Isaan: Thailand’s Final Frontier

Bangkok’s Don Mueang Airport isn’t an inherently bad place. It’s by no means a highlight of anyone’s visit to Thailand, but neither does it conceal some dark force of evil. It is, however, a place that I will generally try to spend as little of my life as possible for if it is one thing for sure, it is boring. And so we found ourselves sitting in – rather bizarrely – and Egyptian themed bar in Laos’ capital city of Vientiane, eating Hummus and flat bread. We were due to meet a friend in Yangon in around 10 days’ time and were trying to find the best way to get over there. Pretty much every flight we could find for a reasonable price required a lengthy layover at Don Mueang– something you may have realised we were keen to avoid. Another option that was open to us was a quick hop over the border and an overnight sleeper to Bangkok and onward flight to Yangon. That was out, too, as we’d already spent a considerable amount of time in Bangkok and didn’t fancy killing another week there now. Looking at the expanse of North Eastern Thailand that lay just across the Mekong, it dawned on us that this was the one region of Thailand we were yet to really explore. It was our final Thai frontier: Isaan.

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A quick bit of online research soon revealed that as-well as the plush overnight express trains, we could reach Bangkok using the much cheaper, albeit much slower, local third diesel trains that plied the tracks between Nong Khai and Bangkok. This is a part of Thailand that is often overlooked by both the tourist and backpacking crowds as it has none of the fine sandy beaches for which Thailand is famed. What it does have, however, is an incredible cultural diversity, some fine Khmer ruins (Cambodia & Laos are just a hop away!) and food that is considered both delicious and spicy – even by Thai standards! The spherical Isaan Sausages are renowned throughout Thailand and available practically everywhere – not one to miss!

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A quick and hassle-free trip to the border using Vientiane’s local bus network soon saw us boarding a shuttle coach across the bridge leading over the mighty Mekong, and into the Thai city of Nong Khai. We had seen a flyer for a guest house here a few weeks ago and had, fortunately, had the good sense to note down the details, and it was just a couple of hours after leaving the bustle of Loas that our TuKTuk driver was delivering us to the oasis that is Mut Mee Garden guest house. Owned and managed by long term British expat Julian and his Thai family, Mut Mee was the escape we so badly needed after a few months of rather basic accommodation. Luscious riverside gardens, soft beds and immaculate rooms were served at prices that even the most budget conscious traveller couldn’t refuse. Julian’s hospitality, it would seem, is somewhat legendary locally, and we ended up spending almost a week in and around Nong Khai. Whilst the city itself is perhaps unexceptional, the weekly regular street food markets, excellent cycling network and relaxed, riverside vibe makes it a great place to spend a slow week. A cycle out to the Sala Keoku sculpture park with its gargantuan concrete statues is a surreal experience and an absolute must whilst in town.

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We had decided to break the 600+ kilometre trip to Bangkok down into smaller sections, spending a night or two in towns along the way. Local Thai trains are utterly brilliant. Not in the sense that they are in any way luxurious or modern, but in the sense that they connect you to local life in a way that no other mode of transport can. The rusty diesel cars that were to be our chariot for the next week offered only third-class seating, which had certainly seen better days. Trundling south, however, on our first leg towards Khon Kaen, we knew we had made the right choice in travelling this way. The seats may have been hard but with the windows wide open we were able to truly appreciate the staggering beauty of this land, so untouched by tourism. Mile upon mile of farmland rolled by, punctuated by rural villages and the occasional larger town.

Life on board was just as vibrant as that trundling by our window. Food vendors boarded at most stations, offering cooled drinks and various snacks which were both as delicious and as spicy as we had been warned to expect. Towards the front of each train is an area of seating reserved exclusively for the use of Monks who may happen to be travelling. This can be a great place to sit as we found that many of the Monks who boarded spoke remarkably good English and were keen to engage us in conversation and share their knowledge of the area.

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Despite their slow speed and regular stops, our train trundled into Khon Kaen pretty much dead on time, and we had a wonderful evening exploring the local night market, before enjoying an exceptionally good value meal in the food court just a few hundred metres from the station. We had been warned that the cities of Isaan’s cities didn’t offer much in the way of sightseeing, and had decided to spend just a night or two in each of our stops. This worked perfectly for us as we were mainly looking to experience the region rather than go off and hunt down specific sights.

Next stop on our journey was the provincial capital of Nakhon Ratchasima, locally known as Korat – remember that when looking at train timetables as both or either names may be used! On this particular leg, our train was much busier than previous journeys. The conductor, seeing us jump on board with our bags was keen to practice his English for a few minutes, before ‘miraculously’ reserving 2 seats for us by the window, with space for our bags!

Despite its size, Korat retained it charming, small town feeling. A large central square, interesting selection of temples and buzzing night market cemented the charm factor, whilst the city Zoo – one of Thailand’s largest – makes a great day trip. Shopaholics will also be delighted by the great range of wares available in town, both in the street-side markets and large, modern malls that can be found on the city’s edge. For those with a little more time, the hour-or-so journey to Wat Non Kum will reward you with idyllic views over a grand Thai temple, with none of the tourist crowds!

