Christmas gift ideas for travel lovers

Travellers are notoriously difficult to buy for. They get their kicks from experiences rather than material goods, so what can you get them that won’t literally cost the earth? Here’s my pick of the best Christmas gift ideas for travellers in 2016.

  1. Personalised travel vouchers
    Credit to Tim for this one – he has often given me homemade vouchers promising money towards flights, my choice of excursion or a weekend away. We even had scuba/snorkel vouchers given to us as a wedding gift (find out how we got on in my Thailand posts here). Just design your voucher using your computer, print it out and pop it in an envelope – you can even download my Holiday voucher template here. It will make a great Christmas present to spend during the January holiday sales.
  2. Travel money
    If you know where your loved one is headed next, why not exchange some money in to the local currency so they can spend it how they want when they get there? The best bit is you can choose how much to give to fit your budget.
  3. Destination guidebooks
    There is a huge range of books available dedicated to individual travel destinations, but my pick of the bunch is one that isn’t limited to just one place. Lonely Planet’s The World spends 2-3 pages on every country in the world, with tips on when and where to go. Warning: Their bucket list will get a whole lot longer after reading this book…
  4. Map poster
    A map should be a staple item in every traveller’s home. One of the most popular maps at the moment is Luckies Scratch Map where you can scratch off the countries you’ve already visited. However, my favourite is a standard GB eye map of the world that you can use stickers, pins or post-its to show both where you’ve been and where you want to go. Amazon have even put together a handy bundle with map, pin board and pins all included for under £15.
  5. Desk globe
    Just like the map, they can use a desk globe to help plan their next trip, but why not go for one a bit out of the ordinary? This chalkboard globe will let them highlight countries to add to their bucket list, or plan a round the world itinerary (that’s what I’ll be using mine for!)
  6. Photo gifts
    If your loved one spends most of their time away glued to their camera, why not turn one of their photos into something they can treasure forever? Photobox has a huge range of photo gifts from books, canvas prints, magnets and calendars.
  7. Luggage tag
    Help them survive the conveyor belt rush in airports with a stand out luggage tag, like this wooden one from the Maria Allen Boutique. You can even personalise it to make sure there’s no confusion over whose case is whose.
  8. Travel Journal
    What better way to help them remember their trips than a travel journal? I love this Personalised Travel Memory Book from Hannah Lloyd that has pockets for you to fill with entrance tickets, maps and postcards.
  9. Travel wash bag
    A wash bag is one of those travel essentials that people often forget about, or just make do with an old plastic bag. Those people have clearly never seen these travel inspired wash bags by Lovely Jubbly! Practical but stylish, they make a great gift for people that like to keep their shampoo where it belongs and not all over their clothes.
  10. iTunes/Google Play voucher
    If they take mobile devices away with them, buy them a voucher and let them pick a movie, book or album to get them through their next journey. I guarantee they’ll love you for it!

~~~

You’d be forgiven for thinking this is just my own personal wish list, because it is! Tim take note.

What’s on your Christmas list? What do you normally buy for your traveller buddies?

 

Guest blog: My 5 Best Beers

Today we have a guest blog from would be traveller husband, Tim. Tim can often be found in a foreign country, beer in hand. Here are his top five beers from around the world, best served ice cold in their country of origin.

~~~

I was once asked for my 5 favourite beers, and I immediately drew a blank. I think that, as a lager drinker, there isn’t enough distinction between the different brands to really be able to say one is much better than another. As long as it’s cold, not a watery 4% ABV and the right colour, I’m usually happy. However, lager and I have had some incredible moments, but they weren’t made wholly by the beer.  I think, with lager, the key is the combination; it’s the right drink, in the right place, with the right people. So this post is more a book of short stories than a quick list of different drink manufacturers.

5. Duvel – Belgium (but drunk in France). It was the first night of an interrail trip around western Europe with my brother, Si. We were in the beautiful and historic city of Strasbourg in northeastern France. We had started the day in England in the early am, travelled all day to the far side of France and topped it off with an evening of walking the old town to see the spectacular cathedral and old waterside buildings. We were knackered. So we went into the first pub we saw, spotted a poster on the wall for a beer of ‘the right colour’ and, largely forgetting my high school French, pointed at the poster with a firm statement of ‘deux’. It worked! 2 beers were delivered, a quick cheers, and then, heaven. Now, Duvel isn’t one of my favourite beers, it’s brewed to a kick-in-the-pants 6.8% ABV, but this was the right moment for it. We got better at French as the night went on and ended having half a dozen Duvels each, before finding a Turkish man selling pizza and staggering back to the hotel.

