top things to do

Hungary: Top Things To Do In Budapest On A Budget

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Ah Budapest! How beautiful you are. I mean talk about epic architecture, scenic rivers and hilly surroundings… this city seems to have a bit of everything.

From the grand Parliament building set on the tranquil Danube River to the historic Castle Hill, there are plenty of places to explore and top-quality sights to see for the city-loving traveller. The ruin bars of the Jewish Quarter transport you to the shabby-chic akin to Berlin’s alt warehouses, and for those that love to party, these bars are open till the early hours every single day. For those of you in need of something a little more relaxing, treat yourself to one of the many thermal spas dotted around the city, or take a trip to Margaret Island to practice mindfulness in nature. There is so much history to be learnt, from the Fascist invasion in World War II, followed by strict communist ruling for the next 40 years, the wounds of Hungary’s past can be felt throughout the city and spotted in the ornate crumbling buildings.

 
Beautiful architecture on the Pest side of the city

Beautiful architecture on the Pest side of the city

 

We loved Budapest, it has definitely made it onto the top of our favourite European cities list. If you are looking for a cheap place to spend a few days, breath-taking architecture and plenty of sights to keep you busy then Budapest sounds like the place for you.

Take a look at our suggested ‘Top Things To Do In Budapest On A Budget’…..


Get Hungry At The Great Market Hall

This epic hall houses the largest indoor market in Budapest and its expansive neo-Gothic architecture makes for an impressive experience.  The metal framed roof structure is a clear draw, giving the space a light and airy feel whilst imposing its Gothic form over the hall.  Split over 3 floors, you'll find a range of cooked foods such as lángos and goulash, Hungarian souvenirs and fresh groceries including fruit and veg, baked breads and pastries, local cheeses and cured meats... yum!  The cherry strudel is worth a try, as is the pogácsa (Hungarian scone).... we really are suckers for baked goods!  A good time to head there would be for lunch when you can pick up a selection of fresh foods and take them to the Danube for a munch.  Yes it is touristy, but there are also a lot of locals picking up their groceries too.

The market is open Monday to Saturday 6am-6pm but closes early on Mondays at 5pm and 3pm on Saturdays. Address is Budapest, Vámház krt. 1-3, 1093.

www.budapestmarkethall.com

 
The neo-Gothic Great Market Hall

The neo-Gothic Great Market Hall

 

Escape The City On Margaret Island

If you’re looking for green space and an escape from the erratic Hungarian driving then Margaret Island is the place for you.  Positioned in the middle of the Danube river, the island is a hub for sports, leisure activities and leafy spaces, offering tourists and locals a place to connect with fitness and nature.  There is a 5.5km running track which spans the island (make sure you run in the correct direction!), walking routes, cycle routes and plenty of places to hire bikes, tandems and pedalos.  The island also features its own medieval ruins, a lido and national swimming pool, a Japanese garden and some famous musical fountains (although these were being renovated when we visited).  In the summer, the open-air concert venue puts on shows to the public and the green spaces are filled with beer-drinking sun worshipers.  This is one of the most popular parks in Budapest and we would definitely recommend a visit.

The island can be accessed halfway along Margaret Bridge and is open day and night all year round.  Trams 4 and 6 stop just outside on the bridge and bus no. 26 from Nyugati station takes you all the way in. Otherwise it’s a 45 minute walk from the Jewish Quarter.

 
Wintery but still pretty, one of the greens on Margaret Island

Wintery but still pretty, one of the greens on Margaret Island

 


Learn About Hungary’s Tortured Past

A visit to the House of Terror is a must when coming to Budapest as it highlights the atrocities of both the Fascist and Communist rulings of Hungary during the 20th century.  The museum tells a sad story of Budapest, from the Nazi take over towards the end of the Second World War, the result was the mass genocide of thousands of Hungarian (and European) Jews. Those horrors were quickly followed by Soviet communist rule for the next 40 years. The country was brought to it’s knees and an unimaginable number of people lost their lives in horrendous ways at the hands of both regimes.  The museum is set in the former headquarters of the Fascist Arrow Cross party and later State Security services, where it was used as a prison and place of torture for those who were thought to have gone against the government.  Some of the prison area still remains in the basement and forms part of the exhibition, it’s very 1984! Scarily it is not known how far these cells went underground because the tunnels had been filled in with concrete by the time the Soviets had left.  The information is well written and engaging, but most of the memorabilia is not described or translated into English.

