Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Taipei: A Sleeping Giant.

Bangkok, Jakarta, Singapore, Bali, Viang Veng and ……..Taipei. The list of Asian big hitters when it comes to nightlife is growing every year. Undoubtedly a hidden gem of the region, fist pumping, alcohol flowing, hard to recall nights can proudly be added to the familiar ‘made in Taiwan’ tag.

2012 has been a breakthrough year for a country overlooked in the past as a poor relation to main land China. Developing at break neck speed - bars, clubs and the unearthly popular KTV’s (Karaoke Television) are popping up all over the place and pushing the nightlife, especially in Taipei, to the forefront of Asian party venues.

Where does the night begin?
Food is cheap in Taiwan and most nights start with a few local brews over a social bowl of noodle soup or fried rice – take your pick, the choices are endless and mouth-watering. Upwards of 1000 7/11 convenience stores mark the pavements of Taipei – cheap and rowdy is the scene when drinking in the street is legal, and at £1 a pop a lot of young party go-ers find a lively social corner. Think friendly street party, not under age annoyance.

Fancy something different?
You haven’t experienced karaoke until you’ve been in a room with a group of anything between 3 and 30 people, blaring our songs you wouldn’t even sing in the shower, completely enthralled, passionately loving it!
Fairly pricey at between 300 and 500NT (£7-£11) per person, it usually includes a drink and you’ll want multiple until you get your confidence flowing as freely as the drink. My memory of KTV’s is fairly blurry – so I’ve never left sober.

Time to hit the dance floor
If it’s clubs you’re after then take your pick. From foreigner friendly pick up joints to Taiwanese packed super clubs, Taipei provides for all. Luxi is a favourite – an enormous club on multiple floors that often boasts international DJ’s, bands and live entertainment on stage. Expect to pay a steep cover charge (300 – 700NT, girls get reduced or free entry) but be supplied with free drinks, sometimes all night.

Taipei is one of the friendliest capitals in Asia. Although not advised, walking through a park on route home post night out has more chance of ending in the viewing of a martial arts or yoga class, not a nervous and speedy jog. Glaring looks are usually that of interest, approaches on the dance floor are a regular occurrence and striking up conversation with the locals is harder to avoid than start.

Other clubs to note are: Babe18 – all you can drink for 300NT on a Wednesday night, Roxy99 – a place where smiles and small talk won’t have you going home alone, Wall – Taipei’s best option for live music.
Taiwan as a country is blossoming and the nightlife is beginning to play a big part in the attraction. Packed with diversity, excitement, beauty and unique locations – the party scene mirrors the bigger picture of this intriguing nation. 

Spontaneity is the Spice of Travel.

Skimp all you want - stay in horrible hostels, eat strange street food and take every night bus you can but the blunt of the matter is that travelling is an expensive game. Decisions though, are free. Spontaneity is the spice of backpacking life on a whim you can change the course of your travels, open yourself up to experiences you’d never imagined and create bonds with friends you’ll keep for life.

Most people travel to discover the unknown, the weird, the wonderful and in my experience even the challenging parts of travel hold happy memories after all is said and done.

Freezing on a bus in Bolivia - its 10pm, I’m covered head to toe in warm alpaca and heading to the highest City on earth. It was a rash decision to venture into Chile that’s bought me to this chapter of my South American tour.

This morning I slept on a bus floor for 5 hours, broke down twice in the Atacama Desert and spent three hours at what must be the most desolate border crossing on the continent. Maybe I’m lucky, or a bit delusional, but when I finally get to throw live sticks of dynamite down silver mines in Potosi, this tough, spontaneous journey will have made it even more memorable for me.

Natalie Cihaks – now a friend for life, travelled with me in Colombia after a bold, spontaneous and slightly hungover move to change her flight itinerary, staying on the Caribbean coast with people she had known for less than 24 hours. Her story shows how having flexible, if any, plans allows you to drift into the most memorable experiences possible. No ties, no commitments, no disappointments!

‘Cheeks’ speaks so positively on the subject of her unplanned 10 days in Colombia, it's easy to see her decision has moulded her view on future travel exploits; solo travel and the importance of having changeable plans…

“My travelling companions of 6 months gone, I found myself on hold to the airline changing my flights. I was about to enter a whirlwind adventure with 4 boys I had known only a few hours.
10 days of Colombian carnage awaited but was it the rum, their alluring personalities, or just plain craziness that had me going with my instincts? Either way, the following 10 days gave me experiences I won’t be able to repeat any time soon – how often can you bathe in a mud volcano or sleep in hammocks at a surf camp on the Caribbean coast?! 

I truly feel we had a bond that should take so much longer to form - travelling is intense and the boys taught me I was confident and happy as a solo traveller, something I’d always feared.

Being spontaneous and changing my flights on instincts taught me so much. The opportunity to change plans cost nothing but the enjoyment, memories, friends and stories I gained were priceless. Thank you boys, and thank you me!”

Cheeks x x x x

If you’re reading this, chances are you’ll agree that travelling in any form is, or will be, the most invigorating, exciting, adventurous ingredient you can add to your life. When a decision comes your way, don’t think too much about it. It always works out.
P.S. – The dynamite was worth every minute of that dusty bus floor!

Summer 2012: Beautiful, BOOMING, Bolivia.

Give your South American adventure a real sting with a visit to one of the most fun loving countries on the continent. Hospitable, action packed and CHEAP, live dynamite, unearthly scenery, World topping statistics and a love for most things frowned upon by the Western World. BOOM – welcome to Bolivia!

