backpackers

Travel: Are We All Tourists?

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tourist or backpacker?

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Unfortunately the phrases "tourist" and "backpacker" are often used to segregate travellers. Stereotypically, the tourist is the person on holiday, short on time and high on cash with a long list of must-sees. Rather romantically, the backpacker is a hippy and a vagrant, wondering the planet searching for authentic experiences and local prices. To get the most out of a destination you really need to dance on both sides of the tourist / backpacker spectrum. Increasingly, travellers are more atomised than ever, both from each other and even from local people. I believe that whatever you brand yourself we are all, to different degrees, tourists!  But having travelled for 8 months, it’s clear when over-tourism has gone too far, it can strip all the fun out of a place and it makes everything about money. Over-tourism can change the entire character of a place, eschewed for the big spending tourists rather than the people whose home it was. The ideal way to travel is to find the balance between the big attractions but also remembering to get off the beaten track.

Getting off the beaten track in Jaffna's fishing village

Getting off the beaten track in Jaffna's fishing village

Time-rich means money-poor

Time and money are huge factors for travellers. If you have money then there’s no reason not to visit every attraction and zip around town getting your cultural fill. But if you have money then normally you won’t have time and this is why ‘must visit’ ‘top attractions’ are always filled with people trying to squeeze everything into a short trip. The backpacker outlook is the opposite, switching money for time, the backpacker will probably have longer to explore a place but will have to pick their activities wisely to keep costs down. They probably can’t eat in the best rated restaurants or stay in the fancy hotels, but exploring local areas does lead to more time with local people and a better appreciation of what everyday life is like there.

 

The Lonely Planet

It’s a common sight to see some restaurants that are incredibly busy and then similar ones next door completely empty. This makes it easy to spot the places that are recommended by Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor. Often these places get lazy, they offer sub-standard food, varying customer experiences and always have higher prices. These establishments drift along in mediocrity on their once rightful recommendations. Sometimes, I see Lonely Planet wielding travellers following the exact route from their guide book too. Look, it’s totally fair to want the best experience for a short trip but the feeling of being on a tourist conveyor belt can feel decidedly un-special. This is where the backpackers mindset is different because they’re more likely to research their own path and avoid areas where local culture has been replaced by tourist culture. 

Hoards of visitors on safari at the Kaudulla National Park in Sri Lanka....it was still pretty amazing to see wild elephants though 

Hoards of visitors on safari at the Kaudulla National Park in Sri Lanka....it was still pretty amazing to see wild elephants though 

The Route

Nowhere was the set path more obvious than in our recent trip to Sri Lanka. The country is very beautiful, amazing local food, easy to navigate, with the friendliest local people we’ve met travelling and really varied activities like safari, trekking and beaches. We spent 4 weeks straddling both tourist hotspots in the centre of the country and getting off the beaten path in the north and east. What we noticed is that the touristic areas, like Ella, had the least friendly local people, the worst (and most expensive) food and the attractions were very busy with western tourists. Following a guidebook can often take you to the busiest, most expensive places with no local people, think western style restaurants and bars. When we reached these places the backpacker in us longed to be a few miles away where normal local life was continuing.

 

Over-tourism

What I believe, is that at its heart, tourism can create inequality between local people and their communities. Some get rich from guide book and trip advisor recommendations while others barely benefit. But even worse, increased tourism can actually separate local people and tourists. Local people cannot afford tourist prices, a place like Ella in Sri Lanka represents this perfectly. We asked ourselves why we would choose to eat in western style restaurants half way across the world, especially when the food is 5 times the price of the local food and nowhere near as good. Whereas in a local kitchen in Jaffna we could eat amazing curry, roti and kottu for pennies and chat with local people about their lives. One of those experiences you’ll remember forever and the other is just another night in a restaurant.

We met these handsome chaps after a unplanned wonder out of Trincomalee

We met these handsome chaps after a unplanned wonder out of Trincomalee

Finding Balance

But, living the continual low budget backpacker lifestyle can be frustrating. We had to balance cheap day to day living with the odd memorable activity, because why travel if you're not going to enjoy the local highlights? For example, we splashed out on the the safari in Kaudulla National Park and on hiring a guide to trek up to the top of the Knuckles mountain range. Finding a balance between the ‘wow’ tourist moments and the quiet local backpacker moments is, for us, the perfect way to travel. The thing to remember is that the Lonely Planet guide is a perfect start to exploring a new place but it is limited.  Following it continually will mean that only a handful of restaurants, guesthouses and tour companies benefit from your custom and they often offer western-style experiences. I do think that the LP guides are really useful but would advise that when you feel confident in a new place try putting it down and explore it on your own. Walk into a local restaurant, without an English menu, and ask about their food, or at least point at something that looks good!

 

The Signs

Because tourism is setup for short term travel experiences, there are lots of opportunities for local businesses to pray on inexperienced travellers. Long term ’backpacking’ does teach you how to avoid these little traps. Here’s a few to consider; there’s never one price for a service and it’s almost always negotiable, we’ve seen many people pay the first price without question. Restaurants all over world will try and add random meals to your bill and taxi and tuk tuk drivers will always start their prices high. If you don't deal or barter then you'll become a tourist who'll pay exaggerated prices, this only makes it more difficult for future travellers because businesses see that visitors are willing to pay more than they should, inflating the price further. As the prices go up so does the inequality between the rich and poor in the local community. When you see families flourish and others malnourished you can clearly see the problems that wealth inequality creates, it’s the same at home.

Sadly, one of the tea pickers asked us for money. When working people still beg it's clear that over-tourism has had a negative effect.

Sadly, one of the tea pickers asked us for money. When working people still beg it's clear that over-tourism has had a negative effect.

Helping All

Any person travelling abroad, in developing countries, are helping the community they’re visiting and we should feel happy that our money is spent improving people’s lives. But it’s worth remembering that too much tourism pushes out the local culture and then the people that make the place amazing are sidelined. One of the most touching things to experience, and learn from, is that it’s always the poorest people who have the biggest smiles and want to help you the most. So if you don't already, why not try balancing your travel between tourism and backpacker mentalities for an amazing experience that helps all the people in the community.

What are your thoughts on tourism? On over-tourism? And the stigma's of being a tourist or backpacker? Leave any comments in the box at the bottom.

 

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Myanmar: The Ultimate 2 Week Travel Itinerary For Backpackers 

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It’s stunningly diverse landscapes, friendly people and traditional culture makes Myanmar the perfect place to discover. From the white sands and palm-tree lined beaches of Ngapali, to the crumbling ancient temples of Bagan, you can travel around the country for weeks on end going from beautiful sight to another. 

Sunrise in Bagan, Myanmar

MYANMAR

The typical traveller route is well trodden, a well-oiled machine if you will, but it doesn’t really seem to matter because all of the highlights are so memorable and enjoyable.  We recently backpacked through this photogenic country, starting our adventure in the capital Yangon.  From there we travelled to Ngapali beach on the west coast, to Old Bagan to see the ancient temples, next Mandalay to soak up city life, then onto to Kalaw to relax and walk in the green forests.  From there we did the famous 3 day trek over to Inle Lake, finally spending some time there exploring the beautiful lake before returning to Yangon.  We have written up ‘The Ultimate 2 Week Travel Itinerary' as a helpful guide for you to follow.  If you have more time then you can always space it out over 3 weeks, like we did. 

 

Day 1: 

Yangon 

Yangon is Myanmar’s largest city, a sprawling network of British colonial buildings, streets of shabby apartments stacked on top of one another, Buddhist pagodas, and the odd modern high rise that breaks through the skyline.  Regardless of its size, the city has maintained an incredibly local feel to it, you only need to wonder down any of the central streets of downtown to see people out selling their produce, men walking around in tradition wrap skirts (bana) and women wearing the signature sun-protective paint on their faces.  A polished city this is not, and for those looking to tick off from a big ‘to do list’ may be disappointed.  Yangon is a place to soak up atmosphere and to learn about the local way of life. You just need to take the time to wonder the streets, watch the locals and observe the culture that’s around you.  

Exploring the streets of Yangon

Exploring the streets of Yangon

So either stay a night now in Yangon and head to Ngapali beach the next day, or just get on a sleeper bus that very same day. We would recommend just heading out of the city and then exploring Yangon at the end of the trip.

If you do wish to leave that day then you will need to book an overnight sleeper coach to Ngapali beach.  There are two companies that specialise in bus tickets to Ngapali and that’s Ye Aung lan and Aung Thistar. Ye Aung Ian’s bus leaves at 4pm but you will need to be at the coach station for 3pm, and Aung Thistar leaves at 2.30pm and you will need to be there for 1.30pm.  The bus costs 15,000 kyat for a local bus from either of those companies (4 people across), and a bit more on a VIP bus with 3 people across.  Get a tuk tuk driver or cab to take you to the correct bus stop/station as it’s probably the biggest bus station we have ever seen!  The overnight sleeper takes 14-16 hours and is a winding path along narrow local roads, so take travel sickness pills if you are prone to feeling ill.

It’s worth noting that both the airport and the bus station are 1.5 hours to 2 hours drive from downtown Yangon.  It’s really not that far away on a map but the traffic is really bad.

So if you are flying into Yangon on day 1 and heading out on the sleeper bus that same day then it may be worth just staying near the airport/bus station rather than making a journey into town.  Expect to pay around 7,000 kyat for a taxi to the bus station or airport from central Yangon, some negotiating may be needed.

 

What To Do

Yangon is one of those places with very few 'must-do' activities. But it is perfect for exploring by foot, watching the locals, and learn about the local culture.  There is a grassy Maha Bandula Park that you can sit and people watch in, you can explore the streets of China Town, there is an interesting local food night market by the river (maybe don’t eat the food there though unless you like munching on offal broth!), by the night market you can cut through to the water at get a glimpse at the locals being ferried across the water on boats, there is the beautiful Kandawgyi Park and lake to visit in the north east which makes for a lovely afternoon stroll, and finally the most famous of all is the gleaming Golden Temple Shwedagon Paya which is a steep 10,000 kyat entrance fee for tourists only.  It is definitely one of the most epic pagodas we have ever been to in terms of scale and beauty, but if you are on a tight budget then it might deduct from your noodle money!  

The Golden Temple Shwedagon Paya

The Golden Temple Shwedagon Paya

 

Where To Stay

We stayed at the cheap and cheerful 20th Street Hostel in central Yangon near China town.  The hostel was ok, not particularly clean though in the bedroom and Ali had a cockroach on her drying sock! The staff are really helpful though and can arrange your onward journey.  They offer a free breakfast of noodles, fried vegetables and toast which was ok but not the nicest.  It cost 10,800 kyat (£5.75) per night on Hostelworld so didn’t break the bank, and lots of the other accommodation was much more expensive than this.  We would probably recommend staying elsewhere though, especially if your budget allows it.

If you need a place to stay by the airport then we would recommend Roly’s Hostel.  It’s the cheapest we could find in the area at 27,200 kyat (£14.50).  The rooms are spacious, you get a free breakfast and it’s only a ten minute walk to the airport.  The WiFi isn’t the best though, and so we would suggest heading to Life Hotel nearby to borrow their internet for an hour or two. 

 

Where To Eat

We ate some very tasty Shan noodles, a Myanmar culinary speciality, at 999 noodle restaurant on 34th street.  We ordered a bowl of Shan noodles, some Shan yellow rice and some spring rolls and the total bill came to around 5,500 kyat (£2.90).   We would thoroughly recommend this place for a lunchtime dine.

The Shan rice dish at 999 Noodles

The Shan rice dish at 999 Noodles

Vedge Indian Restaurant is a good curry house catering to western tastes.  Between 3 people, we ordered 5 of the cheaper dishes like daals and chickpea curries, 3 types of breads and a boiled rice and the total bill came to 20,600 kyat (£11) with no drinks included.  This was probably one of our more splash out meals during our time in Myanmar, but we had just met a local in the park who wanted to practice his English with us, so we decided to treat him to dinner.  

