10 places to celebrate Chinese New Year

Chinese New YearChinese New Year occurs in the early months of our calendar year, typically January or February and this year falls on January 23rd. This is the first of 15 days of celebration and the start of the Year of the Dragon.

Chinese New Year (also called the Lunar New Year) is the longest and most important festivity in the Chinese calendar and a time to welcome longevity, wealth and prosperity and to eliminate any negative chi from the past.

The origin of Chinese New Year taps several myths and traditions and is officially celebrated in countries and territories such as Mainland China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Macau, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, and also in Chinatowns elsewhere. Chinese New Year is considered a major holiday for the Chinese and has had influence on the lunar new year celebrations of its geographic neighbors.

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Chinese New Year is also celebrated just about anywhere there are significant Chinese populations too.

In the UK, many shops, bars and restaurants in London will be participating in the celebrations, with big events held in Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square and most importantly, Chinatown.

In the United States, the San Francisco Chinese New Year celebration is now the largest Asian event in North America as well as the largest general market event in Northern California. The celebration includes two major fairs, the Chinese New Year Flower Fair and Chinatown Community Street Fair. All the festivities culminate with Chinese New Year Parade.

Flickr photo by xiquinhosilva


Chinese New Year in Bangkok

10 countries Americans need advance visas to visit

advance visaWe live in an increasingly borderless world and we have access to many countries that were closed (or non-existent) 20 years ago. As reported earlier this week, Americans are especially lucky with access to 169 countries visa free. Still, there are still many countries that Americans need advance visas to visit. Visa applications and processing services can cost several hundreds of dollars and take a lot of time and energy to obtain, so figure in that into your travel planning but don’t let it discourage you from visiting.

Nearly all countries in Africa, the Caribbean, Central America, Western Europe, and the Middle East will give you a visa free or for a fee on arrival. See below for our guide to countries you will need to apply for advance visas, along with fees, useful information and links to consular websites.
Asia

  • China: US citizens pay $130 for tourist visas, single- or multiple-entry up to 24 months from date of application. Keep in mind a trip to Hong Kong or Macau counts as an exit from China, so plan on a multiple-entry visa if you’ll be in and out. You’ll need to send your actual passport in for processing and ideally plan 1-2 months in advance of travel.
  • India: Fees from visa contractor Travisa start at $50 and visas can be valid for up to 10 years, but note that you must have a gap of at least 2 months between entries.
  • Vietnam: Single-entry visas start at $70 and multiple-entry visas are valid for up to one year. Another option for Americans is a single-entry visa on arrival, apply online and pay another stamping fee at the airport.
  • North Korea: Not an easy one for Americans as there are no consular relations between the two countries, but it is possible if you go through a specialist travel agency such as New Korea Tours and realize you’ll be visiting only on a highly-restricted and guided group tour. Note that you’ll have to go through China, requiring another visa of course!
  • See also: Afghanistan, Bhutan, Pakistan

Eurasia

  • Russia: Russian visa rules are quite strict and complicated, so you’ll need to have a solid itinerary set up before you apply as visas are valid for specific dates and not extendable. You’ll need a sponsorship for your visa, typically provided by your hotel or tour operator for a small fee, and you’ll register your visas once in the country. Fees start at $140 and applications should now be filled out online. Tourist visas are generally only valid for two weeks and even if you are just traveling through Russia, you’ll need a transit visa.
  • Belarus: Similar to Russian rules, a letter of invitation must be provided from an official travel agency in order to get a visa. You also have to show proof of medical insurance and financial means (about $15 USD/day, can be demonstrated with credit cards or paid travel arrangements). Tourist visas start at $140 and $100 for transit visas. Gadling writer Alex Robertson Textor is currently planning a trip, stay tuned for his report next month.
  • Azerbaijan: The country changed its visa policy last year, and now Americans must obtain an advance visa. You’ll need an invitation from an Azerbaijan travel agency, then a tourist visa costs $20 and takes 10 business days to process. Transit visas don’t require an invitation letter but should still be obtained in advance of travel.
  • See also: Turkmenistan

