Cameron Highlands: The HIGHlight of Malaysia. Apparently…

‘You’ll LOOOOOVE the guesthouse’ he said

‘It’s completely surrounded by nature’ he said.

Left: our guesthouse. Right: the neighbours

Left: our guesthouse. Right: the neighbours

This is like that time he told me: ‘Oh, you’ve never ridden a big motorbike before? Only a scooter? Aaahhh…don’t worry…it’s same same!’

And then I am the one with trust issues…

Chris was last in the Cameron Highlands 18 years ago and although that’s not that long ago – you know, if you’re a Galapagos Giant Tortoise – it’s apparently an eternity if you’re one of Malaysia’s most up and coming tourist destination.

This sux. Our guesthouse, the only one in our price range with a lock-up garden for bike parking, is completely surrounded by construction sites. Wherever you look, someone is building something. Something quite ugly, I must say.

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They just keep building higher and higher…

Even crappy construction sites hide their treasures!

Even crappy construction sites hide their treasures!

The Cameron Highlands is Malaysia’s most famous hill-station. Named after some British ‘Sir’, who apparently ‘discovered it’ in the late 1800s (how does one just ‘discover’ a hill, may I ask?), the Cameron Highlands were developed as a tourist destination in the 1930s, primarily to cater for the Brits who were no doubt looking for a reprieve from the brain-melting heat and humidity of the capital. The tablelands are blanketed by farms, nowadays, with tea and strawberry taking front honours. Bizarrely enough, afternoon tea with home-made scones and strawberry jam is a totally Malaysian thing to do, up here.

Along with farms came farmers, and a hefty number of construction workers given the task to build towns. The ethnic mix up here is awesome, as it is in the rest of Malaysia. I love how, after so many decades, everything is completely fused into one, amalgamous ‘nationality’. Locals have Indian rotis for breakfast, washed down with Chinese tea and complemented by Thai coconut boiled sweets. To them, this constitutes an ‘authentic Malay breakfast’.

For quite a few weeks, we also become Malay, until we discover the local’s obsession with palm oil and frying, so we’re forced to bring that little culinary indulgence to a halt. Damn cholesterol. I knew getting bloodwork done ‘for the heck of it’ was a really bad idea…

Anywho…

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In Malaysia…this is what you get for $1.50. Noice…

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Cameron Highlands: everywhere you look…strawberries!

A phenomenal British influence in this region is the incredible number of old Land Rovers that litter every street and every second driveway of Tanah Rata, the main town.

Chris is in Landy heaven. matilda would have loved it up here…

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Miraculously, we’ve found a construction site which operates 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. Right next door. WTF? Where I come from, construction workers work at snail speed, take 15 coffee breaks a day and heaven forbid they work past 5 pm or on weekends.

Australia, you gotta stop paying by the hour. Seriously. This is ridiculous.

PPPPPRRRRRR BANG BANG BANG PPPPRRRR BANG BANG KAPOOOOW!!!

It’s 6 am, pouring bucket loads, and these guys are already friggin’ drilling and hammering.

Weary-eyed, I drag myself out of bed and fill the kettle. Yawn.

I look outside our window and can’t believe  this is the day we booked out Cameron Highlands day trip adventure. It’s not often we join one of those all-too-dreaded organized tours, but this time we really, really couldn’t be bothered taking the bikes out and exploring on our own. We’ve been in Tanah Rata one week already and both Pixie and Puck seemed to have grown roots cementing them to the ground of our hostel’s garden. The fact that they are completely surrounded by a wild garden bed (that’s lazy speak for can’t be arsed to keep the garden looking nice so we’ll just call it wild and that’ll be that) I fear those roots may have grown, quite literally.

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Because I know us oh-so-well, I thought a fixed date with a tour company would be incentive enough to actually get out and explore. For the grand bargain price of $10 for the whole day, per person, you really can’t go wrong.

Tanah Rata is not the most inspirational place I’ve ever seen, to be brutally honest. I am told it’s much more natural ‘over there, beyond the hills’, but now I just don’t believe anything anybody tells me. Re-read the beginning of the post in case you’re wondering ‘why?’

Three hours later, as we’re taking a relaxing stroll under the still-timid sun, through the largest tea plantation in Malaysia, my faith is (somewhat) restored. Yes, it is quite pretty, although ‘wilderness’ and ‘agriculture’ are two quite separate things, IMHO.

Still, sure as hell beats the construction sites.

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It’s lovely to get out of the bustle (and pollution!) of the town and we spend a nice day admiring the views, visiting the tea factory (which was surprisingly interesting) and even stopping by a cute butterfly farm. Alright, so it’s not a blow-your-socks-off riveting kind of excursion, but we’d still recommend it (the half day tour).

That’ll do, pig. That’ll do…

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Back at our hostel we indulge in that one aspect of travel which makes every place, just that little better. We spend time with new friends, share meals, endless discussions about world problems (sometimes, we even find solutions), play cards and drink red wine. Ahhhh….that’s nice.

The highlight of the month would have to be the fact that I’m wearing my jacket and scarf for the first time this year. The temps hover between 12 and 18 degrees and OH MY LORD how nice is that after all the sweltering, humid heat we’ve been enduring??!!

Leather jacket??! You bet!

Leather jacket??! You bet!

It seems that everyone here has the same idea. Weeeeell, it’s not all that nice, here. But at least it’s cool! Everyone needs a reprieve from the tropical heat. Chinese construction companies could even (almost) set up a rubbish dumping ground next door, and we’d probably all still hang around, for those few evening hours, in particular, when you even suffer a case of the nipple freeze. Oh, how I missed those…

L x

 

 

 

 

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Hipmunk City Love Project: Could South Brisbane Be Our Ideal Australian Base?

As we’re inching closer to Australia, the hot topic around our camp stove these days is: where would we want to settle? As much as I love Sydney, I know I could never live there again. After I last visited for a month, in 2011, I needed two weeks just to recover from the prices and the traffic. And if I need peace, quiet, open spaces and fresh air, then you can just about quadruple that need for Chris. If he could decide where we’d live, he’d pick a place like William Creek: an Outback outpost along the Oodnadatta Track. If we were to move there today, we’d boost the town’s population by 25%. Needless to say, William Creek shouldn’t be holding its breath in anticipation of a colossal population boom.

“So where would you live, then?” He asked.

“Probably Brisbane” I said.

“Why Brisbane?”

“Because it’s like Sydney, minus the nervous breakdown.”

Brisbane City River

He wasn’t convinced. So I then did what I do best: I presented Brisbane as a holiday destination. I told him all the things I knew about the ‘new and improved’ BrisVegas.

Want to know what’s so good about this neck of the woods? Here’s some cool stuff I discovered!

It’s a culture hub – who knew?

When the Bolshoi Ballet returned to Australia after a 20-year absence, in 2013, it chose Brisbane as the only city in which to perform. The Queensland Gallery of Modern Art (the GOMA) – right in the heart of South Brisbane – played host to Pablo Picasso’s private collection in 2008, the first time it was ever shown outside of Europe. This gallery also hosted the largest collection of Andy Warhol’s works ever held in Australia. Whilst Sydney and Melbourne have always been cited as the most cultural cities in Oz, it seems that Brisbane has been the quiet, chilled-out achiever…

Look how arty-farty Brisbane’s become!

Look how arty-farty Brisbane’s become!

Want shopping and nature? You got it!

Just across the Victoria Bridge from the GOMA is the Queen Street Mall, the most comprehensive commercial hub in town, and just a few blocks south-east are the City Botanic Gardens, a gorgeous natural reserve right in the heart of the city. If Chris wants to go Outback, then I can send him to Charleville, which is only 680 km west of Brisbane. There’s a top-notch observatory there, the roads are nothing more than red-dust dirt tracks and there’s an obscene number of camels.

