Ubud, Bali – An Introduction to Zen

Ubud is the cultural hub, where deep conversations over organic coffee’s, yogic retreats and breathtaking scenery are the reason many decide to stay. Tourists have been flocking here for decades, hoping their dreams of an “Eat, Pray, Love ” lifestyle would one day become a reality. Who can blame them! With its cascading rice terraces, stunning beaches, and beautiful temples, Bali has a serenity that is as much to do with its laid-back people as its artistic culture. It’s a seductive, intriguing journey into the self.

Ubud reveals a bohemian lifestyle where western owned arty cafe’s and chakra cleansing retreats coexist with local business’s. Culture is everywhere. Stroll past intricately carved temples and catch a glimpse of Balinese dancers depicting epic stories of the Mahabharat to the haunting sounds of gamelan music. Festivals are a plenty and daily rituals leave streets adorned with flowers. Trendy bars and cool hang-outs sit alongside traditional eateries whilst high-end craft shops and galleries add an air of sophistication.

Stay

Villa in Ubud

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There’s no shortage of accommodation in Ubud. From five star hotels to homestays, the choice is endless. Ever dreamed of a staying in your very own villa in Bali? Well, check out Airbnb and make your dream come true. We stayed in a one bedroom villa in the middle of rice field. Conveniently located away from the touristy areas of Ubud, it was still close enough to be just a short drive away from the centre of town.  Complete with its own kitchen, spacious bedroom with an en-suite bathroom and open terrace, it was the perfect place to relax and unwind amidst an idyllic setting. The best thing was it cost next to nothing!

Villa Junjungan

Villa Junjungan Resort Pool & Spa just screams affordable luxury. Set amongst emerald-green rice fields and swaying palms, this peaceful retreat is the perfect getaway. Accommodation is made up of cottages, family rooms and villas with tastefully decorated room. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are available at the restaurant along with a whole host of facilities including a shuttle service and tour desk. Four poster beds, a pool, onsite massage and meditation classes, ensure you can recharge your batteries before you set off for your next travel adventure.

Eat

Fish Dish

Ubud is food heaven.  Expect everything from high-end restaurants alongside streetside warungs where plastic plates are piled high with delicious local fare. Nomads is a popular haunt especially for the first time Bali crowd where a fusion of Asian and Western dishes is always a crowd pleaser. If you’re watching the pennies, Warung Ijo also on Jl Raya is great if you want to eat cheap, local,  flavoursome food. If you’re missing a curry, you must eat at Queens. It was one of the best Indian restaurants I’ve ever been to!

Pray

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Bali is synonymous with temples and Ubud is no exception. In fact, every home has a shrine built in the courtyard. Visit Pura Tama Saraswati, dedicated to the goddess of wisdom and arts for its ornate carvings and lotus-filled pond. Alternatively, Puri Saren Agung which sits alongside Ubud Palace, is especially beautiful at night, when lit up during Balinese dance performances.

Love…shopping

Markets

Shopping is an epic experience in Ubud. From designer shops to local markets,  shopping malls to craft shops -the sheer variety of choice will have your head spinning. Ubud Art Market located close to Ubud Palace is a great place for souvenirs. You’ll find everything from wood carvings to paintings, buddha statues and Batik clothing. Remember, haggling is part of the fun!

See

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There’s so much to see and do in Ubud. From biking tours riding through rice fields to hiking over volcanic mountains such as Gunung Batur – you won’t be stuck for ideas. We were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a royal wedding that took place and enjoy the festivities surrounding the palace.  If you’ve fallen in love with the cuisine take a cookery class or if you’ve indulged in far too much of well…everything, head to Kush Ayurvedic Rejuvenation. From Yoga classes to Ayurvedic massage therapies, there’s a risk you’ll get seriously addicted!

Further afield the Kuta, Legion and Seminyak are the usual tourist hotspots.  Kuta with its lively mix of bars and non-stop nightlife is a crowd-pleaser but if you want something a little more sophisticated and cool, Seminyak with its slick hangouts, top resorts and elegant boutiques will definitely please.  If you’re looking for a more tranquil experience, the beaches of Amed or Candi Dasa are a perfect escape and the beautiful island of Nusa Lembongan will utterly captivate you!

Whatever you do in Bali, just remember three things: breathe in, breathe out and …relax!

How Travelling Changed Our Lives Forever

Travel is one of the few experiences that transforms your life. It’s impact is felt to the very core as your whole perspective on life changes. You emerge changed, almost reborn into a newer, better version of yourself. It happens gradually when you travel, then POW! It hits you when you return. You realise nothing has changed. Your friends are doing the same thing, your home is the same, the job you left is the same. But you’re not the same. You feel restless, impatient and disappointed that the return is such an anticlimax to a mind-blowing experience. Nobody understands. You want to get back on a plane. You ask yourself, how and why did this experience have such a profound effect? Was it the trekking in the Himalayas that did it? Or was it the cute Orangutan in Borneo! Did skydiving in New Zealand really do this or was it listening to the stories of a stranger in Burma. You know – it was all these things and more. Here’s how travelling changed our lives forever.

We  learned a lot about ourselves

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Travelling was tough. Catching many flights across different time-zones, not sleeping properly for days, long uncomfortable train journeys and flight delays. Add to that death-defying taxi rides, near misses, slips and falls and lugging your back-pack around in unbearable temperatures was definitely character building. On many occasions we went hungry, got food poisoning (mostly me) and had to visit doctors on several occasions. All this taught to us to adapt to situations, not worry about things and continue moving forward.

Travel inspired us to make big changes in our lives

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On returning, being tied to a corporate didn’t seem so great. So I took a leap of faith. I started a business. It was nerve-wracking to give up the stability of a permanent job but I couldn’t let the experience of travelling just fade away into a memory.

Our perspective on the world changed

Village children having fun with the camera

Yes – travelling turned our world upside down! Like most people, we had  a 9-5 job, got married and had a home. However, after living out of a backpack for almost a year and experiencing the freedom that travel offers, you realise you don’t have to be pigeon – holed into living a life that involves just working and paying bills.  The definition of living changed for us. Travelling was true living. Experiencing and engaging everything the world had to offer and growing as a person was a revelation.

We appreciate life more

One of my favourite pictures!

You have back-packers then you have flash-packers. I guess we were flash-packers as we never stayed in dorms or real hell holes! Saying that we came across a few grim places in an effort to save money. In the end it taught us to appreciate what we have. These days, we have shorter showers, watch less TV and spend less money. We appreciate the seasons and use our time more constructively.

