E: Emerald Glass Waters – Switzerland

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Managing to find time for one final excursion before the start of term, I held tight to my print-at-home boarding passes as I waited in the Luton airport departure zone. My chin rested on a soon to be confiscated bottle of water as I glanced intermittently up to the departures board. The last time I’d seen Alex was only a few weeks ago when she was visiting London. Almost days after I’d waved goodbye to her at Piccadilly tube station I had fixed my sights on an affordable £70 return flight to Zürich. Being the shameless nature freak I am, I sat bright-eyed and feverish at the prospect of experiencing the Swiss countryside which had been plastered and boasted about on chocolate wrappers I’d witnessed countless times growing up.

My beloved friend Alex is a Swiss humanoid of Chinese descent currently studying at the University of Zürich. We met last year in Singapore and after a few iced coffees and some waffles we decided each other was alright. We’ve experienced a lot of good times together including reaching Singapore’s laughable summit and voyaging to the idyllic Pacific Island of Pulau Tioman, this trip would be a great excuse to add to the list of memories. The only problems about our reunification would be a) that I would be reminded of the fact Alex, a non native speaker talks better English than me and b) I would need to readjust to keep up with the amount of irony in our conversations.IMG_2238

My easyjet flight was 20 minutes delayed so I hurried my way through baggage collection and border control (where I encountered a man who did not seem to like my surname) to be greeted by the familiar face I was here to see!  Within roughly 2 hours from being on UK soil I was sat in Alex’s sophisticated student kitchen devouring her pasta and juice whilst she lectured me on all the locations she wanted to go this week. (I’m sorry I wasn’t paying much attention, the pasta was really good). As the sun hid behind the horizon we met up with one of Alex’s friends who’d accompanied her to London and had a wander around central Zurich at night. From the bar at the Urania Observatory we witnessed some superior views of the slumbering city.

Following an early awakening, we dashed onto numerous trains and buses until eventually we found ourselves smittenly gazing upon the sparkling green waters that rest in the Verzasca Valley. The scenery was breathtaking as the gentle river casually meandered between the colossal mountains smothered in greenery that surrounded it. Character filled settlements made cameos outside of the bus windows frequently during our journey, By far the most prominent of these man-made creations was the staggeringly elegant Catholic church with a stone front, which along with the scenic ‘Bridge of Leaps’ marks the starting point of the trail.

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The water here is truly impressive, your eyes are left free to explore the bottom of the riverbed with only the glimmering reflections of the sunlight acting as distractions. The stone that surrounded the river bed was also of interest, the distinct layers of rock are clearly visible and the indentations of the rock alongside of the river made for peculiar places to squeeze your body into.

Our hike led us to discover more hidden gems along the river bank, the majority of our time was spent wandering in the woods that rested at the foot of the valley, occasionally stumbling into a waterfall or two along the way. We made numerous attempts to submerge ourselves the water but shamefully none were of any success. The deepest I managed to get into the water was to my knees, which within 5 seconds the glacial water proceeded to cut off my circulation as I lost the feeling in both of my feet.

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Pitying ourselves at how disappointing our cold tolerance remained, we chose a small  flat river island made of polished marble like stone as our lunch spot. The glorious surroundings made for the most breathtaking backdrop I have ever had during lunch. A definite benefit of bringing a packed lunch instead of allowing a restaurant owner to pick your lunch spot. We consumed various pieces of Swiss bread, dried meats and grapes as we sat admiring the views on our conquered piece of land. After a few hours of repeating the formula of stopping every ten minutes to admire the beauty of the same majestic mountains from a slightly different angle, we reached a bridge leading us back to the other side of the bank where a bus awaited to take us to Bellinzona.

As usual I was heartbroken to be leaving this bewitching valley with its bright emerald waters and unusual stones. There was nothing too complex about the area to discuss, it was simply a place of consistent natural beauty showcasing merely a sample great outdoor space that remain in Switzerland. Stepping out of the bus onto the attractive streets of Italian speaking Swiss town of ‘Bellinzona’ helped to comfort me slightly. The town proved to be a sophisticated little metropolis laying discreetly in the shadows of grand stone castles which peered down at the town from their position high above in the surrounding hills.

