Planning Your New York City, USA Trip – Zafigo.com, November 14 2018

New York City (NYC) is famously known as ‘The City that Never Sleeps’, and if you try to partake in all the activities and going-ons it has to offer within a week or so, you’re unlikely to sleep either. The opportunities here are endless, so if you’re heading to NYC for a short stint, it’s worth researching and coming up with a game plan. These tips will help you to make the most of your time in the Big Apple:

Travel wise

Tempting as it is to act like they do in the movies, avoid travelling by yellow taxi when getting around NYC. Not only are they expensive, they’re likely to get you stuck in traffic and waste valuable time.

Instead, opt for the subway, which can bring you all around the city and its outskirts quickly and at any time. It’s worth buying an unlimited MetroCard (USD32 for seven days) rather than forking out approximately USD3 for individual journeys. The subway has the added bonus of free entertainment as the carriages and the stations often make the backdrop for buskers like musicians, stand-up acts, and dancers.

Walking is also a fantastic way to explore as it allows you to take in all of the sights and sounds of this diverse city. Though don’t expect to be able to walk around the whole thing – it’s 784 kilometres² after all!

Get some perspective

It’s difficult to get an idea of the sheer size of NYC when you’re standing in Times Square with skyscrapers on all sides. Not until you take a step back (or up) will you be able to truly appreciate it.

Many people choose to gaze down at the world below from the top deck of the Empire State Building, but it’s not the only place to catch a good view. The Top of the Rock observation deck at the Rockefeller Centre and the One World Trade Centre Observatory are other popular choices, while rooftop bars including The Standard and Le Bain are also aplenty.

For skyline shots, take an unmissable sunset stroll along the Brooklyn Bridge or at the elevated park known as the High Line. Both are a photographer’s dream! Taking NYC in from the water with the Statue of Liberty in the background is another magical experience. While there are plenty of boat tours on offer, the Staten Island Ferry is free to travel on and captures the city skyline at its best.

Dress for comfort

With so much to see, you’ll probably only return to your room to sleep and shower, so dressing appropriately is key. Temperatures often plummet in the winter time, so if you’re visiting around Christmas, be sure to pack a good coat and some winter woollies. Summer in the city is hot, so light clothing is best, though rain showers will happen so do pack a raincoat or umbrella. Regardless of the season, the most important item you can bring is comfortable shoes. Subway pass or not, you will be clocking up a lot of steps. Be prepared!

Get out of town

There’s so much more to NYC than Manhattan. Use your time wisely and check out some of the other boroughs such as Brooklyn, Queens, New Jersey, and Staten Island, to name a few. You can even combine your city slicker trip with a beach break as NYC has plenty of sandy shorelines.

When you need a break from city life, there are also plenty of breath-taking hiking trails and state parks within two hours of the city. Check out Minnewaska State Park Reserve or tackle one of the Catskill Mountains in the southeast of New York state.

Save on sights

NYC is known for being expensive to visit, but it doesn’t have to be that way. If you plan to see most of the major attractions, buy a New York Pass, which will give you savings on most of them. There are several free walking tours on offer for those who want local insight into the city, while some museums and attractions are free on certain days of the week.

This site gives a good overview of what sites/activities are free and when. For me, the best thing to do in the Big Apple is explore the streets and laze in the city’s beautiful parks while watching the world go by. Nobody’s going to charge you a dime for that.

For cheap grub, sites like Living Social and restaurants.com always have ongoing deals, while international site mealsharing.com allows tourists to find locals willing to host people for affordable dinners at their homes. Cheap homemade food and some new local friends? It’s a win-win!

Game on

It doesn’t matter if you’re a sports fan or completely clueless to the rules. Attending a sports game is still going to be a fun-filled experience. Visitors between April and October/ November can take advantage of baseball season while winter time sees the kick-off of the American football games. Of course, there are plenty of others sports you can watch, including basketball and soccer. Fixtures for all are easy to find online. With a hotdog in one hand and a humungous beverage in the other, you’re all set!

If you prefer a more casual and free experience, head to the playing fields in Central Park. Fancy having a shot yourself? At Chelsea Piers, you can show off your batting skills in their baseball cages, or have a go at an alternative activity such as rock climbing.

