Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Highlights from my 2013 travels

During 2013  I have visited 14 countries on 3 continents and spent 294 days of out of the UK.

I've travelled a lot in the past, but never quite like this. I now have more time and therefore am in no rush, so like to spend a bit longer taking it all in.

I like to think I venture of the beaten path a little, but at the same time I'm definitely seeing the well trodden places as well.

So what are the highlights of my travels in 2013. There are of course many, so here's my attempt at picking a top 10 (listed in the order I visited).

Las Vegas

Fountains at the Bellagio

I never ever considered this somewhere I would visit or enjoy, let alone feature in my top 10 highlights list. But Vegas really surprised me.

I spent just 3 days there in January. The weather was fine, albeit a little chilly. I did a lot of walking and eating and even tried my hand at the slots (they weren't really my thing though).

There really is something here for everyone. Check out my blog posts from Vegas for more:


Where I stayed: Flamingo.
Average daily budget: totally dependent on your gambling habits and luck.
My recommended must do: watch the fountain show at the Bellagio.

Porto, Portugal

Trying the port at Calem cellars

The home of port and in my opinion, a more worthwhile visit than the capital, Lisbon, although that certainly is worth doing too.

I loved the laid back attitude here. I loved the cafes and restaurants along the river and most of all I loved the port wine.

I spent 2 days here; a long weekend would be perfect. I was there in February, it was sunny with a light wind blowing, but it was still calm enough to sit out along the river in the evenings. Check out my related blog for more here: Port crawl limitations.

Where I stayed: Hotel Brasilia
Average daily budget: 50 Euros per person (based on 2 people sharing, and buying bottles of port to take home).
My recommended must do: a port wine cellar tour or two. Note that they tend to close early evening so make it an afternoon affair.

Seville, Spain

Plaza De Espana

After having visited a large part of Spain, and already being a huge fan of this country, I found Seville offered the same laid back environment, but with the added bonus of being more like London (at least in terms of atmosphere) and somewhere I could easily choose to live.

I was there in late February and it was chilly but pleasant enough to sit out each night and enjoy the amazing tapas and red wine (they have outdoor heaters). Be aware that the summer temperatures have been known to reach 55 degrees.

See my related post for full details of my visit to Seville: Star Wars was filmed here.

Where I stayed: Hostal Jentoft
Average daily budget: 50 Euros a day per person (based on 2 people sharing).
My recommended must do: take a free walking tour.

Luang Prabang, Laos

Early morning alms giving, Luang Prabang


It's difficult to capture the feel of this city in words.
Getting up at the crack of dawn to start the day to take part in alms giving to the monks in the streets was extremely spiritual and certainly a highlight.

Out of town I enjoyed a trip to some waterfalls and a bear sanctuary.

I was able to find a school to stop by and visit the children with gifts of stationery whilst out visiting a nearby local village.

I visited in April and the weather was hot with the nights spent in the humidity wandering the market and in bars. There is a curfew which makes it much more pleasant than many of the tourist areas.

Read more here:


Where I stayed: Sieng Khaen Lao
Average daily budget: I took a tour so accommodation and transport was included and I only needed a few quid for food and souvenirs. Laos is cheap to travel but a tour is expensive. I would say £25 a day would easily cover everything if you do it independently.
My recommended must do: alms giving at the crack of dawn.

Chiang Mai, Thailand

2013 Yi Peng, Chiang Mai

In total I have spent more than 4 weeks in this city. During May and when I returned in November.

Despite the tourists, I found it a very spiritual place. I have spent time here learning Thai massage, wandering around the many temples, joining the annual pilgrimage (11km) for a Buddhist holiday and more recently returned to take part in the annual Yi Peng and Loi Krathong celebrations.

Chiang Mai is popular with tourists for the variety of tours and activities on offer in the surrounding area and is a great place to base yourself in the north of Thailand. Unfortunately it is not as accessible as Bangkok, but I can assure you it is worth the extra effort to get there. I have included quite a few recommendations in this post: Wat a lot of temples and my recommendations.

And here are some other posts from Chiang Mai:

Where I stayed: TK Guesthouse
Average daily budget: 950 baht per person.
My recommended must do: take part in a local event, there are so many throughout the year.

Volunteering with marine turtles, Perhentian and Tioman islands, Malaysia

turtle hatchling
cleaning up an oil spill on Juara beach

The highlight of any trip for me is always going to be the part where I give something back, by volunteering or doing something charitable.

The opportunity to be involved in such important work was something I have to recommend to anyone looking to take a holiday volunteering. I volunteered on two projects in July and August but the nesting season on the East coast of Malaysia is from April to September.

