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Turkey

July 10th, 2014 by Dan Saunders

One of the leading tourism destinations in the world, Turkey is a land of contradictions and diversity and effortlessly combines the old and the new. Offering warm and gracious local hospitality and world class cuisine, vibrant cities and important ancient sites, beautiful beaches and stunning landscapes, it’s no wonder the country’s tourism industry is growing rapidly year on year. Straddling two continents Turkey is a meeting of East and West as well as the ancient and the modern. Seen as a bridging nation between Asia and Europe, it also touches Africa and holds a unique position as the historical capital of the Ottoman, Roman, Latin and Byzantine Empires.

An exotic melting pot of different cultures and people, the thriving city of Istanbul boasts a dazzling array of attractions. From beautiful historic palaces and mosques to bustling, vibrant and world famous bazaars, there is something for everyone in this enchanting city. The 2010 European Capital of Culture boasts some of the most famous landmarks in the world, including the world famous Blue Mosque with its wonderfully intricate blue tiling and proud minarets. There are countless mosques and palaces to explore but the 14th century Topkapi Palace with its lush gardens and courtyards is another must-see. The exciting bars and nightlife of the city combine with a renowned restaurant scene, offering all manners of top quality global and traditional cuisine, to offer any visitor a multitude of stimulating nights out. If shopping is your thing you could not be better placed – Istanbul is widely regarded as one of the top shopping cities in the world, whether you are seeking intricately crafted souvenirs, rugs, carpets and jewellery or designer label clothes. Do visit the thriving bazaars, don’t forget the world famous intoxicating spice markets and don’t be afraid to haggle, it’s all part of the fun!

Often initially overlooked due to Turkey’s incredible cities and cultural sites, the beaches and resorts are stunning. If you are looking for a relaxing holiday on a beautiful beach lapped with turquoise waters, Turkey couldn’t be better. The southern areas boast nearly 6 months of summertime and the sandy beaches along the Mediterranean and Aegean coastlines with their sparkling turquoise waters are a must-see for any sun, sand and sea worshippers. From large beaches with countless water sports to secluded coves with turtles and sparkling waters, there is a great variety of beautiful resorts for you to choose from and Bodrum and Antalya are especially popular.

Aya Sofia

View from Aya Sofia, Istanbul

Turkey has a wealth of rich history and culture and the country boasts more archaeological sites than anywhere else in the world. From the WWII sites at Gallipoli (ANZAC Day is a particularly poignant time to visit) to the ancient city of Troy, Turkey has probably more key historical and cultural sites that anywhere in the world. The ancient city of Troy lay undiscovered until the mid 19th century and the Roman site of Ephesus is regarded as one of the best preserved ancient cities in the Mediterranean. The beautiful landscape of Cappadocia is a must see for any visitor, a fairytale setting of underground villages and incredible rock formations that capture the imagination like nowhere else.

Cappadocia

Hot air balloons in Cappadocia, Turkey.

 

In short, Turkey is an intoxicating country full of natural splendours, wonderful people, beautiful scenery and incredible food. We highly recommend it for a truly memorable experience.

Egypt – Dahab

July 7th, 2014 by Dan Saunders

For most people, a holiday to Egypt either involves exploring the ancient historical sites or busy, bustling Cairo, or some beach time in the famous Sharm El Sheikh resorts. All these places have much to offer any visitor but they also come with the inevitable crowds. For those wanting something a little more off the beaten track there is Dahab – a place that makes you feel after a week like you’ve been away for a month. Dahab, meaning ‘Gold’, is a small coastal town on the Red Sea, traditionally a Bedouin fishing village that is now one of the premier dive and water sports places in the world. Its laid back atmosphere is incredibly relaxing and the shore is lined with cushion filed cafes and restaurants where you can while away your days drinking traditional Bedouin tea and smoking apple shisha pipes.

DahabThe food is superb, offering everything from tiny falafel shacks to global cuisine and the wonderful Egyptian fare of fresh fish and seafood, koftas and soft pitta breads with tahini and baba ganoush. El Fanar is one of my particular favourite haunts where the staff make you feel like an old friend. Indeed that may well be the case – loyal travellers return to Dahab again and again. I have travelled widely across a number of continents and the warm hospitality in Dahab is second to none. Never have I been anywhere that has made me feel so instantly welcome, with such friendly, helpful faces at every turn.

Accommodation ranges from small guesthouses and budget backpacker haunts to top class hotel resorts like the stunning Le Meridian a short jeep ride up the coast. Designed by an award winning architect the hotel is a real treat, offering beautifully designed rooms and pool areas and a long private beach with ‘bungalows’ to shade from the sun. As with most of Dahab, sympathy with the surroundings is paramount and to that end nothing is more than one storey high. This is not your usual beach resort. Surrounded by the incredible Sinai Mountains and sand dunes, those who want to while away their days in the sun have a perfect backdrop in which to do so.

For those who look for a little more excitement however there is an array of opportunities available. The area is world famous for windsurfing, scuba diving and snorkelling with coastal reefs teeming with fish and underwater flora and fauna. World famous diving sites are to be found here, including the Blue Hole, Canyon and Lighthouse Reefs and people travel from all over the world to experience these dramatic dives.

Winsurfing. Speed.If land based activities are more your style, how about a desert safari? Guided trekking, dramatic canyon walks, jeep excursions and camel trekking are all available and I can personally recommend the Bedouin dinner safari where you spend an enchanting evening in the desert eating traditional Bedouin fare around a camp fire while you relax on the multitude of cushions, listening to local stories and enjoying the spectacular scenery that surrounds you. Should you be interested in exploring further afield, Dahab makes an excellent base for climbing Mount Sinai, visiting St Catherine’s Monastery and exploring the ancient Lost City of Petra in neighbouring Jordan. These excursions make for a long day but it’s certainly worth it!

