Tag Archives: independent travel

Our three Month Asian Adventure. India and Sri Lanka,

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After months of planning and deliberating the day has finally arrived when we embark on our three month journey through southern India and Sri Lanka. Starting in Kerala and its capital Trivandrum to the coastal resort of Varkala. Onto the Keralan backwaters near Kottayam. Travel by the famous toy train high up into the Western Ghats to the hill stations of Ooty and Coonar. Then onto the state of Karnataka to visit the UNESCO site of Hampi and it’s temple complex. Then travelling back south via Mysore, Bangalore, and into the state of Tamil Nadu and to the cities of Madurai and Trichy. Then back to the coast and to the town of Pondicherry “pronounced puducherry”. Then following the coast northward to Mallhabpuram. Then taking an hour long flight from Chennai “formally Madras” to Sri Lanka; “more on that later.”

We have arranged our trip the same way as we always do like keeping one eye on the cost, like staying in budget hotels, and travelling around on buses and trains. For example our current hotel The Safire Residency “grand name I know” is a basic no frills budget hotel, which is very clean, has really friendly and helpful staff, all for Just £23 for three nights.

We had saved for our flights and our accommodation. Which incidentally is an average of £20 per night for the whole trip. But in respect of spending money we are just living on the money we would live on in the UK. “In case you are wondering about work fortunately we are both retired. Transport costs are also amazingly cheap for example our journey on the toy train, “which incidentally takes around four hours up the mountain ” is just 0.79p for two people, and no that’s not a typing error.

Trivandrum

We decided to stay in Kerala’s capital city for three nights as there were a couple of things we wanted to see in the town, before moving onto Varkala, on the coast. Trivandrum does not have a great deal of things to-do but a couple of recommendations are:-

Indian Coffee house a coffee shop chain run by a series of workers cooperative, visit the one near the train station, as the building which it’s in is like a tower, with a spiral slope inside with all the tables along the wall.

Napier Museum situated in the botanical gardens and near to the zoo. Built at the end of the 19th century, a very ornate and colourful structure, housing a collection of ornate wood carvings and ceremonial masks dating back to the 15th century. A must see is the ornately carved temple chariot.

Sri Padmanabhasswamy Temple A very ornate temple, but unfortunately closed to non Hindus, but worth a look. Also it’s worth walking around the nearby streets and perusing through the many shops in the area.

Top Tips

On arriving at the airport make sure you go to the pre-paid taxi kiosk in the arrivals terminal to avoid being over charged by the taxi drivers outside. Also as the rupee is a closed currency, which means you cannot buy them outside of India, you have no alternative than to use the currency exchange booth in the airport. But just change up enough money to get you from the hotel into town as their exchange rates, are quite frankly, extortionate.

Getting around the town is easy, as there are many tuk-tuks plying there trade, the cost of which is very small. Also there are plenty of restaurants around most of which are pure vegetarian. We found an excellent restaurant near to our hotel called Aryaas it’s situated in the Aryaas Hotel and I can thoroughly recommend it. The food is good, and it’s very cheap. For example we had a vegetable biryani “one is enough to share”, two side dishes, two types of bread and a tomato salad, all for just £6.95.

We had planned to get the train to Varkala our next destination. So we went to the station to survey the situation and to buy our tickets, but unfortunately it appeared you cannot buy tickets in advance. As we were leaving the station we were approached by a nice friendly taxi driver and struck a deal to take us door to door for 1200rs around £13, which for a one and a half hour car journey was a bargain in our book.

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Phuket

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Phuket

The next stop on our journey to Asia was Phuket in Thailand. Just a short flight from our last stop Singapore. Now this part of the journey I was looking forward too as whilst we were in Phuket it was to be my 60th birthday, it was supposed to be a laid back leg, sun, sea, and sand, but I have to say I was somewhat disappointed. Yes it had the sun, sea, and sand but not much else in my opinion. Karon beach where we were staying was a bit like Benidorm in Spain for my liking, full of tacky souvenir shops, not very inspiring restaurants “except where we went for my birthday” with menu’s like the Encyclopedia Britannica, quite how they can produce all those dishes is beyond me. Also another thing that spoilt it for me the whole place caters for visitors from Russian. Most of the signage was in Russian and nearly all the restaurant menus were the same. Now let’s get this straight I having traveled extensively around the world, but when I leave England and travel to wherever it may be I want to sample that country for what it is, the food, and the culture not because most of its visitors are from a certain part of the globe. This is the same reason I steer clear of places that cater for the “Brit Abroad” I absolutely hate it.

We did hire a scooter and got around a bit though. We went to Kamala beach which in my opinion was much nicer than Karon. Rode through Patong, which looked like a living nightmare and visited The Big Buddha. On my 60th we went to, probably the only nice restaurant in Karon, and that was the Boat House, a really lovely restaurant right on the beach front, recommended in the Lonely Planet and by most internet searches for restaurants in the area. A beautiful meal was had and washed down with a lovely, if not expensive bottle of wine.

