Alice in Wonderland Restaurant

A gorgeous slice of Lewis Carroll’s imaginary world in Japan

In the famously touristy Ginza shopping district of Tokyo, Japan is a restaurant that should be a tourist attraction in its own right.  It’s an Alice in Wonderland-themed eatery that is truly spectacular to behold.  The designers cut no corners when it comes to the atmosphere of this place and if you manage to get the chance to eat there, you should by all means take it.

The decorations that dress up the establishment are both classy and genuine.  The first thing you’re greeted by is a line of flanking heart soldiers.  Once you enter the building, you’re in a whole other world.  Murals are plastered across the walls, depicting Lewis Carroll’s fantastic novel in the way that it was visualized in the original Disney cartoon adaptation. 

Multiple rooms display multiple themes. There are giant stacks of books, hallways with walls made to look like the pages of Alice and Wonderland, hedge-row tables, playing card tables, giant teacup tables and freestanding windows and doors that lead to nowhere.  Everywhere you look, there’s something to see.

To add to the atmosphere, the waitresses are dressed up to look like Alice.  The food gets its own treatment, starting with the strange menus that are made in the likeness of an Alice and Wonderland diorama.  Once you’re served, expect pizzas shaped like playing cards, dishes crafted to look like chessboards and every plate of food given an artistic make-over.

The biggest drawback to visiting the Alice in Wonderland restaurant is that given its place within the Ginza district, it isn’t cheap. Still, if you have a few extra bucks to spend, it’s worth at least one meal at this amazingly theatrical establishment.

Ang Thong Marine National Park

An island paradise off the coast of Thailand


Thailand is a country known for its many wonders, both natural and man-made.  One of these, the Ang Thong (or “golden bowl”) National Marine Park is an island chain filled with beauty.  Those looking for a real-life location that embodies the essence of the classic island paradise will find Ang Thong to be the perfect vacation destination.

Stretched across more than 60 square miles, Ang Thong includes a series of 42 separate islands of many shapes and sizes.  Most of them are overgrown with tropical forests and filled with the exotic animals that one might expect from Thailand.  Though previously a haven for pirates in the area, this breathtaking scenery is much safer now and a geared toward the growing tourist population that is discovering this hidden treasure.

Among the flora and fauna, one can expect to see a wide variety of birds as well as plenty of jungle-dwelling creatures, such as monkeys, wild pigs, otters, bats and more.  The area is also home to a rich diversity of sea life, including groups of dolphins and whales that make their way through the park on occasion.  For divers and snorkelers, Ang Thong a great place to spend some time beneath the water.

Since the area is fast becoming renowned for its tourism, there are plenty of tours 

available that cater to all manner of visitors’ desires.  You can take a look at the area via fishing boar, speed boat or even a luxury yacht if you happen to have the money to spare and wish to travel in style.  Or, for the more adventurous, kayaking tours are popular and can be a great way to both see the islands as well as a convenient way to stop on whichever of them strikes your fancy.  There are also tours designed specifically for divers or for those who wish to get in some time hiking through the jungles or just relaxing on one of the many pristine beaches.  If you feel like spending more than one day in Ang Thong, you have the option of renting a bungalow or a tent and sleeping on the islands.

Unfortunately, the rise of tourism also means the place can be a bit crowded during peak season.  If you’re looking for a private getaway, Ang Thong may not be the place for you unless you manage to sneak in during a slower period.  Also, the ride to the islands is a long one, since you have to leave out of Samui and it takes an hour or two to get there.  Still, considering the sheer beauty of the region, it may be worth the crowds and the journey to spend some time at Ang Thong.

Socotra Island

Yemen’s hidden treasure of endemic evolution.

The country of Yemen is home to one of the most wondrous landscapes in the world, one that few people know of but many have seen in pictures without knowing it.  It’s Socotra Island, located about 250 miles off the coast of the country, and it is a marvel of evolution over time that is only rivaled by such legendary islands as Galapagos. 

