The popularity of offbeat travel is on the rise. Whilst most people will share some of their must-visit countries with thousands of others, there will be plenty of places that offer an authentic experience that appeals to them, but not always the masses. That’s great news for you.

If you want to get off the beaten track and get involved with local life, you’ll be rewarded with an experience unlike a typical tourist. That’s how some of the best travel memories are made, when we throw ourselves into the unknown rather than sticking to the same places. To get such an opportunity, try visiting these four countries:

1.   Mongolia

  East Asia

If you like adventurous travel, then Mongolia is for you. It’s a huge country, full of pristine landscapes, and home to nomadic people whose lives have barely changed in the modern day. Their survival depends on the wide-open spaces, untouched wilderness and fresh water supplies – all of the things that make Mongolia such an amazing place.

Mongolia, one of the last remaining countries for a truly authentic offbeat experience
Nadaam in Mongolia   //   bernd_thaller

Head to Mongolia’s best-known national park, Terelj. Here, The Secret Traveller says, you’ll be able to spend a night in a traditional yurt, watch demonstrations of archery and horse riding, and hike through some of the most spectacular scenery the world has to offer. What better way to experience local life? It’s no beach holiday, but that’s exactly why it’s great. You can get actively involved.

2.   Poland

  Northern Europe

Europe has a lot to offer keen travellers, but we love Poland because of its friendly population of hospitable people that are welcoming and genuine. The country boasts UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the popular Krakow’s Old Town, amazing food, an abundance of castles, and a musical heritage they’re proud of to this day.

Wieliczka Salt Mine, a unique UNESCO World Heritage Site in Poland
Wieliczka Salt Mine, a truly unique UNESCO World Heritage Site

You can easily find concerts for jazz to medieval to opera music – particularly impressive in the warmer months when they’re held outdoors in parks and squares.

According to Go East Europe, one of the best things about Poland is how each city in Poland has a distinct feel and social culture. From Warsaw’s urban pulse to Krakow’s historic pride, to Wroclaw’s whimsy, to Gdansk’s stately maritime heritage, each city has its own appeal. You’ll probably want to head to more than one.

3.   Brazil

  South America

Unless you live under a rock, you’ll know Brazil throws the best party in the world – the Rio de Janeiro Carnival. Full of colour and energy, it’s best described as an explosion of culture – but you’ve got to experience it for yourself. Whether you’re looking for a party experience or some relaxation, Brazilis a great place to visit. In this list of 100 reasons to visit Brazil (yes – 100), they point out it’s in the culture to greet everyone as if they were great friends.

Mongolia, one of the last remaining countries for a truly authentic offbeat experience
Rio De Janeiro   //   photographingtravis

So find a spot on one of the over 2,000 beaches along Brazil’s shoreline, and relax with great company, as well as a cocktail and some amazing fresh seafood. You could even watch the sea turtle hatching season in the village of Praia do Forte between October and March each year – such an experience is a once-in-a-lifetime sight, so don’t miss out.

4.   The UK

  Northern Europe

The UK’s capital city, London, might be the most popular spot for tourists – but it’s not the best place to go for an authentic experience. We promise you not everyone in the UK is as grumpy as those in London, who are constantly in a rush to get somewhere else. Nor is everywhere in the UK full of the same tacky souvenirs you’ll find on Oxford Street.

Mongolia, one of the last remaining countries for a truly authentic offbeat experience
Brighton   //   ben124

Stay out of the busy commuters’ way by heading into the countryside. Here, the UK really excels and people tend to be much friendlier. Amongst the suggestions for an authentic English experience is a trip to the Pantomime at Christmas time, a hike along the South Downs way, a visit to Brighton for some fish and chips or just heading to a traditional pub for a pint.

  What countries have you recently visited?   Share your suggestions for an authentic, offbeat travel experience.

Published in Travel Tips

Singapore is a small island city-state, which means that it quickly gets boring for uninformed travelers. Three days in Singapore, and you have literally done it all — or so you might think.

But the next time you find yourself passing through Lion City, drop your bags off at a nice hotel in the best part of Singapore and then knock a few of these offbeat activities off your travel bucket list:

Explore Pulau Ubin, the Last Kampung

Pekan Quarry on Pulau Ubin, one of the offbeat things to do in Singapore

Singapore is a sprawling metropolis — at least the main island is. However, up north, next to Malaysia, lies the smaller island of Pulau Ubin. Known as the Last Kampung of Singapore, this island is the only place you can still see the traditional village houses of the past. Only around 100 residents remain today, surrounded by lush flora and diverse fauna. There are plenty of hiking and biking trails to explore and quiet beaches to relax on. Definitely a nice retreat from the city life in Singapore!

