How to do Rome in a day (on a budget!)

We all know Rome wasn’t built in a day. But believe it or not, it is possible to see the best that this incredibly beautiful city has to offer in the space of only 24 hours. All you need is a decent pair of shoes and a healthy dose of espresso to get you started. (Followed by cocktails. And then prosecco. And then more cocktails.  But we’ll get to that later.)

The key to seeing Rome’s best bits in such a short space of time is to keep moving, or more precisely, to avoid queues like the plague. No standing around in the heat, wedged between hot, disgruntled tourists in a queue that hasn’t moved an inch in the last 15 minutes. You may wonder what the point is in visiting Rome if you’re not going to see the interior of its most famous attractions: St Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, the Colosseum. I hear you. I would have loved to have seen inside all of these places and if I were to come back with 2 weeks to spare and all my pre-booked, fast-track tickets ready I would absolutely visit all of them. But I had 24 hours, and tight purse strings, and I did not want to waste the entire day in a queue. Especially when the famous Italian organisational skills (ahem) are hard at work here. There are no signs at the Vatican to indicate which queue you should even be in as there are apparently different lines for people with tickets and those without. At the Colosseum noone seems to know which line they should be in or what they are doing or if they are actually in the queue for the Roman Forum next door, or if they’ll get all the way to the front of the queue only to be turned away for wearing Hawaiian-print shorts. The only people you can ask are the touts and hawkers who will invariably try to sell you overpriced ‘queue-jump’ tickets for various overpriced tours. It’s madness, and the tourists who have actually decided to brave the queues look stressed and miserable.

So, we skipped the queues and did Rome our way. Who needs to actually see inside the Colosseum when you can climb the stairs opposite and take pictures like these?

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Tick that one off the bucket list

When you only have one full day to see the city, the most important thing is to stay somewhere in a good location. We wanted to book a hostel that was both as central and as good value as possible and we found an absolute gem in B&B’s City House which seemed too good to be true. A stone’s throw from the Pantheon and less than a 10 minute walk from the Trevi fountain and Piazza Navona the entrance to this hostel sits unassumingly on the buzzing Via della Maddalena. B&B’s couldn’t be more central if it tried. The dorm rooms are reasonably priced, as are the doubles with shared bathroom. Forget standard hostel bathrooms with grey cubicles and strip lighting, this shared bathroom is as clean and homey as your own and the hostel feels more like a tucked-away boutique hotel, without the price tag.

As for seeing the sights, if you hit Rome’s cobbled streets early enough, you can cover the city completely on foot and avoid taking any public transport. (Always a plus in my opinion, public transport networks in major cities can be majorly confusing!) We are out of the hostel by 8am and in the ancient Pantheon by 8.05, gazing up at the impressive oculus in the domed ceiling. This early in the day there are no queues and we had this incredible place almost to ourselves. Rather than join a tour, we had previously downloaded a free podcast by Rick Steves onto our phones. This gave a bit of context to ‘all the old stuff’, and I’d definitely recommend this to anyone that wants to learn about the history of a place without paying a hefty fee for a guided tour!

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Rome’s oldest building, the Pantheon

Seeing as it’s still early in the day we decide to head over the bridge to Vatican City to see whether the queues are as bad as people say. They are. An enormous, chaotic snake of a queue has already formed at St Peter’s Square.  Rather than even attempt to find the end of it, we wander leisurely around the square, taking in the impressive view of the basilica while dodging large groups of Chinese tourists and disgruntled families who assume everyone is trying to jump the queue. Along the wide street that leads up to St Peter’s you can look inside several churches which are uncrowded and peaceful, such as the lovely Santa Maria in Traspontina, just a few metres from St Peters Square.  If, like me, you’re not at all religious you can still appreciate the incredible frescoes painted on the ceilings, not to mention it’s a welcome break from the tourists and the heat outside.

From Vatican City we walk back across the river in the rough direction of the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. (Don’t be deterred by what Google maps may tell you, it’s really not that far on foot!) As we wander down the shady streets we begin to hear the enticing sound of gushing water. A few twists and turns later we suddenly find ourselves at the famous Trevi Fountain, which seems to pop up out of nowhere in a small square filled with kissing couples and coin-tossing tourists.

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The famous Trevi Fountain, try to visit both during the day and after dark!

From here, it’s a short stroll to pretty Piazza Navona where you’ll find not one but three impressive fountains. This popular spot is the perfect place to take an espresso break or grab a slice of pizza and people watch. Or just take a seat and admire the impressively carved architecture… (ahem).

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He works out…
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Nailed it (sort of)

Over at the Colosseum, it’s another hectic swarm of confused queueing and jostling to get inside. We take the steps opposite, away from the heaving crowds and unhelpful hawkers down below, and find a quiet spot to take in the iconic view. The sprawling Roman forum is just next door and Palatine Hill can be seen behind in the distance. This is the ancient heart of the city and it’s an unmissable part of any trip to Rome. Even without visiting inside, it’s impossible not to feel in awe of this giant ancient wonder.

