A Ginger’s Guide to South East Asia, or any Inconveniently Hot Country

A Ginger’s Guide to Southeast Asia, or any Inconveniently Hot Country (aka how not to look like Mr.Crabs after a couple of minutes spent outside the shade)

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Shade-bathing is my new favourite pass time

There comes a time in every gingers’ (or just fair-skinned person’s) travelling experiences when he/she just has to admit defeat and accept the fact that beneath a burning midday sun in Asia is maybe just not the most ideal place for them to spend a lot of time. Having occupied the unwanted tan lines of society for many years already and met with others of my kind who’ve dealt with the ‘orange hair’ and ‘carrot top’ teasing as a kid, it’s the last thing on many ginger, redhead, or strawberry blondes’ (as I used to insist) list of preferred activities when on holiday or abroad to actually sit out beneath the sun and intentionally try to ‘get a colour’, as other breeds of human have taken to practice. Sunbathing as a way to pass a day in a foreign country (let alone South East Asia) is simply not an option for people of my skin type, and it’s often been difficult to explain this to my sallower, darker-skinned friends who live for a day spent ‘tanning’ and ‘lapping up the rays’. I say each of this phrases with a tone of disdain and immense jealousy that I cannot engage in such activities with them, instead cowering in fear beneath the nearest parasol and shining beacon-like with my latest applied layer of factor 80. Yep. Factor 80! I’m in Asia!

Once this lack of tanning potential has been dutifully noted and accepted as just the way it is, it becomes so much easier to implement measures to ensure my continued paleness is not tainted by anything save some new freckles and a stark contrast to many of the locals I find myself interacting with around here. Over the past few weeks in Asia I’ve proudly managed to secure only extremely minor sun damage by adhering to some of these strict and rigid guidelines, many of which are really just common sense. As we all know however, once a bit of sun and potential holiday fun and exploring gets in the way, this sometimes gets left by the wayside in the heat of the moment (pun entirely intended), and we’re left regretting not getting up those 5 minutes earlier to apply the suncream we forked out a ridiculous amount of dollar for. Here’s a short list of guide-lines I’ve compiled which have helped me avoid some unnecessary discomfort!

  1. Shade.

Shade is key. Shade is your friend. Shade is vital to your continued enjoyment of both life and this trip abroad which you’ve saved long and scrounged hard for with all that money you saved on spray-tans (because let’s face it, they just don’t look natural on you). Seek it out wherever you go. If you find yourself waiting to cross a road somewhere for an unspecified length of time and you feel the heat of a hundred thousand suns burning between the hairs on your pale white scalp, it’s time to find the thin shadow cast by the traffic light pole you’re waiting at and stand behind it. I’m not kidding. You’ll thank me. When exploring, make sure you walk down the side of the street that’s most covered over by stalls, canopies, buildings, or anything else that casts a safe stretch of shaded road ahead of you. If you played ‘The Floor Is Lava’ at any point during your childhood (or college years) you should be perfectly well able to adapt to this style of jumping from shaded patch to shaded patch in avoidance of the dreaded sun. It’s extra fun if you have a ginger-buddy with you to compete against! (Please consume sunrays responsibly!)

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Welcome to my cribbb..we’ve got shade here

 2. Layers.
Like ogres, onions, parfait and cake (thank you Donkey!), another thing us gingers must always remember is that layers are a MUST. Always remember that Sweat > Burning. I’ll choose a few sweat patches over a few red patches any day – a little extra heat from a light layer of clothing to cover your arms is totally worth the excess sweating and slight discomfort it may cause. At least you can remove it and wash sweat off once you’re indoors, instead of standing/lying/crying stock still for days on end because it hurts to move while you wait for a new layer of skin to grow. For people as pale as I am, it’s wise to always carry a light scarf/shawl/jumper of sorts in case you find yourself unwittingly enjoying some happy hour Pina Coladas and getting caught in the rays…. yeh I went there.

                                                  3.  Wind Burn is a real thing.

Beware of the sneaky rays that will catch you unawares as you cruise on a bike/motorbike/boat/tuk tuk with the wind blowing in your hair…sure it might not FEEL hot enough to burn, but I’ telling you now – it IS! The breeze created by the wind (even in Asia!) as you move is only masking the heat of what you usually can feel when you begin to burn, and it pays to pre-consider this before undertaking any trips or tours which will expose you for any length of time. This is not to say you can’t enjoy them, just be aware of what you’re getting yourself into so you can adequately apply sunblock before stepping outside. Any exposure to the sun can affect ginger skin and so it’s worth asking when you book how long you’ll be spending in an exposed situation.

