Wander Pi Wednesdays: Bali’s Jatiluwih Rice Terrace

Every Wednesday, I’ll be sharing one of my favorite photos from my travels.

Out of all my travels thus far, Bali was probably the most surprising. After hearing of other people’s experiences, I was expecting to encounter masses of tourists just about everywhere. While this is certainly true for some parts of the island, it’s still easy to find places that feel far removed from the chaos of the more built up areas. Case in point, the Jatiluwih Rice Terrace; 700 meters above sea level, this beautiful rice terrace is considered to be Bali’s oldest and most complex agricultural system. Designated a UNESCO Cultural Landscape, Jatiluwih offers a breathtaking panorama and a tranquil retreat from the island’s more developed areas.

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The Wonder of Coron

One of my favorite destinations in the world is located in the Palawan region of the Philippines. There are few places in the world that feel so remote and untouched. It is one of the handful of unexplored and untapped tropical paradises left on Earth. From stunning limestone cliffs to deserted beaches, Palawan is unlike any place I have explored. I love it so much I have traveled to the province on four separate occasions. There is something about the area that always calls me back. Perhaps it’s the jungle-clad mountains, pristine beaches, unspoiled coral reefs, remote lagoons, friendly villagers and magical sunsets. Palawan is such a picturesque paradise that I almost feel a bit guilty sharing it with the rest of the world in fears that it will be become the next Phi Phi Islands. Even so, it’s a magical place that must be explored.

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Most travelers to the region often decide to explore El Nido which is home to some of the world’s most beautiful beaches and serene secret coves, yet, another area definitely worth checking out is Coron. Located in the most northern part of Palawan, Coron is just as stunning as El Nido and offers some of its own unique sights which set it apart from its more popular neighbor to the south. Many also argue that the underwater life in Coron is much more impressive than El Nido’s, and I would have to agree. The paradise is home to the eastern half of Busuanga Island, all of Coron Island, and fifty other smaller islands and islets.

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All the islands in the region are part of the Calamian Archipelago. This archipelago is home to some of the most impressive natural wonders in the world. From crystal clear fresh water lakes to pristine coral reefs, Coron has a lot to offer as an island destination. Most journeys to Coron begin in Busuanga at the Francisco B. Reyes Airport where the tarmac often has to be cleared of cattle. This tiny airport is the gateway to the area’s many destinations. Landing here is a unique experience and the ride to town is even more surprising. Driving along the cattle surrounded empty dirt roads, I knew I was going to love Coron.

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The town of Coron is about a forty minute bumpy, yet scenic ride from the airport. The town itself is authentically Filipino, you won’t find any massive hotels or resorts here. Instead, visitors can enjoy the local culture as it was meant to be. I personally preferred the town of Coron to El Nido as it wasn’t as touristy. I really enjoyed the local vibe that could be felt in Coron. The only downside to the municipality is that all beaches in the area can only be accessed by boat. Still, most of the beaches are only a short boat ride away and there some natural sites that can be experienced right in town.

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Some of the most popular places to visit in town are Mount Tapyas and Maquinit Hot Spring. Climbing Mount Tapyas is an easy endeavor as it’s more of a hill than a mountain, measuring some 680 feet high, even so, the views from the top are stunning. It’s the perfect place to photograph the town and surrounding islands. I highly recommend hiking up just before sunset.

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Maquinit Hot Spring is another popular place to visit. Only minutes from town, the hot spring is the perfect place to unwind after a day of island hopping. Hidden amongst a mangrove forest and right on the ocean, it’s definitely worth checking out. I really enjoyed spending an evening here under the stars with a beer in hand and relishing in the peaceful environment.

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Coron is home to numerous island hopping tours. One of the most popular and my personal favorite is the Coron Island Tour. This full day excursion makes stop at Kayangan Lake, Blue Lagoon, Siete Pecados, Banol Beach, Quin Reef, and the Coral Garden. The untouched nature and abundant sea life witnessed on this journey is unparalleled. It’s one of the many reasons why I have returned to Coron three times.

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Kayangan Lake is Coron’s most popular destination for it is simply one of the most beautiful places on Earth. This hidden freshwater lake is nestled within a mountain that is surrounded by the sea. The crystal-clear water of Lake Kayangan is unlike anything I have ever witnessed. The location makes it even more magical as it seems worlds away from civilization. It’s difficult to put into words the feeling I got when I swam out to the middle of the lake and I floated on my back and gazed up at the limestone cliffs surrounding me. It was truly one of the most amazing travel experiences of my life. The underwater views are really beautiful, including a moon-like landscape and hundreds of tiny fish.

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Another highlight of Kayangan Lake is the steep, yet short climb to the lake. From here, visitors can enjoy views of the sea and the stunning Blue Lagoon. This is probably one of the most photographed spots in Palawan. It’s a picture perfect sight that looks almost too heavenly to be apart of this world.

