Laos

I’ve always believed that to be free, to find a place that will truly be free, you need to love yourself and embrace all your flaws. It must be a place that is accepting and where you can truly breath in the essence of God’s beauty.

When I reached an age where I could travel independently, I decided to finish visiting South East Asia. I was always one for community service, so my first stop was enchanting Laos.

Travelling alone is no easy feat, especially when you’re clutching your boarding pass, adrenaline pulsing through you, while you wait to board the plane.

But Laos was everything I dreamed of. The sunsets on Mekong River were fascinating and every morning, there would be people playing music before the low river that was the short walk between Laos and Thailand.

I was free, then, from all the constraints of daily life, all the examinations and due dates. The only due date was the due date of my canned food.

I volunteered at an orphanage. The head nun was about 80 years old and headed 4 orphanages for the disabled around Laos. She was amazing. Nobody there judged you for your past, but only for your present. They did not look your bag and brands, but instead at your heart and soul. They were so raw and pure tat I mourn the day they become pragmatic adults.

They slept on bed frames without mattresses and yet the way the ran across the fields to feed the cows show no backache that were reflective of us who sleep on muscle-memory mattresses. The way they swam in the muddy drains showed no disgust like us who swam in Olympic-sized pools that had a leaf or two.

They were free. They were free of worry and judgement. No, they did not care what people thought of them for the only judgement they cared for was that of God.

And while I watched them be free, be happy, I wanted to be free as well. I watched them kicking up dust whilst I helped the nun into the chapel in the evening and I wanted so badly to be free.

So that evening, when I walked down the same Mekong River, I took off my shoes and took a deep breath. I watched the incredible sun set and the excited dancers shake. I joined them and I laughed and I danced so terribly that I was certain I was free.

So now I beseech to you. To travel, to meet new people and discover places that the sun has not had the glory of the shining upon. Find children without worries that may teach you things beyond their years. Find elders who have lived through wars, who treasure freedom more than anyone else. Find great caves that have the freshest air, rooms that trap you but free your soul. Find open lands with greenery so green it makes the sky look green, land so big that you feel your heart grow.

I ask you, to travel and find yourself. Find somewhere or someone to show you what it is to be free and hopefully you will find yourself and be free.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

There is a freedom to the road rushing past the window, a joy in those inbetween places. Ragged towns cling desperately to roads between more lauded cities, throwing out a tendril of stalls to draw decadent travellers in. Hidden valleys sneak behind the other sides of mountains, where the road hurries round to the prettier, buffed up postcard shot. The places you see but will never be, glimpsed out of the corner of your eye but lodging there. A split second of beauty that was placed there just for you. Laos winks at you as you rush past.

That old saying on journeys and destinations, endowing many a fridge door with stuck-on philosophy, is never allowed to apply to sitting staring through glass. This is the so-called wasted time on unloved bus journeys. Especially here on the road to Phonsavan where smiling drivers cram ever more people, then even more cargo onto the tiny seats made for travellers with hardy spirits and tiny limbs. Another box of fish between you? One more bag of rice under your seat? Of course. Asia abhors a vacuum.

Perhaps we have seen too many melancholy characters staring wistfully out of prop windows, tracing rain machine sobs down the glass with knowing hendiadys. Understanding their own trope in straight to DVD movies. We do not believe that there can be joy behind the pane, a pun that luckily does not need to be excused as I sit surrounded by silent Laos travellers, between the crates of supplies for a needy town. I accidentally touch knees with the unknown companion next to me. A smile of understanding with the apology.

For me though this is no glass prison, it is my endless lookout. This is the thrill of snap encounters, the spaces between the lines in the travel guides. Endless momentum, always moving on to the next adventure. Joyous movement, carrying memories in your heart, not wistful but looking onwards. I am not crammed in by the boxes around me, they make a cocoon where I can be wherever I want to be.

Within the gentle glass I am free to let my mind wander. I let the rolling ranks of hills, the alien trees and inexplicable shapes of rock wash over me, provoking the urge to write. I am inspired by their presence but can never name them. They do not need the tired spiel of a tour guide to justify their existence. Behind the furthest peaks, I learned the landscape is dug out every few paces with old craters. They shield the Western world from our shame. Laos blighted by the secret war, that ended long ago but still bites at this country’s children with cruel metal jokes left buried in fields. No wonder the landscape is silent, defiant, leaving me to make up my own mind.

There is no greater freedom than time. This is the gift that Laos hands me as I sit with no concern just a reassuring numbness. No meetings to run to, no quicker way to jump to the next stop. Just sit and enjoy the thoughts coming and going wherever they please, with the world flashing by. Words rise up and fly out from me. Not clattering against the glass as wily blackbirds did on Gran’s patio doors, crashing in for a cushy week knowing she couldn’t help but nurse them back to health. Instead, free to roam to the view through the window or the views passed before. My words soar in the knowledge we are on our way somewhere, anywhere, but as the fridge door says, we have already arrived.

