Raging motorbikes, breathtaking natural wonders, a thriving art and culture community, the northern region of Vietnam is truly as stunning as it sounds. Covering the larger area of land and has all the world heritage sites, northern Vietnam is something not to be missed in your lifetime. Below are the top 8 reasons why you should see it for yourself.
Everything about Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital city can be summarized into two words; organized chaos. Countless motorbikes of all shapes and sizes, bicycles old and new, a diverse mix of pedestrians from street vendors to your retired tourists from Europe or the Americas, kids crossing the buzzing streets without any care in the world, and the ever-growing number of cars, both luxurious and mid-range, are just a few of the things you could expect roaming the streets of the old quarter. Crazy and ludicrous at it seems the city is ironically thriving and is showing nothing but continuous growth over the years; which obviously is more than enough reasons for you to make a stopover.
And since you’re already here, make sure you do some essential sightseeing such as going around the 36 old streets of Hanoi or take a stroll around HoanKiem Lake, where everyone hangs out, especially during the weekends.
Probably the most popular business idea in the country, and most probably one of the most profitable as well, the coffee culture in Vietnam is not just a morning or afternoon drink. Coffee has been super essential in the people’s lives that it is now a lifestyle. And if you don’t drink coffee at all, your friend will think you’re too uncool to hang out with.
Giang Coffe in Hanoi with their famous signature drink, the Egg Coffee
Because it's superbly popular amongst the youngsters and even their older counterparts, cafés are found in every corner of each street in the country. You’ll be surprised if you end up in an alley with zero cafés on sight. Aside from the countless number of cafés popping up every day all over the region, there is also an increasing number of creative mixes of coffees and such in the region; which somehow turned into tourism products like the Egg Coffee. Check out Giang Coffee House here.
For thousands of years, Vietnam had to struggle and survive under the rule of different colonizers, from the early Chinese empires to the end of the American War in mid-1970s. Although they are all long gone for some decades now, there’s no doubt that all of them have left marks everywhere, especially in the northern region, where a lot of these iconic events happened.
As a first-time visitor of Vietnam, it’s no doubt that visiting the north is a good introduction to the country. There are many things to learn about and a lot of stories to tell, specifically in the northern region as it’s been around longer than the southern counterpart. With the mix of cultures, languages, traditions, and even ways of living, there will always be something to learn every day when traveling across the cities.
The French has left so much influence in the northern part of Vietnam. From its architecture, urban planning, bridges, gastronomy, fashion, and even the lifestyle, there is no way a European would not be so surprised with the similarities between the two nations.
Northerners are typically viewed as the more sophisticated and more eloquent Vietnamese because of their daily habits, the way they live, and the things they spend on, especially when it comes to fashion trends and dining activities. But I guess you’d have come over yourself for you to experience it. There’s definitely nothing else like it in Southeast Asia.
One of the main reasons why we love the northern region is because of this, the classical art scene. Sometimes loud, but most of the time it’s underground. Growing up in a socialist regime surrounded by the brightest and the most cultured individuals in the country, northern Vietnam is the place to visit for classical arts and culture. And if you’re the type of person who likes the finest things in life, someone who appreciates arts, paintings, musicals, operas, ballets, and Sunday brunches, then you’re making the right decision to come over here.
Thanks again to the European influence and its preservation throughout generation after generation, these things have been kept alive long enough for everybody to enjoy, both for locals and foreigners.
You might have noticed, or probably you’ll notice once you get to Vietnam that the word "Nguyen" is displayed everywhere in the country. Even more so when you visit the northern area most probably because it originated in the imperial capital of Hue. As many might wonder, the word Nguyen is the most popular family name in the country and the last empire to rule Imperial Vietnam.
Whether you’re a history buff or not, knowing just a bit of information about how the Vietnamese emperors ruled the country, even when it was divided into two, can be an insightful lesson when visiting the northern region. The best places to visit to find more information about the imperial period can be found in two cities, Hanoi capital and Hue.
