Budget Travel: A Note on Haggling

market

It’s important to note that budget travel, especially when haggling, does not mean getting the cheapest possible deal on everything.  Saving money is the aim, but saving money at the expense of someone else is not.

The aim of a budget traveller should not only be to save money but at the same time, promote the economy of the country.  And although it may seem counter-intuitive, going somewhere and just spending loads of money is actually not productive to the overall economy either.

It needs balance.

shop

Haggling

Let’s take tuk-tuks for example since they are prevalent in almost any travel story.  Tuk-tuks (or rickshaws, moto-taxis, jeepneys, etc) almost never advertise their price.  They know their customers come from all walks of life and a rich person might happily pay $10 for a ride that should cost $3.  However, due to the nature of haggling, some people might try to get a ride for $2 or even $1.  If it’s a quiet day, the driver might accept that just to make some money.

This doesn’t mean you should try to get a ride for $1 that should cost $3.  This is not productive to the local economy.  While he might take you at that price, he’s losing money and you’re giving travellers a bad name.  At the same time, it’s equally as bad if people are all paying $10.  If all tuk-tuk drivers are earning far more than they should, locals in other businesses will quit their jobs and all start buying tuk-tuks. The result?  WAY more tuk-tuk’s than required and not enough business for any of them.

For any economic system to work, the price must be right. Not too high, not too low.

tuk-tuk
Tuk-tuks: Everything else blurs in comparison

So what is budget travelling?  It’s about knowing what the price should be and aiming for that.  Of course in certain situations, supply and demand will affect your bargaining power.  A shortage of tuk-tuks and influx of customers might mean you’ll have to pay more but this is where the responsibility of the driver comes in.  He might make a quick buck overcharging you but in the long run, he’s not doing himself any favours.  Unsatisfied customers will find other means of transport and he’ll put himself out of business.

Sustainable Saving

When you are looking for ways to save money while travelling, don’t do it at the expense of the local community.  You wouldn’t go to a hostel and try haggling on the price.  If it’s £5 a night it’s £5 a night, no question.  But you can save money on accommodation without ripping anyone off – by housesitting, Couchsurfing or camping.  Even sleeping in a hammock on a beach or in an abandoned building is fine – as long as you don’t make a mess or upset anyone.

hammock
I wouldn’t have pitched it so high up over rocks, but hey – yolo!

You can also save money on things like transport by hitch-hiking.  This is not costing anyone anything – the person giving you a lift is usually going that way anyway.  It’s still nice to offer them something, especially if they’re going out their way.  Nine times out of ten they won’t accept it because they genuinely just wanted to help you.

hitch hike
Arm wanted to see the world.

Pay it Forward

Haggling, or bargaining, is great.  It’s part of the travel experience and an important aspect of the economy, even if it is unregulated.  However, it shouldn’t be seen as a way to get something as cheap as possible.  The people you are buying from work long hours to provide these goods or services.  One-off tourists have no interest in the future of a country’s economy, but for travellers, this might be a place you end up living or working in the future.  If people can’t put their kids through school, next time you visit, crime could be worse or the quality of services deteriorated.

Spending that little bit extra is not just an investment in them and their country, it could also be an investment in your own future.

They didn’t teach you this at school kids, but this is how you invest money!

Read more on  : Travel Tips

Da Nang and Hoi An – Hidden Gems of Vietnam

Beach

Vietnam’s coastal towns of Da Nang and Hoi An are some of its lesser-known tourist attractions.  While admittedly the ancient village of Hoi An is famous for being a Unesco heritage site, the larger area surrounding it and the beach-filled coastline up towards Da Nang are some of the best-kept secrets of Vietnam.

An Bang Beach
An Bang Beach

DA NANG

For the most part, Da Nang is a large metropolis with an uninviting, busy and polluted city centre.  However, it’s gifted with a fortunate geographical advantage in the form of a river dividing the main city centre from a beautiful strip of land that serves as a beachside haven. A mix of fancy and affordable hotels stretch for miles along white sand beaches from the Son Tra mountain in the North all the way down to idyllic ‘An Bang’ beach in the South.

Da Nang benefits from a comfortable mix of local and expat influences, with a string of excellent traditional seafood restaurants lining the beachfront up north.  The south has a stronger foreign influence in the form of informal western-style beach bars and fancy, upmarket resorts.

