Safety Advice for Fez Morocco

If you get a chance to visit Fez, Morocco you will no doubt experience the utter chaos of walking through the Medina, the largest in the world which has over 9,500 sprawling streets and alleyways. So when people talk about getting lost while traveling, this medina will have you in a disorientated mess in seconds. The Fez medina is best described as a cross between a giant market and a maze where the souks or shops offer herbs, spices to carpets, rugs, anything. The city is dripping in culture, from the infamous tanneries to men transporting goods on donkeys backs to open funeral processions through the crowded medina. It will no doubt be an intense overload of the senses and you need to have your wits about you especially as a woman in this city. Here are a few nuggets of advice for traveling through the city of Fez:

Research the location before booking your accommodation.

This is hugely important for any city you travel to. I would strongly recommend to either find accommodation on the edge of the Fez medina or just outside the medina walls. For safety, I would also recommend staying in a busy part of the city. There is no comfort in staying down a dark quiet area where you do not know what may be lurking behind each corner. By doing this it will limit your chances of getting entirely lost deeper inside the medina or booking into accommodation located in a dodgy area.

Brace yourself for locals trying to hassle you.

Traveling throughout Morocco you will soon become very accustomed to locals trying to hassle you on the streets, everything from trying to lure you into their restaurant, to buying tickets for a day trip to buying souvenirs from a souk. It will run you down, draining the life out of you at points and you will have to develop a thick skin to bluntly say no and turn them in the other direction.

Beware of fake tour guides.

You will no doubt come across locals who seem oh so willing to offer you help with directions. Beware of people on the streets that seem eager to walk with you to show you the way, it is likely that they will try to lead you in circles then demand money once you say you are fine to find the way on your own. This is a well-known tourist scam happening all over Morocco. If you do come across a local who acts in this way, I would advise you to sternly tell them you do not need their help so you do not run into hassle later. These ‘tour guides’ tend to lead you towards their friend’s souks and businesses to encourage to you buy from them. This is something you need to be aware of also.

Do not venture too far into the medina at night.

This is my number one safety tip for Morocco in general as it gets very sketchy. I would not recommend wandering around the medina at night especially as a woman. It is not safe and you will get hassled by local men trying to show you the way and there will not a local woman in sight.

Keep your belongings close.

This is good advice for any city, but particularly in Fez where pickpocketing and thefts are fierce. Always carry your bag on your front and in your view so nobody can try to steal from you. If you have access to a security box at your accommodation, I would keep all of your valuables locked away there instead of walking around with them on you.

Do not rely on Google Maps or your phone’s GPS.

We found out the hard way when we got entirely lost that the GPS is not 100% reliable in the city of Fez, especially the further you wander into the medina. While it will appear to work in some parts of the city, venturing just a 5-minute walk in one direction the GPS might black out.

Beware of the carpet scam.

The story is told the same across the internet that carpet shop owners will invite you in, nice as pie, offer you all some mint tea as a hospitality gesture and before you know it you are in the middle of a sales pitch on ten different types of carpet. What we experienced is that while you are innocently drinking your mint tea they will ask everyone their nationality to pick out who is most likely to spend big money on a carpet, then whisk you away into a room on your own before you can ask for a second opinion and the haggling begins. The more interest you show the more outrageous the initial asking price will be. Do not feel pressured into anything and if you feel uncomfortable, its time to get out of the situation.

Negotiate the price of the taxi before hopping in.

This is a rule of thumb everywhere you travel and Morocco is no exception. Taxi drivers will try to take full advantage of the fact you are a tourist and try to charge you an over the top price for a 10-minute journey in the hopes that you will know no better. Always haggle down their initial asking price, if you are persistent you should be able to get it for at least a third of what they initially asked for.

Note: There is a weird taxi rule around Morocco that a standard taxi with four seats available can only transport three people at a time so bear this in mind when choosing your mode of transport.

Do not be afraid to haggle… for everything.

Like taxi drivers, most shops and tour agencies will try to upcharge tourists. Their initial asking price may be as high as 7 times the amount that they are willing to sell an item for. Do not be afraid to haggle and be persistent, it is a very large part of their culture so do not be afraid that you might insult anyone. They are willing to try a rip off a tourist, you are entitled to try and get the best deal possible.

Cover up!

Morocco is a conservative country so you won’t get away with wearing your usual summer skirts and shorts without some stares. As a sign of respect for their culture and to avoid drawing attention to yourself on the street, it is recommended that you dress as the locals do, wear clothing that covers below the knee and your shoulders.

You will get lost.

This is inevitable in Morocco, especially in the larger cities. Fez, for me, is one of the most disorientating places I have ever visited. When you do get confused as to which way to go, do not ask people hanging around the streets as they will continue to hassle you even after you no longer need their help instead stop into the next riad or restaurant you come across and ask the staff how to get to where you are going. It is advisable to carry with you at all times the address of the place you are staying at. Often hotels and riads will hand you their business card on check in which has the location and address on the back.

Chefchaouen, Morocco Guide

Chefchaouen also named the Blue Pearl is a breath of fresh air and the perfect town to chill out in after experiencing the hectic cities of Marrakech and Fez. We had heard along the way that many people make the journey Chefchaouen as a day trip but it deserves more time than that on your Morocco itinerary. Just a 3-hour drive north of the city of Fez, this pretty little city is situated high up in the mountains and it is unique in that the entire town is painted in shades of blue (an Instagram lovers dream). It is popularly believed that the city is painted blue to keep mosquitoes away while others believe it was done so for spiritual reasons. While we had suffered through in 40 degrees late May heat in more southern cities, the weather in Chefchaouen was a decent 10 degrees cooler which we were pretty pleased with. There is also a noticeable difference in the daily cost of things including eating and drinking out from the North and South of Morocco. The pace of life is a lot less maniac, fewer local people were out to hassle and bother you and your chances of getting lost here are slimmer as the medina and town itself is smaller. Below is a suggested itinerary for exploring the town of Chefchaouen.

