Wild Junket » Photoblog http://www.wildjunket.com An adventure travel blog that brings you on a rollercoaster ride around the world Tue, 28 Jul 2015 16:46:54 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.2.3 Canyons, Cliffs and Wildlife — Mongolia’s Gurvan Saikhan http://www.wildjunket.com/2015/06/11/mongolia-gurvan-saikhan/ http://www.wildjunket.com/2015/06/11/mongolia-gurvan-saikhan/#comments Thu, 11 Jun 2015 15:44:08 +0000 http://www.wildjunket.com/?p=18245 Yolyn AmBefore my trip to Mongolia, I’d imagined vast swathes of deserts and empty steppes. It therefore came as quite a surprise when I found myself traipsing through varied landscapes that ranged from beautiful canyons to networks of caves and majestic mountain ranges. Here in the Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park, a surprise awaits at every […]

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Before my trip to Mongolia, I’d imagined vast swathes of deserts and empty steppes. It therefore came as quite a surprise when I found myself traipsing through varied landscapes that ranged from beautiful canyons to networks of caves and majestic mountain ranges.

Here in the Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park, a surprise awaits at every corner. One minute we’re driving through giant sand dunes, another minute we’re weaving our way into narrow canyons, and then turning around a bend to find imposing snow mountains right before us. With its diverse landscapes, this is understandably one of Mongolia’s most popular national parks. Most people just see the Khongoriin Els sand dunes, but make sure to take time to visit the remote western area – an eerie landscape so out-of-this-world that you may feel as if you’ve landed on Mars.

The national park was actually named after the mountain range, Gurvansaikhan (The Three Beauties of the Gobi), that stretches for 27,000 square kilometers. The protected area covers a largely undisturbed part of the Gobi desert. It safeguards the flora and fauna of Central Asia, protecting over 620 species of flowering plants and more than 240 bird species. The park is also packed with wildlife such as snow leopard, Ibex, different species of vultures, and the Gobi bear.

My favorite place to visit in the national park is Yolyn Am, translated to mean “Valley of the Eagles”. Besides the dramatic landscape, it’s an excellent spot to observe vultures, wild Argali sheep and golden eagles. It was first established to conserve the regional birdlife but eventually became a popular site to visit for the deep ice field that forms in winter and remains well into summer (although it had melted by the time we got there in August). The hiking trail that weaves through the gorge is still gorgeous in summer, flanked by colorful flowers and rocky outcrops. You get to wade through the icy water while traipsing along the pebbled bed and observing birds that fly overhead.

Near Yolyn Am is another site worth visiting: The Flaming Cliffs, locally known as Bayanzag, is an important archaeological site where the first discovery of dinosaur eggs was made. It was given its name by American paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews who came here in the 1920s and dug up some dinosaur skeletons. Chapman himself was said to be the man on whom the film character ’Indiana Jones’ was based. He lived an adventurous life across much of this part of the world. At Bayanzag, it is the landscape that truly  impresses, especially so during sunset. As the name implies, the cliffs take on a vivid shade of red in the evening when the sandstone turns vermilion under the sun’s rays.

Yolyn Am

Driving through the canyons of Gurvansaikhan National Park

Hiking in the nnarrow gorge

Taking a hike in the beautiful Yolyn Am gorge

Craggy rock faces

Plenty of trails criss cross the Yolyn Am gorge

Horses for hire

Many traditional Mongolian horsemen roam the area

Spotting eagles in Yolyn Am

Golden eagles are a common sight in the national park

Green landscapes of the national park

Beautiful landscapes like this dot the area

The Flaming Cliffs at sunset

Cliffs at sunset

The last ebb of sunlight fades into the horizon

Flaming cliffs

Bayanzag – a treasure trove of dinosaur fossils

Dusk at the valley

Purple skies above Gurvan Saikhan at dusk


More Info:

I visited the Gurvan Saikhan National Park as part of my Nomadic Mongolia trip with G Adventures. The itinerary included a three-hour hike through Yolyn Am and watching sunset at Bayanzag. We stayed overnight at a ger camp right next to Bayanzag. Transportation in Mongolia is hard to come by, so the best way to see this part of the country is with a tour operator.


Disclaimer: My trip was made possible by G Adventures, but as always the opinions expressed above are my own.

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Photo Essay: Sand Dunes of the Gobi Desert http://www.wildjunket.com/2015/05/26/photo-essay-gobi-desert/ http://www.wildjunket.com/2015/05/26/photo-essay-gobi-desert/#comments Tue, 26 May 2015 16:03:50 +0000 http://www.wildjunket.com/?p=18124 View from Khongoriin ElsAs the wind blows, I hear faint music in the air. The whistling tune is a hypnotic and eerie one, and it seems to echo out of nowhere. I’m standing on the top of the highest sand dune in the Gobi Sand. So where is the music coming from? “From the sand,” my local guide Amaraa says. “They call this […]

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A s the wind blows, I hear faint music in the air. The whistling tune is a hypnotic and eerie one, and it seems to echo out of nowhere. I’m standing on the top of the highest sand dune in the Gobi Sand. So where is the music coming from?

“From the sand,” my local guide Amaraa says.

“They call this Khongoriin Els, singing sands in Mongolian.” A beautiful name indeed.

Here on the top of the dune, the sand takes on a soul of its own, whispering in high pitch while dancing with the wind.

While the music plays in the background, my eyes are distracted by the view before me: A sea of sand stretches before me, forming giant dunes that rise and fall like undulating waves in the ocean. The sand sparkles in different shades of gold, while the cloudless sky is blanketed in endless blue. In the far distance looms a range of grey mountains, topped with glistering white snow and patches of dark green forests.

This is the Gobi Desert, the third largest desert in the world, covering more than 500,000 square miles in area and sprawling across two countries. It’s the desert whose very name means wide open space and whose powerful sands and scorched shadows almost define Mongolia. Without the Gobi, there is no Mongolia.

