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Albania Road Trip - The Perfect 10-Days Itinerary!
Albania, a little country in the Balkan regions in South Europe, is a highly underrated and often misunderstood destination. A lot has to do with the way Albanians have been portrayed in movies like 'Taken', and of course, the brutal communist regime of about half a century post World War 2 that locked away this beautiful gem from the rest of the world! But in reality, the country boasts some of the most enchanting landscapes, a rich history from the Illyrian and Ottoman times , a vibrant culture with the influence of its neighboring countries, and most importantly - unparalleled Albanian hospitality :) Traveling to Albania was a very spontaneous decision. We wanted to visit an off-beat destination, but at the same time get a little bit of the 'European' experience. After a quick research, we decided to drive across the country for 10 days to get a taste of both - the Albanian Alps in the north, as well as the Albanian Riviera in the south. And then of course, we traveled to some of the most fascinating UNESCO World Heritage sites spread across the country. So here are our TRIP HIGHLIGHTS >> Day 1 - Explore Tirana
Land in Tirana and explore the city Day 2 - Cobo Winery, Berat - Town of a Thousand Windows
Drive to Berat, spend the night at a guesthouse
Next morning, visit Berat castle and the museum Day 3 - Gjirokaster - Silver City
Drive to Gjirokaster, spend the night at a guesthouse
Next morning, visit the Gjirokaster fortress and museum Day 4 - Syri-i-Kalter, Drive along the Albanian Riviera
Drive along the riviera, stop by the Blue Eye of Sarande,
Stay overnight at one of the beach towns. We stayed at Ksamil but we would recommend Sarande or Himare instead Day 5 - Butrint National Park, Gjipe Beach
Visit Butrint National Park in the morning
Drive further north along the riviera, hike to Gjipe beach and camp overnight Day 6 - Drive to Shkoder through the Llogara Pass
After lunch at Gjipe beach, drive further north to Shkoder (around 6 hours drive) and stay overnight Day 7 - Valbone
Leave the car in Shkoder
Ferry ride along Lake Koman to Fierze
Stay overnight in Valbone Day 8 - Hike from Valbone to Theth National Park
Hike from Valbone National Park to Theth National Park, 14km, about 6-7 hours.
Stay overnight in Theth Day 9 - Kruje
Jeep ride to Shkoder to pick the car
Drive south to Kruje. Explore the town and stay overnight Day 10 - Tirana
Drive to Tirana post lunch. Explore the city or drive to Lake Boville Day 11 - Fly back home If you're in a hurry, you can skip the Q&A below and head straight down to the ITINERARY. The Theth Church, North Albania When is the best time to visit Albania? We visited Albania in the beginning of July. The peak season is from July-August, when it tends to get crowded in certain spots, and the weather in the coastal areas can get really hot (the mountains in the north are still cool though). We recommend visiting the country in the shoulder seasons, that is between April-June and September- October. However, do note that some of the hiking trails in the north (most importantly, the Valbone to Theth trail) are closed to tourists in the winter months up until late-May because of snowfall! How many days do I need in Albania? Ideally, you would need at least 10-14 days to fully explore the country (if you have your own rented vehicle). But if you are short of time, then we recommend at least one week where you choose to do either only the north, or the south. Tirana, the capital is situated somewhere in the middle of the country, and this can be your starting point to head towards the north or the south. The north is known for its mountainous topography - the Accursed Mountains, also known as the Albanian Alps, as well as the ancient capital, Kruje, a very culturally-rich, medieval town. The south is known for the Albanian Riviera and all the beaches along the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, as well as some of the UNESCO heritage towns of Berat and Gjirokaster. Flights & Visas *Please note that this article was written in August 2021. Rules related to visa applications are subject to change* Please check the website of the Albanian Embassy in your country of residence, to check for visa requirement and the application process. As UAE residents, we can obtain a visa-on-arrival for a maximum stay of 90 days. At the immigration check at Tirana International Airport, we were asked to present any one of our hotel bookings, and a proof of a return or onward ticket. Please note that passports must be valid for a minimum of 3 months from the arrival date. We traveled via FlyDubai Airlines that has direct flights between Dubai to Tirana. We recommend running a quick search on Skyscanner to check for flight routes and rates based on your location. It takes about 30 minutes to travel from Tirana airport to the centre of the city. By bus it costs 300 Lek (€2.45), and by taxi it costs somewhere around €20-€25. Do I need to take a COVID-19 RT-PCR test for Albania? Where can I get tested in Albania? *Please note that this article was written in August 2021, and rules related to COVID-19 protocol are subject to change* Please check the IATA Travel Centre website before your flight to get the latest updates on the requirements of the country you are traveling from and arriving to. At the time we traveled (July '21), Albania was open to all tourists with no requirement of an RT-PCR test nor any proof of vaccination. However, we required a negative RT-PCR test to fly back into our home country. Tirana International Airport has its own testing facility, where you can get your results within 90 minutes! Passengers are advised to reach the airport at least four hours before their flight in order to get the PCR test results in time before their departure. There are several other testing centers in clinics across the country, but from our research, the Tirana airport provided the cheapest and quickest option of all. RT-PCR Test Cost - €35 per person How do I get around in Albania? Roads leading to Gjirokaster Castle Public transport - There is no rail system in Albania, and it's mostly buses or 'furgons' (shared mini-vans). We had heard that they do not run on any fixed time-table, so we are not too sure if they are reliable. However, we did meet a few travelers on our trip who were getting around only using public transport. Driving or Hiring a Driver - We rented a car and drove ourselves, which gave us so much flexibility and freedom to explore areas we would have otherwise never seen. Driving in Albania.....is quite an experience! The highways are great, the direction signages are straightforward, and the views are absolutely stunning. Expect a lot of hairpin bends too, especially around the mountain regions. However, watch out for some really crazy, dangerous drivers inside the major cities, like Shkoder and Tirana, where people (and pedestrians!) tend to flout traffic rules. But it was definitely not impossible to drive, and as long as you stick to the speed limits and practice safe driving, you should be fine :) GPS Apps - Google Maps is the usual go-to navigation app, BUT in Albania you can't completely rely on it! It did take us on crazy detours, so we highly recommend using Maps.Me side-by-side to cross-check your route. Maps.Me was also useful during our hikes in the north as it identifies hiking trails as well. Google Translate - This is hands down, one of the the best inventions ever! English may not be widely spoken or understood in Albania, but with an app like this, you can manage to have a somewhat-complete conversation with the locals. Where can I rent a car from? Our rental car! The only one that was left in all of Tirana - what happens when you travel during peak tourist season There are many car rental offices right outside Tirana airport. You have options from Avis, Europecar etc. to local companies as well. The advantage of renting your car from the airport is that you can drop it off there at the end of your trip. However, we arrived during peak season when all the affordable cars were sold out, and we had no choice but to look for options inside the city centre. During peak season, a basic sedan (such as a Nissan, or a VW Polo) starts at €25 per day for a manual, and €30 per day for an automatic car. It was quite a challenge finding a car at this price point, but we finally managed to do so. THE ONLY one car that was left available in all of Tirana - a bright, yellow Nissan sedan 😂 We found it at a local rental company called Makina Me Qera Danieli (which translates to Danieli Rental Cars) and you can contact them on WhatsApp at +355 693191919. You may find trouble communicating with them in English, but we used the Google Translate app and copy-pasted our translations and managed to converse. :) Budgeting for the trip The Lek (plural Leke) is the official currency of Albania, although the Euro is widely accepted. The money exchange centers in Dubai did not have any Albanian Lek, so we carried Euros with us and converted some of it to Lek at a local exchange centre in Tirana. 1 Euro = 120.97 Albanian Lek (dated August 2021) Food, accommodations, and getting around in Albania, in general, is so much more affordable when compared to other mainstream destinations in Europe. Listed below are our average expenses on our trip (we travelled during peak season), but your final budget would also depend on your travel style and preferences. Average price for a 2 or 3-Star hotel/guesthouse, inclusive of breakfast - €35 per night An average meal for one person (main course + drink) - €4 Average rate for a basic, automatic rental car (not including fuel) - €30 per day Accommodations in Albania One of the best hotel experience ever at Vila Dini, Valbone Finding an accommodation in the country is very easy, and they are quite affordable as well. From hostels and guesthouses, to AirBnBs and luxury star hotels, there is something to fit into any type of budget! We traveled during peak season, and we were mostly staying in either hotels or guesthouses, spending an average of €28-€35 per night for a spacious double-bed room, inclusive of breakfast. There are plenty of group hostels too, but we chose not to stay in shared-spaces as precaution during the pandemic. NOTE : *We have listed the exact names and costs of accommodations under the relevant headings in the itinerary below this Q&A.* Food in Albania At Homemade Food Lili's , treating ourselves to some traditional Berat cuisine We would return to Albania just for the food! Albania's rich gastronomical scene has its roots in the Ottoman empire, and Turkish influences are quite noticeable too. Modern day dishes are hugely influenced by Greek and Italian cuisines. THE BEST PART - quite a few of their traditional dishes are completely vegan, and that made our dining experiences so much more enjoyable and easier than in other countries we have visited. Some of the MUST-TRY Albanian dishes are Byrek (Savoury crepes with a spinach filling) Imam Bayldi (Stuffed Eggplant) Stuffed Bell Pepper Bamje (Okra stew) Yaprak (Stuffed vine leaves like the Greek 'Dolmas') Qifqi (Stuffed rice balls) - a dish native to the town of Gjirokaster Grilled Vegetables (seared in olive oil) Good food is very affordable in most restaurants across the country. A dish from the main course is priced at an average of 300 Lek (approx. €2.47!) NOTE - *We have recommended restaurants for each city we visited under the relevant headings in the itinerary below this Q&A.* Day 1 - Explore the capital city of Tirana Tirana may not be the prettiest European capital city, and is not the best example of what Albania has to offer, but it has a few gems and pockets of culture and history that are worth exploring. We landed here on a weekend evening and wanted to set off on our road trip the following morning. So we decided to explore more of Tirana at the end of our trip (Day 10). But we did get to experience the bustling night life and restaurant scenes on our first day. We highly recommend staying around Skanderbeg Square, the public plaza in the city centre. This place has got a nice chilled vibe, with locals walking and cycling around, or just chit-chatting away to glory. The square is named after Skanderbeg, the 'national hero' of Albania who successfully resisted the Ottoman invasions during the mid-1400s. You can also find Skanderbeg's famous statue on his horse in the center of this Square. If you've got more time on your hands, we recommend visiting Bunkart 2, which is actually an anti-nuclear bunker built by the Communist dictator Enver Hoxha, now converted into a fascinating museum! It is open on all days of the week, from 9 am to 8 pm. You could also explore the surrounding hipster neighborhood of Blloku, which used to be the centre of the communist rule, but is today very popular among the locals for its trendy restaurants and cafe scenes. Where we stayed in Tirana We stayed at Urban Rooms, perfectly located close to the main city sights yet nestled away from the noise and bustle. The rooms are spacious, and very tastefully designed with contemporary elements. The owner Armand, an architect, designed the property himself! He is a wonderful person to chat with and will also help give useful recommendations on things to see and places to dine at. COST - A double-bed room with a private bathroom cost us about €35 per night. Super worth it during peak season considering the quality of our stay and its prime location! Restaurant recommendations in Tirana On our first night we stepped out for dinner quite late when most restaurants were already shut (post 10 pm on weekends), although the bars and cafes were still open and buzzing! We did manage to grab a bite at a local eatery serving Greek food. However, we recommend that you visit Oda Restaurant which is highly rated and serves some of the best traditional Albanian cuisine in Tirana. Day 2 - Visit Cobo Winery, Explore Berat - Town of a Thousand Windows! On Day 2 early in the morning, we checked out of our hotel in Tirana and set off on a hunt for our rental car! You can scroll up to this section for more details on the costs and process of renting a car in Albania. By mid-day we set off to Berat, which is about 100 km from Tirana, a two-hour journey by road. On our way we stopped by Cobo Winery, a family-run business that has a long tradition of producing wine from native Albanian grapes, dating back to the early 1900s. We were offered a tour by their lovely daughter, Ermi who showed us around the vineyards, wine cellars, followed by a fantastic wine-tasting session. We were also introduced to the famous 'Raki', which is the most popular alcoholic drink consumed in Albania. In fact, Cobo has its own version of the 'walnut raki' besides its signature red and white wines! We stayed back at the winery for a couple of hours, spending time with the warm and hospitable Cobo family. After the alcohol wore off 🙈 we finally drove to Berat! Famously known as the 'town of a thousand windows', Berat is a 2400-years old museum city, known for its white stone Ottoman houses with dark mahogany stucco roofs, all stacked up along a beautiful hillside. It has rightly earned its place on UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites! While Tirana lacks the old-world charm due to Communism, Berat makes up for it with its picturesque landscapes and strong traditional vibe. We recommend staying AT LEAST one night in Berat. There's so much you can do - from exploring the countless stone alleys, to enjoying a traditional Berati meal in one of the many cute restaurants adorning the town. But our FAVOURITE part was the Castle of Berat, situated atop a hill, where every corner seems like a picture-perfect postcard from the medieval times! Early morning views of beautiful Berat - the cute little old Ottoman houses adorned with countless windows and chestnut colored roofs makes it a picture-perfect postcard! Views of Kalajat-e-Berat (Castle of Berat) - This was easily our most favourite part about Berat Cobbled streets and houses with chestnut-colored roofs cascading gently along a hillside - These views are timeless! Where we stayed in Berat We stayed at Timo's Guest House and we HIGHLY RECOMMEND this beautiful traditional home, hosted by the most adorable couple, George and Maria. ❤ They welcomed us with some fresh bread and berry jams along with some 'Raki', and we had some of the most touching and heartwarming conversations with them on their terrace (thank you, Google Translate 😊) The rooms are incredible, and the views from our room and the breakfast terrace were simply the BEST! COST - A large double-bed room (with an additional single bed) plus private bathroom cost us around €37 per night, inclusive of breakfast. Super worth it on a weekend especially during peak tourist season! Restaurant recommendations in Berat If we have to recommend just one restaurant in Berat, then it has to be Lili Homemade Food! This family-run restaurant is the epitome of Albanian hospitality. The owner, Lili, is the friendliest soul with a big smile on his face. And the food, oh you won't be disappointed AT ALL! We had some of the best stuffed eggplant here, also known as Imam Bayldi! Some other dishes that we recommend are stuffed bell pepper and byreks. Day 3 - The Silver City of Gjirokaster The next day we drove off to Gjirokaster, which is hands-down, our MOST FAVOURITE part of Albania! We took the SH4 highway from Berat, around 120 kilometers long or two-hours by road, but the views are just gorgeous! Gjirokaster, like Berat, is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and although both are historical Ottoman towns, they are both unique in their own ways. We liked Gjirokaster as the city is more compact which renders it a small-town vintage charm. But we still recommend not skipping either of the cities! 