That addictive mix of hope, excitement, anticipation and fear

That addictive mix of hope, excitement, anticipation and fear

becoming digital nomad
On a frisky morning of 2009, around this time of the year, I was standing alone in a half empty airport, holding a one-way ticket to Paris. I was moving out of my hometown and of my parents’ place, on my way to my Erasmus semester. It was the first time I ever travelled alone. I was overwhelmed by a mix of hope, excitement, anticipation and fear. It was supposed to be a short Parisian get away from my otherwise fully Italian education and future, but life had different plans for me. On that frisky morning of 2009, little did I know that I’d never really come back to my parents’ hometown if not for short layovers. That I would have continued my studies in France to then relocate again and again going through 11 houses, 21 jobs and 8 Countries in a little less than ten years. But most of all, I didn’t know that I would get hooked to that one-way ticket feeling for life.

A primal crave for drastic change,
for bigger challenges,
for pressing reboot

 

I’ve seen the same hunger in backpackers and expats, fortune seekers and off the grid hippies, van-lifers of all ages and citizens of the world I met on the road. “There is not only one way” they said “we built our own”.

I’m not sure where this hunger comes from. My family isn’t really of the explorers’ kind. It might have stared on that very frisky morning of 2009, while I was standing at the airport alone for the first time. Or four years later, while I was crossing a much bigger airport clutching a one-way ticket for Australia in one hand and my boyfriend’s in the other. He used to say that I’m a travel-bulimic: always craving for more until it gets too much. I know he’s right, but that’s the best way I know for growing as a human being. Moving, changing, binging on experiences, stories, faces and life in general.

becoming digital nomad

Back home though, some said that it was just a matter of struggling with commitment. Usually these people are those who can’t conceive a different lifestyle from their own. “Ok, you went traveling, but now you’re back and it is time to adjust to real life.” I never got this thing of real life. I fear that many people use “real” because they’re ashamed of using less flattering adjectives. As I see it, for someone with my education, real life usually means spending most of the day at work staring at a computer screen, to then go out and squeeze whatever is left of your life into a 2-3 hours’ window before passing out in bed. Moreover, life in big cities is expensive AF and working ten hours a day barely gets you by. But hey, you got to save some cash to buy yourself a decent car and maybe one day open a mortgage for a nice small house in the suburbs. And don’t be such a fool to believe that someone is going to pay you back when you’ll be retired, so you better start saving for that as well.

becoming digital nomad

Despite all of that freaked me out, I tried. I really, really tried. In 2015, after coming back from almost two years of work-and-travel, I pushed myself in the 9-to-7, steady income, subscription at the gym and to the phone company lifestyle. Of course the cracks were plainly visible from day one, but I tried to push through. Despite I always worked as a freelancer, I still struggled with the amount of time I spent in an office. I cried almost every given morning when crossing Milan on my way to work. Anxiety and numbness came in waves and I never really got to love (or even like for that matter) the city. But hey, you got to adjust to real life sooner or later right? Especially if you’re almost thirty! I got to the point where sometimes I stayed late in the office kinda-working just because I had nothing else to do outside that interested me. All of my friends were still working anyway. That actually scared me out for real. So I cracked. As I always knew I would.

becoming digital nomad

On 2017 new year’s eve I was sitting around a bonfire on a small island of the Philippines with a mixed bunch of people I met just days before. Each and every one of us was in their twenties going thirty and struggling with the rat race. Some of them just jumped out of it, the others were figuring out strategies. That’s when I decided that I would give myself another year to understand if the real life really wasn’t for me, to give love the chance to make up for all the rest, or to find the courage to really go freelancing outside of my comfort zone, to travel extensively alone and to face for another time that mix of hope, excitement, anticipation and fear that only a one-way ticket can give you.

becoming digital nomad

I spent the year asking myself what it would be like to do that alone, with no boyfriend on my side. This required a lot of peace-making with my infinite traveling-couple souvenirs and to find the courage to take the leap as a solo woman and becoming digital nomad. Strangely enough (or maybe not) I didn’t really meet any real life advocate anymore, instead I kept meeting free women from all over the world that did choose to jump on that train made of hope, excitement, anticipation and fear and were happy with it. Top level marketers that travelled the world and became surf teachers. Airways hostess that quit to surf full time and freelance under a palm tree. I reconnected with girlfriends of mine that have called at least half of European countries their home or explored the world on their own since they were nineteen. And then I talked to my beloved mum, my all-time role model and biggest supporter. A woman that considers even a short day trip outside of her hometown a tiring chore. She said “I’m scared off my mind, but go girl. Go and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t because you’re a woman. You want to be an explorer? So just be it.”

So let be it.

becoming digital nomad
Travel back in time in this 8 wicked locations around the world

Travel back in time in this 8 wicked locations around the world

One of the things that really thrills me when it comes to travel, is the feeling of going back in time. I love the poetry of places that have kept strong customs and tradition for centuries. Those which stay true to their culture, either because of the scarcity of contact with the outside world or for the pride of their people. This is pure travel magic for me.
Today I collected eight of this magical places. Some are easy to reach, while others are hidden corners of rural regions that I found strolling around with a motorbike and that I would struggle to place on a map myself. Or maybe I just want to keep them secret for a little bit longer. But you can read their story and see some pictures further below. So keep on reading and follow me in this very special trip back in time.

 

Places to travel back in time

1. The holy city of Varanasi, India

Varanasi is a place of life and death. India’s oldest and holiest city, it has been sitting on the sacred waters of Ganges since 1200 BC. The ones who get cremated on its shores attain peace, stopping the endless reincarnation cycle. Varanasi is quintessential India: sharp contrasts, devoted spirituality, dirt, flowers, life, sickness, death. Everything happens under the sun: the funeral processions, the chanting and the burning never stop. The codified movements of the low cast wood porters and the experienced acts of the corps burners have been unchanged for centuries. The same goes for the traditional wooden boats, the crumbling temples and buildings, the sunset puja ceremony at Dashashwamedh Ghat, the sadus, the pilgrims bathing just a few meters downstream of the burning ghats, the ladies washing their laundry, the lepers, the wandering cows, the stray dogs and the goats. Everything is timeless.
[SEE ALL VARANASI PICTURES]

 

Places to travel back in time

2. The hill tribes’ villages around Kentung, Myanmar

The small town of Kentung is hidden between the mountains of Shan State, in the eastern Myanmar area known as the Golden Triangle, where China, Thailand and Myanmar meet. A place full of charm and history, once renown for the cultivation of opium and drug trafficking. The surrounding area is the home of more than 30 local ethnicities like Akha, Lahu, Wa and of course Shan. You can spot tribes people at the local market early in the morning, sometimes donning colourful traditional costumes. But the best way to meet them is hiking or biking to their hill villages. One of my biggest regrets is that the day of the hike I felt super sick, so I only have a few poor pictures and I couldn’t really hike a lot. We weren’t hiring any guide; we just went around the area with two local motorbike drivers. We met Akha ladies with black theeths, local men dragging huge logs for construction, armed hunters (with rifles dating back to the 50’s) and we crossed a couple of villages with wooden made aqueducts and every sort of wind chimes. Probably one of my best experiences in Myanmar.
[SEE MYANMAR GALLERY]

