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Sri Lanka: 5 Reasons Why It's The Perfect Destination For The First-Time Backpacker

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Tipped as the top travel destination for 2019 by Lonely Planet, Sri Lanka has it all for the outdoorsy traveller. From turtle sanctuaries and stunning white sanded beaches in the south, to the world famous tea plantations sprawled across the countries mountainous centre. 


If you are into animal watching, then you can spend your days bouncing around in an open topped jeep on safari, trying to spot wild elephants, crocodiles and leopards in the lusciously green national parks.  Mountain trekkers can head to a number of well know ranges, and can hike up some of the nations favourite peaks such as the steep and sacred Adams Peak at sunrise.  Head to the bustling and rugged city of Jaffna to soak up the culture of every day Sri Lankan life.  There are ancient temples, historical sights and plenty of religious ceremonies to attend. 

A climb to the sacred Adam’s Peak is well worth the reward….

A climb to the sacred Adam’s Peak is well worth the reward….


Whatever you choose to do in this diverse country, you really won't be disappointed because the standards are high and the quality of your experience is valued and welcomed by the locals.  Tourism is integral to the country's economy and in recent years they have seen a significant boom.  So for the first time backpacker, you have the peace of mind that the route is well trodden and the Sri Lankan people will treat you like family.  

Here are 5 reasons why we think Sri Lanka should be on the top of your to-visit list for the first time backpacker....

  1. The Friendly People

Not all people you meet on your travels will greet you with open arms, but the Sri Lankan’s are some of them.  After travelling in 16 countries over 10 months, we decided that the Sri Lankan's are some of the warmest and most welcoming folk that we've ever met.  Men would buy us coffee in the street, hosts would spend hours making us the most delicious home-cooked food from scratch, people are always on hand to help you get on the right buses, locals will share their food (and seat) with you on the train, and sometimes people will even walk down the street with you just to have a chat! You can’t get much friendlier than that.

Locals on the train to Nuwara Eliya who shared their food with us

Locals on the train to Nuwara Eliya who shared their food with us


Obviously there will always be the odd few rotten apples that are trying to get something for nothing, but on the whole we found the Sri Lankan's very trustworthy and helpful.  Impressively, nearly everyone speaks English due the empire, so if you are ever in need of help then just ask the person next to you and I'm sure they will do their best.  The hospitality in hostels and guest houses is next level, and hosts will really go out of their way to make your experience the best that it can possibly be.  We really don't have a bad thing to say about anyone we met!

2. It's Just So Cheap!

Sri Lanka is very well priced to travel around and on some days we would spend around £12 per day between us, that's with eating in the 'hotels' which are actually restaurants where the locals eat.  It's possible to find accommodation for around £6 for a double room per night on booking.com, and if you are happy to eat like the locals then a couple of kottu's (a Sri Lankan street food of chopped roti bread, vegetables and meat gravy fried on a hot plate) would set you back between £1.50 to £3.00 for 2 portions. That's a whole lot of bang for your buck!  A beer at an off-licence will be around 300 rupees (£1.50) which isn’t so bad. 

Well-priced produce at a local store

Well-priced produce at a local store


Travelling by bus is very cheap indeed, ranging from about 50p to £4 per journey (the £4 journeys would be if you were travelling for 5 hours across the country), and the train can be even cheaper but slower and far more crowded.  A train ticket to Colombo from Kandy is around 100 rupees for 2nd or 3rd class, or you can travel in 1st for only 500 rupees (£2.50)!  A rickshaw in the capital is around 50 rupees per kilometre, which isn’t too shabby.  


Visits to the national parks can however be pricy (they have to make their money somewhere right?) so if you are trying to keep your costs down then just choose to visit only one or two of them on your trip.  For example, a visit to the Kaudulla National Park on an elephant safari set us back £50 per person, and a trek in the knuckles mountain range with a guide and driver was £50 between us.  Compared with the costs of food, travel and accommodation, these prices seem extremely high, but if you acknowledge that you are paying for one or two people’s time and consider it a once in a lifetime experience then the costs aren't so bad after all.  I mean, you get to see elephants in the wild!  If you are happier eating in tourist restaurants for peace of mind of hygiene then there are many to choose from, and prices will be more like £3 to £6 for a main meal.  We ate at the local restaurants 3 times a day and never got sick, so if you want to taste real Sri Lankan food and pay cheap prices then find the nearest 'hotel’.

Kaudulla National Park on an elephant safari!

Kaudulla National Park on an elephant safari!


3. Easy To Get Around

Transport in Sri Lanka is great for the backpacker.  You can pretty much get anywhere by bus, or if you want to travel at a slower pace then taking a train is a good option.  If you don’t want any hassle with transport and money is no option then just take a cab or tuk tuk.  Remember to negotiate hard because most likely the first price will be far too high. 

We took several local buses to get to the base of Adam’s Peak in central Sri Lanka

We took several local buses to get to the base of Adam’s Peak in central Sri Lanka


The buses are the best way to get around though, and they’re are hilarious!  Travelling on one is such an experience, and in some ways they are the funniest part of the trip.  These are the local buses where the driver blasts out Sri Lankan bhangra for 4 hours straight, everyone is stuck to the sweaty leather seats, there is a line of people standing all the way down the isle clinging on for dear life, whilst the driver over-takes at full speed like a maniac.  So obviously the speedy dangerous driving is not a plus side of travelling by bus, but you will be guaranteed to get there quickly.  We would recommend sitting towards the back for safety, and not looking out the front (for obvious reasons).  Ignorance is bliss they say.  The bus assistant will be the one taking ticket money, and will tell you where to put your oversized bags.  The benches on the buses are made for small bottoms, so you will most likely be squashed up against the person next to you.  But for a couple of pounds per journey, who really cares?!  The buses are clearly marked in English where they are headed for, and there is always an assistant on board to ask if you are unsure.  Sri Lanka is the perfect sized country, because you can pretty much travel across the whole of it within a day.  

Local kids waving the train on by…

Local kids waving the train on by…


4. Diverse

Sri Lanka is a unique country with so much to offer.  Depending on what you’re into, every traveller can have a completely different experience.  If you like tropical beach breaks, sun bathing, surfing, turtle conservations and whale watching, then head to one of the many beaches that sprawl the lengthy coastline.  Along with beachy vibes brings chill out bars with like-minded travellers, parties and fun times.  

A beautiful sunset at Negombo beach near Colombo

A beautiful sunset at Negombo beach near Colombo


Looking for more of a nature-inspired trip? Well this is the place for you.  Never have we seen so many exotic animals in one country before… elephants, eagles, monkeys, crocodiles, mongoose, leopards, giant squirrels and wild boars.  The list is literally insane.  Each national park has a different focus, some are the home to the leopard whilst others of the elephant, so choose which one you visit thoughtfully.  It’s worth noting that entry to these national parks is in the form of a jeep safari, so don’t think you will be able to trek in there to enjoy the nature! 

The middle of the country is more mountainous and hilly, so for nature lovers and those into trekking you can head to the likes of the Knuckles Range, Sigiriya, Horton Plains, Adam’s Peak, Ella, Haputale and Lipton’s Seat.  There are plenty of walks to do without paying for entry to the National Parks, and luckily there are lots of local buses to get you away from the main towns and cities to start your route from.  The tea plantations are spectacular, and are free to roam around for the enthusiastic walker.