🙈 The streets of Gjirokaster are some of the most beautiful we have ever seen. Silver limestone cobbled streets with traditional colourful shops on either sides, sometimes with items spilling onto the streets, is such a wonderful sight to behold. We also highly recommend visiting the Gjirokaster Fortress and the museum (a part of the castle has been converted into a museum). The museum is so beautifully done, and was an eye-opener to the challenging history of Albania! It's pretty clear why Gjirokaster is called the Silver City ❤ Two joyous backpackers in the bazaars of Gjirokaster! Stone Ottoman houses with cute-little arched windows make the perfect backdrop for pictures! The attention to detail is just outstanding! With cute signages, wooden window frames, and plant baskets lined along a cobbled stone street, Gjirokaster transports you to a medieval fairytale Stunning Gjirokaster from a bird's eye view The Castle of Gjirokaster Where we stayed in Gjirokaster We stayed at Stone House Obelisk, a beautiful guesthouse right next to the famous Obelisk of Gjirokaster, yet situated in a quiet, secret corner away from the hustle and noise of the centre. The host is a beautiful, old mother who manages the property and we shared an incredible bond in the little time that we were there. COST- We got a massive room (almost like a junior suite) that cost us only about €25 for the night, inclusive of a splendid breakfast prepared by the host herself. Restaurant recommendations in Gjirokaster We had some of the most mouth-watering Albanian food in Gjirokaster! Do try out the 'Qifqi' which are these traditional stuffed rice balls and are native to Gjirokaster (we had a hard time finding Qifqi in other parts of Albania!). For restaurants, we highly recommend these two : Restaurant Tradicional Odaja - This is a highly rated venue, and the food and quality ingredients justifies so! We loved their Imam Bayldi (stuffed eggplant), stuffed bell pepper, and this is also where we tried our first Qifqi! Kujtimi Tradicional Restorant - This place has one of the most beautiful and romantic setting, under a canopy of ivy leaves and fairy lights! We went for dinner here, as recommended by our host, and had a 'vegan' version of the moussaka (which the chef kindly customized for us) along with some traditional stuffed vine leaves called Japrak! Day 4 - Drive along the Albanian Riviera (Syri-i-Kalter >> Sarande>>Ksamil) After spending the first few days of our trip in the cultural parts of the country, it was then time for the much-awaited drive along the great Albanian Riviera! We left Gjirokaster by mid-day and our first stop on the way was, Syri-i-Kalter, also known as the Blue Eye of Sarande. Located around 37 km south of Gjirokaster, it took us about an hour to get here. Syri-i-Kalter transported us to a tropical forest, with its clear blue waters shimmering under the sunlight seeping through a dense green canopy! Do note that Syri-i-Kalter can get crowded in the peak summers, so it was a little challenging to find a quiet spot all to ourselves. The Blue Eye of Sarande (Syri-i-Kalter). The water here is unreal! We then continued our journey to the coastal town of Sarande. We were mesmerized throughout the drive, with our jaws dropping after every few kilometers on the riviera. There are plenty of beaches that you can stop by along the way. We went to Plazhi Pasqyrave (Mirror Beach) in Sarande, a stunning pebble beach with beautiful blue waters surrounded by white stone cliffs. We spent the evening at the beach watching the sunset, and we stayed overnight at the nearby coastal town of Ksamil. Staying in Ksamil was not a good idea as it felt extremely touristy and chaotic. But the advantage is that it's an easy start point to get to the amazing Butrint National Park. But if you want to give Butrint a miss, we would recommend staying further up-north on the riviera, in a town like Dhermi or Vlore. Views along the Albanian Riviera Magical sunset at Plazhi Pasqyrave, also known as the Mirror Beach Day 5 - Visit Butrint National Park >> Drive up north>> Camp overnight in Gjipe Beach The following morning we drove to Butrint National Park, one of the highlights on the south of the riviera. This UNESCO protected archaeological site is situated on an island and is a delight for history lovers like us! The ancient port city offers a remarkable journey through the ages of history, which dates back to 8th century BC. The old city and its heritage retain a unique testimony of Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman cultures and civilizations. We spent around two hours exploring these ancient ruins, and the sea views around the park made it the most scenic history tour ever. The Great Basilica, built in the 6th century AD, marks the establishment of the early Christian period in this region A Roman amphitheater from the 3rd century BC. Further right is the Venetian Castle of the 14th and 16th century.
Butrint has seen the rise and fall of several empires and civilizations in its time. Closer views of the ruins around the Roman amphitheater from the 3rd century BC Closer views of the Great Basilica from the 6th century AD We then had a quick lunch in Sarande to fuel ourselves for the next leg of the journey. We set off towards the north of the riviera to get to Gjipe Beach, which many describe as the best beach of the country. Getting to the beach is a bit of a challenge, with the single-lane endless roads that lead to the parking bay, and a short 30-minute hike to get to the beach. But, Gjipe is worth ALL the effort! The beach is phenomenal and the water is SO blue and clear. And because we went on a weekday, there were not too many people which was such a refreshing change for a European beach during summer! The BEST part was we spontaneously decided to camp overnight at Gjipe! We found a place behind the beach from where we could rent little tents. It was such a magical experience to sleep under the stars to the sound of the gushing waves. It cost us just €9 per person, inclusive of a humble breakfast (How cool is that!). The beach also has a little restaurant shack from where you can grab a bite and a couple of drinks, and there is also a portable toilet facility. Gjipe is almost hidden in a little cove on the Albanian riviera There's a short hike to get down to Gjipe, and the views along the way only gets better! The waves of the Ionian Sea are some of the craziest we've seen! Soaking in the last few rays of the sun before it sets Morning swim views. Also, this was our first pebble-stone beach ❤ We spontaneously decided to camp overnight at Gjipe! Moonlight by the beach, whilst listening to the sounds of the gushing waves. The experience was truly magical. ❤ Day 6 - Drive to Shkoder along the Llogara Pass We woke up to some of the best views you can imagine in our camping tents at Gjipe beach. We had a little morning swim and by mid-day we left Gjipe to drive to the north of Albania - ALSO the last leg of our trip! It was a long drive of about 290 kilometers to a city called Shkoder, and it took us about 5 hours. But the views along the way, especially at Llogara Pass, were just breathtaking! Shkoder is the gateway point to travel around the north of the country, especially the Albanian Alps, as well as a convenient stopover for people traveling to Montenegro. As a city, Shkoder felt a little chaotic in terms of crowded streets, road traffic, and undisciplined driving. You will find many people commuting on bicycles, which is nice, but they get into the car lanes which can get a little frustrating if you're driving. Finding a parking spot in the city is a lot more difficult than it is in Tirana, so you might want to be prepared for that as well :) If you've got more time on your hands, there are sights that you can explore around Shkoder, such as the Rozafa Castle overlooking Lake Shkoder. But we decided to give it a miss and just relax that evening to take it easy before our big hike in the coming days. Where we stayed in Shkoder? We stayed at Oda Aparthotel, and we really liked its clean and simple aesthetic. The host, Naira, is very friendly as well and helped us with a lot of recommendations within the city. COST - Restaurant recommendations in Shkoder Since we were in Shkoder only for the night, we just dined at Bar Restaurant Elita, which was walking distance from our hotel. We ordered their vegetarian risotto, tomato spaghetti and baked potatoes. The food is good and the restaurant itself has a nice, modern vibe. Day 7 - Ferry Ride along Lake Koman to Fierze >> Stay overnight in Valbone We were to spend the next two days in the Albanian Alps, so we left our rental car parked beside our hotel in Shkoder. The host said that the car would be absolutely fine (and so it was!) and that there are no parking tickets charged in the city. NOTE - We only carried the necessary items for the next two days in our backpacks (hiking gear + passports + other essentials)and left the rest of our luggage in our car, because you will have to hike with all your stuff from Valbone to Theth. You could even choose to leave behind the main luggage at your hotel reception in Shkoder in case you do not have a rental car. Our hotel host got us in touch with a representative of Berisha-Komani Lake Explore via WhatsApp (+355 69 680 0748) to arrange for our ferry ride along Lake Koman. The ferry ride is an EPIC experience! Literally two-hours of magnificent views of silver mountains soaring out of a gorgeous blue green lake. It reminded us of our island-hopping trips in South East Asia! The cool winds were also a peaceful respite from the hot weather in the south. Magnificent views of Lake Koman on the ferry to Fierze The entire trip cost us a mere €16 per person for the following : - Minivan pick-up from our hotel in Shkoder at 7 am - 1.5 hour ride to the ferry station at Lake Koman - 2 hour ferry ride along Lake Koman to Fierze - Minivan transport from Fierze to Valbone (drop-off to your doorstep in Valbone) Where we stayed in Valbone We HIGHLY recommend Vila Dini - one of our best hotel experiences ever! The location is a 10/10 (the pictures below speak for itself!) Everything about the hotel, from the epic balcony views, to the spacious rooms and humble service, was the highlight of our time in Valbone. COST - A spacious double-bed suite room on the top floor with the best balcony view cost us only €45 for the night, inclusive of a breakfast buffet. A similar experience in the Swiss Alps or Austria would cost you 10 times the price or even more! Vila Dini, in all its glory, tucked under the Albanian mountain ranges. We cannot recommend this place enough! ❤ Restaurant recommendations in Valbone We actually didn't have to step out of Vila Dini as it had its own little restaurant on the ground floor terrace. Overlooking the valley, these are some of the best views you can get while devouring a meal. We enjoyed the lentil soup, vegetarian risotto, and the spaghetti pomodoro. Lunch views at Vila Dini. Some warm soup and linguini makes the most comforting meal in the cool breeze atop the mountains. Day 8 - Hike from Valbone to Theth National Park Here comes the big day - the most enchanting hike from Valbone to Theth National Park! We checked out of our hotel in Valbone right after breakfast to start the hike at 8 am. The host at your guesthouse in Valbone can help arrange for a drop-off to the starting point of the hike. A 14 km stretch through the Albanian Alps, this hike is absolutely breathtaking! We were amazed at the sheer beauty of those snow-capped peaks, winter vegetation, and the sweet sounds of nature - a much needed respite from our busy lives. ❤ The hike is not too difficult as long as you have a minimum level of fitness. The trails are also well marked with red+white paint on tree barks/rock surfaces after every few meters, so you don't really need a guide on this hike. You should be able to arrive at Theth in around 7 hours but we took a little longer as we stopped a couple of times on the way to take pictures and some epic drone shots. We also met two wonderful travelers from Portugal who were such great company on this long hike, and we didn't realize how time passed. Note that upon reaching Theth, you will have to walk all the way to your accommodation, so it will be nice to factor in that distance as well. Hiking trails in Valbone National Park Stopping mid-way to soak in the majestic views of the Albanian Alps All smiles on this beautiful hike :) Is this even real? The Accursed Mountains of Albania are enchanting, to say the least! One of the highlights of Theth is the Instagram-famous cute, little church against the mountain backdrop - definitely a rewarding sight after a long, tiring day. We had the pleasure of meeting Carla & Lili, two wonderful Portuguese travelers, on our hike. Where we stayed in Theth We stayed at Bujtina Tirani Theth which is right next to the famous Theth church. We had booked this place at the very last minute when most accommodations in Theth were already sold out. The rooms are neat and clean, and the hosts are really kind. Although we would still recommend choosing another guesthouse that serves lunch and dinner, because there are only a few handful of restaurants in Theth and these might not even be in the vicinity of your accommodation. Also there aren't any taxis here, so you will have to rely on walking yourself. COST - A double-bed room with a shared bathroom cost us around €30 per night, inclusive of breakfast. Restaurant recommendations in Theth There are only a few restaurants in Theth, and most people dine at their own guesthouses, so make sure to choose one that serves food. Ours unfortunately didn't, so we ended up dining at Bar Jezerka. We did not have the most pleasant experience here in terms of both, service and quality of food. But it was the only option we had in our vicinity. Day 9 - Return to Shkoder >> Drive to Kruje The host at our guesthouse in Theth arranged for a jeep and driver to drop us to Shkoder early after breakfast. (Your host can help arrange for this the night before.) We paid €10 per person for a 2.5 hours long ride. Leaving early in the morning was a good decision as we reached Shkoder before mid-day. This gave us ample time to pick up our car and have lunch before driving off to our next destination - Kruje - which is just 80 kilometers from Shkoder, about 1.5 hours by road. We absolutely LOVED Kruje! This charming medieval village boasts a rich historical significance. It was once the ancient capital of Albania, and the birthplace of Skanderbeg, the country's national hero. The town sits at the foot of Mt Kruje, overlooking the beautiful peaks and green valleys stretching all the way to the Adriatic coast. Kruje was very surprisingly not touristy, and is still quite authentic compared to the other historical towns across the country. Our favourite part was the Bazaar, where the locals sell vintage artefacts and traditional crafts on either sides of a narrow, cobbled street leading all the way up to the Castle of Skanderbeg, and a museum dedicated to him. Peaceful sunset views from our hotel in Kruje The Bazaars of Kruje At the Castle of Kruje, which once belonged to Skanderbeg - the historical national hero of Albania Where we stayed in Kruje We highly recommend staying at Hotel Panorama. The rooms and service are amazing, plus their balconies have got the most picturesque aerial views of Kruje. The thing we liked the most was the open-to-sky restaurant on the top-most floor, where you can enjoy a traditional meal with a stunning sunset view in the evenings. COST - A large double-bed room with a private modern bathroom and balcony, cost us €36 for the night, inclusive of a breakfast buffet. Restaurant recommendation in Kruje We had a lovely lunch at Bar Restorant Eli, situated at the end of the Bazaar, right before you enter the Castle. We had their grilled vegetables, Japrak (stuffed vine leaves), and traditional spinach Byrek. We also enjoyed dinner at the open-to-sky restaurant on the top-most floor of Hotel Panorama (where we stayed). The food was great, and the prices were extremely reasonable. We had the Spaghetti Aglio-e-Olio, Tagliatelle with Tomato, and traditional Japrak (stuffed vine leaves). Day 10 - Drive back to Tirana & Explore Lake Boville The following day, we checked out of our hotel in Kruje to head back to where it all started from - Tirana! Tirana is just an hour's drive from Kruje, and on the way we decided to take a little detour to Lake Boville. We literally stumbled upon Lake Boville when playing with the Google Street Views feature on the Albanian map during our trip research! The images of a dense green island plopped in the middle of a sea-green lake looked SO stunning and we were determined to find this place in real. Simply search for 'Bovilla Restorant' on Google Maps which is the closest navigable coordinates to the lake's view point. There is a small fee of 100 Lek per person if you want to do a short climb to a hill-top for the best views. *A little disclaimer though* - the roads to this location are some of the roughest, and do expect a lot of hairpin bends. But in all honesty, the final views made it worth all the effort! Overlooking beautiful Lake Boville after navigating through some crazy roads to get here. But the spectacular views makes it all worth it! Where we stayed in Tirana? After our little adventure in Lake Boville, we drove back to Tirana and stayed at Urban Rooms, the same hotel as Day-1 of our trip. It is perfectly located close to the main city sights yet nestled away from the noise and bustle. The rooms are spacious, and very tastefully designed with contemporary elements. The owner Armand, an architect, designed the property himself! He is a wonderful person to chat with and will also help give useful recommendations on things to see and places to dine at. COST - A double-bed room with a private bathroom cost us about €35 per night. Super worth it during peak season considering the quality of our stay and its prime location! Day 11 - Return the rental car, Fly back home This was our last day in Albania :( After checking-out of our hotel in Tirana, we had a couple of hours to run errands before catching our flight in the evening. We had our last 'brunch' in the country, re-fueled our rental car, gave it a little wash at a local garage, and finally returned it to the rental company. We then took a taxi to the airport, which is also where we did our RT-PCR tests for COVID-19. YES! Tirana Airport has its own testing facility where you can get your results within 90 minutes. It is advised to reach at least four hours prior to your flight departure time. The test costs €35 per person*, which is also one of the cheapest and quickest you can find in all of Albania. *(Please note that this article is dated August 2021 and this information is subject to change with time) And THAT'S A WRAP to an unforgettable road trip in beautiful Albania! We hope this itinerary has been informative and useful. And in case you have any questions on details we may have missed out, PLEASE drop us a comment under this article and we will see you there :) Also, do FOLLOW US on our Instagram page @roads.we.take for our video highlights of our Albania trip! 😊
Our TOP-6 BASIC GEAR for Beginner Hikers!
