Die another day: One day in Zambia

It was a day that started quite unlike any other. I woke stuck to the tent in sweat, opened my eyes and remembered: I’m in Africa. It was the first day of a three week  camping adventure overlanding through Southern Africa starting in Zambia. We only had one day here so I had to make the most of it. I had no idea what that would really mean.

Victoria Falls through the trees.


Whitewater rafting in the Zambezi

The Zambezi is one of the best places on earth to go whitewater rafting. That’s what I was told. I didn’t realise that ‘the best’ meant one of the roughest and most dangerous.

After a brief safety demo we took an open truck to the river, close to the famous Victoria Falls. A local gathered us round to tell us the story of Nyami Nyami, the Zambezi River God of Tonga folklore that is said to live in the Zambezi.  Inevitably we are tricked into buying a Nyami Nyami pendant to protect us that day, a piece of jewellery that has a significance similar to the St Christopher of Christianity. I didn’t know how much I’d need it.

We clambered down the steep banks to the boats. Even before we left I was nearly hurled off my perch by the force of the tide. Under orders we paddled hard to reach the first rapid, only to be buffeted back. We tried again. And again. Our inexperience showed.

The scale of Victoria falls is hard to describe.

Finally we reached it- and the boat flipped, hurling us deep under water. I was disorientated, it was dark, I couldn’t work out which way was up,  I couldn’t breathe- and then I bobbed to the surface, my lifejacket pulling me back to the world above water when I couldn’t work out where that was.

It scared me more than I expected- I knew I’d fall in but I didn’t anticipate the water being so violent, or how deep you’d get thrown down in the force. As we approached the next rapid I gripped on for dear life and just about made it, only to be thrown headlong again at the third.

This time as I bobbed up I hit a rubber wall. I’d become trapped under the boat and couldn’t feel my way out. My lungs screamed as I panicked, groping my way along it to try to find the way out. The water changed direction again and I was finally free. Now I understood that Nyami Nyami wasn’t to be messed with.

Made another. Fell in another. This time the following rapid was too close- I couldn’t make it to the boat in time and had to go over freestyle before being dragged back to safety by a rescue kayak. My heart thudded out of my chest. Extreme sports? Never again.

When we finally made it to the end we were told we could float for awhile to rest before clambering up the sheer face to land again. With Zambia on one side and Zimbabwe on the other, I blinked, shellshocked at the sun, and thanked God we had got through.

‘I’m going to do the bungee jump over Victoria falls’, my tent-mate told us. ‘Will anyone come with me?’

Well if I didn’t die this morning, I thought…

Celebratory survival pose

Victoria Falls

Victoria Falls itself is hard to describe in words. I don’t think I’ve ever been so struck by the sheer power of nature. The noise of such a volume of water thudding with such power over the rock face, that stretches for nearly two kilometres. I stared, stunned for a long time before getting my camera out, trying to take it all in.

Then we saw the bridge over the river where people bungee. And the drop.

I had intended to just go along with my tent-mate for moral support. And yet.

I’m terrified of heights. I get the heebie jeebies just looking down from escalators or steep theatre steps. But I would never be here again. I didn’t want to be the person who went to the bungee at Victoria Falls and just watched. As I was trying to decide whether to fork out the £90 to do the jump, I looked at myself in the mirror and thought. If I can do this, nothing will ever seem scary again.

The bridge over the Zambezi

The jump

Standing on the metal grill at the edge of the bridge an hour later, I regretted the decision. My feet were bound in towels- towels?! Is that really enough?! And I’d been alarmed at the lack of safety videos or instruction. A video camera zoomed in on my face, ready to catch the jump.

Even seeing the water so far below through the grills of the platform made my stomach flip. Locals were standing on the bridge as spectators, were chanting my name. The man pulled out my arms to be wide and made me shuffle to the edge. Stop, I might fall off! I started, before remembering that was the point. The chanting continued. I’m going to have to die because of peer pressure.

They counted down, they counted down, oh god help what am I going to do?! And then I was falling, falling, falling, how didn’t it stop?! I stupidly clung to the harness as though that would stop me down or slow the impact, until the rope reached the end and I bounced back up- the rushing river pulling away again. And then the falling was happening again- and again- until I finally slowed to a stop, swaying upside down looking at the river.

Mid-jump

I realised no one had told me what to do at this bit. I stayed hanging there stupidly until a man appeared, lowering himself on a rope and swinging towards me. He grabbed me and clipped me too him and then pulled us back up to the bridge, where I grabbed onto the metal and decided never to leave land again.

‘How was it?’ our guide asked when we got back to the campsite bar, desperate for a strong drink to celebrate surviving the day. ‘There was this time’, he said ‘when we took a girl and her rope snapped, and she fell into the water and broke both legs and her collarbone’.

I put down my gin and tonic and looked at him. ‘She survived though’ he said quickly, ‘She managed to swim with one arm to the side. Thankfully the crocodiles weren’t out.’

We were disbelieving, but the story was true. Apparently the Zimbabwean president had a go once the bungee was reopened just to prove it was safe.

‘Why didn’t you tell us before?!’ I asked.

‘Because you wouldn’t have done it. But it does make a funny story.’

I downed my drink. One day in Zambia. At least twice I had thought it might be my last, but I’ve never again had a day quite like it.

Too close for comfort: how to not get crushed by a hippo in Botswana

Cause of death: flying hippo. I could see the coroner’s report as I finally gasped a breath on the hull of the mokoro canoe, sure that it could hear my heart thudding as the beast passed beneath us, inches below my belly, and the boat rocked. In the part of my brain that wasn’t processing whether I was still alive, I vaguely wondered how my mum would convey the news in her Christmas round-robin email.

It had come from nowhere. We had been laughing, reclined comfortably in the dugout canoe as we returned to the mainland of Botswana after a night camping out in the wild of the Okovango delta, where elephants and big cats patrolled through the night and could pass by your tent at any time.

When locals panic, you know there is something seriously wrong. ‘That was too close. Far too close’. Our guide was shaken. ‘Keep staying down’. Then after several achingly long minutes we crawled back into our seats and wove in silence back through the rivulets we had traversed at sunrise. ‘We have to go another way’.

 We had started the previous day with a much more peaceful ride through the delta. We saw the snouts of a whole family of hippos in the distance and gawped with delight as we glided by, snapping shots of the ears and eyes poking out of the water that glinted in the late afternoon sun. Enough of a threat to be aware of, but far away enough that they didn’t seem bothered with us. ‘Keep your distance, and be quiet. Hippos just don’t like to be startled’. We were told. ‘And they don’t like it when you get between them and the water.’

On land, we pitched our tents. The trees offered protection from the sun, but also a showering in mopane worms, the caterpillars that are iconic in Botswana, featuring both on the currency, pula, and in local dishes. They dripped from every tree, and I squirmed with the constant unnerving feeling they had dropped into my hair and clothes. We dug a hole to shit in, sticking a loo roll on a spiked branch. Home for the night.

‘Don’t pee if you can help it. If you do, pee right by the tent. If you see eyes, get straight back in. If you see green eyes, it’s not a predator, but an elephant could still panic and stampede. If you see red eyes, it’s a predator, and they’ll be the last you’ll ever see.’ The warning was enough. I chose dehydration over death with my pants down.

As it neared evening, the sun bled red into the sky and made the earth a glowing furnace against which we became no more than silhouettes imprinted on the horizon.

That night, we lit a fire to keep the animals away, over which our guide cooked potjiekos, a southern African stew and brewed fresh roobios tea.Local people sang songs in the Setswana language and encouraged us to join them in swaying hips and clapping hands. All the while I kept an eye on the horizon for eyes of green and red.

