Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Southern Thailand offers more than the touristy West coast: communist tunnels, a million bottle temple and more

Visitors to the south of Thailand tend to stay in the west coast, where the limestone outcrops and pristine sands can be found.

The province of Phuket and Krabi are often the most popular, although in recent years Trang (with it's stretch of beaches) and Satun (with access to more islands) provinces have increased in interest. As tourism has slowly spread south, many islands have remained undeveloped, with the exception of Ko Lipe - an almost paradise island.

During the high season, there is a scheduled boat service that allows you to island hop from Phuket all the way to Penang (Malaysia), without needing to return to the mainland.

So why would visitors to the south of Thailand want to venture into the 'deep south' and the provinces of Songkhla, Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala.

They simply don't, and many embassies advise against this due to the insurgency between Malay separatists and the Thai armed/paramilitary forces and police.

You may have seen that I spent a few days in both Songkla (here) and Hat Yai in June last year, and did not experience any issues. There are some frustrations more evident here than elsewhere in Thailand (transport, language and warnings), but that shouldn't put you off if you remain vigilant at all times.

I was keen to visit the Khao Nam Khang communist tunnels just a couple of hours drive from Hat Yai, during a return visit to the area in December. It was difficult to organise, but we eventually negotiated some very expensive (by Thai standards) private transport to get there, taking in the sight of the million bottle temple enroute.

Million bottle temple



The temple, also known as Wat Phra Maha Chedi Kaew, was initiated in 1984 by a monk who had the idea to collect empty bottles, and cover the surface of all the buildings of the temple with them. There were Heineken, Pepsi, Red Bull, Singha and Chang bottles that I could identify, but no doubt, others.



The temple is situated in Khun Han about 50 kilometers from Si Saket and 25 km from Kantharalak. Not as visited as in the past, but a great place to stop for tea, as offered by the resident monk there.




Khao Nam Khang communist tunnels

Much lesser known than the Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam, these tunnels, close to the border with Malaysia, are situated in the Natawee District of Songkhla Province. They are not busy with tourists, unlike the alternative, and there are no longer any guides to escort you round, disappointingly. However, you can really get a feel for what life here would have been like for the residents, and if you're lucky you may meet one of the former communist soldiers who now runs the museum.



You will find the tunnels deep in the jungles of Khao Nam Khang National Park on the Malaysian border. They were constructed by Chinese Communist fighters during a six year period from 1972 to 1978.

The total length of approximately 1000 metres has 16 entrances, most of which you can explore during a visit. Not quite the 121km's sustained by the Cu Chi tunnels, but certainly a well built umbrella for avoiding air invasions in its time.



There are three levels with facilities including a conference room, telegraph room, office, medical theatre, typing room, shooting range, kitchen, sleeping area and even a motorcycle training area.

Telegraph room
Operating theatre

The most interesting part, is that the former members of the Communist Party of Malaya, the soldiers that remained there, only descended from the jungle in 1987. The majority of them remained in Thailand rather than returning to Malaysia, but have only recently received their Thai national identity cards.

Visitors to the museum tend to be Thai or Malaysian, on a weekend trip, and the displays cater for this more than Western visitors, but there is a introductory video in English and a useful information sheet available.

Visiting the area

With the ongoing political issues in Thailand taking place at the moment, it is unlikely that the peace dialogue with the BRN (one of the main insurgent groups) will be maintained. The Prime Minister is currently focusing on the uncertain future of the government, whilst the involvement of Malaysia and the army's interests have contributed to undermining the situation in the deep south further.

Some form of political autonomy for the Southern provinces may be the only solution to improve the chance of ending one of Asia's oldest conflicts, but in the meantime visiting the areas referred to in this post is still possible.

Do check the latest situation before heading that way, however.
For more on Hat Yai, see my post here. And if you're planning a visit to Thailand this month the Thai new year celebrations for Songkran are well worth experiencing, but be warned that this is a national holiday and it can get very busy with tourists.
Blogger Tricks

Monday, 31 March 2014

Why I travel and the pursuit for happiness

Why do I travel? 

