Visiting Bangkok at any time of year is a great choice. Visitors from around the world will enjoy the fascinating culture, incredible attractions and friendly residents regardless. However, planning a trip to Bangkok during the annual Songkran Festival is one of the best possible decisions you could make. Songkran Festival is the traditional New Year celebration in Thailand, and being in Bangkok during this time is a way to get an inside look at the incredible culture and traditions in this country. Whether you are interested in the spiritual and religious aspects of the holiday or you just can't wait for the exciting nightlife that accompanies the festival, you won't be disappointed.

Here is a visitor's guide to enjoying Songkran Festival

What is Songkran Festival?

Songkran Festival is an annual celebration that takes place during the beginning of April. It signifies the beginning of the Thai New Year, and it is usually at the hottest time of year. Since the festival is during the dry season and warm weather is typical, water is used as a way to cool off. For this reason, Songkran Festival is often called the festival of water. Water is traditionally blessed by being poured over statues of Buddha, and then the blessed water is used to pay respect to older family members. Songkran Festival is usually only officially a two or three day event, but locals typically have the entire week off from work and school. It has transformed in recent years into a time of celebration, family gatherings and fun.

Where Can I See Traditional Celebrations?

If you are most interested in the spiritual and historical roots of this incredible festival, be sure to visit Sanam Luang. This large field is located just next to the Grand Palace, and it serves as a gathering place during the day for locals who want to celebrate the festival in a traditional way. It is here that the impressive Phra Phuttha Sihing image is put on display, and there are long lines for people to bathe the image in water and then collect the now holy water for themselves. Many of the temples in Bangkok, such as Wat Arun and Wat Pho, are also busy during the Songkran Festival.

What Parts of Bangkok are Ideal for Celebrating?

Along with the more spiritual sides of the Songkran Festival are plenty of fun ways to celebrate this exciting time. Saranrom Park is typically busy with revelers of all ages, but don't expect to stay dry. Locals delight in getting tourists wet, and they carry around water balloons, buckets of fragrant water and even water pistols to shock friends and strangers alike. In Wisut Kasat, there is a big pageant each year in order to pick the woman who will be Miss Songkran for the year. Travelers and expatriates are often found along Khao San Road, where plenty of alcohol and a fun atmosphere leads to water fights right in the middle of the street.

Are There Any Tips for Travelers During This Time?

Songkran Festival can be an exciting time in Bangkok, but there are a few things you should be aware of. Remember that for many people, this is a religious event. Enjoy the fun, but keep in mind that not all residents will appreciate being blasted by a hose. Of course, prepare to get wet yourself. Store your money or important items in a plastic zippered bag to stay dry. Don't take a taxi during this festival, as traffic will be terrible and rates are often much higher than normal.

Have an incredible time during Songkran!

  Written by Ross who writes at Netflights who sells cheap flights to Bangkok

Published in Thailand

About two weeks ago I went to Bukoba for a funeral, it was my second time in the town and I was as mesmerized as I was the first time; and a week after I was back home, I recommended Bukoba to a fellow traveller who had an extensive itinerary of planned tours around Tanzania which includes going to a water fall in Kigoma. The town is relatively small and less developed than my favourite Arusha town. But it's natural beauty; the preserved nature takes my breath away and brings a calmness to a tired wandering soul; there is something about connecting with nature that has a profound effect on our well being. Here is where you can almost imagine the beginning of creation- okay, may be am throwing in a little embellishments:-)

Bukoba Shore, Tanzania

Bukoba is the capital of Kageara region and is several kilometers from Dar-es-salam, it's practically going across the country; by bus it would take over 18 hrs with a sleep over at Shinyanga. It is a hassle that I would think no one who has come to Tanzania through Dar-es-salam with the goal of visiting the national parks or go to the beaches of Zanzibar would want to take. But, when Petro told me that he would be going to Mwanza and then to a nearby island called Ukerewe; I found myself suggesting Bukoba as a place he should be thinking of visiting; it has the beauty of Mwanza but it is more reserved. It would take him a whole night journey by ferry and over 12 hours by bus but a little over 45 minutes by plane.All these travel options are available daily.I must mention that since most of it's population speaks the native language, it can be a little nerve wrecking when traveling with the 'dala-dala'; even though i'm familiar with the language, I found myself in at most discomfort when I rode a bus in which everyone was speaking Kihaya except for me, from town to the village I was staying in; an elderly woman kept muttering things to me and I could only stare back with what I would imagine to be a blank expression.

Why do I want to convince you to take this cumbersome journey?

Here are 10 reasons why:

1. Lake Victoria is a wonder   It's the second widest fresh water body in the world. You can have all the water fun you would have at the shores of the Indian ocean in Zanzibar without the salt, the dangerous jelly fish, the crabs (I know they scare the hell out of my sister); the crowd and the pollution of larger cities. And enjoy watching the birds swooping into the lake for a meal or busy on the shore.

Birdwatching in Bukoba, Tanzania

>2. Many inhabited isles/islands   on the lake that you can reach by flight or motorized boat (if you feel a little more adventurous, why not try the man powered boats). Close to Bukoba is the highly recommended Rubondo island which is also a national reserve. The national park has a number of indigenous mammal species - hippo, vervet monkey, genet and mongoose - which share their protected habitat with introduced species such as chimpanzee, black-and-white colobus, elephant and giraffe, all of which benefit from Rubondo’s inaccessibility. Rubondo also protects precious fish breeding grounds. It's natural botanical gardens has wild jasmine, 40 different orchids and a smorgasbord of sweet, indefinable smells emanate from the forest.

