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Outside its major cities, China has hundreds of ancient, well-preserved villages. Almost stuck in time, these places are windows into China’s past, and have become part of the latest travel trend in China. The Chinese tourism industry has caught on, and many villages now charge visitors an expensive entrance fee. Here are five free, off-the-radar villages in five different provinces of south China.

Huangyao, Guangxi

Huangyao Guangxi China

Empty old streets in Huangyao after rain

Huangyao (黄姚) is an impressive stone village with slab-stone streets. Lined with 600-year-old residences and ancestral temples, the village spans two rivers connected by more than 15 stone bridges. Situated in southeast Guangxi province, Huangyao is surrounded by karst peaks similar to those that make Guilin and Yangshuo so famous (they are two to three hours north).

Set in this incredible landscape, Chinese poets nicknamed Huangyao “the garden of dreams” (yes, Chinese people love lyrical nicknames). There is actually an entrance fee of 100 RMB, but visitors can easily avoid paying it by entering the village through any of the stone gates other than the main one by the parking lot.

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The fact that Seattle isn’t on every single one of those “top foodie destination” lists is a shame. And when it is, it’s practically criminal that the blurb only talks about our seafood and coffee. The food scene in Seattle is so much bigger and more complex! (Although, yeah, seafood and coffee are in excellent abundance as well.)

Caribbean sandwich joint Paseo serves one of the “best sandwiches in America,” according to Esquire. And vegetarians, don’t be deterred; while the slow-cooked Cuban pork sandwich is the most lauded, their tofu sandwich is also quite amazing. And I have yet to find another restaurant like the Trinidadian Pam’s Kitchen. Their paratha, a doughy flatbread with a flaky croissant-like texture, is so good that after writing this sentence, I’m looking up airfare to Seattle. I’ll also never forget Crumble & Flake, one of the absolute best bakeries I’ve been to, where they fill your cream puff to order.

There’s just some seriously good food in Seattle.

2. The weather

People who haven’t lived in Seattle for a long time don’t really get the weather. “Doesn’t it rain all the time?” people ask. “Look, you brought the rain with you!” they accuse when you’re visiting another city.

Here’s a fact you should all internalize: Seattle’s average annual rainfall is less than New York’s, and pretty much the entire Eastern seaboard’s. Seattle’s just really gray. On average, the city has 201 cloudy days per year. And it’s kind of perfect because most days are that kind of day where you just want to curl up with a book and a cup of hot cocoa. Plus, any day that’s actually sunny is, like, the best day ever, and everyone celebrates by having picnics and smiling at each other. It’s a beautiful thing.

3. All that natural beauty

After nearly a year on the road, I still consider Seattle one of the most naturally stunning cities I’ve seen. It’s surrounded by snow-capped mountains, the Olympic Mountains to the west and the Cascades to the east. The best days are when “the mountain is out.” That’s when you can spot the majestic sleeping giant, Mt. Rainier, rising out of the southeastern horizon.

Also, each vista of the city skyline includes a sparkling body of water, as the city’s flanked by the Puget Sound and Lake Washington. Throw in all those perennially green trees, and each photo of Seattle is postcard worthy.

4. The neighborhoods

Seattle is a city of neighborhoods, each with its own personality. You could choose to spend a day somewhere depending simply on your mood.

Capitol Hill is an intriguing mix of everything that makes Seattle unique and has the vibrancy of a young, creative metropolis. Visiting the casually sophisticated Ballard, a historically Scandinavian area, is like spending a day in a European village, with its mix of boutiques, restaurants, and cafes. And let’s not forget Fremont, the notoriously quirky neighborhood and self-proclaimed “center of the universe,” whose notable monuments include a giant statue of Lenin and a massive troll living under a bridge.

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How to piss off an American abroad

Be an American pretending to be a Canadian.

