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Arriving in Myanmar

We caught a night flight from London to Yangon, via Bangkok, arriving mid afternoon the next day.

Feeling a bit jet lagged and expecting to find long queues for immigration, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Yangon airport is quite small and the process rather swift. Simply go to passport control with your landing card and electronic visa for Myanmar, get a stamp, collect your bags 10 metres beyond, put them through an x-ray machine and you’re done. The whole process took no more than 15 minutes.

There also seem to be no restrictions on the food you can bring in as we had some fresh fruit and nuts which we thought we would lose, but they did not seem bothered by them.

If you want to exchange your dollars you can do so before exiting into arrivals as there are a few exchange services with similar rates. Just ensure your USD notes are crisp and post 2006 or they will be turned down. Also, be prepared to receive a large wad of notes in return!

As soon as you come through into arrivals there is a stand for taxis which operates on set tariffs depending on where you’re heading. They write you a receipt at the kiosk and you then pay the driver. We paid 10,000 kyats to get to downtown Yangon which took around 40 minutes.

We had pre-booked 3 nights in Backpackers bed and breakfast to help us settle in and explore the area. The location of which is really good as just a 5 minutes’ walk from Sule Pagoda, however, the room had no windows and consequently smelled musty as well as being permanently dark.

In the end we spent 2 days in Yangon before moving to Bago.

 
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Posted by on January 2, 2018 in Uncategorized

 

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Myanmar?

Scrolling through my latest emails a couple of months back, I opened one from a travel company who’s aim was to entice me to book an off the beaten track tour. As I scanned through the various places one in particular caught my eye.

Amazing photos of strange looking temples dotted around a jungle surrounding, the sun setting in the distance with a haze shimmering over the backdrop really caught my imagination, and had me thinking Indiana Jones and lost temples! Looking at the article title “Myanmar” I wondered where in the world that was located.

Some may laugh but my geography is only as good as the places I have been to. After all, the only reason I toured Latin America for 9 months was after a TEFL course in Costa Rica – following the same “wonder where that is..?” thinking.

Anyway, I remember turning to my colleague and asking “Ever heard of Myanmar?” To which she replied “Nope but am sure Google has” making me feel slightly better. I quickly learned it was next door to Thailand, had been previously known as Burma and had only really opened up to tourism quite recently.

My curiosity was piqued. I had never really visited Asia, but for some reason decided to do some research on Myanmar and see what it had to offer.

Being the sometimes impulsive person I am, next thing I knew I had managed to book 3 weeks off work and a flight to Yangon for end of December – sorry tour company but thanks for the idea!

Determined to stay true to backpacking and not take the easy tour option, we have decided to wing it, booking only the first 3 nights in Yangon. Sounds fine you may think. However, every blog and guide I have read has warned me to pre book during peak season, which just so happens to be December to January. But am thinking how bad can it be, right?

Well, we leave in less than 2 weeks, have no real itinerary, let alone thought about packing and have only just bought a guide book for ideas…

So here’s to faith and fate!

 

 
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Posted by on December 17, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

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A Long Weekend in Porto, Portugal

Portugal, for one reason or another seemed to be the only country I couldn’t quite make it to over the years. I had visited all of southern Europe and Portugal just stuck out like a sore thumb. So when my friend suggested an extended weekend break, I couldn’t resist asking “Have you ever been to Portugal?” Luckily the reply was no.

So without too much planning we set our hearts on Porto and booked our flights for the beginning of September. Just as I had experienced in Tuscany, Italy, I soon found that the hostels on offer in Porto were more expensive than the basic hotels.

Knowing that we would be eating out to fill up on all the fresh fish, we opted to save some money and booked the Residencial Escondidinho. Located just a 5 minute walk from the Bolhao Metro Station, which takes you directly to the airport, and surrounded by places to eat, it offered all we needed. It was a cheap and cheerful place and where it lacked in terms of modernisation, it made up for in the warm and friendly manner of the 2 ladies on reception!

