Tag Archives: trekking

In Search of Paradise on the Gili Islands

As the Vagabrothers ditch the tourist-saturated beaches of Bali, they head for the ‘unspoilt’ Gili Islands. But what happens to paradise once it’s discovered?  Appeared on MSN Travel UK on 20 Dec, 2013.

The Gili islands appeared beyond the bow about an hour and a half after leaving Bali. From a distance, it was all that we had expected: three untouched islands floating in a sea of peaceful azure waters, not a trace of mankind in sight.

“You’re going to love this place,” said Brendan, a South African expat who was showing us around the island. “No cars, no paved roads, and very few tourists. It’s like Bali was twenty years ago.”

In Bali we’d come looking for paradise but instead found a seemingly endless stretch of hotels and western-style bars spreading across the south of the island. This trip was our escape from this over-development. I was eager to get off the boat and onto the beach of this supposedly unspoilt island.

We were not the only ones on the search. Our boat was filled to the brim with backpackers, all of usneager to enjoy this slice of paradise. There was still no port, so we docked by driving our bow into the sand and unloading 50 backpackers directly onto the beach. As I got off, I looked to our left and saw another, bigger boat doing the same.

Then to my right, I saw a chain of locals unloading supplies from a half dozen small fishing boats – crates of beer and water and hundreds of bags of cement.

“Just like Bali twenty years ago,” I repeated to myself. But as I watched the boats dumping foreigners and cement onto the beach, it felt closer to a backpacker version of D-Day.

Read the full story on MSN Travel UK.

Memories from Khao San Road

Over a bucket of whiskey and snack of fried scorpion, Marko reminisces over his earlier travels to the city.  Appeared on MSN Travel UK on 6 December, 2013.

The man held a skewered scorpion in my brother”s face, its pincers frozen in the deep-fried grip of death. Alex looked at me, eyes wide in shock.

“Fried scorpion!” said the scorpion-seller, “50 bhat, very tasty!”

His pitch was self-explanatory, designed to shock and surprise the first-time visitors on Khao San Road, Bangkok”s infamous backpacker haunt. It appeared to be working on Alex. But it was not my first night in Bangkok. I bought one for us both and together we gulped them down with a smile and a wink.

I”d first come to Thailand three years ago, a recent graduate trying to travel as far across Asia as I could on as little money as possible. I was a backpacking blogger thirsty for experience and I”d heard that no true traveller could visit South East Asia without spending at least one night on Khao San Road.

Back then, I”d described it like this: The street is brimming with vendors selling virtually everything you could imagine.

It is hemmed in by semi-permanent stalls offering hundreds of t-shirts, skirts, sunglasses, handbags, books, AC adaptors, headphones, knock-off iPods, MP3 downloads, pirated CDs, DVDs, and computer programs, canvas paintings, framed photographs of stone Buddhas, obscene wooden figures, hand-carved ashtrays, souvenir opium pipes, bus tickets, sunscreen, aloe-vera, beer, water, pizza, falafel, watermelon, pineapple, pens, pencils, and other types of bric-a-brac. Everything is fake, cheap, and tempting to buy.


Alex and Marko Ayling

Three years later, not much had changed: the same tuk-tuk drivers, pad Thai vendors, and t-shirt mongers hawking the same Chang Beer tank tops, the same hill-tribe women selling trinkets to beer-swilling backpackers, and the same Lonely-Planet toting 24-year olds walking down the street with the same wide-eyed gaze of wonder I”d once worn myself. My wonder at Khao San had soon worn off, replaced by an aversion to being surrounded by so many fellow foreigners, called falang by Thais. I then decided to get off the beaten path – way off.

Read the full story on MSN Travel UK.

Deja Vu: Buses & Hitchhiking Across Aragon

This morning I decided to leave Barcelona and head north to visit my good friend Griffin in the Basque Country. I felt listless in Barcelona. It had been over two weeks since I’d stepped off the ship, and I’d been bouncing around Italy and Spain ever since. In Barcelona I’d been in a 6-bed dorm for a week when one of my roommates broke open my safe and stole part of my summer’s wages. I felt betrayed and alone, and I yearned to be with a friend I could trust in a city that felt familiar.

I phoned Griffin and told him I was coming to San Sebastian, our home away from America. I took a bus out of Barcelona and immediately pulled out my laptop and put on a movie as we drove along the base of the Pyrenees. All morning I had been meditating on the balance between freedom and solitude so I watched Into the Wild, the true story of a college graduate who leaves his friends and family behind to live in the Alaskan wilderness by himself.

Instead of finding existential truths in solitude, he ends up eating poisonous berries and dies alone. I watched the film with rapture, making all the inevitable comparisons between his nomadic experience and mine. As the protagonist lay dying, he forces his emaciated fingers grab a pen and write one last message: “Freedom is only real when shared.”

The bus stopped just as the film finished. I looked out the window and felt deja-vu. I recognized our location, desolate truck stop about twenty miles outside of Zaragoza, in the dry foothills of Aragon. As I alighted and felt the warm, dry air coming off the bald brown hills, for a moment I felt I was somewhere off the 395 in California, taking a pit stop with my family on the way to Mammoth Lakes.