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The three castles of Bellinzona are impressive sights, all three are considered UNESCO world heritage sites and are easily reached by elevator. They offer an array of impressive views over the city, as well as the connecting castle walls are a treat to walk within. Grass has been laid between the walls making it appear as if it’s a green carpet, making the space ridiculously photogenic. The town offers plenty of cobbled streets, a healthy selection of stores to browse into and numerous eateries. As our legs ached, we were easily seduced by the prospect of a pizza cooked in a log burning oven. The pizza as predicted was delicious and I didn’t have a single shred of shame about the money I spent on it.

The Italian part of Switzerland had been good to us, welcomed by its beautiful scenery and bribed by the delicious food I could easily see this becoming a weekend favourite if I ever find myself living in Switzerland. It was a sleepy trip back to Zürich and unsurprisingly we were flat-out as soon as we hit the mattress. Well… at least Alex was. I had the beautiful melodies of her snoring to lull me to my dreams.
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Things that impressed me the most about Switzerland so far:

  • No ticket barriers
  • Double-decker trains
  • Tasty carrot juice
  • Ancient castles of Bellinzona
  • Crystal clear emerald waters of the Valle Verzasca

E: Lost amongst a thousand islands – Laos

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To our surprise we discovered that buses from Bangkok to Pakse were quite a rarity. After tedious negotiations with various local travel agencies we succeeded in securing two seats on a local bus. Our exit point, Mo Chit is by far the largest bus terminal in Bangkok, and as we descended from our tuk-tuk we found ourselves surrounded by swarms of people. For the first time in Thailand we were even subject to a few glances from the locals as we walked past. The atmosphere was exciting, the air was thick and humid, the sky outside was a dark navy and although weary, our eyes were veiled with the glimmering reflections of the fridge lights in the surrounding kiosks.

Settling down at a food court somewhat reminiscent of a Singaporean hawker centre, we observed numerous interesting characters. Two women frantically discussed various make-up brands, a solo traveller sat a few benches in front of us discretely gazed at his smartphone and during my navigation to the restroom my attention was diverted by a women sat in a phone stall who proceeded to shriek as I walked past, hyperventilating in excitement. Although flattered as I was, I remained a little uncertain on what to do so I swiftly returned to the safety of our table.
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Finally commencing the journey to Pakse, I was reminded of the certain lustre that comes with being hidden behind a moving window at night. The direction of your passage withdrawn from your control, but inside you’re left free to gaze outs at the different individuals wandering random streets you’ll likely never pass again.The picture outside illuminated by the odd flickering street lamp portraying a constantly evolving cityscape as you progress towards your destination. It’s undoubtedly romantic.

Kate on the other hand almost instantly was engulfed by her exhaustion from the busy day and was fast asleep next to me with her mouth open. I’m not too sure how pleased she’d feel if I shared the photographs. Upon awakening after the Thai-Lao border crossing, the scenery outside was no longer composed of concrete highways and people scurrying like rats under the moon. We were in the countryside, exceptionally beautiful countryside. Paddy fields lined the roads with cattle carelessly roaming freely between them. The coach crossed a grand metal bridge over the Mekong to Pakse, one of the larger towns in the south of Laos. From here we boarded an exhaustingly sweaty local bus crammed full of people in thirty-seven degree heat followed by a small wooden boat to reach the Mekong river island of Don Det (Part of the 4,000 islands).

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Upon our arrival that evening we were depleted of energy and eager to get some proper sleep, we managed to fit in a short walk in the nearby countryside, dinner with some German girls we met aboard the bus and a night-time dip in the Mekong. Our undersized cabin was beautiful despite the rough edges and recurring evening invasions by river bugs who flocked in their thousands to ensure our light had company. Our front porch possessed a view of the Mekong and some hammocks suitable for helping to appreciate the view.  A good few hours were wasted here writing post cards and listening to music while the water passed by us.

As the sun rose that next day, we waded out into the countryside in search for breakfast. Approaching a humble looking cabin we hopped inside, ordering some fried eggs and tomato coupled with some baguettes. Similar to the Vietnamese the Lao people accepted bread into their culinary culture during their time as part of the French colony. This was undoubtedly the best breakfast we had during all of our travels, cooked in plenty of oil it was a brilliant start to the day.