Hang out in the main square.

In the main square you will find an array of restaurants, souks, ice cream stops.

Choose to do your souvenir and gift shopping here.

Chefchaouen is far more laid back than other parts of Morocco. Here you won’t feel under pressure or pushed into purchasing anything and your shopping experience will be far more enjoyable. The town also has better quality shops than other places in Morocco so I definitely recommend picking up gifts or souvenirs when you pass through. The souks sell everything from leather bags, soaps, argan oils to Moroccan carpets and spices.

Hike to the Archour waterfall.

Hire a car or hop in a shared taxi to the area of Archour. We joined a couple of people we had met along the way to do the hike so a taxi between 7 of us cost around 5 dollars in total for an hour-long journey there and back to Chefchaouen. Remember to haggle and agree on the price before hopping in or the driver will likely try to charge you a lot when you get there. The hike is about 2 hours up to the waterfall and the views of the Moroccan countryside and mountains on your drive there are beautiful.

Hike to the mosque to watch the sunset.

Just a 10 minute walk up the mountain from the center of town to the local mosque, you will be able to look down on the city of Chefchaouen as the sun sets behind the mountains. The walk is short and not overly challenging, you’ll likely pass goats being herded from one direction to the other and the view at the top overlooking the blue city is pretty.

Where to stay

Dar Chefchaouen

Located on the edge of the Medina and just a 5-minute walk from the main square, this guesthouse is perfectly located. A double room with private bathroom booked through booking.com cost around $30 per night.

Where to eat

Cafe Clock

A restaurant with locations also in Fez and Marrakech offers the usual Morrocan dishes as well as decent western plates such as burgers and fries for decent prices.

Mounir Restaurant

Located on the square, this little restaurant offers a great breakfast at a small price. Enjoy a great coffee, orange juice, and a Moroccan style crepe for just $2.50.

Marisco’s

One of the best places we experienced for food was this little restaurant, Marisco’s. Located right on the square of the town. The menu is well priced, food tastes great and there’s a great view from the terrace.

Hang out at the cafe on the waterfall

Enroute to the mosque, you’ll find a little cafe located at the base of the waterfall. Tables and chairs are right on the water while you’ll find watermelons and oranges in the waterfall to keep them cool. It’s a little pricey in comparison to other places in the area, we paid around $2 for an orange juice but worthwhile for the experience of sitting in the waterfall.

How to get to Chefchaouen.

The CTM facilitates many bus routes from city to city across Morocco and it is considered the most reliable of all bus services and also provides air conditioning, which is a huge bonus during hotter months. We booked our CTM bus from Fez to Chefchaouen which cost only $7.50. Often times, your hostel will help you book a bus ticket in advance otherwise, you can purchase the CTM bus station.

A First Timer’s Guide to Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok was my first stop on my solo backpacking adventure around South East Asia. I made it my starting point due to a cheap flight from Dublin and I would also be joining a group tour through Vietnam and Cambodia from the city. I decided to arrive a few days before to find my bearings and explore the city.

Having heard mixed reviews about Bangkok being a city that takes a while to warm to, I felt apprehensive yet excited on my way there, especially as it would be my first time stepping into this side of the world so I braced myself for a culture shock.

What to see and do around the city

The Grand Palace.

 


The palace is beautiful and a must on any Bangkok itinerary. It is pretty centrally located, about a 15-minute walk from the main backpacker street, Khaosan Road.

It opens daily from 8:30 am to 3:30 pm. I recommend getting there early to beat the crowds and make sure you wear temple appropriate clothing. They are very strict about this as it is seen as a mark of respect, you will be denied entry to the majority of temples and pagodas in Asia without the proper attire.

The entrance fee to the grand palace is 500 baht (around 14 euro or 16 US dollars). You may hire a guide for extra or wander around by yourself. I spent about an hour and a half walking around the temples but you can spend as little or as long as you like!

Khaosan Road

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This street is the world-renowned backpacker street, appropriately named given the amount of Westerners I passed by. A nightlife hub with bars lining the street along with street vendors selling all sorts from coconuts and noodles to scorpions and crickets if you are feeling more adventurous. There are also a decent number of hostels and hotels on this street. If you do choose to stay on this street remember it is noisy so try and request a room facing away from the street if possible.

Hop on Hop off Boat (Chao Phraya Tourist Boat)

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This was one of the best ways to explore what Bangkok has to offer. It allowed me to see a lot of the sights without getting lost or having to fork out a lot of money on taxis trying to get around. I paid 300 baht for the ‘hop on hop off’ boat which allows unlimited stops in one day. The closest boat to Khaosan Road is less than 10 minutes walk away at the Phra Arthit stop. The boat runs down the Chao River and includes 10 stops, with an onboard tour guide who will tell you a little about each attraction and stop.

Some of my recommended stops include:

  1. Wat Arun

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The admission fee to this temple is 100 Baht.

 

2. Pakklong Taladd (The Flower Market)

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This stop was one of my favorites as it allows you to step out of the tourist area and experience how the locals make a living at the flower market. Streets bustling with locals pushing carts of produce; fruit and vegetables, flowers, straw bales.

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3. Chinatown

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Experience some of Bangkok’s most talked about markets in Chinatown. The minute you step off the boat, you will be hit with narrow streets lined with vendors and a sensory overload of new smells and crowds. There are two main markets in this area; Yaowarat (the main street) and Pahurat (Little India) where you will find some great Asian street food and stalls selling all sorts.