Simply because it makes me feel alive.



If I'm completely honest, perhaps there is often an element of running away from something, but ultimately I do it because it gives me a sense of euphoria that I cannot find elsewhere.

In fact, maybe I'm running toward something: new experiences, new friends, new plans. That would make more sense to me, but there is always going to be some running for as long as I have to live in a world with a 9-5 grind!

Does anyone actually understand that feeling? Do you know what I am talking about?

Perhaps the more relatable answer to my original question - why I travel, is: to see the world, learn about life and cultures elsewhere, to take a break. But those things are just on the surface.

Deeper down, I am looking for something. What is it? Will I find it? And, when will that be?

I'm looking for happiness. There, I said it.

At the end of 2012 I quit my job. At the beginning of 2013 I rented out my home and left my life as I knew it, behind.

All for the pursuit of happiness.

Did I find it? No, not yet.

I thought I could just continue to extend my trip until I felt fulfilled (or I ran out of money). 3 months became 6 months, and it soon became a year since I first made the decision to pack up and go.

Do I think travel can cure whatever ails your heart, mind or life generally? I've come to realise that many people do believe it does, and that maybe that stems partly from so many travel writers telling their stories and sharing their experiences with a sugar coating.

Travelling IS great, but as I have allured to in past posts, it isn't always that way.



Travelling long term isn't easy. You're on the road constantly and there are times when it is exhausting just deciding where to go next.

What travel can do is give you the space to see inside yourself, and determine if it does really make you happy.

I took the chance to escape the bonds of life. And, I had hoped above all else, that it would help me determine what I needed to do to find happiness with or without travel.

It is only now that I am starting to gain an understanding of myself.

And this is why I have found myself back in the UK, taking some time out and re-grounding myself for a while.

This may seem surprising, but I've travelled extensively before whilst working full time and will continue somehow doing exactly that.

Tomorrow is a new beginning and a new journey for me. But working 9 to 5 doesn't mean the blog posts will stop, as I have plenty more to share with you from my travels, and from being back home in the UK too.

Keep up to date with regular posts by subscribing to my blog, liking my Facebook page or following me on Twitter here.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Reinvented destinations around the world

Back in January I was asked to join a panel of judges for a travel writing competition, with the theme of reinvention. Did you try your had at travel writing?

The entries have now been judged and the results are out, and I'm very proud to admit that I contributed to choosing the winner.

The winning piece was undeniably the best, but they were all very well crafted, some really bringing the related destinations to life.

Check out the top 10 entries, over on the Gowalkabout website. There is also a handy map showing all the destinations from the best pick of all the entries received. These are worth considering next time you are planning a trip as many describe the changes that have taken place and how the destination has been reinvented.

Maybe you will find somewhere local to you, or that you have experienced yourself...


Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Nordic food for thought, in Copenhagen

I have to confess to wondering what else Copenhagen is famous for, other than being the home to HC Andersen and Carlsberg.

During a few days touring the city I was surprised to find that Nordic cuisine has become far superior to the bland foods that I have had elsewhere in the region.

Why?

In 2003, a Danish food-entrepreneur, opened the acclaimed restaurant Noma, in Copenhagen. Less than a year later the New Nordic Kitchen Manifesto was created. This aimed to distinguish the unique Nordic cuisine identity and commitment to organic, sustainable and local products. Basically this means that Nordic cooking has been experiencing some reinvention over the last decade.

Noma, serves only food from the Nordic region. In 2010, it was awarded the best restaurant in the world. And for 3 years consecutively it has maintained the top spot.

Despite having dropped to second place last year, Noma still has a 6 month waiting list, so consequently I didn't get to experience what all the fuss is about.

Of course, realistically, it is likely to have been out of our budget anyway, so instead, I was keen to find out more about the history and food culture in Copenhagen, from the foundation of the city to modern times.

So, taking a tour with Copenhagen Food Tours was perfect for the first day of our visit. Not only did we sample some amazing local delicacies, but I was left well informed of the transition of Danish food over the last few years. Plus in experiencing all of this, I picked up quite a bit regarding the accomplishments of Christian IV and other historical figures too.