Come dawn, it seemed the danger had passed. A quick breakfast and back in the mokoros. We had been travelling for nearly an hour when there was a crash in the bushes and we stopped suddenly. ‘Ssshhhh!’ the hand of our driver waved for us to be quiet.

If I had reached out an arm I could have touched the hippo we were faced with on the bank. Its head alone was as long as my body, its yellowed fangs as long as my hand, and sharp. And we were between it and the water. It snorted, kicked its back legs.

‘Get down’. The guide muttered under his breath and I slid under the seat, not taking my eyes off it. We stayed that way for several minutes, us watching it watching us. I didn’t dare breathe in case it could hear us.  I wondered how much it weighed. If it charged, would it crush us immediately? Would we die from the impact, or drown if it brought us under the water?

Then it leapt. Just in front of the nose of the boat where I had been sitting, sending a wave over us, and the boat rocked with the weight of it pushing by.

I didn’t feel like an intrepid explorer. I felt very, very small.

Monk chat: a day at Buddhist University

‘Can monks have iPhones?’ Phra KK smiled at the question and pulled one out of his orange robes, joking about how he was using it for ‘sexy selfies’.

I’d never met a monk before Phra KK, and I was happily surprised by how chilled out, relatable, and sometimes downright silly he was.

While I didn’t want to be one of those ‘ya I went to Thailand and now I’m a Buddhist bla bla’ people, it seemed to me to me that to go to Thailand and not try to learn anything about the prevailing belief system (note, not religion) would be pretty ignorant and disrespectful to the culture. What’s the point in going to fabulous temples if you only take the pics for instagram and don’t really engage with the history, stories, and the importance of them in the lives of the people whose home you are fortunate enough to be able to visit?

I’ve always liked the ‘idea’ I had of what Buddhism was, but I didn’t know much about it apart from the fact that it was generally a peaceful thought system with an emphasis on meditation, kindness, and self understanding.  So I signed up for a day’s ‘Introduction to Buddhism and Meditation’ course at Wat Suan Dok, part of the Buddhist University in Chiang Mai.

A row of Buddhas at Wat Pho in Bangkok

The day started with an ‘Introduction to Buddhism’; the story of the life of Buddha, the finding of a ‘middle way’ between over indulgence in sensual pleasure and living in suffering, and an explanation of the ‘precepts’ (rules).

As expected, much of the philosophy appealed to me: the emphasis on peace and non-violence, including not causing suffering to others, not killing or eating animals, rejection of capitalism, treating everyone as equals, humility, and living in accordance with the eco-system.

Some of it would be more challenging: no music, no dancing, intoxicants, sexual relationships, and worst of all, no snacks.

The next part of the day was an introduction to meditation. Having come to Thailand as a ‘recovery holiday’ after a period of emotional crisis, I was very attracted to the idea of being freed from thoughts and finding stillness. It’s something I’d found impossible in the hubbub of London life, but maybe here in the peace of the temple, I thought I could find it.

A monk giving a blessing at Wat Phra Doi Suthep

Phra KK talked us through various techniques, and we practiced; sitting meditation, using beads, and a walking meditation in which you walk extremely slowly, with concentration of every moment of every gentle step. It was interesting to learn about how it worked for him and I can definitely see the value in it, but I found it too hard to detach. I was distracted and eventually bored, wondering what was for lunch and if he’d noticed if I stopped to scratch an itch. The focus on breathing definitely helps with calming and reconnecting with your body, and it’s something I’ve found useful as I’ve been learning to practice yoga. But as much as he promised it was normal to struggle especially to start with, I’m not sure it’s something I’ll ever be able to manage.

The day ended with a question and answer session, in which Phra KK fielded all manner of questions about the belief system itself and the feasibility of practicing it in life in 2019. He was very honest about the issues and scandals that had been in the papers- with monks using brothels or dropping out of the monastery after falling for some of the other delights of modern life.

He also shared more with us about his life; being orphaned, and how he was taken in by monks, and the monastery became his family. Monks can’t have money, and live only from the donations of others, but he worked for the temple every day for free to raise donations to give back to the orphanage that fed and looked after him. It seems that it’s common for homeless boys to be taken into monkhood in this way.

While I could see that it had given KK shelter and another chance at life, it was moving to witness his sadness and loneliness. It seemed a shame that having lost his family, he was forbidden from entering a loving and intimate relationship with another human and the chance to create a family of his own.  While he claimed to enjoy his life and came across as a peaceful and understanding person, I wondered at the loss of the love he clearly had to give to someone, and feeling of receiving in return.

Monk Phra KK explains Buddhism.

One of my greater scepticisms was brought up during the Q&A: the fact that, for a thought system based on ‘equality’, the vast majority of the Buddhist church does not accept female monks. I had bought a book about Buddhism to learn more and noted that, for all the talk of humans being treated the same, it referred throughout only to male pronouns, because of course the presumed default human is male.

It was clearly a question he was asked a lot, and while he noted and seemed to believe that something should change, did admit that in the vast majority of the monkhood it was not possible for women to be ordained. It is possible for Buddhist women to become nuns, but they do not share the same status in Thai society as monks. Go figure. While there is much I have taken from learning about Buddhist teaching, it’s my biggest bugbear and barrier from taking it truly seriously as a thought system.

That said, the day and experience was one of the most valuable things I did during my trip, because it helped me to understand the history, culture, and the nature of the people I had met during my time there. I’m sure that because I’ve been blessed with meeting so many warm and hospitable people in my travels that I’ve been guilty of saying many a time ‘the PEOPLE from X place are the best thing about it, they’re the best people in the WORLD’ about a few places. However, in Thailand, the Buddhist influence really is noticeable in your reception and day-to-day interactions.

Sure, if you only hang out on Khao San Road or go to full moon parties you might get harassed and badgered at the seedier end of the spectrum. But if you take the time to get to talk to people you will experience their genuine warmth of feeling, patience, kindness, and most of all humility, to an extent that I’ve never known anywhere else. It’s a culture where people are in the habit of putting others before themselves not just for show, but because they genuinely mean it. I was promised a ‘land of smiles’ and it did not disappoint. With all the wankiness of ‘wellbeing’  aside, it really is a place that had a great healing power for me, but that came from learning from the people as much as from the cheap massages and fresh, healthy food. Buddhism seemed to me to be above all about empathy and being a better person, and while I’m not ready to give up snacks, I tried to learn to be a better person from them.

While I work hard in my career to redress the privilege I never earned in life, am a loving person and loyal friend to those around me, and live day-to-day in a way that I hope causes the least suffering possible, I’m flawed and there are many thoughts I have that I’m ashamed of. A little jaded from life, I can be guilty of being sarcastic, bitter, angry, bitchy, resentful, jealous, and selfish at times. When I’ve been hurt, I’ve taken a lot of relish in fantasising about that person being hit by a truck. None of these things I’m proud of.

The thing I took away most from what Phra KK said about living a life of kindness was about the need to let go of anger and trauma from the past. That if a person has hurt you, doesn’t care about you, that dwelling on that pain only serves to hurt you further. The person who hurt you isn’t thinking about it anymore. You can choose to let the ugliness grow inside you, or not, but if you live with ugliness, you will become ugly, by which he meant more unkind. Everyone, no matter where they have come from, has experienced suffering.  People will hurt you, bad things will happen. But that everything is impermanent. By moving forward it doesn’t mean that thing hasn’t happened, or that it won’t continue to make you sad. But it’s the choice to give another chance to yourself: to not be defined by your suffering, to surround yourself with love, and by doing so learn to channel the negative energy into positive, and suffering into peace.