The view from our guesthouse at Nuwara Eliya, surrounded by leafy tea plantations

The view from our guesthouse at Nuwara Eliya, surrounded by leafy tea plantations


If history, culture and religion is your thing then this a country rich in all of these areas.  With Portugese and Dutch attempted invasions, British actual invasion, and civil war between the Tamils and Sinhalese lasting several decades, it’s hard to hide the very recent wounds of history, particularly in hard-hit areas like Jaffna where bullet holes are visible in the crumbing buildings.  The majority of the Sri Lankan people are of Buddhist religion, with a small proportion of Hindu’s, Christian’s and Muslims.  There are many incredible temples and places of worship to visit along with religious sights such as the ancient Mihintale and Polonnaruwa ruins.  One of our favourite moments was experiencing a Hindu ceremony at the decorative Nallur Kovil temple where men took their shirts off with the sound of live percussion instruments playing.

Nallur Kovil Hindu temple in Jaffna

Nallur Kovil Hindu temple in Jaffna


5. The Food

If you’re a foodie like us then you will probably be salivating right now at the thought of eating delicious Sri Lankan food.  Imagine coconut milk curry with an explosion of spices, beautifully balanced with chunks of sweet butternut squash, and spicy beetroot curry with home-made coconut rotis… it’s just too delicious!  The coconut milk is freshly made and my god does it taste like it.  Rice and curry is the staple, but really when you order it you end up with about 6 components including daal and fresh vegetables too.  No one goes hungry in Sri Lanka!

Fresh fruits at a homestay in Kandy

Fresh fruits at a homestay in Kandy

The kottu is incredible, it’s a street food of fried roti bread, vegetables and sometimes egg covered in meat gravy.  It’s one of the cheapest dishes you can get and it’s probably the tastiest because it’s so god damn naughty.  One of the funnest things is choosing between the surplus of fried street snacks, the Sri Lankan’s do love a deep fried snack!  Nearly anywhere, you can pick up vegetable rotis (that look like a vegetable samosa), dosa (fermented pancake), egg hoppers (crunchy pancake in the shape of a bowl), string hoppers (well-seasoned stringy noodles you eat for breakfast with your fingers), jackfruit balls… the list is endless.  And then there’s all the sweet stuff too… coconut pancakes, buffalo curd with plant nectar (like honey), and all the fresh fruits.  It’s worth going to Sri Lanka just for the food alone, we were so excited to be eating it every day that sometimes we just worked our schedule around the food!

The legendary Kottu street food. We had definitely put on a few pounds after 4 weeks of eating this bad boy.

The legendary Kottu street food. We had definitely put on a few pounds after 4 weeks of eating this bad boy.


We Dig It!

I feel like I could go on and on about all the great things that Sri Lanka has to offer, but really it would be better for you to just go and experience it for yourself.  For the first-time backpacker, this really is a fantastic country to visit because as far as travelling goes; it is relatively easy, the people are lovely, it’s got so much to offer and it’s cheap.  I would say that 2 weeks is probably the minimum amount of time to spend there, we went for 4 weeks and in that time we only went to 2 beaches!  So if you do want to visit then I would strongly suggest not trying to cram everything in and rushing around to much.  It’s a relaxed country to be in, and it’s all the small moments that make this place so special; like sharing a dinner of home-cooked food, or watching the sunrise up on Pidurangala Rock. 

For the first-time backpacker, you really won’t regret a trip to the incredible Sri Lanka….

A tranquil sunrise on the top of Pidurangala Rock, just watch out for the sneaky monkeys!

A tranquil sunrise on the top of Pidurangala Rock, just watch out for the sneaky monkeys!



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Armenia: 8 Things To Do In Yerevan

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Yerevan’s modern aesthetic might just take you by surprise.  Located in the Caucasus, this neat capital city is more Westenised then you might imagine and yet is deeply rooted in a turmoil of history from the barbaric Armenian genocide to over half a decade of repressive soviet rule.  And yet against all odds it has come out the other side, offering a plethora of high quality experiences for the traveller, from delicious traditional foods to well presented museums.  

 

This is the perfect place to visit for the budget backpacker, where you can enjoy a pint of beer in a cafe for as little as 800 dram (£1.20) and entry to some of their top museums for only 1000 dram (£1.50).  We loved Yerevan’s relaxing setting and ended up staying for 5 nights, enjoying the fresh bread from the bakeries and climbing up to the viewpoints over the city.  As far as capital cities go, this one feels very homely and there is plenty of activities to make this a must-visit destination.  Here are our top picks of things to do in Yerevan....

A fun aztec-style carpet in the Centre of Popular Creation

A fun aztec-style carpet in the Centre of Popular Creation

 

Appreciate Armenian Craftsmanship At The Centre of Popular Creation

This small museum is home to some of the finest examples of folk art in Armenia, and holds a strong collection of woodwork, metalwork, textiles, carpets, traditional costume, lace and embroidery.  The collection has developed over the last 90 years and still to this day the museum supports and displays works of current Armenia artists and craftsmen.  We were told that many artefacts were lost during their troubled history, in the years of the genocide and then later in soviet rule, which is why lots on display has been created in a strange time-hoping timeline.  We were particularly impressed with the woodwork, the hand-carvings of geometric patterns and inlays are so intricate and immaculately done that we left feeling very inspired.  The museum is quite small and not very busy, but definitely worth a visit for only 1,000 dram.  Entry is from 11am-5pm and is closed on Mondays.

Intricate wooden inlays and other handicrafts

Intricate wooden inlays and other handicrafts

 

Enjoy A Refined Breakfast At Lavash

Everyone needs a treat once in a while, and what better way to treat yourself than to eat some tasty food in an enjoyable setting.  In warm months you can sit outside and enjoy breakfast in the fresh air, with a coffee in-hand choosing from a menu of delicious sounding dishes.  The mushroom crepe is a must and comes in two parts so you can share with a friend, and the honey, walnut and butter wrap is probably one of the most intense things we have ever eaten!  An insanely sweet pudding with a thick wedge of butter inside.  We didn’t know whether to love it or hate it. 

We’ve heard that the traditional Armenian cheese balls are a hit but didn’t get round to trying them, maybe you can let us know how they were.  The decor is pleasingly natural-looking and considered, imagine speckled plates and crisp glassware neatly laid out on tables.  Generally the portion sizes are quite small, but the richness of the food seems to make up for it, so order an extra plate to share if your budget allows.  Lavash is open 8.30am-12am and they open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Our bill came to £7.85 for 2 dishes and 2 coffees, so not the cheapest, by local standards but great by European. It’s worth the splash out for a high quality experience.