Here are four experiences that stand out as unique, chilling and memorable not only from my time in Bolivia, nor just South America, but from anywhere I’ve travelled before.

No1 – La Paz and its Nightlife
The locals claim it’s the best, the travellers love it and in this vibrant, party pumping City it’s easy to see why. Join the games in the lively hostels before the draw of the City offers multiple clubs playing any and all music you want – everyone is here to dance. The dorm beds are usually pretty empty until around the 5am mark.
Best Bit – Not always advised but accept an invite to a Bolivian after party and see how the residents of La Paz really let themselves go.

No2 – Surviving Death Road
Hordes of companies offer the opportunity to downhill mountain bike ‘the World’s most dangerous road’. The more you pay, the better the bike. Since being built in the 1930s it’s claimed 200-300 lives a year. With vertical drops of 2500feet, the environment is as intimidating as it is beautiful. Starting at 4,700 metres above sea level, you finish in sub-tropical climates at a lowly 1000m. The narrow road, twisty hair pins and spine tingling views are unlike most leisurely bike rides you’ll have taken before!

Best Bit -  Strictly speaking ‘El Camino de la Muerte’ is mainly traffic free now a days but, be last to leave for La Paz at the end of the day, have a chat with your guide and let your driver scare the pants off you with a drive back up Death Road in the dark.

No3 – Play with Dynamite
Discover the labyrinth of mines that once made Potosi the World’s richest City. Being underground in a claustrophobic, dusty, hot space has never been more fun. No longer the wealthiest but still the highest the traditional way of mining silver - from a mountain experts said should have collapsed 8 years ago - is still in full swing. Take in the tails of the mining gods and devils whilst sharing 96% alcohol. Squeeze up rickety ladders and buy silver straight from the hands of the miners.

Best Bit – Again, it isn’t strictly allowed but play your cards right and you could have live dynamite in your mouth moments before your guide buries it, completes 10 press ups on it, and lets it blow smithereens out of the ground – unforgettable!

No4 – See a different World
Wrap up warm and head south to 10,000sq kilometres of….salt – it’s far more special than it sounds. The largest of their kind on earth, the Salt Flats of Uyuni are breath taking. Get creative with your photography, experience the sub-zero temperatures at night and sleep in a salt hotel, the 3 day tour takes in landscapes you could, without pictures, only create with an over active imagination.

Best Bit – Staring in disbelief at where you are. Always wanting ‘5 more minutes’ to get the perfect optical illusion with your camera and seeing who can last the longest at 50mph on the roof of your 4x4 in winds of uncomfortably large minus figures.

Summer 2012: A PERUse through Ecuador.

After three weeks in Colombia and a massive underestimate of finances, we had to reign in both time and money as we raced our way through Ecuador and into Peru.

Although we only spent six nights there, Ecuador started something in our South American tour that has stuck right until the end – spontaneity. Having spent the night in the quaint but not too lively Quito, we were heading to Banos (a six hour bus journey north) when we first ‘flipped our coin’.

Having been told a venture to “one of the most beautiful sights in the country” was an impossibility on our time scale, we became intrigued to try. Sat on the floor of a bus terminal in central Ecuador, we tossed the coin and the rest was history. Heads would have had us boarded a bus directly to our destination, but as it was, tails had us riding in the back of a local truck to a Crater Lake more than two hours off course. The snow-capped mountains surrounding the lake added to its natural beauty and the adventure getting there and back itself was worth adding to the travel bucket list.

Banos was a backpacking playground of rental buggies and motorbikes. We spent two days playing dot-to-dot with waterfalls along the winding countryside roads. Ecuador was flying by but we were doing it in style.
I’d hazard a guess that out time in Ecuador was spent 33% on transport, and that includes sleep. Our crossing into Peru being the most dangerous, lucky and ridiculous of those journeys. Travelling to the border at 11pm, we weren’t sure if we had time to cross that night. Dumped in a town that straight away we all felt unease with, we had to trust instincts and jump into a taxi with an Ecuadorian that said he could get us across the border that night – we had little other choice.

Even the local looked on edge as we swept the town for a sign of a Peruvian bound bus but, true to his word, he had us on a coach heading south that night. The entire experience probably summed up our time in Ecuador – frantic but after all was said and done, lots of stories to tell and a great deal of fun.

Deserving of some rest the three of us travelling together decided that a few days at a beach town was a great way to introduce ourselves to Peru.

Mancora is a place that parties 23 hours a day. Not at all a bad thing for three young lads but the batteries were anything but charged when we tore ourselves away from the fun of this surprising beach town. If you have a stereotypical view of what a South American party house might be like you aren’t too far away from the scenes of Mancora. We spent the days wallowing on the sun drenched sand before our tight timescale had us moving on again three days later. (You really appreciate the size of countries when you know that a 16 hour bus journey will only get you two thirds of the way to your next destination!)

A trait that resurfaces a lot in South America is arriving off a bus to completely contrasting natural surroundings to the ones you left 10 or more hours previously  - it’s the beauty and fascinating aspect of it being such a diverse continent. We got to Huaraz, a mountaineering and climbing hot bed, freezing cold and in countryside littered with the snow peeked mountains of the Andes, it felt like we should have been in a new country compared to the heat and ethos of Mancora.