Both projects were very different in how they were run and how much free time you had, and both were at times hard work. But the feeling of experiencing it all whilst on a beach, with the turquoise water just a few steps away, cannot be beaten. There was always time to relax and enjoy the sun, sand and sea as well, and the experience was extremely rewarding. Check out my related posts to find out more:


Where I stayed: Perhentian island: Bubbles resort; Tioman island: Juara turtle project.
Average daily budget: 1 week at Bubbles was 1,360 RM per person which included accommodation, meals and water; Juara project was 100 RM a day per person which included accommodation, breakfast/lunch and water.
My recommended must do: muck in and do whatever is asked of you, then ask for more :-) (that's when the fun projects come out).

Singapore

Merlion, Singapore

I was there for most of September, and that wasn't long enough, I still have a long list of things I want to do when I eventually go back.

On the surface, this over-developed island is often described as clinical or boring and the expense of a visit seems out of place compared to the rest of SE Asia.

Get below the surface and you will see that the perceived lack of green areas really isn't the case. There is so much more to this island than city life and high rise living.

I've shared a lot from my time there already, but there is still more to come. Here are a few links to related posts:


Where I stayed: with family. Singapore accommodation careers for all budgets but it isn't as cheap as the rest of SE Asia.
Average daily budget: SG$50 per person per day, although some days we spent much more or much less.
My recommended must do: Singapore zoo, it's pretty amazing.

Kuching, Malaysia (Borneo)

Proboscis monkey, Bako National Park

When you think of Borneo you imagine green, lush jungle, so the city life of Kuching was a little unexpected. Given the numerous things to do in the surrounding area I found it a pleasure to be based in the city, where it was easy to venture back from the National parks and other places which felt so remote.

I was there in October and had only planned to be here a couple of days. Like so many other places during this trip, I ended up staying longer. See my post for more: City of cats and layer cakes.

Where I stayed: Brooke's Terrace.
Average daily budget: 125  RM per person per day.
My recommended must do: an overnight in Bako National Park.

Koh Lipe, Thailand

Our home on the beach, Koh Lipe

From what I've seen of the islands around the coast of Thailand, this is the nicest. Unfortunately the development has had the expected effect on local life here and the shabby, rustic huts along the beach are slowly being replaced by resorts.

What I like about this island, compared to many of the others, is the variety. There's a beach suitable for those who like to party more and a beach where it's almost idyllic. The view out across the sea on sunrise beach is my favourite and you can't beat stepping out of your hut onto the sand, just a few steps from turquoise waters, for a swim on Christmas day morning.

Close by are enough islands to entertain you if you want to take a break from just relaxing, the diving is apparently really good too. I just enjoyed putting my feet up and indulging in the great food.

Where I stayed: Coco Resort and then Viewpoint, the latter was on the beach, cheaper and more rustic.
Average daily budget: 1,200 baht per person per day as it's quite expensive here compared to mainland Thailand.
My recommended must do: batik making at the "Art Garden"

So as the year comes to an end I'm now back in Malaysia for the start of 2014.

Some of what I have seen and experienced in the last 12 months, would not have been possible without some of the great friends and family that I have around the world. Spending time with people whilst travelling is a highlight all of its own.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of the people, friends and family who have taken the time to guide and share time with me along the way. In particular, those who have looked after me and offered me a place to stay:

Richard and Kathy, Porches
Freyja, Malaga
Wai and Ming, Kuala Lumpur
Wi and A, Chiang Mai
Victor and Doris, Singapore
Terry and Mary, Labuan

See you in 2014.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

2013 travels: day 247, Koh Lipe

I've come a long way since my last update from Chiang Rai (North West Thailand), just a couple of weeks ago. Here's a quick run down of what I've been up to:

Hill tribes

Whilst exploring the Northern area, we visited a number of hill tribes, including one of the well touted 'Long Neck' villages. There are some very mixed reviews of these villages, and I can certainly confirm that they are subjected to significant exploitation. But there is always more to it. You can read more about what I found here: A visit to: Huay Sua Thai (Long Neck village) and those trapped by tradition.

Then there are the other hill tribes, each with their own culture and often speaking another language or different dialect. We found the experience of visiting villages, in some cases, was enhanced by learning a few words of their preferred language. See this post for more: Touring Thailand's Northern hill tribes

Golden triangle

There is a lengthy history resulting from the cultivation of opium in Thailand, and although it is now more controlled, the Golden Triangle remains an area scarred by its past. 



Tourists also flock here to view where the countries of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand meet. So we couldn't resist a short boat trip to Don Sua, an island belonging to Laos, just for a geocache and a souvenir.

