Cycling Around Prague

One of the absolute highlights from my birthday weekend in Prague was cycling around
the Old Town.

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17455009_10158499439890193_1912580703_oMost of the bicycle rental places we found on Trip Advisor charged a fairly pricey £10 for just two hours. We managed to track down Okolo in the Old Town, which is by far the cheapest place around (only £5 for 2 hours) who lent good quality bikes.

Make sure you cycle all the way up to the castle. It’s a thigh burner but definitely worth it for the stunning views across the bohemian city.

Here are some highlights of our adventures around Prague (including a close encounter with a tram)…

 

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KAYAK Price Alerts: Travel posh (without the price tag)

Love travelling on a budget but struggle to suppress your inner-diva? Tired of turning right when you board a plane, but can’t justify the price of premium seats? Fear not! KAYAK have developed just the tool for you…

KAYAK Price Alerts allows you to receive email notifications as and when a first-class ticket is being sold within a small price difference of an economy fare. Not only this, but you can track and monitor the prices of flights to any destination if you’re flexible on when you might travel or if you have specific dates in mind.

Perhaps you’ve got annual leave burning a hole in your pocket and are looking for some inspiration – they’ve got this covered too, by notifying you when reasonable fares to their top 25 world cities become available.

See the world in style, without the price tag. You can thank me later, darrrling!

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Getting to/from Con Dao Islands, Vietnam

When investigating how to get to Con Dao islands, I was amazed at how limited and dated information and content there was online. Even travel agents in HCMC advised not taking public transport and instead promoted the  extortionate flight (4.5 million VND each way, ouch!)… However, we made it!

Here’s how to get to Con Dao:

  • Go to the Phuong Trang bus terminal on 272 Đề Thám, Quận in the backpacker area (office is on the opposite side of the street) and book a bus from HCMC to Vung Tao for 95,000 VND – buses run on the hour for most of the day
  • Arrive at the bus station 30 minutes before scheduled departure (this is important because our mini-bus arrived early!) 
  • The Phuong Trang mini-bus will take you to one of their depots round the corner and will usher you on to the correct coach when it arrives shortly after – the coach from HCMC to Vung Tao takes 2 hours 15 minutes with a 10 minute food/toilet break
  • When you arrive at the Phuong Trang bus station in Vung Tao tell the receptionist to Con Dao. They will arrange a mini bus to take you to another bus depot in Vung Tao (for free) which is about a 10 minute drive away closer to the port (it’s important to note that if you fail at getting a boat ticket to Con Dao you can return to this bus depot which has buses departing back to HCMC, Mui Ne, Da Lat and so on)
  • Once at this other depot, you will need to pay 30,000 VND for a driver to take you to the port (about another 15 minute drive) in a mini bus, alternatively you could take a taxi straight form the main Vung Tao bus station but it’s about a 20 minute drive it total which may be a little pricey if you’re on a backpacker’s budget
  • Boats to and from Con Dao leave at 5pm each day and arrive at 5-6am the next morning. A ticket will cost you 150,000 VND. Basic food and some drinks are served onboard but I would advise taking your own provisions
  • Get on board and enjoy the view! When the boat arrives there are large tuc-tuc’s to fit about 8 people in which charge 40,000 VND per person to take you to your hotel. It’s worth having one booked for when you arrive

Overall I was really impressed with the coach service and quite astonished by the quality of the overnight boat, but most of all surprised that not more people take advantage of this cheap transport method to get to the most beautiful islands in the world! It may seem like a mission but it’s definitely worth it!

One thing to note is that you are very much the only white people/person on board. If you’re a solo female traveller or in an all-girl group I’d advise being a little wary as you draw a lot of attention which you may not want. A lot of the men and women are curious about western looks as tourists are far and few between, I caught a woman filming me eating noodles which felt a bit odd… in other  words just be a little more on guard than normal.

 

Here’s how to leave Con Dao:

Leaving Con Dao Islands by boat is a similar process to arriving. However, boats fill up very quickly leaving the islands; we were caught out by a Vietnamese public holiday which meant our 3 day stay turned into a week-long trip (although I’m definitely not complaining!) As soon as you know when you would like to leave, I recommend that you go to the ticket office and book your boat. The opening hours for the Con Dao ticket office are 8.00am-10.00am every day, but there is often a queue by 9.00am so try and get there as early as possible. Return tickets also cost 150,000 VND.

When it comes to the day you depart, speak to your hotel about arranging transport to the harbour. A taxi will cost about 230,000 VND, or a small shuttle bus/tuc-tuc will cost 50,000 VND.