We’ve made friends from all over the world

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It starts with a drink (or three) and ends with a promise to stay in touch. Next thing you know, you’re in another country and so are they! That’s when you know you’ve connected with friends. Interacting with strangers on the road does wonders for your social skills. There’s no hiding when you travel.

We’ve developed a taste for global food

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Eating our way across Asia was one of the joys of travelling. The food is inspiring, cheap and delicious!  So much so I decided to take a cookery class in Nepal, Thailand and Malaysia. Mealtimes are not the same anymore. You’ll often find Morning Glory with garlic & chilli or red fish curry on the menu. I really miss chicken Momo’s so that’s next on the shopping list!

We realised all you need is a back-pack

A quick photo on arrival at Lhasa

You start with loads of stuff in your backpack but you soon come to realise you don’t need it. I actually ended up with less clothes than Asad. If I needed anything I’d just buy it. Carrying the bare minimum was cathartic and empowering. On returning I found I was less attached to our material possessions. Even our home.  It didn’t mean as much to me. Spending almost a year among vast landscapes in Asia meant we felt trapped by the tiny surroundings of the UK. It took us a long time to adjust.

We discovered what it means to be in the present

The Heavely Annapurna Circuit

We are all raised to constantly think of the future. What’s going to happen in the next hour, day, week or year. We plan our lives around this, running around leading busy lives-  barely taking time to stand still and just be present in the moment. Sometimes we pay others to tell us to stand still.   That’s why travelling stops you in your tracks and forces you to take a look at how crazy beautiful the earth is!

We have more of respect for nature

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We’ve seen a lot of wildlife and nature on our travels. From the Orangutans in Borneo to the Proboscis Monkey’s and birdlife down the Kinabatangan river. We’ve seen chickens ritually killed by shamans and tens of buffalo slaughtered by tribes in Sulawesi. We’ve bathed elephants in Chiang Mai and experienced dolphins and whales in New Zealand. It’s a privilege to share the earth with such amazing creatures.

Our thirst for travel never died, it just got stronger

Asad at Tashilunpo Monastery

You would think that a year and a half later, the urge to travel would fade and we would slot right back into our lives in the UK. But it hasn’t. A day doesn’t go by when I don’t think of getting on a plane and just going somewhere. Sometimes I wish we didn’t feel that way. It’s unsettling and we both still suffer from a restless desire to just pack up and go!

We discovered our adventurous side

Asad Skydiving - New Zealand

We went mental in New Zealand. Probably because we bumped into a friend who was a bit of an adrenaline junkie. Before you know it, Asad had performed a skydive, I had ziplined and paraglided my way over the Remarkables.  We would never have even contemplated any of this before!  It just goes to show that the confidence you gain enables you in so many ways.

We learned people are the same

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People are the same the world over. It doesn’t matter what religion or race you are, everyone has the same needs. Everyone works,  looks after their families, plays candy crush and enjoys a good drink! Everywhere we travelled people received us with an open-heart. Strangers shared their food and stories with us. In China we felt like celebrities. They were intrigued by us. Asians with a British accent.  Even in remote areas where the locals were not used to tourists, people may have been reserved but there was never any hostility. We’ve learned that people are essentially good. Even in countries such as Myanmar (Burma) who only opened their doors to the world in the past few years, people were friendly and warm. I miss that.

We learned religion is more diverse than we thought

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We experienced alot of Buddhism and Hinduism across South-East Asia. But Indonesia was really amazing. Bali had such a diverse form of Hinduism, nothing like you see in India or Nepal.  Sulawesi was breathtaking and threw the usual concept of religion out of the window. Mosques displayed ancient Torajan symbols and some Christians still practiced cliff-burials.  It was all surreal and magical.

The planet we live on is an amazing place. Go see it with an open heart and an open mind and I promise it will teach you something no book or university will.

Let us know what you think of this post! We’d love to hear from you.

 

 

 

 

Top 5 Things to do in Kuala Lumpur

I love the energy of Kuala Lumpur. It’s an exciting metropolis with a colourful melting-pot of people, cultures and languages. Super-sized mega-malls stand alongside futuristic sky-scrapers whilst bustling markets, mosques and temples reflect a rich, local diversity, adding splashes of colour to a modern, tech-savvy city. Condominiums harbouring expats, rise high above swaying palm trees, whilst leafy parks and manicured gardens frame a colonial history that still stands to this day. As for how you can spend your time in this great city, here are our top 5 things to do in Kuala Lumpur.

1) Petronus Towers

The Iconic Petronus Towers
The Iconic Petronus Towers

No doubt the Petronus Towers dominate Kuala Lumpur’s skyline. At 452 metres high, this 88 storey structure comes alive at night, dazzling the city with its lights and architecture. Opened in 1998 and designed by an Argentinian architect Cesar Pelli, the towers fuse Islamic design with a postmodern feel. You can walk across the Skybridge for great views of KL or visit the Observation Deck for views of the towers spires close up. We chose to view the Petronus Towers from Menara Tower. In my opinion, the best view of this iconic landmark!

2) Food Heaven

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If there’s one thing that sets KL apart from other cities, is the food! It’s amazing! A delicious fusion of Malay, Chinese and Indian – the food is a mind-blowing reflection of the diverse ethnicities that make up the population. In fact, food is a favourite distraction for everyone in KL. In between shopping in glitzy malls, you can’t help but be inspired by the mind-boggling choice of food available.  From roti canai to nasi lemak, the food in Kuala Lumpur will excite you. There are so many places to eat, you’re sure to be spoilt for choice if not confused by the overwhelming choice. Even visiting a cafe will throw up a menu that will make your head spin by the sheer variety of coffee’s available. What to have? Kopi Susu, Hainanese coffee or iced coffee with coffee jelly! Help!  We ate in so many places, but here are just some budget friendly places to eat.

Head down to Jalan Alor food street in the heart of KL, for a taste of some amazing street food. By day there’s not much going on, but as the sun goes down, this street comes alive with rows and rows of open-air restaurants serving Malay, Chinese and Thai food. For post-food drinks, head down to Changkat Bukit Bintang – a lively street crammed with bars, clubs, Irish pubs and snazzy lounges. It’s a great place to get talking to the locals who work and live here and offer an insight into the realities behind living in this twenty-four city.

