Bonding over beer and chicken feet in Laos

Bonding over beer and chicken feet in Laos


“We should all sing something! Let’s take turns to sing our favourite song”. Words that usually strike the fear into me but this time I thought it was a GREAT idea. Why? Because I was rolling, roaring drunk. Somehow a turbo-hike through the villages of northern Laos had turned into a lost afternoon drinking beer. It kind of reminded me of being back in uni – you know, where you plan to spend the day in the library but you end up down the pub instead? The difference here was the my drinking buddies weren’t an assortment of skiving students or even my fellow backpackers. They were a family from the Tai Dam ethnic group in Laos and they managed to completely derail my day. But in a really, really good way.

The entirety of my time in Laos was spent in its wild and mountainous north. Partly because it was just too damn beautiful to leave and partly because I’m fascinated by the vast array of ethnic groups that are found in this part of the world. My enthusiasm for anthropology goes way back to university and, I think, has played a big part in my desire to travel. I believe that we can learn so much from people who live an entirely different way of life to our own – and also discover that perhaps we’re not so different after all. So I ended up making two trips up to the small town of Luang Namtha, north of Luang Prabang, because the area has many different tribal villages and I wanted to spend some time exploring them.

I had a map of the various villages courtesy of my hotel and, too nervous to rent a scooter, I would set off each day on an epic hike around the area. One day, however, my trusty map failed me. After walking to a village where there was supposed to be a bridge across the river, I discovered that said bridge didn’t actually exist. A couple of women came down to the riverbank to see what the strange blonde person was doing and, when I asked them how I could cross the river, looked at me like I was an idiot and said “you walk”. As in, roll up your trousers and get wading girl! Funnily enough that didn’t appeal to me, especially when someone gestured that the water comes up to your waist, so I frustratedly retraced my steps all the way back to my hotel so that I could pick up a route I’d walked previously, where I knew a bridge most definitely existed.

But you know what they say about the best laid plans etc…. Yes, I crossed that river but I never did make it back on track. As I power-walked through a sleepy Tai Dam village, someone suddenly broke the silence by yelling “HELLO, HELLO, YES, YOU, HELLO!!” My obviously foreign presence in the local villages often caused some curiosity and I would frequently hear “sabaidee” (hello in Lao), accompanied by a cheery wave, but very few people spoke English. This was different. Across the village, sitting outside a wooden house, were a middle-aged man and woman eagerly waving and smiling at me. “COME AND DRINK BEER WITH US!” the woman called. I’m very much an introvert therefore my natural response to situations like this is usually to smile, say “no thanks” and walk away as fast as I can without looking rude. But today I thought “f*** it, why the hell not?” and that was it. My whole plan for the day changed.

The multi-syllabled Tai Dam names got scrambled in my beer-sodden brain but I remember that the woman’s name meant “flower”. Flower worked for the tourist board in Luang Namtha so she spoke pretty good English and really wanted to chat with foreigners. Just as I was visiting Luang Namtha to meet the locals and learn about life in rural Laos, Flower wanted to meet tourists so that she could learn about life in a different country too. But not many travellers pass through her village so, when she spotted me, she seized the opportunity to get to know me. One large beer turned into four, one of Flower’s sons was dispatched to the shop for more beer and crisps, and soon it didn’t feel much different to an afternoon spent down the pub in the UK.

It was a great insight into life in Laos; its history, its politics, as well as every day life in a remote village. Flower and her family weren’t as “traditional” as some of the other people I met in this part of Laos and they were comparatively wealthier. They wore Western clothes and owned a car. But they lived in a typical, one-roomed wooden house that was raised off the ground by stilts. Chickens ran riot beneath the property, scratching around in the dirt. There was no running water or electricity. The toilet was a hole in the ground (and good luck using that after a few beers). We may think of them as “poor” because they don’t have what many of us in the West consider to be basic amenities. But it’s just a different way of life. They were comfortable and they were happy – and that’s what’s most important.

At one point I got back from the toilet shed to find that we had been joined by a random French hitchhiker who Flower had picked up on another trip to the shop. Flower made us all take turns singing; for reasons that still aren’t clear I chose to sing “Summertime” because beer had made me think I would sound like Ella Fitzgerald (I didn’t). A huge pot of soup appeared on the table, together with bowls of sticky rice and fresh green beans. Floating smack bang in the centre of the soup, sticking one indignant digit up at us, was the biggest chicken’s foot I had ever seen. It may not have looked like the most appetising meal around but it was homemade, it was delicious, it was unexpected and it was certainly needed after the amount of beer I had inhaled!

There are many amazing benefits that come from travel but it’s the random, unexpected encounters with local people that always stay with you. That time I went for lunch with my tuk-tuk driver in Kerala or the time a barman in Sumatra invited me to drank palm wine on a mountaintop…  And despite everything, Flower and her family refused to take any payment for the food, beer, petrol etc. All they said was “when we visit the UK, you can do the same for us.”

I stayed at Amandra Villa both times that I was in Luang Namtha and can recommend it as a cheap and cheerful place to base yourself.
There are direct minibus services that run between Luang Prabang and Luang Namtha, and Nong Khiaw and Luang Namtha. The journey from Luang Prabang takes around 8 hours. Tickets can be booked from most tour agency offices.

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W15 Escape: A Sri Lankan escape from the rat race

W15 Escape: A Sri Lankan escape from the rat race

 

Sri Lanka was the first country I visited after I quit my job, my house and my life in London, and I’m sad to say that I probably didn’t do it justice. A two week dash through half of the country while trying to get my head around what the hell I had done was not exactly conducive to a fun time. But when we arrived on Sri Lanka’s sleepy, surfy south coast and checked into the gorgeous W15 Escape for a few days, I finally felt like things might just be ok.

As a backpacker, you don’t often get to stay in luxurious hotels. Of course, there’s the occasional exception when you may decide to throw caution to the wind and treat yourself to a five star hotel for a night… But one of the great things about travelling from the UK to Asia is that you really do get some serious bang for your buck. W15 Escape is the kind of place I could never usually afford to stay if it were in Europe, for example. So it felt like a real treat to check in to an Instagram-worthy hotel at long last; a place where there was nothing else to do but unwind.