About the author: Matt Bundy is as former advertising Business Director taking a career break to travel through Asia and Australasia. It may be a steteotypical mid-life crisis but he is having the time of his life.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

There is a freedom to the road rushing past the window, a joy in those inbetween places. Ragged towns cling desperately to roads between more lauded cities, throwing out a tendril of stalls to draw decadent travellers in. Hidden valleys sneak behind the other sides of mountains, where the road hurries round to the prettier, buffed up postcard shot. The places you see but will never be, glimpsed out of the corner of your eye but lodging there. A split second of beauty that was placed there just for you. Laos winks at you as you rush past.

That old saying on journeys and destinations, endowing many a fridge door with stuck-on philosophy, is never allowed to apply to sitting staring through glass. This is the so-called wasted time on unloved bus journeys. Especially here on the road to Phonsavan where smiling drivers cram ever more people, then even more cargo onto the tiny seats made for travellers with hardy spirits and tiny limbs. Another box of fish between you? One more bag of rice under your seat? Of course. Asia abhors a vacuum.

Perhaps we have seen too many melancholy characters staring wistfully out of prop windows, tracing rain machine sobs down the glass with knowing hendiadys. Understanding their own trope in straight to DVD movies. We do not believe that there can be joy behind the pane, a pun that luckily does not need to be excused as I sit surrounded by silent Laos travellers, between the crates of supplies for a needy town. I accidentally touch knees with the unknown companion next to me. A smile of understanding with the apology.

For me though this is no glass prison, it is my endless lookout. This is the thrill of snap encounters, the spaces between the lines in the travel guides. Endless momentum, always moving on to the next adventure. Joyous movement, carrying memories in your heart, not wistful but looking onwards. I am not crammed in by the boxes around me, they make a cocoon where I can be wherever I want to be.

Behind the gentle glass I am free to let my mind wander. I let the rolling ranks of hills, the alien trees and inexplicable shapes of rock wash over me, provoking the urge to write. I am inspired by their presence but can never name them. They do not need the tired spiel of a tour guide to justify their existence. By the furthest peaks, I learned the landscape is dug out every few paces with old craters. They shield the Western world from our shame. Laos blighted by the secret war, that ended long ago but still bites at this country’s children with cruel metal jokes left buried in fields. No wonder the landscape is silent, defiant, leaving me to make up my own mind.

There is no greater freedom than time. This is the gift that Laos hands me as I sit with no concern just a reassuring numbness. No meetings to run to, no quicker way to jump to the next stop. Just sit and enjoy the thoughts coming and going wherever they please, with the world flashing by. Words rise up and fly out from me. Not clattering against the glass as wily blackbirds did on Gran’s patio doors, crashing in for a cushy week knowing she couldn’t help but nurse them back to health. Instead, free to roam to the view through the window or the views passed before. My words soar in the knowledge we are on our way somewhere, anywhere, but as the fridge door says, we have already arrived.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn many Asian cultures the age 25 is an unlucky one…and after a series of rather unfortunate events I was starting to believe it.

As an absent-minded English teacher I forgot my wallet, passport included, on a hook in a Thailand squatty potty over one hundred kilometers from my out-of-country destination. After returning for it, and almost not making it to the border on time, I rushed to Huay Xai, Laos where the rest of my teacher crew were ever so patiently waiting for me. We were all about to fulfill a childhood dream by living in a jungle tree house, zip lining from tree to tree while searching for the endangered black-cheeked gibbon.

We start out with an early rise and cram my seven other friends, two Dutch men, our guides, and all of our belongings, including food for the next four days, into a Land Cruiser. We plow through a river, over a steep muddy hill, slipping and sliding all the way to the village just outside of the nature preserve. My legs are squished and sore but not to worry the eggs are just fine. My friend Esme protected them by putting them under her seat as if she were a mother hen wary of any unwanted visitors. We joyfully spring out of the car, buy a dusty coke from the village shop where nudity, as described by my friend, was in full force and start our uphill journey on foot deep into the jungle.

Exhausted but pumped we reach our first stretch of zip lines. When it is my turn I can hardly contain my enthusiasm. No countdown needed, I make the jump and soar into the best view I have ever encountered. Higher than the tallest trees, this flight gives me a rush and time to look left, right and out of sight. I feel like I am in one of those flying dreams I always hope to achieve at night, except this is real and powerful. After my screams of excitement and kicking feet come to a halt I am faced with an overwhelming sense of tranquility and awe. The breeze seems to play with my loose hair and I begin to let go and be one with the gibbons.

