Tag Archives: Travel

How to get from Seoul to Sokcho & Seoraksan

Updated: 16 March 2017

We’ve just recently been to Sokcho and the awesome Seoraksan National Park (also known as Mount Seorak) and getting here wasn’t too difficult. Finding out how to actually get to Seoraksan from Seoul was a little bit challenging so I thought I’d whip up a few quick tips for those wanting to do it themselves.

  1. Catch a metro train to Gangbyeon Station in Seoul which is on Line 2 — the green line.
  2. Exit at exit #4 at Gangbyeon Station.
  3. Walk across the road into the bus terminal (Dong-Seoul) and simply buy a bus ticket to Sokcho. The cost at time of writing was 17,300 Won and travel time including stops was 3 hours. Don’t get all wound up about whether to buy the express bus or not. Just buy a ticket for the next departing bus — there are over 40 departures per day to Sokcho between about 6am and 11pm.
  4. Note: The Dong-Seoul Terminal is a different terminal to the Seoul Express Terminal which is in Gangnam. If you catch a bus from the Seoul Express Terminal, the instructions below are more or less the same, but the departure point is in Gangnam (Metro Line 3 Orange). Buses from the Seoul Express Terminal are direct whereas buses from Dong-Seoul drop off along the way.
  5. Get off the bus at its final destination, the Sokcho Intercity Bus Terminal. You have arrived in Sokcho! Walk to wherever your hotel is or catch a local bus direct to the national park or your hotel if it’s on the road to the Seoraksan national park (see next point).
  6. Walk out of the Sokcho Intercity Bus Terminal and turn right. This is important. About 50-100m down the road is a local bus stop (on the same side of the road as the bus terminal). Wait here and flag down bus 7 or 7-1 when it arrives. Buses are supposed to arrive approximately half hourly, but they don’t necessarily run to time. (if you happen to arrive at the Sokcho Express Bus Terminal, bus 7 and 7-1 can transport you to Seoraksan or Sokcho centre — depends on which side of the road you catch it from)
  7. The bus costs 1,100 Won and needs to be paid in exact change. Pop the money into the plastic box as you enter the bus. Tell the driver where you need to get off and he will stop for you. Best to have the name of your hotel and address on a piece of paper in Korean characters! The journey will take around 40 minutes to most of the hotels along the road to the national park.
  8. Bonus tip: It’s bus 7 and 7-1 which plies the route from Sokcho to Seoraksan National Park all day, back and forth, meaning it’s also the bus you’ll use to get to the national park from your hotel when you’re ready to make that trip.

So there you have it. Seoul to Sokcho and Seorakson in a few easy steps!

P.S. I’ve been receiving a lot of emails asking if it’s possible to self-drive to Seoraksan. Yes it is! All you need to do is hire a car from Seoul and hit the road. It’ll take under 3 hours and you won’t have to stuff around with buses. I’ve recently been using these guys for hiring cars all over the world. They’re basically the skyscanner of car hire. You should be able to get a car for about $50 per day.

P.P.S. People have also been asking where to stay in Seoraksan. I stayed at cheap but decent Goodstay Smile Resort. I got a good deal on booking.com and paid about $35 per night –> Check current prices here.

Burma: then and now

I first went to Burma in March 2010 and it was the first destination I wrote about when I started this blog a short time after. I thought it’d be interesting to make a comparison of how Burma was then and how it is now given the change in political situation.

Having recently just returned from Burma, I can report… that not a whole lot has changed for the casual tourist. Sure, tourist numbers are up, prices are up and people now have smartphones, but things really haven’t changed in as a dramatic a way as some people seem to think.

Same old Burmese trains
Same old Burmese trains

Electricity

One of my lasting memories of Burma was the electricity situation. Every hotel had massive generators out the front because frequent electricity cuts would leave entire cities without power. Of course, air conditioning was on a separate circuit so when the electricity was off and the hotel was running on generator power, air conditioning was useless. In Mandalay, I remember that electricity was off for most of my visit there and the generator was running overtime. That has now changed. I can only think of perhaps one or two minor electricity interruptions in my recent trip meaning that air conditioning is now something worth searching for, particularly in places like Mandalay in the hotter months when temperatures often reach 44C.

Same old Golden Rock
Same old Golden Rock

Tourist numbers

Tourist numbers in 2010 were quite strong. I remember thinking that it was incredible to see far more tourists in Burma than I had seen in Sumatra a few years before. Places like Mandalay, Yangon and Inle Lake regularly had full hotels and it was not uncommon to see tourists when you wandered around town. At Golden Rock, I saw 5 names in the visitors book for the day I visited. This time at Golden Rock there would have been 20. Inle Lake this time was full of tour groups, particularly older types. The same with Bagan which is quickly becoming one of my least favourite places in Asia. Yes, tourist numbers have increased significantly, but it was quite heavily visited in 2010 anyway.

Accommodation costs

The prices of hotel rooms have gone up. They’ve gone up so much that Burma no longer has budget rooms. Just less expensive ones. For a crappy, bed-bug ridden place in Bagan with hot water that is always cold, air conditioning that works more like a ceiling fan and WiFi that only sometimes works, you can expect to pay $25. In 2010 a room like this would have cost $12. Rooms are poor value compared to what you can get elsewhere in Asia. I’d say on average rooms are overpriced by about $5-10. So while it’s no major expense, you can’t help but feel ripped off while you’re there. My cheapest room was $10 in Kalaw and I believe that was good value by Asian standards and great value by Burmese standards.

Same old dudes rowing boats with their legs
Same old dudes rowing boats with their legs

Internet

When I was in Burma in 2010, internet was widely available in internet cafes but had silly blocks on sites such as gmail. The odd hotel had an internet connection, but the infrastructure was fairly dodgy and useful for the odd checking of email. Things have changed to the degree that some hotels now have internet connections fast enough for skype video calls while almost all hotels had a wifi signal of some sort.

