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/ )

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Bringing AI To The Masses – Asian Scientist, April 22 2018

Keen on picking up the fundamentals of AI? A community-driven movement known as AI Saturdays can give you a leg up.
It’s often said that knowledge is a form of wealth; in the face of a rapidly changing world, a new global initiative aims to equip people from all backgrounds with such riches. AI Saturdays, also known as AI6, is a community-driven, non-profit movement established to offer education on artificial intelligence (AI) to the masses. Through structured study groups, lectures and project work, the organizers aim to teach everybody how they can use AI in their everyday lives.
With the first chapter established in December 2017 in Singapore by Nurture.AI CEO Mr. Yap Jia Qing, followed by the second soon after in Kuala Lumpur, it could be said that the AI6 movement is in its infancy. Yet within a few months, the initiative has grown to include 103 chapters across six continents, including 47 in Asia. At time of writing, there are over 5,000 participants worldwide, from Kathmandu to California.
A worldwide classroom
AI Saturdays stemmed from a simple realization by the people at Nurture.AI, according to Mr. James Lee, AI research fellow at Nurture.AI and the co-head of AI6.
“Nurture.AI maintains a web platform for discussing academic AI papers. However, we realized that reading academic papers was not an activity that could be easily accessed by many. We created AI6 to help enable people to be comfortable with the technologies behind AI, as well as to build a community.”
Many distinguished universities, including Stanford and Harvard, offer open-source learning material on AI. Through AI6, the founders hoped to give people the opportunity to experience what it’s like to sit in one of these classrooms—from anywhere in the world.
“We didn’t expect to do anything big with it. We just thought we’d get people together to learn some AI by going through the materials available online. Initially this was for Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, and it spread from there,” explains Lee, who is also one of the ambassadors of the Kuala Lumpur chapter.
Just like with AI technology itself, the direction of a meeting can be hard to predict, and is often dependent on the preferences of chapter members. However, all chapters center their Saturday lectures around open-access course material from universities like Stanford and Berkeley. The first session, ‘Practical Deep Learning,’ sees participants watch and code along with materials from fast.ai, a free deep learning course. In session two, ambassadors are asked to focus on either computer vision, reinforcement learning or natural language processing. Finally, in the third session, members go through Stanford’s Stats385 course and participate in open forum-style discussions. Group project work is also strongly encouraged throughout the course of these Saturday sessions.
“One of the things we do is encourage every chapter to have a milestone, to tell members to take what you have learned so far and produce something,” explains Lee. “In the Kuala Lumpur chapter for example, one guy took ten years of stock prices and made an algorithm that predicts whether they will go up and down in the next month. Others made a Trump tweet simulator. They downloaded Donald Trump’s tweets and tried to create a neural network that replicates the style.”
AI as a basic skill
Becoming an AI6 ambassador doesn’t require a significant amount of prior knowledge; instead, curiosity is key. Ambassador of the Delhi chapter Mr. Divyansh Jha says it was his interest rather than his experience in AI that led him to get involved in the movement in December 2017.
“I’m from an electronics background, but recently I developed a huge interest in deep learning and AI. For the last year, I’ve been taking steps to learn more and doing projects in this area,” he says, adding that becoming an ambassador has helped him to develop leadership skills that make him more employable.
Expanding his knowledge of AI is of great importance to Jha; why does he think others should learn?
“I think AI should become a basic skill, because within ten or twenty years, everything will involve AI. People should learn this skill so they can move forward,” says Jha, who while happy to share knowledge, says he doesn’t believe in forcing anyone to get involved.
For some, the rapid expansion of AI and machine learning is a source of fear. Indeed, in a 2017 global study conducted by independent consumer research agency Northstar, 22 percent of some 4,000 participants said they felt society will become worse due to increased automation and AI. Yet new technology doesn’t need to be fearsome, says Jha.
“The people who know about the current state of AI aren’t fearful. It is people who don’t know about these things who are very fearful,” he says. “I think the AI singularity is very far from today; I don’t see it grabbing jobs from people in the next ten or twenty years. AI is something that will help humans improve.”
Reaping the rewards
Ambassador for the Taipei chapter Mr. Kuo Ruey-shen echoes these views, adding that one must find a scenario suitable for AI in order to fully understand its benefits.
“You have to know the purpose of AI and why you are using it, and then you decide what type of algorithm and deep learning can help you. It’s a tool to help us do a lot of jobs, not a tool to replace you. I think it will allow you as a human to start to live again, but only if you use that in the right way. A lot of the reports write about the wrong way and make people afraid,” he says.
 AI6 ambassadors help people to understand these benefits. At the same time, troubleshooting and problem solving is done through international collaboration over online platforms. This networking may soon become something bigger as a large-scale international AI6 initiative is in the pipeline for July 2018.
Meanwhile, participants such as Ms. Seema Goel are reaping the rewards. Goel was teaching herself AI and machine learning when she was invited to join the AI6 Bangalore chapter in January. She says that joining the group has helped her to progress with her learning and overcome obstacles she faced while learning alone.
“This meetup helped me in every possible way, be it understanding the concepts, technical glitches, and providing inspiration,” she says. “For me the group is meeting all expectations.”
Delhi chapter member Mr. Rohit Singh has similar views.
“The experience has been phenomenal,” he says. “Some members and especially the ambassador, Divyansh [Jha], do a great job at making the experience enriching for everyone. They go through the material, sharing their experience and clarifying doubts for everyone in a setting that’s quite informal and yet focused and driven.”
(First published on Asian Scientist on April 22 2018. Available online at: https://www.asianscientist.com/2018/04/features/artificial-intelligence-saturdays-asia-ai6/)

