Diving and Snorkelling in Dahab

Visiting the world underneath the surface of the ocean is a real wonder, and something everyone should get to experience. I am not the world’s greatest swimmer, however I still love donning a snorkel and checking out the colourful and unusual marine life whenever I get the chance.

If you’re visiting Egypt specifically for the diverse and stunning species which call this part of the world home, then I would certainly recommend Dahab.

Sharm el Sheik is the famous Red Sea Riviera holiday resort which calls to tourists during summer and winter, however Dahab is a little more unique, in that it isn’t as neon-lit and touristic, and gives you a more authentic Egyptian experience, whilst also being a top destination for diving and snorkelling holidays.

Beginners and advanced are welcomed, however for the advanced amongst you, you’re certainly well catered for, with The Blue Hole a famous spot. On a negative point, this has been referred to as the most dangerous dive site in the world, because many divers have become injured or even died here due to not understanding the difficulty of this particular area; basically, I’d always say make sure you adhere to the rules, listen to instructors, and trust your instincts, because they will never let you down. Aside from the negative, The Blue Hole is a truly magical experience, with colourful, diverse, unusual, and sometimes downright weird fish and other species floating by you, with truly beautiful coral formations.

The Canyon is another site which I would only really recommend to the experienced divers out there, because it is quite dark and narrow, which isn’t ideal for beginners or even intermediates, so stick to your level of expertise on this one.

The great thing about Dahab is that because of its marine-life popularity, you will find countless dive trips, and you can even learn your skills from scratch, with PADI certification available. Trips will pick you up from your hotel and take you to these amazing sites by bus and boat, usually lasting a full day, and sometimes even night dives are on offer for the experienced divers out there.

Eel Garden, and Ras Abu Galum protected area are two other regions which are often advertised at tour agency stands, and offer equally clear and stunning views of the underwater residents of Dahab.

The crystal clear waters of the Red Sea makes snorkelling and diving here a pleasure, but the place itself is pretty amazing on land too, so I would always recommend checking out the land-based activities whilst you’re there too.

Photo Credit: Prilfish

Meditation Retreats in Thailand

If you want to turn your thoughts inwards, reflect on life and how it has brought you here, as well as tune out your negative thoughts and concerns, then I don’t think you could pick a better option than a meditation retreat. There’s no denying that Thailand is a very popular country for such retreats, and the cultural ancient teachings, as well as the beautiful surroundings, all help those attending such retreats to focus and concentrate the mind.

Of course, meditation isn’t something that comes easily to most people, mainly because we’re all too used to rushing around like headless chickens most of the time; I know I am quite guilty of letting my mind wander to my to-do list, rather than practising calmness and serenity, but meditation is certainly an art and a skill which can help us all on a daily basis. Learning meditation at a Thai retreat could arm you with the knowledge and practice to do just that, whilst visiting a place which will blow your mind in its beauty and traditions.

Thailand is home to hundreds of meditation retreats, many of which are taught in English and have guest speakers and teachers from the west, as well as locals.

How long you choose to attend a retreat is really personal choice, but I don’t think anything less than at least a week is going to help you learn the art of meditation, or be able to calm your mind enough to receive much benefit from it. You can head to a longer retreat if you so wish, but this is quite a heavy affair, which I wouldn’t recommend for the first timer.

So, what can you expect when you head to your first meditation retreat in Thailand?

Males and females will generally be separated, in order to focus the mind more than anything, and you may have to observe a silence vow in certain retreats. It’s worth me mentioning that not all retreats are as strict as others, but on the whole, meditation is about calm, silence and thought, so don’t expect a party atmosphere, because that’s just not going to happen, and instead, you will find calm, serenity, quiet, and reflection.

Some retreats allow you to leave the grounds, but many don’t, because this means your mind is littered with outside thoughts, which isn’t really the aim; instead, you will walk around gardens or the grounds of the building, of course wearing modest clothing – sometimes you are asked to wear white for pure, calm thoughts, but your retreat should give you all the information of what you need at the time of booking your spot – if in doubt, just ask.

Your day will begin before the sun comes up, usually around 4am (yes, really!), and you will often be asked to sit in the grounds as the sun rises, taking part in group meditation sessions, sole reflection, and chanting. The rest of the day will be timed to follow a routine, with chores, meals, more meditation, and personal reflection on your life and thoughts. No alcohol, caffeine, smoking, or sexual activity is allowed. The aim is basically to cleanse your mind and start on a fresh page, teaching you the way to switch off your thoughts and turn them inwards.