A La Carte
The Rooftop Pool at A La Carte

Popular Attractions

Son Tra and The Lady Buddha

Son Tra mountain dominates an outcrop of land that forms a natural border and defines the northernmost reaches of Da Nang.  Here, amongst the traditional Vietnamese architecture of Linh Ung Pagoda, you can find the famous ‘Lady Buddha’ – the tallest Buddha statue in Vietnam at 30-storeys high.  The statue is so tall it can be seen from anywhere in Da Nang, and from the hill upon which it sits the entire city is visible – all the way down to the extraordinary Marble Mountains in the South.

 

Lady Buddha

Marble Mountains

The Marble Mountains can only be described as bizarre beyond imagination. Carved deep within two imposing marble outcrops, jutting from the flat and coastal landscape, is a maze of caverns.  These are decorated with cult-like adornments – sculptures and artworks that would instil a deep sense of unease in even the most hardened of souls.  The structures are part of ancient Buddhist and Hindu grottoes which depict the suffering of souls banished to hell.   

If that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, you can also take a lift or walk up to the top of the mountain, where you will discover some pagodas and be rewarded with a 360-degree panoramic view of the entire area.

Marble Mountains
Marble Mountains

Ba Na Hills

Ba Na Hills is a hill station consisting of a collection of botanical gardens, a wax museum and a faux-French village built high up on a mountain overlooking Da Nang.  The station is accessible by one of the longest cable cars in the world, at 5801m.  It features daily performances of both traditional and European music and dance and hosts a number of restaurants with cuisine from around the world.

The high altitude can cause the weather to get a bit chilly, so additional warm clothing is advisable. Due to the size and number of things to see, it’s worth spending a night at the fabulous (and affordable) Mercure Hotel.  This will also afford you the opportunity to experience the moody nighttime atmosphere as the village becomes engulfed in a thick mist.

The Dragon Bridge

Da Nangs Dragon Bridge is the most beautiful and ornate of the many bridges that cross the Han River.  Completed in 2013 by an American engineering firm, it supports six lanes of traffic and spans 666m. Every Saturday and Sunday evening at 9 pm you can relax on the eastern shore of the river and watch the ‘dragon’ breathe fire and water from its nostrils.

Entertainment and Accommodation

For evening entertainment notable stalwarts of the music scene include The Village – a fabulous live music venue on My Khe beach, and Minsk Bar – a very relaxed Rasta-themed bar just off the beachfront on Ngo Thi Si street. This area, An Thuong, is generally considered to be the expat and tourist area of Da Nang and is loaded with accommodation for all tastes – ranging from budget backpacker hostels to 5-star hotels and resorts.  For some excellent rooftop swimming pools, check out A La Carte and The Queen’s Finger hotels.

Rooftop Pool at the Queens Finger
Rooftop Pool at the Queens Finger

 


HOI AN

Ten kilometres south of Da Nang you will find the ancient Unesco heritage village of Hoi An, a world away from the bustling city of Da Nang.  Hoi An town is primarily inland and focused around the Thu Bon River, but also stretches west and includes the nearby beaches of Cua Dai and Cam An.

Hoi An
Hoi An Bridge

Architecture

Hoi An is colloquially known as ‘Lantern Town’ due to the prevalence of the beautiful, multi-coloured Chinese lanterns that adorn every building and street.  Adding to this visual feast is architecture unlike anything you will see elsewhere in Vietnam, with heavy influence from both ancient Chinese and colonial French styles.  

Hoi An Architecture
Hoi An Architecture

Its heritage status means it’s one of the best examples of a well-preserved 19th-century Vietnamese trading port.  The streets abound with many timber-framed buildings, old wooden bridges, traditional riverboats and ornate monuments.  

The Japanese Covered Bridge is one of the most popular tourist attractions in town.  Dating from the 18th century, it’s a small, wooden pedestrian-only bridge featuring traditional carvings and a small museum depicting its history.

Hoi An River
Hoi An River

Accommodation and Food

Hoi An is awash with some of the finest cuisine you will find anywhere in the country, and its street food is world-renowned.  

Cao Lau, a pork and noodle dish, is arguably its most famous and consists of ingredients only found in Hoi An, including Cham island noodles and local organic vegetables.  It is such a speciality that the dish can hardly be found anywhere else in Vietnam!

Seared Tuna
Seared Tuna

Mi Quang is another popular dish and can be accompanied by any range of meat, including chicken, pork, prawns or fish.  Like Cao Lau, it’s a noodle dish, but it’s the range of spices, roast peanuts, fresh herbs and sesame rice crackers that make it special.