Show time

No visit to NYC is complete without seeing a show on Broadway. There’s literally something for everyone. If you aren’t fussed about planning in advance, do some research on a few shows you want to see, and head along to one of the TDF TKTS Booths on the day. This is where you can avail of a selection of show tickets at a fraction of their regular price.

Here in NYC, top class talent spills far beyond the Broadway stages. Subway stations, Central Park, Times Square, and basically any busy public space are guaranteed to play host to some interesting performers, while the city is also brimming with comedy clubs, jazz and blues bars (like the legendary Blue Note), open mic nights, and smaller gigs.

Enjoy the scenery

The Big Apple isn’t just dazzling lights and towering concrete buildings. Believe it or not, it’s actually home to some beautiful natural spaces, the most obvious one is Central Park. Though an obvious choice to visit, I promise it’s as good as they say. Even those who frequent the park during their trip are bound to find a new corner or interesting sight each time.

Prospect Park, the High Line, Hudson River Park, and Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden on Staten Island are just some of the others on offer. While the complete opposite of green and serene, perching yourself on the steps at Times Square for a while is certainly going to afford you some unique sights too. Enjoy the view and people watch.

Make a meal of it

New York City’s definitely not the place to go on a diet. When it comes to food, if you want something, you can find it. But I suggest you make like a local and grab a slice of pizza from one of the city’s thousands of pizza parlours. There’s plenty of debate online over who makes the best one but I’d argue that most are delicious. If you fancy something more upmarket than a sidewalk slice, head to trendy Roberta’s – a famous bar and pizzeria in Brooklyn for a full pizza and a candlelit drink.

The city’s bagel shops, diner grub, Italian fare in Little Italy, and a refreshing acai bowl are all worth sampling, while a cookie from Levain Bakery has my vote as one of the best baked goods ever. Don’t believe me? Oprah, Neil Patrick Harris, and Taylor Swift are all firm fans.

If you don’t know what you feel like, Greenwich Village has plenty of restaurants and bars to choose from, while the food halls at Chelsea Market and the Plaza will certainly stir up an appetite.

Tip right

It’s not just a rumour; you’re really expected to tip in NYC. While sometimes this is added to your bill, other times you’ll need to figure it out on your own. A general rule of thumb is to tip 15 to 20 per cent of your total bill to taxi drivers, bartenders, and waiters, as well as for room service. You can tip more if you feel the service was exceptional.

The idea of tipping regardless of the service or meal is bizarre to many, but just go with it. Many service industry workers are paid well below the minimum wage, so tipping is the only way for them to make their jobs profitable.

(First published on Zafigo.com on November 14 2018. Available online at: https://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/women-travelling-new-york-city/)

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Luggage in limbo – Zafigo.com, October 9 2018

You’ve spent days painstakingly washing clothes, folding everything neatly into your suitcase, and cramming in the essentials, only to arrive at your destination without your luggage in tow. Lost luggage is probably every traveller’s worst nightmare. However, as frustrating as it is to be the last person staring longingly at the luggage carousel, it’s important to not let the upset cloud your thinking. Knowing your passenger rights and responsibilities is key to resolving such a dilemma.

Make it known

Once you’re certain that your luggage is in limbo, the first thing to do is let your airline know at their information desk. You’ll be required to fill out a Property Irregularity Report (PIR), which must be filed before you leave the airport. This will commence the search for your luggage, and as you’ll be assigned a reference number, you can likely follow the report’s progress online.

Make sure to get a copy of the report as well, as this is usually required if you choose to file for compensation. If you’re reading this and have already left the airport without filling out a PIR, don’t despair! Contact the airport and airline as soon as possible to report the problem; but be sure to get written confirmation from them that you’ve done so.

Claim expenses

Under the international Montreal Convention, every passenger is eligible for compensation when a bag is lost, delayed, or damaged, regardless of whether or not they have travel insurance. What an airline will compensate for is usually limited to the cost of bare essentials (such as clothes, underwear, and toiletries) if your bag is delayed, repair costs if your luggage is damaged, and part of the cost of replacing belongings if your bag is declared officially lost after 21 days. How much you’ll receive depends on a number of factors.

