An almost useful gringo guide to Bolivia – that time we spent 10 days in Bolivia and didn’t even get our stuff nicked

Lake Titikaka (brief tour) >> La Paz (3 nights) >> Pampas (2 nights) >> La Paz (2 nights) >> Uyuni Salt Flats tour (2 nights)

Original expectations of 10 days in Bolivia:

  • Get pickpocketed
  • Get mugged
  • Get shot
  • Get incredible pictures on the salt flats

Reality of 10 days in Bolivia:

  • Not being a victim of any crime
  • Struggling to walk up hills at altitude
  • Experiencing the most amazing downhill bike ride
  • Fishing whilst surrounded by nonchalent caimans
  • Swimming with dolphins whilst surrounded by nonchalent caimans
  • Throwing a dying pyranha at a caiman whilst surrounded by nonchalent caimans
  • Getting fairly underwhelming photos on the salt flats
  • Being surrounded by incredible scenery; huge mountains, vivid lagoons, active volcanoes, sprawling deserts

Puno (Peru) , Copacabana & Isla del Sol

The first stop en route to Bolivia, and our first night bus. Being a gangly 6ft4 gringo stuck on a night bus made me forget about the cost efficiency of being transported somewhere and being able to sleep at the same time. I had no choice but to assume the fetal position. We took a short boat ride on the Peruvian side of Lake Titikaka to the so-called “Floating Islands”, as opposed to, of course the ones that don’t float. There’s a group of people that live on the islands because generations before them realised they wouldn’t have to pay tax.

Definition of living off the grid

So we caught up with the island gypsies and their homes made of reeds, paired with their solar panels! The islands were small enough that you can indeed feel them floating.

More bussing to Copacabana for “Isla Del Sol” where we had the option of jumping on the top deck/roof of the small boat for the ride of unknown duration to the island. Us keeno Gringos jumped right up and it was Arctic up there with the wind, for an hour!! After a small hike on the island where a young boy chased me down for money for using the toilet, we opted to let the Gringos that missed out on the top deck last time ride shotgun!

Sara stop! Let’s take this photo so the rest of the gringos overtake us as get the seats on top of the boat waaaaaaaaaaaaaah!!

Isla Del Sol

Overall In Conclusion Mansell Experience Quick To-The-Point Travel Rating Points Score5

Perhaps marred by the rushed night bus tour approach, I still wasn’t dying to write home about Lake Titikaka, even though Titikaka is a great name that I love to say out loud frequently.

La Paz

I was so nervous about getting my stuff nabbed or being punched in the face. I carried around my normal phone and wallet, but I also had my almost matching decoy phone and wallet ready to hand over in case of robber emergency.

“GIMME YOUR STUFF”

“Oh, no, not my stuff. Not my old worthless phone, and my wallet with the expired Tesco clubcard nooooooooo”

“TO THE ATM YOU WITHDRAW MONEY”

Ahh crap I need to work on that bit.

Enjoy the Clubcard waaaaaaaaaaaaaah maaaaaaaaaate

From La Paz we took a tour to cycle down “Death Road”

Dayum

No “death” occurred, in fact it was an incredible downhill bike ride with seriously epic views. There were steep drops on the side of the road facing the valley, but the roads were wide enough to avoid “death”.

If I were Prime Minister of Bolivia I’d rename the road to “Actually not that bad, nice view road” or ANTBNVR for short.

In truth we didn’t do an awful lot more in La Paz because we stayed in a party hostel called Loki which was a bit of a black hole. Free drinks if you come to the bar, free drinks if you stay at the bar, more free drinks if you stay at the bar longer. It was great!

Yep, I got a free drink for wearing this.

We walked around the main areas, but because the city is at 2,800m above sea level, we looked like old aged pensioners who smoked 40 a day their entire lives anytime we went uphill. We did the free walking tour, took one of the cable cars that web across the city, and ate and drank with our newest travel fwiends.

Overall In Conclusion Mansell Experience Quick To-The-Point Travel Rating Points Score – 9

Enhanced by the fact that no death occurred, La Paz was frikkin awesome, mostly because of death road.. we missed out on watching local women wrestle and snorting copious amounts of coMichaelcaine

Bolivian Pampas

We decided to go check out nature, after a recommendation from some traveller dudes we met in Peru. We flew across the country, drove for a few hours, and there it was.. Nature. I couldn’t believe it.

Nay-Chur

We spent a lot of time cruising up and down rivers spying on caimans (at night we could see their eyes light up like jewels when we used the torch) and wondering why said caimans weren’t interested on snacking on the capybaras, the biggest rodent in the world. Capybara is notoriously difficult to say without using an Australian accent.

We had the opportunity to swim with the pink river dolphins, again, not eaten by the caimans. I’ve watched a lot of nature programs and expected real life nature to be brutal at times but nooooooooo. Every animal in the Pampas is clearly vegetarian. Sara took a swim “with the dolphins” but it was more of a swim with the caimans. She’s so brave. I stayed put in the boat. Too many nature programs.