  1. Choose your beach/pool time wisely
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I’ll stay right here thanks!

Another one that seems like common sense, but that is surprisingly very often ignored is to avoid sitting at a pool or on a beach during peak hours of heat – midday sun is a fairly obvious one, yet depending on the climate you’re in, midday heat can last anywhere between 11am and 3pm. This can often prove problematic, especially when travelling with a group or several others who see this time of day as ‘optimal tanning time’, and you’re left either sunbed-hopping as the sun rises and relentlessly chases you, or you’re forced to occupy yourself with a non-sun related activity for the day. These are surprisingly easier to find than people may expect, and often mean you’ll actually get more out of your day and travelling experience instead of a mild tan and ‘a little bit of redness – but don’t worry, it’ll fade to brown!’

  1. Rise early to get the most out of the day
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Sunrise over the Mui Ne sand dunes (*note the shawl for the return journey!)

A similar point to the one above, most Asian countries begin their day at sunrise, and people can be found going about their daily business from an earlier time in the day in order to avoid the glare and discomfort of the midday heat. Rising early ensures you get three main sections of the day to fill, the middle one of which may be slightly less busy in order to cater for the heightened heat and natural afternoon-lull of extremely hot countries. Siestas are definitely a thing here, but they’re just not given the name and are generally signified only by people lounging around in hammocks on the sides of the streets as the ‘3 o’clock slump’ hits slightly earlier and lasts a couple of hours.

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Morning scene at Mui Ne fishing village..

 

  1. Be prepared for the STARES

Local people in Vietnam and Cambodia so far have been extremely welcoming to us. While many children stare and point as we pass, in general we’ve found that returning their stares with a warm smile and a wave has broken some sort of unspoken tension, and we’re rewarded with an even bigger and toothless grin as they wave and proceed to follow us down the street or offer us whatever local produce they’re selling. If you’re someone who gets uncomfortable by being watched and looked at (something I quickly had to get over), be prepared to be the subject of much gossiping and incomprehensible giggles amongst young people when they spot you. Ginger hair is simply not a thing over here. I’ve been asked are my freckles an illness, is my hair real, and my sunburn (when I did unfortunately get some) was the cause of much interest and concern among the locals. Try to remember that it is only out of interest and genuine fascination that many locals stare, and most of them probably don’t even realise they are doing it! To them, tourists are a source of income, and so the very sight of pale-skinned wanderers causes a ripple down the street of local shops and markets, and before long everyone is out to have a look.

  1. Suncream is EXPENSIVE

Bring as much with you from home as you can, because out here it costs an arm and a leg (and you’ll pay with that, if you don’t invest in some!) to buy in local supermarkets. It’s clearly a ploy for foreigners, seeing as suncream is not generally a thing required by the people out here, but just be aware that if you fail to pack it or else run out you will be paying nearly 3 times what you would at home, even in the markets.

  1. If you do get burnt, prepare to be made aware of it

‘Oh my GOD your SHOULDERS…what happened?!”, ‘Oh! Someone got the sun today!” ‘Lookin’ good lobster!’ – I’ve heard them all over the years, and they’re not exactly helpful! Yes I’m aware I was slightly careless today, yes I’ll be more careful next time, yes, contrary to what you may think it is actually painful and yes I can feel how hot it is from an inch away….I don’t want your pity or concern…just get me some Aloe Vera!!
People will be concerned, it’s only natural, but at the end of the day it’s up to you to ensure you’re correctly prepared to face a day outside, and that all exposed skin has been touched up each morning before you leave your accomodation.

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We all just want to see the sun rise….

  1. Don’t Let People question your travel motives

‘Why on EARTH would you go to such a hot country if you can’t handle the sun?’ Why on earth not? Why should I let my skin type stop me exploring the world and experiencing things? If I’m careful enough and aware of the consequences of exposing myself to the sun for too long, surely it’s as ok for me to come abroad as it is for the next person who spends their days trying to get brown, which by the way is also seen as sun damage – any change of colour due to the sun can be seen as sun damage and by avoiding it completely I am in fact lowering my risk of it whatsoever! We’re all winners here!

