We feature some of the brightest Instagram storytellers in the Passion Passport community through our Instagram Spotlight series. This week, Zach Murphy (@the.traveling.zam) discusses the destinations behind his most wanderlust-inducing photos.

Philippines

The Philippines was one of those places I’d been waiting to visit for years. I had heard from many of my fellow travelers about the diversity of the country’s landscapes and the friendliness of its people. After spending two weeks jumping around a few of the islands, I experienced first hand why it tops so many travelers’ bucket lists and fills many photographers’ Instagram feeds.

I started by taking a bus to the north of Luzon to see the ancient Banaue Rice Terraces up in the mountains. The terracing technique used to irrigate rice fields in mountainous regions has been practiced in this part of the Philippines for over 4,000 years. Layers of bright green rice rows created fantastic photo compositions as they contoured the remote mountain landscape.

Terraced hills in the Philippines

After spending a few days witnessing the marvels of the Ifugao people (such as the rice terraces), it was time to venture to the jagged limestone cliffs of the Palawan region. Over the past seven years, El Nido has drawn a lot of attention, and the small town’s coastline has completely transformed into a tourist hub, hosting at least 100 island-hopping tours every day. But Coron has retained its small-village charm while offering similarly spectacular vistas, which is why we decided to spend our time there.

Next, I flew to Bohol to rent a scooter and see the magical Chocolate Hills that resemble Hershey’s Kisses. There is still so much for me to discover in the Philippines, but this three-island tour gave me an incredible overview of all this archipelago has to offer. I hope my photos convey that!

Indonesia

Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country. Its 260 million people are spread out over 17,000 islands, leaving plenty of room for vast mountains and forests that make up some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. Along with those landscapes, there is an incredible variety of people, history, and culture — from the stilted village of the Bajo people on the island of Sulawasi, to Samarang, a repurposed slum that has become a rainbow village. As I took the train across the main island, my face was glued to the window as I passed bustling cities, mystic volcanoes, and never-ending rice fields that have stained the land bright green.

Hazy view of a volcano from a forest road
Rainbow-colored houses fill a hillside in Indonesia

Small houses sit above the water

Take a ferry from the main island, Java, over to the tropical paradise of Bali, and it seems you have arrived in a completely different country. The elegant mosques of Indonesia’s majority religion have been replaced with colorful Hindu temples that that are adorned in flowers and statues. Festivals fill the streets as traditional dancers show off the unique heritage of this special island. Layered rice terraces climb the mystical volcanoes while a never-ending supply of water cascades through the many ravines, keeping the whole island lush and green. Along the perimeter of the island, beautiful beaches surround the island.

Japan

Being in Japan felt like traveling through two different countries. In a single day, I transitioned from large, bustling cities to peaceful, relaxing gardens and temples. Their contrast was striking.

Tokyo, the world’s largest city, had just about anything I could imagine, including restaurants run by robots, Mario Kart races in the streets, and neon signs that would put those of Times Square to shame. But if you step into one of the many temple regions near the city or take a bus just a few hours into the mountains, you will find a completely different side of Japan — a place that encourages reflection. As a photographer, I loved to find those places that juxtaposed the old and the new, like an ancient temple with a skyscraper looming in the distance, or a traditionally dressed geisha lit by vibrant neon signs.

Japanese city skyline
A traditional Japanese temple looms over a small town

A Japanese temple looks out over a small body of water

The other aspect of Japanese culture that I found ironic was how neat and orderly many things seemed, while Japan’s pop culture scene is much more chaotic. Many of the casinos and game shops were loud and overwhelming with sounds and lights, yet when I descended to a nearby subway station, no one made a peep and everyone stood in orderly lines.

Iceland

Iceland is every photographer’s dream — think vast landscapes lightly laden with snow, trodden by hairy Icelandic horses, and surrounded by black-sand beaches. It’s incredible. I would highly recommend renting a car and driving the Ring Road to anyone who’s headed to the country. Every turn reveals another breathtaking landscape, and you’ll want to pull over to take new photos every few minutes.

Snow-covered houses in Iceland

A snowy mountain in Iceland

My favorite moments from my trip were these in-between stops, the ones that weren’t featured in the catalogs but still tell of the country’s always present and endless beauty. There was no way to capture the entire feeling of the country, as it is best enjoyed on the open road, listening to one of the many serene Icelandic musicians who seem to create melodies that match the mystery of the landscapes they call home.

Eastern Europe

Lesser-known than its Western counterpart, and often accessible for a fraction of the price, the eastern region of Europe is filled to the brim with picturesque cities and towns. Though most are now part of the European Union, they still hold onto their unique cultural identity. Additionally, although war once made much of the Balkans region unreachable, travelers can now fully experience the crossroads of cultures that the area offers. Now travelers and photographers are rewarded with destinations that are infused with both cultural and historical influences.

A traditional European church dominates a city's skyline

Red-roofed buildings line a river in Eastern Europe

I remember walking the streets of Kotor, Montenegro, browsing ancient artifacts sold on the street that bore Caesar’s name. I crossed bridges in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, that were only recently built to unite a city that was once divided. I hiked through the fields of Transylvania beneath a castle that inspired the myth of Dracula. I climbed church steeples that offered panoramic views of the Danube River that flows through the elegant city of Budapest. With so many countries and cultures so close to each other in the Balkan region, it is easy to lose yourself in and capture photos of the fairytales of the region’s past.

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Zach Murphy
Zach Murphy is a travel destination and cultural photographer. The last 5 years have taken him to over 75 countries across 6 continents in search of our planet's most unique people and places. In 2015 he started the Faces of Places Project celebrating our cultural differences while showcasing our shared humanity.