Meet the artisans who make Thailand’s alms bowls by hand

Thailand-alms-bowls---Anthony Bouch

Craft communities and villages are becoming harder to find these days in Bangkok after decades of rapid urbanisation have taken their toll on the city’s traditional living spaces. But there are still a few centres for crafts made by street-side vendors, using traditional methods and materials. This is one of the last.

On a narrow side street in Bangkok called Soi Ban Baat, just south of Wat Saket, the temple known as Golden Mountain, there’s one of them: a small community of three families of artisans, popularly known as “Monk’s Alms Bowl Village.” For centuries these families have manufactured alms bowls used by monks to gather food offerings.

The families today say they have continued working “in the right place” and using almost the exact same methods as the previous generations, using only their hands and a hammer as tools. One artisan, who is 61 years old, explains: “I am part of the fourth generation in the family trade. The tools have evolved; for example, before they were using fire and now we have a blowtorch. But the result is almost the same.”

Thailand alms bowls, Bangcock---thailand

Thailand alms bowls, Bangcock --thailand-2

The community, which has 40 workers, uses a rough assembly line model. Once a monk places an order, there are nine different steps along the manufacturing process.

“Everyone plays a part. Then we split the benefits between us,” says the craftsman.

The process is not simple and it takes about five days to complete each alms bowl, even for those who have spent many years on the job. The artisans must be strong men and women since each of the bowls, made of metal, can weigh around two kilos. The cups can be made of stone, metal or clay, and are then glazed to make them waterproof.

Finding the neighbourhood, on the corner of Bumrungmuang and Boriphat roads, is a little bit tricky, as it’s sadly been diminishing over the years. The community has also been hampered by the expanding metropolis, making this area one of the many mazes of alleyways where traditional life continues.

To manufacture the bowls, two strips of steel are welded in a cross representing the cardinal points. They are then attached to a ring to shape the structure. Gaps are filled with individual pieces of steel and hammered before applying the protective varnish or enamel. The sound of the hammering is deafening and sometimes hinders the routine life of some of their neighbours who are trying to chat or watch TV.

Thailand alms bowls, Bangcock ---jason-eppink

Image c/o Jason Eppink, Flickr

One of the workers of this community, a 35-year-old, says that the trade is dying out among the younger generation, with the youngest worker being 30 years old.

“In my case I am lucky, because I will continue the work with my nephew,” she says.

Other families, she laments, have stopped doing this work because they do not have older generations from which to learn. There used to be over 100 families here, but now there are just three left. But the manufacturing of these bowls is still a good and much-needed business. Many new alms bowls are mass-produced, but the more traditional monks will still only use handmade ones, and some temples do not accept bowls arriving from the factories.

“We produce a total of 10,000 bowls every year,” says another worker. “They are of good quality and last a long time.”

In recent years the villagers have also seen a new business opportunity through tourism. “We also sell to foreigners,” the worker says, pointing to some of the finished pieces on display in a glass case. This neighbourhood isn’t exclusive to monks. Many visitors come here and enjoy the history of the place, passing their experience on by word-of-mouth to other travellers.

Some of the bowls for sale are over 50 years old and buyers of these relics are rewarded with a demonstration of how the bowls are made. Bowls can be purchased during the community’s working hours from 9am to 5pm, and the price of a bowl is around THB1,900, depending on its size and complexity. The most popular styles are Manao (lime), Look Jaan (Thai fruit) and Hua Hara (tiger head) whose price can reach 3,000 baht.

It’s good to know some old traditions are still alive in the big city.

what does Brexit mean for travellers?

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For doubters, the unthinkable has happened. Today the world has woken up to find Britain and the EU are going their separate ways. At this stage it remains to be seen who will get what in the divorce, and there’s lots of questions (and hyperbole) being thrown around. Who will keep the puppy and the wedding silver? Who will get to have little Scotland on his birthday?

But seriously, with London being an international gateway, Brexit could raise a raft of issues for travellers – ranging from immigration problems to consumer rights and airline fares. Here’s the skinny on what the future of European travel might look like.

Getting into the UK may become a challenge

Before Brexit, the queues at London’s Heathrow airport moved quickly thanks to EU citizens being able to enter through a separate line without any restrictions. These same travellers might now be required to join Australians, Americans, and other international travellers in one queue for non-UK citizens. The result is a customs headache the same size as New York’s JFK airport – where waiting times can average around four hours. Let’s hope things don’t come to that!