To have your taste buds tantalised check out local eateries Tuan Cafe, Nahn’s Kitchen, The Hoianian and The Claypot.  For more western-inspired dishes head to White Marble, Herbs and Spices or the amazing Greek restaurant MIX.  It serves what is quite possibly the best Greek food you will find outside of Greece.

Greek platter at MIX
Greek platter at MIX

Accommodation in Hoi An won’t leave you wanting.  While less focused on the backpacker crowd, there is still a good selection of cheap hostels around.  These include The Sunflower, Leo Leo Hostel and the slightly more upmarket Hoi An Backpackers in Cam Chau, near the beach.  Quality hotels abound, ranging from affordable but fancy 3-star options to opulent 5-star resorts like the Anantara.

Vietnam Backpackers Hoi An
Vietnam Backpackers Hoi An

 


Read more about Vietnam here: Motorbiking Vietnam

 

Travel Smart : Safe Banking on the Road

Smart banking while on the road doesn’t just mean looking over your shoulder at the ATM.  There are a number of other concerns and problems that may occur when you aren’t within the safe borders of your home country.

 

cash
Don’t forget your mini-globe!

Inform your Bank before leaving.

Card fraud is more common than ever these days and, as a result, banks are getting more and more paranoid.  If suddenly, out of the blue, your debit card is used to draw £500 from an ATM in Vladivostok, alarm bells are going to ring.  More often than not, if your bank doesn’t know why this is happening, they’ll instantly block your card.

Always let your bank know where you are going, and for how long.

gone
Actual note

Make a note of your details

Use an online program like Google Drive, or a secure password app on your phone, to keep a note of your sort code, account number AND the three-digit security code on the back of your card.  This way if you lose your card, at least you can still book accommodation online (or if worse comes to worst, a flight home!)

Personally, I memorise these details, but a secure online backup isn’t a bad idea.

locked phone
“How did you crack your phone screen?” ” Don’t ask..”

Ask for a backup Debit Card

Losing a debit card while travelling can mean the difference between eating or not.  If you’ve done point two above, you should still be able to book accommodation, but there are few places where food can be bought with anything other than cash.

Most banks will give you a second debit card that you can keep securely at your hostel.  This means that if you lose your card while abroad, you won’t need to wait for a new card to arrive at Barbados Hostel in Vladivostok (a real place), especially after it inevitably ends up at Vladivostok Hostel in Barbados (hopefully not a real place.)

Enquire with your bank about getting a second card.

two cards
Try get a Mastercard and Visa if you can

Get a Card with No Fees

New online UK bank Starling is offering new accounts with NO FEES on any transactions or withdrawals while abroad, in any country.  Another good travel card option includes Travelex Cash Passport, a card that can be pre-loaded with foreign currency. Monzo seemed promising when they came out last year, but now have a huge waiting list and don’t appear to offer anything better than the Starling Card.

A no-fees travel card can save you tons of cash!

starling
Does your online banking app have an uber-cool green circle? Not likely…

Register with Online Banking

With no access to a bank branch, often online banking can be your only connection to your bank while overseas.  Sometimes setting up online banking requires a text notification, so if your local phone number is not working while abroad, you may have trouble setting it up.

Ensure this is all done and working before you leave.

phone
Where’s your banking app mate? Sort it out!

 

For more excellent travel tips check out: Travel Tips

 

New NO FEES Travel Card (UK only)

Starling bank is a new ‘online only’ UK bank offering debit cards that charge NO FEES for withdrawals or transactions, anywhere in the world!

They work with all ATM’s just the same as any other debit card, but don’t charge the usual 3-5%  per transaction that most other banks do!*

It’s the perfect card for frequent travellers.

starling

NO MORE ATM WOES

I know when I travel, drawing cash is one of the most annoying things.  Mainly because you need to plan ahead – if you are out one night and run out of money, you can’t just go and grab £10 out of the ATM.  Even though it’s advertised as only charging you a percentage, there is usually minimum charge of £2 – £3. 

So when drawing cash, you have to draw enough for at least a few weeks to make it worthwhile – the more the better.  But then you have a huge wad of cash on you, so you need to immediately head back to your hotel or hostel and put it in a safe place.

ONLINE APP

 

The Starling online app is also far more intuitive than most banking apps, providing you with accurate descriptions of purchases, correct retailer details, currency conversions and even spending patterns.