 

Places to travel back in time

3. The hidden fishing island of Pulau Weh, Indonesia

Pulau Weh is a tiny island north of Sumatra. It’s the northern tip of Indonesia. Miraculously spared from the 2004 tsunami, Pulau Weh is a fishermen’s island slowly converting to tourism (the enforced Sharia law still keeps the crowds at bay). A mecca for divers, it still holds the feeling of a lost paradise covered in jungle. Riding a motorbike all around the island is an adventure in itself. The winding single track road crosses the thick jungle and the local monkey’s territory. Be mindful if you meet one sitting in the middle of the road staring at you, that’s their home and they’re ready to fight for it!

 

4. Folegandros, the forgotten Cyclade, Greece

This tiny pearl of the Cyclades is a couple of hour boat ride from crowded Santorini and Ios. Probably because of its famous neighbours, Folegandros has been spared by mass tourism. Its bare hills are mostly populated by goats and dotted with white and blue orthodox churches. Almost ten years ago, while hiking there with friends, I heard silence for the first time. Most of the fishermen live downhill, close to the port or in the Chora (the main village), a place where time seems to have stop fifty years ago. The cobblestone lanes are lined with white and blue houses decorated with colourful flowers. The local eateries often display the catch of the day, so it’s not rare to see octopus hanging on a line outside of a restaurant. The dream-like turquoise beaches are usually reachable only on foot, hiking for a good hour. If you get lost, do not fear: ask the local toothless men. Some of them are so old that they can still say a few words in Italian.

 

Places to travel back in time

5. The mountain district of Val Brembana, Italian Alps

The valley of the river Brembo, aka Val Brembana, connects the smooth Bergamo hills with the high peaks of the Italian Alps. This is a wonderful place to go hiking, with paths ranging from mildly steep to vertical ice peaks. The communities that live here are mostly tiny villages scattered on the slopes of the valley. A bunch of stone houses perched upon cobblestone lanes and an old church. The feeling of history and remoteness lingers there all year long, but the best time to visit is in summer, when communities are alive with local Patron Saint festivals, which usually include a Catholic rite, traditional dancing, music and a shitload of local tasty food. Unmissable.

 

6. The lush rural villages in Barisal region, Southern Bangladesh

This is an example of what I mean by not being able to locate a place on the map anymore. I went to Bangladesh in 2014, following my aunt while she was checking on the many projects she built there with her NGO. Southern Bangladesh is a thick jungle full of water and life. Rivers, ponds and lotus flowers are the typical rural scenario there. Following the maze of tracks that cross the rice fields and the fishing ponds, you end up in tiny villages made of straw huts. Their curious people can be Muslim, Indus or even Catholic. I was there just after the rice harvest. The grains were laid out on a cloth to dry in the sun. So were dung patties, used as a stove fuel.
[SEE BANGLADESH GALLERY]

 

Places to travel back in time

7. Hill tribe villages around Tham Lot, Northern Thailand

Another gem of the Golden Triangle is the Mae Hong Son region in Northern Thailand. Bordering Myanmar, for decades now it has been the home of local tribes as well as of refugies from Myanmar. From the lush village of Tham Lot you can start long hikes on the hills, were local families don’t wear the old costumes anymore but still keep their legacy alive, staying in traditional huts and living off farming and the spare cow or chicken. [SEE NORTHERN THAILAND GALLERY]

 

8. Oudong, the former royal capital of Cambodia

I know that when thinking of timeless Cambodia, the mind goes straight to the centuries-old Angkor Wat temples. Which surely is a wonderful display of Khmer history, but it’s also jam-packed with tourists all year long, so that it’s not easy to feel the magic. A lesser known historical site is city of Oudong, the former royal capital of Cambodia, a few kilometers away from Phnom Penh. A complex of temples and palaces from the 19th century, nestled in a thick jungle inhabited by a band of monkeys. Climbing the 509 stone steps to the hill top temple will reward you with astonishing views of the surrounding countryside. That’s the thing, all around there isn’t any touristy infrastructure. Instead, the countryside is dotted with rural villages bustling with life. People going around for their daily chores in old Vietnamese bicycles. Kids going to school in outdated (but super cute) uniforms, chickens running, everyone shouting hello and eventually pointing in the direction of Phnom Penh for you: the dusty red tracks that connect one village to the other have no road signs. [SEE CAMBODIA GALLERY]

Beauty and awareness. Why backpacking in developing countries is not just about saving money

Beauty and awareness. Why backpacking in developing countries is not just about saving money

M ost of my longest journeys have been through South East Asia and in the Indian sub-continent. South America is just next on my bucket list. In the backpackers’ world, these two maxi regions are a destination of choice for many. An interesting aspect that they have in common is that they are both characterized by a predominance of developing countries, with large poverty-stricken areas, unstable political situations, scarce social justice and deeply-rooted corruption.

Despite being popular in the backpackers’ world, these destinations can leave friends and families a bit puzzled, if they aren’t accustomed to long distance travel.

  • “Why the hell do you need to cross half the world to stay in hostel with 10 other people in a dorm without a flush toilet?!”
  • “What’s the point of traveling to a Country ruled by a dictator?”
  • “Will you have enough medical support if you get sick?”
  • “Are you ok with seeing all that poverty while on vacation?”
  • “We have wonderful beaches here in Italy, people come from all over the world to see them, and you want to go to the Philippines just for a beach vacation?!”

These are some of the most common objections I get from non-so-frequent travellers and the elders of my family and colleagues.
Of course one of the reasons for the popularity of developing countries is the low cost of life. Food, accommodation and bus rides are way less expensive than in the western world. Traveling for a month in South East Asia can only cost a fraction of a month of everyday life in a major European city.

But being dirt cheap is not
the only reason that leads me,
and many others,
to travel to developing countries.
Here are some more meaningful ones.

 

Southern Bangladesh
Southern Bangladesh

1 – Enjoying Raw natural beauty

Lush forests to dreamy beaches; thick juggles to volcanoes; corals reef and surf breaks. Tropical Countries are a paradise for nature lovers. Some of my favourite places are Bali and the Gili Islands, Thailand Beaches and the Northern Forests of the Golden Triangle

2 – Witnessing a very different culture.

The further you go, the more different will be the traditions, the way of living and the customs. Your curiosity is as big as the locals’, ad you can end up in very interesting conversations or just in funny exchanges of pointing and laughing. By traveling this far you discover that the westerner way of living is not the only one, and for some of us may not be the best. In terms of cultural heritage, the place that struck me the most is Angkor Wat and its temples in Cambodia.

