Yoga in Sri Lanka – 7 Amazing Places to Practice

Yoga in Sri Lanka – 8 Great Places to Practice

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It’s taken me a while to get around to shortlisting places to do yoga in Sri Lanka. Hell, it’s taken me a while to get around to writing anything about Sri Lanka. I’ve found this becomes customary when you become preoccupied with having an incredible time somewhere and forget to keep track of any ‘work-related’ obligations you may have set for yourself… Sri Lanka definitely had this effect on me!

While Bali has become notorious for yogis the world around, much thanks to Julia Roberts’ ‘Eat Pray Love’ and also due to just being damn beautiful, I visited several places in Sri Lanka during my travels there which made me wonder that it hasn’t been overwhelmed with tourists and travellers of the spiritual-seeking variety yet (touches wood).
It may be that it’s only on the brink of being discovered as the ideal yoga/retreat destination, and if so, this list of places to do yoga in Sri Lanka might be of use to you!

Surf ‘n Yoga

As it’s no secret that the waves here are some of the best in the world, most recently the trend of ‘surf and yoga’ businesses has exploded around the coastlines of Sri Lanka. It’s with this in mind that one might wonder if yoga in Sri Lanka is on it’s way to becoming the next Bali, nestled comfortably in between the crazy, incessant localised chaos of India and the tourist-ridden beaches of Kuta and Seminyak. I found it to be a nice balance between the two extremes. And isn’t that what yoga is all about? Either way, here’s 7 places you can do yoga in Sri Lanka without blowing the budget during your travels here.

 

7 Places to do Yoga in Sri Lanka:

  1. Sri Yoga Shala, Unawatuna

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    Savasana at Sri Yoga Shala (pic: www.retreatnetwork.com)

    This beautiful shala is situated away from the main road just outside Unawatuna and specialises in catering for retreats and teacher trainings. They also have a daily class schedule, hold regular workshops and courses too, and are situated in stunningly peaceful jungle surroundings covered in greenery! Eva and her husband who run it also own the restaurant down on Wijaya beach just opposite the turn for Sri Yoga Shala, and are planning to open a ‘Garden Kafé’ at the shala soon – they’re also some of the nicest people I’ve ever met! The only fault (if you can call it that) I could find with Sri Yoga Shala is that they don’t offer accommodation, but there are plenty of home stays and guesthouses on the road leading down to the shala where guests can organise lodging at a good price!
    Email: info@sriyogashala.com

    Website/Facebook/Instagram

     

  2. Hangtime Hostel, Weligama

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    I couldn’t possibly write about yoga in Sri Lanka and not include something about the time I spent here. About 30 minutes tuk tuk/scooter ride up the road from Unawatuna you’ll find Weligama and it’s famous surf beach, which stretches as far as the eye can see past the tens of colourful fishing boats docked further up the shore. Backtrack to the centre of the beautiful beach however and you can’t miss Hangtime Hostel, which overlooks many of the local surf-schools and provides comfortable, clean and laid back accommodation for those looking to meet cool people while they break from the surf and – you guessed it – do some yoga. The entire third floor of the hostel has been given to an open air yoga studio where classes take place twice a day overlooking the beach. Couple this with a great rooftop restaurant, group activities and a whole bunch of amazing people to check out the nightlife in Mirissa with (10 mins in a tuk tuk) and you might not want to ever leave either…I know I didn’t!

    Website/Facebook/Instagram/TripAdvisor

     

  3. Yoga at the Hilltop Temple with Rukshan Yoga, Mirissa

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    Hilltop Temple, Mirissa

    This is a bit of an alternative yoga experience, more akin to the random classes along the mountainsides in the Indian Himalayas I attended in McLeodGanj and Dharamkot than the lush shala surroundings of Bali. After locating a hidden stairway along the street in Mirissa and climbing up the (seemingly neverending) steep stone steps to the hilltop temple overlooking the bay, you’ll be greeted by a friendly family and shown into a stone-floored room about 100 metres from a beautiful temple. Here Rukshan will guide you through a short seated meditation, followed by a walking barefoot meditation out and all around the temple. You’ll participate in Buddhist puja blessings in silence, and slowly guide yourself back to the hall for some asana practice which focuses mainly on how to correctly align oneself and others into the poses, rather than just flowing through them. An interesting experience lasting longer than your average drop-in class (1hr 30mins), and great views to boot!

    Maps:
    Website/Facebook/Tripadvisor

     

  4. Hideaway,  Arugam Bay

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    Arugam Bay is one of the most popular hubs for surfing and yoga in Sri Lanka. During high season here it resembles the bustling, tourist surf resorts of Bali and it’s easy to forget sometimes that road signs come with warnings of elephants crossing and that pumpkin curry is readily available along the street (YUM). Hideaway is a boutique hotel that was above my backpacking budget to stay in, yet luckily offers drop-in yoga classes daily for anyone every day in their outdoor shala. The amazing healthy café (with an actual table up in a treehouse) serves up a variety of yummy breakfast and lunch options with an emphasis on healthy vegetarian/vegan noms too, and the funky surroundings and decor of the place really just added to the whole experience…I spent several days just going to yoga here and chilling drinking coconut milk coffees in hammocks. Bliss.

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    Website/Facebook/Tripadvisor

     

  5. Talalla Surf n’ Yoga Retreat, Talalla

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    Yoga at Tallala (pic: Bookyogaretreats.com)

    While this place unfortunately came in well over my backpacking budget for Sri Lanka to stay in, I did make several good friends and spoke to many people during my travels who had stayed here too. Fortunately they also provide drop-in classes daily so you can check it out for yourself and see the beautiful shala surroundings! Reviews of the retreats also seemed extremely positive and if the website is anything to go by I’m definitely going to have to stay here whenever I find myself in Sri Lanka again. They offer a few different options for retreats, classes, treatments, and packages for both surfing and yoga, and you don’t have to be a pro or seasoned practitioner to partake – anyone can go!

    Website/Facebook/Instagram/TripAdvisor

    6. Bay Vista Arugam, Arugam Bay

     

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    Another boutique hotel in the Arugam Bay area which offers daily yoga classes, this time on the rooftop. Drop-ins make up most of the clientel and the classes vary from some pilates-based exercises to vinyasa flow classes with a stunning view of the beach and coastline (‘Bay Vista’…). Bay Vista is directly across the road from Hideaway and to be honest I went just as often to this place for yoga as I went to Hideaway, depending on what times suited best – both places will have signs out on the road with their class times and they are always just slightly different . This worked out extremely well and you get to try some different styles and teachers – one of the main things I love about travelling with yoga in Sri Lanka (and elsewhere)!
    Website/ Facebook/ TripAdvisor

     

    7. Camp Poe, Ahangama

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    Another hidden gem off the beaten track, Camp Poe is a secluded retreat centre/campsite offering boutique camping surf and yoga experiences in Ahangama on the road to Unawatuna. Camp Poe places an emphasis on cultivating creativity and drawing its guests together to share experiences. Just away from the private tents there is a delightfully bright and colourful hangout area with bookshelves, beanbags, hammocks, and peaceful nooks and crannies for reading, writing, singing, or just chilling out. Yoga takes places twice a day and is also available for drop in classes, not just to those partaking in the retreat. As the camp is situated a little away from the shoreline, a scooter or tuk tuk is necesssary to get to the beach/into town, but this actually adds to the tranquility and ensures you ultimate space to let your creativity flourish.

    Website/Facebook/Tripadvisor

     

What Solo Travel (and Yoga) Has Taught Me

What Solo Travel (and Yoga) Has Taught Me

To thrive. To flourish.