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Take the steps opposite the Colosseum for less crowded views

We continue up the steps opposite the Colosseum, ambling down cobbled streets that lead to small, fountain-filled piazzas, stopping for a cold drink or yet another cup of gelato. We peek inside the countless charming churches that seem to stand on every street, turn a corner to find ourselves in a courtyard filled with orange and lemon trees. This is the best way to see the city, just keep walking and take it all in. (Although Google maps does help if, like me, you have zero sense of direction and want to avoid getting completely lost or going round in circles!)

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A cute spot to grab a quick shot of espresso, down one of the countless cobbled streets
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Oranges & Lemons

Eventually we find ourselves at the very top of the gorgeous Spanish Steps, the traditional meeting place of artists, poets and bohemians. The steps spill out onto the busy Piazza di Spagna below, crowded with tourists, locals and covered in bright pink flowers. A super photogenic photo spot!

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Looking up to the top of the Spanish Steps, these gorgeous pink flowers are everywhere!
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1. Locate pretty flowers. 2.Perch awkwardly on ledge with very steep drop. 3. Take photo and try not to fall off

By this point it is late afternoon and, we have to admit, our feet are feeling pretty tired so we head back to the hostel for a power nap. (Yep, this one day itinerary even includes a nap!) But as soon as the sun starts to go down, it’s time to get up and get back out there because as every Italian knows, 6pm is aperitivo time. The best part of the day and an absolute must if you are visiting the city, aperitivo is the British equivalent of a long happy hour. But here in Rome, it is so much more than that. There is nothing quite like sipping cocktails as the sun goes down, at a busy street-side bar, listening to the buzz of excited, post-work chatter as everyone winds down after a long day in the city. Romans know their stuff when it comes to shaking a good cocktail, and in most bars your drink will be served with a light plate of something delicious to snack on while you sip.

Our evening unfolds slowly, hopping from bar to bar, starting at Gusto which is widely reputed to be the best aperitivo bar in the city due to its fantastic free buffet. The cocktails are delicious and you can take as many trips to the heavily laden buffet table as you like. If you’re on a tight budget but still want to dine in style, this is a great way to enjoy a light meal without forking out at a pricey restaurant.

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Gusto’s free buffet, order a drink, then grab a plate and fuel up!

After drinks at Gusto we head down Via del Pace, one of the small streets that lead off Piazza Navona, and apparently an aperitivo hotspot. The busy bars along this charming street are filled with locals and tourists alike. Make sure you do as the Romans do and order a classic Aperol Spritz, served with yet another plate of something delicious.

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No trip to Italy would be complete without an Aperol Spritz or 2! Or 3, or 4…

Although by this point we have eaten enough to feed a small army we can’t resist tucking into a pizza washed down with a bottle of prosecco at Pummerola, just opposite B&B’s City House back on Via della Maddalena. This place does the BEST pizza, the staff are friendly and it’s fantastic value for money despite it’s great location. (If you still have room after dinner, the gelateria next door serves 150 different flavours of gelato, at just 2.50 euros for two scoops! I can highly recommend the salted caramel and profiterole…)

No visit to Rome would feel complete without a trip across the river to the youthful, vibrant neighbourhood of Trastevere and the hip, late night hotspot that is Freni e Frizioni. This popular bar is always rammed, but you can take your drinks outside and join Rome’s cool kids on the steps that lead down to the river. Try the Green Day cocktail, a refreshing mix between a mojito and a slush puppy. Heaven.

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Thanks for the photo, Google. I’d had far too many cocktails by this point to be capable of working my camera…

At 2 am, after bar-hopping our way around the city and dragging our tired feet back across the bridge, we hear the familiar sound of running water and find ourselves back at the Trevi fountain. Lit up and illuminating the whole piazza, the fountain is almost deserted at this hour. Legend goes that anyone who throws a coin into the fountain will return to Rome some day so I rummage around my purse looking for a stray euro. But I  realise that I don’t need to throw in a coin to be sure of coming back.  I may have seen a lot in just one day, but I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface of the sights and secrets this beautiful, ancient city has to offer.

Roma, mi manchi già!

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Ciao Roma, ci vediamo presto
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On the ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ trail in Ubud with the elusive Ketut, the medicine man

I’d seen the movie, of course. Hasn’t everyone watched the ever-endearing  Julia Roberts amble across the globe on her soul seeking journey that all started in Bali with Ketut, the toothless medicine man who read her palm and set her future in motion? It’s a heartwarming tale, based on the author’s own life, worth a watch for the beautiful scenes of Ubud with it’s jungles and rice paddies alone. What I hadn’t realised was that Ketut’s character in the film is actually the same, real-life Ketut that the author had met and been so influenced by. And that he was still living right here, in Ubud.