If you are by the bus station and need somewhere to eat, then Holly Hotel does a great Thai lunch for 3,000 kyat (£1.60) per person for a choice of dishes.  We opted for green Thai curry with noodles, spring rolls and a seaweed and tofu soup which was very tasty.  The restaurant also does mocktails with fresh juice for around 2,500 kyat (£1.30).  The WiFi is good and the place is air conditioned, so if you have a while to wait at the bus station then we would recommend heading there to get out of the heat.

 

Day 2 - 5: 

Ngapali Beach

Beautiful white sands, palm trees and crystal clear waters define the stunning Ngapali beach.  This gem feels particularly unspoilt by tourism even though there is a plethora of luxury resorts that line the beach front.  The only sellers you will get here are the local ladies selling fruit from trays on their heads, and the occasional fisherman offering you a boat trip.  The beach is a lengthy 3km long of flat white sands, and curves round in a scenic arc.  In our 14 years of travelling, neither of us have seen a beach as beautiful as this one. 

The stunning Ngapali beach

The stunning Ngapali beach

If you took the sleeper bus on day 1 then you will be arriving on day 2 bright and early at sunrise to settle into your hostel or resort (hopefully the room is available for you when you arrive!).  If they aren’t ready for you then just dump off your stuff and head to the beach!

You will need to book a bus to Bagan on day 5.  The journey is a really long 24 hours with a 2 hour break sandwiched in between 2 buses, stopping off at Pyay.  Expect to pay around 30,600 kyat - 34,000 kyat (£16.40 - £18.50).

 

What To Do

What is there to do other than to enjoy the marvellous beach time that has presented itself to you?! We really didn’t want to do anything other than to lay on a lounger and enjoy the spectacular scenery around us.  Our hostel didn’t have sun loungers, but you only need to ask at another place and they will most probably let you use one of theirs... the people are so nice here!

Mark enjoying some sweet beach time

Mark enjoying some sweet beach time

You can do a half day boat trip to a few of the small islands, the fisherman’s village and to snorkel, but we got a free one with our hostel and didn’t really rate it.  They took us to a stoney beach to swim, and the water wasn’t very clear for snorkelling so perhaps you are just better off spending more time on the beautiful Ngapali.  The price offered to us for a half day boat trip with one of the locals was $25 USD (£17.75) which quickly fell to 25,000 kyat (£13.33) when we said how expensive it was.

Even though Ngapali beach is a west facing beach so is optimum for sunsets, it is possible to see a sunrise if you head to the very top of the beach.  Mark was very lucky to be gifted with a beautiful sunrise of hazy pink rays when he did an early morning run down the beach front. 

 

Where To Stay

So the accommodation around Ngapali beach is incredibly expensive. Most of it consists of luxury resorts with fancy bungalows for around 188,000 kyat (£100) per night.  We would advise getting your accommodation booked well in advance so you get the most choice when you are searching.  Remember to use Agoda as well as Booking.com and Hostelworld to find some of the cheaper deals.  We stayed in a resort called Gywin Taw in the fisherman’s village down at the end of the beach.  Although the location wasn’t as dreamy (that particular stretch of beach is where the locals dry out fish and there is lots of rubbish and stray dogs), it is only a 5 minute cycle from the nicest part of the beach or a ten minute walk.  The rooms were decent, bungalow style, you get a huge free breakfast of eggs, rice, toast, pancakes, fresh fruit and a hot drink, and the staff go out their way to be helpful to you.  We literally had about 7 people waiting on us!  The resort doesn’t have everything right just yet, but they are working hard to improve things, even offering a free boat trip and free bike hire as part of the package.  The room was 34,000 kyat (£18) per night so was cheap for the area but the location isn’t the nicest.

Gywin Taw resort

Gywin Taw resort

 

Where To Eat

There are so many restaurants to eat at, either on the top end of the beach or just behind on the main strip.  Most specialise in fresh seafood that have been caught that day.  Some restaurants even display their catches at the front of their restaurants in ice buckets!  If you are willing to hunt around you can get a great deal on food.  We stopped off at a restaurant called ‘Treasure’ just on the main road, and we ate like kings for only 60,000 kyat (£3.20).  We only ordered 2 fried noodles with prawns and a green papaya salad, and the staff came out with an additional cocktail each, peanuts, vegetable tempura, fresh fruit and a honey whiskey all for free.  We couldn’t believe it so we went back there the next night and had the same thing.  What an amazing price!  

If your budget allows then splash out on some of the seafood dishes including the Rahkine fish curry.  We also saw many fresh catches such as barracuda, red snapper, crabs and lobster.

There is a selection of cheaper restaurants on the sea front at the top of the beach including Silver Full which offer the same sort of priced dishes.  This is also the cheapest place in town to get cocktails, because every day at 4-6.30pm is happy hour and all cocktails are 1,000 kyat (53p)!  We were pretty drunk on 3 of the things.  Sunset View on the beach front, a couple of restaurants down, do cocktails with 20% off for 1,500 kyat (80p), which was larger but less boozy than those at Silver Full.  The food at Sunset View on the beach actually ended up being the tastiest we found in Ngapali.

It's cocktail time! 

It's cocktail time! 

 

Day 6 - 9: 

Bagan

You will arrive in a bit of a dishevelled state after 24 hours of buses into the lovely area of Bagan.

The ancient town of Bagan is one of Myanmar’s most prized tourist attractions, and is home to where the iconic picture takes place of hot air balloons rising over a temple-littered landscape.  A few days spent exploring the crumbling ruins of the ancient temples is like no other, you just need to grab a bike or an e-scooter and get out into the dusty landscape.  Bagan is undoubtably on the top of any travellers bucket list, and so going in peak season can make the experience a lot less special when shared with so many people, so we would recommend going in January/ February time when the crowds have died down a little.  The street sellers can be a bit annoying too and very persistent, but once you see a sunrise or sunset over Bagan, all the nuances will float away.

On one of the temple roofs watching a sunset

On one of the temple roofs watching a sunset

Entrance to the ‘Bagan Archaeological Zone’ is a steep 25,000 kyat (£13.40) each, and you will be ticketed on your arrival to Bagan.

The sleeper bus will drop you off at the bus station so you will need to get a tuk tuk into town unless you are happy to walk 5km, perhaps in the dark.  The drivers really try to rip you off here, so negotiate hard.  The cheapest we could get a ride for was a pricy 3,000 kyat (£1.60) each and that was on a horse drawn cart!

When you arrive in Bagan, get your hostel or one of the agents on the main road to book your onward bus journey to Mandalay on day 9 at around lunch time.  The journey takes around 5 hours and costs 9,000 kyat (£4.80).

 

What To Do

The main thing to do in Bagan is to explore the temples at ground level, so either hire a cycle bike or E-bike daily from your hostel or a rental shop on the main strip.  Expect to pay around 1,500-2,000 kyat (80p - £1.07) for a push bike and 8,000 kyat (£4.27) for an E-bike per day.  If you are hiring a cycle bike then you may want to check that it has lights because you will be out in the dark almost every day either before sunrise or after sundown.

li exploring inside the ancient temples

li exploring inside the ancient temples

In recent years, tourists have been allowed to climb up inside of the temples and walk around the upper levels to watch the sunset.  In 2017 however, the government decided that they no longer wanted this to happen because of the damage being caused and so it is no longer allowed.  Although there are still temples that the stairwells have been left open on, so every day the tourists ride around trying to find these temples to bag themselves a good spot for watching sun down later on.  It’s half the fun of cycling round, trying to find a temple that’s still open that you can go up.  The security don’t generally seem to mind that you are up there, they just occasionally pop round to check that everyone has paid for an entrance pass.

Mount Popa is a half day trip that you can do to a monastery on top of a mountain, but we did this trip and wouldn’t really recommend it.  The accent by stairs is easy and takes around 30 minutes.  The whole sight is infested with monkeys, they aren’t terribly bothered by visitors but there is monkey crap pretty much everywhere and the monestary is very shabby.  If you plan to go to Mandalay Hill then this is a similar experience and a much nicer one! 

There is also the morning market which is worth a trip to which covers everything from longyi (a traditional woman’s skirt) to daily groceries like fruit and veg.

 
Getting lost in the market

Getting lost in the market

 

If you want to splash out then you can do the hot air balloon ride over Bagan for sunrise.  It’s a pricy $350 USD but is a once in a lifetime experience.  Maybe next time!

 

Where To Stay

We stayed at Shwe Na Di Guesthouse which was a great place to stay.  The WiFi is rubbish but the breakfast makes up for it!  It’s a lovely free breakfast of omelet, toast, churros, tea/coffee and fresh fruit and it’s fine to ask for more of anything if you want it.  One day Mark ate 3 plates of churros and syrup on his own!  When we arrived early morning of day 6, the owners gave us a free brekkie even though we didn’t have a room until that evening.  The room price was a bargain 22,000 kyat (£11.80) which was half the price of what everyone else paid, when booked on Agoda.  Make sure you hunt around for the best deal.

 

Where To Eat

There are loads of places to eat at around Thi Ri Pyitsaya 4 Street, and there you will be able to find western restaurants, Myanmar and Thai cusine, and then also the cheaper local tea shops that sell noodles.  

We ate at on of the local tea shops on that road and ordered Shan Noodles for 1,000 kyat each, and a green papaya salad for the same price.  They also did these delicious pastries filled with sugar and bean curd which were a highlight for 500 kyat a piece.

The delicious sugary pastries

The delicious sugary pastries

Tourists rave about Weatherspoon’s restaurant (funny name to choose what with the weathspoons in the U.K. being so shabby), which is jam packed every night but we found the menu a little expensive for our backpacking budget.

If you look around then you can find some cheaper Thai and Burmese food in the western style restaurants.

 

Day 9 - 11: 

Mandalay 

After an easy 5 hour drive from Bagan, you will arrive in Mandalay, one of Myanmar’s most modern cities after being totally destroyed during WW2.  Mandalay is never going to win any contests for being a good-looking city because of it's hectic rebuild, it’s pretty standard in a lot of ways, high rise buildings, lots of traffic and not very much to see, but there’s something interesting about it.  It’s great to explore some of the more local areas where there are markets, street food and temples.  You don’t need very long here, but it’s a nice way to break up the more outdoorsy places of Ngapali, Bagan, Kalaw and Inle Lake.  

 
A reason to come to Mandalay - the Mandalay Hill temple

A reason to come to Mandalay - the Mandalay Hill temple

 

To get to our next stop Kalaw, you can either take an overnight sleeper, or a shared cab, both of which were out of our price range.   So we decided to take the train instead, spending one night in Thazi between trains.  The route from Thazi to Kalaw is a slow train and is incredibly scenic, we thought even more stunning then our journey on the Trans Siberian train some months before! If you want to get the train then you will need to book your ticket to Thazi from the main train station in Mandalay at 5pm on day 11.  The train takes only 3 hours and is a cheap 2,000 kyat (£1.07) per person for upper class.  You will need to get to the station half an hour before the train departs. 

 

What To Do

There are plenty of things to do in Mandalay for a couple of days of being there, the only issue is that everything is very spaced out.  You can hire a taxi driver for the day, we think they are around $65 USD, but for our budget cycle bikes would be the only way we could get around at an affordable price.  Our hotel rented us bikes for 3,000 kyat (£1.60) each, and although the roads are busy, we thought that it was safe enough to cycle as long as you were being careful at the traffic light-less junctions.

The main attraction here is to head to Mandalay Hill for sunset, it takes 45 minutes to walk up and the likely chances are that some monks will want to walk up with you the whole way to practice their English.  Entry to the temple at the top is 1,000 kyat (53p), and is one of the most beautiful temples in all of Myanmar.

Monks on Mandalay Hill

Monks on Mandalay Hill

You can visit Kuthodaw Pagoda for free nearby, to see the worlds largest book.  

The Mandalay Zoological Gardens is a mere 2,000 kyat (£1.07) entry and has some amazing animals from hippos to Bengali tigers, and gibbons to alligators.  Nearly all animals in the zoo are native to Myanmar.  It’s worth noting though that the conditions of some of the cages aren’t really up to scratch and at one point some there was an elephant dance show for visitors, which was pretty sad.  We did enjoy most of it though because you are so close to the animals.  At home you wouldn’t be able to touch a hippo!