4. Icon Siam Shopping Mall

One thing Bangkok does well is it’s shopping malls. The Icon Siam is a shopping mall of dreams right on the river complete with gold gilded elephants inside the entrance, chandeliers made out of flowers, vendors slicing and preparing fruit on boats floating along indoor ponds. There are some great food stalls and restaurants here also which makes it a great stop for lunch. Check out the Icon Siam website here.

Other Bangkok Shopping Malls include: MBK

Thai Massage

You won’t have to look far for a Thai massage, nail salon, and spa. At a fraction of the price back home, take full advantage. You can get a 60 minute full body massage for the equivalent of 3 euro or a foot massage for even less. Walking around Bangkok, people will stand outside their shop fronts offering you their best price for a massage.

Visa requirements for Thailand.

For Thailand, if you wish to stay less than 30 days you do not require a visa as an Irish citizen. Immigration officials may want to see the onward journey from Thailand within 30 days of arrival. Proof of this can be an international flight ticket or train ticket across a border. Fortunately, I wasn’t asked any questions by the officer at Bangkok airport however a few people I met were asked for evidence of leaving within the 30 days. If you plan to stay longer in Thailand, you will need to apply for a longer visa at the Thai embassy before you leave. You can re-enter Thailand after the 30 days by land (only twice in a calendar) which allows you an additional stay of 15 days or by plane for another 30 days.

Please consult the Thai Embassy website for more up to date details on visa requirements.

How to get from the airport to your accommodation.

There are many transport options from the airport to the city (about a 45-minute drive depending on traffic). I chose to pre-book an airport transfer for a piece of mind ($25) but you could get a far cheaper taxi if you are willing to haggle. Haggling is a huge part of the Asian culture so do not be afraid to do so. Rule of thumb: always negotiate the price before sitting into the taxi to avoid getting ripped off.

Transport around the city

Download the ‘Grab’ app

Like Uber, you can book cabs and order food through this app throughout Asia. You can order a car or motorbike and prices are usually better than a regular cab. I found during busy times however, it was near impossible to get a car via the app.

Public Bus

Brave the public bus for the equivalent of 10 cents for most routes around the city. Ask your accommodation for which bus to take to reach your destination!

Tuk Tuk

You won’t have to look far to find a Tuk Tuk, they usually sit outside hotels and tourist hotspots waiting for confused and lost looking, tourists. Make sure to negotiate the price for taking you to your destination before you hop in – they have a tendency to hike up prices for tourists.

Cab

There is also a normal taxi service around the city. Make sure you also negotiate prices for these.

 

Volunteering at Elephant Nature Park, Thailand

Volunteering at Elephant Nature Park (ENP) was certainly an eye-opening and emotional experience but one of my highlights in South East Asia. You will learn so much about animal rights and the horror of the elephant tourism trade that is unfortunately still so real today in Thailand. I highly recommend anyone interested in helping elephants in Thailand to visit this park and learn about the realities that this trade brings to so many injured, old and sick elephants every day.

Elephants are one of the top “attractions” that people want to experience when they go to Asia however it is so important to do your research and choose wisely how and where you go to see them in Thailand. Many parks still engage in nonethical behavior which causes harm and abuse to elephants. Although people are becoming more conscious of the mistreatment of elephants in Asia, many are still unaware of how unethical these activities are. Activities such as elephant riding, painting, and even bathing are cruel and unnatural. Thinking back on traveling through Asia, I cannot count how many times I saw these activities being advertised. Many parks are falsely advertised as being ethical but engage in harmful activities.

How are these tourism activities harmful?

The number one goal for elephant owners is to make money and unfortunately, this industry continues because tourists visiting Thailand are willing to pay. We need to remember that elephants are wild, massive animals and they are not naturally calm around humans so they need to be trained. The training involves shackling the elephant with chains around the ankles and beating it until it’s spirit is broken. The animal will eventually give in to the commands of its owner to perform and entertain for anyone willing to pay. If you visit ENP, you will quickly notice that a lot of the elephants carry scars and broken limbs from years of being tortured by their owners and used against their own will.

How ENP differs from other parks?

If you get the chance to go to ENP, located an hour and a half north of Chiang Mai you will not be able to touch, bathe, ride or watch elephants perform circus acts. Your visit will instead help these elephants recover from years of being mistreated in this trade. The park was set up as a sanctuary and place of retirement to take in sick and old elephants and aims to rehabilitate elephants back to health using only the most ethically practices. It offers elephants a new lease of life in the most natural surroundings with as much freedom as possible.

What does a day as an ENP volunteer look like?
Each day you will help out in the maintenance of these animals which involves approximately three to four hours of work with the help of the local staff. Tasks include shoveling elephant poo out of shelters, feeding the elephants, preparing elephant food in the kitchen and building a fire break. Throughout each day you will be allowed to help out with the dog and cat shelters also located in the park if you wish. Included in the fee to participate are all of your meals (which are all vegan and delicious) and your accommodation shared with 2 or 3 other volunteers.

Why should you volunteer at ENP?
– It is one of the only parks you should support in Asia given its efforts to provide a safe place for elephants to rehabilitate after spending the majority of their lives in shackles.
– The park has zero tolerance for nonethical behavior towards animals and by the end of your time there you won’t either.
– It will give you an insight into how much hard labor and hours go into minding these elephants.
– The fee you pay to take part in volunteer goes to the much-needed care of the animals, running, and maintenance of the park and the wonderful staff who look after these creatures.
– It will be one of the most rewarding experiences you have while traveling in Asia.
– You will learn so much from the local people dedicating their lives to this park and about the elephant tourism trade and animal rights.
– ENP not only treats sick elephants but also has also taken in hundreds of abandoned dogs, cats and monkeys so during your week of volunteering you can offer your help to these shelters also.