IMG_9616Our chosen partners in our expedition for the remainder of the day were some rental bikes picked up at a local shop. Our tyres rotated endlessly onto the uneven dirt track as the heat of the sun pierced our skin, only comforted by the cool breeze created by the vast open space. Herds of cattle and water buffalo became recurring obstacles in our path. Ancient Palms and modest village shacks lay scattered across the horizon in the watch of the ground and sky, which intermingled via the reflections created by the flooded fields.

Once emerged from the countryside and reunited with the banks of the mighty Mekong river, we chartered a small wooden vessel to reach the Cambodia – Lao border in search of the rare freshwater irrawaddy dolphins. The irrawady dolphins are few in numbers and were difficult to spot, the main give-away of their location being the magnificent sound made through their blow-holes when rising up for air. Sighting the dolphins peacefully floating downstream during the mid-day heat was one of my favourite moments from all of my travels so far, especially considering how rushed and full on our days seemed to be, it was pleasant feeling calm and content as our boat softly drifted around them in the peace of the open water.

Conservation of these animals has only recently been brought to the attention of the locals and you can read more about the efforts being made here

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All this peace and natural beauty led me to develop quite an appetite, reluctantly we pushed onto our pedals for a little while longer until some tables and chairs became visible between the trees. We pulled up and parked our bikes beside what looked like someone’s kitchen. The place was empty, a local woman sat patiently weaving a fishing net saw us from afar and greeted us, her children played blissfully around her, play fighting with each other and their pet dogs. We lounged as if dead on the plastic chairs, her husband emerged from the kitchen and greeted us whilst handing us some menus. It was low season and we were probably their only customers the whole day, this made most of the food in the 4,000 islands take a while to be prepared, we ordered the local speciality of fish larp served traditionally with sticky rice and raw vegetables.

After replenishing our reserves I attempted to make conversation with the man, we exchanged a good number of smiles whilst I hopelessly experimented pronouncing various Lao phrases and he would reply using his hands and the odd word of English he spoke. On the whole we didn’t fare too badly, he managed to inform us the fish we had eaten was caught from the river nearby and pointed to the field where our rice was grown. After me asking about his family he later he introduced us to them. He mentioned different westerners who had come to his restaurant before us, showing us pictures photographers had taken of his wife in the past.

I was successful in asking him when tourists first started coming, he recalled his first encounter with a western tourist was from as recent as ten years ago. The family was so kind to us and were very patient whilst we asked them question after question, we were sad to leave them but the sun drew closer to the horizon and the journey back to Don Det would be difficult at night due to a lack of street lights.

IMG_0219Our final sight was the belittlingly named ‘small’ waterfalls. The sun peeked at us beyond the stones and the hills as we followed the waterfalls down to the so-called beach. Here I witnessed the most memorable sunset of my life so far. I desperately attempted to capture the magic of the moment through my lens yet failed to be entirely successful. The beauty of the moment lay within the distinctly coloured layers of the scenery. The sand lay together within the creases of the weathered limestone, both of them leading into the river overlooked upon by the hills and forests in the distance. However long we stayed and gazed at the landscape, it was simply impossible to tire of the view.

My experience in the 4,000 islands of the Mekong in Laos was truly unforgettable, I would enjoy saying one day I would return, but my time there has left me with such special untainted memories I cannot help but fear of it developing and changing in any way. I can only hope future visitors will be respectful of the natural beauty and the lifestyle of the people who live there.