One of our favourites restaurants was Wong Ah Wah, known for their delicious chicken wings. I have to say they were the best we’d ever tasted! Moist and packed full of flavour, we ate a ridiculous amount of chicken – all finished off with a cool beer!

The Taste of Asia food court in Berjaya Times Square shopping mall was also a great place to eat. Here you’ll find food from all over Asia. What’s great is they give you a card that you add money to.  You buy the food,  they scan the card and if you’re not coming back, any money remaining is refunded. Makes eating and paying so easy!

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You’ll find huge buffets offering a variety of dishes. From curries to satays, spicy fish to noodles, soups to rice – it’s an impressive choice that means you end up trying a lot of things just for the sheer pleasure of wanting to surprise yourself.

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You can’t beat a curry, so what better place to go than Little India in Brickfields. Renowned for its South Asian food, there’s no end to the tasty treats to be had on this road lined with restaurants, clothing and food shops. We had a delicious chilli crab  served on a banana leaf from Sri Paandi. This “banana leaf” restaurant does fabulous Chettinad food. I’m not exaggerating when I say it was mind-blowing tasty AND cheap! The locals were friendly and we had a great time chatting to the staff in the restaurant, who after much badgering from me, still refused to share their recipe for chilli crab! Oh well, you can’t always get what you want!

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Chilli Crab, Dal and Chapatti
Making chapatti
Making Chapatti is the same the world over!

3) Lazat Cookery School

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Making the classic Malaysian dish – Beef Rendang

Where possible, I always try to fit in a cookery class on my travels. So after tasting the amazing food in Malaysia, there was no way I was going to leave this country without discovering the secret behind its most famous dishes. Lazat Cookery School has a great reputation in KL for making sure you have a fun and educational day cooking! I opted for the “Market Tour and Authentic Malay” class. Starting the day with a trip to the market, we got an insight into the traditional foods used in Malay cooking. Then we were off to start cooking. I made Prawn Fritters for starters, Beef Rendang for the main meal, followed by Sweet Coconut wrapped in Banana Leaves. It turned out pretty good!  It was a fun packed day AND I managed to get the recipe for Roti Canai even though I did have to pay a little extra for it.

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Getting ready to make dessert
The Crew at Lazat
The Crew at Lazat

4) Shopping

Chinese New Year at Berjaya Times Square
Chinese New Year at Berjaya Times Square

After food, you’ll find shopping is the biggest draw in KL. In fact you can’t help but get sucked into the mega-malls and markets that dominate the amazing shopping scene in KL. I guess one reason is to get out of the crazy heat and into air-conditioned heaven! The other reason is the shopping in KL is good – very good!  From high – end fashion to the latest tech-gadgets, the only limitation is your imagination and stamina. Here are some of our favourites.

Pavilion KL Shopping Mall – Located in Bukit Bintang, this snazzy seven-storey complex houses international designer labels. A favourite among K-Lites, the polished interiors, glitz and extravagance attract a willing crowd.

Suria KLCC – Located at the foot of the Petronus Towers, Suria KLCC combines the very best of high – end shopping, dining and entertainment. Beautifully designed, it epitomises style and culture and is even home to the Dewan Filharmonik Orchestra – Malaysia’s first concert hall.

Berjaya Times Square – Situated in Jalan Imbi, Berjaya Times Square offers a great day out for the whole family. With 10 floors and over 700 retail units you can buy anything from food to fashion both upmarket as well as affordable.  You’ll even find Malaysia’s largest indoor theme park here.

Low Yat Plaza Shopping Mall – If you’re looking for gadgets and gizmo’s, Low Yat is basically tech – heaven! This 12-storey mall is buzzing with technology and a great place to get your gadgets fixed, stock up on memory cards for cameras or just basically splurge on something new. Remember to negotiate!

Jalan Petaling – Otherwise known as Chinatown Market, Jalan Petaling is known for its fake goods. You’ll find the usual fake watches, clothes, bags, jewellery and much more. Although a market, prices are ridiculously high, so haggle without a conscience!

Running along the historic Central Market is a flea market known as Kasturi Walk. Here the pace of shopping slows down to a gentle stroll where you can browse the more modest range of goods on offer. However you’ll find the prices are reasonable and it’s a great place to take a break for a bite to eat before you head off for your next shopping spree.

 

Central Market – Built in the art-deco style of its time, central market is a maze of boutiques and handicraft stalls. Here you’ll find Malaysian batik, sculptures, embroidery, carvings and restaurants.

5) Explore the Neighbourhoods and Beyond

Discover the many neighbourhoods that make up the rich diversity of Kuala Lumpur. Soak up the colonial history in Merdeka Square where in 1957 Malaysia’s independence from the British took root. Then head east to admire the Moorish-style architecture of the Sultan Abdul Samad Building – once the seat of British administration. Feeling hungry? Head down to Chinatown or Little India for some local fare then finish the evening off with dinner and drinks in downtown KL, known as the Golden Triangle. If the city life is beginning to exhaust you,  a day trip to the Batu caves is the ideal way to escape the big smoke and discover the countries most sacred Hindu shrine located in a vast limestone cave. If you want a taste of nature, visit the Forestry Research Institute Malaysia, where you can take a picnic, go mountain biking or camping in the surroundings of a rainforest.

No matter how you spend your time in Kuala Lumpur, you’re sure to leave this city with great memories and an enduring love for its biggest attraction – the food!

Tibet – An Unforgettable Eight Days

Tibet was everything we had imagined it to be. In fact it was so much more than the expected yaks, spinning prayer wheels and robed monks. We witnessed rich cultures steeped in tradition, colour and ritual, a religion steadfast in its belief, enchanting temples and a traditional rural way of life that was under threat from modern economic development.  It was the weather-beaten faces of the elderly that told a thousand stories of a troubled past, the random conversations with the smiling locals and the awe-inspiring geography of a land that was slowly but surely being hacked away. Lhasa with its numerous police checkpoints felt as if it had lost its previous innocence. Gone was the nostalgia. No longer would it be regarded as a place that only a few brave travellers searching for adventure would venture to. The presence of the Han Chinese was everywhere; flags defiantly sat on Tibetan monasteries and the intimidating numbers of Chinese police gave Lhasa a feeling of being under siege.

Burgers were pushing Tibetan Thakpa out of the way.

The elephant in the room was staying put.