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From Korat, both Bangkok and the ancient capital city of Ayutthaya are in easy striking distance by train. If time is of the essence, regular express trains make the journey into Bangkok’s Huamlamphong station in around three hours, although we decided to stick to our guns and complete the journey on our trusted slow trains! Whilst this may sound a rather romantic waste of time, one of the most truly remarkable aspects of this style of travelling is the cost – or lack of. Our entire journey from Nong Khai on the Laos border, to Bangkok some 630 km away had set us back a mere 120 Thai Baht. That’s less than $4, for several days of stunning views, great conversation and unobstructed photography. Who needs windows when you can have the wind in your hair?

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48 Hours in Taipei

First Published on Free B&B, September 2017

As the national capital of the Republic of China (or Taiwan, to you and me) Taipei is a vast city and home to over 2.6 million people. Drenched in history and with a rich cultural heritage, it is the textbook modern Asian metropolis where east meets west. Ancient temples nestle in amongst modern skyscrapers; Bustling night markets lurk just blocks away from modern day mega-malls, and world class street-food stalls sit comfortably alongside Michelin starred restaurants. Add to the mix the fact that Taiwan has none of the often-prohibitive visa restrictions of the Chinese mainland, and it’s easy to see why tourism in Taipei is booming.

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With 48 hours before we had to fly out, we were determined to get the most out of our time in Taipei and, as such, had booked ourselves into one of the snazzy new backpacker’s hostels that have erupted throughout the city centre. Based in the central Ximen district, we were strategically located just a few minutes’ walk from one of the numerous stops on Taipei’s outstanding metro system. Cheap, regular and – crucially – tourist friendly, we invested in a daily ticket and joined the throngs of commuters that inhabit the system at the crack of dawn. It was a crisp, clear winter’s morning and Elephant Mountain was calling.

Having taken the metro for the short trip out of the city as far as Xiangshan, any fears of not finding our way to the summit were soon allayed. It seems that the early morning pilgrimage to the peak is one that is enjoyed by many tourists and Taiwanese locals alike, for there was a constant stream of people making their way from the station, through the neighbouring park and up the steep and winding path through the forest. Providing early morning refreshment at the foot of the trail was an elderly couple selling orange juice, pressed fresh before your eyes. Nearing the top, we found a long and surprisingly orderly queue of people waiting to scramble upon a rock balanced precariously near the edge of the cliff – no doubt in search of the perfect Instagram photo! We followed our gut instincts and pushed on past the crowds, to be rewarded just minutes later with the most perfect panoramic view over the city, with the imposing form of Taipei 101 – once the world’s tallest building – taking centre stage.

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Heading back into the city and it was time for an exceptional Szechuan lunch at Kikki’s, and small chain of restaurants around the city specialising in this spicy cuisine from the mainland. From there, it was just another quick subway hop to the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, a symbol of the nation where the Taiwanese flag is raised and lowered every morning and evening. The vast courtyard is flanked by impressive oriental-style buildings and is a popular destination in its own rights for locals to come and practice martial arts. The memorial hall itself stands as a tribute to Chiang Khai-Shek, former President of Taiwan, and contains a small yet interesting museum of his life.

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The rest of the afternoon was spent taking a quiet stroll through the streets and alleyways that make up Taipei’s historic Zhongshang district. A wonderful mix of old and new, the sights, smells and sounds made us realise that underneath it’s somewhat polished veneer, Taipei is above all a busy, functioning and slightly gritty metropolis. The beautifully landscaped 228 Peace Park provided some welcome relief to the hustle and bustle of town, and gave us the chance to rest our feet for an hour or so! As the sun began to dip on the horizon, it was just another short subway ride to the famous night market at Shilin.

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Admittedly, the Shilin night market is one of the more tourist-orientated experiences that Taipei has to offer. Whilst there are plenty of more ‘local’ markets to be found, we were keen to experience the ‘big one’ and certainly weren’t disappointed. All of the usual market wares were on offer: fake electronics, reproduction T-Shirts and plenty of other trinkets aimed at the tourist masses. A particularly entertaining stall offered large buckets of live prawns and mini fishing rods for kids to try their luck – Anything they caught got barbecued for them on the spot! Opting for a slightly more traditional street food experience, the blow-torched cubes of beef, spicy Taiwanese sausage and steamed BBQ Pork buns were all a delight and made for a superb value evening meal.

Taking a slightly more leisurely start the next morning, we decided to make use of the excellent cycle hire scheme available throughout Taipei. With pickup and drop-off points across the city, you simply register at one of the terminals using a credit card, pay a few dollars access fee and you’re ready to go, much like London’s (infamous) Boris Bikes! Wide roads, dedicated cycle paths and very strict traffic rules make cycling in Taipei both fun and safe, and we had soon made our way to Longshan Temple, one of Taipei’s oldest Buddhist centres nestled amongst significantly more modern apartment blocks. For temple lovers, the Baoan and Confucius temples are both easily reached on two wheels and a great source of insight into local traditions and both still very much active to this day.