Musila close

3. Explore the forests   There a number of natural forests in Kagera region, Burigi,Biharamulo, Ibanda which all have been declared reserves. They are home to elephants, hippos, reedbuck, steinbuck, zebra, sable, roan antelope, sitatunga, topi and colubus monkeys. A number of smaller forests are within Bukoba town and now many man-made forests of tall pines. I was delighted to smell the intoxicating eucalyptus when I hiked back home that I had to stop and savour the air.

Forests at Maruku, Tanzania

4. Conquer the rocks   Bukoba is a rocky highland, as you descend from the sky by flight you can appreciate some of the cliffs. I'm not a rock climber but if you are you could challenge youself to a climb or explore ancient rocks paintings in Nyangoma (which is the name for the first of female twins by the way) close to Nyakijoga. There are hundreds of these paintings in caves overlooking a very attractive valley.

5. Get into the caves, watch the waterfalls and follow the rivers.   Some tour operators offer trips to Kyamunene River Waterfalls and near-by caves and share tales of the use of the cave by warriors in the ancient tribal wars & by more recently by soldiers in the Idd Amin war. I experience a part of Kyamunene river on my trip, the sound of it's water rushing over the rocks made me want to follow it down; it's like a relaxing zen.

Kyamunene Eiver, Tanzania

6. Experience a new culture   The bahaya are the natives of Bukoba, and even though they have embraced change though christian civilizationa and now the global civilization; they still hold their language and culture close at heart. On my trip to Bukoba for a funeral I learnt quite some; funeral rites and traditions and was lucky to witness the swearing of a new Mulangila (chief of the clan). If you are out to experience a new culture, the Bahaya are generous people, welcoming and full of laughter. Guests are welcomed with a traditional banana brew and sun dried coffee beans which also feature in a number of traditional gatherings. If you are in a dance mood, you can enjoy “Ngoma”; traditional dances in a variety of styles including Omutoro, Amayaga, Mulekule, Amakondele, Akasimbo.

child eating banana

7. Embrace a unique culinary experience   In Bukoba, 'Senene' or locusts deep fried or smoked are a popular snack, for some it will be like a real life fear factor; can you dare your senses? The main staple is boiled green banana with beans or groundnuts; my favourite dish in the whole world. My mum would treat us to her traditional meal every now and then; I remember hearing her sing in her vernacular all day long and we knew she was in a good mood that day.

senene

8. Go fishing   How about catching your own meal? Dotted along the shores of Lake Victoria are numerous fishing villages. Most of the fishermen are local and thus they use traditional technology -- wooden boats and nets. The most famous villages near Bukoba Town are Igabiro fishing village in Bugabo, Musila Island, Kifungwi and Nyamukazi. On this occasion I went to Musila village, a small island just off shore a few meters from the airport. It consists mostly of temporary fishermen settlers. You can negotiate a deal with the local fishermen and they would gladly take you on board. Maybe you can even bring home a tilapia or Nile perch.

9. Experience all star hotels to fit your budget   Bukoba isn't as developed as the big cities in Tanzania but it hosts luxurious hotels with international cuisines. You can cool off and relax as you watch the sun go by. I was fortunate to see quite a few such as the Walkgard, Walkgard annex, Bukoba Kolping... The best thing is that google maps and places works! You can easily find your way around the town to hotels of your liking, I found New Coffee Tree Hotel where I had my favorite Green bananas in a modern taste with Tilapia for lunch. They have a full buffet at less than 15,000 ;-)
  Check out what travelers on TripAdvisor say about some of the accommodations.

new coffee tree hotel

Walkgard annnex

10. When you plan for it, you can get there in comfort   All you have to do is makeup your mind and go off for the experience. There are flights from Nairobi to Bukoba via Mwanza if you are traveling from Europe. Daily flights from Mwanza-Bukoba by Auric Air at a prize of 135,000 Tshs one way; round trip from Kilimanjaro-Bukoba or Dar-es-salam-Bukoba with Precision Air. Or if you are already in Tanzania, a tourist or a resident/citizen on a long holiday why not take a bus ride and enjoy the pleasures of travelling on the road; the dust, the bumps and all.

auric

Even though the costs of accommodation and food are almost comparable to the budget places I have been to, due to the costs of traveling there, Bukoba falls off my favorite category of budget travels. So why would I suggest Bukoba and Kagera at large as a destination worth exploring? Because in Bukoba you can satisfy your thirst for wildlife, lazying on the beach, exploring a new culture and whatever else your imagination holds.

Published in Tanzania

My trip to Pangani was 2 years overdue, coincidentally I got a number of a tour guide at a convenient moment. Pangani is about 45-50 kilometers south of Tanga town and is home to Digo, Shirazi, Bondei. Walking around town there are plenty of buildings that even though are reduced to ruins profess to the arab and German influence.

Panganidhow

It is about 4 hours to Zanzibar by boat and therefore there is good movement between the two cities.The main economic activities in Pangani are fishing and coconut farming.The beach of Pangani has nice shade of torquise, has a number of marine attractions, beautiful shells by the shore and clean soft white sand. Besides the beach, Pangani is blessed with a river of the same name, it is a major river of northeastern Tanzania. It has two main sources: the Ruvu, which rises as Lumi at Kilimanjaro, passes through Lake Jipe, and empties into the Nyumba ya Mungu reservoir and Kikuletwa that also enters into the Nyumba ya Mungu Reservoir. Just after leaving the Reservoir the stream becomes the Pangani that empties into the Indian ocean at the town. For much of its length the river flows along the regional borders of Kilimanjaro region and Manyara region, before flowing into Tanga region, which contains the 68MW Pangani Power Station and the Pangani falls dam. There are several inhabited islands within the river. The river is full of crocodiles; hippopotami are scarcer in its lower parts.