And unwinding was definitely on the cards for us after our journey to W15 Escape. Life on the road in a foreign country is rarely without a hiccup, especially when you’re trying to work out how to get from A to B. Sri Lanka doesn’t have the greatest public transport system, as we discovered after we arrived, so we had to hire a succession of drivers to deliver us to each destination. Not the cheapest mode of transportation but surely one of the most convenient? No schlepping across town to the bus or train station with your bags, no spending hours squished into a cramped seat. You can stop whenever you like and relax in the back seat of a car safe in the knowledge that your bags are tucked away in the boot. Until your driver gets lost. And pissed off.

We had made the long journey from Tissamaharama to Weligama without incident but all that changed when we realised that our driver actually had no idea where the hotel was. Things were complicated by the fact that there’s another W15 in Weligama – and our driver had assumed that’s where we were going. What’s more, we hadn’t realised that W15 Escape isn’t even in Weligama but is actually a few kilometres west, near the town of Ahanagama. We drove around and around and around. And around a bit more. Every time we stopped for directions we were sent to the other W15 – mainly because the language barrier meant that our driver hadn’t fully grasped that there were two hotels with similar names. He was getting increasingly irritated and we were feeling increasingly uncomfortable. Fortunately, someone eventually realised where we wanted to go but, as we drove away from the town and down some little back road to a set of gates, I have to say that my heart sank a little. I hadn’t expected to stay in the middle of nowhere…

All concerns vanished, however, when the gates opened and, as if they were the pearly gates to paradise, we entered a world of pure, gleaming white. W15 Escape is an unusual combination of Scandinavian and Sri Lankan influences – two design styles that you rarely find together. Yet, in these circumstances, they work. The clean white lines and washed out wood that characterise Scandi style are softened by local touches such as peacock-patterned cushions and an emphasis on nature. That manifested itself in outdoor dining and bathrooms that were open to the elements – luckily for us, the weather was nothing short of glorious when we stayed. And of course, no luxury hotel would be complete without an outdoor swimming pool surrounded by palm trees and white-draped cabanas for lounging. Pure bliss….

We stayed in one of W15 Escape’s garden suites; a set of pristine white rooms arranged around the communal outside area, overlooking the dining “room” and pool. After staying in some fairly basic rooms over the last couple of weeks, our suite felt like heaven. A huge double bed in the centre dominated the room, there was loads of space for us to spread out, oversized fluffy dressing gowns, a choice of seats (gasp!) and then there was *that* bathroom. Separated from the bedroom by a set of French windows and floaty, gauzy curtains for modesty, it opened onto a small plant-filled patio so you could gaze at the greenery while going for a wee. The shower was one of those fancy rain showers AND there was plenty of hot water – not that we really needed it in the Sri Lankan sun but it’s always nice to have the option. Using a bathroom with a wall missing took a bit of getting used to. It felt “wrong” to me and I was a little paranoid at first, thinking someone would be able to see me. But, of course, it’s completely private.

I also loved the fact that there was a little seating area outside each suite and that the staff would come over and take your order for any drinks or food. It felt very decadent to be able to have a glass of chilled white wine brought over to me while I worked just outside of my room. The drinks menu at W15 Escape is extensive, with a great selection of cocktails. I particularly enjoyed their mango daiquiris. As the hotel is located a little way from town we ate there every evening, in the lovely outdoor dining area overlooking the pool. The menu offers a mix of local and Western dishes, with lots of locally sourced seafood to choose from. Portions were generous and the service was second to none. Breakfast was equally brilliant. I never quite got to grips with the whole “curry for breakfast” thing that’s so common in Asia so I was glad to have options like porridge, French toast or eggs.

We did end up visiting the “other” W15 during our stay; having passed it so many times, it felt like the right thing to do. Located right on the popular surf beach of Weligama, it was a pleasant spot to enjoy a few cocktails and watch the surfers doing their thing. The town of Weligama was what I would describe as “interesting” rather than lovely. Despite the emphasis on surf tourism, it felt very much like a local’s town and I really enjoyed seeing daily life unfold, particularly the fantastic range of seafood stalls along the beach. If it’s the beach bum lifestyle you’re after then the other direction from W15 Escape will take you to Unawatuna. Here you’ll find a gorgeous beach, loads of great restaurants and plenty of spas should you feel like a massage. Some of the restaurants offer beach cabanas which are “free” to hire as long as you order something from the menu – and that something only has to be a drink.

Luxury hotel? Cocktails? Lazy beach days? Ayurvedic massages? Yep, things on the Big Travel Adventure were definitely looking up…

W15 Escape Pros:
Huge, gorgeously decorated rooms
Great food and drink options
Excellent service
Swimming pool with a view over the ocean

W15 Escape Cons:
Mosquitoes!! The pesky blighters made sitting outside from early evening onwards bit of a nightmare
The wifi connection wasn’t great if you’re doing the whole digital nomad thing
Not within walking distance of any town

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Monk chat and the pursuit of happiness

Monk chat and the pursuit of happiness

“I’m not religious but if I were then I would be Buddhist”. If I had a pound for every time I heard someone saying this then…well…let’s just say it would be one way to fund my travels! I do get where people are coming from though. Buddhism enjoys a rare position of privilege among world religions; a belief system that seems to be both inoffensive and, in some ways, desirable to a lot of people. For me, however, the interest in Buddhism comes less from a “spiritual” perspective and more from one that relates to my health. As someone who is so often immersed in a fug of depression and anxiety, I’m intrigued by a philosophy that promotes mental well-being. If I could learn to be more zen, could I start to understand what it means to be happy? So when I found myself in Chiang Mai for two weeks, I decided to take advantage of monk chat to see if I could discover the secret to serenity.