Holidays may become cheaper…

If there’s one silver lining to all this, it will be the extra coin sitting in your bank account. The popular view is that the British pound will take a substantial hit in the wake of Brexit, which would have a domino effect on the global economy. For travellers visiting the UK this will likely translate into a better exchange rate, making renewing your passport that extra bit appealing.

A ripple effect of this is that less Brits will be holidaying through Europe, which could create discounted vacations across the entire Mediterranean and other popular British holiday destinations, such as Spain, Ibiza, Tuscany, and Provence.

… but UK airfares might become more expensive

Airline carriers such as British Airways and easyJet have coasted along on the back of the preferential Single European Sky legislation, which grants any carrier based in the EU the guaranteed right to operate freely throughout the continent. When the UK formally leaves the EU, British airline carriers will be scrambling to renegotiate their bilateral agreements to continue flying into Europe. The result might be higher prices for airfares from the UK to the EU.

UK airlines could become a harder to deal with

The EU has an impressive track record on consumer protections for travellers, with regulations in place covering anything from delayed flights to natural disasters. While these protections will continue for both EU and non-EU citizens on flights with European-based carriers to and from the EU, UK carriers will need to make their own decision whether they will enforce the same standards. If they’re frugal they might choose to offer less protection, which could cause some headaches for travellers.

But good news – now you can buy that beach house in Mykonos you’ve always wanted!

Brexit might result in many British expats selling up and moving back home to the Motherland. If this happens then expect a flood of Mediterranean vacation homes to hit the market. With Greece’s finances in the gutter, Millennials might finally be able to afford a house!

In these early days it’s still difficult to see exactly how Brexit will impact international travel, with the exact terms of the UK’s departure from the EU still to be ironed out in the months to come.

Be part of history on a game-changing trek up Mt Kilimanjaro

Kilimanjaro---Unsplash

Climb Africa’s highest peak, Mt Kilimanjaro, with a group of local women farmers to raise awareness about inequality, land rights and climate change

In rural Africa, smallholder farmers (most of whom are women) produce close to 80% of the continent’s food. From sowing, weeding and fertilizing, to processing and transporting, they form the backbone of Africa’s food security and production industry.

And yet despite this vital contribution, most African women lack secure rights to their land. Any access is usually through a father or husband, and even then they have little say in how resources are organised or profits distributed. After divorce or the death of a spouse, many women never regain access to matrimonial land. Governments and community decision-makers pay little attention to their voices and are failing to keep the promises they have made to invest in smallholder farmers. Meanwhile, multi-national corporations are moving in and robbing them of their livelihoods. This inequality isn’t isolated to Africa; it’s an issue felt by women all over the world.

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This isn’t right. We’re not cool with it. It’s time to make a change…and you can be part of it.

This October, in time for the UN International Day of Rural Women, Intrepid Travel have teamed up with ActionAid to support female farmers from across Africa as they come together for a 2,000-strong assembly to stand up for their rights. Led by a team of pioneering women and supported by ActionAid and their partner organisations, they’ll travel from all corners of the continent, passing through rural villages and speaking to decision-makers and women everywhere about their lives on the land. Their destination? The base of mighty Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, where the assembly will create a charter of demands to be formally presented to the UN Secretary General, Ban-Ki Moon.

Who is ActionAid?

ActionAid is a global justice organisation supporting people living in poverty around the world to claim their human rights. Like us, they are committed to fighting gender inequality and believe that when we unite, women can move mountains. Intrepid Travel and ActionAid are working together on a number of projects, but the Mt Kilimanjaro solidarity trek is our biggest and most exciting collaboration yet.

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Where you come in

If you’re wondering what part you’ll play in all this, it’s right here:

On 9 October 2016, we’re running a very special trek up the Marangu route of Mt Kilimanjaro with a small group of African women farmers, and YOU can be part of it. Supported by a stellar team of expert leaders, you’ll walk side-by-side with these inspiring women, sharing stories and helping each other – both mentally and physically – every step of the way. Then, as we make our ascent to the peak on 14 October, stand in solidarity during the unfurling of a flag at the summit of Africa’s highest peak.