On second thoughts, best not tell him. He may want us to move there instead.

South Bank Parklands

South Bank Parklands

The downside? Well…it’s not exactly cheap…

Hostel prices are usually my fail-safe indicator of just how liveable a city could be for us. Hotels in Brisbane start from just AUD 21 a night (a great backpackers in South Brisbane), which is just a few bucks more than what we’re paying here in Malaysia. But Australia works unlike most other countries, so although even we could afford to sleep in a hostel there for a few months, living in Brisbane may be an issue. Sure we can sleep, but can we afford to do anything else?

The latest news headlines are all about the massive downfall of the great Aussie dollar – making RIGHT NOW an ideal time to vacation there.

And perhaps that’s just what we should do…

 

**Full Disclosure: I’ve partnered with Hipmunk to bring you a collection of fun and informative destination guides. Yes, I’m being paid to write these blogs, but do note that all opinions, recommendations and ideas are mine and mine alone — for your virtual travelling pleasure.**

 

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A Taste of the Expat Life in Penang, Malaysia

The housekeeper walks in, takes one quick glance at the living room, declares the whole apartment ‘sparkly clean’ and proceeds to unpack two bags full of groceries. Apparently, we’re cooking curry today…and who’d dare argue with that?

Sanra is not the kind of lady with whom anyone would argue. Mostly because to ‘argue’ would mean you’d have to get a word in and there’s not much chance of that happening. In our glorious Penang high-rise apartment, where we are dog-sitting for the very first time, I’ve finally met my match. Our lovely Malay-Indian housekeeper has a talking speed of roughly a gazillion words a minute and, although she keeps apologizing profusely for not being able to speak English well, has the fluency and coherence of a politician. No, not Bush or Abbott…I mean a really good one. But I still can’t keep up.

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1) Penang

It’s day 10 of our house-sitting gig and I’m panicked at the thought that in only 6 more days we’ll have to leave. Leave Doug, leave the fridge, the oven, the washing machine, the L-shaped lounge, the balcony overlooking the sea, the 7 swimming pools, fully-equipped gym and the glorious gourmet deli downstairs which sells every imaginable treat under the sun – at really reasonable prices. Sob.

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My fave pool…the ‘beach corner’

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This one’s not too shabby either, I guess…

View to the east

View to the east

Our daily sunsets...double sigh...

Our daily sunsets…double sigh…

Anyway, back to our housekeeper: arguably the most energetic and talkative woman I’ve ever met. Doug is basically the dog version of her, only in Pug form. How nature managed to pack so much enthusiasm, character and annoyance into a creature roughly the size, shape and colour of a loaf of unsliced wholemeal-bread, I’ll never know.

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Life with Doug is a constant compromise. Five minutes’ work and an hour’s play. According to him, this constitutes fairness…

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…but play is pretty much me, allowing him, to nibble on my ear lobe

Both Doug and Sanra have filled our days here in Penang with laughter, enlightenment, entertainment and love. Lots of love. Mostly from Doug, who enjoys nothing more than to wake us up with a tongue-bath at 5 am. If you’ve never had this kind of alarm clock, let me tell you, you don’t know what you’re missing. Sanra is a little more reserved when it comes to showing affection (thank fark for that) but she’s equally gorgeous. Her wisdomnesses come fast and thick too. I nearly choked on my coffee when she proudly stated to be ‘not racist at all’, and that she’d work for anyone….’as long as they’re not Chinese, Malay or Indian’. Or that time she told us we are SO lucky not to have children, because children grow up to marry some rude, arrogant girl called Anika who will only want to spend weekends with her parents. Sanra has two grown sons, from what I know, and going out on a crazy limb, I’m guessing one of them is married to a girl called Anika. I haven’t asked, lest I open a can of worms I’d have no way of containing.

But behind the extroverted and very colourful façade, Sanra actually hides quite a painful past. Forced to marry a man she did not love, and after suffering two decades of domestic abuse, she finally found the courage to leave him, only to have her family and community basically chastise her for divorcing. She’s born and bred Malay but it seems that the Indian roots run very deep, even here. Sanra keeps referring to ‘her community’ and now I know she means the Indian community in Malaysia. She says she doesn’t have many friends, she spends endless days cleaning houses of well-to-do expats, and that she actually loves to ‘break bread with new friends.’ So today, we’re cooking chicken curry together.

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Whoever came up with this idea for us to delve into the world of dog & house sitting, is a real genius.

Oh…hang on…

Doug waiting for lunch. Doug is always waiting for lunch...

Doug waiting for lunch. Doug is always waiting for lunch…

Slightly better than cooking on a petrol-fueled camping stove. Slightly.

Slightly better than cooking on a petrol-fueled camping stove. Slightly.

Our 'backyard'

Our ‘backyard’

The star of the past fortnight, however, has really been Doug.

This little squirt of a rascal has managed to dig a spot so deep in our hearts, that we’re both completely besotted and dreading Monday morning, when we’ll have to say goodbye. I love everything about this little guy: the way he snores when he sleeps on his back, the different ways he barks when he wants attention, or a treat or a w.a.l.k. (with Doug, one soon learns not to throw that word around too easily) and the way he compulsively licks any exposed bit of human skin with which he comes in contact. It cracks me up that to sit, he doesn’t lower the front of his body, but allows his butt to slide backwards instead. He has an inexplicable obsession with carrots and is attached to us like Velcro.

He’s an absolute hoot to take for a walk and is known and loved by all fellow dog-walking neighbours. Of course he is. Doug’s a stud muffin…

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Although, there seems to be a very defined split between large dog-owners and small dog-owners, which is something I’ve never understood. My favourite neighbourhood pooch is Spot, a pointer-like stray dog whom everyone else keeps at a distance, due to his large size. No-one else seems to have ascertained that Spot is just one big, huge marshmallow. I love him to bits and he, in return, loves Doug to bits. Every morning he waits for us down at the beach for our daily swim. Which entails me hanging on tight to Doug (turns out Pugs swim as if they had concrete shoes on) and splashing about the waves with Spot.

Life these days is just wonderful.

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The X-rated photoshoot…

As if that’s not enough, we’ve met some really interesting people while out with Doug and it has opened a whole new side of Malaysia to us which we would never have experienced otherwise.

Alright, not really, it’s all about his adorable face…

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Doug’s humans work for the Australian Air Force and we are living in a humongous, deluxe seaside complex on the north-eastern tip of Penang Island. The complex is owned and was built by the Sultan of Brunei – and about 50% of the tenants here are foreign. The RAF has a base in Butterworth, which is over an hour’s drive away, but apparently there’s nowhere ‘half decent’ where the families could live, on the mainland. Instead, they commute to and fro this wonderful – and very secure – condominium village. We spent a night in Butterworth on our way to Penang a few weeks ago and I must say: I would commute too. Even for two hours.

We’ve met Germans, Spaniards, Norwegians, British and Chinese foreigners, as well as quite a few affluent Malay. Penang boasts the third-largest economy in Malaysia and even though we spent the first two weeks in Georgetown, the UNESCO listed historic capital of the island; it was evident that this corner of the country is an absolute melting pot of nationalities, which is a prime indication of Malaysia’s eclectic history, much of it colonial. The proficiency of English-speaking locals here is outstanding and so far we’ve found everyone we’ve come across to be extremely friendly.

But the high fences and over-abundance of security guards at our complex had me perplexed. If Penang is indeed doing great and everyone – of differing race and religion – is getting on so well….what’s with the Fort-Knox type security?

Just to take Doug for a walk I need to swipe a keycard a few times to exit the complex, although mind you I’m now walking along a seafront promenade which has security, and gates, at either end. You need to show a key-card when walking – or driving – in and out and I’m fairly certain that if you simply tried to scale the six-foot high fence at some random point, you may or may not be shot in the head by a sniper.

