Thursday, July 24, 2014

"A Mosque to Remember" - Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darrasulum

Firstly, let me stipulate that I'll actually be remembering two mosques in this post, but the temptation to have a title poke fun at the 2002 Mandy Moore classic "A Walk to Remember" was simply too much to bare.

In the beginning, what brought Bri and I to Brunei was the notion that we simply hadn't met anyone who had been there. So, it became a "why not?" sort of scenario. I seem to find myself in plenty of scenarios that cross my path where I think "why not?" Generally speaking, I would rather regret something I did then something I didn't do. Words to live by, I suppose.

Once again, Bri and I were couchsurfing, as we did in Saigon. This time it was a brother and sister duo, Finah and Freddy, who were something like couchsurfing legends around Bandar Seri Begawan. Finah picked us up from the airport, they took us out for food, there was a comfortable couch in the living room - it was lovely. We even met up with Freddy again a few weeks later in Gili Trawangan, Indonesia. They were well travelled and very welcoming. I'm telling you, couchsurfing is a downright wondrous travel community.

But I digress. Let's talk about a lighter topic, shall we? How about, say, religion? Whatever your thoughts or preferences on religion, there is one fact that I feel is indisputable when considering it. The fact being that, for the most part, religion has had a profound, positive impact on the realm of architecture. Hindu temples, buddhist shrines, enormous cathedrals all inspire awe in me. When I think of my visit to Bandar Seri Begawan back in 2012, my memories have been formed around the visit to two mosques in particular. So, understandably, that's how I'll frame this post.

Without further adieu, The Tale of Two Mosques. (A Dickens and Mandy Moore reference in the same post? I'm on fire.)

Madjid Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque

Let me put the joking tone aside for a second to tell you this - I will never forget the wind whipping, standing before the mosque, in a completely surreal moment. Luckily, I captured it on film.

Also known as Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, it's a marvel. It is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful mosques in the region, and, frankly, in the entire world. Its name is derived from the name of the 28th Sultan of Brunei, as it was him who gave the green light for its construction. It was finished in the late 1950's, and it absolutely dominates the cityscape of Bandar Seri Begawan. It's modern Islamic architecture at its finest, and, you guessed it, no expense was spared. Just try to keep your eyes off that illustrious gold dome, I dare you.

Jame' Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque

The largest mosque in Brunei, once again we find a brilliant piece of Islamic style architecture. It was built in 1992 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the current Sultan's reign. It's spectacular. Similar to my visit to Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, I got the feeling that it just simply could not be real, that it could not be a functioning mosque. Well both Bri and I went inside and prayed, so I can attest to the fact that it indeed is. Honestly, I'm just going to bow out of the description on this one - it just needs to be seen.

What you end up learning from adventures like this is that just because you haven't heard much about a place, it doesn't mean there isn't a lot to be seen, or, for that matter, felt. It was an intensely interesting experience for Bri and I to be sleeping on the couch of our new found friends in a strict, Muslim nation's capital. To be frank, I didn't even know these mosques existed until I arrived there. And how could that be? They moved me in ways that some of the most famous buildings in the word didn't. I make a point of going to places now that others don't because...well...Why not?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Fly In, Fly Out - 10 Hours in Panama City, Panama

A slew of emails from my quaint Quito hotel room drastically changed the course of my Panamanian layover. Instead of spending ten hours in Panama City's Tocumen International Airport, it was decided that I would venture out into Panama City, especially considering the city isn't terribly far from the airport. Needless to say, exploring a new city beats wandering from one section of the airport to another, failing to pass time with half-interested reading and over-priced food that preys on your wallet, regardless of the currency which currently rests inside it.

Reading forums and interrogating Google, I was able to get the names of several guides who I felt might help me get the absolute most out of my day. For me, every minute counts during a layover, as you feel like you're on borrowed time while visiting the city.