Without the experience or days to spare to do a climb, we were still keen to get high into the Andes and see the mountain range from above - that ended up as a downhill mountain bike experience with a descent from 5200m to 2000m. At the beginning the cold froze my hands to the bike, the rough road (which is apparently used as an ‘A’ road by drug smugglers) rattled and shook my entire body – it was tough work. 45 minutes later and 2000m lower, the layers were off and the sweat began to be the produce of the hard work we were putting in – somehow the scenes of glaciers, sky blue lagoons and knife edge mountains make it all bearable.

After Huaraz, just a simple 8 hour ride to Lima followed immediately by a 21 hour bus had us  at the start point for one of the main reasons many tourists visit the South American continent – Machu Picchu.
From the colonial town of Cusco, Machu Picchu is a 4 day trek. Zip lining through canyons, walking along Inca trails, rafting down rivers and staying with indigenous families of the Inca region got us to the foot of our temporary Mecca.

We rose at 4am to be at the front of the queue, but that isn’t the front door. 1700 steps later let you into Machu Picchu - the physical exertion seemed part of the satisfaction though when we sat at sunrise inside the famously preserved archaeological site.

Glutens for punishment we conquered a further 1600 steps in scaling Machu Picchu mountain – the highest peak surrounding the great City. For three hours we looked down upon one of the Wonders of the World – smiling to the point of laughter at how lucky we were to be in our position. I’m still struggling to think of a better view I’ve ever had on my travels.

It’s often the case that truly heart stopping moments on your travels are memories that can only be dug out from inside yourself; the pictures from a piece of technology rarely do it justice. South America is quickly filling up my brains capacity – keep it coming, bring on Bolivia!

Thursday, 21 June 2012

My View of Colombia: 3 weeks in a Nutshell.

“Why on earth are you going to Colombia?” A question branded so often when I engaged people in conversation about my next adventure. The answer wasn’t totally clear before I left on May 22nd but as I discovered more and more about this fascinating and exciting country I think I would find the question much easier to answer. Yes it is dangerous – as a country it has only really opened up to the backpacking scene in the last 6 or 7 years and Medellin, the City I am in whilst writing this, was the murder capital of the World less than 20 years ago and only 5 years ago it was a complete no go for any tourists. I suppose that’s why people would say I ‘m mad, because the kind of history and caution needed when travelling in this type of country is what initially drew me to Colombia.

Arriving in Bogota for my first taste of South America was a much easier acclimatisation than expected. For a start it wasn’t too warm, a chilly 14 degrees as we zipped through side streets in our salsa playing taxi in search of our first home/hostel.

With 8 million inhabitants it’s difficult to imagine the vast size of Bogota until you venture high above via cable car and stare down from above. The views are breathtaking (literally, as at 3,152m above sea level there is a noticeable thinning of the air) and we stood, posed and gawped for pictures far longer than we needed to.
Our stay in the capital was a flying one and although we sampled the nightlife, it was quickly apparent that the Colombians live for the weekend. As we were readying ourselves to leave on Friday evening the streets were abuzz with people of all ages getting into full social swing. The police especially seemed more active as the weekend drew closer, our hostel was stampeded by half a dozen policia demanding each and every guest’s documentation – a nerve-racking experience when two minutes earlier I was enjoying a cup of local coffee and dreaming of boat trips in the Caribbean.

Onwards and upwards and on both accounts that took us six hours north to the small town of San Gil. Picturesque twisty roads, a quaint market square and smiling residents aren’t the real reason people stop in San Gil. Adventure sports are. Three days caving, rafting, hiking and swimming made Colombia come alive. For £10 we ducked, dived, slipped and slid through a maze of caves for 3 hours. Not for the feint hearted and definitely not recommended for those that are claustrophobic – at parts we were fully submerged and dragged underwater. It’s either that or become a cave troll for life, there’s no way back!

The adrenaline kept coming. The following day we threw ourselves down some of the hardest flowing white waters in South America. Pounding out grade 5 rapids, the Suarez River is impossible to tame but just about survivable. Face to face with foaming tunnels of raging river, we smashed and bounced our way through the most aggressive of nature’s human washing machines. An unforgettable experience in stunning surroundings, the Colombian hills towered above the river as we glazed by. As much as we savoured the beauty of where we were there was an ounce of relief when William, our guide, said the rapids were at an end.

From adrenaline junkies to beach bums, a 15 hour overnight bus found us in the scorching heat of the Caribbean coast. Craving a piece of rough and ready Colombia the temptation of an eco-friendly surf camp an hour east had our ears pricked and our bus tickets booked. Costeno isn’t in any guide books and the owners intend to keep it that way to ‘only let the real people in’ – it’s a great ethos even if a little too idealistic, but it works.

Meal times are set and everyone eats together, beds are hammocks under a palm tree roof and the communal alarm clock is the crashing of the waves. By day we read books in the shade, played volleyball on the white sand and cooled off in the sea. We surfed, took thought provoking walks along the deserted beach and swayed in hammocks. At night, like pirates we turned to the rum, lit fires on the beach and listened to music until relaxation levels had us pining for sleep. Two nights flew by and it’s easy to see why the place is packed just by word of mouth.

Historically one of the most influential cities in South America and a colonial jewel in the crown of Colombia, five hours along the coast is Cartegena. The paved streets, colourful buildings and lack of modernised architecture in the old town were just as I’d imagined. Walking the wall that separates the old from the new, it’s a fantastic place to soak up the realisation of how lucky I, along with good friends, am so lucky to be travelling in such a diverse, historical and beautiful country. As we watched the sun go down and day become night, it was an immensely satisfying feeling to know we would not rather be anywhere else on the planet – that feeling doesn’t come easily or often.