I told you that a meditation retreat wasn’t for the wishy washy naysayers out there, it is a true experience that requires determination, stamina, and a real desire to experience the ancient teachings of Buddhism through meditation and personal reflection.

Photo Credit: Echiner1

Solo Female Travel – Is it Really that Scary?

Travelling the world shouldn’t depend on your gender, and no matter what flavour you are, boy or girl, travel experiences should be the same, right?

Well, I would love to say that yes, whether you’re male or female, you can travel the world in the same way, experiencing the same walls and barriers, but this isn’t really the case. The fact of the matter is that if you’re a lone female travelling the world, you have to take a few other aspects into account, compared to the barriers a man would face in the same situation.

Should this stop you? No way! Is it harder? Not really!

I travel a lot on my own, and although it can be a little awkward at times, and not as easy as I believe a man would find it, it doesn’t stop me, and I still end up experiencing the same things.

If you’re wondering whether lone female travel really is as scary as those naysayers claim it to be, check out these few pointers and see if you feel the same at the end of it – I don’t think you will!

Just listen to your intuition

There is a lot to be said for female intuition, and that famous gut feeling should always be listened to. If you feel nervous or uneasy then you have reason to feel that way, so adjust your approach or move from the situation.

Listen to your common sense too

Sometimes when we go off on our travels it’s easy to get carried away, and common sense goes out of the window. Keep your common sense at the forefront of your mind, don’t take any unnecessary risks that you wouldn’t at home, and there’s no reason why you can’t enjoy the experience.

Don’t be too trusting

I’ve fallen foul of this in the past, and that was simply me being naive, so take my advice and learn from my experience! Don’t trust everyone who speaks to you and smiles, because a lot of the time they’re not as genuine as they seem. This doesn’t mean you should tar everyone with the same brush, because that would be unfair, but in my experience it’s best to let someone earn your trust, rather than giving it freely.

Check in regularly

I find Facebook a great way to let my friends and family know that I’m safe on my travels, and using WhatsApp, Viber, Skype, and Tango to keep in touch is great when you hit a Wi-Fi area, which you’ll find all over the world nowadays. Make this a daily occurrence and you won’t have worried family, and I always find it helps me feel more connected at the same time.

Take advice

Heading to certain areas in the world can be a little more risky for females than males, but it’s really a case of checking advice, usually on government websites, and listening to it. This advice is there to help you, so don’t ignore it. If a part of the world you had your heart set on visiting has just experienced a political uprising, then it might be worthwhile avoiding it until things have settled down. This is common sense regardless of gender.

Dress appropriately

Especially in Middle Eastern countries, don’t dress as though you’re heading off to the beach. I found that carrying a pashmina in my bag was a good idea, because if I needed to cover my head I could just throw it on. It’s basically about not drawing attention to yourself with low cut tops or short skirts – be respectful and research this kind of thing before you go.

So, is lone female travel scary? No! Be mindful, listen to your gut, and you’ll find it to be an enriching experience.

Photo Credit: Let Ideas Compete

Thailand’s Best Beaches for Budget Travellers

When you’re travelling around on a budget, every little bit of money saved is precious. Days out can be costly if you head towards the tourist strips, and beach days can be expensive if you choose to go to the most crowded areas. Having said that, I love a beach day, and I’ll explore a little in order to find a secluded or fun beach, depending on how I feel, which won’t cost me the earth. If you’re heading to Thailand on your next adventure, you’ll be pleased to know that there are plenty of stretches of beautiful sandy beaches that won’t break your travel bank.

Here’s a few of my favourite beaches which will keep you well within budget

Maya Bay, Phi Phi Leh

Now, you will probably have seen this beach on the TV because it is where Leonardo DiCaprio filmed The Beach. The beauty remains, and because it is a national park you will have to pay to get in – more than worth it however! Once you’re in, the beach is so quiet that you won’t be hassled for drinks and snacks every five minutes, and you can simply relax and take in your stunning surroundings, framed by towering rock formations that drop dramatically into the sea.