All it takes is three minutes to download the app and apply for a new account.  No need to go into a branch, since they don’t have any branches!

starling

Furthermore, if your card gets lost or stolen, you can instantly disable it from the app – no need to call your bank!  The app is secured with a PIN or fingerprint security, so if you lose your phone it’s still secure. The only issue is you will need to get another phone and download the app before you can do any online banking, but your debit card will still work.

JUST LIKE ANY OTHER BANK

Every account comes with the standard sort code and account number, so they can be used for online purchases, direct debits and EFT payments just like any other bank – but with no extra charges!

Currently, they are only issuing Mastercard debit cards, but I would imagine they will start doing Visa soon.  Either way, this shouldn’t be an issue, as in my experience Mastercard and Visa are equally prevalent around the world.

Click HERE to sign up now.

 


*Some ATM’s will still charge their built-in transaction fees if run by an independent company, but this is unavoidable no matter what bank you are with.

(Disclaimer: I am not a qualified financial advisor. This is an independent report about a product of Starling Bank, with whom I have no affiliation, and is published for information purposes only.)

Best Summer Job Ever – Vlog in Iceland

Budget Icelandic airline Wow Air is looking for someone to hire as a ‘travel guide’ who is willing to move to Iceland for 3 months this year and work for them.

In addition to living and working in Reykjavik, Iceland, you will also be sent on eight trips to international destinations!

The job runs from 1 June to 15 August 2018 and requires you to vlog and make videos for the airline.

Iceland
Iceland

Incentives

The job offers an incredible $4000 a month salary, plus transportation, travel and living expenses!

Not only this – the lucky winner will also get to bring a co-worker, friend or partner of their choice!

The majority of the work will involve creating tourism content for Instagram about the city you’re visiting. Basically, if you’re a big Instagram vlogger you’ll be doing what you do anyway, but getting paid for it!

Iceland

Get Involved

Applicants must be 18 years of age, have a Facebook account and create a two-minute video of their hometown in order to enter.

I’d imagine the competition is pretty stiff though, so if you apply you better pull out all the stops!

CLICK HERE TO APPLY

Elephant Encounter

elephants at sunset

“And so you cower and cast your gaze upon the setting sun, it’s scarlet menace melting into the horizon like blood.  Slowly your eyes are drawn skyward to the star-scarred heavens and you know, right there in that moment, that no God can save you now.  This is Africa.”

Trapped

I knock gently on the wooden beam beside me.  This is not a knock for luck – that ship has sailed – this is a knock to gauge structural integrity.  What had once seemed so strong and stable, now strikes me as particularly weak and flimsy. We appear to be trapped in a prison of matchsticks.

Outside, six wild African elephants lumber about noisily, snapping twigs and occasionally emitting a low grumble.  For the most part, they appear not to notice us, but the ever-encroaching darkness provides only false hope. Our guides have informed us, in no uncertain terms, that they can smell us.  They know we are here.

Elephants drink at the waterhole
Elephants drink at the waterhole

Surrounded

Much earlier, before the sun began to set, we watched in awe as two of these giant pachyderms drank from the waterhole, occasionally stopping to fight playfully.  From the safety of the bird-hide, we felt no danger – our safari vehicle a mere thirty-metres or so behind us. We drank and chatted jovially, unaware of a larger group of elephants approaching from behind.

Shortly before dark, the guides stepped inside the bird-hide to join the rest of us, their calm composure waning slightly.  Two more elephants had appeared from our left and begun their slow stroll down to the water directly in front of us. Their lazy, laborious movements should not be misconstrued – these animals can reach a pace of 45 km per hour in an exceptionally short space of time.

However, we still felt relatively safe in our wooden cage, and good-spirited chatter continued while we appreciated the spectacle of their bathing routine, amazed at how they managed to disappear completely under water.  But soon all voices would be hushed.

elephants crossing

Realisation

As the guides quietly conversed among themselves in their local tongue, we began to realise it was time to leave. The mood grew tense. We were informed that two more elephants had settled within metres of our vehicle. In normal daylight, a single elephant is not usually a concern.  Unless provoked, they will generally remain calm. After dark, it’s a different story – they can’t see well and are on high alert for predators. A single snapped twig could ignite a stampede.

In such a situation, ego takes a back seat.  In the imposing shadow of mother nature, there is no place for pride or bravado.  To feel anything less than utter respect and humility would be ignorant. Earth becomes no longer the domain of humans – we are but inconsequential upon its vast surface.  