Back on the hunt for beaches Playa Blanca is a 30 minute boat ride from Cartegena and we sweated our way through a night in a wooden hut metres from the blue waters. Easily worth it for, on the stroke of midnight, we swam in the warm sea, diving down to reveal magical sparkles of phosphorous from fingertips to toes – it’s a memory that cost nothing but will be embedded on the mind forever.

Thick and fast the action of Colombia continued as the next afternoon had us heading for a dip in a mud volcano! The massage from middle aged men and the rub down from the ageing local women helped make our experience one of the weirdest I can think of. Literally floating in mud, we bobbed around with 15 other people, wondering why on earth people are attracted to such activities.

With just a couple of days before we headed into Ecuador, our final stop was Medellin. More famed for its beautiful women now a days, it was once the murder capital of the World and the centre of Pablo Escobar’s ruthless drug cartel. Obvious wealth to the area has modernised the city and quickly made it travel friendly, cocktail bars and clubs moving above drugs to the forefront of entertainment. However, there still remains a chill in the air, romanced by the idea of stacks of Escobar’s cash remaining unfound in the hills surrounding the City – we didn’t leave as millionaires.

Our final image on Colombia was arguably the most spectacular. 752 steps, standing over 130 metres tall is El Penol – a giant granite monolith. Take water for the journey because it gets pretty hot but the views soon have you forgetting how quickly your heart is racing. The beautiful scenery was yet more ammunition I can use to confidently answer the question of why anyone would want to travel to Colombia.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Northern Colombia: Sun, Sea, Sand and Sweat.

Arriving on the Northern coast of Colombia, we were hit by a wave of heat as we stepped off the 15 hour long night bus from San Gil. It was only 8am!

The plan for the following week or so would take us along the coast of the Caribbean Sea, from Costeno beach - an eco friendly surf camp, to one of the most historical, iconic and important cities in South America - Cartegena.

Santa Marta is a reasonably sized town and one thing it did have for us was a great hostel and an opportunity to meet people and get friendly with 'Ron'. (He's the guy who makes you forget things and struggle to get into the top bunk!). Other than a decent party and a nice breeze on the rooftops, Santa Marta has little to offer and can be seen in an afternoon even if you're a slow walker. It is however, a great gateway to an exciting area surrounding the town and after a few days of acclimatizing to the silly temperatures and taking full advantage of the ease in which Ron made an appearance, we packed day bags, jumped on a local bus and headed east along the coast to find Costeno beach.

Costeno was basic. We slept in hammocks and everyone ate meals at the same time that were cooked by a couple of Colombians on nothing more than a few camping stoves - the 20 minute walk down a dusty track had us all sweating by the time we arrived but the reward for the effort put into getting there is more than returned.

It isn't in the Lonely Planet guide so word of mouth is the best way to find Costeno or.....word of hair. On our second night we were given the now traditional 'Costeno 7' - an act of shaving ones head on one side to portray a number 7 from the temple, round the ear and to the bottom of your hairline. It looks ridiculous on most people but ALMOST (you know who you are) everyone buys into the spirit of the camp. And it's a pretty good conversation starter one you get back to the 'Real World'.

Costeno beach itself is really pleasant and offers good waves for anyone wanting to try their hand at surfing. The break is strong though and its hard work just trying to stand up in the water, let alone on your board. The nights were filled by beach fires and card games (Ron was only invited on the second night) and it was only the inevitable wanting for a clean pair of shorts and mattress that bought our stay at Costeno to an end.

Back to Santa Marta and back to the delight of air-con. Itchy feet had us sampling the night life in a local fishing village - Taganga. For a local fishing village it came out looking pretty good. Locals, travellers, men, women, old and young seemed to congregate in a bar overlooking the village, drinking copious amounts and dancing until our legs were glad of a rest. Something I'm fully aware of now is how much the Colombian lifestyle is dominated by the importance of letting their hair down and going wild for the weekend's. It definitely isn't a bad thing but at the moment its crushing my £30 a day budget. I keep telling myself we'll claw it all back in the cheapies - Peru, and especially Bolivia.

The next leg of our journey was one I'd been looking forward to since the realisation of coming to South America became apparent. Cartegena is 5 hours bus ride from Santa Marta and a World away looks wise. Straight off the bus you can appreciate the colonial feel to the streets and buildings. Each is a different colour and size, and the pedestrian friendly road rules make exploring much more enjoyable. The other noticeable difference is the heat. It isn't as crazy as people were warning us of but without a breeze it can get stiflingly hot. The famous wall around the old part of Cartegena is an inspirational walk. Although now a days it is littered with police and street sellers, the feel of history and tradition remains strong.

Keeping with the trend of going back to basics, we spent a night on 'Playa Blanca' - an island 40 minutes (and a lot of hassle!) from Cartegena. I managed to top up my sun burn and find a new level of relaxation as we did almost nothing but lounge in the baking heat, read books and remind each other how lucky we were to be in our position. Late in the evening we did something I'll never forget. It was close to a full moon and verging on midnight we - Myself, Cal, John, Dan and Nat - relinquished large quantities of clothing and swam out into the sea where we could see phosphorous lighting up our movements under water. It was like something out of Avatar as we swirled around in the water - it's often simple, inexpensive memories like this that stick with you the longest.

At the moment we're in Medellin - the infamous City of drug cartel lord Pablo Escobar. More to come of that later.....

Thursday, 31 May 2012

It all begins in Colombia.