Smartphones

I didn’t see anyone with a mobile phone in 2010. In 2014, nearly everyone has a mobile phone. Even people who are doing jobs which you would imagine would render them quite poor have these massive smartphones. I just couldn’t get over how many seemingly poor people had massive smartphones that put my iphone to shame. The most popular brands I saw were Huawei and Samsung. There must be quite a bit of money flowing in Burma at the moment and I don’t think it’s contained to those who are connected to the tourism industry.

Money

In 2010, the only way to operate your finances in Burma was to bring in a stack of USD and change it on the black market. The official rate was 3 to 1 while the blackmarket rate was 1000 to 1. Now the official rate is about 1000 to 1 so you can now change money at official money changers all around the place. Better still, banks can now operate ATMs. Withdrawing money from ATMs tended to be expensive as a $5 charge was added on by the Burmese banks. But ATMs were everywhere and if you withdraw a big enough chunk of cash per transaction, it’s probably better to do that than bring USD which are still required to be in absolutely pristine condition. I only absolutely needed USD once when purchasing a train ticket.

Same old Burmese kid with a duckling in a plastic bag
Same old Burmese kid with a duckling in a plastic bag

Coke

Coke is now everywhere and is expensive. You can still get the local cola for $0.30, but coke usually costs about $0.80. The same with Pepsi and all those other big brands.

Cars

There are lots more cars on the road. Now that trade restrictions have been eased, people are buying cars. Traffic is crazy at times and riding a motorbike up to Hsipaw from Mandalay was at times frightening as big 4WDs barreled down the wrong side of the road seemingly oblivious to global norms which say that you should try to avoid head on collisions. The number of cars is just going to grow and traffic in Mandalay and Yangon is going to get like every other big city in Asia. It’s just a matter of time.

Price of food

Food prices seem to remain unchanged. You can eat soups and noodles for $0.50 anywhere meaning costs can still be kept low.

So while there are some things that have changed, not a lot has for the casual tourist. You can still avoid tourists. You can still visit the country relatively cheaply (although you’ll be staying in shitty accommodation for the price).

So don’t be put off by reports that Burma is no longer an untouched destination due to the tourist influx. It never was untouched. And besides, the people outside the main tourist areas are still friendly, curious and welcoming. Just like anywhere else in Asia.

Santorini was more impressive than expected

Europe trip – a photo story

It’s been a dream of Susan’s to go to Europe for ages and it’s also been a dream of mine to walk the Camino de Santiago across Spain, so in late July we caught a Saudia Arabia Airlines flight to Paris to start a 4 and a half month journey that would include a 780km walk, a camel ride, several cable car rides and hundreds of kilometres of hitchhiking. It was an incredible journey.

On this trip I used my dSLR even less frequently than ever before and my iPhone became my everyday camera. I think learning how to edit photos a bit better on the phone has really tipped the scales for me as the process with a dSLR is so clunky. For me, the benefits of using a big old beast of a camera are diminishing by the day.

So here is 4 and a half months of travel in photos.

The Louvre
The Louvre

There’s a lot to love about Paris – hundreds of galleries, monuments and museums plus incredible cakes! I love cakes!

Sunset in Cologne
Sunset in Cologne

We went to Cologne because we found a car share heading that way from Amsterdam where we had become trapped due to the gay pride festival. Luckily for us we caught a fantastic sunset across the river.

Fancy dessert in Budapest
Fancy dessert in Budapest

Budapest was great for many reasons, but this dessert was one of them funnily enough.

Budapest was a highlight of Europe
Budapest was a highlight of Europe

With cheap lodgings, good cheap food, plenty of things to see and do and a more gritty feel than much of Europe, Budapest became a favourite stop on the trip.

Venice - total tourist trap, but you have to go
Venice – total tourist trap, but you have to go

Venice was both disappointing and exciting. Strange really. It’s a wonderful old city filled with maze-like alleys, historical buildings and those famous canals. The problem with Venice is that it is a full on tourist town. You pay a lot of money for absolutely rubbish food, after about 10am you have to fight your way through the alleys with all the other tourists and you end up feeling like a walking cash machine. I’m glad I went, but never again unless I win the lotto.

Cinque Terre - beautiful towns on a rocky coast
Cinque Terre – beautiful towns on a rocky coast

Cinque Terre is another one of those famous Italian towns which can be chockablock full in summer and empty in winter. Unfortunately for us we went there in Summer and it was full — totally. It was great, however, to walk up the mountains and look back down on the coast. Most tourists prefer to swim at the beach rather walk which made life away from the ocean quite nice.

The Camino de Santiago - someone got lost early on
The Camino de Santiago – someone got lost early on

After a whirwind month through Europe, it was time to walk from the French side of the Pyrnees all the way across to Santiago in Spain, 780km away. This was definitely a trip of a lifetime and a totally different travel experience. Something I’d like to do again.

There wasn't much to do on the Camino except walk
There wasn’t much to do on the Camino except walk

One of the great things about the Camino is that there is nothing else to do. You just walk. It was nice not to have any pressures (such as the transport pressures we’d had in Europe during the first month).

A 500 year old bridge on the Camino
A 500 year old bridge on the Camino

Much of the infrastructure on the camino such as roads and bridges has been around for centuries as this route has been popular for over a millennium.

Free food
Free food

You get a sense of entitlement on the Camino so I stole a few bunches of wine grapes while in the famous Rioja wine-growing area – they were surprisingly delish!

Sunflowers as far as the eye can see
Sunflowers as far as the eye can see

Sunflowers were everywhere and people liked to make funny faces and signs in the faces of the sunflowers — something to keep things interesting as you walk. (and walk)

Towards the end of the Camino it's all about walking through rainy sodden forests
Towards the end of the Camino it’s all about walking through rainy sodden forests

The last 5 days of the Camino has a reputation for being extremely busy and usually rainy. We got both and it was a battle to keep positive as we trudged through this forest.