Kilimanjaro-sunrise---Colin-Mutchler

The trek itself

The cost of the solidarity trek – which we’ve called Women Move Mountains – covers all on-ground expenses including passenger accommodation, food, permits and support from our experienced crew. Also included in the trip price is $500, which will go towards covering the costs of helping an African woman farmer up the mountain. So by taking part, you’re directly enabling her to make the journey beside you; you’re helping her voice be heard. In other words, to make this work, we need YOU.

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Kilimanjaro,-Uhuru-Peaks---Colin-Mutchler

We’ve been doing this mobilising thing – bringing people of all different backgrounds from all over the world together – for over 20 years now. But trust us: this trek is something special, something different. We’ve never done anything like it before. In summiting one of Earth’s highest mountains, you won’t just be embodying the challenge many women face in claiming back their rights; you’ll be part of a movement empowering them to become change makers and leaders in their community. Now that’s history.

The best American cities to celebrate the 4th of July

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Whether you’re the front-runner in your local hot dog-eating contest or decked out Uncle Sam-style at the annual parade, we can all agree that the 4th of July is America’s holiday to go all out. And we do mean all out. Fireworks displays, grandiose parades, BBQs upon BBQs – it’s the most tri-colored day of the year.

July 4th celebrates the United States’ independence from British rule in 1776 following the American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, Continental Congress voted in favor of the move and the rest is, well, history. July 4th only became a federal holiday in 1941, so if you do the math, that makes 2016 its 75th birthday. And we think that means even more reason to go all out. So put down the red and blue food coloring, save the Star-Spangled cake for Labor Day, and get yourself to one of these great American cities on the 4th of July.

Philadelphia, PA

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Image c/o Rob Bulmahn, Flickr

Where better to ring in America’s 240th birthday than where it all began? Philadelphia is the birthplace of the nation, and the city’s going to party like it’s 1776. Start your day off at the Celebration of Freedom Ceremony before heading to one of the many 4th of July events happening around town: a free museum visit at the National Museum of American Jewish History, the Independence Day Parade, Party on the Parkway (kid-friendly), Assembly Rooftop Lounge’s beer garden (not-so-kid-friendly), Battleship New Jersey 4th of July Fireworks, and Wawa Welcome America July 4th Concert and Fireworks. Whew, what a day.

Visit Philadelphia: Chicago to New York, Big Apple to Big Easy, Eastern USA Adventure

Washington, DC

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Image c/o Esther Westerveld, Flickr

This one should come as no surprise. Celebrating Independence Day in the nation’s capital (only a few miles away from the Prez himself) is definitely brag-worthy material. Remember when we mentioned the Declaration of Independence – you know, that monumental, game-changing document? Well, you can start your 4th of July seeing it in person at the National Archives. Then make sure you catch the National Independence Day Parade, see a free concert on the West Lawn, visit the Smithsonian American History Museum and ogle fireworks bursting over the Washington Monument.

Visit DC: Big Apple to Big Easy, Chicago to New York, New York to Miami

New York City, NY

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Image c/o Jetboyfree Flickr

New York City easily boasts some of the best music, food and bar scenes in the country, and its 4th of July celebrations are no exception. The Big Apple knows how to party. On Coney Island, watch the world famous Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest and enjoy some local music and entertainment (maybe a hot dog too, if you can stomach it). Then hop aboard a sailboat around the Statue of Liberty, because, you know, she’s kind of a big deal. Come nighttime, settle in to watch the iconic spectacle that is Macy’s 4th of July Fireworks. New York is truly the ‘city that doesn’t sleep’.

Visit NYC: New York to Niagara Falls, Big Apple to Big Easy, New York to Chicago

San Francisco, CA

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Image c/o Brandon Brubaker, Flickr

Western USA may have been colonized later than the east, but America’s kid brother can Fourth-of-July like the best of them. Our top pick for the West Coast? San Francisco, baby. Pier 39 is jam-packed with special exhibits, live music, finger-licking food and family-friendly activities, or in true American fashion, hit up the San Francisco Giants vs. Colorado Rockies game at AT&T Park. As the sun sets, head down to the Shoreline Amphitheatre for the annual fireworks concert with the San Francisco Symphony, and listen to the sweet melodies of movie scores like ET, Harry Potter and Star Wars. The 4th of July never sounded so good.