Tips for victims of theft while travelling – Zafigo.com, April 15 2018

There was a time, 10 months into the trip of the lifetime, I sat in Kuala Lumpur (KL) munching on steaming chapati (Indian flatbread) with friends, uttering famous last words, “Nothing has gone wrong yet.” It was true. Besides the odd dodgy stomach – which was inevitable considering I’d just exposed my Irish belly to rich, spicy foods for the first time – our travels around Southeast Asia had run completely smoothly.

It wouldn’t be long before I was no longer eating delicious Indian food, but instead, eating my words. That same evening, I was deep in conversation with a friend in the city when a guy on a bike swerved in behind me, yanked my bag from my shoulder, and sped away before I even had a chance to yell out an expletive.

My phone, money, and bank card had been taken before my own eyes, along with some sentimental items such as a bracelet from two friends in Vietnam. I’m sure you can imagine the kaleidoscope of colourful language that came from my mouth in the following few minutes. As much as I endeavour to become a crime-fighting queen who rids the world of handbag theft, I realise this is unachievable. However, I can offer a few titbits of advice for those who find themselves in the same situation.

Accept it

Regardless of how little cash you had in your purse or how dishevelled your phone is, it’s highly unlikely you’ll get your stuff back. A thief won’t feel a sudden tinge of regret and return your items to you, and chasing somebody down could be dangerous. Take the few minutes you need to vent that anger; cry, swear, scream, whatever you need. After that, accept that your things are gone and get on with your travels. Losing things, regardless of how sentimental or valuable, is not the worst case scenario. Your own safety is key.

File a police report

Telling my hotel receptionist that I’d become a victim of snatch theft, I was met with little more than a shrug of the shoulders. They told me not to bother reporting the event to the police, which, considering I had very little details on the thief, made sense. I also had to catch a bus soon after and knew that I had a roomful of clothes to shove into a backpack before getting on the road.

However, I later learned that reporting could have proven beneficial. I had taken travel insurance in my home country and upon informing the company of the incident, was told that they could offer compensation only if I had a police report. Too late! I was already in the Cameron Highlands eating away my sorrows with scones and strawberries.

Cancel everything

After my 10-minute temper tantrum, the first thing I did was contact my bank and cancel my card. This may sound obvious, but it’s a task that’s easily forgotten when emotions are running high. I also alerted my network provider about my phone and noted down any other cards that I’d need to replace when I returned home.

Don’t let it ruin your trip

I certainly had plenty of “woe-is-me” moments as I went through the tedious task of cancelling cards and forking out good money for a new phone. However, though the enviable Instagram posts don’t show it, petty theft is unfortunately quite a common part of travelling; just like food poisoning, jellyfish stings and bike accidents. That’s not to say it’s acceptable, but if you do fall victim to theft, do what you have to do and get back to your travels.