When I spotted the sign pointing down a nondescript side road, I yanked my boyfriend so hard in excitement that our scooter nearly went careering off edge of the road and into the jungly undergrowth. The sign read simply, ‘Ketut Liyer’s House’ and we followed the road to a small, pretty guesthouse. Since the movie’s release, Ketut has become a local celebrity and his house a magnet for tourists who come to visit him and get their palms read by the cheerful medicine man. When we visited however it was late 2015 and Eat, Pray, Love had been released over 5 years ago. Remembering his crinkly face and toothless smile from the movie, I had to wonder how old Ketut could possibly be now…

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The spot where Ketut and Liz had their first meeting

The entrance to Ketut’s house and garden leads into a pretty courtyard, filled with flowers, caged birds and the heady smell of incense. The raised platform where Ketut does his readings is adorned with ornate images. I spot a faded photograph of a smiling Julia Roberts with Ketut and his family, but no sign of the man himself. The friendly man who welcomes us introduces himself as Ketut’s son and tells us that unfortunately his father is too tired to greet visitors today. ‘He is very old’, he laughs, ‘100 years old!’ Incredible. No wonder the guy wanted some peace and quiet. We wander around the guesthouse grounds which are serene and beautiful. It’s not hard to see why Elizabeth Gilbert was so enchanted by this place.

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Spot Julia
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Ketut’s son, who will take over his father’s role of medicine man

Sadly, I recently saw in an article that Ketut passed away in the summer of 2016, at the age of 100, only a few months after we visited. I’m sure though that his memory will live on. In those who will watch the film and be seduced by the mysticism and serenity of Ubud and will flock to visit his guesthouse to sit cross-legged on that well-worn platform in the hope of catching some words of wisdom from a wise, old medicine man.

Rest in peace Ketut, or as you would say, ‘See you later, alligator.’

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Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm: Exploring the incredible ancient temples of Angkor

Before I visited Cambodia, I didn’t know a single thing about the country except that it was pretty close to Thailand and had a famous temple with a funny name. Ashamed as I am to admit it, that was the extent of my knowledge of the country that would soon become my favourite in South East Asia. Cambodia really does have it all. It is a country with a fascinating yet tragic history, beaches to rival those of neighbouring Vietnam and Thailand and the hotspot cities of Siem Reap and Pnohm Penh are a must for culture junkies who aren’t afraid of a wild party or two. Not to mention Cambodia has one of the largest temple complexes in the world, the 400km expanse of Angkor, an ancient Khmer city filled to the brim with crumbling, Tombraider-esque temples slowly being taken over by the jungle. (Read on to the end for some top tips before you visit!)

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Another day, another temple
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The 54 ‘devas’ guarding the southern entrance to Angkor
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The opposing figures at the South Gate depict the battle between the ‘devas’ (gods) and the ‘asuras’ (demons)

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is the superstar here, claiming the number one spot in Lonely Planet’s Ultimate travel List. (Grab a copy for your coffee table here.)  The best time to visit the iconic temple is sunrise, so take it easy on the beer pong the night before, especially if you’re staying at the Downtown Hostel in Siem Reap which is notorious for it’s Pub Street bar crawls. Your hostel can arrange for a local guide to pick you up on a tuk-tuk in the dark at around 4.00am to arrive at Angkor Wat in time for sunrise. Despite the early hoards of selfie-stick wielding tourists, there is an undeniably mystical, serene atmosphere here. The morning mist hangs heavy in the humid air and countless dragonflies dance around the crumbling stones. Try and wrestle your way to a spot right in front of the water so you can watch the sun slowly appear behind the magnificent temple and see its shimmering reflection. Or just do what this lady did and ignore the temple right in front of you to snap a picture of a postcard…strange.

 

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The real thing is directly opposite you love…
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5am faces…
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The sun rising slowly behind Angkor Wat

 

There is far, far more to the temples of Angkor than Angkor Wat alone. There is a vast array of temples dotted around the ancient complex. You won’t be able to see everything in a day, your best bet is to buy a 3 day ticket and let your guide ferry you around the temples on a tuk-tuk. Just remember to tip your driver after the 3 days! Your other options include cycling, but the midday heat is seriously sweltering and the temples are spread widely apart. You could take an elephant too, but it’d take you a hell of a long time to see everything and, with all tourist attractions such as this, the welfare of the elephants is always questionable.

 

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Taking a break from the heat
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Monkeys often bring traffic to a halt as they amble across the road

 

Bayon

Bayon is a mind-boggling temple where 216 serene stone faces smile down at you from every angle. The entire temple is covered in bas-reliefs, figures etched into the stone, depicting mythological scenes and everyday life in 12th century Cambodia. Inside feels like a giant hall of mirrors with its endless, long hallways of crumbling stone and small shrines sit in silent corners adorned with flowers and incense.

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The huge, smiling faces of Bayon

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For a small fee you can have your photo taken with locals in traditional dress at Bayon
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Just one of thousands of bas-reliefs carved into the temple walls

Ta Prohm

Nowhere is the power of nature more apparent than at Ta Prohm temple, or ‘The Tombraider Temple’, where the jungle has literally taken over. Long tree roots have entwined themselves around the stones and grown around doorways, enveloping the temple which buckles under the force of nature. You can’t help but unleash your inner Lara Croft here, or picture yourself in an Indiana Jones movie. The temple itself is a maze of narrow hallways and you’ll find yourself at a twisting series of dead ends, the passage blocked by fallen stone blocks. The light filtering down through the trees and the sounds of the surrounding jungle add to the mysticism and other-worldliness of this place.