After zipping, hiking, singing and making animal noises, my new friends and I are immediately close. We finally zip into our gigantic tree house with plastered grins and pick out our tents. We duck under our termite ridden branches and gather around on stumps for some dinner. Stories are already filling the air of our newfound hobby of monkeying around. Physically tired yet mentally charged we go to sleep under a blanket of stars as the many noises of the rain forest lull us to sleep.

The next couple of days we play like filthy children in our rain forrest as if it were our own back yards. We hike up and up to get to the best chains of zips with dirty faces and scraped knees. However tired or worn out we are, we never stop. There is no time to waste when adventure awaits us. We impatiently run from one zip to the next as if they will erode into the jungle if we don’t make it on time. At the end of our days we take the most extravagantly basic shower in our family tree. Naked and free we get the opportunity to feel like birds bathing in the rain drops from the overhead leaves. Looking out into the canopy covered with butterflies and exotic birds the cold water feels refreshing to our sweating skin. That sense of tranquility is starting to become exquisitely familiar.

After several failed attempts, we decide to take the final chance of seeing the endangered black-cheeked gibbon on our last morning. We awaken in the dark morning to their calls. This time it’s loud and we’re shocked to find they are outside of our tree. Their long arms gracefully move from branch to branch and their heavy bodies swing with the gravity. Together the family of gibbons travel past us and disappear into the distance. It was a brief but magical moment. As they become faint many things become clear to me. Although, this trip had a rocky start I start to realize I am not unlucky at all. Seeing these endangered animals in their natural habitat is out of this world. I have bonded with seven incredible people in a place that one day may no longer be here. I have pushed myself physically and am inspired to change the way I travel positively. I am appreciative for the generous man at the border who extended his work hours to let me through. I am lucky that my passport was returned and not stolen. In a culture where superstitions are prevalent, I learn it is how you spend your time perceiving situations that make all the difference.

About the Author:  Chelsea Menshek is a backpacking, cartwheeling, English teaching, textile enthusiast with a tendency to obtain bacterial infections from street and/or wild animals. Originally from San Diego, California, she left a life in the entertainment industry to pursue her love of travel and the unknown. While learning to enjoy the beauty of awkward moments, she’ll be the second to jump into any situation but be the first to tell you about it.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter our next Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

I have never understood how anyone can like January. The sad, sinking feeling caused by limp, leftover tinsel hanging in shops, braving the dreary weather without any promise of a mulled wine stop, realising that everyone you know has vowed to lose weight, save money or quit drinking- it is a real slog of a 31 day month.  For me, the January Blues are hitting particularly hard this year (can you tell?) Having spent Christmas on holiday in India, flying back to reality on New Years Day has left me longing for backpacking adventures again. So, before I get a grip, look forward and make plans for 2014, here are my top 10 beautiful places in Asia, home to my happiest past travel memories.

10.   Tiger Leaping Gorge, China

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late July in Walnut Garden

By far and away the best thing I did whilst traveling around China, The Tiger Leaping Gorge hike in northern Yunnan is, in my opinion, still massively underrated. The Hutiao Xia gorge, at 16km long and 3900m from the Jinsha River to the snow capped Haba Shan, is simply breathtaking.  During summer the hills are absolutely teeming with plant and flower life and an even pace allows you to unwind in the picturesque villages along the way. The trail stretches between sleepy Qiaotou and even sleepier Walnut Garden and runs high along the northern side of the impressive gorge, passing through some of the most diverse and beautiful landscapes in the country.

Jane’s Guesthouse in Qiaotou is the perfect place to prepare or recover from the trek. The food is homemade and hearty, the coffee is strong and the rooms are cosy with clear views of the snow-capped peaks. At the other end, Sean’s Spring Guesthouse is worth every footstep of the extra walk into Walnut Garden. Keep following the painted yellow arrows- you will not regret it! We finished our trek with warm Tibetan bread, celebratory beers and an open fire in Sean’s homey lounge.

The hike can be completed in a day or two, but it is equally tempting to linger and enjoy countryside life for longer. After all, how often do you get to watch the sun set over Jade Dragon Snow Mountain while supping Chinese tea and resting your tired feet?

9.    Gili Islands, Indonesia

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girls night in a bamboo hut

There is a lot to be said for an island with no motorized traffic. Being able to stroll around the parameters, barefoot and still sandy from the beach, having left your friends snoozing on one of the shoreline sofa beds, is reason enough to make the trip across the water from Padang bai. Though they are certainly not undiscovered, the three irresistible Gili islands offer a quiet and serenity that the rest of Bali simply does not.

