Travel

Horse riding on the beach and waterfall rappelling in the jungle!

Posted by on May 29, 2017 in Central America, Costa Rica, Travel | 0 comments

Horse riding on the beach and waterfall rappelling in the jungle!

Located at the southern tip of the beautiful Osa Peninsula lies Rancho Tropical, originally a cattle farm that began offering horse riding tours back in 2012.

I arrive at the ranch and meet my trusty steed for the day, Pinta, who is saddled and ready to go.  The horses are clearly well cared for and full of energy, ready to take us on a Costa Rican adventure!

The ride begins through grassy fields as cattle warily watch us pass by, making our way into the refreshingly cool shade of the jungle.  We follow the trail through the lush rainforest as our knowledgeable guide points out plenty of wildlife along the way.

The Osa is teeming with exotic plants and animals, we see a green and black poison dart frog, screech owls, a green parrot, black iguana, white faced monkeys and black hawks circling above looking for prey.

Riding through the rainforest is so beautiful it feels like being in a postcard, the horses splashing through the streams and leaves crunching underfoot.  I immediately feel myself relax and breathe in the fresh air a little deeper.

As the trail steepens we are rewarded with a glorious vista over Golfo Dulce.

 

 

It’s time to dismount and give the horses a break while we embark on part two of the adventure – waterfall repelling!  A short walk takes us to the top of ventana al cielo (window to the sky), a gorgeous cascading 33m waterfall.

The guides help us into our harnesses and explain the best way to approach the waterfall, advising those with a fear of heights not to look down!

 

 

One of the great things about repelling is that you are in total control and can go as fast, or as slow, as you like!  The most important things to remember are to lean back into your harness, and to look where you’re putting your feet.

I pause halfway down the waterfall to enjoy the moment, the sounds of birds and natural wildlife all around, fresh water flowing over me.  These are the moments you travel and explore for, a moment where you are completely immersed in an authentic experience.

Reaching the swimming hole at the bottom of the waterfall I feel the adrenaline and endorphins flowing through my body and can’t stop myself smiling ear to ear.

 

 

The fun’s not over yet, as we return to our horses and head back down the mountain. This time we ride onto the beach where we are given the go ahead to gallop across the sandy beach, the waves gently rolling onto shore as the tide comes in.

As I push Pinta forward she takes off and we are one, flying across the Costa Rican coastline, a gentle breeze lifting her mane.  I find myself laughing out loud with pure and unbridled joy at this simple pleasure, being in complete harmony with my horse, the earth and the ocean.

All too soon our adventure has come to an end as we make our way back to the ranch where the horses are unsaddled and cooled off.  We are offered plates of delicious fresh mango and pineapple, and kept company by the farm animals including sheep, cattle, peacocks, turkeys and of course the horses!

Truly the perfect way to experience the stunning wilderness of the Osa with just the right amount of adventure.

 

Granada, Isla de Ometepe and San Juan Del Sur

Posted by on May 29, 2017 in Central America, Nicaragua, Travel | 0 comments

Granada, Isla de Ometepe and San Juan Del Sur

I was lucky enough to spend two weeks in Nicaragua with two of my oldest and closest friends, I absolutely loved this cheap and cheerful country, and not just because of the great company!

Coming from southern Costa Rica I spent two days on buses to get to Granada to meet them.  Although not the most efficient method it was definitely the cheapest, only costing me about $50 USD total instead of the hundreds it would’ve to fly.

The Tica Bus is an easy way to get across the border, and the transport is on a real coach with air-conditioning and comfortable seats, the kind of luxury that matters when you’re going to be travelling for around eight hours!

The border crossing can take quite a while and is a great opportunity to practice patience and eat some plantain chips with cheese and salad from a plastic bag for lunch.  Also, don’t be phased when they disappear with your passport for what seems like an unnecessarily long time.

 

Granada

On the shores of Lake Nicaragua lies the colonial town of Granada where the colourful buildings and quaint central park square immediately transport you back in time.

It is also very HOT.  One of our regrets was not spending the extra $2 a night to stay at a hostel that had a pool!  Instead we cooled off with buckets of six ice cold Tona beers for 150 cordoba ($5 USD).

We stayed at De BocaEn Boca, a hostel next door to the famous church Iglesia La Merced.  Dating back to 1534 you can climb up to the bell tower of the church for a nice view over Granada.

 

 

The hostel was clean and friendly and included a pancake breakfast, albeit you have to cook the pancakes yourself, but at $8 a night we weren’t complaining!

We did a trip to view the active Masaya Volcano at night, it was cool to see the hot lava bubbling away, but know the trip is simply a car ride to the volcano and about 15 minutes of viewing time before returning.

 

 

A cute town perfect for talking afternoon strolls along the brightly coloured streets or the lakefront.

 

Ometepe Island

We had heard great things about the island of Ometepe and it did not disappoint.  The island is situated in Lake Nicaragua and made up of two volcanoes, Concepcion and Maderas, whose peaks rise out of the lake in a most mesmerising manner.