To take all that I am, and everything I’ve encountered, and to blend them into something new. To use what I’ve been given, and to nourish it so it reaches its highest and furthest potential.
This is what I’m taking away from my current travel experiences coming to a brief hiatus as I return home slightly earlier than planned for Christmas.

‘We are the sum of all of our past experiences“, they say and so, I am a unique blend of everything and everywhere I have been. Everyone I’ve encountered. And all that currently surrounds me.

These past 5 months have been an incredible journey. A journey through some of the most beautifully stunning and culturally rich places I’ve ever been. A journey through some of the most difficult emotions and mental limitations I’ve grown accustomed to placing on myself. A journey out of my comfort zone, out of my perception of comfort zones…
A journey with myself, by myself, to myself.

To Open Up

Everyone I’ve encountered along the way has shaped me somehow, just as I have (however minutely) impacted their journey. I’ve opened up in ways I was barely even aware was possible – I’ve learnt that remaining open is to become malleable to new experiences. My journey with yoga has allowed me to open. Open up the channels of energy I had allowed anxiety to close. Engage in open communication. Open and honest interactions, softly allowing the essence of myself I lost somewhere along the way between puberty and the end of my college years to return, frightened as it was of what others would think, what they would see….
I now know how little any of that matters. I not only know it, but I live it.
Because here’s the thing.

Travelling can be difficult, but it’s even more fucking difficult if you hate yourself.

Nobody wants to talk to the frowning weirdo in the corner who glances at herself in the reflection of every shiny surface and glares jealously at the big groups of new travel-friends all having fun at the bar. Sure, they might have issues, but nobody on a trip is going to want to be bogged down with some stranger’s lack of self-esteem, lack of balance and life lived in fear of the world around them.
We’re all here to see as much as we can, mate, it’s up to you to hold yourself together long enough to get there.

To Be Steady

And what is travelling, when you do it right, but living your life and moving, discovering, remaining and being yourself somewhere other than in your own home? Changing surroundings beg the need for a constant and steady spirit to successfully move through them, and so I’ve found a kind of satisfactory balance here somewhere in the midst of all this movement.

To Take Things Less Seriously

Taking yourself too seriously is not an option when every unknown turn in a new city could lead you into anxiety-inducing situations. Trusting yourself becomes the number one priority, and your own judgement becomes the only thing that really leads the way when you leave home with no particular direction or plan – you learn to just go with it. Taking things less seriously, but ensuring you remain steady within it. Humbly balancing out what we have, moving through it with grace and ease, going where we can and taking our bodies and minds on a modest journey through the bigger picture.

Because the bigger picture will always be the bigger picture, and we will always be just one little pixel in that grand tapestry that creates our perception of the images around us.

Our job is simply to ensure that our pixel shines as bright, as clear and as strong as it possibly can be. That’s all we can ever hope to achieve. In surrendering to the powerlessness and lack of control, we ironically gain it for ourselves.

That Comfort Zones Don’t Exist

Allowing that little dot to thrive and really believing in its’ worth is vital if we want to progress anywhere in life. For some people, this comes naturally to them. For others, we must assert ourselves and realign with these beliefs time and time again, repeatedly acknowledging our sense of worth and maintaining a persistent awareness of the things that put this balance at risk. Travelling through uncertain areas, with unknown associates and changeable destinations requires a certain sense of self and strength that I never ever believed possible for me, and yet here I am. I’ve met some incredible people, seen beautiful places, experienced lifestyles and norms so contrasting to my own comfort zone and everyday life that I’ve come to realise ‘comfort zone’ is just a label we put on ourselves to justify staying still.

Through yoga, through solo travel, and through combining them both, I have come to see movement as the one key aspect of life that helps us maintain a balanced and healthy mindset, and I’m excited to see how I will progress forwards with this newfound understanding. Moving on, moving away from damaging behaviours, moving ever onwards and avoiding stagnancy at all costs – this journey has really only begun.

Solo in Sri Lanka; Kandy to Dambulla

So after just over a week of taking in the cultural sights and ‘must-see’ landscaped treasures of Sri Lanka, paying altogether a hell of a lot more money for absolutely everything than I have been for the past month in India, I have arrived in Arugam Bay (aka probably the hottest and most touristic place I’ve ever been). Even in Uganda, I don’t remember it being this sweltering, although admittedly the lifestyle and everyday activities differed quite a bit, yoga and surfing being the order of the day here coupled with a sickening amount of loved up couples and families intent on spending every moment browsing for elephant pants and drinking cocktails on the beach. Not a bad life, in fairness. But far more expensive than what I’ve become accustomed to.

After a night at First Hostel in Negombo, I travelled East to Kandy in the hopes of witnessing the infamous Esala Perahera festival – a yearly occurrence which as a happy accident fell during my stay in Sri Lanka this year. I was excited, to say the least, with the promise of a traditional Buddhist elephantine ceremonial festival, the kind with lights and music and costumes the likes of which I’ve only ever seen on tv (and let’s face it, Instagram too)!

I won’t go into it too much, but suffice it to say that as a spectacle the Perahera amazes and does what you’d hope it to after crowds beginning to gather along the streets from 2 in the afternoon to wait hours in their spot until sunset. It’s fascinating and mesmerizing to watch the never-ending troupes of dancers, drummers and fire acrobats proceed up the street interspersed with extravangently dressed and decorated elephants. The feet of these elephants are chained so tightly they can only take tiny steps of about one foot a time, while their eyes somehow see out through slits in heavy, embroidered material draped over them from trunk to toe and making them resemble giant blundering tea cosies. Very beautiful giant blundering tea cosies. But let’s not forget that these are extremely intelligent, graceful, and powerful animals. Moreso than humans, when in their natural habitat.

How would you feel being forced to wear a tea cosy draped with Christmas lights and made walk up and down streets to be photographed night after night??
This, combined with the inherent whipping of the ground which signalled the beginning of the procession and more than likely served as a means of terrifying the elephants into complying, was distressing to witness and I instantly disconnected from the whole experience, festival atmosphere dwindling as each depressed and gloomy looking elephant blindly lumbered past. As I said, the spectacle of the parade was great, and the lights and costumes enough to warrant the fame and draw of the Perahera. I just couldn’t see past the chains.

From Kandy I took a public bus to Dambulla for only 100 Sri Lankan Rupees (less than a euro) which was fine considering the trip was only 3 hours long and I actually managed to get a seat. The journey back was a different story. More on that later.
Robert’s Inn in Dambulla proved a welcoming and entertaining guesthouse stay, with tours and excursions to the surrounding area available at the mere mention of a temple (Robert is very enthusiastic), and a very hospitable family in general. The town of Dambulla itself is fairly downbeat and local, but there are hundreds of tiny guesthouses and homestays tucked away down dust roads such as the one I stayed, nearly all of which offer independent guided tours and jeep excursions to the things to see in the area, which are all quite spread out and make jeep and tuk-tuk rides an unfortunate necessity. They’re not all that bad though, and considering I saw some wild elephants and climbed a pretty cool rock I wasn’t altogether bothered to have to fork out some extra rupees on transport.