But unknown to many, it’s not all sand in the Gobi — the desert is dotted with a network of beautiful canyons, caves, rocky cliffs and majestic mountains. It’s also brimming with life: Nomadic families have lived here for centuries, in traditional Mongolian gers, and sustaining their lives on animals that live here. The Bactrian camel, a species of camel native to the steppes of Central Asia, is one example. Today, you can still see them roaming freely in the wild sands of the Gobi.

My trip to the Gobi was one magical journey; I hope these pictures I shot in the Gobi will give you a glimpse of the beauty and magic of the desert.

View from Khongoriin Els

The magnitude of the sand dunes are amazing

Vast sea of sand

Giant sand dunes

Starting the climb
Looking down from the dune

Jeep

Gobi camel

Young camel guide and his camels

A close up of the camel


More Info:

I visited the Gobi Desert as part of my Nomadic Mongolia trip with G Adventures. Visiting the sand dunes is part of the itinerary but there’s also an optional activity to ride a camel around the base of the dunes and visit a local family (drinking Arag in their tent and getting to know their lifestyle). The activity cost 30,000 MNT or US$15 and lasts around 3 hours. Transportation in Mongolia is hard to come by, so the best way to see the Gobi is by traveling with a tour operator.

Disclaimer: My trip was made possible by G Adventures, but as always the opinions expressed above are my own.

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A Tribute to Kathmandu’s Historical Landmarks http://www.wildjunket.com/2015/04/29/kathmandus-historical-landmarks/ http://www.wildjunket.com/2015/04/29/kathmandus-historical-landmarks/#comments Wed, 29 Apr 2015 16:48:56 +0000 http://www.wildjunket.com/?p=18135 Swayambhunath TempleThis past week, my thoughts have been with Nepal and its people, who are now in crisis after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit the country on Saturday. The catastrophic disaster has so far killed more than 5,200 and injured 9,200. It has been the most severe earthquake to hit the country in over 80 years. Thousands of people […]

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This past week, my thoughts have been with Nepal and its people, who are now in crisis after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit the country on Saturday.

The catastrophic disaster has so far killed more than 5,200 and injured 9,200. It has been the most severe earthquake to hit the country in over 80 years. Thousands of people have been left homeless and stranded without food. Many of Kathmandu’s historical sites including four UNESCO World Heritage Sites have also been reduced to rubble. These treasured landmarks, some of them dating back to the 16th century, were a testament of the city’s rich history. Sadly they were destroyed in just a matter of seconds.

I spent some time in Nepal two years ago and fell in love with Kathmandu. The city exploded with so much energy and personality, it didn’t take long for me to fall under its spell. Whether I was weaving through the old town on a rickshaw, people watching from the pagodas of Durbar Square or meeting monks in the holy temples, Kathmandu was captivating. It stirred up emotions in me that I never knew existed.

It’s heartbreaking to watch the news and see pictures of its amazing historical sites being reduced to rubble. I remember standing at the base of the Boudhanath Stupa, the largest stupa in Nepal and the holiest Tibetan Buddhist temple outside Tibet, awestruck by just how stunning the architecture was. Looking at the photos of the stupa after the earthquake, the tower has toppled and it’s been completely reduced to ruins.

Another place I remember clearly is the Basantapur Durbar Square, where many locals meet in the evenings for prayers. The Nepali news site Ekantipur says that 80 percent of the temples located there were destroyed by the initial earthquake and it’s aftershocks. The ancient town of Bhaktapur was also severely affected, with several monuments, including the Fasi Deva temple, the Chardham temple and the 17th century Vatsala Durga Temple, fully or partially collapsed.

Rebuilding the historical sites this time around — especially the older ones — will be no easy task as Nepal in the face of a horrific loss of life and significant damage to more basic infrastructure.

UNESCO has pledged to help rebuild the sites, but according to historian Prushottam Lochan Shrestha, “We have lost most of the monuments that had been designated as World Heritage Sites,” he said. “They cannot be restored to their original states.”

For now, I can only look back on the beautiful memories I have of these amazing historical sites, and keep them in my heart.

Swayambhunath Temple

Colorful Tibetan flags fly high at the UNESCO site Swayambhunath Temple, that has destroyed by the earthquake.

Tibetan Buddhist flags at Boudhna Stupa

The top of the Swayambhunath stupa

Stupas at Swayambhunath

Stupas at the Swayambhunath Temple

Durbar Square

One of the most popular landmarks in the city – Kathmandu’s Durbar Square – on a Saturday evening when locals gather.

Durbar Square

This tower has sadly collapsed now.

Bhaktapur Durbar Square

Bhaktapur’s Durbar Square, another important historical site, was also partially destroyed by the earthquake.

Durbur Square in Bhaktapur

In this article, you can see pictures of this exact spot after the earthquake.

Bhaktapur

Many of the temples in Bhaktapur were not built to withstand such severe shocks.

Bhaktapur

Pagodas like this wouldn’t have survived the earthquake.

A view of Kathmandu from above

Kathmandu Valley as seen from the Swayambhunath Temple – from this video, you can see the contrast between then and now.

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10 of Our Best Wildlife Photos http://www.wildjunket.com/2015/04/21/10-best-wildlife-photos/ http://www.wildjunket.com/2015/04/21/10-best-wildlife-photos/#comments Tue, 21 Apr 2015 15:42:22 +0000 http://www.wildjunket.com/?p=18055 A Silverback up closeAs huge wildlife buffs, we love photographing animals in the wild. There’s something about capturing the raw spirit of an animal through body language. Seeing animals in the wild is a very moving experience and in today’s world, it’s sadly becoming more and more rare. We’ve been lucky enough to have had many intimate wildlife encounters […]

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Last month we started a wildlife theme on Instagram to share some of our animal photography from around the world. It turned out to be quite a hit with our followers. As requested by some of our readers, we’re sharing some of our best shots here with you. For more wildlife shots, please download our free wildlife photography e-book.

A s huge wildlife buffs, we love photographing animals in the wild. There’s something about capturing the raw spirit of an animal through body language. Seeing animals in the wild is a very moving experience and in today’s world, it’s sadly becoming more and more rare.

