Chiang Mai

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller


Chiang Mai is known to be one of the worlds most liveable cities. So it’s really no surprise to see expats dominating the local cafes. I had pictured it to be quite small, but it’s actually huge. It is the second biggest city in Thailand. If you are a nature lover – don’t be turned off by the idea of the city. It never feels like you are in a busy place, plus there are hundreds of different day trips to venture into the nearby jungles.

There are hundreds of hostel accommodation options in and around Chiang Mai. For travellers wanting to socialise, I would highly recommend a place called The Living Place 1 (they have 2 but 1 is more popular). Although it’s located outside the Old City walls, it is perfectly situated in a quiet laneway towards the night bazaar (which I guarantee you will spend a lot of time!) The owner, Aree, is especially welcoming.

If you are interested in trying something new, and if you have the time, I would recommend just booking the first night somewhere and playing the rest by ear. Wandering around the city, you can find numerous small guesthouses and B&Bs offering fantastically cheap deals for clean private rooms. Many of them don’t have websites, have no advertising whatsoever and aren’t affiliated with any travel companies. They literally wait for walk-ins! Step off the beaten track and find a hidden gem!

TIP: If you only have a set amount of time in Northern Thailand – don’t miss visiting Pai – the small hippy town 3 hours North. Read more about Pai here

8 TOP CHIANG MAI EXPERIENCES

1. F O O D

247694_10152724774703513_8201760212921012824_nPersonally, I think Thailand has some of the best street food in the world. Most of it is fresh, delicious and the variety is crazy! The markets are the best place to pick up decent meals. Pad Thai, mango sticky rice, soups, gyoza and a plate of meat skewers all average 30 baht per serving (only US$1) and you are guaranteed to leave full!

TIP: Try and eat food which is cooked fresh (in front of you) to avoid food poisoning. 

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If you need a break from street food (or enjoy eating breakfast in a cafe like me!) here’s a few places I would highly recommend:

  • Blue Diamond Cafe – Great garden atmosphere with a gourmet bakery attached and homemade treats.
  • Free Bird Cafe – Delicious! And 100% of profits go towards Burmese Refugee Houses fighting against human trafficking.
  • Dada Cafe – Get educated while you eat. The walls are covered with posters teaching customers about the health benefits of everything they serve!
  • Dash Teak House – Although higher priced than the other restaurants, the Thai/American owners serve up delicious hearty Thai cuisine in a fine dining setting. (Try the mind blowing Khao Soi curry – only found in North Thailand!)

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TIP: If you’re a coffee lover, head down to Nimmanhemin Road outside the Old City. The entire street is lined with boutique coffee houses including Australian owned – Risto8to (amazing coffee).  If you are lucky enough to have the global award winning barista on shift – he can create your portrait in the coffee foam!

2. G O  T O  A  T H A I  B O X I N G  M A T C H

10659282_10152730199313513_548007362247707682_nNormally, boxing does not appeal to me. Watching men smash each other’s faces in just seems pointless. I was convinced by a local that there is no blood and it’s “not so violent like America”. I reluctantly agreed to give it a go. A group of us from the hostel went together (400 baht each) and could BYO beer which was great. Our seats were reserved from earlier in the day and it ended up being an amazing experience. Being so close, we could smell the sweat and Thai boxing was much more about speed and skill rather than violence. It was good to watch.

We were lucky enough to see a number of international matches throughout the night including USA, Italy and The Netherlands (both male and female). By the end of the night, we were all so engrossed in the tournament that we were cheering them on and making bets (you can make official bets at the back) and we all loved it!

TIP: Buy tickets in the morning through the hostel or wander down to the night bazaar to reserve a good seat!

3. V I S I T  D O I  S U T H E P 

10387678_10152730198408513_1945864797352120890_nDoi Suthep is a mountain in the Chiang Mai province reaching 1,676 metres. It’s covered in lush vegetation and holds near the top, a stunning Buddhist temple.

James and I hired a scooter for 150 baht for the day. We probably could’ve gotten cheaper, (I had heard of others getting them for 120 baht) however we had a lazy morning and wanted to be quick and make the most of the day so couldn’t be bothered negotiating.

10995901_10152730199968513_846781321574079898_nTIP: Ensure you ask to add insurance (could be an additional 40 baht) but it’s worth it! If anything happens to the bike – they may not give back your passport until you cough up the money so insurance is a safe bet. 

The mountain is 15km away and has windy roads leading up, so if you are not comfortable on a scooter, you can opt for a taxi instead.

11001819_10152730198693513_8823875369769920858_nThe temple is beautiful. You need to take your shoes off to wander around the grounds. If you head right to the back in the small alcove, there is an old monk sitting there. Kneel down in front of him, he will bless you, ask Buddha to grant you good luck and he will tie a white string around your wrist to symbolise the bond between you and your soul. It’s polite to always keep your head lower than those of the Buddhas and monks (which might explain why people are crawling around!). We lit candles, worshipped alongside others and took in the energy around us. When we were ready to leave, we saw a group of young school kids trying to raise money for a school library. Having little else to do, James and I spent the next half an hour dancing with them and helped them raise over US$200! Not only that, we got to spend some quality time interacting with locals and learnt about cool new haircuts and where to get great Thai food!

10978561_10152730200678513_2780373707216229720_nWe continued on the scooter further up the hill because we had heard about the village on the top. To be honest, I don’t know if we found the right village, although we had fun getting lost. We came across a small village filled with small shops and local kids running around playing with younger siblings. It was here that I met a lady with raw crystals who carved me a beautiful amethyst necklace!

TIP: Try the noodle sausage at the base of the temple! (Another Northern Thai specialty)

For those who want to try meditation, Wat Suan Dok offer 2 day meditation retreats called “monk chats”. It allows tourists to get a taste of the Buddhist lifestyle by learning about meditation. Live, eat, sleep and meditate like a monk for 2 days and at the end – feel free to ask the monk questions about his life, rituals and beliefs. Really interesting. Find out more by clicking here.

4. S E E  A  T H A I  C A B E R E T  S H O W

10994595_10152730199673513_4627087296616630003_nHaving reluctantly seen a PingPong show in Bangkok before, I was very hesitant about agreeing to a “ladyboy show” when it was offered. I was assured that it was nothing sexual but I still had my doubts. All I can say is that it was one of the best things I saw in Chiang Mai. It was nothing like what I expected. If I wasn’t told they were ladyboys – there was NO WAY of knowing. They were all stunning and paraded around in beautiful intricate costumes and performed great well known hits we could all sing along to like Queen and Abba.

11001896_10152730199598513_5339678560286213498_nIt cost only 200 baht (including a beer) and went for about 2 hours. The first act included most of the performers singing and dancing to latest hits. Many of the performers constantly came off stage to involve the audience (whether they liked it or not!) so be careful if you are sitting in the front row! Some of the performances  were slow, deep solo acts, while others were energetic group dance offs. It was truly spectacular!

TIP: Audience in the front row get involved so sit back if you prefer just to watch!

After the show was over, despite being a bar – the venue became deserted. We headed out to Zoe’s Bar which played 80’s and 90’s hits all night resulting in many lost voices. I personally prefer bars rather than nightclubs so I should have called it a night after Zoe’s, however ended up visiting the raunchy ‘Spicys’ later in the night and quickly regretted it. For those who prefer something different – hit up some unique jazz bands playing live nightly at the North Gate bars!

5. W A N D E R  T H E  M A R K E T S

10997364_10152726173228513_5458950933051232322_nMarkets in Thailand are a must – especially in North. The handmade clothes and bags are influenced heavily by patterns and materials from Burma and India. They are truly unique. Expect to pay more than you would in the famous Chatuchuk markets in Bangkok. These shops are made especially for tourists so be warned, although it is still pleasant to walk around and admire what’s on offer.

TIP: Try the delectable herb sausage available in the night bazaar. It’s a local specialty and the herbs aid with digestion!

The night bazaar outside the city walls operate every night. It offers a live cultural show and numerous food stalls, whereas the weekend markets are only running in the main street on a Sunday evening. My only advice – make sure you go with an empty stomach because it’s hard to resist the huge array of food!

TIP: Try the antique ice-cream available at the weekend markets and experiment with flavours like black sesame or taro!

6. G E T  I N V O L V E D  A T  ‘A R T  I N  P A R A D I S E’

10361968_10152710987353513_1532988769892861303_n‘Art In Paradise’ is the world’s largest 3D art museum allowing visitors to be a part of the artwork. It’s a steep 300 baht entry but I thought it was worth every cent.

The museum was once an old department store and was transformed into a creative, colourful playground by 12 South Korean artists. The best part of all, is that anyone can produce great photos! No need for any special SLR lenses – even an old phone camera will do! The markings on the floor help you work out where best to stand for the best angle. Make sure you bring someone along with you so you can take photos for each other!

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7. V I S I T  A N  E L E P H A N T  S A N C T U A R Y 

Being lucky enough to go on an African Safari recently, I decided I didn’t need to see/ride the elephants in Northern Thailand despite being the most popular thing to do. After speaking with both locals and tourists, I found the ethical debate very interesting. What I did learn though, is that not all elephant farms are acting ethically and many of the animals are mistreated.

In order for elephants to interact with humans, they generally need to be tamed – and in South East Asia – this can be a brutal process. Due to the increasing popular elephant tourism, there are now only 2000 wild elephants left in the entire region. It’s our demand for elephant rides and circus acts that leads to more baby elephants getting captured from their mothers, tortured, and sold off to entertain us.

Whether you ride elephants in Thailand or not is your choice. I completely understand the thrill in it and aware that we all have different morals and standards. Most people who go to Thailand to ride elephants are completely unaware of their mistreatment behind the scenes. I have ridden elephants before when I was younger and it’s easy to understand why people do it. However, traveling has opened my eyes to the reality of this industry. I am writing this simply to create awareness so you can each make an informed decision. If this is still a lifelong dream for you, below are a few tips to help you choose an equitable and right minded tour company.

Tips to choose an ethical company:

1. Ask the company where the elephants are kept overnight (in individual pens locked up or in a bigger park where they can interact with each other?)

2. Avoid any elephant-like shows or companies who offer them.

3. If you do choose to actually ride, try and ride bareback as the wooden or steel seats are harmful for an elephants back.

Many tour groups off a full day out including a jungle trek, sleeping in a local village, a boat ride, and a visit to an elephant sanctuary. I heard great things about Patara Elephant Farm and also The Elephants Nature Park.