Well, as is usually the case, not all that glistens is gold. Or something like that.

Although the crime rate in Penang is still manageable, foreigners and cashed-up-locals are the prime targets for burglaries, which are said to have become violent in recent years. As one of Doug’s girlfriend’s owner told me, if you can afford a TV and computer at home, then you couldn’t possibly live in an independent home, unless you want to replace your valuables every few months.

It appears that the Malaysian government has introduced measures which blatantly favour Bumiputeras, or indigenous Malay, something which is not going down well with locals of Indian (like our Sanra) or Chinese origin, of which there are millions here. Tensions are high, conflicts sporadic, blah blah blah that’s pretty much the story of the world at the moment, isn’t it? Yet there are Chinese and Indian Malays whose families have been here for over a thousand years!

Although, when all is said and done, whatever crime rates Malaysia boasts, they are still an absolute fraction of what they are next door, in Thailand, and indeed in our own western countries. This place is safe, welcoming and infinitely eclectic. And we like it.

Amazing noddle dish? that'll be $1 thanks!

Amazing noddle dish? that’ll be $1 thanks!

Penang is renowned for its hawker centres

Penang is renowned for its hawker centres

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Just one of many locals who stopped us on the road...

Just one of many locals who stopped us on the road…

Gorgeous Georgetwon

Gorgeous Georgetown

Rightio, our curry is ready…gotta go.

Catch you guys from the Cameron Highlands!

Sans Doug 🙁

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Travel Etiquette: How NOT to Make Enemies and Offend People When Travelling

Contrary to what you may think, I’m not immune to the odd travel faux pas here and there, despite my many years of practice. My bouts of foot-in-mouth disease may have decreased in the last few years yet try as I may, I’ll inevitably – albeit only occasionally – find myself doing or saying all the wrong things unintentionally.

There have been times when I’ve forgotten to take my shoes off when entering a home in a country which demands it, finished everything served on my plate, reached out to shake hands with a local man when it was deemed highly inappropriate and even that one time in Tajikistan, when I mistook someone’s family gathering for a restaurant and sat down and ordered coffee and kebabs. True story. Luckily for me, my immense mortification at the realization of my stuff-up was enough to appease my gracious hosts; the latter even insisting we stay and share in the family celebrations.

That was a particularly delicious mistake, on my part 😉

Best 'blunder' I made all year!

Best ‘blunder’ I made all year!

Travelling to a new country is always an exciting prospect yet along with a suitcase full of comfy clothes, hiking boots and a sunny disposition, it’s wise to pack a healthy dose of cultural awareness as well. Problem is, there are SO many habits which we simply take for granted that it’s difficult to know what is deemed rude or offensive abroad. Yet although there is an abundance of very specific customs pertaining to certain places – like refraining from blowing your nose in public when in China (highly repulsive to them) or taking your shoes off when entering homes in any Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist countries – there are a few general tricks which you can adopt to ensure you don’t accidently offend anyone, while travelling.

Because although everyone is bound to come across as a dumb tourist at one time or another, and more often than not be courteously forgiven, wouldn’t it be great to actually surprise a local, in a far-off foreign country, with a little cultural mindfulness?

Take stunning photograph. Insert Philosophical travel quote.

Take stunning photograph. Insert Philosophical travel quote.

Here are just some of the things I attempt to do when travelling.

(Disclaimer: I don’t always succeed!)

  • Don’t ever criticize a country’s leader/government

No matter how many articles I’ve read that 90% of the population of country X hates its leader and criticizes him/her ad infinitum, I never EVER take it for granted that I can do the same. In some countries, criticizing the head of government can get one arrested and even executed, so keeping my tramp firmly shut on the topic not only helps me not offend, but also keeps me out of serious trouble. Besides, if there’s something that is quite international, it’s people’s annoyances at having their country/leader/laws criticized by outsiders.

  • Learn WHO is the head of state and what political issues are current

Chris and I once came across a local Kyrgyz farmer who asked Chris if Adolf Hitler was still leading Germany. Super cute when it comes from a 90-year-old goat herder living in the middle of nowhere…not so cute when it comes from a 26-year-old globetrotter.

It is really quite important to learn the name of the head of state of whichever country you wish to visit and if there are any current ‘hot’ issues of which you should be aware. Updated knowledge is always appreciated. Learning a bit of the country’s history is never a waste of time and will also help you discern which topics should never be brought in conversation. As an example, Cambodians and Ugandans do not like to talk about their somewhat recent genocides and even a mention will be met with stark disapproval. If you want to get a deeper understanding of certain historical events you’ll have to do so subtly, without asking 101 questions to the first local you come across.

  • Don’t talk politics or religion with locals (unless invited to do so)

Having said the above, do note that most of what I’ve learned about foreign countries, I’ve learnt from talking to locals. Politics, religion, historical or social issues; whatever the topic may be, I’ve enjoyed some incredibly interesting conversations with people abroad. The pivotal points are, however, that 1) I NEVER initiated the conversation and 2) I NEVER gave my opinion. You can indeed chat about sensitive subjects abroad, but you should wait until the topic is brought up by your host and then not divulge much of a personal opinion.

Which brings me to my next point…

  • Perfect your diplomatic skills

No matter how curious you think you are about a foreign country and culture, you’ll be surprised to learn just how curious others are about you and your home-country. Most especially if you happen to visit a country which is not in the top 30 most-visited on earth. I’ve been asked countless personal questions through the years, from ‘Why do you not have any children?’ to ‘What religion do you follow?’ ‘How can you be away from your family for so long?’ and even ‘What do you think of our country?’ Nowadays, my answers are standardised although I do edit them ever so slightly depending on where I am. What my answers are, always, is diplomatic.

I try to refrain from telling locals I don’t like their country (sometimes, white lies are  needed), never told anyone outside of the West that I have no religion affiliations (being ‘atheist’ or ‘agnostic’ as such is rarely respected abroad) and I although I mostly answer “Because I can’t fit them in my motorcycle boxes” when asked about my lack of offspring, my most-oft answer is that “Oh we try but it has not happened yet”, especially in countries where child-bearing is so important. Telling a Nubian woman in a remote Sudanese village that I simply did not want children would have confused the heck out of her…so I told her it was obviously not god’s will. She did what anyone with a strong love of god and children would do: she gave me a sympathetic hug and then changed the subject. Bingo.

Perfecting your diplomatic skills will go a long way in ensuring you never offend or come across as critical of another’s culture.

  • Dress conservatively

Much like excessive alcohol consumption, I’ve yet to come across a country whose inhabitants get offended if you overdress. This is especially true for women. If you want to play it safe (and avoid hassles for yourself anyway) my suggestion is to always cover your shoulders and wear long pants/skirts when crossing a country’s border, or visiting a new country for the first time. No matter what you’ve read. My usual rule of thumb is to cover myself when entering a country and then simply sit back and watch how locals are dressed. Even in a popular tourist destination like Koh Lanta (Thailand), usually filled with sundress & hot-pants wearing foreigners, I noticed how local women were very well covered, most of them even wearing a head-scarf. I never went to the extent of wearing a scarf, as I know the country is not Muslim, yet I realized there was a high percentage of locals who were Muslim in that region, so I always wore a long skirt and T-shirt whenever I stepped out of our guesthouse. Follow this credo and you’ll never be accused of disrespecting the local culture.

