Tag Archives: Solo Travel

Glory by the Danube: five days solo travel in Budapest.

10 Aug
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The Chain Bridge and River Danube from Buda Castle.

Budapest took me by surprise, I have to admit. Hungary’s capital is a known destination, but often eclipsed by the other city attractions of Paris, Berlin, Prague or Vienna, Budapest often features lower down lists of desirable European destinations. If this is your mind set, then you could be missing an absolute revelation of a trip.

For those not in the know, Budapest is historically a relatively recent amalgamation of two cities who sat on opposite sides of the River Danube, with Buda having the rockier, higher prominence, and Pest being the low lands of the other bank. Incidentally, a word about the native language; Hungarian is notoriously difficult for English speakers to master, but it’s easy to remember that you pronounce the latter part of ‘Budapest’ as “Pesht” instead of “Pest”.

Once you arrive at the airport, you’ll need to find your way to the city centre. There are several options including bus number 200E. This bus will take you to the nearest metro station from the airport, called Kobanya-Kispest (blue Metro line 3 / M3). However, there is an even better option on pace now, and that is the 100E bus, which is a direct airport shuttle service, which will cost you just 900 Florints (less than 3 Euros). You can find more information on the 100E service here.

Other than that, there is a mini-bus service you can book in advance or jump in a taxi from the airport. Both easily done, but the taxi especially will cost you quite a bit extra.

If travelling by bus, don’t forget, you need to validate the bus ticket as soon as you board the bus, using the slot machine. This is the same procedure with the Metro service make sure you validate your ticket using the machine, before going down to the platform.

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My hostel choice was based on good reviews online, and a fellow blogger’s testimony. What was pleasing was to learn that the Lavender Circus Hostel had recently featured in an episode of Richard Ayoade’s Travel Man television series, and excerpt of which is below.

Inviting, bohemian and friendly, I’d recommend the Lavender Circus Hostel to most visitors to Budapest, wanting accommodation that is affordable and full of character. Within minutes of checking in, the staff were falling over themselves to be gracious and helpful. As I checked out to go to my second hostel, one of the girls Anna told me to come back if I get bored. It’s this sort of casual, but considerate attitude that lifts Lavender Circus above the rest. They only had rooms for two nights, so I had to de-camp to another place, which was the Full Moon Design Hostel, which was the other side of the city, near Margit Bridge. It looked promising, and was certainly a great stay with regards to the building and décor. However, the staff were not quite as friendly, and after a couple of days wondering where well known bar Morrison’s 2 was, it ironically turned out to be in the same building! Not just in the same building actually, but was right below as part of a huge atrium, with the second floor hostel balcony corridors looking down on it! The bonus was that there was somewhere handy to get a drink; on the down side, the music was blasting out until 5am, so getting some sleep was problematic!

I met two great Australian chaps, who were doing a tour of Europe, and Lou, who is from Germany. You get to meet some fascinating people in a hostel like this, and for all its many points falling short of Lavender Circus’ high standards, it was probably a more likely place to meet new people.

I did go out for a cold beer on my first evening, unknowingly skirting the area of the so-called ‘Ruin bars’ (more of which later), but it was really the first full day that I got to truly appreciate Budapest. I recommend spending a first full day walking along the banks of the Danube, although in the weather I experienced, walking from Petofi Bridge, right up to Margit Bridge, further north, which is well over 4 miles (about 9 km). It’s a really nice walk, but with temperatures hitting the mid to late thirties, I was definitely in the ‘mad dogs and Englishmen’ category, to quote an old phrase. All I can say is wear a hat and lots of sunscreen in summer. The sun will no doubt enhance an already beautiful sight as you witness the distinct character of each bridge, culminating in the iconic Chain Bridge, and the sights of the Palace and Castle on the Buda side, with the wooded and rocky cliffs offering a dramatic vista. This was the point I was sold on Budapest, and realised quite firmly that I’d completely underestimated this city.