Haw Par Villa, the Hellish Theme Park

Haw Par Villa is an intriguing and bizarre religious theme park that has become a strange tourist attraction. It is one of the many offbeat things to do in Singapore

Dating back to 1937, Haw Par Villa has earned itself a reputation as Singapore's most bizarre tourist attraction and religious theme park. Originally known as the Tiger Balm Gardens, it was built by two brothers, the same duo who created Tiger Balm rub. The park was designed to teach Chinese mythology, but over the years it has evolved into an over-the-top collection of over 1,000 multicolored statues and giant dioramas depicting various — and often gory — scenes from Chinese history, folklore, and legends. Haw Par Villa might not be off the beaten path anymore, but Singapore doesn’t get any stranger than this!

G-MAX Reverse Bungy, 5 Gs of 360-Degree Fun

The G-MAX reserve bungy is a wild ride and one of the cool, quirky things to do in Singapore

Located right on Clarke Quay, this is one activity that every visitor to Singapore has seen but few ever try. The G-MAX reverse bungy is like nothing else you have ever experienced. Strap yourself in, and get ready. After being slingshot up in the air, reaching speeds of up to 100 km/hr, riders bounce and fly around in what G-MAX politely refers to as a "swing" — ha! This experience is so uncommon that I recommend having someone else film your ride. Besides, at 45 SGD, it's the cost of two drinks in Clarke Quay — and definitely more worth it.

Selfie Coffee, Where the Name Says It All

Selfie Coffee prints a proto of you on the foam of your coffee. Just one of many the offbeat things to do in Singapore

To make a long story short, a Taiwanese company developed a machine that prints photos onto coffee foam. Of course, the next logical step is to use this for selfies instead of trippy designs. If you don't mind paying a hefty premium for your coffee and waiting a few extra minutes (yes, even longer than usual), you just might be a perfect fit for Selfie Coffee. And where else in Singapore would it be located than the hipster hotspot that is Haji Lane?

Visit Kranji, the Fabled Singapore Countryside

Leave the cement jungle behind and head out to Kanji, one of many the offbeat things to do in Singapore
The road to Kanji at sunset

Up in the northeastern corner of Singapore lies Kranji, the Singapore countryside that many tourists do not even realize exists. Yes, there is a part of the main island that isn't a cement jungle! Here the jungle is still thick, and small farms are scattered among it. The biggest and best-known is Bollywood Veggies and its Poison Ivy Bistro, which serves what is arguably the freshest food in all of Singapore. There are also several nearby parks and nature reserves worth exploring, including Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, Kranji Reservoir Park, and Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve.

Get out and explore the countryside of Kanji, one of the offbeat things to do in Singapore

Beyond just greenery and fresh foods, Kranji also has plenty more to offer. Horse racing takes place every Friday and Sunday at the Singapore Turf Club, conveniently located right next to the Kranji MRT Station. The Kranji War Memorial pays homage to all the fallen soldiers from all the nations who helped defend Singapore from the Japanese during World War II.

Singapore may be small, but the harder you look, the more you find. What other offbeat and quirky sights or activities would you recommend?

  More Offbeat Travel Guides     Singapore Blog Archives

  flickr // Kai Lehmann   Wild Singapore   Walter Lim   Schristia   Lin Hoe Goh   Kurt Siang

Published in Singapore

I've spent the better part of the last seven years exploring Asia and this corner of the world is nothing short of amazing. Spectacular sights, delicious foods, incredibly diverse cultures and such a rich history....Asia has it all!

However, Asia can also be overwhelming to first-timers. Where do I go and what do I do? Here are five awesome overlooked places to get your planning started:

Osaka

  Japan

Japan is the best country in the world for people-watching -- if you know where to look, that is. Much like the stylish yet offbeat Harajuku district in Tokyo, Osaka also as a youth Mecca that should be on the "to-do" list of every traveler to Japan. It is called Amerika-Mura and there is no more hip in town to be. The area is on the cutting edge of fashion and youth culture, and is packed full of restaurants and shops selling everything from clothing to music to random novelty items.

Kyoto

  Japan

p align="justify">Kyoto is full of temples but one stands apart from the rest: Otagi Nenbutsu-ji, which dates back to the eighth century. The temple grounds are adorned with over 1,000 small Buddha statues, each with a different expression. Back in 2008 when I lived in Japan, this place was really off the beaten path. Nowadays however thanks to sites like TripAdvisor, it is slowly starting to get more attention -- but still thankfully remains a quiet, overlooked destination.

Ko Samui, Thailand is where you should go in Asia this fall
Ko Samui, Thailand

Ko Samui

  Thailand

One of the best things to do on the island of Ko Samui, Thailand is to rent a scooter and get away from the crowds. Go explore the island, find a quiet beach and take time to unwind. Or check out the numerous markets and eat your way through as many of the small food spots scattered across the island as possible. The island is yours!

