This Friday’s challenge is a photo of an unidentified place somewhere in the world. Can you tell us where the photo was taken? Leave your guess in the comments below — and check back on Tuesday to see if you were right!
Hint: Where in the world is this field that gets its distinctive yellow hue from canola flowers?
Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, April 13, at 11:59 p.m. ET to post your response. We’ll keep all comments private until then. On Tuesday morning we’ll choose one winner at random to receive an IndependentTraveler.com prize. Note: Although all are welcome to play, we can only ship prizes to the Continental U.S.
Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Todd Burr, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery location was Luoping, China. Todd has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Stay tuned for more chances to win.
Are you the type of traveler that roughs it on every trip, camping or sleeping in budget hotels and making all your own meals instead of shelling out for a fancy restaurant dinner? Or are you inclined to pamper yourself a little with a spa treatment or an airline upgrade?
That’s the question we asked our readers recently on Facebook — and as it turns out, most of our readers do occasionally feel the urge to splurge.
YN Leung is willing to pay extra for more comfort on longer international flights, although it’s not just about indulgence: “It’s health, not pampering, but I do upgrade on planes.” (We can’t argue with that, especially if you find it impossible to sleep in those ultra-narrow economy seats.)
Lavida Rei agrees: “A seat that I like on the plane is important.”
For Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief of our sister site, Cruise Critic, a hotel is the preferred place to treat oneself: “I’m very careful about choosing my hotel. Pampering to me is feeling safe, cozy, comfortable.”
The Digital Vagabond is also up for a little luxury, at least once in a while: “Sure, pampering is good to do periodically while on the road. Spending a little more for a high-end hotel or getting a massage — especially in countries where it’s only $15/hour. It’s all good!”
Meanwhile, Michael Cagle has upgraded his entire trip: “I have an Airstream. My days of roughing it are over.”
Johanna Kula brings up one common place to indulge: the dinner table. “Yummy food, wine, desserts … and if chocolate is involved … [of course], yes, chocolate!!!!!” she enthuses.
Although the date isn’t known for certain, the celebration known as Hana Matsuri, or Buddha’s birthday, is widely celebrated on April 8 by Buddhists observing the Gregorian calendar. Much like cathedrals are a major attraction across Europe — regardless of your religion — statues of Buddha are typically a must-see; they can be staggering in size, ornately embellished and set amongst expansive yet peaceful gardens, valleys and monasteries.
These five Buddhas will transport you through Asia to our own backyard, and will amaze you with their stature and history.
Leshan Grand Buddha: Sichuan Leshan, China
The tallest stone Buddha in the world, the 233-foot-tall Leshan Grand (or Giant) Buddha in Sichuan, China, was carved out of a cliff face during the Tang Dynasty between the years 713 and 803. Sources say the idea came from a Chinese monk named Haitong who hoped that the Buddha would calm the rough waters that plagued the shipping vessels traveling the Minjiang, Dadu and Qingyi rivers.
Great Buddha of Thailand: Ang Thong, Thailand
If you’re looking for Buddhas, you will find many of them in Thailand. One you just can’t miss also happens to be the tallest statue in the country, and shimmers with gold paint. Located in the Wat Muang temple in Ang Thong province, the Great Buddha took 18 years to build — from 1990 to 2008 — and sits 300 feet tall. (Beware of nearby “Hell Park,” depicting what happens to sinners in, well, you know.)
Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda Reclining Buddha: Yangon, Myanmar
Several hundred monks study near the pagoda that houses this reclining-style Buddha in Yangon. The statue, built in 1966 to replace the damaged original from 1907, is framed by an iron structure to protect it. Feeling cosmic? Fortune tellers and palm readers are usually available on site to tell you about your future.
Buddha Park: Vientiane, Laos
Buddha Park, also known as Xieng Khuan, is a sculpture park on the Mekong River in Ventiane. Rather than one large Buddha, the park contains more than 200 statues of Hindu and Buddhist figures. The darkened skulls and worn sculptures look ancient, but were built in 1958 by Bunleua Sulilat, a spiritual leader who emigrated from Thailand during the communist occupation.
Chuang Yen Monastery Buddha: Carmel, New York
If you’re looking for a Buddha in the Western Hemisphere, the largest one (indoors) resides at a monastery in Carmel, New York. At 37 feet tall, the Buddha rests on a symbolic lotus, which then sits on an eight-foot platform. The platform is intricately decorated and colorful, unlike the white statue. The highlight? It’s surrounded by 10,000 skillfully carved smaller Buddhas.