TIP: If you have plenty of time to spare – you can volunteer to assist with elephant conservation and nurse sick elephants back to health. Particular sanctuaries rescue elephants from circus-like homes and care for them ethically. Volunteering can even be as short as one or two weeks. Read more here

8. G E T  A  M A S S A G E 

It’s easier to find a massage parlour in Chiang Mai than it is to spot a convenience store. A 1 hour Thai massage will set you back only 150-200 baht depending on the quality and they are phenomenal (in my opinion). I like massages. If you are not a fan, you will hate this one. Thai massage differs from Indonesian massages in that they don’t use oils and involves more pressure point stimulation and stretching. It is known to be very hard so don’t say you weren’t warned! They are however very good for you!

TIP: For a unique experience, get a massage at the Women’s Correctional Institute and support women trying to make a career in jail! 

Pai

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”  – Saint Augustine


It would be a crime to venture to Northern Thailand and not visit Pai.

Only 3 hours north of Chiang Mai, it seems to be a favourite among backpackers for it’s “off the beaten track” status. Unfortunately this is no longer the case. Pai attracts many long term foreign expats too. After visiting – I can see why. The town screams freedom. There are hundreds of free activities to engage in, food is cheap, accommodation is spacious and quirky and it’s located in the countryside. It ticks all the boxes for many travellers. I caught a bus up to Pai with the intention to explore for a couple of days but ended up staying well over a week. It’s a town where you don’t have to do much yet there is plenty to do. Some days I spent lounging in cafes all day, and other days I was up early on a motorbike exploring the mountains. It caters for everyone.

Before heading to Pai, I had a quick look on Hostelworld to suss out accommodation. I was surprised to see only 5 hostels showing up in the town!!! This made me panic a bit because a few of them were already full. I booked a night at Purple Monkey Hostel and would look into it more when I arrived. The bus from Chiang Mai cost 180baht and took 3 hours. Its a VERY windy road so a few people in the bus threw up. I was fine, but if you are prone to carsickness – take tablets prior!! When I got off the bus in Pai, there was accommodation EVERYWHERE! Guesthouses, B&Bs and just random signs ‘room for rent’. I shouldn’t have worried at all! After one night at Purple Monkeys, I was glad to leave. The wifi didn’t work, showers were cold, staff were really unfriendly and it had just opened so nothing really worked. I went for a walk and stumbled across a place called DarlingView on the hill over the bamboo bridge. It was ridiculously cute. The setup was amazing! Bonfires, hammocks, chalets and a stunning garden. The owner, (named Darling) was really welcoming and introduced us to others nearby which promoted a social vibe. The dorm rooms were in large chalets with huge balconies and stunning views over the town! The only downside was that it was FREEZING overnight! I was so cold!!! The chalet has open doors and the bed only had a single blanket. I caved after the second night and decided to wander around town to look for something with 4 solid walls. I stumbled across  a gorgeous little guesthouse on Bar Street called Baanpairoong (the street sign is entirely in Thai). The owner knew no English so we communicated in basic sign language and negotiated the rate by scribbling on bits of paper and crossing out numbers. We settled on 700 baht for a 3 night stay. The room was incredibly spacious, had a TV, hot water, free wifi and my own apartment entrance from the street. It was perfect. I ended up extending day by day and in the end stayed 10 days. It was difficult to leave!

TOP 10 PAI EXPERIENCES

1. H I R E  A  S C O O T E R

10407417_10152726171008513_7745071831494397870_nAfter having a motor accident in Greece last year, I was reluctant to get on a scooter. In fact, I was scared. It was my first day on a scooter and I had a million voices in my head. It didn’t help that they refused to offer insurance yet kept my passport. I guess that’s just the way things work here. Scooters start from roughly 110baht per day and in the bigger, more established places, you can add 40baht extra for insurance (I would strongly recommend this) As I started riding out of the garage, the owner grabbed my arm and said, “SLOWLY!!! Many people die here”. Very comforting. I was a bit unstable at first, but got the hang of it really quickly. They are designed to be easy to ride and by the end of the day I was feeling much more comfortable and actually loving it!

Honestly, having a scooter made everything a lot easier. The roads are perfect for beginners. Small hills, slight curves and mostly flat roads made riding really enjoyable and the scenery was magic. I had a map of a few main sights and managed to cover most of it within 3 days on the scooter.

TIP: Make a pitt stop at Landsplitt for lunch and enjoy fresh fruit and unique Roselle juice made from pressed flowers. It’s delicious and said to be a natural laxative for weight loss! It doesn’t even cost anything – just an optional donation!

If you really don’t feel comfortable getting on one, you do have the option to get taxis however you will be paying significantly more.

2.  V I S I T  T H E  B U D D H A  O N  T H E  H I L L 

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I had a feeling this was going to be crazy busy – especially at sunset. But it wasn’t. It was actually really beautiful and peaceful. The Buddha is located on 5 minutes outside of the main town. You can ride right up the the base on your scooter and then up some stairs to take in the scenery. Well worth a trip!

3. W A L K  A L O N G  P A I  C A N Y O N

11001853_10152726171903513_7784280331243957431_nPeople had told me the canyon was overrated before I got there. So I didn’t expect much. That is maybe why I really enjoyed it. Never let anyone turn you off doing something – it is always worth seeing for yourself. It was difficult to find – signage wasn’t great, but made it eventually. You can walk around the edge of the circular canyon and admire the different views.

TIP: If you head to the Pai Canyon at sunset, the reflection turn the rocks to a stunning orange!

4. S O A K  I N  T H E  H O T  S P R I N G S

10930111_10152726169843513_7290566409338095802_nBeing situated in the mountains, Pai’s temperatures can fluctuate greatly in a 24 hour period. I visited in February and it reached 28 degrees most days and then dropped to 10 degrees within hours of the sun setting. This made the hot springs particularly appealing in the late afternoon or early morning. I decided on the morning because I didn’t want to ride back in the dark. The hot springs open at 7am and it’s a steep 300 baht for entry but worth it in my opinion. I got up at 8am (extremely early for a backpacker!) and rode my motorbike down to the springs. It was freezing! By the time I arrived my hands were blue! It was painful stripping down into my bikini but well worth it when I got in.

1378574_10152726169878513_5217045414727793596_nAs you enter, there are different pools with different temperatures. The first pool is the coolest (36 degrees celcius) and I would recommend starting here. There was hardly anyone else around other than a small group of Chinese tourists. It was so peaceful. It backs onto a stunning dense jungle and the steam from the water creates beautiful backdrop. I laid in the pool for about 5 minutes until it was no longer warm for me – it was beginning to feel cold. Slowly I moved to the next pool. Over the period of an hour, I moved from pool to pool, getting higher and higher until I reached 55 degrees celcius. This was perfect for me! I like my baths HOT! The pools are shallow enough to be able to lie down and rest your head on a rock. I closed my eyes and even think I had a little nap! It was a perfect way to start the day. I stayed at the hot springs until 10.30am when it started to warm up, and the crowds had made their way in. If you keep heading up the hill, the springs get as hot as 85 degrees celcius (and people are cooking their morning eggs in it!)

There are other hot springs around Pai that are cheaper. You can visit the Hot Springs in the nearby resorts and hotels however they are smaller and the setting is not so natural. Up to you.

A must do at some point no matter what your budget!

5. T R E K  T H R O U G H  T H E  J U N G L E  T O  M A E  Y E N  W A T E R F A L L

1378574_10152726170648513_3505404186228079980_nWhen I suggested a “trek” to my new found friends. Only a few were keen due to hangovers, so it took some encouragement. We rode our bikes to the entrance of the hike and started our walk. It was 7km and felt a lot longer considering our slow pace. We crossed rivers many times and climbed steep rocky paths. I would recommend wearing proper shoes (that you don’t mind getting wet/muddy) We even walked through a bush fire at one point towards the end. We had been hiking for hours at this point so not even a FIRE could stop us.

When we finally reached the waterfall, it was beautiful. And freezing. It doesn’t look too much from the base, but if you climb up to the right, you can find a pool at the top and it’s amazing! We all climbed up and ventured under the running water.

Totally worth it – but be prepared for a decent walk!

6. S U N B A T H E  B Y  M O R  P A E N G  W A T E R F A L L 

10993398_10152726170958513_5686538928112589045_nOnly 20 minutes by scooter, is a beautiful serene waterfall with perfect sunbathing rocks. If you head here after lunch, you will have the chance to cool off during the hottest part of the day and soak up some vitamin D.

TIP: Bring a book – you will probably want to stay for awhile!

7. T R Y  A  H E A L T H  C A F E

10991125_10152726172273513_2574356246104678127_nIt may not be your normal ‘go to’ but when in Pai – I strongly recommend visiting a health cafe. Its where the hippies thrive and hang, and if anything, it can be a great people watching experience.

Lonely Pai is situated in a mini library and with comfortable lounges, you could probably stay all day. Another option is Good Life in Pai with healthy smoothies and delicious Jewish bagels! If you are on a budget – opt for one of the fruit shake stands!

TIP: Try a wheatgrass shot (55 baht) for a powerful detoxification

8. V I S I T  T H E  C A V E S

19426_10152726172393513_7495774861952031398_nThe Lod caves are located about 55km north of Pai and are well worth a visit. I met people who rode a scooter there however it seemed too long on a bike for me so I arranged a taxi driver and a few extra people to split the cost. Many of the taxi drivers wouldn’t negotiate on price. The standard was 1500 baht for the van and driver for the day (when we split this between 6 people it was nothing). Considering the 6 of us were standing there ready to go instantly, we got it down to 1300 baht. The drive was 1.5 hours but the gorgeous scenic views made it feel much quicker. When we arrived, we went straight into the caves. You can’t go in without a guide and you pay for 1 guide per 3 people. Then you pay extra for a bamboo raft which takes you into the cave via the river – an awesome experience!

11018328_10152726172743513_3151730849209000568_nIf your feeling generous – buy some fish food from the ladies outside the gates and feed the fish in the cave. The large, blue fish swarm around the boats in masses! Pretty amazing! The guide then walked us through the caves with a small lantern and pointed out the incredible rock formations. They had clearly learnt particular words in English to help make the tour informative – “this look like crocodile”, “this look like buddha” – it was hilarious.

TIP: Opt for the walk back instead of getting a boat both ways – not only is it cheaper but you get to walk back through the beautiful jungle outside.  

9. T R Y  M E D I T A T I O N 

Meditation has been proven to reduce stress, promote happiness, strengthen the immune system and increase energy. Numerous studies around the world have confirmed its benefits in treating disease and if you are ever going to try it – this is the place. There are meditation classes, guidance and retreats everywhere you look!

How do you meditate?

There is no one set way to meditate because it’s a very personal practise. It simply involves sitting somewhere comfortable and quiet for 5-10 minutes each day and focusing on one thing. For most people, this is breathing. As you focus on your breath, your brain slowly filters out any other thoughts and reaches a truly relaxed state.

How does it benefit?

Stress and anxiety are a common cause of many illnesses and diseases that exist today. Meditation reduces the production of stress hormones in your body, therefore counteracting all stress related changes and allowing the body’s energy to boost the immune system and promote healing.