When you arrive into Vung Tao there are plenty of taxis ready to take you to the town centre. We took a taxi from the port to the Vung Tao bus station (address: Xô Viết Nghệ Tĩnh) for 130,000 VND with a Mahalin taxi. Here there are plenty of buses Ho Chi Minh and other southern destinations (Mui Ne, Da Lat, etc.), but if you find yourself with a long wait there are plenty of places to grab some food or wifi nearby.

To read more about my travel experiences in Con Dao, click here: thetravellingtapir.com/con-dao-islands-vietnam

 

 

 

 

The Ultimate Itinerary for Travelling in Myanmar

Here’s our guide to spending 2 weeks in Myanmar:

Day 1 -2: Yangon

Explore the bustling streets of downtown Yangon – 19th Street being the popular traveller street, nestled in the heart of China Town. Get lost in the Bogyoke Aung San Market, and become dazzled by an emporium of jade jewelry, wooden trinkets and local produce. Don’t forget to pick up a must-have Longyi, as you’ll need one of these culturally significant pieces of clothing to cover your legs at many of the spectacular temples you’ll soon be visiting… Expect to pay around $5. In the daytime, make sure to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda. It’s one of the most structurally impressive, and decadent Buddhist temples in the world, and it’s golden nighttime glow totally captivates the skyline of Yangon! If you have time, take a couple of hours to visit the Sule Paya Pagoda (a beautiful 2,000 year old Golden Temple. The Utopia Tower within Bogyoke Park is a bizarre arcade, with beautiful views across the lake gardens and city.


Overnight Travel: Yangon to Bagan

There are several transport options to consider. Trains costs £30 for an “upper class” sleeper cabin, which is highly recommended. Flights are expensive, costing between £120 and £200 for a return. Buses leave downtown Yangon to Bagan every evening at 6pm. They arrive at 4am (which leaves you time to jump in a taxi and clamber up the side of a temple in time for sunrise). A “normal bus” will set you back 15,000 Kyat / £8, whereas a VIP bus is 18,000 Kyat / £9.50. The VIP bus is seriously worth considering (especially JJ Express coaches!), but these fill up quickly. In our experience, the small increase in price for the VIP coach is worth every penny. Make sure you allow 2 hours to get from Yangon to the bus station – this is no exaggeration as the roads are extremely congested during rush hour.

Day 3 – 6: Bagan

Bagan Archeological Complex requires a $20 p/p entrance fee, which can come as a shock to most tourists who are blind-sided by this. However the costs of this supposedly go into the preservation of these spectacular monoliths. This place has to be seen to be believed, as there are approximately 2,200 temples scattered across the dry an arid shrubland. A lost civilization of unknown magnitude. It’s possible to rent E-bikes or push bikes to see the most of Old Bagan, which is where the majority of temples reside. You can’t cover much by foot, so we recommend peddling your way around the vantage points and hidden gems. E-bikes are around $7 per day, whereas push bikes are $1. Head in the general direction of Old Bagan and you can’t go wrong. For those seeking a romantic window into the past (and a bumpy ride!), we recommend flagging down one of Bagan’s many horse drawn carriages. They’re touristy, but novel and allow you to soak up the sights.

Sunrises and sunsets in Bagan are an absolute must. The sun rises in – you guessed it – the East! Ask your hotel/guest house/driver to help you find a nice quiet temple that faces your intended direction, and await the concerto…

There are many cultural dancing and puppet shows in the evening, that can be combined with hearty local food. Here are a few options:

  • The Amata Boutique House. Thiripyitsaya Quarter, New Bagan. 061 65099: Performances nightly from Oct to March starting with a 30min puppet show followed by an hour of traditional Shan and Karen dancing. Free with a meal in the restaurant (with Asian mains for around K6000–7000). Daily 7–8.30pm (Oct–March only).
  • Bagan Golden Palace Main Rd, Old Bagan: Nightly shows of traditional dancing; $24 with dinner buffet or $10 entrance plus à la carte meal. Daily 7–9pm.
  • Nanda Restaurant Bagan–Chauk Rd, Wet Kyi Inn. 061 60790: Enjoyable 40min puppet shows, free with a drink or meal at the restaurant (although the pedestrian Chinese food is expensive, with mains at around K5500–7000). Daily at 6.30pm, 7.15pm and 8pm.

Hot air balloon rides are expensive, at around $350 to $400 per person for 45 minutes. We had a genuinely fascinating view of the balloons whilst viewing sunrise from our temple. They took off in their 10s, 20s and 30s, to a movie-set of low lying mist, and sharp golden light refractions that split over colossal stone temples…

If you have spare time, take a wonder around the Nyaung U Market – supposedly one of the best in the country.

