Kalaw to Inle Lake – What to Expect When You’re Trekking

Kalaw, the starting point for Myanmar’s finest treks, was one of our favourite places in the country. We stopped by the alpine town for a couple of days to refresh our souls in the crisp highland air. Tucked away in the mountains that join the vast Himalayan range, it’s a surprisingly lively place. There’re plenty of restaurants to replenish your energy before heading out for a few days on the hoof, some of them cheap – try one of the Shan tea houses – some of them pricey – check out the Everest Nepali Food Centre for curries bursting with flavour, but only if your wallet’s full of Kyat and you can bear the company of rich Westerners on luxury tours. There was more than enough to keep us entertained for a few days, between the large market, speakeasy style bars and the wonderful Sprouting Seeds cafe, which not only has a cracking selection of board games and serves the best guacamole in Myanmar, also helps young children learn catering and hospitality skills.

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Our main reason for heading to Kalaw was to take a trek to Inle Lake, about 70km West of the town. Having checked a few travel guides, we wandered around to price up the different treks offered by the many tour companies in town. At our first stop, the Golden Lily Guest House, we were welcomed in by Robin, a 70 year old Sikh with a gentle smile. He talked us through his 3 day trek, walking about 20-25km each day, with two overnight stays in mountain villages along the way. All together, including 3 meals a day (but not water) and a boat trip at the end, the trek cost about £65 for both of us, with an extra $10 fee each for our entry to the Inle Lake region, payed at the border. With prices this good and a seemingly unsurpassable knowledge of the area – Robin’s been doing this trek since the 90’s and has walked the equivalent distance of circumnavigating the world 3 times – we signed up without bothering to schlep around town and haggle with anyone else.

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The first thing you should know if you’re considering trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake is that this part of Myanmar (sort of North East-ish) is astoundingly cold in the cool season (November – February). This took us by surprise when we stepped off of our night bus from the burning hot, sweat patch South at 8:00am, wearing only flip flops, shorts and T-shirts in the 3 degree chill. If you do head out to these silent mountains, take some warm clothes and be prepared to shiver, especially at night. It’s not always cold, though. By about 11am when the searing sun takes its place in the tropical sky, the temperature rises to 30 degrees and higher, a change in temperature totally bewildering to the body. During the hot season (March – May), Robin told us that it gets unbearably hot and the air thick with insects. This doesn’t put him off though – he does the treks all year round, unless the monsoon season (June – October) makes the paths impassable. Crazy.

With cheap coats, gloves and hats purchased at the market, we set out on our trek. Our backpacks would be sent on to Inle Lake by truck, leaving us with our daypacks full of changes of clothes, sugary snacks for energy and our passports. Take as little with you as you possibly can. One hiker we met along the way had packed his laptop for fear of it being nabbed on route, by day 2 he was regretting carrying the extra weight.

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We walked straight out of town with our gang of hikers, just us, a honeymooning couple from Chile and three chatty Australian bro’s prepping for a trek to Everest basecamp. Strolling down country lanes, past avocado trees, old colonial houses and soon-to-be hotels, we were struck by a false optimism that the trek wouldn’t be too hard. Robin seemed pretty relaxed, certainly a lot more aged than all of us, and there was a distinct lack of hurry about the whole thing.

The first day took us through an area of conservation forest, out to stunning mountain passes, ridged with tea plantations and citrus orchards. Cunning Burmese farmers have perfected companion planting, and these cash crops are often grown side by side, benefiting each other with their pest resistance. This helps to keep their agriculture about 90% organic. Not bad for a country under intense pressure from neighbours like China to buy in to the agrochemical market.

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Thanks to the British, ahem, influence of Burmese agriculture, we gazed at patches of celery, strawberries, broccoli and cauliflower, as well as the expected rice paddies that keep the farmers fed. The hike was hilly in places, but Robin would pause while we caught our breath to show us a root of ginger, or a sprig of herb that can cure diarrhoea. We had a luxury lunch of curry and chapati in a remote village, all washed down with cupfuls of organic tea, grown and dried in the very same village. The afternoon was spent mostly walking along the train line that runs from Thazi to Inle Lake, with no fear of being run down by the trains with a top speed of 15kph. As an aside, the slow train from Inle Lake to Thazi is a spectacular journey and the best 11 hour train ride we’ve ever taken.

By the time we reached our first homestay, we were tired but not exhausted, aching but not in agony, and things were going well. We sat down to a Burmese banquet, joined by a few other people trekking the same route. We feasted on delicately stewed vegetables, lightly spiced meat  and plates of rice. We slept under the light of the moon that leaked through the farmhouse window, wrapped in several blankets to keep the cold at bay.

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The morning was misty and we drank our instant coffee overlooking the distant mountain ranges, hoping we wouldn’t be climbing them later. After a hearty breakfast of fresh fruit, omelettes and weary conversation, Robin explained our route and it seemed we would be scaling the mountains after all. A collective groan greeted this proposal and it became clear that we were all a little more fatigued than expected.

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Day 2 was full of yet more gorgeous valleys, friendly villagers greeting us and, in one case, a group of lads showing off a squirrel they’d knocked out with a well aimed sling shot. The hills were much harder, our legs becoming rods of pain. We had blisters on our heels, on our soles, on our toes, between our toes, pretty much everywhere. By midday we were far too hot, and every step was a whole new world of pain.

A break for a roadside bowl of creamy Shan noodles, accompanied by samosas and tea, did little to soothe our woes. We still had a long way to go, and it felt like our bodies were giving up on us. Strangely, everyone else in our group still seemed rather alive, laughing and joking whilst managing to keep up with Robin, who had inexplicably doubled the speed of the previous day’s pace, still without breaking a sweat.

By 4pm, things were looking bleak. We had forgotten why we thought it would be a good idea to go on a 3 day trek when we could have just taken a bus and looked out of the window. The Australian lad banter was wearing thin. Robin’s promises of ‘just one more hill’ were repeatedly broken, just like our resolve. If we had access to WiFi we would have hailed an Uber. But we didn’t. In fact, the village we stayed at that night had no electricity (except for a couple of DC solar panels) and no running water. This made showering by bucket a risky business, not only because of the icy chill of the water in the blistering heat, but because when the bucket became empty, it meant a 2km walk to the nearest well.

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That night, around 20 other travellers stopped by the village to rest their weary bones. There were folks from all over the world, a curious crowd of backpackers searching for the real Myanmar. In these highland valleys, with warm hearted locals, steaming tea and unbreakable language barriers, the general consensus was that we’d found it.

Myanmar is still a reasonably tricky country to travel around, with areas in the North closed off because this is where they grow lots of naughty crops, or as in the case of the Rakhine State to the West, because the UN believe there’s an ongoing genocide taking place (which is probably true). It’s illegal to host tourists without a hard to obtain licence, so you can’t just turn up at a village and hope to find a cheap hostel. Your movements are constantly tracked by the tourist police, making the whole notion of backpacking like a free spirit near impossible.

Even so, the villagers in the Shan mountains that are allowed to open their doors to foreigners do so with great pride, and passing through these villages gives you a true picture of life for many Burmese people. We saw children harvesting chillis with their mothers, hands burning from too much capsaicin. We stood around fires made from the discarded cores of corn on the cob to keep warm. We literally watched the cows come home at sunset, hundreds of bovine beasts tramping back from a hard day’s work in the fields, followed by hardy shepherds. Spending just a few days amongst these people, who live from the land and beam from ear to ear with the joy of self sufficiency, away from the coach parties who’ve paid far too much for a 2 week excursion, it was easy to forget that the luxury tourist industry was taking over the rest of accessible Myanmar.

Arriving at the national park checkpoint was a stark reminder that Myanmar is changing at a rapid pace. Having seen only 20 other tourists for 3 days, all of them backpackers, we naively expected to find an unspoiled lake with few foreign visitors. But things were different as soon as we reached the national park border. Suddenly we were joined on the road by several other trekking groups, our paths converging at this main point of entry. It became apparent that Robin’s promise that he had his own route, far from the tourist trail, was quite true. Now it was time for us to take that trail again.