Back to the capital

After that we beelined it South, passing through some lesser known towns on our way back to Bangkok. Disappointingly both Nan and Phrae had little to offer and the weather was still somewhat cold, so there was no incentive to explore further in this area.

Bangkok somehow feels like a 3rd home (after KL in Malaysia) so of course staying a few days was not unwelcome.

We took the opportunity to visit Chatuchak market and Sampeng in Chinatown for a few craft supplies as I had/have a few cards to make including one for my Mum's birthday (you can see the card over on my craft blog here).

Phill has even got into the crafting and made a few things.

Bead supplies

You may be aware of the ongoing demonstrations in Bangkok currently. It was actually totally peaceful when we were there, and I was a little disappointed that we were only able to watch the crowds and take photos. The atmosphere was quite something.

Bangkok's democracy monument, the centre of demonstrations

Despite enjoying being back in Thailand's capital, we did take a day out to escape the city, exploring the area known as the 'green lung'. It's a complete contrast to the polluted streets of Bangkok, so check back soon for my upcoming post on this.

Bang Krachao, it' green and it's in Bangkok!

A short flight on Wednesday had us back in Southern Thailand, in Hat Yai, and arms length from the ongoing adversity of the continuing deep south fighting. It's still unsafe to venture further, and we are too much in need of a few lazy days on an island, and some warmer weather. So that's where we are now. Koh Lipe to be exact!

Last time I was on the West coast of Thailand, a bit further North from here, it was rainy season. See my previous post here: Getting wet in the West, for more. Now, it's high season, and extremely warm, albeit a little windy.

I'm looking forward to doing nothing and having a holiday, but there will no doubt be, a chance to catch up on some blog posts as well as explore the island and those close by. 

So, as internet access is limited, all that is left for me to do, is wish you all a very happy Christmas and leave you with a few moments from my 2013 travels.














Saturday, 21 December 2013

Touring Thailand's Northern hill tribes

We headed into northern Thailand, after leaving Chiang Mai, with just over a week left on our visa. For the average traveller this should be plenty of time to visit the key sights. However, as a more curious adventurer who likes to experience local life more slowly, this means having to be a bit flexible.

After 4 days staying in Pai (getting out and about on a motorbike) we headed to Mae Hong Son and took a day private tour to the surrounding area (it's too much to cover by bike).

4 languages in 1 day

A day spent touring the North Eastern hill tribes and villages was made more memorable by learning a couple of words in Burmese (Myanmar) and digging out my long forgotten Mandarin.

The Thai lessons are not progressing much. We know enough phrases to appear more curteous than the average traveller, but are lacking the time to try and understand the grammar fully.

There are many hill tribes in the North of Thailand, each with their own culture, and often their own language or dialect.

Karen 'Long Neck' village

Probably the most famous, for all the wrong reasons, is the tribe known as the Long Neck tribe, a subgroup of the Karen people. They will respond to basic Thai and English phrases, but you will get a much warmer response if you attempt a bit of their native tongue, Burmese.

You can read more about the Long Neck village that we visited in my earlier post here: A visit to: Huay Sua Thao (Long Neck village) and those trapped by tradition.

The other tribes in the Mae Hong Son province (North Eastern Thailand) include Hmong, Yao, Lahu, Lisu, Akha and Shan.

Yunnan village

After the long neck village, we headed to the far North East corner of Thailand. Here they are of Yunnan (Chinese) descent, so knowing a word or two in Mandarin can be the difference in receiving a smile or a frown.

It's close to the Thai-Burma border. A tiny Chinese tea village called Mae Aw (or Ban Rak Tai in Thai), where we enjoyed the many teas on offer and some tasty Yunnan (Chinese) food.

There are still many of the original mud huts around the lake here, though many are decaying and falling apart as the villagers have started to move towards more modern and durable buildings.

This used to be the museum!

Hmong (or Mao) village

After the Yunnan tea village, we visited a Hmong (also known as Mao) village, but the people here seemed reluctant to engage with us despite our efforts, so we wandered around for a short time admiring the wooden homes that they live in before moving on.

Hmong village view

Many of the villagers were occupied with daily life and chores. The more interesting to me was some beautiful embroidery, consisting of 'dots' that were then sewn onto baggy black velvet 'long pants' (trousers) or the sleeves of jackets.

Shan village

There are a number of Royal projects in Thailand, where tribes have been given land to live. The village of Ban Ruam is one of these areas, now occupied by Shan people, some of which work at the close by reservoir at Pang Oung, which is a beautiful place popular with Thai tourists. It felt a bit like a Swiss style holiday village and as if we were no longer in Thailand. Unfortunately there was little opportunity to interact with the villagers unless we wanted to buy something from the numerous souvenir stalls.