Socotra, translated, means “the island of bliss,” which is an appropriate name given the strange beauty of the land.  At first glance, one might even think Socotra a fantasy world rather than a real place, pictures formed from fanciful paintings and the wonders of Photoshop.  But it is indeed real and to visit there is an opportunity that no one should miss.

The island is primarily hot and dry, contrary to the teeming plant life within it.  This plant life formed over an estimated six million years away from the mainland and so 

has evolved to fit its ecological niche.  More than 700 species of flora and fauna live on Socotra, all of them rare and about one-third of them found nowhere else on Earth.

The most famous of Socotra’s plants is by far the Dragon’s Blood Tree.  It’s a tree that looks as if its root structure is on top instead of where it should be on the bottom, resembling a mushroom in many ways.  The image of the Dragon’s Blood is a popular one and no doubt you’ve seen it before even if you didn’t know what it was.  The other famous plant is the Desert Rose.  This stump-like plant resembles a big gourd with flowers growing off of its many branches.  The Desert Rose is enduring and has managed to survive by growing straight from the rocks.

In addition to the flora and fauna, Socotra is home to many beautiful beaches, plateaus and mountains.  The island is riddle with caves, making it a cave explorer’s paradise.  Bird watchers will find this a great place to take in the avian fauna due to the huge variety, several of them found nowhere else.  It’s also possible, if you happen to be a diving fan, to take underwater tours of the local shipwrecks.

If you’re looking to travel to a place unlike any on Earth, Socotra Island is right up there with Galapagos.  There are, however, no roads, so be prepared to do some hiking to get around.  For the less athletically inclined, off-road vehicles tours are also available.

Pamukkale - The Cotton Castle

One of Turkey’s natural wonders, melded with the ruins of the past

Pamukkale, or the Cotton Castle as it translates in Turkish, is an interesting and surreal bit of landscape located in the city of Denizli, Turkey.  It is, essentially, a series of terraced hot springs that have been coated in layers of calcium carbonate over the years.  This layering has left many strange and fantastical formations, giving the Cotton Castle a look that seems almost other-worldly.  To make things even more interesting, this location once held an ancient city and many of the ruins of that city have become covered in calcium carbonate as well, merging them in the landscape.

There are 17 total hot springs at Pamukkale of varying temperatures and all are open to visitors who wish to come and bathe in them (no shoes allowed, however).  The city that once rested here was called Hierapolis, an ancient Greek settlement.  Those coming to enjoy the hot springs can take a tour around the ruins, making it an even more exciting destination.

And, of course, with the strange appearance of the land comes the legends.  Many believe that the springs have mystical healing properties and can help with curing eye and skin diseases as well as promoting good heart health.  There have even been some medical studies to confirm this, although the exact reasons for any sort of health benefits are likely due to the hot water and the minerals and not some mystical source.

If you wish to explore one of the most weird and wonderful places in the world, 

Pamukkale is a place that must be visited at least once.  Taking a soak in the warm water, surrounded by features that would rival any artists painting, is truly an experience that can not be replicated simply by looking at pictures.

Georgia’s Vardzia Cave Monastery

An entire palace-city built into a mountain.

Not to be outdone by the burrowing population of Turkey’s Cappadocia, the country of Georgia boasts its own history of underground cities in the form of the Vardzia Cave Monastery.  This network of caves was carved from the solid rock of the Erusheli Mountain to serve as both palace and place of refuge for Queen Tamar and her people.

The city has its origins in the 12th century, when the Mongol hordes were making their way across Asia and toward Europe.  In response to this threat, Queen Tamar commissioned the construction of this underground complex in the year 1185.  Though the city was sound and performed its intended function for a time, an eventual earthquake would split the mountain it was built into, caving in much of the network and leaving a good portion of it exposed to the world.