Delicious mushroom crepes with yoghurt dip

Delicious mushroom crepes with yoghurt dip

 

Visit The Armenian Genocide Memorial & Museum

You can’t help leaving the museum with the heaviest heart and anger at what happened a hundred years ago to the Armenian people.  During Turkey’s last empire, The Ottoman Empire, the imploding Young Turks government callously exterminated 1.5 million people in Armenia including men, women, children and the elderly on the basis that they were Christian, which they believed diluted the strong Islamic traditions of the empire.  The Ottoman government used World War I as an opportunity to invade and coverup their atrocities, as they knew the focus would be elsewhere at the time.  It wasn’t until years later that the rest of the world became aware of the scale of the massacre, and it was too late to stop it.  The modern museum is dedicated to explaining the atrocities of the genocide, the invasion by the Ottoman Empire and the devastating impact it had on the people of Armenia.  It’s pretty heavy going as you can imagine, but it’s important to raise of what happened as recognition of the genocide.  The museum is situated on the top of the hill on the western side of Yerevan city and has an amazing view of Mt Ararat, along with a contemporary metal sculptural memorial marking the remembrance of the genocide.  Entry is free and is open from 11am - 4pm, closing on Mondays.

The stark genocide memorial sculpture

The stark genocide memorial sculpture

 

Have A Rummage At Vernissage Market

This open air handicraft market covers handmade, mass produced and second-hand Armenian products, from laser cut wooden items to resin jewellery, and antique brassware to musical instruments.  It makes for an interesting afternoons stroll wondering down the long market lanes browsing the wears.  Some of the products are standard tourist fair, but actually lots of the stalls are offering something different from one another.  Refreshingly, the sellers are not too pushy, maybe just keen to show you their items if you vest some interest.  There are a number of locals selling antique Armenian carpets and throws, many of which are in mint condition and are as old as a century.  Another highlight is seeing the hand painted artworks by the local artists.  The content of the artworks is generally quite traditional, so expect to see fruit bowls, landscapes, cheesy horses running through water etc, but occasionally you’ll see someone doing things a bit differently.  It’s best to visit at the weekend when more sellers turn out, and if you are looking to do a bit of haggling this may not be the place.  The price given does tend to be the final price but there’s no harm in trying to get a better deal.  The market is open 7am - 6pm daily.

Rugs, rugs and more rugs!

Rugs, rugs and more rugs!

 

Eat Lahmacun With The Locals

If you don’t already know, Lahmacun is a delicious flatbread with a spicy layer of meat on top and is served like a pizza.  You can get Lahmancuns in many neighbouring countries but in Armenia they are also known as Armenian pizza.  The locals love eating this as a snack, and they like to fold each slice over before taking a bite.  If you head to the restaurant next to Lavash on Tumanyan street, you will see many locals eating Lahmacuns there, and if meats not your thing then they also do a vege alternative with Zatar (middle eastern herbs, sesame seeds and oil) on bread.  Both pizzas are utterly morish, and for 900 dram and 750 dram, you really can’t go wrong.  If you also fancy a pint to wash it down then they sell draught beer for 800 dram, which is cheap for Yerevan.

Zataar flatbread pizza, yum!

Zataar flatbread pizza, yum!

 

Get Up To Date At The History Museum Of Armenia

This national museum holds the largest collection of historical artefacts in Armenia, many of which were discovered in 1950’s when the water level at lake Sevan decreased by 20 meters in height and revealed acres of unseen before land.  The museum collection is extensive and consists of Bronze Age artefacts, ceramics, arms and weapons, information on the Armenian genocide, and an incredible wooden chariot excavated from Lchashen near the lake.  The signage is generally good and each room has an information board explaining the timeline of events and all other relevant info.  It’s strictly no photography inside the museum and there are many invigilators walking round to enforce the rule.  Entry is 2,000 dram for adults and the museum is open 11am-6pm daily but closed on Mondays.

No photos inside, so the entrance it is then.

No photos inside, so the entrance it is then.

 

Try Some Traditional Dishes At Tavern Yerevan

This restaurant popular with the locals is a great place to get to know Armenian cuisine as the menu is extensive, the dishes are freshly prepared and the prices are affordable.  There are a few of these restaurants scattered around Yerevan and the one we went to on Teryan street had an open bakery kitchen where you could see some very skilled workers baking the bread that they serve, rolling out flat breads the size of small tables and putting them into a tandoori oven in the ground.  We were mesmerised by the speed that they were making them and ordered a bread basket for only 300 dram to sample the yummy goodies.  The plates are starter size so you can order a few to share, or a couple for yourself if you are dining solo. You will leave feeling very full after two plates. We went for the pumpkin soup (which was deliciously creamy), tabouleh salad (very well seasoned), stuffed aubergines and bread which came to 4,400 dram between two people. That’s really not bad for fresh food, bready entertainment and great service.  The only problem you will have here is choosing from the 20 page picture menu!  Tavern Yerevan is open daily from 10am-12am.

Homemade breads, Tabouleh salad and stuffed aubergines

Homemade breads, Tabouleh salad and stuffed aubergines

 

Climb The Cascade Complex

This impressive outdoor limestone staircase offers incredible views of Yerevan city and the stunning Mt Ararat.  It was designed in the early 70s during the Soviet rule and was only completed in 2009, 18 years after it Armenia became its own republic.  The structure is unique in style, like nothing I have ever seen before, and has a strange contemporary yet minimal Soviet theme.  Water fountains are formed by 3D geometric patterns protruding from the limestone, with half circle curves that look like they’ve been borrowed from an Art Deco building.  The water fountains weren’t on when we visited, which perhaps even added to the oddness of the design.  The climb up the giant staircase might be a challenge for some, so take a few breaks and enjoy the view of the city behind you.  If you don’t feel like walking then you can jump on one of the seven escalators that run up the inside.  This is a must-see when in Yerevan and is free to access.  The monument is open at all times of day and night.

Sculpture in the Cascade Complex, Yerevan, Armenia

 

We really wanted to visit the Cafesjian Centre For The Arts but run out of time on our visit, so if you are into contemporary art then why not pop into this gallery at the same time as seeing the Cascade Complex (it’s situated just inside).

 

We hope you find our article helpful, let us know if you have any questions or other ideas!

 

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Jordan: 8 Things To Do In Amman On A Budget

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Amman is a grand capital situated on historical, religious and empirical crossroads, and for the budget traveller there are plenty of tasty Jordanian eateries, art galleries and world-class historical sights so you can keep up with the culture without breaking the bank.  It’s the perfect introduction to middle eastern life; the city has a relaxed and local feel to it, the people are friendly, it’s traditional and attracts interesting open-minded travellers. 

Amman, Jordan

 

The sprawling expanse of the city can be seen as it rolls across the steep hillsides, just a visit to the Roman Amphitheatre will leave you feeling overwhelmed by the sheer scale and manpower of this ancient wonder.  Three days in Amman is plenty to make the most of the sights and culture, and we have put together a list of our favourite activities to help the budget traveller.  If you are into food, culture, the arts and a few of the must-see attractions, then take a look at our recommendations for travelling to Amman on a budget....

 

 

Be Engulfed By The Roman Amphitheatre

Sometimes these ‘must-visit’ sights aren’t quite what they’re hyped up to be, and overpriced for that matter, but this really isn’t the case for the Roman Amphitheatre in downtown Amman.  It’s impressive size and steep accent up the hillside can hold up to 6,000 people at any one time, and despite its crumbling edges, it’s probably the most solid thing you will ever lay your feet on.  It was build between 136-181 CE, that’s nearly 2000 years ago, and is in impeccable condition (minus a few well restored sections that are visible on the edges).  To sit at the top of this beautifully symmetrical structure is somewhat overwhelming.  Just the sheer scale, architectural achievement and view from the top is world class, and for only 2 JD (£2) entry, I can’t think of a better way to spend the price of a coffee.  Price also includes entry to the Folklore Museum, and Museum Of Popular Traditions.  Entry is free for those with a Jordan Pass.