What’s monk chat? Well, it’s exactly that – a chat with a monk. I’ve always observed Buddhist monks from a bit of a distance and, to be honest, I suppose I always thought of them of slightly….separate. I guess I figured they were entirely focused on living life on a higher plane and wouldn’t be bothered with us hoi polloi. Yet on my very first day in Chiang Mai, a charming historical town in northern Thailand, I spotted a sign outside one of the many Buddhist temples advertising “monk chat” and was immediately intrigued. Turns out that holding a monk chat is a great way for the younger monks both to learn English and to find out a little bit about life beyond the temple. And for us tourists, it’s a wonderful opportunity to meet with a person who is living a completely different life to our own. Surely that’s one of the very best things about travel…

A quick bit of research online told me that the monks at Wat Chedi Luang host monk chats every day from 9am-6pm. As this is one of the largest and most popular temples in town, I figured I should be able to find someone willing to talk to me. When I got there, however, I wasn’t so sure. A number of tables were set up in a shaded courtyard but they were all empty except for one, where a monk was already in the midst of an animated discussion with a bunch of tourists. Not feeling confident enough to join them, I sat awkwardly at an empty table and waited in the hope that a passing monk would take pity on me. Eventually I gave up, wandered around the temple a bit more and when I returned a few more monks had sat down in the designated “monk chat area”. I had been hoping for a one-to-one conversation as I felt a bit shy, but monk chat is a popular pastime in Chiang Mai so you will have to share your monk!

As it happens, sharing your monk is no bad thing because the other people at the table will ask questions that you probably won’t have thought of. And the diversity of nationalities and backgrounds means that the conversation is never going to be dull. Our monk was 23 years old, earnest and quietly spoken but very happy to answer all of our questions, which ranged from “what do you do every day?” to “what does happiness mean?”. He became a monk at the age of 12 – not because of any spiritual calling or because it offered the opportunity for a better education but, as per 12 year olds everywhere, because his friend did it. However, he found that he really enjoys the lifestyle and the sense of contentment that it gives him, despite the 5am starts! Maybe there’s something to be said for not having a lie-in?

I was keen to know if there was some kind of Buddhist secret to a life of contentment – one that didn’t involve getting up at the crack of dawn. As with most things, it’s something that the brain needs a little time to get to grips with. Buddhists believe that nothing is permanent, therefore we should all try to live in the moment. No-one knows what’s going to happen tomorrow or even in the next 5 minutes. I could get hit by a bus! So we should live each day like its our last, appreciating what we have in each moment. What’s more, the feeling of true happiness is something that only comes from within us. If we rely on outside influences, such as a flashy car or the approval of others, we risk losing these because…nothing is permanent. We should rely only on ourselves for our own happiness. This all makes perfect sense and sounds simple enough in theory. Remembering to think in this way every day, especially when the chips are down, is where the challenge lies.

To help achieve this, Buddhist monks practise meditation every day. They find that it gives us greater control over both our thoughts and our words. Our monk admitted that he finds meditation hard, even after all these years, which made me feel instantly better about my own perpetually wandering mind. However he believes that, with practice, meditation teaches us how to think first and take our time before saying or doing something that we might regret. The Buddhist secret to happiness is clearly not one that comes easily but takes a little bit of training – just like any other ability.

The rest of our monk chat was spent discussing the day-to-day life of a Buddhist monk. The 5am start leads straight into chanting and meditation. The monks then head into the town to collect alms. As monks are not allowed to have money they are reliant on the kindness of other people. It’s traditional for Buddhists to give alms – or charitable donations of food – to the monks each day as a way of earning “merit”. This helps to bring them one step closer to nirvana or total enlightenment (not the band). Nirvana is a state where nothing exists and where there are no pesky emotions to distract or torment us, only peace and contentment. Which, I have to say, sounds pretty good to me! Once the monks have collected enough, they return to the temple for a shared breakfast together. The rest of the day is spent studying a range of different subjects until 6pm when it’s time for more chanting and meditation. They then have free time before going to bed at around 10pm.

I left the monk chat feeling incredibly uplifted. What our monk had said about happiness really resonated with me and I practically floated away from the table. “I can do this”, I told myself, “I can be all zen and calm and content.” And then, as if to prove that nothing is permanent, it all went horribly wrong. As I lifted my camera to take a photo of the monk chat area, an elderly American man, resplendent in socks and sandals, came barrelling over to me and loudly declared “THAT’S NOT POLITE”. With the wrong end of the stick firmly in place, he then proceeded to berate me about photographing the monks without permission, feeling the need to inform me that “they’re not animals”, in case that much wasn’t already obvious to me. Despite trying to explain what I was doing and why – and telling him that no, I wasn’t actually trying to sneak a stealth photo of a monk – he continued to fulminate at maximum volume, resulting in me feeling utterly riled up for the rest of the day. And the next day. And the next. And also a little bit as I’m writing this several months later. So much for the secret to serenity!

What else to do in Chiang Mai:
Visit the Sunday Night Market for amazing food and local crafts – if you’re not there on a Sunday then there are also little night markets around each of the gates to the old city.
Feed and bathe some elephants. There are trips to several ethical sanctuaries that can be booked from town.
Enjoy a Chang Beer on the roof terrace of John’s Place.
Explore the Nimmanahaeminda area and try the fantastic Lanna food at Tong Tem Toh.
Watch Thai boxing.
Travel up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep for views across the town.

Don’t do what I did:
Get into an argument with a stranger in a temple.

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Searching for the past: Three historic bars in Ho Chi Minh City

Searching for the past: Three historic bars in Ho Chi Minh City

 

I really didn’t love Ho Chi Minh City. It was my first experience of Vietnam, a country I’d heard was a slow burner, so maybe I should have started somewhere that was less of a brick to the face. But I was sucked in by my romantic ideas of Saigon…a town full of history with a seedy, decadent underbelly. The reality was the polar opposite. Obviously things have moved on and the name change isn’t all that’s different about Saigon these days. Ho Chi Minh City is a sweaty, traffic-choked, ostensibly unwelcoming, modern metropolis. It’s deeply pedestrian-unfriendly which, for someone who likes to walk, was often frustrating to the point of tears (trying to cross the road – any road – was a logistical nightmare and that’s before you add in the fact that people just drive their scooters on the pavement as well). This made exploring the city challenging – I really didn’t want to just Uber from place to place even though this is what I eventually ended up doing. The fact that I was in the grips of a morbid depression did not help matters.