Meditation has been in practice for thousands of years but only recently have scientists truly understood the health benefits behind it. If you are going to give it a go, Pai is the best place. There are numerous yoga and meditation studios around. They also have one off retreats advertised around the town run by travelling yogis.

TIP: Steer clear of Mama Yoga studio – she is a nut job and has the worst reviews from fellow travelers!

10. D O  N O T H I N G

Travelling can become really tiring. Exhausting in fact, and when you are on the go a lot, it seems like the trip is fast forwarding in front of your eyes. Sometimes you need to rest. Pai is the perfect place for it. If your travelling long term or even escaping the daily grind at home, park yourself here for a week and recuperate. That’s what I did and it was invaluable. There are hammocks, parks, rivers and cafes all calling your name.

Let your body catch up with you!

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Siem Reap

“As you travel solo, being totally responsible for yourself, it’s inevitable that you will discover just how capable you are” – Anon


 

1601518_10152677944383513_1388528428465489386_nOne thing I’ve learnt about travelling solo is that you are rarely alone. In fact, whenever I have wanted to be by myself, it’s been difficult to find time! For all of those people nervous about traveling in solitary – fear not! You are constantly surrounded with new found friends! So when I arrived in Siem Reap, Cambodia – it wasn’t long until I met Kat during a yoga class and we hit it off straight away.

Getting to Siem Reap was no easy task. I had read blogs about the border scams that occur from Bangkok to Siem Reap so I was well prepared. There are 2 options to get across by land. You can opt for the government run bus (large 50 seater coach for 950 baht) or hop on one of the small privately run minivans (who are known to steal things from luggage for 300 baht). I took the government run bus for safety if anything.

What is the scam?

The bus stops just before the Cambodian border and pulls into a small square. A guy in an official looking uniform boards the bus and asks for everyones attention. He informs travelers that they will need to buy a visa from him. They are required to fill out the form he hands out and pay USD$50. If anyone questions him, he simply advises to do it now because the lines at the border are very very long and you could be waiting all day. He could do it very quickly and the bus could go straight through! If I hadn’t researched this, I would have probably believed him, but I knew that the visa should only cost US$30 and should be obtained officially at the border. I had no doubt that he would get the visa’s, and there probably is a line at the border, however he was making a US$20 profit per person! Everyone on the bus took his word and started filling out the forms.

I can’t believe what I did next. I don’t even remember my thought process prior. I stood up and told the people around me that it was a scam and to follow me to the border to avoid getting ripped off. The border official glared at me. I was ruining his daily profit. He came over to me and told me to get off the bus, to which I refused (he couldn’t kick me off could he?) I just stayed put and told everyone to trust me. And they did. The officer angrily stormed off the bus (knowing very well that he couldn’t do anything) and we continued onto the border where there was no line and visas were only US$30 as expected. Phew!

TIP: Save the visa hassle at the border by obtaining your visa in advance online. It’s easy!

 The bus finally arrived at 6pm (9 hours later) and I walked straight to The Siem Reap Hostel (which had the best reviews) and booked a dorm room. The hostel was incredible. It had a spa, travel agency, yoga studio, pool, bar, free bikes, food tours, games room, cinema, comfy beds, spacious rooms and best of all – a great atmosphere! (For only US$10 per night!)

A N G K O R  W A T

10931430_10152676579718513_1176675142380036981_nAngkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world. You might recognise the famous temple outline from their national flag, or more likely from Lara Croft Tomb Raider?

Angkor Wat is only one of many temples within a huge archaeological park located only 7km from Siem Reap’s main town. I would recommend getting a 3 day pass. I could never spend all day at the park so divided the exploring into 3 half days and I managed to do most of it. A 3 day pass costs US$40 and can be used on any 3 days within a 7 day period – so no rush! You can opt for a tuk-tuk to drive you around the park or if you enjoy the exercise like me, you can grab a bicycle and ride around from site to site. They are big days! I probably rode 30km each day so expect a sore bum and jelly legs!

10361519_10152676579828513_7064345347864806593_nThe first day, Kat and I explored Phnom Bakheng and Bayon. Both stunningly beautiful in their own right. We were saving Angkor Wat until the last day because we didn’t want it to ruin the beauty of the other temples! We were incredibly eager to see the official set of from Tomb Raider with the large tree (Ta Prohm). It was magnificent. I was stopped occasionally for photos with Japanese tourists. The blonde hair seems to fascinate Asian cultures. We were so busy staring in awe at the trees growing around buildings that we lost track of time. The park shuts at 5pm. It was currently 5.30pm and the sun was setting – we still had a 7km ride home. It was a scary ride! The bikes had no lights, we didn’t bring head torches and worse – we were on the road with other traffic and no streetlights. It took awhile to get back.

TIP: Bring a head torch with you incase you get stuck riding in the dark. Streetlights are scarce. 

10423709_10152677944353513_669602912979926625_nWe got up at 5am on the 3rd morning and cycled to Angkor Wat for the sunrise. It was truly spectacular. I strongly recommend doing it – even for those who are not early risers. There were many people there yet it was really quiet. Everyone was mesmerised by the sunrise and the astounding colours that reflected on the temple. Plenty of places to eat when you get there (just be prepared to pay a bit more than town).

TIP: Allow time to explore other temples. There is more to Angkor Wat than just the ‘Angkor Wat’ temple. 

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To get to the main section of Angkor Wat, you need to climb a very steep set of stairs. Take your time!

TIP: Ensure you cover your shoulders and knees with clothing. I brought a scarf to cover my shoulders but it wasn’t good enough so make sure it’s an actual t-shirt and not a covering!

The primary reason I came to Cambodia was to see Angkor Wat and try the Cambodian food. I was drawn to street food most of the time – despite getting food poisoning here! I still went back to the street BBQs and street side noodle carts.

For those who enjoy sitting down and having a meal, I would highly recommend visiting these:

1. Peace Cafe – Beautiful garden setting cafe with hammocks, lounges and delicious healthy food and juices

2. Sister Srey – Awesome restaurant run by 2 Australian sister. They pride themselves on healthy, gourmet basics with a twist.

3. The Indian (if you need a break from street food) – decently priced delicious curries and naan bread!

TIP: If you cant handle dairy well, ask the fruit shake carts to avoid adding condensed milk. They add it discreetly and a few people got sick.

For those staying longer, there are many day trips from here to jungle treks, tribal cooking classes and boat trips.

Getting back to Bangkok

When it was time to say goodbye to Siem Reap, I was on a tight budget and decided I would embrace the minivan experience on the way back to Bangkok. This time I was fully prepared. I expected the worse. Lucky I did. It was a disaster. It should have struck alarm bells when the journey was only going to cost me US$10. The minivan was late (I was surprised it turned up at all to be honest) and we sped towards to border with another 8 people crammed in. When we got to the border, and got back through to Thailand, the bus just left. The driver was impatient! I wasn’t even that angry. I was really calm, I just found a man who was from the same company I had booked with and I demanded to be taken via taxi to Bangkok and I wouldn’t leave his side until he got transport organised for me. This meant I was following him around for 3 hours before he got annoyed with me and put me into his friends car. I have no idea what happened to the other people on my original bus. But I was on my way. Hours later, at a random intersection on the outskirts of Bangkok, the car stopped and the friend told me to get out. “Dis is Bangkok” he said. Umm we are no where the main area where am I supposed to go? He didn’t care. Anger overtook me then. It had been 10 hours since we left Siem Reap. I held my bag tightly and refused to get off until he dropped me to Khao San Road. He laughed and said no. I don’t know where I got the confidence from that day but I flat out refused to get off. After 15 minutes of arguing, he finally agreed and dropped me to Khao San Road at 11pm.

Lesson learnt: You get what you pay for.

 TIP: Transport companies don’t expect you to fight back – this is how they are making their money. Be confident and stern with them and you will get what you paid for!

Blog

5 THINGS I LEARNT TRAVELING ALONE

1. You are never alone

If I ever wanted some peace and quiet, it was surprisingly difficult to find. Solo travelling tends to attract others – whether solo themselves or in a group. I still don’t know whether it’s because people feel sorry for me, or whether they just want to hear a new story – but regardless – it was thrilling meeting new people and creating new memories. There are unaccompanied travelers wherever you go – something I didn’t realise until I went solo myself. I found that we immediately formed a bond. They were, like myself – confident, unafraid, eager to explore and willing to try new things. And if they weren’t like that already, they were using travel to push themselves. However, if you ever want some time to yourself – good luck! Get out of the hostel, book a hotel and maybe then you can relax in peace.

2. You can make a best friend for life within hours and then never see them again

Backpackers seem to form an instant bond when meeting for the first time. I don’t know whether it’s the travel high, or whether it is because people are eager to meet new friends. But most backpackers have a positive mentality and believe that traveling is good for the soul. It makes it a lot easier to connect with people. I met so many interesting people during my travels – but reality is, I won’t ever see most of them again. Other backpackers might relate to having to conduct a ‘facebook cleanup’ and sadly delete many of the people you’ve met along the way that realistically you won’t see again. Sad but true.

3. Be ready to drink – always

I have noticed that hostels are rated on their ‘backpacker vibe’. I never really understood what this meant, assuming it was referring to atmosphere. I have since learnt that it means “party rating” – how drunk are majority of the guests most nights of the week? Sure – I want to meet people, and I often do, however I can’t drink every night. In many places though – I did. It was the social thing to do, whether I felt like it or not. People would question if you were holding water and not a beer. I even found myself lying to avoid the confrontation – “ah not feeling well today”, or “I’ll have one later”. I guess it would be weird asking my new found friends out to have a pot of tea, but it fascinated me that alcohol seemed to be the glue in some of the relationships I built.

4. Stereotypes are not always true

I will be honest and admit that during my trip, I have met the stereotypical American traveler who asks the stupid question, or the loud drunk group of Australians who can be heard from the next street – however I have also been lucky enough to realise that backpackers in particular all share a common goal – to learn something new. And in doing so, become more accepting and individual. Stereotypes exist, but are not always true so don’t judge a book by it’s cover (it’s funner that way!).

5. People can surprise you

I can be naive when it comes to trusting others. I trust too easily. But when backpacking in hostels, you often don’t have a choice. Many places I stayed in didn’t offer lockers. Where are people to keep their valuables? After travelling for the past 10 months, and sharing a room with 14 other strangers most of the time – I never had a single thing stolen. More than that, I had strangers offering me medication when I was sick, a spare towel when I lost mine, jackets when I was cold and money when I left mine in another bag. It touched me so much that it encouraged me to do more spontaneously generous things for strangers. People can surprise you!