Entry is 3000 huf (£8.12) per person and the museum is open 10am-6pm daily, closing on Mondays.

www.terrorhaza.hu

 
The House Of Terror Museum

The House Of Terror Museum

 



Ride The Number 2 Tram

This was recommended to us by a Budapest local who goes out of her way to take this tram every day to work.  Running along the east side of the Danube river, the tram ride is ridiculously scenic, with views of Buda Castle, Liberty Statue on Gellert Hill and the Fisherman’s Bastion on the Buda side of the city.  The tram takes a winding route around Parliament building with spectacular views from 3 sides.  The tram itself is pretty retro, with pairs of window seats facing each other in a rickety-style carriage.  We really enjoyed this trip and for 350huf (95p) a go, it is definitely worth it!

You can catch the number 2 tram northbound from the architecturally award-winning Fovam ter station, all the way up to the entrance of Margaret Island on Margaret Bridge.  We would recommend sitting on the left-hand side for optimum views over the river and Parliament building.

Make sure you punch your ticket in the machine on the tram as they are hot on fines if you get caught!

 
The view from the number 2 tram window of the Parliament building

The view from the number 2 tram window of the Parliament building

 

Marvel At The Parliament Building

Rarely do I go to a city and think that the architecture is more impressive than Londons, but Budapest is definitely one of those cities that would give it a run for its money.  The Hungarian Parliamentary Building is a prime example of this, it’s grand scale makes it the one of the largest buildings in Hungary and it’s Gothic Revival-style architecture gives it an incredibly dramatic form from all angles.  This ginormous building has 20 kilometres of stairs and 691 rooms (I mean what could you possibly need 691 rooms for?!) and is the home of legislature, a workplace for members of parliament and their assistants, and guards the safe keeping of the Hungarian Holy Crown.  It is possible to tour this building costing around 3500huf (£9.47), but we were happy just looking from the outside.  For the optimum view of the Parliament building, head over to the Buda side of the river on the promenade for a full frontal view (cheeky!).

www.parlament.hu

 
The epic Parliament building, as seen from the Buda side of the city

The epic Parliament building, as seen from the Buda side of the city

 


Be Wowed By Szimpla Kert Ruin Bar

Touristy I know, but 100% worth a visit (or maybe even two), this ruin bar is an impressive conversion of a disused factory and now is a cultural centre for music, film, food and nightlife.  The space itself is an awe-inspiring shabby chic mishmash of quirky objects, graffiti, plants and lighting, making it look more like a post-apocolyptic filmset rather than a pub.  You can’t help but be amazed on first entry, the sheer scale and work that’s gone into the decor is pretty overwhelming.  The building contains many sub-rooms and hangout areas throughout, sprawling across 2 floors and an outdoor area, so you can always find a spot to suit your mood.  

Since opening in 2002, Szimpla Kert has had a green and eco outlook; by promoting sustainable urban living, by giving up-and-coming musicians a platform to perform from, and by serving locally grown food produce to its customers.  Every Sunday the venue hosts a farmers market, where locals can pick up good quality sustainable produce at affordable prices.  It also gives the opportunity for the consumer to re-connect with the farmers which is a huge issue that needs to be addressed in our food industry today.  

Overall, this is a lovely place to come down for a coffee or beer on an afternoon, or for a few drinks in the evening with friends.  If you’re lucky enough to be around on a Sunday then the market runs from 9am-2pm, and if you can afford a bottomless brunch for 5000huf (£13.50) then you will be reassured in the knowledge that you are eating some top quality produce and supporting a sustainable food industry.

Open daily 12pm-4am, and 9am-4am on Sundays.

www.szimpla.hu

 
Szimpla Kert by night, palm plants and colourful lighting

Szimpla Kert by night, palm plants and colourful lighting

 


Take A Stroll Up To The Historic Castle Hill

The Castle District on the Buda side of the city is home to a number of key attractions including the ornate Matthias Church, the Disney-like Fisherman’s Bastion, the popular funicular and Buda Castle itself.  This medieval UNESCO World Heritage site offers spanning views over the Danube river and city, and makes for a lovely morning or afternoons exploration along the cobbled streets of the Old Town and leafy hillsides.  The neo-gothic style Fisherman’s Bastion was actually built in the early 20th century specially as a viewing platform and sits next to the colourfully tiled gothic Matthias Church.  You can walk along the old castle walls of Buda Castle for great views out over the city and explore inside the courtyards for free, and for the contemporary architecture-lovers out there, you’ll enjoy the oxidised steel staircases that lead you up to the old castle walls.

