Asia, Myanmar, Travel

The Capital: Yangon

Yangon: a city you could spend some time in, but the question is, would you want to?

Being a city lover myself, I was unsure how long I wanted to stay in Yangon, thinking it may just be like any other big city in Asia, and in some aspects I was right. It’s easy to lose yourself amongst identical looking streets with wires hanging precariously low, home to numerous pigeons and shops selling handicrafts from everything to electronic ware to home ware. Streets turned into market stalls with fresh vegetables and caught fish laid out in full glory for sale from a passerby, or occasional lost tourist.

Of course, the more time you spend in Yangon I am sure, the more you appreciate it. Art galleries hidden around street corners, museums filled with useful and interesting information that shines a light on life in Yangon and various neighbourhoods highlighting different communities, are all something which you will see in abundance if you invest time and energy into exploring Yangon.

But the aim of my trip was to escape the clutches of a city, to run away from the smog of traffic and continuous hawkers cries. I wanted to be whisked away to majestic landscapes, scenes of culture and recluses of calm, thus I left Yangon to be my last destination, when both time and money were against me.

Of course, heading to Shwedagon Pagoda is a must when in Yangon. The temple complex is huge and filled with intricate designs and pagodas praising the archaeological Buddhist days of the week, with various elements of Buddha himself (like his sacred tooth or 8 hairs) and four alternative stairways ornately designed and decorated leading to the towering, empowering Buddha. Locals merge with smock wearing monks and colourful tourists in awe and astonishment of its splendour, gazing at its sheer size and colossal amount of gold.

Do remember which entrance you come from as you will leave your shoes there, which if forgotten is a bit of a nightmare. Entrance to the pagoda is 8 thousand kyat and make sure to cover both legs and shoulders for men and women.

The Bogyoke park nearby to the pagoda acts as a perfect retreat to the hectic heaving mass of worshippers at the pagoda. Although the lake is artificial (and a little cheesy with an amusement park titled “Happy World” and swans you can pedal around in on the lake) it is still is a wonderful place to catch your breath and people watch.

Chinatown is also a fascinating neighbourhood to wander around in, as is Little India– especially if craving that cuisine. Although nice to have a stroll around, I wasn’t taken aback by anything within the neighbourhood, which was only home to a few temples and souvenir shops as well as restaurants. Which was a shame, as I really enjoy exploring Chinatown in different countries around the world. Get used to the sight of crumbling colonial buildings too, as they make out years of history with their faded curls of  paint seeping out tales of another world.

A sunset drink at a rooftop bar was something I was recommended (Sakura rooftop bar on the CB Bank Tower) although running out of funds, I swapped the rooftop bar for a local watering hole where a 8 year old boy served sleazy sleepy men, swaying from side to side and slurring their words. Smoke circled the room as men lit up around me and dirty tables shouldered next to even dirtier walls. They looked at me in awe, as to why a blonde white woman would enter such a dirty dive. Honestly, I did question quickly why I was there, but I was swayed by the price of cheap beer and my fellow backpacker friend nodded to the 8 year old for service, we were there to stay.

As Yangon is such a sprawling city, bumping into other tourists doesn’t happen often, unless at major monuments, so locals are still entertained by the sight of westerners. Accommodation; as like the rest of Myanmar, varies in style, price and location. Plush hotels line the city centre, whilst more affordable accommodation is based in Chinatown near the Sule Pagoda. I stayed in Agga Bed and Breakfast which for a bed in a 6 bed dorm, cost 6 dollars, it was clean but a little rough around the edges- but it served its purpose of one nights accommodation before my flight back.

Europe, Norway, Travel

Oslo: The city that has everything

Coming from the sleepy town of Tromso in the Arctic Circle to the sunny cosmopolitan city of Oslo, was quite the contrast, and gave us the opportunity to see what the rest of Norway has to offer.

Surrounded by dense vibrant forests filled with lofty trees that circle calm lakes and thriving by a ferry port that neighbours numerous other majestic islands, Oslo is lucky to be in such close proximity to scenes of nature that can transform your world. Oslo city is hip, friendly and vibrant, filled with architectural delights, fantastic museums and independent restaurants (although we were too broke to eat in any).