Being one of the top exporters of rice all over the globe, the whole of Vietnam obviously survives on rice and noodles all-year-long. From the simplest Com Binh Dan to an upscale Vietnamese gourmet restaurant, you will never go hungry in this part of the world. And with the northern region having the most diverse options for gastronomy and dining, the opportunities for you to be able to taste the most genuine Vietnamese dishes are endless.
Whether you fancy the not-so-adventurous dishes such as Pho or Bun Cha to the extremes like deep-fried snake meat or barbecued dog meat, the possibilities and options are insanely vast. Expect moments where you’ll start questioning your own taste buds and probably even your mom’s cooking. All in all, Vietnam is bursting with the best culinary to offer not only in Asia, but also on a global scale.
Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (photo gallery)
Possibly the best reason why you need to spend most of your travel time in the northern region of Vietnam, to discover the unworldly landscapes and sceneries as seen in some notable Hollywood films such as the recent Kong: Skull Island. Witness the towering limestone karst rocks of Halong Bay on a luxury cruise, do a short boat trip while immersing yourself in the serene landscapes of Ninh Binh province, and walk through staggering terrains of Phong Nha-Ke Bang cave systems, there is never a shortage of adventures to enlist yourself into.
Accesses to these world wonders have never been easier. Thus, there’s no reason for you not to be able to do it at least once in your lifetime.
You can hardly find someone who does not like to travel. Some people get going whenever they have an opportunity; while others do intensive planning before embarking on their journey. The thrill of getting to know an unknown land, its people and its culture is amazing, so you should never leave an opportunity to explore an unexplored land.
If you are bitten by the wanderlust bug every now and then, then you must keep finding new motivations to visit new places and be prepared for new experiences. But traveling is incomplete without a suitable companion. So what would you do if you find no one accompany you? Fret not! Books make a great companion and can also keep you wanting for more. A good travel book can not only take you to a new place mentally but can also instill the desire to get out and get going to that very place.
So here is a list of five books that will keep your wanderlust alive forever:
Even though this is not a typical travel book, the story can become an inspiration for many. The main character of Into the Wild, young man named Chris McCandless abandons his life to become a vagabond and explore the American West. He also prepares to live amongst the wilds of Alaska, but destiny had something else in store for him. His journey took a strange turn and he perished alone in the wild at the back of an abandoned bus.
McCandless’ perspective of the society’s focus on wealth and materialistic happiness and disconnect from Mother Nature has shaken many people and it can have a deep impact on you as well. So if you want to experience a new perspective of the connection between man and wild, you ought to read this book. You never know, you might also plan a holiday to Alaska to experience the chills of McCandless’ journey!
If you are looking for one book that has everything including travel advice, inspiration and the thrills of traveling, you cannot look beyond ‘The Tao of Travel’. In this book the author, Paul Theroux celebrates fifty years of wandering the globe and collecting pieces of writing from books that shaped him as reader and a traveler. Theroux is also credited for reviving the fortune of travel books in the mid 1970’s when the popularity of such books was almost dying.
The Tao of Travel is basically a compilation of the author’s favorite quotes, some of which are taken from his own books and some from other renowned travel authors. So, for a one-of-a-kind of experience, never forget to pack this book (along with a good map, as the author says in his book) when you are out on a tour on your own.
This is one the favorites among travelers; the story is about following your own dreams. A young shepherd boy from Spain travels to Egypt by following his heart. He goes with the flow and learns the meaning of life and learns to love as well. The Alchemist also includes several wonderful and inspirational quotes that will keep you on your toes.
Following your dreams is certainly the dream of every traveler and this is the reason why it has been one of the most read books among travelers in the recent history.