This brings me on to my next point – Sigiriya Rock. Don’t do it. Several travellers I met in India had warned me about it and the expenses of Sri Lankan tourist attractions as a whole, but like anything else, the full extent and expense of the place was lost on me until I had spent a few days here and experienced it for myself. Sigiriya Rock is one of the most recognised attractions in Sri Lanka, and is part of the ‘cultural triangle’, of which I only completed one acute angle, as expenses convinced me otherwise. Because of this (as is the case with a lot of India) the entrance fees and add-on taxes for foreign guests have become extortionate in recent years. In order to dodge this in Dambulla, myself and some friendly Slovenians opted to climb Pidurangala Rock – directly opposite Sigiriya and substantially less swamped with slow-paced tourists with deep pockets and thoroughly unsuitable footwear.
This thirty-minute climb – steep steps for the first ten, and thereafter a curious toddler’s dream on hands and knees up through rocks and crevices in an unclear direction,is ultimately completely worth the uncertainty as soon as the peak is reached, the rocks disperse, and all of a sudden you can see across the plains to Sigiriya Rock and beyond to the ends of the earth (or so it seems). I couldn’t help but be awestruck. Smugness materialized then as my eyes adjusted and I spotted clearly the winding line of tourists meandering the way to the summit of the overcrowded sister rock to the one I’d just conquered. The handful of likeminded climbers who had also chosen Pidurangala took turns holding each others cameras and attempting to capture the beauty and isolating freedom of the place – which proved difficult!
The descent was much quicker, and we were back down on the dust track road by 11am.

 That afternoon our host also took us out (for a fee, of course) to Minneriya National Park, a great place to spot elephants in their natural habitat, no chains or silly costumes or lights attached and a terrain that reminded me of Jurassic Park from the get-go. We were lucky to catch huge groups of them grazing peacefully and cutting across the dust paths ahead of our open-topped jeep, in search of more grass and pretty much doing whatever the hell they liked. In the wild!

We also saw herds of wild buffalo, deer, and hundreds of different species of colourful birds and dragonflies, which flitted through the open sides and top of the jeep as we trailed home through the dust. It was pretty magical!
After a night spent fulfilling necessary maintanence work like washing my clothes and budgeting for the unexpected new expenses I’d encountered, I mentally prepared myself for the inevitable day of uncomfortable cross-country travel that lay ahead….

 

The Importance of Establishing Trust Whilst Travelling

The Importance of Establishing Trust Whilst Travelling

 

 ‘If fear is holding you back just remember that in general, places are safer and people are kinder than you may expect. Discovering this is one of the beautiful benefits of travelling’ – Justin Alexander

“Be careful. Mind yourself. Take care. Be safe.”
Anyone who’s embarked on a journey further than the corner shop or into town for the day has heard the warnings.
What if you get robbed? Knocked down? Attacked? What if you don’t understand what they’re saying?

Travelling places you directly in the firing line to be stifled and stagnated by these often irrational fears – yet also to conquer them. To experience humanity in all it’s confusing and miscommunicative glory, and for once, to let go and trust it.

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Finding and attending sunrise yoga sessions overlooking the Himalayas, meditating on the mountaintop at Tushita, jamming with local and Israeli musicians at Jolly’s and in tiny cafés and bars hidden away down windy paths in the mountains, and some of the best and cheapest monk-made vegetarian food at Tibetan and Indian restaurants where nobody actually speaks any English….2 years ago these things would have seemed impossible and terrifying for me.

I’ve experienced the anxieties, and I’ve now learned to surrender to the language barriers and embrace my fellow humans as the kindred souls they are. As a solo female traveller in particular, the warnings I received about India were enough to make me doubt my decision the entire flight over here. While an element of common sense is required in navigating unfamiliar soil and encountering cultures and people unaccustomed to communicating with pale-skinned, ginger women, in general, my experience here has been altogether more comfortable than the warnings had led me to expect – something which has left me ashamed of my paranoid actions (or lack thereof) on more than one occasion.

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Building bridges

Having become so used to this typically Irish paranoia, self-consciousness, and disinclination to trust ourselves or others we have come to adopt as the norm, I only realise now how much I was limiting myself in denying the natural inclination and need all humans possess to communicate and be open with one another. Given that communication leads to understanding, and understanding lies at the root of any harmonious relationship – be it mind and body, our relationship with ourselves, with friends, family, food – every aspect of our lives, it follows that the initial first step to reach out and interact with another human is often the most daunting, yet rewarding action we can take.
In the travelling/backpacking scene (in Asia, anyway) it may seem easier to speak to and make new acquaintances as everyone seems in the same boat – all secretly sipping beers or coffees in the underlying hope that the attractive guy across the bar will make the first move and ask you to accompany him to see the temple tomorrow (*swoon*).
We need to stop assuming.
We need to take action for ourselves, be more assertive and attentive to our own needs in the moment, and trust whatever natural direction we receive, be it from the kind stranger who just returned a 10 rupee note you dropped by accident, or the vague gestures of locals towards a forest path with not a word of English to accompany their directions. 9 times out of ten you will find their intentions to be genuine and heartfelt, even if their initial scowls or frowny faces may suggest otherwise. Some cultural differences will never change. It’s a shame that I still sometimes feel the apprehension before trusting the directions or unprovoked aid of a local on the street, but I’ve learned finally to open up and trust their lack of agenda for what it is – honesty.

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New friends and good food…

Travelling has helped me see that people aren’t so bad, really.
Discovering the kindness and hospitality of the Indian and Tibetan people I’ve encountered during my short time here has been fulfilling and heartwarming, and part of the reason I’m so reluctant to leave. While I have been careful not to walk too far alone at night or to concern myself with any ‘dodgy’ looking characters, I’ve found it’s the times when I’ve opened my mouth and made the first greeting, comment, or question to a fellow traveller or local that I have been rewarded with a flicker or flame or warmth and friendship – sometimes lasting no longer than a cup of chai, sometimes a whole week of meeting up for yoga classes, activities, or meals. Climbing mountains with new acquaintances and not being afraid to show your true self or embrace your lack of umbrella in a downpour at the Taj Mahal during monsoon season is about as freeing and grounding an experience as any I can hope to ever have again.

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An Irish & an Indian climb a mountain…

After all, aren’t we all just doing our best to keep going? Keep meeting, discovering, and moving onwards to the next destination, even if it’s just down the road? In my experience you are 10 times more likely to encounter kindness than nasty or dangerous behaviour whilst on the road, and discovering the importance of trust and my capacity to remain calm in these situations has already led me to several places and friendships with people and places I never would have experienced had I remained in my ‘safe’ bubble of a hostel room. While an element of self-awareness and common sense is also necessary, the key is to find a balance between overly-analysing the outcome of potential interactions and ultimately ruining them for yourself before they ever happen, and just going with them without thinking. I’ve come to a peaceful middleground where both sides are now available to me, and now just appreciate that I have the opportunity to experience it all.

 

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Bhagsu Waterfall, Dharamsala

 

 

 

10 Times Delhi Made Me Go “Wow”

’10 Times Delhi Made Me Go “Wow”‘

Wonder is a great thing.
When you embark upon a journey into the wild, or on a safari, you expect to encounter wild and wonderous things and places. You choose to dabble in the unknown. Untameable, charming, ferocious, unstoppable, beautiful, completely alien in nature, enchanting in their distance and in the depth of our misunderstanding – it’s more than just language barriers. It’s communicative, instinctual, historical, habitual, and societal contrasts ingrained deep within the very cracks of the higgledy piggledy streets and contents of the stunning architecture, pungent sewers and aromatic street food stalls alike which tumble together and simmer to the surface to serve up unique experiences and interactions and form the somehow multifunctional city of New Delhi.

 This ‘safari’, for want of a better word, has been the most daring expedition I’ve embarked on yet. People coming to ‘find themselves’ by getting unfathomably lost in an unfamiliar and almost unsettlingly diverse country as a concept in itself has led me to consider the entirety of India in terms of a wild animal that I have yet to wrap my head around and tame by establishing a firm enough grasp on it. Even just in my head. There’s just so much to it.

In an effort to portray simply the ins and outs of just how intense and incredibly humbling my first encounter with India has been so far, I’ve compiled a short list of the things which most impacted me and made me literally say ‘Wow’ (in both the good and bad ways!) as I took that first tentative step into a city more vast and untameable than even my frizzy hair after a week of camping in a field in the West of Ireland.