A change of hostel on the second day did come as a minor disappointment, as I mentioned before, but once settle in and meeting some of the residents, I set back out on my travels. Making my way to the impressive Catholic St., Stephen’s Basilica, I met for a free city tour. The tour meets at 10:30 and 2:30pm every day on Vorosmaty Square. It’s an impressive space, to be sure, and the historical basilica is well worth a visit on its own (and is to date, still free to enter). The free tours in Budapest are some of the better city tours I’ve experienced, and our guide Riggi took us on an hugely informative and entertaining walk from the Basilica, through to the Chain Bridge and up to the marvellous Buda Castle (which is more of a governmental palace built on the remains of the medieval castle in the 18th century). Up here you can also visit St, Matthias church, one of Budapest’s most beautiful buildings and walk along the verandas of Fishermans’ Bastion, a medieval style lookout point, which offers some of the best views of the city. It’s a tourist photographers dream up there and tends to get very busy during the day time.

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Fisherman’s Bastion.

While up there I had a nice meal at Aranyhordo Eteerem restaurant including traditional Hungarian strudel for dessert. I also went in the labyrinth under the castle, which was quite an atmospheric expedition. At this point, I realised I needed some extra money and went to the nearest ATM. This is a cautionary tale, because if you’ve forgotten the conversion between Hungarian Florints and Pound Sterling (or Euros for that matter), it could pose minor problems. For example, I entered 60, 000 HUF before realising that was nearly £200, and far more than I needed, so be careful. I’d say the equivalent of £50 a day for spending money, if you’re planning on eating in decent places and visiting a few attractions, but you could psend a lot less. Budapest isn’t hugely expensive, but as with all cheaper places it’s easy to lose discipline and start over spending. Anyhow, lumbered with a crazy amount of a crazy currency (but no more crazy than any other, if we’re being objective), I paid my way into the labyrinth, and then spend the next half an hour getting lost in a place where (allegedly) the historical Dracula had once been imprisoned. It was actually a lot of fun, but the mannequins in some of the caged displays looked like something out of a Hammer horror film, and the couple who were some way in front of me practically soiled themselves when the demonic sound effects boomed out of a speaker. At this point, there’s no way you’ll be able to see shit, because they pump loads of dry ice into the cavern and the only light you have is some vaguely authentic gas lamp they give you before you go inside. Also, for anyone who says Germans don’t have a sense of humour, I have to give credit to the German guy who waited round a corner for his mates and pounced out on them. It was hilarious, although by the expression on his friend’s faces, I don’t think the same sense of humour was shared amongst the group. One of them had an expression that suggested he needed a sit down and a brandy.

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“Budapest by night” as the postcards would say.

The next day took me out in some of the hottest weather Budapest has had in some years (Europe is still having a heat wave as I write), so caution was expressed with the donning of a straw hat and copious sunscreen. I headed east across the city to the impressive Heroes Square and the leafy shelter of the City Park, where I went to one of the city’s many Thermal Baths. Since Budapest was once invaded and occupied by the Turks, it makes sense there would be similar baths somewhere, and as Budapest is built over many thermal springs, they were in luck. Sczechinyi Baths are one of the most famous in Budapest, so I made that one my priority and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s relatively expensive (around 4000 HUF), but well worth it to unwind in the warm water, either indoors or outside (I did both). The sumptuous architecture surrounds a scene which is like a combination of a bust beach and the local swimming baths. Trust me, you won’t want to leave and when you do you’ll feel reenergised. Basically, you’d be a fool to visit Budapest and not try at least one spa.

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Sczechinyi Baths

As I feeling quite cheerful at that point, I must have felt some buried Catholic guilt at this state of affairs and headed straight for the so-called Terror Museum, to rediscover Hungary’s Communist past, and the particulars of the police state involved. I didn’t find this as engaging as some similar attractions in Prague, and as interested and fascinated by the Eastern Bloc history of Budapest and Hungary, this museum was big on presentation but a little scant on content. Plus, although much of the audio visual material was subtitled, all displays were in Hungarian only, which could be a problem for some. As a monument of lives lost under a cruel regime, it is, of course, essential, and for that reason alone I do recommend it.