Have I convinced you to volunteer yet?

If so, here is the ENP website where you can check out all of there volunteer options as well as day trips. I chose to participate in the week-long volunteer programme. To book, you can check available dates and prices for this here.

If you cannot make it all the way to Thailand to ENP but would like to help out, here is a list of other ways you can do so from sponsoring an animal to buying merchandise from the ENP shop.

Coastal Gems of County Cork, Ireland: Nohoval Cove.

Nohoval Cove (pronounced “No-val”) is one of Cork’s best kept secrets nestled in the Southern Irish coastline. It is located near the village of Nohoval and just a 15 minute drive from the seaside town of Kinsale, it has become a popular spot for divers and kayakers. While it is often missed as it is not on the Wild Atlantic Way route, this hidden gem is definitely worth a visit if you are travelling to the rebel county of Cork. The short cliff walk offers some of Ireland’s most eye catching views of the rugged coastline and spectacular views of sea stacks and rock formations. 

How do you get to this amazing view?

A narrow country road will lead you down to the bay where you can park up and walk towards the pebbled beach. Be warned parking is limited and the road is so narrow that two cars will have a difficult time passing each other. I recommend getting here early to have the place to yourself or leave your car at the top of the road and walk down.

Once you are down by the bay you will see the ruins of an old slate mine on your right and on your left you will see the path which will lead you up the cliff face to the main overlook of the sea stacks and coastline. The walk is short and steep but not too strenuous however, be careful as there is no fencing between you and the cliff edge. Once at the top, you’ll feel like your on top of the world and you can take in the breathtaking views. These views are some of the best County Cork has to offer so it is hard to believe it’s not more talked about. 

For more on places to explore in County Cork, read my post on  “Top places to explore in County Cork”

The Best Way To See Pai, Thailand

I had heard so much about Pai from fellow travellers in Laos when I mentioned that I was travelling to Northern Thailand so had to go see it for myself. This is a small hippy village located 3 hours from Chiang Mai and it’s surrounded by nature, hot springs and view points. I can see what all the hype is about. You can spend your days here chilling out in a local coffee shop, in a hammock, or go see the countryside attractions.

How to get to Pai from Chiang Mai

Your hostel in Chiang Mai will help you book a minivan for around 220 Baht. The journey will take around 3 hours driving around over 700 bends, if you suffer from motion sickness brace yourself! Despite the bending roads, the views of the Thai countryside are stunning on the way there.

Where to stay

Pai Circus Hostel

This hostel is located up on the hill about a 10 minute walk from the main town. You can choose between a 12 bed, 4 bed dorm or your own bamboo hut for even less. I chose the last option as I wanted my own space after spending the past 3 days sharing a dorm in Chiang Mai. The hut has double bed, mosquito net and fan, with shared bathroom and shower near by.

How to see the Pai attractions

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Book a Pai day trip from the circus hostel or other hostels in the area.

Time: 10 AM – 6:30 PM

Cost: 500 Baht or around 14 euro

What to bring: Swimwear, suncream, towel, temple appropriate clothing.

It includes:

  • Lunch ( choice of fried rice or pad thai)
  • All entrance fees to the attractions.
  • Bottle of water
  • Pick up and drop off from your hostel and transport for the day to five attractions.

Hop on the back of a truck with 10 other travellers to explore Pai. We visited the following stops:

White Buddha

Climb the steps up to the White Buddha. (Make sure you bring temple wear as you won’t be allowed up the steps without long pants and covered shoulders). Once you arrive at the top take in the view of Pai and the Thai countryside behind you.

Kiem Lom Viewpoint

Next, hop back into the truck and be driven around the bending roads uphill to the viewpoint. Unfortunately during February, there are a lot of forest fires and air pollution so the view wasn’t very visible on the day we went.

Thum Lod Caves and Bamboo Rafting

This was one of the highlights of the day. Our group was divided into 3’s and assigned a guide to bring us through the caves. (note: you cannot enter the caves without a guide)(150 baht per guide for 3 people – included in the tour). Our local guide showed us around the cave leading the way, carrying a gas lamp too hot to stand close to but would be our form of light for the tour. The cave is massive, look around and you will see the stagalmites and stagaltites formed thousands of years ago. Our guide pointed out some of the calcite formations that had grown into the shape of elephants, monkeys and other animals. She also showed us some drawings done by local people over 3,000 years ago. As we made our way around we arrived at the river which runs from one side of the cave to the other. She led us onto a bamboo raft which was then paddled down the river by another local man. Look up and you can see thousands of bats lining the ceiling, and in the water as you sail through on the raft hundreds of black and gold fish swimming around and underneath the raft. We reached the other side of the cave and carefully balanced our weight to walk off the raft onto land. We climbed some steep stairs up to another part of the cave. Watch for the bat poo! you won’t miss it as it covers the stairs and railing up.

 

 

Natural Hot Springs

The hot springs were turned into a 2 hour stop off as the waterfall also included in the itinerary is dried up during the dry season so we were told by our driver it wasn’t worth our while to visit. Despite the outside temperature of 30 degrees, the hot springs were still a good temperature for us to enjoy and relax.

Pai Canyon

We reached Pai Canyon around 5:30 PM, just in time to take in the view of the sun disappearing behind the Thai countryside mountains. Note: Climbing around the canyon is not for the faint hearted or for anyone for a fear of heights. Narrow sandy strips of Canyon make the walkway around the area and aren’t protected by fencing or barriers so watch yourself. Many other people were up there for the same reason, the views at this time of day are stunning.

