Thanks to movies like Hostel, I think using hostels when traveling has gotten a bad rep. I can't tell you how many times I have people reference that movie to me when I say that yes, I only stay in hostels while traveling abroad. I personally love staying in hostels! No matter how old I get I will probably never stop using hostels while I travel. I've said it time and again, I'm cheap. I can't stand spending money if I don't have to, which is another reason hostels are a great alternative to pricey hotels when traveling!
This magnificent hostel in Indonesia has a staff of 55 (including two professional chefs) yet costs only $6 USD a night! See More Photos
Hostels are not only a great way to save money but a fantastic way to meet other travelers. I'm a social butterfly of sorts so any time I get to meet new people, I get a little too excited!
Bunk beds... lots and lots of bunk beds! Unless you're staying in private rooms -- which defeats the f'ing purpose of a hostel -- you can expect huge, well sometimes, rooms packed with bunks. I don't pay extra to stay in private rooms, unless I need the privacy for a night or two, so I mostly stay in the larger dorm rooms since those are always the cheapest ones.
Back Home Hostel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, one of my favorites! See More Photos
I've staying in some massive dorms where I felt as if I was the only one in the room, I had tons of space, it wasn't cramped, and there was more than enough room to store all my stuff. Sometime, dorms are smaller but still packed with bunks. This room I stayed in while I was in Rome was one of the smaller dorms where we didn't have a whole lot of room to put our stuff away.
You can expect to meet some stellar travelers just like you! Being someone who is obsessed with traveling, I thoroughly enjoy meeting people from all over the world. I'm always amazed when staying in hostels how I can meet people from every corner of the world but still manage to meet people close to home! At this same hostel in Rome, I met another Gamma Phi from Missouri. It was so cool to meet a fellow sister halfway around the world! I've met people that I'm Facebook friends with and keep in contact with.
Expect to meet some really awesome staff members that can give you lots of great inside tips for the city that you're in! While I love hitting all the big tourist sights, I also enjoy getting to know the local side of a city! Now, sometimes you may come across a staff member who isn't all that friendly, or one who gives you terrible advice... But 99% of my encounters with hostel staff members have always been positive!
One of my favorite parts of hosteling is the exchange of cultures and experiences you get! When we were in Rome, we finally decided to utilize the kitchen since we were sick of eating out. We went to the grocery store up the street from out hostel and went back to make our dinner. There were a few other people in there making their dinners as well. Once we were all done making it, we went to the dining room to eat, we all decided to share what we had made. One guy was from Slovenia and one was from some other area of Italy. We not only met some really cool people, had fun cooking "together", but then also got to taste some food of theirs from their local areas! You don't get experiences like that staying in hotels!
My first time abroad staying in hostels, I wasn't expecting much. I was thinking I'd get a lumpy bed in a crowded room, and would use it only to sleep and shower. What I got was new friends, really comfortable beds (for the most part), and a great environment to hang out and relax after a long day of sightseeing!
The best resource for researching and booking your hostels is TripAdvisor. They have millions of reviews from people just like you and I covering literally every hostel in the world, as well as a price comparison tool to instantly find you the lowest price online.
The air soft as that of Seville in April, and so fragrant that it was delicious to breathe it.
A great collection of breathtaking landscapes dotted with wonderful beaches, a cup of sweet Latin vibe melted in the most sensual language, dramatic pueblos reminding of long gone periods, beautiful cities designed by famous artists seems to be the perfect recipe for romance and Spain is the consequence of their combination which gives it the status of one of the most romantic countries alongside France and Italy.
Seville is the capital of Andalucía, the city of Carmen, the birthplace of Don Juan and the recollect of many artists ― Rossini (The Barber of Seville), Verdi (La fotza del destino), Beethoven (Fidelio), Mozart (Don Giovani and The Marriage of Figaro).
If you want to taste the authentic Spanish culture beautifully mixed with Muslim and Jewish art, the outstanding history and the famous tapas you should definitely visit Spain's fourth largest city, Seville. Laid in the valley of Guadalquivir River, this charming city seems to be a piece of heaven with its magical narrow streets and dozens of orange trees blossoming in an eternal spring.