One place I would highly recommend visiting when visiting the island is Old Town Phuket. Lots of interesting little shops and restaurants and really lovely buildings, and more importantly much much cheaper than the resorts

 

Travel Tips

Beware, you will not find a metered taxi around any of the popular beach resorts on the island. You will only find small Tuk-Tuk’s, albeit the modern variety which are small vans, normally opened sided, which huge sound systems blasting out ear shattering music, all seemingly run by the local taxi mafia. Thankfully we only used them once. Their rates are quite frankly extortionate, our short journey of about half a mile cost around £5.00, and they will not negotiate. Getting a metered taxi from the airport was ok but getting one to return as like I said it was impossible to find one. So I suggest if you get a good, friendly driver from the airport, get his or her number and use them for your return.

 

South Africa re-visited

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South Africa re-visited

 

Well it’s almost a year since we were in South Africa, so I am finally getting around to finishing my blog on our visit, before we head off on my 60th birthday trip. More on that later

After leaving Swellendam we headed for our next stop, Cape Town, with a stop on route in Stellenbosch. A very pretty town not only famous for its wine but also its Ostrich farms. After a stroll around the town and some lunch, it was time to move on to Cape Town.

As we approached Cape Town things got busier as you would expect, the wide open spaces that we were used to in the east became less and less also things got somewhat bizarre. You see some friends of ours who have been to South Africa a few times told us a story about when they stopped at some traffic lights, they saw a woman in the middle of the road trying to sell a wardrobe of all things. Just the sort of thing that you need whilst out for a quite drive. Well it appears that the entrepreneurship of the South Africans doesn’t just stop at furniture. We stopped at some traffic lights (probably the same ones) and saw a guy waving the biggest fish you can imagine, around trying to sell it to passing motorists. Quite how many days he had been waving around in the South African sunshine I wouldn’t like to hazard a guess. Before we checked into our guest house, we decided to stop off and have a look around the V&A waterfront area of Cape Town. The V&A consists of many chain type restaurants and high end shops, all very nice but a bit too commercial and polished for my liking, but worth a visit all the same.

On our first full day in Cape Town we visited Table Mountain. We had pre booked our tickets back in the UK having read about the vast numbers of people visiting, as you can imagine, as Table Mountain along with Robben Island are Cape Town’s biggest tourist draws. On reflection we needn’t have bothered as the queue for the cable cars for people with pre booked tickets was just as long as the queue for people without, Oh well we tried. Our next stop and in my opinion a must see is the District 6 museum. District 6 was an area of Cape Town which was a thriving township community, consisting of blacks, coloureds, “South African’s term for mixed race” and Malay people. The district was demolished because the white South Africans decided they wanted the area for themselves to build nice big fancy buildings and high end houses. The entrance to the museum (which incidentally is housed in an old church, the only building left standing from the district) is free to enter, but once inside I would wholeheartedly recommend taking a tour with one of the guides. The guides are all former residents of District 6. Our guide Ruth who was brought up in the district was so informative, and her story was so moving, she was in tears telling us, even though she must have told it a thousand times, very moving indeed. I cannot get my head around how one person can treat another so badly just because of the colour of their skin. We ended our day with a good few cold beers in a bar/restaurant called “Bombay Bicycle Club”.

Our next day in Cape Town was a visit to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for the best part of his 30 year sentence. Robben Island is definitely one I would recommend booking in advance. If you are staying in Cape Town for a few days I would recommend making your booking to the island early on during your stay, because if the ferries to island are cancelled due to bad weather you can use your pre-booked ticket for another day.

A must visit if you are in Cape Town for a few days is Boulder Beach, which if famous for its population of penguins, it was just amazing to see them in there natural habitat. Could have watched them for hours going about their daily business.

Now the 26th of March is my birthday, so we asked the owner of the accommodation that we were staying at Acorn House which incidentally I would thoroughly recommend. If she could recommend a nice restaurant for the occasion. She told us about a high end restaurant called La Mouette, at Sea point which a short drive from Cape Town. She said she would try to book a table, but could not promise as it gets booked well in advance, but luckily for us we managed get a table. We decided to go for the six course taster menu, which also comes with a glass a wine with each course. The food and the wine was amazing. If this restaurant was in London the cost of the meal would be astronomical, I’m sure well out of our price range, but the meal was just £60 for the both of us

Independent Travel, “go on you know you want to”

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Well the day is very close when we embark on our month-long trip to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, it’s been some eight months now since we booked our flights to Bangkok, and the journey since that day has been immensely pleasurable, with many hours spent reading guide books, researching the internet, reading the invaluable blog post from people who have had first-hand experience in visiting the countries we are going to. On the journey I have learnt a great deal about their history and culture and the many facts about the various conflicts they have had. Some of the facts I have read about the Vietnam War and Pol Pot regime in Cambodia were very startling indeed.

