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Monday, December 22, 2014

A Liebster Award for Lilirishtravels!

Another lovely travel blogger (check out nominated me for a Liebster award; an award typically meant for new bloggers to encourage and further their success, but since she's new to my blog, and I am still eligible by level of followers. It's always wonderful to be recognised by your peers and I'm very grateful Jenn!

This award brings with it some conditions - primarily posting the award to your blog (here!!), thanking the person who nominated you and linking to their blog - see above, the witty, wonderful and sometimes weird ramblings of Jenn on (one of the best blog names in my opinion) and then the following:

Write 11 random facts about yourself
Despite being a water-baby and avid explorer, I have yet to earn my PADI. For shame. It's just something else to add to the bucket list.
My front teeth are no longer my own, having been knocked out in a scooter accident earlier this year.
I have overcome a phobia of rats by travelling and living in SE Asia.
I don't like walking for no reason - I'll hike up mountains, walk 9km home or run 26 miles to a party (some Irish will get this!) but I don't understand just walking in normal surroundings for no good reason.
I have a stork mark birthmark, on my forehead, which only shows up when I'm really upset and makes me resemble a creature from Alien.
I can't meditate. The closest I get to free-ing my mind is when wake-boarding.
I overcame my fear of heights on 10th February 2014 by jumping out of a plane at 15, 000ft. I enjoyed it far more than I thought and I will definitely do it again.
When I was a teenager, I toyed with the idea of becoming an aeronautical engineer.
I am pretty strong mentally but not as strong as people think.
I honestly see the best in people and it's hard to change my mind.
I prefer to spend my money on travel rather than anything else.

Nominate 11 bloggers who have less than 200 followers and you feel are deserving of this award:
11! Not sure I can! Here are the candidates who immediately come to mind: - I met Ansley whilst travelling in New Zealand and then again in Chiang Mai - her photos are wonderful and she's made me put some things on the must-do list. I discovered this blog before I moved to Chiang Mai. Rather Asia-centric but very helpful and I like her style. I actually met April by chance after moving to Chiang Mai, but had read her blog previously. April takes great photos of her travels and she has some wonderful stories of her travels to share. Nickki blogs about food, products and lifestyle. She has some excellent healthy recipies and a great outlook on life.
I can't think of any right now. I will update this, also feel free to post your blog in the comments.

Answer 11 questions set by the person who nominated you:
Most hated song and why? Cotton-Eyed Joe. Isn't it obvious why?
Monsters Inc or Toy Story? This probably isn't fair as I've never seen Toy Story but I do love Monsters Inc.
5 Things I can't live without - Fruit - pretty much any fruit, I love it. Lip balm - again not picky on the brand. Something shiny - I wear costume jewellery all the time. Whatsapp - I communicate with my friend Lisa on an almost daily basis and she changes country often, I also use it for almost everyone else in my life. Music - To soothe, excite or just accompany, music does it all for me.
If I could only choose one, would it be living in extreme heat or extreme cold - probably extreme heat, I've already done that in Dubai.
Curry sauce or gravy on chips/fries - Curry sauce, never gravy.
Best hangover cure - A big dirty fry-up, OJ and tea.
Favourite place I've travelled so far - New Zealand. Astonishing and truly awesome place.
1 bottle of expensive bubbles or 2 cheap: 1 bottle of expensive, in this case quality not quantity.
Favourite movie as a child: The Little Mermaid.
Strapless bra or Halterneck - Strapless.
Down to your last ten dollars - what do you spend it on? A BLT or a glass of wine.

11 questions for those I've nominated:
How do you spend your average Sunday?
Favourite dish/food?
Best gig you've ever been to?
The longest you have ever stayed awake and why?
What does the last text/line/whatsapp on your phone say?
Do you know anyone who has been in prison - why?
Best restaurant you have ever been to?
What is number 1 on your bucket list?
Tell me something I can cook with less than 5 ingredients?
Where was the last place you visited?
Funny travel story?

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Part 9 - Pub-crawling around the World - Edible Jazz, Pai, Thailand

See - a little too dedicated to kitsch backpacker-ville-ness
I headed to Pai in March 2014 after many recommendations from friends. Although I can't say that Pai blew me away as it seemed to do others, it is a peaceful place to visit and seeing the canyon, waterfalls etc is a lovely way to spend a few days. It kind of takes itself a little seriously as a backpacker haunt, and the whole place appears to cater for this, which I found a little odd, but I did come across Edible Jazz and that made quite a bit of difference.