Nothing enrages me more than a red-blooded American cross-dressing as a Canadian to avoid persecution. Granted, foreigners almost universally prefer our neighbors to the north, but they invented genetically modified foods, ruthlessly exterminated their native population, and gave us Alanis Morissette, so, to be fair, everyone has skeletons in their closet.

Subject us to unsolicited political conversation.

Please do not assume because of my country of origin that I want to engage in an impassioned tête-à-tête regarding its foreign policies and many political failings. I get it, Uncle Sam has grossly mishandled wars, coups, genocides, and so much more. But my country, however flawed, is a little like a slutty younger sister. Was it virtuous of her to tagteam the lacrosse team? No, but I still have to defend her against haters and naysayers.

Same goes for ‘Merica. Of course this whole debacle can be avoided by not bringing up politics with me in the first place, and leaving my barstool and me well enough alone. My beer and I are not solely responsible for the moral decay of my country. This conversation is most aggravating when initiated by a German…seriously Dieter, do you really want to go toe-to-toe on atrocities?

Assume we’re here to party.

Yeah, I am. Ceaselessly defending my Americanism makes me thirsty, but I also enjoy museums, indigenous snacks, and other nuances of cultural exchange. Allow me to apologize for my countrymen who I’m sure have at one time or another desecrated your homeland with an unholy trinity of vomit, blood, and semen. I assure you we’re not all the same.

While on the subject, Australians historically take the crown for revelry, though recent reports show Moldovans are the new dark horses of throwing down and throwing up.

Assume we live in Texas, California, or New York.

It’s a giant fucking country, okay?

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5 lesser-known Thailand adventures

1. Being a faux-pirate / learning to dive with The Junk

The Junk was once a haggard sailboat lugging cargo across the Indian Ocean. Now she’s a luxury liveaboard that cruises the sparkly waters of Southern Thailand. The Junk has even been featured in a number of movies because of its pirate-y appearance and excellent restoration work.

The thing with The Junk is it carries a maximum of 18 people on any given excursion — usually fewer. So you get this massive, authentically renovated sailboat pretty much to yourself and a dozen other like-minded (and therefore awesome) people.

Watch the sunrise from the bow of the boat, spend the day diving in remote and picture-perfect locations, explore reefs and canyons and shipwrecks with just the small team from your boat — no more day-tripping snorkelers choking on water, stomping on coral, or leaving behind cans of Tiger beer. Just you, the group, and the wide Indian Ocean. The crew of The Junk have even perfected a quiet dropoff via a dingy, so as not to scare away fish and sea creatures by pulling the boat up too close to reef sites.

Finish the day chowing down on the “5-star” Thai and Western cooking, and then watch the sunset as you sip a bev on the sundeck and wonder if life can get any better. It probably can’t.

2. Living in a treehouse

Head to Chiang Mai, but skip the ziplines and fancy cafes and go straight to Doi Saket, outside of the city. Here, you’ll find a world that speaks to your inner child: real, live treehouses in the dense, lush jungle.

It’s called Rabeang Pasak, and it’s a family-run company. The owner, Lee, is an architect, so don’t expect some little makeshift platform; this is a full-on village built on and around the trees.

More than that, the structures are made from gorgeous cuts of wood, with porches, windows, staircases, showers, and ladders, and each is different.

They’re all as beautiful to look at as they are to live in. Some have rooftop patios, others have private pools, while still others overlook waterfalls.

So hike, swim, stroll, and take in the soaring teak forest around you. At the end of the day, crack a cold one on the porch of your tree palace, channel your inner 6-year-old, and proclaim yourself king (or queen) of this jungle.

3. Moto-trekking the highways of Northern Thailand

One of the highways up in the north of Thailand is known as the “road of 10,000 turns.” If you’ve ever ridden a motorcycle, that line probably just made you drool on your shirt a little bit.

