Bali, baby! What to do with two weeks on Indonesia’s most popular island

A sprawling green landscape of dramatic shelves staircased into the hills as far as the eye can see – Indonesia’s rice terraces are the first picture that comes to mind for many people when thinking about Bali. Or Ketut – the wise old medicine man in the blockbuster sellout Eat Pray Love that drew travellers to flock to Bali in their thousands. So is it as idyllic as the paradise painted in Gilbert’s much loved adventure, or has the attention it’s received since damaged the serenity of the atmosphere and cultural authenticity?

Tegallalang Rice Terraces

Eat, Pray, Love

I’ve wanted to travel to Bali ever since, as clichéd as it is, I read that book all those years ago.  It spoke to me at a time when I’d been through a heavy break up and decided that travel was the answer to heal my broken heart.

 But in the time that passed before I booked my flights, its popularity boomed, and inevitably so did the idea that it was now overrun by tourists. However, that is also said about Thailand, where I did manage a trip a few months earlier and found it more authentic and peaceful than the lurid images of incapacitated teenagers and sordid sex industry you often see on television. There are two sides to every story.

Bali has also increasingly been known for a more gentle form of tourism – the ecotourism and associated yogis, vegan travellers, and peace-loving nomads. So after months of looking at pictures, flicking through Lonely Planet and idly dreaming, I booked my tickets.

On the beach in Bali

Ubud

Ubud is the obvious hub for most travellers and a beating heart of culture. It’s known for its artists, musicians, writers, and cool cafes. The climate is much cooler here than in the rest of the island, making it much more comfortable to stroll around. The culture is also much calmer. It’s not known as a partying destination, and although you can check out live music and chill vibes at spots like the Laughing Buddha or the shisha lounge at night, you’re unlikely to see white teenagers vomiting all over the streets in the early hours of the morning.  I’d also strongly recommend checking out a traditional Balinese dance show, which run most nights of the week.

If you want to do a spot of yoga, there are more shalas than you can wave a stick at. The Yoga Barn is the most popular, but there are also free classes run around the city, or are often included in many hostels or hotels. It’s a haven for vegan food, and you can see what I ate here.

In a traditional Balinese dance show the eyes are a large part of the performance.

Ubud is also the hub for all of the most popular activities in Bali. It’s a short cab ride from the Tegallalang rice terraces, where you can hike up and down through the paddies and breathe in the warm, wet, earthy tropical atmosphere and take note of exactly where you are.

The Monkey Forest is a very popular spot. I was unsure how I felt about the idea of animals being entertainment, but our day there turned out to be one of the most fun. While I disliked the way the keepers would taunt monkeys to get them to jump on tourists for better photos (they do this sometimes anyway), on the whole they ran – and jumped – and scrambled – freely around the forest without a care for anyone watching. If you’re a photographer it’s a great chance to get some shots.

A baby monkey snuggles up to his Dad.

The Bali Swing is also a fun trip and a chance to swing out over the jungle, albeit a bit pricey, but it does make for some good insta photos.

Swing time.

One of my favourite ways to connect to a culture is through its food. I would recommend taking cooking classes wherever you travel if you can. Not only does it help you to learn how the food you’re eating is cooked and try new ideas, it also connects you more to the natural habitat of a place when you are cooking with ingredients that are fresh and local – not like anything you’d find in Sainsburys. I really enjoyed my trip to Pembulan Cooking School where we harvested our food before cooking up a five course vegan feast.

Collecting fresh ingredients at Pembulan Farm Cooking School

Canggu

If you’re exhausted by the city and want to come to Bali for a chill beach hangout, Canggu is a little surf town where you can unwind and read a book all day without disturbance.  It’s also home to even more vegan hangouts than you can shake a stick at. And if you do want to party, this is the place to do it, particularly in the high season.

Craving more of a peaceful vibe, I spent a few days at Serenity Eco Guesthouse. A yoga hangout with an all vegan restaurant on site and a huge pool, this place is an idyll tucked away just a minute’s walk from the beach. The yoga schedule is impressive, but given the comparable heat in this part of the island, I stuck to the early morning classes, spending the rest of the day on the beach.

A shrine at Serenity Eco Guesthouse

Canggu might not appeal to everyone because it’s extremely westernised. For those who fancy some time by the sea but with less of that sea being made up of white faces, I’d recommend heading to one of the smaller islands off Bali.

Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Penida

You can easily get to Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Penida from the otherwise unexciting town of Sanur, a short ride from the airport. Boats run a few times a day and tickets can be bought at the dock. It’s notably less developed than the main island, but for that reason retains more charm and authenticity. Here you can catch the little bench bus taxis or just stroll about unencumbered to take in the dramatic cliff views or watch locals going about their work.

The Devil’s Tear, Nusa Lembongan

There are lots of beautiful beaches and if you can hack the heat, I’d recommend hiking about to see them, or if you can ride a scooter you can zip through the hills. It’s a great spot for photographers, with the dramatic landscapes of the Devil’s Tear and the Blue Lagoon.

It’s also known as a spot for divers. Although it can be a little rough, manta ray are very common in the area. For those (like me) that are a bit nervous of the deep-sea stuff, it’s also possible to book a very affordable snorkel tour around the island. Sadly we didn’t see mantas, but the array of brightly coloured fish and healthy coral, as well as a better view of the coastline made this a must-do on my trip and one of my favourite memories.

So is Bali spoiled by tourism?

There were certainly times when I became frustrated by the gaggles of tourists blocking the roads. Ubud in particular is overrun and as charming as it is, the ratio of tourists to local people is uncomfortable. Similarly in Canggu, while it was a  peaceful spot and most of the tourists were the kindly yogi kinds, you did get a sense of an uncomfortable picture of white people being served by Indonesians and few Indonesians themselves on holiday. That said this did change during the Ramadam festival when people from other islands came to rest out on Bali. The smaller islands were certainly much quieter, and if this isn’t your vibe, I’d suggest going there instead.

Hanging out in Bali

Travel mindfully and favour ethical choices

There is a hypocrisy  in describing places as unpleasant because they’re overrun with tourists when you yourself are contributing to the problem and part of that stat. I think the most important thing is to travel with respect, to enjoy a place for it’s scenery, cuisine, and people, and try to leave as minimal a footprint as possible.

On the whole, I’d say it’s still very worth visiting Bali. The landscapes are phenomenal, the food is to die for and less commonly known about, particularly for vegans. More than anything though, the people are amongst the kindest and most gentle you could imagine.

Indonesia is a country that has been through numerous natural disasters and many of its people live in extreme poverty. The tourism in Bali has made it one of the more affluent islands, but people still live a humble existence. Go to Bali, and be mindful of where you put your money. Favour local, family run hotels like Raka House over international complexes. Try to eat at local warungs as well as the cool hippie hangouts. And talk to people. Taxi drivers in particular are always up for a chat.

Would I go back? Sure. But next time I might visit one of the quieter islands or opt for a boat trip between a few of them. Indonesia has a culture and ethos I really enjoyed, and as conflicted I feel about it, I’d love to view more of it without the heavy haze of intense tourism.

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.

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.

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.

San Francisco: waxing lyrical on the city of liberal daydreams

San Francisco is one of those cities I’ve always dreamed about from reading about it in novels. Books about bookshops, revolutionaries, queer culture, free love, migrants, jazz, trams, highs, and hippies.  

I was nervous that the reality of San Francisco in 2018 wouldn’t live up to the picture I had in my head. Time has moved on since the classic 1960s image of the city. I was worried that it would have modernised and been taken over by shopping centres, capitalism and American corporation culture.

However, I was pleasantly surprised that- while there is an extent to which this is true in the financial centre- on the whole the alternative culture of San Francisco still thrives, a living beating heart of liberalism in a country which largely seems anything but.

I was bemused on arriving at our Airbnb in Haight Ashbury, the former epicentre of the ‘summer of love’ to see groups of people hanging around in tie-dye (non-ironically) smoking dope and strumming guitars. Socialist bookshops piled high with everything from books on Marxist analysis to the ‘cunt colouring book’. Gay leatherclad couples strolling around, and rainbow flags hanging from buildings. And, best of all, a vegan eatery on every street.

Haight Ashbury in particular retains most of what you imagine the ‘character’ of San Francisco to be, though there are parts of it that seem a bit forced, a reconstruction of an old image. However, the tie-dye shops are all family owned and you can buy any garment of clothing you can imagine in these whacky designs. There are record shops, bookshops, coffee shops and cocktail bars galore.