Written by Matt Gross, who worked for the New York Times as the Frugal Traveler, this book talks about his misadventures and lessons from travel. The ‘Turk Who Loved Apples’ talks about the author's journey that started from post-college stint living in Vietnam and ended as a professional travel writer. This is a book that talks about how a human being learns to deal with life when things don't happen as they were planned. This book also talks about the weird foods consumed by the author during his travel and includes details about the breathtaking sights seen.
The ‘Turk Who Loved Apples’ is a well written travel that not only helps you avoid the mistakes that can turn your journey into a nightmare but also keeps you engaged while you travel.
Ever thought of traveling with your pet? If your answer is yes, then you must read the book ‘Travels With Charley’ by John Steinbeck. It depicts the journey of the author with his pet poodle named Charley around the United States. According to Steinbeck’s oldest son Thom Steinbeck, John wanted to see his country on a personal level for the last time before he died. John Steinbeck did not let his wanderlust die till the last moment; so if you consider yourself to be a wanderer by heart, this book is surely for you.
No doubt there are several other books that can keep you motivated to travel around the world, but as a traveler you must never give up a chance to read the books mentioned above. Every book has a different perspective towards life and the author take cues from their own journeys to give a new direction to the reader’s lives.
So if you want to keep yourself motivated and experience the thrills of exploring new places, you must pack a good map and a good book every time!
I had dreamed of visiting Greece ever since high school when I first read the Iliad and the Odyssey. At the University of Arizona, my studies in art history compounded my fascination with ancient Greece. But for the time being, my experience with the country and its culture was confined to the descriptions and the washed out slideshow images offered by my professors. After graduation, I felt even more compelled to make it to these places which were, quite literally, the stuff of legends.
If you're an American, it may be difficult to fully appreciate the aging grandeur of places like Greece. After all, recorded history on the North American continent is barely a footnote in the annals of humankind, and nothing in comparison to the millennia-old cultures of the Mediterranean, Europe, Africa and Asia. During my two weeks in Greece, I managed to make it to most of the important ruins like the Acropolis in Athens and the temples of Delphi. But one of the most significant sites for me wasn't a ruin at all, but a picturesque cove and a nearby cave hidden high on a scrub-covered hillside.
This half-moon-shaped inlet on the west side of the Peloponnese is called Voidokilia. Hidden from both the elements and human eyes by rolling sand dunes and craggy cliffs, it's a perfect off-the-beaten-path retreat for enjoying the sun and sea without enduring crowds of tourists.
There are no ruins at Voidokilia, but it doesn't matter because the very landscape is what's important. In ancient times – those times described by Homer in the Illiad and the Odyssey – this was a harbor for Nestor, King of Pylos. (A few miles to the north are the ruins of Nestor's palace. You can visit there too – it's now a museum – and walk the nearby woods where the beehive-shaped tholos tombs of the ancient Mycenaeans are an unusual and somewhat eerie diversion.)
The sandy Voidokilia beach is where Odysseus's son, Telemachus, puts ashore accompanied by the goddess Athena while searching for his missing father. He finds the beach filled with revelers, as Nestor is hosting a feast in honor of Poseidon. Although the old king lavishly entertains young Telemachus, he cannot provide any new information about Odysseus's fate and suggests the youth continue his quest in Sparta. These passages from the Odyssey are important because they reinforce a major theme in the legend – fidelity to one's parents, partners and friends.
Above the cove is a cave. There aren't any signs leading to it and it's hard to see from the beach, but I was prepared. I hiked up a steep sandy berm on the south end of the cove, which was the most strenuous part of the journey and somewhat akin to sifting powdered sugar with my feet. I then made my way across the back of a scrub-covered ridge, pausing to photograph both the cove and the Ionian Sea to the west. On the summit above me were the ruins of a 13th century Frankish fortress commonly known as The Old Pylos Castle. The cliff-tops were also used in Classical times as a naturally defensible area which overlooked the bay. The cave doesn't have quite as illustrious a history as the beach and ruins nearby. According to legend, this is where Nestor sheltered his cattle during bad weather. It held a similar purpose for me, providing a cool resting spot after my hike through 100-degree weather.