Yes that is a toruist. yes, she's about to walk into a temple. Yes, she is only wearing a bikini. Photo courtesy of Travelfish

Yes that is a toruist. Yes, she’s about to walk into a temple. Yes, she is only wearing a bikini. Photo courtesy of Travelfish

  • Don’t break any local laws, no matter how ridiculous they seem to you

I’ve been in countries whose laws can be deemed to be utterly nonsensical…but I still don’t break them. This is despite the fact that many times even locals tell us their laws are not respected. Oh you can speed, the police will never stop you, go ahead and throw rubbish on the ground, no-one cares here. But the way I see it, not only is it not my place to challenge a country’s laws (if citizens want to revolt against a tyrannical government, for example, that’s for them to decide) but, perhaps more importantly, I’ve learnt through experience that leniency by a police force is hardly ever extended to foreign visitors. Everyone speeds in Italy, for example, yet the police are much more likely to stop a foreign plated vehicle, rather than a local one. Besides, if there’s ONE local you never want to piss off in a foreign country, it’s a local in uniform.

  • Don’t be a drunken, rude idiot

This is one of those internationally acceptable customs that ought to be taken quite seriously. I’ve yet to come across a single place where it’s acceptable to be a drunken moron in public. Really. Absolutely no cultural differences here, it is as abominable a behaviour abroad as it is back home. Even in countries renowned for their huge levels of alcohol consumption (think any ex-Soviet Union nations) is obnoxious, inebriated behaviour  deemed nice, either by locals or fellow travellers.

  • Be demure

Sometimes, one need not be necessarily drunk to be obnoxious to locals in a foreign country. Anywhere in the East, for example, where cultures are much more demure than you may be used to, you’ll notice that locals never talk too loud, laugh too hard or gesticulate wildly. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve failed at this one. I blame my Italian heritage. Laughing with an open mouth is considered very impolite in Japan, as is talking loudly in public or on your mobile phone.

Yet being reserved and modest can translate into many aspects of behaviour. In some parts of the world (like Europe, North America, Australia and Canada) a firm handshake is an admirable characteristic whilst in most Asian countries it is deemed exceedingly aggressive. Knowing the right greeting is also quite imperative, most especially if you’re a woman. Unlike what many believe, Muslim men can and do shake hands with non-Muslim women (this has happened to me quite a lot) however I was never the one to outstretch the hand first. If offered, I have never refused.

Travel etiquette personal space

“It’s OK…I’m Italian!”

The subject of personal space and touching also varies a great deal around the globe, yet generally speaking, I find the safest bet is to never touch anyone (on the arm, for example)  unless a) they are fellow Latinos (I know they won’t take offence) or b) they have become close friends. I’m naturally very touchy feely and sometimes I have to hold back, especially when it comes to cute little kids. The Italian in me wants to pinch cheeks and give bear hugs, yet the traveller in me keeps tabs on local custom. Touching a child on the head in any Muslim or Buddhist country is about as offensive as you can get, even though it is one of the most appropriate behaviours in my home country.

  • Hold back on the PDAs

I remember when Chris and I first reached Europe together back in 2010. We’d just spent a year and a half driving through the Middle East and for the first time ever, walking along a street in Bulgaria, we held hands. It was the first time we had that privilege in all the time we’d been together. The first time we shared a kiss in public. Many people will take this for granted, yet there are many, many countries all over the world where public displays of affection are frowned upon. And I’m not just talking about the Middle East. Even during our time together in Germany, for example, what soon became our normal way of showing affection to each other, was (very mildly) criticized. In other countries, it is simply considered unacceptable.

This is yet another case where the best way to ascertain how you should behave, is by observing locals’ behaviour. Do couples hold hands when walking? Do they sit on a park bench and smooch? If they do then go right ahead and behave as you’d normally do, although do note that sticking your tongue down your beloved’s throat in rather unsavoury no matter where you are. In countries like Dubai or Saudi Arabia, this kind of amorous display will get you lynched.

  • Mind your hand gestures

I have the sneaking suspicion that I have failed abysmally at this task more times than I care to remember. When it comes to hand-gestures, it’s like I never left Italy back when I was 12: the only sure-fire way to shut me up is to tie my hands behind my back!

Easy!

Easy!

Anyway, this one if fraught with endless danger because the list of hand-gestures which are offensive in some countries yet perfectly fine in others, is almost never-ending! By and large, however, keep in mind that the ‘OK sign’ is fine in Anglo-Saxon countries whilst it’s insanely rude in Greece, Spain and Brazil and totally evil in any Arab nation. The ‘thumbs up’ is also seen as obscene in the Arab world and rather rude in South American and quite a few African countries. Giving someone ‘the outstretched hand’ is not exactly polite in our countries, where it basically tells the speaker to shut up but in Greece, the moutza is a serious offence. This hand gesture is also not very favourable in Pakistan or Korea either…

4) Travel etiquette hand gestures

I don’t know about you, but I’ve come to the conclusion that the wisest thing for me to do is to simply keep my hands to myself.

Now if I could only remember that when telling a story…

  • Keep your feet to yourself too

While you’re at it, you may want to remember that in many countries the soles of the feet are considered the dirtiest and most vulgar part of one’s body. Therefore, pointing them in any way or having them out in full view when sitting on the ground is a big no-no. The easy thing to remember here is that this custom is reserved by countries with considerable populations of Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu followers.

  • Learn the right table manners

When I was a kid, I loved nothing more than slurping my minestrone and burping after a meal. Unfortunately, in an Italian household, this pretty much guaranteed a not-so-subtle backhander from my mother. Turns out I should have been born Japanese! In Japan this behaviour is a way of extending the compliments to the chef for a delectable meal!!

Much like hand gestures, table manners can vary quite a bit around the world and considering the fact you’re bound to eat out in public every day when travelling, it pays to really do some homework on this one, about the specific country you intend to visit. If you think all there is to know is that you should sit up straight and don’t put your elbows on the table, you may be in for a rude shock. Of all the ‘cultural set of manners’ I researched, this would have to be by far the most contrasting.

5) travel etiquette table manners

Where in countries like Italy, India and the US it’s deemed rude to leave food on a plate, in many others like China and Japan it‘s rude to clean up your bowl, as it hints to your host that he/she has not cooked enough. Playing with utensils, whether forks or chopsticks, is frowned upon in every country  (I fail at this many times) while asking for extra condiments which are not on the table (like salt and pepper) is considered rude in many countries and seen as a criticism of the cook’s skills. This last one is a particular sticking point in countries with tremendous food culture, like Italy and Argentina. Asking for parmesan cheese for a plate of seafood pasta in the former, or ketchup for a steak in the latter, is about as close to a gastronomic misdemeanour as one could get. Eat it as is or skip it!

  • Don’t be so quick in accepting gifts…or dishing out compliments

This is one of those cultural customs which always drive me nuts! In countries like China and Japan, as well as many Muslim nations, gifts of any kind are to be rejected three times before being graciously accepted. I’ve forgotten this many a time!

“Here, have a box of candy”

“Oh great, thank you!”

FAIL!

“Oh no you shouldn’t have, oh no please, you keep it…” and on and on until at least three strikes are recorded. Moreover, in many cultures, it is customary to give away an object which has been admired by a guest. Say, a piece of jewellery or an item of clothing for example. Compliment the wearer and, if you’re in Morocco, you are literally forcing them to take said item off and give it to you. Praise something in many Muslim countries or any with immensely hospitable people (like Russia or Iran) and don’t be surprised if it will be offered as a gift to you when you leave.

This is why it is even more imperative to never compliment someone on how cute their child is. Just in case…

6) travel etiquette gift giving

Having mentioned all this, I’d also like to stress that, when in Rome, I don’t always do as the Romans did. And it’s not always by mistake. Indeed, at times, I have very much gone against cultural norm in a country, if I deemed such norms to be immensely challenging to my own, personal moral code. We’ve travelled through countries where it’s perfectly acceptable to beat up your spouse, circumcise your child, stone your puppy to death or throw rubbish in the street. In these instances, I’ve preferred to refrain from following accepted convention, even if it meant offending a local. Yet I’ve never been verbally critical of any practice, no matter how hard I found it to keep my mouth shut. As stated before, my ‘job’ as a traveller is to observe, not to challenge a culture which is not my own.