Next time I visit Budapest (and there will be a next time), I’ll probably make more use of the bus services and Metro (Budapest has the oldest underground railway outside of London), but if you’re fit and healthy then walking round the city with a good map is perfectly doable. This is what I did, and enjoyed it for the most part, but in the very hot weather I experienced I would advise caution!

Other attractions I experienced included the gloriously bohemian Ruin Bars, in the Jewish District. The Ruin Bars have been developed since 2001 and are basically abandoned Communist offices and residential blocks re-appropriated as bars and cafes. Most of the Ruin Bars are partly open aired, with a central courtyard arrangement, but with lots of internal nooks and crannies, adorned with a plethora of retro furniture and decor. Well worth a visit. One of the best known, and oldest, is Szimpla.

Overall, Budapest was a marvellous destination for a five day visit and there are still a few things I kept in reserve for another visit (surprisingly for myself, I didn’t visit the National Gallery or Museum, which are situated up in the castle complex on Buda hill). Next time, I’ll also make sure I investigate more of the Hungarian cuisine, with me pleasantly surprised at the amount of vegetarian food on offer. If you’re an avid meat eater, do not be worried though, as the Hungarian diet is usually very meat heavy. One thing I did manage to do, however, is a boat trip down the Danube. I can’t advise this enough, it’s a wonderfully unwinding way to take in the sights for an hour. The boat trip I took was 9 Euros but other more expensive options are available, including ‘free’ drinks. One free attraction I did personally love was the satur of American actor Peter Falk, in character as the titular character from TV series Columbo, appropriately at one end of Falk Mikaa. The statue was put up due to Falk’s tenuous Hungarian ancestry but as Columbo is my favourite detective series, I couldn’t resist paying Lieutenant Columbo and his dog a visit.

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So, Budapest is a city I recommend without hesitation, and is not a hugely expensive destination. Just avoid drinking too much palinka (the local moonshine, essentially) and don’t lose track of time in the thermal baths! Once you’ve seen the River Danube illuminated by the night lights, you’ll definitely be sold on this stylish and handsome city.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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An adventure in South East Asia. Part 3: Bangkok to Siem Reap by train, tuk tuk and taxi. An (almost) fool proof guide!

29 Aug

If you’re ever paying a visit to Thailand and also wish to include Cambodia in your travel plan, there is a travel method that will offer you almost unbelievable value for money but also a bit of an adventure along the way. Now, if you want a stress free, excitement free journey with no surprises, then this won’t be for you. But with flights at around the $200 mark, a journey costing less than $35 seems a no-brainer, and could also be a lot of fun. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s extremely doable!

 

So, with a few video prompts, here’s my (almost) fool proof step by step guide for getting from Bangkok in Thailand to Siem Reap in Cambodia (which for most tourists, is where you’ll want to go, being near the giant Angkor temple complex).

Buses are also available for this journey, but as with aeroplanes, that won’t offer you the cheapest journey, although it could be quicker. It won’t be as fun though, trust me on that.

 

  1. Get up early.

The train from Hualamphong Station leaves at 5:55am, so give yourself enough time to get up, get ready and get a taxi (unless you’re fortunate enough to be very near the station). Tickets can be purchased on the day for just 48bt. There are separate windows for advance tickets and same day travel. Basically, a reservation is not required for the Aranyaprathet train so you can just turn up on the day and buy a ticket.

Here is me, one very rainy morning in Bangkok, struggling to find the lights, and not wake up my hostel guests at 4 in the morning:

  1. Make sure you’re on the right train and platform at Hualamphong Station. As mentioned, the train to Aranyaprathet leaves at 5:55am, and you can buy your ticket on the day, but get there in time! In the video clip it sounds like I say the ticket is “five baht”, which I can’t remember saying, but if that is what I actually said, it’s wrong. Five baht would be next to nothing, and as I do say later, the actual price is 48bt at the time of writing (which is less than £1).