 

Cabo de Rama, Goa
Palolem, Goa

3- Traveling back in time

This is my favourite one. I realized this in India, where it is pretty evident. Traveling in a Country that hasn’t been completely overturned by modernity and technology and that jealously preserves its colours and culture is simply magic! When wandering through the streets of Varanasi, you can sense that nothing has changed for thousands of years. Same cows wandering freely in the narrow lanes, same crumbling buildings, same hustlers, same religious traditions. At a funeral, the family follows the porters crisscrossing through the narrow lanes, keeping the crowd at bay by chanting and ringing bells. Rags covered wood-porters march with their heavy loads to the burning Ghats. The legend says that the flames of the funeral pyres at Manikarnika Ghats have been burning for some 3,000 years. Being able to witness such an ancient ceremony for me is just pure time travel magic. Check out my Varanasi photo set.

4 – Developing awareness of the international social and political issues

Witnessing poverty and social injustice really open our eyes on the world problems. Experiencing developing countries living conditions or listening to stories from the locals is way more powerful and conscience-awakening than just reading an article on the news. Going to see with our own eyes is necessary, considering that these places usually do not make the news in the western world. Learn more about Burma here or have a look at the pictures I took there.

Varanasi, India
Varanasi, India

5 – Acknowledging how blessed we are

Another effect of witnessing poverty and social injustice is gaining perspective on our own lives. It made me reconsider how many things I took for granted. How lucky I am to be born in a country at peace and never having experienced war or sickness. Lucky to live in a democracy; to live in a Country that (at least on paper) consider man and women equal, where birth control pills and abortion are legal, where medical care is good and free for everyone, as it is school; where police and justice is not (so) corrupt. I’m sure that many of my fellow nationals may have a say on this. In some case I may agree with them but, in the big picture, seeing the living conditions of developing countries made me reconsider my daily complaints and sorrows. See my photo series on Rural Bangladesh and my Bangladeshi portraits.

6 – Discovering that, when it comes to the human race, affinities are more than differences

I learned that despite the differences we are all the same people. When it comes to feelings, many things are the same wherever in the world. The love of a mother that feeds his newborn while waiting for a train in India, the worry of a wife in the Philippines when she tells the story of her husband being attacked by a shark, the colourful happiness of kids playing in front of a school in Bangladesh, the crankiness, or the kindness, of old people. Joy, anger, sadness, fear, love: we do feel them in the same all over the world. We’re all humans.

Traveling by train in India
Jaisalmer, India

7- You don’t need so much to be happy

Who doesn’t enjoy luxury, in theory? Staying in an infinity-pool-hotel with an extra-large suitcase, filled with fancy dresses. Well, Asia taught me that being bare foot on the grass, wearing the same three plain outfits for weeks and sleeping in an open dorm with ten other people without flushing toilets nor hot showers is enough to make me the happiest person in the world. Having a laid back lifestyle, waking up with the sun and being surrounded by interesting people and fierce nature is eye opening on how many bullshits our rich Westerner society consider necessary to be happy. Discover my dearest paradise island in the Pilippines.

Life-saving tips to travel in South East Asia by motorbike

Life-saving tips to travel in South East Asia by motorbike

South East Asia by motorbike
This is not a post for people that have never driven a scooter in their lives and decide to give it a try in Ko Phangan to reach the Full Moon Party. Which, by the way, it’s something that I don’t recommend considering that Ko Phangan has probably the steepest roads of Thailand, usually followed by sharp turns. You’ll see plenty of bandaged backpackers there; they call it “the Thai kiss”. Anyway, this post is for the experienced drivers, the ones that are comfortable with bike riding at home and want to travel independently and adventurously. Long distance travel by motorbike in South East Asia is for motorbike lovers, those who do not fear dust, misadventures and a fair amount of super-fast and life-challenging decision making.

If you fit this description, check out my guide for travelling around South East Asia by motorbike!

Getting the bike:

  • Get an international driving licence before you leave home. Not that it’s really needed, but this is just one of the trillions of excuses that a local policeman will find to fine you.
  • Make sure that your travel insurance covers motorbike accidents.
  • If possible, rent (or buy) from a local place that has been suggested to you by fellow travellers (either online or live). This way you will probably find a seller / renter that speaks English and is kinda trustable. Otherwise, if you feel rich, rent from a foreigner business. You will find them in major cities. They are definitely twice or trice more expensive than local business but you will actually get insurance and a customer service.
  • Choose the most common model on the market. In Asia it’s Hondas. Choosing a common model is fundamental to be able to find spare parts easily along the journey (yes, the bike will break down, it’s a matter of fact).
South East Asia by motorbike
  • If your bike breaks down, you will have to pay for the mechanic even if it’s not your fault and you just rented it 2 days ago. Don’t be afraid, it’s usually minor fixies that will cost you a few dollars. Anyway, it’s always a good idea to have the mechanic to call the renter. This way they can agree on the solution to the bike problem and you’ll probably get a better deal.
  • If the bike gets stolen, you’ll have to pay for it. Same for accidents. This is always true, road insurance is almost never included (it never was in my experience)
  • It is normal to leave your passport to the renter as an insurance that you won’t stole the bike. It’s a common practice that everyone requests. Just take a big breath and trust the renter (but carry photocopies on you). If you’re pulled over, the police will ask for your licence but is well aware that the renter has probably kept your passport as a guarantee.
  • Renting from locals is cheap, but you won’t have a big choice of bikes. Usually they rent only 100cc or, when you’re lucky, 250cc up to 600cc (that only happens in the most tourist destinations like Bali). If you’re planning a long trip, rent one bike per person. Please don’t assume that you can travel with your girlfriend behind you just because you do it back home. Even if you rent the biggest and “comfiest” bike, you will still have to secure some luggage behind the passenger. The restricted space, the dust, corrugated or semi paved roads and the hectic traffic will be a little too much if you’re travelling on the same bike of your partner. I tell you this from experience.
  • Always ask for a helmet. I know that wind in your hair is the best feeling ever and that locals almost never wear helmets, but please, do. First, because driving in South East Asia is crazy dangerous most of the time. Secondly, because not wearing a helmet is a popular excuse for police to fine you (even if no one else wears it).
  • On police: avoid them. If you see a patrol on the right side of the road, drive as left as you can. Do not stop unless you really have to (like there’s a bunch of cops on both sides of the road).
South East Asia by motorbike
South East Asia by motorbike