4. Chang – Thailand. A very different story from Duvel. In my opinion, Chang is one of the finest beers in the world and had to be mentioned in this entry. I achieved peak Chang on the third day of a trip to Bangkok. I’d had an excellent, if extremely hot, day sightseeing and had been chilling out in a beautiful hotel in the Lumpini park region before dinner. We caught a taxi to an amazing restaurant called ‘Cabbages and Condoms‘ (read more on that here). After insisting the driver take an equivalent £2 in fare rather then the £1.50 he tried to charge, we took to our table and ordered a whole Thai banquet with drinks for what a main on its own would cost back home. My drink of choice was obviously Chang, and I paid the princely sum of roughly £1 for a bottle about 20% bigger than a pint. The restaurant was quirky but amazing, the food was excellent even by Thai standards and, sat in the late night heat with my newly acquired wife, I sipped on my lager a very happy man.

3. Paulaner – Germany. Again, Paulaner is a very good beer, and the best place to enjoy it is in its hometown of Munich. And I’ve tried it in many different situations in Munich, including the standard beer tent with oompah band. But my best Paulaner moment was in the basement bar of a very antipodean hostel in the centre of the city. I’d spent the day on the slow train from Prague and arrived in the city not knowing where to sleep, so it was a relief to find a bunk bed in a shared dorm and a bar with a happy hour that, paradoxically, went on all night. This Paulaner moment was made special by the frustration of the day in contrast with the fantastic Americans, Kiwis and Aussies I met in that bar. Everyone was enjoying Paulaner by the litre at good prices and exchanging stories of their European travels. I stayed in the bar all night I think, I don’t actually remember how the evening ended, but in typical hostel fashion I was woken by someone taking a shower at about 5:30am.

2. Mythos – Greece. It was a hot evening in Athens, a few friends and I had gone down to the beach for the usual time the city nightlife starts to kickoff, about 10pm. Greece is a lager drinkers dream. It can stay at 30C right into the early morning, the bars on the beaches stay open and have a fantastic atmosphere, and you can find places that will sell you a chilled bottle for little more than a euro. Oh, and Greek beer isn’t too bad either. My friends and I pulled up a couple of sun loungers, played cards by the fire light and drank our way through about a crate of Mythos.

1. Pacifico – Mexico. After spending a few days in the relative cool of Mexico City in the mountains, I headed with my would be traveller girlfriend and two of my best friends to the heat and humidity of the Yucatan peninsula. After a fair amount of travelling and a bit of tricky navigation, we found our hotel – a beautiful colonial building in the heart of the stunning city, Merida. We were shown to our rooms and informed that there was a beer for each of us inside which had been chilling all day, and a roof terrace overlooking the city to go and enjoy it on. It was exactly what we needed. We enjoyed our cold beers on the hot terrace and, with some of my favourite people in the world, planned our time in the Yucatan and our road trip to Cancun.

So, overall, I hope you understand the way I enjoy beer. To me, it’s not a case of all you need is a good beer, it’s an enhancer to already fantastic situations. So, if you really like beer, I encourage you to find your favourite people, go to your favourite place and enjoy a few bottles of the local brew. Hopefully you too will find some of your holiday highlights through this simple approach!