There are many romantic sights in Seville, some of them famous and some hidden in this Spanish paradise, but the air you breathe here, the delightful design of every single minor construction, the bouncy spirit combined with the streets ‘serenity and the brightness of each day are maybe the most beautiful things Seville has to offer.
Seville Cathedral or Cathedral de Santa Maria de la Sede is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world and the tomb of Christopher Columbus (research still continues), no wonder this beautiful imposing structure is the city's landmark and undeniably a must see while visiting Seville. The cathedral will offer you, besides its imposing beauty, a valuable history lesson, a lovely blend of architectural styles and a piece of Seville’s uniqueness. Can you believe that someone involved in planning the construction actually said: "We shall have a church of such a kind that those who see it built will think we were mad!"?
And so was born the Seville Cathedral, a masterpiece designed to show the world the city's welfare and the Sevillanos' passion.
A fusion of fascinating styles- Mundejar, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque, the Alcazar is a delightful attraction of Seville, maybe the most romantic one considering its unfamiliar and timeless allure, its presence in history, the wonderful gardens and its part in the passionate and destructive love story between Pedro I and his mistress, Dona Maria de Padilla.
Plaza de Espana is an amazing 50,000 square meters semi-circular construction inside Maria Luisa Park, boasting a ground level porch and first-floor consisting in balconies from where visitors can admire the marvelous view. In the center of the square there is a great fountain surrounded by a canal -- perfect for boating.
There are many things you can do or admire in Plaza de Espana but the most enchanted one is probably the chance you have to see the entire Spain concentrated in 48 tiled alcoves along this beautiful square.
Being the point of intersection of several histories, religions and cultures, the city lies somewhere in time between two worlds, keeping the flavor of the oldest one inside, and blowing it out little by little through its cobblestone alleys while the new one still fights for its place.
Spain is known for its autonomous communities and this is not just about the battle between Madrid and Barcelona, it's about the passion that you can notice in people's voices when they talk about the region they belong. Seville's locals are maybe the most enthusiastic persons I've ever met when it comes to their town, leading this pride to the extreme. This might seem unusual to some but the paradox is that once you have lived for a while in Seville and you have learned enough about this beautiful paradise, you will begin to act and think like them.
I've always thought that Seville must be a flamboyant city, even before taking my first trip to Andalucía but I have never imagined that it could be so beautiful and charismatic. Maybe I hadn't read enough about it or maybe it's indeed an underrated destination, but I was irremediably captivated by the way Seville has perfectly identified with the image I've always had about Spain as a country and about everything Spanish- ruffled colored dresses, brunette ladies wearing red lipstick and flowers in their hair, sunny days, guitar music, good will and Latin flame in its purest form.
A city like Seville doesn't fit in an article, no matter how complex the item would be, it might not be entirely revealed in a thousand articles and photos but I still enjoy sharing my lovely memories about it and I will probably continue writing about more interesting things that I've seen and learned during my stay in the beautiful city of Seville.
This was my first trip to Cuba and I had a few questions that even veteran Cuba travelers couldn’t remember answers to.
What currency do I pay in? Do they exchange Canadian or American dollars? As a traveler, they will exchange your money into Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC almost 1:1). Cuban Pesos are local currencies that are not exchanged to travelers. We brought both American and Canadian currency with us and had no issues with exchange either at our hotel. However, they do not accept coins.
Where do I get my currency exchange? Our flight was late at night so the exchange at the airport was closed (although we were told we can get slightly better rates here). Of course, our hotel also provided currency exchange as long as we have our passport and (duh) cash.
Who do I look for when my flight lands? There will be someone holding up a sign of the tour company you signed up with. As you board the bus, this will be the first time you tip so be prepared to bring some American dollar bills.
Should I book an ocean view room? At our hotel, to get an ocean view room, we had to pay an extra $10/day/person + 13% HST so we decided against it. When we arrived at the reception, I tried my luck and asked if there’s a possibility of an upgrade. She showed me a list of prices and it was for $110 to upgrade so we shook our head, but then she told us that since it’s our first time in Cuba, we can get it for $65 and of course we accepted.