The cave was unremarkable, a dry egg-shaped cavity which smelled faintly of wet earth. Certainly it will never be mentioned in the same breath with contemporaneous sites like Mycenae or Troy. The main room seemed large enough to hold a small herd of cattle, and I couldn't help but imagine the noise and smell this would've produced. As I exited, I found Homer's ancient world neatly framed by the mouth of the cave. The brilliant blue curve of Voidokilia... the flat scrubby plain of the Greek countryside... The low foothills where Nestor's crumbled palace still lay... It all stretched out in front of me. There were no throngs of tourists and the only sounds were the wind and the surf far below. Standing there, I felt more connected to Greece than I had anywhere else on my journey.
Probably you won't find Voidokilia in most Greek travel guides. It's not particularly close to any tourist destination and the road in is an unmarked and meandering route. But if you can find it, plan to spend some time. Sunbathe, snorkel, take a picnic... but also climb the hillside to the cave and reflect on the great legends this place inspired.
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.
Like most countries, India’s north and south are worlds apart. While Delhi and Jaipur pedestal grand architecture and royal palaces, Kerala boasts that it is ‘God’s Own Country’. And it is as though God himself has picked this tiny part of the world for His own. The rice paddies, the tea plantations, the coconut groves, its backwaters, beaches, cliffs and the sunshine: Kerala really does have it all. And then, pinned to the chest of this southern state, there is Varkala.
It is our fifth consecutive day by the beach. The sun is hiding in its milky cloud sky and there is a powerful wind tormenting the waves. Irritable, foamy-white ocean meets sullen, sugar-white sky at the horizon. Opposite, at shore, water cascades onto itself again and again, over and over. Searocks and sandbags glimmer wet in the tired sun of the afternoon and palm trees lean back-breakingly close to the edge of the sea, the gale forcing them to bend, bend, bend until their leaves are almost dipping in the blue.
The lack of scorching sun and sticky air is annoying; I have come to look forward to baking in the beach heat and competitively tanning. The ache of lying too long on hard-packed sand, back muscles flat against the unshifting beach, is a small price to pay for having a tan in November. The lines of swimming heat between sunbathers and sea, the crimson ripple of skin, the salt of wet bodies, the sting of burnt lips; senses are set alight in Varkala. Seaweed smelling sarongs and damp board shorts merge with the almond scent of sun lotion. Warm water bottles waste in the sunlight, the air sucked out of them.
Later on, in the lemon infused hours of early evening, the tourists will emerge once more, reeking of apple soap, aloe vera and spiced shampoo. Those sense-filled, excited, delicious beach moments will belong to personal galleries of happy times, filed away and frequently sought out from the crevices of every memory. This afternoon, marooned on white plastic garden furniture at an ocean-side café, deafened by the raging Indian Sea and whipped by the untiring wind, belongs to such a gallery.
Two weeks later. Sitting cross-legged on Helipad Beach, metres from the toddler-tumbling sea, we watch the giant ball of burnt sun streak its way through turquoise sky. The clouds turn from cotton white to a colour so beautiful that even the lonely dogs lift their faces to the horizon. Shades of rose, tangerine, crimson, peach, apricot and coral leak into one another, staining the dusk. The space above, peacock blue, matches the rippling waves below, making it appear as though a paintbrush has just been dragged through the heavens.
There are no lines in this Varkala; no edges or boundaries or fences or roads. Just colours bumping into colours, sea giving way to sand, cliffs into beach and day into night. White hermit crabs scuttle silently in their thousands, moving tiny grains of sand while no-one is looking. And, just for those rosy minutes, honey-trapped in the moonset, India is still. The beach is the sky and the sun is the star; we toast God’s Own Country with a Kingfisher beer.
Receiving my Amazon Kindle as a birthday present a few years ago was one of the best presents. Not only did it excel my book-worming habits but it also made packing for travel a snap. So e-readers are not new but if you don't know own one yet you don't know what you're missing.