  1. Finally – ‘Water Resistant’ does not always do what it says on the tin

I learned this the hard way. Sure, go for a dip, wade in the sea, get accidentally pushed in or else swept away by an unexpected wave – it’s fine! I’ve waterproof factor 50 on!
Not always the case.
While some brands are better than others in the level of protection they provide (I’d better word this carefully or it’ll end up sounding like I’m talking about something else), not all suncreams are as reliable as they’d like you to believe. While sunblock implies it supposedly blocks out all sun and refuses to let it impact you at all, suncream merely promises to prevent sunburn, and often is actually tailored to ‘encourage tanning’ – enticing the sun but actually controlling what it does to your skin? Sounds a bit dodgy to me…. I’ve found that in general, the strongest and most reliable sunblock to get are the ones advertised for children. Kids’ skin is notoriously more delicate than adults’ and as such it makes sense that their sunblock is stronger than ours. It may be extra gloopy and white and take that little bit more time to rub in correctly, but in the end it’s worth the shiny face and smelling like a baby when you reach sunset each evening with a smile just as pale and ghostly as you began the day with.

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My new best friend

European Vs Irish Music Festival – What We’re Missing Out On

Okay, so it’s not as if I’m pretending to be an expert or hardcore attendee of music festivals all over the world, but I like my music, I like my festivals, and I just thought I’d express some opinions and realisations I’ve had here after attending Sziget festival in Budapest last week.
As someone whose general vision and experience of music festivals has up until now included multiple layers of clothing, umbrellas, ponchos, muck, and copious amounts of alcohol, the differences between this European festival and the likes of Electric Picnic or Forbidden Fruit at home were something that hit me at every single colourfully signposted and culturally unique corner.

 First of all, and probably most obviously; the weather. Having gone from being a total newbie to the interrailing lifestyle, my opinion of European climates ranging from varying extremities of heat to cold and ‘home’ as a default becoming all jumbled up in my head all meant I hadn’t given the temperature much thought before I left. Luckily my instincts overpowered at this point as the word ‘holiday’ seems to have been engrained upon my brain, triggering an unconscious reaction to pack only Summer clothes.
The weather in Budapest at Sziget this year rarely dropped below 30 degrees, something which makes or breaks a pale ginger Irish fresh-air junkie such as myself, especially considering the lack of air conditioning available whilst camping (I’ll give you a guess – there’s none!!). Not to mention the constant battle with our neighbouring ant colony to keep the tents clean and cool enough to actually provide some sort of respite from the blaring midday heat. I’ve gotten to the stage now where I know better than to even try to withstand a sun like that for longer than a few minutes at a time, and dreams of attaining an actual tan from it are frankly laughable, so my bottle of factor 40 came with me everywhere I went.
My one main complaint with festivals at home has always been simply that it has been too cold. There’s only so many times you can justify standing waiting for one of your favourite bands, shivering beneath layers of soaked plastic ‘waterproof’ jackets and squelching along miserably back to a tent that may or may not yet have been flooded, trampled on, or worse – inhabited by unknown drunkards mistakenly thinking they’ve found their own resting hovels. Of course, this may be where the tendency to over-indulge in alcohol comes into play at Irish festivals – any excuse to keep warm and be able to sleep somewhere you usually wouldn’t put your dog to rest is surely going to sound like a good option after dutifully standing in wait for hours in unpredictable and rowdy crowds at varying levels of intoxication.
But this is what I mean. The good weather lent itself to every aspect of the festival abroad. Not only did it allow us to enjoy the daytime activities and decorative features for what they really were – a makeshift ‘beach’ and volleyball courts adding hugely to the ‘holiday’ feel of the place – but the sun and warm weather put everyone around in a good mood, and generally just brought out the best in everything. In that heat, tolerance for alcohol is down, so one or two drinks is all that was necessary to obtain a good buzz; even at that there were days where I completely avoided the bars, not by choice, just by sheer preoccupation with the amount of things there were to do and see around me. This in itself is a huge contrast to any festival at home, where the general consensus once entry has been successfully gained and tents hurridly pitched is to ‘head for the bar’ or ‘meet back here for pints’. Starting as you mean to go on only really works when the festival itself only lasts a day or two – a week of that kind of debauchery would be enough to cripple even the most seasoned festival-drinker.
Even so, it was amazing to see all those different walks of life and nationalities merging together in one place like a giant Noah’s Ark, as representatives of each country arrived and set up camp in twos and threes. All this in the love of music, life, and having a good time really succeeded in cementing in my head that life is for living, enjoyment, and sharing that love through a balance of art, music, and a general understanding of one another.