As soon as we landed we headed for the Metro station, in front of the airport, and purchased our Andante cards at the machine. These work in a similar way as to the UK Oyster card, except that instead of loading cash amounts, you load up journeys. The Metro system itself is surprisingly modern and clean, so much so that it was a pleasure to travel on it.

What we really enjoyed about Porto is that everything you need is located on its doorstep. You can amble through the pretty streets of the historic quarter, take a tram ride to the beach, go on a river cruise, sample the many varieties of port and of course hop from one delicious fish place to the next, without having to go very far.

Porto Centre, Portugal

We were lucky enough to have warm days and therefore explored the city mainly on foot, with the odd tram ride (partly due to the fact that I had never before been on one before!) We even took a take day trip to the nearby town of Vila do Conde, which is connected to the city of Porto via the Metro line. Getting around the city is incredibly easy and apart from the trams, reasonably priced.

One of the opportunities we could not pass up on was taking a port tour. The city is naturally divided into 2 halves by the river Douro, with one side dotted with coloured old houses and churches and the other filled with port houses.

River Douro dividing Porto, Portugal

We decided to visit Taylor’s Port house as our guidebook said they offered free tours and tastings. Unfortunately, when we arrived this was no longer the case, however they did offer a tour and 3 tastings for €3 each. A price I couldn’t really argue with.

The venue was very pretty, with a restaurant and shop, but the cellars were quite incredible. If for no other reason than for the amount of barrels actually stored there! There were hundreds of these 500 – 600 litre barrels which formed row after row of walls within the cellar. Amazing to think how much angel share that is!

Taylors Porto Cellars, Porto, Portugal

The area of Matosinhos, just north west off the centre, offers and array of eating places along the coast and whilst in the area we found the open air coastal swimming pool of Piscina das Mares, located on Avenida de Liberdade and designed by Álvaro Siza. It has 2 pools filled with sea water and is located amongst the coastal rocks. A cafeteria and changing rooms are also on site and it makes for a nice place to spend the day. There are 2 entrance prices, depending on whether you spend a full day or if you arrive after 2pm, of €8 and €5 respectively.

Piscinas das Mares, Porto, Portugal

One thing we couldn’t fault was the fresh fish dishes. If you are a fish lover then Porto is definitely the place for you. Although not necessarily cheap, the portion sizes definitely offer good value for money with an average fish dish setting you back around €8.

However, walking around the city you do get a sense of the hardships that the Portuguese people are facing with the recession. From shops closing down to neglected buildings you can’t help but feel for the country. It did leave me wondering what would happen to Porto, and inevitably other towns and cities in Portugal, if the situation does not improve soon. After all it would be a great loss to all if these beautiful and quirky buildings were not saved for future generations…

Run down buildings, Porto, Portugal

Beautiful Old Porto Buildings, Portugal

 
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Posted by on October 3, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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A Tour of Tuscany, Italy

After spending far too long back in the UK since our round-the-world travel I decided to go and tick another dream off my list, Tuscany. Despite having family in Italy and having visited Rome many times over the years I had never quite managed to get myself to Tuscany. As such, I decided it was time!

Using my Avios points I managed to book a return flight from London, Heathrow to Rome, Fiumicino for a grand total of £35. As my aunt was visiting us in the UK she gave me her apartment keys for Rome to use as a starting point, which provided me with a couple of nights of free accommodation.

I had researched going via public transport using trains and buses, but  as I only had 10 days in which to squeeze as much of Tuscany in as I could, I decided to hire car. Being the last 2 weeks of August the rental was not cheap at around 350 euros, but as I had in essence had a free flight I figured it was worth it for the freedom it would give me.

So with a map of Tuscany on the passenger seat I set out for a solo adventure…

The first and biggest challenge was undoubtedly dealing with the driving in Italy. Chaos is an understatement. Not only do drivers seem completely oblivious to anything happening outside of their cars, they also seem to have virtually no traffic laws. Or at least not many they take heed of…

Road lines are used for guidance rather than for actual lanes with cars straddling lines rather than lanes, parking seems to occur at any free space regardless of location or if there is already someone parked there and indicators must obviously be a missing component on Italian cars, making it all the more challenging trying to understand what drivers intend to do at junctions, roundabouts and just about anywhere in general!

