Strange (but true) travel stories

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

I’m desperately trying to recall Mark Twain’s inspirational words as I’m struggling with two suitcases which I’m schlepping from the train station to my Tokyo hotel which according to Google maps is only a nine minute walk away albeit on uneven pavement. It’s raining. The brand new umbrella I brought with me broke in transit and now requires a third hand (which I obviously don’t have) to keep it open. Then an old but apologetic sushi chef tells me I’ve taken a wrong turn and am now twice as far from my hotel as when I started. It starts to rain more heavily now and I’m late for a tour.

Why am I subjecting myself to this misery when I could be ensconced in my comfortable Saigon apartment surrounded by the familiar? It’s the lure of travel. Confusion of a new culture. Sights that my eyes didn’t hitherto know existed. Ordering from a vending machine and trying to figure out the frustrating sequence of blinking buttons that will eject the ticket I need to get my dinner. Then, finally, the payoff – what makes the frustration of travel with its incomprehensible maps, indecipherable language, indistinguishable ingredients worth it – heated toilet seats and soothing sprays (cue the chorus to Hallelujah). Of course, I jest. It’s really all about the new experiences, the real connections, a new way of seeing things that make us travel junkies meticulously plan our next destinations or dream about far-flung places we may never get to see.

But when I’m not actually traveling, I’m getting lost reading about it. So here are my favorite travel stories of the year that was.

Best Travel App
Used by pilot Raymond Cody when his instrument panel, including his radio, suddenly malfunctioned, Raymond was able to contact the tower with his cell phone and use his iPad app to relay his flight path in real time. Nearly half an hour later, he was back on the ground. The Federal Aviation Administration now has an iPad option, allowing authorized operators to use the tablet as an alternative to paper charts and manuals. My most useful travel app? Words With Friends to help pass the time waiting for flights.

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Best Food Tour
I love food tours in new cities. See the sights while sampling the local cuisine – what’s not to love? The people at VeryFirstTo have put together the food tour to end all food tours – visiting every single one of the 109 three-star Michelin restaurants in the world including arranging impossible-to-get reservations, booking hotels and navigating your airfare. The tour visits a restaurant every other day for about six months in 12 countries (nine in Europe, and the rest in the US, Japan and China). The price tag for your culinary journey? Just shy of USD150,000 for two. Your stomach will thank you.

Too Handsome to Travel
The travel world was tickled with the story of Omar Borkan Al Gala, aka Too Sexy to Travel, a male model who was allegedly kicked out of Saudi Arabia for being too tempting to its women, earning him viral stardom and over one million Facebook fans. The story even has a Vietnamese twist, as Omar admitted that the original story was a rumor blown out of proportion shortly before he was brought to Vietnam on a marketing tour in September. Reports have him disappointing fans with his real, unretouched looks and reduced appearances supposedly over money disputes. Maybe he should’ve Instagrammed himself instead?

Too Heavy to Travel
Matthew Harper, 154 kg, says he was ejected from a US flight, ostensibly because it was overbooked. Southwest Airlines has a “customer of size” policy which encourages passengers to buy a second seat if they are unable to fit in a single seat. In the end, Matthew was allowed to fly, but he said he’d “never been humiliated like this in my life”. The friendly skies may not be so friendly to the rotund.

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Best Travel Perk
Forget luxe hotel aromatherapy shampoos and first class gourmet peanuts. The best travel perk goes to Michael Dettlaff, 12, who visited Arkansas’ Crater of Diamonds park with his family this summer. The diamond mining site turned US state park allows visitors to dig in the 15 ha field. While most diamonds found are too small to be cut, after 10 minutes of digging, Michael found a 5.16 carat honey brown diamond, estimated to be worth between USD12,000 and USD15,000 once cut and polished. The park allows visitors to keep whatever they find. Now that’s what I call a reason to travel!

Most Decadent Hotel Package
Hotels in 2013 continued to try to wow us with their most over-the-top offerings. Some of my favorites for the traveling One Percent include the Royal Suite at the St.Regis Saddiyat Island Resort in the United Arab Emirates. For just USD35,000, you get two floors, four bedrooms, a mini-cinema, a game room and a private swimming pool with sea views to call home for the night. For USD100,000, how about a room at the Delano (in Miami’s South Beach) instead? The Bungalow Bliss Package comes with a poolside bungalow, monogrammed linens, a one-on-one sushi-making class and cocktail-shaking class. The best perk? Two hours of completely private late-night pool access in your own cabana with rainfall shower and a Roman-inspired marble soaking tub. Skinny dip with abandon! But the topper is the “Ultimate 50” package from the Conrad Tokyo where I just stayed. For a whopping USD500,000, enjoy a fourday, three-night stay for two in the 37th floor royal suite overlooking Tokyo Bay, a dedicated concierge, a Tourbillon Grande Date watch, a Tsukiji fish market tour with a sushi master and an airport helicopter pick up. Oh, and I almost forgot – a Lamborghini Gallardo to drive away in after your stay. Yes, please!

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Beware the Underwear
Apparently, a new and improved underwear bomb is one of the latest security concerns for the US Transportation Safety Administration. Dubbed “Underwear 2” after its predecessor failed to detonate on Christmas Day 2009, severely burning the would-be terrorist’s groin instead of bringing down the plane, the latest version incorporates household caulk to seal the explosive device, making it difficult to detect by bomb-sniffing dogs. Another reason to always wear clean underwear when you travel as you never know when and where you’ll get searched.

Bio: Having visited nearly 60 countries as a travel writer and award-winning photographer, James Pham blogs about his adventures at FlyIcarusFly.com