If there is one thing human beings from all corners of the globe love more than anything, it’s having a good fucking time and enjoying the fuck out of what little time we have here.

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The experience of the likes of a week-long festival such as Sziget being condensed down into a 3-day pissup in a field in Laois is something which really opened my eyes to the state of Irish festivals and our attitude towards them in general. Although Sziget is very much a limbo kind of paradise in that many travellers attend as a stop-off on an interrailing trip, it still manages to stand alone as an ‘Island of Freedom’, as they call it, and I spent a few content mornings alone wandering the island as the sun came up and many of the hardcore stragglers stumbled home or collapsed under various trees and bushes dotted in the mainstage area – none of the bars or DJs in the arena stopped until 5.30am, something we sadly discovered after setting up camp less than 50 metres away from one.
This closing time is something that in Ireland would only tempt fate and end badly, yet here it somehow worked with such a culturally diverse crowd of attendees merely looking to meet new people and share in the delights of such a positive and interesting atmosphere. Again, this idea of music and the arts bringing people together is more successfully executed and appreciated due to a better attitude towards alcohol comsumption and social norms – people actually talked to one another in these ‘clubs’, and I found the best place to make new friends was literally – anywhere you wanted to do so. All you had to do was look around, smile, and ask someone where they were from. Of course, this might just have been the incredible holiday-atmosphere and general happiness of everyone in attendance, but it’s difficult to imagine getting a similar reaction everytime at a festival in Ireland – people would think you’re either extremely drunk or just really creepy.

Of course a lot of this is all a massive generalization, as I’m still 100% going to attend Electric Picnic again this year, and more than likely enjoy it immensely. The main difference will be that this time I’ll be making sure to keep a broader mind when it comes to evaluating my understanding and appreciation for it, and hopefully experience more of the cultural and artistic side of things than I have before. Maybe this time I’ll also try to be aware of the various nationalities that (I’m sure) are always in attendance. Sziget has opened my eyes to the world through musical and creative displays of individuality, yet contrastingly has also helped me draw many parallels between myself and other human beings; this European melting pot (in 39 degree heat, this sometimes became literal!) and hub of life, activity, and 200,000 people roaming about a field in their own filth and excessive food and drink consumption, all just silently in search of love or some other form of connection with someone else – because in the end that is what we all seek, is it not? Not necessarily love, or a partner, or a means of procreation – it is merely companionship; likeminded souls who share a similar disposition and understanding of our situations, regardless of background, heritage, culture, or previous successes or failures. These are all just things which become wrapped up in negative and unecessary tension. They do not really matter. For a week on end I shared a common location, contentment, and various experiences with walks of life I never could have dreamed of encountering were it not for this fantastic festival.

As eye-opening as most travel can be in this respect, there was something extra special about the context in which people came together at Sziget. It wasn’t just to satisfy a niggling wanderlust, or to escape from a hometown or a job for the weekend, or even just an exuse to get drunk – it was out of a genuine love for music, life, and a celebration of all the good things there are to be had from this combination if we just do it right and balance it out. While it differed immensely from my experiences of music festivals at home, I’m certain now that when I next attend an Irish festival, I will do so with a completely different attitude, between expectations, enjoyment, and ability to sit back and enjoy the show, the acts, and the surroundings – even if the Irish weather is promised to put a dampener on everything!

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48 Hours in Bratislava

 

This day last week I was in the middle of a 48-hour stay in the city of Bratislava, a pitt-stop on the way to Sziget music festival in Budapest (more on that in the next post!).
As a ginger who hasn’t been on a proper sun holiday since the cringy days of family package deals to Majorca where any hotel without a kids’ club wasn’t worth batting my glitter-glued eyelashes together at, I’ll admit I may have slightly underestimated the European heat – this was only the beginning of my knowledge of Slovakia proving itself to be extremely limited. The heat struck like a wall of dead, sweaty air when you walk into a heavily populated gym, and I immediately thanked myself for having left my warm jacket at home.

