what to do

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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Georgia - 15 Things To Do In Tbilisi, by Studio Mali
 

 

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Laos: The Ultimate 2 Week Travel Itinerary For Backpackers

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

Laos

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

 

Day 1-2

Vientiane 

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

One of the nicer bits!

One of the nicer bits!

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

 

What To Do There

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

Laos: Top Things To Do In Vientiane

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

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

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

 

Where To Stay

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

 

Where To Eat

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

Croissants in Le Banneton French cafe

Croissants in Le Banneton French cafe

 

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Day 3

Luang Prabang

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

The jazzy VIP sleeper bus from Vientiane to Luang Prabang

The jazzy VIP sleeper bus from Vientiane to Luang Prabang

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

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

View of Luang Prabang

View of Luang Prabang

 

What To Do

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

The stunning Kuang Si waterfalls

The stunning Kuang Si waterfalls

 

Where To Stay

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

 

Where to Eat

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

All you can eat BBQ for 65,000 kyat!

All you can eat BBQ for 65,000 kyat!

 

Day 4

Luang Namtha

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

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

 

What To Do

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

Jungle trekking in the Nam Ha National Park

Jungle trekking in the Nam Ha National Park

 

Where To Stay

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

 

Where To Eat

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

Jungle food on our 3 day trek

Jungle food on our 3 day trek

Hand-crafted pieces, delivered to your door… 

Day 5-8

Nam Ha National Park

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

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

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

A froggy breakfast in the Nam Ha National Park

A froggy breakfast in the Nam Ha National Park

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

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

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

Kayaking in the Nam Ha National Park

Kayaking in the Nam Ha National Park

 

Day 9-10

Nong Khiaw

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

The relaxing Nong Khiaw

The relaxing Nong Khiaw

 

What To Do

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

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

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

The viewpoint in Nong Khiaw

The viewpoint in Nong Khiaw

 

Where To Stay

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

 

Where To Eat

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

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

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

 

Day 11

Muang Ngoi

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

Muang Ngoi

Muang Ngoi

 

What To Do

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

 

Where To Sleep

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

Chilling in a hammock at Aloune Guesthouse

Chilling in a hammock at Aloune Guesthouse

 

Where To Eat

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

 

 

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

Day 12

Nong Khiaw 

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

Mark chilling on a boat ride from Nong Khiaw

Mark chilling on a boat ride from Nong Khiaw

 

Day 13-14

Luang Prabang

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

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

A Luang Prabang sunset

A Luang Prabang sunset

 

Other Things To Note:

Chilly Nights

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

 

Land Mines

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

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

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

 

Grub

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

 

Tourist Central

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

 

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

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China: Top Things To Do In Dali

Ali thumbnail sml.jpg
 

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

The stunning ChanShan mountains by Dali

The stunning ChanShan mountains by Dali

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

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

 

Admire The Wood Workers Street

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

Hand-carved wooden furniture in Dali

Hand-carved wooden furniture in Dali

 

Eat Authentic Rice Noodles 

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

Delicious hand-made rice noodles 

Delicious hand-made rice noodles 

 

Eat Baba Sweet Bread

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

Baba sweet bread after being cooked on the fire

Baba sweet bread after being cooked on the fire

 

Stroll Along The Mountain Pass

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

The view on the walk from Zhonghe Temple to Gangton Temple

The view on the walk from Zhonghe Temple to Gangton Temple

 

Cycle To Erhai Lake

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

Cycling in one of the ancient villages around ErHai Lake

Cycling in one of the ancient villages around ErHai Lake

 

Eat Treats From The Local Bakery

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

The baked goods in question....

The baked goods in question....

 

Get A Massage

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

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

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

 

Drink The Cheapest Beer On Remin Road

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

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

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

 

Eat A Serendipity Burger

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

A Serendipity burger

A Serendipity burger

 

Stay At A Rooftop Hostel

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

The view from our rooftop hostel at the Meet Inn

The view from our rooftop hostel at the Meet Inn

 

All You Can Eat At The Vegetarian Buffet

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

All you can eat vegetarian buffet at Lovely Lotus Delicious Vegetarian

All you can eat vegetarian buffet at Lovely Lotus Delicious Vegetarian

 

Get Into Dali Life

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

 

Transport

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

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

 

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

 

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