I wouldn't have found this place only a fellow traveller told me about it before I visited Pai. It's set off one of the night market walking streets so I wandered down after some street food and a delicious rotee.

The place itself is quite rustic, there is some seating and hammocks off to one side (lucky if you get those - I never saw them free!) but you can also sit at low tables, on cushions or mats on the floor. I ordered my vodka and coke and sat on a bench at a table, where I was joined by a friendly Malaysian girl. We had arrived just in time for the live music, which turned out to be a treat.

Pai seems to be visited by many musicians, which is never a bad thing, and people can pitch up for open mic night or some seem to get residencies in this place (and I'm sure others). That night a gentleman called Tik was playing, he started with a few acoustic numbers without vocals, and he was a pretty good guitarist. When he started to sing, I was pleasantly surprised, as for some reason I didn't think he could! He prefers a style like Bob Dylan, but his voice was more tuneful and I enjoyed his versions of Jackson Brown and Beatles numbers amongst others. I tired out quickly that first night after hiking in the canyon and the music was lulling me to sleep so I decided to return the following night a little later, to enjoy more of the music.

Tik was playing again, which was great, and this time I sat on the floor at one of the low tables, where I was joined by a purple cat (surreal things happen when you travel), he obviously was enjoying the tunes too.
See, a purple cat, no hallucinatory drugs required.

The only bum note on this night was being the subject of some smart remarks by a girl at the bar, not a member of staff. When I ordered my vodka, she suggested that I don't like to taste my drinks because I ordered it with coke and she had some comments on my hair too. "Who can afford to get highlights when they are travelling? Mustn't be spending it on the good things to see." I'm not sure why I was a target at that particular moment, but I sensed she saw me as some competition as she eagerly swooped on any unsuspecting male as they approached the bar and hungrily eyed up those who sat far away. It certainly takes all types. If you do happen to know a German girl with attitude who was passing through Pai in early March, do tell her I said hi.
Tik, doing what he does
Shortly afterwards, a quiet woman from behind the bar came out and pulled up a stool beside Tik. When she started to sing, I was taken aback. I have never heard a voice like this, except in recordings. She had that wonderful, rich tone like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. It was such a surprise but a wonderful one!

Later, I actually got to have a chat to Tik and spent the rest of the time with his sister and her boyfriend.  Tik regaled with some stories of playing around the world and invited me back for open mic night. I'm pretty sure he's gone now, but maybe I'll revisit Pai again for open mic night ;)

If you visit Pai, put this on your list. Chilled and Tuneful.

Ambience: 9/10 - The place has hammocks. It wins on this alone.
Price: 100bht vodka & mixer, 60bht beer (pretty reasonable)
Food: I didn't partake of the food, given that there was street food in abundance nearby but my friends did and it looked pretty good.
Location: Chaisongkram road, just off the night market street.
Toilets: Pretty rustic, and you have to leave the bar to the left to get to them, but clean and with toilet paper. Actual toilets, as opposed to squat toilets.
Overall: A lovely, unpretentious place to while away a few hours, strange, judgemental traveller types notwithstanding ;)

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Visa-run from Chiang Mai-Vientiane - taking my time, making it leisurely.....

I am aware that there are many blogs on this topic, however when I was looking, I found none posted after July 2014 - when visa rules changed, and none by Europeans, which I happen to be. Many focus on getting in and out of Laos pretty quickly but I decided (after a really enjoyable time in Luang Prabang at the beginning of 2014) to spend a few days in Vientiane, and also explore the different transport options in doing this particular journey.
Sunset over the Mekong, in Vientiane

I left on a Saturday afternoon from Chiang Mai. I decided to fly to Udon Thani one way as my tourist visa was expiring that night at midnight. I booked the flight about 4 days previously for 2, 000bht (approx. EUR48 right now), you can get them cheaper or you can fly to Vientiane for about 9, 000bht more, if you're feeling flush. The flight was nice and easy, free checked luggage with Nok Air and out of the airport within about fifteen minutes. I had been told to get across Udon Thani to the bus station and get a bus to Nong Khai and then from there to the border, but I was offered a mini-bus directly to the border for 200Bht (EUR4.80) and that seemed far less hassle for a saving of what would amount to 50bht. I met a fellow Chiang Mai dweller on the mini-bus, which proved to make the whole trip easier and more enjoyable.

