Tag Archives: travel

Hitchhiking To Detroit – An Adventure Like No Other

9 Feb

You’re hitchhiking to DETROIT?” friends asked of me incredulously. “Are you mad?” they would enquire, ever before I even mentioned that I would also be couchsurfing there. i.e. staying on an absolute stranger’s couch for the weekend.

I never planned to go to Detroit, it all just seemed to fall into place. I was invited to attend the Detroit Couch Crash, a meeting organized by all the wonderful couchsurfers in Michigan to unite people from all over for the US for Memorial Day weekend. It also happened to take place during DEMF (Detroit Electronic Music Festival), an annual event attracting thousands of hard core music fans.

After standing awkwardly on the main highway out of Toronto, with my thumb stuck out and a strained smile on my face, I waited patiently for a kind stranger to pick me up. Many people pulled in, slowed down or stopped, before performing rude hand gestures or shouting obscenities in my direction and subsequently speeding off. The joys of traveling in a country not accustomed to hitchhikers!

Eventually I secured a ride with what seemed to be a very decent man travelling all the way to Windsor, a town on the Canadian/US border. However normal he appeared, his initial greeting once I sat into the car was anything but conventional.

“I hitchhiked myself once”, he said.  “All the way from LA to Montreal about fifteen years ago. Yup, and I got picked up by a mass murderer and all. You just ‘know’ when you have sat into a car with a mass murderer, don’t you.”

Words escaped me, but he continued.

“Lucky back then I was a lot bigger.” He flexes his now deflated ‘guns’. “We were driving through the corn fields of Iowa and BAM I knocked him out and threw him out of the car. You gotta do what you gotta do, right?”

Indeed, I thought, as I contemplated jumping out of the moving vehicle.

The four hour journey continued on a similar note with him telling me about how he asked God to find him a wife – he found one 2 weeks later and they have been married ever since, how he broke his crack cocaine habit in a bar days before ‘finding’ his wife, and of course all about his journey becoming a born again Christian and door-to-door salesman.

If having to listen to this mans slightly scary and equally bizarre life story for four hours wasn’t interesting enough material for a blog post or two, soon my worst nightmare was coming true. We were running out of petrol with not a gas station in sight. Hopping over the border for a weekend break to Detroit was proving to be more hassle than I ever could have anticipated!

Upon finally making it to the American border, alive and well, I was quizzed about where I was from, where I was living, and of course where I was going in a stuffy little immigration office and was once again questioned about my sanity.

How did you get here? the large, stern looking woman asked.

“I hitchhiked from Toronto”. Cue shocked, incredulous looks.

“Where are you staying in Detroit?”, she continued.

“Oh, I’m couchsurfing in Corktown with…”

‘You’re what??’ she interrupted.

‘I’m couchsurfing…it’s a website where you can stay on peoples couches for free all over the world’.

“So it’s (glances at her watch) nearly midnight on a Friday night and you are planning on meeting a total stranger in the ghetto, who you met off the internet and you’re going to sleep on their couch?! Are you crazy woman?!”

I was beginning to think she might have a point, but couldn’t help but laugh. As I get my visa approved and head for the exit, the woman’s colleague calls to me, ‘Have you got a gun with you?

Puzzled and thinking they are trying to catch me out and deport me from the US before I have even taken a step over the border, I immediately (and truthfully) reply ‘Of course not!’ to which the male immigration officer quickly responds,

“I would if I were you. This is Detroit.”

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Myanmar Travel Guide: Everything You Read Is Wrong

3 Feb

This is my third guest blog post of 2015, written by the brilliant Brian M. Williams who runs the excellent website NetSideBar.com. Be sure to check it out to read the rest of his brilliant travel diaries. His photographs are also incredible – all photos in this post were taken by him.

Where to begin when talking about how different Myanmar is from other countries in Southeast Asia, and, indeed, the world? I guess you can start with the fact that it has a half-hour timezone difference: when it’s 8 in Bangkok, it’s 8:30 in Myanmar. However, this is just the inconsequential-tip of the iceberg when it comes to how different Myanmar is.

To begin to understand what makes Myanmar different you have to know a little about its recent history. Burma, Myanmar’s name during colonial times, was controlled by the British starting in 1886. They would continue to rule the country up until World War II when much of the country was taken over by Japanese forces. After the war, in 1948, Burma became an independent country with an elected government. However, in 1962, the military took over the country, restricted rights, arrested opposition leaders, strictly controlled and centrally planned the country’s economy and simultaneously isolated it from the rest of the world. The end result of all of this was that Burma became one of the poorest countries on Earth. During the the military’s long rule, there were many civilian-led protests that were almost always put down with violent force by the military government.

However, starting in 2008, democratic reforms, which included having open elections and releasing political prisoners, have resulted in Myanmar being allowed to rejoin the world community. The country even hosted President Obama, the first American president to visit the country, in 2012 and again in 2014. Still, there are some who argue that the reforms have not gone far enough and that the government is continuing to persecute certain religious and ethnic minorities in the country. Therefore, they say that foreigners should not support such a government with their tourist dollars. While I can appreciate this point of view and can testify that there is still fighting going on in the country that can sometimes shut down tourist routes (more on that later), I do not support sanctioning and isolating the people of a country because of the actions of their government. If the idea is that punishing ordinary citizens will cause them to revolt against their government, there has been zero evidence in history to show it works (see Iraq, Iran, Cuba and North Korea, just to name a few). What does work is people from around the world interacting, learning and sharing ideas and views about things like freedom and human rights. So, yeah, I had no moral reservations about going to Myanmar.

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First Impression

Regardless of this debate, the result of Myanmar’s long isolation is that tourism has been slow to develop in the country. The country is full of old cars and old buildings and there are very few things that appear modern or 21st century at all.  There is also a lack of advertising and big name brand Western goods that makes it clear it has not been fully overrun by Western capitalism which is something very difficult to find these days. For these and other similar reasons, travelers, such as myself, have been drawn to this country despite it being more difficult to travel in than many other places.