I came across someone who had recommended "my friend Mario" on a forum. Intrigued, I sent out an email (, and was able to work out a very reasonable price for the day. Of course, this post was part of the bargain, but there was absolutely no obligation for me to write a positive review. None. Why just trust my review? There are plenty on TripAdvisor as well for you to ponder over. These tours are operated under the umbrella of Almiza Tours (founded in 1994), and they're top notch.

It's difficult to surmise what it is I'm trying to accomplish with this creepy, forced smile captured by my iPhone, but it's not difficult to explain what Mario accomplished on our day in Panama City. His depth of knowledge about the city and country was fantastic, and he was personable on top of that. Furthermore, his knowledge was very personal as he was born in Panama City and currently lives there. Let me also mention that the price was very reasonable, and, for me, it was worth every penny. I was picked up from the airport around 9am and was dropped off around 3pm. It appears they're very flexible in accommodating your layover.

The tour company itself is operated by ten gentlemen, and three of them are named Mario. Mario noted, "It's the only company in town where if you don't like the first Mario, another Mario can replace him right away." Let's talk about what the tour includes.

1) Panama Viejo

Located in the suburbs of the new city, Panama Viejo includes the remnants of the city, founded in 1519,  that was the first European colony in this region. The city was sacked by pirates on several occasions due to its prominence in the transfer of gold for Spain, including by the famed Henry Morgan in 1671 (ever drank Captain Morgan's rum? Yup, same guy).

2) Casco Viejo/San Felipe

When Panama Viejo was essentially destroyed, the city was moved to the now historic Casco Viejo in the late 17th century. It has gone through its ups and downs, but since being designated as a UNESCO World Heritage sight in 1997, it appears to be on the rise again as a premier tourist destination. Here you'll find a unique, delicate mixture of Spanish and French architecture.

3) Ancon Hill

Ancon Hill is the almost 700 foot peak in an area that essentially acted as US headquarters while they were operating the Panama Canal. The area is distinct from the rest of the city, as it tends to be a little greener, lusher, and contains more wildlife. The view provides an opportunity to see where the old town and new town converge.

 4) A Fruit Market

This place was essentially a drive-thru fruit and vegetable market. Literally, the best pineapple that has ever graced my lips. I've posted a video for proof - I swear that pineapple was infused with the juice of ten other pineapples. I don't know if this is a standardized part of the tour, but Mario and I were loving this.

5) The Panama Canal (Miroflores Locks) 

This was the big reason I left the airport, to check this off the bucket-list. It's something I've always wanted to see, and it was indeed a marvel. I was lucky enough to arrive as a ship was coming through the locks, as well as watch a video in the pleasantly air-conditioned movie theatre and museum. It's a whole experience to be honest, and I hope that the Panama Canal will continue to bring prosperity to this deserving nation.

It was blistering hot all day in Panama, and since I was flying in from Quito, it's safe to say I was sweating all day (Quito is a surprisingly cold capital because of its elevation). Not to mention I hadn't exactly slept on the flight over. Though, if I can be sweating and exhausted and still appreciate a city this much, it must be something special. I owe a large part of that to Mario and Almiza Tours who, quite simply, made this one of the best layovers of my life.

Much love,


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Guest Post with Photographer Alex Liepold: "Captured Moments"

(I ran into Alex several months back seemingly out of the blue here in Toronto. We ended up talking about photography, writing, and travel, which of course led to a conversation about this blog here. I'm pleased to say that today's post will be a guest post courtesy of the talented photographer from Toronto, Alex Liepold. The words and photographs that follow are his, and I'm sure you'll enjoy them.)

The trick to any great travel photography photo is not to over think it. Many people might think it too cliche to take a picture of the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben, but certain shots are taken over and over again for a reason. Their composition, subject matter and lighting offers a once-in-a-lifetime scenario where you just have to take a picture of what's in front of you, so snap away and experiment. While certain landmarks demand your time, it's also important to lurk off some of the beaten paths to capture moments that locals see and feel every day. Some of these pictures are across Western Europe, but also include some of my travels throughout Ontario, exemplifying some of the hidden gems that can be found right in our own backyards.

