A Travellerspoint blog

The Loby Awards

By Lis and Toby


View World Tour 2010-2012 on Lis.L's travel map.

The most popular question we get about our travels is, "So, what was your favourite place?" In order to give the most thorough answer ever, we have compiled the following best of the best, worst of the worst, and everything else in between!

Countries that Exceeded our Expectations
China, Myanmar, Turkey, India, Mexico

Cities that Changed our Perspectives
Lhasa (Tibet-China), Jerusalem (Israel), Phnom Penh (Cambodia), Kigali (Rwanda), Phonsavan (Laos)

Cities to Linger in
Hong Kong, Shanghai (China), Luang Prabang (Laos), Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), Kathmandu (Nepal), Udaipur (India), Rishikesh (India), Istanbul (Turkey), San Cristobal (Mexico), Oaxaca (Mexico), Guanajuato (Mexico)

Jaw-Dropping Architecture
Hong Kong Skyline, Forbidden City (China), Ankor Wat (Cambodia), Bagan (Myanmar), Shwedagon Pagoda (Myanmar), Ellora (India), Petra (Jordan)

Awe-inspiring Natural Wonders
Zhangjiajie (China), Jiuzhaigou (China), Yangshuo (China), Halong Bay (Vietnam), Koh Phi Phi (Thailand), Annapurna Mountains (Nepal), Mt Everest (Tibet-China), Tibetan Plateau (Tibet-China), Cappadocia (Turkey), Turquoise Waters off Turkey's Coast, Santorini's Caldera (Greece), Wadi Rum (Jordan), Ngorongoro Crater (Tanzania), Serengetti National Park (Tanzania), Cenotes (Mexico)

Best of the Best

  • Best place to see wild animals - Serengeti National Park (Tanzania)
  • Best breakfast - Agora Hostel in Istanbul (Turkey)
  • Best country for food - Malaysia
  • Best country for vegetarians - India
  • Best snorkeling - Aqaba in the Red Sea (Jordan)
  • Best buses - 1) Turkey, 2) Mexico

Worst of the Worst

  • Worst hotel room - Hotel Central in Macau, Kommagene Hotel in Khata (Turkey), "Hotel Alley" in Patna (India)
  • Worst food - Shanti Restaurant in Agra (India), Lumbini Village Guesthouse (Nepal)
  • Worst creatures in the room - giant spider in Dehang (China), cockroaches in Hania (Greece), frog in Yangshou (China), millipede in Zhangjiaije (China), multiplying bugs in Riley Beach (Thailand), termites in Lumbini (Nepal), mice in Bodhgaya (India), mystery animal behind the door in Kathmandu (Nepal), bats in Chiang Rai (Thailand), bedbugs in Playa del Carmen (Mexico)
  • Worst /most memorable buses - India, China, Myanmar
  • Worst/most memorable toilets - China
  • Worst tour - Nothing but some rocks and your imagination at the Troy ruins (Turkey)

Most of the Most

  • Most army presence - Lhasa (Tibet-China), Jerusalem (Israel)
  • Most attempted scam - "It's closed today, maybe you should go here instead?" Bangkok (Thailand)
  • Most attempted tout - "Rickshaw, taxi, tuk-tuk?" Everywhere!
  • Most aggressive touts - Getting off the bus in Jaisalmer (India)
  • Most steps - 3200 steps to the Jain temples on top of Palitana (India)
  • Most needed second language - Mandarin (China), Spanish (Mexico and Cuba)
  • Most misunderstood global norm - Different washrooms; showers without curtains or doors, squat toilets, bucket flushes, bring your own toilet paper
  • Country where the majority of tourists are nationals - China, India, Mexico

Longest of the Long

  • Longest layover - 15 hours in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) airport en route from Kota Kinabalu (Malaysia) to Istanbul (Turkey)
  • Longest flight - 14 hours from Newark (USA) to Beijing (China)
  • Longest travel day - 14.5 hours on 4 modes of transport from Fenghuang to Guilin (China), 30 hours (including a stop for sightseeing!) on 7 modes of transportation from Bhopal to Aurangabad (India)
  • Longest border crossing - Jordan to Israel - 4 hours, Immigration processing time only, there was no queue!
  • Longest time spent in one country - 115 days in China
  • Longest stay in one city - 20 days in Kathmandu (Nepal)
  • Longest trek - 13 days Annapurna Circuit (Nepal)
  • Longest day of trekking - 11 hours to cross the pass from Thorang Phedi to Muktinath (Nepal) - 100m up, then 1600m down
  • Longest time without showering - 4 days during Annapurna Circuit (Nepal)
  • Longest time spent in a tent - 22 days in Eastern Africa