We highly recommended the day trip to Mt. Popa which is 65km East of Bagan. Here you’ll climb 777 steps to a monastery capped mountain, dedicated as a shrine to the Nat spirits (which play a large part in the lives of the average citizen). A bus goes here from Nyaung U bus station at 8am every day. It takes 2.5 hours. However, you can hire a taxi for 35,000K which is what we recommend.

Overnight Travel: Bagan to Kalaw

Take an overnight bus for $15 – $20. It leaves New Bagan town at 7.30 pm, and arrives in Kalaw at 4am. Again, VIP is recommended!

Day 7-8: Kalaw

The beautifully tranquil and warm-hearted city of Kalaw is a former hill station that bills itself as the ‘Pine City’. It is a lovely place to wander, and a very popular spot for those taking two or three-day treks to Inle Lake. There are beautiful gardens, pine-forested hills, and a large selection of Nepalese food (which made it’s way to Myanmar from Nepalese labourers who came to build the railroad during British rule).

The Pindaya Caves are only a 45 minute drive away from Kalaw. Pilgrims flock here to worship 8,000 Buddha statues within the winding labyrinth of caverns, tunnels and chambers of this huge limestone cave. Pindaya is also surrounded by beautiful scenery, and the drive itself was just as captivating. We had a driver called Shan Lay, who was incredibly insightful, and a very friendly and interesting character. You can contact him to arrange a trip to the caves by calling him on 09978604306.

We were lucky enough to be the first-ever customers at the Sprouting Seeds Cafe, a community development programme that provides education, trade and applicable skills to teens in Myanmar and Thailand, through the owners NGO Whispering Seed. I’d highly recommend coming here to simply be inspired by their dedication and commitment to positive change, and maybe try some of their delicious homemade cakes and snacks.

If you have extra time, walk up to the Thein Taung Pagoda Monastery at sunset, or checkout the beautifully embellished catholic church. If rum sours and Burmese acoustic music’s your thing, then head to Hi Bar. Here you’ll find a shoebox sized bar full of charm and close-knit community. It’s a small, dark and smokey locals bar with a whole lot of charm. If you’re not too hazy in the morning, head to the Kalaw Market for an invigorating barrage of sights, smells and sounds.

Day 8-10: Trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake

This is an absolute must. I highly recommend booking through Ever Smile Trekking. Here’s our in-depth account of the trek.

On the first day of the trek you’ll pass through rural villages and farms, but each trip is vastly different to the last as there are a large array of routes and turns to choose from. You can discuss this with Ever Smile prior to booking, or simply allow your guide to choose the best option for you based on his or her gut instinct. Ever Smile were eager to find us the most interesting and rural route as it was a busy time of year, so rather than tearing us through the same well-trodden tourist path, we got to experience true Burmese countryside. We were the only people on our particular route, and we met many friendly locals along the way. We had the option to swim in the lake, pass between mountains, and cross paddy fields before staying the night in a local persons house in a hilltop village. All food is provided, and they your bag off to your hotel at Inle Lake.

On the second day, it was the final stretch to Inle Lake. You will cross through forests, mountains, and a steep decline until you’re finally at your destination where a long, thin motorboat awaits to take you 45 minutes across the lake to Nyaungshwe. You’ll see local life on the lake, fisherman with a distinct leg rowing technique, and loads of industries such as cigar makers, silversmiths etc. There’s a floating market that happens every five days.

Day 10 – 12: Inle Lake (Nyaungshwe town)

Nyaungshwe is a small town that sits on the northeastern edge of Inle Lake. It’s a little touristic, but has a vibe that’s relaxed and backpacker friendly. Expect no wifi, overbooked hotels, and some slightly expensive food joints. A bike will cost $1 per day, so with this in mind I recommend the following day trip. Peddle west of Nyaunshwe along a disheveled road, and through some farmland. Eventually you’ll take a left and start to head south, parallel to the mountains. You’ll reach reclaimed hot springs after about 5 miles. It’s not what you’d expect, and the entrance fee is $10 – but it’s welcome retreat after 2 or 3 days of trekking! After the dip, head south to Kaung Daing, an Intha village which produces fresh Shan state tofu, a local delicacy. You can now get back to the other side of the lake on a boat ferry, and then cycle north to the Red Mountain Winery; where you’ll head up the hill for some wine-tasting, and a magnificent view of the lake and the vineyards. Just before sunset, cycle back to Nyaungshwe through the sugar cane fields.