East Coast Road Trip

“If we were meant to stay in one place, we’d have roots instead of feet” – Rachel Wolchin


Hiring a car in Europe was a decision that didn’t come lightly. We had been told by everyone that it was a bad idea for 3 main reasons.

1. The Spanish are crazy drivers

2. You don’t know where you are going and signs are in another language

3. Driving a car on the opposite side is stressful

In summary, it was in fact all of the above. The drivers are crazy, there are no speed limits, the signage is poor, English wasn’t common, driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road took concentration and above all we didn’t really have a plan. Do I regret it? Absolutely not. I have never felt more free to explore in my life.

10442926_10152462262085210_2282905190414623398_nAfter meeting in Barcelona, Laura and I traveled down to Valencia by train. We stayed in Valencia for a few days and realised that trains and buses weren’t that easy further south. We are beach goers at heart and wanted the freedom to explore the coastline at our own free will. So we rocked up at a street in the city to find the best deal to rent a car. After getting 5 or more quotes, we ended up going with Europcar and it wasn’t cheap. It cost 240 euros to take the car for 4 days and drop it to a city further south. It would’ve been cheaper to take it back to Valencia but that wasn’t the point, so we forked out the money convincing ourselves that it was worth it.

DAY ONE

10393716_10152239520293513_2071403622555327316_nEverything is funnier in hindsight. Which makes writing about it, even better. When we first got the car, our primary mission was to make it out of the city – in one piece. We must have done about 3 loops on the same road before understanding how to get out. Laura was driving and I was navigating. It certainly tested our friendship. We had no GPS or wifi. We are explorers we told ourselves. We could surely figure it out! All I had was a single, pathetic map which had no road names other than the highways and poor Laura was trying to work out which road rules needed to be followed and which ones didn’t. So we were both stressed. Finally, we made it out of the city and drove down the freeway for half an hour to find the nearest beach. We were so glad to be out of the chaos! However, it was just our luck, I told Laura to take a turn off which ultimately swung us around and took us all the way back to the centre of Valencia city. It was going to be a long day.

1044194_10152239521848513_7349506613577359377_nHours later, we made it to our first stop – El Saler beach. It was beautiful and although it had taken us all day to get 12km, we were finally relaxed. We sat down at a peaceful beachside cafe and ate paella. We got out the map and realised we had a lot of driving to do considering we pretty much hadn’t left Valencia yet. And now we had only 3 days to get to Algeciras (which was 1000km away!) We finished the paella pretty quickly and decided to cover as much ground as we could before finding a place to sleep. We had some pretty hilarious moments trying to work out how to work different things in the car. Sometimes when Laura wanted to turn the blinkers on, we ended up with detergent on our windscreen which made us both laugh hysterically every time. We would stop, eat, stretch our legs and take in the views every so often. We made it only 100km further south before realising it was getting late and we had no idea where we were. We pulled into a McDonalds to get wifi and found the closest hostel. We found ONE in the whole area . We drove there but the owner had closed down the business for the night for a private party and all her family and friends were staying over. She felt sorry for us. We looked exhausted and kinda begged her for a floor space, so in the end she let us stay in a room. Yay! We learnt our lesson not to leave it too late next time.

DAY TWO

10387303_10152239521303513_2024997033509283104_nIt wasn’t until we woke up and looked outside that we knew where we were. We had stayed in Javea – actually a beautiful little seaside town with ancient buildings.

TIP: Stop at Denia for an afternoon and soak up the small bar scene!

We didn’t have too much time to explore Javea. We got up early and drove straight to Barcatta Beach for an early morning swim. Although difficult to reach (signage was poor) it was totally worth it. Every time you see a local, stop and ask if your headed in the right direction. It helps greatly.

10473509_10152462256520210_1845341670921437751_nAnd what a day! We drove through the enchanting town of Benidorm, went down a one way street in Alicante, found a marvellous cliffside drive, visited Torrevieja beach full of colourful umbrellas, stopped for local gelato and churros, explored Aguilas beach and got lost in Majacar town. The scenic drives between each area blew our minds. It was a magnificent coastline and it took our breath away. The car smelt of sunscreen and wet hair which reminded us of summer at home. Having the car was the best. We could spread out our luggage, leave our shoes in the back and hang our wet bikinis from the grab handles. Most of the time we could drive straight up and park on the sand, get out, swim around topless, jump back in the car and sing along to the radio until we got hot again and needed another swim. We would simply pull off the highway and find the closest beach we could. It was sheer freedom and we loved it.

TIP: Stop at Cullera beach town – it has a pirate cave and the local restaurant (Restaurant Casa Picanterra) came second in Spain’s Best Paella competition!

In summary, we got carried away and didn’t learn our lesson. We got stuck again trying to find accommodation and this time, were almost prepared to sleep in the car, until finally we spotted a small pension hotel called Bahia on the beach in a town called Castello De Ferro. Lucky we had a private room and not a dorm because we were so insanely sunburnt that we couldn’t sleep in clothes. We lathered ourselves up in sunscreen and ditched the bras for the rest of the trip!

DAY THREE:

10306749_10152462262350210_6531944299986939274_nWe woke up early again and wandered down to a tiny food cart selling fresh churros with homemade chocolate. It was Sunday! And churros are a traditional Spanish Sunday brunch. We sat outside in the sun and lazily ate the chocolate goodness. We got 10 huge churros for less than 1 euro and we couldn’t finish them all. We were too full!

10411039_10152239521208513_347212458906366703_nWe stopped at Playa Del Riyana, Charchura Calahondra and Playa Del Salobreno all before the afternoon. All the beaches in this area are stunning. If you have time, I would recommend just driving around to find one that suits what your looking for. Some are quiet and deserted, others are busy and full of beachside cafes. When the sun started to set, we went straight inland towards Granada.

We were getting better at navigating the car through new towns by this stage. Only 6 laps of the old town compared to the usual 10. The tiny laneways seemed impossible to drive through but we simply followed what everyone else was doing and finally managed to park it somewhere out of trouble. As soon as we had found a hostel, we dumped our bags and headed straight out. We went straight to the Arabic Quarter and explored the cobblestone streets filled with small tea houses and Middle Eastern food stalls. After spending 10 minutes at a viewpoint, we agreed we needed a drink. We certainly deserved it. We spent the entire evening bar hopping from place to place ordering drinks and eating tapas.

10390982_10152462264455210_8854883472558309478_nTapas, in the sense of small portions of food, is common throughout Spain. In the North part of Spain like the Basque region, ‘tapas’ is known as pintxos which is typically small servings of food laid out on a bar and you simply pay for what you eat. But the really special ‘tapas cities’ like Granada, are the ones where the tapas comes with every drink and is completely for free.

We quickly learnt that bar hopping isn’t really the best way to do it here. Typically when you order your first drink, you get a small plate of tapas. It is generally cheaply made food such as fries or dip. However the more money you spend in a bar, and the more drinks you order – the better tapas is brought out to you as the night goes on. So we were better off staying in a bar long enough to get the good stuff. We parked ourselves at Los Diamantes for the remainder of the evening and were served fresh sardines, mini sliders, fresh seafood and a whole range of tapas dishes. It was the best! It became exciting as we wondered what dish we would get next and we soon forgot how much we were drinking in the anticipation of the next plate of food. We were extremely intoxicated after a few hours. We met a group of fellow travellers and headed out for the evening and didn’t return home until early hours.

TIP: Stay at one bar longer to taste the better tapas plates!

DAY FOUR:

10480665_10152239520903513_6116216046339525128_nWe woke up with our clothes on that we were wearing from the night before. Although incredibly hungover, we still managed to get up early and continue the drive. We desperately needed a swim to clear the red wine seeping from our pores.

We bypassed Malaga simply to avoid the hassle of a city and opted for Playa Bajondillo which I had read had beautiful sand and cool beach bars. It wasn’t anything special so continued on stopping at various beaches until we found paradise – Playa El Cristo. The sand looked like it was bleached white, the water was crystal clear and they had a luxurious lounge setting on the sand for lunchtime drinks. If you choose to opt for the budget option and stay on the sand – bring an umbrella, there is no shade elsewhere! We lazed there for hours soaking up the sun and then continued on to Algeciras where the car was due back.

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Dropping the car off was an adventure in itself. We needed to fill up the tank before returning it, which we expected. However, it took us so long to find the office that we had used an 8th of the petrol that we just filled up! So we were charged 25 euros for the extra fuel! So frustrating. We paid it simply so we could leave and not have to get back in the car and find a gas station. We were done with the car, It was amazing but stressful and we were ready to be backpackers again. Algeciras was awful. Rubbish was flying everywhere, the town was deserted and had gangsters on every corner yelling out things in Spanish. We literally walked straight to the bus station from the Europcar office and caught the next bus south to Tarifa.

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Tarifa Beach

We instantly fell in love with Tarifa and spent 2 days eating, drinking, shopping, lazing on the beach and reading before making our way across to Morocco.

So, in summary, would I recommend a road trip in Spain?

Absolutely. Allow plenty of time. You never know what place will steal your heart.

Cascais

“I just wanna go on more adventures. Be around good energy. Connect with people. Learn new things. Grow” – The Khoolhaus


DSC00975 I had never even heard of Cascais before until I reached Lisbon. It had been described to me as the ‘jewel of Portugal’ and being only 30km away – we figured it was worth the trip. We left our bags in a hostel in Lisbon (free of charge) and just took a small backpack with a change of clothes and a bikini. We planned to visit the beaches, stay overnight and come back early the next day to continue onto Spain. That didn’t happen. We fell in love and ended up staying a week.

We caught a 30 minute train to Cascais from Lisbon and wandered the town looking for a hostel for the night. We came across Niceway Hostel down a small peaceful laneway. The owner Miguel was immediately welcoming and so lovely. He was shocked to hear we had come to visit for only 1 night and sold us on staying at least 2! The hostel had a serene backyard with hammocks, a BBQ and a grassy patch for yoga classes. It was such a beautiful setting – we kinda knew we wanted to stay longer already.

TOP 5 EXPERIENCES IN CASCAIS

1. V I S I T  T H E  B E A C H E S

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Praia da Rainha

We had come from a very busy city so we immediately engaged in a yoga class to relax ourselves. The hostel runs daily classes in the park across the road. It was so beautiful and the instructor made it quite easy for beginners. As soon as we had finished, we were in relax mode. We headed straight for the beach. The prettiest by far was Praia da Rainha. It has soft white sand and insanely clear water. You could swim out for 100metres and still see the bottom clearly 4 metres below. People were paddle boarding and there was a bar on the beach serving drinks. The atmosphere was marvellous and with weather to match – we sat here all day!

TIP: Buy sunscreen before coming to Portugal. The standard price for a small bottle in Portugal is about 15 euros!!!