What to do if the police stop you

In South East Asia you will notice that locals travel on motorbikes in a very creative way. You will cross entire families of six on the same scooter, people carrying animals (dead or alive) or transporting massive loads of goods. Sometimes I even crossed people driving with a sick relative behind them, who was carrying a medical drip along. Despite this street anarchy, you will notice that policemen tend to stop only pale foreigners. They will then fine them for whatever tiniest problem they may or may not have (no helmet, no local licence, lights not working, speeding, running a red light, you name it). This happens because fines are a big part of their wages. That’s exactly why you should avoid them as much as possible, but if the police stop you, remember to:

South East Asia by motorbike
South East Asia by motorbike
  • Take the keys out of the bike and put it in your pocket. This is the first and most important thing to do straight away. If a policeman gets hold of your keys he will be able to ask you whatever amount of money to give them back to you.
  • Have a close look on where your documents go if you hand them out to the police (for the same reason of above).
  • Don’t be scared by the random menaces (“you will have to come to the police station with me” / “we will take your bike”). Try to play it cool and negotiate your way out.
  • Start haggling the “fine”. Propose at least half of what they ask and keep on bargaining. Police “bribes” standards vary a lot from Country to Country. In Cambodia, 1 to 5 dollars is considered ok for minor issues, while in Bali they asked us 30$. Just keep it cool and work it out like it was just another market negotiation.
South East Asia by motorbike
South East Asia by motorbike

Unwritten rules of the road

In Asia they honk a lot. But fear not, there’s always a good reason. With so many vehicles doing whatever on the road, honking means “watch out I’m moving close to you”. So it is usually a life-saver used to signal overtaking, turning, sudden U turns or simply that someone close to you is going to do something risky.

South East Asia by motorbike
South East Asia by motorbike
  • Before overtaking, always check that no one is overtaking you already and then honk while you accelerate. While you do this, you may notice that someone else is doing the same manoeuvre in the opposite direction. Try to stay cool, zig zag the least possible and move quickly.
  • Cover yourself up with long sleeved T-shirts and long trousers if you do not want to be beaten up by the strong sun and the dust. For the same reason remember sunglasses and a scarf to put on your mouth when the dust / smog situation becomes too much. Put heavy sunscreen on your hands and knuckles. If you burn them, you will have to buy gloves (not the easiest task in rural Asia) to be able to drive again.
  • Secure your backpack behind you with hooked elastic bands. Don’t carry it over your shoulders or you’ll suffer from back pain for the rest of your life.
  • Always carry a rain cover for your backpack and a plastic poncho that is large enough to cover your legs as well. Tropical rain is sudden and strong.

A SUV that overtakes a bus in the opposite direction
while you’re overtaking a massive truck full of rocks
which is exhaling black exhaust gas will soon become familiar.

  • It’s cool to have a local sim card to be able to use data and google maps while driving, but bringing a good old paper map is a good idea. If you’re lost, ask the locals. In the most faraway places they may not be able to read a map but they will be more than happy to point out the direction of your destination.
  • If you can, refill in gas stations, but don’t be afraid to stop along the road to the local mamas that sell gas in old coca cola glass bottles. It’s a bit more expensive but a life-saver in most cases.
  • Never underestimate distances. What looks like a major state road on a map can turn out to be a super busy, one-lane road used by oxcart, scooters, huge trucks, SUVs, local bus, etc. In Sumatra it took us a good 12h a day to cover 350km.
  • When you park in crowded areas, along with many other scooters, it’s normal to find your bike somewhere else. People will move it in order to get theirs out. Before panicking, have a look around. Top tip: if you just rented the average black scooter, try to personalize it with a ribbon or something that will help you spot it easily.
South East Asia by motorbike
South East Asia by motorbike

In general, keep it cool, travel at slow pace and enjoy the journey. Sometimes you will be driving through horrendously polluted and busy cities. Other times you’ll peacefully ride along jungle roads or close to the ocean. You will end up in places that are impossible to reach with any other mean of transport. You will really eat and sleep with the local communities and you will find yourself laughing together even if they don’t speak a word of English. You’ll break the bike, repair it, and then break it again. You may get sick. Or very sick. And convince yourself that you’re gonna die that night, in the middle of nowhere.

Well, It may not be for the faint-hearted but it’s very, very rewarding. So good luck and enjoy travelling South East Asia by motorbike!

Want more?
Browse my Cambodia photo gallery:

CAMBODIA ON TWO WHEELS

Are you ready for India?  Most common fears and how to overcome them

Are you ready for India? Most common fears and how to overcome them

“I would love to go to India, but I think I’m not ready yet”. I heard this from many fellow travellers over the years. Some of them were quite experienced travellers as well, who may have crossed all South America on their own, but for some reason, India seems always a step up on the backpacking game and not all of us are ready to take it.

I totally respect the choice, knowing one’s limits is fundamental. I also understand that India may not be for everyone. Many people prefer relaxing places where the less people they meet the better they feel. But for those who are intrigued by the magic of this very special Country but still haven’t booked the ticket because they’re scared, well, knowing what to expect is key. A trip to India will surely include many challenges and some frustrations, it’s part of the game, but I can assure you that none of them will cloud the value of a trip to India.

Here are some of the most common fears about India and my tips on how to overcome them.

first time in India

Surviving the culture shock

On your first time in India, be prepared for a significant culture shock.

All Asia is renowned for provoking this type of reaction in western first timers, but India takes it to the next level. The usual Asian mess made of huge crowds, hectic traffic, funny smells, open sewage, questionable hygienic standards and poverty, in India is ten times bolder.

TIP: The difference with your own Country will be extreme (which is also the reason why you’re there in the first place) and the secret to cope is taking it easy. You can’t handle the street chaos anymore? Treat yourself to an accommodation that is fancier than your standard. It will be pretty cheap anyway and It will work as your detoxing secrete escape.

Adapting to different public hygiene standards

India is extremely real and human in every possible sense. You will notice that most of human activities like cooking, eating, going to the toilet, being sick can be carried out in the streets. In Varanasi, the holy city on Ganges shores, you can even witness funeral processions, open air cremations and bodies floating on the river. On top of that, you have all sorts of farm animals living –and pooping- in the streets, a consistent amount of rubbish and the odd open sewage.

TIP: Wear closed shoes or sturdy sandals like Birkenstock. Street-level flip-flops are a big no. Don’t put your backpack on the ground (or at least check the floor before you do it – this one I learned it the hard way). A light scarf can be of great use to create a barrier between you and the funniest smells.

first time in India

Witnessing social injustice and poverty

Most of the time, travelling to India feels like time travel. And in some ways it is so! Some traditions have stayed the same for thousands of years. Unfortunately, one of those is the infamous cast system, which is still thriving in India. Believing in casts and karma means that if someone is in a shitty condition it means that A- they deserved it because of what they did in their past lives and B-there’s nothing they can do to change the situation in this life. This creates a fatalist and hierarchical society, where you will sometimes witness graphic scenes of poverty, sickness, child begging or violence that will be completely overlooked by thousands of other people passing by.