Tips:

  • Bring a Lao phrasebook, the local people are very friendly and up for some conversation
  • The ‘small’ waterfalls are much more beautiful when seen in the evening near sunset (less people)
  • Take your time while cycling, the scenes in the countryside changes throughout the day
  • Bikes can be rented really easily from almost any shop in Don Det

Favourite things to do:

  • Cycle through the countryside
  • See the ‘Small’ and ‘Big’ waterfalls
  • Watch sunset at the ‘Beach’ located by the small waterfalls
  • Eat some locally sourced produce
  • See the river dolphins
  • Swim in the Mekong River at night (free)
  • Watch the wild water buffalo bathe  (free)

E: Nikoklia Village Retreat – Cyprus

IMG_1149It’s good to go back to your roots every now and then. That’s what I’ve been doing for the past 19 years of my life. Every summer I’ve been spoilt rotten by being granted the privilege to escape the murky English summer and return to a place where I feel very much at home. I have a huge adoration for my little island homeland in the Mediterranean sea and that’s why often when discussing Cyprus I can be very critical about the mentality of some of the locals, the government and (a small number of) ignorant tourists. It’s safe to say my little island has had more than its fair share of problems and issues even prior to gaining it’s independence.

Yet if you get the chance to take some time out and are willing enough to do a little exploration, you’ll understand why so many people, past and present hold a fond place in their hearts for my little island. Somewhere beyond the financial crisis, swarms of Brits flocking to Ayia Napa and the often tasteless new architecture, there lies an untainted charming sun bronzed landscape painted with golden hills covered by olive trees and ancient relics waiting to be discovered.

IMG_1234When browsing for accommodation I stumbled across various alluring hillside apartments and classical hotels. The typical beach-front hotels in Cyprus were too expensive for us to afford and knowing most of them I didn’t particularly feel the majority offered good value for money.

My father then forwarded me a link of an attractive old building conversion into an inn. The  price was very reasonable (roughly 50€ a night including breakfast) and they still had availability so we went ahead and booked it. Nikoklia Village is a tiny village and I had not previous knowledge about the area it was located. My grandpa proudly recollected some old memories telling us he used to know of two policemen he worked with from Nikoklia and how there was an abandoned Turkish village nearby. Without much idea of what to expect we set off just as the sun started to dim and in about 40 minutes we arrived at our location, the Vasilias Nikoklis Inn.

IMG_0949First impressions were good, the staff were friendly and the Inn was furnished in Cypriot antique furniture. The conversion of the building has been done very tastefully and we were lucky to have a beautiful balcony overlooking the countryside. A few minutes after arrival we embarked on a small wander around the village itself. The village is definitely on the smaller side, people were very friendly and greeted you as you made your way down the street. A beautiful little church which broadcasts the service to the village via speaker phone can be found near the bottom of the village. Various abandoned buildings are also dotted in the nearby countryside. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to make it to the abandoned Turkish village just north of Nikoklia, we did however manage to catch a glimpse of it from afar and it looked very eerie. I’m sure it would make a brilliant subject to photograph, hopefully I’ll return another year to have a go at capturing the scene.

In terms of food the village doesn’t offer many options and we had all our meals at the Inn. Food is available from the tavern which opens in the evenings, the menu is full of traditional dishes and the prices are quite reasonable too. I would really recommend the ‘Mixed Grill’ option which consisted of some lamb, sheftalia (a type of sausage), chicken and pork souvlaki served alongside local fried potatoes, all the meat was cooked to perfection and currently writing about it is waking up my appetite.

IMG_1085Aside from the village you can also get some relaxation done by the pool and there’s also a rather tiring walk to the nearby dam. The walk is ok at best, I recommend heading there much later in the day as even departing at six, the weather was too hot to make the walk very enjoyable. I enjoyed a lot of sleeping under the shade of the Inn’s greenery. We had a really restful time and the inn sets a prime example of how alternative types of tourism can be very successful. I’m not saying spend all your time within a small village but as you can see from the photographs it can be really rewarding to do a bit of research and incorporate a village stay into your time in Cyprus. Unfortunately due to work I had to cut my ‘home time’ short this year but I’m sure I’ll be back again before I know it. (After all that abandoned village needs photographing!)

Favourite things to do/see :

  • Explore the nearby countryside
  • Walk through the village
  • Hike to the dam (Probably better during the winter months)

E: Island Hopping around Railay Beach

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After a speedily eaten Pad Thai we reluctantly boarded our boat to leave the Phi Phi’s. Our next point of call was Railay Beach, a coastal resort in close proximity to Krabi town. Our initial plan incorporated a short stay in Krabi town, but after hearing from multiple sources that Krabi was in fact a shipping town we decided follow up Kate’s friends recommendation that Railay was her favourite place in Thailand.