All over Europe, I had been sun baking topless. I love the freedom and it never feels strange like it would in Sydney. However this beach was a tiny bit crowded to do so. The stranger lying next to me was literally touching my towel so figured I would keep the twins hidden that day. So if you are the same – maybe try a different beach!

2. T R Y  S U R F I N G

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Our surf team!

The Niceway Hostel had a surf school attached. Shortly after we had come back from the beach – we met David. A local Portugese man who owned and ran the surf school along with 5 staff members. He encouraged us to take a lesson (and it was significantly cheaper than home) so we agreed to go early the next day. We traveled to a beach about 6km further west where the surf was best. We started with a pep talk. “It is going to be cold. Really cold”. I had been to Portugal before and I had totally forgotten about this when I agreed to take a surfing lesson. The entire coastline from Lisbon to the north is freezing. So cold in fact that I remember I couldn’t swim despite the hot days. I think it has something to do with the arctic current. Anyway, we were given 4 inch wetsuits to put on and we told to take a break and get out of the water every 20 minutes to “thaw”. We practised on the beach a bit – paddling and then standing up. But all I could focus on was how cold the water was going to be. I was right. It felt like a thousand knives in my skin but the thick wetsuit helped. We got straight in (otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to) and started paddling out. David was ecstatic with the surf conditions. He said it was perfect. I thought it was insane! The waves were huge. I don’t think I have ever been so tossed around in my life and with the cold – I think I went delusional. Laura and I were constantly laughing and were terrible surfers. We got up a few times but I think my feet were so frozen I couldn’t balance myself. It was hilarious. We kept getting out, as recommended, so that our feet and hands would return to their normal colour. The surf instructors were great though. They really persisted with us and went to every effort to make sure we rode a proper wave. And we did eventually. Thank god.

By the time we got back to the hostel, we had warmed up and sat around a BBQ reminiscing funny moments from the day. And after all bashing we got – we deserved a drink. We went out and partied at Flamingos Bar all night and it was ridiculous fun!

3. E A T  G E L A T O

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The best gelato in the world

I will eat gelato wherever I go. I try it in every country I visit. But gelato in Portugal was the best BY FAR!

We stumbled across a gelato store called Santini. I had heard of it before from blogs I had read, so we gave it a go. We sat out the front of the store – stunned. Neither Laura or I spoke for about 10 minutes as we devoured the gelato cone. We stared at each other in disbelief. I had never tasted gelato so good in my life. We never normally do this, but we both walked back inside and ordered it all over again. I still can’t believe we did that. 4 huge scoops of gelato within 30 mins. That’s loyalty! It was absolutely amazing. We couldn’t stop talking about it.

FUN FACT: Santini is the official supplier of premium gelato to all of the Royal families in Europe! However they only sell to the public in their 3 stores within Portugal.

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We eat a lot in general – not just gelato. Cascais is famous for it’s seafood too so we went to a local cafe by the beach and had a fresh fish with salad. It was delicious and quite cheap! We decided then that we would stay in Cascais longer. There was a lot more we wanted to see and more food we wanted to try. We would just have to make do with the 1 outfit we had brought with us! When you travel long enough, you tend to care less and less about how you look. I think I even wore my bed t-shirt to dinner that night. That says enough.

4. C Y C L E  T O  G U I N C H O  B E AC H

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Considering Santini gelato store was our new local hangout, we decided we needed to do some exercise. The local park in Cascais offers free bike rental! You just need to get there early enough before they all go! We went over at about 9am and managed to get the last 2 free bikes which was lucky! I recommend going earlier to be safe. We rode the bikes all the way to Guincho Beach, 6km away. It was the same beach we had surfed at the previous day and we then realised why it was so popular for surfing. The wind was insane. We were almost blown off our bikes which was very funny. We stopped to take a picture but then continued to ride back before we were blown into oncoming traffic.

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Guincho Beach

For some reason, my bicycle was stuck in high gear making the peddles really hard to turn. Laura’s was the opposite so she zoomed way ahead of me. My legs were jelly by the end of the day but she was fine. Make sure you test the bike before taking it! The ride was beautiful. It has set cycle paths to ride along and the entire way was scenic. It was the perfect day and we stopped along the way for coffee and photo opportunities. Perfect!

 

5. TA K E  A  T R I P  T O  S I N T R A

10550902_10152285550858513_5256704149554255633_nWe woke up one day and was chatting with the owner – Miguel. He told us he owned another hostel called Niceway 2 up in the mountains about 30 mins away. He was going to drive up there to check on things and stay the night and wanted to see if we’d join for a road trip and check out the area. A free ride and a chance to explore somewhere new? Great!

IMG_0276The Hostel was located in Sintra. I had never heard of the place before but after a few google searches, I was hooked. It housed the most stunning palace I had ever seen and really wanted to visit for myself. We left in the morning and we stopped along the way at Copa De Roca – Europe’s most Western point and got a photo. It was incredibly windy (like most of Portugal) but the fresh air was magic. It was crisp and a bit cooler than Cascais. We continued onto Sintra and fell in love with the town straight away. The hostel was much bigger than cascais and had a very homey feel to it.

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The backyard at Niceway Hostel 2 in Sintra

The backgarden was huge. It had beautiful coloured flowers and the cutest bungalows to lounge in. The only problem was that it was freezing! We only had a bikini and a beach dress with us (because we had originally only planned a single night away) and here we were in the mountains in a ridiculous outfit. We were stared at everywhere we went. We knew we looked stupid but we found it very funny and used laughter to warm us up.

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Our pastry treats!

We saw a long line coming out of a tiny little pastry kitchen. That’s definitely a good sign. We wanted to see what was so popular so we wandered back later and bought a range of goodies to try. We went back to the hostel and sat in the beautiful garden with newly made friends and ate. They were magnificent and we lazed around with a food coma for hours. Such a great afternoon.

Palacais De Pena

Palacais De Pena

The next day went to see the Palacais De Pena brightly painted in eye catching yellows, reds and purples. It’s 12 euros for entry and in my opinion – totally worth it! It was built in the 19th century and is now a UNESCO world heritage site. You can get a bus up or choose to walk. Everyone had told us that it was too far, but we wanted the challenge and walked against advice. It was fine! In fact, it was beautiful. The walk up takes you through various different terrains like forest, wooden bridges, a river and road. I will admit we were tired when we reached the top but loved it nonetheless. It looked like something out a fairytale. We wandered through the various parts of the castle and climbed to the outer walls for a spectacular outlook over the mountain region! They have a coffee shop on one of the levels so we sat outside and soaked in the view. Apparently on a clear day, you can see the enchanting castle from Lisbon!

TIP: Leave some time to explore the surrounding gardens – they are just as stunning!

We got a lift back with Miguel the next day and continued our journey back to Lisbon (where we happened to find another Santini gelato store, which made our day!)

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Cappadocia

“Happiness does not depend on who you are or what you have. It depends solely on what you think” – Buddha


10479735_10152418100968513_7193517166228530014_nThere is no other place on earth remotely like Cappadocia. The valleys, the hills, the strange rock formations – all feel like it’s a place  from another planet. I was excited to come here to explore the caves and experience the hot air ballooning that it’s most famous for.

Getting around the Turkey is fantastic. The bus system is reliable and comfortable. I thought Kamil Koc was the best company (best solely on comfort level), however I travelled with numerous different bus companies during my trip and they were all decent! I caught an overnight bus from Pamukkale which cost me 80TL (US$32), stayed for 5 days and then caught another overnight bus to Istanbul which only cost 60TL (US$24).

Where to stay?

Cappadocia is actually a region and not a city. It is made up of numerous small towns scattered among the valleys. I stayed in Goreme – which was definitely the best location. We booked at Rock Valley Pension and it was probably one of the best hostels I have ever stayed in. It has an amazing breakfast, big pool, outdoor lounges, hot decent showers and most importantly – comfortable beds! Everyone I met during the visit was happy with their hostel too so there seems to be lots of good ones to choose from.

8 TOP CAPPADOCIA EXPERIENCES

1. G O  O N  T H E  G R E E N  T O U R

Cappadocia is a big place with lots and lots to see. There seems to be 3 main tours that are offered – red, green and blue. They each do different sites. After reading about each – the green tour appealed most (110TL however I think we may have got ripped off – other people paid 80TL) There is no need to book a red tour. All of the sites they take you to are free and can be easily walked to if you are staying in Goreme.

Derinkuyu Underground City

1235242_10152418095703513_955656793006756440_nThe green tour covers the largest geographical area which makes it slightly more difficult to do on your own. The 16 seat van picked us up at the hostel at about 9am and continued to drive around and pick the others up. Our first stop was Derinkuyu underground city which was roughly 45 minutes away. It was phenomenal. The city is 60m underground and stretches for over 8km. It  used to house 22,000 people hiding during the Arab takeover almost 2000 years ago. There have been over 200 similar cities found in central Turkey and archaeologists believe there is still more to discover elsewhere. An article in The Independant from December 2014 states that a brand new city has been discovered and it’s estimated to be over 5000 years old! Some of the cities are 3 levels!

10609447_10152418095988513_2989227712959406372_nThey allowed us to walk down into the city (not recommended if you are claustrophobic) and wander through the various rooms such as the wine and oil presses, stables, cellars, storage rooms, refectories, classrooms and chapels. It was amazing. They also explained the various booby traps that were set up incase of an invasion. Interestingly enough, there are no toilets down here, so for months at a time, waste would be collected in pots and stored until it was safe to empty above ground! We hung around for about half an hour taking photos and exploring small rooms – some entrances barely big enough for a child!

Ihlara Valley

10678709_10152418096503513_5650384588481739109_nNext stop on the tour was Ihlara Valley – a beautiful, lush green 16km canyon formed thousands of years ago from volcanic eruptions. But what makes this valley even more special is the hundreds of small churches built into its walls by ancient Greeks. We carefully went down the staircase into the valley and explored one of the oldest churches with beautiful roof paintings and a hidden entrance.

10686708_10152418096918513_4769082313255156170_nWe kept wandering down the valley for 2 or 3 km until we reached a riverside restaurant selling drinks and food. The walk was stunning and exactly what we needed after being underground for an hour! It had the cutest setup with bamboo seating areas stretched over the flowing river and beautiful flowers and trees surrounding the area. We didn’t really have time to sit and eat here because we were running late however it sold all sorts of hot soups and fish. Great chill out spot!

Selime Monastery

10646773_10152418100973513_4898113501762818312_n (2)The bus had driven along and met us at the riverside restaurant ready to pick us up and take us to the monastery at the end of the valley. It was amazing! It was built back in the 8th century but was entirely hidden within the lava rock formations and consisted of various rooms similar to the underground city. We literally had to climb to the top via small foot holes. A few weren’t brave enough from fear of falling but my friends and I made it to the top and were able to wander around. The monastery contained a large kitchen, a huge church and sleeping quarters too. The ceilings are almost 10m high! How did they manage that!? It was mind blowing.