Other Superlatives

  • Highest - Throng-la pass 5416 metres above sea level (Nepal)
  • Lowest - 440 m below sea level at the Dead Sea (Jordan)
  • Smallest aircraft - 25 seats - Jomsom to Pokhara (Nepal)
  • Strangest food tried by Toby - Buffalo brain (Laos), crickets (Thailand)
  • Cheapest room - Don Det $3 (Laos), $2.50-$4 Annapurna Circuit (Nepal)
  • Cheapest meal - $1.60 in Palitana (India) for both of us
  • Cheapest country - India at $40 per day for both of us
  • Biggest splurge - $500 per person for a 5 hour trek to/from and one hour with wild gorillas in Volcanoes National Park (Rwanda)
  • Spiciest food - tofu in Zhangzhaije (China), noodles in Koh Samui (Thailand)
  • Coldest - -1o C in February in Dharamsala (India)
  • Hottest - 40o C in August in Aqaba (Jordan), even after sundown!
  • Fastest train - 350 km/h from Guangzhou to Wuhan (China)
  • Oldest structure - 9000 BCE Gobekli tepe outside of Urfa (Turkey)
  • Farthest East - Shanghai (China)
  • Farthest North - Beijing (China)
  • Farthest South - Zanzibar (Tanzania)
  • Farthest West - Guadalajara (Mexico)
  • Least authentic - lack of Thai norms in Southern Thailand, two-tier economy in Cuba
  • Actual chickens on the chicken bus - Cambodia
  • Don't talk about the government - Myanmar, China; especially Tibet
  • Near death experience - Toby; falling off the path at Tiger Leaping Gorge (China), Lis; dehydration in Jordan, AMS in Tibet
  • Once every trip... when you have to throw out a pair of underwear - Urfa (Turkey)
  • Funniest English signs - "No walking and watching" on Hua Shan (China), "Don't forget your bits and bops" in a shared shower, Qing Dao (China)
  • Total days - 709
  • Total kms - 94,133km

So... are we missing anything you'd like to know?

Posted by Lis.L Fri 5 Oct 2012 17:12 Tagged highlights round_the_world world_tour best_of favourite_place Comments (1)

Per-day Costs for Twenty-two Countries

By Lis and Toby


View World Tour 2010-2012 on Lis.L's travel map.

Before we left for our trip, Toby poured over other blogs in order to get a better idea of how much to budget in each country. As an expression of thanks to those writers, we have decided to share our own data with other planners. I hope it is useful! We welcome any questions you have.

This daily cost is for two people and does not include flights to or from countries, or extras like insurance.

Our typical style of travel includes basic private rooms with bathrooms (with exception in Israel, Greece, and China where we used dormitories or shared accommodation), local transportation, some taxis, basic restaurants, and splurges when needed. I would classify ourselves as “upper budget travellers” as we often choose to pay more for a higher level of comfort.

FYI – Our overall, all-inclusive cost per day for 709 days of travel is $123. This includes all flights, travel insurance, and storage back home, but does not include gear purchased (e.g. SLR camera or laptop).

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Posted by Lis.L Sun 9 Sep 2012 08:05 Tagged greece singapore india mexico cambodia thailand malaysia vietnam china laos turkey cuba africa budget israel jordan myanmar nepal tibet preparation planning gap_year round_the_world costs_per_day daily_cost world_tour year_of_travel Comments (0)

Commu-tourism in Cuba

By Lis


View World Tour 2010-2012 on Lis.L's travel map.

In my opinion, Communism and Tourism don’t mix. Here’s how it works: in a communist country, such as Cuba, everyone is equal. People are provided with the basics of life, free of charge, including housing, education and healthcare. With those costs of living provided, salaries don’t need to be too high to cover the remaining necessities. This is why the average Cuban government employee, from engineers to doctors to bus ticket vendors, earns about $10 - $20 USD per month. Prices for locally produced products are generally low, and food is rationed. Now enter tourists. It would be ridiculous for us to pay the same prices that Cubans do, and the government would be missing out on the all-important tourism income, so instead there is a two-currency system in place. Convertibles are about on par with USD, while Pesos are 25x less. For certain things, like museum entrances, we pay 25 times more than a Cuban would pay. But for other items, the price is equal, making the item unobtainable for all except the wealthiest Cubans.

But wait. I have already expressed two ideas that are contrary to communism; 1) making money from tourists, 2) having wealthy Cubans. If Cuba is purely communist, then they wouldn’t be interested in making profits from tourism, and there wouldn’t be a distinction between the socioeconomic status of Cubans.