When it comes to replacing delayed items, what is considered ‘essential’ is dependent on the airline’s policy, so get clued up on this (note: it’s probably not a new Chanel handbag). While some airlines will give you cash up front, others will ask you to make your purchases to be reimbursed later on. In the case of the latter, check the airline’s individual spending limit and keep receipts for all purchases.

Bad news for those who hate paperwork. The PIR is only intended to help you to trace your bag; a separate form must be filed in order to make a claim. If your bag is declared officially lost after 21 days, file a claim as soon as possible. However, if your bag is missing and later returned, you must write the claim within 21 days of receiving it. In the event your bag did arrive but is damaged, you must file a claim within seven days. A boarding card, receipts, luggage labels, your PIR form, a description of what happened, and photos of any damage will help you to make a claim.

Step it up

It’s impossible to predict how your airline will respond to your complaint or claim. If you’re not satisfied with their response, you are entitled to submit a complaint to your destination country’s aviation commission or airport authority. For instance, if you lost your luggage in Malaysia, you may make a complaint to the Malaysian Aviation Commission (MAVCOM) who will look into the matter further.

Damage control

Losing one’s luggage is never a part of a holiday itinerary. As it’s bound to happen sometimes, preparing for such a scenario can soften the blow if you’re unlucky enough to be affected. First, pack all medication and valuables in your hand luggage. A spare outfit is also a good addition if you’re parted from your travel wardrobe for some time. Take a photo of what’s inside your check-in luggage so that if your bag does go missing, you can check and prove whether its original contents are in it upon its return. If you have travel insurance, check your rights. Some policies will allow you to make a claim, and this may result in a better settlement than one you’d receive from the airline.

Enjoy your trip

While it may not be law, every traveller has the right to enjoy their holiday! Try not to let your luggage dilemma take over your trip. Carry out the necessary steps and then park the problem until you hear more. The situation may be out of your hands, but whether you choose to spend your trip moping around or making memories is completely down to you.

(First published on Zafigo.com on October 9 2018. Also available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/luggage-limbo-lost-delayed-damaged/ )

Would you trust a robot with your mind? – Asian Scientist, August 3 2018

When it comes to allowing others inside our heads, most of us only crack open the door for a select few, likely close family members or trusted psychologists. But if you were really struggling, would you consider sharing your innermost thoughts with a robot?

Robot therapists aren’t as far-fetched as you might think. In the 1960s, Joseph Weizenbaum of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory developed ELIZA, an early chatbot that could emulate the conversations of a psychotherapist. Since then, many increasingly sophisticated applications bringing artificial intelligence (AI) into the mental health realm have emerged.

The brainchild of Stanford psychologists and AI experts, Woebot combines machine learning and natural language processing (NLP) to assess users’ moods and offer them appropriate cognitive behavioral therapy. Emotionally intelligent chatbot Wysa, developed by Indian entrepreneurs Jo Aggarwal and Ramakant Vempati, uses AI and NLP techniques to track users’ emotions and act as their virtual mental wellness coach. Singapore-born Cogniant integrates AI technology with face-to-face therapy and aims to prevent mental illness relapses by monitoring existing patients and assisting them with therapy goals.

AI and mental health: what are the risks?

In 2018, an estimated 340 million people in Asia will require mental health services. With professional help shortages, rural isolation, high costs and stigma being the main obstacles to treatment, AI-centered mental health innovations could be particularly pertinent in the region. Yet, could involving AI in something as potentially delicate as mental health pose any threat?

Given that AI is currently used for mental health diagnostics and wellness coaching rather than treatment, Professor Pascale Fung of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology says privacy is the main concern.

“For AI to do a good job, it needs access to patient records, past history and family medical knowledge. Security and safety of this data is very important. There are concerns about AI being hacked or data being stolen for other purposes,” she says. “On the other hand, that’s something we should be worried about when dealing with patient records anyway.”

Indeed, researchers have noted that the misuse of sensitive information shared between a patient and AI can have significant consequences, for both the user and the profession’s integrity. To avoid distrust, it’s important for developers to fully disclose data policies to users from the beginning, says Mr. Neeraj Kothari, co-founder of Cogniant. He says that users can then make an informed decision about what they share.

