Articles

  • All in Auckland

    The North Island of New Zealand’s epitome of diversity; Auckland shines with a laid-back atmosphere, incredible natural wonders and a healthy dose of history. Aptly nicknamed “The City of Sails” for its vibrant maritime culture, the delightful city of Auckland is home to one-third of New Zealand’s population and is the country’s main gateway. With a unique undertone of Maori influence, this waterfront city is a cultural and architectural gem, filled with bustling markets, world-class restaurants, and locals who are well known for their welcoming and relaxed lifestyle.

    June 9, 2016 • Videos • Views: 1276

  • Explore Hampi

    A few weeks ago, I was in Hampi in Karnataka, South India, which is a World Heritage Site. I arrived at Toranagallu by overnight train from Bangalore. After a wash and change at the Hyatt Place, my guide and I headed towards Hampi. The first impression is of the magnificent large landscape with huge boulder rocks.

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    Boulder Landscape | Photo Credit: Bela Banker/Swain Destinations

    There were intricately carved temples all over the place. We then took a wonderful coracle ride on the Tungabhadra River.

    Coracle Ride

    Coracle Ride | Photo Credit: Bela Banker/Swain Destinations

    The ruins of the 14th century Hampi, and seat to the Vijayanagara kings, covers an area of 10 miles. Hampi sprawls across a spectacular barren and boulder strewn landscape. The remains of palaces and baths and audience hall tells a tale of a kingdom that was grand and of fabulous wealth. There is an awe inspiring image of Hindu God Lord Vishnu which is carved from a single boulder and is the incarnation of half man and half lion. Watching the sun go down between the boulders, captures a moment in your heart that will stay with you.

    Ruins of the 14th century Hampi

    Ruins of the 14th century Hampi | Photo Credit: Bela Banker/Swain Destinations

    The Boulder Resort, where I stayed offers a stunning view of the rocky terrain. The luxurious cottages at the resort fit perfectly with hiking trails , organic gardens and delicious food.

    March 29, 2016 • Bela Banker, Bloggers, India • Views: 1550

  • Three Days in Bangkok

    This was my second time in Bangkok. I was 16 during my first visit. I was young with different priorities. Remembering the tiny and beautiful details of the sights, services, smells, tastes and experiences were unfortunately not high on my list. I was in the mind-set now of a first-time visitor.

    Hourly wake-ups defined my first morning. I ultimately rose from bed towards the floor-to-ceiling windows. I knew the sun would eventually rise – I would be there to great it. I have read watching the sunrise corrects your internal clock while abroad. I am no scientist, but I did read it on the internet – so it is more than likely true.

    Our suite had a wall panel that displayed the outdoor temperature and humidity. That morning it was showing a temperature of 94 degrees and a humidity reading of 100%. I did not know this was possible. I learned that day that I was ill prepared for that level of public, personal sweat containment.  Lesson learned.

    Our first day was flat out. The Grand Palace, River and Canals and a heap of temples filled out the day, with Thai boxing closing out the evening. Mindy met us in the lobby that morning. Energetic, fluent in English and our insider for the next three days. She went through the do’s and don’ts, cultural etiquette and some other key points to keep me out of trouble.

     

    Day 2: The Grand Palace and Temples

    Waves of tourists flooded these ancient palaces. I was told this is always the case. At 6’ 1,” I had a height advantage. I peered over a vast sea of trendy travel visors, plotting my perfect course through the herd. Though crowded, these sacred places are worth the visit. You’ll feel amazement while walking into the golden draped temples with ancient relics of Buddhist culture. The spirituality almost overwhelms with each step. We knelt before a monk who wrapped string around our wrists. He blessed us with sacred water and a Buddhist chant. All I could think about was how to make a joke about being literally “hashtag blessed.” What has social media done to me.

    The palaces are spectacular. The detail to the outer walls is nothing short of incredible. I would describe it as gorgeous, tedious and precise. I barely have enough patience to complete a paint by numbers, let alone to hand-plaster gold leaf on inch thick scales on a building with “Grand” in the name.