The funicular, which takes you from Chain Bridge up to the top of Castle Hill, is the second oldest of its kind in the world and was built 150 years ago.  Amazingly, it functions on a system of weights and counterweights, maintaining its traditional engineering systems.  If you want a quick and novel way of getting up the hill then this is for you but to be honest we were happy with the stroll.

We visited in February and it wasn’t too busy, but this is apparently the most popular tourist attraction in all of Budapest so expect it to be bustling in peak season.  Apparently a good time to visit is just before sunset when most tourists have headed back to the Pest side for the day.

Castle Hill is open all hours of to explore, but if you want to go into specific buildings then standard opening hours will apply.  It’s free to walk around outside so is great for the budget traveller, but you have to pay for entry to any of the attractions.

 
The colourful tiled roof of St Matthias Church on Castle Hill

The colourful tiled roof of St Matthias Church on Castle Hill

 

Enjoy The View At The Citadel

The walk up to the Citadel is a pleasant meander around the leafy hillsides, with many routes and paths leading up to the top.  As you ascend the path, views over the Danube and Pest side of the city unfold before you, until you reach the top of Gellért Hill with its beautiful panoramic views over the city below.  The citadel itself is a 19th century fortress made from stone, still with bullet holes displaying the tragedies of Hungary’s troubled past. Gellért Hill is a nice spot to bring a picnic, with grassy places to sit down and plenty of benches to perch on.  There isn’t loads to do at the Citadel other than to enjoy the view, but this is one of the free things to do in Budapest so it’s worth a trip.

You can get to the Citadel walking paths by crossing either Elisabeth Bridge or Szabadsag Bridge and then walking up.

 
Me and my bump at the top of the Citadel viewing platform

Me and my bump at the top of the Citadel viewing platform

 

Get Inspired At The Ludwig Museum Of Contemporary Art

A walk down the promenade from the Great Market Hall to the Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art is a must as it’s one of the only car-free sections next to the Danube River.  The gallery itself is the only public collection in the country that houses art from both local and international artists, and therefore is crucial to the contemporary art scene.  The museum was founded by Peter and Irene Ludwig, avid collectors of contemporary art, who owned a whopping collection of 12,000 pieces!  They needed somewhere to store their collection right?! And since 2005 the Ludwig Museum has been located in the architecturally impressive building, Palace of Arts.  Although the collection on display wasn’t my favourite, it still made an enjoyable mornings activity and I would say that the building itself is worth a visit (if you like modern architecture that is).  The museum has a perminant collection of artworks and a temporary exhibition space which changes 8-10 times a year.

Entry is 2,400huf (£6.50) for both the permanent and temporary exhibitions and the gallery is open Tues-Sun 10am-8pm.

www.ludwigmuseum.hu

 
Contemporary architecture at The Ludwig Museum Of Contemporary Art

Contemporary architecture at The Ludwig Museum Of Contemporary Art

 

Soak Up The Vibe At The Jewish Quarter

If you are looking for trendy eateries, cool bars and somewhere to let-lose then the Jewish Quarter is the place for you.  Ruin bars such as Szimpla Kert, Instant and Fogas Ház offer clubbers a place to party until the early hours (any day of the week) in a fun and care-free environment.  The Jewish Quarter is the hub of eating out with a huge array of international cuisines being served from Thai to American-style burgers, and Vietnamese to European dishes.  You can pretty much find any food you want here including very cheap donner kebabs served from a man in a booth!  There are plenty of lovely coffee shops to relax in, independent boutiques such as the inspiring concept store Printa, and small art galleries like The Kahan Art Space to explore.  We spent a lot of our time here, wondering the beautiful streets and stopping off for the odd coffee/beer to relax our legs.  The Jewish Quarter is a great place to base yourself for your trip to Budapest.