Arriving on a strict budget from Tromso, we stayed in an Air BnB which saved us a fortune on eating out. Cooking breakfast and dinner at home and bringing a packed lunch with us made from our new best friend, supermarket Renate, meant that unfortunately we never visited any swish bars or delicious restaurants, but that is what you can expect if you are visiting Norway- it is incredibly expensive. The level of expensive that you pay £14 for one beer. One beer! So as you can imagine, your trip might be an incredibly sober one.

There are quite a few things to see and do in Oslo on the cheap though. We took the time on our first day to walk along the river through the city of Oslo, from the Olaf Ryes Plass in Grunerlokka. At first we found ourselves exploring this trendy district, with chic cafes and trendy bars aplenty. The streets were lined with eclectic street art and unique pieces of statement art which casually were placed in beer gardens around the area. Young locals covered in quirky tattoos in the most random places sauntered around the streets, a common theme in Grunerlokka. Continuing along the river, we passed dog walkers and runners in the sunshine, catching a glimpse of what Oslo is like away from the main rush of the city.

With our second day we ventured out of the clutches of the city and explored the leafy paradise that cornered the city, taking in breathtaking sights of feathery moss, ancient boughs dancing in the wind and dazzling lakes that reflected the rays of sunshine onto the glistening lakes. Instead of hiking, we chose to cycle, hiring bikes from Viking biking for 225 NOK for the day- which although a lovely company and who organised fun and interesting city tours, do not have the most sturdy mountain bikes around!  We made our way to Frognerseteren by metro, heading to the Nordmarka forest. Hopping off the metro, you are immediately placed in the forest, and jumping onto our bikes we whizzed further into the depths of the Nordmarka. The trails are not ideal for a bike, and sticking to the cycle routes meant that we were unable to clamber into the Nordmarka and explore her natural beauty in its finest glory, off the beaten track, so I do advise hiking instead.

However, after stopping for lunch at the traditional lodge Ullevalseter, a delightful restaurant filled to the brim with various trophies and achievements from the man behind the lodge, and having our homemade sandwiches by a nearby pond, we followed the direct path all the way down to the entrance of the forest.  Taking this route, rather than doing a circle on us and backtracking to the same metro station as before meant we avoided hills and were closer into Oslo city than before.

On our third and final day, we explored the sights within the city of Oslo, and most importantly, the cheap ones too! Head over to City Hall, which hosts the seat of the city council. It is adorned with beautiful art within its walls which highlights the culture and nature of Norway as a country, filled with scenes of fishermen and forests. Be wary that the hall closes strictly at 4pm, even locking the toilets at this time (I nearly got locked in!)

Vigaland Sculpture Park is a stunning yet bizarre park to explore, as well as a perfect place to sit back and relax, enjoying an ice cream in the sun. Many locals were sunbathing or having a BBQ in the weather, and being the biggest park in Oslo, there is no surprise why that is so. There are various sculptures dotted around the park, all made from one artist making it the largest sculpture park in the world- all by one artist! Very impressive! Although some of the art pieces are as I said before, are bizarre.

There are a vast amount of museums and art galleries around Oslo, however being on a time constraint and strict budget; we chose to buy the joint tickets to the Viking Ship Museum and the Historical Museum for 100 NOK. Hopping on a local bus, we bounded past scenes of cows and hay stacks to the museum, as if we had jetted out into the west country! It was incredible to see how resourceful the Norwegians were with nearby land, even on the outskirts of the city. The Viking Ship Museum boasts three Viking ships that stand impassive and proud- both in shape, size and architectural design. The ships are impressive, as well as the exhibits, however it would be more interesting to see how the Viking’s lived their life and their influence on the world. Hopping back on the bus we headed to the Historical museum for answers, where unfortunately the shabby exhibits with little information told us very little. It’s definitely not a museum to pay to individually visit, and one that can be improved in many areas, as many tourists remark whilst visiting the numerous museums, “Why don’t they just put all the museums together, rather than having them sparsely located over the city?”.