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Teeny doorways

Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm are only the tip of the iceberg of temples to explore. Take your time and prepare to be enchanted by this truly incredible part of this beautiful country.

Things to be aware of before you visit:

Dress code: Although a tourist attraction, Angkor is still a religious site and therefore you should dress appropriately. This can be a struggle in the midday heat, as you can see from my photos I didn’t always follow my own advice. Your best bet is to keep your shoulders covered with a loose shirt or kimono to stay cool while dressing respectfully.

Child hawkers: You will be followed constantly by cute kids selling postcards and trinkets. Remember that the Angkor complex is enormous and there are populated villages scattered around so these children’s families live nearby. Although the constant hassling can be tedious, remember that these families often have no other option than to send their children out to make a living.

The heat: Oh god the heat. The temple complex is huge and you will spend full days walking around endless temples in the midday sun. Bring lots of water and suncream and try to stay in the shade as much as possible. Some temples have hundreds of steps, so take it easy!

Tourists: Try to visit the most popular temples mentioned above as early or late in the day as possible, to avoid the crowds. There are so many other temples to explore during the day that you’ll often find yourself the only person there!

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Top 10 budget-friendly things to do in Hanoi

I hadn’t planned on spending 10 days in Hanoi. The original idea had been to make our way leisurely up the coast of Vietnam and spend a couple of days here before flying home. But a pesky monsoon hit us hard in Ho Chi Minh and, being shameless sun-seekers, we decided to jump on a flight to the sunnier end of the country. This turned out to be a great decision (and not only because of the weather). From the unmissable views of serene Halong Bay to the chaotic, labyrinth-like lanes of the old quarter, there is so much to see and do in happening Hanoi. Here’s a list of the top things not to miss in this culturally rich capital, and they’re all budget friendly!.

1. Cruise your way through towering limestone islands in a junk boat.

93Halong Bay had to be top of the list didn’t it really? It is a UNESCO world heritage site after all. Almost 2000 rainforest-topped islands make up this breathtaking place. These little limestone islands were formed by dragons according to legend and Ha Long literally translates from ancient vietnamese as descending dragon.

There are a lot of different boat trips to choose from so take a bit of time to shop around and try to pick one that’s relevant to your age range and interests. (You don’t want to find yourself on a banana-boat booze cruise with a rowdy group of pimply 18 year olds, unless that’s your thing of course.) We opted for a 3 day, 2 night tour that included one night on the boat and one on pretty Cat Ba island. The itineraries tend to be very similar, mostly involving kayaking, floating villages and stop-offs at various picturesque islands to find the best photo ops.  Our tour included on-board cooking lessons, cycling around Cat Ba island, cave exploring and kayaking trips into deep, hidden lagoons. No matter which tour you choose, you’re in for an unforgettable experience.

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Time to top up the tan between islands
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On the way to some bat caves in the middle of dense rainforest we bumped into these ladies, who shared their tasty sugar cane with us

 

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Almost walked face first into this guy…
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Exploring caves in the jungle on Cat Ba island
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Interesting hotel name…

2. Pet a furry friend at Hanoi’s very own cat cafe.

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I had heard through the backpacker grapevine that Hanoi had its very own cat cafe, but when I asked around I was met with blank looks. But after finding a vague address online and wandering around the city for hours we eventually found the Ailu cat house. To call it a cafe is generous, they don’t actually have a coffee machine or serve any food. But what they lack in beverage options, they make up for in cats. A lot of cats. The general idea: come in, sit down, wait for a cat to sit on you, relax! It’s meant to be pretty therapeutic apparently. If you’re a cat person anyway.

We spent an unnecessary amount of time here that afternoon, but it’s hard to leave when you’ve got a cute, little furry thing snoring peacefully on your lap…

 

3. Tickle your tastebuds with a walking food tour of the Old Quarter

(That’s you walking by the way, not the food. Though in Vietnam you can never be sure…)

There’s more to vietnamese food than just phở! The variety of dishes on offer here is huge, but for a truly authentic taste of Hanoi you’ll need avoid the lure of touristy restaurants. Your guide will take you to all the secret places that you’d have a hard time discovering on your own; down a side alley, through a non-descript store front, up several flights of rickety stairs into a hidden restaurant. Be prepared to try such delicacies as deep-fried duck tongue and Hanoi’s famous egg coffee. (So much nicer than it sounds.) Awesome travel offer a great food tour that takes you to 8 different places around the old quarter for around £10. The trip involves a lot of walking and takes around 3 hours. Make sure you go on an empty stomach, you’ll be absolutely stuffed by the end of the evening!

 

4. After tasting it, try making it in an authentic cooking class.

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If you’re into the culinary side of things a cooking class is a great way to spend an evening. Blue Butterfly Cooking Class is one of the most popular choices, with the class beginning in the markets with your guide, who introduces you to the different spices and herbs before purchasing the fresh produce to bring back to the kitchen.