Most people head over to U-Bein Bridge for sunset but it is about 20km away from town so you need to get a cab.  We decided to try and cycle there and ended up stopping on the north east side of the lake which makes for an amazing sunset with a view of U-Bein bridge in the distance.  We would say that being on the north east side on Yandanabon Kyuang Street would make a great alternative if you wanted somewhere more peaceful to watch sunset from (minus the road nearby).

 
Watching the sunset over the lake in Mandalay

Watching the sunset over the lake in Mandalay

 

Our favourite bit of visiting Mandalay was exploring the villages around Mandalay Kantawgyi lake and the rail track by bike.  We were whizzing though dirt tracks with locals waving at us from outside their houses, it was a really cool experience.  If you head down Kantawgyi Pat Road going east from the lake, and then cycle south on 82nd street, you will be able to see a lot of the locals going about their daily lives.  Keep exploring the small roads to see locals living on the train tracks, vegetable markets and lots of friendly faces.

There is loads more to do in Mandalay if you get a driver and have a bit more cash to spare.  There’s the Shwenandaw Monastery (teak wood monetary), Inwa Ancient City and Umin Thonse Pagoda (30 caves pagoda).

 

Where To Stay

We stayed at Silver Cloud Hotel which was actually great and cost only 17,770 kyat (£9.53) a night.  Our room was clean and every day you get a free all you can eat buffet breakfast of hot foods, fruit and toast.  The location is perfect and relatively close to the train station.  This was the only place on our whole trip where we had decent WiFi.  The rest of the time we could barely pick up an email!  Be aware of this when travelling to Myanmar and book what you can a few days in advance in case you get stuck without internet.

The morning view from Cloud Silver Hotel breakfast room

The morning view from Cloud Silver Hotel breakfast room

 

Where To Eat 

We would say come to Mandalay just to eat at this restaurant! It is a local place serving amazing Indian food for next to nothing.  We ate a biriani, chicken curry, coconut rice, 2 handmade chapattis (you can see 7 people making them there and then) and lots of little extras for 4,000 kyat (2.15)! It was the cheapest Indian we have ever had and the best chapattis in existence.  The restaurant is opposite Unity Hotelon 82nd street and opens at around 4pm daily. 

All of this for £2.15!

All of this for £2.15!

Paradise Restaurant on 66th street east of the moat is a local place serving bbq and Myanmar cuisine, and we ate fried Malaysian Noodles, chicken curry, a zingy seaweed salad and 3 Myanmar draught beers for 10,400 kyat (£5.60).  The food was tasty and the restaurant was really busy with locals, which is a good sign. 

 

Day 11 - 12: 

Thazi 

Your train from Mandalay will arrive into Thazi at 8pm that same day.  This is only really an overnight stopover before getting the train again the next day to Kalaw.  

The epic train journey from Thazi to Kalaw

The epic train journey from Thazi to Kalaw

It’s a ten minute walk from Thazi station into town, and one of the first places you will see is the Moonlight Guesthouse where you can rest your head for the night for as little as 12,000 kyat (£6.40) for a basic room. Technically breakfast isn’t included in the economy room, but if you ask nicely then the owners may make you a packed lunch for the next morning.  Maybe leave a little tip if they go out their way to do so. 

If you feel like a little tipple then why not join the locals in one of the bars, they seemed pretty happy to see us and one guy even bought us some dried meat as a present!

Get to the station for 6.20am the next morning on day 12 and book your onward journey to Kalaw by slow train, it leaves at 7am.  The route takes 6 hours and costs 1,850 kyat (£1.00) per person for upper class.  This train ride is honestly one of the most epic routes we have ever been on, winding through jungles, countryside and mountains so enjoy it!  The train also stops in many local villages where you can pick up some snacks and noodles along the way.  It’s a lot of fun with the open sides and reclining seats on the train.

 

Day 12 - 14: 

Kalaw 

The town of Kalaw is nothing special in itself, but ended up being one of our favourite places to relax in Myanmar.  The local food is tasty and cheap, the town is surrounded by beautiful pine forests and countryside, and this is the starting place of the 3 day trek to Inle Lake.  There are tourists here, but it’s not nearly as popular as some of the other places we visited.  You could easily spend 3-4 days here just enjoying the peace and quiet and exploring the surrounding green area.

The green woodlands surrounding Kalaw

The green woodlands surrounding Kalaw

After taking the train from Thazi, you will arrive into Kalaw at 1.15pm on day 12.  We would recommend heading into town after dropping your stuff off at your guesthouse to book onto a 2 or 3 day trek to Inle.  If you book your tour for day 14, then you will have the afternoon of day 12, and another full day to enjoy the delights of Kalaw. There are loads of companies that offer the trek, and all of them take the same trekking route to Inle except for one company which takes you through different villages but charges about double the price for the privilege.  We ended up going with Eagle Tours because they have a fairly good reputation online, but we would say that our guide was a bit lack lustre.  Our trek cost $55 USD per person for 3 days plus a $10 entrance fee to Inle Lake, and it was just us two on the trek for that price.  Have a hunt around and see which one suits you.  If you want to go cheap and don’t mind trekking with a lot of people, then Ever Smile tours is your best bet for 44,000 kyat (£23.60) per person plus the $10 USD entrance fee.

 

What To Do

Kalaw is the perfect place to relax, eat local food and do some short walks into the countryside.  There is a fresh produce and flower market on every 5th day in the centre of town, and every day there is a standard market also selling clothes, snacks, trinkets etc.

It is possible to walk to the nearby MyintMathi caves which is a 2 hour walk one way through pine forests, ox-cart dirt tracks and through a minority village which is very pleasant indeed.  We have written up the instructions for the walk here from Kalaw town.  You can also walk up to a viewpoint from near the village which takes an additional 3 hours total, so all in all a 7 hour trek from Kalaw with the caves included.  It is possible to walk to another viewpoint, a 3 hour walk one way, from Kalaw town, and the view expands across the hilly countryside of clementine orchards and tea plantations.  If you want to do this walk then ask one of the locals which direction to head to, you don’t need a guide for these walks.

The ox-cart track on the way to the MyintMathi caves

The ox-cart track on the way to the MyintMathi caves

 

Where To Stay

We stayed at Thitaw Lay House which was one of the best places we have stayed in 6 months on the road.  We turned up to be offered a free upgrade to the family room, and because we booked last minute we got the room for a reduced rate of 26,600 kyat (£14.25).  The room was beautiful, solid wood floors, ethnic throws on the beds and ginormous, and the guesthouse has some very well maintained gardens just outside.  Every morning they would feed us a free breakfast of home-made banana bread, fresh bread that they had made in a wood burning oven, either a fried egg or cheese slice, vege fried rice, homemade jam, butter and a hot drink.  It was honestly the best breakfast ever!

Us in our room in Thitaw Lay House

Us in our room in Thitaw Lay House

 

What To Eat

Food is great in Kalaw, there are quite a few western restaurants if your budget allows or dirt cheap tea shops selling noodles and fried goods.  We ate at Parami restaurant on Min Street and ordered 2 chapattis, sweet potato leaf salad, okra and 2 bowls of Shan Noodles for only 3,700 kyat (£2.00) and it was delicious.  We actually ate there a few times in a row because it was so cheap and tasty!  We also ate at Picasso Healthy Spa and Restaurant, a Mexican restaurant, which was very fresh and tasty, but the portion sizes were a bit on the small side.  We ordered a vege burrito, 2 nachos and a vege quesadilla for 10,000 kyat (£5.35).  The avocado around this area is unbelievably tasty because it is grown here, make sure you try some in one of the restaurants.

Shan noodles in Parami restaurant

Shan noodles in Parami restaurant

The street food is actually great in the centre of Kalaw. We sampled a chickpea crispy pancake for 300 kyat (16p), pancakes with sugar for 250 kyat (13p), vege samosas for 100 kyat (5p) and our all time favourite coconut crumpets for 200 kyat (10p).  If you want some cheap and tasty snacks then there are loads of bits to choose from.

 

Day 14 - 16: 

3 Day Trek From Kalaw To Inle Lake

Leave on the morning of day 14 with your guide and tour group and make the long journey by foot to Inle Lake.  We are avid trekkers so didn’t find it too challenging, it was just lovely to get lost in thought whilst walking through the hilly countryside of Myanmar.  Your tour operator should have arranged to take your big backpacks to the end of the route so you will only be trekking with a day bag filled with the things you need for the next few days.  Make sure you have sun cream, a sun hat and a change of clothes in case it rains.  Taking a mozzie net is a good idea for sleeping under.  You can probably trek in trainers if it is dry, but we took our walking boots because they were comfier for the longer distance.  

On the 3 day trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake

On the 3 day trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake

The food on our trek was amazing, the local people feed you like kings!  4 types of fruit at one sitting and freshly prepared salads, we felt so lucky at the end of it to have been given some much.  You also need to take 1 litre of bottled water which you can replace at several intervals during the trek.

The scenery is very diverse, going from reservoirs to forests, views of tea plantations on the hills to trekking on the train tracks.  We loved crossing the rice paddies where the buffalos were grazing, this was probably our favourite part of the walk.

The boat trip at the end across Inle Lake is super fun, our driver was really speedy so we had massive grins on our faces as we bounced along the water, waves splashing out from either side of the boat.  

Speeding along on a boat on Inle Lake

Speeding along on a boat on Inle Lake

It is also possible to do this trek over 2 days if you don’t want to do 3, the tour operator will just drop you slightly further into the route by tuk tuk.  If you want to do a 2 day trek from Kalaw on your own then you can find instructions on how to do it here.

We loved the trek but perhaps we weren’t ready for the number of other tourists we had to share it with.  On our second day we came across about 10 other groups on the route, some of them made of 12 people, and apparently some 20 groups will stay in the same village at any one time.  Although this isn’t a problem as such, it felt decidely un-special to be doing the same as everyone else, to be in the countryside ‘on tour’.  If you can get your guide to leave any earlier in the morning to avoid the crowds then it’s probably a good idea.  Otherwise you may get stuck behind big groups if you are walking faster than them.

 

Day 16 - 19: 

Inle Lake

So after lunch at the end of your trek you will take the boat over Inle to arrive in the city of Nyaungshwe around early afternoon.  Head to your hostel and give your legs a well deserved break after 3 long days of trekking.

Nyaungshwe is an alright place to chill out, eat some tasty food and this area is popular because it’s the cheaper backpacker destination close to Inle Lake.  It’s mainly just set up for tourists, there’s bar upon bar lining the streets, loads of western restaurants to choose from, hostels and hotels, tour agencies, and places to hire bikes from.  We didn’t love it, but it does seem like the most affordable place to base yourself for access to the highlight, that is Inle Lake.

Inle’s glistening waters are breathtakingly beautiful, and you can see why this is one of Myanmar’s most loved sights.  Surrounded by mountains on the east and west sides, the scenery is unrivalled and one of the most stunning places we have ever been.  Bamboo housed villages hover over the waters on wooden stilts, and locals wash themselves in the alluring waters.  Fishermen paddle using one leg, making a scooping motion to move themselves along the surface.

 
A posing fisherman on Inle Lake

A posing fisherman on Inle Lake

 

To arrange the next step of the journey, get your hostel or an agent to book your return coach journey to Yangon on day 19 in the afternoon.  We searched around for the cheapest prices and went with Full Moon coaches, where a 3 across VIP sleeper was 18,000 kyat (£9.65), or a 4 across VIP sleeper was 13,000 kyat (£7.00) and because there wasn’t enough people on the cheaper one, they upgraded everyone to the 3 across coach for free.  The journey takes 12 hours and leaves at 3pm from Nyaungshwe.

