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 ;)?

Friday, 22 November 2013

Yi Peng and Loi Krathong celebrations 2013, Chiang Mai

The light from the thousands of giant paper lanterns (khom) added a beautiful warm glow to everything. Everywhere you looked the lanterns towered over the crowds like inflatable pillars, glowing with an overwhelming warmth. People were huddled around, gripping tightly onto their khom, waiting for the signal to release them in unison.

As we let go, the sound of releasing cheers washed over us, and we waved bye bye to any bad luck, wiping the slate clean to begin anew. It was a magical moment.



The moon was at its fullest last Saturday night at Maejo University, the setting for the biggest annual Yi Peng celebrations in Chiang Mai. It was an absolutely beautiful evening, and everyone was in high spirits.



This Lanna (Northern Thai) festival takes places each year in the ancient capital of the former Lanna Kingdom, on the full moon night of the 2nd month of the Lanna calendar. The celebration at the university is the biggest organised event, not widely advertised in English, to try to steer tourists to the 'paid' event the following weekend.



The ceremony leading up to the lantern release takes the form of rhythmic chanting by monks and the sharing of the story of Buddha. Initially I found this a very spiritual time but as it went on the crowd began to get restless and those outside the main compound started to release lanterns, breaking the almost silent atmosphere.




Finally, after 2 hours, the movement of the monks on stage followed by a blaze of smoke was the signal to light the torches and await further instruction for lighting the lanterns.

Although numerous people let their lanterns go early, most of the crowd still managed to release in unison, sending their wishes flaming into the night sky. It was beautiful, even beyond my expectations!




A few things to note when attending Yi Peng at Maejo University:

- Lanterns from outside are not permitted at the event, although people will light then outside and sneek them in, only the standard size are available for purchase and release within during the event.
- Dress respectfully... Covering shoulders and knees as checks are done at the entrance and you won't get in. Plus it's embarrassing to see Westerners always falling foul to local traditions, and even worse seeing them ignore them by uncovering once inside! 
- Get there early, it gets busy and the traffic is scary. Prepare for delays in leaving too. 



There are also other things going on in, and around, the city. Another festival, Krathong, coincides with Yi Peng, meaning there is 3 days of festivities. Lanterns are released everywhere throughout each night and there is a parade along Thae Pae Road.

Following on from Yi Peng on the Saturday, we were treated with an opportunity to make our own Krathong (small raft decorated with banana leaves and flowers) for release along the river Ping, on Sunday. 

My friend Wi who I learnt Thai massage with last time I was here (see more in previous post: Jera Thai massage course, Chiang Mai), is quite creative and she willingly offered to show me how to make my own Krathong. I've put a tutorial up, over on my craft blog if you're interested in reading more: Making Krathong - banana leaves boat.

In the evening we joined the thousands of others at Nawarat bridge to release them. Saying a little prayer before sending them off on their journey.



The river area was extremely crowded and it was difficult to get to the edge of the water without almost falling in. I was a little disappointed to see several local people in the water scouring the offerings for money; not very Buddhist.

Looking out across the river at all the floating Krathong is quite a sight. Up in the sky the sight of lanterns is also quite impressive. Not quite like the night before, but still amazing to be a part of. The atmosphere continued well into the night, as we wandered through the crowds and checked out the Sunday walking market.

I've been lucky enough to take part in the Visakha Bucha (Buddhist holiday) pilgrimage up Doi Suthep back in May - see here for related post. That was a real experience and Yi Peng has been amazing. What else does Chiang Mai have to offer in terms of festivals? Can I get back here for Songkran (Thai New year) sometime? I hope so ...

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

I got my dream job, now I need your help...

For those of you in the UK, it's been advertised in nearly every newspaper there and been on the news, so you have probably seen it already, or applied for it.

If not, check it out here: http://www.lovelivinglastminute.com

As Spontaneity Champion for lastminute.com:

- I can make the world my office. 
- I can wander far and wide.
- I can be spontaneous.
- There’s no salary, uniform or set hours. I don’t have to quit my day job. Instead, there will be up to £50,000 for a year’s worth of spontaneous travel and experiences booked through lastminute.com.


It sounds great doesn't it?

I would love to be considered for this job. As I read through the small print and brainstormed my ideas for my entry, I certainly had plenty of experience to draw from. Even just last year I visited 12 countries (see my 2012 blog here: 2012, a year of cities), mostly on short or long weekend trips.

As I re-read the details for applying and carefully considered each requirement I tried to anticipate what sort of person they would want for this role.

