Monday, July 9, 2018

New Year's In Chicago

    New Year's eve or day is by far my favorite holiday. I think maybe this is because for a long stretch between being a bartender and a cop I wasn't allowed to have the holiday off. But now for the last 11 or so years I have spent New Year's in a different city or country every year. Australia is the only continent I have not spent New Year's on and that is soon to change ;)

   Anyway, I decided to ring 2018 in by going to Chicago. I had did a big NYE the prior year in Egypt and try to do one small, one big on my NYE rotations. Like many of my trips I was told by some friends and of course tripadvisor trolls DON'T GO TO CHICAGO FOR NEW YEAR'S IT'S TOO COLD!!! Well, one, I love to go places in off peak season to see the real city vs the tourist city, two, it's a lot cheaper this way, and three, I don't decide what day New Year's can fall on.

    Now going in I had a tough guy attitude about the cold, I mean, I grew up in New York City, I've been to Moscow and St. Petersburg in the winter time. Iceland, the Swiss alps, Alaska etc... how cold can it be? I will say here for the record, to this stay standing at 44 countries and thousands of cities, Chicago New Years was by far the coldest place I had ever experienced. I could not walk a few streets without having to walk into a store and pretend to be interested in buying something just to warm up! But that aside, I can also 100 percent say to this day, Chicago was by far my best domestic New Year's ever.

    Here's my points on what made it awesome for me, where I saved a ton of money and where I decided to spend a little more than usual!

  • One of my friends was awesome and got me the Chicago CityPASS, you definitely want to pick it up as there are several packages, this one covered all my museum visits, and of course the must do in Chicago the visit to the top of the  Willis Tower.

  • Luckily summer was several months away because my diet fell off the wagon like a case of booze during prohibition, deep dish pizza, and Italian beef sandwich are must eats. Make sure you request the sandwich wet. I will say for the deep dish I ate at 3 places Pizzeria Uno which reminded me of my childhood at the one in Brooklyn which tasted exactly the same, Lou Malnati's which tasted exactly the same as the one in Phoenix, and Giordano's which tasted exactly the same as Uno's and Giordano's. I'm not knocking any of these, they were all delicious, but what I am saying is don't worry too much over which one you pick. It will be a great pie any which way. 


  • Night life does not stop in minus what feels like 50 degree weather. Every night there is a bar or club to find great drinks, dancing and people after you ate too much pizza.
  • By going off peak season I saved a ton on the hotel, and yes hotel! I rarely book hotels but The River Hotel was significantly cheaper than Airbnb, had a gym, laundry, and free coffee/cappuccino/snack bar at only $75 a night! It's over $250 a night in peak season!
  • Another benefit of peak season I had heard from my friends for years about the shopping/visitor area Navy Pier, it's one thing to go when everyone is there but it was also such a unique and completely free experience to go there and be the only guy standing there, breathing in the cold air and admiring the beauty of the frozen lake Michigan in front of me.

  • Of course visiting most place over New Year's will have some great Christmas sightings and decor as well for free. I stopped by the good old bean this day and later their big Christmas tree.

  • Touring the museums, eating the great food, drinking too much at night, and seeing the famous places were all great, but to finish out 2017 I wanted to do something really special, so to splurge on the trip December 31st I took my first flight lesson for about $300. I went through Windy City Aviation and did everything except land! I had originally not wanted to do it on the 31st to not screw over the pilot's holiday but cold weather rescheduled us and he said it worked out better for him anyway, I gave a good tip too of course. The photos will not explain the feeling of flying over downtown Chicago and seeing this beautiful city on the last day of the year. Needless to say money very well spent! 