 
Inside concept store Printa with its plywood fittings

Inside concept store Printa with its plywood fittings

 

Food

Reading of all the Hungarian foods we wanted to try before our trip, we were super excited at the thought of Lángos (a fried bread smothered in cream cheese), goulash (a beef soupy-stew with spices), Kürtös Kalács (chimney cake which is a tube of sweet bread rolled in sugar) and all the various cheeses, cured meats meat soups and cakes, we were really sad to say that we were disappointed all round and didn’t find any of what we tried that tasty.  We mostly went to étkezdes which are Hungarian home-cooked food style cheap eateries, but each time we found the food a bit underwhelming in flavour and there just wasn’t very much of it! The Lángos was probably the biggest let down, I mean surely you can’t go wrong with bread and cheese right?  But apparently you can and the whole thing was just oily and flavourless despite going to one of the most popular stalls in town, Retró Lángos Büfé.  The best thing we probably ate was a Hungarian desert of walnut dumplings with vanilla sauce (which was a bit like an English bread pudding with custard) but other than that we didn’t feel like there was much to shout about.  Sorry Hungary, did we miss something?!  

 
Believe it or not, this was the best thing we ate!

Believe it or not, this was the best thing we ate!

 

On our last day we spotted a budget cafe in a food hall called Mangalica Heaven which was actually much cheaper than the other étkezdes we had visited, such as Kádár Étkezde and Frici Papa.  You can get 2 courses for around 1200huf (£3.25) and the place was really busy at lunchtime which was a good sign.  For those of you travelling on a budget, be aware that most of the étkezdes are only open in the weekdays for lunch and then are closed in the evenings and weekends.  Perhaps you just need to spend a bit more to get tastier Hungarian food?  I really hope you have better luck with the food than we did!

 
Lángos, it looks the part but just tastes like grease!

Lángos, it looks the part but just tastes like grease!

 

Where We Didn’t Get To….

Our trip was cut a bit short due to Mark getting the flu for 3 days and so there were a couple of activities that we wanted to do but didn’t get round to.  Although they are a bit on the expensive side, we would have liked to have gone to one of the famous spas such as the Gellért or Széchenyi Baths, both known for their thermal waters and healing qualities.  There is Memento Park, a sculpture park on the outskirts of the city displaying all the communist monuments and sculptures that once stood in Budapest during the soviet regime.  If we had visited outside of the winter months when the leaves were on the trees then we would have taken a trip out to the Buda Hills, an expanse of green space in the city where you can find trekking routes and perfect spots for a picnic.  The Hungarian National Museum was being renovated when we visited, but it would have been interesting to see some national artefacts and learn a bit more about the countries history.   If you can spare 16 Euro a ticket (ouch!), then the Dohány Street Synagogue looked like it would have been worth a visit as it’s the largest synagogue in the world outside of Israel.  Other than that, I think we covered most of the main attractions that we were interested in, and mostly it was just interesting to walk around and explore the city.

 
The Dohany Street Synagogue

The Dohany Street Synagogue

 

We hope our article 'Top Things To Do In Budapest On A Budget’ was helpful for you, feel free to leave any comments in the box below (especially if you have any more suggestions about the food!).

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Top Things To Do In Budapest On A Budget, by Studio Mali
 

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Georgia: 15 Things To Do In Tbilisi 

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Wow Tbilisi... you have it all.  From world class techno clubs to leafy botanical gardens, this is a city of many contrasts and one that should be on the top of your 'to visit' list.  Traditional Georgian architecture and soviet tower blocks sprawl the hillsides, making way for all things new.  The youths are fighting for progression, for a more liberal capital where openness and freedom are the norm, through a developing arts scene and growing club culture.  It's an exciting time to be in Tbilisi, perhaps it's the new Berlin.  

Tbilisi, Georgia

Located in the Caucasus in eastern Europe, Tbilisi is a melting pot of cultures with it's neighbours being Russia, Iran and Azerbaijan.  It is a city of Christian heritage and religious traditions, and yet it's as modern as any other European capital with cafe culture and consumerism at the heart of it.  With melt in your mouth cheese breads (khachapuri) being sold on every street corner and a pint of beer for as little as 40p, we can't think of anywhere better to spend a few days.  If you are into food, nightlife, culture, parks, museums and the arts, then take a look at our recommendations of things to do in Tbilisi......