The ancient Roman Amphitheatre 

The ancient Roman Amphitheatre 

 

Try Sweet Cheese Pudding At Habibah

This place has a queue of hungry sweet-toothed diners at pretty much any time of day and it’s clear to see why.  Locals and tourists alike fall in love with the traditional Palestinian kunafa served here, it’s an unusual dish of cheese pastry (similar tasting to halloumi or mozzarella) served warm with a crunchy and sweet syrupy semolina topping.  Eating this fatty, sweet and calorific pudding is intense and incredible, it’s so more-ish and sickly at the same time.  In 8 months of travelling it’s probably one of the most memorable things I have eaten.  At Habibah, they make huge trays of the stuff, and it’s all being heated up from underneath to keep the cheese gooey and the topping as crunchy as dried noodles.  A small plate costs 0.80 JD (80p) and a large which is double the size costs 1.40 JD (£1.40).  You can choose between fine or course kunafa, the fine one is even sweeter.

Yum yum yum! The gooey cheesy and sweet kunafa

Yum yum yum! The gooey cheesy and sweet kunafa

 

 

Visit The King Abdullah Mosque

It’s not very often you get to see inside a mosque, unless you are a practicing Muslim that is, so visiting the King Abdullah Mosque is worth a trip when in Amman.  This is the only mosque you can visit in the area as a non-Muslim.  The enormous blue central dome is a clear highlight, and is decorated inside with a symmetrical gold star-shaped design, which is illuminated by a halo of bulbs. There is some really beautiful marble insets on the surrounding walls in Islamic patterns, and chunky wooden doors with star shaped engravings.  Tourists are allowed to visit outside of prayer times, so unfortunately you will be visiting when the space is empty.  A whopping 7,000 worshippers can fit into the carpeted space with a further 3,000 outside in the courtyard.  Women are provided with a full length black hooded cloak (abayas) to wear, and men are asked to wear full length trousers.  Everyone is to remove their shoes before entering.  Entry is 2 JD (£2) per person.

The King Abdullah Mosque

The King Abdullah Mosque

 

 

Eat All You Like At Hashem

This open air restaurant in downtown Amman is a favourite with both tourists and locals.  It’s sandwiched in between two buildings, in a wide alleyway, and diners are invited to take a seat and wait for the onslaught of Jordanian food.  There’s no menu as such, just a feast of vege dishes that get delivered by some very chatty waiters.  We were fed flat breads, hummus, falafel, the most deliciously smokey moutabel (similar to aubergine baba-ganoush), salad, french fries and local tea, all fresh, plentiful and tasty.  On our first visit we were charged 3 JD (£3) per person, but on our second trip the owner recognised us and charged only 1.5 JD (£1.50) per person. That’s not bad for a half-price price cut!  It’s also possible to pick up a falafel wrap for the bargain price of 0.5 JD (50p).  For a cheap eat, you will leave very full and happy inside.

The spread at Hashem

The spread at Hashem

 

 

Explore The Bustling Local Markets

Get a taste of local life by taking a wonder down the market streets of bukhariyeh in downtown Amman.  Whether your interested in flashy electronics, middle eastern herbs & spices, cuddly toys, fresh fruit & veg, or speciality coffee beans, it’s all here for you to explore, at any time of day and night.  The locals are really friendly, and not pushy for you to buy their produce.  There are several grocery stores that you can stock up on long-life food goods, which is pretty handy considering there aren’t many supermarkets in downtown.  This market is the perfect place to people watch, find some traditional foods, and do a bit of cheeky haggling.  The location is right next to the Grand Husseini Mosque.

The colourful market produce

The colourful market produce

 

 

Touch Two Thousand Year Old Ruins At The Citadel

On the highest hill in Amman stands the crumbling remains of the Roman Citadel.  Built between AD 161-80, what’s left of this ancient structure can be seen from all across the city.  Two enormous pillars at the Temple of Hercules are the only standing remains that give you an indication of the scale of this thing, just standing underneath it makes your head go dizzy!  The site holds the Umayyad Palace, which is a building of stone remains with a beautifully reconstructed wooden dome roof.  It’s definitely worth a look inside to see the intricate construction of the wooden structure, and the ancient carvings on the surrounding stonework walls.  One of the most impressive parts of the citadel though is the site in which it sits on.  All around you is a 360 degree view of the city of Amman, and the flat roofed boxy buildings that climb up the steep hillsides.  There is a viewing platform that you can enjoy or just take a walk around the sight to make the most of the cityscape.  Entry is 2 JD (£2) or free with a Jordan Pass. 

The stunning reconstructed roof on Umayyad Palace

The stunning reconstructed roof on Umayyad Palace

 

 

Munch Down Middle Eastern Meat

You can’t come to Jordan and not sample a kebab, well maybe if you’re a vegetarian!  We found a place tucked away in the alleyway opposite the favourite Hashem, and for 4 JD (£4) per person including an extra side salad with pickles, you can get a taste of authentic Jordanian kebab with a selection of lamb shish, chicken shish, lamb kofte, a salad garnish and flat breads.  It’s the perfect portion for a hungry diner.  The meat is well cooked and seasoned, and the salad is fresh and crispy.  The staff are really friendly here, and you can see them cooking the dishes in outdoor ovens in the alleyway.  This is a real taste of local life down here, no tourists in sight, just some old men drinking tea and playing cards in the cafe next door.  It’s a shabby alleyway, no thrills and a bit grubby round the edges, but if you like going to the local places then you will be at home here.  The restaurant is called Abu Hatem Grills and the restaurant is at the end of the alley before the staircase.

Meat feast at Abu Hatem Grills

Meat feast at Abu Hatem Grills

 

 

Enjoy Some Peace In the Jordan National Gallery Of Fine Arts

This is the perfect place to take some time out of city life and ponder the middle eastern and Islamic art world.  The two-part building boasts a large collection of high quality contemporary works in an enjoyable light and airy space over several floors.  Only a handful of visitors were there when we visited, which makes a nice change from other busy galleries that you might visit.  Even though the works were contemporary in style, I would say that they weren’t particularly provocative and the ones that were more thought provoking were named ‘untitled’.  Was this on purpose? We may never know, but it would have been helpful to have some sort of name or description on the pieces at times, otherwise there was a lot to be left to the imagination.  Having said that, it’s still worth visiting and you could easily spend a couple of hours there if you were taking your time.   There’s a nice cafe up on the top floor if you’re looking for a quiet place to work and can afford to splash out on a coffee.  Entry is 5 JD (£5) but well priced for the amount of work that’s there.

Contemporary artworks in the Jordan National Gallery Of Fine Arts

Contemporary artworks in the Jordan National Gallery Of Fine Arts

 

We hope our recommendations help you if you’re backpacking on a budget. There are also plenty of other cheap things to do around Amman such as free walking tours and visiting other art spaces like the Khalid Shoman Foundation and Darat al Funun galleries.  If you have any other suggestions then we would love to hear them in the below comments box!