Pang Lung lake view

Chiang Rai province

After covering the North West section, (consisting of Mae Hong Son province) we scheduled in a 'visa run' up to Myanmar to get another 30 days in Thailand. See my previous post: Changes to Thai visa rules on 1 November 2013 and a day trip to Myanmar, for more on this, and the changes to the visa regulations.

We were then able to take our time in the North East province of Chiang Rai.

There are a number of Long Neck villages in this area too, but with so much to see and do in this area we didn't have the time to check out another.

Akha village

We did however include a visit to the Akha village, Ban Lorcha. This is a community based project with an entrance fee of 80 baht, which goes towards supporting the villagers. See link to website here.

What I really liked about this village was that although there was a fair bit set up for visitors, they still went about their normal business. The villagers who were involved in the project were enthusiastic and welcoming.

Akha weaving

They speak little English here but signs have been erected at key spots around the village explaining some of the traditions. A villager takes your round on a tour and shares the traditions of how they used to hunt, using traps, as well as participating in a welcome dance and demonstrating traditional weaving.

The style of homes are quite unique as they don't have windows, the eaves come down low on both sides, and there are separate living areas for men and women.

Ban Lorcha house

Their belief in spirits means a gate is placed at the entrance to the village, to deter spirits from entering from the jungle.

Tours

I highly recommend visiting one of the hill tribe villages. Perhaps combine it with a trek as this area is extemely popular for hiking as well.

I also recommend that you avoid visiting with tour companies with big groups and book only through a smaller, community sensitive, tour company with smaller groups, or instead find private guides who will bring you to their own villages or visit independently.

To actually visit a hill tribe village a little planning is needed. There are tours available from Pai, but taking a trip out to Mae Hong Son, as we did, will get you closer to the lesser touristy area where you can venture into the hills and explore many of the villages independently.

Tours can also be arranged from Mae Hong Son, but be sure to determine exactly what is included, as our driver spoke no English at all, and communication and information was non existent. We would have visited independently if we had had more time.

If you do have time, consider not just visiting, but stay for a while. There are a number of volunteering opportunities in Northern Thailand where you can teach English or learn more about the hill tribes. I found a couple of places for this but due to time and bad planning it wasn't possible this time.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

A visit to: Huay Sua Thao (Long Neck village) and those trapped by tradition

After reading up on the long neck and big ear villages in Thailand, I was surprised to find it a lot less like a human zoo than I was led to believe it would be. Perhaps this was due to our attitude towards them and actively trying to talk with them and engage with them rather than just snap photos and move on.



Us having learnt the words for hello and thank you in Burmese, before we arrived, immediately broke many barriers, as the smiles came in response at each and every stall.

The first lady I spoke to, willingly dressed me in neck rings and local style dress. Maybe she was expecting a tip in return, but she certainly didn't indicate this. I had every intention of either buying something or tipping in return for photos,  as everything I had read seemed to conclude that they do not receive much in the way of support.

traditional dress

They are refugees, unable to work anywhere outside of the village. It is highly questionable whether the money from entrance fees does actually get distributed to those that reside here, despite the statement on the document that we were presented with when we arrived. The rings that adorn the women, trap them here, but yet they seem loyal to their tradition.

I brought a tacky keyring, and moved on to the next stall where I was subjected to some face painting with a nice smelling powdery cream known as Thanaka

More photos followed, of course, and a small tip.

Thanaka painting

This routine continued at each stall, although I reduced my input to chatting to the ladies and looking at their wares.

A couple of the ladies were not wearing rings, and the first that I asked after, spoke very good English. She continued to tell me that she was "very happy" and felt "free" at no longer wearing them.

She introduced me to her daughter, who was wearing the infamous rings, and was busy weaving scarves. Perhaps this was why she was so happy about removing the rings. Had she just passed down the tradition to allow her freedom.

Mother and daughter

Her daughter spoke no English and I wondered why she had not taught her a few words to assist in interacting with the tourists and improving what was deemed her livelihood.

Towards the end of the row of stalls, the 'big ear' ladies were hanging out. There were fewer of them than the 'long necks' and most seemed to be selling a few different items on their stalls. Other than the scarves and shawls that appeared to be woven on site, it did look like a lot of the other items had been imported from elsewhere.

Check out the ears

I reminded myself of something I'd read earlier, about them having no choice. Having fled Burma (Myanmar) as refugees from the civil war in their country to Thailand, they were now trapped in these places.