 

Why the group tour is worth it!

  • Save yourself from the notorious, winding, steep hills by not renting a scooter. The tour includes transport so why not have an experienced local drive you around instead? So many people recommended that I rent a scooter as its the only way to really see Pai however I am so glad I chose to go on the tour and save myself from risking crashing and seriously injuring myself as so many people here do. The attractions are pretty spread out so we did about 2 hours driving in the day, mostly on winding ,bending, up hill and down hill roads around the cliff face. (Plus you’ll save yourself the 200 – 250 baht on the rental and 90 baht on gas and all the extras that come with possibly damaging the bike).
  • If you’re travelling solo you’ll spend the day touring around with 10 other fellow travellers.
  • Lunch is included in the price! (which generally costs between 40 – 50 baht otherwise)
  • All entrance fees are included. (Hot springs – 200 baht per person, Thum Lod Caves 150 baht per guide).
  • All of the above would add up to more than the 500 baht you will pay for the tour so save some money and stress and book the tour!

Where to eat

Om Garden Cafe

This is a pretty little spot located in the town centre to chill out and grab a good breakfast / brunch and great coffee.

 

 

Laos Yoga Retreat, Nong Khiaw

Whether you are an expert yogi or just casually practicing yoga you should give a retreat a shot! Where better to try one than in South East Asia – people from all around the world have been coming here for the best yoga experience. Laos, PDR (People’s Democratic Republic or also short for Please Don’t Rush) is one of South East Asia’s most chilled out places. Unlike other countries, you don’t hear the sounds of motorbikes beeping on the frantic streets and everything in general runs at a slower pace here.

Laos yoga retreats offer various programs throughout the year. The Ayurveda yoga retreat takes place over 4 days in February at the Mandala Ou Resort nestled in the sleepy town Nong Khiaw just north of Luang Prabang town.  The resort is fully booked out so during the time of your retreat no one else is staying at the resort which really adds to a relaxing, fulfilling yoga experience and taking time for yourself.

How to get there?

Minivan from Luang Prabang (70,000 Laotian Kip or $7).

A minivan to Nong Khiaw can be booked for you through your hostel or accommodation. You can take it directly from Luang Prabang to the small but beautiful riverside town of Nong Khiaw. The journey will take just 3 hours but brace yourself for a bumpy ride, generally, there is a lot of construction, potholes and road conditions overall in Laos aren’t the finest. From the bus station in Nong Khiaw, it is a mere 3-minute walk to the Mandala Ou resort where the retreat takes place.

Cost and what is included?

For $290 you will get:

  • 3 nights shared accommodation. (Before booking you can ask to share a room with another person attending the retreat or pay a little extra for your own private room – up to you!)
  • A delicious breakfast buffet each morning with a wide range of fruits, cereal, croissants, jams, granola, scrambled egg, toast, tea or coffee. After breakfast you won’t have room for lunch, it is so good!
  • An organic dinner each evening which includes about 5 different courses with a lot of tasty vegetarian options.
  • Lunch is not included in the price however if you are feeling hungry you can order off the resort’s lunch menu.
  • A refillable water bottle upon arrival to use for the duration of your stay at the resort
  • Access to the beautiful infinity pool overlooking the Nam Ou River and into the mountains and cliff faces. Poolside towels are also supplied. You will have time in between yoga sessions to relax, read a book or explore the town of Nong Khiaw.

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  • Two 2 hour yoga practices each day in the morning and evening overlooking the river – the view is truly amazing. Including Yin Yoga, Vinyasa Yoga, and meditation techniques. The morning yoga will begin as early as 7:30 am before breakfast. The retreat supplies herbal teas and bananas if you feel you must eat something before 9:30 am. The evening session begins at 5 pm until 7 pm.

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  • A handbook is provided at the beginning of the retreat which will tell you more about yoga practice and Ayurveda.
  • A workshop and introduction to Ayurveda practices led by your yoga instructor. She will pass on information on ways to improve your life by following certain eating habits, rituals to begin your day. For example, taking some time for yourself before rushing out of bed in the morning, oil pulling and tongue scraping.
  • A hike led by the instructor to the Nong Khiaw viewpoint. The start point of the hike is about a 10-minute bike ride from the resort.

Hike time: 1 hour 30 minutes

Entrance fee: 20,000 Laotian Kip or $2

The views overlooking the town and the river are stunning and well worth it.

  • Yoga mats, blocks, and blankets are provided by the retreat.
  • Bikes are available from the resort and free of charge.
  • Return minivan from the resort to Luang Prabang on the final day.

What level of yoga do you need to have to join the retreat?

The group has a total of about 14 people of all different levels from complete beginner, to advanced training instructor level. The retreat caters for all skill sets and the instructor will meet with you individually at the beginning to discuss.

What to bring to the retreat?

  • Warm gym or exercise clothes. In February in Nong Khiaw, the temperatures plummet in the mornings and evenings so make sure to bring long pants and long sleeves to your yoga practices.
  • Swimwear.
  • Notepad and pen.

Rules at the retreat

  • Silent mornings:

At the start of the retreat, we were asked by our instructor not to speak to each other and remain in silence until the first yoga session of the day was completed and the first “Oom” had been collectively sung.

  • Turn off technology and communication from external sources:

Our instructor recommended that we turn off our phones and not to check our emails for the duration of the retreat to fully relax, unwind, experience the retreat fully and reset the mind without any external distractions.