Instalment number one from across the pond in South America. It feels like this is the first chance I’ve had to put my thoughts down since I arrived on 23rd May. It’s been fast, fun, action packed discovery so far and sitting on this 16 hour night bus is a great chance to remind myself of the whirlwind that has been my first 5 days in Colombia.

Recognising the stereotypes that go with a country like Colombia has been pretty easy. It does feel dodgey and there are a lot of drugs flying around but adrenaline flows at the same rate as rum and creating lifelong memories is just as easy as buying a bag of ‘white stuff’ out of a taxi window.

First port of call was Bogota – the sprawling capital city home to more than 8 million people. At 2800 feet above sea level it can get chilly and there is something about its atmosphere that will keep you on edge. I wouldn’t say that’s a bad thing all the time, it just keeps you on your toes, Especially with locals and expats alike both warning of people on weekends “stabbing people for fun”.

To appreciate the sheer size of Bogota you have to take a trip into the clouds on a cable car. It must be more than 4000 feet up and the stalls sell coca tea to help anyone ease difficulties with the altitude. Buildings run as far as the eye can see in most directions and if you’re steady enough on your feet, picture opportunities are incredible. If you’re not too keen on heights you might want to skip standing on the one foot wide wall and acting like you’re on top of the world.

When we were leaving Bogota late on Friday evening the streets were filled with young and old, relaxing and partying. Police were on every corner and even came into the hostel we were staying in to check passports and documentation. Something about foreign police in an infamously corrupt country really makes me uneasy but apparently these kind of things are the norm.

After Bogota the next few days rolled into a continuous hive of action and adventure. San Gil – 6 hours north by a surprisingly comfortable bus – rightly makes claims to being the adrenaline capital of Colombia. Staying in a sociable, friendly hostel called Macondo – run by an Aussi who’s a fountain of knowledge on the local area, I began to feel like we were getting under the skin of what Colombia is really all about. I get the impression that people are either over the top and extremely friendly, willing to help and welcome you to their country or they’re dismissive when you say hello and frown upon you somewhat – time will tell how true first impressions are.

San Gil is a place that I could probably best describe as having the feel of a busy Italian mountain town. Paved streets and a square that buzz’s with musicians and social locals, it has a nice feel. Not so good a feeling was coming from my legs after a 22k bike ride in the midday heat. Luckily the reward was cold, in the form of a 180m high waterfall  that could not of been more welcoming to jump straight into.
The following days we filled with some amazing caving which, at parts, involved being tugged through underwater tunnels and swimming through freezing waters, mud and rocks – quite an experience to know that above ground life simply continues as normal.

After being cancelled on the Sunday because of the fallout from a local wedding the night before, we got to take to the Suarez river in order to tackle some pretty scary grade 5 rafting rapids. After a lengthy safety tutorial which quite frankly scared the hell out of me, the rafting itself was a buzz of adrenaline and danger. It’s a great way to realise the power of water and more broadly, nature. I’ve never listened more intently to someone’s words as I did our instructors as we came face to face with rapids that looked more suicidal than entertaining. Everyone survived and at the end of the day, ear to ear smiles showed it was the best £40 we’d all spent in a long while.  

Bumping into travellers, swapping stories and sharing experiences you’ll remember for the rest of your life is a big draw to travelling for me and when in San Gil one of the most enjoyable things was meeting and sharing the time with Alex, Nicole, Jordan and Jodi – a Canadian, Kiwi, Brit and Australian. The times you spend together, even if short, allows you to form strong bonds because you’re doing such memorable things together. Myself, Cal, John and Dan (the friends I’m travelling with) found leaving San Gil a lot more difficult because of the friends we made there.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Off The Beaten Track - Are We There Yet?

Amidst the beginning of a new adventure in South America, how hard is it to steer clear of the crowds and find yourself in a real gem of a location....almost alone....pinching yourself back into reality?

Close to the top of all travellers ambitions is to 'get off the beaten track'. Find a destination "Remote from populous or well travelled regions" and live the dream of telling the World of this wonderful place only a handful of people on the planet have ever graced. I know it's somthing I think about everytime a new adventure appears over the horizon.

So what do you have to do to get off the track, away from the crowds and into that long awaited paradise?

More and more people are becoming obsessed with travel and retrospectively it isn’t that expensive either. It can cost close to £100 just to travel the length of England on a train, compare that with return flights to India (£350), Thailand (£450), Brazil (£420) and because of the ever expanding budget airline routes, even places like Jordan are accessible for prices as low as £120 return! That’s incredibly cheap and even more tempting now the Middle East is opening up much more to the idea of backpackers, or should I say backpackers are opening up to the idea of the Middle East.

How do you know when you are off the beaten track and not just in the right place at the wrong time? The World is so well travelled, with so many people looking for that perfect tail of tranquility, that even places considered well off the travel radar 20 years ago are now burning brightly in the backpacking spotlight.

Four years ago I was in Uganda and to all intents and purposes it felt like I was the first white person to be living in the rural village of Muguluka - obviously I wasn't as I was part of a volunteer teaching programme who had been to the area before but it provided an astounding insight into basic African life. We're talking no running water, sporadic electrical power and being gawped at almost constantly most days - that was pretty off the beaten track but it still niggles at me that I didn't find it myself or simply stumble across it. Ultimately I was placed their by a Western based tourist/charity company so can I really count that as off the beaten track? Maybe not.