Our recent hikes in Kyrgyzstan and the north of Albania taught us a lot about hiking gear and backpacking essentials! Prior to this, we had NO idea about the 'do's and don'ts' and the 'must-haves' of a hike. And if you feel overwhelmed by all the technical terms and endless options of gear available in the market, (just like we were in the past!), here's a list of all our gear that we purchased, tested, and HIGHLY recommend! 😁 It took us weeks of research and trials, but after hiking some of the most challenging terrains, we must say we've been extremely pleased with our purchases. Some of them might seem a little expensive at first, but these are definitely long-term investments , and they've completely elevated our hiking experience. :) So let's just dive straight into the list! 1. Hiking Boots Overlooking Lake Kol Kogur, Kyrgyzstan in our 'Columbia Peakfreak OutDry Hiking Boots' It is so important to invest in the right kind of hiking footwear as it can make or break your hiking experience! There is a massive array of choices available - trail runners, hiking shoes, and hiking boots. After weeks of research and hiking through some of the toughest terrains, we think that a pair of HIKING BOOTS protects you the most. Apart from being sturdier and more versatile, boots protect you from ankle twists and injuries by locking them in place, and give you that extra support and traction on uneven ground. We both wear Columbia's Peakfreak™ X2 Mid OutDry™ boots (links below). Columbia's OutDry™ is basically a waterproof, breathable technology. Many shoes claim that they are waterproof, but it is important to ensure that they are breathable as well, because the waterproof construction can be heavy, and your feet need circulation for the moisture and sweat to evaporate. Columbia's Outdry™ shoes are super easy to break into, and did not give Senora a single shoe bite (which is amazing, considering she always manages to get them in almost any new footwear she wears!). NOTE: We crossed rivers, and even walked in mild snow about 3 inches thick, in these boots combined with something called 'gaiters' (see point 3 below in this article) and they're still in perfect condition! But if you're going to hike in heavy snow, then you would have to look for winter hiking boots which are specially insulated and come with non-slip soles for walking on ice. Arjun's Hiking Boots: Men's Peakfreak™ X2 Mid OutDry™ Boot Senora's Hiking Boots: Women's Peakfreak™ X2 Mid OutDry™ Boot Another amazing feature of this shoe, is that it has NO LEATHER (not even in the soles), which makes it an animal-friendly choice! :) PRO TIP: It is recommended to purchase a hiking boot of a size bigger than your actual feet size. This is to give room to the thick hiking socks. And do note that on hikes, your feet often tend to swell, so you definitely want to make some room for that. :) 2. Hiking Socks Oh, how I underestimated the importance of these! These socks have been a saviour, especially on downhill journeys when your feet chafe against the front of your shoes (and that can be quite painful!) A good pair of hiking socks provides a cushion/padding at the pressure points of your feet. They might seem a little pricey initially, but it's the best thing you can do for your feet. We wear the Quechua ones (link below), which are double-layered socks but are super breathable and soft! These are also made of spandex, and NOT merino wool unlike most other hiking socks, so this makes it a very animal-friendly choice! :) Arjun's and Senora's : Decathlon - Quechua MH500 3. Gaiters Pike Trail Leg Gaiters - These are a MUST in rains/snow, no matter how waterproof your footwear is. We initially had no idea what these were! Gaiters are simply a protective covering of a waterproof cloth for the lower leg and ankle, to prevent any rain or snow from getting into your boots. And no matter how waterproof your shoe is, there is always a possibility of water entering from the hole where you insert your leg into the shoe, and gaiters are A MUST to fully cover this opening! Gaiters that we recommend: Pike Trail Leg Gaiters 4. Backpacks We have borrowed backpacks from our friends in the past, so we have literally tested a range of brands and types. In a nutshell, a good backpack is one that helps to redistribute all of the bag's weight from your shoulders to your hip - which is why backpacks come with a waist strap (also known as a hip belt) to help you do exactly that. There are backpacks of different sizes, usually measured in liters. For example, the simple day packs like the one in the picture below measures 20 liters (20L). For longer or overnight hikes, you would need at least a 40L backpack. But if like us, you need to carry filming gear such as a camera, tripod, drone etc. then a 50L backpack would be the minimum requirement. Also, please ensure that your backpack comes with an attached rain-cover, although this built-in feature is mostly available only in the larger backpacks (30L and above). In case your existing backpack does not come with an attached rain-cover, you can still purchase separate rain covers for different backpack sizes. We usually fold in the 20L daypack inside our 55L backpack, and take out the daypacks as and when needed. Overlooking beautiful Ala Archa National Park in Kyrgyzstan, with our Quechua 20L Daypacks Daypacks (20 liters) -
Arjun's and Senora's : Decathlon - Quechua NH100, Hiking 20 L Backpack Our main backpack that we always travel with - Columbia Trail Elite 55L.
The ergonomics, soft padding of the waist strap, and insanely amazing compartmentalization makes it worth every penny! Main Backpack (55 liters)- Arjun's : Columbia Trail Elite 55L Backpack Black Senora's : I am still on the lookout for the perfect bag for my size, and will immediately update this space when I have found the one! Packing cubes (A MUST) - Amazon Basics 4 Piece Packing Travel Organizer Cubes Set Even if you don't use backpacks, these packing cubes are such great organizers also for your trolley luggage bags! This is what we carry in our daypacks during our hikes: OUR DAYPACK CONTENTS! Arjun's Daypack (His is more like the 'ELECTRONICS' BAG!) Gimball+Tripod+Microphone Drone An organizer/pouch carrying a power bank, chargers, and miscellaneous electronic cables Senora's Daypack (Hers is more like the 'EMERGENCY BAG'!) Wallet Headlamp + Whistle (for emergencies or camping) Sunglasses or any protective eyewear Passports (covered in plastic cling-wrap to save it from any possible water damage!) Sanitary pads (I feel you, ladies!) Wet Wipes + Hand Sanitizer + Spray Sanitizer Snacks (dates, nuts, energy bars, fresh fruit) Water bottles First Aid supplies
- Voltaren (a gel for relieving muscle cramps or sudden pulls)
- BandAids (for cuts)
- Medicines (for diarrhea, you never know!)
- Lubricating eye drops 5. Raincoat/Poncho The weather, especially when hiking in higher altitudes, can be so unpredictable. It had rained quite a few times during our hikes, but we were able to keep ourselves and our backpacks dry, thanks to our hooded rain ponchos! Our backpacks do come with a rain-cover, but water can still seep in from the space between your back and the bag. A large poncho can fit over you and the backpack, so it gives the extra coverage to keep all the contents in it from getting wet. We had purchased a pair of disposable ponchos on Amazon, but we now realize the importance of having one good, permanent pair! Rain poncho that we recommend: Anyoo Waterproof Rain Poncho Lightweight Reusable Hooded Rain Coat 6. Winter Gear This point is especially applicable for those who are completely NEW to winter weather. Arjun and I, both hail from the tropics, and after living in the Middle East, we had to ensure that we had the right gear to get acclimatized to cold winters on our trips. Each person has their own tolerance to temperatures, but the key to feeling warm and comfortable in extreme cold is LAYERING! The first layer to begin with are the base thermals that you wear just outside your inner garments, before you even wear your outer clothes. We absolutely love Columbia's Heavyweight Stretch Thermals range (link below) : Arjun's Thermal Shirt: Men's Heavyweight Stretch Long Sleeve Base Layer Shirt Arjun's Thermal Tights: Men's Heavyweight II Stretch Base Layer Tights Senora's Thermal Shirt: Women's Heavyweight Stretch Long Sleeve Top Senora's Thermal Tights: Women's Heavyweight II Base Layer Tights Senora wearing her Columbia Powder Lite Insulated Jacket - super light, well-insulated, and easy to roll and pack! After the base thermals, you can wear your regular jumper and trousers, and then comes the main winter jacket/coat. There is a HUGE variety of jacket technologies available in the market which can overwhelming. Our priority was warmth, and that it should be easily foldable, lightweight, and occupy the least space in our backpacks. We also wanted to avoid the 'Down' jackets which basically uses duck feathers. The Powder Lite Insulated jackets by Columbia perfectly fit all our needs, along with being animal-friendly since it uses a synthetic insulation. Synthetic insulations are not only less expensive than down, but they are very water-resistant and continue to insulate even when wet! Arjun's Jacket: Columbia Men's Powder Lite™ Insulated Jacket Senora's Jacket: Columbia Women's Powder Lite™ Hooded Jacket Arjun's Beanie: Columbia Bugaboo™ Beanie Sometimes, if it isn't too cold you can skip the winter coat/jacket and instead wear a windbreaker, which is a lighter version of the jacket but is designed to resist wind chill and light rain. We haven't yet purchased one but might consider in the future. For now, our Powder Lites work just perfectly fine! And THAT'S IT, folks! A very simplified guide that we hope helps you with your next big hike. Remember that it is a lot better to invest in high quality gear in the very beginning as it makes a huge difference to the quality of your hiking experience, and will hopefully last a long, long time! :)
The PERFECT 1-Week Itinerary & Travel Guide to Kyrgyzstan!