At the restaurant you’ll be shown how to make traditional dishes such as pork spring rolls and banana flower salad. Afterwards you’ll sit down and eat everything you’ve just cooked! At around £44 this is a bit on the pricey side, but it was my favourite experience in Hanoi and worth every penny!

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There is a slight chance you’ll set yourself on fire

5. Take a stroll through the tranquil Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s oldest university

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If history and architecture is your thing, you’ll love this temple/university. With the tranquil atmosphere and heady scent of incense in the air, it’s an escape from the hectic city surrounding it. Established as Vietnam’s very first university in 1076, this small temple complex is full of beautiful old architecture and shrines honouring Vietnam’s finest scholars. Entrance used to be reserved for those of noble birth only, but don’t worry, they let anyone in nowadays 😉

Look out for the bushes shaped like animals of the zodiac and the cute miniatures of Confucius and his students scattered around the well-pruned foliage. The temple is not just popular among tourists; often you’ll see recently gradated students in traditional dress having their photographs taken in front of the central pool, known as the ‘Well of Heavenly Clarity’. Admission costs only 30 000VD.

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6. Discover the ancient legend of Hoàn Kiếm, ‘Lake of the restored sword’

Hoàn Kiếm lake, the physical and symbolical centre of the city. You can’t miss this huge body of water at the heart of the city, its banks are popular with locals who enjoy a bit of tai chi at 6am and if you’re lucky you might spot a turtle popping up for a breath of air. Legend goes that in the 15th century  Emperor Ly Thai To was given a magical sword by the Golden Turtle God which helped him defeat the Chinese. After the victory, a large turtle swam up to the emperors boat and reclaimed the sword, disappearing into the depths of the lake to return it to it’s divine owner.

You can learn more about the legend at Ngoc Son Temple,( Temple of the Jade Mountain) which sits on a tiny island accessed by an ornate red bridge. It’s only 30,000VND to go inside, where you’ll find many locals come to worship and burn bank notes in a furnace as offerings. (Don’t risk burning yourself, the notes are fake…)

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Group of friends playing a checkers style game in the temple grounds

7. Gawp at the traffic mayhem from a safe distance at the City View Cafe

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Crossing the street anywhere in Hanoi is pretty daunting, but this intersection by the old quarter is something else. It’s chaos. There are no lines on the road, no roundabout, no rules of who goes first. It’s every man for himself, you snooze you lose. Our food tour guide tried to teach us how to cross the road without getting squashed with his 3 golden rules:

  • Don’t stop! One you’ve started to cross just keep going, don’t hesitate, slow down or worst of all stop. The traffic will (hopefully) move around you.
  • Don’t make eye contact with drivers
  • Buses rule the road! A bus will not stop if you are in the way, if you see one coming, run…

If you can’t face crossing the road, watch the madness from above instead. You can’t miss the City View Cafe building overlooking the intersection next to the lake. Head all the way up to the top floor and grab a spot overlooking the chaos below with a cold drink.

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8. Take in the french colonial architecture and shop til you drop in the labyrinthine old quarter .

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Grab a bag of delicious, deep fried pastry ball things from a street vendor, search for the best phở in Hanoi or haggle over the price of a pointy hat that you’ll have to wear on the plane on the way home and which will probably end up in the attic…

 

9. Discover Hanoi’s secret nightlife

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Hanoi has notoriously strict laws regarding bars and clubs and most places will be closed by midnight. A ‘night out’ in the city will usually consist of sipping bia hoi perched on a plastic stool down a bustling lane in the old quarter. But after one evening doing just that, we met a group of Israeli guys who were heading to one of Hanoi’s ‘underground’ clubs.

A 10 minute taxi ride from downtown brings us to the Hero Club, an industrial style nightclub with pulsing music, cage dancers and of course, a selection of fresh fruit on the tables. However we had only been inside for 5 minutes when the music turned off abruptly and the staff starting ushering everyone to  the rear exit away from the police out front… we’d have to try our luck another night!

 

10. Cool off in the rooftop pool at the Apricot Hotel

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It’s hard to find a swimming pool in the city. There are only a handful scattered about, mainly on the rooftops of the fancier hotels that are definitely not backpacker-budget friendly. But many hotels will let you use their pools for a fee, such as the ridiculously fancy Apricot Hotel. Just look at those chandeliers in the lobby…

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The hotel charges around £10 to use the pool. However, if you’re really low on funds and feeling sneaky, it’s easy to come back free of charge another day. Just act natural and jump in the elevator!

Waterfalls, kauri forests and secret glowworm caves in wonderful Whangarei

My attempt at a New Zealand road trip didn’t start very well.

