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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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…
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!
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 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!
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is possibly the only hostel in Chennai as it’s the only one I could find. Chennai isn’t a tourist destination at all, but serves more as an international airport hub for the surrounding tourism in Tamil Nadu. I imagine this hostel popped up as a means to serve backpackers with either very early or late flights who were unable to get onward transport. By Indian standards it’s a very decent hostel, albeit at a slightly high price (Rs600/night). It has a comfortable common room with satellite TV, clean dorms and a communal kitchen. As with most hostels in India it doesn’t include breakfast, but does have free tea, coffee and biscuits. Even the wifi is not bad and the showers had hot water when I used them! I can’t really comment on the location as there is nothing to see in Chennai, but it could be a bit closer to the airport.
Kochi is a small town with very little tourism and only a tiny selection of hostels. In fact, I believe this is one of only two. Kochi mostly serves as a transport hub to other areas of interest in Kerala, but it does have a nice old colonial village in Kochi Fort and serves as a starting point for tours of the Kerala Backwaters.
The hostel has a shared balcony upstairs for smokers and a decent common room in the reception area. It has a shared kitchen and includes free breakfast, which is a very good deal for only Rs550 / night. They also have hot water and offer a laundry service, although bizarrely you have to hang your clothes yourself.
I think this hostel initially began life as a boutique hotel and then added a dorm later because it’s the fanciest hostel I’ve ever stayed at. It has a large fancy reception area, expensive restaurant and beautiful outdoor swimming pool. The hostel dorm is separate from the main building and has a nice common area with satellite TV. The only downside to this epic hostel is the location – it’s in the middle of nowhere! It’s far from the beach and about ten kilometres from the nearest train station and airport. However, if you want to spend some quiet days chilling by the poolside in a fancy hotel without breaking the bank, it’s perfect. The restaurant even serves alcohol.
This is the cheapest hostel in Goa, and quite possibly India. It has three dorm rooms, the cheapest of which is only Rs99 a night – cheaper than a beer! The other two have more privacy and are Rs150. It doesn’t have any facilities and is incredibly dirty, but the outdoor sitting area is nice and the social vibe is great. They have a few basic breakfast options – tea, sandwiches and omelettes, and if you ask nicely they might let you use the kitchen. As with most of Goa, it’s a party hostel and plays loud music until late most nights – so don’t come if you like to sleep early. The location isn’t great as it’s far from the beach, but it is very close to Hilltop – a popular venue that has parties most weekends. They also have two private rooms for Rs800 a night. Bunkin’ is the perfect place for those on a (very) tight budget.
Hideout is one of the quietest and cleanest places in Goa, which is a rare thing – especially considering how affordable it is. It only has private double rooms, but for Rs1000 a night it works out similar to two dorm beds in most hostels. The rooms are fairly basic but include aircon and hot water, which is very good value for the price. The only downside is that it’s in a rather odd location, down a dirt path through an empty field slightly off the main beach road. It’s still only a five-minute walk to the beach, but for a similar price you can get rooms on the beach – however, they won’t be anywhere near as clean or quiet. For older couples or people with small children, Hideout is a perfect escape from the chaos of Anjuna while still being beach-accessible. The rooms would benefit greatly from a kettle, considering there is nowhere nearby to get a morning coffee and the hotel doesn’t do any food service.
Arambol doesn’t have many cheap accommodation options for backpackers, but Namahstay – just off the main road in the centre – fills this gap. It has a decent outdoor communal area, relatively clean rooms, laundry facilities and some basic food available. They also do occasional live music gigs in the outdoor area. It’s very close to the market and shops and a five minute walk from the beach. The nearby German Bakery is a must for breakfast – they do excellent Italian coffee and have an amazing selection of cakes and pastries.
Mowgli is a beautiful riverside resort just off the main road on the “Hippie island” side of Hampi, which has now become the only part of Hampi where accommodation is available due to Unesco clearing the south side of the river to protect the monuments and heritage. Mowgli offers deluxe river view rooms and cottages, a decent restaurant, pool table, scooter hire and of course wifi that only works occasionally. It’s not the cheapest accommodation in India but with the lack of hostels available in Hampi it’s still good value for money.