We also went pyranha fishing. I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected. At one point, an Irish lady had great success, caught a pyranha then just crashed like a computer. I took charge of the situation but noticed the hook had pierced through the eye of the fish, it was really jammed. After ripping half of its face off, I wanted to put the fish out of it’s misery. I began to smash the rest of it’s head against the side of the boat over and over whilst shouting ” WHY WONT YOU JUST DIE” Pyranhas have spikey bellies and backs which added to the spectacle by making it really hard to grip. Eventually I asked the boat shall I just throw it at a caiman, to which they replied “Yes definitely” I was expecting it to be like the thing at the start of Return of the Jedi that eats everyone. What actually happened was I threw a direct shot with the fish landing on top of the caiman’s head, and the caiman did nothing. Nothing at all. I finally got to experience brutal nature, or at least I got to be brutal, in nature.

Not a pyranha, in hindsight I should’ve put the fish really close to the camera to make it look massive

Overall In Conclusion Mansell Experience Quick To-The-Point Travel Rating Points Score – 9

I’m glad we did nature.

Salt Flats

I tried to avoid setting any expectations for the salt flats. The flats were one stop on part of a 3 day tour and when we got there on day 1, we were blown away, it was too windy. No wait that’s not true, let me start again.

The salt flats were incredible. The elevation doesn’t vary by more than 1m over more than 10,000sq km whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat. At some angles you can’t see anything but salt desert. At other angles it’s freakin volcanoes!

Loved it here.. also strippers aren’t allowed to squat and pee at the salt flats

We were looking forward to getting some funny snaps, but sadly our “guide” was a lazy, unenthusiastic shit. Even so, he couldn’t detract from the experience which legitamatiely blew our minds.

On the other days we spent most of our time in a fully packed Jeep, crusading through the desert like desperate paparazi ready to snap photos of unsuspecting landscapes. We stopped at lagoons which were different colours, because of biology and that. I expected the photos I’d seen of the lagoons to have been photoshopped to fake, overcoloured hell, but the water in the lagoons was actually amazingly vivid. At one lagoon, the water looked like water. It was because the wind wasn’t blowing and biology couldn’t do it’s thing.

Looking back, wowzas it was damn cool. The photos don’t capture how freaking windy it was though!

We also went to see a geysar field (I still don’t know how to say that ruddy word, is it “geezer” it can’t be, no way!). Lots of highlights here including a friendly Australian man falling into boggy, bubbling geysar muck which after realising he hadn’t been burned to death was hilarious.

After that, our “guide” dropped us at the border to Chile which was the most strict border we’d experienced. They were mostly checking for food and stuff but I shat myself when they got my drone out! It was fine in the end, just looooooooong. We also got to see some other darn gringos incredible salt flat photos and videos!! There’s a lesson there somewhere!

Don’t grow up 🙃

Overall In Conclusion Mansell Experience Quick To-The-Point Travel Rating Points Score – 8

Being cramped in a Jeep with as many gringos as humanly possible (see our name in the world record book) for the duration of the tour made me not give a 10. The landscapes were the best I’d ever seen. I guess it isn’t the landscapes fault there were too many people in the Jeep. Maybe I should give a 10. But then how does the system work? I guess scoring from my own experience makes most sense. So an 8 is right. Maybe “Overall In Conclusion Mansell Experience Quick To-The-Point Travel Rating Points Score” isn’t snappy enough.

Written by Jonny, currently alive and well in Chile.

10 days around Cusco, Peru: Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley

Cusco (4 days) >> The Sacred Valley (1 day) >> Palcoyo (1 day) >> The Jungle Trek to Machu Picchu (4 days) >> Cusco (1 day) >> Puno (a short tour en-route to La Paz, Bolivia)

We started our trip to South America on 20th October 2018. A grand total of 36 hours to get there, we flew from London to Cusco with layovers in Toronto and Lima.

Our first stop was Cusco in Peru.

Cusco

When we arrived it was 7am, we were tired and had to adjust to a whopping 3,399m above sea-level. We were aware of potentially getting altitude sickness but it’s difficult to describe how very real adjusting to the altitude is. Walking up hills was a struggle!

The old town of the city was very picturesque. We spent a few hours on the morning we arrived and the next few days wandering the streets, visiting an Inka museum and chomping down Empanadas and the Peruvian stuffed potatoes.

The charming historical city of Cusco – once capital of the Inka empire.

Peruvian cuisine: quinoa in EVERYTHING from soups to chocolate to ice-cream, it’s always on the menu. Potato is also a staple (did you know over 4000 types of potato grow in Peru?!) so it’s served as homemade chips, in soups, stuffed and baked. Empanadas are everywhere (like a pasty) – they are cheap, tasty and filling! Then there is coco tea – made from the same leaves that also produces cocaine, this drink actually aides altitude sickness.

We spent the first few days in Cusco trying to take it easy and adjust to the altitude. We explored San Pedro market and booked the Sacred Valley and Palcoyo day trips plus the Machu Picchu trek.

Exploring San Pedro market, an indoor market selling souvenirs, alpaca jumpers, fruit, veg and hot meals.