Other

  • Australia: Getting a tourist visa is simple and cheap ($20). Apply online at any point in advance and you’ll be verified at the airport. Valid for as many entries as needed for 12 months from date of application.
  • Brazil: Tourist visas are $140 plus $20 if you apply by mail or through an agency. If you are self-employed or jobless, you’ll need to provide a bank account balance, and all applications should include a copy of your round trip tickets or other travel itinerary.
  • Iran: There’s a current travel warning from the US state department, but Rick Steves is a fan of the country and several reputable travel agencies provide tours for Americans. The US consulate notes that some Americans with visas have been turned away, so your best bet is to visit with a group.
  • See also: Nigeria, Paraguay, Saudi Arabia, Suriname

The good news for expats, students studying abroad, and other foreigners with residency is that many countries will allow you to apply in a country other than your home country for a visa. For example, I traveled to Russia from Turkey, getting my visa from a travel agency in Istanbul without sending my passport back to the US. Always check the US state department website for the latest visa information and entry requirements.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Thomas Claveirole.

Top 10 Hong Kong experiences

Hong Kong is all about balance. Nature and steel. Silt and sparkle. Yin and Yang. This masterpiece of divergences is a Feng shui city bereft of boring angles or a predictable head turn. Spicy aromas billow from a flaming street wok. An animated hawker peddles jade from a humble stoop, his wispy beard blowing in a gust from a passing double-decker. In a corner office sixty floors up, a suited banker creates eastern wealth like a modern day alchemist. Each plays a part in defining the complexities of character forged in this balancing act of humanity. Vertically, Hong Kong is man’s answer to the California redwoods – thousands of spires erupting out of the earth like a civilization on steroids. If ever mankind had something to prove, they proved it here on the banks of the South China Sea.

After the Opium Wars in the 19th century, Hong Kong became a British colony. This colonial conquest fostered Hong Kong’s character in amazing ways. Compromises were made, the city was built, and the unlikely union created a hybrid society where east met west. The Brits and the Chinese built towards the sun and created a hulking civilization. The end result is Hong Kong – a city lavished in sublime food and breathtaking vistas. It is near impossible to yawn with boredom in this extraordinary city, and these ten experiences are a great foundation to any stay in Hong Kong.


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Ascend to the Peak
Victoria Peak is the highest point on Hong Kong Island, and the panoramic view out over the steel and glass jungle is awe-inspiring. To reach the peak, follow the signs from Hong Kong central and board the peak tram which shuttles you up to the peak at an unbelievably steep angle. The Peak boasts a multilevel shopping mall, great restaurants, and some of the most expensive real estate on the planet. For food options, a disappointing Bubba Gump looms in a display of stale consumerism. Luckily, there is also a Mak’s Noodle, which serves up piping hot bowls of scrumptious wonton soup endorsed by Mr. Bourdain himself.

The Peak is a huge tourist draw. It is as mainstream as it gets and for good reason. The view is undeniably epic. Looking out across the harbor is to understand the scale of humanity.

top 10 Hong Kong Explore Tai O
The dichotomy of Hong Kong is a characteristic that is perhaps its most endearing. People assume it is only towering skyscrapers and glowing neon signs, but in actuality, Hong Kong is 40% parkland. For the yin of every bustling Kowloon intersection, Hong Kong has a peaceful yang nestled away on one of its many islands.

Tai O is a rural Chinese fishing village on the western side of Lantau Island. Lantau Island can be reached by boat or subway in a little over thirty minutes from Hong Kong Central, and Tai O can be reached by bus or taxi from the Tung Chung MTR stop on the island. Speeding from the hustle of Central to this old school fishing village frames the breadth of Hong Kong’s character. Tai O is a great place for eating fresh seafood, exploring, and even searching for elusive pink dolphins that appear occasionally just off shore. The stilt houses and country charms are a welcome respite from the urbanity of Hong Kong’s jungle of towers.