Mt SinaiDahab is a short road transfer immediately out of Sharm El Sheikh airport and the climate means you can visit all year round with temperatures ranging from 20 to 30 degrees. The summer is especially hot but because of the desert landscape and the strong winds it never gets too humid which makes it much more pleasant. Dahab may well be my favourite little town in the world and I defy anyone who experiences its many charms not to want to return again and again.

Maldives Magic

May 6th, 2014 by Dan Saunders

The sun dipped down below the horizon and the beautiful white sand turned a golden yellow. This was the picture postcard start to my trip to the Maldives with Encounters Travel. The group was small, just four of us, but that actually made it better as it really felt like a private tour. It started with a tour of the capital, Malé, which was interesting enough but I really couldn’t wait to get out to the local islands and see the real Maldives. The tour visited a couple of  ‘local’ island’s, something few other operators offer, as most stick to the dhoni cruise boats or the extortionately expensive resort islands.

P1040145

From Malé we caught the local ferry to Guraidhoo Island, about an hour and half away. The ferry was full of local Maldivians and a spattering of tourist. Luckily our guide was with us to make sure we understood the safety drills and where to find the life jackets, as the boat crew certainly didn’t seem concerned.

P1040131

Guraidhoo Island was a small, ‘typical’ local island, as far removed from the sterile resort islands, that have made the Maldives such a popular destination, as can be imagined – and just what I was looking for. The small guesthouse was basic, but very clean and the staff were really friendly. We took a tour of the island but unfortunately it was right in the middle of Ramadan, so everywhere was a bit deserted. Over the next few days we explored the surrounding islands, coral reefs  and sand bars on various excursions. These included a day on a deserted picnic island, dinner with a local family, dinner on a sand bar, and various snorkelling trips. Everything was pretty well organised and great fun, especially the snorkelling, which was the best I’ve ever had.

snorkelling

We then move to nearby Maafushi Island, a bit bigger and more set up for tourists. Our guesthouse was much better and really very nice and clean and again wonderfully friendly staff. We continued to enjoy more snorkelling, local song and dance and an evening out fishing on boat, which was great fun and we even caught dinner. There was a small beach area on Maafushi Island set aside for tourist to sunbath away from the gaze of the locals, as being a Islamic country bikinis are a non starter away from the resort islands. Of course the girls can still go swimming and snorkelling, but they just need to keep covered up whilst in view. Though to be honest more than a few tourist were not paying much attention to this rule. The only other down side to being on the local islands was the lack of alcohol, but I personally didn’t miss it that much.

Fishing

All to soon we headed back to Malé and I spent a day on a resort island to finish off, which was certainly nice to enjoy the luxury and the booze, but i enjoyed the local islands much, much more.

 

All in all our guide was excellent and kept everything ticking along nicely, though you do really need to embrace the idea of ‘local time’ as, and this is not unusual in very hot countries, timings can be pretty loose! I loved this tour, it was great value for money and I would certainly recommend it to anyone looking to discover the other side of the Maldives you don’t find in the glossy brochures.

Amazing Food

Trekking in Nepal

March 13th, 2014 by Dan Saunders

Nepal offers some of the best trekking to be found anywhere in the world. It is home to 8 of the 14 highest mountains in the world, including Mount Everest (8,848m) the world’s highest..

There are 3 main regions that the majority of trekkers choose to visit, Annapurna Region, Langtang Region and Everest Region and each has a uniquely different feel to it.

View of Machapuchare (Fishtail mountain) and the Himalaya from Damside at Pokhara, Nepal

Everest Region

Most trekking in the Everest region starts with a flight into Lukla airport, which in itself can be a real adventure as it’s one of the most challenging airports and also quite a hair-raising experience. Once in Lukla most trekkers head out towards Everest Base Camp, which can be done in a little under 2 weeks. The trails are fairly straightforward and generally speak the trekking is not too challenging, however the altitude can be. With the majority of this trek being over 4,000m, altitude sickness can become a real issue. However is you take your time and acclimatise properly by taking a few rest days on route you should be able to dramatically reduce the risk of suffering form AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). There are a number of excellent side treks available if you have more time, including visiting the wonderful Gokyo Lakes region.

Annapurna Region

Situated to the west of Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, this mountainous region is one of the most popular in Nepal. The starting point for most treks into this region is the picturesque lakeside town of Pokhara. The most popular treks in the Annapurna’s are the full Annapurna Circuit, which takes around two weeks to complete; the Annapurna Sanctuary trek, which take you up to the Annapurna Base Camp at 4,130m; and the Jomsom Trek, which finished in the holy shrine of Muktinath (3,710m) before flying back down to Pokhara.

annapurna range

Langtang Region

Langtang region offers the closest quality trekking to Kathmandu and can be reach in half a day by bus. There are a number of routes available up into the Langtang Valley and also the neighbouring valleys including the Gosainkund Lakes area. Although the peaks are not a big as in the other two regions, the closeness of the mountains makes this region no less impressive and should you want a high altitude challenge, there is always the Ganja La pass trek, which at 5,130m will test even the toughest of trekkers.

Himalayas-Nepal

The Colours of Morocco

January 21st, 2014 by Dan Saunders

 

A blog by Erina Kilmore

Morocco was always one of those exotic destinations that I had dreamed about but never thought I’d get the chance to visit.  I feel so fortunate to have been given the opportunity to experience the many colours of Morocco on the Encounters Travel Moroccan Mosaics tour.