1. Lodi Gardens

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Talk about finding calm in the chaos. Easily the most peaceful and least crowded place I visited in Delhi, these natural gardens contrast the chaos directly outside their perimeter by boasting spotlessly clean, quiet, organised and expertly maintained pathways and flowerbeds. Seemingly a popular hangout spot for young locals and couples alike, Lodi Gardens contain some of the most beautiful plantlife and temples unspoiled by litter or the everyday madness and pollution in Delhi. Bonus points for free entry and hosting outdoor yoga sessions every Saturday and Sunday morning! #Zen

2. Cables
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Cables. Cables. Everywhere. I stopped wondering why the wifi seems to disappear whenever it rains even a little bit. Everywhere you go there are crossing wires and open sockets and fuses boasting naked electrical goods that are really just crying out for a little bit of DIY to hide their modesty! It’s the kind of thing you have to just turn a blind eye to and ignore the instinctual discomfort ingrained by years of Irish paranoia that leaving the immersion on will see you meet your end. It won’t. I promise.

3. Market Madness

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It wouldn’t be a visit to Asia without a trip to the market, and Delhi’s markets don’t disappoint! Sarojini Nagar and the Spice market were favourite of mine, but you name it, you can buy it, most likely at a hilariously injust ‘special tourist price’ that newbies regularly fall victim to – haggling is key here! Start 1/3 of the price lower and don’t be afraid to say no and walk away – 80% of the time you will be called back with a lower price!

4. Hauz Khas Village

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Central to the ‘party’ scene of modern New Delhi, this hip section of bars, cafés, and nightclubs is the place to go after dark, if you can brave the whirlwind of a tuk tuk ride there and back. Our international group of ‘mixed vegetables’ as the driver labelled us from the Madpackers’ Hostel had a brilliant night here and pushed even Indian drivers’ boundaries by piling 7 into one tuktuk on the way back ! Despite my own reservations I actually did feel able to let go and have fun – maintaining awareness in late-night situations is key though, especially for girls (has to be said!), and our ‘numbers-system’ proved effective in ensuring we stuck together at all times!

 5. I Grew it Myself

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I won’t lie here. I’ve finally realised that I can’t go to any tourist attraction in India without becoming one myself. Red hair, pale skin and freckles seem to be on the checklist of all Indian visitors to their capital city and main ‘must-see’ sights, and they are certainly not shy when it comes to asking for pictures. Besides paying the substantially lower fee for Indian visitors into all these attractions, they also get to satisfy their curiosity for pale skin and hair…I now know what it feels like to be an animal in a zoo. Funny the first few times. Gets very uncomfortable after a crowd gathers and children cry when you say no.

6. Awky Momos

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Momos are great. Everyone should try them. These ones are even vegan.

 7. Bus Station

New Delhi Bus Station at night is a raving, romping, shouting, beeping, hollering, and chaotic melting pot of humanity, the contents of which departs sporadically every 5-10 minutes for destinations all over the massive, massive country and gets replaced moments later by a new influx of bodies. The heated atmosphere added to my already heightened anxiety ahead of a 12-hour bus journey, but thankfully things cooled down as we pulled away from the hub of disgruntled passengers of all shapes and sizes clamouring to be heard over the continuos din of the incomprehensible intercom announcments. Phew. I was stressed even writing that. No picture. No time for pictures here.

8. Humayan’s Tomb and the Red Fort 

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I’ve grouped the Red Fort and Humayun’s Tomb together as they’re fairly standard stops to tick off on the tourist checklist. The Tomb is like a mini Taj Mahal, which is good for those who aren’t prepared to take the day trip to Agra, but fairly repetitive for those who’ve already been. Steep entry fee for tourists also put me off!

9. Taj Mahal

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This may possibly seem like an obvious one and is technically not actually in Delhi, so I thought I’d leave it til further down in the list. The Taj Mahal does what it says on the tin. Even standing a few hundred feet from it, I found it difficult to believe it wasn’t photoshopped into my line of vision and wondered how on earth such a solid piece of beauty and representation of love could actually be real. The rain didn’t help, but it made for a funny day of singing in the rain with some new friends from Madpackers (see #10), who organised a day-trip for us to Agra and back.

10. Madpackers Hostel
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I can’t possibly write about Delhi without mentioning the Madpackers Hostel! Pranav, Mayank, and the rest of the team were honestly the most welcoming and hospitable hosts for the few days I stayed there, ready to help with any queries or struggle any of their guests had in a chilled and friendly manner. Met some amazing people and it really was a brilliant start to my time in India. Best hostel I’ve stayed at in a long time! Namasté!

 

 

Ha Long, Ha Long must we sing this song… A Beautiful Day in Vietnam

 

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If I can’t see ‘the island’ back home, I know that it’s raining. Or else, that it will be sometime in the very near future. Islands are fairly black and white in that sense.
They stay put.
Although still unpredictable, this small droplet of observant common sense derived from a fine-tuned intuition has proven more useful and informative than many weather forecasts. Strange how a place can become so familiar that you tune into it’s weather-warnings and signals as naturally as if each gust of wind were it’s very breath.

This morning, over 6,000 miles away from home, the fog is so thick that most of the boat tours out into Ha Long Bay from the mainland have been cancelled. I can’t see the ‘islands’; big chunks of grassy rock and land protruding at random from the still, grey waters like stubborn weeds or sudden video-game obstacles to be navigated – an image which makes progressive sense after the go-karting and uncontrollable chaos of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city.

 I admire our guide’s positivity. “Sun come out later”, he reassures us.
“You will see. Trust me.”
So I do.

The Northern bay of Vietnam is colder than I’m expecting. The ‘cruise’ ship’s blind persistance through the eerie silence of pre-dawn waters sends a chill down my spine, along with a twinge of regret that I failed to check the weather conditions for today. No matter. Experience has taught me that storms always lift, and that even through the most deafening downpour of rain– the islands always stay the same.
Making the most of my short time in Vietnam has meant bypassing several stops I had previously intended on, but there hasn’t been a draft of the guidelines I’ve drawn for myself where Ha Long Bay does not feature.
One thing I notice as the waves become more stable is that the sea breeze here doesn’t quite cut the skin like it does back home. The chill I’m feeling is purely due to movement – our progression through the still air the only instigator of activity for several hundred meters around us – the distance from our boat to the next stationary vessle, a ‘party boat’ still lying sleepily comatosed in the early morning haze. Several small fishing boats have passed since setting out from the docks, a familarity I can’t help but admire – it takes a special kind of storm to perturb the fishermen in the West of Ireland too.

As expected, our approach to the main attraction slowly brings clarity to the previously foggy mounds of matter. The mainland view might be good, but the towering mountains rising from the surface of the water like proud statues of Gods overlooking their kingdom are even more impressive up close. Colours saturate every glance. Pure nature, pure height, depth, and growth dwarf every man-made structure I’ve ever laid eyes on.

All attempts I’ve made at reassuring myself this trip it won’t be in vain fall overboard, as I stare in awe around me. These aren’t islands. These are natural works of art.

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‘Hati Hati’ – Be Careful, But Be Brave – Bali

 Don’t go breaking my Bahasa!!

There is a phrase in Bahasa which can be seen written along roadsides, in bars, on billboards, on warning signs and outside shop entrances, at the foot of steep steps or hills, at the entrance to yoga studios and motorbike rental stores…basically in a hell of a lot of both public and private places, all over Bali. Not only is it written, but it’s used as an almost generic form of salutation when saying goodbye.

