Monthly Archives: July 2017

Koh Chang is a beautiful Thai Alternative Island and should Visit

Thailand was once the go-to place for hedonistic backpackers and budget travellers but recently the country has seen a meteoric rise appealing to all kinds of travellers especially those keen to explore the the southern Thai islands.

Phuket; much loved by expats, is a place for family holidays and weddings. Koh Phi-Phi island first came to the world’s notice back in 2000, with the movie starring Leonardo Di Caprio in “The Beach”. Koh Phangan is notorious for The Full Moon Party, and Koh Tao is a small island that is overflowing with scuba diving first timers, shops and enthusiasts.

Lesser known Koh Chang island has a certain innocence about the place with 70 per cent of the island covered in untouched jungle. Add in beaches and mountains too, and Koh Chang has bragging rights as one of the most naturally eco-friendly islands in Thailand.

Despite this, Koh Chang isn’t as offbeat as it might sound and there is something for every type of traveller. Here is a guide:

Holiday Koh Chang

White Sand Beach is the most developed beach and area of Koh Chang, and the first stop you’ll come to if arriving in a shared taxi (locally called songthaews).  Expect a holiday vibe here, with many families, couples and some backpackers. You can choose from many hostels and resorts on the beachfront and along the main road, you’ll find banks, supermarkets, and restaurants. The beach is split up into a north and south section with plenty of room for sun loungers, umbrellas and deckchairs.

Party Koh Chang

Lonely Beach is the place for solo travellers or partygoers in Koh Chang on a budget. The area has been likened to Khao San Road in Bangkok, although a lot less crowded and commercial. You’ll find lots of food vendors, tattoo studios, clothes shops, restaurants, bars and a couple of nightclubs here.

The beach itself is actually located prior to the lively area of Lonely Beach around only 15 minutes walk (or two minutes on a scooter) away. Even though you might think the island has as many people as any other Thai island, it doesn’t. The parties in comparison are small, and many people end up hanging around the area that precedes Himmel Bar.

Authentic Koh Chang

Bang Bao was once a quiet small fishing village, although now popular with travellers, it still keeps its authentic set up and appearance. The fishing village is built in traditional fashion along with its interconnected piers, almost like a mini lost pirate colony. Worming your way around Bang Bao’s wooden networks you’ll come across guesthouses, markets, bars and restaurants. There are many restaurants but we recommending checking out Barracuda Restaurant for a real quirky and cosy dining experience.

Personal Koh Chang

Klong Kloi beach feels a little away from the rest of the island and that’s how we like it. Just to make sure, we recommend a budget stay looking over the jungle-clad river at Tree House Cottages. Klong Kloi is evidently still a little raw, with a small beach with sandy paths everywhere. Here you can relax by the beach, sit in a hammock and read and really take a step back from reality. As you arrive here via windy road, you’ll probably pass wild monkey families that may or may not be interested in you. Although keep your belongings safe, it does represent the casual approach this part of the island takes.

Couple Koh Chang

Kai Bae is ideal for couples that want a bit of variety. Although it isn’t as lively as Lonely Beach, it is no means dull either. There are small lively bars that appeal to most, and the selection of cuisine is generous with Asian and European options.

Kai Bae beachfront has a 1km long narrow but friendly stretch that attracts the book readers and sunbathers. Staying on Kai Bae main road strip, you can take a 30-minute walk through the jungle to the Kae Bae Waterfall past the elephant camps for a little added excursion.

Travel long distances through Ukraine

Ukraine, the country famous for banning Hollywood Steven Seagal from visiting, is opening up to tourism with visa-free travel. Add to that direct flights from the UK and the fact that it is still remarkably good value for money, this is as good a time as any to visit. We suggest you get behind the wheel or a hire car or indeed to hop on a train.

Lviv

Situated in the far west of the country, just 50 miles from the Polish border, Lviv was known as Lemburg when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire from 1772 to WW1. That’s reflected in its quaint cobbled streets, proliferation of churches and architecture reminiscent of those other Hapsburg cities like Vienna and Budapest. Of course it also has trams, trolley buses and coffee houses. Indeed they say that the first coffee shop in Vienna was opened by an Ukrainian from Lviv in 1686.