Like everything else travel-related, it all comes down to common sense. It costs me absolutely nothing to be a bit more reserved, respectful and diplomatic when I travel. If anything, all these things help me be a better and more understanding human being. But I certainly do not blindly follow a foreign cultural practice if I think it may have the opposite effect.

Being respectful when travelling requires a very delicate balance of understanding and acceptance. I hope this post will help you, somewhat, in finding your own precious balance when travelling.

Laura x

NB. Planning a trip abroad soon? Here is a very good website I found and, although I did not click on all countries, I did check out a dozen or so and from what I can tell, it’s pretty spot on.

Hope it helps! 🙂

 

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Hipmunk City Love: How to Survive a Visit to Bangkok’s Grand Palace

Welcome to the Grand Palace

Welcome to the Grand Palace

The Grand Palace is, to Bangkok, what the Colosseum is to Rome: the epitome symbol of its ancient civilization. A visit is an absolute must, although  it could be chaotic, tiring and quite overwhelming, Crowds here are phenomenal, especially in high season, so if you wish to survive your visit, you may take heed of some invaluable insider tips.

The following hints were researched, tried and tested by yours truly. And if I can approach a visit here with military precision, in spite of my prominent go-with-the-flow attitude, so can you!

Know What You’re Seeing

The Grand Palace was the official residence of the Siamese Royal Family for 143 years. This colossal complex is where they were born, lived, were crowned and even buried. To locals, this place is as revered as they come, especially true when you consider that  the Emerald Buddha, the most worshipped religious relic in the entire country, is found here. It also helps to know that this 250-year-old statue is only 25 inches tall and sits in a protected case, on a very high pedestal. Much like the Mona Lisa in Paris, you may need binoculars to truly appreciate its contours.

Golden Pagoda, Grand Palace. B.I.G.

The B.I.G. Golden Pagoda

Use Public Transport

Bangkok’s insane traffic is enough to turn the most well-balanced individual into the Hulk, so fight the urge to jump in a taxi or tuk-tuk, and head to the Grand Palace by public transport instead. The easiest and most enjoyable transportation option is by BTS Skytrain to Saphan Taksin Station. From the station, follow signs to the nearby pier and take the Chao Phraya Express Boat to the Grand Palace – easy, cheap, enjoyable, and migraine-free.

Cruisin' down the Chao Phraya, beats getting stuck in traffic for 2 hours.True story.

Cruisin’ down the Chao Phraya, beats getting stuck in traffic for 2 hours.True story.

Visit at Lunchtime

Every guide written about the subject will urge you to get to the Grand Palace first thing in the morning, which, today, has resulted in ‘first thing in the morning’ being the busiest time of day. As most people will be on a whirlwind, organised day trip with a tour group, trust that there is another time of day which is blissfully quiet(er): lunchtime. Without fail, every guide will take his/her group to some overpriced restaurant for lunch, leaving cunning you to enjoy the Palace in peace and quiet – relatively speaking, of course.

Those threatening crowds? They kept the crowds at bay!

Those threatening crowds? They kept the crowds at bay!

Pick Low Season

Visiting Bangkok between May and August is usually thought to be madness, due to the oppressing heat, humidity and frequent rains. Yet it can actually be one of the best things you can do. Not only will you find great deals on central hotels in Bangkok, but you will experience the city, and all its attractions, with far fewer visitors. Besides, as long as you have a nice hotel to retreat to every afternoon, like the Woraburi Sukhumvit Hotel & Resort (hello rooftop pool!), you’ll find it easier to cope with sweltering hot days.

Now don’t go thinking you’ll have the Grand Palace all to yourself – that will never happen! But if you’re hoping for some breathing space, then this period will certainly grant you the beast chance.

Finally, don’t forget to put that camera down, every now and then. This is one of the most spectacular and awe-inspiring places you’re likely to ever visit. Don’t miss seeing it with your heart and soul, as well as through the lens of your camera.

 

**Full Disclosure: I’ve partnered with Hipmunk to bring you a collection of fun and informative destination guides. Yes, I’m being paid to write these blogs, but do note that all opinions, recommendations, ideas and photos are mine and mine alone — for your virtual traveling pleasure

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Hipmunk City Love: Top 3 Culinary Secrets of Siem Reap, Cambodia

Magical Angkor Wat, Siem Reap's #1 attraction

Magical Angkor Wat, Siem Reap’s number-one attraction

Siem Reap is the undisputed tourist-queen of Cambodia and home to the UNESCO-listed Angkor Archaeological Park, once the heart and soul of the ancient Khmer Empire. You would expect that such a popular, special place would be brimming with amazing restaurants and food stalls, offering taste-bud-exploding culinary experiences. Except it’s not. Take a stroll along Pub Street and its side alleys and you’ll discover a myriad of restaurants, cafés and bars, offering every cuisine under the blistering Cambodian sun. Unfortunately, most of the food offered is, at the very best, just good enough.

Busy yet (somewhat) uninspiring Pub Street

The busy yet – somewhat – uninspiring Pub Street

But if you’re anything like me, you may wish for something more than just ‘good enough’. Sometimes you want those taste buds to simply jump for joy at the taste of an extraordinary meal.

Well, I’ve got just the treats for you – because life’s far too short for ‘good enough’.

Schnitzel Wirtin: The KING of Schnitzel

Your gastronomic mission, should you wish to accept it, is to polish off a whole serve of pork or chicken schnitzel at Schnitzel Wirtin (also known as The Crocodile River Bistro) on Tonle Sap Road. This is no ordinary feat, mind you, as each serving includes roughly 1kg of meat and a side dish of your choice (go the potato salad!) Prices are not cheap (for Cambodia) yet one bite of the heavenly cutlet will also convince you that it’s worth every cent.

The food here is not only fantastic for Asia, a place not exactly renowned for serving great Western food, it’s totally amazing, full stop. Of all the many memorable meals we’ve had in the last three years on the road, this one still rates as the best. Go on an empty stomach, wear stretchy pants and let me know what you think.

Holy guacamole...

Holy guacamole…that is some plate of food

Traditional Cooking Class: A Comprehensive Cultural Indulgence

I’ll be the first to admit to not being terribly taken by the Cambodia traditional cuisine. I readily considered it a bland version of Thai food, but all of that changed once I splurged on an incredible cooking class in Siem Reap.

After much research, I went with Beyond Unique Escapes because the company seemed to be the only agency offering much more than a simple chop-it-cook-it-and-eat-it experience. I was right. Classes are held in a small rural village just a few miles out of the city centre, and include a walking tour and visit with a local family.  The food itself was beyond unique and surprisingly easy to prepare. Classes include transportation to and from your chosen Siem Reap hotel and a glass of wine or beer with your meal.

You'd better follow her instructions. Or else!

You’d better follow her instructions. Or else!

Super fresh, locally sourced fruits & vegies

Just look at the super fresh, locally sourced fruits & veggies

Apparently, I was to turn this into a coconut curry fish...

Apparently, I was to turn these ingredients into a coconut curry fish….

Ta da'! Mission accomplished!

Ta da’! Mission accomplished!

Stall on Street 27: Drool-Worthy Seafood

Half way up Street 27 on the eastern side of the Siem Reap River (one block before ‘Check-In Café’) is where you’ll discover one of the most amazing little seafood joints in town. This street-side restaurant has no name and barely a menu but offers mouth-watering grilled and stir-fried prawns, squids, cockles, and fish. Seriously! The restaurant opens at 6 pm and stays open until daily supplies are depleted, which tends to be around 9 pm. The best part? This would have to be one of Siem Reap’s cheapest food stalls. You can literally eat your own body weight in seafood and the experience will cost you merely $5.

And what’s not to like about that?