‘Hati-Hati’, quickly became one of my favourite things to say when I was travelling around the island, purely because it encompassed so many different meanings all at once, and still allowed me to feel as if I was speaking the local language and assimilating myself into the culture.

The phrase is used to exercise caution; to warn of imminent or potential danger; aiming to prevent difficulty or hardship, and to ultimately bring a person back to the reality of where they are and what they are doing as they hear it said.

 ‘Hati’, is the Bahasa or Indonesian word for ‘heart’. Literally translated, ‘Hati-Hati’ means ‘Watch your heart”, and can also be understood in terms of the spiritual and emotional translation as well as the physical organ – warning a person to take care where they invest their emotions, where they place allegiances and spend emotional energy.

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The use of ‘Hati-Hati’ as an everyday phrase in Bali and the surrounding areas to warn against potential physical danger or accident is where the beauty of it lies – by telling another to ‘take care’, they are not only wishing them well on their travels, but wishing a sense of emotional stability and contentment upon them too.

‘Hati-Hati’ warns to exercise caution, but to be proactive about it – not to let the fear of a potential outcome overcome the desire or ability to carry it out or achieve a desire. It encourages merely an awareness of one’s current situation, location, emotional, physical, and mental state, and really succeeds in bringing us back to the important factors of these instead of losing ourselves in the heat of the moment or anxiety about what it may potentially lead to.
Taking care, but continuing as we are. Watching our hearts, but not closing them. Just being aware.

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Potato Head Beach Club, Seminyak, Bali (FB)

Home.

Because perfection comes,
not when you’re watching golden sunsets over
paradise,
But when you have grown,
Unbreakable,
At peace,
Within.’
– from ‘Pathways’, by Leah Fortner

 

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As I sat in my miniscule double room on the 5th floor of a dingy guesthouse situated a stone’s throw from Phnom Penh International airport in Cambodia, completely and utterly alone in a strange country that I can honestly never see myself feeling comfortable in, I breathed an unexpected sigh of relief. At least that’s what I think it was. It might have been something to do with the fact that I’d just cast off the 18kg backpack containing everything I hold dear to me for the first time in a couple of hours, or that the prospect of an actual night’s sleep loomed ahead after several delayed and uncomfortable flights through tropical storms and some dodgy landings. Either way, I was more at ease than I’d been in a while.

I’d finally realised something about myself and about the reasons I’d felt the need to flee my life at home, albeit only briefly. For some reason I thought I, as so many before me have dramatically claimed to be in books and movies, had been ‘searching for something’; some sort of reason or reassurance to keep going and continue. I realised I’d been half expecting to find this something in every new place I stayed and new face I met, each one vaguely seeking a similar confirmation of their own validity or ‘pathway’.

In actual fact, at the risk of sounding awfully conceited and/or like a sappy American rom com (I realise I’m going to sound like it anyway no matter how hard I try), this whole time I have been learning to come to terms with myself; to love myself. It sounds ridiculous. It sounds cheesier than the Vietnamese vegetarian cibatta rolls that contained a single piece of lettuce along with 3 different kinds of rubbery ‘dairy produce’ and a slice of tomato in Hoi An. But there’s a kind of autonomy and respect one learns to have for the person who navigates them safely around unknown territory and through uncertain and somewhat dangerous situations. I realised as I sat alone in Cambodia for the second time around and with a pathetic amount of dollars remaining among the various other currencies in my purse that I’d orchestrated this journey to mean that the only person I had to depend on and to look to for help would be me. I’d forced myself to take care of me, to be the dominant voice of reason and force of reckoning for once, instead of depending on others and placing an unfair responsibility on friends and family who did not ask for it. I sat back and let my inner child be led and guided by the knowledge this world has taught me that I barely knew I had taken on board until it became necessary to utilise it. Led by the mistakes I have already made, and that I have seen others make, I have taught myself how to progress; how to power through; how to hold out for that one minute longer when it feels like you’re lost entirely and will never find your way back to where you want to go. I have fueled my body through lonely and rainy days where it felt like the last thing I wanted to do was get up, eat, and explore – perseverance resulting in enjoyable new experiences and friends, places and photographs that would not have been possible had I not correctly energised and motivated myself enough to be there. I gave myself no option but to recover and escape from whatever demons have held their grasp on me for the past few years, each step and flight taken away from them making them cower that little bit more into the corner at the strength and potential of what I am actually capable of doing in spite of them and without their crutch to lean on. I have practiced ignoring their voices and perservering independently without their help, and I have realised that I am capable of such great things, not only that – but that I am also perfectly worthy of them too.

I have sat with myself and accepted myself. Accepted the fact that I occupy this miniscule space upon the earth and that it is mine to take where I choose, and to do with what I please. Practicing yoga and maintaining balance along the way when it would have been easy to get lost in ‘holiday mode’ and indulge too much has been difficult, but extremely worthwhile. I’m not going to say I haven’t indulged at all, but I’ve done so in a way that has allowed me to also enjoy the moments before and afterwards, instead of focusing merely on the excessive bursts of energy and consumption, and cowering away from anything outside of them. Overall I feel I have learned things that cannot be taught, that some people are born automatically programmed with, but that others must experience and realise for themselves. Extremes of emotions have been dealt with and processed by myself and in a way that has helped me realise I am capable of overcoming them without leaning on anyone for reassurance or aid – something I struggled with hugely in the past.

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The overall emotion I feel at leaving Asia and my first solo travelling experiences behind is one of intense and overwhelming pride. Pride for myself, pride for my strength, contentedness that I have managed to do this and prove the negative thoughts and people wrong who doubted my capabilities. They and my own anxieties were always going to be there, but I feel in a way that I have finally reached a place where I can focus less on their intensity and importance, and embrace more of the autonomy and experience that ‘living in the moment’ can actually bring. It may seem like an extreme way to finally come to terms with oneself and place in the world, but I can’t deny how effective it has been both in allowing me the space to realise all these things, and put them into practice; experience required to actually sit as strong and tall as I do today as I wait to board my final flights home.

I can’t change the fact that I am an anxious person, but I can change how that anxiety manifests itself, and how I process it. It is possible to change the direction it takes just like I can change the direction my feet are taking me. It’s a different kind of energy required to do so, but I’m now aware of it’s presence, and have more of an ability to access it, especially in the midst of chaotic environments and unfamiliar situations.

If nothing else, this is what travel teaches us. That there are other options, other paths, other ways to do things that might not initially appear obvious. There is always another way through, another route to take that will take you where you need to go and away from seemingly inescapable situations and emotions. Following your nose and going where your feet take you without worrying or questioning it too much and ultimately just trusting in yourself will inevitably eventually steer you right.

For now, I’m going to close the book on this particular chapter of my travels, in the knowledge that the next will lead me to even more exciting, mischevious and unplanned destinations, that I will come to terms with and navigate when I get there.

For now, the mischievous emotions and uncontrollable situations have been managed, and I’m ready to go home.

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Oibrigh. Sábháil. Taistil. Arís. – Work. Save. Travel. Repeat.

Gaeilge *Leagan Béarla faoi – English Version underneath*

 

Oibrigh. Sábháil. Taistil. Arís.

Bailigh milliúin Dong ar do bhealach thar ‘Go’ (an ATM), agus cuirfidh sé ar aghaidh thú leis an chéad cúpla céim eile a thógáil….

