Nowadays traveling without a smartphone is rare. The abundance of useful travel apps has completely revolutionized modern travel. From currency converters to language translators, there's an iPhone app for that.

WhatsApp

  Price: Free

Backpackers have a tendency to collect SIM cards like bracelets as they wander from country to country. While this is great for staying connected, the biggest downside is that your number constantly changes. WhatsApp solves that by giving you one number that never changes, regardless of country. You can also share photos, videos, audio notes and even your current location, making it an invaluable tool when trying to meet people in a foreign country where addresses are not readily available -- or readable. Group chats make it easy to stay in touch with other travelers you meet as you each blaze your own trail through the country, meeting up again whenever -- and wherever -- your paths should cross.

Yelp

  Price: Free

One of the best things about traveling is trying new local restaurants and bars. Yelp has amassed over 70 million reviews, photos and information on businesses, stores and venues worldwide. Their innovative search features make finding exactly what you crave as easy as a couple of taps. Want to know where the nearest open bar is? How about the most popular restaurant with locals? Let Yelp help. But the best part? Their reviews are more honest and contain much more useful information (such as wifi passwords, dish reviews, and recommended employee names) than those found on TripAdvisor.

iTranslate Voice

  Price: $6.99

For less than the price of one of those antiquated pocket translation guide books -- which by the way only work in one country -- iTranslate Voice allows you to instantly speak in over 40 different languages from around the world. Over the last few years the app has consistently gotten better and better and recognizing words and providing accurate translations. It also acts as an electronic dictionary, allowing you to look up definitions for individual words or quick translations for simple phrases. Users can also save important or frequently used phrases to their phrasebook, allowing for quick access to key phrases that might be difficult to remember or tricky to pronounce. As soon as you begin traveling with this app, it becomes indispensible!

XE Currency

  Price: Free

Since long before their were even smart phones, I've used XE for all my currency conversions. Their app offers up all the information of their site in a streamlined, easy to navigate way. Check current conversion rates between any two currencies on the planet, even track back through the weeks, months or years to see how a particular currency has performed over time. But beyond all that, with XE Currency you'll never be screwed over by a tricky salesman, dishonest currency exchange shop or shady taxi driver again.

Postagram

  Price: Free (with in-app purchases)

Postagram is one of the coolest apps you've probably never even heard of. What it allows you to do is take any photo from your iPhone -- or Facebook, Dropbox and a variety of other sources -- and turn it into a glossy, professional-looking postcard. This postcard is printed out and can be mailed anywhere in the USA for only $0.99 and is delivered in as little as two business days. Need to mail it elsewhere in the world? That's only $1.99, although delivery can take a couple of weeks depending upon the destination. I have an iPhone 5C with T-Mobile's ultra-fast wireless and with Postagram I can take a selfie while hiking, add a quick message and send it off to friends back home in less than a minute.

Couchsurfing

  Price: Free

Couchsurfing began as a web site that revolutionized the way backpackers travel around the world by putting travelers in touch with locals in 120,000 cities around the world. Locals, many of whom are travelers themselves in between trips, open up their house to foreign guests. Both gain knowledge and information about the other's culture, plus the backpackers get insight and tips directly from a local -- and a free place to stay! Win-win.

What other iPhone travel apps can you not live without when backpacking?

Published in Travel Technology

Backpacking is certainly one of the most authentic ways to see the world. You get to soak up a myriad of experiences, meet new people, eat amazing food, learn different languages, and what’s more, it doesn’t cost you the earth!

If you’re reading this, chances are that you’re already drawn to backpacking. Perhaps you’re apprehensive about backpacking because you’ve never taken the road less traveled before. Indeed, backpacking isn’t all fun and games; there’ll be times when you’ll wonder why you even thought of this. But if you do it right, you’re sure to cherish the experience once you get back home!

Here are some don’ts you should read before you plan your budget backpacking trip:

Don't Do It on Your Own

You can't venture into the wilderness on your own if you've never gone backpacking before. If you have a friend or know someone who is an experienced backpacker, ask him or her if you can join them on their next trip. Knowledgeable company is not only good for your peace of mind but you'll also get to learn a lot if you travel with a seasoned backpacker.

Be sure to travel with a compatible partner; traveling with the wrong person can be a lot worse than traveling alone. Of course, you need to be a good travel companion yourself!

Don’t Test Your Limits

You're new to backpacking and if you don't want to be put off by the whole experience, don't push yourself too hard. Don't be too ambitious about how much ground you'll be able to cover on foot each day and don't imagine that staying away from home for a month will be fine.

If you're backpacking to a new country, a week or two abroad should be manageable, and if you're going to be in the wilderness following trails, take a two-day one-night trip. A shorter trip will also mean you’ll be spending less money!