“We have signed an agreement to say we won’t sell data to a third party,” he adds. “The best way we can progress is to demonstrate through action that we are here to help, not to harm.”

Another risk is that humans could potentially become attached to a therapy chatbot, as was the case for many of ELIZA’s ‘patients,’ who believed that they were truly conversing with a human. This led to the coining of the phrase ‘the ELIZA effect,’ which describes the tendency of people to assume computer behaviors are equivalent to human behaviors. However, while acknowledging the need for more research in this area, Fung doesn’t believe this problem is unique to AI—people also become attached to devices such as mobile phones and television sets, she says.

“In every generation, there have always been concerns with new technology. When it becomes obsessive, people go to professionals for help.”

People may also joke with or lie to AI, but such instances can be minimized through the use of deception detection techniques like facial recognition, says Kothari.

“In general, if AI is designed for the benefit of patients and is non-judgmental and non-intrusive, there will be no reason to lie to the AI.”

The possibility of deception has more to do with human responsibility than technological downfalls, adds Fung.

“[AI] is a tool and what people decide to do with it is up to humans.”

Complementing, not replacing

Most researchers in the field acknowledge that AI is not a therapist replacement, but believe that it can be a supporting tool. Professor Zhu Tingshao of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and his colleagues, for example, developed an AI-based system currently integrated into Weibo that recognizes people who express suicidal thoughts; subsequently, it sends them hotline numbers and messages of support. While the researchers can’t determine if people subsequently seek help, Zhu says the technology is still a proactive step towards suicide prevention.

“Right now when it comes to suicide intervention, we need the [suicidal] people to do the contacting themselves. [But] few people with a problem want to actively ask for help,” says Zhu, who adds that the tool has received positive feedback so far. “We cannot take the place of psychologists or counselling professionals, but we can help people know their mental health status and, if needed, provide some help in time [to prevent suicide].”

Ms. Bhairavi Prakash, founder of The Mithra Trust, an Indian organization that runs wellbeing initiatives combining technology and community engagement, believes that AI can be useful for promoting wellness. However, she too doesn’t think that it can provide complete treatment, especially for severe mental illness. Attempting to apply it to such cases could be dangerous, and should not be attempted until the technology is more sophisticated, she says.

“You don’t know if AI is triggering the person, you can’t see their facial reactions,” says the work and organizational psychologist. “If someone is delusional or hallucinating and talking to the AI, it won’t know how much is real.”

Legislation also needs to catch up before AI is assigned more tasks, adds Prakash. For example, human psychologists may be required by law to notify the authorities if a patient shows signs of wanting to harm others, but it’s unclear how such cases should be handled by AI.

Fung echoes the need for clearer legislation, saying that humans must still remain in the loop for important decisions such as medication prescriptions.

“Machines aren’t perfect. Humans aren’t either, but we do have laws or regulations [to deal with] human error or medical accidents. We don’t really have very good regulations for machine error.”

In the future, Fung envisions AI helping to create better personalized treatment plans, while Zhu says it will make mental health services more efficient. Prakash feels AI-based tools will encourage people to make the initial step in seeking help.

“In conversations people have with [AI], they are so open because there is zero judgment. They can talk about anything. That is extremely liberating and great for mental wellness.”

(First published by Asian Scientist on August 3 2018. Available online at: https://www.asianscientist.com/2018/08/features/artificial-intelligence-mental-health/)

Stopping animal cruelty in its tracks – Zafigo.com, June 6 2018

Aaron Gekoski is an environmental photojournalist from the UK who has spent over a decade documenting human-animal conflict. He has recently garnered much attention for his photography project which highlights animal cruelty at wildlife tourism attractions in Thailand. He spoke with Zafigo about the issues with wildlife tourism, being a responsible tourist, and his own goals.

Why did you choose to document this in Thailand?

This is a worldwide problem. It’s not just Thailand, it’s happening in [the United States of] America, the UK, and other places in the west too. Thailand seems to be the epicentre [of wildlife cruelty] as a lot of animals are kept in captivity in a country that has non-specific laws regarding cruelty. The Prevention of Cruelty Act isn’t specific on how big a holding area should be, what you should feed animals, what constitutes cruelty, and how an animal should be trained.