In many parts of SE Asia, tourists are catered to to such a degree that all anyone has to do is just arrive at the airport and from there they can go anywhere on a VIP bus to any number of high-end resorts (or, more likely, party scenes) and spend weeks in the region without really seeing any of its culture or having to do any thinking or planning for themselves. The original or traditional culture in such places has bent so much to accommodate the wants and desires of tourists that much of it seems lost or at least hidden away very well. In its place has developed a feeding frenzy to get the most tourist dollars a person can which sometimes includes an endless deluge of people asking you to buy the same crappy items every three minutes, constantly being approached by beggars, and ripping people off and scamming tourists. Foreigners are seen as moneybags who are meant to be hit up like a pinata every chance a person has to see if some money will fall out.

My hope in going to Myanmar was that this aspect of “development” wouldn’t have reached the country, and I’m very glad to say it hadn’t. The people in Myanmar still have a friendliness, purity and sincerity that is hard to find in modern and big city cultures. Unlike many other parts of SE Asia, when people in Myanmar talk to you, the vast majority of the time it is without an agenda and someone saying “Hi,” and asking “Where are you from?” is not the opening of a sales pitch but just a reflection of their curiosity about who is coming to visit their country. Every where I went – big city or small town – children would regularly run up to me just to say, “Hi.” They would then, just as quickly, say, “Bye,” all while waving their hands furiously and smiling. While this can happen in other places in SE Asia, it is almost always in remote, small villages that don’t get a lot of tourists.

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Travel Tips: Everything You’ve Read Is Wrong

Traveling in Myanmar is more difficult than many other countries in the region. While the trains run on time, they bounce, sway and rock violently and often times give you the feeling they’re about to go off the tracks. I literally had to tie my bags down to keep them from falling off the overhead luggage-rack. At another time, a train I was on crossed over a large bridge so slowly I could have literally walked it faster. Still, it’s a great way to see the vast countryside and some very small villages and towns.

Buses there have very odd schedules. Most long distance buses are overnight, which wouldn’t be such a problem except they will do bizarre things like leave a place at 7 pm only to arrive at your destination around 3 or 4 in the morning. The roads can also be bumpy and very swervey. I personally suggest paying a bit more to get a VIP bus when you can just to get a better ride and better sleep on an overnight trip.

There are also many slow boat options in the country. It can be expensive, but slow boats are a very relaxing and pleasant way to travel. However, the five day slow boat I was planning on taking had been closed to foreigners apparently due to fighting along the river banks. (I was lucky enough to find this out the day before I was going to head out to start that part of my trip.) Similar reports of random places, even by land, closing or reopening were frequent among travelers. Talk to your fellow travelers and always try to find people who have been to a place you want to go to make sure your travel plans are actionable.

Accommodations are not the cheapest in Myanmar. Hotels in Yangon start at 25$ which is a big jump up from the $10 a night you can easily find in the rest of SE Asia. While there are certainly places cheaper than 25$ in other parts of the country, they can be hard to find and are no where near as plentiful as Lonely Planet makes them out to be. I would suggest budgeting 15-20 dollars a night while there for rooms. Some days you’ll be under for sure, but some days you’ll be over. Hotel prices have gone up a lot in just the past two years and will likely continue to move that way. The best way to cut these costs is to find someone to share a room with. Also, with buses arriving at such odd times at night, this can create an extra problem: Some hotels will check you in right away if they have an open room and treat it all as one day. Others will, however, charge you for an extra half day. On the bright side though, every hotel, guest house and hostel offers breakfast but some places’ breakfasts are much better than others.

Another very important area where Lonely Planet is horribly outdated is that it is much easier to get money in Myanmar than it was just a few years ago. ATMs are everywhere and work just fine. You no longer need to bring in mint condition US 100 dollar bills which I broke my back trying to get in Bangkok just before my flight. However, if you do bring US cash, the banks and government exchanges offices give very fair rates and there is no need to go to the black-market anymore like LP suggests.

There also seems to be visas on arrival (VOA). I don’t know any details about this, but I did see a counter for it at the airport and several Westerners standing in line for it. Just Google it. If this is an option, it might be much easier than running back and forth to their embassy and might be cheaper than paying a travel agent to do it.

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Final Thoughts:

While I have no way to prove it, I personally believe that Myanmar is attempting to smartly develop their tourist industry and is trying to avoid becoming like certain other countries in SE Asia. To that end, the high cost of hotels, the complete lack of a party scene ( I averaged going to bed around 10-11 while there) and just the overall level of difficulty in traveling is all aimed at keeping out large numbers of tourists. There were plenty of wealthy tourists traveling or flying around the country to visit the ever-growing number of expensive resorts just like much of SE Asia. But gone were the budget accommodations, booze cruises and pub crawls that are common throughout the region.

Myanmar isn’t for flash packers, gap-year party kids or idiot travelers who can’t bother making any plans for themselves (save the very rich ones). The lack of these things showed in the quality of the travelers I met there. No one was there by accident or by way of lazy curiosity. No one was there because they had heard it was a “good party.” No one was there because it was effortless to get there. People where there with a real interest in seeing the country and the culture. They had detailed plans about where they wanted to go and what they wanted to see. And everyone really seemed grateful to being seeing this country before it gets further along on the path to integrating with the rest of the world.

Best Places To Visit In Ireland

31 Jan

I love to travel. I love finding cheap flights. I love running away from Ireland. However, at the end of the day, Ireland is my home and I absolutely love it here. Sure, it rains a lot, and we don’t really get a proper summer like most other countries, but when the sun shines there really is no place I would rather be.