Backpacking the Incan Trail in Peru
Backpacking the Incan Trail in Peru

Don’t Overfill Your Plate

Remember that quality surpasses quantity when it comes to experiencing the outdoors or other countries. So whilst you keep your trip short, also keep it sweet by planning your itinerary well.

A jam-packed itinerary will mean you’ll be running around trying to see and do as much as possible without really appreciating anything. Plan your itinerary such that you get to smell the roses along the way.

Don’t Over-Plan

Planning is good but over-planning things or following a plan to the T isn’t. You’re going on a trip to have some fun, so don’t shy away from making spontaneous plans.

If you’re on a trail and you find out about a precipice that offers a splendid view, go take in the natural beauty even if it means setting off in another direction. And if you have to postpone leaving a city by a couple of days so you can attend the grand annual fest, just do it!

Making changes to your plans might affect your finances. Simply be prepared for any changes right from the beginning so that you’re not short of cash for unexpected expenses.

Don’t Pick Just Any Destination

If you choose someplace far away, getting to the destination itself will tire you out. As a beginner, select a place that is closer to home so that you can get there easily. Also try to be close to home or civilization so that you don’t feel homesick during the trip.

Backpacking along the beach

Don't Splurge on Backpacking Gear

Firstly, you're on a budget so you can't afford to splurge on backpacking gear. Secondly, this is going to be your first backpacking trip and you don't know if you'll like the experience or not. It won't be wise to spend all your savings on backpacking gear if you may never undertake a backpacking trip again.

That doesn’t mean you buy cheap gear though; if the quality of the gear isn’t good, it might not even make it through your first trip!

The best thing you can do is rent instead of buy backpacking gear. Search for rental shops in your area and you'll get all you need for your backpacking trip without having to spend a fortune.

Don’t Pack Too Much

Your first backpacking trip can be overwhelming and you might want to pack all that you can possibly carry. Don’t give in to the temptation though; you’ll regret it in less than a week.

Realize that you won’t need four pairs of pants and ten shirts while backpacking. You can wear a single pair of pants for the whole trip but if you want some change, just an extra pair will suffice. Pack a minimal number of shirts but a fresh pair of socks and underwear for each day of the trip.

Do pack a formal outfit and a pair of formal shoes too; you never know when you might get invited to a wedding. And if you decide to spend on a lavish dinner, dressing up will make the experience much more enjoyable!

If you must carry lotions, creams, and other items, buy travel size packs or make a habit of snagging the free ones from every hotel you stay at ;)

Do remember to leave space for souvenirs!

Conclusion

Backpacking is a great way to travel on a budget. But it’s important to do it right if you want to have a glitch-free trip! Using the tips given here you’ll definitely be able to have the time of your life. Happy backpacking!

  flickr   //   fortherock   jasonpriem

Published in First Time Backpacking

Do I need warm clothes? Do I need to bring my hiking boots? Or is my toothbrush, tickets and passport enough? In only a few days before I'm off to Thailand. I'm excited, chaotic and nervous. Its my third or fourth time that I will be visiting Thailand but I'm still worried. Worried I'll forget something.

Now I have to pack my backpack and every time its a challenge. I always pack too much, but for the first time I’m going backpacking for a short time. Only two weeks, which means that I don’t need a lot and anything which I forget I can buy in Thailand.

This is my Thailand packing list:

    Basic Necessities
  • Passport
  • Photocopy passport
  • International drivers license (for renting a scooter)
  • ATM card
  • Credit card (just in case)
  • Student ID (for discounts when available)
  • Moneybelt (to keep everything in one place)
  • A small purse
    Clothing & Apparel
  • (1) long plants
  • (1) sweater
  • (1) long sleeve shirt
  • (2) T-shirts
  • (4) socks
  • (4) sets of underwear
  • (1) night shirt
  • (1) short and 1 skirt
  • (1) bikini
  • (1) harem pants
  • (2) tank tops
    Tech / Travel Gear
  • Iphone and charger
  • Photocamera and charger
  • SD-card for camera
  • Lonely planet Thailand
  • Book to read
  • Notebook and pen
    Accessories
  • Sunglasses
  • Walking shoes
  • Flip flops
  • Comb
  • Shampoo
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste
  • Deodorant
  • Basic make-up
  • Quick-dry towel
  • First aid kit
  • Sunscreen
  • Deet bugspray
  • Earplugs

Backpacking Thailand and my gear is ready to go!

Any Questions?

What else do you recommend for backpacking Thailand?

Published in Thailand

You Might Be, Depending On Your Answers To These Questions...

But no worries, even if you are addicted to traveling, there is plenty of help out there for you. No, I'm not talking about rehab. That wouldn't work anyway because the tricky thing about a travel addiction is the only cure is the very same thing that is causing the addiction: more traveling.

