Destination Canggu, The next Seminyak.

Step aside Seminyak, there is another cool kid on the block and as much as it hurts to highlight this idyllic Balinese beach side village (when I’d much prefer to keep it a secret), word is getting out about Bali’s new hot spot.

While Seminyak has been known for its cool kid hang outs for years now, with hip hotels, beach front bars and designer shopping, the crowds are slowly venturing a little further along the beach, to Canggu.

So, having recently returned I thought I’d share my tips on why Canggu is the next Seminyak, and if you are anyone, who’s anyone, Canggu is the place to be.

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Discover Phuket, It’s no one ‘Beach’ wonder!

As you’d imagine, Phuket has plenty of amazing beaches and the destination itself was made famous by ‘The Beach’, but it’s easy to get a little stuck or swayed by the idea that Patong is the best beach destination for a Phuket holiday, and that Maya Bay (Part of Koh Phi Phi off the coast of Phuket, and the location of ‘The Beach’) is the most idyllic spot to visit.

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Phuket Uncovered – Avoiding ping pong in Patong and uncovering Phuket’s more idyllic beach destinations.

Phuket in Thailand is an Aussie favourite when it comes to travel destinations. Not only is it fairly close to home (if you consider a 9hr direct flight close), but it offers you a taste of Thai culture, a seductive warm climate and a picture perfect setting, where turquoise water and coconut filled palm trees have you believing you’ve just stepped out of Aussie suburbia and into a real life screen saver.

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From Bintang Singlets to Birkenstocks…. How to avoid ‘bogan bali’ & find your bliss.

As an Aussie, its around this time annually, when it seems everyone you know is off to Bali. With June to August being peak season, It’s dry, the sun is out and the surf is up, so It’s prime time to visit this stunning Indonesian Island. (Still one of Australia’s favourite playgrounds, with around 700,000 of us heading there annually).

When you mention Bali as a travel destination, you’re often met with mixed responses. People either love it or hate it, and to the haters with your preconceived ideas and memories of the Bali of old, I urge you to give Bali another go…. You never know, you may be surprised!!

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Loving Luang Prabang, Laos!

Arriving into Laos, along the Mekong river.
Arriving into Laos, along the Mekong river.

Well, hopefully you’ve already read about my arduous journey from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang, so I won’t revisit that saga….but  i did eventually arrive safely into Luang Prabang, and I can safely say it has been one of the highlights of the journey so far.

This was a destination that I had no expectations about. All I knew from talking to friends and colleagues was that it was supposed to be awesome.

We looked for a hotel that would satisfy the budget and fulfil  the prerequisite that the hotel have a pool. It was hotttt and we were planning to stay for 5 days, so we wanted somewhere to cool off, kick back and relax if we wantd to.

We did some research and found the stunning My Dream Boutique hotel. A 3yr old property, nestled on the banks of the Nam Khan river, which runs through town and just a short stroll or bike ride into the heart of the city.

My Dream Boutique Hotel
My Dream Boutique Hotel

I loved this property. The staff were charming, and everyday we’d see them with their English and hospitality teacher, learning the art of our tricky language and silver service. Their friendly smiles greeted us daily, and we had many conversations with them as they were eager to practice their language skills. Nothing was too much trouble, and we always returned to a perfectly made up room.

The food at the resort was also delicious and not overpriced. Traditional dishes to try, as well as other SE Asian favourites like rice paper rolls and curries. Always fresh and so so fragrant. We ate here on a couple of occasions and weren’t disappointed.

The city itself is absolutely charming! The French colonial architecture, combines perfectly with the rolling green hills and rice paddies surrounding it. There are waterfalls, caves, temples and markets to explore and I have to say, the night markets had some of the finest clothing, home wares and food items that I’ve seen anywhere in Asia. Not the tacky fakes you see getting flogged off in Thailand, but gorgeous handmade linen and silk tableware, bedspreads, throw rugs and clothing. If my bag wasn’t already overweight and I was heading home after this stop, I would have stocked up!

Beautiful Luang Prabang at dusk!
Beautiful Luang Prabang at dusk!
Luang Prabang night markets.
Luang Prabang night markets.
The French colonial influence in downtown Luang Prabang.
The French colonial influence in downtown Luang Prabang.

It’s a great place to rent a push bike and cruise around for a morning or afternoon. The river is lined with guest houses and restaurants to sit back and take it all in, otherwise you can grab a tuk tuk and head out of town for some hiking, biking or just a visit to the surrounding waterfalls and caves.

The best way to explore the streets of Luang Prabang.
The best way to explore the streets of Luang Prabang.

We headed to Kuang Si waterfalls, which in the dry season promise to be turquoise pools, with rope swings and jump rocks. Sadly, we were there in the wet season, so our trek out there only rewarded us with gushing muddy water, and 100’s of tourists! Not quiet the tranquil setting we had in mind and while there were people in the water, undeterred by its murkiness, it wasn’t for us.