One building that you must take the time to wonder over to and clamber on top of is the Opera house, a solid pure white marble building that oozes edginess from it’s sharp angles and sophistication from its smooth surfaces. I did find it incredibly ironic that such a white collar entertainment industry had been architecturally designed in this way, but who questions the opera house in Sydney? You are able to sit at the top of the building and breathe in the portside views of the city of Oslo, scattered fjords and beyond.

We found public transport efficient, clean and cheap, I really couldn’t recommend it more. You can download the app on your smart phone and buy tickets for ferries, trains, trams, boats and the metro just by a quick tap half the price! If you are old school and leave your data behind you like me, you can buy tickets from any nearby 7/11 store- and there are plenty! A fantastic travel tip for you if you are on a budget are the 24 hour tram ticket’s you can buy which allows you to validate it when you want to, and are wonderful for getting you back to the airport the next day via a local train, rather an expensive airport shuttle bus or train!

Europe, Iceland, Travel

Chasing Waterfalls in Iceland

Iceland is most definitely a unique country. My father once told me, “the more you travel, the more places look the same”, which annoyingly is true. I find myself comparing places, scenery and landscapes to previous destinations I have visited. Maybe it is because humans crave the familiar, maybe it is because I really do travel a lot. Either way, I am happy to say that yes places may have similarities (the rugged landscape of Iceland to me was a cross between Wales and New Zealand in case you are wondering) but the culture, history and the people of every country you visit is different, and that is what spurs me on in my adventures.

View from PerlanWith only 330 thousand inhabitants on this isolated island, Iceland is incredibly empty and desolate in various parts of the country, with just the call of the wind, the trickling of brooks and the occasional bah of a sheep to add sound onto the silence. Driving along winding paths into various densely filled national parks nestled with rocky granite outcrops, luminous green marshes and cascading waterfalls with no one around- is in fact a normal sight. The deeper you go into the depths of rural Iceland, the more you are able to imagine how the predecessors of Iceland felt travelling in nail bitingly ferocious winds and vast open spaces with no human contact for days in end. It is hard to fully understand how much Iceland has developed since its Viking ancestors first touched soil on this geothermal hive of activity. It’s easy to turn up the car heating and pump up R Kelly’s track Ignition, (I was very relieved to find English music being played on their radio stations) and not fully take in the true jaw dropping beauty of Iceland. To pull over and stand in awe at small clusters of shack like houses that live in the shadow of a heaving volcano.

The view of an impenetrable fortress of solid rock and bubbling lava in the form of a volcano is not an uncommon sight in Iceland, in fact with around 130 volcanoes situated in Iceland, its geothermal activity is a common reason why such a large amount of tourists flock here every year, to experience the unusual. Due to Iceland’s strategic location- situated between two tectonic plates, Iceland experiences a large amount of tectonic activity and is one of the most geothermal countries on the planet- hello long hot showers! (So much so that mini earthquakes kept setting off our hotel’s fire alarm meaning one evening we hilariously sat in our hotel gowns in reception for a good 20 minutes).

Blue LagoonTrekking along the crater of an active volcano is just one of the many things that can be done here, expect to have blissfully relaxing soaks in any of their hot springs- or in the iconic vibrant Blue Lagoon, experience exploding geysers, mud popping pits that look as if bubbles of chewing gum explode around it’s edges, glaciers that cut through mountains, rushing waterfalls that thunder down the sides with powerful force, hidden caves, peaceful lakes, meandering rivers that follow roads as if two children playing tag, and volcanic beaches that are home to weathered shaped rocks that jut out on the horizon.

All of this stunning natural beauty and I forget to mention the one attraction which pulls so many tourists to this country- like a moth to a flame, visitors also come here to experience, the Northern Lights, otherwise known as “Aurora Borealis”. I’m not going to get scientific on you-as you may realise that science is not my forte, however, the northern lights are a product of different atoms in the atmosphere which creates this bizarre illusion of vibrant lights- that seem to sprinkle on the dark night sky by a majestic power. Iceland is just one of the places where you are able to see the Northern Lights, and with each country, the style and colour of what is normally seen varies dramatically. With all sightings of the Northern Lights, there is a prominent wavy line of green and off this other colours and shapes sometimes occur.