 

What To Do

Go on a boat tour.  This is the must-do thing at Inle Lake and is really easy to organise.  Just get your hostel to book it for you, or if you want to hunt around then there are loads of agencies that can arrange it for you, or local boat men walking around offering boat hire.  The main thing to be aware of is that the boat hire is generally cheap but the drivers get commission on where they take you, so they want to drop you off in their mates restaurant or shop, which can be very annoying.  You will need to discuss with your driver beforehand if you can make your own itinerary.  Expect to pay from 15,000 kyat (£8.05) to 24,000 kyat (£12.90) for an all day hire on a boat.  The more people you get then the cheaper it is.  We would recommend visiting the following places on your boat tour: the lotus root weaving factory in Phaw Khone, the middle of the lake to catch some fishermen in action, the boat makers workshop, one of the local markets (not the floating market), the Inn Tain Monastery and bamboo forest in the west, the Nga Hpe Kyuang wooden jumping cat monastery (although there are only about 6 cats when we visited and none of them were jumping!) and the floating gardens.  We would say give the silver smiths, the long neck weavers, the cigar makers and the umbrella makers a miss. There are loads of beautiful villages to visit which are hovering over the water on stilts, like the Nampans or Maing Tauk villages, and a canal network which is almost like a boat road system.

A cat at the Nga Hpe Kyuang jumping cat monastery

A cat at the Nga Hpe Kyuang jumping cat monastery

You can hire a bike from Nyaungshwe and do some cycling to nearby villages and the countryside.  Bikes cost around 1,500 kyat (80p) from a local shop. 

Get a massage in Win Nyant for an experience of a lifetime! Be prepared for the masseur to stand on you with their full body weight, pinch and grab your muscles through clothes.  It was pretty funny watching Mark’s pained expression for an hour and worth the 7,000 kyat (£3.75).

 

Where To Stay

We stayed at the Green Valley Inn Guesthouse in Nyaungshwe and the place was good value for money, including a breakfast of eggs, toast, churros, fruit and tea/coffee.  The staff are really friendly and look after their guests.  There are loads of hotels and guest houses around Inle depending on your budget, and if you can splash out then it may be worth staying in one of the bamboo huts actually on the lake itself rather than staying in the city.  We have heard that the south side of the lake is much quieter and very scenic, whereas there is a lot of boat action in the north.

 

Where To Eat 

Namastee Indian restaurant do an amazing set menu of meat curry, vege curry, popadom, nan bread, mint yoghurt dip, daal soup and fresh salad for only 3,500 kyat (£1.90) per person and it’s really tasty.  We had that a couple of days in a row because it was such good value for money.

We also went to Mo Sin, a local restaurant, which has a set menu for 4,000 kyat (£2.15) for a bbq’ed meat, rice, small beer and tom yum soup.  Ali skipped the set menu and ordered a Thai vege curry, rice and papaya salad which also came to the same price.

The highlight of our food experience in Inle was a local tea shop on the bottom of Sao San Htun Street where we got 2 bowls of Shan Noodles, pastries filled with sugary coconut bean paste, crispy wonton and bhaji, and a chickpea pancake for a total of 3,000 kyat (£1.60).  You really can’t beat the local food, it’s cheap and ridiculously tasty.  The only problem is that the local tea shops / restaurants were just a bit harder to find in the touristy Nyaungshwe.

The local restaurant we recommend dining at in Nyuangshwe

The local restaurant we recommend dining at in Nyuangshwe

 

Day 20 - 21: 

Yangon

So you will probably arrive in Yangon bus station at the ridiculous hour of 3am after being on the night bus.  From there you will have to negotiate a tuk tuk driver to take you into downtown Yangon, maybe grab some other people to make your journey cheaper.  A taxi normally costs around 7,000 kyat (£3.75), but these guys know you don’t have many other options at this hour so may bump up the price.  Have somewhere to stay booked beforehand so you can head straight there.  If you stay one night in Yangon then that’s probably enough time to soak up the city atmosphere.  All of the other info for What To Do and Where To Eat is at the top of this page.  

Local life in Yangon

Local life in Yangon

That takes us up to day 21 on the itinerary which is your final day in Myanmar.  We hope you have found this guide helpful, you can easily stretch this out into a more leisurely 3 week itinerary if you have the time.

 

Things To Note:

Travel Advice

What with the troubles in the north western part of the country in the Rakhine state, many embassies have advised against all travel to several parts of the country.  The tourist areas of Ngapali beach and Hsipaw are still reachable for tourists, but it’s best to check in advance the conditions of visiting from your government embassy website.  For example, it is possible to travel to Hsipaw by train from Mandalay, but we believe it is not possible to do any trekking in this area at the moment.  Places such as Ngapali beach are under military supervision and so it is necessary to expect passport checks are several points during your journey there.  From our experience of visiting Myanmar during this time, there is nothing to worry about as a tourist.  This is one of the safest countries we have ever visited and the people are some of the friendliest and most peaceful we have met.  (Written January 2018)

 

Time Of Year

We went in January and it was a great, because the earlier crowds visiting in the dry season had dispersed and you got to enjoy lots of the sights with fewer people.  It felt very quiet at times around the touristy restaurant areas in Bagan and Inle Lake, there are obviously quite a lot of travellers but apparently nothing compared to what it is like in November/ December time.   The weather is very pleasant in the day and can get a bit nippy at night times in the countryside, but as long as you take some warm layers there is nothing to worry about.  We didn’t have any problems finding accommodation, in previous years we read that there hasn’t been enough for the number of tourists, but because of the ongoing political situation we believe there are fewer people visiting at the moment.

 

Animals And Insects

There can be quite a few mosquitos in the cities during the dry season and we have heard that there are a lot more during the wet season, in the countryside also.  Check your embassy for advice on Malaria and other mosquito-born diseases.  At the time of visiting, there was a low risk of Malaria in most places in the countryside and none in the cities.  We were take a lot of care not to get bitten, and this time Ali decided to take anti-malarial drugs because she is prone to getting bitten regardless!  

We were told by a trekking guide that there are a lot of snakes in the countryside in the Kalaw area during the months of March and April and that some can be aggressive when near fires.  Local people like to burn their crops and when that happens the snakes make a slithering escape!  So if you are trekking in the countryside at this time your guide should be able to advice whether it is safe to trek that particular route or if you need to take another one.

There are many stray dogs across the whole of Myanmar, and sadly it looks like a lot of them have had a very hard life.  Be careful walking around small streets at nighttime when dogs can become scared and territorial, we carried a stick around with us just in case!  Also there are some cases of Rabies in Myanmar so make sure you check your embassy website for travel advice and get vaccinated.  

 

Conservative Myanmar

Myanmar is a very traditional country where nearly all of the women dress conservatively, wearing Longyi’s (mid calf length wrap skirts) and they cover their shoulders.  As a tourist we think it’s only fair to dress appropriately and follow suit, particularly in the villages.  The only place Ali had her shoulders and knees out was at the beach in Ngapali, and even then the locals were completely covered up, swimming in the sea fully clothed!

 

Food And Drink

Some of the tastiest food we have eaten in Myanmar has come from the local restaurants and tea shops.  Although we wouldn’t necessarily advice eating things like meat from the street vendors, we ate lots of the breaded and fried goods and didn’t have any problems at all.  If the locals are eating there then you are probably fine!  Some of our favourite dishes were Shan noodles, green papaya salad, tea leaf salad, curries, chapattis, avocado salad, churros and papaya.  You can find food as cheap as 400 kyat (22p) for noodles in a tea shop.  A good price for a draught Myanmar beer in a local tea shop is 800 kyat (43p), and 2000 kyat (£1.07) for a large bottle.

 

Transport

It is incredibly easy to organise your travel in Myanmar.  Most hostels can book onward coach journeys for you and you can always pick up a tuk tuk or cab at a bus station.  The journeys by coach can be long and laborious though, the roads can be long and winding in places and the drivers love to play their dance tunes all night long on the loud speakers.  If you are prone to travel sickness then be as prepared as you can be with travel sickness or sleeping pills.  The train is a really nice way to travel, very cheap, but it takes a lot of time compared to the bus.  From our experience, traveling in Myanmar was always to schedule, well organised and straight forward.  You can just arrange it all when you get there unless you want to fly.  When getting a cab or a tuk tuk, you will need to negotiate hard to get a good price, or try to get your hostel to book it for you.  

 

Visa

You will need a visa to enter Myanmar and, due to the political state, there are current restrictions as to where and how you can enter the country.  In January 2018, the only way to enter is to fly into the cities of Yangon, Nyi Pyi Taw or Mandalay, or to cross the border by land at Tachileik, Myawaddy or Kawthaung.  We believe you have to exit the country the same way that you entered and flying is more straight forward than a land border crossing.  Make sure that you research the most up-to-date information on the government embassy website, because the situation may change quickly.  An e-visa cost us $50 USD each and was for 28 days access to the country.

 

We hope you find our guide helpful, we would love to hear from anyone who followed it.  

 

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Myanmar - The Ultimate 2 Week Travel Itinerary For Backpackers, by Studio Mali
 

 

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Laos: The Ultimate 2 Week Travel Itinerary For Backpackers

Ali thumbnail sml.jpg
 

Laos, the popular backpackers destination in South East Asia, well trodden since the late 90s.  A country of mountainous jungles, locals in traditional dress and cities so chilled out you may never want to leave.  The country is landlocked, making it slightly more expensive than its neighbours, but it’s still a great place to travel to if you are on a budget. 

Laos

We spent 3 weeks there, covering the 2 main cities Luang Prabang and Vientiane, and then moving onto the hilly countryside in the trekking capital Luang Namtha, the jungles of the Nam Ha National Park, the mountainous Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoi village.  We have put this itinerary together for a 2 week trip, but if you have more time then you can definitely space it out over a 3 week trip like we did.  We hope you enjoy our itinerary and let us know if you use it! We would love to hear how it went.

 

Day 1-2

Vientiane 

It’s likely that your flight will come into Vientiane as it’s the capital of Laos.  However, we wouldn’t recommend spending much time there, especially if you are planning to head to Luang Prabang which is a lot more scenic.  Vientiane is known as one of the most chilled out and least populated capital cities in Southeast Asia, and that it is, but it’s also pretty unloved, very touristy and we didn’t find it particularly interesting.  

One of the nicer bits!

One of the nicer bits!

Get your hostel to book your sleeper bus to Luang Prabang on the evening of day 2 so you arrive in the morning of day 3.  Tickets cost around 180,000 kip (£15.50) per person for a VIP bus which is a lot comfier than the regular bus.  There's no point in slumming it when you can go VIP for a couple of pounds more!

 

What To Do There

We have written up the bits that we did enjoy in the article below in case you do find yourself mooching round Vientiane…..

Laos: Top Things To Do In Vientiane

Our favourite things were learning to weave in the Houey Hong Vocational Centre For Women, drinking the delicious Laotian coffee, and exploring the city on bikes.  There are quite a few markets you can visit, with the most famous one for tourists being set up every evening by the Mekong river.  The Mekong River is also known for its stunning sunsets, so make sure you get down there one evening with a beer in hand.

Mark learning to weave at the Houey Hong Vocational Centre For Women

Mark learning to weave at the Houey Hong Vocational Centre For Women

 

Where To Stay

We stayed in Ali Backpackers which was perfectly fine, basic and very cheap compared to other hostels.  The location was where most of the touristy cafes and bars are situated.  It cost 133,000 kip (£11.40) per night with breakfast included.  The staff are friendly and can arrange your onward journey but boat or bus.  It wasn't the most inspiring of hostels, but a cheap find in the capital.

 

Where To Eat

We ate in Phakhao restaurant which specialises in traditional Laotian and Thai food.  All dishes were really tasty and actually the stand-out one was a cooked Laotian sausage served with raw garlic, chilli and ginger slices!  We would never munch on raw garlic at home but when teamed with sausage it really was a dream. There are loads of French-style bakeries to grab a coffee and fresh croissant in, and we stopped off in Le Banneton which did delicious pastries.  For true Laotian coffee, just look out for the condensed milk cans stacked up on the street vendors stalls and you will find yourself a punch-packing cup of sweetened coffee.

Croissants in Le Banneton French cafe

Croissants in Le Banneton French cafe

 

Take a look at our travel-inspired design shop!