In Thailand, local authorities and businessmen had taken them from the refugee camps on the border to a number of locations where tourists visit, paying 250 baht (approx £5/US $7) to stare and take photos.

This was of course where we were, Huay Sua Thai in Mae Hong Son province is one of those locations. Despite the controversy and my reluctance to visit, I decided that to not do so would only contribute to what is already a difficult life. The simple fact is that they need tourists to visit, to survive.

Some of these women have lived in the same place for almost 20 years, earning a living from the tourism industry. This is largely the result of local authorities refusing them permission to travel or apply for resettlement elsewhere.

It's very sad. But in all honesty it is worth a visit. If you go, here are a few suggestions of how you can make the experience a more positive one:

- learn to say hello and thank you in Burmese, or Thai at the very least.

- always ask before taking a photograph and wait for agreement.

- show your gratitude by buying something or leaving a small donation in return for a photo.

- show an interest. Talk to people where possible, don't just stare, take photos and leave.

Trust me you will feel better for it.

Side note: I have read/heard that Huay Pu Keng, which is only accessible by boat, doesn't charge a fee. Apparently some long neck people have been invited to move there to have freedom from being exploited. The income is solely from items they sell. I would love to hear from anyone who has been there.

If you are interested in reading more about the lives of these tribes, I found a very informative post here.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Travelling around Christmas time

Christmas trees are going up everywhere (I'm just seeing them on my Facebook feed!) and the Christmas markets are already featuring in (travel bloggers) posts. I even saw a Christmas shop when I crossed the border into Myanmar a few of days ago (whilst on a visa run) ... now, that was a surprise.

Myanmar Christmas shop

Not being 'home' for Christmas is not unheard of for me. In fact being back in the UK for Christmas, or even the run up to Christmas is something I've tried to avoid year after year.

This year is no different of course.

I don't do Christmas. Most of my friends and family just accept that these days. If I'm not there it seems a lot easier, but I do have some valid reasons for not celebrating:

- Christmas is so commercial. No one can argue with that. Everything is taken over by Christmas before the big day, and you just can't get away from it.

- I'm not religious. Although this doesn't stop numerous other people celebrating. Their reasons most likely culminate around family.

- Of course there are my parents and sister. But for many years my sister has worked over Christmas and my parents are not particularly enthusiastic about celebrating. Where there are young children, or families that always celebrate, that's what makes Christmas. I've not been influenced by either, so I guess it just became the norm to not celebrate. And of course I will use every opportunity... to travel!

- The main reason I don't celebrate Christmas, is that Nick, my late partner, loved Christmas. Not in the sense that he celebrated any of the things I resent about this time of year. He just loved the feeling of Christmas, the decorations, the cheer, the getting together with family. He embraced Christmas. And the few Christmases I was lucky enough to have enjoyed in his company... Well, they just sound out above every other memory in my life around Christmas time. The deep sadness that overwhelms me because he is no longer here, it's just magnified at Christmas.

That's it.

So, I'd rather spend the holiday period on holiday, and if I can contribute my time to a worthwhile cause, a charity or volunteering, then that's how I would choose to spend Christmas. 

The last few years I've not been home much:

- 2012 Bullhead city, Arizona. Then Boxing Day at the Grand Canyon. See related post: 'Road trip: desert to world wonder'

Snowy Grand Canyon

- 2011 Kandy, Sri Lanka - but no christmas. See relevant posts here.

Card making at centre for girls, Sri Lanka

- 2009 At home eating toad in the hole, not turkey! Then Boston on Boxing Day. See my post: Avoiding the sales

- 2008 Lake District, Cumbria. A dreamy Christmas snuggled up in a little cottage far away from everything. Again no blog post for this one as I was too busy actually enjoying Christmas!

- 2007 I was supposed to be in South Africa, but ended up in Tallahassee in the US after being deported at Johannesburg. That's another story and unfortunately I don't have a blog post to share.

- 2006 Ecuador. See: Christmas with a difference

Horse riding, Ecuador

Maybe next year I will give Christmas another go. Being away for so long puts things into perspective a bit more. There are plenty of things I secretly love about Christmas. I just need to find a way to focus on those:

- I love spending time with friends and family, eating, being festive and cheery. Christmas work parties are always fun. It's great to get together with friends or family for a 'christmas' meal or party. Or even just a coffee and a catch up wrapped up in a winter coat, hat, scarf and gloves, sipping from a warm mug.

A taste of home in Thailand

- Those friends or family you see often or those you see rarely and sometimes only around this time of year. There is never enough time to meet up with everyone you want to, Christmas or not - I wish I could change that. Familiar faces anytime of year, but more so around Christmas time.