TIP: Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do about it (at least not in short exploring trip). Take your time to adjust to the new environment. If it takes you two days to find the courage to exit your hostel in Delhi, let it be. Then donate if you feel like it, but always avoid giving money to begging children, not to encourage the practice.

first time in India

Making your way through the crowds

Because of the huge number of inhabitants, in the streets the mantra is “every man for himself” everywhere, all the time. It’s the law of the jungle, even when trying to get a seat on the train, queuing for the toilet, buying bus tickets. You will have to fight your way through a sweaty and solid crowd many, many times.

TIP: Do not overload your days with activities. Visiting a popular site in India can be overwhelming, don’t ask yourself too much. Try not to be in a tight schedule, moving around India is already stressing enough. Leave yourself generous margins to reschedule things due to fatigue, unexpected glitches, sickness or just changes of plan.

Avoiding scams and dangers

Scams happen (and not just in India), that’s a matter of fact. Research online before you go so you can try to avoid the most obvious ones, like the one of the closed hotel (so that the tuk tuk driver can take you to his cousin’s guest house).

TIP: Be ready to hustle: bargaining is key to avoid paying double or triple the price of things. Be prepared to insist if you suffer an injustice (cancelled flights, wrong hotel).

Staying safe as a woman travelling solo

You will notice that Indians stare A LOT. Which, most of the time, is out of curiosity. Thus said, when a horde of men stares at you, maybe even pressing closer, it can be quite intimidating. If you don’t like a situation, just walk away asap (this applies to Planet Earth in general). Guys will ask to take photos with you (they probably just want to show off with family and friends). In this case you can politely decline and walk away or propose a “group photo” this will: A- saves you time, otherwise everybody else will want a picture with you and B- gives you the chance to include other women in the picture. On night trains choose the upper classes, where you will mostly share your trip with families. In stations team up with other local women, that generally are super curious and have a protective attitude toward you crazy gal who’s wandering around alone!

TIP: make sure to dress in a humble and respectful way. If you don’t want to be stared more than necessary, wear long trousers or a Sari, avoid sporting a décolleté and always take a scarf with you. This will help you stand out less in the crowds.

Delhi Belly

Well, just embrace the risk. Even if you drink and brush your teeth with bottled water, you keep your mouth shut while showering, you repeat “no-water-no-ice-please” as a mantra all day long, you eat at the best looking eateries… You might get sick. I get sick on every single trip. May it be an easy two weeks’ getaway to Bali or a three months long South East Asia experience, I will get sick. It’s a matter of fact. It happens every time and India was no exception. It was actually one of the worst (probably water) intoxication I ever gone through. But for me it’s part of the game now, I’ve been through so many embarrassing situations that Delhi Belly does not scare me anymore.

TIP: be prepared and take the traveller’s Holy Trinity with you. And by that I mean:

  1. Antidiarrheal drug of choice
  2. Broad spectrum of antibiotic (I use Ciproxin)
  3. Probiotics to restore the flora

Just to be on the safe side, I also carry antacid and antispasmodic drugs to settle my stomach and tummy.

Don’t let your fears stop you!

While you are preparing for the worse, a ton other wonderful things will happen: you will witness incredible traditions, costumes, art, architecture and food. You will be amazed by the people: their genuine curiosity towards you and the country you come from (top tip: bring a family photo to pass around while telling –or gesturing- your story to locals, you’ll be amazed by the reactions) their kindness, their understanding despite the culture and language gap. You’ll found that connecting with Indians was way easier than with every other people in Asia (the fact that many of them speaks English helps for sure).

My general suggestion here is, if you can, to travel to at least one other Asian country before travelling to India. Learning how to deal with Vietnamese street frenzy, Cambodian dizzying wealth gap or Indonesian no-sewage situation may prepare you for India. But not for the cows (and their poop) in the streets. That’s just in India!

So what are you waiting for? Book that ticket for your first time in India and don’t worry if you’re travelling alone, you will meet plenty of other likeminded traveller to share the road, a laugh and adventure with. And you will have the experience of your life enjoying this mystical, chaotic, colourful and magical Country.

 

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Browse my India photo gallery:

VARANASI

INCREDIBLE INDIA

Bali and beyond. A quick Indonesian getaway.

Bali and beyond. A quick Indonesian getaway.

backpacker trip to bali

Indonesia holds a very special place in my heart, to the point that I’m even considering moving there for a while.  Still, it’s not the easiest place to travel in. Java has wonderful temples but it’s the typical crowded, dirty, overpopulated and freaked out Asian capital. Sumatra has lush forests and wonderful reefs, but the limited travel infrastructure and the strict Sharia law that is still enforced in the north can be a problem. Sulawesi and its funeral rituals have been on my bucket list for years now, but it’s far out and massive, meaning that transfers can take days. Which holds true for most of the Archipelago. As well as sleeping in creepy guesthouses, last minute transport fiascos and sudden and unpredictable rain in some parts of the country. For these reasons, a 2 or 3 weeks’ holiday can easily morph into a stressful Asian madness compilation.

Bali and it’s neighbouring islands
still represent a backpackers’ paradise
despite the crowds

 

My suggestion for such a short period of time is to choose one or two islands and to stick to those. In Indonesia, Bali and the close Gili Islands, Lombok and Nusa Lembongan still represent a backpackers’ paradise despite the crowds and have so, so much to offer. So here’s why a backpacking trip to Bali might be your best choice for a quick Indonesian getaway.

backpacker trip to bali

A place for nature lovers

The heart of Bali is a lush jungle that gives way to rice fields. Driving a motorbike up and down its green hills dotted with temples and coffee plantations is one of the most rewarding experiences I ever had in Asia all together. You’ll also find dreamy beaches, clear water, incredible cliffs and rock formations.

One of the most colorful cultures of Asia

Balinese culture is what struck me the most. So gentle and delicate and still, so well preserved. Locals practice Balinese Hinduism, a distinct form of Hindu worship incorporating local animism, ancestor worship and reverence for Buddhist saints. Which to me looks like the best of everything.

Temples and Gods statues are everywhere. They are attended daily for morning offers, prayers, traditional music and dance practice. Every evening you’ll be immersed in Gamelan music coming from the temples, where the sunset prayer is accompanied by percussive instruments, xylophones and bamboo flutes.

Traditional Balinese culture
is still part of modern Bali

 

Their gentle religion also means that, as a girl (local and foreigner alike), you can comfortably walk around wearing shorts, tank tops, and summer chemises without being frown at. Of course you’ll have to cover up when entering a temple, but everywhere else you’ll be fine.