Made up of beachfront bungalows, white sands and warm waters, Gili Trawangan is the isle with the most going on. Like many of the Indonesian hotspots, it ticks all the boxes for a desert island cliché and also boasts an exciting nightlife for those living-the-dream on the South east Asia trail. Designated party venues mean you can choose between a night at one of the low-key raves or whiling away the hours at a beachfront restaurant. Highlights for me were the Nutella milkshakes, having our very own DVD night in a private beach hut, dancing under the stars at Rudy’s Bar and night swimming with phosphorescence- luminous plankton.

You can reach the tiny tropical islands by fast boat from Bali and mainland Lombok or (painfully) slow ferry from Padang bai and Senggigi.  Prepare to wade ashore.

 8.     Malapascua Island, The Philippines

Malapascua Island

beach at Logon

This little island off the northern tip of Cebu is sun-bleached and fabulous. Simple villages, bustling basketball courts and local fiestas play a huge part in making this tiny speck of The Philippines a traveler’s paradise. Though it is slowly becoming more and more popular, Malapascua remains off the beaten track and humble in its approach to tourism. Home to welcoming locals and some dive school expatriates, the island community is peaceful and charming with a real sense of having left the western world behind.

The diving here is also world class. With three wreck dives, a sea-snake breeding centre and daily thresher shark sightings, Malapascua is one of the best places in The Philippines for big fish encounters. Night diving is popular, with mandarin fish, seahorses, bobtail squid and blue ring octopus making regular appearances. And if marine life isn’t your thing, the delicious local food, mesmerizing sunsets and picture-perfect Bounty beach make for a blissful dry land experience.

Sunsplash Restaurant operates a beach bar during high season and is the perfect place to wait for the sunset. For the very best views and an extra slice of quietude, stay at Logon or Tepanee.

7.     Mui Ne, Vietnam

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Suoi Tien fairy spring

For someone with a notoriously terrible sense of direction, the surf capital of southern Vietnam offers a welcome sense of order. With everything spread out along one 10km stretch of highway, it is impossible to get lost and easy to find friends. In fact, with guesthouses lined up on one side of the road and restaurants and shops flanking the other it couldn’t be any easier to negotiate your way around the coastal town.

Once an isolated stretch of sand, Mui Ne is now famous for its unrivalled surfing opportunities and laid back vibes. For windsurfers, the gales blow best from late October to April while surf’s up from August to December. Luckily for me, lounging around on the beach is possible all year through. For the very best Kodak moments, the red and white sand dunes provide endless hours of sledding fun and jump-as-high-as-you-can competitions with the local children. A beautiful walk along the Fairy Spring will also take you past some stunning rock formations. While it feels as though you should be wading upstream barefoot, be sure to take shoes if you are going during the midday sun.

When night falls, resident DJs, beach bonfires and live bands draw the surfer crowds to DJ StationWax and Joe’s 24 hour Café, where happy hour can and usually does last til sunrise.

6.    Unawatuna, Sri Lanka

unawatuna

turquoise tinted waters

Unawatuna Beach in Sri Lanka is what I hope heaven looks like. Deliciously lazy, exceedingly tropical and just so very, very beautiful, this sandy gem is the kind of place everyone dreams about. Life moves slowly here. Sleeping under a swaying coconut palm is about the only thing on the itinerary for most.

Following the devastating effects of the tsunami in 2004, locals of Unawatuna set about re-building their businesses right on the sand. While this does mean that the beach is much smaller than it used to be, honey-mooners and hippies alike flock to this boomerang shaped bend to soak up the Sri Lankan sunshine. And it really doesn’t get much better than this. The sea is gentle, turquoise and perfect for swimming and banana lassis are brought to your very sunbed. Colourful tropical fish swim in the live patch of coral in front of Submarine Diving School and you can rent snorkel masks from any of the places on the beach. I discovered a whole new meaning of lazy in Unawatuna but, if you want to leave utter beach paradise, it is a great base from which to explore the surrounding areas.

(This one does come with a warning. A cockroach warning. It is not enough to get Unawatuna booted off the list, but please note that multiple hard-shelled creepies do feature in my memories of this otherwise utterly perfect corner of the resplendent isle. Having said that, I did choose to stay somewhat off the beaten track at Mr.Rickshaw’s brother’s cousin’s place. It is very likely that the crayon-box cute guesthouses on the beach are roach free.)

5.    Yangshuo, China

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cycling through Aishanmen village

For the perfect blend of bustling Chinese culture, enchanted landscapes and sleepy relaxation, look no further than this sedate and peaceful ancient city. Worlds apart from the mayhem of congested Guilin, Yangshuo lies in the mist of karst limestone peaks and the gentle Li-river. Cycling through the villages will take you past duckmen, fishermen, water buffalo and clementine farms, as well as over silky brooks, ancient caves and sights like Moon Hill and the Big Banyan Tree. And when you’re done with the countryside, get lost amongst the painted fans and embroidered costumes of Yangshuo Town and its cheery market place.