Moroccan Mosaics

I have travelled through many parts of the world solo so to be greeted by the warm, friendly face of our guide at the arrivals gate in Marrakech was a welcomed change.  He immediately took my bags and made me feel at home in this new country.  From that moment on there was nothing I would want for as every detail was carefully considered and taken care of.  As we drove from the airport I could see the amazing Atlas Mountains in the distance and large, busy roads dotted with palms and beautifully sculptured trees.  At the hotel I was showed to my lovely room and then requested to meet in the lounge to meet my fellow travellers.  At this meeting we were given an overview of the tours, some choices we could make about day trips and the opportunity to make connections from the get go.  The group was varied and interesting with people from all over the world and different walks of life.  I can honestly say we all got along and it made the trip so much more fantastic!  That night at dinner, we shared travel stories, expectations of Morocco and excitement for what was to come…

Day 1 was a tour of Marrakech and that is where I first got to see all the magical colours that make this country so exotic and beautiful.  The mosques and palaces were decorated with intricate mosaics, marble and timber work.  Walking through the bazaar to the main square was fabulous and I could see that the rest of the group and myself were already planning our shopping sprees with the abundance of leather, pottery and silver wares for sale.  Sunset in the square was just brilliant as the group shared some mint tea and took in all the musical sounds, food smells and bustling life of the city.

Moroccan Souk

The next few days the group and I embarked on an adventure through the Atlas Mountains that I had seen tower over Marrakech that weekend with stops that gave us some incredible views.  We stayed in lovely hotels that you really wouldn’t have thought could exist in these towns.  We ate beautiful traditional Moroccan meals every day and usually laughed at the silence at the dinner table as we all enjoyed every bite.  The conversations were then great!  We shared more stories, talked about our discoveries of the day and showed photos.  We visited many Kasbah’s, took some great group photos and continued to eat fabulous local food every day.

By day 4 we were all very excited to disembark the luxurious coach where we all had 2-3 seats each and jump into some new model 4WD’s for some fun.  Driving through the Sahara Dessert was hilarious as the drivers thought themselves to be rally drivers more than tour guides, nonetheless we felt safe and laughed very hard the entire time.  We arrived just before sunset at our dessert camp for the night – the HIGHLIGHT of our trip!  Our bags were taken to our very luxurious ‘tents’ and we jumped straight onto some waiting camels and into the dunes.  The camel ride was awesome.  We laughed, took cool photos of our silhouettes in the dunes and chatted with our local guide as they directed us towards the best viewing point for the sun to set over Africa.  Once we walked a short distance to the top, the colours on the sand were remarkable and was matched by the changing hues of red and orange that the sun created in the sky.  It was a truly breathtaking moment that our group shared as that sun set.  Unforgettable.  That night we shared drinks under the stars and sat up late into the night as a group and listed to local musicians play some mesmerising tunes.

Sunset on the dunes in the Sahara desert

Sunset on the dunes in the Sahara desert

The next morning we woke early for the sun to rise over the Algerian border.  It was soooo cold but so worth it.  The rest of the day was relaxed as we drove to probably the nicest hotel of our stay in Zagora.  We enjoyed another fabulous meal and shared a beautiful birthday cake for one of our fellow travellers birthday, she was very surprised.  The following day was a bit of a slog driving back to Marrakech but because we had already made some fantastic relationships in the group, we laughed, we sang songs and played card games to make the day go quite fast.  That night I think we all collapsed…

The last day was at leisure and sadly I had to fly home but my tour friends enjoyed crossing off all the shopping items they had wanted earlier, visited a beautiful garden and ate more of Morocco’s finest foods.  The colours of Morocco will always stay in my mind and heart and I look forward to visiting again to experience the coastal towns and the romance of Casablanca.  That was my first group tour, and I’d do it again.  It was so easy, so fun and I’ve made some friendships for the rest of my life.  Thank you Encounters Travel!

Morocco Red Cotton

Finding Magic in Morocco

September 27th, 2013 by Dan Saunders

By Rekha Thomas

Sahara dreaming

“En route to Morocco. And I’m not talking Epcot (Disney World). Thank you to my husband for holding down the fort so that I could experience the trip of a lifetime!”   With this post that I hastily thumbed onto my Facebook timeline, my journey began.  I was sitting on board my Royal Air Maroc flight in New York City and although I could hardly have known it at the time, I really was embarking on the trip of a lifetime.

Being a solo traveler was new to me after having been used to family vacations with my husband and two daughters in tow. I was nervous about meeting new people and traveling to a more exotic location than most people would ever visit in their lives.

Immediately after going through immigration at Marrakech Menara airport, I was greeted by our guides. It was at this point that I met a few of the fellow travelers with whom I would spend the majority of my waking hours over the next few days. Although we came from all different geographies and walks of life, it quickly became clear that we shared a bond with our common love of travel and adventure. After arriving at our hotel, our first impromptu group bonding activity was to get everyone’s smartphones connected to Wi-Fi!

I have generally steered away from packaged tours since they have been stereotyped as regimented, touristy, and rarely give one a chance to venture off the beaten path. I chose this particular tour since I love photography and wanted to explore and “shoot” the diverse landscape and culture that I had only read about in books, in addition to experiencing the thrill of a city like Marrakech.  The itinerary that was presented allowed me meet both goals and quite frankly has changed my view of tours!

Although the destinations highlighted on our trip were exciting to see, what was truly memorable were the unique experiences that we were able to share as a group and that can’t be written into any travel itinerary. The first night, one of the guides took several of us, who were interested, on a walk to Jemaa El-Fna Square, the world famous souk (marketplace) in Marrakech. Seeing it come alive at night was magical. The sight of monkeys and snakes, the feel of a small Moroccan child tugging at my sleeve asking me to purchase a trinket, the sounds of thousands of feet making their way through the crowds as a smoky haze rose from the aromatic kebabs and enveloped the market was nothing short of incredible. The sheer size was more than I had imagined.  There was so much to see that I could have lost myself for hours. And I probably would have, had I not heard the guide raise his voice and shout, “Stay together! You don’t want to get lost!”