Singapore F1, booked just a few days before

I wouldn't need to quit my day job, but I already have! I'd have to take part in a contest, and although stage 1 seemed easy enough, it involves putting myself out there and potentially increasing my social media exposure to the point of no return.

Of course, I love travelling and sharing my experiences and would be proud to inspire others to do so too. But at what cost? 

Would taking the first step towards applying for this so called 'job' actually put an end to the dream lifestyle that I am currently living? The deadline is just over a week away.

So many other questions ran through my head as I read through the contract.

I would of course be expected to portray lastminute.com holidays positively. Would I find situations requiring me to stretch the truth, or worse, would my often frank and honest views need to be toned down?

Lastminute.com will gain significant global publicity from me working hard to deliver suitable content. That's great, but what will my life really be like and what about after the contract ends?

Then there's the element of enjoyment that comes with travelling, being replaced somewhat by the inevitable stress that would come with having to meet deadlines and deliver submissions on time.  Basically, all the concerns that keep my travel writing from becoming much more than a blog. I want to write, but on my own terms.

Not crafting, just working!

I'm ultimately uncomfortable with having to step well outside of my comfort zone, and potentially becoming the face of a brand. There would be no more hiding behind my writing or blog posts and sharing what I choose. Everyone who books an experience with lastminute.com, reads the newspaper or follows the news, will know who I am.

Finally, I'm not really ready to agree to return to the UK next month for stage 2, assuming I would even get past the first hurdle.

In 2009, Tourism Queensland advertised for 'the best job in the World' and subsequently won awards and international coverage. The winner, Ben Southall, seemed to have the time of his life and dealt well with the demands of his role, as well as the aftermath, which has resulted in him becoming a celebrity. Read more about it here: http://www.bensouthall.com/best-job-in-the-world-2009/#

So I've concluded, after much deliberation, that becoming Spontaneity Champion is much more than a job... it would become my life. And for me, a life that, as great as it first sounds, isn't quite the one that I want for me right now.

Instead, I've decided to take another 'job'. It has most of the same benefits as the role of Spontaneity Champion. But there are a few extras:

- I will complete a full year of travel. Spending significantly less than £50,000. 
- I will share my experiences and be completely honest as best I can.
- I will continue my adventures - geocaching, crafting and volunteering wherever I can.
- It will be on my terms. With no restrictions and no deadlines.

When I left the UK in April, I was expecting to be back within 3 months. Since Phill joined me in May, I stopped planning exactly where we would go and each destination has been the result of being some what spontaneous. Nothing is booked in advance these days.

We are planning to head to Myanmar (Burma) at long last, after Northern Thailand, but I'd like to add a bit more of the unexpected to the pot and ask for suggestions from anyone reading this post too.

So, where do you think I should I go? I have 150 days left to complete a year and a limited budget, but I'm open to ideas.

What should I do? What should I try? Where would you like to hear more about? Here's your chance to contribute. Just contact me via email at tiggerbird@gmail.com, twitter (@7iggerbird) or post a comment here.

I'd also be extremely grateful if you would share this post with your friends and family and of course use any of the many social media tools available to help you do so.

I may not have a campaign behind me or any media coverage, but with some help I can try and create my own publicity for my own dream 'job'.

I have got the job now... I just need a little help to do it!






Thursday, 14 November 2013

Geocaching puts Phitsanulok (Thailand) on the map

"Where's Phitsanulok?" I squeaked excitedly as I scoured the map on my GPS device, looking at the splattering of dots indicating hidden treasure.

Neither of us has heard of it, which in a country we have visited numerous times between us, is quite a surprise.

I quickly looked it up, finding plenty of information on the web and a small section in the Lonely Planet guidebook. However, it sounded like most independent travellers pass by this city, heading to Sukothai instead. Of course we had Sukothai on our list but had limited time before needing to be in Chiang Mai.

However, Phitsanulok was about halfway between Lopburi (where we were) and Chiang Mai; it would work for a couple of days stopover.

Phitsanulok river view, great for geocaching

So, if I'm honest, it was the lure of the geocaches rather than the sights that brought us here, but the carefully placed treasure boxes meant we could fill the afternoon in the city doing a bit of both.

If you know me personally I have probably already dragged you into the world of Geocaching at some point. If not, then you may have seen my occasional posts mentioning this geeky hobby that I took up in 2011. For example, you can read more about my enthusiasm for this game here.