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Leaving the old town behind, we peddled our way into the heart of the modern city, and the namesake Taipei 101. Officially known as the Taipei International Financial Centre, this vast 508-metre high structure is recognised the world over as a symbol of the prosperity of this great city.  The basement food court offers a vast selection of simple, good value food from around the world, whilst the shopping mall on the upper levels would keep even the most intrepid shopper occupied for quite some time. For us, however, the main attraction was taking a high-speed elevator to the 89th-floor observation deck, taking a mind-blowing 37 seconds. The views from the top are breathtaking, and it’s well worth timing your visit to coincide with the sunset as the mountain backdrop is jaw-dropping. For those interested, you can descend a couple of floors and see the vast tuned mass damper system which keeps the building stable in the strong winds that can blow across the city.

With our time limited, it seemed only fitting to sample the nightlife on offer down at ground level. Whilst hardly a party destination in its own right, Taipei is not short of quality bars and restaurants, although those on a tight budget may struggle a little! The area around Lane 280 Guangfu South Road is a favourite hangout for locals and, over a few cold Taiwan Beers (when in Rome!), we decided that whilst it was certainly possible to cover large parts of the city in just two days, to really do it justice would take weeks. And seeing as we’ll be on the Chinese mainland later in the year, it’s a safe bet that we’ll be back soon!

 

The Top 10 Things to do in Germany

Germany has worked hard over recent years to develop its reputation as a tourist destination. With a mix of modern cities, historical towns and stunning scenery, this country has something to offer for ever taste. English is widely understood in most towns and cities, and the rail and bus network is excellent making it an incredibly accessible country for most visitors. Here’s our Top 10 Things to do in Germany…

 

Explore Berlin

Germany’s thriving capital, Berlin has established itself as a diverse and liberal city. With an abundance of museums, an excellent food scene and vibrant nightlife, Berlin is one of the most exciting cities in Europe. Local Tip: The vast flea market at Mauerpark every Sunday is a favourite hangout for locals and tourists alike – just jump off the metro at Bernauer Straße!

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Drive the ‘Romantic Road’

This 400km long route between Würzburg and Füssen passes through some of Germany’s finest scenery and historic towns. Würzburg is also a renowned grape growing region with some excellent local wines. Local Tip: Avoid the tour busses by cycling the route using the excellent network of cycle paths!

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Visit Neuschwanstein Castle

This picture-perfect castle is almost a symbol of Germany itself. High in the Bavarian mountains, it looks like something out of a fairy-tale and is must see in the area. Local Tip: Take the public bus that runs right up to the castle- it is much cheaper than the horse and carts advertised near the ticket counters!

Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

 

Explore Germany’s largest lake

In the very south of Germany on the Swiss and Austrian borders lies Lake Constance, known as the ‘Bodensee’. With amazing views, plenty of water based activities and charming towns, this area has something for everyone. Local Tip: Take a seat on the top deck of one of the many ferries and enjoy a leisurely tour of the lake – you can even buy a beer and something to eat on board!

Harbour of Lindau in Lake Constance, Germany

 

Go for a Hike

Going for long hikes is a national pastime, particularly in areas with lots of hills and lakes. Walking trails are well maintained and signposted so getting lost shouldn’t be an issue – just remember to wear good walking boots! Local Tip: You will find plenty of ‘Hütte’ along popular routes where you can get a simple and hearty meal to keep you going!

Hiking in the alps near Berchtesgaden at the Obersee, Koenigssee, Bavaria, Germany

Say ‘Prost!’ at a Beer Festival

Joining a local Beer Festival is a must-do when in Germany. Munich’s Oktoberfest is the biggest and most famous, with live bands and plenty of amusements. Remember to say ‘Prost’ (‘Cheers’) before drinking! Local Tip: Rather than Oktoberfest, try the ‘Cannstatter Wasen’ which takes place around the same time in Stuttgart.

Friends enjoying Oktoberfest

 

Eat like a Local

German food is generally very rich and hearty, featuring lots of meat, bread and potatoes. Whilst there are plenty of fine dining options in most cities, for a true taste of Germany, head to one of the local ‘Imbiss’ stands which serve quick snacks for people on their lunch breaks! Local Tip: Most butchers shops will also have a hot counter that served various delicacies such as Schnitzels in a bread roll, ready to eat!

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Drink Beer in Munich

Munich is often considered to be the home of German beer and is the home of the German Purity Law that governs the production of beer to this day. All over the city there are vast beer halls that serve up fresh local beer along with hearty food, traditional music and an amazing atmosphere. Local Tip: Don’t call the large beer glasses ‘Steins’! Holding one litre of liquid, the proper name for these giant glasses is a “Maß”, pronounced “Mahss”!