We were dropped right at the border. It's pretty easy to leave Thailand, but I had a hairy moment as I'd lost my departure card. I cajoled a little (with my absolutely minimal Thai) and the guard gave me another. I don't really understand the departure card - as the stamp for entry is in my passport so they know when I came in? Anyhow, there are many things I don't understand! Once you're through you get the bus across the Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge (20bht/50cents) and arrive at the Laos border.

As it was a Saturday evening, there was no one else around and I had come prepared money-wise. For Europeans, it's usually $35 (approx. EUR27) for a Laos visa, but add $1 for weekends or after 6pm. After 6pm on a weekend seems a great time to do it, and I was happy to pay the $1 extra. Note that you can also pay in Thai baht, but you pay 1500bht (approx. EUR36) so there's a nice little surcharge on there, for whoever it is that prefers the US Dollar. Also, have a couple of passport photos handy. They say one but in SE Asia, laws are apt to change. The forms don't take long and are processed within about five minutes.
Vientiene's version of the ubiquitous signpost

My new friend, John, had forgotten to go to the bank back in Thailand, due to some silly law his bank had (as I said - many things I don't understand) so I said I would wait for him at the Laos border to get to Vientiane together. It also meant I had the time to people-watch, one of my favourite pastimes. I deduced that toilet paper must be cheaper in Thailand, as people seemed to be bringing stacks of it (I mean, hundreds of rolls!) across the border, along with various foam packaging, for restaurants I guess. The border got much more crowded around 8pm and there was a queue of cars when John returned, about an hour later.

We headed into the city by minivan. If you share, expect to pay no more than 200bht per person, but try and get the songtheaws, some have bargained down to 100bht per person. Thai baht is freely accepted here, even preferred to kip, the local currency.

I had chosen as my lodgings, and they were perfectly adequate. The owner and staff were really friendly and helpful, the rooms were really clean (and bed-bug free - bed bugs are a huge problem in Vientiane), as were the bathrooms, and they have a cool courtyard decorated with graffiti for drinks or breakfast. It's also a pretty good location, around the corner from the Mekong. John and I headed around to Via Via, an Italian restaurant, where we stuffed our faces with pide (Turkish pizza), hummus, falafel and salad. I also had a couple of mojitos, as it was Saturday night. We also had a couple of Laos whiskey (more like rum) in the courtyard of the hotel with some fellow travellers.

I didn't sleep well - not the hotels' fault, my usual problems with sleeping - so I rose late and went off exploring the town. It is a sleepy place and there isn't that much to do, but the perks are definitely the food. For breakfast fare, or indeed lunch, try The Scandinavian Bakery. It is substantially cheaper than some of the other French places, and offers a variety of breads and breakfast sets. I paid 27, 000kip for breakfast (about 110bht) compared to 50, 000kip in Le Banneton and I got more bang for my buck too. If you like wine, there are quite a few wine cellars near the American embassy, with a much better selection than Thailand. Also, explore the side streets for great examples of French architecture in the houses, and stop off at Patuxai, Vientiane's nod to the Arc de Triomphe.
A window near the top of Patuxai
Next day, bright and early we headed to the embassy, reaching there at 6.25am. Mel spoke some Thai, so she negotiated that the five of us would be taken by songthaew for approx 40bht each/10, 000kip. There was no one else at the embassy, but people began to arrive about ten minutes after us. By 8.30am, when the gate opened, I was told the queue stretched about 1km down and around the block. Tip: Download the application form free from the night before, or pay 80bht outside the embassy to get one! When we entered, although we were first, we didn't have our forms completed, so we ended up being between 30-60. Not a big deal, as the lines move fast. However, when I reached the guy, he told me my application was incomplete/incorrect but wouldn't tell me why. As I had seen my friends, Lauren and Simon, have theirs accepted two queues over, Mel, Rica and myself simply moved to that queue and had our applications accepted there. There is no point in arguing with the officials - as we found out. If they say no, then arguing the toss is simply un-Thai, they won't give in as it would mean losing face. Then, we entered the main building, paid 2, 000bht and were given a receipt to return the next day. It's all quite confusing, no one tells you what is going on, you can simply go with the flow.
Success! Non-B visas acquired!