Luang Prabang is also known for its cooking classes, so we ventured to the most recommended class in town, which was ‘Tamarind’.

A morning visit to the local market was certainly an eye opener, with the meat section particularly turning my stomach, however the fragrant herbs and glimpse at local life made it all worthwhile. After exploring and learning about many of the ingredients we’d be using in our cooking, we headed out of town to their cooking school.

Visiting the local markets to learn all about local ingredients.
Visiting the local markets to learn all about local ingredients.
Tamarind cooking classes, Luang Prabang.
Tamarind cooking classes, Luang Prabang.
The amazing lunch we prepared!
The amazing lunch we prepared!

Our chef was absolutely hilarious, making jokes about Australia and his girlfriend, he taught us some amazing recipes, including Lemongrass stuffed chicken and traditional Larp. I definitely returned to town impressed by the class, and keen to try and recreate some of what we made once I get back home. (I’ll post some of the yummy recipes soon!)

The other must see in Luang Prabang is the Alms giving ceremony. If you have a read the previous post (as per the link below) it tells you more about the tradition, and don’t get me wrong…. while i hated the fact that tourists we’re blatantly disrespectful of the ceremony, I did love the tradition of it all. It’s definitely worth the 5am wake up call as the silent beauty of hundreds of monks, walking the streets at dawn isn’t something you see everyday. Just be mindful of the protocol and don’t be one of ‘those’ tourists!

The morning Alms ceremony in Luang Prabang.
The morning Alms ceremony in Luang Prabang.

As my 5 nights in Luang Prabang came to an end, i was ready to move on but i knew then that it would remain one of my favourite SE Asian destinations. The 5 nights gave us just enough time to see the sights, experience the culture and take it all in and it was nice not to rush through in only a couple of days, so if you have the time, set aside a good 4 or 5 days for this place.

All in all Luang Prabang was as amazing as i’d heard it would be. It truly does have a fabulous combination of tradition, culture and natural beauty and the friendliness of the people & the wonderful hotel helped to complete the picture.

Next stop … Cambodia!

Kate

Respecting traditions in a world looking for that perfect photo!

Watching the Alms giving ceremony, from afar.

It’s been over a month now since I’ve left home and looking back I have already seen and done so much, but luckily time hasn’t gone too fast, like I feared it would.

It’s funny how your perception of time shifts when you aren’t caught up in the slip stream of life, but out exploring the world and doing things you want to do, not what you feel you have to do. Everyday i’m catching myself a little more lost in the moment, which is exactly where I want to be.

Despite having only limited time at each destination, my travels in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia & Vietnam have met all my expectations and then some. I have certainly witnessed some once in a lifetime moments.

From my day with the Elephants in  Chiang Mai (as per my post http://mytravelust.com/2013/08/15/not-just-another-elephant-trek-in-thailand/ ), to cooking up a storm with a Laos chef in Luang Prabang, to witnessing sunrise over Angkor Wat in Cambodia, each of these experiences has once again highlighted the value of travel.

Among the travel joys I’ve encountered on my trip so far, I have been surprised that not all of my feelings about travel and tourism have been positive.

There have been several moments where i’ve found myself despising tourism and the impact it’s having on some of the local communities and cultures, and reading more about it all only heightens my concern that the commercialism of the industry is overtaking previously authentic customs.

Take the traditional giving of Alms in Luang Prabang, Laos as an example where i honestly felt ashamed to be a tourist.

The giving of Alms is a tradition in various religions, but in buddhist culture (according to Wikipedia) the act of alms giving assists in connecting the human to the monk or nun and what he/she represents. In Luang Prabang monks rise at dawn and form a procession from oldest to youngest and collect food offerings from the towns people, however the tradition is endangered.

It became evident upon my arrival in Luang Prabang that the local people (along with UNESCO) are trying to protect the heritage and customs of this beautiful city. There are signs outlining do’s and don’ts all around town pleading with tourists to be respectful of their culture, particularly when it came to the monks and the Alms ceremony.

Requests for tourists to watch from a distance, not to use flash photography, stay lower than the monks and ideally just observe the tradition (and not actually participate) were plastered on notices in every hotel and store.

There is however a great contradiction occurring with hotels and tour companies selling ‘alms packages’ where tourists are given a pot of rice and are lined up on the street, amongst the locals to offer the monks food.

I had heard accounts of the monks getting sick from rice given by tourists, and tourists getting so close to take photos that they interrupt the procession and break the monks meditation.

We’d also heard from locals that the monks had talked with authorities about cancelling the morning ritual, as it had become so commercial, with the government responding that actors would be hired to do the ceremony, if they didn’t! What the?