With only a few weeks of my adventure left, I decided not to let this experience ruin my trip. It’s also important not to let such an event taint your impression of a place. Bag theft is probably just as likely to happen in my home city. Every other experience I had in KL and Malaysia overall was fantastic and there was no way one person was going to tarnish my love for the country.

Be prepared

Hindsight is a great thing, and I don’t want to sound like a lecturing aunty. However, in order to prevent becoming the victim of theft, I recommend you learn from my mistakes. Here are some tips on how you can be more mindful wherever you are:

  • Try to remain alert of what is going on around you when walking about a new city at night.
  • Don’t walk with your handbag facing the road as this will make it easier for a driver to snatch it.
  • If your bag has a long shoulder strap, make sure it hangs across your body and is underneath your clothes (like a jacket) if possible. Otherwise, it’s quite easy for somebody to grab it or cut it loose.
  • Never flash cash or valuables in a public place and avoid bringing out unnecessary items such as passports.
  • Finally, have an emergency bank card in your backpack if you can. This will be a saviour if your main one is stolen.

(First published on Zafigo.com on April 15 2018. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/tips/tips-victims-travel-theft/)

The definitive guide to avoiding Penang’s tourist traps – Zafigo.com, February 8 2018

colour-1298862_1280 (1)As a cultural melting pot, foodie hub and historical hotspot, Penang has become a major tourist destination for both Malaysian and international tourists. However, with so much to do here, it comes as no surprise that the island’s main landmarks can be crowded 365 days of the year. If you’re staying a while and are sick of the hustle and bustle, try this list of alternative activities:

BEST VIEW

Skip Penang Hill

See Muka Head Lighthouse

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The stunning views of Penang’s coastline. (Photo Credit: Amy Lewis)

Gazing down at the twinkling lights of George Town from the peak of Penang Hill is certainly worth ticking off the list. However, if you’re seeking something a bit more tranquil and wish to avoid the crowds, head to Muka Head Lighthouse at Penang’s National Park. It’s not easy to get to – prepare for a sweaty hike through the forest! – but the stunning views of Penang’s coastline will revitalise a tired body and mind. Climb up the twisting staircase to the top and perch yourself on the balcony to watch white-tailed sea eagles soar and be soothed by the sound of the crashing waves below.

BEST BEACH

Skip Batu Ferringhi

See Gertak Sanggul

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This small fishing village is the epitome of a lazy afternoon. (Photo Credit: Amy Lewis)

When you have eaten double your weight in Penang’s famous hawker food, what better place for an afternoon doze than the beach? Batu Ferringhi is Penang’s most popular beach and while it’s beautiful, you will likely have to battle for towel space on a busy day. Head to Gertak Sanggul instead. I stumbled across this beach during a drive around the island and found it to be the perfect place to digest both my thoughts and my food. Nestled along the southern coast of Penang at the edge of a quaint fishing village, it’s rarely frequented by tourists and so, is the epitome of calm. Come here with a good book and watch the boats and your worries float away.

BEST MARKET

Skip Batu Ferringhi Night Market

See Hin Sunday Pop-Up Market

Support the local artists and craftspeople at Hin's Pop Up Market. (Photo Credit Hin's PopUP Facebook)

Support the local artists and craftspeople at Hin Pop Up Market. (Photo Credit Hin Pop Up Market)

Every Sunday, the grounds of Hin Bus Depot spring to life with a small artisan market brimming with local crafts and trinkets. Handmade batik garments, natural cosmetics, mouth-watering food and statement jewellery are just some of the treasures on offer at this weekly affair, which sees new stalls springing up each week. While you won’t find the same offering of cheap clothes available in Batu Ferringhi, you will come across plenty of unique gems unavailable anywhere else. What’s more, by buying something here, you are supporting local artists and craftspeople. For the perfect Sunday, take a yoga class at nearby Wholey Wonder and peruse the market stalls before crashing on the grass at Hin Bus Depot to tuck into a tasty lunch.