  • And last but certainly not least, anyone who has been in my house knows my all time favorite painting in this world is The Old Guitarist by Pablo Picasso 1904. A replica hangs in my living room and it had been my dream for over 20 years to see it in person. That dream became a reality the same morning of my flight. It was bigger than I expected both in size and in awe it struck on me. I had 2 hours or so to spend in the museum and spent 30 minutes on one painting out of the thousands there. To be able to see the fine details of the strokes, to feel the sadness of the blue period, see the hidden painting underneath which doesn't show in photos, and feel the spirit of Picasso himself right there was like no other art experience in my life. 2018 would bring so much into my life, what a great way to start it.

 Choose the continent!!!!

Friday, May 25, 2018

Journey To Monument Valley

    I've always known about this epic place since I moved to Arizona, but I also knew it wasn't close to me at a 5 hour drive. Now of course I've gone to places much further, but for some reason or other this trip was put off for a long time. Finally a string of events in planned wrong my work week and life week led to two free days off unexpectedly. What do I do I thought?

    I lived in New York City for 25 years before I became a traveler, I had a few domestic trips under my belt to close by places but even in New York I didn't get the benefits that I could get today in 25 days of sightseeing and exploring. Since I've left New York I've found out about a good 20 spots I'd love to check out either in the city or in the general area, some of which I vaguely knew of, some of which I had no idea were right under my nose, that being said, that was my inspiration to just kick out to Monument Valley, I took New York City for granted with exploring when I had the chance. I won't be in Arizona forever so I must enjoy all of it's beauty while I still can.

     So I got in my car (which I was afraid may not make it) and drove. I decided to break it up since it's at least a 5 hour drive, I didn't wanna drive 10 hours in one day. But I will tell you don't listen to reviews, a 1 day trip is totally possible leaving early and coming back same day. It will just suck driving that much in one day. I stayed overnight at Tuba City which seemed to be the only place relatively close that had a hotel. I paid a whopping $150 to stay at an American chain hotel. Very against my credo as a World Traveler but again it was the only thing I could find in the 2 hour window I had to decide if I was even going to be able to do the trip and again I thought about things I missed in New York because I made excuses.

     Now if you don't go last minute as I did, there are some great options on Airbnb to stay in traditional Native American huts that you wake up with the Monument Valley monoliths staring at you. They are a little pricey for no water, but no more than I paid for the American chain hotel if you plan ahead. On a lower budget you have the campgrounds also on site.

     You pay a fee to the reservation to enter, if you were REALLY in a rush you can see good stuff from the road for free like the photo above, but I can't imagine being right there and not paying $20 to see this amazing place a little closer. There is a guest center/restaurant and hotel as you enter. Mandatory to either have a coffee before or after you leave on the deck. I was mind blown how many people sat in the restaurant on a good weather day with a totally empty deck.

    Now the road, you will read reviews on hiring a guide or not if you don't have 4 wheel drive... I saw plenty of 2 wheel drive cars driving on the dirt road at least at the beginning of the 17 mile trail. So it's doable... but I personally didn't wanna pay for a tow truck to get my car off the reservation, plus remember I said I didn't know if my car was going to make it on the freeway to start as it's getting older!

    So what did I do? Well I'm not a big fan of guided tours, as I usually prefer to self tour, and I didn't wanna drive my car on the dirt, so I just walked it. And I mean walk, not hike. It's a very easy walk. I didn't do the full 17 miles as it will be very repetitive and honestly you can just go to the guest center and get a great experience. But it was nice to walk the path and feel the soul of the Native American spirit still alive and well in this amazing and historical place. 

     Then the good old drive back. A bit boring but I listened to almost the whole U2 catalog round trip as I was going to see my favorite band that very weekend in Las Vegas. Now here I will note, the drive was boring for me, it won't be boring for everyone. I've lived here for 11 years so after extensive research I saw that I had pretty much done everything I could on this drive. For someone who has never been there's a lot of great places to stop on the way, Flagstaff being a mandatory. But if you have been here forever like me, and just wanna see the Monuments, go. It was so worth it! 

 Choose the continent!!!!