 

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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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China: Top Things To Do In Dali

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Dali, the old hippy haven famous for its chilled out attitude and atmospheric beauty.  Set against the stunning backdrop of the ChanShan mountain range, the ancient city is surrounded by endless fields of growing produce and the mysterious ErHai lake. 

The stunning ChanShan mountains by Dali

The stunning ChanShan mountains by Dali

Although Dali has changed in recent years and is now well on the radar of the youthful Chinese tourists, there is still peace to be found in this little town and lots of back alleys to be explored besides of the main shopping strip.  On a visit to Dali six years ago, we fell in love with the place and have the fondest memories of relaxed cafe culture, fresh water streams running through the cobbled lanes, and the beautiful Bai-style architecture that runs throughout the city.  

Lots of its mountain village charm still remains, but it is fast becoming a major hub for shopping for the Chinese and the prices do reflect the rise in tourism.  We still think it’s worth a visit though, and it’s arguably still more chilled out then the neighbouring Lijiang.  We have put together our recommendations from 6 days spent in Dali Ancient City...

 

Admire The Wood Workers Street

After visiting Dali in 2011, we were anxious that the ancient town would have changed beyond recognition like the rest of rapidly evolving China.  So the first place we headed for was the carpenters street we had admired such a long time ago.  Just south of the old town lies Wenxian Road, a strip of wood working studios where furniture is elaborately carved by Chinese masters.  We were elated to see that many of the studios still exist, and all manner of wooden items are still being carefully constructed from shutters to doors, and desks to cabinets.  Watching these guys work is a joy to see, many craftsmen and women are hand carving from hardwoods using a whole range of chisels and files to get the perfect finish.  The detailing is exquisite, and there is just so much of it.  We can’t help thinking that this must be a dying art form because it would take so much skill and time to do it.  This level of quality would never happen at home because it would be far too expensive! If you are into handicrafts and woodwork then we would thoroughly recommend a wonder down this street.  From the South Gate of Dali old town, take Wenxian Road and keep walking south for 5-10 minutes. 

Hand-carved wooden furniture in Dali

Hand-carved wooden furniture in Dali

 

Eat Authentic Rice Noodles 

We got a tip off from our hostel that this restaurant serves delicious rice noodle soup and charges tourists the same price as the locals.  For those backpackers on a budget, this is what we love to hear!  For the bargain price of 10 yuan (£1.12) for a large and 8 yuan (90p) for a small, you can get yourself a delicious bowl of homemade rice noodles in broth with pork, vegetables, spring onions, parsley, garlic oil, Sichuan pepper oil, soy, chilli, and chopped peanuts.  It’s fresh, it’s zingy, it’s spicy and you can top up your seasonings as much as you want! You pretty much won’t find a cheaper lunch or dinner in town.  The noodle shop is situated on Yu'er Road a couple of minutes walk west of Dongyu street, and is called 'Qing Shi Qiao'.

Delicious hand-made rice noodles 

Delicious hand-made rice noodles 

 

Eat Baba Sweet Bread

After spending 2 whole months in China, this culinary discovery was our ultimate favourite.  Imagine a freshly made buttery and doughy flat bread charred on a smokey bbq with a gooey jam and rose petal sugar centre? Mmm......! If you’re salivating as much as we are then you are going to LOVE this delightful sweet bread. Bite into a lightly crunchy outside to find a soft doughy centre oozing with sugary goodness.  It’s really naughty, but probably one of the most delicious baked goods we have ever eaten, ever.  After tasting this bread, we’re not sure how we’re going to live a life without it.  To find them, look amongst the street foods on the main strip (Remin Road) in Dali Ancient City for a round flat bread in a display case. Take note that some are sweet and some are savoury, so with meat.  If you are heading to Xizhou then you are likely to find one there in the centre of town, and it’s bbq’ed to perfection!  It’s totally worth a visit just to taste this bread.

Baba sweet bread after being cooked on the fire

Baba sweet bread after being cooked on the fire

 

Stroll Along The Mountain Pass

Looking for a scenic stroll around the Dali area? Well look no further then the mountain pass that connects Zhonghe Temple with Gantong Temple.  The stretch is flat and paved for 11km which makes it a very leisurely stroll, and winds nicely around the edge of the CangShan mountain range.  From there you can see a hazy view of ErHai lake, Dali old town and the surrounding villages that scatter the large valley.   Getting up to the route from Dali ancient city is relatively straight forward, just exit out of the West Gate and make your way up to Zhonghe Temple, following the route on maps me or google maps.  The path can be a bit steep in places although it is still very manageable.  Keep walking on past the temple and onto a flat paved path, take a left when you get there and follow the signs towards Gantong cablecar and continue on until you get to Qingbi stream. From there, there is a path all the way down to Gantong temple and Gantong mountain gate, where you can either take a cab back to Dali old town, or get to the main road and either walk back or flag down one of the buses.  We paid 10 yuan each for a cab share back to the old town.  The whole walk took us only the morning and we were back by 1pm.

The view on the walk from Zhonghe Temple to Gangton Temple

The view on the walk from Zhonghe Temple to Gangton Temple

 

Cycle To Erhai Lake

Dali has become somewhat of a tourist trap in recent years, and although that’s ok for some of the time, it’s nice to leave the town and head into the countryside around it.  The second biggest lake in China can be found only kilometres away from Dali, and scattered around it in the valley is a mixture of old villages, crops fields and minority cultures.  Locals smile as you cycle past as they continue on with their daily lives.  A nice cycling route would be to head east out of East Gate and keep on going until you reach the town of Caicun by the water.  From there you can do a windy route north along the back roads following the signs for ‘west ring road’ all the way up to Jinguisi where you can then head west to the town of Xizhou.  The ring road is quite developed in places, and locals set up their stalls along the way hoping to sell a trinket or two to the tourists that pass.  A day on the bike can be really fun, and as you cycle along the sometimes bumpy gravel paths, you see many Chinese tourists riding along on rented scooters with plastic flowers in their hair looking all ‘hippy’, or hippy in a contrived ASOS kind of way.  There are hilarious sections by the water that have been set up for photo shoots and selfies (which has gone down a treat with the Chinese tourists), look out for the clear plastic bubble chairs and red heart props.  After you escape these weird built up sections there can be nothing but dirt tracks, little villages and the peace that surrounds ErHai lake.  If you make time to break away from the ring road, there is a lot of nature to be seen here, including many species of bird, plants and the stunning CangShan mountain range.  There are many places to rent bikes in Dali, expect to pay around 20-30 yuan (£2.25-£3.38) for a days hire.

Cycling in one of the ancient villages around ErHai Lake

Cycling in one of the ancient villages around ErHai Lake

 

Eat Treats From The Local Bakery

All backpackers on a budget know that the best way to get a good deal on tasty food is to watch where the locals go.  Well that’s exactly what we did in Dali and found ourselves an amazing bakery at really low prices.  The display shelves are stacked with tons of tasty baked goods from cookies to cakes, bread rolls to pastries.  We have somewhat been impressed with China’s baking skills, and nearly everything we tried over 2 months of being there was delicious and freshly made that day.  This bakery was the same, and the most brilliant thing about it is that the price is done by weight.  So just fill up your bag with the light stuff and pay peanuts! We opted for a sponge cake (which was honestly about the size of a small birthday cake), a large custard pastry and about 4 small cookies to munch on later, and all of that came to 7 yuan (79p)! What a bargain.  The bakery is situated near the Yincang Rd and Bo’ed Rd crossover.