Fear not, finding yourself off the beaten track is not an impossibility. I think that more than ever it just takes a bit more perseverance, imagination, enthusiasm, guts and probably money, to find the spot you, and hopefully not too many other people, are looking for. Many people's ideas of what OTBT is will vary but ultimately it has to be an experience that is difficult to replicate in a large number of locations.

One of my lasting memories from travelling is being sat on a beach, eating fish from a banana leaf, nursing blisters on my hands from a canoe journey too long, remembering how lucky I was to be in such a privileged place. It was University graduation day back home and my two friends and I were in the Caramoan Peninsula on the Eastern shores of the Philippines.

Take away a Bill Gates style private plane and there isn't really an easy or comfortable way into where we were. It took a full day of travel - 1 coach, a local bus, 2 mini vans, a taxi, a boat and a couple of motorbikes. We'd certainly gotten to a difficult place to get to! We spent the next few days hopping on and off perfect beaches, often without a single other soul in sight. Our transport was our canoe, rowing in the heat was exhausting but in a place that evokes such special views and feelings, I was glad it was hard work to get there.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Ten Things Not To Miss In South East Asia

Throughout the past decade South East Asia has firmly established itself as the Mecca of the travelling community. Not all parts of this throbbing sub-continent are for everyone. The popular parts are busy and littered with Europeans, Australians and Americans - from the beaches of Thailand to the river banks of Laos – everyone is here to snatch their piece of adventure.

I love the region for its mad parties and unique ethos on letting your hair down but I think it's more than that which has people going back again and again. Yes it's cheap, and yes the opportunities to be explicit with your behaviour are ample but, the landscapes are often breathless, the locals welcoming, the experiences unforgettable and the food is simple but delicious – don’t be surprised to find yourself routing through the spice cupboard at home in a frail attempt to recreate the perfect Pad Thai!

Whether you’re an eco-traveller or an adrenaline junky, a City dweller or a naturist at heart, the countries of South East Asia will find a place to inspire you. A budget of £500 a month will keep you well entertained across the region and having been to all but two (Burma and East Timor) of its 11 countries, I’m giving a rundown of ten things not to be missed in South East Asia......

#10 – Go tribal in the rainforest, Northern Thailand.

Wading through jungle and rivers
Although you find yourself in the middle of thick jungle, riding elephants through rivers and rafting rapids on clumps of bamboo, Chiang Mai and northern Thailand is not off the beaten track. Its hard to find anywhere in Thailand that is. But....what you do get is an experience that you will tell time and time again once back on home soil. The land is thick and in places a machete leads the way. It's hot and humid but the hard work will feel like play time, sweating like mad and fighting off the leeches - your wooden floor and moldy blanket warmly provided by the tribe you stay overnight with, will be greatly received. You get an authentic taste of rural Thailand and get so caught up in the adventure of it all you will wonder why you aren't staying longer. NB - Look out for the Karen Tribe and their offerings of opium after dinner, its their way of life!

Passing the rice fields
#9 – Rent a motorbike, Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

It has to be done at some point on a trip to South East Asia. I didn't come across many places better than Yogya to rent a bike, pack a bag and just drive. The City itself is Indonesia's culture capital and has a lot going for it. The markets, architecture, history and layout help create a really relaxed atmosphere where it is easy to let the days go by as you become familiar with the ease of life. Once out on the roads things can get hectic - 10 bikes a breast and lorries coming from both directions on the busy roads, lonesome views of volcanoes and sacred temples on the quiet ones. Combine the free spirited ride into the countryside with a visit to temples like Borobudur (the largest Buddhist temple on the sub-continent) and Prambanan (a Hindu temple complete with an open air theater for evening performances) and you will realise why I ended up staying 2 days longer than expected and still long to return.
Yogya - easy place to find presents for the family
Sat on the walls of Borobudur

#8 – Food for thought, Kota Kinabalu food market, Borneo.

It should be a sin to eat in chain restaurants or burger bars in SE Asia. The food across the region is tremendous - fresh, cheap, tasty and in some cases, surprising. Submerging yourself within the local markets to satisfy your appetite is not a difficult charge. Street vendors appear almost everywhere selling things from noodles to dog. For me, the biggest and best of all comes on Borneo and the fish market that dominates the waterfront of Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. It is as though the underwater world has been transported to land - barbecued, sauteed, grilled or fried, then served up with an array of accompaniments to travellers, locals, men, women and children! The best bit is the chance to see the catch being carried from the holds on the boats, to the women who wash them, the men who cook them and then to you...who eat them.

Taking the reins of a tuk-tuk
#7 – By Day and by Night, Bangkok, Thailand.
I wasn't going to put Bangkok on this list, mainly because the stereotypical views of Thailand's capital are not at all far from reality, hence you can probably already imagine what it is like. But, it simply cannot be beaten for nightlife and is packed with daytime sights to keep the culture vultures happy. OK so it isn't for everyone but Khoa san road is the backpacking hub and can be utterly mental at times. The alcohol is cheap and free flowing, there is always some American looking worse for wear because he can't handle his drink and yes, every other person is trying to sell you tickets to a ping pong show or get you to pay for the pleasures of an overly obvious transexual. Hey, its why you either love or hate Bangkok. it is what it is and the best way to enjoy it is to embrace it. 
Bangkok drinking
You can party until the markets begin setting up for business, or get to bed and make an assualt on the tuk-tuk madness that will show you some of the most impressive Bhuddist statues and temples around. Bangkok is a City of two faces and if you don't go, you won't not what all the fuss, good and bad, is all about. 

                #6 – Take in the history, Cambodia & Vietnam.

