bad coffee (in some places, REALLY bad coffee).  Starbucks via packets are the best instant coffee on the market. Next time, I’d bring A LOT more.
  • Waterproof running shoes  – Rather than packing hiking boots and tennis shoes, we both opted for Brooks gore tex running shoes.

What we should have left at home…

  • Nice earrings – weren’t worth the trouble
  • 2 “dressy” tank tops – 1 would have sufficed
  • Extra pair of wool socks – 1 was enough
  • Steripen water filter – was heavy and we never used it. (Alisa would add a lifestraw to the emergency kit instead.)

Budget Travel Tips

Very few people have an unlimited budget, so estimating your big expenses before you go helps to determine where to go and how long to be on the road.  Here are a few budget travel tips that helped us keep expenses relatively low.

  1. Use a travel agent to book flights in advance.  Unless you have your heart set on a flexible travel schedule, choosing your destinations in advance can cut the price of your tickets by more than half.  We worked with a company called Airtreks and they were able to book all of our flights for about 1/3 of the price we initially expected to pay.  That also meant we paid off our flights 6 months before our trip.  Having all the flights with one company reduced the hassle factor, so any changes were always reflected on the master itinerary and they took care of rebooking if there was an issue.
  2. You get more value with Air B&B than hotels.  Price comparisons showed that we saved $$ booking in advance with Air B&B, everywhere except SE Asia where boutique hotels were quite inexpensive.  Our top desired amenity (after a coffee maker) was a laundry machine, followed by a kitchen. Plus, having most of our reservations available on a single app interface made it unnecessary to organize a bunch of hotel reservations.
  3. Travel during shoulder seasons.  Prices drop as soon as most tourists head home and top attractions are less crowded. When hotels are less crowded, they often give complimentary upgrades.  In Luang Prabang and Bangkok, we booked the least expensive room in nice hotels and were upgraded to suites.  Rock on!IMG_2898
  4. Research public transportation options ahead of time.  Most cities we visited in Australia and Europe had multi-day transit cards you could purchase when you arrive.  That saved us a bundle on cabs and we never rented a car the whole time we were away.
  5. Stay places where you can cook your own food (and know when you can pack some with you).  It’s intuitive, but groceries are cheaper than eating out three meals a day.  The advanced class involves knowing what to pack with you when you’re traveling to a place where food is ridiculously expensive, like Iceland.
  6. For the environmentally-conscious budget traveler, buy carbon offsets to show the planet some love while you explore.  The Bonneville Environmental Foundation will sell you carbon offsets without breaking the bank.  You can choose from several carbon calculators to determine how many you should purchase.

Continue reading “100 Days – Reflections and A Guide for Adventurers”

Reykjavik

On a cool, cloudy morning in a quiet and secluded town almost a thousand miles from a major European city, a young boy stared at the bulky television in his living room with his mouth slightly agape. He was stunned by what he saw. As he watched news coverage of the results of the US Presidential election, his world turned completely upside down. With utter disbelief, he yelled to his mother in the other room, “But he can’t be President, he’s a man.” It was 1980.

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Five years earlier in 1975, 90% of women in Iceland took to the streets. They left their mops, kitchen duties, and dirty diapers behind and rallied for equal rights. Out of necessity, many men took responsibility for their kids, their work and the household chores. From that day forward, October 24 became Women’s Day Off. And it helped to explain how how just a few years later, in the midst of the Cold War, how a woman by the name of Vigdis Finnbogadottir became the first female President in Europe, a position she held for 16 years.

Fast forward 40 years to 2016, women again took to the streets of Reykjavik – this time for equal pay. At 2:38 p.m., women left their jobs 2 hours and 22 minutes early and marched to Austurvollur square. Since they earned on average 72% of men’s wages, they left after 72% of their work day was completed. Drawing international attention, they made their point not just to the government of Iceland, but to the world-wide audience of women and employers.