Should I tip in gifts or money? How much should I tip? I did both! Every day I left a gift – some clothes I’ve never worn, or jewelry that I never used – along with $1 CUC. For the first day of the week and the last day before I left, I left a nicer gift as well as $2 CUC.
Where should I buy those famous Cuban cigars? There were cigars available for purchase in the hotel gift shop. However, if you have time, go for an excursion to a cigar factory! They’re much cheaper, and honestly, the tour guide will also have some sort of hook up in the city to sell way cheaper cigars from the factory workers. But that’s at your own discretion.
My flight leaves at 9pm, what do I do between check out and time to the airport? You have two options. You can either pay extra for a late check out or have your baggage locked up while you soak up the sun! We paid the extra money for a late check out – reason being that after you’re in the sun you’d want a nice shower and possibly a nap! The public shower at our resort closed at 4pm and we didn’t leave till 6pm. Also, if you’re staying at a resort similar to ours, the resort was entirely outdoors and there’s no such thing as cooling down in an air conditioned bar/restaurant.
Are there any other charges? There is actually a $25 CUC departure tax you have to pay before you leave the airport so be sure not to spend it all! There is no way around it.
Indonesia is a vast and diverse archipelago that continues to impress and surprise longtime expats and even locals. To think that because you've seen Jakarta and done Bali then you "know" Indonesia is to be sorely mistaken. As one expat told me: "Just when you think you're starting to understand Indonesia, that's when you realize you don't understand it at all."
From amazing cultures and regional customs to a seemingly neverending variety of local cuisines, Indonesia is home to more diversity in some of it's larger islands than other nations have in their entirety. Especially when it comes to langauges and dialects, of which the country has over 700 -- and don't think that Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia) is even remotely similar to Javanese (Bahasa Jawa) or Balinese (Bahasa Bali) because its not. After all the slogan of the country is Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, which is Javanese for "Unity In Diversity."
Indonesia is home to some of the friendliest and most hospitable people I have even met. During six months motorcycling around the country and making local friends, even doing a tourism film on Sumatra, I had nothing but good experiences with the best of people. All except for while I was in Bali -- but I'll get to that in a second. For now the most important things to know are:
Both in terms of taste and authenticity, street food kicks all other food's ass. Oh yeah and of course price. Depending where you are in the country you can get a decent meal for around 11,000IDR ($1USD), a little more if you want to splurge and really fill up. Don't worry about getting sick, just go with the street vendor or warung has the most local customers. After all they must be doing something right!
Expect a lot of variety in dishes and sweetness/spiciness depending upon where in the country you travel. However no matter where you visit there will be lots of fried dishes, such as nasi goreng, mie goreng and ayam goreng (rice, noodles, and chicken respectively -- and of course as you probably guessed goreng is Indonesian for fried). Beyond that the variety begins. For every city you visit make sure to ask the locals what their speciality is.
Indonesia has no shortage of spectular views, virgin beaches, challenging mountains, and off the beaten path exploring. When I first arrived there I thought one or two months would be enough. Six months later and I still didn't want to leave. Yet during my travels I had met so many other backpackers, all of which were visiting Yogyakarta, Mount Bromo, and Bali. "Oh plus Gili T and Komodo if we have time" I heard more often than I can count. Hardly any stopped by Sumatra. And none had even thought about Kalimantan or Sulawesi, let alone Papua.
Trust the locals. Ask them where to visit, what to eat, how to have fun. The friends I've made along my journeys through Indonesia have shown me a world of things not covered in any tourist guide book, from traditional pastimes and 5am fishing trips to lesser-known things like panjat pinang and stick-fighting. And of course more virgin beaches than I can keep track of!
My friend Trinity is author of the famous Indonesian book series The Naked Traveler. Last week her newest book went on sale, Across The Indonesian Archipelago. If you are looking for ideas on where to travel in Indonesia then this is both a great resource and an enjoyable read. (And yes, it is in English.)
Especially on the main island of Java, which has a reliable train network and plenty of regular routes. Outside of Java you will have to rely on buses and ferries, the latter of which can have a bit more of an irregular schedule depending on how remote your intended destination may be. However in places like Sulawesi short flights might be a better, albeit more expensive, option.