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In addition to the Coron Island tour, another island hopping circuit I highly recommend is the Island Escape Tour. This excursion takes you to Malcapuya Island, Banana Island, and Bulog Dos Island. While a bit further out than Coron Island, these islands are well worth the two hour boat journey.

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Malcapuya is a remote island with one of the country’s most pristine white sand beaches, easily rivaling the sand of Boracay. It is locally regarded as the “ultimate virgin beach” and it’s easy to see why; the sand is perfect and water is crystal clear. Most importantly, the island isn’t developed and you won’t have to fight others for prime real estate on the beach. It’s the perfect place to enjoy some fresh coconut juice and sunshine.

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Another stop on this circuit is Banana Island. While the beach here is not as impressive, this stopover offers some spectacular snorkeling. The coral here is mostly undamaged and there is plenty of sea life to witness. Banana Island offers a few beach huts and cottages where visitors can escape the heat of the island.

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Altogether, Coron is a stunning island paradise that I highly recommend exploring. The destinations highlighted above are definitely worth checking out if you’re in the region. There are plenty of options when it comes to lodging. From low budget hostels to more lavish hotels, there is something for everyone. During my visits, I stayed at the La Natura Resort and the Gran Vista, both of which I can definitely recommend. Coron will surely please and inspire any and all that visit, but remember to protect this slice of paradise and to leave nothing but footprints behind!

Wander Pi Wednesdays: An Untouched Paradise

Every Wednesday, I’ll be sharing one of my favorite photos from my travels.

For this Wander Pi Wednesday, I wanted to share my own experience of Paradise. During a five day expedition from Coron to El Nido, I was taken to this beautiful beach. Only about fifteen minutes from El Nido, Nacpan Beach is an untouched and unspoilt tropical paradise that is a must see for travelers in the Philippines. There are no restaurants, bars, or vendors, and most importantly for a place like this, no crowds. It’s the perfect place to spend the afternoon sunbathing and snorkeling on one of the world’s few remaining natural beaches. Nacpan will surely delight and inspire any that visit, but remember to respect this alluring environment and leave nothing but footprints behind!

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Exploring the Ancient City of Gyeongju

South Korea is a country defined by its rich and storied history. As a result, the country is home to several unique and intriguing UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Some of my favorites can be found in the ancient city of Gyeongju which is located in the far southeastern corner of North Gyeongsang Province, just a four hour train ride from Seoul.

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Gyeongju is a beautiful coastal city surrounded by low mountains and various historical treasures. It is often referred to as “a museum without walls” because most of the city is designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The city was once the capital of the ancient kingdom of Silla which ruled the peninsula from the 7th to the 9th century.

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A vast number of archaeological and cultural sites from this period can still be found in the city today. Among these sites are Bulguksa Temple, Seokguram Grotto, and the Gyeongju Historic Areas which are all designated as World Heritage Sites. It is easy to see all the sights in one day, but I highly recommend staying overnight to fully experience the area.

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I began my day at Bulguksa Temple which is only a short bus ride from the center of the city. Bulguksa Temple is considered to be one of Korea’s most famous temples. Built between 751 and 774, it is widely regarded as a masterpiece of the golden age of Buddhist art in the Silla kingdom. It is easily one of my favorite temples in Korea. Located on the outskirts of town and on the slopes of Mount Toham, the views from the temple are quite impressive.

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The structures at Bulguksa are grand and intricate. The temple itself seems to blend naturally with surrounding landscape. The grounds and gardens in and around the temple are well maintained, lush, and peaceful, making it the perfect setting for such a spiritual place.

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After some time at Bulguksa Temple, I traveled 20 minutes by bus to the Seokguram Grotto. The bus takes you higher up the mountain and drops you off near the summit (close to the Grotto). From here, you can explore the grotto and surrounding area.

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The sculpture hidden within the Seokguram Grotto is often considered to be one of the highest quality Buddha sculptures in the world. Construction of statue began in 742 and was completed in 774. The stonework and detail is highly prized and intricate. Pictures are not allowed inside, but there are plenty of beautiful shots that can be taken around the Grotto. I really enjoyed wandering under the colorful lanterns and taking in the views of the surrounding landscapes.

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After exploring the Seokguram Grotto, I hopped back on a bus and made my way back to the city center. From here, many more historical treasures can be found, all of which are within an easy walking distance from one another. This area is home to numerous temple and palace ruins, outdoor pagodas, statuary, and other cultural artifacts. This is a beautiful area to explore during any season.

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From here, the Daereungwon Tomb Complex can be explored. This complex is home to a vast arrangement of towering green hills that house the royal tombs of the Silla Dynasty. Dating back some 1500 years, these hills are a unique sight to behold.

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After exploring the center of the city, I made my way to Anapji Pond. I highly recommend visiting this area during sunset. It’s a perfect picturesque setting to wind down after a whole day of touring. As the sun begins to set the former meeting halls light up casting a luminescent glow upon the pond.