The next day, we returned to Jemaa El-Fna square during the afternoon and were given time to explore on our own. A few of us ventured out together with the common goal of exploring and shopping. As we wandered through the winding alleyways trying to find our way back to the main square, I was drawn to the packets of fragrant mint tea displayed in a basket in front of a tiny shop.  The five people I was with were also solo travelers and we had met each other the day before. We christened ourselves “The Circle of Five.”  We were amused by the bottles of Berber Viagra proudly displayed next to the amber and Chanel-scented fragrant bars, saffron, and curry powder in the “Berber” pharmacy, as locals called it. The shopkeeper was an affable young man who persuaded us to enter by saying that we didn’t need to buy anything and that he was a University student who just wanted to practice his English. In very fluent English, his first question for us was, “How much is an iPhone 5 in the U.S.?” Being hospitable, he made fresh mint tea for us that that he served on top of a large flipped over metal can. At first I waved off the sugar cubes that he offered. After a quick sip and an involuntary puckering of the mouth, I proceeded to do what the locals do and dunked several cubes of sugar into the small glass of fragrant tea. I fondly remember it as one of the best mint teas that I had in Morocco.

The day ended with dinner and agreement at a local Moroccan restaurant. Although a vegetarian myself, the kebabs looked so fabulous that I had to take a picture! The belly dancer, with her gyrating hips, was the crown jewel of an enjoyable night of live music and dancing.

The next day we boarded a coach bus to begin our journey through the Atlas Mountains. We travelled through the Tizi N’tichka pass (which is the highest pass in Northern Africa) and arrived at the impressive Ait Benhaddou Kasbah (rock fortress). We scaled to the very top and were treated to amazing views of the surrounding landscape. There are no words to capture the scale of Ait Benhaddou.

Yet another unforgettable experience wasn’t printed on the itinerary.  In the town of Ouarzazate, known as the gateway to the Sahara, our guide was able to borrow a guitar for one of the young men on our tour and, with the instrument in tow, we took off for the town square in Ouarzazate. Our group sat on the steps, singing and enjoying the night air, while local Moroccan kids, who initially observed us shyly, began to dance freely around us. They were as intrigued by us as we were of them.

As we continued traveling up and down the changing elevations of the Atlas Mountains we were welcomed with amazing views, each more magnificent than the other. It is truly a landscape photographer’s paradise. The Todra Gorge, Tasseurte, Erfoud, so many beautiful places.  Several of these locations offered us chances to immerse ourselves in the local culture and experience Berber dancing, cooking our own tagines and watching artisans make local handiworks.

“Tsk…tsk….tsk.”   “What, you may ask, is that?” Well, that sound is the first thing that you hear when you wake up in a Berber tented camp in the Sahara desert! It’s the sound you hear as you gently brush the sand that has slowly fallen during the night, forming a thin gritty layer on your face. The Sahara desert was one of my favorite experiences and the spectacular combination of sky and sand provided yet another dream location for a photographer. We started by leaving our buses and boarding 4×4’s that would take us to our tented Berber camp in Merzouga. It was a thrill to be part of a caravan of 4×4’s that raced each other over the rapidly changing terrain. As the miles flew by, paved roads slowly became rocky flat landscape, which then made a dramatic final transformation to brownish-orange sand. We had the added excitement of getting stuck on a small sand dune and needing another 4×4’s help to be towed out. After arriving at our camp after the slight delay, we were ushered onto camels for a sunset camel ride. Lugging my clunky camera and with my gear bag strapped onto me, I made for an interesting figure in the desert. One hand clutched my camera, trying to protect my lens from the sand, while the other white-knuckled hand held my camel’s reins in a vise-like grip while my guide half pulled, half guided my camel up to the top of the sandy dune that loomed ahead of me. Occasionally he would stop for me to reposition myself as I slipped precariously off the camel’s hump due to the weight of my gear or needed to snap a photo. It must have been amusing. I can’t complain. It was a gorgeous sunset!

The only thing better was waking up at 5 am with a couple of fellow travelers to hike out into the desert to patiently wait for the glorious sunrise, which was another amazing experience. Writing my kids names in the sand was an added bonus!  It lies there imprinted forever, or at least until the next sandstorm! Tranquil, serene, beautiful…

On the last day of our tour, about half of our group opted to go to the coastal town of Essaouira. The landscape and vibe here is a far cry from the elevation of the Atlas Mountains, the sandy terrain of the Sahara desert and the hustle and bustle of the crowded marketplaces of Marrakech. Today, it is a laid-back beach town, which is in sharp contrast to its history as an 18th-century fortified seaport town. You can still see the ramparts with ancient cannons that protected this fortress town along the esplanade. The medina (old city) itself is picturesque with distinctive Moroccan blue shutters and doors that frame and accent almost every building. Hundreds of brightly painted blue boats are anchored on the dock and form a sharp contrast to the fishermen tinkering with their vibrant red fishing nets. Leisurely walking through the colorful souks in Essaouira was a fitting end to an incredible journey.

As I reminisce about the trip and peruse through photos, I realize that not only do I have many memories to cherish; I also have the desire to visit even more faraway places. I leave you with the refrain from the French/Arabic song by Cheb Khaled that became an anthem for us on our tour bus.   “C’est La Vie!”   With experiences like this I can’t complain, it really is a good life!

To visit Rekha’s website and see all her images click  here.

Trekking in Thailand

September 3rd, 2013 by Dan Saunders

by Anthony Horrobin - 

Thailand is best known for its pristine beaches, intricate temples and world-renowned nightlife but the north of the country provides a perfect base for an authentic Thai trekking experience. The northern jungles of Thailand are home to a diverse mix of hill-tribe villages and ethnic minorities, each with their own customs, costumes and building style.