Porto was a relief
Porto was a relief

Getting to Porto in Portugal was a relief as it changed up the routine a bit. Luckily for us Porto is a fabulous city.

The wild seas off Porto
The wild seas off Porto

There’s something about the ocean when it gets angry — I love it.

Chefchaouen was an impressive start to Morocco
Chefchaouen was an impressive start to Morocco

Chefchaouen is a wonderful town in Morocco and it was a great start to our time in the country. Sadly, it all went down hill from there because we were harassed by so many hostile men. For that reason alone, I recommend people just go somewhere else where the people are friendlier. Why bother with hassle when there are over 200 countries to visit?

The oasis around Todra Gorge
The oasis around Todra Gorge

Todra Gorge was a bright spot in Morocco. We hardly encountered another person in our time there and that made for a less stressful experience.

Obligatory Bedouin selfie
Obligatory Bedouin selfie

We didn’t know it at the time, but it seems that most people go on tours from the big cities to the desert towns fringing the Sahara. We got to the end of the line as far as roads go under our own steam and it was a truly rewarding experience. In the end we got our guesthouse owner to take us out into the desert for a night on some camels. Definitely worth the hassle of riding buses at awkward times over long distances — stunning scenery, great food and the real Morocco.

Sand dunes as far as the eye can see
Sand dunes as far as the eye can see

We chose not to visit the places that had the biggest sand dunes for fear of running into loads of other people. In the end we got medium sized dunes to ourselves – incredible!

Santorini was more impressive than expected
Santorini was more impressive than expected

After Morocco it was time to head back to Spain and then onto Greece. I feared Santorini would be yet another tourist trap as most of Europe had been, but we got lucky. The high season had ended by the time we got to Santorini, it was cool, accommodation was cheap and tourist numbers were down. It was genuinely enjoyable to stroll the streets of the island.

One of the best sunsets ever
One of the best sunsets ever

Santorini sunsets are famous and the one we saw was up there with the best I’ve seen. It really was that red.

Setting sail enroute to Selcuk
Setting sail enroute to Selcuk

We headed to Turkey after Greece and it was a complete surprise. These birds followed our ferry as it carried our bus across a large body of water enroute to Selcuk.

Ephesus was impressive, but this guy didn't seem to think so
Ephesus was impressive, but this guy didn’t seem to think so

Ephesus is one of those cities named in the Bible and it is remarkably in tact for such an old place. A Turkish highlight for sure.

Pamukkale - pretty cool place, heavily touristed
Pamukkale – pretty cool place, heavily touristed

I was a little disappointed with Pamukkale — it was certainly something different, but we stayed a guesthouse with a shitty owner and the pools weren’t as natural as I had expected. On top of that the number of independent travellers vs tour bus travellers was about 100 to 1. It was overwhelming and unpleasant. Still, it was worth a visit.

Cappadocia was truly marvellous
Cappadocia was truly marvellous

I was a bit suspicious of Cappadocia. Places that people rave about so much don’t usually suit me (can you see the theme here?). But Cappadocia was a truly special place despite being a typical tourist destiantion. Plenty of places to get decent food at reasonable prices, decent acccommodation, nice people and… Stunning scenery. And it’s all about the scenery really. People lived here a while back in the caves that dot the landscape and they’re all open for you to explore.

Mount Nemrut - world heritage and totally empty
Mount Nemrut – world heritage and totally empty

Mount Nemrut was another Turkish delight. (good joke). It’s World Heritage listed, but there was no one else there. Not even a ticket person. A guy did turn up later to take money, but he seemed like one of those dodgy guys that hangs around tourist sites collecting money “on behalf of the Government”. Nemrut is definitely worth a visit. It didn’t even snow despite being over 2000m above sea level and at the end of November.

Ani - so stunning
Ani – so stunning

Ani. Incredible.

How can a place so incredible be so empty?
How can a place so incredible be so empty?

Another empty place. Why? Where are all the backpackers? Too busy on the Thai islands I suppose.

A great introduction to Georgia at Vardzia
A great introduction to Georgia at Vardzia

Georgia impressed from the very first encounter with a Georgian person – a border guard. Vardzia was one of our first sites in the country.

Davit Gareji - just go
Davit Gareji – just go

Davit Gareji is not too far from Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. It was an easy day trip and definitely worth visiting — it was absolutely sensational.

Kazbegi is an incredible place - it gets cold, so rug up
Kazbegi is an incredible place – it gets cold, so rug up

There were 3 other foreigners on the bus to Kazbegi on the day we went meaning we practically had the entire town to ourselves as far as tourists go. It’s up in the mountains near the restive border with Russia — it gets bitterly cold in winter. This small town was one of the highlights of the entire trip due to incredibly warm hospitality from our homestay owner and…

Possibly the best setting for a church ever
Possibly the best setting for a church ever

…the stunning scenery all around the area. You can even walk past this church towards Mount Kazbek and see a glacier (apparently — you need to be fitter than me).

Armenia is full of old school cars (with gas tanks on their roofs)
Armenia is full of old school cars (with gas tanks on their roofs)

After Georgia it was time to visit Armenia, another one of those countries that you know nothing about. That’s what made going there so fun, I think. You just went with no expectations. What we got was fantastic hospitality.

I got my ruski on in Armenia
I got my ruski on in Armenia

So hospitable were the people that every time we stood on the side of the road wondering how to flag down a bus, someone would stop and pick us up — and that’s how I got this military hat.

These buses were so fun to ride on
These buses were so fun to ride on

Still, when hitchhiking a bus would sometimes come past and we’d jump on that. These bus are so old school, but so fun.