Yes my friends, there are many of us. Some pride themselves for being backpackers or expert budget travelers, others describe themselves as vagabonds, feel they are suffering from wanderlust or start off lured in by the thought of a simple gap year. Many are finally breaking free after having raised children, with or without their spouse, and still others are mere kids being raised in a nomadic family. Yes, travel is all-encompassing.

However you define yourself the point is you are not alone. And if you know what to look for it becomes very easy to spot the others out there like us.

You might be addicted to traveling if you can answer 'yes' to these statements.

For those keeping score they are worth one point each.

  Do you carry a passport instead of a driver's license?
  Do you frequently wake up and are initially uncertain of exactly what city you are in?
  Do you base everything off of GMT (UTC) just because you are uncertain of your current timezone?
  Does your current "home" have packed bags/luggage laying around, either from your previous/last trip or separate one(s) always ready for spontaneous departures? (Double points if you are a nomad and have no home.)
  Do you talk more to friends in various countries than your old friends from high school?
  Do you believe American "Cheese" has no right at all to be called a cheese?
  Have you ever had to have extra pages stapled to your passport or a new one issued because yours was "just too damn full of stamps"?
  Can you say "Cheers!" in more than five languages? More than ten?

  Do you know more about current foreign policies than what is going on in your own hometown?
  Do the majority of the emails, social media messages, texts and voicemails you receive from family and close friends start with "So where are you now?" or "Are you back in [INSERT COUNTRY HERE] yet?"
  Do you have more than ten travel-related apps on your smartphone?
  When you finally visit home, do people constantly call you outlaugh at you for talking slowly and gesturing with your hands excessively?
  Have foreign words for basic greetings and other simplicities made their way into your verbal vocabulary, even if no one around you knows 100% what you mean?
  Do you believe any sort of 'light' beer has no right being called a beer?
  Would you prefer drinking cow urine over Bud Light? (This question determines both who has visited India and who knows their beer)
  Do the vast majority of your FourSquare points come from "Distance Since Last Check-In: ???? Miles?"
  Have you ever just spontaneously just walked into an airport / bus depot / train station, purchased a ticket for that day, and gotten the hell outta Dodge?
  Do you feel more at home in a different bed every few nights than you do at your actual home?
  Are you proud to say that you no longer watch television because you are too busy living life?
  Do you find sports / entertainment news fleeting or irrelevant, and instead find yourself interested in travel-related or historical/cultural news?
  Can you describe the differences between McDonald's in different countries? (I trust you know this from observation and not participation.)
  Can you name more than 50 countries in under one minute?
  Can you name more than two dozen foreign capital cities in under one minute?
  Do you have any tattoos containing 'RTW' or any other travel-related words or symbols?

  Have you ever corrected and/or argued with a friend over something he saw on the news because you had been there firsthand?
  If you were to write down your grocery list right now, would it contain items that people back home would never have heard of?
  Does you mp3 player or music collection contain types of music from three or more different countries?
  Have you ever been harassed by transportation authorities or customs agents for excessive travel?
  Do you know what lambanog is?
  Do you have any collections of items you have purchased that transcend more than a half-dozen countries? Not counting music, more like shot glasses or wood carvings or unopened bottles of wine, those kind of things.
  Do you have to keep writing new bucket lists just because you keep doing everything on them? (Well then check out my new 2012 bucket list the ultimate Travel Blogger Bucket List TBBL.)
  When someone asks you what's new, do you start naming off countries and/or cities?
  Do you have a membership with MostTraveledPeople.com?
Finally, two bonus questions that are (again, for those keeping score) worth two points each:
  1) Are you in a foreign country right now?
  2) Do you have your passport on your persona or within arms reach?

 

Well, there you go, a grand total of 35 questions with a possibility of getting a top score of 40.

I ended up with 22...

Damn, apparently I'm not as addicted as I thought.

What questions would you add?

  Share your comments and/or scores below!

Published in Miscellany Articles

Traveling is expensive, that's no secret. From booking flights to hotels, cheap is never really a word we would use to describe traveling. When you can lighten the financial load, that's always a plus. I often find it helpful if I pack items that you might typically buy when you're traveling.

Most of these items will often cost you more if you buy them at the airport or once you've reached your destination. If you take a moment to check these items off your list before leaving then you will be saving yourself both time and money. (Two things we all need a little bit more of, no?)

Reading Material

Whether it's a book or a magazine make sure you've got it ready to go before your trip. If you're a Kindle person like me and consequently have Amazon Prime, you will find that they offer plenty of free books and discounted magazines. I always make sure I stock up my Kindle with plenty of light-reads for each trip. Magazines are another staple of mine but can be very costly at airports. Your best bet is to check your local bookstore or see if any of your friends have old issues they will lend you.