It’s a pleasant place to wander round, with street musicians on every corner, and the Market Square in the old town is lined with renaissance houses. The elaborate Lviv Opera House still stages productions of opera and ballet and imposing Cathedrals beckon you inside. My visit coincides with National Embroidered Blouse Day so everyone is sporting one, men and women alike.

Outside the old town, the 18th-century Lychakiv Cemetery has ornate tombs, chapels and shrines plus a special section dedicated to those who are still being killed in the armed struggle on Ukraine’s Eastern borders. Most Ukrainians I speak to believe that it’s Russian mischief making and can’t understand why their former ally is making trouble. Central and Western Ukraine show no signs of the war, so travellers shouldn’t be alarmed.

Carpathian Mountains

The Carpathians form an arc running roughly 1000 miles across Central and Eastern Europe, making them the second-longest mountain range in Europe. They occupy the South West of Ukraine, separating the country from Romania, with the highest peak, Mount Hoverla, reaching over 2000m. Life carries on here much as it’s done for centuries and during the Soviet period was left almost untouched. Even guerrillas fighting their Russian oppressors stayed holed up here for years.

Kolomyia

It’s a three hour drive across the Ukrainian steppes to Kolomyia, famous for the world’s only Pysanka or Easter Egg Museum. Of course it’s built in the shape of a giant egg and houses an impressive collection of intricately decorated specimens from all over the world. Nearby is another museum dedicated to the Hutsuls, the largest ethnic group in the Carpathians, scattered through both Ukraine and Romania. It’s an excellent introduction to their culture with an exhibition of ethnic costumes, arts and crafts.

Yaremche

The landscape begins to change as I climb up to the town of Yaremche at 580m. The wide cornfields give way to forested hills, wooden houses and quaint chapels by the side of the road. The River Prut runs through the centre of town in a series of rapids, and there’s a rather tacky craft market on either side of the ravine. However if you’re in the market for woolly slippers or dodgy fruit wine, this is the place for you.

Bukovel

Another 40 minutes of climbing brings me to Bukovel, the largest Ski resort in Eastern Europe at 900m. It opened in 2000 and has 16 ski lifts with roughly 30 miles of pistes, and more are promised. There’s a boating lake but otherwise there’s not much character here. A few of the ski lifts remain open and, at the top of one of them, there’s a rather terrifying Roller Coaster Zip line which hurls you high through the trees. I prefer a spot of gentle hiking.

Verkhovyna

I head deeper into the Carpathians and the roads worsen, potholes everywhere and rickety bridges to traverse. The railway arrived in the 1880’s, attracting tourists with fresh mountain air, and Vorokhta is an attractive spa town. Further on, just outside Verkhovyna, is Kryvorivnia, a Hutsul village where the movie “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” was shot in 1965. It’s nothing more than a collection of attractive wooden shacks with a restored fortified Hutsul house, known as a Grazhda, filled with traditional artefacts. It’s Sunday and the singing from inside the tiny church drifts across the valley.

Chernivtsi

Leaving the mountains and journeying East, I come to the city of Chernivtski, capital of the region of Bukovina. Also a part of the Hapsburg Empire, it was known as Little Vienna because of its architecture is similar. It’s only 30 miles from Romania and, between the wars was part of that country. The Romanians were responsible for the city’s attractive art deco buildings. Chernivtsi University, a red bricked Moorish fantasy, with a Technicolor tiled roof, was built by a Czech architect in 1882, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Khotyn

An easy day’s excursion from Chernivtsi, is the fairy-tale fortress of Khotyn, on a cliff overlooking the Dniester River. It was built around 1400 by the Moldavians but fell into Turkish hands in 1713. They kept it for another 100 years, until the Russians became the final owners. These days it’s been much restored but it’s still an impressive, with walls 40m high and 6m thick. It’s been the location for many feature films, including the Ukrainian version of Robin Hood.

Kamyanets Podilsky

Nearby is another stunning fortress protecting the bridge connecting the medieval city, built on an island, with the mainland. The 14th century castle sits high above a bend of the Smotrych River, its steep cliffs forming a natural moat. It originally had as many as twelve towers but only a few remain today. It’s still relatively well preserved, however, and is one of the few medieval constructions left in Ukraine.