 

**Full Disclosure: I’ve partnered with Hipmunk to bring you a collection of fun and informative destination guides. Yes, I’m being paid to write these blogs, but do note that all opinions, recommendations, ideas and photos are mine and mine alone — for your virtual traveling pleasure.

 

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Travel: it’s evolutionary, Watson!

quote-human-beings-are-works-in-progress-that-mistakenly-think-they-re-finished-the-person-daniel-gilbert-105-20-79

I really didn’t need a Harvard psychologist to convince me of the fact that the only predictable thing, in life, is its unpredictability. However, as I watched Dan Gilbert’s Ted Talk, The Psychology of your Future Self the other night, I got to thinking of just how much everything about me has changed over the last decade. My interests have altered enormously, as have many (if not most) of my opinions. On everything.

Stay on the road long enough and you will also question everything. Everything your parents ever told you, teachers ever taught you, media outlets ever stated. You’ll learn that there’s no such thing as a ‘universal truth’, that everything depends on which side you ask. You’ll realize that one country’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, that history books are written by the winners and that there are two sides to every story. It’ll finally dawn on you that, collectively, humans on this planet believe in approximately 3,000 religions, none of them better than others. Pick one, or pick none, it’s all up to you. Like it or not, you will experience the absolute best and worst of humans, best and worst of the societies we have created on earth. Eventually, you may stop feeling like you are part of one particular corner but of the whole, instead.

Although life, in general, has a way of altering everyone to some degree (call it personal growth if you will), there’s something about a travelling life which seems to speed up the process. The sheer amount of exposure to different beliefs, ways of thinking, religions, lifestyles, social classes, and political issues, will do that to a person. The constant questioning and requestioning of one’s own morals, ideas, likes and opinions are, at least for me, one of long-term travel’s most endearing aspects. I love being challenged, surprised and shocked. I love it when an experience proves me wrong, or right, or throws another curve ball which I had never even considered. It shows me how little I know, and makes me feel grateful for having that insight in the first place.

Primarily though, travel alters your perspective of yourself. Living a life with such a high degree of unpredictability affects you immensely. My life has no safety net, no constant, nothing I can grasp with both hands and rely on, and nothing I could ever take as a given. Not even myself. So instead of thinking ‘This is who I am, this is my life and this is what I like’ I now think “This is who I am, this is my life and this is what I like…today.”

So as much as I enjoyed Gilbert’s talk, I couldn’t relate to it fully. I’m not quite sure just how many people live under the impression that ‘they are who they will be’ but I know I’m not one of them.

Could I have envisaged where I’d be now, 10 years ago? Not on your life!                                                                                                                                                                                                       Could I possibly envisage where I’ll be in 10 years time? aha!

Can you?

My progression from woefully inexperienced tour guide to holy-s***-maybe-I’m-good-at-this tour guide, to independent traveller and, most recently, travel guide writer, is maybe not the most shocking metamorphosis known to man. But I still never envisaged it. It still caught me by surprise.

Replace the wine with coffee and yep...that sounds right

Replace the wine with coffee and yep…that sounds right

The reason I’m sharing all this with you today is because I’ve recently received an incredible job offer from one of the leading online travel companies. As opposed to all my previous clients, who wanted articles to post on their website, this one has requested articles be posted on my own website instead. I admit, I was taken aback and had to take about a week to decide.

When I first started my travel website I was adamant that no ‘work’ would ever get in the way of my ramblings. I very much wanted to keep the two sides of my life separate. But after much discussion with Chris and those close to me, who understood my conundrum, I’ve had a rethink. See how that happens?

So my dearest followers, you are going to see some random, destination-specific guides published on Laura’s Travel Tales, from now on. Although I’ll obviously be paid to write them, trust that the content of the guides will still be very much me, my experiences and my personal recommendations. These are all things I will not compromise on. I will only ever share what I believe is worth sharing.

The project is called ‘Hipmunk City Love’ and I shall include this name in the title, so you’ll know exactly which ‘part’ of my travel life you’ll be reading about. I will also include a link to my new ‘travel guide’ page on this site, for easier reference should you want to refer to it at a later stage.

I’m really quite excited at the prospect of delving into the more tourist-oriented part of my travels. Yes, I love rambling about political and social issues but sometimes, I also love sharing tips on the amazing food we’ve feasted on, or incredible places we’ve stayed. I have such a backlog of ‘eat your way through this city/country’ guides which I’ve shared with friends…it’s about time they got a proper home! 😉 Sometimes, I may also post a do-this-eat-that-and-go-see-this guide, just for the heck of it. Because, at the end of the day, it is something which I really, really enjoy. And I don’t always need to be paid to do something I enjoy 😀

I sincerely hope you also find the guides useful, interesting and fun to read, and I thank you in advance for supporting my ongoing ‘evolution’. It’s a very exciting prospect and quite an incredible opportunity to really delve into the world of travel guide writing. This is how I put food on the table and support myself, financially, and the long-term prospects are quite significant.

Oh…and rest assure that my own travel tales, of course, will always continue to flow 😉

Travel safe and prosper

L xx

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Overlanding in Low Season?! You bet!

We’re currently travelling through Southeast Asia at a time of year when many fellow travellers are keeping well away. The weather is crap, the heat unbearable and humidity stifling. As most overlanders know, the trick to keeping up this luxurious lifestyle of ours (hmm, cough, splatter) for years on end is by camping and reducing accommodation costs as much as possible. Well, as it turns out, camping with temps in the high 30s, humidity in the high 90s and torrential rain is, rather surprisingly I hear you say, not all that enjoyable. Who would’ve thought?!

Staying in paid accommodation is the only smart thing to do but paying for the privilege of a leak-free room, and blessed air-conditioning unit, is bound to cut deep holes in our already holier-than-thou pockets. AND, as if that’s not enough, I am also dealing with a problem which has caused many a motorbike traveller to stop dead on his/her tracks: biker’s arm. Or chronic tendinitis, or lateral epicondylitis or whatever on earth you wanna call this chronic elbow problem of mine that’s been driving me up the wall. I’ve been dealing with it since November last year (yep, 8 months and counting) and although I seem to be over the worst of it (that would have been back in April when I was on about 6 painkillers a day) it still means we can’t ride on. More than a few hours of bike riding a week and I’m out. We have no escaping this blistering season. We’re literally ‘stuck’ here.

So what are we to do?

The way I see it, long-term overlanding is much like life in general: if you persistently look for an ‘out’ rather than a ‘how’, you’re probably not going to get very far.

What’s the only sensible thing for us to do then? Adapt. The one thing which has kept us going for so long and about the only thing you should do if you want to travel indefinitely AND keep your sanity intact. Improvise, put your thinking cap on and find compromises Most importantly, don’t waste precious time looking for an escape. Sometimes there just isn’t one, not if you’re travelling with your own vehicle. Make the most of what you have and, rather than spend your energy on complaining about your surroundings…adapt to them.

download

Many overlanders go to great lengths to avoid a certain part of the world, at certain times of the year. We meet them all the time: “Oh we must cross this place before the snow comes, or we must exit here if we want to skip the rain season there”.  But there is something to be said for braving the worst seasons and living through them, no matter where one is. Travelling through low-season can gift you the priceless chance to experience a totally different ‘life on the road’, as long as you’re willing to change your travel style just a little. Prices are at an all time low, as are tourist crowds. The best activities and sites may be unreachable or not very enjoyable, but chances are you’re probably not out there simply ticking lists off your Lonely Planet guide.