Those with extra time should visit the Mingala morning market, or the Yadana Man Aung Paya (Nyuangshwe’s oldest Buddhist monastery).

Up until this point the trip has been action-packed. Depending on whether you’re after some relaxation or some adventure, there are a couple of options of how to spending the final days of your trip…

Option 1: Adventure in Hsipaw

Hsipaw is much less developed than Kalaw, and has it soul rooted firmly in the untouched countryside that surrounds it. It’s a snoozy town that operates as a central hub/community supplied farmers market, which is in full swing. I highly recommend picking up some local raw honey which will set you back about $1.50 for a 350ml bottle.

More options for adventure and trekking tours with Mitch Michael from Myanmar Trekking (an excellent, young guide who has a lot of local knowledge and enthusiasm). He’ll take you to all sorts of places, including a Buddhist Monastery, the Dotha Wardy River via boat,waterfalls and local farmhouses. Who would have thought solar power was so popular in Myanmar? If you get the chance one evening, then check out the Sunset Hill, or one of the many temples facing West.

Travel from Hsipaw to Pyin Oo Lwin via train ($2)

The journey takes 6 hours along a slow an bumpy track, precariously crossing an unfathomably steep valley, across an old steel bridge that disappears into the blackness below you. A thrill, nonetheless. You can stop off in Pyin Oo Lwin for a few hours before carrying on to Mandalay / Yangon, or choose to stay a whole day or more at the Meditation Centre or the National Kandawgyi Gardens. Either way, make sure you eat at Krishna restaurant in the evening, which is run by a large Indian family and offers the best authentic food I can recall in recent memory.

Pyin Oo Lwin is a town that eludes long forgotten old world charm, and it has deep colonial routes as it was the home of the Summer Palace of the Governor of British Burma. It’s got unique history, and it’s modernising very quickly. It’d be great to catch a glance as it’s one of the few places in the world that’s been able to retains it’s (not so) colonial glory. It’s a populated by European architecture and lush, exotic gardens.

It’s easy to fetch a VIP bus from Pyin Oo Lwin to Yangon from here.

Option 2: Relaxation on Ngapali Beach 

This is the most famous beach in Myanmar, so potentially not the best, but it’s certainly the most well-established. It’s also incredibly hard to get to unless you’re willing to fly, or via Yangon/Mandalay if you plan to use the trains or buses. I’ve had consistently good reviews of the tour company Friends Forever – who operate in Ngapali and will take you on fishing and snorkelling trips to secluded paradises. The beach is the perfect spot to watch sunsets  whilst winding down with a beer.

Day 13-14: Yangon

Before you’re flight home, check out as many local delicacies as you can at Feel Myanmar Restaurant – a buffet where you can try traditional dishes of Burma. Visit Vista Bar in the evening – an amazing rooftop bar with a impressive view of the Shwedagon Pagoda in the midst of the city skyline. Explore the Happy World amusement park (and take some Mandalay Rum with you!). And finally, take a ride on the Yangon Circle Line which takes roughly 3 hours to travel around the city (at a snail’s pace). It’s a mere 200 kyat (15 cents) and you’ll likely spark compelling and friendly conversation with locals and tourists alike.

So there we have it, your ultimate 2 week whirlwind magical adventure in Myanmar. Please feel free to contribute your own suggestions in the comments box below!

Trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake, Myanmar

Trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake is a truly unforgettable experience, and is a must for all travelling to Myanmar. The countryside and mountainsides surrounding Kalaw are some of the most inspiring and sensational views, which for a small fee you can indulge in.

We chose Ever Smile Trekking to guide us through the magical wilderness, and couldn’t advocate them more highly. Ever Smile is a small, family-run business operating treks from Kalaw. They offer a two day/ one night and a three day/ two night trek – the 3 day trek being the same as the two day but with a different itinerary for day one. Ever Smile outshines other Kalaw to Inle Lake trekking companies due to their personal service, the constant element of surprise and the level of respect they show to the villagers – not to mention they’re also the cheapest option at only $17 per day!

The scenery you’ll see on the trek is out of this world: taking the off-beaten track leads you through rice fields, mountains, luscious bamboo forests and ends at the serene Inle Lake. You really feel like you get to know Myanmar more intimately by staying with villagers, eating local food and being at one with the gorgeous surroundings. Our guide Aki was eager to share her knowledge on botany, Burmese culture and political affairs, making the trip as educational as it was adventurous.

The trek itself is not especially challenging and is achievable for most fitness levels. While you’re not scaling a mountain, having the stamina for an average of 6 hours of walking each day is important (there are breaks, of course) Make sure you wear comfortable footwear, take a few plasters and plenty of suncream!