Our eight-day tour in Tibet was a monumental experience! We travelled hundreds of miles through sensational landscapes, visited what seemed like every Buddhist monastery known to man and met some amazing people – all in a rickety bus!

I grew to love that bus.

We started in Lhasa and ended our trip at Everest Base Camp, finally walking across the Friendship Bridge into Nepal where we had started our travels all those many months before. We had come full circle. I can still remember what I was thinking when I crossed that bridge. It was a sense of achievement coupled with sadness that our travels had come to an end. At the same time it felt like we had come home. I knew Asad felt the same. Nepal would always feels like home – we had grown to love the country. There was something cathartic about physically walking across the border back into Nepal having had all those experiences behind us. Crossing from one country into another in a matter minutes was so much better than just clinically flying over. We had ended our travels at the point of origin, only to begin another journey – this time back to London.

Tibet was an epic ending to a truly epic journey!

Highlights:

Lhasa – Loved getting lost in the alleyways of Lhasa, soaking up the spirituality, people watching, browsing shops for Tibetan souvenirs and randomly bumping into travellers we had met on the Qinghai – Tibet train.

Favourite Temples – They were all amazing but the most visually memorable and interesting were Jokhang Temple, Sera Monastery where we watched fascinating debates taking place between monks and the terracotta alleyways of Tashilunpo Monastery. Potala Palace was definitely impressive and the cave temple of Guru Rinpoche at EBC felt like we’d stumbled upon on unknown discovery!

Favourite Food – Apart from Tibetan Thakpa I fell in love with eggs and tomatoes! Don’t ask me why but I couldn’t get enough of this simple dish. The tomatoes were the sweetest I’d ever tasted.

Most inspiring, jaw-dropping sights – Casting your eyes over landscapes that range from grasslands and desert to fertile pastures, brought to life by the earthy pigmented colour of Buddhist gompas was a joy. However the view of Mount Everest has to top everything! We were so lucky to witness the clouds unveil such a beautiful site. Nothing will ever beat that view. Yamdruk lake was stunningly picturesque and exactly how I imagined it.  Nyalam Tong la Pass was a mountain pass we went through on route to the Nepalese border. At an altitude of 5150 metres, the views of the Himalayas from here were just mesmerising. Entering the border town of Zhangmu – the landscape changed from barren to lush, emerald greenery characteristic of Nepal. Sitting in the bus, driving along cliff side roads through huge ravines was just amazing!

Wish I could have stayed longer – Apart from the fear of facing the toilets which gave Everest a run for its money, I could have happily stayed at the Base Camp for an extra day or two. It was a great place for peace and solitude. Sleeping in a tent under Yak skins was a novelty and it was surprisingly warm. If it wasn’t for the massive rat that scared the hell out of me, I would have had a better nights sleep! However, I could easily have just kicked back and spent some time enjoying nature there. I would have loved to have stayed in Lhasa a day longer to just really discover more of the hidden pathways and   indulge in watching the various tribes and nomads of Tibet go about their daily lives. It was like going back in time.  Nyalam Tong La Pass was heavenly. Just fifteen minutes longer would have secured some sensational pictures.

My most spiritual experience – It has to EBC. Sat by a stupa in the glorious sunshine, yaks grazing in the distance, watching prayer flags fluttering in the wind and catching fleeting glimpses of Everest through the most beautiful cloud formations I’d ever seen. I often revisit that memory. I keep it close to my heart.

Shocked by – Being told off by the police for not walking on the pavement on arrival at Lhasa station! Also shocked by the heavy presence of the military in Lhasa along with fast food joints and burger bars! The horror of it!

Day 1: Arrival In Lhasa

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Lhasa Train Station

Day 2: Barkhor Square – Jokhang Temple – Potala Palace

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A view of Barkhor Square from Jokhang Temple
Buddhists pray in front of Jokhang Temple
Buddhists prostrate  in front of Jokhang Temple in what felt like a mass Yogic sun salutation
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The divine Jokhang Temple
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Previously the seat of the 14th Dalai Lama, Potala Palace is built at an altitude of 3700 metres on top of the Red Mountain

Day 3: Drepung Monastery – Sera Monastery

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Drepung Monastery – a university monastery dedicated to the yellow hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism
Me and our guide Choedren at Drepung Monastery
Me and our guide Choedren at Drepung Monastery
The iconic image of Golden Deer either side of the Dharmic Wheel
The iconic image of Golden Deer either side of the Dharmic Wheel
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Sera Monastery – Through a fascinating series of hand slapping gestures, senior monks grill junior monks on Buddhist doctrine

Day 4:  Yamdruk Lake – Karola Glacier – Kumpa Stupa (20th June)

Stunning views of Yamdruk Lake
Stunning views of Yamdruk Lake
Asad with Charles at the shoreline of Yamdruk Lake
Asad with Charles who was part of our tour group at the shores of Yamdruk Lake
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Karola Glacier
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One of the many lakes we encountered
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Another milestone!
Kumpa Stupa
Kumpa Stupa

Day 5: Tashilunpo Monastery – 318 highway – Qomolongma National Park – Dzong Monastery

Asad at Tashilunpo Monastery
Asad at Tashilunpo Monastery
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Charles, Alicia, Ariel and Asad in the driving seat  – on the 318 highway
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Hillside Dzong Monastery

Day 6 – Old Tingri – Rongpu Monastery – EBC 1

Rongpu Monastary - the highest monastery on the planet!
Rongpu monastery – the highest  on the planet!
Our home for the night - Base Camp
Our home for the night – Base Camp
Prayer flags fluttering in the wind
Prayer flags fluttering in the wind
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The monastery of Guru Rinpoche
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Look what we found! Inside the cave of Rongpu Monastery

Day 7 – EBC 2 – Nyalam Tong La Pass – Zhangmu

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From Left to Right – Asad, Kathryn, Amber, Charles, Ariel, Emily, Choedren, Alicia and me!
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My favourite picture of me!
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A dream – come true!
Nyalam Tong La Pass
Nyalam Tong La Pass – simply breathtaking!

Day 8 – Cross the Friendship Bridge at the Zhangmu border to Nepal

The Friendship Bridge connecting Tibet and Nepal
The Friendship Bridge connecting Tibet and Nepal

Our tour was arranged by Budget Tibet Tour. The driver was brilliant and Choedren the guide, was informative and attentive. I would definitely travel with them again!

Have you ever been Tibet? Let us know about your amazing journey!