Chaweng Beach, Koh Samui

You don’t need me to tell you that Koh Samui is a backpackers’ dream, however over recent years it has become extremely touristy. Don’t let that put you off however, as I’ve always found that when you’re travelling around places that might not have your home comforts to hand, visiting somewhere that does makes for a refreshing change. Easily accessible, and as stunning as you would expect it to be, Chaweng Beach is a fantastic day out.

Sunrise Beach, Koh Lipe

If you want quiet, you’ll find it here, and if you want lively, you’ll also find it here. Sunrise Beach is my idea of a paradise Thai beach – that powder white sand and brilliant blue sea that we all dream of. This beach is huge, and it’s a popular backpacking spot, making it cheap enough for those on a budget. If you want to cut costs on getting to Koh Lipe then jump on a boat from Phuket for a cheap option.

Lonely Beach, Koh Chang

This is a huge island so it makes sense that there’s plenty to see and do. For me, the beautifully named Lonely Beach is a wonderful place to lay your head and check out the scenery for a few hours, and this being a popular backpacking island means costs are also low.

Photo Credit: My Wave Pictures

Making Personal Connections with Locals on Your Travels

Personally, travel for me is about people as much as places, and the locals you meet in the destinations you’re visiting can really help you learn more about what you’re seeing, as well as history and culture; to me that’s what seeing the world is really about!

I appreciate how daunting it can be to make conversation with someone who doesn’t speak your language so well, or who’s language you only speak a little of, but once you’re over the first awkward few words, you’ll find your experience just goes from strength to strength from there.

Just talk

You’re not going to make connections or reach out to anyone if you don’t speak and make eye contact! A simple hello, a smile, these are all things which make a person look more approachable.

Consider a home stay

I don’t think there’s a more authentic way to travel than staying in the house of a local family. Online is your best place for this, and make sure you check reviews of any companies you use before parting with cash. Living with locals will help you basically fall into the local way of life.

Spend time away from tourist areas

I don’t find tourist areas to show me the ‘real’ side of the place I’m visiting, so I always try and spend time in the smaller towns and villages, making use of public transport to get around. You will encounter more local life here, and that means you’ll get to speak to more local people as a result.

Stay longer in places

If you stay longer in a particular place, then the people who live there will recognise you and you’ll become a part of their local community.

Gain respect

Dress appropriately, be mindful of local customs and traditions, try cuisine and experiences which are local to the place, and learn some of the language. All of these things will help you gain respect, and once you have respect you will find it much easier to converse and gain trust of the local people you want to learn more from.

Stay in family-run, smaller accommodation

I always try and avoid the larger hotels, which are sometimes totally soulless and could be anywhere in the world, and instead go for more charming, family-run accommodation. I usually end up getting taken under the wing of the mother or grandmother living in the B&B or small hotel, and you’ll find you learn more this way. This is one of my favourite ways to reach out and make valuable connections with locals on the go.

Basically, just think about how you would like travellers visiting your town or city to make connections with you – you’d no doubt want them to be respectful, show a genuine interest, and to make an effort, wouldn’t you? I know this is what I’d be looking for, so turn it on its head and follow this advice.

 Photo Credit: Jonathan

Making Long Haul Flights Affordable

Money does not grow on trees, and I know this because I have tried my best to find that tree and it still eludes me to this day. Because of this rather upsetting fact, it’s important to try and save money on travels as much as possible, and I have tried more than enough of my own little routes to keeping cash in my pocket – some successful, and some not.

If you’re trying to fund your next long haul flight, see if any of these tips help you.

Flexibility is your friend

Being too rigid with travel dates is not the way to save money, especially on long haul flights. I’m talking about a large amount of money you’re spending on a journey, so you need to cut it down as much as possible. Try searching for the month, using Skyscanner if possible, and pick and choose your dates from there – I find weekends are generally more expensive, so try and go mid-week if you can.

Split bookings

I found that booking my outbound ticket and then booking my return journey separately sometimes saved me money, so this is another option you could look at.

Indirect flights

The bane of every traveller’s life is the stopover connection, and whilst it’s no fun, if you can find one that’s not too lengthy then it’s not really that much of a problem. I try and get stopovers of no longer than five hours if possible, because this means I can grab a coffee, stretch my legs, and have a look around the airport, but any longer than that and I get stressed. A good way to experience another city en-route is of course to find a flight with a very long stop over so you can head out and enjoy your connection city – just don’t miss your next flight, and check for information on transit visas.