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For the last 10 kilometres or so, Robin had us taking the slopes down towards the lake at the speed of an intermediate inner city jogger. We leapt across dusty crags of burnt orange rocks, raced down rural roads at the risk of being run down by loggers and eventually made it to Indein village, famous for its ruined pagodas. We sat down to lunch at a lakeside restaurant, overjoyed to have reached our destination. We began to feel distinctly out of place, covered in dust, dripping with sweat and crying with relief that our huge hike was finally over. We were surrounded by wealthy Europeans in crisply ironed shirts, and bored Russians with nervous private guides, most of them on day trips from their nearby hotels.

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We took a boat from this Southern village to Nyaungshwe at the North of the lake, where cheap but decent accommodation can be found. Passing boat loads of folks on luxury tours, snapping away at the sights of this fast changing country, it was clear that the best of Myanmar was behind us, shrouded in the blue mist of morning, with Robin one of the last true keepers of its keys.  

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How Koh Lanta Changed Our Lives

We left in the back of a truck, distraught that this moment had finally arrived. With tears threatening to run down our cheeks, we waved goodbye to our family in the jungle. Anke, lean, strong, light as a feather, called after us with her broad Dutch smile that promised we would return. Her husband Aoi held up his hand in a gesture of peace, sending us much needed Zen blessings for the road. Their daughter Asa, just over one and a half years old, called out our names as she always did when we departed, unaware of the finality of the situation. And Bob, curious adventurer, natural builder and broker from The Netherlands, bid us farewell with his customary wink before heading back up to the community kitchen for breakfast. Life would go on as usual at ASA Lanta, but our bamboo hut would stand empty until the next visitors arrived, filled only with our memories and a bamboo table that we’d made ourselves.

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We stayed with our friends Anke and Aoi for 5 weeks, from mid-November until late December, yet the experience was so profound, so life changing for us, that it is only now that we feel able to write about it. We did not expect that living in the rainforest on Koh Lanta, an island off the West coast of Thailand, surrounded by nature and truly amazing people, would change the course of our lives. But that’s why we gave it all up in the first place, for the unexpected moments and the unforeseen conclusions.

We arrived there with the aim of starting off an English language club for local children. However, when we arrived it became apparent that Anke and Aoi were not in a position to launch this project, but they hoped that we’d stay anyway. When we made it clear that we’re happy to do anything to fill our days and broaden our knowledge, their faces flooded with relief and we knew that this was going to be the start of something special.

We helped out wherever we were needed 5 days a week, taking Tuesdays and Wednesdays as the weekend with everyone else in the small jungle community. We were never short of things to do, from entertaining Asa whilst Anke ran the Organic Tea House and Aoi kept up with the maintenance of the education park, helping write copy for the new website and keeping the ever growing jungle at bay. In every task we did we were able to improve skills we already had, or learn something completely new, all the while having a good laugh and the occasional mojito to keep us cool.

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We shared our jungle home with a group of natural builders who were staying for three months, learning how to build a house using only the resources that the Earth provides. Led by American architect Amanda, whose passion for natural building was infectious and inspiring, we would join Bob, Rob (Irish wise man), James (North Carolina’s finest permaculture enthusiast) and Jenny (taking a well timed winter break from her London co-housing community) for Muddy Mondays. We’d get stuck in with whatever building they were doing, making mud bricks, building walls using cob and clay instead of cement, all the while having plenty of fun. Mixing clay, sand and sawdust with our bare feet, the fresh mud squishing satisfyingly between our city-soft toes, we realised that we are happiest when we’re stuck in the mud, down in the dirt.

Coming from our western lifestyles, with comfortable office jobs and all the spoils of civilization, we thought we had a pretty good idea about what we needed to feel satisfied. Spending time in the jungle showed us different. Most days we’d end up plastered in monsoon mud, worn out by the tropical heat and covered in insect bites. All we had to soothe our aching bodies was a cold, open air shower amongst the spiders, snakes and friendly frogs. We drank water from the freshwater lake on the hill, ate food foraged from the jungle and shopped at the local market. We had intermittent electricity and infrequent internet access. During the day, we sat cross legged on cushions, amongst the trees, on the bamboo veranda of the adobe community house, speaking from our hearts about the world around us. At night, we slept on the floor of our bamboo hut, perfectly at peace in the simple wooden shack. It’s corny to say it, but living closer to nature, with a stronger connection to the land, outweighed the pleasures of modernity that we’d come to take for granted.

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Anke and Aoi’s aim with ASA Lanta is to move ever more towards sustainable living, becoming more self sufficient in cooperation with the jungle. Of course, there are aways more ways to develop this, but living in buildings built from the resources that surround them, composting food (and human) waste, seed saving and cultivating numerous species of bamboo for both building and fuel, this is a much more sustainable way to live than we could ever have imagined.

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Yet, without wishing to be rude, there is nothing special about Anke and Aoi. They are ‘normal’ people, no different from you or I. It is just that they have dared to step off of the path that most of us follow, valuing long term fulfilment over short term pleasure. By making sacrifices to comfort, putting in hard work, inspiring others to help them along the way, they find themselves living in a beautiful safehaven, a community that will continue to grow organically just like the lush jungle that surrounds it. Spending time here, amongst people who are brave enough to live their dreams, made us realise that we could do this too, although we still have much to learn.

Over communal lunches of banana flower salads, spicy som tam and steaming whole grain rice, we learned of new places, like Pun Pun and Panya in Chiang Mai, where permaculture and natural building are taught to volunteers willing to make the trip. Distanced from global politics, social unrest and the incomprehensible challenges facing humanity, we learned to appreciate what was immediately around us. Suddenly everything felt possible. The world didn’t feel like such a mess after all.

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As we left ASA Lanta in the back of a truck, we knew we’d be back soon. But even on that short ride to the ferry port, we spoke quietly of plans for the future, of new ways of living. Now we find ourselves unexpectedly back on English soil, in the cold drizzle of Brexit Britain, we see the land in a new light. Thanks to the inspirational experience of ASA Lanta, we are planning a trip around these fair isles, from the South all the way up to Scotland, visiting organic farms, permaculture projects and natural building communities, getting stuck in wherever we can.

We might be far from the tropical sunshine, but our travels are far from over.


Photographing the Sunrise and Sunset in Bagan

It’s hard to believe that, many centuries ago, there were over 10,000 temples and pagodas in Bagan. Although only about a quarter of these are still standing, Bagan offers an unimaginably beautiful skyline and is quite unlike anywhere else on Earth. The best times of day to photograph this spectacular scene are sunrise and sunset, when the hot air balloons glide soundlessly over the silhouetted pinnacles. Simply stand atop an ancient pagoda, and you’ll have a breathtaking view of the vast, flat plains of Old Bagan and the thousands of temples between you and the horizon.

Easier said than done.

Recent regulations have stipulated that only 5 pagodas can now be climbed, due to tourists committing ‘culturally disgraceful’ acts. These 5 are: North and South Guni, Thitsarwady, Shwesandaw and Pyathetgyi. Whilst these 5 may be the best locations to see the sunrise and sunset due to their height, it is not entirely true that they are the only 5 you can climb. Firstly, North Guni was badly damaged in the 2016 earthquake and is now closed, so that takes you down to 4 locations. Secondly, Thitsarwady is not on Google Maps or the tourist map, and no one we asked had heard of it, so that’s not really an option either. Shwesandaw is the only pagoda easily accessible by road and is therefore bursting with over 1000 (we’re not exaggerating) aging Western tourists, shuffling off of their luxury air conditioned coaches and complaining about having to climb the steep steps. Unless you know how to deal with a broken hip in a country with one of the worst healthcare systems in the world, it’s probably best to avoid Shwesandaw.

Fortunately, there are lots of other temples you can still climb. Although you might not get much more than 20ft high, it’s great fun spending your day zooming around on your bike, finding secret passageways and staircases in forgotten temples. Basically, you are Lara Croft.

The lack of height of these temples is compensated by the fact that there are far fewer tourists there, and the other tourists that do make it to these places are often like-minded, happy to sit quietly and enjoy the peace.

Here are our top locations for viewing the sunrise and sunset in Bagan:

Sunrise

Bulethi

Bulethi is located in the east of Bagan, and we were therefore not expecting there to be many temples between Bulethi and the sunrise. We were wrong. There are temples everywhere in Bagan and Bulethi is in an excellent position to watch the hot air balloons silhouetted against the rising sun. The newly built viewing tower is a bit of an eyesore, but is understandably necessary given the huge numbers of visitors to this heritage site.