Don’t think I was completely naïve to this before hiring a car. I had many years ago in fact hired and survived the rental of a scooter in central Rome. However, a car is a whole other matter, especially when you have never driven a left-hand vehicle and keep forgetting that the other half of the car is on your right and not your left!

So with a slightly higher than usual blood pressure level I ventured from Rome into the region of Tuscany.

Now you really can’t go wrong with just driving around Tuscany, as there are so many beautiful little old towns “borgo” dotted all over this region that every corner brings a new delight.

However, I had selected a few key places I wanted to see and in the end I spent my days exploring; Capalbio, Magliano in Toscana, Scansano, Saturnia thermal pools (free access), Grosseto, Volterra, Siena, Florence, Pistoia, Vicopisano, Pisa, San Miniato, Monteriggioni, Monticiano, Certaldo, San Quirico D’orcia, Montalcino, Bagno Vignoni (free access) and Bagni San Filippo (free access) thermal waters.

My favourite places were:

  • Magliano in Toscano: a picturesque village of only 3,000 odd inhabitants with intact fortress walls surrounding the small community.

Magliano-in-Toscana, Tuscany, Italy

  • Siena, a beautiful old city, full of history and yet surprisingly well maintained and welcoming, with plenty of pedestrian only winding cobbled streets. Siena is divided into “Contrade” or districts, and there are 17 in Siena, each represented by a symbol along their walls, such as the fish. I loved Siena so much that I went through it again on my way back.

Santa Maria Assunta Cathedral, Duomo of Siena, Tuscany, Italy

Siena Piazza by Night, Tuscany, Italy

Siena Contrada Parade, Tuscany, Italy

Siena Contrada Festival, Tuscany, Italy

  • Volterra, I admit I originally went as I thought Twilight had been filmed here and wanted to see the pretty town that was used in the film. However it turns out they had actually filmed in Montepulciano! Nevertheless, the sleepy town is known for its alabaster stone work and is the perfect place for a lazy afternoon.

Volterra, Tuscany, Italy

  • Florence: the most known city in Tuscany along with Pisa and probably the biggest. Although beautiful in its own right and full of culture it felt it has less charm than its neighbour Siena, but definitely still worth a visit.

Florence by Night, Tuscany, Italy

Florence River by Night, Tuscany, Italy

Cobbled Streets, Florence, Tuscany, Italy

  • Monteriggioni, although a little touristy, the main plaza and surrounding cobbled streets are extremely picturesque and it feels like stepping into a postcard.

Monteriggioni, Tuscany, Italy

Monteriggioni Piazza, Tuscany, Italy

  • Saturnia and Bagno Vignoni, although very different from each other, with Saturnia being busier and more interesting in terms of pool formations, and Bagno Vignoni being quieter and smaller, they both offer a great free spa experience complete with muds!

Saturnia Thermal Pools, Tuscany, Italy

Bagno Vignone, Tuscany, Italy

If you were stop at every little village around Tuscany you could happily spend a couple of weeks exploring as each place has its own unique attraction.

For accommodation I booked each place a day in advance using various sites such as booking.com, trivago.com etc as I was never too sure of my itinerary. This worked out better than just trying to find a place on the day, as despite finding numerous “agriturismo” places in the countryside; they were not only fully booked but also extremely expensive. Something I did not anticipate as I had expected them to be similar to the chambres d’hotes of France. I also noticed that hostels were only available in the main cities such as Florence, Pisa etc but they were not necessarily the best value for money.

One thing to bear in mind when travelling in Italy though is cost. It is not a cheap country to visit and prices in general are on par or higher than the UK, so budget accordingly. For example, a double room can start from 40-45 euros, a plate of pasta will set you back around 7-8 euros, a salad can be about 6-8 euros and a slice of pizza is 3-4 euros.

However, this is the one country where you are pretty much guaranteed good food anywhere you go, and can happily ask for the house red or white and get a decent wine with your meal!