Shop around

Different companies offer different prices, so it’s a good idea to do a price comparison and see which comes up cheaper. If I’m booking with an agency or company I’m not familiar with, I always go online and check out reviews before I take the plunge.

Use points or miles

If you have a credit card which equates to points or miles every time you make a transaction then see if you can make use of them and book a flight, or put it towards one if possible. Money saved!

Finding a cheap long haul flight takes patience and a little investigation work, but it’s more than worth it for the lower price tag.

Photo Credit: Gunnar Kullenberg

India by Rail

The ins and outs of the Indian railway system

There is no doubt in my mind that the single best way to see the wonder of India is by train. Passing landscapes can be appreciated much more when you’re whizzing through them, rather than over them by plane, when you see absolutely nothing other than an airport. Personally, I think you can say you’ve ‘done’ India to a degree if you’ve crossed it by train.

The only problem with this idea is that you have to actually use the public rail network, and if you’ve watched old films on TV then you must have seen the packed trains, with people hanging out of the windows and sat on the roof – this is a fallacy, it simply doesn’t happen on longer length journeys anymore, so don’t panic!

The Indian railway network is the third largest in the world, and more than 20 million passengers use it in some way or form every single day – that’s a lot of people and a lot of miles! I’m not going to lie, the trains can get crowded, especially in and around major cities, but not overly so, and if you’re heading off across the country or from major city to major city, then you will experience a comfortable journey. One tip I would give however is to try and cut down on the amount of luggage you’re taking, because it’s just going to make life difficult if you’re dragging half your worldly belongings around with you.

Trains in India go pretty much everywhere, and although it’s not unusual for them to run late, they are cheap, making it the most authentic and easiest way to travel. Sleeper trains are comfortable and include meals, and the commonly booked AC2 class of train, which is more than adequate for a general traveller, gives you comfort and privacy for the duration of your journey, with curtained off bays to relax in.

I’m guessing you’re thinking this all sounds great in theory, but how do you use the Indian rail network?

Well basically you book as far ahead as you possibly can online, because this is the cheapest way, and also means you’re guaranteed a seat on journeys which book up sometimes months beforehand. Reservations for journeys are usually bookable online about 120 days in advance, so if you know you’re heading off, do it before if you can. I know that sometimes you’ll want to be a bit more spontaneous however, and in that case you need to wait until 10am the day before you’re wanting to travel and keep your fingers crossed for Tatkal tickets, which are tickets held back for last minute travellers. The large cities generally have booking bureaus too, so if you are a spontaneous soul and didn’t manage to get tickets online, then this is your next best bet.

I can imagine it might be a little daunting to think about travelling around India by train, especially when you cast your mind back to the images you might falsely believe to be true about the Indian rail network, but this is simply the best way to see a country that is vast, totally varied, and really quite beautiful.

Photo Credit: Simon Mortimer

How to Meet Likeminded Travellers

Travel isn’t just about the things you see and experience, it’s also about the people you meet along the way, good and bad.

I love meeting new people when I’m travelling around, and I have met several life-long friends during my travels. You never know, you may meet your soulmate whilst travelling around India, or heading off to Thailand!

You should always remember to be wary when you’re meeting new people, and don’t give trust too freely until you feel comfortable with someone. There are some unscrupulous folk out there, happy to take advantage of a new traveller, or someone too trustful; don’t let this put you off however, because I’ve certainly encountered some fantastic people on my travels, and I wouldn’t change any of it for this reason.

So, how can you meet likeminded travellers whilst you’re on your own adventure?

Go on group tours

There are many companies out there who organise group tours for single travellers, and this is a great way to meet people who are out there experiencing the same things as you. The chances are that you will have a lot in common with the people who are also on the tour, because it reaches out to your particular interests. This is where I met one of my own best friends, so I can certainly vouch for its effectiveness at meeting new people on your wavelength.

Embrace the hostel

You never know, you might end up bumping into someone on the stairs who you have a lot in common with, and you could end up travelling to somewhere new together! This is the great thing about travel, the uncertainty of it all! I love the fact that you could meet someone that very moment who could change your life, or even just your day. Hostels are full of travellers, obviously, and this is a great place to strike up a conversation.

Do internet research

You’ll find countless forums on the internet where likeminded travellers can chat, and whilst I’d always advise being careful at first, especially when talking to someone new, it’s a good idea to chat and see what you find. Don’t arrange to meet up with anyone you don’t feel comfortable with, and certainly don’t arrange to meet up alone, but chatting with likeminded people in this way could be a good route to forging new friendships on the go.