The baked goods in question....

The baked goods in question....

 

Get A Massage

You can’t come to the laid-back town of Dali without treating yourself to a massage.  Dali has been known for some time as the hippy expat capital of Yunnan and travellers have been coming here for decades to soak up the chilled out lifestyle of bars, cafes and the incredible natural scenery.  How better to relax into this culture other than to get a massage in one of the local salons.  The cheapest one we found was 88 yuan (£9.90) for 1 hour 20 mins which included a foot soak, an oil foot massage and a full body local massage (through clothes).  It was actually pretty good, although we always find that many environments in China aren’t particularly relaxing, what with a kid running round hitting the massagers as they were trying to work! Be prepared for some firm hands also, particularly with the cheaper local massages.  You probably get what you pay for.  There are many massage parlours on Bo’ed Road in Dali ancient city.

Mark waiting for his massage in one of the local parlours.  You can see the kid in the background waiting for his moment to strike!

Mark waiting for his massage in one of the local parlours.  You can see the kid in the background waiting for his moment to strike!

 

Drink The Cheapest Beer On Remin Road

This is the main strip in Dali and tourists flock here to shop, sip coffee in fancy coffee shops and drink cocktails in bars.  Well we love a cheeky drink every now and again too, but what with being budget travellers sometimes touristy bars are totally out of our price range.  A small beer in one of the bars here would normally set you back around 20 yuan (£2.25) for the cheapest one, but we figured out a way to drink on the main strip without paying more than 6 yuan (70p) for a large beer.  Just head to one of the cheap cafe style eateries, they are the open front Chinese rice kitchens with basic decor inside, grab a cheap beer from the fridge and sit out front and watch the world go by.  This is a great way of soaking up the atmosphere, and the sun, without breaking the budget.  We did this several times on our visit!

Grab a cheap beer on the main strip that is Remin Road

Grab a cheap beer on the main strip that is Remin Road

 

Eat A Serendipity Burger

It’s not often that we eat western food on the road, and as we have discovered it is nearly always overpriced compared to the local alternative which is mostly very tasty.  Western food can be very hit and miss (mostly a miss to be honest), and to make sure we were picking a well reviewed burger place we decided to look on the loved/hated Trip Advisor.  Out of 7 burger joints in Dali, Serendipity has made it to no. 1 and we can easily see why.  Each burger is made using good quality beef, cooked medium rare, with a homemade sweet brioche bun and whatever topping you choose.  Each comes with a pickle and handful of fries.  Not the biggest portion but definitely the biggest treat!  We would recommend heading on down for a laid-back dinner in the diner style restaurant or on one of the tables outside.  A burger will set you back 55 yuan (£6.20), a little steep but we think worth the splash out.  You can find Serendipity at 53 Guangwu Lu.

A Serendipity burger

A Serendipity burger

 

Stay At A Rooftop Hostel

One of the coolest things about the accommodation in Dali is that loads of the hostels and guesthouses have rooftop spaces.  From there you can glimpse the impending CangShan mountain range and the beautiful Bai-style oriental architecture of the surrounding buildings.  You may just spot a few other lucky ones doing the same thing.  Being up so high makes you feel detached from the Dali below, the busyness fades away and you are left with the tranquility of the sun gleaming on the plant-lined terraces.  We stayed in the Meet Inn Hostel for the bargain price of 98 yuan (£11) per night, and the hostel itself was well decorated and had a nice relaxed feel to it.  Catching a sunrise or sunset on the terrace is a must, and maybe a few hours spent chilling reading a book is a great way to unwind from China’s tourist hotspots.  

The view from our rooftop hostel at the Meet Inn

The view from our rooftop hostel at the Meet Inn

 

All You Can Eat At The Vegetarian Buffet

Most dishes in China involve some sort of meat, whether that be pork in a noodle broth or a meaty stir fry with seasoning, and so when we found this vegetarian restaurant serving an all you can eat buffet for lunch and dinner we were very excited.  For the unbelievable price of 20 yuan (£2.25) per person, you can munch your way through a whole range of speciality vegetarian dishes: from 5 different types of tofu to slow cooked aubergine, and steamed Chinese buns to seasoned fried rice.  There are about 20 different dishes to choose from and they change on a daily basis.  We ate there for lunch 2 days in a row and it actually worked out cheaper than most of our meals in local rice kitchens and you also get a whole lot more variety on your plate.  If you are looking for some fresh and tasty vegetarian food then this is the place for you. The restaurant is called Lovely Lotus Delicious Vegetarian and can be found at B2-1 Jiulongju, Fuxing Rd.

All you can eat vegetarian buffet at Lovely Lotus Delicious Vegetarian

All you can eat vegetarian buffet at Lovely Lotus Delicious Vegetarian

 

Get Into Dali Life

This is by no means a complete list of everything you can do in Dali but they are the things that we enjoyed the most.  All are suited to those backpacking on a budget.  There is also the famous Three Pagodas that you can visit by bike or foot and many popular bars on the main strip, but for us the bars were a bit out of our price range for both food and drink.  We enjoyed dining in the rice and noodle kitchens on the side roads where the locals were eating, and at the end of our trip to China these were some of our fondest memories. 

 

Transport

You can reach Dali by train or bus from Kunming and Lijiang. It’s worth noting that the old town is called Dali Ancient City and that Dali is the modern part of the city just south of there where most of the transport links go to.  If you do get a train into Dali then it will drop you off in the modern city and you will have to get a bus into the old town.  If travelling from Lijiang by bus, you can ask to be dropped off in the old town.

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VIDEO

Why not watch travel video from our Dali?

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We hope you found this helpful! If there is anything you enjoyed doing on your trip to Dali then let us know, we would love to hear about it.

 

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China - Top Things To Do In Dali, by Studio Mali
 

 

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China: Top Things To Do In Beijing

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Beijing is a place of many contrasts; modern yet traditional, politically charged yet relaxed and slow paced. Visitors must visit the sardine packed sights of Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City, but must not forget to wonder the quiet ‘hutong’ for street food and traditional culture. Be prepared for friendly locals who want to chat and photograph you, in between their shopping and selfies! Beijing is full of surprises, an epic place to introduce yourself to Chinese culture and their delicious noodles…

 

Find (Some) Peace At The Temple of Heaven

South of the Forbidden City sits the Temple of Heaven, a series of temples originally built in the early 1400's during the Ming and Qing emperors reign as a place to pray for good harvests, along with its surrounding green spaces.  Elders come here to play games together, sing Chinese songs in unison, to dance, and to practice the art of tai chi amongst the leafy pockets within the park. The trees are hilariously ordered in neat rows, although many are 800 year old cypresses which are desperately trying to twist and turn out of their regimented spots.  The temples are very pleasing on the eye to walk around, they follow many rules of feng shui and so are beautifully symmetrical with odd lucky numbers being the focus.  Unfortunately the number of Chinese tourists does continually make it difficult to enjoy the tranquility of the space, so we would strongly recommend getting there at 8am on a weekday to peacefully watch the locals going around their business.  Entry is 35 yuan for a combination ticket which allows access to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the Circular Mound Alter, the Echo Wall and all the surrounding parks. Nearest tube stop is Tiantandongmen.