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Women’s March Reykjavik, photo credit: Pall Steffanson via@shesaysIndia

And yet, this country with a mere 323,000 residents (about 1/26 the population of New York City) is still known as the best place in the world to be a working woman. With the most recent election in 2016, women now hold 48% of the seats in Iceland’s parliament (lagging behind only Cuba, Rwanda and Bolivia). Some credit for the recent gains is thanks to the uppity new party of anarchists, libertarians, and “techies” called the Pirate Party.

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Icelandic Independence Day, June 17, 2016

To visit Iceland for the first time means more than searching for geysers, glaciers, and Game of Thrones filming locations. It means appreciating how the fiercely independent people of such a small and isolated country have maintained such a far-reaching impact on the rest of the world.

The Land of Fire and Ice

For many tourists, adventure and exploration are the primary draws to Iceland: the search for rugged landscapes unspoiled by development, a chance for a spectacular view of the Aurora Borealis, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to climb on a glacier, topped off with a relaxing dip in a geothermal hot spring.  Given Iceland’s strategic location between North America and Europe, getting there is the easy part.  Travel companies have made stop-over flights cheap and convenient, and Iceland’s tourism board, Visit Iceland, effectively promotes Iceland’s “discovery” brand.

Known as “The Land of Fire and Ice” since active volcanos sit restlessly adjacent to sprawling glaciers, Icelanders refer to their homeland as a place of extreme contrasts.  Visitors in June will likely never witness a sunset, while tourists in December may only see an hour or two of daylight.

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2:00 a.m. view from our apartment in Reykjavik on June 19, 2016

Determining the best time to visit depends largely on one’s preferred experience.  The Aurora Borealis are typically visible between late August and April.  For a preview of the Northern Lights, check out this amazing video.  Hikers tend to prefer July and August for the temperate climate and longer days whereas whale watching season stretches from May through September.  Winter travelers should be prepared for closed roads and bring sufficient thermal gear to stay warm as temperatures can drop as low as -20 degrees in the highlands.

Our travels brought us to Iceland in June, the final stop on our 100 day journey around the world.  We rented an apartment downtown, an easy walk to all of major sites and amenities in Reykjavik.  With our centrally-located home base, we booked a couple of excursions, including a tour of the famous Golden Circle.  If you only have a day or two to spend in Iceland, it’s a great way to see some of Iceland’s most iconic sights:  the Gullfoss waterfall, the Thingvellir valley, and the Geysir hot spring area featuring the active Strokkur geyser.

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Faxi Waterfall: Golden Circle bonus stop

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Utrecht

IMG_3691Sometimes on the road, duty calls.  While part of the impetus for 100 days was to take a break from my job, when you have a chance to make an impact half way around the world, some things are worth doing.  One of those opportunities was an official visit to Utrecht, a Friendship City to the City of Portland.  My time in Utrecht can be best summarized in three words:  bikes, business, and beer.  It’s a tough job, but someone has to brew it.

Utrecht is the fourth largest city in The Netherlands and holds the impressive distinction as the third best bicycling city in the world, behind Copenhagen and Amsterdam.  It’s a mere 30 minute train ride from Amsterdam Schiphol airport, with frequent train connections running to other nearby cities like Rotterdam and The Hague.  For a city of about 330,000 residents, Utrecht boxes well above its weight class with a highly functional active transportation system.  The only thing that’s really difficult to do in Utrecht is drive.  With little street parking and few through streets, the city has intentionally made driving painful enough that most residents don’t bother.

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This medieval city is famous for bringing peace to Europe in 1713 with the Treaty of Utrecht, which was actually a series of treaties that mollified the most powerful countries of Europe (except the French and the Holy Roman Empire who were still at each others’ throats).  When Charles II of Spain didn’t have a son to ascend to the throne, all hell broke loose and thus began the 14 year War of the Spanish Succession.  Among other things, the treaty doled out a number of contested islands and is widely credited with preserving a delicate balance of power in Europe.

Perhaps Utrecht could host some meetings between Great Britain and the European Union over the next couple of years?