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Panorama point

We stopped at Panorama Point literally just to take a photo. We were lucky that it was a clear enough day to soak in the view. Nearby, we also visited an onyx factory and were shown how they carved the beautiful stone and turn it into jewellery. On the way home we stopped at a couple more picture perfect cliffs to take in the sunset and were home by about 6pm. It was such a perfect day and we managed to see so much without feeling rushed.

2. G E T  I N  A  H O T  A I R  B A L L O O N 

10689742_10152418110618513_4264326951096691652_nHot air ballooning was something that I had been looking forward to ever since I booked my flight overseas. I knew it was going to be expensive but I was prepared to pay for it considering the incredible reviews and feedback I had received from family and friends who had been. I was SO excited. I had been told that you need to book in advance. This was not my thing. I was used to rocking up last minute and sorting it out as I went however I followed this advice and kept an eye out for booking agencies.

1604528_10152418095928513_5283423406452242046_nNo matter how quickly you are travelling through the country – everyone recommends to spend at least 3 days in Cappadocia (at least have the flexibility to) because the hot air balloons are cancelled on average every 3rd day due to bad weather so it is very possible that you will need to wait a day or two before going up. If you book for the first day, at least you will have the next 2 days as a backup should the weather be bad.

10479735_10152418100968513_7193517166228530014_n Anyway, when we were in Pamukkale, we walked into a tour agency to book a bus to Cappadocia later that evening. We were greeted by a lovely man named Brie. He helped us with the bus, gave us maps of Pamukkale and recommended some great places to eat. He even stored our bags for us free of charge while we explored the nearby limestone baths. We chatted to him for awhile.

10341639_10152418108328513_6109286091326442432_nThen he mentioned he also had a travel agency in Cappadocia and was able to offer hot air ballooning for a decent price. Booking in advance meant that we could potentially do the hot air ballooning straight away and have a few days afterwards as a fallback. We had come in high season so if we didn’t book now – it could sell out for the next few days. We really didn’t want to miss out, and considering we liked him already, we gave Brie a deposit of 20 euros each and we said we would pay the rest when we actually go up. Obviously he couldn’t guarantee departure on the day we asked (this was expected due to weather) but we agreed to go as soon as it was decent.

10710691_10152418108703513_4232834812611506658_nIn summary, it was a disaster. Brie totally scammed us. When we got to our hostel in Cappadocia, we asked the owner to call for us and confirm the next mornings departure. The weather was said to be perfect and it was confirmed. However when we woke up at 4am for our pickup – no one ever showed up. We were really pissed off. We ended up going back to bed at 7am after waiting for ages! We called Brie again to ask why he hadn’t come and he told us it was due to bad weather. This was a lie because we saw hundreds of other balloons up in the sky and the morning was perfect. He apologised and informed us that he would definitely be there the next morning. Wrong again. We woke at 4am to another no show. I was really frustrated by this stage so called Brie asking for our money back (60euros between the 3 of us) but conveniently, Brie had disconnected his phone, wouldn’t reply to my emails and no one had ever heard of his company before. Scammed!

10329190_10152418098223513_3885554471668959063_nIt was now our last day in Cappadocia we so extended our stay. There was no way I was leaving until I got up in a balloon. We asked around all the travel agencies in the town but they were all booked out for days in advance. We put our name on a few waiting lists hoping for cancellations and we got lucky! Atlas Balloons were able to accommodate the three of us for 2 days time! It was 150 euros pp. This company was a lot more reliable and we were picked up at the right time and driven to the departure fields. It was incredibly exciting. Each company generally offers 2 different flights each morning. The first flight is the sunrise flight and the second departs just after sunrise.  The only opening was for the second flight so we actually missed sunrise – they took a bit too long blowing up the balloon and didn’t get up until later however it was still a stunning sight at 7am. It was really cold but fresh and we were lucky enough to be in a small balloon with only 10 people so we all got a view!

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TIP: DO NOT book hot air ballooning until you get there and you can see the agency for yourself. There are many fake companies scamming tourists and it really does look legitimate so be careful. Allow at least 3 days in the city to see it all and book the balloons the second you get there!

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The landscape is like nothing else I have ever seen. The odd rock formations were formed approximately 10 million years ago from layers of lava from ancient volcanoes and thousands of years of eroding rains and winds. Thousands of years later, the city was then built underneath to house refugees fleeing from the Muslim Arabs during ancient wartimes. It was amazing to see the beautiful valleys and canyons and our pilot even let my friend drive it for awhile! We were only up in the air for an hour but it was enough time to go up and down through the landscape. When we landed, there was a champagne breakfast waiting for us and we all celebrated! Such an incredible morning and one I’ll never forget.

3. T R Y  T H E  F O O D

10184_10152407613278513_1077153237946840041_nI had already been in Turkey for almost a month by the time we reached Cappadocia and the food was already creeping to my top 5 favourite cuisines! I had read about lots of different places to eat in Cappadocia but they were difficult to find because the city is relatively hidden. One night, we dined at Topdeck restaurant which is a small family run, 10 table restaurant in a cave. We made a booking the day before to avoid disappointment and lucky we did because we reserved the last table.

10421197_10152426076808513_4157080865504304589_nGenerally eating in places like this excites me greatly and I end up over-ordering, but the chef/owner came and sat down with us and greeted us personally. It was so lovely. He explained the dishes, portions and flavours and helped us pick a good mix of food. It was all delicious. So good in fact that I wanted to return each night but held back so I could try others. We ordered a mixed platter to start because it allowed us to taste a bit of everything. It was all homemade and fresh. We then ordered a few main dishes to share with a bit of chicken and beef and spicy rice! It was amazing! A ‘must go’!

Cappadocia is renown for pottery kebabs and sometimes it can come with an interesting show! The meat and vegetables is cooked in a ceramic pot and then cracked open on your table in front of you and poured onto your plate. It’s hot, fresh and delicious! Most restaurants in the area have them so give it a go for the experience!

4. EX P L O R E  T H E  R E D  V A L L E Y 

10710537_10152418099133513_9048179401688649415_nWhen we arrived In Goreme, we were told not to bother with booking a widely popular “red tour” simply because you can do it yourself for free. They were right. We walked around and explored the red valley and rose valley ourselves. It was a full day out and really rewarding. With no map, and really no idea where we were going, my friend and I set out towards the valley. We were trekking for hours and spent most of the time laughing because we had no idea where we were. We had to slide down rocks at some points as we had diverted from the original pathway but it was all a part of the excitement. We finally stopped at a little hillside village and had some chickpea soup from the local vendor. We also passed an extremely old cemetery and met some lovely other trekkers along the way. We also visited the museum which was interesting but long. We were done after a few hours and didn’t want to see anymore rocks! You have the option to hire quad bikes and explore the red valley this way however I had a fear of quad bikes after being in an accident in Greece earlier in the trip so decided walking was safer!

TIP: At the bottom of the hill at the entrance to the museum, there is a set of shops – try the Turkish coffee, sit on a cushion and enjoy the people watching!

10659387_10152418101248513_9105429403465562066_nWe also headed up to the mountain behind Goreme (also a part of Rose Valley) and enjoyed sitting with the locals and trying their different dried fruits (apricots are a speciality) and drinking tea with them! If you walk up halfway there is a man who owns a jewellery store. He resells on behalf of a lady in town. If your interested, ask him for a tour of his home nearby and he can explain to you how he lives without electricity. Really interesting guy! He can then show you the best point to watch the sunset over the valley!

5. G O  S H O P P I N G

10660255_10152418096658513_4896780129904170623_n (1)Shopping is good all over Turkey however I found that Cappadocia had some really fascinating things. You can buy everything from cushions, lamps, curtains, bags, jewellery and paintings. Its slightly cheaper here than in Istanbul so load up on staple items that you want. There is one jewellery shop in the main street selling rare turquoise stones. Turquoise is a bluey/green mineral and the named is derived from the old French word for ‘Turkey’ where it was first found. It’s on the expensive side however you know you are getting quality compared to fake turquoise in the markets. My friend bought me a ring here for my birthday which I absolutely LOVE!

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6. WO R K  F O R  A  D A Y

1508624_10204344575111074_955912739372703596_nWandering around the town one day, we met Ali, a local who had grown up in Cappadocia. He guessed we were Australian and promised us that he would make us the best coffee in Turkey! How could we refuse? We followed him to his restaurant – Cafe Safak, right in the centre of town. We enjoyed the coffee, met his family and sat there chatting for ages and sharing stories. Ali also happens to own a very popular coffee shop in coffee heaven – Melbourne, Australia. This is where he sources his coffee (no wonder it was so amazing!) He enjoys meeting travellers and believes that having backpackers work in his restaurant is good for business. It helps draw in more customers and creates a social vibe. He offered us a job straight away and we began working in his cafe for the whole next day. My friend and I loved it! Having a hospitality background, we quickly felt at home and helped with waitressing, preparing coffees, drawing in customers as they walked by and just socialising with the kitchen team. In between working we would sit down, have a drink, share stories and just laugh really! In exchange for the work we were given as much food and drink as we pleased. It was such a fun day that we went back and did it again. He wanted us to stay as long as we could but we had more exploring to do so came back and visited randomly during our stay. He welcomes all travellers of all ages so if you are in town and have a spare day or afternoon – walk down an introduce yourself to Ali and work for a free meal!

7. D O  A  C O O K I N G  C L A S S 

10678763_10152418113278513_6331724557124113044_nAli’s sister, Fatma, runs cooking classes for 75TL in her cave house throughout the week. It was one of the best experiences I had during my visit to Cappadocia. We met her at Ali’s cafe and she walked us to her house. She didn’t speak much English so we mainly used made up sign language to communicate. She gave us English recipes and we spent the next 3 hours making a variety of dishes. We pondered around her house in slippers, played with her daughter, looked through her organic ingredients and got to see what life was like living in a cave!

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We made lentil soup, stuffed vine leaves, stuffed eggplant with beef and aside for dessert. Some of the ingredients she had was all written in Turkish and I highly doubt I will be able to find the same quality back in Sydney! Once we were done, we sat down and feasted for the entire afternoon! It was one of the best meals I had on my entire trip. Let’s just hope I can replicate it at home!

8. V I S I T  A  T U R K I S H  B A T H  H O U S E 

I had already experienced a Turkish Bath so knew what I was getting in for. It’s something I would recommend doing in each city simply because they are all slightly different. In Cappadocia, I visited Elis bath house located near the main bus station in Goreme. It was a tad pricey at 50TL for an oil massage (compared to other places) however once we got there, we knew why. I was in dire need of a massage after all the walking (plus we were about to get on an overnight bus!) so it was perfect. The bath house was stunning. It was set in an ancient stone building with large spacious relaxation rooms. When we entered they welcomed us with tea and water and we were able to lie on lounges and relax before the massage. Bliss!