Staying put wherever you may find yourself at the start of a low-season (be it unreasonably hot or cold) and switching your mindset to lead a more ‘stable travel life’ can be incredibly enjoyable. This is what we did back in winter 2013 when we rented an apartment for 3 months in Tbilisi. It has since gone down in our travel-history as one of the most unforgettable experiences we’ve ever had. And we never even travelled anywhere. We shared life with a gorgeous local family (our landlord’s), celebrated Christmas in a foreign country, were invited to social gatherings, concerts and theatre performances. I learnt how to cook my favourite Georgian dishes whilst Chris refreshed his carpenting skills and built furniture. I wrote a book. We both put on 5 kilos and developed a  fondness for vodka. We both cried when we eventually set off to travel in Spring, as did our host family. I really shouldn’t have baked so many khachapuris

Making Georgian Eggplant with Walnuts (Badridzhani Nigvsit)

Making Georgian Eggplant with Walnuts (Badridzhani Nigvsit)

Theatre outings, family lunches, New Years Eve in town...and more food!

Theatre outings, family lunches, New years eve in town…and more food!

There are 101 wonderful things one can experience when one is travelling. Just as there are 1001 other things one misses out on, when one is constantly on the move. You never get to know a country or a culture well, never really grasp a foreign language, never have time to write a book, learn a new trade or volunteer for a favourite cause. Never really make good friends, learn a new cuisine and never have time for proper exercise. Most overlander’s biggest pain is the constant budget restrictions, so now’s your chance to earn some money! Find a job, either in-country or remotely, and get some extra funds in the piggy bank.

Low-seasons were invented for all these things, and more.

With some creativity and open-mindedness the options are utterly endless. So next time those dreaded typhoon rains or snowfalls are headed your way, why not stop? Long-term rental properties are found in every country and can be incredibly affordable (how’s $5 a day sound?), especially if you employ the help of a local. Facebook is brimming with communities of expats who live anywhere and everywhere. Join then, ask them; you’ll be amazed at the opportunities which exist in every country. Pick a country with extendable visas and long-term vehicle permissions. There are at least one or two in every continent. Plan ahead and you won’t be caught out!

Then, once you’ve found your home…join a club, join a gym, study something new. If you need internet and don’t wish to get bored shitless, stay in the heart of a capital city, where options (for everything) are much more varied. We love nature and isolation as much as the next overlander but trust me when I say that living in isolation is amazing for 3 weeks but not so much for 3 months, especially if you’re travelling alone.

We contemplated spending our winter in Kazbegi, a stunning mountain town near Georgia’s borer with Russian. But after a two week stay, we knew that no matter how beautiful the landscape was, there just wasn’t enough there to keep us engaged. Kazbegi has only one decent cafe’and very dodgy electricity. Perfect for two weeks, not so much for three months.

Kazbegi

Kazbegi

We’ve also found something new to try out this low-season. Aside our work and days off exploring, we followed a friend’s recommendation and joined a house & pet sitting community. We’ve just scored our very first gig. In August, we’ll be looking after Doug, or ‘Doug the Pug’ as he prefers to be called.

Doug the Pug lives on Penang Island (Malaysia) and wants to ‘show us around’ whilst his humans are away on vacation. Doug is low maintenance, has the run of the house and enjoys company, cuddles and walks. I think that could work. We’re absolutely stoked and we are also absolutely not sure if we’ll even like it. I have a sneaking suspicion we will. We love dogs and Doug sounds like an absolute riot. The weather’s bound to still be totally crap but who cares when we’ll be in the comfort of a luxury seafront villa just north of historic Georgetown.

Oh…did I not mention where Doug lives?

new07 luxury-condo IMG-20130718-WA0009

So lovely peeps, apologies for not providing much ‘travel entertainment’ over the last few months but we’ve been taking a break from our usual shenanigans. It’s low-season, you see. But hey stick with me, if you will. Apparently Doug loves nothing more than a refreshing sundowner by the pool, silent-but-deadly-farts in the middle of the night and a shoe-chew here and there. Something tells me there will be plenty of adventures still to come.

I hope you also find yours. Somewhere, somehow…

Laura xx

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Thailand: Land of Smiles and Friendliness. You sure about that?

25th June: Krabi

“Would you like a coffee?” The custom officer politely asks as he takes the papers from our hands.

“Coffee??!!” Chris and I answer in unison, with what can only appear, to an outsider, as utterly idiotic expressions.

It’s a simple enough question, one would think; one which certainly would not require a 5 minute pause of confusion. But this one does. It’s the first time we’ve been offered anything in Thailand, by anyone, let alone a government official working in a Customs House. At first, we both surmise this is going to be a very expensive ‘stamp’ but then realise that this man standing in front of us appears incredibly genuine.

“Oh…oh…really??…oh yes please!!” Is our eventual answer.

Half an hour later, after the coffee has been drunk, sweets have been devoured (what the…?) and a new stamp added to our bike’s permits, we leave. Without paying a single baht. All up, we’ve managed to renew our tourist visa AND our motorbike permits in about an hour.

The mind boggles…

IMG_3331

As we enter our third month in the country both Chris and I have come to the conclusion that Thais don’t like foreigners very much. Nor do they have much respect for them nor (while I’m at it) are they overly friendly. Smiley? Sure!! Heck, ‘the country of a thousand smiles’ has built a whole tourism industry on the concept of a ready smile. Friendly? Now that’s something else…

Head to Thailand on an all expenses paid vacation for two weeks and I can understand you going home with a rose-tinted view of this rather lovely looking country. The smiles are omnipresent, as are the bows and the wais. As long as you’re handing over the bahts, that is. But should you ever find yourself requesting assistance for ANYTHING other than booking a room, ordering a meal, dropping hundreds every night at the bar or organising a tour to 101 idyllic islands…then you’re likely to encounter a concrete wall. The Thais seemed to have mastered the art of ‘passing the buck’. Need something done? Fixed? Sourced out? Advised on? Nah. It’s never them, it’s always someone else. “No, not here. Go there” waving finger in some obscure direction. “No, I no have” – “Well do you know where I could go?” – “No. Not here”. And so the stories go…

Thailand, the beautiful. Thank god for that, at least...

Thailand, the beautiful. Thank god for that, at least…

5th June: Hua Hin

I wake up in a panic one morning, whilst in Hua Hin, when I realise my netbook’s refusing to start. I’ve had problems with it for a few weeks, and I assumed it was now time to have it looked at. Luckily, we were in a rental villa with friends visiting from home, so at least I had ONE contact in town: the property manager. Surely a one-month-long rental payment ought to buy me just a wee bit of help on this one? So I ring her up and ask for a computer repair shop recommendation. Conversation goes something like this:

“Oh…go to the third floor of the new shopping mall. Computer shop there!”

“Fantastic, thank you so much! Now, you’re sure they REPAIR computers, not just sell them?”

“Yes, yes, repair, Go there!”

10 minutes later, I’m standing at said shop’s counter.

“No, no repair here. Just sell”

“Rightio. Never mind. Could you please tell me WHERE I can have this netbook repaired?”

“No, not here. Bangkok” But this time, he’s not even pointing in the general northern direction of Bangkok (200kms away), he literally waves me off.

I persevere. I tend to do that when I’m fuming.

“You mean to tell me…that in a city of 100,000 people, one of Bangkok’s most popular week-end destination and the place where even the royal family has a holiday house…there’s NO computer repair shop?”

“No, no shop here. Bangkok!” He’s friggin’ sticking to his guns.

“The King’s grandson’s netbook breaks and he must drive aaaaall the way to Bangkok?”

“Yes. No shop here, Bangkok”

I walk off in a flurry and proceed to pick up the phone. Property manager sounds a tad annoyed.

“OK, I ask my son OK? Maybe he knows? I call back.”

Oh so now we do understand? Why on earth would you not do that first, rather than dismiss me with a simple recommendation? I tell you why. ‘Cos they just could not be arsed, that’s why. In Australian speak, it means ‘they have no motivation to do something’. In Laura-speak, however, it means as long as there is nothing for them to gain, they shall not go to any bother.