In all its glory, the complex was composed of 13 levels and more than 6000 rooms.  In addition to thousands of living quarters, the city had all the necessary functions of existence during its time period.  There is a throne room, several 

chapels, wine cellars, a meeting room, a forge, a bakery and more.  In order to provide for the needs of the interior dwellers, the outside of the mountain was terraced and used for farming.

The earthquake came and destroyed much of this hard work in the year 1283, less than 100 years after the city was finished.  Around two-thirds of the interior structures were destroyed, making the use of the complex as a city no longer viable.  Since then, it has mainly served as a monastery.

Today, visitors can go and see what managed to survive the test of time.  Around 300 rooms and a handful of monks are open to see, along with the remains of many of the systems that once made the complex livable.  In addition to the caves and rooms, the open face of the mountain provides many beautiful views for those that make the hike to the upper levels.  If you plan on taking a tour, however, remember to bring your own flashlight, since there is no lighting in most of the complex remains.

Find the phalluses

“Penis Temple” in Pranang Cave

On my first trip to Railay Beach in Southern Thailand, I was introduced to the “Penis Temple,” in Pranang Cave. The cave itself is a semi-circle of massive limestone peaks, arching over a beautiful sandy beach. The water coming into the cave from the Andaman Sea is pristine blue, and even when it rains, the peaks cover the beach for those still wanting to be in the sand. With all the beauty previously stated, the Penis Temple was just icing on top of the cake.

Local legend has it that the phallic wood and rock carvings in the temple actually pre-date Buddhism in the country. The temple was created as a place to worship and pay tribute to indigenous gods, for those looking to have help with fertility. Now, the male anatomy-shaped stones and wood are covered in candles, incense and small denominations from both locals and travelers alike trying to conceive.

Though the actual temple is secluded to only Pranang Cave, the observant eye can see that there are Phalluses all along the walk from Railay Beach, and scattered around Tonsai Bay as well. Naturally, while traveling, this should become a game.

The rules are simple. The person who finds the least phalluses while walking from beach to beach or to Tonsai Bay, must buy the other players the first round at bar in the evening.  Though it will probably differ from culture to culture, other rules will include winner of most artistic/grotesque/creative picture with phallic wood or stone also receives a cocktail from the other players, and player with the most creative phallic find drinks for free all night.

Enjoy penis hunting while on your beach getaway! 

The Muscat Festival of Oman

A month-long celebration of all things cultural in the country.

For a month in the country of Oman, a series of events take place known as the Muscat Festival.  From the last week of January until the end of February sees a wide variety of culturally focused Omani festivities that highlight this unique piece of Western Asia.  They are held in one of two of the city’s parks and Muscat could perhaps more aptly be described as a collection of many festivals, each focusing on a specific area of Omani life and history.


During the festival, people dress in regional costume, creating a bright and traditional procession.  In addition, there are parades and ceremonies and many fantastic displays of swordsmanship held for attendees.

One of the main attractions of the festival is the Omani Heritage and Culture Village.  This virtual community is designed to look like a traditional fort village and create an atmosphere that is genuinely Omani, featuring markets, food and cultural exhibitions.  There are also such events as the Tour of Oman cycle race, Muscat Fashion Week, the Omani Food Festival and many art exhibits.  Concerts go on all throughout the month and there are seemingly endless numbers of performances featuring dancing, fireworks, acrobatics and regional music.

Part of the festival focuses on keeping the kids entertained.  There is an amusement park that features rides, shows organized specifically with children in mind and several educational presentations.

There are few better ways to experience the country of Oman than the Muscat Festival.  You can learn about the country’s culture, have fun and meet the locals.  Currently, this event is not very well known among tourist crowds, so it’s a great time to visit, before the streets become crowded with people.  Just make sure to bring your camera - the variety of sights and sounds will give you the opportunity to take many amazing pictures.