Not only do the highways weave, dip, and carve through mountainous jungles dotted with temples, and slice through valleys full of rice and soy fields, but they also happen to be some of the smoothest roads in the country (not only newer, but with less traffic than those in the south). For anyone with a passion for two wheels and the wind in their face, this is the place to be.

There are a ton of operators that will take you on tours up here, so you never have to worry which way to go at that fork in the road. Tours vary from one to several days, to as much as two weeks — and costs rise accordingly. Multi-day tours include accommodation, and some throw in activities like bungee jumping, massages, elephant visits, and pretty much any other add-on you might want. Two recommended guide companies are Big Bike Tours and Thai Motorcycle Tours. A smaller outfit, but one with a lot of personality, is Smiling Albino.

If you’re not comfortable on a motorcycle and would prefer the saddle of an old-fashioned, human-powered bicycle, check out Tiger Trail Outdoor Adventures, who specialize in responsible tourism and offer one-day bike tours out of Chiang Mai. Or, for a longer cycle tour, try Grasshopper Adventures, who run trips ranging from one to 15 days and cover four categories: road, pioneering (off the beaten bath), family, and photo.

4. Arranging a homestay on a rural tropical island

The farthest you can get from yolo-ing Millennial tourists is inside the home of a local family. Here you’ll find a whole other world, so far removed from the scenes of Bangkok’s Khao San Road and Ko Pha Ngan’s full moon parties you might wonder if it’s the same country. It is. Get off the Lonely Planet trail and into small rural towns with one road, home-cooked meals like red curry with fresh local crab, and the honor of being welcomed into someone’s home.

There are a lot of companies offering this service — not all are legit. The last thing you want is to sign up for an “authentic” homestay experience only to find out the family is being gypped. Not so authentic. Research is key here.

Andaman Discoveries is a company specializing in community-based tourism on the islands of Southern Thailand — meaning the tours benefit the local communities. They have a strict policy about the fair rotation of families as guests come to stay — no playing favorites, and visitors don’t get to pick their home. This translates to all participating families receiving equal treatment, and the majority of fees go to the families — which means a lot to a household that lives on roughly $6 a day.

Once you’re all set up in your homestay, Andaman Discoveries can facilitate dozens of local excursions and experiences — from cooking classes, to handicraft lessons, to spending a day with the local fishermen. Of course, you also can visit the innumerable beaches, cliffs, parks, and mosques and temples, and go swimming, snorkeling, hiking, and sailing — whatever’s on offer in your new home.

It might not be the craziest adventure you’ve ever heard of, but it’s practically guaranteed you’ll have stories to tell till the day you die about this amazing Thai family who took you in, treated you like a relative, taught you to cook, sew, fish, invited you to their cousin’s huge wedding, and showed you the nooks and crannies of their rural island that would never be found in a guidebook.

5. Going on a photojournalistic jungle trek to a hill tribe village, led by a man who rescues young girls from the sex trade

Mickey Choothesa

Yup, you read that right. Let me introduce a man for the ages: Mickey Choothesa.

Some backstory: Mickey was a photojournalist who covered all sorts of dangerous situations and conflicts around the world. He’s been to over 70 countries and spent time in Iraq, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Somalia, to name a few hot spots. Then, one day in 1998, Mickey was assigned a story in his home country, Thailand. What Mickey didn’t expect was to see young girls being trafficked and smuggled. While Mickey went on to cover some post-9/11 conflicts, Thailand was on his mind. In 2005, he moved back to his homeland permanently, gave up his still-thriving career as a journalist, and founded an organization called COSA.

Mickey has spent the intervening ten years rescuing young girls from the sex trade, not only through long talks with anyone who’ll listen — from tribal leaders, to local families, to criminals — but also going in undercover and rescuing girls with his bare hands. Mickey has since built two homes for the girls, and while he still goes on rescue missions, the focus has shifted to long-term mental and emotional care, combined with education and safe housing.