We’ve been lucky enough to have had many intimate wildlife encounters around the world, from the savannas of Zimbabwe to the underwater world of the Galapagos Islands and glaciers of Antarctica. Some of our favorite wildlife experiences include getting up close with gorillas in Uganda, mingling with lemurs in Madagascar, swimming in great white sharks and seeing polar bears in the Arctic.

Here are ten of our best wildlife shots, carefully handpicked from thousands of photos we’d shot from all seven continents. We’d love to hear what you think, please let us know what you think in the comments section below:

A Silverback up close This is by far my favorite wildlife photo as I captured it just when the silverback was staring into my lens. This photo was shot while gorilla tracking in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda. After just an hour of hiking through the thick, muddy jungle, we found a family of gorillas all lounging around like it was a Sunday afternoon. This silverback was simply sitting by a bush munching on leaves when we first saw him. But as he sensed our presence, he slowly turned to stare at us. >> Read more about my gorilla tracking experience Cheetah spotted in Serengeti

In Kenya’s famous Masai Mara Reserve, we were rewarded with plenty of impressive wildlife sightings: from cheeky little jackals scrambling around the bush, to an elephant family of eight feasting together, a pool filled with lazy hippos, and a handsome cheetah just sitting under a tree a few feet from us. This close up shot of the cheetah shows its gorgeous tear stains beneath its eyes and its immaculate spots.

>> More images from the Masai Mara

A mother and son lion duo in Etosha We were game driving in Nambia’s Etosha National Park onboard a mammoth overland truck – I didn’t expect to see much wildlife up close, any animal in their right mind would be intimidated by the size of our truck. But as we gently slowed down to a halt, we got a good view of what lay ahead and an awed hush fell amidst our group of 20 travelers. A pack of nine lions was lying just inches away from our truck, nonchalantly flapping their ears, yawning and drooling – in spite of our presence. >> More images from Etosha National Park

Zebras in Victoria Falls Nature Reserve During our time in Victoria Falls Private Game Reserve, we were really surprised by how many impressive wildlife sightings we had: from herds of zebras grazing on the grasslands, to kudus galloping amidst the bush, and vultures eyeing the savanna from the top of the Acacia trees. Out of the six black rhinos that call this reserve home, we spotted four of them, as they linger just inches away from our jeep, oblivious to our presence.

>> More images from Victoria Falls Reserve

Lilac breast roller in Sabi Sands Reserve

One of our favorite animals to see on safari is the lilac-breasted roller, a unique bird found in the sub-Saharan Africa. This colorful bird is absolutely gorgeous with its beautiful multi-hued feathers. What makes it really stand out is the way it attracts the opposite sex. During the breeding season the male will rise to great heights, descending in swoops and dives, while uttering harsh, discordant cries. We’d tried photographing it many times, but only on this occasion in Sabi Sands Private Reserve did the bird stay still long enough for Alberto to get a good shot of it.

>> More images from Sabi Sands Reserve

A giant land lizard on the Galapagos Islands

One of the best places in the world for wildlife watching is definitely the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador. This group of islands formed millions of years ago from volcanoes, and have been separated from the mainland since then. Through the years, wildlife slowly arrived by air and by sea. These creatures adapted to the conditions of the tiny islands, and evolved into endemic species i.e. the only place in the world where you can find them. These days, unique animals continue to roam freely around the islands – we saw sea lions just lounging by the port at Santa Cruz, penguins swimming in and around us when we snorkeling, giant land lizards (like this one pictured) hiding in the shade and weird blue-footed booby flying overhead.

>> Read about how to travel the Galapagos Islands on the cheap

The Philippine Tarsier in Bohol One of the things that brought us to the Philippines was the maomag or Philippine tarsier. These palm-sized primates are rare endemic creatures found almost exclusively on Bohol  in the Central Visayas of the Philippines The Tarsier Sanctuary, home to over 1,000 tarsiers, is the best place to see them. Just five minutes into our walk and she had already spotted two of the resident tarsiers hiding beneath a leaf.

>> Read the full story

Shark cage diving

In South Africa, we had the opportunity to go shark cage diving and come face to face with the great white. Being in the same water and within inches from such an intimidating animal was just adrenaline-pumping. I could literally feel their vigilant eyes scouting their surroundings for the next bite, and I couldn’t help but think that their next bite could easily be myself if not for the iron bars that separate us. At the end of our cage shark diving experience, we witnessed the most spectacular jump of the day as the great white shark breached high above the waters, right before our eyes. Alberto got the timing right and captured the exact moment of the shark leaping out of the water with its eyes and mouth wide open.

>> Read more about our cage shark diving experience

Watching the penguins at Cuverville

Antarctica stands strongly as my number 1 destination for wildlife experiences. From the moment we crossed the Drake Passage into the Antarctic waters, we were literally surrounded by pods of whales, fur seals, elephant seals and of course, hundreds and thousands of penguins. I snapped more than 2,000 photos on my 8-day expedition with G Adventures and this one above is my favorite – not because it’s skillfully taken, but because it captures that perfect moment on Cuverville Island when my friend and I simply sat on the snow under the bright sunlight and watched as the penguins trotter past us before taking a dip in the ocean.

>> Read more about wildlife in Antarctica

A polar bear in the Arctic

We were cruising under the midnight sun across a vast ice field in the Norwegian Arctic when someone spotted a vanilla-colored fur ball in the midst of the field. We watched through our binoculars as the polar bear playfully lay on its stomach, licking its paw and peeking at us through the ice floes. As we inched closer, the polar bear stood up and approached us, leaping from one ice sheet to another with surprising agility. Lingering close to the bow of the ship, it stood just a few feet from where I was. I held my breathe. We locked eyes. I somehow expected it to growl and roar but all it did was look down, with a glimmer of disappointment in its eyes. Seconds later, it turned around and returned into the vastness of the ice.

>> Watch my video of this intimate polar bear encounter

To see and read more about our wildlife experiences, subscribe to our newsletter and you can get our wildlife photography ebook for FREE!