There is another temple just a few feet to the West of Bulethi which is technically closed, but we did see a few people climbing it for sunrise. It would probably offer a great view for the sunset (rather than the sunrise, which would be blocked by Bulethi) but we would not encourage anyone to climb temples that are not officially open. There is a polite red sign at the gate that ‘strongly requests’ no one enters, and we suggest you respect this.

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Law Ka Oushang

Slightly further along the path from Shwesandaw, you will find a quiet and well positioned temple to watch the sunrise. This offers the added smug bonus of driving past Shwesandaw and the hundreds of tourists already poised with their tripods and zoom lenses at 5am.

Law Ka Oushang is located in the West and therefore has an excellent view across the plains to the East. You can’t climb particularly high, and there are some trees around that may partially block your view, but it is still our favourite place to watch the sun rise in Bagan!

Watch out for the people demanding a ‘money present’ at the bottom of the stairs. You can give a donation if you wish, but bear in mind that it is not an entry fee and is unlikely to go towards maintenance of the temple.

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Sunset

Pyathetgyi Pagoda

The multi-level flat rooftops of Pyathetgyi offer plenty of space and height for great views of the sunset. Find the hidden staircase in the tower at the back left of the building and climb all the way to the top. It’s a bit off of the beaten track, but still attracts some large groups (watch out for coaches trying to squeeze past cows on the dirt roads!). Make sure you get there early and don’t set up a time lapse on your GoPro in a place that people are able to stand in front of.

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Taung (South) Guni

Easier the get to and much quieter than Pyathetgyi, South Guni is a great place to watch the sunset. There aren’t many temples directly West of Guni, so the sunset skyline isn’t quite as spectacular as it is from some other locations, but you get a great panoramic view of the whole of Bagan. Another plus is that there were only about 20 other people there.

Some people have complained about the kids selling postcards at the temple. Once we made it clear that we weren’t going to buy anything, they were quite happy to show off all of the foreign currency they had collected from tourists over the years. We gave them some post-it notes and they had great fun writing on them and sticking them on each other!

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Top Tips

Get there early and stay late

We saw people turning up 5 minutes before the sunrise and complaining that they couldn’t get a good spot. Seriously. You need to get there about an hour before sunrise and about 2 hours before sunset to claim your space, even at the quieter places. Similarly, some people would leave the second the sun dipped below the horizon. Be patient – sometimes the sky looks best after the sun has set.

Be respectful

Remind yourself that these are sacred religious sites, so take off your shoes and socks, dress appropriately, don’t make too much noise and don’t drink alcohol. You’d think this goes without saying, but apparently not.

These temples and pagodas were all built between 11-13 century, and as such are a little rickety. Be aware that there are loose bricks and the stone is crumbling. Don’t cause damage and don’t hurt yourself!

Wrap up warm

The temperature during the day in Bagan might reach the mid 30’s, but early in the morning it can get surprisingly cold. Make sure you have plenty of layers. We’ve even resorted to wearing socks with our flip flops – not a great look.

Make sure your e-bike is fully charged

The battery can run out quickly, particularly if you are sharing a bike and driving on the dirt roads. Most places will offer to recharge the bike for you while you’re having lunch, but make sure they understand that you aren’t just returning the bike early. We picked up a bike after a lunch time ‘charge’ to find the battery lower than when we dropped it off, and subsequently ran out of power on the way back. Towing an e-bike by holding on to it from the back of a motorbike at 50kmph is not the safest way to get back to your hotel. Trust us.

Have plenty of cash

The first thing you will notice when you arrive in Bagan is the demand to pay 25,000MYK for an archaeological zone pass. If you don’t have the right cash in Kyat, you’ll have to pay $20, which is a very poor exchange rate. If you don’t have any cash on you, you’ll be sent back to wherever you came from!

Use a tripod

One of our biggest regrets is not taking a tripod travelling. Some of the best shots can be taken in low light, and slow shutter speeds are necessary to avoid excessive noise. This will result in camera shake unless you have a tripod. It might add weight and take up space in your backpack, but we promise it will be worth it!

Don’t be shy of Photoshop

We battle with the ethics of using Photoshop on travel photos. For Bagan, we reason that the photographs taken here are for the sole purpose of looking beautiful, so it’s not totally unethical to take the sunrise sky from Law Ka Oushang and lend it to the view from Pyathetgyi Pagoda. Especially when it looks this good…

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The Journey to Kyaiktiyo – Why Drive Up the Mountain When You Can Walk?

The weary traveller is often presented with a choice on the road – whether to take the easy route, which may not be as rewarding, or take the tougher option which will most likely be more exciting, more interesting, more real. Mount Kyaiktiyo, situated in the South East of Myanmar, is a perfect example of this dilemma.

One of Myanmar’s most sacred Buddhist sights, travellers, tourists and pilgrims visit the mountain to bear witness to the giant golden rock that has balanced, seemingly impossibly, on the very edge of another rock for centuries. The secret to its astounding clinginess, in spite of numerous earthquakes that have rumbled this mountainous region, is that it is glued to the rock with a few strands of Buddha’s hair. Whether or not you believe in this holy adhesive, the gold leaf covered boulder steadfastly defying the laws of physics is a sight to behold.

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So, should you pay a few thousand kyats and take a crammed pick up straight to the summit from Kinpun (the welcoming base camp where wise visitors stay the night before ascending), or join the holy wanderers and hike the steep and dusty pilgrim’s path?

We decided to join the pilgrims on their path, and our 5 hour climb up the mountain was one of the highlights of our zippy trip around Myanmar. We set off just before 8am, an unexpected chill still lingering in the highland air, stocked up with 100 Plus (a miraculous Malaysian isotonic drink), dried mango and big sticks of sugared coconut for energy. Walking along the main road of Kinpun, which becomes the path up the mountain, we did our best to avoid the hustle and bustle of the market stalls, the coach parties and baffled tour groups. But no sooner than we’d walked 100 paces out of town, the atmosphere changed completely and we were greeted with the stillness of the morning, the only sounds a whistling kettle, a hungry cat, a cheering cockerel.

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As the mountain path began, we felt confident that we could reach the summit without too much hardship. The weather was cool, the path mostly shaded by tropical foliage and bamboo shacks, whose entrepreneurial owners also offer drinks and snacks, and it wasn’t too steep. For the first couple of hours, we had a hoot meeting the locals, mostly descending the mountain, posing for group selfies and pretending that we knew about the premier league. We lost count of how many selfies we were asked to pose for, but it’s safe to say that many Facebook feeds of Myanmar featured our sweaty mugs that day.

Everyone, without exception, that we met along the path was welcoming and friendly. Tea shop owners would insist that we take tea with them, free of charge, just to have a chat with us. Joking families on pilgrimage would tell us we’d taken the wrong path, that the pick ups were back down the mountain, so rare is it to see a foreigner on the trail.

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By midday, our legs were growing achy and the heat was picking up. Whilst most of the trail had been shaded so far, the shacks began to be further and further apart. We found ourselves climbing steep, thigh-busting steps in the full glare of the sun, crunching up dusty trails in the searing heat. By this point, we’d grown weary of the selfies, our smiles more strained with each new request. We couldn’t take any more tea due to the lack of toilet facilities. Nick had run out of betel nut to chew. Things were getting tough.

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The 7 and a half mile path felt interminable. It grew increasingly steeper, winding around the mountain so that often we were walking away from our destination. But we kept on, and eventually reached the sacred summit.

What a shock it was for us, having seen no other tourists on the path, to be met by a crowd of thousands of people, some local, some just wealthy foreigners on a coach trip from Yangon for the day, swarming around the holy site. There were restaurants, hotels, tourist tat stands, some of them even within the ‘sacred’ area where you have to take off your shoes to enter. There was a feeling of a crowded beach to the place, with families camped out in makeshift tents to avoid the midday sun and confused tourists trying to work out what they should be photographing.