Day 3

Luang Prabang

Take an overnight sleeper bus from Vientiane to Luang Prabang on day 2 so you arrive in the morning of day 3.  The overnight bus takes around 10-12 hours.  The journey is pretty tough for those prone to travel sickness, the roads are incredibly windy and we had a driver that was heavy on the accelerator and break pedals.  If you opt for the VIP bus then you get your own sleeping chair/pod and it’s 3 people spaced out across the width of the bus.  Check out the neon lights on this bus!

The jazzy VIP sleeper bus from Vientiane to Luang Prabang

The jazzy VIP sleeper bus from Vientiane to Luang Prabang

Have a hostel booked for when you arrive in Luang Prabang so you can head straight there early in the morning.  There are lots of tuk tuks outside of the bus station ferrying people into town, but we decided to walk because it was only a few kilometres away from our hostel.  Remember to haggle if you choose to catch a ride.  Before you leave the bus station, try to book a minibus for the next morning going to Luang Namtha.

Luang Prabang is a really popular city with expats and tourists and it’s easy to see why.  It’s chilled out vibe and location next to the scenic Mekong river is a clear pull for lots of travellers, and it has something for everyone.  Those wanting to enjoy a bucket or two will find lots of cool hang-out bars tucked away in the side streets, and for the more adventurous it’s possible to trek straight into the jungle from the city.  Although we thought Luang Prabang had a nice feel to it, we found it very touristy and in places it was difficult to see any local culture because it’s so developed with western-style bars.  We would still recommend going though, and it’s a much nicer place to be over it’s ugly sister city Vientiane.  For now just spend one night in Luang Prabang because you will be coming back here at the end of the trip.  If you weren’t able to book a mini van to Luang Namtha whilst you were at the bus station then get your hostel to book it for you. They will take a bit of a commission but a tuk tuk will be included to get you to the bus station.

View of Luang Prabang

View of Luang Prabang

 

What To Do

There are loads of things to do in and around Luang Prabang depending on what your interests are and how much time you have.  We were happy not to do much when we were there other than to just soak up the atmosphere and wonder around a bit.  You can do jungle trekking from here on organised tours, trips down the Mekong river by kayak or boat, cookery classes, visit numerous exquisite Buddhist temples, mountain biking, a trip over the rickety bamboo bridge, visiting the handicraft night market.  You could easily spend a week there exploring what it has to offer and relaxing.  There is also the nearby Kuang Si waterfalls which is a lovely trip for a morning or afternoon.  The turquoise coloured waters are absolutely stunning and if you bring your costume you can go for a dip!  Again your hostel should be able to arrange transport for you, expect to pay around 40,000 kip (£3.40) for a minivan return journey.  Entry to the waterfall is an additional 20,000 kip (£1.70).

The stunning Kuang Si waterfalls

The stunning Kuang Si waterfalls

 

Where To Stay

We stayed in ThaViSouk hostel which was ok.  The staff are really friendly and helpful, but our dorm room wasn’t the most comfortable because it was baking hot at night.  It cost 54,000 kip (£4.65) for a dorm bed per person per night, and that seemed to be the cheapest we could find online, and double rooms in Luang Prabang were generally much more expensive.  When we came back to Luang Prabang later on in the trip, we opted to splash out for a few nights over Christmas in a place called Frangipani.  This guesthouse is wonderful, the staff are really sweet and the room we stayed in was very pimping with its own balcony and view of the Mekong.  This set us back 332,000 kip (£28.50) per night, but that was an inflated price over the festive period.  We would 100% recommend staying there!

 

Where to Eat

There is honestly hundreds of restaurants and cafes you can eat in, so choosing a good one would not be so difficult.  We opted for quite a few meals in local Laotian noodles kitchens, and other outdoor eateries where you can pick up a Thai curry with rice for as little as 25,000 kip (£2.15).  At the west end of the night market, there are lots of food stalls selling pre-plated dishes for the bargain price of 10,000 kip (85p) each, and you can choose from fried rice, noodles, spring rolls and also bbq’ed goods on sticks which cost a bit more.  There are lots of fresh juice and smoothy stalls for 10,000 kip (85p) a drink, and the Redbull Bar (sports bar) offers 2 draught beers for 15,000 kip (£1.50) which was the cheapest we saw.  Our favourite cheap eat however was a Chinese noodle kitchen we found on Khem Khonsu road at the Kitsalat road crossover where you could get a delicious tasting bowl of noodles, meat and fresh vegetables for only 20,000 kip (£1.70).  We must say that the Chinese noodles are a lot tastier than the Laotian equivalent! For a bit of a splash out meal, we would recommend the local Riverside BBQ Restaurant on Khem Khong road which is an all you can eat buffet and cook it yourself restaurant.  The food was incredibly fresh and you could opt for a whole array of ingredients from fresh prawns to 4 types of mushroom. It was 65,000 kip £5.60 per person which is an amazing price when you think about it!

All you can eat BBQ for 65,000 kyat!

All you can eat BBQ for 65,000 kyat!

 

Day 4

Luang Namtha

On the morning of day 4 take a minibus out of Luang Prabang and head for Luang Namtha, the trekking capital of Laos.  Again the roads are pretty tough, winding round hills and the surface can be pretty bad.  It takes approx 8 hours with a fast driver and costs 130,000 kip (£11.15) when booked through a hostel.

Luang Namtha has just one main strip of shops, hotels and tour operators, so when you arrive late afternoon just head to one of the tour operators to look into treks. 

 

What To Do

Luang Namtha itself isn’t anything special, but it is the gateway to jungle treks in the stunning Nam Ha National Park and lots of other outdoorsy activities such as kayaking, zip lining, mountain biking etc.  Depending on how many days you want to trek for and what your budget is, you will be able to find a tour that suits you.  After doing some research online we heard that you really get what you pay for and it’s not worth going dirt cheap.  We chose to do a 3 day tour with Laos Forest Retreat because their reviews were the best on Trip Advisor and we would say from experience that they did deliver.  On signing up for the tour, we didn’t know if anyone else would be joining us, but luckily another 3 people signed on and we were ready to go the next morning with 5 people.  It cost $105 each for 3 days including everything from food to kayaking, to guides and accommodation.  There are definitely tours cheaper than this available with other companies, and the more people that sign up the cheaper it is.  A good thing to do is to visit each of the operators and find out what tours people have already signed up for.

Jungle trekking in the Nam Ha National Park

Jungle trekking in the Nam Ha National Park

 

Where To Stay

There are loads of places to stay in Luang Namtha and we would advise just turning up and booking it there and then for the best deal.  Prices of rooms can be negotiated down and we managed to get a double room with our own bathroom and aircon for 60,000 kip (£5.15) per night down from the first price of 80,000 kip (£6.85).

 

Where To Eat

The best place we found to eat for budget travellers was at the night market, where you can find a bowl of Laotian noodles for 10,000 kip (85p).  The eateries at the front closest by the entrance seem to be the most expensive and the cheaper ones are at the back.  They also have stalls for bbq’ed banana with coconut inside and crepes, but we found both of them dry and a bit disappointing!  The food however on the jungle trek was so amazing, fresh and tasty.  It was probably some of the best food we ate in Laos!

Jungle food on our 3 day trek

Jungle food on our 3 day trek

Hand-crafted pieces, delivered to your door… 

Day 5-8

Nam Ha National Park

We opted for a 3 day trek through the national park with a morning of kayaking through one of the rivers.  On the morning of day 5, we headed to our tour operators office first thing for breakfast and then they drove us an hour out to start our trek in the national park. Trekking in the jungle is amazing and is very different to all the other treks we have done previously in mountainous regions and countryside.  It feels really wild and is a lot of fun! 

Day 1 one of the tour was mostly trekking and eating some delicious food our guides had prepared.  That night we stayed in a homestay at a village in the middle of the jungle and got a glimpse into jungle life.  

Day 2 of the tour was a morning of kayaking down a river, tackling a few rapids and stopping off at some remote villages along the way.  We would thoroughly recommend a bit of kayaking in your tour package.  The afternoon was spent trekking up to a viewpoint and then back down to our next village for a nights rest. We watched the guides cook some food on the fire including frogs they had caught from the river! 

A froggy breakfast in the Nam Ha National Park

A froggy breakfast in the Nam Ha National Park

Day 3 was the most challenging of treks and we walked for quite a few hours until we got to picked up and taken back to Luang Namtha by our guides.  We have written up our experience of the jungle which you may helpful...

Laos: 3 Wild Days In The Nam Ha Jungle, by Studio Mali

When you get back from the tour, spend one more night in Luang Namtha before heading to Nong Khiaw the next morning.  You can book your minibus ticket to Nong Khiaw from one of the tour operators on the high street.  It costs around 65,000 kip (£5.60) per person with a transfer to the bus station included.

Kayaking in the Nam Ha National Park

Kayaking in the Nam Ha National Park

 

Day 9-10

Nong Khiaw

On day 9, take a minibus early to Nong Khiaw which is 6 hours drive away.  Nong Khiaw is a beautiful sleepy town set on the Nam Ou River with the backdrop of the lusciously green limestone mountains.  It is the perfect place to unwind for a few days, with the option of exploring the area by boat or foot.  It doesn’t feel as touristy as Luang Prabang or Vientiane, but there are enough small restaurants and cafes that cater to western tastes.

The relaxing Nong Khiaw

The relaxing Nong Khiaw

 

What To Do

There are many organised treks that you can do from here including the popular 100 Waterfalls Trek which is a day trip.  We booked this through Tiger Trail for 200,000 kip (£17.20) per person and there was 6 people in our group.  We had a fun time doing the 100 Waterfalls trek, and ended up facing some fears after getting a bit piddled on jungle juice.  Read about our experience here...

Laos - Jungle Juice, Waterfalls And Facing Fears In Nong Khiaw, By Studio Mali

Our personal highlight in Nong Khiaw was climbing up to the 360 degree viewpoint which overlooks the town and landscape.  It’s a 40 minute accent if you are fit and used to trekking, and we would highly recommend heading there for sunset.  We heard that the steam room and massage place on the way to the viewpoint was good, but unfortunately we didn’t have time to visit, maybe next time!  You can also do a trip out by boat to another small town called Muang Ngoi which we will chat about later.

The viewpoint in Nong Khiaw

The viewpoint in Nong Khiaw

 

Where To Stay

There is loads of accommodation in Nong Khiaw and some can be found at very good prices.  We would say just turn up and find something there and then.  We chose to stay about a ten minute walk from the station in our first guesthouse which was nice because we got a river view bamboo hut overlooking the town on the other side of the water.  The hut had its own balcony which caught the afternoon rays. The second place we stayed at was on the other side of the bridge, again close to the water but the view wasn’t quite as good and it didn’t get the afternoon sun.  Both rooms cost 60,000 kip (£5.15) per night and were basic bamboo huts with WiFi and a hot shower.

 

Where To Eat

You must eat at Delilah’s for breakfast.  They have an incredible menu to choose from of pancakes, porridge, cooked breakfasts, baguettes, granola and nearly everything is homemade including the bread.  Breakfast range from 20,000 kip (£1.70) to 35,000 kip (£3.00).  They also have some very tasty homemade cakes that are served all day till 11pm including apple crumble with coconut ice cream and banoffee pie.  For dinner, we would recommend eating at Coco’s, the food is fresh and tasty and the setting is nice.  We opted for river weed, river fish and yellow curry all of which were very good, but the stand out dishes were the papaya salad and mango coconut sticky rice for pudding.  There is also a tasty Indian restaurant on the other side of the bridge on the left hand side which is worth a visit.  