Renting a motorcycle is also another option. Of course I would only recommend this option for experienced riders, preferably ones already used to driving in the chaotic streets of southeast Asia. For 50,000IDR/day ($5USD) or 650,000-1,000,000IDR/month ($60-90USD) a scooter or motorcycle can be rented, allowing you to go where you want when you want. This has fantastic way to visit small villages and other off the beaten path destinations. It is the only way I ever made it to places like Banyusumurup, the traditional village that makes all of the kris, small Indonesian daggers with mystical powers. Plus despite horror stories of bus thieves and midnight muggings in Sumatra I have yet to encounter any difficulties along the road.
For more read my newest blog post: How To Travel Indonesia By Motorcycle
If you only have one month or less in the country then I would say skip Bali entirely. It is an over-priced, Westernized version of Indonesia where the bulk of the individuals working in the tourism industry are not even Balinese but rather Sudanese or Javanese and have come solely to take your foreign money. As a caucasin here you essentially have dollar signs tattooed across your pale forehead. Plus as with any place that attracts massive notoriety as a tourist hotspot so too come the touts, beggars, scam artists, foreign food (so you can "feel at home") and of course the inflated prices. At the risk of upsetting some of my Balinese friends I'll say it: if you get pickpocketed or robbed anywhere in the country, it most likely will happen here. It is a predators' paradise because the prey keep flying in 365 days a year.
I love #Bangkok but *hate* Khao San Road. I love Indonesia but despise Bali. Spot the trend? Be a traveler, not a tourist. Go for culture!— ⌠ Derek4Real ⌡ (@the_HoliDaze) November 17, 2013
Don't get me wrong, Bali is not all bad -- just the southern part is. Kuta, Denpasar, Sanur, Uluwatu, etc. In fact Googling "kuta is hell on earth" or some near varient will produce several interesting articles by other bloggers on why Bali is only for couples or families looking for all-inclusive four- and five-star resorts and not for backpackers. The eastern and northern parts, most specifically Padangbai and Ubud, weren't nearly as bad as the Kuta area but neither were they that good.
Talon of 1Dad1Kid.com and I crossed paths in real life one day in Sanur. Turns out he and I had the same feelings about this island. If you are unsure about visiting Bali then his post will help you decide if the island is right for you.
I basically can’t encourage people to come to the island. Indonesia has some truly amazing areas, and I think a person’s time and money are better spent exploring other parts of the country.
Indonesia ranks third in the world for total number of cigarette smokers according to the WHO. Almost all of the men smoke, far too many kids, and yes, even the orangutans. The tobacco industry is big business here and as the Western world keeps placing more restrictions on cigarette advertising and marketing the tobacco giants keep pumping more money into southeast Asia. Despite 'No Smoking' signs in places like malls you can often find someone less than a meter away, using the floor as an ashtray.
To make matters worse cigarettes are around 10-14,000IDR ($1-1.25USD) and sold at every family-owned market, corner store and restaurant. Although I quit smoking after moving out of Tokyo in 2009 I have found myself occasionally smoking a kretek cigarette when drinking. Although this is entirely social, if you tried hard to quit cigarettes and do not want to see and smell the temptation everywhere you go, you might best avoid Indonesia. Even as I type this I am sitting in a smoke-filled office in Jakarta.
All in all Indonesia is one country that does not disappoint. There is a reason why so many travelers over the years have come here and then never left. Between the warm, inviting culture, vastness of the country and extensive list of places worthy of exporing, beautiful scenery and delicious food, Indonesia truly has something for everyone. You just have to know what you are looking for.
So you've decided to hit the road, by yourself – talk about being adventurous and brave!! Congrats! :) Whether this is something daunting or just a walk in the park for you, here are a few thoughts I'd like to share with you...
Most people who live in places considered to have a 'normal climate' often long to the south. Yes, sure enough 'south' often has it all, cheap drinks, temperature, beaches, cheap food, cheap hotels, cheap flights...