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We were even more shocked when, dripping with sweat, caked in dust and filled with relief at having finally made it to the top, we were stopped in our tracks by an official and asked to pay a foreigner entry fee of 6000 Kyats each. “But…” we tried to argue, “we’ve just hiked all the way up the mountain. It took us all day. These people have just come up in a pick up!” Indifferent to our argument, or perhaps not fluent in any English other than,  “Foreigner must pay entry fee. 6000 Kyats,” we had no real choice other than to cough up the cash.

It must be said that this supposedly spiritual space left us feeling baffled, even a little bit disappointed. Yet, stumbling across rowdy monks taking a cooling dip in a damned stream, insisting that a 60 year old man’s English is pretty good considering he lives halfway up a mountain, stopping to take in the view of the mountain ranges stretching out to the horizon in a low hanging mist, these are the rewards of the hard path. If you visit Kyaiktiyo, do take the pilgrim’s path, don’t take a pick up. We assure you that in this case, the journey is the destination.

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Note: Whilst we strongly recommend not taking a pick up to the summit, we don’t advise hiking down in the dying light of the day. Instead, take a pick up back to Kinpun with the locals just before sunset and brace yourself for a terrifyingly thrilling 30 minute ride down the twisting mountain road at an absolutely ridiculous speed, partly in the reassuring orangey glow of sunset, partly in the dark. Once the adrenaline wears off, you can get a reasonably priced meal at the top notch Sea Sar Restaurant and then head to bed for a well earned rest.


Koh Phi Phi – Don’t Go There

Ugh. Where to begin with Koh Phi Phi? Maybe 20 years ago: a curious man from Finland arrives on Phi Phi Don with his friend, finding just one restaurant that doubles up as a bar. He stays in a tree house, high up in a huge tree, with ants making trails across his room and only a candle for light after sunset. During the day, he swims naked on the beach because there is absolutely no one around to be offended by the sight of his bare flesh.

Our new year’s eve arrival at this National Park site was somewhat different. We hopped off a long-tail from one of the most calm, peaceful and beautiful Thai islands (which will not be named in relation to Phi Phi for safety reasons) and joined a crowd of a thousand tourists, all desperate to consume, to flog this dead community some more, to take selfies with their buckets of SangSom and their new ill judged tattoos.

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Once you become part of this sweaty, braying mob, there is little you can do to escape it. The restaurants, bars and shops are so crammed in that finding a quiet spot is a futile quest. Even hiding out in our shabby, bed bug infested bungalow offered no relief because we could still hear the tourist torrent rushing past.

One option is to head to the beach, but this is not so easy on this tiny island. Ton Sai beach is lined with longtails and serves mostly as a ferry port, so swimming from its golden sands is pretty perilous. On the other side of the thin strip of human habitation, there’s Lo Dallam beach. Aside from the name sounding like one of those floodlit sports shops from the 90’s, this beach serves as the main party scene and is therefore awful. During the day you’ll find some peace here, but the sand is full of glass from the night before, making swimming and a stroll on the sand too dangerous. By early evening, the various bars pumping out house music, and only house music because apparently there are no other genres of music suitable for parties, make this an awful place to watch the light fade over the beautiful limestone cliffs that frame the island. By night, the party goers eschew the pay-to-pee toilets and use the sea instead, so think twice before taking a midnight amble along the shore.

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We took a lengthy walk over to long beach and found this to be a reasonably nice spot to spend the afternoon. It’s still over crowded but this is a different crowd. Think well groomed Scandinavian families on holiday instead of lads in vests from Manchester on the pull, and you get the idea. Even so, there are far too many long-tails lining the shore and not enough shady spots. By Thai standards, it is not a great beach.

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We recommend hiking up to the various viewpoints from Long Beach, rather than from Ton Sai. You’ll avoid walking up hundreds of steps, teeming with hungover tourists, taking a free gentle hike up to the island’s ridge instead. On this mostly solitary amble, you’ll pass surprisingly friendly locals living in Tsunami Village, hastily erected after the 2004 disaster that struck the island, and become immersed in the lush rainforest that covers the highland. The actual viewpoints themselves are disappointing, offering views of an island that has been utterly destroyed by tourism, from spots that are themselves packed with lager swilling, selfie snapping tourists, but the hike was a high point for us.

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From the viewpoints, it’s obvious that Phi Phi has grown far too fast for its own good. Although much of the island’s infrastructure was destroyed by the tsunami, the money that flooded in its wake has evidently been used to build massive new hotels and resorts, alongside row upon row of bars, restaurants and tourist tat shops, instead of proper sewage facilities and safely habitable spaces. Whilst the central garden, irrigated purely by sewage runoff, is a step in the direction of sustainability, it stinks and we saw no one, apart from ourselves, wandering through it. More must be done to solve the sanitation crisis that everyone is just turning their noses from.

The result of all of this is an artificial town that smells worse than anywhere we’ve visited, and a constant risk of death by fire or cholera. If one of the shops were to catch fire, this would quickly spread throughout the whole town. We have no idea how the hordes of visitors, most of them drunk, would find their way to safety in the panic of the crowd. You’re probably not meant to think about this and just drink more cheap rum, but the reality of the situation is fairly alarming.

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It may be that the whole point of Phi Phi is to put yourself in danger and even in pain before you leave. We’re not just talking about hitting the jaeger bombs and battling a hangover later. Nope, we’re referring to Reggae Bar, a pub that boasts a full size muay Thai ring at its centre so that drunk tourists (mostly Brits, of course) can fight each other for a free bucket of booze. Fighting without any proper training is stupid and dangerous, but doing it drunk is really stupid and really dangerous. We saw 4 fights in the bleak half hour that we were in the bar, and while the bloodthirsty audience had a great time, we left feeling depressed, especially as they didn’t even play any reggae there.

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Sadly, the constant throb of greedy tourists has drained the island’s soul, creating an atmosphere of contempt from shopkeepers, hoteliers and restaurant staff. The massively inflated prices of everything, from food to accommodation, also suggest that the visitors are only tolerated because of their economic benefit. We felt unwelcome everywhere we went in town, and it’s easy to understand why when really we’re not any different from any one else visiting the island.

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Spending new year’s eve on Phi Phi was not one of our better ideas, in fact it may have be our worst decision on this trip. It made us question the reasons that we chose to travel in the first place, and whether this is such an honourable thing to be doing when the environmental consequences can be so obscene. These are questions we still haven’t answered, but we’re taking a much more measured approach to our journeying from now on. If it wasn’t for our excellent diving trip with Blue View Divers to Phi Phi Lae on our third day, we’d have nothing good to say about the whole trip. But swimming through an underwater cavern teeming with fish just about made up for the horrors we’d witnessed on the shore. When we inevitably return to Thailand, just like our friend from Finland, we will certainly not be heading back to Koh Phi Phi.


 

A Trip to Tonsai

After a few glorious days being pampered at a Centara resort in built up Ao Nang, it was time to say goodbye to close friends from home and hit the road, or more precisely, the sea, again.

We were headed to Tonsai, just for one night, before settling down in Koh Lanta for a month. Our trip to Tonsai, totally unplanned, arose out of a desire never to return to boring old Krabi town. Why go back to that washed out transport hub, full of weary folk just passing through and taking depressing photos by the big crab, when we could take a long-tail to mythical Tonsai and a ferry onward to Lanta?

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This turned out to be one of the best decisions we’ve ever made. Tonsai is a truly exceptional place, so exceptional that it is incredible that it really exists. Indeed, most of the time we were there we felt far removed from reality.

Cut off from civilisation due to the enormous limestone cliffs that form the bay, Tonsai feels like an island. People there often talk of it being on island time, or comment on the joys of island life, but it is firmly attached to the mainland. It is inaccessible by road, like neighbouring and more upmarket Railay, preventing busloads of tourists arriving on day trips from Krabi. You can only reach it by long-tail boat, either direct from Ao Nang or transferring from an island hopping ferry.

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Do not go to Tonsai if you want efficient service, constant access to electricity or a quiet evening. You will not find them here.

The good folks renting out the bungalows barely know what day it is, let alone whether they have any vacancies. You can find a place to rest your head from around 200 – 700 Baht depending on the size and the view. We can recommend Jungle View Resort for a clean, spacious bungalow high up in the canopy with the monkeys for 400 Baht per night (like most places in Tonsai, you can’t book in advance so just show up on the day). Whilst choosing our abode, we noticed a few places expanding and building more concrete apartments. Not only is this material awful at keeping out the heat in the tropical climate, it’s also pretty unsustainable. Vote with your feet and choose bamboo over concrete where you can.