Market Hall

We started the tour at the market hall, at Torvehallernekbh, at Unika Arla where we sampled a selection of unique Danish cheeses with chutney and a small shot of aquavit.



Wow, the Danish blue cheese was divine, but probably not popular with many, given it's acquired taste.

Afterwards we enjoyed a variety of candies, jams and biscuits from the island of BornHolm, including the popular Lakrids (liquorice) produced by Johan Bülow and rye biscuits (in the well known blue box) that are world famous too.



The market hall is well worth a visit to stock up on local delicacies, the bakery selling fresh bread, pastries and coffee is a great place to people watch and take it all in.

Afterwards, at the Botanical Gardens, we learnt about some of the local history regarding the Carlsberg producers and tried some Elderflower juice. Definitely a place to come in the summertime, but even during the winter months, head into the greenhouse to warm up a little.

Open sandwiches

I had already read up about smørrebrød, the Danish open sandwich, and was pleasantly surprised to find that the tasting of these during the tour involved 4 different miniature sandwiches (at Aamanns).



Open sandwiches were originally only eaten by farmers. The combination of bread (acting as a plate) and leftover meat and other fillings was eaten with fingers, often out in the fields. During the 1800's these sandwiches developed and became a regular item on pub menus. In time, these became sophisticated, taller and more extravagant, and more commonly served to guests at Tivoli; where they marked their choices on an order card.

What I really liked about the sandwiches we were served, was the variety of flavours from the sauces and condiments piled up on the slices of rye bread, and the fact that eating with a knife and fork made them superior to sandwiches as we know them.

After our fill of open sandwiches we took a short walk, passing through the "Potato Rows" – a community of townhouses in the Østerbro neighborhood that was built in the 1800s as housing for workers, and is now one of the most popular and highest-priced addresses in Copenhagen. These buildings were very distinctive, and a complete contrast to the apartment style homes of the majority of the city dwellers that you will see elsewhere.

The area around the  manmade lake - Sortedams Sø, is a quiet place to take a walk, despite being windy at this time of year. I'm sure this would be a prime picnicking spot in the summertime.

Drinks and grub

We sought shelter from the wind, at a micro brewery, where we enjoyed tasting some freshly-brewed beers. Nørrebro Bryghus brew the beers on site with good quality ingredients; I really enjoyed the lemon flavoured one. I also really liked the idea of their 5 course menu with 5 different beers to compliment each course, but unfortunately we were too pushed on time to return here during this visit.

Three small glasses of beer put us in the mood for some more grub - and of course a piping hot sausage is a great way to soak up the alcohol.



The DØP hot dogs are organic, and you can really taste the difference in the quality of the ingredients. After 3 days in Copenhagen I can assure you I have tried plenty of them - all yummy!

Dessert

What I found great about this food tour was that it is so well thought out, with each visit planned around our tasting pallet.

A visit to a traditional sweet shop, Søemod’s Bolcher, where we tried the 'taste of rhubard' hand crafted sweets, was a nice touch ahead of our final stop and dessert.

They have regular sessions showing how the sweets are produced - check out their facebook page for details of daily production times.

Dessert was served at Summerbird, where they have beautiful hand-made chocolates. Here we enjoyed the lavish flødebolle (translates to snowball) which is similar to a chocolate teacake but definitely yummier.

Conclusion

We finished the tour close to the city centre, after having consumed enough for a full meal. And we definitely tried everything on the Danish food menu, other than perhaps a danish pastry.

We were extremely lucky to have Maria as our guide. Reviews on Tripadvisor support the fact that we found her informative, knowledgeable and with a quirky sense of humour, although I have heard good feedback about the other guides too.

Like many things in Copenhagen (and Denmark generally), a food tour caters for a higher budget than I would normally allow myself. However, a foodie, or someone who is used to travelling in Europe, and in particular Scandanavia, will find that the price is comparable to the level of service. You don't just taste food on this tour, you get to learn about the history of Denmark and this beautiful city.