I stayed at beautiful Dutch guesthouse, The Giggling Tree in Aishanmen Village. Bamboo rafting was on our doorstep and they arranged transport to the Lakeside lightshow, ‘Impression Sanjie Liu’. Cycling into town for street side specialties, souvenir shopping and live folk music was easy enough, although the starlit ride back after a few Tsing Tao’s was a little shaky!

4.     Luang Prabang, Laos

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Mekong River at sunset

You can’t help but smile when you are in Laos. The people here are possibly the most laid back people on earth. Even after two long, long days of doing nothing on the slow ferry, arriving into the languid mountain kingdom of Luang Prabang makes you want to s-l-o-w d-o-w-n. Tourists meander down the French colonial streets to the flow of the Mekong River and saffron robed monks seem to almost glide up and down the shaded sideways on their way to prayer.

Voted one of the best places in the world for ‘slow travel’ by Lonely Planet, this hushed and heady city offers everything from red roofed temples to quaint provincial coffee houses, the moonstone blue Kuang Sii waterfalls and exquisite night markets. You can watch the sun setting over the river, hear the monks chanting their oms in the distance and enjoy delicious local dishes with a cold Beer Lao. With a curfew bidding this heritage listed town goodnight at 11.30pm, catching up on your sleep has never been so enjoyable, especially if you are recovering from tubing in Vang Vieng. (For a much less sleepy evening, ask a tuk-tuk driver to take you to the local bowling alley. Trust me on this one.)

3.    Mira Beach, Perhentian Pulau Kecil, Malaysia

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beach on our doorstep

When I discovered that Beach Tomato had included Mira Beach as one of its ‘world’s most beautiful beaches’ I physically stood up and clapped. I almost don’t want to say it aloud for fear of contributing to this unspoilt patch of paradise becoming, well, spoiled, but I couldn’t agree more. Set back on the western side of tiny Kecil island, Mira Beach is its very own secluded cove. Surrounded by forest-green jungle, lapped by bathtub warm sea and drenched in Malaysian sunshine, the white bay can be reached by taxi-boat or Tarzan inspired trek only. Steer clear if you’re looking for plush resort or summer luxury though, the stilted chalets are as basic as they come. Managed by a local Malay family, the collection of rustic huts are kept clean and framed by frangipanis for ultimate postcard perfection. We left by water-taxi, tanned and having swum with turtles. Heaven.

2.      Pokhara Valley, Nepal

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Lakeside

Whether you are in Nepal for trekking the Himalayas, volunteering with an NGO or spotting the rhinos and elephants, a visit is not complete without catching a glimpse of (or a good long gaze at) Lake Phewa in Pokhara. Popular for being the gateway to the AnnaPurna trekking circuit, the valley has been blessed with panoramic views of this breathtaking region. Waking up to crystal clear views of snowy Mt. Fishtail, boating on Phewa’s placid waters and hiking to the sunkissed World Peace Pagoda could not have made me any happier. Throw in the cups of masala chai at Asian Teahouse, the surrounding Tibetan villages and the unimaginable hospitality of the local people and I was about ready to miss my return flight home.

Guesthouses are homely, food is hearty and the scenery really is spectacular. Pokhara is so much more than just a place to rest your feet after a hike. A month here saw us paragliding from Sarangkot, exploring the Old Bazaar, playing guitar in an underground Blues bar and falling in love with the children of the Himalayan Children’s Care Home. Don’t miss out on the Nepali specials at Asian TeaHouse and Pandey Restaurant. For me, the smaller the café, the better the food. Venture away from those Lakeside favourites!

((Drum Roll please…))

1.     Varkala, India

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frisbee at dusk

If Varkala were a fairytale, it would be the one that made you believe in love, trust in the happy ending and doodle hearts and flowers in your notebook.

Nestled in the evergreen state of beautiful Kerala, this seaside town offers sunlit red ochre cliffs, coconut palm fringed beaches and peacock blue waves. The liquid lulls of local Malayalam, coconut spiced South Indian curries and breathtaking views of the ocean make it the perfect haven from the hustle and bustle of India’s cities. After ten days here, I wondered how I’d ever been happy anywhere else in the world.

From the singing mango-seller on the sand ‘yum, yum, yum, yum, eating eating’, to the cheeky waiters at the cafes, the locals on the cliff have got it exactly right. You could while away days, weeks and months watching the lives and loves of fishermen, frisbee-playing locals, moonlit yoga classes, Hindu temple men and strolling backpackers. Guesthouses are secret gardens and bamboo huts, restaurants are candle lit and family run and the Tibetan market wafts incense until after dark. Yet, far from being just a serene stopover, Varkala boats a ‘Shanti Shanti’ soul and cheeky community spirit that binds even the quietest visitor under its spell. By night, lanterns twinkle, candles flicker and stars burn bright over the backpacker favourites. I never knew beer could taste as good as it does here; poured from a discrete tea-pot, served with a glinting smile and supped to the blissful sounds of ocean, music and laughter.