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Let’s Be Friends

My day in Utrecht began at the newly completed municipal offices at the City of Utrecht, a massive complex with room for 3,000 city workers, a multitude of sustainable features including large solar arrays, and public spaces that all visitors can enjoy.  The building is adjacent to the Central Train Station, making it easy to hop on the next train to Brussels for meetings at the EU.

My counterparts at the City of Utrecht, Hans and Marthe, were very welcoming and toured me around the shared spaces of this impressive public complex.  What became clear in  just a short time is how much in common our cities share and the potential to learn more from each other.

For example, I learned that parking is one of the city’s biggest growth challenges, though in their case the demand is for bike parking rather than spaces for cars.  Their answer to this challenge?  Utrecht is currently constructing the largest bike parking structure in the world, adjacent to the Central Station and the municipal building. When it’s completed in 2018, the multi-story structure will have space for 12,500 bicycles – an astounding achievement for any size city.  In fact, that’s just one of the major construction projects around the station, meaning in just a few years the area will be completely transformed with state-of-the-art facilities.

Another shared priority between our cities is the desire for green, healthy and smart urban development.  Many cities in the world are currently experiencing a rapid influx of people  into their urban centers and most can’t keep up with the pressures of the growth on aging infrastructure, the balance between environmental and economic considerations, and the implications for their most vulnerable residents.  But in addition to sustainable transportation, Utrecht is exploring topics like urban food policy, to ensure everyone who calls their city home has access to healthy, affordable food choices.  It’s a tall order, but one our cities share.

At the end of our visit, I presented Marthe and Hans with a special gift from Portland, a bike bell designed by Portland-based company Nutcase featuring our city’s flag.  It was a perfect gift for a friend like Utrecht.

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Ghent

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At almost the precise center of a cross between Brussels and Bruge and Antwerp and Lille, lies an ancient city that once was the second most powerful in Europe.  Dating back to the Middle Ages, the dominance of this city in East Flanders, Belgium reached its peak in the 13th and 14th centuries, when the textile industry employed half the town of 50,000 people.  Its power waned after failing in its quest to become a city state and their leader lost his head.  Today in Ghent, you can still appreciate the grandeur of this medieval city.

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Back to its humble beginnings…while there is evidence that humans resided in this area from the Stone and Bronze Ages, around 650 A.D., two abbeys were founded at the confluence of the rivers Scheldte and Leie.  The town was given the name, Ganda, meaning confluence.  But it was the Dutch prounounciation that the city carries today: Ghent or, as the locals spell it, “Gent.”

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Visitors to Ghent are greeted with well-preserved medieval architecture as well as an impressive array of transportation options for a city of 247,000 residents.  You can hit most of the main attractions in a couple of days, which makes buying the Ghent City Card a decent value.  For 30 euros for 48 hours, the card gains you free admission into museums as well as a canal tour and a day’s bike renal.  It doesn’t cover the city buses unfortunately, but you can ride two of the main tram lines to get around.

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Ghent is best known for the Treaty of Ghent, which brought to an end the War of 1812 between the Britain and the United States.  Apparently, President Madison was hoping to pick up Canada in the deal, but that dog didn’t hunt.  Britain, on the other hand, was planning four invasions during the negotiations of the treaty including the burning of Washington DC.  Ultimately our host city gave us the most important thing: peace.  (It sure would have been nice to have Canada though….)

Gravensteen Castle

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Gravensteen Castle, or the “Castle of the Counts”, is by far the coolest place to visit in Ghent.  Taking inspiration from the Crusades, the castle was built in 1180 (you read that right) on the site of the prior residence built in the mid 900s.  Gravensteen served as the seat of the Count of Flanders for hundreds of years until it was abandoned and then become a courthouse and later a prison.  You can still catch a glimpse of the hole in the floor leading to the dungeon.

Iron-clad torture devices are on display reminding visitors to be on their best behavior…or else.  And the full suits of armor show that back in the day, the Belgians weren’t messing around.  In a war with the Danish prince with the fluffy plume, my money’s on this skinny guy.