But what many of these places lack is sights and adventure! And even if they have a bit of that, not too many of us normal people enjoy hiking in the mountains in 40° C (or more!) heat. Most of us at some point get a little sick of the same old thing, even if the beaches on Costa Del Sol might not be exactly like the ones on Gran Canaria, the concept is the same -- Warm, sandy and sunny. As a Norwegian, and particularly a Northern Norwegian, I know all about longing for the southern parts of the world. I may not have been to too many exotic places, but I have spent my fair share of time in Southern Europe, on the beach, flat out, frying in the heat. Now I've "re-discovered" my own country and region that I have gotten a little older.
I moved to the town of Tromso in Troms County, Norway. I moved here predominantly to study, but I fell in love with the town. The town has many positive aspects, firstly during summer time, it never gets dark due to the midnight sun, and during summer there are numerous festivals and activities going on, during the winter, the northern lights dance across the sky almost like magic. The town is located on an island, in the middle of a strait leading up to a fjord. The airport is located in the middle of the island, 5 minutes away from the city centre. The airport has daily flights to other destinations in Norway such as the capital, Oslo, but also international flights linking it to world cities such as London. During my time in Tromso, I worked for three hotels, all at a different end of the scale. The town offers everything from good value 3 star hotels, to high end 5 star hotels. There are major chains located in the city such as Scandic, Radisson BLU and Choice Hotels, yet also smaller chains and independent hotels all offering something unique to the city. As the largest city in Northern Norway. Tromso offers a vibrent night-life, a multitude of shops and leisure, as well as great sights.
When most people think of traveling one of the first things that comes to their mind is where they are going to stay. Some may hire a travel agent to do the booking for them while others may get online and do the research themselves. Either way, 99% of the time their research will lead them to 5 star resorts offering all-inclusive packages. I'm sure that like me, everyone wishes they could stay at these places. The problem is, for the budget traveler, these resorts are super expensive! Of course you didn't need me to tell you that hahaha. Some people may let these steep prices scare them away from their vacation of a lifetime.
The good news is, there is a much much cheaper option called hostels! Until I started traveling I had never even heard of hostels. The more I researched hostels the more I realized how affordable a vacation, pretty much anywhere in the world, could be. When I say affordable I'm talking about $10-20 per night -- or even as low as $2-3/night in some countries! Yeah you read that right.
Now there are drawbacks such as sharing a room with 3-10 other people (male and female), but thats all part of the experience. Most hostels have shared bathrooms, wifi, and a public kitchen for all the guests (which could be anywhere from 10 to 100 people depending on the hostel and the season). Don't get me wrong, hostels aren't for everyone...but if money is the only thing keeping you from seeing the world hostels are perfect for you!
01. The people you will meet. When staying in hostels you will meet people from all over the world doing the same thing you are! It's a great way to practice speaking other languages while also learning more about the planet than you ever did in school. You will quickly realize the similarities and differences between your culture and others. If you are outgoing and open-minded, you will end up with plenty of lifelong Facebook friends from all over the world.
02. You will eat much healthier (and cheaper!) As I mentioned before, most hostels have shared kitchens where you can store groceries and cook your meals. During meal times the kitchen can become very busy and congested, but it's fun to watch people from different countries making their favorite foods while you make yours! Again if your friendly and outgoing you can usually trade dishes with your new friends and try some great new authentic foods from around the world!
03. You will learn about the hidden and "non-touristy" things to do in the area. Most of the people staying in hostels are well traveled individuals that can give you great inside information on things to do in the area you are at, or even their homeland (if you ever make it there). Don't get me wrong, guided tours are great, but with the help of other people at the hostel -- both guests and employees -- you can usually find much better, cheaper options to do with your day. I believe hostels almost force you to get to know the area better because they aren't "all-inclusive." Plus it's always easy to join up with other groups and reduce the cost by splitting it amongst everyone.
04. You can extend the length of your vacation. To some people this might not matter because they only have that one week of vacation time before they have to return to work. But for those who would like to spend more extended periods of time in an area, hostels are definately the best option. In most countries hostels are pretty common and finding them in different cities along your trip will not be an issue. Of course, sometimes it is hard for me to move on to a new hostel because I do not want to leave all the new friends I have just made!