I wanted to go for a fishing trip and after checking out the itinerary from Tanzania Cultural Tourism Programme, I headed to Pangani from Arusha with a $50 USD budget -- which would be equivalent to about 78,000 Tshs.

Getting there:

It cost me 13,500 Tsh from Arusha to Tanga and a further 2000 from Tanga to Pangani. There is no straight bus from Arusha or Dar es Salaam, you have to pass by Tanga and make a connection. It's a little over an hour from Tanga to Pangani on a dala-dala. I left Arusha at 7am and arrived in Pangani about 6pm, having spent the whole day on the road.

The road to Pangani was dusty but I enjoyed the view and the conversation among the travelers in the mini-bus with me. Most of all, I love the accent, I regard the Tangan accent as the best Swahili accent in the country (don't hate me).

Where to sleep:

Down Pangani road there are quite a number of sign posts advertising different lodges. The accommodation options in Pangani are countless, from budget tents for rent at about $2 USD/day on a camping ground that cost $5 USD/night to average simple accommodation between 10-20,000 Tshs and luxury lodges at over $100 USD a night. I chose to sleep at YMCA at 20,000 Tshs/night because it’s familiar (there is a YMCA hostel in Moshi) and being a faith based organization I felt it was a safe option for a single female traveler late in the evening. I was not disappointed.

The hostel is in a quiet place just a few meters from 'Idara ya maji' stop and has a view of the beach- you can actually go down the slope to meet the sand and waves. It currently offers only five rooms that can accommodate two people at a time and the rest of the compound is under renovation. The rooms are simple, clean, spacious and well lit. They offer clean linen including blankets. It was well worth my money.

YMCA

If you prefer the great outdoors most of the hotels and hostels have camping grounds. I particularly liked the one owned by the nuns of Pangani. They have their game right, their facility is fenced has showers and toilets, outside showers where you can wash off after a swim, hammocks, thatched huts that keep off the heat but not the breeze and a restaurant.

Things you can do in Pangani:

With a good tour guide, the list of activities is overwhelming. From walks and bike rides on dry land to swimming, snorkeling, paddy diving, fishing and a boat ride on the Pangani river and Indian ocean.

You can even have camp by the beach, light a campfire and enjoy a fish grill from the catch of the day. I love tour guides because they have not failed me to date even with a short available time they always find an activity that leaves my heart content and their social skills have helped me talk to people I would have otherwise had no courage to, I have learnt quite a number of things such as it costs about 10 million Tshs to make the traditional dhow. Even though I intended to go for a fishing trip I opted for a bike tour around Pangani town with Rasta Ally because I was running short of time and the fishing tour is best done with a large group to lower the cost of hiring the boat which is at $75 USD flat rate. I learnt a little history, met interesting people, was disappointed that the council was letting the historical buildings fall to ruin and got tips on how to travel on budget from a fellow traveler who had quit his job to travel. My tour guide, Ally even saw me off at the bus station when I started my trip back home.

tourbikes

After all the travelling hassle and having just 3 hours to enjoy a guided tour my trip was well worth it. I saw some monkeys and a rainbow after a long time. Even though most tourists pass by Pangani town to Zanzibar and Saadani national park, this is a destination that is worth exploring and well worth your while.

I spent 81,000 Tshs which was about 3,500Ths above my planned budget and learnt the following travelling tips from a Portuguese traveler named Petro:

  1. Always talk to the locals they know all the best deals.
  2. Eat where majority of the locals eat, you'll save some money.
  3. Just because someone suggests something you don’t have to buy it or pay for it, it's your money so you don't have to pay for anything that you feel is above your budget.

Next time you are planning a trip, think of Pangani.

coconut harvesting

  Featured photo by Christiane Birr via Flickr.

Published in Tanzania

I am not someone who is on a quest to visit every country in the world, ticking them off a travel ‘to do’ list. I’m someone who is on a quest to explore as much of the world as I can, learn about and appreciate diverse cultures and meet and interact with different people. But as a result, I do inevitably end up covering quite a bit of ground.

As I start to think about my ‘next big trip’ and ponder possibilities, I’ve been reflecting on some of the things I’ve enjoyed on past travel adventures and realise how lucky I am to have had some incredibly diverse experiences.

Are you looking for inspiration for you next trip? Are you visiting one of these countries and not sure what to include in your itinerary? You may enjoy one of the experiences I’ve been lucky enough to have – read on to find out if an experience I’ve had is a travel idea for you.

AUSTRALIA

I was born in Australia and lived there 26 years before I left the sunny weather behind, bought myself an umbrella and headed to London on working holiday visa. I forgot to leave when my visa expired and 12 years later I hold dual nationality. This has somewhat turned my home country into a travel destination that I appreciate more and more each time I return. So what do I enjoy most about returning to Australia? Is it the climate, the sunsets, the diverse scenery, the Aussie accent, the slower pace of life, the beach, the wide open roads in the outback, the BBQ’s or Aussie beer? Or is it the country’s obsession with sport? If you visit Australia, search for an opportunity to join the locals at an Aussie Rule football game, a cricket match at the MCG or even a game of cricket in the back yard or at the beach. Join in the banter – it doesn’t matter if you don’t know what you are talking about, the banter is the sport within the Sport and unites Australians even when opinion is divided.