Why this story? Well, Mickey’s love for photography never died. So once or twice a year, he leads an epic photography expedition into the hills outside of Chiang Mai, taking teams on foot up to remote hill tribes where many of the girls are trafficked from. You get to document your journey — not only amazing vistas and landscapes but dense jungle, rivers, waterfalls, and hill-tribe life. This trek combines Mickey’s passion for photography with the need to generate income for COSA. It’s win-win. What are you waiting for?

Also — I’m 100% positive Mickey is Rambo. So there’s that.

This post is proudly produced in partnership with the Tourism Authority of Thailand and STA Travel, working together to tell stories of the peoples, places, and cultures that make Thailand special.
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At some point, maybe a year after I moved here, I was under the delusion that I’d become a “local” in my small neighborhood in Japan. I settled into a routine. I knew half a dozen shopkeepers on my street enough to say hello and chat about the weather. I received coupons for the pizza place down the street, and then I used them. I went to a Japanese dentist and made an appointment for six months in the future, confident I’d still be here.

I hit a level of Japanese language proficiency where I entered into conversations without preemptively blushing and sweating; I knew I wouldn’t understand most of it, but I knew it’d probably work out. I felt like I belonged and like the people in my community, at least my block, were starting to accept my husband and me into their daily lives.

Then, a little more time passed, and I realized I was wrong.

I’ve never gone to Tokyo without a subway map and a camera in my hand at all times. Holidays come and go and I have no idea what my neighbors are celebrating. The rules for garbage collection change — different items, different schedule, different collection area — and no one tells me.

I’m not a local. I just live here.

I think many people are in my shoes. Foreigners come to Japan on temporary work permits and stay several years but still feel like a tourist, at least some of the time. Or maybe they just haven’t realized it yet. If any of the situations below are familiar to you, you may still be a tourist in Japan.

1. In the past year, you’ve almost walked away from a toilet because you couldn’t figure out how to flush it.

Admit it. This has happened to you. It’s definitely happened to me. Push this button on the wall. No, step on this pedal on the floor. No, press three buttons on the electronic handle that heats the seat. Just flush!

2. You’ve been to a karaoke bar but don’t know the words to “Sukiyaki.”

Or you don’t know the Japanese title of the song, or you don’t know what I’m talking about. If you do know what I’m talking about, I apologize because I’m almost certain it’s now stuck in your head.

3. You’ve never carried a mikoshi in a community festival, rung a new year’s bell, climbed Mount Fuji, or worn a kimono in public.

Some of the most iconic aspects of Japanese culture are tough to experience without a Japanese friend or tour guide to help you. Carrying a mikoshi, for example, is often done by a community group that a tourist would have a hard time joining.

4. No stranger has ever knocked once and then walked into your house yelling, “Shitsureishimasu!”

I see this happening to my neighbors all the time. Friends, delivery people, utility-company workers just walk into their houses. This has happened to me only twice, and once was a mistake that was embarrassing for us both.

It’s somehow frightening and rewarding at the same time. You feel like you’re part of the community culture, and you also wonder if the person is going to kill you.

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An American reminisces after living in Australia for a year.
1. How to “go green”

In America, going green means you make Instagram posts about recycling and follow “Wake up America” accounts on Twitter. In Australia, going green isn’t a social fad — it’s a way of life that’s completely normal. We didn’t have a clothes dryer in our apartment in Australia, there was only air-conditioning in one room, and everyone rode their bikes everywhere even though it took them longer to get there than driving would.

2. How to eat

I didn’t see one restaurant menu in Australia that wasn’t loaded with avocado, pumpkin, fresh fruit, and tons of other delicious things that weren’t fried. And the steak in Queensland is to die for. I know you can find these things in America, but they typically are in more expensive / exclusive restaurants (and aren’t anywhere in Indiana, where I’m from).

My favorite dish at the Coffee Club, a large breakfast chain in Australia, was toasted sourdough with feta and sliced avocado, drizzled in balsamic. Not quite IHOP. Maybe Australia has its own problems with obesity, but I’d rather overeat on these foods than at Taco Bell.