Whilst travelling in Thailand at the beginning of 2010 I took part in our 2 night trekking tour and thoroughly enjoyed myself, the experience was very different to what I expected and I would recommend the trip to anyone looking for a little adventure!

We began our trip in Chiang Mai and drove north to the town of Mae Malai, where we purchased various supplies to take with us on the trek. The market at Mae Malai was very authentic and certainly not aimed at tourists. Our guide explained the various produce that was being sold, including the interesting sounding ‘Thousand Year Egg’ – I chose NOT to try this! From Mae Malai we continued our drive to the beautiful Pang Lan Waterfalls where we had the opportunity to swim in the refreshing waters and listen to the hum of the wildlife in the surrounding jungle. Later in the afternoon our driver dropped us off at Huay Nam Dang National Park where our trekking began.

Pang Lan Waterfalls-Thailand

Pang Lan Waterfalls-Thailand

Day one of the trek saw us walking for approximately 2-3 hours along forest paths used often by local hill-tribe people. Along the way we passed by a few locals and cattle from the nearby villages (and also lots of HUGE cobwebs, where giant spiders were no doubt lurking inside). The terrain was reasonably flat on the first day, apart from the slope leading down into the village. This path offered some fantastic views of the surrounding landscapes and brought home just how remote the village actually was!! – There was no sign of civilization in any direction. Upon arrival at the village we were led to our accommodation, which was located in the center of the village. Although the hut was very basic, it was probably more comfortable then I had been expecting (see above pictures). After settling in and resting for our while, our guide took us on a tour of the village where we were able to witness the day-to-day life of the local people. The houses were mainly built on stilts and underneath lived their livestock – mainly water buffalo and pigs. I was surprised to learn that many of Karen villages actually follow the Christian faith and a modest church was located on the outskirts of the village. After seeing the bright lights of Bangkok and Chiang Mai, the basic conditions of the village were a real culture shock, however the people here were some of the happiest I met whilst in Thailand. In the evening we joined some of the local people who taught us how to make spring rolls and we enjoyed these whilst being serenaded by one of the local villagers and his guitar. The lack of electricity meant that the only light available was candle-light, which with the buzz of the forest around us and the thought of being in such as remote location gave an almost magical atmosphere.

On day two I was awoken very early by the crowing of the many cockerels roaming around the village. We had a light breakfast before beginning our trek again. The walking on day two was more difficult with many inclines. The path was also much thinner and the forest surrounding us seemed much thicker too. Along the way we again had the chance to view many amazing landscapes including the tiered rice paddies so famous in southeast Asia. Unfortunately we were travelling during the dry season which meant that the Paddy fields were dry; however it gave us a good idea of how the lush and green fields would look in the rainy season. We walked for between 4 and 5 hours on day two and the journey ended at an elephant camp, located in a valley surrounded by jungle on every side. Here the elephants were clearly treat very well and were free to roam around the surrounding area. We joined in with bathing one of the elephants in the river before climbing onboard to begin our elephant trek through the jungle. We rode for just over 1 hour whilst the mahout and our trekking guide walked behind. Our mahout was obviously very well trained and directed the elephants throughout the whole journey without any physical contact, the strange sounds coming from the guides’ mouth were clear enough to keep the elephants on the correct path. The elephant ride ended close to our second Karen village and after walking a short distance we arrived. The second village was much larger and some of the villagers actually had cars too. The houses were still very basic but not on stilts as they were in our previous village. We arrived in the middle of the day and many of the villagers were swimming in the river, along with their water-buffalo. We spent a little time relaxing beside the river bank before crossing a DIY bamboo bridge to the small island on the out-skirts of the village where out hut was located. After walking along dusty tracks for such a long time today were we all very dirty and decided to clean up by taking a ‘bath’ in the nearby river. That evening we were all very tired and after hearing stories from the guide for a while we all retired to bed for an early night.

Elephant Ride - Thailand

Elephant Ride – Thailand

On day three we boarded a basic bamboo raft and sailed downriver for much of the day. The dense forest on both sides of the river caused the imagination to wander and conjure up images of what animals might be lurking beyond the river bank. Our journey took around 6 hours, however during the rainy season when the water levels are much higher the journey can be done in 3-4 hours. The steady pace of our journey was very relaxing although quite exciting at times too; especially when the boat became stuck between rocks and we had to wade through the river to help lift it free. Our adventure ended at a riverside café where we enjoyed lunch before being collected and driven from here back to Chiang Mai.

Access bridge to our accommodation

Access bridge to our accommodation

I would recommend our Trekking Adventure to anyone looking for something a little more exciting whilst in Thailand. The trip makes for an excellent addition to a Northern Thailand tour and gives a great insight into how Thailand may have been many years ago.

The Sahara

August 29th, 2013 by Dan Saunders

Post written by William Maddicott 28/08/2013

The Sahara, or ‘Greatest’ Desert, as the locals call it conjures up all sorts of images; Scorpions, Snakes, Oasis’, vultures.  The hottest desert on the planet is the size of China, and home to all sorts of unfriendly animals, the most notorious being the Deathstalker Scorpion.

With these images in mind it is with trepidation that we head out to spend the night camping in a Traditional Berber camp in the middle of the Sahara. The Berber people are a Nomadic race who dominates much the Saharan Morocco. Traditionally livestock herders, they follow the Sahara’s natural cycle of grazing and water, always on the move.

Shadows in the sand

Taken on the sunset Camel ride up the dunes.

Arriving at Arfoud at the Edge of civilised Morocco we get out of our Mini bus and check into a rather nice hotel, safe in the knowledge that this is only a temporary stop before we board 4x4s and head out to Mezouga and into the real Sahara. After making suitable use of the hotel’s Wifi, air conditioning and creature comforts we board our jeeps ready for the 50km drive out into the wilderness. About 10km outside Arfoud, the road’s all but disappear and we appear to be driving through the featureless landscape in search of the Camp. The drivers seem to know the way, but we’re unsure how as there’s little to aid navigation other than a great expanse of sand, the odd palm tree and the Algerian Atlas mountains directly in front of us.

