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Hiking the Tiger’s Nest

Tiger’s Nest, Bhutan ©PROGöran Höglund (Kartläsarn)/Flickr

Last year we received this wonderful letter from one of our travelers, John Monahan. His beautiful story about a trek to The Tiger’s Nest Monastery—a famous Himalayan Buddhist sacred site and temple perched high on a cliff in Bhutan—reminds all of us here at Friendly Planet why we do what we do! This experience will stay with John the rest of his life, and we’re humbled to be a part of it.

Dear Friendly Planet,

I am sending you this because I want to share an experience that I had hiking to Tiger’s Nest monastery high in the Himalayas, the Mecca for Buddhism in this part of the world. I had many good experiences in Bhutan, but this one in particular was really special. You see, I was supposed to spend the last two days in Paro, the town below the monastery, before leaving Bhutan for Bangkok. But my flight in Bumthang was cancelled because of rain and the only road was not passable because of rock slides. Luckily, I was able to get on a late afternoon charter the following day, but that also meant I only had one night in Paro. Turns out, this was not enough time to visit the Tiger’s Nest, because my guide, Karma (I hope that I am spelling his name correctly), said that we would need at least five hours to complete the hike; the flight to Bangkok was at 1PM. So I asked if I could do the hike at 5AM. He agreed, even though he didn’t think that we would make it to the top in time.


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Havana’s Malecón, a stunning Sea Wall

We think experiencing the authentic side of Cuba is a bucket list item every traveler should check off! That’s why, as one of the first US tour companies to have been awarded a People-to-People license for Cuba travel, we’ve worked hard to send thousands of American travelers to Cuba to participate in unique, inspiring, and affordable encounters with the Cuban people. Recently, we asked one of our fabulous Cuba Tour Managers, Gary White, to tell us about one iconic Havana landmark that really immerses you in the ‘authentic’ Cuba.

Sunset at the Sea Wall ©Ashu Mathura/Flickr

For decades, as a forbidden country to US citizens, Cuba was only in our imaginations. We had seen pictures of 1950s classic American cars plying down the dark streets of a crumbling Havana, or of an enthusiastic Fidel Castro gesturing to the masses as military trucks pulling missiles passed in review. And, of course, the island was riddled with aged women who enjoyed oversized cigars tilting down from one side of their mouths.

For newly arriving Americans who catch a tour bus from the airport into Havana, the images are largely confirmed. You see a bright pink Ford Thunderbird in the airport parking lot. On the way to Old Havana, you pass right by Revolution Square where the iconic image of Che Guevara is affixed onto one of the buildings flanking the public gathering area. Deeper into the heart of the city, the density of people will be increasing and sidewalks will become crowded. For the tourists, there really are women with unnecessarily large cigars! Vibrant colors and flamboyant personalities clearly reflect your understanding of what Cubanos are supposed to be like. But nothing, no building, ghost of Castro, or a beautifully restored 1956 Chevy will confirm you are in Havana, Cuba than when you turn onto the Malecón.

Havana: Wandering the Streets, Colorful Cubans, and Vintage Rides

The Malecón, or “sea wall”, is actually Avenida de Maceo. It is a five-mile-long sea wall, road, bench, gathering place, protector of the city, and icon of Havana that will race your heart upon seeing it. This is where all the photographs you have seen were taken, where waves hit and crash upward and over the taxis that drive along its avenue. Yep! This is Havana! You recognize the Malecón immediately and you feel compelled to linger and just take it all in.

This is the meeting place for young Habaneros seeking private time among the hoard of other youth as each plays out a calling as a paramour. In a city where most homes are multigenerational, a young couple in love must find another location to be alone and the Malecón’s protective wall shields them from the Atlantic’s waves and grandmother’s eyes. If you want to meet the next generation of Cuba, walk the Malecón on a weekend night. You do not need to skip your dinner to promenade, for the wall will be busy until 3 AM with diehards there until 4.

The Malecón protects the city from the waves generated when the winds blow from the north. Sometimes, the spray from a crashing wave can reach forty to fifty feet high. When such meteorological conditions exist, the roadway along the Malecón will be closed due to flooding. It is a never-ending battle to remain ahead of the decay, and repairs to the wall are constant.