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Head to the Beach

Although not generally known as a beach destination, Germany has a wonderful stretch of coastline on the North and Baltic Seas. The town of Heringsdorf boasts spectacular stretches of sandy beach which get incredibly busy in the summer months. Local Tip: Take a trip to the island of Usedom for some truly world class beaches, accessible year-round. You can even pop over the border into Poland for lunch!

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Go City-Hopping

The north-western state of North Rhein-Westphalia is home to a number of vibrant cities such as Cologne, Bonn, Düsseldorf and Dortmund. They are all relatively near to one another and are connected by an excellent network of trains and busses making it easy to jump explore them all in a short space of time. Local Tip: Buy a ticket that is valid for the whole region as this will provide you with unlimited travel between the cities. There are great discounts available for groups!

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Malaysia’s Overlooked Islands

First Published on Free B&B, August 2017

Malaysia’s Overlooked Islands

When it comes to paradise islands in Southeast Asia, Thailand seems to have it all. The incredible diving around Ko Tao, the luxury resorts of Koh Samui and the Full Moon parties of Ko Pha Ngan, for example, act as magnet for those seeking sun, sea and sand. And deservedly so – they are, quite frankly, stunning destinations and the warm, friendly Thais only add to the appeal. My partner and I have been visiting Thailand for a number of years now and never fail to fall back in love with this small corner of paradise.

This year, however, was different. We were visiting some of the Andaman Islands with a friend from home and somehow just didn’t ‘click’ with them. Perhaps we’re getting older; Perhaps the unstoppable march of mass tourism has started to take its toll on these paradise islands. Likely a little of both. But for us, the throngs of drunken 18-year-olds and thumping electro music that played into the early hours simply wasn’t working for us. We decided to get out and find somewhere a little more ‘us’.

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Lying to the south of Thailand is Malaysia, a country we had visited a couple of times thanks to its useful air connections and the thriving capital of Kuala Lumpur. Culturally, it is a very different beast to Thailand with its strong Islamic influences largely putting a stop to any significantly wild parties. The people are wonderfully friendly and the food simply delicious, and there was no reason that the Malaysian islands would be any less stunning than their northern neighbours. And so it was that we came to spend a number of weeks exploring the idyllic and largely overlooked islands off the Malaysian mainland.

 

Pulau Langkawi

Stilling just a stone’s throw south of the Thai border lies Langkawi, ‘the Jewel of Kedah’. With fast and regular ferry connections to the mainland and its own international airport, Langkawi is the perfect starting point for your Malaysian odyssey. An incredibly diverse island, it is possible to hike in the dense forests in the middle of the island by day, and relax with a sunset cocktail on one of the many fine sandy beaches in the evening. The excellent road network makes it easy to get around by bus and taxi, or by motorbikes hired from one of the many local agencies.

For superb views over the whole island, take the cable car to the top of the one of the island’s highest peaks. From here, you can take a walk along the famous Langkawi Sky Bridge – a curved, glass bottom bridge that spans a vast valley in the islands highlands. The coast-to-coast views are spectacular in clear weather, although its proximity to the ocean means that the clouds can roll in surprisingly quickly!

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The other unique feature of Langkawi is its status as a Duty Free zone. Alcohol in Malaysia is generally more expensive than in neighbouring Thailand, so make the most of your time on Langkawi to enjoy discount drinks, as well as good deals on a number of other goods. In the evening, bars will open up all along the beaches, with excellent sunset views and a relaxed vibe.

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Pulau Penang

Heading south from Langkawi, you will find the culturally diverse island of Penang. Its main city, Georgetown, dates back to 18th century when it was established by British traders. As with many former trading towns, lots of different cultures have come together to create a unique identity with Chinese, Malay, British and Indian influences. Whilst Penang’s beaches are still pleasant, the main attraction here is the wonderful cultural heritage. Frequently listed amongst the great ‘foodie’ destinations of the world, the cuisine on offer throughout the island is wonderfully diverse and usually very cheap. Street food, whilst now very trendy in the west, has always been more of a way of life in Georgetown and it’s possible to spend hours walking the narrow streets and sampling food from the numerous vendors. The numerous food courts offer some of the best selection and, at just a few dollars per plate, exceptional value.

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Another popular pastime in Penang is exploring the street art that has popped up all across the city. Practically every street corner has some kind of mural, whilst some of the more well-known pieces will have a queue of tourists waiting to pose for a photograph with it. The town centre itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is small enough to cover by foot, although there are also 4-wheeled pedal cars available to hire on and around Armenian Street which can be a fun way to explore slightly further afield!

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Pulau Perhentian

Lying on the other side of the Malaysian peninsular are the Perhentian Islands, made up of Perhentian Besar and Perhentian Kecil – Literally ‘Large’ and ‘Small’. That said, even the larger of the two islands is easily accessible by foot, whilst water taxis ferry visitors to the less accessible areas. Whilst there is some nightlife on the islands, it is still a far cry from the backpacker hangouts of Koh Phi Phi and the like.