 

  1. The train journey to Aranyaprathet.

 

There are two trains departing for the town of Aranyaprathet, which is nearest you can get to by train to the Cambodian border. I strongly recommend getting up early and on the 5:55am train. There is a second train, daily, at 1:05pm, but as the jorney to Siem Reap can take up to 12 hours, I would avoid this train; you could be arriving in Siem Reap very late, which could cause problems with hostels, hotels and guest house arrivals, not to mention any delays getting through immigration.

The actual train journey can take up to six hours, so take some food and entertainment with you (books, ipod, etc).

 

  1. The journey from Aranyaprathet to the border.

Once you arrive at Aranyaprathet you are still nearly 4 miles (6km) from the border, so will need to secure a tuk tuk for this part of the journey. I don’t advise walking, particularly in the heat! You will need to negotiate the tuk tuk fare, which will be around 100bt, and make sure your driver drops you off at the actual border. Be warned, as the official Cambodia visa office is located after the Thai border exit (near the rather impressive entrance gate feature).  Until you’re exiting Thailand, do not get your stamp from anywhere else. Do not go in these fake visa offices, as you will end up paying extra, The $30-$40 you pay (either before for an e-visa or on the day) is all you need to pay. Avoid the fraudsters!

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If you can see this, you’re almost in Cambodia!

So, here’s me in a tuk tuk. I look terrible, I have to admit. I’m drenched with sweat, already slightly delirious from the heat and looking like I’ve had about three hours sleep. All of these would be true!

 

  1. Exit Thailand, Enter Cambodia!

At the border exit you will find two queues, so get in the one for tourists, and not Thais. You will then get your official stamp in your passport from an official immigration officer. Make sure it IS stamped properly, for reasons I will share with you later. Depending on the time of the week this could take a while, so be prepared for long queues at certain times.

Your walk to the border will involve a walk  across the ‘Friendship Bridge’ and under the ‘Welcome to Cambodia sign. At this point you’ll almost be home free! But don’t start kissing each other just yet. Just to remind you: If you haven’t bought a Cambodia e-visa in advance, now’s the time to get a Cambodia visa! Cambodia visas are available on the border for US $20 in the visa office after walking across the bridge. It’s a fixed proice, but this is Cambodia, so if you want your journey speeding up I’m sure you can add a few dollars on top of that for the privilege. What you will learn about this otherwise beautiful country, is that they will happily take your money at any given opportunity.

 

  1. On to Siem Reap!

I believe there is a free bus from Piopet to Siem Reap, but I only saw a bus for $10. Thisis the same amount I paid for an air conditioned taxi, which I shared with two others, One of them was a fascinating guy from India, who was a well travelled individual with lots of tales. This made the two hour journey to Siem Reap fly by. He was meeting his European girlfriend in Phnom Pehn the next day and his brother runs a decent guesthouse and bar in Siem Reap (‘The River Queen’) It’s amazing the amount of wonderful people you can meet if you’re open to the experience. We covered lots of topics, but I do strongly recall talking about tigers in India and how mind blowing India is, even for someone who was born there. If you leave for a few months and return, you’ll need extra time to re-acclimatise to the vibrant culture that is India. Goa is not India, was the final verdict on where to go if you want an authentic Indian experience.

Anyway, I digress! Back to Cambodia and the journey to Siem Reap! You’ll be in Piopet at this stage, and what a treat that will be. No, I’m not being serious. It’s ****ing awful. Piopet is like Mos Eisley in Star Wars or a cheap Western; a dust-bowl of a town with dodgy bars and casinos, and you will be glad to see the back of it. As I will tell you in a later blog, I had the misfortune to return!

Here are a few video recorded words of wisdom from me at the location:

 

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  1. Arrival in Siem Reap.
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One hour out of Siem Reap…almost there!

Hopefully you’ve survived your journey and ultimately arrive unscathed in the French colonial styled town of Siem Reap, which I’ll tell you more about next time.

 

If you’ve followed these directions and it’s all worked out: well done! Go and get yourself a cool drink and relax! You made it!

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The centre of Siem Reap. Get a beer in. Infact, get two, You deserve it!