As soon as you leave the most touristic areas, you’ll find traditional houses that look like temples, people that still wear the traditional longyi and shops that sell religious ornaments.

backpacker trip to bali

Up the hills and underwater, what to do in Bali

 

SURF

Bali, Nusa Lembongan and Lombok are all full of surf spots for every level. Waves are consistent and the water is crystal clear. What else. Check out all the surf spots here

SNORKELLING AND DIVING

in Bali you can dive in the north and on the east side of the island, and nearby islands are full of diving sites. I snorkelled around the Gilis, which are surrounded by calm waters and wonderful reefs. You can even see turtles just swimming off the beach.

HIKING

You can either chose to trek between the rice fields or to climb Mount Batur (1700m) or Mount Agung (3000m) the two Balinese volcanos. But if you like volcano hiking your best choice is Mount Rinjani on Lombok, the third highest mountain in Indonesia (3700m).

TEMPLE HOPPING

You’ll have plenty to choose from. Some are immersed in the jungle, others just pop up at crossroads. Tanah Lot, Uluwatu and Besakih Temple are just some of the most famous.

One of the finest cuisines in Asia

Who knows me well knows I’m not a food lover. I grew up with a very basic diet and I tend not to appreciate food when it’s too spicy, too soy-saucy or just too strange looking. Which basically covers all Asian food. Thus said, food lovers swear that Balinese cuisine is one of the best of the region. In Bali it’s also possible to find many international options and very good grilled fish for those who also struggle with Asian food.

backpacker trip to bali

Swift transports and dreamy accomodations

Another reason that makes this area of Indonesia perfect for a quick getaway is the ease with which you can travel around. Bali is served by all mayor local and international airlines. Several ferry companies connect it with the neighbouring islands multiple times a day. Scooter renting is between the cheapest in South East Asia and even during peak season (June-August) you don’t need to reserve to find wonderful accommodations. We never spent more than 15$ for a double room, in places that ranged from lovely beach bungalows to local guesthouses with fancy open air jungle bathrooms, to beautiful traditional mini resorts with swimming pool, breakfast and batik throws on the beds.

Exploring the nearby islands

 

GILI ISLANDS

just 45 minutes of fast ferry away from Bali you will land on three paradise islands, without cars nor scooters, but just horses and chariots to move around. Gili T is the party Island, Gili Meno is a teeny tiny islet, very quiet and honeymoony, and Gili Air is the hippy happy place where we spent four days eating fresh grilled tuna and swimming with turtles.

LOMBOK

Equally blessed with amazing beaches, surf spots and thick jungle, Lombok is traditionally the quieter sister of Bali. For those that really are into hiking, here you can climb Indonesia second-highest volcano, which also fancies a crater-lake and some neighbouring hot springs where you can dip on your back from the summit.

NUSA LEMBONGAN

a surfers’ paradise that many define as “Bali 20 years ago”. For the true surfers or for those who really hate the crowds.

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Browse my Bali and Gilis photo gallery:

BALI AND THE GILI ISLANDS

Where to go in Thailand? Discover the backpacker trail

Where to go in Thailand? Discover the backpacker trail

This article originally appeared on my old blog, Downunderpirates, in June 2014.

 

Today I’m finally taking you to amazing Thailand, a place that everyone has to see at least once in its life. Thailand it’s an extremely easy country to travel in. It is South East Asia’s tourist hub and the final gateway to wilder destinations. A cosy country that welcomes you with a sticky hug and lulls you with its wonderful beaches, luxury accommodation, tasty food, bright colours and infinite smiles. Thailand is the perfect destination to have a glimpse of South East Asian lifestyle without behind swallowed by the hard-core frenzy of Vietnam, Cambodia and so on. Here are my tips for a nice backpacker trip to Thailand.

 

Thailand is the best Country
to start exploring South East Asia
if you’re new to the region

Coming from the challenging journey through Burma, Thailand was like a breath of fresh air for us: Reliable transport system, English speaking people, edible food (even western food sometimes!) lovely accommodations and no open sewage anywhere to be seen!
I know I might sound like a spoiled western tourist that travels around in stilettos and fancy dresses, but trust me, I’m not. After backpacking our way overland through Cambodia and Burma for two months, while also experiencing serious food poisoning along the way, we were a mess and we deserved a break.

backpacker trip to Thailand

We stepped in the northern part of the country as March and the hot season were approaching. Northern Thailand is a lush highland territory, known for its temples-filled cities: Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai; and its backpacker trail of small mountain communities and former hill tribe villages that still populate the border areas.

We embarked in an off road
scooter adventure
with nothing more than
a crayon-written map
of the area as GPS

As we still were in the mood for meet ups with hill tribe villagers, we embarked in an off road scooter adventure to explore the villages near Ta Ton. It was a big mistake. We ended up on narrow mountain tracks, then into a creek and in the end we Andre even had to push the scooter under the midday sun on an extremely steep and slippery hill. With no water. And nothing more than a crayon-written map of the area as GPS.
backpacker trip to Thailand
Of course there were entire Thai families travelling on the same scooter, who were handling this no worries, but hey, they’re local. Personally, I almost cried when we hit asphalt again. By the way there were no “traditional” villages to be seen, just regular mountain huts. Fail. Anyway, totally worth it. (Maybe not.)

Pai is a lush playground
for people
in their twenties

The next stop in our northern circuit was backpacker’s paradise and hippy headquarters Pai village. Pai is a (not so) hidden gem of the northern mountains, reachable only with a 4h minibus journey from Chiang Mai. The road is wonderful. Dotted with traditional wooden huts shadowed by lush vegetation. It’s extremely winding as well, and you have good chances of smelling puke on your way into town. If you’re lucky it won’t be yours. We spent four lovely days there, enjoying fellow travellers company again, strolling through night markets (where we ate THE BEST PIZZA in more than one year) and chilled by the pool. Basically it was like a playground for people in their twenties.

From there we moved north again, close to Burma, to have a last glimpse of the hill tribes before heading south for the islands. We explored the surroundings of Tham Lot cave, staying in the charming Cave Lodge, one of the best guesthouses I ever stayed in my life (you can see some pictures here). Despite our best efforts, we didn’t find any other “traditional” tribe. At least not as traditional as the ones that we met in Burma. I fear that in today’s Thailand hill tribes have been exploited for tourism purposes for so long that nowadays they (almost) blurred into modern Thailand.

Thus said, Thai constitution does not consider them as citizens, basically leaving them to themselves without even basic services such as schooling, healthcare, age care and so on. Don’t get me wrong, even if they don’t dress traditionally anymore, they are very interesting people to meet and have a chat with – we spoke with an Akha catholic catechist, that loved Pope Francis almost as Thai whiskey. But please, stay away from all those tourist-trap agencies in Chiang Mai and Chaing Rai that promise to bring you on “hill tribe tours”, often showing you the Padaung -long neck- women in in a very sad, sort of human safari situation. Spoiler: Padaung women are not Thai, they come from Burma EXCLUSIVELY to be exploited in the tourism industry. Please stay away.