Download our Free Wildlife Photography eBook

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The Soul of Sri Lanka — Sigiriya Rock http://www.wildjunket.com/2015/01/21/soul-sri-lanka-sigiriya-rock/ http://www.wildjunket.com/2015/01/21/soul-sri-lanka-sigiriya-rock/#comments Wed, 21 Jan 2015 14:49:03 +0000 http://www.wildjunket.com/?p=17913 The Sigiriya Rock from a distanceIn the very center of Sri Lanka stands one of the country’s most iconic historical sites, Sigiriya Rock (Sinhalese for “Lion Rock”) — a massive column of rock that doubles as an ancient palace and historical site. From afar, it looks like a simple rock mount jutting out from a sea of greenery; but dig […]

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In the very center of Sri Lanka stands one of the country’s most iconic historical sites, Sigiriya Rock (Sinhalese for “Lion Rock”) — a massive column of rock that doubles as an ancient palace and historical site. From afar, it looks like a simple rock mount jutting out from a sea of greenery; but dig deeper and you’ll unravel the layers that make up Sri Lanka’s rich history and religious heritage.

Throughout time, Sigiriya has been used as a Buddhist monastery, fortress and palace. When Prince Kashyapa (477 – 495 AD) moved the country’s capital from Anuradhapura to Sigiriya in 477 AD, he built a fortress and palace on the rock’s summit, decorating it with lavish pools, elaborate water gardens, and intricate frescoes. The capital and the royal palace was abandoned after the prince’s death and it was used as a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century.

Some say that Sigiriya is the heart and soul of Sri Lanka, others think it’s all just part of a myth; for me, it’s the best place to learn about Sinhalese past, present and future. Even as archaeologists and historians continue to debate Sigiriya’s functions throughout time, it remains the most important landmark of the island nation.

The Sigiriya Rock from a distance

Largest Picture in the World

My pilgrimage to Sigiriya began at the foot of the 370-meter high rock, where more than 1,200 steps led me up to the rock’s summit. Amidst the tropical heat, I meandered my way through a maze of grey boulders and lush jungle. Monkeys sneaked around me and other tourists, cheekily peeking at us and posing for photos.

As I climbed higher, views of the surrounding plains came into sight: the vast greenery sprawled beneath our feet, with Buddha statues and stupas poking above the tree canopy. The more steps I climbed, the further the plains stretched.

View of the plains below

Eventually, I reached what appeared to be an enormous cave, with colorful frescoes covering its walls. Adorning the rock faces were immaculately preserved colorful paintings of topless women believed to be the ladies of Prince Kashyapa.

One of the first archaeologists who discovered this in 1907 suggested that the paintings could have covered most of the western wall of Sigiriya, an area 140 meters long and 40 meters high. It was said that more than 500 ladies were depicted in these paintings.

“The whole face of the hill appears to have been a gigantic picture gallery… the largest picture in the world perhaps,” said John Still. Today, most of these paintings have disappeared, leaving behind only the few remaining figures that have been restored to their original glory.

Next to the frescoes, I found yet another interesting spot called the Mirror Wall. Originally this wall, made of brick masonry and white plaster, was so highly polished that the prince could see himself whilst he walked alongside it. Today, it’s covered with verses written by visitors, from as early as the 8th century. People of all types wrote on the wall, on varying subjects such as love, irony, and experiences of all sorts.

Frescoes on the wall

The Lion Gate

The narrow steel stairway eventually led to a plateau about halfway up the steep rock face. Flanked by large brick layers that resembled an animal’s legs and paws, this was the famous Lion Gate that gave the fortress/palace its name — Sīhāgiri, the Lion Rock.

Close up of the lion's paw

Prince Kasyapa built this gate in the form of an enormous lion as a defense mechanism to protect his palace from attacks by his brother Mogallana. He had murdered his own father by walling him alive and then usurping the throne which rightfully belonged to Mogallana who then vowed revenge. This was why Prince Kasyapa chose this inaccessible site to be his fortress and palace. Mogallana finally arrived and declared war and unfortunately, Kashyapa’s armies abandoned him and he committed suicide by falling on his sword.

Originally, there was a sculpted lion’s head with legs and paws flanking the entrance, but the head collapsed years ago. Today, the lion’s paws are the most conspicuous feature, greeting you as you enter the doors of this imposing fortress.

Lion Gate

A Construction of the Millenium

As I cleared the final stair onto the rock’s summit, my eyes were torn between watching my step and taking in the view before me. It was almost as though the whole of Sri Lanka lay before me, with the island stretching far into the endless horizon. Various shades of green and patches of rose-red earth sparkled under the sunshine, mountains loomed in the distance, blending seamlessly with the water-filled rice paddies and mudpools that had formed after a day of rain.

View from the top of Sigiriya

On the summit itself was a maze of ruins, moats, crumbling terraces and ramparts. The brick outlines of ancient foundations criss-crossing the grassy surface gave a few clues to the many lives this rock has led. As I wandered around the reservoirs and brick structures, I felt like I was transformed back into the heydays of Sigiriya, where concubines lounged around the gardens and military soldiers stood guard by the gates. It was easy to imagine just how elaborate this palace must have been.

Ruins on the summit of Sigiriya

I was awed by the scale of it all and puzzled by the secrecy of this fortress, after all it’s no where as famous as Angkor Wat or Taj Mahal, and I had no idea it existed before this visit to Sri Lanka. How could a palace of this magnitude standing high above the plains of Sri Lanka remain so unknown? Considering the busloads of tourists that visit other world-renown landmarks around the world, I’m secretly hoping that Sigiriya stays this way — calm, mysterious and unknown.


Visiting Information:

It is relatively easy to visit Sigiriya once you are in Sri Lanka. Most people base themselves at Habanara (15km away) or Dambullah (20km) and you can easily catch a train or bus there from Colombo or other parts of Sri Lanka. During my visit, I stayed at the Chaaya Village Habanara which was just a short drive away from Sigiriya and arranged transport through the hotel to get to Sigiriya early in the morning. Click to find out more on how to get to Sigiriya.

The entry fee for Sigiriya is around 30USD for foreigners. Given the scale of the sight and the impressive grounds, this is well worth paying. Be sure to get here early (it opens at around 8am) to avoid the heat. As the day progresses it gets incredibly hot regardless of the time of the year, so you would want to get to the top before that happens. It takes around 4 to 6 hours to see it all.