Wander Hong Kong Park
In the shadows of the steel and glass monstrosities that blanket Hong Kong Island is a very serene park. Hong Kong Park was built in 1991 at a cost of almost 400 million U.S. dollars. It was worth every penny. Boasting a surprisingly good (and free) aviary, a foot massage path, an Olympic square, several sporting areas, an artificial lake with a waterfall, and many other cool features, the park is a relaxing way to spend an afternoon. Located near the Central MTR station as well as the Peak tram station, it is very accessible and easy to find.

Dim Sum and Yum Cha
While similar in portion size and functionality to Spanish tapas, comparing dim sum to any other culinary tradition is an affront to its ancient legacy and the centuries of culture inherent in each bite. Dim sum literally means “to touch the heart.” Originating in Cantonese China, the meal was originally intended as a social snack with friends or family. As the years passed, dim sum evolved into a full blown meal to be consumed in the morning or early afternoon. Some dim sum staples include shrimp dumplings, phoenix talons, congee, and the ubiquitous barbecue pork buns.

Yum cha is a tradition with roots reaching back into the Silk Road days. Traders would stop by tea-houses for a snack and some hot tea. Translating to “drink tea,” yum cha is a term that is largely interchangeable with dim sum. Today, yum cha is the experience of drinking tea and gorging on a dim sum meal. A fantastic place to have tasty dim sum is the Michelin starred Tim Ho Wan. This restaurant may be the best place in the world to eat dim sum and is surprisingly cheap.

Shop the street markets – Ladies Market and Temple St. night market
Hong Kong is a perfect city for shoppers. One can purchase a real Vacheron Constantin watch in the Peninsula arcade for $18,000, or buy the knockoff version in one of the street markets for under a hundred dollars. Fake iPhones with lackluster functionality clutter high tables in display cases of high techno-comedy. Their smartphone brothers and sisters belittled by the mere association. If you crave Christian Louboutin shoes, then those are here too. You can buy the red soled pumps for roughly $50 if you bargain right. Of course, they are “same same but different,” which is to say they are fake. For the real thing, walk a few blocks south from the Ladies Market to Harbor City. A Louboutin boutique opened just last year – the second in Hong Kong. Expect to pay twenty times more for authenticity.

The Ladies Market is full of fake items, from Bapes to Rolexes. Selling both male and female clothing and jewelery, the market spreads out over several Mongkok blocks and is open every night. The negotiators are real professionals, so bring your “A” game and be prepared to walk away a few times to get your price. Exit the Mongkok MTR to access the Ladies Market on Tung Choi St.

The Temple Street night market is slightly less cramped than the Ladies Market and is located near the Jordan and Ya Ma Tei MTR stops. It has similar offerings to the Ladies Market, except with a wider range of strange offerings. There are also a multitude of great places to eat, and the local color is phenomenal. Hong Kong men lounge around shirtless drinking and playing cards at tables along the street.


Ride the Star Ferry
One of the greatest commutes is the world is a simple boat ride across Hong Kong harbor. The Star Ferry transports over twenty-six million passengers per year and costs about a quarter (2 HKD) for the cheapest route between Central on Hong Kong Island and Tsim Sha Tsui on the Kowloon peninsula. It has been in operation since the 19th century, and provides sublime views of both sides of the harbor. Traveling at night from Kowloon is especially colorful.

Fortune telling at Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin
Otherwise known as Wong Tai Sin Temple, the temple is dedicated to the Great Immortal Wong – an ancient Taoist who could turn stones into sheep. The temple architecture is traditional Chinese with lots of red, golden roofs, and various dragons. It is a very popular place to pray and is especially busy during the Chinese new year. It is located in Kowloon by the Wang Tai Sin MTR station.

Kau Cim is a spiritual fortune telling exercise and is extremely popular at Wong Tai Sin Temple. The process involves shaking a bamboo cylinder filled with fortune sticks until one falls out. The stick that falls out is exchanged for a corresponding fortune provided by an oracle. The temple is open from 7:00am to 5:30pm daily, and overnight on the Chinese New Year.