Desert 4x4's

4×4′s used to get to the beginning of the Sahara.

After about an hour of driving including a few photo stops to take in the vast expanse of nothingness, we arrive at a camp that looks a lot more luxurious than anyone in the jeep had anticipated. Flushing toilets, towels, even a fridge to keep beer cool, and a swimming pool greeted us. This was more than even the most optimistic members of the group are expecting, our tents even had little electric lamps in them.

We are met from the jeep by an exuberant staff member and helped with our bags into a court yard, bottled water is passed round, and we feel instantly comfortable and at one in the desert. The atmosphere is relaxed and there are plenty of Berber’s hanging around enjoying the late afternoon cool sun. After about 10 minutes a group of 15 camel headers appears and, after we have been introduced to our designated beast, we board and set sail into the desert. Camels are notoriously grumpy creatures and mine takes what can only be described as in instant dislike to me sitting on his hump, after a lot of Sqwarking, and ‘Nurrring’, and a little bit of gentle persuasion from the camel herder he rises and is ready to go. After enquiring the name of my camel I was simply met with ‘his name is camel’ from the herder, there appears not to have been much love lost between these two.

Our not so basic berber camp.

Trekking through the sand dunes you get a great feel of how remote the desert is. Other than the casual banter between the camel headers and the slow plod of the camels there is absolute silence. Nothing! Not a noise. Something which is very hard to come by when you live in the confines of large city! It truly is a magical place. The sun is starting to set when we leave our camels at the top of the sand dune. And we sit watching the sunset without another soul around over this magical desert. One of the herders then whips out a snow board and we then proceed to take turns in the sedate sport of snowboarding down sand dunes. It turns out snowboards are designed for snow, not sand, and they take a bit of coaxing to slide down the deceptively steep sand dunes. With dusk now setting in we board out camels again and return back to the camp. ‘Camel’ has not forgotten his dislike for me and proceeds to make the journey home as uncomfortable as physically possible, ending off with nearly throwing me off backwards when we sits down back at the camp.

Sahara Sunset

Fancy a glass of wine with your sunset?

The same exuberant man then welcomes us back off the camels, and ushers us into a hall for a feast of Moroccan Delicacies, Soup, Tagine, and the infamous ‘Casablanca’ Beer. After dinner and a few beers we are led outside where the local Berber tribe have lit a massive bonfire, and pulled out a couple of drums. A little more beer then appears and a lot of ‘Darbukkah’ bashing, and before I know it I’ve been taught the rhythm to a traditional Berber song. Despite not knowing many words of each other’s language we communicate well through the language of beer and music, a sure fired winner.

It’s easy to forget how remote the region is, and it’s only when you look up to see thousands upon thousands of stars that you remember that you are in the middle of one of the natural wonders of the world. The stars are crammed into the sky everywhere you looked it really was a sight to behold. A cry of ‘Scorpion’ quickly bought us back to our senses. Our brilliant, ever observant, guide Idris, is crouching next to a rock beckoning for us to come and take a look, but at the same time maintain a healthy distance. We got a quick glance before the Scorpions decided they were more worried about us and scuttled away hurriedly into the sand.

The next morning, after an incredibly comfy night’s sleep, we are treated to a staple Berber breakfast of bread and eggs. We board our 4×4’s and headed back out into the civilised world, sorry to say goodbye to our fantastically welcoming hosts, and their Camels.

New Friends

 

Brits caught out by unusual laws and customs

August 28th, 2013 by Dan Saunders

FCO encourages people to research destinations before they travel

Playing bingo, snacking while sitting on a monument or feeding pigeons may seem innocent enough to many British citizens, but these are just some of the reasons why many people have found themselves faced with hefty fines or in some cases arrested or detained abroad.

Every year Brits are caught out by local laws and customs which are commonplace in the UK, some of which carry serious consequences. These could be easily avoided by researching travel destinations in advance and taking note of updates and warnings issued by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).

A recent report released by the FCO identified that more than a quarter (27%) of cases requiring consular assistance by the FCO were for arrests or detentions, with a particular increase in the number of cases in Italy, the United Arab Emirates and the Netherlands. In addition to the more unusual laws and customs, alcohol, drug and cigarette laws all vary from country to country so it is vital that British citizens familiarise themselves with these before they travel to ensure they have a safe and enjoyable holiday.

Some of the more unusual laws and customs to watch out for include:

Country Law Penalty/Consequences
Netherlands Don’t carry or use drugs. While the Netherlands has a reputation for being tolerant on the use of so-called ‘soft drugs’ this exists only for designated areas. Possession of prohibited substances or buying them can carry a prison sentence Arrest, detention
Venice Feeding the pigeons is against the law Fines
Japan It is illegal to take some commonly available nasal sprays containing pseudoephedrine into Japan Fines
Barcelona It is against the law to wear a bikini, swimming trunks or to go bare-chested away from the beach front area in Barcelona Fines
Singapore Chewing gum on the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system in Singapore is strictly prohibited Fines
Thailand It is illegal to import more than 200 cigarettes into Thailand Large fines and confiscation
Italy (Florence) It is an offence to sit on steps and courtyards or to eat and drink in the immediate vicinity of churches and public buildings in Florence Large fines
Saudi Arabia In Saudi Arabia photographing government buildings, military installations and palaces is prohibited Arrest and detention
Barbados It is an offence for anyone, including children, to dress in camouflage clothing Fines
Nigeria It is illegal to take mineral water into Nigeria Fines, confiscation
Fiji Sunbathing topless is prohibited Fines
Maldives Public observance of religions other than Islam is prohibited for non-Maldivians and visitors Arrest, detention

Charles Hay, Director of Consular Services said:

Every year British nationals find themselves on the wrong side of the law unexpectedly, resulting in fines or in some cases arrests or even jail sentences. It is important to remember that laws and customs can vary greatly from country to country and what may be perfectly legal in the UK could be subject to a fine or even a jail sentence in another.