 

Must have Apps for Backpacking in South East Asia

Here is a list of my top travel smartphone app recommendations that will help you to find bargain accommodation, transport, flights,  restaurants and activities and budget your spending around South East Asia.

Accommodation

Agoda

For booking accommodation, download the Agoda app. Create an account and it will find you the best deals on hotels, hostels and other accommodation in countries around South East Asia. For most bookings, you will be able to modify your booking or cancel at last minute if your plans change. Agoda often has sales on bookings and offers on extended stays. For example, I wanted to stay in Hanoi, Vietnam for an extra week to explore and  Agoda found me a hotel which offered me a 40% discount on an extended stay, which meant I had more money to spend on other things like eating out. The more you use your Agoda account the more points you will accumulate which can go towards free or discounted accommodation. Out of all the accommodation sites and apps out there, I used this one the most.. simply reviewing places after your stay will earn you points!

Booking.com

Like Agoda, this is a worldwide accommodation booking app and website. Rated by many as the number one site for getting the cheapest, best deal on accommodation. You can also filter your searches to offer you cancellation options, incase you change your plans at last minute. Perhaps you fall in love with a particular part of a city and choose to stay there instead? Booking.com is also great for offering reliable reviews, it will generally show the best reviews first so make sure you click to view all reviews so you don’t get any nasty surprises when you arrive.

Hostelworld

This is another great accommodation app that specializes in finding you the best hostel. Like many of the other travel apps it will allow you to filter your search by budget per night, star rating, facilities, distance from the city center.

Trip Advisor

Trip Advisor is useful to have in order to suss out the quality of places by reading reviews about accommodation, restaurants, tours and places to visit. Many users use TripAdvisor as an online forum to ask travel questions so it will help you find out more about the place you are heading out to. Offering tips and advice on best transport and costs of certain activities in your area. As Trip Advisor becomes more and more popular it is likely that someone has already asked a question you need the answer to which makes this app helpful for finding the right information.

Transport

Grab

Much like the well known Uber, Grab is the South East Asia equivalent. This app will allow you to book a car or motorbike to your doorstep. Grab tends to be relatively cheaper than a regular cab. Note: in busy times Grab cars may be less available. I found this in Thailand and Vietnam.

For Flights:

Momondo
Out of all the flight search apps there are, I find this one the most useful in finding the best and lowest prices. It will allow you to search single, return or multi trip flights

Skyscanner
Along with Momondao, Skyscanner is one of the top apps for finding best and most competitive prices on flights.

Airwander

I have yet to use Airwander but I like the concept. It allows you to book long haul flights and adjust the length and destination of your stopovers inbetween your departing city and destination. While some stopovers will add an additional cost, some will actually save you money on your total flight cost, how amazing for the budget traveler who wants to see as many countries as possible.

Budgeting and Spending

Travel Spend

Travel spend is a budgeting app to keep track of your spending as you travel. I find this one very useful as sometimes it can be hard to keep track of how much you are spending from day to day and it allows you to stay within your overall budget. To set up, you simply enter your total budget and the amount of time you wish to travel for. It will then calculate the daily amount of money you have to spend each day. Each day enter your spending, the app will allow you enter the amount, date, country and category. For example, I spent $2 on the bus which goes into the transportation category. You enter all your transactions per day and it will calculate your average spending per day as you go along. For backpacking South East Asia, the app calculated that I can spend $26 per day given the amount of time I am travelling and the total amount of budget I want to spend. Right now, my daily average is $23, $3 lower than my allowed amount.

I also use this app as a currency converter. The app lets you to enter the currency you are using at the time and it will convert it into your home currency so you are even more clear on how much you are spending.

Transferwise App and Debit Card

This app allows you to transfer money from the bank in your country into an international account. Before you set off travelling, order the transferwise debit card which will save you a lot of money on transaction and currency conversion costs that you would incur using your regular banking card from you own country. Once you receive the debit card, you can transfer money to the account, the app then allows you to convert euros to many international currency immediately, incurring a very small fee. I used the debit card in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam without a problem. Unfortunately the card cannot be used in Laos yet.

Navigation

Maps.me

This one has saved me many times from getting lost in a place I am not familiar with. If you don’t want to spend money on a sim card with data in each country you visit and you simply rely on wifi everywhere you go, this app will work offline to navigate to your destination. When you reach a new country, the app will allow you to download the map for that country while using wifi, then when you are out and about the app will work offline to route you to where you want to go.

Rome2rio

Another navigation app that will give you the best route and best transportation to take to reach your destination. Most searches will give you a couple options to choose from including the time, distance and price for each.

Google Trips

This one is great for organising your accomodation bookings and flight reservations in one place. It is smart in that it will automatically add a reservation to your trip. It will also download things to do in the area you are travelling helping to create an itinerary for yourself.

Google Translate

While many people speak English, there will be the odd occasion where there will be a barrier or misunderstanding. Google translate is useful to have in these situations.

Food Delivery

Food Panda

In Thailand, food panda will allow you to order food to your accommodation with a wide nearby restaurants to choose from. You can pay by entering your credit card when ordering or give cash to the driver.

Grab

As well as transport, you can also have food delivered by a grab driver. A similar concept to Uber Eats.

San Diego Travel Guide

California is one of my favorite states within the US and I first experienced it when I went to San Diego back in 2016 (before this blog existed) for a weekend. In fact, it was my first solo trip here in the states. I fell quickly for the laid back lifestyle people in California possess, the pacific coast which I really appreciated after a couple of months without close proximity to the sea in the Midwest and scenery across the beaches lined with palm trees. Below is my itinerary on where I stayed and how I made best use of my couple days there:

Accommodation:

USA Hostel, Ocean Beach

I loved this place. I paid around $30 per night and it is a stones throw from Ocean Beach. If you’re heading down Newport Ave, you won’t miss it as its painted every color under the sun topped with a peace sign – hello hippy paradise! Along with San Diego being my first solo trip, it was also my first hostel experience which turned out to be a very positive one.