Mike DeSa is a travel journalist, husband, father to three rambunctious boys and former U.S. Marine Corps infantry officer. After nearly seven years of service and a combat deployment to Afghanistan, Mike and his family decided it was time to walk a different path. They left everything behind and are currently in the midst of a seven-country, seven-month trip across South and Central America. To keep up with his family’s travel around the Southern Hemisphere, you can follow them at #dclandromomania on Instagram and dclandromomania.blogspot.com.
Mike recently took time to answer a few questions about his trip for us from his current stopover in Cuenca, Ecuador.
IndependentTraveler.com: What were the most essential things you packed for this trip? Mike DeSa: The two items we’ve used the most are our waterproof, shockproof and compact-sized camera and our ruggedized laptop. As writers and people who love photography, we knew we needed to invest in a computer and camera that would endure the abuse of this trip. We also needed clothes for warm, humid weather as well as cold and possibly snowy climates. This necessitated several vented fishing shirts as well as zip-off pants that could easily be converted to shorts. Jackets with a waterproof outer shell and a zip-in fleece liner have been perfect for all the cooler climes we’ve encountered to date. Katie and I each have camping-style backpacks that allow our hands to remain free to hold onto the kids through busy bus terminals or airports. For a more detailed list on what we brought, read our Huffington Post blog post.
IT: What’s been the biggest challenge so far? MD: We assumed the biggest challenges would be mental, such as coping with homesickness. A month in, the biggest challenges have actually been physical, such as traveling on a budget — more specifically, the constraints of that budget to buy the food we crave and the unavailability of some ingredients. When we wanted a certain dish back home, we usually went to the local supermarket and picked up the ingredients, or ate out. Here we’ve found that we can’t always find any ingredient we want, especially in smaller towns, so it’s made whipping up a favorite dish like lasagna or chocolate chip cookies very difficult.
It must sound irrational that our biggest challenge so far during a seven-month, seven-country trek around the Southern Hemisphere with three kids is not having chocolate chip cookies on demand, but our love of food is a big part of our joy as a family.
IT: What has been your favorite moment with the boys so far? MD: Hands down our trip up the Napo River into the Amazon. We started with a long motorcanoe ride upriver; the low profile of the boat offered a unique perspective like that of gliding on top of the water and was perfect for spotting several different types of Amazonian birds along the way. When we arrived, our guide Gary (a native Ecuadorian) led us on a short walk through the jungle to meet a local woman, Martha, who provided us a demonstration on harvesting and cooking yuca as well as making some of the world’s finest chocolate.
Our favorite part of the tour was the making of chocolate from scratch. Gary cut a cacao pod right off the tree, and while he explained the history of the plant and the origins of its famous delicacy, we all chewed and sucked on the seeds, which tasted just like cotton candy. We then helped toast and peel the beans, and the boys got to drop them into the grinder. The product was fresh, 100 percent unsweetened chocolate! The look of joy and anticipation on the boys’ faces as they watched the paste slowly squeeze from the grinder was one we’ll always remember.
Martha then added a little fresh cane sugar and water, and the most gorgeous smell rose from the pan as we watched our favorite treat boil together before our eyes. Fresh bananas and strawberries accompanied the chocolate, and we all spent the next 30 minutes dipping, spreading and smearing chocolate everywhere. We highly recommend taking this trip with Michelle and Gary at La CasaBlanca if you’re ever in Tena.
IT: What’s the best way to fund this sort of long-term travel? MD: My wife and I saved as much as we could throughout my seven years in the Marine Corps, enough to fund this trip and search for a family investment. The best financial advice we can offer to a family looking at something like this is to start early, constantly evaluate what you’re spending money on and live within your means. Before we left, we did a great deal of research on the cost of living in different countries in South America and built a strict budget. We’ve made some minor tweaks to it since we’ve been here, but for the most part it’s been fairly accurate.
Once we hit a limit on meals out for the week or souvenirs for the month, that’s it — no more spending. Since our trip spans so many countries with varying costs of living, we had to find ways to save in preparation for the more expensive countries, such as living at a WWOOF operation or staying in a hostel. It may not always be the most comfortable living, but the experience of the trip makes the sacrifices well worth it.