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Saved from demolition and restored in 1885, the grand halls of Gravensteen Castle are still used today for events befitting a royal court.

IMG_3593Game of Thrones reenactment, anyone?  (Just no weddings please.)

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Not surprisingly, the film and video industry caught on to opportunities for shooting in the castle.  The BBC series “The White Queen” filmed scenes at Gravensteen.  The castle was most recently featured in the 2015 film, Emperor, starring Adrian Brody.

No wonder it’s the #1 tourist attraction in Ghent.  Views from the top of the tower yields panoramic views of the city below.  From up there, you can imagine what the city must have looked like with dirt roads and horse-carts about 1,000 years ago.

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Amsterdam

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Three words to describe today’s Amsterdam:  canals, architecture and bikes

Growing up in Peoria, Illinois, I knew far more about Holland than most kids my age.  My dad worked in the bulb business and spent three weeks every year traveling back to the land of the tulips to oversee the catalogs that many of us fondly remember getting in the mail.  Long before the internet, mail order was considered the shopping of the future.

From these trips, he’d bring us home hand-painted wooden shoes, Delft blue houses, boxes of chocolate tulips, enormous wheels of Dutch cheese, and little porcelain windmills.

When he would walk into the house exhausted after his long flights, my sister, brothers and I would immediately press him for what goodies were in his suitcase.  Not understanding the intricacies of direct marketing, when people asked me what my dad did, I said “he sells flowers.”

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Me, at 10 years old, wearing my “Brecks Bulbs Bloom” t-shirt with my best feline friends, Bonzai and Curious.

Weekend family activities almost always included Saturday morning gardening at our house.  Enormous shipments of tulips, daffodils, irises and other bulbs would arrive at our house in the fall and we’d all get out in the yard to participate in the planting. One year, we planted somewhere around 2,000 tulips. My brothers to this day have PTSD from being rustled out of bed early to dig trenches and shovel large piles of compost.  Being the youngest, I was assigned light duty tasks like weeding and beer retrieval for my dad.  It’s no wonder that I’m the only kid in the family that still keeps up an outdoor bulb garden.

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My tulips and dafs on March 18 – the day before we left on 100 days.  We missed most of the blooms, but they’ll be back next year!

Even 30 years later, tulips are still core to the identity and branding of Holland.  Tourists come from all over the world in April and May to see the fields around Lisse (an over 800 year old town about 30 min outside of Amsterdam) exploding with color. And while it took me 40+ years to make my first visit to The Netherlands (more on the Holland/Netherlands distinction later), I experienced strong feelings of nostalgia, even in the flower markets of central Amsterdam.  For anyone visiting Amsterdam for the 1st time, a trip to the world’s only floating flower market, the Bloemenmarkt, is worthwhile. (Just don’t buy your bulbs there in the late Spring – they are the leftovers from the prior season.)

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City with a Reputation

There are a few cities in the world that are legendary for drinking, drugs and debauchery.  The top three that come to mind are:  Las Vegas, Bangkok and Amsterdam.  The underworld of the city is part of the branding, attracting a type of tourism of which Bacchus would be proud and mothers would be ashamed.  But now having visited all three cities “with a reputation,” I can say that Amsterdam is so much more than a red light district and pot cafes.  It does, however, have a reputation.  As a visitor, you are more than welcome to take it or leave it. Continue reading “Amsterdam”

Copenhagen

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(Warning: this post is going to be provocative. Some may even call it blasphemous. But it is what it is, so pump up your bike tires and put on your crash helmet – it’s going to be a ride.)

Meeting Copenhagen was like meeting a distant cousin for the first time – one who you’ve always heard about and even seen in a few family photos. All your life, you’ve heard how  brilliant, successful, and evolved he is – his achievements setting the bar impossibly high for the rest of the family, even the rest of the world.  He, of course, looks flawlessly handsome in the few pictures you’ve seen (though none of them have been close ups).  Mostly, you see him in the distance riding a bike, along with thousands of other people riding their bikes.  You’re so excited to meet your cool cousin that you’ve anticipated it for months.