After more sightseeing, and a lovely dinner by the Mekong, we returned at a more reasonable hour of 12.30pm the following day, to pick up our visas. The embassy doesn't open until 1.30pm but they started giving out numbers at 1pm. Visas completed, we headed out for some lunch and then the long journey back. I had decided to join my fellow teachers on the overnight bus. We booked one for 1100 bht pps, a songtheaw picked us up at the embassy and brought us to the bus station outside Vientiane, where we boarded a bus to the border. We had to pay another 45bht to exit Laos (again, why?) and got back on the same bus. At the Thai border, they checked our passports, we entered Thailand, returned to our bus again which took us as far as Udon Thani. There, we were met by tuk-tuks which brought us across town to another bus station, to take the overnight bus. We had about half an hour to eat and use the toilets before we boarded our bus to Chiang Mai. Onboard, we were given blankets, a snack and water and about 10pm the air-con was turned on, although it wasn't great. It was a bumpy ride and I slept fitfully, although better than most of my friends. We arrived back at Chiang Mai bus station around 6.40am, exhausted but relieved.
Breakdown below.

Type of Cost
Price (THB)
Price (EUR)/(USD)
2, 231
Approx. EUR58/USD73
Bus to Border
Approx. EUR5/USD 6.35
Bus across F/Bridge
Approx. 50cent/65cent
Laos Visa
1, 500*
EUR 28.40/USD 36
Dinner at Via Via
EUR 9.85/USD 13.50
Vientiane Star – 3n
1, 760
EUR 44/USD 56
Le Banneton
EUR5/USD 6.35
Scandinavian Bakery
EUR2.80/USD 3.55
EUR7/USD 8.90
Songthaews x 3
EUR 3/USD 3.75
Thai Non-B Imm.
2, 000
EUR 50/USD 65
Scandinavian Bakery
EUR2.80/USD 3.55
BBQ on the Mekong
EUR 7/USD 8.90
Bus back to CM
1, 100
EUR 27.50/USD 35
Dinner in Udon Thani
EUR 1/USD 1.25

10, 271
Approx. 252/USD 318

Overall, it was a nice trip and could have been worse. I do recommend not rushing it, as you will be less stressed. Take in the Mekong, get some nice French food (and wine!) and make sure you have all your paperwork. Note that the tourist visa costs the same as the Non-B.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Part 8 - Pub-crawling around the World - Wijaya, Thalpe Beach, Sri Lanka

I stayed in Hikkaduwa for most of the time in Sri Lanka, Volunteering for Manacare, but I definitely had a few social nights out, with a great group of girls who took me under their wing for the duration. Although Wijaya wasn't my most unique Sri Lankan experience, it was definitely the bar in which I spent the most time, and it's suitably off the tourist beaten track enough to warrant comment and recommend that people go there.

Wijaya is a stone's throw from Galle, in Dalawella, Unawatuna - a very short drive from the cluster of busy beach bars in Unawatuna. It's on the main (Matara) road, or can be entered from the beachside. My first afternoon spent there was a Poya Day so I couldn't partake in any alcoholic beverages, I really enjoyed the virgin fruit cocktails (mango...mmmmm) and their wood-fired oven-baked pizza's were definitely tantalising after the steady diet of "rice and curry" I'd been living on.

I was lucky that I was in the expat scene, by virtue of my friends living there, and it's a very popular spot for people that live there to hang out, whether by day or night. It's proximity to the beach (most people actually have a swim and then a bite for lunch/dinner in Wijaya) makes the views simply spectacular, and it's not spoilt by pounding music or loads of holiday makers trashing the beach. In fact, the beach is clean and you'll see many local people swimming in the sea here. Depending on the time of year and the tide, you may be lucky enough to experience the little whirlpools that form in small reefs along the beach, leading to a jacuzzi-like experience! (My camera wasn't waterproof, unfortunately - but I can still remember the sensation).
copyrighted image

If you just want to lie in the sunloungers/deck chairs make sure you get there early, particularly in season and at the weekend and you may just be lucky.