So, for now the monks continue their tradition. Every morning at 530 am they take to the streets collecting food offered to them for their monasteries and while I was excited to witness the ceremony, I was also mindful of the do’s and don’ts, so I was interested to see if everyone else would be.

The next morning at 5.30am, we were sitting quietly on the opposite side of the street to where the monks would be making their way toward the monastery. We ensured we were well out of the way, and that our camera flashes were off. Then, one by one, mini van after mini van pulled up. Tourists climbed out with rice baskets in hand, mats laid out along the road and their guides talking them through the Alms process. Then, flash flash flash… The cameras went off with people posing, waiting for the arrival of the monks.

I was already feeling anxious.

As the sun started to rise, the monks in their orange robes started to appear and tourists who had previously been standing back or sitting down jumped up and got within a metre of the procession, not only blocking the view of people like us, sitting down out of the way, but getting so close that they we’re clearly being disruptive. I was witnessing all the DON’TS that the signs were pleading for people to take into account.

The don'ts of viewing the Alms ceremony in Luang Prabang...
Tourists getting WAY too close to the Alms ceremony!

Yes, like every other tourist I would have loved to capture a great photo of the monks, but I wasn’t willing to be one of ‘those’ tourists to do it.

For the remainder of the procession I tried to take in as much of the tradition as i could. I took my photos from a distance and I focussed on the locals and their faces as they gave their offerings. After the last monks had passed I left feeling so torn about tourism and the affect it was having on this and other traditions around the world.

As you know I sell travel for a living and i also love photography, especially travel photography, so I know that this completely contradicts what I do and love, but it did make me think….

It made me wonder how many other traditions or cultures are being destroyed by tourism and our craving to see the sights & get an amazing photo that will get you likes on Facebook or Instagram.

It also made me consider what I could do to lessen my impact as i travel around the world. I still want to be able to interact with ancient cultures, see the iconic sights and get some great photos along the way, so how can I do it responsibly?

The answer for me is always (ALWAYS!) respect local customs and then do my research to choose organisations (as best I can) that support responsible tourism. People who are working within their communities to preserve these traditions or seeking out locally operated or not for profit expats who are running businesses that are truly making a difference.

Since the Elephant encounter in Chiang Mai & the Alms ceremony in Luang Prabang I’ve also visited Cambodia, and made an effort to seek out experiences that not only gave me a genuine cultural experience but also supported the local community.

Haven restaurant in Siem Reap, and the Children’s development organisation i visited (coming to my blog soon!) we’re both examples of these choices and knowing that our visit was giving something back to the community made it all the more worthwhile.

I am so grateful that i have now witnessed some of these experiences first hand so that for the rest of this trip, into the future and when I’m arranging itineraries for others, I can make educated decisions about what we see, how we participate and exactly what organisations we visit. Plus i can reiterate the absolute importance of respecting the local culture.

I’m sure once i start looking there will be plenty of amazing examples of organisations who are allowing you to have an authentic cultural experience whilst ensuring the preservation and support of the people, customs and environment that we spend so much time and money coming to see.

So please… think about all of this when your planning your next trip. I promise you, it’ll be worth it!

Observing the locals participate in the morning giving of Alms.
Observing the locals participate in the morning giving of Alms.

Back to the beginning, Chiang Mai from a Travel stylists perspective!

Exploring Chiang Mai by TukTuk

It’s been almost 1 month since my departure from Australia and i’m currently in the middle of a travel meltdown with complications getting my Indian visa (more on that later!), buttttt i thought it was about time i went back to the beginning of the adventure and tell you all about Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Selling travel for a living often leaves you with pre conceived ideas about travel destinations, long before you ever have a chance to visit. You hear stories from clients and read brochures, but nothing can ever compare to actually visiting the country, town or city for real.

Arriving in Chiang Mai was a blow out and nothing like the image I had in my head. From what i’d heard (and how I’d been selling the destination for YEARS) was that it was a small city and less touristy than other popular Thai travel hot spots. A chance to get away from the hustle and bustle and explore some of the countryside.

I’d also read and heard it was a city enriched with tradition and surrounded by mountains and ancient hill tribes. So, combine all this and I’d imagined green hills & small cobblestone streets, less developed than Thailand’s other cities. Wrong!

Chiang Mai is actually Thailand’s second largest city with almost 2 million people in the whole Provence, and over 200,000 just in the city centre itself. While I was right about the green hills and the traditional elements (there are more than 300 temples in Chiang Mai alone!) it is wayyyy bigger than I thought, and a lot more developed. Cafes, restaurants, tour operators, guest houses and hotels line the streets, while countless tourists & backpackers explore on foot, scooter & tuk tuk.

Taken a little by surprise, but impressed none the less, I was keen to explore.