The Railay beach area is made up of three stretches of coast, one pristine white sand beach tucked away by limestone cliffs (above, Phra Nang Beach), another perfectly nice beach lined with hotels (West Railay) and one small stretch of coast comprised of rocks and concrete promenade (East Railay Beach). Upon arrival we set eyes on the latter during low tide where all the rocks and mud was visible and I turned to Kate, “You made us leave paradise for this!?”

The other two coasts of Railay Beach however are the perfect place to set your worries aside and relax. The only way to get in or out is by boat and transport can be arranged at various travel agencies dotted along the sea front. Prices for drinks and food at most of the restaurants are noticeably a lot higher than the rest of the places we visited in Thailand. I’d recommend sticking to the east coast for more reasonably priced dining options. My favourite activity of Railay Beach aside from the actual shore was hiking to an enchanting viewpoint and a gorgeous green lagoon tucked away behind some forest.

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The hike entrance is located between Railay east beach and Phra Nang Beach is quite challenging and for the majority of it you find yourself climbing vertically holding on to patches of red mud and tree trunks on your way up. The distinctive red mud in Railay later proved that it was ridiculously hard to remove from clothes, since that day I have still not managed to remove a few marks on my swimming trunks. They make nice if not slightly odd reminder of our time in Railay.

At the viewpoint we met a very friendly Austrian couple where we discussed the Bangkok protests, holidays and Austria’s recent victory in Eurovision. Regrettably although getting close, we struggled with the downhill climb to reach the lagoon. It was difficult to see how we would get back up once down, a rock climbing instructor later comforted us by letting us know she didn’t get to the bottom the first time she attempted the hike either.

Finishing the hike and turning to the opposite direction of the route we came, we exited from under the cliffs and found ourselves shrouded in a large group of Asian tourists, walking a little further along away from the cliffs you discover the full beauty of Phra Nang Beach, often voted as one of the top 10 beaches in the world. It’s so easy to see why. Beyond the soft chalky sands and turquoise waters the views consisted of limestone islets laced in greenery, distant cliffs and longboats scurrying across the sea.

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Some longboats even offer fresh juice and snacks, what more could you ask for in paradise? The crowds in area  weren’t too plentiful either, probably due to the limited options for reaching the peninsula. We spent the majority of the day going for dips in the water under the isolated limestone islet and listening to music whilst drifting in and out of sleep under the shade of the local flora. It was a truly brilliant day rounded off with some delicious green curry, morning glory (the vegetable) and ridiculously overpriced mango sticky rice.

Following a visit to the enchantingly noisy bats located in Diamond Cave, we opted for a small island hopping boat tour to Chicken island, Poda island and Tup island as a way of keeping us busy for the second day. The trip provided numerous opportunities for some brilliant snorkelling where we witnessed all sorts of coral and an interesting array of tropical fish. We had booked this through the restaurant which doubled as a travel agency that we had eaten breakfast at.

All the staff on the boat were extremely friendly and welcoming, seeming very proud of the place where they call home.  As the sun set over the peninsula of Railay we sat down on the sand and devoured a delicious Thai barbecue. Just before delivering us back home the boat tour ended with a visit to see some photosynthetic plankton which lit up when disturbed by movement underwater.

The time to depart from Railay arrived the next day, once again very reluctantly we arranged our transport to Bangkok before heading back to our favourite beach for a final few hours of bliss. It was there we accidentally encountered our friend from NUS Jan! In disbelief I sighted him on Phra Nang Beach and ran over to him. Both of us where pretty shocked, I mean what were the chances of us accidentally running into each other on a coast in Thailand? He decided to join us for the next leg of our journey, to the mighty Bangkok!

Railay beach was indeed one of the most special parts of our journey.

Favourite things to see/do:

  • Hike to Viewpoint/Lagoon (free)
  • Phra Nang Beach (free)
  • Four Islands boat trip
  • Diamond Cave to see the bats
  • Fluorescent Plankton

Tips:

  • East coast Railay is much cheaper for both food and accommodation
  • It might be advisable to take some climbing gear for the descent to the Lagoon
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