BEST FOR A COFFEE AND CATCHUP

Skip Starbucks

See The Alley

Skip the staple branded coffee houses and spend an evening at a local shop instead. (Photo Credit: The Alley Penang)

Why go Starbucks when you can have churros at The Alley? (Photo Credit: The Alley Penang)

Let’s face it: I can go to Starbucks anytime. Despite having a three-letter name, they can never get mine right! If I’m in need of an afternoon energy boost or want somewhere to chill with friends, The Alley at Stewart Lane is my top pick. Why? One word: Churros! The small and simple café is famous for the warm doughy delights, which offer crispy skins and fluffy centres in good, equal measure. Paired with a selection of sauces (try the salted caramel) and a steaming mug of coffee, it makes for the perfect afternoon pick-me-up. The only downside of going with friends? Having to share.

BEST BAR

Skip Love Lane

See Magazine 63

(Photo Credit: SM Butler)

A true speakeasy bar, Magazine 63 is quite a challenge to find, but oh so worth it once you do. (Photo Credit: SM Butler)

Walking through Love Lane at night feels a bit like being in a bizarre video game – you have to dodge and leap over dozens of pushy bar promo staff to get to the power up i.e. a refreshing cocktail or mocktail at the end of a busy day. On top of that, the crowds and noise continue to swell as the night goes on. Ditch the hectic nightlife and head to Magazine 63 on Jalan Magazine instead. Nestled behind an inconspicuous doorway, it’s quite a challenge to find; but trust me, it’s worth it. Behind its shabby exterior sits a trendy speakeasy dripping in vintage class, with a unique cocktail menu to boot. Add to that cosy seating, regular live bands and DJ sets and you’ve got yourself the perfect watering hole. A word of warning: at bars this trendy, drinks don’t come cheap.

BEST UNIQUE PHOTO SPOT

Skip 3D Trick Art Museum

See Penang Avatar Secret Garden

(Photo Credit: Flickr / ShangChieh )

The mini forest comes to life with dazzlig lights. (Photo Credit: Flickr / ShangChieh)

Trick art museums have seen a surge in popularity in recent years, but once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. If you’re hoping to get some unusual snaps for the ‘gram, head to Avatar Secret Garden at Tanjung Tokong before sunset instead. When the daylight fades, the mini forest is transformed into an enchanted land that is alive with dazzling lights in myriad hue. A near replica of the mystical land of Pandora in Avatar, this hidden gem is sure to take your breath away.

BEST CAFE WORKSPACE

Skip Co-workingspaces

See BEAN Sprout Cafe

Fancy working out  of a quaint little heritage building? (Photo Credit: Nomadic Notes)

Fancy working out of a quaint little heritage building? (Photo Credit: Nomadic Notes)

Co-working spaces certainly have their place and I’d be the first to praise them for their reliable Wi-Fi and endless networking opportunities. However, when in Penang, you might as well soak in the atmosphere while getting some work done. Enter BEAN Sprout Café. Set in a beautiful two-storey heritage building, this relaxed coffee shop is a good spot to escape to when you need to get stuff done and dusted. If the rustic décor and chilled music fail to inspire, sit and work from the balcony which offers great views of the hustle and bustle of George Town. Failing that, their delicious coffee or tasty brunches should be enough to set the brain cogs into motion.

BEST CITY CENTRE OASIS

Skip Armenian Park

See Garden at 23 Love Lane

Who knew such a serene little corner existed on Love Lane? (Photo Credit 23 Love Lane)

Who knew such a serene little corner existed on Love Lane? (Photo Credit: 23 Love Lane)

Who knew that such a serene oasis existed along hectic Love Lane? Well, it does, and it’s in the form of this boutique hotel’s stunning garden courtyard. It’s the ideal place to escape the mid-afternoon sun and catch up on some reading over a refreshing drink. Non-staying guests are welcome to enjoy the garden courtyard provided they purchase something from the hotel bar. Coffee al fresco amid restful settings? Who can say ‘no’ to that?

(First published on Zafigo.com on February 8 2018. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/guide-avoiding-penangs-tourist-traps/)

 

7 Dos And Dont’s To Help You Succeed As A Digital Nomad – Zafigo.com, January 28 2018

The idea of working remotely is growing in popularity by the day as people long to cut ties with their nine-to-five schedule and explore the globe. But there’s more to being a digital nomad than sitting blissfully on a laptop by the beach. Making the transition to a remote lifestyle requires lots of careful planning, which can begin with a read of these simple tips.