    I did feel the use of gold is a touch excessive. Like, OK, we get it.

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    Cruising the Canals

    We set off onboard our water chariot, clad with Pepsi promotional banners and adorned with sacred flower offerings to Budha – for a safe voyage. A wonderfully unusual blend of the times. Our captain coolly sat on a stool towards the stern, effortlessly steering the large converted pick-up truck motor across the busy Bangkok canal. Everything about him was calm and casual. Barefoot, with aviator shades and a salmon t-shirt. No fear, no distraction, just life. We were in good hands.

    Along the way, we were told tales of the canals and the early developing Bangkok. Years ago, these canals were the heart of the city. Home to floating markets, temples of worship and travel routes. As the Kings changed, so did the city. The river was expanded and canals were built connecting different regions. The city began to grow outward with residential districts growing rapidly. The markets moved further outside the city.  Now, Bangkok is a bustling metropolis.

     

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    Thai Boxing

    The full-day adventure did us in. We returned to our hotel to freshen up. A quick 10-minute rest turned into a 3-hour afternoon nap. Jet lag was a bitter mistress and returned swiftly with a punch in the face. Regardless, it was time for Thai boxing. A few slaps in the face, a splash of cold-water and then downstairs to join Mindy for a bit of organized violence.

    I’m happy I was able to attend a Thai boxing match. Our event was no premier match-up. The ring was mostly empty. The Thai boxers battled in front of fellow foreigners sitting ringside with us while local gamblers shouted their coaching from the stands – hoping they made the right bet. With a nice cold Singah Beer, we sat back and watched one of the more aggressive shows of my life. After each match, bloodied and bruised, each fighter smiled and congratulated the other as if they were best friends. Love and violence, an embodiment of our current world, eh.

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    Day 3: Floating Markets

    Our 2nd The Floating Markets, my favorite.  We set off at 8AM on an hour’s drive outside of Bangkok. We briefly stopped at a Thai Salt Plantation and a Coconut Farm. Both stops were engaging and educational. I ate so many coconut candies and drank the freshest coconut juice. I have an unnatural coconut obsession, and on a coconut farm – I was in paradise.

    We journeyed onwards before arriving at one of the many entrances to the canal system. Kristen and I boarded a little jet canoe – much smaller than the one from the previous day. It was just us. Mindy and the captain.

    Leaning back and the wind in our hair, we glided across the canals. The canal was lined with local homes, small shops and at-home shrines for worship. Large temples could be seen in the distance. Many homes were donned with beautiful flowers and shrubbery. Other homes had not recovered from the large flood a few years past.

    We cruised for a half-hour before literally arriving into the floating markets. It was a bit overwhelming at first. These markets are still used heavily by locals, and now a popular location for travelers. I was most excited to eat strange foods. A mix of tourist shops and local markets line the interior. On the canal front, boats with grills served up rice bowls with meats and fish. Fruits were available everywhere.

    While wandering, I was approached by an older women in a plaid shirt and wide-brimmed straw hat. She had oils or lotions. Before I could react, she began applying these unknown lotions to my face, arms and neck. She pointed to parts of my body and spoke in Thai. I could only gather that each lotion was used to treat different ailments or promote good health. For five minutes, I was being massaged in the middle markets by a stranger with foreign lotions. Kristen sat idly by, laughing behind the camera snapping a few pictures (below) of this intimate encounter. When my immersive experience was over, she placed jars in my hands and started naming prices. This would not be her day for a sale, but I did thank her for the free massage.

    We found a man selling Coconut ice cream. He would take a machete, half the coconut and scrape the interior. Coconut ice cream was placed inside along with sticky rice and some jellies. It was as close to godliness in a food item that I had come across. We sat canal-side sharing our coconut ice cream and watching the vendors float by.

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    Patpong Night Market

    That evening we met with a colleague of ours for dinner at a restaurant called Hemingway’s. Owned by an Englishman and housing an Aussie Chef, this is the place you go to find ex-pats if you’re feeling a little homesick. Drinks and stories took over the evening before immersing our self back into Bangkok.