In the space of the first week we had unwittingly checked into a hippy commune, bought a car, had all our belongings stolen from said car and then been stuck in the middle of nowhere waiting for the car to be repaired. To say the least, it had been an eventful start. I think I took the loss of my luggage pretty well, copious amounts of cheap wine certainly helped. Though admittedly I did mourn the loss of my hair straighteners for a good while. But eventually, with the car back in one piece we were ready to actually start our trip. So we bid farewell to the Fat Cat hippies(read about this amazing place here and here) and headed north through Waipu (got to love these Maori names) and on to Whangarei where we  discover the Little Earth Lodge, a tucked away haven of a hostel nestled deep in a kauri filled forest. On the deck we meet a lean, bushy eye-browed guy with hair nicer than mine. ‘I slept in a tree last night,’ he says solemnly, before introducing himself as Ian, a trainee yoga instructor from Florida. Apparently its not a good idea to sleep in trees in New Zealand. You’re likely to be attacked by territorial possums. Ian is either the most zen guy I’ve ever met or the most stoned. Possibly both.

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Little Earth Lodge’s best kept secret is the glow worm caves hiding in its back garden. Known as ‘the budget traveller’s answer to Waitomo’ the Abbey Caves can be explored for free, all you need is a head torch and a fondness for claustrophobic, dark spaces. The opening to the caves is literally a hole in the middle of the forest. After the recent rainfall the rocks down are slippery and we land in murky, waist-high water at the bottom. With no idea what might be lurking in the narrow tunnels ahead or swimming around us in the icy water, we head into the darkness. (Cue thoughts of Gollum and those weird things in ‘The Descent’.) After many twists and turns, sloshing around amid frequent cries of, ‘something touched my foot!’ we arrive at the end of the cave where we turn off our head torches to see the glowworms above us, carpeting the ceiling of the cave like a miniature milky way. It’s an amazing sight, and we didn’t have to pay $50 for it…

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Head torches, helmet and slip-proof shoes…
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Entrance to one of the caves (Source: pinterest)

The next day after a morning yoga lesson with Ian, (it didn’t go down well, I can’t even touch my toes,) we take a walk around the forest where ancient kauri trees have stood for centuries. (These trees can grow up to 50 metres high!) A trail takes us down to Whangarei Falls, described by Lonely Planet as ‘the Kim Kardashian of New Zealand’s waterfalls, not the most impressive but definitely the most photographed.’ The falls look pretty impressive to me, with torrents of clear water tumbling over the edge of a sheer cliff face into a deep pool. This wouldn’t look out of place in a tropical jungle. I can imagine monkeys scampering about the rocks and swinging from vines. The only monkey I see however is Ian, who decides to strip completely naked (to the horror of an elderly German couple) and swim out to the falls where he perches on a rock and does a spot of yoga. Of course.

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Whangarei Falls

Ancient temples, pickpocketing monkeys and a taste of luxury in dreamy Ubud

Despite being a big believer in shoestring travel and hostel life, (I spent the best part of 8 months in a sweaty communal dorm room and loved every minute,) every so often you crave a little luxury. Nothing too fancy. Maybe just a place where you don’t have to race everyone to the kitchen at 7am to get the last scrapings of free jam to put on your toast. Or somewhere I didn’t have to sleep on the bottom bunk with dead cockroaches smushed into the side of the mattress and a pissed Irish guy passed out on top of me. (On the top bunk that is, not actually on top of me. Usually.)

South East Asia is top of the list for backpackers looking for an exotic adventure on the cheap, the usual itinerary being the easy-to-navigate loop around Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. But as any Aussie will tell you, your SE Asia trip wouldn’t be complete without visiting Bali. Not only is the country breathtakingly beautiful, it’s also a great budget destination for thrifty travellers looking for 5 star surroundings on a 1 star budget. Many standard hostels offer dorm beds for less than a fiver a night and if you’re travelling as a couple, a double room between 2 costs about the same. Since arriving in Bali I’d barely made a dent in my budget, choosing tasty street food over restaurants and staying in great value accommodation. (Click to discover some great Bali hostel options in Kuta and the Gili islands.)

Whatever Aussies may tell you, there’s more to this country than Kuta and it’s Magaluf’esque strip of party bars and cheap booze. Bali’s real beauty lays inland, away from the beaches. Winding jungle roads past crumbling Hindu temples will take you to the dreamy, cultural town of Ubud. The Puri Saran Agung palace dominates the main street, where traditional dances are held every evening. Down narrow lanes bustling markets are filled to the brim with exotic goodies; silver jewellery, pretty trinkets, colourful throws and countless spices. Make sure you grab a bag of the ultimate Balinese souvenir, some Kopi Luwak coffee. Considered a delicacy, this coffee is made from beans that have been swallowed, partially digested and then pooped out by a small animal called a civet, similar to a weasel. Sounds disgusting, but this is one of the most expensive coffees in the world.

Just outside of Ubud centre we check into the Sankara resort, a luxurious, spa style hotel tucked away in the midst of rice paddies and sprawling jungle. When we checked online at Booking.com the rooms in this hotel appeared very much outside our budget but after calling the hotel directly we were quoted half the price. Don’t be fooled by online prices! Often contacting a place directly or just walking in without a booking is the best way to get a cheap deal on an otherwise expensive room.