This magnificent hostel in Indonesia has a staff of 55 (including two professional chefs) yet costs only $6 USD a night! See More Photos
05. Lets face it, it's all about the $$$$$$$ I tried not putting this item one on here.....but the fact remains that hostel prices cannot be beat. They will save you a fortune while also giving you the most authentic experience you could possibly ask for. Like I said earlier, depending on the season and country, hostels can cost anywhere from $2-20 per night. I don't care if I'm sleeping in a hammock, you simply cannot beat a few dollars to stay two blocks from the beach in Mexico or a 30-second walk from all the fun in Thailand. I'll take it!!
Read More Hostel Life: What To Expect
I'm sure that there are plenty of other reasons why hostels could be the best option for you, but that's just it.... It's all about you!! Hostels leave your entire trip up to you, not the tour guides that are just trying so hard to get your precious money. Everyone will have their reasons why they love or hate hostels, because after all they are not for everyone. So if you're looking to book your next vacation, make sure to do some research on hostels and give yourself more money to explore wherever you are visiting!
Learning a new language, whether for business or for pleasure, can be hard after adolescent years but don't let that discourage you! What makes it hard is not having anyone to speak the language with. But that can be solved. All is asked of you is to dedicate some time. Knowing three languages myself, you can quickly forget simple words when you do not use your languages often. Here are some tips to help enhance vocabulary and pronunciation:
Why is solo travel better than traveling with friends or family? Sure, there are many pros and cons to each -- but it is up to everyone to decide which works best. Many of us who are single tend to do most of our traveling solo. Until recently I wasn't sure how I felt about that but as of late I couldn't be happier than when I'm traveling alone.
If your like me and are on the fence about traveling alone or always trying to dig up a travel buddy, consider these reasons and you may just end up wanting to travel solo.
And no I'm not talking about actual luggage. When I say less baggage I am referring to the amount of hassle that untimely comes with anyone you are traveling with. This could just be the age of the person (kids, elderly), the amount of luggage they bring with them and consequently drag through the airport, and also their personality. When you travel solo the only person's "baggage" you have to worry about is your own.
Sitting together on a plane always seems like a good idea in theory, it's always nice to have a familiar face, but in all actuality how much talking do you actually do with your traveling partner? In my case it is next to zero. I usually am way to tired to talk or end up putting in head phones to listen to music or catch the movie that's playing. So if sitting alone is your reason for not traveling alone, you might want to reconsider it. I LOVE sitting alone.
I can't tell you how many times the line at airport security has gotten me into a tizzy. It's bad enough when it's just one person going through but if you've got a few people in your party then you can bet your ass your going to be waiting awhile. This also comes in handy when traveling internationally. Just recently I was in a predicament where lines through Customs and Immigration were very long, thank goodness it was just myself traveling or I probably would not have made my connecting flight.
I can only take another person's opinion on what travel plans should be so many times before I actually start to get annoyed. Traveling solo is the perfect chance for you to do what YOU want to do. There is no one else telling you when to go, where to go, and how to do it. Consequently this is also excellent for solo road trips.h3>5. Come And Go As You Please
This pretty much goes hand in hand with the previous statement. It's really nice to be on your own schedule as far as your plans go. Traveling with multiple people or even just one can often make making plans seem difficult. While there is always compromise, there is just never enough time on a trip to get to see and do what everyone wants.
It's good for your soul to try something new and different all by yourself. After my recent trip to Costa Rica, I learned the importance of just that. If you constantly feel scared or nervous to venture out by yourself, your life will not be as fulfilling.
Once you've decided to venture out on your own you will really see how far you can push yourself. Whether it is learning a new language or swimming with sharks you will really test your limits. I spent a good part of this Summer finding out who I am and I couldn't be happier. Perhaps you'll find out you don't like traveling alone but at least you can say you did it.
Push that threshold just a little bit, please? If you knew me 8 months ago you'd never hear me say that. I speak from experience when I tell you how good you will feel after. After embracing a new culture and language (which really pushed my threshold) I've come out of it a new person. The newness of life EXCITES me now!
Making new friends while trekking Annapurna Sanctuary in Nepal
This is one of the best parts about solo travel. This could also push your threshold if you're a bit shy. It will force you to interact with others (something I'm still working on when traveling). You'll never know who you will meet and what they could potentially offer you in life. Whether its new friends or simply networking with other companies, putting yourself out there is one of the best things you can do.