Wednesday, May 23, 2018

3 Weeks in Vietnam

     2 years ago me and some friends had an amazing trip in Thailand, as always as budget travelers we didn't have the luxury of staying in South East Asia forever and had to get back home to work and other obligations, but countless travelers there told us about their time on the same journey to Vietnam. We knew we would have to come back to this wonderful region of the world. Cut to January 2018...

    When anyone has asked me this year, how was your trip to Vietnam? My answer has been the same, "It's was so damn good, that it ruined my year. Nam set the bar so high I don't really know if anything this year is going to top it!" As we found a flight round trip from Arizona for only $600 the deal was sealed that we were going. To this date in 20+ years of domestic and international travel but mileage that is the cheapest flight I have ever taken. I paid $500 to fly to visit my Uncle in North Carolina and 1 year later I'm paying another $100 to go to Vietnam. Crazy... Anyway... We had plenty of time to plan this trip out before we departed, during this time I was really sick, but luckily it gave me countless hours to research on the computer what we were going to do during our time here, here's my top Vietnam pleasures/advice:
  • No time is too short. As always if you only have a week, go a week, don't let anyone tell you that you need to explore the whole country, I am glad we got to see as much as we did, but had we only been to Saigon I would still be writing this was the best trip of 2018! If you have time to see it all...
  • Old City Hanoi is a great base for the northern city, night clubs, shops, theaters, and museums. We saw the famous water puppet show, saw some insane architecture, visited the Vietnam War Prisons, got $3 massages, and partied with the locals in both bars and night clubs.


Water puppet show

  • And of course check out the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum for history


  • No stop up north is complete without a trip to Halong Bay. Halong Bay is undoubtedly beautiful, but I think too many people spend too much time here, 1 or 2 nights is all you need. I would definitely splurge on a house boat stay. We kayaked the bay, and did a little boat party, but the main thing you want to really enjoy Halong Bay is to just sit down and appreciate the beauty.

    Bar on house boat
  • Dive into the local food, of course you are going to have Pho, but I tried to eat almost everything that wasn't seafood. At really local restaurants they will sit you down on a tiny seat outside with whoever is there already, not ask what you want and just serve the food they are cooking. Not only was it delicious it only cost $0.25!
  • Visiting Temples is an obvious highlight, they are in just about every city, some more famous than others. None of them broke the bank.

  • Central Vietnam Caves.... Hang En, Son Doong: We did the Hang En cave tour as Son Doong was too long and too expensive. Hang En was the priciest thing we did this whole journey (about $350 each) but WELL WELL WELL worth it. It's not an easy hike, mountains, muddy, jungles, etc,while carrying your bags, but when you reach the caves, it's a place like no other in the world. 
One of the best meals on the trip was home cooking in a cave with our guides!

  •  Uber is going to be your best friend rather than conventional taxis which rip off tourists world wide. We started taking normal Uber for about $1 a ride, then went luxury with Uber Black for $2 a ride! And when one of us was rolling solo Uber moto all the way for about a quarter!

  • Besides local Vietnam food, international cuisine was pennies on the dollar, we ate at a Steak House in Hanoi that would likely cost close to $100 here in the USA, it was $15 there each for steaks with alcoholic beverages.
  • Tour the Vietnam war tunnels, and try to fit in them if you can!


  • We ended our journey with Saigon aka Ho Chi Minh City, if there was a city for me to live in this region of the world, Saigon is it. We visited the museums, got custom tailored suits, ate both gourmet and local food, did some shopping, hit the gym, met tons of great people, partied on Bui Vien street as well as more local spots, and that was just the first Monday ;)
Bui Ven gets pretty crazy, brace yourself!

Rocking out my custom shirts from Phan's Custom Tailor


  • Last day in Saigon we hit the Bitexo Financial, aka Saigon Tower, great ending!


  • Oh did I mention that on that sick Air China deal, we got to do a 16 hour layover in Beijing, just enough time to leave the airport, viist the Great Wall (which was nearly empty as it was freezing!), toboggan slide down, and head back to USA.