I would highly recommend taking a tour if you enjoy learning about local traditions, want to get as much as possible from a tour in one go or want to find out more about what food is on offer. It's a great way to begin a visit to Copenhagen and get a good basic understanding of life here.

If your budget doesn't quite stretch to a food tour then I urge you to try some of the foods available in the city - especially keep an eye out for an opportunity to try the lakrids (liquorice), Smørrebrød (open sandwiches), flødebolle (snowball/tea cakes), hot dogs and danish pastries.

Twenty years ago, Danish cuisine in the capital's restaurants, although traditional, was likely to have been considered 'bland'. Today I can assure you it's one cuisine that will leave you wanting more.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Nexus 7 case review

As you may know, I am the proud owner of a Nexus 7 tablet.  Over the last 18 months or so, it has been all over the world with me. 

I have it on me everywhere I go, so of course it sits at the top of my list of "13 things I dont travel without". It holds travel books, keeps all the information I come across on the web, assists with navigation, helps me when geocaching and most importantly, of course, I use it to write my blog posts.

I recently acquired a new 2013 Nexus 7, as a gift. My original device is still very much in use, but the new one has a camera, a better graphics chip and is faster, as well as being thinner.

For someone who travels a lot and spends most of their spare time outdoors, the Nexus is a little delicate in it's "out of the box" naked form. For this reason, the first accessory I purchased was a sturdy case.

Having seen the punishment my old case was inflicted with during our recent travels in SE Asia, I knew I needed to get a pretty good case for my new toy as soon as possible.

I looked at pretty much every case on the market, but had to rule out the slimline ones right from the start.  These are nice and thin and attractive, and great for those who keep their tablets in a handbag and only use it on the train or in the office.  But one of these was never going to hold up to being subjected to my lifestyle.

I have a Mofred case on my old tablet. I have to admit, this thing has taken a real beating, and really proved it's worth. It is worn and tatty now, but the Nexus it has been protecting all this time still looks like it did the first day it came out of the box!

I can't bare to part with it as, despite looking old and tired, it now has heaps of character and reminds me of all the places I have been on my travels.

No to Mofred

My new Nexus wouldn't fit in the same case as the old one! So I was faced with the tough decision... whether to get the 2013 version of the Mofred case, I've been using all this time, or do I try something different?

I have had to adjust to typing one handed, whilst holding the device with the other. Whilst it would undoubtedly be more efficient to use both hands to type, the Mofred case does not hold the device at an angle that makes it comfortable.  It is either flat on the table or vertically upright. There is no in between.

It also only stands in a landscape orientation, which is not a big deal, apart from the fact that the Nexus was specifically designed to be used in a Portrait orientation, and is most useful that way.


The main issue though, which is extremely frustrating sometimes, is when you fold the cover behind the device, the magnet inside turns the screen off.  This is great when you close it to put away, but incredibly annoying when it turns off while you are trying to use it.

So after scouring the internet and looking at most of the cases on the market, I decided that I would try a different one, to try to get the best features of my old trusty Mofred case, whilst solving the issues I had with it on our travels.

Roocase

I chose to try out the "Roocase Origami Folio" case.
Roocase do a whole range of models, but this one appealed to me most as it seemed to be more suited to travel and outdoor use.


I've had this case on my new Nexus for over a month now, and it has already protected my device during several flights and train rides, countless sat nav sessions in the car (and a lorry), and several hikes. It has been slung in and out of a pocket while navigating and geocaching in Copenhagen, Amsterdam, London and even out in the mucky English countryside in the rain. It has even already sustained a couple of drops, but hasn't let me down so far!

Design

The general design of the Roocase case is similar to the Mofred case, but the front cover is designed to fold back on itself into different positions which allow the device to be propped up at a variety of angles.





The outside of the case is made from a synthetic "vegan" leather, which has a really nice texture with a soft feel to it.  The inside is made from a microfibre like material to protect the device from scratches.