Who doesn't love a good story? I have more stories from traveling this Summer then I know what to do with. The best part about this is you can put it directly into your website or blog. Not blogging? Well keep a journal of your travels, trust me you'll want to remember the details.
So whether or not solo travel is for you, you have to admit that it does sound pretty amazing. From finding yourself to networking you really can't go wrong. If you're not quite up to solo travel then I encourage you to start small. This can be simply taking a road trip to the next state alone. I would also encourage that if you are traveling with multiple people to take some time apart. Discover the city, town, or state you are visiting on your own. Finding simple ways to get your solo travel in will not only fulfill you as a person but make you crave it as part of a regular getaway.
I first visited Myanmar in December 2010 shortly after the elections took place, an event that received mixed reactions internationally and signalled that a potential change was on the horizon.
The release of Aung San Suu Kyi from decades of house arrest became a key catalyst for the international community lifting the informal travel boycott that has kept many travellers away from the country in recent times. Myanmar has appeared in every ‘top travel destination’ list online and in published articles this year, as travel companies begin creating new itineraries for group tours and more independent travellers add the country to their round-the-world plans.
Visiting Myanmar feels like opening a door into a charming world where time has been standing still. You will share the roads with horse and ox carts, motorbikes, bicycles, trishaws, pedestrians and an increased presence of cars in larger towns. You will witness a strong Buddhist faith where monks interact with civilians on a comfortable and regular basis. You will visit temples that rival those of Angkor in Cambodia and explore a beautiful and diverse landscape of lakes, rivers, mountains, temples and caves. You will be invited into the basic but comfortable homes of friendly locals and will be served tea everywhere you go. You will interact with people living a traditional and basic life in the countryside and will also meet those embracing change, education, modern technology and the future.
You will be welcomed into the country by people who are proud of a culture they are keen to share with you, who are equally curious about your lifestyle and country.
To ensure you get the most out of a visit to this fascinating country, whilst also remembering you are part of a generation who has the opportunity to shape the impact increased tourism has on Myanmar, consider the following:
1. Enjoy the change of pace. From the moment you step off the plane and join the immigration queue at Yangon airport, you will feel that life has decreased a pace or two. Don’t become that tourist who complains about a bus delay, gets frustrated when a flight is cancelled, sighs during a lengthy hotel check-in or moans about having to wait to board a boat that you can see sitting ready in the water. Instead, enjoy the extra time you have to take in your surroundings, engage with the locals, be patient and most of all keep smiling.
2. Learn to say min-ga-laba (hello) and jeh-za-beh (thank you). Not only is it good ‘traveller etiquette’ to learn a few local words wherever you visit, but in Myanmar this small gesture creates opportunities for some memorable and entertaining conversations. If you can’t remember the local word for hello don’t worry – it will be called out to you so often you will start to learn it by heart.
3. Myanmar has been in the news for all the wrong reasons in the last few decades and it’s difficult not to form pre-conceived opinions and judgements. Leave them at home. The best experience you can have in Myanmar is your OWN experience. Decide if the locals’ reputation for being some of the friendliest people in the world is true by interacting with them and making up your own mind. Assess whether the Bagan temples rival that of Angkor in Cambodia by seeing them yourself. Critique the local cuisine by enjoying local food cooked and served by local people. Educating yourself with the combination of factually correct news and personal experiences is the best way to form opinions.
4. Don’t be afraid to turn left when everyone else turns right. Many of my best experiences were riding a bicycle with no clear destination in mind, coming across a little village or stopping to talk to a farmer on his way back from the market. But if someone tells you to turn right because you are not allowed to turn left, do not let curiosity get the better of you and respect their wishes.
5. The Burmese have a local saying “why use ten words when you can use ten thousand”. They like to talk and engaging with locals is a highlight of any visit to Myanmar. Just let them lead the conversation. They won’t mind questions about their family or occupation but if they want to talk about politics or the government, they will bring it up. If they appear uncomfortable with a particular conversation, respect this and don’t pursue it.