Visit San Francisco: San Francisco to Las Vegas, Yosemite and Tahoe, California Coast Express

Las Vegas, NV

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Image c/o Thomas Bunton, Flickr

If you’re really wanting to spice up your July 4th festivities, look no further than Las Vegas. Hotel bars, casinos and swimming pools get the party started early with lots of patriotic fervor. Everything is open and most venues will have food and drink specials. For something on the tamer side, the LINQ Promenade – Vegas’ open-air dining, retail and entertainment district – brings out 4th of July-themed balloon artists, caricature artists, games and entertainers. At night, watch multiple firework displays light up the sky, as Caesars Palace, the Stratosphere, Mandalay Bay and others put on their best lightshows of the year. Viva Las Vegas!

Visit Las Vegas: LA to Vegas Adventure, Utah Parks Circuit, San Francisco to Las Vegas

Chicago, IL

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Image c/o Oizilla, Flickr

Chicago is another great choice for the 4th of July. You’ll be blown away by The Windy City’s celebrations (we just had to, sorry). Most of Chicago’s Independence Day action happens on the city’s Navy Pier. Rides? Check. Deep dish pizza? Check. And you guessed it: fireworks. After a day of food and rides, and more food and more rides, check out the fireworks display on the Pier. This dynamic city of skyscrapers and waterways is ready for some serious 4th of July fun.

13 Japanese snacks you’ve just got to try

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Food in Japan is amazing, it’s actually one of the reasons I decided to return to the country. When I first visited Japan 7 years ago, I was on a limited budget, but this time I told myself that I wouldn’t cheap out on my meals. Fortunately good food in Japan can be found at reasonable prices.

If you don’t know where to begin, or where to eat, I would recommend joining a food tour so you can get a sample of different foods while learning about the local culture. Intrepid Travel offered me a free pass to their Urban Adventures: Tokyo After 5 Tour and it ended up being one of the highlights of my trip. We had a local guide who took us to Yakitori Alley, Ginza, and Tsukishima, three popular dining areas for locals where we had yakitori, monjayaki, and Japanese sweets. What made this food tour great is that I got to try new foods that I may have not tried on my own while travelling through Japan. After the tour, I made a note to try Okonomiyaki in Hiroshima, and I visited two more Izakayas for Yakitori. Honestly, food in Japan is so diverse that you really can’t go wrong.

1. Sushi

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Image c/o hessam, Flickr

Okay everyone knows what sushi is, but once you’ve had it at Tsukiji market in Tokyo, sushi will never be the same. Tsukiji Market is the largest fish and seafood market in the world; the morning tuna auction is a must see for many tourist. The sushi here doesn’t get any fresher since the fish is usually caught that morning.

2. Ramen

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Image c/o qasic, Flickr

The origin of ramen is unclear, but it became popular in North America when celebrity chef David Chang opened his Momofuku restaurant in New York. Ramen is basically noodles, served with pork, in a hot broth. The broth comes in various flavours and you can now get dipping ramen (cold noodles, which you dip into a thicker hot broth). Ramen is so popular in Japan, there’s even a ramen museum in Yokohama.

3. Okonomiyaki

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Image c/o Hajime Nagahata, Flickr

Okonomiyaki is kind of like a savoury pancake and contains many different ingredients depending on where in Japan you’re having it. I had it in Hiroshima and it had noodles, cabbage, green onion, bacon, bean sprouts and egg. It sounds really weird, but it was one of the better tasting things I had on my trip. It’s surprising that this food in Japan isn’t available in other parts of the world.

4. Monjayaki

Similar to okonomiyaki, but it has more a of a liquid dough texture. This version is popular in the Kantō region (around Tokyo). You can find the best monjayaki in the Tsukishima area of Tokyo.

5. Matcha

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Image c/o Amy Ross, Flickr

When green tea is finely ground into a powder, it’s known as matcha and it can be used it many different dishes. Matcha is most famous in Kyoto so you’ll find green tea infused food everywhere. The matcha “sundae” I had came with five different forms of matcha: matcha foam, matcha cake, matcha ice cream, and two different kinds of matcha jelly.

6. Yakitori

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Image c/o Reuben Stanton, Flickr

Grilled chicken skewers in Japan is known as Yakitori, but is often referred to all grilled skewers by foreigners. Yakitori or kushiyaki (grilled meats) can be found at any Izakaya (Japanese bar), as well as at many restaurants. Grilled meat may sound pretty plain, but it’s almost an art in Japan, where some restaurants specialise in  just yakitori.