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In most places, electricity runs from 6pm until 6am (sunset to sunrise) because why should they keep the generators running all day long? The joys of being off grid are numerous, but bear in mind that your chicken burger has probably not been refrigerated all day and may lead to the infamous Tonsai belly. That being said, the barbecue chicken at Mama’s Chicken‘ was delicious and left our guts intact.

As for a quiet night, this is a place to indulge your senses, open your mind and share your dreams. With several bars to choose from in this tiny enclave, there’s no shortage of nightlife and you’ll be welcomed in by the friendly community.

If you’re thinking of staying at the fairly new Tonsai Bay Resort and you reckon you’ll be cut off from the hippy free for all, think again. Those limestone cliffs have amazing acoustics and our midnight stroll through the swanky settlement showed us sad, sleepless souls. This resort is not Tonsai.

The real Tonsai village is set back from the sandy beach, which is fringed with rocks, a couple of longtails and crystal clear waters. The village is hidden by jungle and backed by enormous cliffs, creating a refreshing feeling of isolation. A friend tells us that years ago, everything was located on the beach but has been moved back over time. Sadly, and probably because of the above mentioned resort, the Great Wall of Tonsai has been built along the main road, cutting the village off from the jungle and keeping the ruffians in their place. On the plus side, this totalitarian concrete erection has become a canvas for astoundingly good street art. Sources inform us that it looks great after a mushroom shake.

In the village, among the rainbow painted, driftwood pillared bars, you’ll find an array of restaurants, as well as shacks serving shakes of all kinds. Some of them happy, some of them just fruity.

A good number of people visit Tonsai for the awesome rock climbing scene. We’re told it’s one of the best climbing sites in the world, and it certainly is a beautiful spot to climb. Looking up at the climbers, we noticed that their muscles were much larger than ours and decided to give it a miss. If we stayed for longer, we would have been convinced by someone to have a go. We’d also have gone for a kayak around the craggy bays and trekked to the Emerald Lake. Instead, we found a spot in Chill Out Bar and chilled out.

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During this time, we met Kev and Frankii, a formerly hard grafting, but now happily unemployed (this isn’t quite true as they do a lot of volunteering out here) couple from Bournemouth, where we used to live. It was a surreal experience talking about our town, hearing all the place names spoken aloud in a place so different, so far away. But surreal is what Tonsai does best.

We spent our evening with these beautiful people, becoming one with the soft furnishings, watching the world drift gently by, reflecting on every passing moment.

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When it became apparent that the scheduled fire show would not be happening (the word ‘scheduled’ means nothing in Tonsai), we took a walk on the beach. We were stunned by the majesty of the lit up cliffs, the colours emphasising their power, giving every nook and cranny an eerie consciousness. Beyond the clifftops, the stars glittered like whispers, forming patterns we’d never seen before. These distant suns reminded us of our insignificance and eventually guided us to bed.

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As our longtail took us out to sea early next morning, the cliffs stood proud with their earthy silence, an unspoken promise that they would still be here when we return. Yet who knows what will remain of the Tonsai that we found?


 

6 Reasons to Volunteer in a Hostel while You’re Travelling

After a disastrous week at Pasir Panjang, we started to wonder whether volunteering whilst travelling was such a good idea after all. Working a few hours a day in exchange for accommodation and food sounded like a great deal – it would cut down our expenses, would be a great opportunity to meet new people, as well as integrating into local life. We decided to give it another shot, and using our favourite website Workaway, landed ourselves a couple of weeks working in a party hostel in Georgetown, Penang.

We like staying in party hostels almost as much as Vodaphone likes paying their taxes, but 2 weeks free accommodation in Georgetown was too good an offer to pass up. We packed our backpacks, jumped on the plane and started planning where to have our first proper coffee when we arrived.

The following fortnight was one of the strangest, most fun and surreal experiences of our lives and we’ll never forget it. This is why you should volunteer in a hostel while you’re travelling.

1. The other volunteers – There was Silvina, a feisty feminist from Uruguay who liked to discuss Derrida over instant coffee with vodka. Vanessa, a fresh-faced Chilean yoga instructor with an insatiable appetite for chips. Alex, who regaled us with tales of truckin’ and tankin’ in Nebraska while pouring endless tequila shots. Monika and Przemek, a gorgeous Polish couple who are so in love they changed the way we thought about marriage. Then there was Malik, technically not a volunteer but our sort of manager/ life coach/ the most positive person in the entire world. He would praise us constantly for completing the simplest of tasks and tell us to “Keep killin’ it killa,” if he caught us refilling the loo roll before being asked to do so. The only thing that could knock the Fresh Prince smile off of his face was the US election results. We danced in the street, drank too much and slept too little. It was the best of times and this beautiful bunch will be firm friends for the rest of our lives.

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2. The guests – Some guests leave a lasting impression. And some guests don’t leave. Zosia stayed so long, she quit her job in Australia and ended up becoming a volunteer. We’re glad she did, because with Nick’s suspected Dengue, we never would have been able to navigate Penang General Hospital without her. We formed the ‘Dengue Club’, and ever caring Zosia waited patiently for Nick’s test results and held his hand as he stumbled from room to room, to toilet, to room. Then there was Vinny, a dynamic Brazilian chef with a passion for samosas, who conspired with another guest to buy us a night in a hotel room because they thought we’d spent too long living in dorms. The kindness and generosity of people on the road never ceases to amaze us!

3. The perks – As well as free accommodation in the best part of town, we were treated to a little cash every day to pay for our food. We could have easily lived on this in Georgetown, but the food is so good that we usually spent a bit more. As well as this, we were given unlimited free drinks every night on the condition that we partied with the guests. This was bad news for our livers, but great news for our beer pong and flip cup skills.

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4.The satisfying work – Being unemployed and travelling the world is as fun as it sounds, but sometimes it’s nice to have a reason to get out of bed. Nick came to enjoy cleaning the bathrooms, using a high pressure bum gun to blast last night’s remnants off of the walls. He found a sense of satisfaction and pride in his work, especially when Silvina remarked that the bathrooms were now clean enough for her to shower without wearing flip flops. Ever competitive Flic found fun by racing to beat her personal best of changing 20 beds in 1 hour – a triumph that has not yet been bettered.

5. The food and drink – We’ve never been disappointed by the food in Penang, but working with people who are permanent residents took us to a new level of restaurant recommendations. We were invited to places the tourists don’t go and ate the best food we’ve ever tasted. We were also introduced to the last duty free off-licence on the island, and spent many late nights sitting on the plastic chairs that sprawled onto the road at beer corner, attempting to chat with locals and eating mysterious snacks from unmarked plastic bags.

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6. The adventures – We didn’t get to see much daylight during our time at the party hostel. Unusually for us, most of the adventures we had in Penang took place well after the sun set. We did plan to visit the Kek Lok Si temple one day, but it was raining, which was a great way of not admitting that we couldn’t get off of the sofa due to our earth shattering hangovers. Even so, we had a successful group outing to the cinema and managed an occasional afternoon stroll. The most notable soiree was when Monika and Przemek decided to buy a ticket for a bus leaving at 5am, and made the sensible decision to stay up all night. We wondered from bar to bar, eventually being pulled magnetically to Reggae Bar with 5 puppies and a Ukrainian guitarist playing Bob Marley covers. We bought towers of beer and shisha pipes, and danced in that way that just feels right but probably looks like you’re suffering a minor stroke.

Monkia and Przemek missed their bus.

If you are thinking of volunteering while you’re travelling, check out the Workaway website. There are thousands of great opportunities, from house sitting to teaching to animal care – you’re bound to find something you love!



Going under water in Koh Lipe – Why you should learn to dive TODAY

Flic has been a qualified diver for about 12 years, whilst my biggest diving achievement is that I once free-dived so deep that it broke my Casio watch. This was probably because the watch was a dodgy fake, because I only went down about 2 metres. We’ve visited so many acclaimed dive spots on this trip (we may have mentioned Fiji) that it seemed about time I caught up.