Seminyak

  Indonesia

Bali is known for great resorts but the ones of Seminyak, Indonesia stand out in particular. Immaculate beaches. Delicious food. Luxurious resorts. Seminyak has it all but with less crowds that Kuta or Sanur. Soak up the sun on Seminyak Beach, go surfing or even indulge in a game of beach volleyball. The area is also a foodie's paradise, so make sure to come hungry. Start at Jalan Laksamana (also known as Eat Street) but make sure to expand beyond -- there are tons of unique, amazing restaurants serving some of the best food on the island.

Tsuen Wan

  Hong Kong

Located at the end of the MTR line, Tsuen Wan, Hong Kong is a quiet suburb that is far removed from the normal tourist trail. It is also the home of Discovery Park, a combination shopping mall and park that has been around for nearly two decades. The tropical rain forest-themed shopping center spans over 600,000 square feet and even includes an artificial waterfall and stained glass ceiling over the main lobby. Once you are done shopping, do not forget to explore the neighborhood and get a glimpse of local Hong Kong life.

  See More Hong Kong

Hong Kong Off The Beaten Path

Published in Asia

Do you love a swig of beer or a glass of wine? No, I'm not going to tell you to stop! In fact I'm most likely the one urging you to have another glass. Just don't drink the same thing on vacation that you would be at home -- try something new! Never heard of it? Sound strange? Just go for it!

Oh the stories I could tell of all the crazy local brews I've drank with locals around the world... ;)

Here are five drinks that you should definitely try:

Arak

Arak is the traditional beverage in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Israel and Turkey. The word ‘arak' means sweat in Arabic. Don't turn away from this alcoholic drink assuming it to be someone's sweat though. The drink is anise-flavored and diluted with water for consumption. The liquor is clear but upon dilution with water, it becomes milky. This is because anethole, the essential oil in anise, is insoluble in water. Adding ice causes the arak to form an unpleasant layer on the surface. If you order a bottle of arak, the waiter will usually serve it with several glasses as one does not drink arak in the same glass again due to the emulsification of the liquid. Arak is served with appetizers.

Ouzo

If you visit Greece, you must certainly try out their coffees and frappés. But don't forget to try out ouzo, the essentially Greek drink, along with a platter of olives, fries, fish and cheese. You will find it tastes of liquorice and is smoother than absinthe. Ouzo is generally flavored with anise or mint or coriander. Like arak, ouzo too becomes milky when mixed with water. For the same reason, adding ice to the drink is avoided. The Greeks use ouzo in many recipes and consider it to have healing properties due to the presence of anise.

Sake

Sake, a wine made of rice, is a traditional Japanese alcoholic beverage. The rice used to make sake differs from the normal rice that the Japanese eat. Sake comes in several varieties which are served at a range of temperatures. Though sake goes best with Japanese cuisine, you can enjoy the beverage with Chinese food too. Food that is flavored with herbs will also work well.

Cachaça

This is Brazil's national beverage. According to a survey, the country produces over a billion litres of cachaça annually but only 1% of it is exported. Fresh sugarcane juice is fermented and then distilled to make cachaça. Some types of rums are also made in the same way which is why cachaça is also referred to as Brazilian rum. The liquor may be consumed either aged or un-aged. Un-aged cachaça will come cheaper but do look for the dark and premium variety that is aged in wooden barrels. Caipirinha is a popular cocktail that includes cachaça as the main ingredient.

Mezcal

This Mexican distilled alcoholic beverage is much like tequila's cousin as they are both made from (different types of) agave plants. Mezcal is made from the maguey plant while tequila is made from the blue agave plant. Most of the mezcal produced by Mexico is made in a region called Oaxaca. A popular saying that you might get to hear is Para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien también, translated as, For everything bad, mezcal and for everything good, the same.

The drink might not seem inviting if you see larva in a bottle of mezcal, but many alcohol makers have embraced this age-old technique now. You can find mezcal without the larva too. You can relish it with sliced oranges dusted with ground chili, fried larvae and salt.

  Don't forget to purchase a bottle or two as a souvenir if you really fall in love with the taste of any of these drinks. That way you will have a tale to tell your friends over a round of drinks too.

Cheers to new adventures!

Published in Travel Tips

Traveling is one of the most rewarding experiences you can ever have. Unfortunately, many people allow life's stresses to get in the way. Here's why you should drop everything right now and hit the road.

1. To Learn Something About Yourself

Travel is all about throwing yourself into the unknown and experiencing new things. When you're faced with challenges like having to navigate foreign languages and transportation systems you learn more about yourself and what you're capable of. This is especially true if you're traveling solo, a truly empowering experience.

2. To Build Your Resume

You're never too young or too old to build your resume. Travel helps you to enhance a variety of skills in a first-hand manner. While navigating foreign languages enhances communication skills, being able to adjust to new situations helps you become more adaptable. Additionally, bargaining in markets helps with negotiation, trip planning enhances strategizing abilities and sorting out issues along the way makes you a better problem solver.