The emphasis here is all on the Scuba Diving and Snorkelling, for which the area is famed. Vast coral reefs and an abundance of sea life makes this an excellent destination for both experienced and novice divers. For those who have not dived before, there are a number of highly-regarded operators offering PADI accredited dive courses, as-well as advanced courses for those with some experience. After a long day out on the water, you can retreat to your beach-front accommodation for an evening under the stars, the likes of which you will never have seen before!

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A word of warning, though: the sheer remoteness of the Perhentian Islands, and the annual Eastern Monsoon means that access to the islands is generally only possible from March until late October. Whilst you may find operators willing to take you ‘out of season’, be prepared for a potentially rough sea crossing, and for most of the bars, restaurants and hotels to be closed when you arrive!

Sri Lanka on Three Wheels

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First Published on Uncharted.io, August 2017

Unlikely Beginnings

It all started with a Facebook tag. You know the story. “Somebody has tagged you in another cat video”. Reluctantly opening the link, I was thrilled to see that rather than a small fluffy creature with 4 legs, my partner had in fact tagged me in something quite different. Staring back at me on the screen was an equally small being, in my eyes just as cute as any juvenile fur-ball – but with Three Wheels!

And so it came to be. What we had stumbled upon was in fact a post from a small Sri Lankan social-start- up who specialise in renting TukTuks to foreigners, but with a catch – they don’t come with a driver. You have to drive yourself. Sri Lanka had long been on the agenda, and whilst it would be a few months before we could make our way across the Indian Ocean, we knew there and then that we had to get ourselves a trishaw!

As Tom explained, the money we were paying for our very own ‘Asian Chariot’ was directly supporting a local family who would usually struggle to make ends meet. We hardly needed convincing, but knowing that we would be giving something back to the local community certainly sealed the deal. We couldn’t wait.

Meeting “The Dark Knight”

We were greeted by ‘TukTuk Tom’ as we dubbed him, and Mr Wiejesinghe (say Vee-Jay-Singer), a jovial and instantly likable guy who was the owner of our new steed. And he was apparently just as excited about our upcoming adventure as we were. His shining three-wheeler was clearly a prized asset and it looked as if he had spent a significant amount of time preparing it for our arrival. It was immaculate. Painted a glossy black, and with numerous decals, trims and tassels for added flair, we could barely wait to get driving. A large sticker across the back windscreen proclaimed “The Lavinia Express”, but we didn’t find that very catchy so dubbed our ride “The Dark Knight” instead.

Behind the ‘Wheel’

Or, to be accurate, Handlebars. To drive, TukTuks are most similar to an old-school Vespa; Left hand clutch and gear change, right hand throttle and a somewhat dubious foot-brake. Following an expert driving lesson, even the manic Colombo traffic wasn’t going to stop us. With our bags loaded and the raw power of that 4-stroke engine behind us, we were ready to see what Sri Lanka had to offer.

There’s a lot of talk in travelling circles about experiencing countries at ‘street level’ and getting the ‘local experience’. But quite frankly, nothing could have prepared us for the raw, in-your-face experience of driving The Dark Night out of the sprawling Colombo suburbs. For the first 30 kilometers or so heading south, we did begin to wander whether we’d made the right decision. It was hot and noisy, incredibly congested and the bus drivers were every bit as suicidal as the guys back at base had warned us they would be.

But then something remarkable happened. The traffic cleared, the multi-lane suburban highway came abruptly to an end and we found ourselves on a textbook beach road. Running right along the sand with the spray of the Indian Ocean in our face, this was what we had come for. Our first night stop was around 4 hours south of #Colombo in the fishing-village turned surf-haven of #Midigama, which we reached without hiccup in the early evening. Despite being wholly out-of-season, we stumbled into the aptly named ‘Mamas’ for a sensation spread of potato curry, spicy dhal, paratha bread and coconut sambol – all Sri Lankan staples to die for.

The Galle Road runs right along the coast for hundreds of kilometers

The Elephant in the Room

TukTuks are simple beasts, and are not known for their reliability. Not 50 metres on the road the next morning and *ping*, our clutch cable broke, rendering our chariot immobile. Fortunately, with the help of some local taxi drivers, just $10 worth of parts and an hour or so later we were back on the road. Backtracking ourselves slightly, we spent the rest of the day exploring the wonderful colonial fort at #Galle. The Dutch influence is clear to this day and there was a distinctly European vibe throughout the town, compounded when we were lucky enough to catch the last few hours of a college cricket game.