From the rugged West coast, to the stunning national parks up North to the long, white sand beaches dotted along the East coast, Ireland has SO much to offer both locals and tourists. In this post, I have asked a handful of brilliant Irish bloggers to write about their favourite places around the country. Here’s what they had to say.

West Clare 

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Suggested by Denise Sweeney

“My favorite place in Ireland is West Clare! From the endless beaches to the Traditional Music to the amazing scenery and many tourist attractions, West Clare has it all! It’s a place that anyone can enjoy,young or old! Its a place filled with happy memories and I always feel nostalgic when I’m there!”

Altamont Gardens, Carlow

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Suggested by Dee Sewell

“My favourite place is Altamont Gardens in County Carlow. From the formal rose walk and herbaceous borders, to the water lily filled lake, boulder strew stream and river walk. Open all year with free entry, garden centre, picnic area and tea rooms, it’s a wonderful place to visit for all ages.”

Galway City

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Suggested by Sean Burke and Amy Loonam

“Galway City for me as it feels like a blend of different cultures with the Spanish arches and tourists from all over the world.”

“I’ve been living here as an art student for 3 years now and it’s my second home,everyone is so friendly, it has such lovely little shops, and it’s just full of music and culture.”

Dunfanaghy, Donegal

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Suggested by Karen Sloane Gribbon

“Dunfanaghy is the diamond in the hills of Donegal. The perfect place for people of all ages. The perfect family haven for us. In the morning, take a dander along the beautiful beach, surf the waves or gallop along the sand dunes on horseback. Then meander through the little tiny square in the afternoon with its dreamy boutiques full of handmade gifts then go have fun in The Workhouse play park. Finish the day crab fishing, then go explore the undiscovered walking trails. Finally top it all off with delicious grub, a tasteful Guinness and a few live tunes.”

Clare Glens, Limerick

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Suggested by Darragh Bourke

“My favourite place in Ireland is the beautiful picturesque Clare glens just outside of Murroe in Co. Limerick. With dozens of waterfalls it makes for a beautiful walk. A fantastic pathway leads you up to a bridge which crosses right by the main falls with a breathtaking trek back down which in parts leaves you standing on the edge of a cliff with nothing preventing a 75ft drop to the Rapids below. Beauty of nature combined with a MAX adrenaline rush.”

Duncannon, Wexford

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Suggested by Sinéad Fox

“20 years after I left my home place of Duncannon on the Hook Peninsula has established itself as my favourite place. I now appreciate the stunning views, the beach, the fresh sea air and the friendly faces in a way my teenage self wouldn’t understand. There’s so much to do in the locality, especially with children and a choice of great places to eat, you should visit!”

Copper Coast, Waterford

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Suggested by Catherine Drea

“I’d have to say the Copper Coast in Waterford. It’s a quiet hidden gem of beaches, wild cliffs and beautiful off the beaten track boreens and I’m lucky enough to live here in the middle of it!”

Dublin

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Suggested by Lorna Garety

“The jewel in the crown has to be my hometown – Dublin. The world’s friendliest city, beautiful architecture, lively cultural scene, deer roaming through one of Europe’s largest city parks, sea and mountains on our doorstep.”

Killaloe, Clare

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Suggested by Margaret Griffin

“My favourite place is Killaloe in Co. Clare on the Shannon and Lough Derg. Cross the bridge and you are in Ballina, Co Tipperary. A foodie paradise on water. Fabulous cafes, restaurants, craft shops, scenery. Absolutely wonderful for a summer weekend or longer.”

Skellig Michael, Kerry

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Suggested by me

“Skellig Michael is a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to one of the oldest Christian Monastic settlements in the world – founded sometime between the 6th and 8th century. It is also home to a vast range of wildlife, including Puffins, Seagulls and over 50,000 gannets. It is one of the most magical places you will ever set foot on. Not bad for a tiny island off the coast of Kerry!”

Top 5 Travel Startups To Check Out In 2015

17 Jan

I have seen a lot of new and interesting travel startups pop up on my various social media feeds over the past few months, many of which I am very excited about trying out. From travel apps that give you the opportunity to to do free accommodation exchanges in cities all over the world, to apps that help you meet locals that will take you on unique adventures with them, these are the Top 5 Travel Startups to check out this year.

5. Nightswapping

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Nightswapping is a new travel app that allows people to travel and sleep for free all over the world. A mix between Couchsurfing and home-swapping, for every night you host people in your own home, you are entitled to a free night in someone else’s house in destinations around the world. From beautiful Chateaus in the French countryside, to stunning town houses in London, Nightswapping enables you to stay for free in accommodation you would otherwise only dream about. WIth over 6,000 hosts in 54 countries, this is definitely one to watch in 2015.

4. Advlo

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Advlo (which stands for ‘Adventure Local’) aims to promote adventurous travel in exciting destinations all over the world. Instead of booking a tour, or an activity online through a large travel agency, Advlo will connect you with adventurous locals that can take you kitesurfing in Ecuador or spearfishing in Hawaii. Users of the site can also create their own adventures and charge people to come along and join the trip. I really hope to join one of their adventures this year.

3. travayl

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travayl is a social travel platform that lets users organize their trip around what matters most to them, focusing on visual content discovery rather than text. You can search the images either by destination or activity, create your bucket lists and actually plan and book your trip all in once place. Users can monetize their travel photos and videos by uploading them on to the site and becoming a partner, making it a great way to make money while traveling.

2. AirHelp

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AirHelp is the answer to all your prayers! If you have been on a delayed or cancelled flight or been denied boarding within the last three years you could be entitled up to $800 from the airline, and AirHelp is here to help you get any compensation owed to you. On the AirHelp website, smartphone app or Facebook page, air passengers can check if they are eligible for compensation. They can then request that AirHelp handles their claim on what the company describes as a ‘No Win, No Fee’ basis. Seems like a win win situation to me!