Ride the Ngong Ping 360 to Big Buddha
On Lantau Island, small cable cars slowly ascend to the foggy heights of Ngong Ping village and the Big Buddha. The village is largely a tourist concoction, though the nearby Po Lin Monastery has lurked in these hills for over 100 years. The Tian Tan Buddha is a massive structure – the second largest seated bronze Buddha in the world. Supposedly, it can even be seen from Macau on a clear day. Ironically, in the photo above, the Buddha can hardly be seen from just twenty feet away.

The fastest way to reach the Ngong Ping 360 is by MTR to the Tung Chung stop near the airport. From there, follow the signs to the Ngong Ping cable car station. The Ngong Ping 360 costs 115 Hong Kong dollars for a return trip, roughly $15.

Dive in to Hong Kong’s natural side
Hong Kong is almost half parkland, so there is much to do for outdoor lovers. There are hiking trails, nature parks, fishing, beaches, and even scuba diving. For hiking, Lantau hiking trail is a very popular 70km trek around luscious Lantau Island. Similar treks exist between villages on nearby Lamma Island as well. On Hong Kong island, the Dragon’s back is considered one of the top Urban treks in the world, snaking through the green backside of the densely populated island. The ramble ends near Shek O beach.

In northwestern Kowloon, the Hong Kong Wetlands park is home to several wild flora and fauna, from rare Black-faced Spoonbills to a famous croc known as Piu Piu. The Wetlands is a peaceful retreat from the city and is normally quiet on weekday afternoons.

Visit Macau
Macau is a gambling mecca for the eastern hemisphere. In China, it is common for people to toast to luck rather than health, and the Macanese casino revenue numbers spotlight this infatuation. With gaming revenue roughly four times that of Las Vegas, Macau has skyrocketed beyond its desert brethren in popularity.

The boat ride from Hong Kong is a 40 mile jaunt on high speed boats and hydrofoils from the Hong Kong Macau ferry terminal in Sheung Wan on Hong Kong island. The boats are always running, so it is possible just to show up and board, though booking in advance is wise, especially on weekends and holidays. The trip takes about an hour each way.

The Macau territory is considered a special administrative district of China and was once a Portuguese colony. As a result, the culture is a very intriguing mash-up, especially when it comes to food. Macanese cuisine is a tasty and especially unique array of western and eastern influences. This is where tapas and dim sum intersect. Try a pork chop bun or a pastel de nata.

All photography by Justin Delaney

Coolest international gambling destinations

As a connoisseur of risk, I have seen my fair share of glory and agony within the walls of lady luck. In Latin America, the casinos feel seedy and desperate, and a shower always seems to be good idea after leaving these smoky dens. Singapore casinos feel simple and clean, as though an army of robots lurks just beyond the curtain, meticulously tending to the unseen cogs that keep the experience running. Macau on an off day feels like the world just ended. Gigantic empty rooms full of smiling Macanese croupiers all enthusiastically welcome you to tables with delicate waves of upturned hands. It is like a creepy dream.

Vegas reminds me of the imitation crab in a California roll. You may know its fake, but you don’t care because it is delicious. Likewise, the Vegas pyramid, faux Eiffel Tower, and mini New York skyline are obviously not real, but the kitschy feel speaks to the synthetic appeal of the modern American dream. In Europe, the casinos are ornate old world establishments where you will feel like you forgot your velvet smoking jacket, even if you don’t own one.

So where are some of the coolest international places to thrown down on black and let it ride?

Macau, Macau
Macau was the first and last European foray into Chinese colonization. Portugal controlled the small administrative district until 1999 when they handed it back over to China. A gambling center since the mid-nineteenth century, it was once known as the “Monte Carlo of the Orient.” Today, Macau is an autonomous region of China and is considered one of the most densely populated countries in the world. The one time fishing village on the pearl delta is China’s ambitious version of Las Vegas – a sprawling complex of mega-casinos, shopping malls, and theme parks. In the Fisherman’s Wharf area, a replica of a crashed black hawk helicopter with American soldiers clutching assault rifles sits next to some faux Middle Eastern buildings (above). It is one of the stranger pop culture nods I have found in a world with no shortage for bad taste.