 

Have A Rummage At Dry Bridge Market

Normally markets are packed with new cheap merchandise that’s probably going to fall apart by the time you take it home, but that’s not the case at the dry bridge flea market.  Every day locals neatly lay out their second hand knick-knacks on rickety tables, rugs on the ground and even on car bonnets, in the hope that a passer by is going to buy that random item they didn’t even know they were looking for.  You can find all sorts of vintage things here from chandeliers to old music boxes, and soviet memorabilia to woodworkers tools.  It’s not just what’s on sale that’s interesting here, most of the sellers are as old as the products they are flogging and it’s nice to see them going about their daily business, reading the newspaper and eating salami sandwiches as they sit by their stalls.  There is a nice open section on the river bank to the west of the bridge which specialises in original artworks by local artists.  The market can be found on dry bridge (and the streets around it) and is better on weekends.  It’s free to visit and nothing is priced so haggle down.

Second-hand wares for sale at Dry Bridge Market

Second-hand wares for sale at Dry Bridge Market

 

Admire Modern Architecture At Peace Bridge

This sleek bridge is one of the most striking structures in Tbilisi, as it elegantly floats over the Mtkvari river.  Pedestrians are invited to cross Peace Bridge by foot and experience the beautiful curving steel and glass structure, which appears to flow overhead like a wave from low to high, and low again.  It was designed in 2010 by Italian architect Michele De Lucchi and adds to a growing number of modern buildings in the historic capital.  The linear structure resembles a 3D perspective drawing and it’s perfect symmetry makes for a great photo.  You can also get a great side view from the bridge to the south of it.  The Bridge of Peace is free to experience and is open at all hours of the day, at nighttime it is illuminated.

Modernist Peace Bridge

Modernist Peace Bridge

 

Learn About History At The Museum Of Georgia

Set over 4 floors, this national history museum holds some of the finest examples of ancient Georgian jewellery in the country, dating as far back as 3rd millennium BC.  You can expect to see exquisite works of medieval gold and silver, precious stones, coins and ornaments.  The top floor of the museum is dedicated to explaining Georgia’s troubled history of Soviet rule and Russia’s persistent interference and invasion.  One of our favourite exhibits though was on the evolution of mankind, demonstrating the differences in groups of hominin (early humans) from as far back as 1.7 million years ago.  On display is the oldest skull in existence found in Eurasia, and 3D replicas of skulls showing the timeline of physical developments between the groups of people.  The exhibition is really well put together and helpfully explains the differences and developments between the hominin, for example what type of food they would have been eating at the time, and how society might have been structured.  Entry to the museum is a reasonable 5 gel (£1.50), and is open daily from 10am-6pm except on Mondays.

The Museum Of Georgia

The Museum Of Georgia

 

Escape To The Luscious Botanical Gardens 

We can’t think of many city gardens as beautiful and unique as this one.  Set on the foothills of the Sololaki mountain range, these botanical gardens boast an impressive view of the city below and the ancient Narikala Fortress that stands guard of it.  It’s easy to spend a few hours there, wondering the winding roads and woodland paths, soaking up the fresh air and exploring the natural environment.  The gardens are sectioned, taking the visitor on a journey of world plants through to high waterfalls.  There are lots of places to relax and spend a few hours reading in, or if you are a keen walker then the gardens go back as far as 1km up the steep mountainside.  Make sure you take some of the small paths through the woodlands for the most authentic experience, as the roads can sometimes have cars on them.  This is the perfect place to bring a picnic, or just escape from the hustle and bustle of city life for a few hours.  The gardens are open daily from 9am-6pm and is only 1 gel (30p) entrance fee. 

Exploring the botanical gardens

Exploring the botanical gardens

 

Eat With The Locals In Racha’s Basement 

If you are looking for an authentic Georgian dining experience then look no further than the unassuming Racha.  Located only a block away from Freedom Square, this rough and ready basement eatery serves traditional Georgian cuisine at some of the cheapest prices in town.  It looks as though nothing has changed here in the last 30 years; the carpets are worn, the decor is definitely no-thrills, and the staff couldn’t care less whether you were in there or not (actually once we got turned away because they were so ‘busy’).  But that all adds to it’s charm.  The stern faced waitresses almost make us want to laugh as we a trying to place our order, apparently you aren’t allowed to order only 2 dumplings!  Some of the local favourite dishes include Khinkali which are spicy dumplings at 0.7 gel (20p) each (minimal of 5 can be ordered), mtsvadi which are shish kebabs (7 gel / £2.10), and badrijani nigvzit (aubergine with walnut salad) which we didn’t get to try.  The highlight however was the Georgian staple khachapuri, the deliciously gooey cheese bread that melts in your mouth (7 gel / £2.10).  We could eat that bread all day long!  Racha is open 9am-10.30pm daily, and dishes start at 4 gel (£1.20).  The menu has been translated into English so you shouldn’t have any problems ordering.