In fact if you visit Tuscany you have to make it a must to sample all the varieties of wine that this region alone makes, whether via a wine tour or simply trying out the wine menu along with your meals. You really can’t beat sipping a glass of gorgeous wine while having lunch in a quiet plaza under the blue sky…

 
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Posted by on September 13, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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A Very English Afternoon Tea

People have long since associated England with tea drinking and afternoon tea, a practice started by Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, in the early 19th century to help her reach dinner time.

These days you can still experience “Afternoon Tea” at many hotels nationwide, usually between the hours of 3pm -5pm where you have your tea and are presented a selection of small sandwiches, scones and cakes, all served on tiered trays.

With my aunt visiting us from Italy, I thought it a great excuse to treat my mum and aunt to an afternoon tea at our nearby Cliveden House Hotel, in Berkshire.

Cliveden House

The beautiful stately house is set in in over 350 acres of gardens and dates back to the 1600’s. Nowadays, the house is used as a hotel and event venue with the gardens being part of the National Trust, making it an ideal place for afternoon tea.

Cliveden House Main Room

We booked ourselves in for 4.45pm on a Friday and were shown to our table in the main room. As we settled down and each ordered our preferred tea from an extensive list, we were greeted by the very friendly marketing manager who gave us a wonderful tour of the various rooms of the house and explained the extensive history of the house.

Cliveden House Library

As we returned to our table our trays of exquisite looking food started to arrive. Having ordered 2 vegetarians and 1 vegan option I was impressed to see that this did not mean a lack of selection on the cakes offered!

Afternoon Tea Vegetarian Cakes

Afternoon Tea Vegan Cakes

We were also graciously treated to a flute of champagne each and happily spent the next hour feeling thoroughly spoilt. The sandwiches, scones and cakes were lovely and we struggled to finish them, despite not having had lunch! Nevertheless, we left feeling very satisfied with the food and refreshed from an afternoon spent being waited on and generally very well looked after.

The experience is definitely one to class as a treat, but all the same I think if you are visiting the UK and really want to experience something different from the usual tourist attractions then you should consider it.

Afternoon teas can be found at many London hotels, however why not make a day of it and choose one a little further afield where you can also spend a few hours strolling through their gardens?

 
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Posted by on September 11, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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Returning from a Year of Travelling

So it’s now almost 2 months to the date since we arrived at Heathrow airport with our backpacks firmly in place following an almost 12 month round-the-world trip. The initial shock of arrival, made worse by the last week of our trip being spent on the beaches of Bali only to land in freezing UK temperatures, has started to wear off.

Our first 2 weeks back in the country were literally spent floating around the house and re-adjusting to the cold, something we have still not managed to accomplish. The following 2-3 weeks we ventured out to see friends, ex-colleagues and generally try to re-integrate back into society on this side of the planet. Having said that, we both agree that some things we will never be able to adjust back to.

The most shocking thing for me when we returned was the realisation of how much “stuff” I still owned. Prior to the trip we had undergone a massive clear out of our belongings, and because we were unsure of our intention upon our return we had boxed everything up ready to go. Opening boxes and discovering just how many items we still had was a revelation, especially as I always prided myself in being fairly minimalistic. With the feeling that my backpack was pretty much all I needed still firmly in my head, I decided to undergo a further clear out and was surprised at how easily I could “part” with items. I was able to easily discard things without the emotional attachments or what if scenarios, and as such the local charity was especially pleased to see us when we started hauling box after box into their shop.

Despite the reduction and now half-empty closets, it still took me almost 3 weeks to wear something from this new collection of mine. It felt strange to have such a choice of clothes, and let’s not forget shoes! Bit by bit I expanded my daily wear to include a couple of the items from the half empty wardrobe. However, despite the occasional use of other clothes there are many which still just sit there looking at me and I still feel slightly guilty about that.

The next big adjustment came with the inevitable food shop. Throughout our travels we had shopped on a daily and sometimes bi-weekly basis, depending on where we were staying and for how long, so thinking about purchasing food for longer than a few days took some getting used to. The mere thought of having a freezer and being able to batch cook with more than just a half broken pan and an actual sharp knife felt totally surreal.