The accommodation options for Chiang Mai are many and varied From 5 star luxury properties (like the my personal favourite, The Chedi Club! http://www.ghmhotels.com/en/chedi-chiang-mai-thailand/home/#home ) to locally operated Guest Houses. While it would be nice to stay in upmarket resorts all the time, i know it’s not always realistic for everyone, so I was keen to look at the mid market properties. We chose a modest hotel called the Amora Tapae resort. Just a 3* hotel, but a great price and great feedback from colleagues previously.

After arriving from the airport a little hot and sweaty from the Thai heat & humidity, the lobby provided a great first impression. Bright, modern, clean & most importantly air conditioned.

The lobby to the Amora hotel Chiang Mai

While the rooms are basic (and maybe a little dated) they had all the creature comforts you’d expect. Air con, a big bathroom, tea & coffee making facilities and plenty of space for my bag (trust me, a trip like this ensues i have a lot of stuff. All necessities of course!)

A standard twin room!

The location was perfect, especially if you prefer to explore on foot. The proximity to the old town and the night markets means it’s the perfect base if you’re looking for something with all the comforts of home, that won’t leave your wallet empty.

The old town of Chiang Mai is the main attraction and well over 700 years old. A moate and wall used to surround the city and recently they restored one of the original entrances, the ‘Thapae gate’, which marks the start of the old town. This is where you find the smaller streets, with hidden sights to be seen.

Everywhere you turn there is a temple to visit, a cooking class to attend or a tour operator trying to tempt you with a ‘special morning discount’ or assurance that their tour was the best in town.

The first morning was spent arranging sights and activities for the duration of our stay, which I’d normally arrange for my clients prior to their arrival, but of course I’m not that organised myself. (Oops)

Sightseeing highlights in Chiang Mai are visits to the temples, surrounding hill tribes and villages, Elephant treks, riding and volunteering (like the Elephant Nature Park that I visited. See blog post ( http://mytravelust.com/2013/08/15/not-just-another-elephant-trek-in-thailand/ ), cooking classes, hiking and a night out to the Muay Thai (traditional Thai kickboxing)

Other than the elephant encounter we had at the Elephant Nature Park, we wanted a glimpse of the traditional way of life, so we visited a long neck hill tribe. We chose the particular trip as it was a little further away from town, bigger and more beautiful than the other villages (according to the sales girl!) and it was!

Green rice paddies surround the village and bamboo huts line the dirt roads, with all the women selling their wares and displaying the long neck tradition, with gold rings placed around their necks, slowly elongating their length.

While it was great to see and interact with the locals and the many children playing along the way, I felt a little strange wandering around their village and homes.

It was a little touristy for me, and I wasn’t sure how genuine it was, but as we’d not had a lot of time to look into the different villages available to visit, we took it for face value and it provided an insight into a very different way of life and an ancient tradition that is definitely worth a visit.

Chiang Mai, Hilltribe villages

With only 2 full days to spend in Chiang Mai, we were a little pressed for time and couldn’t do it all, but we explored the night markets with row upon row of bright street stalls, with sellers calling for you to purchase their food, home wares or fisherman’s pants (One of those fashion purchases you make on holidays, thinking ‘oh yeah, ill definitely wear these at home’, but then realise they should have stayed exactly where you found them…. On holidays!)

We also attended one of the local Muay Thai fights which are held nightly for tourists. Besides the round where they had 8 fighters in the ring blind folded, punching each other (and the referee) at random, which was pretty funny, the rest was uneventful and not really my thing.

As for eating and drinking Chiang Mai has plenty of choice. I generally try to avoid the travel guide recommended places and go on instinct, looking for restaurants that are busy with tourists and locals alike (usually a sign that the food is good).  A cleanish bathroom is always nice too (not always available in Asia!). There was nothing that particularly stood out for me in Chiang Mai, but we we’re only there a couple of nights, so if you’re ever in Chiang Mai I’d recommend following your nose, Butttt if its a good western style coffee you’re after we found the perfect place!

Ponganes espresso bar. An amazing western style coffee shop that serves delicious coffee that’s almost better than anything i’ve had in Australia. So, if you’re craving a good coffee to kick start your day, then check out their page below and find the place for yourself. Yum.

Ponganes espresso bar!

Chiang Mai is the kind of town that you could easily wake up in one morning, to find that it’s been a week or two or three, but with a rough schedule to keep it was time to keep moving.

I’d definitely recommend a visit to Chiang Mai, as it certainly does have charm to it, and delivers on everything the brochures promise.

Kate xx

MyTravelust Hot tip:

Have your Travel Stylist pre book a private arrival transfer prior to your departure. You’ll have someone to greet you and the taxi system is a little chaotic. You’ll save yourself a good hour and a half waiting for one
.