There are things like orangutan boxing shows daily. The majority of people are laughing at it and don’t seem to notice anything wrong, but they don’t see behind the scenes and how the animal may be trained, for example. Also, in other places, animals may have been taken from the wild and then have to live the rest of their lives in captivity.

What did you witness on your trip in Thailand?

The boxing orangutan shows were very bad. There were elephant rides being offered at Samutprakarn Crocodile Farm and Zoo, and the elephants were not in a good state. They were skinny, swaying around and didn’t look healthy. Crocodiles there were in poor conditions.

Pata Zoo has four orangutans, a gorilla, and some chimps kept in filthy small cells at this zoo at the top of a shopping mall. They have no stimulation and [live in] an unsuitable environment. At Phuket Safari ECO+, there was a monkey theatre and elephants being made to perform in small rooms. It’s not happening just in Thailand, I really want to stress that.

Are there some places branding themselves as fair and sustainable but not necessarily abiding by these practices?

It’s quite common for places to greenwash. A lot of places dress themselves up as conservation initiatives. They say they’re all about conservation and about reintroduction, but often, they don’t end up doing it. They are money-making schemes working to the detriment of animals. I’m not anti-captivity; there are many zoos doing good things for conservation. I’m anti-cruelty. That’s the goal of this project, to fight cruelty.

Can you name some wildlife tourism operations worthy of support and others to avoid?

In Thailand, Wildlife Friends of Thailand are doing amazing things and have an excellent reputation. Safari World [Bangkok] is the glitziest, the most Disney-fied. What we witnessed was orangutan boxing and a morbidly obese orangutan who sat in a holding area that was much too small, begging for food. It doesn’t fill you with much hope when at the most high-end attraction you witness some of these shows and alarming situations. Phuket Zoo wasn’t great either, and Pata Zoo has had a lot of bad press also.

On the other hand, places like Houston Zoo and London Zoo put a lot of money into conservation. I used to live in London and visit London Zoo. Seeing animals up close inspired me to get into this industry. Most people don’t have access to these animals, so zoos and aquariums are important, but they must be done responsibly. If they can’t be, they shouldn’t be allowed to operate.

Did you have any difficulty getting these shots?

I just paid for tickets and filmed animals as I found them. This is all imagery that’s available and open to the public at any time. Those cage images weren’t behind the scenes, these are conditions animals live in.

I don’t want to speculate, but everything I hear about how these animals are kept and trained is bad. For example, elephants go through something called the crush, which is the most horrific form of animal abuse possible. They are literally beaten; their spirits are broken by handlers and they’re beaten until completely submissive.

What reactions have you had to your project?

I’ve seen the worst sides of humanity, and on the back of this, also seen some of the best. People have been donating; someone’s buying me a new camera and a guy is building me a site for free. The idea is to set up a platform so people can flag certain operations. It’ll be called Raise The Red Flag. People can log on to the website and make a report with photos. Once there are enough reports, we will speak to relevant authorities and try to make as much noise as possible.

Do you have any tips for those when choosing wildlife-related tourism options?

That’s why I’m setting up this platform, because there isn’t enough info out there. In general, if it involves animal shows and performances, there’s a red flag there right away. I don’t think animals should be made to perform for people because the way animals have been treated in order to make them perform is quite worrying. You can always do research on a place you are going to, check whether they have conservation initiatives, look at TripAdvisor and find out where they got the animals from.

(First published on Zafigo.com on June 6 2018. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/stopping-cruelty-in-its-tracks/ )

How to cut costs now to travel later – Zafigo.com, May 29 2018

Being unable to afford to travel is one of the most common issues you hear from those dreaming of an exotic getaway. True, most of us can’t afford to quit our day jobs for a life on the road, but that doesn’t mean we can’t explore the world. With a bit of budgeting and a few small sacrifices, even those with the lightest of wallets can bring their faraway fantasies to life.