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Image taken from booking.com

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Had to get a snap outside it!

Things to do:

Sunset Cliffs

First port of call was to check out the Sunset Cliffs, a 15 minute walk away from the hostel. I had heard about their beauty and wanted see for myself – they did not disappoint.

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Absorbing the scenes at Sunset Cliffs!

Relax on Ocean Beach

Chill out at Ocean beach for a couple of hours or get up early in the morning and have the place to yourself. Walk out onto the lengthy pier, watch the surfers catching waves and take in all of the views.

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Bike Ride from Ocean Beach to La Jolla

Rent a city bike for the day – these don’t cost much and are located along the beaches too, not just the downtown area of San Diego. I cycled from Ocean Beach all the way to La Jolla, with a few wrong turns and up a few very steep hills but it was a great way to see the Californian neighborhoods and the coastal area passing all the way along Ocean Beach, Pacific Beach and onto La Jolla which was so beautiful. The bike ride is approximately 45 minutes if you stay on track and follow your google maps.

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Watch the Seals at La Jolla Cove

The La Jolla coastline is beautiful with some stunning views, look down at the beach and shoreline and you are sure to spot some wildlife. Dozens of seals gather and perch themselves up on the rock face.

Explore downtown San Diego and walk along the marina

From the hostel, a shuttle departed daily to bring guests downtown – another perk of my accommodation. One of the hostel employees decided to join me and show me around downtown – honestly one of the best reasons to stay at a hostel is you make friends along the way! Walking along the marina you will find fishermen selling fresh fish, fishing boats docked at the harbor, I think we may have even spotted a seal in the water close to one of the boats. It is the home to the USS Midway Museum located on a massive marine vessel docked also at the harbor, which unfortunately I did not get to explore the museum on my trip but definitely a point of interest for next time.

 

 

How to Spend a Weekend in Chicago

Only in Chicago for a weekend? Below are the things you should do!

  • See the views from The Signature Room at the 95th.

Head up to the Signature Room bar on the 95th floor of the John Hancock building on Michigan Ave, grab a cocktail and take in some of the best city views. You can also see the views from the Willis Tower observatory deck however you must purchase an admission ticket.IMG-2897 (1)

  • The Green Mill Cocktail Lounge

Located in the Uptown neighborhood, this bar is a hidden gem of Chicago and a definite worthwhile visit. Entering the bar is like stepping into 1940’s Chicago and it is known for having been Al Capone’s local hangout. It contains the original furniture from the 1940’s, weekly jazz bands and a classic Chicago feel. Find out more about the Green Mill here.

  • Catch the Blues Bands at Kingston Mines

A 5 am late night blues venue located in the Lincoln Park neighborhood with some of the best blues bands beginning from 7 pm every evening for the week. To fully experience Chicago Blues and Jazz head here.

  • The Chicago Bean

Also known as the Cloud Gate, this is one of the most iconic sites in Chicago. Be the ultimate tourist and grab a photo in front of bean. The best times to visit are either early in the morning to beat the crowds of tourists that gather around the area later in the day or at night as the reflection of the city lights make for a great photo.

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  • Cindy’s Rooftop

Drink some of the best cocktails the city has to offer and take in views from the rooftop patio overlooking Millennium Park. Located on the top floor of the Chicago Athletic Association on Michigan Avenue directly across from the bean. Don’t be afraid to head to the rooftop during winter either as they have fire pits lit!

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  • The Drifter

One of the few speakeasy cocktail bars in the city located in the River North Area under the Green Door Tavern. The drifter is particularly special as it is known as one of the first buildings built after the infamous Chicago fire. The cocktail menu is handed to you in the form of a variety of tarot cards and they regularly host burlesque shows.

  • Brunch at River Roast

Chicago goes all out for weekend brunches and River Roast is a great spot to try down by the river walk. This place has great food, cocktails and atmosphere, a live jazz band usual play during the weekend brunch hours so make sure you catch them.

  • The Chicago river walk

After brunch, head for a walk along the river and take in the downtown city views. Along the walk you will find coffee shops and outdoor patio bars.

  • The Architecture Boat Tour

Many tour companies offer architecture boat tours up and down the river. This is a great activity for newbies to the city as the tour guides give an interesting talk about the history of the city and each building along the river.

  • Check out the thrift stores

If you are interested in shopping while in Chicago, definitely check out the quirky thrift stores. Many are located along North Milwaukee Avenue in the Wicker Park neighborhood known for its hipster hangout vibe. Thrift stores on this street include Buffalo Exchange, Crossroads Trading Co., Vintage Underground, Ragstock.

  • The Art Institute

Home of some of the world’s best artwork located in downtown Michigan Avenue. If you are interested in seeing some art exhibitions check out the galleries within the Art Institute. Exhibitions consist of large variety of styles including contemporary and fine art. A must see if you are the artsy type!

  • Bike along the Lakefront

During the warmer months, rent a city bike (“Divvy”) for the day and head onto the lakefront trail. Begin in Lakeview and bike ride to the Shedd Aquarium, you’ll pass some stunning scenes on your way including Millennium park, Buckingham Fountain, Belmont Harbor, and on your final stop at the aquarium take in Chicago’s beautiful skyline.

 

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  • Girl and The Goat Restaurant

If you are looking for a dinner spot, Girl and the Goat is one of the best restaurant experiences you will find in Chicago. Located in the West Loop, the restaurant specializes in delicious small plates suitable for sharing. Make sure to plan ahead and book well in advance as reservations fill up months ahead of time.