If you tire of strolling, swimming, sunbathing or smoothie-drinking easily, the charming Varkala Town is just a 5 minute scooter ride or leisurely walk away. Surfing lessons, yoga classes and cooking workshops are all available atop the rosy cliff too. For dolphin watching, walk past the quieter Black Beach to the hamlet of Edava and watch from the cliff curve.

My heartfelt recommendations for Varkala are breakfast at The Juice Shack, hammock swinging at Secret Garden Homestay and Restaurant and cold Kingfishers at Backside Café. If you’re lucky enough to be there when the Alleppy Boys are playing, get down to Chill Out Lounge for a jamming session with the gorgeous and very talented local band.

There are daily trains and buses to Trivandrum, and a backwater boat to Alleppy leaves from neighboring Kollam.

Hammocks at Secret Garden Homestay

hammocks at Secret Garden Homestay

Varkala Cliff

Varkala Cliff

India

sea view from Juice Shack balcony

New Year's Eve at Secret Garden

New Year’s Eve at Secret Garden

 

huff post TIS halleAs seen on Huffington Post Travel: A Review of Traveling in Sin:

I love reading travel books; memoirs are enjoyable and well-written accounts make me feel like I’m truly present in another part of the world. For this reason I was looking forward to reading Traveling In Sin, a memoir about an adventurous couple from the United States who spent a year traveling abroad, primarily in Southeast Asia. Their story is most unusual: after a fairly short dating period, George invited Lisa to join him on the journey of a lifetime. She swallowed all her fears, quit her job, and the couple departed to travel abroad together. During their travels, Lisa lost 60 pounds, George proposed, and they both learned much about resilience and partnership. All things considered, it was a very successful trip!

Traveling In Sin is full of useful tidbits and tips about travel in Asia such as how to successfully get along in a variety of foreign cultures, as they navigate outside of their comfort zones. Written in a highly unusual narrative style, it pops between “he said” and “she said” with the authors each penning part of every chapter as they traverse a dozen countries. My hat is absolutely off to Lisa; after working as “Julie the Cruise Director” on Princess Cruises for several years — traveling the world on a luxury ocean liner, she gave up every semblance of pampering to travel on a strict budget that often meant staying in hostels or one-star budget motels.

 WATCH: Traveling in Sin: Video Book Trailer


TIS coverMore of the REVIEW:

As you can imagine, the author’s styles of writing are very different, so their voices shine through. Lisa’s writing is more emotional and carries the narrative of their snowballing relationship, while George focuses more on the specifics of the logistics and his observations about the places they visit. Occasionally, he steps into storytelling mode.

If you’re traveling to this part of the world, especially independently, Traveling In Sin is a wonderful resource — like a personalized version of Lonely Planet — while also being a very entertaining read. If you enjoy living vicariously through travel memoirs, Traveling In Sinmakes makes you feel as if you’ve covered all of Southeast Asia.

Read the full review by Halle Eavelyn: Click here
Buy the book, Traveling in Sin,  on Amazon!

monk mekongThere we were floating down the murky greyish waters of Mekong. Our little plastic kayaks were the only barrier between us and the watery world around when the black rain started falling upon us from nowhere. It was a pretty surreal experience, dream-like I would add, if you are the kind of person to dream random and weird dreams. But it was also profoundly beautiful in a way, as beautiful as it was scary.

Because, what was falling upon us was ashes.

And soon, as we made our way around the river bend, the vegetation along the banks might have been burning.

How did we get there you may wonder?
By plane. A small toy-like propeller plane.

As we were approaching to land it was already late in the evening, and the sight below was little short of magical. I am not sure what we were expecting, but we were certainly not expecting to see a few warmly, some may say dimly, lit streets with just 3 to 4 vehicles moving about. One of the biggest cities in the country – Luang Prabang, was so cozy and beautiful in its simplicity. We were instantly charmed.

Upon waking up and getting out in the street the next day, I could not believe my eyes. The fact is that I never in my life took time to stop and portray paradise, but this, a sudden realization swept over me, hit really close to the mark. Trees full of flowers and fruits intertwined harmoniously blending with temples and houses. And just a short walk further we were rewarded with glimpses of the quietly flowing Mekong. For the first time in our South-East Asian adventure we found a peaceful and serene refuge. No one was pulling our sleeves, shouting or rushing us to take their goods or services. Tuk-tuk drivers would surrender before we even had the chance to say no. The people were kind and cheerful but pretty quiet. And I became enchanted – by the place and its inhabitants.