To get there we took a local “chicken bus” to Rivas, a taxi to the ferry port, a ferry and finally a collectivo to the area of Santa Cruz where we wanted to stay.  We ended up staying at Hostal Santa Cruz which had the perfect spot to watch the sunset with the stunning backdrop of Concepcion.

It was also across the road from a small supermarket, a short stroll from the delicious meals at Nectar cafe, and an easy walk to the beach.

 

 

Through the hostel we arranged a local guide to take us hiking up Maderas Volcano for $15 USD each.  It is possible to do the hike on your own, but there were several forks in the path and I was glad to have an experienced guide with us.  He also pointed out interesting wildlife on the way and yelled a jovial warning of “cabeza!” whenever there was a low lying branch.

It took us around 3 1/2 hours to hike to the summit of the volcano where we were rewarded with a view over the lake for lunch.  It’s also possible to hike down to the lake and swim.  On our way down the rain hit and our muddy rocky path became a slippery slope, literally!  Our guide informed us he had fallen down only three times in the last three years, I lost count of how many times I hit the ground that day.

We returned to the hostel covered in mud and a little bruised (both ego and body), but happy.

 

 

The next day before we could get too stiff we headed to Hari’s Horses to take a ride around the volcano, which we could now triumphantly say we had conquered!  We had a private tour with Hari and gleefully cantered along the lake, pretty impressive considering my friends were beginners.

We stopped to wander through ancient petroglyphs carved into rocks, and took a swim in the lake which not only cooled us down but also gave us a view of petroglyphs on rocks that you couldn’t see from the shore.  We rode again before stopping for a cold beer and then it was the horses time to cool off as we rode them bareback into the ocean.

The horses were obviously well cared for and Hari is passionate about what he does, a great way to explore the island regardless of your experience level.

 

 

San Juan Del Sur 

After a few days on Ometepe we headed back to Rivas and from there to the coastal town of San Juan Del Sur (SJDS).  When you mention SJDS the first response is usually “Sunday Funday!”, either said with great excitement or great disdain.  This weekly afternoon pool crawl party is evident each Sunday as groups of people don their ‘Sunday Funday’ tank top and head out.

At $30 USD just for the tank top and privilege of attending (compared with other tank tops for $2 in the local market) and still having to buy all of your drinks, we opt out of Sunday Funday and instead create our own, going to bars not on their hit list.

I was prepared not to love SJDS, knowing it was somewhat of a tourist hot spot and party town. However after a couple of days it felt like home, and during the week it was much quieter and laid back which I enjoyed.

Casa Oro Eco Hostel was our base, rooms vary depending on what floor you are staying, there’s nice common areas with hammocks for lazing about and a daily breakfast included.  Their ‘coco caliente’ cocktail made with coconut milk and jalapeño was incredible, and 2 for 1 during happy hour.

We walked up to the statue of Jesus that watches over the town, a good idea on a Monday morning when everyone is sleeping off their hangover as you’ll practically have it to yourself.

A fun filled morning was spent doing a jungle canopy zip lining tour with Da Flying Frog, awesome views, long lines and you get to control how fast (or slow!) you want to go.

 

 

There are many beaches in the surrounding area, most with great waves for surfing.  We spent a day at Playa Hermosa which is a beautiful white sandy beach, but be warned there is only one option for food and drinks and it is way more expensive than anything in town, so I suggest you BYO.

 

 

 

Food wise in town there is an amazing local comedor near the market that serves up your choice of meat (chicken, beef or pork) along with the typical sides of gallo pinto, plantain and salad.  Just follow the smoke billowing from the side of the road!  The food at the market is also cheap and good, but only open during the daytime.

Rum and beer are cheap, usually $1 during happy hour, and for an amazing homemade ginger infused rum get to Republika Bar.  The Beach House is located on the sand, but quite pricey and the food servings are small.  A better option for sunset drinks is to simply grab some from the supermarket and sit on the steps of the beach – perfecto!

A sunset stand up paddle board session with SUP Del Sur was the perfect way to end our last day in SJDS.

 

 

Nicaragua offers truly spectacular natural beauty and is still affordable (especially compared to it’s southern neighbour Costa Rica), the people are friendly and it is relatively easy to navigate (although even a little Spanish goes a long way).  It is somewhere I would definitely recommend putting on your list when visiting Central America.

Brisbane on a shoestring

Posted by on Oct 20, 2016 in Australia, Oceania, Travel | 0 comments

Brisbane on a shoestring

My friends recently moved to Queensland’s capital city, Brisbane.  I went to visit and see what the place was all about.

The city has the laid back vibe of a coastal town but on a bigger scale.  People are still out and about, but aren’t rushing around and there isn’t the chaotic feeling you get in bigger cities.