As it turned out, the teenage son of the property manager did indeed know a guy, near a bike shop up the road, who could fix my computer. All smiles the repairman was, asking 100 questions about our trip. Once I handed over 700baht for parts and service, his smile was even brighter. But he still never offered us coffee.

This has been pretty much the story of our lives for the past two months. I’m not even going to bother telling you about the super-painful 5hr marathon we suffered when getting our permits extended the first time. Dear lord that was like pulling blood from stone.

28th May: Bangkok

“Not here. Somewhere else” was the first reply of the customs dude at Bangkok airport.

“No, not somewhere else, HERE” We argued for hours.

“Not my job” he replied

“PRECISELY your job!” I (nearly) screamed in frustration, as we stood at the office of the “Vehicle Temporary Import Office. “This is possibly the ONLY FLAMIN’ JOB YOU HAVE!!!!”

I know, I know. Not here, somewhere else…

Incompetence, lack of knowledge, lack of interest and lack of care. I really find it difficult to sum it up in any other way. Now, before you start bombarding me with comments on how cheap, beautiful and easy this country is, to travel through, rest assured that I know all that. That’s why I’m here. Actually no, that’s not why I’m here. I’m here because Thailand is kind of on the way to Australia, but that’s not the point.

Yes, Thailand is beautiful. It boasts stunning seaside resorts, interesting northern historic sites, yummy food and is cheap as chips. But so are a lot of other countries. What I’m looking for, is a little more. But I fail to find it here.

“Oh you shouldn’t take it personal. Thais are some of the most racist people you will ever meet in Asia. They hate everybody. They hate the Chinese, they hate the Indians and they certainly detest Westerners….to them we’re just a bunch of idiots. Besides, they’re even racist towards one another!”

This little snippet of wisdomness was imparted on us by a new friend made in a remote sea-side town in central Thailand. He’s a foreigner of course, one who has lived here for years. As I recount our endless stories of total unfriendliness and unhelpfulness, he does nothing but smile and nod.

I never actually knew about the rampant problem of xenophobia in Thailand and, to be brutally honest, I almost liked it better when I did think it was just me. We did come across a few quite-obvious examples of ‘racism’ but this is not a very unique phenomenon. In very touristy areas, in foreign countries where political correctness has yet to take hold, don’t be surprised to see signs like these:

Anti-Arab sign on Pattaya Beach. Something tells me they're not good tippers...

Anti-Arab sign on Pattaya Beach. Something tells me they’re not good tippers…

We found exceptions of course, for no rule could ever be valid without those. We’ve had some lovely encounters with seemingly friendly locals, yet they have all been either guesthouse or restaurant owners, never random people for random reasons. Not only in Thailand, mind you, but neither in Cambodia nor Lao. We’ve been on the road for almost 3 years now and, since we left China in September last year, never have we received an invitation or offer of a cup of tea or a meal. Never. One never looks for it, of course, yet when something is so blatantly amiss…one notices. there is nothing more heartwarming than being invited to ‘break bread’, as they say, with locals in a foreign country. This usually gifts us some of the most memorable encounters on the road.

Chris, Michael and I having dinner with locals in a small town in China. They saw us in the foyer of a hotel and chased us inside to invite us out for a meal :)

Chris, Michael and I having dinner with locals in a small town in China. They saw us in the foyer of a hotel and chased us inside to invite us out for a meal 🙂 Just because…

I’ve previously written about the perceived consequences of mass tourism in Lao, if you remember, and I’m left wondering if we’re dealing with  the same issue here. You know…same, same…but different?

I remember getting into a very interesting discussion with fellow overlanders, back when we spent the winter in Georgia in 2013. They argued that Georgia, and any other former Soviet country, are not nice places to visit because the people there never smile. In fact, they always look like they want to kill you. That’ not entirely untrue…yet if Georgia has taught me anything, it’s how one should never judge upon first impressions. And how ‘smiles’ and ‘friendliness’ are, at times, completely unrelated. Back then, my conversation companion actually cited Thailand as the ideal comparison country. “People smile there all the time! They are so friendly!” He said. Yet now, after our experiences, never has ‘smiles’ and ‘friendliness’ appeared to be so mutually exclusive.

In Georgia, people may have been slow to warm up to us foreigners, but when they eventually did, they smiled with their souls. Once you’re in, you’re really IN: you’re part of the family, you get invited to weddings, family get-togethers and, not only are you invited to a meal, but you’re expected to help prepare it. I liked that.

Learning to make khatchapuri, on a snowy day in Mestia

Learning to make khatchapuri, on a snowy day in Mestia

So now perhaps you understand why Chris and I nearly choked on our own saliva when offered a coffee by the customs’ official in Krabi. As I’ve said, we’ve also had exceptions.

28th June: Ko Lanta Island

As we board the last ferry from the mainland, direct for Ko Lanta Island, I hear the now familiar sound of Pixie’s valves flapping away. She’s been dragging this valve slap problem for months, and for just as long we’ve managed to ignore it and stall it. But now it’s gotten so loud I can’t even hear the engine running anymore.

As my in-house mechanic takes apart the engine casing, I sit there, pussy cat in lap, praying to the biker-gods above that whatever is wrong with Pixe, can be fixed with what we have.

Then I hear my most hated word in the English language.

“Bugger.”

“I need to adjust your cam chain but your bike necessitates a very particular tool, which we don’t have. Somehow, I’ll need to find a mechanic here on the island who can help me out.”

Yes. Good luck with that, sunshine…

(NB. As a preemptive strike, let me remind you (in case it ain’t obvious enough) that this article reflects the personal views of the author (moi) based on her personal experiences. Nothing more. Nothing less. 🙂 )

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Germany to Thailand-TRIP STATS-Day 960

After just a little bit of nagging, zee in-house accountant has finally found some time to get some new trip stats together. Yey for nagging!
If you recall, when we left Germany on 12 September 2012, we estimated that we could do this trip ‘comfortably’ for about €500 a month, or €6,000 a year. Naturally, ‘comfortable’ is an extremely relative term, and although my posts of the last few months may have led you to believe we are leading an opulent overlanding life, do keep in mind that for almost two years before that, we kept tight reigns on our comforts. Mostly, this had to do with our ever-impending BIG expense of crossing China. We dropped €2000 each in the pot in august 2014, just for that privilege. BTW, it was worth every 2-minute noodle pack we were forced to consume 😉

After almost 3 years on the road, we’ve managed a budget of €5933 a year. Go figure! Couldn’t have planned it even if we tried! 😀

We are often asked how on earth we can manage to travel (and well at that) with such a tight budget. Have a look at the pie chart below (because as if my German accountant would be happy just to give me a list?)

Travel Expenses 960 Days

The chart makes it plainly obvious that a whole third of expenses, when overlanding with one’s own vehicle, are related to movement. Food and accommodation can almost be entirely discarded. No matter where you are, where you travel or where you live, you gotta eat and you gotta sleep.

Petrol, visas, border crossings and ferry crossings are the only expenses that you can seriously play around with. When we exited China in October last year, our stats were looking quite pathetic indeed. The solution, to even them out, was simple. We slowed down. This is the #1 tactic for drastically reducing costs. need to make the money last? Then best you spread out those expenses.

We’ve barely covered 4,500kms in the last SIX months and the beneficial effects of that, on our budget, have been obvious.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that we are now free to splurge ad infinitum. The end of this year will bring another hefty expense. Puck and Pixie, to continue on their mighty adventure, will need to get a Carnet de Passage, a kind of passport for vehicles. That will cost ’em €1500 each. Bugger.

As you can see…life on the road is not much different to a lovely, comfortable, stable life at home. You take two steps forward…and one step back 😉

And with that we shall continue to shuffle closer to home…

Keep well, keep happy…and keep on travelling xxx

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