3. How to drink

When I first got to Australia and realized alcohol was expensive, and happy hour / drink specials were rare, I was disappointed. Then I realized Australians are so good at drinking (seriously, I don’t think hangovers exist in that country) that for their own safety, drinks are expensive at all times. There’s no socially unacceptable time to drink in Australia. Which is great, but the cheapest beer in pubs is typically $6-$8 (cases are rarely cheaper than $40 in a “bottle shop”), and if you find spirits for under $10 per drink, it’s a steal.

One of my favorite bars, Waxy’s Irish Pub, had a $3 Budweiser special on Sundays; however, if you didn’t get there before 10pm, they’d run out of beer after your first round. Weirdly enough, though, wine is cheap in Australia.

4. How to take vacation time

Or should I say, how to secure adequate time to take a vacation. Not two weeks, but four to six weeks paid vacation. Enough time to actually go somewhere.

One of my good friends in Australia is currently in the middle of his six weeks’ paid vacation to Europe that he goes on annually. I went to Wisconsin for five days last week, so 50% of my vacation time for the year is already used. Vacation time may seem unimportant in America, but it’s a valued part of Australian culture that Aussies take full advantage of.

5. How to attend “Uni”

College, but not the American way. For one, you don’t have to go. It’s just not that big of a deal. And if you do, it’s common to enroll after a gap year of traveling out of high school. Uni is also cheaper in Australia — my public relations degree would have cost me $22,000 (total) at Bond University, the school down the street from my apartment in Australia. I had a full ride to the University of Indianapolis, and still have more than $22,000 in student loans because of the cost of living, eating, buying books, breathing, etc, on top of the ridiculous interest on student loans and the whole “I had to defer my student loans after my unpaid internship that gained me nothing” issue.

Furthermore, neither of my managers at my Australian job had degrees — they were in their positions because they were the most experienced, and the best at those jobs.

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1. You know Irn-Bru is the ultimate hangover cure.

That fluorescent orange glow. The tangy, sickly sweet taste. There’s a reason Scotland is the only country in the world that sells more Irn-Bru than Coca-Cola, and it’s because we know about its magical headache removing properties. If only it would take away the cringe-y memories too.

2. You know what a ceilidh is and how to pronounce it.

And understand exactly what’s being asked of you when you’re summoned to do the Gay Gordons or Strip the Willow…mainly because of the endless years of torture and humiliation you faced in primary school learning those moves.

3. You expect free prescription drugs and university degrees.

You think it’s crazy how much people have to pay for them in other countries. It’s your right to free healthcare, so you can’t imagine living in a country where such a basic human right is denied. Nevertheless, you could spend hours moaning about the NHS.

4. You know how to pronounce Edinburgh.

It can be either Edin-burra or Edin-bra (or, if said quickly / intoxicated, Embra or Enbra). It is never Edinborrow or Edinbuurg.

5. You’re either an Edinburgh person or a Glasgow person.

This can range from a little lighthearted jesting and fun-poking at the opposing city, to a full-on ranting rage about the other’s obvious flaws.

6. You’re mentally prepared for rain at all times.

You know fine well that just because the sun is blazing this morning, it doesn’t rule out a thunderstorm in three hours’ time. However, you gave up on umbrellas a long time ago and now just grumpily succumb to the skies.

7. You know that as soon as the sun comes out men will take their tops off.

It may only be 19°C outside, but every summer as soon as the skies clear, men of all ages throughout the country will be stripping off their t-shirts in gardens, towns, and parks, baring hairy chests for all to see.

8. Your people are obsessed with the weather.

The weather is the ultimate conversation starter for all awkward situations. Any time you meet someone new, the weather will be discussed first — especially if you’re talking to a cab driver, a stranger at a bus station, or anyone working on a checkout.