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Then you finally meet him and he’s kind of a douche bag.  He smokes, he’s rude and he hasn’t showered in days.  He disappears a half hour after you arrive and you find him next to a canal, drunk with empty Carlsberg bottles strewn at his feet, looking a bit pathetic.  And the filter on the camera has been generous – he’s just not that good looking and the years haven’t be kind.  You consider bolting after about 2 hours and returning to Stockholm, but family is family, so you decide to gut it out, for 6 more days and 22 more hours.

Welcome to Copenhagen: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Continue reading “Copenhagen”

Stockholm

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I love Stockholm. There, I’ve said it. Now that I’ve shamelessly professed my unabashed fondness for this ancient city of 14 islands, 57 bridges and almost 1,000,000 people (2.2 million in the Metro area), I can get on with the rest of it.  But really, what’s not to like?  There are boats everywhere and even the garages are beautiful.

Getting Around

Close your eyes and imagine a city where traffic jams and interstate highways are a relic of the past. Instead, all around you are people walking, riding bicycles, emerging in throngs from underground train stations, and taking ferries to get from place to place.  The overall effect is a quieter, calmer city where the streets are alive with movement and the air is filled with less pollution and honking.

Now open your eyes.  You’re in Stockholm.

Not surprisingly, there are many ways to reach this city that fancies itself the Capital of Scandinavia.  If you arrive by air (as we did) into Arlanda Airport, you will have an opportunity to take the nicest airport-city train I’ve ever had the pleasure to ride, the Arlanda Express.  If you are traveling Thurs-Sun, you can buy tickets for multiple travelers at deep discounts, like 2 tickets for 300 Krona ($36).  The trip only takes 20 minutes from the airport to the central train station, much quicker than if you go by bus or taxi.  Plus, there’s free wi-fi and the clean and modern train is powered by 100% renewable energy.  Welcome to Sweden.

Once you’ve arrived in the city, you can buy transit tickets on your smart phone or at a kiosk.  The SL system sells multiple day cards for visitors that includes unlimited access buses, Metro trains, and local ferries.  A 24 hour pass costs 115 Krona ($13.75 USD) and a 72 hour pass is 230 Krona ($27.50).  We opted for the 7 day pass for 300 Krona ($36 USD), but the 7 day pass requires you to purchase an SL card for 20 Krona (about $2.40 USD).  The savings for a week of unrestricted transportation were well worth it.

Stockholm’s Metro system, Tunnelbana (T-bana for short), is impressively expansive for a city of its size.  First opened in 1950, T-bana includes 47 underground and 53 above ground stations.  The system has 3 colored main lines that include 7 different offshoots with the T-Centralen (or Central Station) at the hub.

As we discovered one Saturday morning at about 7:30 a.m., there are often more people traveling below ground than above it (which is a more plausible explanation for the lack of sentient beings than the zombie apocalypse we thought we’d encountered.)  Ridership on the T-bana warrants the system’s size and maintenance.  In 2013, the average daily rides on the Metro were 890,000 – not bad for a city of under 1 million people.

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During our week in Stockholm, our apartment was a 2-minute walk from the Mariatorget station (on the popular island neighborhood of Sodermalm) on the red line.  We never left the redline, venturing only as far as Ostermalmstord, finding everything else we needed either on foot or by boat.

Walking was our favorite way to get around and the very best way to see the city.  Here’s a link to a map that gives you a sense of the layout of the islands, neighborhoods and the Metro system.

Once you have your transit pass, taking a ferry is a must, particularly since Stockholm is a city of islands at which lake Malaren meets the Baltic Sea.