6. Leave your cynicism at home. If someone approaches you on the street, don’t assume they are about to try to scam you or sell you something. I found that most locals simply enjoy interacting with foreigners and are genuinely interested in learning about you and your country. I never felt the need to be rude or aggressive or walk away from someone and every conversation I had in Myanmar left me with a smile on my face and a warm heart.
7. If you want to party, stay over the border in Thailand. If you want to observe life in Myanmar, get up early with the locals. Burmese people are most active earlier in the day as fishing boats head out on Inle Lake, vendors set up their stalls in local markets and horse and carts head to the Bagan temples to beat the crowds. One of my best days in Myanmar involved a cold 4am start as I watched the hive of activity by the water in Nyaungshwe before boarding a small wooden boat to glide through the misty sunrise alongside fisherman and locals heading to the markets.
8. Don’t instantly dismiss the offer of a ‘local tour’ if someone approaches you on the street. Outside of the ‘main four’ (Yangon, Bagan, Inle Lake, Mandalay) you are unlikely to see travel agents or local tours advertised in your hotel or guest house. If you want to explore the local area, you will need local transport and some of my most memorable days were shared with a local guide who approached me to suggest something I may find interesting. One of the most entertaining conversations I had was with a trishaw driver who didn’t speak English, as we tried to agree a time to meet.
9. Bring your camera. Burmese people LOVE getting their photo taken and showing them an image of themselves on your digital camera is a great way to break the ice and entertain young children. I lost count of the number of people who approached me and asked me to take their photo, including a novice monk in Yangon, almost every child I met and a woman in Monywa who actually chased me down the street before I realised what she wanted!
10. Be careful of drinking local water like you would in any developing country, but don’t be afraid of street food. Some of my best experiences were sitting on a small stool on the side of the road, chatting with the local vendor who had just whipped me up a quick meal for less than a dollar.
Mrauk-U via insmu74
11. Don’t visit Myanmar if you don’t like attention. Foreigners are still a novelty in many parts of the country and almost all locals you meet will greet you with a smile or simply stare at you with wide eyes. On my first day in Mandalay I was sitting in the back of a trishaw returning waves and even having conversations in moving traffic with locals who were passing me by on motorbikes and bicycles. Whilst the constant attention may become tiring, you are unlikely to feel hassled like you may in other countries. If you need a break from the constant attention take a nap behind a closed door rather than be rude to someone who only has friendly intentions! If you have chosen to join a group tour in Myanmar, don’t become a ‘tourist on a group tour’! Don’t mistake curious and friendly attention with being hassled.
12. Don’t plan a fixed itinerary. It’s ok to have a general plan, especially if you have limited time but leave enough flexibility to stay longer at places you like or to cope with that inevitable bus cancellation or broken down vehicle. I chose to stay an extra day in Monywa and I was forced to stay an extra day in Inle Lake when all the buses were full. Adapt to changes in your schedule without getting stressed by them.
13. Bring enough money! There are no cashpoint machines in Myanmar and USD is the easiest currency to change. But don’t think reports of notes needing to be in pristine condition are exaggerated – they are not! I had a $50 note that had a curled corner and had difficulty changing it. Carry your foreign notes somewhere where they will not crease, fold, tear or curl – inside the pages of a thick book for example. Also bring more than you think you need, as there is nothing worse than missing out on something you want to do because the money you need is sitting safely in a bank account that you can’t access.
14. Recognise the existence of poverty without ignoring or contributing to it. The existence of poverty in our world is a difficult reality to accept, especially when you have a full stomach, warm clothes and a comfortable room to return to at the end of the day. As difficult as it is, don’t encourage children to ask foreigners for money by giving it to them. Avoid hand-outs and don’t take advantage of someone who is trying to make a living, by haggling to a price you know is below what a service or product is worth. I also like to spread my travel wealth by using different drivers, guides and vendors.
15. Keep your wits about you. It’s extremely rare to hear negative stories about crime or attacks on foreigners but don’t be too naïve about the friendliness of locals, you just never know. Last but not least, never forget the phrase “your shadow stays with you in Myanmar even when the sun goes down”
The phrase ‘you get out what you put in’ is particularly applicable to a visit to Myanmar. Taking the time to engage with the locals, endure local over-ground transport and explore the countryside will reward you with an energising, thought-provoking and inspirational experience.