So I decided to do what I usually do when things get tough on the road. Take it slowly, don’t put too much pressure on myself to “do everything” and seek out what’s likely to make me happy. In Ho Chi Minh City that was its fascinating history. Specifically, its drinking history. Like I said, I had this idea in my head that there the city had once been a hedonistic melting pot, where literary types like Graham Greene mixed with hard-bitten war reporters all trying to grapple with being in a strange, humid country; where the locals found themselves confronted by the unrelenting, shifting sands of politics. I was determined to get a taste of it by checking out three of its most historic hotel bars: the Rex, the Caravelle and the Hotel Continental. They were all located fairly close to each other, in District 1, which made things considerably easier – I could visit each place with only minimal risk of getting run over. That’s pretty much what my trip to Ho Chi Minh City had boiled down to at this point. Whether or not I might get my toes flattened by a swarm of mopeds…

The Rex
I checked out The Rex first. Built in the 1920’s, it became famous during the Vietnam War as the location of the American military command’s daily briefing. These came to be known as the Five O’Clock Follies because they were so far removed from what was actually going on out in the field. The rooftop bar was a popular haunt for reporters and US military-types. Nowadays the only “Five O’Clock Follies” you can find here is the Rex’s signature cocktail, made with vodka, rum, midori, mint and lime. The bar itself feels classy with that slightly raffish air you can expect from a place that used to host a bunch of war-weary journos. It’s a great spot to watch the sun set over Ho Chi Minh City and you can feel smug in the knowledge that you’re high above the heaving carnage below and you have a cold drink in your hand.

 

Hotel Continental
I had such high hopes for this one. The building is gorgeous – built in the French style at the end of the 19th century. It was apparently created to provide luxury accommodation for French travellers after the long journey to their new and exotic home. Somewhere along the way, something went terribly wrong because I can’t imagine anyone with even an ounce of Gallic style wanting to linger here now. Hell, I’m one of the least stylish people around – particularly when travelling – and even I was horrified. It felt like one of those sad, seaside hotels in the UK that are still inexplicably inhabited by pensioners and people “of a certain age” who are looking for comfort, not class, and who leap onto a well-regarded name like a tame monkey desperate for a secure branch. The decor could once have been called “ornate” but today just seems tired and naff – all pleats and frills and wedding-reception bows on the backs of chairs. It’s the kind of place your nan might visit when she wants a “nice” lunch out. Graham Greene is one of the most notable former guests but I imagine he would be hard pressed to find much to inspire him there today.

The Caravelle
This was the least inviting of all three hotels as far as outward appearances went, particularly as a tower block was tacked on to the original construction at a later date. However, it ended up being my favourite because the Saigon Saigon bar, on the roof of the old building, is a total gem. Decoratively, it buys into the whole Indo-China vibe more than the others with a black and white tiled floor, lacquered shutters and ceiling fans. Their cocktail list is also by far the most inventive and one that makes the most of Asian ingredients. I could have easily wasted the entire afternoon here, polishing off cocktail after cocktail, watching steamy Saigon sweat and shift below me as the sun sat low and fat in the sky. But, alas, I did not have the budget of the usual Caravelle guest so one cocktail had to suffice. Another hotel famous for its associations with the Vietnam War, it was partly blown up in 1964 and is known for the Caravelle Manifesto – a document written in 1960 criticising the South Vietnamese government and presented at a press conference held at the Caravelle.

Ho Chi Minh City is not for the faint-hearted. It’s a loud, chaotic, frustrating, uncomfortably humid, not particularly lovely to look at assault to the senses. But once you get to grips with the place there is also a lot to like. I still won’t go as far to say that I loved it, but I did eventually start to get underneath the skin and get a sense of both the city’s history and its bohemian streak. But that’s a whole other article….

What else to do in Ho Chi Minh City:
Visit the War Remnants Museum to understand the horror of the Vietnam War. Be warned: it’s arresting and potentially upsetting but it’s a must-see, not least to get an alternative perspective of events.
Eat all of the street food. All of it. That’s an order.
Walk down Bui Vien Street at night. It’s tacky and loud and touristy but you should experience it at least once in your life. This is the modern day seedy underbelly of Ho Chi Minh City.

Don’t do what I did:
Attempt to walk everywhere. You will get very hot. You will get very wet (either from rain or sweat). You will get pissed off with all the people on scooters. Ubers are cheap and plentiful so use them to get around.

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Mental health and losing my mojo

Mental health and losing my mojo

I had big plans when I left the UK last August. I was going to start a brand new life; one that was focused on forging a career out of the things I loved. I was going to explore the world and document my journey – “one blog post at a time” etc etc. You know, the usual sort of bollocks you see written on people’s Instagram biographies. Ok, so maybe I wasn’t really going to do the whole “one whatever at a time” thing but I was genuinely excited about the future. I had already achieved more than I ever expected to with this blog and now I had an opportunity to build it up even further. But there were a few things I hadn’t counted on… Losing my mojo and the consistent, crushing blows from my diabolical mental health.

I knew that this was a pretty massive change and my mental health situation means that dealing with change isn’t one of my strong points. I was firmly expecting some degree of uncertainty, of upset and upheaval. I was expecting to feel like the rug had been pulled right out from under my feet. So part of me was relieved when a close friend of mine decided to join me for the first few months. What I didn’t realise was that having another person around 24/7, one who has completely different expectations for travelling, would prove to be a challenge. I wasn’t on an extended holiday; I was working freelance for several clients as well as trying to fit in my own projects. Absolutely none of this was the fault of my friend but trying to balance the numerous, conflicting demands on my time became hugely stressful. I would get up early in the morning and try to get a few hours of work in before a day of sightseeing started. My clients were my priority so any snatched hours of free time were spent on their needs. I didn’t want to be anti-social so the blog was put on the back burner. Finding content became hard. The structure that working and blogging gave to me and my mental health had disappeared.