Cut out (expensive) coffee

Buying takeaway coffees isn’t only bad for the environment, it also chips away at your bank balance. With a basic coffee in a café chain costing at least RM10 (approximately USD2.50) in Malaysia, a daily cup of the black stuff will amount to a minimum of RM3650 (approximately USD918) in a single year.

At time of writing, that can score you return flights to New Zealand, with some change to spare! If you still need your coffee – and most of us do – swap trips to coffee chains for a brew at a food court or kopitiam (traditional coffee shop). Better yet, buy a reusable flask and have home-brewed java on the go.

Ditch the gym

Before you use this as an excuse to morph into a couch potato, hear me out. Exercise is a key component of maintaining optimal physical and mental health, so by no means should you give it up entirely. After all, you want to be ready to tackle those holiday hikes right? However, gym memberships can be extremely expensive and by cutting it out in favour of more cost effective forms of exercise, you can rake the bucks back in.

YouTube has a whole host of channels offering free fitness classes, from yoga to Zumba to circuit training and everything in between. Those who tend to drive to their gym will also save on fuel money, toll and parking.

If working out in the great outdoors is more your thing, no problem. Activities such as walking, running and swimming in nature are extremely beneficial forms of exercise. Grab a friend and a bottle of water, and get moving!

Seek out deals

You needn’t put life on hold now just to save for life in the future. Saving certainly involves cutbacks, but you don’t need to sacrifice everything you love and enjoy. It’s all about making smarter choices, not neglecting yourself.

For those who love monthly massages or regular trips to the hairdresser, seek out monthly in-house deals or discounted sessions offered by practicing students. If eating out in good restaurants is what makes you tick, take advantage of early bird deals or share a large main with a friend. Books and clothes can be bought online or at flea markets, which has an added environmental benefit as well as a financial one.

It’s also worth keeping a close eye on sites like Fave, that offers deals on practically everything in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia.

Stay in

Staying in is the new going out, didn’t you hear? Perhaps not, but by opting to socialise in somebody’s home rather than at a restaurant or bar, you’ll certainly decrease your weekly spending.

Giving up your thrice-weekly lunch – not to mention coffee, dinner and drink – dates with friends may feel like the ultimate sacrifice now, but you’re certainly not going to regret it when boarding a plane in a few months. So why not tell the gang your intentions and kick-start regular social gatherings at home?

Pot luck dinners are a fun way of enjoying a feast without it costing the earth. The fact that everyone brings a dish means that you’ll always get to try something new and also, that not just one person is slaving away in the kitchen. Coffee dates, cocktail nights, cosy movie evenings and karaoke sessions can also be replicated at home for a fraction of the cost.

Sell online

As the saying goes, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Most of us are likely to have some clothes, CDs, sports equipment, electronics, or all of the above gathering dust in our cupboard after years of underuse. A clear-out is always good for your headspace and your wallet.

Organise a car boot sale to sell some of your old items, otherwise, avail of one of the many online platforms allowing you to do so. You won’t earn a fortune, but every little helps. Just try not to be an overly-sentimental hoarder when looking through old things.

Budget

Examining exactly what you spend in a month may be a shocking and painful task, but it’s a key part of your savings plan. Determine the amount you require for essentials such as rent, food and transport, add in an allowance for some treats and emergencies to keep you sane and you have your budget. Be strict with yourself and put anything outside of this directly into a separate account to avoid temptation.

(First published on Zafigo.com. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/how-to-cut-costs-now-to-travel-later/)

Asia’s best summertime festivals – Zafigo.com, May 16 2018

It’s already halfway through the year, and if you haven’t been to a festival yet, it’s time to get organising! Over the next three months, countries across the continent will spring to life as music, cultural, and food festivals kick off. With so many to choose from, and something for every preference and budget, here’s a taster of what’s out there:

Music magic

For many of us, festivals mean just one thing: Music. There’s nothing better than hearing your favourite band live in the great outdoors while chilling with good friends. Even if you don’t know all of the artists, music festivals give a great opportunity to make some new discoveries.

At the 20th annual Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak, Malaysia (July 13-15, 2018), you’re bound to do just that, as a wide array of international and local artists will converge in the stunning heart of Borneo’s jungle for the occasion. Acts include Tunisia’s Yallah Bye, and home-grown talent SwarAsia Malaysia, to name a few.