Don’t be shy!

Finally, it’s really a case of striking up a conversation and seeing where you go from there. Most people want to talk but are too scared to make the first move, and if they don’t want to talk, then I guess you’ll find out pretty quickly. Just go for it!

Photo Credit: Moyan Brenn

How to Find Homestays Around the World

In my opinion, a homestay experience is probably the single best way to really get into the nitty gritty of a country’s way of life. What better way to truly experience daily living, cuisine, language, customs and traditions than immersing yourself completely in a family home?

Despite the positives of the situation, I don’t think choosing a homestay is something you should rush, and it’s certainly something to be giving careful consideration to, before you jump in and decide on your host family and destination for the duration of your stay.

Where to start? Well, I have a few pointers which might help you in your quest to find your perfect fit.

Online is always your friend

Technology has taken over the world, let’s face it, and now we’re even more connected than we’ve ever been before. If you Google homestays then you will be presented with page upon page of results, but my advice would be to stick to the first page in the main. Why? Well these are the most popular and most searched results, so you have to summarise that these are the most reliable and quality-evoking. Having said that, don’t be too trustful, and always search for reviews on a company, with another Google search, before you decide to go with them to find your ideal host family.

Skype

Once you’ve found a shortlist of possible homestay candidates, see if you can do a Skype call before you confirm your choice, because seeing something is much better than reading about it. Not everyone will be able to do this, especially if the homestay you’re looking at is in a very rural area, but it’s not to say that you can’t have a phone call with the host family, or at least find out a little more information.

Word of mouth

Personal recommendations are always the most reliable opinions, because people who have actually experienced it are more likely to tell you the truth, rather than a company trying to sell you something, and may be sugar coating a few details. Head to forums and ask opinions, try and find someone who has used the same matching company or someone who has stayed in a family home in the same area, so you can make an informed choice, and you’ll be a bit more familiar with what to expect.

Basically, finding a homestay is always going to revolve around using the internet, because it’s the way we connect nowadays, and your choices will be far greater if you involve the World Wide Web. Don’t be too trusting, and always dig a little deeper before you choose your ideal host. I would always say that this is one of the most authentic and special ways to experience a country, and you don’t want it to be spoilt by making a poorly informed choice at the start.

Photo Credit: Arjan Veen

Four Not to be Missed Festivals in Asia

We all love a good party, I know I certainly do, and some of the best parties and celebrations are held in the cultural and colourful countries which make up Asia.

Religious, cultural, or both, there are countless festivals throughout the calendar year which have to be seen to be believed, and certainly experienced. I love the traditional ways that people celebrate important dates in the calendar, and this is a true way to get to know a country’s real heart, something many people miss out on.

If you’re a festival lover like me, check out these four not to be missed occasions whilst you’re on your travels around Asia.

Songkran, Thailand – April

If I could give one piece of advice here, it would be to remember a rain coat! Songkran is the traditional Thai New Year and it is celebrated with parties, dancing, fun, and a lot of water throwing! You could be innocently walking down the street, only to be doused with a bucket of water, but don’t cry about it, it’s all part of the fun!

Thaipusam, Malaysia – January/February

This is a true sight to lay your eyes on, and certainly one for the camera. This is a very sacred and important festival in the Hindu calendar, where a very colourful and bright parade makes its way from Sri Mahamariamman Temple on an eight hour journey to Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur, where around a million people await it. Quite the sight!

Pingxi Lantern Festival, Taiwan – February

The sight of countless bright lanterns reaching into the night sky is a vision you’re not likely to forget in a hurry in my opinion, and trying to capture it on camera should be your aim. This is a true date in the calendar as far as culture goes, and you can experience games, shows, parties, food, and everything else that makes festivals go off with a very bright bang.

Diwali, India – October

Of course, Indians all over the world celebrate Diwali but nothing can prepare you for the epic scale of it when you are in the country itself. Celebrations, lights, parties, dancing, food – you name it. This is a great way to experience Indian culture, and you will no doubt be wholeheartedly welcomed into the party by friendly locals keen to help you understand what is going on.

Think about the parties and celebrations that your particular country holds, and how you’d like to show visitors what they mean to you, and then go out and experience something totally different with the same point of view elsewhere.

Photo Credit: James Antrobus