DO your research

Oxygen, water and food are key to life. For digital nomads, a solid Wi-Fi connection can definitely be added to this list. Without the internet, it’s likely that you’ll struggle to do much work, if at all, so it’s vital that you research this factor before making a move to your next destination. Failing to do so may result in you being stuck on a remote Thai island where it’s virtually impossible to get anything done – I learned this the hard way.

Other factors worth looking into before planting your roots are the cost of accommodation, seasonal weather changes, visa requirements and community life. Most digital nomad hubs have expat/nomad Facebook pages where you can get all of your questions answered.

DO structure your work days

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There’s a saying that goes, “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Well, all play and no work can be equally as detrimental for digital nomads. When transitioning from a regular work structure to remote employment, it can be difficult to strike the right balance between work and relaxation time. Some people end up working 24/7, while others spend more time immersed in the crystal-clear ocean than in their workload. Plan out work and leisure time from the get-go to prevent your brain or bank balance from getting burned out.

DO seek out others

While working remotely definitely has its perks, admittedly, it can become isolating. It’s easy to take your colleagues for granted when you’re working in a typical nine-to-five job, but after you leave, you’ll begin to miss the work banter, Friday afternoon excitement and even your colleague’s extremely distracting whistling. Let’s face it, a pet cat or the odd Skype call to your parents are no substitute for true social contact.

Whether you’ve been thinking of joining a club or starting a new hobby, this new chapter in your life is the perfect opportunity to do so. Co-working spaces also serve a double purpose for digital nomads in that they give you a place to be productive while providing an opportunity to meet like-minded people.

DO be financially secure

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If you’re reading this from a stuffy grey office somewhere on a Monday morning, by now you’ve probably already decided to pack all your belongings and begin your new digital nomad life. Before you hand in your resignation, hear me out! The early days of your remote lifestyle are bound to be unpredictable, so it is really crucial to build up your savings before taking the plunge. Not only will this offer you some security should your work be slow to take off, it’ll also mean that you can allow yourself time to relax and enjoy your new base during those initial few weeks.

DON’T work with friends

Working with another digital nomad friend from a café sounds like the ideal situation. Two brains are better than one, right? While it may appear to be the recipe for productivity, the reality is that you’ll spend more time sharing cake and discussing the latest episode of Stranger Things in great detail than doing actual work. Before you know it, it’s four hours later, you’ve spent your daily budget on three coffees and you have only three words of your article written. Unless you’re working on a project together or can trust one another to keep the chit chat to a minimum, it’s probably best to tell your friend you’ll catch them later.

DON’T travel too much

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It can be tempting to pinpoint dozens of places on the map when you switch to the digital nomad lifestyle. However, with no boss at home telling you to be back in a fortnight, it’s important to remind yourself that you aren’t in any rush. Working remotely is much easier when you travel slowly.

Yes, working from airports, trains and planes is doable, but if you are hopping to a new country every week while simultaneously trying to meet deadlines, your energy and motivation are sure to wane. Plant your roots in your first destination and get to know the place and its people. You have all the time in the world to tick off that bucket list.

DON’T give up

Unless you secure remote work before moving, chances are that finding jobs online can be a slow and tedious process. You may have a rake of experience and the best degree in your field and still be met with constant rejection from employers, or worse, no responses at all. It’s hard, but the most important thing is to remain patient and persistent.

Instead of crying into your keyboard when nobody is getting back to you, use your free time to push forward. Research other opportunities, expand your skillset with an online course, network with potential employers… keep your goal in sight and things will eventually work out.

(First published on Zafigo.com on January 28 2018. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/dos-donts-succeed-digital-nomad/)

10 Dreamy Winterscapes Worth Braving the Chill for – Zafigo.com, January 1 2018

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While the fairy lights may be twinkling and the shops may be heaving, the sun-soaked majority of Southeast Asia is a different world to the chilly, snow-covered places that we often hear about in Christmas songs. It may already be January, but it’s still winter, so if you’re in need of a vacation and want to experience the beauty and enchantment of the winter chill, bundle up and plan your getaway to these places!

Harbin, China

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Do you wanna build a snowman? Or perhaps an icy replica of the Egyptian pyramids? At the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, the world is the canvas. The festival’s 34th edition officially opens on 5th January 2018 and will go on till end February 2018, but the flurry of events and activities actually begin from mid-December, as international ice sculptors start working on exquisitely-detailed sculptures ranging from recreations of famous landmarks to mythical creatures.