The Fuji Rock Festival (July 27-29, 2018) in Japan has the added bonus of a breath-taking backdrop, with the majestic Mount Fuji presiding over the event’s 10 stages. This year’s event includes some big-name acts like headliners N.E.R.D., Kendrick Lamar, Bob Dylan and Vampire Weekend, while drumming circles, workshops, massages and ‘Cinema Fuji’ will ensure you won’t get bored.

Other top music festival picks are the diverse and fun-filled Good Vibes Festival (July 21-22, 2018) in Genting Highlands, Malaysia, and Bali’s Sunny Side Up Tropical Festival (July 20-21, 2018) in Indonesia which offers the perfect concoction of music, art, and sustainability.

Culture vulture

There are plenty of impressive festivals in Malaysia, and the month-long Georgetown Festival (held every August) in Penang is as good as it gets. A true tourist magnet set in the streets of one a UNESCO World Heritage site, this annual event consistently holds an impressive line-up that showcases concerts, art exhibitions, theatre, dance, storytelling… Need we go on?

Another one for Malaysia, but this time in Borneo and cited as a celebration of the promotion of peace through culture, Sabah’s International Folklore Festival (July 23-30, 2018) in Kota Kinabalu is certainly worth a trip.

Dating back to the ninth century, Japan’s Gion Matsuri Festival in Kyoto (July) is one of the country’s most famous festivals; and for good reason. With origins rooted in an ancient religious purification ritual, and a name stemming from the famous Gion District, this is a must-go if you want to get a taste of traditional Japanese culture during your trip. Festival highlights include a float procession (a series of elaborate floats that often require teams of 50 to pull them), the procession of mikoshi (portable shrines) and  Nagoshi-sai (summer purification ceremony).

Other noteworthy festivals are China’s colourful Dragon Boat Festival (known as Duanwu), centred mainly in Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Foodie fests

While most modern-day music and culture festivals offer a diverse range of delicacies – one needs energy for all that partying – there are many events where food takes centre stage. For instance, the Singapore Food Festival which runs from July 13-29, 2018, requires an expandable waistband to allow for all of that feasting! Visitors can gorge on many of Singapore’s best local eats, hear the stories behind the dishes, attend the ‘Fifty Cent Feast’ and test their own skills at cooking workshops before dancing off their dinner to the sounds of local musicians.

Meanwhile, fruit fans can rejoice as the Rayong Fruit Festival in Rayong, Thailand is set to return from June 1-5 , 2018. Dine on a delectable assortment of locally-grown fruits while supporting local farmers in the process. Delhi’s International Mango Festival (July 9 and 10, 2018) is also a good choice for fans of the five-a-day.

Finally, the Mogumogu Festival (short for ‘more goods, more gourmet’ and also known as MoguFes) is a mouth-watering celebration of world foods being held in Hokkaido, Japan from August 5-11, 2018.

Weird and wonderful

There are some things that you have to experience once in your lifetime, and Asia’s festival schedule certainly contains a few things worth putting on the bizarre bucket-list.

The Cheung Chau Buddhist Bun festival (May 19-23, 2018) in Hong Kong is a unique cultural extravaganza that culminates in the Bun Grabbing Contest at midnight on the last day of the celebrations. This sees the construction of a 60-foot tower of buns, up which participants scramble in the aim to collect as many buns as possible. It’s certainly not for the faint-hearted!

If you’re not afraid of getting a little bit dirty, the Boryeong Mud Festival in South Korea (July 13-22, 2018) is the place for you! Held near Daecheon Beach, the aim of the event is to embrace your inner child and roll around in the mud through activities such as a giant mud bath, mud body painting and mud prison.

Finally, if you’re in need of a good conversation starter, tell friends you’re heading for the Hokkai Heso Matsuri (belly button festival) in Furano, Japan on July 28 and 29 , 2018. The main highlight of this is the ‘Hokkai belly button dance competition’ that attracts entrants in their thousands, and involves painting large faces on your belly. Local restaurants also get involved in ‘belly button gourmet’ by preparing unique dishes that somehow relate to the belly button.