While it’s not an intuitive system for tourists (though most ferry terminals have a place to scan your pass before boarding), there are worse places in the world to experience trial and error.  The ferry from Slussen to Djurgarden is a popular route, only taking about 10 minutes.  There are also routes from Nybroplan and other ferries that cross over from Sodermalm to City Hall.  Check out this page for more info on the ferry system and enjoy the ride.

Gamla Stan

Gamla Stan, meaning “Old Town”, is Stockholm’s oldest neighborhood.  First occupied in 1,000 A.D. by Vikings, Gamla Stan was more formally established in the mid-13th century. The first mention of Stockholm (literally translated as “log islet”) dates back to 1252 and even at that time was known as an important port, particularly for the iron trade.

In 1600, the population of Stockholm was about 10,000 and the city began it’s rapid ascent as a European power.  By 1680, the population grew to be closer to 60,000.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

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An extraordinary thing happened in 1628 during the city’s maritime-driven period of growth.  The King of Sweden, Gustav II Adolf referred to as “The Lion of the North”, was known for building a great military and extending Sweden’s power and influence throughout Europe.  In 1625, Gustav II hired the Dutch master shipwright Henrik Hybertsson and his partner Arendt De Groote to build the greatest warship of all time, the Vasa.  While Hybertsson did not live to see the ship’s completion, the most powerful and well equipped warship in the Baltic Sea exquisitely decorated with hand-carved statutes, sporting 10 sails and 64 cannons, set sail on a fateful day, August 10, 1628. Continue reading “Stockholm”

Bangkok

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The first thing I noticed about Bangkok was the traffic.  Unlike other Southest Asian cities where most of the traffic was comprised of two-wheels and an electric engine, the capital of Thailand is full of cars.  New cars, old cars, taxis, vans – you name it.  Easily the most inefficient transportation option around the city of 8 million people (14 million in the region) is by far the most popular.  There are reportedly an average of 1.4 cars per resident.

With roots dating back to the early 15th century, the village that ultimately become the city of Bangkok was strategically positioned as a major trading outpost near the mouth of the Chao Phraya River in the kingdom of Ayutthaya (later Siam).  Two capital cities were established in the mid 18th century — Thonburi in 1768 and Rattanakosin in 1782 — and together these cities formed what is today known as Bangkok.

In spite of a major economic boom in the 1980s and 1990s both from Asian and Western countries, Bangkok reveals itself as a poorly planned city, ill-equipped to handle the population growth of the last 30 years.

It is not a surprise then that my very favorite thing about Bangkok is the Sky Train or BTS for short. Located quite literally above the gnarly traffic fray below, the system consists of 34 stations on two lines that intersect in the major shopping destination of Siam.

The trains are clean, fast, consistent, quiet, and above all, cool!  On a 100 degree day in Bangkok, there is no better place to be than on the train that gets you from a hot place to a hotter place.

A local magazine article that touted the planned expansion of Bangkok’s transit system included a famous quote from the Mayor of Bogota, Columbia:

“A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars.  It’s where the rich use transit.” – Gustavo Petro

I’ll keep this in mind as we travel to much wealthier cities in the very near future.  Something tells me that no truer words about urban planning were ever spoken.

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Chiang Mai, Land of Elephants

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Two of the retired ladies at Pamper a Pachyderm. “Look Ma, no chains!”

This is a post about elephants. Well, mainly elephants. You can’t come to Northern Thailand without paying respect to the true kings of the jungle.  First though, I’ll tell you a little bit about the Thai city that thrives in the North. Then you’ll learn what elephants, Buddha, Y2k and Boston have in common. Enjoy the journey, my friends.

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Founded in 1296 (you read that right), Chiang Mai meaning “new city” succeeded Chiang Rai as the Capital of the Lanna Kingdom. In the mid 16th century, the city was occupied by the Burmese and only in 1775 became part of Siam, known today as Thailand. The metropolitan hub of Northern Thailand, Chiang Mai proper is home to about 170,000 people, with a metro area surpassing 1 million residents. Surrounding Chiang Mai are foothills of the Himalayan mountains, which include several national parks within an hour and a half drive of the city.