Khachapuri - Georgian cheese bread in Racha

Khachapuri - Georgian cheese bread in Racha

 

Relax In Contemporary Green-Space

At the foot of the Bridge of Peace lies Tbilisi’s most modern gardens, Rike Park.  This newly built public space is the perfect hangout by the Mtkvari river, offering visitors relaxing places to nestle amongst well-pruned flower beds and willow trees.  The gardens are architecturally landscaped and feature some very considered foliage, no blade of grass is out of place.  The benches are made from blocks of cast concrete formed into white geometric shapes which really adds to the modernist feel, and two huge futuristic silver tubes sitting at the north end are yet-to-open buildings.  Wonderers can enjoy the many water features that scatter the park along with a couple of open-air cafes and bars.  This is a really nice to place to hang out on a sunny day, and if you’re lucky you may get to enjoy an outdoor concert in one of the entertainment areas.  The park is free to enter and is open all times of day and night.

Rike Park

Rike Park

 

Munch On A Pipes Burger

Founded by graduates of Tbilisi’s culinary academy, Pipes is an industrial-style diner joint not to be missed.  They specialise in burgers of course... big, fat, soft, juicy burgers, packed with flavour and melt-in-your-mouth meat.  I would say that these are as good as some of London’s best burgers, but still not quite as tasty as our local favourite Stokey Bears (you just can’t beat that sweet bacon jam).  We opted for a cheeseburger which was all the usuals... marinated onions, cheddar cheese, tomato, lettuce, bacon, gherkins and spicy homemade mayo, and of course a big beef pattie sandwiched in the middle, cooked medium rare.  It is a really naughty treat but so delicious, and two days later Mark was planning his next trip.  Each burger comes with fries, so even though the burgers seem a bit pricy, it pretty much works out the same as any other dinner we’d had in Tbilisi.  A cheeseburger and fries costs 13.90 gel (£4.20) and then service is added.  Pipes is open daily from 11am-11pm.

Pipes burger

Pipes burger

 

Take A Trip To The Museum of Modern Art 

Zurab Tsereteli, one of Georgia’s most successful living artists and sculptors, set up a privately owned gallery in the heart of Tbilisi.  The space is beautifully light and airy (as you can imagine for a modern art gallery), and the works are set over three spacious floors.  Two of them are dedicated to displaying the life-long work of the artist himself, these are colourful paintings which he created of people in the lower classes, aiming to capture their unique character and mood over huge canvases.  The painting are contrasted with oversized metal sculptures of figures, which Tsereteli seems to be most recognised for.  On the ground floor, there is a temporary exhibition which presents works from either Georgian or international contemporary artists.  Swiss artist Therese Weber was showing when we visited, her artworks constructed mostly from paper pulp in an abstract way.  Overall the gallery is a bit of a one man show, but for entry as little as 2 gel (60p), it’s worth looking at some of the artworks of one of Georgia’s most famous artists.  

The Museum Of Modern Art

The Museum Of Modern Art

 

Drink With The Cool Kids

Take a walk up Giorgi Akhvlediani St and you will soon find out where the hipsters hang out.  Here you can find all kinds of trendy bar, converted old mans pubs, fancy barbers and of course Tbilisi’s first gay club, Success Bar.  The area has got a really nice feel to it, a bit of an east London vibe and so we feel right at home having a pint in one of the pubs (you can take the brit out of England, but they will always end up in a pub!).  It feels as though there is a scene developing here, in recent years nightlife has been booming due to the opening of Berlin-style clubs such as Bassiani, Khidi, Mtkvarze and Vitamin Cubes, and this area seems like the perfect place for a warm up drink.  A pint of beer in this area costs around 3 gel (90p), about 1 gel (30p) more expensive than the cheapest drinking holes in Tbilisi.  If you are into socialising with the locals then this is a much more interesting area to visit than the tourist bars in the centre of town.