I visited a few times, and although you can definitely eat and drink in cheaper places (it's definitely not remotely expensive if you're holidaying from Europe/The Middle East/Oz or U.S.A) I don't think that you'll find anywhere as clean, with such great cocktails and food and it's definitely affordable on a backpacker budget. The pizzas are pretty renowned but I also ate prawn salad and some more Sri Lankan offerings and everything was fresh, delicious and with generous portions. The cocktails were yummy too, evidence of the amount of fresh fruit on offer.

Sarah, CJ and myself with yummy cocktails

Of course, as with any beach bar in Sri Lanka, if you're going any time past four pm, ensure you are sensibly lathered in citronella or deet as the mossies also like Wijaya, and I woke up with approximately 30 bites on my leg one morning! They must have smelt the sweet cocktails...

Although I didn't stay here, I believe Wijaya also has some boutique style guest rooms, which are romantic, clean and budget-friendly (also creepy-crawly free, according to people who have stayed there). If you need something more private and a little bigger - my friends have a beautiful place right across the road - with an open air shower and chipmunks playing in the trees. 

Ambience: 10/10 - I can't fault this place, from lounging and lunch, beach and beer or a cocktail night with friends, it's chilled but you can still party here.
Price: Rs. 400 alcoholic beverages start very reasonably but steadily rise.... cocktails are from Rs. 750 upwards. You can bring your own wine, corkage is approx. Rs. 1000 (which is quite reasonable). 
Food: The food here is a highlight, Pizza's around Rs. 1200, My prawn salad Rs. 850, and there were plenty of prawns. Yes, It's on the high side but the portions are healthy and the food is tasty and fresh.
Location: Matara Road (you can get a bus to stop outside! I used to get a Matara bus from Hikka or Galle), Dalawella, Unawatuna. From Unawatuna, expect to pay about Rs.400 upwards for a tuk.
Toilets: Very clean and there are outdoor showers to wash the sand from the beach off :D
Overall: I spent quite a few nights here, met so many expats, locals and holiday-makers. I really liked the place and I hope to visit again.

Their own website can be found here

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Day trip to Rotto (Rottnest Island)

Whilst in WA, I noticed how the Aussies like to shorten everything and often add 'o' to place names rather than say the last four of five letters, which has much in common with Dublin slang (Dubs like to use it particularly for men's names - Damo, Robbo etc). However, when people were referring to Rotto, I didn't realise they were talking about Rottnest for awhile, even though it was top of my list of things to do whilst in Perth.

So, one beautiful summers' day in January I took the Rottnest express from Freo (Fremantle) Shed B across to the island. It's a roughly 40 minute trip and if you're prone to sea-sickness bring a bag!  It's a choppy enough ride across but I managed to keep it together. I paid approx $40 return and I'd advise getting the boat about 8.30 to make a good day of it.

Rottnest has a somewhat chequered history, despite it's unfettered beauty - its' bays and rocky outcrops are final resting places for many a shipwreck and her sailors. It also housed  German and Austrian prisoners during the WW1 but exclusively Italian enemies during the Second World War and conditions were said to be tough on the island, being as it is so exposed to the elements. It was a look-out point in the Indian Ocean for the Allies. Since, it has become a favoured holiday destination for Aussies and other tourists alike, which is unsurprising given that it has over 60 beaches and 20 secluded bays in it's small 11km landmass. It is a haven for watersports lovers with different beaches being suitable for snorkelling, surfing or watching whales, dolphins, fur seals and the varied bird life of the island.
One of the reefs off the coast of Rottnest, near Porpoise Bay
It is also home to an elusive marsupial, the Quokka, an animal usually about 11/12 inches tall. The island gets its' name from this animal, as when Dutch sailors landed there, they thought these animals were large rats (their tails are similar) and called it Rott Nest - rat's nest. This is what I went in search of.  Not natural predators, they have died out in many places and are virtually non-existent outside Western Australia. It is actually a crime to remove these creatures from Rottnest but I just wanted to have a look.

When I got there I chose to rent a bike ($21) and also purchased an all day Island Explorer (bus) ticket as it was almost 40C and I wasn't sure how long I'd ride under the hot sun. No cars are allowed on the island and although it was the height of summer and busy with tourists, once I left the main settlement area of Thompson Bay there were times when I was alone on the road with just the ocean to my left and various scrub and patches of woodland to my right. A faint breeze whistled in my ears and it felt like I was hundreds of miles from any city, not less than 20km off the coast of Perth.