This hostel is right next to the international airport, so perfect if you are just arriving or leaving. It has a very nice outdoor communal area upstairs overlooking the street, with fans to keep away the mosquitos and a small communal kitchen. The rooms are very clean and all include en-suite bathrooms and very good security. The location is not ideal for sight-seeing or going out at night so most people here are just passing through, but this makes for a good vibe and a great way for people leaving to pass on useful travel info to those who just arrived. No alcohol is allowed in the hostel but there are two bars across the road.
Travellers Inn offers dorm and private rooms and is close to the main Mumbai CST train station and most tourist attractions. The rooms are clean and there is a nice common area to meet other travellers and a kitchen with tea/coffee facilities. The bathrooms are not great but fairly standard for India and the wifi works okay but otherwise ,it doesn’t have much to offer other than somewhere to crash.
For the price, you would not believe the amazing views you can get from this hotel! It is right on the Pichot Lake in Udaipur, overlooking the Royal Palace and an island temple. The rooms are spread over three floors and vary from basic double rooms with shared bathroom and no view to rooftop balcony rooms with TV, air-con and en-suite (£18).
However, even without a view room, you can experience the luxury of the views from the rooftop restaurant which has some luxurious seating and beautiful decor. While the food is not 5-star, the menu is quite extensive and most people will find something they like. They also serve alcohol and have a laundry service. The only downside I would say is that the hotel is very dirty.
Moustache hostel is excellent value for money in central Udaipur, overlooking the Pichola lake and walking distance from the palace. It features a rooftop restaurant and chill area which offers yoga every morning, as well as a downstairs common area. The hostel is generally quite clean but the bathrooms lack hot water, are old, and smell of sewerage – a common problem throughout Udaipur. The wifi is good although as is also common in Udaipur the electricity tends to go out for a few hours a day.
When I stayed at Hotel Gandharva it provided exceptionally good value for money. My only fear is that it was new and the price I got was a special opening rate because I can’t believe they would charge so little for what is essentially a 4-star hotel. Every room is immaculate and decked out with all the modern fittings – aircon, dimmed lighting, wall mounted big screen satellite TV, tea and coffee facilities, hot water rain shower, fresh towels and linen, room service – you name it! The hotel features two high-class restaurants and an outdoor swimming pool with water feature and sunbeds. The location isn’t perfect but it’s a short tuk-tuk ride from most attractions.
In northern Jaipur towards the Amber Fort and Jal Mahal lake is this very nice hostel with dorms from Rs600 and privates from Rs1250. The dorms are very clean and some of the more expensive private rooms are exceptional – with a large balcony, modern bathroom, aircon, kettle and satellite TV.
The hostel has a very sociable roof terrace, communal area with TV and PlayStation and small restaurant with free breakfast. They also sell beer for only Rs100. It’s a bit far from the main town but very convenient for visiting the Amber Fort and Jal Mahal, and a great place to meet other travellers.
This hotel is very cheap and it’s only real selling point is the excellent view of the Taj Mahal from the rooftop terrace. It’s very basic, the rooms are dirty, water is cold, food is not great and the wifi is almost non-existant. But it is just a five minute walk from the entrance to the Taj Mahal, which is really the only thing to see in Agra so it’s not a bad option just for one night.
Bedweiser has some decent, clean dorm rooms and a great roof top terrace with communal area and sattelite TV. It also sells a good selection of beers and food, and has a laundry service. The location to the Taj Mahal could be closer, but it’s still within walking distance (20 mins) or a 5 minute tuk-tuk ride. Also nearby is the Taj Nature Walk, which is a bit run-down but at least a nice respite from the constant noise and traffic. A good place to meet other travellers from all over the world.
Hampi is a surprisingly unknown place in India considering how amazing it is. I had briefly heard of it before going but not to a large degree, and I hadn’t seen many pictures of it. All I knew is that it had some old temples.
Well, I’m very glad I decided to go in the end because I very almost skipped it, which would have been a great loss. Ancient ruins and temples continue for miles over a huge area amongst beautiful surrounding scenery. The town itself is very small and quite rural, but across the river, a more developed town has sprung up with a number of modern restaurants and guesthouses aimed at tourists. In fact, we were told the government is planning to relocate the local villagers to new residences across the river and bulldozing the town in order to preserve the Unesco Heritage status of the ruins. Whether or not this is a good thing is debatable, and understandably some of the villagers who have lived there for decades are against it, but at the same time most of them earn a living from the tourism and therefore maintaining it would likely be in their best interests.