With thanks to the Buddhist University and Phra KK for the experience. If you want to donate to the orphanage, or if you are going to Chiang Mai and want to learn more, you can book through the Monk Chat website or turn up at Wat Suan Dok on Mondays and Fridays.

Finding peace by the river in Chiang Mai.

A vegan’s guide to East London

London has recently overtaken Berlin to be named the ‘Vegan Capital of the World’. Take a tour round the streets of East London in particular and it’s easy to see why. Moving here after a year of struggling to find animal-free food in Latin America, I was inundated with signs for vegan food and plant-based fare on every street.

From Shoreditch’s hipster central to the resplendent junk fare in Hackney, it’s a haven for every hungry vegan, and also home to Vegan Nights, the UK’s only monthly vegan event that turns into a dance night later on. The list of venues is endless, but here are a few of the top places to visit if you’re in the area:

Boxpark

Boxpark is stereotypical millennial central, but this means a plethora of interesting eats, many of which are vegan. Once home to the (sometimes in-)famous CookDaily, which has now moved to Hackney, it maintains a surprising number of vegan options under one roof.

EatChay, known for it’s bao buns and Bánh mìs (below) sits alongside Biff’s Jack Shack, a ‘filthy vegan junk food’ place where you can get realistic chicken wings in multiple fiery sauce options, as well as some seriously stacked burgers.

Bao buns from Eat Chay Club

If you’re nursing a hangover, there’s none better than What the Pitta to serve you up a feast of mock-donor wrap stuffed with fake donor meat, salad, and tahini. It’s a beast but it’s so worth it.

If you fancy something on the sweeter side, Nosteagia also offers several vegan options of its iconic bubble cones. This is a really intense treat if you’re feeling pudding for lunch, or otherwise a seriously scrummy snack to share with a friend.

Amazing bubble cone from Nosteagia

Brick Lane

Brick Lane is generally known for its curry mile, but the area is waking up to the surrounding vegalution. While many of the curry houses now explicitly advertise vegan options, it’s also home to multiple all-vegan places including VeganYes, a curious Italian/Korean fusion. Mooshie’s burger bar is definitely worth a visit, with a big selection to suit your vurger tastes. Canvas Cafe is a wonderful vegan cafe-cum-social project that offers mental health support groups, creative sessions, and the chance to gift a meal to someone who can’t afford one.

Seriously gooey risotto balls from Arancini Brothers

On the sweeter side of life, Vida Bakery sells VEGAN RAINBOW CAKE, (hallo, snowflake heart attack)! Also worth knowing is the fact that Crosstown doughnuts does multiple vegan options.

 On a non-food note, Fifth Dimension is also a friendly vegan tattoo place. It’s also home to the Boiler House weekend market, which usually has multiple vegan options, and of course, Vegan Nights.

Vegan Nights

Is an event that usually takes place once a month, on the first Thursday of the month, though this can vary. The first time I walked into vegan nights, my mind was blown. It was the biggest vegan market I’d ever seen, with the most incredible spread of stalls offering food from around the world, and I knew I didn’t have to ingredient-check any of it.

Getting my glam on at Vegan Nights

Apart from fresh, hot food and cakes there are also stalls like KindaCo that sell artisan cheese you can take home to enjoy the next day, and ethical products like soy wrap (to substitute for cling film) and vegan fashion.

As the night warms up and the drinks are flowing, it turns into a dance-night with inevitable dance offs, and if you’re very lucky, the chance to meet another tasty vegan.

Mac n Cheez with vibes at vegan nights

Also in the area

…and worth noting are Essential Vegan Cafe, which has a really nice vibe if you just want to sit and work for a while with an oat latte and delicious cake. Vurger is, IMHO, the best vegan burger in London.

Stacked Caribbean-inspired burger from The Vurger Co.

Lollipop in Spitalfields is great, and there are also various options in the Spitalfields Market itself- including Merkamo Ethiopian, a favourite lunchtime treat. If you fancy something healthy, Redemption offer the most beautiful and filling Buddha bowls, non-alcoholic beverages and desserts.

Beautiful Buddha Bowl from Redemption. They change every day!

Newer haunts include the expensive but TOTALLY SICK Genesis, which serves milkshakes that are pure chocolate fudge, deep-fried avocado tacos as well as healthier options like turmeric-roasted cauliflower. Unity Diner was set up as a non-profit by vegan god Earthling Ed. While I’ve only been for a coffee, the menu looks amazing, and given the amount of hate it has got from anti-vegan protesters, we should all totally be supporting this business.

This gorgeous roasted cauliflower is one of the healthier options at Genesis

Hackney

The Black Cat Cafe was the first all vegan cafe I went to in London and I’m so glad I did. Another social project  run by volunteers (damn these vegans are all good humans), it also has affordable prices and a super chill and friendly atmosphere.

Temple of Seitan is where London’s vegan junk scene started. With it’s mock wings, stacked burgers, and seriously fatty mac n cheez, it’s the perfect place for when you’re feeling wicked. Another bit of home comfort can be found at Sutton and Sons, which made headlines as the first all-vegan fish and chip shop.

CookDaily (mentioned earlier) has re-homed to Hackney where you can still get all the old favourites, including noodles, curries, and a good old English breakfast. I have a bit of a weakness for this place and can’t stop going back.

Epic Pad Thai from Cook Daily

The Spread Eagle is an all vegan pub and another headline-grabber. Home to former street-food vendor Club Mexicana, their popularity is not surprising. I love their light but tasty tacos, washed down with a vegan cider, and the staff are as ever for this sort of place, cool, friendly, and alternative.

No doubt, if you have landed in East London you’ve landed on your feet as far as finding vegan grub is concerned. So what do you think? Which are your favourites? Did I miss anywhere? Do get in touch and let me know- I’m always looking to try new things.

Organised tours or solo slow-travel?

There is so much debate in the travel community about organised tours vs. the ‘real experience’ of plotting your own trip and going it solo. Is one really better than the other? I’ve done both, so here are my thoughts.

There are positives and negatives to either approach. What is best really depends on what’s best for you- given your own preferences, your travel experience, your budget, and the time that you have.

Getting into travel

The first time I travelled outside of Europe I was (for our generation) relatively older to be doing so, at 22 (shock horror, I know).  I desperately wanted to go to India, I was travelling on my own, I have anxiety issues anyway,  was a bit nervous about safety, making friends, being able to cope logistically in a very different culture, and I also only had three weeks of annual leave to do it. So I booked a tour with the very popular travel company G Adventures.

Travelling with a group ‘yolo’ tour in India (2015) turned out to be really fun.

It was the one of the choices I’ve ever made. I didn’t have to do any time-consuming planning or booking (which can be hard when you have a demanding full-time job), I arrived in Delhi and landed with a really fun group of people around my age. We travelled on local transport (tuk-tuks, busses, and the dreaded long sleeper trains) but with a local guide to shepherd us about, point us in the right direction, and most importantly, show us what the best local thali dishes were to try (in places where we wouldn’t get food poisoning).

It was a great gateway into travel for me. I’ve since gone back to India without needing a tour. While it is true that you end up treading exactly the same path as so many others before you, you’re able to see all the highlights of a region (and they’re usually highlights for a reason), in a short space of time, in a way that would probably be impossible to achieve on your own. Best of all, you easily make travel companions to share your experiences with, and can form friendships that last years.

We still travelled like locals while on a tour with G Adventures.

Making logistically challenging trips easier

Another great reason to choose a tour is when it is logistically otherwise going to be difficult or beyond your budget as a solo traveller to experience a region you really want to see. For that reason, the following year, when I really wanted to go on safari in southern Africa, I booked a tour again. While it was expensive for my budget at that time, it was relatively far cheaper than if you have to rent a private 4×4, guides at the national parks, and pay to stay in lodges etc. We travelled in a giant ‘overlander’ (a big bus truck) for three weeks, camped, cooked our own food and washed our own dishes and, because there are such vast expanses of wildness in the places I went (Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa) it didn’t feel touristy and you really did feel connected to nature.