SNACKS

I had to capitalize this one, not only because I'm a foodie but because airport food costs a fortune! I like to hit up a local store and buy a box of protein bars, usually at a pretty discounted price. They pack easily and will fill you up for those in between waiting times. Trail mix is also another great snack to pack, it's even cheaper if you buy the nuts and dried fruit yourself and create small baggy's for them. You could easily spend $10 and more on airport snacks that aren't even that great.

Water Bottle (With Purifier)

Now we all know you can't bring liquids through airport security BUT if you wise up and purchase a water bottle with built-in purifier you can fill your bottle up at the water fountain after you've gone through security. A bottle of water cost at least $3 at the airport -- who feels like that?

Sunblock

Not traveling to some place tropical? Skip this one. However if you are on the verge of a tropical vacation bring your own sunblock. Vendors in tropical climates realize that many tourists will either not pack sunblock, or run out. That being said, its no surprise that they will jack up the prices on sunblock, because they know they can make money on it. (One of the best tricks I've used is to take a regular 6oz bottle of sunblock and squeeze it into two 3oz travel sized bottles. This is very clever if you don't want to check your luggage...you'll be able to save quite a bit of money this way.)

Headphones, Chargers, Accessories

These items you think would be a no-brainer but how many times have you seen people purchasing ear-buds and chargers from those Best Buy machines? Generic chargers and headphones can cost around $5-25 depending on where in the world you are, airport prices will charge at least double. And sure, you can buy some off the street if you happen to be backpacking through some Southeast Asian country, but those crappy fake products will only last a few days before they break. Trust me, repeatedly experience. (And always remember: you get what you pay for...unless you are buying it at the airport)

Other Recommended Items

  • Neck Pillow
  • Travel Blanket
  • Eye-Mask
  • Sleep Aids
  • Headache/Cold Pills

If you take the time to purchase a few of these before your travels you will be pleasantly surprised how less stressed you will be not only mentally but financially as well. Having a snack handy and a good book can go a long way. Happy travels!

Published in Miscellany Articles

Vietnam is slowly but surely emerging as the preferred Southeast Asian destination for backpackers all over the globe. And why not? With so much to offer in terms of exotic street food, long pristine beaches with clear waters, ethnic people and lifestyles, ancient cities and monuments with rich history, breathtaking trekking locations, gorgeous landscapes and a vibrant nightlife, it truly does have all the ingredients that go into making a perfect holiday destination!

Vietnam is increasingly finding favor among eager backpackers in South Asia as well. An increasing number of Indian backpackers head to Vietnam due to its proximity as well as for its budget-friendliness.

Saigon aka Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam

So my Indian friend, if you too are contemplating a backpacking trip in the near future, better put Vietnam on the top of your list. Get your hands on your passport, apply for a Vietnam visa, book your flight tickets and say chao to Vietnam!

Mentioned ahead are some tips for the first-time Indian backpacker making his way through this Asian wonder:

1. Know Your Destination

Before you head to a new location, it is better to equip yourself with pertinent information about it. Did you know Vietnam is officially known as Socialist Republic of Vietnam? Hanoi is the capital city and Ho Chi Minh City is the largest city in this country. The official language here is Vietnamese, and the currency is Dong.

The climate in Vietnam is hot and dry for most part of the year. Heavy rainfall is experienced between May and October, so you might want to avoid travelling in these months.

2. Take Important Documents Along

It is advisable to take along several photocopies of all important documents like your passport, the visa papers, the driver’s license, and so on. These documents should be kept in another bag, away from the originals as a backup (just in case you misplace your original papers). To be extra safe, scan these documents and upload them electronically to the cloud (or in your email) so that you can access them whenever required.

3. Get Vaccinated

It is a good idea to refer to reliable websites/travel guides on health precautions that you need to take before leaving for Vietnam. Depending on the places you plan to visit, figure out what vaccinations you need to go for.

In many countries, a cholera vaccination certificate needs to be produced as a condition of entry. Keep the vaccination certificates along with your travel documents so that you can show them at the airport if necessary. Also, do take along other medical supplies, mosquito repellants and sunblock lotions.

4. Money and Currency

Try and carry along some local currency and spend that wherever possible. Do give travel money cards a thought as it is not advisable to carry a lot of cash. Watch out for the special “tourist rates” that the locals might try to charge you. To minimize your chances of getting ripped off, research the going rates of staples such as food and drinks, transport and accommodation.

Vietnamese Dong

5. Accommodation and Transport

The post-war Vietnam has rapidly evolved into a traveler’s heaven, thanks to the development of its tourism industry. You can expect to find all kinds of hotels in major cities. Whether it is a budget lodging facility or a luxurious 5-star hotel you’re looking for, finding one shouldn’t be a problem. Make sure you book your hotel in advance if you’re going to travel in the high season.