We arrived without any of this information and as a result, ended up booking and paying upfront for two nights in a room at a small, run-down guesthouse on the rural village side. I thought it was a bit odd they wanted us to pay for both nights upfront and only realised why after crossing the river. They knew we would move once seeing the amazing views and beautiful guesthouses available across the river, in what is colloquially referred to as ‘Hippie Island’ (although it is not, in fact, an island).
At the time we went there was only a small boat service to take people across the river but apparently, a bridge is being built in preparation for when the village is relocated. The boat service is really annoying because there are two boats and according to the driver each can only take passengers in one direction. They will also only go once they have reached 20 passengers, so many times we found ourselves waiting for ages for our boat to leave, while the other boat came across and dropped off passengers a number of times and each time went back empty.
On top of this, the boat guys are very proficient at ripping tourists off, in a number of ways which I’ll cover later. At the end of the day, it’s still very cheap, but it’s the principle of the matter. More importantly, it’s sad to see people who were once probably self-sufficient and unconcerned with making a quick buck, reduced to money-hunger and morally-bankrupt because of the encroachment of capitalist-fuelled tourism. This is in no way unique to Hampi, or India, but for some reason, it felt more apparent here. I think a recent and sudden burst of tourism has affected the area and people in a way that still needs to find a constructive and beneficial balance for all involved.
Baby on Board
We had arrived at 7 am on an overnight bus from Goa, so after dropping off our bags we went for some breakfast at a small street-side cafe and met a lovely Slovenian couple who were travelling with their 2-year-old. We chatted for quite awhile about travelling, India, babies and Miha’s freelance work as a video producer. Their baby had been quite sick for days so they hadn’t managed to leave their guesthouse or do any sightseeing. Being about the same age as us, I was impressed – but not at all envious – that they didn’t let their child stop them living their lives as they desired. You could tell Miha’s poor wife was feeling the pressure though, but fortunately when we saw them again the next day their child was already feeling better.
After breakfast, we explored some of the nearby temples by foot before catching the boat across to hippie island and discovering the beauty that is there. Although to be fair, we actually only discovered the comfortable mattresses inside of a restaurant built on bamboo stilts overlooking a rice paddy because we were both so exhausted from the bus journey we promptly fell asleep as soon as we had eaten lunch. Luckily we awoke in time to catch the last boat back! Once back we decided to climb the rocks behind our guesthouse and were rewarded with a stunning sunset over the temples of Hampi.
Cycling and Swimming
We awoke quite late the next day and after a quick traditional breakfast of idli and puri we crossed the river, hired some 100 rupee mountain bikes and cycled off to find Sampar lake. Along the way, we bumped into Rutger, a Dutch guy we had met on the bus who followed us on his scooter and joined us at the lake. We went on a brief but quite fun bamboo-boat ride and swam in the (apparently) crocodile-infested lake. Afterwards, we cycled back to town and enjoyed sun-downers at one of the beautiful riverside resorts.
Even though we arrived at the boat jetty before the last cut-off time of 5:30 pm (along with a number of other tourists), the boat guy purposely disappeared for about 20 minutes and then came back and told us we’d have to pay 50 rupees now because it was too late. We all protested but soon realised that unless we were going to swim across, we didn’t have any choice but to pay him. What made it even more annoying was that another boat carrying locals did three crossings during this time, with lots of empty seats each time, but wouldn’t let any of us on “because we were foreigners”. I imagine they have some agreement to do this and share the profits.
We decided to wake up early the next day, view some more of the temples before it got too hot and then return before midday to check out. A short walk over the hill from our guesthouse we discovered a massive ruined complex the size of a small airport, consisting of a large temple on one side made up of a few smaller buildings and a huge pillared courtyard that stretched over a few hundred metres. This led on to a few more temples and ended down by the riverside at a temple with the famous ‘stone chariot’ – which is, as the name suggests, a chariot made out of stone.
