Monthly Archives: November 2016
Thailand is the quintessential backpacker destination. Here you can make the first footprints on secluded sands, dance shoeless under a full moon and swim beneath cascading waterfalls.
Running through Thailand’s rainforests and temples and looping around its islands and beaches is the so-called “banana pancake trail”, a well-worn, tried and tested backpacker route that has seen the sandals of thousands of independent travellers over the decades.
They’re still coming in their droves and you’re a part of the action as soon as you strap on that backpack – the accessory that ensures you won’t even have the chance to get lonely.
For a frenetic introduction to Thailand, head straight to Bangkok where the neon lights and market stalls of Khao San Road still serve as the country’s main backpacker hangout. Slurp noodles, sip local beer and visit the gilded Grand Palace and Wat Pho’s giant gold reclining Buddha with your new friends.
For impressive Thai temples, head to Ayutthaya in the north, the country’s ancient capital now scattered with temples in varying stages of decay. The brooding red-brick ruins are best viewed at sunset, when the golden light makes this atmospheric city a photographer’s dream.
If you’re after something a little more laidback, Kanchanaburi is the spot for you. You can take a train along the famous Death Railway, built by prisoners of war during World War II, see the Bridge over the River Kwai and swim at the tumbling seven-tiered Erawan Falls.
In recent years social travel networks have become increasingly popular, largely thanks to a rising interest in experiential and responsible tourism. Travellers are looking for new ways to engage with local communities and delve into the heart of a country’s culture.
One of the best ways to gain a genuine insight into your destination is to opt for a homestay. Offering something a night in a hotel can never provide, they give you a real experience of local life, connect you with like-minded people and can provide a vital source of revenue in struggling economies.
Here are just a few reasons to consider a homestay next time you travel.
1. To explore somewhere new
Homestays provide the chance to get to know a destination you probably wouldn’t have explored otherwise. Not only could you find a neighbourhood, town, or village yet to feature on the tourist map, but you’ll learn about local customs and traditions, from eating habits to family routines.
2. To get under the skin of a city
Sprawling metropolises such as Paris, New York, Rome and London might count among the world’s greatest cities – but they’re hard to get to grips with in a weekend. Stay with a resident, and you’ll have the ultimate insider to guide you.
Hosts will give you the scoop on the hidden highlights and unusual attractions. They might tip you off on the best place to watch the sunrise, share their favourite cosy café, or help you find the city’s coolest bar scene.
Iceland is famous for majestic glaciers and snow-covered houses, for the Northern Lights and blue-lit ice caves. Visit in summer, though, and it can feel like a different country.
While there are still plenty of icy natural wonders, you can also party with the locals at summer festivals, hike across flower-strewn moorland and soak in hot springs under the midnight sun. Here are our picks of the best places to experience summer in Iceland.
To get off the tourist trail: the West Fjords
Summer is the perfect time to hike through the stunning Icelandic scenery, and if you can camp, so much the better (and cheaper). Dynjandi is a particularly good spot to pitch up – the waterfall may not be as famous as Gullfoss, but it still attracts plenty of visitors. Stay the night and you may well get the thunderous falls, glittering in the early-morning sun, all to yourself.
For a more remote West Fjords experience head to Hornstrandir, right on the edge of the Arctic Circle and barely accessible out of summer. This peninsula in Iceland’s far northwest is entirely wild, its inhospitable but beautiful terrain preserved as a nature reserve.
It’s the perfect place to escape the crowds of the southern coast – though even in the middle of summer the weather is unpredictable, so hikers should take precautions to stay safe.
For wildlife: Vestmannaeyjar, the Westman Islands
One of Iceland’s biggest draws is its wildlife and the Westman Islands are the prime place to go for puffin spotting. Every year between April and August, the archipelago becomes the biggest puffin colony in the world. The friendly town of Vestmannaeyjar is located on the only inhabited island, Heimaey, and is the best base for seeing these cute orange-beaked birds.
Visit in early August and you might be lucky enough to witness a truly heart-warming event: local families collect lost baby puffins, or “pufflings”, who’ve found their way into the town by mistake, and bring them to the shore to safely release them.
The summer festival, Þjóðhátíð, is also held in early August; its popularity among Icelanders is reflected in the fact it’s known, quite simply, as “The Festival”.
South Dakota, one of the USA’s Great Plains states, holds an annual buffalo roundup in Custer State Park. Last week was the 51st event and we were lucky enough to be in the area. Here’s the lowdown…
What is a buffalo roundup, exactly?
First, the roundup is a practical business – it’s undertaken by people on horses (wranglers) to assess the size and health of the herd – but it’s also one of the best days out you can have on the Great Plains.
The vibe is about as South Dakota as it gets, all state pride and local flavour: Miss South Dakota beaming for pictures from atop her horse; long lines for buns stuffed with pulled buffalo (optional baked beans and nachos on the side); the smell of horses and manure spiking the air; and wranglers in chaps strutting about, bow-legged from a lifetime in the saddle.
What’s the history of the roundup?
The roundup is also a deep insight into the country’s past. The story of these enormous beasts is one of America’s most epic. They roamed the Plains in their tens of millions before the arrival of European settlers and Native American life revolved around them.
Through the 1800s, the bison were shot for their hides and meat; for sport (including ‘hunts’ involving potshots from the comfort of trains); to make space for cattle and farming; and, shamefully, to deny Native Americans their main food source. Come the end of the century, bison numbers had dwindled to just 700 or so.
So while it was an unforgettable occasion, full of the kind of ‘authentic’ experience every tourist craves, I watched the majestic running of the animals with sadness too. The thunder of their hooves could once rival that of the vast skies above.
In 2015, some 31.5 million people visited London. That was a record year, yet early indications are that 2016 beat even those figures. The capital has the three most popular free visitor attractions in the UK (British Museum; National Gallery; Natural History Museum). It also lays claim to the top three paid-for sites (Tower of London; St Paul’s Cathedral; Westminster Abbey). Long and short – as a tourist in London, you won’t be short of company.
But should you start finding all the people wearing their backpacks on their chests a little oppressive, it’s time to shake them off your tail. As one of the authors of The Rough Guide to London, Neil McQuillian has got this down to a fine art. Here are his top tips.
Take a walk – or the bus
Mews, alleyways, yards, courts – London does atmospheric walking like few other places on Earth. And the more you walk, the more you find; roads seem to call out to you, leading you on, ensnaring you in a wonderful riddle. Getting lost in London is one of its great pleasures.
Feeling ambitious? Writer Will Self reckons it takes a whole day to walk from central London to green fields – in other words, to actually leave the city on foot. A more manageable variation is to take a bus to the end of its line and walk back in.
Slightly less ambitious, but a lot of fun, is to take a bus back into London from the start of its route. Getting on before anyone else, you’ll have your choice of seats – which of course means top deck, front row. Picnic and hip flask optional.
You could try the number 18 from out by the legendary Ace Café, a petrolhead hub on the North Circular. The 74, meanwhile, is cut out for better things: hop on at Putney Bridge and spend the next hour or so peering in at the windows of some of London’s wealthiest residences in the likes of Fulham, South Kensington and Knightsbridge.
Many of the buses that run from around Hampstead Heath feel practically bucolic at times – get some fresh air vibes aboard the 214 or 271 (the latter is also handy for Highgate Cemetery). South of the river, the 176 runs from Penge, through leafy Dulwich (passing right by the excellent Horniman Museum) to Tottenham Court Road.
A fine companion to such explorations are the Pevsner architectural guides – with these in your backpack, you’re never far from a flying buttress or some other fascinating nook or cranny. Nairn’s London is another recommended book.