This is how I found myself, just two days after being seriously ill with a mysterious Malaysian UTI, sat in a dive centre with a long haired Spaniard named Manu, learning about the effects of depth pressure on the air in our lungs. I’d embarked on my PADI Open Water course at the chilled out and comfortable Adang Sea Divers Eco Lodge, and, along with a cheery Swedish lady called Debbie, I’d be getting to grips with the basics of diving. PADI courses are often more expensive than SSI  qualifications, but they have a big lead in the diving industry and the qualifications are recognised worldwide.

The PADI course is made up of 5 theory units, which are then put in to practice in the water. A bit like learning to drive, but without the creepy driving instructor and largely ignored Highway Code. We spent a lot of time watching videos, and at the end of each unit we’d take a little test. The subjects ranged from the rules of diving – NEVER hold your breath because your lungs will explode, don’t be pregnant, always dive with a buddy etc. – to the super cool hand signals and how to take care of your kit.

With this out of the way, we took to the ocean to do a confined dive. Wading into the turquoise water of Koh Lipe, over the white sand and past the Thai longboats, we went down to about 2 meters. This was so safe that if there was any problem at all, we could simply stand up and be above the water. Here, we learned how to inflate and deflate our Buoyancy Control Device (BCD), a fancy waist coat that allows you to fine tune your buoyancy, came to terms with the fact that we could breathe underwater, and did some silly but useful things like pulling each other to safety. My biggest issue at this point was that I was just so buoyant. I kept on floating up to surface until I was weighed down with about 6 kilos of dive weights. That aside, things were going swimmingly.

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After a bit more theory and a good night’s sleep, it was time for us to head out for our first real dive. We clambered on to the traditional Thai longboat with all of our gear, and made our way out to sea. What would await us under the surface? Would I be able to control my buoyancy and stay under water? What would Flic, who was diving with us as part of her refresher course, look like under water? These were the questions floating through my mind as we moored up to the dive line.

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Deflating my BCD, I soon found out the answers. The under water world is weird. Everything sounds kind of strange as surface sounds swirl around you in great echoing reverberations. You shouldn’t be able to breathe down there, it’s just not right, and I don’t think I will ever get used to it. The increased pressure makes the air in your ears contract, doing crazy stuff to your ear drums. It’s easy to equalize, either by swallowing and moving your jaw from side to side, or holding your nose and breathing through it – my preferred method – but it still feels freaky.

At first we didn’t see many fish. We stopped at around 5 metres, kneeling on a sandy patch, watching out for stingrays and practising our technical skills. This included filling our masks with water and then clearing them by blowing air out of our noses, losing our regulators on purpose so we could find them again using a nifty trick and clearing our regulators. Slightly unsettling stuff over with, we continued descending.

I admit here that I didn’t see much at all on that first dive. I couldn’t control my buoyancy at all, so I spent most of the time clinging on to Manu with my face next to his crotch. Every time I breathed in, I’d ascend about a metre, and the opposite would happen when I breathed out. It was pretty disorientating, but the corals and fish I could see were beautiful, keeping me calm as I bobbed up and down erratically. I also got a glimpse Flic occasionally. She had the cool breezy air of a Frenchman smoking a cigarette, but also a strange bubbly beard as the bubbles from her regulator clung to her face. As I said, the under water world is weird.

We came back to shore with big smiles on our faces, elated by the experience of staying alive in a place where we should have perished. Everyone was talking about the fish they’d seen, and I kept quiet about the fact that I’d mostly seen the groin of my Spanish instructor.

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After a second dive that day, where I finally managed to control my buoyancy, I started to understand why people love to dive. It’s a whole new world to explore, and once you have the skills to keep steady down there, it’s wondrous from start to finish. I went to bed thinking of parrot fish and giant chimney corals, counting sea cucumbers instead of sheep.

The next day, I woke early to prepare my gear for the first dive. We headed out to a rocky island just off the coast of Koh Lipe and descended once again. We stopped at around 5 meters to go over some skills again, this time taking our masks off completely and replacing them – not a pleasant task. We followed this with sitting like Buddha under water, which seemed appropriate because I’m sure Buddha would have got a kick out of diving if he had the chance to try it out.

We drifted past a great wall of coral, teeming with marine activity. I began to feel completely at ease under water, as if I’d been born down there. I still breathed a little too deeply at times, still in awe of the fact that I could breathe, but I had the buoyancy well under control. Still, I was not yet Open Water qualified and the dive wasn’t all fish and fun. It ended with Debbie and I having to perform the CESA, which is terrifying. This is a Controlled Emergency Swimming Ascent, to be used if you somehow manage to run out of air completely during your dive. This meant that, from about 4 metres, we had to pretend we’d run out of air and swim to the surface, all the while breathing out and making an ‘aaahhh’ sound so our lungs didn’t burst. That’s right – if we got it wrong, our lungs would burst.

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CESA out of the way and lungs still functioning correctly, we headed back to shore for some lunch and to prepare for the last dive. It took little effort to persuade Flic to join me on the dive – I was keen to see that bubbly beard again, but also I wanted to share my first proper dive without any heart stopping exercises with her.

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We took the boat out to a now familiar dive spot, next to another rocky atoll just off the shore. We descended with ease, and I found I wasn’t really thinking about every little thing I was doing, and I could just take in everything going on around me and keep close by to Flic like a good diving buddy should. We saw some awesome corals, almost as tall as us, but best of all we saw a sizeable trigger fish tear off some coral in its jaw and swim off like a cowboy leaving town. That damn trigger fish cut such a silhouette that we paused in awe of its viscous vibes.

After ascending and heading back to Lipe, all I had left to do was sit my theory test. I’m not so proud to say that I got 7 answers out of 50 incorrect, but so did Manu when he took his Open Water test, as did Debbie. We went over the wrong answers and that was that, I was a qualified diver at last.

The most important lesson I learned through all of this?– if you feel even the slightest inkling to dive, book your PADI Open Water today. When I think back to all of the places I have been where I could have dived, but couldn’t because I hadn’t got round to learning, I feel a deep sense of shame. Not only had I missed out on amazing experiences for myself, I’d also prevented Flic from taking part too. So do it. Jump off a boat, deflate your BCD and be prepare to be amazed.

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16 Penang Food Favourites and Where to Eat Them

Penang is the food capital of Malaysia and described by many an uber driver as a ‘food paradise’. For such a small island, the quality and diversity of the culinary scene is incredible and the influences of Penang’s rich history can be found in every dish. We’ve spent 3 weeks eating our way around Penang, seeking out the best food and where to find find it.