    Patpong Night Market, we had arrived. The whispered notorious phrase, “ping pong” echoed along the night market. Neon signs illuminated the scene as sporadic sound bursts of house music clashed together. Within moments, I knew the legends were true. The streets were lined with tourist nick-knacks and men holding up strip club menus. Couples, backpackers, families and confused or concerned traveled walked up and down the wide avenue. The diversity of the scene was unmatched to any life experience I’ve had yet.

    We were linking up with a colleague of mine of travels to Bangkok regularly. We quickly met up at a moderate bar as he was entertaining a great bunch from the travel industry. Not one to turn down a free drink in a strange foreign place, we joined the bunch.

    At 12AM, we found ourselves in the company of an old man sitting in a dark corner receiving a foot message from  Thai strippers – sex undetermined. It’s these moments that you question the choices you’ve made that led you to this moment.

    Do check out Patpong Night Market. Probably don’t get a lap dance. Unless, you know, that is your thing – then do get a lap dance.

     

    Wrap it Up

    Bangkok was a blast. The locals were friendly and welcoming – cultural brims throughout the entire city. Mix touring and solo-adventure. A guide will ensure you see the must-see things the right way, and help you weave your way through entrances and crowds. Do make sure you spend time adventuring on your own. Talk to the locals and engage some uncomfortable scenarios. You can do it in three nights. I would recommend at least four nights. Start the touring or adventuring during the afternoon of your first real day there.

    Where I Stayed: The Peninsula Bangkok exudes classical old world charm. It seems quite grand as you walk in. The hospitality and service made everything so comfortable and easy. Lock in a river view to enjoy watching boats and barges cruise around each morning. We stayed in one of the Deluxe Suites, very spacious with multiple views overlooking the river.

    My Favorite Meal: Coconut Ice Cream with Sticky Rice at the Damneon Floating Markets. Your life will change.

    My Favorite Moment: Wandering through the Damneon Floating Markets and engaging with the locals selling their fruits and meals. This half-day is definitely a must for any traveler to Bangkok.

    How I got there: Qatar Airways PHL – DOH – BKK

    • Philadelphia to Doha on Qatar Airways – 12 hours
    • Airport Time – 2 hours
    • Doha to Bangkok on Qatar Airways – 7 hours

    Cheers,

    Ian 2

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    May 29, 2015 • Articles, Asia, Destinations, Ian Swain II, Travels • Views: 5742

  • Experiencing Hapuku Lodge and Tree Houses

    As I flew into Blenheim from Auckland over the small islands that start the South Island of New Zealand, the lush green countryside began to unfold amongst the crystal clear water, separating the finger-like peninsulas jutting out. Budget had my car ready and off I drove for the 70 mile journey to Kaikoura. It is amazing how this coastline is almost as untouched as it was when the Maoris first came here; a real treat. As I approached, the Treehouses and Lodge at Hapuku Lodge came into sight. Continue Reading

    April 9, 2015 • Bloggers, Destinations, Ian Swain Sr, New Zealand • Views: 3393

  • Why Travel to India?

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    A few years ago, when I started planning travel journeys for Swain Destinations to my home country – India, I came across a local friend of mine-who wanted to challenge herself, to open her heart and travel to the unknown. She wanted to do something significant to mark a transition in her life. She craved for adventure, something that would make her feel alive! So the place to have that experience is India. Why India? One has to be ready for India, mentally, culturally, spiritually and romantically.

    It is like no other country.

    It is so colorful. You will get mesmerized by the vibrant display of flower garlands everywhere that are offered to the Hindu gods.  The saris and comfortable ‘salwar- khameez”  – Punjabi dress – tunic that they wear over baggy pants with a matching dupatta or a scarf draped around their neck are beautiful.

    India is slow travel. In order to immerse in its’ culture – you need to travel at a slower pace.  Everything takes time. You need to see and feel each place that you visit.