From there, our Chariot carried us faithfully along the southern coast through surf spots such as #Weligama and #Mirissa, both of which boast equally renowned beachfront nightlife. Turning inland just past #Tangalle, and the scenery began to change rapidly as we approached the #Yala National Park. A well-known and somewhat overdeveloped tourist destination, #Yala is home to vast open plains, dense bushland and the chance for some mind-blowing Elephant encounters. The road that leads across the Western corner of the park is where some of Tom’s previous customers had encountered Elephants up-close and personal. Sadly, we were not so lucky, although the perfect strip of almost deserted tarmac running through the scrub made for our most memorable drive to date.

Taking in the view…

On the road again

Continuing our path northwards, we began to climb into the hills that make up the Sri Lankan heartland. Open plains soon became rolling hills, which in turn yielded to some simply astonishing peaks, complete with Tea Plantations clinging desperately to their slopes. A relic from the days when Her Britanic Majesty claimed Sri Lanka as her own, tea is still big business in hill country. The vast majority of plantations have some form of visitor center where a charming young lady will invariably be on hand to show you around. A tip of 200 rupees (Around $1.50) per person is usually enough for a half hour tour of the estate and a taste of the wonderfully fresh tea that they produce. It’s quite easy, not to mention pleasant, spending a day ‘plantation hopping’ as you weave your way along the winding mountain roads.

The well-established backpacker hub of #Ella is a great place to take in the mountain air in the company of other travelers. Although not a big town, there are plenty of great hikes that deliver absolutely stunning views of the area, particularly from Little Adam’s Peak. Chill Bar is a backpacker favourite where travelers congregate most evenings to indulge in a dose of respectable western food and cheap beer!

Heading back out of #Ella, we sensed that our little TukTuk was particularly grateful to be heading downhill again. The steep gradients, coolers temperatures and thinner mountain air had taken their toll on it’s 194cc engine and, if we’re honest, it would have been quicker to get out and walk some stretches on the ride up! As we dropped back down towards Colombo, we had just enough time to take in the former British hill town of #Nuwara Eliya. Tea plantations, golf clubs, a rowing lake and a plethora of hill side bungalows make up this quaint community, which is a hit with Sri Lankans looking to escape the heat for a few days. Just the one night was enough for us, but one could easily spend longer in this oasis of tranquility.

All good things must come to an end…

We’ve started and ended many a trip over the years, but crawling back to TukTuk Rental HQ through #Colombo rush-hour traffic, we felt particularly sad to be parting with our three-wheeled friend. Like all good friends, there had been times when it had let us down or hadn’t behaved as we would have liked. But oh boy, the memories we had made together. From the policemen who stopped us simply for a chat as they couldn’t believe their eyes, to the locals who had come to our aid in our hour of need, it had been a truly immersive two weeks. And we all owe it to our now good friend Mr Wiejesinghe and his Dark Knight!

A Journey Into The Shan

Originally Written for One City Road, March 2017

As a kid growing up in England, it was not uncommon for Mum to bribe me into doing some kind of physical activity by assuring me that my “dinner would taste all the better at the end of it”. I’d like to think I was a pretty savvy kid, and soon realised that this generally wasn’t the case, and that dinner was usually pretty delicious without hours of sweat and exertion beforehand.

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Fast forward 20 years and you’ve probably gathered by now that I’m not, by nature, the most sporting of creatures. Sitting with a cold beer in hand one evening, you can imagine, therefore, my misgivings when my partner bounded onto the terrace and announced that she’d just booked us onto a two-day trek into the hill tribe villages the next morning. We’d only arrived in Hsipaw, a small town in Myanmar’s Shan State, a few hours earlier after a 12-hour train journey. The slow pace of life here was slowly becoming infectious and I had personally been looking forward to a slow amble around the town the next day, punctuated with numerous cups of tea.

Alas, it was not to be. 8am came around fast and we found ourselves marching out of town with a small gaggle of other backpackers, led by our ever-resourceful guide, Ko. We had to cover 17km that day to reach our overnight stop in the village of Ban Kham, with a climb or around 900 meters thrown in for good measure. Whilst the trail varied from basic to non-existent, the countryside scenery was never less than stunning. Our route was punctuated with small farmer’s huts, where we were invariably plied with bananas fresh-off-the-tree and sweet local tea. Along the way, Ko (not his real name, more of a local phrase meaning ‘Brother’) would stop and pick interesting tit-bits for us to try. Peanuts fresh out of the ground were particularly surprising, tasting not unlike their namesake ‘Peas’.

The British Government advises against ‘all but essential travel’ to a large part of this area due to ongoing insurgencies. As ever, we relied on the mood on the ground at the time to reassure us that we wouldn’t wander into harm’s way. On a couple of occasions, we passed small groups of what Ko cheerfully dismissed as ‘local hunters’. Personally, I’ve never seen anyone hunt with Kalashnikovs, but we exchanged cheerful “min-ga-la-ba ‘s (Burmese for Hello) and went on our way. A bunch of bumbling Brits are unlikely to present much of a threat to their cause, least of all hunting.