  1. Char Kway Teow – This literally translates as ‘stir fried rice cake strips’, but it’s much better than it sounds. Thick strips of rice noodles are fried over a high heat with bean sprouts, chilli, prawns, egg, cockles, chopped Chinese chives and Chinese sausage or chicken, and seasoned with light and dark soy sauce and belachan. It’s kind of like a Malaysian version of Pad Thai and it’s Flic’s favourite dish in all of Penang. The best char kway teow we found was served by a woman we called ‘noodle lady’ (that’s probably not her real name) opposite the 7 Eleven on Chulia Street in Georgetown.char-kwey-teow
  2. Tandoori Chicken – What? That’s Indian food! Yes, we realise that tandoori chicken is traditionally an Indian dish, but Penang serves the best tandoori chicken we’ve ever tasted. Flic’s been to India 4 times, so we reckon she knows what she’s talking about. Our favourite place to eat tandoori chicken, and much more, is the 24 hour restaurant Nasi Dalcha Kassim Mustafa in Little India.tandoori-chicken
  3. Apam Balik – Somewhere between a pancake and a taco, apam balik is made from a coconut milk batter and fried in a deep pan in a thin layer. The cooked shell is folded into a pocket and traditionally filled with sugar, crushed peanuts and creamed corn. Nutella and banana ones the most! Our favourite apam balik is from a hawker stall on the main road in Batu Ferringhi.
  4. Beef Rendang – Traditionally an Indonesian dish, rendang is a rich, dry curry that balances a small amount of coconut milk with the strong flavours of ginger, galangal, turmeric leaves, lemongrass, garlic, shallots, chillies, cinnamon, star anise and a bunch of other spices. Basically, it’s everything you want in a curry. The Penang twist on rendang is to pile on the sugar, which isn’t surprising in a country that insists on adding sugar syrup to your pineapple juice. The best beef rendang we’ve ever had can be found at Helena Cafe in Batu Ferringhi.beef-rendang
  5.  Cendol – This is a bit of a weird one and it’s not something either of us really like, but the locals seem to love it! Penang’s cendol (sometimes spelled chendol or chendul) is famous and we think it’s worth trying whilst you’re here. Rice flour is mixed with green food colouring and formed into little worm-like jellies. These are served with shaved ice, coconut/soya milk, palm sugar (of course) and red beans. It’s refreshing on a hot day, but we’d rather have Maxim’s Gelato. Try Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendul Ice Kacang for a big old bowl of strange.cendol
  6. Lor Bak – You’re going to like this one. Minced belly pork is marinated in 5 spice, then wrapped in a bean curd skin and deep fried. It’s the ultimate sausage. After frying, it’s chopped into bite sized pieces and served with a chilli dipping sauce. We love it, and we love it even more if it’s from the Lor Bak stand in CF Food Court.lor-bak
  7.  Bamboo Charcoal Noodle – Apparently these noodles have untold health benefits and over 400 different minerals. We’re not too concerned by this, but we think they taste pretty amazing! One of our favourite noodle shops in Georgetown – Yeap Noodles – make their own fresh noodles every day and serve a mean bamboo charcoal noodle in seaweed soup. They also sell some excellent chilli noodles that are insanely spicy. We ate a lot of these in Georgetown because most tourists were unable to handle the heat and would have to order a second, more tame dish, and pass the chilli noodles on to us!charcoal-bamboo-noodle
  8.  Double Roast Pork – Not the most imaginatively named dish, but probably one of the most delicious things we’ve ever eaten. Sorry, Fat Duck. The double roast pork is soft, succulent, sweet, salty, chewy and crispy in all the right places. This is not just a recommendation of a dish, but of a specific restaurant – Tek Sen. We’ve never seen Tek Sen mentioned in any guide books or food blogs, but it’s famous amongst Georgetown locals. After a while, we stopped asking for restaurant recommendations because everyone would tell us to go to Tek Sen. The sign is faded, but you’ll be able to spot it by the huge queue of diners waiting outside. It’s so popular that you’re given a menu whilst in the queue and asked to order before you sit down to save time. Get there early because the double roast pork is their most sought after dish, and it sells out quickly!
  9.  Fried Oyster – This is Nick’s favourite thing to eat in Penang. Succulent fresh oysters are garnished with coriander, parsley and basil, then mixed with a batter made from plain flour, tapioca flour, rice flour and egg. The omelet is seasoned with soya sauce and fish sauce before being fried to gooey perfection. Nick’s favourite place to eat fried oyster is the hawker stall in Long Beach Food Court in Batu Ferringhi.
  10.  Assam Laksa – Differing hugely to the coconut based laksa we all know and love, Penang assam laksa is a hot and sour fish based noodle broth that offers a clean, minty mouthful. Assam is Malay for tamarind, which is what gives this laksa its sour taste. The dish varies from hawker to hawker, but usually incorporates poached and flaked mackerel, lemongrass, galangal, chilli, mint, pineapple, onion, shrimp paste, rice noodles and a sprinkling of beautiful, fiery bunga kantan (torch ginger flower). The best assam laksa in Penang, without a doubt, is cooked by the side of the road at the bottom on Penang Hill.
  11. Mee Rebus – Literally translating as ‘boiled noodles’, this doesn’t sound like the most exciting thing on this list, but Penang never disappoints when it comes to food. Yellow egg noodles are smothered in a sweet, spicy gravy made from shrimp broth, lemongrass, shallots, galangal, salam leaf (similar to bay leaf), kafir lime leaves, palm sugar and salt. This delicious concoction is topped with whatever you have to hand, preferably some beansprouts, lime juice, fried tofu, shredded chicken, Chinese celery, spring onions, green chilli, bombay potatoes, fried shallots, shrimp and some green leaves. Our favourite mee rebus is from a hawker stall on the corner of Armenian Street and Lorong Soo Hong in Georgetown.mee-rebus
  12. Nasi Lemak – Considered Malaysia’s national dish, nasi lemak is rice boiled with coconut milk and pandan leaves, topped with spicy sambal sauce, anchovies and boiled egg and wrapped into a pyramid shaped package in a banana leaf. Piles of these cute little parcels can be found at most cafes and hawker stalls in the morning because nasi lemak is usually eaten for breakfast. We prefer it as an afternoon snack, and like to grab one from the teh and kopi stall on the corner of Jalan Pintal Tali and Jalan Dr Lim Chwee Leon, along with Nick’s favourite drink – a bag of sugary teh tarik (best avoided if you are at all concerned about diabetes).
  13. Pasembur – Probably the least healthy salad you’ll ever eat. Pasembur is a selection of deep fried seafood, topped with julienned cucumber, potato, bean curd, turnip and bean sprouts. The ‘salad’ is smothered in a very sweet, thick potato based sauce. We found the sauce to be too sweet most of the time, but the best pasember in Penang can be found at the Gurney Drive Hawker Centre (although we did think it was a little overpriced).pasembur
  14. Popiah – Often referred to as a fresh spring roll, once you try popiah you’ll wonder why spring rolls are ever deep fried! It’s made with a paper thin crepe-like skin, which is filled with finely grated and steamed turnip, jicama, bean sprouts, green beans, grated carrots, lettuce, sliced tofu, chopped peanuts, fried shallots, shredded omelet and a delicious sauce of hoi sin, chilli, shrimp paste and garlic. Our favourite popiah is made in the evenings, down a small alleyway opposite the 7 Eleven on Chulia Street in Georgetown.
  15. Rojak – The term ‘rojak’ is Malay for ‘mixture’. Bite sized chunks of cucumber, pineapple, turnip, jicama, mango, apple, guava and jambu air are smothered in the same sweet brown sauce as pasembur and sprinkled with crushed peanuts and ground pepper. We’re not a fan of the sauce because we find it too sweet, but those with a sweet tooth are bound to enjoy this Penang speciality. Pick up a plate at the CF Food Court in Georgetown.rojak
  16. Satay – Probably Malaysia’s most famous dish and beloved by all. Strips of tender beef, chicken or pork are marinated in a mixture of lemongrass, shallots, garlic, galangal, ginger, chilli, ground turmeric (which gives satay its distinct yellow colour), coriander, cumin, soy sauce and brown sugar. The meat is skewered and cooked over hot coals, or a wood fire, until cooked through and slightly charred. Malaysians often brush coconut milk over the skewers during cooking, making it extra delicious and preventing the the outer edges from burning too much. Once cooked through, the satay are served with a peanut based sauce of dry roasted peanuts, garlic, chilli, coconut milk, fish sauce, soy sauce, sugar and tamarind paste. Delicious! Our favourite satay can be found at Seaview Sizzle in Batu Ferringhi.satay

Choosing the tastiest food and the best places to eat them in Penang has been a difficult yet delicious task. We hope that our ‘hard’ work will help you to explore the island and make the most out of your time in this magnificent place. If you think we’ve missed something, or you find a great restaurant or hawker stall that we haven’t mentioned, please get in touch and let us know! We welcome any excuse to return to Penang, but for now, our stomachs are rumbling and the char kway teow is calling…


Not quite paradise, but still quite nice – travelling Langkawi on a budget

Langkawi is undoubtedly a spectacular place. We wouldn’t go as far as calling it a paradise, as most travel sites do, but it’s worth stopping off there to refresh your soul as you make your way around South East Asia, especially if you’ve just come from the crazy urban hotbox of Georgetown.

We arrived a little baffled as to the best way to spend our time there. It’s not the kind of place you can just hop on a bus and hope for the best, mainly because there are no buses (it seems public transport is illegal here) and the taxi fares are extortionate. Langkawi is crying out for Uber, but that’s another story. Here’s a few ways to get the most out of your stay and keep within your budget.

How to Get There

Langkawi is an archipelago of over 99 islands, and most backpackers arrive by boat, taking the 3 hour ferry from Penang for 80RM. The ferry leaves at 8:30am and 2:00pm each day. Tickets are available online, or from the ticket office which is a 2 minute walk from the ferry terminal. We took this one way, but the sea was so rough that Nick spent the entire time outside, spewing up 3 full sick bags. On the plus side, they did show Ip Man 3 on TV.