In Krabi we assisted to our first
family friendly transgender beauty contest

From Pai, we engaged in a 48h trip that involved a minibus and two overnight buses to Krabi. Located on the Adaman sea, Krabi is the heart of a stunning coastline dotted with limestone formations and colourful ocean environment. The final scene of the famous 007 movie “The Man with a Golden Gun” was actually shoot here. In Krabi, we rested on stunning beaches that you can see here and went island hopping, experiencing the stark difference between westerner and Thai habits when on a boat trip. Thai do swim (with “swimming” I mean floating around in life vests and snorkelling gear) FULLY clothed. Which involves sitting on the boat all dripping wet. For them, a darker tone of skin is not desirable, so they make sure that even their hands and face (the only exposed body parts) are abundantly covered in SPF 90 or something. At the same time the few westerners that were with us lied bare skin on the prow of the long tail boat, sunbathing carelessly.

Diving in Ko Lanta was
one of the highlights of my life

From Krabi, where we happily assisted to our first family friendly transgender beauty contest, Miss Krabi, we moved south to Ko Lanta, which didn’t really stand out for us. Anyway, we got the change to dive here. It was my first dive! There’s no words to explain how great it was. I’m pretty claustrophobic by nature and the idea of going 12 meters underwater didn’t really excite me, but guys, it was seriously one of the highlights of my life. Never mind if the day after I was so sick that I thought I caught Dengue fever. The corals and the fish that we saw were as flashy as the ones that you can see on a National Geographic issue. Underwater it’s full of life, and crazy creatures and Co2 bubbles that float around. It was just perfect. Ten thousand times better than the poor Great Barrier Reef in Australia, that is now sadly greyish and dying. Not to mention that Australian Pacific waters are freaking cold even with a thick full sleeves wet suit. In Thailand you can dive comfortably with a short sleeved suit. Or even in your bikini if you’re called Sarah and you are a dive instructor coming from the UK, and therefore laughing in the face of anything warmer of the North Sea.

Ko Phangan is more than
anyone in their twenties
may ask for a holiday

From there, we finally got to our last beach destination, the ultimate backpackers paradise, the hippiest party island on planet earth, home of the infamous Full Moon Party that every month brings something like 200.000 people to the biggest beach party of the world: Ko Phangan. That place is legit. Way, way, way cheaper that Ibizia, Mykonos or whatever in Europe we consider a party island, Ko Phangan kicks ass. The good thing about it, is that it actually gets rid of the 200.000 clubbers as soon as the morning comes. Leaving the island to the quiet paradise that it is for the rest 29 days of the month. We decided to avoid the Full Moon Party, mostly because accommodation prices in those days raise even three times more than usual, and because going as a couple to a massive rave party didn’t seem to fit. But I’m definitely ready to get back as soon as some of my friends will want to. Ko Phangan is fun.

The mix between some of the most beautiful beaches I ever seen, parties (a part from the Full Moon one, there’s plenty of smaller happenings all along the month), cool people in their twenties, good food and charming bungalows on the beach. More than anyone my age can ask from a holiday. We stayed in Ko Phangan six days, the longest stop ever in our year-and-three-months of travelling.

From there on, our beach time was over, and our long long trip as well. But bustling Bangkok still stood in the way and offered us four days of crazy shopping, good food, amazing sightseeing (check out the Royal Palace pictures here!) and a pretty neat insight of what a South East Asian megalopolis looks like. I loved it. It was not as messy as Phnom Penh and way more clean than Yangoon or Mandalay. Bangkok is a city of sharp contrasts and surprising beauty. It has water canals and massive highways, majestic shopping palaces and narrow alleyways in Chinatown, historical palaces and skyscrapers. Make sure you check it off your bucket list soon!

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Browse my Thailand Photogalleries:

NORTHERN THAILAND

THAILAND BEACHES

BUSTLING BANGKOK

This is Burma and it is unlike any land you know about

This is Burma and it is unlike any land you know about

Disclaimer: This post has been written in 2014, when the country just stared to open up. Since then, things have changed A LOT. Friends that visited last year told me stories of cheap sim cards and 3G everywhere; online accommodation booking and no more Chinese trucks from the ‘40s. Anyway, the struggle is still real. The message here is that while Myanmar is a wonderful and still partly unspoiled Country, it ain’t no entry level Asian destination. I often discuss this matter with other well-seasoned backpackers that have been there too and everyone admits it’s a tough Country to travel in. I don’t mean to discourage you if you’re planning to go, but be aware that it won’t be a walk in the park, at all. Be prepared. So here are my tips for travelling to Burma.

“This is Burma
and it is unlike
any land you know about”

That is how Rudyard Kipling introduced Burma in his Letters From The East in 1898. More than a hundred years later, when you step in Myanmar, the feeling still stands. With a contemporary history marked by the longest military dictatorship in the world, the opening of its borders is quite a novelty. Virtually cut off from Western progress and influence, Burma is still a place where people travel on carts towed by oxen, on plows, on Chinese trucks 50 years old with bare engines and, more generally, on Thai vehicles (left-hand drive) driving the English way (driving on the left).

Both the direction of travel and the name of the country changed in 1948. Burma became Myanmar when the newly born military junta wanted to take a sharp turn after the English era.

 

Tips for travelling to burma

Outside the big centres, women still make laundry at the river. They carry water at home two ounces at a time, and electricity is almost never working. Even in Yangon and Mandalay, blackouts are still quite common, that’s why you’ll see gigantic diesel generators outside of most buildings. Although internet and mobile phones are spreading fast, costs are still a bit crazy: one hundred dollars for a sim card and a Wi-Fi connection speed that takes you back to the nineties. On street corners, you’ll find ladies sitting at small desks with a landline phone on top. They are the freelance of the phone booth: people go see them to make phone calls with spare change.

Myanmar is also a country inhabited by a huge variety of ethnic minorities. Tribal groups speak their own language, have different traditions and different religion. For decades they have fought for territorial independence, meeting the hard knock of the regime, bloodshed and persecution.

Despite the alleged current peace, disorders continue in various areas, obviously off limits for tourists. Indeed, entire parts of the country are still closed, others have just opened and can only be reached with endless combinations of buses, boats and jeeps, or even exclusively by air. In any case, no one seems to be able to provide reliable information about where you can go and where you can’t.

However, things are changing fast in Myanmar. In recent years, the regime has finally released the political prisoner and democratic ambassador Aung San Suu Kyi, it organized a pseudo-election and finally welcomed some opposition members in parliament. Some hundreds of political prisoners have been released, although as many remain in prison. Newspapers and magazines still have to pass through government censorship, making it impossible to publish anything more frequent than a weekly paper, but you can now see pictures and articles of the Lady in the local press. In many restaurants, you’ll find her portrait on the walls and people start to be less afraid.