The Nexus fits really snugly in the case without any movement or sliding at all, which is a big improvement. I also find the material more rigid and protective than the Mofred case.

If you roll the front cover back on itself, the magnets in the edge of the cover connect to the back surface of the case and allow you to stand the device at both a high angle for viewing, or at a low angle for typing. I also tend to put it in this position a lot when I'm using it outside, as it provides a really comfortable and stable grip, and prevents it slipping from my hand.  And I use it outdoors a lot, so this is a really great feature for me.

You can also fold the two corners of the cover in towards each other, and press them together. The magnets in the edge of the cover will attach together to hold this position.  This setup allows the device to be propped up in a viewing angle in BOTH portrait and landscape orientations.  This is a great improvement over the Mofred case, as it allows you to keep the device in Portrait mode, and still prop it up for hands free use.

So, Did it manage to provide all the advantages of my old case, while solving the disadvantages?  

Pretty much yes!


While the Roocase has a little magnet built into the front cover, which allows it to turn the device screen on and off when you open and close it, it doesn't turn it off when you fold the cover back on the device. This in itself has solved my one major complaint of the Mofred case.

Also, I can now put the device in a much better tilted position for typing on.  Though I have to admit, I am now so used to doing it the one handed way, I never really use it.  But the option is there :o)

Disadvantages

There are really only a couple of disadvantages to the Roocase Origami Folio that I have identified:

Whilst the 2013 Nexus 7 is thinner than the 2012 model, both devices, in their cases, are about the same thickness overall. The thicker materials of the Roocase triples the thickness of the device. I'm a bit torn over this to be honest. While the thicker materials of the Roocase undoubtedly add to the protection it affords the device, I would also have enjoyed having an overall thinner package to slip into my bag.

The big downfall for me though, is the magnets.  There are a total of 9 magnets built into this case! 2 of them help to keep the case closed, 6 of them are used to hold the cover in the stand position, and 1 is used to automatically turn the screen on when you open and close the cover.

Whilst these features are nice, all these magnets together have a rather negative impact on the device; they mess up the Nexus' internal compass! Given that, in addition to my blogging, I also use my device a lot for navigation and Geocaching, a working compass is pretty important for me. As soon as the device is in the case, the compass is all over the place. Basically, in order to get an accurate reading on the compass, you have to take the device out of the case, and recalibrate it. I'm not sure if the magnets will permanently damage the compass long term?

I have done some research about this issue online, and many people have reported the same problems with similar cases on the market. It seems that most cases now come with built in magnets that interfere with the compass. The general concensus offers two choices for this problem; If you don't use your compass much, simply do without it. If you do absolutely need it, then cut the magnets out!

Which option I will chose in the long run has yet to be decided, though I must admit, I've managed fine without the compass so far. However, other than this one issue, I am more than happy with my choice of case.

Conclusion:

Pros:
  • The materials are good quality, which means it will withstand a lot of wear and tear.
  • The materials are rigid and sturdy, offering the device really good protection.
  • The design is snug, so the device does not move or slide around in the case.
  • All the cutouts are perfectly aligned, so the cameras, sensors and buttons all function correctly in the case.
  • The cover offers 4 different options to stand the device at various angles for viewing and typing, as well as making it easy to grip the device safely in one hand
  • The magnet in the cover makes the screen turn on and off automatically when the cover is opened or closed, and does not turn the screen off when folded back on the device.

Cons:
  • The extra magnets needed for the "origami" cover to work to prop the device at several angles interfere with the compass.
  • The case is thicker than others on the market, tripling the thickness of the device. Though this is great if, like me, you need the extra protection.
Obviously, if you're in the market for a new case for your Nexus, you will have to weigh up the pros and cons based on your requirements. Whatever your needs, I hope this post gives you some ideas to look out for.

If you're a big travel and outdoor person like me, then the Roocase is a great case to go for.

If you're looking for something slimmer, more fashionable or with more functions, then I recommend checking the Roocase website for some of their other models. They have a pretty big range.



Either way, I hope you find the case that works best for you!