AUSTRIA

Tap into your hidden musician where Mozart and the Sound of Music dominate picturesque Salzburg. If exploring the town starts to feel a bit too touristy for you, simply look around at the amazing Austrian Alps and breathe in some fresh, mountain air.

BELGIUM

Indulge in the best of Belgium (mussels, beer and chocolate) before walking it off through the medieval streets of picturesque and historical Bruges.

BHUTAN

Tiger’s Nest Monastery is one of the most popular things to do on a trip to Bhutan and with good reason. The monastery clings to a cliff 900 metres about the valley and is a sacred pilgrimage site that Bhutanese people are encouraged to visit at least once in their lifetime. Its name is earned from a legend that Padmasambhava flew on the back of the tigress and meditated in a cave at the site. Take the hike at your own pace and enjoy the stunning landscape, enjoy some conversation with the locals on the trail and don’t get too excited when you reach what feels like the end of the road. Despite the sudden appearance of prayer flags, a lookout point and more even ground there is still a bit more climbing to do. Take off your shoes and leave your bags and camera in the lockers provided at the bottom of some steps, and start climbing. When you reach the top, you will feel the temperature drop a few degrees, notice a stronger breeze and feel you are on top of the world! There is something magical and powerful about the Tiger’s Nest Monastery.

BOLIVIA

Whilst Bolivia provides endless travel opportunities, it’s hard to escape the reality that most of the locals live in poverty and face hardship on a daily basis. If you have time, giving a little back through volunteering in Bolivia can be a rewarding, humbling and eye opening experience. The subject of volunteering is a contentious one, best suited to an article on that topic alone. But sitting on a crowded bus, followed by an uphill walk to a row of houses where dogs greet you angrily each morning, on your way to a small day care centre in a village dominated by women whose husbands have left the families to find work, is not only an opportunity to make new friends and get to know the locals, but can make a real difference to someone’s day. You don’t have to be trained in childcare to do the dishes, help make bread, serve the children lunch, wash their hair, clean the toilets and provide pens and reading materials.

BOTSWANA

Where are you if you are sitting in a mekoro (canoe) with a ‘poler’ standing at the back guiding you through the water with nothing more than a large pole, elephants chewing leaves from trees on a bank covered with giant termite mounds, stopping to watch a nearby hippo rise and fall beneath the water as the sun sets in front of you? The Okavanga Delta, a highlight of any trip to Botswana.

CAMBODIA

Cambodia has so many highlights it deserves a post on its own. But if you have seen enough temples in this particular trip, ridden the bamboo train in Battambang, completed the obligatory but sombre trips to S21 and the Killing Fields, partied with locals in a Phnom Penh club, taken a boat trip on the Mekong, done some volunteering with a local NGO, ridden a bike through villages surrounded by rice fields and vegetable plantations, played with the irresistibly cheeky children, enjoyed beef lok lak for dinner, relaxed in a hammock, put ice in your pint of beer and negotiated the price of a tuk tuk ride, then you may be ready for a change. Head to Mondulkiri, the eastern most province and least spoiled part of Cambodia…for now. Enjoy the scenic forest, elephant trekking, Bou Sraa waterfalls and visit local hill tribes before an improved road and hotel developments tarnish the region with the pitfalls of tourism.

CANADA

Get your skates on during Winterlude, Ottawa’s winter festival, and glide along the Rideau Canal, which transforms into a 7.8km skateway when frozen. There are a number of stops along the way where you can warm up with a hot drink or some snacks. Keeping in theme you can then admire the ice sculptures competing in a Winterlude competition before finishing the evening with more ice...in your favourite cocktail.

CAYMAN ISLANDS

Dive into the crystal clear water at Stingray City to get up close and personal with stingrays. Standing at the sandbar in three feet of water will see you greeted by nearly two dozen of these amazing creatures and you can get the adrenalin pumping even further by holding one as it swims towards you.

CHINA

Get a taste of Tibetan culture in the main square of Shangri-La, where the locals congregate for an evening of dancing. Accept the wordless invitation to join a circle by taking hold of an outreached hand and try hopelessly to imitate the dance moves of the locals as they encourage you with good-natured laughter.

CZECH REPUBLIC

Avoid the summer crowds, put on a warm coat and visit the Christmas Markets in Prague. The main market lights up the Old Town Square with its Christmas lights and brightly coloured wooden huts, selling traditional handicrafts, food, drink and stocking fillers. If it gets too cold you can warm up in one of the many local bars, being careful to avoid the stereotypical bachelor parties visiting from the UK or other parts of Europe.

ESTONIA

The Old Town of Tallinn is a UNESCO world heritage site and walking the cobbled streets here is like stepping back into medieval Europe

Go no further than the UNESCO World Heritage listed Old Town of Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Wander through the narrow cobbled streets with no itinerary and discover an enchanting maze of cafes, shops, and medieval history.

See More:

22 amazing things you don't know about Estonia

EGYPT

Take the journey from Aswan towards Luxor aboard a felucca, a traditional wooden sailing boat, on the Nile River. Take off your watch, sit back and get used to the gentle tipping sensation of the boat. Get ready for a few days of complete relaxation as you find time to read a book, write, sleep, wave back at the children on the banks of the Nile, make a few stops to rest your sea-legs and explore some historical sights and local villages, photograph the scenic countryside surrounding the Nile and if you have a football, get ready for an impromptu kick about with local kids as the sun is setting.