Gaining valuable knowledge

We were also blessed with the most amazing guide who knew EVERYTHING about the animals and plants, culture, history, politics of the places, and his passionate explanations of everything we saw really made the experience. I saw all the ‘Big 5’, and was able to do some flexible ‘extras’ such as bungee jumping over Victoria Falls and skydiving over the Namibian desert. Again, I fitted so many mind-blowing, life changing experiences into three weeks of leave, it was well worth the just over £3k it cost me (including flights, extras, booze and souvenirs bought there- the tour price was about half of that total). So actually not bad for what you got.

Having to push-start the truck for a 6am start in Namibia, 2016.

The cost difference is extraordinary

So, the downsides of tours? It is GENERALLY relatively pretty expensive compared to doing it for yourself (though there are differing options from basic to luxury depending on your budget). For comparison’s sake, while backpacking solo I spent closer to £7k in seven months, as opposed to £3k in three weeks on a tour! You are tied to a very tight schedule and there is no possibility of straying off the path. If anyone in the group annoys you, you’re stuck with them for three weeks on your holiday (thankfully I’ve been pretty lucky with the two I’ve been on in having great people).  It’s so full on, and with so many early starts to make the itinerary,  that I felt so exhausted after getting back from both that I felt like I needed another holiday to recover from the holiday.

Finding your own way

I have to admit that, having developed the confidence from those trips enough to go backpacking on my own, proper-styley, I am way less likely to book a tour again. Now that I have done so on a seven month solo backpacking trip through South and Central America,  I’ve realised just how much cheaper it can be, how much more real your experience feels, and I also love the flexibility. You can just go to the bus station and decide where you want to go that day. If you like a place, you can stay there a few days and get to know it better. You can go ‘off the beaten path’ and have some more unusual experiences. You can still easily make friends in hostels if you feel like it, but when you need your own space, you can just go do your own thing too. There is literally nothing like the freedom of deciding what you want to do each day, and just going with that.

Heading off for my first solo adventure in Latin America, 2017.

Challenges can be worth it

It’s not all easy. While some do none at all, I did end up spending a lot of time each day doing research on places and logistics for the days coming up, which felt almost like a part-time job but was the best way to make sure I didn’t miss anything because I hadn’t known the only bus leaves at 6am, or that you have to pre-book to get into X. It can also get lonely at times. Even though you make friends you’re unlikely to spend the whole route together, and making connections with people only to never see them again after the two days you spend together, on repeat, can be exhausting. Occasionally you get into sticky situations, get lost, or end up on a bus going in the opposite direction because your grasp of the language is so bad.. But you also gain so much from the adventure, from forcing yourself to be independent, from talking to locals rather than just your travelling peers- and that in itself I think is invaluable.

I doubt I’d have stayed with a Hare Krishna community in the Amazon on a group tour. Ecuador, 2017.

There is a lot of judgement from people who are experienced travellers of people who pick tours. I don’t think it’s fair or realistic to act all high-and-mighty about it. Sadly, unless you are literally Levison Wood, it’s pretty unlikely you are going to be having 100% authentic, un-touristy experiences these days even if you are plotting your own backpacking trip. Also, for a lot of people, the prospect of travelling is pretty daunting and can seem inaccessible. For people feeling anxious about travelling alone, I do really think tours are often the best way in. I’d also still consider booking one if I try again to fit in seeing as much as possible into a short time of annual leave. It IS really hard when you only have so much time- and depending on your situation the extra money might be worth not being lost in a Chinese train station and messing up your whole trip.

It’s all down to personal preference

So- pick what’s right for you, and don’t judge others. The most important thing is to travel as sustainably as possible, and to act with total respect for the culture and wildlife you are having the privilege to experience. G-Adventures and other companies give a percentage of their profits to local NGOs. If you’re going on your own, pick eco-hostels, locally run tours, and don’t get involved in the aspects of tourism that tear communities and people apart (drugs and sex trafficking being high on that list). Make friends with locals, make the effort to learn a bit of the language, and be mindful of what has put you in the position to be able to have these experiences in the first place.

So I’ll conclude with a summary of pros and cons. Just have a think about what from this list is most important to you.

Pros and cons of travelling in a group tour

ProsCons
ConvenienceLack of flexibility
SecurityIntense schedules
Ease of making friendsNo choice in companions
Knowledgeable guidesStuck on tourist trail
Fitting in a lot in a short timeExpensive
Making challenging travel destinations accessibleLess able to give directly to local businesses
Little planning time requiredLimited interactions with local people

Self guided travel pros and cons

ProsCons
More unique experiencesLoneliness
FlexibilityChallenging logistically
IndependenceRequires a lot of time for planning
Making friends with localsProblems WILL arise
Taking time for yourselfLess security (no one knows where you are)
Enjoying slow travelSometimes miss booking places for activities

What do you think? Feel free to share your experiences and thoughts below.

‘Who wants to ride an elephant?’ How to see elephants ethically in Thailand

Elephant-riding has been high on traveller’s bucketlists for a long time. Awareness of the abject cruelty involved in forcing animals to perform for and serve humans is growing, and yet I was still horrified to hear travellers talking about this in groups, and signs advertising it around Thailand. Were they completely oblivious? Or did they just not care as long as it makes a good insta photo?

Elephants  are one of my favourite animals. I was overwhelmed to see African elephants living in the wild during my travels in Botswana and Namibia. However, I have felt extremely sad that I had only seen Asian elephants in India that were facepainted and forced to lug overweight tourists up and down steep slopes to visit forts as entertainment. It can be hard to avoid seeing animal cruelty as a vegan traveller.

A wild African elephant I saw grazing happily in Botswana

But a new trend is growing, and one which on the face of it seems to improve conditions for elephants: ethical sanctuaries.  While it didn’t seem I’d be able to see any elephants in the wild on my trip to Thailand, I was keen to visit an ethical elephant sanctuary. There are many that seem to have cropped up, particularly around Chiang Mai, advertised on boards and in hostels around the city.

But how ethical are ‘ethical’ elephant sanctuaries?

Inevitably, where there has been an increase in interest and tourist money, an increase in less than ethical businesses has followed to meet demand. While many sanctuaries market themselves as being a ‘home for happy elephants’, many still keep them in a situation of unnatural captivity. Some are still forced to play football or other activities with tourists that wouldn’t be possible if the elephants hadn’t been cruelly trained to do so.

Looking at reviews online helped me to find the right one: a review showed me an option I had been considering still shuts the elephants in tiny boxes as soon as the tourists leave.

Ethical Elephant Sanctuary, Chiang Mai

Happily, my experience at Ethical Elephant Sanctuary was wonderful and remains my most cherished memory from Thailand. Elephants here have been rescued from the tourism and logging industries.  Here was how the day unfolded:

Selfies with elephants

Breakfast with elephants

I opted for a full day and was picked up at my hostel early in the morning. After a two hour drive out of Chiang Mai, we pulled up in a giant open field where elephants were grazing. I wasn’t hopping any less than the children to get out and say hello.

First we were dressed in the cloth of the hill tribe who cared for them so that they wouldn’t be startled by us. Then we were able to feed them, holding out sugar cane and bananas that they would pluck from your palm with their ever-reaching trunks.

Going for a stroll

After a break, we went for a walk through the jungle. The elephants roamed freely and we walked alongside or behind them. Seeing them interacting with each other, pausing at will to scratch an itchy bum on the nearest tree (the elephant!), we really came to see how each elephant was a personality in their own right.