If you prefer not to make this gut wrenching trip, you can get pretty cheap local flights from within Malaysia, as well as some international flights via Air Asia. We found that flying from Penang was about the same price as taking the ferry, and only takes 20 minutes. You do the maths.

If you’re coming to Langkawi the other way, from Thailand, you can take a speedboat from Koh Lipe. It’s a little pricey at 140RM each, but it only takes an hour and the sea was pleasantly calm for our trip. Plus, you have an excuse to visit Koh Lipe with it’s crystal clear waters and quality pancake scene.

Where to Stay

Langkawi can seem a bit anti-backpacker with it’s overpriced resorts and stately hotels lining the coast. Yet it is possible to have a good night’s sleep on a tight budget here. We strongly recommend that you stay at the cosy, clean and welcoming Soluna Guesthouse near Pantai Cenang. Tucked away amongst gorgeous rice paddies, complete with white heron and water buffalo, the main shopping strip and long sandy beach is only a 5 minute walk away, through some fields, past clucking chickens and cats lazing in the sun.

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Check their website for current prices, but when we stayed it was only 20RM for a dorm bed, or 45RM for a double room with a fan. They also have private A/C options, but Langkawi gets cool at night so we didn’t go for this. They’re not on booking.com, so you can just turn up. However, to avoid disappointment we advise you call or email them to book in advance. Oh, and they have hot showers too, in case you weren’t convinced already.

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What to Eat

As you’ve probably noticed by now, food is a priority for us wherever we go. Langkawi definitely loses a few paradise points for the lack of hawkers and it’s overpriced and uninspiring restaurants, especially on the main Pantai Cenang strip. Most blogs push the bbq seafood here, and we have no doubt that it tastes great. However, when the live seafood is priced per kg, it isn’t going to be kind to your wallet.

Yet you can still get some great meals here, and if you’re strapped for cash, we urge you to visit Bella Restaurant at Pantai Cenang. Here you’ll find mostly local food at fair prices. Breakfast here is a must – sip teh tarik and tuck in to  some nasi lemak, or order a kopi and treat yourself to some roti canai (Malayisan style pancakes) with a variety of flavours, including the winning banana and nutella. All for about 5RM too!

If you find it a cop out to eat in the same place all the time, explore the main strip for something that takes your fancy, and there sure is plenty of choice. A reasonable price per dish is 10-15 RM, although this is definitely unreasonable compared to elsewhere in Malaysia. It’s easy to get ripped off here, so always check the menu before taking a seat.

You should also try to visit a night market during your stay – check Travelfish for days and times. Here you can stock up on satay, pancakes, murtabak and that Malaysian delicacy, the deep fried burger! These markets, with their hawkers and hustlers, are bad for your health but great for your budget with each dish costing around 1-2RM.

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You’ve probably heard that Langkawi is duty free, and this is correct. However, don’t go expecting bargain booze on every corner (actually, the best corner for cheap beer in Malaysia is Georgetown’s Beer Corner). Remember, this is Malaysia, not Calais in the 90’s, so alcohol is frowned upon in most places. The majority of Malaysians come to Langkawi to avoid paying taxes on kitchenware and chocolate, which is interesting but doesn’t exactly scream ‘PARTYYY!’. Drinking out will cost about the same as anywhere else in Malaysia, and the discount on alcohol in shops is usually quite disappointing. Anyway, if you want to get tipsy, your best bet is to have a few tinnies on the beach and avoid the bars.

What To Do

So, you’ve arrived, settled in to Soluna and checked out Pantai Cenang. We know what you’re thinking – the beach is ok, fairly long with off white sand, certainly better than England (although Langkawi often feels a lot like Cornwall). Still, you don’t want to pay to rent a deck chair and a parasol, and the watersports are lacklustre and overpriced. It’s probably raining too, just like Cornwall,  so the beach is not looking like a viable option for the next couple of days. Yeah, we’ve been here too.

Think you can tell the difference between Langkawi and Cornwall? Take our quiz!

What you want to do now is go back to Soluna and hire a scooter (usually about 35RM per day) or a car for about 60RM per day. We chose to hire a car because of the constant rain, but scooters are also rather nifty for exploring some of the smaller villages. Now you’ve got some wheels you are free to explore the interior of the island, which is where Langkawi’s true beauty lies.

First off, head out to the Langkawi Sky Cab for some awesome views of the island. It’ll cost you 45RM for the Sky Cab entry fee, plus an extra 5RM to walk the iconic Sky Bridge. But for 50RM, you get to travel on Malaysia’s longest mono-line cable car (it’s never been made clear if there are any others in the country) to the top of Machincang Mountain. Up there, you’ll be 708 metres above sea level, affording views of the entire archipelago, and even some of the Thai islands on a clear day. We admit that waking the Sky Bridge sounds a bit cheesy, but it was a fantastic experience and our friend Tugce absolutely loved it – except for the lengthy climb back up to the cable car station!

If you visited the Sky Cab at the weekend and it’s crammed with tourists, the best thing to do is to come back another day. But don’t head home just yet – keep going past the Sky Cab site and follow the signs to the Seven Wells Waterfall. Here, you can hike up to the various stages of the waterfall and swim wherever you want. We found that it wasn’t too busy, and as most people forget to bring their swimming costume, you’ll have the pools to yourself! Just watch out for the monkeys because they stole our crisps.

There are two other notable waterfalls on the island that are definitely worth a visit. Temerun Waterfall is a sight to behold, with several rapid courses flowing over the side. It’s an easy climb up to the main basin, and here you’re likely to find the local lads daring each other to jump from the rocks. Join them if you’re feeling brave – we weren’t. Before you leave, make sure you try the beef rendang burrito from the shack in the car park. Mexican-Malayisan fusion at its finest!

Durian Perangin Waterfall was also a majestic wonder, although the lack of durians there may disappoint some visitors – not Flic though, she detests the king of fruit. We found this to be a quiet spot to refresh after a humid day of hiking, and there was plenty of space to have a picnic and even a few hawkers selling cheap hot corn and noodles.

The next place you should visit is Air Hangat Village for the salt water hot springs. The salt water, present thanks to the area’s low water table, is renowned for its health benefits. The locals claim it will ease your arthritis, boost your immune system and increase your general wellbeing. Whether this is medically verifiable or not, it’s rather satisfying to sit knee deep in a hot spring amid the lush green plains of the island. There’s also a reflexology path made of small stones, arranged to inflict maximum pain and discomfort. Walk what may be the world’s only homeopathic gauntlet if you dare.

If you still have more time with your moped, we recommend visiting Mount Raya (also known as Gunung Raya) in the middle of the island for a superb view of the archipelago. It will take you about 30 minutes to drive all the way to the top, past cheeky monkeys and fallen trees, an adventure in itself. At the summit, you can pay 10RM to take a lift to the viewing tower, and you get a free drink with this too. With the low clouds and our stingy temperaments, we didn’t do this, but we have heard from other travellers that it’s well worth it on a clear day.

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Of course, if the weather is fine and you have more time on the island, Langkawi’s beaches are worth a look. Whilst we believe that the word ‘paradise’ is used far too often in connection with Langkawi, there are some cool coves to consider. We recommend visiting the section of Tanjung Rhu Beach by Teluk Ewa Jetty. To get there,  you have to drive through Tanjung Rhu Resort and agree to their terms and conditions, but entry is absolutely free. When you reach the beach, you’ll have a cracking view of a few atolls rising from the waters and it’s usually fairly quiet there. Surprisingly, the Malaysian restaurants there offer delicious meals at some of the lowest prices we found on the island.

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We had a great time just driving around the island, through the tiny kampongs, past highlighter-pen-green rice paddies and thriving woodlands. Just like a day out in Cornwall, you’ll come across tourist attractions that may take your fancy every few kilometers. Usually they have low entry fees so you may as well check them out. Just a final word of warning – avoid the Langkawi Buffalo Park because it was awful. Little more than a walk through a cow shed, we were deeply underwhelmed by this rural ‘attraction’, although Flic enjoyed taking photos of the photogenic buffalo.

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