FRANCE

Being a lover of the outdoors means city escapes are not my favourite thing to do. Paris is an exception. I first visited Paris as a naïve ‘first time in Europe’ traveller more than a decade ago, I’ve seen Paris through the eyes of a local friend, I’ve been treated to nice dinners on work trips and I’ve returned a number of times as weekend traveller in both summer and winter. And I find myself gravitating towards the same things every time – the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Montemarte and Sacre Couer, walks along the Seine River. Paris exudes romance, culture, history and character. If you visit Paris in summer, be sure to head to stretches of the Seine River that are transformed into a beach as they are filled with sand, lined with cafes and stalls, and filled with musicians and games.

GERMANY

Face a weekend of decision making in relaxed and walkable Berlin: beer or schnapps, schnitzel or sausage, pub or club?

HUNGARY

Cross the Danube at the foot of Castle Hill on Chain Bridge to take a step back in time in the ‘old town’ of Budapest.

ICELAND

Join a 30 minute boat ride on the Jokularson Glacier Lagoon, get out your camera and be guided through an iceberg obstacle course. Keep an eye out for seals and as you marvel at the size and diverse shapes of the ice, remember you are only seeing less than 10% of the ice above water. After your boat trip, cross over the other side of the bridge and take a walk along the beach as you dodge the large chunks of ice washed up on the shore.

INDIA

Goa Beach

Having only visited Goa, my experience of India is limited. But if you are after a relaxing few days in the sun, with cool water in which to take a refreshing dip, local markets to explore in the evening and sharing the beach at sunset with fishermen, cows and local families playing games or swimming, then head to Palolem Beach.

IRELAND

Whilst seeing the best Ireland has to offer involves travelling further than Dublin, the country’s capital is still a must-see first stop. A night out in the touristy but fun Temple Bar district, a visit to the Guinness Factory, being surrounded by the endearing Irish accent, enjoying traditional Irish music at Dublin’s “highest” pub Johnny Foxes all provide a great introduction to Ireland. If you just happen to be in town for St Pat’s Day or to see U2 play at Croke Park, then all the better!

ITALY

Food, culture, bars, clubs, shopping, opera, beaches, art and museums – the list of things to see and do in Italy is endless. But one way to experience the passionate nature of the Italian people first-hand is to attend a football game. Soak up the atmosphere in Stadio Olimpico as you cheer on one of Rome’s local teams, SS Lazio or AS Roma, or get close to the action in Parma where front row seats have you at eye level with the players. Just remember to find out who those sitting around you are supporting. Fans are segregated at football matches and you don’t want to find yourself cheering for the wrong team in the wrong section!

JAPAN

Senso Ji temple in Asakusa, Tokyo, Japan
via kleinmatt66

Heading to the popular Asakusa district in Tokyo is an opportunity to explore some of the best the city has to offer. Take the subway to get there, comparing the cleanliness and efficiency to that experienced in London and New York, relax in the city’s oldest temple Senso-ji, explore some of the unique shops leading up to the temple’s gate and sit back with a plate of sushi to enjoy a stint of people watching as you observe some of the most eclectic fashion in the world.

LAOS

Learn to be a mahout for the day at an Elephant Camp near Luang Prabang. A mahout, who is usually trained at a young age, rides and cares for an elephant. The one-to-one relationship usually lasts the life of the elephant and the connection is quite amazing. After learning some of the key commands a mahout uses at the Camp, you will soon learn it’s not just the commands the elephant recognises but the voice of the mahout he has the connection with! You will also learn very quickly that mounting a bare-backed elephant from the ground is not as easy as it looks. Having the opportunity to feed the animals, take a solo bare-backed ride, a more comfortable ride in a wooden ‘chair’ and learning about the unique relationship a mahout has with his elephant culminates in a magical experience as you ride into the river to wash the elephant, bravely stand on his back on the water and are tipped into the Mekong for an unplanned swim

LITHUANIA

A great day trip from Lithuania’s capital Vilnius is Trakai, a picturesque sleepy lakeside town. Head to the station to board a local bus to transport you 28km from the capital, learning that behind the stern expression of the local women is a smile that lights up their faces, as your confusion with the local money raises a giggle from one selling tickets on board the bus. Get a window seat and enjoy the taste of Lithuanian countryside that awaits you as you head to the Trakai bus stop. Take a right out of the station and make your way to the red-bricked Gothic Island Castle that sits in the middle of lakes that each as far as the eye can see. It may be a cold visit in March, but dress warmly and you will be able to explore the castle without the hoards of weekend tourists and city-escapers who bombard the town in summer.

MALAWI

The country known as the ‘warm heart of Africa’ is inhabited by some of the friendliest people you will meet in Africa, with smiles that hide the harsh reality that is Malawi – life expectancy of just 52 years, people living on an average of £1.25 a day, 11% HIV rates, 49% with no access to sanitation. Despite the extreme poverty in this country, the locals find things to be happy about and have a contagious smile and sense of humour. To experience some entertaining local interaction, bring something to barter rather than money and partake in friendly banter with the ‘Malawi boys’ at a roadside stall as you negotiate your exchange of a t shirt for a painting.

MALAYSIA BORNEO

You cannot miss Sepilok Orang-Utan Sanctuary, but for something a bit different head to the Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, an enjoyable day trip from Sandakan. Head for the feeding platforms that are less crowded than those at Sepilok, laugh at the antics and observe the interesting social behaviour of the harems interacting at the platforms. Decide for yourself if these strange creatures are somewhat endearing or just plain ugly.