As such the first 3 weeks we simply shopped for a couple of days at a time, slowly getting used to having such commodities and gradually expanding our choice of foods as well as amounts. 2 months on and we are now back to buying on a fortnightly basis, however we have not reverted back to the wasteful ways of the west.

Instead we plan what we will eat and buy accordingly, then with our “menu” firmly in place on the fridge we simply tick meals off as we go until we have eaten everything in store. Only then do we re-stock for food. Unfortunately, my mother does not see this as beneficial, but rather that I have been permanently scarred by budgeting and my travels, and therefore keeps trying to give me money so that “I can eat what I want, when I want”. I doubt she will ever see the point of our planning.

A key part of travelling is budgeting, and if you learn this, it will serve you well in the future. With my partner waiting for his work visa for New Zealand and me looking for work, something totally surreal in itself after not setting foot in an office for over a year, we have to manage what little funds we have left. So, until we have an income we are still living with a set budget and accounting for all costs, something we never did before in the UK and which has not been that difficult to do.

The transport issue hasn’t hit as hard as I thought it would. Not having had a car for nearly a year has not made us suddenly crave one. In fact, we are happier to walk around and use our natural form of free transport, known as legs. Alternatively, if we must go further afield then neighbouring villages, we take public transport, which is an adventure itself, or if available borrow a car.

One of the hardest things to get used to has to be the weather. If you are from the UK you will know what I mean. If not, then imagine grey skies, and this year in particular a very cold and long winter, and no sun. The hardest part is the lack of daily sunshine. Yes the tan is fading because of it, but that is not my main concern. The fact that day-in and day-out you never see and feel the sun on your skin has a rather depressive feel on the brain. You actually feel your body craving sunlight and slowing down as a direct response to the constant greyness, especially after almost 12 months in the sun.

The overwhelming challenge since we returned has to be resisting being sucked back in. Obviously travelling opens up your eyes to new things and ways of life, but as to how much it will impact you is dependent on you. If you do allow it to alter your perception then your challenge is to keep that perspective alive, even when you are the only one with it and there is nothing around you to reinforce it.

It is not a cliché but reality that travelling opens up your soul to the larger world around you. The hard part is keeping this openness when no-one around you understands it. As such, my advice would be, travel and see what you can. Absorb local cultures and let your views change, but don’t then store it away as just “experience” in life. Keep it alive in the little things you do and don’t lose your new found perspective.

 
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Posted by on April 7, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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Leaving New Zealand

After 2 months in New Zealand our time finally arrived to leave. We had enjoyed the country so much more than we thought we would and had many happy memories of the places we visited. In fact, on the way to the airport it felt more like leaving home than heading home.

One of the reasons we had decided to travel to New Zealand was to scope out the country for a possible future there. We had heard numerous stories of people emigrating and supposedly having dream lives, so much so that we thought they can’t all be lying!

Although I have to admit the scenery is not as impressive as South America, and the beaches and water are not as hot (or even warm really) as Central America, the country does have its own charm. The expansive lands of the south island remind me of Chile, where you can drive for miles before seeing another car. Whilst the north island, where most of the population is based, still retains its small town feel and people appear to work to live rather than live to work.

On a like for like comparison to the UK, the cost of living and salaries seems to be the same; however what makes the big difference, apart from the warmer climate, is the cost of housing and land. With only 4 million odd people in the country properties and land are not premiums and your pound can go a very long way.

Feeling the pull of the country we delved further into the possibilities of returning. This was made considerably easier knowing my partner was on the migrant skilled worker list, which is a list of all the people they need to fill the gaps within the job industry. Details can be found on the New Zealand immigration website.

We tested the water and he put his CV out there and as luck would have it he got an interview and later a job offer. We were thrilled, and although we knew there were still mountains of paperwork to get through, we also knew that this was not goodbye for us.

So we boarded the plane and left New Zealand, heading for Sydney, Australia. And as we looked out of the window we realised that we were actually leaving home, and that we would soon be returning to start our new life together in the country that had charmed us.

 
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Posted by on March 2, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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