Use public transport wherever possible. Buses are available too, but they may not be as comfortable as you would want them to be. You could opt for VIP buses though. Travelers also have the option of riding on/renting scooters. Tuk-tuks are one of the most popular means of commuting as they’re easily available. Apart from these, you can also use trains and planes.

6. Places of Interest

Take your time to explore the beauty of Vietnam. Do visit Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi for their gleaming skyscrapers, the caves of the Halong Bay for their exquisite splendor, Hoi An for its architecture and food, Dalat for its tranquility, Mui Ne for its stunning natural landscape, Nha Trang for its panoramic coastline, and Ha Giang to experience a different world altogether. Get there and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Halong Bay in Vietnam
See More: Halong Bay Photo Gallery

7. Travel Light

Make sure your backpack does not weigh more than what you can carry. Keep it light by taking along only what is necessary. Keeping the Vietnamese weather in mind, it is better to carry lightweight and washable cotton garments, as you can stay cool and comfortable in them. Although you might want to look stunning in your photographs, remember, you’re going backpacking and not on a fashion parade. This reminds me – don’t forget to pack your camera!

8. Try the Local Cuisine

One of the best ways of experiencing a new place is through its authentic and exotic culinary delights. Vietnamese cuisine is colorful, aromatic, delicious, with some flavors similar to those back home in India. So do give the local cuisine a try. You don’t have to be over-adventurous with food though. Stick to what you’re comfortable with. There are ample options available for vegetarians too.

9. Always Confirm the Rates

Always ask for the price before you buy something to wear, eat on the street side, or get into a tuk-tuk (or the local auto rickshaw). Confirming rates beforehand will deter locals from taking you for a ride and ripping you off. We’ve all heard stories about foreigners being charged substantially more than others for everything. In such cases, forewarned is forearmed.

Hear it from both sides: Why Most Tourists Never Return To Vietnam

10. Be Careful with Your Drinks

To be on the safer side, avoid unpackaged water and drink only bottled and filtered water. Do give the local beers a try. Another interesting (and daring) option to be sampled here is the Vietnamese snake wine.

Conclusion   Each city in Vietnam has different experiences to offer. Make sure you lap those up. Keep the above tips in mind for a fun and safe backpacking journey in one of the most wondrous countries in the world.

See More       Vietnam HoliDaze Travel Guides

  flickr   //   xiquinho   jmparrone

Published in Vietnam

Thanks to movies like Hostel, I think using hostels when traveling has gotten a bad rep. I can't tell you how many times I have people reference that movie to me when I say that yes, I only stay in hostels while traveling abroad. I personally love staying in hostels! No matter how old I get I will probably never stop using hostels while I travel. I've said it time and again, I'm cheap. I can't stand spending money if I don't have to, which is another reason hostels are a great alternative to pricey hotels when traveling!

Edu Hostel Jogja, the fanciest and cheapest hostel in all of Yogyakarta, Indonesia
This magnificent hostel in Indonesia has a staff of 55 (including two professional chefs) yet costs only $6 USD a night!   See More Photos

Hostels are not only a great way to save money but a fantastic way to meet other travelers. I'm a social butterfly of sorts so any time I get to meet new people, I get a little too excited!

Here's What To Expect When Staying In Hostels

Bunk beds... lots and lots of bunk beds! Unless you're staying in private rooms -- which defeats the f'ing purpose of a hostel -- you can expect huge, well sometimes, rooms packed with bunks. I don't pay extra to stay in private rooms, unless I need the privacy for a night or two, so I mostly stay in the larger dorm rooms since those are always the cheapest ones.

Back Home Hostel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, has the biggest bunk beds I've ever seen at any hostel in the world
Back Home Hostel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, one of my favorites!   See More Photos

I've staying in some massive dorms where I felt as if I was the only one in the room, I had tons of space, it wasn't cramped, and there was more than enough room to store all my stuff. Sometime, dorms are smaller but still packed with bunks. This room I stayed in while I was in Rome was one of the smaller dorms where we didn't have a whole lot of room to put our stuff away.

You can expect to meet some stellar travelers just like you! Being someone who is obsessed with traveling, I thoroughly enjoy meeting people from all over the world. I'm always amazed when staying in hostels how I can meet people from every corner of the world but still manage to meet people close to home! At this same hostel in Rome, I met another Gamma Phi from Missouri. It was so cool to meet a fellow sister halfway around the world! I've met people that I'm Facebook friends with and keep in contact with.

First time backpacking? Be prepared to make lots of new friends!
Be prepared to make lots of new friends from around the world

Expect to meet some really awesome staff members that can give you lots of great inside tips for the city that you're in! While I love hitting all the big tourist sights, I also enjoy getting to know the local side of a city! Now, sometimes you may come across a staff member who isn't all that friendly, or one who gives you terrible advice... But 99% of my encounters with hostel staff members have always been positive!