>Signs on Easter Island pointing to Hawaii and Tahiti/p

3. To Get Away And Disconnect

Angry bosses. Problems at home. Daily life stresses. Get away from everyday life and immerse yourself in a new place where your worries are far behind. To really enhance the experience, leave your electronics behind and truly disconnect. Remember, the more you disconnect the more you'll truly be immersed in your destination.

4. Because Life Is Short And The World Is Huge

Life truly is short, so you need to make the most of it. Stop making your bucket list longer and actually start knocking some of the items off. The world is a big place, with many destinations to discover and experiences to have. Do you want your last thoughts on Earth to be about all the things you wanted to do, or all the things you did do?

5. To Learn Something New

Traveling is a great opportunity to try something you've never done who're. Not only are you naturally in a more adventurous mindset, you're also exposed to opportunities that you don't have at home. Sample a new food, go mountain climbing, take part in a local festival or learn a cultural skill like tai chi or tango dancing. It's a fun way to enrich your life while experiencing a new destination.

6. To Meet New People

Making local friends in Minggir, a small village not far from Yogyakarta

When traveling, you have the opportunity to interact with locals and learn more about what life is really like for the people of the destination. Ask questions, make conversation and, if possible, hangout with locals in their favorite spots for a firsthand glimpse of community life.

7. To Experience A New Culture

Whether your travel to another country or domestically you'll have the chance to experience a new culture. Dive in and learn as much as you can through food, classes, attractions, interactions and random experiences. It's an easy way to become a more worldly, open-minded person, and can be a very eye-opening experience.

8. To Try Delicious Foods

The Ultimate Indonesia Food Guide to Regional Dishes

One of the best ways to experience a destination is through the local food. Travel allows you to break away from any diets restraints and sample exciting new dishes you've never tried, and maybe even never heard of. Asado in Argentina, cemitas in Mexico and pasta in Italy are just some of the mouth-watering culinary experiences to have around the world.

See More Culinary Achievements Around The Globe

9. To Enrich Your Life

Travel enriches your life through all the reasons mentioned above, so why not give yourself that opportunity? Discover interesting cultures, learn something new, experience new things and become a more well-rounded, fulfilled person in general.

10. Because The Time Is Now

Stop making excuses on why you can't travel. Work will always be stressful, there will always be things to do at home and you'll never have as much money as you'd like, so stop worrying and realize these problems will be there whether you travel or not. In the meantime, you might as well see the world and leave the problems at home for awhile.

How Long-Term Travel Changes People Forever
Travel the world far and wide with The HoliDaze Top Travel Tips
  flickr // azwegers
Published in Travel Tips

France — and especially Paris — has a love/hate relationship with tourists. Tourism is an important industry, but if you’re not careful, you can make a nuisance of yourself with locals. Here are five ways you can avoid being that tourist:

  1. Realize you’re not in Kansas anymore. The customs are different. While you’re in France, it’s best to learn to do what the French do, and refrain from doing what they don’t do. People expect tourists to make the occasional cultural faux pas. What they don’t expect is an earful about what’s “wrong” with the way they do things.
  2. Realize that some French people don’t speak English. Most French speak at least some English, especially in the larger cities, and the vast majority of those who work for hotels in Paris or other tourism-related industries speak English relatively well. However, you are in France, and you can’t expect everyone to speak your language. Many who do speak it, don’t speak it well, and some who speak perfectly good English refuse to do so. After all, vous êtes en France. Pick up a French phrase book (or, hey, it’s 2015, download a French app to your smartphone. You’ll find that French people speak much better English after you’ve at least made an attempt to communicate in French. Most importantly, if someone doesn’t appear to understand you, don’t repeat yourself louder and slower. If they speak English, you’ll offend them. If they don’t, volume won’t help.
  3. Refrain from asking where to find the nearest McDonald’s, Starbucks and so on. You’re in France! Enjoy the local cuisine. If you absolutely must have Chicken McNuggets, at least don’t announce it. If you have to ask, quietly ask the concierge at your hotel. It really does irritate the French when tourists ask for American chain restaurants.
  4. Follow the protocol on the Metro. This one’s pretty simple. You let everyone exiting the train get out before you go in. When you’re in, if the train is crowded, stand up. Only sit if there’s a clear place to do so.
  5. Don’t tip. Seriously. It’s not part of the French culture. Many of the people we typically tip in America, such as wait staff, are paid considerably better in France, and your attempt to tip can be interpreted as an insult.

Remember, to the French, France isn’t a tourist destination, it’s home. You’re the guest and the one who has to adapt, not them. Try to fit in, and you’re sure to have a great time.