Although generally known as one festival, it is, in actual fact, made up of at least three main events: Sun Island International Snow Sculpture Art Expo, Harbin Ice and Snow World, and Ice Lantern Fair. All of which add up to more than a mouthful, but all you need to know is this: There will be many moments of awe as you walk among larger-than-life structures meticulously crafted from fine snow and get close to faithful reproductions of iconic landmarks constructed of solid ice ‘bricks’, all lit up colourfully.

Hallstatt, Austria

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With many of its main attractions closed for the season, the quaint village of Hallstatt is almost devoid of tourists during winter. There won’t be much to do, but there’s also no better time to catch postcard-perfect snapshots, sans the crowds. Enjoy the breath-taking scenery along the lakeside before curling up with a good book by a roaring fireplace at your B&B.

Edinburgh, Scotland

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With the magnificent Edinburgh Castle as its backdrop, there’s something truly magical about Edinburgh in winter. Despite freezing temperatures, the Christmas period sees its narrow cobblestone streets spring to life with craft markets, fairgrounds, live music performances and even an outdoor ice rink. The town is also famous for having one of the world’s best New Year’s celebrations, known locally as Hogmanay.

Prague, Czech Republic

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Ask anyone in Europe about a Christmas market and the annual event in Prague is sure to come up again and again. Whether you’re shopping for gifts or just browsing, the sprawling rows of stalls piled high with local crafts and foods are worth a few hours of wandering. Warm yourself up from the inside with some grog – warm rum and lemon – or a decadent hot chocolate. The latter pairs well with trdelnik, a rolled dough mix that is grilled and topped with sugar and walnuts.

Lake Bled, Slovenia

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Just one look at ethereal Lake Bled and its surroundings and you’ll be transported into your favourite fairy tale! If you visit in winter, you may even be lucky enough to have it almost all to yourself. Create a fantasy of your own by taking a boat out to the lake’s snow-dusted island while embracing the tranquillity and stunning natural landscape.

Yellowstone National Park, USA

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Yellowstone is pure paradise for those seeking both chills and thrills. Power down the snow-covered slopes on skis or a snowmobile before dipping a toe (or your whole body) into one of the park’s steamy hot springs. Naturally, the park is also a haven for lovers of the great outdoors; you can observe species such as wolves, elk and bison in their unspoiled habitat.

Shirakawa-gō, Japan

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If bucket loads of snow is what you’re after, look no further than the villages of Shirakawa- gō, a rural region nestled at the foot of Mount Haku-san in central Japan. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is famous for its traditional thatched houses called gassho-zukuri, which look even more spectacular when illuminated and topped with a thick layer of snow.

Annecy, France

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While most visitors to the region quickly skate through to get to the other more famous ski resorts nearby, this romantic gem of an alpine town is worth a visit. Its winding cobbled streets, pastel-coloured houses and the remarkable Château d’Annecy makes this medieval city appear as though it has been taken straight out of a storybook.

Lapland, Finland

 

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Finland’s northernmost region is sure to enthral adults and children alike. Famous for its jolly bearded resident (Santa Claus!), it also boasts some of the most magnificent winter landscapes imaginable. Cross your fingers and hope to catch the Northern Lights!

Banff National Park, Canada

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Its snow-capped mountains and striking blue lakes are enough to make any adventurer’s jaw drop. At Banff National Park you can also enjoy ice walking, dog-sledding, skating on Lake Louise and hitting the slopes in some of the world’s top ski resorts. Feeling lazy? Pamper yourself at the sauna or pick out a hibernation point in front of the biggest fireplace you can find.

(First published on Zafigo.com on January 1, 2018. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/dreamy-winterscapes-worth-braving/)

What I learned from visiting Thailand’s famous elephant sanctuaries – Zafigo.com, November 22 2017

My first experience with an elephant was pretty artificial. Being from Ireland, it was unlikely that I would find these magnificent creatures while wandering the streets or playing in a field. Unsurprisingly, my first memory of elephants is the same as most of my peers’: Watching the movie Dumbo at the tender age of four.