The Old City is surrounded by remnants of the ancient wall and moat, adjacent to the more modern ring road, which separates the original city from the rest of town.

After a day walking the streets of Old Town, the word that came to mind to describe the city was “functional.” It’s not particularly beautiful, like Luang Prabang or Hoi An, but shops of all types are easy to find and it’s not too difficult to get around. More so than any other city we visited in SE Asia, arriving in Chiang Mai felt immediately comfortable and a little more familiar.

While traffic generally moves in accordance with painted lanes and signals and without the cacophony of beeping horns like in Vietnam, it’s still challenging for pedestrians to cross major streets without risking a Frogger-type incident.

Road signs and markings often seem to contradict themselves.

Sidewalks are used for car and motorbike parking than as pedestrian ways, leaving walkers to drift into the streets.

Another observation is that Chiang Mai is a city struggling with growth and with it an overburdened transportation system. The city is becoming increasingly popular with foreigners because of its affordability, accessibility, and relaxed lifestyle compared to other large Thai cities. Ex pats comprise about 25% of the population. We did see an impressive Sunday morning bike ride on our way out of town. That plus a bike share system sponsored by maxi-pads are perhaps good signs for the city’s future.

The outdoor markets of Chiang Mai are a highlight for the commercially-inclined (you know who you are). The Sunday Market (Walking Street) is a not-to-be-missed bustling mix of street food stalls, handicraft tables, silk merchants, clothing shops, and massage stations stretching the length of two main streets that meet in a cross.

You know it’s a good market when most of the patrons are locals. Just know if you go later in the evening, you may feel like a salmon swimming up a crowded stream of teenagers and 20 somethings.

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Luang Prabang, Laos

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About 2,300 feet above sea level at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers sits a beautiful and quiet city nestled in the mountain ranges of Laos.  According to legend, it’s a place where Buddha smiled on his travels.  Nature still seems to define the ancient city, once a royal capital of the powerful kingdom of Lane Xang (the Kingdom of a Thousand Elephants).  Today, almost 50,000 people call Luang Prabang home.

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The easiest way to reach Luang Prabang is by plane.  For a city of its diminutive size, it supports a small international airport with daily flights to Bangkok and frequent connections to hubs in Cambodia and Vietnam.  Travel by car or bus is possible, but the Laos capital of Vientiane is an 11 hour ride.  Roads between cities in Laos aren’t in great shape.

Made a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1995, the well-preserved wooden and stone architecture of Luang Prabang is one of the city’s most distinctive features.  For a peninsula with only three main roads (two of which are bordered by rivers), it’s an easy place to get around even without a car or motorbike.

Visiting Luang Prabang is like taking a trip back in time about 60 years.  It’s a city that wakes up late and goes to bed early.  Most shops begin to open around 8-9 a.m. and the city pretty much shuts down by 9 p.m.   As part of a daily ritual, locals start their day giving alms to the monks starting at about 5:30 a.m., so early bedtimes are enforced.

If you’re up and about in time to see the alms ceremony, it’s worth having a walk up to the top of Mount Phousi, a 355 stair climb from the center of town.  Views at sunrise and sunset are amazing, with the former being the quieter and less frequented of the two.  There’s a small fee to pay about halfway up, 20,000 Kip or $2.50 USD.

Bridges are key infrastructure in a city with two rivers.  The “bamboo bridge“made entirely of (you guessed it) bamboo, crosses over the Nam Khan River.  For a nominal toll of 5,000 kip or about $.60 USD, you can brave the crossing yourself during the dry season.  The bamboo for the bridge is harvested on the far side of the river.  Talk about green infrastructure!

Once the wet season arrives in late May, early June, the bridge must be dismantled and then rebuilt 6 months later.  The toll covers the staffing and maintenance of the bridge.

After 6 p.m., the toll collector leaves, so for those willing to cross the bridge in the dark (not us), you can enjoy happy hour or dinner on the other side.

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