1. Feastly

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Feastly allows travelers to eat delicious home cooked meals with locals. Often when backpacking it can get very exhausting going out to restaurant after restaurant, night after night, eating virtually the same meals again and again. Feastly enables you not only to eat a home cooked meal in someone else homes, but also potentially helps you to make new friends as you might be eating dinner with a collection of other hungry strangers! Right now this is only available in a few select cities, but I’m hoping that they will expand further in 2015!

Top 10 Unusual Travel Destinations for 2015

15 Jan

After reading this great post by Elite Daily outlining ‘50 Unpredictable And Non-Clichéd Places To Travel To In Your 20s’, I thought I would write my own list of unusual travel destinations which I think you should check out. Not all of you though, don’t want these secret places getting too touristy now, do we?

Sometimes there are amazing, and quiet, hideaways waiting for you just around the corner from top tourist destinations. You don’t have to travel to Easter Island or West Africa just to get off the beaten track. Here are my Top 10 unusual travel destinations. Would love to hear what yours are!

10. Ssese Islands, Uganda.

While Uganda is far from the top of any Lonely Planet ‘Top Travel Destination’ list, it is slowly but surely growing as an interesting spot for people backpacking through East Africa or on some group truck trip down through the African continent.

The Ssese islands are a sort of unspoiled paradise smack bang in the middle of Lake Victoria, which in case you didn’t know, is the biggest tropical lake in the world! Think remote beaches, pineapple plantations, freshly caught fish for lunch and an unlimited supply of green, spiky-leafed plants that rhyme with bead. ;-) Just be careful of the Piranhas when swimming…

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9. Sapa, Northern Vietnam

Vietnam is now a popular spot for many adventurous travellers and is one of the most frequented destinations on the infamous ‘banana pancake trail’ around South East Asia. Sapa, which is a farming community in the far North of the country on the border with China, is a lot less busy than the rest of the country. The local H’mong people still live life the same way they probably did 50 or even 100 years ago. You can do a home-stay with these amazing people, after hiking for hours through the most stunning terraced rice fields and indulge in some of the most delicious traditional Vietnamese food which you will ever have the pleasure to eat.

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8. Inhambane, Mozambique

Think long white sandy beaches, hammocks, palm trees, fresh coconut cocktails and staying in rooms made of bamboo that line the beach. No jet-skis, no salespeople, no fancy restaurants at rip-off prices…this is true backpacker paradise. You can spend your days lying in a hammock reading a good book, or head out on a traditional boat for some snorkelling in some of the most undisturbed coral reefs in the world. The only trouble you’ll have when it come to Inhambane is actually getting there!

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7. Bale Mountains, Ethiopia

Soooo not a lot of people know that you can actually go to Ethiopia on your vacation. Lot’s of people haven’t a clue how GREEN this country is, so full of trees and wildlife and mountains. People just think of poverty, sand and the desert. This does not describe Ethiopia. In fact tourist agencies in the country promote it as the land of ’13 months of sunshine ‘ (thanks to its’ bizarre calendar it has 13 months  in the calendar year and is 7.5 years behind the rest of the world!!)

The Bale mountains are unbelievably beautiful and you can organize a 1 week trek on horse back fairly easily on arrival. Meet medicine men, local children, learn about the medicinal properties of every plant and tree you pass, and pick what animal you would like killed and cooked for your dinner. A pretty amazing experience!

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6. Slieve League, Ireland

Just because I travel a lot outside of Ireland doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the beauty this country has to offer. However, I do encourage tourists to get off the beaten track and to avoid tourist traps like Temple Bar, Kilkenny and even the Cliffs of Moher. Why not go somewhere where few tourists go, but will blow you away. For me one of these destinations is Slieve League in Donegal, famed for being Europe’s highest sea cliffs.

Following a walk along the unprotected cliff, you can drive to some of the nearby fishing villages for a nice pint (better than the Guinness storehouse!) and some delicious pub grub. I did a road trip around Donegal a few years ago and it was one of the best weekend trips I have ever done.

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5. Tbilisi, Georgia

Georgia (the country, not the state) is not very well known. In fact apart from the people I travelled there with, I have only met 2 or 3 people who have ever ventured there. Tbilisi, the country’s capital, is the most magical city. Arriving by night, all the old building around the city are beautifully lit up and it really gives the impression of a fairytale.

There are lots of great things to see and do in and around the city, but the real highlight is the people, the food and the oh -so-tasty Georgian wine! Everyone in Georgia makes their own wine and there is no shortage of it. The bread, the cheese and the wine will make you never want to leave. If you are lucky…you might even get to hear some locals singing a traditional Georgian folk song – now that is something you will never forget.

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4. Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

For me, the Cameron Highlands sort of remind me of Vietnam, except instead of terraced rice fields, they are growing endless rows of tea leaves. Tours around this area are fascinating, learning about the history of the tea plantations were started, where all the tea goes, and learning about the medicinal properties of all the plants in the area.

There are some super relaxed hotels and nature hostels in the area, where you can easily waste away a few days listening to other travelers tales and reading some great books.

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3. Zanzibar, Tanzania

For anyone who has traveled around East Africa, this won’t seem like much of an unusual destination, but for people who have never set foot on the African continent, they may not have heard of this absolute gem. Located off the coast of Tanzania, Zanzibar is both the ultimate honeymoon destination and the perfect backpacker getaway.

Start your visit in the historic stone town, where you can easily get lost down the winding, narrow streets filled with the smell of spices, and incense and delicious street food. After a day or two, make your way to the long, empty palm-tree lined beaches where you can learn to scuba dive, swim with turtles or dance the night away at one of East Africa’s best beach parties Zanzibar really is an incredible destination for your bucket list.