Part of a temple of 10,000 skulls in Cambodia

Both countries have beautiful beaches, vibrant party areas and beautiful scenery but I think what stuck with me most about Cambodia and Vietnam, was the remnants of their history that are on display. It would of been easy to mention Halong Bay or Angkor Wat - both are stunning and more than worth a visit. The effects of what has happened to these neighboring countries is still startlingly obvious in day to day life. Disfigured men, women and children are an unfortunate reminder of the terrors they have gone through to be where they are now as sustainable tourist destinations.

Crawling through the Cu-Chi  tunnels

Pol Pot's reign of terror in Cambodia, and the Vietnam war which ended in 1975, have left their mark. Pol Pot was estimated to of killed 21% of the Cambodian population during his 3 years in charge of Cambodia - a staggering figure that is chillingly remembered in the killing fields just outside of the capital Phnom Penh. The Cu-Chi tunnels of Southern Vietnam offer an amazing insight into the way of life many natives lived just 40 years ago - spending days underground in order to out whit the enemy and stay alive. Regardless of being sad and uncomfortable in parts, I was happy to take time to learn about and appreciate why and how both countries are truly remarkable for reasons that go beyond natural beauty and adrenaline fueled antics.

#5 – Perhentian Islands, Peninsula Malaysia.

Pulau Perhentian has a unique ability which is very hard to grasp.  Whilst remaining a regular hit in mainstream travel circles it still posseses a aura of serenity and certianly packs plenty of natural beauty into the bargain. There are plenty of beaches, some aimed towards honeymooners, others towards alcohol thirsty party adicts. Canvassing them all - if you can't relax on the Perhentian islands there is something seriously wrong with you. The islands are drenched in an easy going atmosphere, renting a boat to explore the clear blue waters surrounding you is as easy as stepping out of your front door at home.

Dice with sharks, swim with turtles, anchor up and soak up the sun or simply cruise to the next white sand beach, the slow pace of the day can be matched in the evening with candle lit beach bbq's or stepped up a couple of levels to demonstrate the party side of the islands personality. The local tipple is 'Monkey Juice' - mix it with sprite, slam it on the table, let it fizz up and throw it down the hatch - its impossible to just have one! The Perhentians are a shining example of tranquility and liveliness dwelling in harmony.

#4 – Borocay, Philippines.

I could of chosen half a dozen places from the Philippines, the entire country is a delight to travel. Take away the rather industriel and faceless capital Manila and there are few negatives to niggle at.

 Borocay is an island just over one hours flight from Manila and interest in the charismatic beach spot has built quickly. For the Philippines, Borocay is a popular backpacking destination but the real beauty in its appeal is that you are mostly socialising with Filipino's on holiday letting their hair dow and having a heck of a lot of fun. An abundance of watersports line one side of the island whereas the opposite coast is littered with beaches for soaking up the sun, sitting under swaying palm trees and catching up on midday naps.
The lifestyle ethos of the island's visitors and inhabitants run parrallel to each other. Sip 'Borocay rum' in the early evening, digging your bare feet into the sand from the comfort of a hammock. Later, head to Kasbah for some upbeat acoustic jamming before struggling to beat the moon to bed after a stint in one of the lively bars at the top end of White Beach.
Borocay would be reason enough to visit the Philippines. Far less trampled than Thailand and perhaps more beautiful, Borocay is at the more developed end of the scale in a country which, to me, paints a picture of what its more travelled South East Asian neighbours were like before the hoards flocked in.

#3 – F1 Grand Prix, Singapore.

Singapore has class, style and sophistication. Its jaw dropping skyline offers an insight into the excitement the city holds. Add to this the most glamorous and expensive sport on the planet - 24 cars reaching speeds of over 150mph on roads that are far more accustomed to cyclists and camera baring tourists than machinery that is at the spearhead of advanced and intuitive eingineering.
The view at sunset from the roof of The Sands
Taking in the after race party

If the cars themselves aren't up your street, the atmosphere and entertainment is enough to keep even the most diluted of petrol heads suitably breathless. International artists take to the main 'Padang' stage all weekend, the streets are littered with entertaining dancers and technological show offs.. Sip an iconic Singapore Sling (£18!) as you marvel in the history and calonial feel of the Raffles Hotel and as night draws in head to Clark Quay for your fix of the modern social life.
The Ferrari passes past a lit up City Hall

High rises and bright lights dominate down town Singapore. Reach for the sky in the Singapore Flyer
The Sands Hotel - Lit up on race night
or go further afield where you can find on of the Worlds most creditable zoo as well as a branch of the ever popular Universal Studios. Getting tired yet? Save energy for the abundance of street food the City has on offer, from chow mein to peking duck, you won't want your first taste to be the last - just as with Singapore itself.

#2 – Find your deserted paradise, Caramoan Peninsula, Philippines.

Bags only on this bridge!
 The Caramoan Peninsula is why you are visiting South East Asia. A stunning resemblance to the stereotypical look of some castaway islands, it isn't difficult to find your very own. Take in your surroundings whilst eating lunch from a banana leaf, worrying only about the heat of the sun, until it sinks carmfully below the horizon. Accommodation in the area is limited but it doesnt come as a suprise as the journey there is an arduous one. At one point you're asked to vacate your vehicle in the interest of maintaining a rather rickety old bridge.

Still the 'modern' way of farming
In a way though the hard access and limited facilities is exactly why the Caramoan Peninsula is such a gem. Getting there takes patience but the rewards are beautiful and the sense of exploration - a real feeling that you are discovering the roots of a country - are very self satisfying.