Armenia is bleak, but beautiful
Armenia is bleak, but beautiful

I took this photo after being dropped off by a guy after hitchhiking. We had to walk the next 2km into town and it was so bleak. But I felt alive!

Massive apartment blocks plonked in the middle of fields
Massive apartment blocks plonked in the middle of fields

The strangest thing… I thought Hungary and Czech Republic would feel like ex-soviet states, but they didn’t. Not a bit. Armenia did. Totally. 100%. Ex-soviet. Mad! Love it!

Istanbul is as good as everyone says
Istanbul is as good as everyone says

After zipping through the Caucasus, it was time to head back to Turkey and linger in Istanbul for a few days. It is wonderful.

Walk across Galata bridge at sunset and just absorb the atmosphere
Walk across Galata bridge at sunset and just absorb the atmosphere

The best thing about Istanbul was getting your bearings and then just walking around the place. You don’t have a lot of choice anyway as the public transport system isn’t integrated and can be confusing.

Petra - a massive disappointment
Petra – a massive disappointment

To cap off the 4 and a half month journey, we hit up Jordan. After seeing all the glowing blog posts from people who went there for free as part of the #VisitJordan campaign, I wanted to see it for myself. I really enjoyed the low-key nature of Amman, but Petra was tourist hell. Expensive hotels, expensive eateries and… an $80 entrance fee to the site. It’s the most I’ve ever paid for a place like that and it certainly tarnished my experience there. If I had gotten it for free, I’d be raving about Petra. Just like everyone else. For a budget traveller, Petra is just not worth it. Go somewhere cheaper instead.

So that’s 4 and a half months of ups and downs, praise and criticism. I’m really starting to understand what I like and what I don’t like and I think it’s time to start travelling accordingly. Slow travel. No tourists. Short stints in cities unless they’re marvellous. Genuinely nice people. I’m just not interested in the rest.

A Portuguese chicken. That's pretty Portuguese, right?

Pleasantly surprised in Portugal

Wow. Portugal. What a pleasant surprise. You always hear about Portugal and think about it as just that tiny sliver of a country hanging off the edge of Spain and it’s always difficult to associate it with anything significant. What is Portuguese food? What is Portuguese culture? What is there to do in Portugal? Well, I can now safely report that I learned a bit  about Portugal after finishing the 780 km Camino walk across Spain. Most of it I should have known before!

A Portuguese chicken. That's pretty Portuguese, right?
A Portuguese chicken. That’s pretty Portuguese, right?

I entered Portugal from the north and ended up in Porto where I rented a superb AirBnB at a bargain price of around $50. Upon arriving at the main bus terminal, it was time to figure out the subway ticketing system and this was where I encountered Portuguese friendliness for the first time. A young lady noticed Susan and I were looking around with blank faces trying to figure out which ticket to buy to which station. The young lady hesitated slightly and asked if we needed help. Of course we did! She basically told us which station to get off at, which ticket to buy and which platform we needed. It seemed a little odd at the time as people aren’t usually so eager to help in most cities, but I came to understand that this sort of friendliness was par for the course in Portugal.

Every time I got out the big paper map our AirBnB host gave us, someone would inevitably stop and assist with directions. The same would go when we entered a cafe or restaurant — everyone was extremely friendly.

Of course, there are also a bunch of cool things to see in Portugal. In Porto it’s mainly architectural with a great seaside whereas in Lisbon it includes other stuff like the Belem area, food and historical stuff. Actually, they’re very similar in that regard. Food, architecture, history… Favourites of mine?

Pasteis de Nata

Pasteis de Belem - the best in Portugal?
Pasteis de Belem – the best in Portugal?

These things are what we know as Portuguese Tarts… But it’d be silly to call them that when you’re in Portugal — they’d be just called tarts right? Anyway, very nice in most places I tried. My favourite wasn’t actually at the most famous place, Pasteis de Belem in Lisbon, but I think that’s just a personal thing. Most people rave about those at Pasteis de Belem and they are very good. Best thing to do? Try find your own personal favourite by eating multiple pieces per day!

Seaside in Porto

The moody Porto seaside
The moody Porto seaside

The Porto seaside is quite similar to most seasides around the world, but on the day I visited it was particularly moody. This made it great for a walk along the breakwater out to the lighthouse — big waves, lots of fishermen and plenty of people getting drenched by rogue waves. Made my day. A short tram ride on an old tram from the centre of town.

Pork Roll

The pork sandwich from Casa Guedes
The pork sandwich from Casa Guedes

The pork roll at Casa Guedes in Porto is a bit of a secret really. It’s not on the tourist circuit thankfully, so we were the only foreigners having a snack at the time. The pork is melt in your mouth, the cheese is already gooey and the whole thing is about a million calories. As we all know, the more calories, the better it tastes. This pork roll was probably the best I’ve ever had.

Portuguese Tiles

Even this woman and the cat next door love tiled buidings
Even this woman and the cat next door love tiled buidings

I don’t know a lot about the history of Portuguese tiles, but they do a pretty good job of them. I took heaps of photos of the tiles over the course of my time in Portugal as I just couldn’t get enough of them. The best thing is that they’re not afraid to decorate the outside of whole buildings with them. Anywhere else it would look crappy and old fashioned — in Portugal it’s pretty cool.

And that sums up Portgual as a whole really. Old fashioned, but cool. I enjoyed the people, the food and the general atmosphere in Portugal more than Spain and more than almost any other European country. Yes, it’s a big call! But Portugal just clicked with me. Maybe it was the food. Maybe it was the low prices. Maybe it was the people. Whatever it was, Portugal is OK by me.

Walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela

So I completed the Camino de Santiago de Compostela almost two months ago now and I’m only just starting to process it — mainly because of all the travel I’ve been doing since then and now. It was an incredible travelling experience — the sort of experience I think many travellers simply miss out on.