Relaxing in a local pub

Relaxing in a local pub

 

Eat Khachapuri Until You Can Eat It No More

You can’t come to Tbilisi (or any of Georgia for that matter) without eating the delicious Khachapuri at least once a day, or maybe even twice.  It is one of Georgia’s most popular national dishes and it’s easy to see why it’s loved by so many.  Nearly every third shop sells the stuff, this naughty naughty tasty delight.  For those of you who don’t know, Khachapuri is Georgian cheese bread, a bit like a round pizza with a gooey cheese centre.  There are many different types of this bread, some with open tops, different types of cheese, and some even with egg, all originating from different parts of the country.  This bread is so important to the Georgian economy that the price of making it has even been used to measure inflation.  The ones sold on the street vary in quality, size, warmness, and of course taste but for about 1.5-3 gel (45p-90p) a piece you really can’t complain.  If your budget allows, then it’s best to order one in a restaurant or tavern where you get served a plate full of the stuff, the dough is fresh, the cheese is plentiful and all you have to worry about is the crazy cheesy dreams at bedtime.  If you are going to eat anything on your trip then let it be Khachapuri.

Mmmm.... khachapuri!

Mmmm.... khachapuri!

 

Explore Old Wooden Georgian Houses

The Open-Air Museum of Ethnography up on the woody hillsides of Tbilisi is a wonderful place to spend the afternoon.  This museum displays a unique collection of traditional Georgian folk houses which have been carefully preserved from different regions of the country.  The dwellings are scattered across 50 hectares of green-space and visitors are invited to walk freely around the site, exploring the architecture and reconstructed gardens.  You can go inside some of the houses and several have been decked out with traditional craftwork such as wooden carved furniture, patterned rugs, cooking utensils and drawings, to give you a taste of old Georgian life.  The views over the city are very impressive and the setting is a welcoming escape from the busy car-filled streets below.  If you are walking here, then made sure you go through Vake Park (a soviet style monument/gardens) on your way up.  Entry is a mere 3 gel (90p), and the museum is open 10am-6pm in summer time, every day except on Mondays.

Open-Air Museum Of Ethnography

Open-Air Museum Of Ethnography

 

Enjoy Panoramic Views At Rachasubani

This delightful Georgian restaurant sits on the green hillsides above the Open-Air Museum of Ethnography, offering panoramic views of the city and leafy landscape below.  Diners can enjoy a relaxed lunch on woody terraces of the 150 year old building, assisted by helpful and friendly staff members.  We were eating on the cheap so only had an imeretian khachapuri (cheese bread) at 8.5 gel (£2.55), and cucumber tomato and walnut salad at 7.9 gel (£2.37) to share, but if you have the budget to splash out then there are all sorts of delicious sounding meat dishes, cheese assortments, vege clay pots and bottles of wine starting at 16 gel (£4.80) each.  This is honestly one of the most beautiful places we have dined at in Georgia and if you make the effort to visit then you won’t be disappointed by the views on a sunny day.  This is the perfect stop off for lunch if you are visiting the Open-Air Museum of Ethnography nearby.  Rachasubani is open 10am-11pm daily.

Amazing views at Rachasubani

Amazing views at Rachasubani

 

Say Hey To The Mother of Georgia

Standing 20 meters tall on top of Sololaki hill is Kartlis Deda, also know as Mother of Georgia. This aluminium monument represents the Georgian national figure watching over Tbilisi, with a bowl of wine in one hand to greet friends, and a sword in the other to protect from foes.  The walk up Sololaki hill is a pleasant one, passing the impressive Narikala Fortress on the way and having spectacular views over the city below.  If you don’t feel like walking (although it’s really not that far), you can get the cable car up to the Kartlis Deda viewpoint or take a taxi up the road.  The Mother of Georgia monument is free to visit and is open at all times of day or night.  To get the best picture though, you may want to be at city level!

 
Mother Of Georgia

Mother Of Georgia

 

 

Appreciate Soviet Classism At Vake Park

This enormous park is a great place to play some sport, go for a walk in the woodlands, or even just relax by the fountains.  This is the biggest park in Tbilisi and is a fine example of Soviet Classism, just check out the grand oversized staircase and fountains that lead up to the People’s Monument.  The view from the top of the hill looking the park is very impressive, the fountains and stone platforms make for a wonderfully symmetrical photo, with the river and city in the background.  We spent almost an hour there, watching the water fall from the fountains in a bit of a trance, with the odd child running through trying not to get soaking wet.  The park is free to enter at all times of day and night, and is a nice escape from bustling city life.