Lisbon

“Travelling leaves you speechless, and then turns you into a storyteller” – IBN Battuta


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Laneway in Lisbon

Lisbon ranks as one of the worlds longest founded cities. It’s truly beautiful. It was probably even more beautiful before the 1755 earthquake that practically demolished the city, however it’s been almost entirely rebuilt and has great character.

It is one of those cities where you don’t need a map. I recommend wandering around the small laneways decorated with Portugese streamers and colourful flags. If you get lost, don’t worry, just look up and spot the castle on the hill to get your bearings again!

Where to stay?

I stayed in Lisbon Old Town Hostel which was a great location for what we wanted. It was close to Baixa Chiada station (which takes you directly to airport or bus station), close to bars and cafes and walkable to the main square and the castle. The dorms were huge which was great for storing bags and they even put on weekly dinners to allow travellers to socialise (8 euros got us a 3 course traditional meal and unlimited wine!)

6 TOP LISBON EXPERIENCES

1. V I S I T  B E L E M

My friend and I are foodies to our core. We will travel far and wide once we hear about an exciting dish or appealing food recommendation. From day one, we were set on getting our hands on the best Pastel de Nata available (traditional Portugese tart). We had heard the best of the best was from Belem.

bikeride to belem

Cycle lanes from Lisbon City to Belem

Considering we were about to stuff our faces with tarts, we decided to take our time and power walk to Belem for exercise (6km west of the city) however by the time we got 2km in – we were too eager. We saw a bicycle hire shop and immediately looked at each other with a smile. We could get there in half the time on a bike! We hired bikes for about 4 euros and continued on along the river to Belem. It was such a beautiful ride. It is perfectly designed with cycle lanes and stunning scenery. It took us about an hour in total however most people tend to take tram 15 from the city centre which takes 22 minutes.  We chained our bikes up to a pole and walked towards the famous Pastiel de Belem Pastry cafe.

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The line outside Pastiel de Belem

The line outside was huge! But I had heard to walk straight in as the cafe is bigger than it appears from the outside. We cut right through to the front of the line, passed the counters and tables and through to a whole other dining room full of tables. The restaurant could probably seat about 300 people at a time! When walking through, you can also view the entire kitchen through glass windows. There was an entire team of pastry chefs engaged in various steps and literally hundreds of tarts were laid out on a table. They apparently sell thousands of pastries everyday! We managed to find a table and order immediately.

TIP: Don’t be fooled by the line outside Pastiel De Belem – walk straight in and through to the dining rooms and grab a seat yourself. The line is generally for takeaway but many are mistaken and end up lining up unnecessarily for hours! 

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Chefs preparing Portugese tarts!

We didn’t even need to see a menu. We wanted tarts and fresh orange juice. It was incredible. It was creamy, delicious and even better than I expected from the reviews! I should add that it took us 10 minutes once we received the tarts take a perfect photo of them! I think we nailed it (photo featured above).

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Long street of markets opposite Pastiel de Belem

Once we had come back down to earth, we left the cafe and wandered around Belem. It is an incredibly beautiful part of Lisbon. The buildings are decorated and painted in vivd colours. In the main park opposite the cafe is a hugely popular local market selling antiques, jewellery, bags and carefully designed Portugese tiles. We wandered around here for awhile and then had a picnic in the park with fresh baguettes. It was such a perfect day!

2. T R Y  T H E  L O C A L  F O O D

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Peach Crumble dessert with firewater!!

We were lucky enough to meet up with a friend who lives in Lisbon. He wanted to make sure we were acquainted with a good Portugese meal. He took us to a local restaurant called Taberna Ideal. It was a complete gastronomical experience! We had the amazing mushroom and chestnut tart, codfish salad and the famous peach crumble with agua de choc mousse with firewater! A few mouthfuls we felt a bit tipsy so go easy! After a long dining session (and a few bottles of wine) he took us down to the main square and we wandered down one of the side streets. It was time to try Ginja liqueur – a traditional Portugese drink and the drink of choice by locals in Lisbon. It is a sour cherry liqueur made from infusing ginja berries and sugar and generally served in a shot glass with a piece of fruit at the bottom. We stood at the counter of a tiny bar (2 metres by 3 metres?) and asked for 3 shots. I thought it was delicious. My friend thought it was disgusting but I guess we all have different tastes! Definitely something to try while you are in Lisbon. Not just for the unique taste, but for the people watching and humour in ordering one. 

For breakfast, our friend took us to a local cafe and we had a Portugese speciality – a coconut brioche and espresso coffee. It was amazing! You can find them everywhere so give it a go!

TIP: Ask the waitress to add ham and cheese to your coconut brioche and toast it! Yum!

If the food and drink has kept you standing – try and make it to a cool small bar called The Spot. It was fairly late when i went there so don’t remember the exact location and it doesn’t appear on google maps but it was around Rue da Atalaia – along with plenty of other quirky small bars so its worth a visit!

3. W A L K I N G  T O U R

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The famous Lisbon arches

Knowing very little about Lisbon, or Portugese history in general, we opted to join a walking tour of the city. There are hundreds of free tours starting all over the city so check which one is closest to you. Our guide was really nice and he gave some really interesting information but after 2 hours – I couldn’t take it anymore. He was going into way too much detail for me. Too many specifics just made me tune out and we ended up ditching the tour and grabbing some food! In hindsight, I must have just been impatient that day. I still remember some really fascinating stories and I have a much better understand of why the city is the way it is, however it just wasn’t my day. Would I still recommend doing a walking tour? Absolutely. Just have a large coffee before you go because there is a lot to take in!

4. V I S I T  T H E  C A S T L E

The view from halfway up Castelo de Jorge

The view from halfway up Castelo de Jorge

Lisbon can be distinctly recognised by Castelo St Jorge – perched high above the city on a grand hill. It is quite a beautiful site and the view from the top is fantastic! Some opt to walk up through the spirals of markets and shops (which I would normally love) however due to heat and sheer laziness we were driven to the top. You also have the option to get tram no.28 and enjoy the ride. We stopped halfway up for some photos and a bite to eat from the local market and then continued to the top.  Once you get to the top, you need to pay to get into the castle – this includes the front garden with the best view. Entry is 7.50 euros and you can have a picnic up there and enjoy the view. You can see right across to the other side of the river. Most of the shops up here are very overpriced (as you would expect) so leave the shopping for elsewhere. It’s a really nice day out and we enjoyed taking in the view and admiring the moats, castle design and grand rooms inside!

5. D A Y  T R I P  T O  O B I D O S

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The walled town of Obidos

Obidos is small walled city filled with a labyrinth of cobblestoned streets and brightly painted shop doors. Located about an hour north of Lisbon, it is quite easy to visit in a day. I did a road trip from Lisbon to Porto so had a hire car with me however I have heard of many tours and buses running this route too.

Wandering around is the best way to picture what life was like for its old inhabitants. Tiny street side vendors sell crafts and food and if you are lucky enough to be there in July, the castle hosts a traditional ‘Medieval Market’. For two weeks the castle and the surrounding town recreate the spirit of medieval Europe. Everyone gets involved and dressed up as jugglers, soliders, merchants and jesters! They feast on grilled meats and a pig on the spit. I would recommend drinking from the pewter tankards and eating from a wooden trencher to add to the experience!

We went for a walk around the walls. I was wearing flip flops which certainly wasn’t smart. The wall is about 5m high and there has been no safety precautions put in place so wear enclosed shoes. The wall is crumbly and it’s easy to lose your footing. I was careful and walked slowly. It was beautiful. As you walk around, you gain a 360 degree view of the walled city and the beautiful mountain side too.

6. S U N S E T  O N  T H E  P I E R

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Relaxing on the pier with a cider!

One afternoon we wandered down to the pier and was surprised to see a cute pop up bar. They had set up sun lounges along the edge and had a small bar serving ciders and beer. With classic hits playing and people sunbathing, it was such a perfect spot to relax and watch the sunset. We sat there chatting for hours and enjoyed people watching. This was a pop up restaurant at the time but apparently they are constantly promoting new spirits there and have new pop ups all the time. Walk down and check out what’s on!

Santo Amaro docks has a number of bars and restaurants permanently set up too and often have live music playing and a great atmosphere to chill out next to the water.

Lisbon is an amazing city and I only managed to explore one side of the river!

Happy wandering 🙂

Lagos

It’s better to look back on life and say “I cant believe I did that.” than to look back and say “I wish I did that”… GC Himani


Lagos is renown for a good party. I had a friend living there for the summer who could only recall 3 times she was home before the sun came up. This gave me a pretty good idea about what I was getting myself in for. When I finally got the chance to see this area for myself – I was honestly confused as to why it has become such a hub for drunk travellers.

There is nothing Portugese about Lagos. In fact, you could spend a week there and not find any Portugese food in the old town. It has every other cuisine you can think of, along with plenty of gelato. I felt like I was at home. There was Australians EVERYWHERE! They ran the hostels, the bars, the water sports, the bar crawls – the lot! That’s not a bad thing – Australians are friendly, social and extremely welcoming most of the time which probably adds to Lagos’ appeal however it’s certainly not a place to experience something foreign or unique. For this – you need to get out of the old city walls.

I prefer balance and managed to really enjoy Lagos when I left the city walls. So if anyone tells you that people only go to Lagos to party – it’s not true. I had an amazing time in Lagos and managed to find a whole world of things to do outside the party scene.

Where to stay?

Most hostels in Lagos are fully booked yet empty – because everyone is partying. It doesn’t matter what time of the day we are talking about. We were recommended to go and “see Cosimo!” Cosimo owns and runs Hostel La Dolce Vita which is also known locally as “Lagos Shared Rooms”. From the minute we entered, we were treated like his daughters. “Do you need me to do your washing?”, “are you hungry?”, “what would you like to do?”, “is this okay for you?”. He was a gem. We stayed there for 4 nights and absolutely loved it. One night he even cooked us his homemade lasagne to ensure we had a full stomach before we went out drinking and kept leftovers in his fridge for our late night return!! He never liked to turn people away so even spent nights sleeping on the balcony while others took his own bed. On top of his amazing cooking, he was a very fun character. He had great stories to tell and loved meeting new people. I miss Cosimo!