- Being looked after and relaxing. My mum plays the part well. I'm sure my sister would create a lovely Christmas dinner with trimmings as well. And my dad does his bit too!

- I love christmas shopping. Or I love searching out cool and thoughtful gifts for people, or making gifts. I prefer not to have to face the crowds to do it... But it is fun, particularly if you do it with someone else and make a day of it.

- I love making cards! Be that on my own or in groups. I loved running classes and sharing my love of crafting with others. I loved that it gave us a reason to get together on cold nights. I most of all love sending handmade cards. I know people appreciate them more than the many others they receive each year. It brings back a moment of tradition amidst the commercial  bombardment.

handmade by me last year

Any excuse to make anything really... I could turn my feelings about Christmas around completely just by emersing myself in my crafting hobby, more so with friends and family enjoying it with me.

Anyway, enough dreaming! There's no sign of Christmas, friends, family or crafting stash here :(.

I'm currently in Thailand. My Thai friends inform me that a lot of people do 'celebrate' Christmas with families. The majority of the population here are Buddhist, so it's not a religious time. But then that is really no different to back home.



Where will I be on Christmas day? I have absolutely no idea. All I know is, I don't miss the cold, snow, decorations, drunken parties, lights, and 24 hour Christmas music on the radio. I miss my (ex) colleagues, friends, and family. I miss them every other day of the year already.

That's inevitable when travelling. If I was home however, would I see much more of them? Sadly, probably not.

Wherever you are in the world. If you know me personally and are reading this. I miss each and everyone of you.

To anyone else: are you going to be travelling at Christmas or have you done it in the past? How does it make you feel and what did you do/will you be doing? I'd love to hear you Christmas/non Christmas themed travel tales.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

2013 travel: day 226 - Chiang Rai, Thailand

Firstly, thank you so much to those of you who responded to my 'dream job' post and shared my attempts at being spontaneous and/or contributed an idea to the pot of where I should venture to next.

It's been nearly 2 weeks since my request for ideas, and I've been busy looking into some of the suggestions, and will of course continue to do so.

In case you were curious, here's a quick summary of the final short list:

1. Australia
2. Cuba
3. Philippines
4. Indonesia
5. North Korea
6. Ukraine, specifically Prypiat!
7. East Timor
8. Hong Kong
9. Home
10. China
11. Trans Siberian train journey
12. San Diego

As someone quite sensibly pointed out, jumping continents is probably not going to be as feasible as sticking with Asia for the moment. But that doesn't mean it's off the cards, after all, I did have Cuba at the top of my list when I was originally planning to take a trip! As for some of the other ideas, I'm very keen on most of them :).

***

With my Thai visa free period coming to an end, it has meant a fleeting visit over to the North Eastern part of Thailand, covering Pai and Mae Hong Son, before heading to Chiang Rai, where we are now (North West). More to come on what we got up to there, but the highlight was probably having to speak 4 different languages in one day!

The weather is much cooler up here, almost cold even; with lows of 15 degrees at night.




Yesterday we headed over the border into Myanmar, in order to obtain a new visa free period. You can read more about that in the post below: Changes to Thai visa rules on 1 November 2013 and a trip to Myanmar.

Chiang Rai is one of those underrated places, often forgotten due to its close proximity to Chiang Mai (3 hours away by bus). We are using it as a base as many people speak English, there's plenty of food choices (coffee an cake!) and it's pretty good in terms of cost. There is quite a bit to see and do, not that far away; we covered a large area on a motorbike in the NE so are planning a similar style adventure around the NW.

Other recent posts you may have missed:

Flashpacking is ...

Yi Peng and Loi Krathong celebrations 2013, Chiang Mai

PS I'm keeping an eye on the problems in Bangkok currently, they don't seem to be effecting tourists, but there's a chance it could get a lot worse. Fingers crossed it doesn't!


Changes to Thai visa rules on 1 November 2013 and a day trip to Myanmar

Please note that from 10 May 2014, foreign nationals residing in Thailand will no longer be able to exit and then re-enter Thailand via a land border crossing in order to gain another 30 or 15 days stay in the country. These changes are subject to further amendment therefore I will update this post once the rules have been confirmed. Please see further details of the latest changes here for more.

***

Anyone who has travelled to Thailand will be aware that many visitors (including most of the EU, US, and Australia) are entitled to a visa free travel for 30 days if arriving by air, or 15 days if arriving overland.

Note: it is also possible to obtain a 60 day tourist visa ahead of arrival into Thailand for US$30 (or equivalent) from an overseas Thai embassy.