Sadly after day 3, Sara was really struggling with a cold she had caught on the plane and chest pains so we went to see the Doctor for oxygen, altitude sickness pills and flu treatment. Thankfully, within a few days she was feeling back to normal.

Eurgh, well this sucked! No matter what age or fitness you can suffer from altitude sickness. Flying from sea-level to high altitude, with a weakened immune system, can really have an impact.

Due to our breathlessness from the altitude, we decided to be lazy and get a taxi up to Christo Blanco that watches over Cusco and the Inca ruins of Sacsayhauman, pronounced “sexy woman”.

Christo Blanco and Christo Blanco, just kidding, it’s Jonny. Uncanny.

The Sacred Valley

We took a one-day tour of the sacred valley exploring Chincero, Moray, the Salt Mines, Pisac and Ollantaytambo. It was great to see so much in one day! We were also shown how the alpaca wool can be dyed naturally which was a lot more interesting than we thought it would be.

Spending a day in the Sacred Valley, we learnt about making garments out of Alpaca wool.

The salt mines looked pretty awesome against the mountains.

Palcoyo

Similar to rainbow mountain, however Palcoyo is far less touristy. We actually read about this in a Wanderlust magazine before we went. The drive to the Palcoyo was long at 3 hours but the views from the mini bus were awesome. Palcoyo is even higher altitude than Cusco, at 4,700m high. It was cold and there was some snow on top of the mountain. The colours on the mountain range were stunning and we saw barely any tourists.

Worth braving the cold to see the rainbow colours of Palcoyo.

The Jungle Trek to Machu Picchu

This is an alternative 4-day trek to the famous Inca trail to Machu Picchu. We decided to book the trek with Peru Andean Hop after reading this blog. It’s a lot cheaper than some of the other treks, includes different activities and boy was it fun! We absolutely loved this trek.

Day 1: Downhill mountain biking and white-water rafting. Sadly for the downhill biking we didn’t get the views we were hoping for as it was wet and foggy- in fact we all got soaked! The white water rafting made up for it though, even when our guide’s oar snapped so we still had fun navigating the rapids!

Kitted out for 2 hours downhill biking.

Day 2: An all day trek (walking on part of the original Inca trail) followed by soaking in hot springs. Then it was dinner, drinks (including our first Pisco Sours!) and a wee party in Santa Teresa.

Starting our hike at 8am, we walked through the jungle to part of the original Inca trail.

Stopping briefly to put face paint on, drink a shot of Inca tequila, hold a parrot, stroke a puppy and learn about the 4000 types of potato in Peru we were ready to continue our trek.

Hiking photos.

Walking over a bridge (that looked like it could fall through at any minute), hiking up a mountain to a view point, stopping for lunch… we didn’t finish hiking until 6pm!

Just before we reached the hot springs we had to sit in a small basket to be pulled across the river! The hot springs were pure bliss after a full day trekking.

Day 3: Zip-lining in the morning and trekking in the afternoon. We stayed in Aguas Calientes for the night which is the closest town to Machu Picchu.

The morning was spent going down 5 different zip lines across a canyon 🙌

The 3rd day trek was was a little less interesting along the train track to Aguas Calientes, plus it poured it down! What’s more you had to keep your ears pricked to jump off the tracks when the train came!

Day 4: The last day was dedicated entirely to the breathtaking Machu Picchu. We also got tickets to Machu Picchu Montaña (purchased in advance).

We had to start queuing for the bus from 4.30am! When we got up to Machu Picchu it was seriously foggy, we couldn’t see anything. All we could do was hope and pray it would clear…

Thankfully 🙏 the mist and fog did clear. WHAT A VIEW 👌

Not quite sure how we managed it but we also climbed the 2,670 steps to the top of Machu Picchu Mountain. The views were incredible!

The cost of all the 4-day jungle trek, including meals, accommodation, the train back and Machu Picchu mountain was $240 per person. Not bad at all.

We were lucky to have an incredible group of people for our jungle trek which made it all the more fun!

Our group arriving at Machu Picchu 🙌 and about half of us who also climbed Machu Pichu Montaña.

Puno

We took an overnight bus from Cusco to Puno.

Puno is located on Lake Titicaca and one of the main attractions is the floating islands. We visited as part of a 24hr tour from Cusco to La Paz in Bolivia. We booked the bus tour through Peru/Bolivia Hop. It involved an overnight bus, a tour in Puno to the floating islands, and then once across the Bolivian border a visit to Copacabana and Isla Del Sol before arriving in La Paz, Bolivia.

The floating islands are man-made by indigenous Peruvians from tree roots and lots of reeds. They live on the water and use boats made out of reeds to get between the islands.

Standing on the floating islands you can feel the reeds move under your feet. These islands really are floating!

Next stop was Copacabana in Bolivia. The border crossing Peru to Bolivia was really easy with British passports.

Bye bye Peru.

If you get the chance to go to Peru and have more time, other travellers we met highly recommended Arequipa and the Colca Canyon.

Our next trip: Wandering South America!