As the reality of our situation became apparent, the bird hide fell deathly silent.

sunset
Sunset

Escape

And so here we find ourselves – surrounded, trapped, in our matchstick prison.  My knock echoes in the silence. Nobody speaks. Occasionally, someone checks for mobile phone reception, always with the same result. After what seems like hours, our guides reach a decision.  We will attempt to approach the vehicle three at a time, emphasis placed on the necessity to remain calm and walk slowly. In these situations, there is no greater danger than the smell of fear.  Even a slight change in vibration of a panicked footstep is perceptible to a wild animal.

As I reach the vehicle in the second group of three, my heart lodges itself firmly in my throat and I gaze upon the huge black shape only a few metres behind me.  It remains eerily still until the last few of our group climb safely into their seats, and then suddenly begins to amble ponderously off, giving me a mild heart attack in the process.

The old Landrover sputters to life, but even its noisy diesel engine can’t drown out the sighs of relief as we escape quickly into the darkness.

 



African Elephants are the largest land mammals on Earth and amongst the world’s most intelligent species, having a brain structure similar to that of humans.  They are viciously protective of their young, and many people underestimate the danger they pose.

Despite the ivory trade being made illegal in 1989, poaching still remains a significant problem.  As a result, the West African Elephant Memorandum of Understanding came into effect on 22 November 2005.

 

Elephant dust

 

Stay Sri Lanka

Stay Sri Lanka

Here is my list of all the best places I’ve stayed at in Sri Lanka.  These are generally the best budget options, including a few more upper-class places for when you feel you need a bit of pampering.

Mirissa

Mirissa

Mirissa is Sri Lanka’s mad party beach town.  Come here if you want crazy drunken beach bar parties until 4 am every night.

Space Garden – (£6)

This is quite a new hostel and when I was there the rooftop communal area was still being built, but it looks very promising! The dorms are modern and clean with bathrooms in each one and occasionally even hot water. Downstairs they have a restaurant and chill area where they offer free breakfast and bottomless tea and coffee. It’s not as close to the beach as some Mirissa accommodation, but still, only a five minute walk away. Out the back, there is a river where you can watch monkeys and Komodo dragons fight over scraps of food.

Location: 7/10
Cleanliness: 8/10
Facilities: 8/10
Value: 9/10

The view from Space Garden
The view from Space Garden

 

Hangover Hostel – (£11)

Hangover Hostel is a more upper-class hostel with a perfect location directly over the road from the beach. It has dorms and privates (£30) with hot water, AC, secure card access and offers an excellent restaurant downstairs with fast wifi, a bar and occasional live entertainment. It’s quite a bit pricier than most Sri Lankan hostels, but if you want to treat yourself it’s worth the extra cash.

Location: 10/10
Cleanliness: 9/10
Facilities: 9/10
Value: 7/10

Beach view
Hangover is right on the beach




weligama

Weligama

Weligama is only a short, ten-minute tuk-tuk ride from Mirissa and is a more chilled out, surfer town.  It benefits from a number of decent hostels, two wine shops and a central train station.

Hangtime Hostel (£7)

Like Hangover Hostel in Mirissa, Hangtime is perfectly located on the beachfront, with an excellent rooftop chill area overlooking the ocean. They don’t serve alcohol but have a great selection of coffee and juices. Rooms are clean and include A/C, wifi and, occasionally, hot water. It’s a great place to meet other travellers and rooftop parties usually continue into the night.

Location: 10/10
Cleanliness: 8/10
Facilities: 7/10
Value: 7/10

Weligama beach
Weligama beach

 

The Classic (£5 – private rooms)

The Classic is a new budget guesthouse in Weligama offering private rooms for as little as £5 a night. Bathroom facilities are shared but since they currently only have three rooms this is not much of an issue. The rooms are basic but very clean and modern, and the beach is about a ten-minute walk away. They do have wifi but it’s based in the owner’s house across the street so it’s a bit weak.  Rooms have a fan but no A/C.  Despite its simplicity, the Classic was one of my favourite places to stay in Sri Lanka.

Location: 6/10
Cleanliness: 8/10
Facilities: 4/10
Value: 8/10

The Classic
The Classic



hikkaduwa

Hikkaduwa

Hikkaduwa is kind of like a rich Russian getaway in Sri Lanka.  It’s a bit pricey and a bit posh, but still worth checking out.