I stopped at most of the beaches and secluded coastal spots on the South side of the island, and the only one that seemed to be packed was Salmon Bay - I arrived just as the bus did, expelling at least 25 beach-goers of all ages with hats, deck chairs, beachballs and picnics. It's obviously a safe and popular swim spot. I moved on and found some quieter spots to take in the view and snapped a few shots - every photo of this place is picturesque, no matter how basic your camera.

After about 80 minutes I decided to lock the bike up at a bus-stop (you can leave the bikes at bus-stops and hop on the bus, which is very handy) and I boarded the bus to see the rest of the island. The Island Explorer runs on a very regular timetable (every half hour if I remember correctly) and if you're there for only a day you can easily spend some time at 4 or 5 different spots across the island.

After passing some salt lakes but without spying any of the deadly snakes, dugites - part of the brown snake family, and sometimes known to be on the roads of the island, I got back to Thompson Bay and decided to walk to Bathurst Lighthouse nearby. On my way, I was lucky enough to meet some quokka's. 

The first one cocked his head quizzically as I approached and then continued eating whatever he had in his paws (?). I moved a little closer but I didn't want to scare him as I had heard they are very shy. He didn't move so I took a few photos but they didn't come out very well as the light was shaded by the trees and hedging.

I moved further down the road and one seemed to move out of the trees towards me, I had heard that they forage for food and sometimes try to scavenge off strangers, although you're not supposed to give them food. I stayed still and then he stopped, also looking at me. They have kind little faces, almost like a squirrel. When I tried to take a photo he ran off, the evidence is below.

Delighted at having met the inhabitants, I continued on the Bathurst and also took a swim at the Basin, another popular spot for bathers. I found the undercurrent quite strong here and I think you'd need to be a strong swimmer to brave the currents here. I found myself a good few metres from where I started, but the water was so refreshing and there was plenty of sea-life around.

Afterwards I headed back to the settlement and had some lunch at the Rottnest Bakery (really tasty but very expensive, fries alone were $7, if you can, bring supplies). There is a well-stocked local store, obviously for the holiday makers who stay in the cabins and on the camp-site, it also offers souvenirs but again, it is fairly over-priced. This is probably unsurprising, given that it has a captive market. There are a couple of restaurants and even a Subway, even you can't be away from commercialised consumer fare for too long.

I also had some time to explore the local museum, which gives more information on the flora, fauna and wildlife of the island along with some personal histories of various residents. Not many people actually live on the island anymore, preferring to commute for work from the mainland. 

My last stop before heading back to get the last boat (it leaves at 16.15, a bit early for my liking - I would love to have seen dusk here) was the church. A tiny little room, with a few wooden pews for worship, it probably holds less than 50 people, but how many more would it need to? There were some lovely plaques inside, commemorating past residents and loved ones.
Sweet memories.

I left the lovely island after my day there and vowed to come back - although it's a killer to get to from most places! It's a really unique and tranquil place and definitely worth spending a few days on.

(If you want to stay on the island, apart from the cabins and camping - there is the Rottnest Hotel and also the hostel - in the old prison lodgings!)

All photos are my own and cannot be used again without my permission.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

PART 7: Pub-crawling around the world - Minus 5, Queenstown, New Zealand

As well as all the brilliant outdoor activities to do in Queenstown, it has a really buzzy nightlife. I sampled quite of the bars around the town celebrating my jump out of the sky but I have to write about Minus 5 since it's one of those unique experiences that you have to try once.

I had spent the day hiking in the nearby mountains, taking in the spectacular views over Queenstown and wasn't up for anything too hectic so Clara, one of my room mates, and myself booked a discount ticket to Minus 5 Ice Bar. You can buy tickets at their office, but it's twice the price and you do need to book ahead in order to enter. We used which has great discounts for all the activities in Queenstown and we got our entry for NZD$15 each including a cocktail.

It's located right down near the harbour, on Steamer Wharf, surrounded by other bars and restaurants. When we arrived, we were given warm winter coats, extra socks, gloves and Ugg boots to wear into the bar. I noticed the girl looking after us had an Irish accent so we got into conversation. It turned out that she was from Donegal town (where my mum comes from) and is friendly with two of my cousins, Daniel and Peadar. She had even lived with Daniel in Australia. Seriously, the world is so small!