After our 5-month trip to Asia, we decided to spend some time back in the U.K. with friends and family (plus a couple of short holidays in Cape Verde and Dubrovnik).

Now we’re 3 weeks in to our second big trip, this time around South America!

Prep for our trip to South America.

We have an ambitious route, starting in Cusco, Peru and making our way down through Bolivia and Chile into Patagonia. By Christmas 🎄🎅🏻 we are aiming to be in Buenos Aires and Rio De Janeiro for New Year’s Eve 🎆.

In January, we have a flight booked from São Paulo over to Quito, Ecuador to start exploring Ecuador, Galápagos Islands 🐢and Colombia. Finally, we’re planning to head back to the UK in March via Toronto, Canada for a few days 🙌

Our ambitious South America route – so much to cover! Created using triphappy.com

This trip has been hard to pack for as we’ll be experiencing hot and cold weather plus high-altitude, something neither of us have ever experienced before!

Why South America?
    It’s a huge region we have never explored before.
    There is so much diversity and incredible sights from Machu Picchu to the Salt Flats to Patagonia to Galápagos Islands – it ticks off a lot.
    Travelling between countries in South America appears fairly straightforward, although we are prepared for a number of lengthy bus journeys!
    With British passports, we’re super lucky not to need any Visas.

We cannot begin to tell you how excited we are!!

Off we pop to South America!!

If anyone has any suggestions for places to visit, stay or eat at we’re all ears! We’d love to hear your suggestions 😊

Sara & Jonny

The Mansell Wanderers

The Good, The Bad and The Useful of Travelling in India

Spending a month in India, we didn’t even scratch the surface of this vast land and culture. However, we did begin to appreciate some of its quirks, people and regions. We have summarised these into some useful tidbits of info for travel in India.

We’ll start with the useful:

India may be the 7th largest country in the world but in terms of population it ranks in second place. Over 1.3 billion people to be more precise spread across 29 states and 7 union territories. There is more diversity than you might think for one country including religion, over 20 different languages, cuisine and culture. We met Indians who felt like foreigners when visiting other Indian states.

Many restaurants in India are confusingly called ‘hotels’, We’re not quite sure why. The majority of restaurants are vegetarian (as Hindus do not believe in inflicting pain on animals) and often restaurants serving meat advertise themselves as a ‘non-veg’ restaurants since it is less common.

You’ll never find beef on the menu as cows are considered sacred and kept for milking only. Pork is also less common because of the Muslim beliefs about the pig being a dirty animal. The meat you will find in non-veg restaurants will be most likely chicken, lamb or goat.

If you are white, tall or blonde at some point during your time in India you will most likely be asked for a selfie. It can make you feel like a film star at times and annoyed at other times. Love it or hate it, a lot of Indians just aren’t used to seeing foreigners and therefore you’ll need to get used to being stared at. A lot. As a female, have your wits about you, sometimes selfies frustratingly encouraged ‘unwanted touching’.

Indian people generally dress conservatively, especially the women. Ladies, I feel for you as you need to cover up your legs and shoulders and it’s very hot. However, it’s much better to dress in line with the locals as a sign of respect and to avoid unwanted attention. Maxi dresses or long pants are ideal.

The good:

One of the appeals of travelling in India is the cultural experience you can get for your money. The cost of living is very low in comparison to the U.K. For example, a decent size meal can cost between 30p to £4. Accommodation for a private double room with an ensuite and air conditioning cost between £10-£20 per night. Buses were inexpensive and trains were reasonable (the rate dependent on the class).

You can see so much fascinating wildlife and stunning landscapes in India. Periyar National Park in Kerala was very picturesque with wild elephants roaming around. Ranthambhore National Park was great for spotting Bengal tigers. The Indian peafowl or peacock is India’s national bird and we saw plenty during our travels.

There was much less Western tourists in India compared to South East Asia for example. You certainly get the local experience.

The food is amazing. Particularly the breads and curries. Trying the food and snacks from different regions of India was one of our highlights as they were so different! Delhi belly is a reality though so best to eat at reputable restaurants or street food vendors where you see them cooking the food in front of you. We stayed away from meat a lot of the time and didn’t touch salads or fruit unless you could peel the skin like oranges and bananas. The water is definitely not drinkable, we wouldn’t even advise using it to brush your teeth!

Not to stereotype, but we found the Indian people to always be so smiley and friendly. Even if it was broken English or using hand signs because they spoke no English at all, we found their hospitality to be second to none.

The bad:

If you arrive in Delhi or another big city in India, it’s unlikely you’ll avoid witnessing poverty in India. It can be really hard to stomach the scale of it and seeing so many old, young, men, women and children sleeping on the streets.

It is not uncommon to see cows, pigs, goats, dogs and cats walk freely amongst the streets. The sad part, is that unfortunately a lot of these animals look malnourished and are often seen near or on piles of rubbish on the side of the street. I watched one cow gobble up 10 plastic cups, it was pretty awful to watch. The stray dogs and cats are often wounded and flea-infested.