So I was already freaking out over leaving London and being in a strange place and all that. Now I was also freaking out because I wasn’t doing what I left London to do. I wasn’t having a good time. I was horribly, bitterly homesick, anxious and strung out. Which is ridiculous considering I was essentially on a grown-up gap year. My days were spent drinking beer in the sun, exploring temples, historic towns, cute cafes and exotic markets, snacking on street food and paddling in the sea. I was experiencing so much of the world but I was utterly miserable. I left London because I had stopped feeling like a human being and I wanted to do something to bring myself back. Kind of like the mental health equivalent of defibrilation. But it hadn’t worked. I was just as stressed out and just as unhappy. I was still dead inside.

So when my friend and I parted ways, I slumped into a massive depression. I was probably already depressed, even before I left the UK, but being alone with my thoughts meant there was no hiding from my mental health anymore. All the excitement I’d had about my blog and all those grand plans to turn it into something amazing had fizzled out. I had completely and utterly lost my mojo. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t take photos. I worked for my clients and I went through the motions of an average day. I moved from country to country. I saw things of great beauty and they did absolutely nothing for me. There were about two solid weeks when I was on the verge of tears every day. The smallest incident would tip me over the edge. Most of the time I was crushingly lonely. And when I did find the energy to work on my blog, no-one read it.

I know it’s not about the stats or the publicity but it’s still soul-destroying to spend time and effort on something that is then roundly ignored. When my first few travel posts flopped it stressed me out, but I picked myself back up and thought “ok, what do I need to do to make this work?” When the next posts flopped even harder I lost all motivation. I felt like a total failure and that made me question why I was still doing this. Blogging wasn’t making me happy any more. So I stopped.

I decided to concentrate on my photography instead and gradually the mojo started to return. I was happy with what I was producing – for the most part – and this gave me the energy I needed to inch my way out of the pit of depression I had tumbled into. Sylvia Plath had it bang on when she described depression as being a bell jar. It’s like a huge weight is on top of you and all you can do is lie there, watching the world go on around you but not being able to participate. Escaping from the jar or the pit or however you choose to describe it is a slow, exhausting process. I’m not fully out of it yet – but I’m getting there.

The time I spent away from writing was a tonic. I stopped caring about my website hits and my social media reach. And then, one day, I suddenly realised that all this stuff is bullshit. I started this blog for me and somewhere along the way I lost sight of that. I stopped writing because I enjoyed it and started writing for other people. I changed my style because I spent too much time listening to all those “increase your blog traffic by xxx million in one month” people. Blogging success shouldn’t be measured in terms of numbers. Ultimately it’s all about whether YOU enjoy what you’re doing or not. So, no offence to any of you lovely lot, but I’m going to start writing for me again.

Update: I started writing this post last year and it’s taken me until now to finish it. That’s how bad things have been. I have been utterly unable to write. Unfortunately the black dog never truly left my side; it’s been an almost permanent fixture for at least a solid year. I’m trying to find something to make it disappear but sadly this quote is still as relevant today as it was last year: “wherever I sat—on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok—I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.”

Searching for wild elephants in Munnar

Searching for wild elephants in Munnar

Munnar is….tea and elephants!

That’s quite a combination. Throw some extremely uncooperative weather into the mix and you have my trip to Munnar, in the Indian state of Kerala. If you’re visiting Cochin and want to do some sightseeing out of town, Munnar will likely be one of the prevailing options available to you. It’s definitely worth doing, even if the weather is somewhat unreliable. For a start, the landscape is completely different to Cochin. Based high in the Western Ghats, close to the border with Tamil Nadu, Munnar is surrounded by tessellated tea plantations, waterfalls and thickly forested mountains. Secondly, you have the opportunity to see something quite special: wild elephants.

I had seen elephants before and not just in the zoo. I’ve been lucky enough to get fairly close to them in Nepal and in Sri Lanka. The first time I saw one casually strolling past the window of our minibus in Nepal is something I’ll never forget. It was a definite “wow” moment. However, even though some of the elephants that I saw in Sri Lanka were on a nature reserve, I’ve never seen any truly wild elephants before now. Elephants that are just left alone to do their own thing, with no interference from humans. I was under no illusions that such a sight wouldn’t require a lot of luck – particularly in the vast forests of the Western Ghats and particularly when you were just driving around, not going off-road or trekking remote trails.

Anyway, you know that uncooperative weather I mentioned? Well, it rained during our trip. It rained a lot. I think we had, perhaps, three hours of dry weather and most of that was spent in the car as we headed out of Cochin. When we stopped off at one of the many spice gardens en route to Munnar (Kerala is famous for its spices), we had to dig out our waterproofs and try not to fall over as we navigated the steep, slippery paths around the garden. By the time we reached the tea museum, it was clear that even our waterproofs weren’t going to cut it. And at this altitude, the temperature had dropped to UK levels. As we sat in the museum, wet and shivering, it felt like so many of the school field trips I had taken. In other words, it was miserable.

We had hoped to do some hiking through the tea plantations, especially as our attempts to do this in Sri Lanka had come to an abrupt and soggy end. But, once again, the weather just was not on our side so all we could do was head straight to our accommodation. It wasn’t how we had wanted to spend our time in Munnar but we had high hopes for where we were staying. It had been sold in to us as a “luxury” house owned by “the richest lawyer in Kerala”. And we would have it all to ourselves. At least we’d be able to cosy up somewhere comfortable with a good book and a cup of tea until the rain stopped.

Er, no. The house had been converted wholesale into a hotel, with every spare room being turned into a bedroom. As far as common areas were concerned, there was a dining room and there was a large terrace, which wasn’t particularly appealing given the weather. And that was it. We had expected an actual house, something perhaps along the lines of an Airbnb place, but what we got was a very basic hotel which cost twice the amount we would usually pay. It certainly wasn’t luxurious. It was freezing cold, it was damp, there was no hot water and our shower didn’t work, meaning we had to wash with a bucket. And we didn’t have the place to ourselves; there were four other people staying there. At least there was wifi, so we could binge Netflix as the rain lashed the outside world. Then the power went out so that was the end of that. I couldn’t picture the richest lawyer in Kerala living like this.