4 TOP LAGOS EXPERIENCES

1. P A R T Y 

First thing I noticed is that the bars and clubs are nothing spectacular. Considering it’s reputation I had pictured Lagos looking something like a small scale Ibiza. But it’s not. The main party area consists of a maze of small lanes with tiny bars dug into random corners. Music explodes from each door and you have promoters encouraging you to enter by enticing you with free shots. It works for most people. These bars are in fact just nightclubs. You cant really talk in ANY of them. They are pumping music from as early as 8pm with ecstasy and strobe lights. Don’t get me wrong – this is great however I personally, I like to drink at a bar. Especially at the start of the night. For me, good nights always starts with good conversations and company and you just end up in a club by default much later in the night. However, in Lagos, I found very few nice places to relax and have a drink. No wine and cheese bars and no nice cocktail bars. It was all premixed or preprepared or simply just made the easiest possible way. Most bartenders are backpackers themselves and have little skill in preparing anything unique. So personally, I didn’t like the idea of coming from the beach and walking straight into strobe lights and fist pumping techno. I did however embrace the Lagos experience so I could say I gave it a proper go. Here are some spots below to try:

  1. Mynt Bar – great live music fishbowl
  2. DC’s – for some fresh air as everyone drinks on the street
  3. Mellow Loco Bar – try the “volcano” cocktail and try playing darts afterwards (hilarious!)
  4. Three Monkeys – known for their beer bongs
  5. Inside Out – Try a fishbowl!
  6. Joe’s Garage – Best place for dancing
  7. Shakers Bar – the only bar open ALL day
  8. The Garden – my favourite place because it had lounges and a nice place to relax and have a conversation.

We met up with my sister and her boyfriend one night and managed to find an amazing place to get a good meal. Mullens prepared us an incredible duck and beef casserole which was deliciously tender. Yum! We sat there catching up and drinking wine (and forgetting about the party outside!) I would also recommend visiting Cafe Odeon for a huge cheap English breakfast and The International Cafe for an unforgettable pulled pork wrap!

2. G O  K A Y A K I N G 

kayakFor me, kayaking was the highlight in Lagos. There are many tour companies offering day trips to various locations.  The Algarve region is famously known to have the cleanest waters in Portugal. I have road tripped the coast of Portugal and would definitely agree with this! Most of them depart from Praia Porto de Mos and run set tours twice a day. We opted for a 3 hour tour to the famous grottos and caves of Ponta de Piedade. It cost us 25 euros each and was well worth it! We had a local guide who told us that we will be kayaking at least 7km (without wind) and we appreciated the warning.  We were ready.

The grottos are magnificent. The quality of the tour depends highly on the tides that day simply because some grottos are inaccessible during high tide. We were lucky enough to be able to see them all. On one occasion we had to get off our kayaks and swim under the rocks to reach the caves and the water shimmers a rainbow of colours due to reflection from the different rocks. It is truly beautiful. We went through some tight squeezes too which tested our strength and gave us a good laugh. The entire afternoon was so much fun. I couldn’t recommend it highly enough!

3. G E T  T O  T H E  B E A C H

10520822_10152285544113513_388968464267362938_nI had travelled up the coast of Portugal years before and unfortunately couldn’t swim anywhere because it was too cold. I am talking 9 degree water despite the fact that the outside temperature was 35 degrees celcius or more! And it wasn’t just me. The beaches were packed full of people and there wouldn’t be a single soul in the water. Luckily, Lagos was far south enough (and outside the Arctic current) that we could swim pleasantly. The beach is a great place to hang out and there are many to choose from. However because of the tides, some are only accessible early morning or late afternoon. If you head over the canal from the old city and walk down the beach 300m, you will come across a few men lazing around under umbrellas. They offer water sports. I guess you can do water sports in any European coastal area and are certainly not unique to Lagos however my memories here are pretty hard to beat. The 4 of us opted for a flyfish which was able to fit us all. Although a steep 10 euros for 15 minutes – it was constant laughter. The driver did everything in his power to ensure we all flew off at some stage and my sister even lost her pants a few times. Best of all we had a go-pro to capture it all. It was great fun.

4. W A L K  T H E  C L I F F S 

My friend and I could classify majority of our feelings into 2 states of mind. The first being “let’s do and eat whatever we want because who cares!” (which was 90% of the time) and the second being “I feel fat”. We constantly went through these “fat phases” and like any other backpacker – you begin to feel sluggish after weeks of overeating and partying. When we go through this phase, we generally encourage each other to put our runners on and incorporate sightseeing into a daily run. (note these ‘daily runs’ generally last 2 days)

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One day we got up early and exited the old city to the South and walked up past Praia Do Camilo (a stunning white sandy beach accessed by hundreds of tiny stairs) and all the way down to Farol da Ponta da Piedade. The walk was beautiful. It combined pathways with bushwalking with beach and stairs. The views were breathtaking! You could see all the way along the coastline and could access the cliff’s edge through tiny bush paths. It was so much fun and we enjoyed getting out in the fresh air to fight the hangover!

Essaouira

“An investment in travel is an investment in yourself.” – Matthew Karsten


Essaouira is one of those places that makes you question, “why haven’t I heard about this place before”? Or maybe you have. For me, I came across Essaouria from researching popular beach spots in Morocco and ideally a place to relax and escape the heat of the Sahara. Voila!

Essaouria is a stunning beachside city on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. It’s managed to keep its charm despite the large influx of tourists. It’s beautiful historic fort was built back in the 18th century and interestingly enough catered to a diverse range of religions including Muslims, Christians and Jews. I think this is a part of its charm – a church, next to a mosque, behind a synagogue. Not sure how many places in the world you can find that.

Because its such a popular tourist spot now, getting there is quite easy. I arrived on a bus with a tour group from the Sahara desert (a whole other story!), however from Marrakech you have a variety of options. Click here for regularly updated details from Wikitravel.

Hidden entrance to the oldest church in the city

Hidden entrance to the oldest church in the city

Where to stay?

Although on a backpacking trip, there are times when you need a break from hostel accommodation and get comfy nights sleep. I stayed at Riad Chakir Mogador. It is perfectly located within the old town with a very short walk to the beach. Beds were comfy and the bathrooms were all antique and quirky. There are many hostels around though so check out hostelworld.

TIP: Many sweets here are disguised as ‘space cakes’ and locals will try and tell you that it is legal to consume small amounts. Do not listen to them and watch out as there are undercover police.

FUN FACT: Game of Thrones had numerous scenes filmed here from Season 2.

3 TOP ESSAOURIA EXPERIENCES

1.  F O O D

Essaouria can cater for fine dining all the way down to a backpacker budget. I was lucky enough to try both ends of the spectrum.

1. Elizir – I had heard about this place from Tripadvisor actually. It had some strange reviews like “not what we expected but had an amazing time” and “loved the quirky setting” so I needed to try this for myself. Ultimately, the restaurant is a converted residential mansion in the main street. Each table is privately placed within alcoves, balconies or small lounge rooms with fire places. It actually feels like you are sitting in someones living room. It has a very exotic yet homey feel. We went in a group of 8 so managed to order a wide range of dishes and share (which is always my preferred dining option) My favourite dishes were the tagines. We had both the lamb and apricot as well as the chicken and fig. It was incredible. If your hungry – get the mint gnocchi!

For a local experience head to Le Sirocco or Tara Cafe for its famous traditional pastilla!

2.  H O R S E  R I D I N G  O N  T H E  B E A C H

horse

Galloping on the beach

horseWe had stumbled across a man with a sign advertising horse riding. It was a very spontaneous decision but for only 150MAD – we couldn’t pass it up! We got picked up from our hotel early one morning and was driven there. We honestly had no idea where we were going because the beach was literally 100m away. Why did we need to get into a car? But the driver didn’t speak English. We decided to go with the flow. After a 10 minute drive, we made it to a very quiet area of the beach. We were put straight onto a horse. There was no questions such as “have you ever ridden before?” or “do you know how to ride a horse?” or even “welcome”. Bang! It started. We were expected to be able to ride the horses immediately which we found hilarious. At home, the OH&S introduction would take up half the riding time! But anyway, one man on another horse started trotting away through a parkland and we kicked the horses to follow.

My horse was really disobedient. He kept breaking into a trot when I just wanted to walk so I had to keep pulling the reigns back. We soon got the hang of it and really started to enjoy it. Then we reached the beach. It was breathtaking. It was a sandy, white stretch of deserted beach and he turned to me and said “OK Gallop now hold on”. Ahhhhh no I don’t think I am ready to gallop. No choice. The horse broke into a high speed gallop down to the shore line before I could even answer him. The man had my camera so galloped along beside me taking pictures. He made it look really easy and I was gripping the horse for dear life. He stopped me and told me to relax. The horse was GALLOPING I couldn’t relax or else I would fall off but he gave me some really good advice about how to lean and where to hold and before i knew it – the horse broke into a run again and it was EASY! I was LOVING it! It was one of the best experiences I had in Morocco. We could ride the horses around wherever we wanted to go. The guide didn’t even care. The freedom was amazing.

3.  L E A R N  A B O U T  A R G A N  O I L  P R O D U C T I O N 

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A local Berber woman grounding argan seeds

Argan oil has been a key component in Moroccan traditional medicine for centuries. Today there is great exploitation of the argan forests because of the cosmetic values of argan oil. It has also become very expensive. You need 40 kg of raw fruits to extract 1 kg of oil and it takes about 8 hours of manual work, mostly by women. It is now in huge demand by global cosmetic companies so there are literally thousands of women working in cooperatives across the country. Although it’s hard work, it has empowered women and created many many jobs. By visiting a cooperative producing oil, you are supporting these women. They produce there own products too and the profits benefit them directly rather than large global giants.

I visited a factory in the nearby town of Agadir which is about 20km south of Essaouria. We were taken through the process by an English speaking guide. She explained how the oil is extracted and we saw women first hand undertaking each step. She explained some of the benefits of argan oil and why is has become so popular. Some of the benefits are listed below:

  • Antioxidant10561773_10152267659728513_5205847608080779312_n
  • Anticarcinogenic
  • Lowers high blood pressure
  • Reduces “bad” cholesterol levels
  • Improves Rheumatic and joint pain
  • Stimulates brain capability
  • Facilitates digestion
  • Strengthens hair and nails
  • Moisturizes and stimulates skin regeneration and oxygenation
  • Provides elasticity to skin
  • Anti wrinkle properties
  • Promotes cell renewal
  • Healing qualities for scars
  • Treats skin conditions such as: acne, eczema, pregnancy stretch-marks, burns, psoriasis, and chicken pox
  • Neutralizes free radicals

At the end of the tour we were shown to their local shop where they mix the oils with other herbs and creams to create their own line of products. I bought a beautiful skin cream (probably the same ingredients as an expensive Estee Lauder) for a very cheap price. (For the record the cream was amazing!!) Definitely worth a visit. Many tour companies organise trips there or you can simply grab a taxi to the nearest one and walk through for free.

TIP: On your way, keep your eyes out for goats climbing argan trees! They enjoy eating the berries at the top and its amazing watch!

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Goats climbing argan trees!