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View from the room after a 5.30am wake up call for yoga under that pointy roof over there…

The hotel offers free activities, such as a guided walk around the neighbouring village. We have to edge around a few growling dogs who, we are informed casually by our guide, may or may not have rabies… We pass a dark, arena style area where the local villagers pay to watch cockfighting and our guide shows us some of the caged birds that are used to fight, huge birds with vicious looking claws and beaks. These birds can sell for millions of rupiah, just to be forced to fight to the death for people’s amusement. Poor things. On the way back we pass two men carrying a live pig tied to a pole, ready to be slaughtered and cooked. They’re not too concerned about animal welfare around here! The village is a stark contrast to the luxury lodgings just up the road and despite the strange customs and relative poverty, the locals seem happy and friendly, greeting us and our guide with smiles and waves. Balinese are very religious people, and as we head back to the hotel our guide tells us about the dvarapala, fearsome statues of warrior like creatures that guard temples and homes.

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A short scooter ride from the hotel takes us to the Sacred Monkey Forest. This is a beautiful, open sanctuary filled with crumbling shrines and lush jungle where wild monkeys roam free and are fed unlimited bananas by eager tourists. It’s a pretty surreal experience if you’re not used to being surrounded by hungry monkeys. These guys aren’t shy. They’ll try to mug you (literally, they will go through your pockets and try to open your bags!) and will happily scramble on top of you and perch on your head for a banana. (Cute if it’s one of the little ones, terrifying if you’ve got a big, alpha male charging at you.) And don’t try and fool them by being stingy either. Holding out an empty banana peel will result in a very annoyed monkey. As one of the wardens says, laughing as a monkey bares its teeth and takes a swipe at me, they don’t like to be tricked!

About a 20 minute scooter ride out of the town are the Tegalalang rice terraces, a giant, sloping valley of staggered rows upon rows of green rice paddies. Small walkways weave around the terraces, up and down like a crazy maze. Be prepared for a lot of steps and quite a long climb to get to the top, in the midday heat it can be a struggle. You’ll need to take some change too, as there are a couple of ‘donation points’ along the way (if ‘donation’ means compulsory payment or you’re not getting past…) Also, try not to slip into the actual paddy as you take photos, these things are like quicksand and you will lose a flipflop….

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Panoramic view over the rice terraces

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Tourist snap

On the road back to the hotel we spot a sign for ‘Ketut Liyer’s House’ pointing down a side road. Ketut is the real life medicine man from ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ and his house is where the famous scene with Julia Roberts was filmed. (See you later, alligator!) Though it’s late in the day we decide to pop in and are greeted by Ketut’s son who tells us that unfortunately Ketut is too tired for visitors. He is, after all, 100 years old. We take a look around the house grounds which have been made into a pretty guesthouse and take a few pictures in the same spot Julia sat.

It’s easy to lose track of time in Ubud. You’ll find yourself completely taken in by the serenity of the surrounding jungle, the mysticism of the ancient temples and the cultural hub at it’s centre. You may find that you never want to leave. And that’s OK. Relax, you’re on Ubud time!

 

Ubud Travel Guide

Where to stay:

Sankara Resort and Spa. It’s not hard to see why this stunning hotel has 5 star reviews, check it out here on trip advisor (but remember, book directly for the best prices!): https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Hotel_Review-g297701-d5279694-Reviews-Sankara_Resort-Ubud_Bali.html

What to do:

Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, Entry: 20,000 IDR Buy your bananas inside, but don’t be stingy!

Tegalalang Rice Terraces, Free Entry but there are compulsory ‘donation points’ along the way if you want to go higher up

Cultural Arts and Dance performances at the palace, 80,000 IDR, tickets are sold outside the palace

Visit Ketut Liyer, the medicine man, For a fee you can have a chat with Ketut and have him read your palm, if he’s awake! This guy is seriously old and may not be around much longer to entertain tourists…

Visit the markets dotted around the town, make sure you take home a penis keyring and a bag of Kopi Luwak!

Book a few nights in a luxury hotel, go on, treat yourself

Take a scooter and explore! The winding roads are beautiful and will take you past deep ravines filled with temples, shrines and vines for swinging monkeys! Immerse yourself in the jungle, just remember your mosquito repellent!

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Because who wouldn’t want a colourful penis  bottle opener?
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Get delicious, fresh coconuts at the market

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Hidden graffitied laneways, a concealed coffee culture and chic night spots: the secret side to Cairns

I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t a huge fan of Cairns. In fact, for the first few weeks I actively despised it. In fairness, this was mainly due to me coping badly with Sydney withdrawal symptoms and working in an English school hopelessly stuck in the 90s (I’m talking tape cassettes, actual tape cassettes…) run by a troll faced, miniature dragon lady who hated my guts. Let me explain… Sydney is my home from home, imo the best city in the world. It has everything, gorgeous beaches a stone’s throw from the city centre, cheap and efficient transport, a varied cluster of interesting suburbs and with it’s happening nightlife and cheap hostels it’s a backpacker’s haven. But I couldn’t stay in Sydney forever (as much as I wanted to). I was still an impostor in this faraway land of barbies in the arvo and if I wanted to stay here I had to do it the hard way, which meant leaving the big city and venturing into the back of beyond to work on a banana farm where I could trade my sweat, tears and sanity for a second year visa. But, due to a bad bout of banana disease and a hellhole of a hostel this plan didn’t work out and so, penniless, I was forced to head to the nearest ‘big’ town and desperately search for work. This big town was Cairns.