It was too cold to sleep properly and, as the weather grew wilder, I lay awake worrying about the very real possibility of being stuck on the mountain. After a freezing bucket wash the next morning, compounded by a freezing breakfast surrounded by cloud on the terrace, we were eager to return to the tropical climate of Cochin asap. Had the weather abated during the night then we might have been able to do some hiking but guess what? It was still raining. Which left only one more thing on our itinerary – look for Munnar’s wild elephants. Our driver, Shaji, was mortified by how our excursion had been derailed by the weather – even though bad weather can’t be helped – so he was determined that something would go to plan today and we would see those elephants.

Actual view from the terrace

However, pinning all your hopes on a wild animal is a short-cut straight to disappointment. We were all too aware of this after failing to see any leopards at Yala National Park in Sri Lanka, despite it being one of the best places in the world to spot these incredible beasts. We pootled along the mountain roads, watching plastic-clad people pick tea; small, multi-coloured specks in a world of green. We saw the town where the plantation workers lived, made up of buildings as colourful as their owners, straggling their way up the hillside. We visited Top Station bazaar where the steam rising from the roadside chai stalls merged with the low clouds. All the while we were craning our necks and squinting into the distance, just in case we caught a glimpse of an elephant. But it was not to be. Shaji reluctantly turned the car around and we made our way back down the mountainside.

So that was my trip to Munnar – wet, cold, grey and a little bit of a let down. Until….

About 10 minutes after we turned back towards Cochin, Shaji suddenly yelled out “ELEPHANT!”. And, lo and behold, in a field right next to the road were three, absolutely incredible wild elephants including a baby. They were far enough away so as not to be disturbed by us but close enough for us to be able to fully admire them. It was a wonderful sight – beautiful wild creatures just making their way through their world, exactly as they are meant to.

After that it didn’t matter about the crappy weather. Or the cold hotel (sorry, I mean “luxury house owned by the richest lawyer in Kerala”). Or the bucket shower. Or nearly falling on my arse while looking at plants. Because seeing wild elephants is so awesome that everything else fades into the background. This was undoubtedly one of the highlights of my travels and is a memory that I’ll be able to call upon to make me smile for years to come.

What are your travel highlights? Share in the comments below.

6 unmissable bars in Kuala Lumpur

6 unmissable bars in Kuala Lumpur

Bars in Kuala Lumpur are…secret and sophisticated

To be honest, Kuala Lumpur was never on my extremely rough itinerary. But a combination of circumstances led to me spending an inordinate amount of time there. My first impressions were not favourable. I thought the city was ugly, traffic-choked, smoggy and sweaty. Over time, however, I grew to love it. It may not be an obviously lovely place, unlike other capital cities, but it has a vibe about it that keeps tugging at your sleeve saying “there’s more to me than meets the eye”. It helps that the bar scene is excellent, especially if you’re a total boozehound like me. From glitzy roof top establishments in among the soaring skyscrapers to speakeasies that are genuinely tricky to find (unlike *cough* the ones in London *cough), the bars in Kuala Lumpur are just one reason why this city is so much more than just a convenient transit point.

Sky Bar
If you’re in KL for the first time, chances are you’ll want to head straight to one of the many rooftop bars for a glimpse of that famous skyline. Sky Bar, on the 33rd floor of Trader’s Hotel, is a good place to start. Unlike a lot of the rooftop bars in Kuala Lumpur, Sky Bar manages to be sophisticated without being snobby.There’s no dress code, meaning it’s easier to visit if you’re backpacking and haven’t brought your high heels with you. The bar itself is dominated by a massive swimming pool with seating areas sunk into the floor surrounding it.These prime spots have floor to ceiling windows affording a cracking view the Petronas Towers.There’s an extensive cocktail menu and various nightly discounts, making Sky Bar one of the more affordable rooftop bars in town.
Sky Bar, Level 33, Trader’s Hotel, KLCC

Omakase + Appreciate
This quirky speakeasy is near impossible to find unless you know what to look for. And even then, I still had to ask somebody. Hidden away beneath a nondescript office building on Jalan Ampang, Omakase + Appreciate doesn’t even have a name its extremely unprepossessing door. The only giveaway is a sign saying “No Entry” in several different languages. “Omakase” is a Japanese concept meaning “it’s up to you” and that’s exactly what the bartender here let you do. Sure, there’s a cocktail list – divided by bartender rather than spirit – but the real fun here lies in letting the bar staff make up a bespoke cocktail just for you. Let the guys know what you like and they’ll use their mixological talents to create something unique.
Omakase + Appreciate, Ampang Bangunan Ming Annexe, Jalan Ampang

Botak Liquor
A relative newcomer on the KL bar scene, this garden-themed hideaway is above Chocha Foodstore in Chinatown. Head up the wrought-iron spiral staircase and enter a gorgeously green, foliage-filled drinking den, with a shabby-chic vibe that wouldn’t look out of place in the likes of Hackney. The inventive, horticulturally-inspired cocktails are created with botanicals grown on site, making use of local ingredients such as pandan, starfruit and calamansi – flavours that are perhaps unusual to Western palates. A particular highlight is their Chocolate x Chili, which contains tequila, gin, sweet vermouth, bitter orange liqueur and chocolate. It packs a punch both in terms of booze and heat so it’s not for the faint-hearted!
Botak Liquor, 156 Jalan Petaling

Marini’s on 57
My first attempt to visit Marini’s ended at the front door due their very strict dress code and my pink flip-flops. However, a quick trip to H&M later and I was back the following night. As one of the highest bars in Kuala Lumpur, located on the 57th floor of Petronas Tower 3, it commands a fantastic view of the twin towers. It’s a bit of a mission to navigate both the dress code then the trip up to the 57th floor, but the cocktails alone are worth it. Try the Mango to Tango – a tequila based cocktail with yellow chartreuse, mango, honey, lime and egg white. Marini’s is brash, bold and noisy with big beats and brusque service. If that’s not your cup of tea then it’s best avoided. If it is, get there early for a seat next to the windows.
Marini’s on 57, Level 57, Menara 3 Petronas, Persiaran KLCC