Not necessarily a bad thing but something to get used to – foreigners pay more for things. Generally Indian states have a local rate and a higher foreigner rate for all of the forts, palaces and sights requiring a ticket to enter. The same can be said for tuk-tuks and buses. Sometimes as a foreigner you will be stopped and charged to enter free places of worship too. Normally you just have to suck it up and pay it. The only time you can negotiate is with tuk-tuk drivers. An Indian man told me, “when they see white people, they see money”, meaning many Indian people believe white people are rich. It helps if you have a rough idea of how much you should be paying for something.

Gender equality hasn’t quite reached the same level as western countries. I know in some areas there is gender equality (from working with Indian women in the U.K.) but we still felt there seemed to be a strong perception of women staying at home and raising children. There were times when Indian men would speak to Jonny and would ignore me when I spoke. The question I would get asked most commonly was “Do you have any children? Why not?”. We even saw some restaurants advertised as ‘women-friendly’.

Public transport in India by bus and train was generally always overcrowded. If you purchase a seat, it generally meant you had to share it.

The Indian head nod, was both fun and frustrating for us. We’d ask a question and sometimes get the head shake in response which meant it was hard to decipher a concrete yes or no. We think it just means okay, I hear you.

The toilets are generally pretty basic, especially those on the trains. No toilet paper but a tap for running water – Indians use their left hand to clean themselves. Some Indians thought toilet paper was unhygienic so bring toilet paper with you if you don’t want to clean yourself the Indian way. If you are eating in a restaurant or shaking someone’s hand, remember to use your right hand!

In conclusion:

India is 100% worth visiting. The diversity, culture, landscape, sights, wildlife and food are breathtaking. There are so many incredible places to visit both in the cities, countryside and coastline.

As a backpacker, it’s amazing how much you can see and do with a relatively low budget. Plus very authentically as there are less tourists that South East Asia for example.

However, I would say keep your wits about you, particularly if you are female. Look out for scams and be open-minded.

Read up as much as possible about the culture and the places you will visit in advance if you can. Use your hotel/homestay/hostel as much as possible to help you during your stay if you have any questions.

Oh and remember to bring toilet roll (and Ladies, bring tampons as you’re unlikely to be able to buy them in India!).

We hope you have an amazing trip!

You can read our other blog posts about India here:

Kerala, South India: Our 2-week itinerary

Thrissur Pooram – An Outsider’s Perspective

India: The Golden Triangle and Rajasthan in 2 weeks

4 days in Hong Kong

Disclaimer: this travel blog was from August 2017.

The very last part of our 5-month trip around Asia was spent in Hong Kong. Instead of a lengthy blog post, we thought we’d put in a few highlights of the few days we spent here before returning back to the UK.

Highlight 1 > the food, especially the Dim Sum!

We loved Dim Sum Square and Cantom Dim Sum Expert. For huge portions of dinner (not Dim Sum) Tsui Wah was a good shout and fairly cheap too.

Highlight 2 > walking some of the dragon back ridge

Offering incredible views over Hong Kong we would recommend the hike. We got a bus to the start and walked to the view point.

Highlight 3 > seeing the large seated Buddha

The seated Buddha was a little out of town but experiencing the glass floor cable car was really cool. To get the seated Buddha there are quite a few steps up, however, the views were amazing, oh and the Buddha is huge!

Highlight 4 > going to Macau for the day!

We took the first boat out from Hong Kong and the last boat back. Macau is like the Vegas of Asia but also has a cute Portuguese town as well. It was definitely worth a visit!

Highlight 5 > the city skyline

We managed to get a free open-top bus tour of the city because some travellers hadn’t planned their time properly. We also took the peak tram with the sky pass to get the view over Hong Kong.

3 Weeks in Indonesia

Disclaimer: This blog post is referring to travels in August 2017.

Kuta beach, Bali (3 nights) >> Tegallalang (2 nights) >> Ubud (2 nights) >> Kuta, Lombok (4 nights) >> Gili Trawangan (5 nights) >> Canggu, Bali (2 nights) >> Nusa Dua (3 nights) 

Bali, Lombok and the Gili Islands.

For the Indonesian part of our trip, we visited Bali, Lombok and the Gili Islands. We’d wanted to go to Java to visit Mount Bromo and Komodo Island but time and money were both running out.

Bali

We visited Bali at the start and end of our trip to Indonesia, but for this blog post we’ll bung all the Bali destinations together.

As you can see we barely scratched the surface of Bali. We tended to stay in the tourist spots which meant it was easy to get between them via buses.

Our first stop was Kuta. It hasn’t got the best reputation but we wanted somewhere close to the airport on a small budget. Despite it being touristy (and busy), it meant there were lots of shops and restaurants. We enjoyed doing random things like going to the cinema and Jonny was delighted to find an English roast dinner one evening.

A happy Jonny with his roast dinner. Smoothie bowls here were also very tasty for breakfast.

Tregallalang was a complete contrast to Kuta, with a village-feel, surrounded by rice paddies. It was very peaceful. We stayed in a homestay with a lovely family who cooked breakfast for us each morning and lent Jonny a guitar to play. From here we could visit the rice terraces, go coffee tasting and experience white-water rafting.