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2. Watamu, Kenya

Another gem in East Africa is this beautiful bay about half way up the Kenya coast, a few hours North of Mombassa. Famous for its crystal clear waters, excellent snorkelling and scuba diving sites and some pretty incredible forts and ancient ruins near by.

In recent years, it has become a popular package holiday destinations for many germans, but those areas and hotels can be avoided easily enough. My favourite thing about Watamu was hanging with some local beach boys who introduced me to ‘cow on a stick’ which is essentially pieces of beef barbecued on a grill on the side os a street then..you guessed it…put on a stick and sold for about 50 cent. So delicious!

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1. Jeju Island, South Korea

For Koreans, Jeju Island is the top vacation spot. For anyone who has never been to Korea, it’s probably a place you have never heard of! Compared to the rest of Korea, it is a tropical paradise. Compared to normal tropical destinations, it probably isn’t as breath taking but for what it lacks it palm trees, it makes up for in cliff walks, blue lagoons, waterfalls and weird and wonderful attractions.

The 5 days I spent on Jeju island was by far the highlight of my 2 years in South Korea. Days spents walking on the beautiful beaches, exploring parks full of life size penis statues and people re-enacting sex positions (!!), renting scooters and ATV’s, jumping into natural blue lagoons, swimming in waterfalls, walking in 2km long lava tunnels and seeing a UNESCO world heritage site – all on one tiny island!

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2015 Travel Bucket List

15 Jan

Quick post to share with you some of the destinations I hope to travel to this year. It has always been my goal to visit 50 countries before my 30th birthday, which means I need to visit a minimum of 5 countries this year. Considering it’s January 15th and I have one ticked off already, that shouldn’t be a problem.

Being back this side of the globe (Europe, that is) I would like to make the most of cheap Ryanair flights so I have set myself a goal of visiting 1 new country every month for 12 months! I really want one of those trips to be to the states as I have so many friends I want to visit there. Ideally I want to go to Burning Man Festival this summer…but that depends if I can find people to go with and can get my hands on a ticket!

I plan to stay away from Asia this year, as I covered so much of it over the last 2 years. Time to look in a new direction, and make the most of the amazing destinations closer to home!

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On the list so far….

Czech Republic (Just spend the weekend in Prague!)

England (London mainly!)

Germany (Berlin for a Eurocamp Reunion)

Croatia (A lovely sun holiday)

Greece (More sun…lots of islands)

Iceland (direct flights from Ireland start this summer – yay!)

Denmark (Copenhagen to visit friends)

Sweden (plan to drive over form Denmark!)

Norway (hiking, lakes, glaciers…such beauty!)

South Africa (It has been 10 years since my last visit – my heart is still there!)

That leaves 2 countries yet to be decided…any good suggestions?

Visas in South East Asia – The Lowdown

7 Jan

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One of the most stressful things for many people when planning a big trip is working out which countries require a visa, which don’t, how much they cost, where to apply, when to apply and a million other visa related questions. I will try, as best I can, to answer these questions in this blog post but as visa requirements differ depending on what nationality you are, I HIGHLY recommend you check each countries embassy  site before embarking on a trip.

My friend (I better not name her as she might kill me haha) actually got DEPORTED from Vietnam because she didn’t have her visa on arrival. She got sent to Thailand, and then as she had no visa for Thailand they tried to deport her from there too. It really was the stuff of nightmares and like a clip from the movie ‘the Terminal’. Thankfully due to some quick thinking and the ability to apply for visas online (while stuck in limbo!) she got sorted and was back on Vietnamese soil within 24 hours. It was a lesson for her, and a lesson for me. ALWAYS do your own research!! 

I essentially did TWO South East Asia trips within 1 year, one in Summer 2013 and one in summer 2014 so I will include all the countries I went to during this time which include; Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. 

Indonesia – Easy Peasy. Just remember you $$$.

Tourist and Transit Visas on Arrival are available for nationals of these 52 countries and territories. A tourist visa for up to 30 days costs US $35.00. (This seems to increase every few years!) Visa Free Entry on arrival for 30 days free of charge is available for nationals of the following 11 countries and territories: Brunei Darussalam, Chile, Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia, Morocco, Peru, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Overstay visitors incur a penalty of US$20 per day for under 60 days over-stay. Stay any longer and you could end up in an Indonesian prison!! These penalties can add up quickly so it might be better option to fly out on a cheap AirAsia flight then re-enter the country for another month. 

**Personal experience** I did not have US dollars on arrival in Bali and this caused A LOT of hassle as there is no ATM inside the customs area. I had to beg them to let me outside to get the money, then come back inside to pay for the visa then exit again. I am now always sure to travel with at least 100 US dollars in my wallet for times like this!

Singapore – Most peeps don’t need a visa.

Most nationalities (North Americans, South Americans, most of Southern Africa, Europeans, and Australians) do not need a visa for Singapore for the first 30 days and in some cases 90 days. (You would want to have A LOT of money to be a tourist in Singapore for longer than that!)

You simply need proof of onward travel, proof that you have sufficient funds (print out a bank statement before you travel), and a passport valid for at least 6 months. If you are from North Africa, the Middles East and few other destinations you will probably need a visa and can find more information HERE.

Malaysia – Free and easy for 30 days.

Similar to Singapore, many nationalities (most European countries, North Americans, South Africans, Australians etc) do not require a visa for Malaysia. You are permitted to stay within Malaysia for 90 days (although this differs depending on nationality.)

Thailand – Best to enter by air.

As one of the most popular tourist destinations in South East Asia, you will be happy to know that things *should* be pretty hassle free for you here when it comes to visas. Most of the Western world can enter without a visa for a stay of up to 30 days.