Casa Hikka Villa (£12 pp – must book entire villa)

If you are a large group of ten looking for somewhere private and peaceful with an enormous swimming pool, BBQ facilities and a small but empty beach, Casa Hakka Villa is the place for you. It’s a private home a short bus or tuk-tuk ride outside of Hikkaduwa with five bedrooms that can sleep up to ten people (all double beds). Two staff live permanently in the house and attend to cleaning and changing bedding, but remain almost invisible the entire time. Just ensure to bring supplies when you come, as it’s a bit far from any shops!

Location: 5/10
Cleanliness: 8/10
Facilities: 9/10
Value: 8/10

 

Casa Hikka Villa Pool
Casa Hikka Villa Pool

Hansa Surf  (£10 – privates)

Hansa Surf is a nice budget hotel on the beach front which spectacular views and an excellent location that makes up for the sub-par conditions. Rooms are pretty basic, with the usual lack of warm water and no A/C, just a fan. However, they are comfortable and include mosquito nets.

Location: 10/10
Cleanliness: 6/10
Facilities: 6/10
Value: 8/10

Hansa Surf View
Hansa Surf View

Kind & Love Hostel (£4)

Hikkaduwa doesn’t have the same large number of hostels that most tourist spots in Sri Lanka do but fortunately offers up this one gem right next to the railway station.   This does, however, mean it’s a bit further from Hikkaduwa’s best beaches… but closer to the wine shop!  So swings and roundabouts.  And what a name, right?  What could possibly go wrong…

hikka_kind and love
Kind and Love hostel room

 


ella

Ella

Ella is, in my opinion, the best place in Sri Lanka.  It’s a secluded mountain hideaway with outstanding beauty, an exceptionally chilled out environment, and just the right amount of party atmosphere.

Tomorrowland Hostel (£6)

Tomorrowland is a fabulous piece of backpacker tradition that is rare to find these days.  A truly travel orientated hostel focused purely on helping the customer.  They provide free sleeping space for those temporarily without accommodation and offer the option of volunteer work for those who need other means to pay.  It has a very hippie, psychedelic, theme which can be quite addictive, making it difficult to leave.  Most of the accommodation is in tents, and you are welcome to pitch your own.  The only problem is, it’s a bit far from town – so bring supplies!

Location: 6/10
Cleanliness: 6/10
Facilities: 7/10
Value: 9/10

Tomorrow Land
Tomorrow Land



sigiriya

Sigiriya

Sigiriya is where you will find Sri Lanka’s most famous tourist attraction – Sigiriya ‘Lion’ Rock.  The rock has been considered sacred by locals for centuries and features ancient temples below and up upon it.  Entrance is a rather pricey Rs5000 each.

Boralukanda Hostel (£6 – privates)

Boralukanda is one of very few affordable accommodation options in Sigiriya and is within walking distance of the famous Sigiriya Lion Rock.  It’s very basic but decent enough for a few nights sleep, which is really all you need in Sigiriya.  Wifi is questionable and it offers little to no facilities, but at least it has mosquito nets!

Location: 9/10
Cleanliness: 7/10
Facilities: 4/10
Value: 7/10

boralukanda
Boralukanda

 

Flower Garden Eco-Village (£30 – privates only)

If you’re a couple and want to splash out on something a bit posher while in Sigiriya, you can’t beat Flower Garden Eco-Village. If for nothing else, it’s huge, bizarrely decorated swimming pool alone is reason enough to stay here.  The rooms are fabulous – with modern facilities, satellite TV, tea and coffee machines, A/C and hot water.  Breakfast is included, but dinner is pricey.

Flower Garden Eco Village
The crazy swimming pool



unawatuna

Unawatuna

Unawatuna is a great place for surfing and snorkelling with sea turtles.  It’s one of the best beach towns in Sri Lanka and is easily accessible from the nearby city of Galle.

Camp Kush (£7)

Camp Kush is one of the best places to stay on the Sri Lankan South Coast.  On first arrival it’s location may be a bit off-putting, as it’s quite far inland away from the beach.  However, your fears will quickly be availed by the warm generosity of the host Buchi and the welcoming vibe of the camp.  It features private rooms and dorm beds in beautiful grass tipis around a central campfire.  Each tipi has electricity and a fan.  Transport to the beach and town is quick and easy to arrange with the host, and breakfast is included.