Geocaching is an activity that involves the searching of hidden boxes by means of GPS coordinates posted on a website, geocaching.com. These can be a physical container such as a small film canister hidden near a tourist spot or somewhere that doesn't appear in the guidebooks. I fully support the latter, as these often find me visiting somewhere off the beaten track and enjoying a little adventure. It's made more enticing by being awarded with both a beautiful view or other unexpected experience, as well as a plastic tub where I can log my visit.

We were the first to find this one ;)

Many geocaches involve some educational aspect or objective too but it is always designed to have you exploring the world. There are also small coins or tags (called trackables) that are designed to move from cache to cache, which have their own goal, so there's another incentive to keep looking for the next hide.

So, back to Phitsanulok. It turns out there are quite a few geocache trails. I noticed they had been placed by mostly the same geocacher, and a few, including one located outside his house, had yet to be found. I couldn't resist getting in touch and announcing that we were in the area. In response we were invited to stop by for a visit.

Geocachers are everywhere

It was great to meet another fellow geocacher, and spend some time talking about the game, as well as hearing about life as an expat in a city such as Phitsanulok. We probably overstayed a little and only managed to find 10 geocaches afterwards, but it's not something we get to do everyday. Thank you geocaching.com and thank you Thorshammers (geocache owner) for taking us somewhere we probably would never have gone.

In fact, we could have stayed longer as the city itself is lovely and there are several temples and markets worth seeing. I highly recommend a visit even if you are not a geocacher.

Sukothai still needs ticking off and there are more geocaches to find both there and in Phitsanulok, so we may well be back.

I'm now in Chiang Mai, enjoying being back (see previous visit here) and awaiting the upcoming festivals that are going on over the weekend. For once, I'm up to date on recent blog posts, so check them out if you are interested:


In other news...
I decided against applying for the Spontaneity Champion 'job' with lastminute.com, more to follow on that in another post.

There's been a few scheduled posts since my last update in case you missed them:

Singapore roundup: my recommendations for tourists
Orangutans of Borneo: Semenggoh nature reserve, Kuching



Friday, 8 November 2013

Orangutans of Borneo: Semenggoh nature reserve, Kuching

Bus K6 from Kuching, arrives with plenty of time to walk the 1.3km track to the centre at the Semenggoh nature reserve. Here you can see crocodiles and maybe an orangutan or two hanging out near the feeding platforms.



At 9am the park ranger gather's people to head to the central feeding area, just a short walk into the jungle, giving a short commentary on what to expect and requesting the noise is kept to a minimum.

Two apes, one apparently the oldest female in the park, came to feed while we were waiting for the official feeding session to begin. Then another three orangutans came down to feed on the bananas offered on the feeding platform inside the jungle and one was with baby.

The rangers clear you out very quickly after the hour is up, unfortunately there isn't much else open at the park anymore, but the orangutans are enough to make this a worthwhile visit.



I went to check out the crocodiles whilst the crowds cleared a bit, and was busy taking a picture of one of them when a ranger started calling out. I turned around to see him waving at me, and just to my right shoulder was a huge orangutan... lumbering through the edge of the forest.

It was the biggest I've ever seen, and turned out to be Ritchie, who apparently isn't very friendly, doesn't like noise and who is renowned for causing many an evacuation. He was about 15 metres from me!

I quickly followed the group of people who were heading for the bridge, desperately wanting to turn round and take a photo of the beast, but the rangers were coaxing me out as quickly as possible.

Ritchie, from a safe distance

Fortunately I got to see him back up in the trees heading for an out of reach feeding platform located at a safe distance. Still scary as he is absolutely massive.

I had planned to visit the more famous Sepilok orangutan rehabilitation centre when we reached Sabah, but our spontaneous decision to bail out of Malaysia virtually overnight has left this on my to do list. 

However, I have read and heard quite a few negative reviews about the centre there and in my view the Semenggoh nature reserve is a much better place to go to see orangutans. 

I can certainly say that Semenggoh was one of the highlights of my trip to Malaysian Borneo - but a visit is dependent on how lucky you are that the apes will come to feed. I don't think a no show has occurred recently, but often it's just one or two that visit at feeding time. We were exceptionally lucky.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Singapore roundup: my recommendations for tourists

Many people stopover in Singapore enroute to somewhere else or they go there on business or to meet up with or visit friends. Often visitors will stay just a few days, and my feeling is, that very few of these visitors take the time to be a tourist in the true sense of the word.

Singapore is one of Asia’s most accessible destinations, better known for its shopping and eating choices rather than sights. Plus it's not really a destination for the budget traveller or back/flashpacker unless you know where to go and what to do.



Orchard Road (famous for shopping), seems to be the first place everyone hears about, and is worth a visit; particularly if you are a fan of names like Louis Vuitton, Chanel and every other couture label.