And herein lies the problem. First, Cubans who work with tourists, such as waiters, bartenders, guides, hotel staff, musicians, etc. all receive tips in Convertibles in addition to their monthly salary. Then there are the Cubans who have family living overseas, most often in the States, who send hundreds of dollars back to their family members in Cuba. The contrast between the haves and the have-nots is often quite distinct.

The consequences of this disparity affect tourists in Cuba greatly. Casa Particular (small, family-owned guesthouses in the owner's home) owners mob tourists getting off the tourist-only buses, trying to get business for their home. Musicians are never more than a few feet away, ready to burst into song for tips at a moment’s notice. Guides, taxi drivers and others often resort to lying in order to obtain a customer.

Our experience in Cuba showed us the best and worst of the country. On the one hand, the lush, green landscapes were feasts for our eyes, the juicy, fresh fruit was music to our taste-buds, and the rhythms of the music and dance permeated the air. On the other hand, sitting in restaurants that Cubans were excluded from, and sitting in tourist-class buses, driving by locals waving money in their hands for bus fare, made us feel like precisely the bourgeoisie that Marx was writing about in the Communist Manifesto. Interactions with Cubans were limited to transactions. To truly know Cuba, once needs to be Cuban. Full stop.

There is a myth perpetuating online that tends to circulate around all-inclusive tourists to Cuba. It is said that while staying at your hotel, you should bring goodies for the cleaning ladies, who are too poor to purchase these things, or can’t find the same quality products in Cuba. There are entire chat room threads full of comments by obviously generous, but also obviously ignorant, well-meaning people, chatting about whether soap or shampoo would make the best gift for their cleaning ladies. Then I read this article, which helped tremendously to put things in perspective for me. While very few people asked for pens, soap, shampoo, etc. while we were in Cuba, I decided to refuse, as I would have felt like a royal arse walking around with goodies to give out like it was Hallowe-en. I did tip for services based on local prices, and would encourage other travellers to do so as well.

Finally, a word of caution about Casa Particulars. We found our own Casa in Havana and Vinales ($35 and $15 respectively) and both were good experiences. But then we started to ask for recommendations for the next town. The perk of doing this is that someone meets you at the bus station and you can walk right through the throngs of touts who want your business. However, we quickly found out that in order to pay the commissions for these services, our prices were upped. We paid a reasonable $25 in Cienfuegos and Trinidad, but then in empty Sancti Spiritus, the Casa wanted $25 for a place quite far from the city centre. This same Casa charged us $20 for a nice dinner, but $8 for a breakfast that we had to be convinced to take before our early bus, and we ate next to nothing. They also called a taxi for us, left us to negotiate the price on our own, and "let" the driver/friend charge us twice what he should have. When we (thankfully) missed the next pick up in Santa Clara, we took a taxi to the centre, found a Casa with a prime location and rock bottom prices. This amazing hostess reminded us that perhaps the popular places you can book online or find in a guide book are taking advantage of the good reviews to quietly gouge tourists in the name of "friendship". My advice is to be realistic; you are a guest and a customer. Ask for prices before agreeing to a room or a meal, and don't hesitate to share your precious dollars with other establishments as well.

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Posted by Lis.L Sun 26 Aug 2012 10:54 Archived in Cuba Tagged cuba communism casa Comments (0)

¡Viva Mexico!

By Lis


View World Tour 2010-2012 on Lis.L's travel map.

In season five, episode 10 of The Shield (a show we got hooked on while in India as it aired every night on one of the English channels), four characters faced a conundrum. One man was facing arrest for something they all had done. They debated about what they should do next. Should he take the fall for the four corrupt detectives? Or should he – gasp – flee to Mexico? The scene ended with the four men in deep contemplation. What would be worse? Prison, or living in Mexico?

I blame the media for perpetuating these myths. We are bombarded with images of illegal Mexican immigrants desperate to cross the invisible border into the USA, news reports of kidnappings in resort towns, the ever-discussed War on Drugs and the corruption that keeps the substances moving, and popular TV shows portraying Mexicans as unskilled labourers or highly skilled gangsters. Mexicans in the movies, TV shows or the news often fit into one of two categories: wearing white “wife-beaters”, bandanas and tattoos, or sombreros, ponchos and an empty bottle of tequila. Nothing good seems to come from Mexico. So what would real Mexico be like?