An adventure in South East Asia. Part 2: “Bangkok, like Las Vegas, sounds like a place where you make bad decisions”- Todd Phillips

21 Aug

Nothing prepared me for Bangkok. Perhaps because of the preoccupation with getting there and planning the Cambodian part of my journey, I’d let my first port of call shift to the back of my mind, which is quite something when you’re about to arrive there.

I was actually enjoying the flight so much that I wasn’t thinking too much about Bangkok (Qatar Airways certainly make the travel experience a joy, but more about them on the way back as well as their blatant attempts to remind us of their future stint as World Cup hosts). Arriving in Bangkok from Doha, which is considerably warmer than England, and the first thing I noticed was the temperature. Underneath the air conditioning was a heat I noticed as soon as I exited the plane. Yeah well, I thought I was noticing it then; the hottest was still to come. So, there I was, with my own sweat pouring into my underwear like it’d been raining, trying to broach the language barrier in order to give the tuk tuk guy directions. My Bangkok baptism of fire! To be honest, his English was better than my Thai and he even attempted some rudimentary conversation while we whizzed along the congested streets. I just kept smiling and nodding in the appropriate places, while gripping the arms of the Tuk Tuk seat with sweat still pouring down my bum (I quickly learned that the high speeds make the thing feel like it’s about to go over on one side, but it never does).

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View from my first tuk tuk ride. It almost looks car fume free.

Now, here’s a tip for you, passed on by my very good South East Asia travelling friends (and it won’t be the last). When you arrive at Bangkok Airport, and you’ve got your luggage, keep going down. Follow the escalators as far down as possible and you’ll reach the rail link or ‘skytrain’. For around 24bt, you’ll get a plastic coin token to operate the barriers and that’ll be valid to the final stop in the centre of Bangkok, which is where you get off.

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My first experience of being in the centre of Bangkok was coming out of the air conditioned ‘safety’ of the train and covered station and into the dusty heat of the streets. Prior to becoming acclimatised, it felt like standing near a blast furnace. After dropping two layers of clothing which had gamely survived on my person to that point, I hailed my first tuk tuk and off I went! My Guesthouse was near the infamous Thanon Kao San. I say infamous, but it’s more pleasantly edgy than all out scary. Think of Las Vegas having a secret affair with Blackpool front and the offspring being hastily shipped off to South East Asia to avoid any embarrassment to Vegas. That’s sort of what Khoa San road looks like; bright neon signs fight for attention on the crowded walls, there are guesthouses and hostels and bars aplenty and the market stalls never seem to close, with the smell of fresh food permeating the night air. Known as ‘back packer’s paradise’ for many decades, the Koah San Road district was originally an area of canals, now largely built over, and was once a major rice market.

The heat in Bangkok means that although some significant tourist attractions aren’t too far away, you are usually better getting a tuk tuk or a taxi to reach them. The Ratanakosin area is the best place to start your exploration of the city, and offers Wat Phra Kaeo and The Grand Palace, which I’ll tell you about later.

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Wat Intharawihan

Wat Intharawihan, Phra Nakhon, Bangkok

 

So Khoa San road is a good spot to stay on a first visit as it’s not far from Ratanakosin. It is in the Banglamphu area of (Phra Nakhon district) about 1 kilometre (0.62 mi) north of The Grand Palace (more of which later) and Wat Phra Keaw. Journalist Susan Orlaean once called Khoa San Road “the place to disappear” for any travellers wishing to escape the West,  and anyone who has read Alex Garland’s acclaimed novel The Beach, will have an idea of the kind of opportunities for that kind of ‘disappearance’.

 

Ok, there are many tourist attractions in a city as large and as vibrant as Bangkok, but I know what some of you are thinking, so let’s cut to the chase and get the elephant in the room taken back to the zoo…no, I didn’t meet any ‘lady-boys’ and I didn’t go in a place with this type of sign outside:

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That’s not to say I wouldn’t have been absolutely fascinated to do so (‘yeah, I bet you wouldn’t’, say several readers) but I didn’t really see many and didn’t go looking for them. Which yes, I hear you say, would be the right decision, given the misogynistic hallmarks (at the very least) of such practices! Basically, if you want to see Thai woman ejecting ping pong balls from their vaginas, then I imagine you will have an absolutely astounding holiday. Equally , if you want some good food, culture and other adventures, you’ll be equally gratified. Well, ok, maybe ‘gratified’ was the wrong word to use there, but you know what I mean. You’ll be …happy!