After all the extensive travel I did this summer and with my Kindle chock full of amazing books I thought I would share some of my finds that were great to read while on the road. Many of these are available in paperback too.
1. 50 Shades of Grey by E.L. James
Yes I'm being incredibly cheesy by listing this but if you haven't gotten on the 50 Shades bandwagon I suggest you do so pronto! Now don't get me wrong the writing is nothing to write home about (pardon the pun) but the story line makes for a very easy read which is perfect for passing time on a trip.
2. The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau
Best gift ever! The $100 Startup was given to me at a festival in New York City. I started it on my way home from that trip and was completely engrossed. It's a really great motivating book that you can relate to many aspects of your life. Quite possibly the best book ever.
3. Chasing Rainbows by Kathleen Long
Feeling down? Chasing Rainbows is extremely uplifting to read. Always amazing but definitely even better to read when you're feeling a tad down in the dumps. I read it and then have recommended it to many other people.
4. Twenty Miles Per Cookie: 9000 Miles of Kid-Powered Adventures by Nancy Sathre-Vogue
5. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
If you've been living under a rock, The Help is still one of the best books I've read in years. It's an amazing story (movie wasn't too bad either) that will seriously melt your heart.
6. Happier Than A Billionaire by Nadine Hays Pisani
Happier Than A Billionaire is was the book I read before my trip to Costa Rica. This is about a husband and wife who pack up and move their life to Costa Rica. It's really a great read about moving to another country and also extremely helpful if you plan on visiting Costa Rica. Highly recommended!
7. Romantically Challenged by Beth Orsoff
If you're in the mood for a good chic book that's easy to read and fall in love with the characters then Romantically Challenged is the book for you. I felt like it personally described my life.
8. Queen of Babble by Meg Cabot
I love series and Queen of Babble is the first one in the "babble" series so it's the obvious place to start. Another set of great characters that will have you dreaming of backpacking Europe in seconds.
9. The Good Girls Guide to Getting Lost by Rachel Friedman
LOVE LOVE LOVE The Good Girls Guide to Getting Lost. Such an amazing memoir that will make you want to leave it all behind.
10. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Eat, Pray, Love is the book that I always go back to. This is the book that made me fall in love with Rome. If you haven't read it or just haven't read it in a while I really suggest giving it another go.
Reading is one of my favorite past times and something that I particularly enjoy when traveling. I love stocking up on some great books for my trips and adventures. A few of these books were actually free on Amazon using the Prime feature. All others are less than $10.
flickr // oliverquinlan
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.
Instead of celebrating being another year wiser, reflecting on a year of great experiences and appreciating being healthy and having great family and friends in my life, I approach birthdays with a sense of insecurity and impending doom.
I can’t help it.
I get depressed about being single (even though I love my independence and would rather be on my own than with the wrong person), I moan about not having children (even though I don’t actually want children), I detest the accounting career that has seen me stuck in a 9-to-5 office job rut for most of the past 17 years (even though it has also paid for a 15 month career break, other travel opportunities and the deposit on my London flat) and I view being another year older as a step closer to my grave and start panicking about not doing everything I want to in life.
I recently reflected on some of the amazing travel adventures I’ve experienced in my “46 Countries, 46 Travel Ideas to Inspire You” article, so the time feels right to start planning some more. As the clock ticks over to an age I’ve been dreading since I turned 37 last year, I’m celebrating it by adding 38 things to my “bucket list” - 38 things I want to do before I die.
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.
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.
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.
Indulge in the best of Belgium (mussels, beer and chocolate) before walking it off through the medieval streets of picturesque and historical Bruges.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Face a weekend of decision making in relaxed and walkable Berlin: beer or schnapps, schnitzel or sausage, pub or club?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
Enjoy three of the things the Spanish do better than anyone else in the world – tapas, siesta and late night party (in that order).
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.
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 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.