Cresting our final hill at around 4pm, we were greeted with a cluster of small, bamboo houses nestled into a small valley, with promising wisps of smoke drifting from the make shift chimneys. We were to spend the night sleeping on bamboo mats around an open fire in one of these stilted constructions, before setting off again at sunrise the next day. Having been warmly welcomed by our host family with more cups of strong and sweet tea, we were soon seated on empty hessian sacks around the clay fire pit that was the focal piece of their single-room abode. Grandma spent the next hour or so lovingly stirring, tossing and boiling numerous clay pots over this simple wood burner, whilst the kids prepared salads and breads in the open-air kitchen overlooking the valley.

Shan 2

Burmese meals at the best of times usually consist of no less than 10 small dishes in the middle of the table for all to share. Spicy chutney’s that can catch the uninitiated off guard; dried fish with peanuts, pickled greens and curried vegetables are all staples of the Shan dinner table, and bring a balance of texture and flavour that any Michelin chef would be proud of. A special mention must go to the Pickled Tea Leaf Salad, with juicy home-grown tomatoes and crunchy fried beans. The freshness of each ingredient sang out loud and clear, yet worked in incredible harmony for a dish that had been mixed with bare hands in a clay bowl just minutes earlier. As soon as a dish was any less than full, Grandma would send one of the kids scurrying out to refill it, lest her guests go to bed anything less than full.

The Fork and Spoon are the classic Burmese eating utensils, with the fork mainly used to load the spoon – a technique that takes a little practice. Nonetheless, several very contented hours were spent slurping around the fire, with Ko doing his upmost to provide a little translation between us and our hosts. With the sun well below the horizon, and Granma’s pots well and truly emptied, we succumbed to the day’s exertions and drifted into possibly the best night’s sleep I’d had in months.

The World’s Greatest Travel Scams & How To Avoid Them

First Written for FreeB&B, July 2017

So-called ‘Travel Scams’ have been a favourite conversation amongst travelers for as long as we can remember. From budget-conscious backpackers, to cash-rich tourists, everyone seems to have their own story of how they were once duped out of their hard-earned cash whilst exploring foreign lands. And I’m not simply talking about paying too much for that stuffed elephant toy in Thailand last summer. Oh no. Overcharging tourists is par for the course in most major tourist destinations and, in my opinion, does not in itself constitute a ‘scam’. There are professionals out there who make a living from duping unsuspecting travelers. That said, there are certain things you can do to keep yourself closer to your cash, and not end your trip feeling you’ve been milked of all your cash…

“Tuk-Tuk, Sir?”

One notable exception to my thoughts on overcharging, however, are taxis. These guys often work together to target vulnerable tourists who look lost or may be new in town which, in my mind, puts them firmly in the ‘scam’ category. Stories of visitors being charged more than 10 times the ‘local’ fare are by no means uncommon, and it can make arriving at a new destination both expensive and stressful. Whilst it may be almost impossible to know the ‘right price’ of that souvenir on the market, there are things you can do to protect yourself from the taxi-vultures that blight many of the world’s great cities:

  1. Research, research, research! How far is it to your destination? Who are the main taxi companies in town? How do you recognise one and flag it down? Be careful though – unlicensed drivers are known to impersonate reputable companies!
  2. If your taxi is equipped with a meter, which the driver is using, then great! Just be aware that it may have been tampered with and run much faster than is should…
  3. Use your smartphone to book a car through a trusted app. Uber and Grab can be found all over the world, whilst local providers such as Mai Linh in Vietnam and Kangaroo Cabs in Sri Lanka can all be hailed from your smartphone.
  4. Talk to a local! Find out which taxis are safest and best value for money, and don’t be afraid to ask what a fair price should be to your destination – You’ll be amazed how helpful people can be to the lost

TS1

The Scooter Scam

So, you’ve just stepped off the ferry on that paradise island. It’s 35 degrees, the skies are blue and the mood is high. And standing there is your new best friend, with a fleet of scooters available to hire for you to explore the island freestyle, and his prices are simply too good to refuse. He takes you to his shop and you hand over a modest amount of cash in return for your very own two-wheels. Paperwork? Don’t worry my friend, I trust you! Deposit? No! Just leave me your passport for security and you’ll get it back when you return the bike…

And then the inevitable happens. You bring your wheels back after a great couple of days and your best friend suddenly isn’t so friendly, and he’s spotted some ‘new damage’ on your bike. It’s going to cost you several hundred dollars to repair, and you won’t be seeing your passport until you cough up the cash. Checkmate.

  1. Never, never, never leave your passport as a deposit. For anything. Ever.
  2. Only hire equipment from large, reputable companies or better yet, hotels and backpacker’s hostels. These guys can’t risk the bad reputation and a usually more interested in making an honest income from their guests.
  3. Check any paperwork carefully before you sign it. If possible, take photographs of the bike before you leave the store that can be used as evidence should things turn ugly later.

Gem Stones Anyone?