PS150
PS150 has a reputation as one of the best cocktail bars in Kuala Lumpur and it certainly has bags of character. Once again, I had to ask someone for directions as it’s hidden behind a “toy shop” facade. Open the door and follow the dimly lit passageway until you hit the jackpot –  a tiny, jewel-like respite from the mayhem of Petaling Street with a very well-stocked bar. The cocktails are divided up by era – Pre-Prohibition, Prohibition, Post-War, Dark Ages (the 70’s-2000’s) and Revival (contemporary). It felt very much like a genuine speakeasy; the glowing red lanterns, calligraphy and crumbling brickwork transported me back to an era that was perhaps naughtier, more daring and more exotic than the present. Perhaps that’s not entirely surprising considering the building used to be a brothel! A must for anyone visiting KL.
PS150, 150 Jalan Petaling

Pahit
If you’re a gin lover – and let’s face it, who isn’t these days – then Pahit should be on your radar. It’s tucked away on a pretty residential side street and, while it’s not as well-hidden as some of the other speakeasy bars in town, its entrance is still fairly discreet. It feels like you’re at someone’s colonial house rather than a bar and, even though its in the centre of town, you will believe that you’re a million miles away from the madness of KL. Sink into a wicker chair in the courtyard garden or head inside where it’s all louvered doors and crumbling, white brickwork. With over 70 varieties of gin to choose from, where do you even start? A good place is their list of fruit-infused gin and tonics. Try the calamansi and asam boi version for a Malaysian twist on a classic.
Pahit, 3 Jalan Sin Chiu Kee, Bukit Bintang

Travelling and leaving home: How not to do it

Travelling and leaving home: How not to do it

Travelling is…..good planning and organisation

I’m not generally a disorganised sort of person. I worked as a personal assistant for a good many years; a job where your organisation skills have to be top notch. And when it comes to travelling, I’ve always been borderline paranoid; making sure I have everything I need, leaving for the airport/train station super early just in case, triple checking that I’ve locked all the doors and windows…. Yet for some reason, when I planned my biggest travel adventure yet, organisation went right out of the unlocked window. Here’s how NOT to start your trip.

Decide to move out and fly on the same day
Because there’s nothing more stressful than moving house. And there are few things more stressful than travelling. So, of course, it makes perfect sense for you to do both of these things on the same day. It helps if you haven’t finished packing either for your trip or your move, so you spend all morning frantically trying to get everything finished off before the inventory clerk arrives to do the tenancy check-out. But it’s ok because you don’t have to physically vacate the premises when the inventory clerk is there….do you?

Leave all your packing to the last minute
Well the answer to that question is yes, you do have to physically leave the premises when the inventory clerk is there. That means the property should be completely empty and completely clean. Leaving all your packing to the very last minute and totally underestimating (a) just how much stuff you have and (b) how long it would take to get rid of it all is the perfect way to move house. Doing it this way means that you still have a houseful of crap to remove when you’re supposed to be out of the door and it also means that you won’t have finished packing for your trip when you’re meant to be travelling to the airport in a matter of hours.

Keep working right up until the bitter end
Don’t worry about leaving yourself an free week or so to sort out all your packing and logistics. Keep working at your full-time job right up until you’re due to leave the country. It’s fine – you need the extra money and you don’t have that much to do really…

Have a break down in front of a stranger
By the time the inventory clerk arrived to do the check out, I was in a state of frenzy. So when she pointed out that the house hadn’t been cleaned to an appropriate standard – despite me hiring “professional” cleaners – and that I would have to vacate the house when she was done….well let’s just say it was the straw that broke the stressed person’s resolve. I burst into tears right in front of this woman who I had known for all of five minutes. Yeah, sometimes I’m not great at adulting.

Lock yourself out of your house on your last day
I lived in my last place for 8 years and not once did I lock myself out. Until my very last day when I had to leave for the airport in a couple of hours and I still hadn’t finished moving my stuff. I was in such a tizz about everything, I wasn’t paying attention to what I was doing. In my haste to take yet another load of stuff down to the charity shop, I picked up my back door keys by mistake and dashed out of the front door… The panic that set in upon realising my error is not something I wish to repeat. Especially as I didn’t even have my phone with me. My landlady had recently moved to a new lettings agency so I had to power walk to their office, praying all the way that they would have a spare set of keys. Fortunately they did, but the whole incident ate into my limited time.

Get a new phone but don’t set it up until you’re about to leave the house
Then realise that it doesn’t work properly when you’ve officially vacated your house and you’re trying to book an Uber to the airport and it’s raining.

Pack for your travels in a really impractical way and don’t do a test run before leaving
I had a medium-sized wheely bag that you could also wear as a rucksack. I thought this was a really genius thing to use, as I didn’t want to have to carry a heavy bag on my back if I could help it. Not realising that the frame and wheels of this sort of bag made it much heavier than necessary. So I planned to take this and then my normal sized rucksack as a day bag. But then I discovered a much bigger rucksack at the back of a cupboard – a brand new one that I had forgotten all about. It was, like, a “proper” rucksack; bigger than a day bag but not as big as a backpacking type of bag. So, I reasoned, why not take this one as my day bag instead? And then use a tote bag/mini rucksack for wandering around town etc? Yes, that would be a great idea. Until I tried to carry everything. I was so weighed down with bags that I couldn’t even get onto the escalator at Earls Court tube station. I eventually ditched the wheely bag and learned how to pack in a more streamlined way – making travelling a thousand times easier.

Leaving a life behind to travel the world is exciting and wonderful and full of possibility – but it’s also stressful and annoying and potentially a logistical nightmare. Don’t make it more difficult than it has to be.

10 colourful photos that will make you want to visit Panaji

10 colourful photos that will make you want to visit Panaji

Man with bicycle outside shop in Panaji, Goa

Panaji is….a glorious architectural rainbow

Chances are you’ll be visiting Goa for the beautiful beaches but what if you fancy a change from all that sun, sand and surf? Goa’s capital, Panaji (also known as Panjim), is a brilliant way to spend a day away from the coast. The Portuguese influence is still strong in the crumbling old town; evident in the azejuelo tiles, the language on the street signs and the wonderfully distinctive cuisine. Visit certain restaurants and you could almost be forgiven for thinking that you’ve somehow teleported to the other side of the world. There aren’t any major sights in Panaji but the pleasure is in simply wandering through the sleepy, rainbow-hued streets, occasionally stopping for a glass of local wine and soaking up the atmosphere.