Tibet – An Introduction to The Land of Snows

Think of Tibet and images of spinning prayer-wheels, yak-butter tea, clifftop monasteries and breathtaking mountains spring to mind. A visit to this land is something to be savoured as the air, heavy with juniper incense, guides you to the doorways of Tibetan Buddhism.

Spanning the world’s largest and highest plateau, Tibet is home to some of the highest mountains on the planet and the source of major rivers including the Yangtze, Mekong and Ganges. Essentially Tibet is a geographical dream of humbling and epic proportions.

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A View of Lhasa

Lhasa

Walk among prostrating pilgrims who, carried by the centrifugal force of the Kora, gravitate to the spiritual heart of Tibet – the Jokhang Temple. Breathe in the magnificence of Potala Palace as it soars above the city – immense in size and symbolism. Meander through the whitewashed back-streets of the old Tibetan quarter or simply stand still and be captivated by the sheer diversity of people. Nomads from the Kham regions of Tibet with their braided hair and ornate daggers and those from Amdo walk by spinning their prayer-wheels, clothed in sheepskins and striking coral headpieces.

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Yamdrok Lake

Outside Lhasa

Lhasa is just one part of a complete experience. Venture further into this mesmerising land of surreal geography and a sensory adventure will unfold. Bumpy roads and rugged highways reveal traditional rural scenery – vast fertile plains that stretch as far as the eye can see. Dusty towns once the centre of thriving trades, offer a glimpse into the past and winding roads zig-zag through vertiginous mountains that reveal glistening turquoise lakes below. Old ruins spread across sweeping plains are a reminder of past invasions while beige mud house settlements adorned with colourful prayer flags, raise a nostalgia and innocence that is fast disappearing.

On board the train to Lhasa

A Dramatic Arrival

What better way to arrive in Tibet than overland on the highest plateau on earth. Though controversial, The Qinghai – Tibet Railway provides an exhilarating taste of the natural wonders of the Tibetan Plateau. Sweeping panoramas, mesmerising mountains, turquoise lakes and wandering nomads are all part of the magical journey that involves being catapulted into head-spinning altitudes.

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Seeking Nirvana

Without doubt, Tibet has a unique spirituality. You’ll see it in the architectural wonder of the monasteries that balance precariously on mountain sides. You’ll feel it in the presence and majesty of spectacular landscapes that make you feel insignificant and you’ll hear it in the whispered prayers of monks and pilgrims congregating in flickering candle lit prayer halls.

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Locals on their way to a monastery

The People

One thing you’ll notice on arrival in Lhasa will be the heavy and authoritarian presence of the Chinese military. Add to that the rapid development of fast food chains, hotels and imposing construction of factories and it won’t be long before the remote mystery of Tibet will be diluted. Despite this, you won’t fail to recognise the inherent spirituality and resilience which is at the heart of the Tibetan people. Despite a tragic past, an ever-shifting present and uncertain future, they display an unflinching strength in their fight to express their religious freedom and an openness and generosity to all who take the time to get to engage with them.

Restrictions

The political situation means tourism is strictly controlled. Currently independent travel isn’t possible and travellers have to arrange a pre-arranged tour to visit the Tibetan Autonomous Region.

Here are a few guidelines:

  • All foreign visitors must get a Tibet Tourism Bureau (TTB) permit to enter Tibet and an Alien Travel Permit (and other permits) to travel outside of the capital Lhasa.
  • All tourists will need to pre-book an itinerary, guide and transportation with an agency before travelling to Tibet.
  • It’s not unusual for restrictions to result in Tibet being completely closed to foreigners, so check the most up-to-date regulations with travel companies.
  • You will need to show your TTB permit before boarding a plane or train to Lhasa.
  • You’re required to stay with the group throughout your entire stay in Tibet and are prohibited from taking pictures of tourist sites unless accompanied by a guide.
  • Avoid taking pictures of the military, police or govt officials otherwise the tour agency may be asked to pay a penalty or be at risk of having their licence revoked. They are held accountable for your actions!
  • There are frequent police checkpoints along the major roads outside Lhasa. Your guide will normally deal with this by showing and registering your passport for you. However, at times you’ll be required to present this information in person.

Tibet is a privilege waiting to be explored. Don’t be deterred by the politics or the expectation of a rough ride. In fact, it’s for these very reasons that you should go. Learn about its troubled history, witness its geography and experience the warmth of its people. There’s a rawness and remoteness in its beauty. It’s like going back in time. Go now before it’s innocence is completely lost.

I promise it’s unlike anything you’ll ever experience again!

Qinghai – Tibet Railway – An Unforgettable Journey Across the Tibetan Plateau

Since China launched the first train service to Tibet in July 2006, the Qinghai – Tibet Railway has carried thousands of awestruck tourists across the excruciatingly beautiful Tibetan Plateau. Considered an impressive feat of modern engineering, the railway was built despite the technical difficulties of building on permafrost, not to mention the challenges of constructing at high altitude and concerns surrounding environmental impact.

Known as the world’s highest railway, the Qinghai – Tibet Railway runs through the Tanggula Pass which at 5072m (16,640 feet) above sea level, literally makes your head spin due to the effects of altitude. Extending 1956km, the railway has 675 bridges, 10 tunnels, (two of which are the highest and the longest in the world) and specially designed carriages that pump in more oxygen, much to the relief of all its light-headed passengers.

Although miraculous in its achievements, not everyone is impressed. Pro-Tibetan groups see the railway as a political knife, slicing through the heart of what is now known as the Tibet Autonomous Region, in an attempt to dismantle its unique culture and quash any hope of independence. The Chinese Government on the other-hand remains adamant that the railway brings prosperity to the Tibetan region, claiming the increase in tourism and trade benefits a struggling Tibetan economy. With Chinese migrants now outnumbering Tibetans, Lhasa’s unique charm slowly being chiselled away and the presence of an imposing railway through a once untouched and fragile wilderness – it remains to be seen whether Tibetans have benefitted at all.

In the meantime, although politics constantly hovered in the air, Asad and I had other things on our mind.

It was 7.30am and we had just arrived at Lanzhou after catching the midnight train from Zhangye where we had seen the amazing Danxia landforms. Having had only four hours of fitful sleep, we were exhausted. To make matters worse, we had five hours to kill before boarding the train to Lhasa. Nevertheless, despite the fatigue, we were excited! This was going to be the start of our final adventure. An epic train journey across the rooftop of the world, followed by eight days in Tibet and a walk across the Friendship Bridge back to Nepal, where we’d started our travels so many months ago.