So, no…no ping pong balls.

Lots of Bangkok street food though, which you’d be a fool not to try. It’s arguably the best street food in the world. I now have a serious noodle desire, and Pot Noodle will not cut it.

 

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Khoa San Road

According to Wikipedia, which I can back up as fact. Khoa San Road “…is also a base of travel: coaches leave daily for all major tourist destinations in Thailand, from Chiang Mai in the north to Ko Pa Ngran in the south…” Visas and transportation to neighbouring countries such as Laos and Cambodia, can also be organised.

One word of warning though, is to veer on the side of caution when dealing with street vendors and tuk tuk drivers and the like. My first tuk tuk trip from Khoa San Road was a minor disaster. An agreement to pay 100 baht for a trip to the Grand Palace and other sites, ended in numerous visits to tailors and gem shops. Because I made a point of challenging this (which is common practice), I ended up walking fifteen minutes to the Pace as the guy had just dropped me off, realising his scam was revealed. 100 baht is no big deal; just a few quid, but it was frustrating. Some tuk tuk drivers are in cahoots with the owners of businesses such as a tailor, and get commission from bringing in tourists. It’s not what you’ve asked for, so don’t be afraid to challenge this. Even better, I’d avoid any tuk tuk drivers down Khoa San Road, and pick one up elsewhere. For 100baht you might even get him to wait around while you explore the various sites. Seriously, they’ll be glad to do it, and before I put you off, most of the Bangkok residents are hugely friendly and honest people.

 

I’d arrived in Bangkok during a Buddhist festival prohibiting all sale of alcohol. Just so you understand, I wasn’t tripping over myself to get plastered and hit the town, but it did make my first impressions of Khoa San Road more subdued than they would normally be. One frustrating outcome was that any bars selling alcohol were closed, including the wonderful Altern the 13th Blues Bar, which I had to visit on my return visit. I’d check in advance about this sort of thing, especially if you’ve got designs on having an ice cool beer when you arrive.

Buddhism is, as you probably know, a huge part of Thai culture and is the majority religion by a significant margin. Buddhism permeates the life and culture of many South Asian countries, and the very least you can do before visiting is just educate yourself on the etiquette and customs, more to make your journey a pleasant embarrassment free one more than avoiding offending anyone. Wats (Buddhist temples) will require you to cover up your arms and legs, so simple considerations like that are what I’m talking about. I’ll write more about Buddhism later.

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Laksameenarai Guesthouse

The guesthouse I stayed in is one I heartily recommend. It’s a traditional Thai house, that’s been converted and was a welcome oasis of calm just five minutes from the hustle of Khoa San Road. If you’re in Bangkok you can do worse that book yourself in The Laksameenarai Guesthouse. It was truly great, with friendly service and comfy surroundings. The staff couldn’t have been more friendly or helpful. Now, that’s just my recommendation, so feel free to shop around. There are more guesthouses and hostels in that area than you can shake your keys at. If you want to go upmarket, a plusher hotel room need not coast you an extortionate amount, but again, just spend a bit of time comparing prices and reviews. For westerners, Thailand is still good value for money. As I said in my Istanbul blogs, two years ago, some accommodation lends itself more to meeting people, which I would suggest is a better idea if you’re travelling solo. Even if you’re a bit more introverted, you’re going to want more than going back to the same four walls at some point. I met some nice people at the guesthouse, including a large proportion of Dutch people, who were unrelated, they just happened to all be there at the same time. The first of many late night drinking sessions occurred at Laksammnarai, which half the conversation in Dutch and half in English. Maybe that’s the true meaning of Double Dutch?

http://www.hostelworld.com/hosteldetails.php/Laksameenarai-Guesthouse/Bangkok/83003

Bangkok’s assault on the senses means that a few days is not really enough to truly appreciate it, and I was glad to be returning in a few weeks, so this blog will return to the Thai capital in more detail. Bangkok is a relatively young capital, replacing Ayutthaya as the capital in 1782, following the Burmese sacking of the old capital. It now has a population forty times that of the second city, Chiang Mai, and has become one of the most vibrant and fashionable cities in Asia.