  This article was posted on Hipmunk's Tailwind blog by The Hipmunk on August 19th.

Published in France

If you want to be a happy crapper, use a Japanese toilet

There is nothing more gratifying than a top notch toilet. And when it comes to fancy toilets it is fairly common knowledge that Japan leads the pack. Their toilets have features most Westerners have never dreamed of, including background noise to cover any sounds that the user may make, a warm cleansing spray, self-warming seat, built-in water-saving sink, and other innovative features. Their proper name are bidets, although many locals refer to them as washlets.

At first glance these washlets can be a little much for foreigners to take in. For example, in America if you sit on a warm toilet seat it means some other warm posterier just vacated that spot mere seconds before. Not the most appealing sensation, to say the least. I've even moved one stall over, just for a cold seat! (Like that one was any more sanitary.) Yet warm toilet seats are preferred in Japan, especially during the colder months. For many Westerners this definitely takes some getting used to, but they will grow on you if you spend long enough there. Trust me ;).

Of course the surprises do not stop there. Another aspect is that every model is slightly different, so there can be a bit of a learning curve. Luckily most of the important bidet functions have icons.

Bidet Control Panels

Yes...Hands-Free Cleansing!

What, the toilets have control panels? How complicated can they be? As you can see below, some are fairly self-explanatory while others can be a bit tricky. The control panel is most often built into what Westerners would view as an armrest on the right-hand side. However some bidets, particularly in private households, have more customized models which often feature a remote control panel built into the nearby wall instead.

Japanese bidet instructions were sometimes a bit confusing...or just downright hilarious. Thankfully this one came with an English translation.
Thankfully this one came with the translation

What, the toilets have control panels? How complicated can they be? As you can see below, some are fairly self-explanatory while others can be a bit tricky. The control panel is most often built into what Westerners would view as an armrest on the right-hand side. However some bidets, particularly in private households, have more customized models which often feature a remote control panel built into the nearby wall instead.

A collage of Japanese toilet control panels

These control panels are what transforms the mere toilet into a sophisticated bidet, which is the technical term of a fixture intended for cleaning the genitalia. Using the appropriate buttons a warm sanitizing spray will gently clean all your important areas, one for the males and another for the ladies. Many inside flats and private residences include the ability to adjust the temperature of this cleansing spray. Some even feature a strategically positioned blow dryer to be used afterwards! Have no fear if not, all it takes is a single square of paper to dry off and you're set.

The amazing Japanese toilet paper roll holder

The Toilet Paper Holder

These things are awesome! They have a lightweight flap that overhangs the toilet paper roll and has a downward curve along its front side that features perforated teeth. Thanks to gravity and a slight upwards tug this handy little device tears off individual t.p. square for you.

But the fancy features don't stop there. Rather than have a cylindrical mount that runs through the toilet paper tube and requires 5+ seconds to reload, Japanese toilet paper holders feature one-inch plastic prongs that flip out on either side to hold the roll in place and can be changed in literally one second. (Some Westerners will recognize these as being very similar to the paper towel holders which some people have in their kitchen.)

To remove an empty roll you simply flip up the overhanging flap and lift the old tube straight up. New rolls are loaded from the bottom, it's pure genius! It is simple yet effective innovations like that which make visiting Japan an unforgettable experience. Ask anyone who has ever visited.

The amazing Japanese toilet paper roll holder

  HoliDaze Tip   These one-of-a-kind toilet paper holders can be purchased individually at department stores throughout Japan. They make amazing gifts for friends back home because they are 1) useful on a daily basis; 2) unquestionably unique; and 3) great conversation starters.

The amazing Japanese toilet paper roll holder

Bathroom Noises

We've all been there, whether a culprit or the audience. Admit it. After all, sounds have a tendency to be audible to those in the adjoining room thanks to thin walls and doors without insulation. But many of these Japanese bidets combat this by featuring a type of audio masking that is designed to cover any sounds generated by the user. Some are triggered by a button or hand-operated motion sensor, others simply by exerting pressure on the toilet seat, but they all sound exactly the same: like flushing water.

Otohime, the Sound Princess, muffles any noises you make while on the toilet
Motion activated "Sound Princess" muffles any noises you make while on the toilet (found in a public restroom)

After making a comment about this to Mayu I learned that apparently this feature is referred to as Otohime, the Sound Princess. Custom models even have the ability to play bowel-relaxing music instead of the flushing water sound, to help you "loosen up" -- if you so desire. When it comes to Japanese toilets the only limitation is your imagination!

Flushing

This varies greatly between models. Often it is a button without an icon. Other times it is a push-button built into the basin itself. Sometimes it is even a traditional Western-style one-directional knob -- although the vast majority of the time the knob rotates both directions, one for small flushes (小) and another for larger passes (大).