I had been here before, traveling in the other direction in another set of circumstances. We were surrounded by semi-trucks from across Europe, their drivers taking naps in the cabins behind the wheel. I saw myself from 22 months ago, as a dust-covered English teacher hitchhiking from San Sebastian to Barcelona. I had walked up to the truck doors and asking the drivers if they could give a humble traveler a lift towards Barcelona. I had nodded patiently after polite refusals in Czech, Hungarian, French, Spanish and German before a car picked me up and raced me towards Barcelona.

It seemed like I was a different person then. Had I really changed so much? I remember the decision to set out hitching quite clearly. I had wanted to escape society and be on my own. I had been settled as an English teacher in San Sebastian for over a month and a half, and I had been so busy making friends that I had yet to leave the city to explore Spain – a long time by my standards. I had felt my youthful restlessness giving way to stability, maturity and the responsibility of work. I was starting to put down roots and I felt the urge to move. I bought a map of Iberia and imagined adventures between my home on the northern coast and the distant towns of Seville, Lisbon, and Barcelona.

I jumped at the first opportunity – a four day weekend, plenty of time for adventure. I bid farewell to my roommates and walked out my door to the gas station on the outskirts of town. I held a cardboard sign in my hands – BCN. After an hour of talking to drivers, I got a ride to Pamplona.

It had been a trip to momentarily escape from the life I was building in San Sebastian. I was sharing an apartment with seven other people, and though I was enjoying their company, I felt I didn’t have a moment to myself. I yearned the solitude of the road, the emptiness of Spain’s meseta in which I hoped to hear the truths of life so often muffled by the chaos of the cities and the murmur of friends.

It had taken me two days to reach the gas station where I now stood, almost two years later. I had waited nearly six hours to get a ride out of Pamplona. My first lift took me only 20 kilometers. By dusk, I found myself standing on a thin piece of shoulder between an empty two lane highway and acres of vacant farmland. In the emptiness of the meseta, I’d listened for the words of wisdom I’d sought. I only heard trucks passing by without slowing down. I smelt manure, I felt hungry and tired, and I wondered why I hadn’t just taken the bus to Barcelona.

Two years later, I smiled looking back on that moment. Despite all the impractical romanticism of that adventure, I’d finally found a ride with a semi truck whose driver told me he’d take me all the way to Barcelona in one shot, but I told him I’d wanted to see Zaragoza. When he said he couldn’t get off the highway with his 18-wheeler, I insisted on being dropped off on the edge of a six-lane freeway at midnight and hiking between the off-ramps through the bush into the center of town. It had been my own, more modest attempt at going into the wild.

This time I’d elected to take the bus for 30€. But I hadn’t hitchhiked then to save cash. I’d done it for the adventure, to open up the possibilities waiting between A-B, chance encounters I knew I could would not find in my assigned seat on the tourist bus. That adventure turned out to be the first of many larger steps, culminating in my decision to pack up my life in Spain, cut myself loose completely and try to work as a sailor on a ship sailing around the world.

It made me think about what had changed within me since then. Perhaps the quiet emptiness of the sea had reminded me of the joys of coming into port, to the warmth of civilization and company. Maybe after so many wild adventures, the restlessness of youth was finally leaving my bones.

I felt happy with today’s decision. The first time I’d passed through this station, I was fleeing society for the open road. Now I was beginning to appreciate the necessity of company and the folly of solitude for it’s own sake.

The bus driver honked the horn and we re-boarded the bus. I looked back on the truck stop, doubting that my hitching days were over, but promising that the next time I stick out my thumb, I’ll do so in the company of another kindred soul.

How to Cross a Continent

Few people travel across entire continents these days.  It’s a shame.  Cheap airfares allow time-pressed travelers  to skip across our earth without ever seeing what lies between Point A and B.  But you’re different – you want to experience a continent in its entirety, to gain an intimate understanding of the land and her peoples.

Traveling across a continent doesn’t seem practical to most.  You need a healthy streak of romanticism to undertake a voyage that largely disappeared with the advent of modern transportation.

So the key is to be a dreamer, albeit a practical one.  You must balance your vision of the possible with the limitations of the practical.  It will take imagination, research and some improvisation, but you can pull it off.

There is no feeling more liberating than arriving at the tip of a continent with no fixed itinerary and nothing but a huge, bulging land mass rolling out before your feet.  You are free and your final destination is just a hazy image laying beyond a thousand unforeseen adventures.  So read this article, conjure up the wildest travel dreams in your soul, and figure out how to get yourself to that moment.  Let’s start with Step One:

Step One – Dream Big

It’s time to rediscover your childlike sense of wonder at the vastness of our world.  Put on your PJ’s, pull out the biggest maps you can find, and let yourself dream the impossible.  Run your fingers across the foreign-sounding cities and trace the courses of ancient rivers from their mountainous sources to the distant coastlines where they reunite with the seven seas.  All is terra incognita and you are an explorer on a mission of discovery.  The possibilities are endless and you are free to wander anywhere you want.  Where do you go?  What do you do?