Road into the UnknownThe main reason my mum and I went to Iceland, (mainly Reykjavik) was to try and catch a glimpse of these magical lights. Arriving in the afternoon we left our snug hotel rooms and boarded the Grayline Tour bus choosing the tour option “Mystery tour” on the basis that the tour would be 4-6 hours. Boarding the bus we soon found out that the 100 people on our bus were not the only “hunters” that evening, in fact 4 other busloads of tourists were also heading to the same destination from the company, which meant we had to wait till all busses were loaded and stick together throughout the journey. Feeling as if a mere piece of cattle in a large operation, we were forced to sit and wait at a service station for the other busses for 40 minutes. The time that we were told would be spent searching for Northern lights kept ticking and we soon realised that the vast amount of time we thought we had- was actually calculated by our 2 hour journey time there (for a 1 hour journey).

View from the GeyserThis was not what we had expected. When we finally made it to the location where on previous nights the Northern lights were seen, I could see the glow of the green line in the night sky- which is known to be the focus of the spectacular light display, but it quickly began to fade leaving us with the pitch black night sky filled with a carpet of sparkling stars. We were disappointed. Obviously the northern lights is mother nature and so we cannot control it, or rely on her to always show this glorious formation of colour in the sky, but the mass shifting of tourists made the situation even worse. Personally, I think you have more chance of seeing the Northern lights if you spend more time heading into Iceland, away from the harsh lights of the city, maybe even hiring a personal driver, be on a boat, or hiking through the countryside and camping in the unknown. It is pure luck and chance, but the way the tour was handled by Grayline, made the experience less enjoyable.

Street ArtNevertheless, Iceland is still a remarkable country and we were not going to let this stop us from enjoying our stay in Reykjavik. Reykjavik oozes Scandinavian influences however still manages to be unique. It carries this similar consciousness to well being, health and the environment which countries like Sweden and Denmark are known for, I mean there were exhibits of car crashes hung up on a display on the side of the road to remind drivers to drive safe, for example. But this consciousness also affects their culture and style. A hub for creative energies and literary minds, Reykjavik is covered with vibrant outlandish street art which locals don’t even bat an eyelid at and the cultural and historical significance of the traditional sagas, only further highlights that Iceland’s own culture is what makes them who they are.

VangeyurIcelanders dress as if the original hipsters, the ones that don’t care what they look like, that combine rock and vintage with ease and with no other countries nearby influencing them and very little commercial chain stores, clothes shops are every London lover’s dream. Second hand shops stand next to dirty record shops (yes that is its name) and whilst everyone is urged to buy, they are urged to recycle as well. The music scene shapes Iceland’s originality, with no neighbouring countries directing their music choices; Iceland’s eccentric and diverse music scene caters to all types of genres, and music that you will probably have never heard of too. I immediately felt this eccentric, artsy vibe walking along the main street Vanyegur, which although now covered in ever increasing tourist shops, I still manged to feel this underground scene which has developed from their cultural roots, and which has put Reykjavik on the map.

Harpa, IcelandMeandering through the colourful houses and spaced out streets, it is quite easy to find the popular sites in the city. Spread out in the sprawling metropolis, it would be best to either cycle around the sites, or drive. We did the latter. Renting a car was an easy process and apart from the minor incident of me driving on the wrong side of the road (very briefly might I add) it really is very easy to drive around the city and the entire country itself (however using a Satnav is best advised as some tourist maps are not as detailed as one would hope, and can make navigating around the city stressful). Sights you should check out are; the concert hall named Harpa which is styled in an interesting glass formation, the Sun Voyager– the iconic sculpture of a boat which Icelanders culturally identify with (being a nation of fisherman and farmers). Hofi house, a structure that emphasises Iceland’s political alliances and ties around Europe is nearby too and although stunning architecture, the house is actually closed for visitors- which makes visitors that drive to this site in a much better position than those who have to wait for a tour bus.

Sun VoyagerNearby is the Sigurjon Olafsson Sculpture Garden which although small, does offer a number of detailed designs varying in texture, however there are other sculpture gardens which are supposedly more aesthetic. Hallgraimskirkja is another famous sight to see, an ornate church that has intrinsic architecture that is supposed to resemble basalt lava flow in Iceland, either way it’s a stunning sight.