Fishing along the Malecón ©Young Shanahan /Flickr

But, when conditions are friendly, old men and boys will cast their lures into the water in hopes of catching the family’s dinner. Couples, straight, gay, and lesbian will hold hands as they sit on the barricade and gaze out across the water and sunset. Those Cubans who have made plans to move to the United States will tell their friends in code that they are “moving to Malecón and ninety.” For ninety miles north of the Malecón is Florida.

Looking at the youth draping themselves along the iconic wall, a visitor catches a glimpse of the future of Cuba. It is frequently stated that to get to Cuba from the US, a traveler must journey ninety miles and fifty years. These young people will be living in a world we will never be able to visit, and so we are left to our imagination. After all, even the most talented traveler cannot move through time. But here, on the Malecón, is where the journey begins. As we recognize our journey’s end only arrives at a new beginning, our intuition affirms that, to be part of such an adventure, even if we only witness the first steps, confirms where we are, where we have been, and who we have become.

Lovers near the Sea Wall (Left), A Trumpet Player finds a Performance Spot (Right) ©Wagner T Cassimiro/Flickr (Left Photo)


Singapore: Five Cultures in One

Singapore skyline © Singapore Tourism

The sun rises on Singapore, an island-nation only miles away from its neighbor, Malaysia. Morning rays reflect on breathtaking modern architecture, from gleaming towers to fascinating futuristic structures, dotted with glowing colored lights as day breaks. But beneath the rush of this 21st Century wonder there is a treasure trove of ancient cultures, each quietly thriving and making their mark on Singapore. As morning breaks, temple bells and bustling markets ready for the day.

Singapore, whose name is derived from ancient Sanskrit meaning “Lion City”, began humbly as a trading post for the East India Trading Company and was officially founded by British statesman Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819. Though only 1,000 people were on the island when he arrived, the population quickly exploded—bringing commerce and industry to the relatively untouched land. The new markets for tin and trade brought Indian, Chinese, and Malay workers to Singapore, and cultural neighborhoods sprang up across the city. From the moment it began, multiculturalism has defined this island-nation.

Today, Indian, Chinese, Arab, Malay, and European elements are woven together in a rich tapestry of Singaporean life. From food and architecture to religion, and language—visitors are treated to a kaleidoscope of cultures.

Maxwell Food Center / Hainanese Chicken Rice © Singapore Tourism / © Jon Ashton


One doesn’t need to look much further than food to see the impact of Singapore’s melting pot. If you only have time for one meal in Singapore, you have to check out one of the hawker centers, which are open-air food centers serving a variety of fresh, traditional dishes at individual food stalls. One example is found in Chinatown, the Maxwell Food Centre, which features more than 100 food stalls! Hawkers sell hungry tourists and locals alike a plethora of signature dishes from Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken and Rice and Cantonese-style fish bee hoon soup to Shanghainese style tim-sum dumplings and Fuzhou oyster cakes. Last year, two hawker stalls, “Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle” and “Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle”,  were each awarded a Michelin star—one of the highest honors in the culinary world and the first time in the history of the guide that a star was given to a food stall! The star dishes cost about US$3.00 each—making Singapore the least expensive place in the world to enjoy a Michelin-starred meal! Across the city, hundreds of hawker centers and markets not only provide traditional Malaysian, Chinese, and Indian favorites but also provide a variety of scrumptious Halal options for those with religious dietary restrictions, as well as Turkish, Thai, and Mediterranean fare. (Check out our post on 10 street foods you must try in Singapore!)

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, Singapore


Singapore is one of the world’s most religiously diverse nations. This diversity has created a striking juxtaposition which delights visitors with serene Buddhist monasteries, intriguing and colorful Hindu temples, intricately decorated mosques, and beautiful Christian churches. Found in Singapore’s Chinatown, The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple (a modern structure built in the Tang dynasty architectural style) displays thousands of artworks related to Buddha and Buddhism, in addition to the Buddha tooth relic. Wander through Little India to discover the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, one of the oldest Hindu Temples in Singapore, dedicated to the goddess and destroyer of evil. And no walk through the historic district of Kampong Glam would be complete without stopping to admire one of Singapore’s most prominent religious buildings—the Sultan Mosque. It’s soaring golden domes are decorated with glass bottle ends, donated by poor Muslims during its construction so that not just the rich could contribute!