Taken in Prague, Czech Republic with a Canon 5D Mark II, 50 mm F1.8 Canon Lens

Taken in London, England with a Canon 5D Mark II, 50 mm F1.8 lens

Abandoned farmhouse--Taken in Manotik, Ontario with a Canon Rebel XSI, 18-55 mm lens

Taken in Amsterdam, Netherlands with a Canon 5D Mark II, 50 mm F1.8 Canon Lens

Taken in Amsterdam, Netherlands with a Canon 5D Mark II, 50 mm F1.8 lens

Taken in Paris, France with a Canon 5D Mark II, 50 mm F1.8 lens

Taken in Ottawa, Ontario on Canada Day with a Canon Rebel XSI, 10-20 mm Sigma lens

Taken in Paris, France with a Canon 5D Mark II, 50 mm F1.8 Canon Lens

Artists memorial to victims of the Holocaust--Taken in Berlin, Germany with a Canon 5D Mark II, 50 mm F1.8 lens

Taken in Amsterdam, Netherlands with a Canon 5D Mark II, 50 mm F1.8 lens

Alex Liepold is an avid photographer and traveler from Toronto. He's also a writer for his own sports blog at Find him on twitter @Alex_Liepold or @CarltonCashbox

Friday, June 6, 2014

Granada, Nicaragua: Exploring the Abdondoned San Juan de Dios Hospital

Spain's colonial imprint in Central and South America seems to have manifested itself in a multitude of ways. Generally, my mind equates the Spanish colonial imprint with large, powerful cathedrals, so I was essentially overwhelmed with curiosity at the prospect of exploring a colonial hospital. Here's the best part - San Juan de Dios Hospital is abandoned.

In 1898, San Juan de Dios looked as pristine as a colonial palace. The photo above was taken that very year, the year in which it came into use. It was also the same year that Marie Curie discovered radium, but that's neither here nor there. As I was saying, just 100 years later, the hospital would be abandoned. I am to understand that since then it has been sacked of most everything that could be sold. I searched long and hard for more information about this hospital, but it isn't all that easy I must say. I did, however, find several articles about companies attempting to build these semi-ruins into some sort of modern day hotel. As far as I could see, there hasn't been much progress on that, and I'm glad. 

So, about 15 years after San Juan de Dios was closed, I arrived on the scene, and it was the start of a strange and intriguing afternoon. And, of course, the skies had to be an ominious and foreboding gray.

It has always fascinated me as to what actually becomes a tourist destination in a city, or "worth visiting." I'm not sure that San Juan de Dios has a large tourist draw by any means, but it does function in the city now more in the line of tourism than anything else. In this case, it had to be accidental. It reminds me of these places with tourism value that really don't fall into the traditional tourism category (ie. museums, famous landmarks etc.) In some cases, destinations have a tourist draw precisely because of their troubled or dark history. Take, for example, Normandy or the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

I entered through the front entrance to the faint sound of children laughing. The start of every good horror film, right? Fortunately, it was only children playing football, making good use of the now derelict space.

I spent about an hour walking around the different spaces and rooms in what used to be a burgeoning hospital. I even spent a little while walking around the second floor, which now merely serves as a vantage point for the rest of the grounds, a concrete roof of sorts. It was wonderfully peculiar. I was actively trying to relish the whole underlying strangeness of it all, because that, ultimately, was the tourist draw for me. As I've been wont to do recently, I'll tell this story in pictures. I can only hope the pictures stir up a little emotion, as emotion was certainly present as I walked around the complex, especially all by my lonesome.


There is something about a place that is abandoned that forces us to imagine what was or what might have been. Perhaps the weirdest part for me on this journey was walking around as my mind imagined doctors walking through the halls, and nurses checking in on patients. I couldn't help it. It's simply amazing what the mind can conjure up with a little blank space to work with on the canvas.