We stayed at Ubud Sawah Homestay which was actually not in Ubud centre but a small village close to the rice terraces. It was a good base for white-water rafting too!

Coffee tasting in incredible surroundings. We also tried the most expensive coffee in the world made from Civet poo! 🙊💩

The Tegalalang rice terraces, which were pretty spectacular. This is a big tourist spot however.

If you’re going to Bali, it would be hard not to stay at Ubud at some point during your trip. It acts as a great hub for a number of activities and is packed with restaurants, Yoga classes and fresh & organic foods.

We enjoyed relaxing by the pool at Raka & Rai bungalow (cheap private room with a lovely breakfast). We loved Kafe in Ubud for the fresh meals!

Whilst in Ubud we walked some of the Campuhan Ridge Walk which escapes the crowds and has nice views over Bali.

Walking the Campuhan Ridge from Ubud.

There is a forest in Ubud which is home to lots of monkeys within walking distance.

Monkey forest in Ubud.

From Ubud, we decided to take an early morning trip to climb Mount Batur, which is an active volcano in Bali. We set off at 4am to reach the peak for sunrise. Sadly the clouds only broke for one brief moment revealing a glimmer of sunshine and views. The hike up itself wasn’t so bad, it’s 1717m high. It did get tougher towards the top however as it was mainly sand which meant for every step forward you slipped 3 back. You could also see steam and hardened volcanic ash during the climb which was really cool!

Climbing Mount Batur, an active volcano 1,717m high.

A glimpse of sunrise from the summit.

The next place in Bali we stayed at was Canggu which is near Echo beach. Here the sand is black and it was very popular with surfers. The town had a chilled out vibe, and we even went to a local farmers market during a weekend morning.

Canggu near Echo Beach.

Our last beach stop was at Nusa Dua. We stayed in a nice hostel and rented sun beds from a hotel on the beach. We pretty much took most of this time to relax on the beach, with the occasional sing-song to the locals with Jonny and his ukulele.

The golden sands of Nusa Dua. We stayed at aptly named “Cheap Hotel”.

Lombok

To get to Lombok you have to get a ferry, and from Bali there is a fast and slow boat. Unfortunately, the seas were rough which meant only the slow boat was running. It felt really slow and cramped, so slow that I read all of Orwell’s 1984 during the boat ride.

We stayed in Kuta in Lombok.

Once we finally arrived, we stayed at Kuta beach (a far cry from from Kuta in Bali). The beach itself had spots which were barely populated but absolutely stunning. This is definitely going to become popular in a few years time! We walked most of the beach, down the main end it’s a good place to learn to kite-surf.

Kuta beach in Lombok. Barely anyone around!

The best thing about our walk along this beach was when we walked to the end and a litter of puppies came to say hello and then promptly fell asleep on me. This moment deserves a single photo collage.

One happy Senorita 🐶🐶🐶

Our accommodation was a cross between a homestay and a hostel called Join Homestay. There was a cat who befriended us and sat on our porch daily and chickens running freely around the garden. I went on a run one morning and got completely lost as paths merged into people’s back gardens. Everything was very open here which gave us the sense you could trust people.

There was a great viewpoint we went to on bikes and a nice yoga retreat called Ashtari cafe for dinner to watch the sunset.

We took a bike to Merese Hill viewpoint (the local kids loved the bike). The views were worth the trip! Recommend Ashtari cafe for dinner (also a Yoga retreat).

Next, we got a boat over to the Gili islands.

Gili Islands 

The Gili islands were probably my favourite part of Indonesia. Being a total beach bum, and loving snorkelling and diving, the Gilis were perfect.

The three Gili Islands off the coast Lombok.

We stayed on the busier island of Gili Trawangan or Gili T as it is affectionately named. This is the biggest of the three islands and it has no cars or motorbikes which can be a welcome relief from Bali (where you have to be on guard for motorbikes all the time). There are also no dogs on the islands, only cats.

Pituq cafe became one of our favourite lunch and breakfast spots serving delicious smoothie bowls and veggie wraps.

We wasted no time on arrival to Gili T by getting our swimwear on and diving straight into the sea. The snorkelling was excellent with very good visibility. I saw a turtle and a school of squid on our first swim! We took one scuba dive during our stay and saw reef tip sharks along with countless turtles.

To get around the island we hired bicycles (less than £2.50 per day) and cycled around the island stopping along the way. There were some great restaurants and bars on the west side to watch the sunset.

Gili T – what an incredible island. This place is popular for a reason!

We spent two days visiting the other two islands: Gili Air and Gili Meno. There was a public ferry twice a day operating between the islands that cost £1.50-£2 each way.

Gili Air was a little quieter than Gili T with great snorkelling and a great chilled vibe. We spent the day lounging around before walking around the island.

Gili Meno was the most remote island but had the best snorkelling in our opinion because we saw three turtles, two octopus, starfish and lots of beautiful fish. The downside was there was less choice of restaurants. As you walked more around the island you could find beautiful isolated beaches but you’d want to bring food and drinks with you as there were no shops and restaurants in some parts of the island.