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Lanzhou Station
Lanzhou City - Largest city in the Gansu Province
Lanzhou City – Largest city in the Gansu Province
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Military presence in Lanzhou

Lanzhou was surprisingly developed. We were greeted by the usual Chinese construction of imposing high-rise buildings. There was a heavy military presence and as we sipped our coffee in one of the many fast-food chains, we watched groups of army personnel march too and fro, machine guns at the ready. There had been a serious of mass stabbings at railway stations in Kunming and Guangzhou, where knife-wielding gangs had gone on an indiscriminate stabbing rampage, killing many. As a result security had been tightened all over China.

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Qinghai – Tibet Railway

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Five hours later and we joined the swarm of people scrambling to get on the train. A mixture of Tibetans, some nomadic in appearance, Buddhist monks in burgundy robes, Chinese business men and of course tourists. We were among the handful of western tourists. We boarded the train, showing the ticket and Tibet permit to the conductor and headed for our hard-sleeper compartment.  Hoping to get a lower berth so that we could sleep and sit in relative comfort, we looked at our tickets only to realise that it wasn’t meant to be. I had the top bunk (again) and Asad had the middle. Oh well, I thought, trying not to let fatigue turn to irritation, it’s going to be another night of staring at a ceiling inches away from my face!

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A rare moment of peace before four other people were crammed into this small space with us!

The train rolled out of the station and away from the urban sprawl of Lanzhou. There was little to do but sit back and enjoy the view. The carriage was narrow, with the beds taking up the majority of the room. With only two window seats outside of each compartment, we made sure we claimed them. Armed with my camera I didn’t want to miss out on the amazing views that were yet to come. The landscape from Lanzhou, said to be one of the most polluted cities in China, had started off grey and industrial, changing to mountainous sandstone with layers of varying terracotta hues. Rural scenery unfolded slowly before our eyes but was tainted by industrial chimneys belching out black smoke and vast bridges that cut through mountains. The speed of construction was visibly shocking. Climbing higher we saw temples masked by block rectangular buildings and high-rises. It seemed the ancient ways were being wiped out at an immeasurable rate. Once in a while a minaret would glisten in the sun. A silent signal competing for recognition against the cacophony of communistic development. Mountains lay broken and crumbling, ravaged by development that revealed layers of cretaceous history. Cities were being built whether anyone liked it or not.

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Huge factories dominate the landscape.
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Amazing scenery
The train goes round a bend and i'm able to capture a glimpse of it
A glimpse of our train as it goes round a bend

A curious walk through the train several hours later revealed various classes of accommodation. Business men lounged on soft sleepers, two of the second class carriages were full of army personnel. They eyed us as we walked through, young men with blank expressions. Some stern. It was all too serious for us so we decided to break the ice and said “Ni Hao” to everyone as we walked past. After that the serious faces dissolved into laughter and lots of hello’s. Some sniggered like school boys, showing their age whilst others eyed us curiously. China had been confused by our British accents and Asian features. We called ourselves “Yingguo” or British, if anyone asked where we were from. It was like the penny dropped when we said that word only to be followed by a confused look when they pointed to our hair or skin. They were curious about our origins. Asad said we were foreign foreigners!

We headed back to our compartment and chatted with our jolly room mates. Middle-class Chinese tourists excited about travelling to Lhasa. Somehow we managed to hold a conversation thanks to their English being better than our attempt at Chinese that drew squeals of laughter from the girls and confused looks from the guys. The Lonely Planet phrase book wasn’t working! For some reason they thought we were university professors – how nice!

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Our room mates!
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Some more random acquaintances!

It was getting dark. A trip to the hot water dispenser to fill up some pots of noodles sufficed as dinner. I scrambled onto my top bunk that night in an attempt to sleep and looked down at Asad. He looked as if he was fast asleep, but then opened one eye and looked at me, smiling. We would be travelling through the Tanggula Pass that night and I thought to myself, I’d be higher than Asad when we’d pass through it! I wondered when the symptoms of altitude sickness were going to hit us. We’d been okay so far.

Morning revealed glorious sunshine in an achingly beautiful blue sky and the start of a headache. After reaching 16,640 feet during the night, it was inevitable that being catapulted this high and so quickly was going to have an effect on us. We drank as much water as we could. Brushing my teeth in the open wash basins with other people was a revelation. I’d left my self-conscious self behind in the UK and adapted pretty well to washing in public. We did this a lot during our trek in Nepal. There was a lot of clearing of throats and spitting which we’d become accustomed to. I understood why they did it. Asia was pretty polluted. The trip to the toilets that now overflowed and sloshed around wasn’t so great and involved hiking up my trousers and tiptoeing around with a look of horror on my face. Everyone else seemed amused. I hated wet floors. A tinned can of coffee did the trick in waking us up and as we sat by the window, nature unfolded before our eyes to remind us why it should have remained untouched.

Not now darling, I have a headache!
Not now darling, I have a headache!

The landscape revealed a smooth carpet of greenery. Sheep dotted the hillsides – stone walls reminiscent of an English countryside. Nomadic herders watched as the train passed by, their Yaks grazing on the greenery. I’d watched scenes like this on TV and never thought I’d see it for myself.  It was like watching a documentary. Faded prayer flags attached to nomadic tents or rocks fluttered in the wind. A reminder of Gods presence. Passing through a station we spotted a guard who saluted the train until it rolled away and we couldn’t see him anymore. Eagles drew large circles in the sky and I almost dropped my camera in amazement as what I thought was a Tibetan fox revealed itself among the camouflage of browns and ochre that made up the colours of the vast plains. We all pressed our faces to the windows in awe.

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Stunning Pasteurs
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Yaks grazing

Huge mountains ranges now came into sight. A magical fantasy of nature. Meringues dusted with icing sugar. Set against a beautiful sky, it felt surreal. A dreamlike vision. We breathed it all in – each and every moment of it.

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Sugar- dusted mountain ranges
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Ever-changing landscapes

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When we thought we’d seen it all, we travelled past Namtso Lake, the largest salt lake in Tibet. Surrounded by huge mountains it literally took our breath away!

Namtso Lake
Namtso Lake
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Chocolate mountains!