I remember well how I cried when young Dumbo was separated from his mother. Honestly, I couldn’t imagine anything more traumatic, and failed to comprehend how humans can be so cruel towards an innocent creature. Of course, Dumbo is fiction. And as I grew older, I realised that acts of cruelty towards elephants are indeed very real. Across the globe, thousands of elephants are kept in poor conditions and forced to entertain humans through rides and performances.

Because of these realisations, I’ve long vowed to never support such acts, and I know I’m not alone. In recent years, there has been increasing awareness about the unethical treatment of elephants in riding camps, which has encouraged many tourists to avoid them.  As a result, numerous ‘ethical’ elephant sanctuaries have been established in their place.

While in Thailand, I decided to pay a visit to one and after much research, settled on a sanctuary I believed held the best interests of elephants at its core. The experience was unforgettable.

We learned about their former lives as logging and riding elephants, including the horrendous ‘spirit-breaking’ process they endured to make them submissive. We were informed about the work that the organisation are doing to give them a better life and their ongoing efforts to change public attitudes. And, apart from feeding one older elephant, we simply watched them from afar. I may not have left with hundreds of elephant selfies like most, but it is because of this that I left feeling certain that I supported a good cause.

Fast forward several months to when I was in northern Thailand with some friends. The idea of visiting an elephant sanctuary arose and I jumped at the chance of seeing these creatures again. We chose to visit another well-known sanctuary, where the elephants roam free and riding isn’t an option. Yet, while this visit was also preceded by plenty of research, the outcome wasn’t so positive.

Our arrival coincided with the approach of several elephants from a nearby hill. It seemed unlikely that this was a natural response to the arrival of loud, sweaty humans but I guess it was all part of the show to come.

Then, our guide introduced himself and apologised that he must give a quick safety talk, insisting that we would have plenty of time afterwards to “play with the elephants” and “take selfies.” “We want you to have fun” was their message, though not a mention was given to how the elephants felt, where they came from and why they were there.

We were then allowed to feed the elephants, which felt okay, to a point. The handlers then encouraged the elephants to do tricks, which we were told they still remembered from their circus days. While probably true, it felt wrong to encourage them to perform these charades for the sake of a photo.

After eating, the elephants were brought down to a mud pool, many of them being tugged in by their ears. Most of the visitors opted to get in with them for a mud bath, with some lying across their backs to get a selfie.

Elephants and humans alike were then given the chance to cool down in a river. “The elephants can leave the water when they like,” we were told, but the reality wasn’t so idyllic. Observing everything from the riverbank, I saw several elephants leave the water and head uphill. When one tried to take an alternative route, I noticed a handler slip a sharp nail from his pocket and prod his head. The elephant swiftly obeyed.

Following lunch, I witnessed another act of cruelty when an elephant attempted to take some leftover rice from a pot. A handler quickly ran over and led him away, but not without smacking him with a stick when he felt he was out of eye and earshot of us.

I left feeling uneasy and with many unanswered questions, despite my attempts to learn more throughout the day. Where did these elephants really come from? Unlike the first sanctuary, these elephants were allowed to breed. What will happen to their newborns? Was I just being paranoid?

Various conversations following my visit confirmed my suspicions that not all was what it seemed. While better than a riding camp, this place was definitely more concerned with entertaining tourists than helping elephants.

Elephant tourism in Thailand is not diminishing, but simply evolving. According to World Animal Protection (WAP), there’s been a 30 per cent increase in the number of captive elephants there between 2010 and 2016. People are becoming aware that most tourists won’t support animal cruelty, and so they are slapping labels like ‘sanctuary’ and ‘eco-tourism’ on their fliers. Yet, if the animals are still being controlled and sometimes hurt to please humans and keep us safe, what’s the difference?

Indeed, not all elephant sanctuaries are fake. Elephant Nature Park, Wildlife Friends of Thailand, and Kindred Spirit are three world-renowned organisations that are making a difference. They are worthy of and in need of public support.

I cannot turn back the clock or forget what I witnessed, but I can encourage others to research thoroughly before they visit an elephant sanctuary. Ask questions. Choose wisely. And if it appears too good to be true, it probably is.

(First published on Zafigo.com on November 22 2017. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/visiting-thailands-elephant-sanctuaries/)