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Le coicís anuas is ar nós míreanna meara de laethanta, smaointí, pleananna agus droch-ghluaiseachtaí atá an aistear seo caite againn, cuid dóibh a d’oibrigh amach i gceart, cuid eile nach raibh comh maith sin. Cluiche boird mionsonraithe de bhusanna, brúanna, modhanna taistil agus ceannscríbeanna atá leagtha amach againn dúinn féin le haimsiú atá taobh thiar dúinn agus os ár gcomhair. De réir mar a buailtear chuile chéim ar an aistear, gach bus déanta in am, sráid aimsithe, agus lóistín sroichte, airím go bhfuil éacht suntasach bainte amach againn agus neamhspleachas cosúil le turas taisce a líonadh i gceart aimsithe dúinn féin. An difríocht a bhaineann leis anois ná go bhfuil duaiseanna éagsúla ag an deiridh – bricfeasta saor in aisce nó pionta fuar ag an lóistín, radharcanna difriúla agus cairde nua spéisiúla chuile lá.

Tá sé spreagúil. Tá sé scanrúil. Tá sé luachmhar mar thaithí saoil……tá sé réadúil. Tá treoireacha gairid cosúil le seo leagtha amach againn don chéad coicís eile – treoirlíonta gairid agus dáta le bheith in áiteanna faoi leith, ach teada anuas ar sin.

Chaith muid cúpla oíche i mbaile beag stairiúil agus traidisiúnta darbh ainm Hoi An le déanaí, agus cé go bhfuil sé ráite agam cheana is muid ag teacht ar áiteanna nua ar an mbealach, bhí an baile seo mar an stop ab ansa liom go dtí seo ar an turas. Ciúin agus socair i rith an lae, na himeachtaí is mó ag sioscadh ag an aonach sna seastáin ag na céanna, freastalaí ag úsáid a gcuid Béarla teoranta le turasóirí a mhealladh earraí baile a cheannach; ‘You buy somthing?” ‘Special price for you!”, ‘No pushing here! You buy!’ (go híorónta), agus turais rialta don abhainn ag fágáil ón gcé.

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Aonach – Market

 

Tar éis an leisciúileacht agus saol ciúin i Mui Ne, bhí neart le déanamh in Hoi An, agus bhain muid sult as an deis a bheith mar ‘turasóirí’ cearta arís. Tá clú agus cáil ar Hoi An mar gheall ar na tailliúirí traidisiúnta atá lonnaithe ann, ag dul siar thar na glúinte sna clainne a maireann os cionn na siopaí beaga ar fud an bhaile. Fuair mé sciorta breá fada táilliúrtha, a leithéid de ceann a bhí feicthe agam in Topshop sular fhág mé ar phraghas €90, i gcomhair $30. Bualadh beag sa bhuiséid a bhí ann fós, ach b’fhiú é nuair a smaoiním ar sin agus ar an gcaoi go bhfuil sé táilliúrtha dom go pearsanta i Vítneam – ar fhaitíos go bhfeicfinn ar éinne eile sa bhaile é!  Cé mhéad duine atá in ann é sin a rá?!! Is buatóirí muid uilig! (Seachas Topshop!)

Níor phleanáil mé an costas breise seo ach murach é airím go mbeadh cuid den espéiris Hoi An caillte agam, go háirithe nuair a d’aithin mé go raibh gach ceann de na cuairteoirí eile ar chas muid leo san oíche ag fanacht le ceirt eadaí a bhailiú an lá dar gcionn idir culaith, gúnaí, bútaisí agus eile. (Táim sách gafa le headaí ar aon chaoi agus mar sin bhí sé cineál dosheachanta go nglacfainn páirt!)

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Siopa Táilliúrtha ‘Mrs. Sa’ – Mrs. Sa’s Tailoring

ef42fbe1-7cb7-4ba9-83ec-a3e3de46fb04Cé go bhfuil sé níos ciúine i rith an lae, is san oíche a lastar tuirne na beatha in Hoi An, go litiriúil leis na soilse agus laindéir ildaite atá le feiceáil agus le ceannach ar thaobh na sráide agus in aice na habhainn. Le hísliú na gréine lastar na soilse agus coinnle ildáite ar foluain go séimh san uisce ar thaobh na gleoiteoga beaga, agus neart earraí le n-ithe ar díol ar na sráideanna anois idir pancóga, torthaí le siúcra agus uachtar reoite. B’fhéiríní álainn iad na radharcanna agus bolaithe do na céadfaí, ag leanacht leis na turasóirí go mall síos na sráide ag blaiseadh agus ag breathnú thart timpeall orthu le hiontas, ag caint is ag druidim i dtreo na bialainne agus tithe tábháirne. Níos fearr arís ná an teas – bhí muid go breá in ann do nuair nach raibh an ghrian ag síneadh anuas orainn go trom – ba leor gúna éadrom agus flip flops le píosa taiscéaladh a dhéanamh timpeall na soilse ag margadh na hoíche.

Bhí ‘Happy Hours’ á fhógairt acu ar chuile casadh, réimse leathan a thosaigh am ar bith idir a 11am agus 12pm, le díolacháin eile agus tuilleadh oibrithe ag brú á mbiachlár agus lascainí eile orainn don oíche ar fad. Neartaigh siad seo de réir is a laghdaigh na cúplaí níos sine agus clainne óga ar ais go na hóstáin agus lóistín níos costaisí ar thaobh na habhainn, ag fágáil an bealach don slua ‘backpackers’ níos óige, mar a cuirtear orthu, nach dtógann mórán le tuineadh isteach don ‘Tiger Tiger Bar’ nó ‘Funky c07f7792-0964-4773-898e-cc7d8e43a98eMonkey‘ ar an mbealach tar éis beoir ar $0.75 a fháil roimhe sin. D’éirigh lenár bhfiontar isteach don ‘Tiger Tiger Bar’ cairde nua ón nGearmáin, Sasana, ón mBeilg, agus ón Alban a fháil dúinn, a d’fhán linn ar turas ar aghaidh don chlub is oiriúnaí don chineál oíche neamh-phleanáilte a bhí tar éis titim amach-  an ‘Why Not Bar?’ 

Meascán de cheol a bhí le cloisteáil anseo ach arís b’fhiú an turas a thógáil isteach leis an éagsúlacht pearsantaí, náisiúntachtaí agus taisteálaí uilig ag iarraidh cairde nua a dhéanamh agus spraoi a bheith acu a bhlaiseadh.

D’éirigh liom áit a fháil sa chlub do dhaoine le ‘Moto-Exhaust pipe-Burns’, de réir mar a d’aimsigh muid go raibh an-cuid againn le gortaithe ar nós an ceann a fuair mise ar mo chos os cionn coicíse ó shin anois, uilig ag stáistí difriúla den phróiséas slánaithe agus mar ábhar spéise toisc go bhfuil siad comh héasca le fáil amach anseo nuair nach nglactar le bristí gearra mar bhaol is tú ag fáil gluaisrothair ar cíos. Oíche amach iontach a bhí ann ar aon chaoi, gan smál go dtí gur thosaigh an báisteach is muid ar an mbealach abhaile – le fírinne b’athrú deas a bhí ann ón ngrian.

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‘Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil”

Bhí foireann iontach cairdiúil ag obair sa mbrú inar fhán muid, Phuong Le Villa, a bhí suite go háisiúil agus go breá glan freisin. Bhí neart eolais acu maidir le turais agus modhanna taistil, agus 2 lachain gleoite a choinnigh súil amach ag an bhfáiltiú chuile oíche, a bhí muid an-mór le roimh dheireadh na cuairte!fc43a0c0-41f1-46b3-b1e7-1bceb0e1b325

Fuair muid rothair ar cíos freisin ar dollar amháin in aghaidh an lae le píosa fánaíochta a dhéanamh timpeall na sráideanna, ag seachaint na turais treoranta níos costaisí agus ag cuir dushlán romhainn fhéin in ionad teacht ar an trá mistéireach seo nach raibh fógartha go maith ar léarscáil ar bith. D’éirigh linn é a bhaint amach tamaill beag sular bhuail an teas láidir meanlae i gceart, rud a d’fhág an bealach abhaile oscailte tríd na páirceanna ríse agus droichid beaga, agus bhí orainn deifir a dhéanamh leis an ngrian nocht a sheachaint.