By midday we were withering away. My headache had gotten worse. Having had just only a few hours sleep that night and the night before, we were again exhausted. Oh well, we only had four more hours to get through! The lack of space was beginning to get to us and I just wanted to get off the train and run across the plateau! Luckily the train stopped at Nagqu station for five minutes and we got off thankful for some “air” and space before the guard ushered us back on again.

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Nagqu Station

By now altitude sickness was affecting many on the train. A walk through the train revealed a lot of people were ill. Some vomited in the wash basins, whilst others sprawled lethargic on floors as they probably could only afford standing tickets. A young Chinese girl came up to me and asked if she could have my bed to sleep in as she wasn’t feeling well. She looked pale and we could tell she had a headache from hell. I of course obliged as suddenly a trickle of blood appeared from her nose. That’s when I got worried.  Several rolls of tissue later and a consoling hug, she flaked out on the bed then reappeared looking much better. We opened the oxygen outlets and breathed deeply trying to ignore the smell of cigarette smoke secretly coming from the toilets! The human body was not meant to climb so high and so quickly.

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Oxygen anyone?

Four hours rolled by pretty quickly and before we knew it we had arrived in Lhasa.

A formal welcome to Lhasa Station
A formal welcome to Lhasa Station
A quick photo on arrival at Lhasa
A quick photo on arrival
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Lhasa Railway Station – Built in Tibetan style (apparently).

Asad and I are both lovers of train journeys and this was certainly an experience. It was so different to some of the other train journey’s we’d taken throughout South East Asia. It’s obviously a modern spectacle so lacks the nostalgia associated with the past. A lot of what we saw from the window actually felt like the past being slowly erased. That aside, it was an unforgettable experience. We met some great people and saw some of the worlds most outstanding scenery.

In the end, the railway is an amazing example of modern Chinese engineering. However, I can’t help but think that it comes at a cost, not only to the cultural and religious independence of Tibet but also to the sanctity of the fragile environment that is the Tibetan Plateau. Like the thousands of light-headed passengers, perhaps skyrocketing to these altitudes for the sake of modern development and political investment, may in the end prove to be a headache the government just can’t get rid of.

Useful Information

We booked the tickets through China DIY. The website is run by an expat couple who live in China and make the process of booking transport so easy. In fact we used them for all our travel in China and thoroughly recommend them to anyone.

Useful tips for the train journey

1) Drink plenty of water before and during the train journey to help with any symptoms of altitude sickness

2) Read up about altitude sickness and consult your doctor if you’re not sure of anything. At the start of the journey you will be given a form to fill which basically clears the staff of any responsibility if you are seriously sick. I thought this website gave a good explanation about altitude.

You will be given a form at the start of the journey, basically stating that
A Passenger health Declaration Form

3) Bring plenty of toilet roll and wet wipes. The toilets start off clean but quickly turn into a living nightmare

4) Bring lots of snacks for when you get hungry. There is a restaurant carriage on the train but for some reason there wasn’t much food available, other than noodles.

5) Last but not least – enjoy the view!

Have you been on the Qinghai – Tibet Railway? We’d love to hear what you thought of it!

10 Ways to Turn Your Holiday into a Travel Adventure

Unless you’ve already discovered the freedom and truth behind long-term travel, escaping the 9-5 for most of us is restricted by time and money. The travel industry leads you to believe that holidays are just about glossy travel brochures, all-inclusive resorts and over-priced tours. You’re clinically chauffeured around the world without even getting your feet dirty. Your contact with locals is a controlled environment and you leave with a one-dimensional view of where you’ve just left. The travel industry pushes the notion that you’ve worked hard for your money so they try to solve the problem by offering package tours as value-for-money options for time-poor people. It’s just not true. You can travel how you want, where you want and it’s usually cheaper than what you’re lead to believe.

So what do people do with their holidays? According to various surveys that monitor consumer behaviour, it seems the British are creatures of habit. Apparently millions of us go back to the same place, the same resort and even the same pub year after year. Some people even sit in the same spot! Talk about a groundhog holiday! But the travel industry pushes this as an easy, stress-free option, so that’s what we do. We go for the easy option.

It’s time to get out and do something different! It’s time to start thinking independently. Without the tour operator.

I’m not saying you should avoid all tours, in some countries such as China, you have to join a tour just to enter and travel around Tibet. There are many independent tour companies that offer amazing activities and we’ve used many. They serve a purpose and after all this is your holiday. Your time. Try and see if you can do things by yourself, get around by yourself and possibly save a whole heap of money in the process. Don’t waste the time that you’ve worked so hard for, to just go back to the same place and do the same things time and again just because someone is telling you that’s all there is. You’re missing out on so many new experiences that could change and inspire your whole outlook on life.

A few years ago Asad and I took a two-week trip to Vietnam. This time we booked every part of this trip independently. No tour operators, no brochures, just a desire to do something different from the usual hotel and beach combination. What we experienced in those two weeks changed us forever. It was a turning point in the way we would travel going forward and a realisation that there are so many options to travel.

So how can you make a holiday more adventurous, exciting and inspiring? Well, here are 10 ways to turn your holiday into a travel adventure!

1) Go Somewhere You’ve Never Been Before

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Hiking through the Yunnan Province, China

Budget, time, exchange rate, the weather and the type of trip you want, will all affect what destination you choose to visit.  It may sound obvious but the first step in making your holiday more adventurous is going somewhere you’ve never been before. Don’t keep visiting the same place just because it’s easy to get to and easy to be in. Go somewhere that offers a diversity of culture, food and people. Be open to new experiences. We never would have thought we’d end up in China, but it one of our highlights and an amazing country with warm, friendly people. We learned so much by visiting China.

The world is an amazing place, see as much of it as you can!

2) Avoid Tours – Go Explore Yourself

The Sulamani Temple
Exploring the famous temples in Bagan, Myanmar – without a tour group!

Some tours are better than others, but generally a lot of them involve being herded around like sheep. The whole experience can feel rushed and depending on the guide, you can either come back none the wiser or be overwhelmed with too much information. Imagine having a lifelong dream of visiting Angkor Wat. Would you really want the experience to be anything less than amazing? Why risk it? This is your time. Get on the internet, find out how to get to where you need to and explore by yourself. You’ll have all the time in the world to take in the sights at your leisure.