An elephant stops to scratch an itch

The importance of breaks

We had a two-hour break for lunch during which time the elephants had a break from us. This is really important for their wellbeing, as it’s not natural for them to be around humans all day. During this time they rested in the shade of an open field while we had a basic but tasty meal of veg, rice, and fruit.

Bath time for elephants

As it broke into the hottest time of the day we went down to the river to bathe and help the elephants to cool off. I was nervous as they all clambered in the same space to make sure I wasn’t going to get crushed between them.

Really seeing them up close like that makes you appreciate just how vast they are, and yet how gentle. We scooped water up to cool their bodies and helped them to rub mud against their flanks.  They retaliated by squirting water at us through their trunks!

Again, seeing them play together was really special. When they were tired of us, they got up and left the water of their own volition to return to the field, and it was when the elephant, rather than the keeper said so, that bath time was over.

Afternoon snack

Natural vegetarians, elephants generally graze all day in the wild, so by the afternoon they were ready for more snacks. It was impressive to see them munch through whole bunches of bananas in one go.

Saying goodbye

We left by late afternoon, leaving them to spend the rest of the day and evening alone. The little kid in me welled up and I felt a bit emotional leaving them, even though I know that for them this was the norm. I asked how much it was to rescue an elephant from logging: 2 million Baht (about £50k). So my dreams there were shot, but if anyone rich reads my blog, please save an elephant on my behalf.

If you can’t afford to save an elephant but would like to visit them during your travels in Asia, here are some tips for finding genuinely ethical sanctuaries.

Key things to look for:

  • Elephants should not be bound to posts by rope or chains;
  • They should not be performing for tourists or partaking in any activities they wouldn’t naturally do in the wild. Normal activities such as bathing are not okay if they are forced to do them more than they would naturally e.g. multiple times or constantly throughout the day;
  • They should not be made to interact with humans for too long without breaks;
  • You should not touch an elephant too much or climb onto their bodies;
  • They should always have access to food and water;
  • There should not be large numbers of tourists each day. Look for a sanctuary that takes restricted numbers;
  • Carers should respect the way the elephants express themselves and not force them to continue any activity.

The problem with counting countries

‘Globetrotter. 28 countries’ ‘Travelling the world. 36 countries’.

It’s the Instagram age and more and more people are showing off how well-travelled they are not just by sharing experiences, but listing the numbers of countries they have been to on their social profiles.

I get the temptation. Travelling is such a perspective-changing experience it can be hard to not show off sometimes. I’ve definitely been guilty of dropping in conversations ‘Oh this time in Botswana’… or ‘exactly the same thing happened to me in Peru!’

But in my view counting countries is a really flawed approach to sharing your travel experience.

Listing the number of countries you have been to on your instagram profile is the new norm.

It’s superficial

It emphasises the quantity of countries you have been to rather than the quality of your experiences there. To add another notch on the list all you have to have done is been in that country. Technically I’ve been to Dubai, but since I’ve never left the airport, I don’t feel I can claim I have travelled there. But a lot of people who ‘count countries’ would do so and use that growing number to assert some sort of superiority about how well-travelled they are.

I have been to Zambia for a day. I spent three months in Nicaragua. The depth of my understanding of Nicaragua is therefore much greater than that of Zambia, but in the country counting model, they equate to the same difference.

Can you ever really have ‘done’ a country?

Another phrase I find frustrating is ‘oh yeah I’ve done [Mexico, for example]’. Most people who say this have been there max two weeks. What does it mean to have ‘done’ a place? Is that even possible? It comes across extremely arrogant.

On a different angle, I have friends who may not have been to as many different countries as I have, but have moved their lives full time to living in a different country, continent, or culture. The richness of their experience of those places is far superior to the two weeks I might spend somewhere. It means having friends, relationships, neighbours there, and forcing yourself to integrate somewhere completely new. I have a much greater respect of that sort of effort to change your life experience of the world.

It discourages returning to somewhere you’ve been

This approach also discourages going back to places that you have been before and loved. When this competitiveness takes over and the goal is to just keep adding to your list, you might miss out on developing a long term love of one place because it’s already ‘done’. It may be less of a priority than the plan to reach ’30 by 30′.

India was the first place I travelled to outside of Europe. It blew my mind, but in the three weeks I spent there I knew I barely scratched the surface. Travelling in a tour, I hadn’t got to know many local people. And while I saw more amazing sights than I thought possible in that time, in Rajasthan I’d only seen one corner of a vast and extremely varied country.

 I went back a few years later to Kerala- the opposite side- and had a completely different experience of culture, food, religion, environment. Better yet, through an invite to a friend’s wedding it was possible to make friends there, go shopping in local places I’d never otherwise have known about, eat home-made cooking, and be treated as one of the family- and the connection I have with India has become more special because of that. And yet still with five weeks down, I know there is much, much more to see in India that’s probably ever possible in a lifetime, and I’ll keep going back.


Returning to India to see a different part of the country with local friends gave me a different perspective and different understanding of it as a place.

It encourages an unsustainable approach to travel

Country-hopping as much as possible means more flights, less engagement with local communities, and less authentic connections with what makes that place different to anywhere you have been before.

In my view slow travel is the ultimate form of travel, if you have the time to be able to do so. Spending longer in each destination means that you really get to know a place. Travelling with locals on busses, boats, and trains, gives you a real sense of what it’s like to live there. And it’s considerably less damaging to the environment.

I get that for shorter trips and when you’re tied into a work contract, sometimes this isn’t possible, but if you’re doing lots of shorter trips for the numbers you’re just not going to have the same depth of experience, and you’ll leave a hefty carbon footprint to boot.

Slow travelling with locals helps to reduce your carbon footprint

It contributes to elitism

Travellers are generally great: interesting (and interested), open minded, adventurous types that I love to meet, make friends, and explore with. However, there’s definitely an elitism that arises when you get into conversations in groups of travellers. ‘You haven’t travelled until you’ve been to [X place]!’, or ‘Aww, this is your first time out of Europe/the States?’

Who really cares how many places you have been? It’s the stories that matter. It’s how you engaged.

While budget travel is definitely possible, and the reality for most travellers, there’s no doubt that the majority of those who have clocked up 30+ countries have had to be pretty privileged to be able to do so. Whether it’s being able to take that amount of time off work or just being wealthy enough to afford to take multiple holidays a year, this is not normal and not the reality for the vast majority of people.

Travel should be inclusive.

 I am passionate about travel because of the degree to which it can open up your world and give you new perspectives. But for many travel is only going to be possible in their own backyard, or neighbouring country. That does not mean that those travellers are less valid. Travel should not just be a rich kid’s game.

Unfortunately Instagram makes it seem that way. By making it seem that you are not a real traveller unless you’re constantly able to be on the go, with 37 countries under your belt, staying in luxury pads and snapping shots with equipment worth thousands of dollars, it may discourage people who have been less able to travel from even trying.

There’s a better way to inspire others

I can understand the desire to run a tally in your own head, (for all I’ve said I know how many countries I’ve been to and have been pleased to know it’s grown in the last few years). It might be exciting to make a personal goal to visit 30 countries before you’re 30. But what I don’t get is why anyone else needs to know.

Obviously people who share their travels for a living want to show they know their stuff. But will knowing your ‘numbers’ make your followers want to travel more? Or just feel inexperienced? Or inadequate if they are never going to be able to manage that?

The travel community is a wonderful space full of [wanderful] people. If as travellers, bloggers, instagrammers, or whatever we might be, want to inspire more people to go over borders and expand their horizons, there’s a better way. It should be about the stories we can tell, the photographs, the sharing of how it is possible for those who don’t have a huge wad of cash to fall back on. We need to stop counting and go back to basics, focus on why we started travelling in the first place. And share the joy, not the smugness.