Kiev

I catch the overnight train to Kiev, the carriages built in former East Germany and full of communist charm. It’s slow but comfortable, although all the windows seem to have been nailed shut.

Ukraine’s capital city has wide leafy boulevards, onion-domed churches and relatively few of those dull Soviet architectural monstrosities. Since Ukraine’s independence many of the building have been restored and repainted as symbols of national pride.

Don’t miss the 1980’s reconstruction of the Golden Gates of Kiev or the 11th-century Orthodox cathedral of St. Sophia. I like the 19th century St. Volodymyr’s cathedral which was a museum of atheism during Soviet times. The big attraction is the Lavra Cave Monastery which is a complex of religious buildings with catacombs below contained mummified bodies of former monks. Nearby is the huge Motherland Monument, known locally as “Brezhnev’s Daughter”, 62m high, dominating the skyline. It’s part of the WW2 museum and you can climb up to the mother’s hand in an interior elevator.

No visit to the city is complete without a walk around the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the central square of the city and the venue for pro-democracy demonstrations in recent years. It’s a place of tragedy as over 100 people were killed by snipers in February 2014. As a result former President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country. Today, written in large letters on cladding covering building work, “Freedom is Our Religion”, is a slogan signifying that the struggle is still ongoing.

How Do You Become a Travel Writer?

1. Have an Adventure

No one wants to read how about how you checked Facebook from your hotel room all day. If you want to become a travel writer, you have to have stories to tell.

One great way to find adventures worth writing about is to ask your friends and family what sites they would want to see, food they would want to try, and experiences they would want to have. Once you arrive, ask the same questions to locals and expats. By inviting other people into your planning process, you help get a feel for what will interest people in your writing.

As you go on your adventure, make sure to bring your notebook, and when you encounter other people on your journey, write down their names and where they’re from. These little details make your story more memorable.

2. Journal

Before you start writing your actual articles, it’s important capture as much of your experience as you can in a journal. Every day in Paris, I hole up in a café and write as much about my experiences as I remember. This isn’t usually great writing. The point isn’t to write something publishable, but to capture your experience for later.

As you journal, make a special effort to remember the things people say, and other specific details like the color of the sky and the smell of the food. Dialogue always makes for a much better story, but it’s the easiest to forget.

3. Choose One Moment

As important as capturing all of your memories in your journal is, most of them won’t make very good stories. Instead, read through your journal, and then choose just one moment to build your article around.

For example, I recently wrote about our terrible eighteen hour travel day to Paris. When I first journaled about the experience, I wrote nearly 2,500 words, far too long for an article. And so I decided to focus on just one piece of the trip, how we almost missed our flight, a moment that had enough excitement and drama to carry the whole article.

What’s nice about this is that your journals while your journals don’t directly become published articles, they’re instead turned into a fertile field of stories. I could write five or six articles from one day’s worth of journals.

4. Expand the Story

Next, take your single moment and expand it, illustrating the story with the following:

  • Dialogue
  • Description and Setting
  • Research (like the name of the street you were on and historic and contextual information)
  • Small details (such as what people were wearing)
  • Your own emotions

This is where your article goes from being just a sketch and turns into a real story.

Here, I also try to insert my own voice into the story, adding tone, humor, and dramatic shifts. Do you want this to be a funny story about your travel misadventures or do you want this to be a serious, reflective look at culture and identity? Whichever you choose, try to add it to your story.

5. Revise With Your Subjects in Mind

One of the tricky parts of writing about your travels is that you’re writing about real people. In many ways fiction is easier because you don’t have to worry about offending other people. However, when writing about real people you have to consider their feelings.

If you’re able, it’s always a good idea to send your story, or at the very least, the quotes, to your subjects for permission. If you can’t contact the people in your stories, read and revise with them in mind. How would you feel if this was printed about you? You may also want to change the names of your subjects to protect their identity.