Fuair na céadfaí an lámh in uachtar orainn ar an oíche dheirineach nuair a thástáil muid cuid den bhia sráide – an rud ab ansa liomsa ná cáca beag déanta de fataí milse (sweet potato?), peanuts, agus coconut.

Bheadh Hoi An foirfe do saoire rómánsúil le seachtain a chaitheamh go ciúin i Vítneam, ach dúinne agus do go leor daoine óga eile ar labhair muid leo, ba leor cúpla oíche a chaitheamh ann, cé go raibh sé go hálainn. Ar deiridh, bhí brón orm an áit a fhágáil, ach ní comh brónach is a bhí mo sporrán tar éis cúpla lá a chaitheamh ag na margaí!

 

*********Leagan Béarla ******************

Work. Save. Travel. Repeat.

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Collect 1 Million Dong when you pass Go, (aka the ATM), and this will see you through to the next few rolls of the dice as you take the next uncertain leap forwards…
The past two weeks or so have been like an exciting jigsaw of days and ideas and trial and error plans that have often turned out to be the worst decisions, but at other times have pleasantly surprised us. It’s been a detailed board game of buses and hostels and modes of transport and destinations we’ve set out and reserved for ourselves to find and reach. As each step of the journey is ticked off and achieved, each bus made in time, street navigated, and budget accomodation located without too much struggle, there’s a sense of achievement and autonomy akin to successfully completing an Easter Egg or treasure hunt , only this time it’s real life and the prizes at the end are a free breakfast or cold beer at the hostel, and new incredible views and interesting accquaintences every day.It’s exciting. It’s nerve-wracking. It’s fulfilling…it’s living. The next two weeks have been planned out in a pretty similar way, a brief outline and a date to be in certain places by – but nothing further than that.

We spent a few nights in the stunningly dated and historical town of Hoi An, and although I’ve said it before on discovering new places, this town really has been my favourite stop off on our journey so far. Quiet and reserved during the day, the main activities chattering in the market stalls at the docks as the pushy vendors use their select phrases to entice Westerners to purchase many of their ‘homemade’ mass produced goods; ‘You buy something?’, ‘Special price for you!’, ‘No Pushing here! You Buy!’ (ironically), and regular river-tours departing from the docks.

dab8e589-3da8-4945-a011-39a4761e1dd5After the laid back laziness of Mui Ne, the sheer amount of things to do and see in Hoi An was amazing, and we went full throttle on the tourist clichés on our first evening and got sucked into having skirts made by one of Hoi An’s most renowned traditional tailors. It was a bit of a blow to the bank balance but definitely worth it when I consider the skirt I had made was modelled on one I’d seen in Topshop before leaving home that had retailed for about 90 euro, or something outrageous like that. I paid 30 dollars in Hoi An, it fits me to a tee and is also a uniquely crafted original piece that I won’t run the risk of seeing on someone else at home! Everyone’s a winner! (except for Topshop).

3b20fa6f-90bc-4aec-89b2-c34a931b7970It was an unplanned purchase, but considering everyone we encountered in the town seemed to have paid a visit to one of the many family-run tailors dotted here and there between the market stalls, be it for tailored suits, dresses, boots or otherwise, I would have felt like I’d missed out on a brilliant part of the experience had I not partaken (I also adore clothes and couldn’t say no, so I suppose it was inevitable really..!).

Although quieter during the day, the main walkways along the river and over the main bridge of Hoi An come alive as soon as the sun sets with an array of stunningly lit lanterns, floating candles, and even more stalls selling everything from pancakes to marinated and sugar-coated guave fruits. The sights and smells and easygoing flow of tourists wandering, tasting, talking and moving in the general direction of the restaurants and bars which line the streets is a real treat for the senses, especially considering the warm air means that even after nightfall a light Summer dress and sandles is perfect attire to explore the bright lights and pretty colours of the night markets.

751e4c36-8f17-4073-87fc-4fd5d62c867a‘Happy Hours’ abound on every corner, ranging from anywhere between 10am and midnight with specials and yet more pushy staff offering discounts and deals all day. These gain intensity once the older couples and families begin to drift sleepily back to their more expensive lodgings in the various higher end hotels, making way for the backpacker generation, easily persuaded after a few $0.75 beers to try the ‘Tiger Tiger Bar” or “Funky Monkey” along the mainstreet. Our venture to the Tiger Tiger Bar served as an introduction to some new Scottish, German, English and Belgian friends, who became out companions for the night and shared moto-taxis on to what is supposedly the most lively bar in town – the persuasively and aptly named ‘Why Not Bar?”. The music here was varied but it yet again pulled through with the wonderful mix of travellers and identities all willing to make new friends and have a good time.

I became a member of the ‘Moto-exhaust-burn Club”, as a shocking amount of fellow backpackers revealed similar burns to the one I received over 2 weeks ago now, all at varying stages of healing and the source of much disbelief at how easily obtained they are over here – uncovered exhaust pipes not proving successful partners when combined with short-legged trousers – another thing left unconsidered whilst travelling. It was honestly one of the best nights out I’ve had since coming to Asia and was only briefly tarnished by the rain on our way home – although it was welcome change to the heat we’d grown accustomed to.fc43a0c0-41f1-46b3-b1e7-1bceb0e1b325

 

Our accomodation Phuong Le Villa had incredibly friendly and helpful staff; as well as being brilliantly located and extremely clean they also offered a huge amount of information regarding tours and transportation, 2 cute fluffy ducklings keeping guard of the main recpetion area each evening, which proved popular amongst the international clientel.

We also rented rented bikes for a dollar a day and meandered around the streets, avoiding the more expensive guided tours and instead challenging ourselves one day to find the vaguely signposted beach (to be honest everything is quite vague here). We succeeded shortly before the midday heat properly hit, which meant the journey home through open rice paddy fields and over bridges was a rushed affair to limit our exposure to the naked sun.

One final trip into the town on the evening of our last day saw our senses get the better of us as we sampled some of the street food – a personal favourite and high point being the discovery of a sweet potato, coconut and peanut grilled patty-cake thing – yum!

Hoi An is honestly a dream destination for a chilled couply getaway – a few nights for us was enough, but if you were one of the many couples I observed jealously around the town with a slightly larger budget allowing for tours and more thorough exploring, I’m sure it may have proved a more fruitful experience. All in all I was sad to leave, and regret already the strain on my budget the market stalls and stunning colours everywhere have brought…!

Elephants, Eco-tourism, and the Express Bus from Hell

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Jungle Overview…

“If we were meant to stay in one place, we’d have roots instead of feet” – Rachel Wolechin

Modes of transport vary from country to country, city to city, year to year and even day to day if you’re lucky enough to live in a place that offers them all at a low cost. Buses, trains, cars, trams, taxis, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, rickshaws, bicycles, and not to mention the good old reliable two feet attached to our own bodies, it seems we have built industries and businesses surrounding the very nature of human kind to move about from place to place.
It’s ironic that as I write this in an illegible scrawl on pages of a notebook containing my budget for the next week I am actually en route to Ho Chi Minh city, having decided not to renew my Cambodian visa and instead use the remaining time I have in Asia to do just that – move about and see as much as I can see. This particular bus is honestly the most comfortable and luxurious form on transport I’ve taken since being here – it’s a new service with Virak-Buntham Travel which connects Siem Reap in Cambodia directly to Ho Chi Minh city, bypassing the MarioKart streets and crazy traffic of Phnom Penh completely. The discovery of this route was a godsend, especially after our fairly dodgy experiences organising buses so far- our journey to and from Sen Monorem in the East proved a particularly painful (physically too!) stretch of 13 hours in total, with necessary stops in Phnom Penh leaving us feeling we maybe should have reconsidered our route. This was the only service available at such a price, however, and the prospect of meeting the elephants of Mondulkiri at the side of the cramped, uncomfortable and downright dangerous journey was enough to make me suck it up and convince myself the distinct pong of urine combined with ageing fried food and unwashed feet was actually a cultural delicacy that I was privelged to be experiencing.