A Delilah's breakfast - porridge with banana, milk, maple syrup, sugar and cinnamon

A Delilah's breakfast - porridge with banana, milk, maple syrup, sugar and cinnamon

 

Day 11

Muang Ngoi

Catch the 10.30am boat to Muang Ngoi from Nong Khiaw boat station.  The trip takes about 1 hour 20 mins on a local boat and costs 25,000 kip (£2.15).  The boat ride isn’t so comfortable, but the views make up for it.  Mango Ngoi is a scenic little town further along the river, and is much less developed than Nong Khiaw.  There aren’t any cars there, only bikes, and so it’s a very peaceful place to walk around.  Again, it’s set against the backdrop of the stunning limestone cliffs, and the dirt roads running through the village make you feel as though you’re stepping back in time.  We stayed for only one night here, but really it is probably better to stay for 2, because you only really get a half day to explore the surrounding area.  When you awake the next morning, you need to get down to the boat station for 8am sharp to make sure you book your tickets that morning for the return boat to Nong Khiaw.  It was really busy at 8am when it opens and you don’t want to risk getting stuck in Muang Ngoi.  The boat leaves at 9.30am, and is 1 hour 20 mins back to Nong Khiaw.

Muang Ngoi

Muang Ngoi

 

What To Do

There are plenty of walks to do from the village.  A popular one is to head towards Tham Kang Cave which takes 40 minutes, and then onto a much more remote village called Bana where you will be greeted by smiling locals (a further 30 minutes).  The walk takes around 3 hours total there and back with some time spent in the cave and village, so will take up most of the afternoon.  There is a viewpoint you can ascend which is a sweaty 1.5 hours up, we didn’t get a chance to do it but we heard it was a stunner.  You can also hire bikes to explore more of the surrounding villages, including Bana, Huay Bo and Huay Sen.  Muang Ngoi is a quiet village, but there are plenty of restaurants and bars catering to westerners, so if you are happy to relax in a bar for a few hows enjoying the sunshine then you will have a great time here.  The locals are a little unfriendly but hey, you can’t have everything!

 

Where To Sleep

As soon as you get off the boat you will be approached by many locals trying to offer you a room for the night.  You can either follow one of them, or you can continue walking straight ahead into town to try and find your own place to stay.  We weren’t really that fussed where we were sleeping (as long as it was cheap) so we followed one of the local ladies to Aloune Guesthouse where we stayed in a wooden bungalow for 60,000 kip (£5.15) per night with a river view.  You can’t get much better than that!  We also read online that if you are after an even cheaper room for the night then if you ask around to the owners of restaurants then sometimes you can bag yourself a double room for 20,000 kip (£1.70). When looking for a room, you just need to find out if they have hot showers, electricity, a mosquito net and wifi if you want it.

Chilling in a hammock at Aloune Guesthouse

Chilling in a hammock at Aloune Guesthouse

 

Where To Eat

The Bee Tree Restaurant at the very end of the highstreet does amazing food and cocktails, and every day from 5pm they do a happy hour.  The setting is really lovely, they have a cool hang out space in the garden and they get a fire going later on when it gets a bit chilly.  We opted for the Laos Laos Sours, which were 2 for 25,000 kip (£2.15), and a few hours down the line we had gotten through 5 each, recorded a Christmas quiz for our friends at home, and had munched on some Laotian curries which went done a bit too well!  We wish every town had a Bee Tree restaurant.  We also saw a place on the main strip that did wood fired pizzas but it wasn’t open that evening for whatever reason.  Breakfast in Riverside Bar and Restaurant was also nice, we opted for a fruit porridge made of rice, pineapple, banana and coconut, and we think condensed milk because it tasted so naughty!  We saw there was an all you can eat breakfast for 20,000 kip (£1.83) if you book the night before just on the main strip, but didn’t get a chance to visit.

 

 

Unique designs, that you can’t find on the highstreet….

Day 12

Nong Khiaw 

Take the 9.30am boat back to Nong Khiaw which will take around 1 hour 20 mins.  Enjoy the last boat ride down the very scenic Nam Ou river, it’s very James Bond in places.  If you want to at this point, you can head straight to the bus station and take a minivan or tuk tuk back to Luang Prabang, but we chose to stay another day in the chilled out Nong Khiaw.

Mark chilling on a boat ride from Nong Khiaw

Mark chilling on a boat ride from Nong Khiaw

 

Day 13-14

Luang Prabang

First thing in the morning, make your way over to the bus station in Nong Khiaw.  Your options are to either get a 4 hour ride crammed in a tuk tuk back to Luang Prabang (which sounds like our idea of hell), or to get one of the mini vans which take only 3 hours in much more comfortable seats.  The first minivan starts at around 7.30am, and everything gets booked up pretty fast! As soon as a tuk tuk or van gets filled, it will just leave regardless of what time it was scheduled in for.  So the last minivan for the day was scheduled in for 1.30pm, but actually it left at 11.30am!  Both cost between 40,000/50,000 kip (£3.66-£4.57) and sometimes they may make you pay for empty seats if you want to leave earlier then the scheduled time.  

Whatever you fancy doing on your last couple of days in Laos you will be able to find it in the chilled out traveller haven of Luang Prabang.  

A Luang Prabang sunset

A Luang Prabang sunset

 

Other Things To Note:

Chilly Nights

It can get really cold in Laos at night times, especially out in the countryside, so make sure you take some warm clothing and maybe a sleeping bag if you tend to get very cold at night.  Many nights it was around 3 degrees when we were sleeping in bamboo huts and in the jungle, so make sure you aren’t freezing like we were!

 

Land Mines

Laos is surprisingly the most bombed country in the world and there are still thousands of unexploded land mines scattered across the landscape.  It’s not necessarily something to worry about but something that you should be aware of.  Just make sure that you always stick to the trekking paths and always go with a local guide.

It's fine to trek, just always make sure you are with a local guide

It's fine to trek, just always make sure you are with a local guide

 

Grub

We wouldn’t say that the Laotian food is the tastiest ever but there are plenty of authentic Thai dishes to choose from at tourists restaurants.  You can’t go wrong with a Thai curry!

 

Tourist Central

If you are looking for somewhere to travel to that is quiet of tourists then this isn’t the place for you.  There is such a traveller hub in the cities that sometimes it can be hard to see the local way of life.  Although we liked Laos and thought that the countryside was very stunning, we have preferred travelling around other neighbouring countries such as China and Thailand. It sometimes feels as though the Laotian way of life has stopped for the tourists, which is a bit sad.  

 

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Laos - The Ultimate 2 Week Travel Itinerary For Backpackers, by Studio Mali
 

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Camping: Living In A Tent

Mark thumbnail sml.jpg
 

In our convenient world of Booking.com, Hostelworld and Airbnb, travelling has been made ever so accessible via the relative ease of finding, booking and getting to your accommodation. We decided to buck this modern trend and spend most of our summer sleeping in a tent!  This piece will give you tips on how you plan your own long term camping trip.  We will also take you through some of our highs and lows from camping across Europe and Asia with our home strapped to our backs.

 

Camping's Technicalities

Firstly, we must discuss size. Ali is 5"3 and Mark a long 6"2, which means we have to distribute the weight between two bags carrying a collective weight of 35kg. Mark carries 18kg and Ali 17kg. Remember, travelling with a tent, tarp and cooking equipment is much heavier than a general backpacking experience where you’ll just carry basic equipment between hostels. When you’re living in a tent in nature there are some barriers you’ll need to consider: ranging temperatures, wind, rain, snow, slopes, dips in the ground, insects, finding water, keeping food fresh and struggling with carrying a heavy bag every day.

Equipment list

Our general advice would be to buy medium to high specification equipment because it will almost always be lighter than the cheaper stuff, it should last longer too. That said most of our equipment is medium end and has performed well across a range of places including Siberia in Autumn. We generally buy our equipment from actual shops so you can check performance and ask questions. Sometimes we go home and buy online when you know which product you want so you can get a better price. 

Turtle travellers

Backpack

Your bag is so important because you’ll use it everyday and it’s the only way to transport your gear around comfortably.  Firstly, you’ll need to be realistic about how much you can carry. Nature can throw many challenges at you so having all the equipment you will need makes for a much heavier bag.  See if you can test the bag in a shop with 20kg of weight to make sure your back is conformable, remember weight should be distributed around your waist rather shoulders. 

Ali has a 60L bag and Mark a 65L, which are both mage by Berghaus. Mark's bag is 8 years old and part from from a few clip snapping the bag has performed well, Bergahuse replace any utility clips free of charge too. Make sure you buy a strong bag with a lifetime guarantee, companies like Berghaus and Osprey will replace parts that break or malfunction. We paid no more than £80 for each backpack and we’ve had very few problems with our bags in this price range. More important than the bag is how you pack it, we have tried so many combinations of setup with the tent on the outside, sleeping bags in bin bags strapped to the top, and neither of those worked. We have come to the following conclusions on packing your bag to avoid backache…

Packing Your Bag

  1. Most modern backpacks have a compartment at the bottom where you should place your sleeping bag, as tightly wrapped as possible, in a plastic bag to protect it from water. Squeeze that in first.
  2. Put your tent in next into the largest bag making sure the length on the tent sits against the bags spine as it will support your back and the structure of the bag.
  3. Squeeze in the smaller items like pots and pans, inflatable mattresses and inflatable pillow around the tent at the bottom of the bag because these are the last things you’ll need later when you set up camp.
  4. Lastly put in the items you will need most at the top of the bag normally clothes, hat and gloves.
  5. Use the side pockets for water and day to day items.

Additional Backpack Items

Always pop into the pound shop and buy the follow items:

Bungee cords - These allow you to attach almost anything to the outside of bag and they are also useful for setting up a mosquito net in a large room.

Utility straps - If you need a stronger, more permanent, connection then utility straps are great.

Gaffa tape - Incredibly useful.  Use it to attach a mosquito net to the wall, fix ripped bags or keep food packaging sealed and fresh. You can fix most things with gaffa tape!

Bin bags - Can be used with gaffa tape to waterproof pretty much anything.

With these items almost anything can be attached to the bag with the weight ideally going upwards rather than outwards, otherwise your bag bounces with every step (Ali put up with this for weeks before using the technique above).

Our Berghaus tent

Our Berghaus tent

Tent 

We have a small lightweight two person tent made by Berghaus which is wind and rain-proof. It fits in the 65L bag, which is a must!  It may be worth taking some extra pegs and a repair kit and always check the season of the tent. We have a 3 season tent which has been suitable to -2 temperatures but this would not give enough protection for cold winter weather. Our tent is small with a tiny porch so we had to find a way of storing all of our equipment in the tent and keep it dry. The solution is to cocoon our backpacks in black plastic bin bags, using the gaffa tape, and leave them outside the main tent in the porch. This gives us more space inside the tent. Our tent is also very quick to put up and take down because of simply designed it is, which is an advantage when there is only a small weather window to escape in.

If you need some detailed help and advice on picking the right tent you won't find a better guide than this one https://www.sport-fitness-advisor.com/camping-hiking.html

Tarp

After a few weeks of camping we soon realised that when the rain came, and in Norway it definitely did, we didn't have anywhere to sit and relax in the evenings or cook dinner. So we visited Globetrotter in Berlin to pick up a big tarp for extra space. Having a tarp was such a useful item because we could create a large space using our walking poles as stems or by attaching the tarp to trees. With the extra shelter we could prepare all three meals a day without having to worry about any incoming precipitation!  

Gortex Jackets

Gortex Jackets

Jacket

This item should be on any backpackers list because keeping yourself dry when facing the elements should be your top priority. We have Gortex (waterproof and breathable) jackets which, as well as being lightweight, have peaked hoods that keep the structure of the hood in heavy wind and rain. We also opted for windproof jackets, which does exactly what it says. We spent around £80 pp for our jackets with these features but prices can be much higher for insulating linings, thicker materials etc. In our experience it is better to have a light rain jacket that is supplemented by 1+ thinner layers underneath as it's much easier to control your temperature this way. 

 

Day Bag

It can be quite useful to have a smaller day bag that you can wear on your front where you can keep the items you’ll need across the day like your rain jacket, gloves, hat, sprays, sun cream and water. The downside of a day bag is that you’ll probably get a sweaty chest where the bag rests against it. If we are doing a long trek with heavy bags then we’ll attach the day bag to our larger backpack. 