TH

~~~

What are your favourite beers from around the world? What makes them so special to you?

Why we chose Krabi over Phuket

When we were booking our Thai honeymoon, one question plagued us more than any other. No, it wasn’t ‘Chang or Singha?’ or ‘Green or red curry?’, but ‘Krabi or Phuket?’ We had heard many things about Phuket, but Krabi seemed to be its closest rival and we were keen to find out why. After lots of research and many sleepless nights (I’m joking) we chose Krabi. Here’s why.

The scenery

The thing that stood out most to us when we looked at pictures was just how stunningly beautiful Krabi was. I mean, just look at those limestone cliffs. I’m sure Phuket has equally striking scenery but, to us, Krabi was a paradise we couldn’t say no to.

Krabi limestone

Krabi is also home to one of the most beautiful beaches in Thailand, Railay Beach. I must admit we completely ran out of time, so didn’t actually get to visit. I strongly recommend it to anyone that visits Krabi, though, for its sparkling sand and emerald green water with a backdrop of lush green jungle.

Diving sites

Krabi also makes a great base for diving trips out to the islands of Phi Phi. And that’s just what we did. Kon-tiki diving school has offices across Thailand, including one at our hotel. After a disastrous snorkelling trip in Mexico a few years back, I was dead nervous about trying it again. However, after speaking to staff in the Kon-tiki office, I felt at ease enough to book a snorkelling spot on the full day Exotic Phi Phi Cruise, while Tim took a scuba spot.

On the day of the trip, we were met at Ao Nang beach by staff and other divers before we soaked up the beautiful scenery on our way to Phi Phi Don. We had an hour to explore the island and its souvenir shops and beach before our diving began at Viking Bay. Here we were lucky enough to see the whole cast of Finding Nemo – clownfish, blue tang, even a turtle! Thankfully no sharks, even though they are known to frequent the area… After lunch back on the boat, we went to our second and final dive spot of the day, Koh Yung.

My snorkelling instructor was just wonderful – she could tell I was nervous and let me hold on the life ring for as long as I needed (the whole day). I will forever be indebted to her for restoring my love of the sea! Tim’s scuba instructor was just as good, and gave him one to one tuition for his first time underwater.

Tim with Kon-tiki diving centre Krabi

This was definitely the highlight of our trip to Krabi, and something we would never have experienced in Phuket. (There is a Kon-tiki office there too though, in case you’re wondering..!)

Things to do

Now this is something many die hard Phuket lovers would challenge us on, but our research on Krabi resulted in a much longer ‘must do’ list than Phuket. The main street in Ao Nang (Krabi) is home to numerous Thai massage parlours, bars, restaurants and souvenir shops, but this only really kept us busy for half a day.

Instead, there are a huge number of excursions you can go on from Krabi, and our love for food meant we jumped at the chance to do a Thai cookery class. After a pick up in Ao Nang, we were driven to a house a little way out of town and home to the Siam Cuisine Thai Cookery school.

We were met by our wonderful teacher who explained all the ingredients used most often in Thai cooking. Then, with expert oversight, we were taught to cook our choice of one of each of a salad, soup, noodle dish, stir fry, curry paste and curry to cook in our three hour session. All the food was delicious (if I do say so myself!) but my god it was filling. Make sure you arrive hungry!

Siam Cuisine Thai Cookery School

Direct access to mainland

The real selling point for us was that Krabi is on the mainland, and only a car ride away from many more sights. You can book excursions via your hotel or any of the tourist offices along Ao Nang beach.

Because of my love of anything buddha shaped, we decided to visit the Tiger Cave Temple that got its name from the fact there used to be tigers roaming around the caves before it turned into a temple. Apparently there are tiger paw prints in the walls, but we didn’t see any. The caves are now home to hundreds of buddha images, and our guide explained the different meanings behind the poses and buddhist traditions.

Tiger Temple Krabi

Unfortunately we had the worst day of rain so it was too slippery to take the 1,237 steps up to the summit of the mountain. Not willing to waste our day, we instead headed down the ~200 steps into more caves, which was probably equally as dangerous in hindsight! One lady in our group fell over but thankfully wasn’t hurt.

Our full day excursion also included lunch and a visit to the natural hot springs and emerald pool. The springs and pool were both incredibly busy, which made it difficult to relax. That’s why we took the opportunity to trek through the jungle to find the blue pool away from the crowds of Thai schoolchildren and locals. The water in the blue pool was the most beautiful colour, but its temperature and the fact it’s surrounded by quick sand makes it too dangerous to bathe.

Blue Pool Krabi

Now I know they’re amazingly beautiful and isn’t it wonderful that they’re completely natural? But I preferred our hotel jacuzzi – at least you get it to yourself!

Peace and quiet

This is the reason most people choose Krabi over Phuket. Krabi is just so much quieter and it’s still relatively free of tourists (at least in comparison to Phuket). This was partly thanks to our chosen hotel, the Centara Grand Beach Resort and Villas, hidden in its own private bay and accessed only by speedboat. We felt like James Bonad! (There’s an inside joke for you there…)

It was, without a doubt, the best hotel we have ever stayed in. Our room was huge and had stunning views out over the ocean. We even had a jacuzzi on the balcony. Beat that, hot springs! Also, because it was our honeymoon, the staff had laid out petals on the bed and in the bath, and left us with a bottle of bubbly and a cake! It was such a sweet touch.

Now the hotel may not have been overrun with tourists, but it was certainly overrun by something similar. Monkeys! The little blighters were everywhere, sitting on our balcony and rooting through bins – there was even a sign in our room warning us to keep our windows and doors closed so they couldn’t come in and steal our bananas – of which we had none.

Centara Grand Krabi

The only downside was that the speedboat between Ao Nang and our hotel didn’t run that late. If you wanted a night out in Ao Nang you could still walk back over the hill through the monkey territory, but it was treacherous enough with a sober head and in daylight. The thought of doing it with a full belly and fuzzy head was just too much for us! This meant we mostly ate and drank at our hotel, but when the food looks and tastes this good, who cares?

Centara Grand Krabi red curry