Consular staff often find that travellers are unaware that local laws apply to them and many British nationals think of their British passport as a ‘get out of jail free’ card. While consular staff will always try to assist British nationals who find themselves in difficulty abroad, we can’t interfere in another country’s legal processes.

We want Brits to have a great time when they travel abroad so it is also a good idea to research the country they are visiting before they travel. Country specific laws and customs can be found at our travel advice page.

If you have any enquiries for FCO consular staff before you go or while abroad you can now ask questions via the FCO’s new Twitter service @FCOtravel. Questions are answered 9am – 6pm BST, Monday – Friday and FCO staff aim to respond within 30 minutes. This service adds to the ways that British people travelling or living overseas can already get in touch with the FCO: by emailing the travel advice team or contacting local consular staff.

You can also keep up-to-date with the latest FCO travel advice by signing up to the FCO’s Facebook and Twitter.

If you would like further information please contact 0207 478 7840 orfcoteam@grayling.com

Further Information

*Information taken from FCO British Behaviour Abroad report 2013

The Know Before You Go campaign targets a number of audiences, from gap year students to package holidaymakers; sports fans to older travellers and people visiting friends and family abroad. The campaign works with around 600 travel industry partners to communicate its messages. For more information visit the campaign website

Advice from the FCO:

Check the FCO’s country travel advice – the more clued up you are, the smoother your trip will be so check out some key facts about your destination – even if it’s a familiar one.

Don’t forget to research your destination – eg. local transport, local dress codes, entry requirements, laws and customs by researching online using the FCO website.

Know the legal limits – if you are purchasing alcohol or cigarettes in the airport before you travel, make sure they are legal in the country you are travelling to and make sure your medicine is legal in the country you are visiting – contact the embassy of the country you are visiting and visitNational Health website and NHS Direct.

Information about how the FCO can help British nationals abroad:

The FCO can:

  • Issue you with an emergency travel document
  • Provide information about transferring money
  • Provide help if you have suffered rape or serious sexual or physical assault, are a victim of crime, are ill or in hospital
  • Give you a list of local lawyers, interpreters, doctors or funeral directors
  • Contact you if you are detained abroad
  • Contact friends and family back home for you if you wish
  • Provide help in cases of forced marriage
  • Assist people affected by parental child abduction

The FCO cannot:

  • Help you enter a country if you do not have a valid passport or necessary visas
  • Give you legal advice or translate documents
  • Investigate crimes or get you out of prison
  • Get you better treatment in hospital or prison than is given to local people but will raise concerns if treatment falls below internationally recognised standards
  • Pay any bills or give you money
  • Make travel arrangements for you
Published:
28 August 2013

Visit Jordan –

August 2nd, 2013 by Dan Saunders

Posted on August 02 2013 by Ant Horrobin

Wadi Rum

After selling Jordan tours for many years and having to cancel 2 previous trips, I finally made it to Jordan this year and it was definitely worth the wait!

I travelled with my partner to Israel at the end of June to spend a week travelling before crossing the border to join our 7th July Jordan Encounters tour. We arrived in Amman a couple of days before the rest of the group and we took this time to visit the Roman Ruins at Umm Qais and the incredible Ajloun Castle. Umm Qais was almost deserted when we arrived which allowed us to explore at our own pace and get some great photo’s. Whilst the ruins at Umm Qais haven’t been restored as well as Jerash, it’s still a great place to visit due to lower tourist numbers and also so you can appreciate the true might of the Roman Empire – Umm Qais is located at the top of large hill which offers amazing views to the surrounding valleys and over the border into Syria.

Wadi Rum guests

Not far from Umm Qais is the castle of Ajloun which I found breathtaking. The castle is huge and has been restored very well. Many of the rooms remain intact and there is also a small museum inside where you can see antiquities recovered from the site during restoration. If you have the time available I would definitely recommend taking an extra day in Amman to be able to visit Ajloun.

The city of Amman wasn’t like anything I was expecting, it was much larger and also probably less commercial that I expected. The hotel we normally use in Amman is located in the Sweifieh district which is probably one of the more modern parts of the city. There were plenty of restaurants, shops and also the ‘Queen Vic’ bar just a short distance away (a rarity in Amman!).

After meeting our fellow travellers and guide Mohammed on day one, we started our tour with a visit to the Citadel and Amphitheatre in Amman. Much of the Citadel has been destroyed but from the sections which remain intact or have been restored you get a good impression of how the site might once have been. The small onsite museum has some real treasures which are worth a viewing. We were told that the museum once housed some of the Dead Sea scrolls, so it was a shame we didn’t get to see those (though the ones we saw at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem more than made up for this!). For me, the highlight of the Citadel visit was the panoramic views in every direction which really demonstrated the true size of this seemingly never ending city!

Amman Ampitheatre

After jumping back onto the bus for a short ride down the hill, we arrived at the Amphitheatre. Whilst the Amphitheatre isn’t the most impressive I’ve seen (for me Caesarea in Israel top’s it) it was still amazing to realise how this building has stood up to the test of time and how the modern city has been developed around it. We enjoyed trying out the ‘sweet spot’ on the centre of the stage where almost by magic your voice is amplified to double its volume simply by standing in this place.

In the afternoon we headed out of Amman to the Jerash, one of the former Decapolis cities of the Roman Empire.