In this day and age of the internet, where almost every place has been documented or photographed, it is the most wonderful feeling to stumble upon places that you probably had no idea even existed! When we'd decided to travel to Kyrgyzstan, little did we know that it would turn out to be THE TRIP of our lifetime! This little country, which was once part of the Soviet Union, went above and beyond our expectations, and just blew our minds! From unending mountains and glaciers, to lush green fields and canyons, the country boasts a multitude of picture-perfect landscapes and never ceases to surprise you. Moreover, this happened to be our first international travel during the pandemic, as well as our first trip post our wedding! So Kyrgyzstan, and the beautiful friends we made along our journey, will always hold a special place in our hearts. ❤ We were in the country for 9 DAYS (this is a one-week itinerary, but we took extra two days for relaxation) and here are our TRIP HIGHLIGHTS >> 2 Days in Bishkek
Day trips to Ala Archa National Park and Lake Kol Kogur 4 Days in Altyn Arashan
Drove along the southern shore of Issyk Kul Lake >> Skazka Canyon >> Karakol
Stayed in a 'YURT' for 3 nights in Altyn Arashan >> Hiked to Lake Ala Kul 1 Day in Issyk Kul
Drove along the north shore of Issyk Kul Lake >> Tyup >> Cholpon Ata >> Back to Bishkek 2 Days in Bishkek
If you are short of time you could go directly to the airport but we chose to relax and explore the city for 2 days NOTE: In a week, we only covered a very little area of Kyrgyzstan. But if you have more days in hand, it is worth visiting Sary Chalek, Kel Suu, and areas around the Naryn River! We have been told by the locals that these places are incredibly beautiful albeit the drive to these areas is quite long (but again, WORTH IT) ! If you're in a hurry, you could skip the Q&A below and head straight to our detailed itinerary underneath. Why Kyrgyzstan? Kyrgyzstan has some of the most breathtaking locations, with many of them pristine and untouched. In fact, during many occasions, Arjun and I found ourselves in the middle of a surreal landscape, with not a soul around. ❤ From mountains and lakes, to flower fields and canyons, road trips through Kyrgyzstan is a sensory feast with views changing every few kilometers. Yes! We experienced a different landscape almost every single day of our trip! Kyrgyzstan also has some of the most challenging mountain trails we've come across, and is great for hikers and adrenaline junkies. To top it all, traveling in and around the country is very affordable as well. Moreover, considering the pandemic, Kyrgyzstan at the time, seemed like a relatively safer option compared to some other countries that had opened their doors to tourists. When is the best time to visit Kyrgyzstan? Kyrgyzstan experiences all four seasons and is very beautiful to visit all year round. However, based on our experience we would highly recommend traveling during the summer months from June-August, or even up until early-October. Summer is the ideal time to explore the mountain regions and hiking trails, and the temperature is just perfect (with the possibility of snow in 'Ala Kul' region in early-June and other extreme mountain caps where it snows all year through). How many days do you need in Kyrgyzstan? There is never enough time to fully explore a country. However, we recommend AT LEAST a week to immerse into the Kyrgyz culture and fully experience some of the major sights. BUT most importantly, if your itinerary like ours is filled with hikes, then we highly recommend providing 'off-days' in between to just relax and prep your body for the remainder of the trip. On these off-days we would spend time with our guides or the local family that was hosting us at the mountain tops. We are huge believers in slow and intentional travel. :) Visas & Flights *Please note that this article was written in June 2021, and visa rules are subject to change* This official Kyrgyzstan website link has a tool to check for visa eligibility and requirements for holders of passports of different countries. As Indian passport holders, we had to apply for an e-visa on the country's official visa portal - https://www.evisa.e-gov.kg. In the past, there used to be an option of visa-on-arrival, but for now an e-visa is the only way to go. While applying for the e-visa, you will be asked for : Scanned copies of your passport Digital copy of your passport photograph (A scanned image won't work. You might even get rejected for poor photo quality!) Valid email address Credit card details for payment Visa Cost: A single entry tourist visa for 30 days costs 51.5 US$ Visa processing time: It took us about 10-11 working days for our e-visa. Flight views somewhere above Kyrgyzstan :) We traveled via FlyDubai Airlines that has direct flights between Dubai to Bishkek (Manas International Airport). We recommend running a quick search on Skyscanner to check for flight routes and rates based on your location. The airport is around 40 minutes from Bishkek by road. Do I need an RT-PCR test for COVID -19 in Kyrgyzstan? Where can I get tested in Kyrgyzstan? *Please note that this article was written in June 2021, and rules related to COVID-19 protocol are subject to change* A negative COVID-19 (PCR) test is required to be taken within 72 hours before your arrival in Kyrgyzstan. While exiting the country, we got our RT-PCR test done in Bishkek at The Department for Disease Prevention and State Sanitary and Epidemiological Surveillance. Address: Bishkek city, Frunze Str. 535
Telephone: (0312) 323212, (0312) 323006 The test costs around 1574 KGS (approx. 18.59 US$) per person, and we got our results within 6 hours! Can I travel around the place with my kids? Most of the scenic sights in Kyrgyzstan are a couple of hours' drive from the capital city. They are mostly mountains, and the hikes here require a minimum level of physical fitness as the trails can be quite tough and physically demanding. With a heavy heart, we would probably not recommend Kyrgyzstan if you are traveling with infants and children up to the age of 11, and would ask you to wait a couple more years so that you and your family can fully enjoy the country. 😊 Getting Around in Kyrgyzstan Bishkek is a very pedestrian-friendly city and so moving around by yourself is quite easy with the assistance of Google Maps. You can easily walk around and explore. We never took any cabs (yes, we walk A LOT), but you can still book for one on an app called 'Yandex Go' which is the Kyrgyz version of Uber. Bear in mind that English is not widely spoken and most signages are in the local Kyrgyz or Russian languages. A pro-tip would be to download Google Translate on your phone - coolest invention ever! However, most of the activities and sight-seeing is outside of Bishkek, where driving on your own can be quite challenging with not too many directions or signages on the roads. Moreover, the mountain hikes do not have designated trails or paths, and often these areas do not have good network coverage so being on your own in the wilderness without an experienced guide would not be the safest idea. We highly recommend reaching out to some local guides that are experienced hikers. You can opt for private or group tours but we always prefer private ones (safer in a pandemic, and moreover, you get to enjoy the place all to yourself without making the place seem 'touristy'!) We HIGHLY recommend 'Kettik' for its tours and guides! We first contacted them on their Instagram page and they later reached out to us with their details and quotes via WhatsApp. The guides at Kettik are young, friendly, and very responsible. In fact, we made so many memories with them and ended up being great friends! Our special mountain van that would go on the most rugged of terrains! SIM Cards: You could get a SIM card at the airport or from any of the 'Globus' chain of stores in Bishkek. 'Beeline' and 'O!' are the two most popular network providers, and they are extremely affordable as well! Budgeting for the trip The currency in Kyrgyzstan is called the Kyrgyz Som (KGS). The money exchange centers in Dubai did not have any Kyrgyz currency, so we carried US Dollars with us and converted it to Som at a local exchange centre in Bishkek. 1 US$ = 84.65 KGS (dated June 2021) Food, accommodations, and getting around in general, is very affordable. Hotel accommodations in the capital start at around 50 US$ per room per night inclusive of breakfast, but you could even find cheaper options such as hostels and boarding lodges. In the countryside, the rates are much lower depending on the kind of accommodation. (Guesthouses and yurts are relatively much cheaper than hotels). As for food, you can have a complete meal for just 2 US$, but it could be twice (yet still affordable) in more fancier restaurants in the capital city. A driver with a vehicle and an English-speaking guide, starts at around 100 US$ for two people for an entire day-trip. However, we we were traveling with 'Kettik' and they have options of complete packages where they provide for day trips, food as well as all accommodations at different price points. Accommodations in Kyrgyzstan Throughout our week-long trip, we stayed at 4 different locations. These were recommended and arranged for us by Kettik. > 2 Days in Bishkek (Bugu Hotel - highly recommend for its spacious, clean rooms, excellent location, and value for money!) > 4 Days in Altyn Arashan (a 'yurt' offered by EcoYurt Camp Arashan and Guesthouse 'Gulnara') > 1 Day in Issyk Kul (a local resort which we would not recommend because of our poor experience) > 2 Days in Bishkek (back to Bugu Hotel) Staying in the traditional 'Yurt' at Altyn Arashan, far away from civilization, was the BEST experience of Kyrgyzstan! Food in Kyrgyzstan While Arjun is a complete vegan, and I am almost-vegan, we initially expected that finding good food would be a challenge in a predominantly meat-eating country. However, we were able to find some great options throughout our stay! And since it was summer, we feasted on some of the tastiest strawberries, cherries, and apricots we've ever had! The country is also famous for its assortment of nuts, so we were always snacking on those. National Dishes to try: Ashlyan Fu (a cold broth/soup with handmade wheat noodles. We had ours without eggs/meat
Fun fact: This dish is popular among the locals for curing hangovers! Lagman (a tangy noodle dish, usually served with meat but you can ask the restaurant to eliminate it) Naan (Local bread sold at various street corners. The Kyrgyz love their naan with fresh berry jams!) The traditional Ashlyan Fu soup served with a spicy paste Russian dishes to try: Bulgur (a brown-grain that is eaten in place of rice, often flavored in broth) Borscht soup (a cold beet-soup with potatoes and other boiled vegetables) Pulof (flavored rice, although we asked ours to be made in a vegetarian broth) Mashed potatoes The Kyrgyz love to have their hot tea with fresh bread and jam spreads at any time of the day. Here is a delicious home-cooked meal of Plov (flavoured rice) and warm noodle soup, prepared by our family host in Altyn Arashan. Restaurant recommendations in Bishkek (capital city): Bublik Avocado Baan Baan Thai Kitchen Yellow Split Pea with Bulgur was a hit at BUBLIK! The Tom Yum Tofu Soup at Baan Baan Thai is a MUST! Packing for Kyrgyzstan This would totally depend on the season you are traveling in. But an important note is that temperatures in Bishkek are generally higher than the temperatures up in the mountains. Since we travelled during early-June, we wore our winter jackets in the mountains of Ala Archa and Altyn Arashan, where it was quite windy and the temperatures would even reach single-digit celsius. We are currently working on an article explaining our hiking gear and backpack contents, and it should be out very soon! And now finally, a Day-by-Day breakdown of our trip! Day 1 - Arrive in Bishkek, Hike at Ala Archa National Park We arrived early morning at the Manas International Airport in Bishkek, and were welcomed by our guide and friend, Azim, who also drove us around for the entire duration of our trip. After a very scenic 40-minutes drive to the city centre, we checked into Bugu Hotel to freshen up after the long journey, and fuel ourselves with some breakfast. We highly recommend Bugu for its clean and spacious rooms, excellent location, and complete value for money. By mid-day, we were well rested, got our currency exchanged at a local store nearby, and set off to Ala Archa National Park. Situated 40km to the south of Bishkek, Ala Archa ('Archa' actually means juniper tree) is straight out of a fairytale book! We were spellbound by the vast expanse of mountains, unending rows of juniper trees, melting glaciers, and such crisp, clean air. ❤ The national park has several hiking tours. We took the one leading to Ak-Sai Waterfall at about +2860m above sea level. The hike was a total of 8km (up and down). We recommend dedicating an entire day to this park, plus this is a great warm-up to the upcoming hikes on your trip. Day 2 - Hike to Kol Kogur OR Hike to Kol Tor After an early breakfast, we started our road trip for the day to Kemin district, around 170 km from Bishkek. The drive is around 3 hours one-way, and is absolutely scenic, with passing views of lush green mountains and Kyrgyz nomads leading their herds of horses, sheep and goats. The hike is literally like a scene from a movie, and in many ways resembles landscapes from Switzerland! The hike is around 8km (up and down), but is totally worth the effort when you reach atop +2000m above sea level, to find beautiful Kol Kogur! ('Kol' is Kyrgyz means lake!) There was not a soul around while we were there. You can just lay on the grass staring into space all day, listening to the sounds of nature! We had a little picnic lunch by the lake, organized by our lovely guides who so kindly packed food for us before we started our road trip. Note that there is no restaurant or grocery even within kilometers' radius of this quaint, little place. OPTION 2 - We were initially supposed to hike to Kol Tor, which is much closer to Bishkek (around 80km only) than Kol Kogur. But we were told by our guides that early-June would not be the best time to visit Kol Tor. So it's best to check with your guide before you choose which lake to hike to! Day 3 - Visit the Gorgeous Canyons! We checked out of our hotel, and set off on a long 8-hour journey (approx. 