What to do with one week in Chiang Mai

Thailand’s northern city of Chiang Mai has become a hub for digital nomads and other travellers that came to visit and ended up staying. A world apart from the chaos and stickiness of Bangkok, a few days here makes it easy to understand why. The climate is cooler in the northern part of the country. The structure of the city around the river and gates makes it easy to navigate. It’s friendly and fun but much less sleazy, and you can use it as a base to go out and explore in the Northern hills and beyond. Here is a rundown of my recommendations for a week of travel in Chiang Mai:

Learn about Buddhism

Buddhism is the beating heart of Thai culture and it would be ignorant to visit this country and not learn more about it. It’s a thought system that appeals to me for its peace-driven ethics, but I knew only a little of its history and practices.

 ‘Monk chat’ is a programme run by many monasteries with the dual purpose of teaching Westerners about Buddhism and helping the monks to improve their English. I went for a day course that was an introduction to Buddhism held at the Chiang Mai campus of the Buddhist University. Who knew monks are hilarious? Phra KK spent a day teaching us about Buddhist history, ethics, meditation practice, and constantly cracking us up.

The Buddha at the Blue Temple

Visit Chiang Mai’s temples

Every corner in Chiang Mai seems to be home to a temple, or wat,  with a history hundreds of years old, exquisite architecture and murals that tell ancient stories. Chiang Mai is no exception. Within the city, make time to visit Chedi Luang, arguably the most interesting since it dates back to the 14th century and part of the site is a ruin. Wat Phra Singh displays iconic Lanna architecture, while Wat Phra That Doi Kam is home to a huge Buddha that gazes down the steps as you approach it.

If you only have time for one temple, prioritise taking a songathew (a kind of pick up style bus with two benches in the back) up the mountain to visit Wat Phra Doi Suthep. You have short sharp hike up to reach the golden chedi but views, let alone the complex at the top, will reward you.

Wat Phra Doi Suthep

Go to an ethical elephant sanctuary

Sadly the majority of tourists still don’t seem to have got the picture when it comes to the abhorrent cruelty of elephant riding. However, as awareness has been raised in the last few years Chiang Mai has become home to a variety of sanctuaries for elephants rescued from the entertainment and logging industries. Do your research as some ‘sanctuaries’ still keep elephants locked in boxes at the end of the day – TripAdvisor is your friend for honest reviews.

I would recommend Ethical Elephant Sanctuary. It’s run by members of the Karen Hill Tribe, who have always lived with elephants. You can read more here about my wonderful day meeting, feeding, going for a walk with, and washing down the elephants. Although I prefer to see them in the wild, it is magical to be able to be up close and intimate with these gentle giants and to know that they are being well cared for.

Take a day trip to Chiang Rai

If you have more time I’d recommend staying overnight in Chiang Rai because a day trip is a bit of a rush. However, apparently the city isn’t much at night and since I was short on time I arranged a one day tour of the main sites through an agency. In a packed trip we managed to see the White Temple, that is downright bizarre, the beautiful Blue Temple,  and the ‘Black House’ full of historical artefacts. You can also opt to visit the longneck hill tribe. 

The White Temple at Chiang Rai

Eat your vegan heart out

Chiang Mai is home to some of the best vegan food in Thailand. Taste from Heaven makes the hottest and most fragrant green thai curry served in a coconut. The vibe in Aum kept tempting me to return again and again, enjoying a mix of local dishes and fresh sushi while enjoying the views from their open veranda upstairs. If you’ve had too much to drink, Munchies offers western style vegan junk food. Free Bird is a non-profit that uses the proceeds from its restaurant and zero waste shop to fund projects that support refugees from Myanmar. There is another branch of the fantastic May Kaidee restaurant chain. The markets are also a great source of cheap vegan snacks, particularly V-Secrets where you can get four small dishes for a steal to share with a friend.

Papaya salad and avocado maki at Aum

Check out the nightlife of Chiang Mai

The North Gate Jazz co-op is the go-to spot for locals and tourists alike. It has a super chill vibe with regular musicians performing improv, cheap beers, and so many people come that they spill out onto the street, some perched on stools, others swaying and dancing along.

Another popular night time destination are the ‘cabaret’ shows. I was a bit wary of the ‘ladyboy’ aspect, partly because I’d never use that word to describe trans people or those who enjoy wearing drag, although it seems the norm here, and partly because of my concern about trafficking. That said the performers in the street convinced me to pop in and see a remarkable rendition of Rhianna’s ‘umbrella’ that was fabulous, fun, and the performer seemed to genuinely be loving life. (I swear to god if I hadn’t known I genuinely might have thought she was the real Rhianna). So I leave you to make your own call on that.

Revellers enjoy music at the North Gate Jazz Coop

I stayed for a week and only managed a fraction of what this city has to offer. So whatever you do, make sure you make time for it in your trip to Thailand.

Best of Bangkok’s vegan eats

Thailand is a haven for vegan eating on a budget. Or at least it would be if it wasn’t for that damn fish sauce in everything.

I love street food, and no doubt it helps you to save your money for the really exciting things when you travel. In Bangkok, though, with the exception of the mango sticky rice (below) that is sold on every street corner for 30-40 baht (making a delicious breakfast for less than £1), by and large I was unable to trust that seemingly vegan street food really was.

No problem, though- there is no shortage of vegan and vegetarian restaurants where you can be sure what you’re getting is not only fish free but delicious.

May Kaidee

My number one recommendation for Bangkok is May Kaidee. This is a vegetarian restaurant and cooking school that also has locations in Chiang Mai and New York. The first time I visited I was ravenous after a long plane journey. I decided to start my trip with a classic Pad Thai. Because I was hungry I also got a ‘starter’ of deep fried tofu in peanut sauce.

It was phenomenal value, not least because when my ‘starter’ came it looked like this!

Huge! And for about £1.50. The deep fried tofu was perfect – crunchy on the outside, soft in the middle, and the peanut sauce, wow.

The Pad Thai also really hit the spot. And for two huge courses (that meant I didn’t need to eat for a good twelve hours) with a couple of beers it only set me back around £7.50!

Take their cooking class

I would also strongly recommend their cooking class if you have the time to take an afternoon out. After tasting the food I signed up for one the next day and spent a hugely enjoyable afternoon learning how to make Tom Yum  soup, Massamam curry, Pad Thai, and mango sticky rice. Then I didn’t need to eat again for another twelve hours after staggering back for a nap!

The teacher was incredibly funny and upbeat and made what would otherwise have been a nice enough afternoon one of my favourite parts of the trip. Although it’s a vegetarian cooking school they can easily make the food vegan if you let them know by using coconut instead of egg.

Ethos

My other favourite haunt, Ethos, is just a few doors up. What was wonderful about this place is the extremely chill vibe they have created. Close to the main strip but tucked down a quiet alley, it’s an oasis of calm that serves up smoothies, salad bowls, and Thai dishes that are guaranteed to be vegan. You sit on giant cushions that are sprawled around the low tables. There’s a bookcase and a constant stream of friendly nomads to keep you entertained if you fancy a couple of hours of down time. I recommend the smoothies and the homemade tempeh with peanut sauce.

Mango

I’d heard great things about Mango but I must say I was disappointed. I had forsaken my favourite breakfast of mango sticky rice because I was preparing for a day of sight-seeing and a long journey and wanted something that filled me up.

However, I found the service slow, and the food unremarkable. I decided to go for a ‘chocolate smoothie bowl’ with granola and fruit that I hoped would be substantial but quick. As a solo traveller I was completely ignored while the owner tended to the needs of couples around. I actually had to seek them out to place my order after being ignored for twenty five minutes and then at the end to even attempt to pay.