What is "Shiok?"


To facilitate harmony in this multi-ethnic destination, the Singaporean government recognizes four official languages: English, Tamil, Mandarin and Malay. Perhaps the most intriguing language spoken in Singapore though, is Singlish. This colloquial Singaporean English shares many similarities with pidgin varieties of English, and is a perfect reflection of Singapore: diverse, creative, and expressive! Colorful phrases like “anything lor” (a typical response if you have no idea what you want), “no link” (a Singaporean way of describing something completely irrelevant to the topic), and “shiok” (an exclamation of joy and excitement) can be heard from locals of all heritage and culture. And if you still don’t understand—try “catch no ball”, a Singlish phrase meaning “to not understand.” What did he say? I catch no ball!

From exciting cultural encounters, colorful people, and diverse cultures—experience all that Singapore has to offer and more on one of our exciting tours!

#FriendlyFiles: Denise explores Ireland!

Recently our Groups Manager, Denise Barnes, traveled to Ireland to meet with our partners on the ground there and experience all that the Emerald Isle has to offer!

Dublin Musicians © Tourism Ireland
I grew up in London, but this was my first trip to Ireland! I can’t believe I hadn’t made the trip before, and from the moment I arrived, I fell in love. Its diversity, people, traditions, and history—and yes, more shades of green than can be counted—made for an unforgettable trip. There were so many amazing experiences, but here are a few that stood out the most:
Epic Ireland, Dublin © Tourism Ireland

1 Epic Ireland: The Irish Emigration Museum, Dublin

Arriving at the Irish Emigration Museum was truly a 21st century experience. It was inspiring to hear and see the stories of millions of Irish emigrants who left for all corners of the globe (including the U.S.) on display as we wandered through this modern museum. With more than twenty exhibits, it helped me really understand more about Ireland and its colorful history—including how Irish emigrants have influenced and shaped the world both in the past and today!

#FriendlyFiles: 5 Favorite Experiences in Havana

Recently Katie, Friendly Planet’s Cuba Program Coordinator, traveled to one of our hottest destinations: Havana, Cuba! Check out her top five favorite moments included on our Authentic Havana tour!

Muraleando Photo by Dan Lundberg

1 Muraleando

You can’t miss the building of Muraleando; its mural/mosaic artwork stretches out into the streets, extending its impact to anyone who passes by! Muraleando, literally meaning ‘mural-making’, was started by local artists Manuel Diaz Baldrich and Ernesto Quirch Paz with the intention of giving at-risk youth motivation to improve themselves and their community. Their workshop, originally an abandoned and rusty water tower, has become a beautiful public space through the collaborative creativity! (more…)

Four Seasons in the Land of the Rising Sun

CHECK IT OUT: Travelers often ask “when is the best time to visit Japan?” Everyone knows about the high and low season… but the truth is: Japan is amazing 365 days a year! From blossoms to snowfall (and every season in between!) there’s something unique to experience all year long.

Like a beautiful bonsai tree, we’ve spent years cultivating our classic Japan packages to give you the very best this ancient country has to offer—no matter what time of year you visit! Learn more about our packages.

Sakura along Chidori-ga-Fuchi, Tokyo in spring (more…)

8 reasons to see South Africa

South Africa is a truly exceptional travel destination. Few places on earth offer such an alluring variety of gorgeous scenery, historical relevance, modern cities, and world-class wildlife viewing. And we’ve found that while words can begin to describe the thrill of tracking game in a private reserve, or the peaceful moment at dusk as the setting sun silhouettes Table Mountain on a purple sky, it’s pictures that ultimately do the country justice (and visiting too!). If you’re looking for something to jump start your South Africa wanderlust, look no further!

Ready for your own South African adventure? We have South Africa tours for any style and budget. Join us!

Watching Cape Buffaloes on safari (more…)