One of my favorite parts of hosteling is the exchange of cultures and experiences you get! When we were in Rome, we finally decided to utilize the kitchen since we were sick of eating out. We went to the grocery store up the street from out hostel and went back to make our dinner. There were a few other people in there making their dinners as well. Once we were all done making it, we went to the dining room to eat, we all decided to share what we had made. One guy was from Slovenia and one was from some other area of Italy. We not only met some really cool people, had fun cooking "together", but then also got to taste some food of theirs from their local areas! You don't get experiences like that staying in hotels!

My first time abroad staying in hostels, I wasn't expecting much. I was thinking I'd get a lumpy bed in a crowded room, and would use it only to sleep and shower. What I got was new friends, really comfortable beds (for the most part), and a great environment to hang out and relax after a long day of sightseeing!

  The best resource for researching and booking your hostels is TripAdvisor. They have millions of reviews from people just like you and I covering literally every hostel in the world, as well as a price comparison tool to instantly find you the lowest price online.

TripAdvisor

Published in First Time Backpacking

I have never understood how anyone can like January. The sad, sinking feeling caused by limp, leftover tinsel hanging in shops, braving the dreary weather without any promise of a mulled wine stop, realising that everyone you know has vowed to lose weight, save money or quit drinking- it is a real slog of a 31 day month.  For me, the January Blues are hitting particularly hard this year (can you tell?) Having spent Christmas on holiday in India, flying back to reality on New Years Day has left me longing for backpacking adventures again. So, before I get a grip, look forward and make plans for 2014, here are my top 10 beautiful places in Asia, home to my happiest past travel memories.

10.   Tiger Leaping Gorge, China

tlg

 

By far and away the best thing I did whilst traveling around China, The Tiger Leaping Gorge hike in northern Yunnan is, in my opinion, still massively underrated. The Hutiao Xia gorge, at 16km long and 3900m from the Jinsha River to the snow capped Haba Shan, is simply breathtaking.  During summer the hills are absolutely teeming with plant and flower life and an even pace allows you to unwind in the picturesque villages along the way. The trail stretches between sleepy Qiaotou and even sleepier Walnut Garden and runs high along the northern side of the impressive gorge, passing through some of the most diverse and beautiful landscapes in the country.

Jane’s Guesthouse in Qiaotou is the perfect place to prepare or recover from the trek. The food is homemade and hearty, the coffee is strong and the rooms are cosy with clear views of the snow-capped peaks. At the other end, Sean’s Spring Guesthouse is worth every footstep of the extra walk into Walnut Garden. Keep following the painted yellow arrows- you will not regret it! We finished our trek with warm Tibetan bread, celebratory beers and an open fire in Sean’s homey lounge.

The hike can be completed in a day or two, but it is equally tempting to linger and enjoy countryside life for longer. After all, how often do you get to watch the sun set over Jade Dragon Snow Mountain while supping Chinese tea and resting your tired feet?

9.    Gili Islands, Indonesia

gili

 

There is a lot to be said for an island with no motorized traffic. Being able to stroll around the parameters, barefoot and still sandy from the beach, having left your friends snoozing on one of the shoreline sofa beds, is reason enough to make the trip across the water from Padang bai. Though they are certainly not undiscovered, the three irresistible Gili islands offer a quiet and serenity that the rest of Bali simply does not.

Made up of beachfront bungalows, white sands and warm waters, Gili Trawangan is the isle with the most going on. Like many of the Indonesian hotspots, it ticks all the boxes for a desert island cliché and also boasts an exciting nightlife for those living-the-dream on the South east Asia trail. Designated party venues mean you can choose between a night at one of the low-key raves or whiling away the hours at a beachfront restaurant. Highlights for me were the Nutella milkshakes, having our very own DVD night in a private beach hut, dancing under the stars at Rudy’s Bar and night swimming with phosphorescence- luminous plankton.

You can reach the tiny tropical islands by fast boat from Bali and mainland Lombok or (painfully) slow ferry from Padang bai and Senggigi.  Prepare to wade ashore.

 8.     Malapascua Island, The Philippines

Malapascua Island

 

This little island off the northern tip of Cebu is sun-bleached and fabulous. Simple villages, bustling basketball courts and local fiestas play a huge part in making this tiny speck of The Philippines a traveler’s paradise. Though it is slowly becoming more and more popular, Malapascua remains off the beaten track and humble in its approach to tourism. Home to welcoming locals and some dive school expatriates, the island community is peaceful and charming with a real sense of having left the western world behind.