When we ventured into Mexico, we were pleasantly surprised. We found bustling, shady Zocolos surrounded by beautiful Colonial buildings, massive, restored ruins peppered with out of breath tourists, beaches and cenotes ideal for relaxing, and some of the friendliest people we have ever met. A constant flow of fiestas and festivals means that music, dancing and food are staples in the Mexican lifestyle. We found well-equipped hostels, a plethora of restaurants, and a bus system that made travel a breeze. The real Mexico, it seems, is a well-kept secret that only those who venture away from the border in the North or the idyllic beaches and party scene on the coasts get to see. Yes, the crime and corruption that follows the drug business in the North is real, but for most tourists and local Mexicans, the reality is much different.

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Coastal Mexico
So.... while it may be mandatory to spend some time on Mexico’s beaches, which one is for you? We ventured to Cancun, Cozumel, Playa del Carmen, Tulum, and Puerto Escondito. Here is a low-down of our impressions.

First, Cancun resorts sit on a beautiful stretch of sand and provide all-inclusive tourists with an amazing view, but not much else. Cancun is designed for those looking for seclusion and not planning on leaving their resort. The flaw here is that Cancun town is a bus-ride away, and the strip of hotels on the beach doesn’t even provide a destination for walking. If you plan on remaining horizontal for your vacation, you might not mind. We stayed in a hostel in Cancun town, took the bus to the beach, and immediately felt out of place with the wristband wearing holidaymakers.

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On the other hand, Playa del Carmen, while being criticized for being “artificial”, does provide a town attached to the beach, and it is quite easy to either choose the touristy and overpriced 5th Avenue, or avoid it all together. We stayed in the residential area of Playa, and liked the options in terms of restaurants, shopping and beach-going. We much preferred sitting on the public strip of sand, watching Mexican and international families build sand castles, or play football and volleyball. The transport connections are a big plus here, as it is quite easy to base yourself here and still visit Tulum, Cozumel, Cancun, Akumal etc. We stayed for two weeks while taking Spanish lessons, and felt it was a great choice for us.

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Cozumel is another option, but what it makes up for in diving and snorkeling opportunities it lacks in another area – sand. This rocky island offers a less touristy glimpse into Mexican life, especially if you leave the pier area, but it doesn’t have that postcard perfect beach that many people desire.

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Tulum is better known for the ruins by the same name, but it also offers opportunities for beachfront accommodations. Unfortunately, the quaint bungalows that many people hear about are now overpriced and get mixed reviews from travellers. Another option is to stay in town and take a bike or taxi to the beach, an option we chose and enjoyed. Tulum is much more secluded than the previous three options.

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Lastly, on the Southern Coast of Mexico sits Puerto Escondito, known more for its world-class surfing than for anything else. Here you can chose to relax in the hippy-feel of la Punta, or party in the touristy area of Zicatela. Just watch where you’re swimming, as the waves are fierce!

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Eco-Mexico
As a developed country, many aspects of Mexico are on par with what you would expect in North America or Europe. However, one aspect that is not, is the environmentally friendliness of everyday life. For example, plastic bags are everywhere, and the push to use fewer just doesn’t exist. In one pathetic example, I watched a man buy two drinks from Oxxo (a convenience store chain), put them in a plastic bag, walk a few meters to where his friend was waiting, remove the drinks and throw the bag in the garbage. The 7 second life-span of that bag is typical in Mexico. If you are planning a visit to Mexico, please do the earth a favour and bring the following; 1) a refillable water bottle, as most hostels provide free filtered water, 2) a small reusable bag to carry with you to avoid contributing to the plastic problem. Also, as Styrofoam is a popular choice for take-away drinks and food, you might be able to reduce its use by sitting and consuming in the restaurant or cafe instead. Also, while eating in a restaurant, you can choose the “agua del dia” or “agua de sabor”, a fresh fruit/water concoction made in large quantities daily. Our favourite was jamaica (pronounced ha-MA-ee-ka) made from hibiscus flowers. Drinking a glass of this refreshing red drink meant that we weren’t using a plastic bottle or aluminum can.

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Veggie Mexico
As a vegetarian, I was worried about finding options in Mexico. Luckily, vegetarianism in gaining in popularity, and choices were abundant. In the following cities, mold-breaking vegetarian restaurants can be found: Playa del Carmen, Merida, Campeche, San Cristobal, Oaxaca, Puebla, Guadalajara, and Mexico City. In many other cities, restaurants quickly whipped up something vegetarian, or had options already on the menu.

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Colonial Mexico
We stayed in Mexico for three months, one of which was spent learning Spanish in Playa del Carman and Oaxaca, and another two months travelling around. We quickly learned that while the Zocolos were constantly abuzz with activity and wonderful vibes, having a hotel farther from the action simply promoted a lot of walking, something we were happy to do. However, after a while, the Colonial architecture started to feel repetitive and some towns started to blur together in our memory. The following is our route, and we have taken the liberty of highlighting places that we recommend in order to help readers who are planning a trip and need to prioritize. Italicized destinations are highly recommended for their proximity to ruins, amazing colonial architecture, or unique beach. Of course, over the years we have found that our preferences rarely align with those of other travellers!