MALAYSIA PENINSULA

The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

To escape the humidity of Kuala Lumpur, head to the somewhat cooler Cameron Highlands where you can explore the tea plantations, do some hiking, soak in a tea bath or enjoy a tea scented massage.

MORROCO

Enjoy a sensory overload in Marrakesh at the Djamaa El Fna Square after an afternoon getting deliberately lost amongst the market stalls at the Souk. The square is a living stage of snake charmers, henna tattoists, monkey handlers, story tellers and so much more. You may even learn that a snake crapping on your arm means good luck!

MOZAMBIQUE

After crossing the border from South Africa, enjoy the change of scenery as you jump in the back of land-cruiser in the only transportation possible on the sandy roads leading to a chilled out beach camp.

MYANMAR

Mainstream travellers have avoided Myanmar for so long that restricting your visit to the ‘main four’ locations of Yangon, Mandalay, Inle Lake and Bagan will provide you with the holiday of a lifetime. But if you want a little bit extra, spend $1.25 on a ticket for the relatively comfortable four hour bus ride to Monywa, a little riverside town north of Mandalay. Although the area boasts the impressive Thanboddhay Paya and Bodhi Tataung, it’s the seemingly insignificant moments that create the most memorable experiences in Monywa. Enjoy conversations with locals by the river during sunset, buy dinner from a street vendor who then invites you to eat with his family on small plastic stools on the side of the road, walk into a local hair salon and negotiate a hair wash with two young girls who don’t speak English resulting in an afternoon of entertaining communication through charades, and get chased down by a mother who wants you take a photo of her with her child.

NAMIBIA

Dispel or confirm the myths created in your mind from watching “The Gods Must Be Crazy” by camping with the Bushman in one of their villages. Meet the locals with the high cheekbones and triangular jawlines, no body hair and distinctive ‘clicking’ dialect, and learn more about their wave of life as they share their village and lifestyle with you.

NETHERLANDS

Check out the offbeat side of Amsterdam for a truly unique vacation!

Amsterdam, where it seems everything forbidden elsewhere is legal. It’s not all about the red light district, sex shows and smoking a joint in a coffee shop – but your first visit here will be!

Top Offbeat Sights & Activities in Amsterdam

NORWAY

Visit Norway’s “The Gateway to the Fjords” and UNESCO World Heritage Listed Bergen. Enjoy the ease of independent travel and use a combination of trains, buses and boats to explore the majestic and picturesque Sognefjord and Hardangerdjord.

RWANDA

Visiting the Genocide Museum in Rwanda is a sombre reminder of the terrifying ability of human beings to turn on each and inflict unspeakable horrors. Watching the locals go about daily life in Rwanda today is an inspiring reminder of the strength and resilience of the human race. A visit to the Parcs de Volcans in Rwanda is a reprieve from the scars of the country’s past and a lesson in how locals are learning to co-exist with another neighbour in the area – the endangered mountain gorilla. Gorilla trekking is not only one of the highlights of visiting Rwanda, but one of the most amazing things you can do in the whole of Africa. Only 8 groups of 8 are people are permitted into the area per day and expensive permits ($500 when I visited) must be pre-booked. Trekking through the lush, green, scenic park can take anywhere from 1 hour to 6 hours and with the help of armed and trained trackers, you walk until the obstacle in front of you is a family of protected mountain gorillas. After the silverback mock charges you in a territorial statement, you will enjoy an hour watching these incredible creatures in their natural habitat. An unforgettable experience.

SOUTH AFRICA

The possibilities are endless in South Africa, an incredibly diverse and beautiful country. Adrenalin sports, stunning beaches, great nightlife, a chance to see the Big Five – the list goes on. But for a truly unique experience, be sure to stop by Tenikwa Cat Sanctuary, a rehabilitation and release organisation that offers the opportunity to get up close and personal with leopard, cheetah, African wild cat, servals and more. An extra bonus is the chance to take a cheetah for a walk!

SPAIN

Enjoy three of the things the Spanish do better than anyone else in the world – tapas, siesta and late night party (in that order).

SRI LANKA

The road from Colombo to Kandy provides a great day out, especially if your visit to Kandy culminates in the Kandy Festival. On route you can watch elephants bath in front of a tropical and picturesque backdrop at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, see and learn about tea plantations, drive through characteristic villages and rejuvenate your mind, body and soul with an Ayurveda treatment in the mountains.

SWAZILAND

Escape the jeep with a walking safari in Hlane National Park where, if you are lucky, you may find yourself standing a few metres away from a Rhino.

SWITZERLAND

Enjoying the beautiful landscapes of Switzerland

Switzerland contains beautiful landscapes as far as the eye can see and Lucerne is a particular pretty location to spend a night. Attractive to tourists for its souvenir and watch shops, the lakeside setting provides a stunning background to a walkable town and you can even get a cable car up to the mountains to spend the night with a view of snow and clouds.

TANZANIA

Treat yourself to your own Out of Africa experience with a balloon ride over the majestic Serengeti. Set your alarm for an early rise as you head to your balloon as the sun is rising. Enjoy the bird’s eye view of lion cubs running after their mother, impala grazing not knowing if today is the day one of the plains’ predators catch up with them, a hyena taking the solo walk looking for someone else’s catch to scavenge, wildebeest standing around in their groups, zebra crossings littered across the ground by actual zebra, and the giraffe and elephant that are so large on the ground looking like plastic toys. After (quite literally) hitting the ground, enjoy the champagne breakfast and five star service and make the most of the ‘room with a view’ toilets that feel like quite the upgrade after the bush stops and camp toilets you are returning to.