It took an hour  to get in and out which would have been fine if the food was fantastic, but when it arrived it, although it looked insta-worthy in its presentation it turned out to be a small fruit salad with a thimble-full of a chocolate drink and some cheap cereal bites that you can buy on the street for about 10 baht. This cost over £6. Total waste of money and time, and the attitude annoyed me too.

Perhaps I just got a bad day and bad luck because other people’s meals looked fantastic, and it generally gets rave reviews. If you’re only there for a short time I’d recommend May Kaidee or Ethos over here in a heartbeat. Or better yet, be braver than me and push more street stalls to make you something vegan!

Koh Phangan’s secret hippie side

Think Koh Phangan and most people think of the full moon party. An armageddon of drunk teenagers: buckets of booze, drugs, fire-throwing, vomiting, hook-ups and UV paint.

If you fancy something a little more serene for your Thai island experience you might think to skip Koh Phangan entirely and head to Koh Lanta or one of the lesser known islands.

But Koh Phangan has a side a lot of people don’t know about. The north-west of the island is a haven for hippies and vegan travellers. If your idea of heaven is more Buddha-bowls, cheap smoothies, swimming and yoga every day, then Srithanu is the place for you.

Orion Healing Centre is a peaceful spot for a swing and swim.

How to get there

There are no direct flights to Koh Phangan, so the easiest way to get there is to fly to Koh Samui airport, which is only around an hour from Bangkok. When you arrive in the terminal you can easily book a boat on to Koh Phangan or Koh Lanta from a desk in arrivals, including a transfer taxi to the dock at Bangrak pier. Due to frustrating timing I ended up waiting around at the dock for a while before getting a relatively comfortable little ferry over to the island and Thong Sala pier. At the pier there are tonnes of taxis including motorbike taxis calling for your attention. I found the cheapest option was piling into a songathew (one of those busses made up of a couple of benches on the back of a truck) with other travellers heading towards Srithanu.

Where to stay

Srithanu is essentially a small strip of road along the coast that is lined with beach huts, little shops, bars, and eateries. There are lots of options for accommodation depending on your taste and budget. I stayed at the originally named ‘Nice Sea Resort’, which was in fact nice, affordable, and on the sea. A basic bungalow with a double bed , fan, and hammock is about a tenner a night. If you come during the hot season it might be worth forking out more to stay in one of the more modern air conditioned bungalows for about twenty. I liked this place because it was quiet, the owner was extremely friendly and accommodating, it had a little bar and a restaurant, and you could easily while away the hottest part of the day swinging in a hammock with a book and the sea breeze in relative privacy. Even better, there was a shaded wooden deck where you could get the best massage of your life for less than ten pounds, while listening to the sea lapping against the shore.

Sunset at Nice Sea Resort.

What to do

For the most part I came to Srithanu to do very little at all and I’d highly recommend it. There are, however, lots of relaxing activities on offer around and about this little town.

Yoga

Most days I headed to the Orion Healing Centre to take yoga classes on their blissful deck that overlooks the sea. It’s a centre where visitors can stay and partake in a whole programme of yoga and holistic treatments (some of which are a bit far out for me, but whatever floats your boat). It’s right on the beach, and it also has an incredible vegan café that is open all day selling smoothie bowls, salads, and a range of main meals all from the most natural and detoxifying ingredients (albeit they’re quite pricey for the region). You can just pay to drop in to classes, and the teachers are very accommodating of all levels. I particularly enjoyed the sunset flow classes, the perfect way to end a slow-paced day on the island.

Post-sunrise yoga smoothie bowl breakfast at Orion.

Treat yo’self

There are loads of places to indulge in massages, pedicures, facials, you name it, all for a fraction of western prices. I love massages but never usually treat myself to them; but for 20% of the cost at home, I ended up getting three during my time here! The masseuses at Nice Sea Resort were particularly skilled, friendly, and have a range of different herbal and coconut oils that leave you feeling supple and zen.

Feast yo’self

There are a plethora of vegan options in this tiny strip of land. My favourite were Pure Vegan HeavenOne Yoga Café, Orion, and Eat.Co. Karma Café is also meant to be amazing but was sadly shut for renovation when I was there. Importantly, though, I’d also emphasise that you should try a  lot of the little local food places along the same strip. Veganism is so well understood there that you can easily request a veganised version of anything offered, and I got the best pad thai ever for just 40 baht (about £1) from a woman selling it out of a blue van.

Delicious vegan Pad Thai for just 50 baht.

Head up the coast

If you want to explore more of the island you can easily hire a bike or motorbike, but I just chose to walk. It’s worth walking up to check out the ‘Secret Beach’ which is small enough that it’s easy to keep an eye on your belongings while you swim if you’re a solo traveller. Haad Salad and Haad Yao are also super peaceful beaches that are great for swimming to cool off from your hot hike, and with a spread of bars on the beachside you can easily grab a drink or a bite to eat before heading back.

So if you’re heading for a tour round the islands, or want to pick just one to visit while on a shorter trip (as I was) definitely don’t write of Koh Phangan as a crazy party town. It’s definitely still more touristy than other destinations, but the chill vibes, good food, and friendly people make is a great spot to wind down and replenish your health.

On the beach ad Haad Yao.

What to do with two days in Bangkok

Bangkok has a reputation for being sleazy, smelly, and loud. It’s reputation is not wrong. But it is the gateway to Thailand and South-East Asia, so the chances are if you are going that way you’re going to end up in Bangkok at some point.

I actually liked Bangkok more than I expected (since I expected to hate it). There are definitely some impressive temples, cool experiences, and great food spots to try out if you’re changing there for a couple of days. Here are my top five:

Have a traditional massage

You’re bound to be stiff and aching after hours of travel to reach your destination. If you’re also suffering from jet lag, the heat and noise of the city can be overwhelming. Having a Thai massage will help you to unwind, immerse you into the culture, and I never found one cheaper than in Bangkok. It’s the centre of many traditional massage schools (including at Wat Pho, below) so you know you’re getting a skilled practitioner. And usually for less than $10!

See the Temple of the Reclining Buddha.

There are so many temples in Bangkok, as in the rest of Thailand. For the most part I would skip them since you will see more jaw-dropping ones elsewhere in your travels. However, Wat Pho, or the Temple of the Reclining Buddha is something else.  The temple complex is huge, and the famed Buddha even bigger at a jaw-dropping 46 metres.

The Temple of the Reclining Buddha

Take a cooking class

There are cooking classes available in almost any destination in Thailand. However, if you are specifically looking for vegan courses they’re harder to come by. May Kaidee cooking school also has a branch in Chiang Mai, but if you’re interested in your food I’d recommend taking the class in Bangkok. First, it will give you an introduction to typical Thai ingredients and regional styles of dish, which will give you insight into what to pick later in your travels. Secondly, there’s just a lot more beautiful and interesting stuff to see in Chiang Mai. If you’re going to be stuck in Bangkok for a day or two, make the most of it by getting this great experience there. I’d strongly recommend May Kaidee.  The teachers are fun, friendly, and accommodating. You cook and eat enough courses to keep you full all day. And you get a free take-away cookbook! We made Tom Yum soup, Massamam curry, Pad Thai and mango sticky rice. Then waddled back to the hotel to snooze it off…

Getting my apron on at May Kaidee’s Cooking School

Find out if any local events are happening.

The main problem with Bangkok is that tourists are funnelled into an ugly neon westernised area full of drunk teenagers where you never see any Thai people except in service positions. One great way to get an insight into the culture and lives of local people is by witnessing a traditional ceremony or celebration. I was lucky enough to be there for Loy Krathong, the lantern festival that takes place on the full moon in November. Loy means to float, whereas Krathong is a container.  