I diverse, back to the planning. Now anyone who reads my blog will know that I am a great advocate in independent travel, as for me the months as in this case of planning is just as pleasurable as the trip no doubt will be itself, as I feel like I have been on the journey all this time, and no doubt my fellow travellers will agree. Now there are many people who would never attempt to do an independently arranged trip and would be completely out of their comfort zone in doing so. I’ve had people say to me “your brave” or “are you mad” but I’m neither (or maybe I am having served many years as a London firefighter), but have gained this experience over many years and on many trips, but everyone has got to start somewhere, so if anyone reading this post has the slightest interest in I urge you to have a go. Now I am not saying do something like we are embarking on, just something small like a city break in Europe or a country nearby whatever part of the world you live in, having said that our very first independent trip was back in 1993 when we went to California for a month with two small children, we just booked a flight and a car and found the accommodation along the way, we travelled some 2500 miles and had a fantastic time.

So let’s start. First the flights, if you are booking short-haul flights with a budget airline the rule of thumb is to book well in advance as this is when you will find the best deals, this is normally the same case for long haul but this can be a bit more hit and miss on pricing, we booked some eight months before the trip hoping that this would be the best deal but later found out we could have got the flights cheaper if we had left it a while, you win some you lose some as they say. I have also found it pays to go to the various airlines direct as they all offer deals from time to time, so my advice is to take the time to register your details with them, and get on their mailing list and they will email you from time to time with their various offers and promotions. Also whilst on the subject of flights there are numerous web sites and phone apps to help you with the process, like flight search engines like Kayak and Skyscanner also another very good tool to use in conjunction with booking flights which is also available as a phone app is Seat Guru, this will enable you view the various airlines seating plans and help you in choosing the best seats.

Next onto the accommodation, there are many sites available on the web to help you find the right hotel, villa or apartment; it is really all down to your personal preference in which you use, personally I use booking.com, but like I said there are many others. In conjunction with Booking.com another good site to which I use a lot is Trip Advisor, Once I have found the accommodation I am thinking of booking I go onto Trip Advisor and get the low down and reviews on the accommodation I am thinking of booking, which in my experience are pretty accurate on the whole.

Next the legalities and requirements of whichever country you are planning a trip too, like what are the  visa entry requirements for the country you are visiting. My advice on this one is to contact the country concerned embassy direct either via their website or phone for entry advise, the reason I say this there are many third-party companies offering to do this for you but like everything in life nothing is free and there will be an additional charge on top of the normal fees, and it’s quite easy and painless to do it yourself, many of the embassy’s offer an online service as well. If you read one of my previous posts on “Vietnamese visa application” you will see how easy and pain-free it is.

Now onto vaccinations, obviously your first port of call for this is your GP, but a really useful website is FitForTravel which is run by the NHS it was recommended by the nurse at my GP’s practise and is the one that they use.

One last website worth a mention is the Foreign and; Commonwealth office which will give you up to date advice on any countries you may be thinking of visiting.

Once last useful tool I want to mention and which I have used extensively and found invaluable in planning this trip is Pearl Trees, now I will try to explain but if I loose you just visit their site as they will do a far better job than no doubt I will so here goes. First things first is to set up an account which is totally free, then you download the add-on for your web browser in my case I use Firefox but I’m sure it will work with all others, then you start by creating a main pearl, which in my case is Vietnam then when you are doing your research you just add the various things you find to your pearl, I said I would make a hash of explaining, just visit the site and you will see what I mean. Before anyone says you can just use bookmarks, but pearltrees is unique whereby your pearls are available for everyone to see so it’s a great way of sharing information on any given subject. Phew that was tough I was even boring myself.

So like I said at the beginning start off small and work up to a more adventurous trip or jump straight in at the deep end like I did all them years ago and I am sure you will be throughly rewarded by the experience and also save some money in the bargain for your next adventure, let me explain. On browsing the various itinerary’s from the various travel companies offering trips to Vietnam I was amazed at the cost. Typical trip for 11 to 14 days in just Vietnam were ranging from between £2500 to £4000 per person, our month-long trip which include return flights from UK to Bangkok, two internal flights in Vietnam, a flight from Hanoi back to Bangkok, 30 nights accommodation in nice hotels not hostels all for the grand total of approx £4000 for three people give or take a £100, bargain in my book.

So hopefully after reading my post I hope I have wetted your appetite for independent travel, and given you some useful tips along the way. So as always stay safe, keep well and keep travelling. Next stop Bangkok watch this space.