9. You let tourists believe all the legends are true.

Sure, Greyfriars Bobby totally happened. What a heroic little dog. Haggis? Yup that’s a small creature running ’round the Highlands. Oh yeah, I’ve definitely seen the Loch Ness Monster.

10. You smile and nod when tourists tell you about their Scottish roots.

You understand they’re telling you out of pride, and you honestly do appreciate the sentiment, but you’ve heard it so many times now you’re not really paying attention anymore.

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Last year, more than 100 million people from China traveled abroad, making the country the world’s #1 exporter of international tourists. What’s most amazing about this fact is that, just a generation ago, only the elite and politically connected could get permission to travel abroad. The rest of the population could only dream of such a “bourgeois” activity under the restrictions of the Communist state. But today, with a rapidly growing middle class and a socialist economy that looks and smells a lot like capitalism, Chinese citizens have unprecedented opportunities to travel the world.

The boom in Chinese tourism isn’t just a way for Chinese citizens to learn about the rest of the world. It’s also an opportunity for the rest of the world to learn about the Chinese. As the anthropologist James Clifford once said, not only do tourists travel, but their cultures travel as well.

Here are some of the things the new Chinese traveler would like you to know.

Elephants, wineries, and soap operas are at the top of our bucket list.

Thailand is a favorite for Chinese travelers due to the ease of getting tourist visas, the popularity of a recent movie called Lost in Thailand, and the promise of white sand beaches and elephant rides. More affluent travelers flock to France, where wine tours are all the rage as Chinese consumers are starting to appreciate the once unknown beverage. The craze for wine is so intense that imitation French chateaus and wineries are popping up all over China, even in places like the Gobi Desert.

South Korea is also a popular destination because of Chinese fascination with Korean soap operas. Tours of Korean film sets, complete with meet-and-greets with hunky male stars, are a dream come true for many young women in China today.

We’d rather spend our money on shopping than hotels.

Middle-class travelers from China will forgo luxury living conditions and settle for simpler accommodations if it means more in our pockets to go shopping. Global hotel brands are starting to take notice, developing inexpensive hotels near prime shopping locations and big brand outlets. Which brings us to the next key trend among Chinese tourists…

We can’t get enough of luxury goods.

For the vast majority of Chinese travelers today, traveling abroad means a chance to buy high-end luxury brands like Prada, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton. It’s not unusual to see a Chinese tourist wipe out a store’s inventory of handbags, each one costing hundreds or thousands of dollars.

Life in China today is all about conspicuous consumption, and luxury foreign brands are the best way to show off one’s status. It’s far cheaper to buy these products abroad because the Chinese government slaps a 50% tariff on these items sold domestically. You can bet a Chinese tourist’s suitcase won’t be filled with cheap t-shirts and trinkets.

Tour groups are still the norm, but independent travelers are gaining ground.

When you encounter Chinese travelers these days, you’re likely to see them getting shuttled on and off buses in big groups, wearing matching t-shirts, and following a tour guide around. But as more Chinese, especially younger travelers, gain confidence in navigating the world on their own, independent travel is seeing a remarkable rise. And, like their counterparts elsewhere in the world, they’re making their plans on the internet.

Qunar, which translates as “where are you going?” is one of the most exciting websites to emerge in China recently. In addition to helping with booking, it lets users share their travel itineraries and crowdsource the best ideas. Online resources are also encouraging Chinese travelers to break out of the norm and go to places that are less often visited by their compatriots — including India, South Africa, and Brazil.

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#TravelPhotographers! Want to win this awesome prize pack full of gear from globetrotting photographer & #MatadorN Ambassador @ChrisBurkard’s travel kit? Our #ArcticSwell giveaway begins tomorrow! Check out the link in our profile and follow our Instagram feed for more details.

Special thanks to: @GoalZero @ZealOptics @amazinggrass @mizulife @westerndigital @gerbergear @fstopgear @smugmug & @ChrisBurkard