Location: 7/10
Cleanliness: 7/10
Facilities: 8/10
Value: 9/10

 

For more information on Sri Lanka, check out:

Outstanding Beauty in Central Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan South Coast

 

 

Agra: India’s Holy (Cash) Cow

taj mahal

Agra, also known as ‘that place where the Taj Mahal is’ is, quite literally, that place where the Taj Mahal is. It also features the incredible Agra Fort which I didn’t go to because, like everyone else, I only went to Agra for the Taj.

taj mahal
One of those Taj hand pics

Marble Mausoleum

I must say, though, that unlike most tourist traps, the Taj Mahal is actually worth the time and money (Rs1000 entrance – about £11). It is a well pimped-out palace of note, made almost entirely of white marble. Imagine the number of kitchen counters they could have made with all that marble? Every Indian shanty from Kolkata to Kochi could be decked out with blinding white, glittering surfaces ready to smash any piece of crockery placed down too heavily. But no, instead, the good old Shah Jahan built the world’s grandest gravestone, because that’s really all it is – a big-ass tomb for the Shah and his wife. Nobody ever even lived there.

Taj mahal in agra
Me, very excited about the giant tomb

Room with a View

Another great thing about Agra is that property conglomerates haven’t bought all the surrounding land and built 5-star hotels, so you can still get a £5 hotel room with a view of the Taj! Imagine you could get a hotel in Paris with a view of the Eiffel tower for £5? Imagine how terrible that hotel would have to be? Can you imagine it? Well, that’s how the cheap hotels in Agra are. But hey, for one or two nights, who cares? It’s just somewhere to sleep. And get bedbugs.

Room with awful wallpaper in agra
How’s that freakin wallpaper? Awful. So, so awful.
Taj mahal in agra
Not the worst view at breakfast

No Unicorns at the Taj Mahal

The security at the Taj is pretty damn tight, to say the least. They didn’t even let me take in my latex unicorn mask. I mean, seriously? I know it’s terrifying and mildly disturbing that a 35-year-old man carries around a latex unicorn mask, but what am I going to do with it? It’s not even flammable, it would just melt into an even more terrifying blob of bubbling goo. Books too, they don’t like you taking in books. Or food. Basically, just take your phone and wallet. If, however, you do decide to take your latex animal mask or a dog-eared copy of ‘50 Shades of Grey’, they do have locker facilities to leave your illegals in.

panorama of the taj in agra
Panoramotastic!

Picture Perfect

Once inside you will not be disappointed. The Taj Mahal is one of the few places I’ve visited that somehow makes good photo opportunities possible, despite a massive throng of tourists. We managed to take the prerequisite seven thousand photos of the palace from every different angle, and one or two didn’t even have a single other tourist in! It truly is an Instagram junkie’s heaven.

hand pulling thing at taj mahal in agra
Instagram Crack!

Super Secret Photo Hack!

If you do go to the Taj, make sure to visit one of the relatively deserted side temples so you can get an awesome arch-framed photo like the one below.

I mean, come on, how pro does that look?

amazing instagram worthy taj photo in agra
Look – I’m even meditating. Everyone loves meditating!

Any More to Agra?

As I mentioned above, other than the Taj and Agra Fort, there isn’t much more to Agra. We did, however, have a day to kill before our night bus the following day so we went to explore the ‘Taj Nature Walk’. This I do not recommend. It’s not so much a nature walk as a dry, run down park that made me think of the Pripyat amusement park in Chernobyl. Bonus points for finding the terrifying ‘zoo’ full of plastic animals that I can only imagine were placed there after all the real animals died of boredom from having to live in this park.

terrible park in agra
The fear is real!

Happy Travels!

Read more about my adventures in India here:  Splash Roll Stumble: India

Need somewhere cheap to stay? Stay India

 

panorama of the taj
The Taj makes for great panoramas

5 Fun Ways to Die in Vang Vieng

vang vieng sign
vang vieng river
Vang Vieng River

Disclaimer

Ok, so I know Vang Vieng got a lot of bad press a few years ago because of some deaths, but the local government has actually sorted it out a lot, and it’s (relatively) safe now.  This means that when tubing down the river you can no longer do 20-meter high, unsecured ziplines after five shots of tequila, or triple backflips off the crazy slide into the one-meter deep water.  So if you do still manage to die, it would be entirely your own, idiotic, fault.

With that said, let’s see if we can still find some fun ways to off-yourself in the party capital of Laos!

tubing vang vieng
Tubing in Vang Vieng is (surprisingly) still popular
Vang Vieng: River bars galore

Alcohol poisoning

Back in 2010 before young travellers started treating Vang Vieng like a euthanasia clinic, all the bars tried to outdo each other by having an hour of free drinks at the same time. Realizing this simply split the clientele up and didn’t really supply anyone with enough decent business, they agreed to each have an individual one-hour time slot.  This tradition lives on today and as a result, you can drink for four straight hours, every night, completely free – if you know in which order to visit the bars! This becomes considerably more difficult after bar number two, but I think I managed it once. Or not. Who knows? Not me.