The diving here is also world class. With three wreck dives, a sea-snake breeding centre and daily thresher shark sightings, Malapascua is one of the best places in The Philippines for big fish encounters. Night diving is popular, with mandarin fish, seahorses, bobtail squid and blue ring octopus making regular appearances. And if marine life isn’t your thing, the delicious local food, mesmerizing sunsets and picture-perfect Bounty beach make for a blissful dry land experience.

Sunsplash Restaurant operates a beach bar during high season and is the perfect place to wait for the sunset. For the very best views and an extra slice of quietude, stay at Logon or Tepanee.

7.     Mui Ne, Vietnam

mui ne

 

For someone with a notoriously terrible sense of direction, the surf capital of southern Vietnam offers a welcome sense of order. With everything spread out along one 10km stretch of highway, it is impossible to get lost and easy to find friends. In fact, with guesthouses lined up on one side of the road and restaurants and shops flanking the other it couldn’t be any easier to negotiate your way around the coastal town.

Once an isolated stretch of sand, Mui Ne is now famous for its unrivalled surfing opportunities and laid back vibes. For windsurfers, the gales blow best from late October to April while surf’s up from August to December. Luckily for me, lounging around on the beach is possible all year through. For the very best Kodak moments, the red and white sand dunes provide endless hours of sledding fun and jump-as-high-as-you-can competitions with the local children. A beautiful walk along the Fairy Spring will also take you past some stunning rock formations. While it feels as though you should be wading upstream barefoot, be sure to take shoes if you are going during the midday sun.

When night falls, resident DJs, beach bonfires and live bands draw the surfer crowds to DJ StationWax and Joe’s 24 hour Café, where happy hour can and usually does last til sunrise.

6.    Unawatuna, Sri Lanka

unawatuna

 

Unawatuna Beach in Sri Lanka is what I hope heaven looks like. Deliciously lazy, exceedingly tropical and just so very, very beautiful, this sandy gem is the kind of place everyone dreams about. Life moves slowly here. Sleeping under a swaying coconut palm is about the only thing on the itinerary for most.

Following the devastating effects of the tsunami in 2004, locals of Unawatuna set about re-building their businesses right on the sand. While this does mean that the beach is much smaller than it used to be, honey-mooners and hippies alike flock to this boomerang shaped bend to soak up the Sri Lankan sunshine. And it really doesn’t get much better than this. The sea is gentle, turquoise and perfect for swimming and banana lassis are brought to your very sunbed. Colourful tropical fish swim in the live patch of coral in front of Submarine Diving School and you can rent snorkel masks from any of the places on the beach. I discovered a whole new meaning of lazy in Unawatuna but, if you want to leave utter beach paradise, it is a great base from which to explore the surrounding areas.

(This one does come with a warning. A cockroach warning. It is not enough to get Unawatuna booted off the list, but please note that multiple hard-shelled creepies do feature in my memories of this otherwise utterly perfect corner of the resplendent isle. Having said that, I did choose to stay somewhat off the beaten track at Mr.Rickshaw’s brother’s cousin’s place. It is very likely that the crayon-box cute guesthouses on the beach are roach free.)

5.    Yangshuo, China

yangshuo

 

For the perfect blend of bustling Chinese culture, enchanted landscapes and sleepy relaxation, look no further than this sedate and peaceful ancient city. Worlds apart from the mayhem of congested Guilin, Yangshuo lies in the mist of karst limestone peaks and the gentle Li-river. Cycling through the villages will take you past duckmen, fishermen, water buffalo and clementine farms, as well as over silky brooks, ancient caves and sights like Moon Hill and the Big Banyan Tree. And when you’re done with the countryside, get lost amongst the painted fans and embroidered costumes of Yangshuo Town and its cheery market place.

I stayed at beautiful Dutch guesthouse, The Giggling Tree in Aishanmen Village. Bamboo rafting was on our doorstep and they arranged transport to the Lakeside lightshow, ‘Impression Sanjie Liu’. Cycling into town for street side specialties, souvenir shopping and live folk music was easy enough, although the starlit ride back after a few Tsing Tao’s was a little shaky!

4.     Luang Prabang, Laos

laos3

 

You can’t help but smile when you are in Laos. The people here are possibly the most laid back people on earth. Even after two long, long days of doing nothing on the slow ferry, arriving into the languid mountain kingdom of Luang Prabang makes you want to s-l-o-w d-o-w-n. Tourists meander down the French colonial streets to the flow of the Mekong River and saffron robed monks seem to almost glide up and down the shaded sideways on their way to prayer.

Voted one of the best places in the world for ‘slow travel’ by Lonely Planet, this hushed and heady city offers everything from red roofed temples to quaint provincial coffee houses, the moonstone blue Kuang Sii waterfalls and exquisite night markets. You can watch the sun setting over the river, hear the monks chanting their oms in the distance and enjoy delicious local dishes with a cold Beer Lao. With a curfew bidding this heritage listed town goodnight at 11.30pm, catching up on your sleep has never been so enjoyable, especially if you are recovering from tubing in Vang Vieng. (For a much less sleepy evening, ask a tuk-tuk driver to take you to the local bowling alley. Trust me on this one.)