THAILAND

Get yourself to Trat and hop on the ferry heading to paradise on earth, the island of Koh Chang. Charge up your Kindle, don your fisherman’s pants and tank top, put your sunscreen on, get out the sunglasses and hat and you are all set for complete relaxation. Beat the heat with a dip in the crystal clear water and when you are feeling exhausted from lying in the sun doing nothing but relaxing, take a walk into ‘town’ for a browse through the local shops. End your day with some fresh seafood cooked and served on the beachfront and a cold beer and what more do you need?

TURKEY

Put on your hiking boots for some exploration amongst the unique rock formations in Cappodocia, after the long 12 hour overnight bus ride from Istanbul. The reddish-coloured landscape filled with fairy chimneys featured in the first Star Wars movie and it’s not difficult to imagine yourself on another planet as you hike through this surreal part of Turkey. As you enjoy the slow and relaxed pace of life in the region, transport yourself back in time with a stay in an underground cave hotel.

UGANDA

If you haven’t been white-water rafting before why not start on the Nile River at Jinja, Uganda with the grade 5 rapids on the Nile River that are reputed to be the best in the world. Get your adrenalin pumping as you approach the first of ten rapids at Bujagali Falls and get ready to get wet! Just when you think your heart can’t pump any harder, you can take a rest over lunch before a nice, long stretch of calm water allows you to close your eyes and soak up the sun or dive in for a swim before the final few rapids. You will also be joined by solo kayakers who will help you get back to the raft after the inevitable spills, collect your oar as it starts floating away and entertain you with incredible, acrobatic kayaking along the way.

UNITED KINGDOM

Guards at Buckingham Palace in London, UK

There are so many ‘off the beaten track’ suggestions I have for the United Kingdom but sometimes you just can’t beat a good old fashioned, cheesy, touristy day out. Get your tube pass, put your camera around your neck and stand on the ‘’wrong side’ of the escalators in the tube station with you’re A-to-Z map in your hand. Head to Marble Arch and pay a ridiculously high amount for a “Hop-On-Hop-Off” ticket on a big open bus sightseeing tour and start to tick off your “London checklist” of tourist attractions - Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral, London Dungeon, Tower Bridge, Tower of London, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square and Hyde Park.

USA

I’ve had to spend quite a lot of time in LA this year with my job and have been fortunate to have some weekend time to explore other parts of California. The diversity of the Californian landscape is quite mind blowing and if you need to be reminded how insignificant we are as a human race in relation to the great outdoors, go no further than Yosemite. Yosemite has something for everyone – a range of accommodation options, activities for children, families, hikers, rock climbers and cyclists and is a photographer’s playground.

VIETNAM

Get off the well-beaten tourist track in Vietnam and hop on the back of an Easy Rider’s motorbike. After an intense introduction to Vietnam in Hoh Chi Minh City and a relaxing overnight stay in the sleepy beach town of Mui Ne, leave the comfort of the overnight tourist buses and get up close and personal with the locals on the four hour bus ride on the winding, mountainous road to Dalat. It won’t take you long to find an Easy Rider who are easy to spot with their blue and red-trimmed jackets and more often than not they will find you first. A 3-4 day trip will take you through the Central Highlands to the coastal town of Nah Trang, but if you have the time I highly recommend the less direct route. Changing my mind and direction on the third day added Pleiku, Kon Tum, Dak To and Aluoi to my itinerary and exposed me to the lush, scenic, remote and historic Hoh Chi Minh Trail. There were days we interacted with friendly locals, days we didn’t see any Westerners, days we hardly saw anyone at all, days we searched for a road-side sugarcane stall to escape from the sun in a hammock with our drink in its plastic bag and straw, days we had on heavy jackets and rode in the cold and rain, and evenings eating amazing food on small plastic chairs in family run restaurants. If you want to experience a part of Vietnam seldom visited by tourists and if you are comfortable with the absence of English-speaking locals and translated menus and signs, this is the experience for you. If you are someone who isn’t comfortable with an unplanned itinerary when you travel, don’t fear – you can also book with Easy Rider through the internet before you arrive.

ZAMBIA

In addition to being a gateway to the thunderous and powerful Victoria Falls, Livingstone is an adrenalin junkie hotspot. If you’d prefer to jump off a cliff feet first rather than head first, avoid bungee jumping and try the gorge swing instead. Get strapped into a harness, sign the disclaimer where you promise not the sue the company if you break your neck, take a step off a 100 metre high cliff and free fall 53 metres to end up swinging across the gorge for a minute that feels like hours. After the gorge swing, spending the afternoon walking with lion cubs will feel like a piece of cake!

Do you have your own ‘idea’ for one of these countries, or do you have a magical experience to share from a country not on this list? I’d love to hear your ideas!

Published in Travel Inspiration

A question I am commonly asked is “what is your favourite country to visit”? Having been to nearly 50 countries makes this a difficult question to answer but there is one country that will always be in my top three.

Bhutan

A peaceful and spiritual oasis lying in the heart of the Eastern Himalayas, Bhutan is simply magical. Hidden between its neighbouring giants China and India, Bhutan is a similar size to Switzerland with a population of 700,000.

Exploring Bhutan is an opportunity to discover a nation who are proud of and have retained their cultural identify. It is a place like no other and visiting it feels like stepping into a magical vortex frozen in time.

You know you are in Bhutan when...