ChurchPerlan is a must visit too, it is a national landmark of Reykjavik and it hold a cultural significance over the city. A quick trip can be easily had here as well as a lengthy one, the well-stocked café has a number of food options to choose from and is open late-some visitors organised their visit well by visiting prior to sunset over the city and eating in the café after. If you would rather dine at the luxurious restaurant of Perlan on the top floor, you can do so too (we did and to read about our experience head to the end of this post).  Wanting to learn more about the historical evolution of the country of Iceland and its people, we headed to the National Museum of Iceland. It did provide interesting scope on Icelanders originally being Vikings and their journey to what the country is like now, however I did find the museum quite drab and stuffy, and in hindsight, would have probably preferred visiting a modern art gallery in which I could focus on Iceland’s culture as it stands now and research the rest online.

View from Perlan- spot the rainbow!Heading out of the city on a day trip is advised to all who visit Iceland. Iceland is highly regarded for its natural beauty and getting away from the clutches of the city is the best way to do so. There are a number of directions and locations that are close, where visitors normally head to and with time limiting our full desire to see the entirety of the country, we chose to head to the most popular spots. Hundreds of tour busses flood the winding roads, herding people from one site to another which seemed so… unpleasant. Hiring a car meant we had the freedom to pull the car over and stop and explore a craggy peak, take pictures of a certain sight and go exactly where we wanted to go, whenever we wanted.

Sculpture GardenHeading to the national park of Pingvellir allowed us to appreciate the dramatic change in scenery, where we caught a glimpse of the rugged coastline, towering mountains and bushy heaths. We passed pine trees that would have not looked out of place in Canada, peacefully still lakes, flowing brooks and trickling waterfalls. The weather continuously changed as we plunged into the depths of Iceland with the sun beginning to peek out behind the clouds to then change to erratic rain hammering down on the windows, whilst driving into an ominous mist. The rapid change in weather made our tiny little car meandering down empty roads into nature even more eerie and unusual.

PerlanAnother famous sight is the Geysir, where one geyser erupts suddenly to the ecstatic cry of excited tourists whilst the other enviously gurgles nearby. A large hill stands over the site and is worth the climb up to see the sweeping views of the landscape that alters so differently in various directions. Gulfoss Waterfall is the next attraction to see – do make sure you turn off before the Gulfoss sign down a smaller path, this leads to a more accessible view of the waterfall and a carpark. It is worth stopping here to see this example of nature exert so much force and power, tumbling water over layers of rock into a deep gorge.

Gulfoss WaterfallFrom here, we headed to a nearby town called Haebradi where waterfalls and geysers were dotted around the tiny village, although not as impressive as the previous sites, you can directly see the impact of these marvellous pieces of nature on the towns geothermal energy and their vivacious way of life. What really makes the journey to this remote town worthwhile is the landscape that surrounds the town, it is more mountainous here and the rolling hills and dipping valleys are stunning. Although we did unfortunately have a time restraint, we were told that Selfoss, Vik, and the Black Beach on the South Coast were equally as beautiful to explore too.

Geysir ViewFood in Iceland, just like its landscape, varies dramatically.  A popular tourist rumour is that Icelanders eat puffin, whale and shark and so many tourists head to restaurants that serve this meat to “live as the locals do”. Many years ago, back when the people of Iceland first inhabited the country, yes they did eat this meat- due to the fact it was the most accessible and easiest meat to find, however now days, Icelanders taste buds are tantalised by the Nordic style cuisine, French bistros and even American style hotdogs. In fact, there are signs in restaurant doors with images of whales and the message “meet me don’t eat me”, highlighting this very issue. Why would such an environmentally conscious country eat the incredible natural wildlife that surrounds them? So please when visiting, avoid these restaurants.

City lifeThe ones you should head to is; Hornio, for a pizza that tastes as good as in Rome, The Scandinavian restaurant for soft tasting fish or Perlan for an intimate revolving dining experience- with the soft notes of a piano being played in the background, a dancing candle that imitates the city lights outside and outstanding table service. My personal favourite is dinner at Old Iceland, this place is incredible! Each dish was created out of fresh wholesome ingredients that complimented each meal so well and gave a sense of traditional Icelandic dishes, without harming the environment. It is incredibly popular- some visitors were even waiting outside in the cold for a table- so do make sure you go early, or book for 6pm- the latest table they have.