A roller coaster of random experiences ensued, from taking a stroll in the lovely colorful night-market and becoming spellbound by the fairy-lights, to waking up in the middle of the night to a flood in our room. We explored a variety of magical fruit juices (those things are downright magical, especially when made with soy-milk and coconut water), discovered beautiful temples, many of which we had all for ourselves, and ended up swimming and basking in dreamy waterfalls. It was a weird mix of peaceful and intense, and it was lots of fun.

Finally, to spice things up, we decided to go on a tour – and chose a kayaking tour down the Mekong. There were five of us including our guide, and we had most of the majestic scenery to ourselves. Truth to be told, we paddled for hours, but in the end, due to our general lack of stamina (something to work on), we ended up mostly just floating downstream.

Now we reach the part with the ashes. It turns out that early March in these areas is the period in which farmers prepare to cultivate crops by pretty much burning everything around, and the little town of Luang Prabang gets enveloped by smoke. It also turns out that that was the time we chose for our visit. The tours, however, still go on. That is how we ended up having our otherworldly experience, watching as the big and small chunks of ashes fell from the sky, ending up on the river surface.

I was awestruck by this experience – even though it was all sorts of wrong. I am truly grateful that I not only got to experience the beauties and wonders of Luang Prabang, but also experienced first-hand the other side of its story, not often shared with tourists, which may require more attention and awareness. I am grateful to all the amazing Laotians who made our stay in their town so pleasant and unforgettable. I am grateful that they have taken such good care of their heritage, for all of humanity to enjoy today. Luang Prabang may not have mega-structures, but its serene atmosphere and its proximity to nature make it a unique and wonderful gem, and as I decided soon after, my Shambala. And now I know that the outskirts of my Shambala are occasionally burning.

I am profoundly grateful that we did not go for the tour package that included hiking, because those people ended up running through the burning forest for their lives.

I really hope one day to return to my paradise again, and see it flourish and prosper without the thick veil of smoke. I will be dreaming of you, Mekong, till then.

About the Author: Biljana Novkovic, PhD in Environmental Science, moved to Japan for her graduate studies in 2008, and has since travelled in Asia whenever the opportunity presented itself. She loves hiking, traveling and writing.

Vietnam (36)When I saw the bag on the seat opposite me moving on its own accord, I did a double take. When I looked again, it was perfectly still. I rubbed my face and presumed that it was sleep deprivation that was making me delusional.

I was at the bus station in Savannakhet (Laos) sitting on a dilapidated coach, bound to Hue (Vietnam) and just relieved that I had two seats to stretch out my ungainly, almost two-metre frame, to sleep away the next seven hours of travel time.

A bag moving on its own accord wasn’t going to occupy my thoughts and prevent me from getting the rest I needed.

This bus was chosen because after a few weeks in Thailand and Laos – spent travelling in taxis or on air-conditioned tourist buses with fellow backpackers, speaking English, acting English and doing nothing more parochial than drinking the local beer – I craved something more authentic. I had been advised by my travel guidebook that local buses were a great way of experiencing the ‘real’ Southeast Asia.

It was with this in mind; I set off, on my own, for the bus station, in search of my great adventure. The coach was certainly authentically Iocal; there was nothing touristy like legroom or clean windows to look out of.

When the bus got going, I then realised that it was also lacking in that thing that made the tourist buses more comfortable. Suspension.

Sleep, predictably, now proved more difficult than I thought it would be. Along with the lack of comfort, a mixture of Boney M playing on the TV at ear-splitting volume, two teenage girls listening to different pop music on their mobile phones at loud volume – and singing along even louder – all polluted my ‘blocks all noise’ ear plugs. I made the best of what I could do in this situation, as there was no other farang to talk to, and read some more from my guidebook. It told me:

‘Tourist buses really isolate travellers from the rest of Southeast Asia, as few local people travel this way.’

With this thought rattling round my cerebrum, I began feeling really smug with myself. I was making an effort to blend in with the locals and I would surely be rewarded for my efforts.

There was then a shrill scream from a woman at the front that rose high above all the sounds on the bus, shattering any lingering notions of tranquillity or ideas of assimilation.

A man started to crawl on his hands and knees underneath the seats towards the front of the coach, as many passengers shouted and pointed frenziedly. People jumped up off their chairs and ran from the front of the coach to the back. The driver swivelled round – whilst continuing to drive very fast – to get a full view of what was happening. I stopped everything and stared at what developed before me.

The crawling man had now risen to his feet to a round of applause and audible sighs. He was grabbing hold of something I couldn’t quite see and lifting it up like a trophy. He walked to the back of the bus to the seat opposite me. He passed whatever he had in his hands to the woman sat there, who had remained passive throughout.

It was a baby crocodile.