1.   You are thankful for a window seat on a plane with the only airline that flies to Bhutan (Druk Air) after getting up close and personal with the Himalayan Mountains on the descent into Paro Airport.

2.   You are not only allowed to stay on the airport tarmac to photograph the stunning Himalayan backdrop, you are actively encouraged to by local airport staff

3.   You’ve organised your pre-booked tour, the only way to gain entry into the country

4.   You’ve paid over $200 USD a day to enter the country but hardly spend a penny once you are there

5.   You are greeted at the airport by a sign stating “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product”

6.   You stand with monks watching a local football game outside Thimpu Stadium, the site of “The Other Game” played at the same time that Brazil and Germany competed in the 2002 World Cup. In this game, the two lowest ranked teams in the world competed with Bhutan defeating Monserrat 4-0.

7.   You find yourself eating boiled rice three times a day because you don’t like spicy food

8.   You spend an afternoon in an unplanned meditative state, listening to the mesmerising chants from the monks at Punakha Dzong

9.   The only interruption to your picnic by the river is the ‘whooshing’ sound of an arrow shot from a local archer practising nearby

10.   You spend entire days not seeing any other Westerners

11.   You feel you have stepped back in time as you join locals at the Sunday afternoon regional Archery event, Bhutan’s national sport. A magical scene evolves as teenage girls hold hands and sing on the sidelines, opposing teams chant football-like banter at each other, monks and older men stand deep in conversation and a “woosh” past you signifies an archer’s attempt at hitting the wooden target from 140 metres away.

Walking the streets of Thumphu, the capital of Bhutan
Thimphu, the capital of the Kingdom of Bhutan

12.   You take a leisurely stroll around the world’s only capital city without traffic lights

13.   You purchase some local sweets and water through a window below a wooden “General Store” sign

14.   You realise the locals don’t all have the same fashion sense, but are wearing the National Dress (gho for men, kira for women)

15.   Are in a country whose altitude ranges from 100 to 7,500 metres

16.   You face 3-5 years in jail for smoking a cigarette, and can only legally smoke by purchasing a monthly permit for those with a ‘smoking addiction’.

17.   You discover local hair salon’s don’t need four walls and modern equipment as ladies queue for a trim in the grounds of the Memorial Chorten

18.   You immerse yourself in people watching at the Memorial Chorten as local’s cling to prayer beads as take the clockwise walk around the Chorten

19.   You have that feeling of insignificance that a powerful natural scene like the snow-capped Himalayan Mountains creates

20.   You learn to greet locals with the Bhutanese word for hello, “kuzuzanpo-la”   See More: Destination Bhutan

The strange-looking Takin is Bhutan’s National Animal
Takins are part of the goat-antelope family.

21.   You encounter the strange looking Takin, Bhutan’s National Animal

22.   You realise the inadequacy of your fitness levels as you are overtaken by a small child on a hiking trail

23.   You spend your evening sitting around a fire, following a traditional story narrated via music and dance.

24.   You meet locals who had to be convinced by the much loved Royal Family that the introduction of a democratically-elected government in 2008 after a century of monarchy rule, was the way forward for the nation

25.   You travel through a countryside decorated with prayer flags, chortens, dzongs, stupa, monasteries…and colourful penis’s painted on doors

26.   You share the road to Gangte with the little black-faced Langur Monkeys

27.   You find ear plugs an essential ingredient to a night’s sleep in Paro, the town where dogs only bark at night

28.   You stand with locals on the side of the road in the Punakha Valley as a car with the license plate “BHUTAN 6” transports members of the much-loved royal family through the village

29.   A pile of rocks in the middle of the road represents a round-about, one of two traffic control mechanisms in the country

30.   You observe the other traffic control mechanism in Thimpu with amused interest – a white gloved and suited traffic controller

31.   You see a field containing nothing but wooden goal posts, a reminder that whilst archery may be the nation’s favourite sport, football is not far behind

Tiger's Nest Monastery in Bhutan

32.   You feel you are on top of the world, both physically and spiritually after surviving the trek up to Tiger Nest Monastery

33.   You learn more about a Buddhist belief that is imbedded in all aspects of daily life

34.   You are entertained by naughty little novice monks who cannot hold their concentration during prayer time at a monastery

35.   You feel uplifted as you listen to the chatter and laughter of happy school children skipping along the road, girls holding hands and boys playfully wrestling with each other

36.   You are admiring the picturesque Punakha Valley as a local girl tells you she would love to see the grey, concrete underground network in London

37.   You learn that Gross National Happiness is more than just an inspiring quote, it is a way of life

There are so many things wrong with the world. There are so many countries in turmoil. There is a sense of a growing power struggle between the superpowers of the east and west. There are countries enduring violence and bloodshed to achieve a democratic, corruption-free and fair existence.

And then there is this little country called Bhutan, which many people haven’t even heard of, that seems to have got so much right. It’s not a perfect country it has the advantage of having a small population and a strong Buddhist faith, but it has a much loved Royal Family and a newly elected and respected government and experiences a relatively peaceful existence.

A monarchy that spent the first half of the last century maintaining its culture and national identify has recently begun to open its doors to the outside world, which inevitably raises some questions. Does Bhutan have something the rest of us can learn and benefit from? Will it benefit from the positive aspects of modern technology and development? Or has it created a gateway through which the negative aspects of the outside world will creep through to challenge the peace, culture and national identity that this country is so proud of. Only time will tell.

flickr // chris_fynn ucumari

Published in Bhutan

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