Hofi HouseAlthough I didn’t experience the magnificent Northern Lights in Iceland, I did experience a country like no other.

England, Europe, Travel, UK

Day Tripping to Cambridge

Cambridge is one of the most well visited cities in England due to its historical ties and values attached to the city, through its educational system, Cambridge University.

Cambridge was the first university established in the UK and wandering through the city, you can  understand why Cambridge holds a superior edge over Oxford. Oxford is filled with a range of nightlife and bustling student scene, whilst Cambridge oozes an intellectual air which one immediately intakes and immerses themselves in, as if gaining brain cells merely by just standing in the city itself. The exquisite architecture hums with stories of ancient tales of revelry and echoes with words of wisdom passed down from generation to generation. Meander down cobbled streets, under paved archways and through hidden alleyways, which lead on to grand elegant buildings with expansive manicured gardens. Watch first time punters struggle and slip with the action of punting whilst bleary eyed students routinely gather excited tourists onto boats to whisk them along the river, floating under hanging willows and narrowly avoiding stranded punters, laughing in hilarity at their situation.

Copyright: Heather C
Copyright: Heather C

I came to visit Cambridge on a day trip to visit one of my closest friends who moved there for work. Driving from Surrey, we conveniently parked in the park and ride, and took the bust transfer in, avoiding the traffic and expensive car parks.

Using Trinity College as a meeting point, my friends and I were enraptured by the glorious splendour of the building which looked as if a church, rather than an educational establishment. The entrance was heaving with international tourists heavily clad with selfie sticks and donning “I love Cambridge” T-shirts with wide beaming smiles, whilst posing in front of the Tudor influenced structure, which has been noted in many novel and historical artefact.

Copyright: Heather C
Copyright: Heather C

Trinity College is a symbol of what the city of Cambridge has to offer; education, wisdom, intellect and knowledge, in a picturesque setting filled with quaint historic buildings nestled next to high street shops. However, the building which is more famously known is, the King’s College Chapel. The King’s College Chapel steals Trinity College’s thunder, it is an extra ordinary example of one of the finest Gothic buildings in England and for many, is a must see on any tourist’s agenda.  Flooding British TV screens every winter, the sight of Trinity College is on every screen with the Cambridge choir capturing the very essence of the festive spirit. Harmonic sounds float up the steep spiral and the wondrous notes work their way through the building, along the narrow wooden aisles and chiming the ornate stained glass windows that beam a kaleidoscope of colours onto the inner walls. Walking through the aisles you are awestruck into silence by its majestic beauty and still nature. When leaving the chapel and stepping into the sunshine, it felt as if re-entering the modern world, with its everyday chaos.

Copyright: Heather C
Copyright: Heather C

It is quite easy to spend an afternoon lounging on or along the banks of the lazy river, watching the clouds drift through the sky, or stroll through the historical city, finding hidden gems of architecture, or spending an afternoon dining in a 16th century pub in the sunshine, such as The Eagle– the oldest pub in Cambridge, where we had a hearty lunch in the courtyard. Step inside and the ceiling is covered with war memorabilia and coasters from various ales and lagers from over the years. The pub has an atmospheric buzz to the place and thanks to its large portions and cheap prices, the pub attracts all types of people; tourists, students and locals, creating a hybrid mix of people enjoying the historical character of the pub.

Although, if you find it easier to leave the comfort of a traditional pub more than I do, then head over to the Fitzwilliam Museum– a haven for classic art and historical artefacts from all over the world. The museum is a jumble of goods that will make you wander what an earth they are doing in a museum tucked away in the heart of Cambridge, and nicknamed as “the Fitz”, but being one of the first public art museums in the UK, you can understand the logic behind these actions.

As I said before, my experiences with Cambridge are short lived, merely just a day trip, however, I can see why visitors would want to spend a few days here or even relocate here. With its charming cyclists that zip past you, was well as the buzz of young energy from students that infiltrate  the elegant architecture and historical buildings, Cambridge is quite a catch.