Cancun – Playa del Carmen – Cozumel – TulumValladolidMerida – Campeche – PalenqueSan Cristobal de las Casas – Puerto Escondito – Oaxaca – Puebla – Queretaro – San Miguel de Allende – Guanajuato – Zacatecas – Guadalajara – Patzcuaro – Morelia – Tepoztlan – Cuernavaca – Mexico City

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Other Advice

  • Learn Spanish! The basics will be enough to make a difference, as this was one of the only countries we have travelled to where locals didn’t default to English when interacting with a foreigner. Even a little bit helps! Another perk of signing up for a Spanish school in Mexico is that you can get a very valuable student card. Mexican student cards (not international ones) can get you free entry into ruins, museums, exhibits, etc. all across the country.

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  • Just go! Don't confuse your comfort with your safety. We consistently felt safe. The police presence is an extra precaution, but we never had any issues. The bus system is fantastic, the hostels are a great place to meet other travellers, the locals are warm and welcoming, and the food is amazing. But let's just keep it our little secret. :)

Posted by Lis.L Sun 26 Aug 2012 10:45 Archived in Mexico Tagged beaches mexico spanish vegetarian best_of eco_travel Comments (3)

Off the Beaten Track in India

By Lis


View World Tour 2010-2012 on Lis.L's travel map.

As we travelled, we learned what we liked and what we didn’t, what suited us and what didn’t. Early on, we discovered that being the only tourists in a town was a privilege and a chance to experience things drowning in authenticity and opportunity. But in India, that philosophy shifted.

In India, away from the tourist trail, hotels dropped in quality but upped in price (i.e. paying more for a cold water shower and a squat toilet), restaurants were harder to find, transportation became complicated and indirect, and the negative behaviour from locals (the staring, unauthorized picture taking, and sometimes the ripping off) increased. We quickly decided that we needed to weigh the allure of each sight to the complications that would arise from the travel there.

For example, in the city of Bhopal, we stayed in one of the hotels listed in the Lonely Planet guide. We were already disappointed because the only way to visit a particular sight (Bhimbetka) was to take an expensive taxi there. When it was time to leave, we asked at the reception desk about buses to Ajanta (town of Jalgaon). They shrugged. I asked if there was a website or phone number to call and find out. They shrugged. One man suggested that we should go to the new intercity bus station to find out. That sounded great, so we hopped in a rickshaw to go there. Once there, the men told us that buses didn't go that way. We'd have to go to Indore first, then transfer buses. We got on the next bus to Indore, and the very first stop was at the Bhopal's local bus station - right beside our hotel! We had asked there the day before if buses went to Jalgaon but they had said no.

In order to assist future travellers to India, I have included our route and indicated stops that were off the beaten track enough to make certain elements difficult. Naturally, that is exactly the allure to some travellers!

Our route through some of India's Tourist Trail

Bodhgaya
Varanasi
Khajuraho
Orchha
Agra
Bharatpur
Jaipur
Pushkar
Bundi
Aurangabad
Mumbai
Diu
Udaipur
Jodhpur
Jaisalmer
Bikaner
Amritsar
McLeod Ganj
Chandigarh
Rishikesh
Delhi

Our route - Off the beaten track

  • Patna - our first stop because we crossed from Nepal. Nothing here of interest, and very difficult to find good accommodation.
  • Gwalior - has a fort, could be seen en route or skipped, in my opinion. The Buddhist carvings are interesting if you don't plan to go to Ajanta or Ellora.
  • Chittaurgarh - also has a fort, but we went here because it was en route from Bundi to Bhopal
  • Bhopal - day trip to Sanchi was interesting and made this a worthwhile stop. Manohar is a great restaurant option, if the only one.
  • Pavagadh - complicated transport here, but cool pilgrimage site.
  • Ahmedabad - I was sick here, so my memories aren't great. We should have gone to Gandhi's ashram but didn't. Expensive, busy city.
  • Palitana - way off the tourist trail but very worth it. Hotel and food were cheap and authentic. Pilgrimage up Shatrunjaya was very memorable.
  • Junagadh - okay town, but very friendly and kind people. Key route stop for us heading to Udaipur.

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Sixteen dollars for this? Patna

Posted by Lis.L Sun 8 Jul 2012 09:24 Archived in India Tagged india path route off_the_beaten_track tourist_trail Comments (3)

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