A very family friendly place with lots of wide footpaths and kids playgrounds, which is no suprise with half the population being families.

However there’s still plenty for the adults by way of museums and galleries, nice restaurants and bars.

First up get some culture with a visit to the Queensland Art Gallery, State Library and Gallery of Modern Art, all of which have free general admission and are conveniently located next to one another.  They also all have cafes attached if you’re in need of a rest or some caffeine.

There’s also the Queensland Museum, a great place to take the kids for an interactive learning experience.

 

Gallery of Modern Art

Gallery of Modern Art

 

Queensland Art Gallery

Queensland Art Gallery

 

After that walk along the river through the Southbank Parklands.  This wide pathway runs along the river and is perfect for a walk / run / cycle.

Along the way there’s a rainforest walk, Nepalese temple, large kids playground and a pool made to resemble a beach, the perfect place to set up on a hot day.

 

Rainforest walk

Rainforest walk

 

Another great place to be on a hot day is across the river under a shady tree in the lovely Botanic Gardens.  There are plenty of seats to sit and read a book or have a picnic, and of course a kids playground.

Over this side is another great path for a leisurely stroll along the river.

 

The Botanic Garden

The Botanic Gardens

 

Queensland University of Technology is adjacent to the gardens, head to The Pantry located in Old Government House which has a beautiful courtyard perfect for a cup of tea and read of the newspaper.

If you’re looking for a takeaway the University Bookshop make a mean cup of Campos coffee.

Head into the city for some window shopping in WinterGarden and Queens Plaza, then walk up through the Anzac Square near Central station.

From there head down to the Museum of Brisbane which has great free exhibitions and is located in the beautiful old Town Hall.

 

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Fortitude Valley is a hub at night with many bars, and has a small Chinatown.  From there you can walk down into the trendy areas of New Farm and Teneriffe.

James Street has a particularly Melbourne-esq feel with laneway cafes like Cantinho, and shops like Zimmerman and Camilla.

There’s a cute espresso bar called Jamie’s on the corner of Robertson Street, and Pineapple Express offers yummy raw treats.

 

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On the headland of New Farm is the Brisbane Powerhouse, a cool building with original exposed brick and steel, stop here for a drink at the bar inside (Alto) with great views over the river.

Another great spot for a drink is at the Customs House, while I was there they had a fun pop-up bar for Spring.

For a delicious and affordable dinner make your way to Happy Boy, somewhat hidden in a garage down a residential street in Spring Hill and serving authentic Chinese food.

 

The view from Customs House

The view from Customs House

 

Overall a great city to enjoy the warm weather and relax.

 

Rishikesh the ‘Yoga Capital of The World’

Posted by on Sep 18, 2016 in Asia, Featured, Healthy Living, India, Travel, Wellbeing | 0 comments

Rishikesh the ‘Yoga Capital of The World’

North of Delhi nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas lies the magical place that is Rishikesh.

The holy River Ganges flows steadily through the town as cows wander the streets and cheeky monkeys watch you pass by.

A spiritual hub that attracts those looking to study the ancient arts of yoga and meditation, Rishikesh is an alcohol and meat free town.

The people who come here are open minded and ask the big questions, our conversations mull over topics like the meaning of life, who we are and what is truth.

There’s unquestionably something special in the air, The Beatles must have felt it too and wrote many of their songs while living here in the 1960s.

 

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It was here I chose to complete my 200 hour yoga teacher training course, at the World Peace Yoga School in the small community of Lakshman Jhula.

An amazing experience where I learned all about yoga and the philosophy behind it, and practiced meditation and pranayama (breathing techniques).

An incredibly personal journey I also learned about my mind, my body and myself as a person.

 

emma-meditating

 

I was diagnosed by the ayuverdic doctor as a predominantly Pitta person, the dosha or type associated with the fire element known for being intelligent, determined and fiery.
From simply taking my pulse he determined this and pointed out other ailments I had.

 

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With a healthy amount of scepticism I went to see the astrologer, however he was scarily accurate in his account of my life to date from only looking at the stars. Third generation he is often overseas and always charges 500 of the local currency, luckily for me being in India that meant 500 rupees rather than those who see him in America and pay 500 dollars!

 

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Beyond my regular classes I visited temples, took part in a cacao ceremony, a rebirthing, full moon ceremony, fire ceremonies, a party for Lord Krishna’s birthday and attended an acupressure and cupping workshop.

My journey was shared and encouraged by the wonderful people I met along the way, my beautiful teachers and other students who felt like long lost family.

 

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One afternoon we hiked to a stunning waterfall in the mountains, as the afternoon rain came stopped for a leisurely cup of tea by the river, then hitchhiked a lift into town in the back of a truck.

 

waterfall

 

Nights were spent feeling the fresh breeze while standing on the bridge over the Ganges, at the fire offering on the river (‘Ganga Aarti’, pictured below), gazing at the stars from a rooftop or sitting on the steps of an abandoned mansion contemplating life and its mysteries.