Disclaimer: My visit was made possible by Cinnamon Hotels, but all opinions expressed above are my own.

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Photo Essay: Flying Over the Coastline of Sri Lanka http://www.wildjunket.com/2015/01/15/photo-essay-flying-coastline-sri-lanka/ http://www.wildjunket.com/2015/01/15/photo-essay-flying-coastline-sri-lanka/#comments Thu, 15 Jan 2015 16:21:03 +0000 http://www.wildjunket.com/?p=17907 The turquoise waters off KoggalaThe lush jungles beneath our feet sparkled in different shades of green, while the lapping water off the coast slowly merged from bright spearmint to dark navy blue color. All along the coast, the powdery sand and rocky outcrops made a sharp contrast against the turquoise waters. So raw, rugged yet inviting. On my recent trip to Sri Lanka, I had the opportunity to catch […]

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The lush jungles beneath our feet sparkled in different shades of green, while the lapping water off the coast slowly merged from bright spearmint to dark navy blue color. All along the coast, the powdery sand and rocky outcrops made a sharp contrast against the turquoise waters. So raw, rugged yet inviting.

On my recent trip to Sri Lanka, I had the opportunity to catch a scenic flight over the southern end of the island with Cinnamon Air — the view of Sri Lanka’s lush jungles and busy coastline truly blew my mind.

The minute our Cessna 208 seaplane took off from the water runway of Koggala Airport, my window was framed with acres upon acres of greenery spreading into the vast distance. The landscape slowly transitioned from lime green coconut groves by the coast to brownish rice terraces further afield and dark green rainforests up in the highlands.

Once we closed in on the coast, the stunning beaches and colonial coastal towns that the island is so famous for came into full view. We flew over white Buddhist stupas that poked above the forest canopy and groups of fishermen rowing in their traditional wooden boats. From above, the colonial town of Galle looked incredibly beautiful with historical architecture enclosed within a pentagon that jutted out into the sea.

For a visual feast of Sri Lanka’s southern coast from above, here are some photos I took from the scenic flight:

The turquoise waters off Koggala

The spearmint blue color of the coastline made it very inviting.

The lush greenery of Sri Lanka

Lush green jungles and rice paddies sprawled across the island.

Jungles and rainforests

More coconut groves and farmlands.

Arriving at the coast of Koggala

Lapping waves off the southern coast.

The coast of Galle

Rugged rocky outcrops and Buddhist stupas characterized the coastline.

The colonial town of Galle

Flying very coast to the colonial town of Galle.

Above the Galle fort walls

From above, the layout of Galle was truly impressive with beautiful historical buildings enclosed within the pentagonal fort.

Here’s a video I snapped during take-off:


Trip Details:

Cinnamon Air is a premier domestic Sri Lankan air taxi service offering daily scheduled flights, as well as luxury private charter flights and scenic flights, between its hub at Colombo International Airport and other parts of the island.

As travel distances on the island can be long, the affordable domestic flights that Cinnamon Air offers can help you save plenty of travel time. Their schedule has been tailored to mesh with the departure and arrival times of SriLankan Airlines and all major international airline services.

This seaplane flight can be booked directly on cinnamonair.com. The flight takes around 20 minutes and availability depends on weather and wind conditions. You can also book any of their domestic flights through their website.

Cinnamon Air seaplane Cessna 208


Disclosure: This flight was kindly made possible by Cinnamon Air and Cinnamon Hotels, but all opinions above are my own.

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Highlights of Sri Lanka – From Ancient Cities to Wild Jungles http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/12/03/sri-lanka-highlights/ http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/12/03/sri-lanka-highlights/#comments Wed, 03 Dec 2014 16:23:53 +0000 http://www.wildjunket.com/?p=17760 Elephant gathering in KaudullaLush jungles, rural villages and wild beaches — Sri Lanka is the Garden of Eden down south, quietly tucked away in secrecy away from the well-trodden tourist path. It’s just a leap away from the chaos and madness of India, and yet it seems like a world away. In place of the maddening crowd and traffic […]

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On my recent trip to Sri Lanka, the island of Serendib surprised me on so many levels. I packed in tons of sights and experiences into one week, but it made me yearn for more. I barely scraped the surface, yet I’ve already fallen for Sri Lanka. Here’s why.

Lush jungles, rural villages and wild beaches — Sri Lanka is the Garden of Eden down south, quietly tucked away in secrecy away from the well-trodden tourist path. It’s just a leap away from the chaos and madness of India, and yet it seems like a world away. In place of the maddening crowd and traffic is a soothing sense of serenity, zen-like vibes and poetic beauty.

The island may be small in size, but  it’s got it all. First, the variety of natural environment found here is overwhelming, with habitats ranging from thick tropical rainforests to verdant green rice paddies and misty highlands. Then there’s the rich wildlife — Sri Lanka is home to some of Asia’s last remaining leopard, bear and elephant populations. Let’s not forget the Buddhist heritage that has blessed this spiritual island nation with a slew of ruins, temples and religious (including eight Unesco World Heritage Sites). The British and Dutch have also left their legacy here with charming colonial flair and characteristic architecture.

Don’t believe me? Here’s a look at some of the highlights of my trip:

Elephant Safari in Kaudulla National Park

Just 197km away from Sri Lanka’s largest city, Colombo, is the Kaudulla National Park — one of the best places in the country to see wild elephants roaming freely.  Historically Kaudulla was one of the 16 irrigation tanks built by King Mahasen. Following a period of abandonment it was reconstructed in 1959 and converted into a national park in 2002. The best time to visit is between August and December, when up to two hundred congregate at the tank for the annual “gathering”. Besides elephants, there’s a slew of other wild animals that can be found in the park – including Sri Lankan sambar deer, Sri Lankan axis deer, chevrotain, wild boar, Sri Lankan leopard, and sloth bear.