It’s also very close to the Golden Gate Park, which is a lovely place to go for a long morning run, particularly since the weather here tends to be cool, sunny, and clear at all times.  With botanical gardens, a huge greenhouse, and endless winding paths, it’s a spot that’s really worth checking out if you need some downtime. Just remember that in the US it is illegal to drink in public so if you’re gonna bring a bevy for a picnic you’d better keep it out of sight (mad, I know).

Powerful street art tells a political story of resistance everywhere you walk, and you can find out where the best bits online are to do a self-guided tour, which is probably the best bet since it’s constantly changing. The highlight for me was the MaestraPeace Mural, which covers the Women’s Building. This is a women-lead non-profit community and arts centre a with workshops to support people facing difficult issues like domestic violence and drug abuse, education programmes to help people get into work, exercise classes, a fresh free food programme, performances, cinema, and even legal support and tax advice to low-income and migrant women. The building is wrapped in a colourful mural that is a ‘testament to the courageous contributions through time and around the world’ and it is a sight to behold.

If you’re short on time, the other place to check out lots of great street art in a relatively short stretch is Clarion Alley, which is plastered in some of the most political graffiti you will see. There is a focus on the Black Lives Matter movement, with murals dedicated to the memory of murdered black people, as well as those focusing on economic injustice, Palestine, feminism, and much more. We even saw a bunch of people painting as we checked everything out.

For those that enjoy a smoke, weed is legal in San Francisco and can be bought from any of a number of regulated dispensaries. They seem to vary in character from a clinical and almost pharmaceutical setting to an old school smoking lounge. It’s no surprise really that the locals, and Californians in general, are such a chilled out bunch.

If you’re feeling open-mined and happen to be there at the end of September, you might want to check out the Folsom Street Fair. Primarily a gay and leather event, it’s now opened out to be almost more of a kink expo in the middle of the day, in the middle of the street. If you see people wandering around naked or in fetish gear around this time, you can bet that’s where they’re headed. Even if you don’t fancy participating, you can go as an observer as long as you make a contribution to an HIV charity. The atmosphere is very friendly, and you don’t have to be gay.  I will warn you, you will probably see people doing things to each other than you can’t unsee, but if you go with a liberal attitude you’ll have a fun afternoon.

On a slightly chiller note, I was really happy to get to check out some jazz while we were in San Francisco. There are several great bars that pump out live music every night of the week. The cocktails are expensive (but strong), the dancing is lively, and given its history, you really can’t go to San Fran and miss out on this.

You might have read about City Lights bookshop in poems and books. That’s the kind of place it is. I love a good bookshop anyway, but a bookshop so iconic there are literally books about it is something I couldn’t resist. It did not disappoint, and I wished I had more spending money and a bigger suitcase. There were shelves upon shelves on books on all the subjects I care about most, with a focus on social justice spanning literally everything you can think of. More than that- novels by international authors I’d never heard of, poetry, travel books, and maps. I ended up settling for a collection of poetry called Women of Resistance, a collection of international feminist poetry, the proceeds from which are donated to Planned Parenthood and the Centre for Reproductive Rights.

Another legend of San Fran is of course the trams, which chug up and down the unbelievably steep slopes of the city. It’s something you have to do once (and after hiking up some of these hills you’ll really want to), and for us it was fun to hop onto the ledge on the outside of the tram and hang on. I did feel that for the people in the middle, who would have had their view blocked by us, it probably was less of a good deal, so if you can try to go at a less busy time of day so you can actually enjoy it.

Pier 39 has a reputation for sea lions, which sadly we didn’t see. It’s a bit cheesy (your typical seaside pier) but it’s a nice place to stop and have a drink by the water, and you can even see Alcatraz over the sea, though we didn’t have time to go. They’re also famed for their sourdough bread here.

The ‘Painted Ladies’ are a row of houses that have been the feature of many films, and have now become a bit of a landmark. Lombard Street is another great place to get a snap. A whacky winding street bursting with flowers, it looks like the stuff of Alice in Wonderland and it’s hard to believe people actually live there.

If you have more time, I’d definitely recommend hiring a car to go out of the city for a few days. The Pacific Coast highway has some lovely views, such as Half Moon Bay. Another thing I really enjoyed was renting a cabin in the woods. California is home to some really beautiful redwoods, and out here, you really feel that you’re far from everything.

So did it live up to my expectations? Well, I ended up leaving San Francisco googling jobs and the feasibility of getting a visa. So yes, I loved it and would seriously consider actually living there if there was a chance of getting work in my field, in spite of the mad tango monster President. It seems a world apart from the rest of what you think of as ‘MURICA’ and Californians are amongst the friendliest, most cheerful, and easy going folk I’ve encountered on my travels.