(First published on Zafigo.com on May 16 2018. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/asia-summertime-festivals-2018/)

Sustainable Watersports: Diving without Destruction – Zafigo.com, April 20 2018

Even while adventuring in new places, many of us are keen to see what’s literally below the surface. Recent research shows that marine tourism is one of the most rapidly growing tourism sectors globally, and with some of the world’s most beautiful reefs situated in Asia, you’re missing out if you don’t take a closer look.

It has to be said, however, that scuba diving and snorkelling come with a high price, and I’m not just talking about the cost of a PADI licence. There’s a growing awareness of how human activities impact our marine ecosystems, and these popular hobbies are certainly not exempt from the conversation.

Thankfully, several organisations and individuals worldwide have made it their goal to protect what remains of these precious underwater worlds. Established by the United Nations Environmental Programme and currently supported by The Reef-World Foundation, Green Fins is an ever-expanding network that focuses on improving the marine tourism industry through liaising with governments, NGOs, dive centres and individuals in their established countries.

“The overall aim of Green Fins is to protect and conserve coral reefs by establishing and implementing environmentally-friendly guidelines to promote a sustainable diving and snorkelling tourism industry,” explains Green Fins assessor for the Green Fins Malaysia network Nadhirah Mohd. Rifai.

Along with educating industry players on best practice, Green Fins aims to encourage tourists to take heed when taking the plunge. Here’s a summary of their suggestions:

Support positive change

Green Fins is working to ensure that all of its members serve as guardians to marine life by adopting eco-friendly and sustainable practices. The environmental standards of all dive and snorkel centres who have adopted the Green Fins Code of Conductare assessed annually.

“We recommend visiting Green Fins certified dive operators that can be found in Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, The Maldives and Palau,” says Nadhirah.

For the ultimate eco-friendly dive centres, Nadhirah recommends choosing from their top 10 Green Fins Members on this list; these centres are ranked the best among other Green Fins-certified dive operators.

Look with your eyes

While the rainbow of coral and seashells in our oceans may tie in perfectly with your household colour scheme, you must remember that the natural world is not a free-for-all gift shop. Whether dead or alive, don’t remove any coral or other marine life while diving or snorkelling. Besides causing environmental damage, removing coral from the ocean is illegal in many places. So why risk it? Let your memories will serve as the best souvenir. Additionally, be sure not to touch or step on coral, which is very fragile and takes a long time to grow.

Capture moments with care

It’s understandable to be eager to capture moments so you can share with loved ones back home. While underwater photography is certainly permissible, it’s important to take steps to prevent harm. Green Fins recommends that divers take care not to drag photography equipment against the reef as this can cause irreparable damage.

It’s also recommended that you practice your underwater photography skills prior to venturing out on a diving or snorkelling trip. This will ensure you are confident in carrying the equipment underwater and so, are less likely to cause an accident. Finally, as tempting as it can be, photographers are urged not to touch, move, chase or disturb any marine life in the quest for the perfect shot.

Leave no trace

You wouldn’t carelessly dump trash in your friend’s home so why do it to our underwater neighbours? We’re becoming increasingly aware of the impact that plastic is having on our oceans’ ecosystems and while the problem won’t be resolved overnight, you can play your part by ensuring that you don’t add to it. Make sure to bring any plastic bottles, food packaging and other waste home with you after the trip. What only takes a few moments to gather up can have long-term consequences for the ocean if left behind.

Additionally, while it is perfectly acceptable to feed yourself (a day at sea can leave you famished!), share leftovers only with fellow land-dwelling divers. Marine creatures have plenty of grub to keep them satisfied and eating human food could result in illness, aggression towards divers and an imbalance in ecosystems should fish choose to eat human food over algae.

Practice

It’s important to ensure that you know what you’re doing before taking to the water, both for your own safety and the safety of marine life. “Bad buoyancy may cause coral damage when divers kick the corals, as well as coral mortality due to sediments being stirred and then landing on nearby corals, choking them and blocking the sunlight,” says Nadhirah. The best way to practice? Keep diving! Just be sure to keep yourself, and the environment, safe from harm.

(First published on Zafigo.com on April 20 2018. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/tips/diving-without-destruction/ )