The incredible beach of Gili Meno. Beautiful white sandy beaches and perfectly clear waters- a picture perfect postcard of paradise.

Thrissur Pooram – An Outsider’s Perspective

Thrissur – A city in the coconut-loving state of Kerela, southern India

Pooram  – A Hindu temple festival; fiery processions, mesmerising music, adorned elephants, huge numbers of excited devotees

I think we may have covered every base on the emotional spectrum during the 36 hour festival. On the Asian stint of our sabbatical trip, the Pooram festival in India was pretty much the only event we’d reserved on our calendar. We wanted to get an experience of a local festival, one not particularly geared up for extracting tourist ruppees. I can report that an experience is what we got!

Thrissur Pooram, “the mother of all Poorams” is described as “a grand assembly of Gods and Godesses… 36-hours non-stop with no loss of energy” Elephants-a-plenty, and 4 hours of fireworks in the early hours of the morning. Sounded great to us – To Thrissur!

Elephantastic?
We booked an AirBnB well in advance anticipating the majority of beds to be taken up. Accommodation was a complete pain in the arse. (More in “Advice” at the end)

We arrived the day before to acclimatise. Within minutes, we saw an elephant being ridden on the road amongst the honking rickshaws, motorbikes and taxis. I hadn’t applied much thought before arriving in India about the condition of the elephants, but shit do I feel awful for them. The problem with tradition I guess, elephant welfare was probably even more of an afterthought 200+ years ago.

Safe Space
The main festival area is on the inside of a ring road housing a large temple. Taking in the sights and lights at night-time was a fairly pleasant way to spend time. Even better from the Friday morning when the road closes. Being fairly fresh in India, exposed to madly packed up roads with every single bike and rickshaw blaring their horns is enough to make you stop where you’re standing and immediately assume the fetal position. I’m about used to it now though, but I’m still suprised traffic seems to flow without making the roads look like a scene from Final Destination.

Early doors of the festival – people were climbing wherever possible for a good view.. lots of opportunities later for close encounters with the elephants and performers
Braving the risk of electrocution for a good view 😐

Trance Inducing Horn 😎
With the festival underway, you can expect to see huge gatherings of devotees around the temples, with adorened elephants parked outside. Performers in traditional wear stand atop the poor bastards, spinning colourful umbrellas, whilst musicians play trance inducing horn and percussion instruments. The music is quite good, in that the group change up the beats and rhythm quite frequently, and in-time. There was one performance around 5:30 on the Friday outside the main temple where the crowd would cheer ferociously and lose their minds each time the group changed the beat. People were partying and waving around colourful balloons, this was probably the highlight of the whole festival actually.

This was dead good

By the evening, we agreed the music to foreign ears is incredibly repetitive. I still have the beat of the piercing cymbals in my head now. I don’t think it will ever leave, I’m a changed man now.

The moment of realisation – “Damn, the music IS pretty repetitive”

Indian Summer
One thing to note is that it is freaking hot. I’m talking 40 degrees celcius hot. It’s properly dangerous to be exposed to the sunlight for any extended period of time, which is an easy mistake to make when you’re an excited Westerner and the festival is a novelty. The daytime is taken up by the game “Hunt shade, or literally die”

Local companies hand out fans and hats. Clever marketing.. If you don’t die, you’re more likely to spend money with them

Bhang for buck
One interesting point Mrs Mansell made was that the festival experience was slightly odd to us without alcohol.. I’m pretty sure that would sound crazy to a local, but we hit up many music festivals in Europe and getting boozed is commonplace. Alcohol is the second most consumed fluid after air. That said, “bhang” (edibal cannibis) is legal from government controlled shops, maybe that’s how the younger crowd found the repetitive music so mesmerising for so long..

These guys are probably bhanged up. Speaking of Selfies..

Travelling before the age of front-facing camera equipped smartphones must’ve been bliss
“Selfie?” “Selfie?” As a Westerner, this is the most common interaction you’ll have with the locals. The frequency increases somewhat if you have blonde hair, or if you’re 6’4″. Top tip, take it in your stride and do it. If you don’t, a photo of your mush will end up on their phone anyway! The best selfies are when someone tries to stealthily get a picture with you without you noticing. If you notice, pull a stupid face. Another good tactic is to dodge them or run away (In a joking manner, don’t actually run for your life) the guys I did this to found it hilarious.
We had a bit of a downer when late into the main evening we found ourselves “Selfie-ing” (Yeah sure, why not) when a separate boystrous group of guys got involved too. I hadn’t realised at the time but lady Mansell was subjected to over-excited, touchy-feely hands belonging to this second group of young men. This was a real shame as I had read comments online before the festival about this sort of issue. Up until that point, we hadn’t had a problem, and this blog post would’ve wholly encouraged you to dismiss those comments. The way women are treated and regarded in India in general could be the topic of a separate blog post, and then some.. Anyway, we agreed the best step forward would be if I covered the rear in all future Selfies!