    The greatest thing about traveling in India, especially coming from the west – is that you will be constantly surprised by what you see every day.  Like a cow standing on a sandy beach. It may be strange sight for you for the first time, but it will soon become normal after you see a few of those unusual sights.

    The food is fresh and full of flavor. There is a wide variety for people who can stand the spice, and those who cannot.

    The sunsets in India are stunning. No two are alike. Be it in the city or at a beach, the colors of the sky merge from hues of orange, reds and maroons.

    I have visited the Taj Mahal three times, and every time I have been blown away.  The story of Taj is a touching love story. I have to pinch myself to really believe that something so beautiful exists in this world.

    India is a great place to shop. Colorful linen tops, carpets, brass items, gems and more.

    Mumbai’s film industry, Bollywood, is the world’s largest – bigger than Hollywood. These movies provide a fascinating insight into Indian pop culture.

    Harvard, Stanford and all the top business schools make it their business for all their students to spend time in India. It is one of the fastest growing economies and is making an impact globally.

    Some of the Palace hotels are magical! Like the Umaid Bhavan in Jodhpur and the Taj Lake Palace in Udaipur.  Kerala’s backwater cruise is incredible.

    Ladakh in the Himalayas is perfect place to travel from June to October and from October to March the rest of India.

    A trip to India is life – changing, it is a trip good for your spirit and soul.

    Let me plan your trip to India!

    Happy Travels,

    Bela

    February 13, 2015 • Articles, Asia, Bela Banker, Destinations, Travels • Views: 3405

  • A Foodie Adventure in Taiwan

    My week in Taiwan was a whirlwind adventure. From the incredible sights we saw to the luxurious accommodations, we packed a lot of action into our seven night trip. To give a little background, Taiwan is a small island nation located in the South China Sea. A warm climate, friendly people and an ever-growing economy fuel this country. From lush tea fields to rugged coastlines boasting turquoise waters, Taiwan is a country packed with diversity. The one thing however, that stood out thoroughly in mind is the incredible food that seems to take over the culture of Taiwan. Continue Reading

    February 3, 2015 • Articles, Asia, Danielle Dranoff • Views: 3746

  • Adventure through Australia on The Ghan

    The Ghan is the ultimate journey into the heart of Australia. It is an odd name for a train, but in Australian history it is a living legend. About 150 years ago, the first camels were imported along with their handlers from Afghanistan. In true Australian style, the name was soon shortened to “Ghan.’  Early explorers used camels, perfectly adaptable for traveling long distances through the hot interior and beyond all the way to Darwin. Today, train enthusiasts can make this journey with all the creature comforts these pioneers could never have imagined.

    November 5, 2014 • Videos • Views: 2492

  • Uncovering Papua New Guinea – Part I

    Recently I embarked on an incredible life changing experience. Not too long ago I was fortunate enough to travel to one of the last unexplored corners of the Earth, Papua New Guinea. Before I set off on my journey I had only had second-hand knowledge of this fascinating country, however over the next week I would intimately get to know so much about this captivating land.

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    November 5, 2014 • Articles, Ian Swain II, Travels • Views: 2606

  • Top Places to Stay and Things to Do in Nepal

    Recently our very own Bela Banker went to Nepal to visit some of the incredible sights in this Himalayan country. Here’s the list of some of the unique places to stay and must-do activities in the country! Continue Reading

    October 20, 2014 • Articles, Asia, Bela Banker, India, Travels • Views: 3339

  • Saving Koalas with Janine Duffy from Echidna Walkabout

    I recently sat down with Janine Duffy from Echidna Walkabout in Victoria, Australia to chat about her unique research aimed at conserving Australia’s natural habit as well as saving Australia’s iconic koalas from extinction. After a full morning of bush exploration, and a cup of billy tea, we discussed the dangers wildlife faces as well as how easy it is to help the cause.

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    October 6, 2014 • Articles, Ian Swain II, Interviews • Views: 34419

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