A group of about eight of us entered the bar and to be honest, any more and it might have been cramped. Apart from the fact that the bar is made of ice, the designs are actually incredible, everything was hand-carved. It's quite fascinating that people do this as work!

The bar seems to be sponsored by Absolut Vodka, which suited me down to the ground. There was a range of fruity cocktails to choose from so I chose a blackcurrant based one, which was very tasty but rather sweet. These were served to us in tumblers made of ice, so you had to hold it in your gloved hand or suffer ice-burn.

We met some other German girls in there (Clara is from Germany) and had a little chat with them but most peoples' time is taken up posing on or with the various items carved out of ice in the bar. I got so cold I could barely speak after being in there 20 minutes but perhaps a few more Absolut cocktails would have warmed me up.

I'd definitely put it on the list of things to do but you wouldn't be spending a night here with your friends. We moved up to Winnie's for some warming beverages afterwards.

Ambience: 9/10 - Although not somewhere you will stay for long, you can't beat it for sheer coolness. (Yes, yes, I know - pun intended.)
Price: $30 per person including one cocktail, unless you buy ahead online.
Food: No food available, unless you find your appetites sated by crushed ice.
Location: Steamer Wharf, Beach Street, Queenstown
Toilets: You have to exit to use the toilets.

Overall: It is a once-off experience and definitely worth it. 9/10

Saturday, July 26, 2014

A chilled afternoon at the Chinese Garden of Friendship in Sydney

I spent seven crazy days in Sydney and there's so much I could post about - which I will eventually, but I first wanted to jot down my memories of a very calm afternoon spent in the Chinese Garden of Friendship, which is located in Darling Harbour in Sydney.

I had a Sydney card which, for approx AUD$150 allowed me entry to six attractions around the city but it was only AUD$6 for entry to the garden, which is a bargain by any standards in rip-off Australia (Sorry but the whole country is crazy expensive, no matter what currency you compare it to). Darling Harbour was jam-packed on this Sunday afternoon, people milling around eating ice-cream, shrieks from children playing nearby and some lovely tuneful jazz coming from street buskers nearby. I ducked into the Garden and I was immediately calmed by it's atmosphere and serenity, surprising given the scene I had just come from.

The Gardens are modelled on traditional Chinese gardens and symbolize the bond between Australia and China. The were opened in 1988 during the Sydney bicentennial celebrations and it's a popular venue for weddings and wedding photography due to the abundance of plant life and water features. There are guided tours but I chose to just take the leaflet and go by myself, enjoying the solitude and admiring the traditional Chinese art work and artefacts as well as the garden itself.

Throughout the garden you see all five elements reflected and used - wood, fire, earth, water and metal. There are also representations of the Yin-Yang symbols and the garden itself is based around these principles obviously perfecting the balance of the garden.

I particularly liked the three Ying Rock sculptures in the Penjing courtyard. Apparently this is a rare rock, and the sculptures are quite impressive. They are also surrounded by miniature landscapes and bonsai trees (Penjing is an art form of creating miniature landscapes, so it's suitably named!).

There's also a place to try on Imperial costumes: ornate designed gowns from the Ming Dynasty, and have photos taken (so children will be entertained) and Chinese tea and dumplings are served in the teahouse so you could genuinely spend hours here. I even spotted some (not-so-friendly) wildlife!

It's not a place I would have really considered visiting, particularly whilst in Sydney but now it's on my highly recommended list (along with the aquarium). Whether just ducking into the shade, out of busy city-life or to genuinely explore the ideas and philosophy, it's a wonderful place to while away some time and it was a really different, beautiful experience for me.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