Little lotus-style boats holding candles are released onto the river.  This action is meant to release you of any hatred or anger that you are holding.  People make a wish as they release the container. It is meant to bring you light and positivity. I wandered down to Phra Athit Pier and watched the locals gathering with their family and friends, picking their krathongs, making their wishes and releasing them. It’s the most special memory I hold from Bangkok.

Local people float krathongs as part of the Loy Krathong festival

See the city from the sky in Chinatown

I missed out on checking out the markets and temples of China Town on my way out of Thailand thanks to traffic. However, if you are coming for a couple of days or have a stopover and want to avoid the Khao San Road area, it is worth considering staying in China Town instead. I really enjoyed having dinner and a cocktail or three at the revolving Sky View 360 restaurant on top of the Grand China Hotel. Surprisingly, the food is terrible. They really could make a killing if they got a half-decent chef and menu. But they serve a killer cocktail, have live jazz, and most importantly you can see the whole of Bangkok lit up at night all around you as it revolves slowly enough that you can’t feel it happening. It gives you a really interesting perspective on the city. Ancient temples are lit up alongside billboards, a mix of old and new that is so Thailand. It was a great way to finish my trip feeling on top of the world.

Bangkok skyline at night

Eating vegan in the hippie haven of San Francisco

San Francisco has a reputation for liberal thought and progressive values. It’s therefore no surprise that it is also a leading light in vegan cuisine. From bowl-themed health and wellness inspired cafes to veganised Asian dishes and some serious junk, you could eat in a different place in San Francisco for a month before you ran out of options. Here are a few of my favourites:

For the health freaks:

Nourish Café is your best bet for giant bowls of wholesome goodness. They’re a little on the pricey side but they’re gargantuan enough that you won’t need to eat for the rest of the day. The original nourish bowl is stuffed with quinoa, yams, avocado, sprouts, hummus, cucumber, mixed greens, tomatoes, beet sauerkraut, sunflower seeds, hemp dressing, and I added mock marinated tuna as a topping for extra protein.

Bibmbap bowl from Nourish Cafe

Another great choice was the bibimbap bowl with tofu, carrot, pepper, avo, cabbage, bean sprouts, mixed leases, cucumber, cherry tomatoes and jasmine rice. Tip: If you’re going with a friend and fancy a sweet treat in the form of a smoothie-bowl or one of their raw cakes afterwards, maybe split both to save enough room (unless you’re feeling extra hungry). They also sell health drinks including kombucha on tap.

If you’re venturing along the coast, Café del Soul in Santa Rosa also does an amazing array of vegan salads and this seriously green ‘hummus yummus’ wrap.

Hummus yummus indeed!

For brunch:

If you’re craving a brunch that will fuel you for a day of sight-seeing, Andana Fuara is your best spot for breakfast burritos, vegan huevos rancheros, French toast, and giant stacks of pancakes.

Epic breakfast burrito from Ananda Fuara

For when you’re on the go:

Ike’s sandwich shop can be found in multiple locations both in San Francisco and if you’re venturing out in the rest of California. It’s worth noting it as a stop-in on a road-trip since options on the road can be limited. They have a huge menu of vegan sandwich options with mock meats. My favourite were the ‘turkey’, mozzarella and avocado, and the ‘go sharks’, with  mock chicken, buffalo wing sauce, lettuce and tomato.

Serious vegan sandwich from Ike’s sandwich shop

For Mexican:

Gracias Madre has an authentic vibe, killer cocktails, and sources all of its organic ingredients locally. I got the Flautas de Camote with sweet potatoes, caramelized onion, guacamole, cashew nacho cheese and black beans, with a side of margariiittaaaa!

Flautas de Camote at Gracias Madre

For the best Asian food:

San Francisco has a huge Asian influence in its food and culture as it became home to migrants from China and Japan in the 1900s. The fusion of this and the hippie vibe means that you can get some of the most authentic and incredible eats in vegan versions all over the place!

Indochine’s pot-sticker dumplings were the perfect combination of crisp, doughy, and flavourful. Their signature clay-pot with mock prawn is also a must-try dish.

Pot-sticker dumplings at Indochine

Golden Era is one of the top-rated vegan Chinese places and for good reason. The ‘lemongrass deluxe’ is one of their specialities with mock chicken and broccoli in a spicy lemongrass sauce. I really enjoyed the fried bananas with soy chocolate ice cream for dessert. Better yet, they’re extremely affordable, so if your wallet needs a break from some of this city’s high prices it’s a good spot for a bargain dinner.

Mister Jiu’s is not a vegan spot but it has several vegan options and is simply put the best Chinese I have ever eaten in my life. This sort of place would normally be way out of my price range, but if you’re lucky enough to have a friend to treat you or if your wallet is bigger than mine it is well worth forking out a bit more for this kind of taste experience. There’s no greasy ‘vegetable chow mein’ here. We munched through fluffy mushroom bao buns, Szechuan tofu, carrot and peanut noodles, bok choi, and my surprise favourite dish, crispy scarlet turnip cakes. The cocktails also pack a punch.

Bao Buns at Mister Jieu’s

For sushi, you have to go to Shizen. At risk of sounding repetitive this was the best sushi I have had in my life! I never used to be into sushi since I stopped eating fish as a kid and previously vegan versions were pretty bland. The game has upped, particularly in London, over the last few years as the demand for both Japanese and vegan food has increased, but I’ve never had anything like these sushi rolls. Even my ardent carnivore friend was impressed! The rolls we tried were:, ‘secret smile’  with sweet potato tempura, avocado, spicy tofu, roasted pepper, sesame mustard and seaweed pearls. Then: ‘secret weapon’ with marinated eryngii mushroom, avo, spicy shredded tofu, pickled jalapeño, pickled pineapple, sweet shoyu and habanero sauce. Finally, the ‘colonel’s pipe’, with smoked beets, cashews, creamy tofu, asparagus, avo, sweet mustard, and orange zest. 

The Secret Smile at Shizen

For something a bit different:

Ethiopian food has surged in popularity in the trendy corners of London in the last year. It also makes a splash in San Francisco. I’ve got really obsessed with it recently since it’s delicious, naturally vegan, affordable and so healthy. This veggie banatu combo from Tadu Ethiopian included a delicious stew (top left) I’d never had before. It was a huuuuge meal for a bargain price.

Veggie Banatu Combo at Tadu Ethiopian

For serious junk:

Another non-vegan place, but a good one to check out in non-vegan company, Tony’s is known as the best pizza in San Fran for good reason. Better yet, the chef has started to include vegan cheese as an option on the vegetarian pizzas to veganise them! Unfortunately when I went they had run out, but I still really enjoyed a cheese-less feast with crunchy fried onions and scallions. Tip: better than the pizza was the fried dough ball starter. Giant crispy but fluffy light dough balls you could crack open and stuff with a bruschetta veg mix. I think I died and went to carbed our heaven! 

If you’re in Haight Ashbury and you’ve got the munchies, Vegan Burg does some pretty satisfying burgers. My standards for vurgers are pretty high after spending a year sampling the best Shoreditch has to offer, and IMHO these weren’t quite up to the standard of Vurger or Mooshies. The BBQ burger was a bit bland, but I really enjoyed the fake fish with tartar sauce for something a bit different. It was crunchy, sour, and satisfying.

The BBQ burger (top) and Tartare (bottom) burgers from Vegan Burg

So all in all this is why I left San Francisco a few pounds heavier! Have I missed anything? Feel free to get in contact and let me know your favourite foodie finds there.