Obama in Asia

President visits Myanmar and Cambodia

This past month saw President Obama not only get reelected, but also become the highest ranking western official to visit both Myanmar and Cambodia. If being on the campaign trail wasn’t enough for Obama, a small Asian tour before Thanksgiving in the Oval Office should be enough to keep him satisfied.

Obama’s visit to Myanmar was historical outing, with the U.S. acknowledging the pushes for open government and democracy. Obama spoke with both president Thein Sein, and democracy hero and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Obama, as well as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, spoke about the positive steps taken thus far in revamping the Myanmar government, but also spoke to the need of equal rights for minority groups in western Myanmar. In the light of recent fighting in the northwest, this was a critical issue to be touched on.

While dropping in on Cambodia’s ASEAN summit, the streets of Phnom Penh were backed up all throughout the day. Youth groups stage protests to show they agreed with Obama’s push for Cambodian officials to become more democratic, and op-ed writers monopolized newspaper pages with thanks and opinions on what Obama should speak with Cambodian officials about.

Though no actual legislation was passed, Obama’s visits marked important milestones in both Cambodia and Myanmar. Let's hope the dialogue amounts to more open governing, and more civil rights for those in the countries visited. 

Cambodians are f*cking cool

They're a little rough around the edges, but are kind, gracious and fun to be around.

As blunt as this title may be, I don’t know any lighter way to put it.  After traveling through Thailand and Laos, and feeling very unwelcome in a good few spots, hitting Cambodia was a breath of fresh air. Cambodian people, though somewhat rough around the edges, are kind, gracious, extremely playful, and actually enjoy having tourists in their country. They are also actively taking steps to make the influx of tourism postive.

I’ll be real; I honestly believe Thai people hate tourists. I’m not one for blanket statements normally, and I don’t believe ALL Thai people do, but take a trip to southern Thailand or Bangkok and try and prove me wrong. Laos, though home to some extremely nice people, are following in suite.

From experience, I do believe both Thai and Laoation people are good people. Having dealt with shitty tourists for some time, and allowing lots of their beautiful locations to turn into shitty tourists destinations, has jaded them on westerners. Tourists seem no more than a giant dollar sign. It is sad, but it seems to be the case.

What makes Cambodians so great is that they are real. They don’t pull punches and they are upfront. Sure getting hassled by Tuk Tuk and Moto drivers is obnoxious, but Cambodians will be open when they want to talk to you, as well as when they want to try and sell you something. If you are lucky enough to befriend a Cambodian, you will find out just how playful and affectionate they can be.

Visit Cambodia, meet people, and remember a smile and a little effort to learn some Khmer will go a long way.

Cambodia Riel

Understanding foreign currency and numbers

So wait. Is this piece of fruit 2000 Riel and 50 cents? 2000 Riel is 50 cents? Why is this so confusing? Oh wait, so 5 and 1 in Khmer is how you say 6? How do you say thousand?

Though backpacking isn’t the most difficult way of life (hints why we love doing it more than work, and in fact, you have to work for a long time to do it) there are certain aspects of the lifestyle that are difficult. One of the small roadblocks is figuring out the new currency and numbers in the local language of each country you visit.

With backpackers not being the wealthiest of folks, making sure you are getting the most bang for your buck is important to the duration of your trip. This is why Cambodia currency is a bit of a setback.

The official currency of Cambodia is the Riel, which runs about 4,000 to the dollar. Though this is the case, most prices are still set in U.S. dollar. On top of this, when you pull money from an ATM, it comes out in dollars, and Western Union encourages you not to exchange money, just to keep the dollars.

The kicker, though, is you can pay in a mix of dollar and riel, and since there is no small US change in Cambodia, if the price doesn’t land on a dollar, you get your change in riel. This is enough to make any visitor’s head spin. Regardless of the strange currency, Cambodia is a beautiful country to visit. Prices are affordable, which you definitely understand after figuring out the dollars and cents, and places to visit are in abundance.