After stumbling our way through the barrier of sweat, hastily-applied suncream, and unhelpful Slovakian bus drivers, we eventually made it to the tram station which would take us in the direction of our hostel. What I hadn’t anticipated was the large amount of dodgy-looking characters who roamed the streets – drunks, cripples, barely-clothed scrawny faces who revelled in approaching young unaccompanied travellers at the stations. I’m not saying it was extremely dangerous, just slightly less civilised and more suburban than many of the other European cities I’ve visited – and this was only in the first few hours or so. Still, we had to avert our gaze as a man covered in dried blood boarded the tram and sat staring at us, making no obvious inclination or cry for help, and seemingly oblivious to the extremity of his unknown injuries.

On finding our hostel (Patio Hostel, Bratislava), a wave of relief swept over me at being briefly removed from the sun’s preying rays, and also at finally being able to remove our backpacks. Shoulders aching, we attended a welcome BBQ downstairs in the garden, accompanied by several hen and stag parties, complete with inflatable and edible items of memorabilia…apparantly Bratislava is a serious hotspot for European pre-nuptial celebrations, who knew!

After locating the local Tesco and stocking up on some essentials, we went wandering in search of ‘Rock OK’ , a lively and dimly-lit underground bar, advertised as the starting point of a nightly pub crawl aimed at integrating the many socially-awkward and party-seeking backpackers who pass through the city during the Summer months. (Rock OK)

Considering it was a Saturday night, the streets were fairly quiet and we found ourselves wondering did such a pub crawl even exist. The streets were buckled under roadworks, with cones, railings, and upturned earth blocking off the streets which Google Maps had set out ahead of us. I got the impression that the entire city was very much a work-in-progress, as the roadworks were central to much of the scenery and background of the busiest areas we encountered.

After a rather sexist drink allowance of ‘Free glasses of beer, or wine for the women’, we got talking to our fellow travellers in the Rock Bar, and did our best to mingle – I’ve found that in situations such as these it is one of the best things you can do to be open, friendly and inviting – we were all in the same boat, after all, and so there was no point in being shy.
Many of the other travellers, some from Spain, New Zealand, England, and Italy, to name but a few, were also stopping off in Bratislava on their way down to Sziget, so a common topic of conversation was easily established.
Making friends with a group of Australians proved to be one of the highlights of the night, as well as typically rejoicing together as we realised there were two other Irish lads on the crawl – although unfortunately they lived up to the ‘drunken Irish’ label the other nationalities muttered to one another. We didn’t stay for the entire crawl however, as after the third ‘pub’ proved to be more of a nightclub than anything else, we decided it was time to navigate our way back through the dilapidated streets, sleeping JCBs and makeshift gravel footpaths.

After wonderful cold showers and a brief annoying realisation that someone in the hostel downstairs had stolen and eaten the bread we’d bought, we set out for a day of exploration in the city. We decided to decline the appeal of a walking-tour of the city purely because of the heat, our timeframe, and also because we much preferred the idea of discovering things independent of tour guides and plans.

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Using some of the roadworks as points of reference, we meandered down the main streets which proved a lot busier during the daytime, a large quarter of the city around the church and fountain being pedestrianised to accommodate travellers. The Old Town proved to be extremely inviting, the ‘Alstadt’ area full of great picture opportunities, innumerable bars, cafes and restaurants that looked good enough to stay in all day. The former Palace of the Hungarian Estates surrounded by the many little cobbled streets proved extremely enjoyable to wander about, despite the midday heat!

We voted in favour of a Pad Thai style lunch instead of sampling some of the local cuisine, and were thoroughly impressed by the service and food of The Green Buddha, close to the main square.

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After impulse-buying another pair of ‘Uganda-pants’, as I call them, (my first ever pair having been purchased in Uganda) in one of the many little craft shops along the street, we took the 83 bus to the end of the line, and got off at Temantínska, and followed the beach-ready stream of locals and tourists alike down a short distance to Drazdiak Lake. This freshwater lake was the first experience I’ve had of an inland lake in Europe, and it didn’t disappoint! Although there were hoards of overly-exposed sun-worshippers and naked children throwing rocks at the (extremely patient) swans, the atmosphere and simplicity of the place really appealed to me. We secured ourselves a beer after hopping the language barrier of the bar, and for the first time since the trip had started we felt really at ease as we chilled in the sun (or in my case, the shade and beneath a light throw cardigan).

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That evening we wandered back through the city and had an early night, as the prospect of a busy day navigating our way to Budapest loomed ahead of us.

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