Elephant gathering in Kaudulla
An elephant safari

Spiritual Icon: Sigiriya Rock

Rising from the floodplains of the central valley, the Sigiriya Rock is undoubtedly the icon of the country. The UNESCO World Heritage Site not only boasts impressive archaeological importance but also evidence of the country’s ancient history. Once at the foothill of Sigiriya Rock, you’ll see how it gained it fame. The world-famous attraction features vertical walls topped with a flat-topped summit that contains the ruins of an ancient civilization. It’s quite a steep climb up to the top, but the view of the valley beneath is well worth it.

The Sigiriya Rock from a distance
Climbing up the vertical walls of Sigiriya Rock
The view from the top of Sigiriya Rock

Colonial Town of Galle

As one of Sri Lanka’s most well known cities, Galle is a charming little colonial town located in the southern part of the island oozing old-world charm and flavor. I loved wandering through its alleyways, weaving between tuktuks (auto rickshaws) and admiring its well-conserved architecture dating back to the European colonial era. One of the main sights to see in Galle is the 17th century fort, which is a world heritage site and the largest remaining fortress in Asia built by European occupiers. Other prominent landmarks in Galle include the city’s natural harbor, St. Mary’s Cathedral founded by Jesuit priests, and Amangalla the historic luxury hotel.

Colonial architecture in Galle
Christian church in Galle

Village Trek in Hiriwaduna

Another one of my favorite activities was the village trek around the Hiriwaduna area organized by Chaaya Village Habanara. Wandering through the village and learning about the traditional Sinhalese way of life was like traveling back in time. With a knowledgeable guide in the lead, we met locals who still live in the area, visited their traditional mud houses, tree huts and agricultural farmlands. Half way through the hike, we hopped on board a wooden catamaran to cross the man-made reservoir. Gliding on the glassy water surface amidst beautiful purple water hyacinth and little schools of fish was a surreal experience. The excursion ended with an ox-drawn carriage ride past rice paddies and vegetable farms, with the sun setting in the distance forming a perfect backdrop.

Boats on the water
Visiting a local's home
Meeting a villager

A River Safari on the Madu Ganga

Proclaimed a Ramsa wetland area in 2004, Madu River has a high bio-diversity and supports a healthy population of birds, monkeys and fish. On our boat safari, we spotted lots of beautiful birds, from the cormorant to kingfisher. The purple leaf monkey also made an appearance, cheekily hiding in the tree canopy and peering at us from a distance. The best time to do this safari is in the evening as the sun is setting, making for a beautiful backdrop.

River safari on Madu River
A fisherman

Wild, Empty Beaches of Beruwala

Another place we stayed at was the Cinnamon Bey Beruwala located right on the beach in the southwestern coast of Sri Lanka. Beruwala is the starting point of the 130 kilometres (81 miles) long stretch of beach with a shallow reef that reveals itself at low tide. This is the spot for the first Muslim settlement on the island, established by Arab traders around the 8th century AD. A large population of Sri Lankan Moors, many of them are gem merchants, still live in the town. Today, it’s a quiet and lazy beach town jiving with local vibes and it’s an excellent spot to immerse in the Sinhalese way of life.

Quiet beaches
An offshore island near Beruwala

Take a closer look at what I did on my week-long trip to Sri Lanka on itripd.com. It’s a cool new way to showcase your own trips and exchange tips on destinations around the world. You can also get some ideas to plan your own itinerary in Sri Lanka.


Disclaimer: My trip to Sri Lanka was made possible by Cinnamon Hotels, Sri Lanka Airlines and Professional Travel Bloggers Association. As always, all opinions expressed above are my own. 

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Photo Highlights of Iran: from Persian Architecture to Outstanding Hospitality http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/10/22/photo-highlights-iran/ http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/10/22/photo-highlights-iran/#comments Wed, 22 Oct 2014 17:06:30 +0000 http://www.wildjunket.com/?p=17519 The Zagros Mountain in western IranMention Iran and many think of burkha-clad women, burning flags and war. But these stereotypes can’t be further from the truth. For those who are curious and open to new discoveries, Iran is packed full of surprises. It is a relatively safe country to visit and there’s so much to see and do in terms […]

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I’ve just completed my Silk Road journey through Central Asia with Oasis Overland. Our trip started in Kyrgyzstan and we traveled through KazakhstanUzbekistanTurkmenistan, Iran and ended in Turkey. During this overland trip, we spent just under three weeks traversing through Iran, from the eastern corner to the western edge. It was the highlight of our trip and I hope these photos will show you what an amazing country it is.

Mention Iran and many think of burkha-clad women, burning flags and war. But these stereotypes can’t be further from the truth.

For those who are curious and open to new discoveries, Iran is packed full of surprises. It is a relatively safe country to visit and there’s so much to see and do in terms of historical and cultural sights: wander through the thousand-year-old ancient city of Persepolis, get lost in the mud-brick alleys of Yazd, contemplate in the beautiful turquoise-domed mosques that dot Esfahan, meet locals in the gardens surrounding Shiraz and pray with thousands of pilgrims at the country’s holiest city Mashad. The Islamic Republic has an extremely rich cultural heritage and its attractions can definitely rival those of world-famous tourist destinations. Best of all, you won’t find hordes of tourists here. It won’t take you long to question how such a charming country can be portrayed in such a negative light by the media.

Beyond the stereotypes is a country desperate to been seen for what it is, rather than what it is depicted to be. The Iranians are undoubtedly the friendliest people I’ve ever met in the world. Travelers will often find themselves getting invited to stranger’s homes, being treated to endless flow of tea from a shop vendor and getting a free ride from helpful drivers along the way. Locals tend to come up to you, ask where you’re from and genuinely want to get to know you. I’ve always agreed with the saying “it’s the people that makes a place”. It can’t be more true here in Iran where experiences with locals truly live the longest in your memory.

While traveling in Iran, the two topics that most find impossible to escape are religion and politics. These are complex issues that aren’t black or white, but as I discovered, if you’re respectful of their opinions, the Iranians will be more than happy to discuss them with you. It’s also important to note that the government’s views may not be in line with what average Iranians think. Regardless, if you do choose to travel here, a journey to Iran will certainly change your perspective of the country, and perhaps, the world.