7. Takoyaki

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Image c/o David Shackleford, Flickr

This food is very popular in Osaka so I was excited to give it a try. Takoyaki is made with batter filled with octopus, tempura and green onion. and then cooked on a special pan. They come out as little balls and are then covered in takoyaki sauce, mayonnaise, and bonito flakes. Sounds delicious, right? I’m sad to report that it was my least favourite Japanese food. What they don’t tell you is that the batter on the inside is soft and runny– I was expecting deep fried balls. It wasn’t awful, I just prefer my food cooked through.

8. Kobe beef

If you’re a steak lover then you need to try Kobe beef, and there’s no better place to have it than in Kobe, Japan. What makes the meat different is that it’s well-marbled, making it soft when chewing. Unlike in North America, the popular way of cooking Kobe beef is by Teppanyaki (a hot flat iron griddle).

9. Taiyaki

Taiyaki is a fish-shaped cake which can also be found in pastry form. It’s usually filled with red bean paste, but also comes with other fillings like chocolate or custard – some shops even serve it with ice cream. It pretty much tastes like a red bean turnover, and can be found just about anywhere in Japan.

10. Tempura

Another common dish that is available all over the world, but tempura is a very popular food in Japan. The main difference I found with tempura in Japan is that the batter was always lighter. Obviously it’s still deep fried, but never did I get a heavy oil taste.

11. Omurice

I really wanted to try omurice but I just couldn’t convince my wife to give it a try. Omurice is a dish where east meets west; they basically take an omelette, fill it with fried rice, and then top it with ketchup or curry. Okay I admit, it does sound weird, but there were many packed restaurants that served it.

12. Tonkatsu

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Image c/o George Alexander Ishida Newman, Flickr

Tonkatsu is breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet or loin. It’s usually served with cabbage, on rice, on noodles, with curry, or you can even get it in a sandwich. Just like every Japanese food, you can find Tonkatsu just about anywhere.

13. Shabu-shabu

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Image c/o Dylan Fogarty Macdonald, Flickr

This type of cooking is very popular in Japan. You get thin slices of beef (or other meats) and vegetables which you then cook in boiling water or soup. If you’ve ever done hot pot, it’s basically the same thing but for whatever reason you seem to get less options. The cooked meats are usually dipped in ponzu sauce (a citrus soy type of sauce) and eaten over white rice.

find out which country has the most powerful passport

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The world is full of cool passports, from New Zealand’s classy silver fern motif to Norway’s ridiculous black-light mountainscape (as if Scando countries needed anything else to make them more awesome). 

But which one is the most powerful? Which one gets you visa-free access to the most countries? And how does Australia rank? Thanks to a recent study by UK-based consultant firm Henley & Partners, we now have the answers to these questions.

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Norway’s uber-cool black-light passport. Image c/o Neue

They looked at every passport in the world and ranked the power of each one based on how many countries it gains access to without a visa. It’s called the Visa Index, and it’s designed to show (broadly) the scope of international power relations. It’s also good for bragging rights.

The good news is, Australia didn’t do too bad. Our passport is ranked 8th on the Index (although because a lot of countries above us are tied, we’re actually more like 24th). It’s a slight slip from 6th in 2015, but hey, we’ll take it. Of course Europe dominates the list, mostly because of the whole EU-free-movement thing. Germany has taken out the top spot yet again with visa-free access to a whopping 177 countries out of a possible 218. Afghanistan is the least powerful passport, with only 25 countries on visa-free terms, followed by Pakistan (29), Iraq (30), Somalia (31) and Syria (32).

Check out the all-powerful Top 10 countries below, each with their number of visa-free friends:

#1 Germany (177)
#2 Sweden (176)
#3 Finland (175)
#4 France & Italy & Spain & United Kingdom & Belgium & Denmark & Netherlands & United States (174)
#5 Austria & Japan & Singapore (173)
#6 Canada & Ireland & South Korea & Luxembourg & Norway & Portugal & Switzerland (172)
#7 Greece & New Zealand (171)
#8 Australia (169)
#9 Malta (168)
#10 Hungary & Czech Republic & Iceland (167)

10 handy tips for solo travel

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So you’re about to set off on your first solo travel adventure. How many people have tried to give you advice? No doubt you’ve been told numerous times to use common sense, not to talk to strangers and to stick to well lit areas. You probably sat there nodding while thinking to yourself “I’m not an idiot”.