~~~

So if you want a taste of Thai beach life without the overwhelming feeling of a tourist trap, Krabi’s the place for you too. Saying that, I certainly wouldn’t say no to a trip to Phuket in the future either!

Have you been to both Krabi and Phuket? Which did you prefer?

Top tips for a visit to Chiang Mai

The next stop on our Tour de Thailand was Chiang Mai – a northern city famous for its mountainous landscape, temples and night market. And guess what? We saw it all.

Fascinating temples with stunning views

Chiang Mai is home to hundreds and hundreds of Buddhist temples, the most famous of which is 1,000 metres up Mount Suthep just outside the city. It’s said that a white elephant carrying a religious relic climbed up the mountain and died on the spot where the temple was built. There’s a white elephant statue there to mark the story.

The journey up was almost as fascinating as the temple itself. The road was incredibly steep but we saw some heroic cyclists pedalling all the way – I was in complete awe! Luckily, we had a minivan take the strain for us and we were treated to the most wonderful view of Chiang Mai from the top. The temple itself was a riot of gold leaf and buddha statues. Although it was busy with tourists, I felt a huge sense of serenity and calm up there. It was my favourite temple visit in Thailand.

Wat Chedi Luang

We also visited Wat Chedi Luang in the historic centre of Chiang Mai. The main temple is in ruin following a major earthquake in 1545, after which the famous emerald buddha was moved to a different province. One of the other buildings has a slightly creepy wax statue of a monk who had reached nirvana.

We enjoyed wandering around the site and spotting monks in their bright orange robes. It was a great visit, and another sight definitely worth putting on your Chiang Mai to do list.

Top Tip: Remember to cover your shoulders in places of worship. And if you want to use the toilet at Wat Chedi Luang, take your own flip flops or slippers. They have spares available there, but you just don’t know where they’ve been…

The best khao soi 

Lemongrass restaurant Chiang Mai

Now, it wouldn’t be a wouldbetraveller blog post without some mention of food, would it? Lemongrass is a wonderful little restaurant, just a few steps from the Night Bazaar. It is deliciously rustic with visitor graffiti all over the walls and waiters that looked more like Thai backpackers than staff. But that’s why I loved it – I felt so at home.

It was also where I had my absolute favourite meal of the entire trip – khao soi, a curry-like broth and Chiang Mai’s most famous noodle dish. I’m salivating just at the thought.

Khao Soi Lemongrass Chiang Mai

Top Tip: As we left Lemongrass, there were people queuing half way down the street to get in, it was obviously popular. Arrive early and prepare to want to stay the whole night if you do go.

Elephant camps and bamboo rafts

Elephants in Chiang Mai

My biggest regret of the whole Chiang Mai experience was not researching elephant camps before we went. It’s only now I realise how uncomfortable I should have felt watching the poor elephants with chains around their feet and paintbrushes in their mouths. They did look healthy, but having three humans on their backs can’t exactly be comfortable, can it? It was certainly an experience I’ll never forget – particularly when we descended to the river, trusting our elephant shaped boat to keep us dry and safe.