Natural Landscapes and Ancient Cities

The Zagros Mountain in western Iran

The Zagros Mountains in western Iran provided some of the most scenic drives during our overland trip. We wound our way through each hairpin bend to find spectacular views waiting for us around the corner.

The abandoned mud brick city of Kharanaq

In the abandoned mud-brick city of Kharanaq, we got lost amidst the alleys and crumbling paths that overlooked this beautiful valley.

An oasis in the desert town of Gahmeh

Our short stay in the desert was particularly memorable thanks to the oasis town of Gahmeh that not only provided us with comfort but also an interesting homestay.

Driving in the desert

The roads in Iran were surprisingly smooth and well-paved. We criss-crossed the country from the northeastern corner to the western reaches, with amazing views like these.

The rock cut temples of Naqsh-e-Rostam

Right at the outskirts of Shiraz, we stumbled upon the spectacular rock tomb of Naqsh-e-Rostam. The ragged cliffs that the tombs are carved into remind me of those in Wadi Rum, Jordan.

Naqsh-e-Rostam

Dating back to almost 2,000 years ago, these ancient rock tombs still remain clearly etched within the cliffs. I was extremely impressed to find such well-preserved ancient ruins in a place where few people know about.

The ancient city of Persepolis

The ancient Archaemid city of Persepolis is one of the oldest in the world, at more than 2,500 years old.

Persian Architecture

Esfahan's Imam Square

Back in the days when Persia was a powerful empire in the world, lots of magnificent buildings were constructed all over the country. Today, they continue to be an important part of the cityscape. The Imam Square in Esfahan pictured above is known as the world’s second biggest square (after the Tiananmen Square in Beijing) and is flanked by two mosques and one palace.

Mosque at Imam Square in Esfahan

Imam Mosque in Esfahan is definitely one of the finest displays of Persian architecture with immaculate carvings and beautiful turquoise tiles framing its main entrance.

Inside a palace in Shiraz

The interior of Persian buildings is often just as impressive. This photo shows the interior of the Royal Palace in Shiraz, characterized by arches, spiraled columns and carvings.

A shrine near Mashad

Shrines are where many Islamic saints (known as ‘imam’ and their families are buried and mourned for even centuries after they have passed. It’s extremely moving to see how devout Iranians are and how emotional they get in these shrines.

Inside the Jameh Mosque at Yazd
Inside the Jameh Mosque in Yazd, the high domed ceilings and immaculate tilework make it one of the most impressive buildings we saw in Iran.

A gate in Yazd

Amir Chakhmagh in is an iconic landmark in Yazd and while it’s now nothing more than a gate (the rest of the building is gone), the unique architecture still makes it quite an impressive sight.

Mud-brick alleys of Yazd

The mud-brick alleys of Yazd form a labyrinth of sorts in the old town – this one in particular has been restored by the government but most of the town still retains a old-world atmosphere.

Iranian Way of Life

Colorful spices in the bazaar of Shiraz

Bazaars are an important part of Iranian life. They trace their roots back to the Silk Road days and even until today, Iranians are still known to be excellent traders and businessmen. Spices are of course a common sight in the bazaars.

Farsi poetry written in Arabic alphabets

Shiraz is known for its poets and their burial grounds. In Hafez’s mausoleum, we found several plaques carved with his Farsi poetry.

A religious festival in Esfahan

We happened to arrive in Esfahan during a religious festival held by the main bridge of the city. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of devout pilgrims poured into the city and mourned unanimously. I was stunned to see so many people cloaked in black chadors weeping for their saints. There were even men with Qoran in hand, openly sobbing.

Friendly students in Tehran

The Iranians are exceptionally warm and friendly, with many people stopping to strike up a conversation with us seeing that we’re foreigners. I met this bunch of students at the Golestan Palace in Tehran and they were all excited to practice their English with me.

Having dinner in a local's home

One of the highlights of our Iran trip was being invited to our local guide’s home for dinner. Nosrad’s gracious family prepared an amazing home-cooked meal and warmly welcomed us into their home. Nosrad introduced us to all his family members and everyone of them made an effort to speak to us and get to know us. This was definitely an experience that would live the longest in my memory.

Posing with friendly Iranians

Everywhere we went, people were curious about why we were in Iran (clearly there aren’t many tourists) and how we liked Iran. This kebab shopowner (on the right) was especially keen to make sure we had a good meal, and a good time in Iran.


Disclaimer: I traveled to Iran as part of  an overlanding trip with Oasis Overland. Over a period of two months, our group of travelers journeyed through Central Asia on an overland truck that brought us through six countries from Kyrgyzstan to Turkey, camping in deserts and mountains, and digging up the mystery behind the Silk Road. Although the company gave me a discount for my trip, all opinions expressed above are my own.

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The Gates to Hell — Darvaza Gas Craters in Turkmenistan http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/10/13/turkmenistans-darvaza-gas-craters/ http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/10/13/turkmenistans-darvaza-gas-craters/#comments Mon, 13 Oct 2014 14:00:13 +0000 http://www.wildjunket.com/?p=17488 Darvaza burning gas crater by dayIn the middle of the Karakum Desert, a roaring fire burns from deep beneath us, its flames dancing in the darkness taunting and teasing us. The walls of the oval crater drop vertically down into the abyss of fire — one careless step and you may well be on your way to hell. They named […]

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I’m currently traveling through Central Asia and am updating this blog on the road. Forgive me if they’re short and snippety. Our trip started in Kyrgyzstan and we’ve traveled through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and have now reached Turkmenistan. I hope these live updates will give you a sense of my Silk Road journey!

In the middle of the Karakum Desert, a roaring fire burns from deep beneath us, its flames dancing in the darkness taunting and teasing us. The walls of the oval crater drop vertically down into the abyss of fire — one careless step and you may well be on your way to hell. They named this “darvaza” (meaning “gate” in Turkmen) for good reason. In the darkness of the night, the ferocious gas crater sure looks like the gates of hell. It’s one of the most unusual sights I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world, one of those rare sights that will stay with me for years to come.