430 km) to our much-awaited destination - Altyn Arashan! Our guide drove us along the southern shore of Lake Issyk Kul, the biggest lake in Kyrgyzstan and en- route, we visited the Skazka Canyon (also called Fairytale Canyon). Skazka is a world of its own, and the red-rock alien-like formations are a gorgeous change to the green mountains in the rest of the country. Skazka is just one of the many canyon formations across Kyrgyzstan. There are many other popular ones such as Konorchek, which also happens to very closely resemble the Grand Canyon! Can you spot Arjun? After spending about two hours at Skazka, we continued our road trip, and by nightfall, finally reached Karakol - the starting base to get to Altyn Arashan! Here, we changed vehicles and hopped onto a 4WD mountain van with special tires that enable it to go on extremely rugged mountain terrains. This was, and probably will be the craziest vehicle journey we've ever experienced! No roads, extremely rocky trails, pitch darkness, with just the shadows of the mighty mountains, and terrifying sounds of the gushing rivers. We were moving farther from civilization and getting deeper into the wilderness of the Alytn Arashan Gorge! ❤ We finally arrived at our destination, still pitch black around, and just guided by the starry night sky! We were greeted by our hosts (a local Kyrgyz woman and her two daughters) who manage the guesthouse 'Gulnara', and they showed us our way to our 'Yurt' - our humble place of stay for the next 3 nights! Day 4 - Stay in a Yurt in Altyn Arashan The previous day was a long journey from Bishkek, and the crazy ride from Karakol to Altyn Arashan got us all exhausted by the end of it! But waking up in our yurt the next morning to the views of Altyn Arashan was the most surreal experience we have ever had! We were transported back in time, far away from civilization - no network, bare minimum electricity, hardly any human souls. It was just Arjun and me, our guide and hosts, in the middle of acres and acres of endless green pastures dotted with beautiful animals grazing away to glory. ❤ Important Tips: There are no regular toilets, well...it's more like a pit situated at least about 20 meters from our yurt! It would be best to carry wet wipes with you - super convenient in situations like these. :) There are no electric lights in the yurt, so we used battery operated portable lights at night. We also had headbands with torchlights that were super useful when using the toilet at night. There are no electricity outlets in the yurt, so you will definitely need a portable charger for your electronic devices. Please make sure to carefully gather all your waste and dispose it at a bin in your host's house. The place is so pristine, and as responsible travelers it is so important to contribute to preserving this gem of a place. On this day, I (Senora) actually woke up with an upset stomach and nausea because of the sudden change in altitude and pressure. Our hosts were so kind and helped me with some home medication, frequently feeding me hot tea with organic wild honey. So it was a day of rest for us but I felt so much better.... and well, I guess it was also my body's way of telling me to slow down and just soak in all the nature and beauty around! Our makeshift toilet for four days at Altyn Arashan! Day 5 - Hike to Lake Ala Kul This was the most awaited day on our itinerary which turned out to be our most memorable one too! Even photographs do no justice to the magnitude and charm of this piece of heaven. ❤ To get to the base camp of Ala Kul, one needs to cross 14km of uneven terrain starting from our yurt at the Altyn Arashan gorge, and we did so with the help of horses. The entire journey was jaw-dropping, insanely stunning, and Arjun and I kept asking each other if we were living a dream. ❤ As we were going uphill, the temperature gradually dropped and views changed from green to white! Upon reaching the base camp, we did a few warm-up exercises to gear up for what would be the most physically difficult experience of our life. The climb to the Ala Kul viewpoint is over +3900m above sea level, while the lake is tucked lower at +3530m above sea level. It all started well, when unexpectedly we were met by heavy snowfall which did not stop for hours until later. The climb alone is quite challenging with the incline being really steep, and the snow-filled terrains made it very slippery. Our guides, Elgiz and Azim, were our saviors ensuring our safety at every step along the way. We finally reached the top, but the lake was quite frozen and views were misty. But we were so thrilled to finally complete our crazy trek! We climbed down the same route, and got to the point where our horses were waiting for us, and rode all 14km back to Altyn Arashan gorge. We were greeted by our loving hosts who served us some piping hot food next to a fireplace where we could warm ourselves. Post-dinner, we went to the nearby hot springs (which is a must-visit) after a hike like that - it is the perfect way to relax your sore muscles and just unwind. Enchanting views on the way to Ala Kul The views soon transitioned from green to white Thanking our horses for guiding us safely to Ala Kul :D Warming up before THE trek with Azim & Elgiz :D And soon we were met by a surprise snowfall ! The best views come after the hardest climb. Misty views of frozen Ala Kul Lake from above +3900m ASL Day 6 - Driving back and pit-stop at Lake Issyk Kul We woke up early morning to spend our last few hours in the yurt and with our hosts at Altyn Arashan. We all had lunch together and it was the most emotional goodbye. :( It was time to get back to Bishkek, but this time we drove along the northern shore of Issyk Kul Lake. The sceneries were so different from what we saw on our way to Karakol along the south shore. We drove past acres and acres of fields dotted by colorful flowers against the mountain backdrop. En-route, we had a pit-stop at Aurora Resort overlooking Lake Issyk Kul. This was a much needed break after our hike the previous day. The gardens and landscaping at Aurora are beautiful, but we would really not recommend it because of our poor experience with their disappointing rooms, unhygienic and poor service. :( Day 7 - Explore North Shore of Lake Issyk Kul The agenda for this day was to just...relax! After breakfast, we spent all morning relaxing by the waters of Issyk Kul, and explored the beautiful gardens in our resort. We checked-out later in the evening to finally head back to Bishkek. It took us about three hours by road, and the sunset views that evening were splendid! After reaching Bishkek, we had dinner and later checked into Bugu Hotel. Yes! We came back to the same place where we started. :) No, it's not a beach! It's the biggest lake in Kyrgyzstan - Issyk Kul! Days 8, 9 - Back in Bishkek to explore the city! The last two days of our trip were spent in Bishkek. We chose to take it easy and just explored around the city aimlessly by foot. Bishkek is very pedestrian-friendly and despite the summer heat, we were able to take respite in the numerous parks and shaded areas across the city. Bishkek is characterized by a number of historic and imposing Soviet concrete buildings, especially around the famous Ala Too Square. We also went to Osh Bazar, the central market area but we would recommend giving it a miss especially while traveling in a pandemic as it tends to get quite crowded. The best part about traveling is the food. Arjun and I went restaurant-hopping in search for good vegan/vegetarian food. Our recommendations in the city would be Bublik, Avocado, and Baan Baan Thai Cafe! You could also scroll to the 'Food' heading in this article above for specific food recommendations! Stumbling upon old Soviet structures during our stroll in the capital city With our guide and friend, Azim, at the airport. Happy Smiles. But very, very sad goodbyes. ❤ All in all, our trip to Kyrgyzstan will always be special. From the people we met and the scenic locations, to the insane adventures we had, this trip will always be one of our favourites. We hope this guide is useful and has answered all your questions. If there's anything more you would like to know, please drop us a comment below and we would love to help you out! ❤
Solo Backpacking Diaries in Chiang Mai - 4 Days Itinerary and Guide
Most people visit Thailand for its beaches and southern islands, not knowing that there is a plethora of things to experience in the mountainous and more cultural north. I did my first ever solo backpacking trip to Chiang Mai and it was the best decision ever! ❤️ I had no itinerary at the time. All I knew was that I had 4 days in the town before I head to the south. But when I began to explore the town, I was AMAZED at how much it had to offer. From scenic destinations and rich culture, to fantastic food, shopping, adventure........oh, I can go on! 💛 Chiang Mai has got something for everyone - from backpackers and honeymooners, to families traveling with little kids. WATCH THE VIDEO! Q+A Where is Chiang Mai? How do I get there? Chiang Mai is a city located in the northern mountainous regions of Thailand, some 700 km from Bangkok. In fact, it is a popular launching point for trips into other parts on the north, such as Chiang Rai, Pai etc. Also owing its geographical location, the temperatures are much cooler here than the rest of Thailand. Flights - There are multiple daily flights to Chiang Mai International Airport (CNX) from Bangkok (the capital city). The journey is only about 1.5 hours long and internal flight fares can be quite cheap. You can do a quick search for fares on Sky Scanner. Visas - For information on visas , you can visit the Kingdom of Thailand - Ministry of Affairs website for details pertaining to your nationality. When should I visit Chiang Mai? The ideal time to visit Chiang Mai would be between October and April. The temperatures in northern Thailand are way cooler than Bangkok or the southern islands, so that makes exploring around a lot more comfortable. However try to AVOID the monsoon months from June to October as it may hamper your travel plans especially when on a fixed itinerary. Chiang Mai is most known for its rich cultural heritage so it is also worth timing your visit to coincide with two of their major festivals! 😀 Loi Krathong and Yi Peng is a visually spectacular festival of colors and lights when people release thousands of Chinese lanterns and glowing paper balloons into the sky. This lasts about 3 days somewhere in mid- November (dates vary based on the lunar calendar). Songkran is the Thai New Year and water festival when people celebrate on the streets by throwing buckets of water on friends and strangers while dancing to music all day. This lasts for about 3 days again somewhere in mid-April. Where do I stay in Chiang Mai? We highly recommend staying within the main center, the Old City quarter, since most attractions are within minutes of walking distance from here. Chiang Mai has a wide range of accommodations in terms of budget and quality - from guesthouses and hostels, to star hotels and resorts. I stayed at the Hostel Lullaby which was also in the heart of old town. This is undoubtedly the BEST hostel I have ever stayed at! I HIGHLY recommend 👌👌 this if you are backpacker on a limited budget but are also looking for great quality. The hosting team is so warm and always willing to help you with arranging tours and activities during your travels. 💖 COST: I spent around 378 THB (approx. 12 US$) per night for a 6-bed mixed dorm! With my lovely hostel mates at Hostel Lullaby ❤️ How do I get around in Chiang Mai? Walking Around : The old quarter of Chiang Mai can be easily navigated by foot. And if you have the Google Maps app on your phone, then it can't get any easier. Taxis: You can also hop onto one of the 'song-thaews' (truck taxis) or grab a 'tuk-tuk' ! The 'tuk-tuk', I guarantee you, is going to be a fun ride 😉 You may also want to install this app called GRAB, which is basically Uber for South East Asia, but much cheaper and especially useful when traveling with families. Two-Wheelers: You can also rent scooters or mopeds for 200-250 THB per day(approx. 8-12 US$) to explore outside the town. But a word of caution though! Please wear a helmet at all times, and this goes even for the pillion rider. Driving around in South East Asia can be really daunting considering that people don't usually follow safe traffic rules. TRAVEL ITINERARY DAY 1 Get Lost in the Old Quarter! Set foot in the Old Quarter and simply EXPLORE! Chiang Mai serves as the 'cultural heart' of the country - it has a rich history and heritage which is still alive in its colourful labyrinth of streets. You can walk aimlessly along its narrow streets and stumble upon temples, boutiques, food stalls, as well as friendly locals who greet you with their pleasant smiles. 🙂 The street views at any point are so picturesque with all the city colors against the mountain ranges in the background. The temperature is also much cooler than Bangkok so you can explore for hours without getting too exhausted. Shop Till You Drop at the Night Market Chiang Mai has a daily night market which is fantastic! But if you are there on a Sunday, then you are in for a crazy shopping parade at the Sunday Night Market at the Rachadamnoen Road! 🤩During daylight, this place seems like any other street with cars whizzing past, but come sunset and you witness it transform into a crazy carnival in a matter of few minutes. 😃 With my hostel mates at the night market ❤️ DAY 2 Take a Thai Cooking Class Discover the secret master chef in you by attending a Thai cooking workshop. For a foodie and traveler like me, just the idea of meeting other travelers and bonding with them over authentic Thai food seemed INCREDIBLE ! I had taken the half-day class at 'Smile Organic Farm Cooking School' which cost about 800 Baht (approx. US$ 25) - which I think is a great deal considering you not only pay for the experience, but also cover your lunch cost for the day. I have also written an entire article on my experience right here. 👈🏽 DAY 3 Trek at the Doi Inthanon National Park Doi Inthanon is actually the highest mountain of Thailand. The views at this national park are as epic as can be with its lush geography, tropical rain forests, mighty waterfalls and stunning mountainscape. 💚 You can book a full day trip with any tour company (always a good idea to check for their reviews on Trip Advisor). It was a pretty comfortable and not-too-exhausting hike as we covered the very steep parts of the trek in a van, so I would even recommend this activity to families with little kids. There's a little feast to the eyes when you reach the highest point - two magnificent 'pagodas' or temples soaring high in the misty, cold air. 🙏🏽 TIP: Wear a pair of sneakers or good quality covered shoes for the hike. Also carry a shrug or pull-over as it can get quite chilly up in the mountain. COST: A full day trip costs about 1800 THB (approx. 55 US$) and includes pick-up/drop-off, van journey, drinking water and traditional Thai lunch. Stunning views captured during the trek to Doi Inthanon ❤️ Get a Thai Massage After that hike at Doi-Inthanon, it was time for some good ol' traditional Thai massage - hands down one of the best things about Thailand! 💆 What's even better is how pocket-friendly these massages are! A word of caution though - Stay out of the shady areas and questionable massage parlors to avoid any awkward encounters with a service you do not want. 🙈 COST: You could get a foot massage for as cheap as 100THB for 30 minutes (approx. 3 US$) and a full-body massage for 250-300THB an hour (approx 9 US$) at a simple, hygienic parlor by the street. The same at a hotel or luxury spa would probably cost you double or more. TIP: We recommend giving a generous tip to your masseuse. They would really appreciate the gesture, and much deserve it. 🙂 DAY 4 Zip-line and Abseil through the Jungles of Chiang Mai If adventure is your thing, then THIS IS IT! 🙌🏽 I went with the Eagle Track Zip-line tour company that conducts these activities in the jungles of Tumbol Maeram, less than an hour's drive from the city center. Their team was amazingly warm and funny, and ensured our safety throughout the adventure. They were also really sweet to handle my camera and captured some very good pictures while I was in motion! 😄 COST: I chose their Early Bird Package that cost about 1900 THB (approx. 58 US$) and includes pick-up/drop-off, van journey, drinking water and traditional Thai lunch. Feed, Play and Bathe Elephants Arjun and I are natives of South India, so we consider ourselves lucky to have interacted with many elephants in the past. 🐘 So on my solo trip I decided to give this activity a miss. However, this is still an incredible opportunity for animal lovers to get up-close with these beautiful creatures and spend a day caring for them. ❤️ Well, our only advise is to NOT visit any camp that allows you to ride these animals (it can harm their weak backs). Instead visit one of the sanctuaries or retirement camps where you will find rescued elephants. 🙂 We recommend visiting the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary which is an ethical and sustainable tourism project by some Chiang Mai locals and the Karen-hill tribes. Their costs and packages are well detailed on their website.
Thai Cooking Class - Unforgettable experience!