Fields of wheat are a feautre throughout the middle 2 weeks of the Camino
Fields of wheat are a feautre throughout the middle 2 weeks of the Camino

The Camino de Santiago is a walk to the Spanish city of Santiago and it’s been a dream of mine for some years now. You can start walking from wherever you want really, but the most popular places are either 100km away in the town of Sarria or 780km away across the Pyrenees in the town of St Jean Pied-de-Port in France! I chose the one from France and completed the walk in a lazy 33 days.

People often ask how it’s possible to simply walk from one end of a country to another without some sort of support crew and the answer is quite straightforward really. You wake up, put on your shoes and walk until you’ve had enough. That’s it. There are always cheap hostels to stay in, there is a walking track of sorts and you simply walk. Every single day.

It was sunflower season during my walk
It was sunflower season during my walk

The spirit of the walk is part pilgrimage to the Cathedral in Santiago part losing yourself for a month part “what am I doing here” — but every person does it for their own reason, in their own time and for themselves. And that’s what’s so cool about it. Despite meeting up with plenty of other walkers, you’re still responsible from getting yourself from A to B every day and as such you really are walking your own journey.

Day one of the walk for me was up over the Pyrenees and into Spain. It was a fabulous introduction into what lay ahead — fantastic scenery, wonderful people, brutal adventure. To be honest, the first day wasn’t as hard as expected, but it was difficult to imagine being able to keep that sort of intensity up for a whole month. The very next day the difficulty of the journey became real when I injured my knee. I didn’t do anything out of the ordinary — no funny twist, no weird bend. It just stopped working properly and became very sore. And I had to hobble and shuffle about 10km until I got to my accommodation. Not fun.

Climbing through the Pyrenees
Climbing through the Pyrenees

As the days wore on, that injury healed and other ones surfaced and never went away — blisters. Almost everyone I met on the Camino got blisters. It’s just part of the journey and finding a way to nurse them is the key to continuing your journey.

A typical day on the Camino for me involved waking up at 0630, throwing my clothes on and simply walking outside to look for the nearest bar serving breakfast. Many others arose at 0530 and hit the road to beat the heat, beat the crowds, find some solitude.

Puenta la Reina on day 4 of the Camino
Puenta la Reina on day 4 of the Camino

After a quick breakfast, it was time to get some KM under the belt and after a couple of hours it’d be time to stop for a second breakfast and some coffee. Walk a bit more, get tired, stop for lunch. By this stage the end of the day is usually in sight with only another 10km to walk. I’d usually aim to get to a hostel by about 3pm, but in the earlier stages when walking in excess of 25km, this sometimes turned into 4 or 5pm!

Much of the Camino is along dirt tracks in rural areas. To find which way to go, there are yellow way markers everywhere. Towns are usually spaced a few kilometres apart giving the journey quite a rural feel and the odd town brings welcomed respite.

Waymarkers on the Camino are generally regular and reliable
Waymarkers on the Camino are generally regular and reliable

One of the things which really surprised me about the walk was the friendships I made along the way. You very quickly recognise the same faces every day and those same people tend to bond over breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s not even like you need to make an effort to make friends. You automatically become friends due to your shared experiences — pain, exhilaration, frustration. It’s fantastic!

Friends - the unexpected best part of the Camino!
Friends – the unexpected best part of the Camino!

So why should you do the Camino de Santiago? Because it’ll be the single most challenging walk you’ve ever done. You’ll get out of your comfort zone and battle all sorts of problems. It may well be the catalyst for change in your life!

And besides, there is nothing better than watching the sun rise every day for a month, watching scenery gradually change as you head west and noticing the sun rising later and later.

Sunrise every single day on the Camino - one of the best things about it!
Sunrise every single day on the Camino – one of the best things about it!

For me, it’s one of the great travel experiences out there. Not many people can say they walked 780km across a country. Now I can and I’m damn proud of it!

What do you think? Pretty cool walk or what?

Why AirBnB is Broken

Over the past 4 months I’ve been travelling through Europe and I’ve been doing it on a pretty strict budget. So far the main cost has been transport due to the quick nature of the travel I’ve been undertaking, but accommodation costs have come in a close second. For both Susan and I, I’ve been trying to keep accommodation costs for Western Europe at around $60 per night and slightly lower in some of the cheaper countries such as Spain, Hungary and Greece.

So far $60 has been achievable in almost all places I’ve been including Paris. In Luxembourg City, I ended up paying about $37 per person for a dorm room, but that was cheap compared to anything else available. The reason I’ve been able to keep costs down on accommodation is primarily due to AirBnB.

The first apartment I chose was in Paris and I got it for $52 per night. Small studio, washing machine, tiny kitchen, sofa bed, wifi. I thought it was a fantastic deal and meeting the owner was pretty simple even after a long flight from Indonesia.

AirBnB Paris
AirBnB Paris

The next place was a funky studio in Kreuzberg, Berlin. Fast wifi, washing machine, small kitchen, loft style bed and decent bathroom. The cost of that was just under $60 per night and again it was a great deal!

AirBnB Berlin
AirBnB Berlin

The best deal we got was in Budapest where we got a great studio for about $35 per night with all the amenities of the other places we’d stayed in. We were over the moon and by this stage could not say a bad word about AirBnB.

AirBnB Budapest
AirBnB Budapest

But as we moved further east, we started having more problems finding people who were willing to accept our bookings. “What do mean by accepting the bookings”, I hear you ask. Well, when you book on AirBnB, the owner of the apartment has to approve the booking before it is confirmed (unless it’s an Instant Book place which close to 0% are). This is usually not a problem, but as we moved into Greece, Turkey and Georgia, we found that the majority of places we booked were declined. That is, we reserved the room and some hours later (sometimes the next day) the host decided to tell us it was unavailable.