Before I jetted off on my solo travels around Central America I went through all of this. I worried myself silly about Nicaraguan bandits, getting sick from Mexican street food and being eaten by mosquitoes in Panama. While the latter may have come true, l think that’s the worst that happened, so I’d say I coped pretty well!

It’s natural to feel nervous before jetting off alone. So here are a few helpful tips on how to stay safe and make the most of your solo travels.

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1. Research, research, research

From how you get the bus in Thailand, and the safest area of Havana, to where the most fun hostel is in Budapest, it’s not just about Googling places. One of my favourite ways to research is by hopping on Instagram. Search by your location and you can see all the photos people have posted recently. Just last week I found the best ramen in San Francisco using this method!

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2. Feeling intimidated by travelling solo? Then book a group tour

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My first solo travel experience was a 2 week trip to Mexico. I booked a spot on a group tour of 14 people – a bunch who became great friends. I’m a big fan of group travel. It takes the stress out of the daily admin that goes along with travel and allows you to really enjoy the experience. It’s also a great option when you’re travelling through areas that may seem threatening. I was really glad to have the security of a tour and a local guide while in Honduras.

3. Savvy Packing

Taking care of yourself on the road can be hard at times. One of the best purchases I ever made – sun cream in an aerosol. Finally I can apply my suncream evenly rather than looking like I’ve been assaulted by an iron! I’d also recommend portable battery packs for when your phone battery is running low and padlocks for your luggage and lockers.

4. Allow for spontaneity

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I always used to get carried away with tip number one and over plan. It felt safer to know exactly what was happening every single day. Yet some of the most exciting moments on my own have happened when there was an unexpected change. I met a new friend or saw somewhere I’ll never forget and more. Start with a rough plan but allow a bit of breathing space.

5. Get to know yourself

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This is something I definitely did during my time travelling solo. There were days when I barely spoke to another human being. I had breakfast, lunch and dinner alone. Wandered around the shops alone. Hit the beach on my own. You get the idea. While I’ve always enjoyed my own company, I wasn’t sure I’d feel very secure spending prolonged periods solo. Before you hit the road, try going out for dinner on your own to see how you feel. It gets easier, especially when the restaurant has wifi! Also, if you’re not sure about the neighbourhood you’re in, grab street food or cook in the evening to avoid any nasty after-dark surprises.

6. Get to know the locals

So your mum warned you not to talk to strangers? Well, sometimes it’s actually a good idea. Throw a little caution to the wind and ask locals where to eat, stay and go out. While in Mexico someone suggested I go to a lagoon called Yal-Ku. It was pretty much deserted, totally magical and one of the best places I’ve ever snorkelled. Thanks for the tip Pedro!

7. Travelling solo doesn’t have to mean you have to stay solo

When you’re fancying company, find out which hostels have a good social scene. Even if you’re not staying there, there’s often a bar or list of activities you can take part in.

8. Be travel efficient

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Save a scan of your passport on your email, take out comprehensive travel insurance, let your bank know you’re travelling, send your itinerary to friends and family and make sure you have access to everything you need when you’re away. I changed phone networks recently so that I can use my phone as normal in 18 countries across the world. Being able to access the internet on the go has saved me from a few sticky situations, while also allowing me to be a bit more spontaneous once I’m out and about!

9. Don’t worry if you don’t love every second

If you’re away for a long time it’s only natural to have low points. I travel solo a lot, but I still have my off days. Whether I’m feeling homesick, a bit under the weather or stressed, I try to remember that it’s all part of the travel experience and it’ll pass. I’ve panicked that I’m not enjoying something enough, and that’s made me enjoy it less and less. You have off days back home, so you’ll definitely have them when you’re away. Loosen up and embrace it!

10. Embrace the solo life

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Think of all the things you wouldn’t be able to do if you were travelling with others. Want to party until dawn? Go for it! Fancy going to bed at 8pm? You can! What about going on a spontaneous date with someone you just met? Do it, he may be the love of your life! Freedom is one of the greatest feelings in the world and this is your chance to let go and live a little.

an Amazon adventure at Shiripuno Lodge

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“People say that their bite feels like being shot,” Freddie says as he pokes a stick at the quarter-sized bullet ant trying to scuttle away beneath the detritus on the jungle floor at his feet.