Macau has surpassed its stateside desert brethren in overall gaming revenues – raking in four times the revenue of Las Vegas. Macau boasts many familiar gambling franchises: Wynn, The Venetian, and MGM Grand. All are pager friendly. Also, the Casino Lisboa is an Asian classic that has been dealing hands in Macau for forty years. Macau is just an hour ferry ride away from Hong Kong.

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Marina Bay Sands, Singapore
One of the most prosperous countries in the world, Singapore is just beginning to stretch its gambling legs. With the construction of the Marina Bay Sands hotel and casino, Singapore has begun capitalizing on its unique position in Southeast Asia and the rising economic standards in this region. While the Marina Bay Sands looks like something a tsunami with a sense of humor would create, it has opened to resounding success and aesthetical complaints have been minimal. The three 55-story buildings serve as pillars for a “sky park” shaped like a boat. The building is extremely unique looking, and the views from the rooftop pool are exceptional. What do you think of the design (above) of the Marina Bay Sands?

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Monte Carlo Casino, Monaco
Monte Carlo is located in Monaco – a playground for the mega-rich nestled between the French and Italian rivieras. Pearl white yachts sway in the calm Mediterranean harbor, and the bourgeois gamble away first world fortunes on carefree whims. Opened in 1863, the Monte Carlo Casino is as old school as it gets. Men are required to wear coats and ties. Women dress formal. This is the type of place where you feel like James Bond…until you lose all of your money and shamefully walk back to your hotel.

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Baden-Baden Casino, Germany
The Black Forest of southern Germany is an unlikely place for world class gambling, but in the old bath town of Baden-Baden, gamblers wager euros inside the swank Casino Baden-Baden. The casino has a an aristocratic French air about it that is almost excessively opulent. Red carpets, crystal chandeliers, and gold moldings contribute to make this one of the most attractive casinos on the planet. Walking through the royal halls makes one feel like a working class Hapsburg. The town of Baden Baden is known for its natural baths that have been in use since Roman times. It is a really stunning city, and the Baden-Baden Casino fails to disappoint.

flickr images via justindelaney, william cho, myhsu, and m4tik

Top 20 countries for life expectancy

life expectancy

“Old people” – we all hope to live long enough to earn this distinction. In some countries, the probability of living well into your eighties is much better than in others. The worldwide average for life expectancy is just a smidge over 67, with the highest and lowest countries fluctuating by over 20 years in each direction. 39 of the bottom 40 countries are located on the African continent, and 3 of the top 5 are European micro-states. The United States ranks in at number 50, boasting a life expectancy of 78 years old.

At the bottom of the list is Angola, a country in southwestern Africa with a machete on its flag. The average life expectancy in Angola is almost 39 years old. At the other end of the spectrum is Monaco (pictured above). Monaco is a micro-state in Europe with an extremely high standard of living. The average person there lives to be 89 years old. The 50 year gap between these two countries represents the difference between yacht ownership and subsistence farming, and every other country falls somewhere in between. For the full list, check out the world fact book at cia.gov.

life expectancy 20. Bermuda – 80.71
19. Anguilla – 80.87 (at right)
18. Iceland80.90
17. Israel – 80.96
16. Switzerland – 81.07
15. Sweden – 81.07
14. Spain – 81.17
13. France – 81.19
12. Jersey81.38
11. Canada – 81.38
10. Italy81.779. Australia – 81.81
8. Hong Kong82.04
7. Singapore – 82.14
6. Guernsey82.16
5. Japan – 82.25
4. Andorra82.43
3. San Marino83.01
2. Macau – 84.41
1. Monaco – 89.73 (at top)

flickr images via needoptic and adomass