3.    Mira Beach, Perhentian Pulau Kecil, Malaysia

mira beach

 

When I discovered that Beach Tomato had included Mira Beach as one of its ‘world’s most beautiful beaches’ I physically stood up and clapped. I almost don’t want to say it aloud for fear of contributing to this unspoilt patch of paradise becoming, well, spoiled, but I couldn’t agree more. Set back on the western side of tiny Kecil island, Mira Beach is its very own secluded cove. Surrounded by forest-green jungle, lapped by bathtub warm sea and drenched in Malaysian sunshine, the white bay can be reached by taxi-boat or Tarzan inspired trek only. Steer clear if you’re looking for plush resort or summer luxury though, the stilted chalets are as basic as they come. Managed by a local Malay family, the collection of rustic huts are kept clean and framed by frangipanis for ultimate postcard perfection. We left by water-taxi, tanned and having swum with turtles. Heaven.

2.      Pokhara Valley, Nepal

pokhara

 

Whether you are in Nepal for trekking the Himalayas, volunteering with an NGO or spotting the rhinos and elephants, a visit is not complete without catching a glimpse of (or a good long gaze at) Lake Phewa in Pokhara. Popular for being the gateway to the AnnaPurna trekking circuit, the valley has been blessed with panoramic views of this breathtaking region. Waking up to crystal clear views of snowy Mt. Fishtail, boating on Phewa’s placid waters and hiking to the sunkissed World Peace Pagoda could not have made me any happier. Throw in the cups of masala chai at Asian Teahouse, the surrounding Tibetan villages and the unimaginable hospitality of the local people and I was about ready to miss my return flight home.

Guesthouses are homely, food is hearty and the scenery really is spectacular. Pokhara is so much more than just a place to rest your feet after a hike. A month here saw us paragliding from Sarangkot, exploring the Old Bazaar, playing guitar in an underground Blues bar and falling in love with the children of the Himalayan Children’s Care Home. Don’t miss out on the Nepali specials at Asian TeaHouse and Pandey Restaurant. For me, the smaller the café, the better the food. Venture away from those Lakeside favourites!

((Drum Roll please...))

1.     Varkala, India

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If Varkala were a fairytale, it would be the one that made you believe in love, trust in the happy ending and doodle hearts and flowers in your notebook.

Nestled in the evergreen state of beautiful Kerala, this seaside town offers sunlit red ochre cliffs, coconut palm fringed beaches and peacock blue waves. The liquid lulls of local Malayalam, coconut spiced South Indian curries and breathtaking views of the ocean make it the perfect haven from the hustle and bustle of India’s cities. After ten days here, I wondered how I’d ever been happy anywhere else in the world.

From the singing mango-seller on the sand ‘yum, yum, yum, yum, eating eating’, to the cheeky waiters at the cafes, the locals on the cliff have got it exactly right. You could while away days, weeks and months watching the lives and loves of fishermen, frisbee-playing locals, moonlit yoga classes, Hindu temple men and strolling backpackers. Guesthouses are secret gardens and bamboo huts, restaurants are candle lit and family run and the Tibetan market wafts incense until after dark. Yet, far from being just a serene stopover, Varkala boats a ‘Shanti Shanti’ soul and cheeky community spirit that binds even the quietest visitor under its spell. By night, lanterns twinkle, candles flicker and stars burn bright over the backpacker favourites. I never knew beer could taste as good as it does here; poured from a discrete tea-pot, served with a glinting smile and supped to the blissful sounds of ocean, music and laughter.

If you tire of strolling, swimming, sunbathing or smoothie-drinking easily, the charming Varkala Town is just a 5 minute scooter ride or leisurely walk away. Surfing lessons, yoga classes and cooking workshops are all available atop the rosy cliff too. For dolphin watching, walk past the quieter Black Beach to the hamlet of Edava and watch from the cliff curve.

My heartfelt recommendations for Varkala are breakfast at The Juice Shack, hammock swinging at Secret Garden Homestay and Restaurant and cold Kingfishers at Backside Café. If you’re lucky enough to be there when the Alleppy Boys are playing, get down to Chill Out Lounge for a jamming session with the gorgeous and very talented local band.

There are daily trains and buses to Trivandrum, and a backwater boat to Alleppy leaves from neighboring Kollam.

Hammocks at Secret Garden Homestayhammocks at Secret Garden Homestay
Varkala CliffVarkala Cliff
Indiasea view from Juice Shack balcony
New Year's Eve at Secret GardenNew Year's Eve at Secret Garden

Happy Traveling in 2014!

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