We all take a collective step back and my toes curl involuntarily within my rubber boots – as though the appendages within are trying to get even further away from the thought of that painful bite. The bullet ant is just one of the many species of insects and plants we come across during our three-hour trek through the Ecuadorian Amazon. We see butterflies and creeping vines; bright red beetles and plenty of spiders. Freddie shows us a “telephone tree,” which creates a resounding echo when you hit its trunk with another tree limb.

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Image c/o Tatters, Flickr

And while our taste buds don’t want to come anywhere near the bullet ant, we do nibble on other things. Like a plant that acts as a natural numbing agent when you chew it, and the little lemon-flavored ants that live inside a plant called “the Devil’s garden.”

By the time our trek ends and we’re climbing back into an outrigger boat on the fast-flowing Napo River, I have a greater appreciation for the people that have for centuries called the Amazon jungle home. How they discovered that a certain plant would help cure cysts, or that another would help stop bleeding, I will probably never know.

RELATED: STAY AT SHIRIPUNO LODGE WITH INTREPID

We head back up the river, the boat’s motor struggling against the current, and eventually disembark again at the Shiripuno Lodge.

This rustic lodge, located a few miles from the port town of Misahualli, is not your average retreat. First of all, it’s located within Ecuador’s small portion of the Amazon jungle. And, second of all, the Shiripuno Lodge is a special project run completely by the women of the nearby Shiripuno village.

amazon homestay shiripuno lodge --Jean-Francois-Renaud

Image c/o Jean-Francois Renaud, Flickr

amazon homestay shiripuno lodge ---Jean-Francois-Renaud-2

Image c/o Jean-Francois Renaud, Flickr

One of the things I love about traveling with Intrepid is the fact that they go out of their way to support local projects like this. When we get to the lodge, a young woman named Jocelyn shows us around the nearby plantation, which is just as important to the locals as my tourist dollars. We learn about cacao (and even try the slimy fruit that surrounds those precious cocoa beans), see how yuca is harvested, and spy plenty of ripening plantains. Joselyn knows everything about the plants – how long they take to grow, how to harvest them, and how to replant them. And she’s incredibly efficient with a machete.

But Jocelyn isn’t just a jungle guide. She’s also a traditional Quechua dancer, a cocoa-making instructor, and quite talented with a blow dart. She’s one of the many women in this area who is helping to keep local traditions alive.

That evening, my whole group is sitting in a line on bamboo benches as Jocelyn and other young women from the community perform traditional dances around a fire. They’re dressed in woven skirts and tops accessorized by polished seeds that provide rhythm as they move to the music. A big bowl of chicha – a local alcohol, in this case made from yuca – is passed around as the women dance, and I’m struck by how much I’ve learned in just one day at the Shiripuno Lodge.

amazon homestay shiripuno lodge ---Sara-y-Tzunki

Image c/o Sara y Tzunki, Flickr

Some might call a place like this “touristy.” And in many ways it is – the purpose of the lodge is to serve tourists like me, after all. But I think that tourism might actually be helping to save a culture in this case.

Without my stay at the Shiripuno Lodge, I would have never learned about how you can transform cacao seeds into chocolate, or what a bullet ant looks like, or how to say “good morning” in Quechua (it’s “ali punja,” in case you’re curious). It’s these connections that truly make all the difference while travelling. I hope others after me will continue to help the community keep its traditions alive, and visit this little slice of the Amazon.

How to do India as a solo female traveller

Female-solo-traveller-India,-Hol---Modes-Rodriguez

India has a reputation as one of the most beautiful and, frankly, bizarre countries on the planet. But it’s also got a reputation, rightly or wrongly, as a slightly dangerous place for women to travel alone. Now we’ve never had any problems on our group tours in India (our guides know all the areas to avoid and tips for staying out of trouble, no matter your gender). But we wanted to get some thoughts from a pro traveller who recently returned from a trip to the subcontinent: British blogger Katy Colins, aka Not Wed or Dead.

Here’s Katy’s advice for solo female travellers planning an India adventure. Live it, learn it.