My face may suggest otherwise, but thankfully these guys were not touching me inappropriately
This guy is your favourite, right?

4 hours of fireworks*
The fireworks were a big draw for us. The appeal was the 4 hour duration, the odd timing from 2AM on the Saturday plus the general reputation online. The fireworks did not start at 2AM, we heard different times from all sorts of people. In fact this situation was a common occurance throughout the festival. We heard and partially saw a massive display from our nearby hotel room at around 3AM. This lasted about 3 minutes. After this a firework was set off every couple of minutes, probably for about 4 hours. There is a lesson here about managing expectations! In truth, the short display was impresive with an incredible noise. It sounded like a warzone, with the night being lit up to look as if the sun was shining. From memory there were two displays of this magnitude which both lasted about 3 minutes… So 6 minutes of the 240 minutes originally advertised were quality!

I don’t have a photo of the fireworks, so, here is your favourite man instead

The humbling tale of Mr Loiterer
A vivid memory of mine.. we were speaking for quite some time to a local chap from Kerela whilst the processions ran into the night. He was well travelled, firmly middle class and genuinely a pleasant, interesting guy. Roughly halfway through our 45 minute chat, I began to notice a very old looking man lingering around. We’d gotten used to people staring at us intently, but this guy was loitering whilst we were deep in conversation. Once we parted ways with the friendly Kerela based chap, I could see in the corner of my eye the old boy was still hanging around. Mrs Mansell and I managed to lose each other (photo opportunities, large crowds…) As I was looking around for the top of her head, I spotted Mr Loiterer, who kindly pointed me in the direction of Mrs Mansell towards the elephants. Still he hung around, and it became clear that he wanted nothing, other than to just be around us. The most memorable point was when I offered him some of our water, he made a noise that I would liken to a young boy getting the exact gift they wanted on their birthday. I have a degree in Engineering, and therefore have no emotional intelligence, but if I did function like a normal human being I’m sure it would’ve pulled on my heart strings.

Whoops

Thirssur Pooram 2018?
The 2017 edition of Thrissur Pooram didn’t encourage me enough to consider visiting again in 2018.. But if you find yourself in the south of India at the right time, I would recommend the festival for the experience. I think your stories from Thrissur Pooram will be more interesting than your stories about sunbathing on the beaches of Goa!

A Naieve Westerner’s Summary
The Good
A very “local” experience – I can recall seeing perhaps 10 – 20 other obvious Westerners.

Eye opening – I’d never been to a festival like this, I don’t know too many others that have. Everything was new.. that’s good right?!

Performance – The processions and performances are mesmorising, colourful and awe-inspiring.

Fireworks – Although brief, the displays made night look like day and sounded like a scene from an action film in a cinema with a world class sound system.. In fact, that multiplied by 10.

Price – Hey the festival is free too!

The Bad
Elephant welfare – I can imagine this being a huge turn off for many people.

The Temperature – The date of the festival is dictated by a celestial event, which happens to be around April or May when it is frickin’ hot. Manageable by limiting sun exposure and making the most of the post sunset processions.

Timetable – Every experience was a chance encounter for us, which wasn’t really a bad thing.. Others may like to have a schedule. Information was available online but it’s really difficult to digest, probably because of my lack of knowledge of the history and Hinduism.

Touchy-feely-Selfie-hands – Every 3 seconds, someone is affected by Touchy-feely-Selfie-hands. That’s another one. And another. Whoops sorry that’s not useful. Ok, I reckon different people handle this risk differently. You could refuse all Selfies, run away or position ladies tactfully if you’re in a group. And another.

 And another..

Advice
Location – Try to stay somewhere close to the main ring road for easy access/escape.

Accommodation – Book your bed early, and get in touch with your host or hotel in advance. If you really want, do as many Indian nationals do and sleep rough for the night (That wasn’t for us, we stumped up a relatively large sum for a room) From our accommodation experience, long story short, avoid the AirBnb host below, and prepare to be ripped off and/or shouted at by your friendly hosts at Raj Mahal Lodge.

🖕😑🖕

Sunshine – Manage your time in direct sunlight, and carry a hat, sunscreen and water (easy to buy bottled)

Food – There were some decent restaurants on the south side main roads connecting to the main ring road. The breakfast buffet we had on Sunday at Pooram International Hotel made me a happy Westerner. I expected more street food vendors.. most were selling sweets.

Respite – Need a break from the noise, crowds and heat? Just do it.. find shade or an AC hotel restaurant and relax. There will still be processions, elephants and music when you’re finished, trust me!

Maps – Probably not needed so much, but download the Thrissur area on offline Google Maps.

Locals – Talk to people! The majority of people we spoke to were jubilant, happy to be there and curious as to why you’re there. You never know who you’ll meet.

Most importantly – Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think, enjoy yourself, etc etc etc 😁

You can read our other blog posts about India here:

The Good, The Bad and The Useful of Travelling in India

Kerala, South India: Our 2-week itinerary

India: The Golden Triangle and Rajasthan in 2 weeks