Toilet Slippers

At the entrance of every residence there is a front landing that is used for removing shoes, as well as any outwear or umbrellas. However inside each bathroom there is a separate set of toilet slippers that never leaves the confines of that space. Bathroom visitors slip them on as they enter the room and remove them on their way out. These keep everyone's feet and socks clean.

The Bathroom Sink

When traveling around Japan you will notice that many of the washlets in flats and private residences have the sink built into the wash basin. The logic behind this is fairly simple: after each flush the washbin has to refill with water to prepare for the next flush, so why not first use that water to wash your hands. Besides the obvious water-saving factor, another upside is that you are filling up the washbin with water which has a slight soapy residue to it. This helps to keep the toilet clean.

The water runs for about twenty seconds, a perfect length of time for washing your hands. Plus there is no need for hot or cold knobs as the water is already the perfect temperature.

Toilets with built-in sinks found in apartments and restaurants throughout Tokyo

Back when I had a home (in my pre-nomad days) I tried so hard to have one of those fancy Japanese toilets installed. I don't care about the bidet functions but I really do like the built-in sinks. Of course that has not been an easy task. They just don't sell them in the States. The only current option is to buy a bidet toilet seat and swap out the seats on your Western toilet.

However not all Japanese toilets have this built-in sink. Many look like the one below and feature a separate, traditional sink. These are common in public, high traffic areas such as airports, restaurants, hotels, and nightclubs.


Hotel room toilet

 

Can't Forget The Squat Toilets!

No article on Japanese toilets would be complete without mentioning squat toilets. Although these are not a Japanese invention, they can be found throughout Japan. As such it is best to familiarize yourself with them.

The first experience can be a little strange but some people argue that this method is actually healthier and more efficient. To read more on that debate, I was recently surprised to find that Wikipedia even has a page on Human Defecation Postures.

 

  Have you seen any interesting Japanese bathrooms? Did I leave anything out?

Published in Japan

Having overstayed the expected three days in sleepy Sahura village, the locals had begun to suss our familiar faces. Word had gone round that we were long termers. Shopkeepers smiled. Stray dogs wagged their tails. Even persistent tour guides had given up trying to entice us with jungle trek packages. For rather than resting at one of the tourist lodges and getting up at sunrise to spy tigers and rhinos, our mornings were spent playing with the children from OCWC- the Orphan Children Welfare Centre.

There are thirteen children altogether. They scramble. They climb. They kiss. They hug. They squeeze, tug, shout, pull, skip, giggle, tickle and run. Now, I am the oldest of five very boisterous siblings. I babysat an equally boisterous little boy and his clingy baby sister of six years. I had just finished a fifteen month teaching contract, including kindergarten classes. Nothing could have prepared me for the relentless energy of these Nepali children. We swung them round, juggling two, three children on an arm. I remembered ‘a leg and a wing, to see the king’ and spent hours bouncing them into the air and onto the grass. We chased the boys, blew kisses to the girls, caught kisses from all of them and danced on request. Nothing was ever enough, and introducing ball games opened a whole new can of worms!

Jyoti. Jaya. Jyomi. Babita. Sangita. Sanju. Kamari. Nabina. Jeet. Samir. Bimala. Susma. Salina. Thirteen children, one bedroom and four beds. Four stone walls and a stone floor, with one ABC poster hanging from the door. Down the corridor they also have a kitchen, and nineteen year old Jyoti spends day after day preparing roti and dhal bhat for the family. Mouses scurry about in the rice barrels and cockroaches swarm from behind the sink whenever it is time to wash the dishes. Jyoti can operate a rolling pin like no-one else I know. One hand smooths perfect chappatis while the other stirs masala chai in the pot, and always she talks. Her voice cracks with worry about when she might find a husband. I told her, in a firm voice, that not only is she beautiful but she makes the best bread I have ever tasted. Any man will be lucky to have her.

Three years her junior, Jyomi is better at maths than cooking. Too old for the ball games outside, she spends her mornings bent over text books because she is in her final year of high school; exams are fast approaching. She can’t make the extra revision classes because they are before school hours and she can’t ride a bicycle. No buses run early enough past the orphanage to get her there on time. A Japanese tourist pays for her to attend state school but these pre-paid fees expire soon. Without another sponsor, Jyomi won’t be able to attend college. The house mother says she will join Jyoti- mother figure to twelve and distributor of daily rice onto tin plates. With sponsorship though, she’ll be able to study Economics at a college in Naranghat.