 The serenity and picturesque qualities the Caramoan has is backed by the filming of the television series 'Survivor' within the region. The Swedish, Indian and American versions of the show will all of been filmed here by the close of 2012. That gives you an idea of the calibre of landscape the area boasts.

The day of my University graduation I had borrowed a kayak from a local and rowed with 2 friends to a couple of nearby islands - about 2 miles and a 45 minute activity. Although it was a small regret not to be back home getting the mantlepiece worthy picture, I will never forget where I was, how I got there, what I was feeling and why I could not of been in a better place.

Our ship, our beach.
#1 - Climb inside a volcano, Mount Bromo, Indonesia.

Mount Bromo is found in eastern Java, Indonesia and is possible to visit from Bali during a 2 day trip. However, a lot of people travel to Indonesia for the soul reason of seeing this mystical sight. Superlatives are rightly overused and the experience of such a close up encounter with one of the World's most active volcano's its spectacular, inspiring and unbeatable.

Sunset at Bromo is a memorable experience

Temperatures are cold at Bromo and accomodation is either expensive or very (very!) basic. Try to arrive late afternoon, this will give you time to cross the 'Sea of sands' which leads to Bromo. From a distance you will be able to see the prehostoric looking image of a volcano pumping sulphurous gas's into the atmosphere - this is Bromo.

Pick your mode of transport - feet, motorbike, 4x4 or horseback. Once at the foot of Bromo you begin to imagine the scenes at the summit. In the evening the landscape combines with the setting sun to create spine tingling picture opportunities, images that evoke thoughts of happiness, reflection, completion and pride. It is a truly special atmosphere.

Me getting as close as I dare
After scrambling to the top you'll understand the power of the natural beast you're climbing all over. The smell, the noise and the smoke coming from inside the crater is admirable as you tiptoe round the rim. Views are extraterrestriel at points and having the crater to yourself emphasis' its incredible aura.

Come 4am you will more than likely be boarding a 4x4 to scale a 20 minute journey where, after a rather steep hike, much larger numbers of people wait for the World to wake up and reveal Bromo as the centrepiece of natural beauty at sunrise.

Mt Bromo just after sunrise - still smoking

Over and out. Please leave a comment.


Sunday, 8 April 2012

An Update: A way into Journalism: Big plans.

OK so I haven't been the most religious of posters in the last few months but everything has been a bit up and down and A LOT has changed, been planned and put into action.

Having flirted with the prospect of moving to London - locking myself in the lions den and fighting for scraps to survive - I've made a few decisions that will see me live day to day life in a rather different place......Taiwan!

Part of my decision not to push for a move to the English capital was financial. The appeal of internships on £100 a week just isn't a realistic possibility if you have to up sticks and move from Yorkshire. I'm not lucky enough to have a bundle of savings or inherently wealthy parents to fall back on. Nevertheless my experiences in London, the people I have met and the work I have had published, have no doubt helped me to the decisions I have made.

In May I will be travelling again, only this time I will also be working. I have my first paid travel journalism job with a company called Gap Daemon (http://www.gapdaemon.com/). Having had contact with them before and them knowing about my enthusiasm for both travel and writing I contacted them to ask about the possibility of contributing to their publication whilst away in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Putting a smile on my face, they said yes and are keen to take articles and updates from me as I roam through parts of South America. The specifics for larger articles hasn't been set but I am hoping to write around the subject of having fun on a PROPER shoestring budget. The thrills, spills, parties and landscapes you can get yourself too without having to go over what you think is already a miniscule budget for backpacking. Corner cutting is easy if you know the benefits of it at the end of the day so watch this space......

Obvisouly South America is a short term thing but the start of something really good regarding the journalism side things. It is a continent I have wanted to travel to for years and always the one most backpackers seem to be aiming for when you meet them elsewhere - I will be keeping my blog in the know with updates, pictures, videos and features.

Landing back in the UK on July 20th, I'm giving myself less than three weeks turnaround time before I jump the UK ship once more and set sail for Taiwan. Unfortunately I'm not going solely for journalism reasons but thankfully I've been accepted into a company that has positions to teach English as a foreign language to Taiwanese children. I've got some experience in teaching from my time in Africa but other than that I have a degree in Journalism, a thirst for travel, a pretty out going personality and a burning ambition to live and work outside of the UK.

Being a teacher will not mean I lose sight of becoming a journalist. I will still be writing regularly for papers back home in my local area and hopefully more and more oportunities will emerge from my work with Gap Daemon.

Taiwan is a growing country and before too long I can easily imagine it becoming the 'in' place for people to visit. It is well situated for making access to places like Japan, Hong Kong, China, Philippines, Thailand etc cheap and easy. The job opportunities for native speaking English people are ridiculous. Job hunting was not too difficult and once a Skype interview and a few applications had been nailed, a confirmation of acceptance e-mail quickly followed. There seems to be a strong will in Taiwan for English to be taught to children by educated, western adults.

For anyone reading who is interested, I applied with a company called Hess and you can find all you need to know on their website (http://www.hess.com.tw/). The money is good, the lifestyle is high and the expereinces with be rewarding and unique. It wont quite be travelling as such but working and living abroad, especially Asia, has been something I have wanted to do for a while and with opportunities to write for various publications whilst away in these weird and wonderful places, I'm already getting closer to legitimately being able to call myself a Travel Journalist!


***Keep checking back for my '10 places to see in 2012', which is coming soon.