We were crammed into a rickety piece of metal alongside our bags, several packages with Khmer addresses scrawled across them, sacks of potatoes under each chair and a dubious looking plastic bag containing a mystery kind of gooey substance, the level of English of our fellow passengers ranging from awkward nod to expressionless blinking and complete silence.
Think of the elephants”, I found myself chanting along in time to the din of Cambodian wailing coming from the phones of the teenage girls behind us, who had spent a good 15 minutes staring at my skin before proceeding to provide a DJ service (free of charge!) for the entire bus.

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Tree Lodge Guesthouse

‘Mr.Tree’ from the Mondulkiri Elephant Sanctuary and affiliated Tree Lodge Guesthouse picked us up from the station in Sen Monorem, darkness having beaten us there and prevented us from grasping a good bearing in the directions from town. I’ve never been a fan of arriving places at night time purely for this reason, but I think we were just so relieved to be removed from our foetal positions aboard the death wagon of appalling aromas that it didn’t really matter what time it was.
The family-run Tree Lodge Guesthouse provides treetop accomodation just outside Sen Monorem town and overlooking the mountainous forests of Mondulkiri. Childhood fantasies come true, sleeping in treehouses with hammocks and access via ladders and steep wooden steps was made all the more exciting with the prospect of trekking with elephants the following morning – even the giant bugs and flies who shared our dinner and room for the evening couldn’t dampen our spirits at have made it this far. A local menu including avocado and fresh fruit shakes cheered us up immensely too.

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Trekking in the Forest

Next morning we woke to a cockerel crowing, bugs and birds chorusing a new day in the forest. Humidity and Monica Gellar hairstyles aside, I was pleased to note a significant drop in temperature as we’d ascended the mountain, and the cool breeze which billowed out my clothy overshirt was refreshing as we sat in the back of Mr. Tree’s open-top jeep on our way into the jungle.

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Have you guessed I love elephants?!

The brilliant thing about the Mondulkiri Elephant Project is that it has been set up as a means of providing care and rehabilitation for abused and mistreated elephants. As Mr. Tree explained in perfect English during an extremely passionate introduction to the project, it remains one of only two organisations in the whole of Cambodia which does not exploit their elephants in any way or use them against their will as modes of transport, one-trick circus animals, or decorative additions to a money-making tourist scam. This is eco-tourism at it’s finest. 100% of the funds generated by the Mondulkiri Elephant Sanctuary is pumped straight back into the care and maintenance of the elephants, their highly skilled mahoots, and the upkeep and security of the 123 acre forest itself in which they reside. Mr. Tree stressed the importance of the forest to his tribespeople, and explained how they managed to push a decree through in October 2014 prohibiting any intrusive, destructive, or building work within the existing perimeters of the forest, something he firmly believes would not have been possible without the success of the Elephant Sanctuary Project. In a symbiosis which has worked thus far maintaining peace and balance within the forest, it seems they have slowly but surely gained the trust of their 4 previously abused and tortured elephants in a similar manner.

For centuries the elephants in Cambodia have been used as a means of getting both very heavy and very important things from A to B. one only has to look at the ancient stones which pave the way in the Angkor Wat temples (more on that in the next post!) to see the holes in each where they were fastened using bamboo shoots and rope to elephants who pulled them for miles at a time to reach their destination. In order for these giant and powerful creatures to actually succumb to this work and be controlled by the humans who conscripted their service, they underwent cruel and brutal ‘training’ in their youth, which involved them being chained up for days on end and beaten when they attemped to escape. This is still happening today.

Though the chains are stronger than the young elephants at the time of imprisonment and succeed in keeping them stationary despite their struggling, Mr. Tree described sadly how as the elephants grow to a strength and power easily matched to the bonds of their chains, their struggling and will to escape lessens as they gradually stop trying to push against the chains. They are then seen as trained and fit to serve the owners, whips also being used to ensure their diligence and loyalty.

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Happy

You cannot ride the elephants in Mondulkiri, and the tour description of ‘jungle trek’ is really a glorified explanation of what they actually do here.
Because these elephants are free.
It makes such huge and wonderful sense to simply provide visitors with a glimpse into the lives and natural habitat of the elephants and their mahoots. Instead of forcing a route upon them day after day and camera-clad gawping Westerners stopping at set intervals to take pictures of them, visitors to Mondulkiri go where the elephants go. The mahoots act merely as satellite dishes to keep track of their elephants’ whereabouts in order for a tour group to find them, observe briefly and tempt with bananas, then follow at a distance as soon as the elephants have gotten bored and decided to wander onwards. It’s such a humane and natural system which benefits everyone within the community that I honestly am so so proud and happy to even have had the chance to experience it.

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Gentle Giants

In treating the elephants as the majestic, gentle and highly intelligent creatures that they are, the mahoots and staff of Mondulkiri have earned their respect, and Igot the impression they even enjoyed being fed huge bunches of bananas at a time, and followed to the streams to swim. After observing Lucky, Princess, Sophie and Ginzaag for a time as they filled up on branches and shoots and leaves of the protected forest, we were treated to a lunch of rice, beansprouts, spinach and vegetables in the treetop Jungle Lodge. An hours’ chilling in the hammocks there split the day up nicely, after which we followed the mahoots’ whistles to the riverside to find the elephants bathing. Although we were lucky in that our day for the tour seemed to be a fairly typical day for them, the success and value of the treks here really is at the mercy of the elephants themselves. It just further goes to show how fair treatment, equality and balance lead to a happier and healthier environment for all living things to exist in harmony (forgive me for sounding like a tree hugger here!)

12243634_10153183145423483_167972287_nAfter an exhausting yet exhilarating day at the Elephant Project, it was back to the TreeLodge and our friends Mr. Bathroom frog and Balcony Bat for what was one of the deepest and longest sleeps I’ve had in weeks. We awoke refreshed and ready to power through another 6 hour hurtling Gringotts’-cart shuttle van ride back to Phnom Penh. This time the pictures of our new elephant mates kept us occupied, along with various games of ‘guess the marinated insect’ at the market stalls of the hourly toilet breaks. I wouldn’t dare taste any, but it reminded me of Timone and Pumba’s jungle-introduction for Simba in The Lion King.

I felt somewhat better about taking the bus and putting my life in the hands of someone who doesn’t speak my language knowing that it meant I’d helped ensure that even some of Cambodia’s remaining wild elephants are still free roam where they want, responsible only for the transport of themselves from watering hole to the groups of Westerners they must see as irritating yet reliable banana-vending machines.

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Princess

I’d urge anyone to visit the Mondulkiri project, the tours and information provided is extremely well-delivered and easy to understand, and the accomodation, though you don’t have to stay at the Tree Lodge (not to mention fun!) accomodation. Bug spray is a must, as well as comfortable walking shoes and bum-pad for the bus journey there!!

Useful Links:
Virak- Buntham Travel
Mondulkiri Elephant Sanctuary
Mondulkiri Elephant Sanctuary Facebook
Tree Lodge Guesthouse