 Since last August (2013), three land crossings with Thailand have been opened, and the tourist visa has been extended to twenty-eight days. All these changes have created a few discrepancies with the travel stories we collected before coming to Burma. Those who had been here only three or four years ago complained the lack of time and advised all the experiences they couldn’t do: day trekking through the countryside around Inle Lake, almost unattainable archaeological sites, slow boat cruises that lasted two/three days and so on. On the other hand, those who just came back argued that surviving the long month of the visa wasn’t easy. The truth is that traveling to Burma is tiring and exhausting. There are just four main destinations where tourists are pushed: Bagan Pagodas, the placid Inle Lake, Yangoon and Mandalay. Despite this, huge gaps in the newly born tourist industry make travelling extremely complex and tiring.

Long distance buses pass only once a day and usually leave on early evening, which means that their passengers will be conveniently vomited at their destination between 2 to 5 amWhile accommodation prices skyrocketed in recent years due to government taxes on foreign tourism, the overall quality is extremely poor if compared to the rest of South East Asia. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a true down-to-basics hard-core backpacker, but I still get pissed when a lacklustre double room that in Thailand or Cambodia would cost a handful of dollars max, in Myanmar is worth more than twenty. But assuming that one does not go to Myanmar to relax (in theory, not even to freak out 24 hours a day),

There are many reasons
why the country of the golden pagodas
is worth visiting:

1. Exiting overland crossing

Crossing the border from Mae Sot to Myawaddy by land means moving along with thousands of Burmese and Thais on their way to the Friendship Bridge carrying massive luggage. We crossed the border mountain range on a six-seater car, with seven people aboard, on a dirt road where the traffic is one-way every other day. A desperate trip made in an infinite convoy of vehicles of all sorts and age, usually with a load twice their size. A compact mess that moves at 20km/h and stops each time a truck takes a break to cool down its tires and engine (locals has set up roadside business of water cane cooling, as in the best Asian entrepreneurship tradition).

Tips for travelling to burma

2. Folks and local traditions

The red grins of men, with their mouth full of betel. That’s a chewing mixture of nicotine-like herbs and red roots that makes everyone look like Dracula. The women’s shy smiles, with their tulle hats and their tanaka-painted face, the traditional make-up made of powdered bark and aloe, which keeps their skin fresh. The children who say hello non-stop: “hello, bye bye, ningalabaaaaaah!” Music that is everywhere and anywhere all the time. Everyone is singing, listening to a blasting radio or pumping traditional songs in home-made sound systems for the benefit of the whole village. The cult of tea and tea houses, open as early as 3am to welcome at their comforting bonfire the spare travellers that just descended a bus and have no idea where to go. Burmese tea is often mixed with condensed milk and served with hot fritters: so sweet that your coronaries might explode just looking at it.

3. Getting out of the beaten track

Near the southern border with Thailand you’ll find Hpa-an’s rice fields and granite pinnacles, Bhuddas-filled caverns and sleepy villages. Very few tourists make it till here so the place still holds plenty of atmosphere.

The railway line between Mandalay and Lashio sways for 240km through the countryside. From the window youl’ll spot farmers with the typical pointed hat and children walking to school wearing the traditional lonji (the local sarong). Misty mountains are crossed by the massive Goteik viaduct, where the train slows down at a crawl.

Absolutely not to miss are the tribal villages of the Golden Triangle, on the border with Laos and northern Thailand. Here time seems to have stopped a hundred years ago. Akha women still wear elaborate hats decorated with silver coins, while Ann women wear garments as black as their smile, darkened by the spices they mix with betel.

4. Making new friends

Myanmar ain’t no backpacker paradise. Actually, most of the time you can count tourists on one hand. This plus the scarcity of areas where you can actually go means that you’ll easily meet the same people everywhere. When I spent a day alone at Inle Lake (Andrea was back to Bagan to see the temples he hadn’t seen due to fever) I met more people then than during the previous month. I had a bike ride, I crossed the lake with other people loading five bikes on a longtail boat, I swam, climbed up to a mountain monastery, and attended an unlikely wine tasting on the hills at sunset. I even had an Italian dinner prepared by a local chef who learned the art from a passing italian. Everything was priceless.

 

Thus said, there are also many reasons
why I don’t recommend Myanmar
to Asia first timers or glampackers:

1. Moneywise it’s a mess

Theoretically, you shall enter Burma with all the cash you’ll need for your trip. No credit cards, no traveler’s checks, no ATMs. (Disclaimer: this is outdated, apparently ATMs are now present in big cities and locals accept also warned-out dollars)

The wad has to be equally divided in brand new US dollars and in Kyat, the local currency. Which can be tricky if you’re not coming from home but from Thailand, and you have just one credit card left between the two of you (This is another story, but just in case you are in the same situation: raise the card withdrawal limit, find a big bank like Bank of Thailand that allows cash back operations, withdrawl in bahts, change the bahts in dollars and then change half of it into Kyat on the black market of the border: swift and easy).

2. Constant travel discomfort

Like when we spent two days and one night on the local boat from Bagan to Mandalay, without any book, playing cards, food (or at least edible food), toilets (apart from a hole in the floor in the back of the boat), nor sleep. As if deck sleeping wasn’t sweet enough, the village where the boat was docked transmitted three hours of super loud Buddhist prayers in the middle of the night. A gem.

Be prepared for the sleepless nights. There will be many. Night buses arrive at destination in middle of the night, so you’ll spend the wee hours staring at roadside bonfires (bless the tea houses) waiting for guesthouses to open and eventually check you in. Continuous changes of plan due to travel complications, illness, rain or generalized desperation. I remember spending long hours wandering in Mandalay in search of something edible between dense traffic, the darkness of blackouts, and the constant terror of falling in the open sewage strategically placed where a sidewalk should be. Or to undertake a 200km train journey to go on an off-the-beaten-track hiking trip just to be bounced off to marvellous Mandalay again because of the non-stop rain (in the middle of the dry season!)

3. Sound pollution on public transport

On long distance buses, the ubiquitous TV-set broadcasts loud local soap operas with actors donning longjis and tanaka. Or super lame shows that include songs, dances, traditional costumes and very sad jokes highlighted by laugh track. Or even pop song karaoke videos. With the singers that look like faded photocopies of Western pop stars who struggle with love triangles. For some obscure reason aircon is always adjusted on level “arctic breeze”. Not that the rest of South East Asia is any better on the matter. So, as a general rule, wear your warmest clothes and for god sake put on a beanie. Buy one at the bus station if need to. You’ll thank me later. You’re welcome.

 

In short, Myanmar is a mess. If you choose to go, be ready. And if you’re ready, be more ready! Try to avoid the beaten track (the coasts of the south and the north-western territories just opened) and for the love of God keep away from the boats!

Want more?
Browse my Burma Photogallery:

BURMESE DAYS

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