 

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Staying there for a month I soon settled into the gentle rhythm of the place. The streets became familiar and shopkeepers would invite me in for chai.

Just as it began to feel like home it was time to leave.

My glimpse into India certainly whet my appetite, and I’m sure I’ll be back one day.

 

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Nostalgia for Beijing

Posted by on Aug 13, 2016 in Asia, China, Travel | 0 comments

Nostalgia for Beijing

It’s been a couple of months since I left Beijing after living in the big city for two years, and already it feels as though it was a lifetime ago.

Two cities rolled into one Beijing is historic, steeped with tradition and constantly reminiscing in the past, yet super-charged, growing rapidly and changing at lightning speed, full of high rise construction sites, fast cars and designer brands.

One of the truly ancient cities of the world, but also one of the most important in modern society.

There’s an an energetic chaos with so much going on, stepping onto the street you’re instantly overwhelmed by sights, sounds and smells.

It’s not to say there weren’t days where I would get frustrated, we used to joke that it was like getting your ‘Beijing period’ because about once a month you’d be so fed up with the unique challenges of living there like the spitting, dirty squat toilets or pollution.

When I look back on my time there I’m glad I got to experience an amazing culture so different to my own.  I want to remember the moments that made me giggle, cry or gape in shock, so here’s a collection of stories and observations that stick in my mind.

 

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  • When there’s a car accident they leave the cars exactly where they are to wait for the police, even if that’s in the middle of a main road during peak hour.  I once saw two men sitting in the middle of the road in front of their car so no-one would hit it – the car obviously perceived as more valuable than their lives!
  • Western style etiquette and politeness does not exist.  They don’t say ‘please’ as that’s not considered being genuinely polite, rather your actions are how you show politeness.
    Pushing and shoving is totally normal, no need to say ‘excuse me’, ‘sorry’ or hold doors open, with a population the size of Australia in one city that’s reality – it is expected and accepted.
    Also don’t apologise repeatedly, they want you to treat them like family and this makes them feel distanced.  In this regard they have zero boundaries and will tell you directly if you put on weight/look terrible/need to get married.  I remember asking to speak with someone and being told ‘he’s the fat one in the blue shirt’, but this wasn’t being rude, fat was simply a descriptor the same way blue shirt was.
  • OH&S has never been heard of.  It was common to see people hanging out of apartment ledges on the 30th floor repairing air conditioning units with no harness, occasionally another man standing inside with a rope around the man outside.
  • Daily sights included large groups of retired women dancing in public (parks, outside shopping centres, apartment compounds) with a boom box playing music, children getting Kung fu lessons, men doing swift and precise movements with large swords, kites in the sky, lanterns, employees standing to absolute attention while being spoken to by their manager and then partaking in a chant and dance, and groups of men huddled over intense games of Mahjong.mahjong

 

  • At the supermarket you can purchase chips/crisps in flavours like shrimp, cucumber and yoghurt, pick up some “childbirth millet”, buy your eggs out of large drums and select meat from a pile.
  • The extreme weather. Before moving I heard the weather was to be tolerated rather than enjoyed, this proved true with a stifling hot summer and bone chilling winter, both of which seem to last forever.  Coming from mild Sydney I was not prepared for -15 degree celsius days, the kind of cold where if any part of your skin is exposed you know about it.  I remember my eyes watering but no tears running down my face because they were freezing, and my plastic bike lock snapping in half.  During this weather the young kids are dressed in so many layers they can’t even bend their arms or legs, which is much cuter than in summer when the men wear their shirts pulled up to cool off their bellies.
  • Saving face is a big deal, if you forget someone’s name don’t ask them again as that would be embarrassing for them. If a child was running and knocked something over they would say they forgot to eat and were dizzy, because to admit they were just clumsy would be embarrassing for their parents.
  • Couples and families love to wear matching t-shirts, if it has Mickey Mouse on it even better!  Red is the lucky colour and used for everything, I remember watching two tour groups blend together and they had both used red hats to identify their groups so it was impossible to tell who was with who.
  • Their idea of beauty is big eyes, big nose, and they think westerners have a nice ‘3D face’ rather than the Chinese ‘surface face’.hutong

 

  • A fun outing was to the ‘knock knock shops’, hidden inside apartment buildings these apartments have been converted into secret ‘shops’, selling quality knock offs of your favourite brands at a big discount.  You’d never find them unless you knew they were there as there’s no signage, hence you have to know where to go and knock!
  • It is completely acceptable to leave your food/coat/receipt on a table in a foodcourt as a sign the seat is taken, and no-one will take it or touch it.
  • The subway is either busy or really busy with people crammed in, if you can’t feel another person’s breath on you it’s not really busy!
  • Road rules are a general suggestion, it is expected you will do whatever you want.  I would ride my bicycle daily which was an adventure in itself, the ‘bike lane’ for anything that could fit – usually electric scooters, tuk tuks, rickshaws, tricycles, tiny cars and pedestrians.  If there’s a green man to cross the road be warned there’s still a lane of traffic with a green light, this is just the suggested time to cross but no guarantee!
  • At restaurants it’s normal to order more food than you’ll eat, and to get a waitress to serve your table you’ll need to holler out ‘Fuwuyuan!’ to get their attention.  Leaving food on your plate is polite when visiting someone’s house as if you finish everything it implies they haven’t fed you enough.