For any trekking enquiries, contact Toe Toe via email: toe1011@gmail.com

Undiscovered Guide: The street food navigation tool

At last. A reliable, knowledgeable tool advising us on authentic Vietnamese street food and where to eat it around Hanoi. Undiscovered Guide is what expats and tourists have been waiting for: a coherent summary of classic Vietnamese dishes and a convenient map of where to locate them around the city.

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The foodies amongst us are going to be in your element with this tool at your fingertips, as eating street food in Vietnam can be a search and find mission.  Specific streets will specialise in specific dishes, and on those streets you might find up to 20 vendors offering the same dish. The team behind Undiscovered Guide have certainly done their homework to eliminate this problem, by putting the most delicious eateries on the map… literally.

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Undiscovered Guide is fresher than Pho Cuon and will become an essential part of your dining experience in Hanoi. We have been promised that Hanoi street food is the first complete series of content to be used on the site, as there are more countries and more features coming in the near future.  So go bookmark the site and stay tuned for more cities being added to the guide!

Undiscovered Guide: www.undiscovered.guide/Hanoi-street-food

I’d love to hear what you think of Vietnamese food or if you have any top dining spots in Vietnam. Pop a comment in the box below!

Physiotherapy in Hanoi, Vietnam

In August 2015 I was involved in a minor motorbike accident in Hanoi, which left me with a fairly badly broken leg. The injury meant that I had to return to the U.K. for the majority of my recovery, but once I was back on two feet I was able to complete my treatment back in Hanoi.

I was recommended getting in touch with Hugues Tierney: a Hanoi-based, French and English speaking physiotherapist. Hugues works from home in Tay Ho (To Ngoc Van street), and has a fully-equipped therapy room. Each hour long session costs $50 and can be paid in installments of either VND or USD. I had an excellent experience of working with Hugues to get my leg back to normal and would highly recommend his services.

Hugues’ contact details:

Email – physio.hugues@gmail.com

Telephone – 090 748 11 29

How To Get A Tourist Visa for Myanmar

Whether you’re in your home country or already on the move, don’t waste your time and savings going to the embassy to apply for/collect your tourist visa for Myanmar.

Tourist Visas on Arrival (VOA) can be purchased from this official site: evisa.moip.gov.mm

Things to know:

  • A tourist visa costs $50
  • The visa lasts for 28 days
  • You will need a copy of your passport photo for the visa application. Alternatively you can take a photo of yourself as long as it’s passport appropriate
  • You will receive a confirmation email pretty much instantly – check your junk /spam folders if it doesn’t arrive
  • Your visa will be emailed to you within 72 hours of applying for it
  • Any visa-related queries should be emailed to contact@myanmareasenet.com

Travel Hacks: Booking Cheap Flights

A little birdy let me into a secret that there are some sneaky traps (otherwise known as algorithms) in place on frequently used travel websites which fluctuate the prices according to some minor variables. Here are 3 pieces of advice to ensure you’re getting the cheapest price possible…

  1. Search using Incognito Mode: Using behind-the-scene tags and snazzy coding tools, companies such as Skyscanner can see if you’ve searched for a particular flight before. With this information they can actually increase the price of the flight because they know you’re interested (spooky, I know). You’re best off searching using a Google Incognito window which hides your IP address and means you can avoid unnecessary additional fees.
  2. Search at off-peak times: During peak times in the evening and over the weekend flight prices are subject to increase as these are popular booking times. Waiting until the morning or on your lunch break could save you extra pennies.
  3. Cross reference your quote: Whether that’s against another comparison website or against the airline itself, it’s definitely worth making sure you’re getting the best price possible.

 

Visa on Arrival: vietnam-visa.com review

Visa on Arrivals are the way forward. As I discussed in my post VOA’s, a Visa on Arrival prevents a trip to the embassy (which is more often than not inconveniently located), time spent in a queue and unnecessary costs.

Back in April I was recommended to purchase a VOA from Vietnam-visa.com and in over a year have never shopped anywhere else.

Their service is by far the most affordable, efficient and friendly, with a coherent website which is easy to navigate. They often have promotions and discounts available and offer concierge services for once you have passed through the airport.

Once you’ve purchased your visa you can expect an email through containing a confirmation letter which you present to the VOA desk when you are entering Vietnam, along with your airport tax ($25) and a passport photo.  It is possible to have a photo taken at the desk, however this will set you back a couple of dollars and put you to the back of the queue.

I highly recommend this service to anyone travelling to Vietnam and looking to save some time and pennies.

Make sure you visit their website: www.vietnam-visa.com