There’s no denying that there are some incredible jewels being dug up around the world on a daily basis, and that it may well be cheaper to buy these at source than back at home. To go with them is often a sharply dressed and incredibly charming local who is all too keen to cut you the deal of a lifetime, and even post the gems home to you after you’ve left the country. Amazing, huh?

The golden rule with this one is that if it seems too good to be true, then it probably is! Unless you’re an expert in your field, it’s definitely worth getting trusted, independent confirmation that what you’re buying is the real deal. And then make sure that it is exactly those stones that end up in your possession – no quick switches. And as far as getting the gems posted home goes? Forget it.

TS2

“Sorry Miss – No Change!”

One of the quickest ways to part a tourist with their cash is the good-old ‘no change’ trick. You’ve finally settled on a fair price for the goods in question, handed over that crisp bill and – OOPS – the poor old vendor finds himself short on change. Is it ok to round up? Chances are you’re not completely familiar with the currency and, in the heat of the moment, you may well agree, unaware of exactly how much you’re handing over.

Remember: the price agreed is the price agreed. You are not bound to buy the goods, and if you’re not happy that you’re going to get the right change simply return the goods and walk away with your cash. It’s amazing how fast some of these guys then find change! Better yet, get your larger bills changed in a bank so that you have convenient sized bills at the ready.

 

“Your Hotel is Closed Today!”

Or was damaged in a fire. Or is possibly even run by the Mafia. “But luckily, my brother-in-law has a place nearby.” This doesn’t apply only to hotels, but also bars and restaurants etc too. Many taxi drivers supplement their incomes by delivering tourists to venues from which they receive an often-hefty commission. Which you will undoubtedly end up paying, one way or another.

Do your research, make sure you know where you want to go and stick to your guns. I’ve had some incredibly convincing and persistent drivers try to talk me out of my original destination in favour of their cousin’s café. But be confident, firm and polite and they will eventually give in and take you where you want to go. If you ever feel unsafe, simply insist that the driver stops the car and get out. There’s plenty more taxis in the sea…

 

Documents, Please…  

Another ‘old-school’ favourite that cashes in on tourists in a strange environment – The Fake Official scam. Up to you walks a guy in an official looking uniform who flashes (very quickly) some form of ID before asking to see your documents. You oblige obediently and, before you know it, you’ve been charged with  some obscure offence which requires the payment of a cash fine, on the spot. You don’t speak the language, fear a run in with local authorities and pay up quickly. Worse yet, Mr Policeman takes your documents away for inspection, never to be seen again.

For this one, polite confidence is required. Check the uniform, check and double check the ID and engage passing locals where necessary. Genuine officers will never mind proving their identity, and rarely demand on the spot cash fines!

TS3

‘Street-Eats’ in Thailand’s Forgotten Province

Originally Written for OneCityRoad, January 2017

Border towns generally have a well-earned reputation as being brash, unfriendly and often grubby places, with little to keep tourists there beyond a perfunctory border crossing. Nong Khai, on the Thailand-Laos border, is the textbook exception to that rule. The warm and open nature of the Isan people is primarily what drew us to the banks of the Mekong on a warm and lazy Saturday evening.

We’d heard numerous reports of the exceptional street side eating to be had here, even on Thai standards, but the milling, giggling families and endless intriguing trinket stalls momentarily distracted us from what we were really there for. Walking through the winding streets felt like a strange mix of Arabic Souk and London’s Camden market, with each stall offering something largely unique. Further along the river, the stalls started to change slowly from clothes and curios, to food vendors peddling their various specialities. It was the smells that wafted over the early evening breeze that led us first to a street side BBQ, offering everything from grilled whole chickens on lemongrass skewers, to pork belly and chilli kebabs. Keen for us to try her cooking, our beaming host handed us sample after sample, before sending us on our way laden with a selection of goodies for just 50 Thai Bhat (around £1.20). Ducking between stalls and heading for the river, we found an oasis of calm on the riverbank as groups of friends and couples gazed on at yet another wondrous Mekong sunset.

Nong Khai 2

Our meaty goodie bag, still piping hot having left the charcoals just minutes earlier, delivered a wonderfully fragrant punch of chilli and lime over juicy hunks of meat. Taste buds alight, I left my partner to guard our spot and ventured back into the throng, only to emerge minutes later armed with Chicken Satay skewers (the length of the queue suggested this was a local favourite), and a selection of what can only be described as spherical pancakes with an odd, gooey filling. All delicious, if not to this day somewhat of a mystery.

Whiling away the evening on the river bank was almost cinematically perfect, with the soundtrack provided by a faint tannoy system playing a mixture of music and what we assumed to be news or information. The mood changed suddenly when a piece of music was announced slightly louder than the rest, and the whole scene immediately froze and everyone stood respectively still until the tune changed. We could only assume that this was to do with the recent passing of Thailand’s king, with signs of respect still peppering everyday life.

With the sun then well below the horizon, the festivities outlasted our stamina, and we exited stage left, allowing another gaggle of hungry customers to take our place.