Such a unique city, I’ve never been anywhere like it.

There are days when I miss it and I will always remember it fondly, but there’s still so much of the world for me to see…!

 

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Townsville & Magnetic Island, Queensland

Posted by on Jul 21, 2016 in Australia, Oceania, Travel | 0 comments

Townsville & Magnetic Island, Queensland

In the Australian winter it’s common for people to head to north Queensland for some sunshine and warm weather, previously I’ve done so and gone to the resort town of Port Douglas.

Unfortunately Townsville was experiencing some unseasonably cold and rainy weather, which meant our boat trip to the Great Barrier Reef was cancelled, but we still had a great time exploring somewhere new.

We stayed in a lovely 2 bedroom apartment located across from the ferry terminal and an easy walk into town.

 

Where to Eat / Drink

Cbar on The Strand has a lovely deck over the water, a great setting to enjoy a nice meal and a bottle of wine.  Stick with the fish and you can’t go wrong, the Asian offerings are not as good.

The Brewery is located in what was the original Post Office Building on Flinders Street, and has been transformed into a micro-brewery pub and restaurant.  Eat at their restaurant Malt rather than the bar food, they can get busy so make a reservation.  A nice historical setting, good food and reasonably priced drinks make this a must do.

For brunch head to Jam Corner, literally on the corner of Palmer Street.  Offering a unique twist on classic dishes like eggs bennedict, the flavours are excellent and service is good.

We also tried MJ&Co, however their poached egg was cooked through and there was nothing special about it.  Across from MJ&CO is Coffee Dominion who specialise in ethically sourced coffee, a great place to get your caffeine fix and feel good about it.

A hidden spot for a nice brew is at Hoi Polloi, a small hole in the wall down a Melbourne style graffiti filled alley.

 

Coffee at Hoi Polloi

Coffee at Hoi Polloi

 

What To Do

Visit the Perc Tucker Gallery on Flinders Street with free admission and changing exhibitions of local artists.

On Sundays wander through the Flinders Street markets, the street becomes pedestrian only and many vendors set up stalls selling produce, jewellery, crafts and more.

The Queens Gardens offer a tranquil spot to take a stroll or sit for a while.

Follow the Strand to the Jezzine Barracks, and cool off afterwards with a dip at the nearby rockpool.

 

The Queens Gardens

The Queens Gardens

 

Outside of town

We hired a car for the day from Avis, and explored some nearby areas.

First up was Riverway where there are huge lagoon pools overlooking the river that would be a great place to bring the kids.  There’s also the Pinnacles gallery, however we were there on a Monday when the gallery is closed.

We drove to Hervey’s Range Heritage Tea Rooms for lunch, a gorgeous heritage property with a family run cafe.  The food is simple (think meat pies and quiches) and tasty, and the coffee is good.

To end the day we drove to the national park to visit Crystal Creek near Paluma where there is a waterfall that on a warmer day would be lovely to have a swim.

 

The heritage property at the Team Rooms

The heritage property at the Team Rooms

 

Crystal Creek

Crystal Creek

 

Magnetic Island

Our day on Magnetic Island was the highlight of the trip, and I would highly recommend staying on ‘Maggie’ as the locals call it.

We took the ferry which is about 20 minutes, there are two ferry operators we used Sealink who offer a ferry and bus ticket for $35, you can use the bus to get around the island.

Horseshoe Bay is a sweeping bay with cute cafes, shops and holiday houses for rent.

We had a long lunch at The Early Bird cafe, it’s small so reserve a table to avoid missing out.  Outdoor tables, fresh food, friendly staff and magazines to peruse.

After lunch it was time for a horse ride through the rainforest and down to the beach, at the beach there’s the option of taking your horse into the water.  This was an amazing experience that I’ll never forget.  The ride was enjoyable with more experienced riders having canter, good staff and the horses obviously well looked after.

To end a wonderful day we had dinner at Barefoot Art Food Wine restaurant, sitting on the balcony watching while the sun set over the bay with glorious pink streaking through the sky.

 

Emma watching sunset

 

Emma in water peace

 

Pink sunset horseshoe bay

I come from a land down under

Posted by on Jul 7, 2016 in Australia, Life, Travel | 3 comments

I come from a land down under

I recently returned to Australia after two years living in China.

It’s fair to say it’s a big change in environment.

I’m loving the feeling of ‘home’, a mix of comforting familiarity and nostalgia.