My one bugbear is the poverty. Given that it’s one of the wealthiest places in the world, I was seriously disturbed by the number of homeless people we saw. Sure, London and the UK in general has the same issues, but I would say not nearly to the same extent. There seem to be several times more homeless people than you see on the streets of London, and not just that, but they seem much, much more desperate. I saw people eating out of bins outside restaurants that would cost $60 a head for a meal, trying to drink the remains of rancid yoghurt drinks. Putting down half a pizza on the way home for a second while looking where to go, and someone ran up and begged for it.  And more than that, a much higher proportion were clearly struggling with serious drug dependencies and mental health issues. Again, I know these are problems in the UK too but I was really shocked by how much worse it was. For all that San Francisco on the whole has a progressive outlook and a drive for social justice, in many ways there still doesn’t seem to be much of it about. There are centres and programmes to help, and it’s suggested that’s why there are quite so many people who gravitate there. If I was able to live and work there, I think that’s the area I’d have to look for work in. Like a lot of liberal places, there ironically remains a high concentration of wealth in the left, and a bit more distribution of it might make it a city living closer to the values you see spray painted on the walls. With so many great social initiatives, I sincerely hope they get more funding to help more people live a better quality of life in a city that, in all other ways, is bloody fantastic.

Not just ice and moss: vegan eating in Iceland

When I said I was going to Iceland, a lot of people got wide eyed when they remembered my veganism. What are you going to eat?! Ice?

I guess it has a reputation for having a diet heavy with fish and meat, and that may be so. However, was pleasantly extremely surprised how easy it was to be vegan in Iceland. Particularly in the capital of Reykjavik, it is a well-established concept. Beyond that, though, I was still really taken aback that a lot of the service stations and supermarkets as we got further out into the sticks not only had vegan options, but they were clearly labelled to avoid doubt. Winning!

Now, two things to say about eating on an Iceland holiday. First of all, you’re probably going to spend most of the time on the road, which means cooking for yourself on a campstove. This makes things easier in that you can cook your own recipes from scratch with naturally vegan ingredients (beans, rice, pasta, veggies), and apart from this, the main supermarket that you will see everywhere (Bonus) does your whole line of vegan substitutes- milks, yoghurts, burgers, mince etc. One morning feeling particularly extravagant I even made some vegan blueberry pancakes (pictured). However, this leads to point two- everything is VERY expensive. A shop for one week of main meals cost a fearful amount, and we had to keep topping up on fresh veggies as we went.

Because of this, a lot of people in the know had brought their own veggies and pasta etc. with them. As I’d flown on the most budget flight possible, I didn’t really have enough luggage to do this. It wasn’t quite as bad as I was expecting given the rep Iceland has for being expensive in general, but with the cost of also renting your cooking equipment if you don’t have it, don’t go thinking that because it’s a camping trip it’s going to be a budget holiday.

However- I was really pleased to find that if you needed it, the options were generally available. One particularly good campsite (at Skaftafell National Park) had several vegan dinner options in the café as well as two kinds of cake. The exception to this is in some of the further out places, where it’s worth ensuring you are stocked up with hummus, bread, and other picnic items before venturing, because even if there were vegan options available in the one café in some of the far-off stretches of road (and there generally weren’t), it will cost you about £17 for a soup. Also, it’s just too damn pretty to sit inside.

In Reykjavik, however, (probably at the start and end of your trip) you’ll be made up. Eat Co has two locations and is the perfect lunch stop for huge, healthy salad bowls, smoothies, almond lattes, and all other kinds of good-for-you hipster grub. After eating limited fresh veggies during the week due to the cost, it was great to stuff our faces with these once we got back to civilisation.

The best spot for a dinner out is undoubtedly Kaffi Vinyl. Taking hipster chic to the next level, this place is a chilled-vibe, low-key vegan restaurant, jazz café and record shop all in one. The prices are higher than at home but not bad for Iceland, and for it we got a huge bowl of delicious noodles and an Oumph! Teriyaki bowl, with a fairly priced house wine. If that doesn’t already warm your snowflake heart, they also sell a range of feminist and gender queer stickers. Yay!

So go forth to Iceland vegan friends, without fear of only eating moss. Unless you want to try the traditional moss schnapps, but from experience I would say probably DON’T 😉