 
It's useful to have a day bag for excursions out of camp

It's useful to have a day bag for excursions out of camp

 

Boots

It’s an imperative that you buy some decent boots because you’ll use them everyday and they will help soak up some of the forces from a heavy bag. They’ll also help you grip on difficult surfaces and most importantly keep your feet dry. Boots come in different season ratings, the higher the rating the less flexible the sole of the shoe is. For example, a 4 season boot is for technical activities like climbing and cold weather so the shoe will not flex at all. We have 2 season Gortex boots that are grippy, waterproof and have some flex in them, which is perfect for trekking. Do some research before you purchase because there are many companies making boots and many different price ranges. We bought our North Face boots in a half-price sale for £60 and they have last for 7 years. Although the waterproofing started to fail us on this trip so we bought a waterproofing spray that brought them back to life, who knew Gortex boots can lose their waterproofing?

Socks and Gloves

If you can afford it buy Merino wool, which can be manufactured into socks, shirts and jumpers but at a high price point. We would certainly recommend Merino wool socks because they have been the only ones to last the whole trip. Literally all the synthetic and cotton socks had holes in after extended use, whereas the Merino wool ones just keep on going. Over time we will buy all of our clothes in Merino wool because they are warm, dry quickly and pick up less smell than synthetics, smelly Mark can attest to this! We also have 3 season gloves that are waterproof and insulating. The waterproofing is really useful but we found them too cold on their own, so we purchased some cheap wool gloves that fit inside the waterproof ones. With two pairs of gloves our hands are toasty, warm, dry and we can still just about operate a camera with them on.

Wild camping on Olkhon Island, Siberia

Wild camping on Olkhon Island, Siberia

Sleeping Bags - The 'comfort zone' will depend on the season you are travelling in, we have 16 to -4 degree bags that compact well. In winter months, you'll need even warmer sacks.

Roll Mats - These insulate you from the cold ground as well making the ground softer. We have self inflating mats that have performed ok, after a few months Mark's started to deflate in the night and his was a £40 mat!   

Inflating Pillows - These have been really useful on the trip because they make sleeping far more comfortable, easy to deflate and store inside the sleeping bag.

Torch / Headlight - When you're camping you'll need light every night. Purchase a decent LED torch / headlight and you won't regret it!

Gas Hob - If you want to make food in the wild then you'll need a hob and gas. We opted for a little fold out hob that can hold a full pan of water.

Camping Gas - A standard 330 gram gas canister can last up to three weeks of 3 meals a day and hot drink at breakfast. 

Pots And Pans - We purchased some Vango pots and pans that slot inside one another to save on space. Both saucepans have lids, and the lid of the larger pan doubles up as a frying pan.  We also use the pans as bowls for eating out of.

Plates, Cups, Sporks - All made of plastic for lightweight storage, we use these daily for our food prep, plating up and hot drinks.

Multi-tool - This is an all singing all dancing penknife with a selection of knives, tin opener, scissors etc.  Multi-tools are relatively heavy so it's worth checking the weight first.

First-Aid Kit - It is important to get this bit right whilst travelling.  Make sure you have a good selection of plasters, antiseptic wipes, syringes, bandages, tablets, gloves, steri-strips, wound pads, mosquito repellent, high factor SPF suncream.

Our camping equipment

Our camping equipment

Sewing Kit - For those quick repairs needed to clothes, shoes and kit. We even used it to fix our tent.

Black Bin Bags - These are very useful in downpours to keep your stuff dry.

Waterproof Liner Bag - essential to go inside your day bag to keep the important bits dry. 

Water Storing Sacks - not essential but we found these helpful for camping and trekking.

Snood - Snoods are useful for extra head warmth, dust, hair bands and come in different togs.

Walking Poles - These are useful for supporting your knees on long treks, without them Mark's knees would buckled from the weight of the bag.

Luxury Item - We always have some Kendal mint cake for a big trip, its pure sugar and the British used it as a sugar boosting snack to get to the top of Everest!

We called this one Pasta and Vegetables 

We called this one Pasta and Vegetables 

Food and Drink

This is perhaps the biggest hurdle; how to keep well stocked when you're in the middle of nowhere? Sometimes we've been lucky and provisions can found a few km away, other times we've had to prepare for days in the wilderness. First you’ll need cooking equipment. Here is what we brought with us: 

Gas stove - with a heat poof stand for a pot, this means you don’t have hold the handle whilst you cook

Gas canister - a 330gram canister normally lasts about 3 weeks for 3 meals a day.

Pots and pans -  That fit neatly inside each other for space saving.

3 Plates (one for prep and two for dining) 

2 Plastic Cups

2 Sporks

1 heat proof cooking utensil

Washing-up liquid and a few sponges 

Pen knife - Useful for preparing vegetables, open bottles etc

Ali preparing vegetables with multitool and prep plate in Bavaria 

Ali preparing vegetables with multitool and prep plate in Bavaria 

Water

Water, the elixir of life. We have two 2 litre pouches that are made from flexible plastic, which makes them easy to fit into bags for storage. 2 litres normally does a days trekking whereas we need both full for prepping dinner, so 4 litres for a whole day of trekking and cooking. These can be filled from fresh streams when you’re near mountains or waterfalls or using taps at a campsite. Always check with a local person to see if the water is safe, if in any doubt purify it. We have met other campers who use water purifying canisters, which we want to get ourselves some day. They can clean any water in a just a few minutes which means you can clean the water as you need it so you needn’t carry heavy excess water. You can also use water purifying tablets to do the same thing, always have these as an emergency backup.

Breakfast

We are big fans of porridge for breakfast because its lightweight before cooking but expands after cooking and fills you up all morning. It can be prepared with water or milk (bit of a luxury) and you can add sugar for flavour, or salt if you're a crazy Scot! This can be washed down with a tea, always the Empirical brits, although we use milk powder rather than real milk. Washing up quickly is key or else the porridge turns to concrete! On luxury days we apply cinnamon, nuts and dried fruit for that extra energy/ protein punch.

Bring tea bags / coffee / milk powder

Rolled oats

Cinnamon

Dried fruit / nuts

Water

Lunch

Out in the countryside we stock up on cereal bars, nuts for protein, chocolate and dried fruit for sugars (fruit can also be put into your morning porridge.) Sometimes we are able to get some real fruit whilst most of our carbohydrate comes in the form of bread for simple carbs, for complex carbs we have to wait for dinner. All these items are light, relatively cheap and packed with energy. There are times when you’ll stumble on a mini mart and we’ll always try and make a sandwich, well we are British after all.

Cereal bars

Nut bars

Crisps

Dried fruit  / nuts

Water

Dinner

This is where we get most creative. Pretty much every meal contains onion and garlic, roughly cut on one of the prep plates using the pen knife. From here we develop sauces using purée (light and flavoursome) and some kind of bean in a can using water and oil to bulk the sauce out. Flavour is added by stealing portions of salt and pepper from McDonald's and we always add some chilli and an exotic spice mix Ali brought from home. If our spirits and bellies are at a low point we’ll try and make something homely like a spaghetti bolognese or curry, but most of the time a simple pasta or rice dish; an army marches on its' stomach they say. If you google camping recipes there are some really neat ideas for one pot dishes. 

Pasta / rice

Puree

Garlic / onion / chile

Olive / vegetable oil

Peppers  / courgette (vegetables that can survive a few dents)

Meat (optional)

Water

We have been able to carry around 5 days of the above out into the wilderness and survive.

BBQ in the wild is a satisfying way to cook, you could always make your own fire in the wild

BBQ in the wild is a satisfying way to cook, you could always make your own fire in the wild

Tips For Living In A Tent

Over three months, we used our tent and camping gear to sleep in campsites and wild camp in Norway, Germany, Slovenia, Slovakia, Siberia and China. More than just the equipment, we would make these recommendations about what we've learnt from long term camping: 

  • Always bring a few light synthetic layers of clothing rather than big, heavy, thicker layers as it gives so much more control of over the temperature of your body.
  • Make sure you have good waterproof layers for when the rain falls, it can be very difficult to get dry. If you're in the wild then you'll need to start a fire to dry your clothes.
  • Bring two pairs of gloves so one fits inside the other, keep your hands warm at all costs.
  • Same for your feet, buy high quality socks because they will smell less, wear slower and keep your feet warmer. We opted for Merino wool.
  • Always keep your head, feet and hands warm to stay safe in harsh environments.
  • Always have emergency snacks and always plan your foods well when you venture into the wild.
  • Use water purifying tablets or boil water for 8 minutes to get safe drinking water in the wild, otherwise buy a water purifying flask, this is on our wish list!
  • Head torches are very useful; midnight toilet trips, evening card games or navigating home after a sunset trek.
  • Buy foods which are dried or dehydrated you will be grateful for a lighter bag!
  • A tarp is incredibly handy for those nights spent in the rain. Otherwise you will have to get inside your tent straight after dinner to keep dry and wait for cabin fever to set in.
  • Always hook you fresh food high up on a tree branch to stop rodents coming near your tent or, worst still, eating your food. 
  • Learn to read the weather, after a few weeks outside with nature you’ll soon be able to spot a rain cloud coming and have your jacket on and ready.
  • Although it's nice to have expensive camping equipment it's only real benefit is size and weight. Most of our equipment is low to medium cost and served us perfectly well in both hot, cold and challenging places. you don’t need to spend a fortune to go camping!
  • Many people across the world survive in very harsh conditions with very little money or technical equipment. Travelling and camping teaches you that human spirit is as key to survival as your equipment is.

When Disaster Strikes...

Camping throws quite a few surprises at you and occasionally a few disasters. Dealing with these are part of the parcel so let us disclose a few camping nightmares. The first occurred whilst wild camping at the base of the Besseggen ridge in Norway’s Jotunheimen national park. We were on the downward path back to camp when intense rain hit and soaked us to the bone. Shoes squelching, socks swimming. We managed to cook some dinner in our porch and got warm by going to bed at 8pm. It rained all night and was still raining in the morning. Everything was soaked so there seemed little point in changing our clothes. We packed down and dragged our sorry souls to a nearby guesthouse. Being slightly cheeky and resourceful we moved into the hotel lounge where they had a roaring fire and many bewildered guests. We dried out everything over the next few hours and learnt a definitive lesson; sacrifice all to stay dry and your camping experience will be far more pleasant.

Sorry to all the paying guest at this hostel

Sorry to all the paying guest at this hostel

Next there was the flooding in Copenhagen, the picture says it all. Just look around at your environment before pitching the tent, just don't put it in the dip in the field like we did. Our tent was actually floating in the pool of water! We had to stay up until 1am drying our clothes, shoes and bag using the campsites hairdryers.  We felt like muppets but learned a valuable lesson about where, or where not, to pitch our tent in the future.

Check out the flooding around our tent

Check out the flooding around our tent

But When It’s Good…

Camping is one the best things you can do to de-stress, connect with the outdoors and experience amazing sights, sounds and live with nature in the moment. There really isn’t a better way to disconnect from your normal life than by getting outdoors. They say just an hour in nature will provide 7 hours of relaxed mental attitude for the rest of day, nature literally heals you! We camped next to the Great Wall of China, which meant we could get up on the wall for sunrise. This would only have been possible by camping so close to the wall. It also meant we had the whole wall to ourselves. These are just some benefits of camping. We hope our advice will inspire you to have your own camping fun. After travelling for a long time it’s safe to say our most memorable nights have been spent in the comfort, or some freezing our asses of in, a tent! 

Sunset on our wild camp in Arshan, Siberia

Sunset on our wild camp in Arshan, Siberia

Have you had some positive wild camping experiences you'd like to share? Got some must have equipment we should all go out and purchase? Where is the best place in the world to camp?

We’d love to hear about your camping experiences so please leave any comments or tips in the box at the bottom of the post.

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Camping - Living In A Tent, By Studio Mali
 

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China: Shanghai On A Budget

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Shanghai, the place where reputation precedes itself. A futuristic metropolis best embodied by the Pudong skyline, cosmopolitan populace and more malls than you thought possible! Think little Europe in big China; big business to high fashion, old meeting new. It’s a place of huge contrast but in it’s madness you will find a vibrant city, interesting heritage and a view into China’s international future. Eat, drink and strut through sweet-toothed Shanghai.