Strangely enough, the Darvaza gas craters aren’t the work of Mother Nature. Rather, they are a result of Soviet-era gas exploration that went terribly wrong in the 1950s. The three craters were all artificially created by gas exploration — today, one contains bubbling mud, another shallow one contains underground water, while the most impressive one is ablaze with fire visible from miles away. It’s said that scientists were concerned with the effects of the gas on nearby villages and so had lit up the crater with fire, hoping it would burn out after a few days. But now more than sixty years later, it’s still burning bright. Rumor has it that the burning gas crater may be put out for the government to continue gas exploration — so be sure to get there soon, before it disappears forever.

Sunset at the crater is a powerful sight, but by night, the fire crater is even more spectacular. Here are some shots from the gas craters both in the evening light and by night — regardless of the time of the day, the fire crater never fails to impress.

Darvaza burning gas crater by day

Before sunset, the light from the fire was already blinding.

A different angle

The fire crater has a diameter of approximately 70m and depth of around 50m.

Me standing by the edge

Standing by the edge of the gas crater is quite an exhilarating sensation.

Burning brightly by night

As night falls, the flames look even brighter.

Fire crater at night

The gates of hell indeed.

In contrast

I took a photo of my travel mate standing next to the crater to show the contrast.

The water crater

Another gas crater that’s filled with water springing up from beneath the ground.

The bubbling mud crater

The smallest crater of all is filled with bubbling mud.

Bubbling mud

Mud bubbling up from underground, producing a powerful sulphur smell.

How to get to Darvaza:

The Darvaza gas craters are located in the heart of the vast and remote Karakum Desert. Getting to the crater require off-road driving and it’s easy to get lost or stuck in the dunes. Most people visit on a tour. There are no hotels in the area, most visitors camp in sheltered areas around the crater.

I traveled to Darvaza as part of  an overlanding trip with Oasis Overland. Over a period of two months, our group of travelers are traveling through Central Asia on an overland truck that will see us camping in deserts and mountains, and digging up the mystery behind the Silk Road.

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Bukhara — Uzbekistan’s Holiest or Most Touristy City? http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/10/06/bukhara-uzbekistan/ http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/10/06/bukhara-uzbekistan/#comments Mon, 06 Oct 2014 14:00:06 +0000 http://www.wildjunket.com/?p=17469 The dome of Mir-i-Arab medressaWith a history spanning a thousand years, Bukhara is dubbed Central Asia’s holiest city by many publications including Lonely Planet. As part of my Silk Road journey with Oasis Overland, we spent some time in Bukhara, learning about its history and much revered architectural marvels. The collection of medressas, minarets and mosques was outstanding and […]

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 I’m currently traveling through Central Asia and am updating this blog on the road. Forgive me if they’re short and snippety. Our trip started in Kyrgyzstan and we’ve traveled through Kazakhstan and have now reached Uzbekistan. I hope these live updates will give you a sense of my Silk Road journey! 

With a history spanning a thousand years, Bukhara is dubbed Central Asia’s holiest city by many publications including Lonely Planet. As part of my Silk Road journey with Oasis Overland, we spent some time in Bukhara, learning about its history and much revered architectural marvels. The collection of medressas, minarets and mosques was outstanding and definitely deserving of UNESCO World Heritage status, yet I wasn’t quite as charmed by it as I’d thought I would be.

Granted, the compact lived-in old center was indeed impressive, with a conglomeration of bazaars, caravanserais and medressas within walking distance of one another. Restoration work by the Uzbek government was subtle and indiscriminate, unlike those in Samarkand, and the monuments in Bukhara remain authentic and original. It’s therefore no surprise that Bukhara has earned quite a reputation for itself in the travel circuit and it’s drawing more tourists than you would imagine.

I had no idea that Uzbekistan was this popular with travelers until I saw the bus-loads of tourists that descended upon the city, led by umbrella-toting, multilingual guides. The city’s attractions are all packed with souvenir shops (yes, behind the beautiful facades of the medressas are often just shops) and the vendors even speak a flurry of European languages. After a few days in the city, the large crowds and constant hassling from shopkeepers eventually got to me.

But just like many popular places in the world, if you can look past the crowd and touts, the beauty of the city is undeniable. Here’s a glance at the side of Bukhara that I love —  free of tourists and touts.

The dome of Mir-i-Arab medressa

The stunning dome of the Mir-i-Arab Medressa in Bukhara.

Mir-i-Arab, one of the only working medressas in Bukhara

The Mir-i-Arab medressa, one of the 11 working medressas (Islamic schools) in Uzbekistan. I started an interesting conversation with a young lad there who told me how prestigious the school is and how difficult it is to get a place in there.

Oldest mosque in Uzbekistan

Maghoki-Attar Mosque, the oldest mosque in Bukhara dating from the 12th century.

The Ulugbek Medressa lined with souvenir shops on its entrance

The Ulugbek Medressa lined with souvenir shops.

A caravanserai from those Silk Road days

A caravanserai from the Silk Road era.

Walls of the Ark

Walls of the Ark, a royal fort built to defend the city.

The Kalyan minaret and mosque

An icon of the city: the Kalyan minaret and mosque

Elaborate Arabic carvings on the Kalyan Minaret

Elaborate Arabic carvings on the Kalyan Minaret.

An intricately carved door in the alleys of the Old Town Bukhara

A beautifully carved door in Bukhara.

Kilim carpets on display

Kilim carpets on display.

There is no shortage of souvenir shops in Bukhara

There are no shortage of souvenir shops in Bukhara.

An artisan showing off his skills

An artisan shows off his skills in metalwork.

An artisan working on copper

Carving floral patterns on brass plates requires special skills.

A kind souvenir shop owner who invited me to have chai and samsas with him and never forced me to buy any of his hats!

A kind souvenir shop owner who invited me to have chai and samsas with him and never forced me to buy any of his hats!

How to get to Bukhara:

I traveled to Samarkand as part of an overlanding trip with Oasis Overland. Over a period of two months, our group of travelers are traveling through Central Asia on an overland truck that will see us camping and cooking along the way. I chose this option instead of independent travel in order to see more of the backcountry of Central Asia and experience the countries on a closer level.

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