She looked the crocodile in the eye, gave him a quick once over, followed by a gentle stroke, and then placed it calmly back in the bag I had seen moving a few hours ago.

My guidebook was right; local transport had given me a more adventurous and authentic experience. It provided me with both a narrow escape from a nasty nip and, more importantly, from a holiday without any local flavour.

I sat back in wonder for the rest of the journey. Firstly for the bravery of the man who captured the crocodile but mainly for knowing that my fellow passengers get to experience bizarre happenings like this on a regular basis. What a wonderful life they must have when even a routine border crossing turns into an adventure.

About the Author: Robert Davies-I am 36 years old and from England. I am currently living in Bangkok having moved here with my girlfriend. One of my many passions is travelling and I have had many adventures such as this one. My other hobbies include reading, cinema and sports. Find me on Facebook.

Lumbini, Nepal
Lumbini, Nepal
Lumbini, Nepal

Is Flying Always Preferable to Overland Travel?

by George Rajna

When traveling abroad, the majority of travelers fly between locations with the obvious advantages of speed and convenience despite the far higher costs associated with air transportation. Even though air flights have advantages, going overland between countries can lead to visiting locales that are often overlooked because they are inconvenient to travel to from airports of capital cities.

My wife, Lisa Niver Rajna, and I have been traveling in Asia since July 2012 for well over a year. During our travels throughout countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, India, and Nepal, we use public land transport to meet the majority of our transport needs. As a general rule, we avoid air transport if the trip by land is less than eight hours. The reasoning is that quite a few preparatory hours are necessary to be able to fly. Airports are generally located far out of town both in the departing and arriving cities. Also, people flying must arrive to the airport at least two hours in advance. Therefore, the minimum time necessary to prepare to fly and transfer to the arriving city hotel will take a minimum of four hours, not including flight time. Hence, it makes sense to fly only when land travel time substantially exceeds the time it takes to prepare for and take the flight.

However, even when travel time by land is extensive, the reward of visiting sites and remote towns can easily outweigh the convenience of a flight. For example, while traveling from India to Nepal, we were easily able to reach Buddha’s place of birth, Lumbini, since we arrived by land rather than the distant airport in Kathmandu. A structure that houses a stone marks the spot where Buddha was actually conceived. From Lumbini, we headed to Tansen – an authentic, non-touristy town – situated near a variety of day hike trails. The friendly local people were sincere and curious about international travelers. School children and young adults frequently struck up conversations at restaurants and other establishments that cater to both locals and tourists.

Don Det, Laos
Don Det, Laos

Another example of advantageous overland travel occurred when we traveled by land between the countries of Laos and Cambodia in South-east Asia. The Laos side boasts beautiful scenic jungle islands including Don Det.; this remote island is home to lush jungle, water buffalos and friendly children. In the tropical climate, floating downriver in inner tubes is a pleasant way to spend the afternoon. Not far from the Cambodian side of the boarder is the town of Kratie, famous for viewing the pink river dolphin.

In addition to opening possibilities of traveling to out of the way destinations when traveling overland, travelers are literally able to feel the change from one country to the next as it actually occurs. For example, when we departed India after having traveled there for three months, our arrival by land to the Nepali boarder town Bhairawa located only perhaps ten kilometers from India, was a world away in the manner that people interacted, with an evident and tangible change in the local culture.

Of course, flying between destinations using air transportation has its place in both domestic and international travel. However, with an open mind, time, and a sense of adventure, travelers can take advantage of cheaper land transport to save money and see worthwhile sites at the same time.

Hot in Asia Travel July 25Traveling in Sin  is a HOT NEW RELEASE on Amazon. Thank you for all your support of our memoir and our journeys! We really appreciate it! George and Lisa

BOOK DESCRIPTION:
This exuberant and unique travel memoir is written in the voices of the story’s two leading protagonists, George and Lisa, who meet on-line in January 2007. After exchanging emails and dating, the couple travels to Fiji over the summer of 2008 where George reveals his lifelong dream to travel the world for a year and urges Lisa to join him. With much convincing, the duo embarks on a journey that takes them from French Polynesia to New Zealand and Australia. From that point on, the “true” adventure begins as they journey by land across vast portions of Asia covering Indonesia to Mongolia. During these adventures, Lisa shrinks down her waist size while developing her inner courage and belief in herself; George learns to open up his heart to form a team-based relationship that leads to a culminating special proposal.

Peppered with humorous characters, tears of joy and disaster, and different realities related to their varied social strata and travel style, George and Lisa meander around Asia seeing the sights, building their relationship and returning triumphant to the United States in love and excited about their imminent wedding. They both took a leap when leaving their jobs, home, cat and cultural clutter, and land together as a team with a new life.

  Buy Traveling in Sin on Amazon today!