 
Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests in the Temple of Heaven park

Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests in the Temple of Heaven park

 

 

Admire The National Centre Of The Performing Arts

The huge half-dome silver structure has caused a bit of a stir in the historic city of Beijing.  Many have shunned it as the shiny egg on the cityscape whilst others have marvelled at its modernist aesthetic.  To us it resembles a Chinese lantern and it’s contemporary style helps to bring Beijing in line with the modern world.  The building is nestled in between the Hall of the People in Tian’nammen Square and Nanhai lake which makes it a perfect location for visiting whilst at other attractions.  Surrounded by a large square of water, the rounded lantern appears to be half submerged, floating like a scoop of ice cream in a cola.  The inside is also worth a visit with a notable deco-style curved roof in the entrance stairwell and a chunky metal pronged structure in the centre, guarded by 3 symmetrically placed security guards.  Sometimes it is possible to visit the exhibition halls inside, but when we visited these weren’t open.  Of course if your budget allows then the best way to experience this modernist building would be to see a show, whether it be an internationally renowned dance or theatre.  The closest tube stop is Tian’anmen Xi and check the below link for opening times and schedule. 

http://en.chncpa.org

 
The National Centre Of Performing Arts

The National Centre Of Performing Arts

 

 

Watch Over The Forbidden City In Jingshan Park 

Directly north of the Forbidden City sits the lusciously green Jingshan Park, it’s the protector from bad karma in Feng Shui alignment to the ancient city.  Make your way up the hill via one of the many staircases and you will discover 7 temples all propped up on the steep slope with the largest Buddhist temple being at the top.  From here you can see spectacular views across the city, the Beijing smog only adding to the mysterious aesthetic, and the Asian glazed tiles on the rooftops below of the Forbidden City.  The park makes a welcoming escape from the busy streets and being up high in an otherwise flat Beijing is a nice change.  The locals gather in the lower parts of the park to dance, practice their tai chi and chat amongst friends, creating a warming atmosphere for others visiting.  On our trip, we were lucky to see over 100 locals singing together at the tops of their voices to some traditional Chinese music, we thought it was a really loud speaker at first!  The people are so friendly in Beijing’s green spaces, trying to involve you in their games and always greeting you with a big grin on their faces.  The closest tube stops are Nanluoguxiang and Beihai North and entrance fee is an affordable 20 yuan. 

 
The view over the Forbidden City in Jingshan Park

The view over the Forbidden City in Jingshan Park

 

 

Stroll Around The Lakes

Enjoy Beijing’s slower pace of life and take an afternoon stroll around one of the many beautiful lakes.  Serine and tranquil, the lakes cover a relatively large area in the city centre, and are surrounded by cafes, bars, restaurants and small independent shops selling anything from groceries to notebooks. Watch the locals swim in their speedos, play ping pong, exercise on the outdoor gym machines, play mahjong and watch the world go by.  It is possible to ride in a rickshaw around Houhai lake and the surrounding Hutong (traditional alleyways), or to explore by bike or by foot for a more relaxing experience.  On the lakes sit the occasional pagoda framed by willows, oriental in style and reflecting in the jade water, the sight is like a typical scene from a Chinese painting.  The lakes make a wonderful break from the hustle and bustle of city life in Beijing and so we would strongly recommend spending some time here.  The lakes are called Xihai Sea, Houhai Lake and Northern Sea, and the closest tube stops are Jishuitan, Shishiahai and Beihai North. 

 
Dusk at Houhai Lake

Dusk at Houhai Lake

 

 

Explore The Trendy Nanluogu Xiang Alley 

Once a rundown old alley without a single Belgium waffle in sight, this commercialised shopping street is a haven for young snap happy Chinese tourists willing to splash out a few yuan on some tasty grub and quirky merchandise.  You can buy pretty much anything on a stick..... chicken, sweet waffles, a spiralised potato, the popular sugar-coated fruit, or perhaps if food isn’t you bag then what about an actual bag, or some cool postcards, or a piece of hand-engraved jewellery or some ceramics.  You can hear the chinking of metal from the engravers at one of the front windows, and the musical toot of the ocarina from another.  Around this area are now many courtyard hotels that you can stay in.  What we love about this place is that drinking alcohol isn’t really a thing, yes there are a few nice bars that specialise in craft beers (at a very steep price mind you), but the Chinese are happy to be out wondering around at 10pm on a Sunday night just enjoying the food and soaking up the atmosphere.  Make sure you explore some of the many Hutong, side alleys, off this street as they have a wonderful historic feeling to them taking you back in time to the old Peking days. Closest tube stop is Nanluoguxiang.

 
Waffle on a stick at Nanluogu Xiang

Waffle on a stick at Nanluogu Xiang

 

 

Get Arty In The 798 Area

With numerous art galleries, cool design shops, graffitied walls and too many cafes to choose from, the 798 art district is well worth a visit in the North East corner of Beijing.  One of the most renowned art spaces is the UCCA gallery, where many international artists have showcased their work including Olafur Eliasson, the Danish light and space artist.  At a 60 yuan entrance fee it’s probably worth checking that you’re interested in what’s on beforehand because the space is quite small.  Nearly all of the other galleries are free to enter, and it makes for a nice afternoon dipping in and out of art spaces, searching for interesting pieces and exploring the tiny alleyways.  If you enjoy conceptual and political art then this is the place for you, but if you are looking for world renowned artworks then it’s probably best to go elsewhere.  We are recommending this more as a cool area to explore rather than solely for the artworks, so grab a coffee, take a wander and soak up the atmosphere.  Closest tube stop is Gaojiayuan.

www.798district.com

 
Graffiti and scooters in the 798 Art area

Graffiti and scooters in the 798 Art area

 

 

Munch On A Scorpion At Wangfujing Dajie

On the south end of Wangfujing Dajie shopping street sits a bustling food market packed with hungry shoppers and some seriously tasty treats.  You could compare this to the Borough market of Beijing but with smaller bites rather than full meals.  You can pretty much buy anything on a stick from battered squid to live scorpions (they get cooked once you order them), marinated chicken to crunchy crickets, and hundreds of brilliant red berries (tanghulu) glazed in sugar are sold by the plenty.  Picky street food is such a big thing in Beijing, everyone walks and eats, takes loads of photos of themselves eating, and eats some more.  There are tens of stalls at this market all selling different bites, and each stall has a huddle of people outside munching away on their recent purchase.  If you are around this area and looking for somewhere quick to grab some tasty grub then this market is for you!  Many items can be bought for around 10 yuan (£1.15) a piece, and if you feel like splashing out then a large battered squid is 35 yuan (£4.25) and was pretty tasty.  Closest tube stop is Wangfujing.