India female solo traveller ---Katy-Colins

Katy soaking up the sun in India.

What made you want to write about India?

For many travellers, India is this mystical, chaotic, colourful and magical place – a country that really has to be seen to be believed. I just fell in love with it during my travels but that’s not to say that backpacking in India is without its challenges and frustrations! I wanted to share the emotional rollercoaster that many backpackers experience as your senses are in over-drive from the smells, sights and noises that welcome you. It is intoxicating, overwhelming but also quite addictive. I hope that people feel inspired to experience it with their own eyes after reading Destination India!

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Were you nervous about travelling to India as a solo female traveller, and how did it match up to your concerns?

I did feel a little apprehensive being on my own as a female traveller but I was determined not to let this put me off the wonders I knew I was going to discover. I won’t lie, it isn’t the easiest country to travel around on your own but with these challenges come incredible moments that you can learn so much from. The cultural differences, the people and the beauty that lies around you both shape and make your time in India so much more rewarding than any other country I’ve travelled to alone.

What would you say to anyone nervous about travelling to India?

Don’t overthink it. Of course you should do your research before you go (as you would with any solo trip) but as long as you use your common sense, dress appropriately and expect people to stare at you (mostly out of curiosity than anything untoward) you will have the best time.

India female solo traveller --Unsplash-2

What surprised you most about the country?

The generosity of local people. They live very different lives to the one I’m used to back home, which at first can be hard to get used to – especially the levels of poverty. But some of the happiest people that I’ve met in India are the ones who appear to have nothing. It certainly makes you look at your own problems and quickly puts them into perspective.

Where were your favourite and least favourite places and why?

I adored the Taj Mahal but hated Agra, where it is based. For such an iconic site I felt the surrounding area was quite intimidating, filthy and tough to adjust to. I also loved my time in Goa, getting away from the chaos of the big cities to laze on unspoilt sandy beaches is hard to beat!

India-female-solo-traveller,-Taj-Mahal---Unsplash

If you could give one piece of advice about what to pack, what would it be?

Female travellers should make sure they cover up with a scarf, especially when heading to religious sites, you want to blend in and not stand out. I also couldn’t have travelled without my trusty antibacterial hand gel – if you want to keep Delhi belly at bay then this needs to be with you wherever you go!

What was the most memorable part of your trip?

Getting to see the Taj Mahal with my own eyes. Even after growing up on images of this wonder of the modern world from guide books and magazines, nothing prepares you for seeing it just ahead of you. I’m not ashamed to say that I was a blubbering mess! As I stared up at it in total awe I just felt like I was really here, in India, and doing it all on my own. I guess I just hadn’t realised how resilient I’d been and far I’d come to get here. A complete pinch-me moment!

16 photos that prove Japan looks better on film

Japan-on-film,-dog---Gemma-Saunders

I really enjoy taking my trusty Minolta on trips overseas. I love the grainy look of a film photo and the effort and time I put into taking photos. Especially when I only have a single shot left. With Digital photos I tend to become lazy and complacent: I’ll take 400 photos of a tree and never look at them or do anything with them or even think about them when I’m shooting. I want my photos to count, even if only to me.

So when I was planning my recent Intrepid trip to Japan– a 12-day journey from Tokyo to Osaka – I knew I was going to pack my trusty old Minolta. The trip turned out to be a blast. I ate the best Ramen of my life, cried my eyes out at Hiroshima and fell in love with every dog I saw, even if it was in a pram. Every piece of food was a piece of art, every bit of technology was impressive and every day I was there I thought about ways I could get back to Japan. 

A few weeks later it was time for my favourite moment – getting the freshly developed rolls of film back. This is what I captured.

Japan castle on film - Gemma Saunders

Japan food on film - Gemma Saunders

Japan toy on film - Gemma Saunders

Japan dogs in pram on film - Gemma Saunders

Japan river on film - Gemma Saunders

Japan Hiroshima on film - Gemma Saunders

Japan forest on film - Gemma Saunders

Japan coy fish on film - Gemma Saunders

Japan food on film - Gemma Saunders

Japan bridge on film - Gemma Saunders

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Japan lake on film - Gemma Saunders

Japan little girl on film - Gemma Saunders

Japan Tokyo view on film - Gemma Saunders

Japan Tokyo street on film - Gemma Saunders