 

Find Peace In The Old Town

The old town is a great place to explore the historic Shanghai that once stood.  A few crumbling Chinese buildings from the 1800s still remain along with a handful of ancient temples and courtyard gardens.  Wonder the hutong, alleyways, to get a glimpse of the every-day traditional lives of the locals.  The temples are surprisingly peaceful to visit and tourist-free, and with a 5 yuan entrance fee you really can’t go wrong.  We would recommend visiting the small temple on Fangxie Branch Road which acts as a community centre for local children who want to learn the art of calligraphy. For a 5 yuan entrance fee, you can sit and watch the children at work, creating their calligraphy masterpieces of ink to paper. The whole experience is wonderfully relaxing and quiet in comparison to China’s crazy tourist sights. Continuing east onto Wenmiao road sits a larger Buddhist temple where you can watch ceremonial displays from the monks who sing and dance in decorative robes to the sound of live music.  To get to the old town just walk south along Xizang Road.

One of the students practicing calligraphy in the Old Town

One of the students practicing calligraphy in the Old Town

 

Get A Massage

The perfect way to unwind from a days walking around busy Shanghai is to book in for a massage at a local joint. For the price of 90 yuan for a half an hour session, you can get a full body massage (fully clothed that is) and the opportunity to unwind from the busyness of the city.  It’s worth noting that Chinese masseurs have a very firm hand to say the least, so if you are after something more relaxing then opt for the oil massage.  It’s common to finish a massage with a nice cup of warm Chinese tea. Very zen! There are loads of massage places on the roads just north of East Nanjing, just turn up and hope for a good pair of hands.

Time to relax!

Time to relax!

 

Eat Jianbing For Breakfast

You only have to walk down the streets of Shanghai to find this culinary speciality on every street corner.  Jianbing has become one of China’s most popular street food breakfasts and it has a wonderful price tag to match.  For 9 yuan (£1), you can get yourself a delicious crispy-thin crepe filled with egg, coriander, spring onion, and zingy pickles, and a healthy spread of sweet hoisin sauce and spicy chilli sauce. If that doesn’t sound good enough already, each one is topped with a crispy layer of fried wonton and fried lettuce leaves.  The crepe is cooked right in front of you on a hot plate, wrapped, and then cut down the middle to reveal the crispy wonton and filling. This was one of the best things we ate in Shanghai and it’s super cheap!

Jianbing being cooked on a hot plate

Jianbing being cooked on a hot plate

 

Find Love In The People's Square

This is a market like no other, every Saturday morning hundred of locals get together in the people’s square in central Shanghai to market, wait for it, their children?!  The parent presents a piece of paper with their son or daughters profile on and sticks it on an open umbrella for others to see.  Hundreds of coloured brollies line the walkways and people wonder through, searching for the perfect match for their spouse. It’s a bit like a ‘looking for love ad’ in your local paper, except it’s in real life and the parents are the ones to impress. At first we thought the whole process was a little strange, but after speaking to locals we found out that it’s actually for parents whose children are LGBT and it’s a way of showing support for their son or daughter.  Being LGBT in China isn’t generally accepted unless you are in a cosmopolitan city like Shanghai, so it is a nice thing for the parents and visitors to be a part of. Closest tube stop is the People’s Park.

Displays of love at the Saturday market in People's Square

Displays of love at the Saturday market in People's Square

 

Contemplate Art At M50

Take an afternoon out to wonder the trendy streets of the M50 Art Area. Nestled next to the Wusong river in a number of converted factories, M50 has the largest collection of galleries in Shanghai and most are free to enter.  The vibe is very chilled, there are dozens of coffee shops, cool design and homeware stores and slick art spaces all lining the tidy cobbled streets, and many art enthusiasts stroll around dipping in and out of galleries with a coffee in hand. This was a really design-conscious area, and with its slow pace it felt different from a lot of other places in Shanghai. If modern art is your thing then definitely stop off here.   Closest tube stop is Jiangning Road.

One of the slick design stores at M50 Art Area

One of the slick design stores at M50 Art Area

 

Eat Delicious Noodles At Number 14

On a side road just off the rather pricy French Concession high street sits an unassuming eatery which is packed all day long.  Hungry diners are squashed into the tiny restaurant at number 14 Yandang Road, munching on some of the best noodles in town that only cost 10 yuan a bowl.  The noodles come doused in a deliciously thick peanut and sesame sauce, topped with a sprinkling of spring onions. Just walk in, order a bowl of ‘mah jong mien’, pay and take your ticket, and then wait for your order to be delivered to your seat.  These noodles are some of the tastiest in town, and are perfect for the budget traveller.

Delicious peanut and sesame noodles 

Delicious peanut and sesame noodles 

 

Watch The Locals Dance

One of the funnest things about visiting China is watching the locals go about their daily business. You only have to wonder into any park or public space to see the older crowd congregating in groups learning new dance routines, exercising, playing games and singing. The dance routines are really fun to watch and you can join in if you are feeling brave enough! Pumping music gets played from a large speaker, and the group starts moving in time with the beat, with one person taking the lead.  Dancing can happen at all times of day, in the evening under the amber street lights or first thing in the morning just after the sun’s come up.  It’s like a new way of clubbing for the old, dancing with friends and without the hangover.  Head to the People’s Park any time of day or on East Nanjing Road for sunrise.

Locals dancing in the parks

Locals dancing in the parks

 

Stroll The Dazzling Bund

A trip to Shanghai isn’t complete without a visit to the cities most impressive sight, the Bund.  The 1km promenade is sandwiched in between a stretch of grand landmark Art Deco and neo-classical buildings on the west side, including banks, hotels and trading centres, and the futuristic Pudong skyline which is set on the opposite bank of the Huangpu River.  From here you get a great view of the famous Shanghai World Financial Centre, which changes colour depending on what time of day you visit, and the Shanghai Tower, China’s tallest building.  The view really is spectacular, day or night this makes a fantastic spot to photograph the modern skyline, and to stroll a small length of the river.  It’s free to visit and it’s possible to arrange boat tours, a trip on the river tunnel and the Bund History Museum nearby. Closest tube stop is Nanjing East Road.

The futuristic Pudong skyline

The futuristic Pudong skyline

 

Shanghai Museum

This insightful museum has a thorough collection of arts and crafts dating back to ancient times.  Whether you are into Bronze Age vessels or Chinese calligraphy scrolls, stone sculptures of Buddha or Ming-style wood furniture, there is a plethora of artefacts to see at the highest level of craftsmanship.  So many museums in China have useless information or no information at all, but this one is definitely the exception.  Descriptions, dates, methods of construction are detailed and insightful, we left understanding how bronze pots were cast through the help of some step by step prototypes. One of the best collections in the museum is on the top floor and is that of Arts and Crafts by Chinese Minorities and consists of costumes, jewellery, musical instruments and masks. The level of intricacy in the textiles is sublime and so unique to the smaller ancient communities. Being designers and makers ourselves, this is one of the most inspiring places to visit in Shanghai along with the M50 Art Area and the design-led lanes of Tianzifang.  Entry to the museum is free.

Traditional Chinese costume featured in the 'Arts and Crafts by Chinese Minority' exhibition

Traditional Chinese costume featured in the 'Arts and Crafts by Chinese Minority' exhibition

 

Explore The Tianzifang Lanes And Shops

Just south of the pricy French Concession shopping street sits the more affordable quirky lanes of Tianzifang.  Wonder down the cobbled streets in search of small design shops, art galleries, snacky eateries, floristry's, hang-out bars, vintage clothes stores and many more.  The vibe is chilled out, and it makes for a nice afternoon mooching around the surrounding streets, dipping in and out of shops or just soaking up the atmosphere.  Most of the shops are run by small creative businesses rather than the huge highstreet brands that dominate most of Shanghais shopping areas.  Expect to see many fashion-conscious locals wondering round with their latest purchases in-hand.  The bars can be a bit pricy so why not grab a beer from the corner shop, take a seat and watch the world go by. Closest tube stop is Dapuqiao.

 
Wondering down the Tienzifang lanes

Wondering down the Tienzifang lanes

 
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China - Shanghai On A Budget, by Studio Mali
 

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Norway: 5 Ways To Cut Costs For The Budget Traveller

Norway is one of the most expensive countries in the world, making it very difficult to budget for as a traveller.  Local buses can be as expensive as £20 for an hours ride, and a few of these a week can completely blow the budget.  

Here are some top tips for reducing costs when travelling to one of the most expensive places in the world:

Happy savers in Norway

Happy savers in Norway

1. Camp

It is legal to wild camp in any of the countryside, woodlands or mountains in Norway for free due to the legal right to roam 'allemannsretten'. It is a traditional right from ancient times and it's purpose is to encourage everyone to experience nature, even on privately owned lands.  You just need to make sure that you pitch up your tent no closer than 150m to the nearest inhabited house or cabin. There are other things to bear in mind if you want to wild camp, including actual bears! All info can be found here

www.miljodirektoratet.no

There are hundreds of campsites across Norway that have fantastic facilities, and compared to other outgoings come up very cheap.  Our first campsite in Otta was only 75 Nok (£7.50) per person per night and compared to a block of Norweigian cheese at 90 Nok £9, I think this is a great deal!  Campsites can be found online here:

www.norcamp.de

 

2. Eat On The Cheap

Eating out in Norway can be extortionate and is not really suitable for anyone travelling on a budget.  We would recommend taking a lot of your own food into the country for the best way of saving money, and just topping it up along the way.  Because we knew we would be camping, we pre-portioned off porridge for breakfast every morning - a combination of rolled oats, milk powder, cinnamon and sugar.  We brought pasta in sauce and flavoured noodles for dinner, and then lots of protein bars, nuts, dried fruit and chocolate for the bits in between.  Every now and again we have needed to pick up a few groceries in local convenience stores, but on the whole we haven't spent very much money on food.

We cooked this on our little gas stove; pasta, toms, onion, garlic, courgette & parmesan 

We cooked this on our little gas stove; pasta, toms, onion, garlic, courgette & parmesan 

 

3. Plan Your Transport

It is best to book transport in advance as it can be very expensive booking on the day.  Norway is extremely well connected, and it is possible to travel to lots of places by train, coach, bus, ferry and bike.  Just assess all options online first to find the cheapest route.  Bus fares are cheaper for students so if you are lucky enough to have a youthful face then you should be able to request a student ticket on boarding, which could save you a third of the price.  A bit sneaky, but worth the saving.

For train fares and timetables, follow the below link:

www.nsb.no

There are lots of companies that run bus services in Norway, follow the links below for the two most established companies for long distance travel:

www.unibuss.no

www.nor-way.no

Local buses are pay on board, so unfortunately you won't be able to make much of a saving there, unless you opt for a student ticket.

 

4. Walk Over Ride

In the National Parks, there are lots of connecting buses and ferrys to take you to the start of the trekking routes.  If you get yourself a good map and a strong set of legs, then there is no reason why you can't walk from one part to the next without the need for public transport.  You could arrange to do a small circuit and wild camp, or if you need a few more amenities then check into a campsite or dorm.  Just be aware of the difficulty level of the route you are planning to take as some are unsuitable for large rucksacks especially if the weather is bad. 

 

5. Slow Down

Norway is a country best enjoyed at a leisurely pace to really get into the Norweigian way of life.  Rushing around from one place to the next is going to prove to be tiring and expensive.  Norway is a huge country, approximately three times the length of the UK, and so planning on going from North to South and East to West all in a couple of weeks really isn't going to be feasible.  Just chill out, pick one or two areas of interest, and explore what's going on around them in a local scale.  A couple of hours spent wondering through the woods is relaxing and won't cost you anything, or a bike ride through some of the stunning landscapes will leave you feeling exhilarated and energised without breaking the bank. The fewer long distance coach journeys the more money in your pocket, so just think on a smaller scale.  The Norwegians aren't the happiest people on the earth because they are rushing around all the time!

We hope you find these tips helpful on your adventure to Norway!  If you have any more suggestions then we would love to hear them.

 

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Norway - 5 Ways To Cut Costs For The Budget Traveller, by Studio Mali
 

 

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