 

After a few days in Bangkok, my plan was to leave Thailand for Cambodia, which meant some careful planning on an early morning train and the not inconsiderable challenge of getting to Aranyaprathet, near the border, navigating tuk tuk journeys, border scams and immigration and a trip by bus or taxi to Siem Reap. Next time I’ll give you an almost fool proof guide to getting from Bangkok to Siem Reap without paying a fortune, and having an adventure along the way.

See you next time, on the Bangkok to Aranyaprathet express!

An adventure in South East Asia. Part 1: Destination: Bangkok!

10 Aug

“What am I doing in this place?” was a question to enter my mind on several occasions over the last month, only equal in its regularity to “Why didn’t I come here sooner?” From the highs of seeing the awe inspiring remains of an ancient empire to the lows of being essentially stranded without a plan, I will share it all!

Regular readers will remember my trip to Istanbul two years ago, which I documented here and many of you gave me some positive feedback following those blogs. So, with that in mind, I thought I’d repeat the idea for another trip, this time a much longer one. As I also said two years ago, when I did those similar travel blogs, “…this is ostensibly a blog about creative arts, particularly music and film. But occasionally I do like to submit something a little more personal, which hopefully doesn’t drift too far from the blog’s remit”. Hopefully that still stands, and be assured, that all things creative will feature.

Back in 2014, I made the observation that “…as I was travelling on my own, I didn’t necessarily want to culture shock myself with a week in rural Peru or a sabbatical in Yemen. You’ve got to take these things in easy stages”. Yes, I can wryly laugh at that now (which, admittedly, was a sensible attitude to have for a first significant solo trip), because in 2016 I did go much further and really did aim to culture shock myself. I largely succeeded as well, but I’m getting ahead of myself. I also said that Istanbul was, “exotic and foreign enough without sending my usually high stress levels into outer space with worry about whether I was going to get by with no language or culture in common”. Again, this trip was almost going to be a deliberate attempt to push the boundaries beyond what I would have been comfortable with just two years ago.

Solo travel isn’t, as I’ve observed before, for everyone. It does require a certain level of tenacity and boldness. That isn’t to say I had those qualities in boundless supply, or didn’t make some significant mistakes on my travels, but it did make sure I got off on them in the first place.

 

Ok, so for one reason or another, for three weeks in July and August 2016, I ended up in Thailand and Cambodia in South East Asia; a long way from home basically, but fortunately with a plan. Sort of. What I was to discover was that having a plan isn’t the all ensuring preliminary against disaster I might have thought. When you’re in a very foreign land, with potential language and culture barriers, shit can, and often will, happen. Hopefully this series of blogs might help prepare any would be traveller to South East Asia, and hopefully we can have some laughs along the way.

 

My first advice would be to book your flights well in advance, if possible, in order to get them (much) cheaper. Prices apparently tend to drop nearer the time as well, but that’s not a gamble I would personally take. I left my purchases a bit too late, but you should be able to get cheaper flights than that. I booked through Qatar Airways, but I’ve been told Emirates have some good deals. Once you’re over there, things are generally quite cheap (and in comparison to some of the locals, you’ll have the money reserves of a king). Speaking as a westerner, that’s good news for a potentially cheap holiday, but those costs can rack up pretty quickly unless you’re mindful of what you’re spending. I’ll go into that in more detail later, but be assured that it is hugely affordable, but as with anywhere, it depends on how much you want to spend. You can make it as expensive as you want, in other words (or as cheap), depending on the type of holiday you want. Bear in mind that 1 Thai baht equals 22p or thereabouts, at the time of writing, and it will give you an idea of any comparative prices I might mention.

Doha airport

Palm trees and a giant cyborg teddy bear/lamp. Welcome to Doha International Airport.

