Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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I had been looking forward to my tour to the North Cape. Normally not a fan of cold weather, I was willing to endure Norway’s extreme conditions, if only to be able to say that I had stood on the northernmost tip of Europe. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be. A couple of hours prior to departure the public address system on the MS Richard With, one of Hurtigruten’s fleet of ships that combine passenger voyages with delivery of  mail and supplies to the remote northern regions of the country, delivered the bad news. “We regret to inform you that our North Cape tour has been cancelled due to inclement weather conditions.”

Later that week, when Captain Tommy Eliassen invited our small group of travel writers to visit the bridge, I learned that he shared our disappointment. We took turns sitting in his captain’s chair and marveling over the tiny joystick that maneuvered the big ship into snug ports of call while firing off a barrage of questions. Asked if he ever became concerned about sailing through Arctic storms like the one we had experienced on our second night at sea, he shook his head without hesitation.

“This ship is rated to sail through a force ten hurricane. Of course, we wouldn’t do that; there is no reason to make our passengers so uncomfortable. My biggest stress is when we have to cancel activities like your trip to the Cape, but it was out of our hands.”

The MS Richard With, one of Hurtigruten's fleet of ships that combines delivery of supplies to remote Norwegian towns with passenger voyages, docks at Honningsvag in the far north of Norway

The MS Richard With, one of Hurtigruten’s fleet of ships that combines delivery of supplies to remote towns with passenger voyages, docks at Honningsvag in the far north of Norway

Eliassen explained that the snow plow drivers who keep the roads clear in this remote area had made the final decision. Over the previous two days, roaring 50 mile per hour winds had created whiteout conditions and swept high drifts across the road. These famous drivers are known for their fearlessness and tenacity during storms; their orders to close roads are inviolable. (To watch a documentary about the lives of these snow plow operators, click here. Although it is in Norwegian, the images are self-explanatory and show how tour buses to the North Cape often have to follow closely behind one of these giant plows). Read More

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A few weeks ago, in celebration of my seven year anniversary of blogging, I joined with a couple dozen other travel bloggers to raise funds for Save Elephant Foundation. The organization provides for the care of 38 elephants at Elephant Nature Park, who have been so badly injured or abused that they cannot survive in the wild, however its facilities are maxed out and they are desperately in need of funding in order to care for more animals. Flight Network stepped up and offered to donate a $2,000 flight voucher for airfare to Thailand and soon we were running a raffle that provided readers with one chance to win the trip for each $2 donated.

Even the elephants are celebrating the great news that we raised $7,500 to benefit Save Elephant Foundation and Elephant Nature Park!

Even the elephants are celebrating the great news that we raised $7,500 to benefit Save Elephant Foundation and Elephant Nature Park!

Last week, as the end of the contest approached, we were all very excited that we had exceeded our goal, raising $5,450 for this worthwhile effort. I got some even more exciting news; Read More

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Seven years ago today I strapped on a backpack and boarded a plane for a six-month round-the-world trip. I was exhausted from months of planning, but bursting with excitement that I was finally headed out to see the world. I was also terrified. Though I had traveled considerably in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, my overseas experience was limited to a few Caribbean jaunts, one trip to Thailand, and another to Spain. This time I would visit 15 countries in Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia, and Oceana. At age 54, all alone, I set out with a laptop and a camera, determined to recreate myself as a travel writer and photographer.

This was not a new dream for me. My passion for photography began at age 11, when my uncle gave me an old Leica camera. Not long afterward, someone gifted my father with a subscription to National Geographic. He never threw a single issue away; they mushroomed into teetering stacks in our front hall, where I sat cross-legged on the floor after school, devouring every word and imagining myself in the exotic places so vividly displayed in photos.

Barbara Weibel 2007

Me, at Los Angeles International Airport on March 13, 2007, awaiting my flight to Saigon for the beginning of my round-the-world trip. Though I’d recovered from my Lyme disease, I looked absolutely horrible. Today, even though I’ve let my hair go to it’s natural silver color, I look ten years younger than I did back then, which is what happiness can do for a person.