The kids of Nepal after the earthquake....still smiling!
The kids of Nepal after the earthquake....still smiling

Babita knows the moves to every Bollywood dance routine there is. Sangita is top of her class in every subject and last night learned how to play chess. Sanju is trying to learn a new English word every day. Samir is very quiet. He gets the most impatient if we are ever too hot or tired to play ball and will often sleep in the day, face to the wall. Jeet is beautiful. All hollowed out cheeks and dark, in-set eyes, he laughs more than he talks. Bimala is just about the clingiest child I have ever met. She lolls, lounges and leans, pushes, pulls and pinches. Nabina is the tiniest and most tomboy like six year old I have ever known – her legs like matchsticks under her over-sized and bottle green school skirt. She is my guilty favourite. Kamari, at thirteen, is silent and sad. She sits cross-legged on the carpet with the other children but to be a teenager in this stone room must be so, so hard. Susma is two years old and breath-takingly, lump-in-your-throat, heart-stoppingly adorable. Jaya is eighteen and learning guitar. He wants to be a tour guide, a waiter, a rickshaw driver, everything. Salina reminds me of my teenage sister back at home. She calls us ‘beautiful darlings’ and asks to borrow lipstick.

Living with this family was harder than I ever imagined. The conditions are dire and, as a result, the smells are pretty awful too. Perched right on the very edge of Chitwan National Park, Sahura village is intolerably hot. The humidity can get so bad that walking feels like wading through soup and breathing means swallowing warm, stale air. You sweat just sitting still. Rats, mice, cockroaches and ants split their time equally between the bedroom and the shared kitchen. The children all have headlice, the two boys have scabies and all of them suffer terribly from skin infections. At 7pm, when the power cuts out, the orphanage and the village around it are plunged into pitch black darkness. Usually, the water runs out simultaneously. Going to bed by candlelight, blind to any lurking rodents and reeking of not just my own, but fifteen other people’s sweat, demands a good sense of humour and a lot of perspective. As does eating the rice, after we have just fished out the resident rat from the barrel!

Backpacking anywhere, and particularly around Asia, does of course give you a pretty thick skin. Cockroach hunting (or cockroach eating) and knee-sweats are all part of the fun and waking up to views of the Himalaya certainly make it more than worth it in Nepal. What we were not prepared for was having all of our stereotypes about orphans confirmed on day one. The children really do have nothing but the clothes they stand up in. Those clothes really are patched together with bits of other material. They really do sleep on soiled, filthy bed sheets and there really isn’t any running water or electricity for most of the day. Coming face to face with that situation is something I will never forget. Getting to know each wonderful, ball-of-energy, giggling child was equally unforgettable. Putting them onto the school bus and being there when they got home, asking about their day and playing with them until dark filled me with a sense of something I’d never felt before. As clichéd as it sounds, volunteering really did teach me more than I could ever teach them. For, no matter how dirty her uniform is, Jyomi gets up and goes to school. No matter how long it has been since baby Susma was even acknowledged, she greets everyone with a smile. However hormonal Jyoti is feeling, she still gets up at 5.30am and makes thirteen people breakfast in a dark kitchen. Being a part of their life, if only for a short while, was truly humbling.

Taking the teenagers cycling, learning how to cook Nepali style, weeding the garden with the little ones, chasing the chickens outside, introducing toothbrushes, riding atop a local bus to go food shopping, carrying kilos of rice on the back of broken bikes....every single day was an adventure. The children howled with laughter everytime an elephant strolled past their window and, still not quite used to them, we ran outside to stare and snap yet more amazing photographs of their apparently ‘‘so boring’’ village. Kicking the very muddy ball at each other was a favourite game of Jeet and Nabina’s and, more than once, I was reminded of my own family back in the UK and the little annoying things about them I missed. It was no coincidence that living at OCWC filled us with thoughts of loved ones. Looking after one another is what these children do best...even when it does mean Jaya pedalling 100mph on his bike with Samir on the back, just to make him laugh after a lost game of football!

On our last night in Chitwan, the children regaled us with crayon drawings and cards and decorated the whole orphanage in leftover Christmas tinsel. Babita showcased her very best Bollywood moves and the whole family partied together to the beat of Hindi soundtracks. We danced like I’d never danced before and went to bed that night sweatier and smellier than ever. Waving goodbye to them the next morning was one of the saddest moments of my life. Telling Jyomi that we’ve raised enough money to send her to college will, I’m sure, be one of the happiest.

Published in Nepal

Montreal is an amazing city and arguably the best in all of Canada (take that Toronto!) but it's also one of those cities that takes time to reveal herself to you. Unfortunately when passing through Montreal briefly for vacation or on a road trip, this type of deep understanding is not always possible.

To truly begin to grasp the magnificence of Montreal you must see her underbelly, live it like a local and experience it all. Here's are a few quick suggestions on how to experience Montreal like a local:

Eat Like A Local

Fairmount Bagel in Montreal, the best bagel in Canada

Montreal is known for its bagels and one of the oldest and most authentic local establishments to enjoy them is Fairmount Bagel. Dating back to 1919, Fairmount is known throughout Canada as the best bagels in the country. Just one bite and you will understand why. Order your personal favorite "all dressed" and then watch the workers hand make and bake more bagels while you wait for it to be served.