However there is so much more on offer, and I have tried to cover some of it in a number of my posts.

If you like the outdoors, the parks and gardens are varied and well scattered across the island. I have compiled my thoughts on a few of them here: Some of Singapore's parks and gardens.

Marina Bay is where I would recommend you start if you are only in Singapore for a short time, as there's a bit of everything close by. See my post: Not just a marina: Marina Bay, Singapore.

The other areas that may appeal to those interested in a little history and/or architecture are located in two areas: the Colonial area and Chinatown.

Colonial area

City Hall and the Victoria Theatre were both scaffolded up when I was there, with renovations and signs indicating these would not be opened again until 2015. Close by, St Andrew's Cathedral is a safe retreat from all the building works and worth a quick look.

A great place to spend a couple of hours is the National Museum. I highly recommend the history gallery (S$10) which has an audio guide allowing you to experience history from a choice of perspectives.

Choose the traditional history version which takes you through the lives of famous figures such as Sir Stamford Raffles. Or there's the alternative of seeing life through the eyes of a number of the locals. Both of which you can dip in and out of, and both, if you have time, are worth experiencing fully. 

The museum's living galleries with free entrance have freezing cold air conditioning so are a great place to escape the heat and cool down.

The Art museum had free entrance when I was there, as most of the galleries were under renovation. Despite this I quite enjoyed the gallery with untitled work where visitors are encouraged to give the pieces on display, a title of their own. See more on their website: http://www.singaporeartmuseum.sg

Chinatown

If you do only one cultural thing during your visit, I highly recommend taking a trip to Chinatown.

At the Heritage Centre, entire sets of bedrooms, kitchens and street scenes from the late 19th century and early 20th century have been recreated to share a slice of Singapore's history.

Thian Hock Keng temple

The Thian Hock Keng, Hokkien temple, is an impressive 4 floors and a roof garden. There's an interesting museum on one floor sharing the life story of Buddha. Another floor houses a Buddha tooth relic, but unfortunately photos are prohibited. Usually I would say once you've seen one Chinese temple you have seen most of them, but this one is absolutely beautiful with the Buddha statues that adorn the walls and the gold tiles which are confined to the closed off relic shrine.

If you have more time to spend in Singapore, and want to get away from the city, there are some places you can go to experience a very different Singapore. Check out my recommendations in a previous post: Singapore's misfits.

Are you planning a trip to Singapore with kids, or animal lovers. Well, then the zoo is a must for you. See my post: This has to be the best zoo in the world.

Do you have other suggestions on what to do as a tourist whilst in Singapore? I still have a short list of things I didn't manage to find the time to do, so will return there sometime.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

2013 travels: day 197, Bangkok

Depending on how you look at it, the last week has been busy with nothing or quite a lot. Resting, catching up on blogs posts and taking in the limited sights of the island of Labuan, as well as the duty free red wine and chocolate, was a pleasant break from the national parks of Malaysian Borneo.



Phill has friends living on the island, so we were lucky to be able to enjoy some home comforts and some great company for a few days. As well as getting crafty for Halloween (see my craft site for more here), I took the opportunity to do a bit of cooking and baking.

Happy Halloween

On Tuesday this week, we headed on to Kota Kinabalu, back on the mainland, with the intention of finishing off the state of Sabah. However, it soon became evident that a month of Borneo had left us feeling a little jaded and some what unenthusiastic.

I think it was more a case of Malaysian life taking its toll. After about 3 and a half months (on and off) in Malaysia, we felt we needed a change of scenery. Singapore had given this, but being back again, despite it being very different to Western Malaysia, we both agreed it was time to leave.

At least this way, Sabah will get a fair turn, as I will go back one day.

***

The decision to head back to Chiang Mai, easily determined our next stop... and so we are now in Bangkok (Thailand), planning a northerly route through a few places that have been on my bucket list for sometime.

The first bite of Thai food was a welcoming taste that made me feel almost at home. The hustle and bustle of the streets of Bangkok and familiarity provided a comfort that was well over due.



I'm already changing my view of this city since my last visit (see previous post from my visit in May here). I never thought the holler of locals offering their "massage?" would leave me thinking - I could live here!

***

Of course there are things I will miss about Malaysia... and a few that I will not. I'll save my specific thoughts for a separate post, once the dust has settled...

Next stop is Ayutthaya.

In other news...

Singapore zoo and night safari has finally got a review from me: This has to be the best zoo in the World. If you've been there, I'd love to know what you think?