My favourite travel blogs and websites

As a travel-junkie, obviously I do my own fair share of reading other peoples' blogs and tips for their travels, even when I don't have plans to visit a place it's still brilliant to read them and day-dream about when I might get to visit far-flung (or some nearby places). There are also some websites I check regularly and find very helpful. So, since I have many friends who like to travel almost as much as I do and I thought I'd share them with you.
This is a no-brainer - the cheapest flights I've found, my parents use it and I've recommended it to numerous people. It has lots of options for you to choose from (You can check flights for the whole month or year if you like) time you want to fly, you can exclude certain airlines if you don't like to fly with them. I've been using it now for about 7 years and I'm always stunned that people don't know about it.
Here's a great article about what $1 will buy you in each European country - I don't know why they put  Walkers crisps in Ireland, if you want potato chips in Ireland you must buy Tayto or King. You don't know what you're missing until you eat these, that's a fact. Also, $1 in most Irish supermarkets or Centra/Spar etc will buy you 2/3 sausage rolls - which are brilliant for the hangover you will undoubtedly experience at some point in an Irish trip.
This is a pick-up service from airports around the world. They do offer reasonable rates (I've checked and I've often taken tuks, taxis and buses from airports to the city centre or where I'm staying) and if there are more than one of you it can be good value. It also means that you don't have to worry about negotiating the journey in a foreign language after 14 hours travelling. They'll be waiting for you with a sign. Definitely cheaper than taxis and helpful in places where buses aren't readily available.
If I had known about this! I first heard about Wwoofing when I was in New Zealand and it sounds like a great way to get free food and accomodation whilst travelling, particularly in more expensive countries in Europe or Australia/New Zealand. They also offer stays as short as 4-7  days so you aren't stuck doing something if you really hate it and - in the great tradition of travellers - you might actually learn something! Alternatively you can try for longer stays (usually at least a month) and a wide variety of positions (au-pairing, working in a hostel, helping school-children, photography, marketing). Be very careful about vetting the owners/place though. I thought I had a month sorted in Sri Lanka volunteering at a hostel when the owner hit on me (via Skype). He suggested we have an affair whilst I was there. Needless to say, I turned him down and was lucky enough to find other work, without the site. There are many good projects though and I don't think it's a reflection on the website.
I love this blog. A fellow female traveller, she has done so much that I'm envious of and the layout of the blog makes it very easy to navigate. It's always worth looking up her blog for tips on different places, hotel rooms (for the traveller with a bit of extra cash), places to see, ways to save prior to your trip etc.
Another good article on low-cost airlines. WhichAirline recently did a cost comparison (WITH baggage) with some interesting results. Some budget airlines are excluded from the comparison search engines so this up-to-date article is a handy tool on which airlines websites to visit for the best deals.
I subscribe to Nomadic Matt and I've included a link here to one of his great articles on travelling with no money. For most of us, having no money is a concern of some sort, particularly when we want to get to our next place. Matt scours the net and partners with some travel companies offering great discounts, who are doing the best travel-related deals now on credit cards and other sites and he always has an abundance of helpful info in his emails and articles.

If you like to read about travel, like me, who likes to have a deeper insight into the places I've been or am going to - not just from Lonely Planet, Rough Guide etc - check out Conde Nast's list of travel books.

For places to stay, I always use and I would highly recommend becoming a member on their site. Their ratings are great and always from people who have stayed in a particular place. I vehemently advise against They double-booked me on the one occasion I used them, in Christchurch and I ended up having to pay NZD150 for a room that night, last-minute. The website weren't even apologetic. The reason I was double-booked (along with a few others) was that hostelbookers hadn't sent through the booking forms to the hostel in question until the day I was due to arrive and by that stage they were fully booked. I had a 'confirmed' email in my hand. The staff at the hostel were ever so helpful but two other couples arrived in whilst I was online trying to find somewhere else and the exact same thing had happened to them. I've used hostelworld on approximately 30-40 occasions and nothing like this ever happened.
I met Ansley in a hostel in Kaikoura, New Zealand and we've kept in touch. I subsequently discovered her wonderful photo-blog. She really captures the essence of places on her travels and has photos of some neat little wonders that I have yet to come across. If you are keen on photography and far-flung places you will enjoy this blog.

Here are a couple of app's I have on my phone which I can't do without.
XE Currency - does what it says on the site, converts any currency to another in seconds. Free.
Travel Safe Pro. Emergency numbers for any country you may visit, embassy details and other numbers you might need should you have an emergency far from home. No, a lack of wifi isn't actually considered an emergency. However, if that is your emergency - there is a free app called Wifi Finder to help you.
TripIt - Picks up your flight details, bus details etc and stores them all in a handy format. It also tracks how many miles you've covered and where. You can also add your loyalty programmes to it and it will track those. I found it quite handy.

So there you have my little collection of websites and apps I use on a regular basis that make my life easier and more interesting. If you have any, please let me know as I'm always interested in anything travel-related.