The AirBnB system has a calendar for each property listed. Apartment owners are supposed to manage this calendar carefully so that their rooms only appear on days that they are available. And herein lies the problem with AirBnB — owners are seemingly not managing their calendars properly OR screening their potential customers after they book. I actually think in my case the apartments were already full, but the owners just hadn’t bothered to update their calendars. I noticed a couple of bookings I made didn’t get a response at all until I enquired further with a direct email asking what was going on, despite the owner having logged into AirBnB to see my booking. They simply did not respond despite knowing I needed a room and there was no consequence for them doing that. For me the consequence in both instances was that it was too late by that stage to stuff around with AirBnB and I just had to go and get a hotel room from Booking.com

This is a big deal. When you are travelling like I do, you book your accommodation one maybe two days in advance meaning that when you make a booking, you need to be able to know that you have a room when you arrive in your next city. When I use Booking.com or Hostelworld.com, there are no ifs or buts. You plug your credit card details in and get instant confirmation. With AirBnB, you plug you credit card details in, they pre-authorise a few hundred bucks and then you wait for the owner to decide whether they want you or not — and they have 24 hours to decide.

Why? Why do owners have the ability to accept and reject clients? If I were a hotel and I rejected clients after they had booked, I’d receive all sorts of complaints but with AirBnB there is no recourse. There is no feedback mechanism such as Tripadvisor to air your grievances on. Owners can just fob you off and complicate your travel plans without a worry in the world. And that is bad for the customer and consequently bad for AirBnB.

AirBnB counters this by recommending that you contact multiple owners prior to booking and asking them if their place is available. I’ve done that and it feels like your begging for a place to stay.

I’m actually going to wind back my use of AirBnB for the rest of my trip as I just can’t be bothered with the hassle of the rejections. And when you’re staying in cheaper cities, the advantage of AirBnB sometimes dissipates anyway.

In my view, this is one area in which AirBnB is far inferior compared to sites like Booking.com. If they can fix this problem up, I’ll be back to booking with them again and raving about how great an alternative it is to booking a hotel room. What do you think about AirBnB? Great experiences? Any poor ones? I’d love to hear about them!

Tagines in Chefchaouen

Men of Morocco – Wrecking the Joint

I’ve been in Morocco now for about 10 days and have had a wonderful time travelling independently through some of the cities, some of the deserts and into some of the more rural towns which for me give Morocco its distinctive flavour.

Tagines in Chefchaouen
Tagines in Chefchaouen

In many ways, Morocco reminds me of Asia with massive disparity in wealth, education and status in society being evident as your travel from place to place, but more evident in the cities where poor live beside wealthy and where modernity rubs harshly against the old ways. And I think it’s this that causes some of the problems with men that I’ve encountered in the country.

It’s mainly in the cities where I’ve had problems with men. Maybe because about 95% of the people you see in Morocco are men or maybe just because there are a lot of nasty men in the country. I don’t know. But it all started in Fez.

Fez Medina
Fez Medina

When we hopped off the bus from Chefchaouen to Fez, we immediately were approached by touts. This is nothing new to me. I’ve regularly dealt with throngs of touts all across Asia and a simple “no” is all that is usually required. For the more persistent touts, ignoring them does the trick. But in Fez it’s different. In Fez they can become violent.

The first tout struck up a conversation with me without me even knowing he was a tout. He seemed like a nice guy and was giving advice on where we should travel next as we hadn’t locked anything in. But it soon became apparent he was a tout when he started pushing a particular town that I’d already told him I didn’t want to go to. And then his business card came out. And then it was time for me to go and buy another bus ticket for my onward journey as a way of breaking contact. I told Susan as we were lining up for the bus ticket that we needed to ditch this guy after we’d bought our ticket. Luckily he’d moved off to the side and we had a chance to walk into another room after purchasing our ticket, safe from the persistent tout.

As soon as we walked into the next room, another tout was onto us and I immediately told him “no”.

“What do you mean no?”

“No I don’t need your help”

“Don’t be so rude. I’m not like all the other people”, he barked. And I do mean barked.

The conversation went back and forth a few times until the guy was right up in my face giving me a verbal spray and told me to fuck off. Welcome to Fez.

Tiles in Fez
Tiles in Fez

I couldn’t believe what had just happened and we started walking out of the bus station when the first guy ran over to us and asked us if we’d like to take his tour. We told him “no” and kept walking. He shouted out as we walked down the street that I was liar and that I had a dishonest face, pointing, gesticulating. What a guy.

But it didn’t stop there. On the way to the hostel, another guy attached himself to us. He wanted to sell us something. We didn’t know what it was, but we weren’t interested. He tried engaging us in conversation and I did my best to ignore him, but he was a persistent one. He tried to guide us to the hostel, but we already knew where it was. The whole way, his attitude was hostile all the while trying to be helpful. It was so odd that I just had to smile and try and let it wash over me. Which it largely did until we went back outside later that day.

Chefchaouen at dusk
Chefchaouen at dusk

As I walked outside, the guy calls out, “do you remember me?”. I said, “yes mate, I will never forget you”. He then proceeded to be condescending by putting on a fake smile and saying that is exactly how I looked as I walked to the hostel earlier in the day. I couldn’t believe it! I should have just walked away and copped the abuse, but I didn’t. I told him that all I wanted to do was walk around without being harassed and he just shouted, screamed, got in my face and generally became one of those people that you wish would disappear. And then he called me a racist about 5 times. In the end a shopkeeper came over and told him to stop and I walked away, but not without throwing in a few barbs myself.

Of course, the horrible interactions with men continued in Fez and were mainly related to men calling things out. Derogatory things to Susan about her race. About how pretty she is. Laughing. Teasing. Being hostile towards both of us.

Even negotiating taxi fares was a hostile event with many men swearing under their breath as they agreed to take us somewhere for a fair price.