By 11 am we were tired and it was hot, so we started heading back and stopped for tea and idli at a small food stall. While there a cheeky monkey came out of nowhere and stole one of our idli cakes right off our plate! We also saw another monkey that must have been attacked – it had all his gums missing, exposing his teeth and skull and looking like something out of a horror movie. It was quite sad although somehow the monkey didn’t seem too bothered.
Escape the Heat
Once packed and checked-out we crossed the river for the final time and left our bags at the bus collection point. Then we rented a scooter and drove to a swimming spot somebody had told us about a few kilometres upriver. We spent a few hours there swimming and jumping off rocks. There were some Indian guys hanging around there who claimed to own the land and annoyingly kept bugging us to buy their snacks or drinks, with the unspoken threat of kicking us out if we didn’t. I highly doubt they really own the land, but I bought some over-priced crisps anyway to placate them.
We had our sleeper bus back to Goa booked for 7 pm that evening, so we quickly took the scooter back and watched one last beautiful sunset over the rice paddies before getting on a tuk-tuk to take us to the bus. This turned out to be a rather insane drive hanging off the back while squashed in with four other people and our bags balanced precariously on the roof. Along the way, the driver had to swerve to avoid cows sleeping in the road and the usual head-on traffic – and that was before we even go to our actual bus!
Gokarna is like a small little chilled out Goa, which in a way is really nice but also super quiet so, I imagine, could get boring after awhile. Fortunately I was only there for 2 nights with my friend Tobs. We drove down on a Royal Enfield from Arambol which is awesome and I highly recommend doing if you are brave enough for the Indian traffic. In total it took 5 hours and would have been nicely uneventful if it weren’t for Tobs’ DSLR camera falling out my backpack and smashing into pieces on the road!
Other than that and stopping for some food and beer we pretty much drove straight through. We arrived just as sun was setting, parked the Enfield and went to explore Kudle Beach (pronounced cuddly). We hadn’t planned ahead or booked anything and quickly found most places were full, so we caught a tuk-tuk to Ohm beach, about 1km away, but had no luck there either! Eventually we settled on a cheap 500 rupee room on Kudle beach which I thought was fairly decent and even had a view of the beach. Tobs wasn’t too stoked about the shared bathroom but we were out of options by that point.
After checking in we joined some other friends at a nearby restaurant on the beach for some beers and food. Towards midnight the power went out and it was completely pitch black and deathly quiet. Nobody even said anything, we just sat in silence and stared upwards at a night sky more dense with stars than space.
The next day after a decent breakfast we embarked on the 5km walk to Paradise Beach, a beach only accessible by foot along a rocky coastline path. The scenery along the way is unbelievable – by far the best I saw while in India and strong competition to most other coastlines. We stopped at a tiny beach shack along the way on the otherwise-deserted half-moon beach and had a coffee and some biscuits.
Paradise beach turned out to be a small, secluded cove full of palm trees, with some hammocks here and there and a Hindu shrine. Some other travelers were hanging around and there were a few tents, indicating some were sleeping here. There were also a number of locals who presumably lived nearby, selling coconuts, drinks and snacks. I must say, by comparison to the Koh Rong island beaches in Cambodia, ‘Paradise beach’ might be a slightly presumptuous title. However, I could totally see myself camping here for a few days – dependent on how intrusive the locals are (in India, camping can turn you into something of a spectacle).
After chilling for a few hours enjoying coconuts, snacks and playing with puppies we decided to join some others on a boat back to Ohm beach, rather than try hike the 5km again in the fading light. This turned out to be a lot of fun, with the sun setting and some big swell coming in.
It was Shiva Ratri festival that evening which is one of the most sacred Hindu festivals so after getting back we walked down to town to investigate. Unfortunately queues to get into the temples were huge but we did enjoy some local music and went to one smaller temple on a hill with nice ocean views. While there we bumped into my German friends from Goa and chilled with them for a bit before getting food and heading to bed.
I’m sad I didn’t have longer to spend in Gokarna as I would have liked to camp on Paradise Beach and I think there is a lot more to the surrounding area to explore. It’s also super chilled out and quiet, which is a nice respite to the rest of India. If you have a chance to visit I would recommend spending 5 days to a week. It’s slightly cheaper than Goa too, except for alcohol.