I grew up in rural New South Wales and home for me is bright blue skies, animals and wide open spaces.

Peeling back layers of paperbark gum trees.

Breathing crisp morning air.

The sound of kookaburras laughing.

Kangaroos watching.

Soft pine crunching underfoot.

The scent of eucalyptus.

Pink skies at night, shepherds delight.

It’s good to be home.

 

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A weekend getaway in Seoul

Posted by on May 5, 2016 in Asia, South Korea, Travel | 0 comments

A weekend getaway in Seoul

There is no shortage of palaces, temples and other sites to see in Seoul, but instead we opted for a relaxing weekend exploring different areas on foot, eating street food and window shopping boutiques and markets.

Seoul is a vibrant city, particularly at night when it’s lit up in all it’s neon glory.

There’s an energy pulsing through the streets, a sense of fun without the sleaziness.

 

Getting around

The metro is easy to use and will take you anywhere you want to go.  I loved that the seating area for the elderly and pregnant was sacred, and even on a busy subway no-one would sit there!

The Airport Express train from Incheon takes about 45 minutes and drops you off in the city at Seoul Station.  The train is great with comfortable allocated seats and free wifi, definitely my preference over the bus and only 8,000 won.

 

Where to stay

We stayed in a great studio located in Jonggak, it was right by the subway, an easy walk to Insa-dong and Myeon-dong and surrounded by restaurants and bars.

 

Street near our apartment

 

Where to go

Myeon-dong is a fun tourist area for shopping and eating.  There are big name stores like H&M, Nike and Forever 21, as well as smaller stores offering cheap goods, and plenty of street food to keep your energy up.

There’s a side street of fried chicken places, hilariously KFC is located at the end of the street and unsurprisingly was always empty!

 

Street food fire

 

Insa-dong has a long pedestrian street lined with market stalls where you can get anything from clothing to jewellery and souvenirs.

I happily browsed the stalls admiring the unique fashion styles, and ended up buying a handmade necklace and bag from two lovely vendors.  My only issue was that you can’t try the clothes on as there’s nowhere to do so.

Note it’s not like other places in Asia where you are expected to barter heavily, here the price is what it is.

 

Insadong fans

 

Itaewon is an expat hub full of western restaurants and bars. The main street is busy and full of people trying to sell you stuff, but when you get into the back streets it’s much quieter and there’s plenty of trendy independent cafes and boutique stores.

There’s also an antiques street which is fun to wander along, but note most stores are closed on Sunday.

 

Itaewon antique shop

 

My favourite area was Hongdae / Shinchon around Hongik University.  It has an industrial feel, with small hipster cafes where students worked on laptops and leafy streets.

Nearby is Ewha Womans University which is the place to go for ladies looking to shop cheap clothing, shoes and accessories.

Finally we had to visit Gangnam, made famous by Psy’s hit song. Here we found plenty of luxury brand stores, and the Samsung centre with cool prototypes in an interactive display.

 

Wayne and Em Gangnam

 

 

Korean foods to eat

First things first, fried chicken and beer is definitely the star attraction and you can’t walk a block without passing a fried chicken place.  We went to two and the chicken was quite different at each, one much crispier and the other softer, and with very different sauces.

At most places you’ll get a few side dishes like kimchee complimentary with your meal.

 

Wayne with fried chicken

 

There is a tonne of street food including fried chicken (of course!), rice cakes, chicken skewers, kim bap (like sushi), sausages, noodles, octopus, fruit, egg bread and more.

You could easily eat from the street vendors at every meal and have something different.

The vendors are well regulated with good hygiene standards and the food is served fresh, so it’s safe to eat.

 

Street food skewers

 

Other Korean favourites are BBQ, congee and bibimbap.

We had dumplings and noodle soup at Kyoja in Myeon-dong, a place with only four dishes on their menu and a ticketing system to order.  Not where you would go to hang out for a leisurely dinner, but the food is cheap, fast and tasty.

A few doors down we also ate at Yoogane where they cook up your chosen rice dish on a hot plate at your table.  Obviously nice and fresh, but it was a bit too rice heavy for my liking.

 

Western places to eat

I must confess we ate at a few western places while we were there!

Breakfast at Butterfinger Pancakes, a hugely popular place serving large portions of American style breakfasts like buttermilk pancakes, waffles, eggs and bacon.

At first I was horrified to see that the number 1 rated restaurant on TripAdvisor was not a Korean place, but Mexican restaurant Gusto Taco.  I had to see what all the fuss was about, and turns out it is pretty damn good!  The owner was there to greet us and tell us about their handmade tacos and slow cooked pork.  The iced tea was a refreshing touch, made with organic early grey tea and lemons.

While having Sunday brunch at The Flying Pan Blue we almost could have been in Sydney, with trendy decor and a menu of eggs bennedict, omelettes and salads.