We didn’t encounter anywhere near this level of hostility elsewhere in Morocco, but it still occurred. In Tinghir I brushed off another tout that I couldn’t avoid as I was waiting in the bus station – I told him “no” and he went on a long, aggressive rant about how rude I was to say “no” to him and how in my country I’d never treat a person that way. It’s typical. Many of the men tend get all self-righteous about manners when they hear something they don’t like such as the word “no”. Oh please.

And here we are in Marrakesh where there are still touts and still the leering and general unpleasantness, but on nowhere near the scale of Fez.

I feel sorry for all the nice Moroccan men I have met. There have been so many of them that have been genuinely helpful, polite and interested in what I was doing. But these interactions were always tainted by my previous experiences with the awful men I encountered in Fez. I was always guarded, always aware that at any minute they would whip out an Amway catalogue and have me pinned against the wall trying to sell me a 10kg box of washing detergent. And I’m sad about that.

Camping in the Sahara
Camping in the Sahara

In many ways, the men of Morocco are colouring my entire experience here. When I look past them, I see an incredible country rich in history, stunning scenery and great food. But those dozen or so bitter interactions have been the worst I have experienced in any country in the world and I won’t be forgetting them anytime soon.

After Morocco we’ll be heading back to Spain, onto Greece and then Turkey. Over this time I’ll digest this trip a little more, but until then, I have this to say.

Men of Morocco, you’re wrecking the joint.

How to get from Lisbon, Portugal to Morocco

It’s been a long time between drinks, but I’m still alive! Having just finished 5 weeks on the Camino de Santiago (more on that later), I nicked down into Portugal for some R&R. Porto and Lisbon to be exact. Both of those places were charming, the people delightful and the food refreshing. Cheap too! But after that we wanted to get into Morocco and we just couldn’t figure out the best way to get from Lisbon, Portugal to Morocco. Well now we know.

Stairs of Lisbon
Stairs of Lisbon

Of course, the best way is to fly. But flying is REALLY expensive at last minute, so we decided to try out the buses instead. We booked our ticket directly at the bus station in Lisbon, but it’s also possible to get online to this bus website and book your trip. You want to book through from Lisbon to Algeciras if you’re heading to Morocco because Algeciras is where most ferries depart from. For us, it was a 9:30pm departure from Lisbon with a change of buses in Seville. From Seville a bus goes to Algeciras port directly. But to get from Lisbon to Algeciras, just book the one ticket right through. Cost was 59 euro each.

Gibraltar from the ferry to Ceuta
Gibraltar from the ferry to Ceuta

Once in Algeciras the next morning, things start getting interesting. The first thing to do is to buy a ticket. You can buy a ticket to a number of different places, but if you’re going to head to Chefchaouen like we did as your first stop (do this!), then you need to catch the ferry to Ceuta, a Spanish enclave in north Africa. It cost us 36 euro each. If you’re heading down the west coast first, catch the boat to Tangier.

How to get from Ceuta to Chefchaouen

Once in Ceuta, you need to get to the Morocco border. It’s quite easy! Walk out of the ferry port in Ceuta and hit the road out the front. Turn left down this road and walk about 500m where you will pass a gas station on your left and some supermarkets on your right. Keep walking until the road makes a sharp 90 degree turn to the right. Turn right here and up a slight hill for 100m up to a roundabout and then turn right again. From here it is 150m to the bus stop. You need to get on bus 7 and get off at the last stop. You will know it’s the last stop because the bus will empty out and the border is right there in your face. Cost is 0.80 euro.

Morocco Ceuta border
Morocco Ceuta border

Border control is a bit disorganised from the Moroccan end. Random guys without uniforms pointing you back and forth to different booths, across the road to the vehicle entry, back to the pedestrian entry… basically all around the place as if they’ve never checked in a foreigner before. Once you’re past this and in Morocco there is a cash machine and a bunch of taxis. From here you are probably best off having local currency although Euros are accepted, it makes things slightly more complicated with getting change.

Taxis at the Moroccan border
Taxis at the Moroccan border

You need to catch a collective taxi (one with other passengers) to the town of Tetouan for 2 euro. You might need to wait 15 minutes for other passengers and then you will be on your way. 45 minutes later you arrive in Tetouan. If you are dropped off at the proper spot, you will be just outside of a park and across the road from the CTM bus terminal. CTM is the good bus service through Morocco and costs slightly more than the beat up buses from other companies at the other bus station.

Book a ticket from Tetouan to Chefchaouen or Fes or anywhere else in Morocco for that matter (25dh). The trip to Chefchaouen is only about 3 or 4 hours and is a great first step in Morocco. More to come on this fantastic journey into Morocco, so check back soon.

Relaxing on Kanawa Island

A couple of weeks in Flores, Indonesia

So we went to Flores a few weeks back to check out this mountainous Indonesian island and some of the great attractions around it such as Komodo Island – home of Komodo Dragons.

Komodo Dragons are huge ugly beasts
Komodo Dragons are huge ugly beasts

We flew directly from Bali into Labuan Bajo at the western end of Flores. Labuan Bajo is a ramshackle old port town and is a popular jumping off point for people wanting to dive the islands in this part of the world and also to visit the famous Komodo Island. We headed straight for Kanawa Island, an idyllic tropical island fringed by a stunning coral reef.

Relaxing on Kanawa Island
Relaxing on Kanawa Island

Accommodation on the island is basic with electricity only available for a few hours per day and only cold water for showering. Prices are quite high for what you get, but one thing that really makes this place worthwhile is the reef right in front of the bungalows. It’s a healthy patch of sea filled with massive fish, colourful sea creatures and the odd shark. The other thing that sets this place apart from many places is that it gets magnificent, almost unrealistic sunsets.