Cairns is an odd place. It has the feel of a once promising town that tried to go all out to become party central but lost heart halfway and just gave up. And so there is a curious mix of rowdy backpackers, bored locals and a heavy aboriginal population. Most of the action in the town happens around the lagoon, a pretty, saltwater pool complete with artificial sand, that tries its hardest to make you ignore the vast expanse of muddy estuary beyond it. (Note: even at low-tide do not venture out onto the estuary, you’re in croc country now mate. And it’s probably stinger season too.) Along the esplanade are an array of overpriced restaurants and cafes geared at holiday makers rather than backpackers, the latter sticking to the hostel bars or backpacker faves, Woolshed and Down Under Bar.

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Cairns Lagoon

The main attraction of Cairns is actually what lies all around it; the Great Barrier Reef on one side and the sprawling Atherton Tablelands and Daintree Rainforest on the other, which spreads all the way up to Cape Tribulation over 100km north of Cairns. (See here  about some of the brilliant trips you can do around Cairns.) A cute day trip closer to the town is a visit to Kuranda, ‘The Village in the Rainforest’. The village is tiny, and very touristy, but it’s worth a visit just for the lush rainforest views and driving up by car is cheaper and just as scenic as taking the train or the cable car.

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Kuranda, ‘The Village in the Rainforest’

Don’t get me wrong, Cairns has got its fair share of tourist trips and activities, and is definitely worth a spot on any Aussie road trip itinerary. But it is a town to pass through, not to linger in. Friends came and went, heading north to Darwin or south to the Sunshine Coast, or taking advantage of a cheap flight and heading straight to Bali. I had exhausted all the activities on offer and was now extremely bored, lonely and trapped working here in the sticky, tropical heat of a Queensland summer. (All while trying to teach hyperactive Japanese teenagers how to conjugate verb phrases when all they wanted to do was play volleyball and go off for a BBQ in the sunshine. I feel your pain guys.)

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Don’t miss a trip to the Curtain Fig Tree! One of the largest trees in North Queensland. Head towards Yungaburra where signs will point you in the right direction.

But then a strange thing began to happen. The more time I spent here I started to notice a secret side to Cairns, a low-key, quirky vibe away from the touristy bits. And I liked what I saw. Art exhibitions, market stalls selling homemade oddities,  stands serving spicy curries in the enormous Botanic Gardens in North Cairns. I hadn’t even realised Cairns had a Botanic Garden, or a market, until my housemate took me with her to go garden gnome hunting. (A hobby of hers, she gives old gnomes a bit of well-needed TLC and restores them to their former glory. I guess it’s one way to keep yourself entertained in Cairns.)

One sweltering afternoon I found myself at the entrance to Graffiti Lane, a tucked away alley that wouldn’t look out of place in Melbourne. Here I found one of Cairn’s ‘secret’ coffee shops. Caffiend is a funky little spot filled with an eclectic mix of furnishings; think skateboards on the wall, a graffiti covered coffee machine and various art works for sale on the walls. The colourful alley wall serves as a backdrop to the outside seating area. You can even buy a t-shirt with the Caffiend logo splashed across the front. The place is pretty teeny and, despite its out of the way location, is constantly buzzing with locals. Unsurprising though, given the cool setup and the amazing menu. ‘European frittata on rocket salad’, ‘Balsamic, strawberry and goat’s cheese bruschetta’, ‘Poached eggs with wilted spinach, bacon and chili jam’ are just some of the options on offer here.

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Image from Google: Caffiend on ‘Graffiti Lane’

Further up the alley, what appears to be a dead end is actually the courtyard and back entrance to La Creperie. This French inspired cafe serves up a great selection of sweet and savoury crepes and unmissable milkshakes. As for the evenings, tired of the same old bar crawl along the ‘strip’ I ventured beyond the brightly lit lagoon and found Salthouse perched at the end of the boardwalk by a little harbour. This became my favourite spot, drinking coffee, marking homework and looking out over the harbour on sunny afternoons and working my way through the cocktail menu in the evenings. It seems that the backpacking crowds haven’t descended onto this spot yet and it retains a chilled, chic vibe that is one of a kind in Cairns.

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Cocktails and ambiance at chic Salthouse

 

4 months later, and a year after arriving in Australia, I was finally able to leave my shitty job and fly off to the sunny shores of Bali for a much needed holiday. But I realised that I would miss the strange little bubble that is Cairns and all it’s tucked away places waiting to be discovered. Look hard enough and you might just find them…

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The Lagoon by night

 

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Don’t miss the Coconut Man at Rusty’s market

 

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Get your fortune told at the Gypsy Shop in Rusty’s market