My solo backpacking trip to Chiang Mai is probably one of the most wonderful experience I have ever had. ❤️But if I were to single out a favorite memory from this trip, then it would be the time I attended a Thai cooking workshop at this local organic farm. 👩🍳 For a foodie like me, this was just SO INCREDIBLE! Imagine picking fresh ingredients from the farm, whipping up some warm, aromatic Pad Thai, and devouring your own-cooked meal while bonding with fellow travelers - sounds like THE perfect afternoon to me 😉 Chiang Mai has dozens of cooking schools, but based on the recommendations of a hostel mate I chose the Smile Organic Farm Cooking School. I was intrigued by the idea of cooking in a farm on the outskirts as opposed to a regular school within the city. With our adorable instructor - Chef Lay - and her students! ❤️ Course and Costs : The school offers three courses - Half Day, Full Day, and an Evening Course. All the details are listed on their website. They also accommodate options for vegans, which is great! I did the Half Day course that lasted 5 hours (from 9 am to about 2 pm) and cost around 800 Thai Baht (approx. 25 US$). It includes everything from pick-up and drop-off services, to cooking ingredients and drinking water. You also get a free recipe book at the end of the course as a souvenir! 🙂 D-Day Events: The farm is about an hour ride from Chiang Mai Old Square (city center) where most tourists stay. I was greeted by our adorable instructor, Chef Lay, in a pick-up van along with a few other travelers who were as excited as me about the experience. Driving through the outskirts of town was an experience itself. We got some gorgeous views of the mountains and Chiang Mai jungles! It also gave us good time to bond with the other travelers, something that I always look forward to while traveling ❤️ Farmers' Market: Our first stop was the local farmers’ market which gave us an insight into the local Thai lifestyle in terms of the groceries they shop for and the food they eat. Here they sell everything from fresh produce, meat, poultry to authentic ingredients like spices, sauces, pastes etc. used in Thai cooking. We also stocked up on some noodles and sauces that were required for the dishes we were going to make. The excitement at this point was at its peak. 😃 And, finally we reached the farm! At this point we were all pumped up! 💪 Each of us were handed our own cooking station with a gas stove and the necessary tools. We were handed these little menu booklets to choose the dishes we wanted to make. Here's what I chose - Appetizer - Spring Roll Appetizer - Pad Thai (one of Arjun's and my all-time favorites!) Soup - Tom Yum Goong Mains - Thai Green Curry with Rice (Students on the Full Day course also got to make their own desserts!) We then went on to pick our ingredients from the farm with Chef Lay. It was an informative session where we were introduced to traditional herbs, shrubs and leaves unique to Thailand. From ‘Galangal Ginger' to 'Morning Glory', and ‘Kafir Lime’ to ‘Lemon Grass’ - the aroma and colors are so invigorating! 🤤 After gathering everything we need, we were ready to get our hands dirty! The cooking session was perfectly timed and structured by Chef Lay, who gave clear, easy-to-follow instructions with her own sense of humor and energy. She also helped tweak the ingredients to accommodate any dietary restrictions or spice tolerances for some students. Here are some up close images of the food : We ground those fresh curry pastes (Red Curry, Green Curry, Massaman, and Panaeng) from scratch using the traditional mortar and pestle! Pad Thai and crunchy Vegetable Spring Roll, garnished with Butterfly Pea Flower, cashew powder and chives Thai Green Curry with Steamed Rice and Tom Yum Goong soup (Guess I went a bit overboard with my spices in the soup) 😋 And that's a wrap! Not only did I gain new culinary skills, but also created some beautiful memories with some amazing people from around the world. If you ever visit Thailand, I highly recommend you give this one a try - Trust me, you will love it! ❤️
4 Days Travel Guide to Coron, Palawan
If you were to ask Arjun or me, which is the most beautiful place we have seen, without blinking an eye we would say 'CORON'! 💚 This gorgeous island off the Palawan coast is like a piece of paradise on earth. The waters here are so blue you can see all the corals underneath it, surrounded by limestone cliffs shimmering under the tropical sun - it's all SO surreal! Planning our trip to the Philippines initially seemed overwhelming because the country has over 7000 islands! 😵 Yes, you read it right. But after much research and online reading, we traveled to CORON and SIARGAO - both of which are named in the Top 5 Island Destinations in Asia by Condé Nast Traveler! 🏝️ This article is a complete guide on traveling within Coron. If you would like to read about our travels in Siargao, click here! For now, let's start with some Q+A... Where is Coron? How do I get there? Coron is a tiny island off the Palawan coast in the Philippines. VISAS - This link to the Republic of Philippines - Department of Foreign Affairs website gives all necessary information on tourist visas to the country based on your nationality. FLIGHTS - You can fly into Busuanga Airport in Palawan from Manila or Cebu. We took Skyjet Airlines from Manila to Busuanga. From the airport, you need to take a 'jeepney' to reach Coron Town and the ride takes you about an hour. The fare costs about 150 PHP (approx 3 US$) per person. When should I visit Coron? We visited Coron in the month of November. The peak season is the dry season between November and May. Where do I stay in Coron? Coron has just started to get popular among tourists, so finding a decent accommodation especially during peak season can be very tricky, both in terms of availability and price. Coron has a few lodges, hotels and diving resorts. We were on a budget trip so we stayed at a hostel called 'Le Voyage'. We would not recommend this place and were disappointed with the rooms and hygiene. However, they had the BEST cafe/restaurant under the building which we highly recommend! Can never say no to some good ol' American breakfast and granola bowl ❤️ How do I get around in Coron? The BEST way to explore the island is on a scooter, and of course Google Maps. 🛵 You can always inquire at your hotel/hostel help desk and they will arrange a scooter for you. A word of caution though - Do NOT forget to ask for helmets and please wear them at ALL times on the road. You really want a safe holiday if not anything. 🙂 But to discover the nearby islands, you can either join a group island-hopping tour from a local agency or hire a private boat and driver. We would definitely recommend the latter. Trust us, it is worth every buck! 👍🏽In this way you can design your own island hopping tour and choose to spend as much time as you like on the island you fancy, while avoiding tourist crowds at peak times of the day. Now...let's begin with our itinerary! 🙌🏽 DAY 1 Chase the sunset at Mount Tapyas, Unwind at the Maquinit Hot Springs The sunset views at Mount Tapyas are just breathtaking! From here you can see the entire town of Coron and its surrounding islands against the stunning golden sky. We climbed over 700 concrete steps which seemed like would never end, but then the views made it all worth it. 🧡 Next, we climbed down, loaded ourselves with lots of coconut water, and took a tricycle to the Maquinit Hot Springs. This place is like a natural jacuzzi, just what you need after a hike like that! 💆♂️ Maquinit has these scattered pools that circulate hot spring water. Something so therapeutic about warm water and pebbles tickling your feet, all of this under the starry night sky……just the perfect way to unwind our first day in Coron. 🧡 COST: There is no entrance fees to Mount Tapyas. There is an entrance fee of 150 PHP (approx. 3 US$) for the Hot Springs. DAY 2 Go Scuba Diving ! The Pacific waters of Philippines boasts some of the world’s most spectacular reefs, whale sharks, mantas and underwater UNESCO World Heritage sites. And the best part is that the cost of these activities is way cheaper there than what you would be paying in other parts of the world. So win-win all the way. 👌 Scuba diving in Coron is hands down, one of the most exhilarating, humbling experience we have ever had! 🙏🏽We did our Discovery Diving Course at the Reggae Diving Centre certified by PADI. Our instructor Dennis was so much fun and very patient with us throughout the experience. Arjun and I were completely mesmerized and lost in a whole different world out there. 💙 COST: The Discovery Diving Course cost 4500 PHP (approx 90 US$) per person. TIPS: Do a thorough research ensuring that the diving school and the instructor are both PADI-certified Ask about the different diving sites covered in your session. We are glad we did, because in this way we avoided the regular hot-spots and got to experience the best parts of the coral reefs. You need to register a day in advance at the diving center. This is also when they will help you arrange for a diving suit, flippers and other equipment. The discovery diving course takes a whole day, so if you have this in your to-do list, ensure you dedicate an entire day in your itinerary just for scuba diving. Also, it is advised to not fly for at least 13 hours before AND after your dive. So you might want to consider that while planning your itinerary. For those who have already completed their Discovery Diving course can go for the Open Water Licensing. However, this is more intensive and takes a minimum of two days for completion. DAY 3 Island Hopping on a private boat – Kayanganyan Lake, Siete Pecados, Twin Lagoons, Banul Beach Island hopping in Coron is literally one of the most jaw-dropping experiences of our life. We would go back and do it again without a second thought. Well, even photographs don’t do justice to the splendor of these islands. 💚 IMPORTANT TIP: There are many organised group tour packages for island hopping. However, we highly recommend booking a private boat with a driver. 👍🏽👍🏽 It costs a few extra bucks, but trust us, worth every penny to have a boat entirely to yourself and hop across these islands at your own pace. The boat crew is familiar with the schedules of the other tours, so they will know when exactly to avoid crowds at each spot. So we covered the following sites on our boat tour: Kayanganyan Lake
Skeleton Ship Wreck This is the viewpoint at the Kayanganyan Lake, so incredibly stunning! Probably one of the most photographed location in Coron. ❤️ Banul Beach is THE BEST beach we have been to. 💚 Dazzling white sands, turquoise waters, and shining silver limestone cliffs! There were not more than eight people on the entire beach – kind of like straight out of the Robinson Crusoe novel. 😇 We stopped here for lunch at one of the shacks and just soaked in all the sun and beautiful air. Day 4 - Malacapuya and Bulog Dos Islands OR Concepcion Falls and Ocam-Ocam Beach We were supposed to go island hopping to Malacapuya and Bulog Dos Islands on this day, but the tour was cancelled due to weather conditions. We were a teeny bit disappointed (mostly Senora was 😛) as some travelers on our trip had raved to us about Malacapuya. But the fun of traveling is the surprises that come your way, and the endless possibilities of places you can discover! 🙂 So we rented a scooter that morning, took a detour to the other end of the island and stumbled upon two little gems. Concepcion falls, a little waterfall in the middle of a forest and further ahead, Ocam Ocam beach where all we did was sipped on coconut water while rocking on a hammock under a palm tree. We also interacted with the local families in the area, which was such a heart warming experience. We hope you guys don't have any glitches like we did, and then, maybe one day you can tell us more about Malacapuya and Bulog Dos. What say? 😊
5 BEST Things to do in Krabi!
Whenever we reminisce about our travels in Thailand, the first visual that comes to mind is of beautiful Krabi. 😇 Stunning blue beaches with limestone cliffs soaring out of the waters, the backdrop of a breath-taking sunset, whilst sitting under the palm trees…....such bliss! 💙 From tropical nature and adventure, to the best of Thai hospitality and food – Krabi is indeed a traveler's paradise. WATCH OUR VIDEO! Q+A When is the best time to visit Krabi? Krabi is a tropical island so it invites tourists all year through. However, November to March is the most ideal time to visit because of the slightly cooler temperatures and less-likely rains. Where do I stay in Krabi? You can choose to stay either in Krabi Town, or Ao-Nang. Based on accessibility and convenience, Ao Nang is a good choice to get to the nearby islands. We stayed in Krabi Town at the very comfortable and cute Chanchalaya Hip Hostel, about 12 kilometers from Ao Nang. But honestly, Krabi has a huge range of options for accommodations, ranging from backpacker hostels, to five-star luxury resorts. Somewhere in Krabi Town How do I get around the island? We rented a scooter to get around and explore the island by ourselves. A word of caution though – do this ONLY if you are confident of riding on a two-wheeler, and please wear your helmets 🙂 Safety First! If not a scooter, you could always hop onto a 'tuk-tuk' (rickshaw) or a 'song-taew' (their local bus), and that could be an adventure on its own! For the island and beach hopping activities, you can take the ferry from the pier (there is one main pier in both Ao Nang and Krabi Town). There are plenty of boats that leave from and get back to the island through-out the day. There are several tour companies you can easily find around in Krabi with whom you can book your island hopping tours. How many days do I spend in Krabi? For a decent experience, you would need at least 2 days. We had the luxury of time and stayed on the island for 4 days, and enjoyed every bit of our time. And now that the basics are done, here we go......our Top-5 things to do in Krabi! 🙌🏽 1. Watch the Sunset at Ao Nang Beach You could visit Krabi only for its sunsets. Even photographs don’t do justice to its actual splendor. We spent an entire day at Ao Nang beach just relaxing on the golden sands and admiring the limestone cliffs surrounding us. 🙂 The skies in the background changed color by the minute, almost like an artist painting strokes on a canvas. This definitely goes down the book of our favorite travel memories ❤️ 2. Go Rock Climbing at Railey Beach If you are looking for some adrenaline-pumping adventure, then you must try climbing a limestone cliff in Krabi! There are long-tail boats that leave from Krabi Town and Ao-Nang, to Railey and Ton Sai beaches, both of which are extremely stunning, and have dozens of rock-climbing schools. After reading reviews on Trip Advisor, we decided to go with Krabi Rock Climbing at Railey. The instructor was well-experienced, super fun, and most importantly very patient with newbies like us. Arjun scaled a good 25 meters of height, and I did 12! Not so bad, eh? 😜 It was a good work-out I must say, and we had a fun time dragging our muscles back to the boat. But the view from our climb was worth everything! COST: The long-tail boat journey costs 100 THB (approx. 3 US$) for a one-way ticket. We took the half-day climbing lessons which is ideal for beginners, and that cost us about 1000 THB per person (approx. 30 US$). 3. Island Hopping on a Ferry to the Nearby Islands - Koh Lanta, Phi Phi, Phuket, Ko Lipe Hopping across dozens of gorgeous Andaman Islands around the coast of Krabi is the ultimate tropical experience. 🥰 The islands are marked by such pristine white sand beaches and turquoise waters, they're heavenly! Many of these sites are also very rich with corals so they're great for snorkeling or diving! But because there are so many islands in the area, it can be quite overwhelming to plan your island-hopping route. There are many multiple-island day-trips organised by local ferry tours which are great and convenient. However, if you have the luxury of time, then we highly, highly recommend to skip those and choose just 1 or two islands and explore them as much as you can. Here is what our island-hopping tour looked like: 2 Days/1 Night in Phuket 2 Days/1 Night in Phi Phi Island (we did some shark-sighting here, incredible!) 4D in Krabi (this article says it all) 1D in Koh Lanta (definitely deserves more time) On a long-tail boat from Krabi Town to Railey Beach Ferry views on the way to Phi Phi Island Arjun's little head peeking out of the Phi Phi waters. We were here shark-sighting, and yes we did see many of them! 😵 Mid-hike to the Phi-Phi Don Viewpoint 4. Get a Thai Massage Traditional Thai massages are hands down one of the best things about Thailand. After an exhausting day of exploring and adventure, a good massage is what you need to relax those tense muscles and just... unwind. 💆Krabi has a range of options, from super affordable massages by the sea-shore, to luxury spa services at world-class resorts. A word of caution though - Stay out of the shady areas and questionable massage parlors to avoid any awkward encounters with a service you do not want. 🙈 COST: You could get a foot massage for as cheap as 100 THB for 30 minutes (approx. 3 US$) and a full-body massage for 250-300 THB an hour (approx 9 US$) at a simple, hygienic parlor by the street. The same at a hotel or luxury spa would probably cost you double or more. TIP: We recommend giving a generous tip to your masseuse. They would really appreciate the gesture, and much deserve it 🙂 5. Eat! Krabi has some fun, buzzing night market scenes at Ao Nang and Krabi Town areas. Every night is a festival of sorts where the locals set up stalls and sell things, from souvenirs and clothes to mouth-watering street food. 🤩 The colors, lights and smells make it a sensory feast! We really recommend trying at least some of the authentic delicacies such as Pad Thai, Thai curry with rice, fried rice, or satays and end it on a sweet note with some fresh tropical fruit or the famous Thai sticky rice with mango. Or maybe, if you feel a bit adventurous, you could surprise your taste buds with fried insects and tick it off your bucket list (nope haha, we did not do this one)! 😄
3 Days Itinerary in Siargao, Philippines