Kanawa Island puts on a light show
Kanawa Island puts on a light show

During our stay on Kanawa Island we did a day trip which included snorkelling with 4m wide manta rays, observing Komodo dragons up close and see some amazing coral at Batu Bolong. That day trip was one of the best I have ever done and I highly recommend it to anyone coming to Indonesia.

Next stop on our trip was Seraya Island which  is essentially a simplified version of Kanawa Island. Great reef, fantastic sunrise and sunset, basic accommodation and a fantastic fishing village around the other side.

Sunrise on Seraya Island is worth getting up early for
Sunrise on Seraya Island is worth getting up early for
The sunrises on Seraya Island are stunning
The sunrises on Seraya Island are stunning

After 5 days on the islands, we headed back to Labuan Bajo to commence our Flores overland trip. It’s possible to get across the island on public transport and we’d normally want to do that, but we had my mum and her friend with us so we decided to hire a car and driver for $60 per day which included everything. Across Flores there are so many things to see ranging from a ricefield shaped like a spiderweb to Kelimutu, a famous volcano with three differently coloured lakes.

The first day took us to Ruteng where the highlight is a spiderweb ricefield. Nice to see, but quick to enjoy. All along the road to Ruteng are people selling oranges — for me, buying oranges from these kids was one of the highlights of the day rather than the ricefield. I guess that’s a sign of my shift to preferring experiences when travelling rather than simply seeing stuff.

Buying juicy oranges off the children -- an absolute highlight!
Buying juicy oranges off the children — an absolute highlight!

The next day we headed to Bajawa where there are a few cool things such as some traditional villages and some hot springs. We visited the traditional village of Bena and had a great time walking around, talking to the local people and trying to learn about their lives. In particular, one old man we spoke to told us all about his life, how much he pays for electricity ($5 for 3 months), what he likes to eat etc. The hot springs were also a cool thing to do. The water seeps out of the ground into a large pool and is extremely hot. Once you get used to the heat, it’s not too bad in the water, but you do find yourself feeling not so good after a while as you start to overheat. At that time we found it best to go to a part of the stream where the hot water mixes with cold water. A perfect luke warm bath!

Man chewing betelnut in Bena
Man chewing betelnut in Bena
Bena village with its traditional thatched roofs
Bena village with its traditional thatched roofs

Next on the agenda was the village of Moni. This day of driving involved an enormous landslide which blocked the road, some roadside stops and the highlight itself, Moni. Well, Moni isn’t a highlight but the town is home to the famous Kelimutu. The next morning we woke up EARLY. Hiked up the mountain through clouds of sulfurous gas and saw the sunrise over Kelimutu. We later found out that the lakes had recently completely changed colour and that the increased gas was dangerous. The alert level had been raised on the mountain and it was officially closed, but no one on the mountain actually knew about that (or cared!). So we hiked up oblivious to the danger. I actually felt my airways closing over on the way up and was a bit worried. In the end all was fine and we saw a great sunrise.

Cute girl hoola hoops as we stop at a warung
Cute girl hoola hoops as we stop at a warung

We ended our time in Flores in the town of Maumere which isn’t fantastic.

Overall, though, Flores proved to be a fantastic adventure. Highly recommended for those wanting to get out of Bali and see the rest of Indonesia.

So what’s the plan, Stan?

So this year started with the second half of my Travelfish assignment and since then I really haven’t done too much right? Well, that’s sort of right.

I’ve actually been sick on and off for weeks and then I had to do a visa run to Malaysia after being back in Indonesia for a month. I have no idea where time went, but that first month back flew by. I was actually totally spent after my time in Laos and I just needed to rest, but we did a lot of meeting up with friends in Jakarta, did a trip to Dieng Plateau in Central Java and a bit of lounging around.

Not really sure what this is about, but Dieng is a strange place!
Not really sure what this is about, but Dieng is a strange place!

The trip to Malaysia was a bit of an eye-opener as we had a chance to nick up to Penang for the first time. I really loved Penang. The food there is fantastic, cheap and plentiful and the historical stuff to see is well-mapped out and easy to access. It’s a city that some of the tourism authorities in Indonesia could learn something from.

It's all about the food in Penang!
It’s all about the food in Penang!

We also just got back from the ASEAN Bloggers Festival in the Central Javan city of Solo where hundreds of bloggers from around the ASEAN region met up to talk about blogging issues. I have no idea how someone managed to get funding for this event, but all attendees were put up in reasonable hotels for three nights, had many of their meals paid for and also had their transportation costs covered. Whatever the case, it seems that the Indonesian government paid for it and for that we’re grateful. But we came away wondering what the Indonesian government gets out of it.

The food in Solo was pretty good - ketan hitam.
The food in Solo was pretty good – ketan hitam.

So what’s next?

Well, we’re off to the Indonesian island of Flores next month — it’s the island where you jump off to see Komodo dragons. We’re taking my mum along with us, so it will be interesting to see how we manage our different travelling styles. Needless to say that I think we will be upgrading our style a little. We’ll spend about 5 days on the islands at the western end of Flores where there is fantastic coral reefs, deserted islands and of course Komodo dragons. After that we’ll hire a car and head east across the island taking in such sites as the famous volcano of Kelimutu. Then we’ll head straight back to Bandung with absolutely no concrete plans. And it feels good!

We do want to head to Europe in the second half of this year primarily because I want to walk the Camino de Santiago – a month long walk across Spain. The other reason we want to go is because Susan has dreamed of Europe for a while now and we had originally agreed to go together when we first met. The main thing holding us back is trying to get a visa for Susan. Because of Susan’s country of birth, she has great difficulty getting into some countries. Well, it just means we will have to be more thorough with her visa application than otherwise would be the case in order to prove that she has no intention of working in Europe of overstaying her visa. That said, if the Europe thing fails, we’ll just probably head to Turkey or some other country that will accept her! Crazy right?

Anyway, that’s kind of what is coming up. Hopefully the Europe thing comes off!