Chose a continent and then consider your starting point.   Some continents offer obvious starting points – Capetown to Cairo, for instance, or from the tip of South America right up to Alaska – while others require creativity.  Europe and Asia can be traversed in any direction or linked via the Trans-Siberian Railroad, the Silk Trail, the Hippy Trail, or any path of your choosing.  Get creative.

Next create a bucket list of things/places you would like to do/see.  Again, don’t limit your options at this point – just dream it up, write it down and try to rank them.  Figure out where you must go and what you must do and then add in your secondary travel goals below that.  If you can, draw their locations on a map to help you naturally see where your route might take you.

Continents are thematic by nature.  Finding a theme to unite your journey will help guide your travels and keep things interesting.  Easiest theme could be transport – following Route 66 in a convertible, crossing Africa in a Land Rover, walking El Camino de Santiago on foot, or touring India in a renovated rickshaw.  If you have a hobby, apply it in your travels – photographing smiling children in each country, learning a cooking recipe from each region, or sketching a new scene every day.  Your trip will end up much richer for it.

Now that you’ve got all your wildest dreams written down, it’s time to meet Reality.

Be Practical, But Not Too Practical

The truth is, you won’t be able to do all that.  Sorry to break it to you.  But you can still do a lot – you just need to temper your dream with some rationality.  So bring your head down from the clouds and take out a pen and paper.

Begin with research.  Start with the basics – your dates of travel, how long you expect to stay in each place and how much money you have to spend.  There will be visas, vaccinations, warzones to avoid and unsurmountable obstacles that must be considered.  But such a massive  voyage must be, by nature, mostly spontaneous, so don’t too get caught up in the details.  For now just get some ballpark figures so you can some gentle limits on your trip.

The perennial buzz-killers of travel dreams are Time and Money.  We tend to have either one or the other, seldom both.  More than Money, crossing a continent takes Time – much more than you think.  You will need to rest, you will want to extend your stay in some places and you’ll have some unexpected delays.  Stack as much paper as you can and beg borrow and steal as much time off work as reasonably possible.

Then find out how to turn your wilder dreams into realities.  This is where most people loose their gumption. Imagine, for example, you dream of catching the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Asia to Europe, as do many wandering the Asian backpacking circuit.  What separates them from you is diligent research – how to jump through bureaucratic hoops to get visas and cheap tickets through China, Mongolia and Russia.  Most give up when confronted with the complexity, others just show up cluelessly in Beijing and try to buy a ticket on the spot.  Don’t be like these people.  Do your homework and figure out how to make it happen.

Part Three – Finding Balance on the Road.

You’ve dreamt wildly, calculated coldly and now you are ready to begin your adventure.  This is the tough part.  It is essentially a challenge to find balance – your romanticism versus realism, planning versus spontaneity, and finding the pace just right for you.

First off, you must fight to keep the dream alive.  Fend off the naysayers back home and while you’re on the road – you’ve done your homework and you know exactly what must be done to pull it off.

When you first start out, the distance before you will seem daunting.  Just remember the old saying on how to eat an elephant – bite by bite.  So just focus on getting from one city to the next and don’t lose faith in what you dreamt up back home.

You’ll also need to find a balance between making plans and staying flexible and spontaneous.  Truly one of the best things about travel is the freedom with which you can move across the Earth.  Avoid tying yourself down with too many plans.  Ideally you can just buy a one way ticket and let the wind blow you where it may, though you’ll probably have to make a few reservations in advance.  Here’s my tip:

My personal philosophy is a combination of the Boy Scout motto of “Be prepared” and the spontaneity of Dean Moriarty from Kerouac’s On the Road.  I do my research so I know all the options before me, but I make as few advance decisions as possible.  When I come to a crossroad I know what’s possible to my left and my right but I don’t decide until I get there.  Otherwise you might plan to stay one month in a country only to decide you dislike it upon arrival.  You gotta preserve your flexibility.

Above all it is a challenge of finding the right pace.  You’ve got a lot of places to see and only a fixed amount of time.  It’s kind of like life in that regard.  You will rush impetuously past some of the best spots and you will linger in cities that are proven mediocre by your later discoveries.  There’s no real way to avoid this, as learning how to move slowly and deliberately is one of the great lessons of travel.    It’s all part of the process.  Just set aside as much time for your journey as possible and try not to be in a rush.

Setting Off

You’ve prepped, packed, and purchased your tickets to that distant locale.  You’re ready.

And then you simply do it.  You make mistakes, discoveries, and friends.  You explore one country at a time and watch the flora and fauna change mile by mile.  Then you reach the end of the continent only to appreciate the significance of the old saying, It’s about the journey, not the inn, which would be cliché were it not so true.
Earlier, I said that there was nothing better than standing at the edge of an unknown continent and marveling at the terra incognita stretching out before you.  That’s not quite true.

What’s even better is standing on the other end of that continent, staring back to where you began and letting all the experiences you’ve just had rush over you in a flood of perspective.  Then you turn around, stare across the sea and realize the best thing of all – that there are still six more continents left.