Yellow building in Panaji, Goa

Mellow yellow…

General store with Portuguese tiling in Panaji, Goa

I love the contrast of red walls with blue tilework.

 

Printer and stationers shop in Panaji, Goa

Wish I could have seen what’s behind this door. Such an old fashioned sign.

 

Orange house in Panaji, Goa

Could you get away with an orange house in London? Or does it only work somewhere tropical?

 

Indian women in saris in Panaji, Goa

One of the things I loved about Goa was how colourful the women were too.

 

Green building with balcony in Panaji, Goa

Green walls, tiled floors, my kind of design…

 

Tailor and pay phone in a yellow building in Panaji, Goa

I love how beaten up this looks. Also the combination of tailor and pay phone is pretty unique!

 

Old building with wooden balcony and plants in Panaji, Goa

When I move back to the UK, I’d like a colourful house full of gorgeous green plants please.

I’d never even heard of Panaji before arriving in Goa so it was an extra-lovely surprise to discover how gorgeous it is. Not only does it look beautiful; it’s a glorious mish-mash of cultures and religions, where you can find wedding cake Catholic churches snuggled up to gaudy Hindu temples and traditional Portuguese cooking with more than a dash of Indian spice mixed through it.

Panaji is basically a creative’s dream. I found so much to inspire me here – both from a design point of view and also from simply observing daily life. It felt almost like going back in time to a place where big brands, mass production or digitised working don’t exist – although much of India can do that to you. If you want an insight into everyday Goan life away from the beach resorts, Panaji should definitely be on your to-do list.

Need to know:
We took a taxi to Panaji from our hotel in Baga and got it to drop us off at the bus station. We then spent a good couple of hours wandering around looking for the old town. Either take a taxi straight there or ensure you have a map (we didn’t!). There are also tuk-tuks around but not that many comparatively and some of them will try to charge you per person. If you take one then make sure you either have a street name or specific location to give them.

Most places close for a siesta in the afternoon, including restaurants, so plan accordingly.

There’s a fish market and fruit/veg market in the main town which is definitely worth checking out.

A houseboat in Kerala: How to relax like a pro

A houseboat in Kerala: How to relax like a pro

A houseboat in Kerala, India

A houseboat in Kerala is…for people who can’t switch off (and for those who can!)

I don’t know about you guys but I’m not great at switching off. Living in London does it to you; the constant thrum of the capital means you’re pretty much always on the go. Even when I was vegging out in front of Netflix, my brain would still be processing the sensory overload of the city; thinking about what to do and where to go next. And I’m the same now I’ve left London. Contrary to my belief that giving up my full-time job would free up some time, I’m actually busier than ever, just in a different way. How would I cope staying on a houseboat in Kerala – a full 24 hours without the internet???

As the many road signs proclaim, Kerala is God’s own country. This blissed-out, palm tree-strewn southern Indian state is pretty close to paradise on earth. If you only do one thing in Kerala, you should stay overnight on a houseboat. Kerala is known for its backwaters; silent lagoons linked by sleepy, meandering channels. The best way to explore this beautiful area is by houseboat and you will find lots of different tour companies offering various packages – either online or just by walking around Fort Kochi, for example. However, you’ll most likely end up on a motorised boat around Alleppey, jostling for space on the water with a hundred other houseboats. This is not the chilled-out Keralan vibe that you’re looking for.

On the Kerala backwaters, India

If you’re going to do the whole houseboat thing in style then the trick is to escape from everyone else who wants to do exactly the same. And for that you need to avoid Alleppey. By chance, we wandered into the office of Wilson Tours in Fort Kochi where we were given a choice – take a motorised houseboat around Alleppey or a smaller, punted boat in a place where we would see no other tourists. Well, it was a no brainer really…. That’s how, one slightly damp morning, we found ourselves boarding our very own houseboat in a tiny Keralan village. And it really was all our own – complete with two guys to punt and one onboard chef. It seemed like such a treat but actually only cost around £25 each.

The houseboat contained a bedroom with an en-suite bathroom, a kitchen and a deck area complete with two lounge chairs, a coffee table and a fold-away dining table for our meals. We settled into our seats, were given a pot of tea and a plateful of freshly made banana crisps (to die for) and off we went. There was literally nothing to do but read, write and watch the sleepy Keralan countryside glide by. And that’s the beauty of a houseboat in Kerala – you’re forced into a digital detox where the only thing you can do is relax. There was no noise other than the splash of the punt or the sound of the many birds along the backwaters – kingfishers, brahminy kites, fish eagles and loads more that I couldn’t even begin to identify.

Onboard a houseboat in Kerala, India

Wilson Tours were true to their word. We didn’t see any other tourist houseboats on this trip. Occasionally we passed local people in canoes or fishermen on their way to check the large Chinese fishing nets that were dotted around. But that was about it as far as other people went. As the late afternoon light grew more golden and the shadows grew longer, I felt like I could quite easily doze off. Considering I have been on sleeping tablets for three years, this is nothing short of a miracle. Having absolutely nothing to do other than lazily float on calm, green waters while being fed incredibly well is clearly a winning strategy for relaxation.

A Chinese fishing net in Kerala, India

We moored up in a lagoon for the night and watched from underneath our canopy as rain fell gently around us. As it grew dark and we enjoyed our dinner of curry with freshly made chappatis, hundreds of fireflies darted around us; a beautiful sight I’ve never witnessed before. I was then more than ready to curl up in our cosy little wood-panelled bedroom and enjoy a nights sleep with zero light pollution. Waking up to a soft, Turner-esque dawn and settling down to watch as the morning mist gradually evaporated off the lagoon while fish eagles wheeled and dived around me beat that Tube commute any day.

The Kerala backwaters, India

For someone who doesn’t really know how to relax and who gets slightly twitchy whenever there’s no internet, a houseboat in Kerala was the perfect tonic. Spending time away from the “black mirror” of my phone and laptop genuinely helped me to switch off and decompress. There are times when my decision to escape the rat race has been hard, but this definitely wasn’t one of them.

What relaxing experiences have you had while travelling? Share them in the comments.