If you wish to stay in Thailand for MORE than 30 days, you can apply for a 60 day visa in a Thai embassy before you arrive. If you are already in Thailand and need an extension, you can go to the nearest immigration office, pay the 1,900 baht fee and have your visa extended by 30 days in a few short hours.

**Personal experience** I arrived in Thailand overland by bus from Cambodia and they only gave me a 15 day visa. I am unsure if this is still the case but it was as of August 2014 (15 day visas if you arrive overland, 30 if you arrive by air). This meant I had to go to the immigration office in Koh Samui (I was in Koh Tao when I decided to stay longer) and it cost me quite a lot extra to get this sorted out.

Cambodia – E-Visa with ease.

I went to Cambodia twice last year and both were relatively hassle-free. Relatively!! Nearly all visitors to Cambodia require a visa. Unless you are from South East Asia, you will probably need one. I found the e-visa process pretty straight forward. You just apply online, pay the 30 dollar fee, and your visa is emailed to you. You then print this out and give it to immigration on arrival.  In Phnom Penh, tourist visas can be extended (only once), giving you an additional 30 days at a cost of around 30 dollars.

**Personal experience** Whatever you do, make sure you print TWO COPIES of your e-visa and keep them in a very safe place where they won’t get damp or torn (yes, this is exactly what happened to me – and could happen to you if travelling during the monsoon season!!) When you exit the country, they won’t let you leave until you hand then the second copy of your e-visa. I literally nearly got stranded at a dodgy border post thanks to this slip up.I eventually handed them a ball of wet paper that they could (just about) verify was a copy of my e-visa!! Lesson learned!!

Vietnam – Get it before you arrive – or be deported!

Pretty much EVERYONE needs a visa for Vietnam unless you are lucky enough to be from one of its neighboring countries…or Russia. Pretty random, I know.

Vietnam is definitely the country that causes the most hassle when it comes to getting the visa. The first thing you should know is that they DO NOT issue a visa on arrival unless you have an invitation letter from a travel agency. 

It is very important to decide what type of visa you need as this also happens to be the most expensive visa in South East Asia. The stamping fee for a visa on arrival at the airport is fixed: US$45 per person for single entry and US$ 65-95 per person for multiple entry visa. This fee is paid in cash, USD or VND, at the visa-on-arrival counter. You can only get this Visa-On-Arrival stamp if you already have your visa invitation letter which you get from a travel agency online for about 20 dollars before arrival. So you are talking about 65 dollars minimum if you do it yourself, more if you do it all through a  travel agency and get your visa stamp before arrival.

I hope this was helpful, let me know if I can answer any more of your questions regarding visas in any of these countries! Please, please, PLEASE leave a comment below if you feel my information is wrong or outdated. :-)

Backpacking Budget For South East Asia – The Lowdown

5 Jan

This is going to be the first post to my South East Asia series which I was meant to write about 6 months ago…when I was actually IN South East Asia! However, blogging will never be something that I force myself to do. It should never be forced on anyone. If you are simply having too much fun and don’t feel like writing and sharing your experiences straight away…then don’t. This long break between traveling and writing has also given me time to really think about the places I went, the people I met, and the weird roller-coaster of emotions I went through on my journey.

To start the series, I would like to break down how much money I spent on my 2 month backpacking adventure which included Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.

airplane in sunset

If you are new to this blog there is only one thing you should know about me…I spend a ridiculous amount of time searching for, and succeeding in, finding cheap flights. Thanks to this, my flights were by far some of the cheapest expenses of my trip. I flew from: South Korea – Thailand – Vietnam – London – Ireland. There were also internal flights and many overland bus journeys. 108 hours, in fact, were spent on a bus over the 8 week period! (I also spend 200 euro on return flights to Australia from Bangkok, but ended up not going. I got about 80 euro refunded and lost the rest. C’est la vie!)

Seoul Incheon – Bangkok : €93 AirAsia Via SkyScanner

Bangkok – Hanoi: €82 Via VietJet SkyScanner

Hanoi – Ho Chi Minh: €35 VietJet Via SkyScanner

Bangkok – London: €300 Air India Via SkyScanner

London – Cork: €30 Ryanair Via SkyScanner

Total flight cost: €540

tuktuk thailand

Other transport included over night buses, tuk tuks, boats, taxis, trains and possible every mode of transport under the sun. Trains were the most expensive with a one way trip from Hanoi down to Hoi An costing over 40 dollars! Overnight buses were all around 20 dollars (I think) and shorter 12 hour journeys were between 10 and 15 dollars.

8 overnight bus rides x €15 – €120

2 train rides x €30 – €60

2 ferry rides x €20 – €40

Miscellaneous taxis and shuttles – €100

Scooter/ Motorbike/ Quad bike rental – €30

Total other transport cost – €350

hanoi backpackers

For the first month (mostly in Vietnam) I was travelling with some friends and as none of us were exactly on a shoestring budget we stayed in nice (but reasonably cheap) hotels or private rooms in hostels. The most we ever paid for a room was about 20 euro each, and that was a pretty amazing place! Most nights we averaged about 10 dollars a night. For that price you can share a double room, or a cabin on the beach or get a bed in a really nice dorm. You can also find dorm beds for as long as 4 dollars in some towns, just depends on your budget. In Thailand, I stayed in amazing hostels with bars and swimming pools and cool cafes for as cheap as 3 dollars a night in a dorm room. Absolute bargain.

As my accommodation costs varied in each country, depending on who I was traveling with, I am estimating the cost in the following way:

€5 x 10 nights = 50

€10 x 35 nights = 350

€15 x 10 nights = 150

Total accommodation cost: €550

street food

When it comes to food, South East Asia is a foodie paradise. Not only does the food taste great in virtually every restaurant, ever street stand, every casual soup seller, it also costs close to nothing. Seriously. Food will not cost you very much and you can over indulge on the most delicious delicacies every day. That said, it’s also possible to spend a small fortune if you go to top tourist restaurants, eat western food, drink expensive western cocktails and refuse to explore secret side alleys where you eat your dinner sitting on a plastic stool surrounded by locals.