6 Things to Do Along Calle Oche in Little Havana, Miami

If you’re exploring Miami you have to head to Little Havana and walk along Calle Oche or ‘8th street’. This is the Cuban quarter of the city and full of character. Although usually packed with tourists, it’s definitely a worthwhile visit to catch a Cuban experience and meet the locals. You will notice straight away that it is different to other areas of the city. Here is a list of things to do as you along Calle Oche, the main street in Little Havana:

  1. Get a Cuban Coffee

This is a must. Served in a small cup, similar to that of an Italian espresso the Cuban coffee is made with demerara sugar that has been whipped by the first drips of the espresso. Therefore, slightly sweeter in taste but satisfied my high standards of coffee since living in Italy. A good coffee is often hard to find in the States but the Cubans do it well. You can find a Cuban coffee in most places you will pass along Calle Oche. I had mine at Old’s Havana Cuban Bar (see below) and just noticed that it is ranked number one on Yelp.

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2. Visit Los Pinorenos Fruiteria and try a freshly squeezed juice or smoothie.
A family owned open air flower and fruit stand serving juices and smoothies made from fresh fruit and Cuban sugar cane.

3. Eat at Old’s Havana Cuban Bar & Cocina

I chose to visit Little Havana around lunchtime as I wanted to try some Cuban food and I stumbled across this place as I walked down Calle Oche. A quick google search of reviews ensured me that it was a good choice. I sat at the bar and tried to make small talk with the bartenders, however their limited english cut our conversation short. Glasses filled with mint leaves and sugar cane lined the bar counter, ready to go if someone ordered a mojito. I didn’t order one but I saw from the menu that they have an extensive list of different types, all served with a cane of Cuban sugar – looked delish but a bit too early for me. I had a look at the food menu and everything was well priced and more reasonable than other places in the area. I decided on the ‘Pollo Asado’ (roasted chicken) and let me tell you it was amazing. For $12 it was a generous portion which included 2 sides (vegetables and a salad which I could not finish). I would highly recommend this spot as a quality place to eat.

4. Watch Games of Dominoes at Parque Del Domino

This park is the local hang out and fascinating to see. Tables upon tables of locals people playing dominoes all day long. Members only may play but you can walk in and watch the games. The park is also known as “Parque Maximo Gomez” and it is the gathering place for older Cuban culture in Miami.

5. Check out the street art and roosters of little Havana

The Cuban roosters of little Havana can be found just outside El Pub Restaurant and across the street.

6. Latin Walk of Fame

Also known as the ‘Calle Ocho Walk of Fame’. Just like the Hollywood walk of fame, stars run along the pavement of Calle Oche including names of Latin stars which have impacted the Latin America Music and entertainment culture.

Welcome to Miami – Weekend Travel Itinerary

Last weekend was my second time in Miami and just as amazing. Below I have detailed where I stayed and what I did for the weekend in Florida. I booked my flights from Chicago on Tuesday and I was in Miami on Friday – possibly the most spontaneous / last minute trip I have organised to date, but worth it. What persuaded me even more to go was that Chicago was due its first snowfall since before the summer and it was supposed to be 85 F / 25 degrees Celsius in Miami all weekend, I was READY for summer part two.

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Where I stayed..

Freehand Miami

I actually stayed here the first time I visited too. I love it as it is centrally location in the Miami Beach area, less than a 5 minute walk from the sea. It also has a super cool bar called the Broken Shaker and a pool for guests.

What I did..

1. Walk along Miami beach

Given that Miami Beach was so close to where I was staying, when I arrived I walked along the shore front and had to get some photos of the colourful lifeguard stands, very Miami-esque.

2. Little Havana / Calle Ocho

I actually love this area of Miami as it is infused with Cuban culture – the bartenders and servers had very limited english so it makes it even more authentic (I just started learning some spanish via Duolingo so there should be no troubles communicating when I’m back ;)). You need to have a cuban coffee and a juice from Los Pinorenos Fruteria. Click here my post on 6  things in Calle Ocho.

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3. Wynwood Walls

I visited the Wynwood Walls on my first time to Miami two years ago but given the fact I am a sucker for street art and that the artwork changes every year I had to go back. They have cool exhibitions on also.

 

4. Art Deco District

This was an area I hadn’t explored before and well worth a walk along ocean drive next to South Beach at night to see all the art deco building lit up with neon lights.

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5. Drive from Miami to Key West (with a pit stop Scuba Dive – Click here for a blog post about my dive).

This is such an amazing 3 hour and 40 minute drive along the Overseas Highway crossing 42 bridges along the way. I drove from Miami and back in one day as I had accomodation booked with the Freehand but if I were to do the drive again I would stay in Key West to make the most of it.

6. Everglades National Park

This was one of the highlights of my trip and first time visiting the Everglades. Just a 40 minute drive out of Miami. I took an air boat tour (which goes way faster than I initially thought and had to hold on for dear life). I paid $22 for my ticket which I purchased on Groupon (click here for offer) a few days before which included a 30 minute boat tour, an alligator show and I got to hold a baby gator at the end. I arrived around 11 am and didn’t need to reserve ahead or wait long. However at the end of the tour I saw groups of people arriving by bus around noon and long lines that I thankfully avoided.

Our tour guide was hilarious and gave us a lot of information about the area. We saw 3 alligators on our tour which was apparently good for this time of the year. During the dry season its possible to see a lot more given lower levels of water. He told us about python snakes eating alligators which scares the life out of me. Overall, a super worthwhile experience.

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