Poutine is Canadian comfort food

Poutine is a classic Canadian comfort food and there is no shortage of places to find this dish in Montreal. There is also no shortage of top five and top ten lists of the best poutine joints in Montreal scattered around the web. It's a longstanding debate that will never be settled, however my personal favorite is La Banquise. They don't just serve poutine they serve over thirty different varieties of poutine! My recommendation for all you meat lovers out there is the Three Meats (La Trois Viandes, with ground beef, pepperoni and bacon).

Explore Like A Local

Montreal, Canada is a big bicycle city. At least during the summer.

Montreal is a big bicycle city and a beautiful city to just wander around and randomly explore. But rather than doing this on foot why not rent a bicycle for the day and explore the city on two wheels. Montreal On Wheels rents bicycles and also organizes various tours, if free exploring isn't your cup of tea. They are all great people and have a very local and active community of bicycle enthusiasts supporting them. Always a good way to meet locals.

Montreal is also home to dozens of museums and anyone in the mood for museums should look into getting a Montreal museum pass. It allows for free entry into 35 of Montreal's best museums and is a great way to pack as much learning and culture as possible into a short trip.

Montreal Underground City

Don't forget Montreal's Underground City, built to serve as a warm weather lifeline during those cold Quebec winters. It is composed of over 20 miles of pedestrian tunnels connecting metro stations and apartment complexes to everything from stories, restaurants, movie theatres, banks, offices and more.

Sleep Like A Local

Okay, sleeping like a local might be the trickiest part...namely because visitors don't have a home there, obviously. But to find a temporary home for your Montreal trip then consider checking Airbnb or save time (and a few dollars) by searching the web.

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What other local tips would you suggest for visitors to Montreal?

  flickr // chrisgold earlysound beautyisintheeye2 xiaozhuli

Published in Canada

Auckland is one of the most fun and most beautiful cities in the world. It is also a very popular tourist destination. However sometimes the most rewarding experiences can be found when you escape the tourist crowds and blaze your own trail and get off the beaten path. That having been said, here are my picks for the best offbeat sights and activities in Auckland, New Zealand.

The Auckland skyline -- and boatline
Photo via Trover

Odyssey Sensory Maze

Unlike anything else I have ever experienced, the Odyssey Sensory Maze is exactly what the name suggests: an invigorating journey that will stimulate all of your senses and leave you wanting more. It only takes about 30 minutes to travel through this diverse collection of differently themed sections, each distinctly different from the one before it. Each section features unique obstacles, lighting, music and yes, even smells. There is a jungle zone, a cave zone, a space zone, and...well...you'll just have to discover the rest for yourself.

Tiritiri Matangi Island, Auckland, New Zealand
Photo via Trover

Tiritiri Matangi Island

Island-hopping in the Hauraki Gulf is a popular pastime but many tourists -- even native Aucklanders -- never make it past Rangitoto and Waiheke islands. Yes, Tiritiri Matangi is a bit further away than those two (a 75-minute ferry ride), however the trip is more than worth it. This wildlife sanctuary is home to nearly a hundred different species of birds and therefore a must for both nature lovers and ornithologists alike. Plus if you don't want to go alone you can easily join a Tiritiri tour.

Glenbrook Vintage Railway

Take a trip back in time by visiting the Glenbrook Vintage Railway. It's nearly an hour south of the city but you'll feel a world away! Come early and learn about the classic trains and the history of the railway from local volunteers before riding the train up to Waiuku. The train carriages are all perfectly restored and in immaculate condition. They even have open-air carriages that are perfect for capturing amazing photographs of the countryside. After arriving in Waiuku you can spend the day exploring and then either catch the return train to Glenbrook or continue back up to Auckland.

Matakana Village Market, Auckland, New Zealand
Photo by Nayika via Trover

Matakana Village

Located about 45 minutes north of the city, there is so much to do in here that you could easily turn a Matakana day-trip into a 3 or 4 day mini vacation. The village is most known for its Farmers' Market every Saturday, however there is much more to explore than just that. From dozens of vineyards and countless boutique restaurants and family owned B&Bs, Matakana is an amazing place that is always hard to leave.

Karekare Beach

Auckland and the surrounding area has no shortage of beaches, however Karekare is completely overlooked by most foreign tourists. The result is a pristine beach nestled in the countryside with virtually no signs of life around it. It is the perfect location for a relaxing day-trip or a brief escape from the hustle and bustle of the big city. The black sand gets incredibly hot in the afternoon sun, so this destination is best visited early in the day. Plus if you get bored with the beach just follow the trail through the lush vegetation and you will be rewarded with some spectacular waterfalls.

Karekare Beach Beach, Auckland, New Zealand
Photo by Umar via Trover

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Published in New Zealand
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