Again, depending on where I was and who I was travelling with, my food costs really varied throughout the 2 months. A nice meal in a restaurant could cost up to 10 dollars, at the very maximum. Street food costs as little as 1 or 2 dollars for delicious Vietnamese soup, or traditional Khmer curry or a generous helping of pad Thai. Considering I spent a lot in some places and near to nothing in others, I will again average it all out. Eating out 3 times a day can be quite costly, so pick your restaurants wisely and stay away from tourist traps! 

€5 x 5 days – €25

€10 x 35 days – €350

€15 x 10 days – €150

Total food cost = €525

booze cruise

Next up is entertainment and activities. This, if you choose (or if you aren’t careful) could take up the biggest chunk of your budget. South East Asia is not called the banana pancake trail for no reason. In the summer, this popular backpacking route is swarming with young, carefree gap year students, college students, people on career breaks and God knows who else. To cater for all these travelers, there probably isn’t a single town or village in South East Asia which has not attempted to cash in on this never-ending trail of tourists. Offering a myriad of fun activities ranging from river rafting to booze cruises to elephant rides to playing with tigers, doing a homestay, hiking, biking, swimming in waterfalls, sleeping in tree tops, exploring temples in tuk tuks….you name it, they will most certainly have it! This is where your money will go.

Personally, I didn’t spend a lot on activities apart from a few big things in each country such as a Halong Bay 3 day cruise (200 dollars) or entry to Angkor Wat in Cambodia (40 dollars). Most days I spent no money, some days I spent lots. Thus, I’m just going to roughly estimate how much I spent over the 2 months. (If you go scuba diving or decide to do other very expensive activities this total will be A LOT more!)

Total activities cost –  €600

full-moon-drinks

Every hostel will have a bar, will run a pub crawl, will organize theme nights and will make it their mission to get you drunk every night of the week. Every city will have ‘happy hours’, every street seller will know the best bars, every beach boy will know the best parties. If you don’t have much self-discipline, both your liver and your wallet will suffer greatly!

So, how much does a beer cost? Honestly, not much. There are bars in Hoi An in Vietnam where a glass of local beer will cost you about 10 cent. You can literally drink there all night and the bill will only come to a dollar or two. Some of the more upmarket places could make you part with up to 3 dollars for a beer but we happily avoided places like that. Beach bars in Sihanoukville, on the coast of Cambodia, charged about 1 dollar (sometimes 75 cent) for a cold pint of draft Angkor beer, while bars on Koh San Road in Thailand usually charged about $1.50 minimum. At the Full and Half Moon parties in Thailand, it’s all about the buckets. The price of these depended on what type of alcohol you wanted – local or imported and thus ranged form 5 dollars to 15 dollars if I remember correctly.

Minimum 1 beer per night for 60 nights = €60

8 BIG party nights (1 per week) x 25 euro = €200

Random drinks with new friends x 1 million!! ;-) – €200

Total drink costs – €460

Last, but not least, and something you ABSOLUTELY need is travel insurance! I always go with World Nomads as they have a good backpacker policy that covers motorbike accidents and a good selection of adventure sports too.

Travel insurance cost – €150

Cost of backpacking around one of the most fascinating, beautiful and fun areas that planet earth has to offer??

PRICELESS

(Just kidding. It was more like a cool €3,200.)

2014 – Looking Back At The Highs And Lows

2 Jan

I think it’s always good to take some time to think about the year that has passed. There will be good memories, and there will of course be bad memories, but as they say time is one of the biggest gifts in life and we need to appreciate and be thankful for every last moment we are given. Sometime the days, the weeks, the months fly by so fast we don’t have time to reflect on what we have done, what we are doing or what we hope to do in the future.

As one of my New Year’s resolutions is to blog more, it makes senses that I should write this post on January 1st. I must not put off ’til tomorrow what can very easily be done today. There’s another resolution for you!

So, before I sit down and make out a list of the things I would like to accomplish this year (and we all know that’s going to be quite the list!!) let me take a look back to see what weird and wonderful things I managed to achieve in 2014.

Personal achievements

first 10km group pic

I started the year on a real health buzz, committed to going to the gym 5 days a week, started running 10km races in Korea with friends and even accomplished a big goal of mine which was to run my first half marathon!

For the first time in about a decade, I succeeded in giving up alcohol for lent…a total period of 46 days. I even managed to survive St Patrick’s Day sober. Miracles do happen!

It may sound like a weird thing to call an “achievement” but some of the friends I made in 2014, the same friends I had to sadly say goodbye to in July, were some of the closest, most meaningful friendships I have ever been lucky enough to have. As my friend Shruti put it, “We’ll be friends for generations!” Great friends don’t come along that often, so when you find them you need to keep them close and really treasure them. You know who you are! :-)

At the beginning of the year I succeeded in losing 10kg over a 3 month period and for the first time in years I felt perfectly confident in my own body. Bikinis on the beach were no longer an issue…at least for a while as sadly while it’s hard to lose weight it’s even more difficult to maintain said ideal weight.

This lovely little blog, which I sort of neglected last year, got nominated for an Irish Blog Award for the first time ever. I did not win any prizes (sad face) but sure that’s something to aim for this year.

Writing for The Irish Times has been a really exciting part of 2014 for me. My first article was published while in South Korea, and detailed what it was like to spend Paddy’s Day abroad. Then, once I returned to Ireland I have been working as a a freelance business and technology journalist for the last few months which has been a huge confidence boost when it comes to my writing.

Failures? My pathetic attempt to give up facebook for lent lasted a grand total of 3 days. We rely so much on our online social networks for keeping in touch and organizing events I fear the only way to escape them is to become a hermit for a month. Tempting.