Vake Park

Vake Park

 

Lose Yourself To Techno

Tbilisi’s techno scene is booming right now, and underground basement club Bassiani has already made a name for itself as the Berghain of Georgia.  People flock from all over Europe to visit this dance haven, and we have heard tales of the crowd losing themselves to beat-less tunes, kneeling on the dance floor with hands in the air.  As with many of Berlin’s megaclubs, Georgia’s Bassiani is notoriously difficult to get into, and clubbers are put to the scrutiny of ‘the eyes’ behind the cctv on the door.  There is no pattern to who gets in and who does not, if they think you will add value to the night then you are let in and if not then you will be taking your sorry self elsewhere.  Other worthy techno clubs include Mtskheta (we had a fun night there), Khidi and Vitamin Cubes.  Entry to Bassiani is between 20-40 gel / £6-12 (you can book in advance online) and drinks are expensive when you're in there, whereas entry was free to Mtskheta when we visited on a Friday night and a beer was 5 gel (£1.50).  Things don’t get going until around 2am and the clubs open until about 11am the next morning, so remember to pace yourselves!

 

We hope you enjoy our suggestions of things to do in Tbilisi, just let us know if there is anything else we can help you with in the comments box below....

 

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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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Inspirational Quotes Found At A Tea Plantation In Sri Lanka

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We all know that inspiration can spring out of nowhere, and so often it's when you least expect it.  For us, it came as a pleasant surprise on a leisurely 14km stroll though Lipton’s tea plantation in central Sri Lanka. 

Lipton's tea plantation near Hapatule

Lipton's tea plantation near Hapatule

Mark and I were making our way up to Lipton’s Seat near Hapatule, a viewpoint from where Mr Thomas Lipton used to sit and admire his lusciously green tea fields below.  The walk up to the seat is a very scenic one; the path winds up and around hilly fields where thousands of tea plants grow, all pruned and neatly in rows ready to be picked by experienced hands.  Every so often we see a local in traditional dress bent over picking leaves with a basket on their back, smiling as we walk past. Not the kind of place you'd expect to see the words of Gandhi painted into the brickwork.

 
Gandhi - What we are doing to the forests of this world
 

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We make our way up the narrow road and spot a sign pinned to the cobbled brick wall.  It’s a quote.  It says, “If all beasts were gone, men would die from a great loneliness of spirit, for whatever happens to the beasts also happens to the man.  All things are connected.  Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth.”  Wow! This is pretty dizzying stuff, and gets our minds racing about life as we amble on. 

Half a kilometre later there’s another one.  This time it reads…. “Those who wish to pet and baby wild animals ‘love’ them.  But those who respect their natures and wish to let them live normal lives, love them more.”  That’s so true.  We were only talking the previous day about keeping birds as pets.  However small they are it really does pain me to see them stuck in cages. 

 
Sandra Postel - For many of us, water simply flows from a faucet
 

Every sign we pass we stop to take in, feeding the mind with food for thought.  7km later, we reach the top.  Not quite the view we had in mind due to rolling clouds of mist, but the walk has been extremely pleasant and provoked much thought so it made for an enjoyable experience. We went on a whole trail of conversation, from the environment to childhood memories, all spurred on by these messages, the flow of walking, and that we have plenty of time on our hands.

 
Gautama Buddha - A person writing at night may put out the lamp
 


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Lipton's seat was more than just a view at the top of a mountain for us, but the catalyst for a lot of thought.  Whilst trekking the route we discussed not only these messages but also where we see Studio Mali going in the future.  Although that's not set in stone just yet, and there's still some more work to be done, we do know this: that we want to inspire others to be creative and to find balance in their lifestyle.  We are finding our feet right now as we still have another 2 months left travelling, but whilst on the road we are working on this new focus.  Expect to see from us more creative posts, inspiration, travel advice to help make that break away, and discussions on lifestyle.

 
Bob McLeod - When the earth is sick and polluted
 

We hope you have found some or at least one of these quotes inspiring.  If you have any thoughts or feelings towards the messages let us know in the below comments box, we would love to hear from you.

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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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