For such a large country, this seems a little disproportionate to other countries in SE Asia, for example UK residents can visit Hong Kong for 6 months or Malaysia for 90 days.



I had already utilised my Thai 60 day visa back in May/June and overlooked getting a multi entry one. So arriving by air this time, I was only permitted 30 days. This was more than likely going to mean a border run would be necessary at some point before heading into the next country. 
I'd pencilled in Myanmar the next destination, which requires a visa prior to entry, and consequently a couple of days stay somewhere with a Myanmar embassy.

As we headed through Northern Thailand and the clock ticked down on our visa, we looked at the options for obtaining a new one. 15 days was going to limit our movements somewhat as there were still a few places in central Thailand to tick off, and the chances of the trains from Chiang Mai to Bangkok being up and running as planned on 1 December are still unknown.

Crossing into Laos or Myanmar were really the only options unless we wanted to fly somewhere, and the Bangkok or Vientiene (Laos) Myanmar embassies were the closest choices for obtaining a Myanmar visa.

Decisions decisions?!

We have since debated:
- flying to Hong Kong from Chiang Mai;
- heading into Laos for a couple of weeks before coming back into Thailand;
- heading into Laos and travelling through and into Cambodia and then entering Thailand further south;
- taking a day trip into Myanmar and coming back to Thailand.

It turns out that the visa rules changed earlier this month, and on 1 November 2013, although not formerly announced, G7 member country residents (UK, USA, Japan, Germany, France, Canada and Italy) can now obtain 30 days when arriving overland rather than 15. This is not currently showing on the Thai embassy website, or Wikipedia, and the usual sources such as Thorntree show mixed views on whether this is likely to be confirmed anywhere anytime soon.

We decided, just the day before our visa expired, to give the Myanmar border at Mae Sai/Tachileik a try. At least that way if all else fails I can tick Myanmar off my list and personally confirm the situation regarding a Thai visa obtained at the border.

Tachileik border entry, enter on the right

We could have done the visa run to the Laos border but the cost is substantially more. To get a Lao visa it's US$30 plus the additional payment if $1 or $2 for the border staff (!), whereas Myanmar is just US$10 (if you can convince them to accept dollars as opposed to the requested 500 baht, which converts to a much higher fee).

How to get there:
-Take a bus from Chiang Rai = 39 baht on local bus takes just 1.5hrs (from Chiang mai = 4 hrs). 
- Then take a Songtaew from the bus station in Mae Sai for 15 baht, to the border.
- Walk to Thai immigration building and get stamped out. Then walk across the bridge and cross over to right side to enter Myanmar. 
- Have your visa payment fee ready with passport. We had no issues paying in dollars unlike many websites suggest. 
- They ask if you want to go shopping and take your passport in return for a permit. Walk down the road and prepare for the enslaught from the touts offering tours.

Songtaew travel with the locals

Local bus or minibus (green bus)?:

The driver was indeed watching the TV, not the traffic!

The local bus is a little slower and somewhat rougher (seats are tight and windows/doors provide air con which is cold - take something warm to wear). There not much in it in terms of cost and the local interaction is much more fun on the local bus, we saw long neck Karen ladies on the way to the border and enjoyed watching parcels being dropped off at random addresses along the route on the way back.

Day trip to Myanmar border town

I didn't expect much for a border town. It is surprisingly different given Thailand is so close. The roads seem dirtier, dustier and with more pot holes. The men wear sarongs and the women have faces powdered with Thanaka.

Myanmar view from Shwedagon temple

We ended up wandering around on foot for a few hours taking it all in. Definitely an interesting way to spend the day, but you have to almost stop, look, listen and absorb... Or you may just miss it. The locals seem to just stare initially, but a smile and a hello in Burmese soon has them beaming back at you.



The market at the border is worth a look but there isn't much that tourists are likely to want from here, unless they are after a fake bag, sunglasses, counterfeit cigarettes, Viagra or pirated dvds.

The Shwedagon temple on the hill offers another chance for local interaction and the view isn't bad.

Shwedagon temple, not to be confused with the one in Yangon

Other points of note:
- There have been some recent (Oct 2013) changes to certain Asia countries residents eg Thailand and Laos no longer requiring a visa to enter Myanmar for up to 14 days, most likely resulting in it being busier now.
- They drive on the right in Myanmar (the opposite to Thailand).
- Pick up cigarette and alcohol bargains at duty free just before obtaining you passport back from Myanmar immigration.
- Remember it's 30 days not 1 month. Many overlook this and overstay, incurring a 500 baht per day fee. It's not a lot but potential problems entering other countries may result in the future (?).