Travel memories

mermaids boracay

Starting the new year in Cambodia with some of my closest friends from Korea. Watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat temple at the beginning of 2014 was a pretty special memory, especially as it was with such an amazing group of friends.

Fun in the Philippines – heading back to Boracay for my birthday with my running buddy Lauren was brilliant. Despite bad weather for the entire time we were there, we still managed to have lots of fun dressing up like mermaids and posing on the beach for loads of confused bystanders!

Weekends away in South Korea – camping on a deserted island, hiring a Korean tall ship for a weekend with 40 mad but amazing expats, ski trips which included amazing outdoor scented hot tubs in the snow and chilled out weekends on the beach with the besties. Every weekend in Korea was essentially a travel memory not to be forgotten.

In May, I got to go to a city I had always dreamed of going to..Hong Kong. And boy was it worth it. I still think I would move there in a heart beat if I could find the right job. Even better, I got to go there with friends from Ireland and relive childhood dreams by spending a day in DisneyLand!

The summer involved 2 months backpacking around Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. I still have not blogged about any of those adventures but hope to get around to it within the next 2 weeks. While most of my memories of this trip are positive, thanks mainly to Rebecca, Shruti, Morne, Johann and all the awesome people I met while on the road, it was certainly a period of mixed emotion at times.

My last trip of the year was a long weekend in Paris visiting old friends, checking out the Christmas markets, taking part in SantaCon and just enjoying all that belle Paris has to offer. A perfect destination to end a great year.

Failures? I wanted to travel home overland on the trans siberian. Sadly, for a combination of reasons including visa issues, lack of a travel buddy, finances and my desire to spend a ridiculous amount of time lunging on the beach in Thailand, this did not happen. I also wanted to go to many more*new* countries and instead found myself returning to countries I had already visited. Not bothered about that too much though…some countries are so beautiful you need to visit many, many times to truely appreciate all that they have to offer.

The “Job” front

travayl mobile travel app

I finished up my contract in South Korea and decided it was finally time to but that chapter of my life behind me. I wanted to move back to Ireland and try to “settle”, which in my world means trying to stay in one country and one job for longer than a year. Time to reconnect with old friends, rebuild friendships and start building a career.

The first few weeks home were tough. In fact, in a way, I’m still finding it tough. It;s always hard to know for sure if you have made the right decision to move home after living the expat life for so long. Committing to stay in Ireland can be very daunting and I feel like I have been on an emotional roller-coaster the last few months.

I spent my first 3 months home working for a travel start-up called Travayl, which helps bloggers like me to monetize their travel photos. I learned so much about the tech and star-up community here in Dublin and decided it’s an area I want to become more involved in. It’s a really exciting sector and one which motivates me to no end.

I had to make a really tough job decision in December which involved me turning down a dream job with the United Nations in favour of a job here in Ireland.It troubled me a lot and a lot of lists were made weighing up the pros and cons. In the end, I truly believe I made the right decision and am very excited to get started in my new role later this month. *watch this space*

I’m excited to see what sort of obstacles, hoops and adventures the next 364 days will throw at me.

BRING IT ON.

How To Monetize Your Travel Photos – The Lowdown

15 Oct travayl mobile travel app

travel richer
I have been blogging for almost 5 years, but until now have never successfully been able to find a way to make money from my blog.

Sure I have been offered numerous, and sometimes attractive, monetary packages. But as with everything in life, with the good comes the bad. In order to get the cash, I would have to display some seriously ugly adverts in a prominent position on my homepage, and the adverts would be by far-from-ideal companies such as Casinos and Penis enlargers! Thanks, but no thanks.

I have also been contacted by PR agencies who are willing to write guest posts on my blog, which will include subtle links to extremely irrelevant products, in return for some cash. Again, I was not willing to lose readers and fans, who I knew would probably hate the ‘Guest articles’, just to make a quick buck. Thanks, but no thanks.

I have been offered free press trips to various luxury hotels, from Scotland to Ibiza, and while everyone LOVES a free trip, it always seemed to be a destination at the other side of the world from where I currently was. Oh, and often the flights were not even included! Also, no remuneration was involved. Thanks, but no thanks. I have had companies try to send me products, like travel towels and gadgets, extensions for GoPro cameras or some sort of protein shakes. As all were totally and utterly irrelevant to this blog, I said (yes, you guessed it!!) – Thanks, but no thanks!!

So the question is, How am I supposed to make money from my blog?

travayl mobile travel app

Travayl.com appears to be the answer…at least for bloggers with a great collection of travel photos. The site, which is a social travel platform that is a mix between ‘Tripadvisor’ and ‘Instagram’, hopes that travelers will come to the site, be inspired by the large collection of travel photos and will continue on to book flights, hotels and holidays. The site will even tell you how long it takes to get from country A to country B, how much the taxi, flight, train etc will cost and where are the best places to stay once there. All the hard work is done for you, you just have to sit back and enjoy the view! 

Sound’s pretty good, right? RIGHT! But how can I, the blogger, make money from this lovely concept? Well right now the site is looking to partner with bloggers from all over the world. Before they launch the website to the public and the media in 2 months, they need as many travel bloggers and photographers as possible to sign up, create a profile, and upload all their incredible travel snaps.

Once the site is officially launched, people can browse through the photographs, search for hashtags that interest them, create ‘bucket-lists’ of the places they hope to go and can even book their holiday through the site. That’s where the $$$ comes in. If a user decides to book something after being inspired by your photograph, you will get a small cut. Every time a user decides to book something after looking at your travel pics, more money will come into your account. 

CHA-CHING!!

If you are a travel blogger like me and want to be a partner, sign up HERE.

If you’re just an armchair traveler and want to check out the site, you can do so HERE.

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