 
Street food at Wangfujing Dajie

Street food at Wangfujing Dajie

 

 

Eat Like A Local On Andingmenei Dajie

Just north east of the trendy street Nanluogu Xiang sits the more local and cheaper Andingmenei Dajie.  This main road is packed with good quality Chinese restaurants and street vendors with a local price tag to go with it.  Just head to one of the busy ones and you can’t go wrong. You can pick up almost anything here, including some very acquired dishes of which penis and brain were on the menu, but putting that to one side there is a wonderful array of foods including hotpots, BBQ meats, noodle dishes, vegetables, Peking duck, and soups to name a few.  We would thoroughly recommend the Beijing noodles which is noodles cooked in broth with freshly cut carrot and cucumber, beans, peanuts, oil and black bean and meat paste, and also the world renowned crispy Peking duck.  To get the full local price tag you need to be ordering from one of the smaller restaurants where the menu isn’t in English, so perhaps try to get someone to order it for you if you don’t speak Chinese.  We ordered 4 great dishes in one restaurant with a beer and the bill came to 75 yuan (£8.50)! Bargain.  Also it’s worth noting that the portions are normally massive so make sure you don’t go overboard.  Closest tube stop is Andingmen and walk Southward’s from there.

 
Four delicious plates for 75 yuan!

Four delicious plates for 75 yuan!

 

 

Feel The Buzz At The Qianmen Dajie Shopping Area

Packed full of Chinese tourists, the busy streets of Qianmen Dajie and Dashilan Commercial Street are a shoppers paradise and an interesting place for those wanting to soak up some bustling Chinese street culture. You can buy anything here from Chinese medicine to speciality sweets, cheap knock offs of traditional Chinese clothing to Tibetan hippy lanterns.  Bright red Chinese symbols illuminate the stores and everyone is busy selling from their shop fronts, rounding up customers with their cheap prices and loud voices.  It makes for a fun afternoon wandering up and down the surrounding streets, some are no more than a meter wide, and there are some great food places for a spot of lunch if you’re hungry.  Head over to the lanes on the West side of Meishi Street to explore the slightly quieter and less developed shopping streets (Dashilan West and Yangmeizhu Byway in particular). Here you can find cool design shops, yoga studios, fancy coffee places and a few courtyard hostels all mixed in amongst local houses with old men playing majong. It’s best to explore these streets by foot or by bike if you want to cover a bit more ground. Definitely try one of the traditional Chinese pastry sweets, it’s always fun trying to figure out what the flavour is! Closest tube stop is Zhushiko.

 
The Quianmen shopping area

The Quianmen shopping area

 

 

See The Infamous Forbidden City 

A trip to Beijing isn’t complete without a visit to China’s number one attraction, the Forbidden City. Built in 1400s during the Ming dynasty, this collection of ancient buildings and temples is the largest of its kind in China and is in immaculate condition considering the millions of people that have traipsed through it in its lifetime.  The Forbidden City got its name because it was off-limits to all, unless you were important enough to be invited to visit by the emperor, and it remained that way for 500 years.  Wander along the north-south central axis to view the largest of temples, impressive in their scale and acute attention to detail, and scattered either side is a collection of smaller buildings that used to be living quarters now used as museum spaces. Visiting the city as early as possible is the best idea to avoid the thousands of selfie loving tourists waving their sticks around.  If you are expecting a peaceful stroll around the complex then think again, all the points of interest are crazy busy and it’s difficult to see inside any of the temples.  Having said that, it is the world famous Forbidden City and so it’s worth seeing it once in a lifetime, especially if you are already in Beijing.  Entrance fee is a steep 120 yuan per person and audio guide is 40 yuan (not sure that it was all that helpful though). Closest tube stops are Tian’anmen West and Tian’anmen East and access to the site is on the south side. 

 
Inside the Forbidden City

Inside the Forbidden City

 

 

Explore Beijing By Bike

Beijing is a huge city with a population of 22 million people, and as you can probably imagine it takes a long while to travel by foot.  The best way to see all of the sights in a day is to grab a bike and get cycling!  Amazingly all the main roads have wide cycle lanes so you are away from busy traffic, because as little as 4 years ago everyone travelled by bike rather than car.  It is possible to cycle past Tian’anmen Square, the moat around the Forbidden City, around the outskirts of the hilly Jingshan Park, through the bustling Qianmen Dajie shopping area, through the trendy alley Nanluogu Xiang, around The National Centre Of The Performing Arts, past the built up Xidan Bei Dajie and around Hou Hai lake all in a day if you are feeling energetic, and there are plenty of other places to explore off the beaten track. Make sure you explore the many Hutong, alleyways, that run from east to west all across the city.  Bike rental is 40 yuan from Downtown Backpackers Hostel and their bikes make for a super smooth ride.

 
Exploring the many hutong (alleyways) by bike

Exploring the many hutong (alleyways) by bike

 

 

Stand in Tian’anmen Square 

Surrounded by huge soviet-style blocky buildings, the famous Tian’anmen Square sits as the worlds largest public square and has a significant place in Chinese history.  The square was built by Mao to display the strength of the Communist Party, and if size represents strength then they definitely got their point across.  Standing in the middle, you really get a sense of the vastness of the space and even with a few thousand tourists present there is still enough room to run around.  Impressively, up to a million people have gathered here during the cultural revolution and to pay their last respects to Mao.  It’s a strange visit, all goers are ID and security checked in long queues beforehand, and once in you are surrounded by fences, soldiers, cctv cameras and undercover police officers! The overall feeling is very repressive and perhaps un-fun, step out of line and you could imagine being taken down in a second!  That said, it’s worth going just to see these things for yourself and to get a glimpse into what Chinese life is really like, mouth schtum. Closest tube stops are Tian’anmen East and Tian’anmen West and Quinmen.

 
In the huge Tian'anmen Square

In the huge Tian'anmen Square

 

 

Trek On The Great Wall

Only a couple of hours from Beijing centre sits the legendary Great Wall.  Every year millions of tourists flock to see a bit of ancient history, and to walk on the two thousand year old structure that runs 21,196km from Dandong in the east to Top Lake in the west.  Many stretches of the wall have now been restored and replaced by new stones, creating busy tourist hotspots with numerous selfie sticks and tour guide flags, but there are some sections that remain left untouched, crumbling in their fragility and beauty.  Jiankou is one of these sections, not technically legal to trek on, but worth every risk once you see the splendour of the wall epically snaking around the mountain tops. Highlights include the Sky Stairs, a near vertical staircase that has since crumbled to a few pieces of jutting out rock (you have to have nerves of steel to think about tackling this one) and the Ox Horn which is two incredibly steep watchtowers perched on the mountain tops.  It is possible to trek large sections of the wall in a day, basing yourself in one of the small villages below, or camping out with only a sleeping bag in one of the watchtowers. Jainkou is a photographers delight as the wall is the most dramatic here, climbing high and low winding over the hills, and surrounded by mountains as far as the eye can see.  The experience is exhilarating, to be trekking on the Great Wall with only a handful of people is possibly one of the most memorable things you could do in a lifetime.  We would thoroughly recommend it!  All information about getting to and from the Jiankou section of the wall can be found here:

Trek And Wild Camp On The Great Wall Of China

 
Trekking the Jiankou section of The Great Wall

Trekking the Jiankou section of The Great Wall

 

Beijing is a fantastic city to visit, we loved our time there and 5 days was the perfect amount of time to explore what it has to offer.  If you have been to Beijing and have any other recommendations then we would love to hear them!

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