Bamboo rafting in Chiang Mai

Back on ethical land,  we were treated to a bamboo raft back along the water. It’s possibly the most relaxing and serene thing you can do in the whole of Thailand. The land was just so peaceful – we could only hear the movement of the water and the faint chirps of tropical birds. Plus, give me a hat and you’re on to a winner.

Top Tip: Please please PLEASE consider going to one of the more ethical elephant camps. The Patara Elephant Farm receives rave reviews as you spend a whole day with an elephant, learning how to take care of them and riding bareback to avoid the heavy and downright dangerous metal seats so many camps throw on elephant backs. Their website even states it is “not for those who expect to see elephant dancing and perform tricks or walk on their two legs”. Hell, I’m tempted to go back to Chiang Mai just so I can visit this place.

An average hotel

Duangtawan Hotel Air Con Fail

The Duangtawan Hotel was a bit of a disaster if I’m totally honest. Our air conditioning unit broke (bad) and ended up flooding the entire room (worse) so we were upgraded to a suite (not so bad). Unfortunately Tim had contracted a really nasty tummy bug (we’re not sure from where… we’ll blame Bangkok) so he stayed in bed while I made the most of our separate living room and free movie channels that played Die Hard on repeat. I swear before this trip I had never seen Die Hard, but now I know all the words. “No f*cking sh*t lady. Does it sound like I’m ordering a pizza?”

That reminds me.

Top Tip: Don’t order the pizza! It was like a shortbread biscuit with a cold tomato and whole garlic clove jam and a sprinkling of melted cheese on top. Gross gross gross. At least it was memorable, I guess?

The Night Bazaar

Chiang Mai Night Bazaar

One thing the hotel was good for, though, was its location. It was just a few steps from the famous Night Bazaar – an absolutely huge outdoor market that just seemed to go on forever. It sells everything you could ever wish to buy – food, clothes, souvenirs, accessories, gadgets, toys, massages and cut-price brands. But it’s not just a place to go for the shopping. There are mini stages all over the bazaar with Thai dancers and music, all decorated with lanterns and lights. It makes a great night out all on its own!

Top Tip: Our guide book that says if it’s sold outside, it’s fake. We weren’t sure which bits of the market counted as ‘inside’ so we just assumed it was all fake. You should probably do the same.

~~~

The biggest Top Tip of all: Go to Chiang Mai! It is a region of juxtaposition – peaceful countryside and temples are just a few minutes’ drive from the hustle and bustle of the most fantastic market I’ve ever been to. One thing’s for sure – you’ll never get bored.

What are your top tips for visitors to Chiang Mai?

Is this the best brunch in London?

A bottomless brunch seems like a really good idea. It’s a foodie trend growing across London with hundreds of restaurants now offering unlimited brunch foods and drink. Some even give you unlimited boozy drinks if you pay a little extra.

This morning I tried the Made Bar and Kitchen‘s version in Chalk Farm. For £14 each, three friends and I had two hours to eat our weight in pastries, toasted and jam before tucking in to one main course of our choice. Alcohol fuelled Saturday nights around the table meant we didn’t take advantage of unlimited Bellinis or Bloody Marys for £27.

My main course of choice was Eggs Norwegian- an Eggs Benedict minus the ham, plus the smoked salmon. It wasn’t the best I’ve ever had, but still pretty good.

Eggs Norwegian

The stars of the show were definitely the pastries: light, tasty and just small enough to make you feel less guilty. We ate pain au chocolats, pain au raisins, croissants, waffles and toast with jam, marmite and butter (not altogether) Once our plates were clean, we ordered more pastries but immediately regretted it. They did let us take them with us though, so that was nice. The trick is definitely to arrive hungry. Very hungry.

unlimited pastries

I don’t know about you, but whenever I’m told I can have as much as I like of something, I get bored of it pretty quickly. But give me a finite amount of something and I’m always left wanting more. Maybe bottomless things just aren’t my bag. Give me a big fat bottomed brunch any day.

So, no. I don’t think this is the best brunch in London, but it’s a gimmick I’m glad I tried. 

Have you tried a bottomless brunch before? What did you think?