The best travel experience in my life

There's a lot of padding. Picture: Ryan Wright/Turnipseed...I try to never lose track of how lucky I am that my work as a travel writer introduces me to extraordinary locations, experiences and people. Never has this been more in focus than during a recent hot air balloon ride over the spectacular ancient temples of Bagan. Without a doubt it stands alone as the most incredible, breathtaking travel experience of my life.

There are over 2200 temples and pagodas on the plains of Bagan, most constructed between the 11th and 13th century, the final markers of what was once a thriving kingdom. The plains of Bagan are home to the largest concentration of religious buildings in the world and, in addition to the religious and spiritual significance, the region holds special meaning for archaeologists, historians, seismologists, architects, linguists and artists.

To say that there’s truly nothing like it in the world would be an understatement. Bagan is the place where travel dreams come true.

The sunrise hot air balloon rides are popular so it’s best to book well in advance, but last minute travellers need not despair as standby tickets are often available at a slightly reduced rate 48 hours before departure.

We (Vanessa was travelling with her husband Ryan Wright) were given strict instructions to be ready for pick up at 5.10am and, true to their word, our bus arrived right on time – no small feat considering the state of some roads and the tardy habits of travellers.

It was a special ride. The Canadian built wooden bus that picked us up was brought over in World War II for the purposes of transporting troops. At the end of the war, the cost of shipping all the buses back to Canada was prohibitive and so they were left behind. Today the fleet has been lovingly restored and they must be some of the most unique buses in the world!

After picking up some additional guests, we made our way to the launch field. The pilots introduced themselves and explained the basics of ballooning. They were warm, friendly and funny and set my nerves at ease.

The pilots divided us into groups to balance out the baskets and gave us complimentary baseball hats. These were souvenirs with a practical purpose, as dust can enter the balloon while it is filling and later drop down on the passengers (we never noticed any falling dust, but we were thrilled to have the souvenirs). It was fascinating to watch the balloons being prepared. From the metres upon metres of rippling silk to the roar of the fire, it was an incredibly intricate process to observe.

A few pointers for all the other anti-adventurist folks out there: There is no graceful way to get into a hot-air balloon basket. There are little grooves for your toes as you climb up the side but essentially you just tip in. Happily, there’s no chance of tipping out! The basket went up to my chest and its walls had very sturdy grips.

There’s also no chance of the basket swaying or shaking in the sky. It’s huge, weighs nearly 500 kilograms and is divided into different compartments to distribute the weight. The basket is also very comfortable – inside each little compartment is a padded bench in case you wanted to sit down and the sides and edges are also padded.

Just before our launch pilot Graeme noticed that a passenger was not well and seemed to be suffering from a panic attack. The decision was made that the man should not fly and the situation was handled with discretion. Then, before I even realised what had happened, we were off the ground. The earth just seemed to drop away from the hot air balloon. I honestly felt nothing when the ropes were released and we started to fly into the sky. Graeme reminded us to relax and release our iron grips (but that didn’t apply to me, I was already in my element!) He then proceeded to point out some of the best sights and photo opportunities, starting with the sunrise. Once the sun was up, the temples and pagodas were even more beautiful. Ranging from magnificent large complexes to tiny, crumbling structures, Graeme was keen to point out some of his personal favourites, as well as those buildings experiencing restoration work. Who knew that bamboo scaffolding could be so beautiful?

One of our most unique experiences was flying over a small pond so we could see our reflection in the water.

Graeme is one of the few pilots who does a 360 degree spin for a full panoramic view. It was spectacular.With the end of our flight approaching, Graeme pointed out some final sites to us, including a small village and farm area. He then reminded us of landing procedures and asked us to hold additional sightseeing questions while he concentrated on the landing. I really appreciated that he was so clear and focused on safety!

Our gentle landing went off without a hitch and we were soon back on solid land. A small group of souvenir sellers were on hand to greet us, but none were pushy. Clean, wet facecloths were handed around so we could refresh and remove dust. A circle of chairs was set up for us to enjoy a light breakfast, consisting of sparkling wine (or lemonade), croissants, banana bread, and sliced fruit (banana and papaya).

Hot air balloon rides are an incredible travel experience and I cannot think of a more exhilarating location to enjoy them than in Bagan. It was the most stunning travel experience of my life.