Jerash is truly incredible and probably double the size I expected it to be. Even more amazing is that half of the city still remains buried and unexcavated due to lack of funds. I can only imagine how this place may be in the future when more excavations have taken place. We did a loop around the city, heading through the Forum and along the Cardo or Colonnaded Street, stopping to see where shops and houses may once have been located. We also took time to visit the Temple, 2 of the Theatres and Hadrian’s Arch before heading back to Amman for the night.

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Leaving Amman behind, we headed south along the Desert Highway on day 3 to the Red Sea town of Aqaba where we stayed at a beautiful hotel in Tala Bay, a short distance from the centre of town. We also decided to take the optional Snorkelling Boat trip where we got to see some of the Red Sea’s beautiful under-water world.

We stayed in Aqaba for 1 night before driving into Wadi Rum – the highlight of the trip for me! Upon arriving at the visitors centre we had a tasty lunch included at the Rum Gate restaurant before boarding our Jeeps to begin the jeep safari. In total the Jeep Safari lasted around 3 to 4 hours with a number of stops to explore the canyons, climbs on the rocks and even climb up some massive sand dunes. Wadi Rum was all that I expected it to be and more and the landscapes here were nothing like I’ve experienced before. We actually didn’t pass by any other vehicles whilst in Wadi Rum which made the whole thing seem even more remote and isolated. Late in the afternoon we arrived at the camp. We had a private camp on this trip which was located in a perfect position, with beautiful red coloured mountains behind us, sand-dunes directly in front and an endless expanse of desert to both sides. The camp itself had around 20 tents, all equipped with proper beds and lockable doors for privacy, proper flushing male and female toilets, cold showers (it is the desert after all!!) and a central camp fire area with comfortable benches, tables and floor mats to lounge around on. After settling in we were served a huge selection of delicious local food. After the sun began to set the camp-fire was lit and we gathered around the fire to relax and some of us smoked Shisha. Once the sun had set we headed out of the camp with the local guide to look at the stars. Away from the city lights we saw an incredible lunar display which included lots of shooting stars and even satellites passing overhead. A few members of the group decided to sleep outside beside the fire, personally though, I preferred the comfort of my bed! After a cold (but refreshing) shower in the morning and breakfast we rejoined the jeeps to head back to the bus to continue our journey to Petra.

 Wadi Rum 4x4 safari

En-route to Petra we visited ‘Little Petra’ which gave us a teaser of what was to come at the main site. ‘Little Petra’ was great, obviously the site is much smaller than it’s more famous counterpart but we got the opportunity enter many of the carved ‘buildings’ here and climb through at chasm at the end of the site to a lookout point. Today we also visited Shobak Castle. Shobak was worthwhile visiting, however when compared to Ajloun the restoration isn’t as good. Much of the site remains in ruins, though we were the only tourist group here which made the visit feel a little more special.

Little Petra

Late in the afternoon we arrived in Petra. The main group stayed at a hotel in the town (which they loved) and my partner and I chose to stay next to the main entrance to Petra at the Petra Guest House, which was beautiful. The hotel is managed by Crowne Plaza and whilst it doesn’t have pool it was still lovely, especially the cave bar/restaurant at the front of the property. If you prefer to be close to shops and restaurants then a hotel in the centre of town is probably a better choice.

In the evening we re-joined some of the group to take the Petra by Candlelight option.

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The walk from the Petra entrance to the Siq takes probably around 15 minutes and then the walk through the Siq around another 15 minutes. By Candlelight the whole place had a magical atmosphere. At the end of the Siq you are rewarded with the iconic view of the Treasury peeking out from behind the rocks. Visitors are seated on mats in front of the Treasury before being served Bedouin tea and being entertained by local musicians. The hypnotic music combined with the flickering of the candles against the red rocks made this a very special experience for me –something I’ll never forget and something I think everyone visiting the area should do.

The following morning we rejoined the group again for the main Petra tour. Once again we walked the path towards the treasury, stopping to view carved buildings and facade’s which weren’t visible by candlelight. Passing through the Siq we also made lots of stops where the water system, religious alters and other buildings were explained to us. Upon arriving at the Treasury it was startling to see how different it looked from the previous evening, almost like a different building altogether.

What I didn’t understand or appreciate about Petra before going there myself is the sheer size of the place. Almost ignorantly I had thought that Petra consisted of just the Treasury and few less important buildings, when in fact the place is basically a city… IT’S HUGE!!! We spent the whole day exploring the buildings, having guided tours around many of the more important structures and exploring further in our free-time. For most people 1-day will be enough here but to truly visit the whole site you’ll need 2 full days at least. I loved Petra and it did live up to my expectations, though for me personally, the number of horses, camels and donkeys which I saw being treated in a less than ideal manner actually marred the visit a little though it didn’t take away from how incredibly unique this place is.

After a final night at Petra we hopped back on the bus to travel along the Kings Highway back to Amman with a number of stops along the way. The first stop of the day was at the town of Madaba where we saw the famous Mosaic map of the Middle-East. Continuing on from Madaba we arrived at Mt Nebo, where Moses saw the Promised Land. Unfortunately the main church here is currently closed for refurbishment but the views towards the Dead Sea and into Israel make the visit still worthwhile doing.

The last stop of the day was the Dead Sea. We actually chose to leave the group upon arrival at the Dead Sea as we had made alternate arrangements to spoil ourselves with a night at the Kempinski Ishtar Resort which was probably one of the best hotels I’ve ever stayed at. We were lucky to stay in a Jacuzzi Suite which had great views over the Dead Sea and whilst here we experienced the weightless feeling you get when floating in the waters of the Dead Sea. We also tried out the Dead Sea Mud (which smells pretty bad!!!). We only had 1 night at the Dead Sea but for a relaxing few days at the end of this tour this would make a great choice.

All in all we had a fabulous time in Jordan, the places visited exceeded my expectations and we wouldn’t hesitate to go back!