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I really enjoyed Gyeongju; it’s an amazing city with lots of history and greenery. I highly recommend adding this Ancient city to your travel itinerary. It’s one of my favorite Korean destinations and the perfect place to learn more about the rich history of the country.

Wander Pi Wednesdays: A Mother of Myanmar

Every Wednesday, I’ll be sharing one of my favorite photos from my travels.

In light of Mother’s Day on Sunday, I thought this picture of a Burmese mother and her son was perfect for this week’s Wander Pi Wednesday. During a two hour wait in the extremely busy Yangon Central Railway Station, I was approached by a big family who asked me to sit on their mat while we waited. The family immediately began to chat to me and we had a broken yet wonderful conversation. The mother told me all about her children and introduced me to her son who was more than excited to have a photo taken. You can see them here sporting thanaka, a natural paste made from ground bark used as a natural sun screen. These, among many others, were just a taste of the curiosity and hospitality that can be found in all corners of Myanmar.

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All Aglow at Seoul’s Lotus Lantern Festival

Every year, one of Asia’s biggest celebrations takes place in the months of April and May. This major celebration is known as Buddha’s birthday. Buddhism plays a dominant role in many Asian countries including Korea, where every spring the country turns aglow in honor of the birth of Buddha. This also happens to be one of my favorite festivals.

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There are few places in the world that can match Korea’s love for Buddhism and bright lanterns. Nearly fifteen percent of the Korean population practices Buddhism which makes up the largest spiritual group in the Land of the Morning Calm. The celebration is one of the biggest of its kind in the world and they call it the Lotus Lantern Festival.

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Depending on the time of year, Buddha’s birthday can fall any time between the beginning of April to the end of May. At this time, the Korean peninsula magically transforms as it prepares for the celebration. From city streets to mountaintop temples, lanterns begin to appear just about everywhere. The displays are charming and intriguing and the capital city of Seoul pulls out all the stops to make sure it’s a celebration Buddha would surely approve of. For two weeks, the city becomes a mecca of everything Buddhist. The city’s streets, parks, and temples become even more special during this time of year as hundreds upon hundreds of lanterns are hung throughout the city.

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According to Buddhist beliefs, lanterns symbolize wisdom and light in the world. The hope is to bring more prosperity and peace to the world. It is an important ritual in Buddhism that honors the founder of the spiritual teachings. The lantern lighting in Korea began more than a thousand years ago and still continues to this day. The festival attracts people from all over Korea and the world. There are an array of festive programs scheduled throughout this two week period, everything from a luminous parade to traditional lantern making.

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The festival begins with the Lighting Ceremony on the first day in Gwanghwamun Square where various large sized lanterns are lit. The next major event is the Buddhist Cheer Rally which take takes place at Dongguk University. This event is an exciting celebration that is full of songs and rhythmic beats. Later that day, the main thoroughfare of Seoul is shut down to make way for the festival’s oldest and largest event, the Lotus Lantern Parade.

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The parade is considered by many to be the highlight of the celebration as tens of thousands of lanterns are carried by various Buddhist congregations. It is truly a magical thing to witness as all the lanterns are being paraded down the streets of Seoul. You can expect to see brightly lit lanterns in the shape of dragons, pagodas, white elephants, lotus flowers, and more. All this lasts for nearly three hours and concludes with a festive celebration on the streets which I found to be inspirational and a lot of fun.

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The following day, various traditional and cultural events take place along the main street in front of Jogyesa Temple. Here visitors can learn more about Buddhism by participating in an endless amount of cultural experiences. With more than one-hundred booths set up by Buddhist Monks and Nuns; there is something for everyone, whether it be traditional lantern making or learning proper meditation techniques. My friend and I really enjoyed crafting traditional lanterns of our own.

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Seoul’s Lotus Lantern Festival is a unique cultural experience and one of the most beautiful festivals I have witnessed yet. I highly recommend visiting Seoul during this magical time, you’ll surely enjoy taking in all the whimsical sights and sounds that the celebration has to offer. For those interested in checking out the festival, this year’s festivities will take place from May 15th to the 17th. The festival’s program can be found at Korea’s Official Tourism Website.

Wander Pi Wednesdays: Hong Kong’s Nan Lian Garden

Every Wednesday, I’ll be sharing one of my favorite photos from my travels.

Hong Kong is home to over seven million people and is considered to be one of the most densely populated places in the world, yet there are still spots of serenity hidden amongst the giant concrete skyscrapers and hordes of people that dominate this city. This photo was taken at the Nan Lian Garden. The garden is classically Chinese, located in Diamond Hill, it offers a quiet retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city’s busy streets. The garden’s Pavilion of Absolute Perfection is truly perfect and a tranquil sight to behold in such a modern arena.

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