 

Flying Pan Blue

 

We also tried The Flying Pan’s sister restaurant Long Bread, however it was a bit of a disappointment.  The coffee was average, I had a salad that was quite bland, and Wayne had a sandwich (their specialty) which he also wasn’t thrilled about.

I was really keen to visit vegan restaurant Plant, however unfortunately chose to visit on a Sunday which is the one day they are closed!

 

Overall we had a great time in Seoul, a clean and friendly city bustling with great shopping, and a foodies heaven.

 

Canal

Galle, Kandy & a day with elephants

Posted by on Apr 12, 2016 in Asia, Sri Lanka, Travel | 0 comments

Galle, Kandy & a day with elephants

With stunning beaches, beautiful mountains and rainforests, buddhist temples, national parks offering safaris and some of the best tea in the world there really is something for everyone in Sri Lanka.

A direct flight from Beijing to Colombo with Sri Lankan airlines and we arrived on the tear-drop island located off the south coast of India.

We had arranged for a driver to pick us up from the airport as we landed early in the morning and were headed straight down the coast to the district of Galle.

The drive took about two and a half hours and cost us 70 euro for two people, which seemed expensive for Asia however was cheaper than getting a taxi from the airport and significantly more convenient than public transport options.

We arrived at our beachfront accomodation Rockside Cabanas which overlooked beautiful Dalawella Beach, about 6 kilometres south of Galle Fort.

The place is owned and run by a lovely German woman who makes sure everything is spotless and service is good.  The staff were friendly, the food excellent and there was a great natural lagoon for swimming as well as decent waves for surfing.

 

Deck

 

The beachfront cabana had amazing views and a great deck for reading books and enjoying candlelit dinners.

Our only complaint about the cabana was that there are no flyscreens so we had a few visitors of the animal variety, which I was coping with until finding a giant eight legged friend!

We spent four days here doing a lot of not much, and it was divine.

 

Rockside

 

A day was spent wandering around Galle Fort, an old town full of Dutch style colonial buildings and many tourist shops and cafes.

We had lunch at Lucky Fort, a restaurant hidden down one of the alleyways that serves up 10 curries for only 950 rupees (and is enough for two people).

The Sri Lankan cuisine was right up my alley, consisting of curries made with fresh coconut milk and plenty of vegetarian dishes like lentil dahl.

Tuk-tuks are the easiest way to get around if you’re not going too far, and the usual rate is around 100 rupees per kilometre.

 

Tuk Tuk

 

 

Kandy

After a few blissful days by the beach we headed to the cultural heart of Sri Lanka, Kandy.

Kandy is a city in the mountains of central Sri Lanka famous for housing the tooth of Buddha in the aptly named ‘Temple of the Tooth’.

We visited the temple which was clearly an important and revered Buddhist site, however don’t expect to see the tooth as it is housed in a casket inside the temple.

Near the entrance to the temple is Empire Cafe which is a good place to stop for lunch offering salads and proper coffee at a reasonable price.

We stayed in a homestay with a lovely older couple who fussed over us as if we were family.  At meals we were told to eat more of everything and when heading out they’d make sure we were equipped with an umbrella or hat depending on the weather.

 

Homestay

 

They live in a beautiful house with a view over Kandy and in the evenings we would listen to jazz music and their stories from 40 years spent living on a tea plantation.

It was somewhat surreal with a strong colonial feel including their two servants or “domestics” who waited on us.

We went to the touted Kandyan cultural dance, however weren’t that impressed and felt it was really a tourist money spinner with about five companies offering this dance every evening from 5-6pm.  We couldn’t help but compare it to the cultural dance we watched in Ubud, Bali and felt it was nowhere near as impressive.

 

Dance

 

We loved the Royal Botanical Gardens, the grounds are sprawling and we spent an easy two hours strolling around.  They have plants from all over the world and many shady areas to relax.

Such a tranquil place it felt so peaceful compared to the mayhem of town.  I would recommend taking a picnic and a good book and settling in for a few hours here.

 

Garden

 

 

A day with elephants

Our final day and night was spent at the Elephant Freedom Project.

Ideally I would have liked to do a safari in one of the national parks and see the elephants in the wild, however we didn’t have enough time.

The Elephant Freedom Project rescues elephants that have been used for logging or tourist riding, and allows tourists to interact with elephants without riding them and without the mahouts (keepers) using bull-hooks to control them.

 

Wayne feeding

 

They currently only have two elephants, as it is difficult to get owners to agree to rent them to them when they make more money from renting them to riding or logging places.

We went for walks with the elephants and helped bathe them in a shallow river.

It was a good experience, however it is a whole day from 8.30am – 4.30pm so is quite drawn out and there is a bit of standing around.

We also did a cooking class during the day which was fun and we learned how to make Sri Lankan curries, including making coconut milk from scratch!

A week in Sri Lanka was nowhere near enough time to really explore, and I would love to return one day and discover more of the beautiful country.

 

Lake

Phú Quốc Island (and a stop in Ho Chi Minh!)