Did you know that the Philippines has over 7000 islands?! 😵 When we were planning our week-long trip to the Philippines, we were so overwhelmed about choosing which ones to visit. Finally, after lots of online reading and research, we decided to travel to......... CORON and SIARGAO - both of which are named in the Top 5 Island Destinations in Asia by Condé Nast Traveler! 🏝️ This article is a complete guide on traveling within Siargao. If you would like to read about our travels in Coron, click here! Siargao, named as the 'surfing capital of the Philippines', has created quite a 'wave' in the recent years, thanks to Instagram travel influencers. 🌊 But the island is a lot more than its waves. Siargao gave us some major 'Baywatch' feels - the island is super laid-back, extremely hep, and ticks all the boxes of a beach bum: 🏖️ Spectacular beaches and mangrove forests 😎 Laid-back reggae vibes 👙 Snoozing in hammocks while getting that sexy suntan 🏄 Water sports and sea-adventures 🍸 Excellent food and drinks at beach shacks 🥂 Exciting nightlife.... So first, let's start with some Q+A... Where is Siargao? How do I get there? Siargao is located 800 kilometers southeast of Philippines' capital Manila. It belongs to the province of Surigao del Norte, situated at the northeastern tip of Mindanao. TIP - Don't be confused between Surigao and Siargao! 🙊 Surigao is a city on the mainland and Siargao is the island (approximately 2-3 hours ferry ride form Surigao). VISAS - This link to the Republic of Philippines - Department of Foreign Affairs website gives all necessary information on tourist visas to the country based on your nationality. FLIGHTS - Siargao has a domestic airport called Sayak. Skyjet Airlines operates direct flights from Manila to Siargao, and Cebu Pacific does the same from Cebu. Once you reach, there are vans available right outside the Sayak airport to get to General Luna or Cloud 9 ( the town center). The fare costs about 300 PHP (approx 6 US$) per person. When should I visit Siargao? We visited Siargao in the month of November but you can do so any time of the year! The peak season is the dry season between March and October. September is also quite popular with surfers because of the annual surf competition held here. Where do I stay in Siargao? We highly recommend staying within General Luna, the center of Siargao town. It has all the restaurants and markets you would frequently want to visit. We were on a relatively tight budget so we stayed at 'Riad Masaya', a Moroccan-inspired hostel that offers simple, clean and affordable accommodations. It is a quiet hostel, unlike the wild party ones which we always try to avoid. The caretakers were also very helpful with recommendations and advice during our stay. 🙂 How do I get around in Siargao? In a scooter and with Google Maps on your phone! 🛵 Seriously, this is the BEST way to explore the island considering Siargao has got excellent roads with some stunning views. You can always inquire at your hotel/hostel help desk and they will arrange a scooter for you. A word of caution though - Do NOT forget to ask for helmets and please wear them at ALL times on the road. You really want a safe holiday if not anything. 🙂 On another note, we do understand that some of you might be traveling with children. So in that case, you can join one of the many hassle-free group tour activities that organize pick-up and drop-off services at your hotel and include food and beverages in their package too! Now...let's begin with our itinerary! 🙌🏽 DAY 1 1. Watch the sunset at Cloud 9 Cloud 9 is the best surf-break in the Philippines. Whether you're into surfing on not, you WILL fall in love with the stunning sunset views from the Cloud 9 sundeck. ❤️ The vibe is AMAZING! You can spot tourists having a great time sunbathing and snoozing to the sound of the waves, just super laid-back. During our trip, Arjun would drive to Cloud 9 in the wee hours of sunrise (while I would be catching on my sleep 😜) for his photography sessions. He also recommends it to be the best time for surfing. COST: There is an entry fee of 50 PHP (approx. 1 US$) to the boardwalk. 2. Dine in one of the many resto-bars at Tourism Road Siargao might be a small island, but we were amazed with its food scene - there's something for EVERYONE. Seafood lover or vegan, Tourism Road is the place to go! 😍 The food quality is top-notch, and so is the ambiance with all the live music and cheer. We have listed below some of our top picks : Bravo has some of the best Spanish cuisine on the island. The Philippines is highly influenced by Spanish culture because of its colonial history, so no surprises there. Hit Bravo for some Spanish Tapas or Paella and enjoy the fantastic live band by the sea. La Carinderia is unique for its Italian-Filipino fusion food, and before you make assumptions, the combination is actually worth a try! You cannot miss spotting this restaurant as it's right on Tourism Road. The open-to-sky ambiance with fairy lights and wooden interiors fetch it extra points. Ono Poke Shack serves some really good Poke Bowls! Miguel's Tacqueria is that little hole-in-the-wall taco bar where you can feast on fresh tacos or burritos with chilled beer on the side. The owner of this bar, originally from California, has found a new home in Siargao and can be seen today at his taco-bar bonding with tourists over his food. Group-fie at Miguel's Tacqueria at General Luna DAY 2 3. Learn Surf-Boarding at Jacking Horse Siargao is a surfer's paradise! And if you are a newbie (just like us) then Jacking Horse is the place to go! 🏄 The waves are gentle, but perfect enough to give you that adrenaline rush! There's a huge queue of surfing instructors at the Cloud 9 deck all day long waiting to teach new students. Always ask for their IDs to check if they are 'certified' coaches' before you begin. COST: An hour of surf-boarding lessons cost 500 PHP (approx. 9.8 US$) only! 4. Catch the Magpupungko Rock Pools at Low Tide The tidal rock pools of Magpupungko (bit of a tongue twister there 🤓) is nothing less than a miracle. These are stunning emerald green pockets of water at the shore of a beach, flowing through magnificently shaped rocks. But what's extraordinary is that they are exposed only during low tide! So if you get to the spot an hour later, chances are the rocks have all been submerged! (So click here for tidal timings. We suggest reaching an hour before low tide.) Magpupungko is in Pilar, about an hour drive from General Luna. You can visit as part of a tour in a shared van, or ride a motorcycle like we did. Either ways, the journey is fantastic! The roads are excellent, lined with unending rows of coconut palm trees and lush green fields on either sides. Simply perfect! 💙 COST: Renting a motorcycle costs 350 PHP (around 6.8 US$) per day. There is a very tiny entrance fee of 50 PHP (approx. 1 US$) to the pools. 5. Island Hopping – Naked Island, Guyam and Daku For a beach bum, this is the ultimate experience! 💙 Book a full-day island hopping tour either from Kermit or Bravo (we recommend comparing the prices, one can be cheaper than the other). The tour hops you along Naked, Guyam, and Daku Islands - every single of them incredibly stunning! Just kick back and relax under the sun, laze on a hammock, sip on that tender coconut water, and slide into oblivion. 🏖️ DAY 3 6. Kickstart the Day with a Smoothie Bowl at 'SHAKA' A stay in Siargao would not be complete without trying something at SHAKA CAFE. Just a few steps away from the famous Cloud 9 surf-break, this breakfast bar has a very beach-y, laid-back, instagram-worthy vibe. We've had some of the best smoothie power bowls and cold-pressed juices at Shaka! 😍 COST: We had ordered their signature ‘Bom Dia açaí bowl’ and ‘Cloud9 Cook’. All their smoothie bowls are priced at 250 PHP each (around 4.8 US$). 7. Take the plunge at Sugba Lagoon! Sugba Lagoon, tucked in a little corner within the mangroves of Caob Island, has become the tourism icon of Siargao. We have never seen such stunning, dense mangroves ever before. 💚 The best thing to do in Sugba is to jump off the famous diving ledge into its emerald waters, or simply go kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding rowing aimlessly through the still waters. 🙂 Getting to Sugba is quite a journey, but totally worth it. It is a 20-minute boat ride from Del Carmen which again is about an hour drive from General Luna. You can either choose to go with a tour group or simply drive yourself as the roads are in pretty good shape. TIP: We recommend visiting here as early as 8 in the morning to enjoy the place in its utmost serenity before it gets packed with all the tourists. COST: There is an entrance fee of 100 PHP (approx. 2 US$)
7 BEST Things to Do in Bangkok
Bangkok is one hell-of-a-crazy, happening, colorful city! 🤩 While most people visit Thailand for its islands and beaches, we would still recommend spending at least a day or two in the capital for a unique experience of Thai culture that has still been so well preserved despite the city’s modernization. So here is our list of 7 BEST activities which perfectly fit in a two-day itinerary for Bangkok! 🙌🏽 1. Cycle through China Town and along the Chao Phraya River This made to the top of our list simply because it is the BEST way to explore the city outside the mainstream tourist attractions. 🚴 Cycling through narrow alleyways of Chinatown, riding along the bridge at the Chao Phraya river, stumbling upon local neighborhoods and temple towns - was such a wonderful insight into the local Thai culture and lifestyle. COST: We had taken the 3-hour tour at Co Van Kessel Tours, which cost about 950 Thai Baht (approx. 30 US$). It might seem slightly pricey at first but it's still cheaper than taking cabs to visit these places - plus you are paying for a really unique experience here! 👍🏽 The team was super helpful, had great knowledge, and ensured we were safe and comfortable throughout our excursion. 2. Dine at a Rooftop Sky Bar Bangkok at night is so beautiful in all its scintillating city lights. We never realized how huge the city is until we saw it from a bird's eye view at the Lebua Sky Bar. The panoramic views of the skyline along the Chao Phraya river is indeed breath-taking! ❤️ Fun Fact - This is the same bar that was shot in the popular Hangover II movie! 😉 Tips - Since we were on a 'budget' trip, the menu wasn't too friendly with our budget 🙈 So we had ordered just an appetizer and dessert. However we left a good tip for the amazing customer service we enjoyed. Also, these sky bars have a strict dress code of smart casuals for both men and women. So plan your outfit for the day well in advance. Skip those flip-flops, boys and girls! 💁 3. Experience the Nightlife at Khao San Road Khao San Road is where all the CRAZY happens in Bangkok😉. It's like a carnival of sorts - lots of people, live music, food stations, resto bars, clubs - oh man, this place is super high on energy! We walked along an entire stretch of a kilometer feasting on street food, swaying to the live street music, sipped on some good ol' cocktails - 'twas a memorable night indeed.❤️ 4. Shop at the famous Floating Market & Train Market These markets are very unique to Bangkok, so you shouldn't really skip this one. The Maeklong Railway Market is located right on a train line where, a few times a day, the train runs directly through the market! While this happens, the vendors and merchants coolly lower their umbrellas and move their produce away from the tracks. And as the train passes, the vendors continue as normal - how insane is that! 😮 As for the floating markets, there are over 10 in the city! We chose to see the famous 'Damnoen Saduak Floating Market'. COST: We found a great deal through a tour that combined two trips, first to the train market and then followed by the floating market. It cost us about 935THB (approx. 28 US$) which included pick-up and drop-off, bottled water and fresh fruits for the journey. 5. Temples, temples, and more temples... Even if you don't see yourself as 'spiritual', the sheer magnificence of these ancient Buddhist temples will leave you in awe. 🙏🏽 It is worth exploring these temples (known as 'wats' ) for their humbling architecture, striking colors, and intricate details. There are over hundreds of wats in Bangkok but if you have to choose one, then we recommend the Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of Emerald Buddha) or the Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha), two of the biggest temples in the city. However, we didn't visit either as our cycling tour (point 1 above) included a visit to the much quieter and smaller, 'Wat Thong Thammachat'. 6. Get a Thai Massage! Traditional Thai massages are hands down one of the best things about Thailand. After an exhausting day of exploring and adventure, a good massage is what you need to relax those tense muscles and just....unwind. 💆♂️ What's even better is how cheap these massages are! A word of caution though - Stay out of the shady areas and questionable massage parlors to avoid any awkward encounters with a service you do not want. 🙈 COST: You could get a foot massage for as cheap as 100THB for 30 minutes (approx. 3 US$) and a full-body massage for 250-300THB an hour (approx 9 US$) at a simple, hygienic parlor by the street. The same at a hotel or luxury spa would probably cost you double or more. TIP: We recommend giving a generous tip to your masseuse. They would really appreciate the gesture, and much deserve it. 🙂 7. Eat, eat and eat! The food scenes in Bangkok are easily regarded as one of the best in Asia. There are street food markets set up at night in different parts of the city where the area turns into a festival of sorts. The locals set up stalls and sell things, from souvenirs and clothes to mouth-watering street food. It is literally a sensory feast with all the colors, sounds and smells! 🤩 If you are looking for a more luxurious experience, then once again Bangkok will impress you with its fine-dining scenes and Michelin-star restaurants. Either ways, we recommend trying at least some of the authentic delicacies such as Pad Thai, Thai curry with rice, fried rice, or satays and end it on a sweet note with some fresh tropical fruit or the famous Thai sticky rice with mango. Or maybe, if you feel a bit adventurous, you could surprise your taste buds with fried insects and tick it off your bucket list (nope, haha, we didn't do this one)! 😀
7 IMPORTANT Travel Safety Tips Everyone Should Know
We all make elaborate plans for that perfect holiday getaway, but there's always some hiccups, or rather unexpected glitches that could come our way. Traveling comes with its own set of risks and challenges, so in this article we explore 7 practical tips to help you enjoy a stress-free and safe travel experience. 🙏🏽 1. Health Comes First! It is worth visiting a doctor prior to your trip to ensure yourself fit to fly, especially if you are pregnant or have any medical conditions. Carry your prescription along with the medications on the trip - it may come handy in case you need extra supplies. If you wear contact lenses, make sure to carry some extra pairs and lens solution with you in air-tight containers so you don't spill them. It is always a good idea to carry along your prescription glasses as well. Make sure to understand the health concerns of the country you are planning to visit. Some countries require vaccinations before your arrival so make sure you are immunized in advance. 2. Airplane Travel With the recent string of tragic air accidents, we advise you to do your own research before choosing to travel with an airline. There are loads of budget airlines today offering fares at dirt-cheap prices, and yes, it is tempting to go for the lowest offers. However, we would always advise you to make the appropriate choice in terms of safety. There is no definite airline safety rating system in place yet, however do check out this list of airlines which are banned from operating within the European Union. 3. Travel Insurance If you are a backpacker intending to travel over months, then you must really consider getting yourself insured. A good travel insurance can get you covered not only on medical emergencies, but trip cancellations and interruptions, trip delays, and lost luggage. There are several third-party travel insurance programs available over the web. You can even get some of them at a zero-deductible. 4. Electronic Back-up of Your Documents Email copies of all necessary documentation to your inbox so you can access the information from your phone should the paperwork be lost or damaged. Here’s a mini checklist of some of the documents to have a back-up of : Passport Visa Tickets and Itinerary Medical Insurance Card Travel Insurance Card Credit Cards Immunization Record 5. Money and Personal Belongings (Left): Arjun's Backpack Contents, (Right): Senora's Backpack Contents. The key rule here is to travel light - Carry only what is 'really required'. We recommend carrying a day bag with a zipper to store your personal belongings when you are out and about. It is best to leave behind your passport in your hotel/hostel room locked in a safe. The chances of losing it while you are outside is much higher than someone stealing it from the safe! Avoid carrying too much cash and bank cards that you just wouldn't use. When visiting places with a lot of beaches, we also came across a water-proof phone case that you can carry around your neck. Arjun took a lot of underwater photos on his smartphone with this case. Save phone numbers of your local bank in case you want to block your cards at any time. Don’t keep anything in your back pockets – pick-pocketing is common in many areas around the world. Don’t let your guard down to snap the perfect picture for your social media platforms. Keep an eye on your personal belongings at all times and use good judgment when talking to strangers. A big part of the joy of traveling is the opportunities it affords to meet new people and learn about their cultures. But if someone near you is acting suspiciously, or if you feel uncomfortable, leave the area immediately. 6. Phone and Communication It is always a good idea to get a SIM card with a minimum calling and data plan from the airport itself. This is important for several reasons – You or your people back home can contact each other in case of any emergencies. A data plan is important to be able to use navigation apps, as you may not really have access to free public WiFi with a decent speed at all times. In South East Asia, data plans are incredibly cheap and work fast. 7. Driving or Renting Scooters If you have very little experience with driving, then it is best not to take any chances. Riding a moped or scooter is one of the best ways to explore a place off the beaten track. You can rent one for really cheap, plus we have never been asked for a drivers license particularly in South East Asia! However, three major tips here- ALWAYS ask for a helmet for yourself and the person sitting behind you, even if it means paying a few extra bucks. As deposit, you may be asked to deposit your passport or ID with the renters and the thought of it scared us! What we did is left an expired ID and to our luck they didn’t notice! 😉 We have heard about scams where renters blame you for a defect that the vehicle had previously and refuse to return the safety deposit! So before you start driving around, take a good look at your vehicle and click some pictures as well, you never know it may come handy in defense later. And an extra, but most important tip..... 8. Always....Trust Your Instincts As basic as it might sound, it is actually the most important. If something feels wrong, it maybe is wrong.