IT: What can people who don’t travel with children learn from your trip? MD: Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something you love with the people you love. Children or not, create an adventure around something you’re passionate about. It could be a hunt for the best fish and chips in England, a treasured temples of the world quest or rescuing sea turtles in Honduras. We built our trip around a search for investment opportunities and tourism as well as our love of food. We brought our children because they mean everything to us and we wanted to teach them about the world they live in. Whatever your ideal adventure is, do it with the people you love, build it around your passion and remember that you’re never too old to learn new things.
This week’s travel puzzle is part of our ongoing Flag Friday series of challenges. Can you identify which nation the following flag belongs to?
Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, April 6, at 11:59 p.m. ET to post your response. We’ll keep all comments private until then. On Tuesday morning we’ll choose one winner at random to receive an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Note: Although all are welcome to play, we can only ship prizes to the Continental U.S.
Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Chris S, who correctly guessed that this week’s flag was from Guyana. Chris has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations!
After my first trip abroad many years ago, I spent hours sorting and crafting my photos into the ultimate scrapbook. I lovingly arranged my best shots into pleasing layouts, complete with captions, museum ticket stubs and the odd postcard or two. It was perfect for sharing with friends and family, and for leafing through whenever I wanted to remember the best moments of my trip.
A few years later I got a digital camera, and my scrapbooking habit went underground for a while — until I discovered Shutterfly. One of several websites that allow you to create photo books out of digital images, Shutterfly is perfect for travelers who’ve missed the experience of putting together a photo album or scrapbook after a trip.
I’ve now used Shutterfly for more than a dozen photo books. The process is almost endlessly customizable — you can browse hundreds of layouts, resize images, add captions, change the background and text color, and choose from a variety of cover types (including linen, leather and crushed silk). I love that I can fiddle with almost every aspect of a page, switching photos in and out and trying to figure out which shade of turquoise will make the best background to my underwater shots — but if you’d rather take a quicker route to the finish line, you can have the site auto-fill your photos in the order they were taken.
Shutterfly offers a “photo story” for iPad too, which allows you to add doodles or audio clips into the presentation.
The site has a number of competitors that produce similar high-quality, customizable photo books, including AdoramaPix, Blurb, Mixbook and Snapfish. It’s worth trying a few to compare not only prices but also book sizes, layout options, ease of use and overall quality of the finished product.
Oftentimes, April Fools’ jokes playfully publicized by travel companies on social media are so obvious that they might warrant an eye roll, but not a warning label. Southwest Airlines adding baggage fees — now that hits home.
The discount airline notorious for its free checked bags, surrendered in jest today, saying, “All the other guys are doing it.” Additional charges apply if your bag is a busy color, if you’re a teenager and if you’re over six feet tall, to name a few. All three? Forget it! Check out the carrier’s YouTube video below and rejoice that at least for now, this airline’s baggage fee announcement is a total joke.
Do you find the fake fees funny? What’s the best April Fools’ prank you came across this year?
Admittedly, I’ve never had much of a problem finding a vacant toilet while in the air, and on the rare occasion when I did have to wait, it was never more than a minute or two. But one of our readers recently contacted us to raise a point of concern: Many passengers on long-haul flights use the restrooms for things like changing their clothes or putting on makeup, some of which can easily be done while seated or at the airport when they arrive. So what’s a passenger to do if he or she is unlucky enough to have a long wait for the restroom and a pressing need to go?
“The desperate queuing of the incontinent, or people with holiday ‘trots,’ becomes worse and more dramatic,” laments reader AJ, citing “those hours during turbulence when we are belted up and not permitted to go to the loos, so that when released from seatbelts we are desperate and queues form … especially just prior to landing.”
Why does it seem that there’s always a mad rush to the bathrooms just before a plane touches down? Sometimes it feels like passengers stay wedged in their seats the entire flight, bladders ready to explode, waiting for the captain to tell them the crew is preparing to secure the cabin for the plane’s return to Earth. Then they stampede to the facilities like they’re about to be sealed shut (probably because they are about to be sealed shut).
“Couldn’t airlines try to discourage use of toilets for the more frivolous purposes (or designate curtained small places for [them])?” AJ asks. “When impatient queues of people might form, stewardesses could pointedly announce to the passengers about availability of good changing [areas at the airport].”
Does AJ have a valid point? In your opinion, what constitutes a frivolous use of the washrooms? Do you have any onboard lavatory horror stories? Be sure to share in the comments below.