But life had other plans for me. As a 17-year old college dropout, I was desperate to leave my parents’ home. Faced with the necessity of earning a living, I accepted the first job offered to me, selling advertising at the Chicago Sun-Times. It paid well and started me on a long climb up the corporate ladder that would eventually lead to management positions in sales, marketing, real estate, and public relations. Though I enjoyed great success in my career, I was miserably unhappy and after more than three decades of corporate politics and stress, my health began to deteriorate. My bones ached from the inside out and my knees and hips screamed in protest whenever I climbed steps. Most frightening, I developed dyslexia and short term memory loss. Doctors were unable to find any specific cause, yet I grew weaker and more exhausted with every passing month. Read More

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I laughed out loud the first time I saw an advertisement for Pooping Palace on the window of one of the hop-on/hop-off pickup trucks that carry passengers around Chiang Mai, Thailand. I understood the problem immediately. The Thai alphabet consists of 44 consonants, 15 vowels that combine into at least 28 vowel forms, and four tone marks with five sounds (high, low, rising, falling, and neutral). Additionally, certain letters or combinations of letters, when words are translated into English, are not pronounced the way we would expect. For example, the “TH” combination is always pronounced like a “T”, as in the case of the word Thailand. When the letter “P” appears in an English translation of a Thai word, it is almost always spoken like a “B”, thus the confusion.

Once I got over my case of the giggles, I realized that I’d never visited this Royal Family residence, which is located just a couple miles further up the mountain from Chiang Mai’s premier Buddhist temple, Doi Suthep, so I gathered up a group of fellow travel bloggers and expats who were also wintering in Chiang Mai and put together a sightseeing trip. Though there are nine buildings on the site, we were most interested in the gardens, including Suan Suwaree, the famous royal rose garden. Taking advantage of the cool mountain air, rose varieties that otherwise cannot survive in Thailand thrive at Bhubing.

Roses in the gardens that frame the "Log Cabin," one of the nine Royal residences at Bhubing Palace

Roses in the gardens that frame the “Log Cabin,” one of the nine Royal residences at Bhubing Palace

For me, however, orchids were the most splendid of the many varieties of blooming trees, bushes, and flowers on display. Exquisite clusters of violet, buttercup, orange, and deep purple orchids were tucked among the foliage, and gardeners were hard at work attaching more of these air plants to naked tree branches alongside meandering paths. Read More

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For years I have longed to attend the Thai festival of Yi Peng, but my travel itinerary never cooperated. Finally, this past December the stars aligned and I found myself in Chiang Mai, the epicenter of this celebration best known for launching paper lanterns into the night sky for good luck. Eagerly, I pieced together information about the schedule of events from various expat websites, but the more I learned, the more concerned I became. The premiere event, a simultaneous release of thousands of lanterns, would take place after dark at Maejo University, located several miles north of the city. Friends described it as “pure craziness” and advised me to arrive several hours before dusk if I hoped to secure a good spot. They described shoulder-to-shoulder revelers, all jockeying for position on an unlit, uneven patch of land.

Crowds are not my favorite thing to begin with, but the idea of being trapped in a sea of bodies, unable to clearly see my surroundings, and risking being trampled, sent me into a cold sweat. As much as I wanted to witness this sea of glowing lanterns floating like bio-luminescent creatures on gentle ocean swells, I knew I had to find a different way to enjoy the festival.

Decorations at Thapae Gate in Chiang Mai during the Yi Peng Festival

Decorations at Thapae Gate in Chiang Mai during the Yi Peng Festival

Fortunately, there was no shortage of Yi Peng activities elsewhere in Chiang Mai. Each of the main gates of the old walled city was decorated with giant illuminated cartoon characters, dragons, and castles. In the city center I strolled through a tunnel of pastel lanterns leading to a giant blooming lotus framed by a wall of red, white, and blue lanterns. Read More

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Anyone who has visited Chiang Mai, Thailand has heard about the 36 temples (wats) within the Old City walls and spectacularly gilded Doi Suthep temple, an important wat that offers stunning views of Chiang Mai from its hillside perch atop Doi Suthep Mountain. Strangely, the site that holds the most significance for this ancient Lanna capital is virtually unknown.

Built by King Meng Rai in the latter part of the 13th century, the city of Wiang Kum Kam was intended to serve as the the municipal center of the kingdom he had stitched together from Burmese, Lao, and ancient Tai cultures. He located the city on the eastern shore of the Ping River, about five miles south of present day Chiang Mai. Unfortunately, the site flooded severely and just a few short years later, a major flood buried all but a couple of temples beneath nearly 10 feet of mud and sludge. Mengrai abandoned Wiang Kum Kam and moved his capital up the river to the present day site of Chiang Mai.

Khan Tom Chedi at Wat Chang Kam complex in the ancient underground city of Wiang Kum

Khan Tom Chedi at Wat Chang Kam complex in the ancient underground city of Wiang Kum Kam

As if following Mengrai’s lead, the Ping River shifted course away from Wiang Kum Kam and over the next few hundred years the memory of the city faded away until the ancient “underground city” was thought to be mythical. Read More