So, in conclusion... I do indeed have 30 days visa free travel in Thailand once more...


Thursday, 28 November 2013

Flashpacking is ...

...much like backpacking, but on a slightly better budget and more suited to my current attitude to travel and eagerness to experience rather than just see.

People always ask how long I've been travelling, and then often assume I'm roughing it because I'm on a budget. Well, my budget is pretty low but I'm not quite backpacking. If I want to do something, I do it... I'm just careful to try and save money on the less important things like food and accommodation. And I try to avoid dorms.

So, I'm flashpacking.

What does that mean in reality?

It means life on the road is much the same as it is for the majority of long term travellers.

Flashpacking, like backpacking, involves a multitude of experiences which are not always the cultural and immersing ones that we seek. I thought I'd create a list of a few of those experiences just to show that flashpacking really isn't much different to backpacking.

Flashpacking and/or backpacking is...

1) ... wearing the same clothes more than once, sometimes for several days in a row with no shame, despite realising that perhaps those holes are a sign to bin them.



2) ...getting used to sweating excessively. Drying out and then getting wet again, and often just accepting that damp is the new black.

3) ...having dirty feet almost constantly. Blackened soles, broken toe nails, dusty, sometimes smelly and just simply worn out!

4) ...having a disappointingly uneven tan, strap marks on your shoulders, thong lines on your feet, white bits under your clothes or my personal issue - tanned arms and white legs!

5) ...having some kind of perpetual wound, most likely from a motorbike, bicycle or climbing injury. It will eventually heal, even if it goes a little septic at some point, but you will be scarred for months or years to come.

6) ...owning a pair of fake Ray Bans, Havaianas (flip flops/thongs) or other designer item. You wouldn't necessarily been seen dead with it back home however.

7) ...having to carry your own supply of toilet paper. And having to use it regularly for other purposes - spills, hands, general cleaning.

8) ...having to embrace squat toilets and the bum gun! In fact you will probably master the art of hovering over one whilst doing your business and no longer frown at the thought of using one.

9) ...having or seriously considering having dreadlocks or braids. You haven't had a hair cut or had your roots redone since you left home. You may have even resorted to cutting the straggly mop yourself.

10) ...becoming accustomed to waiting around, knowing the "5 minutes" is always much longer. There are unfortunately very few places where being on time is expected.

11) ...being a millionaire in at least one currency. The exchange rates mean that whatever you carry in local currency, in many countries, will leave a bulge in your wallet.

12) ...knowing how to say “hello” and “thank you” in several different languages.

13) ...getting ripped off. Be it by taxi's/tuk tuk's, money changers or just because you have to pay the price as a tourist as opposed to a local.



14) ...being bitten to death by mosquito's. Even with bug spray on, it is inevitable that you will endure an eating frenzy somewhere along the way.

15) ...dealing with flies, ants, cockroaches, rats and numerous other unpleasant virmin. A sign off being unclean and often putting you off eating, staying, or sleeping there.

16) ...getting sick and vowing you will never eat from a street vendor again... until the next time...

17) ...being so used to using the entire room during a shower that a western bathroom seems so small and contained in comparison, and the constantly wet floor almost feels homely.

18) ...having to say goodbye to people time and time again, knowing you will probably not meet again even though you/they are adamant that you will. It never gets easier, unless of course you are not human.

19) ...accepting less than clean sheets or having to use a towel the size of a flannel to dry yourself. Knowing it's not necessary to carry your own, you often wish you had.

20) ...wondering why your bag is so heavy and promising to pack less next time. You've a list of must have's and tips that you could share with others who may be new to packing light, but you will no doubt make the same mistake again.

21) ...owning a tank top that you thought was a great purchase at the time, at a full moon party, tubing or just because you needed one. Then continuing to wear it with quiet pride.

22) ...seeing poverty. Assuming you are travelling to a third world country then be prepared to see how the other half live – this is not always easy to deal with.

23) ...missing home/feeling lonely. Everyone gets home sick, although not everyone admits it. Whether you’re travelling solo or with someone else, there will be times when you feel lonely because you are thousands of miles from home without your support network, in a country that isn’t familiar to you. It’s natural.

24) ...eating pot noodles in your room or crackers on a bus. Your budget means you can't always stretch to a proper meal, or you're on the road so much it's not practical to stop to have a decent bite to eat.

25) ...never wanting to stop. OK, so there are a few not so nice things about travelling, and they sometimes get you down. But none of them are enough to make you want to stop, go back to life's creature comforts and the daily 9 to 5 grind! Or are they... have I missed anything ;)?