You’ll save money and the whole experience will be on your terms

3) Take Public Transport 

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Getting on the iconic Yangon – Mandalay train

Many of the fond memories we have about travelling around South East Asia is the sheer amount of options available to get to your destination. Trains, planes, taxi’s, tuk-tuks, songthaews, scooters, bicycles and yes, horses, donkeys and elephants! When possible, instead of flying to your destination, why not take a train. Though quick and convenient, you miss out so much when flying. On a train, you’ll see some amazing sights on the way, take in the scenery and get a glimpse of life as you cross urban cities and rural landscapes. You get a feel of the country and gain valuable insight and a real understanding of what that country is about – plus you’ll get a chance to mingle with people from all walks of life. Why not see how the locals travel and either get on a bus, bike or catch a lift in a songthaew.

The journey is part of the experience

4) Get Out of the Hotel

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Amazing street food in Jalan Alor – Kuala Lumpur

It’s easy to stay in the comfort of a resort. Everything is within reach. But isn’t it fair to give to the local economy of a country and not just put money in the pockets of the big chain hotels? Why not explore local restaurants, soak up the atmosphere and try the amazing street food. It’s usually the best and far cheaper than the hotel. For those of you who can (and want to), break away from the “all-inclusive” mentality. It’s just a monetary prison that keeps you in a hotel bubble restricting your movements and mindset. As you’re constantly thinking about meals and drinks, inevitably you don’t spend enough time outside of the hotel.

Get out and discover a whole new world out there!

5) Explore on Foot

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To actually experience a place, there’s no better way than to hit the streets and walk! Why be confined to a cab when you can see, feel and experience everything on the street. We’ve walked for miles through the chaotic streets of Asian cities, trekked up mountains, through forests and hiked remote villages. We’ve got lost only to discover serendipity, shared stories with random people we’ve met along the way and had hilarious conversations that we’ll never forget. We’ve been shocked, saddened, inspired and touched by things we’ve seen whilst walking through some of the most amazing places in the world.

You’ve taken the time to visit a different country – be part of it. Become part of its story

6)Get on a Motorbike. 

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Chiang Mai – Chiang Rai

There’s nothing better than getting on a motorbike and exploring.  With the wind in your hair and the sun on your face, there’s something about the freedom of getting around on a bike that’s unparalleled. There’s a sense of unrestrained freedom involved and you can go wherever you want, when you want and how you want. You become totally immersed in the scene irrespective of whether you’re in the mountains or the city. We’ve hired bikes in many places except countries such as Nepal, where even getting on a bike would be a death-wish! It’s also enabled us to take some great photos of places we wouldn’t normally be able to reach by car.

There’s some moments you’ll never be able to create ever again – take a camera!

7) Challenge Yourself – Do Something You’ve Never Done Before!

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Throng La Pass – Himalayas, Nepal

I mentioned earlier that a trip to Vietnam changed us. Back then we classed it as a holiday, but looking back it was actually a travel adventure. We literally travelled from the North of Vietnam to the South and managed to shoe horn three days in Cambodia! In those two weeks we saw Hanoi, Halong Bay, took a three-day motorbike tour starting in Hue, (never done that before) through the mountains of Vietnam, across the Ho Chi Minh Trail ending up in Hoi An. We visited the beautiful beaches of Muine, hired a motorbike and explored the Cham temples, spent a few days exploring Ho Chi Minh (Saigon), took a flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia spending three days exploring Angkor Wat (independently) and then flew back to Hanoi. All that in two weeks! Was it tiring? Yes it was. But was it totally amazing? Hell – Yes! Did we save money by arranging it all by ourselves – yes of course!

I’m not saying you should run around like a crazy person trying to see as much as you can in a couple of weeks. It’s about filling your time with different experiences, seeing and doing amazing things that inspire you and take you outside of your comfort zone!

8)Make Each Trip Count – Get That Bucket List in There!

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Everest base Camp – Tibet

Everyone has a bucket list – a list of things to do, see and visit before the end is nigh! Everyone’s bucket list is different.  It may include bungee jumping, sky-diving, seeing orangutans in Borneo, watching the Northern Lights or just camping under the stars with a few friends. Whatever you’ve always wanted to do, make sure you do it. When I look at my bucket list and the number of things I’ve ticked off, I wish I’d done them earlier and made the most of my two-week holidays.

The more you travel, the more you realise bucket lists get longer!

9) Mix Up Your Accommodation

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Happy Days, our very own house – Golden Bay, New Zealand

Unless you’re looking for luxury and want privacy, don’t stay in a hotel.  There’s something about hotels – I’m not sure what it is, but we never made friends in a hotel. There’s a certain awkwardness that transcends cultures and stops people talking to one another without feeling weird! Try hostels, you’ll be surprised at how many great hostels there are out there that offer clean, spacious private rooms with their own bathrooms. Hostels have gone beyond dorms now. With great communal eating and  lounge areas, the atmosphere is more conducive to striking up a conversation easily and getting to know people.  It’s a great way of sharing experiences, getting some great advice about the destination you’re in and exchanging stories.  A lot of hostels also arrange nights out, activities and events where everyone can get to know each other in an easy setting.

Couch Surfing is also a great way to not only save money but really discover how locals live. You stay in someone’s home and hangout with them gaining local knowledge and experiencing a country through the eyes of a local. If Couch Surfing is not for you and you prefer to do your own thing, try airbnb. We had a great one bedroom villa in Bali in the middle of a rice paddy field. It was ridiculously cheap and had everything we needed. Whilst travelling, we’ve stayed in many places, from hotels, camp sites and wood cabins to villa’s, hostels, hutongs and guesthouses.  Not only did it all add to the experience but we got to know a great bunch of people this way.

10) Make Use of the Internet

The internet is a great source of information. Use it well! There are millions of people travelling the world at any given time doing amazing things, sharing information and exchanging ideas about how to get around the world the quickest, cheapest and safest way. From online guides and travel forums to travel blogs, it’s mind-boggling  what you can learn just by searching the internet.

So as Spring is just around the corner and thoughts of warm Summer days on beautiful beaches once again comes to mind, think about how you can make this summer holiday, more inspiring. You never know, it may be the start of something unexpected.

Useful Information

This is a list of just some of the resources we used to book flights, hotels and trips.

Flights 

Skyscanner – skyscanner.com

Expedia – expedia.com

Accommodation 

Agoda – agoda.com

Hostelbookers – hostelbookers.com

Hostelworld – hostel world.com

Tripadvisor – tripadvisor.com

Airbnb – airbnb.com

Couchsurfing – couchsurfing.org