My first connecting flight took me via Doha airport, in Qatar, which is an experience in itself. Looking like the set of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century or a ‘60s Bond film (it even has a monorail), the whole modernist expression is topped off by a huge sculpture of a yellow teddy bear with a black lamp shade up its arse. Created by Urs Fischer, the sculpture was previously on display in New York and was auctioned off there, at Christies, going for $6.8m. The Qatar royal family have a vested interest in modern art, so that goes some way to explaining its inclusion at the airport, which only opened in 2013. It’s certainly an eye catching talking point, and often photographed by passing travellers. As for Doha Airport as a whole, it’s an excellent airport, and all the expected facilities are in place. However, I still have no idea of how you get out of the main hub. The crystal clear maps and signage tell you where everything is, except the exit. I did think of asking, but lethargy overtook me. I believe you could see a fair bit of Doha in the seven hours I had to wait, but I played it cautious on the way to Bangkok, considering that any risk of missing my flight wouldn’t be a smart move.

Monorail

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But for me it was still exciting stuff: half way to Bangkok!

 

Next blog title: Touch down in Bangkok! Or…”You wanna tuk tuk?” Or… I love Bangkok long time! Or “…what the hell, it’s raining and I’ve got sunburn”

Six days in Istanbul: Day Six. “I found that the loudest fans in the world are in Istanbul”- Roger Waters.

21 Sep

All things come to an end, and my Istanbul adventure is no exception. As this was by far the least eventful day, this will no doubt be the shortest blog.

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Aside from the wonderful people I met, amazing places I saw and emotions they both aroused, I also found a great deal more about Istanbul, Turkey and the Turkish people. I have come away a true fan of the city, and hope to return one day. I won’t repeat all my musings on the importance of travel broadening the mind, you can read my earlier Istanbul blogs for that, but I will say that learning more about a place really enhances any visit to said location. For example, learning more about Mustafa Kamal Ataturk and the revolution of the ‘20s certainly made me understand Turkey’s more recent history far better. Ataturk is a title bestowed upon Kamal by the people: literally ‘Father of the Turks’. He was arguably the founder of modern Turkey; the beginnings of the modern republic and the end of Ottoman Turkey. His image hangs in many places of administration and business, including the main Istanbul airport, which is named after him. Continue reading

Six Days in Istanbul: DAY FOUR. “Either I conquer Istanbul or Istanbul conquers me,” Fatih Sultan Mehmet

30 Aug

I suppose technically the fourth day in Istanbul began on a rooftop club, which I cannot recall the name of for the life of me. At one point the bar was on fire, as I may have mentioned before, but this was all bartender theatre; yep, they were that good. Amusingly, that behemoth of Turkish pop cheese, Tarkan, was much in evidence that evening with his tune “Simarik” (a 1997 Turkish No.1), which I heard at least three times! My friend Jeff must have sent me the link to that song’s youtube clip at least as many times as that. I scoffed, suggesting my chances of hearing this crap on holiday were virtually nil. Ha! Eating my words now eh!  I actually quite came to like it, in a grudging way. Tarkan is essentially a Turkish Robbie Williams by all accounts, so I’m not going to praise his music that much (which says a lot for my view of Williams), but when you’re on holiday it’s amazing what music you end up dancing to! Interestingly, sat outside the Hostelworld cafe talking to a twenty-something Turkish girl a day later, and she was far more interested in Portishead playing a local festival in August (Midtown Festival) than Tarkan (who I mentioned and got a wry smile in response!) Continue reading

Six days in Istanbul: DAY THREE. “Istanbul was not an anonymous multitude of walled-in lives…but an archipelago of neighbourhoods in which everyone knew each other”, Orhan Pamuk

25 Aug

Day three of my Istanbul adventure was a prime example of why, as a solo traveller, you should be prepared to deal with things going wrong. Well, not ‘wrong’ exactly, just not exactly as planned. So, you know, it’s about being able to deal with that and not have an almighty melt-down because you’re on your own in a foreign country and the one big thing that you’d pinned a lot of your holiday aspirations on just doesn’t happen. Continue reading