Posted by on Feb 16, 2016 in Asia, Travel, Vietnam | 0 comments

Phú Quốc Island (and a stop in Ho Chi Minh!)

Pho Quốc is a small Vietnamese island located in the Gulf of Thailand, just off the southern coast of Cambodia.

We had read about the island which was described as being like Phuket 40 years ago.

A quick google image showed stunning beaches and had us chomping at the bit to get there.

It wasn’t quite what we expected.

Firstly the beaches were nowhere near as spectacular as we had been lead to believe.  Where directly in front of a resort the beaches were clean and well kept, but otherwise rubbish and debris littered the sand.

This was particularly so on Sao Beach, which we spent an hour on the scooter to get to as it is touted as being the most beautiful beach not only on the island but in Vietnam – talk about disappointing!

 

The real Sao Beach - disappointing

The real Sao Beach

 

Long Beach is the main beach nearest to town and is lined with resorts, so unless you’re staying at a beachside resort you’ll need to pay to rent a sun lounge.

The whole island feels as if it should have a ‘Coming Soon‘ sign, it is waiting with baited breath for the hordes of tourists to arrive.

There are more cafes, restaurants and hotels than visitors, so it has that awkward feeling like when you’re at a party and the room is half empty.

There’s also a lot of construction going on, so there’ll be a wide concrete pathway that will suddenly disappear on you.

 

Mango Bay hammock

 

Being budget minded travellers means we usually stay in basic hostel type accommodation.  We had pre-booked Sunny Resort (they are using the word “Resort” very loosely!) which was more of a homestay with the extended family of the owners occupying half of the dozen rooms.

Our bed was hard as a rock (even by Chinese standards!) and the walls were paper thin which allowed us to hear everyone’s everything.  To be honest, if we hadn’t already paid in advance we would’ve gone somewhere else.

If you’re not travelling on a shoestring my top picks would be Cassia Cottage located on the main beach near the town, or Mango Bay which is a secluded resort to the north of the town.

 

Bamboo cottages Wayne

 

There are things to do like visit the brand new amusement park, bee farm, pepper tree farm or fish sauce factory, but none of those activities really appealed to us.

Instead we chose to lay by the sea and read books, get massages, have afternoon naps and enjoy cheeky cocktails – not too shabby.

We found the best value for a massage was at Linh Spa where one hour will set you back 240 VND.  You can also get a massage from one of the many ladies set up on the beach for 100-150 VND, but it’s not at all private and sand gets caught up in the oil which is not the best.

 

Cha ca la vong

 

Where to eat

I love Vietnamese cuisine.  Firstly that strong dark coffee is heaven sent, though I prefer mine without the sweetened condensed milk.  The local dishes are super fresh, full of flavour with lots of herbs and packed with vegetables – yum!  Some personal favourites are fresh spring rolls, cha ca la vong (fish cooked with tumeric and dill, see photo above) and the famous pho noodle soup.

  • Top cafes for breakfast would be Peach Cafe (probably the cheapest and a nice decor inside), Alanis Cafe (Wayne loved their banana pancakes), and The Embassy (the best coffee but also the most expensive).
  • Mango Bay’s restaurant was our favourite for lunch.  We would spend the morning on the beach there which is much quieter than the main beach, and then sit over the water enjoying delicious food.
  • The restaurant at Cassia Cottage – Spice House – offers food and service that is excellent by western standards, and a beautiful setting overlooking their infinity pool and the beach.  Great spot for dinner and cocktails.
  • Bamboo Cottage is further north than Mango Bay and their cute restaurant on the sand is lovely, but probably not worth the long scooter ride over gravel roads to get there.
  • For sunset drinks Rory’s Bar can’t be beaten, a relaxed Aussie bar with reasonably priced drinks and western food options.

 

Rory's

Rory’s Bar

 

Overall it was an enjoyable getaway, however I can’t help but compare it to our recent trip to the Philippines and feel that it paled in comparison.

 

Ho Chi Minh

We spent a day on each side of the trip in Ho Chi Minh city, which we really enjoyed.  A bustling city it somehow manages to be chaotically busy and relaxed at the same time.

My tips if you are visiting the city:

  • Head to L’Usine, downstairs is a beautiful shop selling handmade goods and upstairs is a great cafe with awesome salads and breakfasts including an eggs benedict burger.
  • For luxurious pampering without breaking the bank get to Temple Leaf Spa and Sauna.  The masseuses really know what they are doing and they have a sauna, steam room and onsen that was just like being back in Japan!
  • Propaganda is a funky cafe that serves tasty local cuisine, an easy place to hang out overlooking a park.
  • The War Remnants Museum is definitely worth a visit and gave me a deeper understanding of the war, but prepare yourself as it is quite confronting.
  • Luan Vu is a good hostel located downtown in the backpackers area, yet still surprisingly quiet at night as it is down a small side street.