     I think the best thing that made this trip so amazing was the diversity. Every 2 days it was like a completely different journey, one day in basement night clubs in Saigon, the next day hiking thru a jungle, the next day spending a whole day in museums, etc. The trip total was less than what most of my friends spend in a weekend in Las Vegas. But of course it takes longer to get to Vietnam, but for me the journey is always worth it. 

     There are some places that you wanna see once, and others that you know you will want to go back before you even get there. I thought Vietnam was going to be a one and done, I can say now, that every part of me wants to go back. But for now, this place holds an epic spot in my heart.

Just a couple of locals on the streets of Vietnam

 Choose the continent!!!!

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Cambodia, it's not just about Angkor Wat!

      Ahhh, look at the photo above, good old Angkor Wat, the reason we all come to Siemp Reap, maybe even the reason you come to Cambodia altogether. But I can tell you on a month long trip in South East Asia, the week we spent in Cambodia had so much more to offer than just the temples. And don't get me wrong, Angkor Wat is amazing, and certainly visit, but we spent only a day visiting the temples and spent the rest of the time seeing the actual city, visiting other attractions, and more important meeting the people. Here's my go to advice on making the most out of your time in Cambodia and of course doing it on a middle class travelers budget!

  • To even say budget feels funny, Cambodia is one of the cheapest places i have ever been, the deals are non stop. We stayed in a 4 bedroom airbnb condo/mansion about a 5 minute tuk tuk ride or 15 minute walk to pub street, which is definitely where you will want to be around. Total cost was about $60 a night total,

  • Pub Street is where it's at for the nigh life of course, but by day you can enjoy $1 massages, day markets, night markets, local food, as well as international cuisine, souvenirs, strange food like fried spiders, and of course a fish massage! It tickles a lot just to warn you!

  • By night the choices of where to party on Pub St are unlimited, it starts getting crowded around 6pm and some nights goes till 7am! Save some money and enjoy a few drinks at the Tuk Tuk bars before the main event!

  • The floating village was another highlight, but as always it wasn't the tour that made it, it was our guides, we ended up cutting the tour half way to just go drink beer on a house boat with the rest of his friends. But I will say before happy hour began, the sites are amazing to see how the people live there. A definite do not miss.

  • Another day we headed out to rural Cambodia for an Ox Cart village tour, this was probably the most culturally immersive part of the trip besides the house boat party, you meet locals, visit inside their homes, see how they live off the land, you really feel like a cousin or distant relative rather than a tourist. Well okay maybe we stuck out a little...

  • Visiting the markets is of course another must do, but lucky for you they are everywhere so you won't need to go out of the way to find one! Prices are of course always negotiable, but personally I rarely negotiate a super cheap price, the extra dollar I would save to buy a stick of gum in my country will go a lot farther for the person I am giving it to. This pic below may have been my best ever, it was free.

  • We paid respects as well at the killing fields from the Cambodian genocide.

  • Your money will go very far in Cambodia, so for a rare change we ate at very upscale restaurants. We generally used TripAdvisor or google reviews to pick them. And as dining is a cyclical business I'll leave choices up to you when you are there, but it was nice for a change from always eating street food and bar food to be able to go to a nice restaurant and order anything you want without remotely thinking it was going to affect your budget.
   All of that was great, some notable things we didn't do because we didn't have time was shoot a rocket launcher in the jungle and take the microlight flight over the city. Maybe next time. But as always, the best part wasn't about the sights, it was about the locals. I want to thank my friend Chanta I met and her sisters for making the trip one I will never forget. We saw the Siem Reap beyond Pub St and beyond Angkor Wat. Some of these nights were under the influence of local beer and I unfortunately can't remember all the details to repost! But I do know that when you meet a genuine Cambodian that is ready to show you his or her country, the back alleys, the homes, the local restaurants no backpacker will ever see, the towns that lead to the city center, etc... You will feel for just a glimpse, what it is truly like to be a part of this amazing country. 

 Choose the continent!!!!