7 Best Things to do in Hanoi - Solo Travels
Vietnam's up-and-coming capital city Hanoi might seem small, but really - there's A LOT packed in there! 🙌🏽 From walking through the colourful streets of Old Quarter, to devouring a warm, flavorful bowl of 'Pho' at a local hawker’s, this bustling city boasts a sensory overload with its vibrant street culture, excellent food-scenes, and an energy like never felt before! 🥰 What might seem overwhelming at first, Hanoi just grows on you. And then again if ever you feel the need to get away from the hustle and bustle, Hanoi is also the perfect launching pad for trips to Halong Bay, Ninh Binh, Sapa and many other exotic regions around North Vietnam. So here's a list of the 7 Best Things to do when in Hanoi. DISCLAIMER: I went on a solo trip to Vietnam for a week during which I hardly used my camera. So the pictures in this article are not really the best, and don't really depict Vietnam the way it should. But the written article surely comes from the bottom of my heart. 😊 1. Explore the Old Quarter Old Quarter is the heart and soul of Hanoi. Simply walk and get lost in its charming alleys, nooks and crannies. 💚 The energy here is crazy - people and motorcycles whizzing past you, eateries and bars spilling onto the streets! It is fascinating to see how every inch of space has been made functional. There's so much you can do from exploring the French cathedral and shopping at galleries, to devouring some authentic Vietnamese street food. 😊 The prices are also incredibly cheap by western standards. TIP: We recommend you choose your accommodation within the Old Quarter because of its proximity to many of the city sights. There is some or the other backpacker hostel or luxury hotel around the corner of every street at very affordable rates. 2. Eat, eat, eat......and drink some Bia Hoi ! Vietnam's greatest pleasure is its food - so fresh and flavorful! 🤤 What makes it interesting is the French-colonial influence on their food, such as the baguettes (Banh Mi) and crepes (Ban Xeo). Just head to Hanoi's Old Quarter and you have a plethora of options to choose from. I was travelling during the cold winters, so Pho was like my go-to comfort food. I calls it a bowl of warm hug 🍜❤️ ! If you are new to Vietnamese food, then here is a list of must-try dishes that you can begin with. You can click on each food type for images. 1. Pho (Top favorite) 2. Banh Mi 3. Goi Cuon (Top favorite) 4. Banh Xeo 5. Bun Cha 6. Com Tam Well, after all that food I assume you may want to wash it down with some good ol' beer 😉. A trip to Hanoi is incomplete without trying the 'Bia Hoi', which literally translates to 'fresh beer'! Starting merely at 3,000 VND (0.13 US$) per glass, this light and refreshing draught beer is super popular in north Vietnam, and we highly recommend you enjoy it the local-style. Head to Ta Hien (Beer Street) after sunset, sip on a cold mug of Bia Hoi on one those little plastic stools by the pavement, and watch the streets come to life by night. Cheers, folks! 🍻 With my travel mate Caroline, feasting on some Pho and stuffed bun during a stopover to Sapa! ❤️ Traditional Bun Cha 3. Embark on a cultural tour around the Hoan Kiem Lake The still water and greens around the Hoan Kiem Lake is a peaceful respite from the hustle of the city. 💚There are many historical and cultural landmarks at the lake such as the picturesque Huc Bridge and Turtle Tower. If you want to immerse a little more into history and ancient architecture, then head to the Ngoc Son Temple and the Temple of Literature. 4. Dig into the history of Vietnam at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, situated in the center of the sprawling grounds of Ba Dinh Square, is the most visited attraction in Hanoi. Ho Chi Minh was the most popular and iconic leader of Vietnam's political history. Since his death, his body has been preserved in a glass case within the mausoleum for people to visit and pay their respects. For a history buff like me, this was an extremely interesting and surreal experience. 🙏🏽 And now...it's time to get out of Hanoi ! 5. Cruise through thousands of islets in Halong Bay It is no surprise that people travel to Vietnam solely to see Halong Bay. Labelled as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the experience of sailing on emerald green waters surrounded by limestone karst formations is so breath-taking! 💚 One of the best things to do in Halong Bay is discovering the place yourself on a kayak that you can rent at the site. The tour also takes you to the 'Thien Cung' cave which translates to 'Heavenly Palace', and rightly so, with its extraordinary stalactite & stalagmite formations. The pictures below explain it all! 6. Discover the enchanting landscapes of Ninh Binh Ninh Binh, for me, was the best part of North Vietnam, so much that I would even rank it above Halong Bay. 🥰😮 The magical sights of this quaint village are very humbling and surreal. We recommend dedicating at least one full day to experience its glory. Getting there: I took a shared tourist-van from Hanoi to Ninh Binh, and the journey took about an hour-and-a-half. Places to see: There are several places to see such as Hoa Lu (cultural center filled with ancient pagodas and citadels against the captivating mountainous backdrop), Tam Coc River and Trang An. Tam Coc River: This is probably the most peaceful, picturesque setting I have ever experienced. 🙏🏽 We were rowing a boat alongside these beautiful limestone mountains rising out of the still green waters. It was drizzling. The only sounds were the trickling of raindrops, and the oars moving to a soothing rhythm. 💚 After we returned to the pier, we rented bicycles and cycled aimlessly for over an hour through the surrounding rice fields. 🍃 We lost our way in between and stumbled upon some quaint homes of the local people. 7. Bask in the lush rice terrace fields of SaPa Valley SaPa is a beautiful hill station to the north of Hanoi, and is home to diverse hill tribe minorities, lush-green rice terraces, and some incredible landscapes. 💚 One of the things to look forward to is trekking through the hill terrains with a member of the local tribe. This is such a fascinating way of getting close with nature and understanding the culture, lifestyle and challenges these tribal communities face up in the hills. How to get there : I got to SaPa from Hanoi in a shared-tourist van. By road it takes about 5 hours. There is also an overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai station which takes around 9 hours, and from Lao Cai you take a shuttle bus to SaPa which takes about another hour . You can book your bus or train tickets from any of the tourist centers in Old Quarter, Hanoi. Some even choose to motorcycle the entire journey, in which case we caution you to ride safe (with helmets on!) as the roads are winding with lots of hairpin bends...and reckless drivers! Accommodations: There are many standards of accommodations in SaPa from backpacker hostels to luxury hotels. I stayed at the SaPa Panorama Hotel in the center of the town. The rooms were spacious and very clean. If you want to get a little adventurous then you can also stay in one of the rustic homestays up in the villages with a local family! 🙂 Bonus Tip: We highly recommend you visit Sapa in the months of September and October to witness the rice terrace fields in its greenest avatar. I was there in December, and albeit beautiful, it was really cold so I mostly walked through thick mist that blocked our views. With Pang and her dearest mum at Sapa ❤️ Some beautiful memories made that day...
11 Must-Have Travel Apps on Your Phone
Traveling has become so much easier these days with the internet and all those 'apps' on our smart phones. Many of these apps have been super useful during our travels, so we have compiled a list of the ones that we highly recommend. Some names might seem obvious but we've listed them just because they're SO good that we can’t do without them! 😊 FLIGHT BOOKINGS 1. Skyscanner 2. Kayak You may have pre-booked all your flights on a computer but having at least one of the flights-booking apps on your phone is very handy in situations such as a missed flight or last-minute changes to your itinerary! Skyscanner and Kayak are our top favorites. These apps search for the most affordable travel options and cheapest dates to fly. You can also get alerts when prices change. Don’t forget to check out for discount codes on these sites to get even cheaper deals. GETTING AROUND 3. Google Maps Google Maps, aka LIFE SAVIOR, is the best mobile navigation app ever. It offers directions for travel by car, on public transit, on foot, by cab, or even bicycle. Google Maps also helps you find things like restaurants or museums in your vicinity along with their contact details in case you want to make any reservations or inquiries. Th coolest feature of the app is the ‘Offline Maps’. 👌If you do not have a data plan on your travel SIM card, then simply use your hotel WiFi, get on the app and load the directions to your point of interest. Then all you do is tap the ‘download offline map’ button which you can later use on the go without having to be connected to the internet! 😀 4. Uber Grab You will be surprised to know that cabs booked via these apps can sometimes be way cheaper than local taxi services. For instance, when we were in Bangkok we frequently used services offered by Grab (which is Uber for South East Asia) as opposed to the local tuk-tuks or taxis which charge tourists exorbitant amounts! MONEY CONVERSION 5. XE Currency Do you get bogged down with all the math you need to do for currency conversions? After trying several foreign exchange apps, XE Currency has become our favorite. 👌 The app is constantly being updated and offers live exchange rates for every world currency. Plus, it stores the last updated rates, so it even works when the Internet doesn't. 😉 COMMUNICATION 6. Google Translate This app is GENIUS. You can translate any text you type into over 100 different languages, and for some major languages you can even use the app without an internet connection! What blows our mind is the ‘Instant Camera Translation’ feature which translates text in images by just pointing your camera. 😮This is so useful for translating foreign sign boards, restaurant menus, and ingredients on food packaging as well! RECOMMENDATIONS 7. TripAdvisor This is your best ALL-IN-ONE REVIEWS guide.✔️ The app detects your location and loads a list of nearby attractions, places to visit, things to do and so on, along with millions of reviews, opinions, videos, and photos. It is such a useful way to ensure you are spending money and time on the right things. ACCOMMODATIONS 8. Booking 9. Agoda Booking and Agoda are your best bet for booking hotel accommodations across the world at amazing deals. You can filter your hotel search by city, attraction, prices, star-ratings, review score, WiFi quality and other things important to you. Tips: - If you are uncertain about the accommodation or travel dates, don’t forget to click the ‘refundable’ option so you don’t lose all your money later. - Prior to payment, it is best to compare prices on both apps for your preferred hotel as prices can vary. - Look out for discount codes or app vouchers to save some bucks on your purchase 10. HostelWorld We booked all our hostel accommodations in South East Asia on the HostelWorld app. This is great for backpackers and budget travelers to choose from a range of traditional hostels, boutique hostels, party hostels, or even 5-Star hostels! You can also read up-to-the-minute hostel reviews, view photographs and read detailed descriptions to help you make the perfect choice. 11. Airbnb Airbnb has listings of a range of vacation home rentals – rooms, apartments, villas and more - offered by hosts across the world for short to long-term periods. It is great for everyone from couples, families with kids, to even business people. There’s often questions regarding safety, and the credibility of information shared by hosts, so make sure to read several reviews by previous guests and photographs to ensure a good experience.