Funny bar vests. They never get old
alcohol better
(Alcohol better)

Get lost in a cave.

Up by Blue Lagoon 3 (or whichever number they’ve decided to call it today), deep in the jungle you’ll find a tiny hole that leads into a huge, pitch black cave that is entirely unguided, unlit and unmanaged in any way.  It’s just a big, long, black hole in the mountain – old school vibes.

Blue Lagoon 3
Blue Lagoon 3

Within this ‘Indiana Jones’ style death trap you can enjoy getting completely and utterly lost by forgetting a twist or turn on the way back out and running out of battery on your shitty iPhone 5.  I do not recommend this. I hyperventilated a lot.

Cave
Cave entrance

Overdose

Personally, of course, I would never touch drugs because they’re bad mmmkay, but I’ve heard from a friend of a friend that apparently there may be one or two things and thangs floating about old V-V.  I’m not sure how true this is but it was strange that the items on the back of my restaurant menu read like a Nirvana b-sides album.

Maybe ‘opium’ is just a type of pizza. Who knows?? (I do. It’s not).

menu
“Menu”

Break your neck playing basketball

The only remaining danger along the tubing route is an awesome wooden basketball court, which in practice would be entirely safe if it weren’t for an overhead sprinkler system which rains down on the court all day.  Admittedly, this keeps you nice and cool in the 40-degree Celsius weather, but also keeps the court as slippery as a naughty nuns noony – resulting in, at best whiplash, and at worst, a fatal head injury.

river bar
One of many river bars

Dying of starvation while trying to find “Blue Lagoon 2”

Just give up, it doesn’t exist, and the first free drinks hour is starting soon!

bluelagoon
Not blue lagoon 2

 

Disclaimer 2:  The information in this article is satirical and the writer takes no responsibility for injury or death resulting from partaking in or re-enacting any activities described.  Like, seriously guys, sort your lives out.

vangvieng
The surrounding natural beauty is stunning. Just don’t fall off that scooter!

 

Read more about Laos here: Laos

Cycling France, and falling in love with travel

How travel changed my life

This is the story of my first ever cycle tour in 2002. I was 19 years old and broke, but desperately wanted to see the world.

My friend Sean and I

A friend and I bought two second-hand mountain bikes for €40 each and planned to cycle from Paris to Rome. Neither of us had ever cycled further than 1 or 2 miles – to school and such.  We spent about two months working in London to save up a few hundred pounds, a large section of which went on the Eurostar ticket to Paris.

Putting a rack on the mountain bike
Day 1, Paris

Remember Mapbooks?

This was before mobile phones and GPS. Our only guidance was a map book and a compass. We got lost often, and it was awesome.  Eventually, we stopped using the map book for guidance and simply cycled into the wild.  We only looked back on it occasionally to track the route we had come.

Into the wild

Survival Food

We bought a tent, roll mats and a gas stove. In four weeks cycling we never once paid for accommodation and spent about €1 a day on food. Oats for breakfast, spaghetti for dinner.  We drank only water and black coffee, and invented some strange lunch options too, like bulk cheap croissants wrapped in budget salami.  I can still taste it…

Too much equipment!

No bike, no problem

Unfortunately, halfway to Rome, one bike was stolen while we slept on the beach in Cannes. Unable to afford a new one, we sold the other and continued on foot, hitch-hiking.  We crossed into Italy and walked for almost eight hours the first day without catching a single lift.

Sleeping outdoors on the French Riviera

After spending two nights sleeping at a truck stop and still with no luck, we asked a police officer if he could help.  He instructed us to hitch-hike on the freeway, and then promptly arrested us for doing so.  We had no money for a fine or bribe, so eventually, he let us go.

Hitching after the bike was stolen.

Penniless but free, we eventually caught a lift to Genoa, and continued from there by hopping trains to Pisa, Venice and Florence, sleeping in stations and on beaches.

Sleeping in a train station

Discover Life

That trip was the single greatest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It not only made me fall in love with cycling and travel, but it defined everything that I am as a person today. It imbued within me a confidence to achieve any goal I desire, to never give up, to see the beauty in the world and all the possibilities in life.

Cycle touring is not about the bike or the equipment. Travel is not about the route or the destination.

It’s about you.

Get out there and discover yourself.